by Kristien Damon
Alternative Content: No sex, but this short story does depict deep and enduring love between two consenting adults who just happen to be women. I guess this is a bit of a hurt/comfort type story, with a teensy bit of first time as well. In the story, Xena and Gabrielle share a special hands-on something that some may find offensive. Although I really hate having to disclaim this content I suppose I am bound by convention to do so. So if this type of material offends you then perhaps you should read something else. There are plenty of great general X:WP stories out there.
Spoilers: Nothing major, this story follows its own timeline. Hey, this is the Xenaverse! However, tiny plot elements of "A Solstice Carol" and "Return of Callisto" have been borrowed and incorporated.
Xena:Warrior Princess, its characters, and all related materials are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures © 1995-1999. "The Gift" was completed on 12/11/99.
Feedback is always welcome at: email@example.com. Dont be shy, tell me how you feel.<g>
The bard was starting to fidget and pace. It had been several candle marks since Xena left on her way into the village on her secretive mission, secretive being a peculiar word to actually describe the situation. Gabrielle knew full well what the secret was; nope, the warrior wasnt pulling any wool over those eyes today, and hadnt been able to for several winters now. Particularly when every solstice eve since theyd met Xena would suddenly find some excuse to go into the nearest village, always insisting on going alone. By now it had just become a routine and the bard found the warriors excuses increasingly amusing every time. The latest version: Gabrielle Im going to see a man about a horse and ah well, you and horses dont get along, remember? Now that was certainly stretching it quite far because Xena had a perfectly good horse in Argo, so why in the world would she need to see a man about another. But it was just a game that theyd play, bantering back and forth, the warrior insisting on going alone and the bard insisting shed need to accompany her. Back and forth theyd mock argue until Xena would throw out one of her off the wall excuses and Gabrielle would accept it as she always did. It was like a signal; Im going now, end of discussion. Then off the warrior would go, alone of course, and with a grin a mile wide. The bard would wait patiently for her to return.
"Its always worth the wait," Gabrielle thought as she continued to pace back and forth wringing her hands. "Its just that the waiting is so hard."
Every once in a while a sound radiated from somewhere in the wooded area to the north of their campsite and the bard would glance in that direction with expectations high. Always shed be disappointed to find a twittering bird or a wandering rabbit and not the wayward warrior shed hoped for. Xena had said she would only be a couple of candle marks and here it was now three marks later. Gabrielles soft green eyes searched the wood line intently, searching for relief from the concern that suddenly insisted on gnawing at her heart. She was all too familiar with this feeling it seemed to her. Living with a warrior can do that. Yet another sound caught her ears, one more disappointment, a seemingly endless cycle had begun. It wasnt like Xena to be late, it just wasnt like her at all. Her concern grew though she fought it gallantly.
"Xena, where are you?" Gabrielle said softly as she bent down to tend the fire and start dinner preparations.
She searched for simple distractions; things that would make the time pass swiftly. For she knew in her heart that if she didnt keep her mind occupied shed find herself marching into the village in search of her companion. And just what would she do if she found her? What would she say when she found herself captured in the inquisitive stare of those azure blue eyes? No, this mission was something Xena had insisted on doing alone and the bard knew that if she took it upon herself to venture into town looking for her, the warrior would most certainly be angered. Especially after Xena had been so damned adamant about her staying put here. Tonight of all nights she did not want her to be angry with her; it was solstice eve and it was always a very special night for them. And this night, their fifth eve together, would be extra special. She glanced at her leather travel bag hanging from a low tree branch across the clearing, arched her eyebrow, and smiled. Very special indeed .
Xena wandered through the vendors rather aimlessly; it seemed to her that she had been wandering for days. She knew she wanted to get something very special for the bard this solstice but she hadnt a clue of what or where to begin. Her piercing blue eyes darted here and there studying the various arrays of woodcarvings, linens, weapons, jewelry, and pottery. But, as yet nothing in this bartering capital captured her sense of that unique gift, the one that would make those green eyes enkindle and dance with joy.
She loved the light in those eyes and anything she could do to keep it there, no matter how small, would be her goal today as every day. It was just that this day was particularly special because it happened that this was their fifth eve together, a milestone of sorts. Yes, a perfect gift was definitely in order. It had to be something that would say for the warrior all the things she found it so hard to put into words. It had to say how grateful she was that the bard had stuck around through all the tribulations that naturally followed a warrior. It had to clearly express how much she felt deep down that theyd be together always. And of course, it had to speak to how much the bard had captured her heart, how much she loved her. The warrior shook her head at the last thought. "Gods, why cant I just say that myself?"
Suddenly she stopped in her tracks and stared down at a table in front of her. It was filled with various woodcarvings but there was one in particular that had captured her eye. A smile lit upon her face as she reached down and picked up a carving of a lamb. By the gods, it was just like the one she had given Gabrielle on their first solstice together. She noted with delight that its mouth moved when its tail was pulled. Suddenly she felt as though she had been transported back to her own youth, simply spellbound and positively gleeful in the simple act of pulling the tail and watching the mouth move. For a moment the warrior princess was happily lost in her memories and totally oblivious to the hustle and bustle of the marketplace around her. More importantly she failed to notice the set of dark brown eyes that had been studying her progress from across the market.
Magrius watched the tall raven-haired warrior woman intently as she slid between the vendors pausing occasionally to pick up an item and appraise it thoroughly. His rat-like eyes followed her every movement, studied her posture, and gauged her strength in stature versus his own. Yea, he guessed he could take her with some help from his friends. Licking his lips and grinning arrogantly he glanced away from the woman long enough to make eye contact with each of his henchmen who were scattered about the marketplace disguised as vendors. Then slowly his eyes drifted along the edge of the roof above the street and came to rest on a crossbow arrow, drawn back and poised to carry out his evil bidding. He nodded affirmatively at the archer and raised his hand to signal a temporary hold in the plan, then returned his attention to the warrior woman and calmly resumed his intense study.
"No need to rush things," he thought as he hunkered down behind the water barrel and waited patiently for just the right moment. "Besides, she aint bad to look at. I think Ill let her keep her head a little longer."
