Characters that have appeared on the TV show Xena, Warrior Princess are © copyright 1995 by Renassance Pictures/MCA/Universal/USA Studios. "Truth or Dare" and Widgie&Jorgos are © copyright 1997 by WordWarior. Please send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
"In here!" shouted Xena over the roaring of the wind. Quickly, she led Argo into the mouth of the cave, hurrying Gabrielle who had fallen behind. The wind tore at Xena's flesh, the rain stung as it slashed in slanted fury. Gabrielle's face was white with fear and the cold. She was shivering uncontrollably and Xena gave her a worried glance before coaxing Argo into the black maw of the cavern. Lightning streaked the sky, the thunder instantaneous. She heard a tree crack and watched over her shoulder as flames erupted from the forest they'd left only seconds ago.
"Wh... what's g... g... going to ha... happen to uh... us?" asked Gabrielle, her teeth chattering so violently Xena could barely make out the words.
"Nothing. We're safe here."
Suddenly, the interior of the cave was illuminated by a bright flash. The thunder echoed and rumbled through the cavern with such volume both women held their hands to their ears, grimacing. Argo reared, pawing the air in fear. The rumbling changed tenor slightly and Xena looked around, her eyes wide, suspecting what was about to happen.
She stared at the entrance to the cave as wave after wave of boulders spilled in front of it. Another flash and a tree crashed into the rockfall, jutting partway into the cave, missing her by inches. But the cascade of rocks and debris didn't stop. Endless amounts seemed to fall, each building on the other until the entrance was completely obscured. When the last echoes finally died, they were in absolute darkness. Even the sound of the storm was muted and distant. Their safe haven had, in the flash of a single bolt of lightning, possibly become their tomb.
"Gabrielle? Are you all right?" asked Xena quietly, her words sounding hollow and small.
"Y...yes... I'm f... fine..." came a whispered answer.
"Don't worry. We're in no danger. I'm sure there are other ways out of here. We just need to make some torches and then we can start following all the tunnels until we find daylight." Xena thought of Argo, knowing the horse wouldn't be able to maneuver through narrow passages. The idea of leaving her trusty mare behind to starve -- trapped and alone in a cave -- was too horrible to contemplate, so she turned her attention back to her friend.
"S...sure. Th... that's what we'll do," said Gabrielle, unable to control the shivering.
"Need to make a fire," mumbled Xena. "Have to get you warmed up." Carefully, she felt her way toward the entrance until her hand encountered a jutting branch from the tree that had fallen amidst the rubble. The sibilance of steel being drawn from a scabbard sounded loudly in the deathly quiet of the cave, then with a whoosh, she slashed a couple smaller branches free. "Speak to me, Gabrielle, so I can find you."
"Oh... I... I'm o..o...over... here..." she said.
"Good. Keep talking."
"H...how do y...you know th...there'll be o...other w...ways out?"
"Because I want there to be other ways out. And what I want I get. Always have," said Xena with a smile. She waited for an answering chuckle from Gabrielle but there was only silence. Xena laid the branches down and removed her fire tools from the pouch at her waist. "C'mon, Gabrielle. Say something." Silence. "Gabrielle? C'mon! Here's your chance -- I'm asking you to talk."
Striking flint against iron, a spark flew onto the small pile of tinder she had retrieved from her pouch. It didn't catch, so Xena readied for another strike, then stopped a moment to consider. They needed the fire. They needed light and warmth. The temperature in the cave was uncomfortably cold and Gabrielle showed signs of slipping into hypothermia. But the utter blackness told Xena she needed to be careful. If there was no natural chimney in the cave, the smoke from the fire -- especially fire using wet wood -- could overwhelm and kill them. She decided to make a small torch instead. It wouldn't give off much smoke and at least she could explore the cave and get Gabrielle settled.
Xena gave a low whistle and heard Argo's answering snort. Moments later the horse's muzzle nudged her shoulder. "Good girl," she whispered, then felt along the mare's neck to the saddlebags. Xena withdrew a small bolt of cloth. It was the one Gabrielle had purchased only that morning, the one she had planned to make a new top with, having finally tired of the ugly green 'carpet' she had been wearing. Xena sighed as she ripped off a length, hating to see that project delayed. She attached the cloth to one of the wet branches then lit the head of the torch.
Taking a moment to adjust her eyes, she held the torch high, looking around her. Gabrielle was sitting on a small rock, curled into herself as she shivered uncontrollably. Quickly, Xena grabbed all the blankets they owned and wrapped her friend in the lot of them. Gabrielle smiled up at her, unable to speak, but thanking her with her eyes.
"Better?" asked Xena. Gabrielle nodded.
Xena was grateful for the small warmth of the torch's flame as she started on a careful circuit of the cavern. She would have liked to have kept one of the blankets for herself, but instead would wait until Gabrielle was out of danger.
With meticulous attention, she studied every crack, crevice and inch of the cavern. To her dismay, there was nothing but solid rock. The entrance was the only way in or out. Carefully, she examined the rockfall which blocked the opening. The tree had wedged several large boulders into immovable positions. She doubted even Hercules could clear this mess.
"D... did you find a tunnel?" asked Gabrielle.
"How are you feeling?"
"Good. Stay wrapped up. I'll be there in a minute."
"Okay," Gabrielle said, watching Xena as she scrutinized the rocks at the entrance. "Um... you didn't answer my question. Why are you looking there? Isn't there a tunnel?"
"No. No tunnels. This is our only way out," said Xena, her voice speaking none of her fear.
"Oh. That's bad, huh?"
"Yeah. That's bad."
Gabrielle was silent for a moment. "But... it's gonna be okay, right? I mean, you've probably already figured out a way to get us out of here, right?"
Xena turned away from the wall, a headache settling in just above her eyes. She squatted next to Gabrielle who had begun to regain the color in her cheeks. She touched one of the blankets and with a lifted brow, Xena silently asked if she could take it. Gabrielle nodded.
The warrior wrapped herself in the blanket. The torch was already beginning to sputter and wouldn't last long. Xena walked over to the pile of wet branches she had made earlier and placed the torch under them on the tinder, hoping it would burn long enough to dry the wood so it could catch. She planned to watch the fire carefully, knowing that if a natural chimney existed, the smoke would find it easier than she could.
"Come over by the fire," Xena said, helping Gabrielle stand then lending her strength as they walked. She knew she was doing it more for herself than for her friend. Xena needed to feel strong and useful, because contrary to Gabrielle's prediction, she had no idea how they would escape their current trap.
"Is that the cloth I just bought?" asked Gabrielle.
"Yes. I needed something to make the torch."
"Wish you'd said something. I have an old shift that I wouldn't have minded saying good-bye to."
"Sorry. It was the first thing at hand."
"I just wish you would've asked, is all. Not like you ever do, of course. I don't know why it should surprise me," grumbled Gabrielle.
Xena stared at her, trying to figure out if she was really bothered or if it was simply the tension of their predicament. "I think a bolt of cloth is the least of our problems."
Gabrielle didn't answer. She picked up what remained of the cloth and ran it through her fingers. It was sturdy homespun, but had been dyed a delicate shade of peach which had immediately caught her eye. She had never seen cloth exactly that color before and had been overjoyed at the prospect of something new to wear. Now there wasn't enough to make anything but more torches. She knew Xena was waiting for her to say something conciliatory, as Gabrielle always did. But she just didn't feel like giving in. A bolt of cloth may not seem like much to Xena, but it had meant something to Gabrielle. Yet the warrior had torn it without a thought; without even thinking of asking if there was an alternative.
The torch under the branches was burning low but a couple of the sticks of wood had begun to sizzle away their moisture. Smoke was floating upward toward the cavern ceiling and gathering at the rock-filled entrance.
A muffled crash sounded outside and the cave shook as if by an impact. Xena reflexively threw her arms around Gabrielle, protecting her as bits of rock and dust fell from the ceiling. The rubble at the entrance shifted as something very large hit the tree outside. Several stones tumbled into the cave itself and Xena feared they might be buried alive if the barrier didn't hold. Soon the deep echoing rumbles stopped and it was silent again.
"What was that?" whispered Gabrielle, still holding onto Xena.
"Another rock slide. Don't know if it helped us or hurt us, though."
"How long is this storm going to last? I've never seen the skies this angry. It can't go on for long, right? It has to end sometime."
"Yeah, it'll end," said Xena, disentangling herself from the bard. She poked at the wood with the torch, and blew on the flame, brightening it. Gabrielle's fearful face jumped out in sharp relief. "We're safe in here," Xena lied, stealing a glance at the rockpile.
"Oh, sure, I'm not worried about that. We're safe in here. But it gives me the creeps, all that muffled thunder. It reminds me of the stories I used to hear about Zeus's temper. I was always afraid of storms when I was a kid. I used to think Zeus was mad at me and I'd think back on all the things I'd done that might anger the king of the gods. Every storm, I'd run to my room and worry about having pulled Lila's hair or stolen an extra dessert -- stuff like that. As if Zeus had nothing better to do than punish a little girl's mischief."
