In this third season Solstice story set immediately after ONE AGAINST AN ARMY, Xena and Gabrielle seek to reclaim some of the joy and innocence lost since their encounter with Senticles a year earlier.




Raindrops On Roses



By IseQween

December 2008



Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things

-- From “My Favorite Things,” The Sound of Music





“Sure you’re up to this?”  Xena glanced with arched brow at the rider seated behind her.  “A day or so’s rest isn’t much.”


“But of course.  I’m always up for shopping.  It’s one of my favorite things.”




“Pfft.  Look who’s talking.  At least I got to lie around awhile.”  Gabrielle brushed a wound on Xena’s arm.  “As opposed to single-handedly mixing it up with an entire army.”  She snorted.  “Even if that is one of your favorite things.”


“Yeah, well, for once you outdid me on that score.  Sprained ankle, arrow nick to a lung, poison in your system.  Quite a bit to handle, even for a tough little warrior bard.”


Gabrielle rested her head against Xena’s back.  “I’ve survived worse,” she murmured.  “The physical stuff is a piece of cake.”


Xena suppressed a shudder, recalling all they’d endured the past few months in Brittania and Chin.  What the Furies, Dahok, Caesar, and Ming T’ien had doled out.  What they’d done to each other.  “Yeah.  Guess you got a point there.”


“Illusia was the real test,” Gabrielle added, reading her partner’s thoughts.  “If we passed that okay, what’s a few nicks and bumps?”


“Absolutely.”  Xena lifted her chin, determined to lighten the mood.  “Time we acquired something we want for a change.  Lucky for you, we may actually have a few dinars to do it.”


“Oh?  You rob those Persian soldiers you sent running with their tails between their legs?”


“Mm.  Let’s say they left a nice trade for my efforts.”  Xena patted a large sack hanging from Argo’s saddle.  “Should be worth something we have no business getting.”


“Hmm.  We’re out of quite a few necessities.”  Gabrielle poked Xena’s back.  “Like the new boots you owe me.  As to the ‘no business’ items, I merely browse those.  Of course, if we end up with extra dinars ….”


“Argo gets next dibs?  Think she’s still a bit ticked I … shooed … her away before our potential suicide mission at the armory.”


The Palomino tossed her head.  Her companions laughed.


“Wow.  Who knew?  Maybe she and I have that in common.”  Gabrielle patted Argo’s flank.  “Maybe shopping’s her favorite thing too?”


{ { { { {


The market bustled as usual before Solstice.  Mostly people buying delicacies to share with holiday guests, or children eyeing toys their parents couldn’t afford.  Asaad relaxed in the shadows of his booth, scanning for newcomers who hadn’t yet picked over everything like the locals.  His eyes landed on a young woman who seemed … out of place.  Strange. 


She used a walking stick to cover a slight limp.  Her pale face suggested a pampered village girl who didn’t get out much.  Everything else about her contradicted that impression.  A muscular frame and tanned limbs.  Short, two-piece outfit more suitable for action.  Walking boots – the one on her gimpy leg held together with twine.   She moved through the crowd with confidence.  Alert, but more instinctively, rather than out of concern for her injury.  Looking for something in particular while appreciating everything at the same time. 


Who was she?  What did she seek?  Why here and now?  Asaad had a few speculations, of course, but suspected this woman would surprise him.  He bet she was a talker.  He hoped so.  He mentally reviewed his goods.  Yes, she might well be worth sitting cooped up in a setting like this.  Not just for the money she might give him, but the snippets of a life beyond the limits of his little stall.  His heart quickened.  A good story.  One of his favorite things. 


“Miss?”  Asaad loped toward the woman before she got too far away.  “Miss?” 


“Um, hello there.”


“You looking to replace that boot?”


“You noticed, huh?  Contrary to some opinions, this patch job doesn’t quite work, eh?”


Asaad returned her smile.  “Pays to be observant in my business.”


“Are you a shoemaker?”


“May I?”  Asaad knelt to examine the boot.  “Sole’s still good.  The rest is in pretty good condition.”  He stood.  “Got some leather that should match.  Might be able to fix it for you.  Faster than starting from scratch.  Cheaper too. ”


“Hmm.  I am owed a new pair.  Though these aren’t that old.”  The woman snorted.  “They do have sentimental value.  And the extra dinars would be mine to spend as I please.”


“Well, let’s see then.”  Asaad took her elbow and guided her toward his stall.  “That slit?  Very clean.  Precise.  Unusual, accidentally getting that on a boot.”


“It’s unusual, all right.  And no accident.  You wouldn’t believe how it happened.”


“No?”  Asaad grinned.  “Sounds interesting.  I’d like to hear about it.”


“Wow, you have quite finely crafted objects here.  A person could miss them among the clothing and house ware.”


Asaad shrugged.  “I am a master of many crafts.  I make for people what they need.  I do the fancy items more for myself anyway.”


His customer ran a finger across a floral pattern that seemed to literally grow out of its small marble setting.  “Even this?”


“I made everything in here.”


“It’s exquisite.  Kind of surprising for a man who fixes boots.”  The woman stuck out her hand.  “I’m Gabrielle and rather fond of stories myself.  Yours sounds like one I’d like to hear.”


