19: Private Conversations
The next morning proved to be challenging for Xena and Gabrielle both. The previous evening they had gotten to bed as soon as they returned to the Inn, since Gabrielle had developed a nasty headache and felt quite understandably beat.
The day began with Xena waking up to the sound of Gabrielle retching miserably over a pail. That occurrence had become more familiar lately, certainly, but as Xena sat holding Gabrielle's hair up and gently supporting her as great waves of dry heaves replaced actual vomiting, she felt a rising sense of anxiety. This was surely not a good sign.
A few candlemarks later, Gabrielle was no longer so pale and moved about more or less as usual. Xena noticed that she only picked at her food, though, and asked the healer she had brought with them to give Gabrielle something to strengthen her for the time being.
Gabrielle smiled wanly. "I'm alright Xena, I'm just..." She sighed a little. "It's been a rough couple of days, that's all. I'll be fine."
Xena wrapped her arms around her, leaning her head against Gabrielle's. "I know, my sweet... I know. But we just have to make it through this day, and by tonight you, me and Lila will be back home, where you will relax and I can take better care of you."
She patted the rebellious stomach softly, and added "And our baby had better stop running her mom so ragged. You'd think she'd at least wait until she was born to do that, huh?"
Gabrielle's eyes turned slightly teary and absolutely adoring. "She?"
"Hmm?" Xena asked distractedly, trying to remember to breathe when Gabrielle looked at her like that.
"You said she." Gabrielle's fingers intertwined with Xena's. "You think our baby is a girl?"
Xena was nonplussed. "I... did, didn't I? Well... maybe..." She looked back into Gabrielle's eyes and grinned. "A little girl. Yeah, that sounds nice."
"And what if it's a boy?" Gabrielle teased gently. Xena grinned even wider. "What if it's one of each, Gabrielle?" Gabrielle groaned and Xena laughed. "We'll have to rebuild the castle to make room for all our children, my sweet!"
Gabrielle chuckled softly and reached up to run her hand through Xena's bangs. "How about we let them get born one by one in due time, my lo..." Gabrielle's eyes grew wide and almost frightened for a moment. "…l-lord."
Nervously she dropped her gaze. "Y-you know what they say about counting your chicks before they're hatched, after all." Had Xena noticed?
"Well, my dear, precious, sweet and most beautiful Lady..." Xena grinned and leaned in for a long kiss that left Gabrielle quite breathless. "…we are in no hurry."
"And what are you lot staring at?"
Most of the soldiers in the room grinned openly at Xena's challenge, Mavican going so far as to issue a few daring catcalls, which, surprisingly enough, was answered by a pointed look from Gabrielle.
The young Poteidaian straightened her posture and wrapped her arms rather possessively around Xena's waist. "I do believe that some people were not told that eavesdropping on other people's private conversations is terribly rude." Gabrielle's voice was teasing but gently chastising. "And since it would seem that the fine Royal Guard are warriors of such frail constitutions, perhaps it would be best if they were not exposed to further displays of domesticity. Shall we step outside, my Lord?"
Delighted with Gabrielle's playfulness, Xena was only too eager to play along and gallantly offered her arm. "Why yes my Lady, I do believe we shall." Steering Gabrielle through the door after one last look thrown in Mavican's direction. Mavican nodded inperceptively, having already received her orders, and began issuing orders of her own as soon as Xena and Gabrielle were out the door.
"You, dear heart, will make a fine Queen." Xena said, grinning. "Not that I doubted you would, of course, but if you can handle that unruly bunch, the satraps won't be a problem for you at all."
She didn't notice Gabrielle start, nor the strange look that came over her features for a moment.
"Of course, I will probably have to bust some heads first, since a few of them are bound to try and chat you up..." Xena mock growled with bared teeth, and put her arm even more possessively around Gabrielle. "...my Gabrielle."
Gabrielle smiled and shook her head. "I'll never understand what you can possibly see in me." She reached up and placed a small kiss of affection on Xena's cheek, just as Xena was about to voice a protest. "But I am sure glad you do."
Talus' group came up to them at that point, Minya leading a pair of saddled horses up to where Xena and Gabrielle were standing. Gabrielle eyed them with obvious trepidation, then whispered nervously. "Xena? I have mentioned that I do not know how to ride, haven't I? Horses terrify me, they are so… big."
"Really?" Xena was surprised by this, indeed Gabrielle had never mentioned that before. Of course, she had not really had much reason to mention that before, either. "You never seemed to have any problems when you rode with me."
"Well, that was different. It's not so bad if you're there..." Gabrielle was clearly embarrassed. "…I just don't want to be on one of those all alone." Xena smiled and kissed her.
"Lady Gabrielle rides with me, Minya, so leave one of the horses here." A sudden thought occurred to Xena. "Does Lila ride? No? Then you can leave both of those two behind, Minya, one of you lot will have to ride with the young lady on our way back."
"Hey, I just realized something Gabrielle." Xena said as they steered the horses out towards Herodotus' farm. "...I have a family now."
