As Solstice approaches in Season Four, Xena considers unsettling parallels between the fairy tale she contributed to in IF THE SHOE FITS and Alti’s vision of Gabrielle’s death, which continues to haunt them in the subsequent PARADISE FOUND and India arc, culminating in IDES OF MARCH.
happy ending. That's something that I'll get – or I won't get – all my own self.”
– Xena/“Tyrella” to Joxer/”the Prince” in IF THE SHOE FITS
“The picture of Prince Charming, eh? Who’dda thought?”
Heads tilted, Gabrielle and Xena watched – and listened to – Joxer clank jauntily away.
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle chuckled, recalling his version of the tag-team fairy tale they’d tortured poor little Princess Alecia with – his character “Tyro” dancing, singing, displaying social graces to die for. “Wonder if he’ll ever be that talented in real life.”
“Mm. If so, you’ll be right up there too.” Xena snickered. “His lovely partner. With one shoe.”
“Humph. At least I wasn’t a useless twit.” Gabrielle scowled at her soulmate. “The Fairy Godssister of Dishes some people imagined me.”
“Pfft. Aphrodite’s the one made you a hag.” Xena raised an accusatory brow. “And your evil stepmother resembled way too much a certain Warrior Princess.”
“S’okay.” Gabrielle patted Xena’s arm. “I forgave you.” She plucked disdainfully at the sack she’d fashioned into a shirt. “Assuming you can henceforth keep your hands off my things.”
“But they’re so versatile,” Xena said, a devilish gleam in her eyes. “Irresistibly enticing.”
“Okay, okay.” Xena crossed her fingers. “No more ripping up your clothes to bind and gag smelly warlords.”
“What? Your scrolls? Fine. No more using them in the bushes.” Xena smirked. “Unless you do it first.”
“What? Back when we had the trots? That was an emergency. And it wasn’t one I’d written on.”
“You scratched your fungus with my chakram. Cut fish with it. And what about trading my whip to Minya? Or playing around with my sword?”
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at the smug warrior. “Fine. We’ll both confine our hands to what’s appropriate.”
“Works for me. Hmmm. Guess I was right after all.”
“Must you make everything a competition? I just told you –.”
“I meant, what I told Alecia. About fairy tales having a purpose – even Joxer’s.” Xena put her arm around Gabrielle. “I discovered some things I might’ve missed otherwise. I really will try to do better.”
Gabrielle rested her head on Xena’s shoulder. “You’re not so bad.” She snickered. “Not ‘the meanest, crankiest, most horrid woman alive’ anyway.”
“I’ve been called worse.”
“Mm. Maybe we’ve both been a little oversensitive lately.”
Xena gave Gabrielle a squeeze. “Yeah, crazy as this last adventure was? Turned into a nice diversion.”
The two were quiet a moment. They’d been through a lot the last year. The aftermath of the Dahak tragedies. Gabrielle’s presumed death in the evil god’s fiery pit. Xena’s fear she’d be the catalyst to fulfill Alti’s vision of Gabrielle’s crucifixion. The warrior herself nearly succumbing to Shark Island Prison and “the crusader” Najara.
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle returned Xena’s squeeze. “Aphrodite, Joxer. Zantor’s gang, a broken-hearted little girl and her parents. Can’t get any better than that. We survived, like always.” She turned to hold Xena’s eyes. “I’d say the message is, we’ll do it again tomorrow.”
“Which means I can look forward to shopping this year.”
“Solstice.” Gabrielle poked out her lips, eyes twinkling. “Don’t tell me you forgot.”
“Uh, right. Solstice.” Xena rubbed her chin.” Same time as always. How could I forget?”
The blond cherub pranced through a forest, singing and throwing kisses to the birds, arms flapping until she too soared to the heavens. An eagle shadowed her, discouraging any predators. The cherub passed through the crest of tall oaks. When she emerged, it seemed her wings had been clipped. She fell through branches and hit the dirt face down. Hair a tangled mess. Eyes now vacant. A toothless grin as ridiculous as her tattered hand-me-downs.
The eagle’s shadow took the form of a female warrior, racing across the ground with arms outstretched, but too late to catch the girl. The warrior picked her up and propped her against a small tree, amused she looked like a scarecrow. Suddenly a burst of light transformed the girl into a pristine, white-gowned fairy godsmother. The two smiled at each other. The fairy opened her arms to embrace the warrior, but stopped short. For one thing, the warrior now wore a beaded headdress rimmed in blood above sunken, soulless eyes. For another, the fairy discovered her hands nailed to a cross.
“Xena? Are you all right?”
Xena felt a touch to her shoulder. “Wh-what?” Eyes clenched, she rolled her head in confusion. The fairy? Was she free? She peered up groggily into concerned green eyes. Yes! Except ….
“Oh. Hi.” Xena swallowed. “Sorry. Talking in my sleep?” She forced a grin. “Gotta learn to keep my voice down.”
Gabrielle sat back. “That vision again?”
