Path of Thorns by Annemaart

Path of Thorns
By
Annemaart

Disclaimer: Helas, not mine.Violence: Heck, yeah . Xena will be a bit less ruthless I’m afraid, but she’s still the Conqueror, so I expect heads to be flying from time to time.

Subtext: No. Maintext: yes, definitely. My main characters are very much involved. If this bugs ya: shoo.

Darkness: I don’t know exactly how this story’s gonna turn out, I’ve only got small bits of pieces in my head right now. But those bits and pieces are looking pretty dreary, so I think this story will have a high darkness level. I’m sure it won’t be all gloom and doom, with the little peripherals around, but Xena and Gab aren’t gonna be skipping through a field picking flowers for 200 pages either, if ya catch my drift.

Author’s note: OK, so this is it, the sequel to The Edge of Nowhere. I have to be honest and say I have my doubts about starting this little tale here. I’m not a very good sequel writer, I tend to put everything I’ve got into part number one, leaving very little to be dealt with in a possible number two. But I really loved writing these characters, so I figured I’d just give this a go and see where we end up. Okay? … All right then, let’s get this thing started.

 

 

 

A flash lit up the barren land, reflecting against reddish rock walls. The cloud of dark blue that had appeared simultaneously slowly evaporated, revealing a well-built, leather clad god, whose dark brown eyes instantly swept over his new surroundings. He stood on a plateau, elevated high above sea level. Nothing grew there, not even a stalk of grass. The stone beneath his feet was a deep, smouldering red. An angry red.

There was only the sound of water gurgling far away and a soft, distant growling. The area was deserted, except for a single, solitary figure, standing at the edge of a crevice, staring down into its depth.

Ares felt a grin tug at his lips at the sight and he immediately headed towards where the woman was standing. He stepped up beside her, glancing down himself. The abyss was deep, and he could barely see the river flowing at the bottom of it. He glanced up at the woman next to him, then gazed back down into the crevice. “He’s in there?”

Xena simply nodded.

“Heh,” the god of war rubbed his hands delightedly. “That musta hurt him.” He enthusiastically smacked Xena on the back. “See? I told you. Not even he can stand up to a lean mean conquering machine like you and me, Xena.”

“You and me?” Xena half turned to face him, revealing a black eye and an ugly looking gash on her arm. She was leaning on her sword, to keep the weight off of her deformed knee, which was clearly dislocated. Blood was seeping from a tear in her leathers. “You and me?!” She slammed her fist against his cheek before he could even try to defend himself, sending him staggering back a few paces. “He nearly killed me! Where the Hades were you?!”

“Well, you see…” Ares eyes flicked about restlessly. “This thing came up, and I couldn’t possibly…”

“Oh, shut up!” Blue eyes pinned him down with an almost lethal intensity. “You copped out, Ares. You were afraid to die, so you left me to take care of your little problem single-handedly. Don’t give me any of your crappy excuses. I know better.”

Ares blinked at her a few times, then cleared his throat uncomfortably. “All right… I left you hanging. I’m sorry, okay?”

“Sorry don’t cut it.”

Ares produced one of his charming smiles. “Oh, come on, baby.” He took a sly step closer. “I know this was tough on ya, but just look…” He waved a hand at their surroundings, at the land spreading out below them. “Nothing is standing in our way now. Persia is ours for the taking.” He reached out, stroking her cheek with the back of his fingers. “Tomorrow we’ll start setting up our plans, and in a few days time, we’ll… Argh!” Ares gasped as fingers closed around his throat, lifting him straight off his feet.

“We…” Xena stressed the word as she looked up at him. “…won’t do anything.” She shoved him away from her, watching as he fell back unceremoniously. Ares hastily pushed himself back up until he was leaning on his hands, looking up at her doubtfully. “We’re through, Ares,” Xena stated, towering over him. “You are absolutely useless to me.” With that she limped past him, starting on her trip back down the plateau. “I’m taking Persia on my own.”

“Bu… Xe…” Ares stuttered, clambering back to his feet. Xena didn’t bother to turn around. Several more words formed and died on the war god’s lips, then he just tossed up his hand angrily. “Fine! Be that way!” He pointed a finger at her back. “You’ll be crawling back to me in no time, Xena! You need me!”

A humoured snort was his response.

Ares huffed out an angry breath. “Ungrateful bitch,” Ares growled under his breath. “You give her an empire and what do you get?” He glanced at the crevice, then took a few steps closer, so he was peering into the deep again. A small grin tugged at his lips. “Well… I guess it got you down there, didn’t it, Flameball?”

A muted roar rolled its way up the steep cliffs, making the ground under his feet tremble slightly. “Is that all you got now?” Ares laughed. “I told you not to mess with me, Fireboy. But you didn’t listen, did ya?”

Another roar, this one more filled with hatred than the previous one.

The war god snorted, then leaned a fraction closer, grinning devilishly. “You were the one god more powerful than I. And now that you’re out of the way…” He closed his eyes, revelling in the moment. “Oh, the possibilities.” Then he opened his eyes again, glancing down. “But first…” A smirk. “Time for you to cool down.”

He lifted his hands to the sky, his eyes darkening as he tapped into his powers. A cloud formed overhead, pitch black, and he watched as it slowly grew and grew, until it had darkened the entire world around him. Then, with a sudden motion, he threw the cloud down into the crevice, further and further, until it impacted with the river running below.

Ares relaxed, and waited until the cloud had dissipated entirely, revealing the river again. Only this time it was frozen solid.

Ares placed his hands on his hips, judging his handiwork contentedly. “You lose, Smokey. I win.” A chuckle. “This ice will keep you locked down there until I die, and since I’m pretty immortal that’ll be… oh…” A smirk. “Never.”

15 years later

A small drop of water managed to loosen itself from the tip of an icicle it had been part of. It slid down the ice, growing, then transferred itself onto rock. It increased its pace, rushing down the steep cliff wall, until it finally rolled over a small extending bit of rock and was launched into the air. A soft thud sounded as it hit the ice below.

And as it did, a shadow stirred beneath the surface. Another thud followed, and another and the shadow shifted again, more restlessly now.

Puddles of water were forming on the ice, as the layer covering the river itself was now also melting away. A drop plunged into the water, and another, and another, until…

With a deafening crack the ice shattered, as a flame burst up into the sky.

It was the tiniest of sounds that woke Xena up. The Empress repressed the urge to open her eyes and look, and only listened. Silence lasted for several moments, then there was another small rustle, the sounds of feet moving over the carpet. They came closer and closer until…

“Don’t even think about it.”

Iona paused in mid-motion, just ready to make a jump for the bed. Xena slowly rolled over and shot her a charming smile. “Close,” she drawled, popping her head up on her arm while reaching out with the other and tweaking her attacker’s nose. “But not close enough.”

“Ugh,” Iona waved the Empress’s hand away, then rubbed her nose. “Mom!”

“Heh,” Xena chortled, reached out again and now ticking the girl’s side. “That’ll teach you to mess with the Queen.”

“Aah!” Iona hopped out of the way of the wiggling fingers, then, deciding offence was the best defence, she jumped forward, landing squarely on top of her mother.

“Oef!” Xena felt the air being pushed out of her, then she inhaled sharply as Iona started tickling her. “Ugh.” She caught the twelve-year old around the waist and pulled her off her body, intent on reversing their roles. “Oh, you’re gonna pay for that, you little brat.”

Gabrielle leaned on the doorway quietly, watching the scene with a smile on her face. A month had passed since the whole crucifixion incident, and the blond dye had now fully grown out of Iona’s hair, revealing her pitch-black coupe. She now looked so much like her mother, it was scary.

The warrior couldn’t repress a small chuckle as Iona nearly toppled out of the bed and Xena took advantage of this by grabbing onto one of her daughter’s feet, tickling it mercilessly, making the girl squirm in an attempt to reach her mother from her uncomfortable position.

The chuckle was nearly soundless, but not soundless enough. Xena’s head immediately snapped to the door. Gabrielle smiled. The Empress quickly let go of her burden, sitting up a bit and ruffling a hand through her dishevelled locks in a hasty attempt to order them. “Hi.”

“Hi,” the warrior drawled in response. “You’re not tiring yourself out, are you? Defeating you at sparring gets so easy after your daughter’s beaten you up.”

“Beaten me up?” Xena snorted. “Like she could even get within an inch o…Uhmph!” Her voice was muted as a pillow slammed straight into her face.

“You were saying?” Iona drawled in triumph, then hastily hopped out of the way as hands reached blindly for her. She crawled off the bed and skipped over to Gabrielle cheerfully. “See, I told you it’d work!”

“Heh,” Gabrielle shared a high-five with the teenager. “Next time you be the decoy though, ‘kay?”

“Defo…?” Xena shoved the pillow out of her face. “Decoy?!” The blue eyes narrowed dangerously at the twosome.

“Would ya look at the time?” Iona backed up a pace. “I suddenly remembered I have lots of homework to do.” She turned and hastily slipped out the door. “Bye!”

“Why, you little…” Xena raised her voice. “You’ll regret that little stunt, missy!”

Gabrielle chuckled.

“Ow, you think it’s funny, do you?” The Empress crossed her arms, glaring at the blonde.

“Yes,” the warrior confirmed cheerfully, before pushing off the doorpost and lazily strolling into the room.

“Ugh,” Xena rubbed a hand over her face, which still stung from its impact with the pillow. “My all-powerful advisor teaming up with my vindictive offspring. I’m not sure I can forgive this so easily.”

Gabrielle smiled as she sat down on the edge of the bed. “You’re not, huh?” She reached out a hand and twirled a lock of dark hair around a finger.

Blue eyes peeked sideways, at the warrior’s hand, then hesitantly looked at Gabrielle. The warrior’s smile grew a fraction, then she leaned closer, slowly, and gently pressed her lips against Xena’s.

The kiss lasted for several moments. When Gabrielle backed away a little, she found Xena had closed her eyes. The Empress remained still for a while longer, caught in the moment, then finally her eyes fluttered open again. “You uhm…” she cleared her throat self-consciously, trying to suppress the blush she could feel creeping up her cheeks. “You’re forgiven.”

The blonde grinned wickedly. “Thanks.” She gave the lock of hair, which was still entwined with her fingers a playful tug, then rose to her feet. “See you at the arena?”

“Hmm,” the Empress just murmured.

“All right then,” Gabrielle headed for the door, trying to repress a smirk.

Blue eyes followed her until she disappeared out the door, then Xena released a happy little sigh. She pulled her pillow closer, wrapping both her arms around it and resting her head on top, continuing to stare at the now empty doorframe.

After a while of pointless staring, Xena laughed a little at herself, hiding her face in the soft fluffy surface. “You are going insane,” she mumbled into her pillow. “Lying here, staring at doors. You’re losing your mind, Xena.” She pushed herself up on her elbows. “See, you’re already talking to yourself now.” She rolled onto her back, then pushed herself up, neatly hopping onto her feet. “Absolutely nuts.”

She headed for her closet, shedding her sleep shirt as she walked. She pulled open the double doors and let her eyes slide over her options, finally settling on an old, ripped crimson shirt and a pair of leather pants. The leather because it’d better protect her against the vicious blows she was bound to receive, and the shirt ‘cause… A grin. Well, because Gabrielle had said it looked good on her.

To say her life had changed was an absolute understatement. It was like… Well, like that idea of Plato’s, where he’d claimed that, in this life, people were merely viewers of shadows dancing on walls. They believe they see the world as it is, but in fact the real world is lying right behind them and all they have to do is turn around to see it.

She’d been turned around. By Pyrron’s death, by Iona, by Gabrielle… They’d all nudged her chair a bit, and now she was staring into this whole new reality. And it’d left her… thrilled. And curious. But also confused and, if she was honest with herself, just a tad scared.

In the last month she’d had to define who she was all over again. Before she’d been a ruler. The ruler. She’d been a fighter, and an occasional playmate. That had been about it.

Now, she was suddenly a mother. Officially to one troublesome teenager. But factually to one troublesome teenager, a smart but pained little boy and a bouncing, inquisitive toddler. Raising children, she’d found, was much harder than running a country. Officials tended to back down after a few threats and narrow-eyed looks. Kids didn’t. Or, at least, these kids didn’t.

Of course it didn’t help much that the troublesome teenager was also half god, and had newly discovered powers to test, preferably on her siblings. Xena rolled her eyes as she straightened her outfit a bit, checking her reflection in the mirror.

And then of course there was her relationship with Gabrielle. Her completely insane, all logic defying and utterly confusing relationship with Gabrielle.

In all honesty, she’d never really expected the two of them to last. After she’d woken up, the morning after the crucifixion, she’d very purposefully backed off a little, afraid the steps they’d taken were merely the result of a near-death experience and other extreme circumstances. She wanted to give the warrior the opportunity to ignore everything that had happened between them.

But Gabrielle hadn’t.

It had been around noon when she’d finished writing her report of the past few days. She wanted to send an official statement out through the empire, to attempt to suppress at least some of the gossip that was bound to show its ugly head throughout the nation after yesterday’s events.

Yesterday… Xena rested her head on a fist warily, gazing at the opposite wall. Gods, she wished it was still yesterday. She’d happily bear the pain of nails being driven through flesh if it meant reliving those few sweet moments at the end of the day.

The Empress released a heavy breath. Yesterday was done with though, the dream was over, and she had to face up to reality. What had happened between them had been a spur of the moment thing, surely. Gabrielle couldn’t possibly really be interested in her, right? Gabrielle was beautiful, and sweet and kind and… and she wasn’t. And all Gabrielle’s friends hated her. It would never work.

Benitor, her oldest and most loyal servant and a good friend of Gabrielle’s, had stopped by earlier with a snack. It turned out the blonde had sent him, to relay a message that they needed to talk. Xena had waved him off with some vague consent, but she hadn’t gone back to meet with the warrior. She could guess what Gabrielle would say, but… she couldn’t deal with it actually being said out loud right now. She just couldn’t.

Xena’s head shot up suddenly as she heard a fast pattering of little feet, followed by some scratching against the door. Moments later the door opened and Niobe almost tumbled in, having only just managed to reach the doorknob. “Sena!” The child looked alarmed.

“What is it?” The Empress immediately rose to her feet and circled the desk.

“Isse Abby,” the toddler stated, pointing back out the door. “Abby no good. Godda cum fix!”

Xena hadn’t even waited for the girl to finish her warbling. She’d already rushed out the door, running down the corridor and into the main hall. Down another corridor and up a set of stairs, until she screeched to a halt near the guest room Gabrielle was staying at, grabbing onto the doorpost and swirling into the room.

She stopped then, breathing heavily, staring at Gabrielle, who was sitting up in her bed, supported by pillows, her hands folded in her lap, waiting patiently. “Wh..?”

“Sit down,” the warrior stated quietly, waving a hand at a free spot on the bed, beside her.

“B…” Xena straightened a bit, trying to catch her breath. “You’re okay?”

“No.” Gabrielle crossed her arms. “I’m beaten and bruised and I spent the whole morning worrying what I’d done to make you want to avoid me.”

Xena blinked at her, wordlessly.

“So just tell me.” Green eyes gazed at her. “What did I do wrong?”

“Nothing,” the Empress blurted, before she could stop herself. “You didn’t…” She dropped her head. “I just thought…”

“Don’t think,” the warrior interrupted her sternly. “You suck at it.”

Wide blue eyes shot up and blinked at her.

Gabrielle managed to keep a stern look on her face for a few more moments, then a reluctant smile edged its way through. “Come here.” She reached out her hand, expecting Xena to come over and take it.

The Empress hesitated a few moments, but when Gabrielle crooked a finger at her impatiently she did walk closer, circling the bed and sitting down next to the warrior. Still, she kept a respectable distance between them, looking down at her fingers as she rubbed the skin there nervously.

She sat like that for a moment, then a hand blocked her vision, covering both her hands and squeezing gently. Xena tilted her head back a bit, peeking at the woman next to her.

“I know it’s complicated,” Gabrielle said softly. “This. Us. But… I think it could work. I’m willing to take a risk, and see if it can. ‘Cause I think it’ll be worth it. If you don’t…”

“I do,” the Empress cut her off before she could go on. “I’m just…” A wry grin. “I’m just horribly insecure.” A pause. “And afraid.”

Gabrielle smiled a little. “This whole thing isn’t doing your image a lot of good, is it?”

This actually got a small laugh out of the other woman. “I think my image is officially shattered.” She sobered again. “What’s left is.. is just me. I’m not sure you’ll like me.”

“Neither am I,” the warrior answered honestly, before gently squeezing Xena’s hand. “But you gotta let me find out, okay? And not just run off.”

Xena folded her fingers a bit tighter around Gabrielle’s in response. “Okay.”

The blonde looked at her for a few moments more, then let herself fall sideways a bit, coming to lean against the Empress, resting her head on Xena’s shoulder.

Xena smiled, lifting her hand and carefully wrapping it around the woman’s shoulders. “I’m sorry.”

“Just don’t do it again,” Gabrielle mumbled in response.

The Empress chuckled, impulsively kissing the warrior’s temple. “Deal.”

“Good!” Niobe toddled in, having waited at the door, in an uncharacteristic bout of patience. “Abby an Sena fends gain. Yay!”

The two women shared an amused look, then Xena focused on the child. “Come here, short stuff.” The toddler obediently waggled over, giggling as Xena lifted her up and placed her on her lap.

Xena ruffled the dark brown hair. “You tricked me.”

“Yes,” Niobe admitted easily.

The Empress chuckled, then hugged the toddler a little closer. “Thanks.”

The child giggled. “Yous welcome.”

Xena finished her morning chores and headed out the door, in the direction of the arena. Since then they’d tried to work at their relationship, but it was hard. Not just because of the oddness of it all, but also because of all the work they’d had to deal with. In the last weeks, they’d only managed to spend a couple of evenings together. And they had their early sparring sessions of course. Xena smiled as she stepped outside, sniffing in a fresh breath filled with morning dew and arena sand. She felt up for it this morning. She flexed her muscles expectantly. This morning, she was gonna win.

“Urgh!” Xena stumbled a few paces back after the wooden end of a spear had been shoved into her abdomen.

Gabrielle twirled her weapon around expertly, allowing Xena the time to recover. “I thought you said you were gonna beat me this time, Empress?”

“I am,” the Empress wiped the sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand. “I’m just… ya know, giving you a chance to get into the swing of things.” She pushed her own spear forward, watching Gabrielle block it easily. “So you won’t feel too bad when you lose.”

The warrior laughed, as she swept the sharp edge of Xena’s weapon aside. “Oh, you don’t wanna hurt my delicate feelings, do you?”

“Exactly,” Xena said, before only barely being able to duck under a spear point. “You get so moody when you lose.”

A snort. “And you would know this exactly how?” Gabrielle jumped over a poke at her legs, pulling herself into a flip and landing behind Xena, leaning a bit closer to whisper in her ear. “I haven’t lost to you yet.”

Xena swirled around, and Gabrielle hopped back to avoid her weapon from hitting her. “I have nearly won several times,” the Empress told her with narrowed eyes, as she lunged into a series of attacks.

“The keyword there is ‘nearly’,” Gabrielle smirked and she took another step back, ending up against the wall of the arena. She quickly glanced behind her, seeming surprised.

“Heh,” Xena chortled, bringing up her spear and holding it inches from her victim’s throat. “Give up?”

Gabrielle frowned, seeming to consider this for a moment. Then she grinned. “No.” In a flash she grabbed onto the spear tip, allowing herself to drop down, placing a boot against Xena’s stomach and pulling her attacker right over her.

“Whoa!” Shocked by the sudden move, Xena let go of her weapon, lifting her hands in front of her to keep her head from impacting with the wall.

Gabrielle rolled away, then stood and turned, a spear in each hand. “Oh, Xena?”

The Empress quickly scrambled back to her feet and turned, then her eyes widened as Gabrielle launched both weapons forward simultaneously.

She tried to duck, but it was already too late. The spear points caught hold of her sleeves and then embedded themselves in the wall, pinning her against the stone very effectively.

Laughter rose up from the stands, the spectators that tended to show up, thoroughly enjoying the spectacle. Gabrielle leisurely strolled forward, leaning against the wall next to the Empress, who was trying to grab hold of the spears to free her arms, but they were just out of her reach. “Give up?”

Xena turned her head, shooting the warrior a foul look, but Gabrielle only smiled sweetly in response. The dark-haired woman rolled her eyes, but then gave in. “Fine, fine… You win… again.” With one hard tug she ripped her shirt free, leaving two small pieces of crimson fabric stuck against the wall. “You’re lucky this is an old shirt.”

“You could have just waited for me to pull the spears free,” the warrior pointed out, as they started off back towards the palace.

“That’s too much for my battered ego to handle,” Xena muttered, drawing another laugh from the blonde.

“You shouldn’t have let me win so much the week before last.”

“Yeah right,” Xena rolled her eyes. “You had just recovered from a gigantic gash in your stomach. And I was just supposed to beat you to a pulp, was I?”

“Who says you would have been able to?” Xena darted her a look. Gabrielle grinned. “Okay, you probably could have.” She bumped the other women with a shoulder. “It was sweet of you not to.”

“Don’t insult me,” Xena muttered, attempting to remain grumpy, but she couldn’t help a small smile from poking through her façade. “Are you gonna join us for dinner tonight?”

“I hope so.” A sigh. “I’ve got some tough issues to go through with the council today though.”

Xena shook her head. “You’ve been at this the entire week already. How many tough issues are there?”

“A lot,” the warrior answered wryly. “There are many things they don’t agree with.”

A dark eyebrow rose. “They?”

“We,” Gabrielle corrected herself. “I meant ‘we’.”

Xena darted her companion a curious look. “Do you want me to come in around lunchtime with some major crisis and give you an excuse to leave.”

“Tempting,” the blonde tilted her head back and looked up at the Empress. “But no. We just… we gotta work through all this to get the council functioning properly.”

A wry smile. “Democracy isn’t as easy as you thought, is it?”

Gabrielle shrugged. “I won’t deny dictatorship is less complicated. But that doesn’t mean it’s better.”

“Maybe,” Xena allowed, stopping as they entered the palace’s hall. “Try to make it to dinner though, okay? I’ll get the cook to prepare your favourite food. And arrange for the biggest dessert you’ve ever seen.”

The warrior chuckled. “You do know what to win me over with, don’t ya?”

Xena smiled back. “Well, I try.”

“I’ll do my best then,” the warrior promised, reaching out and rubbing the Empress’s arm. “Good luck today.”

“You too,” Xena squeezed the blonde’s hand gently, before they both turned and strode into opposite directions.

A tiny ladybug crawled from his thumb to his index finger. The boy laughed, kicking with his feet in the air as he lay in the grass on his stomach. The bug crawled on, down the length of his finger and onto his palm, its tiny feet tracing his lifeline. The child cocked his head, bringing his eyes as close as he could to the object of his fascination.

When the insect reached the end of his lifeline and headed forward to his wrist, a flurry of motion behind the bug caught his attention. The boy straightened up, then frowned as he saw a flame dancing at the base of a tree. There were dry twigs all around it, but for some reason the fire didn’t spread, but remained a solitary flame.

The boy placed the ladybug back in his palm and closed his hand around it in protection, before scrambling to his feet. Carefully, he took a step towards the flame. It remained where it was, gently dancing in the wind.

The boy took another step closer, and another, then started to reach out his hand to touch the strange apparition, when suddenly the flame seemed to come alive. It shot forward, and before the boy could duck it impacted with his chest, penetrating the skin without leaving so much as a mark. The boy fell back from the force and thudded to the ground.

For a while he lay silent, staring up wide-eyed at the sky. A single white cloud slid past, slowly drifting towards the sun, intent on blocking its rays.

“Firouz!” A voice called out. “Firou… Ah, there you are.” A girl, slightly older, slid to a halt by his side. “What are you doing lying on the ground?”

“I…” Firouz cleared his throat, which for a moment had sounded deep and raspy. “Nothing.”

“Whatever…” The girl shrugged, used to the boy’s odd behaviour. He had always been a dreamer. “Me and the others are playing hide and seek. Do you want to come play?”

A grin tugged at the boy’s lips. “I’d love to.”

“Okay, come on…” The girl ran off again, expecting Farouz to follow her.

The boy slowly pushed himself to his feet and turned, his gaze following the girl as she ran towards the forest a little way off. Without looking away, he tightened his hand into a fist, then opened it again, letting the dead ladybug fall to the ground, before he moved towards the forest himself.

“This is unacceptable.”

Gabrielle repressed the urge to expel an aggravated sigh. “It is not unacceptable, Mentius.”

“Yes, it is!” The former leader of the rebel fraction pounded his fist on the table. “We’re trying to turn this country into a democracy. If we can’t be expecting any elections in the next two years at least, then what’s our democracy worth?”

Gabrielle lifted a hand and rubbed at her eyes. They’d been at this non-stop for the last six hours and she’d very much had it with this discussion. Though the council consisted of only seven members, including herself, there had not been one issue so far that they’d all agreed on. Xena had urged her to keep the number small, and she was glad she’d agreed to that, knowing now any more members would have made the situation outright catastrophic… if it wasn’t that already.

“I have to agree with Mentius,” Thalia leaned back in her seat. “I understand what you’re saying, Gab, I really do, but think about what democracy stands for. The rule of the people. As long as there are no elections, there is no democracy.”

“But…” An older man, with only a few dark-grey hairs left on his scalp spoke up hesitantly. “But change brings chaos. Things have finally calmed down in the last few years.” His brown hazel eyes slid apologetically past the resistance leaders. “We will be the first to suffer then, with the looting and all. My store hasn’t been robbed in years. Not since the Empress settled here.”

Gabrielle shot the shopkeeper a grateful smile. “Exactly, Theron.”

“I don’t even wanna think about the scum I’ll have to deal with again,” Alyssa, a young barmaid, crossed her arms. “Troublemakers always come to the inns. And I’ll be cleaning up the mess after they’ve left.”

Gabrielle waved a hand at Mentius. “If it was just Athens, I’d agree with you. But this is a huge country. You can’t just turn it upside down and expect things to work out.”

“I don’t expect them to ‘just’ work out,” Mentius countered. “I’m not an idiot.”

“Really?” Another young man chuckled, as he brushed his hand through his greasy dark hair. “Could have fooled me.”

Thalia rolled her eyes. “I know you don’t like the fact that we’re here, Odell, but deal with it, okay?”

“You thieves robbed me of my cargo,” Odell shot back, his eyes narrowing dangerously. “Twice! Do you really expect me to just sit down at this table with you… rebels?” he said the word as if it left a vile taste in his mouth.

Mentius started to rise, pointing a finger at the merchant. “Listen, you son of a…”

“Enough!” Gabrielle grabbed onto the rebel’s arm and shoved him back in his seat. “Who is here and how we all feel about that is not under discussion!” She pointed a finger at Odell. “What do you think about elections?”

Odell carelessly tossed up his hands, leaning back in his seat and popping his feet up on the table. “Elections are fine by me.” A smirk. “Weapon trade will go up. I’m all for that.”

The warrior shot a look skyward, but managed to refrain from commenting, simply turning her head to the last board member. “Megan?”

An older woman folded her hands, resting her cheek on top as she pondered over the question. “I see Gabrielle’s point. I do not think we should force a democracy upon the people now.”

“Thank you,” the blonde nodded and wanted to move on to the next issue on the agenda.

“However,” Megan went on, pensively. “We should encourage it to flourish.”

“It’s not a flower, schoolteacher,” Odell drawled.

Megan spared a look for the merchant, then refocused her attention on the head of the council. “We cannot do nothing for two years and hope by then, elections will have suddenly become a possibility.”

“I know that,” Gabrielle nodded. “We can start off with little things, like just listening to what we hear on the streets, or maybe small polls or something. All I’m saying is that it’s way too soon to be thinking about elections for a new head of state.”

Odell snorted softly. “And your position on this issue wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that the current head of state is your girlfriend, right?”

“Hey!” Thalia rose from her seat instantly, looming over the merchant. “Shut it, grease boy.”

“Why?” Odell tilted his head back and looked up at her, not intimidated. “Please don’t tell me you weren’t just thinking the exact same thing.”

“I was not!” The redhead pointed a finger at him. “Gabrielle can…”

“…handle her own battles, thank you.” When Thalia looked back over her shoulder, the warrior motioned her to sit down. The redhead looked dismayed, but after a moment she obeyed. Gabrielle managed a small smile for her, before turning her attention to the merchant slouched in the chair across from her. “You know I don’t agree with Xena’s methods. I was a member of the resistance.”

Odell let out a short sarcastic laugh. “Oh yeah, that argument will get me right on your side.”

Gabrielle did her best to ignore his comment. “I don’t like what she did, but the fact is, she is now leading a stable, wealthy nation.”

“Through tyranny and oppression.” Mentius dropped in.

The warrior shot him a look. “I just said I don’t like what she did.”

“Does.”

“Shut it!” Thalia hissed at him under her breath.

“Did.” Gabrielle crossed her arms. “She is trying to change, Mentius.”

“Change, right. That’s why she won’t have elections for another two years, right? Because she wants to change so bad.”

Gabrielle was just about to open her mouth and yell at him, but somehow managed to stop herself. She lifted both her hands and pressed them against her face for a moment, attempting to push back the wave of anger. Finally, releasing a heavy breath, she looked up again. “I think we’re gonna have a short break now.”

Odell smirked. “Wanna avoid the conversation, do you?”

“I want to avoid…” Another calming breath. “I want to avoid us fighting over an issue which is not part of our agenda.” She glanced across the room. “Lets all be back here in half an hour.”

Nods followed. Gabrielle rose to her feet as the first people started to file out of the room, and headed for the large window behind her. She leaned her arms on the windowsill and stared past the leaves of a large tree, growing right up against the wall. The city of Athens lay below her, and she could just see tiny shadows swirling through the crowded streets.

A few moments later, Thalia stepped up next to her, taking on a similar position. “He’s such a jerk.”

“Odell?”

The redhead rolled her eyes. “Him too.”

Gabrielle managed a tiny smile at this. “You know, I just called for this break to avoid my pushing his head into his skeleton until his lungs popped out on the other end.”

Thalia chuckled softly. “I figured as much.” A pause, in which they both stared out in front of them pensively. “I’ll talk to Mentius.” Thalia finally broke the silence. “He shouldn’t be saying stuff like that.”

“No, he should,” Gabrielle bent her head. “He represents the younger generation of the rebellion. He has to voice what they feel.”

“That’s not what they feel.”

“Yes, it is.” The warrior turned her head and looked at her friend. “Come on, Thal. I’ve heard the whispering. I’m not deaf.”

Blue eyes blinked at her. “I…” The redhead expelled a breath, shaking her head. “I’m sorry you heard that.”

Gabrielle gazed at her friend for a few moments, then faced forward again, continuing her staring out the window. “They feel… I’m in league with the enemy.” A shrug. “I would too, I guess. And they want an explanation. But I can’t give ’em one.” A small smile. “I don’t even get it myself most of the time.”

Thalia studied her for a while, then shook her head a bit. “This whole thing is so weird.”

The blonde next to her chuckled softly. “Yeah.”

Her friend amicably wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her a bit closer. “Fortunately, we both rule at handling the weird, huh?”

“Fortunately we do.” Gabrielle half turned and fully returned the hug, comforted a bit by her friend’s presence and distracting banter.

Thalia smiled, patting her friend on the back. “Gab?”

“Hmm?”

“I heard what you said, about Mentius and Odell having to express the opinions of their fellow morons…”

A muffled snort sounded from the blonde.

“But would it be okay if I beat them up anyway?” Thalia leaned back a bit and looked at her friend pleadingly. “Just for fun?”

Xena lifted the glass standing next to her and took a sip of her water, while turning over a page of the latest report that had reached her from Britannia. It was a letter from her regent there, informing her security had been doubled and the situation was under control.

Two weeks ago she’d had word of a small anti-empire clan becoming more active in the northern highlands. Word of the events in Athens had spread like a tidal wave through all the provinces and reactions had been diverse. Areas like Chin and Egypt had remained calm, which was to be expected. They had never been countries of war, but were nations of diplomacy. She’d led some skirmishes on their soil, but had never waged huge battles, winning over most of the landowners by trade and negotiations. Cleopatra had even surrendered to her, though the Pharaoh herself preferred to refer to the document they’d signed as an affirmation of mutual understanding.

Gaul, the Norse Lands and Britannia however had been a bit restless. She’d anticipated that, really. She’d always been aware of potential troublemakers hiding away in the far north. The people living there had proven more troublesome to keep in check, because of their roughish nature and unwillingness to succumb to any type of law.

So she’d sent out orders, telling the regents to be on the lookout and to inform them that any unrest in their regions would not only cost them their jobs, but their heads as well. She’d received their reply within the week, hastily informing her security had been five-folded. The Empress brushed her nails on her shirt with a smirk. She might have agreed to some democratic reforms, but she was still the one wielding both the power and one big ass bloody sword and her regents knew it.

Xena pulled over a clean sheet of parchment and dipped her quill in the ink jar balancing on her desktop. She quickly scribbled a short note complimenting the man on his performance, then she cast a glance outside, noting the sun had passed its zenith a little while back. She blew on the ink, folded the parchment and closed the note by dribbling some hot red wax on top and pressing her seal ring into it. Tossing the letter onto a pile of other external mail she rose and headed for the door.

Servants bowed politely as she passed through the central hall, down a set of corridors, the sound of her boots on the marble tiles echoing loudly as she walked. As she passed Benitor, she crooked a finger at him, not slowing her pace but expecting him to catch up and match hers.

He did. “Is the council session finished yet?”

The older man sighed and shook his head. “There was a short recess for lunch, but they’ve been in there for several candle marks again already.”

Xena glanced down at him. “Lots of yelling?”

“Even more than yesterday.”

The Empress winced.

“It does not seem Gabrielle will be able to make it to dinner again this evening,” Benitor went on. “Do you wish for me to inform the cook?”

Xena folded her hands behind her back, considering. “No,” she finally decided, stopping at the bottom of a stairwell and looking at the older man. “I have to go pick up the kids. But if they don’t come out of there soon, come and find me and I’ll tell you what to do, okay?”

“Yes, Empress,” Benitor bowed politely.

Xena patted him on the shoulder, then headed up the stairs.

She turned one last corner, then knocked on a door on the right and pushed it open.

“Sena!” Within moments tiny feet had pattered up to her and arms were hugging her leg.

Xena chuckled, inclining her head at the teacher Linos, who smiled back at her.

“Sena, look!” Niobe held up a piece of parchment, gazing up enthusiastically. “I made picter.”

“Did you now?” The Empress knelt down and took the drawing, looking at it and finding somewhat shakily drawn figures, three larger and three small. All were drawn in happy bright colors. The grass around them was green and littered with flowers, which came up to their shoulders. Xena pointed at one in the center of a group of four, who appeared to have dark hair. “Is that me?”

“Yes,” Niobe nodded enthusiastically. “And thasse Caspie an Jona an me.” The toddler indicated the three smaller figures surrounding her.

Xena ruffled her hair affectionately. “And who are they?” She indicated another two adults, who were beneath the line the other four were standing on.

“Isse daddy,” Niobe answered easily. “An mamma.”

Xena blinked at her for a moment, then she looked back at the drawing. “I see.” She studied the two figures for another moment, then smiled at Niobe. “It’s very beautiful.”

The toddler beamed a radiant smile back at her.

“Looks like you’re gonna be an artist, short stuff.” Xena tweaked the girl’s nose, then rose to her feet, only now sparing a look for the room’s other inhabitants.

She frowned. “Where’s Iona?”

“She went to the bathroom,” Linos told her, crossing his arms. “Two candle marks ago.”

“Ugh,” Xena rolled her eyes. “I can’t believe she did it again.” She glanced at the teacher. “I’m sorry, Linos. I should have…”

“Empress, the girl has always had a complete disrespect for the rules, and that won’t change now that she can use her parentage as an excuse to do so.”

Xena placed her hands on her hips, darting the older man an offended look. “And what is that supposed to mean?”

“Did you ever attend school at her age?”

The edges of the Empress’s mouth tensed as she considered this, then she turned her back on him and busied herself with tucking Iona’s school gear back in her backpack. “Whether I did or not is irrelevant.”

“Sure,” Linos smirked, leaning back in his seat.

Xena darted him a foul look, then continued to ignore him, finishing packing Iona’s bag and straightening, looking over at where Caspar was sitting, right in the back of the room, hidden in the shadows. “Hey, buddy. You coming?”

Brown eyes peeked up at her, then the boy nodded a little, sliding off his seat and picking his bag up from the ground.

The Empress walked over and started to help him pack his books. “How was your day?”

Caspar shrugged a little, shutting his exercise book, which Xena noted was looking conspicuously empty.

“Yeah, mine sucked too.” Xena amicably wrapped an arm around the boy’s shoulders. “Boring paperwork, Gabrielle probably won’t be making it to dinner and now I hear Iona’s run off again.”

Caspar peeked up. “Gabrielle’s busy still?”

“Yeah.” Xena reached down and swooped Niobe up and placed her on a shoulder, waving a goodbye to a smiling Linos. “Council stuff.”

“Oh,” the boy considered this. “She should stop doing that. She seems very tired.”

“I know. But she has to if she wants a democracy.”

“Hmm,” Caspar frowned. “Democracies suck.”

The Empress chuckled in response. “You said it.”

“Sena?” Niobe pillowed her head on Xena’s. “Whe’d Jona go?”

“Good question,” the Empress muttered as she led them back towards their quarters. “But you can bet that when I find out she’s in a whole heap of trouble.”

Niobe sighed dramatically. “Jona aways in twouble.”

Xena managed a wry smile at this. “Unfortunately, yeah.” She pushed open the door to their apartment with a foot, allowing Caspar to step in before her. “All right, you two, I’m gonna have to leave you here while I go and find your sister, so I can tie her up and dangle her over the pond upside down.”

The toddler giggled at this, as she was lifted off the Empress’s shoulder.

“If you wanna go out, just tell Benitor where you’re going, okay?”

“Where would I go?” Caspar mumbled softly, before turning and heading for his own room, dragging his bag along behind him. “I gotta do my homework anyway.”

Xena looked after at the boy sympathetically. “Hey?”

Caspar stopped and looked back over his shoulder.

“How about you save some of that homework for tonight? Maybe we can make some together.”

A brown eyebrow rose. “You wanna do homework?”

The Empress smirked. “Sure, I do.” A shrug. “Unless you’d rather work alone, of course. I’d understand if you’d…”

“No,” Caspar smiled. Not a big smile, but it was a start, Xena decided. “No, I’d like that.”

“Good,” Xena smiled back at him, then wiggled her finger in goodbye, tousling Niobe’s hair before she walked out the door.

Iona carefully positioned a rock the size of her fist on the stump of a tree, then hopped a few paces back. She squatted down until she was at eyelevel with the stone. She sucked in a deep breath, rubbing her hands together a few times, then she focused all her attention on the grey mass, staring at it intensely.

Nothing happened.

Move. She instructed, narrowing her eyes even further. Move, rock, move.

Nothing happened.

You are going to move. I want you to move.

Still, nothing happened.

Iona straightened up, releasing a frustrated breath. Crossing her arms, she gazed down at the stone, which remained prudently quiet. “Maybe you’re just the wrong sorta stone,” the girl thought out loud. “Maybe you’re just not the flying type or… Or maybe I can only make metal stuff fly.” Iona considered this a moment, then started searching through her pockets, murmuring: “Metal, metal, something me… Ah!” Triumphantly she pulled a coin out of her pocket, hopped back over to the tree stump, kicked the rock out of the way and replaced it with the bit of metal.

Again she took a few steps backward and narrowed her eyes at the item, willing it to move.

It didn’t.

“Argh!” Iona tossed up her hands. “Man, this sucks.”

“Oh no, this doesn’t suck.” A voice burred from behind her, and Iona’s eyes instantly widened at the sound. “This doesn’t even remotely measure up to how incredibly sucky the rest of your day is going to be. Trust me.”

Iona rolled her eyes, then turned around to face her mother. “Oh, come on, Xena. It’s not like I was doing anything bad.”

Xena crossed her arms, towering over her daughter menacingly. “You said you wouldn’t do this again.”

“But…” Iona waved a hand at the sky, which was a beautiful bright blue. “But the weather is way too nice to be stuck inside all day.”

“You said you wouldn’t.” The Empress simply repeated.

“But it’s stupid!” Iona shot back, her temper flaring. “I sat inside all morning listening to Linos go on about physics and about gravity, how all things can only fall down. But I know that’s not true!” She pointed a thumb at herself. “I defy gravity.”

“The only one you’re defying right now is me,” Xena countered instantly. “And you might be able to break the laws of gravity, but you most certainly won’t be breaking my laws. And my laws dictate you have to go to school.”

Blue eyes stared at her for a long moment, then Iona shook her head, snatching her coin from the tree trunk before marching past her mother. “You just don’t get it.”

“You bet I don’t get it,” Xena went in pursuit. “We just talked about this yesterday, Iona! And you told me you’d go to school.”

“I went, didn’t I?” The girl shot back. “I just didn’t stay.”

“It doesn’t work like that and you know it.” Xena reached out and grabbed onto the girl’s arm, forcing her to turn around and face her. “I know these last weeks haven’t been easy. I know it’s all been very confusing, finding out about me and… and about your…” She took a moment to search for the right word. “… abilities. It’s been confusing for me too, ya know? And I’m willing to cut you some slack, Iona. I already have, you know that. But… but if you keep up lying to me like this, I’m gonna have to do something very… motherly.”

Blue eyes peeked up at her, the girl’s nose scrunched up in dismay. “Like what?”

“Well,” Xena considered this for a moment. “Like… ground you or something utterly unoriginal like that.”

“Ground me?” A dark eyebrow rose in an uncanny mimic of one of her own expressions. “You’re gonna ground me?”

“If I have to, yes,” Xena straightened her shoulders a bit bothered by the fact that she felt utterly uncomfortable pulling rank on her daughter. “I don’t want to. But if you keep sneaking out like this…”

Iona huffed out a breath. “You can’t just threaten me…”

“Yes I can,” Xena countered firmly. “I’m your mother.”

“Oh, you’ve made that point crystal clear,” Iona managed to shrug herself free of the Empress hold and turned, striding back in the direction of the palace. “You were a lot more fun when you weren’t.”

Xena gazed after her for a moment, then dropped her eyes, staring at the grass stalks silently.

Sand was pushed up as hooves slid to a sudden halt. The horse’s rider, a man dressed in a thick black cloak, the hood pulled over his head, slid off the steed’s back. With a negligent swipe of his hand, he pushed back the hood, revealing a young and handsome face. His curly hair reached his shoulders. He tilted his head back and sniffed the air.

He nodded a little to himself, then continued on foot, ignoring the other group of men who rode onto the village square behind him.

The village around him was completely deserted. A door had been left open and the wood was now banging rhythmically against the wall, pushed forward and back by the wind. A child’s doll lay forgotten in the middle of the road. He could see the prints of hooves and feet leading out of the village, in the direction he and his men had come from.

He walked on, obliviously, following a small road that led out of town. The road circled downwards, through green pastures with large, old trees and towards a forest.

The young man headed for it, without a moment’s hesitation it seemed. As he stepped into the shadows of the trees, the world around him darkened. The sun, which has bathed him in light only moments ago, was gone, as if its flames had been blown out like a candle’s. To guide him now, there was only a faint shimmer of a crimson red in the distance in front of him.

He smiled, then hastened his pace. It wasn’t long before the trees grew fewer and he entered a small clearing.

It was littered with bodies. Men, women, but mostly children, their eyes staring blankly up, their faces still showing the fear they’d felt as they’d died. Some were mutilated, or had large gashes on their arms or neck. But most seemed oddly unscathed, except for a large black burn mark in the center of their chests.

In the center of this massacre sat a boy, six years old at most. He sat crossed-legged and his eyes were closed, as if he were in a state of meditation.

The young man dropped to his knees instantly, bending his head so deep it nearly touched the ground. “My Lord. You have returned to us.”

The boy opened his eyes, the orbs of which were a searing orange, flames flickering in its depths. “Are you the only one who answered my call?”

The man bent his head even deeper. “There are… there are but few left, my Lord.”

The small group that had been following behind now entered the clearing, and immediately dropped down to their knees as well.

“Yes,” their Lord spoke, as he slowly rose to his feet. “I have felt it. The power I had has faded.”

“It will be restored.”

“Oh, it will,” the boy folded his hands behind his back, stepping over a still body. “Before I was so suddenly taken from you, I had only one last opponent left who had powers that matched my own. This sudden release from my icy prison…” A sly smile. “… might be very, very good news indeed.”

“If it is Ares you speak of, my Lord,” the young man only now dared to look up. “Rumors have reached Persia that he has been slain. By the Empress, no less.”

The boy cocked his head. “The Empress?” he asked, intrigued. “Xena, the Empress of Greece and the Northern Lands?”

“Not just Greece and the North anymore.” The cloaked man glanced down. “She has taken over Persia, the far East, Egypt…”

“Hmm…” His Lord seemed more intrigued than surprised by this. “Xena, the Empress of the World then?” he smirked. “Well, that will make it all the more interesting, won’t it?” He extended his hands and pointed to the young man who’d entered the clearing first. “I wish for you to go to Greece. Confirm the rumours. I need to know for sure that Ares is dead, before it can begin.”

“It, My Lord?”

“The Downfall,” the boy spoke calmly. He waved a hand at the man. “Now go.”

“Okay, so, from all the suggestions Xena has made, we’re now willing to agree with…” Gabrielle eyes slid down the parchment, counting. “…three.” She looked up. “That’s not good enough.”

“Hey, we could have agreed with none of ’em,” Odell drawled. “Count your blessings.”

“I need something to negotiate with,” Gabrielle countered, resting her elbows on the table’s surface and leaning forward. “It’s called a compromise for a reason, Odell.”

“Hey, abolishment of the death sentence, social security…. Like I care!” He pointed a thumb at himself. “I agreed with quite a lot of our great Empress’s rules. Your little rebel friends have been the ones opposing every single suggestion. Not me.”

Gabrielle released a breath, leaning back in her chair again. Unfortunately, he was right. Thalia, and especially Mentius, had been far from cooperative.

“We don’t just have to justify what we agree on here to ourselves,” Thalia stated, crossing her arms. “There’s a lot of people out there checking on what we do, and if we just go off and agree with having no elections for years to come, and leaving who gets sentenced to what all up to the Con…” With a hasty look at Gabrielle she cleared her throat. “… to the Empress, the people we represent are going to give us Tartarus.”

“I believe people will judge all of us on what is decided here, not just you.” Megan, who through everything seemed to be the only one who had managed to maintain her calm and rational attitude, folded her hands together.

“But it’s clearly different for us,” Mentius countered fiercely. “Our people have died to get this.”

“Friends of mine, writers and philosophers, have seen their work burned or locked away. For some of them, that’s worse than dying.”

Mentius snorted. “What would you know about dying?”

“What do you know about it?” Gabrielle jumped in, turning her head to look at him. “Been crucified lately?”

The young man looked back at her, his eyes widening a fraction. “Well, no, but… I…”

“Don’t talk about what you don’t know, Mentius.” Gabrielle interrupted his mumbling, before turning her attentions back to the group. “All right, lets try something different. From the list in front of you, pick the ten least important issues.” She lifted a hand to quell the protests. “I’ll have a talk with Xena tomorrow, and I need to know what you think is important and what isn’t, to see if we can accept counterproposals.”

There were some unhappy murmurs, but everybody did as ordered, staring down at the parchment laid in front of them. “I guess…” Theron spoke up hesitantly. “I guess I wouldn’t mind much about the Academy being restored.” His eyes met Gabrielle’s apologetically. “I mean, it would be nice of course, but… When there’s so many important other things to deal with, like elections and laws and things…”

Alyssa nodded in agreement. “Most of the folks on the street won’t care about the Academy. I know the men in my inn won’t.”

Megan, of course, protested, but most seemed to agree. Gabrielle glanced down at the table’s surface, her face hidden in shadows. Finally, they were agreeing, and of course it had to be on the one thing she wanted the most.

Her desire to reopen the Academy wasn’t for the right reasons, Gabrielle admitted. It wasn’t about the democratic principle of freedom of speech or anything, it was just because… Well, just because she’d loved it so much, the one time she’d been there. She’d walked into the large marble hall, staring at the statues of great poets and writers. She remembered the smell of the library, of stacks and stacks of old parchment, filled with stories and songs she couldn’t wait to read.

She didn’t want to give the Academy up. But… Gabrielle closed her eyes. But she was so tired. She just wanted to get up and walk out, back to her room, and curl up in her bed. She wanted to…

She lifted her head as a knock sounded. Beside her, Thalia frowned. “I thought you’d said no one was to disturb us?”

“I did,” Gabrielle nodded, but she rose to her feet anyway as another knock sounded, this one somewhat louder. She reached for the handle, and opened the door.

Benitor bowed politely. “My apologies for the intrusion.” Then he stepped aside and waved the servants standing behind him inside. The boys and girls were all carrying large silver plates, stocked with a variety of nicely smelling eatables. “Make sure not to spill anything on important paperwork,” Benitor warned. One of the plates was twice as large as the others, and was placed at the head of the table, in front of her empty seat. Another small plate was set down beside it, on top of it something that looked suspiciously like a giant serving of baklava.

Gabrielle blinked at the scene, then turned her head as Benitor stopped beside her.

“Your dessert had already been prepared. The Empress feared that if she threw it away, she’d be accused of wasting precious food supplies which could have gone to hungry civilians.”

The warrior’s lips quirked up in a faint smile. “Did she really?”

“Uhuh,” Benitor nodded reverently. “She told me to apologize for the interruption, but hopes that, considering the complicated situation she found herself in, you can find it in your heart to forgive her.”

A soft chuckle. “Tell her I’ll think about it.”

The servant smirked, then bowed his head. “As you wish, my lady.”

Gabrielle poked him in the ribs at hearing the title, but Benitor’s grin only grew, as he followed the servants who’d finished putting down the plates out the door, closing it behind him gently.

Gabrielle shook her head a little as she returned to her seat, sat down and picked up her knife. She then pushed her plate aside, pulled the baklava closer and cut off a big piece. She popped it in her mouth and then closed her eyes, leaning back in her seat.

Odell made some sniping comment, but she just ignored him this time, allowing herself a moment to enjoy the sweetness of both the pastry and Xena’s offer.

After a moment of silent chewing, she straightened up and sliced off another bit of pastry. “I don’t want to give up the Academy.”

A few sighs were heard amidst the chewing.

“And I’ve got a lot of good reasons for that, but since everybody here is probably getting sick of trying to listen to reason…” She sliced the bit in two, then held out the first part to Theron. “…I’m going to bribe you with baklava.”

For the first time that day a round of laughter rose up. Gabrielle smiled as well, holding out the next bit to Thalia, and watching her pop it into her mouth. The redhead’s eyes rolled, swooning. “Ohhhh…” She hummed delightedly. “Give me another piece of that, and you got my vote.”

Gabrielle joined in on the laughter this time, as she continued to share her dessert with the rest of the group, even giving a piece to Odell. His piece was conspicuously smaller and as Gabrielle held it out a large amount of honey just happened to drip onto his carefully scribbled notes, but that was pure coincidence. Naturally.

Caspar knelt down, laying a small shovel beside him. He chose a spot, then started digging a hole, until it was a bit bigger than his fist, before pulling a small pot closer, in which some forget-me-nots grew. Careful not to damage the roots, he pulled the plants free.

When he was done re-homing the plants, he sat back and judged the small blue flowers, and how the touch of blue mixed with the multitude of other colors. He nodded a bit to himself. “It looks nice like this.” He glanced up. “Don’t you think it looks nice?”

Two large stones stood amidst the flowers, gleaming in the dim light of the late afternoon sun. One was a bit weathered, and ivy had climbed its way up one of the sides, half covering the letters written on the surface. The other stone however was brand new.

Caspar sniffled a little. “I know you liked these, dad. We used to plant them at mom’s grave together. Remember?”

The stones remained silent.

Caspar pushed himself to his feet and walked forward, stepping over his newly planted flowers and avoiding some others, before he sat down again, on the spot he’d left open in between the two stones. He wrapped his arms around himself, and leaned his head against his father’s stone. “I uhm… I went to school today, like I promised. Didn’t do much though. I tried, but… I kept thinking about how I’d much rather be here with you and then Xena came to pick us up and I hadn’t gotten anything done.” The boy’s eyes followed a butterfly as it fluttered past. “Xena’s trying real hard. She even took that book you have on parenting and hid it in a drawer of her desk. I saw her leafing through it a few times. She comes by every evening before I go to sleep, to say goodnight, like you used to. But it’s different. She tucks the blankets in too tight. And she won’t talk to mom and you with me, like we used to talk to mom. She tried, but I could tell she was uncomfortable.” He cocked his h! ead a bit. “She has a better voice than you though. I heard her sing Niobe that lullaby of mom’s you used to sing, and it sounded real pretty on-key.”

“Caspar!”

The boy pushed himself up again. “I gotta go. Dinner’s ready.” He looked down at one stone, then at the other. “I’ll be back tomorrow. Xena and I are gonna do some homework together tonight. I’m not really sure I want to, but Gabrielle couldn’t make it to dinner again, and I didn’t want to disappoint her any further, you know?” He ran his hand over his mother’s tombstone as a final departure, then he took off, hopping over his flowers and then jogging back in the direction of the castle.

Moments later, he walked into the dining room. Only Xena and Niobe were present. Xena was sitting, as always, at the head of the table, and Niobe was perched on the table itself. The two seemed to be in the midst of a deep conversation. As he entered though, Xena looked up. She smiled. “There you are.”

“Here I am,” Caspar confirmed quietly.

Blue eyes studied him for a moment. “Been working in your garden again?” the Empress commented, having noted his dirt-stained hands.

The boy nodded.

“Is that feverfew flowering yet?” Xena sighed. “Your sister is giving me so many headaches my supplies are starting to run low.”

Caspar cocked his head at her. “Niobe?”

“Yes?” The toddler looked back at her brother innocently.

The dark-haired woman snorted. “No, Iona, of course.”

“Iona’s not my sister.”

Xena shot him a ‘we’ve talked about this’ look, then motioned him towards a small basin standing in a corner. “Go wash your hands.”

Caspar did as he was told. Xena was forced to return her attentions to the child seated in front of her, as a hand grabbed onto her cheek and her head was turned to face Niobe. “Sena?”

“Yeah?”

“Whes Jona?”

The Empress released a breath. “Iona’s not gonna make it to dinner tonight.”

“Why not?”

Xena ran a hand through her hair. “‘Cause I told her she has to stay in her room for the rest of the night.”

“You grounded Iona?” Caspar’s voice rose up form behind her.

Xena cleared her throat uncomfortably. “I’d rather not use the ‘g’-word.”

“Dad never grounded Iona.”

“Yeah, well…” Xena rubbed at her eyes tiredly. “I’m just not as good at this as your dad.”

Niobe studied the Empress, then wrapped her tiny arms around the woman’s neck and gave her a hug.

Xena glanced down at the small head, then mustered a small smile, wrapping an arm around the toddler in return. “Thanks, shorty. I really needed that.”

“I knews dat,” the child stated, making the Empress chuckle.

“Ya did huh?”

“Yes.” Niobe placed a sloppy kiss on her cheek. “Love ya.”

Xena gently ordered the brown locks. “It’s good to know at least someone does.”

Caspar glanced up at her, then down at the table again, staring intently at the grains in the wood.

After a moment a hand touched his, and he looked up again, to see Xena watching him apologetically. “I didn’t mean it like that.” A breath. “I had a fight with Iona and I’m just a little… down, ya know?”

The boy nodded, pursing his lips a bit in sympathy. “She’ll come around.”

“I hope so.” Xena squeezed his hand, then straightened again, looking up as the door opened and Benitor walked in, carrying a large tray. “Ah, food.” She swung Niobe off the table and settled the child in the chair next to her.

Benitor bent his head respectfully to acknowledge the Empress’s presence, then placed the tray on the table and started distributing the plates. “The cook told me to say he’s tried adding a few new ingredients to the salad.”

“Ah,” Xena picked up a fork and poked it into a bowl, fishing a bit of lettuce, drizzled in sauce, which had tiny bits of herbs and meat sticking to it. She popped the bit into her mouth and chewed pensively, then shook her head. “It’s nice, but it’s not the same.” She waved a fork at Benitor. “When that Amazon comes back to visit, remind me to ask her about the recipe.”

“Yes, Empress,” the servant responded, bowing again, before he started to leave the room.

“Hey?”

The older man turned again, raising an eyebrow inquisitively.

“Did you uhm… Did you get her that dinner?”

“Don’t I always do what you tell me to, Empress?” Benitor replied innocently.

Xena rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah, you’re wonderful.” A pause, in which she shovelled her rice around on her plate. “Did she look… okay, to you?”

Benitor folded his hands behind his back, pensively. “She looked… a little tired.”

Blue eyes gazed at him in concern. “Yeah?”

“She seemed very happy with the dinner though.”

“Yeah?” This time the intonation was completely different.

The servant nodded, smothering a grin.

“Good, good.” Xena murmured, more to herself than to the rest of the room, before she looked up again at the older man. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure, Empress.” Benitor bowed, then turned and walked out the room.

Xena allowed a small smile to tug at her lips, before she returned her attention to her dinner, happily cutting a bit of meat in two and popping one into her mouth. She leaned back in her chair as she chewed, thoughtfully gazing ahead of her.

She did this for a few moments, then her eyes focused on the here and now again, and she glanced at her dinner companions. Niobe was attacking her rice with her hands instead of her spoon, while Caspar was mutely poking holes in a bit of lettuce. Her eyes slid past them, to the chairs left unoccupied.

About a month ago, nearly every seat had been filled. But now, with Pyrron gone, Gabrielle busy and Iona grounded, the room seemed horribly empty. Xena sat for another moment, listening to the sound of a fork scraping against a plate echo through the hall, then she rose to her feet.

Caspar looked up at her, surprised.

“How about we move this dinner party outside?”

“Eat in de gadden?” Niobe asked with shining eyes, clearly liking that idea.

“Yeah.” The Empress picked up both her own plate and Niobe’s as the toddler slid off her chair. “The sun’s still out. I can eat and work on my tan at the same time.” She flashed a grin at Caspar. “That’s called time management.”

Caspar looked at her for another moment, then shrugged and hopped off his chair, picking up his plate and following Xena out the door. “Can we sit by the pond?”

“Sure,” Xena replied easily. “As long as you sister doesn’t try to feed her roasted bit of cow to the fish again.”

“Ey,” Niobe looked up at her indignantly. “Fishies only eat plant. Is no good.” She held up a hand, her fingers spread out. “Need five food goups.”

Iona sat on her bed, with her back against the wall. Her arms crossed, she stared ahead of herself grumpily. “This sucks,” she spoke out loud to the opposite wall.

Beside her lay a dirty plate, which had held leftovers from the kitchen, and an empty bag. The leftovers had been brought over by Esmee, a servant in the kitchen and a friend of Iona’s. The bag had been filled with her supply of candy, which she’d finished when her measly dinner had been found wanting.

So, now she’d gone from being bored and hungry to just being bored. Iona picked up the empty bag and crumpled it into a tight ball, aimed and then tossed it towards the garbage bin in the far corner. It bounced against the wall, then dropped, landing a few inches beside its target.

Iona angrily slapped her hands on her blanket. “Can’t even do that right anymore,” she called out, tossing her head back in frustration, right up against the wall behind her. “Crap!” The girl grabbed for her head with both hands, then after a moment of pain and anger she released a tired sigh, allowing herself to slide sideways. She ended up lying on her side, her face hidden under her arms, feeling utterly miserable.

Everything was so confusing these days. She had lost who she’d always thought had been her father, only to find out he wasn’t her father at all. That her brother wasn’t her brother, her sister not her sister. That the woman who’d died when she was eight, who she’d spend countless nights crying for, had never been her mother.

The first days after the revelation about her relation to Xena had been fun. She’d always liked Xena a lot, and she’d never been blind to the fact that they were a lot alike. She’d thought about what it would be like, to have a mother like the Empress, and she’d always pictured Xena as some sort of super mom. Fun, playful, not too picky about the rules… ‘Cause that’s what she’d always been like before, right?

But Xena had changed. She was always asking her about boring stuff now, like homework or chores. She was always telling her to go to bed on time. Iona sighed and sat up, standing and walking to the window. She gazed out over the city, where lights were being lit to keep the darkness at bay. Before, sometimes, Xena would climb into her room through the window and wake her up at night. And they’d go outside and find some quiet place. The forest or a spot near the Parthenon Xena knew. And they’d sit there and just talk for hours, or they’d play games. One time, Xena had taught her how to hunt with nothing but a sharpened stick.

A bird flew past the window, soon followed by another, which appeared to be chasing the first. The birds twisted and turned carelessly in the air, chattering cheerfully.

Iona rested her elbows on the windowsill and propped her fists up against her cheeks. What she wouldn’t give now to be a bird. To just hop out of this window and fly off. But humans weren’t made to fly, unless they were named Xena or Gabrielle of course. Then again, she wasn’t entirely human, was she?

Iona wondered if she could make her feet fly by looking at them, like she could make nails fly. She gazed down and narrowed her eyes a bit, half-heartedly attempting to get her feet to levitate off the ground.

Didn’t work. She didn’t think it would.

Iona returned her eyes to the sky. “Why couldn’t I have gotten some cool powers? Like being able to shift shape, or that I could just think about some place I wanted to be and then be there.” She snapped her fingers. “Just like that. Being able to move things is boring.” A sigh. “Especially when it’s not working.”

Caspar sat in a chair and stared out the window. He was in Xena’s room, waiting for Xena to come back so they could do some homework together. The Empress had said there was something she needed to take care of first, and that he should start without her and then she’d catch up when she was done.

Catching up would be easy however, since he hadn’t really done anything yet. Well, he’d opened his book, placed it on his lap and turned to the right page. And he’d stared at it for a while, trying to read the words, but they kept becoming a chaotic pile of letters. So after a while he’d sort of given up and sat back, gazing ahead of himself a little and thinking about… stuff.

So there he sat, thinking. It was getting dark outside, the sun was only barely peeking over the horizon and was throwing long shadows over the land. Caspar stared out of the window, in the direction of the graves of his parents. He couldn’t see those from Xena’s room however. There were trees in the way, and a gigantic boulder, about twice his height. He vaguely remembered sitting there with his mother one warm day, enjoying the shade.

“Fascinating rock, isn’t it?”

Caspar’s head shot up, to see Xena standing next to him, looking out the window as well. “I… I wasn’t really…”

“Did you know your father could lift that thing with one hand?”

Caspar gazed up at her in obvious disbelief.

“He could,” Xena grinned down at him. “That’s how he got to be in my army.”

Caspar cocked his head and considered this, envisioning his father’s slender built, and adding muscles until he felt his father would have been able to accomplish such a task.

When he’d transformed his father into a walking ball of muscle and still wasn’t satisfied he turned back to Xena. “That’s not possible.”

Xena grinned. “That’s what I thought.” She hopped onto the windowsill, leaning back against the side of the window. “See, I was camped out near Sparta at the time, but to get near the city we had to walk through this pass, but we couldn’t, ‘cause there’d been a cave in. This huge boulder was in the way, and none of us could move it. I’d spend hours and hours pushing and pulling at the thing, but it was hopeless. So I was pretty moody, sitting in my tent, brooding. Then in walks this skinny looking wanderer who tells me he’ll move the boulder for me if I’ll give him some dinner.”

“Dad?”

Xena nodded.

“But…” Caspar frowned. “But if you couldn’t move the stone, how could he have?”

“That’s what I thought.” The Empress chuckled. “But see, back then I wasn’t really smart.”

Caspar blinked up at her. He clearly had trouble believing there was once a time when Xena was not brilliant.

The Empress repressed a smirk, then hopped back to her feet. “I was never much for storytelling. Lemme just show you.” She walked over to her bed, motioning Caspar closer. “Try to lift up the bed.”

The boy looked at the massive wooden double bed. “I can’t do that.”

“Just try,” Xena told him, as she headed out the door. “I’ll be right back.”

Caspar sighed, but then did as he was told, walking to the foot of the bed, wrapping his hands around a wooden beam and pulling with all his might. The bed didn’t budge an inch. As he’d expected.

Xena walked in again, carrying a staff and a helmet. Caspar looked up at her suspiciously. “You want me to scare the bed into moving?”

The Empress chuckled. “No.” She placed the helmet on the floor, then wedged one edge of the staff under the bed and let the middle balance on the helmet. “Now try using that.”

Caspar grabbed hold of the other end of the staff and pushed it down. And this time, the bed did move. He couldn’t lift it up very high, but…

Xena lifted a finger, instructing him to stop, then knelt down and pushed the helmet a bit further towards the bed, then motioned for him to push again. So he did, and to his surprise lifting the bed was much easier this time. Caspar lowered it down again, then looked up at Xena, smiling broadly. “That’s cool!”

Xena laughed, reaching over and ruffling his hair. “You wanna know how it works?”

“Yeah!” Caspar nodded enthusiastically.

“Get me a bit of parchment of my desk then. And the quill,” Xena told him, as she hopped onto her bed, settling back into the pillows. “We can work here, it’s more comfortable.”

“Okay,” the boy turned and ran out the room.

Xena watched him, then leaned her head back and regarded the ceiling. She listened to the sounds of him hastily barging into the next room and rummaging through some papers. A smile found its way onto her lips.

The council meeting finally ended, just a little before midnight. While the council members filed out of the room tiredly, Gabrielle slowly rose from her chair, gathering her papers together and picking up her now stump pencil. No one spoke. There had been enough of that today already.

Gabrielle felt a hand touch her shoulder and she looked up to see Thalia standing behind her. Her friend had bags under her eyes and she could barely keep her eyes open. Gabrielle imagined she herself didn’t look much better. “Didn’t go too well, huh?” She said, trying to keep her voice light.

“I thought we were getting somewhere for a moment,” Thalia replied, a bit hoarsely. “After the dessert.”

Gabrielle managed a wry smile. “Yeah.” She shrugged a bit, turning back to her papers, aligning the edges. “But… It’s still early. These things take time, right?”

Thalia looked at her sympathetically. “Right.” She wrapped an arm around Gabrielle’s shoulder, gently steering her towards the door. “Why don’t you hit the sack, hmm? I’ll clean up the room a bit, before I go.”

“You sure?” Gabrielle looked up at her. “I could help. It wouldn’t take that long to…”

Thalia lifted a hand, effectively halting Gabrielle’s speech. “I have tomorrow off. You have to spend the entire day explaining all of that…” she pointed to the papers the blonde was holding. “…to our dear Empress.”

Gabrielle released a tired breath. In response the redhead reached out and patted her friend’s cheek. “Go on. I can handle blowing out some candles and taking the dishes to the kitchen.”

“Thanks, Thal,” Gabrielle gave in, pulling her friend a bit closer for a brief hug. “You’re the best.”

“I know, I know.” The redhead buffed her nails on her shirt, finally drawing a tired laugh from her friend. “You just promise to go straight to bed, ‘kay? You look wiped.”

“Oh, I promise.” Gabrielle easily vowed, rubbing her eyes with her free hand as Thalia headed back towards the table, picking up one plate and placing it on top of the next. “See you at the next meeting?”

“I thought maybe I could come over after dinner tomorrow or something.” Thalia leaned over the table and blew out one of the nearly burned out candles. “I know you’re gonna be busy all day, and you’ll probably be tired, but I only see you at these meetings these days, and they’re hardly what you call fun. I figured we could talk a bit, or go for a walk or whatever.”

“I’d like that a lot.” Gabrielle smiled at her warmly.

“Of course you would. Who wouldn’t want to spend time with me, right?” Thalia flashed a grin at her over her shoulder. “Goodnight, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, then replied a ‘good night’ before turning and walking out of the conference room and onto the corridor.

Her feet headed for her room on their own accord. Gabrielle lifted a hand and rubbed at her temple, trying to calm her throbbing brain. The headache had been hammering at her skull since midday. It had faded a bit after dinner, but had then returned with a vengeance. Gabrielle had deducted it was probably due to a lack of water. She had only had some water after sparring and a bit of wine for dinner, which really wasn’t enough to keep her brain functioning properly. All the yelling and arguing hadn’t helped much either.

Gabrielle sighed, turning a corner and then stopping, as she spotted a form hastily hopping down the stairs nearest to her room. It appeared to be…

“Benitor?” Gabrielle murmured out loud, surprised. Benitor wasn’t the type to stay up late. And she had never, ever seen him hopping down stairs before. He always had more of a slow, reverent tread to him.

She gazed after the shadow for a moment, then shook her head, banning any thoughts on the matter from her mind. She could just ask him tomorrow what he’d been doing. No sense in wasting the scarce energy she had left on pondering over his motives.

Gabrielle headed for the door to her room, her fingers touched the doorknob and she turned it. She pushed open the door, her hand already reaching for a nearby torch to take inside with her and illuminate her room.

But her hand stopped inches from the torch, as the door opened and showed her bedroom already well-lit. An innumerable amount of candles were standing scattered across her room, their flames softly flickering over the interior. Apparently they had been lit some time ago already, since the candles had all but burned down.

Gabrielle blinked a few times, not quite understanding what was going on. Her eyes flicked over the room, until she spotted a single flower resting on her pillow.

A small smile tugged at her lips as she moved inside, carefully settling down on the soft, freshly washed linen, and picking up the crimson red rose. There was a small bit of parchment attached to the stem.

Judging by the yelling and screaming coming from the conference room, I figured it’d probably be night before you’d get back. And since I didn’t like the idea of you walking into a cold dark room after a crummy day, I took the liberty of lighting up the place a bit. Hope you don’t mind.

Xena

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, but her smile grew as she read the note again, then she looked up and let her eyes circle the room again. It’d be Hades blowing all of these out, but… It was a very sweet, not to mention romantic gesture. Gabrielle brought the flower to her nose and sniffed its fragrant scent.

She cocked her head then, as she noticed the door leading into the bathroom had been left open, and there was light emanating from inside there as well. Her fatigue forgotten, she rose to her feet and headed for the bathroom, the rose still in her hand.

Warm, steamy air hit her as she entered, and she blinked a few times to let her eyes get used to the warm fog around her. The steam was coming from the bath, which was brimful of warm, lavender scented water. A large towel and a silk robe of a deep purple color were lying over a chair next to the bath.

Gabrielle exhaled, shaking her head a little in amazement. “Xena, Xena…” she scooped a bit of water up with a hand, finding it was exactly the right temperature. “You had Benitor stay up for this, did you?” A soft chuckle. “Poor man…”

She quietly gazed at the surface of the water for a moment, considering her options. She really did feel very tired, and her body was begging her to go to bed, but…. But poor Benitor had stayed up this late for her, and Xena had clearly put a lot of effort into arranging the whole thing, and lighting the candles and… And the water did feel quite nice, and it smelled wonderful…

With a sigh Gabrielle gave in, worming her foot free by holding down the heel of one boot with the toe of the other. She almost reverently laid the rose on the edge of the tub, before she started unbuttoning her tunic.

It was a good while later before she rose from the water again. Gabrielle quickly dried herself off, then slipped into the silk robe and bundled her hair up in the towel, ruffling it dry.

She drew in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. The air cooled her warm skin, making her feel clean and refreshed. Tense muscles had slowly loosened in the hot water and her whole body was now pleasantly relaxed. She wandered over to the basin, grinning briefly at her rumpled reflection before grabbing a cup and filling it with cold water, which she then proceeded to down in a few large gulps.

She put the cup down and straightened up again, then paused, as she caught the reflection of the rose still quietly lying on the edge of the bath. She turned around, leaning back against the basin for a moment, staring pensively at the flower though the misty interior of the bathroom. Then, with a brief smile, she made up her mind, turning and filling the cup again, then walking back to the bath to collect her flower. Back in the bedroom she set the cup on her nightstand, placed the rose in the water, then she straightened again and headed for the door, quietly slipping out and entering the corridor.

The sound of Gabrielle’s bare feet touching the marble tiles seemed loud in the silent corridors and halls. The palace was completely silent this late at night and Gabrielle felt her body immediately adjusting, slipping into stealth mode to make as little noise as possible.

Moments later she stood in front of Pyrron’s former apartment, where Xena had now taken up residence. She carefully turned the doorknob and slipped inside, soundlessly weaving her way through the hallway until she stopped in front of an already open door and peeked inside.

An affectionate smile took over her face, and she leaned her cheek against the doorframe, watching the room’s inhabitants for a moment. Caspar was curled up on his side, one arm slung over Xena’s leg. Xena herself had her back pressed against the wall at the head of the bed, and there were pieces of parchment lying all around her. One was still held loosely in her hand, and she appeared to be looking down at it, but Gabrielle could see her eyes were in fact closed. She was asleep.

She didn’t remain asleep for long though. She stirred a little, then inhaled deeply as she woke from slumber, her eyelashes fluttering open and darting across the room dazedly, until they settled on Gabrielle’s silent form. “Oh,” she murmured hoarsely, pushing herself up a bit. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Gabrielle whispered back, continuing to watch her from her spot in the doorway.

Xena carefully lifted Caspar’s hand and then slid off the bed, freeing herself from his hold. Caspar muttered something inaudible, and turned to lie on his back, but didn’t wake up. Xena reached over and tugged the blankets up a bit higher, wiped some errant locks out of his face, before turning and joining Gabrielle in the doorway.

“So…” Gabrielle tilted her head back to look up at the Empress. “You finally got him to sleep huh?”

“Yeah.” Xena gazed back at the boy lying on her bed. “We did some homework, but he was real tired.” A wry smile. “I didn’t have the heart to wake him. It’s the first time in weeks he hasn’t been tossing and turning, caught up in some nightmare…”

A hand found hers, and she looked down at Gabrielle, who had moved closer. She smiled, lifting the hand and kissing its palm. “Can I interest you in a nightcap?”

Gabrielle nodded, squeezing Xena’s hand affectionately before letting go and turning back to close the door to the Empress’s bedroom.

Meanwhile, Xena had walked into the living room and opened a cabinet, pulling out a few glasses and a corked ceramic bottle. “You want some port?” With a soft plop she uncorked the bottle. “My regent in Hispania sent me a dozen of these when he was afraid I’d fire him.”

“Were you going to?”

“Nah,” Xena shot her a grin. “But if this stuff is any good I’ll be sure to make him think I’m gonna more often.”

Gabrielle chuckled softly as she walked over to the couch and stopped behind it, her hands resting on the soft surface. Her fingers gently moved across the fabric, a touch restlessly. “I uhm…” She glanced up and watched Xena pour the first glass full of port, the sweet odour of it swiftly filling the room. “I actually came over to say thank you.”

Xena looked up, inquisitively. ” Thank me? For what?”

Gabrielle smiled gently, taking a step closer to her. “For the dinner.” Another step. “And the candles.” Another step. “And the hot tub.”

“Oh, that.” Xena glanced away self-consciously, a touch abashed. “I was just uhm… ya know… trying to get the hang of this relationship stuff.” Blue eyes peeked back at her hesitantly. “So you didn’t mind?”

Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled back at her. “No. No, I didn’t mind.” She reached out, touching the other woman’s arm. “It was really nice to walk in on that.” A sigh. “Especially after today.”

The Empress smiled wryly. “That bad huh?”

“It was okay… Just…” Gabrielle’s gaze dropped to the floor and she shrugged and shook her head a little.

She looked up again though as fingers gently touched her cheek, and met blue eyes at very close range. Xena gently stroked a lock of hair out of her eyes, then wordlessly tangled her hands in the blond hair and pulled Gabrielle closer, resting her forehead against the blonde’s. A moment of utter silence, then Gabrielle exhaled, her body relaxing as she wrapped her arms around Xena and hugged her. Xena instantly responded, pulling her closer still, her hands tracing soothing patterns on her back. Gabrielle closed her eyes. “You know what?”

“What?”

“I lied.”

Xena blinked, then pulled back a bit to look down at the warrior. “Excuse me?”

Gabrielle managed a smile. “I didn’t come here to say thanks. I came for this.” Her fingers gently ran up and down Xena’s side.

“Aha.” A grin tugged at the Empress’s lips, as she leaned in a bit closer, dropping her voice conspiringly. “Well, you know what?”

Gabrielle smiled, lifting a hand and tracing a cheekbone with her index finger. “What?”

“I lied too.” A smirk. “The candles and the hot tub had nothing to do with relationship stuff. I was just hoping you’d come over in nothing but a thin silk bathrobe to give me a hug.”

Gabrielle laughed, letting herself fall forward, hiding her face in Xena’s neck. Xena chuckled deep in her throat, the moving skin tickling Gabrielle’s nose. The blonde responded by pressing a kiss against it.

A pause, then lips pressed a feather light kiss against her temple. Gabrielle smiled happily, as she worked her way up Xena’s jawline. “You know, it’s amazing how, after such a sucky day, you can make me feel so nice.”

Xena smiled, then leaned down and kissed her on the lips, making the contact last. “Ditto,” she murmured, when she finally pulled back. They both smiled a each other, then Xena patted the blonde’s side. “How about we go slouch on the couch for a bit?” She reached for one of the glasses and held it out to Gabrielle. “Drown the suckiness of today in alcohol until it dies a panicky and airless death.”

Gabrielle chuckled, taking the glass from the Empress’s hands. “You’re on.”

“You grounded Iona?!”

Xena exhaled. “Yes.”

Gabrielle winced, as she leaned back against Xena’s shoulder, her half emptied wineglass balancing on a knee. “Well, that’s… I mean, I’m sure she’ll…”

“It’s an antiquated method, I know, I know.” Xena muttered unhappily. “I just couldn’t think of anything else, you know? And my mom used to ground me and that worked…” A pause. “…sometimes.”

The warrior smiled, covering Xena’s arm, which was wrapped around her waist, and giving it a comforting squeeze. “It’ll work out. Just give her time.”

The Empress released a tired breath. “It hurts fighting with her. She can scratch open my heart with one single word, ya know? I’m not used to being so…”

“Vulnerable?” Gabrielle finished for her, with a small grin.

“Unbalanced,” Xena corrected, poking a finger at Gabrielle’s midriff, which made the blonde laugh. “I’m the unchallenged, unbreakable, un-defeat-able ruler of the world, remember? Vulnerable is not in my vocabulary.”

Gabrielle tilted her head back, looking up at the shadowy face towering above her. “Who kicked your butt again this morning, undefeatable ruler of the world?”

Xena just stuck her tongue out, making Gabrielle laugh again, before the warrior snuggled back down against her. Xena hugged her a bit closer, laying her cheek against the blond hair. “You really think it’ll work out?”

“Sure,” the warrior replied. “Things will get back to normal soon. You’ll see.”

With a sigh Iona reached over and pulled her physics book closer. She opened it and flipped to the last page she’d read. Page five. The one after the introduction. Most of which she’d skipped.

She’d spend hours moping and cursing Xena’s name, but finally she’d just given up on that. It was best to just do the stupid homework, even if it was useless, and mend fences with Xena, she’d decided, because this being grounded stuff just sucked.

She picked up her quill and dipped it in the jar of ink on her desk, while she read over the first assignment. Iona sighed melodramatically. Totally boring. As she’d expected. “This is stupid,” she muttered to herself, scowling at the page.

“Learning is never stupid.”

Iona jumped from her seat and spun around at the sound of the voice, keeping the chair as a barrier between her and the newcomer. There was a woman standing in the centre of her room, her hands folded behind her back. She had dark blond hair, which was tied back into a knot. She was dressed in a silver tunic and was wearing black boots, which nearly reached her knees. Silver bracelets adorned her left wrist and right upper arm, both shaped in the form of an owl with spread wings.

The woman looked at the book lying on her desk. “And this is physics even. True science.”

Iona eyed the woman with a mixture of fright and suspicion. “How did you get into my room?”

“Well, that’s hard to explain exactly.” The woman sat down on the edge of Iona’s bed, crossing her legs and resting her now folded fingers on top of a knee. “Do you know how you can make pins fly without touching them? Untwist ropes by just looking at them?”

Iona cocked her head. “You’re… you’re a goddess?”

The woman smiled. “I’m your father’s half sister. Though that’s not a bond I like to admit to.” She crossed her arms. “Ares and I only shared a father. Otherwise we had very little in common.”

“So.” Iona watched the intruder quietly. “You’re not here to kill me then?”

The goddess chuckled. “Hardly.”

“Cool,” Iona pulled her seat around to face the woman, then sat down, leaning forward with her elbows leaning on her knees. All the fear and anxiety was gone from her eyes, and she seemed more enthusiastic and intrigued now than anything. “You’re Athena, right?”

“Well, I’m impressed.” Athena leaned back on a hand, studying her niece. “I didn’t think your mother allowed for you to be raised religiously.”

“She didn’t.” Iona half turned and pulled open a drawer, fishing out a book and tossing it towards her companion. “I did some reading myself.”

“Ah, I see,” Athena shot her niece an approving look, then took the book entitled ‘Tales of Gods and Heroes’ and leafed through a few pages, wincing as she came upon some images of herself. “I do not have breasts that big.” She leafed though some more pages. “And why is the entire pantheon walking around naked?” An indignant huff as she closed the book. “Bunch of perverts. Whoever drew these is gonna suffer some severe divine punishment, that’s for sure.”

“I didn’t think it was a very good book,” Iona agreed solemnly. “But that’s all I could find, you know? It’d be much better to get my information from the source, of course, but…”

Athena looked up at her, then smirked. “Tricky. Very tricky.” She leaned her chin on her folded hands. “So, you want to meet the family?”

Iona nodded her head enthusiastically.

“Well, I’m not sure that’s a good idea right now.” Athena rubbed her chin. “For one, I’m sure your mother wouldn’t like it. And I have no intention of turning your mother into my enemy.”

“You’re afraid of mom?” The girl looked surprised. “But you’re a goddess!”

“So?” Athena shrugged. “A very small part of fighting an enemy has to with strength, Iona. It’s more about this…” she tapped the side of her head. “Intellect. And your mother is very cunning.” She cocked her head. “I do hope you won’t turn out like your father in the mental department.” She waved a hand at the desk, at the now forgotten textbook lying on its surface. “Judging from your eagerness to learn, however…”

“I’m smart!” Iona hastily interrupted. “Mom says I am all the time!”

“Really?” Athena leaned closer, her eyes twinkling. “Prove it. I’ll come back here tomorrow night. If you’ve successfully completed your assignments, I’ll…” She paused, seeming to consider what it is she could do in return. “…I’ll take you some place special. And maybe we could… work on your skills a little? It’s come to my attention you’re having problems mastering those.”

“We could?” Iona hopped of her chair, her eyes wide with enthusiasm. “Really? You promise?”

“Oh, I promise,” Athena replied with a smile, then she reached out and touched Iona’s cheek. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you, Iona. I look forward to getting to know you better.” Then, with a poof she disappeared.

Iona glanced at the space where she’d sat for another moment, then a bright smile took over her face. “Wicked!” she chortled to herself, doing a little happy dance. When she’d finished she let her fall backwards, onto her bed. She stared up at the ceiling for a moment, happily wondering about what tomorrow would bring. Would Athena take her to Mount Olympus? Would she get to meet other gods, talk to them, ask them questions about what it meant to have godly blood. They would understand how she felt surely, understand the things Xena couldn’t, or wouldn’t understand.

Iona thoughts paused then, and her eyes found her desk and her opened schoolbook. But Athena wouldn’t take her along if…

Hastily she scrambled to her feet and darted for her desk, sliding into her seat and pulling an empty sheet of parchment closer. She dipped her quill in ink, then hastily started scribbling.

Path of Thorns – Part II

Xena stretched lazily as she strolled into the living room, still dressed in her sleep shirt. She grimaced as she darted a look out the window, to see the sun had already risen well above the horizon.

She was late. Xena snatched an apple from the fruit basket on the table and bit into it as she continued on to her own bedroom, where Caspar was sleeping. She and Gabrielle had continued talking until well past midnight, and because Caspar had claimed her own bed, she’d decided to sleep on the couch. Unsurprisingly, her normally quite dependable internal alarm clock had not woken her this time.

She rapped on the door twice, then pushed it open and poked her head in. “Time to get up, sport.”

Caspar moaned and turned onto his stomach, hiding his head under his pillow. Xena grinned, then closed the door again, continuing on to Niobe’s room and repeating the process. Niobe was more eager to get up and immediately jumped out of bed. The toddler was wearing a pair of pyjamas with tiger stripes, but instead of looking dangerous and menacing, she just looked utterly adorable. Not that she ever looked otherwise, Xena thought to herself, grinning a little.

The three year old toddled over and then looked up expectantly. Xena reached down and picked her up, throwing her in the air a bit and then catching her again, which earned her some delighted giggling. “Hey there, tiger.”

Niobe giggled some more. “I’s not a tigger.”

Xena settled the girl on her shoulder and carried her back into the living room. “You’ve got stripes, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Then you have to be a tiger.”

“No,” Niobe vehemently shook her head. “Not tigger. Got no tail.”

“That’s a good point,” Xena grinned as she put the girl on a chair. “You want a tail? I could make you one.”

Deep brown eyes immediately lit up in delight. “Tigger tail? Really?”

The Empress chuckled, affectionately ruffling the toddler’s hair. “I think that’s a yes.” She placed a finger on the girl’s nose. “Can you set the table for me?”

Niobi cocked her head a little, considering this. “We go see Pookie tday?”

Xena thought about how that fit in her agenda, then shrugged. “Sure.”

“Then I go set table.” Niobe allowed, sitting down on the chair and then hopping off.

Xena watched her go in amusement, then she turned around and prepared herself for her last wake up call.

Iona. The Empress released a breath and squared her shoulders a little, mentally getting ready for either a nasty fight or a sensitive chat. She wasn’t sure which one she preferred.

She stopped in front of Iona’s room, and lifted her hand to knock on the door when the door was suddenly yanked open. Xena hastily took a step back as a hasty figure ran from the room.

“Oh, hi mom,” Iona turned around, jogging backwards. “Sorry ‘bout yesterday.”

Xena blinked at her. “Where are you off to?”

“School.” Iona smiled at her. “Is it okay if I skip breakfast? I wanna go over some exercises with Linos before class.”

Iona waited for an answer, but her mother just stared at her with this strange wide-eyed look. “Mom?”

Xena shook her head a bit. “Uhm, yeah…” She rubbed her eyes with a hand, expecting that when her eyes refocused this strange vision would be over.

“Excellent,” Iona chortled, turning and running off again. “See you at lunch!”

Xena watched her go, seeing her daughter spurt around the corner and into the corridor. She blinked then turned her head a little, to find Niobe standing next to the table, looking back at her with an expression that betrayed a similar amount of surprise. Niobe glanced at the door again, then back to Xena. “Is Jona sick?”

“I think so.” The Empress scratched the back of her neck. “From the looks of it, it might be fatal.”

A moment passed, then the outer door opened again and Gabrielle stepped inside, glancing over her shoulder. “Was that Iona?” she asked as she faced forward, finding both Xena and Niobe staring at her in their pyjamas. A small laugh escaped her and she hastily covered her mouth, not wanting the twosome to think she was laughing at them. Although she was.

“Jona sick.” Niobe informed Gabrielle, as she toddled over, raising her arms so Gabrielle could lift her up.

“Really?” The warrior swung the girl onto her shoulder as she continued on her way into the living room. “What’s wrong with her?”

“Go-ed to school.”

Gabrielle actually stopped and looked up at the child. “She just ran out of here to go to school??”

Niobe nodded.

“No way!” the warrior turned to look at Xena. “She didn’t!”

Xena opened her mouth to respond, but was spared the effort of speaking by the door flying open and Iona sprinting inside again, passing them all as she rushed back into her room. There was some rummaging, then Iona darted back out of her room with a bundle of paperwork. “Forgot my homework!” She called over her shoulder in explanation, before disappearing around the corner once more.

Gabrielle blinked at the empty doorway a few times. “This is not possible. We must be in some quirky alternate dimension.” She tilted her head back and looked up at Xena. “Right?”

“I thought I was still dreaming,” the Empress muttered. “But an alternate dimension sounds plausible too.”

A moment of pensive silence fell, then a grin started tugging at Xena’s lips. “You know what this means, right?”

“Do I?” Gabrielle asked, not sure of anything of anymore.

“It means you were wrong,” Xena announced triumphantly. “And you too.” She pointed a finger at Caspar, who had just stepped out of his room.

The boy’s eyes widened at the early morning accusation. “What did I do?”

“I told you two I grounded Iona and you mocked me.” The empress waved a hand at the outer door. “And look! She is now a model child!”

Gabrielle chuckled. “Well… Can’t argue with that.”

“Iona’s a model child?” Caspar looked from one to the other in utter surprise. “Since when?”

“Since I grounded her,” Xena replied smugly.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “You’re not gonna gloat about this all during our run this morning, right?”

“This is my first victory as a parent,” the Empress smirked. “What do you think?”

Gabrielle covered her eyes with a hand and groaned. Xena just grinned back wickedly.

“I still can’t believe it.”

Xena hopped over a fallen tree, then continued her running. “Yes. Quite a miracle that I actually made a decision concerning my daughter which didn’t turn out completely disastrous.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes and gently slapped her companion in the stomach. “You know that’s not what I meant.”

The Empress flashed her a smile. “I know.”

“I’ve never underestimated your abilities as a mother,” Gabrielle continued seriously, ducking under a lower branch without having to slow down much. “You’re wonderful with children. I noticed that the moment I got here. It intrigued me.”

Xena shot another look sideways, now taking a bit longer. “Really?”

“Yeah.” A nod. “It didn’t really fit with the ideas I had about who you were, how you worked. Made me think, maybe… maybe there was more to you. More than I’d initially thought there was.”

The Empress smiled a little. “And was there more?”

“Nah,” Gabrielle shook her head solemnly. “Besides that, you’re utterly predictable.”

“Hey!” Xena poked at the blonde’s shoulder, which earned her a wicked grin. “You’re so mean.”

“Yup,” Gabrielle easily affirmed, before grabbing onto a branch and using it to swing herself forward and up. She then let go again and performed a perfect flip, landing neatly on the opposite side of a small puddle, giving herself a small lead on the Empress.

Xena shot a look skyward, as she modestly hopped over the mud. “Show off.”

“Hey, I gotta entertain myself somehow while I wait for you to catch up,” Gabrielle remarked over her shoulder.

“Wait for me to…” Xena narrowed her eyes at the blonde’s back. “Is that a challenge?”

Gabrielle turned around, continuing to run on backwards. “Do you want it to be?” She inquired with a smirk.

Xena’s eyes locked with hers for a moment, then a mischievous twinkle entered the blue orbs just before the Empress suddenly sped up, racing past Gabrielle at full speed.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” the blonde grinned, then quickly spun around and set off in pursuit.

It was Gabrielle who reached the lake first, but only by a few inches. Stretching, she realigned her backbone with some soft pops. Xena leaned her hands on her knees and took a moment to catch her breath. “I don’t get how you can run so fast with legs that short,” she managed between breaths.

“How can you run so slow with legs that long?”

“Oh, very funny,” Xena muttered grumpily, walking over to the waterside and sitting down on the bank. “You really are intent on completely trashing my ego, aren’t ya?” The Empress undid the straps on her sandals, then stuck her feet in the water. She kicked at the liquid a little, sending ripples across the previously calm surface

Gabrielle could only half suppress a grin as she walked over and sat down at Xena’s side. “You’re not mad at me, are you?”

Xena glanced sideways, faced forward, and then glanced sideways again, this time with a small smile. “Nah.” She wrapped an arm around the blonde’s shoulders. “I don’t even think I can get mad at you.”

“Good.” Gabrielle happily shuffled closer, resting her cheek on the Empress’s shoulder.

A silence fell and lasted. Gabrielle stared out over the water and watched as the soft morning light which had managed to find its way through the thick foliage toyed with the gentle waves Xena had created. The only sounds came from the birds twittering nearby and the occasional leaf swaying down from its former place among the treetops to fall to the ground with a noise that seemed deafening amongst the silence. Gabrielle closed her eyes and sucked in a deep breath of the fresh, slightly humid morning air. “I really look forward to today,” she finally spoke up in barely more than a whisper, not wanting to disrupt the stillness around them.

“Me too,” Xena replied softly. “Nice quiet day. No letters to answer, no petty thieves to judge, no yelling council members to keep me worrying about you.”

The blonde tilted her head back a bit. “Worry about me?”

“Yeah. I mean, I know you can handle them, it’s just…” Xena lifted a hand and brushed back a lock of Gabrielle’s hair. “Being with them hurts you. And I don’t like you getting hurt.”

Gabrielle managed to keep eye contact a moment longer, then she dropped her gaze. “It’s not their fault. Beginnings are hard. It’ll get better.”

Xena rubbed her shoulder as little. “You really think so?”

A pause, as Gabrielle seriously considered that question. “Yes.” She finally replied, lifting a hand, and then letting it fall back on her thigh again. “I mean, part of the problem is me.”

The Empress snorted a little, clearly not agreeing. “Oh, come on.”

“No, seriously.” The blonde looked up at her. “I mean, this was my dream, Xena. All the time I was fighting in the resistance, I was fighting for this. The voice of the people. A democracy. And I thought it’d be perfect.” A beat. “But it’s not. Because nothing is.” Gabrielle shook her head a little. “It’s just a bit disappointing when your dream becomes reality, but it’s nothing like you’d imagined, you know?”

Xena studied the nearby face for a moment, then pulled the warrior’s head closer. “I know.”

Another moment passed, then Gabrielle laughed a little. “Here we’re sitting, in the beautiful spot watching the sun rise and we’re being all gloomy. How stupid is that.”

