A Solstice Song
I traverse every quarter of the earth on an everlasting journey; caressing all with my touch and yet feeling nothing. There is no voice I have not carried upon my transparent wings; no song of grievous desolation or effusive joy I have not heard; no entity I haven't seen sparkle into being only to ultimately give over to the opacity of death. I am not the truth; yet the truisms of all souls are laid bare to me. I am found in the whispers winding through the forest and rippling the stream's gurgling surface and in the roaring of the towering cyclone racing across the fields. I am outside of all of nature's jurisprudence, for I am a law unto myself. I am omnipotent. I am the wind. Listen close, for I too have a song to sing.
Every once in a great while a being makes an impression, even on me. From her very conception, the result of a licentious tryst between mortal and god, her spark shown bright for all to see. I watched her grow up; mature into the dangerous beauty she ultimately became; and watched her fall under the spell of he who made her. Our paths crossed time and again, never in the same place and never for long, and each time I noted the changes in her; the changes in her song. She became the ultimate weapon for darkness; as fierce a killer as the world had ever known, an insatiable parasite of the human race, ever hungering for more. She was a noxious force in her own right.
Yet, for all the wealth and power she wielded, her soul was empty; a meaningless chalice of lost potential. After a while, her star dimmed and all but faded out. And when I next passed her by, she had reached her lowest point and was near death. It is at this point, that my tale truly begins…on a solstice eve so very long ago.
The cave was nestled inside a towering cliff, providing a bastion for those sheltered within. The walls amplified the muted hiss and rumble of the restless ocean outside their craggy confines. At the furthest edge of the sandy shoreline, evening laid claim over the already shadowed forest; deepening the gloom and muting sounds further, as daylight reluctantly relinquished its hold over reclusive woodland inhabitants and allowed peace to reign. A small fire crackled merrily at the cave's mouth, defying the impending darkness with its cheerful flames, while a tall, raven-haired woman sat pensively sharpening a dully gleaming sword and occasionally glancing over the large mass at her side. Save for the rhythmic scrape of the honing stone, silence prevailed everywhere but in her mind.
Once again, she found herself at the end of a day without meaning, after nearly another year of days without meaning. Life was a seemingly unresolved conundrum with her hanging in limbo somewhere in no-man's land; clueless and searching for her purpose in a bible not yet written.
Her hand stilled as she tilted her head up and regarded the twinkling stars barely visible through the salt-laden mist outside the mouth of her rocky shelter. Two years ago found her beaten and battered, both physically and emotionally. Betrayed, disgraced by her army and left for dead, she'd crawled away intending to find a quiet spot to lie down and vacate this world. Images haunted her of the lives she'd ruined over the years, when she roamed the land with her army as a cruel and heartless warlord…Ares' so-called “Favored One.” Exhausted from trying to escape the nightmares of her past and tired of the existence she'd created for herself, she was prepared to pay her debt in Tartarus. In fact, she welcomed it, as the torment she'd face there couldn't be any worse than what she was enduring now.
But the Fates would have it that the cave she found for her final resting place was not vacant. In it, she found a mortally injured dragon; his wing and chest wickedly savaged and oozing gangrenous material. Rendered practically comatose by fever, he was nearly as dead as she. And yet, in that chance moment of meeting, her malaise was set aside and replaced by awe and concern for the fantastical beast sprawled before her.
She spent the next summer and fall in hiding; tending their wounds, and hunting and gathering for their meager daily subsistence. And somewhere, during that murky space of time where sanity and delirium melded together, healing was granted and an unlikely friendship formed between the two solitary beings, whose ultimate surrender to the inevitable opened pathways to a future together. Dreams, long forgotten and held at bay by the waking realities of existence, began to tentatively reemerge as vague shadows, shifting and swirling in a misty waltz awaiting daylight's release.
Now, at the eve of yet another Solstice, she was restless and unfulfilled, a vague sense of anticipation making her edgy and irascible. She vented her frustration at the dragon; but he urged her to patience, saying that her time had not yet come, before closing his eyes to nap. The warrior put her sword away and settled down for the evening, curled up against the warm dragon hide.
Some songs are easier to carry than others. This woman's song was the heaviest yet, for her sadness was a self-inflicted happenstance; based on choices she made along her life's path, that now weighed her down immeasurably. She didn't know that this was not the path her life was destined to take. She never imagined that there were other roads open to her…even now. So, as some songs are better sung by single voices, this song is better for having multiple parts. Soon there will come another voice to add luster to this somber dirge and mayhap, change the tune altogether.
Gabrielle strained her eyes trying to see the path in the darkening gloom as she struggled to keep running through the forest. Every noise sent her darting forward like a rabid rabbit; fear lending temporary strength to feet no longer nimble, whilst underlying vines did their best to tangle in her long skirt and trip her. Terror of being recaptured, tortured, and perhaps even killed kept her moving, hoping to stumble across someone, anyone, who could help her and the sister she left behind.
