Solstice Ashes

by Lisa Grandstaff


The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, and any other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, along with the backstory, are the sole copyright of StudiosUSA and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended by writing this "fan fiction" story. The characters of Raphael and Vasha, as well as the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of myself, Lisa Grandstaff/WarriorScholar. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for the reader's own use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.

In addition: This story assumes a relationship extending beyond friendship between the two main characters, both of whom are women. If this concept is one you find distasteful, please use the Back button of your browser to leave while you still can.
Thank You.

Part I

She rode in the settling darkness, adjusting the heavy fur-trimmed cloak that was slightly large for her sturdy, compact frame. The gelding tossed his head and snorted, steam rising from his nostrils. Gabrielle reached up and scratched the ruddy red-gold neck beneath his mane. She pulled the cloak tighter, warding off the damp chill in the air.

The sunset was coming earlier everyday, almost in a rush to bring the year to an end-- a year that couldn't end fast enough for her. The sound of an owl hooting from the side of the marshy roadbed caught her attention, and the gelding swiveled his ears in the same direction.

"I think it's a good sign, too, Raphael. Let's go have a look."

With a light snap of the reins, she sent him into the sodden grass, toward the modest grade ahead. The roof of a small lean-to appeared under the tree line as they crested the rise, and she smiled.


Her dreams always carried more depth and vividness inside a structure. She had no idea why, but if it meant Xena might come to her tonight, there was no need for an explanation. All that mattered, night after night, was discovering if she would be visited in her dreams. A place they could spend the night indoors was the granting of an unspoken wish.

The disheveled building was made of stone and wood, not used very often or recently. Horse and rider approached, passing over a low stone wall dismantled by time and neglect. Two massive trees grew next to the building, an oak and a linden. Gabrielle dismounted, keeping the reins in her left hand as she scouted the approaches to the area, noting scraps of kindling and signs of animal tracks. From time to time, her right hand caressed the chakram hanging at her side under the cloak.

"This looks good, Raphael. The ground is firmer up here... no signs of people anywhere. We're going to spend the night. Let's get busy."

Caring for Raphael came first; he could stay inside with her, but he needed grooming. After he was settled, she began hauling armfuls of wood into the lean-to. He watched her movements until it became clear she wasn't carrying food. He turned away with a flick of his buttercream tail.

The familiar routine of setting up for the night did little to distract her from the descending sense of melancholy that had been following her for an entire week now.

"Xena..." she spoke aloud "I...."

"Never mind."

Miss you she finished silently. I wish I had something new to say.

She stooped over the pile of wood in the dusty fireplace and struck the flint until the dry leaves caught the spark. The flickering blue at the base of the flames was the color of Xena's eyes....

I've been missing you, Xena. You don't show yourself to me as much as you did in the beginning. You say I don't need you now like I did then. You say that as my heart grows stronger, I'll see you less and less.

The small fire blossomed in the darkness of the lean-to, giving Gabrielle her first good view of the interior since she'd arrived. Big enough to lend itself to stabling Raphael in one corner; with its stone hearth in the center of the southern wall, the structure still had ample room for her bedroll.

She poked at the burning twigs as she added some larger pieces of wood, and noticed the rotted iron at either side of the recess. It had served some cook well, once. She'd see what she could manage with her pots and pans tonight. The luxury of time was the only benefit of the longer nights, with more of it available for cooking a decent meal and thinking through her writing.

Her poetry for the past nine months alternated between moods of gentle melancholy and bouts of anger simmering with frustration. Having no one to talk to, she found her scrolls once more became her closest confidante.

When read, some of them spoke of an impossible love that found its way to reality. Others spoke of a loss even greater than that love; a reality that was more impossible than any fiction she could invent. Some nights she simply didn't have the strength to deal with the tears that came from reading her own writing.

Over time, the poetry began reflecting elements of comfort and healing. Xena's absences grew more frequent. The injustice of the situation didn't escape Gabrielle, and she took correcting steps. She wrote about anything hinting of darkness that she could stay focused on.