The Empress chuckled a little, glancing at the lake before them, then up at the warrior. “Want me to cheer you up?”

Gabrielle cocked her head. “How would you suggest to do that?”

“Wellll,” Xena drawled, then grabbed onto Gabrielle’s arm and tossed herself into the water, dragging the blonde along behind her.

After a moment they both resurfaced, Gabrielle coughing to get the air out of her lungs. “That was supposed to…”Cough. “…cheer me up?!”

“It cheered me up,” Xena replied happily as she treaded water right next to her victim.

“Oh it did, did it?” the blonde stated in a vengeful tone. “Well, if you like water so much…” And with that she pushed Xena’s head down again with a splutter of surprised bubbles.

“Excellent work, Iona,” Linos said, unable to get a hint of utter surprise out of his voice. “Perfect score. I’m very impressed.”

“They weren’t that difficult,” Iona shrugged, as she handed him her writing pad. “The next chapter was much harder.”

“Th… The next chapter?” Linos blinked at her, as he took the pad. “You didn’t have to do those yet.”

“I know,” Iona stated, then turned and went back to her desk. She sat down and picked up her book, turning over a page and continuing to read.

Linos stared at her for another moment, then shook his head a little. He got up and walked across the room to come to stand at Niobe’s side. The toddler was drawing a picture, which involved some stick figures surrounded by lots of yellow scratching. Niobe shot him a look, then sat back a little and joined her teacher in observing her creation. After a moment, she cocked her head and looked up at him again. “Nees more jello?”

“Yes, definitely,” Linos replied seriously.

The toddler nodded, then picked up her yellow crayon and determinedly continued her work.

Linos smiled down at her, then continued on to his last student. Caspar was sitting on his seat at the back of the class, staring out the window. “Gazing outside again, huh?” the teacher hunched down next to the boy’s table, so they were at eye height. “Are trees and sparrows really that much more interesting than me?”

“Not trees and sparrows, no,” Caspar muttered, not even bothering to look at the man next to him. “But that…” He waved a hand at the window.

Linos let his gaze follow in the indicated direction and looked outside as well. He frowned, rose to his feet and then stepped closer to the window to get a better look.

His eyes followed a completely soaked figure that went whizzing by, which reminded him an awful lot of the Empress. The figure was being chased by another.

“Abby!” Niobe, who had climbed onto her chair to catch a glimpse of the on goings as well, identified her. “Abby all cuvved in mud!” She giggled. “Good!”

Iona had also gotten up and moved to Linos’s side. She looked at the scene for a moment, then shook her head and sighed gravely. “Children,” she muttered, before returning to her seat.

Gabrielle shook her head wildly, scattering water drops all over the bathroom. She grinned, then grabbed onto a towel and turbaned it around her hair as she walked back into her bedroom. She opened her closet and selected a simple cream-coloured tunic to wear. She tossed it on the bed, sat down next to it and started to rub her hair dry.

The water fight had quickly turned into a game of mud wrestling, which had become a chase after Xena had managed to send a good amount of mud down the warrior’s top. After that it’d just been a spectacle, since it turned out the entire staff had been watching them chase each other across the lawn.

Gabrielle couldn’t suppress a grin. She didn’t care much about the spectators however. She felt wonderfully relaxed for the first time in almost a week. Being dunked in a lake had cheered her up, though she wasn’t about to go tell Xena that, of course. She chuckled as she tossed aside her towel and started getting dressed for the second time in a period of two candle marks.

After a few moments she exited her room again. Xena had suggested doing the boring ‘ruling the world’ stuff in the morning, so they could relax in the afternoon and spend some time with the kids. She’d happily agreed to that, although she doubted the big gap between the wishes of the council and that of the Empress could be bridged in one morning.

As she walked through the hall, on her way to Xena’s study, she paused though, and her eyes tracked to a corridor with a door at the end, leading down. Gabrielle hesitated for a moment, then decided Xena was a lot bigger and therefore had more mud to get rid off and probably wasn’t finished washing yet. She had a few moments to spare.

She descended several steps. Her footsteps echoed down a torch lit corridor until finally she came upon another door. The two guards on either side saluted her as she approached, before one of them hastily opened the door for her to enter. Gabrielle stepped inside, her eyes sweeping the dimly lit interior.

“Well, well…” A voice spoke up from the shadows. “Look who’s come to visit.”

Gabrielle turned and faced the shadows, leaning back against the opposite cell door. “Hello, Callisto.”

The sound of rustling fabric, then Callisto stepped into the light. Her tunic was a bit tattered and stained, but otherwise she looked pretty much okay. “Hello, precious. How’s that hole in your gut? Still hurting?”

Gabrielle shrugged. “Not really.”

“Pity.” The blonde crossed her arms and stared at her visitor. “So have you come to help me escape, or just to babble at me again?”

“To babble,” Gabrielle informed her cheerfully.

A depressed groan was her reply. The warrior chuckled. “I won’t be too long though. I have to meet with Xena.”

“Oh yes, Xena,” Callisto muttered, clearly not liking the subject. “She hasn’t stabbed you in the back then, has she?”

“Nope.”

“Yeah, well, just wait.” Callisto started pacing her cell. “Just at the moment things are just peachy, you’re gonna find yourself locked in some dark pit for four years. Mark my words.”

“Well, I’m happy you’re so concerned about my well-being,” Gabrielle started.

“I’m not,” Callisto quickly snapped, shooting her a foul look. “I don’t care about you in the slightest.”

“I know,” Gabrielle agreed easily.

“Then why do you keep coming here?”

“To piss you off.” The warrior shot her companion a charming smile

“Figures,” Callisto grumbled, then retreated back to her bed, plumping down on its surface ungracefully. “Isn’t bad enough the food here is crappy. And the place stinks. And my walking talking Pompey Puzzle went off and started decaying on me.” She waved a hand at an empty burley sack lying forgotten in a corner. “But now on top of it all you gotta come in here and bore me to death.” She paused and cocked her head. “I wonder if you can bore an immortal to death.”

“I’ll gladly try,” Gabrielle offered merrily.

Callisto stared at her for a moment, then shivered. “Never mind.”

“That’s what I thought,” the warrior shot her a grin, then pushed herself off the bars and took the few paces to Callisto’s cell. “Here.” She unhooked a small pouch from her belt and tossed it into the cell, where Callisto neatly scooped it out of the air. The blonde opened it and peeked inside. She fished a bit of candy, studied it for a moment, then quickly popped it into her mouth.

“I’ll ask the cook to prepare something nice for you next time.” The warrior continued. “And I’ll see if I can find you something to do in here.”

Dark eyes watched her warily. “Don’t expect me to be grateful or anything.”

“I won’t.” Gabrielle shot her another smile, then headed back out the door.

It wasn’t much later when Gabrielle pushed open the door to Xena’s study. The Empress was leaning back in her chair, her feet popped up on the desk and her arms crossed. Her good mood seemed to have vanished. “I see you’ve slipped into business mode,” Gabrielle commented, as she closed the door behind her.

“I just leafed through the council’s list of wishes. Or should I call ’em demands?”

The blonde exhaled, then pulled back a seat across from the Empress and sat down. “I informed them you’d never agree to this. The list is negotiable.”

“Well, we’ll have to negotiate at least half of these ideas into oblivion,” Xena pulled her feet back and sat up straight, pulling a scroll closer and unrolling it. “Abolition of the death penalty, freedom to protest against the regime, downsizing my army… What does the council want to turn my empire into? A crime ridden nation with overstuffed jails, where half of the people are unemployed and the rest are parading around the streets blaming me for not making their lives more perfect?”

Gabrielle leaned her elbows on the desk’s surface. “Death is irreversible. If you execute someone for a crime they didn’t commit, you can’t unkill him.”

“Oh yeah,” Xena snorted. “And locking ‘m up is such a great idea. Look at our buddy Callisto. Was locked up for 4 years, and she turned out so well, didn’t she?”

“I know you don’t agree with most of the stuff in there,” Gabrielle replied, remaining calm. “Both parties need to compromise.”

Xena drew in a breath, and then released it. “I’m willing to do that, Gabrielle. I really am, but… But I built this nation. I smashed it to bits and then I rebuilt it and now everything is working as it should. I worked really hard to make that happen.” She waved a hand at the scroll. “What you’re asking me here is to turn everything upside down again. There’s gonna be chaos if I do that.”

“I’m not asking you, the council is,” Gabrielle corrected quietly. “I know things can’t change overnight. And I’ll do my best to get the council to see that too. But you need to give me something to work with.”

“And what is the council gonna give me in return?” Xena retorted, unrolling the scroll further. “Oh, here, I don’t need to pay punitive damages to resistance groups. Awfully nice. I don’t have to sell my palace, I don’t have to rebuilt…”

The Empress frowned, then looked up. “The Academy? You don’t want it rebuilt?”

Gabrielle leaned back in her seat. “We had a vote. The council decided there were more important things to worry about first.”

Xena leaned forward and looked the blonde directly in the eyes. “And you agree?”

“Whether I agree or not is irrelevant,” Gabrielle replied, then diverted her eyes to gaze out the window. “We voted. The majority decided.”

“Screw the majority. I know you want the Academy. You’ve been talking about it for weeks.” Xena rose from her chair and circled the desk, hunching down next to Gabrielle so they were at eye level. “Just say the word and I’ll put it back on the list.”

Green eyes studied hers for a moment, then the warrior managed a sad smile. “I can’t let you do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’ll be doing it because of us.” Gabrielle shook her head a little. “The council is giving me enough grief already, because they believe our relationship is clouding my judgment. If I let you do this, I’ll prove them right.”

Xena looked at her for another moment, then she rose to her feet. “This sucks,” she cursed under her breath, as she turned and paced to the window, gazing outside gloomily. After a moment of silence, she turned back to Gabrielle. “Can’t we just ditch the council? Can’t it just be you and me?”

The blonde managed a small smile. “That wouldn’t be much of a democracy.”

“Not a democracy, no, but it’d be a lot more fun.” Xena sighed, but then regretfully trudged back over to her desk and plumped down in her seat. “All right…” She pulled the council’s scroll closer again and scanned the text. “I’m willing to make some short term changes in the justice department. But only some. The rest of these suggestions are either long term, or impossible.”

Gabrielle nodded. “Some is a start.”

It was a few candle marks after noon when Gabrielle strolled onto the Agora. Her meeting with Xena had been long and filled with heavy in depth discussions, but in the end it had been fruitful. The council wouldn’t be content yet, but Gabrielle hoped that when the members saw the concessions the Empress had made, they too would be a bit more forthcoming.

Gabrielle sucked in a deep breath and enjoyed the mixture of scents filling her senses. The marketplace was filled with stalls offering items from all over the empire. From fruits and

vegetables to freshly baked bread, from Egyptian artwork to Chinese incense.

This last offering was what she’d come to the market for. Gabrielle stopped in front of the stall and politely greeted the merchant from Chin in his own tongue. The merchant smiled at her, and bowed politely. “Ah, Gabrielle. It’s been a while since I saw you last.”

“I’ve been a bit busy,” the blonde told him, as she selected some scented cones.

“I’m not surprised. Ruling the world must be time consuming.” The merchant chuckled as she shot him a look. “How was the medicine I gave you? For your wounds?” He vaguely indicated his palms

“Great,” Gabrielle said, as she handed him her selection of incense cones. She lifted a hand and showed him her palm, where a scar could still be seen in the centre. “It still looks ugly, but it hurts less.”

“That’s good to hear,” the Chinese man placed her purchases in a bag and handed it to her with one hand, while he received some coins in the other. “If you need more, just tell me. I will have the herbs sent here.”

“Thank you,” Gabrielle smiled at him, then turned to continue on her way.

Her little conversation had drawn the attention of other shoppers however. It probably wasn’t often people saw a white skinned woman speaking fluent Chinese. And by now she would have most certainly been recognised.

Gabrielle tried to ignore the hushed whispering which drifted up as she passed. People were watching her, though they pretended not to.

She knew all the rumours already of course. How Xena had her drugged to get her to cooperate, how she was not really Gabrielle but an evil twin who does the Empress’s bidding, how both their relationship and the introduction of Xena’s daughter was all an elaborate scheme to improve the Empress’s image.

It was strange. Strange to think how she and her relationship were the topic of conversation in many households. Gabrielle grimaced as she added some other purchases to her bag. It was strange and she didn’t like it one bit.

With a sigh Gabrielle went on, allowing her eyes to slide past the crowd. Past a group of talking women, past children running around, past…

Gabrielle frowned, as she saw a young man observing her from a respectable distance. A cloak was draped across his shoulders, but the hood was swiped back to reveal a handsome face and curly hair reaching down to his shoulders. Though he must have noticed he’d been spotted, he didn’t flinch or turn away, but kept looking straight at her with deep, piercing brown eyes.

A group of soldiers marched past, obscuring her line of sight for a moment. When they’d strode past, the young man had vanished. Gabrielle searched for him for a moment amongst the masses. After a moment though she shrugged it off and continued on her way, back towards the palace.

“Xena.”

The Empress unrolled her scroll a bit further and continued reading.

“Xena!” A hand tugged insistently on her sleeve.

With a sigh she looked up at the anxious Caspar. “Yes?”

“Would you please tell her to stop?” The boy pleaded, pointing.

Xena eyes tracked in the direction he was indicating to see Niobe clinging on to a tiger’s ear with one hand and its nose with the other, dangling back and forth. “Why?” The Empress asked, turning back to her reading. “She’s fine.”

“She’s hanging onto the ear of an animal with sharp fangs and deadly claws,” Caspar retorted sharply. “She’s not fine. She’s in mortal danger.”

Xena looked up into the serious brown eyes and couldn’t repress a chuckle. “You are so much like your father it scares me sometimes.” She grabbed onto the boy’s shirt and tugged, catching him as he lost his balance. She tickled him, making him squirm.

“Xena!” Caspar tried to look stern, as he unsuccessfully attempted to repress a giggle.

The Empress rolled her eyes. “Fine, fine…” She brought two fingers to her mouth and whistled.

The tiger’s head shot up in response and then he jogged closer, a delighted Niobe still clinging onto his face. He stopped in front of Xena and sat down, looking at her with large greenish-brown eyes. He glanced at the toddler’s hand wrapped around his nose, then back at the Empress with a meaningful look.

Xena grinned wickedly, but straightened and detached Niobe from her pet. “C’mere, shorty. I think you’ve tired Pookie out.”

The tiger snorted in dismay and turned his back on the Empress. He took a few steps away from the threesome then dropped down and stretched lazily.

Niobe didn’t seem too troubled to have been separated from her pet and instantly started crawling up Xena’s long body until she was face to face with the Empress. “Lo.”

“Hi,” Xena drawled in response. “Having fun?”

“Yes,” Niobe confirmed. “Hey Sena?”

“Yeah?”

“Was Abby doin?”

Xena glanced to her left, where at a distance from them Gabrielle and Iona were sitting cross-legged, clouded in the gentle fumes of incense. The warrior’s hands were resting on her knees and her eyes were closed in meditation. The Empress smiled and faced forward again, leaning back against the rock she was propped up against and closing her eyes. “She’s making stuff float.”

“Ah.” Niobe nodded in perfect understanding, before stretching lazily and closing her eyes as well. “Kay.”

Gabrielle slowly drew in a breath, then exhaled again, focusing on nothing more than her breathing. Sounds died away, smells became indistinct and finally she couldn’t even feel the wind blowing over her skin. She imagined herself alone in a dark, soundless room, where everything was still and peaceful. Then she thought about the apple she’d placed in front of her feet before she’d started meditating, and the apple appeared. She thought about how it ought to float, and moments later it drifted up from the ground.

“And your position on this issue wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that the current head of state is your girlfriend, right?” Odell’s voice rang though her head, as his smug face appeared in her previously still and peaceful dark place.

Her hovering apple instantly shot upwards and blasted straight through the roof of her room, allowing the bright light of the outside world to pour inside.

Gabrielle blinked open her eyes and looked up, to see the piece of fruit soaring higher and higher, until it was only the tiniest of dots in the clear sky. “Oh crap.”

Iona was sitting across from her, looking straight up as well. “You just launched my apple into outer space.” The twelve year old mumbled, before facing the warrior. “Why?”

“Sorry.” The blonde rubbed a hand over her face. “Remaining pent up frustration. I should’ve taken a bit longer to clear my mind.” Gabrielle pulled an orange closer and placed it on the spot the apple had occupied moments before. “OK, let me try this again.”

Iona watched as the warrior resumed her meditative pose and sat perfectly still. She remained like this for quite a while, then suddenly the orange drifted up from the ground. It remained elevated above the grass for a while, then slowly drifted forward until it was right above Iona’s hand. It floated for another moment, then fell right into the girl’s palm.

“Awesome,” Iona grinned, before she started to peel the skin off their practice object. “There’s something I don’t get though.”

“What?” Gabrielle asked as she opened her eyes again.

“Well, Xena said your teacher smacked her all over the room.” The girl stated as she chewed on a slice of orange. “I’m assuming mom didn’t wait around for her to meditate for a quarter of a candlemark so she could get beaten up.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “Lao Ma was a lot more skilled at this than I am. She could reach a state of perfect stillness in mere moments. I’m just not that good.” The warrior hopped back to her feet, then reached down a hand to help Iona up. “I don’t think I’ll ever be as good as she was. But I’m just gonna keep practicing, see how far I can get.”

“Yeah, well, at least you made something fly,” Iona muttered as they headed for Xena and the others. “My piece of fruit didn’t even tremble.”

“You’ll get there.” Gabrielle gently squeezed her shoulder. “These things just take time.”

The girl scowled. “I don’t like things that take time. I like things that happen the moment I want them to happen. They’re much more fun.”

“Impatience and a need for instant gratification,” Gabrielle rubbed her jaw, pretending to be in deep thought. “Now who else do I know with those character traits?”

“If you’re referring to me,” Xena drawled, keeping her eyes firmly closed. “I’ll have you know I’m a very patient person.”

Gabrielle snorted, as she watched Iona detour towards the sunbathing Pookie, creeping through the grass so the tiger wouldn’t hear her approach. Niobe, who’d had enough of lying still, took this as her cue and got up as well, following her big sister willingly into mayhem. The blonde shook her head a little, then came to Xena’s side and sat down. “You are not patient,” she stated, looking up at the drowsing Empress.

“Yes, I am,” Xena simply retorted, before lifting her hand and holding it out. Moments later, an apple dropped right into her palm. She opened her eyes and extended the piece of fruit to the warrior. “Want a bite?”

In reply, Gabrielle simply leaned forward and bit through the green skin.

“Guess you do,” Xena mumbled, before bringing the fruit to her own lips and taking a bite as well. “So how did the meditating go?” She managed around a full mouth. “Not counting the space apple, of course.”

“Pretty much okay,” Gabrielle muttered, crossing her arms and watching Iona charge Pookie, who rolled away just in time so the girl landed flat on her face in the grass. “I’m having trouble focusing though. Takes a long time before I can clear my mind of all the stuff that’s going on.”

“Well, there’s a lot to clear,” the Empress reasoned, holding out the apple to Gabrielle again and allowing her to take another bite.

“True.” Gabrielle placed her hands behind her head and leaned back. “What about you, Caspar?” She directed at the boy sitting with his arms wrapped around his knees on Xena’s other side. “You enjoying yourself?”

The boy sighed dramatically. “I wish they wouldn’t play so rough,” he said, indicating where Pookie was running from his two pursuers. “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.” A wince. “Or a head.”

Gabrielle chuckled softly. “Don’t you worry. If the tiger goes all wild, I’ll rescue them.”

Xena smirked. “You gonna wrestle a tiger, are you?”

“Sure,” the warrior confirmed easily. “Not like I haven’t done it before.”

Caspar instantly pushed himself up, staring at Gabrielle with wide eyes. “You fought a tiger?”

“Unfortunately,” the blonde confirmed, lifting up her right sleeve to show him and Xena four parallel scars across her biceps.

“Ouch,” Xena winced at the thought of the wound that the large cat must have caused. “Bet that was a nasty fight.”

“Wasn’t my most pleasurable memory, no. You can’t really pin those animals down like humans, they can squirm out of any hold.” The warrior pointed a thumb at her back. “Got a nasty set of bite marks too, when she managed to get past me.”

“Did you kill it?” Caspar inquired curiously.

“Nah.” A shake of the blonde’s head. “I was walking through her forest. Got too close to her cubs. I would have attacked me too.” She grinned. “I punched my fist into her face and then I ran real fast.”

They all laughed at this. Xena finally shook her head a little. “Getting slugged by an elephant, wrestling a tiger… You always have these amazing travel stories.” She looked at her friend. “You should write ’em down sometime.”

“Yeah, that’d be cool,” Caspar agreed eagerly. “Your stories are the best.”

Gabrielle shrugged a little and diverted her gaze a touch shyly. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” she murmured as she watched Niobe and Iona chase their pet. “Writing takes a lot of time and… And the words sort of have to come to you.” She glanced back up at Xena. “I don’t think they’re gonna come. I’ve tried a few times before, but… Well…” Another shrug.

“I could find you someone you could tell them to, and then he could write ’em down for you.” The Empress insisted. “You like that Homer guy, right? I’m sure if I pull some strings…”

Gabrielle gently smacked her hand against the other woman’s shoulder. “Xena!” She darted her companion a look. “My stories aren’t that exciting. I mean, who wants to hear about some dumb blonde nearly drowning in stupid wild river currents.

“You got carried away by a river?” Caspar asked incredulously, sitting up.

“Well, there’s one,” Xena drawled, receiving another poke from the blonde.

“You’re both biased,” Gabrielle accused, but leaned closer and gave them both a kiss on the cheek anyway. “Thanks for the vote of confidence though. If I ever do write it all down, you’ll be the first to read it. Promise.”

“I guess we can live with that,” Xena allowed with a grin, then glanced down at Caspar. “Right?”

“Right,” the boy murmured dreamily, a hand pressed against his cheek. After a moment he shook his head though and hastily crawled back to his feet. “I uhm…I really gotta go and… go.” He stuttered, then quickly ran off.

Xena chuckled as she watched him run into the palace. “He is still so hung up on you.” She leaned a bit closer and dropped her voice to a whisper. “Not that I blame him.”

Gabrielle leaned back a little against the Empress’s body and exhaled. “You really should talk to him sometime though.”

“Me?” Xena innocently pointed at her own chest. “Why me? It’s you he’s in love with.”

“Yes, but it’s because of you I’m no longer single,” Gabrielle easily retorted, shooting the Empress a grin over her shoulder.

The Empress rolled her eyes. “That’s so sneaky,” she accused, poking the blonde in the side playfully, for which she was rewarded with a tickle under the sole of one of her feet. Another poke. Another tickle. Gabrielle tilted her head back and looked at her companion with mischievously twinkling green eyes.

It only took moments before they’d started a chase of their own, which Iona, Niobe and their tiger happily joined.

Night had fallen, and now only the moonlight illuminated a small room in an Athenian inn. The door opened and the young man with brown curly hair stepped into the room. He untied his cloak from around his neck and tossed it on the bed. He knelt down beside the fireplace in the centre of his room, taking a flint and striker from over the mantel.

It took a moment before the sparks finally ignited the tinder. The man added some logs and then took a step back, waiting patiently as the fire slowly grew and grew, until something suddenly exploded in the flames and they flashed an ugly, poisonous shade of green.

“My Lord,” the young man knelt down and bent his head respectfully. “I have arrived in Athens.”

“Is he dead?” A voice inquired from the flames, one only he could hear.

“Yes. The rumours are true.”

“Perfect.” The delight in his Lord’s voice was clear. “So it begins then.” A pause. “The first step will be fear. I believe it is time to inform Xena of my return.”

“Inform her?” The young man frowned. “But then she’ll have time to prepare for your arrival. She will try to prevent it.”

“Yes, she will try. And fail.” The voice was calm. “Xena only defeated me, because she got lucky. She was in the right place, at the right time and I made the wrong move. But while she has gone and conquered the world, I’ve had time to think, locked up in my icy prison. I’ve thought of my mistake and learned from it. And I’ve thought of my revenge.” A dark chuckle. “My sweet revenge.” The voice paused a moment, as the deity revelled in his thoughts of destruction, then he spoke up again. “I want Xena to suffer. I want her to hurt. And I want her to know that that is what I want. That I will come to Greece to destroy her and everyone she cares for.” A flame reached forward and caressed the young man’s cheek. “You will be the one to tell her. You will be my deliverer.”

After dinner Xena had retired to her study. Not because she really wanted to, but all the talk about council stuff and playing with Gabrielle had left very little time for her to deal with current issues in her empire. Some of those could just not be delayed.

Xena tapped the top of her quill against her jaw, then nodded a bit to herself and leaned over the parchment, adding some lines to the writing and finally signing it. She blew the ink dry then folded the document up, dripped some wax on the top and pressed her seal ring into the hot liquid. Placing the letter aside she pulled another closer and started scanning the contents.

She didn’t get far however, since a knock on the door forced her to pause her reading. “What is it?”

The door opened and a red haired head poked in. “Hi.”

Xena blinked several times, before she finally managed to speak. “What are you doing here?”

Thalia rolled her eyes. “Yes, it’s lovely to see you too.” She opened the door a bit further and slipped inside, darting another anxious glance back into the hallway before closing the door. “I’m not here ‘cause I suddenly decided I like you or anything, okay?”

“Good. I was starting to get worried,” Xena drawled, leaning back in her seat and crossing her arms.

“Let’s save the pleasantries for later,” the redhead retorted. “I need to talk to you about Gabrielle.”

“Well, that’s a coincidence. I need to talk to you about Gabrielle too.” Xena leaned forward, her eyes darkening dangerously. “Specifically about how you forced her to give up the Academy.”

“Forced…” Thalia spluttered, then shook her head vehemently. “Hey, I didn’t force Gab to do anything! The issue came up, the council voted…”

“Oh, screw your freaking council!” Xena made a wild gesture with her hand. “She’s been working her butt off for that stupid democracy of yours. She’s selflessly slaving away and the only thing she really wanted for herself was that academy reopened. And she doesn’t even get that?” A snort. “I’ll stick with tyranny any day.”

Thalia opened pointed a finger and opened her mouth to start yelling back, but somehow she got herself back under control. “Look,” she managed in a voice not quite devoid of anger. “I didn’t come here to defend my views on government. I hate you. You hate me. We’re clear on that. Right?”

“Definitely,” the Empress shot back.

“But we both like Gabrielle. And she’s why I’m here right now. So just shut up, and listen for a moment.”

Xena growled something under her breath, but otherwise she remained quiet.

“Okay, so…” Thalia moved a bit closer. “You probably know Gabrielle’s birthday is in three days from now.”

The Empress blinked at her. “Birthday?”

“Ooookay, so you don’t know,” Thalia muttered, scratching the back of her neck. “I thought you had all this stuff noted in those files of yours.”

“I do, I just…” Xena slapped herself in frustration. “I completely forgot.”

“Miss genius forgot. It’s a miracle.” Thalia mumbled, then hastily continued when Xena shot her a foul look. “Anyway, I invited some friends for a big party. You’re right about the council stressing Gab out. And I figured she could use a good party to get her to unwind.”

“You’ve clearly spent a long time in the company of Amazons,” the Empress commented.

“But the thing is,” Thalia continued, completely ignoring her. “Gab has quite a lot of friends. I need a nice spacey location to have the party at…”

“Ah, I see.” Xena smirked. “And you figured a palace would do nicely, did you?”

The redhead simply nodded. “I’m sure you have some big room for party purposes around here somewhere. And it wouldn’t be too hard to get Gab in there. We could make up some story about a new location for a council meeting or something. That way it could be a surprise.”

“You want to surprise an experienced warrior with sharp senses and well honed reflexes?” Xena crossed her arms. “That could prove to be lethal, you know?”

“I’m willing to take a chance.” Thalia placed her hands on her hips and met Xena’s gaze with a determined one of her own. “How about you?”

The Empress stared at the redhead across from her for several moments longer, then she inclined her head in consent. “All right. You can have your party here. Under one condition.”

“What?”

“I’m invited.”

“Oh, naturally,” Thalia easily consented. “Wouldn’t be fun without you, now would it?”

“Okay, this is scary,” a third voice mingled its way into the conversation. “You two in the same room for no obvious reason, talking.”

“Gab!” Thalia hastily spun around and produced a huge fake smile. “You’re here!”

“Yeeees,” the warrior drawled, eyeing her friend somewhat suspiciously. “I am. And you are here, ‘cause…?”

“Well, we…” The redhead stuttered. “We were going for a walk, remember?”

“I didn’t know our walk was going to take us into Xena’s room.” Gabrielle deadpanned, crossing her arms and shooting her friend a look. “What’s going on here?”

Xena repressed a smirk at Thalia’s panicky behaviour. She enjoyed letting the redhead babble on unintelligently for another bit, then decided to intervene. “I called her in here.” Both the other women turned and looked at her, Thalia with wide blinking eyes and Gabrielle with a raised, questioning eyebrow. “I wanted to talk to Thalia about the Academy,” Xena continued calmly, folding her hands together.

Gabrielle exhaled and shook her head. “Xena…”

“I didn’t do it for you,” the Empress smoothly cut the blonde’s accusations off. “I did it for me. Because I think the council’s decision sucks and I needed to yell at your friend here and tell her it sucks.”

Gabrielle studied her for another moment, seemingly not quite convinced, but finally she seemed to cave in with a small shrug. “So you feel better now that you’ve yelled?”

“Oh yes,” Xena beamed a smile at her. “Yelling at Thalia always gives me this warm fuzzy feeling inside.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes at the Empress, then headed back out the door. “Come on, Thal.”

“Right behind ya,” The redhead called after her, then quickly turned back over to Xena. “I’ll handle the guest stuff, you do the catering,” she ordered, before dashing out the door in pursuit of Gabrielle.

Xena waved a salute at the now empty doorframe, then circled her desk and dropped back into her chair. She popped her feet up on the table’s surface and gazed out the window pensively. After a moment ideas started to form, and a hint of a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.

“So… Did you finish that homework?”

Iona started and spun around, then a smile spread across her face as she recognized her visitor. “Sure did.” She bunched some parchments together then handed them to Athena. “I’m a chapter ahead of schedule even, because I was enjoying all that learning so much.”

The goddess repressed a chuckle as she took the scribblings. “I’m sure you were.”

Athena took her time reading through the various assignments, ignoring Iona as the girl impatiently tapped her foot and drummed her fingertips on her desk. Finally she looked up. “And you did all of this in one day?”

Iona nodded. “It wasn’t that hard. I mean, the physics stuff was sorta complicated at times, but I like languages.”

“So I see,” Athena drawled, pointing to the words ‘Cogito, ergo doleo’ scribbled in a corner of a page filled with formulas. “I think, therefore I am depressed?”

“Caspar wrote that,” Iona stated with a straight face. “He’s a rebel.”

The goddess actually laughed at this. “Sure.” She placed the writings back on the desk. “Okay. You held up your end of the bargain. So it’s my turn now. Where do you want to go?”

Iona’s answer was instant. “Olympus!”

“Erhmmm…” Athena waggled her hand, not sharing her niece’s enthusiasm. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. The family’s a bit… edgy right now. I don’t think you’d like it much.”

“Oh,” the girl sighed, clearly disappointed.

Athena pensively tapped her chin with her index finger, then an idea seemed to spring to mind. “I might know a nice alternative though.”

Iona cocked her head in interest. “What?”

“You’ll see when we get there.” Athena smiled at her, then held out her hand. “You’ll like it. Trust me.”

“And then she tried to set me up with some guy from the north side of town and I spent the whole night listening to him explaining the intricate process of basket weaving.”

Gabrielle laughed, then quickly lifted a hand to her mouth. “Sorry.”

Thalia shot her a look. “No, you’re not.”

“I am.”

“You’re not,” the redhead insisted. “You’re getting a perverse pleasure out of watching me suffer.”

Gabrielle grinned, unable to deny the accusation. “Have you told Fay you don’t appreciate her matchmaking?”

“A thousand times.” A helpless sigh. “I mean, I love her like a mother, ya know, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotta start acting like one.”

The warrior chuckled softly, folding her hands behind her back as she walked. They’d chosen an old route along a hillside just outside of town, which offered a great view over the city. Athens was magical at night, with all its tiny lights chasing away the darkness. “I’m sure Fay means well.”

“I know, I know,” Thalia muttered as she kicked at a pebble and watched it tumble down the hillside. “She doesn’t want me to be lonely, she says.”

Gabrielle turned her head and studied her friend. “Are you?”

There was a long moment of silence, as the redhead pensively gazed up at the starlit sky. “No.” She finally said firmly. “I mean, sometimes, sure. Everyone is lonely sometimes, right?” Another pause, as Thalia carefully considered her words. “I’m just… I’ve been out of this whole social loop for so long, ya know? When I meet someone new, I just stare at them suspiciously and when they say something I don’t like I snap at ‘m and send them screaming into the night.”

“And you claim this is a new development?” Gabrielle murmured, then coughed as an elbow poked her in the stomach.

“No witty comments from you, keeper of the dark and murderous glare,” Thalia scolded.

“Sorry,” Gabrielle smirked at her friend, then reached out and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “There’s nothing wrong with your social skills, Thal. If someone had bored me all night talking about basket weaving, he wouldn’t have been able to run screaming into the night, ‘cause he’d have no tongue left to scream with.”

“Oeeeehhh,” Thalia purred, her eyes lighting up mischievously as she mentally de-tongued Mr. basket weaver. “Vicious. I like it. Next time Fay brings someone over for dinner, I’m giving you a call.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “If it’s bugging you that much, why don’t you move out? Get a place of your own?”

“I tried that.” Thalia sighed. “But Athens is a crowded city, you know? More people than there are rooms.”

Her friend considered this. “Well… I could probably find you a spot in the palace, but…”

“But then I’d have to socialise with Xena even more than I already do, which would not be a good thing, I assure you.”

Gabrielle released a breath, shaking her head a little. “I wish you two would get along.”

“Yeah, and I wish the earth wasn’t flat and could spin around in circles,” Thalia muttered sarcastically, then darted her friend an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, Gab. I’d pretend to like her, for your sake, but… I just can’t. I mean, we can have a conversation now without yelling and wanting to tear each other’s heads off. That’s something.”

The blonde nodded a little, her eyes fixed on the ground under their feet.

Thalia glanced up at the shadowed profile, her friend’s sadness clearly visible. “Look… If it means anything… I get why you like her now.”

Gabrielle cocked her hear. “You do?”

“She understands stuff I can’t. Big bad… ultimate warrior… stuff.”

The blonde snorted.

“And she looks out for you. I mean, just now, about the Academy. She was really mad. Just because it was something you wanted, she got upset.”

A smile tugged at the corner’s of Gabrielle’s mouth. “She can get a little… over protective.”

“Anyone who’s protective of you gets bonus points.” The redhead stated simply. “And then, last but not least, there’s still ‘the thing’.” Thalia drew quotation marks in the sky.

A chuckle. “You still haven’t figured that one out, have you?”

“Nope. You?”

“No,” Gabrielle admitted with a smirk. “But as soon as I do, I’ll let you know.”

Iona shielded her eyes from the bright light that surrounded her. She felt her feet leave the ground, but only moments after they touched earth again. Iona stumbled, but a hand on her shoulder steadied her and kept her from falling. “Are you okay?”

The girl blinked away the after-effects of the flash, until finally she could make out her new surroundings.

It was a lush green forest she was standing in, totally unlike any of the Greek forests she’d ever been in. Branches and roots, covered in thick layers off moss, curled up and down in nearly impossible twists. Delicate swirls of mist circled among the trees and bushes, leaving the air slightly damp and somewhat chilly. The air smelled of growth, of wet earth and fresh leafs.

“Do you like it?” Athena inquired gently.

“It’s beautiful,” Iona murmured, before looking up at her divine companion. “Where are we?”

“This is the Isle of Shadow,” Athena informed her, her eyes taking in her surroundings in obvious appreciation. “It’s an island near Britannia. It was my home for many years.”

Iona frowned. “Your home? But… you live in Greece.”

“I fled when my brother took the throne,” Athena stated, as she placed a hand on Iona’s back and guided her through the thickly grown forest. “After he’d killed our father, I knew he’d be coming after me next. We’d never much liked each other. We are both gods of war, but… I was the one that tended to win.” The goddess flashed her niece a grin. “Ares couldn’t stand that. Nor the fact that I was father’s favourite.” Athena fell quiet for a moment, looking down at the moss-covered earth pensively. “I loved my father very much. When I heard what Ares had done… I wanted nothing more than to fight him. To avenge Zeus.” A shake of the dark blonde’s head. “But I knew I’d only die trying. Ares had a hind’s blood dagger, I didn’t have anything to use against it. I decided to bide my time, to hide somewhere Ares wouldn’t look until I found a way to take him out. So I came here.”

“Why here?” Iona asked, quite intrigued by the story.

“Because a friend of mine lives here,” Athena said, before pushing some leaves away.

The road sloped downwards and into a wide clearing, in which a castle stood, completely overgrown with mosses and poison ivy. The branches of a tree curled protectively around one of the towers. In front of the castle a small group of men was performing a complex sword drill, the polished blades reflecting the gentle sunlight beautifully.

As they walked closer, Iona noticed a woman with bright red curly hair pacing around the training men and shouting out instructions now and then. She was tall, nearly as tall as Xena, Iona thought. She seemed pretty strong too. The sleeveless leather vest she was wearing revealed strong shoulders and muscled upper arms.

A few moments later the woman seemed to hear something and looked up, spotting them. She straightened fully and a smile crossed her face instantly. “Athena!” She walked towards them and met them halfway, clasping Athena’s upper arm in an amicable gesture. “I didn’t expect you back this soon. How are things?”

“Complex,” Athena told her, before waving a hand at the girl at her side. “I want you to meet my niece. Iona, this is Scathach. She’s a goddess too.”

“Hi,” Iona managed a smile and extended her hand, which Scathach took.

As their hands touched, the Celtic goddess frowned though. “You’re mortal.”

“She’s Xena’s daughter,” Athena said calmly. “And Ares’.”

Scathach’s eyes shot to Athena’s. “Ares? You bring the daughter of Ares to my island?!”

Iona winced and quickly took a step back, glancing away guiltily. Athena wrapped an arm around her shoulders though and pulled her closer. “The sins of the father are not those of the child.”

Scathach looked doubtfully at her for another moment, but then gave in. She knelt down next to Iona and looked up at her. “My apologies.”

The girl glanced down at the goddess, still a little uneasy. “I’m…. I’m sorry if Ares hurt you. But I’m nothing like him. Really.”

The Celtic goddess smiled. “I believe you.” She straightened again and motioned them forward. “Come. Let me show you around.”

The guard standing at the palace’s front gate lifted a hand to his mouth to suppress a yawn. It was late by now, past midnight surely, but he still had a long shift ahead of him. Still, being a guard at the palace was a great honour, a job only given to the very best of Xena’s soldiers, and no matter how tired he was, he wanted to make a good impression on the queen.

Confidently he squared his shoulders and grasped his spear a little tighter, his eyes scanning the surroundings attentively. Not that there was much to impress the queen with, the guard had to admit, as he saw only darkness around him. No one dared to sneak into the palace, and visitors at this time of night were…

His line of thought stopped then as suddenly a figure emerged from the dark. The guard couldn’t see his face, as it was hidden in shadows by the hood he had pulled over his head.

Remembering protocol, the soldier quickly thumped his spear into the sand, blocking the visitor’s passage with the weapon. “Halt. Identify yourself.”

A low chuckle drifted up, then the stranger slowly lifted his right hand. His cloak’s long sleeve slid down and revealed a large golden ring on his finger. The moon appeared from behind a cloud and its light reflected on the metal, shining into the guards eyes.

The soldier’s eyes widened instantly. Not taking his eyes off the piece of jewellery he fumbled with the lock and opened the gates.

Scathach had turned out to be very nice after all, Iona decided as she wandered along by herself through the goddess’s grounds. She had told some awesome stories about battles she’d been in, had showed Iona a great technique to take down an opponent in three moves, no matter how big the guy was, and she’d given her cookies. Three clear indications of niceness.

This goddess wasn’t at all what Xena had said gods were like. She wasn’t ego-tripping power-hungry or manipulative. Scathach had been very friendly. She’d even seemed impressed when Athena had related the story of how Iona had rescued Xena and Gabrielle from the cross.

Now Athena and Scathach had settled down outside the castle and were talking about something that Iona had soon qualified as boring, so she’d decided to go for a bit of a stroll. Scathach’s island was very green and vibrant, and the few structures she had built seemed to have completely integrated into the landscape. The Celtic goddess had mentioned something about how her people lived very close to nature, an ideal which appealed to Iona, who’d always enjoyed the outdoors.

The sun was setting now, coloring everything in a soft orange. Birds twittered above her, flying back and forth busily as they prepared for the nightfall. Iona looked up as she walked and followed their flight for a moment, but then faced forward again.

She stopped and cocked her head. There was a slight incline up ahead, encircled by large trees. The branches of the trees extended over a circular stone structure, in an almost protective manner. Iona curiously moved closer. The structure turned out to be a well, Iona found, as she peeked inside and saw her face reflected on the calm surface of the water.

She reached inside and stirred the water a bit with her fingers and was just about to turn away, when a voice spoke up in a whisper. “I know who you are.”

Iona looked up and scanned her surroundings. “Where are you?”

“I know who you are,” the voice repeated, and Iona now realised it was coming from inside the well.

“Who am I then?” she asked, narrowing her eyes, trying to see if someone was hiding under the water’s surface.

“You are light,” the voice replied. “And you are darkness. You are strong and weak. Night and day.”

Iona gave the water a puzzled look. “Excuse me?”

“You are the one,” the voice continued, sadly now. “He will come for you. And you will lose. One way or the other, you will lose.”

“Iona!” Another voice called out to her, but this one she recognised as Athena’s. “We need to get back now!”

Iona ignored the goddess however and kept her attention fixed on the well. “What are you talking about? What do you mean, I will lose?”

There was no response.

“Come on!” The girl angrily slapped her hand onto the water’s surface. “Tell me!”

But nothing came from the well now, except the sound of water swirling up against the stones.

Athena called out to her again, somewhat more impatiently now. Iona bit her lip, staring into the rippling water for another moment, but then she turned and ran off, to where Athena’s voice had come from.

The palace was only dimly lit, which suited his purposes perfectly. He slid along the walls, his dark cloak making him practically invisible in the shadows. It wasn’t far, he knew. He passed one door, and another, then he stopped in front of the Empress’s chambers. He glanced around him, just to make sure he was alone, then he very carefully reached for the doorknob and started to twist…

“Whoa!” Strong arms caught him around the waist and dragged him to the ground. He struggled and nearly managed to crawl away, but his attacker grabbed onto the back of his cloak and jerked him back with such force he actually flew for several feet before he impacted with a wall. “Calaica,” he managed to curse in his own tongue, before his chin was grabbed and he was lifted clean off his feet. Moments later he was staring into raging green eyes.

“I don’t know how you managed to get into this palace, but sneaking up on the Empress… Bad idea.” Gabrielle growled, tightening her hold even further until he gurgled. “What are you doing here?”

Unable to speak, her victim lifted his hand. The dim torchlight reflected off the golden ring on his finger.

The warrior looked at the ring, then back up. “So… You have a fancy ring. Remind me why this should convince me not to strangle you?”

The door behind them opened and Xena stepped into the hallway, dressed in only a faded blue sleep shirt. “What’s going on out here?” She muttered sleepily, ruffling a hand through her disordered dark hair. She stopped as she noticed the cloaked figure pinned up against the wall. “Aha… So what’s Mystery Boy here done?”

The cloaked figure tried to speak, but could only manage a gasp and some gurgling.

“I caught him outside your doorway.” Gabrielle said, not taking her eyes off the man. “He was trying to sneak inside.”

“I see.” Xena strolled closer and with a rough gesture pushed the man’s hood back, revealing his face.

Gabrielle frowned. She’d expected the attacker to be the man she’d seen a glimpse of in the marketplace. But this wasn’t him. This man seemed only a little younger than Xena. He had black hair that reached his shoulders and his skin was lightly coloured. He was a handsome man, with quite a slender built it seemed, though his cloak hid most of his body.

Behind her, Xena crossed her arms. “Well, well… Trying to sneak up on me, were you?”

The man’s eyes narrowed in annoyance. “Xena!” He managed to hiss, motioning frantically towards his neck, which Gabrielle still had a firm grip on. “Need air!”

The Empress continued to stare sternly at him for another moment, but she couldn’t manage that too much longer and soon a laugh escaped her. “Put him down.”

Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at her, not too eager on letting some guy go, who nearly made it into Xena’s quarters unnoticed.

“It’s okay,” the Empress assured her with a grin. “I know him.”

With a sigh Gabrielle drew back her hand, dropping the man back to his feet unceremoniously. He drew in a deep breath and quickly reached for his throat, rubbing the soar skin. After a moment though, he looked up at Xena. “So this is the welcome I get? After all these years, I nearly get butchered in the hallway?”

“Butchered gets far more bloody,” Gabrielle commented dryly as she crossed her arms. “I’d be happy to give you a demonstration.”

The man shot Gabrielle another look, then quickly shuffled a few steps in the opposite direction, taking up a more secure position at Xena’s side. He leaned a bit closer, dropping his voice. “Are all your guards this bloodthirsty?”

The Empress snorted. “She’s not my guard.”

“Well, that’d explain why she didn’t recognise my ring.” He waved a finger at the Empress. “Whatever she is, you’re supposed to remind her that this is supposed to get me in anywhere without getting squashed into a pulp. I mean, really, I could have just…”

Xena just smiled back at him. “Odilon, I’d like you to meet Gabrielle.”

The man fell instantly silent. He turned and stared at the warrior for several heartbeats, then he shot a glance over his shoulder, back at Xena. “No way!”

The Empress grinned.

“No way!” Odilon repeated in total shock. “You mean I just got shoved up against the wall by your girlfriend?” He faced forward again, his eyes slowly traveling down Gabrielle’s form, with far more interest. Finally, he smirked. “Well, at least I get what you’re keeping her around for now.”

“Excuse me?” Gabrielle shot him a deadly look. “Xena, who is this?”

“Odilon is my…” The Empress chose her words carefully. “Information manager.”

The warrior raised an eyebrow. “He’s a spy?”

Xena smirked. “That’s another way of putting it.”

“I heard you let her beat you up,” Odilon meanwhile continued obliviously. “Didn’t think you were still into that, Xena.”

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed even further and she was just about to open her mouth and start yelling at him, when Xena smoothly intervened. “I’m sure you must be thirsty after such a long trip.” She indicated the door to her study. “Go inside, Odie, pour yourself a drink.”

Odilon placed his hands on his hips. “I told you not to call me that.”

“Well, I’ll stop calling you that when you stop accusing me of being ‘into’ things I was never into,” Xena easily retorted, before waving a hand towards the door. “Go.”

“Yes, your highness.” Odilon bowed with exaggerated humbleness, then did as he was told, disappearing into the study and closing the door behind him.

“What a pig!” Gabrielle blurted instantly.

Xena pretended to rub at her chin in an attempt to hide her grin.

“He gets what you’re ‘keeping me around for’? I mean, what does he think I am, your love slave?” Gabrielle went on, her eyes flashing. “And then he goes on and accuses you of…”

A kiss put a sudden halt to her ramblings. “Thanks,” Xena murmured as she pulled back, her arms wrapped around the blonde’s waist. “For… trying to protect me from ‘the pig’.” She reached out and gently stroked a lock of blond hair back behind an ear. “I feel very safe right now.”

Gabrielle bent her head a little, unable to repress a shy smile. “It was luck, really. I just came over to say thanks. For today.” She looked back up again, meeting bright blue eyes. “I had a good time.”

“You wanna do it again tomorrow?” Xena instantly suggested, drawing a laugh from the blonde.

“I can’t,” Gabrielle said. “But… maybe the afternoon. I think Argo needs to stretch her legs a little. She was getting restless.”

“Well, you know what they say. Like horse, like…”

The warrior poked her in the side. “Shut it.”

Xena laughed softly.

They were silent for a moment, Gabrielle idly plucking at a loose thread on the Empress’s sleep shirt. “He’s…”she finally started. “He’s not really a friend of yours, is he?”

Xena smiled. “I’m afraid he is.”

Gabrielle huffed out a frustrated breath. “But he’s such a…”

“He’s okay,” Xena cut her short gently. “He can be a little… tactless, true. I like that about him though, makes me know where we stand.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t care where he stands. As long as it’s not near me.”

The Empress chuckled softly. “It’s nice of you to prove how open-minded you democrats are.”

“He’s sending off bad vibes.” Gabrielle muttered in dismay. “And I tend to trust my instinct.”

“He’s supposed to do that,” Xena replied. “He’s not just any spy, Gabrielle. He’s THE spy. That ring he flashed at you, that’s one of my seal rings. There are only three of those. Every official and soldier knows what it means; that the person who wears it can speak and act on my behalf. Odilon can sign decrees, proclaim death sentences, even overthrow local governments if he wants to. He’s not just a friend. He’s one of my most valued allies.”

“If he’s so powerful, why have I never heard of him?”

A shrug. “Because he’s a spy. Actually, you’re now one of the merry few who know his actual name.”

“Yippee,” the warrior drawled sarcastically.

Xena smirked, then turned more serious. “I should… really go meet with him now. He doesn’t visit often, so he’s probably here for a good reason.” A slight hesitation, then she continued. “You can come in and join us, if you want to. You can hear whatever he has to say.”

Gabrielle actually smiled at this. “Thanks. But I think I’m a bit too edgy for a politically correct conversation right now. If he has anything important to say, I’ll hear about it tomorrow, right?”

“You bet. We fighting tomorrow?”

“Of course,” the warrior grinned at her, before leaning closer and placing a kiss on the Empress’s lips. “See you in the arena?”

“Uhuh,” Xena managed to murmur. Gabrielle smiled at her and was just about to walk away, but then she seemed to reconsider and turned back around. “Xena?”

“Yeah?”

“He has a ring, and I’m guessing you do…” Gabrielle looked at her inquisitively. “Who has the third?”

The Empress released a breath, then produced a sad little smile. “Pyrron did.”

“So… I’m THE spy, am I?”

Xena closed the door to her study behind her. “You’re not supposed to listen in on my private discussions.”

“Sorry, force of habit,” Odilon took a sip of wine before placing the glass back on the table. “And rampant curiosity, of course.”

“Of course,” Xena smirked, then closed the distance between them and pulled him into a hug.

“Well, well,” Odilon murmured in amusement. “If I knew I’d be getting hugs from you, I’d have come back sooner.”

Xena drew in a deep breath and then released it again. “I’m just…” She pulled back a little and clasped his shoulders. “I’m just glad you’re here.” A smile as she patted him on the cheek affectionately. “You look good.”

“Of course I do,” Odilon replied mock-haughtily. “Can you remember a time when I did not look utterly handsome?”

“Several.”

The man stuck his tongue out at her, after which they both laughed.

“I see you’ve tried the wine,” Xena went on after the laughter had wound down, walking towards her liquor cabinet to fill a glass of her own. “Good stuff, isn’t it?”

“Rich, fruity…” Odilon took a sip of his glass as he strolled through the room. “African?”

“Yep,” Xena confirmed as she poured out some of the deep red liquid. “Still the expert, I see?”

“When you’ve been to as many places as I…”

Odilon left the thought unfinished as his eyes found something of interest. He reached up and took a picture off the wall, studying it with a mixture of interest and sadness.

Xena looked up at him, then gazed back down at the gently rippling surface of the wine. “Niobe drew that.”

“Niobe,” Odilon repeated thoughtfully, as he studied the stick figures drawn above and below the line of green. “The child which was both a blessing and a curse.”

“She was just a blessing,” the Empress corrected softly. “She couldn’t help that her mother was…”

“I know, I know,” the young man cut her short. “I just…” A sigh. “You know how I felt about Ismene. I knew her the longest. She was like a sister to me.” He gently let his fingers run over the two figures drawn under the grass. “She loved him so much. I wanted to take her with me. Let her see the world. But…” He shook his head. “She told me he was her world. I never really understood that.”

Xena settled down on the edge of her desk, studying him quietly. “I’m assuming you know.”

“I know,” Odilon said, the emotion barely audible in his voice. Xena could detect it though.

“I tried to contact you. But you’re a pretty tough guy to get a hold of.”

A small smile. “Sorta the point.” He looked up. “I couldn’t believe it, when I heard. I mean, of the three of us, I always guessed Pyrron’d be the last to croak. He was always the quiet, reliable guy who tried to avoid danger and risky situations. Getting into trouble was always our forte.”

Xena folded her hands and rested them on her knee. “I miss him so much. He was…” A breath. “He was my lifeline, ya know? Everything I screwed up, he fixed. And whenever I wasn’t sure, I could just talk to him about it and that’d clear the whole thing up. He made stuff simple.” She rubbed at her eyes tiredly. “Now everything is so complex.”

Odilon looked up from the drawing, studying his friend for a moment. Finally he walked closer, leaning against the desk next to Xena. He carefully placed the drawing down beside him, then wrapped an arm around her shoulders. The Empress glanced up at him hesitantly for a moment, then gave in and laid her head on his shoulder, exhaling as she closed her eyes. “I missed you, Odie.”

“Yeah, well… Who wouldn’t?” Odilon drawled, smiling a little as Xena chuckled faintly. “So…” He rested his cheek against her hair. “What do you wanna talk about first? The democratisation of that nifty dictatorship you had going on, your aggressive girlfriend or your daughter.”

Xena actually laughed at this. “I bet you want me to start with the daughter.”

“I can’t believe you managed to keep that from me,” the spy retorted somewhat grumpily. “My pride was severely bruised when I found out.”

“Only Pyrron knew. Not even Ismene figured it out, and she was around Iona every day.”

“I know, I know, but still,” Odilon muttered. “Me being THE spy and all.” A shake of his head. “It just never even crossed my mind, you know. You’re not exactly the family type. Or at least, so I thought.”

Xena shrugged. “I’ve changed.”

“Is it possible?” Odilon countered with a frown. “Possible to change that much in one and a half year?”

The Empress shook her head a little. “It started before you left.” A small smile. “About ten years before that.”

“With Iona?”

A nod. “With Iona.”

Gabrielle woke up a few moments before dawn. She stretched, then lazily rolled over and hugged the covers a bit closer, closing her eyes for another few moments.

She was getting lazy and she knew it. Gabrielle smiled a little. The luxurious-ness of the palace was intoxicating, with its thick sun proof curtains and feather-soft beds. And it didn’t help much that Xena was spoiling her with scrumptious meals and healthy servings of baklava.

With a sigh Gabrielle pushed herself up and unwillingly left her warm nest of slumber. It was probably all a plan of Xena’s. Stuffing her with food and all that, to make her lose her edge in battle.

Well, it was not going to work, she told herself as she walked into the bathroom. She was healthy and healed from nasty sword wounds, she was strong and focused and she was going to…

“Ouch!” The warrior groaned and lifted a head to her aching forehead, which had just collided with the open door of one of the cabinets. “Great mother of…” she glanced at her reflection in the mirror, scowling at the red spot which was bound to become a nasty bump in the very near future. “Yes, this is just wonderful, thank you very much.” Angrily she jammed the plug in its spot in the basin and let it fill with water. “A nice throbbing headache was just what I was going for this morning.”

She scooped up two handfuls of water and threw the cold liquid into her face unmercifully, ignoring the goose bumps and jolt of pain emanating from her bump-to-be.

She cleaned, then dressed in a pair of black leather trousers and a simple red shirt which had a black leather dragon running up its length. She cast one more look in the mirror, darting a foul look at the nasty red spot on her forehead, before heading for the door.

She went straight to the arena, even though Xena wouldn’t meet her there for another quarter of a candlemark. She intended to use the leftover time to train a little. Work off her frustration and glue some shattered pieces of ego back together.

With determined paces she strode into the arena, expecting to find it empty. However….

“Well, hello,” a cheerful voice rang out, echoing a little through the emptiness.

Gabrielle looked up, then narrowed her eyes as she spotted Odilon looking down at her, lounging in one of the many seats. “What are you doing here?”

The dark haired man grinned in amusement. “Good morning to you too.”

The warrior gazed at him for another moment, then released a breath. “Sorry,” she said, meaning it. “Good morning.”

“Better.” Odilon smirked, before rising to his feet. “And in answer to your so tactfully posed question as to why I’m here,” he continued, while he slowly descended the steps towards her. “Xena told me about these little… catfights. I figured that’d be worth getting up early for. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Xena fight.” He cocked his head a little in thought. “The last time… ah, yes, the last time was a soldier who’d tried to sell her out. Unfortunately for him, I found out about it.” He chuckled a little to himself. “She fought with a rage. A fire. Afterwards he was less of a man and more of a… pulp.”

Gabrielle crossed her arms and stared at him, trying not to visualize what human pulp would look like.

“Of course, that was nothing compared to the massacre at Persepolis. Carthage. And oh…” he hummed to himself in delight as he reached the bottom of the steps. “Rome. Gorious Rome.” Another soft chuckle. “I forgot how many she killed there, but… I can remember the streets littered with bodies. Crying children bent over their mother’s lifeless shapes, men pinned up against…”

“What’s your point?” Gabrielle interrupted him in a hiss, her eyes shimmering with a deep anger.

Odilon looked at her for a moment, with a piercing direct look, then he smiled charmingly at her. “You believe there’s a point to this? I can’t just be… revelling in old memories?”

Gabrielle just continued to stare at him, not dignifying that remark with an answer.

The young man laughed softly, clearly enjoying himself. “I guess my point was to illustrate how much I look forward to watching Xena win.”

“I might have to disappoint you then. She hasn’t defeated me yet.”

“Ah yes, I’ve heard you’re supposed to be quite good. I don’t quite trust rumours though. People can be so easily manipulated.” Odilon smiled at her, leaning his arms on the wooden railing separating them. “I’ve seen Xena lose, you see. Several times even. Whenever it somehow suited her purposes to make her enemy believe she was weak, she would…”

Gabrielle snorted. “She’s not pretending to lose. Trust me.”

“I’m afraid I can’t,” Odilon retorted pleasantly. “I trust no one but myself. If I haven’t seen something with my very own eyes…”

“Fine. Come on then.” Gabrielle took a step back and motioned him forward. “Come find out for yourself.”

Odilon’s face lit up with a big wicked smile. “I thought you’d never ask.”

Gabrielle measured him up as he hopped over the railing and headed towards her. She realized this was exactly what he wanted, though she didn’t have the faintest idea why. And, basically, she didn’t care. Her head hurt and he’d trampled all over her last nerve. She had the feeling though that beating this smug man up a little was bound to make her feel lots better. “Choose your weapon.”

“Oh, I don’t have to choose,” Odilon replied easily, pulling a blade from a sheath dangling from his belt. “I only really know how to use this one.”

He held the weapon up, letting the soft morning light reflect off it. It was quite a large blade, one side bent into an angle and the other sharpened side curving down. It was forged from strong steel. “Falcate,” he explained. “Only two good things came from Iberia. Me,” he smirked. “And this blade.”

“Good is such a subjective word,” Gabrielle retorted, turning her back on him and walking over to the weapon storage. She gazed at her options for a moment, then decided to go for a quarterstaff. Not the easier weapon to wield against someone with a big sharp blade, sure, but that would ensure this battle would be somewhat interesting for her, even if the guy was a sucky fighter. Which he was bound to be, compared to Xena at least.

Odilon tsk-ed at her as she turned back around to face him. “Underestimating your opponent, Gabrielle?”

“I normally don’t,” the warrior replied easily. “But for you, I’ll make an exception.”

The man chuckled in amusement. “Ah, punning before the battle. The trademark of any hero.” He flexed his hands around his weapon as he took a step closer to her. “Yes, the great Gabrielle who overcame crucifixion and internal torment, came back here to restore the rule of the people, but then somehow also restored the conscience and conquered the heart of her greatest foe.” He frowned thoughtfully. “You know, someone should really write that all down. It’d make a riveting story.”

Without any warning he swung his weapon at her, which Gabrielle only just managed to duck under. “Too bad it’s a lie though.” He leashed out at her again, failing to his her a second time. “‘Cause that’s not why you came back, is it?”

Gabrielle rolled away when the blade came for her a third time, creating some distance between her and Odilon. She hastily got back to her feet, taking on a defensive position. “What are you talking about?”

“You’d know better than I,” the spy smirked, then came at her again, but this time Gabrielle was ready, and she easily sidestepped his attack and then swept the falcate aside with her staff. This created an opening, and she greedily took advantage of it, getting in three hits against his chest and shoulder, driving him several paces back. She tried to swipe the legs out from under him, but he’d regained his composure and smoothly hopped out of the way.

This left Gabrielle, who’d been kneeling to execute the swipe move, somewhat compromised, and Odilon didn’t waste time to counter attack. He lifted his weapon up, but before he could bring it down on her, Gabrielle swung her body up on her hands and kicked out, hitting him square in the chest and sending him flying back several paces.

Odilon landed flat on his back, his breath pushed out of his body with a loud ‘ugh’. Meanwhile, Gabrielle neatly finished her move, pushing her hands off from the ground and landing neatly on her feet again. She kicked her staff up with the tip off her boot and neatly scooped it out of the air.

“Nice,” Odilon commented, as he scrambled back to his feet. “I have to admit, you’re no disappointment. Fast, graceful, agile… Quite a difference from Xena’s previous interests. She must have special plans for you.” A beat. “Or is it the other way around?”

With a growl Gabrielle launched a new attack, slamming her staff into one side of his body and then the other. Before he could recover she ran for him, walking up his body and kicking him harshly in the head.

She flipped backwards and landed solidly, then watched him stagger back. Disoriented he reached for his nose, where blood stuck to his fingers. He looked up, meeting fiery green eyes. “Stop talking in riddles,” Gabrielle instructed him. “They piss me off.”

Odilon managed something between a cough and a laugh as he wiped his arm across his face, swiping some of the blood down his cheek. “Fine. Truth then.” He straightened and looked at her, calmly. “You’re not who you pretend to be. I know. I know everything.” He swiped a hand at the area. “Everybody thinks you’re a liberator. A woman of peace. But it’s a lie.” He started to circle her, almost predatorily. “I know about what you did in Chin. I talked to people who actually shivered when I said your name. I know about the soldiers you picked off in Macedonia, one by one by…”

He gasped in a breath as the tip of a staff was shoved against his throat. “You don’t know anything,” Gabrielle hissed at him. “You stay the Hades out of my business.”

Odilon flashed a grin at her. “I’m afraid I can’t.” In a lightning fast move he ducked away, then half turned and slammed the hilt of his sword against the bump on her forehead.

The pain seared through her head. Flecks of light played before her eyes and for a moment she was blinded by them. She saw a shadow approach and tried to defend herself, but the staff was useless against the power of the falcate. It cut through the wood as if through butter, neatly slicing the weapon in half.

“You see, Gabrielle,” she heard Odilon speak in a smooth voice. “When you decided to get close to Xena, you became my business. Now, I might not be as fast as you, or as strong, and I might not be as good a fighter.” A shove against her shoulder sent her crashing to the ground. A knee pinned her body to the sand, while a strong hand grabbed onto her wrists and held them tightly above her head. Gabrielle blinked and when the flecks of light faded she looked up into Odilon’s dark eyes, staring back at her from a very close range. “But every ‘hero’ has a weak spot. An Achilles’ heel. You can be sure I’ll find yours. It’s what I do, you see?” He leaned even closer, dropping his voice to a dangerous whisper. “And once I’ve found it, you can be sure you’ll regret I did.”

“What’s going on here?” A third voice suddenly joined in, and Odilon lifted his head to see Xena standing in the arena’s entrance, hands on hips.

Gabrielle didn’t bother looking up, but simply used the moment to retaliate, raising up an unsecured leg and swinging it around Odilon’s neck. With a gurgle the man was yanked to the ground and off the warrior, who wasted no time in getting to her feet.

When Odilon tried to stand a knee shoved up against his chin sent him stumbling back again. A fist impacted with his face and another and another. When he was just about to fall onto the ground again he was forced back to his feet and an elbow jabbed at his chest shoved up against the arena wall mercilessly. He yelped as one of his arms was twisted up behind his back, in a way arms aren’t supposed to be twisted. Blood seeped down his lips and into his mouth. His eyes sought Gabrielle’s and he found them darkened with a deep, simmering rage. With a jerk she pulled his arm a bit higher, making his face contort in pain.

Hasty footsteps rushed closer and moments later Xena slid to a halt behind them. “Okay, I think that’s about enough of these pleasantries.” She paused, waiting for Gabrielle to back off, but she didn’t. Carefully, she took a step closer, laying both hands on the warrior’s shoulders. “Gabrielle?”

Odilon dropped to the ground as he was suddenly released. Gabrielle twisted away from Xena’s touch, spared the Empress a single stormy glance, then strode off, out of the arena.

Xena watched her pace away in total bewilderment, then her attention was forced back to the battered form of a man lying at her feet. Odilon managed to push himself up a bit, ending up leaning back against the wall, breathing heavily. “Well,” he managed between breaths, as swept the back of his arm over his forehead, mixing blood and sweat. “That was… interesting…”

“What did you do?” Xena asked him, then hastily lifted both her hands. “Never mind, I don’t wanna know. I expect to see you in my office in a candlemark, Odie.” She turned and ran out of the arena herself. “You’ll be lucky if I’ll let you get off as easy as she did.”

Odilon gazed after her, then shook his head a little. “So,” he pushed himself up, wincing as the bruises on his side and face stung. “Angered the two most renowned warriors in the known world,” he analyzed calmly. “Fine start of the day.”

The door to the stables creaked softly as Xena carefully pushed it open. When she’d exited the arena, Gabrielle was nowhere in sight. Which had to mean she’d gone into the stables, since Xena had followed her almost instantly and the stables were the nearest building.

Inside, it was mostly quiet, but Xena could hear the soft sound of a brush not too far away. When she took a few steps closer, surely there was Gabrielle cleaning off Argo with fast somewhat impatient strokes. The mare was eying the warrior somewhat worriedly.

Carefully the Empress moved closer, until she was almost next to Argo’s box.

Hearing something, the mare looked up, then immediately laid back her ears and bristled angrily. Xena merely narrowed her eyes at the animal.

“I just don’t get it,” Gabrielle spoke up, keeping her eyes on her task. “I just don’t get why he is your friend.” She tossed her brush into a corner and reached for a softer one to continue her work. “I mean, he’s ignorant and insolent and he believes the whole world just revolves around him.”

“No, he doesn’t.” Xena ignored Argo’s angry snorts and leaned in the doorway, watching Gabrielle work. “He knows full well the world revolves around me and me alone.”

The warrior shot her an angry look. “Don’t turn this into a joke. This is not a joke.”

The Empress released a breath, her eyes dropping to study the straw under her feet. “So… Is that why you’re mad at me? Because he’s my friend?”

Gabrielle’s hands stilled and she glanced over at Xena again. Finally she released a tensed breath. “I’m not mad at you.” She dropped her brush and walked closer to the Empress, covering her hands with her own. “It’s not you, it, it’s…” A breath. “It’s me.”

Blue eyes peeked up at her somewhat suspiciously. “This is sounding a lot like we’re breaking up.”

A smile tugged at the warrior’s lips. “I’m not breaking up with you.”

“You sure?” Xena asked, not looking too convinced.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, then stepped even closer, placing a kiss on the Empress’s lips. “I’m not breaking up with you,” she repeated softly into Xena’s ear.

“Good,” Xena mumbled back, wrapping her arms around the warrior’s neck. “I’d really miss you, you know?”

Gabrielle looked kind of charmed by that. “Would you?”

The Empress just nodded a little. “I mean,” she hastily amended. “I don’t wanna get all dependant and everything, but…” she paused, then frowned. “What happened to your head?”

“Huh?” Gabrielle blinked at the sudden change of subject.

Xena reached out and carefully touched the angry red bump on Gabrielle’s forehead. The warrior flinched at the touch. The Empress’s eyes darkened a fraction. “Did he do that?” She huffed out an angry breath. “When I’m through with him, he’s gonna…”

“No, no…” Gabrielle hastily shook her head. “That wasn’t him. It was… I…” She stopped her stuttering and released a breath. “I walked up against a door.”

Xena just stared at her. “You what?”

“I got up and I was telling myself how great I was and how I was totally gonna beat you today and… And I didn’t see the open cabinet door and I sorta…” She made a vague motion with her hands.

Xena attempted to repress a laugh. “You walked up against a door?” She failed. “Really?”

Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at the Empress.

“Sorry,” Xena weakly apologized. “It’s just… The one person I can’t defeat in battle gets beaten up by a door. It’s funny.”

“It’s painful,” The warrior muttered. “For both head and ego.”

“Poor thing,” the Empress gently placed a kiss on the bump. “Better?”

Gabrielle finally managed a smile as well, then pulled the other woman into a hug, laying her head against a sturdy shoulder. “Yes. Thank you.” A breath. “I’m sorry I took my frustration out on you. That wasn’t fair.”

“It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not,” Gabrielle replied immediately. “It’s not your fault Odilon is such a jerk.”

The Empress pulled back a little, looking down at her inquisitively. “What did he say that upset you so much? I mean, it was clear you didn’t like him before, but you totally pulverized him just now.”

“Just…” Gabrielle shrugged a little. “Stuff. About me. About you.” A sigh. “I was having a lousy morning. I guess he just got to me.”

“Well, I’ll tell him to keep his distance,” Xena said, having decided not to push the issue. “You probably won’t have to put up with him long. Odilon’s a drifter. He doesn’t usually stick around for a long time.” She wound an arm around the blonde’s shoulders and steered her towards the stable door. “C’mon. I wanna take a look at that bump of yours. Might have some herbs to reduce the swelling and the pain.”

“That’s be great,” Gabrielle groaned, as she pillowed her head on Xena’s shoulder. “My forehead feels like a horse just danced the salsa on it.”

Behind her, Argo snorted indignantly.

“No offence, girl.” Gabrielle turned and stroked the mare’s head. “I’ll be back later, okay”

Argo glanced at the Empress, then her eyes went back to Gabrielle accusingly.

“Now, don’t get jealous,” Gabrielle waved finger at the horse, then gave her a last pat before turning around and joining Xena. “All right, Empress. Let’s go, so you can do your magic.”

“Gladly,” the other woman wrapped an arm around Gabrielle as they walked, then peeked back over her shoulder at Argo. She stuck her tongue out at the mare. The horse actually hissed back at her. Xena just chuckled in response, facing forward again.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing,” Xena replied innocently, steering Gabrielle out of the stables and closing the door behind them.

“Good morning,” the soldier said cheerfully as he pushed open the door with a foot, while carefully balancing a tray. “I take it you’ve slept well.”

Callisto bared her teeth at him and hissed.

“That’s good to hear,” the soldier smiled charmingly at her, clearly enjoying himself. “Now, this lovely morning the cook has prepared some excellent porridge for you.”

“Gee, porridge… How delightful,” the blonde muttered, having had the same breakfast for a month now.

“We noticed how much you’ve enjoyed it the last fifty days, so we figured, what the hey… You know what we say at the Palace Inn: we’ll do anything to please our guests.”

“Yes, you’re a doll.” Callisto shot him an icy stare. “You really are. I’m sure you have one of those little strings on your back that you need to pull each morning to make you talk.”

“Tch…” The soldier wagged a finger at her. “Sticks and stones…”

“You just wait till I get my hands on some of those sticks,” his prisoner grumbled. “I’ll spike one up your nose and push till it comes out of your ear. And I know a nice place to put those stones too.”

“Ah, yes… And you’ll be doing that when you’ve served your sentence for trying to kill the Empress? When was that again, somewhere next millennium?” He shivered purposefully. “Golly, I’m so scared.”

Callisto shot him a look. “Just gimme the damn porridge.”

“What do we say?”

“Just gimme the damn porridge, you idiot.”

The soldier chuckled, then lifted a hand and motioned her back. Callisto hesitated for a moment, but then complied, walking to the back of her cell. She leaned against the back of the wall, then watched as the guard opened a small hatch and slipped the tray through. The soldier rose back to his feet, then flashed a bright smile at her. “Enjoy your breakfast.”

Callisto produced a similar smile in response. “Piss off.”

The soldier laughed, then wiggled his fingers at her, before starting back toward the door.

Callisto quickly moved closer, squatting down next to the tray and dipping a finger in the porridge. She stuck the finger in her mouth and tasted the substance, grimacing at the complete lack of flavour. It was only then that she noticed some other items on her tray. “Hey, clown fish?”

The soldier who’d just reached to door stopped and turned. “Excuse me?”

“When did parchment and charcoal enter the menu?”

“The men… Ow, that.” He shrugged. “Her majesty’s adviser asked me to give that to you. She said something like that this’d be a good time for you to take up an old hobby or something. There’s a small jar of honey too, for in the porridge. Apparently you complained about the taste.” The guard turned back toward the door, pushing it open. “The cook was crushed.”

Callisto ignored him, as she hastily poured honey into her breakfast, then took another try. “Hmm,” she mumbled, finding the whole mixture somewhat more edible now. “Well, I’ll be. Some honey from my honey.” She giggled, then turned her attention to the paper and charcoal. She frowned. “Gabby couldn’t have just gotten me a pencil, could she? Pencil is a sort of stick. I could have had some fun with that.” Callisto swallowed down another spoonful of porridge as she absently started drawing lines on the parchment. Another bite and some more lines. “Huh,” the blonde smirked, as an idea arose and she started connecting some lines to each other, drawing a outline of a man’s body dressed in royal uniform. Then she drew a pointy stick. Callisto grinned widely. “No 3D puzzle. But this’ll do.”

Gabrielle gulped down the foul tasting mixture, then closed her eyes and leaned back in Xena’s desk chair. “Ugh… And now I need to puke. Thanks for adding that to my list of morning troubles.”

Soft footsteps sounded behind her and a moment later a cold cloth was gently placed against her forehead. “Try not to. I just had the carpets cleaned.”

The blonde leaned into the cloth, its coolness soothing against her skin. “You care more about your carpets than me?”

“Well,” Xena drawled, placing a kiss on the warrior’s temple. “Thing about carpeting is, it just absorbs the mess… You create it.”

Gabrielle leaned back a bit and gazed up at her. “Please tell me you didn’t just use puking as a metaphor.”

The Empress grinned. “Didn’t mean to. Must be that bard thing of yours rubbing off on me.”

“Bard thing?” Gabrielle shot her a look. “I don’t have a bard thing.”

“Sure you do,” Xena smiled, then laid a hand on her shoulder, to keep the blonde from turning around fully. “Now sit still. You need to give the herbs some time to kick in.”

The blonde sat back, staring ahead of herself pensively. “How do you know?”

“That you have a bard thing?” The Empress considered this a little, then shrugged. “Well, I read your application to the Academy. And some other stuff you wrote back then, for the resistance.”

“That was before.”

“So?” Xena took the cloth off Gabrielle’s forehead and walked back to the basin to pour some more cold water on it.

“So… I don’t think…” the blonde sighed. “I don’t think I can do it anymore.”

“I don’t buy that,” the Empress stated bluntly. “I mean, I may be the invincible and feared conqueror of the world now…”

Gabrielle snorted.

“…but that doesn’t mean the insecure village teenager I used to be isn’t still a part of me,” Xena continued on obliviously. “I still know how to milk a cow or herd sheep or brew ale.”

“I don’t think brewing ale and storytelling fall into the same category, Xena.”

“They’re both forms of art,” the Empress deadpanned. Gabrielle rolled her eyes, shaking her head as little.

Xena smiled as she made her way back over to the warrior, kneeling down in front of her so they were at eyelevel. She gently placed the cold cloth over the bump on Gabrielle’s forehead, using her free hand to push a lock of blond hair off her forehead. Green eyes lifted and they just looked at each other for a moment, until Xena finally broke the silence. “Look, I…” A pause. “I don’t want to pressure you or anything. Just because I think you can do something doesn’t mean you should. If you don’t want to write, then you shouldn’t write. The gods know I don’t ever want to be milking cows again.”

The edges of Gabrielle’s mouth edged up a bit.

“It’s just…” the empress shrugged a little. “I mean, I know you feel you lost stuff. Before. I did. And… when things calmed down in my life, when I settled down here in Athens, I remember wanting to find those things I lost. I felt they could make me happy.” Xena ran a hand through the blonde locks. “I think this can make you happy. And that’s what I want for you.”

They gazed at each other for another moment, then Gabrielle covered Xena’s hand with her own, pulling it closer and kissing the palm. “Thank you. For caring.”

The Empress smiled. “It’s in my job description.”

“Good thing you’re such a dutiful employee,” Gabrielle said, leaning forward and capturing Xena’s lips.

“I live to serve,” the Empress mumbled, as they separated.

Gabrielle smirked. “Right.”

Silence fell for a moment, then Gabrielle drew in a breath. “Xena?”

“Hmm?”

“Did you find it? The things you’d lost?”

Blue eyes peeked up at her, a touch hesitantly. “Yes. And no.”

Blond brows frowned. “What did you go looking for?

Xena sucked in a breath, and then released it again. “Home.”

Gabrielle pursed her lips. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”

“No, no, it’s okay.” The Empress interrupted her. “It’s good you did. ‘Cause…” A breath. “I mean, it was hard. Going home and then realizing… Realizing it wasn’t my home anymore. That my mother felt ashamed to be my mother, to such an extent that she…” Xena had to stop and swallowed the lump in her throat. “But I’m glad I did go back. It taught me something.”

“What?”

“How strong a blood bond can be.” Xena managed a small smile. “‘Cause I still love her. In spite of what I did and what she did and what we did to each other, I still wish she could be here now. And… it strengthens me to know, that’s the same sort of bond I share with Iona. That, in spite of everything I did and will do, she can still love me. And that I’ll love her back, no matter what.”

“That’s beautiful,” Gabrielle said softly.

“It is,” Xena replied with a smile. “I…”

She stopped talking then as both she and Gabrielle looked towards the door. “Company,” Gabrielle murmured. Xena just nodded, as she removed the cloth and took a last look at Gabrielle’s injury. “You gonna be okay?”

“Medicine is kicking in,” the warrior confirmed. “I already feel much better.”

“Good,” Xena rose to her feet and tossed the cloth back into the basin.

Meanwhile the door behind her opened and Caspar came running in, followed only moments later by Iona, who was chasing after him with a furious look on her face. Caspar instantly sought shelter behind Gabrielle.

“Come here, you little vermin,” Iona hissed as she made a grab for him, but missed. Caspar ducked out of the way, using Gabrielle as a barrier between him and the furious girl.

Gabrielle’s eyes followed the children speeding by as they ran circles around her, then she leaned back and closed her eyes. “Getting nauseous again…”

“Hey!” Xena decided this was a good moment to intervene. “Hey!” When there was no response she extended her arm and waited. Moments later Caspar bumped into it, and shortly after that Iona bumped into Caspar. “Okay, what’s going on here?”

“Look what he did!” Iona lifted up a piece of parchment she’d been holding for her mother to see. The parchment had scribbling on it, but a huge blob of black ink mostly covered the writing. “It’s all over my homework! Now I’ll have to do it all again!”

“It was an accident!” Caspar immediately defended himself.

“Was not!”

“Was too!”

“And there’s that headache,” Gabrielle muttered as she massaged her temples.

“All right, that’s enough.” Xena straightened and crossed her arms. “Caspar, apologize to Iona.”

The boy looked at her in utter indignation. “But…!”

“I don’t care about the but,” Xena cut him off. “Whether it was an accident or not, you spilled ink over her homework and you should say you’re sorry.”

Caspar huffed out an angry breath, trying to bend Xena’s will with a foul look. He realized soon enough he was fighting a lost battle though and turned towards Iona. “I’m sorry, okay?”

“Like you mean it,” Xena hummed melodically.

Caspar rolled his eyes, but then dutifully tried again. “I’m sorry I spilled ink over your parchment. I didn’t mean to.” A breath. “ Honest.”

Iona crossed her arms. “I don’t believe you.”

Xena shot her daughter a look.

“…but… I accept your apology.” She said, before adding softly under her breath. “This time.”

“I guess that’ll do,” Xena allowed, counting her blessings for having ended the argument in a relatively short amount of time. “Now, back to the order of the day, hmm? Where’s your…” the door was pushed open again and a sniffling Niobe entered the scene. “…sister.”

“Hey sweetie,” Gabrielle got up and lifted the toddler off her feet. “What’s the matter?”

“Caspie and Jona go scream and run,” Niobe sobbed, rubbing a chubby hand at her eye. “Make towew wi wocks. All fall down. No good.”

“I didn’t realize…” Caspar hastily walked over, looking up at his sister apologetically. “I’m sorry, Niobe.”

“Bad,” the toddler reiterated for good measure.

“I know,” the boy said. “We can build another tower. Together. You want to do that?”

Niobe sniffled again, but nodded. She looked at Gabrielle, who gave her a hug and then placed her on the ground again. Caspar took his sister’s hand. “No more crying, okay? We’ll make an even better tower this time.”

Niobe’s eyes lit up. “Big towew?”

“Bigger isn’t always better,” her brother informed her as they headed out the door.

Iona watched the two go. For a moment there seemed to be a hint of sadness in her eyes, but then it disappeared again as she returned her attention to her inked up homework. She turned to Xena questioningly. “Can you fix this?”

“Let me see,” Xena said, darting a smile at Gabrielle as the warrior exited the room also, in pursuit of Caspar and Niobe. She studied the parchment for a moment, then shook her head a little. “I know a way to dissolve the ink, but that’ll make all your writing disappear as well.”

Iona sighed miserably. “I spent so much time on that.

“You already did the thinking. That’s still in your head. You just need to write it down this time.” Xena told her. “I can help if you want.”

Iona managed a smile at this. “I’d like that.”

“Good.” Xena smiled back at her. “I uhm… You’ve been really working hard on your schoolwork these last few days. I’m… impressed.”

Iona’s smile widened considerably. “You are?”

“Yeah, I am. I mean, I know it can be hard studying, when there’s all this fun to be had outside.”

“It’s not too bad,” Iona shrugged a bit, but she was clearly pleased by the compliment though.

“Yeah, well… Still…” Xena drew in a breath. “I’m proud of you.” She ruffled her daughter’s hair playfully, trying to make light of the comment. “Sorry about all the yelling and the grounding you and everything. Consider yourself ungrounded.”

Iona diverted her eyes, managing a half grin. “Thanks.”

“Come on, let’s get some breakfast, hmm?” Xena nudged her daughter in the direction of the door. “I’ve had a rough morning. Need some nutrition.” The Empress considered her options for a moment. “How about pancakes?”

“We can put whipped cream on ‘m.” Iona put in. “For extra calcium.”

Xena grinned wickedly. “I like the way you think.”

About half a candlemark later Xena pushed open the door to her office, to find Odilon sitting in her chair, his feet propped up against the desk. “Since I’m never late, you must be early.”

Odilon smirked. “I’m early,” he confirmed. “I figured we could just get the yelling and threatening over with fast, so we can get down to business.”

“All right then. First off,” Xena said and then raised her voice. “Get the Hades outta my chair!”

Odilon didn’t seem very impressed, but did get up and circle the desk, limping slightly.

“Secondly,” the Empress continued, moving towards him menacingly. “If you ever, ever try to hurt Gabrielle again, I will tie a rope around your head, get my horse, find a rocky path and drag you across it. Repeatedly. Until all the skin has been peeled from your body. Do I make myself clear?”

“Nice imagery there… Very terrifying,” the spy stated calmly. “If I would think for even one moment you’d actually do that to me, I’d be petrified. Really.”

Blue eyes flashed at him. “I’m serious, Odilon.”

“Yes, I know.” Odilon leaned back against the desk in a relaxed posture. “That’s what intrigues me. I mean, in the last letter I got from you, you spoke of a new ‘toy’, and now you’d sooner skin-peel me than let anything happen to her.” He folded his hands together, studying Xena calmly. “Now either there’s a plan to all this which I for some mysterious reason am not seeing, which would be bad for my reputation as a top class spy, or you are actually in love with this woman, which would be bad in general.”

The Empress crossed his arms. “What makes you say that?”

Odilon rolled his eyes. “It doesn’t take a spy to see things aren’t adding up here. I mean, here you have a woman who was in the resistance, who you crucified, whose friends you had executed, who became a warrior, a killer, only so she could one day take you on, who blamed you for every single rotten thing in the world.” The spy waved a hand at the air. “And now all of a sudden she’s completely smitten with you.” He leaned a bit closer and dropped his voice. “‘Could you explain to me how that works? Cause I made some very attractive enemies and I wouldn’t mind them crawling all over me next time I meet them.”

Xena darted him a deadly look. “It’s complicated.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt that.”

“You weren’t here,” Xena shot back. “You didn’t see her with the kids, or fighting Pompey, or saving me from Alti.”

“I’m not saying she’s isn’t smart.”

“Argh!” The Empress wildly tossed up her hands before turning her back on him. “What do you think she’s here to do? Hmm? Do you think she’d stay with me for an entire month if her only goal was to screw me over? To betray me? I mean, she already knows I trust her completely. She’s free to roam my palace, I leave her with my kids. All she has to do is ask the cook for a knife, walk into my study and end it. I wouldn’t have a defence against her and she knows it.”

“That’s right. She does,” Odilon agreed. “So there’s no need for her to rush.”

Xena huffed out a frustrated breath.

“But that’s not the point,” the spy continued on calmly. “This isn’t about her. It’s about you.”

The Empress swirled around and looked at him. “What?”

“I know you, Xena. And when you do something, you do it right. You put everything you’ve got into it, body and soul, your entire being. That’s what has made you as successful as you are. And it’s what makes you weak.”

Both eyebrows rose. “Excuse me?

Odilon pushed himself up, looking her straight in the eyes. “I was there with you, remember? I was there after M’Lila died and you went berserk and killed everything in sight. And after we left Lao Ma, when you sat huddled in your tent for days on end, not speaking to anybody? I was there in that centaur village when you found your kid and just broke down completely.”

“My son died!” Xena hissed. “What did you expect me to do?”

“Well, I sure didn’t expect you to shove a dagger into your gut!”

Xena turned away from him, correcting softly: “It was a Japanese tanto, not a dagger.”

“I don’t care what the Hades it was,” Odilon fired back. “It was sharp and you pushed it into your stomach.”

Xena didn’t respond for a moment, then finally spoke up in a voice filled with emotion. “Why are you dragging all this up?”

Odilon released a breath, then circled the Empress, coming to stand in front of you. “I’m accusing you of what most likely no other person would ever think to accuse you of.” He reached out and touched Xena’s cheek. “You love too much. Too fully.” Stormy blue eyes peeked up at him. “And for a while you weren’t close enough to anyone for that to matter. But now you have a daughter, two kids and you’re in love. And that makes you more vulnerable than ever.”

“Gabrielle won’t hurt me,” Xena managed, quite firmly considering her emotional state.

“Maybe not intentionally,” Odilon allowed. “But she might get sick. Or she might die. One of those kids could get hurt. And then what? You barely survived the last time.”

The Empress stared at the ground for a moment, then looked back up at him. “I was… very confused back then. Lost. It’s different now.”

“I don’t doubt that,” Odilon said. “But every time someone you love dies, a piece of you dies too. And I’ve seen too many pieces of you die, Xena. You’re my friend.” A wry smile. “You’re pretty much my only friend. So I gotta take good care of you. You’re special. Okay?”

Xena stared at him for a moment, then shook her head disbelievingly. “How do you that?”

“Sweet talk you out of thinking I’m the world’s largest jerk and into believing I’m the most wonderful person imaginable?”

The Empress grinned. “Yeah.”

“It’s my gift,” Odilon drawled, before pulling Xena into a hug. “Meant every word of it though. You are very special.”

“I’m the ruler of the world,” Xena deadpanned.

“There’s that, yes.” Odilon agreed with a smirk. He gave her a final pat, then backed up a bit. “Go on, sit down. You look a bit pale.”

The Empress waved him off. “I’m fine.”

“Yeah, well, you’re about to get paler once you hear some of the news I got for you.”

Xena frowned. “What?”

Odilon flashed her a wicked grin. “Guess who’s coming to visit?” Path of Thorns – Part III

Iona stared out of the window. Linos was relating some historic battle, but, even though it was quite an action packed story about war and battles and heroism, Iona couldn’t bring herself to listen to it. Her mind had wandered out of the room, out of the country, out of chronological order and straight into yesterday, reliving those moment by the well.

She hadn’t imagined it, she was quite sure of that. There had really been a voice, somewhere, warning her about… something. But who had it been? And what was she supposed to look out for?

Or shouldn’t she worry, was it just some kind of joke, something to scare her. Athena was testing her, after all. Iona was bright enough to realize that. Athena hadn’t bribed her into doing her homework as a favour to Xena or something silly like that. Or maybe Scathach had something to do with it. She had been quite upset when she discovered Iona’s parentage, after all. Maybe she wanted to find out what the daughter of Ares and Xena was made of. That made sense, right?

Iona wrinkled her nose, not quite buying her self-fabricated potential explanations. She needed more information. Maybe if she knew more about Scathach or the well or that island…

She wanted to talk to Xena. More than anything, she just wanted to go to Xena and tell her and then Xena could tell her what was going on. Xena would know. She always knew this sorta stuff.

But she couldn’t tell Xena. ‘Cause then Xena would know she’d left her room while she was grounded. That she hadn’t just left it, but had gone to an entirely different country with a goddess no less. Her mother would be furious. And things had just gotten better between them. Xena had said she was proud of her. The last thing Iona wanted to do now was disappoint her.

Iona sighed, supporting her head with both hands. This was a mess. A gigantically big mess. And she was once again right in the center of it.

“Okay, that’s it for this morning,” Linos finished. “I will see you back here in an hour.”

As Iona was gathering her stuff, Linos walked over to her. “I noticed you weren’t paying attention.”

The girl glanced up at him guiltily. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s alright,” Linos smiled at her surprised look. “You’ve been working quite hard these last few days. It gets hard to focus sometimes. I understand that.”

Iona sighed as she watched Niobe and Caspar walk out of the room together. “There’s a lot on my mind lately.”

“Anything I can help you with?”

Iona peeked up at her teacher, considering for a moment, then she turned her chair towards him and sat down again. “I uhm… I’ve been… studying some stuff about the gods.”

“Ah,” Linos nodded in understanding, perching on the edge of her desk. “That’s not a subject you want to be discussing with the Empress.”

“Exactly,” Iona nodded vehemently. “She’d totally freak out if she knew.”

“The Empress isn’t fond of gods, no,” Linos said. “She’s never stopped anyone from worshipping them. Which is smart, I think, because people can cling quite strongly to what they believe, even if it seems illogical.”

“Do you…” Iona leaned forward a bit, dropping her voice. “Do you think they’re all like Ares? Evil, I mean?”

Her teacher stroked his beard pensively. “I don’t believe Ares was evil, necessarily.”

Iona frowned. “You don’t?”

“I don’t much believe in that black and white view of life,” Linos went on. “Your mother is still viewed by many as evil, because of stories that are told about her, but you and I both know that’s not true.” He drummed his fingers on the desk. “From what I’ve heard and read, gods are more like mortals than they care to admit. Just like us, they sin. They’re jealous, wrathful, egocentric. The difference is that when a mortal is jealous, there might be a argument, a fight maybe, someone could get hurt, but that would be it. When a god gets jealous…”

“Things get out of hand,” his student finished for him.

“Very often, yes,” Linos nodded. “Gods can get what they want, when they want it. If you’ve never learned your limits, you’re bound to have less self-discipline, less control over your emotions…”

“Athena seems in control of her emotions,” Iona considered, before hastily adding. “ I mean, it seems like she is, from what I’ve read. In books.”

“Well, I don’t know her personally of course, but I can imagine, considering she has wisdom on her side, that she would be the more sensible one of the Greek pantheon,” Linos lowered his voice conspiritually. “I have made an offering to her on occasion. But you’d best not tell the Empress about that.”

Iona flashed him a grin. “My lips are sealed.” She rose from her chair then. “I’d better get going. Mom’s waiting for me with lunch.” She headed for the door at a trot. “Thanks, Linos.”

“You’re very welcome,” her teacher smiled as he watched her leave his classroom.

“You wanna come over and have lunch?”

Thalia shot her friend a look. “You mean, with Xena and the brats?”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “You like Caspar.”

“Yeah, that’s one out of four.”

“Please?” The warrior tried. “I’ve accepted you and Xena will never be the best of friends, but I really don’t want to be tiptoeing around all the time.”

Thalia scowled.

“You know my birthday’s coming up, right?” Gabrielle continued. “I want you and some of our friends to be there and I want Xena to be there. I don’t want to worry about either one of you starting a fight.”

“All right, all right…” Thalia muttered. “I’ll come to lunch and practice behaving. Okay?”

Gabrielle flashed her a radiant smile. “You’re the best.”

“I let you get away with far too much,” Thalia grumbled, drawing a wicked chuckle out of her friend. “So you’re uhm…” she subtly tried to change the subject. “You’re planning a party, huh?”

“Just looking for a good excuse to eat cake,” Gabrielle corrected her with a grin. “And it’s not really a party or anything. I was thinking of inviting some people over, sit out in the garden a bit if the weather’s nice. It’s not a big deal, I don’t want to blow it all out of proportion.”

They entered the hallway and stopped as Niobe passed by. Her face was contorted in utter concentration as she tried not drop the large plate she was carrying, filled with a variety of breads.

Thalia frowned. “Where’s she going?”

Niobe looked up at the sound of the familiar voice. Which, it turned out, was not a wise thing to do. Her foot got caught under the edge of a carpet and she stumbled, sending both tray and contents flying up into the air.

