Standard Disclaimer - These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena: Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence –It’s a Xena story. There are forest dwellers, bad guys, pregnant bards, sly Amazons, several troublemakers, and one very persistent mincemeat pie. Of course there is violence. Not too much though. Maybe one head, maybe two.. it depends on how it goes.

Subtext - I’m not disclaiming subtext anymore. If you’ve gotten this far in the series, you know what it’s about. I don’t personally think there’s anything in their relationship that needs disclaiming. It’s not like they’re vegetarians, or something.

This is, of course, PG13 level involvement here, no more. That never changes.. for those of you who are waiting for me to stick in a rip roaring, no holds barred graphic orgy scene, make sure you have plenty of coffee and doughnuts handy. And a comfortable chair. And a good book. I can recommend some excellent altfic bards for you if you drop me a note.

If you read this story, and are offended by the love portrayed within, too bad. No raspberry brownies for you.

Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to:


Circle of Life

By Melissa Good

The inn was a moderate one, in a somewhat out of the way village, in an out of the way section of Greece. It was a sturdily built structure, with two floors, and a few painted ladies, and a clientele that was mostly comprised of out of work mercenaries and retired fighters who had settled in the area. It smelled of lamb stew, and old leather and ale, and boots rustled against the muddied rushes underfoot dampened by the day’s earlier rain.

The locals didn’t care… the inn was a way to pass the time boasting and telling stories, mostly lies, of battles that had never happened. There was good things and bad things about that, the innkeeper thought, as he set up yet another brace of ale mugs for his girls to deliver. Good thing was that when the boys had dinars, they didn’t mind spending them. Bad thing was, they didn’t have them all the time, and wanted their ale anyway.

Derren sighed, remembering times when he, too, wore the armor, and was stuck in some backwater winter town with little to do and less money. He served them, and hoped for the best.

Sometimes it was, and sometimes it wasn’t. Tonight was a quiet night, as some of the boys had gone out and gotten themselves involved in a local squabble that hadn’t gone well. Tempers were sour, and bodies were hurting, and he’d been hard pressed to keep the peace between the irritable men.

With a grunt, he sat back, and hoped the rest of the night would be slow. It was cold outside, and the draft whistled in through the cracks in the boards, defeating the fire’s best efforts to keep the place warm, and he was looking forward to retiring to his little room it the back, where a cozy private fireplace did a better job with the smaller area.

Footsteps sounded on the boards outside, and he lifted his head, gazing at the door as it opened and admitted a tall, cloaked figure who paused inside the threshold and surveyed the interior.

Derren’s hackles rose, and his thumbs pricked at the uneasy energy evident in the smooth power of the newcomer’s movements, and the almost arrogant sweep of the hooded head as it evaluated the inn. The cloak draped against a lithe, armored body, and the hilt of a sword was a visible bulge at the base of the neck.

Then it gave a tiny nod and lifted a hand,, sweeping the hood back and revealing a chiseled profile and night dark hair that made Derren’s breath catch in his throat. Uh oh.

The head turned and he was skewered by cold, pale eyes that ran him through set in an expressionless face that he remembered in his dreams.

Or his nightmares, to be precise. Times of slaughter and blood, when he’d watched those icy eyes light with an unearthly fire as a tireless sword ripped through bodies as though they’d been straw. This wasn’t good. Nervously, he gave the newcomer a faint nod. "Xena."

The eyes flicked over his face for an instant, leaving a chill in their place. "Derren." The low, musical voice stirred that old shiver inside him. "Been a while." She regarded him for a moment, then turned her head, dismissing him.

Xena faced the inn’s crowd, and spared them a glance, then started across the floor to a back table, flicking her cloak out of the way of muddy boots. She ignored the stares and gave the dark looks only a passing notice as she edged her way through the scattered chairs, pulling off a pair of leather gauntlets as she did so and tucking them under her belt.

Halfway across a man rose to block her, lifting a head sporting tangled chestnut hair and light brown eyes whose level matched hers. "Well well.. lookee what we have here." He looked her up and down.

Xena stopped and gazed at him impassively.

"Haven’t see you since you left a bunch of us for dead near Thessaly, Xena…I’ve been waiting to meet up with you again." He stuck his thumbs in his belt, and rocked back.

A dark brow rose. "I haven’t." Xena replied. "Get outta my way, Gregor.. I’m not in the mood for games tonight."

He looked at her appraisingly. "Heard you retired….in fact, I heard you were hiring yourself out as a horse trainer out in the sticks somewhere."

Xena shifted and exhaled. "Second chance, Gregor, get outta my way." She commented shortly.

He moved the chair out of the way with a booted foot. "You know, I’ve been waiting for my chance at you since Thessaly, Xena… and I heard you were sitting out there all nice and soft… maybe it’s time I found out for sure…I think maybe you’ve lost it."

Xena shifted forward with flickering speed and slammed a knee into his groin, then nailed him in the chin with an elbow as he slumped forward putting him on the floor. ‘I dunno.. what do you think?" She asked mildly, as she stepped over his groaning body.

"That’d be a no." He coughed, spitting out teeth and blood. "Teach me to listen to rumors."

"Smart boy." Xena found her way to her chosen table without further molestation. She sat down, and propped a foot up against the table support as a nervous server approached her. "Ale, and a plate of whatever you’re serving." She growled, giving the girl a warning glare, as she settled back and fastened her eyes on Derren.

One hand lifted and a long finger pointed at him, then curled towards herself. She kept her glare up until he crossed the room and arrived at her table, obviously sweating. "Look.. Xena.. we don’t want trouble here."

She ignored the statement. "I’m looking for Sefrel."

A wary look entered Derren’s eyes. "He…Xena, he doesn’t do that kind of work anymore." The siege engine builder had settled down several years earlier, and now spent his days puttering around making chairs and tables. "Not for a long time."

Pitiless blue eyes lanced right through him. "Just tell him I want to see him. I have a commission.. some work I need done."

"But.. "

"Derren, just do it." The low voice went to a familiar growl. "Now."

Reluctantly, he gave a nod, then backed off, pulling his apron off and throwing it on the bar before he stomped out the door.

Uneasy murmurs rose as he left, but Xena ignored them, sipping slowly on the mug of ale the server had hastily brought her. She knew about half the men in the room, from one battle or other, but she refrained from renewing their acquaintance, preferring to remain solitary, a dark, angry presence in her shadowed corner.

She was halfway through the mug before the door opened again, and Derren returned, with a slight, gray haired man in a woodcrafter’s oversmock. They made their way through the crowd and stopped in front of her, looks of reluctance and fear respectively on their face. She kicked the chair facing her out. "Siddown, Sefrel."

He remained standing. "Xena.. look.. no disrespect, but I don’t do that kind of work no more."

Fierce blue eyes bored right through him. "What kind of work is that, Sefrel?" The low, velvety voice made him lick his lips nervously. "Why don’t you sit down and hear the proposal first?"

Sefrel looked at her, natural caution warring with the pull of her considerable charisma. He studied her face, wondering if the stories he’d heard, even here in the outlands, were true. She certainly looked the same…those deadly eyes, the face that only reluctantly creased into a smile. The sleek, muscular body encased in dark leather and dully gleaming armor. The attitude. He could feel the allure, though, just like in the old days. Xena had led as much with her personal aura as with her battlefield skills, and he sighed, surrendering to the inevitable.

He sat down, and placed his worn hands on the table, and waited.

Xena flicked her eyes to Darren, and dismissed him. Reluctantly, the innkeeper left, not without a worried glance at the woodcrafter, though. "Be back behind the bar if y’need anything, Sef." He said, screwing up his courage and giving Xena what he hoped was an intimidating glare. He’d spend a long time being a mercenary, and the heavy muscles hadn’t all quite disappeared. Yet.

Xena returned the glare, and raised him one, making him turn tail and run like a dog. She shook her head, and looked back at Sefrel. "Been a while."

The short man nodded. "Siege of Bethrel, wasn’t it?"

A nod. "You built the ram we used to take the town." A smile edged Xena’s otherwise still face. "That was some nice work."

He looked at his hands. "I tell you , Xena.. I don’t do that anymore." His gray eyes flicked over her. "I don’t think I can help you.. I can’t build a war engine for you."

The tall woman leaned forward, resting bracered arms on the table. "I don’t want one." She lowered her voice. "Sefrel, I don’t have an army.. what would I do with a siege engine?" She asked, reasonably. "I’ve been out of that business going on four years now."

He was confused. "But.. what do… what do you want, then?" His voice was doubtful. "I’d heard you’d left the hack and slash biz, but.."

Xena took a sip of her ale. "I remember you used to do panels on the work.. in your spare time, with intricate carving…pictures and things like that."

Sefrel blinked. "Yes…I still do… " He pointed at a sturdily built chair nearby. The back featured a strip with running horses carved into it. "You need something like that?" His voice was incredulous.

Pale blue, dangerous, endless eyes bored into his, and the voice dropped lower, snaring him in with its deep, sensual power. "I need a cradle."

A moment of pure silence from him. "W..w..what?" He squeaked.

"A cradle. It’s something you put a baby in." Xena explained, patiently. "You’ve heard of those, right?"

He scratched his head. "Once or twice, sure." He looked around. " Not many of em around here…" He glanced back at her. "What do you need a cradle for?"

Xena sucked in a breath, counting to twenty before she answered. "A baby."

His voice dropped. "You’re doing a kidnapping?" A vaguely outraged note entered his tone. "That was always offlimits.."

Another twenty. "No."

His eyes went to her body.

"No." Xena forestalled the question. "Look.. it doesn’t matter, will you do it or not?"

A moments hesitation, then he nodded. "Sure…" He relaxed a little. "Did’ja have something you wanted to.. oh." He took the folded piece of parchment from her and unfolded it. Inside was a series of pictures, interlinked with curving, connecting lines. "Hey.. that’s not bad.. "

"Can you do it?" Xena cocked her head to one side in question.

"How long, how much?" Sefrel asked, guardedly.

"Three months.. and you tell me what it’s worth." The dark haired woman answered. "Deal?" She held out a powerful hand.

He looked at her, remembering the bad times. And the not so bad ones. His hand clasped hers, feeling the warm living heat of her that triggered memories of a different kind. "Deal."

Xena settled back, satisfied. It would be perfect. And after everything else, she was determined to keep things that way.

Another inn, another small, outlands town, but this one was more obviously prosperous, and had well built, carefully caulked walls that kept out the brisk wind, and cleanly swept floors that showed signs of frequent washing and sanding. It was lunchtime, and the inn was almost full with townsfolk taking a rest from winter labors, and merchants excited over a coming cold weather festival which promised to bring neighbors from surrounding villages in and stir some trade up.

Against the far wall, the village reeve sat amidst a pile of parchment, working out details with two burly merchants, the innkeeper whose inn would bear the brunt of the visitors, and a young woman of middling height and fair hair, whose kindly face featured an ever-present smile on its edges and golden flecked green eyes. At her feet a large black wolf was curled, his muzzle resting on her booted foot.

"I’ll give them a break on the rooms, " Cyrene was saying. "But I’m not feeding them without a percentage."

"Wait.." Gabrielle interjected, holding up a hand. "Why not charge them an overall percentage, and then split it among everyone? If we have everyone demanding a dinar, it gets too confusing.. let’s have someone to a census of their goods when they come in, and one when they leave, and tax them accordingly."

The merchants both nodded. "Aye… that sounds fair…we can subsidize everyone like that… nobody loses."

"Good.. " Gabrielle stood and edged around the table. "I’m going to get some water… be right back."

Cyrene watched her go, knowing better than to offer to get it for her. Her eyes followed the young bard, though, tracing the changes in her slim figure with a wistful smile. Even at five months, Gabrielle barely looked pregnant, only a gentle curve at her waistline betraying her state, which was almost invisible in the oversized royal blue shirt gathered loosely around her body. Otherwise… the innkeeper nodded quietly to herself. The bard looked very healthy, and her stubborn spirit had rebounded from the quiet introspection she’d exhibited when they’d first come home. "She’s going to be all right." She murmured to Johan, who was seated next to her. She wondered, briefly, if she could say the same about her daughter, however.