It didn't work for long. She found she couldn't deny the honesty of her emotional state night after night. That wasn't poetry, and it wasn't something that she could respect as a writer and chronicler. It wasn't her. Most of all, it didn't bring Xena around any more often.

Raphael shifted in the corner, breaking Gabrielle's reverie. She made soft noises in his direction, reassuring him that things were fine. As she went about the business of preparing her meal, she noted the mice skirting the fuzzy light that the fireplace threw in a semi-circle around the single room. She smiled and tossed a handful of crusts into the darkest corner, then finished stirring the contents of the pot. She hung it on a rigged spit cradled between the two rusted iron hangers, first testing the set-up for sturdiness.

"Now that I've got my dinner cooking and I've fed the mice, it's your turn."

Raphael knew she was speaking to him. It was a unique tone in her voice that was as much his name as 'Raphael' was. He loved her without reserve, as did all the creatures. He nickered in reply and waited for the caress of her hand before digging into the sack she brought over for him.

With a pat on his withers, she bid him goodnight, and returned to the heated circle of the fire, wondering what she would find in her dreams later. She felt the clouds move over the moon and through her chest, muting the clarity of the black sky outside.

A WOMAN'S VOICE SANG OUT, FILLING THE AIR WITH A SONG of plaintive beauty. It was a wordless mourning chant, but not one of the Amazonian laments. The beat of a loosely pulled drumskin and low-throated pipes accompanied her voice. The sleeper whimpered in response, her hands reaching up toward the shadow that bent over her...

Xena, what are you doing? Come closer so I can touch you....

Though the shadow came closer, she still couldn't reach it, see it... see her.

Move closer so I can see you-come out of the shadows. Please.

Gabrielle set her hand to what should be Xena's shoulder, but felt nothing. She gasped and sat up, wide awake.


She listened into the stillness. Nothing but the squeak of a startled rodent.

"Xena! This can't be happening. I've always been able to touch you. What is going on?"

The sound of a woman's whisper behind her spun her around. No one was there.

"What's the matter...? I'm here. I'm waiting. Don't hide from me." She heard the whisper, fainter this time, but still couldn't understand the woman's words.

Gabrielle laid herself back down and closed her eyes. Thoughts were a barrier. Listen to the sound behind the sounds. Stilling her thoughts cleared her mind of its most powerful link to the corporeal world.

Eternity lies between two thoughts....

Within minutes, she heard nothing but the beat of her heart, the sound of her breath moving in and out of her torso, and the blood as it bubbled along its pathways deep inside her body.

From that quiet place, a warmth began on her skin, sinking down into her muscles and finally, to her bones. The bland serenity on her face gave way to an unconscious smile, slight but present, and her eyes flitted back and forth under her closed eyelids.

I feel you, my love. Be one with me. Enter my body and take refuge in what I offer you. For you, and only for you.

A definite physical sensation tingled across her skin.

I'm here, Gabrielle. I wasn't sure I would be able to get to you tonight.

Do you need me, or do you miss me?


Gabrielle opened her eyes. The two women stood in a field as the sun hung low on the horizon, the golden stalks of waist-high grain waving in the summer breeze. It created a halo effect around Xena's head.

Xena followed Gabrielle's gaze and laughed, her perfect teeth even whiter in the gathering darkness. "I hate when that happens. It should be you, not me."

Gabrielle smiled, relief washing the tension from her face. "I'm so glad you're here. I need to talk to you, to hold you."

Xena held her hand out. Gabrielle reached over and took it, then found herself swept into Xena's firm embrace. She squeezed the taller woman's waist, her cheek finding the valley between and just above her breasts. The warmth of that place was real... the scent of skin, flavored with cured leather and crushed grasses. She turned and placed her lips on that sweet surface, allowing its touch and taste to flow into her.

Xena tilted her chin up and kissed her.

"What did you want to talk to me about?"

Gabrielle tugged Xena to the grassy ground. They sat facing each other, legs crossed, fingertips still touching.

"I've been thinking. This is so wrong, Xena. What I mean is, the way you come to me. Not really here and not really there. There's something wrong with it."

