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"LESBOS!" Gabrielle stopped dead in her tracks, slamming her forehead with her staff. Xena didn't even look back, she just kept on walking along the cart path with Argo following faithfully behind.
"What do you mean, 'We're going to Lesbos!'? She started moving again and trotted to catch up with her companion, admiring from behind (for the millionth time) Xena's warrior body, her shiny, lustrous black hair and her easy, tireless gait.
"Which word did you not understand, Gabrielle?" Xena turned her head and flashed her famous grin at the tiny bard then slowly and clearly enunciated each word as she said "We... are...going...to...Lesbos."
"Very funny, Xena. OK then, 'why' are we going to Lesbos and are you sure about this?" she rubbed her forehead as she walked.
"Yes, I'm sure. Athena and Nike came to me last night to let me know that someone who helped me a long time ago is now in a jam of her own."
"Jam, huh," Gabrielle muttered to herself, "sounds good to me. I'd love some jam, strawberry jam, grape jam, blueberry jam, doesn't matter to me!"
"I'm sorry I didn't quite get that," confused, Xena looked again at the redhead, "what did you say?"
"Nothing," Gabrielle walked on, "just something that popped into my head. I have no idea where it came from."
"Gods, Gabrielle," Xena shook her head, "you're touched," she tapped the redhead's temple with her forefinger.
I'd sure like to be, Gabrielle thought to herself forcing her eyes on down the path and away from Xena. "So who is Nike, anyway?" she asked, changing the subject in order to get her mind off of Xena's hands. Gabrielle thought the warrior's hands were amazing, in a matter of seconds they could change from lethal weapons to the gentlest instruments of caring and healing.
Gabrielle had been attracted to the muscular woman from the moment she laid eyes on her, it was the main reason she left Poteideia and her childhood sweetheart in the first place. At first she didn't recognize the attraction she just knew she had to follow the warrior, later she began to realize her feelings she started to question the sensibility of her decision. When Perdicus came to her, said he had given up fighting and wanted her to marry him she saw her chance to refocus her feelings. After his death, however, and traveling with Xena again all her love for the warrior came boiling to the surface.
"Nike is the goddess of victory, she's also Athena's companion," Xena said watching Gabrielle as she spoke, "they're a bit like you and me. You really should brush up on your gods and goddesses, you never know when you're going to run into one and it's always nice to know who you're talking to. Save you from alot of embarrassment."
"I know, I know," Gabrielle waved her hand at her friend, "I do know that Athena is the goddess of industry and arts, agricultural arts, crafts for women, wisdom and defensive war!" she stated triumphantly.
"That's very good, Gabrielle," Xena said dryly.
"Hey, I know most of them!" the bard defended herself.
"I just figured that a bard would know all that stuff in order to make her stories more believable," Xena countered, playing Hades' advocate.
"You're right," Gabrielle sighed, shooting a glance sideways at Xena, wishing again that she could measure up to the warrior princess. The look did not go unnoticed and Xena wondered, as she did often, what was going through the pretty head of the person whose life she had come to value more than her own.
"Anyhow," Gabrielle went on, "what did the goddesses have to say?"
"Well, it's kind of fuzzy this morning," Xena said stroking Argo's neck as she spoke, "something about Leanna's village being raided a few times."
"Who's Leanna?" asked Gabrielle trying to keep the edge out of her voice.
"Leanna," Xena said softly with a far away look in her eyes. She quickly regained her composure though, when she heard Gabrielle clear her throat. "Leanna once nursed me through some very bad wounds I'd received defending her village. It was shortly after that when she went to live on Lesbos."
Gabrielle wanted to ask why Leanna had gone to Lesbos but she figured Xena would tell her if and when she got ready to. Instead she asked: "Are you sure it wasn't just a dream?"
"Oh it was a dream," Xena admitted, "but when I woke up I found this resting on the handle of my sword," she pulled an owl's feather from one of the saddle bags.
"Oh," the little redhead said simply. "Did they say why Leanna's village had been raided?"
"Someone's been taking the children." Xena said flatly, her face showing no trace of emotion. Knowing what Xena had gone through with her own son, giving him up twice; Gabrielle knew Xena would stop at nothing till she found out who or what was taking the children from Leanna's village.
Blinking her eyes rapidly, Xena came out of her trance. "The village, Klio," the warrior began, "was set up years ago with the help of Athena. Women who have been abused by their fathers, husbands, boyfriends or whatever can go live there while they heal, or they can stay for good, whatever is best for them. There are also women living there who just don't care to live with men, period." At this last bit of information Gabrielle's heart skipped a beat and she wondered which reason prompted Leanna to take up residence there.
"Sounds like a very nurturing, caring community," the bard said.
"It is," Xena agreed. "The women are free to come and go as they please, it's not a lifetime commitment once you go there."
"And it's just women, huh?" Gabrielle looked up at the sky as they walked, it was a beautiful spring day, blue skies with light, airy clouds, the perfume of new flowers filled the air and the grasses were different shades of vibrant green. She wondered if her traveling companion ever let her guard down long enough to appreciate the beauty of her surroundings. In all their time together Gabrielle couldn't recall Xena ever admiring the countryside; actually, Gabrielle wondered if Xena saw beauty in anything at all after everything she had been through.
"Women and children," Xena's stern voice brought Gabrielle out of her reverie.
"Huh?" she focused on Xena suddenly aware that they had stopped walking and Xena was staring at her with her hands on her leathered hips, her fingers tickling her whip and chakram. "Why have we stopped?" Gabrielle queried hesitantly.
"You stopped," her muscled friend corrected shaking her head. "I had to come back here to wake you up. What are you day dreaming about now?"
"I was just admiring the views and enjoying the pretty weather. Don't you think it's pretty here, Xena?" Gabrielle touched the warrior's taut forearm briefly. If she had left her hand on Xena's arm just a second longer she'd have felt a slight tremor under her fingers. Xena inwardly breathed a sigh of relief that her friend was unaware of what had just happened.
"Uh, yeah sure," Xena mumbled, "it's nice." She looked away wishing she could tell Gabrielle how much she loved to see the unabashed joy and pleasure of just being alive on that small face. There were days when Xena would swear by the gods that Gabrielle fairly glowed with an inner beauty; she hoped her friend would never lose her pure and simple sense of being. Xena had long ago become cynical and jaded, the only real happiness she felt these days was being around the talkative bard. She loved to listen to Gabrielle's stories and though she sometimes acted irritated with her, she took great comfort in the little redhead's voice.
"Nice," Gabrielle snorted, "Xena, you need to let go and smell the roses more often; commune with nature, you know..."
"Gabrielle," Xena started off down the path again, "you know I'm just not into that stuff."
"I know," Gabrielle sighed and set off after the big warrior. "Now what were you saying about women and children?"
"There is usually always a few children living in the village. The women who end up pregnant for whatever reason raise their children there. When the girls grow up they're free to choose to stay there or leave. The boys, when they pass ten winters are taken to a village on the mainland to live with a family of the mother's choice to learn to be warriors, bards, smiths, carpenters or whatever."
"And the women who live there because they just don't want to take a husband?" Gabrielle asked nervously.
Xena shrugged her broad shoulders, "They just... live there. Just like anyplace else except there are no men," she said nonchalantly hoping Gabrielle couldn't hear how hard and fast her heart was beating.
"Oh," the little bard was dying to know more about those women, "do they..." Suddenly four scroungy, rough-looking and very well-armed men stepped out of the brush and onto the path in front of them.
"Good morning, ladies," one of the men said grinning, showing missing and very dirty teeth. The two women could smell the group from where they stood, and it wasn't a very pleasant odor.
"Hades!" Xena hissed under her breath and instinctively pushed Gabrielle behind her. Aloud she said smiling and in her sweetest voice: "You boys don't really want to bother us, do you? We're just trying to get to Thessalon to catch a boat."
"How 'bout we travel with you?" another of the men said.
"Yeah," a third snickered, "for your protection!"
"We don't want your company," Xena snarled putting a hand on her sword, "and we sure don't need your protection."
"I think you do need our protection," growled the first thug taking a menacing step forward.
"No," Xena countered pulling the sword out of the scabbard, "we don't." Then the quiet surroundings were full of the sound of steel on steel, grunting, cries of pain, wood whirring through the air and Xena's war cry. When the dust settled the four men were scattered about on the ground, groaning; one of them was not moving. Warrior and bard faced each other crouching, their breaths quick and their eyes shining from the adrenaline rush.
Suddenly, "Duck, Xena!" Gabrielle launched her staff at her friend's head. The pole sailed over Xena's head as she dropped to one knee and spun around to see the ringleader crumple to the ground, blood oozing from his temple. Kneeling beside him she felt on his neck for a pulse..., he was still alive.
Grabbing Gabrielle's staff as she stood up, Xena looked around her and said, "Let's get out of here." She tossed the pole at the redhead, whistled for Argo and stepped over the men as she took off for the coast.
Later, after the pair had walked in silence for a while, taking the time to collect their thoughts and cool off, Xena thanked Gabrielle for watching her back. "Thanks for earlier," she said, "if you hadn't knocked that thug out, I'd be dead right about now."
"No problem," Gabrielle said lightly, but the sting of bile rose in her throat and she felt as though a fist had gone through her gut at the mere thought of Xena being dead. She had nearly lost her a few times before and really didn't want to have to go through that again.
"Well, I owe you one," the warrior smiled down at her feisty friend.
"Yeah, right," Gabrielle scoffed. "I've lost count of how many times you've saved my skin! I don't think I could ever repay you if I spent the rest of my life trying. Though I can think of several ways I'd sure like to try, she thought to herself.
