Competing Entry Bard Challenge #24
Category #1 - BIG Packages
Tradition: Secret Senticles
Disclaimer: Story - mine. Xena, Gabrielle & the Amazons - not.
ALL SHE WANTS FOR SOLSTICE
- The Bard -
"It's beginning to look - " Gabrielle cheerily sang as she carefully placed the last object just so " - a lot like Solstice - "
Stepping back, she took a deep breath, then slowly exhaled. Critical eyes inspected her handiwork.
Perfect! Gabrielle was nearly giddy with excitement " - everywhere I go."
"Ouch. Keep singing off-key like that and the Solstice carolers really will ask you to go."
Gabrielle visibly jumped. She hastily slammed down the wooden lid and quickly turned around.
Snowflakes liberally sprinkled the Amazon's corkscrew locks, momentarily shimmering in the light before rapidly melting beneath the warmer temperatures in the Queen's hut. Ephiny moved to the hearth, letting the fire warm her cold fingers and even colder nose.
"Brrr." Ephiny turned so her backside was to the fire. "It's colder than Velasca's heart out there."
A blonde brow arched, nearly reaching her regent's crown when she received no response to her joke. Flicking her gaze to Gabrielle, she noticed the flushed appearance, the hand laid across her chest and throat as if to keep her heart from leaping out her mouth.
Hmm. Jumpy. Ephiny spied the corner of an ornate looking box on the table behind Gabrielle, despite her queen's best efforts to hide it. "Is that my Solstice gift?" she asked.
"Oh, uh...no. Xena's."
Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief that it was just her regent, and not her warrior princess, that had wandered in unannounced. She relaxed the white-knuckle grip that she'd had on the edge of the table. Stepping away, she allowed Ephiny her first good look at the box.
It was larger than a breadbox. The wood was dark walnut, etched with an intricate hand-carved pattern. Wrought iron hinges and a hasp held the lid securely closed. The craftsmanship was superb enough that the box would fetch a pretty dinar in any marketplace.
Ephiny's fingers caressed the grain of the wood. "Nice." She let out a low whistle of appreciation. "What'd you get her? Hunting knife? Boot dagger? Breast dagger?"
Gabrielle's eyes widened as Ephiny reached for the hasp. Her hand shot out, fingers closing about her regent's wrist and tightening. Ephiny looked at her queen in surprise.
"I - uh - " Gabrielle's eyes shifted away from Ephiny's expectant look " - I wrapped it. In a cloth sack. And packed it beneath a lot of...feathers." There was a sheepish shrug. "You know how Xena is."
Ephiny nodded in understanding. "So, if she peeks, you'll know because feathers will fly out everywhere."
The Amazon's hand fell away from the box and she returned to her warm spot in front of the hearth. No sooner had she stepped away than Gabrielle snatched the box off the table and shoved it beneath the bed.
Ephiny's lips quirked as she caught sight of Gabrielle's actions. "Don't worry about your consort. I saw her earlier with Eponin and Solari."
Gabrielle cocked her head, listening carefully. Whenever those three were together, sparring was usually a pretty safe guess. But, she hadn't heard the customary sounds of staffs or swords striking against each other drifting in from the practice fields.
"Hunting. Although, I think this time it's less about killing something and more about cheering Solari up."
"Case of the Solstice blues, huh?"
"More like a case of blue - " Eph made a gesture towards her groin. Solari's reputation of skirt-chasing was well known throughout the village and she thought Gabrielle would understand the gesture. Seeing the look of incomprehension, Ephiny tried to explain, "Solari gave a Solstice gift - "
"Wait. I thought Amazons celebrate the tradition of exchanging gifts on Solstice Day."
"Most do. But, you know how Solari is; she couldn't wait. Anyway, the problem wasn't with her giving the gift early. Seems it was more a question of the appropriateness of the gift." Ephiny's teeth bit against her bottom lip as she struggled not to laugh outright at the scout's plight. "Let's just say the gift she gave was more a present for her, not her partner."
Gabrielle's brow furrowed as she tried to picture the latest in a long line of Amazons she'd seen her scout with. Seemed like every time she came home to the village, there was always someone different vying for the gorgeous brunette's affections. An odd look crossed her face as she remembered seeing Solari eating breakfast with a salt-n-pepper haired warrior. "Wait. Didn't Solari move in with that elder - "
"Yep." Ephiny didn't even try to disguise her mirth. "Tossed Solari out of the hut on her tailfeathers, her gift right behind her. Soli's gonna have to do a lot of kissing up to get back in good by tomorrow eve."
Ephiny's laughter died away as she realized Gabrielle didn't seem to share in the humor of the situation. She usually enjoys the village gossip. Puzzled by the lack of enthusiasm, she was just about to ask her queen what was wrong when there was a sharp rap against the frame of the hut.
"Regent Ephiny." A messenger was already saluting her regent as she brushed past the hide covering the doorframe. She glanced towards Gabrielle, "My Queen." At the acknowledging nod from Gabrielle, the Amazon immediately turned her attention back to Ephiny. "Regent, the trackers have returned."
A look passed between the regent and the messenger, a warning to not say anything more. Ephiny dismissed her with, "Tell them I'll be there shortly."
Acutely aware of Gabrielle's eyes upon her, Ephiny shook her head. "A trespasser crossed our borders before you arrived," she said, not looking at Gabrielle, "It's nothing."
Feeling Gabrielle's gaze still upon her, Ephiny harshly swallowed. She took a deep breath and turned to face her queen. "I'll take care of it. While you," she forced a huge smile, clasped Gabrielle on the shoulder, "finish wrapping Xena's gift."
"Okay." Gabrielle gave a half-hearted smile in return, concern etched in her eyes as she watched her regent leave.
x x x x x
Many candlemarks later, Gabrielle sat cross-legged on the floor of her hut, dejectedly staring at the two items before her. One was the box she had hastily shoved beneath her bed earlier. The other was much smaller, wrapped in a burlap cloth, tied closed with a red ribbon.
With a disheartening sigh, Gabrielle reached for the small package. Even wrapped, it easily fit into the palm of her hand. It had a good feel to it, though. And, she knew Xena would like it.
Her eyes fell on the wooden box. Fingers worked the hasp, undoing it, lifting the lid. Given individually, the items wouldn't raise an eyebrow. But grouped together, given inside one box, their collective meaning could hardly be misconstrued. Heat suffused Gabrielle's cheeks at the implication.
She felt the weight of the package in her right hand. Looking down, she studied the wrapped cloth. It's a good gift, she decided.
Her gaze drifted to the open box. It's...good, too, she reasoned.
Then, why did I stumble over the word?
With a sigh, she looked back at the wrapped cloth. She sat it down on the floor and stared at it for several long heartbeats. She felt a wave of depression wash over her. Let's be honest; it's boring. As boring as getting a new shift for your birthday boring.
A covert look inside the box sent tiny tremors coursing through her. Her heartbeat picked up its pace. Her eyes traveled over a piece of leather and she felt herself reflexively clench in anticipation. Definitely not boring.
Ephiny's voice echoed in her ear, reminding her of the inappropriateness of Solari's gift. And, the consequences.
