Standard Disclaimer - These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena: Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence –Yes, there is violence. Xena has, written into her contract, a clause that requires her to have at least one good, bloody fight every two days or so. Otherwise, all that energy gets pent up, and that's never a good thing. Xena also fights with a sword and a chakram, neither of which is a Nerf Bat. She slices, she dices, and she would probably like Julienne fries.

Subtext - Yes, there be subtext here. This story is based on the premise that it is about two women who are very much in love with each other. There is nothing more than PG-13 action, but there certainly is a lot of that. If love is illegal in your state, move. Now.

Let's see… we used Key Lime Pie last time.. so, I'll say, and if love offends you, then send me your mail address, and I’ll send you some angel food cupcakes with fudge frosting. Because if this kind of love twists your shorts, I really, really, do feel sorry for you.

Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to:

Melissa Good

Winter's Ending - Part 1

By Melissa Good

The fire crackled pleasantly across the warmly lit cabin, throwing dancing shadows across the sturdy furniture, and blurring the colors on the scattering of wool throws that graced the room. On the walls, cheerfully painted woven mats outlined various geographies, mountains and streams, forests and a lone stretch of desert. The large bed tucked neatly in the corner was spread with a profusion of thick blankets, which draped over the edge, and hung nearly to the floor, the colors matching the wool throws, and lending deep crimson and forest green highlights to the peaceful sense of the place. .

Near the fire, a huge bearskin was fluffed, providing an invisible resting-place for the dark furred adolescent wolf curled neatly in the center. He raised his head, sniffing lightly at the faint scratching from the quill in the hands of his companion, a woman of medium height with red gold hair who was sprawled next to him with a pile of neatly arranged scrolls, dressed in a dark burgundy wool shirt that was belted around her slim waist and fell almost to her knees.

The parchment she wrote on was bound in a fairly thick volume, and she wrote steadily for some minutes in a neat, exact hand before she paused, and set the tip of the quill between her teeth in a thoughtful motion.

"Hey Ares." Gabrielle said absently, as she raised a hand and gave him a scratch, then pushed her hair back out of her eyes and concentrated on her work again. "Mom give you the slip, huh?" She glanced up at the miffed expression on the animal's face. "You know she only tries to protect you, right?"

"Arrggroo." Ares rumbled, putting his head down on his paws, and sighing. His pale eyes kept flicking towards the door, then back to her.

The bard chuckled gently. That meant her partner was hunting down the river this afternoon, and didn't want to risk the young wolf's falling in the sometimes chancy ice that covered a good portion of the streams. She reached over, and lifted a sturdy mug, taking a sip of hot tea, then bent her head back towards her scrolls.

The weather's so lousy. I can't say how glad I am that we're here, at home.. and it's so.. weird to be saying that. Home. I look around this cabin, and it still astounds me, that this is ours… it's the first place I've ever had that was really… my own, and I’ve found that touches a part of me very deeply.

We were so surprised, when Cyrene, so smugly, led us in here after we got back to Amphipolis.. how did she know? Just in case, she'd said… that's a laugh. Just in case. They'd thrown up this cabin, near the inn, because she said she'd be damned if her daughter was going to sleep in a damn barn every time she showed up.

Xena's face, when she saw this. Ohh… gods. I've seen her a lot of things, but totally poleaxed? That was a first. And they argued… and argued… gods, I see where she gets that stubborn streak from. Neither of them was going to give in so I had to… kind of get in the middle of it. Really, all I did was say please to Xena, and she caved right in. Cyrene owes me for that, and she darn well knows it, too. I got an entire batch of hot cookies the next morning, all for me. I gave some to Xena anyway though, because she really likes them.

So here we are, about a month in, and I'm just now getting around to updating my diary, we've been so busy. Like I said, the weather is lousy, and it came on early, so part of the harvest was lost. If Xena hadn't been here… well, there would have been plenty of hungry people around; I'll say that. She's some kind of hunter, and some kind of strategist, so we're in pretty good shape for the worse weather to come. But it takes a lot of constant effort to keep everything stocked up - I've been helping organize a dry storage for the whole village, and keeping the kids occupied when the weather is really bad with reading and writing lessons.

Between that, helping Cyrene, keeping an eye on Xena, working my stories at the inn every night, and the usual daily stuff, I've been so busy I haven't really had time to think. But I love it. I’m having the time of my life - I'm part of this place, and I know everyone here, they know me, and we all work together.

I thought.. keeping Xena in one place was going to be the toughest part of this, but we’ve been lucky, sort of, because the constant hunting needs, and the fact that marauders are really active now is keeping her occupied, and interested, and she's not showing any of those old signs of restlessness that I half expected to see.

Just the opposite, in fact. I've never seen her this contented this at peace with herself, and that… makes me happier than I can possible say. She smiles a lot more, and there's this little bounce to her that.. I can't describe it, I just know it when I see it, and it makes me just want to hug her and laugh. Which I do a lot anyway. I'm really enjoying this being in love thing, and every once in a while, I catch this look in her eyes that makes me think she is too.

She's so full of surprises these days.. she made us this table, and those chairs - I never knew she could do that.. and it's not just functional, you know, I was looking closely at them the other day, and you can see the joins and the spars, they're perfect. Not a hint of space, not a bit of wobble… her attention to detail is amazing.

We both kind of picked colors we like for the stuff in here.. thank goodness our tastes are pretty much the same, because bright yellow and green, for instance.. yuck! No, it looks really nice. The bed is gorgeous, and comfortable, and I’ve finally stopped having a backache every morning from sleeping rough all this time. Between that, and just keeping regular hours and Cyrene’s cooking, I feel really great – healthy, and strong, and full of energy. I guess I didn’t realize just how much I needed this until now, but it’s really made a difference.

Of course I made the mistake of mentioning the backaches to Xena… and got a lecture from her on letting her know next time. I kind of looked at her, and figured out that she's older than I am, so.. I asked her why she never let ME know when it bothered HER.. and got that 'look' back that meant I scored one.

