Solstice and the Amazons
How the Best Laid Plans Can Go Astray
Xena frowned. With the toe of her boot, she flicked a pebble over the edge of the abyss and listened as it bounced its way down to the fierce current some distance below. Adjusting the pack draped casually over her shoulder, she looked around for a place to sit. Spotting a reasonably sized boulder a short distance away, she walked over and settled on the hard surface. Digging around inside the pack for the apples picked earlier that morning, she pulled a pair of the juicy fruit free. Placing one on the rock beside her, she dropped the pack to the ground between her feet. Glancing back over her shoulder, she quickly spotted the familiar blond head poking up over the bushes Gabrielle was squatting behind. Smiling, she turned back around to eat the apple while waiting for her lover.
A few moments later, Gabrielle joined Xena. Smiling at the warrior, she reached for the water-skin and tucked it under her arm. Pouring a liberal amount of the liquid into her cupped hands, she briskly rubbed them clean.
“Lunch?” Xena asked, flipping the second apple to Gabrielle after she replaced the water-skin.
“Thanks. But I think I'll wait until we get across the bridge.”
“You might want to re-think that.”
Taking another bite of apple, Xena nodded toward the chasm.
Gabrielle turned around, noticing for the first time the missing rope bridge that she had been told spanned the deep canyon. Taking cautious steps closer to the rim, she searched the void. Hanging limply on the opposite wall of the gorge was what was left of the bridge; frayed ends of ropes woven from vines gave an indication as to its demise.
“Centaur poop. Now what?” She asked biting into the apple in her hand.
“Well…” Xena stood then walked to Gabrielle's side to look over the brink. “We could climb down this wall, cross the river using those boulders down there and climb up the other side.” She wasn't too surprised to see Gabrielle look at her as if she had just sprouted a second head. “Or we can walk about two leagues south where there used to be a second bridge.”
“Used to be?”
“Considering the condition of this one, chances are that one may not be any better off. So few people know about these bridges, let alone use them any more, that there's no one to care enough to make necessary repairs.”
“Hmmm. Any other choices?” Gabrielle tossed her apple core into the nothingness in front of her. Not bothering to watch it fall, she turned and walked back to retrieve the pack.
“We go back to the village we stayed in last night. Get our room at the inn back and head north over the mountains in the morning. Which is what we'll have to do anyway if the other bridge is like this one.” Xena's apple core followed Gabrielle's, only hers flew clear over the width of the canyon to the far side.
“Mountains.” Gabrielle mulled over the option. “Snow. Slush. Icicles. Cold.” She shook her head. “I vote for hoping that other bridge is still in one piece. Besides, crossing the mountains is twice as long and we'll be late getting back to Amazonia.” And she had made too many plans for that to happen.
“True.” After watching the apple core come to rest several strides beyond the opposite canyon rim, Xena turned and followed Gabrielle. “Going to be a long walk as it is.”
“Tell me again why we're not riding.” Gabrielle asked as she mentally calculated the extra distance they were now going to have to travel.
“You're afraid of horses.”
“I'm not sure afraid is the right word.”
“Okay. You don't like to be that high off the ground.”
Gabrielle thought then nodded. “That's better.”
“Ever wonder about the inconsistency of an Amazon Queen who doesn't like horses?”
“I like horses just fine, as long as I'm not on top of one of them. Besides, it's not any more inconsistent than a Warrior Princess afraid of rats.”
Xena shuddered at the unpleasant thought of the furry rodents. “I'm not afraid of them.”
“You don't like them.”
“That doesn't mean I'm afraid of them.”
“You'll do anything to avoid them.”
“Still doesn't mean I'm afraid of them.”
Solari sat on the porch steps of the hut she shared with Ephiny. It felt good just to sit after working all morning.
“I thought I might find you here.” Ephiny said as she walked up to the hut and greeted her bond mate.
“I was thinking about taking a nap.” Solari said hopefully.
“Oh, that sounds wonderful.” With tired eyes, Ephiny looked up at the mid-day sun. “But I don't have a candle mark to spare. There's so much still to do before Gabrielle arrives.”
“I was hoping we were almost finished. Pony should be back from Amphipolis soon. And Chalupa and the others should be finished decorating the feast area in another candle mark or two.”
“I just wish we knew when they were planning to get here.”
“I could put out more sentries but I'm not sure it would help since they could be coming from any direction. That must be Pony now.” Solari said when a sentry's whistle alerted the village to the approach of a member of the nation.
