Chapter 13: A Divine Intervention

  Xena's hands. Why was she staring at her hands? Xena blinked as if waking from a long sleep, and slowly started looking around.

She was seated on a low stool next to a bed, in a rather bleak looking room. Judging by the scents that permeated the place, Xena would guess that she was in the medical wing at her castle, meaning that on the other side of the solid oak door that she could see was most likely her Chief Physician and his staff. She heard people moving about in there.

But why was she in this room, alone? Slightly confused why she could not remember, Xena went over to the door.

On the other side of the door Xena was met with what felt eerily like the calm at the center of the storm. Everyone fell quiet when she came into the room, except for Jace who was weeping inconsolably in Artus' arms.

Shaking her head slightly, as if to clear her mind from the faint fuzziness she felt, Xena gruffly addressed the room. "What... is going on here?"

Meleager entered from another room upon hearing her voice.

"What is happening here? And why won't anybody answer me?!" Xena snapped angrily at him.

Meleager looked at her strangely. "You don't remember? Here, maybe you had better sit down first..."

"YOU bloody sit down! Just talk to me Melager!" A sense of panic was creeping over Xena, and she didn't like it, not one bit. Meleager closed his eyes and nodded slowly.

"Allright... Do you remember that Lady Gabrielle got kidnapped by an assassin named Jett, and that we got a ransom note demanding to exchange her for you down in the catacombs?"

Xena started, then slowly, reluctantly nodded as the memories resurfaced. She swallowed hard and sat down. "Go on."

"Jace was doing his best to distract Jett as we had agreed on, but it backfired at the last minute. Jett had Jace put you in shackles, and Jace slipped a small dirk into your hands before we were ordered away from you, hoping that you'd be able to free yourself."

"Jett seemed to snap. There was some kind of trap, catching you right in the middle of six crossbows that he had rigged up beforehand, and with your hands bound behind your back."

Xena went pale as a sheet.

"Lady Gabrielle, she... tore lose somehow and...she..."

"GABRIELLE!" The room started going dark again, and Xena struggled to get to her feet.

But suddenly there were pairs of arms holding her down, and she fought wildly to break free.

"XENA!" Meleager roared in her face. "If you go into another rage here, you'll kill Gabrielle for sure!"

Xena's movement stopped.

"G-gabrielle?"ĘShe asked in a small voice. "She's still...?"

"Alive. But barely... she took two crossbow bolts, one dangerously close to her heart. You took one to your arm, but I see that you're healing from that already..."

"Where is she?" Xena cut in, grabbing Meleager's arm. He took pity on her and guided Xena to the room where Gabrielle had been placed.

Gabrielle looked so small lying in the cot provided for her, so pale and drawn. The green dress she had worn was now only bloody rags in a basket in the corner, the only thing covering Gabrielle now was a white sheet and some bandages that was already covered with dark red stains. It was clear that they had trouble getting the bleeding to stop, but at least Gabrielle was still breathing, albeit with difficulty.

But Xena had seen enough injuries on the battlefield to tell that Gabrielle might not have much time left. She staggered to Gabrielle's side and sank to her knees beside the bed. Ever so gently Xena took one small hand into both of her larger ones, and brought it to her lips.

Behind her Meleager carefully closed the door, giving her some privacy at Gabrielle's side.


Meleager waited for quite some time before the door was opened again. The Xena that met his eyes then looked even more hollow and haunted than before, and he got the unnerving feeling that she was balancing on a precipice. She gestured for him to join her inside.

She didn't look at him when he seated himself on a stool near the bed, her eyes never left Gabrielle, as if she could will a recovery that way. Nonetheless she spoke to him in quiet tones. "What happened next Meleager? After Gabrielle got shot, what happened?"

Meleager looked surprised at the question, and took a moment to think before answering.

"At first I thought you had both died, but then you moved. Everything seemed to happen so fast... You sat up, and I think you looked at Jett, because that's when he turned and ran. Jace and I had not begun to move quite yet, but you... shrugged, it seemed, and shattered the chains on the manacles holding you."

He stopped to look at Xena with troubled eyes. She didn't react at all. "You shattered steel chains with a snap, I've never seen anything like it. And then shot off like Hades was hot on your heels."

"I ran after you and Jett, but I didn't catch up until... later. I heard that horrible sound you made echoing through the passage though." The last part came out very quitely, and Meleager shuddered in remembrance. "When I caught up to you, you were standing over Jett's body, and it took a lot to convince you move aside so I could bring him to the healers. You..."

"Are you saying he is still alive?!" Xena snapped, suddenly staring right at Meleager. He got no chance to reply before she shot to her feet angrily. "Where is he?!"

"Where IS HE!?!" She roared, tearing the door open and storming into the other room. Everyone inside froze as she swept her frantic gaze over them. She found a likely door and tore it open.

"Xena!" Melager caught her just as she did so, and managed to stop her long enough for Xena to get a good look at the form laying on the bed. "We need him alive to tell us who else is involved in this!" Meleager hissed urgently.

She seemed to consider that. "What happened to..." A vague gesture towards the bed.

"You did." Carefully he let go of her. "The wound on his torso comes from the dirk that Jace put in your hands. Near as we can figure, you must have thrown it at his back, because it entered in the back and lodged a ways in beside his spine."

"What about his eyes?" Xena asked darkly, looking at the bloody bandages covering Jett's eyes.

"When I caught up to you... You..." Meleager sighed uncomfortably, then met Xena's eyes. "You were standing crouched over him with bloody hands. I think you gouged his eyes out with your hands."

Xena merely nodded, and turned around and went back to Gabrielle's room without saying another word.


Xena kept constant vigil at Gabrielle's side all of the night and the day that followed. The healers did what they could, but she still seemed to get only weaker instead of stronger. Nothing appeared to help.

They had staunched the bleeding at long last, by cauterizing the wound with a red-hot iron, and Xena felt the pain as if it was her own flesh under the blade. But nothing else could be done, the healers said, it was up to the Fates now.

Finally, in sheer desperation, Xena did something she had never done before.

She prayed.

She pleaded with Hera not to take her love away from her, baring the truth in her heart of how much Gabrielle meant to her. She spoke of how she feared what she would become without Gabrielle, having already tasted briefly the madness that her loss would bring, and pleaded the gods to have mercy. She swore to pay any price asked of her, do anyhing at all, if only Gabrielle was spared.

Xena's impassioned and teary plea went on for a long time, until exhaustion finally set in and Xena fell asleep, her head still resting by Gabrielle's hand on the cot.

She was awakened by a gently tickling sensation on her forehead.

"Ooops, did I wake you?" A gentle voice spoke barely above a whisper. Xena blinked and raised her head slightly in confusion.

"I just wanted to see what you were holding, sorry." Gabrielle smiled radiantly at her and lifted a hand to ruffle Xena's bangs a little. Xena's eyes snapped wide open.

"Gabrielle!" She shot out of her chair and leaned over the bed, taking Gabrielle's face into her hands. "Gabrielle!"

"Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle blinked a bit confused. "Umm, yes Xena?"

Xena continued to stare openmouthed at her, then finally seemed to snap out of it. "How are you feeling, do you hurt anywhere?" Gently probing at the bandages. "Let me get the healers in here."

Xena rushed to the door and bellowed, then dashed back to Gabrielle. The healers poured in through the door, all of them shocked at seeing Gabrielle awake. They started probing and testing her to see how she was doing, with Xena hovering nervously nearby, getting in the way.

"Really, I am fine." Gabrielle tried to assure them. "I feel great, honestly I do."

The healers continued undaunted, however, until they could all say with some confidence that Gabrielle was fully recovered.

"It's amazing" The Chief healer said with reverence in his voice. "she is completely recovered! Not even a scar is left, it simply must be the work of the gods!" The healers continued to ooh and aah over Gabrielle until Xena got fed up with them being in the way when she tried to reach her lover, and ordered all of them out of the room.

The two women watched each other for a moment.

Then Gabrielle scooted over to make room for Xena on the cot next to her, and Xena sat down heavily, pulling Gabrielle into a desperate embrace.

"Oh Gabrielle..." She choked out with difficulty, and clung to Gabrielle like she had no intention of ever letting go.

They remained that way for some time, until Gabrielle finally asked what had happened. Xena told what she knew, although she did not mention her own desperate plea to the gods. Gabrielle was thoughtful.

"I know why he did it, Xena. His father was caught by your troops, and tried then executed for his crimes, and Jett blamed you for his death." She shook her head sadly. "Hatred is such a waste, isn't it?"

"Say, what was that feathery thing you were holding in your sleep anyway, Xena? It's down there by my feet by the way."

Xena looked surprised, she hadn't noticed anything before. Picking the object up it turned out to be a small scroll, with a peacock feather tied to it with a piece of pink fluff.

"It must be from Grandmother..." Xena said thoughtfully, carefully removing the feather and pink lacy thing from the scroll before unrolling it.

"Well? What does it say?" Gabrielle asked impatiently.

"I was right, it is from Grandmother. It says..."

"Dear, we heard you and decided to do what we could for your lover. Her thread was not yet at it's end though, so she would not have died anyway, we just insured that she recovered more quickly, and with no permanent marks from the ordeal. Dear, I cannot tell you how happy I and Aphrodite are for your sake, and congratulations! Aphrodite tells me to tell you that she thinks it is 'totally rad' and ask you if she does not 'so rock or what'. I assume you understand her language better than I do..."