Xena smiled indulgently. Idly, she wondered what it would've been like to grow up with Gabrielle. Would they have been friends? Probably not, she admitted to herself. She'd had little patience for girls like Gabrielle when she was a child. She had preferred the company of her brothers and their friends. Never one for playing house, she had always been found outside whooping and screaming in neighborhood war games, practicing with the small wooden sword that her absent father had made when she was a baby. She had loved that sword. When she had turned five years old she had fashioned a scabbard out of bits of discarded leather she had found at the tannery. She used to swagger down the streets of Amphipolis to the indulgent smiles of the adults, her sword at her side.
"I never had a chance," Xena muttered, realizing that her fate had been set from the beginning.
"A chance?" asked Gabrielle.
"No, c'mon. A chance at what?"
Xena sighed. "At being afraid of thunderstorms." Xena rose and walked over to the tree, cutting off another bundle of branches. They needed to conserve wood, but she may as well get this group drying. She chose a sturdy limb to use as a more permanent torch.
She unsaddled Argo and placed their packs against a wall. The horse nickered softly, telling her she was thirsty.
"Sorry, girl, you'll have to wait a bit. Let me figure out how to get out of here, first."
"Can we wait until the storm is over?" asked Gabrielle.
"Don't worry. We won't be leaving that soon."
"Oh, good. I think." Gabrielle stared as Xena rummaged through the packs, placing their water skins in a pile, starting another stack for food. "Is there something you're not telling me?" she asked, unnerved by the tense set of the warrior's shoulders.
"No," said Xena curtly. Then she stopped what she was doing and returned to sit next to her friend. "Look. That wall of rocks over there isn't going to be easy to move. And there's always the danger that loosening the wrong one will cause a worse slide and we'll be buried in here. You need to understand this and prepare yourself. We've got a lot of work ahead of us."
"I see," said Gabrielle, fearing Xena's worried expression more than her words. "Thanks for being honest. I can take it, you know. Don't worry about panicking me or something. And I'm pretty strong," she said, making a muscle. "I'll help all I can."
Xena smiled. "I know you will, Gabrielle. We both will. We'll get out of this."
"Because you want to?"
"Because I want to."
Gabrielle smiled, but couldn't help thinking of the tunnel Xena had wanted, yet didn't exist. Not everything happens because you will it to be so, she thought.
"Not too much. That's all the water we have," said Xena.
Gabrielle stopped mid-sip and looked at the skin. It wasn't full, but there were two others that were. Still, for an extended stay, it wasn't a great deal of water. And they had Argo to consider as well. What would the horse eat and drink?
"What are you going to do about Argo?" she asked.
"What about her?" countered Xena curtly, not wanting to think about Argo. Even if they could clear a passage for the two women to slip through, the problem of her horse still existed. How could Argo ever escape this trap?
"You know, food and drink and stuff."
"Oh. I have some oats. And she'll share our water."
"But there's not much of either. We're lucky we just bought new food stores today, aren't we?"
"Yeah," said Xena, her back to Gabrielle. She had just gone through and taken an inventory of their possessions, weighing each item for its possible uses. They had adequate food and the water might last if stretched. They had medicine and cloth for bandages and torches, thanks to the unwanted shift and the peach homespun. As long as they were able to devise some means of escape in the next couple of days, there wouldn't be any problems.
Xena walked over to the rock wall again, staring at it as if trying to unlock its puzzle. The tree was the wild card. How much weight was it supporting? And why did no light shine in from the pockets that had to be there? Were there so many rocks piled beyond the entrance that a year's worth of digging wouldn't dislodge them all?
"We're lucky to have the tree, huh?" piped in Gabrielle, standing at her shoulder.
"Well, we have wood for fires and torches. And maybe we can make braces out of some of the branches. You know, to shore up any digging we do."
Xena looked at her companion and smiled. "Yeah, maybe we can."
Gabrielle beamed under the implied praise and returned to the fire, feeding it another branch. The stew pot was simmering and filled the cavern with a rich, beefy aroma. There were no fresh vegetables to cut in, but she had added some dried herbs to the jerky soup and it looked like it would be a satisfying meal. Best she could do under the circumstances, she mused.
Xena had climbed several of the rocks and was searching the mosaic, looking for a starting point. She noted again the place where the smoke was disappearing, and decided to climb to it. Delicately, she took her time, testing each boulder before putting weight on it. Finally, she reached the top of the cavern and put her hand in the line of smoke. She felt a cold draft.
"Fire's going to be okay," she said.
"What? Why wouldn't it be?"
"There's a strong draw here. For the smoke. We don't have to worry about suffocating, as long as we keep the flame low."
Gabrielle glanced worriedly at the new branch she had just put in. Did that make the fire too big? she wondered. Should she have waited until most of the others had burned down more?
"Soup's ready," she said nervously, wanting Xena off the wall and back with her, telling her what to do. She watched as the warrior clung like a spider to the rocks. To Gabrielle, it seemed very dangerous to crawl around up there.
"In a minute," Xena said, tugging on a small rock. It came loose and she tossed it to the ground. She peered into the hole but just saw more rocks. She worked another free, then another, but still there was no end in sight. The smoke continued to curl lazily through the wall, finding a passage she couldn't track down.
"I'm gonna eat, okay?" asked Gabrielle.
"But you should too, y'know. You can do that after dinner. You haven't eaten all day."
Gabrielle had eaten a large falafel sandwich for lunch in the village. But Xena had skipped the meal, listening instead to the problems of one of the village men. It had turned out to be something that had no need of a warrior. Xena had advised him to take it to the city elders, giving her own opinion of how to solve things amicably. 'Something about an unruly neighbor,' she had muttered to Gabrielle's inquiry. After buying supplies, they had left, trying to beat the brewing storm.
Things like that happened a lot, Gabrielle mused. Xena's reputation as a hero for everyday people had been spreading. And some people tried to take advantage of her change of heart, asking her to solve problems with the violence of her sword instead of using negotiation and compromise. Strangely enough, Xena had more patience with these fools than Gabrielle. It bothered the bard to see people try to use the warrior for their own selfish means. But Xena took it all in stride with a shrug of her broad shoulders.
"Why don't you get angry with them?" Gabrielle asked as Xena began the climb back down.
"With the rocks?" Xena asked quizzically, stopping her descent. She had found no further clues to the draft and the soup really did smell quite good.
"No," Gabrielle said, laughing. "With the villagers who try to take advantage of you. Why don't they make you more upset? They sure get me mad, and you have a much quicker temper than I have."
Xena resumed her downward climb. "Most of them genuinely think their problems are too big to solve," she said, jumping the last few feet.
"But they're usually so silly!"
"Not to them." Xena sat next to Gabrielle, helping herself to a cup of soup. "Don't make any more soups. They use too much water."
"Well, I'd started this before you mentioned the water. I wasn't thinking. I'm sorry."
"It's okay. Now you know."
"But I should have thought of it. I mean, it's not like there's a stream in this stupid little cave. Now I've wasted all this water and we could die because of my foolishness."
"First of all, it's not wasted. We're getting the moisture through the soup. Second, we're not going to die because of a small mistake like that." Xena looked at Gabrielle who refused to meet her eyes. Xena sighed, put down her meal and turned to face her friend. "Look at me."
Gabrielle refused to comply, but said softly, "Why?"
"Because I want to talk to you."
"I can hear you. You're sitting right next to me."
Gabrielle looked up reluctantly. Xena had a small smile on her face, her eyes tender. "Okay," the bard whispered.
"Good. Now listen to me, because I'm only going to say this once. The biggest danger in here isn't water or rocks or food or anything like that. What is far worse -- what is deadly, in fact -- is loss of hope. If we give in to our fears; if we stop trying to find a way to escape, then we will surely die. No one is going to come crashing through that wall to rescue us. No hidden passageway is going to be mysteriously found. We need to accept what's happened and then figure out a way to help ourselves. And there is a way. We just need to find it. Okay?"
Gabrielle looked into the clear blue eyes of the woman who meant more to her than anyone ever had in her life. Not her mother, her father, her sister, Perdicus or any other living soul had ever given Gabrielle as much as Xena had; had ever shown her the respect, friendship and love that Xena had shown. Slowly she nodded her head. "Okay."
"Good. I'm not going to keep reminding you, because I don't want that burden. I don't want to have to hope for the both of us. I need your help."
"Anything, Xena. You know I'll do anything for you."
"For us. Just stay optimistic and tomorrow, we'll start clearing those rocks. We could both use a good night's sleep tonight, so clean up here and get in your blankets."
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to finish my soup, take care of Argo then hopefully, have a dreamless night."