It has been dark, almost midnight when the watch had reported Argo’s approach, and she’d thrown on a robe to meet the quiet pair as they headed up past the inn.

Xena had gotten down, and even in the dim light her mother had seen the weariness that seemed to shimmer from her daughter’s tall form, as she gently helped Gabrielle down, and they came to the porch railing. And she’d seen a quiet, remembered desolation in the blue eyes that glanced her way, sunken in a face that had taken on new strains since she’d seen it last.

So she’d hugged Xena first, and felt the rail thinness of her under her cloak, and had wondered.

What now?

"I’m going to go stable Argo." The warrior had said quietly. "Meet you at home." This to Gabrielle, who nodded, and touched her arm before she turned to go.

Then Cyrene had asked. "What happened?"

And Gabrielle, in a few words, had told her. About her going into the pit. Waking up three weeks later knowing only that she had survived, somehow.

But Xena hadn’t known, and it had shattered something deep inside her, something that was only very slowly coming back together. "So we decided home… was the best place to be." Gabrielle had finished, letting out a little sigh. "And am I ever glad to see this place."

"How are you doing?" Cyrene had asked, gently.

Pale green eyes gone dim, and gray in the moonlight had glinted. "I’m all right." The bard had answered, with a tiny, wistful smile. "Aside from being pregnant." She’d added.

You could have knocked Cyrene over with a feather. "My gods." Her hands had gone to Gabrielle’s shoulders. "You too?"

"Me too…does that mean Xena was right, and Gran is?" A sparkle had entered Gabrielle’s eyes.

"Yes… and having a time of it." Cyrene had replied. "Poor thing… sick every morning… " She’d touched the bard’s cheek. "What about you, cutie? You doing all right?"

Gabrielle had glanced down, then rubbed her nose. "Yeah… I’m…. " Her eyes had gone towards the barn, then back to Cyrene. "It’s a little complicated."

Of course. Nothing with them was simple, Cyrene remembered thinking. She’d sent Gabrielle on towards their cabin, then gone to the kitchen, putting together some fruits and cheeses in a small basket. Waiting patiently until she heard familiar steps near the door, then sighing as it opened, and Xena came in. "Thought you’d be by." She’d held up the basket.

Xena had given up a little smile, and came forward. "Thanks… guess you heard the good news?"

She’d put a hand on her daughter’s face. "And the bad." Cyrene had said, very gently. "Honey, that must have been horrible for you."

The warrior had stayed very still for a moment, then slowly exhaled. "It was." She admitted in a near whisper, then she’d inhaled again. "But it’s over, and I can put that behind me now." It had sounded as though she were trying to convince herself of that, as much as Cyrene.

Who had felt deeply for her. "Your family would have been here for you, Xena.. you do know that, don’t you?"

The blue eyes wouldn’t look at her. "I know.. but.. I couldn’t come back here." The warrior had managed to get out. "Not here." Jaw muscles had tensed,, and she’d seen Xena swallow hard once.. twice… then blink her eyes.

Cyrene had put the basket down, and pulled her daughter into her arms. "Oh honey." She’d whispered, feeling the shudders passing through the long frame. For a frightening moment, she’d thought Xena was going to collapse, but the taller woman had drawn in a breath, and straightened, returning the hug gently.

"Thanks." The warrior had cleared her throat self consciously, and lifted the basket. "I’d better get back."

Cyrene had patted her side. "I’m glad you’re home." She’d replied simply. "Go get some sleep."

Xena had nodded and given her a half smile, and padded out the door, closing it tight behind her.

"Course she is." The ex merchant assured her. "She’s a tough kid, Cy…and you know, we’re going to have a couple of beautiful grandkids running around her shortly." He sighed wryly. "Thought I’d be well past being a granddad, I did."

She chuckled. "You can say that again." Cyrene turned back to the conversation, as Johan worked out the last few kinks in the ambitious plan. It had been a tough first couple of weeks, but things were settling down to normal again, and for that, she was overwhelmingly glad.

The cool water passed her lips, and carried with it a hint of the oak from the cup she was holding. Gabrielle surveyed the inn, and relaxed against the service bar, shifting a little as her belly pressed against the wood. Still not really used to that, huh? She ribbed herself. Better start.. it’s gonna only get worse from here.

Not that it had been bad so far, she had to admit, at least not for her. Granella, on the other hand.. she darted a glance at the young Amazon, who was a month further along that she was, and looked about twice that. She was sitting by the fire, talking to a tall, fur covered companion, the forest dweller Elaini, who was bouncing one of her furry babies on his butt over one knee, and enjoying his giggles. Gran was far more obviously pregnant that she was, with a huge, curving expanse under her ribs, and a layer of softness that had rounded her all over as well.

The bard had worried about that at first, since her own body seemed to be only grudgingly giving way to the growing life inside her, but Elaini had pulled her aside and told her she suspected Granella wasn’t carrying just one, and that, along with the fact that Gabrielle was more active and determined to keep her strength up, was what the difference was. "Believe me, little sister.. you’ll be glad of it in the end." The forest dweller had assured her, wryly.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, and exhaled, then opened them and drank in the familiar surroundings. It felt so good to be here…after the fear, and the horror…

Gabrielle had come so close to dying. And her soul had been riven on the choice between allowing her beloved soulmate to perish, killing the child she had brought into the world, and knowing that forfeiting her own life to prevent that would surely seem to Xena a far worse thing.

When it came down to it, she had put her trust in her partner’s courage, and surrendered to her fate, enduring that one, last look over Hope’s shoulder to meet terror, and understanding, and a soul rending grief in the blue eyes that were the last things she thought she’d ever see in the mortal world.

She’d hoped Xena would forgive her, someday, that was all. She’d felt the jolt of pain through their link, clinging to it until the darkness swallowed her up, in a nightmare of heat, and impact, and the smell of hot lava.

But she hadn’t died, and what had followed was a whirlwind of confusion, and pain, and waking up to know that weeks had passed, a long forever when she had no idea where Xena was, or what she was doing.. all she had known was that the warrior was alive, that much she could feel through the bond that linked their souls.

Alive, and in incredible pain, the grief echoing down that bond, and flooding over Gabrielle, until she could hardly think straight. It had only lessened at the very end, and muted, becoming shot through with anger, and impatience.. as the presence grew stronger and closer.

And then she’d gone to nearby Potadeia, on her way home to Amphipolis to wait for Xena. Finding herself wandering through woods known to her from childhood and turning a leafy green corner only to feel the sudden, eruptive, incredible surge of their connection as a dark body came at her, sword raised, yell reverberating.

Their eyes had locked.

And she had come home, at last, rejoining the person who meant more than life to her.

But it had been hard on both of them, and only now, two months later with their family surrounding them, was life starting to get back to normal. A month ago, Xena wouldn’t have considered leaving on this short trip to the south. She could hardly bear to be gone on a day’s hunting, her eyes anxiously searching the moment she returned to the village until they fell on Gabrielle’s face, and only then would a hint of a smile come as she relaxed.

Not that she would talk about it, the bard sighed inwardly. She’d teased her once about not being let out of the warrior’s sight, and Xena’s answer had stunned her into speechlessness. "I’m afraid if I close my eyes, when I open them, you’ll be gone." The warrior had said, with a wry, wistful smile. "Crazy, huh?"

Then the blue eyes had dropped, and Xena had played with the bit of wood in her hands self consciously, until Gabrielle walked over, and gently pulled her head down, kissing it and tucking her own against the dark locks. She knew better than to promise to never leave her like that again. Life was just too cruel to both of them for her to put her hurting soulmate into that kind of danger. It had taken her months to get over Xena’s dying, and that had only been less than a week. Xena had put herself through a long, torturous half crazed month, running from herself, from the past.. utterly alone in her grief.

It would take time, Gabrielle knew. And as her experience had changed her, this would change Xena, it only remained to see exactly how.

But things had slowly gotten better, and Xena had decided to take a run down south for a day or two, on some mysterious errand or other that probably had to do with baby stuff. Gabrielle had to chuckle to herself when she thought of her partner peacefully selecting blankets and toys.

In fact, she couldn’t decide which one of them was more excited the first time she felt the baby move. She had gripped Xena’s arm in alarm, but the warrior had laid a gentle hand on her belly, and they both had gasped when it moved again, then Xena had laid her cheek down and listened, her beautiful blue eyes lighting up as she swore she could hear the baby’s heartbeat. A happy, full grin had taken over her face for one of the very few times since they’d been home, and that, as much as the movement, had warmed the bard to her very soul.

Gabrielle smiled at the sweet memory, and wished her soulmate was back already, missing her presence more than she’d readily admit to, despite her sometimes frustrating overprotectiveness, which threatened to drive the bard half insane.

"Hey, Gabrielle!" Elaini called, waving her over. "C’mere and help me convince Gran, huh?"

The bard pushed away from the bar, and ambled over, seating herself in the chair next to her friends, and leaning back. "Okay.. sure.. what are we convincing her to do?" She replied amiably, taking a deeper breath, as she wistfully remembered her soulmate mentioning being short of breath all the time during her own pregnancy. Now she knew what she meant. It felt like she wasn’t breathing fast enough, or deep enough.. and she found herself almost getting lightheaded sometimes as her body struggled to get enough air. It was really annoying, and she had to be careful not to overdo it in front of Xena, who had, just the other day, insisted on carrying her back to the cabin in broad daylight, while half the village looked on in friendly amusement. Brat. Gabrielle had to smile though, remembering the wistful blue eyes, that melted her arguments like butter.

"I’m trying to convince her to let me figure how many she’s got in there." Elaini stated, waggling her furred and clawed fingers suggestively.

Gabrielle’s eyes widened, and she blinked at the claws. "Uh… " She saw the alarmed look on Gran’s face. "Just.. for.. um… well, just as an academic question.. how are you going to um… "

Elaini rolled her eyes. "Oh yeah.. I’m going to cut a hole in there and look." She snorted, then delicately laid her fingertips against the bard’s arm and closed her eyes. "I’m just going to See." She smiled and shifted her touch to the bard’s belly, extending her Sight. Gabrielle’s life force was very strong, golden warm and distinctive, and she had no trouble sensing it. Beyond that… ah… a tiny, bright pinpoint, silver hued in her Vision that was surely her growing child. She opened her eyes. "You’ve got one." She informed the bard, with a grin.

Gabrielle patted her belly. "Gods.. I hope so… if there was more than that, they’d be the size of walnuts." She chuckled wryly. "C’mon, Gran.. it’s better to know now… I mean, if it is twins, you gotta get two of everything."

The dark haired Amazon groaned. "He’s toast if it is." She growled. "One’s bad enough at a time.. what am I gonna do with two?"

"Pardon me if I don’t sympathize." Elaini, a mother of triplets remarked dryly. "Yours don’t have needle-like fangs and claws, let me just say that."

Both humans winced in pure reaction. "Ow." Granella covered her chest.

"Yeah, ow." Elaini agreed, with a chuckle. "How about it?"

"You should, Gran.. especially since that posse of Amazons are trooping up here in the next few days for the merchant fair.. they gotta know if they have to get doubles for you." Gabrielle teased gently.

A pained sigh. "Oh, all right."

Elaini grinned toothily, and put her hand over the rounded surface, closing her golden eyes and concentrating. "There’s one." She announced, then paused. "Hmm."

Granella and Gabrielle exchanged glances. "I don’t know about you, Gabrielle.. but ‘hmm’ is not on my list of happy words today." The Amazon growled, giving the forest dweller an evil look.

"There’s two." Elaini chuckled… "Ohh.. that’s a strong one…" The life force was a pulsing point of blue light, almost as strong as the one she’d felt from Gabrielle. "All nice and bluish."

"Centaur poop." Granella sighed. "I knew it.. he’s dead meat." She paused. "Blue?"

The forest dweller nodded. "Everyone’s more or less a different color.. Gabrielle here is a nice, buttery shade of golden yellow, for instance… you’re a lovely green.. My lifebond’s a goofy shade of orange… "

"What about Xena?" The bard asked, quietly.