"Wow" Gabrielle breathed "I was healed by Hera and Aphrodite!"

"You offered payment for the one that could help your woman, and this is what Aphrodite and I ask as our price... We want to be invited to the wedding ceremony! I trust it will be soon, as mortals tend to be sticklers for these sort of things." Xena read with wide eyes and a haltering voice. "Incidentally, you need to sleep more, you didn't even stir when Aphrodite and I stopped by. Love, your grandmother."

Both Xena and Gabrielle sat silent after that, neither woman daring to look at the other, and therefore not noticing that they were both blushing slightly.

"W-wow, that was quite something, right Xena?" Gabrielle said in a shaky voice.

"Y-yeah." Xena answered uncertainly, eyeing Gabrielle discreetly.

"I wonder where they got that idea from, though..." Gabrielle continued shyly. "But I guess they don't know I'm just a slave, huh?"

Xena frowned and pulled Gabrielle to her. "Gabrielle, you cannot be the only person in all of Corinth to not realise how precious you are to me?" She met Gabrielle's gaze seriously. "I would move heaven and earth for you."

"And I can't bear the thought of you ever leaving me." She crushed Gabrielle to her in a warm embrace. "Please don't ever leave me Gabrielle..." Smiling contently Gabrielle nudged Xena until they were both lying down on the cot. Xena murmured another inaudible plea into Gabrielle's hair before fatigue from the last handful of days finally lured her off into Morpheus' land.

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Chapter 14: Conqueror In The Family Way

Even though Gabrielle was fully recovered, vibrantly healthy even, Xena was reluctant to leave her side for even the shortest moment in the following days. It took the surprise arrival of her satrap from the Africaans, Glaphyra, to make Xena return to a semblance of her normal routines.

Neither of them mentioned the contents of Hera's letter again, though it hovered in their thoughts constantly.

Xena felt fortunate that it was Glaphyra that had shown up rather than one of the others, as this particular satrap would most surely spend most of her time until the meetings enjoying the company of many a corinthian woman, requiring little attention on Xena's part. Nonetheless there were proceedings that needed to be taken care of before Glaphyra could go indulge herself and Xena could go back to focusing all her attention on Gabrielle.

Both women finding political posing and longwindedness insufferable, the preparatory meetings on behalf of the Africaans went swiftly and smoothly, and was almost over by the time their last meeting was interrupted by a servant.

Xena looked up from where she was signing a scroll containing the gist of their discussions and eyed the servant warily. "What is it?"

The servant girl looked nervous and avoided meeting Xena's eyes, but dutifully delivered her message. "I was told to inform My Lord that Lady Gabrielle had a spell and is now at the healers, My Lord." She curtsied and waited to be dismissed.

"What?!" Xena gasped and shot out of her chair. Throwing the quill at Glaphyra she dashed out of the room at a breakneck pace.

"I guess that means it's my turn to sign this?" Glaphyra asked drolly to the air where Lord Xena had previously been, and picked up the discarded quill. "So there's a Lady Gabrielle in your life now, how interesting..." Glaphyra murmured to herself and twirled the quill in thought.

Xena tore through the door to the private room where the Chief Physician was talking to Gabrielle, both of them seated on on chairs on one side of the room and Gabrielle not looking too worse for wear. A bit dumbstruck as opposed to the healer's serious, almost grim, expression as he leaned over with a large mug in his hands.

"...huh?" Gabrielle was asking dazedly.

"It is true." The healer's voice and demeanour was rather disapproving. "You can take this, it'll kill it right now, and no-one needs to know anything about it. We'll just say you're feeling the after effects of recent days traumatic experiences." He seemed caught between feeling angry and feeling compassionate towards Gabrielle, who was still sitting there with a blank expression on her face as he tried to push the mug into her hands.

"GABRIELLE! What is going on, are you allright?" Xena skidded to a halt next to Gabrielle, grabbing her hands away from the healer. Worriedly she examined her lover, before addressing the healer. "What ails her?"

The Chief Physician blinked surprised, then turned slightly pale at the sight of his ruler. "Well, Lady Gabrielle had a fainting spell and was brought to me..." He paused slightly, hesitating.

"Oh sweetheart, I should have been with you." Xena groaned and kissed the fair head. "So what is it then?" Directed back at the healer, who sighed and then looked grim.

"Lady Gabrielle is in excellent health near as I can tell. All the stress and excitement of the latest fortnight has taken an understandable toll on a woman in Lady Gabrielle's delicate condition." He had wanted to help the girl, despite his disappointment in her, but there was little he could do now. It was out of his hands.

Xena and Gabrielle looked at him vacantly.

He sighed again, deeper this time. "In other words, she's not ill, she's pregnant."

Xena and Gabrielle still looked at him blankly. Then they blinked.

Gabrielle suddenly lit up with dawning comprehension. "A baby!" She turned her wide eyed gaze on Xena. "Oh Xena, that is wonderful!"

Xena adopted an expression much like she had been smacked in the face with a dead fish. "A-a b-buh-baby?" She croaked shakily. "Pregnant as in having a baby, pregnant?"

The healer stared at them, unsure whose reaction was the more surprising. The young woman he was sure would be fearing for her life right now was all but weeping for joy, and his Lord, whom he had assumed would be furious at the betrayal, was... almost speechless.

"Yes... That's usually what happens. Lady Gabrielle is advised to relax a bit more, otherwise she's in perfect health and would no doubt deliver a healthy baby in due time."

Gabrielle squealed and hurled herself at Xena. "Xena! We're having a baby!"

Xena caught her almost distractedly as she slowly repeated to herself. "We're having a baby... We're having a baby?" Then a joyous expression bloomed on her features. "We're having a baby!"

She laughed and hugged Gabrielle to her, and the healer could only stare on in confusion. Then suddenly Xena's face grew stormy, and the healer thought to himself that here it comes, the violent outburst that he had been dreading

In a flash of movement she had the healer by his neck, growling dangerously at him.

"Did...you...just... tell Gabrielle... to KILL my baby!?!"

"D-did you say... _y-your_ baby, My Lord?" The healer stuttered out as Xena was slowly choking him with the collar of his tunic. She shook him a little.

"Well? Did you? Did you intend to kill my child?" She snarled.

"Xena!" Gabrielle said urgently. "He's turning blue! He can't talk if you choke him to death first." Grunting Xena let go, but her displeasure was obvious.

The man gasped for air thankfully, then hurried to continue lest his ruler should choose to assault him again. "Y-your child My Lord? How can it be your child?"

To his surprise both women blushed a little at his question.

"The usual way, you moron." Xena muttered, embarrassed.

Gabrielle gasped. "Wait! You thought I had... been unfaithful to Xena, didn't you?" Suddenly the otherwise so gentle young woman looked truly furious. "How dare you even suggest I would... I would never..." She sputtered in anger.

"Whoa, easy there my sweet." Xena said and gathered the angry young woman back into her arms. She eyed the healer again. "She hasn't been unfaithful to me, and the baby is mine. I suggest you apologize or I might just let her tear your head off and eat it." Xena smiled wryly.

The healer hurried to mumble his humble apologies to them both, and Xena continued somewhat reluctantly.

"As for how it's possible, well, lets just say that it is with a little help from Aphrodite that Gabrielle and I can have children." To his surprise the healer found that both women were blushing profoundly this time.

"Huh?" He uttered distractedly, as he tried to digest that statement. Xene merely raised an eyebrow at him meaningly. "Oh!" Wide-eyed he immediately stared at Xena's crotch.

"Hey!" Xena snapped, cuffing him in the shoulder. Gabrielle sniggered softly, and added. "Oh just take our word for it, allright?"

After a moment of awkward silence, Xena asked "So, is there anything in particular that we should keep in mind for Gabrielle right now?" Squeezing the woman in question rather protectively.

"Um, no, although she needs to take it easy and relax for a while, and not skip anymore meals for now. And of course listen to what her body is saying, and come to me if there is anything that seems unusual." Gabrielle met Xena's surprised gaze with a rather guilty little shrug.

"I will make sure to have a team of midwives ready and waiting when the time draws near, and make all the necessary preparations." The physician regained some of his crisply professional air. "If you wish to speak to one I'll have that arranged."

"Get the best people available, Gabrielle will have nothing but the best." Xena gazed at Gabrielle lovingly, then turned to the healer. "Remember, this child will be the heir to the throne of the Known World!"

Xena stunned both Gabrielle and the Chief Physician with the brilliant smile that she beamed at them as she gently ushered Gabrielle through the door.

"Oh! Wait, I forgot!" Gabrielle rushed back and stood on tiptoes to whisper into the healer's ear.

He looked at her bewildered. "Well, yes, as long as it feels comfortable it should be allright..." He said at last, with some difficulty. Throwing an equally bewildered glance in Xena's direction he added "Nothing to violent or strenuous, though."

Happily Gabrielle bounded out of the room with a slightly more sedate Xena in tow.

Xena managed to behave herself all the way to the Royal Chambers, although many a servant who crossed her and Gabrielle's path wondered at the huge silly grin on their ruler's face, as she led Gabrielle by the hand towards their quarters.

Once they arrived at the Royal Guards they were approached by concerned questions regarding Gabrielle's health, as there was not a member of the Guard that had not heard that their precious Lady Gabrielle had fainted and been brought to the infirmary by Meleager.