I discovered I can paint. Yeah, me. That girl from Potadeia. Nothing grand, but Jessan gave me the idea, to put little landscapes and things on woven reed mats. They look pretty good. Xena likes them.. she really likes the one that shows the water and the sunset that I did last week, while I was leaning against her watching the sun go down over the lake. I catch her looking at it with just this happy grin on her face.

I’ve taken over teaching sparring lessons with our little defense group. At first I thought Xena had me do that just to make me feel good, but I called her on it, and she just looked at me and laughed. She said I was a lot better teacher than she was, and way more patient. That’s true, I guess. I’m really enjoying it – but I got her to work with me one on one a little after our lessons, because the kids don’t push me hard enough. Only she does. And it was probably a good thing, because I was getting a little soft with all this hanging around inside all the time.

The kids. Will you listen to me? I guess that’s because they all kind of look up to me, a little. It’s a nice feeling, and so is the one I got when the village elders came and asked me to go over a trading agreement they made with another village – to see if it was ‘right’. It’s different from the Amazons – they listen to me because Melosa gave me that Right of Cast. The citizens here ask my opinion because they’ve come to respect me as who I am on my own. I really, really like that.

She took another sip of the hot, sweet, tea and leaned back letting her eyes wander over the snug room. A smile shaped her lips as her gaze fell on a small collection of carved animals on top of the linen press that Cyrene had given them. A quarter of a circus.. Her mind mused, identifying the horse, goat, bear, and the little pig that had joined her turtle, shaped by Xena's cunning hands. A thought occurred to her, and she bent over her diary for a minute, with an impish grin on her face.

All the scrolls say that once you… become involved with someone, after the first excitement, things start to fade. Well, they must not have known Xena, because it's been months now, and I still get little tingles up and down my back every time I hear her footsteps outside, and I look into those wonderful eyes, and I just drown. And I hope that never changes. I don’t think it will.. we just.. do things to each other… at some really deep level. It’s like.. I can look at her, and all she has to do is quirk one muscle, and I know what she’s thinking. And she looks at me.. gods.. I’m shivering now just thinking about it it’s so intense.

Ares' head lifted, and he glanced at the door, growling a little just before she heard a light knock. "Good ears, boy." She praised the wolf, giving him a pat. "Come!" Yelled at the door.

It opened to reveal Johan's weathered features, as he came quickly inside, and closed the solid wood door behind him. "The day to you lass!" He said, treading neatly across the floor. "Traders from down the road just in.. they've brought some messages for you." He handed Gabrielle two neatly folded pieces of parchment. Then he winked, and handed her a thick bundle. "And Cyrene sends this."

The bard eyed the package with a twinkle in her eye. "More taste testing?" She grinned. "She's determined to make this the party of the century, isn't she?" A lovely scent was rising from the bundle, and Gabrielle found her mouth watering. "Thanks Johan. "

He waved, already moving back towards the door. "Later then, lass. " He turned at the door. "Ah.. Gabrielle?"

"Hmm?" She looked up from opening the parchment, and met his gaze.

"Would you.. mind doing the Troy story tonight?" His gray eyes twinkled.

"No.. I'd be glad to." The bard agreed, slightly puzzled. "Any story you want, you know that, Johan." Her smile reinforced the offer.

"Thanks." He grinned, and ducked out the door.

"What.. was that all about?" Gabrielle asked Ares, who wrinkled his forehead at her. "You know, that's the same face your mom makes."

The dark head cocked to one side. "Roo?"

"Yeah, you." The bard chuckled, then shook her head, and returned her attention to the notes. She unfolded the first, with the Amazons distinctive seal on it.

My Dearest Queen, (it said)

I was most appreciative of your kind, and gracious invitation to your ceremony of joining. I would be delighted to attend, along with a few of our noble, and distinguished representatives.

Gabrielle's eyebrows rose almost into her hairline. Her eyes darted down to check the signature, then back up. No… Ephiny had signed it… oh.. wait. I get it. She grinned as her eyes picked up the next paragraph.

Are you crazy? Wild rampaging centaurs could not keep me from being there, and in fact, Gabrielle, the problem is going to be getting anyone to stay behind here. I can't believe you finally got the old war-horse to take the plunge.

Actually, Ephiny, it was her idea. Gabrielle smiled gently. I was.. surprised, to say the least. I mean.. I know what we mean to each other. A ceremony doesn’t change that one bit, but… She brought the ring Xena had given her up to her lips and brushed it with them. It puts me in danger, though. We've both kind of accepted that.

Solari and Eponin are fighting as to which one of them will get to come, because I can't take them both, one of them has to stay in charge. I think I may let them just box it out. If one or the other shows with a broken nose ignore it, OK?

I’m looking forward to seeing you, as are we all - we miss having you around, though I'm glad you've settled at least for a little while up in Amphipolis. How'd you get her to agree to that? I know you're one of the best negotiators around, but Gods, Gabrielle.

Actually, that was her idea too. The bard chuckled. They always underestimate you, my love. But I'm glad she thinks so highly of my bargaining skills.

Kaleipus sends his regards. We got a visit from him today - things are well between us, and we traded some hard to come by's to him for some of his surplus. Turned out good for both of us. I told him your good news, and he got the oddest look on his face, Gabrielle. But then he laughed, and said maybe he'd show up too.

Oh, dear.

He had his foster son, Solon with him. Nice kid,, in that growth spurt stage, if you know what I mean. He strikes me a bit familiar, but I can't place why. He sends his regards to you, and also to Xena.

I bet. Gabrielle sighed, then considered the matter, and chuckled a little. If it happens, Gabrielle, just flow with it. If Kaleipus decides to show up, with Solon.. well.. once that tyke is here, I just bet I could…

Stop. Just hold it. The bard took a breath. You know better, damn it. She's very, very touchy about that. I'd better warn her. Give her time to get a note to Kaleipus if she wants to. She bent her head back to Ephiny's note.

