By Melissa Good
It was the coldest night of the year, thus far. Sundown had brought a hard frost and a bitter chill wind that whipped through the stark trees offering little in the way of protection from it. A dusting of snow covered the ground, cleared only barely over the line of the road heading up towards the mountains.
Outlined in white, a pair of footprints lead away from the road, heading up the small rise towards a copse of low trees that promised the most shelter for a long way around.
The footprints straggled and caught up to two figures, swathed in cloaks, who struggled against the wind, making slow headway up the slope.
"Almost there. " Xena muttered. "Just keep moving."
"Dddon’t h..have much of a cc cchoice." Gabrielle managed to respond, her teeth chattering audibly. "W… wow it’s cold."
A gust of wind caught their cloaks and whipped them back, stealing scant warmth along with it. Xena grabbed at the cloth, and shoved her smaller companion the last few steps forward, until they passed between the outermost branches, and entered a frosty, bitter silence. "Stay here." Xena positioned Gabrielle against the thick trunk of an old, twisted tree, it’s bulk blocking even the threads of wind that whistled through the copse. "I’ll get some wood for a fire."
Gabrielle nodded; pulling her cloak around her as Xena dropped the meager bags they were carrying near the tree and strode off, drawing her sword. "G..great." The bard whispered, shivering so violently for a moment that she could barely think. "What a g…great way to ssspend Solstice." A moment’s pity only, then Gabrielle sighed, and started moving around the scattering of snow, clearing the ground for the wood she knew Xena would bring back. "Well, you wanted her to take you with her, Gabrielle." The motion was warming her a little, and the shivering subsided. "Careful what you ask for next time."
A soft crunching sound made her turn, to see Xena returning with a large stack of wood balanced on one shoulder. The warrior knelt and dropped the wood into the circle she cleared, and straightened, pushing her dark and unruly hair back out of her eyes with an impatient hand. "Nothing here for me to hunt."
Gabrielle tried not to think about how hungry she was. "I sorta figured." She whispered. "I’ve got some nuts, and dried stuff in my bag.. we can share."
Tired, and bleak blue eyes gazed at her. "Not what you bargained for, huh?" Xena asked.
What to answer to that? Gabrielle plucked at her cloak, taken from the back of a raider Xena had killed in the lowlands. "I never really thought about.." She fell silent, then shrugged.
Xena lowered her eyes, then got to work arranging the wood into a compact, efficient campfire. Habits of a lifetime shaped her movements, and she warmed her hands briefly inside her leathers before she took out her flint and striker to start the fire going.
The sound of its sharp sting echoed through the darkness. Finally, the faint sparks caught the dead moss she’d lain on the ground at her knee, and she cupped it carefully before she set it under the kindling and blew gently on it to coax it into life.
There was nothing for Gabrielle to do, really, except sit on the edge of the twisted tree and watch. She saw the glow start, breaking through the darkness and outlining Xena’s profile in crimson, it’s planes set in a stern and somber cast. After a bit, the glow grew, and she heard the first crackle as the fire consumed the dried wood eagerly. Well, she exhaled. At least they’d be warm. Sort of. She eased forward, kneeling next to the fire and holding her hands out towards it.
Xena sat back and studied her handiwork, satisfied for the moment. She watched Gabrielle come closer, holding her hands out as her cloak dropped open a little. The light shirt, and long skirt she’d brought with her from Potadeia were scant defense against the cold, and Xena could see the shivers making their way through her young companion’s body.
The warrior sighed inwardly. She’d probably get sick. A cold gust hit her in the back and she stiffened. They both probably would and out in this godsforsaken wilderness, she had no access to herbs or anything else. Damn. Xena lowered herself to the ground, and sat cross-legged next to the fire, letting her head rest on one fist. Whose stupid idea was it to try and skirt the mountains with their warring tribes this way? Oh yeah, that’s right, Mine. Your brains have frozen, Xena. Look what you’ve gotten yourself into. Her eyes lifted as she sensed movement, and she saw Gabrielle pulling their bags closer, her face a study in grubby misery. And her. Bet she wishes she were at home in that nice warm house in Potadeia right now.
Gabrielle paused in her rummaging, and cocked her head thoughtfully. "Xena?"
"Mm?" The warrior grunted.
"Did you ever notice how much clearer everything sounds when it’s cold like this?" Gabrielle said. "You can hear the branches crackling over there, and listen – " She took her own advice. "That’s an owl, isn’t it?"
"That’s an owl." Xena replied, watching her breath form a light fog.
"And the stars are so clear." Now the girl’s head was tipped back, and she gazed up through the branches. "Everything seems so much more real." She gazed upward a moment, then looked back down and carefully, seriously divided the handful of supplies she found into two piles, her hands still shaking from the cold. "It’s beautiful."
Xena shook her head in bemusement. "Do you always see good in everything, Gabrielle?"
"Well." Gabrielle tucked her hands against her body for a moment, and clenched her jaw to stop her teeth from chattering. "I could think about how cold it is, and how tired and hungry I am, and how miserable I feel, but.. what’s the point, Xena? I can’t change any of that." She picked up one handful of nuts, dried berries, and a half stick of dried meat and handed it over to Xena. "Here you go."
The warrior extended a hand, but instead of taking the offering, she pushed Gabrielle’s fingers closed over it and nudged her hand back towards her body. "Take it. I’m not hungry." She spoke in a no nonsense voice.
Gabrielle blinked at her uncertainly. "That can’t be true, Xena." She said.
One of Xena’s dark eyebrows lifted. "Are you arguing with me?" She growled softly. "I said, g’wan and eat it. "
For a moment, Gabrielle considered refusing, but one look at the stormy expression on Xena’s face made her subside quietly, and she edged closer to the fire instead, it’s warmth finally beginning to penetrate her half frozen exterior. She bit a piece of the dried meat and slowly chewed it.