Xena continued to grin and bent down to pick Gabrielle up into her arms. "The healers say that Gabrielle is fine. I just need to take better care of her."

Xena paused midstep as she carried Gabrielle through the door to their antechamber, and turned around to cheerfully address the assembled Guards.

"I'm going to be a daddy!" She crowed, gently hoisting a slightly blushing Gabrielle and bouncing her lightly in Xena's arms. "We're having a baby!"

Then she turned and disappeared into the Royal Chambers, leaving the gathered Royal Guardsmen standing there openmouthed and staring, slowly repeating what had been said between themselves.

"Oh Gabrielle, this is wonderful!" Xena enthused between ardourus kisses while carrying Gabrielle through the rooms. "It's amazing, incredible, marvellous, its'... it's..."

She gave off a happy shout while swinging around with Gabrielle safely tucked against her. "YEEEEEHAAAH!" Gabrielle smiled joyfully.

"Oops, shouldn't jostle you so much, my sweet Gabrielle." Xena's loving look made Gabrielle's heart ache with the sweetness of it all. She leaned in to kiss Xena some more.

When they parted they were both breathing a bit more raggedly. "We probably shouldn't be doing that either, huh?" Xena said uncertainly as she put Gabrielle down on the edge of the bed.

Gabrielle shook her head, smiling. "I asked the healer about that." She grabbed Xena and pulled. "It's allright." They kissed again.

"...as long as you don't use the whips."

"Whips?!?" Xena yelped and sat up. "What whips? I've never..."

"Ssshh." A finger to her lips stopped the rest of Xena's sentence. "I know that and you know that, but your healer didn't." A wicked little smile. "And he never will."

Xena smirked. "I can't believe you asked the healer..." Meeting Gabrielle's passionate gaze. "But then again... let's see if I can manage to recite some poetry..." She grinned lasciviously. Gabrielle purred in response.

Candlemarks later, as they were both slipping closer and closer to sleep tightly wrapped around one another, Xena murmured something in Gabrielle's hair.

"What?" Gabrielle asked somewhat drowsily.

"I just said that we might have to get some other people to organize our wedding, even though I'd rather have Jace arrange everything. He's so upset about his brother, I can't ask him to do this." Xena mumbled a bit more audibly.

Gabrielle's eyes shot wide open, and suddenly she didn't feel so tired anymore. "W-wedding, did you say 'our wedding'?" Xena grunted in answer.

"I thought you were just j-joking about that!" Gabrielle gasped.

"Uh-uh." Xena murmured and kissed one naked shoulder tenderly. "My wife..." Another kiss. "my Queen..." Nuzzling down further into Gabrielle's hair. "my baby." Lovingly cupping Gabrielle's very flat belly with one large hand.

Gabrielle felt another gust of hot air into her neck. "W-what did you say?"

Xena muttered, making Gabrielle strain her ears to hear her faint words. "Wo ai ni?"

"W-what does that mean, Xena? Is that in the language of Chin?"

No response, Xena had fallen asleep. Gabrielle on the other hand was wide awake, and would not find sleep until very late that night.

 

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Chapter 15: Breakfast Conversations

The next morning Gabrielle truly tried to tiptoe around Xena in shy wonder, but the still exhilarated woman would have nothing of the sort. It turned out to be quite a task to do the usual morning chores of washing up and getting dressed, as Xena simply refused to let go of Gabrielle for long enough to even brush her hair. Eventually, as they summoned a guard to bring their breakfast, they noticed that they had people waiting for them.

Instead of the summoned guard, none other than Meleager, Jace and Glaphyra came rolling the breakfast cart into the royal antechamber. They all looked at Xena expectantly.

Xena shook her head and grinned. "Allright, come on in you lot. I suspect you'll be hanging outside that door all day, so I might as well get this over with."

Everyone settled down around the table, looking at Xena and Gabrielle. As it soon became obvious that neither woman was about to start talking, Glaphyra leaned over to eye Xena intently.

"So you old cat, what's this I hear about you being pregnant?" She turned to eye Gabrielle rakishly. "Niiice... Hey honey, how about dumping this slow old thing and run away with me?" Glaphyra winked.

Gabrielle choked on her food as Xena shot to her feet and whacked Glaphyra on her shoulder so hard that the chair toppled over and Glaphyra ended up on the floor. Amazingly enough, she was still grinning. Xena, however, was not.

"Serves you right for trying to flirt with my betrothed." Xena said somewhat smugly after a moment as she sat down, but the warning was very much real, and Glaphyra knew it.

Gabrielle blushed, and Meleager just gaped. Jace, on the other hand, shot to his feet with a delighted squeal. "Really? Oh Gabrielle, I'm so happy for you!" He bounded around the side to exchange hugs with Gabrielle.

He was still squealing as the other two were looking at Xena for explanations, so Xena cleared her throat a little to get everyone's attention.

"OK, allright, give me a moment here..." She put her arm around Gabrielle as Jace sat back into his chair. "Glaphyra, this is my Gabrielle. Gabrielle, this impertinent sod is Glaphyra, one of the three satraps of the Africaans."

"Senior satrap of the Africaans actually, Xena my dear. Old age has you slipping." She grinned cheekily and gave Gabrielle a wide lecherous smile. "Charming, absolutely charming."

She reached out to try to kiss Gabrielle's hand, but was intercepted by Meleager. He grabbed her by the ear.

"Watch it kid!" He pulled her ear in emphasis. Xena grinned.

"Hey you watch it, old man!" Glaphyra mock scowled and rubbed her ear. "Haven't changed much have you, Meleager? Still firmly against anything fun?" Meleager sat quite serenely ignoring her antics.

Xena met Gabrielle's questioning gaze. "Glaphyra joined my army a long time ago, when she was still not much more than a kid. Meleager took her under his wing, and they have been acting like this ever since." She gave Glaphyra a wicked smile. "You'd almost think they were in love, wouldn't you say?"

Instead of getting angry, Galphyra fired of a big smile and leaned back in her chair. "Oh sure, if for some bizarre reason I'd ever look for a man, old Mel here would be it." Meleager's eyebrows shot up into his hairline. "Speaking of which Xena, how about you? Are you in..."

She didn't get any farther because Xena rammed a sweet roll into her mouth. "Did you want to hear what I have to tell you or not?" She demanded. "Then be quiet!"

Glaphyra indicated that she would sit quietly munching her roll.

"Ahem. Well, as you heard, Gabrielle and I are going to get married. We haven't set the date for our ceremony yet, nor given much thought to all the other arrangements yet, but... " She looked at Jace pointedly.

"Oh My Lord, would you not please consider leaving the arrangements to me?" He said eagerly, much as Xena had predicted. She eyed him carefully.

"Are you sure you are up to this, Jace?" Xena looked away guiltily. "Are you sure you'd even want to? I can find someone else if it's too much for you right now."

Even though Jace appeared much like his old self around Gabrielle, genuinely enthusiastic and happy for her sake, recent events had put their mark on the gentle man. Jace's eyes had always borne a hint of sadness in them, but the sorrow that filled them now, coupled with weight loss and dark circles under his eyes, all bore ample witness to how difficult matters with Jett had been for him.

Jace smiled a little, and his eyes grew slightly teary. "It would be my most treasured honour, My Lord, if you would entrust me with that task." He hesitated for a brief moment. "The healers say that Jett will live, that it is just a matter of time before he is strong enough to be awakened. He must be punished for his crimes, I know, but still... I am glad he is going to survive."

There was a moment of awkward silence around the table.

"So, you're tying the knot? Why congratulations old cat, who would have thought you'd ever settle down with anyone?" Glaphyra grinned insolently. "That anyone would actually agree to marry you?"

Predictably, Meleager smacked her in the back of her head, and Xena shook her head at them.

"And there is more." Here she hugged Gabrielle closely to her and grinned proudly at the other three. "Gabrielle is pregnant with my baby."

Xena and Gabrielle found themselves being pulled apart, as both Jace and Glaphyra shot to their feet and rounded the table. Jace was hugging Gabrielle again while squealing some more, while Glaphyra was enthusiastically pounding on Xena's back while congratulating her, and demanding to know how Xena managed to do it.

"Oh this is sooo incredible!" Jace sniffled. "Congratulations honey! Just think, you're having a baby! I can't wait to tell Artus about all of this!" He was actually bouncing while clasping Gabrielle's hands.

"You sly bacchae! How in Tartarus did you manage to score that one, did you blackmail the gods or something? C'mon, tell me."

"As if I'd tell you. Allright everyone, calm down already!"

"Oo, isn't it just gonna yank Lao Ma's crank that I heard it before she did?" Glaphyra smirked at Meleager as she sat back down.

Xena scooped up Gabrielle into her lap and nuzzled her neck. Eyeing their visitors she suggested "If that was about all for now, perhaps you could find somewhere else to be? As in, right now?" Nibbling on a convenient, and steadily reddening, ear.

"Oh!" Jace gave a start, and Xena paused to listen what he had to say. "I'm so sorry Gabrielle, in all the commotion I almost forgot what it was I was coming over to tell you this morning." Jace said regretfully.

"Uh, a certain person brought news from your family... " Discreetly Jace managed to indicate to Xena that they should hear the rest in private. Xena nodded slowly.