"Silver.. like polished metal." Elaini responded promptly. "She’s very distinctive… there are only so many varieties, and they do get duplicated, but she’s the…" The forest dweller’s voice faltered a moment. "The only one I’ve seen that shade."

Gabrielle looked at her closely, but was prevented from questioning her further by a call from the watch outside. "Mm." A smile formed on her face when she heard the hunting hawk’s cry. "Xena’s back.. excuse me." She got up and made her way to the door, poking her head out and then slipping onto the porch, straining her eyes unapologetically towards the horizon.

The dawn painted the sky a feathery shade of pink, a dusting of rose over the mist which lay thick on the ground in the chill morning air.

Steady blue eyes greeted it, and Xena lifted her chin off her forearm where it had rested, as she leaned her head back, and cleared her mind of the drifting thoughts she’d allowed herself. Sleep.. had been problematical for a while, and in Gabrielle’s absence, nightmares inevitable. Without the faithful Ares here to guard her, it had seemed better to do without.

No sense in screams leading some brigand riff raff into her quiet dell, right? It was only a couple of nights, and she’d gone far longer than that without sleep before. She’d be home before lunchtime, and after that, coaxing her expecting soulmate into a nap wouldn’t be much of a problem.

The thought of being with her again brought a smile to the dark haired warrior’s face, and she got to her feet, stretching in the early morning light and startling Argo a bit. The mare snorted, then ambled over, nudging her in the chest and blowing soft, warm air against her belly. "Hey girl." Xena scratched the mare behind the ears, and rubbed her neck. "Time to go home, huh?"

Home. Her two months in Amphipolis had allowed a gentle healing, and she was looking forward to spending more time there, watching Gabrielle come closer and closer to the birth of.. Xena smiled quietly into Argo’s mane. Their child.

She combed the thick, silver hair, studying the patterns of light and darkness as the sun trickled through the leaves and speckled both of them.

Remembering that first, awful night, after she’d crept away from the pit, and found a hole in the rock to hide in, when the numbness wore off and every scent, every sound, even that of the silence ripped through her like knives.

She’d closed her eyes, and just prayed, and hoped, and pleaded, needing to hear the faintest scrape of a boot, the rasp of skin on fabric, a breath.. anything that would give lie to the truth her mind refused to accept.

That she was alone.

It was like being speared in the gut, the pain was so intense, and so real, and it just kept getting worse, until she curled up into a ball, and just lay there, hurting too much to even cry.

Only two things allowed her to keep her sanity. One, that Gabrielle would be hearing her thoughts, and she had no intention of tormenting her beloved soulmate. And two, that she’d understood her partner’s awful choice, and was, in a faint, horrible way, glad she was sparing Gabrielle from going through what she was right now.

A part of her wanted, craved… needed… to crawl back into that cave and dive into the pit after her. Only the darker part, the dull, gray soulless part of her knew better. Knew they weren’t going to the same place.

She’d lifted her head, her eyes falling on a silent, lonely leather bag, lashed onto her own, and the knowledge that she’d never hear its owner’s voice, or see those green eyes looking back at her again hit her.

She thought she remembered screaming, but she was never really sure, as her body convulsed again and again, slamming her head against the rocks until a merciful darkness took her.

And then she’d woken, in a very gray dawn, to the reality of a lonely emptiness that reduced her to helpless tears, her fists opening and closing loosely on bits of rock, crystalzing in the bleak knowledge that she had to find Gabrielle. To see her, if only for one last time, a need so great it overrode the pain, and forced her into a semblance of life until her search was over.

She’d learned two very important things, all those days alone and searching. She’d learned painfully, honestly… that she was capable of living without her soulmate. That her life had meaning beyond the two of them. That she was capable of doing good for good’s sake, and not because Gabrielle was there, to remind her of it.

And she’d learned that while possible, she never, ever wanted to do it again. Before this, it had been an academic question, a vow and a promise spoken from a true heart, but without the weight of experience behind it. It was easy to say ‘Even in death, I will never leave you’ without knowing what that truly meant.

Now she knew. As Gabrielle had known, when Xena had her turn at death. It was an almost peaceful feeling, really, to be able to say to the bard. "I know what it’s like to lose you, and I’m not going through that ever again." And have Gabrielle understand, because she’d been there herself. It made them equal, in a way.

"C’mon girl.. let’s get moving, huh?" She murmured to the patient mare, as she swung the saddle up and onto her back, tightening the cinch strap with expert hands. She’d left Argo’s saddle blanket on against the damp chill, and now had only to add the packages she’d obtained to the mare’s saddle straps, and carefully tamp out the fire before she started off. Even now, two months later, the memory of that pain haunted her, bringing with it a fear she had almost no defense against. It coiled in her gut, gnawing at her with a nagging fierceness she knew wouldn’t let up until she was back in Amphipolis, and her eyes drank in the sight of her living, breathing soulmate. "Time to get home, Argo." She whispered, seeing the golden ear flick back and forth.

The sun had risen over the treetops as she cantered easily down out of the mountains and onto the river road that lead to Amphipolis. She’d only been on it for a few candlemarks before she spotted a small group up ahead, moving in the same direction she was. "Let’s see, Argo." She stood in the stirrups, and sniffed the wind, blowing back to her. "Leather, feathers, and that godsawful pine scented soap.. must be Amazons."

She urged Argo forward, knowing any Amazons on this particular road, heading in that particular direction, were probably known to her.

Sure enough, as they heard Argo’s hoofbeats and turned the foremost among them raised a fist in greeting, which she returned. She reined in the mare, and brought her to a halt next to the small group. "Solari… good to see you." She kicked free of Argo’s stirrups and slid down from the mare’s tall back, extending an arm in greeting.

A genuine smile from the dark haired woman as she took it. "Hello, Xena.. good to see you, too…I’m bringing this next training bunch up now.. Pony’s right behind me with a trade wagon for the fair."

"Mother’ll be glad to hear that." Xena chuckled. "She terms your stuff.. intriguing and very…quaint." She glanced at the other Amazons, some of whom she knew by sight, but two of which were strangers to her.

"Oh.. sorry.. " Solari rolled her eyes. "My damn manners… you know Ellis, Lista, and Aileen, right?"

Xena nodded. "I remember… Aileen, how’s the kid?"

The young Amazon smiled shyly. "Growing like crazy.. Rena’s watching her while I come down here for a few weeks, but I miss her already."

Solari chuckled. "And this is Frendan, from our northern village, and Cesta, who just joined us from another tribe in the south."

Xena gave them both pleasant nods. Frendan was a tiny, worried looking woman, with gingery, curly hair and a workmanlike, sturdy build. Her companion was much taller, almost as tall as Xena was herself, and had a lithe, proudly muscular body along with rich, reddish brown hair and unusual dark gray eyes. "We’re not far from Amphipolis " The warrior stated. "I’ll join you."

They started walking. Solari fell in on Xena’s left side, and related the current goings on in the village. This was the third training group that had made their way in, as Xena fulfilled her promise to teach combat techniques over the long and wet winter. She’d enjoyed the other two classes, as they gave her practice she was otherwise neglecting, and kept her skills up without her having to talk herself into leaving Gabrielle’s side in the mornings or giving up her peaceful firelit evenings.

That suited her just fine. The kids learned something, she kept in shape, Gabrielle was happy. "So.. how’s Eph doing?" She asked, adjusting her hold on Argo’s bridle.

"Just great… let me tell you, having her settle down with Pony has done wonders for both of them… remind me to thank Gabrielle AGAIN for that when we get to Amph, huh?"

The warrior chuckled. "I will.. at least this winter hasn’t been the killer last one was… speaking of which, how’s our friend Paladia?"

Solari squinted up at the sun. "You can ask her yourself.. she’s coming down with Pony… some of the stuff we’ve got includes some nice paintings and sketching of hers." The Amazon eyed her mischievously. "One of em’s of you."

Xena’s brows shot up. "ME?"

"Yep." Solari grinned. "And boy, she nailed you, too." She poked the warrior in the ribs, then turned as Ellis asked her a question.

Xena just shook her head and sighed, then glanced over Argo’s neck and found Cesta looking back at her, the tall Amazon’s eyes appraising her thoughtfully. The warrior had the distinct impression she was being given the once over, and she sighed internally. She must be new here. "So." She felt Argo snort, and contemplated doing the same. "Where exactly in the south are you from?" Gabrielle had been bugging her to develop her conversational skills.. this seemed as good a time as any.

"Not so far south that we haven’t heard of the famous Warrior Princess." Cesta replied, with a frank grin.

Oh centaur poop. Xena just gave her a look. Argo, however, snorted in her behalf.

"I’ve been looking forward to meeting you… especially after the first two groups came back and raved about how much they’d learned." Cesta moved a little closer. "Everyone tells so many stories about you."

I coulda just kept riding. Xena examined Argo’s left ear intently. But no, I had to stop. "Well, most of the stories are half lies, and half exaggeration." She replied wryly. "I wouldn’t pay much attention to them if I were you."

The dark gray eyes roamed over her again. "Oh.. I doubt that."

Ah.. another one who likes muddy, sweaty fighters who haven’t slept or bathed in three days. Xena groaned silently, catching Solari’s eye with her own.

"Something wrong, Xena?" The dark haired Amazon inquired.

The warrior peered ahead, spotting the first outposts, and hearing a soft whistle go up. She whistled back, and smiled as a hawk’s cry followed it. "No.. no. .I’m fine… we’re almost home."

To the watching bard, the small cluster of approaching people seemed to start as a gray cloud, then slowly resolve itself into moving figures, chief amongst whom she spotted the tall, unmistakable bulk of her soulmate. And Argo, of course, who was pretty distinctive herself, being the only horse there.

A few more moments, and she recognized the figure to Xena’s left as Solari, which put a smile on her face, then a little while later two others became familiar. She didn’t recognize the other two though, which was surprising, not the tiny woman beside Solari, nor the tall redhead flanking Xena on the right hand side.

Body language was so interesting to read at a distance. Gabrielle reflected. Redhead was trying to get Xena’s attention, and had moved inside her soulmate’s personal comfort zone. The warrior kept edging Argo away, but the Amazon just moved closer again. Stupid, very stupid…Xena had very distinct ‘don’t mess with me vibes’ and people usually ignored them at their own peril.

Xena’s shoulder set and the way she had her head tilted indicated forced patience, though, and Gabrielle could see the faint movement as she played with Argo’s tack, the nervous movement typical of her when she was uncomfortable. Which meant she was trying her best to be ‘nice’. Probably because they were Amazons, and she knew her partner expected it of her, the bard realized, making a mental note to be extra nice to her soulmate for the effort.

Redhead touched and stroked Argo, leaning close to the horse and closer to her partner. Now Gabrielle’s hackles rose, as she took in the strangers sculpted body and flirtatious gestures, and realized the newcomer’s interest was more than friendly. She straightened, and moved a few steps forwards as the crowd of them crossed the entrance into the village, and starting making their way towards the inn.

They all surrounded Xena in a babbling group, and the redhead reached out to touch the warrior’s arm. Gabrielle saw the jerk as Xena reacted, then forced herself not to react and slug the woman. Why, that little…The irritated bard was about to storm down the steps when blue eyes turned her way, and their glances locked.

And all of a sudden, there wasn’t anyone else in that courtyard but her, and the tall, leather clad figure striding toward her, who had merely dropped Argo’s reins and said excuse me and simply left them all standing there. Who had eyes only for her.

Heh. Take that, Amazon. Gabrielle grinned. "Hey stranger." She got out before Xena gently scooped her up, and hugged her, wrapping long arms around her body and drawing her close, into a warm world smelling of horse, and sweat and earth, and the ever-present leather and spice that were natural to her soulmate. It was wonderful.

Lips found hers, and she tasted the sweet tang of apples on her partner’s breath, as she nibbled gently around and explored with her tongue. Take that, too. She smirked mentally. This is mine, and don’t you forget it.

She could have just stayed there forever, but a corner of her mind reminded her there were Amazons to tend to, and it was midday, and they were standing in front of the inn before the entire village. Reluctantly she broke off, and patted Xena’s chest. "We’re on mom’s porch, tiger."

