When Gabrielle returned to Xena, the warrior still hadn't regained consciousness. Her color was frighteningly pale and her pulse so faint that Gabrielle had to try three times before she found it. Suddenly, it occurred to her that Xena might not be able to survive the trip to the village. There is so much at stake, the bard thought. One error and Xena could die. What do I do? Argo snuffled her nose next to Xena's arm, urging her mistress to rise. Gabrielle looked at the horse, knowing what she had to do, but fearing the decision.
Using a different whistle than she had before, she commanded Argo to her knees. The horse instantly complied. As carefully as she could, Gabrielle lifted Xena onto the mare's back, then climbed on behind, cradling the warrior with both arms. Argo rose and walked back to the path. Gabrielle grabbed the reins in one hand and directed her toward the village.
"I have to do this, Xena. I know it's not good for you to bounce around like this, but I have to. I have no medicines, no poultices, no bandages -- no knowledge! You need a healer, Xena, not a bard. And this is the only way to get you to one."
Argo seemed almost humanly aware of the danger to her precious cargo. Her gait was as smooth as she could make it, and although it was a hurried walk, she never tried to jump into a trot or canter.
Gabrielle held onto her flanks tightly, not used to riding without a saddle. She hummed in Xena's ear, trying to soothe her, to heal her with music, love and touch. Keeping a close eye on the head wound, she never let her grip falter, holding the larger woman by shear strength of will.
The villagers stared as the two women entered the town. They had assumed them dead in the fire, having seen the direction they had traveled just before the storm struck and the forest had been set ablaze. And although the warrior appeared to be a corpse, the younger woman held her as though she was still alive.
"Get Widgie," said the innkeeper to a nearby village boy. "Over here, girl!" he shouted to Gabrielle. "I'll set up a room. The healer's been sent for."
"Thank you," she said, ready to fall off the horse at the slightest provocation. Gingerly, she helped the innkeeper take Xena from her, then slipped gratefully from Argo's back.
"Name's Jorgos," he said, carrying the wounded warrior into the inn. "Where're your things?"
"Thanks, Jorgos. But no things. We lost everything. Got caught in a cave-in the day we left your village."
"Don't say? How'd you get out?"
"Moved some rocks. Xena got hurt, though. Really bad."
"Looks that way. In here," he said opening a door with a kick then laying the warrior on a clean pallet. "I'll have some men go to the cave and see if they can't dig up some of your stuff."
"Don't. It's too unstable. A saddle and some possessions aren't worth it."
"Suit yourself. But we know how to deal with caves in these parts. You got nothing of value?"
Gabrielle thought of her scrolls, on which she had been painstakingly recording all of Xena's adventures. She remembered her staff, a treasured gift from Ephiny. Argo's saddle, the virilis token they'd found near the Temple of the Fates, their bedrolls, spare clothes... So many things. So many memories. And although Xena was still wearing her leathers, she had removed her breastplate armor and it was lost with the rest. That was going to be hard to admit to her, Gabrielle realized. "No, nothing of value. Not to anyone but us."
"I see," he said, looking hard at Gabrielle. "Been rough, has it?"
"Yeah. It... I... I'm worried about my friend."
"She worth worrying about?"
"More than you'll ever know."
"Then I'll tell the wife to pray to Hermes for you."
"Thank you. I'd appreciate that."
"She's got a touch of the oracle, my wife. It'll help."
"Thanks. Is there water around here? I need to wash her up and I could use a bath myself."
"I'll have it brought." He was silent a moment. Then he looked toward the door. "Healer's here." He left.
Gabrielle knelt next to Xena and stroked her face. "Hear that? The healer is here. You're going to be fine. Just hang on a little longer and she'll fix you right up, okay?"
An enormous woman wearing a bright, yellow, tent-like dress, covered in bangly, clinking jewelry, waddled into the room. Her face was flushed red from the walk, and she was humming a tuneless melody.
"This be her, then? The Warrior Princess her very own self, aye?" asked the woman.
"This is Xena, yes. She was hit on the head by a rock. She's lost a lot of blood."
The healer glanced at the wound. "Been open more'n once then?"
"Yes. Can you help her?"
"Aye. But 'tis up to th'warrior to make th'healing work in time, t'ain't so?"
Gabrielle was tired to the bone. She noticed everything the healer said sounded like a question, and it didn't instill much confidence. "She's a fighter. If anyone can survive this, Xena can."
"Good'n then, aye? That be as it be. Lemme take a looker at th'head then. Run tell Jorgos t'get me a chair, aye?"
Reluctantly, Gabrielle left the room to go in search of the innkeeper, Jorgos. When she returned with a large, sturdy chair, the healer was humming again, bent over Xena, dwarfing her in size. The healer was probably four inches taller than the warrior and weighed three times as much.
"Here," said Gabrielle, placing the chair near the pallet.
"Aye, then. You've got naught to do?"
"I want to stay with Xena."
"Your lover then, aye?" Gabrielle looked at her in surprise. The healer laughed, jiggling from head to toe. The jewelry clinked and clanked musically. "Oh, have I shocked you then? Don't worry, chit. I saw't when you two was here last. 'Twere the way she lookt on you, put th'thought there, aye? Such a hard, cold woman but when you was in her eyeline, she softened like cream."
This was before the cave? Gabrielle thought. Xena looked like that before the crisis; before she was hurt; before the threat that we would both die alone? Gabrielle turned the thought over in her mind as the healer cleaned the wound with a tenderness the bard hadn't expected.
"Poor little mite," the healer whispered to Xena. Gabrielle almost laughed aloud, having never heard anyone call the warrior a 'little mite' before.
"So..." said Gabrielle. "You, um, think that Xena is in love with me?"
"Aye, that I said, t'ain't so?"
Before the cave, thought Gabrielle. And suddenly the doubts she had been holding at bay, refusing to voice even to herself, rushed in and as quickly, departed. She had, in her secret heart, feared that Xena's show of affection had been due to circumstance. Maybe the warrior feared she would die alone and had reached out to whomever was near. Or maybe she had sensed Gabrielle's need and wanted to give her a final gift, knowing that soon nothing would matter. Xena had been hurt, hit in the head -- Gabrielle had wondered if the rock had scrambled something in Xena's mind, making her do things she never would. She could think up so many excuses for Xena's actions, but the one she had wanted -- the one she had needed -- had seemed less and less likely. Now, though, she had a prayer, a chance. If the healer had seen it. If the healer told the truth. If the healer knew love when she saw it in another's eyes. If... if... if...
"Just a bit more, warrior, and then ye'll waken, aye?" said the healer to Xena, in a sweet, caressing voice. She had cleaned, treated and sewn Xena's wound with remarkable skill and her low voice was almost like a lullaby in its soothing tone. Her touch, Gabrielle noticed, was both coldly efficient and caressingly tender. "She be a beauty though, t'ain't so?" the healer said to Gabrielle. "Looka th'bones and th'lips. Strange one, though. T'have all that and not trade on't. I'd've picked her for a beguiler of men and a conqueror of women. But you be no pet, be ya chit?"
Gabrielle reddened, not quite sure what the healer meant. "We're... she's my best friend."
The healer laughed and jingled and shook. "Oh aye, that what they're calling't now?" Then she seemed to forget Gabrielle was there as Xena stirred. "Bold one, don't fight't so. Let't happen. Put away the dreams and find yer mind, then. Take't slow, warrior, don't be pressed. We be here, and we be waitin' 'til you'm ready."
Xena moaned. "Gab... ri..."
"She's here beside. D'ya think she'd be leavin' ya then? Her 'best friend' and all? Where's yer trust, warrior?"
"Who...?" Xena croaked.
"They call me Widgie, silly name though 'tis."
Xena appeared agitated, until Gabrielle took her hand. The stress left her instantly.
"Hi, Xena," Gabrielle said. "Welcome back."
Xena opened her eyes then shut them tightly. After a moment, she opened them again. They darted about, a touch of panic in them that Gabrielle couldn't decipher.
"What's this then?" asked Widgie. "Share yer thoughts, warrior."
"I can't... It's... nothing," Xena mumbled.
"Feh. Keeping secrets from Widgie, areya? That be a stupid idea, t'ain't so? I could leave, could I. Fend for yerself you will, keeping secrets from yer healer." Widgie's words were harsh, but her manner was soft and cajoling. Gabrielle stared at the woman, trying to understand the mind of this unusual mountain of a person.
Xena frowned. "How did... the cave...?"
"I finished the passage," said Gabrielle.
"You...? But how...?"
"I carried you," Gabrielle answered, anticipating her question.
Widgie chuckled silently, the only sound that of her jewelry. "A wee puppet such as yerself? Carried th'bold one on yer back, didja?" She leaned down to talk to Xena. "What do you think of that, warrior? Wager y'thought you be th'strong one, t'ain't so? Now th'truth are out. You be helpless and th'wee one be th'strength of ya. Think on't. And keep no secrets from yer healer, ere th'chit give ya a strike t'keep ya in line!" Widgie laughed fully, the folds of her body rippling in waves setting off a cacophony of jangling.
Gabrielle smiled at the absurdity of the thought, but she noticed Xena just shut her eyes, her expression closed and unreadable. "Xena? C'mon, Xena, don't--"
"Let'er be, chit. She'll come round, t'ain't so, warrior? Aye, t'so."
Then Widgie did a most extraordinary thing. She leaned down, picked up Xena as if the warrior weighed no less than the feather blanket on the bed, and cradled her in her arms like a newborn. Softly humming, she rocked Xena, using her generous body as the ultimate cushion. And to Gabrielle's surprise, Xena not only allowed this, but appeared to sink into the folds willingly. As if she had indeed given up her strength and surrendered to the comfort of the healer's warmth. "Get gone then, aye?" Widgie whispered to Gabrielle. "This be a private thing and not t'be witnessed by yer eyes. She'll not thank ye for seeing it, mark that. So get gone afore she's no dignity left."
Gabrielle fought herself into a standing position, every inch of her crying out to stay with Xena. But she knew that the healer spoke the truth. It wasn't something her friend would want witnessed. Surrender was so difficult for the warrior.