“Um ….” Xena propped on her elbows. “More like that fairy tale. The scary parts. Stepmothers with black toenails. Snaggle-toothed stepsisters.” Xena mustered a grin. “Me in that awful frock Alecia stuck me with in her version.”
“Mm. It was supposed to convey a message of forgiveness and family.”
“Heh. You know me. If there’s a dark side, I’ll find it.”
“Well, we can’t have that. Not tonight. You need your rest for tomorrow.” Gabrielle smirked. “Could take awhile finding just the right place to shop.”`
“Riiiight. How thoughtless of me.”
“Not to worry.” Gabrielle pushed Xena down and snuggled next to her. “I’ll be right here. Any more wicked witches come after you, they’ll have to get through me.”
“Mm.” Xena closed her eyes. “I can see my dreams brightening already.”
Xena’s dreams had indeed brightened. They involved battle scenes, but neither Alti nor herself as an evil witch cursing Gabrielle with crucifixion. Shopping, on the other hand, presented a nightmare she couldn’t escape. One which had so far covered three days’ worth of markets her partner deemed unacceptable. Which explained the warrior’s relief at sighting a sprawling, teeming, seemingly endless bazaar at the base of a hill they were descending.
“Xena! I think we’ve finally found it!”
“Thank the gods,” Xena muttered. “Um, yeah, what luck.”
“Isn’t it exciting?” Gabrielle rubbed her hands together. “I’ve so missed browsing through someplace interesting. No particular mission in mind. Well, except for maybe a gift or two.”
“Mmhm.” Xena pulled on Argo’s reins. “Let’s get this over …. Uh, better get going,” she said, leading the way. “Bargains won’t wait on ya.”
When they reached the entrance to the market, Xena assumed her “at ease” posture in expectation of orders from her Commander of Shopping. Gabrielle scoped out the territory and checked the sun’s position.
“Okay. You start at that end. I’ll take the other. See that stand in front, near the center? Smoked meat hanging from the top? We’ll meet there at noon. Maybe get a bite to eat. We’ll switch sides after. Questions?”
“What if I wanna buy somethin’?”
“A surprise?” Gabrielle grinned. “You could take your saddlebags. That way I won’t know when – or if – you got anything. Otherwise, I might guess, depending on the types of shops in each sector. Not that I plan on bumping into you before the designated time. Or, you could –.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Xena stuck out cupped hands like a child begging for candy.
“Oh. Sorry.” Gabrielle reached for her coin pouch. “Bad Mommy. Here ya go,” she said, dispensing Xena’s shopping allowance. She winked. “Should be enough left over for yourself and Argo.”
“That’s my bard. Always thinking ahead.”
Gabrielle smirked. “I try. You ready?”
“In a minute. Go on.” Xena snorted. “Unless you’re too embarrassed.”
“You know….” Xena pointed her chin at Gabrielle’s improvised top.
“This? Pffft. Who’s gonna notice? Or care? It’s not like we’re in Athens. Besides, I’ve gotten rather used to it.” Gabrielle sucked in her cheeks. “Especially since you promised it wouldn’t end up like my previous one.”
Xena rolled her eyes. “I have no plans for it, no.” She rubbed her jaw. “Although … Argo could use a – .”
“On the other hand, a new look wouldn’t hurt. Brighter. Softer.” Gabrielle gazed innocently off into the distance. “Like if we travel to somewhere exotic. Didn’t you mention India?”
“We discussed it, yes.”
“Now that’s a place I’d love to shop. Bet I could find something there less … rustic.”
“In the meantime ….” Gabrielle headed off. She waved over her shoulder. “See you at noon!”
The warrior watched her partner practically skip away. She led Argo to a nearby field. Sighing, she stowed the horse’s bridle in the saddlebags she really didn’t feel like lugging around all day, but shouldered anyway. “Well, at least one of us can roam free for a while.” She swatted Argo’s flank. As the mare ambled off, Xena finally turned toward her least favorite battlefield. The good news was, she already knew what she wanted. The bad news was, it could mean she had a lot of time to kill.
Though Gabrielle had no idea what to get Xena, she had a pretty good idea what Xena would get for her. She immediately scoured booths with finished garments and bolts of cloth. Her eyes lit up when she spied an emerald green shawl. As did Zantron’s at her determined stride his way.
“Good morning.” Gabrielle brushed her fingers against the shawl. “Did you make this?”
“Do you have any more of this material?”
“Yep.” The merchant pulled a bolt from beneath his counter. He eyed Gabrielle’s attire. “Enough for a decent dress.”
Gabrielle blithely took the bolt and set it prominently on the counter top. “I won’t need that much.” She pulled a piece of parchment from between her breasts. “It’s rough, but this is a sketch of what I want.”
Zantron studied the drawing. “A vest? Kinda fancy for a fella.”
“It’s for me.” Gabrielle smirked. “Think of it as a ‘fighting shirt.’ I’m a warrior, so I need my arms free.”
“Mm. Not the only thing … free … in this skimpy thing. Not much protection.” Zantron winked. “Must be real … fast.” He got his measuring tape. “Come around so I can take your size.”