"I know that." Xena was loathe to relinquish her hold. "I was born not a hundred bodylengths from here, remember?" She buried her face in Gabrielle’s hair for a moment. "I missed you." She added, very softly.

A gentle smile spread across the bard’s face, as she rubbed a soothing hand over her partner’s ribs. "I missed you too… did you get all the ‘stuff’ I wasn’t supposed to ask about out there?"

"Mmm." Xena bent her head to steal another kiss. "And I brought back something I didn’t go for.. some Amazons."

"I noticed… who’s the redhead who nearly got knocked into next week?"

"Newcomer from the south.. she’s got a thing for leather, apparently." Xena replied with a sigh.

"Mm.. does she know you’re taken?" The bard inquired, nibbling at a bit of the leather in question.

Xena chuckled, and straightened, slipping an arm across her soulmate’s shoulders as they turned to meet their guests. "I think she does now." She commented, seeing Solari’s exasperated expression and wryly rolling eyes.

"Hi guys." Gabrielle lifted a hand and waved at them.

"My Queen." Solari ducked her head, and saluted. "I brought another class up, and am here to tell you that the merchant train is about two days behind us on the way here."

"That’s great news, Soli… " Gabrielle ambled forward, complete with her large, leather and armor clad animated cloak. "It’s great to see you.. glad you guys could come over. I know Xena’s been having a great time with the classes. " She glanced up at her soulmate. "Right?"

"That’s right" The warrior agreed, amiably. "Solari, you can show them where we’ve set up the guest quarters…it’s too late today to start, so we’ll probably work out a schedule tomorrow morning."

"Gotcha." Solari nodded. "My Queen, these are two new members of the Nation… this is Frendan, from the northern borders, and Cesta, who joins us from a sister tribe in the south."

Gabrielle gave them both a smile. "Welcome…I’m glad to see you here."

Cesta stepped forward, and inclined her head slightly. "We have heard of you, Queen Gabrielle, in the south. It’s a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance." Her gaze evaluated the shorter woman, and a brow lifted, just slightly.

"Thanks." The bard responded evenly. "Why don’t you get settled in, and plan on joining us for dinner? It’s usually just after sundown." She leaned against Xena, and tucked a proprietary hand across the warrior’s stomach, feeling the faint silent chuckle at her action.

"All right.. you heard the word.. let’s go." Solari ushered them off towards a low, barracks style building they’d put up for just that purpose. "See you two later."

"Later, Soli." Xena lifted a hand and let it drop.

They watched them leave, then turned to each other. Xena stroked her partner’s cheek gently. "How’s everything?"

The bard laughed softly. ‘Xena, you’ve only been gone for two days… did you expect massive changes?" She teased. "The baby’s moving around more, I will say that.." Her hand dropped to her belly, and so did the warrior’s. "Missed you too, I think… my singing’s not nearly as nice as yours."

Xena grinned, then let out a breath. "I’m gonna go get cleaned up.. I had to slog through mud up to my knees most of the way back…. Glad you had that commitment to meet with those merchants and didn’t have to suffer through that."

"Nah.. we would have found some way to have fun with it." The bard cheerfully disagreed, as she slipped her arm back around her partner’s waist, and tugged her towards their cabin. "I almost canceled that meeting… it was a dinar toss as to whether you’d have looked up as you hit the river road and found me trotting behind you."

The cabin had changed a little since they’d been back. Xena had taken time to build on a solid, well caulked bathing room with its own tiny fireplace, insisting her soulmate had to have a nice, warm, secure place to take a bath. Which of course also accounted for the large, well built tub, complete with an easy to get into set of steps which followed. Gabrielle had considered protesting, but then figured she must be nuts to, since it was a gorgeous bathtub, and a very comfortable little addition. There was, she realized, a point where resisting was just plain goofy.

A new set of drawers had been added against the back wall, already partially filled with little blankets and booties from the village knitting and weaving circles. Gabrielle had been touched by the offers, especially since she was no seamstress herself, and figured she wouldn’t have to worry about clothing the child for quite a while.

Xena prudently had designed hooks for her armor, raising it high above the floor along with her weapons, as her concession to babyproofing, which had Gabrielle giggling no end. "Xena… the baby’s going to take six months just to learn to crawl.. I don’t think it’ll be picking up your leg armor any time soon." She’d teased her partner.

"No sense in taking chances." Had come her soulmate’s stubborn response. "Those things have sharp edges."

Paladia’s portrait of the panther and the fox sat above the fireplace, and Xena had built a little area near the fire, with a smooth, sloped desktop and a well for her ink for her to write in, with a gorgeous, padded chair, since curling up on the rug before the fire wasn’t going to be an option for a while.

And it wasn’t like the two months had been totally peaceful either.. they’d interceded in a clan squabble just after they got home, rescued two villages from flooding, stopped a warlord who had entered the area with the mistaken notion that Amphipolis was free for the taking, and stood up to a petty prince who was looking to add the local villages to his fiefdom, and take tribute from them.

All in all, a pretty active two months, and there hadn’t been a peep out of Xena over her participating in everything. Well, almost. After they’d gotten a few things about that worked out between them, that is.

Gabrielle watched the taller woman unhook her cape and stow it, then start on the muddy leather and armor which encased her body. With a warm familiarity, she sidled over and started unbuckling straps, letting her fingers trace the surface below them before moving on to the next one. "Gran’s carrying twins." She commented, as she ducked under Xena’s left arm to get the buckle there.

"Figured" The warrior lifted her now free armor over her head and set it down. "Boy, does that ever need cleaning." She muttered. "She’s gonna kill Toris."

Gabrielle grinned, and started on the lacing that held her right bracer on. "I don’t think he’s heard yet.. but considering how huge she is.. it wasn’t a hard guess." She looked up at Xena’s face, watching the dark brows knit in concentration as the warrior tried to unlace her other bracer. "Elaini confirmed I’ve only got the one."

Xena glanced down and smiled, dropping her arm band to the floor and gently tracing the soft swelling under her partner’s ribcage. "Did she now?"

"Mm… she.. .I guess she can just… she sensed its life force, I think… like they can everyone’s. That’s how she knew Gran had two.. she could sense that, I guess." She shook her head a little. "I can’t imagine what that must be like…" She looked up "I mean, I know how it feels with you… but that’s not nearly what it is for them, is it? They can do a lot more.. see a lot more, right?"

The warrior nodded. "I think so.. yes… from what Jess describes.. it’s almost like another sense, like hearing, or smelling.. for them it’s like that." She tugged off her other armband then loosened the laces on her leathers and moved off towards the bathing room with Gabrielle still wrapped around her. "He should be back any day.. I had no idea his people had a small tribe up to the west of here… strange that I never heard a peep of anyone seeing them in all these years."

Gabrielle thought about that as she helped her soulmate fill the tub, watching in wry amusement as Xena bit her tongue to keep herself from warning the bard to be careful lifting the buckets of water. She’s being so good.. She set the last bucket down, and went over, slipping her arms around the warrior and hugging her gently. "Thanks."

Blue eyes blinked puzzledly at her. "Um.. did I do something?" Xena hazarded, uncertainly.

"You didn’t do something.. you didn’t nag me about helping with the water." Gabrielle answered, resting her chin on her soulmate’s chest. "I know it’s hard for you not to." That had been the kernel of several sharp arguments between them, and she knew the taller woman was trying to avoid a repeat of the last one.

"Mm.." Xena’s brows quirked. "You’re gonna get away with it for about another month and a half, and after that, my bard, no matter how much you fight with me, you are not going to be doing things like that." She warned.

"Oh.. so I have two and a half months of enforced coddling to look forward to?" Gabrielle inquired, but with a smile. "considering it could have been nine, I guess I’ll have to accept that." She knew at that point, she’d probably be ready for some, despite her determined effort to remain very active. It was already getting hard to work with her staff, and her constantly shifting balance was sort of driving her crazy.

Xena turned and leaned against the tub, tangling her fingers in Gabrielle’s hair. "Is that a surrender?" She asked, quietly

The bard snuggled up against her, and tucked her head into the hollow of the warrior’s shoulder. "Yes." She stood there in quiet peace for a moment, then patted the leather surface. "C’mon…get in there. If we’ve got to entertain Amazons tonight, I want you to myself until dinner."

Xena had to smile. The possessive assertiveness was a relatively new development.. not one that really bothered her, but it had been a bit of a surprise after they’d gotten back home. She suspected it might have something to do with the pregnancy, or maybe their recent experiences triggered it.. but having Gabrielle so firmly claim her was a definitely unusual experience for the infamous Warrior Princess. "No complaints from me." She replied mildly, as she loosed the straps of her leathers and tugged them off, then lowered herself into the water with a sigh.

"Gods, Xena.. and you say I get mud in weird places?" Gabrielle shook her head and handed the warrior a bar of fragrant soap.

Xena glanced down, to see the pattern of laces among other things imprinted on her body. "Well.. " She laughed, scrubbing at the marks with the soap. "Not as bad as when you had the fabric design from your top all over you in red clay."

"Tch.. you love mud and you know it… you stomp in puddles, Xena.. I’ve seen you do it." Gabrielle scrubbed at a mark with a linen cloth, running it down her partner’s winter paled skin and across the faint, faded scars that marked her body. Their sojourn at home had allowed her soulmate to recover strength sapped by their dual ordeal but she still had a ways to go yet before bouncing all the way back. She’d been almost at the end of her reserves when they’d rejoined each other, and it had been all Gabrielle could do not to break down in tears seeing what the mental anguish of their separation had done to her soulmate.

She’d been… well, shocked wasn’t a strong enough word for what she’d been when Xena had haltingly, reluctantly told her of the path she’d taken, trying desperately to get back to her. Hearing about the Amazons had been very hard. But she’d felt very proud that Xena had put aside her own desires, and helped them, had given back a tiny portion of what she’d taken from them all those years ago.

Gabrielle would have liked to have met Cyane. She’d thought a lot about Xena having killed all those Amazon leaders…in single combat. No wonder Velaska had seemed to admire her.. had called her a ‘true Amazon’ after she’d.. died. It was hard for her to accept.. and reconcile herself to the fact that the person who meant the most to her in the world was capable of doing something like.. but she wasn’t sure she had a choice.

Xena had, in fact, done it. The state of the Amazon nation in the current day proved that. As an Amazon herself, she should be horrified, to say the least.

But.. this was her soulmate. And no matter how hard she tried, when those trusting blue eyes looked up at her, she simply couldn’t see a monster in there. That was the magic of love, she supposed. Because Xena had laid herself so open now, had stripped herself so bare of any defenses regarding Gabrielle, that she knew she held a power over her like no other person ever had.

She could take revenge for the Amazons. She could cause Xena the anguish, and agony those leaders surely felt when their lives were taken from them, and the long years of decline that followed.

She could.

And destroy herself in the process.

She wasn’t sure what she believed in anymore.. the gods had betrayed her so many times they weren’t even an option she thought about, and she felt that somewhere, somehow, there was a path that led to a better place, it was just a matter of finding it.

It was strange, and frightening, but one thing she did know. Whatever path that was, wherever she had to go to find it, she wanted Xena to be on it with her, because whatever eternity she found would be way too long without her.

"Dinar for your thoughts?" Xena’s deep voice prodded her gently.

"Just thinking… in a weird way, I was really glad you had to stop and help the Amazons, Xena." The bard replied, reaching around and scrubbing her partner’s muscular back. "I mean.. what would you have done if you went through the Gates of Eternity, and I hadn’t been there?"

A pensive silence, broken by the trickle of water as Xena washed her wrist. "I would have kept looking." She finally said, softly. "I would have found a way to get to wherever you were."

Gabrielle smiled a little in acknowledgement. "Yes, you would have, wouldn’t you?" She rubbed the back of the warrior’s neck then leaned over and planted a kiss there.

"Would you have been glad to see me?" Xena’s voice had gone very quiet.

The question came from around a totally blind corner and slapped Gabrielle in the face hard. "What?" She edged around to see Xena’s face, her own a study in disbelief. "What kind of bizarre question is that?"