Otherwise, things are ok here. The weather's been tough, but you know we're mostly hunters anyway, and we've done pretty well for ourselves. No one's starving. Everyone's quiet, for a miraculous change. Even Arella has settled down pretty nicely. Her jaw and shoulder finally healed, and Eponin seems to be doing ok with her.

I'll finish now - we'll be there, OK? Take care of yourself, my friend.


"Gonna be fun, Ares." Gabrielle commented, carefully folding the parchment up and tapping it against the back of her hand. Then her head raised, and she turned towards the door, long moments before Ares' ears pricked, and he gave an eager little whine.

Bootsteps on the outer walk, whose weight and pattern curled with warm familiarity around the bard's ears. The door opened, and the tall form of her partner slid in, pushing the door closed in one smooth motion. "Well well." Gabrielle smiled lazily. "Look what the cat dragged in." She grinned at the raised eyebrow look she got back. "Nasty out there?"

Xena grinned at her. "Oh yeah." She chuckled, removing her heavy outer tunic, and hanging it on an iron hook near the door. "Not bad, though. Got four strings of salmon. Mom’ll have fresh tonight."

"Awesome." The bard responded. "I love salmon."

The warrior finished taking off her outdoor boots, and padded over, dropping to her knees and collapsing on her side next to Gabrielle. "I know.. that’s why I was fishing for it." She let out a satisfied breath and propped her head up on one hand, scratching the ecstatic Ares with the other. "Hey boy…" Her eyes lifted and scanned the bard’s face. "What’s up?"

Gabrielle handed over Ephiny’s letter without comment, and watched her face as she read it. This month’s.. been so good for her. She mused idly. No traveling, just minor fighting, a warm bed every night.. three decent meals a day…she looks fantastic. The bard let her eyes drink in her partner's form with lazy pleasure. Been about the longest time ever since I’ve known her without a bang or scratch giving her a problem, and I think she finally put back on all the weight she lost after the landslide.

Which meant her leather's didn't hang on her anymore, and in fact, Xena’s new set of leathers, dyed a rich deep blue complimented her sleekly muscular form and were a nice change from the dull, if functional brown she’d been used to. "She’s fun, huh?" Gabrielle commented, giving the message a nod, and tearing away her appreciative gaze for the moment.

"Mmm." Xena agreed absently. "I’ll get her for the old war horse comment." Her eyes flicked over the writing, and stopped, and she glanced up at Gabrielle with an unreadable look. "Chance meeting."

The bard gave a light shrug, and crawled closer, leaning her head against the warrior’s shoulder. "I figured you have time to send a note to him." She said gently, not pushing the issue.

Xena stayed quiet, obviously deep in thought, though Gabrielle could see the muscles in her throat working lightly. Finally she turned her head and studied the bard’s face with a quiet intensity. "Let’s just see what happens." Then a faint shrug. "He was probably just saying that."

Gabrielle fought to keep a triumphant little grin off her face. "Sure." She agreed, with a little sigh. "Hey… look what your mom sent over." She nudged the package closer to Xena with one hand. "Yet more variations."

"Gods." The warrior laughed, lifting the wrapping off, and examining the contents. "Wow.. those smell great." She delicately lifted one of the flaky cakes up, and offered it to the bard. Gabrielle opened her mouth obediently, and took a bite, scattering pastry crumbs all over the front of her shirt.

"Augh." She mumbled, around the mouthful of sweet dough, then sniffed thoughtfully and swallowed. "Ummm…." She leaned over and took another big bite, just missing Xena’s fingers, giving the warrior an impish look.

Xena smiled, and popped the remaining small bit into her own mouth, pausing in mid chew and blinking. "Wow." She swallowed hastily, letting out a surprised little chuckle. "Think we have a winner here."

"Uh huh. " Gabrielle fervently agreed, snagging another sample, and handing Xena one. "Are these legal?" She waited until the chuckling warrior rolled over and stretched her legs out, then settled comfortably with her head pillowed on Xena’s leather clad stomach. "Doesn’t get much better than this." She sighed happily, biting into the cake. "Warm fire, great cakes, you… what more could I ask for?"

She tilted her head, and caught the fondly indulgent smile her partner was bestowing on her. "Well?" She finished the cake, and unfolded the other parchment, recognizing her sister’s handwriting.

Long fingers brushed her cheek gently. "Not a thing, my bard." Xena smiled, as she wiped the dusting of sugar off Gabrielle’s lips. "What’s Lila up to?"

The bard scanned the note, and laughed. "Here, I’ll read it to you."

Dear Bree, (it said)

Your letter was a pleasant surprise, and so was the very nice young lady who delivered it.

Gabrielle felt Xena start to laugh and she paused. "Shh… it was perfectly reasonable that I ask Granella to deliver that message, since she was headed out that way anyway." The bard sniffed reflectively. "Besides, Lila did say she wanted to meet some of ‘those Amazons.’" She bent her eyes back to the letter.

Mother insisted that your friend stay the night, and made sure that she had a decent breakfast before heading out to who knows where.

"Granella’s gonna get you for that." Xena grinned, gently tangling her fingers in the bard’s soft hair. "Coulda been worse though. Could have been Eponin."

"Eeek." Gabrielle grimaced comically. "That would have been scary." She gave Xena a light slap on the thigh. "Shh.. let me finish."

Things have been much better here since the wedding – we’re really happy, and father seems to have found some peace, as he and mother are getting along very well, and he seems a lot happier. I don’t know what Cyrene told him before she left, but she did have a long talk with him and I think it’s done some good.

We will be there, and mother almost has father talked into it too. He is making what even I realize are token protests, and they have to do with being busy, and lack of time to travel, and things like that, and not being mad that you’re going to do this. Mother’s biggest worry is what to wear, of course. And mine might be too, because I’m taking this opportunity to warn you that you both will be aunts in due time, and I expect you’ll be good ones.

"Wahhooo!!!" The bard yelled, laughing. "You go, Lila!"