Xena looked at her for a while, then stared off to the top of the hill at the edge of the field, squinting into the setting sun.

"I feel it, too. I'm bound here... in between... as surely as I've ever been bound by anything. But I can tell things are shifting, like I'm losing some connection to you, only I don't know how to stop it. It gets harder and harder to be with you like this. Yet I always know where you are."

Gabrielle took one of Xena's hands in her own, stroking the long fingers, rubbing her thumb along the knuckle of the warrior's middle finger, marveling at the abilities embodied in such a hand, the dualities of death and life.

This hand was real. Is real. Was real.

"Is that what you want to talk to me about?"

Gabrielle looked up into Xena's eyes, hoping, as she always did, for an answer suddenly revealed. She sighed.

"Maybe. I can't quite put it into words. This whole idea of me not needing you anymore and you not coming around... it's wrong. There's a flaw in it somewhere."

"Well, if there is, I can't see it. From where I am, all I know is that I was there for you in the beginning, watching over you..." She paused, her eyes focusing on something Gabrielle couldn't see. A ship slipped through the waters in the Sea of Japan, the sun's last rays catching the gold in Gabrielle's hair as her head leaned against Xena's shoulder, firm and solid as in life. "...with you."

Xena looked back at Gabrielle. "I'll never forget how responsible I am for you, but I never thought I would see that responsibility coming to an end. A natural one. You are a complete, entire woman who needs no tangible help from a dead partner. I suspect I will be nothing but the stuff of memory very soon."

"That's garbage!" Anger seeped into Gabrielle's voice. "I need you, Xena. Just because I can take care of myself, just because I can carry on alone what we both used to do together... doesn't mean I don't need you. It's not the same thing at all."

"No, it's not. You have to be honest, though. You can take care of yourself without me. I'm here, and you're there. I can't do anything about the slippage...."

"That has to be the key, Xena. You say I'm a complete woman, but what are you? Are you completely dead? Both of us know you're not. I know what I feel; I know I'm right. What's happened to you is... not right."

"All I can do is trust you. You always want to right the wrongs, don't you?"

"I don't understand any of it!" Gabrielle exclaimed, ignoring the question. "This feeling has been nagging me every day, and it's getting stronger." Her frustration wasn't helping things. She took a moment to calm her breathing. "All I'm trying to say is that I must need you, somehow, or you wouldn't be caught in between worlds, never passing on. I don't know which questions to ask myself, so how can I expect any answers?"

Xena cocked her head. "I'm not sure I follow you. Your answers are nothing more and nothing less than what your heart knows."

"But I have to know what to ask. If I want to know what it is that's happening, what it is that's wrong, I've got to be right on the mark."

Xena loosened her hand from Gabrielle's grasp and stroked the back of her neck, running her fingers up into the hair at the base of her head. Gabrielle allowed her head to roll forward, the sheer joy of that touch entering every cell of her body.

"Gods, that feels good." She breathed into the length of her body. "Yes, I do need you. That's part of the riddle."

Xena leaned forward and kissed the crown of her head. Gabrielle looked up.

"So, do you miss me?" The blue eyes danced in devilish delight.

"If I tell you that I miss you, is that good enough?"

A hint of sadness flitted through her partner's eyes. "Only for a little while longer." Then the mischievous look returned. "It's good enough for tonight, my love."

Xena moved behind Gabrielle and began massaging her tensed shoulders. Gabrielle let her head wag with the motion of the strong hands kneading her tired muscles. Xena inspected her for cuts and bruises as she massaged, chiding her for any scrapes or abrasions, then brushing her hand over the injuries and erasing them altogether.

"This is not something that a concept or a memory can provide, you know." Gabrielle said.

"I know."

Xena stopped her hands to slip Gabrielle's garment down over her shoulders, then resumed her steady kneading. "But this is a need that a ghost woman can't provide you with much longer. I know that, too."

She guided Gabrielle facedown to a prone position and continued her strokes with a lighter touch. She traced the rise of Gabrielle's strong back as it met her shoulder blades, then swept her palms out and across them to her sideribs, finger tips teasing the base of her breasts ever so slightly. She retreated and swept the backs of her fingers down the groove of her partner's spine, then pushed the heels of her hands into the fleshy muscle of her bare bottom.