Xena set the lamb back down on the table and looked around. She had sensed something. Someone was watching her intently; she could feel it, the skin on the back of her neck was crawling. Narrowing her eyes she scanned quickly to her left seeing nothing but rows and rows of solstice shoppers and vendors. Nothing and no one appeared out of the ordinary. She looked to the right and saw more of the same. Shrugging it off as shopping anxiety she started to relax again and turned back toward the table. Then she saw it. It positively jumped out at her; the one special gift shed been searching for. She picked it up and turned it over in her hand and delighted in her odd luck. "Yep, youre the one," she said quietly then called for the vendor.
"Yea, what can I get you lady?" The proprietor inquired as he swiped bits of sawdust from his tunic and trousers.
"This one. How much?"
Without hesitation Xena shook her head affirmatively. She was not a haggler like the bard. Just get in and get out as fast as possible, as long as the price was reasonable of course. But this particular item was priceless in her mind and she simply wouldnt leave here without it, no matter the cost. She glanced at more of the carvings scattered about on the table. The etchings they contained were finely elegant and beautiful and she decided this man was a splendid artisan.
"And for an extra two dinars could I get you to add some things to this for me?"
The vendor shook his head affirmatively.
"Sure, what would you like?"
Xena pointed to the item in her hand.
"Well. Right here Id like you to ."
Magrius saw the warrior woman hand the vendor several dinars and then watched as she and the artisan discussed the details of the item for a long while. He couldnt help but notice that throughout this exchange the woman seemed a little uncharacteristically distracted. He grinned sadistically and his eyes closed to narrow slits as he rose up from his hiding place.
"Well, no time like the present to get me a warrior princess," he thought as he quickly raised his left hand calling the attention of his henchmen while simultaneously drawing his sword with his right. He would have her head, and for his efforts would become a very rich and famous man. Suddenly he dropped his hand to signal the others and leapt with gusto toward a momentarily unfocused and unawares warrior princess. A very rich man indeed. Yea, Ares would surely see to that. What a great offering to the god of war this was going to be.
Gabrielle paused from slicing vegetables to look up at the sky. The sun was rapidly fading and she estimated that Xena had been gone now roughly four marks. She dropped the remaining vegetables and the strips of rabbit into the pot and stirred them briskly for a moment as she wondered what she should do. Something was wrong; the bard could sense it. Xena would never be this late and she sure wouldnt miss dinner unless she was in trouble. The bard rose and starting pacing, her hands clenching and unclenching while her mind reeled with the possibilities. The warrior had a lot of enemies. What if she had run into one of them? What if she had been caught off guard? What if she had been kill ?
"Oh stop it Gabrielle!" the bard suddenly chastised herself aloud for her wild speculations. "Xena doesnt get caught off guard. Shes the most focused person I know." She shook her head and sat down again on the log next to the fire. As her thoughts continued to swirl she absently picked up bits of grass and wood and tossed them into the fire, watching as they burst into tiny fireballs and seemed to incinerate into thin air before her eyes.
"Shell be here. She probably just got hung up in the village. Maybe she decided to stop at the tavern and have an ale or two. After all it is the solstice eve. Or maybe she had problems picking out your solstice gift you nit."
The bard tried to calm her nerves as best she could by turning her attention back to dinner. She proceeded to stir the stew slowly and deliberately, hoping that the aroma would somehow drift its way to the warrior princess and draw her back. After watching the vegetables and bits of rabbit swirl hypnotically in the pot for what seemed an eternity to her, Gabrielle placed the spoon down on the fire ring, pulled her legs into her chest, and let her head drop onto her knees. She gazed into the flames but kept her ears trained intently on the woods for the slightest sound of movement.
"Nope, I know her she wouldnt miss dinner." She closed her eyes and waited. "Gods, this waiting is too hard. Next time Im going with her to see that man about that horse...."
Xena had just finished telling the artisan what she wanted him to do when she heard the faint sound of a sword being unsheathed. She casually placed the gift back down on to the table while keeping her eyes on the vendor in front of her. In his orbs she could clearly see a growing look of fear as he locked onto the rapidly advancing menace somewhere behind her. Although by all outward appearances nothing seemed amiss to any passersby, internally she was kicking into warrior overdrive as she prepared herself both mentally and physically for the battle she knew was about to ensue. Every highly tuned nerve, sinew, and muscle was brought into line and readied. She caught a flash and movements out of the corner of her eye and in lightning quick response drew her own sword and turned to face who ever was rapidly approaching her. But in that briefest of moments something else caught her eye and she hesitated. Within the crowd of solstice shoppers to her left, a figure definitively stood out from the rest: a familiar blonde-haired, leather-clad figure. She felt those intense brown eyes studying her every movement, burning into her. It was all so familiar. It made her cringe. "Ah no, not her again ."
Magrius saw an opening, witnessed the rarest of hesitations and mysterious loss of focus. He took full advantage and lunged at the warrior woman with all the speed and might that he could muster, thrusting his sword menacingly toward her heart. The woman reacted with amazing agility just as he was about to pierce her body and claim his prize. At the last second she spun to her left causing his sword to catch nothing but air. In the same movement she brought her right forearm and the butt of her sword back around and down across the nape of his skull, knocking him into the table in front of him and causing his head to start spinning. As he slowly slid to the ground and his eyesight faded to gray he heard the faint twang of an arrow leaving a bow. Then he smiled and succumbed contentedly to the blackness overtaking him. Yes, he'd be a very rich man indeed.
Xena heard the distinctive zing of an arrow approaching. She immediately sensed from which direction it was heading and prepared to leap out of the way. But again, something caught her attention and she hesitated. In that moment, a time so short that she was unable to think a complete thought, she saw a small form out of the corner of her eye and she innately knew what she had to do. This child was in the direct path of an arrow, an arrow meant for her, and now she did not have time to calculate its trajectory and raise her hand to stop it. She closed her eyes, stood still as a statue, and waited.
Gabrielle suddenly opened her eyes and raised her head. She immediately reached up and rubbed her left shoulder, which had suddenly and inexplicably developed a severe cramp.
"What in Zeus name ouch!" she shouted as she jumped up and shook her arm several times. "Son of a bacchae, my arm fell asleep."
