"It's just cold." Cait said, in a crisp tone. "I know a story.. you want to hear it?"

Four pairs of eyes turned to her. "What kind of story?" Elianas asked suspiciously. "Not the bloody one again, Cait. That's too creepy for a day like this."

Cait sniffed reflectively, then blinked. "Right then, how about… There was this princess, see… and she was really pretty… "

Ephiny leaned back with a smile, trying to ignore the shiver inducing cold from her damp leathers. She unpacked her travel bag, setting out trail rations for all of them, listening with half an ear to Cait's patient voice.

"And she fell in love with a great warrior." Cait was saying, and paused as the other girls hooted.

"Aww.. Cait… c'mon. Who needs a guy to mess things up?" Megan laughed.

Cait let a half grin cross her mouth, and her eyes glinted with mischief. "And who says it was a guy?" She wagged a finger at them. "Want to hear more?"

Four pairs of eyes widened. "Ohh…" Megan said, a sudden spark in her voice. "Yes. I do!!"

Ephiny almost swallowed her tongue trying not to laugh. "Here." She interrupted, handing around the trail bars. "Eat while you listen." As she did, hearing a very familiar tale from a very unexpected viewpoint, ending with an arrow caught, and a crash of thunder, and a kiss.

"Oh..wow." Shanna clapped, then scowled at Ephiny. "How come CAIT got to go see that and we had to stay in the stables?"

"Oh.." Cait chewed thoughtfully on her field bar. "I slipped out before they could stop me." She gave Ephiny a rakish grin. "It was just super. I guess I just got lucky."

Shanna poked Megan. "I'd say it was the Queen who got lucky." The girls all giggled.

"Tch tch…." Ephiny said, muffling a laugh. "Those happen to be friends of mine, I'll have you lot remember." She cleared her throat. "And that is our Queen you're talking about. A little respect, please."

Elianas turned and gazed at her speculatively. "But.. you're our Queen." She asked, a tentative note in her voice. "Doesn't Gabrielle like us?"

Now they were all looking at her. Ephiny sighed inwardly. It was a question she wrestled with herself sometimes. "She does, very much." The regent finally said slowly. "It's just… Gabrielle isn't… "

A vision of steady green eyes formed in her mind, shining with that strong will behind them. "We can all only give our heart in one place, Elianas. " Ephiny continued. "Gabrielle will always be a part of us, always be there for us, always give us all of her that she can." She paused, and listened as the wind stirred the sodden pine needles close over her head. The pungent smell was giving her a headache, she realized. "But her destiny is taking her in another direction right now." She paused, aware of the total silence from the girls. "And she's going where her heart leads her."

"Because she'd rather do that, than be our Queen?" Lista made an uncommon original comment. "That's not right."

Ephiny glanced down and smiled. "If you ever find that kind of love, Lista, you'll understand just how right it really is." She handed around the waterskin. "All of you take a drink." She leaned back again, and wrapped her arms around herself to keep the chill out. Damn, damn damn. She sighed. I feel like I’m coming down with something. Gods.. now is not the time, Ephiny. She looked up as fabric touched her, and found herself looking up at Cait who was putting her cloak around the Amazon's shoulders. "No, Cait, you keep that."

Cait gave her a little smile. "I’m dry, you're not." She observed, nudging her way back to her spot, making herself as comfortable as possible given the circumstances.

They all fell silent, listening to the roar of the storm outside, and wincing as the hard pellets of ice hit the branches around them. Their body heat had warmed their sanctuary some, but it wasn't enough to be really comfortable, and they spent several minutes squirming around trying to ease their bodies. "Rotten luck, right?" Cait commented, from her corner.

"Too right." Shanna sighed, for once in a glum mood. They all huddled closer as darkness began to fall outside, and the storm showed no signs of abating.

Gabrielle felt the dimness of morning light slowly warm her eyelids, and determinedly kept them closed as she let the rest of her senses come awake. The night fire made faint popping sounds at irregular intervals, and she could hear the faint sigh of wind brushing past the thick thatch of the roof. The now familiar smell of her home drifted around her, made of clean linen, the sweet scent of wood, and the mixed aromas of herbs, and beeswax and leather. She let them soak in with a feeling of peace, as the gentle steady rhythm under her ear lulled her back into somnolence.

A smile edged it's way across her face as she felt Xena stir, stretch a little, then resettle her arms around the bard's curled body. I think I've really corrupted her. The bard thought, with a silent giggle. She doesn't even budge before dawn anymore. She let one eye peek open, looking up, and smiling in reflex at the look of peace on Xena's face. That's it, love. She felt the even movement under the arm she had wrapped around her partner and tightened her hold a fraction. This got a faint twitch of acknowledgment from Xena's face but no more.

The bard let out a satisfied sigh, and let herself drift back off, waking again in the brighter light of morning.

"Hey." Xena gazed down at her with a lazy grin, still comfortably snuggled up with her.

"Morning." The bard mumbled. "You sleep well?"

"Uh huh. " Xena replied, with a yawn. "Had a dream."

Gabrielle let both eyes slide open and regarded her curiously. "Yeah?" A dream? I don't.. usually have those when we're together, and she never mentioned…

"Yep… " Xena stretched her body with luxurious pleasure. "A good one." Her gaze turned inward for a moment. Haven't had one of those… since I can't remember when. No.. I do.. but gods, that was another lifetime ago. She stretched again, then let out a contented sigh, and resettled herself. "Silly.. something about pillows, and a cat… I don't remember it really…" She laughed softly. "You were in it.. throwing some fluffy thing at me, and then Toris was there, but he was wearing a bucket on his head."