Gabrielle did so. “When will it be ready?”
“Not much business today. Should have it by tomorrow afternoon.”
“Excellent. One more thing. I won’t be buying it.”
“Hopefully a friend of mine will. Tall, dark-haired woman in a leather battledress. I believe it’ll be her Solstice gift for me. If she comes, pretend you know nothing about this. Let her to describe the look and size as best she can.”
Zantron shook his head. “What if you’re wrong? Pffft. Not like I can pawn it off on anybody else.”
“I’ll pay you half now. If she buys it, charge her the other half. If she doesn’t, I’ll bring it tomorrow.” At the vendor’s agreement, Gabrielle started to walk away. “Oh, and wrap it nicely, okay? That’s not usually one of her many skills.”
It soon became apparent to Xena that her designated sector seemed less gift-oriented than Gabrielle’s – mostly produce, practical implements and house ware. She settled on a stall that sold the tool she’d wanted for repairing various bits of metal. Other than that, she had little interest in browsing. Just the type of customer Bromo liked – decisive, easy to please and willing to pay without fuss.
Bromo set his customer’s purchase on the counter. “Somethin’ else I can get for ya?”
“Nails?” Xena realized she’d been staring at another bin. “Uh, no,” she answered, shuddering slightly at the thought. “Definitely not on my list.”
The merchant chuckled. “I hear ya. Been workin’ on a project m’self. Longer I’m at it, more alterations the missus finds for me to do.”
“Mm.” Xena thought of her various attempts to keep Alti’s vision from coming true. “Afraid I’m the one making more work for myself.” She sighed. “Can’t say what I change’ll make much difference.”
Bromo took a seat on his stool, sensing maybe he could pass some time with a little shoptalk. “Eh, the effort’s usually worth it. Keeps my mind active. You know, tackling problems. Comin’ up with solutions.” He grinned. “Gives me an excuse to try out new tools.”
“Um, yeah, there’s always that.”
“Whyn’t ya take a load off?” Bromo indicated a stool at the end of his counter. He winked. “Betcha waitin’ on a friend who fancies wanderin’ around markets more than you.”
“That obvious, huh?” Xena weighed wandering around, versus passing the time with someone who appreciated the triumphs and tribulations of shaping things with your own hands. She sat on the stool. “We’re supposed to be buying Solstice gifts for each other.”
“Ouch.” The man shuddered. “Worse than hammerin’ your thumb. I can never figure what to get my wife.” He snickered. “Unless she tells me.”
Xena chuckled. “Luckily I get lots of hints. Like a wooden lamb my friend admired. Lately it’s been replacing possessions of hers that got destroyed.”
“Sorry to hear that. Fire? Flood?”
“Um, no. Me.”
Bromo laughed. “Wish I’d a thought of that.” He got up to assist another customer. “Sit tight. Shouldn’t take long. You can work on more tips for me while I’m busy.”
Xena’s mind drifted back a year ago, to events just before she’d had to fight a Persian army. Gabrielle had sprained her ankle attempting one of the warrior’s flips, but was too stubborn to admit it until Xena’s chakram slice to her boot revealed the truth. And gave Xena the perfect answer for what to give Gabrielle on Solstice a few days later. This year it would be the bard’s “sports bra” shirt. That merchant was right. Sure made shopping for gifts easier. “Heh. Maybe I can see the bright side.”
Then, as if to confirm her proclivity for seeing the dark side, the warrior recalled what she’d heard about Gabrielle’s version of the fairy tale they concocted for Alecia. In it, the selfish dark-haired “Pelia” mistreated her sweet blond stepsister “Tyrella” and her belongings as a way to “avoid deeper emotions and intimacy.” Xena might’ve scoffed at such an interpretation before, probably assigning it weight equal to the piece of clothing that inspired it.
But since Alti’s vision, she had indeed begun fearing the consequences of her closeness to Gabrielle. Accepting their separation as “right.” Like allowing herself to be imprisoned on Shark Island. Trying to leave Gabrielle out of events in Actus. Leave her behind with Najara. Weren’t those excuses to create distance between them? Actions Gabrielle could honestly interpret as pushing her away, regardless of the reason?
“So, did you come up with more tips for me?” Bromo plopped down expectantly. He grinned at Xena’s expression. “Brain looked to be whirling faster than windmills in a stiff breeze.”
“Mm. Sorry, nothing quite so useful.” Xena smiled ruefully. “Unless you’re interested in fairy tales.”
“Fairy tales?” Bromo smirked. “Hey, your ‘break it, buy it’ gift idea could work just fine. I’m all for happy endings.”
Xena’s eyes were drawn once again to the bin of nails. “Guess it depends on what’s at stake.”
“Heh. Long as I get to be the hero. Keep my business, my home, my wife.”
“Yeah, that would be nice.” Xena let out a long breath. “The one I have in mind? You could end up the wicked witch. Hanging around? Holding on? Might still mean the end of everything that matters.”