"Okay," said Gabrielle with a smile. She poured the last of the soup into Xena's cup then used some of the sand that covered the cave floor to wash the pot. Without water she wasn't very happy with the results. Not that it mattered, she realized. There would be no more soups, or cooking until they escaped the cave. From here on, it was jerky, fruit, cheese and the sticky sweets she had tied up at the bottom of her pack -- a surprise she would save for later, she decided. Xena had a bit of a sweet tooth, and Gabrielle delighted in tempting her with various savory treats she would find in the markets.
Gabrielle stretched, removed her clothes and slipped into her remaining shift. She glanced over at Xena, who was cooing softly to Argo. Feeling much more optimistic than she had since the rockslide, the bard pulled her blankets up and faced the fire, letting the mesmerizing flames lull her. Everything would be okay, she decided. No way were a bunch of rocks going to defeat the Warrior Princess.
Xena lay on her bedroll, unable to sleep. She kept puzzling through the jigsaw of the rocks, trying to see a way to clear enough of them to escape without tumbling the whole mess in on top of them. And what about Argo? How was she supposed to get out? The only way to save all three of them would be to clear the entire entrance. But some of the boulders were huge, weighing hundreds, maybe thousands of pounds. And what about the tree? How was she supposed to move an entire tree?
Xena restlessly turned to her side. She looked across the glowing coals at Gabrielle, sleeping soundly and undisturbed. I'm sorry I led you into this trap, she thought. It's my fault we're in here. I should have foreseen the possibility of a rock slide, but all I cared about was getting you out of the rain and warmed up. You are my weakness and my strength. Such a heavy role for one so young and innocent.
The warrior stared at her traveling companion and best friend. Yet again she wondered why Gabrielle stayed with her. I'm as hard, cold and unrelenting as this cave, Xena thought. I don't tell you what you want to know. I don't share my confidences. I walk a knife edge every single day, fighting the darkness that's forever threatening to overwhelm me. And yet you stay by my side, putting up with my silences. You weather my tempers with calm. You accept me no matter what horrors hide in my past. How can that be? How can you not fear me? I struck you and you stayed with me. I've left you behind for days at a time yet I always found you waiting patiently for my return. My enemies have attacked me through you, threatening any manner of unspeakable acts, yet you remain steadfast in your trust that I will prevail. How can that be? What holds you here -- tied to a used-up warrior desperate to atone for a lifetime of sins? What force is great enough to keep you trudging by my side, your life so often in danger, your blood innocence threatened at every turn? All this and so much more, yet still, here you are, trusting me, helping me, and remaining true to your code. How can that be?
I'll never understand you, Gabrielle. I'll never understand why you chose me as your friend.
Xena closed her eyes and immediately saw the puzzle of the rocks. As she drifted to sleep, she continued to search for an answer.
Gabrielle opened her eyes but the change was imperceptible. The cave was in darkness again, a cold breath of air chilling her beneath her blankets. She looked at the fire and saw one glowing ember, barely alive on the ashes. Quickly, she wrapped her blanket around her and felt along the cave floor for more wood. She put it on the ember and blew on the coal to fan it. Slowly the branch began to smoke, then a lick of flame shot upwards.
Soon she had the fire burning to her satisfaction. She glanced over at Xena who was mumbling in her sleep. Gabrielle tried to distinguish what she was saying but couldn't make it out before the warrior faded into a deeper sleep.
Perhaps Xena would remember her dream in the morning and tell her what happened.
Fat chance, thought Gabrielle. Xena never talked about her dreams. Even when Gabrielle had shaken her awake to drown the warrior's screams, her friend had remained silent about what had happened in her night terrors. Not that there was anything Gabrielle could do to help. These were Xena's personal demons and far beyond the touch of the young bard.
Gabrielle watched the fire for a moment, then let her eyes drift back to Xena's now peaceful, sleeping face. In her warlord days, there was little Xena wouldn't do in her quest for power. She had used her body to seduce friends and enemies alike. She had used her cunning to betray and destroy. She had set herself up as a prize to be sought -- rewarding those who served her well; killing those who hadn't. Gabrielle found it difficult to reconcile this with the woman she now knew. Although today Xena was often cold and distant, she was always fair and never cruel. Yet she kept such a tight lock on herself. Sometimes Gabrielle would touch her in an offhanded, friendly way and Xena would freeze up, shaking off the contact. The warrior seemed to conserve all her passion for the battlefield.
Oh, there were exceptions, Gabrielle realized. Hercules, for instance. Gabrielle had seen the doe-eyed looks from Xena, so uncharacteristic in her stern friend. And she had seen the passion with which they had kissed good-bye. But Gabrielle suspected that Xena's relationship with Hercules was more that of gratitude for his having set her free from her life as a warlord, and hero-worship for someone who was as much a god as a man. Xena admired Hercules; his ideals and his goals. He had taken a chance on her, and Xena never forgot a kindness like that. And although Gabrielle firmly suspected that they had been lovers at some time in the past, Xena didn't act like a woman who mooned over a lost mate.
And then there was Marcus. Gabrielle wasn't quite sure what to think about Marcus. Had he been the love of Xena's life? The man destined to be her soulmate? Somehow, Gabrielle didn't think so, though she was unsure why. Yes, Xena had loved him. And his death had wounded her. This had become obvious when the shade of Marcus had sought the warrior's help against Atyminius in the Underworld. When Xena had emerged from the lake, alone again, she had cried in Gabrielle's arms -- something rare enough to shake the bard to her core. Had Marcus stolen the passion from Xena's life? Had he received the last of her love? Gabrielle sighed, wishing she knew the answers to questions like these.
And why must you know the answers? she asked herself. Tell the truth. Whisper it aloud in an empty field so no one can hear, but tell the truth. Because I am in love with Xena, she answered in her secret heart.
Gabrielle stared at Xena's sleeping face, willing herself to stop, but failing because this was the only time when it was possible to do so. Gabrielle harbored one very deep, very dark fear -- a fear she kept so quiet and hidden that if it ever saw light, she knew she would die on the spot. Her fear was that Xena would find out that Gabrielle was in love with her, and would send her on her way. So Gabrielle played a game with her emotions every single day. She hid the love in her eyes; tamped down the passion in her heart and kept her distance from the dark warrior.
She knew that letting this secret out would be the end of their friendship forever. Didn't Xena sometimes pull away when Gabrielle touched her? Didn't the warrior forever keep secrets from Gabrielle, rarely letting her in on plans, dreams, or feelings? Sure, Xena liked her company. And they were friends. Xena had said that often enough for even Gabrielle to believe her. 'My best friend' the warrior had said. Oh, the joy I'd felt the first day she had said that! thought Gabrielle. 'My best friend.' There was sweet music in the words. Knowing she could never have what was in her secret heart, this was almost enough to compensate.
And Xena does show her friendship in many ways, reasoned Gabrielle. She protects me, helps me, teaches me, smiles at my jokes -- she lets me know. Still... sometimes I wonder why she keeps me around. I know I occasionally get on her nerves. And it wasn't like she asked me to join her in the first place. I really forced myself on her. But by a miracle of the gods she let me stay and now I think she would miss me if I were gone. She sure seemed to miss me when I went home to Poteidaia or when I went to the Academy in Athens. And when I married Perdicus...
Gabrielle stared at the fire a moment, letting the flames calm her. Then her eyes inevitably strayed back to Xena's sleeping face. Perdicus, she thought. I think I hurt your feelings when I did that. I threw away our friendship, didn't I? Wish I could tell you why I did it. Wish I could explain that it hurt too much to be around you every day and every night and not be able to tell you how I felt. And then he came and he offered me safety, and love and we had always gotten along when we were kids and I wondered what it would be like not to be in danger anymore. I wondered what it would be like not to spend my life afraid that I'd slip up and be banished from your life forever.
And when he was killed because of me, well, I felt so guilty. I had used him. I wasn't in love with him, but I had married him anyway. To make you jealous? Maybe. To force you to talk to me -- to make you tell me not to go? Maybe. To pretend I was like all the other girls in the village and not feel so alone and different? Maybe. To keep myself from screaming out my love for you? Yeah. All of these and more. What choice did I have? What choice *do* I have? I can stand anything but you hating me, Xena.
And now we're here in this cave and there's no way out and I'm going to die without ever telling you. Aphrodite will probably insist I go to Tartarus for my sin.
In her mind, Gabrielle heard Xena's strong, low voice. 'The biggest danger in here isn't water or rocks or food or anything like that. What is far worse -- what is deadly, in fact -- is loss of hope.' How had she forgotten this lesson so soon? Gabrielle wondered.
She looked over at the puzzle of the rocks. I'm not letting you beat us, she thought. We'll win this fight, like Xena wins all her battles. We'll use our strength and our cunning and our sweat and we'll solve your puzzle. Don't think we won't. And when we do, we'll head off to another adventure; another challenge. Just see if we don't.
Gabrielle lay back down in her blankets, content that the fire would last until morning, and fell asleep with a smile on her face.
Xena was balanced precariously at the top of the rubble, meticulously loosening and throwing down rocks. Gabrielle's job was to carry them over to a pile at the back of the cavern. It was hard work and both women were sweating despite the chill of the cave. They had been working for hours without a break and Gabrielle kept opening her mouth to ask if they could rest when yet another rock would slam into the cave floor.