Gabrielle reacted on impulse, diving forward and managing to catch the tray just before it hit the ground. She rolled onto her back, hopped onto her feet again and hastily extended the tray in front of her to catch most of the bread. One slice had gained a bit too much speed however, but she just managed to get the heel of her boot under it and balance it. The last slice headed straight for her face and she did the only thing she could think of on such short notice and caught it in her teeth.

Xena choose exactly this moment to enter the hallway on her way back to the kitchen in search of more supplies. She stopped, then studied the warrior for a moment. “You realize you’ll have to eat that piece now, don’t ya?”

Gabrielle shot her a foul look.

Xena turned her back on the warrior and continued on her way with a smirk. “Carry that into the garden, would you? We’re having a picnic.

“Hrmph!” Gabrielle muffled around the bread, rolling her eyes at the Empress.

“Good!” Niobe chortled meanwhile, clapping her hands enthusiastically. “Again!”

“Yeah, again!” Thalia agreed wholeheartedly.

Gabrielle shook her head with a sigh, then booted the slice she was balancing up, neatly adding it to the tray. She balanced the tray on one hand, using her free one to remove the slice of bread held in her mouth. “Don’t make fun of me.”

“That would make a pretty decent circus act” Thalia continued on obliviously, as she strolled over, Niobe skipping along behind her.

“Thalia,” her friend growled a warning.

“Think you can do that dangling from a trapeze?”

An even lower growl. “Thalia.”

“All right, shutting up,” the redhead flashed her a wicked smile, allowing Gabrielle to enter the garden first. “Hey, kid?” She directed a whisper to Niobe.

Big brown eyes blinked up at her inquisitively.

“Next time, carry the pottery, okay?”

“Potry,” Niobe nodded seriously, then giggled. “Good.”

The picnic turned out pretty okay, Thalia decided as she leaned back on her hands and enjoyed the warmth of the sun shining on her face. She didn’t have this great affection for kids, like Gabrielle did, but Caspar wasn’t too bad. For an eight year old anyway. He was calm, and you could have a sensible conversation with him. Niobe was a lot more rambunctious, but she and the toddler had sort of bonded during the whole bread catching incident moments before.

Iona, she kept her distance from. Whether that was because the child was part Xena or because she was part god, Thalia wasn’t sure. She just knew the kid made her feel weird somehow. Iona had a certain presence, like her mother did, which could make you feel itchy and uncomfortable. She could completely derail your line of thought with a single piercing look.

At least, she’d derailed Thalia’s line of thinking several times. Gabrielle didn’t seem affected in the slightest by either the Empress or her offspring. The warrior was lying on her back with her eyes closed, simply enjoying the nice afternoon, completely relaxed. But then again, Gabrielle had a presence of her own, didn’t she? A ‘I might seem nice and relaxed, but make one wrong move and I’ll take you head off’ kinda presence. Thalia had known Gabrielle too long to be bothered by that now, but still…

It probably had to do with power, Thalia decided as she popped an olive into her mouth. They all had it. Gabrielle could kick butt, Xena could order someone to kick butt, and the little brat could make a pair of boots fly and kick butt.

“What are you thinking about?” Caspar’s voice broke into her thoughts, the boy having noticed the redhead’s thoughtful look.

“Butts,” Thalia stated pensively. “And how I don’t kick enough of ‘m.”

Caspar considered this statement seriously for a moment. “It’s not nice kicking people.”

“No,” Thalia agreed. “But it gets you places.”

“True,” the boy had to admit. He thought a moment before continuing. “But I guess you have to ask yourself whether you want to get places. ‘Cause every time you’ll get to some new place, you’ll have to kick more people. ‘Cause they won’t know you can yet.”

Thalia mulled this over for a moment, then glanced down at the boy sitting next to her. “You’re a really bright kid, ya know that?”

Caspar smiled at this, something he didn’t do often these days. “Thank you.”

“Your friend seems to be getting along with Caspar well,” Xena murmured as she stretched out next to Gabrielle on the grass.

Gabrielle peeked open an eye and darted a look at the two, then closed the eye again and resumed her sunbathing. “Good. For both of them, I think.”

“I guess,” Xena agreed, reaching for a grape and offering it to the warrior, who accepted it with a smile.

The Empress studied Gabrielle for another moment, seeming a touch hesitant. “I uhm… It’s actually good you came to lunch, ‘cause there were two things I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Shoot.”

“Well,” Xena rolled a grape between her thumb and forefinger. “You know that theatre near the acropolis gets reopened tomorrow…”

“Course I know,” Gabrielle murmured. “It’s one of the first tangible reforms since the instalment of the council. Most of the council members will be there. Thalia, Theron and his wife, Alyssa and her boyfriend. I heard even Odell managed to find a date.” A smirk. “I bet it cost him dearly. I have the feeling Odell’s dates don’t come cheap.”

Xena managed a slightly nervous chuckle. “Right.” A pause. “I uhm… I was actually thinking of going.”

A green eye popped open and looked up at her.

“You know I’m not really into plays and stuff,” the Empress hastily went on. “But I felt I should,… ya know, show I’m behind the changes that are being made. And it’s been a while since I made a public appearance. Think it’s about time.” Xena waved a hand at the empty air in a supposedly negligent gesture. “I just thought I should tell, ‘cause it might get odd with the council being there too. I don’t wanna cause a riot at an event that must be important to you.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you.”

“Yeah well,” Xena flashed her a grin. “You know me…”

A moment of silence fell, until Xena finally drew in a breath. “You uhm…” she cleared her throat. “You got a date?”

“I don’t know,” Gabrielle retorted, searching the blue eyes above her. “Do I?”

Xena gazed at her another moment, then dropped her eyes a touch shyly. “It uhm,” she glanced back up again. “It’d be the first time we’d be seen in public. Together.”

“After our make out session in the middle of the Agora, you mean?” Gabrielle’s fingers found the Empress’s. “Compared to that, going to a play together shouldn’t cause that big of a stir, right?”

“You got a point there,” Xena had to admit. “But still… This is Athens.”

Gabrielle considered this for a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t care much what Athens thinks.” She gently entwined her fingers with Xena’s. “Pick me up at eight?”

A dazzling smile was her response. “You got it.”

“Good,” Gabrielle smiled back, then squeezed Xena’s hand gently before letting go. She rose back to her feet and dusted some bits of grass off her tunic. “I should be getting back to the council meeting. Recess is over.”

Behind her Thalia got up as well. “Time flies when you’re…” A pause. “Well, it just flies.”

Xena spared a look for the redhead, then turned back at Gabrielle. “Will you be there for dinner tonight?”

The warrior released a breath. “I hope so.”

“She’ll be there,” Thalia corrected as she strolled over. “Fay asked me to be home for dinner, so the meeting can’t last too long.” She darted a look at Gabrielle. “I have this awful feeling she’s got another basket weaver lined up for me to meet.”

Gabrielle grinned at her wickedly.

“You’re so supportive,” Thalia smacked a hand against the warrior’s forehead, as she headed back towards the palace.

Gabrielle chuckled, then wiggled her fingers at Xena and the kids. “See you tonight, guys.”

She started after Thalia, then suddenly remembered something and turned back around. “Hey, what was the other thing?”

Xena blinked at her. “Huh?”

“The other thing,” the warrior repeated. “You said there were two things you needed to talk to me about.”

“Ow, that, yeah… uhm…,” Xena stumbled uncharacteristically. “It is just uhm…”

“Empress?” Benitor took this moment to step into the garden, then bowed politely. “I’m sorry to intervene, Empress, but Lady Cleopatra’s carriage just rode into the courtyard.”

Gabrielle’s eyes widened as she looked from Xena to the servant and then back again. “What?!”

“What is it about that woman? Is her own country not big enough for her ego?” Thalia chuckled, but remained prudently quiet as Gabrielle continued on with her tirade. “The last time I came this close…” The warrior held her fingers a millimetre apart. “…to removing her brain through her nose with a pair of tweezers.” She continued in a mutter. “Wouldn’t have taken long, with the amount of brain cells she’s got.”

“Sooooo…” Thalia drawled. “I’m guessing you don’t like the Egyptian regent much.”

“And Xena didn’t even tell me about it! She just invited that stupid brainless puddle of mascara and kept it secret from me!” Gabrielle growled. “I don’t even get how that woman ever got to be a regent.” A pause, then she continued sarcastically. “No, scrap that, of course I know. Sleeping around gets you places.”

“You know, I think the Empress was nearly as surprised as you were,” Thalia tried. “I mean, she didn’t start swearing in three different languages, but… I heard her instruct Benitor to get a room ready and inform the kitchen and everything. I mean, if she’d invited the regent, don’t you think that would’ve been taken care of already?”

“You know, I bet those breasts aren’t even real,” Gabrielle stated, completely stuck in her own little bit of reality.

“And how would you know?” The redhead inquired innocently.

“I wouldn’t,” the warrior muttered, slamming open a door, nearly shattering the glass inset. “I bet Xena would though.”

Thalia shot a glance sideways, studying her friend, then a smirk edged onto her face. “You’re jealous.”

“I am not jealous,” Gabrielle shot back, grabbing onto the doorframe as it bounced back off the wall and slamming it shut behind her.

“Yes, you are,” the redhead’s eyes twinkled. “You are jealous.”

Gabrielle stopped abruptly and turned around, pointing a threatening finger at her friend. “I am not jealous,” she managed between gritted teeth, before swirling back around.

Thalia watched her storm off, then she laughed wickedly. “Oh, this is going to be fun.” She rubbed her hands together expectantly. “This is going to be so much fun.”

“Cleo,” the Empress smiled and inclined her head a bit as the Egyptian regent strode in, flanked by a dozen scantily clad men.

“Xena,” Cleopatra responded silkily, before waving a negligent hand at her entourage, who immediately proceeded to gather the regent’s belongings and carry them up the stairs towards the guest chambers. “Nice seeing you again.”

“Yes, charming, but… slightly unexpected.” Xena folded her hands behind her back. “I don’t remember sending you an invite?”

Cleopatra continued forward, her robes swooshing softly as they slid over the marble tiles. “I don’t remember receiving one, so I think it’s safe to assume there’s nothing wrong with your memory.” She stopped directly in front of Xena. “Though, considering other recent… developments, that could be debated.”

“Don’t start,” Xena instructed in a seemingly pleasant voice.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Cleopatra drawled, then she lifted a hand and produced another careless wave. This brought forth two pairs of servants, each pair carrying a large gold chest. “I brought you something.” The first chest was placed down and the servants opened it, revealing a healthy load of gold bars. “These are from a new goldmine near Philea, in the south.”

“Nice,” Xena murmured, seemingly not too impressed.

“Yes, I already expected you’d be overjoyed,” Cleo stated sarcastically. “I think you’ll find this even better though.”

The second chest was opened, and Xena’s eyes immediately lit up at the sight of an array of finely crafted weaponry. “Oh! Toys!”

Cleopatra rolled her eyes. “So predictable.”

Xena by now had already pounced on the chest and was investigating its content, pulling out a bow and drawing back the string experimentally. She whistled under her breath. “These are great.”

“New design, made of different layers of wood or something. My military advisor explained it all to me, but I wasn’t really paying attention. Hardly my field of interest.”

“I know,” Xena picked up a set of finely crafted daggers and started juggling. “Weaponry isn’t your type of gift.” She negligently tossed one of the daggers to her right, the weapon ending stuck in the wall between two whispering guards, who hastily snapped to attention. “And you don’t hand out gifts just for the fun of it. That…” She pointed to the chest filled with gold. “…is to show me you’ve got money, and you’re still an important ally.” A wave towards the weaponry, accompanied by a questioning eyebrow. “And this…?”

“…is to show you, you’ve got trouble.” Cleopatra finished for her.

Xena considered this for a moment. “With you?”

Cleo snorted. “Yes. But not that kind of trouble. If I were looking for a fight with you, I wouldn’t be foolish enough to hand you the weapons.” The regent took a step closer, coming within inches of the Empress. “Besides,” she dropped her voice to a whisper. “We’ve always managed to sort out our differences in a more… social way.”

Xena held her gaze for a moment, steadily, then she turned away and started towards her office. “Two questions,” she stated, expecting Cleopatra to follow her, which the regent did. “Why am I in trouble with you? And why am I in trouble with whomever else?”

“Same reason,” the Egyptian regent stated. “Your new advisor. And the changes she’s made.”

“We’ve made,” Xena corrected her.

“See, that is exactly what I mean,” Cleopatra gracefully lifted up a well-manicured hand. “You never used to be a ‘we’, Xena. You used to be independent, strong…”

“You want me to prove to you I’m still strong?” The Empress shot her a fake smile. “‘Cause I can, ya know?”

“I’m not talking about muscles. Physically…” Brown eyes took a moment to study the empress’s body, head to toe. “… there’s clearly nothing wrong with you.”

Xena shot her a bored look.

“I’m talking about your strengths as a ruler and a leader,” the Egyptian regent continued. “You used to be willing to sacrifice everything to keep your empire secure. You were hard, merciless, unreadable. Now… Now, you’re just human.”

“I’ve always been human.” Xena stated, as she pushed open the door to her study.

“So have I,” Cleo responded easily. “But my people believe I’m a god. If they for one moment believed I was a human, just like them, my reign would end.” The regent settled herself on a sofa, crossing her legs. “I’m worried that, now that the world knows you have a family, that you are mortal, your status as ruler of the world is under threat.”

Xena crossed her arms. “And therefore, so is your position, right?”

Cleopatra chuckled softly. “Humans are selfish, Xena. Even divine ones.”

She leaned forward a bit then, locking eyes with the Empress. “Alti prophesized Gabrielle would bring your Empire to its knees. Now you know I wasn’t a big fan of that…” Cleo made an ugly face and shivered. “But she wasn’t wrong about any of the other things. Why would she be wrong about this?”

“Is that why you’re here, then? To warn me about Gabrielle?” Xena circled her desk and dropped into her chair, propping her feet up on the desk’s surface. “‘Cause if you did, then you’ve really wasted your time. And, what’s worse, mine.”

Cleopatra glared at the Empress a moment, then slowly rose to her feet. “I’ve come here accompanied by a legion of my best charioteers.” A pause. “I intend to go back to Egypt without them.”

A dark eyebrow rose in question.

“I have this feeling you’re going to need them.” Cleo continued, then turned towards the door. “I see now though it was a bad idea for me to come. If this is the way we communicate now… I will gather my things.” The regent walked to the door and reached for the doorknob…

“Cleo, wait.”

A tiny smirk appeared on the Egyptian’s visage, but it disappeared just as quickly.

“I…” Xena drew in a breath and squared her shoulders a little. Oh, how she hated apologies. “I appreciate your loyalty,” she conceded. “You’re right if you’re trying to say I’ve been… preoccupied. If I hadn’t been I would have contacted you weeks ago and asked you to come here, to talk about… things.”

The Egyptian regent turned around, waiting patiently for Xena to finish.

“I’d like you to stay. Like I said, we have lots to discuss. And I’d like you to meet the council… and my daughter.”

A smile tugged at the corner of Cleopatra’s lips. “Meeting your offspring is more of a reason for me to leave.”

“Hey!” Xena feigned insult. “Don’t tell me you’re scared of a little girl, divine one.”

“Of course I am,” Cleopatra admitted easily. “This little girl is a teenage version of you with godly powers.”

Xena chuckled. “You have a point there.” She circled her desk, then offered Cleo her arm. “Shall I escort you to your room?”

Cleopatra produced a sultry smile. “Oh, please do.”

Cleopatra closed the door her chambers behind her, slightly miffed at Xena’s hasty departure. “Love is such an obnoxious emotion.”

“My Queen?” One of her servants inquired hesitantly.

Cleopatra shushed him with a disdainful wave of her hand. “Is my bath ready?”

“Of course, my Queen.” The servant hastily stepped aside and allowed her passage to the bathroom. “Have I ever disappointed you?”

“As a favour to you, I will not answer that question,” Cleo stated, passing him by without sparing him a glance.

Two girls were in the bath chamber as she entered, one pouring the last urn of warmed milk into the tub, the other spreading rose petals on the gently moving surface. As Cleopatra entered, they hastily dropped their eyes in respect. “Leave,” the regent simply ordered, and the girls hastily exited the chamber, closing the door behind them.

Alone at last, Cleo drew in a heavy breath and then released it again.

“You seem tense,” a voice drifted up from an area of the room behind her, cast in shadow. “Anything I can do?”

A smile tugged at the regent’s lips. “So… You beat me here.”

“Well…” Odilon emerged into the light, stepping up behind her. “You’d move a lot faster without the golden boat, the dozen servants and the small army you decided to bring.” He reached over and gently unbuttoned the back of Cleopatra’s dress.

“I like to travel in style,” Cleopatra countered, shifting slightly and letting the dress slip off her shoulders and fall onto the ground. She stepped free of the garment and gracefully headed for the bath.

“My dear, even if you were traveling across a muddy path, barefoot and dressed in rags, you’d have style.” Odilon watched her walk away with a smirk. “And you know it.”

Cleopatra laughed softly, as she let herself sink into her milk bath. She looked up and finally actually faced her companion. “It’s been too long.”

“It’s hard to stay in touch when you’re in Chin,” Odilon stated, settling down on the edge of the tub. “I did send presents.”

“If you hadn’t, I might not have come this quickly.”

“You’re saying you wouldn’t have come over just ‘cause I asked nicely?” the spy feigned insult. “You’re such a material girl.”

Cleo produced a wicked smile, then it ebbed away a bit as she spotted a large bruising on his face. “Ah, I see you’ve met her.”

“Oh yeah,” Odilon gently touched the spot, wincing. “Up close and very, very personal.”

“She’s a pain,” Cleo said in hate-filled voice.

“No,” the spy denied calmly. “She causes it. Which is exactly our problem.”

The Egyptian shook her head. “I do not get what Xena sees in her.”

“Xena sees many things in her. Herself, her younger brother, Lao Ma…” Odilon scooped up some of the milk and then let it trickle back down his fingers. “Perhaps… some sort of redemption.”

Cleopatra huffed out a breath “Redemption? For what? She came, she killed, she conquered. It’s what conquerors do.”

Odilon managed a faint smile. “Xena is a complex woman.”

“Only because she wants to be,” the Egyptian countered. “You and I both know that every time that woman falls in love, things go dreadfully wrong. Yet time and time again she just gives her heart away to the first democratic dimwit with murderous tendencies that crosses her path.”

“Well, at least she is consistent.”

“Ha ha,” Cleo drawled, not amused. “Please tell me you have a plan to get rid of this new pest. I’m assuming assassination isn’t an option with her?”

“Wouldn’t be an option anyway. Xena’d kill me and I prefer me alive.” Odilon stated. “Besides, solving problems by beheading has always been Xena’s kinda thing. Very efficient, not to mention effective, but… I handle things more subtly. You’d be amazed what a little tactful prodding can do.”

“And what’s my role in this then?” Cleo leaned back, watching him with a mixture of arrogance and curiosity. “I’m guessing you didn’t ask me here for my tactful disposition.”

“Oh no, definitely not.” Odilon chuckled. “I’ll handle the tactful bits. You can do the prodding.”

Cleopatra considered this a moment. “Well, I do like to prod.” A sultry smile. “And if I remember correctly, we make a great team.”

“Exactly,” Odilon leaned a bit closer to her, dropping his voice. “Trust me, if we play this right, in a week or two, Gabrielle will no longer be an issue.”

“Gabrielle?”

Thalia’s voice drew Gabrielle from her daydreaming. It’d been more of a day nightmare actually, so she wasn’t too bothered by that. “Sorry. What?”

“Man, you’re really out of it,” her friend chuckled, amused. “You’ve been staring ahead of yourself with that murderous look in your eyes the entire afternoon. You totally freaked out Odell. You should get jealous more often.”

“I’m not jealous,” was the expected answer through gritted teeth.

“Oh yeah, sorry, I forgot. You just have a deep scorching hatred for Cleo cause she used to smooch with Xena. That’s a totally different emotion.”

The warrior shot the redhead a vile look. “I hope Fay has a nice basket weaver waiting for you.”

“Oh, you’re so mean,” Thalia grinned, not even the thought of another disastrous blind date able to ruin her good mood. She wiggled her fingers at her friend as she headed for the door. “Bye.”

Gabrielle growled something inaudible after her, but then swirled around and strode off in the opposite direction. She’d headed in the direction of her room. She’d already send word to the cook that she’d have dinner in her room instead of joining the others in the dining room.

It felt a little like defeat. Letting herself be scared off by Xena’s buddies. But.. She just felt incapable of being polite to Cleopatra. And facing Odilon after the events of this morning…

He was screwing everything up. Things had been so nice. With her and Xena. With the kids. For a little while there, she’d almost felt… normal. She’d had a good job, a relationship. Okay, so she was dating the Empress, and her job was helping her to rule the world… but still, fairly normal…

And then that Odilon fellow had showed up. And now The Queen of the Null too. Gabrielle gritted her teeth. She felt all this… rage. Rage she couldn’t quite justify. And it was making her hands twitch. Having dinner with them there would just turn out ugly. There would probably be casualties. Fun, but in the longer run probably a bad idea. A nice long practice session in the gym after dinner seemed a wiser thought.

Deep in thought she turned a corner, then only just managed to stop in time to avoid from crashing into a figure standing in the corridor.

“Megan?” The warrior frowned at the older council member. “What are you doing here? I though you went home?”

“You need to be careful,” Megan said in her calm, calculated voice.

“Well, I… I’m sorry about bumping into you,” Gabrielle apologized. “I was just thinking and…”

“I mean of him,” the older woman corrected.

Gabrielle blinked. “Him? Odilon?”

A nod. “He doesn’t like you much. He’ll try to get rid of you. I’d rather that didn’t happen.” Megan circled around her and continued on her way. “Be careful.”

Gabrielle’s eyes followed the older woman as she turned the corner, then she faced forward again with a shake of her head. “Okaaay…,” she muttered. “That was weird.”

“Uncle Odie?”

Odilon sighed dramatically, darting a foul look at the girl skipping along side him. Why had he promised after dinner to accompany this girl back to her room again? Must have been his euphoria over the absence of a certain blonde… “It’s bad enough you took to Xena’s nickname for me, but to suddenly include me in this mixed up family of yours is crossing the line, young lady.”

Iona giggled.

“You are so obviously related,” the spy grumbled under his breath.

“People keep saying that,” Iona said. “But if it’s so obvious, how come no one noticed?”

Odilon considered this question seriously for a moment. “Well,” he finally started. “First off, Xena is a genius.”

“So am I. All the more reason to notice the connection.”

Odilon rolled his eyes. “That and the complete lack of modesty.”

“Modesty is for people who believe they might fail,” Iona stated factually. “So that later on when they screwed everything up, they can point back and say it’s not their fault.”

Odilon chuckled. “A lesson from Xena, clearly. Not the ever modest Pyrron.”

Blue eyes darted up at him, then hastily dropped to the ground.

“I guess no one ever noticed,” Odilon continued on, obliviously, “because there was no reason to. Hardly anyone knew Xena had a child before, and the thought of someone like her being a mother… Well, I don’t think any Athenian would come up with such an idea. Her officers, the people here in the palace… Not even they would have imagined that, and they saw her practically every day. I mean, if you don’t know Xena, you wouldn’t consider her the motherly type.”

“You know her,” Iona murmured, her thoughts still not fully focused on the subject at hand. “But you didn’t know about me either.”

“True,” the spy folded his hands behind his back. “Such a brilliant puzzle, and I didn’t even see the pieces scattered around.” He cocked his head a fraction, pensively. “I should have, considering my line of work, but… Xena and I never kept secrets from each other. I guess I just assumed if there was something to know, she’d tell me. So I never looked.”

Iona looked up at him, her curiosity drawing her back to the present. “Are you mad at her? For not telling?”

Odilon considered this, but only for a moment. “No,” he replied then. “It was smart of her not to. I might have done something rash, trying to protect her.”

Dark brows furrowed. “From me?”

“Oh yeah,” the spy smirked. “Xena has a bad history when it comes to kids. Especially her own. All sense goes flying out the window and all that’s left is pure, raw emotions. And there’s nothing more dangerous than emotions.”

They walked on for a moment, side by side, crossing the hallway and entering the south wing of the castle. “What happened to him?” Iona finally spoke up, as they stopped outside the door to Xena’s rooms.

“To who?”

“To her son. To… to my brother? He died, right?”

Odilon glanced down at her for a moment, then faced forward again, drawing in a deep breath. “Yes. He did.”

“How?”

The spy shook his head. “I’m not sure I should be the one to tell you.”

“You want me to ask mom?”

“No,” Odilon immediately responded. “Don’t do that. She… she doesn’t like to talk about it.”

“Who’s going to tell me then?” Iona crossed her arms and shot the man a look. “I have a right to know, don’t I? He’s my family too.”

“He’s nobody’s family anymore,” Odilon countered, his voice lowered and nearing anger. “He’s dead. The dead are of no consequence. They’re best left forgotten.”

Iona stared a him for another moment, then she turned and opened the door, slamming it shut behind her.

“But, Thalia…”

“No!” The redhead swirled around, pointing an angry finger at Fay, who’s just followed her out the door. “No bricklayer, no basket weaver, no Pompeian glass engraver… Okay?!”

“But dear,” Fay called after her. “He’s really a very sweet guy…”

“He could be made of pure honey, and I still wouldn’t be interested,” Thalia snapped back. “I’m not looking for anybody. Why can’t you get your head wrapped around that idea?!” The redhead drew in a breath and then released it again, searching for some semblance of calm. “Look, you just go back inside and have fun listening to him explain the intricate process of creating Pompeian glass and how that’s so totally different from Roman glass and I’ll see you some time tonight, okay?”

Without waiting for an answer she turned around again and strode out of the garden and onto the street. She kept up the pace until she was sure Fay wasn’t coming after her, then she released a deep sigh, lifting a hand and rubbing her eyes tiredly. “I really have to get out of that house,” she murmured to herself, as she turned another corner and walked onto the agora.

The agora was bustling with activity, even this late at night. There were a few market stalls still open, selling a variety of snacks. A small crowd had gathered around a young fire breather, whose large clouds of fire lit up the sky. Nearby an older man stood behind a canvas, painting the scene.

Thalia slipped through the crowds, until she came to a small tavern in the corner of the square. She stepped inside, changing the sounds outside for low chatter and the clanging of mugs.

“T!” A voice called out to her and she looked at the young woman behind the bar, who waved back at her. She managed a smile, then wormed her way through the thick crowd. The woman meanwhile had shooed a member of her clientele off his stool and offered it to Thalia with a generous wave of her hand.

The redhead inclined her head a little as a sign of gratitude. “Thanks, Cassandra.”

“As an ex-employee, you get the best seat in the house, sugah,” the woman winked at her. “How ya doin?”

In response Thalia just uttered a guttural sound of dismay and hid her face in her hands.

“That bad eh?” Cassandra patted her friend on the head. “I’ll go get you my favourite medicine. Be right back.”

Moments later a large glass filled with a brightly pink liquid was placed in front of her. “And remember now, all in one go.”

“Ha!” Thalia snorted, shooting the woman a glance. “You remember what happened the last time I did that?”

“Eh, ya got problems? Puke ‘m out, is what I say.” Cassandra flashed her a wicked grin, then took off to help some of the other costumers.

Thalia stared at her drink for a moment, then just gave in and pulled it closer, taking a healthy sip. She winced as the alcohol burned sharply in the back of her throat. “Ugh.”

“I was thinking of ordering one of those,” a voice next to her commented. “But I think I just changed my mind.”

Thalia turned to look at the man sitting on the stool beside her. He seemed about her age, maybe a little younger. His hair was dark and reached down to his shoulders. He wore a pale blue shirt, which seemed to be made of some fancy material, like silk. On top of it he wore a well-cut leather vest. An odd guest, Thalia decided, since her old tavern didn’t attract many handsome, wealthy young men. “Well, it doesn’t taste nice,” Thalia responded to his comment. “But if you want to forget stuff, nothing matches this.” She wiggled the glass at him, then took another sip.

“Well, in that case…” He pushed his mug of ale aside a bit. “ Can I try?”

“Sure,” Thalia shrugged, then handed him her glass and watched him take a sip. A laugh escaped her as his eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets and he grasped for his throat with one hand, reaching for his mug of ale with the other. He quickly gulped down his remaining ale. “Great Athena!” he gasped for air. “What do you wanna do, kill me?!”

The redhead continued laughing. “Hey, it made you forget stuff there for a moment, didn’t it?”

“Well, for a moment there, when I thought I was dying.”

Thalia managed a half grin. “Well, sometimes forgetting is worth a near death experience.”

Her companion released a breath. “True.” He murmured, twirling his mug between his fingers for a moment, before placing it back on the bar. “So very true.”

Thalia studied his profile for a moment. An intriguing guy, this was. There was something… familiar about him, but Thalia couldn’t come up with what that something was. She was sure she hadn’t met him before. She’d have remembered meeting him.

The young man looked up and their eyes met. Thalia could see a range of emotions there, from wry amusement to confusion to… a veiled fear. He had a story to tell. And though Thalia had never shared Gabrielle’s fondness for stories, this was one she was interested in finding out more about. “Can I buy you a drink?” she offered. “To make up for nearly killing you and all?”

A twinkle entered the blue eyes across from her, chasing away the variety of emotions for a while. “I’d like that.”

Gabrielle finished her set of push-ups, then gracefully hopped back to her feet. Breathing heavily, she walked over to a wooden practice dummy attached to the wall. It was a Chinese contraption by origin, wooden poles were sticking out of it at various heights to allow her to practice her blocking and hitting.

She’d hoped the exercise would calm her, that it’d help her get all the rage out of her system. Normally it did. But not this time. Gabrielle smacked her upper arm against a wooden pole at eyelevel, then slammed her elbow into a similar one on her left.

One thing between her and Xena hadn’t changed in these last months. That woman could still confuse the Hades out of her. Gabrielle performed a perfect roundhouse kick, making the wall shiver. She didn’t know much about Odilon yet, but it was clear enough the guy was a manipulative self-righteous meddler. And Cleopatra… The warrior launched into a series of punches. Of course, the Egyptian regent was a powerful ally. So it was only logical Xena had to spend time with her. A kick. Have dinner with her. Another. And escort her to her room.

With a growl Gabrielle ran forward, straight up the wood. She delivered a vicious kick, causing one of the wooden poles to break loose and fly into the air. Gabrielle flipped back, landed, snapped the loosened bit of wood from the air and in one fluid motion launched it towards the door.

The wooden spike only just passed by Cleopatra’s ear before pinning itself into to door with a resounding thud. The Egyptian glanced at the wooden spike, then turned towards Gabrielle. “I thought we could have a sensible conversation. But perhaps I should have brought my bodyguards with me after all.”

Gabrielle crossed her arms. “If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead. Guards or no guards.”

“A reassuring thought,” the Egyptian regent drawled, as she gracefully strode further into the room.

“What do you want?”

A small laugh escaped the regent. “Since we haven’t seen each other since my arrival, I have come to say hello.” She circled the warrior, studying her calmly. “Perhaps tossing sticks at a newcomer’s head is standard procedure in the peasant village you come from, but in the higher circles a polite welcome is more appreciated.”

Gabrielle shot her a bored look. “In this specific case, I prefer sticks.”

Another laugh, this one even more unpleasant. “You know, it’s strange we have such a dislike of each other. Since we are such similar creatures. But then again, perhaps that is the cause of the dislike.”

The warrior couldn’t suppress a disbelieving snort. “Similar? You and me?” She took a few steps closer, facing off against the regent. Muscles, power and sweat versus the Egyptian’s delicate features, graceful movements and rose scented perfume. “In what way are we alike?”

“You have discovered, as I did before, that there is one power greater than any physical or mental power on this earth.” Cleopatra leaned even closer, dropping her voice a fraction. “Seduction. And you’ve used it to great advantage, I have to admit. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone go from outcast to advisor in so short a time.” A smirk. “Well done.”

Gabrielle narrowed her eyes dangerously.

“Though, admittedly, Xena is an easy target,” Cleopatra continued, seemingly oblivious. “You just have to know which buttons to push and then you have her. Body and soul.” The dark eyes twinkled. “The body is particularly interesting.”

The air was pushed out of the regent’s lungs as the flat palm of Gabrielle’s hand impacted harshly with her forehead. Cleopatra staggered back, but was unable to keep upright, crashing to the ground. “Don’t talk about her like that.” Cleopatra turned to meet flashing green eyes. “Xena is NOT a target.” Gabrielle knelt down next to the regent. “But if she were a target, she’d be MY target. So you stay the Hades away from her.”

Dark eyes followed the blonde in amusement as she stood and headed for the door. “Jealous, are we?”

In response Gabrielle pulled the wooden spike out of the door and flung it in Cleopatra’s direction a second time. This time the wood embedded itself just in front of the regent’s feet. “I am NOT jealous!” The warrior snapped, before storming out of the room and slamming the door shut behind her.

Caspar carefully covered the roots of the plant he placed on his mother’s grave, then took a step back and observed his work. “What do you think?”

“Pwetty,” Niobe responded as she toddled up next to him, leaning against her older brother’s leg. “I make daddy a piture.” She held the drawing up for her brother to see. It was a bright picture, entirely drawn with a yellow crayon, Niobe’s favourite color. “Good?”

“Very good.” Caspar managed a smile for her.

Niobe beamed back at him, then went over to her father’s gravestone and leaned the picture she’d made against it.

Hidden from sight by the shadows of the trees, a figure observed them silently.

Caspar watched his sister as she mumbled something to the stones, then he held out his hand. “Come on. It’s time to go to bed.”

“Awwwww,” Niobe turned around, poking her lower lip out in a quite adorable pout. “Not tiyed.”

Caspar just shot her a look, an uncanny mimicry of his father.

“Pah,” Niobe looked unhappy, but waggled back over and took her brothers hand and allowed him to lead her back towards the palace.

Silence fell. When the two children had disappeared from sight, it was broken once again by soft footfalls. Iona emerged from the shadows, her eyes flicking in the direction that Caspar and Niobe had gone to. She tiptoed into the clearing, careful not to make a sound. When she decided they really couldn’t hear her anymore she blew out a breath.

A moment, then her eyes tracked to the two stones standing side by side, dimly illuminated by the full moon. “I uhm…” Her voice sounded loud, even though she was whispering. “I didn’t bring you flowers or anything. Caspar probably wouldn’t want me digging up his nicely lined up daisies and stuff. Not that I care what he wants, of course…” she hastily added, for good measure. “I just…” A breath. “I just wanted to say hi, I guess. I know I haven’t talked to you, since… you know…”

She swallowed, trying to force the lump from her throat. “I miss you.” She finally managed in a thick voice. “When you were here, everything was simple. Now… Sometimes, I don’t know where I belong anymore. I want to know, but no one will tell me. And… And then I run into talking wells and everything gets even more mixed up. And I can’t tell Xena about it, ‘cause she’ll get mad and…” Iona sniffled, rubbing at her eyes in frustration. “I wish…” She carefully took a step closer, reaching out to the stone. “I wish you were still my dad.”

“What are you doing?”

The voice behind her startled her, and she spun around to see Caspar standing there. “I was just…” She stuttered.

“Get away!” Caspar circled around her, coming to stand between Iona and the gravestones. His eyes narrowed dangerously at her. “You’re not supposed to be here. You’ll mess everything up.”

“I wasn’t,” Iona countered weakly, stepping back into the shadows so the boy wouldn’t see her tears. “I was just talking…”

Caspar produced a sarcastic laugh, a sound which didn’t fit his gentle nature. “Why?” He turned away from her and back to the gravestones, kneeling down and making sure his plants were as they’d left them. “They’re not your parents, are they? You don’t belong here.”

Iona stared ahead of herself numbly for a moment, then she turned away from Caspar. “No. I guess, I don’t.” She murmured, before making her way back towards the palace.

“Iona?”

Iona looked up with red-rimmed eyes from her scrunched up position in the corner of her bed. “Oh, it’s you.” She wiped a hand at her eyes and straightened up.

“Yes, it is,” Athena walked over and sat down on the bed next to her. “Is something wrong?”

Iona glanced up at her aunt for a moment, wondering what she should and shouldn’t tell her. “Everything is just…” A breath. “…just complicated. That’s all.”

Athena observed her quietly, patiently waiting for her to continue.

“I just feel…” Iona searched for words. “I mean, I can’t tell mom about you. ‘Cause she doesn’t like you. And she doesn’t like me using my powers. Little as they are,” she added in a mutter.

“It’s hard when people don’t understand,” Athena said, understandingly “Being divine… Not a lot of people understand the burden that is. You might look the same, but you are different. It can get lonely, sometimes.”

“Lonely,” Iona repeated with a nod. “Yeah…”

“If you want to talk to your mother,” Athena advised. “You need to bring your problem down to the essentials. You need to tell her how you feel, without saying why you’re feeling it. Xena might not understand your divinity, but she understands loneliness.”

Iona considered this a moment, then looked up at the goddess. “Thanks. I’ll do that.” A pause. “You’re pretty smart, ya know?”

Athena chuckled. “It comes with the job.”

Iona smiled back, then the smile faded a bit, as she considered whether to ask another question. She finally decided she should. “Can I ask you something else?”

“Sure.” Athena folded her hands.

“When… When we went to that island. You were talking to Scathach and I went for a walk.”

“I remember,” the goddess said.

“Well, there was this well there, you see. It… It spoke to me.”

Athena’s eyes widened a trifle, but only for a moment. “Really?” She replied, in a calm and casually interested voice. “What did it say?”

“It said I was the one,” Iona muttered, a trifle embarrassed at how silly it all sounded. “And that he would come for me and I would lose. It didn’t say which one I was or who he was or what I’d lose.” A sigh. “It was kinda confusing.”

Athena gazed at her niece for a moment, then managed a smile. “I wouldn’t worry if I were you. Eire has a lot of these weird things. Leprechauns, talking wells… Created just to scare or annoy you.” She patted Iona’s cheek affectionately. “Don’t worry. It meant nothing.”

The Goddess rose to her feet again. “I’m afraid I can’t stay any longer. There’s… something I need to do.”

“Can you come tomorrow night?” Iona asked, anxiously. “Xena’s off to some theatre thing. Won’t be back all night. We could… practice my powers?” A hopeful smile.

Athena chuckled. “I think my agenda is free for tomorrow.” The goddess winked at the girl. “See you.” And in a cloud of white dust she disappeared.

With a flicker of light, Athena reappeared on Mount Olympus, in a large marble hall. A throne stood at the end of it, large and imposing. It had been her father’s, once. And then Ares’. And now… Athena glanced around her. Now it was empty.

“Athena!” Her name echoed through the hall and she turned to see Artemis walk closer. The Goddess of the Hunt stopped before her, seemingly a trifle out of breath. “I’ve been looking all over for you. I lost track of Hermes.”

Athena shot her half-sister an exasperated look.

“Hey, I did my best, okay? But the guy has boots with wings. How can I compete with that?”

The Goddess of Wisdom had to agree she had a point. “Do you think he’s gone to see Poseidon?”

“Maybe,” Artemis shrugged. “One of the nymphs is keeping an eye out for me. If she spots him, we’ll know.”

“Good,” Athena nodded, pensively. “Very good.”

“So, where were you off to?” Artemis asked. “You weren’t on Olympus, I know that much.”

“I went to see Iona,” Athena answered truthfully.

“Again?” Artemis shook her head a little. “That girl is practically powerless. She’s of no use to us.”

“On the contrary,” the goddess of wisdom responded. “She might be essential.”

Artemis raised an eyebrow in question.

“You know I took her to Eire. To the Well of Segais.” Athena dropped her voice. “It spoke to her.”

“It did?” Artemis looked surprised. “What did it say?”

“It said HE was coming.”

There was a moment of utter silence. “He?” Artemis finally repeated, in a slightly frightened tone. “You mean…?”

“I don’t know yet,” Athena responded. “But if it is… We’re in trouble.”

Gabrielle rubbed her eyes tiredly as she trudged into the bathroom. She stopped in front of the mirror, taking a look at her dishevelled figure. Her eyes could barely open and her hair was sticking out in all directions. “Great,” Gabrielle muttered, pulling the stop from the tap and letting some water run onto her hands. She then ran her hands through her hair, ordering it somewhat.

It’d been well past midnight before she’d gone to sleep last night. After her unpleasant encounter with Cleopatra she’d taken off and found herself a spot outside, somewhere in the woods where she was sure neither Cleopatra nor Odilon could have followed her.

And there she’d spent several candle marks at numerous drills until she was soaked in sweat and so exhausted she could barely make it back to the palace. It had worked though. For a moment she’d forgotten about the Egyptian’s smug smile and Odilon’s accusations, she’d forgotten about Chin… But it hadn’t lasted long. Gabrielle splashed some cold water in her face, shivering. And now she felt even more tired then she had before she’d gone to sleep.

Light filtered into her room. She walked over to the windowsill and glanced outside, watching as the sun hesitantly peeked over the horizon, shedding the waking city in beautiful shades of gold and amber.

She felt like going back to bed. Gabrielle sighed, eyeing the warm blankets she’d just left. She wanted to just sleep today away. That way, things at least couldn’t get any worse than they were.

Gabrielle grudgingly headed over to her closet and selected her outfit for the day. She settled on dark leather pants and a sleeveless light brown suede top. The leather made her feel more secure. And it emanated a ‘stay the Hades away from me’ kinda attitude, which could come in very useful today.

She left her room, turning a corner and heading down the stairs. In the hall she paused a moment, deciding what to do next. She was supposed to meet Xena for their morning sparring session. But Odilon was bound to be present there, or otherwise she was sure Cleopatra would show up. The Egyptian regent didn’t have a taste for battle really. But the warrior remembered she’d been present for a sparring match between Xena and her the last time she’d been here. She’d been checking out the Empress the entire time.

Gabrielle decided she should just go and tell Xena to skip their session this morning. She could say hi to the kids that way too, before they took off for school. When she’d been stuck in bed because of her injuries they’d all come over in the mornings and joined her for breakfast in bed. She’d pretty much given that up now that the council was keeping her so busy, and she actually found herself missing the little morning ritual a lot.

She was just about to turn into the corridor that led to Xena’s chambers when a voice suddenly drifted up.

“I appreciate you could reschedule this meeting on such short notice,” she heard Cleopatra’s silken voice say.

“Anything for you.”

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed to slits.

“You say that to all the pretty girls, Xena,” the Egyptian chastised her.

The Empress chuckled. “If that were true then I just told you you’re pretty. It’s a compliment either way.”

The footsteps came closer and Gabrielle suddenly realized the twosome was going to bump into her any moment. In a bout of escapism Gabrielle headed for the nearest door and slipped inside.

It was the door down to the cells. Gabrielle walked down a few steps, intent on heading back up the moment Xena and Cleopatra had passed.

“My Lady.”

The warrior winced as she heard the voice of the guard. She’d been spotted. It’d look really stupid if she were to turn back now.

So she walked further down the stairs, nodding politely at the guard. He was one of the younger soldiers, who’d joined the army only a few years back and knew little of her role in the resistance. “Hello, Ellos.”

Ellos beamed a smile back at her. “Wow, you remembered my name!” The guard who stood watch with him poked him in the side, after which he hastily performed an official salute. “Ma’am.”

The warrior tried to repress a smirk. “Call me Gabrielle,” she told him, as he hastily swung open the doors for her.

“Yes, ma’am,” the young guard shot her another smile, then closed the door behind her again. Through the closed doors Gabrielle could hear him add in a hushed tone he thought she couldn’t hear. “Man, she’s hot!”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. From a cell a little down the isle a lazy chuckle drifted up. “Well, dear, if you don’t want to boys to look, you shouldn’t dress all in leather. You know what that does to men. Dominatrix dreams and all that.”

Gabrielle leaned back against the cell bars across from Callisto’s cell, crossing her arms. “Good morning, Callisto.”

“Oh, is it morning?” the blonde drawled. “Night, day… makes very little difference when you’re stuck down here, you know?”

“You always whine about something when I come down here,” Gabrielle scolded her. “If you keep this up I might stop visiting.”

“Oh, the horror,” Callisto muttered sarcastically.

Gabrielle flashed her a grin. It wasn’t quite as radiant as normally though. Callisto cocked her head, studying the other woman with interest. There was something off about her. “You never stop by in the morning, normally. What’s the occasion?”

“Nothing special,” the warrior commented off-handedly.

“Oh, really?” Callisto continued watching her, folding her fingers around the bars. “No, no, no… You have that twitch.”

“What twitch?”

“That twitch you get when you’re mad,” Callisto retorted. “And you get this little crinkle in your nose.”

Gabrielle instantly lifted a hand to her nose, rubbing at it in an attempt to make the crinkle disappear.

“Ah, all not well in Xena wonderland, is it?” The blonde chuckled. “Told you she’d backstab you. You turn around for a second and she scorches your home village. Did you check if Potedeia is still standing, dear?”

The warrior shot her a look. “This has nothing to do with Xena.”

“Oh really,” Callisto purred delicately. “I heard her old flame’s back in town. Cleopatra, right?”

The warrior gritted her teeth at the mere mention of the Egyptian’s name. “And how did you hear that?”

“How could I not hear?” Callisto shot a look at her ceiling in dismay. “All the moaning and the groaning. The walls were shaking you know? Can’t imagine how you could have missed that…”

Gabrielle was looking mightily annoyed now. “Shut up.”

“That’s what I was saying,” Callisto continued on merrily. “But they kept going on and on and on and on…” She looked delightedly at Gabrielle’s furious expression. “Oh, cheer up, Gabby. I’m sure it’s just… business. Or one last time, maybe… You know, for old time’s sake… Though, from the sound of it, they had a lot of fun last night. Xena might decide to keep her. Apparently you’re not enough woman for her.”

Gabrielle stared at her a moment, eyes blazing, then she closed her eyelids a moment, clearly trying to compose herself.

Callisto giggled, delighted at this very pleasant distraction. “Jealousy doesn’t become you, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle opened her eyes again and was just about to snap something back at her, when she spotted a bit of parchment pinned to the wall.

She took a step closer. It was a drawing of a rat. Quite a nice one at that, with remarkable detail. Callisto realized what she was looking at, then hastily pulled the parchment from the wall and hid it from sight. Gabrielle in the meantime had found something of more interest. While Callisto was busy hiding her picture of the rat, Gabrielle reached through the bars and retrieved the blonde’s sketchbook.

“Hey!” Callisto stormed back over to the bars, but was too late to snatch the parchments back. “Give those back!”

Gabrielle stuck out her tongue at the blonde as she sorted through the papers. “Wow.” Her gaze shifted from humoured to genuinely impressed. “These are really good.” She studied the drawing of a soldier spiked to a wall. “Slightly morbid, but good nevertheless.” She turned over the page, where the imprisoned woman had drawn a selection of weaponry.

“Glad, you approve,” Callisto snapped, reaching through the bars as fast as she could. “Now give ‘em back!”

Gabrielle turned over another page, then she stopped, staring down at the image on the next page. It was an incredibly lifelike drawing of herself. Of herself a few years back, that was, with long curly hair still. Gabrielle glanced up at Callisto, who was staring back at her with an expression like that of a child who’d just been caught stealing from the cookie jar. Then she focused back on the image in front of her. She turned the page and found another drawing of herself. And behind that, another, this one of herself as she looked now, with short hair..

“Don’t get any ideas,” Callisto’s voice drifted up, trying to sound casual. “It’s not like I got a lot of stuff to draw in here. Gotta draw stuff from memory. And you’ve been in my way so much, I know your face by heart.”

“By heart?” Gabrielle repeated, amused by the choice of words. “Well, I’m flattered.”

“Yeah well, it’s you and rats.” Callisto muttered, clearly miffed.

Gabrielle chuckled. She took a few steps closer to the bars. Callisto instantly used the opportunity to reach through and snatch her parchments back.

“Can I have one?”

Grey eyes eyed her warily. “Why?”

“‘Cause they’re beautiful,” Gabrielle simply responded. “I’d like to hang one in my room.”

Callisto looked at her hesitantly, then pulled a drawing from the pile and held it out to her. Gabrielle took it. It was the one of the soldier pinned to the wall. “Oh, you want to keep those of me here for yourself, do you?”

Callisto hissed at her, instantly tossing the other drawings in her direction.

“The Asian area is relatively peaceful,” Odilon stated, leaning back in his seat. “Jappa is a bit tricky, though.”

“Ah, Jappa,” Xena nodded a bit in remembrance. “Nice scenery. Complicated culture. Crappy, highly inflammable houses. Can’t really recommend it.”

“I talked to Michiyo, my contact in Jappa. Apparently there are a number of warlords causing trouble. But it doesn’t seem they’re after you really, but after more power in their own country. We never really got around to appointing one regent for the place.”

Xena shook her head. “Appointing a regent wouldn’t work for Jappa. It’s not in line with their culture.”

“They’ll adapt.”

Xena wagged a finger at him. “No, no, Odie. Divide and Conquer, remember?”

“Please, leave Caesar out of this,” Cleopatra commented with a wince. “Annoying little man.”

Odilon chuckled in amusement. “You slept with him though.”

“We all make mistakes,” the Egyptian pharaoh responded curtly.

“Wasn’t a mistake,” Xena corrected her. “It was business.” She shot the regent a smirk. “What we girls won’t do for the greater good, huh?”

Cleopatra grinned back at her.

Odilon rolled his eyes. “How did we get from Jappa to sex with Caesar again?”

“Divide and Conquer,” Xena muttered, picking up her glass of fruit juice and draining it.

“Ah, yes,” Odilon nodded, remembering now. “So what do you want to do about Jappa then?”

Xena considered this a moment, twirling her empty glass between her fingers. “Nothing.”

“Nothing?” Odilon shared a confused look with Cleopatra.

Xena nodded.

“They’ll think you’re weak,” Cleopatra stated.

“Nah,” Xena put her glass back down and then picked up the jug standing on the table and refilled it. “They’ll be too busy squabbling amongst themselves to worry about me. Besides, if I go storming in there with troops I’ll either have to side with one warlord, which won’t turn out well in the long run. Or I won’t side with any of ‘m, which will probably make them form a united front against me.” Xena leaned back in her seat, studying the gently rippling surface of her orange juice. “It’s best to wait a while, see how things go. I do want a weekly update from now on. Tell Michiyo to report to me directly.”

Odilon nodded, scribbling down a note.

“I had a meeting with the African regents a fortnight ago,” Cleopatra picked up the thread. “The northern lands indicated they’ll all follow Egypt.”

“Egypt? Not me?” Xena grinned though, indicating she’d expected no less from the Pharaoh.

“And the southern lands?”

“Savages,” Cleopatra stated with clear disdain. “They hardly know you exist. I wouldn’t worry about them.”

Xena nodded politely, then darted a quick look at Odilon and raised an eyebrow at him, after which he hastily started scribbling again.

“So that leaves Britannia, the Middle East and the Norselands,” Xena concluded. “I’m guessing those are our problem areas?”

“I’ve been in touch with the Persian regent,” Cleopatra said. “ He says all is well, but… I am not so sure.”

Xena crossed her arms, intrigued. “Why’s that?”

“I can smell lies,” the Egyptian stated, then crinkled her nose. “He smelled.”

The Empress chuckled. “Omid is an odd man, I’ll give you that. He’s been loyal though.”

“I’ve had words from our spies too,” Odilon added. “They’ve reported an increased number of murders and disappearances in the western area, near the border.”

“Very well,” Xena nodded. “I’ve got several legions stationed in Corinth. I’ll move them towards the border, just in case. They can take up position in Tripolis. If things get out of hand, I can move them into Persia and settle things there myself.” She waved a hand at Odilon. “Make a note for me to inform the council about the troop movement.”

Cleopatra shot a bored look at the ceiling, clearly appalled by the idea of a council. Odilon folded his hands together. “And what if this council doesn’t agree.”

“The council has nothing to say about my army,” Xena retorted easily. “But I have to inform them about stuff like this. It’s what we agreed upon.”

The Egyptian regent huffed out a haughty breath. “Your peasant hasn’t realized yet how stupid an idea this council is, then?”

“My advisor is a highly intelligent woman who is trying very hard to turn the council into a properly working part of my government,” The Empress countered, her blue eyes pinning Cleopatra down with an icy stare.

“Oh, come now,” Cleopatra continued on, undisturbed. “You are indulging this whim of hers because you are sleeping with her.”

“Did I indulge your whims when I was sleeping with you?” Xena instantly countered.

Cleopatra had no response to that, merely shooting her a foul look. Odilon remained prudently silent. Xena tossed up a hand in frustration. “Look, I’m sick and tired of having this same discussion over and over again. This is not about Gabrielle and me. I’ll easily admit the council is a bit of a bother right now. But if Gabrielle can get it up and running, then they can take some stuff off my hands. And then maybe I can take off for a while. I promised I’d show my kid Britannia someday.”

Odilon exchanged a troubled look with Cleopatra. “So… Are you saying you want to leave this council in charge for a longer period of time?”

“Eventually, yes.” Xena shrugged. “I mean, I know I’m always going to be the Empress. Retirement is probably not going to be an option for me. But I’m getting older and someday I’m not going to be able to do this anymore. I don’t have a successor…”

“Yes, you do.” Cleopatra cut her off.

Xena managed a small smile. “My daughter is not going to be Empress.”

“Why?” The Egyptian leaned forward. “Because of her father? Because you think she’ll ruin things?”

“Because it will ruin her,” Xena stated, matter-of-factly.

Cleopatra stared at her a moment, then shook her head in disbelief. “This is what I’ve never understood about you, Xena. You’ve spend years and years of your life conquering all there is to conquer. And then when you’ve achieved this, you want to throw it all away.”

The Empress chuckled at this. “What can I say? I bore easily.”

“I know, and this is exactly what I’m worried about,” Cleopatra countered seriously. “You’ll just hand over all this power to this council, because you are bored. Without any thought for the repercussions. What will happen to the Empire? What will happen to the economy?”

“What will happen to you?” The Empress added for her.

“Well… Yes!” Cleopatra waved a hand at the empty air delicately. “My alliance with you didn’t really make me very popular.”

“You have enough gold to make yourself popular with any group of people, Cleo.” Xena gave her a pointed look, then shook her head a little. “Don’t you ever get tired of it? All these people watching your every move. Don’t you ever feel… trapped?”

The Egyptian shrugged. “You call it trapped, I call it worshipped.” Brown eyes studied her. “Don’t tell me you really want to go back to being a peasant, Xena? Do you really think life is easier when you’re sleeping in a hut between sheep?”

“It isn’t easier, no.” Xena instantly agreed. “But at least your life is yours then. You decide what will happen in the next chapter. Not some foreign regent, not some army, not some god. You.” A humourless laugh. “Imagine that. I’ve spent all these years gathering power. And now at the end of it all, I’m left with none. That’s karma for ya.”

Cleopatra stared at her a moment, then shook her head a little. “I do not think I understand you anymore.”

“I do.”

Both women turned to look at Odilon, who’d spoken up for the first time in a while. The spy leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, looking directly at the Empress. “You’re looking for the snake in the grass. The trapdoor. The imperfection. You do remember that parable about the Japanese stonecutter, don’t you? The one who wished to be a lord, a king, the rain, the sun, but ended up as a stonecutter in the end.” Odilon waved a hand at the empty air. “You can run away all you want, Xena. Try to change. But in the end, you’ll end up back here.”

Xena leaned back in her seat, a small smile tugging at her lips. “If I am the stonecutter, then won’t I eventually end up back in Amfipolis? An innkeeper?” A chuckle. “I’ll become a mug of ale first then, instead of a rock.”

“This is who you are,” Odilon said decisively. “You were never going to be an innkeeper, Xena. You know that.”

“I’m sure I would have been a fab innkeeper. You should have seen me juggling wine bottles.”

“Oh, shut it Xena.” Odilon’s eyes flared, clearly annoyed. Cleopatra looked from one to the other in fascination, very rarely having been part of a conversation between the two that was this personal. “You were born to be great. I knew that the moment I saw you. Pretending to be small will only make you look stupid.”

Xena stared back at him. For a moment she seemed doubtful whether Odilon’s words required an angry response. Then she decided they didn’t. Instead she laughed softly. “Don’t worry, Odie. I’m not trying to look small. I’m just… trying to be great in a different way. You just assume that’s bad, but it doesn’t have to be.”

The spy leaned back in his seat. “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.”

“It is broken,” Xena responded softly. “It broke the moment Pyrron died.”

It turned out to be a very tiring day. Xena placed a hand on her neck and popped some bones back into place. A long session with Odie and Cleopatra, who clearly weren’t happy about the involvement of the council. Afterward she had to send out decrees and orders and talk to several ambassadors about the situation in their provinces. As they’d discussed, she’d told her troops in Corinth to take up position near Tripolis and she’d also ordered her troops in Germania to move closer to the border with the Norselands, just in case.

This all had kept her busy the entire day and the sun was now slowly sinking below the horizon. It had started to drizzle and a thin fog was lingering outside in the garden, shifting between the trees.

Xena cast a look outside, shivering a little at the cold dimness. She hoped the theatre would be nice and warm, at least. She pushed open the door to her study, circling her desk and sagging down in her chair. She popped her feet on her desk and leaned back. On a coat hanger in the centre of the room hung a beautiful silver dress. “Good choice,” she mumbled approvingly, recognizing Esmee’s touch. A very talented girl, Esmee was. A nice addition to her household.

“You like the dress?”

Xena looked up to find her daughter standing in the doorway. “Hey.” She smiled, motioning the girl closer. “I missed seeing you today. Sorry I wasn’t around for lunch. I just had to…”

“Rule the world. Yes, I know…” Iona drawled, hopping onto the edge of the desk. “So, you like the dress?”

“I do.” Xena affirmed. “Esmee worked on it, right?”

Iona nodded. “It’s not for tonight, but for the party tomorrow. I helped pick out the buttons.”

“Don’t tell me you’re interested in the wonderful world of tailoring?”

The girl snorted. “No.” She leaned back on the desk, looking at her mother over her shoulder. “I’m managing party business.”

“Oh really?” Xena seemed amused. “Since when?”

“Since Benitor asked for my help. It’s a little last minute, this party, ya know?”

“Shh,” the Empress raised a finger to her lips. “It’s a surprise party, remember?”

“Gabrielle isn’t here,” Iona replied easily. “I saw her slipping outside about half a candlemark ago.”

“Outside?” Xena frowned, darting another look at the nasty weather.

“Yep,” Iona shrugged. “I told her you were nearly finished with the world dominating stuff and she just smiled, sorta, and took off.”

The Empress huffed out a breath, confused. “Weird.”

“Figured it was one of those weird grownup things.” Iona just stated, hopping off the desk. “Mom?”

“Yeah?” Xena responded, distantly, her mind still sorting through Gabrielle’s strange behaviour.

“I uhm….” Iona seemed insecure suddenly. “I… I went to dad’s grave last night.”

Xena’s focus instantly shifted back to her daughter. “I’m glad,” she said, after a moment of silence. “I was waiting for you to do that.”

“I wasn’t ready before.”

“I know that,” her mother responded softly. “That’s why I waited. But I’m happy you went to see him. Him and… your mom. I’m sure they were happy too.”

“Caspar wasn’t happy,” Iona murmured. “He said…” She drew in a breath, slightly shaking. “He said they weren’t my parents. So I shouldn’t care.”

Xena shook her head a little, then she slid off her chair, dropping down to a knee and taking hold of Iona’s shoulders. “They are. And you should. Your brother’s just…”

“He’s not my brother.”

“… he’s just confused, too.” Xena finished blithely. She paused a moment. “I… I know this sucks for you. I can’t offer you as good a family as Pyrron could. My life’s too screwed up for that.”

“Your life’s not screwed up.”

“Yes it is,” Xena countered with a half grin. “You’ve seen a big chunk of it. You know it’s screwed up.”

Iona managed a grin as well. “Well… There were some weird moments, yes.”

“Exactly. And trust me, the bits before you were born weren’t run of the mill either.”

“I guess not,” Iona mumbled, peeking up at Xena. “But… I’d like to hear about that… sometime. I’d like to know where you lived, when you were my age. How you grew up.”

Xena studied her a moment, silently. “Are you sure about that?”

“Yes.” Iona said, quite determinedly. “I mean… I used to know who I was. I was part dad, part … part mom.” She used the term for Ismene almost apologetically in Xena’s company. “I was even part Caspar and Niobe. But… now it turns out I’m not any of that. I want to know what I am part of.” A pause. “I know you don’t have time now. And that you’re probably busy tomorrow too but…”

“I’ll make time,” her mother told her. “This is important to you. So I’ll make time.”

Iona smiled. “Thanks, mom.”

“Anything for you, kiddo.” Xena reached over and placed a kiss on her forehead. “We’ll go out for a ride this week sometime, okay? So no one can bother me with stupid questions about… oh… national security and trivial matters like that.”

Iona chuckled. “Cool. I’d like that.”

“It’s a date then.” Xena winked at her, then rose back to her feet. “And talking about dates… I’m supposed to be at the theatre in an hour.”

“Gabrielle headed for the forest,” Iona easily supplied. “Not exactly sure where she went. You can’t really follow, Gabrielle.”

Blue eyes twinkled. “Watch me.”

It was in fact hard to follow Gabrielle, but not impossible. Xena followed the faint footprints and other small clues like snapped branches for a while, but soon enough realized where Gabrielle was heading. It was a clearing, which made a good practice area. Bad thing was, the warrior only went there when she was pissed off about something. So Xena was quite sure she was heading for a heap of trouble.

She wasn’t sure what she’d done though. She’d hardly spoken to Gabrielle since Cleopatra had arrived. So there’s not a lot she could have said wrong. Then again, maybe that was the problem. Maybe she hadn’t paid enough attention to Gabrielle… But then, Gabrielle hadn’t bothered to come see her either. But maybe she hadn’t come over to make a point….

Xena rolled her eyes in frustration. Relationships were very complex things.

A rapid tapping of wood on wood could now be heard. Moments later Xena stopped at the edge of the clearing, leaning against a tree. Gabrielle performed a perfect back flip, then slammed the edge of her staff against the bark of a tree, turned and jabbed the other end into the tree behind her. The warrior was barely visible in the dark, since she was dressed completely in black. The fabric was thoroughly soaked, and was clinging to her skin.

Xena straightened up, the mud softly squishing under her boots. It was the smallest of sounds, but Gabrielle acted instantly. She hopped up, hooking her staff between two branches and using it to pull herself into the tree. Within seconds she was hidden from sight.

Xena shook her head a little in bemusement, then moved forward and into the clearing. “So,” She said as she stopped under the tree and peered up into the foliage. “What’s a pretty girl like you doing in a mud hole like this?”

There was a moment of silence, then the leaves ruffled as Gabrielle hopped back down again, landing neatly on the muddy ground. She straightened slowly, her head slightly bent. Shadows were cast over her eyes.

Xena considered her options for a moment. This situation probably required a tactful approach. Unfortunately, after a day of tiptoeing around, she was fresh out of tact. So she went with straightforwardness instead. “What’s up with you?”

“Nothing,” was the grumbled response.

“Riiight,” Xena drawled, crossing her arms. “You’re standing here in the pouring rain, in the cold and you’re beating yourself up because everything is just peachy then?”

“There’s nothing wrong. I just felt like being alone,” was the pointed reply.

Xena laughed softly. “I see.” She circled the other woman. “Well, I’d love to leave you here in your solitude, but… unfortunately we have a theatre full of people to go to.” She glanced at Gabrielle’s soaked attire. “I mean, I think you look gorgeous in this, but for tonight you’ll probably need to wear something more presentable.”

“I don’t feel like going,” Gabrielle stated, then she kicked back at the tree behind her, causing her staff to free from its branches. She caught it then turned her back to Xena, going back to her exercises. “You should take Cleopatra. I bet she’d just love to go with you.”

The Empress frowned. “Why on earth would I want to take Cleo?”

“She’s presentable, for one,” was the grumbled response.

Xena blinked at her a few times, then tossed up her hands. “Okay, that’s it. I don’t know what your problem is, but I had a crappy day, loaded with heavy conversations and sensitive chats and I’m done with those for today. Now, we had a date. Which means I am going to this theatre with you and no one else.” Xena spun around and started back for the palace. “I leave in half a candlemark. Either you’re there and we go together. Or you’re not, and then I’ll go alone.”

Gabrielle closed her eyes, listened to the footsteps receding. Then she angrily slammed her staff against the nearest tree. With a croaking of wood her weapon broke in the middle, sending splinters flying in all directions.

Xena paced along the bottom of the stairs, then glanced up for the fifteenth time. No Gabrielle. The Empress grimaced and continued her pacing.

“You look like a wild cat in captivity,” Odilon drawled lazily as he strolled closer. “A well dressed cat,” he added with a appreciative look for her black dress, “but a cat nevertheless.”

“You could have compared me with a hippo in tutu, so I’ll take that as a compliment.” Xena muttered, glancing up the stairs again.

Odilon chuckled. “Oh, nifty imagery there.” He tried to suppress a laugh, but failed. “Sorry, trying to picture you in a tutu now. Bad idea. I apologize in advance if I start laughing hysterically halfway through the show.”

“I’d rather you didn’t. It’s quite an important thing, this.”

“Important enough for your peasant to bail on you, hmm?” Cleopatra’s voice drifted up from across the hall. The Egyptian Regent entered, dressed in lavish, glittering, golden robes, a muscled, half naked soldier on either side of her.

Xena shot her an annoyed look, not stopping her pacing.

Cleopatra shot her a charming smile in return. “I am sorry, Xena. You indicated you did not wish for this discussion anymore. Old habits die hard, I’m afraid. Far harder than young loves.”

Odilon suppressed an amused grin, then bowed politely to the Egyptian. “You look radiant.”

“I try,” Cleopatra drawled. “And succeed, generally.”

“I cannot remember a time when you were not the epiphany of beauty.”

“She got dragged across the garden by a pig once,” Xena commented absently. “You should have seen her then.”

Dark eyes narrowed to slits, and she was just about to snipe back, when Odilon smoothly intervened. “So… I believe our carriage is waiting?” He turned to the Empress, folding his hands behind his back. “Xena?”

Xena glanced at him, then darted another look up the stairs. She turned back to him and was just about to suggest they leave, when she realised this time the stairs had not been empty. Hastily she turned back.

Gabrielle slowly descended down the stairs, somewhat uncomfortably trying to keep from tripping over her own dress. The dress was a deep sea green, almost a perfect match to the warrior’s eyes. Her hair was loose and still slightly wet from a hasty shower.

Xena watched her a few moments, then allowed a smile to spread across her face. She quickly took a few steps closer to the bottom of the stairs, holding out a hand to help the warrior down the last few steps.

Gabrielle stopped, exhaled and then glanced up, somewhat insecurely. “Hi.”

“Hey,” Xena smiled at her.

The warrior smiled back at her, then leaned a little closer. “Dresses are a pain. Getting dressed takes a lot longer and they get in the way all the time. Took me forever.”

“True,” The Empress agreed easily, “But it’s worth the effort. You look gorgeous.”

The warrior unexpectedly blushed. “Thanks. So do you.” She reached over and tentatively fingered the fine material.

A hand covered hers then and long fingers gently wrapped around her palm. It was a touch she’d been deprived of for nearly two days and she realised how much she’d missed that simple contact. She instantly entangled her fingers with Xena’s, moving a little closer. “Shall we?” She heard Xena’s voice asking her in a burr. “Let’s,” was her simple response.

They started towards the great doors, passing Odilon and Cleopatra along the way. Gabrielle looked up at them as they passed and darted them both a polite smile, taking in the Egyptian’s furious dark gaze with a profound sense of victory.

A whip cracked and the carriage started rolling with the soft sound of pebbles crunching. Xena smoothed the silk fabric over her knee, then looked up at the woman sitting beside her. Gabrielle was staring down at her fingers, which were folding and unfolding. She looked up when she realised she was being watched, then looked down again. “I uhm…” She cleared her throat. “I’m not very good at this…”

“You get used to the public displays. Dresses and everything,” Xena responded. “Didn’t like it much myself at first, but… If you try, you’ll always find something worth enjoying.”

“I didn’t…,” Gabrielle interrupted her, pausing a moment before continuing. “I’m not good at that either, but…. That’s not what I meant. I meant…” She looked up, meeting blue eyes. “I’m sorry. For being such a pain.”

Xena chuckled softly. “Ah, but how sweet a pain,” she spoke in a dramatic, theatrical voice, making Gabrielle smile. She reached over and took the warrior’s hand, pulling it closer. “Don’t worry ‘bout it. I’m used to a little suffering.” She paused a moment, then spoke up again. “Was this… just about Cleo?”

Gabrielle cocked her head a little, considering the question seriously. “No,” she finally responded. “But… she… definitely fuelled the fire.”

“Did…” The Empress looked somewhat insecure. “Did I do anything to….?”

“No,” Gabrielle instantly cut her off. “No, it was…” A wry smile. “Jealousy shapes faults that are not. It was…. Just me being stupid.” She folded her fingers around Xena’s. “I guess I’ve gotten used to having you all to myself. And now there’s Cleo screaming for your attention. And there’s Odilon, who seems convinced I’m plotting against you.”

She stopped as she felt a gentle touch against her cheek and looked up, to find Xena gazing back at her. “You have me,” the Empress told her bluntly. “Screw them. If you want me, you just say so, and you’ve got me. Okay?”

“Okay,” Gabrielle responded softly.

“Good.” Xena absently twirled a lock of blond hair around her finger. “So uhm…. We did the sensitive chat now, yeah?”

Gabrielle repressed a smile. “Yeah. I think so.”

Blue eyes twinkled at her. “So… Do I get to kiss you now?”

Gabrielle laughed softly. “You’re not very subtle, are you?” she scolded before leaning closer and capturing the Empress’s lips.

It was meant as a casual thing, really, but Xena’s hand slid around her waist and pulled her closer. She closed her eyes and felt her heartbeat pick up, as the kiss deepened.

At that moment though the carriage began to slow down. Faintly she could hear the droning of a multitude of voices waiting outside the theatre. Regretfully, they parted. “Damn.” Gabrielle peeked up at the Empress. “Would it look really silly if we asked the driver to just ride past and circle around the town a few times first?”

Xena chuckled. “I think it probably would, yeah.”

“Damn,” Gabrielle repeated again, but then moved away a little further with a sigh.

Xena lifted up her hand and pressed a kiss against her palm. “Later.”

“Promise?”

“Oh yeah,” the Empress drawled. She gently squeezed the hand she was holding. “Come on, let’s face the music.”

“I guess we have to,” Gabrielle agreed as the door swayed open.

The loud sounds of trumpets and people yelling bombarded her sensitive hearing. Gabrielle instinctively drew back, but Xena’s hand was still wrapped around hers, so she was pulled forward again. There was a light trickle of rain still, but it was soon blocked as two servants flanked them, both holding large umbrellas above their heads.

People had swarmed to the theatre. The way up to the steps of the theatre was being kept clear by fences and soldiers. Gabrielle let her eyes slide over the masses. There was a mixed response to their arrival. Some people were cheering, waving at them. Others were eyeing them warily or were whispering among themselves. Gabrielle could feel the eyes on her, as she had felt them at the market. She felt uneasy.

A glance at Xena showed the Empress’s face a mask. Blue eyes scanned the crowds, as hers had moments before. Scanning for threats. When she was sure there was nothing serious to worry about, she darted a look at the young man holding the umbrella beside her. “Nasty weather, eh?”

The boy smiled back at her shyly. “Tis, Empress.”

They neared the first row of soldiers, who snapped to attention as she passed. Behind them the next carriage pulled to a halt. From the corner of her eye, Gabrielle saw Cleopatra exiting. She frowned as the Egyptian was flanked by one of her slaves. Odilon was nowhere to be seen.

The doors to the theatre swayed open and they stepped inside. They entered a large hall, the floor a deep black marble. The hall was filled with people. The noise was less than it was outside, but still, it was far from quiet.

“Empress!” A white haired, chubby man in a white toga headed for them, grabbing Xena’s hand and shaking it enthusiastically.

“Varinius,” Xena responded politely, though Gabrielle could see her smile was fake. “Haven’t seen you in a while. How’s business treating you?”

“As well as you are, my Queen,” the nobleman said, smiling broadly, before turning his hungry eyes to Gabrielle. “Ah, and this must be the woman whom the entire kingdom is whispering about then.” He bowed, took her hand and pressed it to his lips with a sloppy kiss. “You are as beautiful as the rumours say.”

“Uhm,” Gabrielle shot him a smile not quite devoid of disgust as she tried to, subtly, wiped her hand clean again. “Thanks.”

Xena suppressed a grin. “Now, you keep those lips to yourself, Varinius. I don’t want you wooing her over, now.”

“I’m sure I could not, Empress,” Varinius drawled. “But, talking of wooing… I have some lovely items in from Chin. And some tapestries from Persia too, would look wonderful in your hallway.”

The Empress wagged a finger at him. “Now, Varinius… You know my rule, don’t you? No business on a night of pleasure.”

“Apologies, my Liege. It is just that these items are so finely made, I would not want to waste them on anyone less refined than you.”

Xena rolled her eyes. “Come see me tomorrow,” she allowed, waving off the repeated thanks and bowing from the robed man.

Gabrielle watched him as he disappeared in the crowds again. “What a horrible man.” She whispered under her breath

Xena chuckled. “He’s Roman. Good trader though. He gets around, I can pry his brain for information at times. Cheap spy, of sorts.”

“Talking of spies…. Where did Odilon go? I didn’t…”

“Shh,” Xena shushed her. “Don’t mention his name.” Blue eyes scanned the room. “He’s looking around. There are things to be heard at gatherings like this.”

Gabrielle shook her head a little, amused. She leaned a little closer to Xena. “I thought your rule was no business?”

“Rules are made to be broken,” Xena drawled, hastily adding. “Just by me, that is.”

“Of course,” Gabrielle drawled, then her eyes drifted back to the crowd, searching as Xena shook some more hands with people she apparently knew.

She spotted Odell, standing on the far side off the room, talking with several older men. Theron was introducing his wife to Mentius. She couldn’t spot Megan anywhere.

“Who are you looking for?”

Gabrielle glanced up at Xena. “Thalia. She was very excited about coming.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Apparently she found a date. Some guy she met in a pub last night.”

“Guys in pubs…” Xena frowned. “She does realise those are usually not the nicest of dates, right?”

The warrior chuckled. “You never know… Diamonds in the rough and all…” her eyes caught a glimpse of curly red hair then. “Ah, there she is.” She headed for Thalia, dragging a willing Xena along behind her. “Hey!”

“Hey!” Thalia greeted her enthusiastically. “Wow, you look nice.”

“Thanks, so do you,” Gabrielle smiled at her. “So… Where is he?”

“He’s getting us some drinks.”

“What did I say? Men from pubs…” Xena hummed under her breath. Receiving a poke from Gabrielle in response.

“Just…” Thalia leaned a little closer. “Don’t freak him out, okay? With the warrior stuff and the ruling of the world and all.”

Gabrielle seemed amused. “You really like this guy, huh?”

Thalia shrugged carelessly, but blushed a little. “He’s nice. And he’s not a basket weaver. He’s a trader.”

“He’s not called Varinius, is he?” Xena inquired innocently, for which she was rewarded with another poke.

“No, he’s…” Thalia then apparently spotted her date coming closer. “Oh, there he is. Now remember, be nice.”

Gabrielle looked up, trying to spot a potential date for her friend. Finally her eyes settled on a young man, about her age, carrying two glasses of wine. His hair was dark and reached down to his shoulders. He was quite handsome.

“Hi,” Thalia smiled at him, as he handed her her drink. “Here, let me introduce…”

“Xena.”

Gabrielle frowned, as Thalia’s date spoke Xena’s name, with a mixture of fear and… something else…She turned to the Empress. “Xena, do you…?”

She stopped then as she saw Xena’s face, the blue eyes blazing with anger. “I thought I told you to never show your face here again!” The Empress hissed at him.

The young man lifted both his hands in defence, taking a step back. “I didn’t know… I mean, I was just…”

“Get out!” Xena narrowed her eyes at him. “Get out, now!”

The man stared at her for a moment, then spun around and stalked off.

“But…” Thalia stared after him for a moment, then turned back to Xena. “What the Hades was that!”

Xena’s eyes followed the young man as he left the theatre, then she looked down at Thalia. “That was my brother.”

Xena took the last steps up to the balcony, finding two seats waiting there for them. She sagged down in the first seat. Gabrielle followed behind, carefully circling the other seat and sitting down beside her. Xena had been quiet since her fall out with Thalia’s date and was now staring ahead of her with a pensive look on her face.

Gabrielle drummed her fingers on her knee, questioning what was the best course of action, then settled on one. “What did he do?”

Blue eyes turned to look at her. Xena seemed hesitant for a moment, then reached over and took her hand. “Do you really want to ruin what is left of tonight talking about my brother?”

“It’s obviously important.”

“It’s past,” Xena murmured, facing forward again as the curtains were pulled open.

The sound of music drifted up as a young man appeared on the stage, playing a flute. A young woman appeared from the other end of the stage and they ended up in the centre together, circling each other.

Gabrielle studied the woman sitting beside her. She seemed calm, outwardly, but Gabrielle could see the small twitches, the dark clouds behind those blue irises. They’d stumbled on something deep here. Unchartered waters.

She hesitated a moment, then carefully leaned closer, dropping her voice. “I know why Odilon doesn’t like me.”

The Empress frowned, then turned to her.

“He knows things. Things I did. In Chin.” A breath. “The present is rooted in the past, Xena. They’re connected. We want to pretend they’re not, so we don’t have to justify ourselves. Us. So we can just start over. But there’s always going to be something to remind us…”

Xena turned to her fully, ignoring the play unfolding below them. She laid her hand against the blonde’s cheek, the tips of her fingers entangling themselves in her hair. “Nothing you did before can change our now. Nothing.”

“Right back atcha,” Gabrielle murmured.

Xena smiled. She paused a moment, then spoke up again, a touch insecurely. “I’ll tell you about my brother.” She darted a glance at the stage. “After. Okay?”

Gabrielle nodded. “After,” she agreed softly, shuffling a little closer and laying her cheek against the Empress’s shoulder.

Xena released a breath, then wrapped her arm around the blonde’s shoulders. They both turned their attention back to the play, watching as Orpheus wept for the dying Eurydice.

“Are you ready?”

Iona jumped up as Athena appeared in her room. “They’ve been gone for candle marks. What kept you?”

Athena crossed her arms and looked at her sternly. “I’m a busy goddess, you know? I have things to do.”

Iona looked sceptical. “Like what?”

“Like look after the rest of the world.”

A shake of the girl’s head. “Mom does that.”

“Does your mother make the sun shine? Or make it rain?”

“We’ve got lamps. And mom developed this irrigation system, where even in area’s that it doesn’t rain…”

“Yes, yes, yes…” Athena waved her off. “Fine, I’m just late then.”

“Then just say so,” Iona scolded her, then let the subject go just as easily. “So where are we going? Gall? The Norseland?

“Your backyard.”

Blue eyes stared at her disbelievingly. “What?”

“We’re just gonna work on your powers. You don’t need pretty scenery for that.” Athena told her, then laid a hand on her shoulder and snapped her fingers.

The next moment they were standing in the woods, next to the lake. Iona took the few steps over the water’s edge, looking down to see her face reflected in the dark pool. “Can I do that? Teleport to any place I like, I mean?”

Athena halted next to her, looking down at her reflection as well, pensively. “I’m not sure what the extent of your powers is exactly,” the goddess replied thoughtfully. “It’s not something that can be measured, just like that. The powers you have are often linked to the one who wields them.”

Iona cocked her head. “How so?”

“Well,” Athena strolled off again, folding her hands behind her back as she walked over to a tree stump. “For one, you have to know you have them. Look at yourself. For years, you had no idea of what you could do. So, you never used your powers. They don’t just present themselves. You have to make them happen.”

“Make them happen? Will them, you mean?”

“Exactly,” Athena nodded as she picked a stick up from the ground. She placed it on top of the tree stump, balancing it carefully.

Iona considered this. “Gabrielle says she has to clear her head. Make it empty from any wanting. And then she can do things. Move things.”

Athena smiled. “Gabrielle is a very smart young woman.” She said, as she walked over to Iona, kneeling at her side. “But she is a mortal. And you are, partly, divine. The power you have is very different from the one she has. And therefore it has to be controlled in a different way.” She pointed at the stick. “Try to tip it over.”

“Okay,” Iona nodded determinedly. She closed her eyes, drew in a breath and then released it again slowly. Then she looked up and opened her eyes again, staring intently at the stick.

After nearly a minute of intense staring Iona tossed up her hands in defeat. She kicked at the leaves around her in anger. “This is stupid.”

Athena smothered a grin. “You’re starting to sound like your father.”

Iona shot her a foul look.

Athena wasn’t impressed though. “Come here for a moment. Calm down and think. It’ll get you much further than yelling at thin air.”

The girl reluctantly walked closer. “I don’t see what I’m doing wrong. I really wanted it to move, I really did.”

“I could see that.” The Goddess folded her hands together. “Think back. There was only one time that you managed to move things, wasn’t there?”

“Yes,” Iona looked at her feet. “That time with mom and Gabrielle. In the agora.” She hugged herself, clearly unhappy with the subject. “I don’t like talking about that.”

“Why not?” The goddess pressed on, gently.

“Because…” Iona searched for the right words. “Because I was scared. That she’d die. And I was hurt. And angry, that she lied to me.”

Athena leaned closer, tapping the young girl on the nose. “Exactly.”

Iona peeked up at her, thoughtfully. Then an idea occurred to her. “You mean… You mean I was emotional.”

A nod.

“But I’m not now. I mean, I’m frustrated, but not… Not really angry or sad or anything really strong like that.”

“I knew you were a bright kid,” Athena winked at her encouragingly. “Try it again. But think of something now that makes you feel very angry. Or very sad.”

Iona turned back to the stick, still balancing in the distance. She closed her eyes again. But this time, she didn’t visualize the stick, or it falling over. She thought about that time in the agora. She thought about when Pyrron came to her room to tell her Ismene had died. And she thought about Pyrron, about the look on his face when he’d died.

With a clattering of wood, the stick fell onto the stump, then rolled on and thumped onto the ground. Path of Thorns – Part IV

Xena stood and applauded as the actors bowed. Though she wasn’t much for the arts herself, she recognized talent when she saw it. And these young people had captured their audience, even though they’d had little time to practice.

“That was beautiful,” Gabrielle commented next to her. “You know, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice was always one of my favourites.”

“It’s sad.”

“That’s why it’s so good,” the warrior told her. “It’s got tension. Drama. People really feel for Orpheus. Trying so hard and failing. People recognize that.”

“Is that so?”

A nod. “I can remember the look on people’s faces. I told it once or twice. Before.”

“Tell it to me again sometime?” Xena asked, as she pulled back the curtain separating their balcony from the hallway, allowing Gabrielle to pass before her. “I bet I’d enjoy it even more if you told it.”

Gabrielle snorted softly. “I doubt that.”

“I don’t,” the Empress responded easily, then took her hand. “Okay, let’s talk strategy.”

Green eyes blinked at her? “Strategy?”

“Yes. Our aim is to get though the mob of people who really want to talk to us as fast as possible, but in such a way that they don’t get boiling mad at me.”

“Okay.”

“Here’s what you do.” Xena went on, businesslike. “You smile, you wave back at people who wave at you. If anyone asks to see you, you say ‘I’m sure we can arrange something, send me a formal request by mail’ and they’ll either forget to send one or we’ll forget we ever received it. And whatever you do, don’t stop. They’ll crowd you in. Keep walking.”

“Uuuhm, right…” Gabrielle managed to say, before they turned a last corner and entered the main hall.

The noise of applause and people yelling for Xena was overwhelming. Gabrielle almost had to shield her sensitive ears from the noise.

“Did you like the play, Empress?” a voice yelled out.

“Loved it, Victor,” Xena yelled back easily, somehow finding the person who’d asked the question in the masses and winking back at him. “I’d love to meet the actors later sometime, if you can arrange it.”

“You know I can arrange anything,” Victor responded, getting a laugh out of the people around him.

“Empress, Athens Daily.” A young woman shoved her way up the front. “It’s said this is the start of many reforms in the empire. Can you indicate what’s next on the agenda?”

“Next on my agenda is a nightcap and a nice fluffy bed,” The Empress grinned politely. “We’re still discussing other matters. But ask some of the council members present here tonight. Most of this was their idea, so it’s only right you give them the credit, not me.”

“Gabrielle!”

Gabrielle almost jumped as a voice shot up next to her ear. She looked to her left to see an older, bespectacled woman standing next to her, quill in hand. “Reporter for Helios. It has come to our attention there has been a breach between you and former resistance members.”

“Wh…” Gabrielle blinked at her. “What are you talking about?”

“You don’t deny it then.” The reporter made a note. “Is it true you and the Empress are sharing a bed?”

Gabrielle turned and faced the reporter. “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”

“The people have a right to know,” the reported replied calmly, jotting down more notes.

Green eyes looked at her in outrage. “The people can take their right and…”

“…do whatever they want with it,” Xena smoothly intervened, grabbing onto Gabrielle’s arm and pulling her along. “‘Cause I’ve been told my country is a free one, these days.” She tossed a look over her shoulder at the Helios’s reported. “I thank you for your interest in the people’s rights. It’s good to know someone else cares about that as much as I and Gabrielle here do.”

“What are you…?” Gabrielle hissed at her, but Xena cut her off again.

“Smile and wave, remember?” The Empress murmured under her breath, as they reached the doors of the theatre. They swung open, letting in a gust of fresh air that was welcomed by Gabrielle.

There was more yelling outside. Xena responded to some more comments, then opened the door to the waiting carriage. Gabrielle stepped inside, Xena followed and swung the door shut behind them. Immediately the carriage was set into motion, driving them away from the theatre and the noise.

“The nerve of that woman!” Gabrielle spat out.

Xena smirked. “Told you to keep walking.”

“What right has she got, prying into my personal life?”

“You’re the one who wanted free press.”

The warrior tossed up a hand in frustration. “To ask questions about what we’re doing for the empire. And what we’re not doing for the empire. Not about what I may or may not be doing in your bedroom. Why would anybody be interested in that?”

“Tension, drama,” Xena drawled. “People love a good story, remember?”

Gabrielle looked at her. She managed to keep a frown on her face for a few more moments, then a smirk cracked through. Xena started laughing and Gabrielle joined in. They ended up slumped together in the middle of the carriage, trying to catch their breath. “Gods,” Gabrielle sighed, holding onto her stomach. “I don’t ever wanna do that again.”

“I’m afraid that’s standard,” Xena murmured. “If you ever wanna go out with me again.”

“Which I do, obviously.” Gabrielle released a breath. “Damn me and my free press.”

“Ah, you’re starting to think like a dictator,” Xena chuckled. “I like it.”

“You were good in there though,” Gabrielle sat up a little. “How long have you been at this?”

The Empress shrugged a little. “The press thing is new, obviously. But these public displays… I guess since I was twenty or so.”

“You must hate this more than me then?”

Another shrug. “You get used to it.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

A faint smile. “Yeah, I don’t like it much either. It hurts my ears.”

“Mine too,” Gabrielle joined in. “And I don’t like small spaces much. The crowd made me wanna lash out.” She glanced up. “Thanks for saving me. I was about to say something stupid.”

This got her a full smile. “No problem.” A smirk. “This must rate high on your list of lousy dates though, huh?”

Gabrielle snorted softly. “You don’t know the extent of the lousiness of previous dates.”

“That bad?”

“I was betrothed to some village boy who bored me, I had a crush on Callisto for a while and I was in love with a woman who couldn’t love me back.”

“Ouch,” Xena winced. “Our relationship is beginning to look more sane by the second.”

A smile. “I don’t think love is supposed to be sane.”

Blue eyes gazed back into hers for a moment. “No,” Xena responded softly. “I don’t think it is either.”

They stared at each other a moment, then Gabrielle frowned as she cast a look out the window. “We’re not heading for the palace.”

Xena glanced out the window as well. “We’re not? Oh yeah, we’re not. I uhm… I asked the driver to take us someplace… quiet. You know, ‘cause we were going to have to… talk. ‘Bout stuff.”

“You asked the driver?”

A nod.

“When?” Gabrielle looked at her curiously. “You didn’t just now when we got in.”

“Well, no…” Xena scratched at her neck. “No, I… I asked before…”

“Before your brother came along?”

“Kinda.”

Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at her inquiringly.

“I just…” Xena scowled. “I just wanted to have some time with you. Just you. I figured that after our ‘perfect’ date I could take you someplace nice. But the perfect date sorta got washed off and… and, well I kinda forgot to tell the driver plans changed.”

“I’ll live,” Gabrielle smiled, thoroughly charmed. She shuffled a little closer, leaning against the Empress. “You know, you’re really good at this romantic stuff. First with the candles and the hot tub. And now this…”

“This? You mean the chaos and me forgetting to instruct the driver properly? That’s romantic?”

“Uhuh,” Gabrielle smiled happily. “Very.”

“Hmm,” Xena wrapped an arm around her. “Imagine that.” She gently ran her fingers through the blond locks. “You know, I’d really hate to ruin this talking about my brother. He’s not worth it.”

“If you’d rather not talk about it, you don’t have to.”

“No, it’s not that,” Xena hastily corrected. “I want to tell you, I just… I don’t wanna dwell on it too long. It’s not that big of a deal, really.”

“Okay,” Gabrielle said. “So what did he do then?”

“He tried to kill me.”

Gabrielle tipped her head back, looking up with wide eyes. “What?!”

Thalia let the door to the inn fall shut behind her. He hadn’t been there. Thalia ran a hand through her hair, trying to think of where else Toris could have gone, after he’d stormed out of the theatre. She finally decided on heading east on blind luck.

Xena’s brother. Thalia rolled her eyes at herself. She finally, finally found a guy she liked and he turned out to be Xena’s brother. She was cursed. She was sure of that now. This couldn’t be just a mere coincidence. There was no such thing as coincidence.

“Whoa!” The horse that had nearly crashed into her reared on his hind legs as he was pulled to a sudden halt. The cart the animal was pulling tipped back a little and some of the bags lying on top of it fell off. “Damn it,” Toris cursed as he jumped off. “Watch where you’re…!”

He stopped then as he caught sight of Thalia’s face. “Oh…. It’s you…”

Thalia swallowed, then straightened herself. “Where are you going?”

“You heard her highness,” Toris grumbled, as he tossed one of the bags back up on the wagon. “Out. Out of Athens.”

“Just like that?” Thalia took a step closer, sounding a little outraged. “You’re just gonna run off?”

“I’m not running!” Toris snapped at her. He paused a moment, then shook his head, turning from her and picking up another bag. “I’m just… I’m jut being sensible. You don’t pick a fight with Xena. I learned that the hard way.”

Thalia stopped next to the horse, absently patting the animal’s neck. “Are you…. Are you her brother?”

“Wish I weren’t.”

The redhead watched him, curiously. “What did she do?”

Blue eyes glanced up at her, then away again. “She killed our brother. And our mother.”

“There was this warlord. Cortese.”

“I remember that name,” Gabrielle murmured. “He came to Potedeia. Asked for half our crop for him and his army. I remember my dad was scared. His army was huge. We couldn’t really spare the food, we’d never make it through winter, dad said. We’d have no choice but to give it to him though, or he’d kill us. But… he never came back.”

“He made the bad mistake of going to Amfipolis first.”

Green eyes peered up at her. “You fought him? But… you couldn’t have been more than…”

“Sixteen,” Xena spared her from doing the calculus. “We had a lot of veterans living in Amfipolis. A lot of strong young men and women. I knew we stood a chance. Toris didn’t agree though. He said we had to run.”

“Sixteen…” Gabrielle murmured softly, still haven’t gotten over that fact.

“He ran. I stayed. So did my other brother Lyceus. And my mother.”

“It was the worst mistake they could ever make,” Toris stated. “She won, like she said she would, but… The price was high. Lots of young men lost their lives, including… including our brother.”

“Mom was broken. Lyceus was the youngest. Her baby. She cried, she yelled at me.” A sigh. “I couldn’t take it. There was too much… pain. Guilt. I made up some excuse about… About a buffer. A buffer around Amfipolis, so we wouldn’t get attacked anymore. I rallied my first army around me. And we left.”

“She just left mom. Just like that.” Toris shook his head. “I thought about going home. But I didn’t want to walk back in empty-handed. Cortese had made it out of the fight alive. So I decided I would go after him first.”

“Did you find him?” Thalia asked softly.

“Yes,” the young man muttered. “But not before Xena had gotten to him.” He leaned his back against the cart. “I’d failed. Again. I wandered around a bit after that. Thinking about what I should do now. I finally decided I needed to go home. I needed to help mother. So I went home and…”

“…she’d hung herself. She left a note, blaming me for the world’s woes,” Xena murmured, her eyes focused on a tiny fleck of light dancing across the bench across from them. “I thought I could just ride in there. That they’d welcome me. That I could make things right.” A soft snort. “What a fool I was.”

“There was nothing left. Nothing but ashes, when I finally found my way back. She’d burned it down. She’d burned down our home.” The hate was now evident in his voice. “I found the charred remains of our mother dangling from a beam in our inn. I buried her. Next to our brother. I slept next to her grave for days.”

“I’m so sorry,” Thalia managed, her voice thick with emotion.

“Not your fault,” Toris managed a wry smile for her. “It was hers. I realized that then. That everything that happened had been about her.”

“He walked into my camp about a fortnight later. He said I was the only family he had left now. That he felt guilty about mom.” Xena rolled her eyes. “A load of crap. And I bought it. I was hurt and I wanted…” A sigh. “I was grasping at straws. Everything was unstable at that time. And I wanted something solid. So I invited him in.”

