The Edge of Nowhere by Annemaart

The Edge of Nowhere
by Annemaart

Disclaimer: Nope, surprise, they don’t belong to me. Just having some fun.
 
Violence: Well, this is a Conqueror story… Meaning Xena never turned away from her evil side and went on roaming the world, taking over nations with brutal force and chopping heads off innocent bystanders… So, I’d have to go with yes… violence, definitely violence…
 
Subtext: I think I’m incapable of not putting a little subtext in any story I write. So there’s certainly subtext. Whether it’s gonna move beyond sub and into main… I really don’t know yet. It sorta depends on where the story takes me…  I doubt Gab’s gonna fall head over heals with the woman who ordered her crucifixion anytime soon though… But anything could happen… There is some stuff about Xena having (had) physical relationships with other women. It’s not very explicit or anything, but if just the mentioning of this makes you all itchy, stop here and turn back.
 
Author’s Note: I hope I’ve sort of stuck to the Armageddon version, but since I only saw Armageddon I&II once, and in German at that, I might have flunked on some of the depiction in this story. Please forgive me. 
 

 

 

 

The pain seared through her as the nail was slammed into her hand harshly. She wanted to scream, but she didn’t, trying to keep up the farce of being strong for these short moments she had left. Another jolt of pain as a second nail edged through flesh, then a third, slamming through her feet. She could feel the blood flowing out of her body, and it left her weak and dizzy. The air rushed around her, chaotically, until all of a sudden it stopped and she was hanging, the soldiers grinning up at her wickedly. She lifted her body up to breath, the pain searing through her hands. She wondered if it could possibly get any worse…

It could. The wooden hammer slammed against her legs, breaking them harshly. She screamed out in agony, not being able to hold back any longer. Tears streamed down her cheeks, tasting salty as they seeped into her mouth.

So much pain… Hurting became her world, and she begged the gods to have mercy and take her soul. She closed her eyes and let the dark consume her, finally feeling herself slip away deeper and deeper, until even the hurt faded and all the sounds around her turned blurry.

“Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle stirred, jolts of pain shooting through her. “Ah…”

“Shhh.” A woman’s voice soothed her. “Don’t move.”

Green eyes blinked open, looking up at the red haired woman that was leaning over her with non-understanding eyes. “Thalia? But…”

The woman lifted a hand to stop her words. “We bribed some soldiers to get you off the cross a bit sooner…Money can get you anywhere these days…” Thalia managed a smile, dipping a cloth into a fluid. “Hold on, this is gonna hurt.”

Gabrielle gasped as her hands burned, the fluid stinging painfully in the wounds on her wrists. “You do enjoy tormenting me, don’t you?” She managed to croak as the pain resided.

The woman gave her a look, shaking her head softly. “You know I don’t…” A glance down as she dipped the cloth in some water, rinsing the wounds again. “You were very brave, Gabrielle. You stood up to her… I don’t know if I would’ve dared…”

Green eyes turned inward, filling with a hatred Thalia had not ever seen in Gabrielle’s eyes. “She is evil incarnated, Thalia… I always thought that every person had some good, somewhere, even the conqueror.” Gabrielle winced as Thalia started to clean the wounds on her feet, then she continued. “But she doesn’t… Her eyes are empty. There’s nothing…”

Suddenly footsteps echoed in the hallway and two men came in, arguing softly. “Hey Thalia, I…” The first stopped dead as he saw green eyes staring back at him. “Gab?”

“Hey Naxos.” Gabrielle managed a smile as he hastily stepped forward and dropped to a knee beside the bed.

“How are you feeling? Does it hurt? Is there anything I can do?”

“Would you stop annoying my patient.” Thalia waved a finger at him. “Get out of here Nax, before I toss you out.”

“It’s all right.” Gabrielle smiled, lifting her hand and touching her friend’s shoulder. Naxos took her hand in his, looking at the hole in her wrist, edged in by the nail, in horror.

“Well, you always said you could see right through me.” The blond haired woman joked weakly, to lighten the mood.

Naxos shook his head softly. “I never wanted this…” His brown eyes looked up at her in pain. “I’m so sorry, Gabrielle. I wanted… I tried but…”

“Hey, it’s OK… It wasn’t your fault.”

The young man hid his face in his hand, taking a deep breath. “You have to leave.”

“What?” Gabrielle attempted to push herself up, but her body yelled out in agony and she fell back down again. She took a breath to steady herself. “What… What do you mean?”

“For some reason they’ve doubled the patrols around this area.” The other man, Kimon, stated from his spot near the doorway. “Maybe they figured out one of the bodies went missing, we don’t know… But we’ve spotted at least a dozen soldiers on our way over here, and they’re getting closer.”

Thalia looked at him for a moment, then at Naxos, who was glancing up at her worriedly. Then she straightened with a nod. “I’ll arrange for some transport.”

“I’ll go with you,” Kimon stated, opening the door and allowing the woman to pass before him, before walking outside himself, closing the door before Gabrielle could protest.

“I’m not gonna go.”

“Gabrielle, don’t be stupid.” Naxos pleaded.

“There’s too much to do here. I can’t just leave.” Gabrielle stated stubbornly. “We have to act now. I have to make these people see who she is and…”

“You’re not in a state to do anything.” Naxos informed her, shaking his head as raging green eyes turned to him. “Now, don’t start this Gab, please.” Naxos reached out and gently touched her shoulder. “You’ve been our light these last few years. You’ve been the voice of the people. If you die, the resistance in Athens will crumble. If you want a future for us, for Athens, you have to leave… Give them hope.”

Gabrielle stared at him for a moment, then let her eyes drop and watched her fingers fumble with the bandage around her left wrist. “All right.” She finally conceded, before looking up at him again. “But I’ll be back.”

“I’m counting on it.” Naxos smiled at her.

It only took Thalia a short while to arrange for transport. One of the members of their resistance had a wagon and agreed to transport her out of the city via the back roads he knew and then get as far to the Greek border as he could manage. Kimon and Naxos carried her into the wagon, then placed her in the back gently.

“Take care.” Naxos voice sounded, and she nodded at him with a smile, gently squeezing his hand. Thalia pulled herself into the wagon, rinsing her wounds for the last time. “I want you to head far away from here, Gabrielle. And I mean far. Chin, Britannia, whatever, as long as it’s far from Greece so the Conqueror can’t keep track of the situation.”

“I’ll be fine, Thalia.” She smiled at the woman, laying a hand on her shoulder. “Thank you. And good luck.”

Thalia looked at her, managing a weak smile before nodding softly. “We’ll miss you. Be safe.” She stated, before she hopped out of the wagon as well, joining the two men. A few more moments and the wheels of the cart started to move. The movement shook her already aching body, but she ignored the pain, staring back at the faces of her friends, until the cart turned a corner and they disappeared from view.

***

Three years later

***

Xena pillowed her head on her hands, staring up at the ceiling in utter boredom. Absentmindedly she traced the patterns of the paintings up above. It had been a quiet day, as so many before. She’d spent some time at the training’s square that morning, duelling with several of her lieutenants. They were good fighters, all of them, but still they did not pose a real challenge. She knew their moves all too well, recognised their fighting patterns…

The last real challenge she’d had, had been a Gael, the leader of one of the northern tribes… Now that had been a formidable opponent. A large powerful man, swinging a huge Gaelic battle axe… He’d been very skilled and had actually managed to seriously wound her when his axe grazed her left side. He’d not expected her fast recovery though and her blade had been pushed straight into his heart. She still remembered the look on his wife’s face as she’d rushed down the hill. The look of complete anguish… complete hatred…

The Conqueror chuckled, then let out a breath. Ah, the good old days, when there had still been wars to fight and rebellion’s to oppress… Now there were no more wars. She’d conquered just about everything, except maybe a few islands and small African tribes down south. And rebellions had been punished for so severely no one even bothered any more. The mass execution in Athens, when they’d taken down a large gang of resistance members, had scared people off. Commotion in Athens, or the whole of her Empire, for that matter, was rare.

Life had grown more peaceful over the years, and if there was one thing she didn’t like it was peace. Xena grimaced, then her eyes shot to the door as her senses picked up an approaching man. She pushed herself onto her feet as there was a knock on the door. “Come in, Pyrron.”

The door opened and a tall, grey haired man, her advisor, stepped inside and bowed. “Conqueror.”

Xena seated herself on one of the luxe chairs in her room, leaning backwards nonchalantly and lifting an eyebrow at her advisor.

“I’ve come to remind you of the meeting tonight, Empress. The leaders of all the states have arrived.”

Xena sighed, not looking forward to this little get together. It was always the same. She’d meet with her regents, they’d all tell her that nothing was wrong anywhere, that she was such a great leader, yada yada yada… “Very well.” She muttered. “I’ll meet them this evening after diner.”

“Of course, Conqueror.” Pyrron bowed again, then left the room.

She actually liked Pyrron. He’d been a soldier in her army for a few years, but he’d had an accident and his leg had been chopped off, making him unsuitable for battle. He’d been too valuable a man too loose however. Where she was usually disorganised and chaotic, he was quite orderly and had a way in dealing with the affairs of state that she had no interest in, making him an excellent advisor. He was the closest thing she had to a friend, though friend wasn’t the word to describe him. He was a trustee. She knew that whatever she told him would remain confidential and whatever she ordered of him would be done.

Another knock on the door sounded, and a few of the servant girls walked in, carrying plates of food, then curtsying gracefully before they left her in silence once more.

***

The large wooden doors swayed open as she approached, the servants bowing to her politely as she entered. In the centre of the room was a large wooden table, oval shaped. The men and women that were seated around stood quickly, bending their heads. She walked inside and sat herself down at the head of the table, the others following her example. Pyrron settled down beside her, handing her some of his notes. She took the pieces of parchment and let her eyes flick over them. Income, conquered land, food, crime… All numbers were good and she placed the parchment back on the wooden surface of the table, then glanced up. “Well…” She drawled, letting her bright eyes scan over the people at her table intensely. “Who wants to start?”

All hesitated, but finally the man sitting on her left stood and started relating the stories of his province. As expected, all was great, people were happy, life was peaceful, etc. etc. Xena tried hard not to yawn as the next stood and started telling how great the next part of her country was doing…

This continued halfway around the table, until a man in his mid thirties, the governor of the Macedonian province, cleared his throat. “Well, your Highness….”

The tone in the man’s voice was far from confident and Xena’s eyes immediately fixated on him. “Things are quite well in the northern province of Greece… it’s uhm… Food produce is good, and we’re getting quite a profit from the goldmines and all…”

“But….” A chilling low voice burred from across the table.

The regent shivered. “But we … we’ve been having some minor troubles…”

“Minor troubles?” Xena’s voice managed to drop into an even lower register and now the whole room felt chills going down their spines, most sending a prayer of thanks to the Gods that they weren’t in this mess.

Xena, meanwhile, was trying to keep from letting a wicked grin cross her face. Trouble was good, and so close to home too… Just perfect…

“Well… ye… yes, your Highness. I…” He stammered, then swallowed audibly. “There have been small raids on my forces, you see.. They go out on patrol and they come back … without their heads…”

“And do you know why they come back as headless corpses?” Xena asked, leaning forward and resting her hands on the table’s surface.

“I… I suspect it is a group of raiders, great Conqueror, but any attempts at finding them have failed…”

Xena leaned back and regarded him calmly for a few moments. “You understand the price of failure, don’t you?”

The blood drained from his face in an instant. He could only nod numbly.

Xena chuckled inwardly, then stood and started circling towards him. “But as this has been the first issue mentioned to me here, I’ll give you one more chance…”

The sigh of relief was audible.

“I will personally take care of this… ‘minor problem’ for you, Antheus. Be ready to set out tomorrow morning with your escort.” She spared a glance for her advisor. “Pyrron?”

“Yes, Conqueror?”

“Get a group of cavalry ready. Take along whoever you think is ready. It’ll be a good drill for them.”

“Of course.” Pyrron gave her a nod, then scribbled some notes on the parchment before him.

“Good.” Xena let her eyes flick across the room once more. “Is there anyone here who has other minor problems, or is the rest of my domain nice and peaceful?”

Quick nods from the remaining regents and with a wave she excused them, watching them scurry out of the room, leaving only Pyrron and herself. Her advisor gathered his scribblings and piled them together. “You seem to be quite happy about the disturbance of peace in your land, Conqueror.” He stated, not looking up, while he ordered his belongings.

Xena lifted an eyebrow at his forwardness, then shrugged. “I haven’t had a challenge in a while…”

Pyrron lifted his brown eyes to meet hers. “And you think some group of local thugs will provide one? Don’t you think that they’ll run off at the first sign of you and your troops riding in?”

Xena considered this for a moment, sadly having to admit to herself that he was possibly right. “Probably…” She looked at her advisor as she passed by him on her way to her room. “Guess you’d better make it a very small escort…”

Pyrron looked as she walked out the door, then shook his head as her heavy steps echoed across the hallway.

***

Xena happily let herself fall onto her bed. It was true that she didn’t expect any real trouble at getting rid of this pest, but at least it would give her an excuse to go out for a while, ride around for a bit. And it might just give her a chance to slice up some people, which she hadn’t done in a while… Well… A unpleasant grin crossed her face. She’d had a couple of vicious encounters with some of her guards, who had been loitering on the job. But she was forced to stop her nightly outings looking for victims as the number of guards were severely reduced because of them. It had been fun though…

A chill ran down her spine suddenly and she turned her head slowly to find the God of War, lying beside her. “Ares.” She stated simply, giving him a look. Her ‘affinity’ for the god of war had worn down long ago. After she’d slain the Golden Hind for him and handed him a dagger with the hind’s blood so he could kill Zeus, they mostly stayed out of each other’s way. She dealt with earthly matters while he concerned himself with the gods. “To what do I owe this great pleasure?” She drawled, pushing herself up into a sitting position.

Ares gave her a displeased look at her lack of respect, but as he’d gotten used to this treatment from his former protégé he refrained from comment and stood. “There is some trouble brewing in the North. I think the Norse gods might be starting a rebellion against me.”

“And what do you want me to do about it?” Xena asked, staring at the King of the Gods in boredom.

“Nothing.” Ares ignored her stare. “But it will mean I won’t be in the neighbourhood. So if you get into trouble…” He gave her a meaningful look. “I won’t be here to get you out of it…”

Xena’s blue eyes widened, then narrowed. “Don’t you think I can handle a few thugs on my own?”

Ares raised his hands in defence. “No, you know that’s not what I think…” He sighed, then crossed his arms. “The Fates have been acting a little… suspicious lately…”

The conqueror rolled her eyes. “Well, I’m touched that you care… But don’t, OK? I don’t need you meddling in my life.”

“Oh, come now Xena.” Ares produced a charming smile. “Your realm and mine, they depend on each other… WE… depend on each other.”

Xena looked at him, then straightened slowly until she stood face to face with the God of War. “YOU…”She placed a finger on his chest. “depend on ME.”

Brown eyes narrowed dangerously. “Don’t push it, Xena…” He growled back in response.

“Push it?” Xena laughed, then in a flash drew a small dagger from her boot and held it to his neck, before the war god could even flinch. “I can push anything, Ares, including pushing this nice little dagger right into your not-so-immortal heart.”

The God of War twitched uncomfortably in the nearness of the hind’s blood dagger, but managed to regain his pose. “If that’s the way you want it…” He slowly stepped back. “Just be warned, Xena.” And with a flash he disappeared.

Xena watched the space he had held for another moment, then straightened. “Anthony!” A younger boy hastily made his way inside, falling to a knee. “Yes, my liege?”

Get my cloak for me and get my horse ready. Tell Pyrron I’ll be away for a few candle marks.”

“Yes, my liege.” The boy nodded, then ran out again, heading down the stairs. Xena followed him out the door, acknowledging the salutes from her guards.

***

After a long ride she finally reached the small house at the tip of the peninsula. She dismounted, then entered the shack, without even bothering to knock.

“Well Xena…” A deep voice chuckled. “It has been a while since I saw you last.”

“Yes it has been.” Xena nodded, glancing across the room and taking in the adornment of various skulls and other human bones. “I see you’ve been busy, Alti.”

Another chuckle. “I heard you’ve been busy as well.”

“Hardly.” Xena sighed, tossing off her cloak and seating herself in a chair. “No more people to kill I’m afraid.”

“Still not killing any innocent peasants are you?” Alti leaned closer. “You’re a fool. The simpleminded posses great spiritual powers…”

“Spiritual powers maybe…” Xena leaned back calmly. “But they’d don’t pose much of a challenge really, do they? Even killing gets boring after a while…”

Alti laughed, her eyes gazing into Xena’s. “Your challenge will come sooner than you’ll like…”

Blue eyes twinkled, peering back at her. “So it is true then, what Ares said?”

“There are dangers up ahead, but not in the form you think…”

“No riddles, Alti, you know I hate those…” Xena growled. “Just tell me what you see.”

“Light and dark. Mixed in one.”

“Gee, that clears things up just great.” Xena muttered, then stood, towering over the shamaness. “I want names, I want faces, I want details. Where, when, how, what. Dig?”

Alti laughed. “Always a pragmatist, Xena…” The woman stood now too, leaning closer and continuing in a low voice. “There are many spirits set on destroying you, Xena, which makes seeing one clearly complicated.” She fell back in her chair. “Watch your back and stay true to who you are and you can deal with the challenge. Otherwise, things might get complicated…”

Xena grinned, walking over to where she’d placed her cloak and swinging it across her shoulders again. “Great… I like complicated…”

***

Xena calmly secured the girth, before checking her horses’ hooves. She’d decided her royal robes were not too comfortable to travel in and had dug out one of her older outfits, a set of black leather pants and a simple red shirt, which she’d covered with some armour, for extra protection. It felt great, she had to admit, to be out of all that fancy stuff. She used to enjoy getting into the most expensive robes she could find, but that had also tired on her at a certain point, and these days she only dressed up for special occasions. She hardly ever wore armour though, since it alarmed the people, the paroles fearing this meant war was near. Xena rolled her eyes. Yeah, I wish…

She took the reigns in one hand, then pulled herself into the saddle. The large black stallion reared, then restlessly moved a few steps backwards, trying to escape from the warrior’s control. A dark brown mare stepped up beside her and Pyrron shook his head at the scene as Xena tried to get the animal to calm down. “We could still find a less aggressive horse for you, great Conqueror…”

Xena laughed cheerfully, giving the stallion a nudge with her right foot to stop him from turning. “Now what would be the fun in that?”

Pyrron rolled his eyes, then straightened in the saddle. “We’re ready when you are, Empress.”

Xena glanced back at the twenty or so men behind her. Pyrron had indeed picked a small escort for her. Good. She grinned, then pushed her horse forward into a gallop, racing through the town gates at full speed. The air rushed past her, blowing back her hair and she laughed at the sudden sense of freedom. Gods, she’d missed this…

Horses’ hooves clattered behind her as Pyrron caught up to her, his horse breathing heavily. “I don’t wish to annoy you, but I’m afraid your escort can’t keep up.”

Xena turned in the saddle to see her men riding a little way behind her, followed by her regent’s escort, the regent himself desperately holding on to the saddle to keep from bouncing off. The conqueror chuckled, then pulled her horse back into a trot, the stallion snorting wildly as she did so. Pyrron pulled back as well, then took his place beside the conqueror.

Xena grinned as she heard the sighs of relief behind her as her men rode closer, then took their positions in a circle around her. She let out another chuckle, taking a deep breath of the dewy air. This was gonna be a good day.

***

After a few days of riding they neared the Macedonian border. Antheus had been whining about why they were camping, why they couldn’t just sleep in an inn somewhere. One icy glare from Xena had shut him up for the rest of the trip however, and now he was helplessly trying to improve his image, attempting to look macho is his fancy armour.

They would reach Antheus’s castle tomorrow afternoon somewhere, but there had been no sign of any problems as yet. Xena suspected that the ‘minor troublemakers’ had picked up their things and had taken off when they heard of her army riding north. Too bad really. The Conqueror leaned forward in her chair, running a sharpening stone past her sword’s already sharp edge. She’d been entertained though, practising her troops, testing their skills on the road.

A few more strokes and then she placed her sword back into its scabbard, putting it beside her bed, before stripping off her leathers and crawling under the blankets. She lifted herself up onto an elbow, then blew out the candle at her bedside before closing her eyes and letting herself slip into slumber.

It was a violent dream, as most of her dreams were. Blood, fire everywhere. Lyceus’s face as he died, his eyes looking at her helplessly. Her mother’s screams as she carried her brother’s body back into the inn. Tossing accusations at her, for not protecting him, for letting him die.

The images twisted in her mind, taunting her… Then suddenly everything turned black, dark… There were voices drifting through, but she couldn’t recognise them or hear what they were saying, the blurry sounds echoing around in the darkness. Then they disappeared, making way for complete silence and through the silence was the sound of a blade being pulled out of its sheath…

In a flash she woke up, breathing heavily. Within moments she was standing beside her bed, sword unsheathed. Her eyes flicked across the room, but there was no one…

A shimmer as the moonlight reflected on something slammed into the wooden tent pole. Xena’s eyes widened slowly, staring at the dagger in disbelief. Slowly she reached out and took hold of the finely decorated hilt, a silver dragon swirling up the metal.

***

“You send for me?”

A dagger seared past him, then embedded itself into a wooden pole that was lifting up the edges of the tent with a thud. Pyrron’s head shot aside to follow it, then he calmly reached out and pulled the dagger out of the wood, regarding it with interest. “This got past the guards?”

Xena simply glared at him, then straightened. “I guess we might get some competition up here after all. Make sure the men are more alert next time.”

Pyrron nodded. “It will be done.” He studied the hilt closely. “Eastern design. We don’t see those a lot around here”

“No, we don’t…” The Conqueror agreed calmly. “I’ll have to inform my regent of Chin about this when we’re done…”

“Agreed.” Pyrron nodded, then looked up at her. “I’m sorry about this, Xena, I’ll stay up myself tonight. This won’t happen again.”

Xena actually smiled at the infrequent mention of her name. “You’re not to blame.” She considered her words for a moment, then looked back up at him. “I didn’t hear it either.” Pyrron’s eyebrows lifted.

“This is a professional, Pyrron. Make sure everyone is VERY alert.”

“Absolutely.” Pyrron bowed slightly, then turned and headed out of the tent, towards his men.

Xena continued to pace around her tent for a while, settling her thoughts. She’d realised she’d let her skills slip slightly because of lack of competition, but had it really been that much? Had she really lost her ability to hear enemies approach? She closed her eyes for a moment, focussing on her surroundings. Making out the steps of horses’ hooves as the army got ready to move into Macedonia, hearing the footsteps and matching them to the people she knew without even trying hard. Pyrron’s pace, the regent’s slouching… Xena shook her head softly. She should’ve heard… And why would someone walk into her tent with a dagger only to leave it sticking in a piece of wood, leaving her unharmed? It didn’t make sense….

With a shrug she discarded the problem and focussed on the present. Whoever did this would pay. No one defied the conqueror and got away with it. The good thing was that there actually was a formidable opponent waiting for her out there. Xena let a smile cross her face, picking up her scabbard and clipping it onto her back. You want me? Come and get me.

***

Xena let her gaze drift across the forest that was covering the slight incline to their right. They were riding across a wide road, her regent’s men in front, as they knew the route better than her own men. The regent was pacing along beside her and with every word he said she wondered why she had kept him in his job for as long as she had. Now he was boasting proudly about some oppression he had heroically suppressed in some small village in the far north. She’d given him several warning glances, but unfortunately this guy’s head was as thick as rock and he’d kept right on going. She’d seriously considered taking his head off right here and now, but she’d decided to put this off until she got to his castle. It got so messy and she still had quite some way to go after all.

A sound alerted her and she focussed her eyes ahead, seeing a hooded figure standing in the distance in the middle of the road. “Pyrron?”

Her advisor looked up at her. “My liege?”

“Look.” Xena nodded in the direction of the figure standing up ahead.

Pyrron squinted then managed to make out the cloaked person as well, cocking his head. “One? He could not possibly be wanting to defy a forty men army?”

Xena lifted a hand, pulling her forces to a halt.

“And then we charged down on them, cutting and…” The regent fell silent as he found himself on his own. He looked back to where the conqueror’s troops had stopped, then turned his horse and trotted back. “Is something wrong, great Conqueror?”

“Do you know that person?”

Antheus followed her gaze and spotted the lone figure standing in the middle of the road, waiting with arms crossed. “No.” He shook his head simply, looking back, then straightened. “But I’ll take care of this problem for you, Conqueror.”

Xena considered this for a moment, then smiled sweetly at him. “Go ahead.”

He inclined his head towards her, then lifted his hands and ordered his troops to attack. “Let’s go!”

His guards raced forward. The hooded form reached behind and smoothly unsheathed a sword, swiping it around comfortably. Xena watched with interest as the first of the regent’s soldiers neared at a frightening speed.

The cloaked one jumped up and kicked out with a booted foot, easily dismounting the man from his saddle. In a blur of motion the next two ended up headless and a third was slammed aside into a tree with negligent ease. The regent himself let out a yell and thundered forward swiping his sword towards the hood, intent on taking off a head of his own. But before his sword could even come close, his attacker had pulled into a flip, flying over both sword and holder. Antheus pulled his horse back angrily and turned it around harshly, only to see a sharp dagger flying straight at him. The metal thudded into his chest and he stared at it in disbelief before Hades took him and his lifeless body fell to the ground.

Xena watched the scene and chuckled wickedly. “Well, that takes care of one problem for me.”

Pyrron frowned his brows, then turned to look at her. “This is no mere thug, Empress. This one isn’t after gold or jewels. He’s after you.”

Xena grinned as her new nemesis took out the last few of the ex-regent’s soldiers. “Well, that’ll be exactly what he’s gonna get then. Stay here.” And with that she pushed her stallion into a canter, riding forward towards the hooded form, that was patiently awaiting her arrival.

“But, Empress…” Pyrron attempted, then shook his head at the receding back with a sigh.

Xena pulled her horse to a halt, then hopped off. Her hooded opponent made no attempt to attack her just yet, the now bloodied sword lying calmly across a cloaked shoulder.

“So…” Xena managed a charming smile. “You’re the minor problem Antheus has informed me about.”

An amused chuckle, then her opponent swiped back the hood. “Minor problems don’t kill off twenty men in mere moments.”

Xena regarded her with interest. She was a small woman, merely reaching up to the conqueror’s shoulder, shortly trimmed blond hair and bright green eyes, darkening in held back anger. The look seemed oddly familiar somehow.

“Remember me?”

Xena watched her for another moment, then drew her sword and judged the edges. “Can’t say I do.”

Another humourless chuckle, then the woman lifted a hand, revealing a huge scar on the inside of her wrist. “Do you remember this then? Do you remember sending me to my death?”

Xena stared at the hand, then looked back at the woman’s face. A grin found its way to the surface as her memory showed her images of a time long ago. A young rebel. “You spoke.”

The metal came down harshly and Xena was barely able to bring up her own sword in time to block it.

The woman overpowered her, in spite of her disadvantage in height. “I don’t speak much anymore. I’ve found other skills that are much more useful.” She pulled her sword back, then lunged out again, aiming at the conqueror’s left, before spinning and attacking her right.

Xena parried the rapid strikes, then attacked herself, lunging out towards the woman’s heart. Her sword was pushed aside easily however. Then an elbow slammed into her face, making her stumble back.

“That’s for my friends, who you had executed.” Her attacker hissed, before striking out again, managing to gash the conqueror’s shoulder.

The sword came down on her once more, but this time Xena was prepared and she blocked it with ease, before pushing back and pulling herself into a flip, jumping over her attacker. She lunged her sword toward the warrior’s head, but the woman lifted her own weapon and caught it and Xena was barely able to pull back in time as she turned and a sword swung towards the conqueror’s stomach. She recovered quickly however and parried the following blow. “Your little friends shouldn’t have disobeyed me. They defied my authority and paid the price for that.”

“They fought against injustice.” Was the snapped reply as her attacker jumped over a low aimed strike. “They were good people and you killed them because of it.” All her strength was placed into the next blow and it forced Xena down, the conqueror fighting hard to keep upright under the pressure. Not expecting the sudden shift as the woman swiped out with one of her legs, knocking the Conqueror out of balance. She fell, the grip on her sword loosening as she instinctively braced for impact with the hard earth.

Xena wanted to push herself up but the edge of a sword stopped her motion. She stared up in the enraged green eyes, as her nemesis changed the grip on her sword. She caught hold of motion behind her attacker as Pyrron sped her men forward, but she ignored them and stared up instead. “Well? Finish it.”

Green eyes stared into hers intently, then the blonde shook her head softly. “No. Not yet.” She stated more to herself then to her victim. Then she sheathed her sword in a flash and took off, whistling as she ran towards the forest. A large Palomino horse sped towards her and she grabbed onto the saddle and jumped on as it kept its pace, disappearing into the thick foliage.

Pyrron jumped off his horse before it had even stopped, running towards his fallen leader. “Empress!”

Xena stood and calmly dusted herself off. “Well well… Now, wasn’t that interesting…” She laughed softly.

Pyrron looked at her and frowned. “Are you all right, my liege?”

“Perfect,” Xena purred, looking at the now silent forest with a smirk. “She’s good.”

“I’ll say…” Pyrron muttered, frowning up at the grinning conqueror. “And that does not worry you?”

“Worry?” Xena chuckled. “No way… This is a challenge, Pyrron, finally someone who can pose a bit of a threat to me…” The conqueror’s blue eyes glinted in delight.

Pyrron watched her for a few moments, then let his eyes track to the forest’s edge. “Her style of fighting is very different from normal Greeks… It is more like your style, Empress, more…” He searched for the word. “Flexible…”

“Intriguing, isn’t it? And it gets better…” She flashed another grin at him. “I send her to her death three years ago.”

Pyrron blinked at her in disbelief. “But…”

“Apparently she has more lives then I thought. Not many can survive crucifixion.” Xena chuckled, taking her horse’s reigns in her hand and pulling herself back into the saddle. She tugged on the stallion’s reigns, sending him further down the path. “Pyrron, get some people to clean up the mess, OK?” She motioned carelessly towards her regent’s lifeless body.

Pyrron watched her go, the woman not even paying attention to the blood that was seeping down her shoulder. “Yes, Empress…” He sighed, pointing at three of his men and seeing them nod in understanding, before he pushed his horse forward as well, falling in beside the warrior. “Forgive me for saying this, great Conqueror, but shouldn’t you be taking the threat this girl poses a bit more seriously?” He mumbled under his breath, looking at the silent profile. “After all, she nearly killed you…”

“But she didn’t…” Xena muttered. “She has every reason to want me dead, but she didn’t kill me… Twice now, she didn’t kill me…” Xena shook her head. “I wonder…”

But her wondering was cut short when one of the soldiers riding ahead of her called out to them, pointing towards one of the trees at the side of the road. Pyrron rode up to the tree, spotting a note held up by a wooden pin. He held the note and removed the pin, tossing it away negligently, Xena catching it as it shifted through the air before her. “I have spared you today in honour of my mentor. Next time you will not be so fortunate. Leave now, or suffer the consequences.” He read, frowning his brows. “Well, she’s definitely sure of herself…”

But Xena didn’t hear him, staring at the hairpin in her hand numbly. The wood, curving up at the end into a bird’s head. She let her finger’s slide over its surface. Lao Ma… The girl knew Lao Ma…

“Empress?”

The tone in Pyrron’s voice was doubtful and she looked up at him, considering her options for a moment. “Pyrron, lead the men to the castle for me, will ya?”

Dark brows frowned. “Excuse me? Conqueror, I…”

“I have to deal with something first.” She stated, then pushed her stallion forward, up the sloping hillside towards the forest.

Pyrron watched her take off, then shook his head motioning the troops to move on down the road. He realised trying to change her mind or stop her would only get him into trouble. If the conqueror was set on something, she was going to get it done… No matter what…

***

Xena crouched down, her eyes flicking across her now dark surroundings. She’d been chasing this woman for candle marks now, every track she had found leading to a dead end. She took a deep breath, sniffing the now cold air. She closed her eyes, breathing in again, then she smelled the scent of burning wood, far off somewhere… She took a few paces forward, and noticed it got stronger. Slowly, carefully, she crawled closer, until she spotted a small campfire through the foliage, the flames reflecting off a Palamino horse standing quietly in the small clearing. A woman was standing beside the horse, brushing it with quiet strokes, mumbling conversationally to the animal. Xena took a few steps closer, then crouched down again. She watched the two for any sign that they were aware of her presence, and when she was sure they weren’t, she moved forward quietly, wanting to get close enough to…

Suddenly a snap sounded beneath her feet and before she knew what was happening a rope twisted around her ankle and a branch above her veered up, sweeping her off her feet and lifting her up, until she was dangling upside down.