The relaxation of the massage warred with the excitement that Gabrielle found growing with ever greater intensity. Her desire was escalating with each stroke of Xena's hands, and her imagination was making things worse. She felt the heat of her lover's palms, the exchange of energy wherever their bodies touched and knew in her heart it was real.

Xena laid next to Gabrielle, propping herself up on her left elbow while continuing her caresses with her right hand. With her eyes, she followed the flow of soft muscle from Gabrielle's thighs to the clean, distinct outlines of her calves. She put one long leg up over Gabrielle's outstretched legs and moved her midriff in as close as she could. As she ran her fingers down Gabrielle's outer hipbone, she felt her shiver. She leaned in and kissed the back of her neck just below the fringe of blond hair.

Gabrielle twisted around and grasped Xena's shoulders, pulling their faces close. "Kiss me. Now."

The long dark locks nestled on her collarbone, shooting quivering sparks along her skin in all directions. Gabrielle found a firm thigh under her hand and slid the rest of Xena's clothing away.

"I'll want your solidity and warmth for as long as I can get away with it. And then I'll want it afterwards." she mumbled between breaths.

As they made love, the sun dropped below the horizon, allowing the cooler breezes from the hills to sink down into the valley. The ground below them radiated the day's heat upward, mingling it with the passion of the lovers.

From far off, a young girl's voice cried in fear and loneliness.

GABRIELLE SAT UP AND RUBBED HER EYES to clear the sleep, relishing the fresh relaxation of her body. She pulled a strand of dried grass from her bangs and smiled. After turning it in her fingers a few times, she put it into her mouth and tucked it under her tongue.

Raphael whinnied. There was a strong ray of sun striking him full in the face, and he was impatient to be untied. A tiny movement next to her thigh drew her attention and she looked down. Next to her legs and her bedding, squirrels, mice, a rabbit and a pair of doves nestled along her warmth, drawn somehow together with her. She didn't understand it, but it had begun occurring regularly as the days grew shorter. The spell was always broken as soon as she spoke.

"Good morning, my little furry friends."

The strange assortment of animals tumbled apart and headed out into the sunshine, each in their own fashion. She smiled, the peace in her heart renewed by the memory of her dream.

"Some dream." She stood in the chill of the morning air, invigorated with a new sense of purpose.

The tasks of breaking camp took on a special pleasure. She saddled Raphael and led him outside, turning him loose in the scrub to graze while she finished up inside. As she ate her own breakfast, she lingered over the saddlebag containing her scrolls.

It was still early, and with no immediate destination, she decided to read. She fumbled with the small lock, cold fingers impeding her normal dexterity, but at last, it yielded.

One scroll tube tumbled out before she could catch it, rolling slowly away from her. She sprung to her feet and went after it. It rolled, just out of her reach, until it stopped against the hearth stone.

"Okay...." she said aloud. "You first, then?"

She sat back down and twisted the cap off of the tube, pausing to smell the parchment before she pulled it free. Which one would it be? she wondered.

The parchment differed in color from her usual material. She sorted through her memories, trying to pick out a place or a shop where she might have gotten it from. Nothing came to her. Shrugging, she unrolled it.

The script was not hers. She turned the scroll over to the back, then again to the scribed side. Curious... a strong, yet immaculate script placed in the center of the page read

The dark night of the soul
Comes just before revelation.

When everything is lost
And all seems darkness,
Then comes the new life
And all that is needed.

-Iasos of Campania*

She set the scroll down in her lap and stared out the window. A cloud obscured the sun as it moved across the mid-morning sky, lowering the natural light in the interior of the shack. She didn't move. After several minutes, it passed, leaving the demure winter sunshine peeking around the edges of the window frame once more. Gabrielle blinked twice, then focused her eyes on the scroll.

She didn't remember where it came from, though she knew very well that Iasos of Campania was a gentle wiseman, who, notwithstanding his love of teaching, was quick to opine and loved to challenge. She'd been very taken by his voice and his words some time ago, when they had passed through the peninsula on their way back from Rome.