Gabrielle was sitting against a tree in back of the inn, exhausted. She had carried the burden of their survival for so long, it felt strange to have nothing to do. She looked up as a twig cracked and saw Jorgos carrying a large bowl and a loaf of nutbread.
"Thought you might need food," he said, placing them before her.
"I'm not hungry," Gabrielle replied, knowing that she should be starving, having not eaten for almost two days. But her mind was in such turmoil, she wasn't sure if she would ever be hungry again.
"Well, you might consider it anyway. The wife made it and she gets powerful upset if her food is refused."
Gabrielle frowned and broke off a corner of the bread, stuffing it in her mouth for show. She chewed slowly, the rich, sweet taste enticing her pallet. "It's excellent," she said, taking another bite. She dipped the spoon in the stew and brought it to her mouth, her taste buds exploding on contact. Before she had realized it, the stew was gone along with the entire loaf of nutbread.
"I... guess I was a little hungry at that," she sheepishly admitted.
"Aye, I guess," replied Jorgos with a smile. "I'll tell the wife her plan worked."
"She knows herself, she does. Knows her talents. And food, well, she can do things no other can with it. 'Get her to taste and she be mine' she told me."
Gabrielle laughed. "I think I need to meet your wife," she said.
Jorgos looked up in surprise. "That you have! 'Tis my Widgie taking care of your friend."
"Widgie? You're married to Widgie?"
"Aye," he said, pulling away from her, his eyes narrowed.
"Oh, but that's wonderful!" she said quickly and saw him relax. "I didn't know because, well, you called her the healer and everything."
"When she's got a patient, she's the healer. When she's got a prophecy, she's the oracle. When she's got a stewpot, she's the cook. Widgie is many things and to keep it all straight, we name her for them."
"I see," said Gabrielle, not quite understanding but marveling anew at the woman who had held Xena like a child, rocking her gently; healing her just by being near. "I think Xena was very lucky to have been hurt near this village."
"She was that," Jorgos chuckled.
"When do you think I can see her again?"
"Widgie will let us know. This part of it isn't for your eyes."
"Yeah, so she said."
"Don't fret about it. Widgie can draw things out of folks that, well, no one should see. There is a great darkness in your friend. Widgie has to get through that before she can heal. My wife can't abide darkness, 'specially not when lives are at stake."
"Well, Xena does have a past..."
"The Warrior Princess. Aye, we've all heard of her, of course. Most famous warlord around a few years back."
"But she's not like that anymore. She's good now. A hero. She spends her time saving people," said Gabrielle, defensively.
"Aye, we've heard that as well. After all, you two came here at the quest of a neighbor, remember?"
"Oh, yeah. That's right. Did he solve his problem?"
"He did. Xena showed him the path."
"I hope she's okay..." Gabrielle whispered. They were both silent for several minutes, the bard's mind preoccupied with worries about her friend.
"Get the wee one, Jorgos!" came a bellow from the inn.
"There'll be your answer," said Jorgos.
Gabrielle leapt up and ran back to the room.
Xena was asleep on the pallet. Widgie lifted herself from the chair amid much jangling, jiggling and grunting.
"Let her be. Sleep is curing."
"Okay. Is she all right? Will she live?"
"Aye. The strength of her be immense, t'ain't so? That weren't the problem. She's another worry now."
"What?" asked Gabrielle, stricken with fear.
"'Tis her eyes, poor little mite. She be blind."
"Blind? Xena is blind?" gasped Gabrielle.
"Aye, 'tis near that. She can see shapes and colors but naught else. And e'en that be leaving her, swiftlike. Soon t'will be only darkness. Odd that, t'ain't so? Darkness inside and darkness without now, aye?"
"No... I won't believe it. It's just temporary, right?"
"Only time and the warrior can tell us, t'ain't so?"
"No! You know, don't you? Tell me! Will she see again?"
"Rest a bit, wee one. 'Tis a shock to hear of a friend afflicted thus. Lie beside yer lady and hold her, then. She needs yer touch, aye? Aye."
With that, Widgie waddled out of the room, deaf to Gabrielle's continuing spate of questions.
Defeated, Gabrielle sat on the edge of Xena's pallet. The warrior was sleeping soundly, her face relaxed and unworried. Gabrielle straightened some stray hairs, then gently stroked her cheek. "Oh, Xena. Don't let this be true. It can't be. You're going to be all better and then we'll ride off on another adventure. You promised, remember? Once we got out of the cave, everything was supposed to be okay. No more cold darkness. No more walls in our way. No more worries. Just the two of us..." A tear slid down her cheek, unnoticed. It isn't fair, she thought. Everything is supposed to be okay. Surely the cave-in was torture enough -- we don't need any more trials. Xena can't be blind. Not the Warrior Princess. What will she do? How will she deal with such a blow?
"It should've been me," Gabrielle whispered. "I should've been hurt. You would've found a way to save us without anything bad happening. It's all my fault. If my foot hadn't slipped and started the rockfall which reopened your wound... That's the one that did it, isn't it? It wasn't the lightning that caused this, or the tree shifting -- no, it was me! I was careless and let myself forget about the loose rocks and there you were helpless, unable to do anything. You were hit because of something I did and it... it blinded you! Oh gods, Xena, I'm so sorry. I'd understand if you never forgave me. I would."
Gabrielle laid down next to Xena and gathered her in her arms. "I should go away. Before you wake. I should leave so you never have to see my... hear my voice again. You won't want the person who did this to you to be around all the time. I should go."
"Gabrielle," came a soft whisper.
Gabrielle opened her eyes slowly. The room was bathed in orange shadows, lit by a single candle that had burned low. She was lying on the pallet, wrapped in Xena's arms, her head cradled on her friend's breast.
"Gabrielle, wake up," she heard again.
"Xena? You're awake?" whispered Gabrielle.
"Yeah. My head is clearer now. Please... Where are we? It's so dark, but this isn't the cave. We're on a pallet..."
"We're at an Inn in the village."
"How did we get here? Who rescued us?"
"Um... I sorta did."
"I cleared the rocks and carried you out on my back."
Xena was silent for several seconds. "And... Argo? Did you leave her enough water and food or..."
"Argo's safe. She got out as well."
"Argo got out of the cave? How?"
"I cut the tree into a ramp and cleared a space for her to run and she was able to jump through the hole I'd made."
"You saved Argo..." Xena said, a crack in her voice. She hugged Gabrielle tightly.
Gabrielle was filled with self-disgust. She was supposed to be gone, but she had fallen asleep. She had only wanted to hold Xena one last time. That was all she had meant to do. But instead, she had fallen asleep and now she couldn't just disappear.
"Hey, light a candle or something," said Xena. "I want to see if you're okay. Dark as pitch in here. Where's the moon? Aren't there any windows?"
"I'm fine, honest," said Gabrielle, glancing over at the still flickering candle and the moonlight illuminating the corners. "I wasn't hurt, you were."
"I feel much better. What did you do? Are you suddenly a healer as well as a horse trainer?"
"No, the healer in the village took care of you. Widgie. She's... unusual, but very skilled."
They were both silent for several minutes. Xena was absently stroking Gabrielle's hair, holding her tightly. "I'm glad you're feeling better, Xena," whispered Gabrielle.
"Me too. Haven't felt this good in days. Still pretty weak, but that'll change. Please find a candle, Gabrielle. I want to look at you."
"Later, okay?" said Gabrielle, wishing she had the strength to tell Xena about her eyes.
"Okaaaay," Xena said slowly then paused. "Truth or truth?"
"The game. Only I think you don't want to play. And if you did, you'd keep picking 'dare' because you're hiding something from me. So truth or truth?"
"Cut it out, Xena. I'm not hiding anything."
"Truth or truth."
"I'm not playing. I'm too tired."
"Hmm, two lies. You really stink at this, Gabrielle."
"I don't -- fine. Truth."
"What aren't you telling me?"
"We should wait for Widgie."
"No, I don't want to wait for Widgie. I want to hear it from you."
"Yes you can. You cleared a cave-in, carried me out on your back, saved my horse, got me to a healer -- and now you're saying you haven't the strength to tell me what's wrong with me? I'm not buying it."
"Damn you, Xena."
"I'm sure that can be arranged. Now talk."
Gabrielle took a deep breath, every muscle tensed. "It's your eyes."
"What about my eyes?" said Xena, a note of apprehension in her voice.
"Well, they're... Xena, I don't need to get a candle because there's already one here," said Gabrielle, picking it up. She brought it close and held up Xena's hand, to let her feel the small heat of the flame.
"This isn't right. How can there be a candle? It's as dark as the cave in here," the warrior said in a commanding voice.
Gabrielle returned the candle to the shelf. "The second wound, when the rocks fell while I was clearing the entrance, well... you're blind, Xena. I'm so sorry," said Gabrielle then buried her head, weeping in shame.
"It's all my fault! I slipped and the stones started to fall and you were so weak and the rocks hit you and it's all my fault!"
"Hush..." Xena said, holding her while she wept. "It sounds like an accident."
"I was careless! I was tired and should've quit working but I didn't, I just kept going. And I knew it was stupid but I did it anyway because I was sick of being in the cave and just wanted to get out. I wanted to get you to a healer because I knew I couldn't help and I wasn't paying attention and I slipped! Oh, Xena, now you're never going to forgive me and I'll have to go away and I love you so much and I've blinded you because I was stupid and--"
"Stop it right now! You're not going anywhere," commanded Xena. "Don't even think about it."
"But... how can you stand being near me?"
"Oh, I'll manage somehow."
Gabrielle pulled away from her embrace. "How can you stand me after what I've done?" Gabrielle tried to rise, but Xena held her, pulling her back. The bard stopped struggling, afraid she would hurt her friend even more.
"Don't make me lose my temper, Gabrielle."
"I'm not -- I won't, but--"
"Listen to me. If I'm truly blind, then the one thing I'm going to need more than anything is a friend I can count on. I was pretty sure I'd found that. But if you're going to run away at the first sign of trouble, I'm wondering if I have."
Gabrielle suddenly realized how foolish she had just been. How could I have done that? she wondered. How could I talk about leaving just when Xena needs me more than she ever has? Then, knowing it was time once again to be honest, she admitted to herself that she had never seriously considered leaving. She had been trying to be noble; to keep Xena from having to tell her to leave. No, she thought, again looking only for truth. That wasn't nobility. It was fear. I was afraid of what she'd think of me. Afraid that this was a mistake she wouldn't be able to forgive. Afraid that I'd hear her tell me to go, which would break my heart.