Xena waited, to see if there would be any further protest, then she fumbled two metal cups with wooden handles out of her gear and leaned over, scooping up snow in both of them before setting them almost inside the fire itself to heat. She had just enough herbs for some tea, and after that they’d have to drink hot water, but at least it was something. The flames licked up around the cups, and she watched them, losing herself in their dance for a few brief moments.
"What was your favorite Solstice?"
Xena let out a short, mirthless laugh. "I don’t celebrate Solstice, Gabrielle."
"Why not?" The curious, young voice asked. "I thought everyone did."
"I just don’t." Xena answered softly. "I haven’t for a very long time."
That caused a peaceful silence for a few moments. Xena returned to her bleak contemplation of the fire. It would be six more days until they reached the other side of the mountains. She thought she remembered two small villages between here and the flatlands.
She hoped they were still there.
"My favorite one was when I was still a kid." Gabrielle’s voice broke into her thoughts again.
Xena eyed her youthful, rounded face, and smiled despite herself. "You can still remember that?"
"Well, sure I… " Gabrielle stopped, and peered at her. "Did you just make a joke?"
Xena merely stared back, her chin propped on one fist.
"Anyway." Gabrielle went on, as she always did. "I remember I got a stuffed doll to play with. " She seemed to gaze inwardly for a moment. "It was like a friend I could always have with me." After a moment, she shook her head and looked over at Xena with a touch of embarrassment. "Kind of silly, I guess, huh?"
Was it? Xena regarded her pensively. "I don’t know." She answered slowly. "Having a friend who will always be there for you is a good thing." She paused, and stared off into the darkness of her memories. "It’s a very rare thing."
Gabrielle nibbled on a dried berry. "Well." She finally replied softly. "I’m your friend, Xena." Her voice faltered a touch, as sharp blue eyes lifted and met hers. "And.. I’ll always be here for you." She added in a whisper, caught in that stark and serious regard.
Xena took in the sight of her little ragamuffin tag a long, in her much mended skirt and grubby blouse, her still childish face scrunched into an expression of serious sincerity. The unlikeliest friend she could ever possibly have imagined wouldn’t have even come close to this stalwartly stubborn, naively troublesome child of sheepherders.
Xena sighed ruefully. Must be the Fate’s revenge on her. "Thanks." She poured the herbs into the two cups and stirred them, handing one over to Gabrielle. "Here."
The girl warmed her hands around the cup and smiled. "That feels great, doesn’t it?"
"Yes it does." Xena answered, to an entirely different question. She got up and walked the three short paces to Gabrielle’s side, then sat down again, much to the young girl’s imperfectly hidden delight. "Gimme that bag a minute." She took the proffered sack and dug inside it, sorting it’s contents by touch alone. Her fingers fastened on a small cloth bag and she drew it out, untying the top and dumping its contents into her hand. Four small squares sat outlined against her skin. "Here." She took two of them and handed them to Gabrielle. "Forgot I had these."
Gabrielle accepted the offering curiously, examining one of the squares. "What are they?" She asked, bringing it up to her nose and sniffing it. "Oh.. is that honey?"
"Yeah." Xena replied, biting into one of her treats. "Honey and sesame." She let the taste linger on her tongue, the taste of home that was the only thing she’d brought away from Amphipolis with her.
"Mm." Gabrielle’s eyes lit up. "Wow.. these are great! Where did you get them? I didn’t see them in the last couple of towns we went through!"
Xena shrugged. "I don’t remember."
"Oh, wow.. that’s too bad. You should try to remember, Xena, so we can get more someday if we go back to wherever it is – we could do that, right?"
Xena gazed into the flames. "Probably not." She replied. "So just enjoy them, all right?"
Gabrielle was silent for a moment. "Okay."
They finished the candy and drank the herbal tea in peaceful silence. Then Gabrielle set her cup down and tugged her cloak closer around her as the chill seemed to deepen. "It’s going to be a long night, huh?"
Xena tossed another thick branch onto the fire, making it jump and quiver. Then she set her back against the thick old tree, and eyed her young friend. "Come over here and put your head down." She pointed at her own thigh. "One of us should get some rest."
Gabrielle turned and blinked at her, giving a perfect imitation of a rabbit caught in the glare of a torch. Her eyes went to Xena’s face, then dropped to the spot she was indicating, then lifted again in painfully obvious wonder.
Xena felt a tug on her heart she hadn’t experienced in a very long time. "I won’t bite you." She promised, half humorously. "C’mon."
Gabrielle exhaled slowly, then she edged over and curled up in a ball on her side, pulling her cloak over her before she eased down and very carefully, in total silence, put her head down on Xena’s leg. "Thanks." She whispered. "I’m really tired." Her eyes closed, and the tip of her tongue appeared, removing the last taste of herbs and honey.
Xena waited a few moments, before she arranged her cloak, tucking part of it over Gabrielle’s body, steadfastly refusing to acknowledge to herself exactly why this cold, hungry night now seemed so magical.
But it was.
"Good solstice, Xena." Gabrielle’s sleepy voice burred its way up to her ears.
A smile crossed Xena’s face, as she gazed out over the winter landscape. "Same to you., Gabrielle."
The stars overhead winked down with crystal sharpness over a bleak, cold land. The icy wind rushed, it’s fingers finding gaps and whistling through rattling branches, seeking to steal the warmth from everything it touched.
But try as it might, twist and turn as it howled, in one small clearing of one small thicket, a new flame burned that it could not touch.
For this one was eternal.
Happy Holidays, y’all – may the peace of the season be with you.