The blond woman turned around calmly, regarding her prey. “Hey, Argo, look what I just caught…” She commented to the mare, who snorted in dismay. She gave the horse a pat, then walked closer to the dangling conqueror, crossing her arms.

“Nice touch.” The woman in question grinned charmingly, hanging comfortably by one leg, her armour blinking dully in the light emanating from the fire. “You have a really nice view from up here, actually…”

Green eyes narrowed. “I’ve warned you, twice now…”

“I’m a bit hard hearing.”

“Apparently.” Her opponent watched her calmly. “I never thought the great conqueror would be captured so easily.”

“Captured?” Xena looked stricken, then looked up at the rope tied around her ankle. “Oh, you mean this being tied up thing…” She shot a smile at the woman before her, then in a flash she managed to grab onto the rope with a hand and pull herself up, crouching down on the branch only moments later. “How’s that? Live up to your expectations?”

The warrior seemed unimpressed however, fluently unsheathing her sword and glancing up at the conqueror guardedly.

Xena chuckled, looking down in amusement. “Aggressive little thing, aren’t ya?”

“You seem intent on ending up dead. Let’s just get this over with.” Was the simple reply.

“Oh, but that’s not why I’m here…” Xena shook her head, then hopped out of the tree, landing in front of her. “Just wanna have a friendly chat, that’s all… Make you an offer…”

A snort. “What could you possibly offer me?” The blonde kept the edge of her sword pointed at Xena, carefully watching her every move.

“Oh, you’d be surprised, Gabrielle… It is Gabrielle, isn’t it?”

“Friends call me that, yes…”

Another low chuckle. “Tch… touchy…”

“Stop joking around and get to the point.” Gabrielle snapped, eyes narrowing dangerously.

The conqueror managed another charming smile. “You intrigue me…”

A blond eyebrow raised at this, but the woman refrained from comment.

“I haven’t had any real competition for some time around here… These are boring times, you see… But you…” A low laugh. “You might just be able to liven things up a little…”

Gabrielle twisted the sword around in her hand. “So…?”

“So… I want you to come to Athens with me… Become my sparring partner…”

Green eyes widened, then the woman just shook her head in disbelief. “You’re deluded.”

“There’s some really nice benefits to this little deal, you know?”

“Don’t even try…” Gabrielle growled, narrowing her eyes dangerously. “I don’t give a damn about the benefits…”

“Not even if this benefit is five feet tall, has red hair, nice blue eyes, is bit older than you probably…”

A moment of silence. “T…Thalia?” The blonde managed, staring at her in disbelief.

“Friend of yours, is she?” Xena shook her head. “Now that’s an amazing coincidence, don’t you agree?”

“What have you done to her?” Gabrielle’s growled, dangerously tightening her hold on her sword.

“Nothing…” The conqueror blinked innocently. “And I won’t even think of harming her… As long as you cooperate.”

Green eyes judged her for a long moment. “You’re lying…”

“Oh no, I can assure you, I’m not… Of course, I could bring you a finger, or other non-vital body part to prove…” Xena ducked away with a chuckle as the blonde’s sword swung at her. “Now now, that’s not gonna get you anywhere…”

Gabrielle took a deep breath, calming herself for a moment and ordering her thoughts. “What do you want?”

“I wanna play a game…” The conqueror let a grin cross her face. “You come with me to Athens and spar with me. If you manage to survive a full month without me killing you in a match, I let your little friend go and you two can go off and create havoc together…”

“And if I don’t…?”

Xena shrugged. “She dies. If you lose, she dies. If you try to kill me, she dies. If you refuse my offer, she dies…”

Gabrielle regarded her quietly for a moment. “Well, you leave me little choice, don’t you?” She flexed her grip around her sword, thinking. “These battles are only one on one, with you… If anybody else kills me, or you send troops to take me down, Thalia lives…” She demanded, meeting bright blue eyes.

The conqueror considered this, then nodded. “Naturally…”

“Very well then.” Gabrielle turned away and walked back toward her fire. “I will meet you tomorrow at dawn on the road to Athens. As soon as we reach the city I want to see Thalia to prove she actually is alive…”

“But of course…” Xena chuckled cheerfully, already looking forward to the coming month of constant entertainment. “Anything you say…”

Hateful green eyes glanced at her for a moment, then the warrior stared back at her fire, seemingly ignoring the conqueror’s presence completely. Xena grinned, then wiggled her fingers in goodbye, before disappearing into the night. “See you in the morning, Gabrielle.”

***

“You did what?!”

Xena sharply raised an eyebrow at her advisor.

Pyrron took a breath. “Excuse me. Let me rephrase that: Oh great Empress… You did what?!”

The conqueror chuckled. “You heard me the first time, Pyrron.”

The advisor sagged back in his chair. “I was afraid of that…” Brown eyes looked up and regarded her. “You do realise you are taking great risks here, don’t you?”

“Of course I realise.” Xena grinned, swiping a piece of meat off her plate and popping it into her mouth. “That’s why I’m doing it…”

“You’re putting this woman, that obviously hates you, in a perfect position to kill you… What makes you think she won’t snap?”

Xena shrugged. “I’ve got her buddy in my dungeons. By the way, I forgot to thank you for that.” She gave him a thumbs up as she chewed on a bit of bread, then swallowed. “That was an excellent idea of yours, keeping one of them rebels in spare in case someone decided to start that whole resistance thing again.”

“Well, that’s why I am your advisor, Empress. I do, rarely, have some good suggestions. And another of these suggestions is to forget about this girl and head back to Athens.”

The conqueror stretched, getting up from the table with a grin and circling around it, walking closer to her advisor. “Pyrron, do you remember the last

time I got really, really bored?”

Her advisor sighed heavily at the memory. “Yes, Empress.”

“Do you want that to happen again?”

“No, Empress.”

“Good.” Xena smiled brightly, looking down at him. “Than you’ll let me keep my new toy and not whine about it.”

Pyrron tossed up his hands. “Conqueror, you know that I have nothing to say about the choices that you make. And if you think this is the right course of action, than I’ll except that… All I’m telling you is that this is a threat to your well being and I ask you to reconsider, for your own safety.”

Xena crossed her arms. “Well, I’m touched…” She drawled, getting her advisor to roll his eyes. “But Pyrron, believe it or not, bringing this girl to Athens is not just for my own entertainment.” The conqueror settled on the edge of the table. “Do you remember when I told you about the power I saw in Chin?”

“The power to destroy things without even getting near them?”

Xena nodded. “That’s the one… This kid is the student of the woman that possesses that power…”

Her advisor cocked his head. “You think she has the power too?”

A shrug. “Maybe, I don’t know yet. But I think you agree with me that if she

does, we need to keep her under our control.”

“Naturally.” Pyrron nodded, staring ahead of him pensively. “But would taking her into your palace be a wise decision then? If she could destroy it with a mere thought?”

“You forget we have her friend in our dungeons. She won’t harm us as long as there is a change of us harming her friend.” Xena informed him

Pyrron glanced up at her. “You’ve thought this through, I hear.”

The conqueror grinned smugly. “Do I ever make rash decisions?” Her advisor raised an eyebrow at her. “Oh well, maybe I do.” She flashed him a devious smile. “But this plan is full proof, Pyrron, I assure you… I fight her and learn all those little tricks she used to beat me today and then I turn them against her and kill her before the month is due. Piece of cake…”

“Unless she has this special gift.” Pyrron corrected.

“True…” Xena agreed quietly. “And if she has the power, stronger measures will be required. I’m sure a shamaness could stir up something to waste her…”

Her advisor looked up in dismay. “I wish you would not deal with that Alti woman, Empress. She will betray you if it suits her purpose.”

“I know that.” Xena stated, pushing herself off the table’s edge and took a few paces towards the door, before turning and facing her advisor. “But she needs me, Pyrron. She may have ‘great spiritual powers’ ” Xena dropped her voice to a raspy growl in an excellent imitation of the shamaness in question. “But as far as the physical world goes, she is an easy prey. As long as she stays on my team, she’ll be protected, and she knows that.”

“Hmm…” Pyrron crossed his arms, still not looking too pleased. “Just watch your back, Empress, you have a lot of threats surrounding you at this moment.”

“I don’t have to watch my back.” Xena gave him a grin over her shoulder as she pulled the door open. “That’s what you’re here for.”

Pyrron watched her go with a sigh. “Hopeless case… The woman is absolutely a hopeless case.” He commented to the empty hallway.

Sometimes… The man shook his head. Sometimes he wondered why he was still sticking around… But then again, the conqueror wasn’t as bad as everyone

made her out to be. Of course she was quite strict and a tad ruthless, but  because of that, this empire had been peaceful for years now. There were no wars, there was hardly any criminality, there was more than enough food to go around, unemployment rates were low and any job the conqueror provided was well paid for… People might not like the strict rules, but they did provide safety and prosperity. Sometimes the conqueror just got a bit out of hand because she was bored, like now. But that’s why she hired him, after all, to take precautions to insure the damages were limited. It wasn’t a bad job really, the salary was good, his children lived in the luxury and safety of the conqueror’s palace, he was respected by the entire household… And of course there was the fact that the Empress was gorgeous. And that he sometimes had to bother her with important information, while she was in the middle of a bath…

A grin slowly crossed his face. Oh yeah, he loved his job… He really, really loved his job.

***

“Maybe she’s not gonna show…” Pyrron suggested hopefully as he glanced down the road. There was still no sign of the warrior woman as of yet, even though they’d been riding for an hour or so now.

“Be patient.” The conqueror muttered to him in a content tone as she closed her eyes and drank in the sunlight that was pouring down. “She’ll be here…”

Pyrron shot the woman a look, then let out a breath, returning his eyes to the road. Well, at least the conqueror was happy. Which meant he wouldn’t get any daggers tossed at him for some time to come… That was good…

A low chuckle sounded beside him and the advisor looked at his Empress again. She still had her eyes closed, but a delighted grin was now creeping onto her face. “I hear with my little ear…” Twinkling blue eyes opened and looked up the hillside.

Pyrron let his eyes follow hers until he too spotted a lone figure on a large golden horse, descending towards the road slowly. “Oh goody…” The man muttered, judging the grim features on the girl’s face. She was dressed in a pair of leather pants and a green top with a swirly red and gold, Chinese design. Under the fabric he saw muscles tensed in concentration, ready to swipe out at anything that breathed wrong. “Great… Just great…”

“Now be nice, Pyrron.” Xena purred at him, then returned her eyes to the approaching warrior. “Well, hi there, Gabby. So glad you could join us.” She shot a charming smile at the blonde, whose green eyes met hers for a short

moment, silent hatred shining through very clearly. Gabrielle turned her horse so she rode beside Pyrron, the man forming a barrier between her and the conqueror. She focused her eyes on the road ahead, not dignifying Xena’s greetings with an answer.

The conqueror looked at her for a moment, smiling. “Let me introduce my

advisor to you. Pyrron, meet Gabrielle.”

Pyrron inclined his head politely. “Ma’am.”

Gabrielle looked up at him, managing a smile. “I would say it’s a pleasure meeting you… But I really hate to lie…”

Xena laughed loudly at this, giving Pyrron a pat on the shoulder. “Don’t take it personal, old man.”

“I’m not.” Her advisor stated calmly. “After all, her dislike of me is only the result of my being associated with you.”

Xena laid her hand over her heart, giving her advisor a hurt expression. “Well, ouch…” She chuckled. “It’s a good thing I’m in such a great mood, Pyrron, otherwise you might have been in trouble now.”

“If you had not been in a good mood, great Conqueror, I would not have said such a thing.”

“You’re so smart.” Xena grinned at him tolerantly. “But then again, that’s why you are where you are, aren’t you?”

“That’s an empirical question, I take it?” Brown eyes glanced at her with a small glint in them, then faced forward again.

“Oh, naturally.” The conqueror chuckled, settling back in the saddle

contentedly.

A few moments of silence passed, then Xena decided it was about time she was provided with some entertainment. “So, now that we’re all introduced… How about we get to know each other better, huh?” Green eyes turned into her direction for a moment, then resumed their staring into the distance. “Well, Gabrielle, you should be a bit more enthusiastic. It’ll be fun, really… How about we do a round of questions, hmm? I’m sure you’re dying to know how Pyrron got that nice scar on the side of his neck.”

Brown eyes narrowed at her and her advisor lowered his voice. “Empress…”

“Oh now, don’t be shy, Pyrron…” She grinned up at Gabrielle, who was regarding the scene uninterestedly. “C’mon, Gab, ask him. It’s a great story…”

A moment of silence as Gabrielle let her eyes flick from one to the other, considering her options. “If I play along, can I ask you questions?”

The conqueror spread her arms in invitation. “But of course… I play fair, you know? I’ll even let you start… How’s that?”

Green eyes studied her for another moment, then Gabrielle nodded. “When you sentence people to their deaths, do you enjoy it?”

Xena laughed softly, then fell silent, considering this question seriously for a moment. “Sometimes.” Was finally her quiet response. “It depends on what they did to deserve their punishment.”

Gabrielle snorted at this, the bitterness showing in her eyes.

“But what you’re really asking is did I enjoy your sentencing…” Xena went on, her mind prying in her memories. “And I didn’t really… I didn’t care much, it was just something that had to be done.”

“Had to be done?!” The woman’s voice shot up now. “All I did was say some things that you did not agree with!”

“If I allow one act of disobedience to go unpunished another will follow… And another and another, which will eventually lead to complete chaos… Which is fun, of course…” Xena grinned deviously. “But my advisor here would probably not appreciate this turn of events all too much… Right, Pyrron?”

“Correct, Empress.” Pyrron returned politely, trying to keep his part in

this conversation as limited as possible.

“There you have it…” Xena waved a hand at her advisor. “So you see, Gabrielle, you were merely an example for the good of the community… Nothing personal, really…”

“For the good of the community?” A blonde eyebrow raised. “What good has…?”

“Nuhuh…” Xena waved a finger at her, cutting off her sentence. “You had your question. My turn.” She shot a smile at the warrior. “So tell me, how is my old friend Lao Ma doing these days? Still trying to fix hopeless cases, I take it?” She stated, giving the woman a meaningful look.

Green eyes bore into hers with an intensity that would have frightened anyone else. “No, she’s not.”

“Really?” The conqueror chuckled. “Well good for her, now she can…”

“She’s dead.”

Xena immediately fell silent, her eyes widening. “Dead?” She swallowed, trying to get rid of the uncharacteristic lump in her throat. Her mind was still spinning around the words. How could Lao Ma be dead? The woman was a mortal goddess. She had powers no one could ever stand up against… Then how…? “How?” She spoke the question out loud.

Green eyes glanced at her. “I’ve already answered your question. I think it’s…”

“How?” Xena hissed, her voice dropping dangerously.

Blond eyebrows raised in mild surprise and green eyes looked into hers. Xena managed to push any emotions away from the surface and produced an icy stare. Gabrielle, unthreatened, stared back at her with interest for another moment, then returned her eyes to the road. “I went to the market one day for some herbs. When I returned…” Gabrielle took a breath, closing her eyes. “When I returned her throat had been slit. A dagger was lying beside her… It had a green dragon swirling up the blade…”

“Ming Tien.” Xena’s eyes narrowed as she remembered the boy and his disrespect for Lao Ma.

“He was the only one who could manage to get close enough. She could not kill her own son…” A short pause as Gabrielle’s gaze hardened. “But I could.”

Xena looked at the woman. “You killed him?” A firm nod was her answer. Xena took a breath, straightening. “Good.”

Green eyes turned to her. “Why would you care? You betrayed her…”

“That was never my intention.” The conqueror stated, not meeting the warrior’s eyes. “She and I had different views on how to lead an empire.” A short moment as Xena considered her words. “But she was a good person. I’m sorry to hear she died.”

Gabrielle watched the silent profile, then managed a small nod, before looking forward once more.

Pyrron glanced from one to the other. The conqueror’s sad reaction to the news of the death of this Lao Ma surprised him, to say the least. When he glanced over at her now, he could see the conflicting emotions pass before her eyes. He’d learned to read the Conqueror’s moods quite efficiently, because of which he managed to avoid many conflicts, but this… He studied his Empress silently. This emotion was new, not seen by him before… Hurt? He frowned. Maybe…

He turned his head and looked at the blonde woman riding quietly beside him, regarding her quietly until green eyes tracked aside and met his. The woman raised an eyebrow, which reminded him so much of the Conqueror, it was frightening. He managed a smile for her, then hastily studied the road before him once more. The conqueror had picked the wrong toy to play with, Pyrron realised, shivering as he felt the icy eyes beside him judging him intently. This woman was capable of causing more trouble than either the Conqueror or himself had anticipated.

***

When night fell they’d set up camp near a small waterhole. While normally she would’ve sat around the campfire for a while with her men, trading war stories to liven the mood, tonight Xena had immediately returned to her tent. The conqueror swivelled the wine around in her glass, staring at the red liquid numbly. This was her… She paused for a moment, thinking. Seventh glass? Or was it her eight? She shrugged, sculling the rest of its contents. It didn’t matter. The alcohol was soothing, making her brain just a tad fuzzy so she couldn’t think so clearly about the events of the day. It had started off so nice though, playing around a bit, but then… The conqueror leaned back in her chair, pouring herself another glass of the cold red liquid. Why did this news about Lao Ma upset her so much? It wasn’t like she’d seen the woman in years, or if she’d left under such great circumstances… If the blasted woman had only let her kill the brat, she’d be alive now… They could have ruled the world together… Even back then, Borias had just been a convenient third party, someone she used because he had more resources than she did… But Lao Ma… Xena shook her head, twirling the glass between her fingers. She’d loved Lao Ma. The woman had seen parts of the warrior princess that Xena had forgotten she even had.

She made her feel things again. Which had been terribly frightening, but, in a way, it had also been a relief. Just for a moment she was able to think about things of her past and not feel hatred…

A sigh as she remembered their last moments together, just after Lao Ma had used her powers against her.

“You’re a fool! He’ll betray you!” Xena breathed heavily, scrambling to her feet.

Lao Ma regarded her calmly. “That does not matter.”

“How can it not matter?” The warrior stepped closer, locking eyes with her. “He threats you like you’re filth. How can you love him?”

Brown eyes regarded her quietly, then Lao Ma let out a breath, dropping her head. “I was hoping I could change you, Xena. But I see you have not heard anything I’ve been trying to tell you.”

Xena shook her head. “I have listened. But all this inner peace…” Xena tossed up her hands. “It makes no sense… You make no sense to me.”

“So be it.” The woman looked defeated, hurt.

“I…” Xena took a breath. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded, I just mean…”

“I know what you mean.” Lao Ma interrupted her, managing a smile. “But when I look at you I see someone capable of so much more…” She shook her head. “I was hoping I could lead you off the path you’re following.” She reached out and touched the warrior’s cheek, forcing their eyes to meet. “You’re walking towards the edge of nowhere, Xena. I was hoping I could be the one to make you see that… But I’m not…”

The warrior looked at her, her dark eyebrows frowning confused.

“You don’t have to understand.” Lao Ma smiled at her, then reached forward and gently kissed the warrior’s forehead. “Go. Do what you have to do…”

Xena blinked. “But…”

“Go.” Lao Ma turned her back to her, the soft sound of silk robes sliding across one another. “Goodbye Xena.”

It had hurt… Gods, it had hurt. And a part of her had wanted nothing more then to run after the woman and drop down at her feet, but her pride would not allow it and she turned around, walking out of the house of Lao, Borias following close behind.

A soft tap on her tent made her look up. “Yes?”

Pyrron walked inside and bowed at her politely. “Empress…”

Xena regarded him quietly, raising an eyebrow at him.

“I only wanted to inform you that I have given the girl a tent of her own and have placed three guards at her door. For… protection purposes.”

Xena chuckled, taking another sip of her wine. “You’re protecting her? It’s not like she can’t kick any attackers into next week, Pyrron.”

“I was actually thinking of your protection, Conqueror. They are mostly there to keep an eye on her. Just in case…”

“Hmm…” Xena considered this. “I doubt that’ll do any good, but it can’t hurt, I guess…” She lifted the bottle, waving it at him. “Want some?”

Her advisor seemed to consider this for a moment, then he nodded and settled in a chair opposite his empress, watching her fill a glass and hand it to him. “Thank you…” He took a small sip, then settled back in his seat, watching the woman across from him. “You seem… unsettled, Empress. Not quite yourself…”

Xena narrowed her eyes at him for a moment, then sighed in defeat, knowing her advisor had seen through her once again. “When you hear someone you used to know has died, you don’t always do things that that fit the image others have for you, Pyrron.”

A brown eyebrow raised at her. “This Lao Ma slammed you into a brick wall, did she not?”

“It’s…” Xena closed her eyes, settling back in her chair with a sigh. “It’s complicated…”

“Naturally.” Her advisor crossed his arms. “Forgive me for saying this, Empress, but with you nothing is ever simple.”

Blue eyes regarded him for a moment, then Xena chuckled ruefully. “True, I guess…” The conqueror folded her hands around the glass. “Keeps life interesting, right?”

“Interesting and dangerous.”

“Interesting and dangerous go hand in hand,” Xena pointed out calmly, closing her eyes. “You need a bit of danger to spice life up a little. Otherwise you’ll just end up like all those ignorant peasants who think they are happy, but really have no idea what happiness is…”

“And you’re saying you know what happiness is, Empress?”

Xena considered this for a moment, then chuckled. “No…” she admitted. “But at least I know what hatred is… At least I’ve known extremes. At least I’m living life, not letting life live me.”

Pyrron regarded her quietly for a moment. “And did this ‘living’ bring you closer to your goals?”

A dark eyebrow lifted. “What goals?”

“Well, we all have goals in life, don’t we? Things we want to achieve…”

Xena grinned. “I used to want to take over Rome. I sacked Rome… Then my goal was to take over Gaul, so I took Gaul. Chin, Egypt, Persia… I’m out of continents to conquer, Pyrron. I have no more goals.”

“You’re only goal in life is to conquer?” The advisor asked, glancing up at her.  Xena shrugged. “It’s what I’m good at. And I think we should all do what we’re good at…” She grinned. “That’s why you think up all those nice rules and I kick people’s butts when they don’t follow the rules.”

Pyrron laughed softly. “Works well enough…”

“Exactly.” The conqueror nodded, sagging onto her bed and lying down. “Because we both do what we do best. It’s the law of The Conqueror. Doith what thy doith best and thy shall prosper.”

“I should write that one down.” Her advisor grinned, taking another sip of his wine, then he cocked his head at her. “How about this girl then? This…Gabrielle… What is she good at?”

Xena folded her hands behind her head, staring up at the blue fabric of her tent. “She is good at creating trouble… And I am good at solving trouble…” She chuckled, her blue eyes twinkling. “You see, Pyrron, we’re a perfect match.”

***

Gabrielle paced around her tent restlessly. Great Gab, just great… She sighed, sagging down in a chair and leaning back. You come here to exact your revenge on her and you end up being her slave of the month… Where did this plan go wrong, huh?

The warrior leaned her elbows on her knees and hid her face in her hands. Thalia. That’s where the plan went wrong. Gods, if Thalia was alive… She stood again, pacing restlessly. If Thalia was alive she might have a chance to make things right… or at least, some things.

Gabrielle let out a breath, deciding she’d had enough of this tent. She didn’t like being inside. Through her travels back to Greece she’d gotten used to sleeping outdoors, under the stars. She liked the open spaces, where her vision and hearing weren’t blocked by walls or fabric.

Gabrielle looked up, seeing the shadows of her ‘guards’ moving around the tent. Protection, right, I bet… Those soldiers weren’t there for her safe being, she knew that, she wasn’t stupid. They were here to make sure she stayed put. The warrior chuckled. Yeah, as if. She dragged over her chair and placed it in the middle of the room, pulling a dagger from her boot and soundlessly cutting a hole in the top of the tent. The moonlight poked it’s way inside, showing her the outline of the trees surrounding their camp, the large branch hanging over her tent. Too easy. She grinned, picking up her whip and flipping it upward, watching the end wrap itself around the branch.

Moments later she crouched down on the branch, watching the soldiers with a tolerant smile. Nice try boys. She informed them silently, before walking towards the edge of the branch, waiting until it veered up under her wait and jumping off toward the next branch.

With a soft thud she landed on the ground, hidden in the shadows. Laughing sounded from the group sitting around the campfire, one of the soldiers standing and relating some heroic tale with excessive hand gestures. “Bet he’d have never gotten into the academy.” Gabrielle muttered, glancing at the man with a bored expression. Not that it mattered, since the academy had been shut since The Conqueror had taken over Athens. The arts were a danger to any tyrant, Gabrielle knew, since stories and plays had the power to influence the people.

Green eyes flicked over the camp. The Conqueror’s tent was easily spotted, since it was the largest and the fanciest. She wasn’t interested in going there though. Not that she hadn’t considered doing through with her initial plan anyway and just taking the Conqueror’s head off… Gods it was tempting,… But she couldn’t risk it. If Thalia was alive she had to at least know where she was to start thinking up a plan to get her out. Killing the Empress now would be foolish… Gabrielle let out a breath, then focused on a large tent a bit closer. One guard was standing in front of the opening, a spear balancing in his hand and a bored expression on his face. Gabrielle grinned wickedly. Easy target.

Tamon stared ahead of him. He liked horses, he really did… But putting ‘m in a tent and guarding ‘m? That was sorta slightly over the edge for him. The conqueror was crazy about her horses though, she treated the blasted beasts with more respect than most of her soldiers. Like him, for instance. Here he was, a loyal soldier to the legions of the Empress, always been complete trustworthy… And he was out here trying to stay awake after a long day of travel, while those animals in there were lying around in the comfort of their own tent. Tamon kicked up some dust with the toe of his boot. Stupid…

Suddenly he heard a soft rustling to his right. The grip on his spear tightened and he gazed at the spot. Another sound, and now he could see the twigs of a small bush move slightly. An animal maybe? Tamon frowned. Not likely, this close to camp… Carefully he took a few paces towards the noise. “Hey? Anybody there?”

There was no reply, then another sound caught his attention, a bit further away. “Hey!” He ran towards the sound, jumping over the bushes and…

“Sorry about that.” Gabrielle murmured cheerfully to the now unconscious guard, tying his hands together with a piece of rope, then wrapping another piece over his mouth. She considered her options for a moment, then took another longer piece of rope and tied it around his legs, then swung the other end over a branch. Moments later the soldier was dangling upside down from the tree, Gabrielle watching her contraption contentedly for a moment, then she turned away from him, walking towards the tent.

“Psst. Argo?”

The mare’s head shot up at the familiar voice. She neighed softly as she spotted her rider.

“Hey girl.” Gabrielle walked closer, patting the mare on the neck. “Did they take good care of you, hmm?” She got in the box beside the horse, leaning down and checking her hooves. “Not bad…” She straightened again, combing a hand through the horse’s manes. “I’ll make sure they don’t hurt you, Argo… I’m sorry about this, girl…”

A snort.

“Yeah, I wish we could get out of here too… But we have to save an old friend of mine first, OK?”

Argo gave Gabrielle a gentle shove.

“Oh, now don’t get jealous.” Gabrielle chuckled softly. “You’re still my bestest buddy, you know that.”

The mare produced another snort, nuzzling the warrior’s tunic.

Gabrielle smiled at her horse, gently stroking her neck. “You’re a good friend, Argo…” She leaned her head against the horse’s side. “You’re my only friend.”

A sound made her head shot up. Footsteps. Getting closer. She judged the rhythm, the heaviness, then deducted who it had to be.

She considered hiding for a moment, then decided against it. It’d teach the stupid tyrant to station guards near her tent…

Xena lifted an eyebrow at the guard’s absence. The incompetence these days… Xena rolled her eyes. Like it was so hard to guard a couple of horses now and then. It wasn’t…

Her sensitive hearing picked up sounds inside… Wasn’t her guard though, the movements were much lighter, but obvious, like the intruder wanted to be heard. Xena carefully walked closer, then stuck her head inside, peering into the darkness.

A smile tugged at her face as she spotted the woman brushing down her horse with solid strokes. “Well, fancy meeting you here…”

Eyes looked up at her for a moment, the moonlight reflecting coldly of the green irises. Then she refocused on her task.

Xena grinned, stepping inside fully, walking towards the dark stallion standing in a box near Gabrielle’s mare. “I thought I’d posted a guard in front of these stables… You don’t happen to know where he went, do you?”

The woman shrugged. “Haven’t got a clue… But I’m sure he’s hanging around somewhere.”

“Of course…” The conqueror chuckled, fishing a piece of carrot out of her pocket and handing it to her horse. “There ya go, boy.” She patted the stallion’s neck. “Good job today.”

She turned around and leaned back against a wooden panel, crossing her arms and regarding her companion. “I thought Pyrron had placed guards around your tent.”

“He did,” Gabrielle stated calmly, kneeling down and cleaning Argo’s legs.

Xena laughed softly. “And you probably have no idea where they went either, right?”

“They didn’t go anywhere,” the blonde said, tickling her horses belly and getting an indignant snort in return.

“I see…” Blue eyes watched her intently. “Not that I’m surprised, mind you… Pyrron insisted on the guards, I told him it was pointless, but you know Pyrron…”

“I’m glad you have so much faith in my abilities…” Gabrielle stated blankly, getting some tangles out of Argo’s tail.

“Someone who can sneak into my room without me hearing it can most certainly get away from some young soldiers.” The conqueror deducted, pushing off the panel and walking a few steps closer. “Nice horse, by the way. Argo, right?”

Gabrielle nodded, not looking up.

Xena looked at the mare, who was watching her with interest. “Now tell me, Argo, what’s a nice horse like you doing hanging around a girl like this, huh?” She dug up another piece of carrot and held it out to the horse. “Here… Want some?”

Brown eyes regarded her suspiciously.

“Ah, come on… You know you want to…” Xena burred in a low voice, holding the vegetable a bit closer.

Argo leaned over, then shifted her head, giving the conqueror’s hand a shove. The carrot flew up, hitting Xena squarely in the forehead, before falling down and dropping onto the sand.

Gabrielle worked hard to suppress a grin.

“Oh, funny…” The conqueror drawled, giving the horse an amused look nevertheless. “Very funny… Aren’t we the tough horsie? But then again, like rider like horse, they say right?” She smirked at Gabrielle, who pretended to ignore her. “Well, I get the feeling my presence is not appreciated here, so I’ll get going. I do suggest you get back to your tent sometime soon, Gabrielle. It’ll be a looooong day tomorrow.” She gave the warrior a charming smile, then turned and headed out the tent.

Gabrielle let out a breath in frustration. Gods, that woman was annoying. If she would just get mad, if she’d just even be slightly shocked by the fact that her prisoner had managed pass by four guards… But the conqueror was just so damn… smug. Yeah, that’s what she was… smug… Gabrielle grimaced, giving Argo a final pat and then exiting the stables herself. This woman made no sense to her whatsoever, and that was getting on Gabrielle’s nerves. She didn’t understand what the woman’s motives were, tolerating her constant disrespect like this… She seemed more amused then annoyed by it… From the looks of it, this was gonna be the most horrible month of her life… Being crucified was tough to top, but she was sure the conqueror would think of something… The blonde grumbled as she strode to the camp towards her tent. “Night.” She commented to the guard standing near the tent flap, leaning on his spear, half asleep.

He head shot up and he blinked, wide open eyes tracking her as she moved past him and into her tent. “But… We…” He watched as the tent flap swung shut behind her. “Huh?

***

Xena stretched as the twitter of the first birds echoed through camp. They wouldn’t travel on until daybreak, but the conqueror got up anyway, always enjoying the quietness of the early morning. She pushed herself up, swinging her legs over the edge of the bed and standing up. It was still dark when she exited her tent, dressed in a light tunic, tied off with a heavy black leather belt, her sword strapped across her back. Not that she needed it, really, but she liked the feel of the weapon, liked having it around, just in case. Xena took a moment to stretch her muscles, considering her options. A run seemed a nice way to start the day, so she took off towards the forest’s edge at an easy pace, increasing her speed as she reached a small path leading into the woods.