Trembling fingers slammed the lid down, securing it. Gabrielle reached for the piece of parchment she had fashioned into a gift tag. She closed her eyes, drew a deep breath, then opened them again. Resolutely, she pushed the box beneath the bed.
x x x x x
Thankfully, it had stopped snowing. Apollo's chariot had even made a brief appearance that afternoon, the warmth melting most, if not all, of the snow. Now, it was a clear, cloudless night. But, at least there was no wind to add to the chill in the air.
Gabrielle's gaze swept over the ceremonial grounds. A huge bonfire burned brightly, providing both light and warmth. Scattered about the perimeter, a safe distance from the fire, Amazons sat huddled in small groups on various kinds of furs.
The wine was flowing freely. The Amazons were drinking heavily. Despite the chilly temperature, many of the ceremonial dancers had braved performing in their customary loincloths. And, the Amazons chosen to perform the Solstice carols all sang beautifully.
Still, there just didn't seem to be any real energy to the festivities.
Gabrielle looked about her own campsite. Ephiny was seated beside her on the fur, still looking decidedly cold despite the wolf-hide cloak securely wrapped about her frame. Xena and Eponin had to be just as cold, but their stubborn warrior ego refused to let them admit it, even though their goosebumps were clearly visible by the light of the fire. Pelts were pooled at their feet, but neither of them wanted to earn the derision of the other by being the first to reach for the warm furs. Instead, trembling hands clutched tighter about handles as they lifted mugs to their chattering teeth. Solari despondently sat between Xena and Eponin, her nose buried in her mug.
Solari's depression, she could understand. When she wasn't staring into her mug, big brown eyes were wistfully following every movement her mate made. When they'd first arrived, she'd approached the warrior, attempting to apologize. The older Amazon had cut Solari off with a firm shake of her head. She turned her back on the scout, joining the rest of the elders on their spread out furs. A compassionate Pony had wrapped an arm about Solari's shoulders and led her back to the Queen's campsite.
Solari's behavior made perfect sense. What didn't, was the subdued state of the rest of the nation.
The food's delicious. Gabrielle licked her lips, enjoying the lingering taste of wild turkey basted in sauce. The drink, abundant. She watched as Xena downed yet another mug. A distinct moan filtered in from another campsite. Those that aren't interested in the carolers have found their own entertainment.
Then, why is an Amazon party so low-key?
Gabrielle's gaze drifted to the Solstice tree. It was huge. Bigger than any tree she had ever seen before. It had taken a crew of Amazons to cut it down and bring it back to the main village. Then, it had taken another crew of engineers to work out how to right the thing and secure it in place with a series of ropes and pulleys. Finally, it had been painstakingly decorated from the very top all the way down to its lowest branch.
"Ephiny?" Gabrielle asked, her eyes settling on the base of the tree. "Where are all the Solstice presents?"
x x x x x
It was a very sober Queen of the Amazons that returned to her hut for the evening. After hearing Ephiny's tale, she just couldn't bear to be amongst her sisters.
Not now. Not when Solstice was supposed to be the happiest time of the year. And, not with the newfound realization that so many of her sisters would do without this Solstice. Because of her.
"The truth, Ephiny," Gabrielle commanded her cornered regent, "The trespasser at the border, the one you mentioned earlier in my hut; he stole Solstice from the Amazons, didn't he?"
There was a rolling of eyes and a heated breath that sent blonde curls lifting off her forehead. But, for all her posturing, not even Ephiny could refuse a direct order from her Queen.
And so, through gritted teeth, the regent was forced to confess how a man had managed to swindle most of the Amazons. He was selling jewelry; armbands, gauntlets, bracelets, necklaces. So close to Solstice, his wares seemed like the perfect gifts. At first, the Amazons were pleased with their purchases and wished the traveling salesman good journey when he departed. Then, the weather turned foul. Many an Amazon lost a hefty sum when the talgamite dissolved, the jewelry literally falling apart.
"Rest assured, my Queen, I've sent out a fresh group of trackers. When he's found, he will pay dearly for his deception. I swear it."
"But in the meantime, none of the Amazons can really afford Solstice gifts, can they?"
Ephiny winced at the directness of the question. "In truth, my Queen, no. Most can scrape together a gift or two for a loved one, but none of us will be able to give as we usually do this season."
There was a derisive snort. Ephiny openly glared at the warrior that had brazenly followed her and the Queen into the council chambers. This was not a conversation she'd wanted to have in front of any of her sisters. And, most definitely not in front of someone who kept insisting she wasn't an Amazon.
"Thought you Amazons were smarter than to be swindled by a common conman."
Ephiny rankled at the insult. "We are."
"Are you?" Xena asked. "You believed every lie that shyster told you, didn't you?"
"And, why wouldn't I?" Ephiny's eyes flashed as she stepped into Xena's personal space. Queen's consort or not, she would not be spoken to in such a manner. Especially when - "He's supposed to be a friend of yours."
Luckily, Xena had been caught so off-guard by the accusation that her shock overrode her initial instinct to attack Ephiny. Gods knew the two warriors' adversarial relationship had mellowed over the seasons. But, there was still occasion when Xena's tactlessness and Ephiny's stubborn pride clashed.
"What did you say, Amazon?"
Xena pulled herself up to her full height. Crossing her arms over her chest, she stared down at the shorter woman. Xena's lips curled into a sneer. A menacing growl erupted from her throat.
Ephiny refused to stand down.
"He stood by you when your own army turned against you, making you run a gauntlet. He helped Gabrielle become you when you were struck by a poisoned arrow." In her anger, she revealed, "Gabrielle described his unflinching loyalty in her scrolls."
From Xena, it was growled between clenched teeth. From Gabrielle, little more than a breathless whisper. But, they both said the name in unison.
Xena vowed to hunt Salmoneous down herself and drag him kicking and screaming back to the Amazons for restitution. That was the closest Ephiny would get to an apology from the warrior princess. Gabrielle hadn't even offered that much. She couldn't; her stomach was churning too much.
"Instead, I ran away," Gabrielle thought.
Of course, Ephiny had called out to her; tried to go after her. Until Xena's firm hand around her bicep restrained her. Gabrielle winced, knowing that unsolicited touch probably set off a fresh round between the two. Even so, she was grateful to her warrior for stepping in and letting her go.
She knew she owed Ephiny an explanation. But, she couldn't do it. Not now. She couldn't even face her right now. Xena, she figured, had already guessed.
The bile churned in her stomach, edging up her throat until she uncontrollably spewed out most of her dinner. Her knees buckled, sending her to the floor of her hut as her retching continued. Her arms protectively wrapped about her heaving middle.
As the convulsions stopped, she swiped at her mouth with the back of her hand. Bleary eyes focused, settling on the basket of scrolls she kept beside the bed. She stumbled across the hut on shaking legs.
The scrolls were rolled up, colored twine securely tied about each one. Even without their words visible, they taunted her, reminding her of what they said.
Of what she had written.
When she'd first started tagging along behind Xena, she'd been in awe of the warrior princess. And, she was certain that hero worship had tinted her perceptions. But, she'd tried to be as faithful to the truth as possible when recording Xena's adventures.
Then, as she'd settled into her role as first Xena's sidekick, then her partner, she'd grown more comfortable in her skills as a scribe. Reading her earliest scrolls, however, she realized not every heartbeat of Xena's life was about adventure. And, no one wanted to read about their hero snoring loud enough to wake the dead. Or the mornings they went without breakfast because Xena couldn't catch a fish at the river. Or even the mind-numbing days spent traveling across the countryside, praying for a band of raiders just dumb enough to attack them to break up the monotony while Xena broke their skulls.