"You don't have to pay me back, Gabrielle. If I didn't get you out of all those scrapes you manage to get into, who would I have to travel around with and tell me stories?" There are plenty of things you could do that I would gladly accept as payment, Xena mused silently.
"Hah! You wouldn't have any trouble at all getting another sidekick," the little redhead nearly choked on the words as she said them. She didn't even want to think of Xena roaming the country with someone other than her.
"Maybe," Xena said flatly, "but it wouldn't be the same. I've gotten pretty used to having you around." With that she picked up her pace and drew a little ahead of Gabrielle. The bard, meanwhile felt all the hairs on her arms stand up and a shiver run down her spine causing her skin to tingle. It wasn't often Xena said anything insinuating an attachment to her. "Come on, Gabrielle, let's pick it up a bit. I want to be in Thessalon by tonight."
"I'm right behind you," Gabrielle muttered, filing away in her brain the conversation as she always did whenever Xena would slip up and show any feelings of affection.
The majority of the rest of the day was spent in silence; even the talkative bard didn't have much to say after the events of the morning. They reached Thessalon right at sunset and found an inn where they could get a room and a meal. Xena asked Gabrielle to buy supplies while she stabled Argo and went to the docks to check on boats going to Lesbos. Later, in the dimly lit, smoky inn, Xena found a table for her and Gabrielle where she could sit with her back against the wall. The innkeeper was serving a thick, filling soup out of a kettle that hung over a roaring fire, he also had on hand fresh baked loaves of bread; Xena and Gabrielle took generous portions of the soup and a loaf to share. Dinner was spent in casual conversation, nothing serious being touched upon. Both women avoided the other's eyes as much as possible, afraid their feelings would be too easily seen.
The pair was just finishing their meal when one of the patrons recognized Gabrielle and asked for a poem or story. At first the bard declined saying she was tired after the day's journey but with a little encouragement from Xena she finally consented. Taking a chair and placing it against the wall opposite of where Xena sat, Gabrielle stood up on it and launched into the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. At first she could hardly be heard over the other voices but as she got further into the story the talking died down, soon the only noise was that of wooden utensils and murmurs of appreciation when Gabrielle touched on exciting points of the hero's adventures.
Xena watched as her friend told her tale, accentuating points with her hands, voice and facial expressions. The warrior marveled at the bard's ability to capture an audience, she could feel pride welling up in her when she thought about the fact that Gabrielle chose to travel around with her instead of settling down somewhere; Xena was absolutely certain Gabrielle could have her choice of men who would take her for their wife in an instant.
Unlike her companion, there had not been an instantaneous attraction to Gabrielle when the pair first met. It had taken awhile but Xena had come to love the little redhead dearly and when Gabrielle said she was going to marry Perdicus she felt as though her world had shattered. Then, when Callisto murdered the new husband the warrior's heart broke at the sight of Gabrielle's pain and horror. Since then Xena could not imagine her life without her friend.
Gabrielle put everything she had into her storytelling, partly out of habit and the fact that she took pride in her work. The other part of her, though, wanted desperately to impress her companion. When she got to the scene where Ariadne fell in love with Theseus she had to keep from looking at Xena afraid her friend would see in her face that she really meant those words for the warrior. By the time she was done Gabrielle was exhausted from putting so much into the story yet keeping so much of herself in check.
"Are you alright?" Xena asked the redhead as they climbed the stairs to their room, putting her hand on the small of Gabrielle's back.
"I'm fine," Gabrielle smiled weakly, "I'm just really tired is all." She wished Xena would take her hand away, she didn't need any more stimulation and was getting tired of constantly controlling her emotions. She didn't say anything though, afraid Xena would ask why she didn't want to be touched.
In the room Gabrielle stripped down to her shift, crawled in bed and was asleep in no time at all. Xena took a little longer to get out of her armor and leathers, she watched Gabrielle sleep and ached to tell her friend how much she had come to feel for her over the past couple of years. It was against her nature to share her feelings though, so she kept them bottled up inside her. Finally she leaned over, stroked the thick, strawberry blonde hair once and got into her own bed, turning on her side so she could go to sleep looking at the bard.
The next morning Xena said good-bye to Argo making sure in no uncertain terms the stable master knew what would happen to him if the horse was not exactly as she left her when she returned. The poor man practically fell all over himself assuring the warrior that he would personally see to Argo's care. On the boat Xena and Gabrielle had a small cabin with only two cotton hammocks for sleeping; they had slept in worse conditions though, and enjoyed a pleasant and uneventful trip to the island.
The boat docked in the sheltered port of Mithimna in the middle of the night. In the morning Xena and Gabrielle disembarked and started out on their two day trip to Klio. They planned to go as far as Argennos on a rather long first day and have a shorter day the next. As the two women walked out of town Gabrielle breathed deeply, "Ah, Lesbos! The birthplace of Sappho, my hero...next to you, of course!" she added quickly.
"Of course," Xena said dryly, smiling. "I suppose you can tell me all about Sappho too, can't you?"
"You know I can!" Gabrielle faced her friend defiantly. " Sappho is one of the greatest poets ever, she wrote alot about her friendships and not so friendly times with other women; she wrote about loves, hates and jealousies that existed between the rich women of her day that would get together to spend time composing poetry and... she wrote many, many poems about marriage. So there, I do know some stuff!"
"Yes you do, I never doubted it for a moment; come on, Sapphette," Xena laughed and strode off, "you can admire the views as we walk, can't you? We've got a long day ahead of us."
"Yes, Xena" the bard said sarcastically, "I can walk and look at the same time. I can talk and pat my head at the same time, too."
"You started it!"
The journey was pleasant and for a change the warrior and her companion did not have to defend themselves against any criminals or killer mythical beasts. They reached Klio in the late afternoon of the second day and were greeted soon after entering the village by a beautiful woman Gabrielle assumed was Leanna since she met Xena with a warm hug. The redhead felt a twinge of jealousy and had to remind herself that Xena had met Leanna long before her and also owed the woman a large debt. She was a bit taller than Gabrielle but shorter than Xena, her auburn hair fell in waves to just below her shoulders and her eyes were a luminescent green. Even Gabrielle had to admit to herself that Leanna was no slouch to look at, no wonder Xena didn't mind paying back this favor!
Leanna welcomed the bard when Xena introduced them, making her feel instantly at ease. "Did Xena tell you why it is she owes me a favor?" she asked, laughing lightly in Xena's direction. Xena just made a sour face and kept walking.
"All she said was that you nursed her through a few bad wounds," Gabrielle answered, "is there more to it than that? Xena's not much for sharing," she elbowed her friend in the ribs who good naturedly shoved back.
"Do tell!" Leanna smiled and linked arms with the redhead. I'm going to like this woman! Gabrielle thought.
Walking through the village Gabrielle and Xena were struck by its neat and orderly appearance. The wooden houses were small, just right for one or two people; many had flowers and shrubs planted in attractive arrangements around them, a few had flower boxes sitting in the windows. At one end of the main street was an open air building that Leanna said served as a place for meetings and occasional community meals and get togethers. She pointed out the crafts displayed around the walks and doors of the houses that some of the women made to sell or trade; some of the more energetic women harvested olives to sell or make oil out of.
A few children played nearby, though rather subduedly. Several of the women they saw walked hand in hand or with their arms linked and if that had not been customary of that time period Gabrielle might have wondered if they were some of "those" women. As it was she thought nothing of it. All the women they met greeted them eagerly and thanked them for coming saying there was going to be a feast tonight in their honor and offerings to the gods placed at the altar to thank them for sending the warrior and bard.
"Demons?" Gabrielle looked at Leanna.
"Why don't you two get settled in your house then come down to the pavilion and I'll tell you everything," Leanna gave Gabrielle's hand a quick squeeze and led them to a small house in a cluster of houses just off the main drag. As the two women unpacked and spread their bedrolls on the cots Gabrielle asked Xena if she thought they might have gotten in over their heads this time.
"Nonsense, Gabrielle!" Xena's pale blue eyes flashed in stark contrast against the dark background of her hair. "We've fought against the Titans, a giant, the Greek army at Troy; defeated the Bacchai; Callisto and Ares a few times. We have fought all manner of evil and we can beat these demons, too. Have a little faith, will you!"
"OK, OK!" the redhead conceded, throwing her hands up in mock defense, "I just thought I'd ask!"
"Right," Xena growled and threw her friend's bag at her. Gabrielle ducked and the bag flew over her head crashing onto the table and scattering the bowl of fruit that had been placed there. "Now looked what you did!" exclaimed the big warrior.
"Me?! You're the one who threw the bag!"
"But you ducked! You should have caught it!"
"What! Xena, if I had tried to catch that bag it would have knocked me flat!" the little bard got on her hands and knees to clean up mess. "Now get down here and help me pick these things up!"
"Oh alright," Xena mumbled and joined Gabrielle on the floor. They fininshed up facing each other with the bowl of fruit between them, for a moment they stayed there on their knees looking at each other. Gabrielle suddenly had the sensation that Xena was reading her every thought, she quickly stood up and cleared her throat, "We should get on over to the pavilion," she said straightening her clothes and brushing her hair back into place.
The scene was a somber one, some of the women were talking quietly among themselves, most of them were quiet, a few Gabrielle could tell had been crying...she assumed they had suffered the loss of their children. Leanna waved and motioned them to her. She and Xena talked quietly for a few minutes getting caught up. Leanna listening in amazement as Xena, with Gabrielle's help touched on some of their adventures.
"I'm afraid my life pales in comparison to yours!" she said. "Gabrielle, would you entertain us after dinner with a story of one of your exploits? We could use a little distraction around here."