"I'm sorry, Xena," she said in a small voice. "I wasn't really going to leave. I guess I was just -- I don't know what I was thinking."
"Well, I do. It's called 'guilt' -- and I know all about it. You did something you regret and now instead of facing it, you want to run away. Running doesn't help, Gabrielle. Trust me." Xena's voice softened. "Look. I don't blame you for any of this, so please give yourself a break, okay? Everything will work out. Somehow, we'll deal with this. But I need you to be strong just a little longer. I know you're tired. And being strong is hard sometimes. Very hard. But you've done so well. You managed to save our lives and Argo's and get me to a healer. You did all this on your own. And now this talk of leaving me..." Xena took a deep breath. "I don't want to be alone now, Gabrielle. I need you."
"Of course, Xena. I'm here. I'll always be here. I'll never leave you," said Gabrielle quietly.
"Good. Now get some sleep. I imagine you haven't had much lately."
Gabrielle felt Xena's hand move from her arm to her face, the fingers fumbling to find her lips. When they had, Xena lowered her head to kiss her softly goodnight. Then the warrior turned and closed unseeing eyes tightly, fighting the tears that threatened to fall.
When Gabrielle returned from breakfast, she heard voices coming from their room.
"Did quite a job on the wee one, didn't you, warrior?" Gabrielle heard Widgie say.
"What are you saying?" came Xena's threatening voice.
Gabrielle moved closer to listen.
"Settling her fears, givin' her th'all's right. You done well in that, t'ain't so?"
"I suppose. What's your point?"
"Not that I think you needs telling, as you is a sharpie, you is. But you be holding back, t'ain't so? Forgot t'mention a wee fact, aye?"
"What fact is that?" Xena sounded as if she was keeping tight control of her temper. Gabrielle shivered.
"A blind warrior be a useless thing, t'ain't so? Useless. No reason t'live, much as I can tell."
"That's my business, Healer."
"Aye, 'tis that. I can fix what bleeds but not a soul what wants no fixin'. Not that I'd try on you, warrior. No, t'would be a waste of my gifts, aye? You doesn't want fixin'."
"Perhaps you'd better leave."
"Aye, that too. Always best to chase away them bold enough to hold a mirror, t'ain't so?" Gabrielle couldn't hear Xena's mumbled response, but the healer's answer was clear and cruel. "You be pathetic, warrior. Not worth the waste of breath."
Gabrielle heard the jingling that preceded Widgie's rise from the chair. Quickly, she slipped around the corner to hide until the healer had passed. Widgie waddled through the door and without looking, said, "gw'on in then, wee one. See if'n you can reach her."
Gabrielle sheepishly showed herself. "What was that all about?"
Widgie didn't pause, just kept walking in her slow, jangling waddle, saying over her shoulder, "Ask the warrior, aye? Your friend be a fool, but s'worth a try t'least."
Gabrielle slowly entered the room, putting a bright smile on her face. "Hey, Xena! The food here is fabulous. Have you tried the nutbread?"
"Morning, Gabrielle. No, I haven't had much appetite. And you can stop smiling. It's not like I can see you."
"Oh," said Gabrielle, the smile disappearing. "Waitasec, if you can't see me how'd you know--"
"It was in your voice."
"That's great! It means you're starting to use your other senses to compensate for your... well... your--"
"--eye... think we need to talk, Xena. Just you and me. No healers, or anything."
"Yeah. I'll go first."
Gabrielle sat down on the pallet next to her. She took her hand. Xena pulled it away on the pretext of scratching an itch. She didn't offer it again.
"Okay, good," said Gabrielle with false brightness. "What's on your mind, Xena?"
"I've been thinking about what you said last night."
"Yeah, I want to thank you for--"
"Please, it was an accident. Let's leave it, okay?"
"I was thinking about you wanting to leave, to go out on your own. It's a good idea. You should do it."
"What?" Gabrielle was stunned. She didn't want to go out on her own. "But I--"
"Really. You're obviously able to take care of yourself now. You don't need me anymore and I would be no good to you like this anyway. I think you should go. Maybe back to the Academy or something. You shouldn't have given that up."
"But I don't want to go to the Academy. I want to be with you."
"Well I don't want to be with you," said Xena harshly.
Gabrielle stared at her friend whose eyes were unfocused and drifting. "Truth or truth, Xena," she said coldly.
Xena bristled then forced a smile. "Look, I'm not angry or anything. I just... it's going to take awhile for me to recover. I have to get used to living without sight and it'll be boring for you. There'll be no adventures and what's a bard without adventures? It just seems a perfect opportunity for you to take the classes you need. By the time you graduate, I'll be an old hand at being blind and then we can get back together."
"Uh-huh," said Gabrielle, not trusting her. "What's this really about, Xena? Truth or truth, what are you thinking?"
"I'm just being realistic. I talked it over with Widgie and she'll help me get used to things. Help me learn to deal with being sightless."
"I could help you."
"Yes, you could. But I don't want that. I don't want to turn you into some kind of servant, spending your days waiting on me. You're too talented. You should be studying to be the greatest bard this land has ever seen," said Xena, her smile now genuine. "You have that potential, Gabrielle. Live up to it. Be it. Tell the whole world about your adventures with the Warrior Princess. Maybe that way, I'll always have sight. I'll be able to see through your stories."
Gabrielle was quiet, digesting this. Was Xena being honest? Was this what she really wanted? "You'd be lonely without me."
Xena's smile cracked but she fought her emotions and retrieved it. "Yeah. I would be. But I'd survive."
"What about me? I don't know if I can live without you."
"Oh come on," Xena cajoled. "You'll be fine. I'll still be around. You can visit me on breaks."
Gabrielle took Xena's hand and the warrior squeezed hers affectionately. "What about, um, what we did in the cave?" asked the younger woman, shyly.
"I don't understand."
"The 'dare', Xena. What about the dare?"
Xena smiled tenderly. "That was both truth and dare, Gabrielle. Nothing has changed. I still love you. More than I love myself."
"You do? Swear it?"
"I do. Swear it." Xena's hand fumbled for Gabrielle's face so the bard leaned forward, into her palm. "Gabrielle, you are my heart. Please, listen to me on this. Follow your dream. I'll be here when you get back."
Gabrielle had no intention of leaving her friend, but she wanted to know why Xena was suddenly so anxious to have her gone. "So... you want me to go to the Academy but visit you, is that it?"
"And the only reason for this is because you want me to be a great bard?"
"That and I'll learn how to deal with my blindness. What's so difficult about this?" Xena asked, curtly. She put a hand to her head, rubbing the palm on her forehead, an expression of pain on her face.
"Nothing. Except I don't believe you."
"You're calling me a liar?" the warrior asked, beginning to lose her control.
"No! Well, sorta but only because I don't understand why you'd want me to go away. Last night you said--"
"Last night I said a lot of things. But I've had more time to think now."
"Oh," Gabrielle said, "I see. And this is what you want?"
"Yes. Now go take care of Argo or something. I need some time alone."
"Take care of Argo." Gabrielle's eyes narrowed as she stared at Xena's face. Her friend looked ready to hit something, but the bard had no idea where all this anger was coming from. "Okay, I think I will."
"Good," said Xena between clenched teeth.
Gabrielle stood and walked to the door. "But don't think this discussion is over, Xena. I'm not leaving. And I don't think you're being honest with me." Gabrielle noisily left then quietly returned to the door, watching Xena.
The warrior was beating her pallet with balled fists, her expression dark and fierce. "Damn you, Gabrielle," she growled in frustration, continuing to mindlessly strike the bed. "Think, Xena. How do you get rid of her? Think, damn it!" Gabrielle silently slipped away.
"Tell me what's going on with Xena," said Gabrielle, her voice hard, her eyes steel.
Widgie glanced her way then returned to chopping vegetables. "She been honey-talkin' ya, aye? Used that dazzle smile of her'n, made plans for yer future, t'ain't so?"
"Add the dinars, wee one. What be the total, then?"
"I don't know. That's why I asked you."
"Aye, that ya did." Widgie silently put handfuls of fresh cut greens and roots into the soup pot. Without looking at Gabrielle, she grabbed a freshly-caught rabbit and began to skin it expertly, using only a few strokes then lifting the pelt off whole. She hummed her tuneless melody, chopping the meat into small, nearly identical squares.
"Well?" asked Gabrielle, her patience at an end. "Are you going to answer me?"
"T'appears not, aye?"
"Oooh, you are so frustrating!" growled Gabrielle, her fists balled.
"Aye, s'been said afore."
"Why won't you help me?"
Widgie threw the meat chunks into a pan to sear them, dipped her hands into a bucket of water, then wiped them on a clean cloth nearby. She turned to face Gabrielle, her jewelry swinging and jingling. "You be an odd one, then. So much you be doing when yer friend are unable, aye? Carried her on yer back e'en though you be a wee chit."
"Now you be unwillin' t'use yer own mind on a simple puzzle, t'ain't so? T'so. Stop relying on the warrior or me, chit. Find yer own steel, don't be borrowing ourn, aye?" Widgie turned back to her cooking, expertly flipping the meat with a flick of her wrist. When all sides were browned, she scooped them out of the pan and plopped them into the soup pot, humming tunelessly all the while.
Gabrielle let out a small "hunh!" and spun around, stalking away. Widgie's jewelry shook and jingled.
Gabrielle cautiously approached the room. Someone was making a great deal of noise and Gabrielle readied herself, fearing it was an intruder bent on harming Xena. She flattened herself against the wall, then peered into the room.
Xena was on her feet, clumsily crashing into the sparse furniture. She grabbed anything that came to her hand and threw it angrily, appearing to be searching for something. She bumped into a small table and yelped, then furiously upended it. A wooden bowl flew off and clipped her arm, the impact startling her. She pawed at the air, spinning around, tripped on some of the things she'd thrown earlier and fell to the ground. Defeated, she crumbled into a fetal position, clasping her head in both hands. Gabrielle could hear the sound of ragged weeping.