Suddenly, there was a low rumble and the pile shifted, throwing Xena off her perch. She spun in the air, finding her feet just as all her hard work was erased in a matter of seconds. The hole she had so carefully excavated had disappeared, filled in completely with a new batch of rocks. Gabrielle stared despondently, wondering if this sort of thing was going to happen a lot.
Xena let off a few choice curses, left over from her days as a warlord, then brushed her hands on her leathers. "We'll break for lunch then get back to it."
"Why did that happen?" asked Gabrielle, staring inconsolably at the new cave-in.
"I must have loosened a keystone. I was afraid of that, but there's really no way around it. Without knowing how this thing looks from the outside, it's going to be difficult to judge."
Disheartened, Gabrielle took out a few strips of jerky and a wedge of cheese. The first water skin was empty, so she grabbed the second, cursing herself again for having made the soup. Argo needed so much water to wash down the oats that the bard feared they'd run out of supplies before ever solving the riddle of the rocks.
"Here. Start with this. I'm going to bake some bread," said Gabrielle.
"Mmmm," muttered Xena, staring at the wall. She took the food, then set it down without tasting it. Instead, she began clearing the rocks that had fallen into the cave when the wall had collapsed.
Gabrielle looked up from her bread mixture and frowned. "Can't that wait? You need to eat."
Grunting, Xena carried a large rock that the bard wouldn't have been able to lift, toward the corner. She tossed it down then returned for more. "In a bit. Just want to finish this first." Gabrielle rose to help, but Xena stopped her. "Make the bread."
With a shrug, Gabrielle went back to her mixing. Don't lose hope, she told herself. Don't lose hope. Don't lose hope...
"Was it okay? I'm missing some of the stuff I usually put in."
"It was fine," said Xena, finishing off the last of her meal.
"When we get out of here, I'm going to give you the best dinner you've ever had. That's a promise," said Gabrielle resolutely.
"Your meals are always good."
Gabrielle brightened, her smile lighting her face. "Really? Thank you for telling me that."
Xena shot her a quick glance, eyes narrowed. "Am I that bad? I thought I've said it many times before."
"Well... not exactly in words. But you always eat everything, so I sort of guessed I was doing okay."
Gabrielle watched as Xena studied her for a moment, her thoughts disguised. Nervously the younger woman waited to see if she had said something wrong. To her surprise, the warrior smiled and sat down next to her, throwing one muscled arm around her shoulders.
"Well, that's my fault, then. I do appreciate you. You're a big help, an excellent cook and the best friend I've ever had."
Gabrielle was silent, staring at the wonderful woman who could make her feel so much joy with so few words.
Xena looked back at the wall. "And you've worked very hard today. Those rocks are heavy and you never once complained."
Embarrassed by this sudden praise from the taciturn warrior, Gabrielle hid her blush of pleasure. "Well, getting out is both our problem, so..."
Xena squeezed her shoulder. "I know. But that doesn't make the rocks weigh less."
Gabrielle felt a lump in her throat and fought to swallow it, not wanting Xena to see her tears. Since becoming trapped in the cave, Gabrielle had found tears were always near the surface. The smallest thing would make her want to weep. "Thanks," she mumbled, unable to say more. I should be making some silly joke, she thought. That's what Xena expects -- for me to lighten the load; to make her smile. She glanced up and found Xena staring intently at her.
"What's this?" Xena asked softly, putting a finger to her cheek to trap a tear. "Feeling kinda bad, huh?"
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle said, looking away. Xena gathered her in her arms and held her gently.
"I know how difficult this is," said Xena, her voice a low rumble. "And frustrating. All that work this morning and we're no closer to getting out. But you're being very brave, as you always are. You have such strength, Gabrielle." Xena paused a moment, staring deeply into Gabrielle's eyes. Then she smiled her crooked smile and, rubbing the bard's back affectionately, said, "And I'll make you a promise. We will get out of here. And when we do, we'll go off on another adventure so you can fill a scroll with it. No more petty village problems for us. We'll find something daring and epic so you can write about it."
Gabrielle tried to think of something wonderful to say, but found herself without a voice. Somehow, hearing Xena promise that they would escape, made her feel so much better. Then Gabrielle heard the soft melody of an old folk tune. The warrior hummed quietly, continuing to hold the bard in a loose embrace, her eyes far away. Gabrielle snuggled just a bit closer and closed her eyes, soothed; cared for; safe; hopeful.
That afternoon, there were two more cave-ins, but at the end of the day, a small hole was visible, shored up by several branches. And although it only led to more rocks, the sight of progress, even this minor, was enough to cheer the women up.
"Gods, but I could use a bath," said Xena, rubbing a tatter from the discarded shift over her arms. She would have liked to have wet it, but was afraid to use water for anything other than drinking. With the amount of dust and strain they had been through, both women had sipped more than they would have liked throughout the day. Argo nickered disconsolately in the corner, begging for more water. Xena turned away, knowing it couldn't be spared. The horse had already finished her ration.
"You and me both," said Gabrielle, sitting against the wall, trying to catch her breath. Every muscle in her body was screaming in pain from carting rocks all day. Her hands had several cuts and her big toe throbbed from a hit during one of the cave-ins. She looked over at the pile of rocks in the corner and marveled that she had managed to carry so much.
"How is our food holding out?" asked Xena.
"Okay. There's still salt pork, some apples, another wheel of cheese and the last of the bread I made earlier."
"Good. But no salt pork for either of us. It'll make us thirsty. And we should start to conserve on the rest of it."
Gabrielle frowned. She had been looking forward to a hearty meal. She was famished from all the work she had done and to her eye there was plenty of food.
Xena saw her expression and smiled. "Don't worry, you can still eat a good dinner. And afterwards, why don't you tell me some of your stories, to make the time go. If you're not too tired, that is."
A huge smile lit the bard's face. "Oh, I'm not too tired! And I won't eat too much. I'm just hungry. Soon as I get a nibble or two I'll be fine. Which stories did you want to hear? Anything in particular?"
"Whatever you want to tell."
"Okay. I'll think about it and choose some good ones."
Xena nodded then went over to the tree and hacked off some more wood. They were almost out of the smaller branches. Soon she'd need a way to cut into the larger limbs without disturbing the wall. Another puzzle.
They ate their small portions ravenously, and both women finished without feeling satisfied. Gabrielle jumped up, rummaged in her pack and brought back two of the sticky savories she had bought in the village.
"Where'd you get these?" Xena asked in surprise, her eyes lighting up.
"Just a little treat I bought to tempt you."
"It worked!" She took a bite and closed her eyes. "Oh, yum. It's the best I've ever tasted. This is a treat!"
Gabrielle beamed, loving the fact that her surprise had met with such enthusiasm. She looked at the one she had picked out for herself, then put it back. Better to save them for Xena, she thought.
"What story are you going to tell? Or is it going to be poetry to start?" asked Xena, licking her fingers with delight.
Gabrielle looked over at her friend and was struck again by her beauty and self-assurance. Here they were in a situation where it was almost impossible to find optimism and yet she had never once shown anything but. And despite the lack of baths and the hard work, Xena was as breath-taking as she always was, her face unmarked and lovely. Without realizing she was saying it, Gabrielle murmured:
"She stood alone
Her face in shadows
Cheekbones strong and high
Against the bone
Her lips were meadows
With eyes that tasted sky"
"That's beautiful," said Xena. "Who is it about?"
Startled that she had spoken aloud, Gabrielle searched her mind for a lie. "Um... it's about this princess. From a castle. A castle princess. Her father was a king, which is, of course, why she was a princess. Not like being a warrior princess. Forged in battle and all that. No, she was just an ordinary princess. Who was very beautiful and couldn't find love and when she did, he died and then she was sad so she killed herself and I'll tell you a different story, because that one is kinda icky."
"Okay," said Xena with a smile. "Though I don't remember ever hearing that one."
"It's very obscure."
Gabrielle immediately launched into the tale of Narcissus, telling the familiar story with verve, but inwardly screaming at herself for making such an error. If Xena had figured out the poem was about her, she would have surely seen what was in Gabrielle's heart. And then she would never hold her again, like she had earlier, humming softly and keeping the demons at bay. She would never smile at her in friendship and treat her as an equal.
"Very sad," said Xena when the tale was finished. "But so stupid. To love yourself so much you never look for it in another. Especially when it's so satisfying to be loved."
Gabrielle looked carefully at her friend. What was she saying? Who was she thinking about? "Xena..."
"Are you in love with Hercules?"
Xena's smile was wry. "What brought that on?"
"Well," said Gabrielle, flustered. "I was just wondering."
"I love him as a friend. And will always love what he did for me. But I'm not 'in' love with him."
"But were you ever 'in' love with him? Like when you and he were, y'know, closer?"
"Why the sudden interest?"