By the gods, how long ago was that, and which occasion? Was it before Eve was born or after?

Her memory of those confusing times remained foggy at best, and she didn't particularly care right now, anyway. No matter when or how she'd obtained the scroll, it was here in her hands for a reason.

"The dark night of the soul...." she mused aloud. "I know that one quite well, Iasos. What I want now is the revelation and the new life. That's what is needed."

She rolled the scroll up, reverently inserting it into its case, and kissed it before returning it to the saddlebag. The bag itself she swung over her shoulder and stood up.

With a quick, sharp whistle, fingers raised to her lips, she summoned Raphael. The gelding pushed his long face through the open window. He swiveled his ears in her direction, his big brown eyes awaiting her voice.

"We're staying, fella. Yep, just like that. I have to get your saddle back off of you."

He tossed his head and snorted.

"Okay, I have to get my saddle off of you." She headed for the door so she could bring him back inside.

"And Xena, you wait. I'm coming for you. I promise."

Conversing out loud with her invisible partner was a freedom she cherished when alone. Solitude, then, was good... and the animals never complained. Sometimes they even listened. One of these days, she was convinced, one of them might just have something to say, too.

"I know when something's not right." she continued. "Xena, if you are where they say you are, why can I still feel you? Why can I still touch you? How can you have one foot there and one foot here?"

A brassy Caw! from the open window frame brought her up short. She looked at the window. A huge crow, so black that its feathers reflected blue in the sun, stood on the sill, one foot on the outside of the frame, the other quite over the inner edge.


The crow shook its feathers, then sprung into the air with a great flapping.

"I guess not. Just as well."

There was a time, not so very long ago, that Xena would have answered her; would have walked over and clasped her arm or her hand. She could remember the surreal touch of her warrior with painful clarity. It never happened during daylight hours anymore. Even in the night, in dreams, it was increasingly hard to share time with her. Last night was the first time in a whole week.

Gabrielle mused over the growing unrest in her heart. Most of her return journey from the nightmare of Higuchi she'd spent seeking out those who were reputed to understand death and dying. None of them, not even in the exalted Land of the Pharoahs, no matter how learned and sensible they sounded, could explain Xena's strange half-existence. The experts had no answers for her. And now Xena's very being, whatever it was, was inexplicably coming to an end.

She had ridden steadily north from the Nile delta, following the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, through the desert lands of Palestine and into the Taurus Mountains. Once through the mountains, she had headed west, her ultimate destination the city of Ephesus. She would petition Artemis herself for help if need be. From there, the island of Lesbos was only a short trip in the Aegean Sea from the coast.

She knew the pitfalls of traveling the highlands of Anatolia in winter, but so far, the weather had been all good and it showed in her overland progress. More than luck drove her forward; her inexplicable and growing sense of urgency mounted as Xena's absences grew longer and more frequent.

The nights, too, were growing longer with the winnowing of daylight that marked the year's end. Standing Still Sun was less than a week away and the obscure pressure to solve the riddle of Xena's existence in the twilight world between death and life was consuming her.

She'd gone into Solstice Week knowing more theories and legends about death than she'd ever wanted to, but for what? There was no explanation for what had happened and what was happening, just her intuition telling her it was all wrong.

The only other explanation would be that she was losing her grip on reality. Or had already.

Gabrielle could find no evidence in her relations to living human beings that she was crazy. Her horse didn't treat her like a crazy woman, but he was waiting patiently out front. She shook herself back to the present.

With the door opened wide, Raphael had room to spare. Gabrielle led him to his corner and removed the saddle and bridle. He swung his head around, bumping her with his soft muzzle.

"Don't worry, I'm not going to make you stay inside on a day like this." She laid the tack up against the wall, away from his spot and took him back outside. He hated to be hobbled, but she had no choice. He'd get over it with some sweet-talking.

Back inside, she began making preparations for a protracted stay. She unpacked her camp supplies and set up a toiletry area, a cooking area, and a place near the hearth to read and compose. To her delight, she found an old but usable lantern in the nook behind the fireplace. With some cleaning, it would burn safely.