“But…” Gabrielle frowned. “I just saw him for a moment there, but… He’s no warrior. How could he ever get close enough?”

“I don’t know,” Xena managed with a small smile. “I really don’t know. I just know that one moment I turned from him, and the next I had a dagger stuck in my side.”

“It should have killed her. I’m no fighter, but I know how a human body works and…” Toris shook his head. “If she’d been anyone but my sister, she would have died.”

“Instinct kicked in. I slammed him right through the tent. Next moment I remember, Pyrron is leaning over me and I’m lying on the ground.”

“How bad was it?” Gabrielle asked softly.

In response, Xena reached behind her and unbuttoned her dress far enough so she could reveal her side. Gabrielle gasped in a breath as she saw the huge scar running from her hip halfway up her torso.

“Yeah, nasty huh?” The Empress said with a wry smile. “Hurt like Tartarus too. I wouldn’t admit that though, obviously. I told Pyrron to wrap me up, washed the blood off, and then I walked outside.”

“You got up and walked outside?!” Gabrielle stared at her with wide eyes. “With a wound like that? Are you nuts?”

“Yes. Nuts and stubborn as a mule.” Xena gazed back at her. “I couldn’t let him win, Gabrielle. I couldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing he hurt me.”

“And then there she was.” Toris tossed up a hand. “She just walked out of there, as if nothing had happened.” A shake of his head. “She just smirked at me with that arrogant little smile of hers. Said she gave me every opportunity to kill her and I hadn’t even managed to do that . I was a failure. And I wasn’t worth killing. So she banished me.”

“And then you left?”

Toris nodded. “I wanted to get as far away as I could. Went to Jappa. That’s about as east as you can get. Took some stuff with me from Greece and made some good money selling it there. That’s how I got into trading. Traveling around was good. Made me harder to keep track of for her.”

“So…” Thalia took a step closer. “Why did you come here then? If you aren’t allowed to come back here.”

“I was on my way to Egypt. Gotta hand these to a salesman there I know,” he said, pointing at the bags on the back of his cart. “The ship I was sailing on had some trouble. Sail tore. We needed to stop over here. And I figured I’d take a chance.” A wry smile. “Tempting fate. Stupid, I know.”

“I didn’t think it was stupid at all.”

Toris glanced at the woman at his side, who was staring down at the ground. “No, you’re right. Wasn’t all bad.” He turned to her fully, laying his arms on her shoulders. “I really wish I could stay longer.”

Dark eyes peeked up at him. “But you can’t.”

Toris shook his head. “She said she’d kill me if I showed my face again. I’m not sure why she just let me go this time, but… Can’t risk it.” He moved a little closer. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make things more complicated for you.”

“I know,” Thalia muttered. “It’s just me. I’m cursed.”

“You’re not cursed. I am.” Toris countered. “I’m related to her after all. It’s probably better you find out now. Before…” A small shrug. “Well…”

Dark eyes gazed up at him. “Before… what?”

Toris’ eyes searched hers for a moment, then he leaned closer, gently kissing her. “Before that.” He murmured, as he pulled away.

“Oh, that,” Thalia swallowed. “Yeah, good thing we didn’t do that…”

Toris grinned, then sobered up again. “I’d better be going.” He took a step back from her, then pulled himself onto the cart, picking up the reigns. He glanced down at her a last time. “Bye.”

“Bye,” Thalia managed to get out as the cart started moving, soon after disappearing into the night.

“So, I laughed at him, exiled him, then I walked back into my tent and passed out.” Xena leaned her head back against the cushions. “Apparently I was out for several days. Pyrron told me later it was touch-and-go for a while.”

Gabrielle stared at her for several moments, then shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

A shrug. “Not a lot to understand. I got stabbed, I got better.”

“No,” Gabrielle argued. “It’s not that simple.”

“It’s not?”

Gabrielle looked down at her own fingers, which were twisting together and apart. “You’re smart.”

“Well, thank you.”

“You’re too smart,” Gabrielle went on. “If you were stupid enough to believe blatant lies and let someone with questionable motives get that close to you… You would have never gotten to where you are now.” Green eyes glanced back at her. “So why did you?”

Xena frowned, not sure where this discussion were going. Gabrielle’s eyes were unreadable, a mixture of sadness, anger and… disappointment? “I told you…”

“No.” Gabrielle shook her head. “He got that close, because you let him. And you must have known. You told me once you could spot an assassin. They had a look… Did he?”

Xena stared at her a moment, then turned away. “I don’t remember.”

“You remember everything.”

“I wasn’t feeling too swell at the moment!” Xena shot back.

“You let him in, BECAUSE you knew,” Gabrielle countered, her eyes fiery now. “You didn’t want to stop him. Did you?”

The Empress tossed up her hands. “Where is this coming from?”

“You know, I always wondered why you let me in so easily. Gave me all this freedom. I thought it was just play… boredom… But maybe it wasn’t.”

Xena was just about to respond when the carriage pulled to a halt. Xena looked outside, trying to make out where they were, then turned to look back at Gabrielle. But all she found was an empty seat and an open door. “Damn it.”

“Empress?” The driver was holding the door open for her.

Xena sighed, then stepped out herself. “Women are very complex creatures sometimes. Have you noticed that?”

“Never say that out loud, Mistress.” The driver closed the door behind her. “It will only make things worse.”

Xena managed a chuckle. “Ah, an experienced man you are, Andreas.” She glanced around her a moment, taking in her surroundings. It was dark, but the clouds had dissipated, partially and there was a full moon. It reflected off the seemingly endless stretch of water before her, rippling softly as waves gently sloshed between the rocks.

She spotted Gabrielle, a mere outline standing on an outcropping not too far off. She drew in a breath, closing her eyes as the salty sea smell entered her nostrils. Then she turned back to the driver. “Leave one of the horses here. We’ll find a way back on our own.”

“I could come back for you, Highness?”

“Nah,” Xena shook her head. “Don’t know how long this’ll take.” She waved a hand at him. “Go.”

The man inclined his head politely, then headed for the horses and started to unbuckle one of the leather strips.

Xena turned her back on him and headed forward. Her feet crunched softly on grains of sand and tiny shells scattered about. This place was slightly elevated above the water and as she headed for the edge she could look down and see small spurts of water shooting up from between the rocks, the foam clearly visible in the night.

A few more steps, then she stopped, a little behind where Gabrielle was standing. The warrior stood silently, her arms wrapped around herself, staring out over the water.

“I used to come here quite often,” Xena broke the silence. “After I moved to Athens, I needed a spot to reflect. Think about things. I couldn’t do that in the palace. There was constantly someone knocking at my door. Drove me nuts.” A pause. “So I came here. I stood just about where you’re standing. A little closer to the edge actually.”

Gabrielle didn’t speak, but just kept staring in front of her. Xena glanced at the still profile, watching her jaw moving, hearing the soft sound as she swallowed. The Empress closed her eyes, then spoke up again. “I did a lot of stuff I’m not proud of. And… And I’ll admit, there have been times that I toiled with the idea of… of ending it. I actually did more than toil. I could show you another nasty scar, on my stomach. Got all hari-kiri there for a moment. But I got over it.” Xena hesitated a moment, then stepped forward, circling around Gabrielle to come and stand before her. Gabrielle diverted her eyes. “You’re right. I didn’t make it this far by being stupid. I know that letting people get close to you, that’s dangerous. And I tried shutting everybody out for a while. But… I ended up caring for some people, in spite of myself. And then, when those people… disappeared from my life. I got lost a little.”

A moment, then green eyes peeked up at her. “What about me?

“You.” Xena repeated softly, with a small smile. “I care about you. I don’t think I even tried not to.”

“But what if Odilon is right?”

“He’s not.”

“How do you know?” the blonde countered, somewhat angrily now. “You let me get so close, right from the start. I could hurt you.”

“Yes, you could.” Xena easily allowed.

Green eyes searched hers seriously.

Xena shook her head a little. “You can’t have one thing without the other.”

“But… What if…” The blonde continued. “If I was pretending? If I was hiding stuff?”

Another smile. “We all hide stuff, Gabrielle.”

“I mean, serious stuff.”

“Like?”

“Like…” Gabrielle swallowed. “Like stuff I did. Before. In Chin.”

Xena cocked her head a little. “Could whatever you did change anything? Now?”

Gabrielle released a breath. “Odilon seems to think so.”

“Forget about Odilon. What do you think?”

The blonde looked up, meeting her eyes for a long moment. She hesitated. “I’m not sure.”

The Empress cocked her head a little, thinking. “Lemme rephrase that question. If I were to tell you something I did. Something bad. Could that change anything between us?”

“I know you did bad stuff, Xena. I knew that when we got involved.”

“And you think I didn’t?” the other woman snorted softly. “You’re a warrior, Gabrielle. I know you weren’t picking daisies all the way back to Greece. You fight. And… when you fight somewhere along the line something can go wrong.”

Gabrielle stared at her another moment, then looked down, her fingers fumbling with the edge of her tunic. “Did… Did you ever go back to Chin? After Lao Ma?”

“Sure,” Xena replied. “To conquer it, obviously. And then a few more times. Last time was… 8 months ago or so.”

“Did you happen to pick up a local story? About The Shadow…”

“Yeah, I heard that,” Xena recalled. “A myth. A story to scare their kids with.”

A wry smile tugged at Gabrielle’s lips. “Yeah. Funny, really, isn’t it? Here in Greece, people see me as this… savoir. And there I am the thing that scares children.”

Xena blinked. “You? You’re The Shadow?” A nod. “Well…” She frowned. “So you did something that rates a myth and a scary nickname? Must have been big. Must have been something I’d have heard about. Must have happened in the last year…” She started puzzling the bits together, but Gabrielle decided to just supply her with the answer. “Did any of the Chinese officials ever inform you about something that happened in Huong?”

“The massacre of Huong?” A shake of the dark head. “I didn’t hear about that through any officials. Through the army. I had a large force stationed there. One of my best generals. Palaemon.”

Gabrielle drew in a breath. “Was he the one with the scar?”

Blue eyes met hers. “Yes.”

The blonde nodded a little. “He was very good. He was one of the first ones I killed.” She diverted her eyes, looking out over the ocean. “That’s why I remember him. Because he was one of the first. After that… There were so many. I wasn’t really prepared. I just…. Went on automatic.”

There was a deafening silence behind her. Then a short question. “Why?”

Gabrielle shrugged, an almost hopeless gesture. “I was mad. And grieving. I…. I wanted someone to hurt… more than me.” She swallowed, trying to get the lump out of her throat. “I… I don’t remember any of the villagers dying. Just… at a certain moment I heard his outcry. And I snapped out of the haze I was in and…. And I saw… All the blood and… And then I just ran. Into the forest. And then I threw up. Repeatedly.” She shook her head a little. “I couldn’t cry though. I remember being so frustrated I couldn’t cry.” She turned around, facing Xena. “I mean… That’s something you ought to cry about, right? If… If you were normal?”

Xena gazed at her, hesitantly it seemed. “It was you? Alone?”

A faint nod.

“I had a legion stationed there.”

Another shrug. “I don’t remember.”

For a moment Xena hesitated, torn between the memory of Palaemon and the pain she could feel emanating from the woman before her. Paleamon hadn’t been a friend, exactly, but he’d fought with her in many battles and she’d trusted him to some extent. He had been loyal and pleasant company. A good man.

>From the past she focused back on the present, on the blond woman standing in front of her. She should be mad, maybe. Put some distance between them. Think things over. Maybe….

But then green eyes looked up at her, a barely veiled look of hopelessness in the green irises. And all thoughts of distance would have flown out the window, if there had been a window to fly out of.

Xena leaned forward, placing a kiss on the blonde’s forehead. Gabrielle let her head fall forward and it came to lean against Xena’s shoulder. The Empress responded by wrapping an arm around the blonde. She felt a sob shake the warrior’s body. “We cry too, Gabrielle,” She murmured, running a hand through the blond locks. “Us warrior oddballs. Sometimes… Sometimes it just takes a few years.”

Gabrielle tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress another sob. Xena just wrapped her arms around her more tightly, pillowing her head on top of the blonde’s.

They stayed like that, until Gabrielle’s tears finally ran out. The warrior wiped an arm at her eyes. “Sorry.”

“No apologies.” Xena told her. “I pride myself on having a good shoulder to lean against.”

“You do,” the warrior murmured, leaning forward and pressing a feather light kiss against the shoulder in question. She then tilted her head up, looking up at the Empress. “So… Was Odilon wrong? About this… creating a distance between us?”

Xena smiled at her, reaching up and twirling a lock of blond hair between her fingers. “What distance?”

Gabrielle laughed softly, finding Xena’s hand and winding her fingers around it. “No matter what anyone else says… I’m really glad we happened.” A breath. “You make me happy. For a while, I didn’t think I deserved to be happy again.”

“You deserve to be happy.” Xena instantly countered. “Being miserable gets you nowhere.”

“I just…” A sigh. “I feel like I have to make amends. Pay for what I did.”

“Getting crucified twice isn’t enough, huh?”

The warrior shot her a look. “That’s different.”

Xena absently let her hands run over the warrior’s shoulders. “There’s still friends and family around of the soldiers who died there. Or I… I could arrange a trip to Chin, sometime soon. There’s not a lot left to see there, though.”

Gabrielle drew in a breath and released it again. “I’ll have to think about it.”

“Take all the time you need.”

Gabrielle managed a smile. “Thank you. For understanding. And for not being mad I ruined this otherwise lovely evening.”

Xena waved her off. “You didn’t ruin anything.”

“You take me to this beautiful place and all I do is get mad at you and then sob all over your dress.” She absently rubbed a bit of the black fabric between her fingertips. “What did you have planned here, anyway?”

“Planned?” The Empress inquired, innocently. “What makes you think I had anything planned?”

The blonde rolled her eyes. “You always have something planned.”

Xena chuckled. She bit her lip, clearly hesitating for a moment, then she took Gabrielle’s hand in hers and turned. “ Come with me.”

They walked along the cliffs, away from the road. Gabrielle now finally allowed herself to enjoy in the beauty of the place. The sea was calm and the rushing sound of the waves was soothing. She’d always liked the sea, the endlessness of it. When she’d just come to Athens she’d written many poems about it. Just childish things, not any good.

Xena stopped then. Gabrielle looked around. This spot seemed no more remarkable then the one they’d been at before. Xena led her to the edge of the cliff and peered down. Gabrielle did so as well. It was a steep drop down to the waves, which were smashing up against the rock face. “Wait here,” Xena instructed, letting go of her hand. She peeked down one more time, then put another foot forward and fell off the cliff.

“ Xena!” Gabrielle eyes widened, and she ran to the edge of the cliff. She stared down at the waves, but saw nothing. “Xena!”

“Shh!” The Empress’s head suddenly appeared from the solid stone surface. “Don’t yell. I’m here.”

Gabrielle frowned, then dropped down to lay flat on her belly and peer somewhat farther over the edge. She could now see Xena was standing in some kind of small cave, struck in the rocks surface. “Zeus… You could have warned me about that!”

A smirky grin flashed back at her through the darkness. “And ruin the surprise?”

“How do I get down there?”

“Well, it’s kinda tough,” Xena admitted. “There’s this small ledge halfway and you have to sorta…”

“Ah, I see,” Gabrielle interrupted her, hopping back to her feet. She jumped, turning in the air, then reached out, grabbed onto the ledge and used it to shift her momentum and swing into the cave. She added a little flip for good measure, then landed solidly next to Xena.

Xena rolled her eyes. “Yeah. Like that.” She muttered, before turning and walking somewhat deeper into the cave.

Gabrielle turned to look out over the water again. The cave was about halfway up the cliff so she was much closer to the water now. The sound of the waves was much stronger here and the occasional drop of water splashed against her bare arms. There was a large pillar standing a little way out into the water and the waves crashed up against it, sending white foam flying right up in front of her. It was gorgeous in a simple, primal way.

Light suddenly came from behind her and she turned around. Xena had lit a first candle and her dark form was now dimly outlined in the gentle light. A smile crept onto Gabrielle’s face as she watched the dark outline gracefully move through the shadows and light another candle.

How much had changed in so little time. Only two months ago, she had hated Xena with a passion and now… Gods, she was gorgeous. She’d realised that back then as well, obviously, but now the thought was accompanied by this warm glow inside her belly and these small emotions tugging at her heart.

Xena lit a third candle and the combined light now actually managed to illuminate the cave a little, showing Gabrielle that the place was actually sparsely decorated. There was a blanket and some cushions lying on the floor to sit on, there was a small table and on top of it sat a bottle of what appeared to be red wine.

Xena turned and faced her, spreading her arms out. “So… This was the plan. You, me, a bottle of wine, the sea, the moonlight…” She watched Gabrielle as she made her way further into the cave, towards her. “Nothing too fancy.”

Gabrielle stopped in front of her, reaching out a hand and touching the Empress’s side, her fingers sliding over the soft fabric. “Have I told you how beautiful you look?”

Xena seemed a little taken aback. “Uhm… Yeah… At the start of the evening.”

“Hmm, so I just told you once?” Gabrielle murmured. “How silly of me.” She moved a little closer still, tilting her head back to look up at the Empress. “You are beautiful.” She shot a glance at the cave. “And this… This is beautiful. When did you do this?”

“Last night,” was the soft response.

“You drove all the way out here just to lay out some candles and cushions?”

A small shrug.

Gabrielle laughed softly. “What am I going to do with you?”

Xena smiled back at her. “You could start by having a drink with me?”

“That would be a good start.”

Gabrielle walked over to the pile of cushions and sat down, leaning back and looking outside, out over the water. She closed her eyes for a moment, just listening to the sound of the waves. A sound, which was only interrupted for a moment by a soft pop as Xena uncorked the bottle of wine.

When she opened her eyes Xena was settling down beside her, holding out a glass to her. “Thanks,” she said, as the Empress gracefully settled down beside her. She took a sip, letting the warm red liquid roll around in her mouth before swallowing. “Hmm. Nice.” She twirled the stem of the glass between her fingers. “To think I almost missed out on this.”

“Wouldn’t have let you,” Xena responded, leisurely stretching out. “Didn’t drag all these pillows out here for nothing. You have no idea what a hassle it was getting them all down here.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “Well, know it’s appreciated.” She said, turning her head and looking down at the woman lying next to her. Xena looked up, blue eyes twinkling. It was enchanting and Gabrielle found herself unable to look away.

“Gabrielle?”

She only barely heard the question, and responded with a faint “Hmm?”

“Have I told you how beautiful you look?”

A smile tugged at her lips. “Yes. At the start of the evening.”

Xena reached out, stroking her cheek. “So I just told you once?” She murmured. “How silly of me.”

The kiss was soft, soothing and passionate at the same time. Gabrielle hardly even noticed as the glass of wine was taken from her hands. She slid her hands up the Empress’s sides, wanting the contact. “You are beautiful,” Xena whispered in her ear, before she claimed her lips for another kiss and words became completely irrelevant.

With a flash of light Athena and Iona appeared in Iona’s room.

“That is so cool!” Iona said, her eyes wide with enthusiasm. “So could you teach me to do that too? That would be so handy.”

Athena chuckled softly. “All in good time.” She knelt down next to the girl, patting her on the cheek. “You did good today. I’m very impressed.”

“You are?” Iona smiled broadly.

“Yes,” Athena nodded. “I can see you have a lot of power, for a demi-god.” The goddess seemed a little surprised by this herself. “But that probably has to do with your father being who he was. And maybe even with your mother being who she is.” She spared this another moment of thought, then rose back to her feet. “Now, it’s late. You have to go to sleep if you want to be up on time for school tomorrow.”

Iona made a face, but Athena wagged a finger at her. “None of that. And remember to practice what we learned today.”

“When will I see you again?”

Athena considered the question. “I’m afraid I will be busy for the next few days with… other matters. But at the start of next week, I hope.” She smiled down at the girl. “Don’t worry. I’ll be in touch.”

“Great,” Iona reached out, impulsively hugging the goddess. “Thanks. For helping me today. I feel a lot better now.”

Athena somewhat awkwardly patted her on the head. “You’re very welcome.” She took a step back. “I will see you soon.” She said, then vanished with another flash of light.

Iona let out a happy breath. “Excellent.” She murmured happily, letting herself fall back onto her bed. She lifted her feet, staring hard at her boots. Moments later they thumped onto the floor next to her bed. “Totally excellent.”

Xena allowed herself to drift in the pleasant haze for another moment, before regretfully lifting her head and taking a peek outside. She spotted some of the stars and constellations, judging the time. She grimaced unhappily. “Bah.” A light kiss was pressed against her collarbone. Xena smiled, lifting a hand and lazily tracing a fingertip down Gabrielle’s bare back. “Did I wake you?”

“Wasn’t really asleep,” Gabrielle murmured, her eyes still closed. “Just…. lingering…”

“Hmm… Yeah…” The Empress pillowed her cheek on top of the blond hair. “I’m afraid we have to get up though. It’s an hour’s ride back.”

The warrior exhaled unhappily, then with obvious effort managed to lift her head and rest her chin on Xena’s shoulder. “Do you think anyone would notice we’re missing if we just stayed here for… oh… a week or so?”

Xena chuckled softly. “I think your friends would be disappointed if they showed up for your birthday and you weren’t there.”

“They can wait a week,” Gabrielle countered instantly, her hands absently tracing patterns on the Empress’s stomach.

“The kids will be worried when they wake up this morning.”

Gabrielle released a breath, then regretfully pushed herself up a little. “All right.” She stole another kiss, before standing up completely. “Let’s get going then.” She started moving around the cave, picking up pieces of clothing here and there. As she came to the edge of the cave she peeked a look outside. “I’m afraid that shoe of yours is a goner. Sorry about that.”

She paused as she got no response, turning around and finding Xena hadn’t moved an inch and was just watching her with a dreamy expression. She placed her hands on her hips. “I thought we were getting up?”

The Empress grinned. “Sorry. Can’t help myself.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, then tossed one of the Empress’s garments at her, hitting the other woman square in the face.

Getting dressed took a little longer than normally. Xena had come prepared and had worn a light tunic under her dress. Gabrielle however was not so fortunate. “If you would have warned me I would have picked something more fitting to wear.” The warrior muttered as she impatiently riffled the fabric of the dress into place. “It’s gonna be tough climbing back up in this thing.”

“I could help you with that,” Xena supplied helpfully, pulling a small knife out of a strap around her ankle. “I’m known in haute couture circles for my minimalist design.”

“Nuhuh,” Gabrielle waved a finger at her. “You have no idea how long it took me to find a dress I liked. I’m not going to let you rip it to shreds.”

“Suit yourself,” Xena placed the knife back in its place, then rolled up her own dress and tied it around her waist. “You go first. That way I can catch you if you fall.”

Gabrielle snorted softly , then studied the rock wall above her, pinpointing a hold. She then leaped up and grabbed on with one hand, easily pulling herself up.

Xena shook her head a little, amused. She then turned, sparing a last look for the cave’s interior, before blowing out the last candle.

They found their horse grazing near the road. Xena walked over and started untangling the animal’s reins from the branch they were tied onto. Gabrielle meanwhile turned towards the ocean, gazing out over the endless waters a last time.

What a night this had been. She couldn’t repress a big grin at the thought. She’d managed to stuff the whole emotional spectrum in one night, going from mad to sad to scared to deliriously happy.

This hadn’t been planned. Well, the location and the pillows and everything had been thoroughly planned obviously, but the thought behind all that hadn’t just been seduction, it’d been… It had just been Xena being Xena.

There were so many facets to the Empress, so many things she would have never expected Xena to be. There was always a surprise right around the corner, which was part of the fun of being with her.

But this was getting to be more than fun. Xena was (maybe subconsciously) steering them towards deeper waters. And she was willingly following her there, but… But there was a part of her that was a little afraid. Afraid of the speed in which things were going.

“Hey!”

Gabrielle turned around to find Xena seated on the horse, waving her over. Obediently she walked closer, stopping next to the animal. “Just the one horse, huh?”

“Yep,” Xena confirmed, then held out a hand.

It was again that oddly familiar sensation, as she took the outstretched hand and allowed herself to be pulled up on the horse. She ended up seated in front of the Empress, her legs on one side of the horse, due to the fact that she was wearing a dress. Gabrielle wiggled in place a little, not used to these seating arrangements. “Dresses and horses really don’t mix.” A hand wrapped around her waist, holding onto her as the horse started walking. Gabrielle glanced up at the dark profile, shuffling a little closer. “Though… there are some advantages.” She murmured, laying her head against the Empress’s shoulder.

Blue eyes glanced down at her, then softened. “Happy birthday, Gabrielle.”

It was about a candlemark before daybreak when they arrived back at the palace. The guards at the gate looked somewhat surprised when they came riding up together, but an icy stare from Xena made them keep any comments to themselves and open the gates.

“Can I take the horse from you, Highness?” A guard inquired helpfully.

“Are you that bored, Pyraus?” Xena flashed him a smile.

“It’s a quiet night, Empress,” the man retorted. “As always.”

“Don’t jinx it.”

The guard laughed softly, as he led the horse towards the stables.

Gabrielle was already making her way up the stairs and Xena jogged after her to catch up. They both entered the hall together. The hall was quiet. The only sounds were some faint noises coming from the direction of the kitchen, where the morning staff was starting their shifts.

Xena stopped and Gabrielle followed her example. They both smiled a little, somewhat nervously, not sure where to go from here. “So…” Gabrielle finally spoke up softly. “I guess asking you up for a nightcap would be a bad idea, huh?”

Xena laughed softly. “You have no idea how tempting that sounds, but…” A breath. “Niobe sometimes wakes up real early in the morning, like this and… I don’t want to not be there.”

The blonde nodded a little. “Do me a favour?”

“Anything.”

“Talk to Caspar. About us.” Gabrielle took a step closer, laying her hands against the thin fabric of the Empress’s tunic. “Keeping this from him was hard enough, but now it’s gonna be practically impossible.”

“Hmm,” Xena absently twirled a lock of blond hair around her fingers. “I see what you mean.” She leaned closer, kissing the warrior on the lips. “I’ll talk to him tomorrow.” She murmured as they parted.

“Thanks,” Gabrielle responded softly, peeking up. “And… Thanks for tonight.” She smiled, almost shyly. “This was the most romantic, amazing night. Thank you for making this so special.”

The Empress released a happy breath. “Gabrielle, we could have been in a tar pit and it would have been special.”

“Well…” Green eyes blinked at her. “Yes, that would have been quite unbelievable too. Not to mention messy.”

Xena laughed under her breath. “No, I mean… I just mean it is special no matter what. ‘Cause you’re special. To me.”

Gabrielle smiled, utterly charmed. She decided on how to respond to that, then decided that actions spoke louder than words and captured the Empress’s lips for another long moment.

They finally regretfully broke off. “See you in the arena in a candlemark or so?”

“Absolutely,” Xena responded. They gazed into each other’s eyes for another moment. Then Xena gently squeezed her hand, before turning and heading towards her chambers.

Gabrielle stared after her another moment, then with a small sigh turned as well, heading for her own room.

As she ascended a stair and left the hallway, Cleopatra stepped from the shadows, her features darkened in dismay.

The air shifted as Gabrielle spun her nanchuka around her body in easy circles. She’d always had a fondness for the simple Chinese weapon, made of two sticks attached together by a short bit of chain. Her tutor had been a master, and it had taken her ages to get the hang of the weapon. But that only made being able to now all the more fun.

Xena danced on the balls of her feet, shifting the hold on her staff a little. “You ready, or do you need some more time to prepare, grandma?”

Gabrielle smirked at her, flipping the weapon over her shoulder and catching it under her arm. She then swept her arm sideways, sending the nanchuka flying in Xena’s direction.

“Whoa!” The Empress only just managed to hop back in time to avoid the edge. “Nasty.”

“Why, thank you,” Gabrielle drawled, flipping the weapon over her head while turning, wasting no time in attacking Xena’s other side.

The Empress brought up her staff, prepared this time. The wood thunked into each other. The impact resonated through Xena’s arm. She tried a quick counter, using the length of her staff to enter the warrior’s defenses. But before it could get close, Gabrielle easily kicked the weapon aside, using the wooden surface to jump up from and kick out at Xena’s chest. Her boot impacted harshly with the light leather armor the Empress was wearing, sending her staggering back several paces.

“Grandma, huh?” Gabrielle chuckled, advancing forward again as Xena hastily regained her balance.”

“You’ve been working out,” Xena accused, spinning her staff around her body protectively.

“Well, obviously,” The blonde wiggled her eyebrows, making Xena grin broadly.

At the sidelines Odilon leaned on a railing, looking out over the arena. As always, a lot of soldiers were present as well. The younger ones stood at the bottom of the arena, cheering the fighters on. Some of the older ones stood near Odilon, watching the spectacle from somewhat higher up, enjoying the tactics more than the flurry of action.

“Good battle today, sir,” one commented, wincing then as Xena received a hard blow to the shoulder. “Gabrielle seems very focused today. More so than her Majesty I’m afraid.”

“Yes,” Odilon muttered, agreeing. “You have a keen eye. I might have a job for you.”

“A job, sir?” the soldier frowned. “Doing what?”

Odilon darted him a smile. “Never mind.”

He paused then, noticing a younger soldier who’d joined them. He wore light Athenian armor like the rest of the men did and had a black cloak swung around his shoulders. His curly hair reached his shoulders. Odilon frowned. “Do I know you?”

The young man seemed a little apprehensive as he answered. “I don’t think so, sir. I’m… new here.”

“Hmm,” Odilon looked at him another moment, then shook his head a little. “I must be thinking of someone else then.”

“Must be, sir.” The young man agreed, returning his eyes to the battle continuing below. He frowned a little. “It appears the Empress is losing.”

“Again,” the other soldiers stated in unison.

“Yes again,” Odilon muttered in clear discontent. He paused a moment, then added. “But that is only to be expected of course. Gabrielle is a very strong warrior. I heard her boasting a few days ago of this heroic battle in… Huong or something like that.”

He worked very hard to keep his eyes focused on the fight, as he felt several soldiers next to him tense up at his words. “Did… you say Huong?”

Odilon turned to them casually. “Why, yes. You’ve heard of it?”

“I’m afraid so, sir,” the soldier’s eyes turned back to the battle one last time, following Gabrielle’s movements, but now with much less appreciation. “Pardon me, sir,” he then excused himself, before he and his companions walked off, towards their barracks.

Odilon smiled to himself, then politely nodded to the young soldier, who had remained on the stands, before descending down the stairs himself.

The soldier frowned a little, seemingly intrigued by these events. He darted another glance at the blonde warrior. Gabrielle’s nanchuka just wrapped itself around Xena’s staff and she tugged, making the weapon fly from Xena’s hands and into her own. She laughed wickedly.

“Interesting,” the young man murmured, before pulling his cloak over his head and vanishing into thin air.

“Well, it wouldn’t do to have you lose on your birthday, right?”

Gabrielle chuckled, darting the Empress an allowing smile. “Right.”

“Ladyship?”

Gabrielle continued walking, then suddenly realized she was in fact being addressed. “Oh sorry, yes?” She looked inquisitively at the young prison guard who’d walked up to her.

“I thought you’d want to know… the prisoner is asking to see you.”

Both Gabrielle’s eyebrows hiked up into her hairline. “That’s odd.”

“That’s why I thought you might want to know,” the guard said.

“You’re right, I do,” she smiled at him. “Thank you. I’ll be right there.”

Xena crossed her arms. “You still bothering with Callisto?”

“I’m not bothering with her,” Gabrielle corrected her. “I just go and see her once in a while. She’s funny. When she’s behind bars anyway. Besides, we do have a history. I can’t just pretend we don’t.”

“Sure you can,” Xena disagreed. “It’s easy. You just ignore her.”

“Now, don’t be jealous,” Gabrielle drawled, reaching up and placing a kiss on her cheek. “I’ll see you at breakfast.”

“I’m not jealous!” Xena called after her, getting a chuckle from the blonde as she walked away. She grumbled another ‘I am not’ under her breath, then stalked off herself.

“You called?”

Callisto, who was lying on her pallet, turned her head to see Gabrielle standing behind the bars. She was dressed in a simple dark red tunic and liberally covered in sweat. “Well, you sure made an effort to get here fast,” the blonde drawled. “Nice to know I still have that effect on women.”

“I just finished sparring with Xena.” Gabrielle explained with a smirk. “So I’m afraid if there’s anyone having any effect on me, it’s her and not you.”

“Well ouch,” Callisto giggled, rising to her feet and then lazily stretching out in a somewhat catlike manner. “So tall, dark and murderous is still your favourite, huh? Even though she’s got her Egyptian to play with now? Pity. Crawling doesn’t become you.”

Gabrielle smiled indulgently. “Oh, nothing wrong with a little crawling. It’s good exercise.”

“Hmm,” Callisto looked at her in dismay. “You’re happy again. I don’t like it.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” Gabrielle leaned against the bars. “So, is there a point to me being here, or did you just feel like a chat?”

“What’s the date?”

Gabrielle frowned at her. “Huh?”

“What’s the date?” Callisto repeated. “Just a simple question, precious.”

The warrior told her.

“Thought so.” Was the short response, then Callisto plucked something from her belt and handed it to her. “Here.”

Gabrielle eyed her a moment, then gingerly reached out and took the offering. “What’s this?”

“You blind? It’s a bit of paper.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, unfolding the folded piece of paper. She looked at the lines drawn on it a moment, then started laughing. “Gods, that’s brilliant.” It was a caricature of Xena, her hair standing out in all directions and her chakram balanced on her head. Her teeth were bared, but seemed more like fangs.

“It’s for practice. You can pin it on the wall and throw daggers at her head. Then when she dumps ya, ya can kill her in one clean toss before you start getting mushy again.”

Gabrielle shook her head a little, still laughing. “You really are insane.”

“Well, darling, I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me,” Callisto drawled. Then almost off-handedly handed her another bit of paper. This one was tied up with a small strip of paper which she’d charcoaled a deep black.

Gabrielle took this one as well, hastily untying the bindings, expecting another similar drawing of Xena or herself maybe.

Her fingers stilled though as she found a much more lifelike image staring at her. She looked up, finding Callisto leaning against the bars on the side of the jail, looking anywhere but at her. Green eyes tracked back to the image, remembering.

It had been her first birthday in Athens and she’d been looking forward to it. At home, birthdays had never been much fun. They’d been poor and since her birthday was in springtime and lambing was also, her father was often away and they were all busy managing the farm without him.

Here in Athens though everything was different. She still had to work hard of course, and they weren’t wealthy either but… The resistance was more of family than hers had ever been, in a way. Fay had baked her a cake, and there were decorations and candles to blow out. Gabrielle’s eyes shone with delight. It was more than she’d ever had. She’d gotten the nicest presents too, even though she’d told every one there was no need. Thalia had given her a new quill, and Naxos had given her a beautiful wooden case to keep her parchments in.

It was almost perfect. Almost. Because Callisto wasn’t here.

To everyone else, that was probably a blessing, but to her… Gabrielle absently poked holes in her cake with her fork. To her, it just wasn’t.

She looked up to Callisto. She was a strong, independent woman. She could fight fast and graceful, and, no matter what anyone else thought, she was really smart. If she’d sauntered past Potedeia some day, Gabrielle was sure she would have followed her anywhere.

Sure, she’d made some bad decisions in the past. Well, the recent past. Just last week actually. She’d chopped the head of a guard right outside the palace gates, which had led to a hunt for anyone associated with the resistance. Ten people had been arrested so far.

But she was sure Callisto hadn’t meant to. Not really. She was just… confused. A lot.

“Don’t you like the cake, dear?”

Fay’s voice brought her back from her pondering. She looked down to see she had poked her cake full of holes. “No, I love it, I’m just… airing it.”

Fay chuckled, shaking her head a little. “You’re an odd girl.”

“Take it as a compliment,” Thalia suggested to her as she plumped down in the seat beside her, leaning back and propping her feet up on the table. “I’ll rid you of that cake if you’re not interested.”

Fay darted the redhead a look, then gave her chair a little push, making both chair and inhabitant fall backwards, Thalia flailing her arms in the air in shock.

Gabrielle started laughing, as did most of the others around her in the small room. She stood and extended her hand down to her friend, to help her up. “Very graceful,” she commented, smirking down at the redhead, who took her hand.

She suddenly noticed the room behind her had gone quiet. She turned her head to see what was going on.

With a thud, Thalia was sent crashing back to the ground. “Hey!” The redhead tossed her hands up. “What…” She paused then as she saw the crowd part and Callisto walked in. “Oh, brother…”

Gabrielle fumbled with her hands, shifting from one leg to the other, unsure of what posture to take. “Hi,” she finally managed to say. “Can I get you something to drink, or some cake or…”

“No,” Callisto cut her off, walking up to her with business like paces. “It’s your birthday?”

Gabrielle could only nod.

“Thought as much.” The blonde stated, then pulled something from behind her back and practically threw it at the young girl, who could only barely catch it.

The puppy in her arms squeaked in shock, wiggling around restlessly until finally he found a comfortable spot and calmed. Gabrielle gazed down at the small animal and the animal gazed up at her. The puppy then tentatively licked her nose. Gabrielle chuckled. “Thank y…” She looked up, only to see the door to Fay’s small house fall shut.

Gabrielle reached out, tracing the edges of the drawing with a fingertip. It was a perfect image of the young dog Callisto had once given to her. She looked up at her former fellow rebel again, who still was looking in the opposite direction. She patiently kept up her staring though, and finally the blonde could do nothing but look back. “I got tired of making pictures of rats and you, so I switched to dogs.” She said, in explanation. “See how pathetic this place is making me? You should really let me out.”

Gabrielle wrapped her hand around the bar, leaning her head around it. “I really loved that puppy. He followed me everywhere. I called him Plato.”

“Pluto?” Callisto frowned. “What kind of a name is that for a dog?”

“No, Plato,” Gabrielle repeated. “You know, the philosopher?”

“Sure,” Callisto said, clearly not having the faintest idea. “So, what happened to him. Did your lover crucify him too?” She spared a giggle for the thought of a dog being crucified. Funny image.

“No, he… At a certain time we all had to try hard to keep hidden and it was hard for him, ‘cause he wanted to play.” Gabrielle smiled faintly at the memory that surfaced. “I met this little girl who told me her parents were robbed and she was scared to go to sleep at night. I gave him to her, so she wouldn’t be scared anymore.”

“Urgh,” Callisto stuck her tongue out in disgust. “How putridly moving.” She lazily sauntered closer. “So that’s what you did with my gifts, huh? Give ‘em to stupid little girls.”

“Sometimes,” Gabrielle drawled.

Callisto moved closer still, but Gabrielle didn’t move away from the bars. “Can I ask you something?”

The prisoner considered this a moment, then shrugged. “Sure.”

“You know I had a crush on you. Right?”

Callisto giggled. “Well, yes dear. You weren’t very subtle, you know?”

The warrior smiled. “No, I guess not.” Callisto was only inches away now. “Were you ever in love with me? Even just a little?”

Callisto seemed surprised by the question, blinking at her a few times. Instead of producing a snappy retort she then cocked her head, seeming to seriously consider the question. “I wouldn’t know,” she finally replied, seriously. “I don’t know what that is.”

Gabrielle nodded her head a little, apparently understanding.

“I didn’t hate you,” Callisto continued then. “Which was weird since you were so annoying and good natured.”

Gabrielle chuckled softly, then almost absently lifted her hand and caught Callisto’s arm as the blonde tried to wrap it around her neck and slam her against the bars. She gave her an indulgent look. “Had to go and ruin a perfectly nice moment, didn’t ya?”

“Well, you know me, precious… I just love ruining things. It’s what I do best.”

Gabrielle lifted the drawing a little, sparing it a fond look. “You just keep telling yourself that.” She let go of Callisto’s arm, then patted the blonde’s cheek. She distanced herself from the bars again before Callisto could slap her hand away. “Thank you for the present.”

“Hope your birthday sucks.” Callisto retorted snappily.

Gabrielle just laughed though, wiggling her fingers over her shoulder.

When she entered the dining room it was empty. Gabrielle frowned, walking further inside, her footsteps echoing through the empty room. The large doors into the garden were wide open. She peeked outside and then grinned, spotting Xena and the kids sitting in the grass in the sunshine.

“Abby!” Niobe was the first one to spot her and scrambled to her feet, running over as fast as her little feet could carry her. Gabrielle caught her before she could plough into the warrior’s legs, swooping her up and hugging her. “Hapsy biddays!” the girl squealed enthusiastically, pressing a sloppy kiss on Gabrielle’s cheek.

The blonde chuckled. “Thank you, sweety.”

“Hey, Gabrielle!” Iona waved at her, but continued slouching in the sun. She pointed at a spot in the grass where a lot of daisies grew. “Look, we decorated your seat for you.”

Xena laughed under her breath, looking up and meeting Gabrielle’s eyes.

Their gazes held and after a few steps Gabrielle had to consciously remind herself of the fact that she was walking and it was nearly time to stop doing that.

So she sat down in the designated spot. Niobe crawled onto her lap and sat down, happily wiggling herself into place. Caspar had bothered to get up and walked over to her, gently kissing her on the cheek. “Happy birthday, Gabrielle.”

“Thank you, Caspar.” She reached out and gently squeezed his hand. “How did you sleep?”

“Not bad,” he replied, smiling a little. “You?”

“Oh… Uhm,” Gabrielle tried looking everywhere but at Xena, who she just knew was grinning broadly. “Short, but… well.” She rubbed her cheek, trying to hide the blush. “So, what’s with the change of breakfast scenery?” She then quickly changed the subject, hearing Xena snicker in response.

“Weather was too good to be stuck inside,” Iona said, leaning back on her hands and gazing up into the sun. “We made some sandwiches and moved out here. Want one?” She pointed at the bread lying on the plate they were gathered around.

Gabrielle nodded. In response, Iona tilted her head and narrowed her eyes at the bread. The next moment, a sandwich rose from the plate and floated over to Gabrielle.

The warrior blinked, then shot a look at Xena, who seemed as surprised as she was. “Nicely done!” She grabbed the sandwich from the air. “You got the hang of it, huh?” She smiled at Iona. “How did you do that?”

“Oh, I just… practiced a lot.” Iona said, shrugging a little. “Tried a bunch of different stuff, finally found something that worked.”

“Well, good for you.” Gabrielle said.

A quick look at Xena showed the Empress was a little more doubtful about this development, but she quickly hid that as Iona turned to her mother. She winked at her offspring, who smiled back proudly. Xena then returned to the order of the day. “Niobe?”

The toddler looked up, finding her playmate crooking a finger at her. She hastily stood and waggled over to Xena. Xena pulled a nicely wrapped item from behind her back and handed it to Niobe. The toddler took it, then quickly went back over to Gabrielle. “S pressent for you.”

“From you?” Gabrielle inquired, getting an enthusiastic nod from the child. “Help me unwrap it?”

Niobe happily plumped back into her former spot on Gabrielle’s lap and started ripping at the paper enthusiastically to uncover a clay creation.

Gabrielle had learned that toddler creations required tactful responses. You never really could be sure what they were exactly, while in a child’s mind it was all so obvious. This little statue seemed to have four legs and something that resembled a head, so she had the vague idea it was a creature of some sort. “That’s beautiful, sweety. I’m going to put this in the best spot in my room. What do you think? By the window?”

“Yes,” Niobe nodded seriously. “Pookie like look outside.”

Ah, Pookie, the pet tiger. Gabrielle took another look at the figure and could now make out some stripes on the back. That made sense. She carefully placed the statue next to her, then wrapped both her arms around the toddler and hugged her. “Thank you.”

“Love ya,” Niobe warbled back happily.

Caspar pulled a small box from his pocket and handed it to her. “It’s not much.” He murmured as he handed it to her. “But I hope you like it anyway.”

Gabrielle carefully pried open the paper, which had been meticulously wrapped around a small paper box. She opened the box , then paused. “Caspar… It’s beautiful.” She gently reached inside, lifting up the silver necklace from which a pendant dangled. It was a small gem, a deep black with bright white spots. The spots had a funny shape, almost like snowflakes.

“It’s obsidian. That’s what the rock is called.” Caspar shuffled his feet a little. “I found it when I was walking in the mountains with Linos. I though it was pretty. So… I thought you should have it, ‘cause you’re pretty. I mean,” he stuttered as he turned a deep red. “I mean you would look pretty. Wearing it.”

“I love it,” Gabrielle replied, holding the necklace out to him. “Help me put it on?”

He nodded hastily, taking the piece of jewellery from her and circling around her. With tentative fingers he circled it around her neck and fumbled with the lock, breathing a sigh of relief as he managed to lock it in place.

Xena watched the whole exchange in amusement, then gently poked her daughter with the tip of her toes. Iona peeked over her shoulder questioningly. “Go save your brother, would ya?” She instructed in a whisper.

“Why?” Iona responded innocently. “It’s so much fun to watch him make an idiot of himself.”

Her mother raised a meaningful eyebrow at her. Iona rolled her eyes, then reluctantly got up and walked over to Gabrielle. “Hi.”

The warrior turned her attention to the twelve year old. She studied the girl a moment. ”Should I be afraid of whatever it is you’ve got behind your back?”

“Verrrry,” Iona purred in a manner very much like her mother, making Gabrielle chuckle. “Nah,” the girl then denied with a shrug. “I was nice. I want you to stick around.”

“I think that’s one of the nicest things you’ve said to me,” Gabrielle drawled.

“Don’t get used to it,” Iona countered with a smirk, then pulled a small wooden box from behind her back and handed it to the warrior.

Gabrielle opened the lid to find a rolled up scroll inside. She shook her head, allowing a smile. It seemed Xena had recruited her daughter in her subtle attempts of prodding her to write again. But then as she unrolled the scroll she found it was already written upon. She frowned a little, then started reading the first few lines.

Let me tell a story, great muses, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what has been done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of a woman, Gabrielle of Potedaia, from losing their due meed of glory. Let me start where other scrolls end, with her return to the City of Athens.

“Mom says history is made by storytellers,” Iona said as Gabrielle’s eyes scrolled further down the page. “It doesn’t matter what you did, it’s all about how it’s put into words. And there’s all these scrolls around about you when you were a rebel and all. But there were none about what happened after. About how you ended up with us. So… now there is.”

“When… How did you do this?” Gabrielle looked up at Iona in astonishment.

“Well…” Iona scratched the back of her neck. “You know I can’t write anything sensible, so I figured I needed someone who could. So I got some of my history books and picked the one I liked best and sent a letter to the author. Some fellow called Herodotus.”

“You did not!” Gabrielle blurted.

“Sure I did,” Iona shrugged, as if it was no big deal. She pointed at the scroll. “This is just the start, obviously, ‘cause he didn’t have time to write the entire thing. He’s a nice guy, but… kinda slow in the writing department.”

Gabrielle snorted, turning her eyes back to the scroll and then back up at Iona. “Come here.”

Iona happily walked over, giving Gabrielle a hug. “This is insane,” the warrior told her in a whisper. “But great. Thank you.”

The Empress watched Gabrielle and the children from her place on the opposite side of the breakfast buffet. The kids were clustered around her, talking, and Gabrielle was laughing.

She seemed happy. The kids seemed happy. Xena sighed. Ah, these sweet moments of normality, where everything was just as it ought to be. Green eyes looked up, twinkling. She smiled back, allowing herself to just get lost in the loving gaze. Pure perfection.

A throat cleared beside her then and she looked up to find Linos looking down at her meaningfully. “Oh, Linos, sorry.” She hopped to her feet. “Time for school, guys.”

Three disappointed, pouty faces were her response. “We can’t leave yet,” Caspar countered. “You still have to give Gabrielle your present.”

Xena smirked cheekily at Gabrielle. “Maybe I already did.”

“You did?” Caspar turned to the warrior. “What did she give you?”

Gabrielle cleared her throat. “Xena uhm…” She shot the Empress a look, but Xena was quite content to lean against a tree and watch her struggle. “Xena let me win our fight this morning.” She then said to Caspar, quickly taking a sip of her orange juice to hide any sort of expression that might betray the lie.

“Oh yeah,” The Empress drawled. “Gabrielle wanted to come out on top. So I let her.”

Gabrielle choked on her drink, then started coughing.

“That’s a stupid present,” Iona said, ignoring the warrior’s coughing fit. “You always beat Xena up anyway.”

“Yes, I do,” Gabrielle managed, drawing in a deep breath and narrowing her eyes at Xena. “As your mother will find out in a most painful manner tomorrow morning.”

Dark eyebrows wiggled at her.

After some more urging from Linos and the promise they would get the afternoon off in honour of Gabrielle’s birthday, the kids followed their teacher inside. Gabrielle rose to her feet, then almost predatorily stalked over to the Empress. “You… are very, very mean.”

Xena chuckled wickedly, patiently waiting for Gabrielle to get closer. “Why? Because I tell my children the truth? I would say that’s a virtue.”

“You know what I’m gonna make you do with that virtue?” Gabrielle threatened, as she pinned Xena against the tree.

“No,” the Empress drawled, enjoying the tension between them immensely. “But I’m sure I’ll enjoy it.”

The warrior tried to stare her down for another moment, then she just gave up, practically falling forward and capturing the Empress’s lips for a long moment.

“Hmm,” Xena hummed happily. “You can do that to my virtue anytime.”

“Shut up,” Gabrielle scolded her, but the kisses being pressed against her neck took any sting out of the comment.

They spent a few leisurely moments making out, then Gabrielle leaned her forehead against Xena’s collarbone, her arms wrapped around the Empress’s waist. “I hate this,” she murmured with a sigh.

“You… hate this?” Xena frowned at her, not sure how to interpret that.

“No, I don’t mean… Not this…” The blonde hastily corrected herself. “I mean…” A small sigh. “I can’t think straight. I keep ploughing into things. I let the basin run over.”

“Oh, that, yeah.” Xena shot her a wry grin. “I tried brushing Niobe’s hair with a toothbrush this morning.”

A soft chuckle in response. Gabrielle tilted her head up to look into Xena’s eyes. She reached out a hand, carefully pushing a dark lock out of the Empress’s face. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this before.”

Xena closed her eyes, leaning into the touch. “Me neither.”

“Are you scared?”

The Empress opened her eyes again, looking down at Gabrielle seriously. “No,” she stated firmly. “I feel safe with you.”

Gabrielle smiled at her, clearly charmed with that answer.

>From the corner of her eye, she spotted Cleopatra making her way over, but she chose to ignore her, reaching up and claiming the Empress’s lips another time. “Do you really have to go and work?”

“Yes,” Xena replied, regretfully. “There’s some stuff I need to go over and sign today. And there’s that mess with my brother…”

“Hmm. Yeah.” Gabrielle regretfully unwrapped herself from Xena’s embrace. “Alright, fine… Go. I think I need another bath before Thalia shows up. A cold one.”

Xena chuckled, lifting her hand and pressing a kiss against it. She then turned her attention to the regent. “Good morning, Cleo.”

“It is not,” the Egyptian stated, clearly miffed. “Are you done?”

“Unfortunately… yes.” Xena stated, squeezing Gabrielle’s hand softly before letting go. “I’ll see you this afternoon.”

“Definitely,” Gabrielle said, before heading back towards the palace.

“Hey!” Xena called after her after a moment.

The warrior turned around again inquisitively.

“I do still have a present for you.”

“Yeah? What?”

“I’ll show you later.” Xena told her, receiving a somewhat disappointed look in return, but Gabrielle did turn around and continued her way inside without further comment. “Ah,” Xena breathed out happily, as she headed towards her chambers. “Love, love, love…”

“Barf,” Cleopatra muttered under her breath, following the Empress with a foul look.

Thalia sighed unhappily for the fifteenth time in the last ten minutes.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Thal, it’s my birthday. Be cheery. Please.”

“Sorry,” the redhead muttered. “I just… I really liked him. I really, really liked him. And then it turns out he is her brother!”

“Well, it’s good to know we have similar tastes.”

Thalia shot her a bored look. “Not funny.”

“Sorry,” Gabrielle in her turn apologized. “I really am,” she added for good measure. “I haven’t seen you this excited about someone since… well… years. I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”

“It didn’t work out because your girlfriend chased him off.”

The warrior sighed. “He tried to kill her.”

“She killed her mother. And her other brother.”

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Gabrielle countered, already tired of the conversation.

Thalia, knowing her friend well, could hear that in her voice and looked up apologetically. “Sorry. I’ll drop the subject until after your birthday, okay.”

“Thanks,” Gabrielle smiled at her, gratefully.

“So did you get the necklace from Xena?” The redhead changed the subject, pointing at the piece of jewellery.

“No. Caspar.”

Thalia rolled her eyes. “Is that boy still hooked on you?”

“Xena said she was going to talk to him today,” Gabrielle said, twisting the rock between her fingers. “I feel bad. He’s such a sweet child.”

“He’s not bad, no,” even Thalia had to admit. “He’s smart though. I’d be surprised if he didn’t have a clue already. You two aren’t really subtle about it.”

Gabrielle frowned at her. “What do you mean?”

“Hello!” Thalia waved a hand in front of her face. “You, her, market square full of Athenians? Ring a bell?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…” Gabrielle rolled her eyes with a smirk. “That was a long time ago.”

“It was a month ago.”

Gabrielle smiled a little. “Seems a lot longer than that, doesn’t it?”

“Hmm,” Thalia nodded faintly. “It does. We’ve gotten a lot done in so short a time.”

“Not as much as we planned on.”

“Oh, drop it.” Thalia shot her friend a look. “Two months ago I was locked in a jail and there was no resistance to speak of. Now we’re co-leading the country. You made that happen, Gabrielle.” Her friend started to protest, but Thalia cut her off. “Don’t try to be modest. You are magic and you know it.”

The warrior managed a faint smile. “Magic, huh?”

“Yes,” the redhead confirmed firmly. “In spite of all the bad stuff that’s happened, this last month had been… amazing. Having you back has been amazing.” She reached over and took Gabrielle’s hand. “Thank you.” A faint smirk. “For bringing back the magic.”

Gabrielle chuckled, shaking her head a little. “It’s been fun.” She turned serious. “And amazing, yes. Being back here. It’s like… some pieces of my life are falling back into place. It’s nice, not having to run anymore.”

“Yeah,” Thalia confirmed.

They both pondered on that a little, then Gabrielle decided to change the topic to something lighter. “So, who else is coming over?”

“Oh, some old friends from the resistance, mostly,” Thalia stated, leaning back in her seat. “And some council members. Megan couldn’t make it, she said, and Odell passed, but the others are coming.”

“Too bad about Megan,” the warrior said, not too worried about Odell. “I kinda like her. Though…” She frowned a little. “ Something weird happened a few days back.”

Her friend looked at her, curiously.

“I bumped into her in the hallway. And then she warned me about Odilon. Which was weird, ‘cause… I didn’t think that many people knew of him being here.”

“She can act a little weird,” Thalia agreed. “And she’s missing a lot. She wasn’t at the theatre last night either.” A shrug. “But besides that, she seems nice. She’s smart.”

Gabrielle nodded in agreement, then returned to birthday matters. “So anybody else coming besides them?”

“Those kids and her High and Mighty of course,” the redhead said. “And that teacher, Linos. Some other members from the household here too, I think. That’s about it. I didn’t want to make this all too big, you know?”

“Sure,” Gabrielle nodded, though she had been kind of hoping on seeing Ephiny and Solari again. She hadn’t seen the two Amazons since they’d departed for the new Amazon lands. She and Ephiny had been keeping contact through several letters they’d written to each other and she’d found the Amazon Queen to be a smart, sensible leader, who had a really funny sarcastic sense of humour. “It’d be hard for anyone from out of town to come over anyway. With so much going on these days.”

“Right,” Thalia agreed, repressing a smirk. “Right.”

“Empress?”

Xena straightened her dress a little before looking up at Benitor. “What’s the word on my present?”

“Preparations are on their way, but naturally it will not all be ready for this evening.”

“What? People don’t perform unaccomplished tasks for me anymore just because I ask them to?” Xena feigned offence. “What is this world coming to?”

“I think your Lady will understand the gift for what it is though,” the servant continued, then he held out a small velvet box to her. “I hope this is adequate?”

Xena took the box from him and carefully opened it, smiling at what was inside. “That’ll do nicely.”

“Xena?”

The Empress looked up to find Caspar peeking inside. “Hey buddy, come in.” She turned back to Benitor. “Excellent work. Thank everyone who helped. And tell them they all will be awarded accordingly.”

“We all feel a great affection for Gabrielle, Majesty. It was gladly done.” The servant bowed politely, then walked away, passing Caspar as the boy entered the room.

The boy closed the door behind him. “You asked to see me?”

“I did.” Xena gave herself a moment to order her thoughts as she opened a desk drawer and placed the small box Benitor had given her securely inside. “Sit down, would you?”

Caspar obediently walked over and hopped up on the chair on the other side of the desk, his feet dangling a little above the ground. His head barely peeked over the desk’s surface.

Xena picked up her own chair and walked to his side of the desk, placing the chair in front of his and sitting down. She leaned her elbows on her knees, so they were just about eye to eye. “I think we have a problem.”

“We… we do?” Caspar looked surprised and just a little scared.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” the Empress hastily added. “I think… I think I did something wrong. And I need to talk to you about it.”

“You did something wrong?” the boy repeated, clearly not believing a word of that.

“Yeah, see…” Xena rubbed at her neck, trying to find the right words. “We’re friends, right?”

“Right.”

“And you like Gabrielle, right?”

The boy blushed a little. “Well… yes. Of course I do. She’s nice.”

“And pretty,” Xena added, looking at him meaningfully.

The blush spread. “Well…”

“It’s okay to say that, ‘cause…” Xena drew in a breath. “‘Cause I think so too. And that’s the problem, see?”

Caspar stared at her a few moments, then shook his head. “No.”

Xena rubbed at her face., trying to find a tactful way to explain things to the boy. “Well… You like Gabrielle. In a certain way. And I like Gabrielle. In the same certain way. And she can only like one of us back in that certain way.” A breath. “So I’m afraid we have to fight it out.”

Caspar blinked at her. “Fight?”

“Yeah, a duel,” Xena clarified. “You know, like in the stories. We fight, and whoever wins, gets the girl.” She stood. “So I’ll let you pick the weapon, then we can settle this right now.”

“I don’t want to fight you,” Caspar said, abhorred.

Xena sat back down. “I don’t want to fight you either. But I don’t see another way to solve this problem.”

Caspar looked down at his fingers, which were fumbling with the edge of his tunic. “I…” He looked up at her. “I don’t think there is a problem.”

A dark eyebrow rose at him. “No?”

“No,” he shook his head. “‘Cause… Gabrielle doesn’t like me. In that certain way I mean. She likes you.”

A smile twitched at Xena’s lips. “You think so?”

“Yeah.” Caspar sighed a little. “She keeps looking at you all the time. Especially when you don’t know she is.” His brown eyes looked up at her. “We don’t have to fight if she likes you back anyway, right?”

The Empress considered this seriously for a moment, then shook her head. “No, I don’t think we do.” She reached out and squeezed his knee. “You mad at me?”

“Why would I be mad at you?”

“‘Cause…” Xena shrugged a little. “‘Cause I knew you liked her. And I started liking her too anyway.”

Caspar smiled a little. “It’s hard to not like Gabrielle.”

“Tell me about it,” Xena grinned then reached over and hugged the boy. “Thanks, buddy.”

Caspar hugged her back, then hopped off his chair. “I have to go change. For the party.”

“Yeah, I have to finish dressing too,” Xena agreed. “What do you think? Hair up or down?” She twirled her dark locks into a knot and looked at him inquisitively.

“Doesn’t matter. She will think you look pretty either way.”

Xena reached down, patting him on the cheek. “I’ll see you there.”

It was the third bath that day. Gabrielle smirked at the thought, before dunking her face underwater and rinsing out her hair. But the weather had been warm and humid today. And she wanted to look nice when her guests came. It wouldn’t be a big deal of course, but still. She’d not seen some of them for a while now, with being so busy and all.

She rose from the water, reaching for a towel and wrapping it around herself. A cold breeze fluttered in through the windows, pleasantly cooling her warm skin. She peeked outside, where darkness had fallen by now and the moon was particularly clear. It seemed like a nice enough evening.

She walked back into her bedroom, then stopped. It was more the feeling something was out of place than anything else. Her eyes scanned the room, then fell upon something unfamiliar lying on her bed. A dress, a deep burgundy one. She frowned, then her head snapped up as she heard the faintest of sounds from the shadows next to the window.

A moment, then Xena gracefully slid from her hidden place, the moonlight reflecting beautifully off her silver dress. “I’m getting better at sneaking up on you.”

“You are,” Gabrielle easily agreed, closing the distance between them. “But somehow I don’t seem to mind that much.”

“Really?” The Empress slid her hands up against the rough fabric of the towel, pulling her closer and kissing a drop of water from her neck.

Gabrielle smiled, happily leaning against her. “What’s with the dresses?”

“It’s your birthday. So we dress up.” A hand slid between the folds of the towel and found bare skin. “Though… dressing down is also a nice option.”

“There’s people waiting for me,” Gabrielle objected faintly, kissing the Empress’s collarbone.

“You have patient friends, right?”

The warrior chuckled, her breathing already uneven. “Not that patient.”

Xena huffed out an unhappy breath, then relented. “Fine. They can have you.” She pushed a lock of blond hair back. “For now.”

Gabrielle smiled at her, then turned toward the dress, dropping the towel as she walked.

“You’re not helping,” Xena muttered, folding her fingers, who seemed to have developed a will of their own, behind her back.

Gabrielle pulled the soft silk fabric over her head, darting a look at the mirror to judge her reflection. “It’s a little fancy.” She commented, darting a look at Xena. “It’s just a small gathering. Isn’t this overkill?”

Xena shrugged casually, finding an interesting spot on the ceiling to stare at.

The warrior narrowed her eyes at her. “What are you not telling me?”

The Empress sneaked a peek at her, stared up at the ceiling for another moment, then sighed in defeat. “Well… maybe this… gathering… is just a little more fancy than planned.”

“Xena…”

“It’s not that spectacular, really,” Xena hastily added. “Just a few people… We just switched the location to the ballroom and told everybody to dress up.” The Empress looked at her apologetically. “It’s been a while since we had a chance to celebrate anything. The kids were really looking forward to a big party. They were so excited. I couldn’t say no.”

“You’re a wuss,” Gabrielle told her, but the smirk on her face took any sting out of the comment.

Gabrielle finished her preparation and they both walked out the door and down the hallway, towards the ballroom. “I’ve never been to the ballroom before.” Gabrielle commented.

“We don’t use it much. It’s not that spectacular. And sorta dusty by now. But it’s nice and big. I hate feeling crowded.”

Gabrielle agreed with a nod. They came near the door and Xena pulled her back in front of it. “Now… This was supposed to be a secret and everything. So… Can you just pretend to be surprised? Thalia is mad enough as it is, with the whole mess with my brother and all that.”

“Don’t worry. My second choice in the arts department next to writing was acting.” Gabrielle said, straightening her dress a little. “Okay, let’s do this.” She walked over to the door and pushed it forward, stepping inside.

And she stood in awe then as bright candlelight filled a gigantic ballroom, riddled with crystal chandeliers which sent sparks of light flying across the room. Even though the ballroom was huge, it was chockfull of people, who instantly greeted her warmly, hundreds of voices calling out to her. She knew them all. People from the city, from the staff, people who she’d met on her travels and who she knew had come from very far, old acquaintances and new friends.

“You clearly missed your calling,” Xena’s voice burred in her ear. “You do surprised very well, I have to say.”

Gabrielle managed to dart an incredulous look over her shoulder at Xena, who just grinned back at her. Before she could retort though, she was engulfed by people wishing to congratulate her.

Xena contently stood at the door, watching Gabrielle being led away.

“Did she suspect anything?” Iona commented as she stepped up to her mother.

“Not a thing,” Xena replied easily, sharing a high-five with her daughter.

“Gabrielle!”

A familiar voice rose above the others.

“Ephiny!” Gabrielle called out in delight as she spotted her the Amazon Queen in the crowd. The Amazon easily stood out, since her outfit was quite different from the others. All beads and strips of leather.

“Surprise,” Ephiny commented dryly, as the blonde hugged her enthusiastically.

“You look great,” Gabrielle smiled broadly at her. “I was so looking forward to seeing you again.”

“I feel great,” the Amazon squeezed the blonde’s shoulders. Then took a step back to let Solari pass, who clasped hands with the warrior. “Good to see you, Gabrielle.” The brunette replied curtly, in her characteristic grumpy tone. “Happy birthday.” The Amazon was looking distinctly uncomfortable in her dress, fumbling with some of the beads

“Yes, happy birthday,” Ephiny joined in. “I’m sure I don’t want to know how ridiculously young you are?”

Gabrielle chuckled warmly. “I’m sure not telling.”

“Thalia knows.”

“She’s sworn to secrecy,” Gabrielle told her solemnly, looking around. “Where is that friend of mine anyway? I need to torture her for this.”

“You won’t get a present with that attitude, missy,” a voice behind her drawled and Gabrielle turned to find Thalia standing behind her with a big smirk on her face.

Gabrielle reached over and pulled her into a hug. “How on earth did you manage to do this?”

“Well, I’d love to take the credit, but I had a helper with some connections,” Thalia smiled. “I teamed up with my greatest nemesis for you, Gab. So you’d better show some gratitude and cut the torture threats.”

The redhead circled over to Ephiny’s side, standing on her tiptoes and whispering something in the Amazon’s ear. The woman looked at Thalia, then at Gabrielle, then at Thalia again. “No way!”

Thalia nodded gravely.

“No way!” Ephiny repeated again, in an even more incredulous tone. “You’re that young?” Gabrielle just smiled at her sheepishly. “Ugh,” the Queen hid her face in her hands. “I’ve been wasting my life. Now I’ll be depressed for the rest of the night.”

Gabrielle was soon surrounded by many people wanting to talk to her and engulfed by presents. The room around them was busy, serving staff walking around with snacks and drinks. A band played in the far corner, the cheerful music echoing beautifully through the hall. The crowd was buzzing, busy chatting and catching up with old acquaintances.

So busy in fact that no one noticed two small flashes in a corner of the room, hidden from sight partially by some curtains. A moment, then the curtains were pushed aside to reveal two figures. One was a young man with short blond hair. The other was a blond woman, dressed in a bright pink dress.

“Wicked!” The woman called out enthusiastically, her eyes sparkling at the sight of the party. “Nice shindig!”

Her companion wiggled his shoulders a little, clearly not happy with the jacket he was wearing. “Why do they not create tuxes for guys with wings,” he muttered, clearly unhappy. “My feathers are getting all ruffled.”

“Oh, shush, Cupid. You should have just let me poof those wings of yours. Could have shrunk them to a nice maintainable size.”

“Mother, do you remember the last time you tried that?” Cupid shot her a meaningful look. “I was stuck on earth for weeks.”

“Yeah yeah yeah, minor detail.” Aphrodite’s eyes searched the room. “Now where is she…?”

She turned to her son. “Let’s split up.”

“Gladly,” Cupid muttered, as his mother went left and he therefore turned right.

“Oh my gods! Lila!” Gabrielle smiled broadly as she spotted her younger sister making her way through the crowds with some trouble.

“Gabrielle,” Lila wrapped her arms around the blonde and squeezed tight. “It’s so good to see you!”

“You too,” Gabrielle held her sister at arms length. “Did you come here with mom and dad?”

Lila shook her head. “Nah. You know them. Just the thought of the city makes them freak out.” She gave her sister a knowing look. “Mom made me promise to remind you of the virtues of the simple village life.”

“Urgh,” Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “They will never give up, will they?” A frown. “So they let you come here on your own?”

“Uhm… no…. not exactly.” Lila seemed somewhat uncomfortable. “You know, when you visited us after you’d just come back to Greece… Well, you left so quickly again, I didn’t have time to tell you all sorts of stuff. Like…” A breath. “ Like how I got married.”

“You got married?” Gabrielle’s jaw nearly dropped open. “Who on earth to?”

“Hello, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle’s eyes widened a trifle at the familiar voice, then looked up. “P… Perdicas?” Her eyes shot back to her sister for a sec, then back to the young man standing at his sister’s side. “Perdicas,” she repeated again, somewhat resigned. “Hi.” She held out her hand.

He shook it, somewhat coldly. “You look… well.” He managed.

“You too,” Gabrielle answered politely. “So… I hear… congratulations are in order.”

“You’re a little late with those, but thanks.” Perdicas turned to his wife. “Lila, when you are ready to leave, I’ll be over there.”

Gabrielle watched him walk away through the crowd, then turned back to her sister. “You have any more surprises for me?”

Lila rubbed her neck uncomfortably. “I think I might be pregnant?”

Gabrielle winced, then grabbed onto her sister’s hand and dragged her off. “Let’s sit down and talk. Before I keel over.”

Iona circled her way through the masses, quite enjoying the party. The fact that she had to wear a dress was a bit of a bother, but there was music and dancing and there was nice food. It wasn’t a bad party all in all.

Gabrielle’s friends seemed nice. She’d talked with some of them a little and heard some great stories about Gabrielle to tease the woman with. About when she’d first come to Athens and kept stumbling on her dress. Iona giggled at the mere thought. It was so funny to think of Gabrielle like that, considering who she was now.

There had been some other people too, who’d said bad stuff about Xena. A slightly chubby woman had said something particularly nasty. So Iona had responded by narrowing her eyes at a bowl of baklava and making the honey pastry drizzle all over her. All sticky. That had been fun. And no one could ever know it’d been her.

Iona giggled. Being a half-god ruled big time.

“Hi.”

A voice behind her made her turn. Her eyes tracked up, past a set of leather pants, a muscled chest and up to a handsome face.

“Are you Iona?”

Iona swallowed, just staring up at him with wide eyes.

“Are you Iona?” The stranger repeated, a little louder now, probably assuming the bur of noise around them had kept her from hearing him the first time.

“Uhm… yeah. Yes, I am.” Iona hastily straightened, running a finger through her hair and quickly ordering it. “Do I know you?”

“No, but I’ve heard a lot about you.” He held out his hand and she took it. It was warm and strong. She instantly blushed a deep red.

“Are you… a… a friend of Gabrielle’s?”

“Well,” he drawled. “Kinda. Sorta. It’s complicated.” He held out his hand again. “Wanna dance? I’d love to get to know you a little better?”

“Sure,” she managed to gasp before she was led towards the dance floor.

Xena propped her foot up against the table, leaning back in her seat and taking a sip of her wine. The party was in full swing now. People were dancing and drinking and laughing. Her daughter had disappeared in the masses. She’d sent a reluctant Niobe off to bed, and Caspar had gone with her. He wasn’t much of a party animal, that boy.

She grinned. But then again, neither was she. There was too much noise for her sensitive ears. And she’d always hated crowds. She’d learned to deal with them, she’d had to, but if she could avoid them, she would. Especially crowds like these.

Xena sighed. She’d gotten quite a few narrow eyed looks tossed at her and picked up some snide remarks. She was used to those, but still… it always stung a little.

Gabrielle was having fun though, and that’s what mattered. She tipped her head back, staring at the ceiling, watching flecks of light travel across its surface. She’d found herself a spot in a corner, out of the way, where it was somewhat more quiet. She could ride out the rest of the night tucked out of sight.

“Do you mind if I sit here?”

Xena looked up to find a young man standing before her. He was handsome, with strong features and shortly cropped dark hair. Xena shrugged. “Siddown.”

“Thanks.” He did, his eyes scanning the room a moment, before he spoke up again. “Are you a friend of Gabrielle’s?”

Xena tried to repress a smirk. This fellow clearly had no idea who she was. That was a rarity. “Nah. We’re more like faint acquaintances.” She drawled. “You?”

“I grew up with her,” he said.

“Ah,” Xena nodded, understanding completely now. “You’re from Potedeia.”

“Yeah. Beautiful place.” He said, smiling at the thought of his home village. “Have you ever been there?”

“No, just missed it, sadly.”

“It’s much nicer than this city.” He grimaced. “It’s so busy here. Crowded. And smelly.”

He paused for a moment, thinking about this, then turned back to her. “So… Gabrielle… seems to have a lot of friends.”

“Yeah. She’s very popular for some reason.”

“That sure changed. Back home she was always more of a loner.” The young man crossed his ankles, staring intently at the tip of his boot as he wiggled his toes. “She didn’t much fit in.”

“I bet,” Xena murmured, imagining Gabrielle as a younger girl in a small, narrow-minded village. What an odd picture that made.

“Is she… involved with someone?”

Oh, this is getting better by the second. “Yeah, she’s dating some woman I heard.”

He didn’t seem too surprised by this. “Thought as much. That short woman, with the curly hair and all the leather I bet. Gabrielle always did have a thing for leather.”

Xena nearly choked on her sip of wine. “Uhm.” She cleared her throat. “No, not her. Some dark haired type. Haven’t seen her around yet. You’ll recognize her the moment she walks in though.” She leaned closer. “Just between you and me… ug-ly…”

Breathe. Iona instructed herself sternly. You need to breathe.

“So,” her dance partner, spun her around playfully, then continued dancing to the rhythm of the music. “You’re Xena’s kid, huh?”

Iona looked up at him and blinked, momentary diverted. “You know about that?”

“Sure,” he laughed.

Iona sighed. His laugh was so cute.

She shook her head a little, trying to rid herself of the thought. Cute was not a word in her vocabulary. People were either really cool. Like Gabrielle or Xena. Or they were lame. Like Caspar. They were not cute.

“You really are her spitting image. It’s almost scary really.” Another laugh.

Iona sighed again. He was so cute.

“Cupie! You found her!”

Iona was thrown from her daydreaming as a woman came bounding closer, smiling broadly.

She was… Iona blinked a few times. … very pink.

“Hello sweetie,” the pink lady squeezed her cheek affectionately. “Well, aren’t you the cutest thing?”

“Mother,” her dance partner scolded the woman, pushing her back a little to Iona’s relief. “Give the girl some space, would you?”

“Mother?” Iona repeated, glancing from the young man to the not much older woman.

“I was a teenage mom,” the woman informed her, then giggled. She cast a glance up at her son. “She really looks nothing like him, does she?”

“Not at all,” he responded, with a smile. “All the better.”

“Yeah. Totally,” the woman grimaced, her cheery attitude receding a little. “Wouldn’t want to be reminded of that every time.” She turned back to Iona. “You ever feel like… you know… waging war and taking over the world or something?”

“Uhm… no,” Iona looked at her funny. “That would be stupid. Mom already did that.”

“Super!” The woman looked up happily. “No megalomaniac tendencies in there.”

Her son rolled his eyes. “You deducted that just by asking her two questions? You’re quite the psychologist.”

“Not a psychologist, sweetie. A loooove doctor.” She giggled again, then her attention was diverted to a young couple dancing past, holding each other somewhat awkwardly. “Oh no, honey. You can do better than that.” She instructed the young man after he’d passed, before lifting a hand and waving it at the back of his head. A small poof of pink smoke erupted from her index finger and drifted over to the couple, swirling around them a few times. The cloud then split into two equal halves, one half zooming in on the man’s heart, the other finding the woman’s.

The next moment the woman grabbed a flower from a nearby vase and stuck it between her teeth, before her partner grabbed onto her tightly and swept her over the dance floor.

“Yeah, baby!” the blond woman did a little happy shuffle. “Still got it.”

“I can’t believe this,” Gabrielle rested her chin on her folded hands and stared at her sister.

“He’s a good man,” Lila said softly.

“He’s Perdicas,” her sister replied to that, somewhat exasperated. “Remember how we used to laugh at the silly lovesick things he used to do?”

Lila lips quirked up a little. “Yes. I remember.” She released a breath, then looked back at her sister. “Look, it’s a good marriage, okay? I don’t have to live with mom and dad anymore, for one. He treats me well. And… And his father owns the property next to ours. So when Perdicas inherits it…”

“Dad will have exactly what he wanted,” Gabrielle finished for her, shaking her head in disgust. “The eldest wouldn’t cooperate, but fortunately he had two daughters.”

“Don’t say that.” Lila reached over, taking her hand. “It’s not like that, Gab. It’s really not. I mean,” she consented. “It’s not like I love him. And he doesn’t love me. But we like each other. That’s something.”

“Oh, Lila,” Gabrielle squeezed her sister’s hand gently. “You have no idea what you’re missing out on.”

“Really?” Lila studied her curiously. “I picked up some gossip in the inn we’re staying at. About you and a certain Empress?”

“Yeah,” Gabrielle responded, unable to repress a happy smile.

“You seem happy.”

“I am,” her sister confirmed. “It’s really strange for me to say that, ‘cause… happy wasn’t in my vocabulary for the longest time. And it’s not always easy, me and her, but… she looks at me and I feel I can fly.” A small laugh. “It’s so weird.”

“Last time I saw you, you ran off to kill her, if I recall correctly…”

Gabrielle sighed. “It’s a really long story,” Reminded of Xena, she looked up, her eyes scanning the crowd. “You mind if I tell you later? I think I need to go find her, actually.”

“Sure,” Lila released her with a smile. “Promise we’ll talk tomorrow or so though? I’ve missed your stories. No matter how long.”

Gabrielle darted her a smile as she got up. “Promise.” She said, before turning and disappearing into the crowd.

“Oh yes. She was always very vindictive,” Perdicas said, taking another sip of his wine. “This one time this fellow from the neighbouring village said something nasty about her sister and she slugged him. Just like that. Very improper for a young girl.”

“Oh yes. Very,” the woman next to him drawled.

Someone cleared their throat softly right behind them and Perdicas’ eyes moved away from the woman sitting beside him to find Gabrielle standing in front of her.

“Hi,” the blonde greeted them both politely. Perdicas gave her a curt nod. She then extended her hand with a smile. “Dance with me?”

Perdicas laughed wryly. “Gabrielle, I don’t think…”

“I’d love to,” Xena responded, reaching out and taking her hand. She cast a look over her shoulder at Perdicas, who was watching them both with wide, confused eyes. “It was nice talking to you.”

“Uhm…” Perdicas blinked at her, still not comprehending what was going on. “Yeah…”

Xena allowed herself to be dragged towards the dance floor.

“Do you know who you were talking to?”

Xena chuckled wickedly.

“Thought as much,” Gabrielle sighed, rolling her eyes.

The Empress smiled, then moved closer a little, dropping her voice. “You might wanna back out of this dancing idea.”

“Why?”

“‘Cause…” Xena shrugged a little. “I don’t want to ruin a good thing. I’m not the most popular girl at the party, you know?”

They reached the dance floor and Gabrielle turned around to face the Empress. “Well, what can I say…?” She moved closer, sliding her arms around Xena’s neck. “I’m a rebel…”

The Empress chuckled deep in her throat. “Well, you’d say people here should be able to respect that at least.” She laid her cheek against the other woman’s hair. “So. You… Him… Explain that to me, would ya?”

The warrior exhaled. “Not a lot to explain. We were about the same age, his parents liked my parents… you know…”

“Ah, very romantic.”

“Romance is not a word that Potedieans are familiar with.”

“Their loss,” Xena murmured.

“Yeah,” Gabrielle agreed. “I feel bad for my sister though.”

“He said they were… content.”

The warrior sighed, leaning back a little and looking up, meeting blue eyes. “Is that enough?”

“Not for us,” the Empress smiled a little. “But for some people…. Yes.”

Gabrielle considered this a moment, then moved closer again, resting her head against Xena’s shoulder. “I don’t get that.”

“It’s all about how you wanna live life. For people like you and me… It’s all or nothing. We go for the extremes. There’s no such thing as just content. When we’re happy, we’re… ecstatic. But when we hurt, we hurt bad.” A shrug. “Some people just don’t want to take that risk.”

“I don’t get that,” Gabrielle repeated. “ But it’s good that you do. You… you get people. Different types of people. You understand how they work. I don’t. I don’t get why people don’t feel the same way I do.”

A chuckle. “Who’s the megalomaniac now?”

Gabrielle smiled. “Maybe I am.”

They both fell silent, just swaying to the music. Gabrielle allowed her eyes to wander, absently scanning the crowd. They appeared to be the center of attention, people looking at them and whispering to each other. “Thank you. For the party.”

“Hardly did a thing. Your friend Thalia did most of the work. I just provided a room and ordered people to order people to do the catering.”

“Sure,” Gabrielle drawled, not believing a word.

“Really,” Xena said, and was about to continue, when she spotted movement from the corner of an eye. “Uh oh.”

“What?”

“I think your ex just caught on,” the Empress murmured with a smirk. “He’s marching over here.”

The blonde peeked over Xena’s shoulder, seeing him as well. “Good,” she stated. “He’ll get a front row seat for this then.”

Xena frowned. “For wh…?”

She was unable to finish her question as Gabrielle pulled her head down and lips captured hers. For a moment she was too stunned to react. Then she did, wrapping her arms more tightly around the blonde and enjoying the kiss for several long moments.

As she pulled away a little, green eyes twinkled mischievously at her. The room around them had gone suspiciously quiet.

Then there was a soft thud. The two women both looked down, to see Perdicas lying slumped on the marble tiles.

“Huh,” Xena murmured, clearly amused. “I guess that was too much for him.” She turned back to the blonde standing next to her, dropping her voice to a whisper. “Subtlety… Not your thing, is it?”

Gabrielle just grinned back at her deviously.

“Now there’s two people who don’t need divine assistance in the love department.”

The comment was a mere whisper, but Xena heard it nevertheless. She turned towards the sound, her eyes quickly zooming in on the speaker. Hey eyes narrowed and darkened. Without a word she let go of Gabrielle, stalking towards the woman dressed in pink.

“Xena?” The blonde frowned, not sure what had just happened.

Aphrodite glanced around, in the hope the menacing woman was heading for some other goddess, but she was the only one around.

When Xena had nearly reached her, the Empress gracefully reached down and plucked a dagger from its sheath strapped against her leg. The next moment she had a hand wrapped around Aphrodite’s throat and shoved the goddess against the wall.

“Whoa! Hey!” Aphrodite stared at her with wide eyes as she lifted the dagger overhead. “Time out! Time out!”

“Mom!” Iona called out in shock. “What are you doing?”

“Get away from my daughter!” Xena hissed, then shot a furious look over her shoulder at Cupid. “Now!”

Cupid hastily lifted his hands and backed up a pace. “Hey, chill! We were just having a friendly chat.”

“Xena!” Iona called out again. “They weren’t doing anything bad! Let her go!”

Xena turned her attention to her daughter. “Iona, get away from him.”

The girl stared at her a moment in complete confusion, then she shook her head determinedly. “No.” She took a step closer to Cupid. “I was just talking to them, mom.”

“Step away from him,” Xena repeated again, her eyes bearing down on the girl.

But Iona resisted, not intimidated by her mother’s dark stares. “No.” She said firmly, meeting identical blue eyes in a battle of wills.

Meanwhile Gabrielle came running closer, looking highly confused. “What’s going on here?”

Xena darted a look over her shoulder at the blonde. “Get Iona.” She instructed.

Gabrielle hesitated a moment, unsure, but then she decided to just do as Xena requested and ask questions later. She turned towards the girl, holding out a hand. “Iona, come over here. Please.”

The girl was looking desperate now, her eyes darting between her mother and the warrior. Gabrielle took a few steps closer, reaching for her. “No!” Before Gabrielle could get close enough Iona lifted a hand. With a surprised yell the warrior was hurdled backward, flying through the air a few feet before crashing into some spectators.

Iona turned back to her mother, raising her hand again. The next moment the hind’s blood dagger went soaring through the air, thudding in a wooden pillar in the center of the room.

“Whoa,” Cupid blinked, clearly impressed. “Nifty.”

“Let her go,” Iona warned her mother, her eyes narrowed dangerously.

Aphrodite saved her the trouble though, disappearing from Xena’s grasp in a flash of pink and reappearing next to her son and behind Iona. “Family-in-law,” she muttered, rubbing her painful neck. “Why are they always a bother? Hmm?”

Xena looked at her daughter with a mixture of disbelief and outrage. Meanwhile Gabrielle had scrambled back to her feet and stepped up next to Xena, her expression quite similar to that of the Empress.

Aphrodite hesitated a moment, then decided to intervene. “Hey now.” She moved up next to Iona. “Where’s the lovin’ ?” She tried a smile, but Xena just narrowed her eyes further at her. “I’m not trying to hurt your kid, Xena. Honest to… me, I’m not.” She looked at the Empress pleadingly. “Come on, you know me. Goddess of Love, remember? Not of Kidnapping. I just wanted to see her. She’s family.”

“I don’t want her to have any contact with you or any other members of your family.” Xena growled.

“Yeah, well I do!” Iona snapped back, her eyes blazing. “Doesn’t it matter what I want?!”

Xena huffed out a frustrated breath. “Iona, I’m warning you…”

But she never got to finish that threat as suddenly on the other side of the room the large glass windows exploded inward, sending fragments of glass flying through the room.

The crowd, who’d been merely confused, now panicked and all ran to get as far away from the windows as possible.

“What the…” Xena frowned, forgetting about Aphrodite and Cupid for a moment and turning to this new commotion.

As the last shards of glass rained onto the marble floor, a man entered from outside. It was just a simple man, dressed in a worn, light-blue, hooded robe. His reddish, curly hair reached down to his shoulders.

“I’ve seen him,” Gabrielle whispered beside her. “I’ve seen him in the market square a few days back. He was following me, I think.”

“Quite an entrance for a stalker,” Xena muttered, then squared her shoulders. “Watch Iona and her new… friends. I’ll deal with this.”

The stranger took a few steps inside, the glass shards crackling under his boots. Xena walked up to him, stopping between him and the watching crowd. “Hey, aren’t you taking the phrase ‘crashing the party’ a bit too literally, hmm?” She crossed her arms, darting him a pointed look.

The young man looked up, studying her for a moment, before smiling at her. It wasn’t a nice type of smile.

There was something very eerie about this fellow. She didn’t know him, she was sure of that, but there was something familiar about him. A nasty gnawing in her gut, alarming, but she couldn’t pinpoint what it was. “Come on then,” Xena dared him, circling a little closer. “I’m assuming you didn’t blow up my ballroom just to smile at me.”

“No, I did not,” the man spoke for the first time. He had a strange accent. He looked like a man from Britannia, but there was also a hint of something from the orient in his voice. “I have come to deliver a message to you. On behalf of my Lord.” His smile grew. “I have been chosen. Selected from many of his followers to tell you of his coming.”

Xena looked at him, puzzled. “What are you talking about?”

“The end is near,” the young man said, his eyes darkening. “The old, crippled, blind, maimed, your so-called gods… All will be destroyed. Cleansed by the fires of war.”

Xena stared at him another moment, then she snorted, amused. “Look, buddy, I’m sure your Lord has big plans and all, but any cleansing by war is gonna be done by me.” She took a step towards him. “Leave. Go tell your lord to bugger off.”

In response the stranger moved his hand forward. A blast of air shot from his palm, sending Xena flying back. The Empress crashed harshly back on the marble tiles, sliding along the slippery surface until she finally came to a halt.

Gabrielle watched the whole scene with wide eyes. Her first instinct was to rush to Xena’s side, but the Empress had asked her to watch over Iona. Reluctantly she stayed where she was.

Xena scrambled back to her feet. The guards who’d been posted outside the door came rushing to her side. Without a word she grabbed a spear from one of them and moved towards the stranger again. The young man watched her approach, not bothering to grab for a weapon of his own. “You are pissing me off.” Xena hissed at him, pointing the tip of the spear at him. “Who are you? And who’s your lord?”

The young man laughed. An unpleasant laugh, dark and menacing. His dark eyes glinted right into hers. “I am Khrafstar, high priest of my Lord, the One God, the dark force that will sweep this world.”

Xena’s eyes widened as realization hit her. She instinctively took a step back. “Dahak,” she managed to say in barely more than a whisper. Khrafstar advanced a pace towards her, and Xena instantly took another step backwards. “My Lord wishes you to know your reign has ended. Your reign and that of your puny deities. I am here to foretell The Downfall.”

The flames of the torches suddenly shot up, the flames raging and flickering though there was no wind to stir them.

“The Downfall,” Aphrodite breathed, fear evident in her eyes. “That’s just legend…”

“The forces of My Lord Dahak stand at your borders now,” the Priest continued, his eyes not leaving Xena’s. “He has no desire to keep this from you. His victory is a certainty. He will enter this land and he will destroy your gods. He will destroy your villages, your soldiers, your palace, your friends, your family…” He cast a look sideways, his eyes narrowing in on Iona. The girl stared back at him, trying to swallow the ball of fear that had somehow gotten stuck in her throat. His eyes finally turned back to Xena before he continued. “And when there is no one left, when he has destroyed all that you once loved… then he will destroy you.” He took another step closer and Xena stumbled back again, tripping over her own feet and crashing to the ground. Khrafstar loomed over her menacingly. “He has not forgotten you, Xena, Warrior Princess.”

Callisto rose from her pallet, cocking her head curiously. Something was going on. It wasn’t that she could see that something was wrong, or that she could hear it, but… She closed her eyes, sniffing the air. A wicked grin tugged at her lips. “I smell trouble.”

A torch at the far end of the room flickered. A moment, then the torch closer to her lit up just a little higher. Callisto studied the flames with interest.

Immortal.

The blonde frowned, looking around to find the speaker. Though… the words hadn’t been spoken, really, had they? The flame lighting up the torch hanging from the wall opposite her cell suddenly rose up strongly, causing tall shadows to shift through the prison.

Immortal.

There the word was again. It was… coming from inside her head. “Oh great. I’m hearing voices,” the blonde sighed. “Again.”

Hear me, Immortal. Do you wish to leave this cell and walk the earth once more?

“No, I’m just peachy in here,” Callisto drawled, rolling her eyes. “Duh! Of course I want to get out, you stupid voice in my head.”

Then I will aid you.

The next moment, the doors to all the empty cells around Callisto flew open, the sound of metal clanging on metal echoing harshly through the hollow prison complex. Callisto’s eyes widened, then shimmered with delight.

I will aid you. If you aid me.

It was as if she was frozen solid. She couldn’t move. Xena swallowed, just gazing up at the dark face looming over her. Dahak. The name kept echoing through her head. Dahak.

She tried to focus on the threat before her, but her mind kept spinning around restlessly.

A yell from behind her then as her guards rushed forward, loyally, towards Dahak’s Deliverer. Khrafstar looked up, almost bored. The first man reached him and he kicked off from the ground, kicking the soldier in the face. He flipped back and landed solidly on his feet again, to face the next soldier. He grabbed onto his attacker’s sword and pushed it backwards, up against the young man’s face. Disorientated the soldier lost grip on his weapon. Khrafstar neatly took it from him and spun it around, severing the soldier’s head in one stroke. Blood splatters landed on Xena’s face.

Gabrielle shot a look at Iona, who turned away in horror at the sight. She looked back at Xena. The Empress was still lying on the ground. She’d had enough time to get up by now, but… she hadn’t. Gabrielle swallowed, doubtful.

“Gabrielle!”

Gabrielle looked to her left as Ephiny came running up, Solari and some other Amazons close behind. “Is this some real weird party entertainment?” The Amazon Queen breathed as she slid to a halt beside her. “Who the Hades is this fellow talking about?”

“Dahak.”

Gabrielle turned to Aphrodite, who’d spoken the name in a mere whisper. The goddess seemed petrified.

Aphrodite stared at the ongoing battle another moment, then turned to Cupid. “Let’s split. Fast.” She cast a glance at Iona. “Take her.”

“Like Hades, you will,” Gabrielle intervened, grabbing onto Iona’s shoulder and tugging her away from Cupid.

Aphrodite glanced at the fighting again, then turned back to Gabrielle. “Let me take her. I’ll take her somewhere safe.”

“No.”

Another moment of hesitation. “You don’t know what you’re dealing with. Let us take her.”

“No,” Gabrielle repeated again, pulling Iona behind her. The girl, clearly in shock, wasn’t putting up much of a fight.

Aphrodite wanted to protest again, but her son placed a hand on her shoulder, holding her back. “So be it.” The goddess breathed. The next moment they both vanished in a puff of pink smoke.

“I’m feeling very lost,” Ephiny muttered, glancing from the receding pink cloud to the super human fighting below.

“Me too,” Gabrielle responded, turning to the Amazon. “Protect Iona,” she said before she ran towards the Empress.

“Not the kinda help I had in mind,” Ephiny muttered. She turned to her Amazons. “You heard my hero. Protect the child.” She reached down, pulling two daggers from beneath the folds of her dress. “Meanwhile, I’ll protect the hero.”

Gabrielle reached for the sides of her dress as she ran, tearing the fabric there with quick and precise motions. She ran past a large metal candelabrum and grabbed onto it, slamming the top end against the marble floor, causing both the candles and the candleholders to fall off. As the flames of the candles died out, they hissed angrily.

The next moment she was ducking past a soldier that had been thrown back and she was facing Khrafstar. He looked up at her and as his eyes peered into hers, a fear gripped at her heart. A fear stronger than any she had ever experienced. He cocked his head, intrigued. Gabrielle swallowed.

Then she squared her shoulders and lunged out, hitting the cloaked man against the shoulder. He stumbled sideways, then recovered. He pushed forward a hand again and Gabrielle could only just avoid the rush of air that was blasted towards her. She rolled under it and towards him, leaning back on her hands and pushing her body straight up, her feet hitting him square in the chest.

Xena dazedly watched the fighting. It took her a few moments, then she realized it was Gabrielle she was watching. “No, Gabrielle,” she croaked, the sight of the blonde somehow releasing her from her frozen state. She crawled back to her feet, grabbing firmly onto her spear and rushing forward herself.