The companions met at the appointed time and place, replenished themselves and headed in opposite directions. Xena honed in on clothing stalls. She chose one conveniently displaying a bolt of green that matched Gabrielle’s former top. The merchant watched her approach almost as if he’d been expecting her.
“Can I help you?”
“Probably.” Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. “That cloth. Just happens to be what I need for a Solstice gift.”
“Yeah? Lucky day for all of us.” Zantron gave his customer the once over. “You Xena?”
Xena raised a wry brow. “Will it get me a discount if I am?”
“Word is, she took care of Zantor’s gang.”
“It’d be worth a dinar or two off. They were bad for business.”
“Then I’m your girl.”
“Whatcha got in mind?” The merchant picked up the bolt as though visually measuring it. “Hopefully there’s enough left.”
“Hm. It’s for a shirt. But skimpier. No sleeves. Comes up to about here.” Xena pointed to her breastplates. “And down to here.” She placed the edge of her hand across the top of her midriff.
“Shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Mm. I haven’t told you her size yet.” Xena spread out her arms. “Kinda chunky.”
“Chunky?!” Zantron gaped in confusion. “But she’s …. Um, how could she be? She’s your friend, right? A warrior like you?”
“I could see … muscular. Sturdy. Surely – with the physical rigors and such – she couldn’t be that large.”
Xena shrugged, eyes twinkling. “You’re the expert. Throw together whatever you think’ll work. My gut says it’ll fit well enough. How soon can I have it?”
“Um, tomorrow afternoon okay?”
“Great. How much?” Xena shook some coins from a pouch and paid the “discounted” price requested. “Oh, and wrap it for me nicely, would you?” She winked. “Can’t have the recipient underestimating my many skills.”
Zantron watched her saunter away, the corner of his mouth twitching. She was a smart one, all right. Not that she needed to be to capture his big, dumb cousin. True, Zantor had a knack for stealing the spotlight – and anything else he could get. The family looked up to him. Eagerly awaited the spoils he showered on them, the favors his intimidation exacted from local officials. Certainly respected more than the modest living Zantron made serving the needs of others.
The merchant reached under his counter and took out the green cloth he’d already begun working on. He smiled to himself, imagining how his relatives might react if they knew he’d made personal acquaintance with Zantor’s formidable nemesis. And that the man Zantor had overshadowed all these years now held a bit of her happiness in his hands.
Ever the optimist, Gabrielle was confident she’d find something for Xena amongst the practical merchandise prevalent on this side of the market. When she caught sight of a stall displaying tools, she remembered Xena complaining about losing her pliers.
“Looking for somethin’ in particular?”
“I think so. For a Solstice gift. Do you have any tools for repairing bridles or armor?” Gabrielle noted the man’s bemused interest in her shirt. She scowled. “Yes, it’s made from a sack. Not my fashion preference, I assure you.” She snorted. “I should probably rethink my gift idea. My friend has enough ways to mangle my things as it is.”
“Your friend.” Bromo bit his lip. “She wouldn’t happen to be a tall, dark-haired warrior.”
“Why, yes. She’s been here?”
“Uh huh. Afraid she already got that tool.” He grinned. “But there might be somethin’ else.”
“Really? It’s so hard shopping for her.”
“Well, it’s nothin’ specific. More based on hints I got talking with her.”
“That’s a start. What’d she say?”
Bromo scratched his beard. “Kinda confusing really. Think it has to do with a big project she’s workin’ on. Seems it’s not going too well. You know, like a fairy tale in her head – except without a happy ending.”
“A … fairy tale?” Gabrielle stared at the merchant. “She actually said that?”
“Yup.” Bromo chuckled. “Weird, huh, comin’ from somebody so solid. Sure over my head. Anyway, seems to put a lot of stock in whatever it is. If she can’t do it right, she’ll be like the wicked witch. Damned for tryin’, damned if she fails.” He shrugged. “That’s all I got. Figure you can maybe decipher it.”
Gabrielle sat on the stool at the counter’s end. “This … project. She give any other clues?”
Bromo thought back. “I figure a construction of some sort. She kept starin’ at that bin of nails. Could be she’s missing a good – .”
“Nails?” Gabrielle leaned forward, an unwelcome guess coming to mind.
“Uh huh. That’s what got us on the fairy tale track. I’d’ve brought out some tools that might’ve helped, but she didn’t seem in the mood.”
“Yeah.” Bromo snorted. “Said nails were the last thing on her list.” Noting his customer’s sharp intake of breath, he asked, “You gettin’ some ideas?”
Gabrielle slowly shook her head. “Afraid so,” she answered tightly. She looked around the promising bazaar she’d been so excited to enter a few hours ago. What on earth could she buy her tortured soulmate that would lift the pall Alti’s nightmare vision had cast over even an innocent fairy tale?
Bromo regarded the young woman with some concern. He thought about his taller customer’s reference to destroying his shorter customer’s things. He wasn’t sure whether it had anything to do with the latter’s suddenly sad face, but somehow that method for ensuring the right gift didn’t seem so funny anymore. It was a good bet the warrior’s project involved her friend. He found himself wanting very much for both of them to enjoy a happy Solstice.
