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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