How The Witch Stole Solstice
DISCLAIMERS: Xena and Gabrielle… yadda yadda yadda
THANKS: To my two little Senticles’ helpers, Poe and Al, who told me to get lost while they plotted and planned…. My sandpit has grown and I now need an earth mover.
© December 2007
* * * * *
My tale begins thus, in the dark of midnight,
Cransus had heard this tale downstairs in the inn and was keen to write it down before his memory started playing tricks on him. Not that he was too worried. The tall story had probably been stretched and misinterpreted many times over before reaching his ears.
Tiredness crept over him, forcing him to put down his writing implement and seek solace in sleep. Pain reminded him that time was his enemy and he was glad to feel the pain ease as he relaxed on his pallet. His mind turned to the tale he wanted to weave. Even with the most outrageous of tall stories there was always a kernel of truth…
“Gabrielle, do you think this is a good idea?”
“Sure. You know these women love to have parties, almost as much as they enjoy fighting.” The blonde held up her hand. “Now before you say it, this party isn’t going to be violence-related.”
“I know you don’t think of it as violence, just as they don’t. It’s more…” Gabrielle’s head tilted slightly as she searched for a word that wouldn’t get a negative reaction. “…a game to you. You think of a good fight as fun.”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing, if you happen to be you.” She smiled sweetly at her partner.
“Now, if we’re talking games how about we go back to bed and… mfpfffhhheerme….”
“You can say it, you know. I do know what you’re talking about.”
“I tried to say it but it wouldn’t come out.”
“Wouldn’t come…. out? Try saying it again.”
‘Twas a full silent night in the Amazon village,
“Do you hear what I hear? Who the Hades said that?”
“So you can say Hades and I can’t say mfpfffhhheerme….? Oh &%#$*!!!!!”
“If I didn’t know better I would think that you are being censored.”
“Censored? Me?” Xena angrily looked up at the sky. “I don’t like being censored…,” she growled menacingly.
With dreams about presents and parties being planned.
“Winter wonderland? You mean snow? Are you nuts? I think the Gods have finally snapped.”
“Who are you?” Gabrielle wanted to get to the bottom of the mystery.
“Doctor Zeus,” came the reply.
“See? I told you so. Divine insanity.”
“Insanity or no, he must have been eavesdropping. How else would he know about the Solstice celebrations?”
“Maybe he thinks it’s a stupid idea like I do.”
“Just because it’s your birthday and you want to forget about it doesn’t mean that everybody else has to be grumpy also.”
“I told you, just find me a good fight and I’ll be happy.”
“So I’m not good enough?” Gabrielle had great trouble holding back the hurt in her voice.
“Sure you are. You’re at the top of the list, but if I’m being censored for even suggesting it, what hope have I got of actually doing it?”
“She’s right, you know. This is a children’s tale,” Zeus interceded.
“Tale? Did you say tale?” That piqued Gabrielle’s interest.
“That’s what the looney god said,” Xena mumbled. She raised her voice to the sky, “So as soon as this ‘tale’ as you call it is over we can go back to the adult stuff, right?” Xena wanted to make sure of the rules before she embarked on any action. It looked like her ‘fun’ was put on hold for the moment.
“I have my tale to tell.”
“Then get on with it. I have an itch that needs to be scratched.” As Xena’s hand reached for Gabrielle’s rear the scene dissolved into nothingness. “Hey, I was enjoying that!”
Not everyone though was happy that day
“And who is this lost soul that’s going to get knocked into next week… errrr, in need of my help?”
“Xeennaaa.” Her partner was in way too much of a hurry.
On the night she was born the stars were aligned
“Yeah yeah, I know who you are. King of the Gods and all that.”
“I am not the King of the Gods. I am not a god at all.”
“Then who the Hades are you?” Not a God? The only thing that had stopped her from retaliating was the thought that she could end up a pile of ash. “Impersonating a God is asking for trouble.” She grabbed the blonde’s hand and led her away towards their hut. “C’mon Gabrielle.”
With all the excitement and laughter around,
“And stop that rhyming! It’s driving me nuts!”