"Didn’t waste much time." Xena remarked slyly, but she also chuckled. "An aunt, huh? I can tease Toris now.. tell him I had to go and marry into another family to get to do that."

A giggle from Gabrielle. "That’s cold, Xena." She paused. "True, but cold."

The warrior made a low rumbling noise deep in her chest that made Ares lift his head up from where it rested on her arm and cock his ears. "No one ever accused me of being warm and fuzzy, Gabrielle."

The bard snorted. "Because they didn’t know you very well." She turned her head, and peered up at the expected arched eyebrow. "I know better."

Xena held the inscrutable look for a long moment then let it dissolve into a warm grin. "It’s a good act, you have to admit."

Green eyes twinkled. "It certainly is, but. it never fooled me, you know."

A nod from the warrior. "I realized that." She let her knuckles brush against Gabrielle’s soft cheek. "What uncommon vision you must have, my love, to have seen through all that so effortlessly."

Gabrielle leaned her face into the pressure of her partner’s fingers and smiled. "I don’t think it was special vision. I think I was just in love." She sighed happily. "It makes you see everything differently."

Xena let a little grin play around the corners of her mouth. "Yeah, it does, doesn’t it." She hesitated. "Gabrielle?"

"Hmm??" Green eyes lifted and found Xena’s blue ones.

"Thanks for not pushing me on Solon." Just a quiet statement. "I know how you feel, and I really appreciate that."

Gabrielle considered this in silence, then she rolled over, and pulled her partner into a hug. "You’ll make the right decision, at the right time. You always do." She felt the long arms slide around her, and just closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of leather and spice that filled her senses. For someone who didn’t like hugging, Xena was extraordinarily good at it, and she had a very nice way of using her whole body, surrounding the bard with a constant, warm pressure.

Gabrielle sighed contentedly and snuggled closer, letting her fingers play with the laces in the front of the soft leathers. This was their time, that lazy stretch after lunch and sparring practice, and before dinner. Time they usually spent discussing their separate days; or walking by the river, if the weather allowed; or laughing over some antic of Ares; or most often just curled up in each other’s arms, relaxing by the fire.

Like now. She looked up at Xena. The tall warrior was gazing with unseeing eyes at the fire, a quiet smile on her lips, her hands making slow, gentle circles on Gabrielle’s back. The bard let her gaze caress the strong planes of her partner’s face, and traced the line of her jaw with one fingertip, trailing down her neck to the hollow of her throat, feeling the steady, powerful heartbeat for a long moment. Then she idly outlined the prominent collarbone, and finally dropped her hand to rest on the soft leather covering Xena's chest, which was laced from about the middle up with tough leather strands, and knotted firmly at the top.

Gabrielle slowly worked one lace free, and found her gaze captured by Xena’s suddenly attentive glance. She grinned impishly, and found the grin mirrored by her partner, who shifted her hands lower, sliding her fingers through the soft cloth folds The bard felt the snug pressure of her tunic belt release, and she closed her eyes, savoring the knowing touch on her bare flesh. Yeah.. her mind sighed blissfully. Nothing more I could ask for. She smiled as their lips touched, and she fell willingly into a sensual haze

"You don’t have to do this." Solari said, for the fourth time. "Ephiny, for the love of Athena, there are a squad of us that would be glad to take the kids out."

The Amazon regent half turned her blond head and regarded Solari. "No kidding, really? You’ve only said that four times. " She went back to stuffing things in a pack. "Solari, give me a break, all right? I’m sick and tired of being cooped up here.. Id like a few days out in the open… is that so terrible?" She gave the exasperated Amazon a look. "This weather is driving me nuts."

Solari sighed. Not that she didn’t sympathize with Ephiny; it was just that her sense of propriety was being violated. Ephiny was the regent, after all, and she shouldn’t be gallivanting around the countryside taking a bunch of half grown Amazonettes on their first hunting trip. "Look.. Eph…"

"No, no, no and no." Ephiny stood and turned, putting her hands on her hips. "Come on, Solari. Give it up." She looked up as the door to her quarters nudged open. "Oh gods.. not another one."

Granella sauntered in, leaning against the center support post of the low thatched building. "No luck, huh Soli?" The slim, dark haired Amazon scout tossed Solari a sympathetic look.

Solari rolled her eyes. "None." She lifted her hands in a gesture of defeat. "I give up."

"Look!" Ephiny said, with an exasperated laugh. "I can take care of myself, all right?" They were sweet, she realized, but she now had a wry understanding of the little amusedly patient look Gabrielle sometimes got when Xena was hovering over her. "It’s not like I’m our queen, who has just the worst tendency to get herself in trouble."

Solari snorted. "Yeah, well, it’s not like we’re Xena, who can get out of just about anything either. Just, please, be careful, OK?"

"I will." Ephiny assured them. "Are the girls ready?"

Granella nodded. "They’re ready, all right."

Rolling here eyes again, Ephiny tugged closed the top of her bag, and slung it over her shoulder, gesturing Solari and Granella out ahead of her. "Out.. out…shoo…"

They walked outside, and joined a small group of girls, who were somewhat self consciously adjusting the straps on their backpacks and striving to look casual. "All right, everything set?" Ephiny asked briskly, letting her eyes flick over them. A group of nods answered her. "OK then, let’s go."

She led them, single file, down the well-trodden path leading to the Amazon village, snugging her cloak more tightly about herself to block out the cold wind.

They walked silently down the path, keeping single file behind her in the approved manner. She almost couldn’t hear them. If she blocked her ears with beeswax, and hummed, that is. A smile crossed her face, as she remembered her first hunting party.

It had been hot, and the dead of summer when they'd set out, and the worst enemy they had were the telltale warnings of dried leaves, curled from the relentless sun that fell beneath their feet and betrayed their passage.