She and Lila, along with several other village kids, were out picking gourds, herbs, and other such things in preparation of the upcoming Solstice celebrations. They were having so much fun, laughing and sharing the latest juicy village gossip, when a gang of men suddenly sprang out of the bushes at them. Their so-called leader, Cornelius, was a hillbilly with beer for blood and as cantankerous as a gnome with new treasure. He had his men restrain the rest of the group quickly, while looking around and acting jumpy, as if expecting outside interference. The fumes roiling off him made her queasy when he placed the manacles around her wrists.
Well, that and stark raving fear, she thought reflectively, as she stumbled on legs quickly turning to jelly.
Lucky for her, he was so busy leering at her sister's knockers that he hadn't noticed how loosely she was restrained and she was able to wiggle her hands free after they stopped for the night. Unfortunately for the rest, their shackles were too tight to get free, and they finally convinced her to run for help and leave them there; which torqued her off to no end.
So now she found herself running for her life and theirs as well, in an unfamiliar and unforgiving forest in the dark, with nothing more than the tattered clothes on her back and a meager shroud of hope to surround her.
The forest abruptly gave way and she burst through the underbrush and found herself falling onto a beach in front of a cave, in a spectacular wipeout of vine tangled human and tree limbs. The cave's startled occupants stared flabbergasted at her hapless form writhing snared on the ground.
“What in all the seven levels of Hades, are you doing…here?”
The irritated query erupted from the bristling warrior with a drawn sword and standing in front of a very tall and equally fierce-looking dragon, whose eyes appeared opaque in the dim light.
She froze in place, chest heaving, and jaws hanging open as she gazed in disbelief at the mystical beast towering above her. Her eyes shifted to the warrior as she twisted around and tried to free herself from the sharp vegetation entangling her body.
“I'm sorry I startled you! Please! Can you help me? My sister and some others were captured by some horrible men. I was too, but I was able to get away. I think they are going to be sold down river as slaves if I can't get help to rescue them. I've been running for hours. Please say you can help me!” The plea was punctuated by the tears that coursed down her face; her breath coming in shuttering gasps and hiccups, testimony to the truth of her efforts and lending credence to her bizarre tale.
“I am NOT startled,” was the angry reply. “You were so loud, we heard you coming a mile away…thought we were going to get trampled by a herd of elephants or something!”
“Sorry” was the muted reply. “Will you help me please?”
The warrior observed her unwelcome guest as she subtly continued to try to remove herself from the foliage that ensnared her; her red-gold hair garnished with a liberal sprinkling of leaves and her girlish features all but obscured by dirt and twigs. She shifted her eyes upwards as her dragon, Rastafarian, lowered his head and snorted softly in the direction of the young woman.
‘Yeah, I know. What do you think? Should we try to help her?' She mentally asked her tall reptilian friend.
He tilted his head and looked down at the woman, studying her as his unique indigo eyes sparkled and whirled in curious revolution.
‘My friend,' intoned his deep mental voice, ‘this is what you've been waiting for. Her name is Gabrielle and it is she who you seek. She is courageous, strong of character, and warm of heart. Together, with your might and her empathy, you will change the world!'
The warrior whirled and stared at the dragon.
‘Huh? What do you mean; ‘it is she who I seek'? I wasn't looking for anyone! Especially, not some kid! Not to mention the ‘changing the world' part!'
‘Yes you were…you just didn't know it yet!' was the smug response.
‘Really!' Came the snarky retort from the warrior. ‘And you know this how?'
The dragon lifted up on his haunches, turned his head, and expectorated voluminously, liberally covering the nearby tree with a doozy of a loogie; effusively expressing his umbrage at his friend's comment non-verbally.
The warrior laughingly raised her hands in surrender, ‘Okay, okay! I give!' She gave her mischievous friend a sly look and said, ‘I think you just have a soft spot for luscious women!'
‘Uh huh, and that would explain you how?'
‘Pest! I keep tellin' you, I'm bodacious, not luscious!' She smirked as the dragon snorted in amusement and then turned to the young woman in front of her.
“Well, Gabrielle, you're in luck! This Diablo here, suggests I help you out. So, let me get his harness on and we'll see what we can do about your little calamity!” The warrior gave her dragon a wry slap on the shoulder and went fireside to pack up their gear, as he watched Gabrielle's red-rimmed eyes open wide.
“How did you know my name?” She blurted the question out, hands raised to her mouth in surprise.
“Oh, Rasta told me!” The warrior replied as she slung the harness over the dragon's neck ridges and carefully cinched it down.
“Who told you my name?”
“Oh. He did.” She gave the dragon an affectionate slap on the neck.
“But I thought you said his name was ‘Diablo'?” The young woman looked thoroughly confused.
