“Quit shoving me.”
“Then get off my side of the bed.”
“I’m not on your side—this is my side, and you need to move over.”
“Well, you’re closer to the window.”
“So what? It’s snowing so hard that you can’t see anything out there, anyway.”
The sound of Daimon’s sigh filled the darkroom. “I know. But we need to keep watching, just in case.”
Agnes snorted. “In case what? I can’t believe you still think that Senticles will come tonight.”
“It’s Solstice Eve,” Daimon insisted. “Senticles always comes on Solstice Eve.”
“You’re a moron.”
“I am not! Last year, he brought me that unicorn on wheels—and you got a clay yo-yo and a new hair comb.”
“Those weren’t from Senticles, you idiot—papa made those.”
Daimon pressed his face closer to the single windowpane. “I don’t care what you say—I know he’s coming.”
Agnes pulled the furs up to her chin. “Whatever. Sit up all night if you want to—I want to get some sleep. If the snow keeps up, gramma said she’d close the inn tomorrow and help us build an ice fort near the river.”
“I don’t wanna build an ice fort. I wanna stay inside where it’s warm and play with my new toys.”
“What new toys?”
“The ones Aunt Gabrielle said Senticles would bring tonight if we were good and went to bed early.”
Agnes rolled over to face the wall. “Yeah. Thanks again for that—it’s your fault we had to come up here before it even got dark. I wanted to stay up and wait for Xena to get back from Thessalonica.”
“It was, too, dark! And Aunt Gabrielle said Xena probably wouldn’t make it back tonight because of the snow.”
“Snow won’t stop Xena,” Agnes said with authority.
“But it might stop Argo,” Daimon said. “Xena says that Argo hates the snow, and won’t go out in it unless she bribes her with apples.”
“Well, lucky for us, gramma put lots of winter apples in Xena’s pack.”
“I wish Thessalonica wasn’t so far away.”
“She had to get something for Gabrielle.”
“What?” Daimon wondered how much Agnes knew about the real reason for Xena’s trip.
Agnes shrugged. “How should I know? If Xena went, it had to be important.” She yawned. “I’m going to sleep, so quit talking to me.”
Daimon gave a dejected sigh. “Okay. I’ll wake you up when Senticles gets here.”
“Yeah,” Agnes scoffed, “you do that.”
The quiet inside the room was deafening. Daimon was sure he could hear the snow falling outside. It was coming down so hard that he had a hard time seeing the stable. There was no noise coming up from downstairs. Gramma and Aunt Gabrielle must be in bed, too, he thought.
Outside, there were no horses tied up near the big front porch, and no sounds of people milling around.
He hoped that, wherever they were, Xena and Argo were warm. Aunt Gabrielle didn’t seem worried about them—but then, she never was.
He loved it when they came to visit—and they were almost always here for Solstice. Tomorrow was Xena’s birthday, too—and Aunt Gabrielle had been making dumplings for her. Daimon always looked forward to that—she always let him lick the bowl. And she told him stories while they baked.
Just like tonight.
And her stories about Senticles were his favorite….
Gramma had finished serving the last diners of the night, and Aunt Gabrielle was working in the big kitchen. She had already baked four loaves of nut bread, and two big pans of pomegranate-stuffed dumplings, drizzled with honey and topped with cloves and chopped walnuts. They were mixing up the last batch of sticky, sweet filling for the pastries, and Gabrielle was letting him spread the mixture over the rolled-out dough with a flat, wooden spatula. Then she would fold them into triangles and carefully press their edges closed. Daimon ladled another spoonful of the pomegranate paste onto the pastry, being careful not to get too close to the edges.
Out front in the dining room, Agnes was helping gramma set up the tables for tomorrow’s big Solstice meal. Aunt Gabrielle’s sister and parents were expected late in the day, if the weather permitted that kind of travel. Right now, it wasn’t looking likely. Ephiny and some of the other Amazons from Aunt Gabrielle’s tribe were here already—and so was a big, loud man named Salmoneus. Daimon didn’t like him very much—last night, he kept trying to pinch gramma whenever she passed his table with a pitcher of ale. After the third or forth time, gramma dumped half the jug of frothy liquid into his lap. She said it was an accident, but Daimon didn’t think it was. Her blue eyes looked just like Xena’s got whenever somebody flirted with Aunt Gabrielle.
He finished spreading the filling.
“Will Xena be back tonight?” he asked.
“I don’t know sweetheart.” Aunt Gabrielle looked toward the windows at the back of the room. “I hope so, but it’s snowing pretty hard. She might wait and come back tomorrow.”
Daimon was sad about that. And he knew that Agnes would be really disappointed. She loved Xena better than almost anybody.
“Are you worried about her?”
Gabrielle smiled. “No, honey. Xena can take care of herself. Wherever she is, she’ll be just fine.”
“But you miss her, right?”
“Oh, yeah,” she sighed. “I sure do.”
“Why did she have to go, anyway?”
