Gabrielle watched Lanessa's activities at the hearth carefully. She marveled at the woman's ability to perform even the most intricate duties without seeming to need her vision at all. By simply placing certain objects in a precise, unaltered pattern, her hostess managed to attend to the numerous cooking vessels, mix the batter for the sweet bread she would soon bake, and lay out the plates and eating utensils for the upcoming meal.
The young woman remembered how she herself had wrestled with various cooking equipment at the campfires she and Xena shared. Hardly been a week had passed when she hadn't scorched a fingertip or put a small cut in one hand or the other while preparing their meals. Lanessa had many more things with which to contend, and she hadn't hurt herself once.
'It seems to be a matter of keeping to the pattern', the girl thought, 'and not changing your movements even a little.' When Lanessa lifted the kettle to pour water from it, she returned it to exactly the same position again. The petite cook swung one of the heavy pots out away from the fire, stirred it's contents a few times, then pushed the vessel back over the bright coals to literally the same spot. While the bard sat transfixed, Lanessa moved to the table next to the hearth and returned her attention once again to the batter.
When the woman slowly reached for one of the small spice bottles, Gabrielle felt that, if her hand continued on it's current path, it would miss the small bottle by several inches. On impulse, the girl reached to retrieve the errant bottle and hand it to Lanessa. But before the bard's hand made the journey, the small woman had altered the direction of her hand, captured the container and opened it to shake some of it's contents into the bowl in front of her.
"You're doing it again." Lanessa said, her voice gentle and kind.
"What?" Gabrielle asked, feeling a warm blush spread over her face.
"Staring." the small woman said simply. "And you don't have to hover. This is my kitchen." her hostess reminded her. "I know every skillet, bottle and pot by name. So you can stop worrying about me hurting myself." Lanessa's warm smile told the bard that the chastisement was meant with affection.
"I'm sorry," the girl said. "I'm just so impressed with how well you ..." she searched for the best word.
"Cope?" Lanessa finished her thought. Gabrielle's face felt warm again. She looked down at her hands on the table, embarrassed by her own prejudice.
The slight woman at the cooking table stopped mixing and turned herself directly toward Gabrielle. "Sweetheart," the woman began gently, "I've been sightless most of my life. To me, this is normal." The bard looked at the woman's sweet face. No bitterness showed there, no manner of self-indulgence. Instead, a glow of peace and contentment softened the features. "So stop worrying." Lanessa finished, a mock firmness in her tone.
The girl smiled at her hostess. A deep affection for this gentle, loving woman had grown steadily within her during their days together. Gabrielle knew why Xena treasured this friend so much. There was a warmth in her, a nurturing glow that radiated from her being. Lanessa had made a place of her own in the bard's heart, as well.
For a moment, the young blond sat quietly, then she bounced up from her seat. "Well, at least let me set the table, then." she giggled. "I feel guilty just watching you work."
Lanessa's gentle laugh floated over the gurgling sounds from the hearth. "All right" the woman said. "That you can do. I set the things out over there." she said, pointing at the earthen plates and mugs stacked neatly on a shelf near the hearth. Then she turned to place the pan of batter on the rack closest to the fire.
Gabrielle busied herself with setting the utensils on the table. When the places were laid in the usual array, the young girl strode through the cottage door. She bent to gather a handful of the lovely, lavender flowers that rimmed the walls of the house. Then she returned to the kitchen. Absently, she scanned the cupboard for a container she could use to display the flowers.
"Upper shelf, to the right." came the teasing voice behind her. Gabrielle turned toward the woman at the hearth, a question forming on her tongue. An instant later, the girl giggled again, swallowed the question and reached for the vase on the top shelf, exactly where her hostess had said it would be. She placed the flowers in the ceramic vessel, splashed some water from the pitcher onto them and carried the display to the table.
For the next few minutes, the two women busied themselves with the final preparations for the meal. As the final chore, Lanessa bent to retrieve the iron pan of bread from the rack on the hearth. The smell of the sweet concoction filled the room and made Garbielle's mouth water. The small woman carried the covered pan to the table and put it down near the rest of the food.