“Miss? I know this isn’t exactly a gift shop. I mean, that’s not usually why folks stop by. But if there’s any way I can help ….”
Gabrielle smiled her thanks and absently scanned his booth. “Actually,” she informed the merchant, straightening resolutely, “this may be the perfect place.”
The sun was setting when the companions left to camp nearby. They had enjoyed another meal they didn’t have to capture and cook, as well as the performance of a traveling dramatic ensemble. Gabrielle indicated she hadn’t quite finished checking out the goods in the sector she’d last perused. Xena smugly patted the saddlebag on her shoulder as though it contained something special. Gabrielle accepted her partner’s ruse without any hint that, when they happened to pass a certain clothing stall on their way out, the vendor secretly gave her the thumbs up sign.
The next day, Xena said she’d hang out at the opposite end from where Gabrielle continued her shopping. “How long will you be?” she asked, as if they both didn’t know the new shirt probably wouldn’t be ready for a few more hours.
Gabrielle rolled her tongue in her cheek. “Depends. We could use some vegetables and dried meat. But I’m in no rush.” She took out a scroll. “Our fairy tale caper had lots of twists and turns. I wanna make some notes while it’s still fresh.”
“No problem. Think I’ll take Argo for a spin. Could be good fishing in a stream I spotted.”
“Okay. Let’s meet back here later this afternoon. I’ll have something to go along with anything you might catch.”
“Sounds good.” Xena saddled her Palomino and rode off.
Gabrielle waited until the sound of hooves died away, put out their fire and headed to the market. The tool merchant had said her gift would be ready later that morning. She intended to spend every extra moment examining all the things she might not see again for a while. She spent a leisurely few hours doing so, until about the time she figured Xena was due back at the clothing stall.
Bromo turned from arranging merchandise at the back of his stall. He grinned. “Hi, yourself.”
“Am I too early?”
“Nope.” Bromo displayed a small box. “Even gave it some extra ‘oomph.’ No extra charge.”
“Wow.” Gabrielle traced the intricate design around the sides and the “X” carved on the lid. “It’s beautiful. Much more than I’d hoped. Um, not that I didn’t think you could … um ….”
“Eh, it’s okay.” Beaming, the merchant held up his hands. “These big ol’ paws look more suited to pounding stuff. Not many calls for orders like yours. Happy to put my mark on it.” He pointed to a tiny “B” on the bottom. “Stands for ‘Bromo.’” He watched with anticipation as his customer opened the box.
“Oh, Bromo, it’s perfect. Something told me this was the place. I’m Gabrielle, by the way, and so glad I made your acquaintance.”
The two chatted a bit about Bromo’s work, until someone came up behind Gabrielle.
“Zantron. What brings you to my neck of the woods?”
“I got some relief for a change. Figured I’d taste how the other half eats. Plus, I recognized one of my customers.”
Gabrielle thought the voice sounded familiar. She turned around and saw why.
“Not to worry,” Zantron said at the expression on her face. “I got ya covered. Your shirt’s ready. My uncle knows what to do when Xena comes.”
Gabrielle frowned. “Xena? How did you know –.”
“Eh, I figured it out. Word travels here. Not often we get true celebrities coming `round.”
“Of course!” Bromo slapped his jaw. “Boy, am I out of the loop. A female in battle duds. An ‘X.’” He scowled at Gabrielle. “If you’d a told me, I could’ve done somethin’ more warrior-like.”
“Uh oh.” Zantron winced. “She trying to keep a low profile? On a secret mission?”
“Uh, no.” Gabrielle snorted. “`Low profile’ and Xena don’t always go together. It’s just, I forget sometimes, what’s ordinary to me is ….” She narrowed her eyes at Zantron. “Why ‘uh oh.’”
“Um….” Zantron ducked his head. “I kinda told my family. You know, that I was making something for her and a friend. I … uh … figured they’d be impressed.”
“Well …. Sounds harmless enough. It’s not like Xena’s skittish about attention.” Gabrielle chuckled. “Although she is a bit shy about hero worship.”
“Heh, shouldn’t be a problem with Zantron’s uncle.”
“Oh?” Gabrielle raised a brow. “Why is that?”
“Isn’t Xena the one put Zantor away again?”
“Yessss.” Gabrielle turned to the clothing merchant.
“Yeah, yeah, so we’re cousins. I don’t happen to share my family’s good opinion of him.” Zantron pursed his lips. “Like the girl said, they’re harmless enough. What’s the big deal, they wanna see the woman took him down a peg?”
Gabrielle fingered the box in her hand. “As you say, word spreads in a market. Could it have reached any of Zantor’s old buddies?”
“Aw, come on. Even if they do, so what? Who’s got the guts to go up against the woman who beat the biggest bully in these parts?”
“Comin’ right up.” Bromo took the box from Gabrielle, quickly stuck it inside a red velvet bag and handed it back.
“Thank you. I need to check out ‘harmless’ for myself,” Gabrielle said, striding toward the market’s other end.