Slowly, the startled bard stepped into the room.
"Who is it? Who's there?" said Xena angrily, her tears forgotten. Now crouching on the ground, her body a coiled spring, she was ready to leap at the intruder.
"Xena...?" Gabrielle whispered.
"Oh. It's you," said Xena, easing herself out of fighting readiness. "What do you want, Gabrielle?"
"I heard the noise and I--"
"I was looki-- searching for something," said Xena, her head turned away. She hid her face, hastily erasing the evidence of her tears.
"What is it? Maybe I can find it," Gabrielle said helpfully, as she started to straighten the room.
"Yes, of course you could," said Xena sweetly, a false smile on her face. "Be a dear and give me my sword and chakram, won't you? You know how I hate to be too far away from them."
"Yeah, I know but--"
"Don't argue with me!" Xena snapped.
"Okay, I'm looking! I'm looking," said Gabrielle, worried. Xena was never without her weapons if she could help it, so it made sense that she'd want them near. But having blades around wasn't exactly a good idea when Xena was this... volatile.
"Where are they, Gabrielle?" Though still smiling there was a thread of desperation beneath her voice.
"I put them over here." Gabrielle rummaged through some of the mess Xena had made. "They were buried in the cave-in, but luckily, when I was clearing Argo's running path, I noticed the edge of the scabbard. It took some digging but I found them both. Wouldn't do for a warrior to loose her weapons, y'know? I knew it would've really upset you if they'd been lost." As she rambled, she realized, despite the jumble Xena had made of the room, that the weapons weren't where she had put them.
"Well? Where are they?" asked Xena, edgy and tense.
"Huh. They're not here. I guess Widgie must've taken them for some reason."
"Yes, I'll just bet she did," said Xena, her sightless eyes narrowed, her voice dripping with venom through her smile.
"I'll go ask her where they are," said Gabrielle.
"No! I mean, no reason to bother a woman as busy as Widgie, right? You go look for them. I'm sure they're around somewhere. Just find them and bring them back to me."
Gabrielle stared at Xena, who was still crouched on the ground, her head cocked to locate Gabrielle by the sound of her movements.
"You shouldn't be out of bed," said the bard, approaching her friend noisily so she'd know she was coming. She reached down and grabbed the warrior's upper arm. "C'mon, let's get you back to your pallet."
Xena threw off her arm. "I don't need to be led around. I can find my own pallet." Absently, she rubbed her forehead just above her eyes.
"Sure you can, I didn't mean you couldn't. I just wanted to help." Gabrielle stood uneasily, watching as Xena slowly rose.
"You're always so helpful, aren't you, Gabrielle?" the warrior asked with sickly-sweet sarcasm.
"I, uh, try to be. Look, Xena--"
"I can't 'look!' Get that through your head! I'm blind, Gabrielle. Blind!" she shouted.
"I know that, Xena," Gabrielle said in a small, reasonable voice. "It was just a figure of speech. I'll try to be more careful about that."
"Good. Do that." Xena swayed slightly on her feet, her fingers now rubbing her forehead just above the bridge of her nose.
"How are you feeling?" asked Gabrielle, reaching for anything that might keep the warrior from exploding again. "Still have a headache?"
Xena frowned, hastily pulling her hand away from its ministrations. "What do you care?"
Gabrielle walked to within inches of her friend, not touching but making her presence known in the very air around them. In a controlled voice, she said, "Don't question my caring, okay? You know damn well I care. You can try to scare me away, or whatever it is you're doing, but don't you dare pretend you're unaware of how much you matter to me. You're my best friend. And more than that, you're the woman I love. Seeing you like this -- hurting and in pain, well, it's tearing me up inside, okay? Hurts like Hades. For the love of Aphrodite, Xena, I caused this! If I could trade places with you I would! I would do anything in the world if I could make you well again. Anything!"
Xena lowered her head, her expression contrite. The edgy darkness that had almost crackled around her seemed to dissipate. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I had no right to say that," she said softly, "I do love you. You know that, don't you?"
"Yes, I know," said Gabrielle softly.
The warrior appeared to be her old self again. "Good. Always remember that, okay? No matter what happens, keep in mind that my love for you is pure and very real."
"What's going to happen?" asked Gabrielle suspiciously.
"Nothing, I hope. I just want you to understand -- really understand -- what you mean to me. I... I want to show you, Gabrielle. I want to show you how much I love you." Xena found her friend's face and touched it gently, closing the distance between them, kissing the bard with a fleeting caress. "Will you let me do that? Let me show you how I feel?" she whispered.
"Yes..." answered Gabrielle. "Please..."
Xena kissed her again, this time with passion and hunger. As her lips and tongue demanded satiation, her hands roamed the younger woman's body, as if memorizing every detail. Gabrielle felt her clothes being stripped away; and moments later, Xena's warm flesh touched hers, the warrior's body also bare.
Gabrielle's head was spinning, the passion of her friend's caresses so sensuous and arousing she could barely stand. She had always known Xena had played the role of seductress in her warlord days, but had never realized how skilled she was. Every kiss, every touch, every movement of Xena's body evoked such powerful responses in the bard, she lost her ability to think and reason -- wanting only the satisfaction teasingly promised by the warrior's every caress.
"Gods, Xena..." whispered Gabrielle, allowing herself to be lowered to the pallet. With the satisfying weight of Xena on top of her, Gabrielle closed her eyes, surrendering completely to the frenzied love-making of her friend.
Xena's hands and mouth seemed to be everywhere at once with a desperation Gabrielle didn't understand, but welcomed just the same. Never rough or harmful, the warrior managed to bring Gabrielle to the brink swiftly, appearing to delight in the bard's moaning satisfaction, then started anew, bringing her back to the peak all over again. Two... three... four... times Gabrielle reached a state of mindless sensation until she was almost unable to think or feel anything.
Her senses overwhelmed, Gabrielle managed to roll Xena onto her back and began her own exploration. But the warrior's hands never stilled, her lips finding and exploiting every inch of exposed flesh that came within their reach. Eventually, Gabrielle brought Xena to thrashing satisfaction then collapsed on top of her, her breath coming in gasps, her muscles weak, bones liquid.
Gabrielle felt herself drifting into sleep, still lying on top of Xena's naked flesh.
"Gabrielle," she heard whispered in her ear.
"Hunh?" she muttered sleepily.
"Don't forget to find my weapons."
She felt Xena's body relax beneath her and her last conscious thought was surprise that the warrior could have been so tense after what they had just done.
Gabrielle had searched every inch of the inn, except Widgie and Jorgos' private quarters. She was loath to intrude on their personal space, but she needed to find Xena's weapons. Cautiously, she opened the door to the innkeeper's bedroom.
Before her stood the largest pallet she had ever seen. It almost took up the entire room and Gabrielle marveled at the depth of the cushioning mattress. It must have cost a fortune. Glancing around the room, she realized that the weapons weren't there and was about to leave when an angry Jorgos entered.
"Hist! What are you doing here then?"
"Oh, is this your room? I must've taken a wrong turn, sorry. I do that sometimes. Don't know where my head was. Well, I'll just be going." She glanced out the door. "Oh look! Left, not right!" Gabrielle slapped her forehead in mock dismay.
"You can play those games with the other villagers, but no man who would marry Widgie could be so brainless as you assume, aye?" he said coldly.
Gabrielle gave up the act and with sincerity, said, "I truly am sorry, Jorgos. I was looking for Xena's sword and chakram. They've disappeared from our room and I promised her I'd find them. She's a warrior and she never feels right if her weapons aren't at hand."
"Aye. That sounds closer to the truth. But if Widgie took the blades, then there'll be a reason for it, mark my words."
"Oh, I'm sure she thought it was a good idea. But she doesn't understand -- Xena is a warrior! A warrior always has to have her weapons nearby. They're like part of her clothing, you know? So if you'll just tell me where--"
"You'll have to ask Widgie, then."
"Really? I don't want to disturb her."
"Who put that thought in your head, young'un?"
"Nobody! I just..." Gabrielle paused. It was Xena who had suggested she not disturb Widgie. "Well, actually, Xena said--"
"Aye. As I suspected. Run along now. And stop looking for trouble. Xena shouldn't have weapons now. She's in no danger from the outside, so there's no need."
Defeated, Gabrielle slipped out the door.
"Is that you, Gabrielle? Did you find my sword and chakram? Give them to me, please," said Xena when Gabrielle returned.
"I'm sorry, but--"
"Sorry? You don't have them? Why not? Did you look? C'mon, Gabrielle, I'm not asking much." Xena rose from the pallet and used the table to feel her way around the edge of the room, trying to approach the bard. Gabrielle walked over, touched her friend's arm and Xena instantly grasped her by the shoulders, her face tense, unseeing eyes narrowed. "Where are they?"
"Widgie hid them somewhere, I think. I looked everywhere, even in their bedroom. Oh, Xena, they have the biggest pallet I've ever seen! It's about--"
"Shut up!" Xena shouted, giving her a violent shake.
Gabrielle tensed as Xena's hands bit deeply into her flesh. "Xena, you're hurting me..." she said, suddenly afraid of her best friend.
Xena let go as if she had been burned, her expression rippling quickly from surprise, to realization, to shame. "I'm sorry," she whispered and held out a hand that found Gabrielle. The hand was gentle, caressing and tender. "I... guess I'm a bit on edge. All this darkness. I can't even see vague shapes or colors anymore. Haven't for a while. There's nothing. Like in the cave before I made the fire. I feel like I'm still there, sometimes. Trapped behind a wall, living in the dark."
"Oh, Xena, I'm so sorry." Gabrielle put her arms around her and they stood for a moment, comforting each other. Their lives were so changed, thought Gabrielle. So many things were different. Xena, the strong, fearless warrior who never backed down from any fight was in danger of losing for the first time. It was a battle being raged in her own mind as she tried to come to terms with her new limitations.
So many changes, she thought. They had finally shared physical intimacy for the first time. It was a memory that Gabrielle dared not even explore, her feelings were so awestruck and new. She had never imagined she could feel the way she had when Xena had made love to her. The reality outstripped anything she had dreamed of before.