Gabrielle giggled in reaction. "Wish I'd had the same dream.. that sounds like fun."

"Mmm… I'll have to invite you next time." The warrior grinned, then rolled her head casually towards the window. "Weather's better." She commented, noting the sunlight trying to peek in the window. "Guess I'd better get going."

Gabrielle deliberately snuggled closer, sliding her thigh up over Xena's, and pinning the warrior in place. "What if I don't want to let go?" She said in soft challenge, with a teasing grin.

Xena stroked her hair gently and shrugged. "Guess I’m stuck here then."

The bard laughed. "Just like that? No argument? You must be catching something." She put a hand on Xena's forehead. "Funny, you feel nice and cool."

And got a big grin back. "Nope.. no argument.. " Xena sucked in a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "I’m at your mercy."

Gabrielle buried a smile into the warm skin of Xena's neck, and nibbled a little. "Hmmm.. I'll have to remember that." She sighed and relented. "But I suppose I'll have to let you take advantage of the few candlemarks of sun we might get today."

"So very kind of you, your majesty." Xena drawled, running a hand up the bard's bare ribcage and making her convulse into a giggling heap. That turned into a tickling contest, which evolved into a wrestling match that ended up with both of them sprawled in a tangle of bedding and limbs, breathless from laughter.

"Oh gods." Gabrielle wheezed, laying back and resting a hand on her stomach. "That felt good." She grinned at Xena, who was lying on her side, with her head propped up on one hand, having wrestled on her woolen shirt. Ares had jumped up on the bed to investigate the noise, and was now curled up against the warrior’s legs, with his head resting on her knee.

"Argroo." The wolf sighed, raising his muzzle and giving Xena a lick. The warrior glanced down at him, and rubbed his head.

"Hey boy… you coming with me today?" Ears perked up, and Ares tilted his head in question. "Hmm? " She looked up and sighed. "Best get going, love."

Gabrielle slid her shirt over her head, and slipped out of bed, padding towards the fire. She pushed her hair out of her face, and grabbed the water pot, swinging it over the banked fire, and holding her hands over the dimly glowing wood. "Next time I complain about how hot it is, remind me of this, OK?"

Xena chuckled, and ducked outside, blinking into the sunlight, and sucking in the cold morning air as she grabbed an armful of fresh firewood, and dipped a bucket into the water reservoir just in back of their cabin. "Nice morning." She commented, coming back into the room, and setting the water aside as she knelt by the fireplace and rebuilt the fire. "Argo will be glad to get out some, I think."

"Mmm." The bard agreed, putting a bit of honey on a buttered muffin, and handing it to her. "She must be getting bored of the inside of the stable..too bad the weather's been so awful." She gave Xena an impish look. "Do you think she's…

A low snort from Xena. "Well.. can't really tell for another couple of months, but…." She gave the bard an amused look. "Start thinking of names." She warned, as she settled the bucket of icy water against the newly built fire, and settled down on the bearskin to finish her muffin. "I just got this feeling."

"Me think of names" Gabrielle laughed, licking her fingers off. "Yeah, sure… this from the woman who still teases me about naming a mule Tobias." She munched for a moment quietly. "Xena?"

"Hmm?" The warrior responded, stirring the water around a little. She looked up to see Gabrielle’s eyes regarding her. "What?"

A light shrug. "I wish I’d known that was your birthday." She paused. "Solstice, I mean."

Xena shrugged back. "Nah.. it was fun… I didn’t… I kind of liked the anonymity.. having a birthday then… no one really paid attention because they were too busy with celebrating Solstice." She fiddled with the water, not looking up. "And later on… I just never told anyone. I used to mostly just get by myself for a few minutes that night, and look up at the stars for a while." Her eyes lifted and caught Gabrielle’s. "Longest night of the year, you know."

The bard leaned forward, and wrapped her hands around her partner’s, her heart aching for the long years Xena had spent in detached loneliness. "Not this year." She smiled. "And you’d better not disappear on me, or I’ll have to hunt you down."

Xena took a deep breath, and released it, giving the bard a little smile and a nod. "No chance." She gave the water a final stir. "Who knows.. I may even enjoy it this year." She washed quickly, and slipped into her leathers and boots, adding the thick over tunic Cyrene had given her which had slots neatly sewn to allow her to wear her sword on the outside of it. Gabrielle handed her a previously packed kit, which she strapped around her waist, and then bounced up and down a few times to settle everything. "You attending the council today?" She turned watched the bard shrugging on her forest green woolen tunic and belting it.

Gabrielle nodded. "Yep, and I have some stuff to do with mom, too." She gave Xena a pat on the side. "Be careful, OK?" She let her hands travel up the thick cloth, straightening the fabric absently. "And you get back here if the weather turns nasty again."

"Yes mom." Xena smiled, riffling her fingers through the bard's hair. "It'll probably be late tonight.. you don't have to wait up."

Gabrielle gave her tunic a last tug. "I know I don't." She responded quietly.

"But you will." Xena predicted, soaking in the warmth.

A nod answered her. "You know me." Gabrielle slid an arm around her. "C'mon.. I'll walk you to the stables."

The weather outside felt… chancy. Gabrielle mused, as she stretched her legs to keep up with Xena's longer strides. There were wispy clouds racing over, and the wind kept shifting, giving he day an uneasy air despite the watery sunlight gracing the winter scoured courtyard. She passed through the wooden stable door that Xena held open for her and entered the musky warmth that smelled of dried grasses, and hemp rope and horses. Argo was boxed in a comfortable stall against the most protected wall, decimating a hanging bag of hay. She nickered immediately upon spotting Xena.