Was Solstice about who could make the best presents?
The rhyming was forgotten for the moment. “Hey! Where did everyone go?” The chirping of crickets broke the silence of the night, except for his own voice of course. “Hello?” Doctor Zeus’s tale was not going well.
Little Cyane couldn’t sleep. While tomorrow was winter solstice it was not the same this year. Something was missing. Something important. She sensed the presence of her mother next to her but the air shifted with movement in the hut. Be brave... be brave. The two words somehow didn’t offer the calm she was looking for. The hut door closed and the air settled.
If her mother knew about what she was about to do she would have been paddled good, but she couldn’t help herself. She had to follow. Slowly she rose, tip-toeing out of her abode into the night air. The cold took her breath away and she was tempted to go back inside for her cloak but a flicker of motion caught her eye. The dark figure was leaving the compound and edging into the forest.
Now little Cyane was taught to take care
“Shhhh.” The child looked up annoyed, not once questioning the voice from the sky.
“Sorry…,” came the whispered reply.
The shadowy figure moved in and out of the darkened woods, covering the distance with knowledgeable skill. Cyane tried to follow as closely as she could but scrub and uneven ground made her step falter. As the child rounded a large tree she didn’t see the hole, her tiny body slipping down the grade to the bottom. “Help!”
The shadow stopped for a moment listening for the plaintive cry.
“Oh…zvcjbc#%*^%!” What she wanted to say could only be heard in her head. Silent footsteps retraced the path back to the hole, her vacant eyes trying to look into the blackness.
“Hello? Is someone there?” The tiny voice emanating from the darkness sounded so pitiful that it tugged at the black heart beating in the phantom’s chest.
“Ohhh ggrreeeaaatt!” The deep dark voice spoke with a finality that was not going to be discussed.
“I’m stuck. Can you help me?” The cold intensified through the soil surrounding her. “It’s getting really cold out here.”
“Where’s your cloak?”
“Are you my mother?”
“Just common sense.”
Unafraid Cyane answered, “I bet you don’t have one.”
“Don’t start with me, kid.”
“My name is Cyane.”
“I don’t need to know your name.” The witch tried to keep the contact distant. First the kid tells you her name and the next thing you’re starting to care. “Here…”
With that final word a vine touched the young girl’s shoulder. Moments later she was bodily hauled out of the ground. “Hey! Wait!” As she asked the shadow lingered. “Who are you?” She suspected but wanted to hear it from the phantom’s mouth.
“Thank you, witch, for saving me.”
“Go home, kid.”
Although she had vowed to keep her heart small
“Ohhh, shut up…” The witch was not amused.
The sun had barely risen when the hut door opened. “I don’t know how you did it.”
“Really? I have to show you again?” Xena was in a good mood, as much from last night’s exercise as from doing it without the storyteller’s knowledge.
“Nnoooo! I mean without ‘you know who’ finding out.”
“Sneaky is my middle name, Gabrielle. Especially when it comes to my ‘fun’, as you call it.”
“And sneaky is one of those special skills you have?”
“Oh yeah. Right up there at number three.”
“And what about what we did last night?”
“Honey, that’s number one.”
“Ahem…” The clearing of a heavenly throat drew the two women from their banter.
“Sorry…” Gabrielle’s skin darkened in embarrassment.
“Back to my tale…” Doctor Zeus had listened with some disgust to the conversation.
“Whatever you say, old man.” Xena just wished he would get to the point.
“Cyane? She’s not hurt, is she? Hey! What happened? What’s she got to do with this?”
“Don’t start! Just tell me.”
“I’m trying to, woman! Let me speak!” Maybe involving Xena in this tale was not such a good idea.
Little Cyane had awakened this day
Before his rhyme had finished Xena grabbed Gabrielle’s hand and strode over to a nearby hut, rapping on the wall energetically.
“Chilapa! You up?”
“Well, she is now…,” Gabrielle murmured. “Did you ever think that maybe there’s others out there that like to sleep in past sunrise?”
“Not for long. Hey, lazy butt! Get out here!”