Xena inhaled deeply, sniffing up the fresh smells of the young, spring leaves and the musty moss, covered in morning dew. The path was narrow, curving around trees and bushes, but that just made it all the more interesting, the conqueror told herself, hopping over a few protruding roots. She used to go out running back in Athens as often as her schedule would allow, but she knew all the roads there now. She could run them blindfolded at top speed. She’d done just that, actually, attempting to make the track more interesting. Didn’t work though…

The conqueror widened her strides, picking up the pace as she ran down a small slope. Through the dense foliage she could spot the first soft rays of morning light. Another day had begun. Xena actually found herself smiling at the prospect, something she hadn’t done in quite some time. Her day to day life of the past few years had been boring and eventless. She was a thrill seeker, she had often explained to Pyrron. She needed challenges to make her life interesting, she needed opposition. Her advisor then deadpanned she should just fire him in that case, considering his job was to make sure she got as little opposition as possible. Xena grinned, hopping up and grabbing onto a lower branch, letting her speed swing her up until she was crouching on the outstretched piece of wood. She liked him though. A jump and she was balancing on the branch of the next tree. He was smart, and confident, and he didn’t fear her… Well, at least not as much as normal people did. And that was good, because it made sure he gave her honest advise and was not just saying things to suck up to her. She appreciated that about him, though she sometimes wished he’d keep his advise to himself from time to time.

The conqueror hopped across a few more trees before dropping back to the ground and continuing her run. Like his well meant advise to leave her new warrior friend alone. Xena rolled her eyes. That was no fun. Some people were made to be toyed with, but Pyrron didn’t seem to grasp that concept. Besides, she liked the kid. Her attempts to tick off the Conqueror had been very amusing, to say the least. She reminded Xena of herself when she was younger, all spunky and ambitious. But this kid had to power to back it up, which Xena hadn’t when she’d been her age… Did she think Gabrielle had Lao Ma’s power? Nah… Xena shook her head at the question. Lao Ma’s powers were based on peace and putting a halt to wanting and hating… And the blonde most certainly didn’t have that sense of calm. Maybe she’d had it before, but she most certainly did not now… Still, for all her fighting skills, she was a worthy opponent. It was really a waste she’d have to kill her in the end… Xena had no doubt she’d defeat the warrior before the month was over. She was a quick study, always had been, defeating an opponent was all about understanding how they thought, getting a grasp on what their next move would be, their next action… Defeating the blonde was simply a matter of time.

The road circled back to the camp and Xena slowed down a little, dropping back to an easy jog. In the distance she could spot some movement, a clear sign her escort had decided to wake up. Finally. Xena chuckled, pulling herself into a flip, then continuing her run without effort. A few more strides and she entered the clearing, slowing down even further, taking a moment to wipe a trail off sweat off her forehead.

“Empress!” Pyrron came walking closer, giving her a respectful nod as he stopped beside her. “I’ve started making preparations for departure. We can be on the road in half a Candlemark or so…”

“Excellent.” Xena crossed her arms. “The sooner we move, the sooner…” She cut off her sentence suddenly, cocking her head and listening intently.

“Conqueror?” Pyrron looked at her questioningly. “Is something the matter?”

“I hear something…” Xena explained in a low voice, her eyes determining the direction the sound was coming from and then heading towards the forest edge nearby, Pyrron hastily following in her footsteps.

They circled around some bushes, then Xena came to a dead stop, staring at the creator of the noise for a moment. Pyrron peeked over her shoulder, his eyes growing wide. “Tamon?” He managed in disbelief, staring at the soldier’s bright red face, as he circled around the conqueror.

The man nodded vigorously, the rope in his mouth keeping him from speaking.

The conqueror looked at him for a moment, then burst out laughing, holding onto Pyrron shoulder for support.

“Told you he was hanging around.” A voice sounded as Gabrielle emerged from the woods, obviously having gone out to hunt, two small birds strung over her shoulder.

Xena chuckled, shaking her head, giving the warrior an amused look. “Didn’t know you meant it this literally.” She crossed her arms, returning her gaze to the soldier in question. “Well, Tamon, I have a bit of an issue here…”

The soldier blinked at her.

“You see, you were supposed to protect my horse…” Xena stepped closer, circling the hanging man. “You know I love my horses, don’t you?” She gave the soldier a poke, making him swing back and forth.

“Mm sommy.” The man managed, before clamping down his teeth to push down the nausea.

“Oh, of course you are, but if your attacker had been any other than our good friend Gabby, you might have gotten my horses killed.” She halted his swinging with a single finger pressed to his forehead. “Now, you understand I can’t take a risk like that, don’t you?”

His eyes grew wide. “Bwu Comcorrer…”

Xena patted his cheek. “Oh, don’t worry, Tamon… You’ve served me well all these years…” She leaned closer, dropping her voice. “So I’ll make your death quick…”

With one subtle motion she unsheathed her sword and lashed out, easily severing the soldier’s head from his body. She watched the head fall to the ground and bounce up a little before it rolled away from her, ending up several metres before Gabrielle’s feet, the wide brown eyes staring up at her.

Gabrielle looked down at the head in horror, then pressed a hand to her mouth, turning and walking back into the woods with hasty paces.

Xena watched her go with a chuckle.

Footsteps stopped behind her. “Was that really necessary?” Pyrron’s voice asked softly. “He was a good soldier, Empress…”

“Oh, this wasn’t about him, Pyrron.” Amused blue eyes turned back to meet his.

Grey brows lifted.

Xena grinned as she turned and headed back in the direction of the camp. “Do you think dear Gabby will go out walking again this evening, now that an innocent lost his life, because of her?”

“This was not her fault, Empress.” Her advisor stated, a tinge of anger in his voice.

“No, it wasn’t, but that’s the way she’ll see it… And that serves my purpose…” The conqueror stated, re-sheathing her sword as she walked, then wiping at some of the blood on her hands. “I’ve got to change into something less bloody. Clean up the mess for me, will you Pyrron?”

“Yes, Empress.” The advisor bent his head, letting out a breath as she walked off, back to her tent.

***

It was a good thing Gabrielle hadn’t eaten breakfast yet. Her stomach rebelled violently, tossing out its contents. Gabrielle clenched onto her belly, staggering back a few paces until she backed up against a tree trunk, finding some support there. She’d seen death before, she was used to it, but this… The warrior closed her eyes, dropping her head. This was… savage. Brutal… And it was her fault.

The blonde wiped at her eyes. Why did this always happen? Always, wherever she went, people ended up dead. Her friends in Athens, Lao Ma and now this innocent boy… Gabrielle slid down the bark of the tree, sitting down on the earth, her legs pulled up. She crossed her arms over her knees and laid her head down on them, blocking out the light around her and finding solace in the darkness. “An effective warrior acts not from nihilistic anger, nor from desire to kill. That’s what you taught me, I do remember…” She turned her eyes up to the sky, spotting patches of blue through the foliage. “But how can it be wrong to want to kill someone who wants to kill?” A shake of the blond head. “I’m not that strong, Lao Ma, not as strong as you were… I hate her… I tried not to, but I can’t stop wanting to…” A breath as Gabrielle bit her lip. “I thought I could hold myself together, but I can’t… I can’t do this alone…” She managed in a whisper, staring at her hands. “I…”

The crunching of footsteps made her head shot up, and within moments she was on her feet, watching her surroundings attentively. She cocked her head, listening. Not the conqueror, these footsteps were more hesitant… They were heavy though, boots, leather creaking softly…

She leaned down slowly and pulled a dagger from her boot, then jumped up, reaching for a branch of the tree she had been leaning against and pulling herself up soundlessly.

She perched down on the wood, waiting silently, her eyes focused on the direction the sound had been coming from. A few more steps, then a some leaves were pushed and someone entered the clearing, looking around cautiously.

Gabrielle grumbled something under her breath, then tightened her grip on the hilt of her dagger, pulling her hand back and then letting the metal sear forward.

Pyrron’s eyes widened as a dagger soared passed him, nearly taking his ear of. “What in the name…” He muttered, glancing around the clearing.

Another moment of confusion, then Gabrielle dropped out of a tree, landing on the earth with an almost inaudible thud. The warrior straightened slowly, never taking her green eyes off the advisor. “What do you want?”

“I…” Pyrron swallowed, then regained his composure. “We are nearly ready to depart.”

Gabrielle glared at him for another moment, then nodded. “Fine.” She stated, then started off back into the direction of the camp. She walked past him without a word, grabbing onto the dagger that had embedded itself firmly in a tree and pulling the metal out, seemingly without much of an effort.

Pyrron turned and hastily followed after her, running along to catch up. He considered his options for a moment, then decided he couldn’t leave things unspoken. “Are you OK?”

The blonde stopped dead in her tracks, then turned slowly to face him, her eyes glazed over with something he could only qualify as pure rage. “Excuse me?”

The advisor lifted his hands in defence, taking a step backwards.

“Am I OK?!” Gabrielle stepped forward to compensate for the older man’s receding. “Some guy’s head just rolled to a stop in front of my feet and you ask me if I’m OK?!”

“Look, I apologise for that, it was…”

“Murder.” The woman finished for him. “It was bloody, brutal murder. And if you even had the slightest bit of goodness in you, you wouldn’t be dealing with that…” Gabrielle’s hands clenched to fists. “…that monster!” She turned briskly and continued her pacing back.

Pyrron stared after her, then took a deep breath and hastily followed. “She’s not as bad a person as you picture her to be…”

“How can you say that? After what just happened, how can you justify saying that?!” Gabrielle knew she should just shut up, but she couldn’t, her old habit of speaking up about anything she disliked surfacing with a vengeance.

Pyrron shook his head. “You don’t know her like I do. I agree she does some things that…” A pause. “I don’t always agree with her methods, but she’s not an evil person. She’s just…” The older man searched for a correct word, then settled on one. “…lost…”

“Lost?” Gabrielle stopped just in front of the forest’s edge and turned back to him with a look of disbelief. “She’s lost?” She lifted a finger an pointed at the advisor. “No, let me tell you what’s lost… That young man’s life is lost.” She pointed a thumb at her chest. “The lives of my friends were lost. And my soul was lost in my dealings with her.” The sea green eyes stormed at him, then the warrior turned from him and took off towards where her palomino mare was waiting patiently.

Pyrron watched her walk off, then closed his eyes, shaking his head softly. “That’s not all you’re going to lose if you keep this up, kiddo…”

“Heya Ronny.” Xena greeted her advisor cheerfully as he steered his brown mare closer. “Had fun chatting with our friend, did ya?”

Pyrron fixed his eyes on the conqueror for a moment, then looked away from her again, staring to the road up ahead. “No Empress, I did not.”

“Now how can that be? She’s such a great conversationalist after all…”

Her advisor didn’t answer, shaking his head slightly.

Xena rolled her eyes at him. “Oh please… Don’t tell me your getting fond of the kid, Pyrron… Need I remind you she’ll be dead within the next month?”

Pyrron looked up at her. “This has nothing to do with me liking or disliking her, Empress.” He managed, his voice low.

“What is this about then?”

Her advisor settled back in the saddle, adjusting the reigns a little, considering how to phrase his next statement. “You know I like cats, don’t you, Conqueror?”

Xena frowned at the man. “Yeeeeah…” She drawled, not sure where he was going.

“There’s one thing about them I don’t like though… When they catch a mouse they never just kill it, but play with it, tormenting it before biting it to death.” He shot the conqueror a meaningful look. “Now, I can oversee an error that nature’s placed in their hearts, but that doesn’t mean I don’t intervene when I see them torment an innocent creature…”

Xena gazed at her advisor for a moment. “I sense an analogy here…” She muttered, considering whether to be mad or amused at the man’s behaviour. “But this isn’t just a little mouse, Pyrron. This a mouse with a huge sword and a roundhouse kick that’ll blow you into next week…”

Pyrron cocked his head at her. “Does that make you any less sure that you will kill her eventually?”

“No, but…”

“Then I’ve made my point, haven’t I?” Her advisor stated, then clacked his tongue, his horse moving forward obediently. “Let’s go!” He called out to the troops, who followed orders dutifully, Gabrielle falling in at the back of the line, keeping as much distance as she could manage between herself and Xena.

The conqueror glared after him, then pushed her horse forward, catching up. “Now wait just a moment…” She hissed under her breath. “What exactly are you accusing me off here, Pyrron?”

A sigh “I’m not accusing you of anything, Empress.” He turned to her. “But as your advisor, my job is to give you insights into what is the best course of action. And in this case I suggest you to leave the girl be. You’ve made your point…”

Xena snorted. “You are growing weak at your old age, Pyrron.”

“Sometimes I wish I could say the same of you…”

The conqueror stared at him disbelief. “Excuse me?” She leaned closer, dropping her voice to a dangerous growl. “I might be in a good mood, but don’t push your luck…”

The older man released a breath, dropping his head a little. “We’ve been at odds before, Empress. I am only voicing my opinion, as I always do. And I will follow your orders if you decide to ignore my advice, as I always do.”

Xena looked at him for another moment, then settled back in her saddle. “It amazes me how you always manage to talk your way out of a potentially dangerous situation, old man…”

Pyrron glanced at the conqueror, then grinned. “I am just fortunate enough you have a soft spot for me, Empress…”

Xena shot him a look, then chuckled softly, shaking her head at her advisor in amusement.

***

Gabrielle wiped at the dust on Argo’s back absentmindedly. It had been a long days ride today, starting early in the morning and only ending now, a bit before sunset. She’d spend the entire journey at the back of the line, a few metres behind the conqueror’s troops. And she’d really expected to Conqueror to come and gloat, toss some annoyingly cheerful comments at her. Something, whatever, but nope… The woman had rode in the front lines the entire day, not even dropping by at their lunch break. Gabrielle shook her head quietly, kneeling down and brushing Argo’s belly. She didn’t understand the Conqueror. She just couldn’t get a grasp of her, of what made her tick. It was like she was a zillion people, all wrapped into one, and each time she saw her another Empress had hopped out to take over.

Gabrielle didn’t like it. She knew the rules of war. Know thy enemy, right? But how could she know her enemy if the woman was continuously shape shifting into different states of mind? The warrior growled under her breath. Obnoxious, the conqueror was so damned obnoxious.

Argo snorted at her rider, giving Gabrielle an annoyed look as the warrior strayed from her task time after time again. Gabrielle looked up, then shot the mare an apologetic smile. “Sorry girl.” She reached over and stroked the horse’s neck. “I should just stick to my work, huh?”

Argo nodded her head in agreement.

“Yeah, I know…” Gabrielle sighed, ordering the dishevelled manes. “There’s just a lot on my mind, Argo.” She leaned against the horse, wrapping an arm around the strong neck. “And I’m hurt and tired…”

The mare pushed her nose against the warrior, then snorted, shaking her head slightly.

Gabrielle chuckled. “Yes, and I smell, thank you so much for adding that…”

Argo blinked at her innocently.

“Don’t give me that look…” She placed a finger on the horse’s head, right between the eyes. Then she ruffled the thick manes, picking up a sponge and dipping it into a small bucket of cold water she’d taken from the lake they were camped near. “First I’ll give you a bath, then I’ll go take one, OK?”

After finishing with Argo, Gabrielle made her way back to her tent. She really needed a bath, she decided, looking down at her sandblasted, smudgy, horse-smelling self. She gave the two soldiers posted outside her tent a look before pushing the tent flap aside. Gabrielle took a breath of the warm stuffy air. Gods, she hated tents. When the sun was shining, they were

always reduced to a fabric covered sauna, not letting a single breath of fresh air in. Gabrielle dropped her saddlebags to the floor, then knelt down beside them, digging out her bedroll and unrolling it in the tent’s centre. Next a large towel was pulled out, together with some clean clothes. Gabrielle stood, unfastening her sword from her back and placing it on the ground, pulling her bedroll aside so the thick material covered the weapon. Then she tossed the towel over her shoulder. She glanced up at the large hole still prominently remaining in the roof of her tent, but then she shook her head at herself, not wanting any more deaths on her conscience.

She strode out of the tent, then turned to one of the soldiers. “I’m off taking a bath. If your Empress gets upset again and tries to kill you, just yell and I’ll come take her head off.” She told him, then headed for the lake.

“Bwu… I… Uhm…” The soldier stuttered after her, then glanced at his companion, who just blinked back at him uncertainly.

Gabrielle circled the lake for a while looking for a suitable spot to bathe, stripping in front of the Conqueror’s army not really seeming like a bright idea. It was quite a large stretch of water, the curving edges covered with trees and bushes.

Finally, about a mile or so out of the camp, she spotted a small beach sloping down into the water, the forest extending out on its right so views to and from the camp were obscured. Gabrielle paused for a moment, letting her senses reach out and check the surroundings for any uncommon sounds.

There was nothing, so she walked onto the sand dropping her clothes and towel at the water’s edge before stripping out of the smelly garments she was still wearing.

She shivered as she dipped a hesitant toe into the water. The water was icy cold, which could probably be blamed on the good cover the forest trees provided from the warming of the sun. Gabrielle braced herself and stepped forward, getting knee high into the water. Another step and the water came up to her thighs. The warrior reached down and splashed some of the icy

water on her arms and head, trying to get her skin to adjust to the coldness before jumping in.

“Well hi there…”

Gabrielle’s eyes widened as she recognised the voice as she hastily dropped down under the water’s surface in one chilling go.

A low chuckle sounded behind her. “Prudish, are we?”

Gabrielle closed her eyes, clamping her chattering teeth together and managing to put a dignified expression on her face before turning around in the water to look at the conqueror. “What do you want?” She asked, not quite able to get all the surplus anger out of her voice.

“The same thing you do…”

“I doubt that…” Gabrielle muttered from between clenched teeth, wishing for a dagger so she could toss it towards the conqueror’s chest.

“…to have a bath.” Xena finished her sentence, ignoring the warrior’s comments. She tugged at a gauntlet, pulling the leather from her arm and tossing it on the sand beside the pile Gabrielle had left, before pulling off the other. “You picked the best spot for a swim around here, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle glared at the conqueror, then hastily diverted her eyes as the woman started to unbutton her tunic. “If you give me a moment longer I’ll leave so you can have the place to yourself.”

“Oh, that’s all right.” Xena commented casually, enjoying the fresh breeze against her sweating body for a moment, before making her way into the water. “I don’t mind sharing…”

With one leap Xena plunged herself into the water, diving gracefully under the surface. Gabrielle watched as the water rippled and churned, then calmed once more. A moment of quietness then the conqueror’s head broke through the surface again, black hair sending sprays of water through the air as Xena tossed her head back. “Chilly…” The conqueror chattered, starting to swim around to warm herself. “You know, I wish they would invent heated lakes. That would make travelling so much more comfortable, don’t you agree?”

Gabrielle decided not to agree or disagree, but simply ignored the statement, turning her back to the woman, rubbing at the dirt on her arms.

Xena rolled her eyes, then swam around the warrior, lying on her back and drifting along. “Aw, come now, Gabby. You’re gonna be stuck with me for a month anyway, we might as well be civil to each other.”

Green eyes kept focused on the water, as the warrior splashed some water on her shoulder. “I don’t act civil to uncivil people.”

“Uncivil? Me?” The conqueror pointed a thumb at her own chest innocently. “Now, what gave you that idea?”

“I think the brutal murder before dawn clued me in…”

Xena chuckled. “Oh, we’re back to that, are we?”

“You might forget about the people you kill, but I don’t…” Gabrielle looked up at the woman drifting in front of her. “I remember them. I will never forget.”

Xena cocked her head at the blonde. “I’m not asking you to forget, am I?” The woman twisted in the water, so she was upright once more. “Look, maybe killing soldier boy this morning was a bit… rash…” The conqueror consented, with a wave of her hand. “My advisor didn’t agree with me either, maybe I made an error in judgement.”

“Maybe?” Gabrielle lifted an eyebrow.

“This wasn’t about some soldier, Gabrielle.” Xena crossed her arms, treading water. “This is about leadership.”

Another eyebrow lifted.

“Oh come on…” Xena shook her head at the blonde. “You know just as well as I do that loyalty and fear go hand in hand. If these soldiers don’t fear me, they’ll go astray and before you know it I’ll have enemy armies popping up all over the place… Can’t have that, Gabby, not good for the indefeatable, tough as nails, don’t-mess-with-me-or-you-die kinda image, you know?”

“You could’ve done something else… You didn’t have to kill him…” Gabrielle stated quietly.

“It seemed appropriate at the time…” Xena muttered in an undertone. “But maybe I could take different measures next time something like this happens… As a sign of good will towards our…” The conqueror searched for a word. “…agreement.”

“No.” Xena looked up to see flashing eyes boring into hears. “How about next time, when you wanna punish me for something I did, you take it up with me and not hide away behind your soldiers like some coward, OK?” She shot at Xena, before turning and swimming towards the shore.

“Hey!” Xena went after her. “Don’t you say that and turn your back on me…” She reached out and grabbed onto the woman’s shoulder. “I…Argh!” She gurgled as a hand was shoved against her throat savagely, pushing the air out of her.

“You touch me again…” Gabrielle’s voice was dangerously low. “…and I will break our agreement and your neck. Understood?”

“Perfectly.” Xena managed to get out, before she was shoved back harshly, disappearing under the water for a few moment before surfacing again, gasping for air. She coughed, getting a bit of water out of her lungs, then looked around just in to see a form disappearing into the shadows. The conqueror shook her head quietly, then made her way out of the lake herself.

***

“Empress!”

Xena lifted her head at the mention of her title as she walked back into camp. Her advisor came trotting over, falling into pace beside her, giving her a respectful nod. “Yes, Pyrron?”

“I’ve got diner set up in your tent, Empress. The troops are all settled in. Horses are brushed and fed.” Pyrron updated them on their status routinely. “Scouts report no threats.”

“Now there’s a surprise…” Xena muttered sarcastically.

“Gabrielle returned to her tent just a few moments ago. The guards said she told them she’d been out taking a bath…”

“I know.” Xena nodded as she acknowledged some of the salutes of her soldiers. “We had a bit of a chat.”

Pyrron blinked up at her in disbelief. “You talked to her, Empress?”

“Well yeah, as much talking as I was gonna get out of that woman anyway.” The conqueror rolled her eyes. “She’s not really a chatterbox, you know…” Xena placed a hand on her advisor’s shoulder. “Since you were so full of praise about our warrior buddy this morning, I guess I just wanted to see what you find so interesting about her…”

Pyrron shook his head. “I was not full of praises, Empress. I merely stated the obvious.” The advisor informed her. There was a moment of silence, then Pyrron glanced up at the woman beside him. “So, did you find out what she’s like?”

“Sure.”

Pyrron cocked his head at her. “And?”

“Lousy temper. Great butt.”

The advisor gazed at her for a moment, then rolled his eyes. “No offence to your skill of observation, Empress, but I could have told you that on day one.”

Athens. Gabrielle fidgeted with her reigns uncomfortable, staring at the outline of the city looming in the distance. She never thought she’d be returning to this place again, definitely not in the company she was in now. This city held so many memories of a life she’d once known, had once lived, but had tried so desperately to forget. When she’d been in Chin she’d really believed her friends would be better off without her. She had always been the one risking their safety, had always been the one urging them to take chances. They’d nearly gotten killed because of her several times. That last time had been too close…

“I don’t know about this, Gab…” Naxos looked unsure as his grip tightened on the folded parchments in his hands. “Handing these things around in broad daylight on the Agora… Isn’t there a slightly less conspicuous way to do this?”

“Just act unsuspicious and wait for people to step up to you.” Gabrielle instructed him calmly, her eyes flicking across the square from her spot in a corner at the end of the stoat. “They’ll never expect us to hand these out here and now, Naxos. The Conqueror’s troops have been patrolling constantly in our neighbourhood at night time. This is a lot safer than sneaking outside tonight…”

“Handing out pamphlets that say ‘The conqueror must die!’ at midday on one of the most heavily guarded squares in Athens does not strike me as safe, Gab.” Naxos hissed back, then hastily dove behind a large pillar as a soldier got a bit too close.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Would you just relax?!” She grabbed her friend by both shoulders, looking at him sternly. “Come on, Naxos. We need to get these things delivered. We need to let people know what’s going on. If the Conqueror is really planning raids in the eastern blocks our people there need to know so they can be prepared.”

Naxos sighed heavily. “I know, I know…”

“Good.” Gabrielle nodded, then looked across the square, shooting a look at Kimon, who was posted in the shadow of a small grocery shop. The young man inclined is head slightly, to show he was ready. “All right. Lets get this done. You’ll hide the parchment at the spot we talked about?”

“Yeah yeah, I know the plan…” Naxos sighed gravely. “I walk across the square and hide the parchment under the bushes near the fountain. Then we all point people to that location where they can pick ‘m up… I know the drill, Gabrielle, you talked me through this a zillion times already…”

“Stop wining and just get it done.” Gabrielle gave him a look, then a pat on the shoulder, before walking off to her spot on the stairs at the temple of Ares.

There were a lot of soldiers around this day. Gabrielle let her eyes take in her surroundings, spotting at least a dozen near the temple alone. This was really not the best day to try and twarth some of the Conqueror’s great plans. Green eyes tracked to the stoat as Naxos emerged, the tension written in his body as he paced towards the fountain. Gabrielle took a breath. This had to work… If it didn’t, a lot of people would end up dead and…

“Hey! You!”

Gabrielle winced as she heard the gruff voice drift over. She watched as Naxos spun around anxiously. Far too anxiously.

A tall, armoured, blond man stepped closer to the young rebel. His armour was decorated, and he wore a bright blue cloak, the sign of one of the higher lieutenants. “What have you got there?” He pointed at the pile of parchment.

“I’ de…delivering papers to the sc…scribes of the Conqueror… sir…” Naxos stuttered, swallowing.

“Show them to me…” The lieutenant extended his palm towards him.

“I…” Naxos took a pace back. “I…”

“I said give them here!” The soldier snapped, advancing towards the young man. “You give them to me now, or I’ll…”

A voice echoed up from the other end of the square and his blond head shot up as the words penetrated. “Down with the Conqueror!” The lieutenant eyes flicked across the crowd then settled on the blonde figure standing on the steps of the Temple to the God of War.

“We’ve all had enough of the tyranny!” Gabrielle went on, seeing the blond lieutenant’s attention was now fully focused on her, Naxos completely forgotten. “We have to stand up now, together, and fight this regime! It’s time to rebel, it’s time to take up arms and show the Conqueror the power of the masses. Let her hear the voices of the people. Our voices! We have a right to speak, to voice our opinions. We have a right to…”

“You have no rights, girl…” A soldier growled as a sword was pointed at her throat. Gabrielle looked around her, at the soldiers circling her, all heavily armed. There was no escaping this time, Gabrielle realised, so she stood strong and glanced aside quickly, locking eyes with Naxos, who was staring at her in a completely stunned state. ‘Go.’ She tried to tell him wordlessly, before a voice beside her shot up and drew her attention away from him.

“We’ve got her, lieutenant Pompey.” The soldier who had spoken to her before, inclined his head towards the lieutenant that came walking up the stairs towards her, his blue cloak waving in the soft breeze.

“Good work.” Pompey acknowledged to the man, then crossed his arms and turned his gaze to meet hers. “I bet the conqueror would like to have a word with you…”

It would have been Naxos on that cross… And she couldn’t let that happen. But now, in spite of her efforts, Naxos was dead. Kimon was dead. Gabrielle took a shaky breath. She should’ve kept them out of it, should’ve done it on her own. Their deaths were on her conscience. They needed to be avenged.

Green eyes lifted and gazed at the dark haired woman cheerfully chatting to her advisor in the front row of the formation. They would be avenged.

As they rode up to the gates of the capital, the large wooden doors were pulled back, clearing the way for them. A number of guards stood in either side of the road into the city, stretching out their flat hands as Xena rode passed. The Conqueror acknowledged their salutes with a nod of her head, passing the soldiers at an easy trot.

Men and women looked up as the small group of soldiers passed through the streets of Athens. Gabrielle kept her head firmly facing forward, but she couldn’t help but catching the gazes fixed in her direction, or hear her name drift up in the murmuring that followed.

They hadn’t forgotten her… Then again, how could they have, with the scene she’d made at her trial. And now they saw her riding with the woman she’d spat insults at… Gabrielle closed her eyes, her composure nearly failing her as her shoulders slumped slightly. The rebel turned traitor. Now she would be despised by both sides.

Oh, cut the self pity. Gabrielle silently growled at herself. This is what you get for running off and saving your own neck, Gabrielle.

The gates to the palace grounds were pushed open and Xena rode in, riding over the wide paved path to the doors that led into the large building. Home sweet home. Xena rolled her eyes. To say she was unhappy to arrive back in Athens was an understatement. She hated the city, and all it stood for.

As she pulled to a halt, giving the dark stallion a pat on the neck before dismounting gracefully. Immediately a young boy ran up to her, taking the reigns from her, his head bent as he stood before her. “Take good care of this one, Brennos.”

“Yes, my liege.” The boy nodded obediently, then gentle tugged the stallion’s towards the stables.

The Conqueror waved a small girl closer. “Iona, take that palomino to the stables.”

The girl curtsied. “Empress.”

“And be sure to take special care of that one, OK? I don’t wanna see a speck on her.”

A firm nod, then the girl walked over to the horse in question, taking the reigns from the warrior woman whose eyes were roaming around the complex. “I’ll take your horse, ma’am.”

Suspicious green eyes turned to her. “Take her to where?”

Iona blinked, swallowing. “Uhm… The stables, miss.” A moment of silence. “The Empress ordered me. I promised to take good care of her.”

Gabrielle blinked, then released her hold on Argo’s reigns, giving the girl a nod. “All right…” She untied the saddlebags from the mare’s hindquarters, slinging them over her shoulder. “Go on…”

“Thank you, ma’am.” The girl inclined her head, then turned around and lead Argo around the left side of the palace.

Gabrielle watched her go, then turned as one of the soldiers cleared his throat in order to get her attention, then motioned her forward, indicating she ought to follow the Conqueror.

Xena walked up the steps, the doors swinging open as she did so, allowing her entrance to the large hall. The floor was made of black, well polished marble. The high thick walls were a beige colour and the room decorated with items from across the world. Drawings from Egypt, silk from Chin, ritual spears from Africa, statues from Rome… Pyrron had decorated the hall, wanting it to serve as a way to impress people and remind them about the Conqueror’s wealth and power. Xena thought it was boring.

An older man, wearing a simple white tunic with golden edges, stood in front of a small group of similarly dressed people. They all bowed as Xena entered. “Welcome back, my liege.” The older man said politely as he straightened. “How may we be of use to you?”

Xena suppressed a sigh. Back to business it was then. “Has the regent of Egypt arrived yet?”

“Yes, my liege, she docked in Pireaus yesterday and arrived at the palace last evening.”

“Good.” Xena nodded, loosening the thin cloak from around her neck, a young woman immediately rushing forward and taking it from her. “Benitor, make sure all our luggage is returned to where it came from.”

“Yes, Empress.” The man nodded, lifting four fingers and waving them towards the door, four young men immediately rushing off.

“And I want you to personally show Gabrielle here to her room.” She waved a hand at the warrior that had entered behind her.

The older man looked at the scarcely dressed woman, old ragged saddlebags slung over one shoulder, slightly wide green eyes darting across the room. He wrinkled his nose, but managed to keep the polite smile plastered on his face. “Of course.” He inclined his head, then walked towards the woman, but was halted by a hand on his shoulder as he passed the Conqueror.

Blue eyes pinned him down. “She is a guest here and I expect her to be treated as such.” Xena dropped her voice. “Is that understood?”

A hasty nod. “Perfectly, my liege.”

“Good.” She released her hold on him, then turned to face the blonde. “Benitor here will show you your room.”

Gabrielle crossed her arms. “What about Thalia? You said I could see her…”

Xena drummed her fingers on the leather of her pants for a moment, then nodded. “True. But I will have to welcome my regent first.” A pause. “Give me one Candlemark.”

The warrior looked at her for another moment, then nodded. “All right.” She agreed, then turned to Benitor, who hastily motioned towards one of the marble stairs on her left, mounting the stairs, Gabrielle following behind him.

Pyrron watched her go, then waved two soldiers closer, motioning his head towards the blonde. The men nodded, then walked towards the stairs.

“Boys.”

They froze in their tracks as Xena’s voice rumbled behind them.

“Did I order you to escort my guest to her room?”

The men blinked, giving each other an insecure look, before shaking their heads simultaneously.