When it seemed everything had been done, Lanessa wiped her hands on her apron and untied it. She swept gracefully over to the table and sat down in her usual place. Gabrielle settled herself again on one of the benches, now more than a little anxious for Xena to join them so they could start the meal.
Her hostess anticipated the girl's question - again. "She'll be along.", the woman said, referring to the absent warrior. "She's gone to check on the placement of the matting." Gabrielle nodded, still surprised at Lanessa's uncanny intuition. "Besides," Lanessa said with an amused twinkle in her eyes, "this bread is her favorite. It'll bring her soon enough."
Gabrielle felt a giggle rise in her throat. During their stay, Lanessa had entertained her with numerous stories about the childhood the woman had shared with Xena. Most of the stories had been humorous, all about their girlish escapades and how their days had been spent with the fun and carefree antics of youth. Gabrielle had seen a high blush rise on her warrior friend's face more than once during the telling of those tales. Still, Xena had allowed her old friend to impart whatever memories she wished to the young bard.
Some of the tales had been told quietly, with a strain of sadness by the slight woman who had been her best friend's childhood friend. There had been stories of Lyceus and Torres, Xena's brothers, during their youthful days, and how the three siblings, along with their mother, Cyrene, had seemed to form their own security among themselves. Gabrielle had heard how the family's fierce love and respect for each other had bound them tightly together and provided a strength and a refuge for them.
Perhaps it was because, Gabrielle thought, Xena would never feel comfortable sharing those intimate events of her early life herself, even though the warrior knew the girl yearned to know them more than she would admit. So, in order to please her young friend, Xena had not objected to Lanessa's stories, however embarrassing, or painful, they might be.
As the two new friends waited for their other valued member, Gabrielle decided to ask her hostess the one question she been withholding since learning of the woman's blindness. It was never the girl's intention to be unkind. Instead she simply wanted to know this unique person as completely as possible.
The girl took a quick breath and plunged ahead. "Lanessa, can I ask you a question?" the bard began. She watched the face across the table grow responsive and open. "It's kind of personal, if you don't mind."
"Of course, Gabrielle." the small woman said, her voice warm. "You can ask me anything." The woman's glowing smile made the young girl's throat tighten, but she had summoned her courage and proceeded as gently as she could.
"Xena said you lost your sight when you two were children?" The woman nodded.
"I had just passed twelve summers." Lanessa said. She waited for the girl to continue. Gabrielle felt nervous, now that she had been afforded the opportunity to satisfy her curiosity, but her hostess' gentle face awaited the inquiry.
"Do you remember ...?" the girl began, then started again. "What was the last thing you saw, your last clear sighted thing? Do you remember it?" the young woman finished haltingly, desperately hoping she hadn't pushed Lanessa's good nature too far.
As Gabrielle watched, a deep, contented smile covered the petite woman's face. She trained her sightless gaze on a distant point somewhere in her own memory, then turned a glowing expression toward the bard's open face.
"Yes", Lanessa said, "I remember precisely what it was." She paused to reflect on her own cherished recollection. "The last thing I remember seeing clearly was Xena's face." The soft sound of her voice filled the small kitchen.
Gabrielle's green eyes were round in surprise. She waited for the woman to continue, but Lanessa seemed wrapped in a lovely retrospection. Her gentle brown eyes reflected the joy she felt at this inward journey, and the deep affection she held for the woman they both held so dear. Finally she raised her eyes again, unseeing, in Gabrielle's direction.
"That night, I was even weaker than usual. It was a warm, stuffy, summer night and the breeze had all but deserted us. Just as I was about to try sleep again, my mother came to my room to tell me that Xena had come to visit me, and asked me if I would at least let Xena come say 'hello'. I said, 'Of course', and she brought Xena to my room."
"During my illness, most of the village ... avoided our house." Lanessa explained. Her tone reflected no blame, no animosity colored her words. "No one could decide exactly what was wrong with me." she continued. "Even the healers were baffled by the sickness."
"All the people knew was," Lanessa continued, "that they didn't want to catch it and they surely didn't want their own children to become sick, too."