“Of all the insufferable, mean-spirited #%()$ #$%) &# #$ #$(#&$ ???????”
“What… do… you… want? It’s….,” the dark warrior looked up at the sky, “…. barely dawn for Zeus’s sake!”
Chilapa stuck her head back inside her hut. “Sleeping. Where she should be.”
“Get her up.”
“I’ll do no such thing. She’s sleeping soundly and I’ll keep her that way.”
“Something happened last night and she knows what it is.”
“Go ask the child…,” the ghostly voice floated across the courtyard.
“Stay out of this, Doctor Doo Doo.”
“Who’s that?” Chilapa had one foot shifting backwards through the door to make a quick exit into her hut.
“Some deranged storyteller who decided we just had to be in his story.”
“I think it’s great.”
“Well, you would.” Xena smiled benevolently at her partner, that sickly sweet patronizing smile dismissing her opinion.
“So it’s okay for you to have fun and I’m not allowed?”
“If your fun is my fun, sure that’s okay.” Xena blithely ignored the gathering storm clouds on her partner’s brow.
“Well, joy to the world! Let’s all do what you want!” Gabrielle’s arms flailed around in the air as she vented.
“What did I do now?”
“Xena, sometimes you can be a real bonehead.”
“A… bone… head?” Menace touched every syllable. Xena was incensed but not willing to acknowledge Gabrielle’s grievances.
A sleepy nine year-old emerged, wiping her drooping eyes.
“What child is this?”
“By the Gods! Pay attention, will ya? Cyane is there…” Xena waved her finger in the direction of the sleepy child, “…and we three kings are here.”
“You are not three kings…” the disembodied voice sounded annoyed.
The raven-haired warrior rolled her eyes. “Do you care?”
If her secret was ever revealed to the clan
“What’s he doing now?”
“Oh no, he’s rhyming again.”
“Well, I think it sounds…. festive.” Considering she was outnumbered, Gabrielle tried to rise to Doctor Zeus’s defense. He was no Sappho but at least he was trying.
“Gabrielle, he is making about as much noise as a little drummer boy banging his drum in the middle of the night while shepherds watched their flocks. Noisy, Gabrielle. Loud and monotonous.”
“Hey! I’m still here! I can hear you!” Would this tale ever end?
“And your point…?”
“Xena, stop being so rude. What is your problem? Your armor too tight? Cutting off the circulation to your brain?”
“I don’t like my life being directed by a voice from the sky.”
“It’s all to do with the censorship, isn’t it?”
“….Maybe….” The tall warrior grumpily replied, one foot idly doodling in the dust.
“C’mon.” The anger bled away. How could she be mad at the dark-haired vixen who held her heart in the palm of her very large and capable hand? “Let’s solve this and get back to our lives.”
Piercing blue eyes dropped to look at her smaller companion. “Okay,” she whispered. She turned to the child. “So, Cyane, what were you up to last night?”
“I don’t think so. Doctor Deuce said something about leaving the village?”
“Cyyannneeee…,” Chilapa warned. “Now tell the truth.”
“What about the witch?”
“She was here. In the village. In our home.”
“That… that… was in here? She was in here?” Chilapa waved a frantic finger at the room.
“Uh huh.” A nod accompanied the words. “Then she left.”
Gabrielle lowered herself to one knee to leave her eye to eye with the child. “And what did you do? Did you follow her?”
“Uh huh. She went that way.” Cyane pointed towards the forest.
“What’s that way?”
Chilapa thought for a moment. “Not a lot that way. A small farming community about four leagues away.”
There’s a path that goes on till you get to a glen
“Okkaayyy. And how does that stupid clue help us? There’s no Bethel’hem around here.”
Well, okay, substitute one town for another
“Sister? You mean the witch is an Amazon?”
Ephiny strode across the courtyard towards the gathered crowd. “What’s going on? Why aren’t you helping us deck the halls or dig a firepit? Solstice doesn’t decorate itself.”
Ephiny’s shadow, Eponin, piped in. “Yeah, I don’t want to get stuck with all the jobs like last time.”