"That sounds like family business, so Glaphyra and Meleager may get on their way." She smirked at Glaphyra. "Since I'm sure some young woman somewhere is angry with me for stealing Glaphyra's precious time away from her."

Glaphyra grinned and bowed to Gabrielle with a flourish. "It was a pleasure, Gabrielle, and I'll look forward to meeting you again. Perhaps we can spend a little more time together next time we meet?"

Meleager grabbed her by the neck and shoved her ahead of him out through the door. "My Lord. My Lady." He inclined his head, and a small smile appeared on his lips. "Congratulations, by the way."

Once the door had closed behind them, Xena and Gabrielle both turned their full attention to Jace.

"Madame Thora contacted me late yesterday. It seems that Gabrielle's family have been in contact with her from time to time, and that there is some problems right now."

Gabrielle went pale.

"From what I can understand it would seem that something has made Gabrielle's parents believe that Gabrielle has... fallen out of favour with you, My Lord, and they are offering their younger daughter for sale in her place. There seems to be some questions about payment, apparently something must have happened to the bi-weekly shipments lately, and Madame Thora told me that they had been most persistent in their offers to sell the girl to either My Lord or to Thora herself."

"I'm afraid that is all that I could find out, except for that the shipments of dinars have left Corinth on schedule, and nothing untoward has been reported from any of those runs."

"Thank you, Jace." Xena said with a thick voice and a stormy expression on her face. "Would you arrange for a trip for Gabrielle and myself to Poteidaia as soon as at all possible? Full security and highest priority goes without saying."

"Good, now leave us." And he did, sparing only a brief, worried glance at his devastated young friend.

Xena opened her arms to Gabrielle. "Oh Xena!" Gabrielle sobbed and threw herself into the comforting arms of the woman to whom she had so recently found herself betrothed.

"Don't worry, my sweet" Xena told her with heartfelt conviction "we will sort it all out with your parents. And I promise I won't let your little sister suffer."

'No' she thought to herself as she hugged Gabrielle as hard to her as she dared to, ' I won't let either of them suffer any more because of those accursed people.'

"I will find a way, Gabrielle... Please believe in me."

 

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Chapter 16: On The Road To Poteidaia

"So, what will your family say about our baby?"

Xena asked the question lightly, but the answer mattered a great deal to her. She watched how Gabrielle's eyes caught the sunlight from the window, causing them to sparkle like emeralds as she tilted her head slightly in thought.

So beautiful, her love.

It had been two very hectic days before she and Gabrielle could make the trip. Two days filled with running around, changing plans and making travelling arrangements, it seemed. It was, after all, the worst possible time all around for this to happen, but Xena could think of no way around it.

Glaphyra had proved to be gracious enough when told that there had to be changes in Xena's plans due to a family emergency, and she had even gone so far as to reassure Xena that she would do her best to distract Cleopatra, should she arrive at the palace before Xena returned. That could very well happen, and while Glaphyra would be gracious, Cleopatra would not, Xena knew.

Still, there really was no way around it.

Meleager and Jace would hold things together for her, of that Xena was certain. But Viceron was her dark card, and he had been suspiciously absent in her surroundings of late. Certainly, events in Xena's life had him working hard these days, but still... The man was a jackal.

And if there was one thing Xena had learned about being a lion, it was that the jackals gather to eat the offal and grovel at the lion's feet, but the moment the lion relaxes... they pounce. And go in for the kill.

Once these games had been amusing to her, a test of other skills than the physical ones. But now? Looking at emerald green eyes set in a face caressed by a few small rays of sunlight it wasn't very hard to see how her priorities had changed. Now what Xena wanted was stability and security, to take care of and protect her loved ones in peace. What was the riches of the world to her, compared to the red-gold tresses that belonged to Gabrielle?

Gabrielle's health had Xena worried.

The healer had wanted Gabrielle to rest and eat well after her fainting spell, it was what was needed to regain her strenght. Instead there had been one stressful situation after another, and it was taking it's toll on Gabrielle. She had turned slightly pale, Xena thought, and there was definitely a loss of weight, which between the bouts of what Xena assumed was morning sickness, and the fact that she never seemed to have much appetite anymore, was no small wonder.

So Xena had made a few adjustments to their travelling arrangements with Gabrielle in mind.

They were travelling by the most comfortable of the Royal carriages Xena had available, rather than by horseback which was Xena's preferred mode of transportation. The coachman had been instructed to keep a moderate pace, and to ease over the bumpier parts, even though this prolonged the time it took to reach Poteidaia. Xena also had a healer travelling with them in the entourage of guards, just in case.

A large part of the soldiers accompanying them were Royal Guardsmen. Not because Xena felt any particular fear that her Gabrielle might be in danger during this trip, although Gabrielle's safety was a great concern, it was more a matter of entering Gabrielle's birthplace in style. It was, after all, the first time Xena would meet her soon to be in-laws.

And she was nervous.

Gabrielle smiled a little, an expression turned distressingly haunted lately, and leaned into Xena. "I honestly don't know. Before ...everything... I would have said that they would not be particularly happy with the fact that I wasn't properly wed before getting pregnant, but that the fact that we are going to get married, and who you are, would make them rather pleased. Now I just don't know."

"I don't know them anymore..." Gabrielle's voice was strained from her anguish. "Maybe I never did?"

Xena mutely wrapped Gabrielle up in her arms, silently offering her love as she could not find any words to give that would heal Gabrielle's pain. If there were any such words out there, she wished they would come to her soon.

"Lila would be happy, though." Gabrielle smiled at the thought of her sister. "She would be thrilled to find out that she's going to be an aunt, and she will be ecstatic when she meets you."

"Oh? Why is that?" Xena wondered out loud, leaning her chin against Gabrielle's head.

Gabrielle managed a small giggle, a sound that went straight to Xena's heart. "I used to tell her stories about you all the time when we were younger. You've been one of her favorite heroes for years."

"W-what?!?" Xena could actually feel herself blushing. "What are you talking about?"

"Remember when I told you that no-one ever mentions Xena the Ruler of the Known World in Poteidaia? The Xena that slew monsters and saved the area from the feared Nemeian Lion, however, is a popular hero there though."

"It wasn't until I got outside of Poteidaia that I started hearing the other stories about you. In Thora's brothel there was always someone telling me a story about you, and especially the customer's made you sound like something of a monster yourself. I was quite certain for a while there that the Xena of my stories and the Xena I now heard all those things about where two different people." She shook her head bemusedly. "I was so na´ve, they must have had such fun scaring me silly."

"You make it sound like it was so long ago, my sweet."

Gabrielle smiled a mysterious little smile. "Oh but it is... a lifetime ago."

She lifted one of Xena's hands and kissed the palm lightly, then placed it under her own, over her heart. "A lifetime ago."

They sat in silence for a while, Xena fighting the lump in her throat at Gabrielle's sweet gesture. Outside the curtain the landscape rolled by at a sedate pace, accompanied by the muted sounds of horses.

"Xena? What will we do about Lila?" Gabrielle asked quietly.

"We'll see when we've talked to your parents, but I promise... I will take care of it. Try to trust me on this."

That earned her a sweet smile from Gabrielle. "But I do, Xena. I trust you."

Xena sighed happily. Perhaps it was a gloomy journey they had to make, but she was feeling pretty darn incredible right now, with Gabrielle snuggled up in her arms.

"So... Is there anyone besides Lila that you'll be happy to see again?" For a moment a memory of the goat herder that Gabrielle had once been betrothed to surfaced, but Gabrielle had said she never wanted him in the first place. Hadn't she?

"Mmm. I... suppose I should look forward to meeting mother and father again, but I'm...not." She sounded so ashamed. "Besides Lila there is Seraphin of course, it will be nice seeing her again. I wonder if she has married yet, or have any children on the way? Her parents always said they would let Seraphin choose for herself when the time came..."

She sighed deeply.

"Xena? If... if you had stayed in Amphipolis, would your parents have... you know, chosen for you?" Gabrielle asked shyly. Xena's eyebrow shot up into her bangs.

"Umm, well Gabrielle, I was never really what you'd consider an ordinary girl, not even when I was little. No boys ever tried to pursue me, because I could beat them all senseless with one hand tied behind my back, and did so on occasion. And I discovered that I liked girls better while I was pretty young, which in led to the unfortunate time when some people found me in the barn with the blacksmith's daughter, so there wasn't a boy in Amphipolis whose parents would have allowed to court me even if they had wanted to." Xena said wryly.

"Of course, that the barn thing was all her idea anyway and that it was really very innocent, didn't matter much. I still got eschewed for it." She muttered as an afterthought.

"I shamed mother so much." Xena said regretfully. "Maybe that was why she..." Xena trailed off, suddenly feeling that old pain of the rejection all over again. "Anyway, my father died when I was very little, or, shall I say, the man I assumed was my father growing up. My elder brother, Toris, always hated my guts, and mother was just to busy, so the only one in my family that I felt really close to was my younger brother Lyceus..."

Gabrielle made sympathetic little noises and hugged Xena's arms more tightly around herself.

"I wish we had known each other as children. Imagine, we lived so close to one another that we might have met when father sold his wares in the market of Amphipolis one day. Not that I was allowed to go, but still." Gabrielle said dreamily. Xena just smiled.

"I'm glad we didn't."

"What? Why not?" Gabrielle sounded genuinely hurt, so Xena hurried to wrap herself as closely around her as possible, murmuring into Gabrielle's ear.