“So you want to team up?” Callisto stared into the flames. “I’ve been in a partnership before. Wasn’t too successful, I have to say.”

In return for your freedom, you will serve me until I have no more need for you. Then you will be free to leave. When the pantheon falls, you will be spared.

Callisto considered this offer a moment, clearly not convinced. She started pacing her cell. “And… what do you need exactly?”

A pure soul, an innocent. To mother my child.

“Eeeuw,” Callisto made a face. “I’m so not doing that.”

And a warrior’s heart.

“Haven’t got one of those, dear.”

No. You are not suitable for either task. But you will be able to get me both. I do not have the strength yet to appear in this land as a solid form. When I have found my warrior’s heart, the warrior chosen will be my champion. My vessel.

This peaked Callisto’s interest. “So… You’re saying whoever I pick will go nice and bad… and join… our side.”

Yes.

“Delightful,” Callisto wiggled her fingers in anticipation. “I’ll play. Get me out of here.”

Gabrielle managed to duck just in time as she heard something searing through the air towards them. The chakram whisked over her head, finding Khrafstar and cutting into the skin of his arm.

Gabrielle glanced around, seeing Xena running up to her. She managed a smile before turning back to her opponent. “You’re in trouble now.”

Khrafstar looked up her in confusion, then winced as the chakram cut into his side on the way back to its owner. The next moment Gabrielle slammed her weapon up against his face. She then planted her make-shift staff on the ground and pushed herself off, slamming her feet firmly against his chest.

The next moment Xena was standing next to her and pushed her spear forward. The weapon implanted itself deeply into his stomach. Khrafstar stumbled back, looking down at the sharp point sticking into his skin in bewilderment. He then reached for the weapon, snapping the wood off with a single hand. He looked up at them, his eyes a fiery red now. “Futile,” he snapped, snapping the wooden pole in half again, then launching one half at Xena and the other at Gabrielle.

“Whoa!” Gabrielle jumped, dragging Xena to the ground with her. They slid across the marble a few feet before coming to a halt. Gabrielle hopped back to her feet, hastily pinpointing their attacker’s position. “You okay?”

“No,” Xena managed, rising to her feet as well. She saw Gabrielle look at her, but she refused to meet the warrior’s gaze.

The doors slammed open again and soldiers came pouring into the ball room, one row instantly lining up before the party guests, the others running to Xena’s side.

Her general Dorian stopped beside her. “Trouble, Empress?”

“I want his head,” Xena growled, running an arm over her forehead, smearing out the blood splatters there.

“On a platter,” Dorian said with a quick salute, before yelling instructions to his men.

Khrafstar watched the soldiers storm in and circle him. He touched his side, wincing as he saw blood clinging to his hand. “It will be an honour dying for you, Lord Dahak.”

The flames of the torches lit up suddenly, and the young man’s face shot up. He listened intently, then smiled. His eyes found Xena’s through the masses. “It is done.” He stated with a smile. Then a bright ball of fire shot up from the nearest torches, hovering down and covering him completely. When the flames receded, the Deliverer was gone.

Gabrielle stared at the spot where Khrafstar had stood only moments before. Murmuring drifted up around her, the party guests speaking up again now. The soldiers looked around at each other, somewhat uncertain of what to do.

Ephiny stepped up beside her. “Well… Have to say you do know how to throw a memorable party.” She looked at the warrior. “What was that?”

“I don’t know…” Gabrielle breathed, turning towards Xena to ask her the same question.

But Xena was moving away from her already, pacing through the crowd that hastily stepped aside for her. She stopped near the wooden pillar, circling it, then touching a vertical cut with hesitant fingers. It had been the place Iona had embedded the Hind’s Blood dagger into. It was not there anymore though.

“Damn it,” Xena breathed, her blue eyes darting across the room restlessly.

Iona drew in a shuddering breath, her mind still trying to process the overload of events that had just occurred. She slid from behind her Amazon guards and tentatively headed in Xena’s direction. “Mom?” Blue eyes instantly shot towards her. Iona swallowed, seeing the icy blue there, seeing the shadows flicker over her mother’s face. “Mom, I’m sorry, I….”

“Go to your room.” The words were forced from Xena’s throat.

“But …”

“Go to your room.” Xena repeated again, pronouncing the words very precisely. She wasn’t yelling or anything, but… Iona drew in a breath, trying very hard not to cry. She’d almost preferred it if she had yelled. There was a coldness in her words now that was so much worse than any yelling.

Xena turned her back on her and paced towards the doors with determined steps. “Dorian!”

“Empress,” the general hastily ran after her and fell in pace beside her, as she exited the ball room.

“Xena!” Gabrielle called after her, very confused now. She started going after the Empress, but before she could her path was blocked by her friends, who surrounded her with questions she had no answers to.

Odilon groggily pushed open the door to his room, rubbing his eyes at the bright light outside. He’d gone to bed early this night, seeing no need in attending Gabrielle’s party. There had been noise though, and it had woken him up. He walked down some stairs, then turned around a corridor.

Only to jump back hastily as Xena came marching past, her general Dorian rushing after her. “Whoa!” he blinked a moment, then hastily set in pursuit of the Empress. “Xena!”

Xena continued on though, only speaking some words to Dorian. “Call in the reserves. Veterans too. I want the first legions to be ready to head for the border at daybreak.”

“As you wish, Empress,” Dorian said as they halted in front of Xena’s study.

“Get me 20 good horsemen to ride with me now.”

Dorian tapped his chest in salute, then hastily jogged off towards the soldiers quarters.

Xena opened the door to her study, stepping inside. She went straight for a large cabinet standing on the left side of the room and pulled it open. The dim moonlight reflected off well polished armor. She pulled open a drawer to reveal a collection of swords and other weapons.

“Okay,” Odilon spoke up from behind something. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m guessing I missed something.”

Xena still didn’t say anything, pulling what remained of her dress off and dressing herself in leather. She pulled light metal armor over on top, then selected a set of bracers for both her upper and lower arms. Odilon frowned, seeing her hands were shaking. “Xena,” he said again, his voice low now. “What’s going on?”

The Empress turned to him now. Her eyes were a pale blue. There was a fear there. Something he hadn’t seen in a long, long time. Not since….

“He’s back,” Xena spoke up, her voice quivering. “Dahak.”

Odilon stared at her for a long moment, disbelievingly. Then he squared his shoulders. “I’ll meet you downstairs.”

Xena nodded at him quickly, then turned back to her dressing.

Gabrielle strode into the hallway. There was a lot of commotion going on, soldiers running back and forth. She turned, to find her sister walking up to her. “Look, you’re staying here tonight, okay? Both of you.”

“We already paid for the inn,” Lila said.

“Doesn’t matter. I’m not letting you get out there on your own. The Amazons are staying here too.” Her eyes scanned the hallway, until she found who she was looking for. “Benitor!”

The servant looked up, then hastily walked to her side. “My Lady,” he bowed briefly.

“Can you take my sister and her…. husband to one of the guest quarters? They’ll be staying here for a few days. Some of my other friends will be too.”

“Naturally,” the older man managed a brief smile, then his face became serious again. “What is going on, Gabrielle?”

“Don’t know,” Gabrielle sighed, getting somewhat tired of getting asked that question. She caught a dark figure emerging from a corridor. “But let me go find out.”

Soldiers fell into pace beside her instantly, as Xena headed for the doorway. “Have you sent out a messenger?”

The man beside her, an officer, nodded. “On the fastest horse, My Queen.”

“Good,” Xena said, nodding a little to herself. “Good.”

“Xena!”

The Empress swallowed, continuing on.

“Xena, wait!” Gabrielle reached her now, but the soldiers surrounding Xena kept her from coming near the woman.

Xena closed her eyes a moment, then she did stop. “Go on. Get ready.” She instructed her soldiers, who obediently walked on, out the palace doors.

Gabrielle stopped as well, watching the soldiers pace out, leaving Xena standing there, facing away from her. For a moment there was no movement, then Xena squared her shoulders and turned. Gabrielle met her eyes, searching them. There was a wall there. One she’d last seen quite a while ago, the weeks after she’d met Xena again on a road in Macedonia.

She could see past that wall now though, even if just a little. And past that wall was confusion. And fear. Lots of fear.

There were so many questions, but Gabrielle somehow found herself asking the lamest one. “Where are you going?”

Xena swallowed. “I have to go. To see if… if what he said is true.”

“About… About the army, at the border?”

The Empress nodded. “That too.”

Gabrielle hesitated a moment, then tentatively took a step closer. “What’s going on?” Her eyes searched the dark face. “I don’t understand what’s going on. Who was that guy? And this… Dahak?”

Xena lifted a hand, shushing her even at the mention of the name. “It’s complicated…”

“Well, uncomplicate it for me.”

Xena closed her eyes. She ran a shaky hand through her hair. “I… He…” A shaky breath. “I fought him. A long time ago. We locked him up. Forever, I thought. Me and…” her eyes opened, staring blankly in front of her. “Ares. Ares, of course.” She covered her eyes with a hand. “I should have never killed Ares.”

Gabrielle looked at her disbelievingly. “What? You’d rather have the King of the Gods around? The one who was trying to kill your daughter?”

Xena focused on her again. She took a step closer this time, dropping her voice. “Look. I don’t know how bad this is. Maybe he was lying. I… I don’t wanna create a stir when there’s nothing to be stirred. But I have to go see. To know.”

Gabrielle reached out to her, touching her side. “Okay. Okay, then… just give me a quarter of a candlemark. Less even. I’ll just get my things. I’ll go with you.”

A smile fleeted across Xena’s face. “No.” She reached up, touching the blonde’s cheek. “No, you can’t. I…” She dropped her voice to a mere whisper. “I need you here. To look after my kids. Iona.” She met Gabrielle’s eyes. “Promise me. Promise me you’ll let no one near her. That you’ll keep her safe.”

“I promise,” the warrior heard herself say.

Xena exhaled a breath in relief. “Good.”

“Xena?” Odilon called out from the doorway. “We’re ready.”

Xena glanced at him, then returned her eyes back to Gabrielle’s. She searched her eyes for a moment, then she leaned closer.

Gabrielle closed her eyes. The kiss was emotional, almost painful, as if a hand gripped onto her heart and squeezed. A hand slid up and into Xena’s hair, pulling her closer. Not wanting to let go.

The kiss lasted only briefly though. Gabrielle bit her lip as she felt the Empress lean her forehead against hers.

“I love you,” Xena’s voice spoke up in barely more than a whisper.

Then the next moment the Empress pulled away, turning around and walking off. The door fell shut behind her, echoing loudly through the now empty hallway.

Gabrielle pushed open the door to her room and closed it again behind her. It was dark inside, but she didn’t light any candles. She just walked over to the window, closing her eyes and letting the cold breeze blow against her face.

She felt like crying. There was no real reason to. She had no idea of what was going on. She felt insecure. She hated feeling insecure.

Xena had said she loved her. For some reason, with everything that had happened this night, that was on her mind the most. Gabrielle had known it, she’d heard the Empress’s thoughts for a moment after she’d died. But she hadn’t said it out loud.

Xena was a romantic. It wasn’t like her to just blurt that out in a hallway filled with soldiers and then run away.

And now she was gone. Gabrielle had no idea when she’d be back, what she was supposed to do in the meantime… She was supposed to protect Iona and Caspar and Niobe. But protect them from what?

With a sigh she walked over to her bed and sat down, pulling up her knees and wrapping her arms around her legs. Blankly she stared at the door. She could still go after Xena. She couldn’t have gotten far yet. Just to make her explain. Just so she would understand… Just….

A flash lit up her room suddenly. Gabrielle toppled off her bed in shock. Then hastily jumped back to her feet to face the new arrival.

A shape moved in the shadows of her room, then sighed loudly. “Ah, I see. You’re a darkness chick too.” There was a snap of fingers, then the candles in her room lit up, illuminating the room and the bright pink form standing in the center of it. “And here I thought you were different…”

Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at the goddess. “What do you want?”

Aphrodite rolled her eyes. “Chill, ok. You’ve all made it very clear I’m not wanted.” She stretched out a hand, holding an item out to Gabrielle. “Just here to return something that belongs to you.”

Gabrielle stared at the hind’s blood dagger in Aphrodite’s hand. She glanced up at the goddess warily, then reached over and took it from her.

“I just took it so no one else would,” Aphrodite explained. She hesitated a moment, then added. “And I really wasn’t going to hurt the kid. I realize her High and Mighty doesn’t want me seeing her anymore now, but just… Just tell her I didn’t mean bad. Okay?” Aphrodite lifted a hand to flash herself from Gabrielle room again.

“Wait,” Gabrielle spoke up. Aphrodite lowered the hand again, cocking her head at the warrior. “This…” she held up the dagger. “This is a powerful weapon. Why would you just give it to me?”

Aphrodite shrugged. “If I keep it up on Olympus too long, they’ll find out. Something powerful like that gets noticed. I’m not strong enough to keep it for myself. And if one side gets it…” the goddess shook her head sadly. “It’d get ugly. Things are ugly enough as they are.”

Gabrielle frowned. “One side?”

“Yeah,” Aphrodite released a tired breath. “Ever since Xena offed my brother, there’s been an empty seat available in the throne hall. And you know how it is…”

“And you’re not part of any side?”

The goddess wrinkled her nose in dismay. “Nuhuh. I’m not interested.” In a softer tone she added. “And nobody’s interested in me. All I can do is zap myself around and make people fall in love with each other. Not too handy in a family feud.” Blue eyes glanced up at her. “Xena’s right, you know? About wanting to protect Iona from the family. She’s powerful. She tossed you aside like you were a plaything.”

Gabrielle rubbed her side, which was still painful from the fall. “Don’t remind me.”

“They’re gonna be after her. If they’re not already. Especially now, with…” A breath. “…with him.”

Gabrielle studied the goddess a moment, then tentatively seated herself on the edge of the bed, tucking the dagger in her boot for safe keeping. “Dahak, you mean?”

“We don’t like to say his name.”

“Why not?”

Aphrodite released a breath, leaning back against the wall. “Didn’t her Highness tell you?”

“She was in a hurry to leave.” Gabrielle spoke, somewhat bitterly.

Aphrodite glanced up at her, then dropped her eyes to the tiled floor. “Poor Xena.”

Gabrielle frowned, finding the expressed compassion for the Empress odd, considering the events that had occurred earlier that evening.

“He is…” Aphrodite continued, considering her words. “Well, you know how my family works, right? We all have some good qualities and some nastier ones. I mean, even at his worst, my brother had his good moments. And he really did love Xena. In his own weird, destructive way…” She glanced up at Gabrielle, dropping her voice. “The Persian pantheon…. Well, it’s a little more black and white. And Dahak is the black.”

“How does Xena fit into all this?” Gabrielle asked. She realized somewhere a Greek goddess wasn’t the best source of information, but any information at this time would do.

Aphrodite fumbled with the edge of her sleeve absently. “Well, in the whole world conquest thing, Ares saved Persia for the last. That wasn’t smart. He was just scared. Xena was his at the time. And if Xena went to Persia, this meant in a way he would go, even if only in name. And if he went to Persia…”

“Dahak would come after him.” Gabrielle finished, nodding a little in understanding.

“Yes,” Aphrodite confirmed. “Dahak had been gaining power in Persia, like Ares had here. The white part of their pantheon…. Well, there was hardly anyone left. Ares was afraid of him. He didn’t want to fight him.” Blue eyes lifted and met green ones. “So he sent Xena.”

The warrior’s eyes hardened in outrage. “Bastard.”

“I doubt she realized…. That she knew who he was.” A breath. “I’m not sure what happened, exactly. What Xena did. But in the end, she won.” Aphrodite still looked surprised at this fact. “She defeated one of the most powerful gods around at the time. And mightily pissed him off in the process, I’m sure.” The goddess pushed herself from the wall, walking closer to Gabrielle. “He wasn’t dead though. He was too powerful at the time for any of us to actually kill him just like that. I remember Ares saying something about locking him up.”

“I should have never killed Ares.” Xena’s words earlier suddenly made sense now. “Ares is dead. So the lock is broken. Right?”

“Right.” The goddess nodded. “And he’s out. And Xena’s gonna be at the top of his hitlist.”

Gabrielle ran her fingers through her hair, releasing a shaky breath. More then before now she wanted to saddle up Argo and ride after Xena. But if all Aphrodite had said was true, they were going to be after Iona too. And she’d promised to protect her.

Aphrodite studied the blond a moment, then managed a wry smile. “You really do care for her a lot, don’t you?”

Green eyes tracked up to her. “Of course I do.” She stated, as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

“Ah, the power of love.” The goddess smiled. “And here I had nothing to do with it.” She straightened again then. “Don’t worry. She’ll come back to you. She won’t be fine or anything, but… she’ll be in one piece. He doesn’t want to kill her. He wants to make her hurt.”

Gabrielle bit her lip, thinking, going over the events of the night. “What is the Downfall?” She then asked, remembering how the word had scared the Goddess.

Aphrodite grimaced. “A while ago…. I mean a long while, like before you great-great-grandparents were conceived, you know? The oracle in Delphi made a prophesy. Now the oracle there is controlled by my bro Apollo. All prophesies made by the oracle there are basically his. But this one wasn’t.”

“What was the prophesy?”

Aphrodite drew in a breath and released it again. Her hands were shaking lightly. “You can built walls and towers. They will not stop me. You can raise armies. I will raise them to the ground. Your temples will burn. Olympus will crumble. The Downfall has started. It has begun.”

She paused a long moment, allowing the words to settle, then spoke up again. “Daddy freaked. There was unrest up on Mount O. for months if not years. But… nothing happened. Daddy wrote it off as someone’s practical joke, but… No one really believed that. And no one forgot.”

There was silence for a moment, then Aphrodite’s head shot up, as if she’d heard something. “I have to go.” She turned her attention back to Gabrielle. “They’re looking for me. If they catch me here with you and a hind’s blood dagger I just returned to you… Well, bad news…”

“I understand,” Gabrielle nodded, rising to her feet. “Thank you, for…. Explaining things. And for the dagger.”

Aphrodite smirked. “Just put in good word for me with her Majesty.” The goddess winked, then in a flash of pink she vanished from the room.

Her head hurt. Iona tried to open her eyes, but found it hard, the dried up tears having knitted her eyelashes together.

She’d slept a candlemark at most, she was sure. She’d spent most of the night crying and feeling nauseous and miserable.

Xena had left. She’d seen the Empress riding off shortly after she’d gotten to her room. She was very upset. The last time she’d seen Xena this upset was…. No, she’d never seen Xena this upset. All the occasions before, when Ismene had died, when Pyrron had died… It was different than this.

She’d betrayed her. She’d betrayed her mother. There was no worse sin to Xena than betrayal. Xena had told her so several times. She’d blown it. Iona pushed her face into her pillow, squeezing her eyes shut to keep more tears from coming. She’d blown it. Things would never be the same now.

She lay there for another moment, then she turned over onto her back and stared up at the ceiling. She’d thought about leaving. She’d thought about going after Xena, hiding, waiting to see if she could help. A sigh. But what use could she possibly be…

Iona pushed herself to her feet. Her throat was dry. She softly walked to the door and pushed it open.

And she stopped in the doorway as she spotted a form seated on the sofa, only dimly illuminated by a single candle. Green eyes gone grey in the shadows met hers.

Iona drew in a shuddering breath, biting her lip. She turned and very precisely closed the door behind her. Then she walked forward again, her eyes watching her feet as she walked to the couch and seated herself on the other side, careful to keep a good distance between them.

Gabrielle studied the dishevelled form sitting next to her. Iona’s hair was disorganized, her eyes shadowy and red. There were indents in the skin on her cheeks from the pillow she’d clung onto.

Gabrielle felt her heart melt at the sight, and any anger she’d felt vanished into thin air. “Hey?” She spoke up softly, her own voice a little husky. Blue eyes peeked up at her with a mix of guilt, pain and fear. She managed a faint smile. “Bet you feel worse than I do, huh?”

Iona sniffled weakly, her eyes growing watery again. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… to hit you. It was just. I was…. Scared and…”

“I know,” Gabrielle cut her off softly. “But you got to be careful, Iona. I can take getting flung across a room. But next time, you might really hurt someone.”

“No, I won’t,” Iona shook her head feverishly. “Cause I’m not gonna do it again. Use my… powers.” She said the word now as if it was a curse. “I should have just listened to mom.” Her voice broke on the last word and she turned away.

Gabrielle gently moved over, wrapping an arm around the girl and pulling her closer. Iona didn’t resist but turned and burrowed into her side helplessly.

The warrior carefully laid a hand on the girls head, a little unsure of what to do. Should she encourage Iona in giving up her powers? She was pretty sure Xena would welcome it. But what sort of right did she have to give any sort of instructions to Xena’s daughter? Maybe she shouldn’t say anything at all…

Iona solved her problem though by speaking up herself. “There’s stuff I need to tell you. I need to tell mom, but I can’t, so I need to tell you.”

“Okay,” the warrior nodded softly. “Tell me.”

“You’ll be mad.”

“Do I have cause to be?”

“Yes.”

“But you still want to tell me?”

“Yes.”

Gabrielle managed a smile. “Tell me then. Maybe I’ll get mad, but… after that, we’ll work things out. Together. Okay?”

Iona nodded a little, then pulled away a little, looking up at Gabrielle. “You know how… How I’ve been really good with my homework lately?”

“Uhuh.”

“Well…” Iona drew in a deep breath, then released it. “I had some extra motivation…”

“We need protection.” Apollo paced across the room restlessly. “Armor, weapons…”

“Who’s going to make that armor?” Artemis crossed her arms, eying her brother. “Heffie’s not on our team, remember?”

“Well, then we need to get him on our team!” Apollo snapped. “Should be easy winning him over. Ugly fellow. Hasn’t gotten any in years. Send some of your amazons over to seduce the guy or something.”

“Not hearing this,” Hestia quickly covered her ears, humming loudly. “Not listening…”

“Hey, you leave my amazons alone!” The Goddess of the Hunt retorted angrily, striding over to her sibling. “If you think I’m gonna use my girls as some sort of escort service, you’d better…”

“Enough!”

Everyone fell silent instantly. With a sigh Athena rose from her seat, walking forward to stand in the centre of the group of family members. “Any arguing at this stage is useless. We don’t have the facts yet.”

“Oh come on, Athena.” Apollo turned to her. “You felt that. You must have.”

“Of course I did,” the Goddess of Wisdom easily admitted. “But a feeling doesn’t mean anything.”

“To you maybe,” Hestia mumbled sub vocally.

“Do you think it makes me happy to think that Dahak was in my city? My Athens?” She watched her family members wince as she pronounced the Persian god’s name. “I’m not going to just believe that without knowing what actually went on.” Athena looked up as footsteps echoed through the marble hall. “And here’s the one who can tell us.”

“I found her hiding in one of her temples,” Hera said, shooting the woman she’d dragged inside with her a disgusted look.

Aphrodite managed to wurm herself free of the older goddess’s grip, rubbing her painful arm. “And you wonder why stepmothers have such a bad rep?”

“You shouldn’t be hiding at a time like this,” Athena walked over to her sister, towering over her, not so much in height but in presence. “We were all worried.”

“Right,” Aphrodite drawled, clearly not buying a word. “Since when did you start looking out for me, big sis? Hmm? Didn’t see you around when our brother had me locked up and tied down.” She tapped her chin, pretending to think. “Where were you again? Oh right…” She gave the other goddess a pointed look. “You were hiding.”

“I have apologised to you,” Athena sot her a bored look. “Get over it.”

“You be locked up for ten years. Let’s see how fast you forget.”

“Let’s focus on the present, shall we?” Athena said, remaining calm. “What have you seen?”

Aphrodite looked back at her, defiantly, crossing her arms over her chest. “Seen?”

“Oh, please,” Athena rolled her eyes. “You were there, at Xena’s palace this night. We all know something happened there. We have seen Xena run. Xena does not run from just anything.”

Aphrodite turned her head away, refusing to speak.

“Come on, Dite,” Hestia spoke up, her voice coaxing. “This was big. We felt it. And I’m scared.”

Aphrodite looked up at her, doubtfully.

“We are your family. Your uncles, aunts, sisters, brothers… No matter what any member does… in the end you have to defend them. Family is sacred.”

“We just need to know what’s going on,” Apollo added. “To prepare.”

Aphrodite looked hesitantly from one to the other.

Athena saw the indecision and zoomed in on it, taking a step closer and forcing Aphrodite to lock eyes with her. “Was it Him?”

Aphrodite hesitated another moment, then she nodded.

Curses sounded from all the present family members. Except Hestia, who hastily covered her ears again.

Athena remained silent, thinking before she spoke up again. “Did he say anything?”

Another nod from the Goddess of Love. “He had an emissary, a mortal. He spoke for him.”

“He’s not strong enough to speak for himself then. To appear.” Athena conducted.

“He was in the flames, but not…. Solid, no…” Aphrodite confirmed.

“That’s something,” Hera muttered, walking over to Athena’s side. “And he appeared to the mortals first. His prime goal is Xena.”

“Xena’s important,” Athena said quietly. “She’s the only one who’s ever beaten him.”

“Is someone keeping an eye on her?”

“Of course,” the goddess of wisdom murmured.

“Leave Xena alone,” Aphrodite spoke up, her eyes narrowing at her sister.

All the gods turned to her in surprise, then after a moment Hera snorted. “You and your mortals.”

“At least they are somewhat trustworthy,” Aphrodite snapped back.

“Trust is a bad remedy for the absence of knowledge,” Athena spoke up, before turning back to the other gods. “So now we know it’s him. And it appears he’s not at his full strength yet.” Athena started pacing around the room pensively. “He’s after Xena first. Xena has run off. She was heading for the border. Which means he must be too.”

“Xena took him out once…” Artemis murmured. “Maybe she can do it again.”

“She will weaken him, at least,” Athena agreed. “We can use that to our advantage.”

Aphrodite looked from one to the other, then she laughed. Not one of her more pleasant ones. “Always the same.” She tossed up a hand, somewhat hopelessly. “Don’t know why I even bother.”

She turned and headed for the door, only to find Hera blocking her path. “Not so fast.”

“Look, I told you,” Aphrodite retorted. “This is all I know. He’s here, he’s trouble…”

“She might know more,” Apollo murmured in Athena’s ear. “She might run off and tell Poseidon.”

Athena studied her sister pensively. “She might.”

Aphrodite started to argue, but before she could she was pulled aside, someone stepping in front of her protectively.

Cupid pulled back the string of his bow, his arrow aimed first at Hera, then at Athena. “Don’t mess with my mom.”

“Hah!” Hera laughed scathingly. “What are you going to do, loverboy? Shoot at me with your arrows of love?”

“Maybe,” Cupid drawled. “Or maybe I’ll look up the minotaur and give him a new object of affection.” He shot Hera a pointed look. “Could get ugly, grandma.”

Aphrodite giggled. “Eeuw, Cupie. Nasty.” She patted his side. “You are so my boy.”

“Let them go.” This was Athena speaking up again. “They’re not important.”

Aphrodite huffed out an indignant breath.

“Let’s go, mom,” Cupid grabbed onto his mother’s arm, then spread his wings, lifting up from the ground. “This place smells.”

“You said it, kid.” Aphrodite darted a last look at her family members, then turned away from them, allowing her son to fly them both away.

Gabrielle leaned her hands on the windowsill, staring out over the city. Dawn had come and the first rays of light now painted the city in beautiful shades of red.

The beauty of the sight didn’t much fit her mood. She’d spent a good deal of the night talking with Iona, about all the things the teenager had been up to. Athena, the Isle of Shadow they’d visited together, the well that had talked, the goddess helping her with her powers…. Iona had confessed it all.

Gabrielle hadn’t quite known how to respond. She felt sure Xena would have been very angry. Xena had given rules and Iona had broken them. The Empress didn’t deal very well with her authority being challenged.

So what was she supposed to do? Was she supposed to yell at Iona on Xena’s behalf? Gabrielle had decided against that. Mostly because… Well, because she understood very well where Iona was coming from. Her parents had often forbidden her to do certain things like telling stories or playing with certain children and they’d never told her why. And back then she’d done what any twelve year old would do: search out all those forbidden things and do them anyway. And so had Iona. She could hardly blame the girl for that.

Athena was a goddess and from the sound of it a powerful one at that. It was to be expected Iona would gladly accept any help the goddess was offering.

It was obvious the goddess had used Iona, had tried to gain information, had tried her out to measure her powers. Her talk last night with Aphrodite now proved very helpful to understand Athena’s motives. Iona had powers and Athena had needed to know how much power the girl had. How useful she could be to her, in her own struggle for the throne.

What remained was the story of the well, that Iona said had spoken to her. He will come for you. And you will lose. One way or the other, you will lose. The words echoed through her head as she tried to figure out their meaning. Was the he the well spoke of Dahak? What was the well warning her of exactly? And should she trust a warning by a hole with water in it?

Gabrielle sighed. All this divine stuff was very confusing. She understood very well suddenly why Xena had wanted as little part in the godly world as possible.

“Abby?”

Gabrielle turned to see Niobe walking over to her, the toddler rubbing at her sleepy eyes with a hand. The child looked absolutely adorable, dressed in her striped pyjama’s. The warrior smiled. “Good morning.”

“Why’s you here?” Niobe asked as she stopped next to the blonde, looking up at her inquisitively. “Wes Sena?”

Gabrielle knelt down to come face to face with the child. “Your Sena had to go away for a little while.”

Abby pouted unhappily at this news. “No gbye?” She said, somewhat accusingly.

“She’ll be back real soon,” Gabrielle said, gently ruffling the toddler’s hair. “How about we make some breakfast together huh?”

“Make pkake?”

“Pancakes?” Gabrielle considered this, then decided they all deserved a good dose of sugar. “Yeah, why not.”

“Yay!” Niobe squealed in delight, running over and hugging her. “Love ya!”

Gabrielle chuckled. “You’re easily won over, cutie.”

In the meantime Caspar had walked in, following them into the kitchen. “Where did Xena go?”

Gabrielle darted him a unsure look. “I’m not really sure. She was heading for the border, I think.”

“Why?”

The warrior released a breath. “It’s kinda complicated.”

“Is it big?”

“Pretty much.”

“Hmm,” Caspar sat down at the kitchen table, folding his hands on the surface. “Is it Iona’s fault?”

Gabrielle darted the boy a look. “No.”

“Why is she upset then?”

“How do you know she is upset? You haven’t seen her this morning.” Gabrielle frowned.

“I heard her come in late last night.”

Gabrielle watched him a moment longer, then turned back to Niobe, who had found a big bowl in one of the cupboards and had placed it on top of her head like a helmet. She was now blindly waving her spoon around. “Niobe, could you go find Benitor and get us some milk and eggs?”

“Kay,” Niobe nodded, the bowl on her head rolling back over her head as she did.

Gabrielle watched her run off, then she walked over to the table and sat down next to Caspar. “A lot happened last night.”

“At your party?”

“Yeah,” Gabrielle nodded. “The short version is: some people crashed the party. And they weren’t nice to Xena or me. Or Iona.”

“Is Iona hurt?” There was concern in the boy’s eyes now.

“Yes, but only here,” Gabrielle tapped her heart. “Anyway, the people that were mean, they got away. And Xena had to go after them.”

Caspar thought about this a little, then nodded in understanding. That was what Xena would do. “Will she be away long?”

“I don’t know,” Gabrielle answered him honestly. “I hope not.”

Caspar was quiet for a moment, then looked up and met green eyes. “Now what?”

“Now…” Gabrielle smiled as Niobe came toddling into the kitchen again, carrying a bottle of milk and a few eggs in her helmet. “Now we make pancakes.”

Ephiny walked out onto the balcony, looking out over the garden. She closed her eyes, drawing in a deep breath of the fragrant, misty air. “You know, it’s weird…”

“What is?” Solari asked from her place inside the room, making the bed.

“What isn’t?” Ephiny retorted with a smile, which brought a faint laugh floating outside to her. “I mean, I was here for over three years, locked away in a dungeon. And now I’m standing out here, on a balcony in this fancy room, thinking what a beautiful place this is.”

She turned around, leaning back against the metal railing and watching her companion work. “Why are you making the bed anyway? You don’t have to, you know?”

Solari pounded the pillow a few times before placing it at the head of the bed again. “I don’t have people work for me.”

Ephiny smiled warmly. “No. You wouldn’t.”

“B’sides,” Solari fluffed the other pillow, then started tucking in the edges of the sheets under the matras. “Helena probably still cleans these rooms. She’s older and she’s got a bad back.”

A blond eyebrow raised. “And the Conqueror forces her to keep working?”

The Amazon snorted faintly. “Nah. Helena is a workaholic. Says she doesn’t feel useful sitting behind a window drinking tea. That and she has this weird loyalty to the Empress.”

“Why?”

“She saved her son in a war sometime.” Solari rolled her eyes. “Boy wouldn’t have been in trouble if it hadn’t been for the stupid Empress. Told her so too, but… silly old git wouldn’t listen.”

Ephiny smirked. “So you liked her huh?”

“She was so annoying and stubborn.” Solari peeked up, a gentle twinkle in her eyes. “She reminds me of my mother.”

Ephiny laughed, walking inside again and circling the bed to face her lover. “So…” She wrapped her arms around the other woman’s waist. “Do I get to meet her? And your other friends here?”

“Not a lot of those,” Solari stated with a light shrug. “Mostly yelled at people and told them to bugger off. Safer, I thought. If there’s no people around to talk to, you don’t have to explain stuff.”

“Must have been lonely.”

Another shrug. “Sometimes. But…” Hazel eyes peeked up somewhat hesitantly. “It was worth it.”

Ephiny smiled, clearly charmed. “Glad you think so.” She said, before leaning closer…

The door opened then hastily closed again with a yelp. Ephiny rolled her eyes. “Your timing sucks as always, Red.”

“Sorry,” Thalia’s voice sounded meekly from behind the door.

Solari unwound herself from their embrace, walking towards the door and pulling it open. Ephiny seated herself on the bed, leaning back against one of the nicely fluffed pillows. “Come on in.”

Thalia did, mouthing another sorry at Solari as she walked inside. “I brought food, if that helps any.” She plucked an item from the basket she was carrying, tossing it at the Amazon Queen.

Ephiny neatly scooped the item out of the air, then smiled as she sniffed the offering appreciatively. “Ah, cinnamon rolls.” She looked at Thalia with a smirk. “Fond memories.” She took a bite, enjoying the taste of the freshly baked bread. “Speaking of… How’s my hero?”

“Haven’t spoken to her this morning,” Thalia said as she seated herself on the other end of the bed. “But she wasn’t too happy last night.”

“With just reason, I’m afraid,” Ephiny muttered, breaking her treat in half and offering the other half to Solari, who was standing next to her. “Not sure what the heck that all was last night, but I sure hope for her warriorness that this isn’t an average day of her life. Cause that would just be nasty.”

“I’m pretty sure this was pretty abnormal, even for Gab’s standards.” Thalia murmured, pensively. “You have any idea what that was?”

Ephiny shook her head. “Never heard of that Dahak guy. But our home is quite a ways from the border, so that doesn’t say much.”

“Conqueror’s brat sure grew up and got nasty,” Solari commented, inspecting the bread cautiously before tasting. “Tossed your hero across the room with a flick of the wrist.”

“Yeah, how freaky was that?” Ephiny joined in. “And have you noticed that girl looks frightingly like her mother?”

“Like one isn’t enough,” Thalia muttered.

They were all quiet for a moment, then Thalia turned to her friend. “How come you never come see me when there’s no crisis?”

Ephiny laughed, letting herself slide of the pillow, looking up at Thalia affectionately. “Damn, I missed you, Red.”

“Missed you too,” Thalia admitted.

“Wanna be an Amazon?” Ephiny asked, patting her thigh. “I’m sure you’d make a good one.”

“Nah,” Thalia smirked. “I might start a rebellion and dethrone you.”

“Good point,” Ephiny admitted with a smirk, then pulled herself up again. “So…. Now what?”

Thalia shrugged. “There’s a council meeting planned for today.”

“I’ll ask Gabrielle if we can be present,” Ephiny said, darting a look up at Solari, who inclined her head a fraction in agreement. “I’d like to know what’s happening. And maybe we can help.”

Gabrielle walked through the halls, on her way to the council meeting. She’d just dropped the children off at school. She’d had a little talk with Linos, instructing the teacher to not leave them alone. And she’d told Iona to come see her at lunchtime. She wanted to keep tabs of Xena’s daughter most of all.

She thought about what she was going to say to the council. Should she tell them everything she knew? Her democratic principles required her too, she felt, but…. She didn’t want to say something that might endanger Iona.

Footsteps came closer, a multitude of those. Gabrielle looked up, then grimaced.

“Where is she?” Cleopatra demanded as she stopped in front of her, her servants hastily slowing to a halt as well. “I hear she has left the palace last night.”

“You hear correctly.”

“And Odilon as well.”

“Yes,” Gabrielle affirmed again. “Xena needed to go to the border. To check something out. It was an urgent matter.”

“Don’t play word games with me, warrior,” Cleopatra snapped, her eyes blazing. “Was it Dahak?”

Gabrielle was somewhat surprised by the question. The Egyptian Queen seemed to know who the Persian god was. “Yes, it was.” She answered. “He sent someone to speak for him. He threatened Xena and told her he was sending an army to the border, to take over Greece.”

The Egyptian Queen lifted a hand, a servant hastily rushing up to her and bowing. She spoke several rushed words of Egyptian to her, then the man nodded and ran off. She turned to the guard at her side and gave him some instructions too, after which he bowed and walked off himself.

Gabrielle hesitated a moment, then spoke up again. “I’m heading for a council meeting. There will be representatives from the city there, the Amazons are coming. You’re welcome to join us.”

“Hah!” Cleopatra huffed out an indignant breath. “No, you go and talk, warrior. I have better things to do.” She stated, before stalking off, her servants instantly setting in pursuit at a respectable distance.

Gabrielle released a tired breath, rubbing her temple tiredly. “Great. Great start of the day.” She murmured, continuing on her way again. “Wonder what’s next…”

A guard ran into her path, the young man hastily sliding to a halt to avoid crashing into her. She recognized him as Ellos, the prison guard.

“Ma’am!” Ellos panted, trying to catch his breath. “She’s gone!”

“Huh?” Gabrielle frowned at him. “What are you talking about?”

“The prisoner, ma’am.” Ellos clarified. “She’s escaped.”

Gabrielle stared at him several long moments, then she just covered her eyes with a hand in defeat. “I just had to jinx it, didn’t I?”

Khrafstar winced as he carefully removed the bandage from his arm. The cut in his arm was deep and painful. It needed stitching, but it was hard to stitch anything up using just one hand.

It did not matter. He would bare the pain and the scar that followed proudly. The young man smiled darkly. His mission last night had been very successful. His master had been pleased with him. Xena had been very afraid. It had been a delight to see.

Of course, things had gone somewhat downhill when that blonde warrior had gotten involved. She was small, but he had been surprised by her strength. She had been very attractive. He would enjoy playing with her. Before the end.

A knock sounded at the door and Khrafstar looked up, frowning. Perhaps the landlord, inquiring about rent? He rose from the bed he’d been seated on and walked towards the door, pulling it open.

There was a small, slender blond standing outside, dressed in no more than a few rags. “Yes?”

“Hi,” the blonde waved at him cheerfully. “Are you the guy worshipping the powerful, destructive Persian flame ball God?”

Khrafstar’s eyes widened, his eyes darting across the hallway to see if anyone had overheard. When he saw no one had, he grabbed onto the woman’s arm and pulled her inside. In the same motion he reached for the dagger at his side, unsheathing it and flying it at the woman’s chest.

The blonde watched as the item thudded into her heart, then looked back up at the Persian man, very miffed. “Honey, we gotta work on your manners. You never toss daggers at strangers. It’s very impolite. First you introduce yourself.” She wiggled her fingers at him. “Hi, I’m Callisto.” She pulled the dagger free, then flung it back at Khrafstar, the metal catching the collar of his tunic and effectively pinning him against the wall. “See? Now isn’t that a much nicer way to say hi?”

Krafstar hastily pulled the dagger from the wall, holding it in front of him protectively. “I will not speak a word to you of my master, Greek deity. If you wish to kill me, then do so.”

Callisto smirked, clearly amused. “Deity? Oh, you smart talker, you.”

The flames in the fire place rose, if only a fraction. A voice sounded. Callisto found she could hear it to. It seemed to be the same voice as yesterday, only somewhat weaker.

Khrafstar listened intently, then he inclined his head, dropping his weapon. He looked back up at Callisto. “You should not speak of our master among others. It will endanger the quest.”

The blonde winced at the term ‘master’ but with a glance at the flames she let the word slip. “Hey, it’s not like I knew the secret password or anything.” She cocked her head, considering. “Could we have a secret password? That would be cool.”

Khrafstar darted her a look, then reseated himself on the bed, sorting out a bandage so he could re-bandage his arm. “So, you are not a deity?”

“Nope.” Callisto giggled. “But that’s easily changed.”

Gabrielle placed her hands on the back of her chair, glancing at the room’s occupants. She’d just finished telling about the events of the previous night, sticking mostly to the events starting after Khrafstar’s arrival.

“So,” Odell spoke up. “The Empress knows more about this…. Dahak. But instead of sharing this information with us she… ran off?”

“Xena didn’t run,” Gabrielle defended the empress. “She had to go check the border. If there’s an army headed our way it’s kinda handy we know about it.”

“She could have sent someone else,” Mentius dropped in.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Look, we’re not here to blame Xena.”

“Pity,” Odell muttered.

“We’re here to discuss the situation and settle on the best course of action in Xena’s absence.” She leaned a little closer. “This may not have occurred to you, but with Xena away, that leaves us in charge. Of the city at least. Now, we can’t do much about Dahak himself, since we don’t know enough about him. But we have a powerful man who serves this Dahak, who is mortal. And we have Callisto on the loose. We can take care of those.”

“We need to calm the people,” Megan added quietly. “When word gets out about this deity, which we all know it will, there will be fear and unrest. We should minimalize this, if we can.”

“Good point,” Gabrielle nodded. “I’d like ideas on how to do that.”

“Let’s assume the worst, and there is an army standing at the border,” Thalia said. “Then what? Should we prepare for that?”

Gabrielle tapped her fingers on the wood of her chair, considering. “We have no authority over the army,” she then said pensively. “Not sure if it’d do any good if we did. I may know a few things about fighting, but I don’t know a lot about war or strategy.”

Megan tapped her quill on her parchment. “War is partly strategy, but also partly good, reliable preparation. Many simple things are often overlooked. The soldiers will need to be packed, you’ll need fresh horses. You’ll need food and drink, blacksmiths and bakers and cooks to sustain the forces if the battle lasts longer than expected.”

Gabrielle nodded again, impressed by Megan’s knowledge of warfare.

Solari rose up from her seat. “I did the kitchen preparations for some of Xena’s smaller campaigns. I could help there.”

Odell looked at the Amazon, then frowned. “Kitchen preparations?”

“Long story,” Thalia drawled, then turned back to Gabrielle. “You’re not going to be able to do all this.”

“Huh?” Gabrielle frowned at her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re gonna run the council, calm the masses, prepare for the war, run the household and protect the Empress’s kids?” Thalia shot her a look. “Maybe we should vote on lengthening the day for you, hmm? So you can squeeze all that in.”

Gabrielle chuckled faintly. “Good point.” She looked down at Thalia. “Maybe you should take over leading the council for a while.”

The redhead hastily lifted both her hands in defence. “That’s not what I had in mind.”

“I know, but that would work,” Gabrielle cut her off. “You did most of the organizing back in our rebel days anyway. I know you’re good at it.”

“Shouldn’t we be all democratic and vote on this?” Thalia asked, unhappily glancing at her fellow council members.

“Fine,” Gabrielle said, looking around. “Hands in favour of temporarily reassigning leadership of the council to Thalia?”

Everyone raised his hands, except for Odell. Gabrielle bit back a smirk as even Ephiny waved her hand enthusiastically. “Excellent. Never agreed on anything this fast before.” Gabrielle looked down at Thalia, who was looking quite miserable now. “Look, you’re right. I don’t have time for doing all that needs to be done. And basically, most my concern is with keeping the children safe right now. You’d really be helping me out on this.”

“Fine, fine,” Thalia sighed.

There was a soft knock on the door then. A moment later it opened, to reveal Iona standing in the doorway. “Hi,” she said softly. “I’m sorry to disturb, but you told me to come here when school was finished, so….”

“That’s okay, Iona. Have a seat.” Gabrielle smiled, pointing at a few chairs in the corner. “I’m nearly finished here.”

Iona nodded, quietly closing the door behind her and walking over to the assigned seat.

“Okay,” Gabrielle turned back to the group. “So we need ideas to calm the people on the streets and we need a plan to prepare things, in case there is going to be a battle. Thalia takes over for a while and reports to me each day. I’ll try to be present at as many meetings as I can, but as I said, I have a lot of stuff to look after right now.”

“We also should gather more information,” Megan said, tapping her quill on her parchment. “We cannot make good decisions if we know nothing about this Dahak, or things like the strength of the army, and the strength of their army if there is one.”

Iona focused on the speaker, as she continued to list a number of things she needed information on. She frowned. There was something not quite…. Right. Iona narrowed her eyes a little, trying to look closer at the woman. There was something different about her. Her skin was different. It was…. Glowing a little.

“As I said, I don’t know anything about the army,” Gabrielle said. “But maybe I can talk to one of the officers and ask him to join the next meeting.”

Megan smiled. “That would be most helpful.”

Gabrielle wanted to say something else, but she stopped as she felt a presence at her side. It was Iona who had walked up next to her. She laid a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Iona, I just need another moment, okay?”

But Iona was staring right past her, looking inquisitively at Megan. “Who are you?”

Megan turned her eyes to Iona, meeting her gaze easily.

Gabrielle frowned, darting a glance at Megan, before focusing her attention on Iona again. “What are you talking about?”

Blue eyes turned to her for a moment. “I… I don’t think she’s mortal.”

A smile spread across Megan’s face. Then she started laughing. “Very good, Iona. Didn’t think you would be able to do that.”

Gabrielle quickly stepped in front of Iona, as Megan rose from her chair. And as she did she changed, her grey hair regaining a blond color, her wrinkles disappearing. A moment later a blonde woman was standing across from her, dressed in golden armor.

“What the…!” Odell hastily backed away from the table in shock, his example soon followed by the other council members.

“Athena,” Iona said as she recognized the woman. “What are you doing here?”

Gabrielle’s eyes snapped to the girl standing next to her. “That’s Athena?”

“Yes,” Iona nodded in confirmation.

The warrior’s eyes refocused on the goddess, narrowing. “Good.” She said, then jumped up into a flip, slamming her feet against Athena’s chest and making the goddess fall backwards. Gabrielle reached for her boot and pulled the hind’s blood dagger from it’s hiding place, pinning down the goddess arms with her knees and lifting the dagger to the goddess’s neck. “I have been wanting to meet you.”

Athena chuckled, amused. “Excellent. You are very good, Gabrielle. But…” She moved her hands forward, a blast of air flying forward and impacting with Gabrielle, sending the warrior toppling backwards. Athena hopped back to her feet gracefully, dusting off her armor. “…you are not a god.”

Gabrielle hastily scrambled back to her feet. “Some god you are!” She spit at the goddess, her eyes flaring dangerously. “Using a child, posing as an old lady in my council… That’s very divine of you!”

“Maybe not divine, but very effective,” Athena drawled. “I could have come in here blazing, tossing the thunderbolts, but subtlety is far more efficient in these cases.”

Gabrielle held the dagger in front of her, pointing it at Athena. “Get out!”

The goddess glanced at the dagger, then behind her to see both the attending Amazons had gotten up and armed themselves and were heading towards her. She turned back to Gabrielle, shooting her a polite smile. “Yes. Let’s.”

She snapped her fingers and the next moment Gabrielle found herself standing in a clearing, surrounded by trees. She glanced around, finding Athena watching her calmly, her arms crossed. “So, Iona told you, did she?” The goddess reasoned. “Well, that was to be expected after last night. She must have been very afraid.”

Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at the goddess, her hand clenching around the hilt of her dagger. “What do you want?”

“Peace and stability for my family.”

Gabrielle snorted, clearly not buying a word. “Right.”

Athena’s lips quirked a little. “You have been spending too much time with Xena.”

“This has nothing to do with Xena,” Gabrielle tossed back, starting to circle the goddess predatorily. “This has to do with you using Iona to gain information. Using me and my council. That pisses me off!”

With a quick move Gabrielle launched herself forward, managing to wrap and arm around the goddess’ neck and drag her down.

Athena winced as she thudded on the ground. “Fine, you want it this way,” she murmured as Gabrielle tried to keep her pinned to the ground. The goddess pushed her lower body up, managing to wrap her legs around Gabrielle’s waist. This got the warrior off balance and Athena used this moment to pull herself free and hop back to her feet.

Gabrielle quickly did the same, meeting Athena’s next strike just in time as the goddess’ fist came at her face. She deflected two more blows, then lashed out with the dagger again, Athena only just able to hop away from the edge of the blade. Gabrielle used the goddess’s backward momentum and ran forward, jumping and then kicking Athena in the stomach with one foot, then in the face with the other.

The force of the kicks sent Athena further backwards, the goddess thudding against a tree. She laid a hand against it for balance, then raised the other hand just before Gabrielle could reach her again. A blast of air gushed forward.

Gabrielle thudded on the ground a few feet away, wincing as a rock stuck into her back. She ignored the pain though, crawling back to her feet and heading for Athena again. “No need to fight fair, right?” She spit at the goddess.

“How is this not fair?” Athena reasoned calmly. “You use the powers you have. I use mine.” She raised a hand, spreading out her fingers. Electric sparks shot from one fingertip to the other. “Stand down, Gabrielle. Let’s discus this as civil beings.”

Gabrielle ignored her however, rushing forward.

The lightning bolt hit her square on and the force was unlike anything she had felt before. She was blasted back, hitting a tree and sliding down the trunk helplessly. Gabrielle stared ahead of herself with wide eyes. Her arms and legs were tingling, she could barely move them.

Her ears were humming. The sound of footsteps coming closer was faint and chaotic. She managed to turn her head a fraction as Athena knelt down beside her.

The goddess cocked her head at the warrior, studying her with interest. “You are either very brave or very foolish. Maybe a little of both.” Athena smiled pleasantly. “While I have your attention, let me explain a few things to you. Yes, I used Iona. And yes, I used your council. We do what we have to survive. You of all people should know this.”

Gabrielle swallowed. Her stomach was hurting badly. She had to focus all her attention on not passing out.

“My brother has never shown much interest for mortals. Well, for one, yes.” Athena rolled her eyes. “But he cared very little about the rest. You were all toys to him. But not to me. I have been down here, listening. Figuring out your strength. And I see a lot of strength in Iona. And in you. And even in some other council members, like your Thalia.” Athena reached over, taking Gabrielle’s chin and forcing the woman to look at her. “We can be useful to one another. Especial now, with Dahak around. We can help each other.”

With that Athena reached out and let her hand hover inches from Gabrielle’s stomach. Gabrielle felt a glow touching her skin and the next moment the pain and the tingling was gone. She looked down to see the tunic covering her abdomen had been burned away. But behind there now was no wound, but clean, uncut skin.

Athena got up and took a step back, giving Gabrielle some space. “You are smart to pick a fight with the only goddess who has the power to heal you afterwards,” the goddess commented casually.

Gabrielle rose to her feet slowly, her legs still a little shaky. “What do you need us for?” She managed to comment, working hard on keeping her voice even. “You’re a god. And your family are gods. All those gods can’t handle one measly Persian?”

Athena’s lips quirked up. “Unfortunately, no.” She considered her options a moment, then spoke up again. “The death of my brother, though liberating as it was, had limited us somewhat in the power department. When a God is killed by another God, the power of the killed deity is given to the killer. This is how Ares got most of his power. By killing our father.”

“Ares was killed by Xena.”

“Yes,” Athena confirmed. “In which case the power should have been equally distributed among the other family members. But it was not.”

“It disappeared?”

The goddess shook her head. “No, power does not just disappear. The laws of physics dictate this. It gets transferred.” Athena folded her hands behind her back. “In his dying moments, Ares must have transferred his powers somewhere, to keep them from us.” Athena looked dismayed. “Selfish, even in death.”

Gabrielle carefully pushed herself away from her tree, finding she could stand on her own again. “Where could he have hid it?”

“Anywhere,” Athena shrugged. “Trees, rocks, birds, bees. Anything, living or dead. He could have hidden it in a pebble on a rocky path. The leaf of a tree.” She shook her head a little. “Some of us have tried to find it, but I believe this is useless. That power is lost to us. So we have to make do with what power remains.”

“Like Iona’s?” Gabrielle commented with a snarl.

“Yes, like Iona’s,” Athena easily admitted. “She is only a half god, so her powers are probably not that impressive, but with the total amount of power in the family diminished, she is powerful enough to be an asset to us.”

“She doesn’t want to be an asset to you.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure of that,” Athena countered. “I did not force her to come with me. She came of her own free will.”

“You manipulated her!”

“Yes. Just as Xena has manipulated her against us.” A smile. “Raising children is no more than putting your ideas of what is right into their heads.”

Athena walked closer, coming face to face with Gabrielle. “Look, the fact of the matter is, we are not powerful enough to defeat Dahak. Neither are you. You know nothing of warfare, you said this yourself. I could help you. I could help you prepare this campaign. I could get you weaponry far more powerful than anything you could create. I could rally troops.”

“You help us prepare for war and then you leave to let us fight it.” Gabrielle concluded, her green eyes drilling into Athena’s, not intimidated.

“Xena knows how to defeat Dahak,” Athena reasoned. “She has done it before. She will have to face him again. All I want is to help her succeed.”

“Xena won’t agree to your help.”

“No, she won’t. Because she has projected her feelings for certain members of my family on all of us. But we’re not all like Ares.” The goddess eyes bore into Gabrielle’s. “I understand Xena’s anxiety, but in this we have to see the bigger picture. You are an intelligent young woman, I am sure you see this. Think about it, Gabrielle. Think about how helpful we could be to each other.” Athena backed away a pace, lessening the tension. “Talk it over with the council, if you wish. But don’t take too long. There isn’t much time.”

A flash and then Gabrielle found herself back into the council chamber.

Ephiny, who had just been running out the door screeched to a halt. “Whoa!”

“Gabrielle!” Thalia hastily stepped up to her, touching her shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“No,” the warrior sighed, rubbing her temple. “I have the worst headache.”

A hand touched her side and Gabrielle looked down to see Iona looking up at her, worriedly. Gabrielle managed a smile for her, laying a hand on top of the girl’s hair. “Good catch.”

Iona leaned against her, a little helplessly. “It’s my fault she was here.”

“Nah,” Gabrielle shook her head. “Megan was part of the council before Athena got in touch with you. She was just prying for information.”

“And boy did she get some,” Thalia muttered, then glanced down at Gabrielle’s ripped tunic. “Do you realize you’re walking around half naked?”

“Yeah, I’d better go change,” Gabrielle sighed, wrapping an arm around Iona’s shoulders and steering her towards the exit, where she joined Ephiny and Solari.

“What happened?” Ephiny asked, darted a look at the tunic.

“Got hit by a thunderbolt.”

Hazel eyes widened. The Amazon shot a look at Gabrielle’s bare, unscathed abdomen, then looked back up at Gabrielle in disbelief. “I realized you have great abs, but… wow.” The Amazon queen muttered, drawing a reluctant chuckle from Gabrielle.

Lila sat quietly, bent over her plate. Gabrielle had invited her and Perdicas to lunch. Perdicas wouldn’t come. He was too proud sometimes. But he’d agreed she should go alone and spend some time with her sister.

Her sister was in high demand though. Lila looked as Gabrielle sat talking surrounded by her friend Thalia and two women dressed in leather, who she’d been told were Amazons. Iona, the Empress’s daughter, sat near her too and answered the occasional question.

She seemed so different now, different from the girl she’d know. Gabrielle had left them as a young girl, sneaking out in the dead of night. Lila smiled a little at the memory. She’d been trying to be quiet, but Gabrielle had always been such a klutz and had tripped over the bedpost, the bag she’d been carrying falling on the ground and all the contents spilling out onto the floor.

”What’s with the bag?”

Gabrielle’s head had shotten up in shock, then she’d bitten her lip, thinking. After a moment she’d stood, her bag forgotten, and settled on her own bed. “Lila, I’m going to Athens.”

She could do nothing but laugh. “Are you serious?”

“Absolutely,” Gabrielle nodded confidently. “I’m going to the Academy. I’m going to be a bard.”

“How are you going to get there?” Lila sat up a little, looking at her sister sternly. “Gabrielle, Athens is miles from here! And at night, with all these soldiers around…”

Gabrielle released a breath. “Lila, you know I’m different from everybody else in this town.”

“I know you’re crazy.”

Her sister managed a small smile at this. “Well, call it what you like. The point is… I don’t fit in here. And the idea of marrying Perdicas…” She shivered a little at the thought.

“He loves you, you know?”

“But I don’t love him,” Gabrielle responded, then leaned a little closer. “I… I overheard dad talking with Perdicas’ father. They’ve set a date. In a moon from now.” The blonde bent her head sadly. “I told them, him and mom. I told them I didn’t want to. But they didn’t listen.” A sad breath. “They never listen. They don’t hear me.”

“I hear you,” Lila replied softly. “I don’t want you to leave, Gabrielle. I’ll be alone.”

“I’ll come back and visit,” her sister said. Her eyes lit up again, dreams shimmering in te back of them. “When I’m a bard I’ll travel around, telling stories.”

“You promise?”

“Promise,” Gabrielle had gotten up and hugged her tightly. Then she’d picked up her bag, placing the items that tumbled out earlier back inside. She squared her shoulders, then headed for the door, pulolinig it open. The cold wind drifted in, ruffling her bright blue dress. Gabrielle turned her head, darting her sister a last look. Lila stared back at her, sniffling back tears. Gabrielle managed a watery smile in return. “Cheer up… You’ll finally have a room of your own.”

Lila bit her lip. She remembered those first days after Gabrielle’s departure. Her parents had been so mad. They’d been yelling all the time. At each other. At her. Then Perdicas’ parents had come over to yell at her parents. She remembered sitting with Perdicas on the stairs outside their door. Just sitting there, not talking, trying not to hear.

Perdicas had been the only one not yelling. He’d just sat there, his hands folded tightly together, looking down at the mud. He’d never showed he was mad or angry. He’d never cried, at least not as far as she knew. But his heart had been broken. And it never did heal.

Gabrielle hadn’t become a bard. The first time Lila saw her again was after the crucifixion, when her friends in the rebellion were sneaking her out of Greece. They’d needed a place to spend the night as they made their way up north. She’d found her sister lying on a stretcher in the back of a cart. She was badly wounded and pale. But that wasn’t the real damage done to her. The real damage Lila saw when Gabrielle turned her head and opened her eyes.

Muted. The dreams that had always danced around in the green irises were gone. They were emptied of hope. And all she could see now were emotions that didn’t fit her sister. Fear. Disillusionment. And the first seeds of anger.

How different it all could have been, if Gabrielle had stayed home. How much suffering could have been spared all of them.

A touch at her leg and Lila was called from her musing and looked down. It was the three year old. The Empress’s youngest child, Niobe. Or, not the Empress’s really, she’d heard. Lila released a breath. This household was very confusing.

“Hi,” the child looked up at her with wide brown eyes. “Who’s you?”

“I’m Lila,” Lila introduced herself. “Gabrielle’s sister.”

“Abby?” Niobe studied at her critically. “Yous not like Abby.”

Lila’s lips quirked up a little in a wry smile. “No. I’m not really, am I?” She shot a glance at her sister, then turned back to the child. “I think I want to go for a walk. Care to join me?”

“Kay,” Niobe took her hand as she stood, walking with her towards the door. “Wanna go see hosses?”

“Is that far?”

The girl considered this a moment, then nodded. “Yes.”

“That’ll be great then,” Lila murmured, pulling the door closed behind them.

————————

Xena lifted a hand as they reached the military camp at Delphi, then placed her hands back on the reigns and pulled, slowing Chilon to a halt. The black stallion snorted, shaking his dark head around, foam flying from his lips. The animal was breathing heavily.

They had ridden all night and all morning at full speed. She’d sent the rider on the fastest horse ahead to inform the captain at Delphi of their arrival. Xena slid of Chilon’s back, her feet thudding into the dry earth, dust drifting up around them. A soldier came running up, saluting before taking the reigns from her. “I want him brushed dry, fed and ready to go in a candlemark.”

“A candlemark?” Odilon managed to say between breaths as he slid to a halt beside her. “Xena, we need to rest.”

Xena ignored him, walking over to the captain, who saluted her. “Guideon.”

“General,” Guideon inclined his head. “Your messenger only just arrived, but the horses you asked for are nearly saddled.”

“Good,” She gave him a brief pat on the shoulder, before walking past him. “Knew I could count on you.”

“Anything for you, General.”

Odilon slid of his horse now, wincing as his legs nearly buckled from the long ride. He was exhausted. Getting up in the middle of the night and then driving for endless miles without stopping. He shook his head in disgust. He was getting too old for this.

He walked up to the captain. “We need food and water for the men,” he instructed. “And I’d like some exact info on the troops you have here. Numbers, experience… That sorta stuff.”

Guideon frowned at him. “And who might you be?”

Odilon rolled his eyes, then lifted his hand, flashing him his ring.

Guideon looked at the seal, then his eyes widened a fraction. “Excuse me, sir.” He bowed politely. “I’ll have them ready for you in a few moments.”

Odilon walked past him, glancing around the camp. It was set up just outside the town of Delphi, high up in the mountains. It was close to the entrance of the temple complex and in the distance Odilon could see the lines of people outside the gate leading up to the oracle.

Someone handed him a mug with water and he downed the liquid in a few hasty gulps. Around him he heard the soldiers that had escorted them had retreated to the shadows. They were all war veterans. Strong men that didn’t complain. And would follow Xena to Hades and back if she told them to without a single complaint.

Xena had distanced herself from the group and stood in the burning sun. She stood on the edge of a cliff wall, leading straight down into the valley before them.

Odilon hesitated a moment, then grabbed another mug from one of the soldiers and walked up to her, stopping at her side. “Here. Drink something.”

Wordlessly she took the mug from him, taking a sip, her eyes never leaving the horizon.

Odilon studied her for a moment, seeing the tired posture and the shadows under her eyes. “Look, I understand the rush. You know I do. But a few extra candle marks won’t make much of a difference, will it? It’ll give your soldiers a breather and these guys here can line up some fresh horses…”

“No.” Xena shook her head determinedly.

“Come on, Xena. You can’t keep going like this,” Odilon insisted. “You haven’t slept. And in all honesty, you look like it.”

“No!” The Empress repeated again, blue eyes turning to face him. “We can’t stop.” She faced forward again, her eyes focusing again on the horizon. “I can’t stop,” she repeated, in a softer voice. “If I stop, I…” She swallowed, closing her eyes a moment. Then she shook her head, as if that would help to expel the thoughts from her brain. “I can’t stop, Odie. Just let me keep going.”

Odilon seemed doubtful for a moment, but then he relented. “Find some shade, would you?” With a pat on the shoulder, he turned away and left her to her thoughts.

The smell of fresh hay and horses entered her nostrils. Gabrielle closed her eyes and sucked in the scent. It brought a sense of familiarity, which was a pleasant diversion on this hectic day.

At the end of lunch Thalia had returned to the council. Solari had headed for the kitchen to talk with the staff there and Ephiny had gone up to send a letter to the home front to inform them she was staying in Athens a little while longer.

Iona and Caspar had gone back to class, but she’d found Niobe was absent. And so was her sister. She’d finally tracked them down to the stables.

She carefully pushed open the door, trying hard not to make a sound. Niobe’s giggle sounded from further on. Gabrielle spotted the girl and her sister standing near one of the boxes at the end of the hallway.

“Aggo!” Niobe laughed delightedly as the horse lipped at her outstretched hand. “Dat tigles!”

“We should have brought him a treat,” Lila commented, kneeling down next to Niobe. “He looks hungry.”

“Don’t be fooled,” Gabrielle spoke up, smiling as her sister nearly toppled over in shock. “The horses were just fed this afternoon.” The warrior stopped next to them, ruffling her horse’s manes affectionately. “And it’s a she, not a he.”

“Abby!” Niobe ran up to her in delight, wrapping her arms around Gabrielle’s leg. “Luv ya!”

“You…” Gabrielle reached down and touched the girl’s nose with a fingertip. “…are supposed to be in school, young lady.”

The toddler giggled. “Abby funny!”

“Don’t try to sweet talk your way out of this,” the warrior warned her, wagging her finger at her. “Come on, say goodbye to Argo.”

The girl let go of Gabrielle and toddled back over to the box, reaching up a hand towards the horse. “Bye bye, Aggo!” Argo snorted in response, spraying little drops over the toddler, who laughed in response. “Showuh! Again!”

“Oh no you don’t,” Gabrielle swooped the girl up and placed her onto her shoulders. “Now you’ll need a bath.”

“Showuh!” Niobe repeated firmly, wiggling and reaching for Argo again.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, turning back to the horse for a moment and giving her a kiss on the nose. Then she headed for the door. “Come on, back to school with you.”

“No fun!” Niobe pouted, but when Gabrielle tickled her bare feet she giggled and resumed her good mood.

Lila jogged a few paces to catch up to her sister, reaching her as they exited the stables. “Sorry,” she apologised. “I didn’t realise what time it was.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Gabrielle waved her off with a smile. “Linos is used to one of the girls being late by now. It’s tradition.”

Niobe wiggled, a clear sign she wanted to get down, so Gabrielle placed her back on the ground. The girl instantly ran off, heading towards the palace.

“She’s a sweet girl.” Lila watched her go with a small smile. “I hope my kid turns out like that.” She laid a hand on her belly.

“She can be a pain sometimes too,” Gabrielle added with a smile. “She knows exactly how to play you. With the smiles and the pouting. You can’t say no to that girl.” She grinned. “Xena lets her get away with everything.”

Lila glanced up at her sister, curiously. “You are really good with her. You’ll make a fine mother someday.”

Gabrielle laughed softly. “I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“Sperm,” Gabrielle said matter of factly. “Or better said the lack there off.”

Lila chuckled softly. “Well, yes… That is an issue.”

They continued on for a few steps in silence, then Gabrielle spoke up again. “Why’d you run off after lunch?”

Lila shrugged. “You were so busy and… I didn’t want to get in the way.”

“You’re not in the way.”

“I don’t know anything about… about fighting or weird gods or war.” A wry smile. “I could give you some nice tips on herding sheep, though.” Lila glanced up at her sister, studying the lines of her face. “How different our lives are…”

Gabrielle smirked. “Wanna trade?”

“That would make you the wife of Perdicas,” her sister grinned. “How the Fates would laugh.”

Gabrielle smiled at the thought, then she became more serious, turning to her sister. “I am really happy you’re here, you know? I know a lot’s going on and it’s all weird, but… I am glad you came. I missed you.”

“Then why did you never write?”

The accusation was out before Lila realized what she was doing. She bit her lip, regretting it as she saw the hurt in her sister’s eyes.

Gabrielle looked down and stared at the grass beneath her feet. “I don’t know.” She murmured. “I… I started to, a few times. I tried to put into words all that had happened in the past year, but…” She shook her head a little. “There were no words.”

“How could you have no words?” Lila whispered.

Gabrielle managed a small smile. “Maybe I used too many before. And I ran out.”

They continued on towards the palace, both lost in their own thoughts. “Or,” Gabrielle spoke up again, softly. “Maybe I am afraid.”

“Of what?” Lila asked, frowning.

Gabrielle considered her words a moment, then said. “Do you remember when we had to help with the sheering the first time?”

“Yes,” Lila confirmed, somewhat lost to where this was going.

“And one of the shearers slipped with the scissors. And daddy dragged the sheep out to the back and… slid its neck.”

Lila looked away, swallowing in disgust at the memory. “Yes,” she said again. “I never looked at daddy the same after that.”

“Well… That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Lila looked up at her with a frown. “You killed sheep?”

“They might as well have been.” Gabrielle managed a wry smile.

Her sister stared at her for a while, not understanding, then realization hit. “Oh,” She murmured, her eyes darting away as she thought about this for a moment. Then she turned back to the warrior. “Why?”

Gabrielle drew in a breath, slightly shaky. “Cause I could.”

“That’s a bad reason.”

“I wasn’t really thinking at the time.” The blonde shook her head sadly. “I’m not the girl you knew, Lila. I’m not the girl that left Potedaia, all hopeful and naive.” She fumbled with her hands. “I don’t even write anymore.”

“Cause there’s no words?”

“Yeah.”

Lila considered this a moment. “She did this to you.”

Gabrielle realized which she her sister was referring to. “No. I did this to me.”

“She hurt you, didn’t she?”

The warrior thought about how to respond to this a moment. “You gave me a quill for my 10th birthday, remember?”

“Uhm…” Lila frowned. “Sure… I remember.”

“So… Do you consider all the stories I wrote with that quill to be yours?”

“No, of course not.” Her sister realized where this was going now. “But that’s different.”

“No, it’s not,” Gabrielle smiled. “We’re responsible for our own actions. Before, I was so busy blaming Xena for everything that I forgot about that. And that’s when I started doing things without thinking. Without realizing what they would lead to.”

Lila mulled this over a moment. “You should have written.” She then said. “If not words then… just your name.” She managed a weak smile. “It would have saved me a lot of worrying.”

Gabrielle bent her head. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re forgiven,” Lila replied, quite easily, turning to her sister and giving her a warm hug. “But, next time you get crucified and shipped off to Asia… Don’t do it again, okay?”

“Oh, I promise,” Gabrielle chuckled, wrapping an arm around her sister as they continued on to the palace.

“Ellos!”

The young prison guard’s eyes shot up, trying to spot the person who was calling his name. When he did, his face creased into a smile. “Gabrielle!”

The group of young man standing near him stared at him. “You know her?” One murmured under his breath. “Like, calling-her-by-her-name know her?”

“Sure,” Ellos replied offhandedly, trying to repress a proud smirk.

Gabrielle stopped next to him, inclining her head towards his friends before turning to the guard himself. “I need to talk to whoever’s in charge here.” Gabrielle glanced around, following a group of men as they marched past. “I asked some people but… they were kinda… evasive.”

“Evasive?”

“Yeah.” Gabrielle shook her head a little. “They said they didn’t know, but… It was more like they didn’t want to answer my question.”

“Really?” Ellos tapped his chin with his index finger. “That is very strange. Everyone knows the Colonel. So…”

“Though I’m sure some weren’t trying to be impolite,” Gabrielle interrupted him subtly but firmly.

“Impolite?” Ellos frowned, having lost track of the conversation after being roughly pulled from his thoughts. “About what?”

“About not answering my question.” Gabrielle darted him a pointed smile.

“Que… Oh!” The guard hastily straightened up. “The Colonel, right. I’ll take you to him.”

Gabrielle followed the young man as he walked off, repressing a small smirk. Ellos walked up to an older man, somewhere in his late thirties. He was dressed in a black leather cuirass, aligned with bronze studs. A deep red cloak was draped over his shoulders and around his arms he wore a set of decorated, bronze bracers. His voice was strong and powerful, as it rang out over the training area where he was drilling a group of young soldiers.

“Sir?”

The colonel turned, clearly unhappy at being disturbed. Gabrielle could now see that a nasty scar ran down his cheek, almost to the edge of his mouth. “I don’t like being disturbed during training.” He snapped at Ellos, who hastily bent his head.

“I know, colonel Andros. My apologies.” Ellos stammered “But someone wishes to speak with you.”

Andros glared at him another moment, then lifted his eyes and looked over the young guard’s shoulder, to see Gabrielle standing there.

His face froze as he stared at her coldly for a few moments, then he faced forward again. His dark blue eyes watched the men go through their exercises without actually seeing any of them. “I’m busy.”

Ellos blinked at him, then turned to Gabrielle, not sure what to reply to that.

Gabrielle stepped up, circling around Ellos and stopping next to the colonel, addressing him herself now.

“I need a moment of your time.”

“You cannot claim my time. You have no say here.” Colonel Andros turned, facing the blond woman. “We only answer to the Conqueror.”

“I only wanna talk,” Gabrielle stated, crossing her arms.

“I have no time to talk,” Andros replied curtly. “The General left instructions. I have recruits to train and select. The first cohorts march for Delphi this evening.”

“I just need some info,” Gabrielle persisted. “There’s a lot going on. That’s exactly why we need to talk. Discuss what to do.”

“We have everything under control.”

The warrior released a breath, her temper getting the better of her now. “Do you now?”

“Yes.”

“What are you doing about Callisto then? And the Khrafstar fellow?”

Andros considered for a moment whether he was going to respond to this, but finally did. “The city guards are alerted. I have a entire cohort marching the streets, looking for them.” He turned his back on her again. “They will soon be found. You cannot hide from the Empress’s forces in Athens. The walls have ears here.”

Gabrielle considered her options for a moment. This colonel seemed far from pleasant, so her gut was telling her to pace off and go back to the palace. However… Sitting around in the palace, waiting for… whatever to happen was tiring her out. She needed to do something. Accomplish something. Preferably in an aggressive kind of way, to get rid of some of the pent up frustration she was feeling by now.

She took a step closer to the colonel, dropping her voice a little. “Look, this Khrafstar is a mystery to me. But I know Callisto. I could help.”

He spun around again, his red cloak swooshing softly as he did. “Help?” He snorted softly, his eyes meeting hers with an almost painful intensity. “You are going to help us?”

“If I can.”

He studied her a moment, then he tilted his head back a little. “If you are so intent on helping then.” Andros glanced behind him, where a small group of men was standing, about the same age as he. “Perhaps you would be willing to give us a little demonstration.”

“Demonstration?”

“These boys here,” he waved a hand at the young men. “They are good soldiers, but… in a battle that may be not be enough. In a battle there should be no hesitation. You go for the kill. You need to be ruthless.” He cocked his head at her. “You know all about that, don’t you?”

Gabrielle crossed her arms. “I don’t understand where you’re going.”

“Since your presence here isn’t allowing me to continue training, how about we show the boys how to really fight. No drilling, no standard moves: the real thing.”

Green eyes studied him for a moment. Well… Gabrielle shrugged. She wanted some aggressive kind of distraction. This would probably qualify. “Okay. I’m up for that.”

“Excellent!” Ellos murmured enthusiastically, having followed the conversation with interest.

An area was cleared and soldiers of all ages crowded around it, all eager to see what would happen. The soldiers were grouped mostly by age. The younger ones were in the majority and stood closer to her, all chatting enthusiastically and sneaking glances at her. The more experienced soldiers stood together as well. Some stood grouped around the colonel, who was talking to them in a hushed voice. The warrior frowned, cocking her head a little in an effort to hear what he was saying.

“What weapon are you gonna use, ma’am?” One of the soldiers called out to her. Gabrielle turned to him, forgetting about the colonel for the moment. She considered the question a moment, then shrugged. “What were you training with?”

“Staffs, ma’am.”

“Then a staff will do,” the warrior responded, motioning for the soldier to throw his weapon over, which he did. Gabrielle neatly scooped it out of the air, twisting it around a few times to judge the weight and the range of motion.

“Can you really fight with every weapon, ma’am?” Another voice asked in awe.

Gabrielle suppressed a grin. “Well, not all, I think. That chakram thing of Xena’s for instance, that’s a toughie.” She’d tried throwing the chakram a few times, and was now able toss it in a straight line and have it bounce back to her, which was a promising start. But working with angles was much more complicated. You had to calculate where the thing would go if you threw it at a certain angle. And Gabrielle had always sucked in math. “But whenever I come across a new type of weapon I do try to get the hang of it, yeah.”

There was a motion behind her and Gabrielle turned to find the colonel standing waiting for her, two lieutenants flanking him on either side. Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at the man. “5 against 1?”

“We all know what you can do.” Andros stated simply. “I want to show these men how to fight. Not how to get kicked across the arena and pass out.”

“You flatter me,” Gabrielle smirked at him, then grasped hold of her staff more firmly. “Okay then. Let’s get this show on the road.”

The lieutenants slowly moved forward, taking up position in a circle around her. Gabrielle glanced around, trying to keep them all in focus. Two of the men were armed with swords, one with a spear and a shield and one with a net and trident.

The first one to make a move was the man with the spear. She’d expected as much, it being a long-range weapon and all. She easily batted the weapon away with her staff, then jumped as the net was swept at her feet.

The trident came at her next and she brought her staff up just in time, her wooden weapon ending up between two of the trident’s teeth. She spun her staff around, twisting the weapon out of her opponent’s hands. She took hold of the trident herself, turning around and tossing it towards one of the onrushing swordsman, making him fall down and pinning him to the ground in one move.

The soldiers around her cheered and Gabrielle smiled, enjoying the praises as she kicked out and made the second swordsman double over. The spear came at her again and she quickly used the swordsman as an escape route, rolling over his back to come to stand on the other side of him.

She hadn’t counted on the first swordsmen to free himself so fast though, and the next moment she was pulled against the man who’d come up behind her. The wooden end of the trident was shoved around her neck, blocking off her air supply. She gasped, trying to get a hold of the weapon or the man holding it, but failing.

She made another futile attempt to draw in some air, failing again. The hold around her neck wasn’t loosening at all though. Gabrielle’s eyes flicked up, to find the colonel slowly moving closer, a grin around his lips. It wasn’t a pleasant one.

This wasn’t just a game, Gabrielle brain informed her weakly. Something was very wrong. And she was right in the centre of the wrongness.

She reached up, clasping both her hands around the trident. On pure strength she managed to push it from her neck, allowing herself to gasp in some air. She placed her feet firmly in the sand, then with a growl she shoved the trident away from her. With a yell her attacker was sent soaring over her head, crashing into two of his companions.

The young soldiers cheered out for her again, but she took no pleasure in that this time, her eyes finding the colonel’s and narrowing at him. She grabbed hold of her staff then made a dash for him. The lieutenant that was still on his feet hastily ran to block her path. It was no use though, since Gabrielle pushed off from the ground, neatly flipping over his head to land next to the colonel.

Andros swung his sword towards her, which the warrior ducked under. She swung out with her staff, finding her path blocked by the hilt of the sword. “What is going on here?” She hissed at him.

“Justice,” the colonel growled back, just low enough so none of the spectators would hear him.

“Justice?” The warrior ducked under another swing, then moved closer, turning and jabbing her elbow into his face. “For what? I’ve never met you before. You don’t know me.”

Andros recovered quickly, managing to wrap an arm around her neck, trying to drag her down. “Oh, I know you. Maybe better than our Empress does. I know what’s hidden. In The Shadow.”

Gabrielle froze a moment, at hearing the nickname she’d gotten in Chin. Andros tightened his grip on her neck and lifted his sword. “Give Paleamon my regards.”

Gabrielle regained her senses just in time. She quickly kicked out, hitting the sword hilt and sending it flying from Andros’ grasp. She wormed free an arm and shoved her elbow into his stomach. The colonel staggered back with a groan, letting Gabrielle go in the process.

There was barely time to recover as the other four soldiers came at her again. Gabrielle tightened the hold on her staff, pushing one end against an attacker’s kneecap, then pushing the weapon up and catching him against the chin. She grabbed onto the end of her staff with both hands and swung the weapon around, catching a second man against the side of the head.

A spear was tossed at her and she slammed it aside with the flat of her hand, then spun around and dropped to a knee, swiping the legs out of under the third soldier. As he fell he grabbed for her staff though, managing to pull him down with her.

She tried rolling off him, but the net landed on top of her and a pull send her tumbling back to the ground again. Gabrielle gasped as the blunt end of the spear was shoved into her stomach. The third soldier had managed to take her staff from her and now brought it down on her as well, the weapon harshly impacting with her side.

She heard footsteps behind her, heavy ones, which she guessed to be the colonel. Gabrielle twisted, trying to worm free, but she couldn’t manage to. A flickering of metal aught her attention. It was the tip of the spear, now heading for her heart.

It was pure instinct that saved her as she grabbed onto the spear just before it could touch her skin. She pushed the sharp end down, effectively cutting through the ropes in progress, freeing a path for her.

Pushing the end of the spear back up she hit the attacker in the forehead, making him stumble back and let go of his weapon. Gabrielle hopped back to her feet, planting the spear in the ground and pushing off, slamming her boots into the faces of three men, before landing onto the ground again.

She was breathing heavily now, her eyes flicking around as she spotted the colonel coming at her and his lieutenants scrambling to their feet again. This was not good, her mind informed her bluntly. They were trying to kill her. Gabrielle danced on the balls of her feet, trying to think. She needed to get out of this place. Fast.

Andros had reached her by now and she ducked under his swing, then jumped up and neatly flipped over him, landing behind him and grabbing onto his neck, holding him in front of her like a shield. “Tell them to back off,” she hissed at him.

Andros laughed. “Not likely,” he managed to say, spitting out some blood that had seeped from his nose. “Just kill me if you want. See how your young fans will like that.” He motioned his chin towards the group of young soldiers who were still cheering her on.

Gabrielle glanced from the soldiers watching her to the four remaining attackers, who were moving towards her again. He was right. Killing him or any of the others would be a bad idea. Everyone here believed it was just a drill after all. They only reason they could kill her was because she was just the one and they could claim it was an accident.

Unless… Gabrielle bit her lip, glancing around, spotting Ellos and his friends not to far off. “Okay,” she raised her voice, so everyone around them could hear. “This was fun. But I’m done playing.”

She nodded a little to herself, then let go of her hold on Andros. Before the colonel could spin away from her though she grabbed onto his belt with one hand and onto his color with the other, digging into all her strength and lifting him off the ground.

Andros’ eyes widened as he suddenly felt his feet leave the ground. Then he was sent flying, crashing into his companions, taking them all down to the ground with him.

Loud cheers filled the air, but Gabrielle ignored them, turning her back on her attackers and starting to walk towards Ellos.

Andros scrambled back to his feet and was about to run at her again. Then he stopped though, muttering a curse as he saw her back was turned.

“Colonel,” one of his lieutenants stepped up next to him. “You want us to…”

“No,” Andros wiped his arm over his forehead, smearing dirt across his face. “We can’t attack her when her back is turned. Won’t look good.” He huffed out a frustrated breath. “Damn her.”

The crowd split as Gabrielle came closer, clearing a path for her towards the palace. When she passed Ellos she turned to him a moment. “Come with me.”

Hazel eyes blinked at her. “Bu…”

“Now.” Gabrielle added, before facing forward again, making her way through the crowd.

The cheering was loud and the space around her was small. Gabrielle had to suppress the urge to slam out and clear some space for herself. She drew in a breath in relief as she moved away from the soldiers, finding her path clear towards the palace.

Gabrielle pushed open the door to Xena’s study, then quickly closed it behind her. She leaned against the door, closing her eyes and exhaling.

She’d instructed Ellos to guard Iona. She was pretty sure he wasn’t the best soldier around, but he seemed very loyal to her and she trusted him. More than she trusted anyone else at the moment anyway.

What a mess this was. There was so much going on. This Dahak, Callisto on the loose, Athena prowling around for information and now some vengeful veterans…

Gabrielle pushed away from the door, circling Xena’s desk. She let her fingers trace the rough wooden surface. She finally sat down in Xena’s chair, her hand softly caressing the leather. The room was quiet and familiar. She’d spent a lot of time in here, when she was healing from her wounds.

It had been a silly idea, Gabrielle realized as she laid her hand against the wall for support, wincing as the wound in her stomach stung painfully. She was just so bored with lying in bed all day though. So, even though she’d known it was too early, she’d gotten up and decided to go for a walk. The blonde bit her lip, working very hard on remaining upright. Silly idea. Very silly.

“What are you doing here?” She looked up to find Xena standing in the doorway of her study. The Empress hastily walked closer, grabbing onto her arm and supporting her. “Are you nuts? You should be in bed!”

“I’m nuts,” Gabrielle affirmed. “And bored.”

Xena rolled her eyes, then reached over, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and another around her legs, neatly lifting her from the ground.

“Hey,” Gabrielle objected weakly. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Getting myself a hernia,” Xena muttered, as she pushed open the door to her study with a boot. “That way I get confined to bed myself and we can be bored together.” She gently placed Gabrielle in her leather chair, kneeling down beside her. She reached for the glass of water standing on her desk, holding it out to the blonde. “Drink.”

Gabrielle obediently took a small sip, then handed the water back again. Xena reached out, touching her clammy face with careful fingertips. The warrior managed a small smile. “Don’t look so worried. I’m okay.”

“Forgive me if I don’t take the word of a clearly insane woman on that,” Xena told her, darting her a pointed look. “You know how much trouble it took me to stitch you up properly?”

“Yes. I remember it in all painful detail.” Gabrielle responded, reaching out and stroking a lock of dark hair back behind the Empress’s ear.

It was a careless gesture really, almost instinctive. Xena looked up though and blue eyes captured hers. And she realized suddenly how close they were. It had been very early in their relationship and they were still… searching a little on how to deal with each other’s presence.

“I must be keeping you from your work,” Gabrielle murmured, darting a quick look at the paperwork spread across Xena’s desk.

“’s Okay,” the Empress responded softly.

They continued staring at each other a moment longer, then Xena dropped her eyes, unable to repress a small smile. “This insanity of yours must be contagious.”

Gabrielle chuckled softly. “You think so, huh?”

“Uhuh,” Xena reached out and took her hand, winding her finger’s around the blonde’s. “Look, I uhm… I really do need to finish this.” She nodded her head towards the desk.

“I understand,” Gabrielle started pushing herself back to her feet. “I’ll start waggling back to my bed.”

“And tumble down the steps halfway there and tear my stitches? I think not.” Xena resolutely pushed her back in her chair. “If you could just wait a few moments… I’ve got a nice sofa by the window there. I could get you a book or something?”

Gabrielle smiled, happy at the prospect of not having to return to her lonely room. “I’d like that.”

Xena reached out, intent on carrying the blonde again, but Gabrielle resolutely swatted her hands away. “I walked all the way over here, Xena. I can walk the two steps to the couch on my own.”

The Empress rolled her eyes. “Fine, fine.” She did help the warrior up though, wrapping an arm around her and guiding her over to the couch.

Gabrielle glanced outside, watching some clear white clouds slide past. Meanwhile Xena had walked over to the shelve that held a series of scrolls started sorting through her selection. After a moment of hesitation she selected one, walking back over and kneeling down beside Gabrielle. “Here. I think you’ll like this.”

“Thanks,” Gabrielle reached for the scroll, her hand lingering a moment as she touched Xena’s.

“You uhm… You’ll be all right like his?” Xena mumbled, absently stroking the soft fabric of the couch.

“Yeah,” The blonde smiled at her. “I’ll be fine. You just go rule the world.”

The Empress grinned at her, then rose back to her feet, returning to her desk and sitting down, lifting up a map and studying it intently.

Gabrielle rested her cheek on an arm, her eyes studying the other woman. “Xena?”

“Hmm?”

“You do realize you’re holding the map upside down, right?”

A moment of silence, then Xena cleared her throat, turning the map the right side up.

Gabrielle wrapped her arms around her chest, hugging herself awkwardly. “Oh, Xena. This is such a mess.” She whispered to the empty room. “Please come home.”

Xena pulled to a halt at the start of the valley, looking out over the land stretching out below her. The land here was flat and rocky, with a road circling through woods and around stones.

There was movement in the distance. Xena narrowed her eyes, trying to make out what it was.

Odilon pulled up next to her, noticing the figure as well. “Moving fast…”

“Yeah,” Xena nodded in agreement. “Been doing so for a while too.”

Odilon darted her a look. “Do I want to know how you know that?”

“The way he’s running,” Xena muttered distractedly, her eyes still focused on the figure. “Isn’t lifting his feet up that high. And he’s moving sideways a little.”

“I was right, I didn’t want to know,” Odilon rolled his eyes.

Dorian moved his horse to stand at her other side. “He’s wearing our colors,” the general commented. “And she’s coming from the border.”

Xena nodded a little, thinking. “Dorian, Odie. You’re with me. The rest stay here.” She said, before clucking her tongue and urging Chilon forward again. Dorian followed immediately. Odie sighed, but then set in pursuit as well.

Soon enough she was close enough to the runner. Xena pulled her horse to a halt and slid off his back. The runner looked up, then released a heavy breath. “Empress!”

Xena was just in time to grab onto the man’s shoulder, before he could fall. “Easy there.” She eased him to the ground, turning back to Dorian. “Water!”

The general reached for his own supply, tossing it over to Xena. The Empress neatly swooped it from the air, uncorking it and holding it to the soldier’s lips. He gulped the liquid in greedily. “Thank you, Empress.”

“What’s your name, soldier?”

“Pheidippides, ma’am,” the soldier managed to say, breathing heavily.

“You’ve been running a long way, Pheidippides?”

The man nodded weakly. “I come from the border, Empress. You sent my cohort there a few days ago.” He gasped in another breath. “My commander sent me to warn you. Their arrows killed my horse.”

Odilon stopped beside them. “Whose arrows?”

“Persian arrows, sir,” Pheidippides said, pulling his bag closer and pulling out an arrow shaft, handing it to Empress.

Xena took it, blindly staring at the dark green feathers at the end.

Dorian knelt down next to them. “How many?”

“Too many to count, sir,” Pheidippides said, his voice hoarse. “My commander said to warn you. He said to tell you he would hold them back as long as he could. That wasn’t long though. When I reached the first hill I turned back. Tripolis was burning.”

Xena’s eyes lifted and met his. “How far away are they?”

“One, maybe two days run from here.”

Xena drew in a breath, then rose back to her feet. “Dorian?”

“General?”

“Get Pheidippides a horse and an escort. Get the fellow on the fastest horse to ride back to Delphi and tell them to prepare.”

Dorian inclined his head, then walked over to Pheidippides and helped the soldier to his feet. Xena touched his shoulder as he passed. “Good job, soldier.”

He managed a small, proud smile at the praise.

Odilon stepped closer, watching Xena as the Empress stared at the road up ahead. “So… I guess that answers one question. Khrafstar fellow wasn’t lying.”

Xena closed her eyes, exhaling. “Advise me, would ya?”

“Not really my forte, remember?” The spy muttered, laying a hand on her shoulder in support.

“Do it anyway.”

“Okay,” Odilon thought a moment. “You and me ride on. That boy probably hasn’t seen a decent sized army in his life. Might not be as many of them as he thinks. With just the two of us, we can move faster.”

Xena nodded a little in agreement.

“We send the boys back. If it is bad, better they don’t see it just yet.”

“Sounds good,” She turned to him. “You go tell them. I’ll wait here.”

Odilon nodded, then turned, jogging back up the hill towards where the men were waiting.

Xena watched him go, then walked back over to Chilon, who was patiently waiting for her in the middle of the road. She reached out, stoking a hand over his sweaty head. Chilon snorted softly, gently pushing his nose against her stomach. Xena closed her eyes, leaning forward and hiding her face in his manes.

Cleopatra passed the guards standing outside the door to her room. They raised their spears in salute. Their queen acknowledged them with a faint wave of her hand. One of the guards pushed open the door for her and allowed her to step inside, before closing the door again behind her.

Her room was empty, as she had sent her servants to prepare her meal for the evening. She picked up a candle and walked into her bedroom, which was covered in darkness. She turned away from the bed, lighting two candles seated on top of a dresser. Then she turned back around to…

The candle nearly dropped from her grasp as she spotted the figure seated on her bed.

“Hi,” Gabrielle wiggled her fingers at the queen.

Cleopatra stuttered a few syllables, then managed to get a full sentence out. “What are you doing in my room! In my bed!”

“Well, everybody else’s been in your bed,” Gabrielle drawled. “I felt left out.”

“Pah!” The Egyptian Regent spat out, then started to march back out the door. “Guards!”

“No, no, wait!” Gabrielle hastily rose to her feet. “I’m just here to chat.”

Cleopatra spun around again. “You are here to insult me!”

“No, that’s not why I’m here, that…” Gabrielle scratched the back of her neck. “That’s just a natural impulse.”

The dark eyes narrowed angrily at her. Then she turned towards the outer door again. “Guards!”

“Wait!” Gabrielle quickly lifted both hands in apology. “I’m sorry. I just want to talk. Please.”

Cleopatra turned back to her, both eyebrows raised. Behind her the two guards rushed inside. “My Queen?”

Cleo glanced from them back to the warrior. “Return to your post,” she then instructed both the men, who bowed and did as they were told.

Gabrielle released a breath. “Thank you.”

“Sorry, please and thank you…” Cleopatra crossed her arms. “Did Xena teach you some manners while I was gone?”

Gabrielle ignored the comment.

“Why are you here then?”

“Iona.” The warrior stated. “Iona and the Advisor’s kids. They need protection.” She shook her head a little. “I’m running around so much, trying to… to figure out this whole mess and help somehow… I can’t be around the entire time.” She gazed up, meeting Cleopatra’s eyes. “Nothing can happen tot them. I promised Xena.”

“You may not have noticed,” Cleo commented, seating herself on one of the chairs. “But there is an entire army of qualified body guards right outside your doorstep.”

“Oh, I noticed,” Gabrielle muttered. “I went there already. They aren’t too fond of me though.”

“Imagine that.”

“There’s a young guard following them now, but… He’s not the best.” She crossed her arms. “You have the best.”

Cleo studied her, then a smile slowly spread across her face. “So…” She crossed her legs delicately. “You need my help.”

Gabrielle drew in a breath, trying to remain calm. “I’m not asking for myself. I’m asking for Xena.”

The Egyptian regent indulged herself another moment, then waved her hand at the empty air. “My spies were already following the children. But I will assign two guards to them as well.”

