DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are copyright to MCA/ Universal/Renpic. No infringement intended. No sex, no violence, just a simple tale of love. Inspired by the lyrics of Jon Anderson. I wish.
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'And the day after is "A Salute to Carpenters"' the warrior noted, 'sheesh! That Halmarcus has a lot to answer for'
The bard chose to ignore this remark, her attention already drawn towards a large sign draped above one of the shops in the large main street of this obviously prosperous town.
"You are already a winner!" the banner proclaimed and this declaration had not gone unnoticed judging by the growing crowd gathered outside the shop of "Reed, Eros & Digestus"
Xena had little say in the matter as her companion positively scurried towards the shop which had just flung open it's doors to admit the excited crowd.
True to their promise, the shop had provided all arrivals with a free glass of wine.
'A worthy prize indeed' Xena's sardonic tone echoed by her grimace as she imbibed the less than vintage liquid.
Gabrielle was too pre-occupied to notice.
From a back-room, a tall man emerged and stood on a small dais. His attire signalled a man of great wealth, his girth suggested a man of healthy appetite.
'Welcome, ladies and gentlemen' the man had a more lilting voice than his bulk might have indicated.
'Mostly ladies' he continued, his eyes twinkling 'we always find that the daughters of Demeter are more perceptive than their male counterparts'
'I'll bet he says that to all the girls' the warrior directed her remark to Gabrielle, but the bard had been unusually distracted over the past few days.
'Very soon, one of my assistants will pass amongst you all, she will hand out numbered discs. Each disc will correspond with a free gift.'
The man paused to allow the murmur of anticipation to dissipate.
'The available prizes include fine perfumes, exotic silks and brandies from all over the known world'
The collective excitement grew.
'Cash amounts can also be gained, from a generous 25 dinars to an astonishing 1000 dinars!'
Whoops and squeals of delight resonated throughout the room.
Xena seemed alone in not being carried away by the promises, indeed just the whole atmosphere that now prevailed.
It was certainly true that 1000 dinars was a goodly sum, but some of these women would spend 25 dinars on a good lunch.
If she hadn't spent so much time with greedy fortune-seekers, the warrior would not have understood the power of the "something for nothing" offer.
'What is the catch?' Xena called out.
The man seem prepared for the question, but when he turned to see who had given it voice, his previously fixed smile briefly diminished.
The man's own experience allowed him to look down, re-assemble his visage then look up again without the crowd noticing.
'A good question, and yes, there is one small caveat' he said.
Disgruntled murmurs abound, the women looking at each other as if one of them would be displaying the explanation.
He raised his hands in a calming gesture.
'It is possible, given the impressive response, that not every single person will receive a disc. You must appreciate that such a generous offer can only be limited.'
His words caused partial appeasement, partial upset.
'Ladies, please!' he called out 'this magnificent gesture has been arranged to celebrate the Festival of Love, it is if you will, our sacrifice to the great Goddess, Aphrodite. Please do not sully this occasion with uncharitable thoughts'
The crowd seemed suitably chastened, and a level of quiet anticipation was restored to the room.
'A good save' Xena said sotto voce. While admiring his crowd-working skills, she scrutinised his face, but no spark of recognition
A ten minute interval was announced in which Xena tried to communicate with the bard, but her blonde friend seemed overcome, or rather pre-occupied with…it was difficult to tell, she had been thus for a few days now.
During the recess the crowd had been arranged into rows.
It transpired that the eager hopefuls consisted of 21 women and only 3 men. Three rows of eight were quickly assembled by the assistant who then retired to the back-room to recall the speaker.
As soon as he had emerged a voice called out
'Can we buy a disc if we are not chosen?'
'No!' the man was adamant. 'We truly do have a limited supply, that is the only limit of our generosity' he beamed.
Xena rolled her eyes..
Perhaps to pre-empt further interrogation, the man ushered his assistant forward. She moved to the back row of the three and walked along, pausing momentarily before each person.
On each occasion she handed out a token.
The two front rows had turned their heads to witness.
'Everyone got one!' was said with both excitement and dismay.
Could it be that they had more than enough discs, or did that mean they would run out too soon?
The seven women and one man who comprised the back row were now excused having been assured that their prizes could be redeemed from sunrise tomorrow morning.
'I should have explained earlier' the man announced 'my assistant is both deaf and mute. Please do not complain to her if you fail to be chosen. She is immune to your indignation.'
Of the second row, two were not awarded the coveted discs.
Ignoring the admonition of the speaker, both those women began to verbally abuse the girl assistant, the man, indeed the whole process…they were quickly ushered out by guards who had appeared as if from nowhere.
The remaining eight, stood with varying degrees of expectation.
The two men were stood together, they seemed to agree that only one of them would be lucky - at best.
A couple of the women were convinced that they just *had* to win, they *deserved* it.
Gabrielle tried not to raise her own hopes.
