A Merciless Solstice
Winter covered the land. Gray clouds obscured any hint of blue sky, and the air was damp and thick, the wind shredding the few remaining leaves from the trees and flattening the dry, dead grasses down near the river.
Ice covered the stream almost entirely, but there was a translucence to it that made crossing it chancy and though the landscape had taken on the gray and silver livery of the season, a few hints still remained of the fall just past.
High on a parapet of a fortified building stood a slight figure wrapped in furs watching the snow come down in buckets. As the wind whipped a flurry of the white flakes across the low wall, the figure lifted a hand and caught a fistful of it, bringing it down and peering at it.
With a grin, the figure blew the handful into the air, watching it drift down in somber peace as the wind settled placidly for a moment.
Then the door behind her suddenly burst open, and a taller figure emerged, stopping and planting it’s fists on it’s hips. “What in Hades do you think you’re doing?” Xena the Merciless barked, glaring at the snow covered figure in disbelief.
Gabrielle turned, lifting her arms. “Watching the snow! Isn’t it great?” She turned in a circle, her lined boots sending tufts of snow to either side. “Look at it all!”
Xena walked forward, swept her cloak out, and covered Gabrielle with it, wrapping it around her and almost smothering her in fabric and fur. “Muskrat nutcase.” She pronounced, peering down at the fair head swaddled in the circle of her arms. “It’s snow. You’re gonna freeze your cute little butt off standing out here.”
Gabrielle gazed up at her, blinking a little as snowflakes settled on her eyelashes. “I don’t feel cold at all.” She said. “You don’t like winter, do you?”
“No.” The queen stated briskly. “What’s there to like?” She looked around. “It’s cold. It’s wet. It’s dark. I can’t go riding. Can’t go rampaging. No war.” Her eyes dropped to Gabrielle’s. “Where’s the fun in all that?”
“Well..” Gabrielle nibbled the inside of her lip.
“Stuck inside all day.” Xena continued.
“Hm.” The queen glanced slyly around. “On the other hand.. we’re stuck inside all day.” She tilted her head and kissed Gabrielle on the lips. “There’s something to be said for salacious hedonism… and very fast learning muskrats.”
The blond woman blushed.
Xena chuckled, her good humor restored. “Inside, ya little scruffy thing.” She turned and headed for the door, giving Gabrielle no other real choice except to amble along with her, since she still had the smaller woman wrapped in her arms.
They entered the stronghold’s tower and Xena kicked the door shut behind them before she released her hold on her companion. She tossed her cloak back over her broad shoulders and riffled her fingers through her dark hair, scattering bits of melted snow over the stone floors.
Gabrielle pushed her hood back and stamped her feet to rid them of an equal measure of moisture. “I know it’s cold out there.. I just think it’s so pretty. All silver and white, with the branches.. they look like lace, with out their leaves. You know?”
“Nope.” Xena shook her head. “Never touch lace except to blow my nose with it. Makes me itch.” She gestured towards the wide stairwell leading down. “Let’s go see who we can terrorize. I think I saw that bunch of old men who call themselves my privy council downstairs.”
Gabrielle trotted after her. “Tomorrow’s Solstice, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Xena replied, shortly.
“Are we having a party?”
“No.” The queen sped up, taking the steps two at a time. “We ain’t having no stinking Solstice party.” She glanced at Gabrielle. “Why, you want one?”
Gabrielle, surprisingly, shook her head no. “I’m glad we’re not having one.” She said. “I heard people talking about it.”
Xena slowed up, then stopped, holding out her hand and catching Gabrielle as she came even with her. She looked around, but they were alone in the stairwell, a chill stone arched passage full of echoes and her own faint memories. “Whoa. Siddown.”
The blond woman looked down. “Here?” She asked, in a puzzled tone.
“Sure.” Xena took a seat on the cold steps, extending her long legs down a few more and bracing her elbows on her knees. “We spend enough time with our asses on pillows. Good for em to have to work for a change.”
Gabrielle sat down next to her, wrapping her arms around her knees.
They were both quiet for a few moments. Then Xena smacked the ground with one hand, making Gabrielle jump. “So.” The queen said. “Let’s talk parties.”
Xena waited, but in vain. “You don’t like em? I know that’s a lie, you little party animal, you.”
“Me?” Gabrielle blinked innocently at her.