"I'm so much older than you that had we grown up together, I would always have seen you as 'little kid Gabrielle', and never ever allowed myself to admit, even to myself, that I found you attractive."

"And I would have missed having you in my arms." She breathed into Gabrielle's ear, lightly kissing the edge of it.

Gabrielle giggled a little, clearly pleased by the answer. "You might not have gotten away with that for long, though." She smirked mysteriously, causing Xena to start in surprise. "Besides, you're not _that_ much older than I, silly!"

"Huh? Are you saying that you would have pursued me, my little vixen?" Xena was both amused and bewildered. "And just how would you know my age anyway?"

"Um, oops?" Gabrielle grinned. "Did I say that I know how old you are? Maybe I just figured it out for myself?"

"Riiight, you are a terrible liar, do you know that? So, Meleager, Myra or... who?" Xena demanded playfully.

"Nope, I promised not to tell. You'll have to torture it out of me." Gabrielle said theatrically, then braced herself. "Oh really? Well then..." Xena could not resist such an invitation, and a tickle match ensued.

They ended up kissing after a while.

Xena sighed contently as they parted. "So, you really don't mind the age difference then, Gabrielle?"

"No, I think it's probably a good thing you are a bit older. I know I am terribly na´ve at times, and that there is so much that I don't know about. You know so many things, can do so many things, and I have a feeling we'll need that when our baby is born." She clasped her hands over Xena's larger ones where they lay cupping Gabrielle's flat stomach.

Xena was filled with a sense of wonder.

Here she was, with the woman she loved tucked into her arms, talking about when their child would be born like any young couple. Maybe, just maybe...in time, Gabrielle could learn to love her too? See past their beginnings and accept Xena's feelings for her?

For some reason, Xena felt there was hope after all.

She felt the flat plane under her hands, and smiled to herself. No-one could tell that underneath the fabric of Gabrielle's dress there was rippling muscle hidden among her ample curves, a visual heritage from all the hard work Gabrielle had done since childhood. Those inviting curves hid a slumbering strength that would rival any warrior's if there was ever a need to. Not that Xena intended for Gabrielle ever to have need of strength to defend herself, ever.

She focused again on the flat stomach. There, somewhere, their child would grow, and Gabrielle would grow with it. Xena pictured Gabrielle with the full belly of a woman at the end of her pregnancy, and smiled lovingly.

Gabrielle noticed the look, and where it was focused. "What are you thinking, Xena?"

Xena gave her a devoted look. "Just imagining how breathtakingly beautiful you will be when our child grows big inside you." Indicating with her hands a large round belly on Gabrielle. Gabrielle blinked. Then she sniffled.

"W-what, what's wrong?" Xena asked with alarm. "Did I say something wrong?"

Gabrielle shook her head emphatically. "No no, you say everything just right Xena. I don't know how you always manage to know what I need to hear..." She sniffled some more.

"I was wondering if you... when I grow bigger, if... you might not..." A tear started tracing a path down one cheek.

"Oh sweetheart!" Gently Xena tilted Gabrielle's face up towards herself, and covered her in small, soft kisses. Then she leaned her forehead against Gabrielle's, their eyes still locked. "You are without comparison in my world. The loveliest, most beautiful and incredible creature ever created, and even when you are old and the gold of your hair has faded, you will still be the most beautiful thing to me."

Xena caressed a slightly trembling cheek.

"If you said to me that you wanted the stars to wear in your hair, I would go steal Helios chariot to take them down for you." Xena smiled and looked deeply into Gabrielle's eyes. "Although their shine would pale next to yours. So please, don't ever doubt that you are the one, the only one, I want to hold in my arms."

"I want to be there when you get cravings for odd foods in the middle of the night. I want to be there to rub your feet when they are swollen and aching. I want to be there when our baby moves around inside you."

Being so close as they were, there was no way Xena could miss the expression of pain that swept over Gabrielle, and then disappeared. She wondered what was the cause of Gabrielle's agony, but didn't get the chance to approach the subject.

Gabrielle sighed and closed her eyes. When she opened them again she gazed at Xena so lovingly that Xena felt a tug deep in her heart. "You always have just the right words." And then she kissed Xena deeply.

When they parted she was smiling. "Why is it that people don't expect you to be so verbose anyway? I keep hearing things about that."

Xena chuckled softly. "So you've noticed, huh?"

"Well, to tell you the truth I was an only barely literate village girl, the tavern-keeper's daughter turned warrior. I got tired of being thought of as stupid because of my lack of education, and also I realized that words are the key to rally a group of people to you and keep them. So I made sure to educate myself. I learned languages, words, phrasing, everything I could think of to make myself sound more cultivated. I soon became aware that the true benefit was all the knowledge I could find in books and scrolls, which is the reason I started the Royal Library in the first place."

"It's a bit of a paradox, the wordy 'civilized' ruler versus the monosyllic 'barbaric' warrior. Everyone has their idea of what I ought to be, and sometimes when I know that one version is expected I consciously give them the other. But mostly it is all about my mood."

"Speaking of which, you have a considerable gift of words yourself... One it is quite obvious you came by more honestly than I did."

Gabrielle smiled. "I convinced the old healer, or I should say herbalist, in Poteidaia to teach me to read and write what languages he knew. The rest though, I just really like stories."

"I've... written stories about you, you know. And poems." Gabrielle blushed at the confession and tried to avert her gaze. Xena would have none of that.

"I know. I've read one of your poems." She watched Gabrielle for her reaction. "I... couldn't sleep one night, and wandered around. I ended up in your room, and picked up a scroll from your desk and read it."

"I really shouldn't have, but I did. I'm sorry." Xena apologized, noticing with some alarm that Gabrielle looked a bit more pale. "It was only that one scroll that one time though, I promise!"

"W-which one was it?"

"It was the one, umm, the one you had titled 'My Lion'..." Xena blushed slightly, and hoped that Gabrielle wouldn't notice. "It was beautiful, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle looked shy. "...really?"

Xena smiled widely at her. "Really Gabrielle. It really was. And I am very honored." She kissed Gabrielle's forehead in thanks. The answering smile from Gabrielle was blinding in it's intensity, and then Xena found herself pulled down for some more thorough thanking.

"...we have a few candlemarks until we reach Poteidaia, right?" Gabrielle was somewhat out of breath.

"Yeah, a handful of candlemarks, why?" Xena answered distractedly.

"...it's a comfortable carriage... and we are alone in here..." Gabrielle hinted playfully.

"Want to spend the time necking?" Xena asked hopefully.

Xena barely had the chance to reach out and blindly pull the curtains closed on the windows. "I had in mind something... more... my lion." Gabrielle smirked at Xena and pulled her down on the seat with her.

Outside the Lieutenant Mavican of the Royal Guard rode closer to the carriage, thinking there was something wrong. As she drew up alongside the door, however, the sounds from inside strongly suggested that discretion was the better course of action right now, and Mavican let her horse return to her place a few paces further back.

Minya, the newest addition to the Royal Guards, looked at her quizzically. Mavican pursed her lips and made some rather suggestive faces, involving a lot of wriggling eyebrows, and gestured slightly in the direction of the carriage. At first the young woman didn't seem to understand, but then she nodded brusquely, turning beet red. Mavican laughed to herself.

Like the rest of the Royal Guards she liked young Minya, who despite being both brave and capable in a fight, was really just a big puppy. Terribly innocent and na´ve, so she was the recipient of much teasing from her fellow Guards, but all the same they all kept an eye out for their youngest member. The female Guards especially, making sure the insecure young woman would not end up hurt by some woman with a thing for a fancy uniform, since Minya had joined the regular army in an attempt to get away from a painful rejection.

In a sense, they were both up for promotion if this assignement worked according to plan. At least Mavican was up for promotion, Minya would be signed on as a full member of the Guard, rather than the trainee status she now held.

Mavican eyed Minya critically. A good reliable soldier, unconventional but good with her weapons, and with a few more years under her belt she would be an excellent warrior. Since Minya was more likely to hurt herself than anyone else with a sword, the weapon hanging from a loop at her saddle was a large warhammer that the surprisingly strong woman handled with ease. Her favorite weapon by far though was one that had been given to her by the Lord Conqueror herself, the whip that her fellow Guards in jest claimed Minya slept with. The unusual strength made Minya an excellent, if unorthodox, hand to hand combatant, it was even said that she had wrestled the Lord Conqueror herself once. And lost, of course, but that was the only occasion that Mavican knew Minya to have lost a game relying on strength.

Privately Mavican could admit that Minya was not unattractive. Somewhat tall and stockily built, once she'd had a few years to shake off the puppiness of her movements, straighten the slightly hunched posture and add some self-assurance to her person, Mavican thought Minya would turn a few heads. Although, the puppiness and naivety was rather...charming.

Engaging in a casual affair with a fellow Royal Guard was an unwise action, though, especially when regarding young Minya, since Mavican would no doubt get trashed by her comrades for it. All the more pity, since Mavican could have used the diversion on what promised to be a dull and tedious journey.

A well, maybe Poteidaia would provide some entertainment? The Lord Conqueror had already snatched the most beautiful woman in the village, Mavican was sure, but maybe there would be something else to indulge herself a little in. Perhaps their Lord wouldn't mind it if she picked a fight with the locals...