Gabrielle had to turn around and look at Xena, who looked every bit as deliriously happy as she sounded. "A family of my own, you, me, our baby and now little Lila as well. We are a family." Xena buried her face into Gabrielle's red-gold tresses. "There are times I'm afraid all of this will prove to be nothing more than a dream, and that I will wake up as I were before." She murmured so quietly that Gabrielle had to strain her ears to make out the words. "Alone."
Gabrielle swallowed hard, and closed her eyes over the tears that silently spilled down her cheeks. There was no way to answer with words, not without saying things that had better not be spoken, so she tried to channel all that into an awkward embrace.
They clung to one another almost desperately for a moment, before calming down and resuming their journey. The Guards, of course, showed no signs of having noticed.
Both Xena and Gabrielle had anticipated that there would be trouble of some kind when they went to pick Lila up from the homestead. To their surprise, though, matters went smoothly, albeit it was still difficult for both of the two sisters to take this final step.
Herodotus and Hecuba were quiet, barely looking at their children at all, instead focusing their attention on Xena and the paperwork she had brought. Xena could see the tension getting to her love already, and suggested that Gabrielle and Lila go visit with Seraphin ahead of her, since that was where they were heading next anyway.
So most of the Royal Guards joined Lila and Gabrielle on the short ride over to the other farm, during which Talus was entrusted with the precious cargo of Gabrielle. Needless to say the guardsman was half petrified and incredibly proud at the prospect, knowing that there was nothing in the Realm that his ruler valued more highly. Not to mention that the other guardsmen would be jealous of such an honour, but still, he was very grateful when they arrived and he could let his precious, and highly nervous, passenger down from the saddle.
The reunion with Seraphin's parents proved to be everything Gabrielle's reunion with her own parents had not. The elderly couple had been genuinely delighted to see her, tears and hugs all around, and hesitant, but heartfelt, well wishes once Gabrielle had given them a heavily abbreviated version of her life since leaving Poteidaia. Wedding invitations were extended and cheerfully accepted, although it was clear that the older couple was reeling just slightly from all the news. Nonetheless Gabrielle felt glad that there would be at least some of 'her' people present at her wedding.
Seraphin was out in the barn, working, Gabrielle was told, and so she and Lila decided to go there and surprise their old friend rather than wait for her to come back to the house. The Royal Guards were spread out as unobtrusively as they could, not to disturb their Lady and still keep an eye on things, and so no-one ventured near the barn, much less entered with Lila and Gabrielle.
Surely things were safe enough here?
The Royal Guard was really going to have to learn not to make assumptions, especially where Gabrielle's safety was concerned.
Lila and Gabrielle called out for their friend as they entered the large old building, but received no answer. Gabrielle motioned for Lila to be quiet as she thought she heard the faint sounds of a scuffle coming from the other end of the barn. She grabbed a pitchfork nearby and gestured for Lila to stay put as Gabrielle herself crept carefully towards the sound. Naturally, Lila ignored her sister's order and carefully crept along behind her.
A muffled cry of pain, or maybe anger, led them to where they could see a woman struggling with the darker figure of a man on the ground. Even in the dim light that permeated the barn Gabrielle easily recognized Seraphin by the other woman's near-white hair, and it was quite clear that she was furiously trying to fight the man who was pinning her to the floor. Gabrielle swung the pitchfork with all her might, bringing the handle down hard across the man's back.
"Get AWAY from her!"
As the man reeled with the pain, Seraphin took her chance and kicked him off her, quickly scrambling to her feet next to Gabrielle and Lila. Still winded and shaking just a bit, Seraphin finally noticed just who her saviour was.
"Gabrielle?" She gasped in surprise. "How… why… Gabrielle!"
The man stopped his writhing and turned at the outburst, allowing Gabrielle to get her first good look at who he was. She dropped the pitchfork in shock.
Chapter 20: Goat Herder
"You're back." Perdicus smiled "I always knew you would."
Gabrielle was lost in the memory of the last time she had been in a barn with her former fiancé, and despite all she had experienced since she found herself truly frightened. Carefully she began backing up, making sure to keep Lila behind her while her eyes were locked on the man in front of her.
Still smiling, Perdicus took a step towards Gabrielle.
With a snap Gabrielle came back to the present. "Lila, go!" She pushed at her sister. "Get the Guards, now!" Lila turned and ran just as Perdicus made his lunge, grabbing Gabrielle by her shoulders and pushing her up against a stall. Seraphin dived for his arm, but got backhanded into a rack by the wall.
"I knew you'd be back eventually." He was still smiling. "Because we're not finished yet."
Xena came riding up to the farm, glad to have finished her business with Herodotus and Hecuba without further violence, when she saw Lila come running from around a large barn, shouting and waving her arms frantically. With a cold sense of dread Xena kicked the horse's flanks hard, shooting right past the Royal Guard and the distraught girl, and vaulting into the dark interior of the old building.
In all honesty she didn't even make out any features on either of the two people in the barn besides Gabrielle, there was no time. But the dark figure holding on to her struggling lover was all Xena needed see, and the fury that had lain dormant since the event with Jett began to rise within her.