Now the witch had long harbored a simmering hate
“Witch? Nearly the right word…” The weapons master muttered her opinion of the woman in question. “She was nuts.”
“When we were all younger she had a strange…”
“…predilection.” It was the only word that applied as far as Ephiny was concerned.
“Nah. It had nothing to do with her tongue. She liked afoih$%)&$%afl…” Eponin stopped and tried again. “…afoih$%)&$%afl… Oh #$%(&$%*&%%^(!”
“We’re being neutered here.” And that’s what Xena felt it was like.
“What Eponin is trying to say is that she liked…” Ephiny held her breath for the censorship, “… leather accessories. Even as a kid she enjoyed inflicting pain. You know what I mean?” Hazel eyes bore into the inquiring sapphire ones trying to convey the full meaning of what she wanted to say. A sly smile touched Xena’s countenance. Oh yeah, she knew.
“Oh?” Meanwhile pale eyebrows wrinkled up in confusion. “Oohhhhh.” Gabrielle finally got it. “And she left because of that?”
“All the kids made fun of her. Well, all but one. Lanara rather liked her. But the teasing became too much and she couldn’t stay.”
One by one the village awoke, emerging into a new day. “Hey, where’s my rug?” “My knife’s missing!” “Yeah, I had some… errr…. things… they’re gone too!” “All the presents are gone!”
“You mean that witch stole them?”
“Told you it was nearly right, and she certainly is one. Stealing presents from kids.”
“Sounds more like the adults are the ones doing the complaining.”
“I don’t mind,” Cyane piped in. Was this a sign?
“You don’t mind?” Eponin was surprised. “We can’t have Solstice without presents.”
“But isn’t Solstice about family?” The devastating logic of Cyane rendered everyone silent. “About what we already have?”
“She’s right, you know.” Gabrielle smiled. There was nothing like adults being lectured by a nine year-old.
“What does she know? We’ve always celebrated Solstice with presents and I, for one, am not about to change tradition. What about this b…witch?”
“Yeah, let’s go get them back.” “She’s only one person.” “I want justice.”
“This is going to mean trouble.” Gabrielle prodded her partner urgently.
“I think you’re right. We better get there first.” The pair slipped away from the crowd of arguing Amazons, heading down the pathway indicated by the child.
So the Warrior Princess then left them with care
“Shut up, will ya?” she hissed. “We’re trying to be all quiet and you’re babbling away.”
“Hey…!” One of the Amazons called out and all heads turned as one to see them trotting down the path.
Xena looked over her shoulder. “Oh *&^*!” Their exit had been witnessed and now the race was on. “Now look what you’ve done…” she muttered hastily. Xena set an easy pace, taking heed of Gabrielle’s shorter stature.
“Do… <puff>… you know where you… <puff> you’re going?”
“Nope. I was hoping you did.” Barely out of breath, the warrior gave her bard a smart-a**ed smile.
“V… very f… funny.” It was at this moment Gabrielle wished she had Xena’s long legs… and maybe a tie to stop her long strawberry blonde hair from flicking her in the face every time she took a step.
“Okay, Doctor Clueless. If you’re writing the story, how far is there to go?”
Lo! Before them the path was not clear and quite straight
“Yeah, yeah…” Xena picked up the pace when she heard the rustle of undergrowth some way behind them.
“So… what’s the… <puff> plan?”
“No plan? You always have a plan.”
“It would help to know what I’m facing first.” Bright blue eyes cast a gaze to the sky, asking silently for some information. “Well? Give me a clue here?” The only sound heard was Gabrielle’s breathing and the yells of far-off angry Amazons. “I couldn’t shut him up before, now he’s a Greek statue.”
“Maybe he’s expecting us to figure it out.”
“Or write his story for him…” Xena grumpily replied. The warrior increased her pace slightly, listening carefully for any distress from her companion. “Probably some hack…”
“Well, he’s not as good as you.”
“Me? You think I’m good?”
“Sure. Your stories are great.”
“You never told me that before.” The blonde’s chest puffed up with pride. The one opinion that mattered to her had told her she was a good bard.