Pacing back and forth beside the fire she continued shaking her arm rather violently trying to get the circulation flowing again. By the severe tingling and ache in her fingers she could tell that it was starting to work. But no matter how much she rubbed her shoulder, the pain in it seemed to worsen rather than be relieved.
"Hmm, must have overdone it with all that sparring yesterday. Guess I have to keep in mind Im not as young as I used to be."
She grinned as she recalled all the young Amazons she had sparred with the previous day. They just kept coming and coming, challenging her, all wanting to learn the many ways of felling an enemy with a staff. And of course she was the queen, and according to rights, designated by all as the master. "Im darned good to." She chuckled at the thought of her, the little bard from Poteidaia, training young Amazons the art of warfare. She was bemused at how they actually looked up to her even though most of them towered over her in physical stature. Of course the warrior princess had been outright amused by this idolizing of her bard as she stood leaning against a tree at the edge of the field taking it all in and grinning from ear to ear. Gabrielle smiled broadly as she recalled the sight of her there: tall, dark, beautiful, and brimming with pride.
Abruptly another noise erupted from the woods and interrupted the bards thoughts. She spun around and gazed toward the tree line.
"Xena?" she inquired hopefully.
Silence. Then she glimpsed a young deer dancing away through the brush. Just as quickly as it had come, her grin disappeared into lines of concern that edged deeply into her face. She looked up at the sky and took note that the sun was dipping closer to the horizon.
"Ok Xena. Ill wait another candle mark and if youre not back by then Im coming to find you whether you like it or not."
She absent-mindedly continued to rub her shoulder and stared into the stew, listening; waiting for a sign as to what she should do.
Xena spun around, stumbled, and fell to her knees. Searing pain rocketed through her left shoulder and into her chest. She glanced down at the shaft of the crossbow bolt protruding from just below her collarbone and slightly to the left and above her heart, suddenly aware of a bloody taste in her mouth and a slight heaviness to her breathing. She wasnt sure how far the arrow had penetrated but there was not a lot of shaft visible. Stunned and fighting the lightheadedness that threatened to overtake her, she raised her eyes to meet those of one of the most beautiful little girls she had ever seen. She could not have been more than eight winters old and her hair was the color of the sun, her eyes as brown as the earth after a morning rain. Xenas own eyes misted over when she realized the girls entire face was filled with terror at the sight of this woman on her knees in front of her with an arrow protruding horrifically from her chest. No child should have to see this.
"Just like no child should ever have to watch her village and her family burn ."
Xena shuddered as thoughts of Callisto abruptly entered her mind. Had it been her shed seen across the market in that instant? Had the blonde warrior come around again seeking vengeance for something the warlord Xena had allowed her army to do so long ago? Was this, an arrow from a rooftop, to be the ultimate retribution at the hands of her worst enemy? No, it just didnt seem to be Callistos style .
The warrior mustered her strength to smile reassuringly at the young girl as she fought to remain upright. "Its Ok," she said softly and then watched as the corners of the girls mouth slowly curved upward and the terror seemed to dissipate. Then the spinning in Xenas head abruptly overcame her and she fell backward, coming to rest on her back gazing up at the darkening sky.
"Gods, some special present Im giving the bard this solstice," she thought as her own smile slowly faded into a grimace with the next onset of wave after wave of excruciating pain.
But her pain-induced stupor was to be short-lived when she was suddenly stirred from it by a familiar war cry erupting from the midst of a throng of onlookers. She turned her head in the direction of the gut wrenching sound and caught a blur of blond-haired, leather-clad fury as it made its way though the crowd toward where she lay. At the same time she heard a scuffle and commotion at her feet and turned to see one of the vendors draw a sword from under a table. He pushed several bystanders roughly out of his way as he also advanced toward her. Caught in the middle she struggled desperately to get to her feet but the pain in her shoulder and chest caused her head to spin so violently she was forced to fall backward again.
"Gabrielle, I know Ive never told you but I love you," Xena thought as she heard the blonde warrior remove her sword from its sheath and come closer and closer to where she now lay motionless and helpless in the dirt. "Always."
The warrior princess closed her eyes then. She took a deep but somewhat labored breath and submitted to the blackness and a peaceful silence that drowned out the sounds of that shrill war cry and the swords clashing above and around her.
Darkness was beginning to settle when the bard rose abruptly and glanced toward the woods. She had heard something. Suddenly overcome with an inexplicable feeling of unease she quickly leaned over, grabbed her staff, and held it at ready in both hands.
Her knuckles turned white as she grasped the staff tighter and waited. Silence. She continued to scan the tree line intently.
The bard felt her heart jump into her throat as she heard the all too familiar voice coming from behind her. It was a voice of venomous lunacy that she had come to hate, to fear, and to dread. Her hands gripped her staff even tighter but otherwise she remained completely motionless and kept her eyes forward as she silently plotted her next move. "Whirl around quickly and with one strategically placed blow to her midsection, take her down. Yes, take her down hard, then ."
"Ah, ah, ah, my sweet."
Gabrielle could feel the presence behind her drawing nearer. She didnt move and remained silent.
"Dont even think about it. Now you just put that thing down, turn around here, and give me a proper solstice greeting."
Sensing the brown eyes studying her intently Gabrielle knew that any move she made right now would be read by this woman and reacted to even before she made it. Breathing deeply, the bard forced her muscles to relax. Shed just have to wait for an opening, a moment of distraction. Then she would make her move. That is if she werent dead before then. She allowed the staff to drop out of her right hand and brought it up in her left, planted the end solidly into the ground, and then pivoted around to face her intruder.
"Callisto. What are you doing here?!" she said with indignation and a calmness that belied the agitated fear she felt inside. Her eyes shot fiery daggers at the blonde warrior.
Callisto cocked her head and smiled while she continued to study the bard in silence. Her smile broadened into a cheshire cat grin upon noting the bards seething expression. It always seemed to pleasure her to no end.
"Hmm, Ive got a surprise for you little one," she said with an egotistical lilt.
"Callisto, nothing about you could possibly surprise me anymore," Gabrielle said, her voice low and calm but clearly glazed with sarcasm and thinly veiled hatred. Her glare was steady.
"Now Gabrielle, where is your solstice spirit? My, my if looks could kill "
"Callisto! What do you want?"