There had been four of them then, with the cagey old Erin guiding them through the woods. Towards noontime, even the shaded underbrush grew breathless from the heat, and Erin had stopped them, forcing them to drink their waterskins dry and keeping them under shelter. They'd rested quietly, listening to the faint pulse of the forest around them, and had been concentrating so hard, they'd almost jumped out of their skins when a wild boar had come scrambling around the corner of a rock outcropping and snorted to a halt, staring at them.

They stared at the boar, even Erin being caught by surprise. A stunned silence hung over the small clearing, then Ephiny had let out a surprised scream, and that had been echoed by her mates in pure reflex.

The boar, overheated, overexcited, and confused, must have thought that noise was a panther or something, because his tail went up, his eyes went wide, and he scrambled backwards in hilarious haste, finally falling down hard on his rump with a grunt.

Erin recovered her composure, and grabbed a spear, causing the boar to heave itself up and haul tail in the opposite direction, which, unfortunately for the boar, was right into the rock outcropping. He knocked himself silly, and Erin had little trouble dispatching him.

They'd all sat around, looking at the boar, and looking at Erin, who grimly skinned and dressed the carcass, then sat down on top of it. "So." She'd grunted, putting her chin on her hands. "Now you lot have to help me come up with a fine tale to tell about how we got this boar, right?"

It had become legend, Ephiny chuckled to herself. How Erin had taken this group of first time hunters out, and come back with one of the most deadly prey in the forest. She'd been able to coast on her reputation for years after that, and Ephiny and her age mates had been included in every hunting party for a long time. She glanced behind her at the solemn file. Hope this outing is just as successful.

"Busy tonight." Xena murmured, putting her hands on Gabrielle’s shoulders as she passed behind her, and took a seat against the wall. The inn was full, with both locals and visitors, and the noise level was approaching deafening. Heavy clinks and bangs, of thick crockery and wooden plates against the tables, mixed with rough voices, and fair, and laughter. The air was full of the scent of fresh ale, and the fragrant smell of salmon stew, which Cyrene’s assistants were ladling over thick slices of warm bread.

"Yeah." Gabrielle mumbled, around her mouthful of stew. "Better eat yours before I do." She threatened cheerfully.

Xena snorted, and stabbed a chunk of potato, popping it in her mouth and chewing. "Now, that’s a threat." She poked Gabrielle in the side. "Good thing I eat fast.. or Id starve to death."

"Tch tch." The bard snickered, using her fork to steal a piece of fish from Xena’s plate. "Gotta be faster than that, o warrior princess."

Xena just laughed, and leaned back, dipping a corner of her bread into the stew and handing it to Ares, who was curled up around her booted feet. "Here you go, boy."

"Hey." Gabrielle stopped eating, and focused a look on her. "That’s your dinner, not his."

Xena speared a vegetable, and waved it at her. "Make up your mind… one minute you’re stealing my food, the next minute you’re yelling at me not to give it away. " She bit into the vegetable, and swallowed, making a face. "Ugh." She discarded the rest of the item, and picked up a bit of fish instead. "That’s better."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, and captured the half bite, eating it with an aggrieved sigh. "What am I going to do with you?" At least I got her to notice what she’s eating enough to know when she doesn’t like something. That’s an improvement. I guess. She looked up at the mischievously glinting blue eyes, and found herself smiling back into them. The next piece of fish the warrior stabbed was offered to her, with a twinkle.

"I have my own, Xena." She reminded her partner, but took the bite anyway. "Did you say you were going fishing again tomorrow?? "

The warrior finally concentrated on her dinner, and plowed through a good portion before she answered. "I can. But I really wanted to check my trap lines, out across the old forest." She wiped her dish with a chunk of bread and ate it, then took a deep swallow of ale. "Mmm.. mom must have tapped a new keg." She drained the mug, and debated on a second. Cyrene solved the debate by swinging by, and filling the cup, seating herself at Gabrielle’s side and nodding as a server put a plate down in front of her.

"Thank you, dear." She patted the server’s arm, and glanced at her daughter.. daughters, she corrected herself with a warm glow. And sent a thank you, once again, to whomever it was that was listening when she’d prayed that Xena would come back home.

She fondly remembered that day, when Johan had come into the kitchen and grasped her arm, and told her what the outer watch had sent back in, riding on an exultant wave of excitement. Xena, and the bard, headed towards Amphipolis. And when Argo had rounded that last turn, and ambled easily into the courtyard and shed her riders, somehow Cyrene had known. "You’re staying." She’d said, confidently, and her daughter had nodded a little. "For a while at least." Xena had said, exchanging glances with Gabrielle, who’d smiled, but later, much later that night, the bard had bent to Cyrene’s will and told her of what had happened. That she’d almost lost her daughter again, and only Xena’s stubbornness had kept her alive long enough to be rescued. That, and the love she had for this young bard, that is.

"Delightful run of salmon, dear." Cyrene patted her daughter’s arm, noting the relaxed expression on her face. She looked up as Toris pulled out the fourth chair at the table, and seated himself, setting an overflowing plate down in front of him. Oh no.. Cyrene ruefully realized. Here we go.

"Got enough there, Toris?" Xena drawled, leaning back in her chair and propping a booted foot on the table supports.

"Yes, thanks." Her brother answered, making a show of ignoring her grin.

Gabrielle tugged on her woolen sleeve. "Xena?"

"Hmm?" The warrior tilted her head back and raised an eyebrow. The bard didn’t answer, but she gave her partner her best wounded puppy dog look, then shifted her gaze to Toris, and shifted it back.

Xena pursed her lips, trying to fight off a smirk and failing, then gave the bard an indulgent nod, and kept quiet, lifting her ale up and drinking instead.

"Those were lovely stories tonight, Gabrielle." Cyrene smiled, having watched the interaction. "I really liked the one about the ship."

"You mean I earned my dinner tonight?" The bard joked, stealing the last of Xena’s bread.

Cyrene leaned over, and folded her hand in Gabrielle’s. "If you never told another story in this inn you’d have earned far more than that, and you know it." Her voice was serious. Ah… Gabrielle… don’t think for one moment I don’t know what you did.. what you do, for my daughter. She would be lost without you, was lost, and now you’ve given her a reason to keep trying to find herself. The innkeeper’s gaze covertly took in the almost startlingly open expression in the pale blue eyes across from her and smiled.