And yet, for all that, there was a distance between the two women for the first time since they had begun their voyage together. It was as if the rockfall had cascaded between them, and every time Gabrielle tried to pry away the stones, Xena sent more to fill the holes. This emotional barrier was far more frustrating than the cave's had been. At least there, they could see the problem and attempt to find solutions. With Xena, nothing was clear anymore. Everything should be getting better. Xena's wound was healing. She was out of bed and beginning to learn how to get around without sight. They had finally lain in each other's arms. Gabrielle should be feeling hope. Instead, she was feeling helpless and overwhelmed.
Suddenly, she remembered Xena's words in the cave. 'What is far worse -- what is deadly, in fact -- is loss of hope.' Did it apply here as well? Could both women have lost their hope and it was that loss that was fueling the break-up of their relationship? For despite the physical intimacy, Gabrielle felt that emotionally, they were farther apart than they had ever been. "There has to be something I can do," she said aloud.
"There is," said Xena, startling Gabrielle out of her thoughts. "Somehow you have to find my sword or my chakram. And then you need to leave for Athens."
"I thought we've already been through this. I'm not going anywhere," she said, testily. This was not what she needed right now.
"You must, Gabrielle," pleaded Xena. "I won't have both our lives destroyed because of my helplessness."
"You don't need to be helpless," said Gabrielle, reasonably. "Lots of people are blind and not at all helpless. Some of them do amazing things. There was a girl in our village who couldn't see, and she used to play the harp and the pan flute -- better than anyone I've ever heard. And she could imitate birds just by whistling and she could--"
"I'm sure she was very special," interrupted Xena, "but I'm not exactly the 'bird imitator' type." Xena absently rubbed her forehead, making Gabrielle suspect that another of her headaches was settling in. The warrior sighed. "There's not much call for warriors who can't see. And without that, I have no way to atone for my past. I can't spend the rest of my life sitting in a village, learning the pan flute while others take care of me. I can't," she said, morosely.
"Drums'd be more yer speed, t'ain't so?" said a voice at the doorway. Gabrielle looked over and saw Widgie. "Pan flutes? Feh. Them're fer wee lasses and goat gods, aye?"
"How the Hades did you approach without my hearing?" asked Xena angrily.
"I'm light as a kitten, when I wants t'be, warrior. S'not good always t'announce the self, aye? You miss so many interesting things that way, t'ain't so? T'so."
"What do you want?" asked Xena.
"Naught but to bring yer lunch, bold one. I be but yer humble servant, aye?"
Though she couldn't see the healer, Xena still managed to assume a baleful glare. Gabrielle cleared her throat.
"Um... Xena wanted to know where her--"
"Hush, Gabrielle!" Xena snarled. "We don't need to trouble the 'servant' with that."
"Wee one, come put th'warrior t'the table for her meal."
Gabrielle complied and Xena let her lead her to a chair. Widgie calmly placed a bowl of rabbit soup and a loaf of new bread in front of her. From her pocket, she withdrew a spoon. She grabbed Xena's hand and slapped the spoon into it. "Try not t'use th'good dishes as a weapon, warrior," she said with a smile.
Xena grinned maliciously and with lightning speed tried to stab Widgie with the handle of the spoon. To her shock, the healer parried it easily. Then the woman patted Xena gently on the cheek and turned to leave.
"Wow, did you see that?" asked Gabrielle, awed.
"No, Gabrielle," said Xena, caustically
The bard blushed crimson. "Oh! I'm sorry, I--"
"Never mind. They're just words."
Xena felt for the bowl so Gabrielle pushed it within reach. Xena found it with the spoon and raised the utensil to her mouth. The bard could tell instantly that she enjoyed it, though the warrior tried hard to hide the fact. "Good?"
"S'okay," Xena grumbled, continuing to spoon the chunky broth, hungrily. She fumbled for the bread, broke off a piece and popped it in her mouth, a small moan of pleasure escaping as she chewed.
"Widgie's bread is the best I've ever had," said Gabrielle.
"It's a little dry," lied Xena, her mouth full.
Gabrielle smiled. "You really hate her, don't you?"
Xena shrugged her shoulders. "No, I don't care one way or the other. I don't like her, don't hate her. She's pretty full of herself, though," she added, breaking off another piece of bread.
"Oh, I dunno. I think she's just very accomplished and knows it. Like you when you're fighting. Like the way you are in the middle of a battle and it's life or death and all the men you're fighting are scared or angry and you just laugh this evil little laugh, knowing you're better than all of them so you let them know it, too."
Xena didn't answer, just continued to eat the soup and the bread, concentrating on not spilling or missing with the spoon. Absently, she continued to rub her head and eyes, pain pulling down the corners of her mouth.
"And when you fight you're always smiling," continued Gabrielle. "You get such joy out of your skill. I think that's what Widgie feels, too. She gets a lot of pleasure at being such a good cook and such a gifted healer. You should've seen her face when she held you like a baby, singing to you and rocking you. Why, she was glowing--"
Gabrielle felt a tight pressure on her wrist and looked down to see Xena's hand grasping it, shaking. "When she did what?" Xena asked, her voice low and barely controlled.
"Uh... Xena... my wrist..."
"Um... well... when we first got here and you were so hurt. Unconscious, really. You sort of drifted in and out. Asked me how we got out, but I don't think you remember any of that."
"I don't. Go on."
Gabrielle tried to move her hand, but Xena's grip was iron-strong, and unyielding. Gabrielle started to sweat, the pain in her wrist overwhelming. "Well, Widgie sort of picked you up and she..."
"She held you -- cradled you in her arms like you were a newborn or something. And you, well, surrendered to her and she just rocked you and then she kicked me out, saying you wouldn't want me to see what happened. I don't know what she did after that. But the next day you were so much better. It was like a miracle or something." Gabrielle winced as the grip on her wrist deepened even more. "Please, Xena, let me go... it hurts so bad."
Xena lifted her chin, fire in her eyes. "I'll kill her," she growled, removing her hand from Gabrielle, without apology.
"No! Don't you get it? She healed you! You can't be angry about that?"
Xena swept her arm across the table, sending the soup bowl and the remainder of the bread flying across the room. "Oh can't I?" she shouted. "Can't I?"
"Xena! Stop it! You're scaring me!"
"And you let her! You let her humble me! Treat me like some sort of child -- right in front of you! Gods, I'll wring her neck," Xena said dangerously, knocking her chair back as she stood. She paced in front of the bard and Gabrielle noticed that Xena seemed more familiar with the layout of the room, as she never neared any objects, keeping only to the cleared spaces. "And she knew, didn't she? Knew that I was blind and still she healed me. She forced me to survive so that I could live like this? The most useless thing in the world! A blind warrior. Well, I'll show her that blind or not, I can still kill. And I don't need my weapons to do it."
"No, Xena! I won't let you harm her!" shouted Gabrielle.
Xena spun to face the source of Gabrielle's voice. "You. Won't. Let. Me?" she said with dangerous deliberation.
Gabrielle stood to her full height, her expression hard. "No. I won't let you. You'll have to kill me too."
"That should be easy enough."
"Big talk, Warrior Princess."
"Get out of here."
"No, I'm stay--"
Xena fumbled on the shelf near her, grabbed a candlestick and threw it at Gabrielle, shouting, "Get out! Now! Go!"
It was right on target, but Gabrielle ducked in time. She picked up the candle and set it on the table, glad that it was unlit and the shelf was now empty as Xena's hands searched for something else to throw. She stared at her friend for a long moment. "I don't know who you are anymore," she whispered then left the room.
"Get the Hades out of my life, Gabrielle!" Xena shouted. "I never want to hear your voice again!"
Behind her, Gabrielle heard Xena throwing things, breaking anything within reach, roaring with unchecked rage. As the bard rounded the corner, she heard Xena fall to the ground, the unmistakable sound of her eerie keening echoing through the hall. Gabrielle didn't look back.
Quietly, Gabrielle asked Jorgos if she could have another room. Without a word he led her down the hall and into a room very similar to the one she had shared with Xena. Gabrielle thanked him, and sheepishly admitted that she had no dinars but would find some way to pay. Jorgos nodded in understanding, offering to let her work off both women's debt by doing some chores around the inn. Gabrielle happily agreed.
She needed to get her sparse belongings from Xena's room. One of the village girls had given her a sleeping shift and another had loaned her a skirt to replace the one she had torn for bandages. She waited until Xena fell asleep, not wanting another confrontation. Quietly, she found her things and turned to leave.
"Not even talking to me anymore?" asked Xena from the pallet.
"Oh, I thought you were asleep. Sorry."
"Yeah. I'll bet that's what you thought. Probably waited all day for it, too."
Guilty as charged, Gabrielle paused, not knowing how to answer. "Of course not, Xena," she said lamely.
"Stick to the truth, Gabrielle. You are the world's worst liar. Even a blind woman can 'see' that." Xena rose and stretched. Gabrielle watched the play of muscles on her arms. The warrior's breasts were thrust forward as she leaned to crack her back, the nipples standing out against the thin, black shift she wore. Gabrielle swallowed once, fighting her own attraction.
"Well... I guess I'll talk to you later. You look... tired," said the bard.
Xena smiled a slow, sensuous smile, frightening and predatory. "So soon? You just got here."
"Yeah, well, I have some stuff to do."
"Oh, too busy to talk to your lover anymore, is that it?"
Gabrielle backed away as Xena came forward. "No, not at all. If you feel like talking I can stay a little bit longer..."
Xena maneuvered Gabrielle until the bard was standing with her back against a wall. Slowly, the warrior reached out a hand and caressed Gabrielle's right breast. "Yes. Talking. You love to talk." She dipped her head, capturing Gabrielle's mouth. The kiss was unlike anything the younger woman had ever experienced before -- slow, sensuous... cruel.
"Xena, stop...!" Gabrielle gasped when the warrior finally broke off the contact.
"Stop? But you used to like my kisses. Kept daring me, remember? This game was your idea, my darling." Seductively, Xena removed the shift from her body and stood naked before her friend. "Well, I dare you, Gabrielle. I dare you to grow up. I dare you to take me right now. Show me how strong you are. Be my master." She unlaced Gabrielle's top.
"No, Xena -- this isn't you. This is wrong, you're not yourself." The younger woman struggled against the warrior, but Xena was so much stronger, she subdued her easily, stripping her to the waist.