“Yeah, well. Just… just don’t tell the others, okay? I got a reputation to keep.”
“Xena, believe me when I say you have nothing to worry about in that arena.” She wanted to say more but it was taking precious air from her lungs.
“Arena… now you’re talkin’!”
“Can’t you think of anything but fighting?”
“I thought I answered that last night.”
“Yeah, you did…”
And the duo they ran just as fast as they could,
“You take all the fun out of life…”
Just when she was about to curse Doctor Zeus for leading them astray Xena stopped in her tracks.
The bard tried to pull up in time but a moment of inattentiveness sent her crashing into a very hard body covered in armor stopped in front of her. “Hey! Give me some warning will ya!”
Gabrielle looked around. It was just another piece of forest, like every other piece of forest they had passed in the last half a mark. “Okkkayyy.”
“For a bard you sure aren’t very observant.”
“One moment you sing my praises and the next…” One strong finger tipped up her head towards the sky. “Ohhhh….” Gabrielle tried to find some moral high ground. “Well… well being so close to the ground I tend to not look up.”
Before them stood a tree. A very large tree. A very large tree with various items hanging high above them from the branch tips… leather gauntlets, armor, helmets, knives, bows, feathers and finery. It was like a Solstice vendor’s cart. Every imaginable Amazon wish list item was on display to the open air.
“How did she do that?”
Hey nonny nonny no…
“Non…ny?” Xena was ready to abuse the storyteller until her brain recognized a female voice. “Oh no.”
“I think this rhyming thing is catching.” Xena’s eyes floated skyward, her keen vision sliding up the tree trunk until it found its quarry. High above fearlessly sat the witch, her legs dangling over a branch.
“I have to admit, the tree is rather pretty with everyone’s presents on it.”
“That’s not the point.” Ephiny joined in the conversation, her face was slightly flushed from the brisk exercise. “She stole them and we want them back.”
“Well, you stole my life!” The witch’s voice came nearer as she climbed down closer to the ground.
“She can have my present.” All eyes riveted on the small child standing in their midst. “Happy Solstice, witch.” Cyane smiled benevolently as she delivered her verbal wish.
“Why? I don’t understand.”
“Yeah, we don’t understand either.” Eponin growled, swiping her sweaty brow with an equally sweaty hand.
“I’m happy, even without a present.”
Gabrielle smiled. Cyane had found the hidden pearl of wisdom. What surprised her most was when that same child began to sing. It was quiet at first, more from shyness than an unwillingness to sing.
“What is she doing?”
“She’s doing back flips, Eponin,” Xena replied sarcastically, “What do you think she’s doing?”
“She’s making fools of all of you.”
“Shut up, Velasca. Let the girl sing.” Eponin had always liked the tune. It was a silly child’s song that had been in her memory for as long as she could remember.
“When a child is born her mother sings it to her, Gabrielle. It’s as much about her heritage and tradition as it is a soothing lullaby.” Solari filled in the details for the confused bard. “We are very big on tradition.”
“You can say that again,” Xena sighed. “You’ve stopped evolving because of tradition.”
“Hey!” The weapons master moved forward. “Leave our tradition alone!”
Despite the building argument Cyane continued her tune, steadily growing in confidence and volume. Her mother came to her aid, lending her own voice to the dainty little tune that held so many memories.
And so the tune continued, each stanza adding one more voice to the choir, until the hunting party encircled the tree trunk and lifted their voices in harmony. The anger was forgotten, washed away by haunting memories of childhood. So many lessons learned on the knee of an Elder or an experienced warrior. One’s first bow, the first hunting party and the first kill. It all came flooding back in glorious color and each warrior in turn smiled as a favorite memory surfaced.
Velasca felt sorry for them but she couldn’t stop her own memories flooding her mind. Most were unpleasant but there was a kernel or two of good ones that bloomed in her heart. She looked down to find Lanara staring back at her. It was the first time in ten years that her look was returned.