The warrior pulled her knees up and put her arms around them. "I followed someone.. a friend.. into the Land of the Dead once before… and they hated me there… they told me how I’d corrupted their soul." She stated quietly, the glanced up into Gabrielle’s face and gave her a tiny shrug. "I’d only known her a month."

"After all we’ve been through, how could you even ask me that?" The bard whispered.

"After all we’ve been through, how could I not ask you that?" Her soulmate countered, with aching honesty.

They stared at each other in silence, then Gabrielle loosened her hold on the washcloth and put both hands on either side of Xena’s face, staring into her eyes intently. "Yes. I would have been glad to see you." She replied softly. "I would have seen you come through that gate, and been there waiting, and thrown my arms around you, and thanked any gods that happened to be listening." A pause. "Yes."

Xena’s jaw shook under her touch, and the warrior looked down, unable to answer.

Gabrielle pulled her closer and kissed her head, rubbing a hand down her back comfortingly. "I love you… please don’t ever forget that." She murmured in the pink ear closest to her.

It took a moment, but Xena nodded against her and cleared her throat. "I know… and I love you too."

Gabrielle kissed her head again. "Oh, I certainly do know that." She reassured the taller woman. "C’mon.. before you turn into a raisin."

Pause. "Dried grape." Xena replied faintly, then she shifted, and put her hands on either side of the tub, pushing upward and lifting her body over the side to stand next to Gabrielle, who took a piece of linen and started to dry her off. "Sorry about that."

"It’s all right." Gabrielle kissed her bare chest. They’d both had moments like these since it happened, though thankfully they were growing much rarer. "Did you get lunch?"

"No… I got Amazons." The warrior quipped faintly, glad of the change of subject. "Argo and I snacked on the trail this morning." They walked back into the main room, and Xena slipped into a thick linen tunic, pulling the sleeves down and clasping the belt over the shirt and warm leggings she added to it. "Did you get lunch?" Her brows lifted along with her spirits.

The bard crossed the room and picked up a tray of flatbread, cheese, and dried meats, and brought it with her, snagging her soulmate on the way to the fireplace. "C’mon.. sit down, and let’s share.. I’ll tell you what your mother’s been up to."

Xena willingly allowed herself to be lead, glad to be home and curled up with her partner on their comfortable couch, listening to plans for the fair. "An overall tax is a good idea." She took a bite of bread and cheese, and chewed it.

"Thanks." Gabrielle mumbled, around her own mouthful. "I thought it sounded like a good idea… otherwise all those little quarter dinars here, half dinars there… it’s so disorganized." She took a nibble of dried fig and swallowed. "How’d your trip go? Any trouble?"

"Nah." Xena shook her head. "Met up with a bunch of guys that used to fight in my army… but I only had to hit one of them, so that went okay." She finished one sandwich and started on another, surprised at how hungry she was. "Mm… this new cheese mom got in?"

Gabrielle snuggled a little closer, and broke off a piece, tasting it. "Yeah.. she said you liked it." The bard commented. "It’s tasty." She watched her partner scarf down another slab of it, then handed her a cup of cider. "Here.. try not to choke, okay?" She grinned at the abashed look. "No one’s chasing you."

Xena swallowed her cider, then gave the bard a mock scowl. "Who’d dare?" She inquired archly, touching a fingertip to Gabrielle’s nose. "Besides you, that is."

The bard caught her finger between neat, white teeth and sucked on it for a moment, wiggling her eyebrows. Then she released her hold. "Your redheaded friend, for one." She replied, with a disgusted look. "Who does she think she is, anyway?" Gabrielle scowled. "I gotta have a talk with Eponin.. what in the blazes are they teaching these days?"

Xena studied her discontented companion with wry amusement, then put her arms around her. The blond woman was obviously jealous of the tall Amazon’s attentions, even though she knew damn well Xena had eyes for no one but her, and that was just… very endearing. "Think of the kidding she’s going to get back at the village." She commented, nuzzling her soulmate’s neck. "I think everyone else there pretty much knows exactly who.. " She nipped the soft skin and felt the goosebumps travel down the silent bard’s neck. "Owns every single bit of my heart." The warrior said the last words in a raspy whisper, breathing in Gabrielle’s scent dreamily.

Gabrielle let the words wrap around her. "Yeah?" She tilted her head back, gazing up into Xena’s pale blue eyes with a faint smile. "You think so, huh?"

"I know so." The warrior replied seriously. "My queen."

That always brought a shiver down Gabrielle’s spine, and this time was no exception. "I think you’re right." She acknowledged softly. "My champion." She smiled at the little sparkle that flared at that. "I bet Solari’s poking at her right now." She added, sliding a hand across the warrior’s chest and leaning against her.

Xena remained quiet for a moment. "Nap time?" She asked, seeing the stifled yawn.

Damn. Gabrielle could feel her body making its wishes known, and she considered fighting against it, knowing she had about a dozen things to do. "No… I just…"

"I could use one." The warrior stated blandly.

In pure reflex, Gabrielle lifted a hand and felt her partner’s forehead. "What?"

Xena sighed. "I didn’t sleep last night…it’s been a long two days riding… " She shrugged, almost smiling at her slack jawed soulmate. "C’mon, Gabrielle.. I’m not a total idiot about that." Long pause, as the bard goggled at her. "Am I?"

"Yes, honey.. you most certainly usually are." Gabrielle finally spluttered, with a gentle laugh. "C’mon, then….I really need one too, I just have so much to take care of." She stood carefully, and drew Xena up with her, then led her soulmate to the large, comfortable bed and crawled into it, delighted when the warrior willingly followed her. She waited for Xena to settle onto her side, then she curled up against the taller woman’s body, letting out a soft sigh as she felt Xena’s arms wrap around her. "Mm…. " A cool breeze was coming in the window, and the warrior tugged the quilt up over both of them. "How come you didn’t sleep last night?" Gabrielle asked, turning her head a little to gaze up. "Was there trouble?"

Xena’s eyes were already half closed. "No." She admitted, after a moment. "I just couldn’t sleep." She let her eyelids slide shut, hoping that would end the conversation.

This was Gabrielle, though, and she should have known better. A hand gently cupped her cheek, and she reopened her eyes with a silent sigh. "Xena, I’m sorry." The bard whispered.

A moment passed. "You’ve got nothing to be sorry for, my bard." Xena told her, firmly. "Certainly not for a little insomnia." She just as firmly shut her eyes.

Better that way, not to see those pale, green eyes looking back at her, in bleak understanding.

Cyrene leaned against the door for a moment, surveying the inside of the inn. It was mostly full, and she could hear the sounds of normal conversation rising and falling, which indicated all was well. She noticed the new Amazons, and wondered if her daughters were going to join them for dinner.

As if on cue, the door to the inn slipped open, allowing a cold, damp draft in along with Xena’s unmistakable form. The warrior turned towards the kitchen as she entered, spotting her mother and giving her a mildly sheepish grin. "Hello, mother." She held the door open for Gabrielle who poked her fair head around her partner’s broad shoulder, and waved.

"Well." Cyrene debated whether or not to be annoyed her daughter hadn’t so much as said hello when she’d arrived, then sighed as she read the slightly dazed look of recent sleep that Xena still wore. "Glad you’re home, honey… everything work out okay?"

"Yep.. just great." Xena assured her. "Toris back?"

"Not yet.. he thought the trip with Jessan would be just a few days… it’s been almost a week, I hope they didn’t run into any trouble."

"Elaini’d know if they did." Gabrielle reassured her. "They probably got sidetracked somewhere… I’m sure they’ll be back soon." She paused. "If not.. we’ll go find them." She shot a glance up at her partner, who simply nodded.

"I know." Cyrene smiled at her. "Cutie, I’ve got those blackberry tarts for you tonight."

Gabrielle’s eyes lit up. "Really?"

Xena put on a hurt expression. "Only for her, huh? I see where I rate."

Gabrielle slipped an arm around her and gave her a little pat on the belly. "Don’t worry.. I’ll give you.. one." She leaned against her. "Maybe."

"Gee, thanks." The tall warrior rolled her eyes. "C’mon.. let’s go play with your Amazons."

"All right.. " The bard replied, tucking an arm into the crook of her elbow. "But if that redhead touches you again, I’m going to whack her one with a breadstick."

Xena chuckled softly and put an arm around her. "Easy there, slugger." She ran a hand through her hair as they moved across the floor together, trying to shake some alertness back into her sleep fogged body, and returned the nods and greetings of their friends.

"So, that’s the famous Queen, huh?" Cesta leaned over and observed the two women who had just entered.

"Yep." Solari agreed, sipping at a cup of mulled cider. "That’s her."

"Doesn’t look like much." The woman commented, taking in the worn shirt, and scuffed boots the bard was wearing.

Solari put her cup down. "Listen. " She sniffed reflectively. "I’m only gonna say this once, so pay attention." She leaned closer. "Don’t say poop like that around here, okay? And don’t judge people by the clothes they wear.. that’s one real life, bona fide one hundred percent Amazon Queen over there, who has a temper you would not believe, and the muscle to back it up."

Cesta regarded the subject of the conversation. "You’re joking, right?"

Solari shook her head. "Don’t let that sweet smile fool you." She watched Gabrielle hug her cloaked soulmate. "She can outwrestle Ephiny, and she kicked everyone’s butt at the last festival with a quarterstaff. She’s the real thing, Cesta…just because she doesn’t wear a sword strapped to her back like tall, dark and deadly over there doesn’t mean she isn’t dangerous, in her own way."

"Hmm.. wouldn’t have guessed it." Cesta commented mildly. "They’re certainly an odd pair."

Solari gave her a look. "Don’t start." She warned. "Let me tell ya, Gabrielle does not take kindly to anyone putting a come hither on those baby blues."

The red haired woman looked back at her. "I’m not starting anything.. much." She smiled easily. "C’mon, Soli…it’s not like I haven’t sat around the fire for weeks listening to you women lust over Xena… I’m just honest enough to step forward an do something about it."

"Listen." Solari grabbed her elbow. "Don’t play games like that.. I’m warning you.. those two are like this." She crossed her fingers. "You’re asking for trouble."

"Shh.. " Cesta patted her arm. "Relax… I don’t want to break them up.. Artemis knows, I’m no homebreaker, I just figure there’s no way one little blond can keep someone like her satisfied, and a little extra’s all I’m looking for." A shrug. "Besides, she’s pregnant.. it puts you outta the mood, you know?"

Solari sighed. "No.. I don’t.. but from all I’ve been able to tell, Xena’s pretty happy with what she’s got.. I wouldn’t go poking around in that nest, if I were you." She looked up as Xena and Gabrielle arrived. "Hi guys."

They seated themselves and Gabrielle leaned forward and inquired about doings with the Amazons, while servers set down tankers and plates for everyone. "Did you guys get that big storm that went through here about a half a moon back?" The bard asked. "It was amazing…the wind pulled part of the barn roof off, and Xena had to go chasing down the horses who got scared silly and broke out."

"We did, but it wasn’t that bad, since we’re so far upland." Lista said, shyly. "It was windy, though.. one of the lookout posts got blown completely out of its tree."

Xena had taken a sip from her mug and considered that. "Anyone in it?" She inquired idly, flexing her other hand which was sore from a kick the previous week.

Lista giggled. "Oh yes…." She blushed a little. "But the um… " She covered her face and just laughed.

Gabrielle caught a motion out of the corner of her eye and reached over, curling warm fingers around her partner’s hand and gently rubbing it, easing the stiffness she could feel under her touch. She felt a squeeze in response, and she smiled as she turned to Solari.. "Well?"

Solari was also chuckling. "Well, it was a cold and stormy night.. the two lookouts, with reason, felt that no one in their right mind would be wandering around in the forest in the middle of the night in that weather.. so they’d taken the time to um.." She waggled her hand. "You know."

Xena leaned forward. "They didn’t notice a wind storm was pulling their outpost apart?" She asked, with a slight grin. "I can’t believe anyone could be that distracting."

Gabrielle rubbed her nose. "Oh, I don’t know about that." She muttered, then glanced up at the sudden laughter and blushed, but didn’t retract the statement. She gave Xena an impish smile instead, and a tiny, helpless shrug.