Gabrielle felt a great sadness for the unkindness endured by her new friend. The insensitivity of the town made the bard's heart ache, even in hindsight. Sympathy for the sick child Lanessa rose within her. It was soon followed by a deep level of admiration for the courage and forgiveness now being demonstrated by the special woman she had become.
"The only family who didn't shun us was Xena, her brothers and her wonderful mother." Lanessa's unfocused brown eyes grew soft and loving at the mention of the warrior's generosity. "One or the other of them was always dropping by, sharing news or just spending time with my mother and me."
Gabrielle's own smile joined the gentle expression of her hostess. "Cyrene would sit with me while my mother went to the marketplace, or she would just read me stories while mother rested." Again the woman paused, letting the sweetness of her reminiscence capture her.
"That night, Xena came in and sat down on my bed and we talked. She told me all about how she and Lyceus had gone to the stream that day, to cool themselves in the water. Then she told me how he had won a race with another boy, swimming from one bank of the stream to the other side."
Lanessa turned a knowing face toward the bard again. The woman's soft, brown eyes were glistening with tears. "She knew I was feeling worse than usual, so she tried very hard to cheer me up, you see? Xena was always trying to cheer me up when I was ill."
Gabrielle felt her own tears welling up as well, but she swallowed hard to keep her composure. Lanessa continued. "Well, we talked a bit longer. She made me laugh. Then we said, 'good night' and I fell asleep." The woman drew a deep breath and exhaled.
"The next morning, when I awoke", she said, "my fever had broken and I remember, too, that I felt hungry." Lanessa said, a soft laugh in her voice. "For the first morning in ages, I actually felt hungry." The lightness had returned to her voice again as well as the joyful approach to life she'd shown since their arrival.
Gabrielle felt tears sweep down over her own face. She told herself that she had no reason to weep, since Lanessa certainly didn't waste time with such an activity. But, deep within the young woman's heart, she knew she was really crying for her best friend, for the kind and generous young girl that Xena had been and for the lost innocence she could never enjoy again. And the bard's tears were full of pride for her friend's noble soul.
"Speaking of hungry," Lanessa said happily, "our friend had better get here soon or we'll have to start without her." The woman's voice sounded a mock sterness, one Gabrielle knew she had invoked to lift the bard's spirits again.
Just as Gabrielle reached to wipe her tears away, another familiar voice sounded in the room. "I'm .. sorry I took so long." the warrior said, entering the cottage. The bard's ear detected a slight waver in the velvet tones and a hesitancy in the tall woman's normally brisk stride.
Xena moved to the pitcher of water and splashed some of the liquid into the basin next to it. She rinsed her hands in the water, then quickly dried them. The activity allowed the warrior to keep her face averted from the green eyes she knew were watching her. Then she turned back to the room.
"Some of the matting over the arbor had slipped. I retied it." Same crisp cadence to the words; same Xena-like economy of statement. Yet, Gabrielle's instincts were sending out warnings; something had upset the warrior princess and, as usual, she was trying very hard not to show it.
Lanessa rose from her seat to bring the pitcher of water to the table. Xena sat down and soon they were all enjoying another delicious array, and the conversation hummed along in the normal vein. But as Gabrielle glanced again at her warrior friend's face, she detected a strain of something unsettling behind the deep blue eyes. But experience had taught her not to press. She would wait, the bard decided, but only for now.
The soft, gentle sounds of night surrounded the warrior as she stood alone at the open window. The deep, blue eyes were trained on the quiet darkness, but the scene replayed was taking place in the woman's memory. In Xena's mind, she recalled the days of Lanessa's illness and how helpless and frustrated she had felt at not being able to remedy her dear friend's condition. That fearful time, when her young self had been so frightened at the prospect of Lanessa's death still brought a tightness to her chest, a paralyzing desperation as she remembered how heartily she had yearned to offer some comfort, some solution.
What was even more painful to Xena now was that she had no specific memory of the event to which Lanessa had referred in her talk with Gabrielle. The warrior felt a deep shame at her failure to keep such an important event in her friend's life as sacred as Lanessa obviously had. She didn't even remember the visit, nor had she been even slightly aware of how momentous the incident had come to be.