{ { { { {


Roblius sensed her before she emerged from the crowd.  Tall, powerfully built.  Her presence enough to clear a path.  He quickly put his most expensive weapons on display.  His gut said he’d soon be dealing with her like a moth to a flame.  He was right. 


“You look like a man who knows his weapons.”


 “Aye, that I am.  Only the best.”


“Excellent.”  The woman swept aside the displayed weapons, took off a large sack slung over her shoulder and emptied its contents unto the space she’d cleared.  “Perhaps we can do some business?”


Roblius’ eyes bulged.  He’d heard of swords like these, but never possessed or sold one.  “Persian?” he asked, caressing the intricately designed hilt.




“You an arms dealer?”


“Nope.”   The woman smirked.  “They were a gift.  Sort of.”


“I heard they were in the area recently.  Persians.  Supposedly on the attack.  But none of the militias ….”  Frowning, Roblius drew back his hands.  “You didn’t … um ….  I don’t mess with stolen merchandise.  Least ways, not from armies.”


“I wouldn’t worry about repercussions.”  The woman sneered.  “Least ways, not from that army.” 


“You saying they came?  But didn’t attack?  But where ….  How ….” 


“Oh, they came.  They attacked.  I … persuaded …them to leave.”


“Persuaded?  They’re known as some of the fiercest – .”


“I fought them.”


You fought them?!  By yourself?”


“With help from a friend.”  The woman sighed.  “Name’s Xena.”  At Roblius’ expression, she added, “Yes, that Xena.”  She indicated a gash on her arm and bruises on her face.  “They gave me these too.”  She shrugged.  “If it matters, you could say I compensated them sufficiently.  So.  You interested or not?”


Roblius glanced between the woman and her “gifts.”  Yes, he was interested.  So much so, he didn’t care if this truly was the legendary Warrior Princess or whether she told tales as big as her reputation.  Exotic arms like these were worth the risk of getting burned.  He bowed slightly. “Roblius, at your service.  Money or trade?”


{ { { { {


Saleem couldn’t believe his luck.  Left for dead, he’d simply been kicked unconscious while he lay on that armory floor pretending he was dead.  Crawled away when he could from the she-demon who’d decimated the army he once thought invincible.  Never imagined he’d bump into her strolling through the market a few days later.  She hadn’t paid him a moment’s notice in his stolen peasant clothes.  But his eyes stayed glued to her.  Examining her body in vain for more evidence of the ferocious battle she’d waged against his comrades.  For signs she wasn’t some god merely dallying there before vanishing in thin air. 


He watched her eat an apple.  Wince when a child’s ball barely hit her leg.  Head for a particular stall as if truly shopping.  Dump weapons on a merchant’s table and take money a god would never need.  Weapons that looked very much like those he’d carried and found useless against her, even though now finally convinced she was human.  When she walked away, he went to the booth she’d visited.


“See something you like?  I sell only the best.”


Saleem searched among the pile.  Lucky again.  He pulled out a sword with his initial carved just below the hilt.  “This one.”


“Ah.  Good choice.  Persian, you know.”


“Yes.  Any more where these came from?”


“Don’t know.  The … supplier … didn’t say.  Had her eye on this knife though.  I can inquire if she comes back for it.  Wanna buy that sword now?  Check later to see if I got something else?”


Saleem pretended to pull coins from a pouch at his waist.  He made a quick scan of the surrounding area.  When the merchant stepped closer to get his money, Saleem grasped the man’s shoulder, thrust a knife in his belly and slowly dropped down holding the body as though looking for something beneath the counter.  He covered the merchant with some sacks and made himself comfortable on the man’s stool.  Smiling, he began buffing the sword he’d selected.  Of all his weapons, this had been his favorite.


{ { { { {


Asaad’s measurements confirmed he’d need a relatively small swatch of leather to repair Gabrielle’s boot.  He figured he could have it ready the next afternoon.  Unfortunately, preoccupation with that task had distracted him from his other goal – discovering more about this customer who was obviously much more than she appeared. 


“I usually take a break around this time.  I have bread and cheese.  Care to join me?”


Gabrielle admitted to herself she’d been glad for the excuse to sit awhile on Asaad’s stool, her now bare foot resting on a crate.  Though significantly improved, her ankle throbbed a bit from her brief activity so far.  She wasn’t anxious to resume limping about, but neither did she intend to waste this opportunity to try finding a Solstice gift for Xena.  Or give her know-it-all partner the satisfaction of being right about taking it easy another couple of days. 


“That’s very kind of you.  Problem is, I need to pick up a few things.  Before I meet up with a friend.”


“Ah.  I had so hoped …. “  Asaad swallowed back his disappointment.  He began searching through his stock of sandals.  “Here.  You can wear one or both of these until you come back tomorrow.”


“Oh, thank you.”  Gabrielle slipped a sandal on her foot.  A moment later she took off the good boot and stuck it in her carry bag.  “My friend doesn’t need to know about my bargain just yet.”   She winked. “Leaves me free to browse for a surprise.”  


“I have an idea,” Asaad said, brightening.  “Why not shop awhile and pop back here for a snack?  I don’t mind waiting.  After, you can return anytime you like, if you need to rest.”  He grinned.  “You can tell me your tale in installments.”