Xena strolled toward her target, unfazed by the curious glances her way. She’d ridden to the stream for the heck of it and actually found it worth an hour of peaceful fishing. She’d managed to order something for Gabrielle without hurting her brain. And so she imagined she must be a curious sight – an armed warrior whistling as if without a worry in the world. She determinedly maintained her good mood even as she noticed a different vendor at the clothing stall.
“I’m here to pick up a gift. The other guy leave it for me?”
“A green shirt?” At Xena’s nod, the man reached behind him and handed her a brightly decorated bag.
“Much appreciated.” Xena turned the bag over in her hands, deciding not to bother inspecting the contents.
“You’re not what I expected.”
Xena raised a brow. “Neither are you.”
“Figured you’d be bigger. Meaner looking.”
“Figured you’d be smaller. Younger.”
“Yeah, that’s my nephew. Zantron. He wanted me to meet you.”
“Well, now you have. Give … Zantron … my thanks. ” Xena put the gift in her saddlebag.
“Zantor’s one of my other brother’s kids.”
“Mm.” Xena cocked her head. “That explains all the ‘Z’s.’”
“Couple of others in his gang are too. Nephews, I mean. You really take `em by yourself?”
“I had help. A … fairy godssister.” The corner of Xena’s mouth twitched. “Or so the story goes.”
“Little blonde? One you got the shirt for?”
Xena crossed her arms. “Seems Zantron’s quite the talker. Funny, he didn’t mention his bloodlines before. Or personal interest in me.” Her eyes hardened. “And my partner.” She glanced around. “Any other relatives I should know about? Who want to … meet … us?”
“Meet you?” The man realized the impression he’d given. He shifted nervously. “Uh, no. Not like that, I mean. Zantor has his good points, but we all know he played with fire.” He shrugged. “Just curious about the warrior who burned him.”
“Let’s hope so.” Xena held the man’s eyes. “You know what they say about curiosity and the cat.” She patted her saddlebag. “Got what I came for. And interesting chitchat. I’m feeling the urge to share it with my fairy godssister.” She raised a warning brow. “Wanna make sure she’s headed toward a happy ending.”
About midway to the opposite side, Gabrielle came across a crowd gathering in an open area bordering the market. Where there was a crowd, there was often a tall, dark-haired female with a nose for trouble, so naturally Gabrielle pushed through to check it out. The female in question did indeed stand at the center of an outer ring of bystanders. The inner ring consisted of men in dark leather brandishing weapons. She sighed and squeezed her way to a spot between the two rings.
“Excuse me! Helloooo! I say, excuse me!”
All eyes finally tracked to the unlikely source of interruption, scowling with hands on hips. The buzz died down, partly from surprise, partly in anticipation of more excitement.
“What’s with all the weapons? There are children here. Someone could get hurt.”
One of the men in the inner ring cackled. “Ya got that right.” He pointed at the tall female who now stood rubbing her chin. “Her.”
“May I ask why?”
The man sneered. “Why not? Everybody here oughhta hear why.” He bared his teeth at the onlookers. “So nobody else makes the same mistake.”
Gabrielle resisted what, to her, was the obvious answer and obligingly asked, “And that would be?”
“Messin’ with Zantor’s folks. No way she should sashay free and easy on his turf.”
“I see. You do know about her, right?”
“That she’s good at tricks?” The man brandished his sword at Xena. “We’ll see how good she is in a fair fight.”
“Fair?! Pfft. Maybe so, if there were twice as many of you. With her as she is now? Kinda ….” Gabrielle circled her finger at her head. “Could be a massacre.”
The man snickered. “Yeah, we hear she’s been out of sorts lately. Payin’ more attention to morals than havin’ the right equipment. We visited Zantor at the prison.” He shared a laugh with his comrades. “Seems her fancy rope and gag smelled kinda girly. Soft as a chickadee’s butt.”
Gabrielle waited patiently through the chuckles and off-color comments. “True, it has gotten worse since her run-in with a whacko named Najara.” She shook her head. “If you insist on attacking Xena, I’d stay away from her right jaw. Particularly sensitive spot. Najara knocked out one of her ‘good chewing teeth.’”
All eyes focused again on the tall, dark-haired woman. Initially a bit irritated by Gabrielle’s intervention, Xena had begun warming up to acting crazy. She summoned her most manic expression and growled, pleased when everyone took a step back.
“Wait a minute.” Another of the men narrowed his eyes at Gabrielle. “Ain’t you her lil buddy? Whyn’t we just grab you for insurance?”
“Oooo.” Gabrielle nimbly squirted through to stand next to Xena. “Bad idea. She’s even more sensitive about that.”
Xena’s eyes had already turned to ice. “I’m through playing.” She unsheathed her sword and leveled it at the man with the bad idea. “Twitch in her direction, the next time it’ll be on the ground like a headless snake.” She turned in a circle, glare boring into each of Zantor’s fans. “You want a piece of me, we’ll take it to that field over there. But understand this – you won’t have the benefit of my friend’s ‘girly’ shirt. I won’t need it. The only thing moving on you when I’m done’ll be your blood running cold.”