"I dont want anything yet. As I said, I have a surprise for you. And I think youll like it." She hesitated and looked the bard up and down slowly. "Nope, Im sure you will like it."
Gabrielle studied the blonde warrior intently. She gazed sternly into her eyes and her face and thought she saw, at least for an instant, a flash of sincerity there. "Nah, that cant be," she thought as she forced herself to keep her guard up against this woman who had wrought nothing but pain and anguish to both her and Xena. "This is Callisto, and sincerity is definitely not in her arsenal."
"What!? You know Xena will be back any time now and when she comes ."
"Xena oh yea. You know I met her in the village. She wasnt looking too good last time I saw her." Callisto crinkled her nose, then watched and waited with an amused smirk for the bards reaction to this news.
Gabrielle cringed and her heart sank as she realized that just as she had speculated, Xena had indeed met one of her enemies in the village. And the warrior had, as Callisto would have her believe, apparently lost the fight. But where had Xenas best friend and battle mate been? Here in the woods stirring her stew when she should have been at her side waging war against this demon now standing before her.
"Xena, Im sorry," Gabrielle thought and quickly turned her back toward Callisto so that this woman, whom she despised above all of Xenas enemies, could not see the tears of frustration and rage welling up in her eyes. Her voice was strained to the breaking point as she struggle within to maintain control.
"What have you done with to her? If youve hurt her I swear to the gods Ill cut you down where you stand."
"Oh Gabrielle, I do love that fire in you." Callisto chuckled with not so subtle rancor. "But please, dont get that lovely blonde hair of yours in a knot. I didnt kill her. Matter of fact I didnt even lay a hand on her well, not exactly. Oh, and I do know where shes at so if you kill me well then, your precious Xena will just have to rot."
Gabrielle spun back around and studied the blondes face again. Now she was sure she saw a flicker of sincerity residing there behind all the antagonistic chatter: a faint, barely visible flicker of compassionate candor. Callisto was telling her the truth perhaps. Or could this just be her own wishful thinking playing tricks with her mind and heart? It didnt matter; right now it was all she had to hang onto. She had to believe.
"Now, can I show you my surprise?" Callisto inquired dryly.
The bard watched her enemys face closely for a sign, any sign that would indicate her intentions or her motivation. She cringed at the wicked smirk that covered Callistos face, a face that had haunted the bard in Morpeus lair for many winters now. In her dreams she would have plunged a blade through that evil heart and watched with glee as the smirk was washed from her face by a river of blood. But this was not a dream. This was real, and Callisto seemed intent on showing her something, which she had an odd feeling had to do with Xena. And if indeed Xena was still alive it might offer a clue as to her condition or whereabouts. Yes, she conceded reluctantly, she must except this offering from her bitterest enemy just this once, but certainly never again. No, never again.
"Alright ." The bard responded softly.
Callisto smiled broadly and turned to walk away.
"You wait here. Ill be back."
Gabrielle watched the blonde warrior stroll arrogantly away and disappear into the woods. Night had fallen around them during their exchange and the bard felt a chill envelop her as she gazed into the blackness beyond the ring of light provided by the campfire. She moved closer to the fire, shivered, and waited.
"Gods I never thought Id see the day that Id want to see Callisto return."
As she stood in silence once again, her mind traveled back to that day, the awful day when the blonde warrior mercilessly slew her husband. Perdicus didnt have to die; it was all so senseless. And she thought about how she had nearly claimed Callistos life in vengeance though it would have destroyed her to do it. She recalled the times that this woman had plotted and schemed and in some manner tried to kill either her or Xena, even using her as bait to draw the warrior princess into the wicked ones snares. The woman was a despicable beast. And now the bard could only marvel at how she stood here waiting patiently for the monster to return, willed her to return as soon as possible and to bring her some clue as to Xenas mysterious disappearance. It was all she had at the moment and she clung to it desperately; suddenly this monster was her hope. She shivered again, but this time it was not from the cold.
"Callisto, I swear to Zeus in heaven if this is a trick, this time I will have your blood on my hands." Gabrielle hadnt realized shed spoken out loud until she heard the response radiate from the blackness behind her.
"No no tricks my pet. After all this is solstice eve. No tricks. Uh-uh...just treats."
The bard spun around toward the sound of Callistos voice and stared into the woods trying to pierce the darkness with her eyes. She heard what sounded like horses hooves hitting against rock and a familiar equine snort. Her heart began to thump wildly in her chest.
Finally she could make out the form of the blonde warrior leading a familiar golden-colored horse. They advanced slowly into the ring of firelight.
"Argo!" the bard exclaimed and took a step toward them. But as they advanced even further her heart sank and her face fell pale. For in that instant, she could clearly make out a seemingly lifeless form hanging over the mares back. And it was despairingly clear who it was; there was no mistaking the raven colored hair that hung out from under the blanket that had been loosely tossed over the body. The bard felt faint and stumbled backward nearly falling into the fire.
"Gabrielle, perhaps you should sit down. You dont look well my dear," Callisto said casually as she reached up and tied Argos reins to a branch near her head.
Suddenly the bards rage overtook her senses and her immediate sensibilities. She sprang into action. Without warning or words she rushed headlong at the blonde warrior and swung her staff savagely at her head. Callisto simply smiled and caught the wood in mid air, held it tightly for a moment, and then yanked it from the bards grasp and nonchalantly tossed it into the woods behind her. It was all over in a blink of an eye.
"Now, now, temper my little starling. Where is your solstice spirit, huh? I come bearing gifts and this is your response?"
Gabrielle stood seething, her eyes brimming with pure hatred and loathing.
"You bitch! I swear to Zeus Ill have your heart ."
The bards furiously scathing verbal attack was abruptly interrupted when she detected a low moan emanating from under the blanket. She spun toward Argo and saw a bloodstained hand twitch.
The harried bard rushed to Argos side and flung the blanket back revealing the warriors face and upper body. She gently cradled Xenas head in her hands while she quickly tried to assess her condition. There was blood, lots of blood. It had flowed in rivulets down the back of Xenas neck and over her left cheek. The bard ran her fingers over the warriors face and through her hair but found no wounds. Then she noticed the gaping hole next to her left shoulder blade and checked the warriors face again. Sure enough there was a hint of frothy blood at the corners of her mouth; the arrow had grazed her lung. Xena wheezed and Gabrielle shuddered.