Gabrielle frowned at her. “Your spies were following the kids?”

“Yes, since this morning, when they left for school.” Cleopatra smirked at her. “I’ve learned to anticipate Xena’s wishes.”

“Haven’t noticed anyone hanging around.”

“Well, as you say. I have the best.” The regent leaned back in her seat. “My informants tell me there was some… unrest, in your council this afternoon.”

Gabrielle released a sigh. “Turned out one of my council members was a goddess.”

A finely outlined eyebrow raised at her.

“Athena,” Gabrielle elaborated. “She had disguised herself as an old school lady and was spying on the council.”

“An old school lady?” Cleopatra repeated, then snorted in disgust. “Greek gods have no sense of style.” She thought of the matter a moment. “This… Athena… Did she speak to you?”

“Yes.”

“Of what?”

Gabrielle studied the Egyptian regent for a moment, then folded her hands behind her back. “How about we trade?”

“Trade?” Cleopatra frowned at her.

“Yes,” Gabrielle confirmed. “I have some interesting info on Athena and the Greek pantheon. You indicated you knew something about Xena and this Dahak. Let’s trade.”

Cleopatra considered this a moment. Then she decided it would be no loss for her to tell. “Agreed.” Gabrielle seated herself on the edge of the bed, her hands folded in her lap. “You first.”

The Egyptian leaned back in her seat. “What do you know?”

“I know Xena fought Dahak before she conquered Persia. And I know she won. But no one seems to know how she won. Not even the gods.”

“Well, I can not help answer this question,” Cleopatra stated. “I did not see the fight myself. I only saw her after.”

“Why were you in Persia?”

“I was aiding Xena in her fight,” Cleopatra told her. “She was moving in from the north and I from the south. We would meet at Tyre, one of the strongest Persian cities. We would lay siege to the city together. Then Xena would move East, and I would go back to Egypt. In return the area south of Tyre would become part of the Egyptian province.”

“Good deal,” Gabrielle muttered.

“Xena’s forces reached Tyre shortly before mine did. My chariots rode into their encampment a few days later. Xena however was not there.”

“Where was she?”

“This is what I asked,” Cleopatra continued. “Her general pointed to a hill, not too far from the encampment. It was barren, nothing grew there.” She pressed her lips together. “Stone and sand. The entire area was quite boring. I wondered why Xena was interested in it. Wanted to complete the set, I think.”

“So… Xena was on the hill?” Gabrielle urged.

“Yes,” the regent nodded. “Xena’s general had told me she had left for the hill that afternoon and had instructed no one was to follow. She had said that if she did not return, the army was to march back to Greece.”

Gabrielle frowned a little at this.

“There were dark clouds above this hill. A local thunderstorm it seemed. I remember seeing flames and smoke. Suddenly the earth shook. It seemed to speak, to roar. Then the next moment… nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing.” Cleopatra repeated again. “No more earth shaking, no more thunderstorm, no more flames. It was a perfect summer day.”

Cleopatra leaned forward, resting her arms on her knees. “Not too much later, Xena appeared again. She was…” the regent shook her head a little. “I have been in many battles with Xena. My archers and charioteers are world-renowned. I have seen her wounded often, but… Never like this.”

“What do you mean?” Gabrielle asked.

“Xena, she… she gets wounded… here…” She lifted her hands, indicating her body. “But not here.” She tapped her temple. “I do not know what happened on this hill, but when she came back she was broken. I had not seen this before and never have since.” Cleopatra leaned back again. “Contrary to what some claim, I took Tyre. Xena did not step onto the battlefield once. When the city had fallen, she instructed her general to lead the army east. She returned to Athens. She only returned to Persia when the last city was about to fall and joined the battle then.” Cleo’s lips quirked up a bit. “By her orders, the bards told the story slightly different.”

“History is made by storytellers,” Gabrielle murmured Xena’s words absently.

“Xena learned this very quickly,” Cleopatra said. “I never realized how powerful a weapon storytellers could be. If I learned anything from her, it would be this.”

Gabrielle tapped her fingers on her knee, thinking. “Did she… tell you anything, afterwards? About Dahak? About who he was, what he did?”

“Very little,” the Egyptian queen admitted. “She did not enjoy speaking of Persia. I asked her once and she told me Dahak was very powerful. And that she had only beaten him through trickery. I asked what to do if he returned. Egypt shares a border with Persia after all. She just… laughed and said not to worry. Greece would fall before Egypt did.”

Gabrielle considered this all, then released a breath, shaking her head a little. “I don’t get it,” she spoke her thoughts. “If she beat Dahak, then… why is she so afraid of him?”

Cleopatra merely lifted her hands, indicating she didn’t know this either.

Gabrielle thought about the matter another moment, then returned to the present day. “So… You are returning to Egypt then? To protect the border.”

Cleopatra shook her head. “No soldiers have crossed my borders. Well…” She smirked. “Mine have.”

Green eyes stared at her. “Are you saying… you’ve invaded Persia?”

“Invasion is such a nasty word,” Cleopatra drawled. “I’ve merely… extended my borders.”

Gabrielle stared at her another moment, then huffed out an outraged breath, rising to her feet. “Behind Xena’s back? You’re just gonna waltz into Persia, while she’s being attacked?!”

“How narrow minded you are.” Dark eyes studied her in bemusement. “You must learn to see the bigger picture.”

“Spell the bigger picture out for my narrow mind then,” Gabrielle growled back, her eyes glinting dangerously.

“The bigger picture,” Cleopatra said calmly. “Is a diversion in the south.”

Gabrielle stared at her another moment, then sat down again. Her eyes continued to drill into Cleopatra’s, who met them easily. “I don’t trust you.” Gabrielle finally said.

“Well,” the Egyptian regent produced a smile. “We have one thing in common after all then.”

“Can’t be much further now,” Odilon murmured under his breath. They’d left the horses behind a few miles ago and were now walking through a forested area, sloping upwards.

Xena didn’t respond, her eyes darting around restlessly.

Odilon glanced at her, then faced forward again. “You’re edgy.”

“Persian scouts always travel a day ahead of the main force,” Xena responded in a whisper, without looking at him. “If the army is in the next valley, as Pheidippides said, then the scouts are on this hill.”

Odilon nodded a little in understanding. They continued on in silence for a while longer, then Odilon laid a hand on Xena’s shoulder, halting her. “Should be able to see into the valley now, from up there.” He said, pointing upwards, to the treetops.

Xena considered this, then nodded. She leaned her back against the tree, winding her fingers together and holding them at waist height. Odilon placed his boot on her folded hands, hopping up and grabbing onto a tree limb. He crawled his way upwards quite craftily, his agility working in his favour. When he’d gone as the tree’s branches would allow him, he stopped, reaching for the falcate strapped to his side. He unsheathed the blade, then swung it at the branch blocking his sight. He cut through it with a single swing, and the foliage dropped away, allowing him sight into the next valley. He stared ahead of him a moment, then glanced down. “Xena?”

Xena stared up at him.

“You’d better get up here too.”

Xena nodded. The branch was too high to just reach for, so she searched for another route and quickly found it. She took a few paces backwards, then ran forward again, picking up speed. She reached the tree trunk and ran up it, her speed just high enough to reach the first branch and grasp onto it. She swung back and forth a few times, then let go, flying upwards and grasping onto the next branch.

A few moments later she squatted down on a branch next to Odilon. He pointed and she let her eyes move in the direction he indicated.

Her eyes slid over the valley below for another moment, then she released the breath she was holding. “How many campfires, do you think?”

A deep frown appeared on the spy’s forehead. “Hard to say… They burned down the forest to make room for the army. Some of those lights might be smouldering embers or something.”

There were small dots of light everywhere she looked. It was like the night sky had dropped into the valley and the countless stars were twinkling back at her from the ground.

“Something like… A thousand? Maybe more….”

“Ten men or so per fire…” Xena murmured, her eyes staring out over the valley. “That’s good. For a moment there, I thought we were in trouble.”

“Well,” Odilon scratched his chin, trying to think of any positives to share with his friend. “At least we… have the element of surprise in our favour.”

Xena suddenly spun into motion besides him, half turning and then reaching out. Odilon’s eyes widened as the tip of an arrow was pulled to a halt mere inches from his forehead. The spy blew out a shocked breath. “Me and my big mouth.”

Xena simply leaped off the branch, allowing herself to fall down. About halfway down she reached out, her fingers winding around a branch. She swung forward, letting go again and pulling herself into a flip.

Harshly her boots impacted with a man’s chest, pushing the air from his lunges. The archer looked up at her in shock. “Not nice,” she told him, before she snapped his head to the left. With a crack his neck snapped and he sagged to the ground, limply.

A scream sounded from behind her and she hastily rose back to her feet and spun around, raising her arms just in time to block another Persian’s swing.

He gurgled then as a small knife dug its way into his neck. Xena glanced up to see Odilon halfway up the tree, reaching for another knife and taking aim. A moment later another Persian fell to the ground, the knife embedded firmly in his forehead.

Odilon in the meantime was clambering down as fast as he could and reached the ground as five more soldiers joined the battle. He rushed forward, pushing off and flipping over the enemy soldiers to land at Xena’s side. The Empress’ back pressed against his as he swung out, disarming a soldier. “You okay?”

“Peachy,” Xena growled, grabbing onto a Persian spear and pushing it up, sending the attacker who was still hanging onto the weapon flying overhead. She then swung it backwards, just past Odilon and into his opponent’s stomach. She pulled the spear back, bringing it back around and sliding a throat in the process. She then snapped the wooden stick in half over her knee, lifting the two halves up just in time to block a sword coming at her from either side. She took two steps forwards then jumped up, kicking out at both men and sending them flying backwards as she flipped and landed back with her back against Odilon’s.

Odilon slammed his elbow into someone’s nose, then spun around and brought his sword up, cutting through the same man’s neck. There was just one man left before him now and he was about to run. Odilon hastily reached for him, grabbing onto the soldier’s collar as he tried to run away. With a gasp of air the soldier tumbled backwards, landing on the ground. Odilon quickly jumped on top of him, pinning him to the ground. Two quick jabs at his neck and the man was left gasping for air, his eyes wide.

Xena jumped up and kicked out at her last attacker, hitting him in the head and sending him crashing to the ground. She landed again, her breathing hard.

“Xena!”

The Empress spun around to see Odilon hovering over a squirming Persian soldier. She quickly jogged over to his side, kneeling down.

Odilon grasped onto his victim’s chin and forced him to look at him. “I just cut off the flow of blood to your brain,” he informed the soldier. “Painful. Isn’t it?” He leaned a little closer, dropping his voice. “If you have something interesting to tell us… we might let you live.”

The soldier’s eyes darted fearfully between Odilon and Xena, as he laboured to draw in another breath. He opened his mouth then, trying to speak. “I… I…”

Suddenly his body surged up and he closed his eyes. He then went completely still. Odilon frowned. “That normally doesn’t happen, right?” He muttered, reaching over and tapping the young man’s cheek.

A moment, then the soldier moved again, slowly turning his head until he was facing Xena. He then opened his eyes. They were a burning, smouldering red.

Xena took a step back, her own eyes widening in shock.

The soldier chuckled in a deep raspy voice. “Hello, Xena. It’s been too long.”

The Empress swallowed, staring at him another moment, then she hastily reached forward, grabbing onto Odilon’s collar and jerking him back towards her.

“Whoa, hey, what…?” The spy looked into the soldier’s eyes too now, and instantly fell silent.

The young man rose back to his feet, as if an unseen force was pushing him up. In spite of the fact that Odilon hadn’t removed the pinch, he was breathing easily now. “What?” He smiled pleasantly at Xena. “No witty response? No nice one liner? Wait, wait…” He lifted a finger, waving it at her. “Let me try.” He tapped his chin. “I say something like: ‘Oh, I’ve missed you, Xena.’ And then you say something like… ‘well, you never wrote.’” He laughed. “That’s funny isn’t it? And then I say: ‘no, since I had no parchment lying around in that icy prison you stuck me in!!”

The last words were yelled loudly and the soldier’s eyes burned brightly, the flames almost bursting from his eye sockets. Xena took a step back, swallowing.

“Hehe,” the young man cleared his throat, his eyes calming somewhat. “I get a little emotional sometimes.”

“What do you want?” Xena spoke up for the first time, trying very hard to make her voice sound firm.

The soldier smiled at her pleasantly. “The world. And from what I hear, it’s yours these days.” He glanced over his shoulder, towards the north. “Did you see my army? Were you impressed?”

The Empress squared her shoulders. “I’ll give you Persia. Go back. I’ll leave you alone. You can do what you want there.”

The soldier stared at her a moment, then started laughing loudly. “Oh, Xena.” Another chuckle. “You can’t bargain with what you don’t have.” A shrug. “Besides, the fun part about taking over the world, besides the slaughter and all, will be taking all you have. Bit… By bit… By bit…” he folded his hands behind his back, circling her. “I have been thinking about where to start. Your friend, maybe?” he glanced at Odilon. “But, I think I’ll probably start big. A good start is half the work, I always say. So…” His eyes drilled into hers, and Xena felt the painful intensity of it, as if he were physically reaching out drawing something from her. “Your woman. Or your daughter.” A quirky grin. “You can choose.”

Xena narrowed her eyes at him. Her fear turned to hate and she grabbed onto her sword and, with a yell, she ran for him. The soldier easily sidestepped her first strike, then ducked under a second. “Ahhh… That’s more like it. That’s the Xena I know.” He lifted a hand and grabbed onto Xena’s blade as it came at him again. The blade dug deeply into his palm, blood dripping from his hand onto the metal. He didn’t even blink though, his eyes meeting Xena at close range. “The hate. The anger. That’s what I want.” Another dark grin. “Keep it up. I’ll see you in Athens.”

The next moment the soldier fell to the ground, limply. Barely visible, a small whisp of dark smoke drifted from his head, flying off into the dark night sky.

Xena stood, staring after it, breathing hard. A vague sound next to her and she turned her head, to find Odilon had stepped up next to her. “I guess I don’t need to ask who that was.” The spy muttered.

Xena faced forward again, lifting her sword and watching a drop of blood slide down the blade pensively.

“I knew you said he was creepy, but…” Odilon shook his head a little. “When he looked at me, I got the worst head ache and it was like he…” The spy drew in a shaky breath. “I suddenly remembered my father. How he used to beat me, when I…” A shake of his dark head. “I haven’t thought of him in years.”

“Dahak is fear,” Xena murmured. “It’s like he… puts a little bit of himself inside your head. And then you do the rest.”

Odilon looked up at the night sky, watching the skies above. “What do we do?”

The Empress closed her eyes, trying to order her thoughts. After a few moments she re-sheathed her sword and turned, starting on her way back down the hill. Odilon quickly jogged after her to catch up. “It’s a big army,” Xena said, as they clambered down a few rocks. “Which means it moves slow. We have time to pick a good, defendable spot and set up.”

“Thermopylae,” Odilon instantly added. “They have to go through the pass to reach any of the major cities.”

“Exactly,” The Empress nodded. “Persia has no more warships, I made sure of that. So the only way to reach us will be through the pass. We can block it off, take a stand there.” A breath. “I need you to go to Delphi. Inform the troops there to move and prepare camp. I also need you to send out spies and scouts, to monitor their position, strength and their weapons. Don’t go yourself.”

“Why not? I’m the best, aren’t I?”

“He knows you’re my friend. If he finds you in the army he’ll use you against me.”

Odilon considered then, but then nodded in resignation.

“Send out messengers to all the armies located even remotely close. Get Rome, get Cathage.”

“They’ll never make it to Thermopylae in time.”

“I know,” Xena drew in a breath. “Tell them to head for Athens.”

Odilon glanced up at his friend, her profile only barely visible in the darkness. “All right,” he slowly drew out. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going straight to Athens. Dahak said he’d see me there. He’s planning something.” Xena slid down the soft sand at the bottom of the hill, then whistled. A few moments passed, then a dark shadow appeared from the distance. Chilon snorted, trotting up to her. Xena patted him on the neck, then turned back to Odilon. “Khrafstar was in Athens. I need to make sure he’s been death with. I need to make sure my kids are safe. I need to see Iona.”

“One last time?” Odilon inquired, his dark eyes capturing hers questioningly.

Xena met his eyes for as long as she could, then she looked away. She turned and grabbed onto the saddle, pulling herself onto Chilon’s back. “I’ll give you one day to sort affairs in Delphi. Then come to Athens. I’ll need your help there.” She jerked on the reigns, turning Chilon around and then pushing him into a gallop, without another word.

Night finally fell. Gabrielle closed her eyes, tipping her head back and staring up at the ceiling. It seemed this day had lasted forever.

She’d spend most of the afternoon looking after the kids. Iona had been very quiet the entire time. Gabrielle was worried about her. Iona was normally such a vibrant personality. Seeing her this sad was very unnerving.

There was so much going on in that girl’s head. Gabrielle could see it, just by looking at her. She got this little wrinkle in her forehead, just like her mom. And her eyes were so expressive. She looked like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders.

Caspar was also on edge, but the poor boy had been ever since he’d lost his father. He’d become little more than his young sister’s shadow, watching over her every moment he could.

The only one who was completely unfazed by it all was, of course, Niobe. The toddler had been playing merrily the entire time, completely unaware of any danger. Gabrielle smiled a little. It was nice, seeing some form of normality in all this chaos. She’d sat and played blocks with Niobe for a while. They’d built a high tower and Niobe had been delighted.

Gabrielle got up from her chair and walked over to the bed. As she didn’t want to leave the kids alone at night, she’d decided to stay in Xena’s room. She carefully sat down on the edge of the bed, touching the sheets. Xena’s bed.

It felt weird. Which was silly, of course. It was just a bed.

She reached for a pillow, pulling it closer. She drew in a breath. Xena’s smell still clung to it a little. She wrapped her arms around it, hugging it to her.

“Missing your honey, honey?”

Gabrielle jumped to her feet, spinning around. “Callisto!”

Callisto smiled, comfortable seated in the windowsill. “Hi.” She wiggled her fingers at the blonde. “Missed me? I’ll bring you one of my pillows to hug if you want.”

Gabrielle eyes her carefully, not sure what to do. “How did you get out?”

“Spiritual Powers,” Callisto wiggled her fingers at her, then giggled. “Sorry, couldn’t help myself. Fond memories.”

The warrior drew in a breath, thinking, then squared her shoulders. “Look, I don’t know what’s going on with you, but… I’m pretty sure I don’t want you to do it.”

The blonde giggled. “Maybe.”

“Turn yourself in,” Gabrielle continued.

“Highly unlikely, dear.”

“Please,” Gabrielle tried again. “I don’t want to fight you.”

“Why ever not?”

“You were my friend, once.”

Brown eyes studied her with interest, then she grinned. “Yes. Which is why I’m here.” She swung her other leg into the room and hopped to her feet. “In honour of our former friendship, I would like you to witness my… ascension.”

The warrior frowned at her. “Your… what?”

In response Callisto, reached into a small pocket dangling from her belt. She pulled something out, holding it up to Gabrielle. “Guess what this is.”

Gabrielle stared at it. “Uhm… Really red, really foul looking jello?”

Callisto giggled. “You’re funny.” She popped the object into her mouth, chewing and then swallowing.

Gabrielle jumped back as a bright white light suddenly emanated from the other woman, lighting up the room. When the light faded she found Callisto standing where she had, a yellowish glow stuck to her skin.

Callisto drew in a deep breath, sniffing the air with a clearly delighted look on her face. She opened her eyes then, her eyes capturing Gabrielle’s with ease. “Nope. Guess again.”

Athena grabbed onto the throne as the ground of Olympus shook. It lasted several moments, then it stopped again as suddenly as it had started.

A flash in front of her as Artemis appeared. “What was that?”

“You know what that was.”

“Another god?” Artemis tossed up a hand. “It’s not like we’re not weak enough as it is! Now we have mortals prying away our powers?”

“Shush,” Athena looked pointedly at her sister. “You want more power? Knowledge is power? Find out who that mortal was and report back.”

Artemis hesitated a moment, but then nodded and disappeared in a flash.

“Callisto!”

Gabrielle hopped off the balcony grabbing onto the edge and swinging down. She landed on the ground gracefully.

Callisto, who had just hopped out the window herself and had been on her way out off the palace grounds turned around. “Nifty,” she grinned. “You know, you really are quite good.”

“What are you doing?” Gabrielle advanced on her. “Why?”

“Cause it’s fun!” The blonde replied, rolling her eyes. “You know, fun? Where you do what you like, just cause you like doing it? Ring any bells?”

“I know what fun is.”

Callisto snorted. “Oh, yeah, right. ‘No, Callie, don’t, it’s wrong, greater good, blablabla.’” Brown eyes twinkled at the warrior. “You remember, before? Stealing dinars from the Conqueror’s money transport? That was fun.”

Gabrielle shook her head. “No, that was silly. And dangerous.” She said. But she was unable to repress a small smile at the memory.

“Ha! Ha! See!” Callisto advanced on her, carefully circling her. “It’s the thrill of it. The excitement. It draws you in.” She leaned a little closer, dropping her voice. “You’re a warrior now. You know.”

She finished her circle, coming to stand in front of Gabrielle again. “Come on! You can’t defeat me now. I’m a god. So… join me.” A sultry smile. “You, me, together… Could be fun.” She held up another piece of Ambrosia, wiggling it at the warrior. “I’ll give you candy, if you want?”

Gabrielle searched the dark eyes before her for a long moment, then she slowly shook her head. “I can’t.”

Callisto huffed out a breath, then turned around, starting to walk away again. “Fine,” she waved a hand over her shoulder. “Be that way.”

A flicker of movement and then Gabrielle was in front of her again, blocking her path. “Can’t let you go.”

“Well, that’s sweet, honey,” Callisto smirked at her.

“If I let you go, you’ll hurt people.”

“Well, yes,” the blonde drawled. “Remember fun?”

“I can’t let you do that.”

Callisto studied her a moment, then a smile creped onto her face. “We gonna fight?”

Gabrielle squared her shoulders. “If we have to.”

The smile spread into a full-fledged grin. “Excellent.” Callisto purred, then without warning she jumped forward, slamming both her boots into Gabrielle’s abdomen. Gabrielle staged back a few paces, but then recover.

Meanwhile Callisto had pushed off, flipping back and landing on the ground again. “Ugh,” she winced, wiggling her shoulders a little. “I’m a little rusty, I’m afraid.” She glanced at Gabrielle. “Not a lot of room for flips in that dungeon, as you know.”

Without another word Callisto rushed forward again, her fist flying towards Gabrielle’s face. The warrior swatted it aside, then ducked under a second swing. She reached forward, grabbing Callisto around the waist and then tossing her straight over her shoulder.

Callisto went with the motion, rolling back to her feet and spinning around again. “Nice,” she commented with a purr.

“Thanks,” Gabrielle muttered, before flipping over Callisto again. As she came back down, she wrapped her legs around Callisto’s neck. Her hands reached the ground and she shoved herself off, sending Callisto flying once again.

Callisto managed to twist herself around and land gracefully, then she moved in again. She kicked out at Gabrielle’s side, then moved forward and slammed her elbow against the warrior’s forehead. This was followed by a savage knee in her stomach.

Gabrielle staggered back a few paces, trying to recover her balance. Callisto wouldn’t let her though, folding her hands together almost reverently. “Pray to your god, Gabrielle.” She drawled, then she slammed her folded hands up against the other woman’s chin, sending her falling back.

Gabrielle crawled back to her feet, wiping a hand across her face. A small trail of blood seeped from her nose.

“Ah, yes, bleeding,” Callisto drawled, tapping her chin in thought. “I believe I did that once too. Gave it up though. It gets so messy.”

Without a word, Gabrielle reached for her belt and pulled her chakram from its hiding place.

Callisto cocked her head. “Ah. The round killing thing. Xena’s?”

“No. Mine.”

“Oh,” the blonde wiggled her eyebrows. “The one that killed Ares? We getting all serious now?”

Gabrielle drew in a breath, then tossed the weapon forward. Callisto was just able to duck under it. The chakram seared past her to a tree standing behind. It bounced off it and flew straight back, Callisto having to duck again before Gabrielle swooped the weapon from the air again.

“Guess that answers my question,’ the blonde murmured. She then made her move, performing a cartwheel to come to stand in front of the warrior. She pushed the flat of her hand against Gabrielle’s forehead, getting her off balance. Gabrielle tried to cut her with the chakram, but Callisto hopped sideways just in time.

She missed the warrior’s outstretched foot though and she stumbled. Gabrielle instantly moved forward, a boot impacting with her chest. Callisto lost her balance and stumbled to the ground. A moment later Gabrielle had pinned her to the ground and was hovering over her, the edge of the chakram pressed against her neck.

Callisto glanced past the metal up at Gabrielle’s face. The warrior’s breathing was kind of shaky and she had a weird sort of expression on her face. “Well?” The blonde drawled, tipping her chin back a little, to expose more of her neck. “You gonna finish it?”

Green eyes stared down at her for a long moment, thinking. “In the dungeon, a few days ago… You said, ruining things is what you do best.” Gabrielle drew in a breath. “I don’t think so. I think… you just need someone to believe you won’t ruin things. Someone to believe in you.”

Slowly, Gabrielle rose back to her feet, releasing her hold on Callisto and stepping back.

Brown eyes studied her, clearly confused. “You… believe in me?”

“Yes,” Gabrielle nodded, then reached out a hand, offering to help the blonde up.

“Well… That’s new…” Callisto muttered, grabbing onto her hand and allowing herself to be pulled back to her feet. Which brought her mere inches from Gabrielle. She flashed her a grin. “And silly.” She added then, just before slamming her forehead against the warrior’s.

Gabrielle staggered back, a hand grabbing for her head. A bright flash suddenly landed near her feet, the sparks biting at her ankles. She looked up just in time to see another thunderbolt flying at her, and she was just able to jump out of its way.

She landed on the ground. She could see Callisto advancing on her predatorily. Seeing no other way out, she grabbed onto the chakram and pulled it back, flinging it forward on pure luck.

Calisto ducked under it, then followed the weapon as it bounced off a tree trunk, then impacted with the palace wall. It went soaring back to Gabrielle, but at such a weird angle that she couldn’t catch it, so the warrior only just managed to roll sideways and avoid the sharp metal. The chakram slammed into another wall, then went soaring back towards Callisto.

A hand closed over it and pulled the weapon to a halt then. Gabrielle looked up, to find Callisto holding the chakram, studying the weapon curiously. She then looked up, meeting Gabrielle’s eyes with a twinkle. “Thanks, Gab. I always wanted one of those.” She winked, then blew Gabrielle a kiss, before disappearing in a blaze of fire.

A soft knock sounded at the door and Gabrielle looked up as it opened. She managed a smile. “Ephiny.”

“What did you do?” Ephiny said, taking the few paces forward and kneeling beside the beaten figure sitting on the bed.

“Picked a fight. Lost.” Gabrielle muttered, then winced as she dabbed at a cut on her arm.

“Gimma that,” Ephiny took the cloth from her, continuing to clean the warrior up. “You lost huh?”

“Yeah.”

“And here I believed you were invincible,” Ephiny murmured. “There goes faith flying out the window.”

“I was fighting a God.”

“And here’s faith swooping back in again,” the Amazon shook her head a little in amazement. “Which one was it this time? Athena again?”

“Callisto.”

A frown. “I though she was just immortal.”

“Not anymore,” Gabrielle rubbed her sore temple. “She found herself some ambrosia.”

“Ugh,” Ephiny grimaced. “This day’s not working out for you, huh?”

The warrior released a tired breath. “No,” she said, quietly. “No, not really.”

Ephiny glanced up at her a moment, then continued cleaning a second scrape on her knee. “You look tired.”

“I am tired,” Gabrielle admitted, far too easily.

The Amazon looked up at her again, then half turned and let out a short whistle. A moment later the door peeked open and Solari popped her head in. “Yeah?”

“Get us a snack or something? And… some warm milk.”

Solari nodded her head shortly, then disappeared again, closing the door behind her.

Gabrielle couldn’t quite repress a smirk. “You sure got the regal thing going on.”

Ephiny turned back to face her, smiling a little. “Sol is the only one that listens, mind you. And I bribe her.”

The blonde chuckled, then sobered up again. “I really screwed up, Ephiny.”

“How so?”

“I had her,” Gabrielle shook her head. “I had her pinned down, knife at her throat. It was just… one move. One move and I’d have taken her out.”

Ephiny raised an eyebrow at her. “Why didn’t you?”

“Cause I thought I’d changed her.” The warrior snorted in disgust. “What an idiot I was. Thinking our history meant something to her.”

The Amazon queen considered this a moment, then laid a hand on the blonde’s knee. “Our former queen Terreis once told me… That it takes a great warrior to fight an enemy. But an even greater one not to.”

Green eyes glanced up at her. “She sounds like a wuss.”

Ephiny chuckled. “Maybe she was,” she allowed easily. “But then she was the most courageous wuss I’ve ever known.” She reached out, squeezing the warrior’s shoulder. “You remind me of her a little.”

A smile. “I’m a courageous wuss, am I?”

“Yeah,” Ephiny returned with a grin. “I mean, you can kick everybody’s butt, but… If you can, you try to find the good in people. That’s a very admirable quality, Gabrielle. Don’t shrug that aside.”

Gabrielle exhaled, clasping Ephiny’s hand and squeezing it gently. “She’s gonna be trouble.”

“No worries,” the Amazon queen said with a careless wave. “I’ve sent word out to my Amazons. They’ll be here in a day or two. One tiny, freshly baked goddess? Too easy.”

“Right,” Gabrielle chuckled, then reached over and pulled Ephiny into a hug, which the Amazon whole-heartedly returned.

“Don’t worry, Fab Gab. We got your back.”

“Thank you,” Gabrielle replied, heartfelt. “I’m really glad you came. And stayed.”

“Anything for you.”

The door was pushed open then and Solari entered, balancing a tray as she chewed on a piece of carrot. “Hey, hero,” she muttered around her snack. “Get your hands off my queen.”

Gabrielle obediently backed off, turning to inspect the items on the tray. “Hmm, figs.”

“Stuffed ones,” Solari corrected, picking one up with the intent of popping it into her mouth. Before she could however fingers pried it from her. Solari cast her queen a look as the woman chewed contently.

“These are really nice,” Gabrielle said, having tasted one herself. “Where’d you learn to cook, Solari?”

“My mother owned an inn,” the Amazon told her as she seated herself next to Ephiny, who laid down and pillowed her head on the woman’s thigh, looking up expectantly. Brown eyes stared down at her a moment, then Solari rolled her eyes in defeat and picked up another fig, feeding it to her queen. “So,” She returned her attention to Gabrielle, who was watching them in amusement. “Heard this place is a mess without me.”

“Kinda,” Gabrielle allowed. “Everybody’s been trying to imitate your Caesar salad.”

Solari snorted. “Can’t. They miss the secret ingredient.”

“Which is?”

“A good chef never tells.”

Gabrielle grinned, taking a sip of her warm milk. She closed her eyes, allowing the warm liquid to slide down to her stomach and soothe her.

Ephiny glanced at the warrior, then up at Solari, who looked back at her with a frown. “When was the last time you slept, Gab?”

Green eyes peaked open again in surprise at the question, then Gabrielle considered it a moment. “Uhm… I think I got in a candlemark or so last night.”

“You need more than a candlemark, in general.”

“I have to look after the kids,” Gabrielle countered. “If I fall asleep and something happens to them…”

“We’ll stay up.”

Solari darted a look at her queen. “We will?”

“Yes,” Ephiny said firmly. “We can crash on the couch or something. Keep watch.”

“I can’t ask you to do that.”

“Sure you can.” Ephiny rose back to her feet. “You need the rest. You look like a centaur trotted over you.”

Solari glanced at the warrior, then nodded. “She’s got a point there.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes.

“Come on, Sol.” Ephiny shoo-ed her companion out the door, then turned back to Gabrielle. “If something happens, we’ll yell. Okay?”

The warrior smiled. “Okay. Thanks, Eph.”

The Amazon queen winked at her, then closed the door behind her.

Gabrielle exhaled, then picked up the tray and placed it on the bedside table. She blew out the candle standing next to it, covering the room in darkness.

A moment of hesitation, then she pulled aside the sheets and crawled under them. Xena’s smell clung to them a little and she sucked in a healthy breath, wrapping her arms around her pillow and hugging it to her.

The chakram spun off a tree, then a rock, then another tree, before a hand carelessly swooped it from the air. Callisto tossed the ring again, pensively following its movement.

Khrafstar studied the blonde curiously, from his place seated by the fire. Xena’s soldiers had been prying around the neighbourhood their room was in, so Khrafstar had decided to relocate to the forest just outside the city. This new location suited their purposes better anyway. “You are very skilled with this weapon,” he commented to the blonde.

“Hmm,” Callisto muttered. The woman had been very quiet since her return.

“From what I’ve gathered, only Xena knows how to use it. How did you learn?”

Brown eyes glanced up at him, then back down again, studying the gleaming metal in her hands. “Xena was kind enough to pop by my village a while ago. Figured it look better charred to a crisp.” Callisto twirled the chakram between her hands, the firelight reflecting off it. “I was hiding in the shed with my mother. There was a hole in the wood and I looked through it. And there I saw her. Laughing. Throwing her chakram around. Quite effective. Killed half my village in one quick, easy toss.” She glanced up, looking at the clear sky overhead. Stars twinkled back at her. “When everyone was dead, I made one. I fled into the forest and I carved one from wood. Didn’t work as well, obviously, but… Worked well enough to teach me the basics. Later on I saved enough to have a blacksmith make me one out of metal, but…” She looked back down at the ring in her hands. “He could never get it quite right. Not as round, not as sharp. Not as lethal to divine beings.”

The flames of the fire rose a moment and a whispering sounded.

“Fat chance.” Callisto snorted. “Khraffie can’t throw the thing. He’ll just end up cutting an ear off.”

Another rustling from the flames.

Callisto rose to her feet. “What’s the matter? Don’t you trust me?”

The flames remained prudently silent.

“No, no…” Callisto started pacing. “Of course you don’t. Why would you? Why would anyone?” She tapped the chakram against her thigh. “Why would anyone?”

Khrafstar frowned as he watched the blonde pace around the log she’d been sitting on.

“See, that’s what I don’t get. Why? Why would she? Hmm?” She asked the question to Khrafstar, who just looked back at her, clearly at a loss. Callisto continued her pacing. “I mean, I always yelled at her. I was mean. I was cruel. I mean, okay, I gave her the birthday present, I screwed up there. But I hoped the stupid dog had died a miserable death and that it’d make her cry. I really did.” The blonde waved her chakram at the empty air in front of her. “No, I did my part. I did the evil nemesis thing. So… Why?!”

“Who are you speaking of?” Khrafstar asked, confused.

“It’s a trick,” Callisto muttered, biting her lip. “It must be. I’m just not… seeing it. But it’s a trick.” She sat back down, balancing the chakram on her knees. “So she wants to be on my team? Then soon she’ll get her wish.”

Gabrielle yawned as the first rays of light woke her up. She blinked open her eyes, a little disoriented at first as she took in her surroundings. Then she remembered and with a groan she pushed herself to her feet.

She trudged into the living room in her sleep shirt, to find Ephiny sprawled on the couch, Niobe sitting squarely on top of her.

“Abby!” The toddler squealed as she spotted her, scrambling to her feet and running over Ephiny to get to the blonde. The Amazon winced as a tiny heel poked painfully into her stomach.

Gabrielle quickly scooped her up, darting an apologetic look at Ephiny before turning her attention to Niobe. “Hey, sweety. You’re up early.”

“Yes. Sleep no good,” Niobe informed her sternly as she pressed a sloppy kiss on Gabrielle’s cheek. “I play tigger with Am-zon lady. I go grrr an she go scaid.” She giggled, pointing a finger at Ephiny. “But I’s no real tigger. Silly am-zon lady.”

Gabrielle chuckled, sitting down on the couch and placing Niobe in her lap. “Yeah, she’s silly. And easily scared.” She smirked as the Amazon in question poked her in the side with her boot. She looked up, darting her a smile. “So…? All clear, huh?”

“Yes,” Ephiny nodded, folding her hands behind her head. “Except for the occasional tiger.”

“Tigger,” Niobe giggled again. “Silly.”

“So,” Gabrielle ruffled the toddler’s dark brown locks. “You ready for school, honey?”

“No school,” Niobe wrinkled her nose. “Is satday.”

“Oh right,” the warrior drummed her fingers on her leg, thinking about this dilemma. “Forgot about that.” She couldn’t watch the kids the entire day. For one, she had a goddess to hunt down.

“We can look after them for you,” Ephiny, who could apparently read minds, stated.

“Ephiny!” An exasperated sigh erupted from the kitchen, then Solari poked her head out. She was dressed in an apron and waved a ladle at her queen. “We’re Amazon warriors. Not baby sitters.”

“I’ve learned from experience it’s more likely the baby will be sitting on us,” Ephiny commented dryly, getting another laugh out of Gabrielle.

Solari rolled her eyes and returned to the kitchen, furiously wacking away at a bowl of egg whites.

Gabrielle shook her head a little, watching the aproned Amazon go. “You two are so funny together.”

“Hmm,” Ephiny smiled, her eyes following Solari for another moment, before turning back to Gabrielle. “I am serious though. We can watch them for a day, if that’s what you need. As I said, anything for you, hero.”

“Hewo?” Niobe grabbed onto Gabrielle’s nose and squeezed it. “Whas a hewo?”

“A hero is someone who’s very brave and saves people,” Ephiny explained before Gabrielle could.

Niobe turned her attention to the Amazon, toddling over and plumping back down on Ephiny’s stomach. “Save peoples?”

“Yes.”

“Like Abby?”

Ephiny grinned. “Exactly.”

“And Sena!”

The Amazon grimaced. “Uhm… That’s debatable.”

Niobe frowned at this. “Hewo save peoples, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Then Sena hewo,” Niobe stated firmly. “Sena save Jona. Bad lady be mean. Xena go bam bam!” To emphasize her point Niobe pummelled the Amazon with her tiny fists.

“Whoa, whoa, hey…” Ephiny hastily fended off the attack. “Okay, okay. She’s a hero too.”

“Good,” Niobe nodded, pleased. She got up and returned back to Gabrielle, wrapping her arms around the blonde’s neck. “Abby? When Sena come home?”

Gabrielle pressed a kiss to the toddler’s forehead. “Wish I knew, honey. Wish I knew.”

Ephiny’s eyes tracked around the room, taking in the scenery by daylight. Niobe had found herself a spot on the floor and was paying with some blocks. Gabrielle had taken off in search of her sister and her sister’s husband, to ask them to join breakfast.

So… Ephiny got up and took a little walk around the room, inspecting a Japanese painting of a tree, with dark looming hills behind it. It seemed a little out of place with the rest of the room, which was decorated with Greek and Nordic designs. One of the few personal possessions of the Conqueror perhaps? Ephiny remembered Terreis telling her the Empress had been influenced by Asian countries, most of all.

Above the painting, high out of reach of tiny children’s hands, a sword was hanging. It was a slender weapon, with a black scabbard and a red hilt. Asian too, from the look of it.

Ephiny was about to reach for it, when close to her a door opened. Iona, the Empress’s daughter stepped outside. Blue eyes studied her for a moment, then she frowned. “What are you doing?”

Ephiny shrugged. “Just looking around.”

“You shouldn’t touch Xena’s stuff,” Iona informed her, crossing her arms. “It’s impolite.”

“You’re right, I’m sorry,” Ephiny admitted, turning away from the weapon and returning to her spot on the couch. “I was just being curious. No harm intended.”

Iona nodded a little, walking into the room herself. “It’s a katana. Xena brought it with her from Jappa. She says it’s the best sword around.”

The Amazon queen considered this a moment. “Then why doesn’t she use it?”

“Cause it’s jinxed,” Iona stated matter of factly. “Xena says when she used it last, things sorta blew up in her face. So she doesn’t like to use it now. It’s more of a symbol, you know? You can have this really cool weapon and beat everybody up, but then at the end you still lose.”

“Nice to be reminded of that every single morning you wake up,” Ephiny muttered, as she watched Iona seat herself on the edge of the couch.

“You should never hide the truth and pretend you don’t know what’s to come when you do. That’s silly.”

“That’s a good point,” the Amazon allowed.

“Where’s Gabrielle?”

“Gone to get her sister and brother-in-law for breakfast.”

“Oh.” Iona pulled up her legs and folded her arms around her knees. “So you’re on guard duty?”

“Yep.” Ephiny propped her head on her fist, studying the twelve year old curiously. “You understand who against?”

“Dahak,” Iona muttered, tracing a line on her knee with an index finger. “And Athena. And Aphrodite and Cupid maybe. And Khrafstar. And Callisto.”

The Amazon managed a wry smile. “Yeah. You’re a popular girl.”

“No, I’m not,” the girl sighed. “Xena is. I’m just her daughter.”

Ephiny considered this a moment, then shook her head. “Nah. I don’t believe that.”

Blue eyes peeked up at her uncertainly. “You don’t?”

“No,” Ephiny shook her head. “I saw you a few times before we all knew you were the Empress’s kid. And partly divine. I thought you were special before.”

“You did?”

“Yeah,” Ephiny smiled a little at the hopeful look staring up at her. “Yeah, you had spunk. I remember thinking you’d make a good Amazon.”

“I would?”

A chuckle. “Yes. I think you would.”

“Oh,” Iona faced forward again, apparently considering this. “I think I’d like that.”

“What? Being an Amazon?”

“Yes,” Iona nodded. “I read a lot about Amazons. Amazons are cool.”

“Gee, thanks,” Ephiny smirked.

“Could you make me an Amazon?”

“Uhm,” The Amazon queen blinked at her. “What? Now?”

“Yes.”

“Am’zon?” Niobe had caught a flurry of the conversation and had decided it was more interesting than blocks.

“Yeah,” Iona’s eyes lit up enthusiastically. “Can Niobe be an Amazon too? I mean, Amazons are sisters, right?”

“Uhm,” Ephiny repeated again, not sure what she’d just gotten herself into. “Yeah…”

“That’s cool!” The girl beamed a smile at her. “Then if we both become amazons, we’ll be sisters again!”

“Am’zon!” Niobe squealed enthusiastically, clearly delighted with this plan. “Yay! Go!”

Ephiny glanced from one to the other, then released a heavy breath. “Sol?” She called out to her companion in the kitchen.

In response the other Amazon’s head popped around the doorway. “Hmm?”

“We’re never having kids.”

Solari chuckled, returning to the kitchen with a grin.

Gabrielle drew in a breath, then knocked on the door. A moment, then it was pushed open.

Perdicas stared back at her.

Gabrielle swallowed. She’d been so hoping it would have been her sister opening the door. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Perdicas responded gruffly.

There was a pause in which none of them said anything, trying to think of the best posture to take. Gabrielle finally cleared her throat. “I uhm… I came by to ask you and Lila over for breakfast.”

Perdicas stared at her another moment, then took a step back, allowing her entrance to the room. “Lila is taking a bath. But I’m sure she won’t be long. You can wait here if you want.”

“Thanks,” Gabrielle managed a smile for him, then stepped inside.

The room was simple and orderly. The bed was made. Gabrielle spotted two simple travelling bags, one on each side of the bed. Out of one a small head poked. Gabrielle smiled, walking over and kneeling down, pulling a rag doll from its hiding place. “She still carries this thing around?”

“Yes,” Perdicas sighed, seating himself at a desk, his back turned to Gabrielle. “She says it’s a good luck charm or something. Idiotic.”

Gabrielle glanced up, studying him. She finally released a breath. “I’m sorry.”

The young man snorted, not turning around. “Don’t. What good will it do?”

Gabrielle shrugged, her fingers stroking through the rag doll’s hair. “Might make you feel better, hearing me say it?”

“No, it might make you feel better,” Perdicas corrected her, darting an angry look over his shoulder. “And I’m not interested in doing that.”

Gabrielle tossed up a hand, sitting down on the bed and turning her back on him. “Fine. We’ll just keep yelling at each other then. I’m sure Lila will love that.”

Silence. Perdicas traced a grain in the wood of the desk with a fingertip. “You….” He drew in a breath. “You always made me look like an idiot. You always did back home and… even the other night at the party you made me look stupid. Always the last to know, I am.” He turned his chair around. “And you know what the stupidest thing was? I let you.” A shrug. “Cause I loved you.”

Green eyes turned to look at him. “I didn’t love you.”

“Don’t you think I knew that?” Perdicas tossed up a hand, rising to his feet and starting to pace. “You were always drooling over every stranger that walked into town. Begging them to take you along.”

Gabrielle looked at him in outrage. “I did not drool.”

“Yes, you did,” Perdicas retorted. “The boys in Potedaia would tease me about it.”

Gabrielle released a breath, pulling back the covers a bit and placing the rag doll under them, so only her head poked out. “I never belonged there.”

“I thought you’d learn,” Perdicas murmured. “I mean, how many other choices did you have?” A faint grin. “Wasn’t counting on this option, was I?”

Gabrielle stood and turned, facing him. “Perdicas… I know I should’ve done some stuff differently, but… It all turned out for the better this way, didn’t it?”

His brown eyes met hers sadly. “I would have been a good husband, Gabrielle.”

The warrior smiled faintly. “I would have made a lousy wife.”

A shrug. “I wouldn’t have cared.”

They stared at each other another moment, then he turned away, walking to the windows and staring out of it. “I’ll tell Lila you’re waiting for her. I’m sure she’ll love to have breakfast with you. I’m not hungry.”

Green eyes studied him another moment, then Gabrielle nodded and walked away, closing the door behind her.

“Gods, I’m stuffed,” Lila managed, holding onto her stomach as she walked. “That woman can sure cook.”

Gabrielle chuckled, warping an arm around her sister. “if you can pry some recipes from her, be sure to hand ‘em to me.”

“Will do,” Lila smiled. “So… I assume you’ll be busy today again?”

“Most likely,” Gabrielle said apologetically. “I wish I could spend some more time with you. I promise, when this is all over with, I’ll come visit you in Potedaia.”

“Oh, that will be fun,” Lila laughed. “I can’t wait for you to introduce Xena to mom and dad.”

“Yeah. That will be fun.” Gabrielle suppressed a grin. “What are you going to do?”

Lila considered this for a moment. “I think I’m going to take a walk around town. Perdicas isn’t in the mood to leave his room, let alone the palace, but… Now that I’m here, I’m kind of curious to see what you find so interesting about this place.”

“You’ll love it, I’m sure,” Gabrielle smiled, squeezing her affectionately before letting go. “Be sure to check out the Acropolis. The temples are beautiful and you have a great view over the city.”

“Will do,” Lila said, then paused. “Maybe I could ask your Amazon friend to make me lunch…?”

Gabrielle laughed as she watched her sister walk off again, back in Solari’s direction. She continued on her way to the council chamber, where she had agreed to meet Thalia.

“Psst!”

Gabrielle stopped and turned to her right. There was a row of large pillars lining the hallway. A swirl of pink fabric could be seen behind one of them. The warrior rolled her eyes. “You know, if you want to move stealthily, you should try another outfit.”

Aphrodite’s face popped from behind the pillar. “Could we chat?”

“Sure,” Gabrielle drawled, opening the nearest door, which led to Xena’s study. “Come on in.”

“Thanks.” Aphrodite looked left, then right, then quickly tiptoed into the room.

Gabrielle closed the door behind her with a smile. “What can I do for you?”

Dark eyes looked at her pleadingly. “Could you hide me?”

The warrior blinked at her. “Huh?”

“Hide me,” Aphrodite repeated, walking forward and taking Gabrielle’s hand. “Look, things up on Mount O. are really nasty right now. Everybody’s yelling and screaming and… And last night, someone got himself goddified.”

“Herself,” Gabrielle corrected with a sigh.

The goddess looked at her inquisitively. “You know who?”

“Yeah.” A nod. “It’s…”

“No, no, no…” Aphrodite hastily interrupted. “Don’t tell me. They’ll just hunt me down and interrogate me again. Don’t want that.” The goddess seated herself on the edge of the desk with a sigh.

Gabrielle studied the goddess. She seemed profoundly sad. “Are you okay?” She found herself saying, walking over and facing the goddess.

Aphrodite just shook her head. “You know…” She sniffled a little. “You know how you can dream of something for a really long time. And then it finally happens and… It’s not the same?”

A nod.

“I thought with Ares gone,… He locked me up, you know? He didn’t want any love roaming around. I thought that when I finally got out, things would go back to the way they were.” Aphrodite shrugged helplessly. “It wasn’t perfect back then, but… Daddy was there to look after all of us and keep the peace.” She shook her head a little. “But it’s not like that now.”

Gabrielle hesitated a moment, then reached out and touched the goddess’s shoulder. “I’m sorry.” She said, not sure what else to say.

“Thanks,” Aphrodite managed a small smile. “So, could you hide me?”

Gabrielle released a breath, scratching the back of your neck. “How do you hide a God?”

“I can do a little spell,” Aphrodite counted on her fingers. “And I need to go some place not so obvious. So this…” She indicated the palace. “…is probably a bad choice, but… you’re the only mortal I know, so…” She darted Gabrielle another pleading look. “I could wear a darker shade of pink?”

Gabrielle stared at her another moment, then tossed up a hand in defeat. “Fine.”

“Oh, yay!” Aphrodite got up, wrapping her arms around the warrior and hugging her tight. Gabrielle awkwardly patted her on the back. “You’re the best, Gab.”

“Now, this is just until Xena gets back, understand?” Gabrielle informed her as she was released. “It’s her home. If she wants to kick you out…”

“Understood,” Aphrodite nodded firmly, before looking up. “Cuppie!”

Gabrielle blinked as a bright flash lit up the room. A moment later a tall, winged man was standing in the room. He wiggled his fingers at her. “Hi. Really appreciate this.”

Gabrielle glanced past the feathers to Aphrodite. “I’m supposed to hide a guy with wings?”

“He’s my son,” Aphrodite smiled at her.

“Fine, fine…” The warrior sighed, raising both her hands. “You two just… stay here, until I figure out what to do with you.”

“Gotcha,” Cupid gave her a thumbs up, as Aphrodite continued to smile broadly at her.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “It’s one of those days. Another one of ‘em.”

“Solari has gotten the kitchen making more food than that damn army can eat in weeks,” Thalia said, shaking her head a little in amusement. “You shoulda heard her yelling. It was great.”

Gabrielle chuckled, resting her arms on the table’s surface. “I can imagine.”

“So we got the food supplies covered. Odell was actually helpful and arranged some carts for it all to be transported in.” Thalia continued, ticking off an item from her list. “Eph got word out to the Amazons.”

“She told me,” Gabrielle nodded. “They should be here in a few days.”

“And that’s about it, really,” her friend concluded, putting her quill down and looking up. “Heard you had no luck with the army?”

“Nah,” the warrior sighed. “I tried talking but they just wanted to beat me up. I’m not very popular with the veterans.” She offered in explanation. “I killed some of their mates, when I was… You know….”

“Right,” Thalia nodded in understanding. “Well, their loss. Xena can sort them out then when she gets back.”

“Yeah,” Gabrielle agreed in a murmur, as they both got to their feet.

“So what about this uhm… g o d situation?”

The warrior smirked. “Thal, Gods can spell you know?”

Thalia sighed. “We need a codeword or something.”

“I’ve got them… incognito. Sorta.” Gabrielle replied to her first question. “And Ephiny and Solari keeping an eye on them. I don’t want them walking around the palace by themselves.”

“Do you think it’s a good idea? Keeping them around?”

“No,” Gabrielle easily admitted. “I just don’t know what else to do.”

“You could have said no.”

Gabrielle grimaced. “She had the whole pouty thing going on.” A sigh. “And I really think she does mean well. She gave me back the dagger and everything. Which, since I lost the chakram to Callisto, is the only thing remotely working in my favour.”

Thalia patted her friend on the shoulder supportively as they headed down the stairs together.

The warrior shook her head a little. “You know what, Thal?”

“What?”

“This ruling the world thing…? I’m so outta my league. I mean, I can’t even run the damn household.”

The redhead chuckled. “You’ll get the hang of it.”

“I dunno,” Gabrielle held open a door, allowing Thalia to walk ahead of her. “I don’t get how Xena does it. She makes it look so easy.”

“She’s got a little more experience than you do,” Thalia argued. “Who knows, maybe she’ll be back today to tell there is no army to be seen and she scared that Dahak fellow so much he turned himself into a poodle and ran off back to Persia with his tail between his legs.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “That’d be nice.”

Thalia patted her on the shoulder, then headed for the outer door. “I need to go and have a chat with those merchants I told you about.”

“Good luck,” Gabrielle called after her.

“Don’t need it, but thanks,” Thalia flashed a smile over her shoulder, before closing the door behind her and crossing the courtyard to the large metal gates. The guards there greeted her, having gotten accustomed to her walking in and out at all hours of the day. The gates swung open and she stepped outside, turning to her right and heading towards the city.

It was around midday and Athens was bustling with activity, merchants shouting from their stalls and men and women bustling about with large bags filled with groceries. Thalia smiled, tilting her face up towards the sun, letting the rays warm her pleasantly. It was a beautiful day.

She turned a corner and another one, on her way to the Agora, where she was to meet the merchants. Since she was a little on the late side she decided to take a shortcut she knew, through some smaller alleyways. Even though the buildings would block out that pleasant sun.

The alley she was walking through was busy, people bumping into her and pushing her aside. A tall, cloaked figure was heading right for her and didn’t seem to have any intent of getting out of the way. Thalia tried pushing her way to the left a little to avoid him.

But before she could, an arm wrapped itself around her neck and dragged her in the opposite direction. “Hey, wh…!” She started, but a gloved hand covered her lips, stopping her from speaking. She struggled, but it was in vain. Without anybody noticing, the cloaked figure dragged her away and they disappeared around a corner.

“Have I mentioned how stupid I feel?”

Aphrodite rolled her eyes. “Yes, Cupie, you have.” She motioned towards her own outfit. “Like I’m happy!” She picked up a fold of the faded blue dress Gabrielle had given her to wear in clear digust. “I mean, Gab must have a ton of really nice looking, sexy outfits and what do I get?”

“My wings hurt, stuck in this stupid coat,” Cupid muttered, as he fumbled with the catches of his overalls. “I feel very undivine.”

“I think you look nice,” Iona commented, from her spot seated on a rock near the pond.

Cupid looked up at her, giving her a charmed smile. “Thanks, Iona.”

Iona diverted her eyes hastily, rubbing at her cheeks to hide the blush.

“You two shouldn’t nag,” Solari scolded them both. “You wanted Gab to hide your butts. So she’s hiding ‘em. Stop complaining about her methods.”

Ephiny smiled, patting her friend on the back. “You tell ‘em, Sol.”

“I know, I know,” Aphrodite raised her hands in defence. “I’m grateful, okay. But doing the mortal thing is tough, you know?”

“Do it everyday,” Solari muttered, returning her eyes to Caspar, who was patiently sitting beside her, coloring. “Don’t bother me.”

“You’re used to it,” the goddess retorted, sitting down on a rock, wincing as a sharp edge poked her in the butt. “So what do you guys do for fun around here?”

Solari looked up at Ephiny, who grinned back down at her cheekily.

Aphrodite rolled her eyes. “Besides that.”

“Hey, lady?”

Aphrodite looked down, to find Niobe looking up at her. “Yes?”

“Gots no pink.”

The goddess sighed sadly. “You’re telling me.”

“Pink pwetty,” Niobe nodded in understanding. “C’n me be pink?”

Aphrodite considered this a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, that might be fun.” She lifted a hand and wiggled her fingers at Niobe. A moment later a brightly pink tiara appeared on the toddler’s head.

“Pwetty!” Niobe giggled in delight. “Gain!”

Aphrodite smiled and raised her hand a second time, but then Ephiny audibly cleared her throat, darting the goddess a meaningful look. “Right, right,” the goddess sighed. “The old fashioned way, I know.”

Meanwhile Iona was tossing stones at the pond, trying to make them skid over the water’s surface. She managed to get one to bounce three times before it sank into the water.

Cupid stepped up next to her, folding his arms as he watched. “That’s cool,” he commented, nearly making Iona topple of her rock. “Can you teach me that?”

“Uhm, sure.” Iona managed, picking up a flat stone and handing it to him. “You have to throw it from your wrist and real low, so it won’t hit the water too hard. If it does it’ll sink.”

“Right,” Cupid nodded, tossing the first stone and watching it sink straight down.

After a few more tries he got it to bounce once though and he straightened, quite proud of himself. “Rocks walking over water,” he muttered, smirking. “And who says mortals can’t do magic.”

Iona grinned, following her own rock as it bounced three times and then sank.

“You know,” Cupid settled down next to her, folding his arms around his knees. “You could make that rock fly all the way to the other side and back. Why all the effort?”

Iona glanced at him, then faced forward again with a shrug. “I don’t wanna use my powers anymore.”

Cupid frowned at her. “Why not? You were so good.”

“I hurt Gabrielle,” Iona muttered, her fingers sorting through the pebbles at her feet.

“That’s not your fault. You’re learning.” The god leaned back on his hands, staring up at the blue sky. “You shoulda seen me when I just got my bow. Arrows flying all over the place. I had the entire population of Arcadia all head over heals with a single woman. It was crazy.”

“What happened next?” Iona inquired.

A shrug. “Mom sorted it out.”

Iona looked up at him meaningfully.

“Ahhh,” Cupid nodded. “I see your point there.” He shrugged. “I can help you out if you screw up, if you want me to.”

Blue eyes glanced up at him. “You’d do that? For me?”

“Sure,” the god gave her a dazzling smile. “Anything for a cute face like you.”

Iona giggled, hastily diverting her eyes again.

Thalia struggled as her attacker pushed her into a small, dead end street. It was quiet here. Which was not good for her, Thalia realised. She twisted and shoved back her elbow, managing to catch the cloaked man in the stomach.

He hissed in pain and let her go. Thalia hastily turned away from him and tried to make a run for it, but before she could he had another hold on her wrist, yanking her back. “Let me go!” She growled, hitting at him with her free hand. She managed to grab hold of his hood and pushed it away from his face.

She gasped, her eyes widening in shock. The hold on her wrist loosened, but she hardly even noticed. “Toris.”

“Hi,” Toris drawled, then rubbed his stomach painfully. “You pack quite a punch.”

Thalia stared at him another moment, then she moved forward, wrapping her arms around his neck and kissing him.

“Hmm,” Toris murmured as they broke apart. “Now that’s more my kind of hello.”

Thalia smiled up at him, then sobered. “What’s with all the dragging me off into dark alleys?”

“Can’t get noticed,” the young man informed her. “Xena banished me remember? The streets are full of soldiers. Couldn’t risk one recognising me.”

“I thought you were leaving,” Thalia said softly, still in a state of disbelief. “For Egypt.”

“I was. But then I saw this.” Toris pulled a bit of parchment from beneath the folds of his cloak, showing it to her. It was a drawing of Khrafstar, which the military had distributed in an attempt to find Dahak’s priest. “And I had to come back for you.”

Thalia looked up from the parchment. “Come back for me?”

“Yes.” Toris reached out and took her hand. “Come with me. My ship is waiting in the harbour.”

“But… I…” The redhead stared up at him in complete confusion. “I can’t. You know that. I…”

“You don’t understand,” Toris cut her off. “This fellow, he’s bad news.”

“How do you know?”

Xena’s brother drew in a breath. “I met him on my way over here. I stopped in a port in Persia. He came up to me, said he heard about me. He said he wanted something special. And he would be willing to pay me good dinars for it.” Toris shook his head. “He wanted Greek fire. It’s this special oily mixture. Can do great damage when it’s set on fire. You can’t put it out. When you toss water on it, it just gets worse. No one is allowed to own it, except for Xena of course.”

Thalia stared at him, not sure what to say. “Did you sell it to him?”

“Of course not,” Tores replied. “No sane man would sell that stuff to anyone, no matter how much he could make off of it.” A sigh. “Unfortunately, not all merchants are sane men. I heard one of my collegeas boasting how he’d made a killing in Persia. He sold it to him.”

Thalia blinked, trying very hard to think. “So… This Khrafstar fellow has Greek fire?”

“Looks like it.”

“We have to tell Gabrielle.”

Toris snorted. “Are you nuts? Xena will have my hide for coming back!”

“We need to tell her,” Thalia insisted, taking his hand. “Gabrielle’s my best friend. I can’t just get up and run off with you.”

Toris exhaled, closing his eyes. “I don’t know.”

“Xena’s not here right now,” Thalia went on, trying to persuade him. “And I’ll protect you from Gabrielle if it comes to that.”

The young man couldn’t repress a smile at this.

“I… I need to go and talk with some people. They’re waiting for me and it’s important.” Thalia said. “Is there somewhere you can hide?”

“I can go to the inn where we met.”

Thalia nodded, thinking this was a good idea. “I’ll come pick you up in a candlemark.” She squeezed his arm. “Don’t run, okay?”

“Okay,” Toris nodded, reaching out and touching her cheek. “But you’d better protect me good. I’m not planning on dying here.”

Thalia smiled up at him. “Thanks for coming back to save me. That’s really… heroic.” She reached over, pulling the cloak back up to cover his face, before pressing another kiss to his lips. “See you in a candlemark.” She said then, before turning and running away, back in the direction of the agora.

Toris watched her go, then shook his head a little, wrapping his cloak more tightly around him. “I’m probably going to regret this, aren’t I?”

The stables were quiet. Gabrielle untangled the last knot from Argo’s manes. “That’s better, isn’t it girl?” She placed the brushes back in the bucket she’d taken them from. Then she rose to her feet, stepping closer and wrapping her arms around Argo’s neck. “How about I send you outside and you roll around in some mud so I can start over, huh?”

Argo whinnied, gently nudging her side.

“You’re right, can’t hide here forever, can I?” Gabrielle sighed, resting her cheek against the soft manes. “Thanks for listening to me whine.”

The deep brown eyes studied her quietly. Gabrielle looked into them for a long moment. She reached out, stroking the horse’s soft nose. “You remember when we were traveling around, Argo? When we were in the middle of nowhere, no one around. Remember how nice and uncomplicated that was?”

Argo studied her, then turned her head, tugging some hay from the bale lying next to her and starting to chew.

“Well, I’m not saying this place doesn’t have any advantages. I’m just saying…” A breath. “Maybe, when all of this is over, we should get out there again. Ride around Greece for a while. Just you, me… Xena.”

Argo snorted in clear contempt.

Her rider chuckled. “Get over it.” She instructed the mare, giving her a last pat before opening the stable door and stepping outside. “I’ll stop by in the evening.”

Gabrielle walked out of the stables, stopping at the trough outside and sticking her hands in the water to wash the grime off them. The stables were near the army barracks and she could hear the voices of soldiers yelling and of swords clashing. Two soldiers passed her on their way to the barracks. She recognized one of them as Andros, the lieutenant she’d battled yesterday. They shot her a look, but when they saw her looking back at them, they turned their heads instantly and continued on.

The blonde released a breath, shaking her head a little.

“Gabrielle!”

There was panic in the voice calling out to her, and Gabrielle instantly looked up to see Perdicas running up to her.

“Gabrielle!” Perdicas stopped in front of her, panting heavily. “It’s Lila!”

“Lila?” Gabrielle looked at him, confused.

Perdicas released a shaky breath. “She… She went into town.”

“I know, she told me. She left this morning.”

“I went looking for her. I was on my way to the Agora, and then… Then…”

“And then what?” Gabrielle grabbed onto his shoulder, worried now.

“Someone was with her. A woman. Thin, blond hair, wearing armor. I called out to Lila, then this woman dragged her away. I tried to follow, but… There were so many people and…” He dropped his eyes. “I lost them in the crowd. I didn’t know what to do… I…” Perdicas looked at her again, desperately. “I hoped you’d know.”

Green eyes stared at him in shock for a long moment, then she swallowed, forcing her brain to work again. “Do… Do you have any idea where she might have taken her? What direction were they going in?”

The young man nodded eagerly, glad to be able to contribute any helpful information. “Last place I saw them was on the road leading to the eastern city gates.”

“Callisto must be taking her out of the city…” Gabrielle grabbed onto Perdicas’ shoulder and pushed him into the direction of the stables. “Get my horse for me. It’s the palomino, third stable on the right.”

Without waiting for his response she ran towards the soldiers who’d passed her moment before. “Hey! Wait!”

Andros looked over his shoulder and muttered something to his companion, but they kept moving.

“Wait!” Gabrielle reached them and grabbed onto Andros’ shoulder and spun him around.

The man angrily swatted her arm aside. “Keep your hands off me.”

“I think Callisto might have taken my sister,” Gabrielle said, ignoring his icy stare.

“And this involves the Athenian military how, exactly?”

“Callisto’s strong. She’s a goddess now. Send some of your soldiers with me,” the warrior pleaded. “I think I may know where she is. We can take her down together.”

“You think you may know?” Andros looked at her in clear contempt. “I will not send any of my soldiers with you on a hunch.”

Green eyes bore into his. “But my sister…”

Andros cut her off firmly. “Your sister means as little to me as you do.”

Gabrielle stared at her another moment and was just about to say something else, when a loud whinnie and the sound of hooves sounded behind her. She looked around to see Perdicas holding Argo’s reigns. The mare reared, clearly confused and agitated.

“Forget it.” She darted a last look at Andros, then turned her back on him, running back over to where Argo was and grabbing onto the reigns. Argo’s eyes were wide and they were focused on Perdicas, who was standing behind Gabrielle now. “Easy, girl,” the warrior tried to calm the horse. The dark eyes focused on her and with that the horse did calm down a little.

“I don’t think she likes me,” Perdicas commented.

Gabrielle placed her foot in the stirrup and swung herself into the saddle.

The young man looked up at her. “Let me come with you. I can help.”

Gabrielle shook her head. “It’s too dangerous.” She managed a smile for him. “I need you to find Ephiny. Tell her what happened and that I think Callisto is hiding in the forest to the east of the city.”

Perdicas nodded. “Of course.” He watched as she turned Argo around and pushed the horse into a gallop, racing towards the eastern gates. “Good luck!” He called out, his eyes following her until she was no more than a dot in the distance. Then he smiled. “Trust me. You’ll need it.”

Xena knelt down besides the small stream, scooping up some water in both her hands and tossing it into her face. Beside her Chilon had lowered his head and was greedily drinking the cold water.

The Empress rose back to her feet, shaking her hands and sending droplets scattering around. She looked down the road they were traveling on, seeing the outline of a city in the distance.

Athens. It had been a long ride back from the north. She’d traveled through the night and through the day and now it was well into the afternoon. Just an hour or so and she would be back home.

She would have to explain what she’d seen. The size of the army. Dahak. She would have to order her soldiers to go to war, outnumbered and unprepared. Not something she was looking forward to.

She reached down and picked a flower, lifting it up and studying the bright pedals. It was yellow and smelled nice. Xena closed her eyes and drew in a breath.

A panic rose in her then, suddenly, out of nowhere it seemed. Her eyes shot open again and focused once more on the city in the distance.

Something was wrong. She felt it, in her heart, in her blood. She’d had these moments before, in battle or on the eve before. Just this feeling of uneasiness, of something not being quite right. But she’d never felt it this strongly.

She turned and jogged back to Chilon. The horse snorted loudly in objection as she mounted up once more, but obeyed when she guided him back towards the road, urging him towards the outline of the city.

“Lila!”

Gabrielle urged Argo forward, the horse struggling to find her way through the trees. “Lila!” The blonde called out again. She’d been searching for half a candlemark now surely. She’d found a few clues, to indicate she was heading in the right direction. A footmark here, a broken twig there. It had led her away from the road and deeper into the woods.

The sun was on its way down now and the color of the rays was changing from the bright yellow to a deeper shade of orange.

A few more steps, then she pulled Argo to a halt, sliding off the mare’s back. She took a few paces and knelt, picking up a small scrap of dark leather. The same color as Callisto’s armor.

Gabrielle straightened again. Ahead of her the trees were even more tightly packed together and the ground was uneven. She turned back to Argo and patted the mare on the back. “Stay here, Argo.” She instructed the horse in a low voice.

She moved forward, silently now. She cocked her head, listening intently. A rustle, up ahead, only barely audible.

Gabrielle unsheathed her sword, clasping the hilt in both her hands. She detected more sounds now, faint. Voices. Muted. Struggling.

She broke into a run, moving almost silently among the trees. A few more steps and she came upon a clearing. There was a fire burning low in the center and behind it she could see Callisto, kneeling, knife in hand. Leaning over her sister.

With a scream Gabrielle leaped forward.

A yell went up from the guards at the gates as she neared them. The gates were hastily pushed open, just in time for Chilon to gallop through them without stopping.

People hastily dived out of the way as she raced past, turning a few corners before she spotted her palace.

“It’s the Empress!” She heard a voice call out from the walls and there was the creaking of the wooden doors shutting the palace grounds off from the rest of the city.

Chilon’s hooves echoed loudly through the square as she rode up to the palace. She pulled Chilon to a halt, the stallion obeying willingly.

Several people came running up to her. A stable boy, who grabbed onto Chilon’s reigns. Benitor came running out, bowing as he neared her and taking the saddlebags slung over the stallion’s rear, before the stable boy led him off.

From somewhat further away she saw soldiers riding closer, the word of her arrival apparently having reached the barracks.

“General!” Andros saluted her as he halted his horse before her and jumped off. “Welcome back, General.”

“Andros,” Xena gave him a nod. “Are the troops ready?”

“Three cohorts marched for Delphi this morning, general,” Andros instructed her. “And two more are preparing to head out tomorrow.”

“They march tonight,” Xena told him as she headed for the palace. “What about Khrafstar?”

“We haven’t found him yet, I’m afraid. There was word people had seen him in an inn in the southern side of town, but when we got there he had left.”

Xena ruffled her hair back, thinking.

“We have been searching for the prisoner Callisto as well.”

Xena stopped and turned, her eyes finding Andros’. “Callisto escaped?”

The lieutenant nodded.

Xena released a breath, closing her eyes. “Where’s Gabrielle?” There was no response to her question, and Xena opened her eyes again, impatiently. “Where is Gabrielle?”

The lieutenant jaw clenched and unclenched a few times, then he spoke up. “She has gone in search of Callisto.”

“By herself?” Xena stared at the man. “Why?”

“She claimed Callisto has taken her sister. Her brother-in-law said he had seen them at the Agora, heading for the eastern gates.” Andros shook his head. “She had no evidence of this, though. The troops are preparing. I saw no need to send some to accompany her.”

“You saw no need?” Blue eyes blazed at him. “You s…”

The sound of footsteps sounded behind her and she spun around. Her eyes widened as she saw a figure walking closer.

Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Callisto’s waist, u

sing her momentum to drag the immortal away from her sister. She then quickly got to her feet, kicking out at Callisto again before running back to Lila’s side.

“Lila!” She dropped to her knees beside her sister, who lay facing away from her. She dropped her sword and grabbed onto her shoulders. “Are you all right?”

Her sister turned her head and looked at her. Gabrielle’s eyes widened as she saw Lila’s pupils were a smouldering red. Lila smiled, wickedly. “I’m fine.”

Gabrielle stumbled back as a flame consumed her sister and the next moment… The next moment the person lying on the ground was no longer Lila. It was Khrafstar.

Lila bowed awkwardly as she noticed who it was that was standing in front of the palace doors. “Empress.”

“Are… Are you okay?” Xena asked, not quite understanding what was going on.

Lila looked at her, clearly confused by the question coming from a woman she hardly knew. “Well… Yes, of course I am. I just went out for a walk.”

Andros stepped up. “Your husband said he had seen you at the agora.”

Lila managed a smile. “That’s not possible. I went nowhere near the Agora. And I am quite sure Perdicas didn’t go there either. He said he would stay inside all day.”

The lieutenant frowned. “This is very strange. Why would…?”

His words were halted though as fingers closed around his neck and he was lifted straight off the ground. Raging blue eyes looked at him. “Go back to the compound and gather as many men as you can. Head for the eastern gates and then follow my trail.”

She shoved him away from her, sending him tumbling to the ground and grasping for air. She turned around. With Chilon having been led to the stable she quickly grabbed onto the reigns of Andros’ horse and mounted up, pushing the horse into a gallop and racing out the gates again.

Behind her Callisto started laughing. Gabrielle spun her head around, to find the blonde smiling broadly at her. “Surprise!”

Krafstar grabbed onto her arm. Her instincts flared up and she shoved him aside, hopping to her feet and backing away. She pressed her back up against a tree, her eyes darting around the clearing. Krafstar was slowly rising to his feet. The fire which had been burning low before now rose up, the flames licking at the overhanging leaves.

It was a trap, her mind informed her frantically. She needed to get out of here.

Without another thought she made a run for it, back in the direction where she’ d left Argo. But before she could as much as exit the clearing, a flame rose up before her and the next moment she was crashing into Callisto.

“Now now, precious. Don’t run.” Callisto grabbed onto both her arms to stop her from moving away again. “The party’s just getting started. And you’re the guest of honour.”

Green eyes gazed up at her, not understanding. “Why?”

“You offered me forgiveness. Dahak offered me divinity.” Callisto shrugged. “I picked the best deal.”

She shoved Gabrielle back, right into Krafstar’s arms. The man wrapped his arm around her neck, using his greater height to pull her off the ground a little, making it hard for her to struggle free. She shoved her elbow back against his chest and felt him wince, but his hold remained strong.

“Don’t fight it, Gabby,” Callisto was sauntering closer now. “Save your strength. You’ll need it.”

“To fight you?” The warrior snorted, her eyes fiery now. Angry. “Hardly.”

“Well, ouch,” Callisto reached out, a fingertip trailing down the warrior’s cheek. “Why so harsh, dearest? You were my friend, once.”

“I offered you a way out,” Gabrielle spat back at her. “You betrayed me!”

The blonde chuckled. “No. I just chose another way.” She leaned closer, hey eyes only inches apart. “You wanted us to work together. I want the same thing.”

“Then why…?”

“I don’t want to be on your team,” Callisto cut her off. “All this do goody stuff makes me nauseous.” She smiled sweetly at Gabrielle. “I want you to come over to my side.”

Green eyes looked at her in outrage. “Fat chance.”

Callisto giggled. “No. I didn’t think you’d join me willingly.” She turned around, taking a few paces to stand beside the roaring fire. “Fortunately…” She extended a hand, watching the flames lick around her fingers. “…Will power is overrated.”

Krafstar moved forward, pushing her towards the fire. Gabrielle struggled, but the man had a firm grip on her and she couldn’t get free.

“Dahak needs the heart of a true warrior,” Callisto said. “He will take your heart and make it dark. Like mine.”

“No,” Gabrielle wriggled, trying to get free. “No!” She slammed her foot back and it impacted with Krafstar’s knee. The man stumbled, allowing Gabrielle’s feet to touch ground for only a moment. A moment was enough though and Gabrielle pushed off, flipping backwards and freeing herself from his hold.

Her sword was lying nearby and she scooped it up, then turned just in time to swipe it at Krafstar. The priest hastily jumped back, barely avoiding the sharp edge. Gabrielle darted a look at Callisto, who was looking back at her, clearly impressed. “What was that about will power?”

Callisto giggled. “Well, it wouldn’t be fun if we didn’t fight.” She drawled, then jumped forward, flipping in the air and landing in front of Gabrielle.

Their blades met and the force of it sent sparks flying. Gabrielle hit Callisto with a roundhouse kick, then had to duck quickly as the goddess’s sword came soaring at her.

Meanwhile, Krafstar had recovered and he pulled a small ceremonial knife from his dark robes. He narrowed his eyes at Gabrielle and moved forward.

Gabrielle pulled the hind’s blood dagger out of her boot and then rose again quickly, darting to the left and avoiding a jab at her side.

“You sure have a lot of weapons on you to take me out, Gabby.” Callisto pouted. “I’m starting to think you don’t like me.”

Gabrielle blocked another parry, then moved the dagger towards Callisto’s bare abdomen, but missed.

Another weapon moved towards her now. It was Krafstar’s this time, and she only just managed to swipe it aside with her hand. She wanted to kick out at him again, but Callisto beat her to it, the goddess sending the priest soaring backwards. “Back off, Khraffie,” Callisto snarled at him. “I’m not done playing yet.”

Krafstar crawled back to his feet. “She is not yours to play with!”

Gabrielle used the distraction, slamming the hilt of her sword forward, and letting it impact harshly with Callisto’s forehead. It sent the goddess stumbling back. Seeing her path suddenly cleared, Gabrielle didn’t hesitate a moment and ran towards the edge of the clearing again in another attempt to escape.

She stumbled to the ground as something wrapped around her leg. It wasn’t a hand this time though, but… Gabrielle lost her hold on her sword as she was flipped around, her eyes widening as large, tentacle like flames reached for her.

“No!” She flailed about, her hands digging into the earth, trying to find a hold. But there was none. A flame wrapped itself around her wrist and another around her waist as she was lifted off the ground.

Callisto’s eyes sparkled as she watched Gabrielle being lifted up. “Don’t be afraid, dear!” She called out. “It’ll be over soon. And then we can go out and play.”

Meanwhile Krafstar knelt down, bending his head reverently.

A piercing pain shot through her then as one of the flames entered her skin and grasped onto her heart. Gabrielle’s head shot back and she screamed out. Memories of battles past filled her brain and she relived the fight with Andros, with Alti, the battle side by side with Xena in the palace corridors, fighting Callisto in the forest.

She relived the anxiety she’d felt. The fear. The world around her faded out and went black, the only thing she could see now were the images in her head.

The memories went further back and she saw herself fighting Xena’s soldiers after she’d crossed the border. Battles she’d joined in the east, in India. In Chin.

With a piercing cry the flames pushed her away and she was sent flying across the clearing, crashing into a tree and thudding to the ground.

Krafstar instantly rose to her feet. He spun around, facing Callisto, who was looking at the flames with her head cocked sideways, clearly confused. “You said she was a true warrior!!”

Callisto turned to him. “She is! Kicked your butt, didn’t she?”

“She killed innocents!”

Dark brown eyes blinked at him a few times. “She did?” Then a grin spread over Callisto’s face. “Good going, Gabby!” She gave the warrior a thumbs up. “I knew you had it in ya!”

Gabrielle just sat there, slumped on the ground, her back against the tree. She couldn’t see anything. The black that had swallowed the world around her was fading only slowly and through the darkness she could now only see vague shapes and shadows, moving. She could hear her heart pounding loudly.

“She is useless now!” Khrafstar barked, advancing on the goddess. “The Dark Lord needs a pure warrior’s heart to feed off. To gain strength. He needs a vessel in his fight for Greece! You have risked everything by bringing this worthless woman!”

“Hey!” Callisto took offence to this. “Gab is not worthless, okay? If your God is so stupid he can’t see that, than that’s his problem. Not mine.”

The flames soared up again and Khrafstar stopped and turned, listening. Callisto listened too, but… she found she could no longer hear Dahak when he spoke.

“My Lord,” Krafstar took a step closer to the flames. “She is unsuitable for this task.”

The flames growled, weakly.

A grin crossed Khrafstar’s face slowly as he listened. “It will be done.” He then turned, his eyes falling on Gabrielle.

Through the darkness, Gabrielle saw a figure moving steadily towards her. She crawled back, up against the tree, finding support there as she tried to rise to her feet.

A hand closed around her throat then and she gasped as slowly Khrafstar’s face came into focus. He grinned at her, wickedly. “You have been chosen. Even though you are unworthy.” Before she realized what was going on her hands were bound and she was tied to the tree trunk, unable to escape. “Since you cannot be the Dark Lord’s vessel…” He lifted his dagger and roughly cut through the collar of her tunic. “You will have to serve another purpose.”

“No!” Gabrielle struggled, but the fight with Dahak had weakened her and the bonds tying back her arms were too strong. Tears were brimming in her eyes now, as her mind realized the hopelessness of the situation. “No…”

“Whoa, hey, back up!” Callisto caught up to him, grabbing onto the arm holding the dagger and pulling it away from Gabrielle. “This was not the deal!”

Khrafstar shoved her back roughly. “The deal was you would bring my Lord an instrument to enter the world. You have failed him!”

“He shoulda been more clear on the specs!” Callisto shot back, her eyes blazing at him. “I got Gab here to be eviled. Not to be your play thing.”

“She will be what the Dark Lord wishes her to be.” He said, before turning back and reaching for the blonde again.

Callisto’s eyes narrowed. “Over my immortal body.” She growled, wrapping an arm around his neck and dragging him backwards, away from Gabrielle.

Khraftar turned and slammed his elbow into her face, freeing himself from her hold. He lifted his dagger up in front of him. Callisto giggled. “No hinds blood on that one, honey.” She kicked at the weapon, then up at his neck, sending him stumbling back.

Khrafstar growled, then pushed his hand forward. A force shot from his palm, impacting harshly with Callisto and sending the goddess flying back. “Ugh!” Callisto landed on the ground, shaking her head a little. “So you want to do the god thing, Khraffie? Fine by me!” A fireball was sent soaring in his direction and Dahak’s priest was only just able to jump aside.

Callisto hastily scrambled back to her feet, picking up her sword as she ran towards Gabrielle. She lifted the weapon overhead, then with one quick stroke she cut through the thick ropes tying the warrior’s hands together.

Gabrielle laid her hand against the tree for support.

Callisto handed her her own sword, her eyes focused on Khrafstar who was getting back to his feet. With a yell she sent a thunderbolt soaring in his direction. She flashed a grin and Gabrielle. “Don’t you just love divinity.”

Gabrielle just stared at her. She let go of the tree, but her legs were unable to hold her up and she grabbed onto Callisto’s shoulder for support.

The goddess frowned at her, worried. “Better get you out of here.” She lifted her hand, intent on transporting them away from the scene. But before she could a flame wrapped itself around her leg, tugging her away from Gabrielle. “Hey!” She raised her body up a little, looking at the fire she was being dragged towards in clear outrage. She sent a fireball soaring towards the flames, but this of course had little effect.

Then she remembered the chakram. She grabbed onto the weapon, then shoved it into the flame holding onto her foot. With a roar the flame returned to the fire, letting go of Callisto and sending her tumbled to the ground.

“Callisto!” Gabrielle pushed herself away from the tree, stumbling over to the goddess.

“Eat this, flameboy!” Callisto growled, sending the chakram flying towards the fire.

The weapon entered the flames and then stopped, hovering in the center of the fire for a moment. Then, with a great force, it was pushed forward, flying straight back at Callisto.

Callisto’s eyes widened, and she tried getting back to her feet. But the speed of the chakram was too great. The weapon impacted with her chest, the force sending her flying back several feet.

“No!!” Gabrielle yelled as she watched Callisto land on the ground with a thud, the goddess’ body remaining still. A moment passed, then the earth started shaking. Gabrielle crashed to her knees again, the sand scraping against her skin. She stumbled back to her feet, managing the few extra paces to Callisto’s side and falling down next to her.

Callisto blinked a few times, then turned to face the woman who’s just stumbled to her side. She lifted a shaking hand, reaching out. Gabrielle grasped onto her fingers, squeezing tightly, her eyes locking with Callisto’s.

Then she was yanked away again, a flame pulling her from Callisto and back towards Khrafstar.

Dahak’s priest moved towards her as the Dark Lord’s flames held her in place. “You cannot escape your destiny,” he growled, grabbing onto her arm and flinging her onto the ground. Gabrielle tried to get up, but a weight settled on her as Khrafstar sat down on top of her, pinning her wrists to the ground with his knees. “If Dahak himself can not enter this world… then his child will.” He growled, grabbing onto the collar or her tunic and ripping the fabric apart with all his strength.

A whinny made Xena look up to see Argo, her reigns caught in the branches of a tree. “Argo!” Xena hastily slid off her horse’s back, running to the mare’s side.

But before she could reach the horse a scream echoed though the woods and a fear clasped onto her heart as she realized whose scream it was. She instantly changed direction, running as fast as she could. Past trees, ducking under branches. Twigs scraped into the skin on her arms, but she ignored it, continuing to run towards the flames she could now see in the distance.

She felt … numb. Gabrielle kept up her struggling, but her attempts were only half hearted. It was no use, after all. The damage was done. She was too weak. And there was no one left to save her.

Fingers dug into her arm. Teeth bit into her neck, but she hardly felt it. She closed her eyes. The heat of the fire was close, the flames wrapping around her arms like snakes. Slithering. Trying to suffocate her.

Vaguely then she heard a war cry. It was only faint, but… Her heart recognized it.

Khrafstar stumbled back in shock as a body slammed into his, pulling him sideways. He tried getting back up, but before he could a body had him pinned down and a fist impacted harshly with his face. He managed to look up, to find raging blue eyes at very close range.

“You…” Xena growled, grabbing onto his neck and squeezing as tightly as she could. “… are dead.”

Khrafstar managed to free a hand and shoved it forward, sending the Empress soaring back. Hastily he got back to his feet. Only just in time to see the elbow, before it impacted with his face. A knee in his stomach, a kick to his side. Khrafstar stumbled back further and further, receiving blow after blow.

Xena folded her hands together, then slammed them up against his chin with such force that he was lifted from the ground. He impacted with a tree and slid to the base of it, remaining still.

Without another thought Xena spun around and ran back, falling to her knees at Gabrielle’s side. “Gabrielle.” She cupped the woman’s face in both her hands, forcing the wandering green eyes to meet hers. “Gabrielle, look at me!”

The warrior finally did and they stared at each other for what seemed like forever. Gabrielle’s breath was laboured and irregular and her pupils were wide. “Easy. I got ya.” Xena’s fingers gently stroked her skin. “I got ya.”

A scraping of sand behind her and Xena turned, to find Khrafstar had gotten back to his feet. Dahak’s flames were nearby and were rising up high, flickering at her in outrage. Khrafstar reached for his dagger, holding it up in front of him. “Back away, Xena. She is for Dahak.”

Xena slowly rose to her feet. “No.” She pulled her sword from its scabbard. “She is mine.”

Gabrielle’s eyes followed Xena as she leaped forward, flinging her sword towards Khrafstar and pushing him back. She managed to push herself up a little, desperately pulling the shreds of her tunic together to cover herself up.

Her eyes slid from Xena’s form to her right, to see Callisto’s still body lying on the forest floor. She crawled towards the blonde, reaching out and touching her arm. “Callisto?”

A moment, then eyelids fluttered open and deep brown eyes looked up at her. The woman grinned weakly. “Surprise…”

“Hang on, Callie,” Gabrielle found her hand and clasped onto it tightly.

The former rebel coughed. “B… bet you didn’t see that one coming, huh?” The eyes searched hers, seriously now. “Are you okay?”

Gabrielle managed a smile. “I’m… fine.”

“I…” Callisto closed her eyes, swallowing. “This wasn’t what I had in mind.”

“I know,” the warrior whispered. “I know. Just… Just stay still. Hold still.”

Khrafstar howled as Xena’s sword slid though the skin covering his stomach. He stumbled back a few paces, then looked up, watching as Xena approached him again. “Give it up,” he managed to get out, clasping onto his abdomen. “Even if you defeat me, you will still loose.”

“Maybe,” Xena growled, narrowing in on him with deadly intent. “But I’ll have the pleasure of chopping you into tiny little pieces before. That’s good enough for me.”

Xena raised her sword, ready to strike him down. But before she could a flame grabbed onto her arm, dragging her back.

At the same time a ball of fire exploded from the center of the clearing, engulfing Khrafstar. Xena got back to her feet as the flames evaporated. Khrafstar was gone, but where he had been now stood a monster, with horns and pointy ears, scars across his face.

Khrafstar looked down at his new form, then started laughing loudly. He looked up, his eyes sparkling viciously at the Empress. “Dahak’s will be done. You cannot stop me now, Xena!”

Callisto coughed again. A small drop of blood sidled down the edge of her mouth now. Gabrielle placed her hand on the wound the chakram had made, pressing down to stop the bleeding.

Callisto’s hand closed more tightly over hers and she looked up, to find dark brown eyes looking at her. “So… This is it then.” A moment, then Callisto managed a laugh. “Who would have guessed this is how I would end?”

Gabrielle laid a hand against her cheek. “Call…”

“Me saving your skin,” Callisto babbled on, staring up at her. “Go figure.” She smirked, brought Gabrielle’s hand closer, bringing it to her lips and pressing a kiss to the fingers. “It’s been fun.” She mumbled, smiling as she closed her eyes.

The hand grabbing onto hers lost its grip then. Gabrielle looked at the hand, then at the woman lying beside her. “Callisto?”

There was no response.

“Callie?” Gabrielle drew in a shaky breath. “Wake up. Come on now.”

Xena winced as Khrafstar’s sharp nails dug into her flesh.

The Deliverer laughed, advancing on her. “Dahak will triumph here as he will triumph everywhere.” The flames rose behind him, emphasizing his words. He lifted up his sword and brought it down, Xena only just able to catch the weapon with her own. He pressed down and pushed his blade closer to her. “You can fight me, delay me… But it is only a matter of time. You will loose, Xena. Dahak will…”

The chakram whirled past her and Xena watched as the weapon dug into his chest. Khrafstar’s hold on his sword faltered and he looked down, his eyes wide as the metal of the chakram gleamed back at him. He lifted his eyes then, looking past Xena to see Gabrielle standing beside the fallen Callisto. Hate-filled green eyes were the last thing he saw, before he fell back and thudded to the ground.

The flames in the center of the clearing rose up once again, roaring. They reached out, circling the stricken Khrafstar. Then they lowered and finally disappeared all together, the only thing remaining the burning embers of the fire. Khrafstar had disappeared. And so had the white chakram.

Xena stared at the embers a moment, then she turned back to Gabrielle. The warrior stood quietly, looking back at her.

Then her legs failed her. Xena rushed forward, catching her before she could fall to the ground. Hands clutched for her and Xena quickly wrapped her arms around the other woman, pulling her closer. “Gotcha,” she mumbled, her fingers tangling themselves in the blond hair. “I’m here, Gabrielle. I’m here.”

Footsteps approached then and Xena looked up to see soldiers running into the clearing. Andros slid to a halt, looking around in confusion.

Xena darted him a look, then turned her attention back to Gabrielle, gently stroking the blond hair. “Hang on. I’m getting you out of here,” she said, wrapping an arm around the blonde’s legs and then rising, lifting her off the ground.

Gabrielle didn’t struggle, merely hiding her face in Xena’s neck and holding on. Xena carried her towards where she’d left her horse.

“Empress.” Andros ran up to her. “What happened?”

Xena didn’t honour his question with a response. “Get this place cleaned up,” she snapped at him. “Bring the dagger.” She motioned her head towards the hind’s blood dagger still lying in the clearing. She glanced at Callisto. “Bring her body to the palace.”

Andros looked at her, still confused. “Of course, Empress. I…”

Xena cut him off. “Your death won’t be pretty, Andros.” Blue eyes bore into his. “Count on that.”

Without another word she walked past him and left the clearing behind. She moved through the trees until she spotted Argo’s form, still tied to the branches. The horse she’d rode in on had disappeared.

Argo neighed as she spotted her rider being carried, tugging at her reigns more feverously then she had before. Xena stopped next to the mare, then lifted Gabrielle’s silent form up and settled her on the mare’s back. She touched the warrior’s thigh, making sure she was seated firmly in the saddle, before circling the horse and reaching for the entangled reigns.

She swung her sword at the branches, freeing Argo. Then she took the reigns in her hand, clearing away the last of the branches and then throwing the leather strips over the mare’s head. She hesitated a moment, then reached out and touched the mare’s nose. Argo moved her head away, backing up a pace. “I know you don’t like me,” Xena said in a whisper, advancing on her again. “But Gabrielle’s hurt. And we need to get her home. So we need to stick together, this one time. Okay?”

Large brown eyes eyed her wearily. She reached out again, and this time Argo stayed put, allowing the Empress to stroke her neck. “Good girl,” Xena mumbled, patting the horse, then circling back to her side. She grabbed onto the reigns, then pulled herself onto the horse, seating herself behind Gabrielle. The blonde instantly leaned back against her. Xena wrapped an arm around her waist, then gently nudged Argo forward, back towards the palace.

The gates opened before her as Xena rode into the square for the second time this day. She pulled Argo to a halt, then slid off the mare’s back, then reached up for Gabrielle. A young girl came running up, taking Argo’s reigns. The mare neighed, unhappy at letting her rider go. Xena freed a hand and patted her neck. “It’s okay.” She managed a small smile for the girl, who then proceeded to lead Argo back towards the stables.

The doors to the palace swung open and she entered, still carrying Gabrielle. The blonde had been silent the entire ride back, just hanging on to her.

As she entered the hallway Benitor came running up. He noticed Gabrielle and his expression turned to worry. “Empress! Are you all right?”

“No,” Xena informed him bluntly. She stopped and hesitated a moment, glancing towards the guest quarters where Gabrielle’s room was. Then she turned her back to it, heading in the direction of her own room. “Go and get some of Gabrielle’s clothes and bring them to my old room, next to my study,” she instructed the servant, who hastily ran along behind her. “And…” A breath. “Find Iona for me.”

“Yes, Empress,” Benitor inclined his head, darting another look at Gabrielle before running off hastily.

Xena kicked open the door to her old room with her foot, carrying Gabrielle inside and closing the door behind her again. She crossed over to the bed, kneeling down and gently placing the warrior on the soft surface. “There you go,” she managed a smile for the blonde, gently stroking her cheek, before moving over and starting to untie the laces on her boots. “Let’s get these off, huh?” She realized she was babbling, but she didn’t care, pulling Gabrielle’s boots off and placing them beside the bed. “There. That’s more comfortable.” She gently rubbed one of the warrior’s feet, then looked up again at Gabrielle. The woman was looking away, blindly staring up at the ceiling. The shards of her tunic were barely tied together and Xena rose up, intent on getting her something else to wear.