With a blood-curdling roar, the warrior tore the offending creature off her love and, delivering a single blow, sent him crashing into the wall. Then she was upon him.
The crunching sensation as she was slowly crushing his windpipe with her hand was most satisfying, but then she heard Gabrielle's voice over the roaring of blood in her ears. Xena hesitated.
The voice came attached to a pair of arms that wrapped around her and a warm body that moulded itself to her back. A body as familiar to her as the face that looked back at her from the mirror every morning. The rage crept back, and she released her hold.
"Thank the Gods." Gabrielle breathed unevenly.
Xena's hand moved up to shakily touch Gabrielle's cheek. "Are… you alright?" For an answer Gabrielle nodded and leaned into Xena's touch.
Perdicus scrambled unsteadily to his feet, wheezing and coughing, held upright mostly by two Royal Guards that had in all silence walked up and flanked him while awaiting orders.
"W-what…" He wheezed with difficulty "…you wanted your money up front or something?" He spit a bit of blood. "Didn't think she'd charge an old friend, but hey she knows I'm good for it…"
In the lethal silence that followed Perdicus voice Gabrielle could actually feel the fury rising inside Xena, and clung to her with all her might. Thankfully she was not the only one who realized what was about to happen, as Mavican immediately turned, grabbed Perdicus by the front of his tunic, and gave him a powerful head-butt that sent him into unconsciousness.
"My Lord?" Mavican stood to attention, the other Guards in the barn straightening to follow her example. "What are your orders, My Lord?"
Xena was still struggling with her rage, and did not appear to hear Mavican, so Mavican looked to Gabrielle. Gabrielle blinked a little as she realized that she was being asked for orders. Her, the little girl from Poteidaia.
Then she felt the tenseness in the form she was holding on to with all she had. So be it.
"Can you take him somewhere secure and out of sight and keep him there until Xena decides what she wants to do with him?"
"Of course My Lady, right away!" To Gabrielle's shock the Guards saluted her before a number of them picked up Perdicus' unconscious form and carried him away. She was not given time to dwell on it, because then Xena was kissing her hungrily, needfully, desperately, and all Gabrielle could do was respond in kind, heedless of where they were or who might be watching them.
"…so, just to see if I got this straight, you're getting married now? To Xena? That Xena?" Seraphin asked, leaning forward intently from where she was sitting across from Gabrielle and Xena in the grass. Lila was sitting to one side, looking mightily pleased, and Xena was seated on the grass with both arms and legs wrapped around Gabrielle who was using her as a backrest.
"Ha! I always knew you had a crush on her!" Seraphin smirked and winked at Lila, who giggled and nodded in agreement.
Gabrielle flushed. "H-hey! You don't know what you're talking about!" Xena still hadn't moved her face from where it was buried in Gabrielle's hair, but Gabrielle would swear she could feel how she was given one of Xena's raised-eyebrow looks even so. "It doesn't surprise you, though? That I'm getting married to a woman, I mean."
Seraphin grinned mischievously. "Guess I should have pushed a bit more when we were in that barn that one time when we were talking about practising kissing, huh?"
That caught Xena's attention, and she snapped her head up to level a stare at Seraphin.
"Or maybe not!" Seraphin hurried to add, suddenly feeling very intimidated by the dark woman. She giggled a bit nervously.
"Yeah, they're getting married, I'm going to be an aunt, and we're all going to live in a palace together, far away from here!" Lila added with obvious pleasure, giving her sister and soon to be sister-in-law a worshipful look. Gabrielle smiled at her affectionately.
"If you don't mind Seraphin, and you Gabrielle, I would like to hear about Perdicus." Xena's voice was quiet and quite serious, reminding them all of the reason they where sitting on the grass outside the barn in the first place, with Royal Guards standing watch not too far away.
"He got worse after you left, Gabrielle. Oh, it started before that, of course, when your fathers decided to break up your engagement, but it got really bad after you left Poteidaia."
"No." Gabrielle's voice was very quiet. "It started long before that."
Seraphin frowned, but after a moment of hesitation she continued.
"His father got him engaged to Alyssa, and although it's not something anyone talks about or that can be proved, I think pretty much everyone knows that he kind of made her…" A glance at Lila stopped Seraphin from spelling things out. "Either way she's pregnant now, but he broke off the engagement and refuses to admit that the baby is his."
"Little Alyssa?" Gabrielle asked, aghast. "She's scarcely older than Lila!"
"I know. And Perdicus has been running around with just about any girl in Poteidaia that would give him the time of day, both while he was engaged to Alyssa and since, and he's been more and more forceful when he's turned down. There are those that say that he has even hit a girl or two when they refused him, but I never found out who that would have been though."
"He's come around here a number of times, even though I kept telling him I'm just not interested, and this time…" Seraphin struggled with the words for a moment. "…this time he wasn't going to let my 'no' stop him."
She looked up at Gabrielle and Xena. "Thank the Gods that you arrived when you did, Gabrielle."
"If everyone knows all this as you say, why has no-one put a stop to this before?" Xena was in a dark mood and Gabrielle didn't need to look at her to know it. She intertwined their fingers in a small pacifying gesture that earned her a tender kiss to her temple while they continued to discuss this dark topic.