Xena crossed her arms, glaring at them “Then I suggest you get away from those stairs right now.”

“Yes, Empress.” Was the hasty reply, as the two soldiers hastily rejoined the rest of their group.

“Smart.” Xena muttered, then glanced to the men lined up before her. “Well, gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure travelling with you. Now, go back to your quarters and rest.”

The men saluted, then turned and marched out of the room.

“Pyrron.”

The advisor winced, then turned to face his ruler. “My apologies, Empress.”

Blue eyes regarded him sternly for a moment, then Xena waved him off. “Just don’t do it again.”

“I won’t.”

“Good.” Xena gave him a nod, then turned and headed for a door on the far left. “Make sure the regent is brought to my study. After that go and see your family.”

Pyrron smiled at the prospect.

“I’ll expect you back for diner this evening.”

A nod from her advisor. “As you wish, Empress.”

“Your room, m’lady.” After endless twisting and turning through hallways and up stairs, Benitor opened a door in the far left corner of the palace, swaying his hand towards the entrance with a small bow.

Gabrielle frowned at the politeness, but then preceded him, walking into the room. And come to a dead stop in the entrance, staring inside dumbfounded. The room was the size her first house in Athens had been, and she’d shared that place with six other people. A king-size bed was placed against the far wall, in front of a large window that allowed the bright sunlight to filter into the room, reflecting off the scarlet rug lying on the white marble. A wooden closet and small desk and several comfy looking chairs filled the rest of the space. Gabrielle blinked, then turned back to the older man behind her. “I… I think you made a mistake…”

Benitor folded his hands behind his back. “A mistake, ma’am?”

“This can’t be my room.”

The servant cocked his head. “Is it not to your liking? I would put you in a better room, miss, but unfortunately the Egyptian regent is here at the moment and she’s settled in the other guest room.”

A blonde eyebrow lifted. “Guest room?”

“Yes, ma’am.” A firm nod. “We usually accommodate guests in the guest rooms.”

Gabrielle blinked. “Right.” She managed, tentatively taking another step into the room, taking the saddlebags off her shoulder and placing them on top of the desk.

“One of the boys will soon come bring you your luggage, miss.”

“I don’t have any other luggage.”

The older man’s bushy eyebrows frowned. “No luggage? Then what will you wear for diner?”

“I… uhm…” Gabrielle scratched the back of her neck. “This I guess…” She indicated her tunic. “After I wash it, of course…” She hastily amended, seeing the displeased look on the servant’s face.

“After you wash it?” A small grin now found its way on Benitor’s face. “Miss, I don’t think you quite understand your position. You are a guest in the Empress’s palace. Guest generally don’t wash their own clothes here. We tend to do that for them.”

“Oh, I don’t want to bother you with that.” Gabrielle hastily shook her head.

“It wouldn’t be a bother.” The servant assured her politely. “Just place your clothes in the basket right here and I’ll come and pick them up. I’ll get you something alternative to wear, while you freshen up in the bathroom. I’ve taken the liberty of filling the hot tub for you.” He pointed towards a door on her right.

“The hot… Right…” Green eyes glanced from him to the door.

“Good.” Benitor smiled at her. “Is there anything else I can get you? A snack before diner maybe? We’ve got some nice roasted quail if you’re interested.”

“I… No… No, thank you. But… some water would be nice…”

“Just water?”

A nod.

“Water it is then.” The servant confirmed. “I’ll send one of the girls up in a moment.” He inclined his head, then turned and walked off.

Gabrielle watched him go, then turned, closing the door behind her. She eyed her room insecurely for another moment. What was going on? She was a guest now? What happened to the ‘slave of the month’ scenario here? She unsheathed her sword, twirling it in one hand. Quietly she tiptoed to the door to the bathroom, then kicked it open with a boot, pointing the sword forward defensively.

Nothing.

Carefully she edged around the door, her eyes scanning the room.

Nothing. Except for a filled, steaming hot tub.

This had to be a joke. Some insane twist of the Conqueror’s sick mind, that’s what this was… The warrior walked back into the room, her sword still clutched in her hand. She checked the large closet, she checked under the bed…

Nothing.

Gabrielle unclipped the scabbard from her back, then re-sheathed her sword, laying the weapon on the bed. Everything seemed clear…

Maybe she’d poisoned the water… The blonde head shot up. Yeah, that was probably it. She darted back into the bathroom, dipping a cupped hand in the water and lifting some of the liquid up, bringing it to her nose.

Lavender. Gabrielle released a frustrated breath. There had to be something… This couldn’t just…

A soft knock on the door made her jump, and she instinctively reached for the dagger stuck in her boot. Another knock and she crept closer, careful not to make a sound. Slowly, the door was pushed open and Gabrielle tightened her hold on the hilt of her dagger, then jumped forward, pouncing on the door opening.

A high squeal, then the sound of shattering glass and the splash of water.

Gabrielle jerked open the door to see a small girl lying on the carpet, the remnants of a small jug lying beside her.

The young redhead blinked up at her nervously. “I… I’m j… just here for the cl… clothes, ma’am.”

Xena sighed as she leaned back in her chair, closing her eyes. Cleo was a great ruler, a valuable ally, but by the gods could that woman nag… The Conqueror massaged her temple softly, trying to get rid of the pounding headache that was drilling at her skull. Egypt was the main supplier of gold of the Empire and Cleo knew that all too well. She also knew her position as leader of the lands in northern Africa was pretty solid, since her people saw her as a living goddess and there would be a mayor uproar if Xena replaced her. And an uproar would mean no gold, which would mean no pay for her inferiors, which would mean… Well, her death, basically… Couldn’t have that…

Xena got up from her seat and walked to the small bathroom linked to her study. She poured some water out of a jug into the small basin, then scooped some of the liquid in her hands, splashing it on her face.

Luckily she had some leverage over Cleopatra as well. She controlled all import into Egypt. Iron, marble, silk… The Queen of the Nile knew that if she gave the Conqueror any trouble all import would cease… Which would create a nice rebellion in Egypt, which would most likely result in a test of how immortal this living goddess really was… Xena chuckled softly to herself as she dried her face with a towel. She liked these little games with her regents. It was kind of like waging war, judging their next move, their motivations, finding strengths and weaknesses in their defence… She still preferred real battles, swords and armour, but this parrying with words and sharp looks had its moments.

Xena grinned wickedly, cracking her fingers. Now there were other games to be played however.

Moments later she knocked on the door to Gabrielle’s room.

“Just a moment.” Some stumbling sounded, then the door was pulled open, Gabrielle’s form blocking the door frame. The warrior had changed and was now dressed in a light, greenish blue tunic. “Oh, it’s you…” She concluded in disappointment.

Both dark eyebrows raised. “You were expecting someone else?”

“Yes, actually.” The woman deadpanned, then turned her head, looking inside the room. “I’m sorry, Esmee, I have to go see my friend now. Tell Benitor I’ll have to take a rain check on the baklava, OK?”

“Sure.” The young redhead squirmed off the bed, getting to her feet. “Thank you for the drink, Gabrielle.”

“Anytime.” The warrior shot her a smile. “Again, I’m so very sorry about what happened…”

“Don’t worry about it.” The girl waved a hand at her, then hastily curtsied as she came into view of the Conqueror. “Empress.” She said politely, then slipped out of the room.

Xena watched her go with an amused look, then turned back as Gabrielle pulled the door shut behind her. “Baklava, huh?”

“I figured that if this all turns out to be bogus I would have at least gotten some pastry out of it.”

Xena chuckled. “I think you’re in for another month or so of cheating me out of good food, Gabrielle.”

“We’ll see…” Gabrielle followed the conqueror through a hallway, then down a pair of stairs. The warrior hesitated for a moment, then decided being straightforward was probably the best approach to dealing with the conqueror. “So why the VIP treatment?”

Xena grinned. “Would you rather have me lock you up in the storage room? I could do that, you know?”

“You’re not answering my question.”

The conqueror lifted both hands in defence. “Excuse me.” She considered the question for a moment. “Because I saw no reason to treat you any differently. You’re not my servant.”

“No, I’m your pawn.”

A low laugh. “I wouldn’t have put it that way myself, but…”

She descended down another flight of the stairs, then turned a corner, re-entering the main hall.

And at the moment they did the outer door was pushed open, two servants stepping inside hastily and bowing to the woman that strode into the room, a leather cloak draped over her shoulders, the brown hair pulled back from the dark glowering face.

Xena pulled to a stop, frowning at the woman. “Alti? What the Hades are you doing here?”

“I’m here to make sure you don’t start making mistakes, Xena.” She motioned towards the blonde. “I see you’ve decided to make things complicated for yourself.”

The Conqueror chuckled. “Always.” She motioned for the warrior behind her. “Alti, meet … my pawn Gabrielle.” A grin. “Gabrielle, this is my shamaness Alti.”

“Shamaness?” The warrior frowned, looking at the woman. Dark brown eyes focused on her, and Gabrielle could almost feel the sorceress probing her brain.

Alti circled Xena, oblivious of the introduction, focusing her attention on Gabrielle for a long moment, reaching out her hand towards the warrior’s neck.

But before she could touch her a strong grip wound itself around her arm, tugging the limb back, a painful crack sounding as the bone was twisted into an unnatural position. “Oh no you don’t…” Xena warned in a low tone. “No flashbacking dear Gabs here. I’m not through with her yet.”

Dangerous brown eyes glowered at the Conqueror, jerking her hand back from the ruler’s hold. “She is a danger to you.”

“Well, that’s stating the obvious.” Xena gave the shamaness an amused look. “That’s kind of the point.”

“She will corrupt you…”

Gabrielle snorted. “Right, like she needs any help in that department.” She crossed her arms. “Can we save the chit chat for later. I’d like to see my friend now.”

“Sure.” Xena nodded, then motioned for a pair of stairs leading down. “Right through there.” She waved one of her servants closer. “Accompany my friend here to her room.”

The servant bowed, then motioned Alti to precede him.

Brown eyes narrowed at her. “You should not discard this so easily, Xena. I am warning you…”

“Lemme just handle this first, then I’ll come talk to you, OK?” Xena shot her a toothy smile, then followed Gabrielle down the stairs.

The corridors here were much smaller. Gabrielle glanced around uncomfortably. This would be an easy spot for an ambush. The Conqueror at her back, a few soldiers attacking her from the front… Gabrielle shivered at the thought. What was she doing here? This could never work… A few more echoes of her footsteps. Thalia. She had to focus on saving Thalia… But what if she wasn’t here…?

Then again, what if she was? Would Thalia still recognise her? Would she hate her for what happened? What if her old friend wouldn’t even want to talk to her, what if she saw her as a traitor… What if…?

“Hail Empress.” A young soldier saluted.

“Claudius.” Xena accepted his greeting with a nod. “I’d like to see one of the prisoners.”

“Yes, my liege.” He turned and opened the door for her. “Which one?”

“The rebel leader.”

“Very well.” The soldier nodded, then strode forward.

Gabrielle followed behind him, glancing to her left and right. Rows of cells on either side of the hallway, shadowy figures standing up as the threesome passed. The guard in front of her stopped at the last cell on the right. “This is her, ma’am.”

The woman that was lying on her pallet facing away from them hastily scrambled to her feet at the nearby voice. She faced the bars, then her eyes widened slightly and she took a few shaky paces forward. “Gab?”

Gabrielle wrapped her hands around the bars, staring at her old friend. “Yeah, it’s me…” She managed in a slightly hoarse voice.

“I can’t… I can’t believe it…” Thalia whispered incredulously as she closed the distance between them. “You can’t be…” She reached through the bars, touching the blonde’s cheek. “Oh my gods…”

“Oh, these touchy reunions…” The conqueror fained wiping a tear from her eye. “They get me all emotional…” She grinned, then turned to Claudius. “Open the door.”

The guard blinked. “Empress?”

Blue eyes narrowed at him as she dropped her voice an octave lower. “I said: open the door.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Was the hasty reply as he searched for the right key, then placed it in the lock.

“I will give you two some privacy so you can catch up, okidoki?”

Green eyes dragged themselves from the prisoner and focused on Xena. “If you’re considering locking me in here, you can forget about it…”

“Hey, who said anything about locking?” The Conqueror lifted her hands in defence. “No tricks, honestly. I’ll leave the door open.” Then she crossed her arms, leaning a little closer and dropping her voice. “I’ve kept my word through all of this. I expect you to do the same.”

Gabrielle judged her for a moment, then nodded.

“Good.” Xena shot her a grin, then waved Claudius closer. “Let’s go.”

“I…” The guard frowned, but quickly nodded as blue eyes gazed at him questioningly. “Yes, Empress.”

“Smart boy.” She patted the soldier on the shoulder, then turned back to Gabrielle. “Take all the time you need. I will see you at diner.” She stated, then headed back to the exit, Claudius hastily following behind.

She shut the door to the prison, then placed a hand on Claudius’s shoulder, the guard looking up at her insecurely. “Go outside, find the leader of the guards and tell him to put some extra archers in the square. If they try to make a run for it, tell the archers they should aim for the redhead. The blonde can go for all I care, but the rebel is not leaving this place alive, understood?”

A small smile crept onto the guards face, the soldier relieved to see the rational side of his ruler poking through. “Understood, Empress.”

“What is going on here?” Thalia frowned her brows, gazing after the Conqueror. “What is she talking about?”

Gabrielle released a breath, pulling open the cell door and stepping inside. “It’s a long story.”

“If there’s something I’ve got plenty of, it’s time…” Thalia muttered, then walked closer to her friend, pulling her into a hug. “Hey, you.”

Gabrielle released a breath, returning the hug hesitantly.

Thalia pulled back to come face to face with her old friend, staring into the deep green eyes, that were now brimming with tears. “Now don’t go all mushy on me.” She joked faintly, wiping at the drops that slid across the blonde’s cheek, while forcing down the lump in her own throat. “You know how much I hate that…”

“Sorry.” Gabrielle sniffed, blinking. “I just…” She took a shaky breath. “I thought you were dead…”

“Pff…” Thalia waved a hand at her. “Darn tyrant can’t kill Terror Thalia, you should know better.”

The warrior looked up into the smiling face for a moment longer, then bent her head in defeat. “I’m so, so sorry…”

Thalia frowned at her. “Sorry? What are you talking about? What on earth do you have to be sorry for?”

Green eyes peeked up at her guiltily. “I left you.”

“Oh please…” The redhead rolled her eyes. “If I remember correctly I was the one that put you on that cart and told you to get as far away from Athens as possible. You just did as ordered.”

A wry chuckle from the blonde. “Now there’s a first.”

Thalia joined in, patting her cheek affectionately. “I’ll say…” A short pause as she studied her friend. “You’ve heard about…?”

A heavy breath, as Gabrielle nodded quietly. “I heard when I came back to Greece. I stopped by my parent’s house on the way here. My sister told me…”

Thalia sighed, sitting back on her pallet. “I don’t know what happened…” She started. “One moment we were cheerfully plotting along, the next all these soldiers barged through the doors, yelling and screaming. Kimon tried to…tried to attack one… He was run through before he could even get close… …” A shake of the red head. “They rounded us up, then dragged me along to the palace… I thought maybe I would get to see the Conqueror, maybe I could get the rest out of this one way or the other…” A self deprecatory snort. “Well, obviously not, huh?”

Gabrielle settled down beside her friend, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.

“I could hear the trial from here.” She murmured softly, staring into the nothing. “I could hear their voices… I could…” A shaky breath. “I could hear the screams as they… As they were…”

Gabrielle gently squeezed her shoulder in comfort. “This is not your fault, Thal. You couldn’t have known…”

Thalia shook her head softly. “I tried telling myself that. But I’ll always keep wondering, ya know, if maybe if I’d not done this or that, I could have prevented it…”

Gabrielle laid her head against the woman’s shoulder. “Yeah, I know.” She said quietly, a small smile crossing her face as she felt an arm circle around her.

She felt herself slipping back into the skin of the person she’d been, and marvelled how easy it was to forget those three years, to just soak up the friendship and put faith in the fact that, together, they could do anything… But things were different now. It was all in her hands this time, and now she would have to go up against their long time enemy by herself, unable to hide behind pamphlets, or graffiti, or small raids. This time she had to defeat her face to face. Not just once, but over and over again…

“Hey, Thalia?” A voice drifted over from the cell beside them. Gabrielle looked up to see a woman peeking through the bars, curly dark-blond hair framing a young face, curious eyes focused on the two of them. “Who’s your friend?”

“Forgive me my manners, your highness.” Thalia apologised in an over-exaggerated manner, flashing her a grin. “This…” She waved a hand at Gabrielle. “…is the one and only Gabrielle of Potedeia.”

“Ah, Gorgeous Gab, Defender of Democracy.” The prisoner chuckled amusedly. “Thalia said you’d come back. Glad to see you haven’t disappointed her.”

Gabrielle cocked her head at the woman, standing up and taking a few steps closer. “And you are?”

The woman poked her hand through the bars, extending it towards the warrior. “Ephiny.”

“Queen of the Amazons.” Thalia added in a regal tone, chuckling as Ephiny rolled her eyes at her.

“Nice to meet you.” Gabrielle took the offered hand, shaking it.

“Could have been under better circumstances.” The Amazon noted, leaning her head against the metal bars separating them. “So, the Conqueror caught you too, huh?”

“Well…” Gabrielle scratched her neck. “Not exactly…”

Two pair of intrigued eyes glanced at her.

The warrior took a breath. “See, it all started out like this…”

“You have nothing to worry about.”

Alti crossed her arms, standing in the centre of her room, watching the Conqueror lying stretched out on her bed, one hand propped up to support her head. “You have no idea what you’re dealing with, Xena.”

The ruler waved her free hand at her negligently. “Whatever it is, I can handle it…”

“And what if you can’t?” The shamaness retorted. “In spite of what you may think, you are not invincible…”

A shrug. “If I can’t handle it, you can come to my rescue, OK?”

“Prevention is better than finding a cure…”

The Conqueror tossed up her hands, pushing herself up into a sitting position, legs dangling over the edge of the bed. “All I want to do is have a little fun! You remember, fun? Where you laugh and enjoy yourself? Ever done that?”

Alti shot her a bored look. “I enjoy myself in ways that are less threatening to my existence.”

Xena rolled her eyes. “Oh right, I forget, killing ignorant peasants and taking their ‘spiritual powers'” She hissed the last words, wiggling her fingers at Alti.

“Don’t mock me, Xena.” The shamaness pointed a finger at her. “You do not want me as your enemy.”

Blue eyes regarded her for a moment, then Xena sagged back on the bed, exhaling gravely. “I gave my word on certain matters and I can’t back out on that now, Alti.”

The shamaness frowned. “Why not?”

Xena shot her a look. “It’s a code between warriors, OK?”

“And a code is more important than your life?”

“That code is part of my life, part of who I am.” The Conqueror lifted a hand to stop the shamaness from replying. “It’s complicated. It has to do with honour and respect and stuff. Things you scrapped out of your vocabulary a long time ago.”

“You’re not the most honourable person I know either, Xena. And I can remember a few northern amazons who would fully agree with me…”

Icy eyes glared at her. “That was before…”

A devious chuckle. “Oh, and you’ve changed, have you?”

“Let’s just say being leader of the known world has given me a different perspective on some things.” Xena crossed her arms. “Look, I am touched by your concern for my well being…”

Alti snorted.

“….but just let me keep my toy, OK? I promise I’ll be really, really careful and all that… You can stay here in the palace if you like… Ya know, keep an eye on things…” The Conqueror took a few steps closer, coming face to face with the shamaness, dropping her voice. “But if you interfere with my plans in any way, I swear to you, powers or no powers, you will not leave this palace in one piece. Understood?”

Deep brown eyes looked up at her, unimpressed. “Very well… It’s not like there is anything I can do to stop you…”

“You’ve got that right.” Xena muttered.

“…but I like the way things are right now, Xena. And I’ll do anything in my power to keep everything the way it is.” Alti waved a hand at the door. “And your pawn out there personifies change. I want to see her dead.”

“Look, I explained the deal to you, right? I will kill her within the month and learn some stuff in the process…” The Conqueror leaned back on her hands on the bed, looking up at the shamaness. “You have nothing to worry about.”

“Lemme get this straight, you fought the Conqueror and you actually won?”

“Yes.”

“And then you let her live?”

“Yes.”

“What on earth did you do that for?!” Ephiny gazed at her in disbelief. “We would’ve finally gotten rid of that tyrant.”

Gabrielle exhaled gravely. “It’s not that simple. If I kill the Conqueror, the land would fall into disarray. All the regents and generals would start fighting over the throne, and that would only lead to more suffering of the innocent.”

Ephiny frowned, unhappy with how logical all of that sounded.

“You have to start with the people.” Thalia joined in. “They have to see that things should change and that they have the power to change them. That’s the only way to stop the tyranny once and for all.”

The Amazon gave her a look. “You’ve held that speech more often, haven’t ya?”

Thalia chuckled. ” A few times…”

“That doesn’t mean it wasn’t tempting though.” Gabrielle leaned her back against the iron bars, closing her eyes. “I’ve been at the verge of tossing a dagger at her chest several times.”

“Well, I say: You go girl… Whatever happens after that bitch is dead can’t be any worse than things are now.” Ephiny told her.

The warrior shook her head pensively. “I think I’ll just focus on getting you out of here first, then I’ll deal with her.”

The Amazon raised an eyebrow at her. “Is that a you in the multiple sense of the word? As in, me too?” She pointed at her own chest.

“Of course.”

“Excellent.” Ephiny smiled brightly.

Thalia cocked her head at her friend. “But I thought your deal with the Conqueror only got me out of this place?”

Gabrielle chuckled wryly. “You really think I’m gonna trust the woman who nailed me to a cross, Thal?”

The redhead winced. “Good point. So what do you have in mind?”

The blonde considered this question for a long moment. “Nothing yet.” She took a few paces through the cell. “I’ll have to check out this place first. See if there’s any weak spots in the defence.”

Ephiny pointed a thumb at the cell door. “You could try to make a run for it…The door’s open and there’s just one guard standing out there, right?”

“Not anymore.” Gabrielle shook her head softly. “She’s too smart, she’s tripled security by now…” A breath. “Besides, I gave her my word.”

Thalia frowned at her. “So?”

Gabrielle crossed her arms. “I can’t break my word.”

“You and your stupid principles.” Her friend rolled her eyes, shaking her head slightly. “It’s not like anybody else sticks to those rules anymore, you know?”

The blonde shrugged. “Maybe not… But that’s no reason why I shouldn’t.”

“Whatever…” The redhead waved a hand in dismissal of the subject. “But you’ll think of something else then?”

“I’ll have to. I don’t think I can keep the Conqueror’s sword out of my chest long enough to survive this little game of hers…”

Thalia looked at the blonde insecurely. “I don’t know about this, Gab. I really do want to get out of here, but if the price for my freedom is your life…”

“I’m not gonna leave you again, Thal. I owe you.”

“You owe me nothing.” Her friend stated sternly. “Gabrielle, I don’t want you to risk everything because you feel guilty or something, all right?”

Gabrielle lifted a hand, cutting off her friend’s sentence. “I’m not doing this because I feel guilty. I’m doing this because you’re my friend and you need my help.”

The redhead looked at her for a moment, then sighed in defeat. “Fine, you win… As always…”

Her friend flashed her a grin, then knelt down and reached for her boot, pulling out the dagger she had hidden there. “I’ll leave this here.” She dropped her voice now, so only the two women could hear her. “If something goes wrong, maybe you can use it to escape somehow. But don’t try anything until I’ve had a shot at breaking you out, understood?”

Nodding.

“All right.” She handed the weapon to Thalia, who quickly hid it up her sleeve. “Is there anything else I can try to get you? You need some extra food, or clothes… Anything?”

“I’ll be fine.” Thalia shot her a smile, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Thank you, Gabrielle.”

“Thank me when this is over.” The warrior replied, then wrapped her arms around her friend “Take care, Thalia. I’ll come see you as often as I can.”

“You’d better.” The rebel smiled into her shoulder, then patted her side as she pulled back. “Good luck, my friend. Cheat her out of as much food as you can, all right. As the start of the new rebellion.”

Gabrielle chuckled as she exited the cell, smiling a goodbye to her old and her new friend. “You know me… Anything for the greater good.”

As Gabrielle entered the dining room she immediately realised this was gonna be one of those really long dinners filled with uncomfortable silences and suspicious glaring. The dining room was fairly basic, the only decoration a few paintings on the walls. A large oval table stood in the centre of the room. On the left side of the table sat the shamaness she’d encountered earlier in the hall, who looked at and through her with those creepy dark eyes of hers. A young woman, with pitch black, shoulder length hair, dressed in an elegant white Egyptian robe and adorned with several golden jewels also sat on the left, but a vast number of chairs separated her from the shamaness and they were both doing their very best to ignore each other. The Egyptian regent spared her a glance, clearly displaying her discontent at Gabrielle’s presence, then diverted her eyes again with a huff of superiority.

The warrior took a seat on the right side, near the head of the table, putting as much distance between her and the other two women as she could manage. Why the Conqueror wanted her to attend was a mystery to her. The Egyptian regent was a very important person. Gabrielle had never been to the Land of the Nile, but she’d heard enough during her travels to be very aware of the fact it was incredibly wealthy. Was the Conqueror trying to annoy Cleopatra by letting ‘a commoner’ join this diner? If that was the case, Gabrielle was more of a pawn than she’d initially thought. And what about the shamaness? She was obviously a woman of great power, it was practically oozing off her, almost palpable in the air when she was near. Yet Xena had been far from respectful to this Alti…. What was up with that?

“So…” It was the Egyptian, speaking in slightly accented Greek. “You’re the new flavour of the month, are you?” She was unable, or unwilling, to get the hint of disgust out of her voice.

Gabrielle looked up, meeting the flashing eyes calmly, unintimidated. “I’m not a flavour. I’m a warrior.”

“Right.” Cleopatra snorted, looking at the small blonde, dressed in a simple, plain tunic, who was not looking the faintest bit like she was a threat of any kind. “Well, warrior, you do realise you’re just going to get dumped in a few weeks or so, don’t you? I’ve seen hundreds of pretty things like you come and go.”

Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at the regent. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh please…” Cleopatra rolled her eyes. “I’m not blind. I know the Empress has the occasional fling with a peasant now and then. Usually they aren’t around when I am however.”

A low laugh shot up from the other side of the table, Alti leaning back in her seat and watching the exchange in bemusement. “Jealous?”

“Of a peasant? Never!” The Egyptian replied indignantly, her fiery eyes darting to the shamaness. “I just thought Xena and I had more respect for one another…”

“Respect?” Alti chuckled. “Blackmail is what you mean…”

“Stick to your magic books and frog spells, witch, and leave politics in the hands of those who have enough brain cells to understand what’s going on…”

Alti’s eyes narrowed dangerously at the regent. “Watch your words, Egyptian, unless you want to relive some painful memories.” The shamaness lifted a hand, palm facing forward, the muscles in the fingers tightening. “I know of a certain nearly fatal assassination attempt I would love to reacquaint you with.”

A chair fell back, the backrest bouncing on the floor a few times, sending loud echoes through the room. “Are you threatening me?!” Cleo snarled, standing and pointing a finger at the shamaness.

“Oh, you figured that out all by yourself, did you?”

“Enough! No one insults the Queen of the Nile like this!”

Gabrielle watched the two quietly, her eyes flicking from one to the other as they spat out new insults. All this yelling was giving her a headache. And a headache was the last thing she needed right now… This really had to stop…

“Have you picked a new regent for Macedonia yet?”

“I’ve selected some good candidates, Empress. I will hand the list to you after dinner.”

“Fine.” Xena nodded, straightening the fabric of the red gown she’d just changed into. “What about security?”

“I’ve done all you asked. I don’t think she’ll be able to get anybody out of here unharmed.”

“Don’t think, Pyrron. Know.”

“Yes, Empress.” Her advisor nodded, then hesitated for a moment. “Empress, is it really necessary for me to attend?”

The Conqueror chuckled amusedly. “Afraid of the big bad women, Pyrron?”

“Well… Yes actually…” The advisor muttered with a sigh. “You know I don’t like the shamaness, Empress. And the Egyptian regent does not like me much since that whole pig incident…”

Xena grinned. “Oh yeah, that was funny…”

“And as for the warrior…. Well, I just praise myself lucky to not have been mortally wounded by her yet, and I like to keep it that way…”

“Well, Pyrron, I’m afraid I have to insist on your company.” She patted her advisor on the shoulder. “They hate me just as much, except for Cleo maybe…” A wicked chuckle. “I need an ally in there…”

“I was afraid you’d say that.” Pyrron sighed defeated, as they turned another corridor, a door at the end leading to the dining room. The advisor frowned at the lack of noise, knowing Cleopatra’s reputation for not being able to keep her mouth shut for more than an instant.

“Brace yourself, Pyrron.” Xena grinned at him, then took the lead, pulling open the door. “I’m sorry I’m…”

Blue eyes glanced across the room for a moment, taking in the form of her regent lying slumped in her chair and spotting her shamaness lying face down on the marble tiles. “…late…” She finished, her gaze lifting to the table, where Gabrielle was sitting, tracking grains in the wooden table with a finger in utter boredom.

Another moment of silence, then she started laughing uncontrollably, grabbing onto Pyrron’s arm and pulling him into the room, pointing at the scene, unable to speak.

Pyrron poked his head around the doorway, then snorted loudly, hastily covering his mouth with a hand to hold back his laughter as he took a closer look at Cleopatra’s face, her jaw hanging slightly ajar and a thin line of black mascara that had trickled from her eye down her cheek.

“See, I told you this is the way to deal with those two!” Xena managed between breaths. “Screw diplomacy, just punch ‘m in the face…” She shook her head in bemusement, walking towards the large oval table, placing her forefinger under Cleo’s chin, closing her mouth with a soft click of teeth as she passed on her way to the head of the table. “Well, Gabby, you’ve made sure I’ll have to suffer through a whole lot of bitching when those two wake up…”

“They gave me a headache.” Gabrielle told her calmly, leaning back in her seat.

“I can certainly relate to that…” The Conqueror grinned wickedly. “Pyrron, get someone to… escort my dear friends back to their rooms, will you? And tell the cook two of my guests had to leave before dinner.”

“As you wish, Empress.” Her advisor chuckled, then headed back out the door.

Xena sagged back in her chair at the head of the table, slinging one of her long legs over the armrest on the opposite side of the warrior. “You know, Gabrielle, if you’d like, we could tweak this game a little and you can be my court jester for the next month. How about it, huh?” She leaned her head back, so her world was upside down, and shot the warrior a grin.

“I think me hitting people will get boring after a while.”

The Conqueror smiled to herself, her mind already forming mental images of several regents of hers laying bleeding on the floor. “Oh, not at all. There are so many people I would like to slug on a daily basis…” She stated, as a few boys hastily ran into the room, grabbing onto limbs and then dragging the unconscious women out of the room.

“So?” Gabrielle shrugged, a hint of sarcasm in her voice.. “Why don’t you? You’re the undisputed leader of the known world, aren’t you? Nothing’s stopping you…”

Xena snorted. “I wish it were that simple…” She pulled herself back upright, twisting around, now tossing a bare leg over the other armrest so she faced the blonde. “Unfortunately being the leader of a world isn’t just about knocking people around enough so they’ll listen.”

“Seemed to be working fine enough for you before.” Gabrielle muttered.

Xena rolled her eyes. “You have such a narrow mind.”

“Hah!” The warrior looked at her in disbelief. “I have a narrow mind?? Excuse me?”

The Empress crossed her arms, leaning back. “You seem to think ruling an Empire is a simple affair. That it’s just about scaring people into submission. It doesn’t work like that, Gabrielle…” She waved a hand at the woman. “Take yourself for instance. You and your rebellion. I warned you people time after time after time again. I flogged one, crucified the other… But did that stop anyone? Nope…”

“Of course not.” Gabrielle glared at her, anger building once more. “We knew what we were striving for was right.”

“Right?” Xena chuckled. “What is right, Gabrielle?”

“Freedom is right.” The blonde immediately replied, unable to resist the discussion.

“Is it?” The Conqueror folded her hands together, leaning an elbow on her upraised knee, her face serious now. “Then how about… How about a man walks out onto the Agora with a crossbow and kills a child… He should be free then?”

“Of course not, but…”

“No, he shouldn’t be…” Xena agreed, continuing on calmly. “So in that case freedom is not right.”