"Of course," Gabrielle agreed graciously, "but only if you tell me more about why Xena owes you such a favor." Out of the corner of her eye she could see her friend scowling at her but pointedly ignored it.
"You've got a deal," Leanna smiled broadly at Xena who said nothing. "Now, let me tell you why we need you," she said suddenly serious. That got Xena's attention and she leaned forward looking intently at Leanna. "It's the striges, Xena," she said her voice shaking. "There's about a half dozen of them, they come when the moon is full and take our children. We're powerless against them; the women here know nothing of weapons or defense and the men of the surrounding villages are too scared to even try to help us! Nor do we have monetary wealth to offer payment to mercenaries, our only hope is you!"
"Don't worry, Leanna," Xena reached across the table and took the woman's hands in her own. Gabrielle moved closer and put her arm around the shaking shoulders, she looked at her companion who gave a curt nod. "It's two days until full moon, we'll think of something and find a way to rid you of these monsters," the warrior said confidently trying to boost Leanna's spirits.
"Thank you," Leanna said gratefully squeezing the warrior's hands, "we're at our wit's ends. I guess sometimes the gods do answer prayers."
"I believe the gods listen more than we realize," said Gabrielle, "I just think we don't pay close enough attention to our surroundings to recognize when they answer us."
"You're probably right," Leanna agreed, "we probably miss out on alot of help being offered. I just don't want you to put your lives in danger on my account."
"It's not just for you," Xena pointed out, "although I'd gladly help you with whatever you needed at any time; we're here to stop the children from being killed." Leanna just nodded her head unable to speak, but the gratitude shone in her eyes.
A short time later as darkness fell, the torches were lit and a lavish feast was brought out, the food covered nearly all the tables. Xena and Gabrielle couldn't remember the last time they had seen so much food in one place. A separate, large plate of the various foods was placed on the altar in the center of the pavilion as an offering of thanks; it would remain there to be eaten by the birds, squirrels and other animals that were free to roam the village.
"Alright, Leanna," Gabrielle said as they ate, "tell me about you and Xena... and don't spare any details!" she looked across at Xena and laughed as the warrior grimaced and squirmed in her seat.
"Well," Leanna spoke between mouthfuls, "it happened about six summers ago. Isn't that about right, Xena?" she asked.
"Yeah, sure, whatever."
Leanna and Gabrielle giggled and shook their heads, "My village, Molos, near Athina, was being attacked by a warlord although we had no riches for him to plunder. Xena helped us fight against him; he was finally killed and his army driven away but not before many people on both sides died."
"Did Xena kill the warlord?" Gabrielle interrupted.
"Yes, she did," the woman said quietly and the little bard saw a flash of pain in her eyes. At almost the same time she noticed Xena sitting motionless, her hands and jaw clenched, her eyes blank. "She came up on us as he violated me," Leanna didn't speak for a moment then continued, "Xena flew into a rage and it was during that fight that she was injured. She was so intent on punishing the man that she wasn't aware of what was going on around her. She was hit by a stray arrow."
"Hit by an arrow! By the gods, did it nearly kill her?!"
"Well, in a manner of speaking. But let me say first that she didn't even feel it until she had done away with the warlord, she just broke off the shaft and kept fighting. Then after she helped drive out the last of the soldiers she finally gave in to the pain. In return for saving me, I removed it and cared for her as she recovered."
"Where was she hit?" Gabrielle pressed.
"Would you like to tell her Xena or do you want me to?" their host smiled at the warrior.
"You go right ahead," Xena muttered, "you're obviously enjoying this."
"The arrow hit her... well, it got her..."
"Where?!" Gabrielle demanded.
"She was hit in the hind end!" Leanna managed to finish.
"No!" Gabrielle looked wide-eyed at her friend, "I can't believe you never told me about that! Forget I said that, I understand perfectly why you didn't. Xena, the Warrior Princess hit in the behind by an arrow! That's rich!" She and Leanna dissolved into a fit of laughter.
"Why don't you say that just a little louder, Gabrielle," Xena said looking around, "I don't think everyone heard you!"
"Oh!" gasped the bard holding her sides, "I'm sorry! I't just..., the picture of you with..."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Xena growled, "you just wait."
"For what?!" the redhead challenged.
"I'll think of something!" the warrior threatened.
"Oooh, I'm scared!" Gabrielle said while inside she shivered with anticipation.
"You should be," was all that was said.
"I had to keep the wound cleaned and dressed for three days!" Leanna continued with her story. "She wouldn't let me take care of her any longer than that though I told her she needed more time to heal."
"I'm surprised she let you take care of a wound like that at all!" Gabrielle said still giggling.
"She didn't have much of a choice, she couldn't see it to take care of it. Besides," Leanna quieted, "I told her that she had seen me in a much more compromising situation, she didn't have anything to be ashamed of in front of me."
"Is that why you came here?" The bard finally asked.
"Yes it is. After that happened I couldn't bear the thought of being touched by a man. I came here to try to get over it but haven't been able to in all these years. Now my home is here and I've come to love the people. I've decided to stay."
"I understand," said Gabrielle softly. Xena then reached over and gave Leanna's hands a strong squeeze as a tear slowly rolled down the woman's cheek.
Later, the crowd of women and children were greatly entertained by Gabrielle as she told them of Xena's stint as a beauty queen and her own experience as sponsor. By the end of the tale everyone was in stitches and had momentarily forgotten about the striges. Even Xena was laughing at the images the bard painted for her audience.
That night as the two undressed for bed Gabrielle asked about the striges. She knew better than to fear retaliation so soon for laughing at the warrior. Xena would wait until Gabrielle wasn't expecting anything or had completely forgotten about it. "What exactly are the striges, Xena?" she asked as she went through the routine of undoing the fastenings of her companion's armor.
"They're winged, female demons who prey on children and..., are you sure you want to hear this?"
"Yes, I want to know what we're going to be up against."
"OK, ...and they drink the children's blood and eat their entrails," she smiled at the expression on her friend's face as she shrugged out of her armor and went to work on her leathers. "They're distantly related to the harpies."
"Those flying bags of bones we came up against when we were going after the bacchai?"
"Exactly. Except the striges look like the live version, but their tails are much shorter and their skin has a bluish tint to it, they have a few wispy strands of hair on their heads and small pointed ears. Their eyes are set very close together and have upper and lower fangs. Only their thumbs and forefingers have long, sharp talons instead of all the fingers and if they get close enough they can use their dagger-like tail as a weapon."
"Sounds attractive, Xena. How are we going to get rid of them?"
"I haven't gotten that far yet," Xena said climbing into her bed and putting her hands behind her head. "I've got two days to work on it." From the corner of her eyes she watched as Gabrielle changed into her shift then sat on the edge of her bed and brushed her hair.
Xena longed to run her fingers through her friend's mane, feel the soft skin of her shoulders and breathe in her scent; and in spite of what she saw, or thought she saw, in Gabrielle's eyes earlier she still refused to tell the bard how she felt about her. You're ridiculous! she thought to herself, you're one of the most feared warriors around yet you're scared of a girl half your size! She finally fell asleep trying to convince herself that if she voiced her feelings to Gabrielle the little redhead would leave her either out of fear or loathing; it would be better just to keep quiet.
The next morning after they took breakfast with Leanna, Xena asked their host to tell them about the attacks by the striges. The two women listened as the woman told of the hair raising shrieks that were heard when the demons attacked. She said that they flew into the village in the dead of full moon night to a house where a child slept and took it away screaming without regard to anyone else in the home. She didn't know which was worse, the cries of the demons, the children, or the mothers. None of their prayers, offerings or spells had done anything to deter the beasts. She said at first the striges had been wary of houses with allium clusters on the doors, as put there in keeping with the custom of welcoming the wood sprytes into their homes.
"Allium clusters?" Xena's eyes narrowed.
"Yes," Leanna answered, "the first time they came we found that they stayed away from those houses so last full moon everyone with children put allium clusters on their doors but two children were taken anyway."
"Allium clusters..." the warrior muttered to herself.
"Xena?" Gabrielle looked at her friend curiously.
"If you ladies will excuse me," Xena said standing up, "I'm going to go for a walk. Thank you for the wonderful meal, Leanna. Gabrielle, I'll catch up with you later," she said and with that she strode out the door leaving the other two women staring after her receding form.
"She does this sometimes," Gabrielle tried to explain her friend, "she probably has a plan she needs to work out and I distract her too much with my talking," she smiled sheepishly.
"I doubt it's just your talking that distracts her Gabrielle," Leanna said off-handedly as she stood to clear the dishes.
"I beg your pardon?!" the bard looked at her host wide-eyed, she felt as though she was frozen in her chair.
"Really, Gabrielle!" Leanna sat back down examining her new acquaintance's expression for any trace of deceit, seeing none she leaned back in her seat. "You really don't know, do you?"
"Know what, Leanna?" the redhead asked shakily.
"How much Xena cares for you."
"Oh, I know that! We both care for each other very much; we've been through so much together" Gabrielle said, relieved.
"That's not exactly what I meant."
"I don't think I follow you," Gabrielle got up and walked to the door looking down the road where Xena had disappeared.
"Gabrielle," Leanna came up behind the bard and put her hands on the trembling shoulders. "Can't or won't follow me?"
Gabrielle turned to face her host, "Why did you say that about Xena?" she asked.
"I can see it in her face when she looks at you," Leanna softly brushed back Gabrielle's bangs, "and you love her very much don't you?"
"Yes," whispered Gabrielle. She was so relieved to have finally said it out loud she couldn't stop the tears from streaming down her face. "Yes, for a long time now. I just wish I could tell her but I'm afraid to."