A shy smile touched the young woman’s face as she looked up at the haggard witch. Despite the unkempt hair and gaunt face her childhood friend was still in there, locked up tight inside against the hurt that had driven her away. At that moment, Lanara knew that her feelings hadn’t changed over the years. No, that was wrong. They had. Her emotions had matured and nurtured by the memories she held so dear.
Velasca couldn’t help herself as her body moved downwards towards the ground. She had lived too long in solitude. The tune hauntingly filled those empty places and she was unable to stop the warmth filling her soul. As her feet touched the ground a familiar hand greeted her.
“Hello stranger.” Lanara fought hard to hold back the tears.
Velasca had just disappeared. Of course the village had heard of the Witch of Bethel’hem but none knew that it was their long-lost warrior. The story of the wild woman of the forest flourished and distorted with each re-telling until finally she had become some sort of bacchae spawned from the depths of the Underworld.
The terror spread by the tales from the nearby villages forced the Amazons to send an envoy to find out the truth. While much of the information was outlandish, a nugget of truth was found. The description fitted the missing Amazon, allowing Ephiny to stop the rumors and offer them some relief.
As the witch re-acquainted herself with her fellow Amazons a gentle tug on her battle dress drew Xena’s attention. A small finger beckoned to her and she dropped to one knee. “Yeah?”
“How did the witch get her horse up there?”
“Cyane…” What were the Amazons teaching their children?
“With a lot of pushing and shoving,” Eponin replied.
Was the woman joking? She couldn’t tell. If she was, then the warrior decided not to play any games of chance with her. And if she wasn’t joking, well…
“Do you see a horse up there?”
The child looked hard and long. “Nnooooo…”
“I can’t see one either…”
Xena inwardly rolled her eyes. She now knew who Cyane’s mentor was. Maybe she should have a word with Chilapa before the child’s intelligence fell to zero.
“You can have your presents back. I don’t need them anymore.” Velasca’s eyes moistened. “I’ve found what I really wanted.” Lanara returned her gentle smile.
Gabrielle smiled. “So no plan, huh Xena?”
“Sometimes the best plan is no plan, Gabrielle.”
“Then what were we needed for?”
“I dunno. I didn’t write this story.” Xena studied the stiff white clouds in the sky. “Speaking of which… he’s been quiet.”
“Maybe all this singing has put him to sleep. After all, it’s a lullaby.”
“We can only hope, Gabrielle. We can only hope.”
“Hey, Xena! Any idea how we can get those presents down?” Solari was hoping for a new gauntlet and had eyed a particularly decorative one hanging high on the tree.
“Ahhh, my work’s not done yet.” Swiftly in one fluid motion she reached for the chakram hanging at her side, flicking the weapon with great skill. The spinning disc ricocheted around the small clearing, bouncing to and fro through the treetops.
“Hey, it’s snowing!” Eponin grinned with excitement.
Xena’s hand rose to her eyes and she shook her head slowly. How had the woman survived this long?
“It’s bits of branches you idiot!”
“Stop it, Soli.” The smile was replaced with a pout. “I know it’s not snow… but it’s like snow.”
“I suppose it is,” …in a twisted sort of way. Solari was about to continue the debate when she was hit in the head with the exact same gauntlet she had had her eye on. How did Xena know? She stared at the dark-haired warrior, wondering if she could read minds. At that precise moment her gaze was met. Maybe she could.
It was thus that the witch…
“I was wondering where you had got to.”
It was thus that the witch found her home at long last
“Now if we’re done here, I still have an itch.”
My tale is done…
“Just what I wanted to hear. C’mon, Gabrielle.” The warrior grabbed the bard’s hand, breaking into a slow trot back towards the Amazon village.
“Do you want me to scratch your back, Xena?” Gabrielle knew exactly what she wanted but it was a game they played.
“You can start there, Gabrielle, then work your way… Oh, #$%(&%...”
Cransus awoke with a jerk, relieved to find himself still on his pallet. He shakily stood up, making his way over to the low light of the candle. His hand brushed the parchment idly as he contemplated the story. Lifting the paper he fed it to the dying flame, watching as it sprang to life. As the words evaporated in the orange glow, he smiled. It was just not worth the aggravation.
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