A hand grabbed onto her arm then and she looked back, to find green eyes staring at her in panic. “Easy,” she hastily knelt back down again. “I’m just getting you a shirt or something. It’s okay.”

A moment, then Gabrielle nodded softly. Xena hesitated a moment, then got up, walking towards her dresser and pulling one of her own shirts off a hanger. Gabrielle had tossed the remains of her tunic aside and she quickly slid into Xena’s shirt, hugging the soft fabric to her.

Xena tentatively reached out for her, touching Gabrielle’s face. Hooded green eyes looked at her for a long silent moment, then she dropped her head. She sniffled as a tear sidled down her cheek.

Xena acted on instinct, moving closer and gathering Gabrielle up in her arms. The Empress just hung onto her as a helpless sob raked through the other woman’s body. “Hey, it’s gonna be okay.” She gently stroked the blonde hair. “I promise.”

A knock sounded at the door.

Gabrielle sniffled, trying to calm her shaking hands. “I… I don’t want Iona to see me like this.” She mumbled, anxiously eyeing the door over Xena’s shoulder.

“Okay,” Xena gently cupped her face, managing a watery smile. “I understand. Don’t worry.” She turned to the door, shouting out a ‘one moment’ before turning her attention back to Gabrielle. “How… How bout I get a bath ready, hmm? You’ll feel better once you’ve cleaned up a little. And I’ll go talk to Iona for just a moment. And I’ll be right back. Okay?”

A moment of hesitation, then Gabrielle nodded. “Good.” Xena leaned closer, pressing a kiss to her forehead. Then she quickly rose to her feet, moving over to the bathroom and pulling the cork from the tap, letting steaming water flow into the tub.

She then headed for the door, darting a last look at Gabrielle before stepping outside.

Iona spun around as she heard the door opened. Xena closed it behind her, then turned back to her daughter. “Hey,” she mumbled.

“Hi,’ Iona said softly.

They stayed like this for a moment, then Iona gave up, closing the distance between them and wrapping her arms tightly around her mother. Xena lifted her off the ground, holding onto her tightly. “Are you okay?”

Iona nodded. “I’m fine.” She leaned back a little, looking up at her mother. “Benitor said there was something going on with Gabrielle.”

Xena released a breath, gently stroking her daughter’s hair. It was almost therapeutic. “She went after the bad guys and she got hurt. But… She’ll be okay.” Xena nodded a little, more to herself then to Iona. “She’ll be okay.”

“I missed you, mom.”

Xena managed a smile at this. “I missed you too.” She pressed a kiss to the girl’s head.

“There’s…” Iona drew in a breath. “A lot happened while you were gone. A lot I need to tell you about.”

“There’s a lot I need to tell you too,” Xena responded, kneeling down and placing the girl back on the ground. “But…” She darted a look back to the room “I need to stay with Gabrielle now, okay?”

Iona bit her lip, but then nodded. “Okay.”

“Who’s looking after you?”

“Some soldiers,” Iona said. “And Egyptian guards. And spies. And Ephiny and Solari.”

Her mother couldn’t repress a chuckle at this. “So you’re well taken care off, huh?”

Another nod. “Gabrielle made sure of that.”

“Yeah. She would.” Xena released a breath. “This…” She motioned her head towards the door. “This might take a while. If it gets a little late…”

“Wake me up,” the girl instantly responded.

“Okay.” Xena laid a hand on her head. “I’ll see you tonight then.”

The room was quiet as she walked back in. Gabrielle was no longer on the bed and the door to the bathroom was open.

Xena kicked her boots off, flexing her feet as they were freed from their leathery prison. Then she moved forward, entering the bathroom.

Gabrielle was seated in the tub, only her head visible over the edge, her back towards Xena. She’d picked up a sponge and was rubbing it over her arm.

Xena smiled a little, moving closer. “Hi, just…” She stopped talking then as she saw the sponge was tainted a deep red. Gabrielle’s arm was bleeding, but the warrior just kept scrubbing at it relentlessly. “Hey! Hey!” She hastily moved closer, grabbing onto the woman’s hand and pulling it away. “What are you doing?”

“Let go!” Gabrielle struggled, trying to free her hand. “It’s… It’s not clean.”

“Whoa, hey,” Xena managed to keep a hold on Gabrielle’s hand, wrapping her other arm around the warrior’s shoulders in an attempt to calm her. “You need to cut that out. You’re hurting yourself.” She pried the sponge from Gabrielle’s fingers, quickly disposing of it. “How about I do that, hmm?” She reached for a clean sponge, dipping it into the water and then rubbing it over the bar of soap lying on the edge of the tub. She then reached forward, carefully dabbing it at the warrior’s forehead. “How’s that?”

Gabrielle looked at her a moment, then turned a little and rested her head on her shoulder, her wet hair soaking the fabric there.

Xena continued her cleaning, gently rubbing the sponge over the woman’s shoulder. There was a small cut there and Xena tried not to get soap in it. “Tell me if it hurts, okay?”

“It hurts.”

The Empress instantly stopped what she was doing. “I’m sorry, I…”

“No, no,” Gabrielle hastily corrected herself, lifting her head and looking at her. “Not you.” She reached out, her wet fingertips tracing Xena’s cheekbone. “Never you.”

Unsure what to say, Xena pulled her head a little closer, kissing the top of it. Gabrielle turned around further, burying her face in Xena’s neck.

The Empress gently stroked her hair, twirling a lock between her thumb and forefinger. Gabrielle was clinging onto her, insecure. It was very unlike the strong, confident woman she knew. She was at an utter loss, with no idea what to do.

“You smell of horse,” Gabrielle mumbled, almost inaudibly.

Xena managed a wry grin at this. “Yeah. It’s that sexy smell of horse mixed with sweat. I’m thinking of bottling it.” She felt Gabrielle’s lips smile against her skin. “You uhm… You mind if I get in there with you? No use in me trying to clean you up while I’m covered in dirt myself, right?”

There was a moment of hesitation, then Gabrielle let her go, allowing her to stand. “Right,” she said softly, resting her cheek on the edge of the tub.

Xena took a step back, then with knowing fingers untagged the clasps of her armor, placing it on a nearby chair. She pulled her gauntlets from her arms, the motion causing a multitude of grains of sand to skitter onto the tiled floor.

Gabrielle watched silently as Xena continued to undress, stripping out of her leathers. She could now see a clear line on her skin. Below it fairly clean skin, where the leather had been. And above it dark, dirt-stained skin. She had a small cut in her side, which was dirty and clearly not looked after properly. And there were fresh cuts running across the length of her upper arm. Nail marks that Khrafstar had made.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, swallowing down the nausea she felt. She didn’t look up until the surface rippled as Xena slid into the water. The Empress winced a little as the warm liquid stung her wounds. She quickly put that aside though, dunking her head under water, clearing most of the sand away. When she resurfaced she looked up at Gabrielle. The warrior blankly stared at her fingers as she absently moved them over the water’s surface.

Xena hesitated a moment, then moved forward a little, reaching out and touching Gabrielle’s arm. The one she had been cleaning before and was now bleeding. She felt the woman flinch as she touched her. “Lemme take a look at that arm, huh? Before you bleed all over this nice tub.” She darted Gabrielle a small smile, then reached for the sponge again. She dipped it in the warm water and then softly ran it over Gabrielle’s upper arm, clearing away the blood.

Below it was no battle wound, but merely a bad bruise, which was by now turning a nasty shade of purple. She skin covering it was an angry red and covered in small wounds, but this seemed entirely due to Gabrielle’s own feverous cleaning. Xena could now see the skin on her neck was also a bright red. There were bruises too, a few on her side and she could see a spot darkening on her chest bone.

Xena hesitated a few times, then finally spoke up. “Gabrielle?”

“Yeah?” The response was barely audible.

“Did…” Her voice was hoarse and she had to clear it to make herself audible again. “I saw Khrafstar… leaning over you. Did he…” She swallowed. “Did he touch you?”

A moment of silence, then a nod. Gabrielle was looking away from her.

Xena drew in a shaky breath. “Did he…?” The words got stuck in her throat and even though she tried she found she couldn’t say it out loud. “Did he…?”

“He tried,” Gabrielle said, her voice unsteady. “He tried, but…” She turned her head, looking up. “Then you came.”

Xena’s eyes held hers for a long silent moment, then the Empress closed her eyes and exhaled in utter relief.

“I was too weak.”

The blue eyes shot open again, looking at her in confusion. “What?”

“I didn’t even fight him,” Gabrielle mumbled, staring at the edge of the tub. “I tried but… I didn’t have the strength to.” She turned her head, green eyes looking sadly at the Empress. “I’m supposed to be so strong. I can fight, I have these powers that Lao Ma taught me… But I didn’t do a thing. I just let him…” She sniffled, quickly looking away again. “You must be so disappointed in me.”

A moment, then a hand touched her chin, firmly but gently turning her face. “Now you listen to me,” Xena said, trying very hard to make her voice sound firm. “You are not weak.”

“But…”

“You are not weak,” Xena cut her off before she could object. “And you could never disappoint me.” She let her fingers gently trace the blonde’s cheek. “Dahak… he… he does things, to your mind. To your heart.”

“He tried to make mine dark,” Gabrielle mumbled. “He wanted me to be his… vessel. He raised me up, I was in the flames. And he… he reached through my skin and…” Gabrielle swallowed. “It hurt so bad. It was like he grabbed onto my heart and squeezed and… And then he threw me away and I couldn’t see. Everything was black. And then Khrafstar….”

“Shhh,” Xena moved closer, gently touching her face.

“He killed Callisto,” Watery green eyes looked up at her, helplessly. “She tried protecting me. And he killed her. Because of me.”

“No, no,” Xena shook her head a little. “Because of me. He went for you, because of me.”

Gabrielle sniffled, wrapping her arms around herself. “I feel dirty. And… And worthless.”

Xena looked down at the bent head, unsure of what to say. Words seemed unsuitable. So she decided to forget about words, and simply leaned closer, her lips finding Gabrielle’s.

For a moment, there was no response. But just as Xena was about to pull away a hand slid up her side and the blonde responded, kissing her back. Tentatively at first, but then more passionately as the second hand wrapped itself in her hair.

It wasn’t long before she could feel Gabrielle’s breathing becoming laboured and with some difficulty she pulled back a little. She rested her forehead against the blonde’s and felt Gabrielle wrap her arms more tightly around her. “So…” She murmured. “Still feel worthless?”

Gabrielle’s body shook a little as she laughed. Xena felt a kiss being pressed against her cheek. “No.”

“Good,” She leaned back, looking into nearby green eyes. “Wanna get out of here? I think I’m pruning.”

Gabrielle nodded, then squealed in shock as she was suddenly lifted from the water by a pair of strong arms. “Xena! Put me down!”

“Gladly,” the Empress smiled as she stepped out of the tub, then neatly placed the blonde back on her feet. “There you go.” She reached for a large towel, snugly wrapping it around the other woman and starting to towel her dry.

Gabrielle thought about protesting, but then she just gave in, allowing Xena to continue to fuss over her. She felt like she was in this nice pleasant haze and the world outside was suddenly irrelevant. She decided to not fight it and just enjoy it as long as it would last.

Xena had found a towel of her own and now reached for her hand, tugging her along back into the bedroom. Gabrielle seated herself on the edge of the bed, while Xena retrieved two more of her shirts, one for Gabrielle and another for herself.

Xena held the garment out for her and Gabrielle merely had to lift her hands up, to allow the other woman to slide it over her head. The Empress then turned and opened the door to her study, walking inside. She returned moments later with a cup and a jar of water in one hand, and a wooden case in the other.

“Here.” She settled down at Gabrielle’s side, then handed her the cup, pouring some water into it. She then placed the box on her lap and opened it. It revealed some bandages, a selection of herbs and a small mortar with grinding stone. “I’m going to give you something to make the pain go away. It’ll make you sleepy.” She selected some herbs and ground them together. “I’ll bandage you up before you go to sleep.” She glanced up, darting Gabrielle a smile. “You’ll be all patched up by tomorrow morning.”

Gabrielle reached out, gently tracing a cut on the Empress’s arm. “What about you?”

“Don’t worry about me.”

“No chance of that,” Gabrielle murmured.

“You first,” Xena said, reaching for Gabrielle’s cup and throwing in the herbs, then adding some more water. “Drink that.”

Gabrielle did as told, wincing at the vile taste. Meanwhile, Xena had picked up another herb mixture. This one was an ointment, and she carefully started spreading it on the bruises on the blonde’s body. After finishing with this she wrapped a bandage around the woman’s upper arm, to stop the bleeding there.

Gabrielle watched her quietly, repressing a yawn as the medicine kicked in. Xena finished her work, putting the kit on the floor beside the bed. “You uhm…” She tucked a stray lock back behind an ear. “You want me to take you to your own room?”

Gabrielle shook her head. “Rather stay here.” She reached out, folding her fingers around Xena’s. She then rolled over a little, clearing space for Xena to lie down beside her.

The Empress hesitated a moment, knowing there was still so much she had to do. But the green eyes looked at her pleadingly and she gave in, getting under the covers. Gabrielle skidded closer again, laying her head on the woman’s shoulder and wrapping an arm around her waist. Xena smiled. It felt nice. She reached out a hand and squeezed out the flame of a nearby candle between her thumb and forefinger.

The room was now suddenly clouded in darkness. Gabrielle instantly moved a little closer. She could hear her release a shaky breath. The Empress wrapped her arm more securely around her, in a reassuring gesture.

They stayed like this, silently. Xena listened to the blonde’s breathing, waiting for it to settle and for her to go to sleep. But Gabrielle seemed to stay awake, in spite of the medicine.

The Empress hesitated for a moment. Then she started to sing, in a soft but clear voice.

Gabrielle shifted, looking up in surprise at the beautiful sound. It wasn’t a song she’d ever heard before. It wasn’t even in a language she’d ever heard before. But it sounded wonderful and she closed her eyes, letting the sounds fill her.

The song soon ended and silence settled over the room again. It was broken moments later by Gabrielle’s sleepy whisper. “You can sing.”

Xena tried to suppress a grin. “Everybody can sing, Gabrielle.”

“Yes. But not pretty and on key like you.” The warrior moved a little closer, her fingers tracing down the other woman’s side absently. “The song was nice too.”

“It’s Gaelic,” Xena murmured. “I learned it a long, long time ago. Didn’t even know what it meant then.”

“But you do now?”

“Hmm.” A faint nod. “It tells of some points to recognize when you sail towards the island Eire. It’s like a map put into song.”

Gabrielle chuckled weakly. “That’s very romantic, Xena.”

The Empress smiled. “For sailors there, it’s way to guide them home.”

For a moment, there was just silence, then Gabrielle whispered softly through the darkness. “I really missed you.”

Xena rested her head against the blond hair, closing her eyes. “I really missed you too. I…” She swallowed. “I’m sorry I didn’t get back faster.”

“You got back right on time,” Gabrielle mumbled, closing her eyes and exhaling. “Sing that song for me again?”

Xena did as requested and her low voice filled the room again. It didn’t take long before Gabrielle fell asleep.

Khrafstar gasped as his back hit the ground, the motion jarring his body painfully. He clasped at his chest with bloodied hands.

A motion beside him diverted his attention as flames crawled over the dry leaves that had fallen to the ground. The flames moved up his body and circled the chakram. Then they moved the weapon upward, slowly pulling it from his body.

Moments later the weapon clattered to the ground, spinning a few times before falling flat on its side. Slightly dazed, Khrafstar crawled back to his feet. He looked down at his chest, to see the wound there had healed. What remained as a large scar where the chakram had been. He also saw that his body has transformed again into its human form. He looked at the flames, then hastily fell to his feet. “My Lord. You honour me with your…”

The flames roared loudly, stopping him from saying anything more. Khrafstar bent his head in clear disgrace. “I know I have failed you, Great One. I am not worthy.”

The flames whispered to him. Dahak’s voice was still strong, but weaker than it had been. “But, my Lord, there must be time to find another. I realize there is no more time to find a mother for your child, for it to be born and nurtured. But surely a true warrior can be found in time? If the march on Athens is delayed…”

Another roar and Khrafstar quickly bowed his head again. “Forgive me, My Lord. Naturally your fight with The Conqueror has priority.”

Another instruction from the flames and then Khrafstar rose to his feet and turned. From his place, standing on a hilltop, he overlooked a valley, filled with the lights of thousands of campfires. Below him he could hear the sound of horses snorting, of weapons of war being moved, of soldiers yelling. Through the shadows, he could see thousands of soldiers performing their drills simultaneously, the glimmers of fire reflecting off steel. He grinned, viciously. “Yes. With an army as this, The Conqueror does not stand a chance.” He squared his shoulders. “Xena will not rejoice in winning this battle. For she already knows she has lost the war.”

Xena woke up at the sound of the door being pushed open. Quickly she pushed herself up a fraction, blocking Gabrielle’s body from whomever it was who had entered the room.

A figure stood in the doorway, outlined by the light in the hallway. It took Xena a moment to adjust to the light, but then she recognized the woman. She stared at her a moment, then turned back to Gabrielle, who has also woken and was trying to get up. “Shh,” she gently pushed the other woman back down. “It’s your Amazon friend. I’ll go talk to her.”

Gabrielle hesitated a moment, then relaxed back into the pillows. Xena smiled, slipping out of bed and then turning, to pull the sheets back up over Gabrielle’s body. “I won’t go far.”

The blonde wordlessly clasped onto her hand and pressed a kiss to her fingers, then turned onto her side and closed her eyes.

Ephiny watched the Empress fuss over Gabrielle another moment, then she turned and strode towards her. With a simple motion of her hand she instructed they should talk in the hallway.

It was weird, Ephiny thought, as she instantly obeyed without as much as a second thought. Weird how this woman here, dressed in nothing more than a linen shirt, could still command such power. Exude so strong an aura.

Ephiny turned as she entered the hallway, to see the Conqueror closing the door to their room behind her. “What happened?” Ephiny asked before she could so much as turn around. “Is she hurt?”

Xena released a breath. “Physically… Just bumps and bruises, but it’s not so bad. Mentally…” She swallowed, shaking her head a little. “I don’t know.”

“Mentally?” Ephiny looked at her in concern. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Xena ruffled a hand through her dark hair. “It means….”

“Empress!”

The Empress looked up to see Benitor rushing closer, bowing politely as he stopped before her. “Yes?”

“I’m sorry to disturb, Empress, but the Egyptian Regent ordered to be notified when you woke.” A grimace. “She gets very… unhappy when she is not obeyed. But if you do not want her to be informed….”

Xena released a breath. “No, she should know. I need to talk with her too.” She glanced at Ephiny, then turned back to Benitor. “Ask Cleo to come to my study. Get Gabrielle’s sister too.” A thought. “Is anyone from the council present?”

“No, Empress. But the lady Thalia is expected back any moment.”

“Good. Have someone waiting at the door to send her over when she gets here then.” Xena told him. “You can join us on behalf of the staff.” She managed a smile for him. “You guys have as much a right to know about what’s going on as all these ladies do.”

“Thank you, Empress,” Benitor bowed again, then turned and headed back towards the hallway.

Xena walked to her study and opened the door, stepping back and allowing Ephiny to step inside before her.

Ephiny did so, looking around at the spacious but sparsely-decorated study somewhat awkwardly.

Xena circled her desk and sat down, opening a drawer and pulling a sheet of parchment out. She laid it on the desk surface. She picked up her quill, dipped it in ink, then started scribbling. “I’ll tell you about all that’s happened when the others get here,” she commented as she wrote. “I hate repeating myself.”

“Right,” Ephiny murmured, quietly circling the room. There were several maps pinned to the wall. One of the world, and around it several others, showing parts of Xena’s empire in more detail. She stopped at the map of Greece, studying it. Finally she spotted a small forested area of the Peloponnese, which Xena had marked with a large A. Stationed around it were 3 cohorts.

The Empress glanced up at her, then turned back to her writing. “How are things going in Amazon Land?”

Ephiny stared at the map another moment, then turned around, leaning her back against the wall. “Better, now that we’re not being hunted down and have to hide.”

Xena managed a wry smile, not looking up from her work. “Forget I asked,” She muttered, lifting up the page and blowing it dry, before picking up the next one.

“Why do you have three cohorts stationed near our territory?”

The Empress released a breath, then turned, facing the Amazon Queen. “Don’t flatter yourself. One is a cohort stationed in an encampment south of Corinth. The other is one stationed north of Argos. One cohort is assigned to Amazon territory.” She crossed her arms, leaning back. “I protect my borders. I didn’t get to rule the known world ’cause I was careless.”

Ephiny studied her, her dark eyes hooded. “Those cohorts have been stationed there the entire time?”

“Yes.”

Ephiny turned back to the map, studying the dots and lines again. “That’s over 1200 men.”

“Math whizzes, you Amazons are,” Xena muttered, turning back to her own work.

“You could have just waltzed in there, burned the whole forest down.” Ephiny murmured. “No need to capture me and lock me up. Manipulate. Play games.”

“There was uproar in Rome. I couldn’t spare the men then. Capturing you was easy and quick. Amazons have a rigid hierarchy and are extremely loyal. I knew I could count on that.” Xena murmured, almost absently. “And afterwards…” A shrug. “Frankly, your people didn’t pose enough of a challenge for me to bother to burn the whole forest down. Would have been a waste. I’m an environmentalist, you know?”

“World would have been a lot nicer if you’d have been a humanist.”

Xena chuckled. “No, it wouldn’t have been. Cause if I’d been a humanist, I’d have never conquered it. It would be the same, fractured mess it was before I conquered the whole lot.”

Ephiny turned, staring at her for a moment. Then she shook her head a little. “Don’t you regret anything? Anything you did?”

Xena paused in her writing again, then turned her head. “I don’t always like the outcome of what I do. But I stand by my decisions. Even the bad ones.” She turned back to her paper and continued writing.

The Amazon stared at her for another moment, and was about to comment again, when a knock sounded on the door, which was pushed open the next moment. Cleopatra stepped inside, her pristine white dress gently ruffling.

The Egyptian’s dark eyes flicked over to Ephiny for a moment, then dismissed her as irrelevant and focused back on Xena. Xena looked up, her gaze meeting the regent’s. Apparently her look was enough for Cleopatra, since the Egyptian walked over to a chair across from her and sat down with a sigh. “It is not good news, then?”

Xena managed a wry smile. “Afraid not.”

“I have noticed you hardly ever bring me good news these days, Xena.”

The Empress chuckled faintly. “Sorry.”

“No matter,” Cleopatra waved a hand at her. “I enjoy a challenge. It has been a while since I played a game of strategy as this one. It provides interesting opportunities.” She leaned back in her seat, delicately folding her hands together. “I am wondering what I will wish for, in return for pulling my soldiers out of Southern Persia.”

A dark eyebrow raised and Xena studied her a few moments, in surprise. Then she started laughing. “Ah, Cleo.” She shook her head a little, clearly amused. “Sometimes I forget you’re more than just a nice looking piece of fluff.” A smirk. “No insult intended.”

“None taken,” the regent replied with a smile.

“Soooo,” Xena drawled. “You marched into Persia behind my back huh?”

“I did.”

“Good job,” Xena complimented her. “Was planning on asking you to do that, but as usual you read my mind.”

Another knock on the door and Benitor stepped inside, followed by Lila, who glanced around nervously. “Have a seat,” Xena motioned towards two unoccupied chairs. “Thalia’s not here yet?”

“Afraid not, Empress,” Benitor said.

“You lot will have to do then,” Xena leaned her elbows on her desk, folding her hands. “There’s a lot to tell. Let’s start with Gabrielle.”

Toris stopped in front of the palace doors, looking up at the building rising high above him. “Wow,” he couldn’t keep from uttering. “That’s a way up from a little room in an inn in Amfipolis…”

Thalia adjusted the cloak he was wearing to obscure his face. “Come on.” She grabbed onto his arm and pulled him forward, knocking on the palace doors.

Light came shining from the many candles in the hallway as the doors were pushed open. Thalia stepped inside, the sound of her sandals on the marble echoing across the large space. The soldiers gave her a nod in recognition as she walked in. Then they frowned as a second figure stepped in after her. One lifted a hand to halt him. “I’m sorry sir, we can’t let you enter.”

“He’s with me,” Thalia told them.

“I’m afraid we still can’t let him in, ma’am,” the guard told her, somewhat apologetically. “The Empress gave us direct orders.”

“The Empress?” Toris asked, suspiciously. “I thought she was out.”

“She came back a few candle marks ago.”

Toris glanced from one to the other, then spun around and started marching out again.

Thalia hastily ran after him. “Toris, no! Wait!”

The first guard darted a look at the second, then they both hastily rushed forward, grabbing onto the young man and pulling him back. He struggled, but they both grabbed onto an arm and held him down. One of the guards pulled the hood away from his face. He then glanced up at his fellow soldier. “It is the Empress’s brother.”

“Wait!” Thalia ran closer, pulling at one of the soldier’s arms. “Let him go!”

Another group of soldiers came running closer, two of which grabbed onto Thalia and pulled her away.

“Let him go!” the redhead repeated. “He has information for the Empress! It’s important!”

An older soldier stepped closer, taking in the scene for a moment. “Take them both down to the cells.”

“You have to be kidding!” Thalia struggled heavily. “I’m a member of the council!”

“Yes, and I am a part of her majesty’s defence,” the soldier cut her off. “Under the circumstances, I cannot take any risks.” He darted a look at the soldiers. “Take them away.”

Thalia slammed her hands against the bars in frustration. “Damn it!”

Toris had receded to the back of his own jail cell and was sitting on a small wooden bench, half hidden in the shadows.

“Come on!” Thalia raised her voice at the closed door, where she knew the guards were. “Let me out of here!” She tossed up a hand in frustration when there was, again, no response. “I can’t believe this.” She plumped down in a corner, resting her back against the wall. “How long is she gonna let us sit here?”

“Forever,” Toris muttered, drearily. “Or at least for the rest of my life… Which most likely won’t be all that long…”

Hazel eyes studied him. “Cut it out. When we explain what’s going on…”

Toris snorted. He looked up, his blue eyes the only thing visible from the shadows he was hiding in. “You seem to think she can be reasoned with.”

“Well… I…” Thalia blinked, considering. “I’m not a fan or anything. But when you tell her why you’re here….”

Toris huffed out a breath, looking away. “Don’t let her fool you into thinking she’s a human being.”

A faint chuckle drifted up from the shadows, and Toris quickly rose to his feet. Xena emerged from the shadows, almost soundlessly. There was a smile on her face, but it was hardly a pleasant one. She stopped in front of his cell, studying him for a moment. Toris straightened his shoulders, but it was clear he was far from confident. “Well… Brother…” Xena spoke the word with some disgust. “I have to admit you look good. Behind bars that is. It suits you, somehow.” She turned around, to Thalia who had fallen silent. “Ah, and Thalia.” She grinned. “Just like old times, isn’t it?” She waved a hand at the cell complex. “You know, if you were homesick, you could have just asked to be locked up. No need to drag my brother into it.”

Thalia regained her composure, crossing her arms. “Shut up.”

Xena smirked at her. Then she pulled a key out of a pocket and unlocked Thalia’s cell, letting her out. “Come with me.” She turned and started walking back out of the cell complex.

“You can’t let him stay here!”

“Sure I can,” Xena commented, not stopping.

Thalia turned to Toris. “Tell her.”

Toris turned away, avoiding her gaze.

“Come on!” Thalia leaned closer. “Tell her!” Toris still refused to meet her gaze, so Thalia gave up on him and turned back to Xena. “They have Greek Fire.”

Xena slowed, then halted. A moment, then she turned around, frowning. “What?”

“Toris heard a trader boasting about making a killing in Persia. He sold them Greek Fire.”

The Empress strode back over, brushing Thalia aside and stopping again in front of her brother’s cell. “Is this true?”

Hooded blue eyes looked up at her.

“Is it true?!” Xena repeated again, in a growl.

“Yes,” Toris grumbled back.

Xena stared at him another moment, then she spun around again and strode outside. “Thalia. Come with me. Now.”

“No!” Thalia wrapped a hand around a bar of Toris’ cell. “Not without Toris.”

Xena darted a look over her shoulder, glancing from her brother to the redhead. She darted a look upwards in frustration, then focused all her attention on Thalia. She managed to soften her voice somewhat. “Something happened to Gabrielle. She needs you.”

Thalia’s eyes widened in shock. She glanced at Toris, then back over at Xena who had turned around again and was continuing her way out of the prison. A moment of hesitation, then she quickly ran after her, leaving Toris alone in his cell.

Ephiny looked up as footsteps came down the hallway. She and Solari had taken up position next to the door leading to Gabrielle’s room. The footsteps turned out to belong to Thalia and the Empress. Thalia’s paces were rushed and the redhead reached the door before Xena did. Ephiny didn’t try to stop her as she reached for the doorknob. But Xena did. The Empress grabbed onto Thalia’s shoulder to stop her. Thalia angrily brushed the hand away, staring at Xena with narrowed eyes.

“She’s probably sleeping,” Xena said, seemingly unintimidated by the vicious stare. “Considering what she’s been through, I think she deserves the rest.”

“Oh, shut it,” Thalia hissed at her. “What she’s been through, she had to go through because of you! You’re the reason he’s after her!”

Blue eyes looked at her calmly, emotionlessly. “Yes. I know that.”

The redhead stared at her another moment, then huffed out a breath and turned away from the Empress, pushing open the door and stepping inside.

Xena watched the closed door a moment, then looked up at Ephiny. The Amazon Queen bestowed her with a similar, judging look. The corner of her mouth edged up a little in a sarcastic smirk. “So… I’m back to being the cause of all things bad in the world.” A shrug. “Fine. I was getting tired of being nice anyway.”

With that she turned and headed for the door to Pyrron’s old quarters, just across the room.

Thalia’s footsteps were almost soundless on the rug covering the room Gabrielle was sleeping in. Thalia was pretty sure they normally wouldn’t be soundless enough for Gabrielle not to hear her though. The blonde didn’t stir however and her breathing was deep. Which either meant Gabrielle was so tired she hadn’t heard her. Or that she had heard her, but was pretending she hadn’t. Thalia wasn’t sure which option was worse.

The redhead carefully settled down on a chair beside the bed, studying her friend from a small distance. In the dim light shining in through the window she could make out a cut and some bruising on her face and upper arm.

For a few moments Thalia just sat there. Then Gabrielle stirred, carefully turning over onto her other side, facing her. The eyelids blinked open, revealing hooded green eyes.

Thalia remembered the look. She remembered it from those few moments she’d seen Gabrielle after they had rescued her from the cross. Those few moments they’d had before they had sent Gabrielle abroad. It was a mixture of hurt, fear and uncertainty.

Thalia stood up from the chair and moved closer, settling on the bedside. She reached down, taking Gabrielle’s hand between her own and chaffing the cold fingers. After a moment the fingers moved, entwining with her own.

Iona looked up as the door to her room opened and Xena appeared in the door opening. Iona quickly sat up in her bed, watching as her mother closed the door behind her and walked closer, settling down on the side of the bed.

Xena’s posture was strong and confident, but Iona could see past this, of course. She was tired. “Is Gabrielle okay?”

Her mother managed a smile for her. “Okay enough.”

Silence fell and lasted for several moments, since they were both unwilling to start the talk. Finally Iona drew in a breath. “Is there an army?”

Xena glanced at her, then nodded her head.

“I thought as much,” the girl said softly. “If there hadn’t been, they wouldn’t be so worried.”

A dark eyebrow rose a fraction. “They?”

Iona squared her shoulders a fraction, drawing in a breath. “Some… Gods… visited, while you were gone.” Blue eyes peeked up at her, guiltily. “Before you left, even.”

Xena turned fully to her daughter now, alarmed. “They visited you?”

“Yes,” Iona admitted honestly. “It was mostly one.”

“Who?”

“Athena.”

Xena’s eyes narrowed. “Athena.” She repeated, her voice dropping an octave in an angry bur. She then turned back to her daughter. “Tell me everything.”

Iona drew in a breath, then did as she was told. She told Xena about Athena helping her with her powers. How the goddess had taken her to a place far away, an island. About the well that had spoken to her. About her finding out Megan was actually Athena in disguise and about how she had taken Gabrielle away and how they had fought.

During the story Xena had gotten up and had started pacing the room.

“She hasn’t contacted me since then,” Iona concluded softly. “Gabrielle says I shouldn’t trust her. That she wants things, information and stuff, and she used me to get it.”

“Gabrielle is right,” Xena murmured. “As always.”

“I’m sorry if I told her anything I shouldn’t have,” Iona said. “I’m sorry that I talked to her at all. I haven’t used my powers since the party. I don’t want to anymore.” A pause, in which Xena didn’t respond, but remained facing away from her. “Are you mad?”

A moment, then her mother turned around and those intense blue eyes focused on her and looked through her, as they’d always been able to. “I’m not mad,” Xena said, quietly. “I’m disappointed.”

Iona swallowed, uncomfortable. “That’s worse.”

Xena managed a faint smile. “Yeah,” she agreed. “That’s worse.” She walked closer again, settling down beside Iona. “Have I ever asked you to do something, without having a good reason to?”

“No.”

“Then why didn’t you listen? Why didn’t you listen when I told you to stay away from them?”

The girl shrugged a little, nervously winding her fingers together. “I don’t know. I… I guess I just wanted to know… Where I come from. Who I am.”

“You are my daughter.”

“But that’s not all I am,” Iona bit her lip as she saw Xena wince at the words. “I’m part him too. That doesn’t mean I need to like him or anything, but… I wanted to know who he was and what he did… So I’d know who I am, and why I do certain things.”

Xena looked at her for a moment. “You should have asked me. Talked to me about this.”

Iona looked up at her sadly. “I tried.”

Silence lasted several moments. Xena stared down at her folded hands, resting in her lap. Iona sat beside her quietly. Finally Xena spoke up. “Do you remember which Island Athena took you to? The one with the speaking well?”

Iona thought back a moment, then nodded. “She called it the Isle of Shadow.”

Xena’s head instantly turned to her. “The Isle of Shadow?” She repeated. “Are you sure?”

Iona nodded, positively. “There was a woman there that was in charge of the place. A goddess. Her name was Scatach.”

Xena’s eyes darted about restlessly. “Segais.”

“Huh?”

Blue eyes looked down at her again. “Never mind.” She managed a faint smile. “What did the well say? Exactly?”

“It said… It said it knew who I was. That I was light and darkness. That I was the one. And that He would come for me. And that, one way or the other, I would lose.” Xena faced away from her, and Iona looked up, somewhat worried. “Athena said I shouldn’t worry. That it was nothing. That it was a joke.”

“She’s probably right. Prophecies generally come from Oracles, not wells.” Xena turned back to her and smiled reassuringly. “But it never hurts to be careful, right?”

Iona bit her lip. “Right.”

Xena rose to her feet. “There’s some stuff I need to take care of now. You get some rest.”

Iona fumbled with the blankets uncomfortably. “Okay.”

The Empress hesitated a moment, then knelt down beside her, grabbing onto the edges of the blanket and tucking it around her daughter. “Stop worrying.” She instructed her. “I’ll fix everything.”

The girl smiled, a real smile this time. “I know. You always do.”

“Right,” Xena murmured, before pressing a kiss to her daughter’s forehead. “I always do.”

Soldiers dived out of the way as Xena stormed through the hallway. The Empress paced down into the hall and out of the door into the garden. She distanced herself from the palace and from any listening guards, not stopping until she reached a small clearing, hidden from view by the trees surrounding it.

“Athena!” She yelled the name at the top of her lunges. She spun around, surveying the entire clearing. “Get down here! Now!!”

A moment passed, then there was a bright flash and Athena appeared before her. The goddess faced her, calmly. “Hello, Xena. It’s been a long time.”

“Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you right now?” Xena snapped at her, her eyes blazing.

Athena calmly folded her hands together. “I don’t need to. You’re smart. You know. You know you’d be playing into his hands. If you didn’t, you’d have a bloodied dagger at my throat by now.”

“You touched my kid,” Xena growled at her.

“She followed me willingly.”

“You tricked her!”

Athena chuckled softly. “I just gave her what she wanted. Knowledge. Understanding. Things you apparently could not give her. I’d hardly call that trickery.”

“You took her to the Well of Segais,” Xena retorted, starting to circle the goddess predatorily. “Tell me how that’s not trickery.”

The goddess smiled. “Well, you have me there.” She didn’t bother to keep Xena in her sight, apparently not worried in the slightest. “I admit I had some ulterior motives doing that. And as it turns out, with just cause.”

Xena stopped in front of the Goddess, her eyes drilling into the grey ones. “You know what it means? The Prophesy?”

Athena studied her a moment, apparently considering whether or not to share her knowledge with Xena. “Some of it is obvious. ‘He will come.’ He is obviously Dahak. Recent events leave no doubt about that. And considering your history with Dahak and the fact that she is your daughter, that he would come for her is not unlikely.”

Xena drew in a breath, somewhat shakily, but said nothing.

“‘You are the one’… That had me puzzled.” Athena folded her hands behind her back, and started to stroll across the clearing. “Because it implies that the reason he is coming for her, has little to do with you. And much with Iona’s own destiny. Her own power. Which made no sense to me, since she is only a girl. A demi-god. It wouldn’t seem she would be interesting to him of her own accord. Unless…”

“Unless what?”

Athena turned, facing Xena again, a twinkle in her eyes. “You know about Gods, Xena. You know the rules. The transferring of power. Through blood. Through murder.” She pointed a finger in the direction of the palace. “Your daughter is a half god. She has a little bit of divinity, through her blood. But she was born from you. From a mortal. So it’s only a fraction of divinity. Of course, she is a child of the former King of the Gods, so it might be a somewhat larger fraction than for any other demi god, but still… It should not be much.” Athena took a step closer, lowering her voice conspiritually. “Your daughter is more powerful than any demi god should be. I think you know this.”

Xena stared at her, not saying a word.

“I believe she is tapping into a power that is not hers. A power that was given to her by her father. But not through blood.”

The Empress stared at her a moment, then she laughed. “You know, for a Goddess of Wisdom… You really are quite stupid.”

A blond eyebrow rose. “Is that so?”

“You think Ares transferred his power into my daughter?” Xena tossed up a hand. “Why would he? What, he wanted to give her something to remember him by? A keepsake? Belayed alimony?” A snort. “Please.”

“I don’t like to delve into my brother’s brain.” Athena commented calmly. “It’s a scary place. And admittedly, it would be a stupid move. If it had been me, I’d have transferred my powers into a pebble. An ant. A straw of grass. That would be the logical thing to do. But my brother wasn’t a man of logic. He was a man of vengeance. And in that light, giving his power to your daughter, does not seem so unlikely.”

Xena shook her head. “You’re wrong.” She told Athena, then turned away from her and started back towards the palace. “Try looking somewhere else. And leave my kid alone. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”

A flash and Athena appeared before her again, blocking her path. The grey eyes had darkened a fraction now. The calm, careless attitude seemed to be fading. “Believe what you want to, Xena. But I will believe what I believe. And I believe Iona holds a power that belongs to my family.”

Xena’s stare became icy cold. “Are you threatening my daughter?” She growled.

“I am telling you the facts,” Athena retorted. “There are two ways of returning the power Ares had to my family. One is killing her. There is not a God on Olympus that wouldn’t try to gain that power for his or herself, if they knew where it was hidden.”

“Except you, of course,” Xena drawled, clearly not believing a word.

“I’ve spent time with Iona. She is a good child. I like her.” Athena dropped her voice to barely more than a whisper. “But I will kill her. To save my family.” She straightened. “However, I would prefer the second option.”

She reached for a small pouch dangling at her side and pulled something out. She held it up for Xena to see.

Xena stared at the red piece of divine food on the flat of her hand. Then she looked back up at Athena. “You want to make my kid a God?”

“If Iona is fully divine, she will be able to tap into the power she has. She can only reach bits and pieces now. I can help her. Teach her how to use that power.”

Xena looked at her another moment in disbelief, then snorted. “Forget it!” She said, turning and pacing away from the goddess.

“The Greek pantheon, restored to its former glory, is as powerful as Dahak.” Athena called after her. “You are no match for him, Xena. We are people of war, you and I. He is as powerful as he was before and he outnumbers you. You are going to lose.”

Xena’s steps faltered. Then she slowed to a halt. Athena moved closer. “You don’t like us. I can hardly blame you for that, considering your history. But it is time to leave the past behind now. Our forces combined can defeat him. But only if we regain Ares’ power.” The goddess circled around Xena and came to stand before her again. “I understand you want to protect your daughter. Any mother would. But you are not just a mother. You are a leader. A leader of an Empire. An Empire that will suffer, if it falls into Dahak’s grasp. Think of the greater good, Xena.” She reached for Xena’s hand, laying the ambrosia in her palm. “Think of the greater good and you will see there are no options. There is just one course of action. And it’s not a bad one.”

A flash and Athena disappeared. Xena stared blankly at the empty space before her for a while, then she cast her eyes down and pensively looked at the piece of ambrosia, lying in her hand.

It was the smallest of sounds, but it woke Iona up nevertheless. The girl rubbed her eyes. “Mom?” She peered into the darkness, seeing a shadow in the corner of the room. “Mom, is that you?”

“Yes, it is, deary,” a voice rose from the darkness, but Iona’s eyes widened as she recognized it as a man’s voice. A slim form moved from the shadows and into the moonlight to reveal a young man with pale white skin and dressed in dark leather. The moonlight reflected off a dagger he held in his hand. “Come to sing you a lullaby.” He giggled insanely. “Nighty night.”

Iona scrambled up against the wall in an attempt to keep some distance between her and her attacker. He just continued his giggling and moved closer, raising the dagger over his head.

But before he could strike, a cloud suddenly fell over him. He coughed, waving his arm at the swirls of pink that had enveloped him, trying to clear his vision. He yelped out in pain then as something impacted painfully with his chest. “Hey!” Another pang, in his stomach this time. “Ouch! Stop that!”

“Gladly,” a voice growled into his ear, then a fist slammed up against his cheek, knocking him backwards.

The cloud of pink dissipated and Iona now found Cupid standing between her and her assailant. “Cupid!”

The young god cast a look over his feathered shoulder, winked at her, then faced forward again and advanced on his opponent.

The next moment Aphrodite dropped to a knee beside her. “You okay, honey?” The goddess patted her cheek.

Cupid grabbed onto the young god’s collar and flung him up against the wall harshly. “Leave, Strife,” he growled, before hitting him again. “While you still can.”

Strife chuckled wickedly. “Oh, aren’t we acting all big and macho.” He stumbled back a few paces, to create some distance between him and Cupid. “One tiny mistake in your plan, Lover boy? In this wonderful loveless world… You ain’t all that powerful.” He managed to duck under Cupid’s next punch, then performed a round house kick, hitting Cupid in the stomach and sending the deity stumbling back.

Iona glanced a fearful look towards the fight. “What’s going on?”

“Not sure, not interested in sticking around to find out,” Aphrodite told her, pulling the covers off her. “Let’s skedaddle. Fast.”

“Oh no you don’t!” Strife managed to duck under one of Cupid’s punches and sent a gust of wind flying towards Aphrodite. It hit the goddess and threw her across the room. “I got here first. She’s mine!”

Cupid swung his fist towards Strife again, but the god caught the fist in his hand. “I’ll cut you a deal,” he hissed at Cupid. “You back down, and I’ll let you be my lackey, when I’m king.”

Cupid didn’t dignify his offer with a response, simply lunging out for him again. He managed to get in two good hits, but then Strife found his balance and hit him squarely in the chest, followed by a jab to his side. As the winged good tried to recover, Strife moved in again, delivering a vicious kick that sent Cupid tumbling up against a large wooden dresser. The piece of furniture tumbled down on top of him, pinning him down. Cupid tried to move, but the fight with Strife had tired him.

Strife giggled, turning back to Iona. “Now,” he drawled. “Where were we?”

With a quick move he brought the knife down. But before it could hit Iona, it hit something solid. Strife frowned, then tried again. Tiny pink sparks drifted up around the knife as it impacted again with some unseen force, hovering slightly above Iona.

Strife growled, then turned his attention to Aphrodite. The goddess sat with her back leaning against the wall. Her hands were extended out before her, towards Iona, and she had a look of intense concentration on her face. “Back off!” he snapped, then lifted his free hand above his head. A green orb appeared and the next moment he flung it towards Aphrodite.

Aphrodite watched the green orb soar closer, then glanced back over at Iona. With a sigh she closed her eyes and braced herself, focusing all her attention on keeping the shield she’d extended over Iona in tact.

The orb hit her and she barely suppressed a whimper as it stung her painfully. Iona watched as the shield covering her faded for a mere moment, but was then restored.

Meanwhile Strife had created another green orb. “No!” Iona called out angrily. Without thinking she focused all her power on the green orb, wishing for it to fly in the opposite direction. As she did this a strong force seemed to push away from her. Away from her and up against the shield from the inside. It bounced off it, right back up against Iona. The force pushed her back, making her slam into the wall behind her.

“Iona, honey,” Aphrodite managed through gritted teeth. “You’re not helping!”

Strife giggled, then lunged the second orb at Aphrodite. A third. A fourth. Aphrodite screamed as green threads of electricity seemed to cling to her skin. Cupid struggled, trying with all his strength to remove himself from his trapped position.

“How many more of these can Miss Pink here take?” Strife drawled as he bounced the green orb on his fingers. “One more? Two more? Let’s find out.” The orb flew towards Aphrodite and the goddess bit her lip, preparing herself for the pain.

But it never came as the orb was swatted away moments before it could hit her. The metal of a sword glimmered bleakly in the florescent green light.

Strife squealed as his own creation came flying back at him and he only managed to duck just in time. The orb crashed into the wall behind him. Strife rose back to his feet and looked up to meet cold blue eyes staring him down. “Yikes.” He managed to gulp, before Xena slammed the hilt of her sword up against his forehead.

Aphrodite dropped her hands, leaning back against the wall and closing her eyes in exhaustion.

“You’re holding a dagger and standing next to my daughter,” Xena growled, as she forced Strife back up against the wall. “This is not looking good for you, Strife.” The god gasped as a dagger was pressed up against his throat. “Don’t try to leave. I’ll gut you before you can.”

“Why would I leave?” Strife shot her a toothy smile. “This is such a lovely party we’re having. Though I told mom I’d be home by twelve, so…”

“Who knows?”

“Knows what?” Strife enquired innocently, then gulped as a hand grasped tightly onto his neck. “No one! No one! Athena zapped off to Eire, I thought that was weird. I followed, I overheard her talking. But I didn’t tell anyone!”

“He wouldn’t,” Aphrodite said, from her place leaning against the wall. “He’s weak. If he told anyone, they would have taken it. He wanted the power for himself.”

Xena glanced at Aphrodite, then focused her attention on Strife. “Okay.” She said, loosening her hold on Strife a little.

The god breathed a sigh in relief, lifting a hand to rub his sore throat.

“Say hi to Ares for me.”

“Hi to Ares?” Strife frowned, looking up. “But you killed A…”

His eyes widened in shock as the hind’s blood dagger embedded itself into his stomach. He gurgled something, then slid onto the ground and remained still.

A moment, then the earth shook. Xena heard a faint whooshing and looked up as Cupid staggered back, grabbing onto his chest as if something had hit him. The spot behind his chest shimmered with a silver light for a moment. Xena looked behind her to see the same thing happening to Aphrodite.

And to Iona.

Xena balanced a mug of warm milk on her upraised knee. She was seated on the couch, with Iona lying beside her, the girl’s head pillowed on her other leg. Absently she ran her fingers through the dark hair.

Across from her sat Aphrodite and Cupid. Aphrodite with her hands somewhat awkwardly folded around her own mug. Cupid looked into his cup somewhat hesitantly. “Weird,” he mumbled, swirling his cup around. “It’s liquid. And white.” He glanced up at his mother. “White things shouldn’t be liquid. There’s something wrong with that.” He tentatively took a sip. “Hmm… Not bad though…” He looked up at Xena and Iona. “What is it?”

“Milk, of course,” Iona mumbled, somewhat sleepily. “You never had any milk?”

“Milk?” Cupid looked at her in outrage. “This is milk?”

Iona nodded.

“Grody!” Cupid winced, in a clear mimic of his mother. “That’s disgusting. No wonder I thought there was something wrong with this.”

Iona giggled at his exaggerated behaviour. It was making her forget a little about everything that had happened. “What’s wrong with milk?”

“Have you ever considered how it gets to be white?” Cupid started. “There’s tiny white particles floating around in there…”

Aphrodite darted a look at her son, then on their way back to her mug, her eyes were caught by blue ones staring back at her. The Goddess bit her lip, then with a small nod rose to her feet.

Xena carefully stood as well, placing a pillow under Iona’s head. “Be right back,” she whispered to her daughter, who gave her a small smile in acknowledgement, before focusing back on Cupid.

Xena found Aphrodite on the balcony, staring out over the city. A small breeze was blowing back her golden hair. The Empress walked up next to her, laying her elbows on the railing and looking out over the city.

They were both quiet for a little while. Then Xena spoke up. “How long have you known?”

Aphrodite managed a small smile. “Since the moment I saw her.”

“How?”

Aphrodite turned around, leaning her back against the railing and glancing back inside, to see Iona lying there listening, her arm wrapped around her pillow. “You could always tell when there was a god around.” She glanced up at Xena. “One of those freaky skills of yours.” She folded her fingers together, absently. “Could you tell if it was Ares, specifically?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

Xena considered this a moment, trying to remember. “His… presence was always more restless, or something….Angrier. It just felt different.”

“I spent a lot of time with Ares. He kept me close, locked in the halls of war. Cause I was around him so much, I got to recognize his… presence, as you called it.” Aphrodite followed Iona as she sat up, wrapping her arms around her pillow and leaning her chin on top. “When I saw her. And she went and threw Gabrielle across the room…. I felt him.”

Xena swallowed, her mind restlessly running over this change of events. “Who did you tell?”

“No one.”

Blue eyes turned to her and a dark eyebrow rose.

“Honest!” Aphrodite waved a finger at her. “I don’t just blab every interesting bit across Mount O, you know? Not even Cupie knows. I woudda told him, but I was afraid someone would hear.” She paused a moment, then drew in a heavy breath. “Won’t be long before there’ll be others.”

Xena swallowed, staring ahead of herself blindly. “I know.”

Aphrodite bit her lip, then glanced up at the Empress. “Are you going to kill me now? Like Strife?”

Blue eyes glanced down at her, cautiously. But after a moment, Xena shook her head a little. “No. No, I’m not.”

“Why not?”

A dark eyebrow rose at her.

“Not that I’m not psyched about it,” Aphrodite hastily amended. “But… Last time I saw you, you pressed a hind’s blood dagger at my throat, so…”

The Empress managed a faint smile. “No more daggers. Promise.”

“Wicked,” the goddess muttered, then pushed herself away from the railing, intent on walking back into the living room.

“Hey?”

Aphrodite stopped and turned back, cocking her head in question.

“You protected my daughter,” Xena said simply. “Thank you.”

That brought a full smile to the Goddess’ lips. “No sweat. She’s a cool kid.”

Xena absently nodded, her eyes glancing over Aphrodite’s shoulder, to watch Iona.

“Are you going to tell her?”

Blue eyes focused back on the Goddess. Xena considered the question a moment, then drew in a breath. “Not tonight.” She murmured, her tired mind unable to think beyond the next candle marks. “Not tonight.”

Her bare feet felt cold on the marble tiles. Gabrielle squared her shoulders, wincing as her muscles ached. Walking was painful, but bearable.

She’d slept several more candle marks, before daylight had woken her up. Thalia hadn’t left and had dozed a little, with her back leaning against the wall and one hand folded around Gabrielle’s. When Gabrielle had woken up she’d found her friend asleep like that and had decided to let her rest a moment longer, while she went in search of Xena.

After a short talk with a worried Ephiny, who’d stood guard at her door the entire night, Gabrielle had continued on to the Empress’ apartment. Xena hadn’t returned like she said she would. Which was weird, since the Empress rarely said something and then neglected to do it.

Gabrielle carefully pushed open the door and crept inside. It was still early and, judging by the silence, no one appeared to be up yet.

The blonde walked into the living room. Dark eyes glanced up at her as she did. Gabrielle was surprised to find Aphrodite sitting on the couch, darting her a smile. A scan of the room showed her Cupid, who was standing on the balcony. She didn’t see Xena.

Aphrodite cleared her throat, then motioned her head towards the door to Iona’s room. Gabrielle managed a smile for her, then continued on towards Iona’s bedroom, carefully pushing open the door.

Xena, who was sitting on a chair at Iona’s bedside, instantly looked up as she entered. Gabrielle paused a moment. Xena’s eyes were restless, tired and bloodshot. The Empress looked exhausted.

Gabrielle softly closed the door behind her, then walked over to the other woman, crouching down in front of her so they were just about eye to eye. “Hi,” she murmured softly, leaning a hand on the Empress’s thigh, her thumb absently stroking the skin there.

“You shouldn’t be up,” Xena whispered, her voice husky. “Go back to bed.”

“Needed to stretch out a little,” Gabrielle responded absently, her eyes searching the hooded blue ones. “What happened?” She then asked, it being obvious to her something had. “Is Iona okay?””

Xena managed a wry smile. “Yes. It’s…It’s a long story.”

Gabrielle hesitated a moment, then refrained from asking any more questions. For the moment. In stead she reached out, her fingers gently trailing Xena’s cheek. “Did you sleep at all?”

A shake of the dark head.

“You need to sleep, Xena.”

Xena managed a small smile. “Maybe later.”

Green eyes studied her a moment, longer, then Gabrielle carefully leaned closer, placing a kiss on her lips. Xena closed her eyes, welcoming the warm, comforting feeling. She wrapped an arm around Gabrielle’s waist, gently pulling her closer, until the blonde was nestled on her lap.

Gabrielle rested her head on Xena shoulder, her fingers absently running through the hairs at the base of The Empress’ neck. The motion was soothing and Xena had to repress a yawn. She laid her head against the blonde’s. Her eyelids slid shut, then she quickly blinked them open. But slowly she felt them slide closed again. Maybe… Xena yawned again, calmed by the rhythmic motion of Gabrielle’s fingers stroking her skin. Maybe she could just close them for a little while. Not sleep, but… just rest her eyes a little. Just for a moment…

“Sir!”

Khrafstar lifted his hand, halting the soldier’s speech. He bent his head again, murmuring a few last words to the fire rising up before him. When he finished, he calmly rose to his feet and turned, facing the soldier.

“Your general begs an audience with you, sir,” the soldier hastily said. “There is news of the enemy’s activities.”

“Good,” Khrafstar said calmly, then in a swift motion pulled a dagger from beneath his cloak and lodged it in the soldier’s chest. The young man gasped, staring at him with wide eyes. “Never disturb me during prayer.” The priest commented almost casually, continuing out of the tent as the soldier sagged to his knees.

Xena rubbed at her eyes as she leaned back in her chair. “You shouldn’t have let me do that.”

Gabrielle smiled, from her spot lying on the nearby sofa. “You were tired.”

“There’s so little time,” Xena murmured. “I don’t want to waste any of it on sleep.”

“You know it doesn’t work like that, right?”

Xena managed a smile for her. “I know.” She studied the woman lying on the sofa another moment longer. “How are you feeling?”

Gabrielle considered this question seriously for a moment, then darted a look upwards, lifting a hand and letting it drop again. “I…” She swallowed. “There’s so many emotions I’m feeling right now, I think… I think they’re sorta repressing each other and I’m just left feeling…. Numb.”

Xena pressed her lips together in an unhappy grimace.

“I kept waking up last night. Seeing his face. Feeling him,” Gabrielle continued softly. “He scares me. I’m not used to being scared anymore.”

Xena looked at her another moment, then pulled open her drawer, pulling out a few bags of herbs. She mixed some in her glass of water, then walked over to Gabrielle’s side, holding the mixture out for her. “Here.”

“What’s this?”

“Something to take the pain away a little,” Xena said, pushing a lock of blond hair out of her face. “The physical one, anyway.”

Gabrielle managed a wry grin, taking the glass from her and drinking the mixture. She leaned her head against the armrest of the sofa, staring up at the ceiling, allowing the nausea that the vile mixture caused to pass. “Ugh.”

“I know it tastes bad,” The Empress murmured, her fingers absently tangling in the blond hair. “But it’s worth it. Just wait.”

The warrior nodded a little, closing her eyes. Then she managed a faint grin, turning her head to look at the exhausted Xena. “So… You ready to go save the world?”

Xena chuckled softly, leaning closer and pressing a kiss against her forehead. She paused, then moved closer, kissing the warrior’s lips.

“Hmm,” Gabrielle hummed softly, between kisses. “I think this works much better than medicine.” She inhaled sharply as teeth gently nibbled at her neck. “And it doesn’t make me nauseous.”

“I should hope not,” The Empress mumbled, pressing another kiss to her lips, before leaning her forehead against the blonde’s. “Gabrielle?”

“Hmm?”

“He’s not coming near you again,” she swore softly. “I promise.”

The warrior smiled. “I know. You’ll protect me.”

Xena smiled back, then sobered a little as she looked into the green eyes. “I’m gonna do a few things you’re not going to like.” She murmured softly. “I just want you to know that… Know that from here on I’ll do things because I have to. Not because I want to.”

Gabrielle covered Xena’s hand with her own. “I know it looks bad…”

“It is bad,” the Empress corrected her. “There’s tens of thousands of soldiers waiting in the north. I can’t possibly gather that many soldiers at Thermopylae before he reaches it. And Dahak…” She shook her head a little. “He is as powerful as he was before. But now… there is no one around who’s powerful enough to entrap him.”

“Yes, there is,” Gabrielle said, trailing a finger down her cheek. “There’s you.”

Xena cast her eyes down, snorting softly.

“You beat him before,” Gabrielle continued. “Everybody told me so. Cleopatra. Athena. Aphrodite.”

“I didn’t beat him.”

Gabrielle frowned. “Cleopatra told me, you climbed up some mountain in Persia. There was a battle, and…”

“I didn’t beat him,” Xena repeated, looking up.

Gabrielle looked at her, confused.

Xena drew in a breath, then started. “Ares tricked me into fighting Dahak. I had no idea who he was. I mean, I knew he was a god and powerful, but… By this time, I’d conquered everything but Persia. I was…. so sure of myself.” A faint smile. “Ares said he would be there, for the fight. But of course the weasel never showed up. Dahak did though.”

Clouds rolled in above her. Deep, pitch black clouds. Xena glanced up as a bright flash lit up the plateau around her. There was nothing around her. There was only a deep crevice to her right, in the depth of which flowed a cold, icy river.

“We need to toss him in there,” Ares had said. “It will weaken him long enough for us to lock him in.”

We. Us. Xena snorted angrily. That plan had changed apparently.

Thunder rumbled loudly and the ground under her feet shook a little. A tingling started in her gut, and Xena looked up, her eyes alertly scanning the area. Then, right in front of her, a flame shot up right from the earth. It swirled, then solidified into a human shape. A female shape. Quite an attractive one at that, Xena noted. The woman had thick, dark hair and wore fine, black silk.

Xena lifted her chin a little, calmly eying her opponent. “So… You’re him?”

The woman smiled sweetly. “Do I look like a him?”

“You look like you just materialized out of a flame.”

The woman chuckled softly. “Touché.” She moved closer, her bare feet soundless on the rocks. “I have been watching you, Xena.” She said as she circled the Conqueror. “I have been, for a while now. I’m quite a fan. What you did in Chin.” She hummed in clear delight, then leaned closer, whispering in Xena’s ear. “Beautiful.”

Xena closed her eyes and swallowed. Being this close, it was like warmth filled her. It was a little like Ares could make her feel. That wonderful mixture of rage and desire. Only this, now… It was ten times as strong.

A hand slipped around her waist and her skin burned under it. “You are wasted on him,” the nearby voice burred coaxingly. “Why do you do his bidding? Why do you come here, to fight me, on his behalf?”

“I’m not here on his behalf.” Xena managed to say, her voice slightly husky. “I’m here on mine. I want Persia.”

“I’ll give it to you.”

Xena frowned, turning around a little. “What?”

“I’ll give it to you,” the woman repeated simply. “Leave him. Join me. And you will rule Persia.”

“What’s the catch?”

The woman smiled charmingly. “You want to conquer the world. So do I.” She pointed a delicate finger skyward. “The one on higher plains. I have conquered all I could in Persia. Of all the deities here, only I remain. I wish to leave this land. Move onto others. Like you can.” The woman folded her hands behind her back and moved a few paces away from Xena. “I can leave the borders of my lands, but… Not too long. And when I do it drains me.” She turned around, facing Xena again. “I need a vessel. Someone to enter.” She shot the Conqueror a sultry smile.

Xena feigned indignation. “I should have known you were only interested in my body.”

A giggle. “No. Not yours. I need someone who is pure. Untainted. An innocent. You are corrupted.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere.”

“That woman you met in Chin,” the woman continued pensively. “She would be a perfect host. If I could make the power she had mine…”

Xena’s eyes darkened. “I am not giving you Lao Ma.”

Her opponent looked at her in surprise. “You care for her? I thought you cared for no one.”

“I don’t,” Xena confirmed, trying to look self assured under the scrutinise gaze.

“She betrayed you, did she not?” The woman sauntered closer again, her eyes holding Xena’s. “You wished to help her and she turned you down. Do you remember?”

A hand reached out, the fingers flames now which pierced her skin. Xena gasped in a breath as a wave of visions suddenly surged over her. Lao Ma, laughing at her. The laugh started sweet and pleasant, but lowered and became taunting, vicious. Lao Ma turning her down. Their fight.

A rage surged though her, stronger than she had ever felt before. A vision of Lao Ma again and the hatred intensified.

She hated Lao Ma. She hated her.

She saw the fight with Lao Ma flash in front of her eyes again. But this time with a different outcome. With a vicious twist she snapped the woman’s neck.

Xena somehow managed to push herself back and Dahak’s touch left her. She was breathing heavily and her eyes were wide. She looked at the Persian deity, whose brown eyes had turned to a flaming orange. “Stay away from me!” She warned, unsheathing her sword and pointing the tip forward.

“Hmm,” the woman cocked her head a little. “Not the response I was hoping for.”

Xena swallowed, then drew in a raged breath. She felt completely off balance. The rage Dahak had brought out in her was unparalleled. The sight of her hands wrapping around Lao Ma’s neck kept flashing in front of her eyes and she shook her head, trying to rid herself of the image.

This god was not like Ares. Dahak had an intensity and brought out an anger so great, it scared even her.

Dahak would not be content with being her ally. He would be her master.

Xena squared her shoulders, trying to regain her composure. “Thanks for the offer, but… I think I’d rather take Persia on my own.” A smirk. “I don’t need you.”

The fiery eyes darkened, then Dahak lunged for her. The female shape changed into that of a black panther, and his claws dug into her skin.

The fight was brutal and Xena was soon out of breath. Dahak kept shift shaping, changing from animal into man, attacking her with bare hands and weapons. Xena managed to get past his defenses a few times, but when her sword found skin, the skin just parted and all her weapon touched were flames.

Dahak’s hand grazed her skin and she could feel him in her brain, probing for something. She pushed him away, but soon enough he managed to get close again. This time he found what he was looking for and laughed as he dragged the images from her mind.

A small boy, standing in the middle of a village, looking around fearfully. The village was being attacked. A centaur ran up to him and picked him up. But the next moment an arrow pierced the creature’s throat and he released his hold on the child. Draco walked up to the boy, grinning, a dagger firmly grasped in his hand.

“Solon!” Xena called out in horror, before Dahak released his grip on her and she fell helplessly to the ground.

Dahak looked down on her. He had changed back into the shape he had taken when they had met and was now again the woman with fiery orange eyes. “Pathetic,” the woman spit at her as Xena instinctively crawled backwards in an attempt to get away.

The rage, the pain… All the emotions were so strong, the images so vivid. Even now that Dahak’s hold on her was released, the fear still clung to her heart. The emotions were so powerful they were obstructing her vision. All she could see were shadows.

“You are the best the mortal world can offer?” Dahak laughed, then kicked out, catching Xena in the stomach. “You are not worthy of my attention.”

Xena managed to crawl back to her feet, stumbling backwards in an attempt to get away from Dahak. Behind her, she could hear the faint gurgling of the river.

“Know this,” Dahak’s voice burred angrily. “When I have finished with you, I will go down into the valley and I will obliterate your army. All the men and women that followed you so loyally, they will die. And I will go the border with Greece and I will line it with their heads, placed on stakes. In honour of you. Of what you could have been, had you joined me.”

Xena barely heard the words, the fear in her so complete now it consumed her. Her mind was racing. She was unable to think straight. The river was behind her. Dahak was before her. There was no way out. She would fail. Everyone would die. Like Solon had died. Because of her. Because of her.

Dahak’s gaze narrowed at her. “Let me put you out of your misery,” he growled, then lunged for her again, transforming into a lion, his claws extended towards her.

Xena heard him roar and scrambled back in absolute panic. Her foot slipped over the ground and her heel hit a rock. She fell backwards, the rocky ground scratching open her back.

She heard a cry. Another moment, then the shadows in front of her eyes faded and she could see again. She looked up at the sky. The dark clouds dissipated. Above her was only bright blue. She quickly got back to her feet and looked around.

Dahak was gone.

“I didn’t beat him,” Xena said. Her blue eyes were sad, apologetic. “I tripped.”

Gabrielle blinked at her in disbelief. “You tripped?”

“I tripped,” Xena repeated again, managing a short, sarcastic laugh. “Everybody out there…. The army. The Greek pantheon. They all believe I can take Dahak out. Because I did before. Only I didn’t.” She rose to her feet, walking over to the window and staring out over the palace gardens. “I didn’t defeat him then. And I can’t now.”

Gabrielle stared at her a moment, in shock. Then she recovered and got to her feet, walking up behind Xena. She wrapped her arms around the Empress’s waist, leaning her cheek against the woman’s shoulder blade. “You can. We can. Together. Right?”

Xena stared out blankly thinking back about her fight with Dahak. Thinking back about how she’d found Gabrielle in the forest, petrified. She closed her eyes and swallowed. She covered Gabrielle’s hands with her own, lifting one and pressing a kiss to the back of it. “Right,” she mumbled, absently. “Together.”

Odilon stepped into the hallway, glad to be out of the burning sun. From the hallway leading to Xena’s quarters, footsteps echoed. Moments later Benitor appeared, moving towards him and then bowing. “Good Day, Sir.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Odilon muttered, wiping at the sweat on his forehead with his arm. “Where’s Xena?”

“Her Majesty has gone to see the army. She heard of your arrival. She asked you to meet her there. She says she has something to show you.”

Odilon frowned, but then headed towards the army barracks. When he arrived he found the entire army gathered in the large square in the centre of the compound. Through the masses, Odilon was unable to see what was going on. He recognized Xena’s voice though as it rang out across the square. “Andros!”

The square around him fell silent. Odilon managed to make his way forward to catch a glimpse of what was going on. He saw the lieutenant stepping forward to come to stand in front of Xena, who was looking down at him from her spot on a small platform. On the platform were two strong wooden beams, which crossed each other in the middle. Stakes.

The Empress hair was loose and disorganized. She looked… Odilon frowned as he tried to analyze his friend’s state of mind. She looked like she had a long time ago, when he found her after her first encounter with Caesar. When she came down from Mt. Nestus where M’Lila had died. All fiery, anger radiating from her. Reborn, she’d said. A Xena with a new purpose in life. Death.

“You disobeyed me,” the Conqueror said, in a low voice.

Andros squared his shoulders, mustering up his courage. “Empress, you gave me no order to….”

“Silence!” Xena’s voice echoed loudly through the square. “Gabrielle, my advisor and the leader of my council came to you and asked for help. You denied her that.”

“Your advisor is a traitor!” Andros yelled back. “She was the cause of the massacre at Huong!”

A gasp rang through the crowd at the accusation. The young soldiers looked at each other, confused. Even they had heard of the massacre.

Andros looked around at the shocked and angry faces of the soldiers around him contentedly. He turned back to face his leader, expecting the same response.

But Xena merely laughed. Not one of her more pleasant ones. “So you admit you knew that she was the warrior who killed hundreds of soldiers in battle single-handedly?” She slowly decedent down the steps of the platform she’d been standing on. “And you did not consider that, since we are to face a force much larger than our own, a fighter who is that strong might be a useful asset?”

The lieutenant looked at her, confused.

“Idiot!” Xena spat at him, her blue eyes narrowing dangerously at her. “Gabrielle has been injured. She’s useless to me now.”

Odilon blinked, surprised at the words. He had assumed the warrior had been using Xena, but… Now Xena made the illusion it had been the other way around. Surely he couldn’t have misread her that badly.

“I….” Andros stared at his leader another moment in shock. “I don’t understand.”

“Let me make it easier for you then,” his Empress snapped. “You have betrayed me and undermined my plans. The price for that is death.” She shoved him and he stumbled back. “Pick a weapon.”

Andros looked at her in confusion. “I cannot fight you, Empress.”

“What?” She shoved him again, her eyes raging. “Disobeying me a second time?”

The lieutenant looked confused. A sword was held out to him and blindly he reached for it. The moment he had taken it up Xena unsheathed her sword and came at him. Andros only barely managed to block the strike.

Odilon pushed himself to the front. Xena swung her sword at Andros’ side, then kicked out, hitting the lieutenant squarely in the stomach, sending him stumbling back. She jumped up and flipped over the man, kicking him against the back and sending him scrambling forward, into the center of the square.

Xena looked up then, and instantly found Odilon’s gaze in the crowd. “Glad you could make it.” She told her spy, with a vicious growl, before focusing back on the fight.

Andros meanwhile had scrambled back to his feet. Before he could do so much as turn around Xena’s sword found his side. He grimaced as the blade slid through skin. Weakly he managed to push the blade away, but it just turned and swung at his other side. He lifted his sword to parry, but the force was so strong and he was so weak that his own blade was pushed right up against him, cutting his upper arm.

Xena growled, kicking at the lieutenant’s kneecap and sending him crashing to the ground. She swept her blade down and with one clean cut off his ear. Andros yelled out in pain, grabbing onto his head with his free hand. A gasp went through the crowd of watching soldiers.

“Get up!” Xena kicked out at him. Another kick, then Andros scrambled back to his feet and took a firmer hold on his sword. When Xena swung at him again he blocked her, then moved his weapon forward himself, trying to get through Xena’s defenses.

He failed of course, as Xena just stepped back and let him pass, smacking the back of her hilt against the back of his head. Andros turned and swung at her again, but the Empress jumped back just in time. She brought her own blade down then and with one clean stroke cut off his hand.

The lieutenant screamed, his free hand wrapping around the wrist of the other, staring at the handless stump in utter shock.

Xena grasped onto her sword with both hands and then viciously pushed it forward, shoving the blade into his stomach. Andros gasped, his eyes widening. He glanced down at the blade, then managed to lift his head to stare into ice cold blue eyes. “You could have protected her,” Xena hissed, so softly only he could hear. “You could have kept her safe. You didn’t. Your death will be slow and miserable. And when you do die, I will be waiting for you in Tartarus.”

Xena pulled back her sword and Andros fell to his knees weakly. Xena raised her head, her eyes meeting those of the watching soldiers. “We are going to war,” She stated as she slowly walked around Andros. “This evening I am leaving, taking the last of you with me to Thermopylae. Traitors will NOT fight at my side.” She pulled her chakram from her belt, then turned and shoved the weapon into his spine. A moment, then the lieutenant crashed to the dirt, unable to move.

The square was completely silent. Xena’s footsteps echoed loudly as she walked around Andros’ still body, kneeling down beside him. The lieutenant managed to move his head a fraction and looked up at her wide fearful eyes. Xena stared at him a moment, her gaze dark and unreadable.

Then she rose back to her feet and returned her attention to the other soldiers. “If you think you are worthy to fight next to me, I will see you this evening in the courtyard, ready to depart. If you are not, then leave now. Because by Hades, I will do far worse things to you if you betray me in war, then I did to him.”

Hey eyes flicked over the watching men again, then she walked back over to Andros. She grabbed onto his arm and dragged him along behind her unceremoniously. She lifted him onto the platform and pulled him towards the stakes. With one arm she placed him against the wood while she expertly loosened a leather strap and wrapped it around his wrist.

When she stepped back Andros was dangling from the stakes. He was still alive. Xena had made sure none of the wounds she’d inflicted were lethal. Somehow the lieutenant managed to raise his head. He looked at her, pleadingly. “Kill me,” he managed to say, in barely more than a whisper. “Please.”

Xena looked at him, then leaned closer, dropping her voice to a low bur. “Suffer.” She instructed him, before walking away.

Soldier hastily darted out of the way as she passed. Blood liberally covered her armor and skin.

Odilon saved a last glance for Andros’ body, then he hastily ran after Xena. “Xena!” He called after her and she stopped, her back still turned to him. “What’s g…rgh!” he gasped as a hand wrapped around his throat tightly, cutting off his air supply.

“You set her up.” Xena hissed at him.

“Xena!” Odilon managed to say, desperately struggling for air, his eyes wide.

Icy eyes stared at him for a long moment. Then she lifted her free hand and reached for his. She grabbed hold of his seal ring and pulled it off his finger. Then with a vicious growl she shoved him away from her. Odilon thudded to the ground harshly. “Don’t show your face to me again.” Xena spat at him as he sat up, looking up at her in complete confusion. “Ever!”

The door slammed loudly as she let it fall shut behind her. At the end of the hallway Aphrodite’s face appeared. The brown eyes widened as the goddess saw the blood that was liberally covering her body. But before she could speak, Xena just lifted her hand in a resolute gesture. The Empress pulled open the door to her own bedroom and closed it behind her.

Silence fell. Xena leaned her back against the door and closed her eyes. Her heart was pounding fast.

She let a moment pass, then she moved over to her bed and sagged down on it. The blood on her legs clung to the clean sheets.

Xena rested her hands on her knees and opened one. In the center of her palm laid Odilon’s seal ring. The mark of her power. Of her trust in him.

She leaned over and pulled open the drawer of the small cabinet standing next to her bed. She reached inside and pulled out a second ring, similar to Odilon’s. It came to rest on the palm of her other hand.

Pyrron’s ring.

Xena closed her eyes, drawing in a shaky breath. In all her travels. In her hectic, dangerous life. She’d only fully trusted two people. Two people, who she shared the power with she’d conquered. Xena stared down at the two rings lying in her hands.

Now…. Now there was no one left. There was only her.

She bit her lip, feeling the weight of that realization settle on her. The enemy had entered Greece. They stood at her doorstep. And she was the only one left to fight. She had no allies. There were no gods to pray to. She was alone.

The door was suddenly opened and Xena rose to her feet instantly, spinning around. Niobe stumbled inside then stopped as she spotted the Empress.

It was as if time stood still for a moment as they stood there. The child in the door opening, young and innocent. And Xena, on the other side of the room, dressed in her armor and covered in blood.

Niobe blinked a few times, then toddled forward into the room. “Sena? You go play with red pait?”

Xena managed a laugh, then quickly dropped to a knee, coming eye to eye with the child. “Yeah… Something like that.” She reached for the girl, stroking her cheek.

It left a smudge of red on the toddler’s skin. Xena hastily reached over and wiped it off.

Aphrodite’s anxious face appeared in the doorway. “Xena, I’m sorry,” she said. “She got away from me. I didn’t want her to….”

“It’s okay,” Xena quickly cut her short, then returned her attention to the child. “Hey, short stuff?”

Brown eyes looked up at her in complete trust. “Yes?”

Xena hesitated a moment, then motioned a hand towards Aphrodite, who was still standing in the doorway. “You like her?”

Niobe glanced over her shoulder at the goddess, then looked back at Xena with a smile. “Yes. All pink! Is good!”

The Empress smiled at her. “You always were a good judge of character,” she told the child, who giggled in response. “How do you feel about going on a little trip? Hmm?”

“Holday?” Niobe beamed her a smile. “Good!”

“That’s the spirit,” Xena grinned at her, then rose to her feet, meeting Aphrodite’s eyes. “I need to go change. How about you ask your aunt Aphrodite to help you pack?”

“Kay,” Niobe said, turning around and toddling back over to the goddess. “Afdite?”

“I’ll be over in a moment,” the goddess managed a smile for her. She watched the child run back into the living room, then turned her attention back to Xena.

The Empress was staring at some objects lying in her hand. Then she tossed them away, the two rings hitting the wall and bouncing off it with a clinging of metal.

“What happened?” Aphrodite asked, indicating Xena’s bloodied outfit.

The Empress squared her shoulders, a set expression on her face. “I got…. reacquainted with a part of myself I thought I didn’t need anymore.” She walked up to the goddess, looking her in the eyes. “Help the children pack their things. Not too much. You’ll need to be able to move fast.”

“B…” Aphrodite stared at her in shock. “I…”

“I’m gonna go with my gut, and say you can be trusted,” Xena told her. “You’re the only one I know who can protect my children from your Pantheon. I have no choice but to leave them with you.” She leaned a fraction closer. Aphrodite flinched at the tangy smell of blood clinging to her. “I’ll leave one of my best assassins with the hind’s blood dagger. If you betray me, you’ll regret it. Understood?”

Aphrodite swallowed. “Y… yes.”

“Good,” Xena nodded, then moved past her. “I need to clean myself up. I’ll be back in a few moments. Make sure the kids are ready by then.”

They’d placed her in a room on the northern side of the palace. Gabrielle stepped inside, the sound of her boots echoing off the stone walls. It was dark inside, since there were no windows, and the place was illuminated by a large number of candles.

Two women were standing next to a wooden table, wrapping fine linen around the body lying on top of it. They both bowed as Gabrielle stepped closer. “Leave, please.” Gabrielle said softly, and the two women hastily did as ordered.

The sound of the door closing behind them. Gabrielle took another step closer to the table, looking down into the face of the woman. There was a small smudge of dirt on her cheek and Gabrielle reached out, wiping it off with her thumb. “You always did have trouble keeping your face clean,” she murmured, her fingers trailing down the cold cheek. “But…. You turned out good in the end, Callie. Bet you’re disappointed in yourself right now.” A faint smile. “Fighting Him to save me. How stupid an idea was that, huh?” Her voice broke a little and she had to stop and close her eyes, forcing back the tears. “You were my best friend for the longest time. No one really got that. You and me. I’m pretty sure you didn’t either. Considering how annoying and chatty I was.” A breath. “When I first got to Athens, I’d kinda lost my way. You helped me find it. You were confident and strong and… and someone I could look up to. Count on to save me, when I got into trouble. I think…. I think we kept each other sane, a little.” Gabrielle gently folded a lock of blond hair around her fingers. “I really thought… I thought we could find each other again, in the end. But I guess that wasn’t meant to be.”

Gabrielle hesitated a moment, then leaned closer, softly pressing a kiss to the pale lips. “I hope you’ve found that peace you were searching for. You deserve it.” A tear slid down her cheek. “Thank you. For getting me out of trouble one last time.”

“Sir,” the general bowed politely as Khrafstar entered. “I am sorry to disturb you from your prayers.”

“Fortunately for you, I believe in shooting the messenger,” Khrafstar told him calmly, his dark eyes studying the man of war calmly. “What do you wish to speak to me for?”

“News has come to us from our scouts,” the general told him, pointing at the map that lay on the table standing in between them. “The enemy is gathering here.” He pointed.

Khrafstar studied the map, then nodded. “The Pass of Thermopylae. Our Lord spoke of it.”

“Our Lord is wise,” the general said reverently. “It is a location not in our favour. The pass is narrow and high. Only a few men can move through it at one time.” He pointed to the map again. “It would be wiser to move around it. Then we can strike Delphi..”

“No.”

The general blinked at him. “Sir?”

“No. We will meet Xena at Thermopylae. The Dark Lord wishes it so.”

“But, sir,…”

“No!” Khrafstar cut him off firmly. “We shall defeat Xena when her chances to win are greatest. When we do this, the rest of the world will tremble in fear. And Dahak will rule.”

The general looked at him doubtfully for a moment, then he pointed to another location on the map, this one on the Persian coast. “The Egyptian forces are moving up through Persia. Because most of our forces are stationed here, they are finding hardly any opposition. Within two, maybe three days, they will be here. Our numbers are great, sir, but fighting a war on two fronts is never wise.”

Khrafstar folded his hands behind his back. “We will be at Thermopylae tomorrow night. We will strike at the light of day. We outnumber her troops, do we not?”

The general grinned. “Five to one, sir.”

Khrafstar grinned back. “We will strike at the light of day. Xena’s forces will be obliterated. If the Egyptians do not run when they hear of the defeat, we will deal with them before we move on to Delphi.” He bowed his head. “Dahak wishes it so.”

The General inclined his head. “His will be done.”

Xena let a sponge fill with water, then lifted it and squeezed. The water trickled onto her am, mixing with the blood there and then sliding off her arms.

She finished cleaning, then dunked her head under water a final time before rising from the tub. She picked up a towel, swinging it over her shoulder and then heading for the door, stepping back into her old bedroom.

She stopped dead as she saw the figure standing at the back of the room, her arms crossed, her foot tapping impatiently. “Are you nuts?” Aphrodite asked, her dark eyes staring pointedly at Xena.

Xena blinked at her a few times, then regained her composure. “Are you? What the Hades are you doing in my bedroom?”

“This is so not going to happen!” The goddess pointed a finger at her. “I mean, I’m here, trying to protect your kid and then you walk in all grody and blood dripping and you yell at me to take your kids and protect them from some way pissed off and powerful deities and then, and top of it all, you threaten to kill me if I don’t!” Aphrodite tossed up a hand in frustration. “I’m so totally not your pet goddess. So back off!”

Xena narrowed her eyes dangerously. “Aren’t you the one hiding in my household?!”

“Oh yeah,” Aphrodite pointed at her bare stomach, which had a nasty dark scorch mark on it. “Lotta good that’s done me, huh?”

“Now you listen to me,” Xena took a step closer to her threateningly. “This is not…”

At that moment the door swayed open. Xena halted her speech and turned her head, to see Gabrielle standing in the doorway.

The warrior glanced from the clearly angry Aphrodite to the clearly naked Empress, then lifted an eyebrow. “What’s going on here?”

“Gabs, tell you girlfriend to get real, would ya?”

“Well,” Gabrielle scratched her head, studying Xena. “This is about as real as she gets, honestly.”

“Hardihar,” Aphrodite grumbled, crossing her arms angrily.

Gabrielle ignored her, crossing the room and stopping in front of Xena. “Why are you naked?”

“I just finished my bath.”

“And you decided getting dressed took up too much of your valuable time?”

Xena rolled her eyes. “No.” She nodded her head towards the grumpy Aphrodite. “Then she distracted me.”

“Right,” Gabrielle shook her head a little, then retrieved the dark tunic that was lying on the bed and held it out to her. “Wear that. You’re distracting me.”

Xena snorted, then turned around and started towelling her hair dry.

Meanwhile Gabrielle walked over to the goddess waiting on the other side of the room. “What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong is, I’m the Goddess of Love,” Aphrodite told her sharply. “Not of babysitting. I mean, the kids are sweet, they really are. But I’m so not up for this.”

“Huh?” The warrior stared at her, not understanding what she was getting at all.

“I mean, it’s fine here, where there’s soldiers and guards and those freaky Amazons and where there’s her royal butt kicking highness at the ready to save the day in the nick of time. But I can’t take care of those kids all alone! I mean, I know I got a kid myself, you know? But with us gods kids just sorta… you know, pop out of our heads or thighs or drift up from the ocean in a big sea shell or something.”

Green eyes stared at her another moment, then Gabrielle turned around, facing Xena. The Empress was just straightening her tunic with impatient hands. “You asked her to look after the kids?”

Xena released a tired breath, sitting down on the edge of the bed.

“Here, see!” Aphrodite pointed a finger at Gabrielle. “She doesn’t agree with you either. It’s not just me!”

Gabrielle walked up to the Empress, stopping in front of her. “Why?”

Blue eyes looked up at her, then she reached for the blonde’s hand, intertwining their fingers. “Last night… Something happened to Iona.”

Gabrielle looked at her anxiously. She’d known something had happened, but the two of them hadn’t had a chance to talk about it.

“She was attacked.”

“By who?”

“Strife,” Aphrodite dropped in, in a subdued voice. “My cousin.”

Gabrielle frowned, darting a glance at Aphrodite before turning her attention back to Xena. “Why? To get to you?”

The Empress shook her head a little. “No. It’s…” A breath. “When Ares died…. When I killed him. The power he had was lost.”

“I know,” Gabrielle cut her short. “Athena told me. Ares hid it somewhere. The entire Greek Pantheon was cracking open pebbles looking for it. But they couldn’t find it.”

“Well,” Xena looked up at her, sadly. “They found it.”

“They f…” Green eyes widened in shock. “No way…”

“Yeah. Ares’ last piece of revenge.” Xena managed a wry smile. “Worked out swell for him.”

Gabrielle stared at her another moment, then she moved closer. Xena wrapped her arms around the warrior, resting her head against the woman’s abdomen. “The entire Greek pantheon is going to be after her soon.” Xena said, tired. “This just keeps getting better, huh?”

Gabrielle ruffled her fingers through the dark hair. “We’ll… We’ll work it out. Don’t worry.” She sounded far from sure though. “Is there any way to… get that power Ares had… out of her?”

“It’ll only be returned to the family if she’s dead,” Aphrodite told her, sadly.

“Athena offered me an alternative,” Xena corrected her, then reached for a small pouch lying on the bed and pulled it open, retrieving its contents.

“Whoa!” Aphrodite stared at the ambrosia in shock.

Gabrielle stared down at the red substance, lying on Xena’s palm. “Are… Are you…?” She glanced up, meeting the blue eyes.

A moment, then Xena shook her head. “No. If I give this to her, then yes, she’ll live, but…” She swallowed. “Athena will use her as a weapon. She will have to go to war. Fight Dahak. I won’t let that happen.”

“Then why did you take it?”

“To make Athena believe I was thinking about it,” Xena told her. “And I thought… It’s powerful stuff. If I…”

She left the thought unfinished, but Gabrielle knew what she was saying. “No,” She touched Xena’s cheek, forcing her to look up. “You can’t. That’s not what you want.”

Xena managed a wry smile. “There’s a lot of stuff going on I don’t want.”

“Then don’t make it worse,” Gabrielle instructed her firmly. “If… If you think you need someone on your side with that kind of power, then let me take it.”

“Whoa!” Aphrodite said again, finally grasping what the conversation was about. “You wanna eat that and become a Goddess?” She studied Gabrielle pensively for a moment. “That’d be swell! You’d make a good one.”

Green eyes darted her a frustrated look.

“Which is… not the point, obviously, sorry.” The goddess muttered, hastily backing away again.

Gabrielle sighed, then turned her attention back to Xena. The Empress stared back at her. Then she drew in a breath. “The Ambrosia, it… it doesn’t matter. What matters is… I’m going to war. I can’t protect her.” A breath as Xena cast her eyes down. “You won’t be able to either. Aphrodite is the only one who has the power to keep the kids safe. She defended Iona last night.”

“Yes, and let me point out again,” The goddess motioned towards her charred skin. “Not an all out success.” A breath. “Your kid was okay ‘cause you came running in and did the hero thing, Xena. It wasn’t because of me.”

“I would have been too late to do the… ‘hero thing’, if you hadn’t been there,” Xena replied shortly.

Gabrielle glanced from one to the other, then she took a step forward in Aphrodite’s direction. “Look, you say you’re not like them. Like your family. That you care for Iona. Then prove it. Help us.” A breath. “Help her. There’s no one else that can.”

“I…” Aphrodite looked around, unhappily. “I don’t know if…”

“I need to know she’s safe.” Xena added, rising to her feet. “She’s my child. I love her. Like you said, you’re the Goddess of Love. Doesn’t that mean anything?”

“Well,” Aphrodite shuffled her feet. “Technically, maternal love isn’t my department. But…” She hastily added as Xena was about to protest. “I’ll…” A sigh. “I’ll give it my best shot.”

Gabrielle smiled, taking a few more steps forward and giving Aphrodite a hug. “Thank you,” she said softly.

“Well,” the goddess awkwardly patted the warrior’s side. “It’s, uhm…” She cleared her throat as Gabrielle stepped back, smiling at her. “Wow…. Haven’t had one of those in a while… I’d uhm… better go and help Cupid help the kids pack.”

Xena watched the goddess head out the door pensively. Gabrielle stepped up to her and she turned her head to look down at the blonde. “You can be pretty persuasive.”

Gabrielle smiled at her, then sobered. “You trust her?”

Xena considered this a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t know. She got hurt, protecting Iona. I do believe she means well, and that she likes her. I just….” A breath. “I don’t want to trust anyone with my daughter.”

“It’s just temporary,” Gabrielle said, wrapping an arm around her. “Until we sort out this mess with Dahak.”

“Yeah,” Xena murmured, staring at the closed door for another moment, before turning back to Gabrielle. “I want to give you something.” She motioned towards the bed. “Sit down for a moment.”

The warrior looked at her curiously, then did as ordered. Xena followed, kneeling down before her so they were eye to eye. “I uhm…” Xena drew in a breath. “Here.”

She held out her hand and opened it, to show Gabrielle what was lying on her palm. The blonde stared at the ring lying there, then her eyes shot up to meet Xena’s. “Y… You’re… giving me a ring?”

“Yeah, I…” Xena started, then her eyes tracked to her kneeling form as she suddenly realized what this looked like. “Oh, no, no… I mean, yes, I’m giving you a ring, but it’s not that kind of… I…” She hastily picked the ring up and held it closer to Gabrielle’s eyes. “Seal ring.”

“Oh,” Gabrielle managed a small, nervous laugh. “Right. Right. Of course, I…”

“Sorry, I shouldn’t have done the kneeling and everything, I…” Xena sucked in a breath. “No proposal. Just ultimate power. Sorry to disappoint.”

The blonde chuckled softly. “I’ll… get over it.” She took the ring from Xena, studying the seal closely. “I heard you took this from Odilon.”

“I did, but…That isn’t his ring.”

Gabrielle glanced up. “Pyrron’s?”

“It’s…” Xena looked at her sheepishly. “It’s mine. It was the smallest size,” she added quickly as she saw Gabrielle grin. “The other ones wouldn’t have fit you.”

“Right,” the warrior smiled, then leaned forward and kissed her. “That’s very practical of you.”

Xena hesitated a moment, then reached out and pushed a lock of blond hair back. “I should have given you this earlier. I don’t know why I didn’t, I just wasn’t thinking I guess… If I had, the army would have had to listen when you asked…”

“Shhh…” Gabrielle held a finger to her lips. “Don’t.”

“But…”

“Don’t.” The blonde repeated softly, reaching out and touching Xena’s cheek. “I…” She stared into the blue eyes only inches away, letting the emotions she felt for the other woman take control. “I l…”

“Mom!”

Xena hastily rose to her feet, spinning around to find her daughter standing in the doorway. She was looking mightily pissed off. “Iona…”

“What’s going on?” The girl demanded, her eyes blazing. “Why are we leaving?”

“We’re not,” Xena corrected her, looking the girl squarely in the eye. “You are.”

Iona stared at her several moments. “What?” She shook her head firmly. “I’m not g….”

Before she could continue though Xena grabbed onto her daughters shoulders with both hands, forcing her to face her. “Now you listen to me and you listen good. I am sending you with Aphrodite….”

“I won’t go,” Iona cut her off, her face set.

“Yes, you will,” Xena snapped back, with an intensity that made Iona flinch. “You disobeyed me before and look where it got us.” Xena dropped her voice to a hiss. “Because you talked to Athena the entire Greek pantheon is after you now. There is an army waiting for me at the border. I can’t fight them and worry about some Greek deity sneaking up at me from behind!”

Iona stared at her with wide eyes, clearly shocked.

Xena stared back at her, then knelt down, so they were eye to eye. “Aphrodite can protect you. You are going to listen to her. Promise me.”

“I…”

“Promise me.” Xena insisted.

“I promise,” Iona managed, her eyes watery.

“That’s more like it.” Xena managed a smile for her, gently patting her on the cheek. “Now go pack.”

Iona hesitated a moment, then did as ordered, running back over to her room.

Xena slowly rose back to her feet. She was shaking. Gabrielle walked up behind her, wrapping both her arms around her waist and leaning against her. “I…” A shaky breath. “I’m not sure I can do this.”

“You can,” Gabrielle murmured, her fingers finding Xena’s and intertwining. “Let’s just… get this over with.”

Xena bit her lip, then nodded, moving forward, Gabrielle following close behind.

Three bags were lying on the table and Caspar was hunched over one, placing some of his books inside. Cupid was helping him. Aphrodite was over on the other side of the room, helping a suspiciously quiet Iona.

Niobe spotted her first, happily running over. “Sena!”

Xena smiled, lifting the toddler up. “Her, shorty.”

“Yous no reds no more.”

“Not anymore, no.” The Empress ruffled her hair affectionately. “Are you done packing?”

Niobe nodded. “I go take tigger pyjama.” She said, pointing to her bag, her pyjamas lying squarely on top. “You forgots to make tail.”

“I know, but…. I can’t right now, shorty.” Xena murmured, darting Caspar a smile. The boy managed a smile back. Xena could tell he knew something was wrong though.

“You pwomise!” Niobe said, indignantly.

“I know, I know,” Xena placed the toddler back on the ground. “I will… When…” She swallowed. “When you come back from holiday. Okay?”

“Sena!” Niobe still looked dismayed.

Gabrielle smoothly intervened. “Hey sweetie, come over here.”