The bard’s eyes met hers, and the corner of her lips twitched in acknowledgment. "I know." And felt the warm reassurance of Xena’s touch warming her knee. She dropped her other hand under the table and clasped the warrior’s fingers with her own, feeling the pressure as Xena squeezed hard. She returned the clasp, tuning out the rest of the room for a long moment, and letting herself feel their connection. It filled a spot deep inside her, a craving that nothing else, not food, or drink, or her storytelling, even touched. She smiled at Cyrene. "Did I tell you I got a letter back from my sister?"

Toris glanced up from his meal with a grin. "She coming?"

Gabrielle laughed, and for some reason Xena laughed as well. Toris and Cyrene just looked at each other, and shrugged. "Uhm… yes." The bard closed her eyes and took a breath, wiping the silly thoughts out of her mind. "She is, and she says my parents will probably be here too."

"Wonderful." Cyrene gave her a sturdy nod. "And your Amazons?"

"Oh yeah." Xena drawled, with a glint in her eyes. "They’ll be here too." She blinked suddenly. "Uh…"

All three looked at her in puzzlement.

Xena bit her lip, and gave the bard a look. "You invited some other guests."

Gabrielle’s brow creased, and then a look of almost comical realization crossed her face. "Oh.. right.. well… we have these friends, that I told you about, mom."

Cyrene regarded her thoughtfully. "The people you stayed with… before you came here?" She flicked a furtive glance at her daughter, who had settled back in her chair with her ale, taking a deep breath that shifted the warm amber wool tunic across her shoulders. "Of course they're welcome."

Bard looked at warrior, and both sighed. "Thanks mom." Gabrielle grinned. "Uhm… they're really nice." She played idly with the fork, poking its tines into the smooth wood of the table. "They're just.. a little different."

Toris glanced up from his stew. "Of course. They're Xena's friends." He ducked too late. "Ow!" A motion so fast he didn't even see it knocked his body offcenter in the chair with stunning power. He scowled at his sister, who was watching him with a relaxed, if alert air. He briefly considered the idea of a tussle, then dismissed it, having found to his discomfort and chagrin that his sister could handle him as easily as a child if she had a mind to. "Ok..Ok… I take it back." He grumbled good naturedly, giving Xena a prod with his elbow. "I'm not tangling with you, sis."

Xena let her body relax again. She regarded her brother with some mild amusement. Every packs gotta have its leader, bro - and I’m the one in this litter, we all knew that. Even Lyceus.. though I loved him dearly, we'd have come to a conflict one day, because I’m so competitive, I can't stand the thought of an unmet challenge. Her eyes drifted to Gabrielle's face. Wonder if that's why we're so… She paused to think. Even as friends, we never competed… She had things she did well, I had things I did well.. we didn't cross each other's boundaries a lot. Maybe that's why we work as well as we do. I fight, she negotiates, I'm impatient, and she's the definition of the words gentle patience. I can't sit still.. she's a dreamer. I've never known anyone so different.. but she fits as part of me so perfectly it takes my breath away. They say opposites attract… well, she's not my opposite, but she is my better half. And I don't know which gods let that happen, but..

Their eyes met, and Xena could feel the energy passing between them again, and quietly reveled in it. "Well.." She stifled a yawn, having watched Gabrielle do the same shortly before. "I have an early morning tomorrow.. think I'll take off."

Cyrene smiled. "Hunting far tomorrow, dear?" She topped off Xena's mug, then her own.

The warrior gave her a wryly indulgent look. "Thanks. No, checking traplines in the old forest." She took a sip of the beverage. "New keg?"

Her mother chuckled. "Yes, and nice one, if I do say so myself."

They all turned as the door to the inn slammed open, and a fur wrapped form stumbled in, closing the door behind them with a loud bang. "Gods." The form muttered, and unwrapped itself to reveal a tall, dark haired man with a thick beard and bloodshot, tired eyes. "I’m perishing." He gasped, and would have fallen but for a strong hand that gripped his arm and kept him upright. He looked up into ice blue eyes and blinked. "I thank ye."

"It's all right." Xena said quietly, guiding him to a seat, and helping him into it. "What happened?" She asked, as Gabrielle crouched next to the man, handing him a mug of warm soup.

"Well.." He started, then glanced down into the bard's eyes, and seemed to lose track of himself for a moment. "Umm… ice storm." He finally said, giving her a little smile. "Took me off the road, it did - pellets the size of hen's eggs almost caved my skull in." He took a sip of the soup. "Thank you, lady."

Gabrielle laughed gently. "Just Gabrielle." She patted his leg, and waited, while Xena checked the traveler over with skillful hands. "Were you travelling alone?"

"Aye." The man breathed, never taking his eyes from her face. "My name's Rurik." He held out his free hand, and smiled when she took it gravely and shook it. "Are you traveling as well?"

The bard shook her head. "No. Amphipolis is home."

The man grunted. "Is that where I am? Amazing."

Xena finished her probing, and stepped back, regarding him thoughtfully. "Some nasty cracks there, but nothing serious. You got lucky."

Rurik looked up at her. "Aye, that I did - to get out of the storm, and wind up here." His eyes drifted to Gabrielle's face again, then back up to her. "I thank you for checking… " He paused and took the hand that was slowly offered.

"Xena." The warrior said, with a touch of amusement, watching for and getting the look of stunned surprise on his face. "You should rest, though."

"Are you…" He started.

"Yeah." She answered. "But don’t spread it around, OK? I've been having a peaceful winter." She let a hand drop and rest on the still kneeling Gabrielle's shoulder. "Glad I got you your fish today."

Gabrielle chewed her lip. "Xena, if the weather's that bad, maybe…" She stopped when she felt the long fingers tighten on her shoulder. Of course not. Weather, stop Xena? Never. She mentally rolled her eyes. She'd go out just to spite the weather.