 

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Chapter 17: When Searching For Room And Board

At long last the carriage rolled down the main street of the village Poteidaia. Everyone was eager to get off the horses and have a bit to drink at the local Inn, except for Gabrielle. Her nerves were already showing as they rolled down the dusty path to the inn, followed by many curious onlookers.

Poteidaia never did have much in the way of visitors, people there preferred it that way. And certainly never such an extravagant carriage escorted by a large amount of fancy looking soldiers. So people who saw them enter the village naturally followed them down to the Inn to see what was going on.

Half of the guards, under Mavican's supervision, followed Xena, Gabrielle and the healer inside the building. The rest went in search of stabling for the carriage and all the horses.

Gabrielle nervously clenched Xena's hand tightly. Xena tried to smile encouragingly. "Relax my sweet, we're just getting rooms for the night. And a bath, of course." She wriggled an eyebrow playfully to lighten the mood.

"And if you don't want to go see your parents after that, we can have them come here to meet us tomorrow." Although Xena already knew what Gabrielle would choose.

"I'll be fine." Gabrielle smiled wanly. "Just... don't let go. Don't leave." There was a hint of desperation in Gabrielles eyes as she pleaded.

"Never." Xena swore solemnly and kissed the hand she was holding in her own.

They listened to Mavican talking to the innkeeper, a stocky, rotund man with a peaceful expression on his face. His expression soon turned cautious, however, and he eyed the increasing number of soldiers in the room.

"...are you listening to me, old man?!" Mavican was getting somewhat agitated. "We want all the rooms in the place, food, cleaning services and stabling of our horses. Now, how many can you house?" She leaned forward in an unconscious attempt at intimidate the man.

"Have the gods stolen your voice, old man? Dinars are no issue, just tell me the number of beds available, allright?"

The round man squinted somewhat confusedly in Xena and Gabrielle's direction. Mavican snapped her fingers in front of his face, and he turned back to her.

"...how many did you say your party were, miss?" He hesitated a moment. "Who are you people, if you don't mind me asking? We don't want no trouble here in Poteidaia, so..."

"How dare you, you..."

"Enough!" Xena barked, quickly tiring of Mavican lack of success in securing them lodgings for the night. "Stand down Lieutenant!"

She locked her eyes with the innkeeper. "What my Lieutenant is trying to say is that I wish to rent the entire Inn for a handful of nights. Add stabling for a coach and all our horses, food and bath services into your price, plus that if there is not enough space in your rooms to house all my soldiers the remaining will sleep in the common room, so add the loss of your evening business into the price as well."

The rotund man's eyes goggled at the mere suggestion. Then he took a closer look at Gabrielle at Xena's side.

"Gods above..." The man gasped. "Isn't it... little Gabrielle?"

"Uncle Jorgos!" Gabrielle smiled and hurried to round the counter to hug the bewildered old man. "Oh, it's so good to see you again, uncle!"

Jorgos patted her awkwardly while clearly having difficulty adjusting to the fact that she was there. Finally he blinked and held her at arms length, looking her over carefully.

"Goodness child, don't you look just as pretty as a flower... And haven't you grown a bit as well?"

Gabrielle laughed. "Oh uncle, you say that everytime you see me! I am a grown woman these days, you know." She teased him, clearly it was the perpetuation of an old joke between them.

Xena experienced another pang of guilt at the reminder of Gabrielle's tender age, and managed only the tiniest of brittle smiles as Gabrielle threw a secretive grin in her direction.

"Oh child, I heard what your parents... did..." Jorgos' eyes misted over as he patted Gabrielle's cheek clumsily, then his eyes grew wide. Slowly he turned to look at Xena in horror.

"Y-you..." He looked at Gabrielle, then back again. Then the friendly face clouded over.

Here it comes, Xena thought and sighed to herself. Outwardly she only raised an eyebrow at the man.

"You!" Jorgos carefully pushed Gabrielle in behind him, something which seemed to surprise Gabrielle as much as it did Xena. "I-I don't know what you're planning on doing here..." He glanced anxiously at Gabrielle. "But I can't allow you to... little Gabrielle..."

He swallowed hard when not only Xena gaped in disbelief, but Mavican and the others as well. Still, he did not back down.

"Please miss, I don't want any trouble, but I can't allow that under my roof. I'll pay you for the... inconvenience if you will, but leave her be while she's here, please!" He turned to Gabrielle with a mournful expression. "I'm sorry child, but I haven't the dinars to buy you free, not at the price your father got for you. I am so sorry!"

There was a long moment of silence, in which Xena felt her heart breaking at the tears that pooled then spilled down Gabrielle's cheeks. She closed her eyes for a moment, then turned to Mavican.

"Lieutenant, this appears to be a... personal misunderstanding. Secure the premises and acquire suitable quarters for myself and Lady Gabrielle. The accommodations for the rest of the group I leave to your discretion." Indicating with a look that she wanted some privacy for them at the moment.

"By your will, My Lord!"

Xena turned and smiled at Gabrielle and reached her hand out, beckoning for Gabrielle. "Come here, my sweet."

Gabrielle stepped eagerly into Xena's open arms and hugged her close, resting her head on Xena's shoulder. The old man watched in disbelief how Xena lovingly wiped Gabrielle's tears away and kissed the moist cheeks. What was this?

"Don't cry, my sweet." Xena murmured tenderly and hugged Gabrielle gently. "But I think you need to introduce me to your... uncle, was it? To avoid any more misunderstandings."

"Of course." Gabrielle said somewhat embarrassed. "I don't know where my mind is at, really..." She straightened.

"Xena, this is my uncle Jorgos, the innkeeper and mayor of Poteidaia. Well, actually uncle Jorgos' sister was married to my real uncle, Meropes, but he's always been 'uncle' Jorgos to me." Smiling warmly at the man who almost despite himself nodded to Xena in greeting.

"Uncle Jorgos, this is Xena, she's..." Gabrielle faltered slightly, looking rather shy and reached for Xena's hand. She flashed Jorgos a sunny smile.

"Oh uncle, I'm getting married!"

"O-oh? Is that so, dear..." It was clear that Jorgos was trying to work out how that bit of news fit with what else he thought he knew about Gabrielle's situation. "Is it a nice young man then, little Gabrielle? Is he with you here to Poteidaia?"

Xena wrapped both arms around Gabrielle in a possessive fashion, placing a sensuous kiss on one bare shoulder, and locked her gaze with Jorgos, her posture challenging. Gabrielle blushed.

"Uncle, I'm not marrying a man, I'm marrying Xena!"

"W-what?!" Wide-eyed he stared at Xena. "B-but she's a woman! How can..." He shook his head as if to clear his thoughts that way. "Is that even permitted?"

Xena barked out a short laugh. "Ask that question in my court, or to the amazons that live not far from your village, innkeeper! They would be surprised you need even ask."

"And I need not the permission of any creature, mortal or god." Something glinted in her eyes, like metal, and suddenly the old poteidaian realised where he knew the name Xena from.

"Xena? Not that Xena, surely?"

Gabrielle beamed. "Uncle, this is Lord Xena, The Conqueror and Ruler of the Known World..." No reaction from the old man. "...The Lion of Amphipolis, the Warrior Princess!"

"Zeus!" Jorgos turned to his counter and started searching for something.

"If he draws out a weapon and comes at me now, Gabrielle, I'm afraid I'll have to hurt him." Xenas whisper was playful but had a serious undertone to it.

"If he comes at you with a weapon now you won't need to bother, because then I'll have to hurt him." Gabrielle's answer was in a matching tone.

Xena looked at her surprised. "You're just full of surprises lately, aren't you my sweet?" Gabrielle just smiled enigmatically.

Jorgos came around the counter holding something up in front of Xena. It was a silver dinar with the imprint of Xena the Conqueror on it. The man's eyes were as wide as saucers.

"It is you! The Warrior Princess that slew the Nemeian lion!"

Xena exchanged a look with Gabrielle, she was not used to be looked upon with such... hero worship as this man suddenly displayed. Ah well, she could work with that, it was far better than having her young lover in tears over the cruel fate that she, Xena, had more or less inflicted on her.

So she made a true effort to be more charming, and before long they were all sitting at a table, deep in amiable conversation while Xena's soldiers were preparing the baths.

"Oh, but where's my mind going to, you must be hungry. If you'll excuse me I'll go prepare something for you, I just hope you don't mind that it's simple food since I weren't hardly prepared for such fancy guests..." Jorgos made as if to rise but Gabrielle stopped him with a gentle hand on his arm.

"Please uncle, let me. I would love the opportunity to cook for once." She cast a shy glance at the rather surprised Xena, and Jorgos caught the look. "I'm fairly sure I still know my way around your kitchen, and you know we would both prefer my cooking to yours." She grinned cheekily at the old man.

"The gods know that the fish from across town would come in here to drink port and dance on the tables before I'd refuse the cooking of one of Hecuba's girls." Jorgos grinned. "If you want to, dear, the kitchen is all yours. The preparations for a stew is already there and finished, but you'll need to fix up some more I'm sure."

Happily Gabrielle bounded out through the doorway next to the bar.

"So..." Mavican leaned in, curious "Is she really that good?"

Jorgos laughed. "It's probably the one thing both girls have in common with their mother, they are all very good cooks. Believe me, you'll appreciate the opportunity to have some of Gabrielle's cooking, especially compared to mine."

