DISCLAIMER: Gabrielle and Xena and all the others mentioned herein belong to RenPics and probably a whole lot more folks besides, and certainly not to me. Although a girl can dream.
This is a conquerorfic, and contains homosexuality (of course, this is me after all), violence and adult situations, in other words it might not be for the young or sensitive. Also, this story is still unfinished.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Conquering Liasons
By Carola "Ryûchan" Eriksson

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 choose her after all.

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 choose 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 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."

Chapter 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 whith 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 allright 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." Stearing 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 dileriously 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."

"Without you."

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 allready, 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 savior 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 right 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 allright?" 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.

Seraphin sighed.

"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 allright Xena. He didn't do anything, I'm safe, and I'm here, right here where I belong, in your arms. Allright?"

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 warcry, 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.

Everyone froze.

"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 chose 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 allright 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.

Part 21

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