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A Tale of Two Solstices

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Gabrielle missed Xena every day, but never more so than when the days grew closer to “Winter Solstice”.

Every village she went to had already put up lights and the decorations that signaled the winter festival, and at every stand she went to someone was good naturedly bargaining with the vendors in order to get a break on the price of some trinket or other.

Gabrielle paused outside one tent, hearing the familiar sound of one of her favorite vendors.

She looked in and called out to him. “Demetrius!” It’s so good to see you!”

Demetrius looked up and a huge smile lighted up his face. Gabrielle was a favorite customer, and one of the best bargainers he’d ever encountered.

It had been some years since he last saw her and he ran to her and hugged her. “Gabrielle! It’s so good to see you, too!” He looked around and asked, “Where’s Xena? Waiting in the pub for you? “He remembered how Xena hated shopping and was more than happy to let Gabrielle do the bargaining and buying for the two of them while she waited in the pub.

Except for that one time she came to him for that special gift for Gabrielle.

“Xena-“Gabrielle had to pause and hold back her tears. “Xena is dead,” she said softly.

“By the gods no! When? What happened to her?” he cried.

“ Last year.She had to- sacrifice herself- in order to save souls, thousands of them.”

“Why would she have to do that?”

Gabrielle wiped her eyes. “You know, I can’t really talk about this now. It’s too painful, especially this time of year. Everyone being with the one they love, sharing the holiday.” She smiled, but it was a somewhat bitter smile. “Xena and I used to celebrate it every year we traveled together. Now, I’m spending it alone.” She caught the look in Demetrius’ eyes and said, “No, don’t feel sorry for me, really. I could go home if I wanted to.” She looked away, the tears falling freely now. “I just don’t want to.”

“So where are you going instead, Gabrielle?”

“I’m going to be staying in the village. Remember how for so many years there were no Winter Solstice celebrations because of King Silvus? And Xena and I and the orphans got him to change his mind?”

Demetrius smiled fondly at the memory. The village had become a much happier place, and people were more inclined to buy gifts for Solstice if they didn’t fear spies barging into their homes, hoping to catch them breaking the law. “Yes, you two changed everything around here for the better. I heard that you did that everywhere you went.”

Gabrielle smiled at the compliment and continued. “That was the first Solstice Xena and I celebrated together. We used to come back here when we were able to and visit the King and Queen and the children. When we’d come during Solstice time, we’d decorate the castle, and sing Solstice carols and then have a huge banquet. Then the children would ask me to tell them a Solstice story. It was challenging to keep up with them.” She laughed and then a shadow crossed her face again.

“I haven’t been back here since Xena”-her voice trailed off and she ran a hand across her face, the exhaustion in her eyes mixing with the sadness.

“Gabrielle, how long have you been traveling?” Demetrius asked.

She shrugged. “I don’t even know. I just followed the star that Xena and I used to travel under to get here.”

“So, in other words, days,” Demetrius said,sympathetically.

“Yeah.” Her eyes strayed to a sparkling object on his table. “What’s that?” She went closer and exclaimed, “That looks just like the stone Xena gave me the first Solstice we were here!” She went closer and inspected the many hued blue stone that sparkled in every direction.

Gabrielle closed her eyes and remembered the night Xena gave it to her.

****

They had finished the party and went up to their room, exhausted but happy.

They landed on the bed at the same time, letting out a big sigh and then looking at each other and laughing.

“What a night!” Xena sighed. “That was as dramatic as many of the battles we’ve fought!”

Gabrielle nodded. “I know! But it was wonderful! And now,” she jumped up and went to her knapsack, triumphantly taking a bottle of wine out of it, “we celebrate!”

She ran over to the table with the bottle, filling the glasses with the wine and bringing it over to Xena.

They toasted to the Solstice and the triumph of love over any obstacle.

Gabrielle gasped, saying,”Xena! Our gifts! We didn’t exchange them!”

Xena smiled. “I haven’t forgotten.” She reached into her bag, and pulled out a small box. Trying to be offhand but ending up looking somewhat nervous, she gave the box to Gabrielle.