The warrior blushed herself, almost invisibly in the darkened interior of the inn, reaching over and ruffling her partner’s fair hair. "Always looking out for my reputation, eh?" She asked wryly.

Green eyes met ice blue. "Always." The bard replied softly, in an affectionate tone. Gabrielle paused, then went on. "After all, someone has to do it, right?" She was aware of the newcomer watching them with languid, interested eyes, and she turned her head, to meet them squarely. "So, Cesta… tell us about the south. I don’t think we’ve ever met any Amazons down that way."

The redhead was slightly startled, but amiably cleared her throat and began a description of her home village. She had apparently apprenticed as a bowyer, but the tribe already had four, and she had little opportunity to practice her craft. Hearing that the upland tribes were in search of craftswomen, she decided to make a move.

It sounded logical, Gabrielle considered, noting her callused hands, which she used a little in her speech much like the bard herself did. The woman seemed friendly enough, and had a natural beauty that was quite striking, down to the tiny dusting of freckles that lay across her well shaped nose. Her wavy hair shone in the firelight, and she had a fluid way of moving that laid testament to a very active lifestyle. She was seemingly very nice, and willing to work her trade in the service of the Nation, and seemed glad to be a part of it.

Gabrielle didn’t like her.

The bard sighed, as Solari prodded Frendan for a description of her home territory just to keep the ball rolling. Okay, do I not like her because it’s this deep, mystical instinct that Xena keeps telling me I have to develop, or do I not like her because she was hitting on my partner?

Jealousy was something she knew she was capable of, but after all, the woman was new to the group, and to be totally honest, Xena was something of an attraction. She let her eyes slide to her partner’s half shadowed face, drinking in the familiar planes with a half smile. Oh yeah… it’s harmless, Gabrielle.. it’s good for her ego, and it doesn’t hurt you, so lay off, and chill out.

Another sigh. Maybe if she wasn’t so damn good looking, I wouldn’t care…and that does Xena such an injustice.

"Hey." A gentle elbow nudged her, and she lifted her eyes, to see her soulmate’s inquiring look. "You go off somewhere?"

Gabrielle smiled and patted her hand. "Just thinking.. from what Solari tells us, that train coming down is going to be the hit of the merchant’s fair… I can’t wait to see those pictures of Paladia’s."

Xena winced. "You’re not going to get the one of me." She stated, firmly.

"Oh yes I am." The bard laughed, shaking a finger at her.

"Solari.. I can’t believe you told her about that." Xena glared accusingly at the dark haired Amazon, who gave her a toothy grin in response. The warrior sighed, then shook her head in mock disgust. "Is Cait coming down with them?"

"Are you kidding?" Lista giggled. "Like you could separate those two." She leaned forward. "You know…I have to tell you, Queen Gabrielle, when you sent Paladia back to the village, most of us thought it was a horrible idea. But now that we’ve all gotten a chance to get to know her, she’s not so bad."

Gabrielle smiled at her. "Actually, that was Ephiny’s decision… and it was hard for her to make, but I think it was the right one. I know it’s hard to get past what she did, but I really felt there was someone worthwhile under all that nastiness." She deliberately didn’t look at her partner when she said it, though everyone else darted quick looks at the warrior. "I’m glad things worked out."

Xena just let a half grin surface, and reached over, scratching the bard’s neck gently." She’s got a talent for that kind of thing." She drawled, self mockingly, acknowledging the similarities. "Too bad Eph can’t make it down.. I heard Xenon was sick?"

Solari nodded. "Yeah.. it’s not…well, he’s got a sensitive stomach, and he’s having trouble digesting the winter fodder this year, so Eph’s got him up at the village, and she’s been trying all kinds of combinations with him… his favorite so far is shredded winter carrots and honey. "

The server came with a platter of sliced meats and roasted vegetables, and set it down, stopping conversation for while.

Gabrielle was glad to make the return trip to their cabin tucked under Xena’s cloak, reveling in the warmth of her partner’s body as they made their way across frost hardened ground. "Nice bunch." She commented, stifling a yawn. "You going to start them with sword work tomorrow? "

"Haven’t decided." Xena replied absently. "Maybe.. or maybe hand to hand.. depends on how I feel tomorrow."

I’m sure hand to hand would be very popular. Gabrielle didn’t vocalize the tart suggestion, but she felt a gentle rub on her shoulder anyway. "Wish I could join in for parts of it." She said quietly. "I miss going full out with you."

Blue eyes studied her unseen. "I miss that too." The warrior admitted. "Couple more months, though… then you can wrestle with me all you want."

"Yeah." Now the bitterness came out, and Gabrielle felt unable to stop it. "If I have any energy left at the end of the day… I just.. "

"Hey.. " Xena stopped walking, and faced her, resting her forearms on Gabrielle’s shoulders. "You will…it’s not like you’re going to do it alone, Gabrielle, remember?"

A moments silence, then the bard leaned against her, and sighed. "I’m sorry…I’m just.. I feel like I’m constantly trying to find a level surface, and everything keeps moving.. things are getting harder.. I feel like I’m losing a part of myself." She paused. "I won’t even be able to hug you soon." She felt irrational tears sting her eyes.

Uh oh. Xena rapidly sorted through her available options, then gently scooped her partner up, cradling her easily in her arms, and gazing down at her moonlit face. "No problem." She reassured the bard with a smile. "We can improvise." She pulled Gabrielle closer and kissed her. "You have no idea how creative I can be."

Gabrielle felt a band around her chest loosen, and she slipped her arms around her soulmate’s neck, looking up at her affectionately. "How come for someone who claims not to be into the word thing, you always know what to say?" She laid her cheek against Xena’s shoulder. "Sorry to be so whiney." She added quietly. "I guess I spent too much time listening to the women in the knitting circle all complaining."

"They.. are not joined to me." Xena stated firmly, cocking an eyebrow and starting to walk the short distance to the cabin. She walked up onto the porch and elbowed the door open, ducking inside and waiting for Ares to enter behind her before she kicked the door shut. Then she crossed the room and settled onto the bed, still holding on to the quiet bard. "Is that what you really think, Gabrielle? That I’m going to leave you to take care of the baby, while I go off and do things?"

Her soulmate was silent for a moment, then she just buried her face into Xena’s shoulder. She remembered, all too clearly, when this kind of honesty between them would have been… impossible. "I think it’s that pregnant woman losing their mind syndrome we talked about." She managed a smile for the anxiously watching warrior. "No.. I know better than that…Hades, Xena.. you know better than that.. you know me better than to think I’d go along with that little scenario."

Xena looked relieved. "I was gonna say." The warrior smiled, then freed one hand and gently stroked the smaller woman’s face, tangling her fingers in the soft fair hair. "I didn’t even consider thinking about trying to get away with that for even a minute… Gabrielle, I want to be a part of this with you."

"Even the ucky parts?" But the bard’s eyes twinkled a little.

Xena snorted softly. "Horse poop, wolf poop, chicken poop, baby poop…" She lifted a hand and raised her eyebrows. "Just think of what Ephiny went through."

Gabrielle thought about it. "Oh…centaur p…"

A grin. "Exactly."

The bard laughed, then snuggled closer, smoothing a hand over Xena’s tunic and playing with her laces. "Thanks." She glanced up. "Thanks for being here for me when I lose my grip."

"Hey.. that’s what friends are for, right?" Xena leaned over and kissed her forehead, then moved down a few inches.

"Mm… that’s not what friends are for." Gabrielle slid a hand up around the warrior’s neck and pulled her down again after they parted. "Or that either." She closed her eyes and enjoyed the sensation of Xena’s lips nibbling at her throat. "I don’t know whether it’s the pregnancy or not.. but everything seems more in… ah….whoa."

"What was that?" The warrior rumbled in her ear, nipping the lobe gently.

"Intense." Gabrielle squeaked, her voice cracking. "Gods.. Xena.. you’re still in your cloak… "

"Guess you’ll have to find a way to get me out of it." The warrior purred, relaxing down onto her side and taking her partner with it. "You make it too easy with these nice, loose shirts." She demonstrated, slipping a hand under the fabric and letting her touch wander across sensitive skin.

Gabrielle knew she didn’t really need the reassurance. Really. But it was nice to get anyway. And Xena was right… she was very inventive.

Once again, the rising sun was met by patient, pale blue eyes, which watched it trickle in over the windowsill in the cabin, and paint gentle stripes across the wooden floor.

This time, again, it was by choice. Xena had developed almost a haunting need to spend at least a little time in the morning, just looking at Gabrielle.. just being with her, there in the peace of their home. Ares was curled up at the foot of the bed, and the warrior was flat on her back, with her soulmate curled up against her.

The bard’s growing belly was making it hard for her to get into her regular spot, so Xena usually compensated by half turning onto her side and wrapping her arms around her smaller partner, cradling her gently throughout the night. However, this morning they were still in the position they’d ended up before they fell asleep, with Gabrielle pretty much draped completely over her, arms tight around her in a fierce hug.

The sunlight crept up the bed and spilled across them, catching Gabrielle’s pale hair in a wash of golden red, and highlighting the soft down that covered her face. The pregnancy had softened her features a little as her body started taking on the reserves she’d need to allow her baby to grow properly, but to Xena’s watching eyes, she had never seemed so beautiful.. and every day that brought them both closer to the birth only made that more so.

The quiet morning peace reminded her of that first, awful, wonderful morning after she’d found Gabrielle again.. after they’d left Potadeia and were on their own, alone at last in a quiet forest glade, when after all that time, she’d woken up from the aching, haunting dream of remembered love, to find it real again.

It had been dark, her body stirring nervously in the pre dawn as it had for a month, and she’d kept her eyes tightly shut, as she felt the warm figure nestled against her.

Her heart had pounded so fast, it had given her a headache, and she sat, torn between hope and despair, between holding tightly to her dream, or opening her eyes, to find only the emptiness of reality.

But the warmth hadn’t vanished, the solid heartbeat beneath her hands hadn’t faltered, and she’d slowly opened her eyes. To see pale hair reflecting the dim glow from the fire, and a pale cheek resting against her shoulder.

At last.

She’d broken down helplessly, and the startled, sleepy Gabrielle had held onto her, whispering gentle reassurances for a long time. Reminding Xena of her own reaction the morning after Xena had returned to her, which had been as intensely relieved, when the warrior had expressed embarrassment over her lack of composure.

But every morning after that had gotten a little better, until now… now, she woke in peace, bathed in Gabrielle’s familiar affection.

As to how the bard had survived… Xena felt, deep down, that there had been godly intervention in that… a favor granted to her that would have to be repaid at a later date. She had discussed it once or twice with the bard, who wondered if Hope herself hadn’t done something.. or Dahok… but their purpose always had been to separate the two of them…to force them apart.

It made sense, then, that Hope had gone to Potadeia. In her mind, she could portray her mother, and turn them against the warrior, then turn against her herself, bringing Xena down with the one weapon she knew could destroy her.

It might have even worked… except for their bond. Except that Xena had known, in that first interaction and even after all that time apart, that this wasn’t Gabrielle.

Just like she’d known in one split second look into mist green eyes, when it was. She smiled just thinking about that moment, when her entire world had changed, admitting color and light into what had been a gray, dull existence.

And then she smiled again, as the soft skin under her hand moved a little, the baby tumbling, or swimming, or perhaps just stretching in the morning like anyone else. She paused expectantly, then felt it again, and grinned in the sunlight now pouring over them.

"What.. is .. that… incredible smile for?" Gabrielle’s sleepy voice asked, as the bard ran a lazy finger up her partner’s side.

"You." Xena replied. "And our bouncing baby." She patted the bard’s belly.

"Mm." Gabrielle let her hand gently trace the curve. "Boy or girl, what do you think?"

It was an often asked question, without any real answer.

"I think.. maybe a girl." Xena replied, surprising her soulmate. "Just from the way you’re carrying." She pressed gently on the bard’s side, then on the bottom of the curved surface. "Let me know if that hurts you, okay?"