"You don't find me attractive any more?" Xena asked innocently, her expression feral and dangerous. She teased Gabrielle's nipples until they were erect. "Oh yes, I can tell how much you hate my touch." One hand dipped lower, snaking under the waistband of the bard's skirt. "But you're not excited by me. Oh, no. You don't care about me at all..."
"Of... of course I do." Gabrielle fought her body's reaction as Xena's hand slowly inched downward. She had never been so frightened in her life. "I love you, Xena, but--"
"Always a 'but', isn't there? No one says 'love' without adding something to dilute it. And I had such high hopes for you, Gabrielle," said Xena, taking one of Gabrielle's nipples in her teeth and biting it.
"Ow! That hurt!"
"A little pain with your love-making adds some spice, don't you think?"
"No. I don't think that at all. You're scaring me, Xena. Is this what you used to do when you were a warlord? Frighten everyone so no one could get too close?"
Xena frowned. She shoved Gabrielle's top into her chest, pushing the younger woman away from the wall toward the open door then stalked back to her pallet. "Get out of here, little girl. I don't need you to find satisfaction. I don't need anyone." She rubbed her temples, her sightless eyes narrowed.
"You heard her. Git out then, chit," said Widgie from behind Gabrielle.
The bard spun around, startled. "How long were you--"
"Long enough t'step in, 'case the bold one got dangerous w'ya."
Xena laughed. "Amazing, isn't it, Gabrielle? People are always protecting you. Everywhere you go, someone steps in to fight your battles for you. Incredible."
"Have ye no work t'do then, chit? Are ya not helping Jorgos this eve?"
"Yes... I... yes, of course," said Gabrielle, hastily donning her top. She glanced at Xena who stood and stretched her naked body. It's almost as if she's trying to show off to Widgie, Gabrielle thought. As if she's flaunting herself, showing how perfect and beautiful she is. Gabrielle backed away, but stayed just beyond the door, wanting to see what happened next.
"Brought you sompin t'help ya sleep," said Widgie, approaching Xena.
"How thoughtful!" said the warrior, her every move a seduction.
"Aye. You'll be wantin' t'put yer shift on, t'stay the cold, aye?"
"I'm not cold at all, Widgie dear. I'm the 'bold one,' remember? The warrior. We never feel anything. No pain, no cold, no discomfort. Here, see for yourself. Touch my skin," said Xena, taking Widgie's hand and placing it on her bare breast. "See? Not cold at all, am I?"
Widgie frowned. With a speed that defied her size, she bent and picked Xena up, throwing her roughly on the pallet. For a moment, there was panic on the warrior's face as Widgie leaned over her. Then the healer shoved a small bottle of cloudy liquid in her mouth, forcing her to swallow. When Widgie straightened, an outraged Xena started spitting and throwing punches at where she thought her target stood. But the healer had moved and the warrior found nothing but air.
"You cow! What did you just do? What was that?"
"Toldja. Sompin' t'help ya sleep. Want yer shift then?" Calmly, Widgie retrieved Xena's discarded garment and tossed it to her. The warrior started to stand, then fell back, a look of surprise on her face.
"You filthy, ignorant pile of horse dung! What gives you th'right to..." Xena's words slurred and her eyes closed. "Sweating pile o'fat..."
"Aye, I's a large woman. 'Tis hard to take offense when ye speaks the truth," said Widgie, chuckling and jingling. "Sleep well, warrior. And leave the chit alone, aye? Ye'd have no stronger regret than if'n ya was t'hurt the wee one."
"Never... hurt... Gabrielle..." mumbled Xena as she fell into a deep sleep.
As Widgie efficiently dressed Xena in the shift, Gabrielle turned, ran outside and vomited until she was too weak to stand.
Gabrielle didn't go near Xena for two days and tried not to think about her friend, sitting alone in perpetual darkness. Every time she felt sympathy rising and wanted to go to her, she remembered that this Xena was a stranger -- a very dangerous stranger. Instead, she kept busy by cleaning, helping Widgie with the evening meal, waiting tables at the dinner rush and doing general chores, to help earn the price of their rooms.
Gabrielle knew that she would have to face Xena soon. She wasn't about to give up on the woman she loved. But she had to have some distance first. She had to recover her sense of self. Xena was so strong that it was easy to get lost in the warrior's identity, feeling what she was allowed to feel, doing what she was told to do. Now wasn't the time for Gabrielle to let this happen. She needed her own strength now. The battle lines had been drawn. And the bard knew that she had to win this one. Xena was going to have to surrender, or Gabrielle would die in the attempt.
It was strange to think that Xena could actually kill her, but Gabrielle knew that it was now possible. The rage inside the warrior was running unchecked. She had become the darkness she had fought so hard to overcome. Like an animal in a cage, there was no predicting her next move and no taming her impulses. Widgie seemed uncommonly able to handle herself with the warrior, but Gabrielle's heart was always getting in the way. She still looked like her Xena. Occasionally, there were glimpses of the tender woman who had loved and protected her for almost two years. It was this Xena who stood between Gabrielle and victory. It was her memory of their adventures together, their discovery of love in the cave and their shared passion that had prevented the bard from fighting as an equal.
That has to end, she realized. From now on, it's me against the warlord. I can't think of her as anything else, or I'll surely lose.
Gabrielle stood silently in the hall, watching her. Xena was prowling around the room, picking up whatever came to hand and testing its weight and feel. She found the chair and smashed it against the stone wall, breaking it into kindling, then meticulously picked up each piece, thrusting and parrying the wood like a sword. A leg appeared to have the proper balance and she went to work rubbing the end against the stonework, sharpening it.
Gabrielle shifted her weight, the movement causing a whisper of sound as her leather boots creaked. Xena stopped, instantly alert.
Gabrielle remained still, not even daring to breathe.
"Who's there?" Xena roared. "I can hear you!"
Gabrielle didn't move, suddenly afraid. Xena had the jagged piece of wood in her hand and her feral smile on her face.
"Come to watch the show have you? Come to laugh at the blind warrior?" Xena inched forward, spinning the wood in her hand like she used to twirl her sword. "Come on in. I won't hurt you, whoever you are. After all, what can I do? I'm just a blind woman with a stick. No harm there, right?" Xena laughed.
Gabrielle turned and ran. As she rounded the corner she smashed into the wall named Widgie.
"Whoosh! Slow down, chit. What're ya about?"
"I... Be careful, Widgie. Xena's armed herself with the leg of the chair."
"Aye, I thought she'd do as much. Good. Things be happening just as they should, then. 'Tis time for't."
Gabrielle stared at her in surprise. "What? You knew this would happen?"
"Aye. D'ya think I'd leave the chair in't room 'thout thinkin' what the consequences be then? T'would make me a foolish woman, t'ain't so? T'so."
"But why? Don't you understand she can hurt herself with it? I think she wants to die, Widgie. I think she'll try to take her own life!" Gabrielle said mournfully. She had realized this when Xena had been so insistent about getting her weapons and about sending Gabrielle to Athens. But she hadn't known how to deal with it, so she had searched for the sword and chakram, buying time and trying to determine if they were hidden well enough.
"Aye, t'so. She wants death. Or thinks she does, aye?"
"What are you saying?"
"Your Xena be a proud woman. And this be the lowest blow she's e'er received, t'ain't so? It be a test of her, t'so. If the darkness wins, she are beyond my help. But I doesn't think't will, aye? You knows her. You knows her mind. You knows her strength. Does she cotton t'losing battles? I thinks not, t'ain't so?"
"T'so..." mumbled Gabrielle, not realizing she was aping the healer's speech. Widgie laughed and jiggled and jangled. "So what happens if she wins?" asked Gabrielle.
"I helps her get her sight back, aye?"
"You can do that?" she asked, stunned.
"Aye. P'raps. But I need the warrior's help and this woman, she aren't a warrior. She are a coward. Cowards ain't no help to no one, t'ain't so? Patience, wee one. The battle's begun."
Gabrielle turned as she heard Xena laughing in the far room. Cautiously, both women returned to watch. The bard was amazed at how silent Widgie could be when she wanted. Not a jangle or a jingle could be heard. Gabrielle made sure she was equally as discrete. No creaking leather this time.
Xena was furiously sharpening the stick, testing the tip every few minutes. Her progress was amazing, the jagged edge taking shape under the firm muscles and sensitive guidance of a woman possessed. After several minutes, the chair leg had a very lethal point on the end. Xena cackled at the touch of it, drawing a drop of blood on her forearm as she tested the weapon. The warrior carefully scooped the blood on her finger, feeling the wetness of it, then placed the finger in her mouth, licking it clean. There was a palpable sensuality in the small act and Gabrielle shivered. Xena moaned, throwing her head back, her lips parted, her tongue slowly sweeping the edges of her upper teeth.
Gabrielle wanted to turn away. This is too difficult to watch, she thought. I can't stand to see her like this. She's the most frightening person I've ever known. Not even Callisto can scare me like this Xena. No wonder people would quake in fear when we rode into a town that only remembered the warlord she used to be. No wonder Xena fought so hard to contain the darkness inside her.
Gabrielle suddenly had a glimpse of the turmoil Xena faced each day and every night in frightened faces and tortured dreams. How had she done it? Gabrielle marveled. How had she changed? How could anyone find the strength to keep rage like this bottled up inside?
Xena was sitting on the floor, fondling the wood reverently. She lifted her face to the ceiling and whispered some words Gabrielle couldn't hear. Her features were composed, almost peaceful. Her beauty was never more evident than at this moment.
Xena placed the pointed end of the stick under her left breast, between two ribs, positioning it carefully. Both hands held the opposite end.
Gabrielle's eyes grew wide and she opened her mouth to scream, but a huge hand clamped over it, silencing her completely. She struggled to get away, but she was held in the strongest grip she had ever felt. And with all this, not a sound was made by either woman in the hallway, though one part of Gabrielle wondered how that could be.
Xena, completely unaware of her audience, smiled serenely. "Good-bye, Gabrielle. I'll always love you," she whispered, then she tensed her muscles readying for the thrust.