No, her audience didn't want the minutest detail. They wanted action. That had been her initial rationale for embellishing her tales. Poetic licensing, she had called it, as she changed the persona of the King of Thieves to make him a likeable, charming rogue.
Flat-out lying, I should have called it when I described Salmoneous as being loyal. Oh, Gabrielle knew he was loyal to Hercules and Xena. To a point. But, his character wouldn't earn any sympathy from her audience had she been brutally honest about how much like Autolycus he really was. The only difference was that while the King of Thieves stole from someone outright, Salmoneous was duplicitous enough to have his mark hand over their valuables.
And now, he's conned the Amazons out of Solstice. Because of me.
In a fit of rage, Gabrielle snatched up a handful of scrolls and threw them into the blazing fire. The flames licked at, them caught the parchment. The bard sank to her knees beside the hearth and watched as her stories burned.
x x x x x
Enough! Gabrielle angrily swiped at her cheeks with both hands. Tears won't help the Amazons.
Gabrielle sat, leaning back against the warming stone in front of the hearth, in resigned despair. With the frequent snowstorms they'd been experiencing, even the best trackers would be hard-pressed to find a trace of Salmoneous. If he was smart; and despite his many other flaws, Salmoneous was not dumb; he'd stay holed up somewhere until next spring. Even if the Amazons could find him now, they might not get him back to the nation in time for Solstice. And even if they did, he may or may not have all the dinars he'd bilked them out of. Even having their dinars back still wouldn't mean any gifts to place beneath the tree.
Gabrielle loudly exhaled. It would take a Solstice miracle.
Her gaze landed on the silhouettes beneath her bed. To think I was struggling over the dilemma of having two gifts for Xena while some of my sisters could very well go without one. Another bout of guilt and self-pity swept through Gabrielle. I've ruined Solstice. I'm no better than King Silvas was.
The miserly king had banned the winter Solstice. His wife had left him and for the next thirty-five years, he had made his entire kingdom suffer in kind. He'd even gone so far as to outlaw toys and threatened to evict children from an orphanage on Solstice Eve.
Gabrielle's hand closed about another set of scrolls, intent on punishing herself by torching more of her work. Inches from the fire, she stopped. Selfish as it was, she just couldn't burn more of her scrolls. Not when they immortalized her beloved Xena. For all the fault to be found in her storytelling, she couldn't bear to erase the record of Xena's good deeds.
Like the way she'd shown King Silvas the error of his ways. At Gabrielle's request, Xena had agreed to do it without busting heads. She'd even dressed as the Fates to scare Silvas straight. For a time, though, it seemed nothing would melt his frozen heart. Just when Gabrielle herself had given up hope, Xena managed to give those orphans the gift of the winter Solstice.
Well, with a little help from me, Tobias the donkey and Senticles. Gabrielle recalled how the timid bookkeeper was so afraid of being arrested that he'd dressed in disguise and climbed down the orphanage's chimney to bring toys to the children.
She'd written it all down, of course. Oh, she may have over-exaggerated Senticles' timidity. And, perhaps she'd embellished King Silvas' miserliness. The woman who ran the orphanage wasn't really his wife, either. After thirty-five years, no one knew what had become of their queen. The real Silvas didn't get his wife back, but it played better with the audiences if the one in Gabrielle's scroll did. He did mend his ways, opening up his heart and his home to the orphans, filling the too-long dreary castle with the joyous sounds of happy children.
No, not everything Gabrielle had written was word-for-word the way it really happened. But, despite changing a few characters here or there, she'd stayed true to the meaning of the story. With the realization that her scrolls weren't all bad, she returned the singed, but intact, rolls of parchment to the basket by her side of the bed.
Kneeling on the floor, she reached beneath the bed, pulling out both gifts. She looked at them side by side; one with a tag to Xena from Gabrielle. The other, without a tag. An idea began to form as she hastily crafted another tag and attached it to the box. Dipping her quill, she addressed the tag to Xena. She started to add from, then stopped. Tapping the feathered writing instrument against her chin, her lips slowly bowed into a smile.
x x x x x
"No offense, your majesty, but have you been dipping into the henbane?"
"Pony - " Ephiny warned the weapons master with a sharp elbow to the ribs.
"It's okay, Eph." Gabrielle had been prepared to be met with some resistance. "I know it's not tradition, Eponin. But, maybe it could become one?"
"Wait; what's she want us to do?"
Solari tried leaning over and whispering the question in Xena's ear. Her breath must have tickled, because the warrior princess swatted at her ear in annoyance. Solari reacted, trying to duck, thinking Xena was trying to smack her. Somehow, the normally surefooted scout unceremoniously fell down. She stayed there, flat on her back on the campsite's furs, glazed eyes blinking up in bewilderment at her queen.
Great. Two drunk Amazons and one inebriated warrior princess. Just what I wanted for Solstice.
As if it wasn't difficult enough to hold their attention, several of the ceremonial dancers had apparently decided the heat from the bonfire was just too much and were in the process of stripping off their tops. Gabrielle repeatedly snapped her fingers before finally resorting to throwing a rolled up fur at Xena's head. At the last moment, the warrior princess ducked and the flying object hit Solari squarely in the face.
Gabrielle let out a long-suffering sigh before trying to explain the finer points of her idea. Again.
"Senticles dressed in disguise so no one would recognize him when he brought presents."
"Yeah," said Xena, "So King Silvas wouldn't - " she made the gesture for cutting off someone's head.
"Ooooh." Eponin's eyes went wide. "Did he use an executioner's blade or a double-edged sword? Sometimes, if there's not enough strength behind the swing, the blade gets stuck. Then, you have to brace your foot against - "
Eponin suddenly grew quiet as she caught the meaning of her fire-breathing regent's don't-say-another-word warning growl. Sullenly, she eyed Ephiny over the rim as she brought her mug to her mouth for another long draw.
"Senticles wasn't executed, Ep." Gabrielle pushed on, despite her weapons master's clearly disappointed look. "Senticles kept his identity hidden. What if we exchange names, keeping the identity of who the gift is from secret?"
Gabrielle was relieved to hear that she at least had her warrior's support.
"You be Xena," she told Ep in an exaggerated whisper, "I'll be Pony." before making neighing sounds and laughing uncontrollably.
"Wait." Solari abruptly sat up, her hand closing about the handle of her belt dagger. "Who's she want us to kill?"
Gabrielle buried her face in her hands. "Oh, Gods."
x x x x x
Gabrielle folded the last bit of parchment and deposited it in her drinking cup. Placing her hand over the rim, she made a showing of shaking the contents. Removing her hand, she presented the mug to Ephiny, who dutifully took the first draw. The regent unfolded it, then gave Gabrielle a curt nod. She refolded the parchment and tucked it into the front of her halter.
Three sets of inebriated eyes openly stared at Ephiny's cleavage.
"Everyone draws one name." Gabrielle stepped in front of Xena, pointedly shaking her cup.
Her view sufficiently blocked, the warrior princess sighed. With an I don't know why I'm doing this look, she withdrew a scrap of parchment from the cup.
"Read the name." Reflexively, she clapped a hand over Xena's open mouth. "To yourself."
She passed the cup in turn to Eponin and Solari, watching in satisfaction as they each did as they were told.