Moments later a pair of horses trotted through the village gate. Pony astride one and Cyrene riding the other. The pair headed directly to the Regent's hut.
“Cyrene, it is good to see you again.” Ephiny greeted her friend and the mother of the Queen's bond mate.
“I'm getting too old for long rides on horseback.” Cyrene grumbled as she dismounted. “If this wasn't so important to Gabrielle, I would have happily stayed in Amphipolis.” She rubbed her sore backside. “I'm looking forward to a long soak in one of your hot springs.” She hugged Ephiny. “You look like you could use one too.” She eyed Solari's sweaty appearance. “I'll hug you later.”
“You, me and most of the village. We've been working non stop since we received Gabrielle's scroll with her instructions for decorating the village.”
“The Queen is sure going all out this year. I wonder why?” Solari pondered.
“I think this will explain it.” Cyrene handed the Regent a scroll. “Gabrielle sent this to me with instructions that I was to make sure nothing happened to it until I put it in your hands.”
“That must be why she asked Pony to escort you here.”
“I just hope she's prepared for Xena's reaction.” Cyrene said while nodding in answer to Ephiny's statement.
Ephiny opened the scroll and read it. “Oh, boy. This is definitely going to make a certain warrior more irascible and snarky then normal.”
“Once she figures out who was behind it, she'll calm down and enjoy herself, if only for Gabrielle's sake.”
“You really think so?”
Cyrene smiled. If she knew one thing about her daughter, it was that the warrior loved her bond mate and would do anything to make her happy. Including happily enduring what the bard was secretly planning for this year's Solstice celebration. “I'm sure of it. So point me to the hot springs where I plan to enjoy a nice long soak while you take care of that.” She pointed at the scroll in Ephiny's hand.
“Well, what is it the Queen wants us to do now?” Solari asked as Pony led Cyrene to the bathing pools.
Ephiny blew out a long breath. “You're not going to like this.”
“You know, we don't have to go to Amazonia for Solstice.” Xena said as she maneuvered over another stretch of rocky ground.
“We always go to Amazonia for Solstice.” Gabrielle studied the path in front of her wondering if there was an easier way through the conundrum of rocks that seemed to make her take three sideway steps for every forward one. “Did you and Ares have a fight anywhere near here?”
“Not that I know of. Why?”
“Considering all the xenoliths, I thought maybe you had shattered a boulder over his head or something.”
“Yeah. Small rocks that result from the smashing of larger ones; usually occurring when a well known Warrior Princess fights an equally well known Greek god.”
Xena laughed. She stepped over another small boulder before returning the conversation back to her original point. “So why don't we do something different this Solstice? We could go visit mother or spend a few days in Athens where you could catch up with your bard friends.”
“They're expecting us.”
“The Amazons. They're expecting us and I'm sure Ephiny is planning a big celebration for when we get there.”
“They'll get over it.” Xena muttered as the trail began to smooth and she looked ahead spotting the rise that marked the location of the second rope bridge.
“Xe.” Gabrielle sighed at the sometimes obnoxious woman who had become her whole life. The warrior might be a kick-ass killer if the situation called for it but she was also a royal pain in the ass when it came to anything having to do with Amazons or Amazon celebrations. This year's Solstice celebration was special and she wasn't about to let Xena ruin it. Of course, the warrior would probably kill her when she found out what made it so special. But she'd handle that when the time came. Right now, she had to concentrate on getting Xena to Amazonia.
“All right.” Xena relented. It didn't take a genius to know Gabrielle had something up her sleeve – so to speak. “The bridge isn't too far now. Let's hope it's still in one piece.”
“Where?” Gabrielle quickened her steps to walk beside Xena once the rocky ground was behind them.
“Just on the other side of that rise.” Xena draped an arm across the bard's shoulders and gave them a tender squeeze. “Once we get across this gorge, we should have clear sailing to Amazonia.”
“Please, Xe…” Gabrielle felt her stomach go queasy just hearing the naval term.
“Sorry, honey.” Xena smiled sheepishly knowing how much her lover disliked being at sea. “We just need to get over the river and through the woods.” She tried a different approach.
“That's kind of catchy. I'll have to remember that.” Gabrielle repeated the phase a few times to herself. “Maybe I can use it in story.”
They walked in comfortable silence the rest of the way to the bridge. Being together was all the communication they needed at the moment.