"There's not much to do. His family is too powerful around here, and no-one would dare to step up and tell the village what he has done. So as long as no-one will speak about it, Poteidaia will pretend it never happened. Even though everyone really knows he hurt Alyssa, and that she will burst into frightened tears just seeing him across the street. Even though we all know that the baby Alyssa carries is his."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and nodded miserably. Poteidaia was where she grew up, she understood the rules there. Even when they were unfair and horrifying.
"G-gabrielle?" Seraphin hesitated, but continued anyway in a low voice. "That day in the barn… did he… try to h-hurt you?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes as she felt Xena start. She drew a deep breath.
"He tried to rape me."
"He said that although we were no longer engaged I still had an obligation to him, that I owed him… things, and when I refused he was going to force me. Fortunately he… got interrupted."
A low animalistic growl emanated from just behind her head, and Gabrielle hurried to turn around and capture Xena's face with both hands.
"It's alright Xena. He didn't do anything, I'm safe, and I'm here, right here where I belong, in your arms. Alright?"
For a long moment Xena remained still, merely meeting Gabrielle's troubled gaze with her own still furious one. Then in a swift movement she pulled Gabrielle in close, tucking Gabrielle's head under her chin and wrapping her arms around her in a determinedly protective fashion.
Gabrielle blinked. Then she began giggling.
"What?" Xena groused, starting to feel a bit embarrassed for some reason. "Laugh all you like, I'm not letting you go."
Gabrielle sighed contentedly. "No, I'd rather you didn't."
"Hush, don't disturb them, I bet they're going to kiss again."
"I wouldn't, but they're so cute!"
"What the Hades?" Xena exclaimed, trying to ignore the fact that it felt like she was actually blushing a little.
Lila and Seraphin were now sitting together, grinning widely and making little 'aww' noises at her and Gabrielle. What was it with the women of Poteidaia and their refusal to be intimidated by her, anyway?
As the three Poteidaians burst out laughing around her, Xena leaned in to whisper in Gabrielle's ear. "There will have to be repercussions to this, Gabrielle." Gabrielle merely squeezed her hand in answer.
Several candlemarks later Lila and Gabrielle said their goodbyes to Seraphin and her parents, and was suited up to ride back to the Inn. Xena knew what was waiting for her there, but tried not to let her dark mood affect Gabrielle and her visit with her childhood friend too much.
"I'm glad we came here Gabrielle." She said quietly to Gabrielle as she steered the horse up the well-beaten path that would lead into the centre of the village. "Seraphin and her parents seem nice, I'm glad our coming here helped them." A hesitant pause. "Did they say if they will come to our wedding?"
"Yes, they promised they would. Seraphin seemed really excited about it, even." Gabrielle grinned.
"Though I don't know, Seraphin in the big city? That might be dangerous."
Xena smiled and said nothing. Nothing really needed to be said, Gabrielle knew that she knew that Herodotus and Hecuba had said nothing in regards to their daughter's wedding, and was not likely to attend it. Xena knew that it hurt her sensitive lover far more than Gabrielle let on that her own parents were so cold that she had to look to childhood friends for the support they should have given. Xena knew all this, and let Gabrielle put on a brave face for now. There would be time enough for tears later, when they were alone.
Gabrielle sighed a little, then, after a moment, pulled Xena's hand to press against her flat stomach. She smiled as the long fingers at once began moving in small, gentle caresses against the fabric of her dress, and pulled her other hand up to entangle in Xena's dark tresses. She turned her head slightly and met those warm, bright blue eyes looking at her so tenderly from such a small distance away.
Suddenly she hated the distance. The distance made her angry, furious, sad… and so she had to destroy it.
She drew Xena to her in a kiss that held all her aching, her longing and her hunger, and Xena moaned quietly into the kiss before answering it in kind. The kiss deepened, and Gabrielle's heartbeat went up, as they both forgot all about their surroundings.
Until, long moments later, the sound of someone giggling registered with them.
"Wow, now that is what I call a kiss!" Lila grinned in delight, not bothering to keep her voice down. "Do you think they'll fall off the horse?"
"Please, please don't stare at them!" Minya begged quietly, mortally embarrassed, but the girl behind her in the saddle was unaffected.
"Why not?" Lila wanted to know, her brightly chirping voice ringing clear across the subdued group, and Xena and Gabrielle drew apart, trying in vain to restore some kind of dignity. "Aww, now look what you did, they stopped!"
"I did?" Minya exclaimed. "And anyway, staring like that is just rude!"
"It is? Really?" When Minya nodded, Lila appeared to consider this. Her face brightened after a moment, and she concluded with great seriousness. "I guess I'm just a very rude sort of girl, then. Besides, they're so cute together."
Xena burst out laughing. After a moment, Gabrielle joined her.
Between gusts of hearty laughter, Xena managed to point out to Gabrielle. "I think Minya has made a new friend." Gabrielle nodded and buried her face in Xena's tunic.