"C'mon! Girl talk! Can't we ever just talk about stuff? You never do, and sometimes it drives me crazy."
Xena sighed. "I drive you crazy, huh?" Her expression was hurt and Gabrielle jumped in immediately.
"No! You don't drive me crazy. Well, sometimes, but everyone does sometimes -- you changed the subject on me. Very clever. Now will you answer my question? Were you ever in love with Hercules?"
"When do I drive you crazy?"
"Oh for--" Gabrielle said, exasperated. "Look, I'll answer your question if you answer mine. We'll play 'Truth or Dare,' okay?"
"What's 'Truth or Dare?'"
"You never played that game as a kid?"
"The only games I know are war games."
"Well, you have to pick: truth or dare. And if it's truth someone gets to ask you a question -- any question -- and you have to answer truthfully. And if it's dare, well, you have to do whatever the person says."
"It can be, yes. You need to trust who you're playing with."
"I don't think I like that game."
"Fine, no one's forcing you. I just wanted to find out something about you. You can be very secretive, y'know?"
Xena looked at Gabrielle, silently. The bard squirmed under the frank stare until finally, Xena looked away. "I do trust you, Gabrielle. Okay, we'll play your game. But be nice."
"I'm always nice. Now, pick one: truth or dare?"
Gabrielle looked up in surprise. What kind of dare was she supposed to give her? All the silly things they used to dare as kids came back to her, but none of them was appropriate for Xena. "I dare you to tell the truth about Hercules," she said lamely.
"Isn't that cheating?"
"Kinda. But I can't think of a dare right now."
"Told you this was a stupid game."
"All right, all right. Give me a second and I'll come up with a dare."
"What sort of things did you dare when you were a kid?"
"Oh, the usual. We'd dare Timiphus to talk to Old Man Cratea, or make Kicker take down his pants, or dare Lila to kiss Darvon. Silly, stupid things."
"Why did you make 'Kicker' take down his pants? That seems cruel."
"Because he had bow legs. And yes it was cruel, but we were kids."
"And Lila didn't want to kiss Darvon?"
"Actually, she was dying to. So she made me promise to dare her."
"Why didn't she just kiss him without playing a silly game?" asked Xena.
"Because Lila was Lila and she was too embarrassed to do it unless it was part of the game. This isn't helping, Xena. I can't concentrate on a dare if you keep talking like this."
"First you complain I don't talk enough, and now it's too much. Make up your mind, Gabrielle."
The bard laughed. "You're right. This is a silly game. Forget I mentioned it."
"No, now I'm intrigued. What do you want me to do? There's no old man to talk to, and I'm not wearing pants, nor do I have bow legs. So I guess that leaves kissing. Am I playing this right? Or do you want to think up a different dare?"
A deep blush instantly covered Gabrielle's face. She tried to cover it but knew it must be obvious. "Um... okay, I dare you to kiss me."
Xena leaned over, put her hand behind Gabrielle's head and put her lips softly on her cheek. "That was easy. Now is it my turn?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle nodded silently, unsure if she was happy or upset that the kiss was so innocuous.
"Truth or dare?" Xena asked, getting into the spirit of the game.
"Why do I drive you crazy?"
"It's your game," Xena said logically.
"Right. My game. Okay. It's just that sometimes I wish you'd open up with me. We're together all the time and yet there are things about you that I... well, I don't know anything. Important things, like stuff in your past and if you're in love with someone and like... that..." she said, trailing off.
"Is that everything? Or is there more?"
"Well, sometimes you treat me so good. And I know you consider me your best friend. And that's wonderful. But other times I get the feeling you wish I'd just go away. Not so much anymore, but sometimes you look at me and it's as if you're angry with me. Like I've done something wrong, only I don't know what it is."
Xena dropped her eyes. "I'm sorry. I... there are a lot of things about me I don't want anyone to know. It's tough to face them sometimes. And you're so gentle and innocent and well, I don't like the idea of you knowing about them. Then I look at you and get angry that some of 'me' might rub off on you. Some of my darkness."
"I can handle it, you know. I'm a big girl. I know there's a lot of bad stuff in your past. But have you ever thought that it just makes me admire you more? That you were able to put it behind you and become who you are?"
Xena was silent for long minutes. Gabrielle put another branch on the fire and straightened the blankets, though they were already perfect.
"Your turn," said Xena, softly.
"Oh. Um, truth or dare?"
"Were you in love with Hercules? Did you sleep with him?"
"That's two questions."
"Yeah, I guess it is," said Gabrielle, trying to figure out which one she wanted answered.
"I'll take one on account. No, I wasn't in love with him. I think I might have imagined so at the time, but I was really in love with what he represented. The honor and purity of his life and deeds. And yes, I slept with him. My turn. Truth or dare?"
"Dare." So she had slept with Hercules.
"Back to that, are we?" asked Xena with a chuckle. Her flustered friend smiled sheepishly.
"That's okay. Another kissing thing, right? Then I guess I dare you to kiss me. On the lips," said Xena. Gabrielle's eyes opened wide. Xena lost her smile and said, "you don't have to, of course. We could stop the game if you're uncomfortable. I just couldn't think up a good dare, either, but I had to do something to best yours."
"Oh, no, I'll do it. It's part of the game, right? Sure, I'll play," said Gabrielle and leaned over. She kissed Xena softly on the lips, trying not to linger, though not quite succeeding.
"Very nice. Very sweet. How many women have you kissed, Gabrielle?" asked Xena, slyly.
"No fair. It's not your turn," she said, blushing.
"You're right. I'll take truth."
"How many women have you kissed, Xena?"
Instead of the reaction Gabrielle expected, Xena laughed and said, "You want the actual number? Or just--"
"Rough estimate will do," said Gabrielle, trying to sound sophisticated. She's kissed women? she wondered. This puts a whole new light on things.
"Around six. Though only four with passion. Okay, my turn--"
"Waitasecondhere!" broke in Gabrielle. "You've kissed four women with passion? Does that mean, y'know..."
"Well, that you've been with... that is, that you've, um, with women as well as men?"
"Does that thought frighten you?" Xena asked seriously.
"No! No, of course not. Why would it?"
"You look a little scared. That's why I asked."
"I'm not scared. Honest. Really, it's very interesting. I didn't know... This is exactly what I was talking about, though. Telling stuff and letting me know better who you are. What makes you tick."
"Does the possibility of my having been with women give you clues to my 'ticking?'"
"Sorta," said Gabrielle. She was unnerved by the conversation and Xena's openness. She didn't know what to think. There'd be no sleep tonight despite her utter exhaustion, because she had to replay this interesting evening over and over in her mind, gathering clues, figuring out exactly what had happened and what had been said. Absently, she asked, "Whose turn is it?"
"Mine. Truth or dare?"
I want another dare! her heart screamed. But Gabrielle knew that she had to pick truth. She was too close to so many of Xena's secrets now, and didn't want to ruin the mood of honesty that was all around them. "Truth. Ask me anything."
"Okay," said Xena, staring at her speculatively. "I have a two-part question."
"You only get one."
"Ah, but you asked a double earlier and now I'm calling it even."
"Oh. You're right. Go ahead."
"Do you have any secrets you're keeping from me?"
Instantly, tears formed in Gabrielle's eyes. This was it. The moment she'd dreaded since she'd discovered the truth of her own heart. Xena's next question was obvious and she would be forced to tell her everything. In a whisper she replied, "Yes."
"You're crying. Let's stop this game right now. I don't want to see you hurting," said Xena. Immediately, she crawled into her blankets and turned her back.
Gabrielle didn't move at first. She was mortified that she had ruined the intimacy of the evening with her tears. Finally, she pulled up her blankets, hiding her face from the fire.
A whisper. "Gabrielle?"
"It's okay to keep some secrets. Isn't it?"
"Yes. Some things shouldn't be told, I guess."
"That's what I thought. Good-night."
Both women pretended to sleep.
When Gabrielle awoke, Xena was already hard at work. She had used the last of the branches to shore up the hole and the fire was dying. Gabrielle looked at the remains of the tree and wondered how they could slice off more wood without disturbing the wall. Especially with the tools they had. A sword wasn't an ax or a saw.
"What about the fire?"
Xena threw another large rock onto the cave floor with a grunt. "What about it?"
"What do we use for fuel?"
The warrior stared at the dying flames and sighed. She leapt off the wall and walked over to the tree. The smallest of the large remaining branches was the size of her waist. Xena grabbed her sword and swung at the base of the branch. The sword buried itself a few inches into the wood. Using a seesaw motion, she eased it out and swung again. After each cut, she would wait to see if the vibration had penetrated the wall. Minute after minute of painstaking blows and waiting passed as she gradually made progress. After what seemed hours to Gabrielle, Xena made the final cut and the branch fell off. The sweating warrior swayed, staring at the wall while she wiped her forehead with a swatch of cloth. She returned her sword to its scabbard and tossed it over by her chakram, easing the tension in her shoulder muscles now that her hands were free. Gabrielle stood next to Xena, looking at the large branch and wondering if she was supposed to carry it alone.