“So far, so good.” Xena walked up to the rim of the canyon where two stout posts were buried deep into the ground. She grabbed hold of the vine rope tied to one of the posts and gave it a gentle tug. Taking a firmer grip, she yanked more forcefully. “Seems sturdy.” She stepped to the other post and repeated the process.
“Is it okay?”
“Seems to be. Of course, there's no telling what shape the other ends of the ropes are in.”
“Thanks for sharing.” Gabrielle could have gone all day without that thought being planted in her head.
“No problem.” Xena shrugged.
“Who goes first?”
Xena gave the question some careful and reflective consideration before answering. Normally, she would take the lead but after seeing the frayed ropes on the other bridge she wasn't comfortable with the possibility that her greater weight might cause weakened ropes to unravel. And, depending on which end gave way, could leave Gabrielle on one side of the canyon and her on the other. That is, if she managed to make it to the other side. On the other hand if Gabrielle went first and the ropes broke, the bard could end up in the middle of no man's land and Xena might not be able to do anything to save her.
“We go together.”
“Is that wise?”
An eyebrow slowly rose as the warrior turned to scowl at the bard.
“I'm not questioning your strategy.” Gabrielle reached up, lovingly patting the warrior's cheek. “So drop that eyebrow. It's just that usually, we cross these one at a time.”
“I think, considering the circumstances, we should do this together.”
Gabrielle took a long look at the rope bridge. It looked sound but she knew as well as anyone that looks can be deceiving. She stepped closer to Xena and wrapped her arms around the warrior. “Are you sure? We could go back to that village. I'm sure we could find someone willing to sell us a couple of horses.”
Xena leaned down, placing a kiss on the top of Gabrielle's head. “I thought you were in a hurry to get to Amazonia.”
“Not that big of a hurry.” She sighed when strong arms encircled her and held her tight.
“Let's give it a try. You go first and I'll be right behind you. If something happens, grab on to me and don't let go.”
Gabrielle nodded but did not release her hold on the warrior. She needed a few more moments before she'd be ready to let go. She sighed when she felt Xena's arms increase the pressure of their embrace.
“Is that the biggest tree you could find?” Ephiny's mouth contorted with the question as she gazed along the length of the pine tree behind Solari.
“Any bigger and it would have had to drag us back to the village.” The exhausted woman signaled a rest break to the Amazons who had helped her haul the tree from where it had stood in the forest. “Where do you plan on putting it anyway? It's too big to stand up in any of the huts.” She asked as the other women shrugged out of the harness they used to move the behemoth.
“It has to be big in order to do what the Queen wants. And it goes right in the middle of the square.” Ephiny heard the groans and glowered at the grumbling Amazons. From where they stood at the village gate, they would have to drag the tree another hundred steps. “That is where the Queen said to put it.”
“I know where I'd like to put it.” Solari mumbled and was instantly sorry she had when she saw the look on her lover's face. “All right.” She quickly added. “You heard. Now get over there and get a hole dug so we can brace this tree in it. And make sure it's deep. We don't want it falling and taking half the village with it.”
“You are in so much trouble.” Chalupa sidled up to Solari as her mate stormed away, her anger clearly exhibited by her short, deliberate steps.
“Tell me about it.”
“I've got an extra cot in my hut if you should be in need of a place to spend the night.”
“Don't make me hurt you.” The cantankerous Amazon glared at her friend. “Go make sure they dig a deep enough hole. I think I better go make peace.”
Chalupa grinned as Solari trotted after Ephiny. She could tell by the slump of the warrior's shoulders that she was not looking forward to what she was about to have to do. “There is something to be said about being single.” She laughed as she walked over to where the other Amazons were working.
Gabrielle gingerly stepped up to the start of the rope bridge and took a deep breath.
The bridge consisted of no more than three thick cords made from vines braided together and stretched taut from one side of the canyon to the other. One rope was for walking on while the other two were used to maintain balance during the crossing.
“Just keep moving unless you hear different from me.” Xena coaxed the bard. “I'll be right behind you.”
Gabrielle nodded. She reached out placing a hand on each of the hold ropes and gave them a stern tug. She knew the warrior had already tested the strength of the vines but she wanted to assure herself that they were strong enough to bear their combined weight.
“And don't look down.”
Gabrielle nodded again. If she thought the ground was a long way down when sitting on top of a horse, she was sure she wouldn't be happy in seeing how far it was to the river that rushed along the bottom of the chasm. “I'm ready.” She said, her shaky voice betraying the confidence she was trying to project.