Gabrielle chuckled.  “You’d better be careful.  I’ve been known to do some barding.  I’m starting to think I could barter for the boot with a story.”


Asaad threw up his hands.  “What can I say?  I might be tempted.  Could fill my day, if not my purse.”


{ { { { {


Xena leaned against a fence bordering one side of the market, scanning for a certain blond head.  She absently patted the little pouch tucked in the cleft between her breastplates.   She hadn’t felt the weight of so many coins in quite a while.  Well, not her own anyway.  Even now she usually held or borrowed them for some mission.  Carrying dinars free of guilt, enough for personal pleasure?  For once she might enjoy shopping as much as Gabrielle.  Except, instead of her partner’s scattershot approach, Xena aimed for a particular target.  Boots. 


The corner of her mouth twitched in anticipation of Gabrielle’s surprise.  They hadn’t said much about Solstice, beyond commenting on how quickly the year had passed since their caper with Senticles.  Wondering how he was, whether he truly would risk the tradition he’d vowed of sliding down chimneys with a bag of toys, bedecked in white beard and that silly red costume.  


“I hope so,” Gabrielle had said as they prepared camp the day before.  “I enjoyed that.”


“Yeah.  Me too.”


“How’s the head?  Stitches still itchy?”


“I’ll live.  You?”


“Mm, better.  Ankle’s gone from grapefruit to passably puffy.  Only hurts if I put weight on it too long.  As for the other, fresh air and rest have done wonders.  Another day, I’ll be ready to rumble.”


“How `bout you start with hop or ride?”


“Heh.  Like you’ll give me a choice?”


“I will, if you make the right one.”


A little chitchat later, they’d turned in, silently appreciating the basic comforts of a campfire, solitude from the demands of strangers, the closeness of each other.  But not quite at a good enough distance yet from memories now bittersweet.  Of the orphans they’d practically forced Senticles into helping them save.  Of a son abandoned, reclaimed and lost again.  A daughter abandoned, reclaimed and lost again.  Children whose innocence and joy should illuminate the season like a star crowning the Solstice tree, yet now might as well have existed in another universe.


Still, Xena prided herself on being a practical, “in the moment” kinda gal.  Dedicated to ensuring low points in their life wouldn’t necessarily shape the present or determine the future.  She would’ve preferred demonstrating this commitment with something more fitting than new boots.  The warrior smiled wryly, recalling Gabrielle’s attempt to prove she could execute a Xenaesque flip.  Her stubborn refusal to admit the result was instead a badly sprained ankle.  How an unexpected encounter with Xena’s chakram opened the boot to reveal the truth. 


Xena snorted, recognizing a habit of hers she felt necessary but often regretted.  Like getting Gabrielle to see that, underneath his charm, Petracles was a master manipulator, or that the “heroic” Meleager might have murdered in a drunken stupor.  That beneath the good deeds of a certain Warrior Princess coursed the blood of someone capable of hurting her best friend.   Xena loved and relied upon such faith, such optimism that nothing could be as bad as it seemed.  How sadly ironic it would be her hands so prominent in constantly slicing away at her young companion’s certainty.  That the so-called greatest warrior could change the world, but not the instincts that questioned what seemed too good to be true.


And so she decided to focus on what she could fix.  She’d take back Solstice.  Honor the slap on the butt Solan had given them in Illusia – forcing their eyes open to the love and forgiveness that could light their way to a better place.  She lifted her chin.  Time to scout the market.  She began walking around the outskirts.  She hadn’t seen any shoemakers the first time through, but she’d been focused on a different objective.  She glimpsed the blond head she’d sought earlier, headed for the produce section at the opposite end.  Xena smirked.  Count on Gabrielle to put first things first when it involved eating. 




Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudel
Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles
Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings
These are a few of my favorite things




“Miss?  You plannin’ to eat that?  Or use it for cannon fodder?”


Gabrielle absently tested the firmness of a large tomato.  She jumped when a finger poked her shoulder.  It belonged to a burly man in a soiled apron. 


“It’s fine.  Ripe like it’s s’posed to be.  You want green ones, they’re in that bin over there.”


Gabrielle stared at the vendor a moment before following his gaze to her hand.  “Oh, sorry.  I didn’t mean to –  .”


“I got a policy for samplers – you squeeze, you buy.”


“Um, no.  I’m not sampling.”  Gabrielle ducked her head.  “Well, maybe I am, but I do intend to buy.”  She stuck the tomato in her bag and added two more.  “I’ll want a bunch of those greens as well.” 


“Okay then.” 


Gabrielle’s visual examination had already confirmed the quality of this vendor’s vegetables.  She felt comfortable letting him select the best picks of the other items on her list.  While he did so, she rested against his table, most of her weight on her good side, and let her mind wander back to where it had been – what to get for Xena.  She figured the warrior wasn’t expecting anything.  Solstice had pretty much crept up on them.  Neither had made much ado about it, other than recalling last year’s adventure with Senticles and the orphans. 