"Now, that's who you give the gift to. No pissing. No moaning." Here, she specifically looked at Xena. "And, no switching. You get a name, you stick with it. And, no telling. That's the whole point of being a Secret Senticles."
"But, what if I've already gotten a gift and it's not for - " A raised brow from her queen had Eponin censoring herself " - the lovely woman whose name I have drawn?"
"It's okay, Ep. It's not against the rules to give someone else a gift. You can give as many gifts as you want. As long as one of them goes to that person you've drawn. That way, every Amazon will be assured of having at least one gift beneath the Solstice tree."
"I like it."
Two sets of eyes narrowed into dagger-like glares aimed at Solari.
"You would. Cause you've been a bad Amazon and know you won't get any gifts otherwise."
"Yeah. Now the rest of us have to come up with another present."
"Hey! Hey! Stop it," Gabrielle commanded. "This isn't about Solari. No Amazon should have to go without Solstice."
"But - "
"We're doing this. That's final."
Arms folded over her chest, foot tapping out an agitated rhythm, Gabrielle gave each of them the evil eye, daring any of them to voice another complaint. To her satisfaction, no one objected.
"Good. Now, we'll have to explain the process to the others. I think we should keep it confined to small groups so we're certain not to miss anyone. We'll go camp to camp, writing down and having them draw names on the spot."
"Don't forget," Ephiny said, "we need to include the royal guards, the border patrols and the dancers."
All eyes shifted to the dancers.
"Seems like a lot of work," Solari said.
"Oh, yeah," Xena agreed, her eyes fixed on a rather generously endowed brunette's assets, "lots of hard work." I've never seen an Amazon wear a feather there before.
Eponin didn't say a word. She also didn't blink.
"Tell you what; don't give it another thought." Gabrielle balled a fist on her cocked hip. Green eyes flashed. "Eph and I will take care of everything. You three just concentrate on staying here drinking and ogling scantily-clad dancers."
x x x x x
"You know," Ephiny said to Gabrielle as they approached their fifth campsite, "If it was your intention to guilt them into helping us, I don't think it worked."
"Shut up, Eph."
x x x x x
It was an exhausted, but satisfied Queen of the Amazons that fell into her bed when she finally arrived home. It had taken the rest of the night and most of the next day, but between them, she and Ephiny had successfully implemented the new Secret Senticles tradition.
As for the three miscreants? Morning, as well as Gabrielle and Ephiny, had found them still at their campsite; all three sleeping beneath a big pile of furs, their drunken snores loud enough to drown out a platoon of Amazon drummers. Xena was flat on her back, sandwiched between Solari and Eponin as they lay curled against her. Pony's head rested on Xena's shoulder and Solari...Gabrielle's eyes narrowed...was that a pool of drool? Gabrielle took great satisfaction in waking them with a carefully thrown bucket of nearly frozen water.
After that rude awakening, the trio had practically begged to ride out to the border to relay the Secret Senticles details to the patrol stationed there. It was late afternoon before Xena, Eponin and Solari returned to the main village. Since then, an alert guard had kept her queen advised of her consort's whereabouts.
Xena and Pony had carried a single cot and some other gear into what Solari hoped would be only a temporary hut for her. Then, they'd flexed some warrior muscle sparring together on the practice fields.
Gabrielle would have loved to see that. She always enjoyed watching the two warriors spar. Xena and Ep were always so well matched, their sessions could go on for candlemarks. And, despite the chill temperatures, they'd both become overheated, stripping off their heavy winter layers. Muscular biceps and powerful forearms would stand out in stark delineation as they firmly clutched their staffs. Chests would heave as their breathing increased from their exertions. Sweat would glisten on abs so well defined a dinar could be bounced off them -
Stop. You don't have the energy for that particular fantasy right now, Gabrielle thought. She was still face down on the bed, right where she'd landed when she'd walked in, too tired to move another muscle. Blessed Artemis, I was almost too tired for the evening meal. Almost.
She'd been nearly falling asleep at the table when Ephiny had kicked her. Gabrielle's eyes flew open in indignation. Ephiny tilted her head towards the door, indicating her queen should look.
Her consort and her weapons master were finally strolling into the dining hut. It was well past the evening meal, but Gabrielle was certain she could persuade the cook to round up something for the two hungry warriors. She lifted her hand to wave them over.
Just then, they were waylaid by a group with a hot pair of dice and something strong to drink. The duo hesitated for all of a heartbeat before joining in.
Gabrielle's smile fell right alongside her hand. Her regent's feathers sufficiently rankled, Ephiny placed both hands flat on the table and stood up. The bard could only imagine what the intense Amazon might do. In days past, she might try skinning their hides with her hunting knife. Today, she allowed her queen's touch and whispered, "No, Eph," to restrain her. Not enough to meekly sit back down, but enough that she merely stormed out of the dining hut instead of actually maiming anyone.
Had Xena intentionally snubbed her, or had she just not noticed her? With her many skills, there was hardly anything that slipped past the warrior princess. We're not on the road. Here, we're among friends. Her guard doesn't have to always be up. It was in Gabrielle's nature to give Xena the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she was just tired after sparring with Pony.
Gabrielle could certainly understand being tired. She was exhausted after spending a night and a day running herself ragged trying to finalize all the details of the Secret Senticles project. Not to mention all the other seemingly endless Solstice preparations that as queen she had to oversee.
Like approving the menu for the Solstice Day meal. Gabrielle felt sympathy for the head cook. Gods knew it was difficult enough to plan a holiday meal for a small family. She could only imagine the work entailed when family was an entire nation. Also, as queen, she had to be in attendance when the young Amazons put on their display of the ringing of the bells they'd worked so hard on. The show had been stolen by the cutest little Amazon when she opted to throw down her bell and solo on one of the big drums. Then, she had to approve the Yule logs. And, of course, she had to supervise the placement of the gifts beneath the tree. Because of the Secret Senticles program, there would be a lot of presents and they couldn't just be placed all willy-nilly beneath the tree. No, there needed to be an organized system.
Thank the Gods Xena wasn't around all day. Gods knew Gabrielle loved her warrior to death. And even beyond. But sometimes, especially when Gabrielle had a set agenda, Xena could be just so...annoying. Gabrielle liked to plan things out, make a list of pros and cons, weigh her options, before making a move. Xena was more apt to simply toss a coin, call it in the air and go with it.
Not to mention how sneaky she is. Especially around birthdays and holidays. Xena was just like a little kid, counting down the days, trying to find her gifts, shaking the package, trying to guess what was inside. Most days, Gabrielle didn't stand a snowball's chance in Tartarus of surprising the warrior princess.
But not this time. The warriors had already been well into their drink last evening when Gabrielle had returned to their camp with her solution. Thanks to their inebriated state, they'd barely understood her concept of secretly giving a gift to the person named on a scrap of parchment. And in their confusion, no one, not even Xena, had noticed that their queen didn't draw a name from the cup.
She didn't need to; she'd never put Xena's name in the cup to begin with.
Today, she'd made a big showing of carrying Xena's gift out of the hut and placing it beneath the Solstice tree. The small package that easily fit in the palm of her hand. Then tonight, under cover of darkness, she'd slipped out once again and placed the larger package beneath the tree with the others.
A cat-ate-the-bird grin caressed Gabrielle's lips. Xena would unwrap her customary gift from her loving bard and still receive the gift Gabrielle really wanted her to have, courtesy of her Secret Senticles.