Gabrielle released a breath, slightly frustrated. “No.” She admitted. “Not for him. But for others it is.”

“Of course. Everything is right for someone. For that man, killing that child was right.”

The warrior shook her head. “Killing a child can never be right.”

“For him it is…” Xena insisted. “It depends on what you believe. And people have strange beliefs sometimes, Gabrielle. When I’d just conquered Rome, there was a group of people there saying there was a single god and that this one fellow was his only son, born from the womb of a virgin.”

Gabrielle snorted, unable not to laugh at the ridiculousness of that. “No way.”

“Oh absolutely.” The Conqueror confirmed confidently. “I saw him. Young guy, peace loving figure… You would’ve liked him. But Ares didn’t. He wanted him dead.”

A blonde eyebrow lifted. “Ares, King of the Gods?”

“Uhuh, he was afraid this new god would get too powerful and all that…”

Gabrielle frowned, thinking about this. “So you killed him?”

Xena chuckled. “No, I did the worst thing you can do to a martyr: I let him live.”

Gabrielle nodded pensively. “Makes sense.”

“Worked like a charm. A few more months and people lost interest. Never heard from him again.” The Conqueror concluded, her gaze shifting to the door as more servants entered, carrying a number of plates. “Ah, nice timing.” The boys and girls walked up to the table, placing several bowls on the centre of the table. Esmee walked past, flashing a quick smile at Gabrielle, then continuing on to the Conqueror, placing a plate before her. “Empress.” She curtsied politely. “Advisor Pyrron told me to say he can not make it to dinner.”

Xena chuckled. “Chickening out, is he? Even when two of his three fears have been taken upstairs?”

“No, my liege. Niobe has fallen ill, he had to go home and tend to her.”

The Conqueror’s cheerful expression sobered. “Niobe’s sick?”

Esmee nodded in confirmation, then took a few steps back, circling the table to follow the others out of the room.

Xena seemed lost in thought for a moment, then snapped out of it. “Oh, Esmee… There’s something else…”

Gabrielle tensed, glaring from the Conqueror’s face to the form of the little girl she’d spoken to before. What was this about? Considering what happened to the last person she’d had dealings with, the soldier Tamon, she wasn’t taking any chances. She shifted to the edge of her seat, muscles tensing. If that woman made one wrong move towards Esmee she would take her down… There was no way another innocent would suffer because of her, not again…

Xena motioned the girl closer, Esmee cocking her head in confusion, but obeying her anyway, walking back until she was standing right beside the Conqueror’s chair. Xena leaned closer, dropping her voice, whispering in the girl’s ear. Gabrielle watched the scene anxiously, but calmed a little as she saw a tiny smile form on Esmee’s face, the smile slowly growing bigger as the whispering continued.

Xena pulled back. “Can you do that for me?”

Esmee nodded hastily. “Yes, Empress.” She affirmed confidently.

“Good.” Xena patted her cheek. “Go on then. And remember…” She lifted a single finger. “Just one for you.”

“Yes, Empress.” Esmee beamed her a smile, then turned and darted out of the room.

Gabrielle blinked, looking after the cheerful girl, then turned back to the Conqueror. “What was that about?”

“Oh, I’m afraid that’s highly classified information.” Xena stated, unable to repress a smile, poking at a bit of meat with her fork.

Gabrielle stared at the Conqueror’s profile. Her normal casual calm had faded, replaced by what seemed to be quiet amusement. But for the first time her amusement didn’t come at a cost to others, to Gabrielle or one of her soldiers, but was simply the result of her whispered interaction with a child. And though soldiers cowered as the Conqueror passed, Esmee had seemed perfectly at ease around the woman. “I can’t figure you out.” She voiced her thoughts, wincing as she realised she’d spoken out loud.

Blue eyes tracked up to her, regarding her for a long moment. “Don’t try to.” Xena finally concluded with a shrug. “Your dinner’ll get cold.”

After dessert Xena excused herself and returned to her study to work. Gabrielle decided this spare time was best spend doing a bit of investigating. She roamed the castle for a while, turning corner after corner, walking up and down stairs… This palace was huge, and it was very easy to get lost in the maze of corridors. But after a while Gabrielle started to understand the logic of the place. The palace could be divided in four wings, corridors leading into each wing from the main hall. Her own room was located in the east wing, which included the dining room and a few other recreational areas. Judging from the light shining through the cracks of some of the doors she guessed these belonged to the Egyptian regent and the shamaness. Fortunately there was quite some distance between her room and these other two, which meant running into the two women was a little more unlikely.

The west and south wing were forbidden territory to anyone but the Conqueror and those she invited with her. One of the guards, who had reluctantly provided some information, had told her the south wing held the Conqueror’s private chambers and the west one her study and several meeting rooms.

The northern part of the palace was the place where the servants lived. She ran into Esmee there, who had immediately insisted she’d give her a small tour of the place.

Never, ever had Gabrielle seen serving staff live in this kind of luxury. Each person had his own room, some actually had several rooms to accommodate their families. There were a few professionals, the cooking staff for instance, but a lot of the people here turned out to be family of soldiers of Xena’s who’d either died in battle, or where stationed very far away. Esmee’s mother was a general stationed in Gaul and her father had died in the battle for Rome, just before the girl was born.

When she’d asked her if she was mad at the Conqueror, for being responsible for her father’s death and for stationing her mother so far away, Esmee had looked at her in utter bewilderment. Mad? Why would she be mad? True, she missed her mother a lot, but they saw each other a few times a year, when her mother travelled to Athens or on a rare occasion when Esmee went to Gaul. And in the meantime the Empress treated her well… She was nice…

Gabrielle took a breath, pacing along behind the girl, who pointed out place after place. The Conqueror was nice… Now there was a first… She guessed Esmee was shielded from the outside world here in the castle and probably just didn’t know about the executions and the military patrolling the streets. She’d considered telling the young girl some of the horror stories she’d lived, but decided against it. Ignorance was bliss, after all, and she wouldn’t let the child suffer through this particular bit of knowledge.

She thanked Esmee as the young girl was called into the kitchen, then decided to go and look around outside.

It was quiet in the stables, only the sound of hooves scraping over the stone ground and the occasional neigh. Gabrielle marvelled at how clean this place was. It smelled of fresh hay and the hall was speckles, a gentle breeze drifting through the open windows, making sure there was hardly any dust floating around in the air.

“Argo?” Gabrielle called out softly.

A soft neigh, then a cream coloured head poked through one of the stable doors at the far end.

The warrior smiled, walking closer to her horse. “Hey girl.” She scratched a spot between the mare’s eyes, Argo eyelids fluttering closed in contentment. “Did they take good care of you?”

Argo gave her warrior a tiny shove, then turned her head, looking at a corner of her stable.

Gabrielle followed the horse’s gaze until she spotted a small form curled up on a soft patch of hay. The blonde frowned, unlocking Argo’s door and stepping inside and looking at the girl. She had long dark brown hair, and was dressed in a simple blue tunic, which was smudged with dirt on several places. “Please tell me you didn’t knock her out.”

The mare snorted indignantly.

“Just checking.” Gabrielle mumbled as she kneeled down beside the small girl, who she now recognised as the one who’d led Argo to the stables for her. Iona… She seemed to be about the same age as Esmee, somewhere in her early teens. “Hey?” Gabrielle placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder.

Iona jerked awake. “Wh…?” She blinked, gazing around her surroundings dazedly for a moment, until her memory kicked in. “Oh… I fell asleep…” She scrambled to her feet, looking up at Gabrielle. “I’m… I’m sorry, ma’am… I didn’t mean to…”

The warrior hastily waved a hand at her. “Don’t worry about it… Did my horse give you any trouble.”

Argo grumpily stamped her hoof on the hay.

“Oh no, not at all.” Iona shook her head vehemently. “She’s very nice.”

“She has her moments…” Gabrielle allowed.

Argo huffed in dismay.

The blonde chuckled. “Just kidding, girl.” She patted the horse’s flank, only now noticing how clean the horse was. “Good job.” She complimented Iona in an impressed tone, as she reached down and pulled up one of Argo’s front hooves, all the dirt there also neatly removed, the horseshoe nearly sparkling in the torchlight.

“Thank you.” Iona beamed a smile at her. “I did my very best. The Empress said to take special care of your horse.”

Green eyes peeked down at her. “Did she now?”

“Oh yes.” The young girl affirmed. “But even if she hadn’t said that I would’ve. She’s a very pretty horse.”

“I like to think so.” Gabrielle smiled, ruffling Argo’s manes a little with one hand and pulling a bit of carrot out of her pocket with the other. She held the vegetable up to the mare, who quickly took it off her hand, chewing contently. Then she walked out of the stables, holding the door open for the girl to follow her. “You weren’t in here the whole day, were you?”

Iona shook her head. “I went home for diner. But she was a bit restless, being in a strange place and all, so I promised I’d come back.”

“And then you fell asleep?”

Iona scratched the back of her neck with a sheepish grin. “Yeah.” She admitted, walking to the stable on the opposite side as Gabrielle locked the door to Argo’s stable. “We worked really hard today, getting things ready for the Empress’s return.” Iona stroked the neck of the black stallion as he poked his head out. “I guess I was a bit tired.”

“I can imagine.” Gabrielle mumbled as she walked over to her. “Hey there.” She greeted the horse, extending her palm to the stallion, who sniffed it tentatively, before gently pressing his nose against her hand.

Iona looked from the stallion to the warrior. “He likes you.” She stated in surprise.

Gabrielle cocked her head at the girl. “Why wouldn’t he?”

“He’s very picky.” Iona told her. “He likes the Empress and he likes me. He just allows Brennan.”

“Oh…” Gabrielle digested this for a moment, as she softly lifted her hand and stroked the horse’s head. “What’s his name?”

“Chilon.” Iona informed her. “He’s really kind if he likes you… But his former owner was mean to him, so he’s afraid someone will hurt him again. He lived in Britannia before and this man was hitting him and then Xena got really mad and grabbed onto the guy’s shirt and tossed him in with the pigs in the mud. She said that’s where he belonged. Chilon’s been here for a year now, but he’s still very skittish. But Xena says he’s doing a lot better.”

Green eyes peered down at the girl with interest. “Do you know her well? The Empress, I mean?” She asked, as they turned away from the stallion and headed towards the exit.

Iona nodded proudly. “We play together sometimes.”

“Play?” Gabrielle frowned, having a tough time picturing the Conqueror skipping a rope.

“We play tag, or hide and seek… But playing hide and seek with her is no fun, because she can always find me… We wrestle… That’s fun, because I always beat her.”

The warrior chuckled. “Do you?”

“Yes.” Iona confirmed confidently. “Though I think she lets me win sometimes.”

“Hmm…” Gabrielle decided to stick to a non committal mutter. “I never pictured the Conqueror as the playing type.”

“Oh, the Conqueror isn’t…”

A blond eyebrow lifted. “Excuse me?”

“The Conqueror doesn’t play. The Empress doesn’t play either. But Xena does. She likes to play.” The girl told her sincerely.

Gabrielle fell silent, digesting this for a moment. “I see…” She murmured as they walked up the stairs and entered the palace. Gabrielle frowned as Iona turned right instead of left, heading towards the south wing instead of the servants quarters. “You live there?”

“Yeah.” Iona confirmed, smiling at the guard standing in the hallway. “She’s with me.” She told him, waving a hand at the warrior walking along behind her.

Gabrielle blinked as the soldier inclined his head politely.

Iona walked on, expertly finding her way through some corridors. “This is where the Empress lives.” She pointed at two large wooden doors on her left. “That’s her study. And that’s where she trains.” Iona indicated a door at the end of the hallway.

Gabrielle sucked in all this information like a dry sponge. A free tour of the Imperial quarters. Her luck had to be changing.

“And this is my home.” The young girl stated, stopping in front of a door, cocking her head at the voices she heard inside as she pushed open the door.

“You are spoiling my children…” Pyrron said angrily, pacing through the room. “I told you not to do that…”

Xena batted her eyelashes at him innocently, hanging in a comfy chair in the advisor’s living room, her legs popped up onto the table. “Who said I did anything?”

Pyrron placed his hands on his hips, glaring at her. “Oh, that little bag of honey drops just mysteriously appeared into the room, did it?”

“It must have flown in though your window when you weren’t looking.” The Conqueror said with a straight face. “Actually, just before dinner, I looked out my window and I saw this pouch with little white wings fly past. That must have been it. I’ll make sure I warn you next time…”

“Bags… don’t… fly!” Pyrron growled under his breath.

“Sure they do… Why would they have wings otherwise?” Xena’s eyes turned to the hallway as she heard sounds there, then smiled as she recognised small footsteps. “Io! Tell your dad bags fly for me, will ya?”

“Bags fly.” Iona said dutifully as she bounced into the living room, heading straight for Xena.

The older man rolled his eyes. “Right… And you’re gonna tell me horses have eight legs next?”

“Of course not…” Iona looked at her father indignantly. “That’s not true…”

Xena ruffled the blonde hair. “And you never lie, do you Io?”

The girl shook her head respectfully. “Never.”

“Argh!” Pyrron tossed up his hands in defeat. “I give up…” He pointed a finger at Xena. “Just don’t do it again.”

The Conqueror laid a hand over her heart. “If I had done something now, I would surely never do it again.”

“Right…” Her advisor muttered, turning and walking into an adjoining room.

Xena shot a grin at her partner in crime, then shared a high five with her, before digging a small item out of a pocket, handing it to the girl, who immediately popped it into her mouth.

“You’re forcing kids to lie now, are you?”

Xena’s head shot up at the familiar voice, spotting Gabrielle leaning against a wall in the hallway, barely visible in the shadows. She quickly recovered her pose though, shooting the warrior a wicked grin. “She never lied.”

“Really?” Gabrielle pushed off the wall, taking a few paces into the room.

Xena marvelled at how soundlessly the woman could move… She had to learn how to do that… “Really.” She turned to her younger companion. “You saw the bag fly, didn’t ya?”

“Uhuh.” Iona nodded, a grin tugging at her lips. “Right through that window.” She pointed at the window that faced the courtyard.

Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at the two.

Xena crossed her arms. “Hey, if you don’t trust us, ask Esmee. She was standing right down there when it happened.”

“Ah, I see…” Gabrielle glanced from the window to the Conqueror. “A smuggle route…” She took a few paces closer, circling the table, dropping her voice. “You know, now that I know about this, I could tell him…” She pointed a thumb at the door Pyrron had disappeared through.

Iona’s eyes widened in shock. “You wouldn’t!”

“Depends…” Gabrielle dropped her gaze to meet the Conqueror’s. “What’s in it for me?”

Xena seemed to consider the question seriously for a moment, then dug into her pocket again, before extending a hand towards the warrior, three small pieces of candy displayed on her palm. “Some of the merchandise?”

The warrior cocked her head at the woman. “A bribe?”

“I prefer to call it sharing.”

“Uhuh…” Gabrielle folded her hands behind her back, taking a few pensive paces through the room, repressing a grin as she saw Iona eying her anxiously. “All right…” The girl sucked in a breath in relief. “…but I want my share taken to my friend downstairs.”

Blue eyes looked at her in amusement, then the Conqueror chuckled. “I guess I can arrange that.”

“Here, just look at… Oh…” Pyrron stopped as he spotted the warrior standing in his living room. “Hello. I didn’t hear you come in.”

“That’s because I didn’t want you to.” Gabrielle deadpanned, crossing her arms and glaring at him, then frowning as she let her eyes drop to the small bag the advisor had clenched in his hand. “How did you get that?”

Pyrron blinked. “What?” He followed her gaze. “Oh, this?”

“That’s my candy.” Gabrielle turned narrowed green eyes on him. “How did you get it?”

“I…” Pyrron swallowed audibly. “I found it here, in my quarters…”

Gabrielle snorted. “Oh right, it just flew in here, did it?”

“Yes… I mean, no!” The advisor winced as the small pouch was grasped from his grip. “I didn’t know it was yours…”

“What am I supposed to do, write my name on everything now?” She leaned closer, dropping her voice. “Step outside for a moment, OK? I don’t think your kid will want to hear what else I have to say…”

Xena had a hard time keeping a straight face as she watched her advisor cower, then nod meekly, walking out into the hall. Gods, this kid was good. Not only had she managed to free her from her most obnoxious allies for the rest of the evening, in the most entertaining way Xena could imagine, now she’d also proved herself an expert in the Conqueror’s favourite game: teasing the Imperial Advisor.

Gabrielle followed Pyrron down the hall, tossing the small pouch over her shoulder without looking, Xena only having to lift a hand to snatch it out of mid air. If only the woman hadn’t been a peace loving rebel who hated her for a failed attempt at crucifixion, they could’ve been a match made in Tartarus…

Xena held the bag out to her giggling associate, who immediately tucked it away. “She’s fun. Is she staying here?”

The Conqueror leaned back, folding her hands over her stomach. “If it’s up to me she’ll stay here for the rest of her life…”

Gabrielle looked around, her eyes draining in every bit of her surroundings. She’d expected the training area to be quite large, but this was ridiculous… The building looked like the Coliseum in Rome, only not as high, about ten rows of benches sloping up around her. The arena was huge though, light-coloured sand covering the circular area. Built into the arena wall were several doors, opening up into cabinets, which were filled with every kind of weapon she could imagine, and some she could never have imagined at all…

Gabrielle took a strange curved blade off a hook, a thick strip of leather attached to the hilt. The end of the strip was formed into a loop so it could be attached to a wrist and the leather used to swing the weapon around and extend its range. Gabrielle studied it for a moment as the crenate edges of the blade shimmered viciously in the dull morning light. She’d never seen a weapon like this before. Carefully she attached the leather to her wrist, balancing the weapon in her hand, swinging it around her body experimentally a few times at a soft pace, testing its weight.

“It belonged to the leader of some savage clan a bit north from here.” Xena’s voice dropped in from behind her. “We faced off in combat.”

Gabrielle nodded softly, her attention still focussed on the weapon. “You won?”

“Cut off his head.”

“Now why am I not surprised?” The warrior muttered, as she grabbed onto the hilt once more. “It’s an interesting design.”

“It’s tricky to use. I’ve got it pretty much figured out though.” The Conqueror tried to sound casual, but couldn’t keep the hint of pride out of her voice.

Gabrielle cocked her head, inspecting the edges of the blade. “Doesn’t look that tough.”

Xena crossed her arms, giving the warrior a look. “Oh it doesn’t, does it?”

Gabrielle took a few paces back, making sure the area around her was clear. She tightened the grip on the hilt, twisting it in her hand a few times before letting go, wielding the blade around her body at high speed in an impressive display of flashing metal. Finally she allowed the leather to loop around her wrist until the hilt touched her palm and she closed her fingers around it. “Nah.”

“Guess it isn’t…” The Conqueror muttered, slightly miffed, since it had taken her at least a week to get the basics of this weapon worked out. She had been quite proud of having mastered a weapon in so short a time, but now her pawn was waltzing over her accomplishment like it was no big thing at all. “You are sure you’ve never seen this weapon before?”

Gabrielle shrugged, silently enjoying her small victory, the Conqueror’s discontent clearly visible on the woman’s expressive face. “Nope. But there was a similar kind of weapon in Chin that I used once or twice.”

“Right…” Xena frowned, then dismissed the subject, reclaiming her casual pose. “So… You ready?”

“Does it matter whether I am?” Gabrielle retorted calmly. “Just pick your weapon.”

The Conqueror chuckled. “Are you that sure of yourself? You realise this could all be over with like that…” She snapped her fingers. “What if I pick a weapon you’re no good at?”

The warrior snorted, then let go of the hilt with a flick of her wrist, neatly trimming an inch of the Conqueror’s bangs. “You were saying?”

Xena held up her flat hand at chest height, catching a few bits of hair as they floated down. “She knocks out my obnoxious associates, she teases my advisor in the most perfect manner and saves me a trip to the barber.” She looked up with a wicked grin. “Is there no end to the list of skills, Gabrielle?”

The warrior shrugged. “I suck at eating with chopsticks.”

A laugh from the conqueror, who turned around, waving her hand towards one of the soldiers, who immediately ran closer. “How good are you at staffs, Gabrielle?”

“Good enough.”

“Staffs it is then.” She looked questioningly at the soldier she’d just called over, who nodded and ran off again towards one of the cabinets.

Another moment before he returned, handing two staffs to his Conqueror. Xena turned and tossed one of the staffs at the warrior, who caught it with calm precision. Gabrielle balanced it in her hand for a moment, then twirled the staff around her body a few times, getting a feel of the weapon. It had been a while since she’d handled a staff. And though her martial arts teacher had told her she showed quite an aptitude for the weapon, holding it had always felt… awkward… Eerily familiar. Reminding her of something she’d never known.

Gabrielle shook her head slightly, shaking off the strange pondering. This was not the time for her mind to be straying, she had to focus on what was about to come. Though she was convinced she would be able to best The Conqueror, the dark haired woman was a formidable opponent, to say the least. In a way, a very strange way, this arrangement might prove beneficial. It had been a while since Gabrielle had pushed her skills to the limit. She’d had little competition in the past years. The soldiers she’d killed in Macedonia hadn’t been much of a challenge. Not that they had been bad fighters, not at all, but they hadn’t seen half of what she’d seen, hadn’t lived through an inch of what she’d lived through. They hadn’t had the skill, or the experience or…

Or the instinct to kill, Gabrielle finished unhappily. An instinct that had built over the years, starting with her hatred for the strict rules set by the new ruler of their land, continuing on through her crucifixion, the murder of her mentor and the revenge exacted by her on Lao Ma’s son to the moment when she’d re-entered Greece and discovered the sad fate of her former colleagues and friends. And though she showed no mercy in battle, afterwards she’d always sit down beside her campfire and morn… Morn the loss of the lives she’d taken and morn the slow decline of the purity of her soul…

Xena watched the warrior twirl her weapon around pensively. She turned her head, motioning some of the soldiers closer. “Watch this…” She whispered to them, then took a firmer grip on her staff and lunged out for the blond head.

Gabrielle moved in a flurry of motion, knocking the staff aside as if it were a mere fly, turning and falling to a knee, swinging out at her opponents legs.

Xena pushed off in time, pulling herself into a back flip, twisting in the air before landing neatly on her feet. “See?” She commented to their spectators, pointing at the blonde, who was holding her weapon up defensively, her eyes flicking across the training area alertly. “Now if all of you can react like that on a moment when you are paying attention, I’d be more than content.”

“Attacking someone before officially announcing a dual has begun is un-honourable.” Gabrielle stated, eyes narrowed.

“Oh puhlease…” Xena rolled her eyes. “That was not a real attack and you know it. That was a mild test.”

Gabrielle glared at the woman, but did realise the blow had not had half the strength of the strokes she’d shared with the Conqueror before.

“If it had been an attack you’d be lying unconscious on the sand by now.” Xena continued on cheerfully, twirling her staff over her shoulder and grabbing onto the edge sticking out under her arm, smacking harshly at the empty air.

The warrior snorted. “Right…”

“Tch…” Xena chuckled. “Didn’t anybody teach you to never underestimate your opponent, Gabrielle.”

The blonde watched the Conqueror’s staff play with a bored expression. “Who said I was?”

“Well, ouch!” An amused laugh from the dark haired woman. “You know, I think we should just start this thing and see who’s underestimating who. Don’t you agree?”

“Fine by me.” Gabrielle shrugged casually, then ducked as a staff was lunged towards her head. “Though I have a pretty good idea of what the outcome will be…”

“Oh you’re a seer now too, are you Gabrielle? I had no idea…” Xena managed, before focussing all her attention on a hasty parrying of staff strikes.

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me…” The warrior hissed, sidestepping to avoid another stroke, then jumping up, flipping over her opponent, flicking her staff back towards the unprotected back.

Hitting only air, Xena flipping up and out of the way just in time, landing a few metres away from her. The conqueror turned as the warrior darted for her again, wood hitting wood as Xena blocked the staff’s path to her side. “Really?” She winced as the wood grazed her side, leaving torn skin in its wake. Hastily she pulled back a little, receding a few paces to give herself a moment to recover. A very short moment, since Gabrielle continued on with her attack like a cat closing in on its prey, swinging her staff at the conqueror’s shoulder. But her attack was blocked, Xena pushing her weapon against the edge of her opponent’s, her eyes meeting the flashing green eyes through the arch formed by their staffs. She dropped her voice, so only the warrior could hear her. “You’d be surprised by what I know of you, Gabrielle of Potedeia.”

A satisfying widening of the pupils was the response, followed by a twist and lunge at her knees, which Xena barely managed to parry. “Oh, hit a nerve, did I?”

“That’s not hitting a nerve…” Gabrielle growled in response. “This…” She lunged towards the warrior’s head, then changed direction at the last moment, harshly slamming her staff against the Conqueror’s chest, knocking the air right out of her. “… is hitting a nerve.” Before the woman could recover from this second hit Gabrielle reached forward, grabbing onto the Conqueror’s own staff and pushing it forward savagely, punching the woman in the face with her own weapon. Xena staggered back a few paces, but Gabrielle continued on relentlessly, firmly placing one edge of her staff on the ground, using the weapon to aid her as she jumped up and kicked out at the Conqueror’s chest.

The last strike was too much and Xena tripped, Gabrielle following the woman’s movement easily. She prepared herself for the impact with the earth, placing one foot on each side of her opponent’s body. She brought her staff forward, gripping it tightly in both hands.

Xena instinctively closed her eyes as she thudded on the sand. When she opened them again she got a very close look at the edge of Gabrielle’s staff, barely touching her exposed neck. Her eyes tracked up the wood until she finally ended up staring into green eyes. And she could see the doubt there, could so plainly see the hesitation, the desire to finish this battle once and for all.

The Conqueror stared back calmly, unafraid, holding the tense gaze for what seemed like ages. Finally she raised an eyebrow at her opponent in question. “You done?”

Another moment, then Gabrielle took a step back, slowly withdrawing the staff. “For now.” She gave her fallen opponent one last look, then turned and strode out of the training area, the spectators hastily edging out of the way as she passed, looking after her with a mix of fear, respect and disbelief.

Xena lifted her torso up a little, leaning back on her hands as she watched the warrior walk off with an air that was emanating far more confidence than Xena knew the warrior possessed at that moment. She chuckled, shaking her head in amusement, then rocked back on her back and pushed off, hopping to her feet in one smooth motion.

A tall, young man, with dark blond hair walked up to her with hasty paces. The wind toyed with the bright blue cloak he was wearing. “Conqueror, are you all right?”

Xena looked at him in amusement, lifting a hand to her nose and discarding some of the blood that was dripping down to her lips. “I’m touched by your concern, Pompey, but a bit of a nosebleed is not gonna kill me anytime soon, really.” She grinned up at her lieutenant.

The Roman frowned, then leaned a bit closer, dropping his voice. “I can discard of her for you, Empress. She seems strong, but a dozen of my best soldiers should be…”

“You will do as you are ordered.” Xena intervened smoothly. “If I want her dead you will know… For now however…” She smiled widely. “…I’m quite content with her just the way she is.”

“But Conqueror, she beat you in front of your own troops.” Pompey argued. “Humiliated you…”

“Perhaps.” Xena shrugged casually. “But she did teach me how to do this…” She tossed the staff she was still holding onto at her lieutenant, who caught it on instinct. Than she wrapped her hands around the wood, slammed the weapon harshly against his nose, mimicking Gabrielle’s move with deadly precision. “… which I think is sorta cool.” She chuckled as the Roman grabbed for his aching nose, his eyes darting up at her in shock. She chuckled. “Yeah, I think I’m keeping her…”

“Well, good morning, Cleo. Had a nice nap?”

The Egyptian, who was sitting in front of a small table, putting the finishing touches on her make-up in an attempt to cover up her red, swollen eye, growled something under her breath at the sound of the cheerful voice. She looked up, seeing Xena’s form reflected in her mirror, standing in the doorway. “I am not amused.”

Xena chuckled, walking further into the room and dropping in a chair. Cleopatra took in the light, leather armour she was wearing in disdain. Both armour and Conqueror were liberally covered in dust, and the dark-haired woman had a nasty scratch on her upper arm. “Couldn’t you have at least taken a moment to clean yourself up before walking in here and befouling my room.”

The Conqueror rolled her eyes. “I was trying to be attentive by making you my first stop of the morning.”

“Well, you failed.” Cleo stated, turning back to the mirror, judging her appearance before gracefully rising from her seat, her clean, white dress falling straight to the ground. “Attentive would have been being on time for dinner.”

“I had work to finish…”

“Attentive would have been not inviting that Alti woman…” Cleopatra went on without paying attention to the Conqueror’s protests. “… and most of all it would have been leaving that… that peasant where she belongs.”

Xena leaned back in her chair, folding her hands together and balancing them on her knee. “What I do in this palace is of no concern to you.”

“It is when I get knocked unconscious by a hand that is not even worthy of touching my feet!” Cleopatra spat back angrily, her legendary temper flaring to new heights. “I do not wish to see this woman again during my stay here, Xena, or I will see myself forced to take repercussions against this disrespect shown by you for my presence here.”

A dark eyebrow lifted slowly. “Are you threatening me?” Her voice dropped to a dangerous level.

Dark eyes regarded her, uncertainty twitching in the depths.

Xena slowly rose to her full height. “You see, I can’t imagine you are, because I know you know what threatening The Conqueror generally leads to.”

A multitude of emotions flicked over the Pharaoh’s face, then Cleopatra relented, seating herself on the bed in a graceful motion, crossing her legs, a bit of skin showing through a split on the side of her dress. “You must have misinterpreted my words…”

“I’m sure I must have…” Xena agreed amiably, shooting the pharaoh a charming smile before turning and re-taking her seat. “Accept my apologies for the events of the previous evening. I’ll do my best to make sure that does not happen again.”

“I’m assuming from your attire that you’ve taken care of that woman already?” Cleopatra motioned towards the armour.

The Conqueror chuckled under her breath. “Not quite…”

A perfectly rounded eyebrow arched.

“She is… I have certain interests in keeping her alive for the moment. And no, none of these interests come even remotely close to what you think they are…” The Conqueror added calmly as fiery eyes narrowed at her. “Actually, the ‘peasant’, you so affectionately refer to, hates my guts. Which is why Alti is here, since she doesn’t trust me and wants to make sure dear Gab doesn’t corrupt me.”

Cleopatra blinked at her, unable to grasp all of this and puzzle the different bits of information into something that made sense.

“It’s complicated.” Xena added for good measure, affirming the one thing Cleopatra had managed to deduce. “But the woman is my guest and I will be treating her as such…”

“Guests are not supposed to hit people of high stature.” The Queen of the Nile replied agitatedly.

Xena leaned back in her chair, regarding the woman calmly. “Cleo, I hate to bring this up, but I can remember a certain Egyptian Queen nearly scratching my Advisor’s eyes out of their sockets last time she visited.”

The Pharaoh’s eyes narrowed to dangerous slits. “I had every right to do that.”

Xena tried hard to repress the wicked grin that was struggling to take over her face. “It wasn’t poor Pyrron’s fault that pig happened to escape when you were standing near, and that he just happened to get his tusks caught on your dress, after which he just happened to run off with you trailing along half naked across the…”

“Enough!” Cleopatra pushed herself up, standing on her feet, peering down at the Conqueror angrily. “There is no need to remind me of the whole incident!”

“My apologies.” Xena managed to say quite sincerely. “I know that must have been quite a drag for you…” She hastily lifted both hands as the Egyptian’s fingers curled up into fists and prepared for an assault. “Kidding, just kidding.”

“Ha ha.” Cleopatra uttered dryly, but decided against hitting the Conqueror nevertheless, knowing it would do no good anyway. “I will not be toyed with, Xena.”

“You are not being toyed with.” The Conqueror informed her seriously. “You know you are a valuable ally to me, Cleo. Your company and support is very important to me. And you can be sure I’ve informed the warrior how I feel about what she did yesterday.” The truth could be so much fun sometimes, Xena grinned to herself. “Now, if we can forget all of this now, I’ll personally see to it the rest of your stay here is far more pleasant.”

Dark eyes looked up at her inquisitively. “Personally?”

“Absolutely.” Xena assured her, producing a sexy smile, before lifting a hand and offering the Queen of the Nile her arm. “If you’d be so kind as to join me for breakfast?”

Cleopatra judged her for another moment. “Is that woman going to be there too?” She asked suspiciously.