"But why, Gabrielle?"
"I'm afraid she'd feel responsible for me and tied down."
"Let me ask you something," Leanna took Gabrielle by the hand and led her to a bench just outside the door, "do you feel responsible for Xena's mental well being, knowing her history?"
"Well..., I try to keep her happy."
"And when she's not feeling well you tend to her?"
"And if she ever told you she had feelings for you would change the way you looked out for her?"
"You don't think she does the same for you? Doesn't she protect you from danger and look out for you?"
"So why do you think she would change?"
"'Cause I don't know that she feels the same way!"
"Have you thought about finding out?"
"No! I don't want to risk losing her."
"So you'd rather go on like this than find out how she feels about you?!"
"Being with Xena like this is better than not being with her at all! If I told her how I feel and she doesn't feel the same I'd too ashamed and it would be an uncomfortable situation for both of us." She closed her eyes, leaned her head back and let the sun beat down on her face. Leanna watched her and knew why Xena's eyes rarely left the bard. "Does she really watch me?" the bard asked without moving.
"Whenever she knows you won't see her."
"You noticed that in less than a day?"
"It didn't take long! Both of you are so obvious trying to not to be obvious."
"I guess I'll have to be more careful in the future.
"That's an awful waste of energy, Gabrielle, and a waste of both your lives."
"Well, that's just how it's going to have to be," the redhead said standing up. "Promise me you won't mention this to Xena," she said looking down at Leanna.
"I don't know..."
"Please?" Gabrielle begged.
"Alright, I promise."
"Thank you," Gabrielle said, "I think I'm going to go for a walk too." She headed off in the opposite direction Xena had taken earlier. Leanna shook her head in amusement as she turned to go back inside.
Gabrielle spent the morning and the better part of the afternoon roaming the countryside around the village digesting the conversation at breakfast. After denying her own feelings for so long she was relieved to have finally voiced them but now was faced with having to deal with them on a day to day basis yet keep them secreted away from Xena. The fact that Leanna had said she'd seen Xena watching her with more than just friendly affection threw a big wrench into the works. No longer was it a matter of just her own feelings, she knew she would now be acutely aware of her friend's presence, her every move, her tone of voice, facial expression and especially her touch.
Finally, in a dense copse of trees she lit a small fire, sat cross-legged in front of it and stared into the flames. "Aphrodite," she said quietly, "if you can hear me, I need your help. Being the goddess of love, you should understand how I feel; I love Xena so much that I don't want to burden her with the knowledge of my feelings for her, no matter what Leanna thinks she sees. I've been around Xena alot longer, I think I know her better and I've never seen her look at me like that. All she does is treat me like a little sister, putting up with my constant chatter, cleaning up my cuts and scrapes and getting me out of trouble when I get into it; that's it, nothing more!
Aphrodite, give me the strength to control my feelings whenever I'm around her, especially now while she's trying to come up with a way to help these people, she doesn't need the added pressure." Gabrielle sat staring at the little fire for a few moments longer, then stood and doused the flames covering it completely with dirt, took a deep breath and headed back to the village.
She went back to Leanna's house to tell their host of her decision but when she got there Xena was sitting at the table with Leanna waiting for her. "Where have you been?!" the warrior stood and took Gabrielle by the arm her fingers biting into the flesh.
The little redhead wrenched her limb from Xena's grasp, "Out walking and taking in the sights, it's really pretty around here!" she snapped, "Something wrong with that? You know I like to admire the views!"
"Hey!" Xena exclaimed throwing her hands up a bit shocked at her friend's behavior, "I was just worried about you! How many times have I told you not to go off by yourself without telling me?!"
"I told Leanna where I was going! Didn't I?" she said looking at the woman who was watching the scene with a little smile.
"Yes, she did," Leanna looked at Xena smiling wider.
"Don't take up for her!" The warrior put her hands on her hips. "She knows better than that!"
"You really shouldn't have gone off by yourself," their host looked at Gabrielle and started to chuckle.
"Hey! Who's side are you on, anyway?" the redhead demanded.
"Neither...! Both...!" she was laughing out loud, now.
Xena looked at her confused, "What's so funny?"
Leanna looked quickly at Gabrielle, "Ohh, nothing!" she choked.
"I'm going to go lie down for a bit. Is that OK?" the bard let fly at her friend.
"Yeah, sure. Do whatever you want," Xena waved her hand at the redhead and sat back down at the table.
"See what I mean? Just like a big sister!" Gabrielle muttered as she stormed out the door leaving the two women to stare after her in bewilderment.
That evening as she prepared supper for Xena and herself Gabrielle pounded the dishes around but didn't say a word. Xena just watched not wanting to speak for fear of sending her flying off the handle. They ate in silence the warrior's eyes never leaving Gabrielle's face trying to decipher the emotion she saw on the face she thought she knew by heart.
Gabrielle, on the other hand stared at her plate not daring to meet Xena's gaze afraid of losing her resolve. "Can we talk about my plan to fight the striges?" Xena finally broke the silence.
"No problem," Gabrielle said without looking up.
"I think they may be harmed by the allium."
"If I coat my sword and chakram with allium paste we should be able to kill these demons."
"Or we can kill one of the children ourselves and make a sacrifice to the gods and see if that helps."
"Hmm... what?" the bard finally looked at Xena. "What were you saying? Put allium on the children?"
"Gabrielle, what's the matter with you?! You haven't been yourself since you got back from your walk!"
"What?! I'm fine, really."
"Right. First you bite my head off when I was worried about you, now you're not speaking to me or hearing a word I say!"
"It's nothing, Xena. I'll get over it sooner or later. It's probably just a bug or something that's gotten a hold of me.". I'd like to get a hold of you, Xena thought to herself, in more ways than one. First I'd like to beat some sense into you then I'd just hold on for dear life 'til you work through whatever's bothering you.
"Don't you think that by now you can tell me what's troubling you?"
"I'd rather not talk about it. Please, can we just go on with your plan?!"
"OK." Xena went over her idea with Gabrielle who made a concerted effort to listen to every word being said. She even made a couple intelligent suggestions of her own which Xena thanked her for sincerely. Exhausted, Gabrielle went to bed early; Xena went back to Leanna's to fill her in on their plans to defeat the striges.
The following day Xena and Gabrielle spent their time picking allium plants and grinding a paste out of the bulbs to smear on their weapons. They made up an extra bowlfull to replace that which got rubbed off during the fighting.
After lunch Gabrielle walked around the village talking to some of the women while Xena sat on the bench outside Leanna's house and sharpened her weapons. The warrior was tense, her nerves tingling as they always did before battle. She watched as the bard walked around and went over and over in her mind the previous few days trying to figure out what could have happened that had her friend so troubled. For the life of her, she couldn't come up with anything; they had done nothing out of the ordinary, in fact the past couple of weeks had been quite mundane.
That's it! the warrior's hand froze in mid-stroke as she sharpened her sword. The past weeks have been so slow that she's had time to do alot of thinking and has decided she's had enough of this life. She's decided she wants to find a nice quiet village to settle in, no more excitement and violence. Tears stung her eyes and she looked down at her sword which appeared to be swimming in her hands, she began to slowly sharpen it again, How can I blame her? This is no life for her, she's a bard, not a warrior! I'll tell her that if she wants to go she's free to do so, that way she won't feel like it's her decision and she won't have to worry about hurting my feelings. With her mind made up and her heart heavy Xena finished with her work.
While Xena was busy beating herself up Gabrielle was enjoying talking to some of the women in the village, finding out why and when they had come to live there. Most were abuse victims, a few were just starting to visit other villages tentatively associating with men again. Two women, Larissa and Deandra interested Gabrielle the most. They had come to the village out of personal preference, Larissa about a year after Deandra. Gabrielle sat with them in the pavilion and snacked on some fruit while they told their story.
"I grew up in Kozani, near Thessalon," started Deandra, tall with straight, light brown hair that fell to just below her shoulders, she wore it pulled back with a piece of ribbon. She had dancing blue eyes and an easy smile. "All through my childhood I was more comfortable and had more fun playing with the boys. When the other girls my age started taking notice of the boys and began pairing off I figured out I was different and knew I would never fit in with what the village expected of me. I had heard about this place as a child and when I passed my seventeenth summer I left Kozani and have been here ever since, that was five years ago. I love it here and couldn't imaging living any place else.
"I grew up at the other end of the country; my village was Isaris, a little to the south and west of Athina," offered Larissa. She was about Gabrielle's height, with hair so blonde it nearly shimmered in the sunlight. It was thick, wavy and cascaded down her back almost to her waist, she left hers untied and flowing loose. Her eyes were blue also and she had a small upturned nose over a sumptuous mouth with soft lips of red that would shame a rose.
"I knew from a young age that I was attracted to girls," she continued. "I didn't hear about Klio until my twentieth year but when I did I left my village the next day."
"There weren't other girls like you in your village?" queried the bard.
"No, all the other girls took husbands and began families when they were of age. In that respect Deandra and I were alike; and after years of fighting off "potential husbands" or being regarded as abnormal it was a relief to find other women who aren't judgemental, who will welcome me for who I am and what I can give to this community. And I found someone to love the way I want to love and be loved the same way!" she looked at Deandra who smiled and took Larissa's hands in her own.
With that Gabrielle felt a thrill go through her body and briefly tried to imagine what it would be like to know Xena felt that way about her. "....and I came a year later," she heard.
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle blinked rapidly, "my mind went off in another direction," she apologized.
Larissa smiled, "That's OK, I was just saying that Deandra got here first then I came a year later."
"How did you meet?" asked Gabrielle, intrigued.