Eyelids drooped, green eyes drifted closed. Gabrielle went with it, fully intending to sleep through Solstice Eve and into Solstice morning.
x x x x x
- The Warrior -
"Oh, Solstice tree. Oh, Solstice tree. Your branches something something something."
"Ow. Hey, tone it down some, will ya, Pony? You're gonna make my ears bleed."
The weapons master leaned back, trying to put some space between her and Xena. Currently, she had one arm draped around Xena's shoulders. One of Xena's arms was wrapped about Eponin's waist, the fingers of her hand curled about the Amazon's belt in a tight grip.
Honey-hued eyes repeatedly blinked, the better to see the warrior princess. All three of her.
"Don't see nothing."
"Figure of speech, Pony."
"Oh." Eponin sounded more than mildly disappointed. She soon got over it as she pointed towards the ceremonial field. "Look, Xena! The Solstice tree!"
"I see it." Xena rolled her eyes, trying to ease off some of the pressure Ep was applying to her neck in her enthusiasm. "I see it."
Of course I see it. She couldn't help from seeing it. The thing was as tall as Mt. Olympus, for Gods' sake. Not to mention they had to pass right by it on the way back to Ep's hut.
Who knew Pony was such an energetic drunk? True, the weapons master was known to enjoy her drink. But, she didn't normally indulge to excess. Xena grunted as Ep began to slip and she had to give her a bounce to redistribute her weight. Knew I should've cut her off. Ares' hairy balls, I should've cut me off. Given the amount of alcohol they'd consumed, it was amazing that either one of them was able to stagger from the dining hut.
She hadn't even wanted to play. She'd spotted her bard the instant they'd stepped foot into the dining hut. Poor Gabrielle looked like she was nearly asleep at the table. And, Xena had every intention of picking her up in her arms and carrying her back to their hut and putting her to bed.
But, then those other featherheads had goaded them, taunting them, making comments about how warriors were dumb. "You two have clobbered each other so much that you don't have enough brains left in your heads to add up the total of the dice, much less win a round."
Of course, they couldn't let that insult go unchallenged. Given the current state of the Amazon economy, the decision was made to play for drinks instead of dinars. Whoever lost a round had to chug a mug.
The game had taken much longer than Xena had thought. And, they'd had to drink much more than she'd anticipated. So much so that she hadn't even noticed when Gabrielle had left.
Guess we won, though. Xena and Eponin had been the only ones able to make it out of the dining hut under their own power. The other Amazons were passed out at the table. And underneath it, too, Xena smirked.
"Come on, Xena, hurry."
The warrior princess was jerked out of her reverie by a tug on her arm as it was nearly ripped from its socket. Eponin had slipped away from her and was making a beeline for the Solstice tree. Unfortunately, Xena's fingers were still tucked into Ep's belt and she was rather unceremoniously dragged along against her will.
Eponin was on her knees, rummaging through the packages, checking the tags on each one before tossing it aside and moving onto the next. Xena feigned disinterest, but was intently peering over Pony's shoulder as she searched.
Most of the presents were wrapped in burlap sacks or hides. Handcrafted tags were tied with colorful ribbons about the gifts. Xena snickered. Even though they were wrapped, many of the presents were easily identifiable. Staff. Staff. Bow. Sword. Staff.
"Hey, Xena," Pony negligently tossed a package over her shoulder. "This one's for you."
Even with her reflexes dulled by drink, the warrior princess easily caught the wrapped package one-handed. She tossed it up and down in her palm, testing its heft.
"Yep. Gotta hand it to Gabrielle; she knows what I like."
"Hey, Xena? If that's from Gabrielle, who's this one from?" Pony asked, listing slightly to one side as she pointed to a box buried deeper in the pile. A tag with Xena's name clearly printed on it was tied to one handle.
Xena looked closer. The box was hardwood, hand carved, skillfully crafted.
"Looks expensive," Eponin unnecessarily pointed out.
"Gabrielle and I agreed to only one Solstice gift. Can't spend more than five dinars, same as last Solstice, same as every Solstice."
Xena waded in, determined to tug the gift from the pile of presents. A wrapped bow snapped beneath her boot as she inadvertently stepped on it. She lifted the box out, hefting it in both hands, checking the weight. She rattled it, but heard nothing. The gentle rattling turned into flat-out shaking as she listened for shifting. Despite her many skills, she just couldn't figure out what was in the box.
"I don't know, Ep." She placed the box back on the ground, knelt down in front of it. "My name's on the tag, but not who it's from."
"Maybe they didn't want you to know."
"Oh, right." Xena slapped her open palm against her forehead. "Operation Secret Senticles."
Somehow through the alcohol-induced fog, Xena recalled Gabrielle mapping out an extensive set of rules. Gods knew she loved her bard more than life itself. But, there were times when she could get on the warrior's last nerve. Xena was a woman of action; hence, her profession. Gabrielle, though, Gabrielle was if nothing else if not a true bard by heart. She was a woman of thought before action. Almost any action. Always wanting to write down a list of pros and cons, weighing the options, thinking through the consequences. Instead of being spontaneous and just going with her gut.
Xena stared at the box, wondering who it could be from. It's a very nice box, she decided. Spotting the hasp on the front, she reached to undo it. She had it halfway off before a hand closed tightly about her wrist.
Looking up, she met Pony's unfocused gaze.
"Unh-uh-uh." Eponin wagged a finger at her.
"What? It's mine's. Name's on the tag." Xena tugged the tag off and held it beneath the Amazon's nose to prove it to her.
Ep's eyes nearly crossed as she tried to read it. Xena kept waving it in front of her face. Annoyed, she defensively swatted at the parchment, disarming Xena as though she were wielding a knife. The tag was sent hurtling some distance away.
"Tomorrow - " Eponin looked up at the rapidly lightening hues of a predawn sky " - today is Solstice Eve. By tradition, you can't open your gifts until Solstice Day."
"But - "
"Not til Solstice Day. Or there won't be any henbane-laced fruitcake for you."
Eponin tightened her grip, forcefully pulled Xena to her feet. A determined weapons master guided them on unsteady feet down the path leading towards home. Xena dutifully followed along, even though she kept looking back over her shoulder every step of the way.
x x x x x
After putting a mostly passed out Pony to bed, Xena staggered back to the Queen's hut. She halfway saluted the royal guard standing at attention outside the doorframe before ducking beneath the hide covering.
She moved into the hut, stubbing her toe on the bedpost before her eyes fully adjusted to the dark. She clamped a hand over her mouth to muffle her curse as she hopped about on one foot. Stripping out of her leathers, she left a trail of clothes to her side of the bed. Pulling back the furs, she climbed in, settling down against Gabrielle.
Her bard was deeply entrenched in Morpheus' realm, murmuring in her sleep. She never even stirred as Xena tossed and turned, trying to get comfortable. She finally settled down.
It was all of five heartbeats before she was up and out of bed, her curiosity guiding her back to the Solstice tree.
x x x x x
Xena sat carefully tucked away in the stables, hidden behind Argo in her stall. She sat cross-legged on the hay-covered floor, the wooden box cradled in her lap. She ran her hands over the wood, feeling the texture of the grain. Fingers caressed the hasp, toying with it, repeatedly flipping it open and closed.
She brought her other hand to her mouth, taking a big bite of fruitcake.
"Solstice Day, Xena," Eponin's voice echoed in her ear, "Or, you won't get any henbane-laced fruitcake."