Callisto stood with her arms crossed watching the bards inspection of the unconscious warrior princess. Gabrielle glanced warily up at her. Meanwhile, Xena moaned softly as she became semi-conscious and aware of the bards touch. She coughed and a small bit of bloody froth streamed from her mouth and onto the Gabrielles thigh. The bard gathered the warriors head into her hands again trying to soothe her and ease her breathing.
"Its Ok Xena, Ive got you now," she whispered reassuringly into the warriors ear. Then she glanced at Callisto again.
"Do you think you could give me a hand to get her down from here?"
The blonde warrior cocked her head to the side and smirked.
"Oh I dont know, I just deliver the goods. I dont "
"Callisto, please!" Gabrielle shouted in frustration. Totally exasperated and bordering on breakdown, something she simply could not afford at the moment, she brought her forehead down to rest lightly against the side of Xenas face.
She knew that she must get Xena down off Argo as soon as possible to tend to her wounds. And after a moments pause, she also realized that she couldnt do it alone, at least not without causing the warrior excessive discomfort in the process. She raised her head and tenderly removed a lock of black hair from Xenas bloodied face. Then she studied the warriors features intently as though searching for inspiration there. Almost immediately she knew what she had to do.
"Please." The bard pleaded in a soft and steady voice. "If you dont help me she may die. And I know you would not have brought her out here if you had wanted that to happen. Im sure it would have ended in the village." Without raising her eyes she noticed a slight shift in the blonde warriors body language that indicated her words were hitting on some odd truth locked within that deep dark psyche. The bard sighed and continued with her voice now almost a whisper. "Please, Callisto. Help me to help her live."
Callistos smirk faded into a rancorous grin of appreciation for the bards never failing and seemingly innate intuitive sense of her darkness. Even thought she despised the little blonde woman she certainly had to respect that part of her. She stepped around beside Gabrielle in silence. Each woman then took one of Xenas arms and draped them over their necks. Then they dragged her unconscious form across the mares back, down to the ground, and toward the fire.
"Wait," Gabrielle said as she abruptly took Xenas arm from around her neck and walked away leaving Callisto bearing the warriors full weight in her arms. The bard quickly skirted around the fire, grabbed Xenas bedroll, and began laying it out as close to the fire as possible. As she worked she glanced over to where Callisto was standing with her arms around the warriors waist and Xenas head resting on her shoulder. Callistos face was contorted into an exasperated expression that clearly showed how miserable she felt at having to lend support to someone she hated more than anything or anyone else. To the bard the sight was priceless and she couldnt fight the smile that briefly found her lips. "A tiny bit of vengeance its so sweet."
"Well if that isnt a sight," she said sarcastically.
Callisto glared at her vehemently.
"Yea, well get over it. She isnt the lightest thing in the world. And Id just as soon drop her into a fiery pit as hug her."
Gabrielle couldnt deny the truth in that statement so she hurriedly stepped back around the fire and threw Xenas arm around her neck. They carried her the last several steps to the bedroll between the two of them and Xena moaned softly as they lowered her down onto the furs. Her eyes fluttered but did not open.
"Yes Xena, Im here. Youre safe now." The bard lifted the warriors head into her lap and began stroking her hair tenderly. "Youre going to be alright."
"The arrow ."
"What about the arrow Xena?"
Xena looked at the bard for a moment through semi-conscious eyes as though she had never seen a more beautiful sight. Then as another surge of pain gripped her she muttered quickly through clenched teeth.
"Uh ah, its deep and youll have to youll have to push it through."
"But Xena its already ." Gabrielle hesitated and looked at the wound located just under Xenas collarbone. It looked like it had been cauterized at some point. Someone had taken the necessary steps to ensure that the warrior hadnt bled to death on the spot; someone had given her a fighting chance. The bard glanced up at Callisto inquiringly.
Callisto smirked but did not respond. Then she abruptly turned and started toward the woods.
Gabrielle watched the blonde warrior move out of the circle of light and back into the darkness. She heard the low snort of a horse as it recognized its master and then once again, she heard nothing but silence. She glanced down at Xena and the warrior seemed to be either unconscious or sleeping.
"Why?" the bard shouted out at the darkness but silence continued to reign.
Gabrielle looked again at Xena resting easily with her head in her lap. She slowly lowered her face to hers and placed a light kiss on the warriors forehead, and then gently cradled Xenas head to her breast. The warriors breathing was slow and regular now; the wheezing had stopped. It was a good sign that the arrow had not severely damaged the lung. The bard sighed and closed her eyes, surrendering to the relief that chose this moment to flood her heart and mind.
"Because its solstice eve," the response finally came from somewhere in the darkness breaking the silence and jarring the bard back to her reality, "and I just felt like giving myself a gift."
The bard heard the horse moving away. "But Callisto...?" She tried to keep her voice as low as possible as she called out to the retreating warrior. "What gift?"
Xena stirred and slowly opened her eyes again.
"Gabrielle? Whats wrong?"
The bard looked at the warrior princess staring up at her in wonder. She smiled reassuringly.
"Nothing Xena. Youre gonna be alright. Youve lost a lot of blood and you need to rest. I think the arrow grazed your lung but youll be Ok." She carefully lifted the warriors head from her lap and lay it back onto the fur. "Ill get some water and clean your wounds."
As the bard rose and grabbed the water skin Xena attempted to rise onto her elbows. Gabrielle noticed a line of perspiration beading across the warriors forehead; it was obvious that her pain was immense. She quickly knelt back down and gently urged Xena to remain still. When the warrior finally relented Gabrielle leaned over and grazed her cheek with her lips. Then she pulled back and gazed deeply into her eyes, issuing an unspoken but quite stern warning to stay put or else.
"Rest," she whispered. "I will take care of you now. Rest."
Satisfied that the warrior was not going to try to get up and in the process cause her wounds to start bleeding again, the bard poured some water into a pot and placed it over the fire to heat. Then she walked over to Argo and reached into Xenas saddlebag. In the semi-darkness she rummaged for the medicinal supplies, herbs, and bandages that she knew to be in there. It did not take her long to find the packet of herbs and after another moment of blind fumbling her hand finally closed around a swath of cloth. As she drew the bandage out of the bag she heard something drop onto the ground at her feet. She bent down to pick it up.