“Yeah, don’t give me those sheep’s eyes.” The queen snorted. “Not after that dance you did at my damned jubil-damn-lee last moon.”
The blond woman turned an appealing shade of strawberry, the blush making her green eyes stand out vividly. “Well.. you said you were bored.”
Xena laughed, tipping her head back and making the sound echo off the stone. Then she looked back over at Gabrielle. “So,” Her expression turned a little more serious. “What’s your problem then?”
Gabrielle didn’t answer for a while, her expression slipping into a quiet pensiveness.
“So, what’d they do back on the farm, kill lambs on Solstice?” Xena probed. “Made you run naked in the snow? What?”
“No.” Gabrielle finally answered. “It wasn’t like that. We didn’t do anything like that.” She shifted a little. “Our village always had a big Solstice celebration.” Her hands twined together. “Everyone would bring something to the feast, and there’d… “ She stopped speaking, then exhaled and started again. “They’d give us.. the kids.. just little things. Handful of nuts. A hair ribbon. You know.”
Xena looked at her, let her eyes travel up to take in her own dark bangs, then returned her gaze to Gabrielle as both eyebrows lifted. “Bet I don’t.”
The blond woman’s lips pressed together in a faint grin, and she nodded. “Anyway.. “ She continued. “It always started out all right, but then the ale would start, and my father would get drunk.”
“Eh heh heh.” Xena grunted. “Yeah, ale does that, just not as nicely as wine does, and it kicks you in the ass a lot more the next day.”
Gabrielle nodded again. “Yeah.” She rested her chin on her laced fingers. “He came back to the house then, and took whatever we’d been given.”
“Jackass. You sure you’re not a bastard?” The queen queried seriously. “Wandering shepherd, maybe? Some good looking blond kid sneak in there when the old man was passed out?”
Her companion shrugged slightly. “If we were lucky, he’d only hit us.” She went on. “So .. anyway, that’s why I don’t’ like Solstice parties.” She straightened up. “I just remember hoping every year, that it would be different.” She looked up at Xena. “But it never was.”
“Mpfth.” The queen made a little, catlike sound. “Sorry I asked.”
Gabrielle extended her booted feet out and down another step, regarding them thoughtfully. “Yeah, me too.”
Xena leaned back, resting her elbows on the next step up and crossing her legs at the ankles. She watched Gabrielle’s profile, frowning at the sad lines of it. “Know why I hate Solstice?”
“Why?” Gabrielle asked.
“It reminds me of how ancient I’m getting to be.” The queen leaned all the way back, letting her head rest on the step and gazing up at the arched stairwell.
Her companion turned and reached out, putting one hand on Xena’s thigh. “You’re not ancient.”
The queen chuckled wryly. “Says the wrinkled crone over there.”
Gabrielle squirmed over a little towards her. “I mean, I guess you’re right, because Solstice marks the seasons, doesn’t it? The end of the harvest, and the cold time, and everything dying and all that stuff.” She said. “So I guess you could look at it that way, and say, time’s passing.”
Xena turned her head and studied Gabrielle, a lock of dark hair falling down and obscuring one blue eye. “Nah.” She said, after a moment. “Damn things my birthday.”
“It is?” The blond’s eyes lit up. “Really?”
Xena rolled over and grabbed her by the front of her cloak, pulling her closer until they were nose to nose. “Yes. And don’t you even think about getting aaaaannnnnyy funny ideas about presents or surprise parties. Got me?” She growled. “I don’t want no one giving me nothing!”
Gabrielle gazed dreamily into her eyes for a long silent moment, as they breathed the same air. “Can I give you a kiss?” She asked, in a gentle tone. “You don’t have to tell anyone.”
The queen was caught uncharacteristically speechless, smacked up side the head by her heart yet once again. So she leaned forward and accepted the offer, the warmth it generated chasing away the chill of the stairwell with little effort.
They broke apart, and she allowed a frank, gentle smile to shape her lips. “Thanks.” She reached out and patted Gabrielle’s cheek. “And your bastard father’s lucky he’s dead. Otherwise I’d find a thousand ways to kill him and sell tickets for each and every one of them.”
Gabrielle’s blond lashes fluttered. “I love you too, Xena.”