“Take it slow and keep moving.” Xena moved close to Gabrielle. When the bard placed a booted foot on the rope, hers was immediately behind it.
The women inched their way across the bridge, Xena pressed against Gabrielle's back. To anyone watching from a distance, it would have appeared that a single person was moving along the ropes.
Gabrielle kept her eyes glued to the far side of the canyon. As the posts anchoring the opposite end of the ropes grew nearer, her trepidation lessened and her steps grew longer.
“Easy.” Xena reminded the bard. “Slow is better. Don't want this thing to start swinging.”
Gabrielle swallowed hard. She pulled back her front foot, placing it on the rope only half of the step she had first intended. Ten more steps and she would reach the end.
Xena felt the tension on one of the hold ropes ease. Anyone else would have missed it but her heightened senses knew the slight vibration for what it was. “Faster.”
“Don't argue. Move!”
Gabrielle did as she was told.
Seven…. Six…. Five….
“Let go of the ropes!”
One moment Gabrielle was tightly gripping the ropes and the next she was flying through the air. The posts she had been moving toward disappeared under her and she landed with a thud several feet past them. “What in Hades?” She sat up rubbing a sore spot on her hip, her back to the canyon. “That's going to bruise. Xena, did you have to do that?”
“Seem to make sense at the time.”
“What did you say? You're mumbling.” Gabrielle turned to look behind her where she fully expected to see the warrior. “Xena?” She saw nothing but vacant ground, her mind slowly registering the consequences of her lover not being in sight. She leaped to her feet and ran to the edge of the canyon wall. “XENA.”
“I'm right here.”
Xena was hanging by one arm. After lobbing Gabrielle to safety, she had just managed to wrap her left wrist around a rope. When the vines ripped apart, she could do nothing but hang on and hope for the best. Even as she slammed into the canyon wall, she conceded it was a lucky day. The ropes had frayed at the opposite end of the bridge leaving her hanging from a cord still firmly attached to its post.
Gabrielle took a single tentative step back.
“Gabrielle, would you please move back.” Xena growled, wanting to avoid a new calamity. The last thing she needed was the bard hovering at the edge of the cliff where she would insist on trying to help and could end up tumbling head over heels into the river below.
The bard leapt backward several feet.
“Thank you. Now stay there.” With the way clear of bard, Xena started to pull herself upward. The distance wasn't that far and it didn't take but a few moments before she crawled over the lip of the canyon wall to safety. “That was a doozy of a ride.” She grimaced, looking over her shoulder at what could have been.
“Are you okay?” Gabrielle wanted to rush to her lover's side but she stayed put, unsure if she should move or not.
“Nothing broken. I think.” Xena pushed herself upright. “How about you?”
“I'm going to have a nasty bruise on my butt.”
“Want me to kiss it and make it better?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle giggled girlishly at the lecherous look on her lover's face. “But not here.”
“Darn.” Xena moved to Gabrielle, gathering her into open arms. “You sure you're okay?”
“Yeah. But you could have given me some warning.”
“Sorry. There wasn't time.”
“How about you? That cliff must have hurt.” Gabrielle pushed back just enough to look at the face she loved. She was surprised at the lack of any cuts or bruises.
“Took most of the impact on my shoulder. It's going to look pretty bad by morning.”
“Let's find a place to camp and lick our wounds.”
“Is that an offer?” Xena waggled her eyebrows.
“If you want it to be.”
“I want.” The warrior took Gabrielle's hand and led her away from the canyon. “I definitely want.”
“We're supposed to do what?” Solari scratched her head at the bizarre instructions she had just received. “Ephiny, I love you but are you sure you haven't taken a knocker to the head?”
“It's all right here.” Ephiny spread the Queen's parchment out on the table in front of her. “Gabrielle drew it exactly as she wants it done.”
Solari questioned again how she had ended up in charge of making sure her Queen's new instructions were carried out. This year's Solstice preparations were rapidly tuning into a major fiasco and she wondered how much umbrage the young Queen would take if all her wishes weren't carried out.
“Solari, why are you making this difficult? Gabrielle is not going to be happy if she gets here and we don't have this done. And you know what happens if Gabrielle is not happy.”
Guess that answers that question. “I'm not being difficult on purpose. But I honestly don't know how we can do what Gabrielle wants. I've never seen anything like this done before. Have you?”
“No. All right? No. But there must be a way to do it.”