Gabrielle strained against Widgie's arms, the tears flowing unchecked, her heart beating so wildly she feared it would explode. Never in her life had she felt such desperate torment. She was about to watch the woman she loved kill herself.
Xena lost the serene expression as her muscles began to shake. Her lips curled back and a wave of black rage twisted her face. Then, just as she was about to plunge the wooden 'dagger' into her breast, she screamed and dropped her weapon.
Widgie whispered in Gabrielle's ear. "'Tis the most important part now, chit. Watch closely, aye?"
Xena's hands were balled into fists and she pounded the floor until they ran red with blood. She continued to scream, grabbing her head in her sticky hands, wailing in pain. "Gods!" she cried. "Oh gods, make it stop!" Frantically, she felt around on the ground until she found the wooden spike. She threw it from her, the weapon barely missing Gabrielle and Widgie as it sailed out the door into the hallway, and smashed into the far wall. "Coward!" she shouted. "What does pain matter? It's meaningless! Since when do you end a life that has worth? Since when do you run away from problems and setbacks? Since when have you let the darkness be your master? You stinking, worthless coward!"
Gabrielle watched, mesmerized. She still didn't trust the warrior, but she was beginning to feel hope. Xena continued to mumble to herself, her tone berating, though her words couldn't be distinguished. Then she dropped her head, curved her arms around her body and rocked soundlessly.
"Now be your part, chit. Have ye th'spine t'accept her as is, then? Y'know th'darkness she has, aye? If it be too much, walk away now. You be doing her no favors if ye stay 'thout accepting her complete, aye? Make t'decision then, wee one."
Widgie opened her arms and Gabrielle ran to Xena's side. "Xena? It's me, Gabrielle," she said, touching her softly on the shoulder.
The warrior's head snapped up, her face a mask of pain, but at the sound of the bard's voice, joy washed across her features like dawning sunlight across a lake. "Gabrielle? Is it really you? You didn't leave me?"
"Of course I didn't leave you, Xena," she whispered. She took her friend into her arms and was filled with wonder as the proud warrior melted into her, holding her as if she was the anchor in an otherwise drifting world.
Xena's breath was gasping and shallow; tears spilling unheeded. "Gabrielle... Can you forgive me?"
"Shhh... There's nothing to forgive. I love all of you, Xena. Who you are, what you were and whatever you'll become. You can't frighten me away or leave me behind."
Unnoticed, Widgie left them alone, an enormous smile on her dimpled face.
"But I'm such a coward. You don't know..."
"I know all about it. I was here the whole time. I saw what you almost did. But I also saw you win your battle."
"You... saw?" asked Xena, raising her head. She reached out one hand and felt the expression on Gabrielle's face. "You don't hate me for it? Don't hate me for almost taking my life? For being such a coward?"
"You're the bravest woman I've ever known. Now stop worrying about what I think and let's talk about you. I'm going to make some demands and you're going to agree to all of them, got it?"
For the first time in days, Xena genuinely smiled. "You dare me?"
Gabrielle chuckled. "That's right. I dare you. One. You are going to let me help you deal with your blindness."
"Two. You are never going to consider yourself worthless again. Do you think being a warrior is all that you are? The woman with many skills? Give me a break!"
"Okay. I'll remember."
"Good. Now we're making progress here. Three. You will never -- I repeat never -- try to send me away for my own good again!"
Xena nodded, contritely.
"Four. Well, I can't think of four right now, but you better believe there's going to be a four and a five and even more if I think you need it."
"Yes, ma'am!" Xena said smartly. She kissed Gabrielle on the mouth; a kiss that was long, loving and tender.
"That would've been a good four, I think," said Gabrielle, marveling at the depth of love Xena was able to express in so simple an action.
"You can have as many fours as you want," Xena replied in a low, sexy murmur devoid of the feral undercurrents of their last meeting.
"Good," said Gabrielle, her voice cracking on the word. She took a few moments to get herself under control, then cradled Xena's head against her breast. "I think I'm going to like being a take-charge kinda woman. I can really see the allure."
"Me too," whispered Xena, claiming the bard's mouth once again.
She's back, thought Gabrielle. My Xena is back. Thank the gods, it's really her.
Xena stood alone in a clearing in the small forested area behind the inn. At a safe distance, Gabrielle watched her, afraid. Slowly, a man crept up behind her, a sword in his hand. Xena appeared not to hear him, her concentration on listening, with a cocked ear, to a woodpecker in the tree. Suddenly the man charged, his sword raised. Xena leapt out of the way, withdrew her sword and slashed at him, bruising his ribs. The man fell with a grunt of pain. Three more men attacked and Xena quickly dispatched each of them, miraculously 'seeing' them without the use of her eyes. The four men abandoned their weapons, crawling out of the way of the tense warrior, who waited in case there was another attack. Finally, she sheathed her sword and said, "Thanks, guys. You can come out now, Gabrielle."
"Whoa," said Gabrielle. The four men clapped, whistling their approval. Xena ignored them, walking directly toward the bard. "That was... that was amazing, Xena!" Gabrielle said.
"Yeah. Quite a parlor trick, huh?" replied Xena, disdainfully.
"No, I mean it was-- like you were magic or something!"
"Nothing magic about it. When I trained to be a warrior, we did a lot of work using blindfolds. Attacks could come at any time, from any place and we had to be ready." Xena withdrew her sword, a crude wooden facsimile of her weapon, similar to the ones her 'attackers' had used. "Gods, even the feel of this thing brings back painful memories." She threw it on the ground behind her.
"So, in a way you're prepared to be blind. You already know how."
"I know how to sense an enemy's attack. I know how to see without sight. How to count steps, to hear breath, to smell distance, to taste air. Yeah. I know how to be blind."
"You once told me how to listen for arrows. Was that...?"
"Yeah. Lesson number one. Basic survival." Xena's fist flashed out, rushing millimeters past Gabrielle's ear and landing with a thud on something right behind the bard. Gabrielle hadn't heard a sound, but when she turned, she saw one of the village men holding his bloody nose and groaning in pain.
"Press hard, right here," Xena told him, demonstrating on herself the best place to apply pressure. "And don't whine. You're the one who decided to surprise me."
"Bid bistake," he moaned.
"I have got so much to learn," said the bard.
"No. You don't need any of this, Gabrielle."
"But I do! Look at you! You're better blind than most warriors are with sight! You're amazing."
"Yes, all that training saved my life more than once. And it might do so again -- for a while. But there'll come a time when someone with my skills comes along -- only he can see. And then, I'm dead. It's over, Gabrielle. My life can't be the same, not without sight."
Gabrielle looked at her friend. She stared at the beautiful, familiar blue eyes of the woman who had stolen her heart. They seemed the same eyes she had always known. Still crystal clear, still breathtaking, only now they were just window dressing -- useless jewels on her perfect face.
"That damn blindfold," mumbled Xena. "I hated it. Hated having it there, a barrier, a piece of cloth taking away half my world. But I always knew I could take it off. Any time I wanted, I could untie it and I would be able to see again."
"Did you? Take it off before you were supposed to?"
"No. I kept it on. For weeks I lived in darkness, constantly under attack. Always listening. Learning to live without. And when it was sliced off in a final ceremony, I knew I'd never wear another. It was too hard, Gabrielle. I hated it." Xena drew a deep breath. "And now it's back again and somewhere, I have to find the strength to keep it on. Forever."
"Isn't that what you just did? Found the strength, I mean? You could've taken it off. You had the means. You could've killed yourself."
Xena smiled a crooked smile. "Yeah. That was the plan. Only you messed that up, didn't you?"
"I didn't do anything. You're the one who made the decision not to, Xena. You're the one who found the strength."
"Only because I had your love as a tether. I tried everything I could to get rid of you. Even in the darkness, I knew that I'd crossed every boundary; and hated myself for doing it. Then, when you didn't come by for days, I thought you'd gone. I thought I'd lost you forever. It wasn't strength that kept me from killing myself, Gabrielle. It was you. I held the weapon to my heart and suddenly I felt you. In the room with me. Felt your anguish and your love. And I decided that wearing the blindfold was better than causing you more pain."
Gabrielle reached up and tenderly caressed Xena's cheek. The warrior smiled and bent to claim her lips. Gabrielle closed her eyes, lost again in the wonder of being able to do this -- to just want the closeness and it was hers for the taking. She heard another thud, opened her eyes and saw that, without breaking the kiss, Xena's hand was raised in a fist and another villager was on the ground.
"They just don't learn, do they?" Xena asked with a smile. She turned and said, "Go see Widgie. She'll sew that up good as new. And you'll have a nice scar to brag about to your friends."
Gabrielle smiled as the man shambled away, holding his cheek with both hands. "So you're going to be okay?" she asked.
"Yeah," Xena said. "I'll be okay. As long as you stick around."
"Oh, I think that can be arranged."
"It's a bad plan!" Xena shouted to the seemingly empty forest. "Go help your friends instead." Two men shuffled out from behind the trees, and gave Xena a wide berth. She turned back to Gabrielle. "Now where were we? Ah, yes, we were doing something rather daring, right?"
Gabrielle smiled and offered lips that were taken without a fumble. Having rid herself of the headaches and the darkness, Xena's skill at being sightless had expanded well beyond the warrior craft. Unless told, no one would guess she was blind, Gabrielle realized. It was both a blessing and a curse. The bard now feared the day when that nameless someone of equal skill came to make a name for himself as the vanquisher of Xena, Warrior Princess. Whether she remained a warrior or not, Xena's blindness could still mean her death.
Over the course of the next few days, Gabrielle spent every moment with Xena, helping her to become accustomed to a 'permanent blindfold.' Now sharing a room again, they spent each night in the much more entertaining pursuit of discovering each other, filling each other with joy, pleasure and wonder. Having decided to push away her fears, for just these moments in time, it became one of the happiest weeks of Gabrielle's life.
Xena's victory over her internal demons was so vast that she was no longer plagued by nightmares and slept peacefully the whole night through. Not that the darkness was gone forever, Gabrielle realized. There were still moments when she could see her friend struggle. But Xena had gained so much strength and power over it, that the struggles were brief and the outcome never in question. Gabrielle accepted these bouts, helping her by being at her side, supporting her and loving her through the episodes. And Xena finally was able to accept that support, willing to share the battle with the gutsy bard.