Her eyes drifted to a spot across the way, where she heard children’s voices.  She couldn’t see them, but she pictured them playing, telling each other what they wanted to find under the Solstice tree.  Like she’d once imagined for Hope.  That vision vanished the same day as Xena’s dream of ever giving Solan more than the happy years he’d spent as someone else’s son.  What was it Xena had said?  Children continue growing inside you long after they’ve taken their first free breath outside?  Of everything she and Xena had experienced together, she’d never foreseen them sharing such a motherhood of tragic memories.  Each midwifing the stillborn possibilities of the other. 


But they …they had survived.  In a sense been reborn, thanks to the spirit of Xena’s child.  Solan carried the seeds of hope and forgiveness.  Conceived two lost mothers in a place where they could find themselves.  Delivered them clean to new possibilities.  Reminded them of a bond that – along with the pain – brought them love and growth and fulfillment they would have wanted for their children.  And so Gabrielle meant to honor Solstice.  To honor children.  The ones they’d borne, met, would always carry inside.  Whatever she found for Xena didn’t matter so much, as letting the warrior know they had more to celebrate than mourn. 


“Are you familiar with the vendors here?”


“Depends.  Whatcha lookin’ for?”


“Something a warrior might like.”


“A warrior?”  The produce merchant scratched his chin.  “Guy a couple booths down.  Might try him.”


“Oh?  What’s he sell?”




{ { { { {


Someone else had been in that armory with the dark-haired Greek fury, hiding in the loft, dumping hot oil on the soldiers fighting her.  From the description passed on by one of his comrades, Saleem surmised that person might well have been the young light-haired woman who’d just left “his” stall.   He’d initially been annoyed.  She hardly looked the sort to make his brief subterfuge as a merchant worthwhile.  His response changed at her keen interest in the Persian swords.


On a hunch, he’d volunteered, “I bought those from a tall woman warrior.”


“Oh, that was my friend.  I’m trying to find her a gift.”


“Yeah?  She said she might come back for this knife.”  




They’d discussed price.  The woman said she should have enough, but would return after she’d made some other purchases. 


“If your friend asks, I’ll say I already sold it for a price I couldn’t refuse.”  He’d winked.  “We’ll all be in on the surprise.”


As he watched her limp away, he inserted his sword under his belt.  His patience had served him well on many an occasion.  Like when he’d played possum in that armory.  And now he’d found a pigeon because of it – the light-haired woman who would lead him to the dark-haired vulture. 


{ { { { {


Patience was one of the qualities Asaad most appreciated in himself.  Without it, he could never have survived the tediousness of his current situation.  A dreamer at heart, he’d pictured himself becoming an artisan, perhaps in service to a wealthy patron who appreciated his skill at creating beauty from just about any material.  But no, his father pictured him instead in a uniform, carving bodies in place of figurines.  Days before deemed old enough for conscription, he’d stowed away on a merchant ship bound for Greece. 


He’d found the culture quite different from his own, but not inhospitable to his artistic bent.   Indeed, many liked the “exotic” flair of even his most mundane products.  Recent word of invaders from his homeland made him even more thankful for the life he’d made here, however dull.  From the little Gabrielle had so far revealed, it seemed she’d been in the vicinity of that army.  He shuddered, imagining her the victim of an arrow shot from his bow.  How fortunate fate had instead introduced her to him as a friend.


He moved in front of his stall and surveyed the market.  Was that her near the other end, weaving her way back?  He started to walk that way for a better look when something else caught his eye.  Someone with a sword.  Watching Gabrielle’s every move.  Surely a kind person such as she could not have enemies of that ilk.  A potential thief?  Whatever, Asaad’s gut ordered him to take action.


“Gabrielle?!” Asaad headed toward her, waving and dodging shoppers.  “Gabrielle!”  He blew out a breath when she finally spotted him.  “Gabrielle, I have your order ready!”


Gabrielle waved back.  “Soon!” she yelled. 


“Now!”  Asaad continued forward.  “I’m ready now!”


Gabrielle suppressed a bit of irritation, suspecting Asaad’s urgency had more to do with her company than the boot he couldn’t possibly have fixed that soon.  Still, she limped toward him.  “Asaad,” she said when they met, “I thought you – .”


“Shhh.”  Asaad took her arm.  “You’re being followed,” he whispered.  He gave a furtive glance behind her, but the mystery person had disappeared. 


{ { { { {


Xena ground her teeth.  Any other time she’d’ve been glad to find a blacksmith.  Unfortunately Argo didn’t wear the same size shoe as Gabrielle.  And apparently most women in the area didn’t fancy sturdy walking boots.  The one possibility had been a stall with sandals and uncut leather displayed, suggesting the vendor might repair or make boots from scratch.  Xena prepared to circle back there when she got the prickly sensation on her neck that usually meant she was being watched.


A group of military types passed by.  Xena hunched down and walked beside them until she could blend into a crowd that obscured her movement toward the area where she might find a spy.   She noticed a man scouring the area.  She came up behind him.


“Looking for anyone in particular?”


The man whirled, his mouth dropping when he saw who spoke.  “I … I …lost my … daughter.  She was … over there.”  He pointed ahead, suddenly stiffening when a blond head crossed his sight.  He turned, now pointing in another direction.  “Uh, no, I meant over there.”


