A wailing war cry arose from the icy winds as they charged across the snow covered meadow relentlessly assaulting their well worn enemy. In the center of the meadow, the old inn held its ground as the howling winds battered its stone walls. For nearly fifty winters this war had been waged and each time the outcome was the same. Occasionally the wind would infect a minor wound, perhaps capturing a loose shingle or knocking away an open shutter, but try as it might it could not knock its opponent to the ground. Unable to wear its enemy down the wind turned its attention to a less resistant opponent.
From the warm, safety of the inn a lone figure watched the wind unleash its fury on a nearby snow bank. The small woman shuttered slightly as a fine curtain of snowflakes whirled through the air dancing to its capture's commands.
Looking down, the bard realized the wind had exhausted the small candle resting on the window sill. Studying the candle she smiled fondly. It was a simple candle not much to look at and already more than half melted. When lit it didn't even give off much light. To make matters worse, the wind seemed to take great pleasure in slipping through the cracks and blowing it out. Yet to the bard it was a lovely sight. Shortly after dark she had placed the candle in the window as part of a practiced ritual learned from her mother many seasons ago. On Solstice Eve her mother would place a lit candle in the window and keep close visual through out the night to make sure it stayed lit. When as a child she had questioned her mother's actions, the older woman explained patiently. Since Solstice Eve was the longest night of the year, the candle was a symbol of hope. It offered light and guidance to lost souls wandering in the longest of nights. Retrieving a nearby candle, the bard relit the smaller one. Seeing it spring to life, she felt the warmth of childhood memories glow a little brighter. Staring into the dancing flame, she allowed her thoughts to wander.
Earlier in the day, approaching storm clouds had convinced the warrior and the bard to find shelter for the night. Stopping at the village, they secured a room at the inn and settled in to wait out the storm. Gabrielle smiled sadly remembering her earlier joy at the thought of spending Solstice Eve in a nice soft bed, surrounded by good people and hot food. Even Xena seemed content with the idea as the first flakes of snow started to fall.
Shortly before dark, a group of children returned to the village from an evening of playing in the snow covered meadow. Tearfully they told of a forbidden trip into the forest on the far side of the meadow and how one of the smaller children had become separated from the group. Unable to find the missing girl, the others had returned to the village for help. A search party was quickly organized and headed off to find the lost child.
Without a word the warrior saddled Argo. Gracefully mounting the mare, the warrior lead them toward the meadow. Near the edge of the village, they found the bard waiting. "Aren't you forgetting something?" she asked reaching up for the warrior's hand.
Ignoring the offered hand. "Not this time, Gabrielle," answered the warrior quietly. Seeing the questioning look in the bard's eyes, she continued. "With the snow Argo and I can make better time alone." Stealing a glance skyward. "It will be dark soon and the storm is getting worse." Turning back to her friend. "Besides, the villagers are going to need someone to keep their spirits up." Allowing a smile to play at the corners of her mouth. "After all it is Solstice eve."
"I'll do my best," answered the bard allowing her smile to spread freely.
"I know you will," replied the warrior as she moved to spur the mare. A gentle hand upon a fur covered leg, caused her to stare down at the bard.
Green eyes sparkled up at her. "Be careful," pleaded the bard.
"Always." Grinned the warrior, tapping her heels against Argo's muscular sides. As horse and rider moved away, the warrior called over her shoulder teasingly. "Keep the fire built up and save me some food."
"I will," replied the bard to the warrior's back.
Darkness had long since claimed the land and nearly two candle marks had passed since the last of the search party stumbled back to the inn. The last group was nearly frozen to death, they offered heartfelt apologies to the grieving family of the missing child. Telling them the storm had grown too intense and tracking the child had become impossible. Though none would voice their concerns all knew the child was lost and as the night stretched on many began to question the fate of the warrior, who still had not returned. Since the search began the bard had done everything she could to ease the tension within the small inn. Now as it seemed clear their angel of mercy would have her own grief to face the villagers began to offer her small comforts.
Not willing to give up on the warrior the bard had accepted the acts of kindness with a warm smile and a pleasant thank you. 'They don't think she's coming back,' thought the bard ruefully. 'What if she doesn't?' asked a tiny voice from the back of her mind. 'Stop that!' she ordered the voice. 'She'll be back. It's Solstice Eve she has to come back.'
Glancing down, the bard realized the wind had claimed another victory over the candle. Sighing heavily, she retrieved a nearby candle. Returning to the window sill, she paused to stare down at the cold wax. 'This is ridiculous,' she growled silently. 'I'm wasting my time with this stupid candle when I should be helping Xena.' Slamming her fist against the window sill in frustration. 'Don't lose hope,' whispered another voice from the depths of her mind. Breathing deeply, she slowly released the breath then touched the lit candle to the one waiting on the sill. Once more, a flame sprang to life. The light from the new flame cast a warm glow over her face. Staring at the flame for a few more moments, she turned and moved from the window. Setting aside the candle holder, she turned her attention to the small crowd gathered at the inn. All were huddled in small groups each trying to offer comfort and warmth. She thought about telling another story when the main door flew open.