"So, you'm thinkin' you be leavin' us, aye?"
"How did--" Gabrielle said.
"Whoosh, chit. I be a oracle, t'ain't so? I sees things, I does."
"I forgot. Did you see anything about Xena and me?"
"Aye. 'Tis why you came to th'inn, t'ain't so?"
"What do you mean?"
"What are you two talking about?" asked Xena, walking casually into the kitchen and plopping down on a chair with barely a touch to assure it was in position.
"She knows we're going to leave," said Gabrielle.
"That so?" said Xena, slyly.
"Aye, warrior. T'so."
"Nay, there be naught. Lessen you'd care t'have yer sight back,."
Xena started. "What are you saying?" she asked in a carefully controlled voice.
"Be yer ears plugged?"
"C'mon, Widgie, don't play with us, okay?" said Gabrielle, a bit shaky. If what Widgie said was true...
"Whoosh, chit. Ye've no sense o'fun, t'ain't so?" said Widgie chuckling and jiggling and jangling musically. "Course'n I can give it back. 'Twas me what took it, after all!"
Xena was inches from Widgie's face within seconds, her fingers poised against her neck. "Talk, Healer. And no more vague clues. I want the plain truth or you'll learn one of my more fascinating tricks."
"Aye. Pressure points. H've heard tell of't."
"Good, then I won't have to explain. Now what is this about you taking my sight?"
"Sit down, warrior. I be tellin', aye? But yon fingers be pointin' t'the wrong spot and I've no mind t'lose feelin' in m'left leg today."
Xena backed away, controlling her frustrations with having misjudged the pressure point. Had to be Widgie's size, Gabrielle reasoned. It must've thrown off her aim. Once again, the bard pushed away her fear, now focused on Widgie's startling statement. If it was true...
Xena sat in the chair, her back straight and proud. Gabrielle stood behind her, her hands on her friend's shoulders.
"Please, Widgie. Just explain, okay?" said Gabrielle.
"Aye." Widgie looked at Xena who stoically faced forward. "Felt yer darkness I did. Alla way from th'cave. You was hit on't head in a bad place, t'ain't so? Bad place. When you was to be woke, you'da kilt her dead -- the wee one," said Widgie pointing to Gabrielle. "Saw't in a vision. Th'rock scrambled yer mind a bit. It needed healin'."
"I'd never hurt Gabrielle," said Xena.
"Well... that's not technically true, Xena," said Gabrielle. "I mean, when you were in prison that time, you hit me really hard. And you did throw the candlestick at me here at the inn. And I sorta got the feeling you were searching for more ammunition when I ran away. And then later you bit my-- well, you were scary, all right? Really scary. Warlord scary."
Xena frowned. "Okay, but that's not the same as killing you. I wouldn't do that."
"But you was not yerself, aye? In t'vision, I seen you come 'ere. Only I weren't t'be found, so you rode past, the chit thinkin' she could get healin' supplies and be yer cure. Stayed in t'woods. Days passed and ye be fallin' deeper int' th'dark and the wee one, she tries t'help but you'm strong, bold one. Too strong, aye? A misplaced touch from the chit and ya strikes her dead. I seen it w'me own eyes, t'ain't so? And my visions be never wrong. Never, aye? It were truth."
Xena shifted uneasily in the chair. Having just experienced the depths to which she could sink, she didn't doubt that something like that could have happened. An accident, a careless touch when she was deep in the pit of darkness and it would have all been over before she'd had a moment to think. "Let's pretend you're right, Healer. What does that have to do with my eyesight?"
"I knew t'was for me to save the chit. So'm, I doesn't go 'way, like I was plannin' and when you come 'ere, I sends Jorgos to wave ya inside. Then I sends the wee one t'get m'chair, so's I could use m'skill to block yer eyes. Had to slow you down, warrior, aye? Make't hard for ya. Can't see, can't kill s'easy, t'ain't so? Aye, t'so."
Widgie plopped a bowl of sticky treats on the table, the same sweets that Gabrielle had purchased in town that long ago day. Xena sniffed once and reached for the bowl. "Okay, I understand that," the warrior said, her mouth full. "But why didn't you just keep Gabrielle away from me? That shouldn't have been too hard. And it certainly would have been safer."
"When I met yon chit, I knew't'was more'n just th'darkness needed fixin'. She wert in love with ya, warrior. Deep and blind in love. But she had no darkness. No experience with't, t'ain't so?"
"Well, I knew Xena had a past when I met her. And I've seen her in some pretty bad moods. I even whacked her with a pitchfork once, when she tried to be a warlord again, so sure, I had experience with it," said Gabrielle.
"No, Gabrielle," said Xena, understanding. "She means real exposure to it. You never knew me at my worst. You've seen glimpses of it. You've felt it in me, dealt with me when I was briefly overtaken, but you've never had to deal with me when I'm like that for any length of time. And never to the depths I'm capable of sinking. Widgie wanted you to know all of me, before you committed yourself. Before we took our relationship any further. Right, healer?"
"Aye. Knew you was a sharpie, warrior."
"Yeah, real sharp. I never even realized it was a problem."
"And you, warrior, you needed t'see that she'd stick by e'en though you was overtaken. Y'had doubts, aye? T'ain't so?"
"T'so," said Xena with an ironic smile.
"Aye. T'was that." Widgie smiled at both women.
"So why didn't you give me back my sight when the darkness passed?" asked Xena.
"Y'needed humbling, warrior. Needed t'see yer blades dint be the only piece o'ya w'worth. Ye've as much light in'ya as dark, warrior. 'Member that, aye? S'a balance. Findin' th'light -- s'tough, t'ain't so? 'Twas, I should say. Now ye've access."
Xena smiled broadly. "Yes. I do. I've struggled for quite awhile. Now, it doesn't seem as difficult anymore."
"Aye. Ye've love now, bold one."
Gabrielle caressed Xena's shoulder, lending her support. Xena put a hand over hers, squeezing slightly to acknowledge.
"You be a strong one, warrior, but now, maybe stronger, aye? More balance twixt light and dark. Love and hate. Not so blind now, t'ain't so?"
Xena laughed. "No, Widgie. I'm not so blind anymore." Xena stood, putting an arm around Gabrielle's waist. "So how do I get my sight back?"
"Simple, now that yer t'help, aye? Come." Widgie turned to Gabrielle. "Stay here, chit, n'stir th'pot." Widgie waddled out of the kitchen with Xena close behind.
"Stir the pot, chit. Don't watch, wee one," Gabrielle mimicked. "I'm still getting left behind." She stirred the stew, breathing in the deep, rich aroma. "Damn, I wish I had her recipes."
Several minutes passed. Gabrielle had just decided to sneak up on Xena and Widgie to see if she could witness what the Healer did, when Xena strolled into the room, a huge grin on her face.
"Xena? Can you...?"
"Uh-huh," said Xena, looking into Gabrielle's eyes. "And you are the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my entire life." She grabbed the bard in her arms and spun her around, kissing her deeply.
"Oh, Xena! I'm so happy for you! But what did she do? How did she, you know, do the unblinding thing?"
"I don't know."
"What do you mean, you don't know!"
"I mean, I don't know. I went into the room and the next thing I know I was waking up on the pallet with my eyesight back."
"Whoa. You think she's magic or something?"
"Who knows? She's certainly a woman of many gifts. That stew smells fantastic. Gimme the spoon."
"She'll kill me. No one taste-tests in her kitchen! I learned that when I was working off our bill."
"When you were what?"
"Well, when you went a little crazy, I worked at the Inn for a couple days so I could pay them back for our rooms. We lost all our stuff in the cave-in. Everything. Argo's saddle, my scrolls, all our money."
"T'ain't so," said Jorgos, entering and frowning at Xena who was poised over the stewpot with a large wooden spoon. "I wouldn't, warrior."
Xena shrugged and put down the spoon. "You know something about our stuff, Jorgos?"
"Aye. I sent some of the boys out to find it. Wasn't buried too deep and they know their way about a cave. It's all there, less the dinars you still owed me. I took off what the chit earned, so weren't much."
"Everything? They found all of it?" asked Gabrielle.
"Aye. Your scrolls are there."
Gabrielle beamed at Xena. "Wanna go see?"
"You go. I think I'll take a walk around the village. There are a lot of things I missed seeing when I was blind. I'd like to look in on Argo. Sit beneath a tree, watch the clouds..."
"I understand. Okay, I'll get us packed and ready to go."
"Yeah. Tell Widgie I have something for her when I get back."
"Okay," said Gabrielle, wondering if she'd ever stop smiling.
Gabrielle found Xena standing in the woods behind the inn, watching a bird peck a hole in a tree, looking for dinner. "Xena? We're all set to go."
"Okay. Beautiful day, huh?"
Gabrielle looked around. It was overcast and muggy, with rain threatening to fall any minute. "Yeah, I guess it is," she said.
They walked toward the inn, taking their time. Xena's eyes were everywhere, drinking in the details like a starving prisoner let loose at the king's feast.
Standing in the door to the inn was Widgie.
"Wanted t'see me, t'ain't so?"
"Yeah." Xena walked over to Argo and searched through her pack. She took out a small package wrapped in cloth. "Here. Another piece of jewelry for your collection."
"Virilis token, then?" said Widgie, examining the contents of the package.
"I was once reminded how good this life was. That used to help me keep things in perspective. But this is a new life now. I don't need reminders anymore. I have Gabrielle for that. So, keep it. To remind you of a visit by a warrior and a chit."
"Bard! I'm a bard -- not a chit, not a wee one -- a bard! Sheesh! You call her 'warrior' and 'bold one' but me? I'm a wee chit. I have got to work on my image."
Widgie laughed, putting the token around her ample neck where it was immediately lost among the other jingling chains. "Take care, warrior. And you s'well, bard."
Both women waved happily at the healer. Then Xena jumped on Argo, helping Gabrielle up behind and started back on the road to another adventure, as Xena had promised they would.
The sequel to this story is titled "The Child".
If you want to contact me about this story, please put the title of the story or the word "Xena" in the subject line. My firstname.lastname@example.org account gets so much spam I tend to delete anything that I don't absolutely know is really for me.
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