“If she is I’ll make sure she leaves.” The Conqueror promised sweetly, knowing full well that she hadn’t told Gabrielle to join her for breakfast, and the chances were pretty slim the warrior would show up voluntarily to enjoy the Conqueror’s company. “I’ll make sure she does not bother you again, I swear.”

“Very well then.” Cleopatra allowed finally, placing her hand on the Conqueror’s arm. “I will accept your invitation for breakfast, in that case.”

“Nothing would please me more.” Xena said politely, as she guided the Egyptian from the room, making sure the woman was unable to see the fingers she had crossed behind her back.

“I don’t like this, Argo.” Gabrielle informed her horse in a mutter, wiping at the dust on the palomino’s back. Not that the mare needed any cleaning this early in the morning, after the great care Iona had provided the day before, but the brushing was a form of meditation, a way of clearing her mind and putting some things straight. “I don’t like this at all.”

Argo scraped her hoof over the hay negligently.

Gabrielle shot her horse a look. “Yeah well, you’re not the one who has to survive a fight to the death each day, are you? You’re the one with the nice stable and the fresh hay and the good company.” The warrior pointed out to her mare.

A dark brown eye gazed back at her innocently.

Gabrielle gazed at the horse, then released a breath, resting her forehead against the mare’s flank tiredly. “You know Argo, sometimes I wish I was a horse. Then I’d only have to worry about keeping fed and getting enough sleep…”

The Palomino snorted indignantly, flicking her tail at the warrior in dismay.

“All right, all right, I’d have to worry about a bit more than that.” Gabrielle relented, continuing her brushing. “But you have to admit my life is a bit tougher than yours is, with the fighting and the dealing with the conqueror and the continuously getting my friends killed and all…” A sigh. “Sorry, I’ll stop the self-pity now.”

A moment of silence as Gabrielle dropped to a knee and wiped some tiny flecks of dust off the mare’s front legs. “Maybe I could get to be a horse in my next life. We could both be horses and we could race each other in the meadow. How about it huh?”

A snicker.

Gabrielle chuckled. “Yeah, you’re right, I’d probably suck at being a horse. Just as well, I guess. I prefer nut bread over grass any day.”

Her senses flared up, alerting her of the arrival of another presence., standing in the door opening of the stables, trying to be quiet, listening. The warrior smiled as her ears and nose deduced who this presence had to be. “Didn’t your father ever teach you it’s rude to eavesdrop, Iona?”

A moment of stunned silence, than footsteps hastily pattered closer, before Iona poked her head over the edge of the bottom part of the double door, peering into the box. “How did you know it was me?”

Green eyes looked up at her in amusement, then the warrior lifted a finger and tapped her ear. “Heard it was you.”

“Wow.” The young girl beamed an impressed smile at her. “Just like Xena. She always knows when it’s me too. Even when I’m trying to be really quiet…” A short pause. “She didn’t know you were there last night though… How come?”

Gabrielle finished with Argo’s front legs, then moved to the back. “She couldn’t hear me.”

Iona cocked her head. “How come?”

“Because I didn’t want her to.” Gabrielle stated, tugging a piece of hay from the palomino’s tail.

“How come?”

The warrior rolled her eyes, then straightened, turning towards the girl. “Because that way I can get to hear things I normally wouldn’t hear, which I can use to my advantage.” She informed the blonde, walking closer and opening the door, exiting the box before closing it again behind her.

“Like with the candy?”

“Exactly.” Gabrielle placed the brushes back in her bag, then slung the leather pouch over her shoulder. “Besides…” She grinned down at the young blonde. “It’s more fun to sneak up on people.”

Iona giggled, skipping along behind Gabrielle as the warrior headed out of the stables. “You’re funny.”

The warrior looked down at the girl with a tolerant smile. “I have my moments.”

Another giggle, then the girl stopped her skipping and her face took on a thoughtful expression for a moment, before she hastily ran to catch up with Gabrielle’s longer strides, reaching out and touching the warrior’s arm. “Could you teach me?”

“Teach you how to sneak up on people?”

“How to sneak up on Xena,” Iona corrected her.

Gabrielle looked down at the girl doubtingly, considering the request. “I don’t know…”

“Awwwwww.” The young face gazed up at her pleadingly. “Puhlease?”

The adorable pout, a child’s best weapon to get what they wanted. Gabrielle couldn’t help grinning though. “Very well then…”

A victorious glint sparkled in the blue eyes. “Yay!”

“…on one condition.” Gabrielle amended, which got her a slightly disappointed look from the girl who’d felt assured of her victory only moments before. “You know this place pretty well, right?”

Iona nodded apprehensively.

“I bet you know some of the…” Gabrielle searched for the word for a moment. “…the more unconventional ways to get in and out of the palace. Maybe even some the Conqueror doesn’t know about herself?”

A mischievous grin formed on the girl’s face. “I might…” She drawled slowly.

Gabrielle dropped to a knee, facing the girl at eye height. “You tell me those, and I’ll teach you how to perfect your sneaking. Deal?” She extended a hand to the girl.

Iona smiled brightly. “Deal.” She took the warrior’s hand, giving it a firm shake. Well, firm for a twelve year old anyway.

“Now, we can’t tell anybody about this little exchange, OK? Especially not the Conqueror.”

“Of course not.” Iona shook her head gravely. “If she knew it’d be even harder to scare her.”

“And when you know how to sneak, you can’t teach anybody else, all right?” Gabrielle continued on with her demands. “This has to stay between you and me…”

“Our secret.” The girl affirmed with a nod. “Got it.”

“Perfect.” Gabrielle ruffled the blond hair affectionately, then stood again motioning towards the palace. “Come on. Let’s go inside and find some quiet place to practice.”

Iona smiled cheerfully, happily bounding along behind Gabrielle. “I know just the spot…”

They mounted stairs all the way to the top floor, then Iona led her down a corridor, passing a few doors before pulling to a halt at a dead end. Gabrielle’s brows frowned as she looked around, seeing only walls around her, no doors or windows to lead them anywhere. “Did you take a wrong turn?”

Iona grinned, shaking her head rapidly, then she pointed an index finger straight up to the ceiling.

Gabrielle looked at her, then her gaze tracked up in the direction she was pointing in. A short piece of rope was dangling from the ceiling, nearly undetectable, since the rope was the exact same colour as the surrounding walls and ceiling.

Iona flashed her a grin, then hoped up, once, twice, before managing to grab onto the rope. Her weight tugged it down, opening up a hatch in the ceiling, a simple wooden ladder tumbling down to allow them passage to the attic. Iona mounted the ladder without any hesitation, scrambling up with an agility that surprised the warrior. Gabrielle followed behind, her green eyes flicking around alertly. She doubted the girl was leading her into a trap of any kind, but one could never be too sure…

Another few steps, then she poked her head through the hatch, getting a clear look at the attic. The floor was made of rough, wooden boards, nobody having bothered to decorate this abandoned part of the castle. The walls sloped up around her, joining together straight above her head.

“Cool huh?” Iona bounced around happily, feeling quite proud of herself for thinking of this spot. “Nobody ever comes here, except me and Niobe and Castor. And Xena sometimes. It’s just used for storage.” The girl indicated the wooden boxes around them, which were nailed shut tightly.

Gabrielle grabbed onto the edge of the attic floor, putting her weight on her palms and swinging her legs up, then standing gracefully. Fortunately, she could easily stand to her full height in the centre of the room, through she figured she’d have trouble standing at the sides of the room where the roof sloped down. “Who’s Castor?”

“He’s my little brother.” Iona explained, walking to a box in the centre of the room and sitting down, her legs dangling. “He’s with Linos in the mountains.”

“Linos?”

“Our teacher.” The girl clarified. “He teaches reading, writing and calculus to Castor and Niobe. For me it’s mostly philosophy and astronomy and stuff…”

“Really?” Gabrielle asked in mild surprise as she seated herself on one of the crates, knowing both matters were pretty tough reading for a twelve year old. “Which philosophers?”

“Plato, Aristotle…” Iona shrugged negligently. “Some things they say are pretty clever, but there’s a lot of blabbering about nothing in there too… They like to use fancy words to say really simple things…”

Gabrielle’s eyebrows edged up into her hairline. “Do they now?”

“Yeah.” The young girl nodded confidently. “They just write about stuff all the time, guessing about what they think is the truth, but they never go out and do anything… I like to learn more practical things, like how to tame horses and fight with a sword. And how to sneak up on people of course…” She added hastily, giving Gabrielle a meaningful look.

“Right.” The warrior chuckled, then stood. “All right, we’d better get started then. Take your shoes off…”

Iona looked down at her booted feet, then up at Gabrielle again. “Why?”

“Because if you keep ‘m on it’s harder to sneak.”

“Why?”

“Because the leather squeaks.”

Iona frowned, looking at her boots one more time. “It does?”

“Uhuh.” Gabrielle confirmed with a small smile, walking closer and kneeling in front of the girl. She grabbed onto the small boot, one hand at the heel and one at the toes, pulling the footwear loose. “Really soft sounds sometimes, but there’s always something you can hear if you listen real close.”

“Can you teach me to listen real good too?” Iona immediately asked enthusiastically, gazing at her new companion.

“We’ll see…” Gabrielle muttered, unable not to be amused by the girl’s curiosity. “First things first, OK?”

“OK.” Iona sighed gravely, then hopped off her crate. “What do I do?”

“Well…” Gabrielle glanced around the room cluttered with crates and other smaller items. “First we have to create some space here. Help me move some boxes to the side, will you?”

Iona immediately set to work. Gabrielle watched her movements from the corner of her eyes, while she herself moved the heavier items around. Iona appeared to be quite strong for her age and build, and a hard worker for someone who’d been raised in the luxury of a palace. The warrior shook her head a little as she tightened her grip on one of the larger crates, lifting it up to place it on top of another one. This was so weird, all of this. All the things she’d seen this last few days, well, most of them at least, didn’t add up to her vision of the Conqueror at all. Iona clearly adored the ruler, and judging from the bits of interaction Gabrielle had been able to witness as she was hidden in the shadows of Pyrron’s quarters the feeling was mutual. Or at least, The Conqueror made it seem to be. Maybe it was a form of indoctrination, making sure the children in the palace grew up to form a bond with the Conqueror, so they would stay loyal to her in times to come… Which would be terribly manipulative, but incredibly smart, Gabrielle had to admit.

Caught in her musing, she forgot to keep an eye on her younger companion for a moment. The girl was just lifting up a smaller box, intend on carrying it over to the side of the room, when she tripped on a small unevenness in the wooden floor. With a clattering of wood and a thudding of limbs, she and her burden crashed to the floor.

The rough boards scraped her knees, and Iona bit her lip to keep from crying out. Footsteps hastily rushed closer, then a gentle hand touched her back.

“Are you all right?” Gabrielle’s worried voice sounded behind her. “Iona?”

The girl sniffled back some tears, then turned to sit on the floor, wiping an arm over her face hastily to get rid of a salty drop staining her cheek. “Fine.” She said in a slightly unsteady voice.

“That was quite a nasty fall.” Gabrielle looked down at the girl’s legs, which had some nasty scrapes, but didn’t appear to be broken or bruised or anything like that. “Think you can stand?”

Iona nodded, then allowed the warrior to pull her to her feet. She winced as her legs stung painfully, trying to ignore the bits of blood trickling down her kneecaps. “See. I’m fine.”

Gabrielle gave her a wry grin, then lifted a hand and patting her cheek affectionately. “You’re a tough kid, you know that?”

This got a delighted smile edging its way through the pained features. “I am?”

“Most definitely.” Gabrielle informed her honestly. “How about we go downstairs and tend to those knees of yours, huh?”

Iona’s face turned sombre. “No sneaking?”

“It’s no good sneaking when you’re hissing in pain at every step you take.” Gabrielle said, as she moved over to the box Iona had dropped. The shock of the fall had loosened the nails keeping the lid in place and part of the contents had spilled out onto the attic floor. Gabrielle pulled the crate upright again, then started to pick up the items to place it back in the box.

“I won’t hiss.” Iona assured her weakly, knowing the warrior was probably right, but she was unable to help being disappointed, since she had really been looking forward to sneaking up on Xena.

“I’ll teach you another time, I promise.” Gabrielle shot her a smile, before turning back to her task, picking up a picture frame off the floor. “We’ll…”

She paused, as her eyes fell on the framed drawing in her hands. A woman with dark, curly hair, wearing a simple dress, an apron tied at her waist, was standing behind three children. It was a family, at least, it seemed to be, the likeliness between the individuals being quite striking. The largest of the trio, a boy with dark hair, stood on the left. Beside him stood a much smaller boy, with blond hair and a huge grin on his face, his arms wrapped around the girl beside him, who had a hand placed protectively on his shoulder. She was smiling too.

Gabrielle stared at the girl in the picture. At the long dark hair, braided back to keep it out of her face. At the way she was standing. At the already clearly visible layer of muscles on her bare arms and legs. Just like… But this couldn’t possibly be…

“What are you doing here?!” A growl beside her suddenly made her jump. She scrambled to her feet as fast as she could, still holding the picture frame in one hand, her alert eyes flicking to the hatch they’d entered the attic through, to see icily cold blue eyes flashing at her.

“Uh oh…” Iona swallowed, her eyes wide.

For a moment the gaze flicked sideways to take in the girl’s presence. “You took her here?!”

Carefully the young blonde took a few paces back, finding shelter at Gabrielle’s side, half hiding behind the warrior. “Conqueror.” She whispered, a tinge of fear in her voice.

Gabrielle darted another quick look at the angry set of the Conqueror’s body, before turning her attention to the girl beside her. “Iona, why don’t you go back to your room and have someone look after those wounds, OK?”

Blue eyes peeked up, blinking hesitantly.

“I’ll come by to see if they did a good job later, deal?”

An insecure look at the Conqueror, then Iona nodded. “‘kay.”

Gabrielle gave her a reassuring smile and a pat on the cheek, then straightened again, letting her eyes meet Xena’s. “Don’t try to stop her, or you’ll regret it.”

The Conqueror took a breath, clearly attempting to calm herself. “Go on.” She spoke to the girl, forcing the anger out of her voice. “It’s OK.”

The girl nodded, hastily, dropping her eyes to avoid the Conqueror’s gaze, hastily walking to the hatch and descending down the ladder.

Xena waited a moment, so she was sure Iona was out of hearing range, then lifted her gaze to meet Gabrielle’s once more, all the anger flooding back in. “I give you complete freedom to roam my palace. I give you luxury and comfort. Good food. And you repay me by going through my things without my consent?!”

“That’s not what happened…” Gabrielle refuted.

“Isn’t it?!” Xena waved her hands at the opened crate in a furious motion. “Then what’s this?!”

“Iona was carrying it, then she tripped…”

“Oh, sure… Just an accident, right?” The Conqueror laughed humourlessly.

Green eyes narrowed to slits. “If you are insinuating I hurt that girl in any way…”

“And what if I’m insinuating just that?”

“Then you’re dead.” Was the growled reply.

“Oh please.” Xena rolled her eyes. “You’re willing to do anything to save your rebel friend, right? Why not tripping a little girl so you can find some stuff to use against me then?”

“Don’t you dare!” Gabrielle pointed a threatening finger at the Conqueror, only just keeping herself from pounding on the woman. “You took everything from me! You slaughtered my friends, you quenched any chance at a normal life for me, you took away my dignity… I will not let you take my honour!” She’d taken a pace closer with every point she made and was now right in front of the warrior, only a few feet separating them. “So you’d better take that back right now, or I will kill you where you stand and take my chances at getting my friend out of here on my own.”

“You’ll die.” Xena hissed back.

“So be it then. Death is the least of my worries.”

A moment of tense silence, as blue and green faced off in a battle of wills. Xena had no doubts the warrior was serious. Not that she feared the threats, death was the least of her worries as well. There had been moments when she would have gladly welcomed it. The Conqueror took a breath. “It was an accident?”

“Yes.” Gabrielle affirmed firmly.

“Very well.” The Conqueror relented, then held up her hand. “Give me the picture.”

The warrior did so without hesitation, stealing a last look at the cheerfully smiling girl, before glaring back up into a similar face, this one void of any happiness.

“To the world, these things don’t exist.” Xena stated, avoiding looking at the item in her hands. “I’d like to keep it that way.”

“If someone finds out about this in the future, they will not have heard from me.” The warrior assured, crossing her arms.

“I’ll trust your word on that.”

A short nod from the blonde, then she turned towards the hatch to make her exit. Deciding climbing the ladder would take too long, she simply jumped down, grabbing onto the edge of the attic floor at the last minute, swinging sideways to avoid bumping into the ladder, then landing gracefully in the hallway.

The Conqueror’s eyes followed the warrior until she was out of sight, then Xena released a tense breath, closing her eyes. Gods… She lifted a hand and rubbed her eyes tiredly. What was she doing? Was Alti right? Was she insane to trust this young woman? This woman who blamed her for every wrong thing in her life? Sure, the last few days had been fun, but was this bit of fun worth risking everything for? Xena dropped her head, sagging down on one of the crates. Yes, Xena admitted to herself, it was worth it, but the risk wasn’t what concerned her, was it? What concerned her was that this was moving beyond being just plain fun.

Xena angrily pounded her fist against the wood she was sitting on. Damn it. Why did the people she liked always hate her guts? Why were the people that hated her guts always the ones she respected and could see were good and honourable.

She snorted in self-contempt. “You know exactly why people like her hate you. She has every right to hate.” Her eyes trailed down, finally coming to rest on the picture she held in her hand, her gaze settling on the smiling young boy in the centre of the drawing. “Oh, Ly…” A finger tracked up to trace the solid pencil strokes. “I’m doing what we always dreamed of. I’m ruling the world… But… if you’re looking down on me now, I doubt you’ll see much to be proud of.” She released a shaky breath. “Has mom told you about me? About everything I’ve done?” A short pause to allow an answer, even though she knew it would never come. “Yeah, I’m sure she has. She was always the first in line to judge me. The first to tell me what a horrible beast I was. And she was right… Is right…” She stared into the eyes of her kid brother. “I’m just… I’m hoping you can look deeper, can look inside me and… And see I meant well… At least part of the time…” A tear slid down her cheek, gravity pulling it off her skin to fall down and splatter on the glass that covered the drawing. “I try, Ly, I really do…. But it’s hard…” She gently wiped over the glass with her sleeve to clean the fluid off the drawing. “It’s hard being alone…”

For a long time she was silent, as if waiting for a promise of future companionship… But it never came…

Gabrielle let herself fall back on the bed, closing her eyes as she hit the soft mattress. Good gods… Why couldn’t things be simple for once? Why couldn’t things be like in the stories she used to tell, where the hero always knew what to do, never doubted for a moment and instinctively chose the right path at the crossing. Just for this one time she’d like evil people to just be evil. To be ugly, hairy, growling men with scars and not be good-looking women who had happy little girls hiding somewhere under all that armour…

Green eyes opened and gazed up at the decorated ceiling. In these last years, living in Chin, roaming the world on her travels back to Greece, she’d never even considered… She’d never even considered the Conqueror had a family. That she’d once been a child… For some reason she’d been convinced the woman had just been spewed up by the fires of Tartarus. That, like the goddess Athena, she’d been born full grown and dressed in armour, ready to mould the world to her desire by brute force…

But now she knew differently. The woman now known as the Conqueror, the most brutal ruler the world had ever known, had once been an innocent child.

What had happened? What could have possibly changed this woman’s destiny from being a simple peasant girl to being the one to lead this Empire?

Whatever it was, did it matter? Gabrielle asked herself. It shouldn’t… What was important was what the woman was now. A murderer. The one who had killed her friends, had imprisoned Thalia… So she wasn’t a demon created from the cursed fires of the Underworld, so what? The woman had chosen this path herself. She shouldn’t care in the slightest what the Conqueror’s reasons had been…

She shouldn’t care… But she did…

Gabrielle released a frustrated breath. Though she felt the bard inside of her had died on that cross all those years ago, her curiosity for interesting tales hadn’t lessened in the slightest. The Conqueror was a cold, ruthless killer, a murderer and a tyrant, but… well, she was an incredibly intriguing woman… She could chop off the head of a man without even flinching and be adored by a young girl at the same time. She could show incredible deviousness in dealing with her regents, but remain true to her word through all of it…

Just now, in the attic, for just a moment she’d looked into the Conqueror’s eyes and seen… Something… Something beside the anger and the taunting glints, past the rage and bloodlust…

Eyes were windows into ones soul… Lao Ma had told her that once, that if you would just stare into someone’s eyes long enough you could separate the good from the evil.

“Clearly that doesn’t always work… You allowed The Conqueror into your home.”

Lao Ma closed her eyes, shaking her head slightly. “Gabrielle, you do not understand…”

“No, I don’t…” The blonde crossed her arms, towering over her mentor, who was sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor. This was the one thing they were constantly at odds about. “Teacher, you know I respect you more than any other person in this world, but… But I can not understand why you speak of this woman that has conquered your country and mine, that has betrayed you and tried to crucify me, as if she is someone you care for.”

Dark eyes shifted to look up at her. “But she is.”

“Why?”

Lao Ma took a breath, then gracefully rose to her feet, her thin, yellow robes draping around her, the lower edges reaching down to the floor. She walked out of the room and onto the porch overlooking the terraced gardens, colourful flowers surrounding small waterfalls and pebbled paths. Gabrielle followed behind, quietly awaiting her answer. Her teacher walked down the three wooden steps, coming to stand on the small path that led to the arches and temples in her garden. “Do you see that tree over there, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle’s eyes followed the direction her teacher was pointing to, to see a large, lush green pine tree standing beside the pond in the centre of the garden.

“When I was a child, that tree was no more then a mere seed. I planted it here on my first visit to the house of Lao.” Lao Ma stated calmly. “Great trees grow from the smallest shoots, Gabrielle.”

A moment of silence as Gabrielle considered this. “If you’re comparing The Conqueror to this tree for some reason, I think I need to point out this tree here didn’t kill thousands of people or forced countless others to submit to its will.”

Lao Ma turned her head and looked at her student, then rolled her eyes. “It’s just a metaphor, Gabrielle. Bear with me, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Gabrielle walked up next to her, sitting down on a stone. “Go on…”

Lao Ma smiled at her in amusement, slightly shaking her head. “There is no rest in you, is there?”

Blond eyebrows frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Every person one day comes to a crossing. And they will have to choose which road to walk upon. Choose their Tao, their way. But you haven’t chosen. You are trying to walk every path at once.”

“I am not.” Gabrielle looked up indignantly.

“Oh, come now… Don’t you think I know you’ve asked my guards to teach you how they fight, teach you how to wield a weapon?” Green eyes dropped, refusing to look up at her. “You have taken steps on the path of war, and yet you want me to teach you peace.”

“I only want to protect you.” Gabrielle said softly. “I know there are people who threaten you, but you won’t protect yourself against them. So I must…”

“Do not apologise.” Lao Ma knelt down before her, reaching out and touching her cheek. “A seed grows into a tree not because it chooses to, but because it was meant to do so. As such it is with you. As such it was with Xena.”

“The Conqueror and I have nothing in common!” Fiery green eyes turned to calm brown ones. “Destiny won’t shape me, I’ll shape it.”

Lao Ma regarded her quietly for a moment, then straightened, leaning down and placing a kiss on the blonde’s forehead. “She said the exact same thing.”

Gabrielle sighed. She had respected Lao Ma like no one else, but the obnoxious thing about the woman was she always managed to make it seem she was right… Even when she clearly wasn’t… She was nothing like…

She sat up straight as she detected the shuffling of footsteps coming towards her door. Gabrielle cocked her head, judging the sound, trying to deduce who it was, but she found she couldn’t… It wasn’t the Conqueror, not Iona or Esmee… Instinctively she reached for her boot, grabbing a firm hold of the hilt of the dagger she had placed there, laying the blade against the inside of her arm. It could just be one of the servants, or maybe…

The door opened, her visitor not bothering to knock. A tall, dark form blocked her doorway, dressed in a black toga, with deep purple edges. “Well… How nice to see you again too…”

A shiver passed down the warrior’s spine at the shamaness’s low, crackly voice. “Don’t try anything stupid, sorceress. Whatever your powers may be, you know there’ll be a dagger stuck in your chest before you’ll have uttered the first syllable of your spell.”

A chuckle from Alti. “Keep your feeble threats to yourself, warrior. I have no desire to see you dead… You can be more useful to me alive…” She edged into the room, closing the door behind her. “We could be useful to each other.”

Gabrielle watched her suspiciously, keeping her dagger firmly clenched in her hand. “You expect me to believe you’re willing to help me after what happened yesterday…”

“Oh, yesterday…” Alti lifted a hand to a small scratch on the side of her face. “Yesterday was… an unfortunate incident. I’m willing to overlook that…” She settled down on a chair next to the bed, crossing her legs, her dark eyes firmly fixed on Gabrielle’s face. “I saw you fighting.”

The warrior stared back calmly, forcing herself not to break eye contact with the shamaness.

“Xena is getting weak. You proved that today by defeating her… It is time for her to be replaced.” Alti leaned forward, folding her hands and balancing her elbows on her knees. “I could make you ruler of the known world, Gabrielle.”

Green eyes regarded her for another moment, then Gabrielle started laughing. “You think I want to be an Empress?” A snort. “You know, for a woman with such great spiritual powers, you have very little brain.”

Alti’s jaw clenched, but she managed to keep any snappy retorts to herself. “When Xena is taken care of, you can make any reforms you want. You can turn this Empire into a democracy.”

A blond eyebrow raised. “You would support a democracy?”

“I would support any form of rule, as long as I have a part in the ruling.” Alti informed her dryly.

Gabrielle regarded her for a moment. “You have no loyalty towards The Conqueror?”

Alti rolled her eyes. “Nobody is loyal to Xena. All her relationships are based on either blackmail or mutual benefits. Xena was useful to me before, as I was to her, but with you here, things have changed…” Dark eyes stared at the warrior intensely. “You are the bringer of change, Gabrielle. I have seen you in my visions. You’re destined to conquer the Conqueror. All I want to do is aid you in becoming what you’re meant to become…”

Gabrielle cocked her head at the shamaness. “You like to stick with the winning team, you mean?”

A wicked grin. “You could say that…”

“Well,…” Gabrielle stood up from the bed and headed for the door. “…I hate to disappoint you in that case…” She pulled it open. “But I’m afraid I’ll have to do just that…”

Dark eyes stared at her in fury. “You are declining my offer?!”

“Yup.”

The shamaness slowly, dangerously, rose to her feet. “I offer you the empire on a plate, and you won’t take it? Why?”

“Because the end doesn’t justify the means.” A negligent shrug. “I don’t like you. I think you’re a dangerous, manipulative old witch, whose main purpose in life is to destroy the lives of those who get in her way.”

Alti stared at her in outrage. “I am not old!”

Gabrielle released a breath. “Whatever. Just leave.” She motioned for the door. “And don’t bother me again.”

Another moment, in which dark eyes drilled into hers with almost painful intensity. “You’re even more of a fool than I thought you to be.” Alti finally said in a growl, striding forward and out of the room. “You’ve made an enemy of me today, Gabrielle. You will regret this.”

Gabrielle closed the door behind her, then leaned forward, resting her forehead against the wood, exhaling gravely. “Yeah… I’m quite sure I will…”

“Gab!” Thalia smiled widely as she spotted her friend walking towards her, a guard following close behind. “You’re back!”

“Hi.” Gabrielle stepped aside to allow the guard to key open the door for her. “How are you doing?”

“Considering I’m stuck in a cell, not too damn bad…” The redhead told her cheerfully, pulling her into a hug as she stepped in the cell. “I hadn’t expected you back for some time…”

Gabrielle shrugged. “I can go wherever I want to. That includes being here.” She held the paper bag, she had gripped in one hand, out to her friend. “Here. Brought you some stuff.”

Thalia cocked her head, but took the bag, pulling it open and peeking inside curiously. “Oh my goodness!” She looked back up at Gabrielle, her eyes twinkling enthusiastically. “You are a goddess!”

The warrior chuckled, sitting down on the edge of the single bed that occupied the cell. “Wouldn’t go that far…”

“Well, I would…” Thalia said full of conviction, digging into the bag and pulling out one of the cinnamon rolls. “Hey, your highness, catch!” She called out, as she tossed it through the bars into the cell next to hers, where Ephiny neatly scooped it out of the air.

“Hmmm…” The Amazon sniffed the treat appreciatively. “I agree with ya. Divine presence in the prison, for sure.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, shaking her head in amusement. “It’s good to know you found someone down here to share your deluded sense of humour with, Thal.”

“Hey, I used to be plain and sane before…” Ephiny mumbled around a mouthful. “You just try hanging out with her for two full years…”

Thalia shot her companion a look. “See, this is the problem with royalty. You share your cinnamon rolls and your candy with ‘m, and all you can expect back is accusations…” She tossed another bread roll at the Amazon, hitting the blonde square on the forehead. Ephiny caught the roll as it bounced off, then took a bite, munching on happily. Thalia rolled her eyes at her, then turned to look down at Gabrielle. “Did you send the candy along with my dinner, by the way, or was that a gift from the Conqueror?”

The warrior chuckled, leaning her back against the wall, feeling herself relax a little in the company of friends. “Both actually.”

A red eyebrow lifted. “Explain.”

“I blackmailed her into giving those to you.”

A moment of silence, then Ephiny coughed loudly, as she tried to keep from choking to death on her cinnamon treat. “What?!” She managed, between breaths.

“Lemme get this straight… You blackmailed the Conqueror??” Thalia stared at her in disbelief.

“Yes.”

The redhead scratched the back of her neck. “But I thought she was blackmailing you by holding me here?”

“She is.” Gabrielle confirmed.

Two pairs of eyes blinked at her in confusion.

“It’s complicated.” The warrior explained.

“Oh, geez, ya think?” Ephiny muttered sarcastically, shaking her head as she successfully swallowed down a bit of bread roll.

Thalia leaned back against the bars, judging her friend intently. “You know Gab, this could just be me, but she’s letting you get away with an awful lot… Blackmail, sneaking me treats, coming down here any time you want…”

“I know…” Gabrielle sighed, tipping her head back and closing her eyes, trying to quell the doubtful voices in her head yelling at her.

The redhead frowned. “The Conqueror would only do you favours if you…” Her eyes widened. “Gab, tell me you’re not… I mean, you and her aren’t… uhm…” She waved her hand at the empty air in a vague gesture.

Gabrielle’s eyes shot open. “No!” She denied, glaring at her friend in horror.

“Just checking…” Thalia said hastily. “Gab, I know you feel guilty and all, and I just don’t know how far you’d go…”

“Not that far.” She leaned forward, rubbing at her eyes tiredly with a hand. “Not as long as I don’t need to anyway.” She added in a softer voice, making sure her friend couldn’t hear her, before speaking up again. “The Conqueror’s just… different… She’s…” She shook her head in defeat. “I don’t know… Something indefinable…”

“Well, I’ve got a few definitions for ya…” Ephiny muttered from the other cell. “Beast, Murderer, Destroyer of Nations, Terror, Curse…”

Gabrielle released a frustrated breath. “There’s more to her than that… There’s… I mean, did you ever wonder what she was like as a child? If this darkness was innate, or if something happened to her and…”

Ephiny’s eyes narrowed viciously. “Don’t tell me you’re feeling sorry for her?!” She spat, looking at Gabrielle in outrage.

The warrior lifted a hand in defence. “I didn’t say…”

“I don’t give a damn what happened to the poor Empress when she was an infant!” The Amazon continued her tirade. “You know what I care about? I care about all the sisters I lost because of her. Forty-two people lived in our village. You know how many were left after she waltzed through? Three! Three!!”

“Ephiny…” Thalia carefully stepped closer to her friend. “Easy now…Calm down…”

“Easy??” Hazel eyes blasted fire at the redhead. “You wouldn’t calm down if you’d lost…”

The Amazon stopped short, biting her lip to hold back the rest of her sentence. A moment of silence followed, then Ephiny spoke up again. “I’m sorry. That was… stupid…”

“‘s Okay… I understand.” Thalia, patted the blonde’s shoulder with a wry look, then turned back to Gabrielle, who was still sitting on her bed, her head in her hands. “Gab?”

The warrior sighed, her shoulders slumping. “I… I’m sorry, I’m just… confused…”

“Confused?” Thalia walked closer, sitting down beside her. “How come?”

Green eyes peeked up at her. “I’ve just…” A shake of the blond head. “I’ve seen things these last few days that just… don’t fit…”

“Don’t fit?” Her friend frowned at her.