Except for shivers, the crowd was struck dumb and motionless. Gabrielle came up beside Xena and gently pushed the warrior’s sword point down.
“Xena did you a favor.” At the gang’s incredulity, Gabrielle explained, “Zantor was wanted dead or live. Those ‘morals’ of hers made her take every effort not to hurt him. Otherwise, you couldn’t visit him.” She snorted. “Or entertain yourselves dreaming up ways to break him out again.” She crossed her arms. “Xena doesn’t ask for thanks. She doesn’t care if, instead, it’s threats. You made your point. Honored Zantor. The best you can do now is walk away.”
Zantor’s fans exchanged glances. They studied the silent of the two women in the middle, convinced the gabby one’s words might truly save their necks. They sensed the crowd might be disappointed by a peaceful resolution, but were suitably impressed at how close they’d come to witnessing the opposite.
“Yeah,” the spokesman said. “We made our point. No sense rubbin’ folks’ faces in it. Come on, fellas. Let’s hit the inn. Drink to Zantor’s health.” He slapped another man’s shoulder. “And freedom!”
The crowd parted before the gang’s rowdy exit. Before dispersing, many people smiled at Xena and Gabrielle. Others hung around a few minutes to see what the two extraordinary women would do next.
“You get the vegetables?”
“Um, no. Got a little distracted.”
“Should I wait here? Go back to – .”
“Not on your life.” Gabrielle grabbed Xena’s arm. “I’m not letting you out of my sight.” She snorted. “Except maybe in the bushes.”
Stars twinkled brightly in the clear early evening sky – a glorious crown for the small evergreen set a little apart from its elders, resplendent in shiny ribbons and glass baubles that reflected the campfire a few feet away.
“We did good, huh?”
“Senticles would be proud.” Gabrielle eyed three of the five gifts at the foot of the little tree. “Um, should we see what he left us? Or wait until tomorrow.”
Xena chewed her lip. “Hmm. That’s a toughie. There’s something to be said for waiting until the official day. You know, tradition and all. On the other hand …. Lots of folks think doing it on Solstice Eve is fine. Especially,” she said, cutting her eyes at an obviously impatient Gabrielle, “when youngsters are involved. I guess it depends.” She scrunched her face in further contemplation. “I mean, ya got pros and cons for each. If we do it now –.”
“Yes! My thoughts exactly,” Gabrielle said, springing up to retrieve the gifts. She handed Xena two and dropped down on their blanket with hers, weighing and shaking them before placing them in front of her. “Should I go first? Since I have more?”
Xena rolled her eyes. “As if wild horses could stop you.”
“Okey dokey.” Gabrielle decided to save the real surprises for later. “Hmm, what do we have here?” she asked, picking up the largest. “Such a pretty bag.” She squeezed it. “Ooo, something soft.” She slowly loosened the ties and reached inside. “By the gods!” she exclaimed, holding up a green top. “It’s just like my old one. And the right size!”
Xena pursed her lips. “You sound surprised.”
“Well, it’s not exactly something you can get off the shelf. That’s why I said not to worry about –.”
“I meant, that it fits.”
“Oh. Um, I just meant …. I figured I’d have to be there. You know, to try it on.”
Xena snorted. “In my mind’s eye, you were.”
“True, we have been around each other long enough.” Gabrielle grinned sheepishly. “However you did it, I appreciate the thought as much as the shirt itself.” She pressed it against her nose and sniffed.
“Hey!” Xena said, aghast. “You think it’s used? Like on a smelly warlord?”
“Noooo.” Gabrielle clucked. “I simply like the smell of new cloth. Okay, your turn.”
Xena picked up the smaller of her gifts. She unwrapped it to find a hooked-shaped fishing lure with golden fleece attached. “Why, this is just like – .”
“The one you fashioned to snare Solaris? Uh huh. Only this time you won’t have to snatch any of my hair to make it.”
Xena suppressed a snigger, recalling their Mystic Diamond caper, particularly Gabrielle accidentally spreading bug juice on her lips, nearly drowning in the reflection of herself as “the ultimate fantasy,” being tricked into fighting thieves, throwing a hissy fit at strands of her “beautiful golden locks” being made into a fishing lure.
“Xeeena.” Gabrielle scowled, knowing full well the source of her partner’s expression of merriment.
“Sorry. Brings back such fond memories.” Xena smiled her appreciation. “Can’t wait to try it out.”
“Humph.” Gabrielle’s pique vanished when she remembered why they were sitting there. She grabbed her second gift and tore off its wrapper to reveal small sheets of papyrus between heavier covers, bound in such a way that the top and each sheet could be flipped up. “For writing? Like notes?”
“Uh huh. Saw Salmoneus with something like that. Way back when we first met.” Xena rolled her eyes. “He had delusions of doing a ‘best seller’ about me and Hercules.”
“It’s so unique,” Gabrielle enthused, inspecting the pad. “Convenient. Small enough to stick in my waistband if I want.” She gazed at Xena with wonder-tinged gratitude. “I love it.”