“Well, that's my nickname for him. His name is actually Rastafarian, Rasta for short.”
“Oh! How did he know my name? And what's yours?”
“Dragons have many skills; like me. One of their skills is reading people's minds; unlike me. And my name is Xena.”
“Oh. Wow! That's cool that he can do that, I guess. That saves time on the introductions, huh? And Xena…that's a rather unusual name isn't it?”
The warrior grunted as she clipped her scabbard onto her back and slid her sword into it; twitching her shoulders to settle her armor and weapons more comfortably.
“Yeah, I guess. I was named for my hometown…Xenia.”
Xena tamped out the fire and said, “Okay, this is how we're going to do this…you step up on his leg there and climb onto his neck. Keep your feet away from his wings too! I'm going to climb up behind you, so that if I draw my sword, I don't skewer you accidentally. Got it? Great! Move it, so we can get this little fiasco over with!”
Xena watched intently as the girl scrambled to do her bidding, and then she nimbly slid behind her on Rastafarian's broad neck ridge.
“Let's go Rasta. Let's go send these ruffians into the Abyss of Hades!”
The dragon took several running steps and launched himself upwards with powerful sweeps of his leathery wings and quickly gained optimum flying height over the sea, as the young woman squeaked in surprise.
Xena ignored her outburst and asked, “Gabrielle, which way is the slavers' campsite?”
“I'm not sure, but I think it's that way,” the girl pointed back over her shoulder. “They knocked us out and when I came to, I didn't recognize where we were. All I know is that we were just on the outskirts of the forest.”
Gabrielle scowled over her shoulder at the warrior.
“Sorry. I didn't have time to make a map!”
Xena sighed and the dragon snorted. ‘Great, just what I needed… another smart-ass to put up with!'
Xena looked over her shoulder in the direction her passenger had pointed and squinted to see the geometry of the forest edge in the faint light.
‘Okay, let's glide over that way and skirt the forest edge. Maybe we'll get lucky and they'll have a fire going.'
‘Right-O! And I'll see what I can sense as well, mo cara!'
They slowly banked and glided over the landscape on silent wings, peering in the darkness for signs of the slavers camp.
After a few candlemarks of searching, the dragon veered sharply and hovered.
‘Look there, off my left side. There are four men and several other bodies clustered together opposite of them. I think we found them!' He exclaimed.
‘Ah yes, I see the glow of the fire. Good work! Is there somewhere you can land safely nearby? I don't want you or her to get hurt and there doesn't seem to be space for us to maneuver together. This is one of those times I wished you could shape change into a horse!'
‘Yes. Off to the north is a hill I can land behind. I will keep her company.'
“Okay, we're going to land and I'm going over to their camp. You stay here with Rasta until I call. Got it?”
Gabrielle nodded her head and looked down at the dragon warily.
“He's not…um…hungry is he?”
“What?” Xena exclaimed, as Rastafarian rumbled softly and lurched in mid air.
“Well, aren't dragons supposed to be man eating? I'd hate to think I came all this way to become his dinner.”
“First off…you're not a man, so by that definition, you're in luck! No dinner plans are arranged! However, you are a woman and I don't know…he might not be able to keep his licentious streak in check without me protect you, so you might become dessert instead!” Xena replied sarcastically.
Gabrielle turned her upper body around to look at Xena with indignant eyes and raised an eyebrow.
“That's not funny!”
“Neither is insulting my friend here!”
“Oh.” Gabrielle turned around and tentatively patted the dragon's neck. “Sorry, Rastafarian. I didn't mean to insult you...I guess I let popular opinion overrule common sense there for a moment. Forgive me, please.”
‘Apology accepted, little one,' rumbled the dragon's voice in her mind. ‘Besides, you have nothing to fear from me. I had a good dinner of warlord only yesterday, so I'm good for another couple of days at least!' Rastafarian's voice was laced with sarcasm.
Gabrielle gasped and then giggled just a little. “You're funny!”
Xena leaned over and said, “Can we cut the chit chat and get on with this? I've got better things to do than hang about in the air and listen to you two magpies!”
Rastafarian snorted and abruptly dove forward, startling both of his passengers and garnering a slap on the back from the warrior for his efforts.
The dragon glided down and spreading his wings, braked to a stop, and settled just behind the mound he had spotted from the air.
Xena slid off his back and helped Gabrielle down as well.
“Shh. Stay here and for Gods' sake, be quiet!”
Gabrielle and Rastafarian nodded together, as Xena slipped off into the darkness.
Xena peered into the gloom, her ears sensitive to the night sounds around her. Luckily, the world around her hadn't taken notice of their arrival, as the insects and nocturnal residents were seemingly going about their business uninterrupted, for which she was grateful. She didn't want the slavers to get any warning and perhaps hurt their prisoners. She slunk around to the rear of the camp to where three of the men were sprawled out in limp abandon after apparently overindulging in a bit of brandy. The fourth had his back to her and was watching his captives with restless movements.