Xena continued looking at the first spot, sucking in her cheeks as the blond head came closer.  “Maybe I can help?”


Now agitated, the man grabbed Xena’s arm and tried to steer her in the second direction.  “Yes, yes, that would be good.”   Noticing she wouldn’t budge, he spun and yelled, “Run, Gabrielle!  Run!”  To his dismay, she casually walked toward him anyway.  He tried to head her off, but found his own arm now snared.  “Gabrielle, please!  You have to – .”


“What’s going on?”  Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at Xena.  “What’s she up to?”


“The one I told you about!  Spying on you!”


“Ah.  The ‘mean looking warrior with a sword,’ I take it?”


“Yes, yes!  She’s got me, but you can still get away!”


“Ha.   Afraid it’s much too late for that.  This is the friend I told you about.  She’s safer than she looks.  In my case, anyway.  Xena, you can unhand him.  This is Asaad.  Also safer than he looks.”  Gabrielle smiled at the merchant.  “My protector in fact.”


Xena released Asaad’s arm.  “Sorry about that.”  She raised a brow at Gabrielle.  “I get twitchy when folks spy on me.”


“Excuse me?”  Gabrielle raised a brow at Xena.  “According to Asaad, I’m the one should be twitchy.”


“Um … about that.”  Xena rubbed her jaw, stalling for time for a good explanation. 


“Ah, I believe I understand.”  Asaad had wandered off a little while the women talked.  He sidled up to Xena and leaned in conspiratorially.  “You too were concerned about Gabrielle’s welfare?”


Xena stared at him.  “I was?”  At his nod, she decided to nod as well.  “Um, why, yes, I was.  Smart of you to pick up on that.”


“Yes.  I mistakenly thought you were the danger.”


“But you were wrong, because ….”  Xena cocked her head at him expectantly.


“Pfft.”  Gabrielle swatted the warrior’s midsection.  “You can fool Asaad, but I know what you were – .”


“Shhh.  Let the man talk.  G’won, Asaad.  Break it down why I had my eye on her.”


“I hadn’t noticed him before.  I caught him watching us.”  Asaad slid his eyes to the right.  “Across the way, by the fabric stall.  Man with a sword through his belt.”


Xena glanced in the direction indicated at a man hunched over a counter examining a bolt of cloth.  “Uh huh.  Couldn’t tell much from his back, but don’t think I know him.”


Gabrielle took a look.  “I believe I do.”  She snickered.  “Probably checking to see if I’m still ….”  She bit her lip, remembering why she might not want to mention the knife he hoped she’d purchase from him.  “Uh, if I’m still okay.  My ankle acted up.  I had to rest against his table a moment.”


“What happened to your boots?”


“Um ….”


“I talked her into a pair of sandals.”  Asaad winked at Gabrielle. 


“Uh huh.”  Gabrielle winked back, then patted her carry bag.  “I decided to retire the boots for the day.”  Her brow furrowed.  “Xena, didn’t you sell those weapons?”


“Yup. Put the money in the usual place.”


“I thought I saw them ….  Isn’t he the guy you sold them to?”


“The arms merchant?  Nah.  Much bigger.  Blond hair and beard.”


“Huh.”  Gabrielle recalled her conversation with the man across the way.  She could’ve sworn he’d talked to Xena personally.  “He’s the guy I saw behind the counter.”


Asaad chuckled.  “Not too many from my homeland fit that description.  Sword looks like it’s from there too.”


“Your homeland?”


“Persia.  I’m pretty sure that man over there is .…”  Asaad noted the glances exchanged between the two women.  “What is it?”


“Asaad, you and Gabrielle stay here.  Act like you’re buying something.  Got a hunch I wanna check out.”  


“Xena, what – .”


“He’ll probably stay put until I get back.  If not ….”  Xena shrugged, before vanishing into the crowd.


{ { { { {


Saleem held the cloth at an angle that allowed him to sneak a peek at what really interested him.  His eyes widened.  The tall warrior had vanished!  The other two continued chatting.  He was fairly certain the blonde recognized him.  She didn’t seem fazed, though he got the feeling she’d mentioned him to the warrior.  Maybe if he stayed on the blonde’s trail, kept his distance, he’d eventually get his real target in sight again.


“Planning on surprising someone?”


Saleem turned to find himself caught in eyes he could never forget.  Eyes that made his hair stand on end.  He summoned sufficient spine to remain upright and calm.  “Are you talking to me?”


“Uh huh.  You don’t strike me as a dressmaker.  Figured maybe you were shopping for a gift.”  Xena gestured toward the cloth in his hand.  “You know – a … surprise.”


Saleem searched her face for clues to no avail.  He put the cloth down and rested his hand on the sword hilt.  “Yes, you could say that.”


“Nice weapon.  Unusual for these parts.” 


“Y-yes.  I … um … just got it.”


“Thought so.  I sold some just like it to a guy here.  Stall near the produce section.”


“Yes, that’s it.”


“Pay much for it?”


“Pay much?”


“Mmhm.  Guess that depends on when you got it, eh?”


“W-when I got it?”


“Before you killed him?  Or after.”