Gabrielle tossed up her hands in defeat. “She’s like a puzzle. And I thought I figured her out, I thought she was just evil and screwed up in the head. I nearly had her all puzzled together… But now I’ve found all these pieces that… that don’t fit anywhere… Like they belong to a different puzzle, but I’m positive they don’t… You know what I mean?”

Thalia considered this for a moment, then nodded. “I think I do…” She finally murmured. “But, Gab, the majority of those… those puzzle pieces of yours still go together, right? The bigger part of her is still evil, isn’t it?”

Gabrielle nodded faintly. “I know…” A sigh. “And part of me is yelling at myself for being so ridiculous, but…You know how I get…”

“All mushy and well-willing, yeah…” Thalia grinned at the scowl from the warrior. “You still believe all people have some good hidden somewhere, don’t you Gab?”

Gabrielle released a tired breath. “I thought I didn’t anymore…”

“Must be hanging around with me then.” Thalia wrapped an arm around the blonde’s shoulders amicably. “You always made sure before your opinions were the direct opposite of mine…”

Gabrielle chuckled ruefully. “Never did it on purpose…”

“I know… It was good, anyway, it kept us… balanced out…”

“Guess so…” The warrior smiled at her friend, then shifted her gaze to look at Ephiny apologetically. “I uhm… I’m sorry… I shouldn’t have…”

The Amazon quickly waved her off. “Neither should I…” A pause as the woman considered her words. “It’s just… I had a friend before. Her name was Terreis… And she believed that the Conqueror was… reasonable. Even when queen Melosa was killed and she had to lead our tribe she tried everything to talk to the Conqueror about peace.” Ephiny flicked a hand at her surroundings. “And look where it got us… I’m captured, the remaining Amazons are scattered…”

“Remaining?” Gabrielle cocked her head at the blonde. “I thought the Amazon nation was extinct.”

Ephiny snorted. “As if…” She leaned as close into the other cell as she could, dropping her voice. “That’s what she wants you to believe, Gabrielle. If they were all dead, why would I be alive today?”

Gabrielle had no answer to that.

“If we ever get out of here I could show you places, where people thought ‘extinct’ live together peacefully. Centaurs, Amazons, Pomira…” Ephiny smiled wryly. “They’re hiding, but at least they’re alive.”

The warrior thought about this. “How do you know ? You’ve been here two years now, right?”

“Three.” Ephiny corrected her. “Longer than her anyway.” She pointed a thumb at Thalia.

“So how do you know?”

The Amazon Queen grinned wickedly. “Let’s just say I have… sources…”

Gabrielle’s eyes widened as she realised what that meant. “In the palace?”

“Shh.” Ephiny placed a finger to her lips, motioning the warrior forward with her other hand. Gabrielle stood and walked closer. “I trust you because you’re a friend of Thalia’s, all right? Don’t treat her honour lightly…”

“Never.” Gabrielle shook her head confidently.

Ephiny glanced around, making sure none of the other captives was paying attention, then started whispering. “There’s a woman working in the kitchen. Her name is Solari. Short brunette.” She gave Gabrielle a meaningful look.

The warrior nodded. “Amazon?”

“Well, it would be kinda hard to hide a centaur in here, ya know?”

Gabrielle chuckled. “True enough.” A short pause. “They haven’t been able to get you out yet?”

Ephiny shook her head. “I don’t want them to.”

A blonde eyebrow lifted.

“It would mean drawing attention to their existence. I can’t risk that.” The Amazon released a breath. “Solari is just stubborn enough to stick around here and tell me about the outside world from time to time. Notes in my soup, stuff like that…” She shrugged. “Keeps me sane… Sorta…”

Gabrielle smiled wryly, then reached through the bars, laying a hand on the bare shoulder. “I’ll get you out of here.”

Hazel eyes studied her for a long moment. “You seem very sure of yourself.”

Gabrielle smiled wryly. “I’ve never let the Conqueror get me down before… I’m not about to start now…”

With a soft plop Xena uncorked another bottle of red wine, then tipped it and poured some of the liquid into her glass. She placed the bottle back on the table with one hand and reached for her glass with her other. The fluid twirled around in her glass, Xena watching it quietly as the light from the candle lit up the contents, the red twinkling at her wickedly. She lifted the glass to her lips, then tipped her head back, downing the wine in a few hasty gulps. Her mind became pleasantly fuzzy, the room spinning around unfocusedly. Xena closed her eyes and leaned back in her chair, her free left hand finding the bottle on instinct, lifting it up to fill another glass.

“Well well…”

Xena rolled her eyes behind her eyelids at the familiar voice, then frowned as she realised how hard that was. She wondered why…

“So this is the ‘urgent business’ you had to deal with, is it?” Alti’s raspy voice said sarcastically. “Your Egyptian will be crushed if she found out…”

“Go away.” Xena growled in annoyance.

Alti walked further into the room, ignoring the threat and seating herself on the edge of the desk.

The Conqueror gritted her teeth. “What do you want?”

Dark eyes regarded her intently. “I want to warn you. Again.” The shamaness waved a hand at her. “Don’t you see what’s happening? Just look at yourself… She’s only been here two days and you’re in here getting drunk.”

Xena stared deeply into her glass, hypnotised. “Nothing wrong with that…”

The shamaness shook her head. “You are betraying yourself, Xena.”

“Really?” Amused blue eyes looked up at the shamaness. “Well, we could start a club in that case. You can be president.” The Conqueror leaned back in her chair, her hands folded around her glass. “You know, Alti, if you want to form a ‘secret alliance’ with dear Gabby, you should really make sure half of my staff isn’t watching you while you sneak into her room.”

A grin slipped onto Alti’s face. “Don’t tell me you’re getting drunk on my behalf, Xena.” She laid a hand over her heart. “I’m moved.”

“Well, if you would just move yourself out of my room, I’d really appreciate it.” The Conqueror muttered sarcastically.

Alti regarded her. “Don’t you even want to know how my meeting with your pawn worked out? Or did you have spies watching our conversation too?”

Xena dragged her eyes from the surface of the red liquid up to the shamaness’s face. “I don’t need spies to know she turned you down.”

“Really?” A dark eyebrow lifted. “How so?”

“Good people like her don’t work with scum like us.”

“Xena, Xena…” Alti straightened with a sigh, standing up and circling the desk. “Don’t tell me you’ve developed a conscience all of a sudden.”

“I’ve always had one, Alti, I just prefer to have it turned off.” The Conqueror stated calmly. “Hurts less…”

The shamaness crossed her arms. “I could help you with that… Taking the good out of people is what I do best after all…” She leaned closer, her voice dropping to a whisper. “Life is far less painful without a soul, you know?”

Xena considered this for a moment. “Probably.” She then admitted. “But the nasty side effects are you start wearing dear skin a lot and go way overboard with the black eyeliner.” She looked up at Alti, feigning an apologetic look. “Just ain’t worth it… Sorry… ”

The shamaness looked back at her with a bored expression. “Good to know you found your sense of humour at the bottom of that first bottle… Or was it the second?”

“Fourth actually.” Xena informed her cheerfully, then downed another glass.

Alti closed her eyes with a sigh, then stood and headed back out the room. “It’s no use talking to you this way. I will speak with you in the morning.”

“Afternoon. I’m fighting Gabby in the morning.”

Alti looked over her shoulder, dark eyes gazing at the Conqueror for a moment. “The state you’ll be in, I’m guessing that fight won’t last all that long.” The shamaness said dryly, then strode further out of the room, leaving the door open.

Xena watched the door opening sway from left to right for a moment, letting the motion sooth her. “You’re probably right.” She agreed with the now absent shamaness, before reaching for the bottle, lifting it to her lips and taking a long swallow.

Iona sat huddled in the corner of her bed, her arms wrapped tightly around a small, stuffed horse, her face hidden in its soft skin.

A sound alerted her and she looked up, hastily lifting a hand to her eyes and rubbing away some of the tears with her sleeve.

“You’re getting good at hearing me.” Gabrielle said, smiling at the girl.

Iona sniffled, bending her head. “You did that on purpose.”

The warrior grinned reluctantly. “Nothing gets past you, does it?”

Blue eyes peeked up hesitantly, blinking at her. “I thought… I thought you were Xena’s friend… But you’re not…”

Gabrielle sobered, walking closer and sitting down on the edge of the girl’s bed. “No, I’m not…”

“Why not?”

The warrior released a breath taking a moment to find the correct words to explain things to the young girl. “I… I don’t know your… your Xena…” Speaking the name felt odd. “But… I know the Conqueror.”

Iona bit her lip, looking up. “Did she hurt you?”

Gabrielle watched the girl for a moment. Apparently she seemed to know more about who the Conqueror was than Gabrielle had thought. “She… She and I fought. We don’t agree on how the Empire should be ruled.”

Iona cocked her head. “You’re a rebel?”

She knew much more… “I used to be.” Gabrielle corrected quietly. “Now I’m a warrior.”

The girl nodded pensively, seeming to consider all this new information. “So why are you here?”

The warrior rubbed her temple, thinking. “The Conqueror… took something from me. I want it back. And we agreed that if I fight her for a month and teach her new things, she’ll give it to me…”

Another nod. “Xena likes to learn. But there’s no one left to teach her things… Well, except you now…” Iona amended.

She fell silent again, thinking, absentmindedly stroking the manes of her toy horse. Gabrielle studied the stuffed animal for a moment. It was well made, the stitches neatly hid in the black fabric.

“Xena made it for me.” Iona’s voice said softly, shifting her grip and holding the toy out to Gabrielle, who hesitated a moment before taking it from her. “Last year, for my birthday.”

“She made this herself?”

“Yes.” The girl confirmed. “She always gives the best presents.”

“It’s very pretty.” Gabrielle agreed, looking at an unseeing, dark eye.

“She made that especially, because Xena says the wrapping is the best part of the present, but she couldn’t wrap up Chilon, cause he kept kicking at the paper.”

Gabrielle frowned, then looked back up at Iona. “The stallion is yours?”

Iona nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah… But I can’t ride him without Xena being there, because he gets scared sometimes, and he runs off, and Xena doesn’t want me to get hurt.”

“She should’ve just given you another horse.” Gabrielle muttered, handing the toy back to Iona, who hugged it close.

“I didn’t want another horse.”

The warrior looked up in amusement. “And you always get what you want, do you?”

“Always.” Iona confirmed confidently, her eyes taking on that mischievous twinkle Gabrielle now associated with the girl.

The warrior chuckled. “I have no doubt you do.” She leaned forward and ruffled the blond hair affectionately. “You can charm your way out of anything.”

Iona giggled, her good mood returning. “Hey, Gabrielle?”

“Yeah?”

“I like you.”

Gabrielle smiled. “That’s good to know.”

“But I like Xena too.” The young blonde added. “Does that mean I have to choose?”

“Nah.” The warrior shook her head, patting the girl’s cheek. “You can be friends with both of us. We just can’t be friends with each other.”

“OK.” Iona said, pleased with the reply. “So, does that mean you can still teach me how to sneak?”

Gabrielle laughed, shaking her head in disbelief. “One-track mind…”

“Well, can ya?”

“Yes.” She grabbed onto the girl’s shoulders before she could start bouncing through the room. “But not tonight. It’s late.”

Iona pouted sadly. “Awwwww.”

“That is not gonna work with me, young lady.” Gabrielle pointed a chastising finger at the girl.

An even sadder look.

The warrior sighed. “All right, all right… Just one short lesson, OK?”

Iona grinned victoriously. “Whatever you say.”

“Whatever you say…” Gabrielle shook her head as she closed the door to Pyrron’s quarters behind her. “Manipulative little thing… You’re such a sucker for those pleading blue eyes, Gab. It’s ridiculous. You knock down the Conqueror without much of an effort, but some twelve year old waltzes right over you…” She muttered to herself as she made her way down the corridor to the main hall. “What’s up with that, huh?”

She frowned as she saw light spill onto the dimmed corridor, coming from an open door. The Conqueror’s workspace, Gabrielle concluded after she probed her memory for the information Iona had provided. Would the woman still be up this late? Even though she got up before dawn for her morning run?

Gabrielle took a breath. Whatever. She didn’t care. She picked up her pace, intent on striding past the Conqueror’s room and just…

“Gabby!” A slurry voice called out enthusiastically.

Gabrielle looked at the ceiling in annoyance. Of all the times to be noticed… But she turned and took the few paces back to stand in front of the door opening, looking inside.

The first thing she saw was a neat row of six dark green bottles, placed on the desk, the one furthest from her still half full. Behind those were the Conqueror’s bare feet, resting on top of a chair’s headrest. A frown from the blonde eyebrows as Gabrielle’s eyes tracked down the long, leather clad legs, until they disappeared under the desk the Empress was behind. She bent down, looking under the table to finally come face to face with the dark-haired woman. Xena’s head was bright red, her dishevelled black hair, which fell straight down to the ground, standing out starkly in contrast.

“Do you know how hard it is to drink when you’re upside down?” Xena asked, demonstrating the problem by sipping a bit of her wine, her strenuous face displaying the effort as she swallowed.

Gabrielle blinked back at her in confusion. “What are you doing?”

“Well…” Xena reached up, grabbing onto the still half full bottle of wine with one hand and holding her glass in the other, while balancing on her head. “If you stand on your head all the blood goes down, right? Then it’ll get too full up…uhm… down here…” She put the empty glass down on the ground in front of her, then tapped the side of her head with two fingers. “And my theory is that when it does my skull will explode. I’m just testing my hypothesis.”

Gabrielle stared at her for a moment in utter disbelief. “I was right after all…” She finally muttered to herself. “You are seriously screwed up in the head.”

Xena chuckled, while pouring her glass full of wine without spilling a drop, which was really quite impressive considering the state she was in. “Want some?” She lowered an eyebrow at the warrior.

“No.” Gabrielle replied shortly, straightening again. “Good luck on your experiment. I hope it proves you right.”

“Well, that’s probably the nicest ‘I hope you die’ I’ve ever heard, Gabrielle.” Xena told her cheerfully, swallowing another sip of wine. “You have a way with words. You would’ve been a success at the Bard’s Academy for sure.”

The warrior halted in her tracks, looking over her shoulder at the Conqueror’s wiggling toes.

“Too bad I closed it just before you could enrol, huh?”

“How do y…” Gabrielle bit her lip to hold back her frustration as she realised she was talking to a pair of feet, then bent down again, glaring into twinkling blue eyes. “How do you know?”

“I read your petition for acceptance into the Academy.” The Conqueror informed her dryly. “Very nice. Eloquent. You would’ve gotten in for sure…”

The warrior gazed at her in disbelief. “How in Hades’ name did you…?” Her sentences halted in a tense breath as the Conqueror crossed her arms, attempting to take on an interested pose in her upside down state. “Would you sit up straight! This is driving me insane!”

“All the more reason not to.” Xena grinned widely. “C’mon Gabby, I can’t give this up now… I’ve been at this for a Candlemark, you know? I can’t just give up my quest for answers…”

Gabrielle tensed her hands to fists in an attempt to push back the anger. “Look…” She managed from between clenched teeth. “I strung up a guy by his feet on the way over here, remember? Left him hanging for the whole night. And, before you so brutally ended his life, he was looking pretty un-dead to me.”

Xena frowned, considering this for a moment, then sighed gravely. “Bummer…” She reached out for the edge of the desk and pulled herself up. “Another hypothesis down the… Ugh…” She grabbed for her throbbing head. “Gods, that hurts…” She managed to get herself upright, twisting a little in her seat so her legs were swung over an armrest and her back was against the other. “Science is a danger to one’s health. Maybe I should forbid it too. What do you think?”

Gabrielle crossed her arms, glaring at the Conqueror.

“Want a drink?” Xena offered as she got not response.

“I want you to answer my question.”

A furrowing of the dark brows. “You asked a question?”

“How do you know about the Academy?” Gabrielle repeated in a low tone.

“Oh that…” Xena took the liberty to pour herself another glass of wine. “Well, you know…”

“No, I don’t… Explain it to me.”

“Tch… Gabby, Gabby…” The Conqueror shook her head in amusement as she lifted the now filled glass to her lips. “You know, just because you’re my valued pawn, that doesn’t mean you get to…”

With a loud shattering, the glass slammed against the stone wall, leaving a large red stain on the cream coloured priming. Drops left small paths as they sidled down to the formerly light blue carpet, which was now a deep shade of purple.

Xena dazedly looked from the wall to her now empty hand, before her gaze drifted up into raging green eyes. “You just had to make a mess, didn’t ya? I just had that carpet cleaned, you know?”

“Answer my question.”

“And on top of it all you broke the first commandment in this household: Thy shalt not spill alcohol. Unless of course it’s…”

The wood creaked loudly in protest as Gabrielle slammed her fists on the desk’s surface. “Answer… My … Question!”

Blue eyes blinked up at her innocently. “You asked a question?”

A growl of frustration as Gabrielle turned about briskly, and headed for the door.

“Kidding! Just kidding!” Xena hastily amended, attempting to stand up, then deciding against the idea as the room started to spin in circles. “I just heard.”

Gabrielle halted in the doorway, not turning around. “From who?”

A negligent shrug. “I have my ways of getting information…”

The warrior looked over her shoulder, her gaze nearly lethal in its intensity. “If you’ve hurt my family in any way, I swear…”

“Whoa, chill…” Xena lifted her hands in defence. “No peasants were harmed in the production of the file on the former rebel Gabrielle. Trust me…”

“I generally don’t trust destroyers of nations. Sorry.” The warrior muttered sarcastically.

The Empress rolled her eyes. “Hey, you don’t run an empire as big as this by being ignorant, OK? This is the information age, Gabrielle. If you dumped all the informants and spies I have walking about in the ocean, half of this world would flood.” Xena leaned back in her seat, popping her feet on the table. “When someone like you crosses a border they get noticed. Your description was send about. Someone spotted you in Potedeia, went into the local pub and listened… That’s all… And as for your academy petition… I’ve had that ever since you became known as a rebel.”

“You had information on me back then?” Gabrielle couldn’t keep the surprise out of her voice.

“I had information on every member of the resistance.” Xena informed her calmly. “Your friend Thalia, for instance, lived in Corinth. She lost her family in a fire when she was sixteen years of age. She came to Athens, worked in a tavern for a while, then got linked up with the rebellion. I’m assuming she got in charge after the first leader, Kadmos, got executed.” She folded her hands together and placed them behind her head. “You came to my capital shortly after. I knew, before, you came from some northern province, but I didn’t know which one exactly. You tried to get into the Academy, but couldn’t because I shut it down, started to work at the same tavern Thalia had worked in before, the two of you got in touch and voila…” A snap of the long fingers. “The dynamic duo was formed. From that moment on things get a little blurry. You did a good job in hiding yourselves. After you… left… things became much easier though…”

“The resistance didn’t revolve around me…” Gabrielle argued automatically, her mind still processing what she’d just heard.

“Didn’t it?” A low laugh. “Who was the one that put up the posters? Who came up with all those nice bits of text?” The Conqueror painted a headline in the empty air. “Fear gives power to those who should have none. When we show the courage to overcome that fear, tyrants will falter.” She grinned at the stunned look on the blonde’s face. “That was my personal favourite.”

“You… You remember what I wrote four years ago? You learned it by heart?”

“Four years, eight months and two weeks ago and I didn’t really learn.” Xena produced a smug smile, then tapped her head. “Good memory.”

“Right…” Gabrielle paused a moment, trying to regain her composure. “So… Now that you know everything about me, what’s the plan? Kill my family? Burn my home village? What?”

Xena sighed in an over-exaggerated manner. “Why is it that people always think the worst of me?”

“Just answer.” Was the growled response.

The Conqueror considered, then shrugged. “I’m assuming I won’t have to use this knowledge. It’s just a precaution.” She flashed the warrior a grin.

“So what you’re saying is that this is a no win situation.” Gabrielle deducted after a short pause to think. “If I die my family will survive, but Thalia won’t, and if I do live through a month I can save Thalia, but my family will die.”

“I’m not saying any such thing…” Xena denied calmly leaning her head back and closing her eyes. “…because I’m sure you’ll find a sneaky way out of this. I’m just trying to stay one step ahead, that’s all… Just like old times, Gabrielle, when you used to stay one step ahead of me in your rebel years…”

The warrior looked at her for a moment, then shook her head. “No. It’s not like that at all.”

A dark eyebrow edged up. “It’s not?” In absence of a glass she picked up the wine bottle, intent on taking another sip.

“No.” Gabrielle stated quietly. “Because I didn’t hate you before… But now I do…”

Xena’s motion stilled, blue eyes tracking from the red liquid’s surface to the warrior’s face. “You… you didn’t hate me… before?”

Gabrielle shook her head. “I fought against tyranny. Not you.” She took a few paces closer. “But now it’s personal, and I am fighting you.” She placed her palms on the table’s edge, leaning towards the Conqueror, dropping her voice. “And I swear to you, if you threaten me with using the information you have, I will find your deepest, darkest secret and clobber you over the head with it.” Gabrielle took another moment to let her eyes drill into Xena’s, then she turned away, walking out of the room, closing the door behind her.

Xena watched her go, thoughts racing through her foggy brain with a painful clarity. Did she suspect…? Xena shook her head at herself. No, the warrior had no idea… But she couldn’t afford to be careless now and risk… Her gaze shifted to the bottle she still held clenched in her hand. Anger rose, her grip tightening, then with a savage swipe of her hand she tossed it away, the bottle breaking into thousands of fragments, the room echoing with the sound of shattering glass.

A choir of crickets chirped into the early morning air. A frog croaked, then hopped off the lily leaf he’d been resting on and into the pond with a loud plunge, followed by the sound of rippling water. Xena groaned and pulled her pillow over her head. Sometimes this sensitive hearing thing was vastly overrated. Even through the fabric that covered her ears she could hear a second frog respond to the croaked message of the first. The Empress cursed something inaudible into her pillow. To-do-list for today: 1. get up 2. get dressed 3. destroy all amphibian life 4. have breakfast. She summarized for herself, a thought that would’ve brought a wicked grin to her face, had it not been for the pounding headache drilling against her skull. Gods, she hated mornings. She hated knowing she’d have to get up and spend the day dividing her attention between an Egyptian regent, who was now seriously pissed off at having been neglected for two days in a row, a shamaness, who would continue annoying her until she got her way and a warrior, who was intent on slamming a staff against her already aching head. She wrapped her arms around her pillow in an attempt to shield out some more of nature’s noises. Today was gonna suck. She just knew it.

After another moment she gave up her fight against the approaching dawn and pulled the pillow from her head, flinging it across the room. The first rays of light peeked into her room and she narrowed her eyes at them, trying to will them to sink back down the horizon. Didn’t work unfortunately. Xena rubbed her eyes tiredly, then pushed herself to her feet, ignoring her headache and the soreness of her body. She glanced down, taking in what had formerly been a clean white shirt, but was now covered liberally in deep red stains. Xena shook her head at herself, than hastily stopped as her brain protested against the moment.

Herbs… She needed herbs… Lots of ‘m… Her feet pattered forward to salvation, opening the door into her study to allow her to step inside and…

“Ah!” She hopped around on one foot, lifting the other off the floor and grabbing onto it with a hand to allow her to see the sole. A large shard of dark green glass was sticking out of the calluses on her heel. “Damn it all to Hades!” Angrily she pulled out the piece of glass and flung it out the window, hoping maybe it’d hit one of those freaking frogs and add a bright spot to this gloomy morning. There was some rustling as animals skirted out of the projectile’s way, but no agonising death croak… Bummer…

She turned her attention back to her study, taking in the green and white glass spread across the carpet, and the red stains on both her carpet and the walls. With a sigh she tried to ignore the mess and focus on getting to her desk without further painful incidents. She did, somehow, and pulled open a drawer of her desk, where a row of small, labelled, paper bags were lined up in a metal box, a wooden cup standing beside it, a small jar of water next to that.

She’d been down this hangover road more than once and Xena always made sure she was prepared for the after affects of her alcohol infatuation. She selected three of the paper bags and mixed an appropriate amount of the selected herbs together in the cup, then added water to the mixture and watched the herbs twirl in the liquid for a moment, before lifting the cup and downing her medicine in a few hasty gulps. She clenched her teeth, counting to twenty, waiting for the vile tasting herbs to settle down and quit playing tag with the contents of her stomach.

They finally did and after a few more moments the pain in her skull started to ease as well. The Empress exited her study, closing the door behind her, not wanting to get confronted with last nights events again for the time being. She limped over to a closet, sorting through some clothes on the bottom shelf, which was reserved for her more simple outfits. She settled on a white tunic with golden edges, stripping out of her old shirt before pulling the clean fabric over her head. Though skipping her morning run was very tempting, she never allowed her morning rituals to be interrupted, most certainly not by her own irresponsible behaviour.

She sat down on the edge of the bed and wrapped a bandage around her left foot, before pulling on the simple leather shoes she used for running.

It took longer than usual to fall into a comfortable pace as she made her way towards the forested area she used for her early morning activities. The wound in her foot stung, but she got used to the pain after a while. As she reached the forest’s edge she settled on a path to take. Which was of course the roughest road with the most bumps and inclines. Xena rolled her eyes at herself as she picked up speed. For some reason she was unable to keep things easy. It was her curse. She hopped off and flipped over a rock in the centre of the path, trying not to cringe in pain as the pressure on her wound doubled when she landed on the other side.

The running soothed her though. It was mind numbing, even on this path, since she knew it by heart. She knew exactly when to jump and when to duck, when to slow down or pick up speed… Which would annoy her normally, but in her current state it actually came in quite handy.

She continued the path for half a candle mark until she reached a small lake, that indicated she was halfway through her course. She headed for the water’s edge, slowing speed to finally come to a standstill, bending down as she reached the water, dipping both hands in and splashing the liquid over her face, then scooping up some more and bringing it to her lips.

The water rippled and churned, then settled again, and as Xena looked down at the steadying surface she caught a glimpse of a familiar outline reflected on the surface. The form was moving away from her, trying to sneak off out of sight.

Xena considered whether she should let her get away with that, then settled on a no. “Where do you think you’re going, Io?”

Iona stopped dead in her tracks. Her shoulders slumped, then she turned around with a sigh, her head bent. “I just…” Blue eyes peeked up at her. “I didn’t think you’d want to see me…”

Xena released a breath. She felt a sensitive chat coming on… Gods, this day sucked.

“C’mere…” She motioned the young girl closer as she settled down on the edge of the pond, pulling her shoes off and placing her feet in the cold water.

Iona looked at her hesitantly, which got her a dark raised eyebrow and a demanding pat on a patch of sand beside the Empress. She then walked closer and settled on the designated spot, careful to keep a respectable distance between herself and the older woman. She stuck her bare feet in the water as well, kicking at the liquid in discomfort, her fingers fumbling nervously with the edge of her tunic.

Xena watched her for a moment, then reached out, brushing a blonde lock out of the girl’s face. “You mad at me?”

Iona peeked up at her again, judging her for a moment, then shook her head.

“Good.” Xena smiled at her and received a hesitant smile in return from the young blonde. “I wasn’t mad at you either, you know?”

Iona faced forward again, looking at the surface of the water. “You are mad at Gabrielle.”

The Empress considered this for a moment. “No, not really.” She finally denied.

Iona peered up at her curiously. “You’re not?”

Xena shook her head. “No, I’m not mad at her… I…” The Empress considered her words for a moment. “…I yelled because I was afraid…”

Iona’s eyes widened in shock. “You were afraid?” She asked in utter disbelief.

Xena chuckled, reaching over and ruffling the girl’s hair. “Shocking huh? You wanna know why I was afraid?”

Rapid nodding from the blonde.

“Because I thought she was gonna hurt you.”

Iona blinked up at her dark haired companion. “Really?”

Xena nodded solemnly. “Really.” She reached out and wrapped an arm around the girl’s shoulders. “You’re really important to me, Io, and I’m afraid that if Gabrielle finds out exactly how important you are, she’ll use you to get to me…”

“Oh…” Iona leaned her head against the dark haired woman’s side, unable to hide a small, happy smile. “But Gabrielle wouldn’t hurt me. I’m sure she wouldn’t…”

Xena looked down on the blonde head. “I don’t think she will either… But you can never be too sure…”

The girl seemed to consider this for a moment, then she tilted her head to look into her companion’s blue eyes. “Do you want me to stay away from her?”

The Empress hesitated for a moment, but then shook her head. “No, you can see her if you want… But I need you to be careful, OK?”

Iona smiled, happy she could remain friends with both her playmates. “OK.”

Xena gently squeezed her shoulder. “Good girl.”

“As if…” The blonde snorted.

Xena couldn’t keep from chuckling at the mischievous glint in the girl’s eyes. “Pyrron doesn’t have a clue you’re here, does he?”

The grin widened considerably.

The Empress rolled her eyes. “You realise he’s gonna blame me now, don’t ya? I’m the one who’s gonna get in trouble.”

Iona crossed her arms. “Hey, you were the one that wanted to talk to me, remember?”

Xena shook a finger at the girl. “You realise you just broke the first commandment, don’t you? Thy shalt not outsmart the Empress, remember?”

Iona just giggled, then flicked some water up with a foot, splashing her companion in the face. Xena growled as she feigned anger, and grabbed for her, but Iona managed to avoid the hands, hastily scrambling to her feet and darting off.

The attempt at escape was futile though, since moments later footsteps caught up to her and an arm wrapped around her waist, lifting her off her feet. No kicking or wiggling could keep her from being carried towards the water.

“Oh, gods be damned daughter of…” Pyrron growled in anger as he paced through the courtyard. “Iona!! Get your little blonde butt back here right now!!”

His brown eyes flicked across his surroundings, but, just as the thirty-five times he’d yelled for her before, there was no response. The advisor released an aggravated breath. He loved that girl, he really did, but sometimes this annoying mischievous side of her would drive him insane. “Iona!! C’mon, I’m getting tired of yelling my lungs out here!!”

“Well, that makes two of us then.”

Pyrron hastily spun around to find Gabrielle standing right behind him. “Oh, I… I’m sorry.” He hastily regained his composure, as much of a composure as he could muster near the warrior anyway. “I’m looking for my daughter…”

“Really?” Gabrielle muttered in a sarcastic tone. “I would never have guessed…”

The advisor scratched the back of his neck in discomfort. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

“I’ve been waiting for the Conqueror to show up for our morning fight. I thought she was still in bed with a hangover, but I just went to Esmee and checked, and she says the Empress got up at the start of dawn.”

Pyrron covered his eyes with a hand and groaned. “Oh boy… Iona’s missing, Xena is missing… I doubt this is a coincidence.”

Gabrielle raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“I mean I’m in for some serious trouble.” Pyrron sighed in aggravation. “Last time those two took off, we had the regent from Persia over and they hid a spider under a bit of lettuce on this man’s dinner plate and…”

At that moment a horrified scream echoed through the gardens. “Get him off!!” Cleopatra’s panicky voice sounded from a window in the east wing. “Get that horrible green monster off me!!”

“Oh Hades’ eyeballs…” Pyrron hid his face in his hands. “I’m dead… I’m so dead…”

Gabrielle tried very hard to wipe a grin off her face, but was only partially successful.

“When I find that obnoxious, sordid daughter of a gorgon and her evil blond-haired sidekick, I’m gonna…” His hands clenched to fists. “I’m gonna…” He paused again, then sighed as he realised he really didn’t have the power to back up any threats to the Conqueror… He just wasn’t strong enough to… He cocked his head, then looked up at Gabrielle, who was gazing at him with a look of mild amusement. “You wouldn’t be willing to do me a favour, would ya?”

The warrior chuckled. “No… But I’d be more than happy to do your bidding for a reasonable fee…” She gave him a meaningful look.

Pyrron considered for a moment, then looked back up at her with a glint in his eyes. “Five course meal for your locked up friend.”

“Add one for the Amazon Queen in the cell next to hers and you got yourself a deal.” Gabrielle extended a hand towards him, which Pyrron immediately took. “Any particular instructions?”

“Knock her senseless.” The advisor told her, then winced as another cry of horror emitted from Cleopatra’s room. He released a breath, then squared his shoulders and strode off towards the room, just as a small green frog came flying out the top window, croaking in dismay before he sank into the pond with a loud plunge.