One of the captive girls saw her and her eyes widened as her mouth opened to sound the alarm.
Xena raised her finger to her lips in a mute demand for silence. When the girl closed her mouth in compliance, she tapped the guard on the shoulder with that finger and as he turned around, she slugged him in the face with the hand holding her drawn sword. He keeled over soundlessly and she stepped over him toward the other men, the first of whom she quickly conked on the head in similar fashion. She soundly slapped the last man across the face several times, watching intently as he shook his head in bleary confusion.
“Ah, awake finally! Welcome to the party! Now…” Xena quickly jabbed him in the neck with the fingers of both hands, before continuing, “I have cut off the blood flow to your tater-tot sized brain. You have 30 seconds to entertain me with your story, before you die! So, tell me your plans for these kids!”
Blood oozed from the slaver's nose as he struggled to breathe.
“We're to meet the buyers here in t'mornin'.”
“Good boy! Say ‘good night' now.”
Xena released the pinch on his neck and then knocked him out. She quickly looked around for rope and while she was tying up the quartet of unconscious slavers, she whispered to the girl, “Is that all of them?”
The girl nodded wordlessly.
Xena turned and whistled softly.
‘All clear, Rasta. Bring the girl and c'mon over!'
Xena turned and sheathing her sword, pulled her knife out of her boot and cut the kids' bindings loose. Gabrielle came rushing into the camp just as she finished, with the dragon following awkwardly on foot behind.
“Lila!” she exclaimed as she rushed to embrace the girl.
“Gabrielle! You did it! You found help!” Lila clung sobbing to her sister.
“Yeah, I did. Are you all right? I'm sorry I took so long, I got here as soon as I could!”
Lila finally pulled back slightly from Gabrielle, gaping over her shoulder at the dragon.
“We're fine! Hungry, but okay! Gods, Gabrielle. Is that really a dragon? And who is that woman? Where'd you find her…er…them? And where are we? How are we going to get home?” Lila questioned quickly.
“Whoa! Slow down, Lila!” Gabrielle chuckled. “Yes, that is really a dragon and he flew us here. She is Xena and I found them in a cave by the ocean. Other than that, I have no idea where we are…maybe she does. I'll ask in a bit.”
“Gabrielle, they were supposed to meet some other guys here tomorrow and get rid of us then.”
“Uh oh! We need to get away from here before those guys show up!” Gabrielle said, her brow furrowed with worry.
“I don't totally disagree with you.” Xena interjected. “However, this is too good an opportunity for us to pass up, I think! Well…perhaps, not you specifically…more like me actually…but you catch my drift, right? Right! Anyway, I think we'll find a safe spot for y'all to hide out in and then Rasta and I will see what we can do about putting those jacks out of business for good.” Xena rubbed her hands together in anticipation.
She glanced over at her dragon; her eyes the shade of melting icicles, and arched an eyebrow. ‘What do you think, my friend? Think we can lay a trap and take out some trash?'
The dragon's eyes whirled and sparkled in the firelight as he thought about it. ‘Yes! I think this is a grand idea. You take care of our young friends and I'll scout out the area and see where our adversaries are. Be right back!'
And before she could say ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,' he leaped into the night sky and was gone, nearly blowing over the people in the clearing with the back draft from his wings.
Xena wiped the dust from her face in disgust and turned to face the group.
“Okay, I want y'all to get yourselves some food from their rations, then settle down and try to get some rest. My dragon and I are going to come up with a plan to capture the rest of the morons these guys were going to sell y'all to. Tomorrow, we'll see about getting y'all home.”
Quiet chatter greeted this pronouncement as the villagers roamed around, pulling provisions out of the slaver's packs and setting up camp to their liking.
Xena settled against a boulder at the edge of camp, watched proceedings, and waited for Rastafarian to come back while considering her options. She definitely had to get these kids out of harms way first; then she could concentrate on dealing with the slavers.
As her mind turned over various scenarios, she became aware of how good it felt to exercise her tactical skills again. But it felt good in a way that it never had before. Before, the motivation was different…to be the best, to conquer the most, to be victorious regardless of the cost. This felt different. This felt right. This felt clean.
She was startled out of her revere by an impatient voice.
“Huh? What!” She replied testily. “I'm workin' on a plan here!”
“Oh. Well, you can keep working on that plan afterwards. Would you like some food? The boys found some knockwurst in their packs and the girls collected some cantaloupes from the fields. Unless you'd rather gnaw on rhubarb…they found some of that too!”
Xena's nose wrinkled up in disgust at the selection.
“Rhubarb? What the Hades they bring that in for? Somebody need cleaning out or something? Sheesh! No thanks, I'm fine! I'd rather have an appendectomy or an ovary removed without anesthesia than willingly eat rhubarb! Got any ice cream?”