"Whats this?" she thought as she squinted at the object in her hand. In the darkness it was hard to make out what it was. The most she could see was that it was something wrapped carefully and simply in a piece of parchment with a bit of what appeared to be soft green ribbon securing the wrapping in place. "I wonder ."
"Ah, yes Xena. Im coming." She hurriedly replaced the object into the saddlebag and walked back toward the fire with a smile on her lips and a sudden lightness in her heart. She knelt down next to the warrior and immediately noticed that Xenas color was starting to look a lot better and she seemed much more alert. In typical warrior princess fashion she was once again amazing the bard by her seemingly inhuman propensity for rapid healing.
"You are something," Gabrielle said with a grin.
"Yea, I feel like something," Xena replied and smiled weakly. "Could you get me some water?"
Gabrielle placed her hand behind Xenas head and carefully raised her up. Then she picked up the water skin and held it to her lips. The warrior drank deeply, her body thirsting from blood loss. When she had her fill she lay back again and quietly gazed up at the bard, her blue eyes suddenly brimming with tears.
"Im sorry," she said quietly.
"What are you sorry for? This wasnt your fault."
"Gabrielle, this wasnt exactly what I wanted to give you for a solstice gift."
"Its Ok Xena. Im just happy youre here with me. And youre alive."
"Yea, but I wanted to ."
"Xena, its alright." Gabrielle said softly and to emphasize her point, lightly traced her fingers across the warriors forehead, down the side of her face and rested them under her chin. "Really."
After losing herself momentarily in the deep blue serenity of the warriors eyes, Gabrielle suddenly remembered that Xena needed medical attention. She turned toward the fire and checked the water. It was boiling rapidly and she poured some into a cup and then set the pot off the fire to cool. Into the cup of hot water she placed a few leaves of a painkilling herb. Then she rolled up a couple of extra blankets and packed them up against a log behind Xenas head. The warrior was in obvious discomfort but the bard knew that she hated lying flat on her back; it made her feel too vulnerable and was certainly not conducive to her relaxing. So she carefully helped the warrior lift herself up and to slide back against the blankets. When she appeared to be settled and comfortable, Gabrielle picked up the cup of herbal painkiller and handed it to her. Xena flashed her a smile, then winced as she brought the cup up to her lips.
While she drank Xena watched the bard closely as she busily prepared a poultice and bandage. The warriors mind was still foggy and she knew that the painkiller would soon make it even worse, but she had questions that needed to be answered before she would submit to it.
"How did I get back here?"
The bard hesitated and looked at the warrior in wonder.
"You dont remember anything?"
Xena set the cup aside and looked down at her wound. She studied it intently as she conducted a careful replay of the days events within her mind.
"Well, I do remember someone, a man Ive never seen before lunging at me with a sword. Then I was hit with the bolt and it hurt like Tartarus." She hesitated and gazed at her wound for a moment admiringly.
The look was not lost on Gabrielle and she smiled. "Yes, warrior princess. It will make a nice scar," she mused.
"But before I passed out I remember someone else showed up " Xena softly continued with a puzzled tone. "But this attack was definitely not her style. She wouldnt have someone shoot me with an arrow. No shed want to take me on face to face. Gabrielle, it was ."
"Callisto." Gabrielle declared matter-of-factly.
The warrior looked at the bard in astonishment.
"How do you know ?"
"She brought you here."
"Callisto brought me here?"
Xena suddenly grinned sheepishly. "And you didnt kill her?" The painkilling herb was suddenly beginning to work its magic and she was feeling a bit groggy. Her head suddenly flopped back onto the rolled up blanket behind her but she continued to fight to stay awake. The bard cast her a crinkled nosed grin as she finished preparing the bandages and lay them aside.
"She tempted as usual but nope," Gabrielle replied as she dipped her finger into the pot of water to test the temperature. "Ok then warrior princess. You stop talking and save your strength for a while. Ill try to get you looking presentable again."
The bard picked up the pot of water and a square of linen and sat down on the log next to the warrior. With tenderness she proceeded to wipe away the streaks of blood that covered Xenas chest, neck and face. Then she carefully loosened and removed the warriors armor, and helped Xena lean forward so that she could loosen and painstakingly remove her leathers and shift. Next on the bards agenda was a thorough examination of the chest wound. It had definitely been cauterized at some point and she shook her head in disbelief as odd thoughts about the who and the why filtered through her mind. Then she proceeded to carefully clean the wound and the area around it while she revealed her surreal thoughts to the drowsy warrior.
"You know Callisto told me something interesting tonight. In her typically cryptic fashion she said that the reason she brought you back was because she was giving herself a solstice gift."
Xena raised her head and gazed at the bard in puzzled silence while she spoke. Then she cringed in pain as Gabrielle placed a poultice over the wound in her chest and pressed it into place. The bard grinned and continued.
"And from what youve told me Xena, I think I know what that gift is."
As she spoke Gabrielle helped the warrior lean forward again so she could work on the wound near her shoulder blade. After cleaning it carefully she placed a poultice over it. Then while Xena held the poultice on her chest wound in place, the bard wrapped a length of bandage around the warriors shoulder, under her arm, and around her chest and back to hold the two poultices in place. When all was in place and secured she helped Xena settle back against the blankets again. She pulled a blanket up over the warriors body, carefully tucked it in around the edges, then sat back down on the log and gazed into her eyes. Sighing deeply, the bards mind was finally grasping the real truth behind the days events. It just was too fantastic.
"Callisto saved your life," she said quietly.
"What?" Xenas eyelids, which had begun to droop only moments before shot wide open revealing a startled look in the baby blues beneath.
"She had to," Gabrielle continued softly and thoughtfully. " She couldnt let anyone else kill you. Thats her gift."
"So youre telling me that Callisto fought for me and against her own urges to slit my throat just to give herself the gift of killing me later?" Xena closed her eyes and lay her head back against the blankets again. "It almost makes sense in a crazed sort of way."
Gabrielle gazed thoughtfully up at the stars for a moment.