'How can I not remember that?', she asked herself, as usual with less compassion for herself than for any other. 'How could I forget the fact that that was to be the last time she could see?'
The warrior's beautiful eyes filled with tears. She felt the numbing pain that always enclosed her when she reviewed the effects that her heartless, and sometimes cruel, actions had rendered upon others in the years when violence had been her life's passion. 'How many other people have I hurt this badly?', her heart screamed. 'How many more will suffer before this ends?' A wrenching ache ravaged through her. She took several deep breaths to loosen the grip on her chest.
'And Gabrielle,' Xena thought, another wave of remorse washing over her. She looked over at the sleeping girl, snuggled comfortably under the covers on the bed. 'How many more times will I return her kindness, her goodness, with unfeeling selfishness before I destroy our friendship, too?' The warrior pulled her arms tight around herself. These painful memories never seemed to end. They tormented her, they punished her, ever threatening, always ready to crush her will and shatter her resources.
As if she had sensed Xena's thoughts of her, Gabrielle stirred in the bed. The young girl raised up slightly and cast a sleepy gaze at the empty space beside her. She turned to scan the darkened room. When her eyes became accustomed to the darkness, she saw the tall, lean form standing at the window. She watched as the warrior's body shuddered, then returned to the normal straight, iron-backed stance. The bard saw one slender hand travel over the stunning, high cheekbones, then again become tucked tightly around the form at the waist.
"Xena?", Gabrielle said softly, still watching her friend. "Something wrong?" The girl swept off the coverlet and padded across the room. She placed a gentle hand on the warrior's slender arm. The girl noticed the tears streaming down her beautiful friend's face, clearly visible in the moonlight that shone through the open window.
Xena covered her young friend's hand with her own, but her eyes were still focused on the dark night outside. "I didn't mean to wake you up." the warrior said, her voice wavering with newly-shed tears. "Go back to bed. It's ... I'm fine." She released the girl's hand and resumed her tight grip on her own middle.
Gabrielle stood quietly next to the friend she valued most on earth. She could see the pain that had returned to the clear blue eyes, even in the dim illumination at the window. The young woman experienced the same conflicting feelings that always swept over her whenever she found Xena in the throes of some personal suffering. Should she intrude and press the warrior for details in order to soothe her pain, or should she simply withdraw from the situation, leaving her friend to deal with the agony on her own?
After a moment, Gabrielle withdrew her hand. Xena did seem somewhat calmer now, more her usual stoic, unflappable self. The girl turned toward the bed when the warrior's liquid voice recaptured her attention. "I don't even remember it." the woman said softly. The bard turned back toward the voice, her head slightly forward to capture the words. Xena turned to face the girl then, her face stricken and frightened. "I don't remember the night Lanessa told you about."
Gabrielle's mind replayed her conversation with their hostess. Then she finally realized which night Xena meant and why the warrior had been so upset when she'd returned to the cottage earlier that evening. But the girl still wasn't certain why the reference had caused such pain in her friend. "It was a long time ago." Gabrielle said gently. "And you were only children then."
Xena's eyes were cold and angry, the tears still brimming there. "But it was her last night of sight!" the warrior said firmly. "It's something she still carries with her." She turned back to the window angrily. "And I don't even remember being with her." Gabrielle saw the warrior's self-recrimination, the punishing inward assault that she constantly inflicted upon herself. The girl's heart ached for her suffering friend. She wanted nothing more at that moment than to wrap her arms around the strong woman in front of her and cradle her gently against the fury of her own wrath. Instead she simply took a firm grip on Xena's arm.
"Xena, stop it!" the young woman said, her voice determined. "You've got to stop blaming yourself for things you can't control." Xena turned a surprised gaze to the young face beside her. The girl's jaw was set firmly and there was an undeniable fire behind the green gaze. She saw the strength, the loyalty, and the sincerity in the girl's heart.