Before he could move, the woman’s arm shot out and snaked around his shoulders.  “Not here,” she said, steering him away in an iron grip.  “I’m thinking we may have met before.  If we’re gonna catch up on old times, might as well do it somewhere more private.”


The two headed across the large swatch of grass bordered by high bushes and a few large trees, their seemingly innocent stroll taking them past the children’s recreation area and a canopied section where people could eat or rest.  Few seemed to notice the pair, except for Gabrielle and Asaad. 


“Do you still believe he might be one of the soldiers Xena fought?  She’s walking with him as though they are friends.”


Gabrielle snorted.  “She rarely hugs someone so close, unless it’s an enemy.  She’s leading him away from the market.  She must expect trouble.” 





Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes
Silver white winters that melt into springs
These are a few of my favorite things




Junius stabbed the ground with a pointed stick.  Every now and then he scowled at the other youngsters giggling and running around aimlessly with their silly games.  He’d wanted them to form sides.  Said they could choose being good guys or bad.  Pick turf to defend, some with sticks like the one he’d shaped, others by molding “artillery” from pieces of cloth.  Harmless fun with a purpose.  They’d laughed, said “purpose” was boring, pointing to and mimicking their parents as proof. 


Junius let his gaze drift to the adults conversing or browsing.  Everybody playing everyday roles over and over again.  Not much mystery or excitement there.  You could pretty much tell what they were after just by their clothes.  His eyes narrowed.  Except for the couple he noticed strolling toward the trees arm in arm.  They carried swords.  The one with more authority seemed to be the woman – tall, self-assured, dressed in warrior leathers.  The man with her could’ve been a farmer.  His hunched nervousness made him appear shorter than the few inches the woman had on him.  She strode forward with the kind of purpose Junius liked – a hint of danger, of someone who played for keeps. 


Junius jumped up and hefted his stick as if it were a javelin.  He aimed for a patch of daisies in the same direction as the warrior woman’s path.  He let the stick fly, grinning when it stuck in the ground at an angle.  As he jogged over to retrieve it, he noticed another couple.  They also had their sights on the warrior woman, following slowly at a discrete distance.  The man looked like any old merchant.  The young woman with him?  Junius couldn’t remember seeing anyone like her before.  So much skin showing on top, in the middle, beneath her short skirt.  She used a walking stick because of a slight limp, but otherwise moved with strength.  And purpose.


Still pretending to be engrossed in his “game,” the boy inched toward the high bushes behind which the warrior woman and farmer disappeared.  He plastered himself against a large tree close enough to see and hear.  He watched the other couple approach the bushes on the other side.  They parted the leaves so they too could get a good view of the action.  Junius’ grin widened.  He doubted whatever they were all up to would be boring.   


{ { { { {


Xena released her reluctant companion.  “You wanted to see me?”


Saleem slowly withdrew his sword.  The feel of it emboldened him, even as it reminded him he was lucky to be alive.  “So you don’t recognize me.  What about this?” he snarled, waving the sword in front of him.  


“A fine weapon.  Looks Persian.  Like you.”  Xena’s lip curled with contempt.  “Deserving of someone better than you.”


“Why you ….”  Saleem’s face contorted.  “I got knocked out.  The fight was over by the time I came to.”


“Mm.  Otherwise you’d’ve taken out the one woman all your buddies couldn’t?”  Xena reached for her sword.  Her mouth quirked when the man took a step back.  “You’re a lucky guy.  How about right now?”


In his dreams, Saleem pictured facing this she demon again.  Restoring his self-image, salvaging a little of his countrymen’s honor with a few expert thrusts.   She’d fall wounded, on her back and writhing like she was for a few seconds in that armory.  No supermortal abilities propelling her to her feet and into a force of mass destruction.  She’d beg for mercy.  Maybe he’d show her the same as when she’d ordered his comrades, “Go home!  There are thousands more like me!”  Maybe not.


Thing is, the woman before him had a different script.  Her relaxed confidence suggested it was the same script as in that armory.  With possibly the same results.  He couldn’t play dead this time.  Couldn’t count on her staying put if he ran.  And if he told her he’d made a mistake?  Suggested they let bygones be bygones?  Her neutral expression gave little hint she’d accept his offer.   He might have remained rooted in indecision, if not for a voice behind him.


“Junius?  Whatcha doin’?  Mama said to stay – .”


“Quiet!  Dontcha see I’m busy?”


Four pairs of adult eyes tracked to two boys behind a nearby tree – the bigger one with his hand across his brother’s mouth.  But too late.  Other children straggled toward them.


“Hey, you two playing that game?   Let me in!”


“No, look, it’s a fight!”  One of the newcomers pointed toward the two armed adults.  “A duel!”


In addition to the growing crowd of children, some of their parents ventured over to see what the fuss was about.  They gaped at Xena and Saleem, both of whom stood frozen.  Suddenly Saleem turned, ran to the two boys and dragged the older one closer to the tree line.  Xena started toward them.


“Stop!  Or I’ll slit his throat!”


The onlookers gasped.  Xena stopped, the tension in her body so palpable it seemed to have a life of its own.  She felt a hand on her arm.


“Xena, he’s not worth – .”


“I know that.”  The warrior sheathed her sword.  “Let the boy go.  Leave.  You can use my horse.”  She held her hand up in warning to some uniformed men who’d begun fanning out around them.  “I promise no one will hurt you.”