"That was easy!" Deandra laughed, "I saw her the day she came to the village and asked if she would like to take supper with me that night!"
"Just like that?!" Gabrielle exclaimed.
"Oh, she was very gracious," Larissa slapped Deandra's knee, "don't let her fool you. She saw that I had nothing with me and offered a meal and a bed until I could get settled. We didn't become involved until a few months later, now we share a house."
"That is so cool!" said the redhead earnestly. "And you've been happy living here together?"
"Well, we've had our share of disagreements," Deandra said more seriously, "but so would any two people who spend the majority of their time together."
No kidding! thought Gabrielle. "The fates were kind to you," she said sincerely, "may the gods smile on the rest of your lives." They parted ways and the bard went to see if Xena was done with the weapons. She found the warrior outside Leanna's house with a group of women. Each woman held a sharpened staff and were listening intently as Xena spoke to them.
"You will be the last line of defense!" Xena had knelt down and drawn a picture of a windowless building in the dirt. "Gabrielle and I will be in front of the storeroom here," she poked at the ground with a small stick, "the rest of you will be just inside and the children at the back of the room." She looked up as Gabrielle's shadow fell across her hand and nodded her head imperceptibly, no one in the small group noticed but to the bard it was as good as a wave.
"If," Xena continued, "if the striges should get past us you will surround the children and jab away at the demons. If my theory is correct, all you'll need to do is break the skin with the end of your staff, just make sure it's well coated with the allium." A murmur rippled through the group as Xena stood up and brushed off her knee. "But don't worry," she assured them, putting her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder as her friend came to her side, "we don't plan on any of the beasts getting through that door! Ladies," she said seriously, "these are some scary, very dangerous monsters, if any of you here don't show up tonight when it's dark and things look and sound alot worse, no one, least of all Gabrielle and myself will think any worse of you. I suggest you go home and get some rest, it's going to be a late night.
Leanna, Gabrielle and Xena stood together quietly as the women dispersed, a few talking softly among themselves. "Xena?" Leanna put her hand on the muscled woman's arm as she and the bard turned to go to their own house. "Do you really think you can kill the striges?"
Xena covered Leanna's hand with her own, her pale blue eyes piercing the green ones looking up at her. "I think we stand a pretty good chance. If not, I'll die trying to keep those things away from the children." Gabrielle shivered and turned away feeling an invisible hand closing around her throat, cutting off her breath.
Taking a deep breath the redhead managed to squeak out, "I'm going on to the house; I need a nap," and took off without waiting for Xena.
"Hang on! I'm coming too!" Xena fell in step beside her companion. "We need to have a talk."
"Maybe after this is over, but right now I need some sleep if I'm going to be sharp tonight."
"No," Xena said adamantly as she followed Gabrielle into the dim coolness of their temporary home, "I need to get this off my chest before I change my mind."
"What are you talking about?!" exasperated, the bard sat down on her bed.
"You and me," the warrior sat opposite her friend on her own bed. "I think I know what's been bothering you the past few days."
"You do?!" Gabrielle caught her breath.
"Yes, I don't blame you a bit."
"You don't?! My, that's awfully big of you!"
"Huh?" Xena looked at the redhead quizzically then shook her head, "Nevermind! Gabrielle, I don't blame you a bit for wanting to leave me and settle down. These past three weeks have been slow and you've had time to think. I understand this is no life for you, I'm really quite surprised you've stayed with me for this long!"
"Xena...!" Gabrielle interrupted, aghast.
"Let me finish Gabrielle! Your fighting skills are improving in leaps and bounds and have proven invaluable to me time and time again. I want you to know that I've come to value our friendship above and beyond any others." She drew her bed closer to Gabrielle's and took the bard's hands, "But lately you haven't been happy and I want you to know you're free to go. I won't keep you here if you'd rather be somewhere else doing something else!"
"Are you just about done?!" Gabrielle gripped Xena's hands tightly.
"Yes, I am."
"Good! I'm going to tell you something and I'm only going to say this once, alright?"
"Now pay attention. I've thought of leaving you once before, it was a long time ago and we know what happened then. Right?"
"Right." Xena said seriously a grin tickling the corners of her mouth.
"Since then there's been nothing else in my life but you and our travels. That hasn't changed, especially not in these past few weeks. If I were to leave you it would be for entirely different reasons than what you've suggested; and no, I'm not about to say what they are," she said as Xena opened her mouth to speak. "Ask me again when we've grown old and don't go around looking for fights anymore."
"I'll keep that in mind," Xena raised her eyebrow at the little redhead.
"You do that," Gabrielle raised her eyebrow in return. "Now do you mind if I get some sleep?!"
"Not at all," Xena pushed her bed back against the wall, "if you don't mind I'm just going to sit here and go over plans for tonight.
"Knock yourself out," Gabrielle stretched out on her bed and turned to face the wall leaving Xena staring at her back, wondering again what in Hades could be going through that mind.
Shortly after dark the villagers began to gather at the storeroom situated a stone's throw from the pavilion. Huddled in the torch light mothers were holding their children trying to comfort them in soothing tones. When Xena and Gabrielle came up on the group an expectant hush fell, some of the children gripped their mothers tighter. "It's time for the children to get into their hiding place," Xena said simply. She knew there would be plenty of crying and she wanted to give the children a chance to have quieted down before it got very late, the less noise from them the better. She knew she sounded harsh, but every little bit helped when it came to getting an edge on the striges.
A small girl with long dark hair and large dark eyes broke away from her mother and walked fearlessly up to Xena slipping her tiny hand into the warrior's. "Are you going to kill the monsters with your sword and save us?" she asked in a clear voice.
Xena got down on one knee her eyes level with the girl's, "I sure am," she said putting her hands on the child's waist. "My friend and I," she hooked her thumb over her shoulder at Gabrielle who wiggled her fingers and the girl and winked. "What 's your name?" Xena asked.
"Ionie," the girl said solemnly.
"My name's Xena."
"I know! I saw you when you first came here!"
Xena laughed "And how old are you?" she continued as the women watched with sad smiles.
"Six summers!" the girl drew herself up to her full height.
"You are a big girl!" Xena drew her in and put one arm around her, "I tell you what, I want you to help me, OK?"
"OK!" the girl said proudly.
"When you and your friends go inside to hide I want you to be like the leader and help them all be very quiet. You'll also help them keep from being too afraid, right?!"
"Right!" she looked unblinkingly at the warrior, "Xena?"
"Is it OK if I'm a little afraid?"
"Oh," Xena said giving Ionie a big hug, "of course it is!" She held the girl at arm's length and smiled her best Xena smile, "Even I'll be a tiny bit afraid!"
"You! You can't be afraid, you're Xena, the Warrior Princess!" Gabrielle covered her mouth with both hands attempting to stifle a laugh while Xena looked at the girl sheepishly.
"Well," Xena coughed, "if I'm a tiny bit afraid I fight better, it puts me more on the edge. Now, you better give your mother a big hug and take your friends inside. You'll be the first person I come get when it's all over."
"I promise," Xena held her right hand up at her shoulder.
"OK," Ionie quickly kissed Xena on the cheek and went back to her mother. Xena went back into the street and the cover of darkness as the children said good-bye to their mothers and were taken inside the storeroom.
"Nicely done," she could hear the smile in Gabrielle's voice as she spoke to her from behind her left shoulder.
"Hey, I'm a mother too, remember."
"I remember. I just thought that conversation was kind of cute; don't get so defensive!" Gabrielle turned around but didn't move.
"We've got to kill those striges, Gabrielle. I just keep thinking, 'What if Solon was one of these children?' "
Gabrielle turned back around, put her arm around Xena's waist and her head on the broad shoulder as she had done numerous times before. "We'll take care of them, Xena; just like you told me, we've been in worse spots. The warrior said nothing but rested her cheek on the top of the bard's head and closed her eyes.
The two friends stayed like that until they heard an apologetic cough behind them. Turning, they saw Leanna standing backlit by the torches with a staff in her hand. "The children are all inside and the volunteers are here."
"Thank you," Xena said quietly, "we'll be right there." Leanna went back to the women and Xena put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulders. "You know the drill, let me do most of it and you watch behind me."
"Xena, we've been doing this for how long now?"
"A couple years."
"And I handle myself alright?"
"Yes, yes you do."
"OK then, what are we waiting for?!"
"Me!" came a voice out of the darkness behind them. They turned to see Deandra coming into the light carrying a bronze tipped spear and wearing a dagger in a sheath at her waist.
"What are you doing here?" demanded Gabrielle as the tall brunette drew close. "Xena, meet Deandra. Deandra..., Xena." she introduced the two women. "Deandra has been sharing a house here for a few years with Larissa." She looked around, "Where is Larissa?"
"I left her at home," Deandra explained, "this is no place for her and she would not be of any help, she's not very strong or assertive. She would not do well in a fight."
"And you...?" said Xena looking over the woman. "Do you fight?"
"I grew up with two older brothers and played with weapons as a child. When I reached my teen years I practiced all the time with my brothers. I think I can handle myself, " she looked unflinchingly into Xena's eyes.
"Alright," Xena smiled slightly, "thank you for coming." She turned to go into the storeroom, "Let's get our weapons ready and you and the other women situated." The three women went into the torchlit room where the children were huddled together under some blankets. After some last minute instructions the women dipped the ends of their sharpened staves into the allium paste generously coating the wood. Xena and Deandra slathered the paste on their weapons then saturated pieces of cloth and tucked them into their waistbands to reapply to their blades if needed.
Xena instructed the women to douse the torches so their eyes would have time to adjust to the dark. She didn't think the striges would be showing up very soon but she didn't want to take any chances. She and Gabrielle turned to go back outside joined by Deandra. "Just where do you think you're going?" the warrior asked.