"Hey girl." The warrior smiled, crossing to the mare and rubbing the proffered nose. "How are you feeling, huh?"

Gabrielle watched her with interest. She sometimes relates to the animals better than to people around here. The bard mused. She talks to Ares the same way.. almost like.. "Xena?"

The warrior turned her head, and cocked it, raising an eyebrow. "Yeah?"

"You really like animals, don’t you." Gabrielle hitched herself up on the tack table, and put a piece of straw in her mouth, chewing it absently and watching Ares sniff around the stable interestedly.

Xena thought about that for a minute. "I guess.. yeah. I always kind of.. have." She sat down on a tightly tied bale of hay next to Argo's stall and rubbed the mare's neck. "They just.. I don’t know… " She hesitated, and glanced up at Gabrielle's eyes watching her. "They don't judge you."

Gabrielle took a sharp breath, gaining yet another view of yet another facet of her infinitely complex partner. "No, they don't." She answered quietly. "I had a kitten, when I was a child."

"You did?" Xena queried.

"Yeah. A little scrap of a thing, all gray, and stripes." The bard answered her brows contracting. "I used to.. " She took a breath. " Take him with me, out into the forest near our house. And he'd sit there for hours, listening to me tell.. " She stopped, and stared at the far wall. "Toby, I called him." Warm hands on her shoulders startled her, and she looked up into Xena's shadowed blue eyes. "One day, he ran off." She felt the tears starting, and looked up at the rough ceiling, willing them back. C'mon, Gabrielle - you haven't thought about that for years. Get a grip on yourself. After a minute, she sighed, and gave Xena a sideways look. "He never came back."

And the awful feeling of loneliness and rejection she'd felt came flooding back from a day long past. He had just been a pair of furry ears… but he'd liked all her stories. She'd always wondered why he'd just.. left.

Hands cupped her face, and then she found herself falling into Xena's embrace with a desperation that shocked her. "Gods, I'm sorry" She mumbled, but found she couldn’t let go. "I don't … you have to go.. " What am I doing? Gabrielle, stop it!

"Shh." Xena folded her close. "It's all right." She pulled back a little and gave the bard a warm smile. "You and I really should have teamed up earlier.. I was always finding animals all over the place and bringing them home. "

Gabrielle felt her chest ease. "Really?" She tried to imagine Xena as a tiny, feisty cherub, determinedly carrying some poor animal over her shoulder. "Poor mom."

Xena gazed at her. "I would have found you another kitten."

The bard closed her eyes, and rested her head against the warrior's shoulder. "I wouldn't have needed one." Not if I had you. "You must have been such a cute kid."

The warrior snorted, and released her, lifting Argo's saddle pad and moving towards the mare. "I’m sure mother will disagree with you." She settled the soft padding on the mare's back, then grasped the saddle resting on the stall divider and swung it up and over Argo's shoulders. "She must have wanted to drown me more often than not." A quick tug tightened the girth. "I was a handful."

Gabrielle slipped forward, handing her Argo's bridle. "You still are." She teased gently, getting a raised eyebrow. "But I wouldn't have it any other way." She watched as Xena slid the bridle over Argo's twitching ears, and settled the bit between her teeth before tightening the headstall and the cheekpiece.

"I'll have to remember that." The warrior mused, unclipping the halter rope that tethered Argo in her stall and walking towards the door followed by the agreeable mare and Ares dark shadow. She settled her free arm around Gabrielle's shoulders as they walked, and felt the bard lean in close. They squeezed through the door, and stopped outside, surveying the pale, wind whipped scenery. "Council, huh?" Xena asked, giving her a sideways look. Knowing she could have a travelling companion for the day if she wanted one.

Gabrielle gave a deep sigh, and looked back at her with a speculative grin. "You're bad." She raked her fingers through her hair and shook her head. "No.. I promised I'd be there." She reached up and tugged on Xena's laces. "Next time, remind me not to go making promises, OK?"

Xena laughed, and patted her on the head. "Deal." She put a hand up on Argo's saddle, and vaulted up, settling her feet in the stirrups, and gathering the reins in one hand. Then she looked down with a devilish glint, and held out her other hand, quirking one eyebrow.

"Xena!!" The bard sighed on a rising note. "Stop that!" She slapped the warrior on the knee, but bit her lip with an internal struggle. A day out riding with her partner.. sounded really good right at the moment. Damn that council.

"All right.. all right.." Xena chuckled. "Let me at least give you a lift over to the inn." She smiled at the bard took her hand, and lifted Gabrielle up behind her, feeling her settle into a familiar spot and wrap her hands around the warrior tightly.

For safety, of course. They were both still laughing as Xena pulled Argo up beside the door to the inn, and swung her down, just as Cyrene popped her head out of the door and smiled. "Well, good morning."

"Hi mom." Gabrielle gave her a hug, which she returned.

"See you all later." Xena nodded at them, pressing a knee into Argo's warm side and turning the mare. "C'mon Ares."

"Xena.." Cyrene called.

"Hmm?" The warrior turned her head and waited, settling the restive horse with gentle touches.

"Be careful." That was both Cyrene and Gabrielle together, and was followed by a joint giggle.

The warrior just shook her head, and laughed, and nudged Argo into a canter towards the road.