As she worked, the silence of the clearing outside the hut was broken only by the calls of winter birds and the wind rubbing bare branches. From time to time a crow flew overhead, raucous as they always were. Raphael was quiet. She looked out occasionally, checking his gradual progress as he grazed in idiosyncratic circles.

Another hour was spent retrieving materials for the gelding's bedding; more wood gathered for the fire; a snare set-- a quick reconnaissance of the approaches again, and noon had somehow passed. Gabrielle found herself wishing she had this kind of tranquility more often. She sat down with her scrolls next to the hearth. Though the morning fire was nothing more than smoldering embers, she could hear the hissing release of air pockets as it cooled.

The sighing of embers, she thought. There could be a poem in that. Ashes. Solstice Ashes.

The sharp slant of the sun increased as the day spent itself. Its peaceful stillness waned, its warmth ebbing away in tiny increments. When Gabrielle looked up from her writing, she was astonished at how late it had gotten.

Scroll tubes were laid in neat piles next to the thick woolen blanket that she sat on, the stylus still damp with ink. After checking for moist spots, she rolled up the parchment she had finished a few minutes ago.

It was time to start the evening fire before total darkness stole over the clearing and the lean-to. Raphael had to come in and the snare needed checking. A good, hot cup of ginger tea would taste great.

Gabrielle felt the hair on the back of her neck prickle. She put aside the parchment and her quill and looked around, her eyes sharpening in the dimming light. The corner of the windowsill was blurred; it looked as if it would melt to the floor. When she blinked, the hazy effect was gone and everything was fine.

I've spent too much time looking at scrolls today. Oh well.

She rose to her feet and walked over to the window. Raphael was not in sight. There was no birdsong-odd, since the sun hadn't yet set. Using both of her hands, she ran her fingers along the windowsill; it felt dry and splintered. There was a pair of shutters dangling outside, unnoticed until now.

She brushed her hands off and shifted her coat.

"Let's do it."

Outside, low clouds littered the sky. The moon had poked its crescent body into the pale gray light of the aging day, as if crowding the sun off its path. She collected an armful of kindling as she worked her way toward Raphael. They returned to the lean-to.

Inside, with the fire burning at a steady pace, she wandered over to the window frame and ran her hands along the sill again. It felt colder than the surrounding stone and wood. Those shutters might be able to close out some cold air if she could get them to work.

She went outside with her leather pouch of hand tools and examined the shutters. The hinges were rotted and wouldn't hold the wooden louvers in place without collapsing. Around the base of the building, various lengths of trimmed wood were covered with dead weeds. Gabrielle rummaged through the rotting boards, saying a silent prayer for luck and looking skyward to judge the remaining daylight.

Finally, she located one that would do the job. Wishing she had three hands, she struggled with the flimsy shutters until she had them propped into position, then fastened the porous old plank across them and anchored it at each end with a few spikes and some cord.

The whole assembly might remain intact if the winds stayed calm. She crossed her fingers for luck, then trotted off into the underbrush to check her snare. The indistinct light of the evening wouldn't follow her into the copse. She put her feet down carefully, and within a few minutes, located the snare and its quarry in the near darkness. A fat woodland bird would be dinner tonight. She stroked the dead bird's feathers and said a small prayer to Artemis as she removed the trappings of the snare.

A thin, reedy sound caught her attention. It sounded like a cat crying, but she couldn't tell where it was coming from. Pain and despair reached through its cry and into her ribcage. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled for the second time.

There it was again, that sound-- only closer. She gathered the bird to her chest, tucked it under her arm and kept her knife in her right hand. The noise stopped. She started to make the short walk back to the lean-to, but realized she couldn't remember which direction she'd come from.

This is ridiculous. The trampled weeds and the ground should show me where I came in from the clearing.

She scanned the vegetation around her, but saw no signs of entry.


The animal-like wail came again, this time from her right, though no closer. A sharp snapping noise over head shocked her into instant stillness. A creak, then nothing more. She looked up, but could see nothing in the gloom.