Suddenly, there was a low rumble. Both women stood stock still for a moment, frozen by the ominous sound. Then Xena grabbed Gabrielle and leapt toward the far wall. When they hit the ground, the warrior covered her friend with her body. Dust blew up in clouds as the giant rock wall shifted. The wooden bracers in the hole snapped and flew like projectiles through the cave while rocks filled the cavern, spilling like water into their living space. Argo whinnied wildly, bucking in fright.
When the last echo finally faded away, there was silence in the cave. The only movement was Argo's bobbing head. Both women lay still as death.
"Xena?" Gabrielle whispered, dust choking her. "You can get off me now, I'm fine."
There was no answer. Gabrielle squirmed and twisted until she was able to face her friend. Xena's eyes were closed. Blood ran out of her hair across her face in grimy, flowing streaks.
"Xena!" Gabrielle gasped. "Oh gods, Xena! Wake up!" No movement answered her plea.
Carefully, she eased herself out from under her friend, making sure not to move her too much. Quickly, she searched her for wounds, but other than a few cuts and bruises, the laceration on her head was the only serious damage. Then it occurred to the bard that she was able to see without the benefit of a fire. She looked up at the entrance and saw a small pathway to the outside at the top of a cascade of loose rocks and boulders. Bright sunlight shone in, bringing with it the cool autumn air.
"Look, Xena. The sun. We can get out." The warrior didn't move. Gabrielle searched for their remaining water skin but it was buried somewhere in the rubble, along with their packs. Argo neighed softly and she noticed a trickle of blood running down her flank. It didn't look serious, so she turned her attention back to Xena. Ripping off a piece of her skirt, she held the cloth to her friend's head, trying to staunch the flow of blood. Xena's usually bronzed face was colorless, the pallid skin standing out against the bloody frame of black hair. "Wake up, Xena, please! I don't know what to do!"
Gabrielle knew she needed to get Xena to a healer and fast. She looked up at the rock wall, her eyes fixed on the spot of sunlight. If she could widen that, she could scramble out and go for help. But that would mean leaving Xena alone in the cave, hurt and vulnerable. What if the rocks fell again? It was too risky. No, somehow, she had to clear a space big enough for both of them and carry the warrior with her.
The blood on Xena's head was beginning to clot under Gabrielle's constant pressure. When she was sure it had stopped bleeding, the bard slowly lifted Xena's head off her lap and tried to arrange her in a comfortable position in the small space left in the interior of the cave.
She needed to find water. The wound had to be cleaned and the blood replaced. Water was the only thing that could help. Gingerly, Gabrielle climbed onto the sloping rockfall to the place where their supplies had been kept. Trying not to move too many rocks, she studied the area, looking for a bit of leather poking up, or the edge of a pack -- anything. There was nothing. Everything had been completely buried.
Gabrielle glanced toward the opening at the top of the slide. Cautiously, she began climbing the sloping wall of rocks. Half-way up, some stones shifted loose. She glanced back to make sure they weren't headed for Xena. Luckily, the opening was at the opposite corner. Argo wasn't happy, but she was unhurt by the few pebbles that had rolled her way. The horse neighed and stamped her feet.
"What do you want me to do?" asked Gabrielle, impatiently. Then it struck her. How was Argo going to escape? This must have been the reason Xena always changed the subject whenever Gabrielle had brought up the horse. There was no way for the animal to get out of the cave. "I'm sorry, girl. I guess I was so worried about Xena and me that I didn't think... I'm sorry."
Reluctantly, Gabrielle turned back to her climb. When she reached the small opening, she was shocked by what she saw. Everything within her narrow view outside the cave was burned black, the trees only wounded stalks. A forest fire had ripped through the area, killing everything in its path.
"The cave-in saved our lives..." Gabrielle mumbled in awe. There was no way either of them would have been able to outrun a fire of that magnitude. And had the cave been open instead of protected by the rock wall, they would probably have suffocated from trapped smoke.
A sparkle amidst the charred landscape caught her eye. About 50 yards away was a small stream, catching the sunlight as it tripped along the rocks. Instantly, Gabrielle felt her thirst assault her. It felt like it had been a lifetime since she had tasted the cool, fresh water of a free-flowing stream.
Xena groaned softly in the corner. Gabrielle scrambled back down the rock slope, unable to hide her relief that the warrior was alive and gaining consciousness.
"Xena? Xena, can you hear me?" the bard asked as she picked her way over the last of the rockfall.
Xena opened her eyes, her pupils dilated and unfocused.
"Xena -- it's me, Gabrielle. You're safe. You got hit by a rock or something, but I'm going to get us out of here. Look! There's sunlight. There's a hole in the rock puzzle, Xena -- we're going to be okay."
"Gabrielle...?" Xena said weakly.
"Yeah, I'm right here," she replied, sitting next to her friend, stroking her face. "You're going to be fine. We're okay now. We can get out."
"We will, soon as I clear us space."
"No. You go..." Xena said, the tiniest thread of her strength returning on the emphasis.
"Oh right! Like I'm going to leave you behind."
"Not safe," Xena said, swallowing several times to lubricate her dry throat. "Too risky... to stay."
"I know, I know, that's why I'm going to get us out."
"No... Please. Go. Too risky..." The words faded as she passed out again.
"Xena? C'mon, Xena! Stay with me!" Gabrielle wanted to cry in frustration. It wasn't like Xena to give up. Ever. Was she hurt as bad as all that? Did she know something that Gabrielle didn't and was trying to spare her? "You listen to me! I know you can hear me, so you better pay attention. I am not going anywhere without you so you're just going to have to deal with it. And I'm not taking any guff from you, okay? I won't be leaving unless you're right there beside me. Now, I have some work to do. I need to open up that space so I can crawl out to the stream. So you're going to have to sit here and keep your self-sacrificing, warrior, over-protective hoo-doo to yourself, because I'm not listening."
Xena's still form gave Gabrielle the strength to add, "And do you want to know why? Because I'm in love with you. That's why. I'm so crazy in love with you I can barely breathe when you're near. Every word you say, every glance, every smile, every frown, every whisper, every gesture, every deed -- it all adds to the fire which is raging out of control inside me. That's right. Your best friend is head over heels in love with you and you're just going to have to deal with that. And that means dealing with the fact that I would rather die right here than live without you, so get ready to travel."
Gabrielle stood up with new determination and scaled the rockfall with a minimum of trouble. Immediately, she began pushing stones through the hole, widening the passage. When she was able to pull half her body through and look around outside, she was astonished at the size of the barrier which had entombed them. The wall must have been several yards thick -- way too large for them to have ever burrowed through before dying of thirst. It would've taken at least a week or two to forge a passage large enough for them to escape. But with the new slide, Gabrielle was finding her progress swift and satisfying. Within a few hours, she had a hole large enough for her to crawl through and emerge on the other side.
Gabrielle foraged among the charred stalks for something with which to weave a quick water holder. There was very little that hadn't been burned to charcoal, but eventually, she gathered enough material to make a crude water carrier. Thankfully, she had found some pitch to seal it so it would last until she had cared for Xena. She attached it to a loop on her skirt and scrambled back into the cave.
"Xena? Xena!" she called. "Answer if you can, Xena, please!"
"Gab... rielle?" came a faint reply.
"Oh, Xena, I'm so glad you're awake!" said the bard, settling next to her friend. "Here's some water. Drink as much as you can, there's plenty more."
"I've got a passage to the outside now. Soon, I'll have it wide enough for both of us."
"I told you I was strong. Strong like Cyclops!" Gabrielle said in a silly accent, hoping to cheer her up. Xena's lips twitched in a semblance of a smile, and Gabrielle beamed back at her. "Now drink, please."
Xena took several sips. "Thanks. Better..."
"Good. Now let me clean that gash on your head. This, um, could hurt, I think."
"Why didn't... you leave?"
"You still owe me seven dinars for the cloth you ripped up. I always collect on my debts."
Gabrielle poured some of the water on Xena's head. Old blood oozed onto the sandy floor and the bard grimaced. "I'll bet that hurts, huh?"
"Not... too bad. Can't really feel anything."
"Ah. Okay. So while I'm working here, let's play another round of truth or dare. I think it's my turn. Truth or dare?"
"Dare," said Xena, a small smile on her lips.
"Hmmm... Dare, you say? Well, I can think of lots of things to dare you right now. I dare you to feel better. I dare you to hang on until I can get you to a healer. I dare you to regain your strength. I dare you to stop telling me to leave. Yup, lots of dares. But I think I'll dare you to accept another kiss from your best friend." Gabrielle leaned down and kissed her softly on the lips, stroking her face tenderly. "There. You're a brave woman, to have allowed more of my kisses."
Xena focused on the bard for a moment and the shadow of her former self settled into her eyes. "That wasn't bravery. Truth or dare?"