"It does, doesnt it. And of course its no surprise, considering the source. But you know Xena, I actually thought for a moment that I saw a hint of compassion on her face." Gabrielle glanced at the warrior and shook her head. "Hah! Thats a laugh."
She got up and looked into the stew pot. Most of the liquid had since boiled away and there was not much left but mushy vegetables and some slices of rabbit. "Hmm, and Im sure as soon as youre back on your feet well find out exactly what she has in store for us. But until then " she lifted the pot off of the fire and set it on the fire ring, "hey you hungry?"
There was no response. She looked over at the warrior who appeared to be sleeping soundly and smiled. Then she placed a cover over the stew and quietly slipped away toward Argo. Feeling secure that Xena was going to be alright, her thoughts had returned to that mysterious package in the warriors saddlebag and curiosity had gotten the better of her. The big palomino eyed her suspiciously and snorted a warning as she approached.
"S-h-h girl. I just want to get some more medicine for Xena. No need to sound the alarm." The bard reached out and rubbed her hand reassuringly over Argos soft muzzle. Pausing momentarily and shaking her head she mused, "I cant believe Im telling white lies to satisfy a horse." After a few moments of placating the mare, she moved back toward the saddlebag. She reached in, quickly found what she was looking for, and stood squinting at it in the darkness.
"I cant see a thing here," she said quietly and without taking her eyes off the package started back toward the firelight.
"Hey, what ya got there?"
The bard was startled from her reverie by the warriors weary voice. She stopped in her tracks and gazed innocently at Xena who was studying her intently through drowsy eyes. Gabrielle realized shed been caught with her hand in the biscuit barrel and blushed profusely.
"Ah Im sorry. Did I wake you?" she stammered uncomfortably under the warriors inquisitive gaze.
"Im in and out." Xena motioned with her eyes toward the bards hand. "So, whats that?"
"Ah, I found this in your saddlebag when I was looking for some bandages. It fell out onto the ground and I was checking it for damage." She flashed her most unimpeachable, innocence-claiming look at the warrior she thought anyway.
"Uh huh." Xena said with a tone that seemed to indicate that she knew the bard was grasping at straws for an explanation.
"Argh! You can always see right through me cant you? Even when you cant see clearly," the bard mused as she walked over and flopped back down on the log next to the warrior.
"So really Gabrielle, what is it?"
Gabrielle searched the warriors face and it suddenly dawned on her that a truly puzzled expression resided there.
"You really dont know?"
"As a matter of fact " Xena hesitated while searching the bards face for any clue to this mystery. Finding none, she thought for sure that the bard was simply toying with her. "No."
"Mind if I open it then?"
"Go ahead," Xena said then lay her head back against the blankets again as she continued to puzzle this whole situation in her foggy mind. "But be careful. If Callisto had anything to do with this ."
Before the warrior could finish her sentence the bard had already torn off the ribbon and parchment to expose the contents. Her eyes lit up and then slowly misted over as she studied the item resting in her hand. She turned it over and gazed at the back and then brought a hand to her mouth as a tear broke free and slid down her cheek. She looked at the warrior, her face beaming.
"Xena, my gods! Its its. "
"What Gabrielle? What is it?" Xena leaned forward slightly in alarm.
"Its absolutely the most beautiful thing Ive ever seen."
Gabrielle suddenly threw her arms around the startled and bemused warriors neck making her cringe in pain. In response the bard drew back slightly but left her arms lightly draped around the warriors neck. She gazed lovingly into Xenas face.
"Next to you of course," she said softly.
Xena cast the bard a half grin and a puzzled look.
"Really Gabrielle, what is it?"
The bard slowly removed her arms from around the warriors neck, a mixture of confusion and concern replacing her broad smile.
"You really dont know do you?"
"No," Xena replied matter-of-factly.
Gabrielle brought her hand up in front of the warriors eyes. In her palm lay a small bit of wood that had been carved, and smoothed, and carefully fashioned into the shape of a heart. Xena reached up and grasped the bards wrist to pull her hand closer not quite believing what her eyes were beholding. She shook her head and looked again. "Cant be," she thought as she studied the delicate etchings on the face of the carving. But it was unmistakable. There were two overlapping and entwined circles. No actually they were chakrams. And within each chakram was engraved a letter: in the left the letter X, and in the right the letter G. At the top were a quill and a staff lying crisscrossed over one another and at the bottom a sword. She abruptly grabbed the carving and turned it over in the bards hand so she could see the back. A single word was etched there.
"Son of a bacchae!" Xena shouted suddenly in confused exasperation. She quickly raised her hand to her shoulder wound and winced.
"What is it Xena? Whats wrong?"
"Thats your solstice gift."
"I know Xena and I love ."
"Gabrielle, I dont know how it got here. I never even got a chance to thank the man."
"Wait a minute. Youre telling me that you didnt get this while you were in town?"
"Yes! I mean no. I mean ."
"Its exactly what I had told him I wanted. But I never got a chance to pick up the final product before I was attacked." She threw her head back in frustration.
Gabrielle gazed thoughtfully toward the forest and into the darkness where Callisto had a few moments earlier disappeared. After a bit of quiet contemplation a smile slowly crept across her lips.
"Ok Callisto, you win. Im surprised," the bard thought then glanced back at Xena and noted she was once again falling under the influence of her painkiller. She grinned as she watched the warriors eyes flutter closed, then spring open; the pattern repeated over and over. It was obvious she was fighting gallantly to keep her head upright as well.
"Xena, I think I know what happened." The bard said softly as she set the carving down on the log beside her and stood up.
Xenas eyes shot open and she somehow managed to focus them and lock them open as she waited for the bard to continue speaking. Gabrielle cast her a playful grin. Xena returned it with a half grin of her own.
"But before we get to that and because I dont believe youre going to be awake for much longer," the bard said as she turned away, "Id like to give you something first."
Xena, still puzzling over the odd events of the day, watched as Gabrielle walked over and grabbed her travel bag from where it hung in a nearby tree. Then she watched her stroll back across the campsite, reach behind another tree, and come up with a wineskin. Her eyes opened a little wider.
Gabrielle turned back toward the warrior and immediately noticed an inquisitively arched eyebrow had been added to the half grin. She ignored the look as she lay the wineskin down on the log next to her gift and reached in to start searching the contents of her bag. Occasionally shed glance up sheepishly and take note that the raised eyebrow seemed frozen in place on Xenas face. She smiled and continued rummaging.