Just a weak branch. I feel stupid.

She resumed looking for signs of her entry, taking small steps forward and noting what her path looked like behind her. Another creaking groan swelled into the darkness, then choked itself into silence.

It was if the very trees were watching her. She raised her fingers to her lips and whistled for Raphael. From across the clearing through the trees, she could hear his faint whinny. Orienting herself to the sound, she crashed through the underbrush as fast as she could. Emerging into the last streaks of daylight, she breathed a sigh of relief and headed back to the lean-to, looking over her shoulder every few steps.

SHE SAT IN FRONT OF THE MODEST FIRE SHE'D KEPT BURNING in the fireplace after her dinner was cooked, elbows on her knees, head in her hands. A cold silence sunk into her chest in spite of the waves of heat coming from the fire. Raphael was dozing in his corner. Fragments of her life with Xena kept playing themselves in her mind, tormenting her with the loneliness of loss.

She stood up and began pacing in a tight circle. Almost one year ago, she and Xena spent Solstice Night together in a cabin high on a mountainside-alone, a special meal, gifts and reconciliation. Xena had thrown a massive oak log in the fire and it burned until dawn in bright defiance to the longest night of the year.

Gabrielle recalled Xena's expression with no difficulty... "it's time to celebrate..." she had said, blue eyes open and vulnerable "time to reflect on the very best things life has given us."

The thrust of pain that accompanied the recollection stirred Gabrielle's anger. It wasn't fair to have a special memory like that marred by abysmal grief. Pain was the indicator of life, she knew, but it was an ongoing torture. Death had to be more peaceful.

This year, Solstice Eve would be spent with her horse. Home had been wherever she and Xena were for too many years; now she didn't have one.

This isn't fair. I have no family left. No friends. Nothing but memories that hound me day and night.....

"Xena, how can you leave me like this? I know you can hear me. I can't take this much longer, or I will go crazy. I don't care what you say. I don't care what anyone says. I need you."

When the familiar, fluid voice didn't answer her, she clutched her arms around her torso, comforting herself by swaying back and forth. The heaviness in her chest spread into her throat.

"I'm almost ashamed of what I'm going to say next."

"I know you always looked to me for strength... for a beacon of 'the right way' to do things. I've lived my life for my principles, Xena. That I don't regret." Tears filled her eyes, creating cataracts of light in the room. She stumbled, then wiped her eyes clear.

"But there has to be more than principles, believe me. They might have been enough at one time," she argued into the silence of the cabin "but that time came and went."

Another surge of anguish spread across her body.

It hurts so badly. That's all I can manage... so much for eloquence. Her crying resumed with ferocity.

"Xena! You stole my heart! I ripped it from my chest and gave it to you-I gave you my life the way you gave me yours. Over and over again!"

"Xena!" she shouted hoarsely, her sobs shaking her chest "Where are you? This is killing me, damn it!"

Raphael jerked his head up, alarmed. Gabrielle didn't notice his movement in the corner. She was arguing with Xena, present or not.

Why, why...? I'm so sick of thinking this same thing over and over, but I can't stop... there's no answer, not anywhere. She sniffled loudly.

"Principles are bright, shining lights that guide us wherever we go, helping us make decisions. But that light is cold, Xena... cold! Do you hear me!" She continued walking the room, scraping the soles of her feet as she went.

"I want my principles to guide my life, but I have to have you to live it!"

She dumped herself on the fur covers of her bedroll and hugged her knees to her chest.

"I can't take this... I can't take this... I'm only half alive, Xena I'm not really all here. Help me, Xena. I need you." She rocked back and forth, oblivious to the gathering cold, refusing to acknowledge anything but her pain.

No touch warmed her skin. No voice soothed her ears. Her grief spread from her chest outward along her limbs until it created a comforting numbness. She cried herself to sleep while her horse watched over her and the little animals gathered once again at her side, sharing her warmth.

From far off, a young girl's voice cried in fear and loneliness.

*[Actually, this is a quotation from Joseph Cambell's, "Reflections on the Art of Living", page 39.]

Continued - Part 2

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