Gabrielle smiled, and shook her head as she followed Cyrene inside the inn, unable to keep herself from turning at the door for one last look at the horse and rider heading off into the distance. As always, Xena rode with an unconscious grace that the bard envied, though she'd become more comfortable on horseback lately. She sighed, and turned to see Cyrene watching her, and felt a gentle blush warm her face. "Oh.. sorry.. I…"

Cyrene just shook her head, and laughed. "Don't apologize." She patted the bard's arm, and motioned her inside. "Come on, I have some nut muffins I need your opinion on."

The bard grinned ruefully. "Mom, you're dangerous." She commented, and followed Cyrene deeper into the inn, letting her eyes catch the morning guest and giving them all a smile. "Morning." She called to Rurik, who was seated at a table, hunched over a bowl of cereal. He looked up and caught her eye, and smiled back. "Much better weather this morning, huh?"

"Beautiful." Rurik answered, regarding her thoughtfully.

Gabrielle pushed open the door to the kitchen area, where she could hear Cyrene's voice raised in some irritation. "Hey.. what's going on?"

Cyrene turned, and put her hands on her hips. "Dried herbs, two baskets of them. Given to the horses as feed." She rolled her eyes. "Gods help me."

The bard laughed gently. "I'll go collect more. Just tell me what you need." And a little while outside in the forest won't hurt me either.. I didn't think I could get used to living outdoors.. now I kind of miss it sometimes. She crossed the kitchen, and picked up a basket, sliding it over her arm and returning to where Cyrene was scribbling a small list on a scrap of parchment.

"Here.. while you're waiting." The innkeeper didn't look up, but handed her a pair of gently steaming pale brown muffins. "Let me know what you think."

Gabrielle juggled the warm muffins in her hands, and carefully took a bite of one. "I think you're going to have a hard time getting me to leave this kitchen." She mumbled around the mouthful. "Hmm…honey, and walnuts and… cinnamon?"

Cyrene chuckled. "Right as usual." She finished the list, and tucked it into the basket. "Oh, Hades. I should have sent some along with Xena." She sighed. "She probably ran off without anything."

Gabrielle smiled quietly to herself. "I took care of that." She looked up, and met Cyrene's eyes. "Gotta keep an eye on her, you know." She winked, and bit into the second muffin. "This won't take me long.. " She added, as she stood up and moved towards the door. "You promised me some stories about Xena as a kid, remember."

The innkeeper tucked her arm in Gabrielle's and walked the bard to the door, opening it and letting her pass outside, following and closing the door after her. "I remember." She said. "You be careful now."

Gabrielle finished her muffin, and licked her fingers. "C'mon, mom. It's just a walk in the forest. " She laughed. "Even I can't get in trouble there." She waved goodbye, and headed down the path, detouring briefly at the cabin to pick up her staff. Just in case. She thought. No sense in tempting fate.

The path was quiet, as the dead leaves blew gently across her boots with a muted patter. The usual sounds of life were largely missing, as animals tucked themselves away from the cold, and spent much of their time drowsing, and conserving energy. Just like us. Gabrielle thought with amusement, considering the increased time they'd been engaging in peaceful cuddling. Oh. .yeah, there. Now we have a reasonable excuse for it. She giggled silently, storing the thought away for later retelling to her partner.

A glimpse of the muted green of herbs caught her eye, and she trod carefully off the path, and into the sparse underbrush, kneeling quickly next to the sturdy, low growing bushes. "Ahh.. gotcha. " She grinned, deftly plucking the thickly leafed plants, rugged enough to grow in the bad weather.

Footsteps alerted her, and she turned her head towards the path, sighing when she recognized the form walking towards her. Oh boy. She winced in reflex. "Good morning." She said, as Rurik drew even with her, and crouched down next to where she was working.

"Good morning, Gabrielle." The man responded politely. "Didn't think a lass like you should be out walking in these woods alone - there's raiders about, you know." He hesitated. "No offense meant."

Gabrielle sighed to herself. "Well, yes - I know. " She hefted her staff, which had been lying at her side. "I came prepared." But she smiled. "Thanks for thinking of it, though." She kept picking leaves, and putting them in the basket.

"Ah.. a stick against swords? Lass… you're brave enough. Can I help you there?" He offered, with a smile.

"Sure." Gabrielle answered, pointing to a bush. "Those leaves there." They picked in silence for a few minutes, then she nodded. "OK, that's enough." Before she could stop him, he took the basket from her, and stood up, dusting his hands off. Casting her eyes to the sky and wishing for patience, she picked up her staff and stood next to him. "Thanks."

"You have more to find then?" He asked, placing the loop of wicker over his arm. "Twould make me feel better to make sure you're safely back."

"Yes, a bit more." Gabrielle admitted. "I really don't need the escort, but you're welcome to take a walk. " She gestured with her chin towards the path. "We need to go down by the river next." She stepped towards the path, leaning lightly on her staff as the ground sloped upwards. "So.. where are you headed, Rurik?"

The man sniffed thoughtfully. "Athens, at the end." He replied, watching her face surreptitiously. Admiring it. "I was working a merchanting train, and got done with that. Heading back for a second round." He let his eyes drift downward, then flick ahead of him when she turned to watch his face. "What about you, Gabrielle? Staying here in the backwoods?"

She laughed. "Well, I've seen a bit of the world." She smiled. "Athens, Troy, Thessaly… " She took a deep breath of the cold, pine tinted air. "I like it here."

He peered at her. "What, you traveled around with just your stick, there? My gods, lass."

