Picture - #15
DISCLAIMER: Story mine, Characters not.

A hand hovered mere inches above the blood-covered chakram, fingers trembling uncontrollably. Her mind refused to acknowledge the steadily decreasing temperature and the first snowflakes. Time passed, the storm raged, wind howled. Eyes stared unseeingly as the snow covered the landscape; but nothing could whitewash the macabre scene. Crimson stained the pristine snow blood red.
Dawn. A set of boots marked deep tracks in the snow. Brown eyes absorbed the heart-wrenching sight of the woman kneeling in the snow, hands clasped in her lap, head bowed, eyes closed, the tracks of her tears frozen in ice crystals upon wind-burned cheeks.
Calloused fingers searched for a pulse. Solari picked up her princess, carrying Gabrielle home.

“Exposure. Dehydration. Exhaustion.”
The queen stood beside the bed. Somber eyes critically noted the flushed skin. Fingers brushed blonde bangs; lips tenderly grazed a fevered forehead.
“Rest easy, Gabrielle.”
Melosa’s hardened gaze turned upon the healer. “Take care of her.”

“How did you talk me into this?”
“I asked nicely.”
“As I recall,” a smirk graced full lips, “when you asked, I was flat on my back with you between my legs…”
“And, as I recall, you were very agreeable to the idea then.”
“Gabrielle. When you do that with your tongue, you know I’ll agree to just about anything.”
“You have your skills, warrior princess; I have mine. Now, come on,” Gabrielle grabbed Xena’s hand, “you promised.”
Xena rolled her eyes, but allowed herself to be pulled along behind her young bard. “Okay, but did we have to come so far?”
“It’s my first Solstice with the Amazons. And, it’s traditional the princess picks out the village tree.”
“There are plenty of good trees inside Amazon territory.”
“True. But, I saw the perfect one when we rode in.”
“And, you want it to be perfect.” Xena’s tone softened as she realized just why this was so important to her. With the death of Terreis, the Amazons had accepted Gabrielle as their princess. And, as her partner, they had also accepted Xena. Reaching out, she caught Gabrielle in a hug, “So, where’s this tree of yours?”
Gabrielle broke away from Xena, racing to a specific tree, patting the trunk. “This is it. Isn’t it the best tree you’ve ever seen?”
Xena’s head tilted back, an eyebrow arched. “It’s certainly the biggest one.”
“Yeah!” Gabrielle fairly danced a jig. Sensing Xena’s apprehension, she stilled. “Don’t worry, it’s too early to cut it. We’ll mark it, then when it’s nearer Solstice, a group will come harvest it.”
Casting one more look up at the daunting tree, Xena admitted, “I’m just glad you didn’t volunteer us for the decorating committee.”

Eponin came up behind her lover, wrapping both arms about her and nuzzling her cold nose into the warmth of Ephiny’s neck. Ephiny shivered, pulled her fur-lined cloak firmly about herself.
“How is she?”
“Worse.” Despite her words, Ephiny smiled beneath the lingering kiss Eponin deposited on her neck. Cold weather always turned her independent warrior into a snuggler. “I don’t think it was right Melosa made her attend.”
“It’s the duty of the princess to officiate over the Solstice Eve festivities. Without Xena, duty is all Gabrielle has left.”

Melosa had suggested they pick out a different one. Looking up at the majestic tree decorated with brightly painted pinecones, feathers and leather strips, Gabrielle was glad she’d insisted they use the one she’d selected. And, with Xena’s brightly polished chakram secured at the top in tribute to the fallen warrior, she thought it was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.
It was all she had left of Xena. Except for her memories. Since her…Gabrielle’s mind choked on the word loss…she’d eventually gotten past the painful last memories of the dozen mercenaries surprising them beneath the tree. One look at Gabrielle’s Amazon princess outfit and they decided she’d fetch a hefty ransom. Xena had yelled for her to run while she held them off.
She’d gone for help, but had gotten turned around in the forest. When she’d stumbled back into the field near dusk, she’d found the mercenaries. All dead. But, her warrior was gone. All that was left of Xena was her bloodied chakram.

“It’s the duty of the princess to lead the Solstice dance.”
Gabrielle couldn’t force the words I can’t beyond the lump in her throat. The Queen had been more than patient and kind, but this was duty. Fortunately, Gabrielle was saved from having to defy the command by Solari taking her by the hand and escorting her to the dance circle.
“Solari, thank you.” She’d heard how Solari had tracked her throughout the night, not giving up until she’d found her.
“Don’t.” Brown eyes pleaded. “I’ve already lost one princess, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle rested her head on Solari’s shoulder, taking comfort in a kindred spirit. Solari had lost Terreis and survived. Gabrielle wondered if she’d have the same strength to survive Xena. Sighing heavily, she closed her eyes.
“I think that’s my soulmate you’re dancing with.”
Every breath stilled at the familiar husky drawl. A flash of sparkling pink heralded the arrival of Aphrodite and…
Gabrielle hesitated only a heartbeat before launching herself into Xena’s arms, kissing her all over. Gabrielle blinked through tear-filled eyes. Xena was battered and barely standing, but alive.
“Sorry it took so long to return her. Mortals; they take forever to heal.”
“Thank you, Aphrodite.” Gabrielle hugged her. “I thought she was…”
Aphrodite snorted. “As if death could ever stop true love, Sweetpea.” Spying Solari, the goddess sauntered up to her. “Hey, cutie. Heard you’ve been a good, little Amazon. Got a Solstice eve gift for you to unwrap.”
Amid catcalls, Aphrodite led a stunned Solari off while Gabrielle kissed Xena’s cracked and healing lips.
“Happy Solstice, Gabrielle,” Xena smiled through the pain. Arching a brow at the Solstice tree, “Um, about your tree-topper…”


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