Niobe spotted the warrior, then forgot about her tiger tail and toddler over to her, allowing the older woman to pick her up. “Abby, you go on holday too?”

Gabrielle gently stroked her hair. “Later.”

Xena turning away from the room’s inhabitants and drew in a deep breath, trying to calm herself. She’d really thought she could do this, but…. She swallowed. It was so hard.

She’d never had to say goodbye to family before.

“Xena?”

The Empress bit her lip, then turned around, facing Aphrodite. The goddess was dressed in a black cloak, which covered most of her pink attire.

“Are….” The goddess cleared her throat. “I’m not sure what to do. Where to take them, I….”

Xena cut her off. “Just keep running. Get away from Greece. Far away.” She hesitated a moment. “Head west, then go north. Dahak will go to Egypt first. The Norse land isn’t interesting for him just yet.”

Aphrodite gazed at her, then moved even closer, dropping her voice to a mere whisper. “Dahak will only move past Greece once you….”

“Here.” Xena held out a letter to the goddess. Aphrodite hesitated, but the Empress held it out even closer. “Take it.” The goddess did, staring down at the small scroll, the ends held together by Xena’s seal. “If you hear any news about me,” Xena continued firmly. “Give that to Iona.”

Brown eyes stared at the scroll another moment, then she looked up, staring at Xena compassionately. “Okay. I will.”

Meanwhile Caspar had walked up to her and Xena shifted her attention to him. “Hey, sport. You ready to leave?”

The boy nodded quietly.

The Empress hesitated a moment, then knelt down before him, looking him in the eyes. He looked back at her, sadness predominant in his brown eyes.

He knew. Not everything, he couldn’t, but… He knew enough. Xena touched his cheek. “You are so much like your father. You know that?”

He managed a small smile. “I am?”

“Yes,” Xena confirmed. “You’re kind. And you’re loyal. And you are so smart. Just like him.” She gently stroked his cheek. “He was so proud of you. He was always telling me about something brilliant that you’d said or done. He knew you were meant for great things. And he was right.”

“I…” Caspar swallowed. “I don’t want to do great things. I want to stay with you and watch you do great things.”

Xena smiled at him. “Not this time. I need you to look after Niobe. Don’t let her wander off and get into trouble.” Caspar just nodded, before hugging her tightly. Xena hugged him back, kissing the top of his head. “You are going to do great things. If I close my eyes, I… I can see you doing them.” She leaned back, looking down at him. “You know I had a son once, right?” She stroked a lock of his dark hair. “I never got around to knowing him, but…. In my mind he was always just like you. Perfect.”

Caspar blushed and looked down at his feet. Xena pulled his head closer, pressing another kiss to his forehead, then gently shoved him in the direction of his sister. “Go see if your sister is ready, hmm?”

“Kay,” Caspar said softly, clasping her hand a last time, before moving away.

Xena watched him go, then she rose back to her feet and looked up. She froze then, as she saw Iona standing in the doorway of her room, a bag slung over her shoulder. The girl stared back at her a moment, then she dropped her eyes, staring at her feet.

Her feet moved forward, though she hadn’t consciously ordered them to. She stopped moments later in front of her daughter. She could see Iona’s shoulders heave as she drew in a deep breath, then the girl looked up.

Those eyes. Her eyes. Xena swallowed down the lump in her throat.

Her mind was telling her to keep her distance. It would be easier. For her. For Iona. Just to pretend. Pretend this was temporary. Pretend that….

Emotions took over though, and she reached down, wrapping her arms tightly around the girl and lifting her off her feet. Iona dropped her bags and wrapped her arms around her neck. “I didn’t mean to make things harder for you,” Iona got out. “I really didn’t. I should have just listened. I’ll never not listen to you again, mom.”

“I’ll remember you said that,” Xena managed to grin. “I love you, kid.”

“Don’t go, mom.” Iona sniffled, hiding her face in her mother’s dark hair.

“I have to go.” Xena forced herself to pull back and look at her daughter. “Okay. Now… Listen to me. This is important.”

Iona swallowed, but did look up at her. She watched as her mother pulled something out of a small bag tied to her belt.

“This is…. Something that belonged to your father. To Pyrron.” She said, to clarify which father she meant. She reached around the girl’s neck, attaching the ends of a necklace back together. A ring now lay in the hollow of Iona’s throat. “It’s my seal. I gave it to him. It meant he… was mine. And that I trusted him beyond any other.” Xena touched her daughter’s cheek, looking into her eyes. “I am trusting you with your brother and sister. I am trusting you to protect them. Understand?”

Iona swallowed, then her eyes took on a determined look and she nodded.

“That’s my girl,” Xena smiled, then hastily pulled Iona closer again, so she wouldn’t see the tear that slid down her cheek. She hastily wiped at it, then pulled back again. “Listen to Aphrodite. Don’t trust anyone else. And be careful. When this is all over with…. I’ll come find you. Okay?”

“Okay,” Iona responded softly.

Xena patted her cheek, then she rose to her feet, though her shaking limbs were making it hard to stand on her own. She looked up, to see Gabrielle talking to Caspar. Aphrodite and Cupid were watching her from a few steps away. The Empress drew in a breath. “You’d better go.”

Aphrodite nodded, then walked over to Caspar and Niobe, holding out her hands to them. “Clasp on, kiddos. I hear a nice, sunny beach with big waves calling our names.”

Cupid walked closer to Xena and her daughter, holding his hand out to Iona. “Come on. Let’s zap, beautiful.”

Iona took his hand, then with a last look, reluctantly let go of her mother’s. Xena felt her fingers slipping over her own. The emptiness as her daughter’s touch vanished was physically painful. When she looked up she found Cupid looking back at her respectfully. He reached out his free hand and she clasped it. “Good luck, Warrior Princess.”

Xena managed a smile for him. “Haven’t been called that in a while.” She murmured, as she let go of his hand.

Xena watched as Cupid led Iona over to where Aphrodite and the kids were standing. She felt a touch at her waist and blindly reached for Gabrielle’s hand.

Niobe waved enthusiastically. “Bye bye, Sena! Bye, Abby!” She called out, smiling broadly, as Aphrodite lifted a hand and snapped her finger. A cloud of pink dust drifted over them.

Xena’s eyes found Iona’s, staring into them until the clouds of pink settled over her completely. A flash and then…. The room was empty.

Xena continued to stare blankly at the spot where her daughter had stood moments before.

Fingers squeezed hers and she stared down, looking into green eyes. “It’s…” She had to pause as her voice broke. “It’s for the best.” A breath. “Right?”

Gabrielle just nodded.

Xena glanced back to where the children had stood. “It’s for the best.”

A small pop and a spark drifted up from the fire burning in the living room of what had once been Pyrron’s quarters. Xena sat on a chair in front of it, staring into the flames silently. The warmth of the fire was burning against her cheeks.

Besides the soft sounds of the fire, there was silence. Gabrielle was in her old room, across the hall, taking a bath in preparation of their departure. Xena closed her eyes, leaning her forehead against her balled fist and hiding her face in the shadows.

After a moment she sat back, drawing in a breath. The smell of burning wood filled her nostrils. She reached for a small pouch lying on the table beside her and removed the string tying it closed. The small piece of ambrosia fell onto her hand, glittering softly in the firelight.

She stared at it a long moment. Then she closed her hand around it, and with a resolute movement tossed the ambrosia into the fire. Sparks flew all around as the divine food entered the flames and was consumed by it.

Silence returned again to the room. Xena stared into the fire again, watching the last bit of ambrosia melting away. There was a flash of light behind her, but she ignored it.

Athena stared over her shoulder at the fire. Then she shook her head softly. “You have just signed your death warrant.”

Xena smiled wryly. “My death was a certainty the moment I was born. We all die. All we have a say in, is how we die. And I plan on dying with dignity. And a sword in my hand.”

Athena gazed down at the dark head a moment, then she closed her eyes, extending her senses, searching. After a moment she opened her eyes again. “Where is Iona?”

A soft chuckle. “Wouldn’t you like to know….”

Athena’s dark eyes blazed. “She is the most powerful weapon you have, and…”

“She is not a weapon.” Xena turned around, her eyes meeting Athena’s with equal intensity. “She is a child. My child.”

“You’re not the only parent involved in this, Xena,” Athena shot back. “The men and women you are sending into war. They have spouses. Sons and daughters. If you use the power Iona has, they may be spared.”

The Empress laughed, humourlessly. “Oh please. Don’t pretend you care about the poor mortals.”

“This is not about emotions,” the goddess returned sharply. “This is about simple mathematics. Weighing the pro’s and cons. And then making a rational decision on what is the best course of action. Your brains are in your head, Xena. Not in your heart. It is either taking a shot with Iona, and having a chance of survival. Or it is guaranteed death. For you and those fighting beside you.”

A smile from the Empress. “I know. It’s guaranteed death for me. For you.” She leaned closer, dropping her voice. “And it’s life for my daughter.”

Athena stared back at her a moment longer, then she tossed up a hand in frustration, turning around. “You cannot be reasoned with.”

Xena smirked at her. “You left, Athena. You walked out of Greece. And reason slipped out the door with you.” She straightened as the goddess turned back around. “This is my country now. And I no longer have any need for reason. You are obsolete.”

The goddess narrowed her eyes. “I will find your daughter. I will hunt her. And the power she has will be mine. One way… or the other.”

Gabrielle stepped out of the bath and reached for the towel slung over the sink. She wrapped the warm fabric around her, then picked up a smaller towel and started to ruffle it through her hair.

Darkness had fallen now, and the room was lit with candles. She crossed over to the window, glancing outside to see torches lit and soldiers marching back and fro.

The door behind her opened and Gabrielle turned around to find Xena standing in the doorway, her form outlined by the light falling into the room from the corridor. The Empress stared at her. The backlight had cast her eyes in shadows, so Gabrielle was unable to see her expression. The warrior smiled. “Hey.”

Xena continued to look at her another moment, then she walked inside fully, turning to close the door behind her. Gabrielle walked over and opened her mouth to speak again. But before she could say a word Xena had spun back around and closed the distance between them with a few steps. She cupped the warrior’s face between two hands and leaned closer, kissing her soundly.

Gabrielle closed her eyes from the intensity of it, reaching out and grabbing onto the Empress’s tunic to keep herself from falling. Xena gently pushed her back, until the back of her legs touched the edge of the bed. The next moment they were tumbling down onto the soft sheets, somehow managing to not break the kiss for an instant.

Gabrielle hummed softly as she snuggled closer, burying her face in Xena’s neck. “You know I’ll have to take a bath again now.”

Xena chuckled faintly, resting her cheek against the blond hair. “You complaining?”

Gabrielle turned her head a little, laying a finger against the Empress’ cheek and lazily claiming the other woman’s lips. “Nope.” She murmured, then paused a moment. “I uhm… I was afraid I’d have to think of him.”

“Did you?”

“A little at first,” Gabrielle replied, honestly, letting her hand trail down the Empress’s throat and come to rest against her chest to feel the beating of her heart. “But not for long. You’re stronger than he is.”

Xena managed a smile at this, reaching for Gabrielle’s hands and folding them between her own. She pressed a kiss against her fingers, then rested her head back on her pillow. Gabrielle followed her example. They gazed at each other. The Empress finally lifted her hand, gently laying it against Gabrielle’s cheek. “If… If I only had seconds to live…. This is how I’d want to live them. Looking into your eyes.”

Gabrielle kissed her palm and was about to respond, when a horn sounded from outside. The warrior took a look at the window, then returned her attention to Xena. There was sadness in those blue eyes now. “I guess it’s time.”

Xena swallowed, then nodded. “Better get going.” She murmured, stroking Gabrielle’s cheek with the back of her fingers, before sitting up.

Gabrielle watched her stand up and walk into her study. Then she pushed herself up, swinging her legs out of the bed. She’d left a tunic lying over the chair by the bedside and she pulled it over her head, straightening the fabric with an absent smile.

Footsteps behind her again and she turned, to see Xena holding out a mug to her. She took it, and looked at the liquid inside. Herbs were drifting in the water. “I feel fine. The bruises and things… They hardly hurt anymore.”

“Take it anyway,” Xena told her, as she pulled a shirt over her head. “It’s a long ride. Better to take precautions.”

Gabrielle considered this a moment, then had to admit the Empress did have a point there. She sat down on the edge of the bed and lifted the cup to her lips, drinking the mixture in a few gulps. She winced as the bitter taste of the herbs clung to her tongue. “This stuff is vile. Can’t you add anything to it, like honey or something? Make it taste a little better.”

“Sugar counters the effect,” Xena murmured, not turning around. “Did you drink it all?”

“Yeah, I did.”

“Let me see the cup.”

Gabrielle frowned, but handed over the now empty cup for Xena to inspect. “What? Don’t trust me?”

Xena gazed at the bottom of the cup, seeing only a few green flecks remaining on the bottom. “I do, I just…. Wanna make sure.” She placed the cup on the bedside table, then returned her attention to Gabrielle. “If you don’t drink it all, it doesn’t work.”

The warrior smacked her lips unhappily, the nasty taste still lingering. Her mouth felt… a little numb. “Did you put something else in this time? It tastes a little different…”

“I added something a little stronger,” Xena admitted softly, before reaching out and turning Gabrielle’s face toward her. She leaned closer, letting their lips meet again.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, letting herself drown in the kiss. When Xena backed away, Gabrielle rested her forehead against the Empress’, her eyes still closed. “Guess we won’t get to do that for a while, huh?”

“No,” Xena responded, her voice thick with emotions.

Gabrielle backed away a little, looking up into the blue eyes only inches away. “You okay?”

“No,” the Empress repeated again.

Gabrielle frowned and was about to ask further, when a dizzy spell suddenly overtook her. She clasped onto the fabric of the bed, trying to steady herself. “Whoa.” She felt Xena’s touch at her arm and she looked up. She blinked, trying to get the Empress in focus.

Xena smiled back at her. “It’s okay.” She said, reaching out and touching the warrior’s cheek. The look in the blue eyes was intense and, though the entire room had slowly started spinning, Gabrielle managed to keep those eyes in focus. “There is a ship, waiting in the harbour. There is food on there, weapons. And enough gold to last you quite a while. When the crew sees my seal ring, they’ll know it’s you.”

“But…” Gabrielle swallowed and blinked her eyes again, confused.

A finger touched her lips to silence her. “When you wake up, it’ll be too late. The battle will be over. He’ll be coming here.”

“No,” the warrior managed, her fogged mind finally grasping what was going on. She struggled weakly in the other woman’s grasp. “Xena. No.”

“I’m sorry,” Xena said softly, a tear tracing down her cheek as she gently laid Gabrielle down on the sheets. “But I can’t let you die. I won’t.” She leaned closer, placing a kiss on the blonde’s forehead. “Go to the harbour. I’d like it if….” She swallowed. “If you could find the children. Take care of them, now that I can’t anymore.”

Gabrielle tried to speak, but she found that her mouth had gone entirely numb now, and she couldn’t. Her eyelids were falling shut, and, though she tried to fight it, sleep was tightening its hold on her. The last thing she heard, was Xena’s voice, whispering in her ear. “Always remember, I love you.”

The sound of boots marching drifted up from the courtyard. Xena spent a moment listening to it, then she turned back to the armor she had laid out on the table. She’d washed, quickly, in cold water. Her skin was chilly and her hair still dripping, drops occasionally sliding down her shoulders.

The armor was golden, decorated with black and reds. A blacksmith in Jappa had made it for her. She’d only worn it once, in the final battle she’d fought in the Land of the Rising Sun. It had been more of a formality then a fight really. She’d wanted armor to impress, most of all.

She settled the gold plated skirt around her, securing it with a belt. The golden top followed. She covered her hands and lower arms in the red gloves, placing the golden gauntlets on top.

She pulled on the boots last and stood, glancing down and securing a few last buckles. She reached for her chakram and attached it to the catch at her side. The hind’s blood dagger she’d left with Gabrielle. She had no need for it.

The sound of her boots echoing on the marble tiles sounded loudly through the empty apartment. Xena stopped in front of a painting and glanced up, to the weapon hanging above it. She hesitated a moment, then reached up and grabbed onto the hilt of the katana and lifted it.

With her free hand, she pulled the weapon out of its scabbard. The metal sung as it was released from its leathery prison. Xena stared at it, seeing one of her blue eyes reflected clearly in the well polished metal. “Been a while.” She murmured softly to the katana, which just glimmered back at her.

The sound of a horn again, this time more urgent. With a resolute gesture, Xena resheated the katana, attaching it to her belt.

She stepped into the hallway and headed for the hall. But she could only take two steps, before a voice called her back. “Xena!”

Xena closed her eyes, drawing in a breath to calm herself. “Get away from me, Odilon.”

“Not for the love of Ataecina!” Odilon, walked around her, blocking her path. He was dressed in his own armor, silver, with a blue cloak lying over his shoulders. “I’m not going to let you go off by….” He stopped, then studied her armor. “Y… You’re going off to the biggest battle of all times and you’re wearing that?!” He snapped, pointing at her bare abdomen. “What are you? Suicidal?”

“You are not coming with me,” Xena told him, ignoring his comments as she circled around him and continued on her way. “I don’t fight beside traitors.”

“I did not betray you!” Odilon countered as he set in pursuit. “I was looking out for your best interests. It’s what I’ve always done! I am your friend…”

Xena stopped and looked him in the eyes. “I have no friends.”

Odilon stared back at her. The comment had pained him, she could see it in his eyes. Finally he swallowed, squaring his shoulders. “Fine. Maybe I am not your friend. But you are still mine. And I’m not staying behind.”

“I don’t want you with me,” Xena told him, as she continued walking down the hallway. Odilon opened his mouth to speak again, but Xena cut him off. “If you’re so determined to do something, to redeem yourself to me, then stay here. And protect Gabrielle.”

Odilon stopped and frowned. “She’s… not coming with you?”

“No,” Xena said, before turning the corner and slipping out of sight. “She’s not.”

Toris lifted his head at the sound of footsteps. He stepped up to the bar, glancing at the staircase, hoping it was Thalia.

Moments later though a tall body stepped into the torchlight. The flames reflected off his sister’s golden armor.

She looked impressive, dressed in her armor, her hair loose and disordered. Then he squared his shoulders and took on an uninterested look. “Come to kill me then, have you?”

Xena didn’t respond, didn’t even bother to look at him. She stepped up to the bars and stuck a key in the lock, turning it. With a soft squeak the door opened. Then she turned back around, and started marching back out.

Toris blinked. “Whoa! Hey!” He quickly stepped out of the cell, calling after his sister. “What’s this about?”

Xena stopped, then spun back around. “I’m leaving. Off to war. Can’t be bothered to deal with you. So I’m allowing you to run.” She smirked at him, sarcastically. “You’re still good at that, aren’t ya? Running?”

“I…” Toris started, then stopped, confused.

“Bye, Toris,” Xena said, before turning around and continuing back up the stairs. “It’s been a pleasure not knowing you.”

Soldiers saluted her as she stepped into the court yard. Torches were lit around the square and it shimmered off the armor of the hundreds of soldiers lined up. The noise of clattering weaponry and edgy voices stopped as they noticed her arrival. Salutes and respectful nods were directed at her.

Xena stepped up to the lieutenant, who saluted. “All is in order, General.” He said, as he fell into pace beside her. “The men are ready. We have several carts of food and weaponry with us.”

“Good,” Xena nodded as she continued walking. “How many men abandoned us, after that little… demonstration of mine this afternoon?”

“None, ma’am.”

Xena darted him a look, then smirked wryly. “Ah…. All idiots then, hmm?”

“Yes, General,” the lieutenant agreed easily. “Very loyal idiots.”

“My favourite kind,” Xena responded in a mumble, then halted as she spotted Cleopatra walking closer. Where as the Egyptian soldiers that circled her wore only white loincloths and some light chain mail, Cleopatra herself was well adorned. Her upper body was covered in beautiful golden armor. She wore a large necklace, shaped like a scarab, its wings spread out and covering her shoulders. The metal was inlaid with hundreds of small stones in various shades of blue and green.

“Xena,” Cleopatra inclined her head a fraction. “You look….” She let her eyes travel down the Empress’ mostly bare body. “…good.”

“Thanks,” Xena drawled, then motioned her closer. Cleopatra waved a hand at her guards, who instantly bowed and backed away, giving them some privacy. Xena glanced over the Egyptian’s shoulder to the contingent of Egyptian chariots. There were about a hundred archers and an equal number of spearmen, armed with spears and large, man-sized shields. “You should… take some of your troops and head south.”

“South?” Cleopatra looked at her inquisitively. “Why?”

“You should join the troops moving up through Persia.” Xena explained. “Circle around. We can meet up at Thermopylae. Force them into a two front war.”

Cleopatra cocked her head, studying Xena with quite some interest. “If I am not mistaken, you are trying to get rid of me.”

Xena snorted. “I’m just trying to work out a good strategy.”

“Odilon informed me of the number of troops waiting at Thermopylae.” Cleo continued calmly. “You must know as well as I do, that your forces can never hold out long enough for my army to attack from the north.”

Xena watched her a moment, then released a breath. “When… If Dahak gets past me, he’ll head for Egypt next. You should go home. Get ready to defend your lands.”

Cleopatra stared at her another moment, then a look of realization crossed her features. “Ah… I believe I understand the lack of armor now.”

Xena rolled her eyes. “Fine. We understand each other then.”

Cleopatra considered this a moment, then smiled. “Hardly.” She turned and headed back towards her troops.

Xena watched her go, then shook her head a little. She wanted to follow the Egyptian, but before she could a stable hand walked up to her, leading Chilon along. The young girl inclined her head politely. “Your horse, ma’am.”

Xena stopped, glancing at the large black stallion. She then shook her head, continuing on. “Take him back to the stables.”

The girl blinked, confused. “But….”

“Take him back,” Xena repeated, not turning back. She heard Chilon snort in outrage as the horse was led away.

Horns blew, a last time, and the soldiers took up their places and turned towards the gates. Wheels rolled up and a chariot stopped at her side, two beautiful white horses stamping the earth restlessly. Cleopatra stood on the back of the chariot, holding onto the reigns. “Not even bringing your horse, are you?”

Xena looked at her. “He’s too slow.”

“Is Odilon too slow as well? And your peasant?”

Xena tried to repress a wry smile. “You think you’re so smart, don’t ya?”

“I don’t just think it,” the Egyptian returned easily, then motioned towards a spot beside her on the chariot. “Come.”

The Empress hesitated a moment, then gave in, stepping up into the chariot. “Tell me one thing though? If you’re so smart, why come with me? You are going to die. You know that.”

Cleopatra considered this a moment. “Well… I believe it was a wise woman who once told me that immortality is reserved for those who are worth remembering. All others just…. Fade into oblivion. But those who live on in the memory of others, have eternal life.”

Xena darted her a look. “I told you that.”

“Oh, you did?” Cleopatra feigned surprise. “Not a wise woman after all, then.”

The Empress rolled her eyes, but looked amused.

“My eternity is ensured,” Cleopatra continued. “When I die I will be embalmed and sit beside Osiris.” She looked up at Xena. “If I am meant to live forever… I’d better make sure I have some good company. Otherwise I may be bored.”

Xena chuckled, shaking her head a little. She reached for the Egyptian’s shoulder, squeezing it. “Thanks.”

Cleopatra inclined her head in acceptance, then clucked her tongue and loosened the hold on her reigns. The horses moved forward instantly, pulling the chariot forward.

“Thalia!”

Thalia looked up from her conversation with the storekeeper at the mention of her name. She looked around, then spotted the person who’d called her making his way over, struggling through the crowd. “Toris?” She murmured in confusion, leaving the storekeeper behind and walking over to meet him. “Toris, what… How did you escape? Please don’t tell me you….”

“I didn’t,” Toris hastily cut her of as he tried to regain his breath. “I didn’t escape. She let me go.”

“Gabrielle did?”

“No,” Toris shook his head. “Xena.”

“What?” Thalia stared at him, in clear disbelief. “Why would she do that?”

“She left, for war. I saw her riding out of the city, on a chariot. This was… two, maybe three candle marks ago. I’ve been looking for you all over town.”

The redhead frowned. “But… But Gabrielle was leaving with her. I’m sure Gab wouldn’t just leave without saying goodbye….”

“I didn’t see Gabrielle,” Toris told her. “That’s why I though…. You should know.”

“Good thinking,” Thalia agreed, grabbing onto his hand. “Come on. We need to get to the palace. See what’s going on.”

Toris released a breath at the prospect of returning to the palace again, but allowed himself to be dragged along.

Odilon stood quietly, watching Gabrielle’s sleeping form from the corner of the room. “Well…” he murmured softly, watching the slow rise and fall of the warrior’s chest. “Guess we have something in common after all, Gabrielle.” He smirked. “We are both fools for her.” A pause. “You somewhat more of a fool then me, since you let her drug you. Which was really, really blond of you.”

He slowly moved forward, crouching down at her bedside, looking at her face. “She asked me to guard you. Until you woke up.” A chuckle. “I’m obviously not going to do that. I’m a spy. I investigate and then take action. I’m not someone who just…. Stands by and waits.” He rose back to his feet and crossed over to the fireplace. “You know, I have been investigating that… Achilles’ heal of yours.” There was a small metal pot standing in the fire. He lifted some roots, which were a deep brown color, tossing it into the cauldron, reaching in with a wooden spoon and stirring. The mixture turned a poisonous green. “Turns out now though…. I won’t even need it….”

“Okay, this is where we are.” Xena drew a few lines in the sand, then pointed to a spot. “The quickest route to the other side is over this hill here. However, there are too many rocks, so the horses and chariots will have to go around. She pointed the stick she was holding at the lieutenant. “I want you to lead the infantry over the hill. I will lead the cavalry and chariots around. We will meet up at the bottom of the hill, before the moon reaches its zenith. All clear?”

The men around her nodded.

“Once we get to the other side, it’s just a hundred miles or so to Thermopylae. We should be there two candle marks before dawn. This will give the men some time to rest before the battle.” Xena continued on. “I want to….”

A loud crack sounded suddenly from nearby, followed by many men yelling. Xena drew her sword, hastily rushing closer, pushing a few men aside to come to the source of the problem. “What the Hades is…?”

She stopped then, as she saw two men trying very hard to restrain a black stallion, who was bucking and rearing. “Knocked over three fellows, ma’am.” One of the men managed to say, as he struggled with the horse’s halter. “Strong one, this is.”

Xena exhaled, then took a step closer, reaching out a hand and touching the horse’s head. As if by magic the stallion settled down. “Chilon, you stupid thing.”

The two men holding onto the stallion’s halter shared an impressed look, then both let go, allowing the horse to take a few steps forward and bump his nose up against Xena’s abdomen.

“Stop that,” she scolded him after which he just did it again, making the soldiers laugh. She grabbed onto his halter, tugging him along after her. The stallion followed her obediently.

She led him to a grassy spot a little bit away from the waiting soldiers. Chilon bent his long neck and pulled a patch of grass loose, chewing on it contentedly. Xena crossed her arms, looking at him sternly. “You didn’t hurt the stable girl, did you?”

The stallion gazed at her.

“I taught you better manners than this. I taught you to listen to me.”

Chilon chewed on his grass some more, then snorted, shaking his head a little.

Xena laughed, in spite of herself. She took a step closer, affectionately rubbing his dark head. “Stubborn thing.” She wrapped her arms around his strong neck, leaning against him. “It would be better for you if you stayed away from me.” Chilon nibbled her belt. Xena smiled, drawing in a breath of dust and horse. It was familiar and soothing and she closed her eyes, laying her ear against the stallion’s neck and listening to him breathe.

“General?” Her lieutenant’s voice drifted out to her. “Are you ready to depart?”

Xena squared her shoulders. She turned her face, to look into one of Chilon’s dark brown eyes. “Are you?” The stallion leaned closer, nuzzling her hand. Xena placed a kiss on his fur, then looped the rope of the halter over his neck, before she pushed herself up and seating herself on his bare back. Chilon neighed happily, then set off, trotting back towards the awaiting soldiers.

Odilon carefully poured the steaming green liquid into a cup, then moved over to the bedside again. He held the steaming mug under Gabrielle’s nose, allowing the fumes to circle around her face. “Let’s end this… shall we?”

The door suddenly burst open and Odilon looked up to see Gabrielle’s redhead friend filling the doorway. Her eyes searched the room, then settled on him kneeling at Gabrielle’s side. “Get away from her!” She yelled, then stormed closer. Odilon blinked, then hastily placed the cup at the bedside table and turned back around to face her.

A fist impacted with his face harshly and he stumbled back. “Whoa, okay, hold it!” He managed to duck under another swing from the raging woman and backed away. “Wait up now! I…” He gurgled as a hand grabbed onto the back of his tunic and lifted him up. He managed to glance over his shoulder to see blue eyes, remarkably like Xena’s, narrowed at him.

“What were you trying to do to her?!” Thalia snapped at him. “If you hurt one hair on her head, I swear I’m gonna….”

A groan sounded from behind her and Thalia spun around to see Gabrielle sit up in the bed, looking around groggily. “Thal?” Gabrielle reached for her head, which was clearly aching. “Wha…” She looked around and her eyes fell on the empty mug standing at the bedside. She drew in a sharp breath, as memory kicked in. “Xena! Where is she?”

“Gone!” Odilon managed to croak, between gasps of air. “Need to hurry.”

“What the Hades happened?” Thalia inquired, steadying Gabrielle as the warrior tried to get up from the bed. “I walk in here and I see you there lying unconscious and this guy leaning over you with a cup of nasty looking green stuff.”

Gabrielle glanced at her, then at Odilon, then at the steaming cup. She tentatively reached out and lifted it, sniffing. She lifted an eyebrow, then looked back over at Odilon. “Put him down.”

Toris frowned. “But….”

“Put him down,” Gabrielle repeated, walking over as Odilon was placed back to his feet. The spy shot Toris a vile look, rubbing his soar neck. Then he faced forward again, meeting Gabrielle’s eyes as the warrior stopped before him. She placed a hand on the bedpost to hold herself upright, still a little dizzy.

They stared at each other a moment, Gabrielle with a good dose of suspicion. “How long was I supposed to sleep?” The warrior finally asked.

Odilon shrugged a little. “Not sure what dosage she used, but… the maximum is about twenty candle marks.”

“How long has it been?”

“About four,” the spy replied. “It took me a little while to find the right root. I’m not that good of a healer. I just know the basics.” He motioned towards the hand she had leaning against the bed. “You’re going to feel a little groggy, because I had to pull you out of it fast. Won’t last long though.”

Gabrielle studied him. “Why?”

Odilon smirked. “Well…. I’m still not convinced about you not being a rebel assassin, but…. Xena seems quite intent on getting herself killed anyway. So I have little to lose.”

Gabrielle stared at him a moment longer, then she exhaled, covering her eyes with a hand. “There’s a ship in the harbour. She expects me to run.”

“You going to?”

Gabrielle snorted. “No.” She let go of the bedpost and managed to make her way over to a chair, on which she’d laid out her armor. She reached for a gauntlet, securing it on her lower arm. “I am going to get my horse, ride north, find Xena, and kick her butt for doing this.”

Thalia glanced from Gabrielle to Odilon and back. “Wait…. I’m lost here…. You saying that Xena drugged you? And he saved you?”

Gabrielle grimaced. “Wouldn’t call it saving, per see.”

“I would,” Odilon smirked.

“She was trying to protect you,” Toris mumbled, pensively. “Keep you away from the battle.”

Odilon nodded. “She thinks it’s hopeless” A shrug. “And she may not be wrong. I’ve seen the Persian forces. There’s a lot of them.”

“She’s an idiot,” Gabrielle grumbled, reaching for a set of daggers and tucking them in her boots. “A stupid, overprotective idiot.” The warrior finished dressing and was now wearing a set of dark red leathers, covered in several bits of silver armor. She grabbed for her sword, then headed for the door. The dizziness was starting to wear off.

Odilon fell into pace behind her. “I got your horse saddled up. It’s waiting in the courtyard.”

“How far have the Persians gotten?”

“The reports indicated that they will reach Thermopylae by midnight,” Odilon informed her. “Considering the number of troops, they’ll most likely attack by daylight. So that would be….”

“… way too soon,” Gabrielle finished, then cursed. “Damn it. Damn it, damn it, I should’ve seen this. She was acting weird and… I should have known.”

“You should have known that your lover would drug you and then run off by herself to go get killed?” Odilon muttered from behind her. “Wow…. Some great relationship you guys have.”

“Shut it,” Gabrielle snapped at him.

“Gab, wait up!” Thalia came running up to her, grabbing onto her arm. “Hold it for a moment!”

Gabrielle turned around, facing her friend.

Thalia drew in a breath. “Look, I….” She bit her lip. “I’m not entirely sure yet what’s going on, but…. Xena seems to have taken you out, so you wouldn’t go with her and die. Now, me and her don’t generally see eye to eye, but…. You not dying sounds very good to me.”

Gabrielle managed a smile, reaching out and grabbing onto her friend’s shoulder. “Thal…. I have to go after her.”

“She clearly doesn’t want you to. And…. And from the sound of it, you’ll be too late.”

“I have to try,” Gabrielle told her.

“Why?”

“Because….” A breath. “Because I love her. And I haven’t gotten a chance to tell her that yet.”

Thalia blinked at her. “Oh….”

“Yeah.” Gabrielle managed a small smile, then she touched her friend’s cheek. “Look, Thal, that ship is laying in the harbour with food, supplies…. I can give you a seal ring. You can get away from here. Go get the Amazons and take them too. Go someplace safe, until this is over with.”

“My ship is still waiting in the harbour too,” Toris added, stopping beside Thalia. “If there’s a lot of people, I could….”

“No,” Thalia cut him off, then turned back to Gabrielle. “You think I’m just gonna let you go off and fight a few thousand Persians while I sail off? What are you, nuts?”

Gabrielle managed a wry grin. “Figured I’d give it a shot.”

“I…” Thalia tried to sort through her options fast. “I’ll get Eph. She’s left to meet up with the Amazons outside the city walls. And I’ll alert the council as to what’s going on.”

Gabrielle nodded. “Go find my sister and Perdicas,” She pleaded. “She’s pregnant. Make sure she’s safe.” She glanced over to where Odilon was standing at the palace doors, waving at her to hurry. “I need to go now.”

“I know,” Thalia nodded, then wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and hugged her. “I’ll be right behind you.” A breath. “Please, please be careful.”

“You too,” Gabrielle murmured back, hugging her close and then regretfully letting go. She turned and jogged towards the door which Odilon was holding open for her,

There was a call from the trees right above her. Xena glanced up, to see a guard squatting on the branches, looking back down at her. The call was passed on by more and more guard posts, and by the time Xena could see the camp in the distance, it was buzzing with activity in preparation of her arrival. The men around her, though they were tired from the fast night march, squared their shoulders and walked a bit straighter, proud to be entering the camp at her side.

The path into the camp was lined with torches. The flames flickered in the wind, reflecting off her golden armor. People stepped aside and she rode in between a double line of soldiers, which saluted her as she passed.

The camp seemed to be properly set up, with a good amount of tents to cover both people and weaponry from the drizzle that had started. It covered a large hillside. To her right, in the distance, loomed the hills and the narrow pass of Thermopylae.

“General!”

Xena pulled Chilon back as she spotted Dorian walking towards her. She slid off Chilon’s back. “Dorian,” she acknowledged his presence. “How are you?”

“Happy to see you, General,” Dorian grinned at her and raised his voice a little. “And looking forward to teaching these Persian dogs a lesson.”

“That’s the spirit,” Xena patted him on the shoulder amicably, then turned and waved a hand at Cleopatra, who had halted behind her and was now gracefully descending from the chariot. “I don’t believe you’ve met Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile and my valued ally.”

“Highness,” Dorian bowed deeply, which Cleopatra clearly approved off. “Honoured to have you here.”

Xena, meanwhile had turned back to the men and women who were now one by one filtering into the camp. “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure marching with you.” The soldiers beamed at her proudly and some yelled out her name. “Get some food, and some rest. Tomorrow the fun stuff starts.” More yells and scanting of her name, to which the soldiers who had already been stationed at Thermopylae joined in wholeheartedly.

Xena turned her back on them though, motioning for Dorian to follow her. “I want a status report in my tent in a quarter of a candlemark. Make sure everybody with information is there. I want to make this quick.”

Dorian nodded, then jogged off.

Xena pulled aside the flap of the largest tent, correctly assuming it was hers. There were candles burning inside. A servant was ordering the sheets on the bed. Xena managed a smile for her, then motioned towards the exit. The girl bowed and hastily left.

Cleopatra entered the tent behind her. She glanced around at the double bed, the large desk and the table assorted with various types of food. “Ah…” She picked up an apple, examining its deep red color. “It is still good to be the Queen, is it not?”

Xena darted her a smirk over her shoulder, reaching for a towel and rubbing it over her face to clean off the drops of rain. “Sometimes it’s better than others.”

“If you have to fight a war, you should do it in style,” Cleopatra countered, walking over and lying down onto the bed on her side. She took a bite of her apple as she studied Xena rummaging around. “I remember the armor,” she commented casually. “Jappa, no?”

“Yeah,” Xena turned around to look at her. The regent’s dark eyes watched her intently, then she held out her apple. The Empress hesitated a moment, then walked over and settled down on the side of the bed, bending her head and taking a bite out of the bit of fruit without bothering to take it from Cleopatra. “Good memory. I only wore it that once.”

The regent grinned. “The armor is… very memorable,” Cleopatra continued sweetly. She reached out with her free hand, tracing a finger over the Empress’ thigh. “It was a good battle. We made a good team, then.”

“We did,” Xena murmured softly, watching the finger move down to her knee and then back up again.

Cleopatra studied her a moment longer, then she pushed herself up a little, moving even closer to the Empress and kissing her.

A moment, then Cleopatra backed away again, looking somewhat dismayed at the lack of response. “You are no fun anymore.”

Xena managed a chuckle, looking down at her hands. “Sorry.”

“No, no…” Cleopatra waved her off, returning her attention to the apple. “You are in love. I remember from the last time. It was the same.”

Xena folded her fingers together, her thumb absently caressing her index finger. “Was it?”

“Yes,” the Egyptian said, then corrected herself. “No. This time, it is worse. And she is more obnoxious.” A breath as Cleopatra rolled over onto her back, staring at the top of the tent. “What did you see in her, anyway?”

Xena glanced at her, then focused back on her folded hands. “A future.”

“Break!”

Gabrielle tossed a look over her shoulder at Odilon, the wind rushing past her ears as Argo raced on. “What?!”

“Break!” Odilon repeated. “My horse is about to keel over!”

Gabrielle looked at his horse, which was breathing heavily. She patted Argo’s neck, which was quite sweaty.

She leaned back in the saddle, and Argo instantly slowed down to a trot. Odilon caught up with her. Gabrielle glanced at him, then faced forward with a smirk. “Looks like it’s not just the horse keeling over.”

The spy rolled his eyes. “Hey, this is the third time I’m traveling this road in a few days. And it’s not any more interesting by moonlight, I gotta tell you.

There was a small creak nearby the road and Argo sauntered towards it, bending her head and drinking the liquid greedily. Gabrielle swung herself off the horse’s back, leaning down and scooping some of the water up herself.

Odilon followed her example, splashing some water into his face in an attempt to wake himself up some.

Gabrielle had finished refreshing herself, and was restlessly pacing from Argo to a nearby tree and back. She looked up to see the sky in the east and could see the dark sky was slowly turning a somewhat lighter shade of blue. She took a few more paces, hesitated, then stepped up next to Argo, whispering something in the horse’s ear. She turned and took of running.

“Hey!” Odilon called after her. When it appeared she wasn’t stopping, he got up and tied the reigns of his horse to Argo’s saddle, before setting in pursuit.

“Hey! Wait!” He finally managed to catch up to Gabrielle, trying to catch his breath as he slowed a little to match her pace. “Wh…” A breath. “Why are we running?”

“Cause the horses are tired.”

“Where as we are just full of energy,” Odilon muttered sarcastically.

“I can’t just…. Sit and wait.” Gabrielle ran a hand through her sweaty hair.

“The horses are going to catch up to us,” the spy tried some logic.

“They won’t have to carry us so they’ll be lighter and faster,” Gabrielle countered.

“That’ll just buy us… a few moments at most.”

Green eyes turned to him. “What if that’s all it takes?”

Odilon glanced at her another moment, then tossed up a hand. “Okay. You win.”

They continued on for a few more moments in some form of companionable silence. Then Odilon spoke up. “So… You love her, huh?”

“I’m running after her in the middle of the night to save her from a huge Persian army after she drugged me to stay behind,” Gabrielle muttered. “Insanity is the first phase, if I remember correctly.”

Odilon chuckled, shaking his head a little. “You know something?”

“What?”

“I can’t figure you out,” Odilon admitted.

Gabrielle tried to repress a smirk. “I told Xena the same thing.”

“Oh, Xena is easy to figure out.”

A blond eyebrow rose at him. “Really?”

“Yes,” Odilon stated firmly. “I mean, there’s a whole boatload of honour and warrior crap, but… It’s all about love and betrayal, really.” He watched the sand drift up under his boots. “She loved her family and she tried her hardest to protect them, but then her brother dies and her mom gives up on her. She runs off and ends up with Caesar, who she kinda likes. He betrays her. Boreas, that whole mess with her son, some annoying little kid in Jappa…. With Xena it all spells endless heartaches and heads on sticks.”

A moment of silence as Gabrielle digested this. “You still think I want to hurt her?”

Odilon considered this a moment, then shrugged. “I make use of the one percent rule. If there’s even the tiniest of chances, something might hurt Xena…. I take it out.”

“To protect her?” The warrior murmured. “Even if it might be unnecessary?”

“Yep.” Odilon hopped over a protruding rock.

“That’s a stupid rule.”

“It’s efficient,” the spy countered easily. “It’s better to take one out too many and have that on my conscience, then… the alternative.”

Gabrielle glanced up at him, thoughtfully for a moment, then focused back on the road in front of her.

“Their forces are stationed here, here and here,” the scout leader pointed to three places on the map. “They have archers lined up here.” He pointed to an area at their end of the pass.

“Protected?” Xena asked, studying the lines.

“Yes, by spearmen with large shields.”

“Hmm,” Xena drummed her fingers on the desk, forgetting about her idea to ambush the archers. “What about catapults? Battering rams?”

“They have some,” a spy, who had just returned from the inside of the camp informed her. “But they are large and slow. They can only take them through the pass once this side is secured.”

“I’ve been told they have Greek fire.”

The inhabitants of the tent looked up at her in surprise. “Greek fire, General?” Dorian frowned his brows in concern. “That’s illegal to own.”

“For some reason I don’t think Dahak is too picky when it comes to the law,” Xena muttered.

“I did not see Greek fire,” the spy said, thoughtfully. “But there was a tent that was being guarded constantly. Set aside from the camp, no torches. Might be it.”

“If they can’t get the catapults through, they’ll tip the arrows,” the Empress stated. “I want our own archers here and here.” She pointed to high positions on either side of the pass. “They can fire at the approaching army from above. Send a cohort of legionnaires up there to protect them. They’ve got metal shields. Greek fire won’t get through.”

Dorian nodded in agreement.

“The food and supplies were brought in wooden barrels, right?”

“Yes,” Her second in command confirmed.

“I want all the empty ones brought up here.” She drew a line at the top of the hill. “Form a barrier.”

“A wooden barrier?” Cleopatra questioned from behind her. “Will they not try to burn it down?”

Xena darted a grin over her shoulder. “I’m counting on it.”

“Red!”

Thalia looked around through the melee of people to see Ephiny making her way towards her. “You ready!”

“I was born ready,” Ephiny flashed her a grin, then sobered. “This won’t be easy, like that row with Alti, right?”

Thalia managed a wry chuckle. “Probably not.”

“Told the girls as much,” the Amazon Queen said. “Been a while since we’ve done war. But… they’re looking forward to it. Centaurs too.” She reached out and squeezed her friend’s shoulder. “You doing okay?”

Thalia drew in a breath and released it. “I’m worried about Gab.”

“She’ll be okay,” Ephiny reassured her. “She just needs to hang on till I get there and save her butt.”

Thalia managed a smile for her friend, then motioned her head towards the harbour. “I organized two ships, they’re waiting nearby. Thermopylae is near the sea, we can go on land nearby and ride the last bit.”

“Amazons generally don’t like water much, but… I guess it’s the best way.” Ephiny agreed. “I’ll go marshal the troops and head them out to the harbour.”

Thalia watched her leave, then turned around to finish her conversation with some of her friends from the former-rebellion. She stopped as Toris came walking up to her. “Hey,” she smiled at him.

“Hi,” he smiled back, a little nervously. “I uhm… Your ships are ready. I know the captain on the first one. Good fellow.”

“Great.” Thalia reached down and picked up a large burlap sack, placing it on the wooden cart standing next to her. “Gimme a hand with this, would you?”

“Sure.” Toris hastily walked over and picked up a wooden crate, filled with loafs of bread. “You uhm… You got this organized quite quickly.”

“Yeah well…” Thalia shoved the sack to the end of the cart. “It helps to know people that know that I know people in high places.”

Toris managed a faint smile. “You are people in high places.”

A snort. “Right.” Thalia finished stacking the last barrel on top of the cart, dusting off her hands. “We’d better get going. It’ll be light soon.” She said, as she headed for the driving box.

“I can’t come with you.”

Thalia stopped, then turned to look at Toris.

He drew in a breath, then released it again. “Look, I like you….” He took a tentative step closer. “I really, really like you. Which hasn’t happened to me in a while. So I really tried, but….” He swallowed. “My sister…. I just… just can’t… I mean, she killed my mother…. I…”

“I understand,” Thalia cut off his stuttering, looking away.

“I’m sorry,” Toris managed. “If it’d been different…”

“No, it’s my fault,” Thalia forced a smile. “It was… silly of me to think…. I mean, I’m going to follow my friend who is following your sister and we’re probably all going to die. You’re too smart of a guy to get in line.”

“If it’d been different…”

“It’s not though, is it?” The redhead managed to look up into his eyes. “I… really, really like you too. Which hasn’t happened to me in a while, either.” She paused a moment, then leaned forward, kissing him on the cheek. “It was nice getting to know you.”

“Yeah,” Toris cleared his throat, watching as she climbed onto the driving box and took the reigns. “You too.”

Iona stared up at the sky, watching as the stars slowly faded as the sky cleared. Next to her, Niobe was snoring softly, clutching at her blanket.

She had barely slept. She’d tried a few times, but her eyes just wouldn’t close. Iona drew in a chilly breath. She sat up a little on one hand and glanced to her right, past Niobe to look at the sea. The white foam drifting in on the waves stood out clearly against the dark waters.

Iona climbed to her feet and headed for the water. The waves rolled in, rushing over her bare feet. They sank away in the mud a little, the sand getting between her toes. She drew in a breath, closing her eyes. “Dad?” She said in little more than a whisper. “I need you to tell me what to do. Like when I was little. I thought I knew, but…. I don’t. I think mom’s in trouble. Because of me. And I…. I want to help her but I don’t know how.” She tipped her head back, looking at the brightest star, which was still visible in the brightening sky. “Help me. Give… Give me a sign or something? Okay? Should… Should I go find her?”

“Watcha doin’?”

Iona turned around to see Aphrodite standing behind her. “…Nothing.”

“Hmm,” the goddess sat down on the sand. “Nothing is a fun thing to do. Though… usually not before dawn.”

Iona hesitated a moment, then walked over and sat down beside the goddess. They sat silently side by side. Aphrodite lifted a hand full of sand, letting it slip from her fingers. The wind picked up the grains and blew then west, back towards the ocean. Aphrodite watched them. “You know my granddaddy invented sand.”

Iona looked up at her. “Really?”

“Yeah,” Aphrodite nodded in confirmation. “Mostly to piss off my grandma. They had some argument or something. She was a titan, so she had really big feet. Kept sinking away in the stuff. Grandpa thought it was hysterical.”

Iona blinked up at her moment, then shook her head. “You have a really weird family.”

The goddess of love chuckled. “Sadly, it’s your family too, kiddo.”

“I guess,” the girl muttered. “But… Dad… Pyrron always said that family was when people who could totally be mad at you, would help you anyway. Because they had to. Because you are part of them.”

Aphrodite leaned back on her hands, looking up at the sky. “Sounds nice.”

“Doesn’t your family protect you?”

A snort. “No.”

“Why not?”

“I guess…” Aphrodite considered her words a moment. “I guess we’ve lived too long to remember where we came from. That we are connected.” A breath. “With us…. It’s just about power. Being the strongest. The best. We fight each other just about every day.” She shook her head a little. “It hasn’t been the same since daddy died.”

Iona dug her fingers in the sand. “Yeah.”

“It gets lonely.”

“Yeah.” Iona repeated again in a soft voice.

Aphrodite frowned, then glanced down at her. “You’re not lonely.”

Iona squared her shoulders. “No, No…. I’ve got mom.”

“And your brother, your sister. Gabrielle.”

”They’re not family.”

“Sure they are,” Aphrodite countered, reseating herself a little so she was facing the girl. “Look, I’m not smart or anything, like my sister. But I know one thing.” She tipped Iona’s head up, forcing her to look at her. “Family is a connection of the heart. It’s not just about blood. I mean, that can be part of it, but… What it’s really about is a connection you feel.” She smiled. “You are just my niece; we’re only connected through my brother, but… You are my family. More than Athena is my family.”

Blue eyes stared into hers, then Iona reached over and hugged the goddess, sniffling a little. “Thanks.”

Athena laughed happily, hugging her back. “Wish the rest of the family was more like you, honey. World would be a better place if could all just get along.”

“Have you talked to them?” Iona sat back, looking at the goddess.

“Tried,” Aphrodite muttered, looking profoundly sad. “But they don’t listen to me. It’s about power with us, remember? And in this world… I

Xena stood in her tent. Alone. Waiting.

She tipped her head up, looking at the sky she could see through the small gap in the center of the tent. The dark skies had brightened and the edges of the thick rain clouds which had remained throughout the night were outlined in a deep red. Blood red.

A dull roar sounded from far away. Human voices united. Xena closed her eyes. The sound of drums picked up. Then a horn sounded nearby, coming from inside her camp. Around her tent she could hear footsteps pick up, orders being yelled.

Xena drew in a breath, then faced forward again, opening her eyes. She picked up the katana, which had been lying on the bed, and sheathed it in the scabbard attached to her back.

Rain drizzled down on her as she pulled aside the flap of the tent and stepped outside. Heads turned to her. Waiting. Trusting.

Xena continued on, to the front edge of the camp, where she had a view of the pass. Drums echoed off the rock and she could see smoke rising up from between the stone walls. At the top of the pass, slightly to her right, a large fire was burning, the flames reaching high up and touching the clouds. The rain didn’t seem to bother it.

Him.

Dorian stepped up beside her, tapping his chest in salute.

“Are the archers at their posts?”

Her second-in-command nodded. “All is as you instructed.”

“Excellent.” Xena continued to stare at the pass as the roar of voices become louder and the first line of shields became visible.

She heard the men and women around her gasp and whisper as more and more enemy soldiers came into view, filling the entire pass. The red glow of dawn and the flickering of the torches reflected off their shields and spears. The whispering around her intensified, the eyes of the soldiers clearly worried.

“Xena.”

The Empress turned to find Cleopatra dismount from the chariot she’d just ridden in on. “Cleo.” She glanced up at the cloudy sky. “Good morning for a bloodbath. Don’t you agree?”

“Every morning which involves blood is a good morning, according to you,” Cleopatra retorted sternly, but she was repressing a smile.

“True,” Xena agreed, grinning at her. She sobered then. “You know what to do?”

A nod. “Yes. I will wait for your signal.”

“Good girl.”

“Hardly,” Cleopatra countered, then after a moment of hesitation extended her hand. “It has been a pleasure.”

Xena took her hand, kissing the back. “It has been.”

Their eyes held another moment, then Cleopatra turned away, returning to her place beside the charioteer.

Xena returned her gaze forward another moment, staring up at the large fire at the top of the pass. Then she motioned her hand, instructing Chilon to be led forward. The horse was dressed in silver armor, which covered his hindquarters and neck. A bow was attached to one of his sides and a sword to the other. There were several spots where daggers were hidden within her reach. A metal plate covered his forehead, only revealing his eyes.

He was restless, stamping the earth with one of his front hooves. She touched his nose, the soft hairs tickling her palm. One of his brown eyes turned to her. Xena smiled back at him. He calmed down instantly. Xena grabbed onto the saddle and pulled herself up. She adjusted some leather bits, making sure she was properly seated, before looking up. Some soldiers had turned to her now, mostly the veterans. But many still stared at the pass. She could see doubt there now, especially among the younger soldiers.

She let her eyes slide past the rows of men and women. “This place…. Thermopylae… is a place of history. Of legend.” She spoke out, letting her voice carry. Eyes turned away from the pass and to her. “A long time ago, a small group of Spartans fought on this ground where we stand today. They were but few. And they knew the enemy was countless in numbers. Yet they stood.” She moved Chilon forward, pacing past the lines. “They stood here. They fought. And they became legends.” Blue eyes looked out over the soldiers. “They won. They died here, all of them. But they won. Because Greece won.” She unsheathed her katana, pointing it at them. “They look at us now, from Elysium. They look at us and they are afraid.” She paused. “You know why? Because tomorrow, when someone thinks of Thermopylae, they will not remember them. They will remember us!”

Yells went up, soldiers raising their swords and cheering. The enemy seemed forgotten. Thousands of eyes sparkled up at her. Believing.

“This is the moment!” Xena called out over the cheers. “This is the moment when history is made! The moment when you, each and every one of you, are made into legends!”

The voices, united, echoed over the battlefield. Xena lifted her sword above her head and the roar became louder. Spearmen thumped their spears on the ground, swords clattered against metal shields.

A laugh bubbled up and she let it. Her heartbeat picked up, adrenaline pumping through her veins. She turned Chilon around and pushed him into a gallop, racing past the lines. Someone started chanting her name and soon others fell in. She closed her eyes and basked in it.

Chilon slid to a halt in the center of the lines and she spun the stallion around, towards the battlefield. Dorian, who had also mounted, stopped next to her. He looked up at her, her hair blowing wildly in the wind, her eyes brighter than before. “General.” He said, his voice full of adoration.

Xena turned to him, grinning, then extended her hand. “Victory.”

Dorian reached out and clasped her arm. “Victory is ours, General.” He stated firmly. “You have already won.”

“Suck up,” Xena smirked at him, then let go of his hand.

He smiled back. “Been an honour, General.”

“Likewise,” Xena retorted, then reacted in a flash and reached out, her hands closing over the shaft of an arrow. She flanked at it, then back at him. “Guess we’re getting started.”

Dorian tapped his chest in a final salute, then turned his horse around, yelling at the horsemen he had under his command. Xena turned to her right, to find Cleopatra moving off as well, circling behind the lines to the chariots that were hidden from view.

The sound of arrows shifting through the air and she hastily lifted a hand. “Shields!”

Moments later the arrows rained down on them, clattering against the metal shields they fell upon. A few headed her way and Xena swung the katana around, whacking them away from her. “Spears! Up front! Archers, get ready!”

Men and women moved forward around her, taking up position behind the barrier of wooden barrels Xena had set up. Archers moved into position behind them, shielded from the enemy’s fire by the spearmen’s large shields.

A second wave of arrows. Xena heard a few cries of pain as soldiers were hit, but the line of spears remained. “Return fire!” Xena ordered, and moments later arrows flew back towards the Persian forces.

An oily smell reached her nostrils and she nodded a little to herself. “Agathon!”

A lieutenant on horseback came riding up to her. “Ma’am?”

“Keep the cavalry out of the line of fire until my mark.”

“Yes, General,” Agathon nodded, and spun his horse around.

Small dots of fire lit up in the distance, all the way across pass.

“Get ready!” Xena called out over the troops, as Chilon stepped around restlessly. “Ready!”

Soft pangs sounded in the distance as the arrows were released. Countless fiery tips came flying at them, lighting up the sky. Xena judged their paths, then unhooked her chakram and launched it forward, slicing through a few dozen arrows and halting them before they could even get close.

The soldiers lifted their shield and dove under them for protection as the arrows clattered down around them. Most tips were embedded into the ground and extinguished. But some hit flesh or wood and the flames spread greedily. Yells sounded behind her, but Xena ignored them, focusing her eyes on the arrows that had landed in the wooden barrels right at the front. The spearman were backing away some as the Greek fire greedily started to consume the wood.

A roar sounded from up ahead and Xena looked past the fire, to see the first wave of Persian soldiers running forward, out of the pass and towards them.

“Now!”

Several spearmen lifted their shields a little and then brought the ends down hard, cutting through the ropes which had held the barrels in their place on the slope of the hill. As soon as the burning barrels were released they stared rolling down, picking up speed.

The first line of soldiers rushing towards them stopped as they realized what was going on, the men behind them crashing into them. Yells rang out as the first Persians tried to make their way back to the pass, while the others behind them stood, confused as to what was happening.

Xena laughed as the barrels thundered into the group of soldiers, screams of terror ringing out over the battle field as the fire started feeding on their leather armor.

“Archers!”

The archers pulled back the arrows they had tipped in the Greek fire and released, sending the greedy flames back where they’d come from. Screams echoed through the pass.

“Cavalry!”

The spearman instantly spread out, creating space between them and allowing the horses to pass.

Xena motioned Chilon forward and the stallion responded eagerly, spreading into a full gallop and racing onto the battlefield ahead of all the others. Xena resheated her katana and grabbed onto her bow. She stood in the stirrups, laid an arrow across the bow and aimed.

The arrow seared ahead and thudded into the heart of an enemy soldier, the force of it actually sending him flying back. Xena released another arrow, and another and another, each arrow hitting its target with deadly precision. The Persian swordsmen fled before her in fear. But Chilon’s speed was much higher and as she neared them she traded the bow for her katana again, bringing it down on the first man she passed, splitting his skull into two.

Khrafstar roared out in anger as he saw the men run. “Cowards!” He yelled from his place atop the pass.

The fire beside him flickered calmly. Khrafstar glanced up at it, then returned his eyes to the battlefield to see a large black stallion racing forward. A grin crossed his face. “Xena.” He laughed softly, then turned back to the flames, his eyes eager. “Let me go down there, my Lord. Let me kill her for you.”

The flames roared, the force of it blowing the priest back several paces. Hastily he dropped to his knees. “I meant no disrespect, my Lord. I only….”

Another roar as they flames licked at him, a cold blue in their heart now.

“Naturally, Dark Lord,” Khrafstar bent his head. “She is yours.”

Xena twisted the katana around and swung at her other side, slicing through a shoulder. A hand grabbed onto her leg and she kicked out, causing her assailant to loose his balance. Chilon took a step sideways and reared, hitting him square in the chest and sending him flying backwards. Xena unhooked her chakram and let it fly, slicing two throats before returning to her hand, leaving blood on her palm.

The other horses caught up to her now, chasing down the fleeing Persians with loud yells. A spear flew past her and she grabbed onto it, halting it before it could fly towards any of her companions. She brought it down, knocking someone in the head, before tossing the weapon up and catching it again, switching from an underhand to an overhand grasp. With a yell she tossed it forward, back at its owner. It passed straight through his stomach.

A yell came from in front of her and the next moment a front of spearman came charging at them, long spears aimed for the horses. Xena’s eyes widened, then she pulled Chilon back quickly, spinning him around. “Get back! Now!”

The other horses tried to follow her example, but some were more agile then others. As she rode back, a horse beside her slipped and went crashing into the spear tips. The animal screamed out in pain.

The shifting of arrows behind her and she ducked, letting the ones aimed at her fly overhead. Beside her a man was hit and he tumbled off his horse.

Xena tied a knot in the reigns, then hopped up in the saddle, managing to get her feet under her. She stood, then turned, careful to keep her balance on the fast moving stallion. She could see the spearmen and behind them the archers lined up, taking aim again. Quickly she unhooked her chakram, sending it soaring. It hit rock wall, then soared sideways, cutting through bowstrings, causing the flaming arrow tips to fall at the archers’ feet.

The archers fell, but the spearman continued on after her, now joined by a number of swordsmen. Xena stared at them, then looked to her left where a cloud of dust was now rising up. Xena bared her teeth at her pursuers in a ferocious smile, before letting herself fall back in the saddle, twisting around to face forward once more. “Now!”

As one front the horses turned and raced back at the approaching spearmen. Surprised by this, the spearmen slowed, looking at each other in confusion.

The next thing they knew they were overtaken from the side as Dorian and his cavalry trampled over them.

“Yah!” Xena let her laugh ring over the battlefield as she rejoined the fighting, unsheathing her second sword and moving one to either side, decapitating two men at once. From her camp she could hear the yells and the cheering as the horses decimated the Persian followers in mere moments. She couldn’t see the camp anymore though as the Greek fire, greedily feeding on the dry grass, covered the battlefield in clouds of smoke.

A yell sounded from the other side and Xena looked up to find figures rising from the smoke, thousands at once now, storming out off the pass. “Crap,” the Empress managed to mutter, before hastily reaching for her bow. A man ran passed, Greek fire burning at his skin as he screamed. Xena reached over, lighting the tip of her arrow on his hair, before aiming it up to signal the infantry. She’d only just released it, when hands grabbed onto her, dragging her off Chilon’s back.

Gabrielle hopped over a log, then sped up again. She was breathing heavily now, but not as heavily as Odilon, who was trailing behind somewhat.

The sun was rising, higher and higher. It was hard to tell the time, because of the thick rain clouds, thick drops of rain pelting down onto her forehead. Gabrielle closed her eyes, forcing her body to keep running.

The sound of hoof beats came from behind her and Gabrielle smiled, recognizing the sound. Behind her, Odilon glanced back, then released a relieved sigh. “It’s the horses!” He managed to yell at the warrior. “Hold up!”

Gabrielle kept her speed though, but moved to the left a little. Moments later Argo rushed past Odilon, dragging the spies’ horse along behind. The mare moved up next to Gabrielle, then slowed a little to match the warrior’s speed. Gabrielle took a step, another one, then she pushed herself up into a flip, neatly landing back in the saddle.

Odilon blinked, then rolled his eyes in disgust. “Show off!”

Gabrielle ignored him though, untying Odilon’s horse from Argo and carelessly tossing his horse’s reigns aside, before pressing Argo forward. The mare instantly sped forward, leaving Odilon behind in their dust.

The dry ground made for a hard landing, Xena winced as the grains of sand scraped over her bare back. There was no time to dwell on this though, as a sword was headed for her face. She quickly turned, then turned again as a spear embedded itself right next to her ear. She grabbed onto the sword and spear, using them to balance herself as she pushed herself up, slamming her feet into the two men nearest to her. A third had his comrade’s sword thrown at him. Xena lifted the spear, blocking an axe with the wooden end, then moving the tip up to slice through a neck. Arrows came soaring down on them again, the Persian’s apparently not caring whether they hit their own troops. Xena swatted one aside, then another, then….

A scream escaped her as a third arrow embedded itself in her shoulder. She staggered back, dropping the spear mostly from shock. She hesitated a moment, then reached for the shaft of the arrow, snapping it. The movement jarred the tip embedded in her flesh and sent a soaring pain through her left arm.

A yell behind her and Xena hastily spun around, only just in time to avoid the sword thrust at her. She slammed her fist into his face, then reached for her chakram and swung it at him ferociously. The man screamed as his arm fell to the ground, blood splurging from his shoulder. The blood drops splashed onto Xena, but she ignored them as she swung the chakram at an unprepared neck, reaching behind her and wrapping her left arm around a neck, snapping it with a simple move.

Arrows appeared from the mist again and Xena quickly reached for a Persian and swung him in front of her, using him as a shield. His body jerked as several arrows hit him in the chest.

A roar from behind her and Xena twisted around again, ready for the next kill. But she breathed a sigh of relief as men wearing her own colors swarmed around her. Xena stayed back a moment, letting the infantry move past her, giving her a moment to breathe. A neigh sounded and a moment later Chilon came running from the mist.

She climbed onto his back. The wind picked up, blowing the smoke aside for a moment, allowing Xena to see ahead of her. Her eyes widened as she saw nothing but bodies and weapons and Persian banners flying.

Xena’s mind raced. Her infantry was no match against this force. They’d be slaughtered.

She needed to withdraw. But if she ordered the retreat now the Persian cavalry would follow and strike them down.

Xena wiped at the sweat on her forehead, which was dripping into her eyes. A diversion. She needed a diversion to draw them off a moment, to allow the infantry to pull back and regroup.

She looked around, then spotted her target, pushing Chilon forward. The stallion ran over a few Persians before he pulled to a halt beside another horse. Xena kicked out, freeing Dorian from one of his assailants. Her second-in-command disposed of another man on his own, swinging his axe down and splitting his skull.

“There’s too many!” Xena yelled at him, over the roar of the battle. “Gather some cavalry, circle around, attack from the left. Give the infantry time to retreat, then get the Hades out of here!”

“We’ll loose the pass!” Dorian yelled back, as his horse reared and hit a spearman.

“We’ve lost the damn pass!” Xena countered. “Now do as I say!”

Dorian swallowed, then nodded. “Yes, General!” He gutted a last Persian, then spun his horse around, calling out to his troops.

Xena grabbed for her katana, spurring Chilon towards the front lines. The smoke still lingered here and Xena let out her yell as she approached her soldiers, alerting her of her presence. She spotted a young soldier, fighting a large Persian with a double edged sword. It came down on him and the young man barely managed to keep the sword from touching his skin.

Xena steered Chilon towards him, reaching them just before the Persian was about to bring his sword down again. She reached down, grabbing onto the Persian’s neck and dragging him along, away from the soldier.

The soldier struggled and moved his sword back blindly, managing to nick her in the side of the neck. Xena yelled out in fury, pulling him up with all her power and somehow managing to fling him over the horse and into the Persian troops. She let out her battle cry and heard her troops respond as she raced past the front lines, raising her sword and slicing up one Persian after the other.

Chilon jumped as a spear tip grazed his flank. Xena grabbed on, somehow managing to stay on as he moved sideways. Her eyes flicked over the Persian soldiers, till she found the spearman who’d hurt her horse. She narrowed her eyes at him, then she flung her chakram at him, the metal ring slicing through both his legs. “Keep your paws off my horse!” She yelled at him.

She hadn’t heard the arrows coming this time and the pain as one embedded itself into her side was excruciating. Another one hit her in the thigh. She reached for the arrow shaft at her side, then hastily forgot about the arrow as her chakram appeared from the mist, soaring back at her.

She lifted both her hands, grabbing onto the chakram on both sides. The force of the weapon blew her backwards, sending her tumbling off Chilon’s back again.

A spear grazed her side. She reached for it, blindly, pulling it from the ground and swinging it around her, to clear some space. She gathered all her strength, then hopped back to her feet again. She jabbed her katana back, gutting a soldier, then swiped it at her own leg, cutting through the arrow shaft sticking out from her leg. She then jabbed the sword forward, embedding it in a Persian stomach. She let go of the hilt a moment, breaking the arrow shaft at her side off as well, then grabbed onto the hilt again as the Persian fell away from it.

“Empress!” Several young soldiers gathered around her in defence. “You okay, Empress?” One of them asked. She recognized the boy as one of her prison guards, Ellos.

“Just peachy.” She flashed him a grin, then yanked him aside and kicked out, neatly snapping an enemy’s neck in two. “When some of our horses storm in here, you run back for the camp, understood?”

“We’re retreating?” Ellos asked.

“We’re regrouping,” Xena corrected him, swinging her katana around her body as she prepared for the next Persian to come at her. “Spread the word.”

The Persians had spotted her now and she saw several officers moving in her direction, all heavily armoured and armed.

Her side hurt, her arm hurt, but she pushed it all aside. She took a firmer hold on her katana, grasping onto her chakram with her other hand. Then, in stead of waiting for the enemy to come to her, she rushed the last steps forward.

It was pure instinct and Xena let it take her. In a flurry of movement she gutted two swordsmen, then decapitated a third with her chakram. She elbowed a forth, broke a kneecap with a savage kick. With a yell she ran up a lieutenant’s body, kicking him in the face before flipping back, landing behind another Persian and snapping his neck.

A blow against her back sent her crashing to her knees. Someone reached for her and she wildly chopped at him, severing his hand. A kick at her side made her cringe, then another made her scream out in pain as it hit the broken arrow shaft, sending the tip deeper into her body.

She tried to get up and managed to sweep the legs of two soldiers out from under them. But a hilt impacting w

Cleopatra jumped up as she saw the Empress fall. She scanned the battle eagerly, searching between the smoke. Waiting for her to get back up, like she’d done before.

Only she didn’t.

Without another thought the Egyptian jumped into her chariot. “Ride!”

“But the signal….” The charioteer started.

Dark eyes snapped to him in fury. “You wish a signal? I will give you one.” And with one swift move she punched the man in the face.

He fell, tumbling out of the chariot. “Idiot,” Cleopatra spat at him, taking the reigns and spurring her horses forward, racing down the hillside.

The world around her turned to chaos. Blades left and right, hands reaching for her. Around her, patches of grass were lit up by flames. A kick to the side of her face slammed her cheek against the ground and left her staring right into the fire. The flames flickered and shifted, forming into a face. It laughed at her, tauntingly.

Xena quickly faced away from it, looking up again, blinking to clear her eyes. She pushed herself sideways as the tip of a sword came right at her. She rolled over, pushing the arrow shaft in her side in even deeper in the process. Her eyes widened and her hands grasped at the earth, reaching for something to steady herself. A kick at her shoulder rolled her onto her back again and she stared up at the sky. Past the angry faces, past the metal heading for her. Above her, the clouds split a fraction, allowing a ray of light to fall through and warm her face.

Then a shadow fell over her again. Xena closed her eyes, waiting for the final blow.

But it never came, as metal clattered on metal. Xena managed to pry open her eyes again to see a form standing over her, protectively. Her skin was golden in the gentle sunlight. Magical.

Xena smiled, managing to move her hand and touch her leg, the touch an instant comfort. “Gabrielle,” she managed to whisper, before she lost consciousness.

Gabrielle yelled out as she caught the Persian sword on her own, then shoved it back with all her strength. The lieutenant staggered back, but Gabrielle gave him no moment to recover, cutting into his chest. A man came at her and she ducked sideways, smacking him against the back as he did, sending him crashing into a spearman, who’d aimed his weapon at Xena.

A touch against her leg. Weak, cold fingertips slid over her skin for a moment, then fell away. Gabrielle swallowed back the urge to look down. There was no time.

The image of Xena slumped on the ground, bleeding, her eyes closed…

“Xena!” Gabrielle yelled out, jabbing her sword forward and then lifting it over her head, catching a sword heading for her back. She swung around, taking the heads of three men in one move. “Xena! Get up!”

She detected no movement though from the body slumped at her feet.

What if she was dead? Dying? What if she’d gotten here too late?

A sword passed right by her, heading for Xena’s head. Gabrielle kicked at it angrily, reaching out and blindly fighting the man responsibly, ruthlessly snapping his neck. “Xena!” She screamed out again, almost desperately.

A spear came at her and she grabbed it and shoved it back into her attacker’s abdomen, making him keel over. She planted the spear on the ground, then kicked him in the face, pushing off from his body. She picked up momentum and spun around, her hands on the spear to keep herself centered. Persian soldiers tumbled back as she hit one after the other. A blade glimmered right before her and Gabrielle hastily pulled her body back, a foot landing on each side of Xena’s still form. Gabrielle pulled the spear from the ground, then swung it around, the tip cutting through skin.

A man moved up on her left and she blocked him with the blunt side of the weapon, then slammed the wooden end right up into his forehead.

She vaguely picked up the sound of arrows shifting though the air. Her eyes snapped around, until she spotted a swordsman carrying a large, round shield. She advanced a step, punching him in the face and then yanking the shield from his hands. Two more advanced on her and she just smacked the shield into them, causing them to crash back.

Arrows thudded into the ground and Gabrielle hastily knelt down, blocking both Xena’s body and her own with the weapon. The metal tips clattered on the shield. Cries sounded around her as some of the Persians were hit by their own arrows.

So close, she couldn’t resist any longer and cast her eyes down at Xena’s face. The Empress was pale, and blood covered a large part of her torso.

The arrows passed and the battle resumed. Gabrielle tore her eyes away from Xena’s face and rose back to her feet, blocking a sword blow and then tossing the shield forward, almost like a chakram. The sharp edge embedded itself into another soldier, nearly cutting him in half at the waist.

A sharp pain at her side made her look down, to see the tip of a sword penetrating through her leather armor into her side.

She looked up at the guilty party in outrage, grabbing onto his hair and yanking his head down as she lifted a knee, snapping his neck with a loud crack. She then pulled the sword free and spun it around, trying to create a little space around herself.

The Persians were numerous though and they relentlessly moved in on her, stepping over the bodies of their fallen comrades.

Gabrielle drew in a heavy breath, shaking her head a little to cast the raindrops which were trickling down her forehead aside.

What if she was dead?

A hand reached for her and she grabbed for it, tossing her attacker over her body and into the masses storming at her. A kick to her side. She reached for a dagger and flung it sideways, hitting a Persian square in the eye and making him scream out.

The next scream was hers though as a spear tip grazed her leg. Gabrielle spun around to find the spear moving towards her again, this time aimed at her heart.

The next moment the man screamed in horror, falling back, his legs cut off at knee height. Enemy soldiers hastily rushed back as chariots charged into the melee, sharp blades attached to the wheel caps. An arrow soared past her and embedded itself in the neck of a Persian right behind her.

The chariots disappeared from sight a moment, then they came racing back, passing on Gabrielle’s other side and clearing space around her.

A chariot slid to a halt right next to her. Gabrielle glanced up to see Cleopatra looking back at her. Her dark hair was windblown and her eyes were wide and alert. The warrior stared up at her a moment in surprise, then she snapped out of it, reaching down and grabbing onto Xena’s arm and pulling it over her shoulders.

Cleopatra jumped off her chariot, her eyes anxiously looking at the Empress’s still form. “Is she…?”

“I don’t know,” Gabrielle managed to say, as she half carried, half dragged Xena onto the chariot. “Get her out of here!”

The regent blinked at her. “But….”

“Now!” Gabrielle snapped at her, her eyes blazing. “Get her out now!”

Cleopatra stared back at her a moment, their eyes meeting for what seemed like the longest stretch of time they’d ever held. Then she jumped back onto the chariot, grabbing onto the reigns and ordering her horses into motion.

Gabrielle breathed hard as she watched them go, her eyes focused on Xena until they’d disappeared into the clouds. Then her eyes darkened and she turned around, smoothly picking Xena’s katana up off the sand with one hand and her chakram with the other.

His horse breathed heard as Odilon pulled it to a stop at the top of the last hill. He wiped the sweat off his forehead as he stared down onto the battle raging below.

The front was located at the start of the pass, which allowed only a limited number of Persian soldiers to join the fighting. It was slowly being pushed back though, and Odilon could see enemy soldiers slipping past the front line to start an attack from the left.

The entire front line was starting to be pushed back, except… Except for a spot on the right flank, where the Persians weren’t just being held at bay, but were actually being driven backwards. “Lemme guess….” The spy muttered, before pushing his horse forward again.

There was still smoke drifting over the battlefield, but it wasn’t so thick, now that the wind was picking up. Odilon soon spotted a figure, right in the centre of the battle.

There were soldiers fighting beside her, but it was obvious to the spy that the fact that the Persians were being pushed back was entirely due to her. She moved with a speed he’d never seen before, not even from Xena. >From his place on top of his horse he saw her cut through the blade of a sword with the katana, then spin around and slice the sword owner’s throat with the chakram.

Arrows came soaring in and his horse screamed as the animal was hit in the side. It reared in panic, then lost its balance and fell onto its side. Odilon managed to free his feet from the stirrups just in time to avoid being caught under the animal. He crawled back onto his feet, then ducked as a Persian came at him. He smacked his elbow into the man’s stomach then rose to his feet and punched him in the face, taking his spear from him and gutting him in one smooth move.

A few dozen paces and a few kills brought him closer to Gabrielle, who was steadily moving forward with every strike of her sword. Odilon slipped into her wake. He saw an axe being lifted, ready to be thrown, and he quickly slammed the end of his staff down on the weapon, making the Persian drop it onto his own foot.

Odilon took one more step, another, then his eyes widened as he suddenly found a katana closing in on his neck.

The blade stopped just in time and Gabrielle smoothly spun the weapon around without loosing her momentum. Odilon breathed a sigh of relief, then quickly turned as the limping axe wielder came stumbling towards him. He threw his spear and ended his misery.

Taking a step back he found himself back to back with the blonde warrior. “Thanks for not gutting me!” He called out.

“Don’t make me regret it!” Gabrielle answered in a growl as she slammed the chakram into a ribcage.

“Where is she?”

“Camp!”

“Is she okay?”

“I…” Gabrielle grabbed onto a man’s armor and flung him forward to clear the path for her. “… don’t…” A spine snapped. “…know!”

Odilon unsheathed his own sword, his falcate, bringing the weapon down hard and cutting through bone. The fighting continued, then the Persians suddenly moved further back. Moments later horses came thundering through. Odilon spun around to see Dorian riding at the front of the group of cavalry.

Gabrielle was about to rush forward again, following the enemy. But Odilon grabbed onto her arm, pulling her back. “Hold up!”

Green eyes turned to him, flashing angrily.

“Just breathe a minute,” Odilon managed to hang onto her, exhausted though he was. “We need to talk strategy.”

Dorian came riding up to them, sliding off his horse. “Gabrielle.” The second-in-command saluted her with a relieved breath. “I am very, very glad to see you.”

Gabrielle managed a nod for him, her muscles twitching to return to the battle.

“There’s Persians gathering on our left,” Odilon got right to the point. “We need to cut them off, fast. Any ideas?”

“Xena said to fall back.”

“If we fall back the Persians will head straight for the camp. Xena is in that camp.” Gabrielle looked at him pointedly. “There’s no way we’re retreating until those bastards or back on their side of the pass.”

Dorian tried to repress a smile. “I agree.” He then seemed to go over the options. “The only troops not engaged in battle are the legionnaires protecting the archers at the top of the pass.”

“Get them down here,” Odilon instructed. “And signal Cleopatra. Her chariots can finish the job.”

The second-in-command glanced at the spy hesitantly, then looked down at his hand, which no longer bore a seal ring.

Gabrielle glanced from one to the other, then reached for her own seal ring, pulling it off her finger. She tossed it at Odilon, who only just managed to catch it. “You boys sort it out,” Gabrielle said, before lifting two fingers to her lips and whistling loudly. She then pointed a finger at Odilon. “I want that back.” She told him, before she pushed herself off the ground and into a back flip just as a palomino horse came thundering past.

Dorian looked on as she landed neatly in the saddle, then urged her horse forward and stormed back towards the front line. “Wow,” he murmured, shaking her head a little. “She’s awesome.”

Odilon glanced at the ring lying in his palm, then managed a wry smile. “Yeah,” he sighed, sounding almost disappointed. “Yeah, she is.”

Khrafstar looked down on the battlefield with an outraged look, as he saw his troops being pushed back into the pass. “No!” He paced along the edge of the rock cliff he was on. “Fight! Fight, you weaklings!”

His eyes caught a flash of movement and he narrowed in on it, spotting a female warrior fighting right in the centre of the battle. He yelled out in fury. “It is her!”

Beside him, the fire flickered gently. It seemed to be observing the fighting with a calm interest.

“She murdered me,” Khrafstar growled, unhooking the white chakram from his belt. “She was unworthy, yet I chose her….”

The flames growled at him, not appreciating the ‘I’.

“And she murdered me with this!” He held the chakram up in his hand, so tightly blood started to seep onto the metal. Then suddenly he yanked his arm back, then threw it forward again, wildly spinning the white chakram towards the fighting warrior.

Gabrielle looked up as she heard the sound of metal shifting through air. She looked up to see a figure standing at the top of the pass. And soaring towards her was her own chakram.

The warrior hastily reached for the chakram she was holding, Xena’s. She pulled it back, aimed, then flung it forward.

The two chakrams clashed together in mid air. The sound echoed over the battlefield and many soldiers stopped to look, then ducked as bright sparks, silver and blue, shot up into the sky. The sparks faded and Gabrielle ducked hastily as metal soared just over her head and embedded itself into the chest of the enemy right behind her. She reached out, wrapping her hand around the weapon as the soldier slumped to the ground. She held it up in front of her eyes, frowning. “Okay….” She drawled, holding the weapon up in front of her eyes. The golden design was gone and in the centre now sat an S shaped handle. “Now that’s weird….”

Khrafstar gasped as fire grabbed onto him. “My Lord…” He managed, then his eyes widened as a flame shot through his chest, flickering in front of him, white and enraged. “No!” Khrafstar screamed out as the fire enveloped him.

The battle was a blur. Men and women came at her from all sides and her instincts surged up and took over. Friend or foe, it did not matter any longer. She just swung out at anything near her, spinning the katana around and feeling it cutting through metal. Through flesh. Through bone. Vaguely she felt the warmth of blood sticking to her skin. She felt pain as blades got past her defenses and wounded her. But it was all muted by the adrenaline pumping through her veins.

Someone managed to kick the katana out of her hand and she blindly grabbed onto the chakram with both hands. It split into two equal halves. Gabrielle slammed one to each side, gutting two attackers at once.

A twist, a kick, the smell of blood, screaming. Gabrielle heard herself call out Xena’s name, repeatedly, like a war cry.

A horn sounded from up ahead, but Gabrielle barely heard it as she ran after the fleeing Persians. She made a man trip and fall onto a sword blade, running over him and feeling him sink deeper onto the metal.

The sound of cheering rose up around her. Gabrielle stopped her pursuit, watching the enemy soldiers disappear back into the shadows of the pass.

She stood, blood liberally covering her armor, limbs and face. A chant rose and Gabrielle vaguely realized that it was her name.

A soft whispering tickled her hearing. Her eyes searched for its origin, but there was only blackened grass and the occasional flame feeding on whatever remained. A small bush was being consumed by the fire.

Another whisper, faint, but alluring. The flames reached out towards her, like crooked fingers, beckoning her closer. She closed her eyes and the whispering became clearer. She could distinguish words now. Words in a language she did not know, yet understood.

Come to me. The flames hissed. Come, and I will reward you.

Gabrielle stopped, feeling the warmth of the flames on his skin, burning. It was… pleasant.

Join me. The flames whispered, tempting her. If you join me, I will spare her.

Green eyes snapped open and gazed at the fire. Then she turned her head, gazing back at the Greek camp.

Come to me! The flames tried again, but the whispering was fading as Gabrielle’s eyes stayed glued on the camp she could see in the distance. Without another look back she turned around fully and headed away from the pass.

Soldiers parted to allow her through. She could see their mouths move, could see them raising their swords in salute. She walked on, somewhat dazedly, then stopped.

A body was lying on the sand, its head turned away from her. Gabrielle walked closer to it, until she could see the face of the young man. It was Ellos, the young guard.

Gabrielle bent her head and closed her eyes, only a single tear escaping to sidle down her cheek. She drew in a deep breath. Then she reached down, wrapping an arm around Ellos’ body.

The chanting of her name slowly faded and the soldiers fell silent, watching as she lifted the fallen boy’s body onto her shoulder. Argo came to a halt next to her and she laid his body on the horse, then pulled herself into the saddle behind him. The soldiers stared after her as she silently steered Argo back towards the Greek camp.

The Persian General stumbled back into the camp, only managing to stay upright because of the spear he was leaning on. He glanced around, seeing wounded soldiers staggering past him, demoralized.

His eyes fell on a form, standing silently in the centre of the camp. His back was turned, but he recognized him as the Lord’s priest. His eyes darkened and he paced towards the man angrily. “What happened!” He snapped, reaching out to grab onto his shoulder. “You promised me the Dark Lord would be with us!”

He yelped out in pain as his hand burned. The priest turned around, calmly, and the General gasped as he saw flames flickering in the Priest’s dark eyes. The young man smiled, baring his bright white teeth. “I am.”

Xena blinked open her eyes, gazing up groggily, trying to figure out where she was. She lifted a hand and reached for her head, which was throbbing painfully. She groaned, then carefully pushed herself up a little.

“You should stay down, Empress.”

Xena glanced to her side, to find a physician standing at her bedside, placing a bowl of clean water on the bedside table. She frowned at him, then took in her surroundings. The soft sound of rain drizzling onto the fabric of the tent.

She instantly sat up further, swinging her legs out of the bed. It hurt like Hades.

“Empress, please!” The healer placed a hand on her shoulder, trying to push her back.

“I need to get back out there,” Xena hissed at him. “The battle….”

“…it ended, Empress.” The older man cut her off.

“It… ended?” Xena looked at him, confused.

“Yes. For now anyway. The Persians will be preparing for another attack, I am sure.” He took advantage of her confusion to inspect the cut on her cheek.

“We didn’t loose the pass?”

“No, fortunately not,” He looked up and smiled at her. “That was quite smart, Empress. Holding her back until the last moment. It surprised the enemy and motivated the troops. Very good thinking.”

Xena ran a hand through her damp hair, then her eyes shot up as the tent flap was pushed aside. Light poured in, outlining a form she instantly recognized. The flap fell back and the light was blocked out again, revealing the warrior fully. Both her skin and armor was liberally covered in blood. Her whole posture radiated anger. Xena swallowed. “Yeah,” she murmured softly. “Great thinking.”

She drew in a breath, then turned to the healer. “Leave us.”

“But, Empress,” the healer started to object.

“Leave us,” Gabrielle’s voice rose up in a low, threatening growl. The healer darted a frightened look at her, then hastily headed for the exit.

In any other circumstance that would have been funny. Xena’s eyes followed him as he walked around the warrior in a wide arch and quickly slid from the tent. She then forced her eyes to meet Gabrielle’s. The green eyes stared back at her menacingly. Her hair was disordered and blood-stained. Xena could see muscles twitching. She noticed a few cuts in her leather armor, and a wound on her shoulder and thigh.

She swallowed, unsure. “Are…” Her voice broke a little. “…Are you hurt?”

Gabrielle looked at her, disbelieving, then a short, outraged laugh escaped her. “Am I hurt? What kind of a question is that?!” The green eyes blazed. “You drugged me!”

Xena winced. “I meant physically.” She tried.

“I don’t care what you meant!” Gabrielle snapped, throwing the katana she’d still held onto on the ground. The metal clattered loudly.

Xena dropped her eyes, drawing in a shaky breath. “I know, I know, I….” She closed her eyes. “I know you’re angry. I know I screwed up. I just….” She swallowed. “I didn’t know what to do. And all I could think about was you and how I wanted you to be safe. To live. And I….”

“Shut up!”

Xena bit her lip, turning her head away in pain.

“I love you!”

Blue eyes shot open, then turned back to look at the warrior.

Gabrielle stared back at her, breathing hard. “You tell me twice,” the blonde then snapped, advancing a pace on her. “And then you either… run off or… or drug me! And you don’t give me a chance to say it back so….” A shaky breath. “So there.”

The Empress blinked at her, a small incredulous smile slowly tugging at her lips. “I love you too.” She said.

“Yeah… well, you’d better,” Gabrielle scoffed, staring down at her feet uncomfortably.

She felt a touch at her arm, long fingers wrapping around her wrist. She looked up. “Don’t,” she murmured, but obeyed nevertheless as Xena pulled her closer. “I’ll…” She vaguely waved her free hand at her blood-stained self. “I’ll get this stupid Persian blood all over you.”

“I don’t care,” Xena said in barely more than a whisper, pulling her even closer.

Their lips met. Gabrielle closed her eyes, trying to hold back the tears. She reached out, tangling her hands in Xena’s hair and pulling her closer, suddenly desperate for the contact. Arms wrapped around her waist and Gabrielle felt herself tumbling onto the small bed beside the Empress.

It was hard to breathe. Gabrielle leaned her forehead against Xena’s, keeping her eyes closed. Her hands, still clenched in the dark locks, were shaking.

Xena wasn’t doing much better. She glanced down at the blonde’s face. She hesitated a moment, then reached for the bowl of water at her bedside, finding the small sponge inside and squeezing the water from it. She then gently started to clean some of the blood off the warrior’s cheek.

Green eyes blinked open and looked at her from a very close range. “Warned you,” she murmured, lifting a finger and rubbing at a red stain on the Empress’s nose.

“Worth it,” Xena mumbled back, as she continued cleaning the warrior’s face. “Is any of this yours?”

Gabrielle absently let her fingers slide down the other woman’s jaw to her neck, resting her fingertips against her pulse point. The strong heartbeat felt reassuring. “A little of it.” She let her other hand slide down further, to touch the Empress’ bandaged abdomen. “How about you?”

“Took a few arrows in the gut,” Xena muttered. “Kinda stings.”

“Teach you not to wear such silly armor,” Gabrielle scolded her, glancing at the few bits of metal lying on a nearby chair. “I mean, please….”

“I just though it looked pretty.”

“Yeah, well….” Gabrielle leaned closer, pressing kisses against her jaw. “From here on, you don’t get to look pretty anymore unless it somehow benefits me.” She looked up. “Got that?”

The Empress tried to suppress a grin. “Possessive little thing, aren’t ya?”

“You bet,” the warrior easily agreed, claiming her lips again.

Odilon loosened his hold on the reigns, letting the horse find its own way back to camp. He went past soldiers moving in the same direction.

The atmosphere was… odd. Many soldiers had picked up their fallen comrades and were carrying them off the battlefield, in spite of their own injuries. There was no more cheering, but Odilon could see their faces were set and confident.

His horse trotted up the hill and as it did a familiar form came into view. Odilon steered the horse to his left a little.

Cleopatra stepped off her chariot. Her lightly coloured skin was glistening with sweat and she had smudges of red on her face. She looked up as a horse stopped beside her. “Ah. You did not kill yourself then? Good.”

Odilon shot her an angry look. “You left me behind,” he accused, as he swung his leg off the horse’s back and slid to the ground.

“Yes, I did,” Cleopatra easily admitted. “Would you have preferred I’d let her go alone?”

The spy rolled his eyes. “No. But you could have delayed her at least.”

Cleopatra chuckled. “There is no delaying Xena. She is stubborn as a mule.” The Egyptian regent looked down at a young female servant, who bowed deeply. She absently waved a hand at the servant, who bowed again, then ran away back to the Egyptian’s tent. “I have sent out my spies. First report is the Persians are taking their time to regroup. They are still numerous and it is not in their advantage to rush into another slaughter.” She glanced at Odilon. “I’ll have time for a bath. Though you will ruin it and plan some meeting to talk of more killing, I am sure.”

“I’ll give you time to clean your act up,” the spy grinned at her, then sobered. “I heard you got her out.”

“I did,” the Egyptian confirmed.

“Thanks.”

Cleopatra smiled wryly. “I wish I could account Xena’s rescue to my own heroic actions. If we were to survive all this, that would benefit me greatly. Unfortunately I was merely a….” She pressed her lips together. “…pawn.” They walked on silently towards the Egyptian’s tent. Cleopatra finally spoke up. “We are not getting rid of this one, are we?”

Odilon repressed a smile. “No. I’m afraid not.”

“Pity,” the regent muttered. “She is more annoying and uncivilized than any of her predecessors.”

“She’s loyal though.”

Cleopatra shot a faintly amused look at the man walking next to her. “Ah, it has happened then.”

“What?”

“You have fallen for her.”

Odilon snorted in outrage. “I have not.”

“Yes, you have,” Cleopatra retorted easily. “She has wooed you with her flashy tricks and her slaughtering.” She cocked her head pensively. “Men seem to find all this bloodshed appealing. I wonder why that is.”

Odilon rolled his eyes. “It’s not about appeal. It’s…” He sighed. “They love each other. I can’t say I understand it, but… They do. Who am I to stand in Xena’s way of a little happiness. She’s earned it.”

Dark eyes looked down at him, then twinkled. “You are soft-hearted.”

The spy scowled at her. “Am not.”

“Yes, you are,” she patted him on the cheek condescendingly, then walked into her tent.

Odilon looked after her with narrowed eyes.

Athena stood at the top of the pass, looking down on the battlefield. The wind picked up, blowing back her hair. She closed her eyes and tipped her head back, looking up at the dark clouds.

Footsteps sounded behind her, but Athena did not turn. She squared her shoulders though, taking on a more confident pose.

He stepped up next to her, joining her in looking out over the battlefield. “Pretty. Don’t you think?”

“It’s mostly your soldiers out there,” Athena said, folding her hands behind her back.

“Doesn’t matter,” He waved his hand at the air carelessly. “Bloodshed is bloodshed. Hatred is hatred. It all strengthens me.”

“If you are so strong, then why are you in mortal form?” Athena turned her head and looked at Him.

Dahak chuckled. “I am in mortal form…” He turned to face her. “…because you are not yet dead. Because this is not yet my realm.” A smile as the dark eyes flickered orange. “But that won’t be long.”

Athena looked away, staring at the stone under her feet. “Probably not.” She paused, drawing in a breath. “I have come to offer a deal.”

Dahak grinned unpleasantly. “Really?” He did not sound surprised though.

“I want you to spare me. And my family. I will…” Athena swallowed, trying to push away the rotten taste in her mouth. “…I will pledge allegiance to you. And rule Greece as Queen of my Pantheon.”

“Oh you will, will you?” Dahak looked amused. “And why would I let you do that?”

“Because I can get you what you want.”

“And what do you think I want? Xena?” He laughed. “Xena will die soon. It is merely a matter of time. I do not need your help for that.”

Athena managed a smile. “You no longer want Xena.”

“The warrior will die with her.”

“If you want her dead, then why did you speak to her?”