Her green eyes studied him, and he suddenly noticed the depth to them, more than he'd thought at first. "It's a pretty useful stick." The bard said quietly, then snapped her staff up in a flickering motion, catching a hanging crabapple over his head, and detaching it from it's branch then catching it right before his eyes with a deft hand. "You just have to know how to use it."

A surprised chuckle fell from his lips. "Well.. I'll be… " More than she seems.. this girl is. I like that. "My respects then, lass."

She smiled, and wrapped her hand around the top of the staff, walking forward again and munching on the crabapple. Though withered from the frosts, it had a fragrant bitterness that appealed to her. A sidelong glance caught his eye, and she sighed inwardly. Damn you, Xena… do you have to always be right? At least Hower was… harmless. This guy… She shifted her hand minutely on the staff. He's making me twitch.

They walked in silence for a bit. "So.. what holds you to Amphipolis, Gabrielle." Now there was a touch of seriousness in Rurik's tone. "I mean, you having been in the world and all that."

The bard thought about that for a while, finishing off the crabapple and tossing it with a flick of her wrist into the approaching river. "What holds me here. Well… " She stopped, and leaned on her staff, and faced him. "A lot of things." She glanced around. "I like Amphipolis. And I have family here.. it's close to the village where my parents live." Then she smiled quietly. "And it's where my partner comes from."

"Ah." He said, giving her a knowing smile. "Thought I saw a lovely bit of jewelry on you. May I?"

Gabrielle moved her hand, and turned it towards the light, watching his face as he studied the filigreed serpentine design, and it's tiny crest.

"That is truly beautiful, Gabrielle." He muttered. "Hawks head, is it? And a knotted border?" He glanced at her face. "Very bold, that one."

"Yes, it is, to both." The bard said quietly, then moved away from him and knelt at the side of the river, spotting the herbs she was looking for. She felt him approach. Felt him come close to her, sensed the almost pressure of his legs against her back, and took a breath to steady herself. "Be careful. " She warned. "The ground is very slippery here."

"Aye, thank you, lass." Rurik answered, as he dropped to one knee, and started helping her collect the leaves. His arm brushed hers. A shifting, then it brushed hers again.

'Rurik." Gabrielle said, in a low voice.

"Aye?" He answered his voice slightly husky.

"You're a nice guy. Don't do something we're both going to regret, OK?" She turned her head and met his gaze with a level stare, her hands stilling on the leaves. C'mon, Gabrielle.. you can do this. "Please?"

That gaze unsettled him. It spoke of an understanding that he'd thought her too young to have. "Ah.. I think you'd regret it more than I would, lass." He let a smile curl his lips. Her answer surprised him.

"Oh no." The bard grimly intoned. "You'd regret it a lot more. Trust me." She shifted her staff minutely and waited. His eyes flicked to the tall stick, then back to her. And he backed off.

"Ah, just looking for a bit of fun, lass. No harm in it." He smiled. "Never one to bother an unwilling lass, though. Be easy." Now he chuckled. "I'm not looking to get my head cracked, neither." His eyes went to her staff again.

Gabrielle felt her body relax, and she nodded in acceptance. "Good choice." She said cheerfully. "Now we can be friends, right?" She went on picking the leaves, and after a moment, he joined her. Not bad. And I didn't even have to threaten him with Xena's reputation. I like that.

They finished collecting the herbs, and started back along the path, chatting companionably about the strange weather, and the towns Rurik had passed through on his way home.

She barely heard the thump behind them, and turned just in time to see the rough clad form descending on them. "Damn. " She cursed, pushing Rurik out of the way, and deflecting the ruffian's cudgel with a sweep of her staff. " Stay back. " She yelled at the trader, as she ducked a second blow, and dropped to one knee, slashing at his legs and connecting with a startlingly loud popping noise. The man screamed, and jumped back, swearing at her.

"Servers you right. " She growled, and held the staff at waist height, waiting. The man dashed foreword, and swung at her head, and she easily caught the blow mid way down the shaft, and shoved him back, getting him off balance, then slamming the staff into his side. He went down with a grunt, holding his ribs, and she took the opportunity to crack him swiftly on the side of the head, taking him out. "Moron." She sighed, then grinned privately. Gods.. I’m getting to sound just like Xena sometimes. Shaking her head, she turned back to where Rurik was standing, clutching the basket with wide eyes. "Like I said, it comes in handy."

"Gabrielle, lass.. " Rurik breathed, blinking. "I owe you a thousand apologies."

"For what?" The bard stared at him, puzzled. "Come on.. let's get going.." She started past him. "I have stuff to do."

He hurried to catch up with her, and fell into step. "Where did you learn to do that?"

She glanced at him. "Well.. the Amazons started me off.. but mostly Xena taught me how to use this."

He stopped, dead, right in the middle of the path. "Xena? The Warrior Princess? The Destroyer of Nations? That Xena?" He snorted. "The one from the inn last night?"

She stopped, and leaned on her staff, and muffled a grin. "The only one I know."

He caught up with her again. "Gods, girl." They walked along in silence. "That's a dangerous acquaintance."

"Nah." Gabrielle chuckled. "She's not like that anymore."

"I'll take your word for that, lassie." Rurik laughed, and shook his head. "And keep my distance."

"Ephiny." The word echoed slightly in her ear, and pushed her tired body towards the light. A hand on her shoulder reinforced the voice softly.