“Hey, we're ready to raise the tree. What's the hold up?” Chalupa warily poked her head into the Regent's hut.
“Come here.” Solari waved the Amazon into the room. “We're supposed to do this with that tree.” Solari jabbed a finger at the parchment.
Chalupa was flabbergasted at what she saw drawn on the parchment. “You're kidding.”
“That's what I keep asking.”
“It would take a god to get that done.”
“Unfortunately, we don't have one of those.” Ephiny sighed dejectedly. “Please, Sol, can't you just figure out a way.”
“Come on. Let's see if anyone has any ideas.” Solari snatched the parchment off the table on her way out of the hut.
“How cold do you think it will get tonight?” Gabrielle looked up at the sky, silently praying that the dark clouds weren't carrying any snow.
“Shouldn't be too cold. Why?”
“I was wondering how much firewood to gather.” The bard dropped her load of dried sticks and branches close to where the warrior was building their campfire.
“That should be plenty for now. Why don't you get take it easy and rest that hip. I'll go find us some supper and pick up more wood along the way.”
“I'm okay.” Gabrielle rubbed her hip. It has started to ache not long after they left the canyon. “Your shoulder is in worse shape.” She could easily see the ugly purple bruise even in the fading light of dusk. “You go find supper. I'll get our bedroll laid out and get another armful of branches. There's a fallen tree just over there so it won't take me long.” She said before the warrior could object. “Depending on what you find to eat, I'll rub that shoulder while supper is cooking or after we eat. Deal?”
“Deal. if…” Xena grimaced as she rotated the stiff shoulder in an effort to ease the battered tissue and aching underlying muscles. “You let me rub that hip for you.”
“Deal.” Gabrielle agreed. “Now go while there's still enough light to see.”
“Gabrielle.” Xena shook her head in disbelief then smiled to let her lover know she wasn't really upset.
“I know, ol' great warrior. You can see in the blackest of nights. But I can't and I don't want to have to worry about you. So get going. And bring back lots because I'm starved.” She called after the warrior who had already disappeared into the forest that surrounded their campsite.
“When aren't you?” The question echoed out of the trees.
Gabrielle heard the laughter following the taunt. “I'll make you pay for that, warrior.” She muttered as she turned to the tasks at hand.
“I'm counting on it.”
The words floated on the evening air and Gabrielle could do nothing but shake her head and grin.
“It can't be done.”
“We have to figure out a way. And soon.” Solari's chin was resting on her fists, her elbows braced on her knees.
Chalupa and a couple dozen other Amazons sat around her in similar dejected positions, frustration clearly written on their faces. The entire group was sprawled alongside the pine tree that still rested on its side. The women were hesitant to raise it until they had solved the problem facing them, afraid they might have to lower it again depending on the solution they came up with.
“Any ideas?” Ephiny asked as she approached the group.
“Not yet.” The hapless warrior replied without lifting her chin off her fists. “We have thought of everything and nothing works. What was Gabrielle thinking?”
“She was thinking that we'd come through for her.” Ephiny knelt beside her bond mate. “Just like she's come through for us when we needed her.” There was no anger or insult behind her words and all who heard the comment accepted it for the truism it was.
“I don't think we can do it.”
“We'll figure out a way.” Ephiny said softly. “But first, we need to get this tree into place. Then call it a night. Tomorrow we'll start fresh and I'll bet we have no trouble at all in doing what Queen Gabrielle wants done.”
“I'm glad you think so.”
“I do. Now everybody up. Let's get this tree into that hole you worked so hard to dig.” Ephiny said to all of the Amazons. Then turning back to Solari, she lowered her voice. “It is deep enough, isn't it?”
“By the gods, I certainly hope so.” Solari pushed herself to her feet then pulled Ephiny up. After a quick hug she turned and walked away, calling out orders as she went.
“I certainly hope so too.” Ephiny murmured.
“That was some tasty rabbit tonight.” Xena was straddling Gabrielle, her strong hands gently massaging a very bruised but shapely hip.
“I bought some spices in the village yesterday. Our supply was getting pretty low. Want to know what they were?”
“No. That's your department. All I know is that was some real tasty rabbit.” The warrior smacked her lips playfully.
“You're welcome.” Gabrielle giggled but her mood quickly changed when nimble fingers brushed an extremely tender spot. “Ow.” She cried out.
“Sorry. I'll be more careful.”
“I have a better idea.” Gabrielle rolled over and patted Xena's thigh to get her to move.