"I'll see what it's like in the morning." Her partner reassured her, surprisingly. She peered out the window to her left, wincing as the sleet hit the waxed panes. "Feel sorry for anyone out in that."

Rurik nodded vigorously. "You're right there, ma'am. " This got him a raised eyebrow stare from the tall warrior, and a muffled giggle from the young bard kneeling at his side. Sisters? No.. they're too unlike for that, even with the dice rolls of the gods being what they are. Cousins, perhaps, see the little one's concern over the weather. Gods, she's a pretty thing… look at those eyes.. wonder if she's spoken for? Ah.. yes, there's a ring there. Pity…well, maybe he's not around.. we'll just have to see. "I've a few dinars for a room if there is one." He reluctantly tore his eyes from the vision in front of him and let them rest on the taller warrior's face.

"Mother?" Xena half turned, finding Cyrene at her back.

The older woman nodded briskly. "We have a small room available. Come."

Rurik stood heavily, and shrugged his cloak back into place with a sigh. "Thank you, innkeeper. A warm bed would go easy on these bones tonight." He nodded at Xena. "Nice meeting you." Then he smiled at Gabrielle. "And you too, Gabrielle." He looked into her eyes as long as he dared, then turned and followed Cyrene towards the stairs.

Gabrielle sauntered over and gave her partner a poke in the ribs. "Yes, ma'am." She giggled, and bit her lip.

Xena gave her a wry look. "Uh huh.. but I think he just fell for you, Red."

That got her a slap. "You die, Warrior Princess." Then a pause. "He what?" She wrinkled her brow. "Xena, you've had too much ale."

The warrior raised a lazy eyebrow, and leaned back against a support post, joined by Toris. They both regarded her with identical blue eyes bearing identical smirking twinkles. Xena rolled her head towards her brother. "What do you think?"

"For sure." Toris agreed, giving her a nod. "Fell like a rock down a cliff." He grinned at Gabrielle. "Haven't seen a lovesick expression like that since… " He thought a minute. "Since…"

"Howar." Xena supplied, with a chuckle, seeing the remembrance on Gabrielle's face. "Yeah.. you remember him… you got your own now… "

"I do not." The bard groaned. Her eyes flicked from one to the other. "Do I?"

Identical grins.

"Oh Hades." Gabrielle sighed. "Now what do I do?" She covered her eyes. "Its not like I can just threaten to knock them around a little like you do."

Xena grasped her wrist, and pushed the bard's sleeve up, exposing her arm, and squeezing the well-defined muscles. "Sure you can." She said softly, and dropped the sleeve, touching Gabrielle on the tip of her nose, then giving Toris a wink. "G'night, Toris."

She strolled past them to the door, and stood, waiting for Gabrielle with one hand resting on the wooden surface. Ares stood and stretched, shaking himself and padding over to join Xena at the door.

Gabrielle shook her head and rolled her eyes. "Gods. Why me?" She laughed a little. "Night, Toris."

"Night you two." Toris waved casually. "Careful in the storm, all right?" He let his eyes meet Xena's over the bard's head. "And you be careful tomorrow morning. If it's like this, for the love of the gods, sis, stay home, OK?"

At one time, she would have gotten angry. At another time, she would have just ignored him. Now, Xena's eyes warmed and she gave him a little wink. "Good advice, Toris." Then she settled her cloak in place, and held out one panel of it. "Get in here. I don't want you to get hit."

"What about you?" Gabrielle protested, but snuggled close, wrapping her arm around her partner's woolen clad body. "Huh?"

Xena swung the door open, and walked out, shielding her head with one upraised arm. "Hard head. No worries." She muttered, and felt Gabrielle give her a slap in the gut. "Guess she heard me." She remarked to the closely following Ares. "Keep your head down, both of you." She ordered, and felt the wolf tuck his dark muzzle against her knee. "Good boy." Then felt Gabrielle nestle into the hollow of her shoulder. "Good girl." She joked, wincing as she was poked in the side.

The storm was brutal, whipping nuggets of frozen water against Xena's body, and bouncing them off her protective arms. The ground beneath her feet was rapidly churning into an icy mud, and the darkness cloaked the buildings around the inn, the wind tearing out most of the torches, and leaving her to find their way in a cold, bitter void.

But Xena had known this courtyard from childhood, and found her way unerringly to their door, breathing a sigh of relief when she closed the sturdy wooden panel behind them. "Gods." She sighed, shrugging off her cloak, and helping Gabrielle off with hers. "Here.. I got that."

The bard willingly gave up the garment, and crossed to the fire, rubbing her hands. "This weather is very strange, Xena. It's starting to scare me a little."

"Mmm." Her partner agreed, coming up behind her and wrapping her arms around Gabrielle from behind, resting her chin on the bard's head. "I've never seen it like this."

Gabrielle didn't answer, being very busy absorbing the warmth surrounding her. She stood quietly for a minute, then slid around in Xena's arms, and snuggled close. "Mmm." She mumbled. "Xena?"

"Huh?" Xena's low voice responded.

"He really didn't… did he?" She kept her head pressed against Xena's warm chest, listening to the music of her heartbeat. "I mean.. you really don't think he has a crush on me, do you?"

"Mmm Hmm." The warrior confirmed, as she lazily tilted Gabrielle's face up and studied it. "Not that I blame him a bit." She smiled at the blush that crept up Gabrielle's fair skin.

"I'm not.. The bard stopped, and looked down, embarrassed. "I mean… I don't think I’m…"

"Look at me." Xena requested softly, and waited for her to comply. The bard's green eyes were hazy brown in the firelight, and the look she gave Xena was one of gentle, open trust. "I do." The warrior said with a smile. "Very much so."

"Do you?" Gabrielle murmured shyly.

"Think you're beautiful?" Xena laughed softly. "Yes." She lifted a hand, and threaded her fingers through Gabrielle's wind blown hair. "I always have."