"I'm going to fight outside with you and Gabrielle," Deandra took her spear in both hands and planted her feet wide apart.
"I don't think so!" answered Xena sternly.
"I do!" Deandra said defiantly. "Look, you need another blade out there!
Xena felt a hand on her elbow and she looked down at her friend, "I don't like it, either," said the bard quietly, "but we need all the help we can get. I may be able to knock one or two to the ground and slow them down for you but Deandra can kill them.". Xena looked back at Deandra whose own gaze did not flinch from the blue-eyed stare. "OK," she finally said after a few moments, "let's go. We need to get those other torches put out." Inwardly she felt a growing admiration for the woman. Once outside on the walk the three women doused the torches and stood together in front of the door going over strategy again.
As the women talked softly among themselves the full moon rose and bathed the small village in a silvery light, bright enough to cast faint shadows the scene could have been beautiful if the circumstances had been different. It was nearly two hours before they heard the spine tingling shrieks and beating of wings in the distance. "Here we go," muttered Xena.
"Let's do it!" said Gabrielle.
Within minutes seven forms appeared over the village. "Let me take a shot at them with the chakram first," the warrior said, "maybe I can take out one or two and even things up a bit!" Taking the deadly steel circle from her waist she waited until the demons were in range and let it fly. With lethal accuracy the weapon hissed through the air, caromed off the head of one beast and sliced through the ribs of another before returning to it's owner who had no trouble catching it though it was slimy.
Xena wiped her hand on her leathers and noticed a bubbling grey substance she figured to be body fluid of the striges. She felt her hand sting a little bit and quickly wiped it on the dirt. "Don't let any of their fluids get on you!" she quickly instructed Gabrielle and Deandra as the monsters drew nearer in a rage over the sudden attack. Xena counted only five and wondered what happened to the other two, she had not seen where they fell or if they had been killed or only injured.
"There are two missing!" she cried out as she picked her sword up from where it leaned against a torch post. "Keep an eye out for them!" She drew back and swung hard as the first strige flew past her screaming. Behind her on both sides Gabrielle and Deandra were jabbing and slicing with their weapons. On the second pass Xena cut into the first demon's shoulder and was rewarded with a deafening wail as it fell to the ground. Grey froth bubbled from the wound and the strige flailed about in the throes of death. After a few seconds the monster was still.
"The allium works!" she said back over her shoulder as another demon came at her, "all you have to do is break the skin and let it get into their systems!" She ducked and swung her sword as the strige streaked by. She could hear the other two women breathing hard behind her with their efforts. There was a loud 'thunk' and one of the fiends rolled to the ground about three feet from her, without thinking she stepped over and in one stroke decapitated it then moved back as the offensive fluid flowed onto the ground.
"Boy, these things are really ugly!" the bard grunted as she swung at a passing strige.
"No joke," Deandra gasped with her own effort as she connected with a beast and ran it through with her spear. As the beast thrashed in the dirt she quickly wiped her spear head off on it and reapplied more allium. The two remaining striges attacked the women and for a few minutes there was only the noise of beating wings, shrieks and weapons singing through air. Then the night was still, Gabrielle and Xena stood over a dying strige and watched as it's life force left it's body.
They turned to see how Deandra had disposed of the last monster and saw her on the ground next to the fiend, her dagger buried to the hilt in it's chest, her eyes glazed over. The strige's spiked tail had entered Deandra's body just under the ribs then thrust up into her heart, Xena knew she had died instantly.
"No! Oh, no!" Gabrielle was down on her knees tearing the strige away from Deandra's still form.
"Gabrielle, be careful! Don't get any of that fluid on you!" Xena tried to pull her friend away.
"Get that thing off of her!" the redhead cried not heeding the warrior tugging on her.
"We will!" Xena finally detached Gabrielle from the monster. "We have to be careful though!" The warrior took her friend by the shoulders and gently shook her, "Gabrielle!" she tried to get the frantic bard to focus on her. "Gabrielle! Go into the storeroom and get a blanket that I can cover Deandra with. Tell the women and children it's all over but not to come out yet, I'll get them when I'm ready. Then you'll need to go get Larissa and the other villagers." Xena took Gabrielle's face in her hands, "Are you hearing me?"
"Yeah..., yeah," Gabrielle stepped back and looked around at the carnage, "blanket, nobody comes out yet, and go get Larissa." She turned and went into the storeroom scratching her left shoulder.
Xena looked around for something to use to grasp the strige with and finally took off her bicep leathers to protect her hands. Gabrielle brought a blanket out then went in search of Larissa without saying a word. The warrior disentangled the two bodies taking care not to let any part of the dangerous fluid get on her skin. She threw the demon in a pile with the others at the side of the storeroom then gently placed Deandra's body on the walk covering her up to her neck and closed her eyes.
Steeling herself Xena went to the door to let out the women and children, relit the torches then went to the end of the walk to wait for Gabrielle and the other villagers. The women gasped and began crying softly at the sight of the still form before them. "By the gods," she heard one say, "she didn't even know my son!" Her throat constricted and she wiped a tear away from the corner of her eye.
A few moments later Gabrielle came into the torchlight with a petite woman Xena took to be Larissa. Her face was pale and she appeared to be a little unsteady on her feet as Gabrielle was supporting her by the elbow. When she saw Deandra's body on the ground Larissa ran the last few strides and knelt down and brushed the hair away from beautiful face, eyes closed in eternal sleep. Leaning over she kissed both eyes and soft mouth then dissolved into tears, "I asked you not to go!" she sobbed and looked up at Xena, "Did she kill any of them?"
"She got two of the demons," Xena said softly, "she fought bravely." Larissa nodded through her tears and rested her head on her lover's chest. Gabrielle came to Xena's side tears flowing silently down her face; seeing her the warrior put her arms around the bard and held her tight, her friend's hot tears falling onto her chest. Putting her chin on Gabrielle's head the two friends stood locked together as the villagers mourned the loss of one of their own and the memory of the children that had been taken.
Towards morning, after the striges had been burned and Deandra's body had been washed and prepared for burial Xena and Gabrielle finally headed to their house for some sleep. Xena noticed that the redhead kept scratching her left shoulder, "What's the matter with your shoulder?" she asked as they undressed.
"It's nothing," Gabrielle waved off her friend, "it's just a scratch."
"How'd you get scratched?"
"I don't know. I can't remember how long it's been there."
"Let me have a look at it," Xena took a torch and lowered to get a better look.
"It's nothing, Xena!" Gabrielle tried to squirm away.
"Hold still!" the warrior gripped the bard's arm like a vice.
"Ow! OK, just leave my arm in one piece if you don't mind!"
"I will if you'll stop moving around!" Xena grinned down at her.
"I'm still, I'm still! Look, I'm a statue!" Gabrielle froze.
"Good." Xena examined the shoulder, there was a scratch alright but it was oozing a clear fluid and the skin around it was nearly raw from Gabrielle's constant scratching. "Hades! Did you get this during the fight, Gabrielle?!"
"I'm not sure," the redhead said still not moving, "why?"
"It's badly infected and you've just about chewed all your skin off scratching it."
"Well, it itched!"
Xena just gave her a look. "We need to get this cleaned out, sit down at the table while I get some clean rags and water."
"Yes mistress," Gabrielle complied, eyes nearly closed. "I'm getting real tired, Xena, is this going to take long?"
"Just a couple minutes," Xena replied, "now don't move."
"I'm a statue again!" Gabrielle put her chin in her hand and closed her eyes. "Ow!" she suddenly jumped as she felt a cold cloth on her wound, "that hurts!"
"I know," her friend apologized, "it's going to hurt worse while I do this. Do you want to bite on something?"
"I'd like to bite your hand for doing that!"
"That's not an option; here...this spoon should do nicely." She handed Gabrielle a long handled wooden cooking spoon.
"Thanks so much." Gabrielle put the spoon in her mouth and nodded her head.
After Xena had cleaned the shoulder Gabrielle climbed into bed, exhausted. She just nodded when she heard Xena say she was going back to the storeroom to get the rest of the allium paste, she was too tired to even wonder why.
When Gabrielle awoke later that morning she found her shoulder wrapped and the smell of allium permeated the room. She saw Xena sitting at the table cleaning her sword and chakram. "Where is that smell coming from?!" she asked the big warrior.
"From you," Xena barely glanced in the bard's direction. "Take a whiff of that wrap on your shoulder."
Gabrielle took a sniff and tears jumped into her eyes. "Whoa! Why in the god's names have you put that stuff on my scratch?"
"Allium on humans is a disinfectant. I'm just hoping I got it in the wound before it got too bad."
"Too bad?" the bard echoed.
"Judging by the looks of the reaction of the scratch, you probably got it from one of the striges last night along with some of it's fluid. Anything that bubbles out of a body the way that stuff did can't be good for us."
"I see what you mean," Gabrielle stood up by her bed and wobbled on her feet, in a flash Xena was by her side steadying her friend.
"Maybe you just better stay in bed today," she helped Gabrielle sit back down. . "What about Deandra's funeral?" the bard eased her head back to the pillow.
"It's not until tomorrow," Xena brushed her friend's bangs back and felt her forehead, it was hot to the touch. "Maybe you'll feel better by then." I hope you're better by then, I hope this stuff isn't as bad as I think it is.
Xena stayed in the house all day with Gabrielle keeping her sponged off as her fever soared. Leanna came in about midday and asked the warrior if there was anything she could get for her. "Outside the village I saw some yarrow and serpyllum plants, will you bring some here? From the yarrow I need oil ground from the flowers to give to her to try to bring down her fever. I also need the serpyllum flowers ground to oil to put on her wound, maybe that and the allium together will get rid of the infection."