“Xena!” Gabrielle tore the ribbon off the box and opened it, an expression of awe of her face.

“Oh gods, it’s beautiful! It’s more than beautiful, it’s amazingly beautiful!” She held it up, marveling at the way the colors changed in the light.

“It has a meaning,” Xena said. “See the lights in it? That’s represents the different stars, and the light will follow me so if we’re separated you’ll always know where I am.”

Gabrielle started to cry and kissed Xena. “I love it- but you and I will never be separated.”

Xena smiled sadly. “Never is a long time, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle shook her head.“No, don’t talk that way.”

Xena caressed Gabrielle’s face. “Fine, I won’t. Let’s just enjoy tonight. Here, let me put this on you,” and Xena went behind Gabrielle and fastened the necklace around her neck.

Gabrielle shivered a little at Xena’s touch, at the soft way Xena’s fingers felt on her neck.

“I love you,” Xena whispered.

It was the kind of thing they always said to each other, but this time it sounded different.

Gabrielle turned around to face Xena.

“I love you, too,” Gabrielle said in a tone that matched Xena’s.

Xena bent down and kissed Gabrielle lightly on the lips.

They stood there for a moment; not speaking then Gabrielle looked down nervously. “Well, let me get your gift,” she went back to her knapsack and gave the package to Xena.

“What is this?” Xena smiled, shaking it lightly.

“Open it!” Gabrielle practically jumped up and down with excitement and Xena laughed.

“Alright! Wow, that’s beautiful wrapping! How did you do that?”

“I just cut some satin cloth and wrapped it around, and then I put this ribbon around it.”

“You’re so crafty,” Xena opened the paper and took the gift out of the box.

“A dream catcher!” Xena was stunned. She’d mentioned one in passing, but had no idea Gabrielle had remembered it much less found one for her! “Gabrielle, this is gorgeous!”

“You know,” Gabrielle said, “it will let out the bad dreams and keep in the good ones.”

“I’ll keep it next to me every night!” Xena held it up, admiring the colors and the slight musical tone it made when she moved it.

“So, we’ve saved Solstice, had a celebration, made a toast and exchanged gifts. What do we do now Xe-“ Gabrielle never finished the sentence because Xena pulled her close and kissed her.

Gabrielle moved back in surprise, and then she reached for Xena and returned the kiss.

“When I said I love you, Gabrielle, I meant I really love you. Not just as my friend or as my partner, but as my soul mate. You’re the one, Gabrielle. The one I’ve been waiting for all this time.”

Gabrielle searched Xena’s eyes for signs of delirium or trickery. It would be just like that bitch Calisto to conspire with the gods to get Xena to do this and humiliate Gabrielle.

But Gabrielle didn’t see any signs of delirium, or sorcery of any kind.

She just saw the most amazing look of love in Xena’s eyes.

And she realized that had she been looking she would’ve known it was love before this.

She’d seen that look on Xena’s face so many times.

“I love you, too, Xena.” Gabrielle repeated. “You are my soul mate. That’s why I know we’ll be together always.”

They kissed again, and spent the rest of the night making love, falling asleep in each other’s arms.

***

Gabrielle was stunned out of her reverie by Demetrius’ voice saying, “This can’t be the same one, can it?”

Gabrielle shook her head. “No, I lost it right before Xena died, in Jappa.” When she drank from the water that contained the life force Xena needed. The necklace had slipped off and she hadn’t had time to look for it.

She fought to keep Xena alive only to have her surrender herself in the end.

Gabrielle examined the stone and gasped. “Demetrius! This IS the same stone! I recognize these ridges right here,” she drew a line with her finger to show him. “This is the stone Xena gave me! Gods, I must have it. Demetrius, I’ll give you anything for it!” Gabrielle was practically in tears, and Demetrius touched her arm to calm her. “Don’t give me anything for it, Gabrielle. You and Xena saved our village, you saved so many people. It’s the least I can do to repay you. And honor Xena’s memory.”