After stealing her solstice present and before heading to the stables, she'd detoured by the darkened kitchen. It hadn't taken her long to find an entire log of fruitcake stashed inside a breadbox.
"So, screw you, Pony," Xena said aloud as she purposely took a huge bite from the log.
Her mouth full, she turned quickly, checking over both shoulders as if she expected the weapons master to be there. Ep's gonna be out cold for a while. Nope, Xena was quite certain she was alone. Just her and her horse. Even if someone had been in the barn, it was highly unlikely they could even see Xena over the walls of the stall.
Then, why are you worried? she asked herself.
Because I don't want to get caught, she answered.
But it's your gift; your name's on it.
She touched the handle, wanting to read the tag again. It wasn't there.
Ep pulled it off, remember? she asked herself again.
But it was there. You saw it. It's my gift.
If it's yours, then open it.
Fingers undid the hasp. The lid was lifted off before she could talk herself out of it.
Fruitcake tumbled from her grasp.
Trembling fingers clamped down over her mouth.
The lid slammed shut.
Stunned, Xena sat there on the straw-covered floor, not moving, scarcely breathing.
Then, tilting her head to the side so she could peek inside as she did so, she ever-so-slowly lifted the lid again
x x x x x
What to do? What to do? What to do?
Xena paced, her long strides quickly eating up the length of the hut. With each turn the opposite direction, she nervously glanced towards the bed.
Not knowing what else to do, she'd blindly returned to the Queen's hut on numb legs. She initially started to undress again and climb in bed beside Gabrielle. Then, her adrenaline had kicked in and in a frenzied bout of nervous energy, she'd started pacing.
Gabrielle was still dead to the known world, her blissful snores filling the interior of the hut. Xena slowed her pacing. Coming to stand at the foot of the bed, she clutched her hands to resist the urge to touch her beloved bard.
She wanted to wake her. But, knew in her heart that she couldn't face her. How could she? What would she say?
She couldn't just come out and tell Gabrielle that she'd opened her gift early. Or, that instead of opening the present from her, she'd instead peeked at the gift from her Secret Senticles. And, the contents of the box. They were clearly intended to be of a sexual nature.
No, she couldn't tell Gabrielle any of that.
And, it wasn't just that another woman had given her a risqué gift, either. It was that Gabrielle was the Queen and one of her Amazons had blatantly intended to gift the Queen's consort with sexual innuendo.
I need help. Not knowing where else to turn, Xena quietly slipped out of the hut, deliberately seeking out the Regent of the Amazons.
x x x x x
She found Ephiny standing in the doorway of her hut, stretching to reach the frame above her head.
"Morning, Eph," Xena said, her long stride carrying her quickly to the regent's side.
Inexplicably, Ephiny kissed her. Not a sisterly kiss. Not the kind of kiss you might give your mother. But, a full-on-the-lips-I-want-your-body kiss.
Xena froze, eyes widening, arms unsure of what to do until, of their own accord, they came up and clutched at Ephiny's waist. As gently, but firmly as possible, Xena pushed the curly-haired blonde away, effectively ending the kiss.
"Morning, Xena." It was said casually, as though it was the most normal thing in the world to greet someone by thrusting your tongue down their throat.
"Eph? What - ? Why - ?" We barely tolerate each other, let alone actually like one another.
A long, elegant finger pointed up. Xena's gaze followed Ephiny's up to the framework. There, secured by twine, hung a sprig of leaves and berries.
"Mistletoe," Ephiny explained. "Any two people get caught standing together beneath it have to kiss."
"Let me guess," Xena drolly asked, "ancient Amazon tradition?"
Ephiny shrugged. "It's supposed to be romantic."
For several long heartbeats, the warrior princess stood there, silently staring at the mistletoe. When at last ice blue eyes looked at Ephiny again, she said, "Don't see what's so romantic about kissing beneath a scraggly weed."
Ephiny's dulcet tones dropped in pitch, "Guess it all depends on who you're kissing, doesn't it?" She batted her eyes at Xena before dropping the act and asking, "What brings you to my door so early in the morning, Xena?"
"Oh, uh - " Xena shrugged, took a step backwards so she was no longer sharing a doorway with Ephiny. "I was - uh - just looking for Eponin." She continued backing away. "You know, for staff practice."
"Oh. Well, she usually stops by first thing every morning. But, I haven't seen her yet today." Ephiny couldn't hide her wry grin. She'd never before seen the normally stoic warrior so flustered. Not even that time she'd returned from the dead to find Gabrielle had accepted the mask of Queen. That little kiss really got to you, didn't it? "Maybe you should check the practice fields."
"Right. Okay." Xena jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "I'll do that. Thanks."
She backed up another three whole paces before turning and running.
x x x x x
Xena wandered aimlessly.
The village was a deserted ghost town, with nary an Amazon in sight.
Xena knew most of the Amazons had spent last eve celebrating the Solstice season with song and drink. That's how Pony had picked up that singularly annoying tune about the tree; from one of those Godsbedamned blasted carolers. She figured, like Gabrielle, most of the tribe was still abed. And, would no doubt stay there for most of the day.
Which is where I wish I was.
The sun was too bright. She was too thirsty. Her head was hurting too much. Both from the drink and the disturbing encounter with Ephiny.
She had gone to Eph with the hopes that the regent could clue her in on the identity of her Secret Senticles and help her break the news to her admirer that although she was flattered, she was already in a satisfying relationship. Without breaking her admirer's heart. Or head. Too severely.
Above all else, she wanted to discourage this infatuation. Before Gabrielle found out.
But then, Ephiny had kissed her. And she'd seen the mistletoe. And remembered seeing a very similar weed inside the wooden box.
But, with Eph and I, it was hate at first sight. Ever since that first day when I caught her staring and threatened to take her eyes out. A thought hit Xena like a ton of bricks. Unless beneath all those layers of animosity, the cute blonde was hiding her animal attraction.
Xena rubbed her fingers against her now throbbing temple.
x x x x x
She'd ended up back at the dining hut. Specifically, in the kitchen. She'd passed the dice throwers on her way in, the majority of them still sleeping on or beneath the table. Although one or two of them were making the attempt to crawl in the direction of their huts.
Not even the head cook was up and about, yet.
But, Solari was. Xena found the scout up to her knees in pots and pans littered on the floor about her, most of them used. A varied assortment of almost every baked treat imaginable covered practically every flat surface in the vast kitchen. The Amazon was wielding a flat knife, spinning a cake on a platter as she skillfully applied icing to the top and sides.
"Oh, hey, Xena." The brunette nodded her head in greeting.
The warrior princess picked up a cookie fashioned into the shape of a Centaur. "What's going on?"
"Baking." Solari didn't even bat an eye. "I heard the way to a woman's heart is through her stomach."
"Feed her this many sweets and you'll put her in a sugar-induced coma."
"Huh." Solari paused from her work, knife poised in mid-air as she looked around the kitchen, as though seeing for the first time what she had done. "Guess that might be an option," she shrugged.
The action caused a big dollop of icing to fall from the poised knife. Xena's eyes followed as it landed squarely on one of Solari's well-proportioned breasts and did a slow slide down.
Solari didn't miss a beat. She tugged her halter to the side. Xena's gaze was riveted. She watched as the scout used three fingers to scoop up the mess.