The bard rolled onto her back, submitting to the examination with sleepy contentedness. "Like I’d have to.. you know almost as soon as I do." She lifted a hand and ran it over Xena’s skin, tracing the ridges and slopes, and finally giving her a little pat. Only now, after two months of relative peace, was Cyrene’s kitchen finally starting to gain a foothold on her soulmate’s tall frame, and the bard was relieved to not be seeing deep hollows between her ribs any more.

Relieved that she was sleeping through the night finally, as well. "A girl, huh?" The bard smiled at her. "You know, I’ve kinda got that feeling too." She rolled over as Xena finished her exam, and reached for a small jar on the night table. "Oo… time to be basted?" She joked wryly.

Xena chuckled, and smeared a bit of the cream in the jar on her fingertips, then smoothed it over the taut skin covering her partner’s belly. "I think you enjoy this." She accused with a smile.

"Are you kidding?" Gabrielle had rolled back over onto her back and was wriggling happily. "Of course I do. Yah!.. Ares.. cut that out.. your nose is cold!"

The wolf had woken and scrambled over to see what his pack was doing, and decided to try tasting the cream Xena was using. He sneezed, and poked his tongue out.

"Yeah? Well keep your tongue to yourself, buddy." Xena told him, as she finished up her task.

"Mmm… thank you." Gabrielle gazed up at her fondly. "Tell you what.. I’ll reciprocate with some liniment tonight after you beat up on the Amazons all day.. how about it?"

The warrior grinned, and touched a fingertip to her nose. "You’re on." She bent her head and kissed the bard with gentle thoroughness.

"You know, I really missed having you around the past few days." Gabrielle commented, as Xena stood up and pulled a shirt over her head. The warrior glanced over her shoulder, an expression of mixed pleasure and confusion on her face. "I mean.. besides the fact that I love you… and you’re the center of my world, and all that… it’s just really good to have you here."

Xena thought about that for a while as she plunged her face into a basin of water and scrubbed it. Finally, she leaned on the edge of the large dish, and cocked her head at her partner. "Thanks."

Gabrielle grinned a little, then rolled up off the bed and joined her soulmate. "Will you come with me on my walk?" She combed her fingers through the warrior’s dark hair. "I tried to get Granella to come with me.. but she says it’s too hard."

"Sure." Xena agreed readily. "She should try to stay a little more active.. it’s gonna cause her problems, especially with twins." She traded her nightshirt for her gambeson, and fastened the straps. "As much as you accuse me of coddling you… Toris really coddles her… I’ve gotta have a talk with him when he gets back."

Gabrielle finished washing, then slipped into one of her soulmate’s old shirts, which were still a little baggy on her, but very comfortable. Then she put on a pair of leggings and sat down to put on her boots. "This is going to be interesting after a while." She commented, feeling the pressure as she bent over. "I don’t suppose your inventive brain could come up with arm extenders, huh?"

Xena chuckled, as she fastened her own boots, and bounced up and down. "I was lucky in that respect." She held out her arms, and looked at them. "How about I run over, and grab some muffins, and we can take off?"

The bard smiled happily. "Trail breakfast with you… yeah.. I like that idea." She took a deep breath, and nodded. "Let’s go."

Minutes later, after Xena detoured to the kitchen and conned some muffins and fruit from a disapproving Cyrene, they were starting up the gentle trail that lead up past the creek that supplied Amphipolis with its drinking water. The air was cold, and crisp, and both women’s breath was visible as they strolled up the path. "You doing okay?" Xena asked unobtrusively watching her soulmate’s chest rise and fall.

"Yeah… " Gabrielle assured her, as she settled down into a easy rhythm. Her balance was shifting, she recognized, and little muscles she’d never thought about before strained as her body tried to compensate. After a minute, it did, and she put more energy into her strides, feeling the welcome pull against her thighs. "Okay.. did you say breakfast?"

Xena chuckled, and handed her a muffin.

"Hi mom." Gabrielle poked her head in the door to the kitchen, smiling as Cyrene turned and waved her forward. "I got a list of the things the Amazons are bringing.. thought you might want to see it."

"C’mon in, cutie." The older woman smiled at her. "And now you can sit down, and have something proper for breakfast, instead of that pot luck my daughter insisted on."

The bard laughed, but did as she was asked, settling down at the long worktable. "But I like that stuff, mom… " She protested. "Besides, you can’t munch on bowls of gruel while you’re walking.. it bounces and gets all over the place when you try to put it in your mouth." She looked up. "Right, Eustase?"

The heavyset cook half turned and nodded. "Right you are, ma’am."

Gabrielle sighed, ignoring the muffled laugh from Cyrene, who put down a plate of eggs and lightly smoked ham. "Wow.. that smells good." She traded her parchment to the innkeeper for a fork, and started in on her plate while Cyrene read the list. "Pretty good selection… I think those pouches are going to go over well.. and the crossbows."

"Mm." Cyrene sat down, and flicked the edge with a fingertip. "Paintings.. is that the horrible person you brought back with you from that cave?"

The bard nodded. "Yeah.. " She spoke around a mouthful. "But.. she’s really improved… Soli told me one of the pictures she has is of Xena.. I can’t wait to see it. She did the fox and panther we have over our mantel."

"Oh ho… you’re going to have a fight on your hands there, my dear." Cyrene warned her. "Does she do commissions? If she’s good, I’d love her to do one of Xena and Toris… and one of Toris and Gran.. and of course, of the two of you… with Ares maybe… "

"Mom… " Gabrielle laughed. "One at a time, okay??" She took a sip of apple juice. "Besides, I think Gran would throw a rotten fruit at you if you suggested she get sketched right now."

"Ehh… maybe… " Cyrene waggled a hand. "Twins are rough.. and not everyone has it as smooth and easy as you, cutie…I can’t remember when I’ve seen someone carry as well as you are." She sighed. "I certainly didn’t… especially with Xena…Zeus, that was a rough pregnancy."

"Always a handful, huh?" The bard smiled. "I think she was probably fighting even before she came out… it’s so much a part of her, I can’t imagine her a quiet, peaceful child."

"You’re right there, Gabrielle." Cyrene agreed ruefully. "I remember when she was…oh… I suppose two years or so…and a brawl broke out in the tavern… I had someone try to take care of it, but there was this one fella… a tall, rough man taller than Toris is now, but really big, husky, you know?"

"Mmm." Gabrielle chewed, listening intently. She loved stories about her soulmate’s childhood. "I don’t know mom.. he’s kinda getting up there himself." Her eyes twinkled. "You and your dangerous cooking."

"Ehhh… " Cyrene cocked her head in acknowledgement. "I think he’s just sharing what Granella’s going through… they nibble together." She cleared her throat. "Anyway.." She paused. "And speaking of that, I wish you’d share the same thing with my daughter… gods, she scared me when you came home."

"I know." Gabrielle nodded quietly. "Me too.. but she’s doing a lot better…it’s just taking time."

Cyrene sighed. "Maybe.. but she’s still missing that spark… it worries me." She stared pensively at the table. "Where was I..oh, yes. This great bear of a man just picked up a bench, and was clearing the place with it… I was ducking, the patrons were running, when all of a sudden I hear this yell."

"A yell." The bard folded a piece of ham in half and bit into it.

"Oh yes.. sounded like a duck had been sat on, mind you… just this squeak of outrage, but it stopped everything. And there they were, in the center of the tavern, this big brute with his bench, and my little two year old holding her stuffed doll under one arm, and waving a pot with the other."

Gabrielle hastily covered her mouth, almost aspirating a bit of ham. "Oh mom.. don’t do that when I’m chewing.. " She laughed, picturing it.

"I was floored.. " Cyrene laughed herself, holding her sides. "This little tot, standing there yelling "Foo!" Which was what Xenie said when she didn’t like the way something smelled… "Foo." "

The bard closed her eyes and laughed harder, tears squeezing out from under her lashes. "Oh gods in Olympus.. what happened?"

"What could he do? Even a brute like him couldn’t conk a baby… he ran out of there like Cerebus was after him, and Xena was made the hero of the tavern… those men played with her, and gave her so many honeycakes… it was a wonder she didn’t explode." Cyrene rested her chin on her hand. "She loved every minute of it… and to tell the truth, so did I." She sighed. "I know… I know I was too busy.. I didn’t… I wasn’t as close to the children as I wanted to be.. there was so much to do, and no one to help… she needed attention I just couldn’t give her. Sometimes.. I wonder if things would have been different if I had."

It fit. Gabrielle chewed her ham. She thought of her partner, now so cautious and wary, as a young adult wanting.. needing that attention she’d never gotten at home. Finding it in a bunch of farm boys and cast off fighters, who she somehow, by brute luck and slim talent, fashioned in to an army. Finding it again in a Roman emperor she trusted unthinkingly. Finding it again, and again, each time giving her heart….each time having it thrown back at her, bloodied. Battered. No matter how successful she was, no matter how many battles she won… that child inside never found the approval and love she was looking for.

Until she was so poisoned, that when it was offered, she mistrusted that, and spurned it in favor of embracing the known, cold darkness that at the very least, wouldn’t touch her vulnerable heart.

Until the darkness lost its thrall, and the battles weren’t enough, and there was nothing left for her but bitter memories, and pain, and the knowledge of a lifetime of killing. And she had laid her weapons down, trying at the last to reach out for that child barely remembered, only to find nothing left of home but suspicion, and dislike. The end of the road.

Except for that tiny, almost random detour past a small sheep herding village called Potadeia. Gabrielle smiled quietly, treasuring the glimpses she’d gotten, now and again, of that child, peeking out shyly and hopefully, hidden away so very, very long. "I don’t know… maybe… " She gazed at Cyrene. "But maybe not…I think the Fates.. or something.. had a plan for her, and nothing you could have done would have changed that a whole lot, mom…you can’t blame that on yourself."

"Mm." Cyrene studied her. "You know, it’s funny, but when I saw you, for the first time there in the tavern facing all these angry people, I turned and I looked at Xena, and I saw her watching you, with an expression on her face I hadn’t seen since before Cortese… since before Lyceus died. " She paused, and shook her head. "I knew.. in that moment… there was still some little part of my daughter.. of the child I loved.. and I raised… left in there."

Gabrielle finished up her breakfast, and stared pensively at the tabletop. "I thought… this is a person who needs a friend. And I can be that friend." She looked up with a little lift of her shoulder "And I was."

"Yes, you were." Cyrene smiled, and tweaked her nose. "So.. have you thought of any names yet?" She decided the talk had gotten far too serious, and changed the subject. "Granella tells me that’s all they argue about… now that they’re going to have two, maybe each one of them will name one, and they’ll stop fighting over it."

"Oh, let’s see… we haven’t really, though Xena said this morning she thinks it’s going to be a girl.. and you know, I think so too, so that sort of makes it easier." She picked up a warm sweetroll from the basket Eustase put down in front of her, and nibbled it. "It’s sort of weird, because there’s so many choices.. " Her eyes twinkled. "Cyrene, for one."

"Oh gods no." The older woman waved a hand at her. "No no… not after me, please." She paused. "Not that I’m not flattered, cutie, but no… I’m not that fond of hearing my name yelled about."

"Well, not after either of us." Gabrielle laughed softly. "We’ve got enough namesakes already." She shook her head. "I don’t know… I guess we’ll have to start talking about it."

"Mm… well, I’ve got a few ideas if you run out of them. " Cyrene grinned. "And, speaking of her, where is Xena?"

"Beating up Amazons." The bard replied. "And this afternoon, she’s working with the colts… then she has another session with the kids before dinner."

"Gods.. her energy exhausts me." Cyrene pushed herself up and brushed her apron off. "I’ve got cooking to do… the knitting circle’s due here shortly, are you going to give it another try?"

Gabrielle grimaced. "Um… " She also stood, stretching her body out carefully then moving around the table. "I think I’ll leave that skill to my partner…I’ll go find the children, and practice my lighter stories." She had no patience with knitting, or embroidery for that matter.. it was repetitive and exacting…how her soulmate managed to focus her energetic nature on it she’d never understand. Buttons, she could do.. a trim or two here and there… even a pocket sewn on. Beyond that… "See you later, mom.. thanks for breakfast." She stroked her stomach and smiled. "From both of us."