"Truth," said Gabrielle, concentrating on cleaning the wound without breaking it open.
"Why won't you save yourself? And no jokes."
"Because you're my best friend. You're going to be fine. And I love you too much to let anything happen to you. Want another drink?"
"Yes." Xena took several more sips of water. "I love you too, best friend," she said.
"I know," said Gabrielle, trying not to read anything into the statement. "Truth or dare?"
"Truth..." Xena was tiring, her voice breathy.
"I think I'll save my question for later. You should rest. I've got this cleaned up as best I can for now. The medicine kit is buried or I'd be able to do more. So I guess I'll go work on clearing a bigger passage."
"Okay..." Xena said, closing her eyes.
Gabrielle bent down and kissed her on the forehead. "Sleep well," she said then returned to the rocky slope.
Gabrielle worked through the day and into the night clearing the passage. She was lucky there was a full moon so she was able to see, though the chill of the evening seemed to seep into her bones. Unfortunately, their blankets had been lost and Xena shivered with both cold and shock at the back of the cave. Gabrielle built a small wall of rocks around her to cut the wind that whipped through the opening, but it didn't improve things much. Finally, she tore down the wall and coaxed Argo to lay next to her mistress, the mare providing the warmth she couldn't.
When Gabrielle realized she was too exhausted to be careful, she wearily climbed down the rockfall. Argo had left Xena's side a few minutes earlier so Gabrielle took her place. She lay next to the warrior, gathered her in her arms and tried to give her whatever warmth her body had left.
The two women shivered together for several minutes until finally their closeness warmed them.
"Gabrielle?" Xena whispered.
"What is it, Xena? Do you need something? More water? I'll go get--" Gabrielle said, beginning to rise.
Gabrielle lay back down, delighted not to have to go to the stream again, enjoying the warmth and closeness of lying with Xena in her arms. "What did you need?" she asked.
"I took truth. Ask me my question."
Gabrielle smiled. She was utterly exhausted and knew she could be asleep in seconds, but all thoughts of herself left her instantly, knowing that Xena needed her; needed to talk.
"The truth, then. How do you feel? Really. No fair being brave."
"Terrible. My head is pounding, I can barely see, and this is the first time I've stopped shivering for hours. There's no way I'll be able to walk out of here. I think you should go for help."
"Can't. The rockpile is too sensitive. The slightest thing could tumble it all again and you'd be buried. Sorry, but it's me or nothing. Truth or dare me."
"Gabrielle -- you can't--"
"Don't tell me what I can or cannot do, Warrior Princess. You're in no shape to be giving orders. Besides, I'm an Amazon Princess and that means I outrank you. Now c'mon, it's your turn to ask."
Xena smiled and squirmed a bit closer. "Truth or dare?"
"How did you get this strong?" asked Xena, seriously. "How did the wide-eyed, talky little Gabrielle who joined me on my quest become this woman of power?"
Gabrielle wished the moonlight was bright enough to illuminate Xena's face. She wanted to see her; to see her expression, the tilt of her mouth, the arch of an eyebrow -- anything to gather clues behind this question. Does she mean it? wondered Gabrielle. Does she really see me that way? I'm so frightened I can barely think and so terrified I'll fail, I'm nearly paralyzed. "How? From being with you. You have all the strength and power in the world, Xena. Some of it had to rub off on me. I just kept thinking 'what would Xena do?' and went from there. But it's not real. I don't have any strength. I'm just so afraid for you that I'll do whatever I have to, to make you well."
"That wasn't the truth, Gabrielle."
"No, the power is real. I can feel it."
Gabrielle was silent, digesting these words. Was it true? Had she changed from who she used to be? Her arms tightened. Now the important question, she said to herself. Do I have enough strength to tell her how I feel?
"I think we both need a dare," whispered Xena. Gabrielle felt Xena shift in her arms then warm lips were pressed on hers. But instead of ending almost as soon as it had begun, like all the others, this kiss deepened. Gabrielle felt Xena's tongue touch her lips, parting them. It caressed her teeth and when the bard opened herself to its exploration, she became lost in sensations of tenderness and passion. Endless moments passed, as the two best friends, united through fear and injury, worry and love, both gave permission for a change in their relationship. There were no more silences, though no words were spoken. There were no more secrets, though no game was played to divulge them. They simply accepted the reality of their love and expressed it in a single kiss.
And when at last it ended, Xena's head went back to its cradle in Gabrielle's arms and she slept. Gabrielle took a bit longer to find the haven of Morpheus. But eventually, the taxing day of physical labor claimed her muscles and her mind.
I need Argo, Gabrielle realized. She had opened enough of a passage for her to drag Xena and herself through, but once outside the cave, there was no way she could carry the warrior all the way back to the village. She needed Argo for that.
She had spent the morning working on the rockpile, yet her mind never stopped thinking of ways to get the horse out of the cave. Only one plan kept occurring to her. A plan so ridiculous and impossible that she had already dismissed it several times. But no alternative was forthcoming.
Instantly, she had eliminated the idea that she could clear a path to the cave floor so that Argo could walk out on her own. That would takes weeks of labor. And they would all probably be killed in the process. So somehow, she had to get the horse through the passage at the top of the cave and that's where she was stumped. It would be impossible for the animal to navigate the rocks. And the passage would have to be widened much more to fit her height.
No, the only plan that had even a possibility of working was the crazy, silly, stupid idea that she kept pushing out of her mind. Well, she thought, time to face it. It's all I've got.
Gabrielle was so exhausted she could barely move. She had worked all day widening the hole so that it would be large enough not only to carry Xena through, but to execute her stupid Argo plan. She should have rested hours ago, she knew. She was stumbling and clumsy and ready to pass out. But she didn't care. The only thing that mattered was getting out of the cave for good.
Standing back, she looked at the hole she had cleared. It would have to do. She walked through it, able to do so almost without stooping, and looked at the charred forest. She shivered in the brisk autumn wind which whipped through the hole, watching as daylight slipped away. Time to get Xena.
Her legs barely obeyed her commands as she stumbled down the rocky slide toward her friend. She had made the trip so many times, she no longer heeded which stones were loose, and which could bear her weight. She knew them all by heart.
Or so she thought. She took a misstep and her foot went out from under her. She was barely able to keep herself from tumbling down and realized that she needed to remember to respect the danger at all times. Shaking her head, she looked down and saw that she had dislodged several stones in her carelessness. They tumbled down, picking up others and as Gabrielle's eyes grew wide in horror, headed straight for Xena.
Xena looked over at the rock wall when she heard the patter of the stones and saw the onrushing danger. Unable to move out of the way, she twisted her body, trying to cover herself as she was pelted by the stones at the front of the fall. The majority of the slide missed her, but several found their mark. One hit her on the shoulder and she yelped in pain, her arm coming away from its protective grip over her wound. At that moment a large, jagged rock smashed into her unprotected head.
Gabrielle was shaking with fear for her friend as she tried to descend amidst the tumbling stones. Thankfully, the wall itself still held firm, enabling her to pick her way down. Small stones at the tail end of the avalanche continued to strike Xena, but the wounded woman gave no indication that she even felt them. She lay unmoving at the back of the cavern, as still as a corpse.
"Xena?" cried Gabrielle, finally reaching the cave floor. "Xena! Say something!" There was no answer.
Gabrielle saw where the stone had struck her shoulder and touched it gently, stroking the muscled arm to try and awaken her friend. "Xena, please..." Then she looked at the warrior's head and gasped aloud. Blood was flowing from the wound, which seemed to have doubled in size. "Oh, gods, Xena, I'm so sorry..." she said, grabbing the edge of her skirt, tearing off another strip. "Water, I need water," she said, looking for the carrier she had woven. It lay in a puddle of mud, smashed by one of the rocks. She turned her attention back to Xena, applying direct pressure on the wound, willing it to stop bleeding, knowing her friend couldn't spare what she had already lost.
With a single-minded determination, Gabrielle stayed with her friend, working on sealing the wound, bandaging it with the strip of cloth. When she could do no more, she carefully climbed the rockfall to get water.
By the time she returned, dusk had settled in. She knew she needed full daylight to climb the rockfall while carrying her friend. So she spent the night holding Xena, lending her warmth and comfort, talking to her in low tones, telling her one story after another. But by morning, the warrior still hadn't regained consciousness.
"Please, wake up," said Gabrielle, shaking Xena by the shoulder. A few minutes earlier, she had heard a groan. Gabrielle continued to prod until the warrior rolled her head slightly, grimacing.
"Time to go," insisted the bard. "I need you awake, Xena. I need your help.
Xena moaned again.
"I'm going to carry you out of here, but if you could put your arms around my neck, it would help a lot. I'm not sure I'm strong enough without your help." There was no response from her friend, but she was moving slightly, which gave the bard hope. "You don't think I can do it, do you? Well, just watch me." Still on her knees, Gabrielle managed to maneuver Xena until she was leaning on her back. The warrior appeared to waken somewhat at the movement. "Come on, I'll hold you as best I can, but I need you to use what strength you have to grab onto me. There are places where I need both hands to get past."