Xena tweaked her nose. “C’mon.” She got up from the dusty stairs and brushed her hands off. “Let’s go cancel Solstice and piss everyone off.” Her hand tangled in the back of Gabrielle’s cloak as she hauled her up to her feet.
“Can we do that?”
“I’m the queen. I can do anything I want.”
“Can you make me like, this much taller, then?”
“Shut up, muskrat.”
Gabrielle entered her room, crossing the floor and going to her window. She opened the shutters and looked out, the cold air turning her breath to steam as she gazed up at the clear, starlit sky. “Wow.” She wasn’t sure if it was the cold or not but the sparkling lights above her seemed unusually clear, and even the sounds of the night were sharp and crisp in her ears.
After a moment’s looking, she ducked back inside and closed the shutter, turning to look at the space she was standing it. After three moons of living here, living as the queen’s consort, it still gave her a light buzz of wonder knowing she belonged here.
Here, in this beautiful, high ceiling’d room with it’s well rugged stone floors, and it’s plush, comfortable furniture.
Here, where she had a nice big table, in a sunny corner to write in, where a stack of blank parchment was waiting, and a pile of new quills. She went over and sat down in the table’s chair, smoothing her hand over the surface of the table and exhaling.
On the far edge, a few knickknacks rested. Some pretty rocks, and a pinecone, and a weird, crudely made pine needle doll the queen had twisted together for her on a walk together one day. Gabrielle picked up the doll and looked at it, leaning back in her chair and thinking about Xena.
Then she smiled and set the doll down, picking up a quill and sharpening it’s point before she pulled a fresh sheet of parchment over and started writing.
A silence settled over the room, broken only by the scratching of her quill, and the soft fluttering of the candle flame in a draft from the edges of the window.
Xena strolled the halls of the stronghold, nodding her head in approval as she noted the clean, orderly appearance of the place. She stopped and looked at a newly hung tapestry, studying the scene of green fields, and happy people with a faintly skeptical smirk. “Needs a good beheading. Put a little color in it.”
Xena turned to find Stanislaus, her seneschal standing there. “What?” She narrowed her eyes. “You’re not going to ask me for more space for those freeloading nobles, are you?”
“No, mistress.” The older man shook his head emphatically. “I just wanted to know if there was anything you wish tonight.” He glanced around. “As you did not wish a formal dinner. Shall I have the cook do something special for you?”
Xena put her hands on her hips. “Why?” She asked. “You know I don’t do Solstice.”
The seneschal had the grace to look embarrassed. “True, Mistress, I do know that, but I thought.. perhaps the little one…”
“Hah.” Xena tossed her head back. “Shows how much you know. Gabrielle hates Solstice as much as I do.” She said. “Neither of us wants anything. So bug off.”
With a bow, he did so, walking to the inner door and disappearing, leaving her in solitary splendor in the hall. With a snort, Xena continued her stroll, descending down the grand staircase and pausing to look inside the huge banquet hall.
Silent. Just how she liked it. The room was empty and peaceful, not full of nobles with their chatter and posing, their bragging and scraping at her feet. Though the atmosphere had gotten a lot more fawning since the coup attempt, she wasn’t stupid enough to think all those people who really wanted to see her dead all of a sudden changed their minds and fell in love with her.
Life didn’t happen that way.
Xena continued down the stairs towards her royal quarters, thinking about what she’d just imagined. Of course.. her hand rested on the door latch, and a faint smile appeared. Wasn’t that just exactly what had happened to her with Gabrielle?
She pushed the door opened and entered, stopping to close the door and appreciate the refined grandeur of the circular room, still a little too frilly for her, but she’d gotten used to it, now. The walls were hung with tapestries, and the furniture was well made and acceptably comfortable, her favorite piece of it the high backed chair near the fire whose seat had been cut to her long dimensions.
Xena exhaled, noting that her dressing gown was laid out on the bed, and her slippers were tucked nearby. A flagon of mulled wine was already heating by the fire – she could smell the spicy tang of it as she walked across the room.
Just how she liked it. Gabrielle had refused to let her bring in another servant to do the little, personal things she needed, and after a month of trying to convince the little muskrat otherwise, Xena stopped arguing about it.
Gabrielle entered from her chamber, her hair damp and her body draped in her own shift. “Hi.”
“You didn’t wait for me to scrub your ears.” Xena unlaced her gown and pulled it over her head, tossing it unceremoniously into a corner. “I could be royally offended.”