"One more thing," she stopped Leanna as she turned to leave, "I saw poppy capsules in your window. Have the seeds started germinating in them yet?"
"No," Leanna answered puzzled, "they're very young. Why?"
"The sap that grows into the seeds is a painkiller," Xena explained.
"I see," said Leanna, "I'll be back shortly."
"Thank you, Leanna," Xena said gratefully.
While Leanna was gone Xena freshened and reapplied the allium wrap on Gabrielle's shoulder. The wound and surrounding skin looked neither better or worse. Maybe I got to it in time, she thought as she redressed it. Again she sponged off the redhead's fiery skin, leaving cool rags on her forehead and limbs. Come on Gabrielle, you've got to fight this thing, she took her friend's hands in her own and sat on the edge of the bed looking down at her..., she seemed so small and frail.
What seemed like moments later Xena was startled by a touch on her shoulder, Leanna stood with a basket full of plants with pink and purple flowers. Two other women stood with her, mothers of three of the children who had been saved last night. "This is Petrini and Kamina," she said introducing the women to the warrior, "they've come to help."
"Just tell us what you want us to do," said Petrini, a short, slightly overweight woman with brown hair pulled back away from her face.
"Anything you need is yours," added Kamina, about Leanna's height but slimmer and with stunning auburn hair falling down to her waist.
"Thank you," Xena said earnestly standing up to inspect the plants. One of you can grind up the yarrow, the other the serpyllum. Leanna if you will, break open the poppy capsules and put the sap into a bowl; careful not to get any on your skin, I don't want you taking a trip if you know what I mean!"
The three women worked while Xena stayed at Gabrielle's side as her fever worsened and she started hallucinating and trying to get out of the bed. "We may need to find some valerian if this keeps up," Xena said pinning her friend's arms at her sides, "or we'll be fighting with her all night to keep her from hurting herself."
"What is valerian?" asked Kamina grinding away and adding minute amounts of olive oil to the crushed flowers.
"From the valerian root you can get a mild to medium sedative," said Xena. "I'd like her to sleep through as much of this as possible."
"I don't think any of us knows what valerian looks like," Leanna said looking at the other two women who shook their heads. "It would be quicker if you looked for it, Xena, you know what to look for. Besides, you need to take a break... get out of here for awhile."
Xena was reluctant to leave her friend but she knew Leanna was right. She lightly touched Gabrielle's feverish lips then went in search of the needed plant. As she walked she played over in her mind all the good times she and the bard had enjoyed together. Smiling she thought of Gabrielle putting on airs and a foreign accent when they helped Salmoneus save his beauty pageant, and she laughed out loud when she remembered the redhead diving for fish. Picturing Gabrielle high on nut bread and singing with the boulders she laughed 'til her sides hurt, Gabrielle, when you come out of this I'm going to tell you just how much you mean to me; no more playing the strong silent type. You've got to know how much I love you.
Nearly two hours later, just before nightfall she returned to find Gabrielle still feverish and thrashing about in the bed. Leanna, Kamina and Petrini were in the process of putting dry bedding under her, not an easy task with Gabrielle's activity. "Looks like I got here not a moment too soon!" she observed with a smile.
"Your little friend is stronger than she looks," grunted Petrini trying to keep the bard's legs in the bed.
"I can attest to that," said Xena, "I've gotten plenty of bruises from her while sparring. She can definitely take care of herself when she needs to." She cut the valerian roots from the plant and crushed them into a stringy paste, sitting next to Gabrielle she put some in her friend's mouth. "Chew on that!" she commanded. Gabrielle just looked at her vacantly. "Gabrielle!" she said lightly slapping the flushed cheeks getting the redhead to focus. "Chew and swallow," she repeated and watched as Gabrielle started to chew then made a face. "Don't you spit that out!" the warrior warned, "I've got plenty more, you need to get that in you. You're doing more harm than good with all the fighting, you're wasting the energy your body needs to heal itself."
Finally Gabrielle swallowed wrinkling her nose, "That stuff tastes terrible!" she mumbled, "you should eat some yourself if you're going to make me take it!"
Xena smiled down at her friend, "Maybe someday, when I need it," she took the cloth off Gabrielle's forehead, dipped it in the bowl of water on the floor by the bed and replaced it. "Has she had the yarrow and serpyllum?" she asked without looking up at the other women.
"Yes," said Leanna, "just after you left."
"If her fever hasn't started to come down in another couple of hours I'll give her some more yarrow and redress the wound with serpyllum this time," she began to sponge the hot arms and legs again.
"Mmm, that feels good," said the redhead, Xena just smiled.
"Ladies, thank you for all you've done," Xena said standing up but keeping an eye on Gabrielle. "I appreciate you letting me get out of the house for awhile."
"Why don't I stay with you so you can get some sleep tonight?" Leanna suggested.
"I can't put you out like that," Xena declined graciously, "I think I'll be alright once I get her quieted down. When she goes to sleep I'll catch a quick nap."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, thank you," Xena assured her.
"Alright," Leanna gave in knowing better than to argue with the warrior. "I'll come over first thing in the morning to check on you two."
"That will be just right," said Xena seeing the women to the door. "Again, thank you."
"Anything for you, Xena, you just name it!" said Kamina.
"Yes, Xena, anything," added Petrini. "We could never repay you for what you and Gabrielle have done for us."
Xena smiled her thanks as the women walked out into the enveloping darkness. She snuffed out all but one small torch which she placed near Gabrielle's bed, sitting on her own bed the warrior watched as the herbs slowly began to have some effect. The bard's restlessness seemed to ease slightly, though her fever did not cool. After a time Xena redressed the wound this time applying serpyllum, she also made Gabrielle chew some more valerium, with less of a fight this time around, and gave her more yarrow and a small amount of poppy sap.
Not too much later Gabrielle turned over on her side and appeared to finally fall asleep. Xena did not trust the medicine to keep her asleep for the entire night however and after getting undressed slipped into the narrow bed behind her patient. It was a tight fit but this way she figured if Gabrielle moved even the slightest bit it would awaken her. Putting her arm protectively across the redhead's abdomen she too fell asleep feeling Gabrielle's rhythmic breathing against her chest. A short time later unbeknown to either woman Gabrielle took Xena's hand and laced her fingers through the warrior's, giving it a weak squeeze.
Xena woke with a start, the room was dark and she shook her head trying to clear it and adjust her eyes to the pale light of the still full moon. She was still on her side but Gabrielle had turned completely over and was curled up against the warrior, her forehead in the crook of Xena's neck, her arm wrapped around the solid waist and one knee between the warrior's muscular thighs. Xena's left arm was under Gabrielle's neck and though her hand was tingling uncomfortably she dared not try to remove it for fear of waking her friend. With her other hand she gently brushed back the hair from the peaceful face.
"I love you, Xena," she heard Gabrielle whisper.
"Sshhh," Xena whispered, "go back to sleep so you can get better."
"I am better," the bard moved slightly causing Xena to stiffen imperceptibly, "and it's not what you're thinking, I'm not talking out of my head any more."
"Oohkaayy...," Xena said slowly.
"Let me finish while I can," the little redhead continued, "when I said 'I love you' I didn't mean it as a sister, like you do."
Xena's hand stopped moving through Gabrielle's hair, "Go on," she said in a low whisper.
Gabrielle shifted her head back so she could look at Xena's profile in the low light of the room. "I'm scared to death to tell you this, Xena, but I have to before it makes me crazy. I love you, Xena, like I loved Perdicus but..., but different," she said searching for the right words. "I think about you all the time, even when we're together; I love being near you, feeling the warmth of your skin when we touch for whatever reason; I love the way you look out for me, keep me from harm and teach me how to fend for myself; I love the way you listen, really listen to me even when I ramble and I love the way you've come to trust me enough to occasionally tell me your secrets. Mostly I love you for you." With that she turned back away from Xena and was silent.
For a moment Xena remained motionless her mind racing, (as was Gabrielle's wondering what the warrior would do), then she bent her left arm which was still under Gabrielle's neck across the bard's chest and gripped her friend's arm. The warrior then put her right arm around Gabrielle's waist and slid her hand between the ribs and bed and buried her face in the back of the redhead's neck, "I love you, Gabrielle," she said hoarsely, "more than you could ever know."
Gabrielle shivered at Xena's breath on her neck and the words she spoke not daring to believe what she was hearing. "Believe it, Gabrielle," Xena said and pulled the bard into her muscular body so Gabrielle could feel the rapid heartbeat through her back. "Can you feel the way my heart's beating?" Gabrielle gave a quick nod, "It's because of you," she squeezed the young woman in her arms hardly believing herself that they were here together like this.
"Gabrielle, you've been the only real support system I've ever known. Before I met you my world was dark and dreary and you brought light to it. With you I've learned to laugh with true happiness, not just for show; I've learned that talking about feelings is OK and won't kill me...though I'm still not real good at it!" She smiled crookedly on the bard's shoulder.
"Xena," Gabrielle turned again to face the warrior princess, their faces only a hair's breadth apart, she could feel Xena's breath mingling with her own and without thinking covered those beautiful lips with her own. They were even softer than she had imagined and when Xena's tongue touched hers she felt a jolt course through her body. Deep in her throat she moaned as Xena rolled onto her back pulling Gabrielle on top of her; the warrior's magnificent hands were on the redhead's face, combing through her hair, stroking her back and wrapping around her tiny waist, then going back to her face.
"Zeus, Gabrielle!" Xena finally came up for air, "you have no idea how long I've wanted to do this."