Xena moaned a protest, but Gabrielle ignored it. Instead, she hoisted the large warrior until she was in position then stood, almost buckling under the strain, for Xena was bigger than she had imagined and weaker than she had hoped. The warrior had no strength at all, not to hold onto her friend, nor to keep herself conscious. So with both hands gripping muscled thighs and stooping to maintain balance, Gabrielle began the climb up the rockfall.
Carefully, Gabrielle picked her way across the treacherous slope. One misstep could tumble them both, she knew. And although she had gotten used to scrambling up and down while digging and taking care of Xena, she knew that this was a very different trip. She no longer had the balance she was used to, nor the use of her hands. She shook with the strain of the dead weight on her back but never paused in her climb toward the open passage to freedom. Those parts of the journey where she had always needed her hands she took as slowly and carefully as possible. Somehow, she maintained her balance, always thinking in terms of her next step, instead of the many steps yet to go. Sweat fell freely from her brow and chin, the muscles in her legs and arms shaking; threatening to cramp at any minute, but still she persevered. Gabrielle did not need the strength of the warrior's arms around her neck. She was in control. And her determination was impossible to break.
Finally, she found herself on the other side of the rocks; staring at a cool, sunny autumn day and a charred forest. Without resting, she began her descent.
Gabrielle laid Xena on the bed of bracken she had scrounged painstakingly from the burned forest. She placed a woven basket of water next to her in case she woke. For long minutes, Gabrielle did nothing but stare at her friend, too exhausted to move, but too fearful of Xena's cold, white silence to collapse.
"Xena?" So far, nothing had penetrated the warrior's wounded sleep. "Please, Xena, I can't move. I've lost all my strength. I need you. I need to hear your voice before I can go on."
There was no reaction. Xena's chest rose and fell in shallow breaths but otherwise she appeared lifeless. Her pallor had grown worse. Somewhere in the climb, the head wound had reopened. Both women were sticky with blood. And although Gabrielle had once again halted the flow, she feared this time it was too great a loss.
"I'd give you my blood if there was a way. I'd connect our hearts and let it flow into you. C'mon, Xena, you never let anything stop you -- how can you give up now? Not after what just happened! Don't you get it? I'm in love with you! And you're in love with me -- don't try to tell me otherwise. That has to be worth fighting for!" Gabrielle fell to her knees next to her friend. Tears flowed freely in sudden release. "Damn you! Damn you for finally letting me know how you felt and then just giving up on life! I'll tell everyone that Xena, Warrior Princess, ran away from the biggest fight of all. Just see if I don't!" Then the very last of her strength left her and Gabrielle crumpled into a ball, nothing but shaking limbs and tears. "Damn you, Xena..." she moaned.
How long she remained like this, she never knew. But finally, something penetrated her grief. It was the softest of sounds, and yet somehow it cut through the noise of the forest and her own wailing torment.
"Dare..." was all she heard.
She looked up and saw Xena's eyelids flutter for just a moment before she returned to unconsciousness.
"Xena...? I heard that! You're in there, aren't you? You know. You know you have to fight. You know you have to live, don't you?" This time, Gabrielle didn't need an answer. Instead she lowered her head and gave her friend a tender kiss. She felt no response, but that didn't matter. Wherever Xena's mind was, Gabrielle was convinced the warrior would know her dare had been answered.
"Look, I'm going to have to leave you, but don't worry. It won't be for long," Gabrielle whispered. "And I'll come back and check on you as often as I can. You should be okay here. No one can see you from the path, so you're safe." She pressed the water basket into Xena's limp hand. "There's water here, and I'm nearby. I wish I could have found your sword and chakram for you, but they're buried with the rest of our stuff. I know how much that's going to hurt when you get better. To lose your weapons, well, that's got to be one of the worst nightmares of a warrior. But don't get too upset, okay? They're just things. You're much more important. Better to lose your chakram than your life, right? So don't think about that. Rest and feel better and I'll be back soon."
Gabrielle lifted herself painfully and turned away from the warrior, hating leaving her but knowing she had no choice. Argo was still in the cave.
"This is a stupid, stupid plan," said Gabrielle to Argo. "You agree with me, doncha girl?" The horse nickered, as if understanding. "I know, I know. And if you've got any better ideas, I'm quite willing to listen." There was silence. "Huh. That's what I thought. Not that good at creative problem-solving, are ya, Argo?"
Gabrielle walked the horse through it one more time. It had taken nearly half the day to clear the necessary path inside the cave, especially with her frequent trips to check on the still unconscious Xena.
"That tree makes a lousy ramp, huh girl? Well, nothing we can do about that. But the turn. It's way too tight. You need more room in that corner if you're going to be able to do this." Gabrielle set about moving still more rocks. "I hate rocks," she grumbled. "If I never see another rock as long I live I'll be the happiest bard in Greece. Rocks should all be sent to hello... what's this?" Quickly, she cleared more rocks away and uncovered a bit of leather. Curious, she dug further, unable to figure out how any of their stuff, which was stored on the other side of the cave, had gotten near Argo's sleeping place. Finally, she rolled aside a rather large stone and saw it. Xena's scabbard. Of course! she thought. Xena had stored her weapons near the saddle, which wasn't with all the rest of the stuff. It was near Argo. Quickly, she uncovered enough of the scabbard to withdraw it from the rockpile. The sword was still sheathed within, undamaged. Smiling happily, she continued to burrow until her patience paid off. Reverently, she removed Xena's chakram.
"Oh, you are going to owe me big time for these, Xena!" she said happily. Immediately, she set to work on the tree.
After over an hour of hacking, chipping and sweating, she knew it was as good as she could do. Her strength was again near depletion. Argo snorted, pawing at the ground. "Restless? Okay. One last time around and then it's all up to you."
She walked the horse through the cleared rubble and this time, the corner was wide enough and the tree had some purchase.
"Okay girl. Remember: on my whistle." Gabrielle hugged the horse and patted her neck for perhaps, the last time. "Visualize, Argo. You're Pegasus. You're a magical winged stead. You can do this. You belong to Xena!"
Gabrielle glanced at the remains of the tree. It had taken Argo's strength to shift it into place, and her perseverance to carve its shape, but in the end it may not matter at all. Knowing there was nothing more to do in the cave, she scrambled up the rock wall and slipped through the large passage she had excavated to the outside. Then she descended as quickly as was prudent, anxious to see if her insane plan had even a chance at success.
With a final prayer, she whistled.
Inside the cave, Argo's ears perked up and she whinnied. There was silence for awhile and then it came again. The whistle. She pawed the ground, anxiously, looking at the rock wall. Another whistle. Argo reared and neighed loudly. Whistle after whistle could be heard, driving the stead into a frenzy of nervous motion.
Finally, unable to remain standing when her mistress needed her, she began to trot around the track the small blonde woman had cleared. With each whistle, she picked up speed, her fury at being trapped and away from her dark goddess driving her legs.
The last whistle was strong, clear and demanding. Argo did a final circuit at full speed, ran up the flattened tree, then leapt for the hole at the top of the cave.
Gabrielle knew that she had failed. What had made her think that a plan as stupid as this would work? Argo was just a horse. She wasn't Xena in equine form. She couldn't do the impossible. She couldn't fly...
Through the hole at the top of the cavern sailed the most beautiful, magnificent, amazing sight Gabrielle had ever seen. Her legs tucked tightly, Argo passed through the opening and stretched for the ground beyond the rubble. Her back legs hit some rocks and she kicked off, giving herself just enough height to clear the danger and land on the forest floor.
Argo, the Pegasus of war-horses, had done the impossible. She had escaped.
When Gabrielle returned to Xena, the warrior still hadn't regained consciousness. Her color was frighteningly pale and her pulse so faint, Gabrielle had to try three times before she found it. Suddenly, it occurred to her that Xena may 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 mattress. 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's all but 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 wasn't fair. Everythingwas supposed to be okay. Surely the cave-in was torture enough -- they didn't need any more trials. Xena couldn't be blind. Not the Warrior Princess. What would she do? How would 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 which 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 kinda 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."
"Hmmm... 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," she blurted.
"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 else, 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, laying quietly down on the pallet. "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? she wondered. 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 the pot, 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 soup pot and stirred, humming.
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 loo-- 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," said Gabrielle, 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?" asked Xena. Though still smiling there was a thread of desperation beneath her voice.
"I put them over here," said Gabrielle, rummaging 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 which 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 loathe 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," said Gabrielle. "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 which 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 awhile. 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 others' 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 kinda..."
"She held you -- cradled you in her arms like you were a newborn or something. And you sort of allowed it to happen. 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; 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; 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 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... you're sort of prepared then. 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 awhile. 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 falling to 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 her lips which 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, then."
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."
"Aye, warrior, you wouldna. 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 would certainly 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 so hard 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 best 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 sorta 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.
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