Lila's conversations with Minya was still drawing a few amused snickers as the group turned the bend and was presented with a clear view of the street in front of Jorgo's Inn. It was a sobering sight.
People had gathered outside the Inn, clearly upset, and they had brought wagons and carts in the road, as if trying to block it off. Jorgos himself was standing in the doorway of the Inn, wringing his hands, and a few Royal Guards were out among the Poteidaians, clearly in the midst of a very spirited discussion.
The entire scene held an air of impending violence, causing the party to hurry their horses somewhat, and ready themselves for a confrontation.
As soon as she reached the edge of the building Xena jumped smoothly out of the saddle and walked the last few paces on foot, leading the horse with Gabrielle on it up to the steps. The Royal Guards followed her example, and soon Lila and Gabrielle were the only ones still on horseback in the entire street.
"What would seem to be the problem here?" Xena asked with authority in her voice. The Guards on the scene turned to her and stood to attention, one taking a step forward to begin explaining. She never heard him.
A roar of voices started shouting at the same time, causing a din that she could only barely make out a handful of words from, most of them along the lines of such as Perdicus' name, injustice, manhandling, something about her sticking her nose in other people's business, and, of course, just who did she think she was. Someone banged something metal at a barrel to cause even more noise, and there were those who waved farming tools in the air in a threatening manner.
"Enough!" Xena roared. To her surprise, nothing happened.
Lila and Gabrielle were beginning to climb down from their horses when someone in the throng started throwing rocks. Someone else joined in, and the rocks came pelting down.
Xena grabbed Gabrielle, to shield her with her own body, and sent a commanding look at Minya. Minya nodded, and while Xena belted out her war cry, sending her chakram out to cut the top parts of shovels and pitchforks before returning to her hand, Minya pushed her way over to one of the wagons with her mighty warhammer in hand.
The impossibly strong young woman swung her hammer around in a two-fisted grip once, twice, before bringing it down with all her might on the wagon, which shattered spectacularly with a thunderous boom.
"I said ENOUGH!" Xena roared into the silence, and the villagers was torn between staring at the calm young woman holding the huge hammer over the remains of their neighbour's wagon, and the furious Conqueror who still held her chakram high into the air.
"You want to know why I have imprisoned a man from your village?" Xena's voice was calm, but the intensity in it rang across the street as if she had shouted at the top of her lungs. "Because he has broken the law. And he has also committed a crime against me and the Realm!" She let them digest that for a brief moment.
"If you wish to know his fate, know that I will hold his sentencing in the village marketplace in three candlemarks hence. Should you choose to observe you will be welcome to do so, but no interference will be tolerated. Also, children and those faint of heart should always avoid a public sentencing."
With that she reached out to Gabrielle and Lila, urging them into the building before her. A brief glance over her shoulder ensured that the Royal Guards were successfully dispersing the crowd without her.
"Were you frightened, my sweet?" Xena asked quietly. Gabrielle leaned into her lover and nodded, her eyes closed and her face drawn. "I would not have let them hurt you."
"I know. I was afraid they'd hurt you." Gabrielle said in a small, soft voice. "Are you sure they won't try to h-hurt you when you go out there again?"
She didn't see the loving look directed at her, but everyone else in the room caught it clearly. "I have to go, but I promise I'll be back in one piece. The villagers might be angry, but I don't think they will try anything else now. And the Guards will be better prepared now." Xena caressed Gabrielle's hair. "I want you to stay here when I go, though."
Gabrielle looked up sharply, about to voice a protest, but Xena kissed her swiftly and continued. "But right now I want you to sit down with me and try to eat something, Gabrielle." Gabrielle began to protest, but changed her mind with a wry smile.
"I'm not sure I can… keep anything down right now, Xena." She sighed. Xena just nodded.
"Innkeep! Can we have something to eat over here, something that is gentle on Gabrielle's stomach?" Xena's call had been aimed at Jorgos, but Lila eagerly jumped to her feet to answer instead.
"I'll fix something up in no time!" She said gleefully and tugged on Minya's hand. "Come on, you're coming with me into the kitchen."
"What? Me?" Minya looked bewildered. "Why?"
"Well, you can help out of course. What, don't tell me you can't cook just because you're a warrior?" Lila smiled and pulled Minya along towards the kitchen, making it quite clear that Minya was going to follow her orders whether she wanted to or not.
Minya was about to speak when Lila added thoughtfully. "You know, you were awfully brave out there. And you're so strong!" Lila's voice was full of admiration, making Minya blush brightly all the way up to the roots of her hair, then Lila pulled Minya through the doorway and they disappeared from sight.
"Hmmm…" Xena was amused. "Do you think it is safe leaving them alone in there?" She grinned at Gabrielle, who punched her in the arm for her effort.
"Silly goose. But I am glad Lila is making friends." Xena thought to herself that Lila was more than making friends, seeing as how her open admiration had the older girl all but stumbling over her own feet already, but wisely she choose not to comment any further in the matter. Sighing a little she steered Gabrielle towards a table.