“Well, ok…if you say so!” Gabrielle replied as she moved away from the willful warrior, who seemed to be crazier than a whacked-out wombat, and muttering about where she'd find ice cream in the middle of a forest.
Xena watched Gabrielle as she puttered around the campfire; idly admiring the way the firelight highlighted the girl's features while she organized the kids and the food preparations. She shook her head and silently chuckled over the odd assortment of edibles they had come up with. Silly kids!
Glancing up, she caught the shyly grateful looks directed her way, and was surprised at how good those made her feel. Fear, she was used to, and she'd used that fear to get her way and manipulate people for years. It was as potent a weapon as her sword and she'd mastered its use over the seasons. This however, was something new. It warmed her in a way nothing ever had before.
Hmmm. This day was just full of surprises!
‘Xena! Get to the top of the knoll with your weapons! The slavers are within easy striking distance. And they've got lots of other prisoners…mostly women and some Amazons too.' Rastafarian paused. ‘Xena…they haven't been treated well.' The dragon's tone was as heartbroken as she'd ever heard him; lending an urgency to her actions even more than his words.
Xena quickly secured her armor and weapons, her eyes seeking out Gabrielle's across the fire.
“Gabrielle,” she called tensely.
The girl stood up and met her around the fire. She looked up into Xena's face, seeing something in those coldly glittering eyes that made her shiver.
“I'm going after the slavers,” Xena said flatly. “Do any of you know anything about healing, especially treating injuries?”
“Yes, both Lila and I have some experience in treating injuries…we help our mother fix up the farmers at home.”
“Good! See what you can find around here to use for bandages and get water heating and some for drinking too. Here's my kit…have it by for when I return. I have a feeling we'll be needing it!” Xena turned and broke into a run for the mound they were camped behind.
“Xena, please be careful!”
The warrior's steps faltered just for a second, as the gentle words reached her ears. She shook her head slightly, and increased her strides up the hill. She leaped onto the dragon's back as soon as he touched down and he immediately leaped skyward.
‘How many slavers are there, Rasta?' Xena queried as she leaned forward, urging her mount on.
‘There looks to be about a dozen or so of them. But they're camped in a big open spot, so I'll be able to watch your back. Xena…this is really bad; really, really bad. Look down while I glide over the camp.'
Xena peered over her dragon's shoulder and what she saw made even her battle hardened heart tighten up. Cages were loaded on wagons and filled to capacity with women and children; some of whom were slumped against their neighbor's bodies, too sick and injured to stand up on their own. There was one empty cage, apparently set aside for the new cargo they planned to receive on the morrow. Xena's eyes teared as she saw a tiny arm flopped lifelessly through the bars. She felt the fire rise up inside her, a whitewash of fury, and she welcomed its burn, knowing that so inflamed she would be invincible.
‘Rasta! Get me down there…now!' She ordered, her mental voice anguished.
The dragon settled onto the ground and released a loud bass roar, responding to the rage emanating through his connection to the warrior.
Slavers heads' jerked around in surprise at the noise; eyes widening when they saw the dragon. Some scrambled to get out of his way, while the braver and more foolhardy leaped to engage the dark warrior.
Xena jumped from his back, issuing her own battle cry and meeting the first slaver's attack with a rush of primal joy that caused her sword to move in a blur of motion to fast to be seen. She beheaded him in a shower of blood and engaged the next opponent before his body had even hit the ground. The clash of weapons and the grunts and cries of the fighters sounded over the camp in a cacophony of dissonance, and in harsh contrast to the utter silence of the prisoners.
Rastafarian swept fighters away from the warrior's back side, cutting them down with rapier sharp claws and sweeping blows from his tail.
Xena's sword moved in a blur of fluid grace, deadly precision in every stroke, as her arm moved almost without thought; her actions honed from years of practical experience. When she saw slavers running from the battleground, she whipped her chakram off her hip and threw it sidearm after them, her sword arm never missing a stroke. She caught the whirling metal disk with nonchalant ease as it returned from its bloody arc.
And then there was silence.
Total, absolute silence.
Then Xena exhaled forcefully and shoved her hair back with a shaking, blood-covered hand, as she surveyed the litter of broken and dismembered bodies scattered around her. She slowly raised her sword, looking the part of the victorious warrior, and then dropped her hand in silence.
She looked back at the dragon resting on his haunches behind her.
‘Yes. You?' Rastafarian rumbled.
‘Perfect. That was quite a nice little donnybrook, doncha think?' She asked and sniffed reflectively as she wiped her sword off on the tunic of the nearest body. Xena stalked over to one of the wagons and peered into it. She turned in a circle and gazed mutely at the other wagons grouped around camp in disbelief, while she pondered her next course of action; taking a deep breath and slowly letting it out while she thought.