She left the kitchen, and wandered out the front door to the inn, putting her hands on the porch railing and watching the morning crowd traveling back and forth. Across the way, she spotted Johan with a squad of the village children, working over a fishing set and figured they’d be occupied for a while yet. The merchants had settled the details of the fair, and she’d finished working on two boundary disputes the preceding day. Satisfied that she was, indeed, completely free, she decided to go find the Amazon battle school, and watch her soulmate at work.

Xena stood easily, her sword resting against her right thigh as she watched Lista and little Frendan square off, trying a combination move she’d just demonstrated. Ares was curled up nearby, happy his favorite human was back. He loved Gabrielle, but tended to stick by Xena when they were both around. Mostly because the stoic warrior was an excellent source of goodies, held in a small pouch tucked under her belt. Ares was no fool. "Hold it.. hold it.. " Xena stepped in, and flicked her sword tip between them, moving their weapons to one side. "No.. it’s not straight up and down.. it’s from the side a little.. and you turn your body as you swing down, to add weight to it." She demonstrated again. "Like that… "

"Oh..okay… right.. " Frendan nodded, and shifted her body a bit. "Like that?"

Xena nodded. "Right… if you’re swinging your body like that, you can even be off balance, and it will still be an effective stroke."

"Wait.. wait.. " Cesta objected, standing up from the fallen log she’d been sitting on. "That makes no sense…how can you defend like that?"

Xena sighed inwardly. Cesta was one of those people who were not quite as good as the thought they were. Xena guessed that she’d been one of the better swordswomen in her village, and that lead her to question most of what the warrior was teaching. Either that, a wry thought occurred to her, or she just liked to be the center of attention. "It’s all in the momentum." She explained with what was, for her exceptional patience. "Here.. come at me."

Cesta did so, with relish. She bounded forward with a competent stance, lifting her sword and bringing it down towards Xena’s left side. The warrior deliberately waited for the stroke to go past its zenith, then brought her own weapon up and caught the blow, twisting her body as she’d demonstrated, and easily using the forward momentum to shove Cesta back. "See?" She flipped her sword in her hand, rolling it over her forearm and then capturing it again.

"Wait.. let me try that again. " The redhead pushed her crimson locks back, studying Xena’s relaxed posture with stubborn concentration. She moved forward, wrapping both hands around her sword hilt then swinging with all her strength. The warrior read her body language and set herself just in time, centering her balance over slightly bent knees and letting her weapon rise to meet the stroke, allowing it to push her arms back and deepen her crouch, then she recoiled, powering her return stroke with a little more energy than she had intended and sending Cesta stumbling backwards.

The younger woman caught her balance and growled in frustration. "How do you do that?" She lowered her weapon and approached Xena. "You’re showing us this stuff, but even when we do it right, it’s not like when you do it."

Xena let her sword rest against her shoulder. "That’s why I have you working against each other.. I can give you advice, and the techniques.. but I can’t hand over experience.. or years of practice." She explained reasonably. "I’ve been doing this a long time, Cesta…I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent just working with this sword.. " She twirled it, then rolled it up over her arm and caught it, and twirled it again. "Until it’s become an extension of my arm.. as much a part of me when I fight as my hands.. or anything else. " She shrugged. "I can’t teach you that.. or give you this.. " She slipped her sword into her scabbard, and walked over to the fallen log, crouching down beside it.

"What are you doing?" Cesta asked, curiously.

Xena rocked the log a little, then set herself, and grabbed two stubby limbs, jerking the wooden piece up violently and getting her shoulders under it, then slowly straightening up, shifting her burden to a more evenly balanced position. She watched with a wry smile as their jaws dropped, then she took a breath. "Nothing comes easy." She lowered her body into a crouch, then straightened up again, feeling her legs coil and shift under her. "I can’t give you the years of doing this… " She repeated the move, then pressed the log over her head, and let it fall. "Which is what lets me do this. " She crouched again, then exploded up into the air, flipping her body lazily over and landing lightly on her feet, with a tiny bounce.

"Great Artemis." Frendan breathed.

Xena chuckled wryly, as she put a booted foot up on the log, and leaned on her thigh. "No.. just a lot of hard work." She motioned for Frendan and Lista to continue. "Go on.. again." She straightened up but left her boot on the log, folding her arms across her chest as she watched.

Cesta wandered over, and kicked the log a bit, putting her own foot up on it, then letting a hand rest on Xena’s tensed thigh. "That’s pretty impressive." She removed the hand before Xena could answer, then peered at the two combatants. "Maybe what we really need is a conditioning program… I mean, it’s nice to know what the moves should be, but it would be much better if we had the muscles to really execute them like you do."

"Well." Xena drawled thoughtfully. "You know.. you may have a point there, Cesta."

The redhead straightened up and preened. "Glad you think so…sometimes it takes an outside set of eyes, to see things, you know what I mean?"

"Absolutely. " Xena agreed. "In fact.. I think you should sit down with Eponin, when she gets here, and lay a new program out for her." She stated helpfully. "She loves hearing new ways to do things."

"Really?" Cesta edged a little closer. "All right.. I’ll do that… maybe I can get some pointers from you in the next day or two, hmm?"

The warrior lifted a hand lazily, making a thumbs up gesture, then clenching her fist, and releasing it, extending her fingers outward. "I’ll see if I can come up with some ideas.. " She drawled. "But you talk to her.. she gets kinda huffy when I do it.. being an outsider, and all."

"Great… you know, we think alike Xena… that’s an amazing thing." Cesta gave her a self satisfied smile, and turned to watch the two fighters. "They’ll always have a disadvantage because they’re so short, though.. not tall like us."

Pale blue eyes slid to watch her, then a faint curl of Xena’s lip came and went. "Think so??"

"Oh yeah. " She replied confidently.

Xena hopped over the log, and held up a hand. "Hold on, guys."

The two women stopped obligingly, and looked at her. The warrior turned around, and motioned for Cesta to come forward. "C’mere." She paused. "No.. put the sword down a minute."

Cesta gave her a puzzled look, but did as she was asked, putting her weapon down and slinking into the center of the circle, brushing by Xena who took a step back, and put her toe under a staff half hidden in the tough dried grass booting it up to her hand, and passing it to the redhead. "Here.. hold onto this for a minute."

The younger woman hefted the staff, and nodded agreeably. "Oh good… I was looking for some closer work." She faced Xena. "Where’s yours?"

"Oh.. no.. not me.. " Xena faced a quiet, wooded area nearby and lifted one hand, curling her finger in a beckoning gesture.

Out of the shadows, Gabrielle stepped, moving quietly across the winter dead grass with a smoothly muscular pace despite her condition. The pallid sun rippled through her red gold hair and seemed to gather itself in her face, as her eyes fell on Xena, and a smile spread across her features. "Hi." She cocked her head at the warrior as she came even with her. "What’s up?"

"Wanna demonstrate something for me?" Xena inquired with devastating innocence.

Mist green eyes went to the waiting Cesta, then to Xena’s face with a gentle twinkle. "Sure." She’d seen the tall redhead crawling all over her beloved soulmate, and had almost stormed out of her pleasant nest under the oak tree nearby, until she’d seen the warrior’s lazy hand signal.

The "I love you" had settled her churning guts, and put her soul at ease, and she’d relaxed, until Xena’s gesture brought her forward. "What did you have in mind?"

Xena kicked up another staff, and handed it over. "I was just going to demonstrate to Cesta how being tall can be a disadvantage if you’re up against someone who really knows what they’re doing."

"Oh.. hey.. hold on… " Cesta backed up, protesting. "Wait, she’s pregnant."

Gabrielle’s hands moved in a flashing motion, taking the staff out of the taller woman’s hands so fast she didn’t even see it. "It’s okay.. I’ll go easy on you." She told the woman kindly. "I don’t want to strain myself too much."

"Hey!" Cesta retrieved her staff, her face reddening in embarrassment. It was all very well to have the Warrior Princess beat up on everyone, but she’d be damned if she was going to let this half pint little Amazon do the same.

Xena just backed off until she bumped into Solari, who gave her a look. "You’re so bad." The Amazon whispered. "Remind me never to get on your evil side, okay, Xena?"

Innocent blue eyes regarded her. "Me? I’m just teaching a class, Solari… I have no idea what you’re talking about." She turned. "Okay, Cesta, now go at my bard there… try an upper combination move."

The tall redhead shifted her grip, her face going very serious, then she slid forward, and aimed at Gabrielle’s shoulder level, trying to engage her staff and twist it out of the bard’s hands.

Gabrielle caught the blow on one end of her weapon, then rotated it, and crouched a little, ducking under Cesta’s swing and bringing her own staff around to smack the taller woman in the ribs. Then she pulled her staff back, and sent the other end between Cesta’s legs, twisting hard with her newly more centered balance and dumped the other woman on her butt with an unceremonious thud. "I’m lower to the ground." She explained kindly. "It gives me better balance, and reduces the amount of effective attack area. You tall people have all sorts of interesting angles and surfaces to whack at." The other Amazons laughed as she offered Cesta a hand up.

She stepped over to one side, and reached out, tapping her soulmate’s long side, and then her knees, as Xena allowed the soft pats to fall unhindered. "What I learned from Xena was, it doesn’t really matter how big you are.. what matters is that you learn how to use what you have to do the job you need to do." Her eyes fell on Frendan, who was gazing worshipfully at her. The little Amazon was perhaps three or four inches shy of the bard’s own short stature, and Gabrielle winked at her, receiving a shy grin in return.

Cesta shook out her ruffled feathers, and returned to her sword, handling it with restless fingers. "Well… staff’s not my weapon.. want to try that with these?"

"You raise your hand with a sword in it against Gabrielle, I’ll cut it off." Xena stated, before the bard could even start to answer. The warrior’s face had taken on the cold mask familiar to her soulmate and Gabrielle moved instinctively closer, curling a hand around her arm.

They all stared at Xena uneasily.

Gabrielle exhaled. "Most people know, Cesta, that I don’t fight with anything other than a staff.. I’ve never learned the sword, nor do I want to." She gave her taller partner a pat, bumping her gently. "Xena gets a little overprotective about that."

Xena’s postured relaxed, and she draped an arm over the Queen.

"Sorry." Cesta lifted her hands. "I didn’t mean any insult.. it’s just I’m a lot better with this." She lifted the sword. "We mostly concentrate on that, and the bow in the south… not very much staff work, I’m afraid." She made a regretful face, but somehow managed to insinuate that she didn’t think much of the weapon.

"Well, it’s saved my life on more than one occasion." Gabrielle replied. "But anyway… I’m interrupting here… I’ll just go back to quietly watching." She gave Xena a pat on the belly. "Make sure you get some water, okay?" She leaned in closer. "madam let me lift a log up like it was nothing." Her voice dropped. "Show off."

Xena gave her a quick hug and chuckled. "Thanks.. I will." She stepped back and bounced a little. "Okay… let’s try that overhand attack again."

Gabrielle seated herself on the log, tucking her boots under her and watching her soulmate contentedly.

The sun was high in the sky before the sound of running footsteps drew their attention. Xena lifted her head, pushing sweat dampened hair back from her forehead, and motioning the three Amazons facing her to hold back.

Coming towards them was Johan, his booted feet thudding against the ground. "Xena!"

The warrior started towards him, moving into a powerful run that whipped her hair back and made the dusty grass scatter under her weight. "Jo.. what’s up?" Fear for her mother suddenly grabbed her. "Is mother all right?"

He puffed to a halt, putting a hand out to steady himself against her fabric covered chest. "Aye lass… tis bad news, though.. ye’d better come.. it’s your brother and Jess."

Xena let out a curse, then turned as Gabrielle and the rest of the Amazons came trotting up. "Something happened to Tor and Jess.. I’ll meet you back home." She glanced behind the bard. "Ares, you stay with mommy, all right?" She turned and started back towards the inn, going from a walk to a run in a few steps, and disappearing from sight quickly.

They all looked at each other, and Gabrielle sighed as she slid an arm around the still panting Johan. "C’mon dad.. let’s start back and you can tell us what happened."

Continued in Part 2