"Xena, I don't really think I'll be able to eat even if Lila is going through the trouble of making anything…" Gabrielle began protesting. Xena bypassed Gabrielle's resistance by seating herself, then pulling Gabrielle down in her lap. "There."
"And Gabrielle? I won't make you eat, but can you at least try? A little?"
Those pleading, earnest blue eyes made Gabrielle cave in, and little over a candlemark later, Gabrielle was dozing off in Xena's arms, Lila having successfully browbeaten her sister into finishing a bowl of chicken soup, and then an entire bowl of some strange concoction that had both of Xena's eyebrows shooting into her hairline in surprise.
Lila claimed that warm milk with honey and ginger was an old Poteidaia remedy for morning sickness, although she admitted to Xena that she had stuck thick slices of nutbread into the bowl just because she knew that her sister could not resist the stuff. Xena had to admit that it worked like a charm, but when Lila served herself and Minya each a plate of the same, she could not resist asking if there was something Lila ought to tell them.
Which resulted in Minya spraying Mavican and one other Guardsman with warm milk, something that was not entirely appreciated.
Xena brought Gabrielle to their room, trying to convince Gabrielle that she should remain there and wait for Xena to return. She had Lila join them inside, reasoning that the sisters would probably feel safer if together, even if she was going to leave Talus and a good score of the Guards behind to keep them safe.
She held on to Gabrielle for a long, quiet moment.
"I have to go now." Xena thought about what she was about to do, and to whom… Gabrielle would hate her for this. It had to be done, but Gabrielle would hate her. And… did she really care about laws and justice and doing the right thing, if it meant that Gabrielle would hate her?
She just couldn't stand the thought.
So she clutched Gabrielle closer and tried to explain why she was going anyway. "G-gabrielle I…"
"I know, dear." Gabrielle said quietly, standing on her tiptoes to give Xena a soft kiss. "I know. You do what you have to. Just come back to me safe."
Xena blinked. Astonished she shaped the word 'dear', as if it was in a foreign tongue. Gabrielle smiled a bit shyly and shrugged. "We are getting married, so… It's alright though, isn't it?"
Xena nodded and made as if to speak, when she was caught in a tight hug. She looked at Gabrielle in surprise. Gabrielle looked back.
"Don't worry about Gabrielle and me, we'll stay right here until you say it's OK." Lila spoke resolutely into Xena's tunic. "I'll take care of Gabrielle 'til you come back, we'll be just fine." Then she let Xena go, and stood to put an arm around her sister.
Xena shook her head slightly, and reached out to ruffle Lila's bangs a little. "I know you will." She said quietly, and then turned to Gabrielle, exchanging another soft little kiss before leaving.
Mavican was waiting for her in the hallway, all brisk business. "My Lord, everything is in place and the prisoner has been brought out by an escort and… My Lord? My Lord, is something wrong?"
Xena turned around and gave Mavican such a brilliant smile that the other woman was dazed for several moments, then said "Dear. She said 'dear'."
Still grinning Xena walked cheerfully down the stairs, not noticing that Mavican wasn't keeping pace with her, but instead staring off into thin air.
Then Mavican shook her head briskly, snapping back to attention.
"Merciful Hera, but I've got to get a girlfriend!" She swore fervently under her breath, and hurried to catch up to Xena.
Chapter 21: Day of Judgement
Once she had reached the marketplace, all traces of Xena's good mood had vanished. The Royal Guards were posted, fully armed and at the ready, across the square in order to prevent any more unpleasantries from the villagers. But the people of Poteidaia, although gathered there in a large number, appeared quietly resigned. There were no visible weapons of any kind among them, nor did the atmosphere carry impending violence.
No, Xena thought to herself that the one that was going to bring violence to that place was going to be… her.
She looked down at her hands, but it was Gabrielle's face she saw. It had to be done, and she would be the one to do it. She could only hope that when she left that place and returned to the Inn, her sweet young lover would still allow Xena's arms to hold her as she slept this night, and that they would be able to leave all this unpleasantness behind them with this village in the morning.
There was no podium for Xena to stand on for what she was about to do, but the cleared space would do just as well. A brazier glowed in place next to a large cutting block, branding irons already put to the heating in it, and someone had remembered to put a few buckets of water next to it. The though idly crossed her mind if Talus had gotten the village blacksmith to shape the irons the way she wanted them. No matter, she'd make do with what was at hand.
Two Guardsmen brought out the prisoner at her signal, and a shocked whisper went through the crowds. Xena had to admit that he was a bit worse for wear, his nose broken and his face black from the head-butt Mavican had administered, his throat carrying a dark imprint still of Xena's own hand, and the rest of the man… Well, she had known that her soldiers would have made sure Perdicus knew just what kind of mistake he had made, and exacted some justice of their own on behalf of their beloved Lady Gabrielle.
A brief look at the sky told her that she needed to get going if she was going to do this while there was light left. She turned towards the crowd.
"Citizens of Poteidaia…"
Gabrielle was watching the sky, not really noticing anything about it as she was deep in thought. Behind her Lila and Minya were seated on her and Xena's bed, playing a game involving a set of dice and some cards. Gabrielle had no idea where her little sister had picked up the rules for this game, but regardless she was currently on a brutal winning streak as made evident by Minya's constant groaning.