“I’m sorry.” Gabrielle pulled her hands out from behind her back and offered a rolled parchment to her. “I wrote you a poem.”
Xena’s eyebrows lifted. “A poem?” She strolled around Gabrielle, comfortable in her nakedness. “Do I really look like the kinda gal who does poems?”
Gabrielle’s head followed her like an owl’s. “Um..no.. but I am.” She explained. “You’re the kind of person people like me write poetry about.”
Xena stopped. “Is that poem about me?”
“Is it mushy?”
The queen draped her arms over Gabrielle’s shoulders. “I’m gonna have to tickle you to death, aren’t I?”
Gabrielle offered her the parchment again. “If you have to. But can you read this first?”
“Wench.” Xena kissed her neck, and turned, snagging her shift from the bed and settling it over her before she sauntered back over, selected the scroll from Gabrielle’s fingers, then went to her fireside chair and dropped into it.
With a faint smile, Gabrielle retrieved her slippers and brought them over, sliding them onto Xena’s feet before she went to pour out the wine. “You know, I was thinking.”
“I was thinking about Solstice.” Gabrielle brought a steaming cup over, and set it by Xena’s elbow. “And how I used to sit by the bonfire, with all those laughing people around me and wish it would never be the next day.”
Xena rested the still rolled parchment against her jaw and took up her mug, sipping the mulled wine as she listened in silence.
“That one moment of feeling good would just turn back into all the bad things.”
“Almost better not to have a good moment.” Xena remarked quietly.
The blond woman nodded. “So I guess that’s what so different about this Solstice for me.” Gabrielle sat down next to Xena, pulling her legs up crossed under her on the big seat. She looked over into the queen’s eyes. “You’ve filled my life with so many good things, every day’s like a celebration.”
Xena rested her elbow on the chair arm and leaned towards her. “Y’know, if there’s anything else you want, just ask. I can get it for ya. It’s that queen of all I survey thing.”
Gabrielle shook her head faintly. “I have you.” She said. “What else could I ask for?”
The blue eyes twinkled. “Charmer.” Xena reached out and cupped her cheek. “You’d be such a lousy warlord.” She got up, setting her cup down before she went over to a table that held an old, iron bound chest. “Y’know, I was thinking about Solstice too.”
Xena took something from the chest and came back over, sitting down and facing Gabrielle with a more serious expression. “Always hated em.”
“Yeah, you said.” Gabrielle murmured.
“After we got caught by Cortese, Lyceus and me lived in the pits for a while.” Xena said. “Wasn’t much to do in there but fight and try not to die most of the time.” She looked down at a small bundle in her hands. “But.. Ly took up carving.”
“That’s hard to do.”
Xena nodded. “It’s almost as much of a bitch as I am.” She remarked. “But anyway… he kept at it and one Solstice.. I forget which one now.. he gave me this.” She handed over the bundle to Gabrielle.
Gently, she took it, putting it carefully onto her lap before she removed the soft hide covering. “Oh!” The candlelight revealed a wooden lamb, whittled painstakingly into a familiar shape. “It’s pretty.”
“It’s goofy, and completely inappropriate for someone like me.” Xena disagreed. She hesitated a moment, then folded her hands together. “But I think it fits you, and I’d like you to have it.”
Gabrielle blinked in surprise. “But…”
Xena put two fingers against Gabrielle’s lips. “Stupid as it is, he made it.” She said. “He was all the family I had.. and it was the best damn thing I’d ever gotten.” She met Gabrielle’s eyes. “Until I met you.”
Gabrielle looked down at the lamb, then back up at Xena.
“So that’s all the mush you’ll be getting out of me tonight.” The queen said. “Take it or leave it.”
Gabrielle put the lamb down and stood up, sliding over and putting her arms around Xena’s neck. “Good Solstice, Xena.” She kissed the queen with gentle passion. “Only the first of many.”
Xena pulled her down into her lap and cradled her. They kissed again, then hugged each other tightly. Finally, the queen sighed, letting her head rest against Gabrielle’s shoulder. “So. Now. About this poem.”
“Got big words?”
“Um.. a few. But you can read big words.”
“Yeah, but I don’t like to.” Xena replied. “I like little ones.”
“Yeah. Like… I love you.”
“That’s really mushy.”
“Shut up, muskrat.”