Then the bard's eyes grew tender and the warrior's heart swelled at the sight of the girl's clear devotion. Gabrielle shook her friend kindly. She reached up to brush the long, dark hair away from the unhappy face. "You're not responsible for *everything* that happens to *everyone*." A small grin traveled across the young, loving face. "Not even *you're that* good." She released Xena's arm and stood facing her, hands perched on her slender hips. The bard watched as the blue eyes that locked onto hers reflected a wide range of emotions. For a moment, the room was utterly silent.
Xena's gaze softened and her chin rose a perceptible degree. The warrior's body relaxed and she drew a clean, deep breath. She let her eyes travel over Gabrielle's childlike appearance. With her blond hair tousled from recent sleep, her slight form clothed in the sleeping gown that Lanessa had provided, the bard resembled nothing more than a recalcitrant child refusing to observe her bedtime.
Finally, a soft chuckle escaped from the warrior. She returned her gaze to the shining green eyes and the girl's soft, smiling face. Xena used both hands to wipe the tears away from her own face and shook her long, dark mane back off her shoulders. Then without hesitation, she reached to gather the young woman in a firm, tight hug. Gabrielle's surprised face was quickly tucked against the crook of the warrior's shoulder.
Xena released the girl and looked down into the bright green eyes again. "I'm not, huh?" the warrior said, her beautiful face smiling.
"Nope.", Gabrielle said impishly. "I hate to break it to you, but you're not ... Herculisa, OK?" she finished. The warrior's eyebrows shot up out of sight under the dark bangs across her forehead. Both women smiled widely and then stepped apart.
Gabrielle could sense the uneasiness return to Xena. Affectionate physical contact, especially when it came spontaneously, always made the warrior uncomfortable. But the girl knew the hug had been truthful, the sentiments genuine. She cocked her head to one side and kept her tone light.
"Shall we get some sleep?" she asked, hoping her friend would at least try to rest.
Xena pulled the shawl off as they moved toward the down coverlets. "Good idea." she said. She climbed onto the bed and pulled the soft wrappers over her lean, trim body.
Gabrielle hopped onto her side of the bed and wrapped her arms around the sweet-smelling pillow. Then a sudden thought popped into her head. She turned back to the warrior.
"Just before we came to bed..?" the girl began. Xena turned her head toward the young face. She saw the confusion visible there even in the dim light of the room. "Did I hear Lanessa right, when she left the cottage?"
The warrior thought for a moment, trying to decide just exactly what the young girl was asking. "What did you hear?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle scoffed lightly, a twinkle lighting the green eyes. "I thought I heard her say she was going to talk to Argo.", the girl laughed softly. "About tomorrow." The bard waited for Xena's answer.
The warrior smiled quietly and dropped the soft coverlet over herself. "Then you heard her right." she said, pulling one lean arm up under her head. She watched the girl's face register the total confusion still present in her mind.
"Oh.", Gabrielle said, still not very convinced. "Good." Xena watched as the blond head shook gently, then settled tipped to one side. Finally she turned to the form next to her.
"Well, good night." she said to the warrior. Then she took a deep breath, laid her cheek down on the pillow and snuggled down under the covers.
"Good night." Xena answered with an amused smile.
A few minutes later, the warrior gently pulled the down-filled coverlet higher over the quiet form. She gazed down at the sleeping face on the pillows beside her. Xena could hear Gabrielle's steady, regular breathing in the stillness of the room. The girl was already asleep again. In the darkness, the warrior's throat caught at the deep affection she felt toward the young woman lying next to her. 'May the gods help me', she thought earnestly. 'May I never hurt this goodness again.' With the prayer still in her mind, the warrior finally fell asleep.
When Xena awoke a few hours later, her senses were pulsing with wary anticipation. She glanced at the window; sunlight, low in the sky. That meant dawn. The warrior rose silently, wrapped the shawl around her slender body and started toward the door of the room. With a quick backward glance at the still-sleeping girl in the bed, Xena stepped through the door and closed it silently behind her.
She turned into the kitchen to find Lanessa standing at the entrance to the cottage. The woman's face was tranquil, her manner calm. She was wearing her normal attire, a loose-fitting tunic covering the soft, flowing skirt the color of the subtle leaves of autumn. Lanessa's arms were folded in front of her, catching the corners of her looped shawl and pulling the garment close around her petite form.