“Ok. Here's the deal! It looks like y'all are in really rough shape…too rough to make the trip to my camp on foot with any speed. And I need to get you there to help fix you up. So, here's what I'm going to do…I'm going to free those of y'all who can walk unassisted, the rest I need to stay in the cages…just until we get to my camp.” Xena had to raise her voice over the cries of protest that met her pronouncement.
“Look! I didn't risk my neck to save you, just to have you die afterwards walking back to safety! I need some drivers for the wagons. I need folks who can walk, to do just that…to make more room in the cages for those that can't keep up. I need folks to look after those who need tending in the cages too. The sooner we do that, the sooner we can get y'all the Hades out of those damned cages! Understand?” The warrior said impatiently, sweeping the prisoners with pale eyes shooting sparks like asteroids.
Silence reigned again.
“Good!” Xena strode over to a wagon.
“Stand back!” She commanded the cage's occupants gruffly as she swung her blade down and shattered the lock. She removed the broken metal clasp, opened the door and stood back.
“OK! Those who can, get out to make room. Who knows how to drive horses?”
A small chorus greeted her question and she assigned those people to a team and helping them hitch the animals up, while taking the lead wagon for herself.
‘Rasta, fly back to camp and make sure Gabrielle has things ready for us. I'll be right behind you!'
“Warrior!” A weary voice stopped her.
She turned and raised an eyebrow in question.
“There's a babe here that needs help as fast as may be. Is there anything you can do for her? Otherwise I don't think she'll make it.” A gaunt woman held the limp form in her arms, weariness and pain evident in her face.
Xena looked down at the tiny body the woman held, noting the bruises and broken limbs with dismay.
“Yeah. Give her to me.” Xena held out her arms, gently took the battered form in her embrace and turned towards the dragon.
‘Rasta, would you take her and give her to Gabrielle? And Rasta? Make a tunnel in the sky and hurry?!'
The dragon wrapped his arms around the baby and leaped into the sky without comment. Once he was airborne, he softly breathed on the tiny mite, warming her as he flew swiftly to the camp.
Xena watched him fly off and then turned to jump up into the wagon seat. From her lofty perch she scanned the group, noting those readying themselves for the trek on foot and the injured in the wagons.
“Ready? Move out!” She slapped the reins on her team's back and headed for camp.
A candlemark before dawn, the little caravan rolled noisily into the slaver's camp. Xena stopped the horses, set the wagon's brake, and jumped down from the seat. She stared around her, her tired mind not quite able to process the change in the camp. Tents had been erected and crude pallets made for those needing healer's attention. There were fires built up and villagers moving about with purposeful movements.
She raised her eyebrow…impressed in spite of herself.
She turned and walked to the end of the wagon.
“C'mon out, y'all. You're safe now.”
Xena moved over to the other wagons and freed those prisoners, while, slowly, and with widened eyes, the captives climbed down out of the wagon, many needing the assistance due to starvation and wounds.
Gabrielle came up behind Xena and gently placed a hand on her arm, flinching when the warrior whirled around with her hand raised to strike.
“Hey! Relax! It's only me!”
“Don't sneak up on me like that! I could have hurt you!”
“Look, you're about to drop. I set your gear over there. Go rest for a bit with Rastafarian. He told me about what you did, Xena. Thank you!” Soft green eyes rested on her. “I didn't get a chance to thank you for saving my sister and friends before you left again. I just wanted you to know that we really appreciated it.” Impulsively, the girl wrapped her arms around the warrior in a heartfelt hug.
Xena stood absolutely still, paralyzed by the warm feeling she felt filling her from the girl's words and hug.
Awkwardly, Xena gave the girl a stiff embrace and gently pushed her back.
“You're welcome.” She said gruffly.
“How's the baby Rasta brought back to you?” She asked quietly, expecting the worst.
“She's fine. He took good care of her.” Gabrielle replied.
“Were you able to set her broken bones ok? She's young enough, she might heal ok.” Xena asked.
Gabrielle looked at her quizzically.
“Are we talking about the same baby, Xena? She didn't have any broken bones…she was just hungry, cold, and scared. She's fine now.”
Xena turned to look at the young woman and said, “That's impossible! I saw her body myself! They had beaten the Tartarus out of her!”
Gabrielle looked puzzled and led Xena to the tent where the little girl was resting. Opening the tent flap, they quietly stepped in and Xena walked over to the pallet that held the baby. She gazed down on a face free of bruising and ran a wondering finger over the obviously whole arm curled up beside the baby.
Xena looked over at Gabrielle in total confusion. “I don't understand. What happened here? Are you a goddess or miracle worker or something?”
Surprised laughter pealed across the camp from the startled girl, bringing weary smiles to those who heard it.
“Me? A goddess? Oh that's a good one! All I did was clean and feed her, Xena. She wasn't hurt when Rastafarian brought her to me.”
Xena stared at Gabrielle, confused and her mind whirling.
What had indeed happened?