“And that would be?” Xena asked slipping to the bard's side to sit impatiently.
Gabrielle scooted under the blankets of their bedroll and held them open. “Get that bodacious bod of yours in here. I'm exhausted and you know I can't sleep if you're not holding me.”
“Bodacious, huh. Just want does that mean?”
“It means you. Now come on.”
“You're a willful little wench when you want to be.” Xena said as she joined her lover.
“And don't you forget it.” Gabrielle snuggled close against the warrior's naked body.
“Or what?” Xena rolled onto her side resting on an elbow, the fingers on her other hand played lazily around Gabrielle's navel.
“Let me think about that.” Gabrielle smiled at her lover. “You know if you keep that up, you're going to put me to sleep.”
“I know.” Xena said, half mischievously and half apologetically. “You're tired and I'm too sore to do much else.”
“That's okay, sweetheart. I would much rather we make love when we're both at our optimum. And tonight we are definitely not that. Lay down.”
Xena settled beside her lover, wrapping an arm around Gabrielle when she rested her head on her good shoulder.
“The stars are beautiful tonight.” Gabrielle gazed up at the blanket of stars that sparkled above them. Surprisingly, the clouds had disappeared about the same time they had finished their evening meal.
“They sure are.”
“That group looks like a unicorn.”
“More like a hippo or, maybe, an elephant, if you ask me.”
Before Gabrielle could comment, a flash of light caught her eye. “Look, Xe, a falling star.” She watched the star blaze across the sky and disappear before she asked, “did you make a wish?”
“What was it?”
“Did you know that some astronomer came up with the idea of calling those asteroids?”
“What's an astronomer?” Gabrielle knew Xena had purposely changed the subject. She would let it pass for now.
“Someone who studies stars.”
“Why study the stars?”
“Why not?” She gently hooked a finger under Gabrielle's chin. Tilting the bard's face upward, she leaned down placing a tender kiss on waiting lips. “Go to sleep, sweetheart.”
“I love you, Xe.”
“I love you, too.”
Gabrielle snuggled closer to the warrior, content to listen to the beating heart under her ear. As the beats slowed, she knew the warrior was relaxing and would soon be asleep. “What was your wish?” she asked softly.
“What was yours?”
“That what we have will last forever.”
“Would you like that?”
Xena pulled the bard to lie on top of her and tucked the blankets in tight around their bodies. “Everlasting love with you would be better than going to the Elysian Fields, my love.”
“Yes. For me, it would be paradise.”
“Well?” Solari looked at Chalupa.
“It's the best idea we've come up with so far.”
“It seems to make sense.”
The women had spent the better part of the morning brainstorming ideas for taking their queen's plans from a drawing on a piece of parchment to reality.
“I say we give it a try.”
“Let's go for it.”
“May Artemis smile on us today.” Ephiny sighed as she watched her bond mate and Chalupa walk out of the hut and towards the enormous pine tree now standing upright in the center of the village square. “Or Gabrielle will kill us.”
Solari was finishing up the work on the tree. The sun had set and she was working by torchlight. “Will you hold that thing steady.” She growled at Pony as the flickering light moved away from the spot where she was working.
“I'm trying.” Pony whined. She shifted the torch from one hand to the other then repositioned it while Solari waited. “Can't you work any faster? This thing is heavy and I've been holding it forever.”
“I would have been done a candle mark ago if you could keep the light where I'm trying to see. Now, hold it steady. Gabrielle and Xena could be here anytime and I need to get this finished.”
“They're here.” Pony said excitedly, her head snapping up as a whistle announced the Queen's impending arrival at the village gate. The touch she was holding swung erratically as she momentarily forgot what she was doing.
“Son of a Bacchae.” Solori snapped when the flame came within a finger width of the fuse. “Watch what you're doing Pony.”
“Sorry.” Pony turned her attention back to Solari. “But it's been a long time since the Queen was in the village.”
“They'll be here for the next few moon cycles.” Solari muttered. “You'll have plenty of time for catching up. I'm almost done. Concentrate.”
Pony turned again to watch the area around the gate of the village, hoping for a glimpse of the returning queen. She thought she was holding the torch steady but she wasn't. The flame inched closer to the combustible tree, its progress unnoticed by either of the Amazons.
“Xe?” Gabrielle asked as she and Xena broke from the trees. Since they had entered Amazon territory, she had heard the scouts' whistles sending word of their approach to the village. She could now see the lit torches around the village and hear the rhythmic sound as drums being beat and knew she was about to be the recipient of another royal welcome, an aspect of being the Amazon Queen that she would never get used to.