Thinking the wind had somehow managed to mutilate the lock, she rushed forward to close the door before icy invaders could drive all the warmth from the room. Suddenly, she found her path blocked by a tall figure wrapped from head to toe in fur and covered with a long black cloak. "Xena?" gasped the bard in disbelief.
Without a word, the figure moved several steps into the room, allowing the bard to close the door. Quickly, the others rushed forward to greet the new arrival. Gabrielle was about to suggest they move closer to the fire when the warrior slowly opened her cloak. Beneath, clinging tightly to the warrior's fur covered chest, was a tiny figure of a child.
"Megas!" cried a woman as she pushed through the small group. Reaching the warrior she snatched the child up into her arms.
"Mommy!" bellowed the child locking her arms around her mother's neck. Other family members rushed to embrace the pair. Soon the family found themselves surrounded by well wishers.
Silently, the warrior turned toward the door. "Where do you think you going?" asked the bard as she stepped between the warrior and the door.
"Argo." whispered the Warrior through chattering teeth.
"I'll take care of Argo. You're half frozen, go sit by the fire." When the warrior made no effort to move toward the fire the bard decided to move her. Grasping a cloaked arm, she cringed at the friged cold beneath her hand. "Xena, please, you need to warm up some before you go back out there."
"We'll take care of you horse," offered a young boy motioning toward several other boys. "I promise we'll take good care of her."
Hesitating for a moment, the warrior finally nodded in agreement. Gabrielle felt an uneasiness start to form in her stomach, Xena did not allow anyone to care for the mare, not if she was able to do it herself. "Come on," ordered the bard as she pulled the warrior toward the fire.
Pulling back, the warrior nearly yanked the bard off her feet. "Is our room warm?"
"Yes," grinned the bard crookedly. "I've kept the fire banked. Just like you wanted."
With a slight nod the warrior started toward the stairs with the bard following close behind, who watched with concern the warrior's unsteady movements. Once in their room, the warrior stood before the roaring fireplace. Clumsily, she tried to remove her wet clothes. Seeing the warrior's trouble, Gabrielle moved to assist. As the bard pulled back the hooded cloak she was shocked to find raven hair nearly white from ice. Quickly, she began unfastening the fur coverings. The warrior stood stone still, allowing the bard to work. As the bard removed the last of the fur she was alarmed at how red and cold the skin beneath was. Removing a blanket from the bed, she wrapped it around the warrior and helped her to sit before the fire. "Sit here and rest, I"ll get you something hot to eat." The warrior nodded in reply.
When the bard returned she found the warrior laying on her side curled up in a tight ball. Kneeling beside the warrior, she set the tray on the floor. "Xena," she called softly. No reply. "Xena." This time placing a gentle hand on the warrior's shoulder. Slowly the warrior stirred. As her eyes opened and tried to focus on the bard she began to tremble uncontrollably.
Gabrielle sat down, lifting the large woman into her lap. Holding Xena tightly, she rubbed the warrior's arms trying to offer her friend more warmth. "Do you think you could drink some soup?"
"Yes," answered the warrior weakly.
Still cradling the warrior, Gabrielle lifted a soup bowl from the tray and held it to blue lips. "Careful now, it's hot," warned the bard.
The warrior took a small sip, than a larger one. Slowly, she drained the bowl.
Satifisted, the bard set the bowl aside and wrapped both arms around the warrior. She noted the warrior was no longer trembling and the color had returned to her lips. "How do you feel?"
"Better," replied the warrior in her normal tone. "Thanks," she whispered, allowing the bard to pull her closer.
"I was beginning to think you'd gotten lost," joked the bard.
"I was," answered the warrior seriously.
The warrior shifted to see her friend's face. "I found the child just after dark. But, the storm had grown worse and snow covered my tracks. There wasn't any thing to use as a guide to find my way back. I thought about setting up a shelter but in the dark it would have been impossible. Just when I was certain we'd freeze to death, I saw it."
"Saw what?" asked the bard when the warrior hastitated.
"A light. It was so small and dim at first I thought I was dreaming. I decided to follow it. Several times it disappeared but, not for long. Then, it would reappear and burn brightly. As I drew close I realized it was coming from the tavern." Holding the bard's glaze. "If it hadn't been for the light, I would have frozen to death."
Gabrielle felt a tear run down her cheek, but she made no effort to wipe it away.
"Gabrielle," concern filled the warrior's voice. "Are you all right?"
Smiling warmly at her friend. "I'm fine." Placing a quick kiss on the warrior's forehead she pulled the large woman in close. "We're fine."
Xena rested her head against the Bard's shoulder welcoming the physically and emotional warmth. "Gabrielle?"
A heartfelt chuckle escaped the smaller woman as she hugged the warrior a little tighter. "Happy Solstice, Xena."