"Uh." She blinked her eyes open, aware of the dully pounding headache that seemed to be clouding her thoughts. Damn.. thought I was coming down with something. The scratchy feeling in her throat confirmed it. "Yeah.. ok. I’m up." She sighed, forcing her eyes to focus on Cait's face. "Thanks for taking a watch, Cait." She sat up, stifling a groan at the ache in her bones. Ephiny.. Ephiny.. next time, a game of cards, OK?? Or maybe start up a quilting bee. Or maybe have an arrow making competition…

She pushed aside some of the leaves, and was relieved to see the sun. "One good thing." She muttered, rubbing the back of her neck, and watching as Cait shook the other girls awake. "All right.. looks like we have better weather today. Let's get some breakfast, then we'll go over laying snares."

Sleepy grumbles greeted her, and she bit back a sharp retort. They're just girls, Eph. You're here to teach them, right? Right. "Come on now, let's go." She lifted the leaf barrier up, and stood, ignoring her body's protests. She arched her neck, and felt the bones pop into place with an almost audible snap. The cold air irritated her already sore throat, but she sucked down lungfuls anyway, to clear her head, as she surveyed their surroundings. A small dell, with the walls of the forest rising on all sides greeted her gaze, with a bare central area that would be perfect for a fire.

And hot tea would be perfect for me, right now. The Amazon decided. "Megan, take the bucket and get us some water." The dark haired girl stumbled out of their shelter, and trotted off, clanking the bucket against her leg. "Shh." Ephiny hissed after her, and had the satisfaction of hearing the sounds reduce.

She walked around the perimeter of the dell, touching the wood near the ground. Damp.. but it'll have to do. She began to gather the driest sticks she could find, peripherally aware of Cait and Shanna joining her. She looked up, and was pleasantly surprised to see Elianas and Lista setting out their austere breakfast, and spreading their cloaks out to dry on nearby branches.

She had the fire going by the time Megan stumbled back into camp, dragging the bucket with her. "Gosh… I had to go forever before I could get water.. it's all ice up at this end." She placed the bucket atop the thicker log frame Ephiny had built around the fire, and sighed. "Sorry it took so long."

"Here." Ephiny handed her some breakfast. "Good work, Megan." She praised. "You knew to keep going.. that was well done."

Megan beamed, chewing on her trail bar.

Cait brought over her herbal kit, setting it down beside her, along with the travelling cups. Ephiny gave her a smile, and set the cups in front of her, measuring the herbs into them with a practiced hand, then settled back to wait for the water to heat.

Cait glanced at her, then ran her fingers through the herbal collection, sifting until her sensitive fingers found what she was looking for. She scooped a pinch into her hand, then held it out to Ephiny. "Xena uses this."

The Amazon studied the herb, then took a pinch and held it to her nose. "Really?" She asked, in a low tone.

Cait nodded quietly. "Saw her, when Johan came down with the head sickness." Her eyes flicked to Ephiny's, then away. "You should try it."

And how did she know that? Ephiny wondered, studying the pale, thin face. She gently grasped Cait's hand, and turned it over, transferring the herb into her own. "Well, if Xena recommends it… " Her eyes twinkled. "Who am I to disagree?" She dumped the herb into her cup with the rest.

Two hot cups later, and she felt much better. "Thanks Cait." She murmured to the girl, as she packed up their gear, and they prepared to move out. And thanks, Xena… her mind added with a smile. "Let's go."

A single file of almost soundless Amazons passed up the trail, the patchy sunlight painting dapples on their dark leathers and catching glancing reflections off Ephiny and Cait's pale hair, and Lista's fiery red. Ephiny pointed out things in low tones, of bark, and leaf, and scent, passing down their heritage the way it had been passed down to her, in long sunlit afternoons on the trails of their home territory.

Lessons in woodcraft, in how to identify the creatures of the forest, how to build a smokeless fire, to clean various types of kills, how to find food in the most unlikely places. They all got to eat a slug, and discovered it wasn't as bad as they thought.

Until Megan mentioned hers was furry, and then they all lost it. Even Ephiny winced.

A long afternoon searching out edible roots and berries, even in this worst of seasons. Elianas managed to find a crabapple tree with a few remaining wrinkled fruits on it.

Lista found some mushrooms, and a class on detecting the good ones from the bad ones followed.

They set several snares, each of a different sort on different ground, before they found themselves on a small bluff overlooking an icy river.

"Gods." Ephiny sighed, seeing the dirty gray ice clogging the stream. "I've never in my lifetime seen this." Below the uneasily shifting ice, the waters of the river churned, struggling to break free of their unusual constraints.

The Amazon glanced up at the lowering sun. "Well, we'd better be making camp for the night. Looks like we've done as much as we can today. " She glanced at Cait. "And thanks to Cait, we'll have some hot rabbit for dinner."

That got Cait four pairs of grateful eyes. She gave them all a quirky grin and held up her catch, four large rabbits.

They set up camp much more cheerfully this time, Ephiny assigning Megan and Elianas to gather wood while Lista helped Cait skinning the rabbits. "I'll get some water." She advised them, as she picked up the bucket and headed towards the ice-clogged stream, hefting her ax in her other hand. "Probably have to chop a hole to get some.." She muttered to herself.

The bank was slippery, and she was careful moving down it, not wanting to twist an ankle and make an already uncomfortable trip a nightmare. Though.. she considered. Today wasn't bad, really. If I didn't have this stuffed head… Her thoughts jerked to a halt, as she found herself at the edge of the shifting ice, and edged closer, inspecting the surface carefully.

Finally finding a suitable spot, she braced both booted feet firmly on the bank, and swung her ax, impacting the ice with a sodden crunch. Then a second, and now soggy chips were flying off, spraying her with ice the smelled strongly of fish and earth combined. She raised her ax for one last cut.