“You never did tell me what you wished for the other night.”
“I wished for a nice quiet Solstice. One where you and I can lay in front of a nice warm fire making love all day and night.”
“That would be nice.”
“Yes, it would.”
They walked through the open gate of the village.
“Xena.” The cry came out of nowhere.
“Mother?” Suspicious, Xena turned to look at her lover. She knew Gabrielle had been planning some kind of happening for their arrival at the village and she hoped it wasn't anything more than a surprise visit from Cyrene.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to respond to the warrior's questioning look when a chorus of shouts erupted in the village.
“Run for cover!”
“Hit the dirt!”
Xena turned to see what the commotion was about.
Lines of fire sped up the trunk of a gigantic pine tree, every few finger lengths the flames set off mini explosions. When the flames reached the top of the tree, they encircled a large disk in the shape of the warrior's chakrum which began to spin. Faster and faster the disk spun, tossing off sparks as it picked up speed. The flames then raced back down the tree toward a series of letters resting in the branches.
In the top most branches, a larger than life effigy of the warrior stood holding a wooden sword that was shooting fire. Below it, the words HAPPY BIRTHDAY XENA lit up in a burst of flame that turned night into day. A shower of multi-colored sparks rained down on the village setting thatch roofs on fire.
“What in Hades!” Xena raised her arms to protect herself from the falling embers. The flashes of flame and the choking smoke brought to mind the descriptions of dragons she'd heard in her travels to the far east.
Gabrielle stood frozen in place, arms hanging limply at her sides and mouth agape, staring at her carefully thought out surprise literally going up in smoke.
A thick, black, oily cloud engulfed the pine tree and began spreading out over the village. The spinning chakrum at the top of the tree broke loose and burst through of the smoke. It hit the ground moving at an incredible speed and raced directly toward the bard and warrior.
The women stepped apart allowing the burning chakrum to roll between them. Bewildered eyes followed its progress as it continued out of the village and sped toward the forest, setting the grass on fire as it raced along. Then they turned back to face the donnybrook that had taken over the village.
The smoke was starting to clear as the flames burned out. Amazons were emerging from the hiding places that had afforded them some protection from the conflagration and bucket brigades were forming to save the burning huts. But before a single bucket could be filled with water, loud popping and hissing noises started coming from the pine tree. All eyes turned to watch in shock as the tree started to lean.
“Run.” Someone screamed.
“It's going to fall.”
The tree swayed. Hesitated. Swayed some more. Then slowly tipped over to the side until it was halfway between upright and fallen. Then it stopped, its branches quivering.
“I know your Amazons aren't too fond of me.” Xena commented on the sight before her. “But don't you think that's a little much.”
Gabrielle couldn't speak. For once in her life she was speechless as she stood and stared.
The pine was leaning at a dangerous angle. The effigy had fallen loose of its perch and hung from a rope around its neck, twisting slowly on the evening breeze. The sword had come loose from the figure's hand and was impaled in the effigy's breast plate. In the branches, still sputtering flames were the letters H…..I..T……XE….
Gabrielle groaned, looked at her smirking companion and groaned again. “EPHINY!!” She bellowed for her regent.
“Somehow, I'm not surprised to find you in the middle of all this.” Xena stood beside the smoldering tree looking down at two brown eyes looking back at her.
“You planning on helping me out of here or are you going to stand there laughing all night?” Solari asked, looking up through the branches that had trapped her when the tree fell to the side.
“I should leave you. It might actually be safer than what Gabrielle has planned for you.”
“What she does won't compare to what Ephiny is going to do.”
“Oh, I wouldn't be too concerned about that.” Xena said casually. She pulled her sword from the scabbard on her back and began to cut away branches to clear an escape route for Solari. “By the time Gabrielle's done with her, she won't have too much energy left for you. How'd you end up under there, anyway?”
“I was finishing up the preparations when you and Gabrielle arrived. Pony was supposed to be helping me by holding a torch so I could see. But she was more interested in seeing Gabrielle.”
“She was, was she?” Xena made a mental note to find out just how interested the Amazon was in her bond mate.
“She wasn't paying attention and the torch got too close to the tree. Fire started shooting out all over the place. I hit the dirt and Pony took off. Next thing I know, the tree is falling over and I'm trapped under it.”
“You were probably better off under there than the rest of the village.” Xena reached a hand down and helped Solari to her feet.