"Oh." The bard breathed, feeling words drift like warm milk down into her gut. "I mean..uh.. I don't.. I think.. uh…" She stopped, and collected herself with a little shake. "Thanks." She finally managed, letting her head settle lightly on Xena's chest, and wrapping her arms around her partner and squeezing hard. "That just made me feel really good."

Xena smiled, and shook her head a little. "Anytime you need to hear that, you let me know, OK?" She captured Gabrielle's jaw again and lifted her face. "OK??"

"Yeah." Gabrielle smiled. "I will." She gently played with the collar of Xena's tunic, straightening it, then glanced up. "I love you." She said the words slowly, and tasted their sweetness.

Xena closed her eyes, and took a deep breath, then opened them again, and cupped Gabrielle's face in both hands. "I love you too." In a low, gentle tone that seemed to echo endlessly inside the bard's ears. Then reinforced that with a kiss, which the bard felt hit her spine and work up from there.

"Xena?" She asked, on an irregular breath once they paused for a second.

"Hmm?" The warrior inquired, nibbling the line of Gabrielle's neck.

"Uhh…" The bard stuttered, then focused. "What do I do with this guy?"

Xena captured her earlobe and bit down very gently. "Not this." She said between her teeth.

Gabrielle giggled, and just let her body react, giving her hands free rein to explore. "Seriously."

The warrior inched her way around Gabrielle's ear. "Well.." She drawled. "You just tell him.."

"You'll turn him into goat feed." Gabrielle finished, with a grin.

"Something like that." Xena agreed, nudging her towards the bed. "C'mon . . .it's cold out here."

"Ahh.." The bard teased, as she felt her partner react to her touch. "You don't feel cold."

That got a deep, wicked chuckle, and she was lifted off her feet, watching the room tilt and spin, as she felt the bed's softness under her back.

"Stay together." Ephiny yelled, pulling a small form close to her and shielding the girl with her body. Ice pellets stung her arms and face, and she grimaced. "Over here.. near that tree." Damn.. damn.. damn.. She cursed silently. An ice storm, of all things. She pushed the girls against the fallen tree, in the lee of the wind, and hastily unpacked her ax. "Stay down." She told them, making eye contact with the tallest, pale haired Cait. The girl nodded soberly, and put an arm around one of her smaller companions.

Thank the gods I have Cait. Ephiny mused, as she moved around to the other side of the tree, and withstood the brunt of the storm, grimly hacking off the branches whipping around her head. She began to throw them over the side of the fallen tree, and soon noticed that Cait was binding them together, forming a shield they could put against the trunk to shelter themselves under. Strange girl, the Amazon considered. You never knew what was going on behind those pale eyes. Friendly and easygoing, was Cait, but there was always a little something different lurking behind her quiet gaze. An orphan from Amphipolis, the tall slim blond already had excellent fighting skills, and a calm, sober sense that Ephiny was coming to appreciate more and more.

She finished collecting branches, and jumped behind the tree with a sense of relief, noting with approval that Cait had already organized the little group behind the screen, and was packing leaf litter around the interwoven branches to provide more protection. "Get in there, Cait." Ephiny smiled, patting her back. "Good job."

The blond smiled at her, and ducked under the leaves, crawling inside the shelter and joining her age mates. Ephiny followed; glad to get out of the stinging ice that had gotten inside her leathers and left her sore and damp. "Well, isn't this cozy." The Amazon regent muttered, pressing herself against the rough bark of the tree and ignoring the overpowering scent of bruised pine that permeated their meager shelter. "All right, everyone just relax. This can't last forever."

Five pairs of eyes looked back at her, Cait being the furthest away. In front of her were short, dark haired Megan, freckled Lista, moody Elianas, and the sunny natured Shanna. All were more or less the same age, and just on the cusp of hitting puberty. Remind me again why I thought this was such a damn good idea…hmm? Gee, Ephiny.. next time just wrangle Eponin into a game of cards, ok? "Everyone OK?"

"It's cold." Elainas sighed. "My head hurts."

"Mine too." Lista agreed, as usual. She was Elianas faithful shadow.

Megan edged closer to Ephiny. "You're all wet." She said mournfully, fingering the Amazon's leathers. "That's bad." Megan worried. A lot. About everything.

"We could make a fire." Shanna chirped, pushing her damp red hair out of her eyes. "Then we'd warm up."

Ephiny glanced over Megan's narrow shoulder, and met Cait's eyes, which twinkled solemnly back at her. Cait.. didn't need hunting instructions, and in fact was along on this trek as sort of a junior escort despite her tender age. Born in Amphipolis, and orphaned by outlaws, Cait had learned young how to find food for herself and had made her meager living catching small game and selling it to her fellow villagers.

Until Xena had come home, that is, and Cait had approached her, sensing a sympathy in the tall dark haired warrior she hadn't found otherwise in the village. Ephiny had met the girl on her visit to the ex warlord on behalf of her then Queen, Gabrielle. Cait had asked to be taken to the Amazon's village, and Ephiny had agreed, finding out later from Xena that the girl.. was more than she seemed.

She had, Xena quietly informed her, slipped into the renegade's camp after her parents had been killed and found their leader. And slit his throat for him, with no more excitement than if she'd taken a stroll by the river, and knowing that, when Ephiny looked into those pale, almost colorless eyes, she often saw glints of something very familiar. Something usually framed in a taller, darker form's vivid blue gaze. Kindred spirits, indeed, the Amazon quietly snorted to herself. Leave it to Xena to saddle me with a baby assassin.

But Cait was otherwise a gentle, helpful girl, who kept to herself mostly, but joined the other girls her age on occasion and could laugh, and joke with the best of them.

"We can't right now, Megan." Cait's clear, soft voice curled around them. "It's too wet. We'll be all over smoke." She folded her knees up to her chin, and put her arms around them. "Let's try not to think about it."

"That's easy for you to say." Elianas grumped. "This cold is just.. creepy."

"Yeah, creepy." Lista affirmed.

"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.

"" 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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