And felt the ground heave beneath her, throwing her off her balance, and making her lunge forward, burying the ax in the ice in an uncontrollable swing. The ground bucked again, and she realized that what she had thought was solid ground was really part of the frozen riverbed, now flexing as the icy flow tried to move downstream.

She tried to keep her balance, but the ice bucked against her, and a sudden surge of water underneath the ice took her off her feet, and flung her through the air, to crash against the shifting ice. "Oh gods.. no.. " She whispered, as she felt the surface giving under her weight, and managed a yell for help just as the ice collapsed under her, and she felt the freezing grip of water suck her under.

The first chill shot straight through her, and galvanized her muscles, making her fight to the surface, as she clawed her way through the chunks of drifting ice, breaking through the top of the water to see Cait's blond head crest the rise, and spot her. C'mon, Eph.. hang in there… She felt the agonizing bite of cold on her hands as she tried to grab a purchase on the ice, and a tremor shook her, as the freezing water started to take it's toll.

Ephiny forced her arms to move, pulling herself higher onto the ice, ignoring the pain of the cold surface against her limbs. She raised her head and spotted three frantically moving forms against the bank, and redoubled her efforts, actually getting her body most of the way out of the river and onto the shifting ice by the time the girls had reached the shoreline.

"Hold on, Ephiny.. we've got a rope!" Megan yelled, as Cait prepared to toss the end to her.

She felt the ice buck under her again, and raised a hand to catch the rope as an underwater wave swept through the river again.

The ice under her cracked and she fell back into the water with a splash, and this time the chill rendered her immobile, fight as she would against it.

Another wave sucked her down, and the last thing she felt was the rough texture of the ice as it slid over her head.

"No!" Cait yelled in horror, seeing Ephiny slip beneath the ice. She tied the rope around her slim waist and handed the end to a stunned Megan. "Hold this." She looked up, to gage where Ephiny had gone under, and rocked back, preparing to take a running leap at the spot.

Then the sound of heavy bootsteps paused her, and she looked up, to see a powerful form arcing through the air, plunging towards the ice at a frightening pace.

"Thank the gods." Megan breathed clutching Cait's arm. "Is that…"

"Yes." Cait breathed, her eyes drinking in the sight with feral pleasure.

They watched as Xena's body hit the ice, shattering it in a plunge of black water and gray frozen shards. Then the tall, dark haired form disappeared from sight, ducking under the ice.

Cait looked up, to see the wide eyes of Elianas, Lista and Shanna peering over the embankment at them. "Get the cloaks, fast. And build up the fire." She yelled up, keeping a tense watch on the dark and now silent surface.

The longest minute of their young lives passed, as the wind picked up, and howled around them, whipping the trees about and scattering them with dead leaves.

Then the ice exploded upward with impossible force, sending chunks flying in all directions, as the fading light revealed Xena's dark head and blazing eyes, emerging from a sea of dirty ice and ink black water. She moved steadily towards the shore, shoving ice out of her way, cradling Ephiny's still form.

At the edge of the water, she heaved the Amazon's body onto the land, and waited for Cait and Megan to pull her a little clear before boosting herself out of the water. Once ashore she knelt at Ephiny's side, and felt her neck for what seemed like forever. "Close." She shook her head, and turned the Amazon over, sliding an arm under her stomach, and pulling up, dropping Ephiny's head down and expelling a lot of water from her mouth. "C'mon, Eph.. work with me here." She reached around the woman's body and squeezed her chest hard, feeling a faint response. "Come on.. you're tougher than that… don't you go dying on me. Gabrielle will have my hide."

Another squeeze, more water. A cough. Then a rasping breath. Xena closed her eyes briefly, and sighed. "Close." She said again, patting the Amazon's shoulder. Finally she glanced up at the watching girls. "Cait.. you got a fire nearby?"

A nod. "Yes." The girl quietly responded. "Over the ridge." She crouched down next to Xena and blinked at her. "It's super to see you."

Xena reached up and raked the dripping hair out of her eyes and gave the girl a wry grin. "You too, Cait. Last thing I expected to be doing on a trapline check." She turned Ephiny over, checking the now steady, but shallow breathing, and shook her head a little. "Damn… all right, let's get her up there." She lifted the Amazon up in her arms, and motioned for Cait and Megan to move ahead of her. "She needs heat."

Cait fingered Xena's drenched tunic. "You too." She reminded the warrior quietly, before she moved on up the bank, digging her boots into the muddy earth carefully.

Xena followed, leaning forward to keep her balance, putting the strain mostly on her powerful legs, and trying to ignore the deadly chill that had taken her during her abrupt and unexpected swim. She'd been checking her furthest trap set, pleased to have found several victims in it, and had heard Ephiny's choked cry from over the ridge.

Not recognizing the voice, but the direness of the sound, which had caused her to drop what she was doing and pelt up the ridge at top speed, yelling at Ares to stay clear. Topping the ridge, she'd seen the dark clad form go under the ice, and hadn't stopped to think, or to plan… had just dove for the ice.

And under it, smashing through the hard surface and setting aside the shock of the cold water, forcing her eyes open into the pale eerie reflections under the frozen surface, to see the limp body snagged on a downthrust icicle not far away.

Reaching it, and turning it over, where her blinking eyes cleared the blur of the water momentarily and she recognized the face, and the form, and the stillness of her body. And had gotten shallow enough to just grab Ephiny, tuck her feet hard against the bottom, and shove up with all the strength she had. Hoping it was enough.