'It would be nice, but…'
Xena was non-committal.
'Sheesh! I'm just here to look out for you. I'd rather be in a tavern'
'By the Gods she is beautiful!' Gabrielle breathed as the deaf-mute girl moved at last to the front, and now only row.
To their mutual delight, both men passed muster and received discs.
The next woman, indeed merely a girl, was not so fortunate and she fled from the shop in a fit of tears. The next three all were chosen. Gabrielle held her breath as the girl paused before Xena.
An almost imperceptible shake of the head and the girl was now in front of the bard. A broad grin and a disc was handed over.
They were at last in the tavern that Xena wished she had been in from the get-go.
'I thought they must have run out when you didn't get one' Gabrielle intoned, 'I just couldn't believe it when she handed one to me'
'Never mind eh?' the warrior tried to sound interested.
'It just seems so unfair. Why wouldn't you be chosen?' the bard continued, oblivious to her friend's lack of concern.
'Win some, lose some?' Xena was savouring some wine that was much more palatable than this morning's offering.
'But all you have done for good. I don't know anyone more deserving…' Gabrielle insisted.
Xena summoned the barmaid.
'Some more of this excellent wine' she ordered.
Gabrielle was still clutching the black disc, the token of her success.
'I could be holding 1000 dinars here!' she enthused, 'why not you?'
Xena looked crestfallen..
'You are making a fuss about nothing' she chided, then ruefully added.
'Maybe we don't know each other as well as we should'
The statement was enigmatic enough to cause a hush between them. Rather than words, they instinctively searched each other's eyes to seek commune.
'Xena, there is the girl, the deaf-mute.' Gabrielle broke the silence.
'You were right, she is truly beautiful' the warrior agreed almost reluctantly as she followed the gaze of her friend.
'I must go to her, she looks so lost and alone' said Gabrielle.
'Of course you must. See you later' said Xena who was already summoning further wine.
The warrior awoke with a feeling of guilt only surpassed by her headache.
'Rich wine, so good, so deadly' she reminded herself.
She looked across to the other bed to see Gabrielle scrunched up in a less than relaxed position.
It was still dark, but dawn was clearly not far away.
'Gabrielle!' she half shouted 'if you want to be the first to claim a prize, it will be sun-up very soon'
The bard stirred surprisingly quickly, like a person with many thoughts on her mind.
'Xena, please don't be mad at me' she blurted out, before taking a moment to compose herself.
'Very soon it will be the Festival of Love. I had planned this over the past few days and I *really* wanted it to be a special day.
That is why I was so keen to win a prize, I wanted to declare my love for you in an unmistakable way'
Xena's astonished silence gave the bard more time to speak.
'I was thrilled when I won, or was given a prize, but last night the deaf-mute told me of the young girl who had gone without such a gift. The youngster was heartbroken, and so I met with her, and listened to her and finally gave up my prize…so I have nothing to give you'
'Except yourself' said Xena. 'Odd, because that was the only gift I could offer you'
The warrior looked abashed.
'And believe it or not, I have been waiting for this Halmarcus event to confess my love for you'
The two hugged and kissed and caressed, each glorying in their new found status.
When sunrise came, Xena suddenly became agitated.
'I don't like what happened yesterday. Why did that man never give out his name, why would a business simply give away 1000 dinars?'
'The Festival of Love?' even Gabrielle didn't sound convinced.
First in line was the young recipient of Gabrielle's token, so eager that it was as if she hadn't slept at all.
'You my love, win a bottle of perfume, the finest scent from far Bulgaria…am aroma to stir the heart of any admirer' the man positively purred as he accepted the disc and passed over a sheet of parchment.
'Merely a contract to say that you have received your gift' he soothed.
At this point Gabrielle emerged from the darkness at the back of the room.
'May I read this contract?' she asked.
'What folly is this?' the man blustered, 'all is legal'
Xena then emerged and placed herself in full view of the man.
It made him mute.
'They are signing into slavery' Gabrielle announced having scoured the document, 'slavery' she repeated, forlornly.
Xena marched forward with a purpose.
'Go' she said to the girl, but the man obeyed too.
'Let him get a start' Xena said noticing the bard's agitation at the fleeing man.
'I will catch him soon enough'
The two women were alone.
'I cannot offer you scents, brandies, silks or dinars' Xena said a little solemnly, 'but I can guarantee you a life free from slavery.
My sword, my chakram, my very body are all committed to none but your protection, my love, my very soul have no purpose but for you'
Tears filled the bard's eyes.
'And now I have nothing to offer you' she wept.
Xena also felt the beginnings of tears.
'Gabrielle. You have wisdom, compassion and a spirit that cannot be quantified, simply to touch your soul is a prize that Gods throughout the years will never comprehend.'
Such declarations required a moment of contemplation.
'Does this mean we are an item?' Gabrielle laughed.
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