“Thank you,” Gabrielle hugged him. “I’ve got to go. Happy Solstice.”

“And to you as well, Gabrielle,” Demetrius said, and waved to her as she walked away.

****

Gabrielle walked up the hill to the castle, a million different thoughts in her head.

How had Xena’s pendant found its way out of that frozen water much less somehow returned to the place Xena had purchased it?

She held it up to the moon.

It seemed fitting that she’d find it on the longest night of the year.

Xena’s way of easing the darkness for her. Metaphorically and literally.

“You’re being ridiculous, Gabrielle,” she chided herself.

“Xena isn’t here. She might have said she’d always be with you, but she isn’t.”

But Gabrielle HAD felt Xena’s presence at times during the past year.

She’d felt it when she returned to the Amazons and resumed her duties as Queen.

She’d felt it when she stood in battle with the other Amazons.

She’d feel Xena around her while she slept, or tried to sleep.

More often than not she’d just end up staring at the sky, remembering the countless times she and Xena had done the same thing.

“Who knows how the pendant got here? It doesn’t have to mean anything at all,” Gabrielle thought. “And even if it did mean something, what could it be? Xena’s sending me a message that she sees me? She’s still dead.”

Dead.

Even after a year Gabrielle would wake in the morning with Xena’s name on her lips,expecting to wake up in her arms. Sometimes she could swear that Xena was watching her while she slept, something she used to do at times when she was alive.

Then she’d wake up and there’d be nothing around but the dark.

And then Gabrielle would cry.

***

She put a brave face on when she knocked on the door of the castle. She didn’t want the King and Queen or the children to see her sad on Winter Solstice Eve.

“Gabrielle! Welcome!” King Silvus grabbed her and gathered her in a huge bear hug. “It’s so good to see you again! Happy Solstice Eve!”

“Same to you,” Gabrielle mumbled into his chest.

“Oh, sorry,Gabrielle,” he laughed. “I get a bit carried away, because I’m just SO HAPPY!”

Gabrielle smiled. No matter how many years had passed, it always shocked her to see how happy the King was about Solstice and life in general.

“Gabrielle-Happy Solstice Eve!” The Queen joined her husband, hugging Gabrielle as well.

And there it was. The reason the King was so happy about life.

He had his love, his soul mate with him.

Gabrielle remembered when she and Xena had talked that night, after they’d made love and her head was on Xena’s breast. Xena was stroking her hair and Gabrielle was talking again about what a strange and wonderful night it had been.

****

“You know, at one point there I didn’t think he was going to change, Xena.”

“And he wouldn’t if Analia hadn’t agreed to come back to him,” Xena replied.

“Yeah, who would’ve thought that would happen? After thirty years? You would think it would be impossible.”

Xena had kissed Gabrielle’s hair and said, “Where love is concerned, NOTHING is impossible.”

And that night, lying in Xena’s arms, Gabrielle had believed it, too.

***

“Gabrielle, Gabrielle!” the children called to her, running to her from all different directions.

“Hello, everybody! Happy Solstice Eve!”

“Happy Solstice Eve, Gabrielle!” they all took turns hugging her and giving her kisses.

“Gabrielle,” Analia said, “we wanted to all offer our sympathy on the loss of Xena. She was an amazing woman.”

“Thank you, Analia,” Gabrielle whispered, trying not to cry as the children and the King echoed Analia’s words of condolence.

“We’re honored you decided to come anyway,” Analia said.

“I –wanted to be here. Xena and I were very-happy here. I wanted to spend this night with you and remember happier times.” She looked around. “Where’s Senticles?”

“Right here, Gabrielle!” she turned and saw the bearded figure in the red outfit come flying out of the toy shop.

“Senticles! Don’t tell me you’re not finished with the toys yet!” She smiled.

“I’m done, but I might need help sliding down a few chimneys,” he said and winked at her.

She laughed, remembering the first night they’d been here. Senticles had to slide down the chimney in order to avoid being caught with the toys he was bringing to the orphanage. Gabrielle had no choice but to slide down with him.

It had been an experience.