Gabrielle looked around the room like she was making sure they were all alone. Then she bent closer so only he could hear her. She smelled good—like the dried leaves of lemon verbena that she sometimes crushed and put under his pillow to give him sweet dreams. “She’s doing something special—just for Solstice.”
Daimon’s eyes grew wide. “She is?”
Gabrielle nodded. “She’s helping Senticles with a very important delivery—but it’s a secret, so don’t tell anyone.”
“Xena’s helping Senticles?”
“Yes. You remember Senticles, don’t you?”
Daimon nodded. The famous toymaker brought gifts to children every Solstice Eve—if they were good, and they believed in him. Sometimes, you even got presents if you didn’t believe—and he didn’t really understand that part. Agnes still got stuff—and she quit believing in Senticles a long time ago. But that was just Agnes. She didn’t believe in much of anything—except Xena.
Daimon put his wooden spatula back into the empty bowl.
“What is Xena doing to help Senticles? Can you tell me?”
Gabrielle sighed. “Can I trust you not to tell anyone—not even Agnes?”
He nodded with enthusiasm. “I promise. I won’t even tell gramma.”
“Oh,” Gabrielle smiled. “Gramma already knows. Sometimes, she helps Senticles, too.”
“She does?” Daimon looked toward the dining room. He could hear the sounds of plates and cups being stacked and carried across the big room. In the background, he could hear Agnes complaining about something. He rolled his eyes and looked back at Gabrielle. She was so pretty, he thought. And nice, too. He wondered why she wasn’t married. Gramma said she really was—just not in the traditional way, like mama and papa. He wasn’t sure what that meant, exactly, but he knew that Aunt Gabrielle was happy in her life with Xena. He knew that Xena was happy, too—and gramma said that’s all that really mattered.
Daimon loved gramma. Papa said that when he and Xena were kids, she would always let them stay up late on Solstice Eve. They would eat a whole basket of dumplings and drink hot cider, and gramma would tell them stories until they fell asleep on the furs they had piled in front of the big fireplace. Gramma always made dumplings for Solstice, since it was Xena’s birthday—and they were her favorite. Now, Gabrielle made them for her, too.
Gabrielle lifted the last pan of dumplings off the table and turned to slide it into the open brick oven. Then she pulled out a stool and sat down next to Daimon.
She pushed the big mixing bowl toward him. “Want to lick the sides of this before we clean up?”
He sat up on his stool and eagerly ran his index finger around the rim. The pomegranate mixture was sweet and spicy. Gabrielle always teased that it was a lot like Xena. In his mind’s eye, he could see Xena rolling her eyes as Gabrielle said this, before snagging another one of the warm pastries from a tray and sneaking out the back door of the kitchen.
“So,” Aunt Gabrielle began in a soft voice, “sometimes when Senticles gets into a pickle because of things like big snowstorms, he calls on special helpers like Xena or Cyrene to help him make sure that all his toys get delivered to good children everywhere.” She leaned closer to Daimon and whispered, “That’s where Xena is tonight.”
Daimon’s eyes grew wide. “Xena is helping Senticles deliver toys?”
Gabrielle put a finger to his lips. “Shhhh. You have to be quiet and not tell anyone. Otherwise, it will ruin the surprise and spoil the magic.”
He thought about that. “Agnes doesn’t believe in Senticles. She says it’s not possible for one old man to deliver toys to children all over Greece in one night.”
“Agnes is right—sometimes it isn’t possible. And that’s when he has a special helper—a Secret Senticles.”
“Wow. And that’s Xena?”
Gabrielle nodded. “Sometimes it is. And maybe it will be tonight. But we won’t know for sure until tomorrow morning.”
He was confused. “How will we know?”
“If you get up and have presents, then it means that Secret Senticles was here.”
“And that means that Xena will be back tomorrow?” he asked, with a hopeful expression.
Gabrielle reached out a hand and pushed his dark hair back away from his forehead. “I don’t know, Daimon. I hope so.”
He thought about that. “You love her a lot, don’t you?”
She laughed. “Yes. I do.”
He nodded. “So does Agnes. She says she wants to be just like her when she grows up. I don’t think she will be, though.”
“Because Xena is really tall and Agnes is really short. Plus Xena is really nice—and Agnes is mean.”
“Daimon. Your sister isn’t mean. She’s just…your sister. Sometimes, they get impatient. My sister, Lila was like that with me, too. But it didn’t mean she didn’t care about me.”
“I guess.” He shrugged. “She’s still really short, though.”
Gabrielle smiled. “That is true.” She pushed back her stool and stood up. “Trust me, Daimon. You keep being a good little boy, and obey your mama and papa—and you go to bed early tonight and watch out the window of your room. And I just bet you’ll see Senticles—headed toward the inn with a big bag of toys.”
“You really think so?”
“Cross my heart.”
That was hours ago, and Daimon felt like he’d been watching the window for several moons. The only thing he could see outside was snow. Snow and more snow. The road to the stable was all covered-over, and there were no fresh footprints. No sign of Senticles. No sign of Xena. No sign of anybody or anything. Just snow.