Saleem surveyed the now angry crowd.  “I don’t think so.  He stays with me `til I clear the market.” 


“It’s me you want.  Do to me whatever makes you happy.  Just leave the boy – .”


“No!”  Saleem was beginning to enjoy his unexpected power.  “Bring me that horse of yours.  I’ll take both of you.  Let the boy go when I’m done with you.”




“Ehhhh!”  Saleem jumped, startled by a sharp pain in his foot.


“I don’t think so!”


“Ow, ow, ow!”  Saleem reeled from a stab to his other foot.  He dropped his sword and stumbled back, eventually landing on his butt.   He heard loud cheers and glanced up from massaging his toes to glower at his attacker.


Junius poked out his chest.  He blew on the point of his stick and grinned at the other children.  “See?  Bad Guy Against Good Guy Game. Now that’s what I call fun.”


{ { { { {


Asaad stirred the contents of the cooking pot behind his stall.  He couldn’t wait for his guests to taste one of his favorite dishes.  The two women relaxed inside, reviewing the day’s events.  They’d handed Saleem over to the local militia and reported Roblius’ body.  But the looks they got from passersby suggested something still amiss.


“I don’t think the parents have quite recovered.”


“Understandable.  Nice day at the market almost turns into a bloodbath.”


“It might’ve helped if you’d explained things a little.”


“What was I to say?  ‘Hey, everybody, I took on a whole army a few days ago.  This guy survived and wanted vengeance.  We went out back to dance instead.  Sorry if your kids thought we meant to kill each other.’”




“Hey, at least Junius got to be a hero.”   The warrior grinned.  “Could’ve used somebody like him 10 winters ago.”


“Hmmm.”  Gabrielle cocked her ear toward the sounds of mock battle, punctuated with barked orders from Junius.  “Not sure that’s such a good thing.”


“The boy showed real moxie.  Waited until the right moment to make his move.  Could’ve gotten ugly otherwise.”  Xena reached back to caress the pommel of her sword.  “Not that I would’ve minded too much.”


“I wouldn’t be surprised if they all want battle stuff for Solstice now.  Even the girls.”  Gabrielle sighed.  “It’s supposed to be a joyous occasion.  People being thoughtful and kind to each other.”


“Like the way we treated King Silvus’ men at the orphanage?”  Xena snickered.  “The candy cane arrows?  Porridge bombs?  Pillow clubs?  Yep, a lot of joy and thoughtfulness there, all right.”


“You’re incorrigible.”


“About time you caught on.”


The two argued congenially until Asaad put plates in front of them.  The aroma alone was enough to capture their attention.  As they ate, Gabrielle shared with their host some morsels from their various adventures, concluding with Xena’s defeat of the Persian army.  Asaad talked about his native culture, how it had brought him closer to people in his new homeland.  He acknowledged he still didn’t quite understand Solstice, except it usually meant more business.  He noticed a gleam in his younger guest’s eyes.






“I know that look.  Those wheels’re turnin’.  That usually means trouble.”


“Xena, Xena, Xena.  That’s not very charitable, now, is it?  Especially so close to Solstice.”


{ { { { {


Early the next morning, Asaad met his new friends at the market.  He helped them with several purchases.  When they left to finish their business, he prepared to take care of his own.  Gabrielle had given him an idea for experiencing the spirit of Solstice.  He’d passed the word the night before that he would host a special surprise for the children.  Just prior to the appointed time, he strolled to their play area.  In the center stood a large booth he’d erected, curtain drawn.  Soon children began filing over, many accompanied by adults.  When they’d seated themselves, Asaad rang a bell to get their attention.


“Everyone, I welcome you to my simple presentation to honor Solstice.  I have learned a little about it from friends.  Hopefully you will appreciate what they taught me as much as I.”  With a flourish, Asaad opened the curtains to reveal a stage set.  An evergreen tree was painted on one side of the back wall and, on the other side, a fireplace with a large hole at the bottom.  A rug, chair and decorations made for a homey holiday scene. 


A strange vision in green, gold and white entered from behind the set.  The pointy top of her hat flopped down over blond curls and rose-painted cheeks.  She wore a vest over a billowy blouse.  Pointy slippers peeked from beneath her pantaloons.  She jingled as she walked across the stage. 


“I am the Spirit of Solstice.”  The pixy smiled and waved at the children.  They smiled and waved back.  “I am here to remind you of the good we celebrate at this time.  It’s also about fun.”  She walked to the edge and stood in front of Junius.  “Fun can take many forms.  It can be soft and giving.  To help me show you what I mean, I present ….” 


Accompanied by a loud thump and mumbled curse, a huge cloth ball rolled from the hole in the fireplace.  It unfolded to reveal a rotund white-haired and bearded figure in a one-piece suit, a large sack slung over its shoulder.  It spread its legs, bowed toward the pixie, then boomed to the audience, “Senticles!  Ho ho ho ho ho!”


There was a moment of stunned silence, before the smaller children in front ran crying and screaming away.