“Centaur poop.” The Amazon sighed as saw the damage for the first time.
“Now I know where Gabrielle picked that up.”
“What?” Solari asked absently.
“Never mind. Come on. Gabrielle will want to know you're okay before she skins you alive.”
“She's really mad?”
“She's not happy. But I'm sure she's calmed down by now. Just what did you use to light all that up anyway? I haven't seen an inferno like that since I was in the Chin.”
“Pine sap and coal ash. Wasn't expecting it to be quite that explosive. I think we may have gone a little overboard and used a little too much.”
“Ya think?” Xena chuckled.
“You know, this is really all Gabrielle's fault.”
“How do you figure?”
“She told us what she wanted but she never said how we were supposed to do it.”
“Hmm. Guess that proves one thing.”
“Proves I'm the brains.”
“I don't think I'll tell her that.”
“Probably not a good idea.”
As they walked across the village to the Queen's hut, Solari accessed the damage. Amazons scurried about carrying buckets of water to put out fires. Several huts had blackened roofs, many still smoking. A group of women was working on extinguishing the grass fire started by the flaming chakrum while another group struggled to jack up the pine to keep it from falling completely to the ground and smashing several huts.
“What a mess.” Solari shook her head at Pony and Chalupa's bumbling attempts to cut down the Xena effigy.
Xena pulled her chakrum free and let it fly. It sliced through the rope, bounced off a post, ricocheted off the side of a drum and returned to her hand. No longer tethered to the tree, the effigy dropped pinning the Amazons to the ground beneath it. “You can say that again.” She said, replacing the chakrum.
“Guess I better go face the Queen. Happy birthday, by the way.”
“Oh, that reminds me. MOTHER!!”
“You have to admit it was different.” Gabrielle said as she undressed. She and Xena were in the Queen's hut preparing for bed after a very long evening spent putting out fires and fussing at Amazons.
“Yes, it was certainly that.” Xena paused in the process of removing her own clothes to watch her lover.
“It sure wasn't what I envisioned though. That's what I get for expecting a bunch of Amazons to do one simple thing.” Gabrielle groused as she dumped her ash covered clothes in a bucket to soak.
“I guess so.”
“What's that supposed to mean? You don't think my Amazons can do anything do you?”
“Sweetheart.” Xena reached out, pulling the irritated bard into her lap. “They did the best they could under the circumstances.” She smiled at the annoyed queen.
“But they ruined your birthday.”
“No, they didn't. You have to admit that even with the rhubarb they created it was an effusive and unique display.”
Gabrielle glared at the warrior but she couldn't stop the corners of her lips from twitching. “You're just making this up to make me feel better.”
“No, I'm not. If I was just making it up, I would have said it was fantastical display of unlimited dimensions that easily overpowered the brain.”
“Yeah, that definitely sounds like something you'd say.” Gabrielle tried to remain angry but was having a difficult time of it because of the fingers seeking out particularly ticklish spots on her bare skin. “I wanted it to be special for you.” She pouted between giggles.
“It was special.”
“It was not.”
“Sweetheart, it was special. In fact, it was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious special.”
“Now I know you made that up.”
“Yes, I did but I'm not making this up.” Xena leaned down to capture pouting but luscious lips. “I love you. And I love that you wanted to do something special for my birthday.”
“Which part of that statement are you questioning?”
“Oh, I know you love me. I love you too. But are you really okay with the rest?”
“Very okay.” She pressed their lips together for another loving kiss. “Except…”
“You do know that I'm going to kill mother for telling you.”
“Gonna try and talk me out of it?”
“Come here, warrior.” Gabrielle scooted off Xena's lap and stretched out on the bed. “Maybe I can come up with a way to make you forget all about it.”
“You know how much I love a challenge.” Xena straddled the bard. “But first, I've got something for you.” She pulled Gabrielle up to sit in front of her. “It's not much but…” Pulling a necklace out of a leather pouch, she slipped it over Gabrielle's head.
Gabrielle lifted the piece of jewelry up so she could see it better. Hanging from the delicate links of a gold chain was a chakrum the size of her thumb. Attached to the chakrum and crossing it at an angle was a feather quill. “It's beautiful.”
“So are you. Happy Solstice, Gabrielle.”
“Happy Solstice, Xena. And Happy Birthday.”
Total words used = 59 (at least 1 from each letter)
Amazons = 4 or 5 if you count Gabrielle
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