Agnes was sound asleep. Her heavy breathing was the only noise in the quiet room. His own eyelids kept drooping. It was getting harder and harder to stay awake. He wondered how long he’d been sitting there?
This is crazy, he thought. He’s not coming. Agnes was right.
But Aunt Gabrielle was so sure—and she never lies.
He looked over at his softly snoring sister. Unlike you.
In the distance, he heard a muffled, thudding sound. He sat up straighter and pressed his face to the glass. Movement. There was some kind of movement near the woodshed. He could barely make it out. But a dark shape was bobbing and moving slowly toward the porch that wrapped around the front of the inn. He squinted as it drew closer. It was a man…a very short man—wrapped up in a long, red coat that looked sizes too large for his diminutive frame. He had a dark hat pulled down over his head and ears, and his face was hidden behind a long scarf. He had a large bag slung over his left shoulder, and a tall staff in his right hand. It looked like one of the big sticks the Amazons all carried, but he wasn’t sure about that. The short man was using the stick to keep his footing as he trudged toward the porch from the shed with his bulging bag of…toys?
Senticles! It has to be Senticles! Daimon was beside himself with excitement.
Just as the small toymaker reached the porch, he stopped and stood very still—frozen in place. After a moment, he turned and faced away from the front of the inn. He stood there for several seconds, like he was listening for something. Then, he dropped both the bag and the stick on the snow-covered steps and started trudging toward the narrow road that led toward the inn’s stable.
It wasn’t long until Daimon saw another figure moving across the snowy landscape—one he recognized immediately. Nobody else moved with such confidence and grace—even in the middle of a blizzard.
Xena was back.
Xena was back and she was heading toward the inn from the stable. When she saw Senticles near the entrance to the inn, her face broke into a blinding smile. She dropped the bulging bag she was carrying, took two quick steps forward, and vaulted up on top a nearby woodpile, before somersaulting through the air to land in an explosion of snow in front of Senticles. The two of them toppled to the ground, and all Daimon could see was a hail of arms and legs and a cloud of white powder. Then, Xena was helping the small man to his feet and brushing the snow off his hat and his long red coat.
It looked like Senticles was annoyed with Xena—he gestured wildly at his snow-covered suit, and then to his own mysterious bag—and then held out his arms to take in the falling snow. Xena just shrugged and smiled, and turned around to point at the big bag she’d been lugging in from the stable. Senticles gave the big warrior a shove (not something just anyone could get away with), clearly indicating that she should go and pick it up—and be quick about it. Xena complied, and the two of them made their way back to the inn.
Once they were under the cover of the porch roof, Xena shook the snow off her long, black hair, stomped her booted feet, and pushed open the big door that led into to the inn’s common room. Lantern light from inside illuminated the two figures as they stood there regarding each other. Daimon was surprised when he saw Xena take a step forward and pull the small man into an embrace.
She must be really happy to see him, Daimon reasoned. I bet they’ve been working all night and agreed to meet up here.
Daimon had a harder time understanding what it meant when Xena pulled the scarf away from the little man’s face and bent her head to kiss him.
But Senticles didn’t seem confused by this at all. The toymaker seemed quite content to stand there, wrapped up in Xena’s long arms. They stood there on the porch with the snow swirling around them, kissing for so long that Daimon began to panic. What if Aunt Gabrielle was still awake? What if she was watching them right now from another window? He looked wildly over the porch roof, to see if there were lights in any of the upstairs windows. Thankfully, they all were dark.
And he realized that he didn’t really need to be worried. They’d been at it too long. If Aunt Gabrielle knew about it, they wouldn’t still be standing there. Senticles would look like a pile of his own sawdust.
And there was another thing: if Aunt Gabrielle ever did find out about this, then Daimon would never get another toy from Senticles on Solstice Eve—and neither would any other kid in Greece.
He stole a quick look at Agnes—to be sure she was still asleep. She was a big-time blabbermouth, and he sure didn’t want her to know about this. He looked back out the tiny window at the couple on the porch. They had finally broken apart and were now lugging their heavy bags through the open door into the inn. Once they were inside, Xena snagged the side of the door with the toe of her boot and began to push it closed. Just before it latched, Daimon saw Senticles pull the floppy hat off his head and shake it. He was surprised to see that the old man had a full head of what looked like blonde hair—but it could have just been a trick of reflected light from the big fireplace inside.
Once they had disappeared from view, he crawled back over to his side of the bed and tugged some of the covers away from Agnes. He had a lot to think about. But he knew now that when he got up tomorrow, he’d have presents for Solstice. And he knew, too, that he’d never be able to talk about what he’d witnessed tonight. Not to anyone.
He didn’t think that this was really what Aunt Gabrielle meant by Secret Senticles.
But he couldn’t do anything about that. And tomorrow, they’d have presents.
And dumplings—lots and lots of dumplings. It was going to be a good Solstice.
He smiled, before rolling over and closing his eyes.
This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental. The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, or anyone else who seems familiar from the television series Xena: Warrior Princess, all belong to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. All others are my creation. No copyright infringement is intended.