“I don’t think I’ll be going down any chimneys tonight,” she said.

“Oh yes. Gabrielle,” he cleared his throat, “About Xena. I’m so sorry.”

“I know you are. Thank you, Senticles.” Gabrielle knew they all meant well, but if she heard one more “I’m sorry” tonight she’d scream.

“Well, what are we waiting for? Our guest is here! Let’s eat!” The King declared and all the children cheered.

****

After a feast which Gabrielle had to admit was more than she’d eaten in weeks, the children demanded that they go hang up Solstice decorations and that Gabrielle follow that up with a story.

Gabrielle sighed inwardly. She just didn’t feel like she had a Solstice story to tell. All her stories were sad ones these days.

***

The children were singing Solstice carols as they did the decorating, and Gabrielle did her best to join in. She found herself enjoying herself, and for a few moments at a time she would forget that Xena was dead.

Then she’d look around for her and remember.

***

Gabrielle did manage to come up with a story for Solstice that didn’t have anything to do with death or despair, and after opening one gift each at midnight the children went up to bed.

She sat down with her hosts, drinking Solstice wine and looking at the lights from the Solstice tree.

She knew they wanted to ask about Xena, so she told them an abbreviated version of the most horrendous time of her life.

“I kept thinking, ‘There’s no way this is it. No way that Xena would let this be the end. We’d gone through so many experiences together. Things you couldn’t even believe. We’ve been to the Elysian Fields, we’ve been to the future, we’ve been to Heaven, and to Hell. I thought for sure there’d be just one more miracle.”

“What do you think happened?”

“Xena! Xena happened! She HAD to sacrifice herself for those souls to be free. But it wasn’t her fault they were lost. It was an accident!” Gut wrenching sobs poured out of Gabrielle. “An accident! By the gods, it could’ve happened to any one of us! Why did she feel she had to sacrifice herself?”

“Do you think she felt on some level she was making up for those tragedies that were her fault by accepting this sacrifice?” Analia asked, softly.

“No- at least I don’t think so. I think she was tricked somehow into feeling this was the right thing to do. I can’t imagine this could’ve been her fate.”

“Well, you know the fates are somewhat strange, Gabrielle. They don’t always do things that make sense to us.”

“I know. But it just seemed like such a wrong way for her life to end,” Gabrielle felt the tears pour down her face. “Or maybe it’s just that it seemed like the wrong time. Her voice broke.“We should have had more time.”

Analia and Silvus wrapped her in their arms and she cried for a long time.

***

“Gabrielle,” Analia said as she walked her to her room, “you were the only one who didn’t say what your Solstice wish was. Can you tell me?”

Gabrielle looked at her sadly “There’s nothing I want that can be granted by a simple Solstice wish.”

“Why don’t you try it, anyway? You never know what could happen.”

Gabrielle remained unconvinced, but she told Analaa she would try.

****

That night, as she lay in her bed she held the stone that Xena had given her close to her heart and made her solstice wish.

She held the stone up to let the moonlight touch it.

It started to glow.

Gabrielle sat up and threw off the covers.

Running to the window, she held the stone to it.

There it was again. A glow. The stone was glowing! And judging from the direction of the stars it looked like the light was very close.

Gabrielle felt her heart beating wildly and had to sit down on the bed.

“Xena is here? No, that can’t be! Xena is dead! I know that! Maybe it’s her spirit? What? What is it?”

She ran down the hall to speak to the King and Queen. If she was going to investigate than she’d need their help.

***

“Silvus! Analia! “She called to them. Analia opened the door and let Gabrielle in. Gabrielle quickly explained what had happened.

“So you want to follow this light, this star? You’re going to do this tonight?”

“I have to! I have to see where it leads!”

The King and Queen exchanged looks and the two of them went to get provisions for Gabrielle.

Gabrielle went to change into her battle armor.

***

“Good luck to you, Gabrielle! Let us know what you find out! And be careful, there’s a storm coming!”

“I will, and thank you so much for your help!’ Gabrielle called to them as she rode away.

******

End of Part 1