He threw a shrewd look in Xena's direction. "So, am I correct in assuming that she hasn't had the opportunity to cook for you before?"

Xena wasn't sure why, but for some reason the question made her feel embarrassed. "No, we have kitchen staff that prepare all our meals. Why?"

"Just thinking that you can take the girl out of Poteidaia, but you can't take Poteidaia out of the girl..." Jorgos said mysteriously, a grin tugging at his lips.

They chatted for a while, with Xena frequently glancing in the direction of the kitchen, feeling somewhat nervous for some reason. When finally a golden head peeked back out the door Xena almost jumped out of the chair in reaction.

"Uncle? Do you, um, have any apples left? I didn't find any in the cupboards." For some reason Gabrielle blushed a little and avoided meeting Xena's gaze.

"They're in a basket by where I store the kegs, child. Do you need help to bring some in?" Gabrielle shook her head quickly and disappeared back into the kitchen area.

Jorgos smirked amused and looked at Xena. "That does it, it must be love then." He grinned as Xena started spluttering into her mug of port. "If I'm right you're in for a rare treat, miss Xena."

Xena hacked and wheezed, and did not answer, but her face turned a shade or two more red than could really be blamed on having drawn port down the wrong way. Mavican however, eagerly jumped in to satisfy her curiosity.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that someone is going to have a rare opportunity to taste Gabrielle's special dumpling treat after dinner." He grinned at Xena approvingly. "That boy Perdicus would have done anything to have her dote on him like that..."

"The goat herder?" Xena snapped back into the conversation. Jorgos looked at her funny.

"We're all goat herders in Poteidaia, miss Xena. But Perdicus was Gabrielle's betrothed since they were in the cradle, practically. He was a good boy, and always worshipped the very ground she walked on, but..."

His face clouded over.

"It ain't my business miss, but I wouldn't leave Gabrielle on her own while in Poteidaia if I were you. Especially not when Perdicus is around."

"Oh? Why is that, then?" Xena attempted at a casual question, but the dark look from above the rim of her mug gave her away. Jorgos shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

"Well, I don't rightly know the whole story, the only one that does that I figure is Gabrielle herself. But... I do know that the boy is downright shameful in how he treats womenfolk. He's bound to show up to say or do something inappropriate to little Gabrielle."

"And... he's known for not taking no for an answer these days."

Xena nodded silently, things were beginning to add up suddenly, in regards to Gabrielle's former fiance. Things Gabrielle had said, and what the old man now hinted at, suggested that the goat herder had tried something he shouldn't have with Xena's love. It was quite a challenge to resist the urge to demand the man be brought to her for her own swift and most likely irrevocable form of justice, but since she did not know what had really happened... She did restrain herself.

Dinner slowly managed to bring Xena out of her dark mood. The stew was admittedly delicious, and Gabrielle soaked up the praise she was given like a sponge, frequently casting shy glances at Xena as she ate. When Xena then appreciatively asked for seconds, the young woman beamed happily as if she had been given a gift. As she happily served Xena a second helping, the dark ruler was the target of much, if very discreet, ribbing from her Royal Guard.

Xena tried to glower at them and growl, but to no avail. Gabrielle caught her at it, and looked at her questioningly, upon which Xena adopted as innocent an expression as she could manage and attacked her food.

"The bath facilites have been prepared for you, My Lord, and the room has been attended to as well. Did you and Lady Gabrielle want to retire after dinner, or shall we pour in the hot water in the bathtub now?" Minya asked as she finished her own plate.

"The water, most definitely." Xena looked thoughtfully at Gabrielle. "Shall we proceed as planned then, my sweet, or perhaps let things wait until morning?"

Gabrielle sighed deeply. "If it's allright with you Xena, I'd rather have it done with tonight. It's not going to be pleasant either way, but the sooner we get started on this, the sooner we will be able to leave."

"Indeed. And we have a wedding to plan for back home." Xena smiled affectionately at Gabrielle. "Very well. Have the bath prepared, then have the horses saddled for us and a small group of Royal Guards to travel to Herodotus' farm."

"Talus, you're with me, and Mavican is in charge here until I get back. That is if you think you can keep from killing the innkeeper, Mavican?" Mavican inclined her head to show that she understood both the joke and the underlying chastisement.

"It will wait until you're all finished with dinner, though."

Gabrielle went back to the kitchen momentarily, to get the fabled dessert that Xena was anticipating. While she was gone most of the soldiers went about their business, leaving only a handful of people still at the table with Xena.

When she returned she was carrying a small basket containing a handful of sweet dumplings, and she was blushing noticeably as she presented them to Xena.

"I... made these for you."

Mavican had remained at the table in curiosity, and so she teased Gabrielle a little. "So, where's some for the rest of us then?"

Jorgos snickered. "No, we won't be seeing a single bite of that, I'm afraid. It's a Poteidaian tradition that young women cook and make special treats for the one they are betrothed to, as a sign of their love and devotion to that person. So no dumplings for us."

Gabrielle turned beet red, and Xena got a huge silly smile on her face. She proceeded to eat every single crumb with much relish, loudly letting Gabrielle know just how much she liked them. Xena herself wasn't sure if the dumplings really tasted as good as she thought they did, or if it was the possibilities they represented that made them so delicious, but she knew she had a new favorite on her menu.

Maybe, just maybe, someday... Gabrielle's heart would chose her after all.

 

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Chapter 18: Staking Her Claim

The eight Royal Guards that accompanied Xena and Gabrielle were striding into positions across the front yard of Herodotus' farm. The man himself was standing on the front porch, cautiously awaiting his unexpected visitors, and his wife Hecuba could be seen peeking out the front door.

Neither of them showed any signs of recognizing the woman sitting behind Xena in the saddle.

Gabrielle, on the other hand, was numbly noticing all the changes to her childhood home, feeling a pang of resentment towards it now, knowing that the changes had been bought and paid for with her freedom.

Gone were the signs of being run down, and the main house had a brand new roof. The porch was fixed up, and the road leading there had been patched and widened at long last. From the looks of it Gabrielle would guess that her father was planning on expanding the house on one side, but the work there had clearly been halted for the time being.

Xena kept a hold on Gabrielle's hand after helping her off the horse, and steered their path up to the man on the porch.

"Who are you lot, and what are your business here?" Herodotus gruff voice rang out as the man tried to appear intimidating with one hand on the handle of a wood-cutting axe.

"You have been wanting to meet with me for some time now, or so I have been told... Herodotus." Xena did not like the man, but since he was going to be her father-in-law soon she had better try a little harder to be civil. "My soldiers, of course, will remain outside, but I trust we can take matters inside for a more personal conversation?"

Herodotus eyes narrowed as he spotted Gabrielle.

"You! What are you doing here?" His eyes went to Xena. "Then it is true, what I've heard... You've tired of her, whoever you are, and now you're here to have her returned. Well you won't get any money back, regardless!"

Xena heard the whimpering little gasp from Gabrielle at his words, and wanted to run the man through. With narrow eyes and a dark expression she put an arm around Gabrielle, while giving Herodotus one of her famous looks. The man twitched slightly, then indicated the door before entering his house without waiting for them to follow.

The interior of the house was, to Xena's jaundiced eye, pretty much what you'd expect. The front door lead immediately into the kitchen, which most likely was the largest room in the building, and it was nice enough but it lacked anything that could be considered homey. And it would have done well with a bit more light. Xena tried to picture a child version of her Gabrielle there, walking across the room, working at the fireplace or maybe eating at the sturdy table, but it filled her with a strange mixture of feelings that she was not quite sure how to handle.

At the table sat, with clearly worried expressions on their faces, an elder woman and a young girl. It briefly crossed Xena's mind that she could see no real family resemblance between Gabrielle and any member of her family, and then the young girl's face lit up with joy.

"Gabrielle!" Lila's shout was loud enough to make Xena wince, but suddenly the family resemblance, although not a physical one, seemed obvious as the shrieking girl dashed across the floor into Gabrielle's open arms. The sisters reunion was a loud and tearful one, and they bounced around while babbling incoherently at each other. Xena looked on with an affectionate smile.

One sister as dark as the other was fair, and no real physical feature similar between them, still something about Lila reminded Xena very much of her lover. The same spark, perhaps? The parents looked none to happy about the reunion, and made no move to join their daughters. Perhaps it was merely thoughtfulness on their behalf, not wanting to intrude on their daughters joy, but Xena didn't exactly expect much from these people.

"Oh Lila, you've grown so! Pretty soon you'll be much taller than me!" Gabrielle gushed, hugging her much younger but not much smaller sister happily.

"Silly, that doesn't take much!" Lila teased with a giggle, clearly pleased that Gabrielle noticed the change in height since last time they had seen one another.

They exchanged some more playful banter, until Gabrielle stepped back and looked at her parents. Her expression sobered almost instantly.

"Mother. Father." She greeted them quietly, about to say something else but Herodotus cut her off.

"So. What are you doing here? She didn't want you no more?" His scornful attitude told quite plainly what he thought of that, and his tone was clearly accusing. Xena didn't need to see Gabrielle's eyes to know that they teared up again.

Growling, she took a step forward.

"Xena!" Gabrielle hurried to put a restraining hand on Xena's arm. "No father, that is not why I am here. I... you see, we..." She stumbled over her words, blushing slightly.