“You’re welcome.” The warrior reached for her second gift to hide a slightly smug smile at coming up with something suitable on her own. She opened the red bag. “Verrry nice,” she said, examining the intricately carved box. “For my fish hook?”
Gabrielle chuckled. “If you want. Bromo, the tool merchant, made it. Another gift is inside.” She clapped her hands. “Wait! Don’t open it yet. That counts as number three, right?”
“And you call me competitive?”
“I’m merely prolonging the drama.” Gabrielle picked up her last gift. Inside the piece of bright cloth she found a pair of small golden hoop earrings. “Xena, they’re beautiful.” Lips pursed, she fingered her new top. “Definitely deserving of something less … rustic.”
“Mm. I was thinking you could save them.” Xena crossed her legs and smoothed her skirt. “You know,” she continued, adjusting her arm guards, “to match a ‘softer, brighter’ look?”
“Xena! We’re going? To India?”
“No harm in planning it. If things fall in place, change of scenery could be good.” Xena silently added to herself, “As far from Romans as we can get.”
“Oh, I’ve heard such good things about the culture. The healing practices and philosophies. The melding of body, mind and spirit.” Gabrielle scooted closer to Xena and lay her hand on the warrior’s knee. “Could mean a fresh start for both of us.”
Xena patted Gabrielle’s hand. “Let’s see what tomorrow brings, okay? But, yeah, I’m leaning in that direction.”
Smiling, Gabrielle pointed her chin at the box on Xena’s lap. “Look inside. Maybe it’ll give you a push.”
Brow raised, Xena lifted the lid. She stared at the contents a moment before slipping her finger through a long chain, from which dangled a little carved figure in a white gown, with yellow hair and what appeared to be a scepter in its hand. “It’s lovely. An … ornament? For the tree?”
“An ornament,” Gabrielle responded, taking the figure and putting it up to Xena’s chest, “for you. Also courtesy of Bromo. I got the idea from his conversation with you about fairy tales.” She narrowed her eyes. “And nails.” She returned it to Xena, reached into her cleavage and pulled something out. “Remember this?”
Xena blinked at the toothpick doll “dressed” in brown leather, dark yarn framing its head. Gabrielle had fashioned it to demonstrate Xena’s flip technique. “You still have that? Even though ….”
“Even though I messed up my ankle and nearly got us both killed?” Gabrielle stretched out on her side. “You said I was your source for doing the impossible. Would’ve sacrificed everything to save me, if I’d let you. Instead, we survived. For the sake of the greater good. To grow stronger. Together.” Gabrielle caressed the stick figure. “That’s what this reminds me of. When I have doubts or we’re apart. A little bit of you I can touch whenever I need.”
Xena nodded, smiling wryly. “So now I’ll have another ‘you’ attached to me?”
“Your very own fairy godssister.”
“Mm. And this little stick’s a magic wand?”
“If you’re willing to believe.” Gabrielle sat up and leaned forward, her eyes serious. “Yes, I’m human. Flawed and powerless in ways we’d both rather forget.” Her jaws clenched. “Even so – fairy tale or reality – I’d hope you’d see more possibility of good in that than Alti’s vision of me hanging from a cross.”
Xena swallowed back that image, as well as the one she’d neglected to reveal yet – herself crucified next to Gabrielle. Helpless to do the impossible they both counted on more than any magic wand. But Gabrielle was right. Until or if the vision came true, they couldn’t let that prevent them doing their best, from seeing and believing in the best of each other as always.
“Know what’s funny?”
“No, but I’d love to hear it.”
“I was so determined to make my ‘Tyrella’ independent. I didn’t want Alecia fantasizing about somebody else writing her story. That she had no hand in it.”
“You helped her see even a little girl can shape her destiny. Accepting her stepmother’s love was the key to her happy ending.”
“But I was wrong about doing it alone.” Xena studied the little figure in her hand, before slipping the chain over her head. “I’ve carried a magical spirit with me for precious years now,” she said pressing the figure against her chest. “I sometimes take her for granted, unless something extraordinary forces me to call on her. Her hand is on mine in almost everything I do. Usually guiding. Sometimes stopping. Never letting go.” She stuck the figure between her breasts. “Yeah, a reminder is the perfect gift.” She gave Gabrielle a lopsided grin. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Gabrielle bit her lip. “And thank you.”
Xena shook her head. “Never thought I’d say this, but maybe we should thank Alti too.”
Gabrielle’s mouth dropped. “Is that supposed to be funny?”
“She’s the wicked witch, right? But also inspiration for my godssister necklace. For seeking new vistas.” Xena smirked. “Possibly acquiring new ‘looks.’ Who knows where trying to create a better ending than hers could lead? Gotta be Elysium, compared to … that.”
“Xena Fairy Godswarrior?”
“Yes, Gabrielle Fairy Godsbard?”
“Remember when you said you weren’t much of a storyteller? More a ‘woman of action?’”
“No offense, considering your many skills. When it comes to spinning? I think you’re right. Better you stick with the chakram.”