Xena approached the slight woman, her own anxious feelings forming a knot in her stomach. After a moment, she laid a gentle hand on the small woman's shoulder. Lanessa covered the strong fingers with a soft palm. A quiet smile floated across her peaceful expression and she turned her head slightly toward Xena.
"Do you remember the game we used to play with the spoons?" Lanessa said, her voice warm.
The warrior smiled at the memory the woman mentioned. "The one during Solstice?" she asked. "You used to win every game."
Lanessa's fingers squeezed Xena's hand. "You and Lyceus always made sure I did." she said, turning her face more toward the warrior's blue gaze. "You were always protecting me, the two of you."
Xena's throat tightened at the woman's reminiscence. The statement was true; she and her brother had always tried to make Lanessa feel she had as much worth as all the other children, even with her disability. She gave her old friend's slender shoulders a gentle hug. "We only did that at first." the warrior said. "After a while, you started beating us on your own."
"But you were always there, to clear the path for me. You and Lyceus. You were my champions, my sentinels. Guarding me from harm, keeping me safe." Lanessa's gentle voice filled the small kitchen. She turned to capture the warrior's face with her palms. Xena, as usual, was unnerved by the intimate touch. But she swallowed her self-consciousness and submitted to the woman's examination. After a moment, Lanessa released her friend's countenance and moved her grasp to the warrior's lean arms.
"We ...", Xena stammered, "we just didn't want to see you hurt." The warrior lowered her eyes from the brown orbs facing her. Even though she knew Lanessa couldn't really see her face, the warrior felt the same unease she always experienced when Lanessa's eyes seem to actually focus on her directly.
"My dearest friend." Lanessa said to the warrior's disconcerted face. "You will always be my dearest friend, Xena. Always."
The warrior's throat tightened painfully. She blinked hard to stem the tears gathering in her clear, blue eyes. She had always felt an unfaltering affection for the woman now facing her. Her feelings for Gabrielle were as deep and enveloping as any she had ever known. Yet the steadfast, resolute, and mutual devotion she and Lanessa held for each other would forever be a part of her as well . Xena studied the gentle face of her oldest friend, a disquieting foreboding settling around her heart.
"You can stop protecting me now, Xena." Lanessa said, her face clear and open. She raised a slender hand to stem the remark she sensed forming on the warrior's lips.
"I must do this alone." the woman said in a quiet, but firm voice. "It's important to me. Do you understand?"
Xena's objections melted against the woman's gentle determination. The warrior took a deep, calming breath. "All right." she said at last. "I think I do understand, Lanessa." Xena released her friend's petite frame and stepped back from their embrace. She drew the shawl on her shoulders tighter and fought to calm her own apprehension. "We'll take our cues from you."
"Thank you, Xena." Lanessa said, her sightless gaze warm. Then a subtle change took over the woman's manner. The warm smile disappeared and her face became alert. Lanessa stood very still, her head tilted slightly to one side. She seemed to be listening to some private cadence, a sound only she could hear. Her calm expression was replaced by a meaningful deliberation. Her gaze fell from Xena's and the brown orbs slowly swept from side to side.
Xena's senses became alert. She recognized the signs in Lanessa's sudden introspection.. The warrior anticipated the woman's next comment.
"You'd better wake Gabrielle.", Lanessa said calmly. "The time is very near for us to test our plan."
The warrior turned and immediately crossed the kitchen. Before she'd reached the door to the adjacent room, she'd removed the shawl and was unlacing the sleeping gown. As she entered the smaller chamber, she looked up to see Gabrielle's sleepy eyes watching her. The girl's expression changed the moment she recognized the brisk pace to the warrior's movements.
Gabrielle watched as Xena pulled off the sleeping gown and reached for the long, blue dress Lanessa had given her. When the warrior's head reappeared from under the costume, her eyes sought those of the bard.
"Party time?", Gabrielle asked, a twinkle shinning in her green eyes.
"Party time." the warrior answered.