Now she topped the bank, and Ares was dancing at her feet, whining excitedly and growling. "Easy boy." She called down to the wolf. "Come on." She followed Cait's lead into the neatly made camp, aware of the young eyes watching her in silence. "Get that cloak down there near the fire." She ordered, and waited for the dark haired girl to do so. Then she dropped slowly to one knee, and laid the Amazon down next to the flames, glad herself to feel their heat. I must look a sight. .she mused to herself, straightening Ephiny's limbs out, and starting to strip the Amazon's icy wet clothing off.

Cait dropped to her knees next to them, and glanced at Xena before shaking out a thick cloak and holding it ready, then settling it around Ephiny when the warrior had gotten her soaked leathers off. The Amazon's face was very pale, and had a bluish tinge to it, and Xena rubbed her limbs gently, tucking the fabric around her and sighing. "Not good." She looked up at last and met their watching eyes. "What happened?"

Cait cleared her throat a little. "Ephiny went to get some water for dinner." She said in her clear, soft voice. "I heard her yell, and went running." Her pale eyes looked up and met Xena's. "I saw her go under, and I was going to go after her when I heard you." She smiled a little. "That was grand, what you did."

Xena sighed again. "It was idiotic. Don't you go getting any ideas, all right? " She unbuckled her belt, and pulled her heavy tunic over her head, surprised when it was taken from her. She looked behind her to see Sharra, who blinked at her. "Thanks."

The girl smiled widely, and carried the heavily wet fabric away, spreading it out on a branch nearby. They all were watching her with undisguised fascination, Xena realized, and almost found it funny. She checked Ephiny's skin again, relieved to feel a warming.

Cait laid a hand on her arm, and she turned to look at the blond girl in question. "Xena, she was coming on with the head sickness."

Xena cursed roundly, causing the girls to blush. "What the Hades was she doing out in this weather?" She ducked and put her ear against Ephiny's chest, hearing the rasping sound and cursing again. "Amazons." She sighed in frustration. "All right, we don't have time for this. We need to get her inside to a healer." She thought a minute. "We're much closer to Amphipolis than your territory.. all right." She put her fingers to her lips and whistled shrilly. "Cait, does she have a spare set of clothes with her?" She'd better.. her mind seethed. Gods, Ephiny.. how could you be that… aw Hades….

Argo trotted up, startling the girls. Ares lifted his head from his position to Xena's left and growled a greeting, which the mare returned with an indignant nicker. 'Cut it out, both of you." Xena remarked, taking the set of clothing Sharra handed her and motioning Cait to start helping her to get Ephiny into it.

Elianas and Lista knelt on either side of Ephiny and took the task from her, though, allowing her to just sit and let the fire warm her. She chewed her lip thoughtfully. No way I can leave these kids out here… but Cait can ride, right? "Listen up. " She said quietly, as they finished and all eyes turned to her. "Cait, I'm going to put Ephiny and you up on Argo, and I want you to ride like Hades for home. You remember the way?"

Cait nodded in silence. "All right." Xena went on. "We don’t have a healer right now.. he's out at a nearby village. I need to get back there too, so we're going to have to move fast. You all need to pack."

Girls scurried in all directions, and Xena let the fire soak through her still damp body for a moment more before she stood and motioned Cait over to Argo. "Up you go, Cait." She muttered, grabbing the girl by the waist and swinging her up into the mare's saddle. "Easy there, Argo." She gave the mare a pat, then gazed up at Cait. "Find Gabrielle, Cait. Let her know what route we're taking, all right? And that we're ok." She paused. "Find her first thing, all right? I don't want her worrying more than she has to." Like when she hears that Argo is coming in without me. Gods I wish I could spare her that. I've put her through so damned much lately.

"I will." The girl smiled, as Xena pulled a spare tunic out of her pack, then paused, startled, and glanced inside.

A soft chuckle escaped the warrior, as she detached the pack from Argo's saddle ring, and looped it around her own shoulder. "OK..let's get this going."

Cait gathered the reins in her hands, and waited, watching Xena cross back to the fire, and lift Ephiny up in her arms again. The warrior's strength didn't go unnoticed by the other girls, Cait was amused to see, as they were watching Xena with thinly disguised admiration.

Xena settled Ephiny up in front of Cait, and paused as the Amazon stirred groggily in her arms. "Eph?"

Ephiny's first impression was of coldness, and she shivered in reflex, trying to clear the fuzziness from her thoughts. She was in total disorientation, and it took long tense moments for her to realize she was on horseback, and had strong hands holding her in place. A horse… her fingers felt the rough mane hairs and traveled down to the thick winter coat. Where'd a damn horse come from? Then her touch dropped to the hands holding her, and she forced her mind to focus on the size of them, and the rough callused surface, and the voice that was calling her name insistently. Oh. That's where a damn horse came from. "Xena?" Her voice came out as a croak, and she was surprised by a feeling of utter relief. Izzat how Gabrielle feels? Must be nice….

"Just take it easy, OK?" The warrior said, fastening one of Argo's extra saddle straps over her legs to hold her in place. "We're gonna get you somewhere warm."

"Kids.." The Amazon wheezed, feeling her head begin to swim.

"Relax, I'll take care of them." Xena assured her. "You just hang on."

Xena will take care of the kids… oh Artemis. Well.. they'd wanted to meet the Warrior Princess.. Ephiny's frazzled mind gave up the struggle, and she let herself sink forward, to rest on Argo's warm neck, feeling thin but strong arms circle around her, and then her thoughts descended again into chilly darkness as Argo moved beneath her.

Continued in Part 2

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