Solari popped one finger in her mouth, licking it clean before starting on the next. Her tongue swirled around her middle finger, halting as she realized Xena was staring.
"Want some?" she offered, extending her icing-covered ring finger towards the warrior princess.
x x x x x
In retrospect, Xena supposed she could have handled that situation more gracefully.
The scene had just been so erotically charged. Solari was already an unrepentant flirt. And, she'd looked at Xena with those big, brown bedroom eyes. And, her breasts were just so - Xena had already guessed from the Amazon's skimpy tops that they had to be magnificent. But, she'd never actually seen one completely bared...they were mouth-watering. And, the sultry way she'd licked the icing off -
Maybe the offer had been a simple, innocent gesture on Solari's part. After all, her mate had just recently tossed her out on her tailfeathers and Solari had been trying everything she could think of the get back in her good graces. Why not baking?
Yep, turning the bowl of icing upside down on the scout's head was probably not the smoothest of reactions.
But, it had seemingly broken the spell she'd been under. As soon as her thoughts had cleared, she'd used her own fingers to try to wipe some of the frosting out of Solari's hair. Somehow, she only made it worse as the icing began to set like gel, hardening the strands until Solari's hair was sticking straight up.
Xena hastily stammered out an apology and ran, citing that she was late for a meeting with Eponin.
x x x x x
She'd now told both Ephiny and Solari that she'd been looking for Eponin. So, she figured she'd better hide out with Pony while she thought things through.
She'd expected the Amazon weapons master to still be sleeping. She was definitely in bed, but she certainly wasn't sleeping.
Eponin was on her stomach, facing the wrong way with her feet at the headboard and her head hanging off the foot of the bed. She lifted her head, tilting it at an unnatural angle as she looked up at the woman entering her hut.
"Oh, Xena. Thank the gods."
"I've - ah - " Eponin winced as she attempted a move outside her current range of motion. " - unh - wrenched my back."
"Ow." Probably that last hit she took in sparring practice, Xena figured, seeing the clearly defined black-and-blue outline of a staff shaped bruise stretching across the expanse of Pony's lower back, just above her beltline.
"Hmm." Xena studied the situation from all sides. "Can't really use pressure points there or you'll lose control of your bladder." She grabbed Ep's arm. "Let's get you up and to the healers."
"Nonononono." Eponin could feel the pulling sensation all the way down to her lower back.
Sensing her friend's discomfort, Xena let loose her arm.
"Stay put. I'll bring the healer here."
Stay put? Like I could go anywhere? Ep shook her head, instantly regretting the action. Gritting her teeth against the pain, she pleaded, "No."
"Okay, don't worry." Xena was sympathetic to Pony's plight, knowing that like most warriors, the weapons master had an aversion to healers. "We'll take care of you here."
She moved to the foot of the - well, to the head of the bed where Eponin's feet were. Ep could hear Xena scattering things on top of her nightstand, knocking a set of chobos off before asking, "Ep, where's your liniment?"
That she had some, there was no doubt. It was a staple of any warrior's bedside table.
"Huh? Oh, must've run out."
"Great." Xena thought of the three jars of the stuff she had on her side of the bed back at the queen's hut. "Hang tight. I'll go get mine."
"Wait. There might be something in the top drawer."
An uneasy feeling was already settling in Xena’s gut before she even had the drawer fully opened. Inside, sharing the drawer with three pairs of Eponin's breechcloths was a partially used bottle of olive oil and a leather phallus and harness set.
x x x x x
It had taken nearly all of Xena's much vaunted warrior stoicism to not run screaming from Eponin's hut. Pushing her panic down, firmly stomping on it and slamming down the lid, she promised to put her misgivings aside and focus on helping her friend.
Yeah, her and Pony were friends. Buddies. They hung out together all the time. Besides, they were both warriors, right? Steeling herself, Xena opened the cap, pouring out the first drops of oil on Eponin's tense back.
As her fingers worked the tension out of Ep's upper back, they both began to relax. And, Xena didn't give it a second thought when out of necessity, she climbed onto the bed and straddled Pony's hips so she could increase the pressure. Leaning forward, placing her weight on her upper arms and wrists, she methodically kneaded tight muscles.
"Hey, Xena?" Pony's relaxed voice drifted back. "Have you ever gotten a nontraditional Solstice gift?"
Xena's fingers gripped tightly and Eponin let out a cry of pain before Xena eased up the pressure on her shoulders. Taking a deep breath, exhaling, the warrior princess forced herself to calm down. She'd already blown things with Ephiny and Solari by bolting. The least she could do was talk things through with Pony.
"Yeah," she answered, "once or twice. You get one?"
"You've given one?" was the next logical question.
"Thinking about it," Pony said. "Weapons are traditional. But I picked out something different. Just don't know if she'd be into it."
Xena's breathing came quicker. It was obvious what Pony was working up the courage to ask. Aww, please don't, Ep. We're friends. Xena didn't want to hurt her. Physically or emotionally. She needed to find a way to gently let Pony down. Yeah, a sensitive chat. I can do that.
"Ep?" Deep breath. "I've got to tell you something. And I want you to listen and not interrupt until I'm done." Xena paused. Her thumbs dug deep as she stalled, trying to come up with what to say next. Words. Gabrielle's so much better at using them. Xena tried to channel her inner-Gabrielle, thinking of what her bard would say.
"Ep, I think your doubt stems less from being concerned about a nontraditional gift and more from being what's considered a nontraditional romance." Eponin made a move as if to speak. "Shush. Listen, don't speak. If you interrupt me, I won't be able to find the right words."
Xena scooted backwards on her knees, her fingers working lower down Eponin's frame. "Feelings of attraction towards someone is only natural. So is expressing your attraction. And, when it occurs between two women, it can be a very beautiful thing."
She sat back on her haunches, settling her weight on Pony's posterior. She followed the rhythm of her kneading fingers, letting her digits dictate the pace of the massage. "Even more so when it's two friends coming together in that way. Working together, hanging out with each other, eating together; sometimes, it's just bound to happen."
Xena's skillful hands worked along the edges of Eponin's bruise. "It's natural to have feelings. And to want to express those feelings. Even when it's two warriors."
Xena's fingers stilled. She leaned forward. She brushed ebony locks away, pushing the strands behind Eponin's ear. She wanted to make certain Pony clearly heard what she was saying. "Ep, it's okay that you're attracted to me - "
x x x x x
She immediately stiffened when she heard someone behind her. The brush she'd been furiously using on Argo stilled. There was a low warning timbre to her voice as she spoke without turning around.
"Eph, now's really not a good time."
Undaunted, the Amazon regent stepped fully into the stall. Wisely, though, she opted to stand on the opposite side of Argo. "Just wanted to check up on you."
"I'm fine," was the terse response.
Ephiny grimaced as she got her first good look at Xena's injuries. Her reaction didn't go unnoticed.
"Yeah," Xena said, "You wouldn't think someone with a bad back could move that fast.”
Xena's gaze shifted away. She kept her eyes fixed on Argo's coat as she thoroughly brushed the mare. Ephiny wordlessly picked up another brush and started grooming Argo's flank. They worked in companionable silence for a while, neither saying anything for a long time.
"Pony's sorry, you know. She feels really bad - "
"I know." Argo snorted as the pressure of Xena's strokes increased.
"I can't believe you made a pass at her."
More furious brushing as she refused to look up. "I thought she was into me.”