"I just thought that after five winters of living together we might spend a night," she paused, took a deep breath, and then continued coyly, "getting to know one another. A little wine, a little relaxation, a little ."
Xena coughed and cleared her throat, abruptly interrupting the bard, and unceremoniously spat out a bit of pink froth.
Gabrielle stared at the small dark stain on the ground and then looked down at the wineskin. She looked back at Xena who was wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
"Well Ok. How about a little wine and a little relaxation then?"
She smiled when she noticed the eyebrow finally relax back into its normal position. Xena was looking into the fire; her eyes seemed to be searching out the serenity to be found at the center of the dancing flames. Meanwhile the bard was finding her own serenity in the strong and strikingly beautiful lines of the warriors face as the firelight danced across them. She stirred herself out of her trance long enough to pour them each a cup of wine. Then she handed Xena a cup and took a long draw from her own. Almost immediately she felt the warmth in her stomach radiate out and into her limbs, relaxing her and soothing away the stresses of the day. She watched in amused silence as Xena quickly drained her cup, promptly set it aside, and stared into the fire.
"Here," Gabrielle said quietly as she lifted a small package from her bag and held it out toward the warrior.
Xena turned her attention back to the bard and looked at the parcel. It was wrapped quite similarly to the package that Gabrielle had just opened, which still mystified her by its presence here. This one was wrapped in parchment as well, but it was secured with a thin strip of light blue cloth neatly tied into a bow. Smiling wearily, she hinted with her eyes that the bard should help her open it.
"I dont think I can do it with one hand," she said quietly.
Gabrielle grinned knowingly and proceeded to remove the strip of cloth. Then she playfully tied it around the warriors right index finger. Xena looked at her inquiringly.
"Thats so youll remember to get out of the way next time someone shoots an arrow at you." She brought the warriors hand up to her lips and tenderly placed a kiss on the tip of her finger.
"Promise me youll remember."
"I promise," Xena whispered.
The bard slowly removed the parchment wrapping and placed the contents in Xenas lap. The warrior stared at it for a long moment and then tentatively picked it up. Her eyes opened wide in wonder; again she couldnt believe what she was seeing. In her hand rested a heart shaped woodcarving that was strikingly similar to the one she had picked out for the bard. On the front were two entwined circles. In the left was etched the letter X and in the right, the letter G. She looked at Gabrielle in amazed silence. The bard smiled, then reached out and turned the carving over in Xenas hand so she could see the back. Xena drew it closer to her weary eyes and studied the words that were finely inscribed into its polished surface.
With a warriors heart she fights.
With a womans soul she loves.
With a poets tongue she speaks to me in silence,
And moves me to passionate wonder.
The warrior stared at the bard in silent awe. Tears welled in her eyes and began to spill down her cheeks as an eddy of emotions suddenly swirled within her. "Gods I love her and this is so beautiful. But this just isnt right. This isnt how this night was supposed to be. Its not fair to Gabrielle. She shouldnt have to be doting over a wounded warrior princess on such a special solstice eve." She glanced down at the wineskin on the ground at the bards feet and then threw her head back in exasperation against the blankets. "Gods, she even got wine for the occasion."
"Its so beautiful Gabrielle, everything and you. But ."
"But what Xena?"
"But Zeus, Im just sorry."
"Xena, I told you. Its not your fault."
"No Gabrielle. I love you and I wanted this night, our fifth eve, to be so very special. And its obvious that you did to." She paused and looked again at the wineskin then cast her eyes toward the fire. "But look at me, Im a one armed bag of useless horse dung."
Gabrielles eye lit up and she gazed at Xena in wonder.
"What did you say?" she inquired softly.
"Im a one armed bag of useless horse du ."
"No before that."
"I love you and I wanted to give you a perfect gift to make this night so very special."
"Xena, hush! Dont speak anymore save your strength," the bard quickly interjected as she leaned over and placed a kiss on the warriors cheek. She allowed her lips to linger for a moment, then slowly pulled back and tenderly wiped a tear away with her fingertips. "You just gave me the greatest gift I could ever hope for on any solstice eve." With that said, she slid off the log and onto the fur beside the warrior, snuggling in against her side, and resting her head on her uninjured shoulder. "And, I love you to."
Xena wasnt exactly sure at first what she had just done due to the painkiller-induced fog surrounding her brain and the added effects of the wine on top of that. Had she really finally said it? She wasnt even quite sure this wasnt all just a dream. Then she looked down at the bards head resting lightly against her shoulder and smiled. Gabrielle glanced up at her then, her soft green eyes dancing, and for the warrior there was no denying the light there. "Nope, no dream."
Xena gently pushed the bard away, lifted the blanket up at her right side, and motioned for her to climb in under it. Gabrielle eagerly accepted the offer and gently returned her head to the warriors shoulder while Xena wrapped her arm around the bards waist and pulled the blanket in around them both. Then she relaxed back into the bedding behind her and smiled contentedly up at the stars. Before long she was off to visit the land of Morpheus with a smile on her face and quiet peace in her heart.
Gabrielle gazed up at the warrior for a long time, finding simple pleasure in memorizing the lines of her face while she slept. She reached up and lovingly traced the soft curve of her lips with her fingertips.
"Always," the bard whispered then snuggled her face into the side of the warriors neck.
Xenas smile grew wider and she nestled her face into the top of Gabrielles head. Every once in a while shed twitch when a tiny lock of the bards feathery hair tickled her nose but through it all, she quite contentedly slept on.
The bard looked up at the night sky and smiled at the absolute absurdity, yet heartfelt truth of her next thought. She cast it silently and unhesitatingly to the wind.
"Callisto, wherever you are. Thank you...for the gift."
Then she wrapped her arm tighter around the warriors waist and smiled when Xena subconsciously responded in kind. Fully content, and happier than shed ever been, the bard buried her face back into the side of Xenas neck and closed her eyes. She could feel the steady rhythm of the warriors heart beating softly against her cheek. It proved to be very hypnotic, and moments later she joined her in the land of dreams with visions of all the sweet gifts yet to be shared dancing through her head. Yep, always .
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