{ { { { {


Xena and Gabrielle made themselves comfortable in the tent they’d fashioned as shelter from a light rain.  They’d left the market shortly after their Solstice play, once it was clear everything had turned out all right.  It hadn’t occurred to them not many folks knew about Senticles’ “tradition,” or that it had potential to scare the uninitiated witless.  Fortunately, Gabrielle’s entertaining recap of that adventure – sans some of the violence – left a sufficiently positive impression that might encourage others to follow in the toy maker’s footsteps.


“Told ya you shoulda played Senticles.”


“No offense, Xena, but you’re not exactly Little Helper Pixy material.  Next time you might tone down the ‘ho ho ho’ a bit.  It came out more like a battle yell.”


“Yeah, well, I’m not expectin’ to play either role anytime soon.”  Xena rubbed her shoulder.  “Asaad could’ve made that hole bigger.  Heh, maybe he had you pictured rolling through it too.”


Gabrielle scooted behind her partner and began massaging the broad shoulders.  “He truly is amazing.  Who would’ve thought he could whip all that up in such a short time?  And those lovely toys for the children.”


“Mmm.”  Xena let her head fall forward.  “Yeah.  Nice man. Sure left a much better impression on me than that soldier.”  She smirked.  “Although his buddies did bankroll enough stuff for every kid there.”


“Uh huh.  All in all, money well spent.”  Gabrielle scooted back to her bedroll.  “Except, with all the excitement, I did miss taking care of one important thing.”


“Yeah, I know what you mean.”


“We didn’t say much about Solstice gifts, but I wanted to get you something anyway.”


“Uh huh.  Same here.”


“Asaad helped me see I could make one of us happy.”  Gabrielle pulled a sack from her carry bag.  It was tied with a red ribbon.  Eyes twinkling, she handed it to Xena.


“Awww, Gabrielle.  You didn’t have to.”  Xena turned to rummage through a saddlebag.   She grinned.  “Guess that makes two of us,” she said, tossing Gabrielle a decorated box.


They opened their gifts.  Gabrielle held up hers.  Xena held up hers.  A moment later, both women rolled on their blankets holding their sides. 


Finally the warrior sat up and wiped her eyes.  “Just what I was looking for – another pair of boots.  Thanks.”


“And I’ve been dying for a knife.”  Gabrielle snorted.  “Looks like the one I meant to get for you.”


“Yup.  Picked it up when I found Roblius’ body.”  Xena rubbed her thumb over Gabrielle’s repaired boot.  “Asaad’s handiwork?”


Gabrielle ducked her head.  “Uh huh.”  


Xena measured one of the boots against her foot.  “I’m afraid these may be too small for me.  Bet they’d fit you perfectly.”


Gabrielle held the knife out to Xena.  “And as fine as this is, I’m thinking it’ll go better with your other weapons.”


“No doubt.” 


Gabrielle laughed.  “We give new meaning to ‘exchange gifts.’”


“S’all right.  We got what we wanted.  That’s what counts.”


“We did.”  Gabrielle held Xena’s eyes.  “Especially the laughter of children.  Whenever I hear it, I’ll think of those kids today.  Their faces beaming such innocence and joy.  That we brought some of that to them, and maybe they’ll always remember it at Solstice.”


“I’m glad you will too.”


“And you?”


“There are some blessings even I can’t kill.”  Xena winced.  “Um, so to speak.”


“S’okay,” Gabrielle murmured, brushing Xena’s hand.  “I know what you mean.  We have so much to be thankful for.”  She glanced outside.  “The beauty we see everyday.  I never appreciated it so much, living behind walls.  I love making a home of the outdoors.  Discovering all the gifts of sight and sound and smell.”


Xena stretched out next to Gabrielle.  “What about the cold?  Storms?”  She snickered.  “`Mosquitoes big as eagles.’”


“Mm.”  Gabrielle’s face took on a dreamy expression.  “And raindrops on roses.”


“Beg your pardon?”


“Raindrops on roses.  Reminds me of us.”


Xena propped on her side.  “Um, is this one of those philosophical chats?  About the bad stuff?”  She narrowed her eyes.  “Me, raining on your parade with my dark view of things?”


“Nooo.”  Gabrielle smirked.  “Although me as a rose has potential.”  She cocked her head.  “But so does you as rain.  In a good way.  More than simply a necessity for life and growth.”  She gestured outside.  “See how the water glistens on those leaves?  Those petals?  These blades of grass?”


Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek.  “Don’t suppose I should mention anything about the weight of it bending – .”


“It magnifies the surface – veins, everything underneath.  Brings out beauty, a perspective you might not see otherwise.”  Gabrielle studied Xena a moment.  “One of my favorite things.”


“Huh.”  Xena reached out and picked up a leaf that had fallen.  “Without something like that to land on, do some good for, the rain wouldn’t have much purpose.  I do like purpose.”  She smiled at Gabrielle.  “One of my favorite things.”


The two lay on their stomachs, peering through the mist.  Breathing in the freshness.  Appreciating the experiences they’d made it through thus far, how even the heavier ones had helped reveal the wonders of each other’s souls.  Imagining what might await them when the weather cleared.  Smiling in anticipation like children on Solstice Eve.



When the dog bites, when the bee stings
When I'm feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
Then I don't feel … so bad



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