Xena emerged from her tent at midday feeling remarkably refreshed and eager to face the new day.
Today was Solstice Day.
For the first time in ages, she faced the future with a sense of purpose. Anticipation sent pleasant tingles down her spine. She wasn't sure why today was any different from any other day. She just knew it was.
And the prospect excited her.
Xena scanned the compound which is what the camp now resembled, and saw a sight that startled a snorting laugh out of her.
Rastafarian was sprawled across the ground and literally draped with children. Some of the older ones were sitting propped against him, while most of the youngsters were lying on his back, neck, and in the case of one tiny tot, spraddled on top of his head. And he didn't even look slightly perturbed; indeed, he seemed to be quite comfortable in his role as dragon couch!
‘Well, well! You've become quite the ladies man while I slept!' Xena laughed.
‘Well, someone had to cheer these mites up after all they've been through. I seemed to be the best choice,' a smirk in his tone.
Xena laughed again at her dragon's antics. ‘Good for you! How are our new charges doing?'
‘Gabrielle can catch you up on that. I'm busy!'
Xena grunted and looked around for Gabrielle and found her outside one of the far tents speaking with a red-haired woman of middling height and weight in Amazon leathers. As she watched, Gabrielle nodded her head, patted the woman on the arm and started walking towards the center of the camp. She had her head down, apparently deeply engrossed in her thoughts as she walked.
Xena waited until she was abreast of her before calling her name.
Gabrielle looked around, startled, and fastened her eyes on the warrior; who was surprised at the intensely green color of them, which hadn't been visible in the dark last night.
“Oh, hi! Sorry, I was just thinking!” Gabrielle blurted.
“So I noticed,” the warrior said dryly. “Anything I should know about?”
“Ahh…no…no!” Gabrielle blushed.
“Really? That's a lot of blush for ‘nothing'” Xena commented, surprised with the girl turned an even more alarming shade of red.
“Whoa there, Gabrielle! Keep that up and you'll pass out! Here sit down!” Xena gently pushed the girl onto the low stool in her tent and watched as she took deep breaths to calm herself down.
“Now, how are our new guests doing?”
Gabrielle looked down at the ground. “Most of them are fine. Some of the prettier girls were pretty badly used, Xena. They are ok physically, you know? But are pretty messed up emotionally. I think the best thing to do for them is to get them home as soon as possible, so they have the chance to heal there.” She hesitated and then gazed up at the warrior leaning against the center pole of the tent, her green eyes misted with unshed tears.
“Xena, thank you so much for helping those poor people out. That could have been me treated like that, or my sister. I can't thank you enough for doing what you did. That was kick-ass! You're my hero!” Gabrielle's gaze warmed as she watched Xena.
Xena shifted suddenly and grabbed the girl's chin in her hand, causing her to jerk back slightly.
“Don't call me that! I'm no freaking hero! I'm just a beat up ex-warlord who could spend the rest of this lifetime and into the next trying to payback for all the lives I've destroyed. I'm glad I was there for you, but don't get any noble ideas about me.” Xena growled roughly, her voice hoarse with emotion.
Gabrielle intently studied the warrior. Then she nodded slightly at whatever she saw in her face.
“You can say that, Xena. But you're not the same person you were last night when I fell into your camp. I see a difference in you. I can feel it.” She placed a gentle hand on the warrior's arm. “Please tell me you can feel it too?”
“I don't know what you're talking about. Yeah, I feel good…finally got some sleep…nothing more.” Xena released her hold on the girl, turned and stood looking out the tent flap.
“Who was that woman you were talking to? We need to pack this caravan up and head out of here.”
“Oh yeah! That was Tarin and she's an Amazon who was captured along with some of her tribe on the other side of the mountains. She said she'd escort the villagers from that area back to their villages, if you wanted. I told her I'd mention it to you.”
“Ok, that sounds like a plan. We can figure out how many folks that is and what kind of shape they're in and maybe issue them one or two of the wagons to help make the trip easier. That'll free me up to take you and your lot home and I'll continue on from there.”
Gabrielle took a deep breath. “Xena…after you take us home, I want to stay with you.”
“What? Are you out of your mind? I don't want to be responsible for anyone else! I'm not a babysitter!” Xena growled, her eyebrows a dark line across her forehead.
“Well, that's good! ‘Cuz I'm not a baby who needs sitting! But I want to see the world and learn of things outside my small village. I won't be any trouble…and maybe I can help you out. I'm a good healer and since you're a fighter, you probably need healing sometimes? Right? Please, let me go with you?” Her voice was pleading.
“No!” Xena shouted the answer over her shoulder as she strode out of the tent and across the camp to Rastafarian.
‘What are you yelling for, Xena?' Rastafarian's deep voice echoed in her mind.
‘That screwball girl wants to come with us!'
‘So? Why does that have your knickers in a twist?'