"Stop harassing poor Minya, you imp." Gabrielle said distractedly over her shoulder.
"I'm not harassing her!" Came the affronted reply. "Come join us, it's much more fun if we're more players in this game."
"You mean, it much more fun for you if you have someone else to beat besides Minya, right?" Giggling was her answer, and with a small sigh she turned from the window to join them on the bed.
"Alright, I'll play with you. But you've better not be cheating!" She warned Lila playfully, but her heart wasn't in it. Maybe time would pass by faster if she was distracted by something.
"…and so you have been given an account of this man's crimes. The witnesses have already been mentioned by name, and further it has been brought to my attention that many of you, citizens of Poteidaia, were already aware of his crimes. None of that matters, as I myself has witnessed some of these crimes. Worse, they were committed against me." Xena let her gaze move over the crowd, letting them see the shadow of her rage in her eyes for a moment.
"As my betrothed and soon to be bride, the Lady Gabrielle is me in the eyes of the law, and needless to say, assault against the imperial person invokes the harshest of all punishments. I am sure you can imagine of what I speak." Xena saw an older woman burst into tears, and the shoulders of the man next to her sagged in defeat. They were no doubt Perdicus' parents.
"But We have decided to be merciful this one time, since this is the home village of Lady Gabrielle. This man, Perdicus, will be punished as the law of the Realm demands a man who has forced himself upon a woman or child must."
Guards dragged Perdicus into position by the chopping block and removed his pants. The crowed groaned in shock as Xena walked up to him and another guard handed her a blade from the brazier.
"Perdicus of Poteidaia will live. He will be branded as a criminal and live the rest of his life as a slave in a far away land. The means by which he would continue his crimes will be removed." She raised the glowing blade in front of his face. "He will henceforth serve Satrap Cleopatra in Egypt."
"As an eunuch." And she brought the blade down.
Darkness was about to fall when Xena finally made it back to the Inn. She had cleaned herself off in the stables, and throughoutly disgusted with herself she had stayed there for some time, deep in thought. The unconscious Perdicus had been tended to by her physician, then put on a cart escorted by two guards and sent on to the nearest garrison. Xena figured that the time it would take Perdicus to heal up enough to have him sent to the coast and aboard a ship for Egypt would give her plenty of time to discuss this rather special case with Cleopatra.
As Xena entered the Inn she noticed Jorgos pale countenance and how the previously so friendly man avoided looking her direction. Another person not likely to make it to her and Gabrielle's wedding, she noted with sadness. Another member of Gabrielle's extended family that would be lost to her because of Xena. She sighed.
"Look, Jorgos…" Xena spoke quietly as she approached the man. She pretended not to notice that he jumped ever so slightly at the mention of his name, but at least he still put his dusting rag down and listened to what she had to say. "I gather you know of a young woman by the name of Alyssa that Perdicus was betrothed to? Of course you do. Anyway, seeing as how she was one of the victims in this mess, I want her looked after. I will make sure Poteidaia gets a stationary constabulary soon, or at the very least a group of soldiers will be staying here for Herodotus and Hecuba's benefit, but until that is arranged I was wondering if you would be willing to do something for me?"
The man looked hesitant, Xena thought, but at least he might not flat out refuse, and with his own position in the village he would be able to appreciate what she would do. "I will leave some money here with you to ensure that the child does not suffer unduly, if you'll accept that responsibility for the time being. Also, I would appreciate it if you would send word to me if there's ever anything… amiss here from now on. I will have people installed here to take over those chores as soon as possible, so it will not be for long. Can you do that?"
The man nodded, and Xena pulled out a pouch of dinars and put in front of him. To herself Xena thought that Poteidaia would also get a stationary healer and scribe, not that she expected anyone to be appreciative of the fact, but she would make the arrangements none the less. She turned to climb the stairs up to the room where Gabrielle waited for her.
"My Lord?" Jorgos' voice was subdued and hesitant. "There will be many that curse your name now in Poteidaia, but there will be just as many that praise you for what you did. Even so I don't think there will be any more tales of the heroic Warrior Princess told in Poteidaia from now on."
Xena was surprised to find that those words saddened her as much as they did. She appreciated the fact that Jorgos had spoken, but she had noticed the title he used. She was no longer a safe soon-to-be member of his family, with which he could be jovial. No, now she was a dangerous creature that required that he choose his words carefully, lest he provoke her anger.
Xena just nodded and continued up the stairs.
"Xena! You're alright!" When Xena opened the door and stepped into the room, she was greeted by an enthusiastic hug from Lila. Bewildered that the girl would be so affectionate with her after knowing her for such a short time, Xena still managed to somewhat awkwardly return the hug while her eyes searched for Gabrielle.
Gabrielle sighed in relief and made as if to approach Xena, then stopped. They looked at one another without speaking, until Lila, who looked from one to the other, finally spoke up.
"Umm, well, now that you're here Xena, I guess we can all go to bed. I'll be sleeping with Minya."