"You?" An incredulous blonde brow shot up. "No way is Pony into you. She’s into..." Ephiny's voice slowly trailed off.
"I know. We talked." This time, she did look at Ephiny. "By the way, what's your stance on rabbit fur underwear?"
“It’s….ummm…okay. I guess.”
“Good.” Blue eyes twinkled mischievously. “Because that’s what Ep’s giving you for Solstice.”
“Huh.” They both went back to brushing Argo. It was a few scant heartbeats later before Ephiny asked, “Xena? I know you love Gabrielle.”
“More than anything, Eph.”
“Then,” Ephiny leaned across Argo, dropped her voice to a harsh whisper, “Then, why in the names of all the Gods would you hit on Pony?”
“It was a misunderstanding.”
“Yeah, you said you thought she was into you. But, that doesn’t explain why you were trying to seduce her.”
“Look, I thought Ep was trying to seduce me. I was letting her down easy.”
“Well, that at least explains your two-warriors-together speech.”
Xena rolled her eyes. She couldn’t believe Eponin had told Ephiny.
“Yeah, well that’s where the misunderstanding came in. I didn’t know she thought I was talking about you and her. Just like I thought she was talking about me and her, not the two of you.” Xena scowled at Ephiny’s barely contained grin. “It was an honest mistake. Cut me some slack; the two of you are warriors.”
“Well, yeah,” Ephiny agreed. “But, not like the two of you. I mean look at me.” She gestured, as if to indicate her frame, “Then, look at you. And her. Can you imagine how ridiculous the two of you would look as a couple?”
“Hey! It’s not that ridiculous an idea. I think we’d make a striking couple.”
Ephiny openly laughed. Then, sensing Xena’s temper was growing short, she held up her hands in mock surrender. “Okay, okay, I give. I just don’t get why the idea would ever occur to you in the first place.”
“You know why, Eph? You really want to know why?” Xena’s control finally snapped. “Because of the sexually explicit gift I got from my Secret Senticles.”
“Wait.” Ephiny’s smile dropped. “You opened your gift? Today’s Solstice Eve. Those aren’t supposed to be opened until tomorrow.”
“I think you’re missing the point here, Eph. This isn’t about me opening my gift early. It’s about Queen’s consort receiving something sexually suggestive from one of her Amazons. What do you think Gabrielle’s gonna say when she finds out?”
“Oh, gods.” Ephiny scrubbed a hand across her face. “You should have come to me immediately.”
“I did.” Xena leveled a look at her. “You kissed me.”
“Okay. Okay.” Ephiny began pacing in much the same manner Xena had when she’d first opened her gift. She abruptly stopped, a semi-hopeful look on face. “Maybe it’s not as bad as you think, Xena. Maybe you misunderstood the intent?”
Xena crossed to the back of Argo’s stall, rooted around in a thick pile of hay. Ephiny watched closely. First, Xena came up with – eeewwww! Xena shot Argo a dirty look, wiped her palm on her leathers. She tried again, this time pulling out the present she’d carefully hidden.
“You brought it here?” Eph hissed out, taking the box by both handles as Xena thrust it at her. The warrior princess undid the hasp, lifted the lid. Ephiny peered inside. Hazel eyes widened, her mouth formed a silent O as she caught sight of a leather phallus that she recognized as being identical to one she kept at Pony’s hut carefully nestled amongst several other items.
“What do you think, Eph?” Xena’s brow reached a dangerously high arch. “Did I get the intent right?”
“Oh-kay. I could be wrong.”
“Nice of you to admit it,” Xena deadpanned. “But, that still doesn’t help me figure out which featherhead was dumb enough to do this.”
Ephiny stared in puzzlement at the gift, trying to figure out who could possibly be Xena’s Secret Senticles. “We drew names in small groups so we wouldn’t forget anyone.” Ephiny’s eyes narrowed. She reached out, closing the lid. Her voice took on a suspicious tone. “Wait. I’ve seen this box before.”
x x x x x
- The Queen and Her Consort –
Gabrielle untied the ribbon, unrolled the leather hide. Her gift fell out into the palm of her hand; a new pen and parchment set.
“Oh, Xena!” Gabrielle kissed Xena soundly on the lips. “I love it.”
Xena struggled to one-handed unwrap her gift from Gabrielle. Finally, after much fumbling, the queen reached over and helped her consort.
“I still don’t understand how you managed to crush your fingers, Xena.”
“I’ve already told you, Gabrielle. Accident with a staff.”
“But to break all the fingers on one hand? And your nose at the same time?”
Xena glared at Eponin. “A freak of a staff accident.”
Gabrielle’s smile faltered. She just knew she’d missed something by sleeping the day away yesterday. Just as she knew there was more to the story than Xena was telling. And, the way she kept looking at Pony? No, those two had gotten up to something together; she just knew it. But, it was Solstice and she was willing to let it go. For now.
They were sitting on the same furs, in the same spot as they had been the other evening. The gifts beneath the tree had all been passed out and everyone had returned to their respective campsites. Of course, Eponin, Ephiny and Solari had joined them. Surprisingly, their camp had an extra guest in the form of Solari’s partner, who had finally forgiven the scout her past transgressions. Apparently, so much so that she’d given Solari a brand new, wolf-hide cloak. Full-length. Solari reciprocated with an ivory handled boot dagger.
Ep and Eph were seated impossibly close together, holding hands as they opened their gifts. Pony, in particular, was beside herself with joy. She’d gotten a bow and arrow set from her Secret Senticles and a double-edged labrys from Ephiny. Pony leaned over, plucking a hair from Solari’s head. She experimentally ran it along one edge, eyes lighting up as the strand was split in two. Ephiny nudged Pony, pointing as Gabrielle pushed Xena’s Secret Senticles present towards her warrior princess.
The warrior princess nervously wet her lips. She turned the box so she was certain no one else could see inside. Fingers undid the hasp. She lifted the lid just far enough that she could peer inside.
“What’d you get, Xena?” asked Ep.
“Yeah?” chimed in Ephiny. “What’s in the box?”
Xena calmly looked the regent dead in the eye before answering –
"Hunting knife.” She arched a brow, daring Ephiny to contradict her. “Matches my whetstone.”
x x x x x
Xena lay flat on her back in bed, hands tucked behind her head. Gabrielle lay beside and curled into her, her head tucked beneath Xena’s chin. The bard turned so she could lovingly gaze up at her warrior.
The warrior princess grinned. She’d been expecting this. “Yeah, Gabrielle, I know. I have many skills.”
Xena’s smile dropped.
“Well, there’s that. There’s always that,” Gabrielle conceded, placing a teasing bite on Xena’s neck. “At the Solstice party, when you opened your gift from your Secret Senticles, I saw the expression on your face. You weren’t surprised at all, were you?”
“No, Gabrielle, I wasn’t.”
“Because?” Gabrielle prompted, not certain she would like the answer.
“Because I knew you were my Secret Senticles.”
“You knew?!?” Gabrielle was indignant.
“Because I know you, my bard.” Xena added in a smooth voice, used two fingers to cup Gabrielle beneath her chin, blue eyes staring into green, “Well enough to know all you really want for Solstice is the same thing as me; for each of us to be happy and well loved.”
Gabrielle’s smile lit up the hut. “And, a very merry Solstice to us all,” she winked, placed a heart-felt kiss on Xena’s lips.