"Probably not as long as I've wanted to," Gabrielle countered laying her head on Xena's chest listening to the strong heartbeat and twirling the raven hair with her fingers.
"Oh yeah?!" the warrior challenged.
Gabrielle lifted her head so she could look into Xena's baby blues which in the moonlight looked like deep cerulean pools, "Let's not make this a contest, Xena," she whispered lowering her face so their lips were just barely touching, "let's just say we've both wanted this for a long time."
"You've got a deal," Xena said shivering with the sensation of Gabrielle's lips moving over hers without actually kissing them. She ran her fingers through the thick, strawberry blonde hair and pulled Gabrielle's mouth down firmly onto hers kissing her long, slow and deep.
"Forget what I told Aphrodite," Gabrielle murmured.
"I'll tell you about it later."
"Uh, sure, OK."
Xena's fingers flew at the ties on the bard's shift and she slid the pale shoulders free of the light cotton garment. The warrior's mouth traveled down Gabrielle's neck to the hollow at the base sending shock after shock through the small body. She ever so lightly kissed the healing scratch on Gabrielle's shoulder, furious that the bard had been hurt.
As one the the two women sat up in the small bed and removed their night clothes; Xena reclined back in the bed while Gabrielle remained straddling her waist. Looking down at the muscular body she lightly trailed her fingers over Xena's face, down her neck, over the broad shoulders, across the firm breasts causing the nipples to stand erect and then down the hard, flat stomach making it quiver. Xena arched her back, her head pressing into her pillow and her fingers digging into Gabrielle's thighs.
When she felt as thought she might explode the warrior repositioned them so Gabrielle was on her back with Xena stretched out on top of her. Supporting her upper body with her elbows Xena covered the redhead with soft butterfly kisses starting at her forehead and working her way down the tight little body. By the time Xena reached the top of Gabrielle's breasts the bard was breathing raggedly and when the warrior's mouth traveled over her lower abdomen she just knew her lungs would explode from holding her breath.
Finally she had to drag Xena's face back up to her own in order to catch her breath. "I can't believe this is happening!" she said breathlessly sliding her hands under Xena's arms and across the wide back. "I was so afraid that if you knew how I felt you wouldn't want me around any longer."
Xena kissed Gabrielle's soft lips, "I was the same way, I just knew that if you could see my thoughts you'd be gone in an instant."
"Funny how it took a stranger to see what we both were trying so hard to ignore."
Gabrielle told her of the conversation she had with Leanna, while Xena listened she traced the contours of the bard's face softly with her fingertips causing the redhead to have to recollect her thoughts several times. "Well!" she grinned in the dimness of the room, "I'll just have to thank her for putting the thought in that pretty little head of yours!"
"She's going to wonder what happened! I made her promise not to say a word after I told her I could never see myself telling you my feelings."
"Don't worry," Xena kissed the bard, "I'm sure she'll get over it."
"Mmm," Gabrielle savored the taste of the warrior, "I suppose she probably will."
They made slow sweet love, each pleasuring the other in ways they had never imagined. Not until the first red fingers of dawn appeared in the dark sky did Xena pull a sheet over their spent bodies and the lovers fell into a deep and satisfied sleep in each other's arms.
Leanna passed by the window when she came to check on them a couple hours later as she had promised and caught a glimpse of the two women entwined together under the sheet. She eased through the door and without a sound pulled the curtain over the window then turned to go. As she was about to go out the door she heard stirring and looked over at the bed to see Gabrielle looking at her smiling rather sheepishly. Leanna winked at the redhead then was gone.
That afternoon at Deandra's burial Xena and Gabrielle stood a bit apart from the rest of the women as they performed the ceremony according to the customs of their village. Xena was like stone but Gabrielle wept openly, her head on Xena's chest. Afterwards, they went to Larissa to offer their condolences and sympathy. Feeling responsible for the young woman's death Xena was having a hard time coming up with the right words to say to Larissa. She was spared the agony though when Larissa took her hands and told her she did not blame the warrior for her lover's fate.
"She died doing what she wanted to do, Xena," Larissa said softly. "She used to talk all the time about sparring with her brothers, that was one of the things she missed about living at her village. There was no way you or I was going to stop her from fighting the striges. Don't let your heart be heavy for Deandra," she stood on tiptoe and lightly kissed the warrior's cheek, "I'm not, though I'll miss her terribly.". Xena squeezed Larissa's hands hard and blinked her eyes rapidly fighting back tears. Then feeling something tugging on her leathers from behind she turned and looked down to see Ionie smiling up at her. She got on one knee to get on the little girl's level, "Ionie!" she said smiling and putting her hands on the tiny shoulders.
"You never came to get me, Xena!" Ionie put her hands on her hips.
"You're right, I didn't," the warrior grinned big, "and I sure am sorry! Can you forgive me?"
"I guess so," the girl put her arms around Xena's neck in a big hug.
Xena stood up taking Ionie with her, "Good," she sqeezed back, "I'm glad, I wouldn't want to leave here with you mad at me!"
"Are you leaving?" Ionie wrapped her legs around Xena's waist and pulled her head back studying the big woman's face.
"First thing in the morning. We'll stay here one more night so Gabrielle can rest some more and get some of her strength back." She glanced at the redhead and gave her a quick smile.
"I don't want you to go!"
"I hate to say good-bye to you, too," Xena said as the three moved slowly through the group of women and children, "but we have to be moving on."
"Will you come back to see me?"
"I bet we can manage to come this way for a visit from time to time," the warrior agreed and smiled at the little girl, gave her another big hug then set her on the ground in front of her mother who immediately hugged Xena and Gabrielle thanking them for their help with the striges. The two women said good-bye to Ionie and went in search of Leanna.
They found her talking to Kamina. "Gabrielle!" Leanna gave the bard a big hug. "I'm so pleased to see that you're feeling better! I'd like you to meet Kamina."
"I'm very glad to meet you," Gabrielle took the woman's hands. "Xena told me all you did to help her. I'm grateful."
"It was no trouble at all," the woman kissed the redhead on the cheek, "after what you and Xena did for us! How are you feeling?"
"I still feel a little weak but I'm much better than I was yesterday at this time."
"You look a lot better than you did yesterday," Leanna agreed. "Thank the gods Xena knows so much about herbal healing!"
"I've thanked them many, many times," Gabrielle looked up at the warrior, "I don't know where I'd be without her."
"Indeed," Leanna said dryly looking at Xena who, to the amazement of all, blushed!
Gabrielle was astounded, in all their travels she had never seen the warrior caught off guard like that.
"Xena!" the redhead said incredulously, "you're turning red!"
"Careful," Xena growled. Gabrielle raised her hands and she nor the other women said another word about it. The four women chatted for a few minutes before Xena noticed the bard getting a little pale. Excusing them she took Gabrielle back to their house so she could get some rest. Before they could leave though, Leanna invited them to her home for supper later before they left at first light.
Gabrielle tried to talk Xena into joining her in the small bed and as much as the warrior dearly wanted to she told Gabrielle there would be plenty of time for that later, right now she needed the rest. The redhead pouted for a couple minutes but soon fell asleep, exhausted. When Gabrielle's breathing deepened and slowed Xena carefully slid in behind her and wrapping her arm around the narrow waist fell asleep herself, also tired after the past two days.
Towards evening Gabrielle awoke on her back with Xena asleep beside her, an arm and leg wrapped around the bard. Gabrielle smiled in the twilight as a warm flush flowed through her body. She was still having a hard time believing this was actually happening and kept expecting to wake up from a dream at any moment to find it had not been real. When Xena stirred Gabrielle looked at the beautiful face so close to her own, kissed the smooth forehead, moved on to the cheeks and then the lips she loved to taste. Xena eased into consciousness and, slowly at first they began to move together, then with more urgency. This time they made love as though it would be their last.
Later at dinner Leanna remarked that a healthy glow had returned to Gabrielle's cheeks. "Your rest certainly has you looking refreshed," she said not bothering to hide the merriment in her voice, "you too, Xena," she added boldly. Gabrielle was amazed, she had never seen anyone talk to the warrior like that and get away with it! "Looks to me like you decided to face your demons, Gabrielle!" she chuckled.
"Leanna...," Xena warned menacingly.
"Oh, Xena," Leanna chastised the warrior, "I'm happy for you! It's about time you let yourself go and be happy for once. Ten minutes after you walked into the village I could see what you two felt for each other! I'm surprised no one else has said anything to you!"
"No one else has the nerve to say anything like that to me!" Xena said.
"No one else has seen you in the same position I have!" Leanna laughed. "Or changed the bandages on your behind like I have," she added gleefully.
"Alright, Leanna! Let's move on to something else!" Xena growled but a tiny smiled played at the corner of her mouth.
"OK..., what are you going to do when you leave here?" asked their host.
"We're going to take a vacation. I want to go to Eressos to see Sappho's birthplace," said Gabrielle quickly, "from there we can go up the coast to Sigrito to catch a boat back to Thessalon. I think I've just about got Xena talked into it, but I'll work on it some more later."
"Gabrielle!" the warrior looked at the bard astonished, but she thought she was shocked..., before she could protest further Gabrielle leaned across the corner of the table and gave her a wet, sloppy kiss! The look on Xena's face when Gabrielle drew back caused the redhead and Leanna to hold their ribs from laughing so hard.
Xena wasn't so sure about this new aggressive side of Gabrielle, but she figured she could get used to it as long as it didn't come out in public. The three women spent the rest of the evening laughing and talking; around midnight the new lovers bade a fond farewell to Leanna and in the morning set out for a new chapter of their lives together.
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