"WHAT?" Minya yelped loudly, looking panic stricken. Xena and Gabrielle both turned in surprise, Xena's eyebrow going up in amusement after a moment of watching her young Guard go all flustered. Lila rolled her eyes at Minya and sighed exaggeratedly.
"Mavican said I could bunk in with you guys tonight." Lila explained airily. "I can't very well stay here, Gabrielle and Xena wants to be alone you know. So Mavican said I could squeeze in with you girls in your room for the night."
"Isn't that great Minya? Now we can talk some more before going to sleep." Lila was obviously pleased and grabbed onto Minya's arm with both of hers. "G'night sis, Xena. See you in the morning."
Minya's eyes were as wide as saucers as Lila dragged her out of the room with her. Xena caught the slyly amused look in Lilas eyes as she closed the door behind her, and shook her head slightly.
"Minya isn't going to stand a chance…" Xena murmured quietly to herself.
The room fell silent. Xena couldn't make herself meet Gabrielle's eyes, in case they held what she had feared they would. Then her arms were filled with Gabrielle.
"Xena…" Gabrielle breathed thickly into her shoulder "…can you wait to tell me about things until the morning? Can we just go to bed now?" She shivered a little.
"I-I… just really need you to hold me." Gabrielle begged softly.
Xena closed her eyes in heartfelt relief. "Always." She kissed the top of Gabrielle's head tenderly before lifting her up and carrying her over to the bed.
The morning came as nearly all had lately, very early and with Gabrielle on her knees, miserably bent over a pail, and Xena nervously hovering around racking her brain for something to do to make things easier on her love. Fortunately, the concoction that Lila once again made for her sister, this time for breakfast, seemed to soothe Gabrielle's rebellious stomach to the point where Gabrielle dared to try some light soup. The improvement was such a relief to Xena that she walked over to Lila and spontaneously lifted her in a grateful hug, leaving the girl beaming like Xena had just promised her Rome on a silver platter.
Conversations were subdued during breakfast, and soon Gabrielle felt well enough to ask Xena about the previous night. Dreading having to tell the details of what she, personally, had done to the man, Xena nevertheless did just that. Because Gabrielle had asked.
Slowly Xena went over the events while Gabrielle listened seriously, the Guards and Lila letting them have a moment of privacy while they spoke. When Xena reached the part where she had headed back towards the Inn, Gabrielle had closed her eyes and looked pale. She opened her eyes again and gave Xena a small smile. "Thank you."
Xena blinked. "What for?"
"For sparing his life." Gabrielle said seriously. "I know what you were in your full right to do to him, according to the law. But you let him live, and I am grateful for that."
Xena nodded slowly, not quite certain she understood what Gabrielle meant, entirely. Gabrielle reached out to touch her hand before continuing. "I also know that the punishment you gave him was what he had coming for the crimes he committed, I don't have anything to say in regards to that, if that's what you thought. Although…" Gabrielle looked at her thoughtfully. "You sent him off to Egypt? Why?"
"To let him live." Xena said starkly. "If he remained… he wouldn't."
Gabrielle just nodded and caressed the hand under her own. She was a little disturbed to find out that although a part of her had a hard time dealing with the fact that a man could have died because of her, another part of her recognised that being hurt would have endangered the child she carried, and had no compunctions that anyone that threatened that life would pay for it with their own. She did not like what that said about her, but she also knew that she wouldn't let anything threaten her and Xena's child if she had any power to prevent it.
She shook her head to scatter the dark thoughts. "I noticed that uncle Jorgos is avoiding us."
Xena sighed deeply and looked pained. "I'm sorry Gabrielle. I truly am."
"Why?" Gabrielle frowned, still absently playing with Xena's hand.
Hesitantly Xena told Gabrielle about her conversation with Jorgos the previous night. "…so you see, I'm afraid I don't think he'll come to our wedding after all." Then quietly. "I am sorry Gabrielle."
Gabrielle released Xena's hand, and for a moment Xena felt hurt, but then Gabrielle stood in between her knees, gently urging Xena's head up until she met her gaze. She smiled and caressed Xena's bangs away from her eyes.
"You " Gabrielle said softly "are my hero." And then she kissed Xena tenderly.
When she broke off Xena was holding her close, and looking at her with wide, amazed, eyes. Xena made as if to speak, but was interrupted when the Inn doors were flung open with a crash to reveal two Royal Guards that had not accompanied Xena to Poteidaia.
"My Lord!" One called urgently, and hurried to kneel by Xena's side. "Urgent message from Captain Meleager!"
Xena snatched the scroll from the guardsman's outstretched hand, scowling worriedly as she ripped it open and scanned the contents. The sound of her hand absently crushing the message seemed almost loud in the absolute silence of the Inn. Xena rose to her feet and levelled an icy serious stare at the people in the room.
"We're returning to Corinth at once! Prepare the horses immediately!" She ordered and soldiers snapped to attention, running to perform their duties and leaving food half-eaten at the tables.
"What has happened?" Gabrielle asked nervously. Xena gave her a grave but distant look.
"Jett, the assassin, got murdered last night."
to be continued...
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