‘So? What do you mean…so? I'm not a babysitter! I'm a mean, selfish, killer, who doesn't have time for screwball tag-a-long kids! How hard is that to understand?' Xena put her hands on her hips in exasperation.
‘Xena, I think you are overreacting. And you are obviously forgetting something I told you before…you need this girl in your life. She is part of your destiny…and has been all your life. The problem is that you walked down the wrong path before and it's only now that your paths have crossed.' The dragon carefully turned his head, mindful of the sleeping tot on top of it, and blew gently on the warrior.
‘What? You think you're an oracle now? What crap is this?'
‘You have been wondering what to do with yourself ever since you got your health back. Well, she is the one to help you figure that out. Her honesty, caring, and even her innocence is what you need to see the world from new eyes. She will show you the way and you could do worse for a companion.'
As Xena thought about his words, a shout broke through her reverie. The red-headed Amazon stalked across the camp toward her. Xena merely raised an eyebrow and stood her ground.
“Xena, has Gabrielle told you of my plan to take these other villagers back over the mountains?”
“Yes, she mentioned it. I think it's a great idea.”
The Amazon nodded. “Good. I also want to take those slavers with me and make them pay restitution for what they did. Gabrielle thinks they'll only get tried by a kangaroo court in her village, which would be pointless. My tribe will make them pay for sure.”
“Those men didn't kidnap your people. The ones who did are headed to down the river Styx already. Is that truly justice?”
“Actually Xena, it was folks just like them that captured and sold us to the guys you rescued us from. As far as I'm concerned, it's a fair trade. They should be punished and we'll make sure they pay for their actions.”
“Fine! Deal with them. No sweat off my brow. When are y'all going to be ready to leave?”
“We'll head out at first light. That gives the injured a little more time to heal and us to put together a few provisions.”
“Take all but one of the wagons and teams. I'll use the other one for Gabrielle's lot. That'll help make the trip easier for them, even if it slows you down some.”
“Thanks. And my sisters and I owe you a debt for what you've done for us. We won't forget! Happy Solstice, Xena.” She thrust out her arm and gripped Xena's forearm strongly.
“Happy Solstice, also.” Xena looked into the Amazon's amber eyes and saw something that warmed the depths of her heart and started to melt the icicles which bound it. Gratitude…something she had not seen any of in her adult life. It felt good…very good.
She turned on her heel and went to her tent to ponder new beginnings. When she opened the tent flap, Xena was startled to see Gabrielle still seated on the stool, head in her hands and her entire demeanor a picture of dejection.
Xena studied the girl and was surprised at how strongly this stranger's feelings affected her. She thought back on how the villager's shy glances, full of awe and yet lacking fear had made her feel. And that Amazon's gratitude had felt great too. And all of those things…those feelings…were because this girl stumbled through the forest to find her and had the guts to ask for help…her help. She was able to experience these new sensations because of Gabrielle. And yet, this girl was crying in her tent, because she wouldn't let her come with her…and most surprising of all…it bothered her.
Xena cleared her throat softly. Gabrielle's head jerked up, her eyes red and swollen from sobbing.
“Oh! Sorry, I'm sure you want your privacy. Let me get out of here…”
Her voice trailed off as Xena got down on one knee before her and she watched, startled, as Xena reached up and gently wiped a tear off her apple-red cheek with her thumb.
“Gabrielle, I'm…um…sorry I made you cry. And, I really don't know why you want to hang around me, because I'm a mean ole ex-warlord, with more guts than sense and the odds are strong that you're going to spend a lot of time crying because of me. However, and I'm sure we're both probably going to regret this, if you really want to tag along with me and Rasta, I'll do my best to try to keep you whole…at least physically.” Xena stopped and cleared her throat again…and waited.
Gabrielle searched her face intently and then without warning, threw herself at the warrior, wrapping her arms around her neck enthusiastically, and saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Xena awkwardly patted the girl on the back and reflected on how nice this hug, from this strange little girl, felt.
“Happy Solstice, Xena! And thank you, so much, for everything!” Gabrielle stepped back from the warrior.
Xena gazed down at the brilliantly sparkling eyes and replied, “Happy Solstice, Gabrielle. And you are welcome…very, very welcome!”
Rastafarian echoed the warrior's words with a loud bellow from outside, ‘Happy Solstice, everyone!'
And so this Solstice Song is complete. Solstice is the time for new beginnings and promises new life with each lengthening day. And on this particular Solstice, a lost soul was given the chance for rebirth and a new song emerged. One that is more harmonious and pleasant for me to carry. There will be more songs to come; each sounding more beautiful than the one before, as this duet learns to sing together. Let this be a lesson to all: Destiny will not be denied. And balance will prevail. Dark must be balanced with light; evil with good. And so this marks the end of this Solstice Song and the beginning of a legend. Happy Solstice all!
Total word count: 93 out of 120
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