She looked at Xena, at a loss for words.

"You her owner, or just her keeper?" Herodotus asked Xena, indicating that she may sit down across from him. "I've been trying to reach her owner with a proposition lately, so let's talk business."

Xena clenched her teeth and tried to calm herself. After a moment she met Herodotus gaze as calmly as she could muster under these circumstances.

"Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Xena, and yes, I am the person you... have been trying to reach, shall we put it that way?"

She put her arm around Gabrielle. "We are here partly because we were told you wished to... speak to me, but mostly because we have news for you since you are Gabrielle's family."

"Father, mother... Lila. We wanted to tell you in person that we are getting married and that you are invited if you want to come to the ceremony. And that you'll be grandparents in due time." Gabrielle was awkward in her speech, but thought that even though the declaration itself was clumsy the message would at least have been delivered. Now all that remained was her parents' reactions.

"You... are with child, Gabrielle?" Hecuba spoke up for the first time that evening.

"Yes mother." Gabrielle said softly. Hecuba seemed to digest that.

"A baby? You're having a baby Gabby?" Lila was looking from one person to the other with wide eyes. "Really?" Gabrielle nodded, and Lila rushed to hug her again. "Wow, I'm going to be an aunt! This is so neat!"

Xena had to laugh at the bright-eyed child, she truly seemed as sweet a little girl as Gabrielle had said. Not surprising, perhaps, considering Gabrielle had such a large part in raising her.

"But... Gabby, who's the father?" Lila frowned, puzzled.

Xena flashed the girl a wide, cocky grin and pulled her arms back around Gabrielle. "I am."

Herodotus ugly laughter barked through the air and he slammed one hand into the tabletop in amusement. He turned serious again and met Xena's murderous gaze. "That's just rich. Didn't figger you for a dimwit, woman."

"Well Gabrielle... Do you know who fathered it? Is it the man you've managed to get to marry you, or are you just passing it of as his?" Herodotus gave them a cold smile. "Not that it matters, just bring him on over and I'll discuss things with him. I'm not expecting any dowry for you like this, but he should be in the clear that we're not paying for the ceremony either."

This time Gabrielle could not hold Xena back.

She grabbed Herodotus by the neck of his tunic and slammed him against the wall hard enough that the two ornamental swords hanging above the fireplace fell to the ground in a great clamour.

"I said the baby... is... MINE!" By the end of the sentence Xena was yelling in Herodotus face, tightening her hold on his shirt until it was strangling him.

"I have hade ENOUGH of your spiteful comments old man! Now you just sit down and listen!"

The door slammed open, and Talus entered with a few guards, looking slightly wildly around the room. Xena pushed Herodotus back down into a chair then gestured that everything was under control to the guards.

"Who do you think you are!" Hecuba snapped indignantly at Xena's treatment of her husband.

"Who...?" Xena raised an eyebrow in a decidedly evil looking manner. She turned to her guards. "Who am I, men?" They blinked incomprehendlingly. "Who am I!"

They snapped to attention, and Talus barked their answer. "My Lord, you are the Lord Conqueror, Ruler of the Known World, My Lord!"

"Indeed I am." She leaned over Hecuba and Herodotus menacingly. "So you see, I can do anything in Tartarus that I want."

"And as far as dowry and prices go, let me tell you this old man..." She bored her steely gaze into the people before her. "I own the world, and nothing in it can even begin to pay deposit on the value that my bride or child have. Nothing. Not even should you pluck down the very stars themselves and lay them before my feet."

"Are you understanding me?" She growled.

When the wide eyed couple gave faint nods Xena straightened and took a step back, slightly pacified for the moment. She then nailed them again with a contemptuous stare.

"I will give you wealth and estate that would enable you to live out your lives in carefree luxury, not because you maggots deserve it, but because the parents of the Queen of the Known World should reflect her importance in some small manner. I will give you a wineyard estate by the sea, complete with servants so neither of you need to work a single day in your life ever again. Here I will build you a manor of your choice, so that you may chose to live in either home whenever you wish."

"And you will have more dinars than you will know how to spend. Consider that my dowry for the woman I will marry."

Herodotus raised a hand tentatively, he and his wife still wide-eyed and incredilous. "Excuse me, but did you just say 'Queen of the Known World'?"

A quick glance to the side showed that both Lila and Gabrielle were also wide-eyed, Lila even gaping at the news, while Gabrielle had turned pale. Xena thought to herself that she had better try and cut this short, Gabrielle would not be able to take much more of this.

"Of course! As my wife Gabrielle will be the Queen of my Realm, second only to me in all the world. Satrap rulers will kneel at her feet. And our child, your grandchild, will one day rule the world."

"And, just so you make no mistake, I could in a heartbeat have all of Poteidaia levelled to the ground to grow the flowers that will be used as decorations in our wedding ceremony, if that was my whim."

Xena straightened and turned back to Gabrielle, pulling her into her arms and kissing her forehead lovingly. Lila caught her eye, and suddenly Xena remembered what else she had to do.

"I have told you what you will receive for the giving me the privilege of your daughter's hand in marriage. But I would also desire to have guardianship over your youngest daughter. What will you ask of me in return for this?"

Hecuba looked at her uncertainly. "I-if you're truly that satisfied with Gabrielle, why would you want our Lila as well?"

"I want to be her guardian, together with Gabrielle of course, to protect the child from your inept and callous ways of parenting. Once she is our ward she may choose freely whether she wishes to go back to the palace in Corinth and live there with us, or remain with you, or even chose to go to school in Corinth or any other city of her choice. The main thing is that she will be protected and provided for."

"I could come with you?" Lila was all breathless eagerness as she looked hopefully to her older sister. " Really?" Gabrielle nodded, quite a bit teary eyed herself at that point, and embraced her little sister.

"Now just wait a Hades-begotten minute! You can't come here and judge how we've..." Herodotus sputtered while he got to his feet in a huff.

Gabrielle cut him off.

"Haven't you've been listening Father? Xena rules the entire world, everything. So she can do anything she wants, and she needn't answer to anyone or explain herself to anyone because of it."

"In other words, she could just take me and Lila with her, kill anyone that tried to protest, and raze the village to the ground, and who do you think would be able to object? Be glad that she is too honourable to, and that she's offering a dowry that is beyond your wildest dreams. And don't even THINK about asking a prize for Lila!"

Gabrielle's voice was bitter. "You'll receive more than enough payment for the daughters you've sold as it is, don't tempt fate further."

Herodotus said nothing for a long while, thinking hard. Then he locked gazes with Xena.

"Alright. I will give you Gabrielle's hand in marriage, and the right to be Lilas guardian. Provided I get it in writing that those estates you were speaking of, as well as a nice sum of dinars regularly, will be delivered to us regardless of whether you tire of my daughters or not." Herodotus hesitated for a moment. "I also want it in writing that you will provide everything that is needed for Lila, and that you are not able to cast Gabrielle aside once the ceremony is complete."

He turned to give Gabrielle and Lila a brief look. "I want to make sure they are taken care of." He said quietly.

By the look on Gabrielle's face, Xena was not sure which of them was the more surprised.

"You will have your paperwork Herodotus. I'll bring it to you tomorrow for signing, will that suffice?" Xena was utter seriousness.

"And you need not ever fear that they are not taken care of... not while I still draw breath."

Gabrielle shook herself out of her trance and drew Lila aside to speak to her quietly. It was decided that Lila would remain in the house for the night, getting her meager possessions in order, and then Gabrielle and Xena would come for her the next day. After a few more moments of emotional whispering between the sisters, Xena and Gabrielle went back to the Inn. There didn't seem to be much reason to attempt to make smalltalk at that point.

Xena felt Gabrielle shiver where she sat in front of her in the saddle on the way back to Jorgos Inn. She wrapped her arms tighter around the smaller form. "Cold, my sweet?"

"No. Yes. It's not the night though." Gabrielle sighed deeply. "I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but I'll be glad when we can leave this place."

Xena said nothing, she merely kissed Gabrielle's temple as she leaned back against her. Yes, Xena herself would be glad to leave this little village behind them. It occurred to her that Gabrielle's parents had neither spoken of coming to their wedding ceremony nor mentioned the baby in more than those few initial scornful words.

Xena's eyes narrowed darkly. Well they could just rot!

She would make sure that Gabrielle was happy, that she and their child were safe and loved. And young Lila too, she supposed, the way things were now. Anyway, they certainly would not need a pair of greedy goat herders.

"I thought I could stop by and see Seraphin for a bit tomorrow, after we have collected Lila. Then we could leave by midday if you wish? We'd be home by evening, that way." Gabrielle entwined her fingers with Xena's where Xena had one arm wrapped around Gabrielle's waist.

Xena felt an unexpected pang at hearing Gabrielle call their chambers in Corinth her home. She would gladly do whatever Gabrielle asked of her, anything at all. Strange how Gabrielle seemed to be the only one not aware of that fact.

"Also, Xena... I can't thank you enough for what you are doing for Lila." She lifted their joint hands and placed a kiss on the palm of Xena's hand. "She means so much to me... Thank you."

Xena smiled wistfully and reached out to gently move aside a stray lock of hair from Gabrielle's face. "I wouldn't just leave her there."

"And..." Spoken softly, with an ernest blue gaze that went right to Gabrielle' s heart. "...for you? Anything."

 


chapters 19-23 are coming soon...
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