Gabrielle shook her head at the scene, not managing to hold back a chuckle. Her sensitive hearing informed her she wasn’t the only one getting a laugh out of the whole thing and she walked a few paces towards the forest edge, to come to a standstill at a large oak tree which appeared to not only be the source of giggling and whispered voices, but also of a very local shower, thick drops dripping down to the ground at irregular intervals. Gabrielle glanced up, then crossed her arms and cleared her throat.

Silence, then an ‘Oh Hades’, followed by a rustling of leaves as Xena dropped down from her hiding spot. Her wet white tunic was covered with greenish stains from the tree’s bark and her dark hair was still dripping. “I completely forgot.”

“And I thought you had such a good memory…” Gabrielle retorted dryly, giving the Empress a look.

“I lost track of time…” Xena murmured apologetically, then hastily took a pace back and extended her arms just in time to catch Iona, who’d cheerfully hopped down from the branch she’d been sitting on. “Io! I thought I told you to be careful!”

Iona stuck her tongue out at the dark-haired woman.

The Empress shook her head at the girl. “You are such a brat.”

“Daddy says I get that from hanging around with you too much.” Iona informed her cheerfully.

“I bet he does.” Xena rolled her eyes as she lowered her burden to the ground. “Go on. I have some unfinished business to attend to…”

“You gonna teach Xena now?” Iona hopefully glanced up at Gabrielle. “Can I stay and watch?”

Gabrielle looked down at the girl doubtingly. “I don’t think…”

“Aaaawwww…” There was that pout again. “Puhleeeeaaaaaase??”

Xena intervened this time around though, stopping the charm assault. “Oh, no you don’t…” The Empress gave her a stern look. “Linos got back this morning. I’m sure he’s got some homework for you. So scoot…”

The pout turned to a scowl.

“Hey, you don’t wanna grow up all dumb and witless, do you?” Xena asked, crossing her arms.

Iona blinked up at her. “But you just said I was already too smart for my own good…”

Xena growled in frustration. “Would you just go?!”

“Fine, fine…” The girl made a display of looking very grumpy and stomping off.

The Empress rolled her eyes, then she whistled to get the young blonde’s attention. She waited for Iona to turn around before tossing two pieces of candy in her direction, which the girl fished out of the air expertly. “Give one of those to Esmee, understand? Tell her she did great.”

The blonde grinned wickedly at her, then wiggled her fingers at the dark-haired woman before darting off towards the palace.

Gabrielle watched the whole exchange with a shake of her head. “So, is Esmee in on all of your practical jokes?”

Xena grinned wickedly and twinkling blue eyes turned to meet hers. “As if I’m gonna tell you… Last time I let you in on a secret you bribed me out of a quarter of my candy and made me give it to a prisoner.” The dark haired woman crossed her arms. “What’s next on your list, a five course meal?”

“I’ve already got that covered actually.” Gabrielle remarked dryly. “My next demand will be something in the order of a king-size bed with nice fluffy pillows…”

The Empress chuckled. “I shoudda know…” She shot the blonde a smile. “So… Our morning activity has been delayed long enough, don’t you agree?”

Gabrielle inclined her head in agreement. “OK. Pick your weapon.”

Xena considered this for a moment. “How about… You pick the weapon… and I pick the place?”

Gabrielle shrugged, not caring much one way or the other. “Fine… You first…”

The Conqueror shot her a charming smile, then lifted a finger and pointed up…

You are insane. The rational part of Xena’s brain complained, as the conqueror grabbed onto a branch and pulled herself up even higher into the tree. You have a tough enough time at keeping up with this woman as it is, is it really necessary to go balancing in a tree while your foot hurts like Tartarus?

“Yes.” Xena muttered in reply, using the veering of another branch to push her up, flipping in mid air before landing on a higher wooden limb. The wound in her foot stung as her weight pressed down on it, but she ignored he pain and looked around. There were a lot of branches at about the same height around here, so this seemed a good enough place as any.

No it isn’t. A good place would be on the ground… No, a good place would be no place at all, and just skipping this stupid fighting thing for a day.

“Shut up…” Xena growled at the voice in her head.

You’re hurt, you’re tired, you’re groggy from drowning your sanity in alcohol…

“Shut up…”

…and you’re actually talking to voices in your head…Do you really think it’s a good idea to get your butt kicked at an altitude of… Blue eyes glanced down. Gods, you couldn’t just have picked a small tree, could ya?

Xena bit her lip, focussing on finding the best way to balance herself on the branch she was standing on.

Or a medium-sized tree even? Nooooooo, you had to go and find yourself the monster tree from Tartarus… This is ridiculous. I’m not going to be part of this futile endeavour.

“Good, then you’ll just shut the Hades up and leave me alone.”

“Excuse me?” Gabrielle frowned at her from a branch a few feet away.

“Nothing.” Xena muttered, hopping up and then finding her balance again. “You ready?”

A blonde eyebrow lifted.

The Conqueror lifted a hand in defence. “Just being polite.”

“Don’t bother…” Gabrielle murmured, flexing her hands. “You can just be yourself around me, you don’t have to pretend you’re nice…”

“Gee thanks.” Xena rolled her eyes, then hastily ducked as a leg was kicked out in her direction, while Gabrielle somersaulted over her head to land on the opposite side.

The warrior turned around then crouched down on a slightly higher branch, looking down at her opponent, searching for an opening. Gabrielle had decided on using no weapons in this fight, which, considering her height and agility, would in theory be more beneficial to her than to the conqueror in these leafy surroundings. Another moment, then she lunged forward again, diving for the conqueror’s legs.

Xena quickly hopped up, grabbing onto a wooden limb hanging above her and pulling herself up to get out of the warrior’s path. In response, Gabrielle reached out and took hold of the branch Xena had just been standing on, using her momentum to swing under it, before pushing her body straight up, slamming her feet into her opponents injured foot with deadly precision.

The Conqueror hissed in pain as she felt the healing wound open up again, warm liquid pressing against her sole. “Ugh, you play dirty.”

“You mean there’s other ways to play?” Gabrielle asked in a surprised tone, as she leaped up, grabbing onto the branch Xena was dangling from. She swung forward, wrapping her legs around the woman’s neck and head butting her. “Wow… I never realised…” She smacked the sides of her hands against the conqueror’s arms savagely, forcing the older woman to let go. Before they could both fall Gabrielle found a grip on another protruding piece of wood, using her speed to swing them both up, before letting go of her hold on the Conqueror, sending the dark-haired woman flying.

You’re the most pitiful excuse for a ruler of the known world I have ever seen. The voice in Xena’s head informed her dryly as the Conqueror was launched off. I warned you about this, you know? But would you listen? Noooooooo…

Xena grumbled some curses, twisting her body around in mid air and instinctively reaching out, folding her fingers around a branch just before it would have impacted with her skull and using it to swing around and launch herself back towards Gabrielle. She landed on the same branch as the warrior, a few feet away from her. “My my… She ducked under a kick aimed for her skull. “Aren’t we feeling mighty aggressive this morning…”

“A good warrior…” Gabrielle swung her elbow towards the Conqueror’s face. “…knows when it’s best to be defensive…” She knelt and swiped at the woman’s legs. “…but also when it’s time to totally kick her opponent’s butt.”

“Nicely put.” Xena chuckled, hopping over the warrior’s kick, grabbing onto a branch above her and swinging forward, towards Gabrielle’s head. The warrior ducked in time though, and she flew over her, landing gracefully on the opposite side of the blonde, spinning around just in time to block a punch aimed for her skull. “I doubt those wise words came from Lao Ma…”

“These particular words are all mine.” The warrior confirmed, ducking under a fist. “You can quote me, if you want…”

“I might just do that.” Xena laughed, as she tried to pass the blonde’s defences with a with a rapid series of moves. “Like I said before: you have a way with words.”

“Ways with words are troublesome.” Gabrielle stated, pushing off to avoid a well-aimed lunge and cart wheeling through midair to the next tree. “They are long, and winding, and they hardly ever lead you anywhere…”

“True…” Xena followed her motion, landing a few feet away from her. “But long and winding roads can be awfully entertaining…” She blocked a strike with her upper arm. “It’s not about the road you walk, Gabrielle, it’s the journey itself that’s the fun part.”

“Oh please…” The warrior rolled her eyes, then took a few paces forward, running up her opponent’s body and giving her a good kick in the face before flipping and landing neatly back on her feet. “…don’t go all philosophical on me.”

Xena wiped at the trickle of blood that was seeping from her nose with the back of her hand. “Didn’t know philosophies got you all upset… I’ll be sure to stay out of your way if Plato ever comes to visit.”

“I hope he comes to visit soon, in that case.”

The Conqueror laughed in amusement, then somersaulted back to avoid a kick aimed for her side.

Unfortunately for her, Gabrielle had seen through the move though, and immediately changed direction, hoping up and intercepting the dark-haired woman before she could finish her flip.

Xena reached out for something to hold onto, but this time there was nothing there, and she fell down. She winced as she bumped against a branch, only just managing to grab onto it and using it to swing herself sideways. A soft crack behind her informed her that Gabrielle was right behind her, so she continued to motion, letting go and flying off through the air, grabbing for another branch, and then another, until she pushed herself off the last one, flipping through the air, emitting a loud battle cry before neatly landing on her feet on the solid earth, spinning around just in time to duck under Gabrielle’s boot.

“You know, if you’d spend more time fighting, and less time yiyiyi-ing, you might actually be getting somewhere…” The warrior informed her dryly, blocking a strike, before twisting around and elbowing the Conqueror in the jaw.

Xena managed to avoid a second impact by shifting her body sideways. “Sorry, it’s a trademark thing… Comes with the boots and the kick-ass attitude.”

“I’d be working on that attitude if I were you…” The warrior told her, ducking another punch. “…because you haven’t even gotten close to kicking any part of my anatomy…”

She moved forward in a flash of motion, placing her foot behind the Conqueror’s, before slamming the palm of her hand harshly against her breastbone. Xena staggered back, her boot getting caught behind the warrior’s foot. She lost her balance and fell down, tumbling on the earth. Before she could attempt to get up an arm was pressed against her neck, a second arm pressed her own to the dirt and Gabrielle had positioned her body half on top of hers in such a way she could not possibly escape. “…and it doesn’t look like you’re about to any time soon.” The warrior finished, giving the Conqueror a look.

“I have to tell you, Gab, you have to work on your respect for personal boundaries.” Xena told her, wiggling a little to see if she could somehow work her way out.

Green eyes glared at her in boredom. “I think this fight is… Ah!” She hissed in pain as he head was pulled back harshly, hands clutching in her blond hair and tugging hard.

“Leggo!” A tiny voice demanded angrily, as a third body entered the fight, worming itself on top of Gabrielle. “Leggo! Bad lady!”

“What the Hades…” Gabrielle grumbled, turning her head to look up into narrowed brown eyes, dark brown hair outlining a young, chubby face of a girl no more than five years old. She blinked, then looked back at Xena. “I heard you liked to start training your guards when they’re still young of age, but this is ridiculous.”

Xena laughed in amusement.

“Bad!” Gabrielle’s attacker repeated, giving the blond locks another hard tug.

“Ouch!” The warrior rolled off of her opponent, the attacker immediately letting go of her as she did so.

The toddler crawled over to Xena’s side, a tiny hand reaching out and touching the Empress’s bruised cheek. “Y’okay?”

Xena smiled up at the young face. “Yeah, just fine.” She pushed herself up a little, leaning back on her hands, looking at her saviour with twinkling blue eyes. “You’re my hero, Niobe.”

“No owie?” Niobe asked in concern, peering at the dark-haired woman in concern.

“No owie.” Xena confirmed seriously, getting to her feet, before reaching down and swooping up the toddler, tossing her in the air a bit and then catching her again. “See? All good.”

Niobe giggled, tossing her arms around Xena’s neck happily. “Good.” She agreed, giving Xena a sloppy kiss on the cheek. “Sena good.”

The Conqueror glanced up at Gabrielle, who was watching the whole spectacle with a raised eyebrow. “Hey, you are ruining my reputation here, kiddo.” She whispered to her burden. “Can’t have Gabby know I’m all nice and stuff.”

Brown eyes blinked up at her. “Abby?”

Xena pointed a thumb at the watching blonde.

Niobe’s eyes followed in the direction she was pointing in, then the girl scrunched up her face in dismay, frowning her brows. “Abby bad!” She pointed an accusing finger at the warrior. “Hurt Sena. Bad!”

Gabrielle crossed her arms, glaring back at the angry toddler. “Kid, your characterisation is seriously screwed up…”

Xena chuckled. “Gabby isn’t bad, Niobe… We were just… playing…”

The toddler faced her, then raised an eyebrow, looking at the Empress in disbelief.

“Really.” Xena added.

Niobe looked up at her hesitantly for another moment, then turned back to Gabrielle, the dark brown eyes inspecting the warrior scrupulously. “Play?” She finally asked.

Gabrielle nodded in confirmation.

“No play nice.” The girl then accused, shooting the warrior another grumpy look, before turning her attention back to her dark-haired companion, smacking the Empress on the shoulder. “Down.”

The Empress grinned, lowering the toddler back to her feet. “But of course, your highness. Anything else?”

“Cum.” Niobe instructed, then walked off.

Xena shook her head, smiling. “Gotta love that kid.”

“Demanding little thing…” Gabrielle murmured, standing behind her. “Let me guess, she got that from hanging around with you, right?”

The Conqueror chuckled wickedly. “Perhaps…”

The warrior rolled her eyes. “Do I even wanna know what their brother is like, or should I just avoid him for the rest of my stay here?”

“Ey!” Niobe’s voice called out. “Cum!”

“Never mind, that sorta answers my question.” Gabrielle muttered, then followed along behind the laughing Empress.

“Geez, what’s the big rush…” Xena looked down on the small form tugging incessantly at her tunic. Niobe had dragged them across the courtyard and towards the stables. The girl didn’t answer her question though, and just kept walking, slipping through the crack in the door to the stables, simply pulling the Empress along. The smell of fresh hay drifting into her nostrils as she pushed open the door a bit wider, so she too could enter.

Gabrielle walked along behind the duo, her curiosity besting her want to stay away from the Conqueror.

Niobe patted down the corridor, until she stopped near an empty box next to the black stallion’s, the doors to which were half open, allowing her entrance. Chilon’s dark eyes looked down at the small thing that was disturbing his peace once more and snorted in dismay, stamping his foot on the ground angrily.

Niobe looked up at the horse’s head towering over her. “Horsie!”

Chilon immediately backed up a pace, cowering.

“Be shh! No wake fog.”

“Fog? What’s a…” Xena blinked in alarm. “Oh, great gods, please tell me she didn’t…” She pulled the door to the box open a bit wider and peeked inside. Niobe was huddled near one of the corners, leaning over a small form, that was neatly tucked in under a white handkerchief.

“Sena, cum!” The toddler waved her over anxiously. “Foggie boke leg. Owie.”

The Conqueror took another step inside, taking a look at the small green head peeking out from under the piece of cloth, round white eyes peering up at her pleadingly. “Oh, you have to be kidding me…”

Behind her, Gabrielle laughed under her breath.

“Owie.” Niobe repeated for emphasis. “You fix?”

Xena shot the frog another look. “I’m trying to annihilate amphibian life, Niobe. Saving him goes against all my principles, understand?”

The toddler blinked up at her in non-understanding for a moment, then tears welled up in her eyes. “No fix?”

“I…”

Niobe sniffled.

“I can’t…”

A tiny lip quivered.

Xena sighed in defeat. “All right. Fine.” She paced inside, dropping down to a knee beside the girl, wiping at a wet, chubby cheek with a fingertip. “But no crying, OK?”

Niobe nodded, managing a watery smile.

“Good.” Xena gave her a light shove towards the door. “Gimme a moment.”

More nodding, then Niobe leaned closer, placing another kiss on Xena’s cheek. “Luv ya.” She told the dark-haired woman, before turning around and walking out of the box.

Xena gazed after the girl, then rolled her eyes, before turning back to her patient.

Wide black pupils blinked up at her

The Conqueror released a breath. “You are one damn lucky frog.” She informed the amphibian.

The frog croaked loudly, wiggling a little in an attempt to escape from his blanket.

“I’m just doing this for the kid, understood?” Xena continued, as she uncovered the green leg. “Don’t you start telling your buddies there’s peace or anything now, OK? The war between our species will go on.”

The frog puffed up his cheeks.

“Good.” Xena gave him a nod, before carefully checking the leg for fractures. “I’m glad we got that straight.”

Gabrielle watched the Conqueror, as the woman bent over the small form of the amphibian, muttering grumpily. For an evil, ruthless, psychotic tyrant she sure had a soft spot for children, she mused before she let her gaze shift to look down at the toddler, who’d pattered over to Chilon’s stable and was standing on tiptoes to be able to stroke the horse’s nose with one hand, while she sucked on the thumb of her other. Gabrielle glanced up at the stallion, worrying about the three year-old’s safety considering the horse’s reputation. But the stallion seemed perfectly calm, enjoying the gentle attention with half lidded eyes.

A moment, then the girl’s gaze strayed from her patting, wandering until it fell on Gabrielle’s quietly watching form. Brown eyes narrowed to slits, the toddler conjuring up a indescribably foul look.

Oh boy…Gabrielle winced at the suspicious glaring. Better make amends here, Gab. You’ve got enough enemies as it is, already. “That’s you sister’s horse, right?” Gabrielle tried, working up a friendly smile.

Dark brows frowned angrily.

Gabrielle took a breath, then pointed to the stable across from the stallion’s. “I’ve got a horse too. Wanna see?”

That got a reaction. Niobe’s eyes darted to the indicated direction and then back to the blonde, looking doubtful as she considered on a course of action.

Fortunately, Argo chose that moment to poke her head outside and see what all the commotion in front of her door was about. The mare’s eyes glanced from her warrior, to the little kid staring at her, then up at the black stallion. Chilon nodded his head towards Gabrielle and snorted. Argo snickered in reply.

Niobe found all of this quite interesting and wobbled over to the creamy head, holding out her hand. Argo leaned closer, sniffing the hand tentatively, then gave it a gentle shove. Niobe giggled. “Good horsie.” She praised as she stroked the mare’s nose.

Heh, Gabrielle chortled triumphantly to herself. Score one for the rebel. “I think she likes you.” She said to the girl, taking a step closer.

Niobe immediately backed away, putting Argo’s head in between herself and the warrior. “Horsie… ‘s Bad Lady. No good.” She confided to the mare, who shot a look at her rider, then snorted in response.

A low chuckle drifted up behind her. “Can’t win ‘m all, Gab.” The Empress grinned as she exited the box with a small bundle of cloth and frog in her hand.

“Sena!” Niobe came trotting over enthusiastically. “You fix fog?”

“Yes.” The dark haired woman confirmed, before handing the toddler her burden.

“Yay!” The girl looked at the amphibian happily, tenderly cradling the patient in her arms. “All good?”

“All good.” Xena nodded , then knelt down beside the girl. “Now, listen to me, short stuff. You keep that thing away from me, hear? If I so much as hear one croak in my vicinity there’ll be frog legs on the menu tonight, do you understand?”

Niobe blinked up at her for a moment, then giggled, leaning closer and placing a sloppy kiss on the tip of Xena’s nose. “Luv ya.” She told the empress, before happily skipping off with her green skinned patient.

Xena watched her go with a disbelieving look for a moment, then shook her head, releasing an aggravated breath. “I am so gonna regret this, aren’t I?”

Behind her, Gabrielle crossed her arms, shaking her head in disbelief. “Explain something to me?”

Xena stood, stretching. “Sure. My life is an open scroll for you, Gabrielle.” She informed the warrior cheerfully, as she headed for the door, passing through, then holding it open for the other woman.

“You and kids.” The blonde stated, as she folded her hands behind her back. “I don’t get it…”

“Me and kids…?” The Conqueror chuckled. “Oh, you mean the fact they actually like me?”

“No. I can get that…”

The Empress shot her a completely stunned look. “Pardon?”

“To them you’re like a walking, talking, somersaulting, candy-possessing plaything with ultimate power. Of course they like you.” Gabrielle deadpanned, as they walked over the cobbled path back towards the palace. Up ahead she could spot Niobe toddling along, chattering cheerfully to her patient. “What I don’t get is that you actually, honestly, like them.”

Xena smirked. “What makes you think I’m not just raising an army of munchkins so I can pout all who oppose me into submission?”

“I considered that.” The warrior replied seriously, ignoring the attempt at humour. “That you were just using them for your own advantage somehow… But from the looks of it you don’t really have anything to say about Niobe there… And Iona is too smart to be fooled. She can read your moods like the back of her hand. She’d know if you were faking…”

A pensive silence fell and lasted for a few moments, until Xena spoke up again. “True.” She admitted. “Kids are…”Another pause. “Well, they just are. They don’t pretend to be anything else. Anyone else. When they hang around me I know they’re there because they actually want to be there. Not because they need something from me, or they’re trying to improve their image.” The Empress stared ahead quietly, watching as Niobe wobbled over to the pond and sat down, placing the bundle in her lap as she warbled something about ‘foggy fiends’. “Kids are blunt. They just tell you whatever it is they think. Straight up, no tricks. I like that. Honesty is rare in my line of work.”

“Maybe you should pick a different profession.”

A low chuckle. “Unfortunately, being Empress of the known world is a lifelong commitment, Gabrielle. Quitting is not an option.”

“You could hand over the sceptre to someone else.” Gabrielle suggested.

Blue eyes regarded her in amusement. “You have someone in particular in mind, maybe?”

The warrior rolled her eyes. “No, not me… I don’t know… One of your loyal munchkins maybe? Iona…”

The Empress laughed. “Oh no no no no… Not Iona.”

A blonde eyebrow raised at her. “Why not?”

“Because she’d be way too good.” Blue eyes twinkled mischievously. “If I were to step down, I’d want someone on that throne that totally sucks at ruling…”

A second eyebrow joined the first.

“Someone who’ll send this whole empire in disarray.” Xena went on cheerfully. “Cause then people will say ‘gee, you remember those good old times when Xena was still around? She was one heck of a ruler, wasn’t she?'” The Empress chuckled. “And I’ll go into the history books as the greatest gift to mankind that ever walked the earth. The Uniter of Nations.” She grinned wickedly. “Has a nice ring to it, don’t you agree?”

Gabrielle looked up at her for another moment, then snorted. “You’re deluded.”

“No, I’m not.” Xena denied. “That’s how history works, Gabrielle. It’s a very subjective matter. If I wanted to, I could hire some bard and let him write about how the evil Gabrielle rebelled against the benevolent ruler Xena and in 50 years or so people wouldn’t know any better and buy the whole load of fiction convinced it truly happened. Even today, who’s to say I actually conquered Britannia? You’ve never been there, have you? Maybe I just made it up…”

“That would require imagination.” Gabrielle said calmly. “Which I doubt you have.”

The Empress chuckled in amusement. “Good point. I…”

Simultaneously the two women cocked their heads, as muted sounds drifted up from inside the castle. Another moment, then the doors to the courtyard burst open and Cleopatra came waltzing through, a set of royal Egyptian guards hastily trotting along behind the pacing woman, Pyrron following behind the guards. “Xena!” She yelled furiously, the air playing with the white Egyptian robes.

The Empress tried to hold back a grin. “Here comes trouble…”

“Are you referring to the regent or your advisor?” Gabrielle inquired, as she saw the raging look on Pyrron’s face as his dark eyes met Xena’s.

The Conqueror repressed a grin, trying very hard to get a calm look on her face as Cleopatra strode closer with angry paces.

“This… is… an outrage!!” Cleopatra screamed, pointing a dangerous, slightly shaking finger at her. “Of all the disrespectful events that have occurred to me here, this is the most… the most… The most indescribable horror yet… And I am holding you personally responsible for this this… this lack of respect! ”

“Whoa…” Xena held up both her hands in an attempt to quell the wordflow. “Cleo, would you just…”

“This household is a abomination!”

“Would you just relax?”

“Would you relax if you’d just found frogs in your… in certain garments they are not supposed to be in?!” Cleopatra tiraded on, her hands clenching to claws.

Xena brought a hand to her mouth, trying to smother the wicked grin while keeping her eyes emanating shock and concern. “That’s horrible.” She managed to say quite reverently.

“You know I only come to this house of horrors to do you a favour, Xena!” Cleopatra snapped. “It’s about time you finally treated my being here with the respect my presence deserves!”

“I’ve placed extra guards…” Xena argued. “…arranged for the best food in my Empire, the best members of my staff are waiting on you hand and foot,…”

“And meanwhile I’m getting dragged along by a pig, knocked unconscious by a peasant and plagued by frogs!!” The Queen of the Nile screamed furiously, poking a finger at the Empress’s chest on every word for emphasis. “I’ve had it! I swear, Xena, if one more thing ha…”

With a thud and a splash a large clump of mud smacked squarely into the Egyptian’s face.

“Bad Lady!” Niobe yelled angrily, pointing a muddy finger at the woman, her bundled patient lying at her feet on the grass. “Toss fog! Fog owie! No good!”

Xena could swear there actually was smoke coming out of the regent’s ears. Cleopatra blinked open her eyes, small splashes of mud launching off her eyelashes as she did so, then turned her head to look at the toddler. “You…” She hissed, taking a step towards the girl. “Do you realise who…”

A second blob of mud smacked against her chin. A drop sidled down, painting a dirty brown line down the formerly perfectly white robes.

Xena winced. This was not good. It was hilarious, yes, but so not good for her working relationship with Egypt. Judging by the steam drifting up from the regent’s forehead, the woman was about to snap and since her object of anger at the moment was Niobe…

“You little brat!” Cleo spat out, clenching her hand into a fist and advancing on the angrily glaring tot. “I’m gonna…”

A strong hand wrapped itself around her wrist. “No, you’re not.” Gabrielle stated calmly.

Cleopatra huffed in outrage. “Let go of me, peasant!”

“If you don’t watch your tone I’m gonna send you into the mummified stage of your existence a lot faster than you’d like.” The warrior growled, tugging at the regent’s arm savagely, twitching it behind the woman’s back.

“Ah!” Cleopatra cried out in pain. “Let go of me!”

Gabrielle tugged the arm up a little higher. “Say please…”

The woman winced, then shot a hateful look at her escort, who were watching the whole scene in shock. “You are supposed to be my guards! Guard me for Thoth’s sake!”

This brought the men back to their senses, and they hastily drew their weapons, then lunged towards the warrior with a load yell.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, the kicked out as the first guard ran towards her, hitting a particularly sensitive part of his anatomy and sending him straight to his knees. A second well placed kick to his forehead knocked him out cold.

Meanwhile another four had managed to form a circle around her and where now advancing on her at the same time , running forward, weapons raised. Gabrielle considered her options for a moment, then shrugged, grabbed onto Cleopatra’s arms and started turning in a circle. Within moments the regent’s was twirling through the air, screaming and kicking wildly, which worked to Gabrielle’s advantage as one guard after the other was knocked out by the flailing feet.

Xena watched the whole spectacle with a grin. This was the perfect solution. Niobe didn’t get hurt and she didn’t have to smack up the Egyptian regent herself to save the tot, thereby risking getting a major political problem on her hands. Perfect. She watched as Gabrielle discarded of another attacker. This was absolutely perfect.

She watched the ongoing for another moment, then decided to put a stop to all of this. “Enough!” She took a few steps towards the warrior, careful to avoid Cleopatra’s high heals as they soared past. “Let her go. Now.”

Green eyes regarded her for a moment, then obliged, letting go. The regent flew off a few feet, then thumped down on the ground, rolling on for a few more feet until finely coming to a standstill.

Xena watched her go flying, wincing at the thud of the regent landing. “That was not what I meant.” She informed the warrior under her breath.

“Oops.” Gabrielle suppressed a grin. “Sorry.”

Meanwhile Pyrron had run over to the Egyptian and was holding onto her arm to help her to her feet.

Cleopatra managed to stand, then smacked at the Advisor’s hand angrily. “Go away, you imbecile!”

“Cleo?” Xena came walking closer with hasty paces. “Are you all right?”

Firey dark eyes shot up at her as the regent straightened to her full height, trying to take on a dignified pose.

Which was pretty hard considering she was smeared in sand, her hair was sticking up straight into the air and her make-up was wiped all over her face, the purple colouring of black eye she’d gotten two nights before painfully visible between the blobs of mud.

She took a step closer towards Xena, barely managing to stay on her feet as the after affects of twirling around at high speed caught up with her. “I…” She pointed a finger at Xena’s forehead, slightly swaying. “…am going home.”

She then turned, nearly toppling over, and staggered back towards the palace, her torn, sand-stained robes dragging along behind her.

The Empress watched her go, managing to hold back until the large wooden door into the courtyard was slammed shut. Then she burst out laughing. “Oh gods…” She gasped. “That was brilliant!”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes at the woman, then turned back to look down at Niobe, who’d sat down, her thumb stuck in her mouth, her arm wrapped protectively around her bundle of frog. She was watching the whole scene calmly, unintimidated. “You okay?”

The toddler nodded confidently.

“Good.”

“Niobe.” Pyrron’s voice dropped in as the Advisor walked closer with hasty paces. “What did I tell you about throwing mud?”

A sigh. “‘s Bad.” The girl muttered around her thumb.

“Exactly.” Pyrron confirmed as he reached down, then lifted the three year old up. “You could’ve gotten in real trouble there, young lady.” He glanced up at the warrior, then back down at his daughter. “You say ‘thank you’ to Gabrielle now, OK?”

Another sigh. “Okay…” Brown eyes looked up. “Abby?”

Gabrielle suppressed a smile. “Yes?”

“Thanks you.”

“My pleasure.” The warrior grinned, crossing her arms. “If you ever want me to beat her up again, just say the word…”

Brown eyes glinted in response. “Good! Go now!”

“Niobe!” Pyrron gave the girl a stern look. “Be nice.” He instructed, as he headed back to the palace.

“No be nice to bad lady.” Niobe explained grumpily. “Hurt fog. No good.”

Gabrielle chuckled under her breath, shaking her head softly at the departing duo, before sobering and turning her attention back to the still laughing Conqueror. “Are we done?”

“Sure, sure…” Xena nodded with a wave of her hand, as she tried to catch her breath. “Oh gods… Gabby, you have no idea how much hardship you just spared me from…”

“Yes, I do. I saved you from a political crisis. I expect my reward to be accordingly.” The warrior retorted calmly, then turned and headed back toward the stables. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got better places to be.”

Xena watched her go with a bemused expression. “Perfect.” She muttered to herself, with a shake of her head. “She is absolutely perfect.”

The kitchen was bustling with activity. Gabrielle ducked under a large platter, then just managed to avoid a pitcher of water as the items were carried towards the door. So many people… Gabrielle’s green eyes flicked around the area, trying to spot her target, but she soon realised finding a short brunette in this chaos was practically impossible… A yell shot up on her left, the reply from her right being a large cabbage tossed at the first speaker, soaring barely an inch above her head. A short Chinese man hopped up and neatly scooped it out of the air, putting it down on the chopping block before bringing down his knife and splitting it in two in one clean cut. He looked up from his work and eyed her for a moment, then returned his gaze to his task before directing a few words in Chinese to the man standing next to him. “What’s the blonde doing in our kitchen?”

“I’m looking for someone actually.” Gabrielle replied in accentless Chinese, crossing her arms and giving him a look.

The man’s head shot back up and he blinked at her a few times, before bending his head to her, stammering an apology. “Forgive me, madam, I didn’t mean to sound disrespectful.”

The warrior looked at him for another moment, but then waved him off. “Don’t worry about it… What’s your name?”

“I am Ch’u Feng, from the house of Ch’u.” He bowed politely.

“Gabrielle, from a house in Potedeia.” Gabrielle introduced herself.

The cook smirked. “Since when do they speak Chinese in Potedeia?”

“I was a guest in the house of Lao.” The warrior offered as an explanation.

“The house of Lao?” The cook looked impressed. “That is a highly respected house.” He bowed to her again, this time even deeper then before. “It’s an honour to meet you, Gabrielle, guest of the house of Lao.”

“The honour’s all mine.” Gabrielle politely inclined her head towards him.

“You said you were looking for a friend?”

“Not a friend.” The warrior denied. “I need to find a short brunette that works in this kitchen, who goes by the name of Solari.”

The man’s face immediately scrunched up in dismay. “Are you sure it is her you want to find?”

A blonde eyebrow raised at him in question.

“She is best left unfound.” Ch’u Feng confided to her, crossing his arms. “She is not really a pleasure to be around, to put it mildly.”

“I think I can tolerate her presence for a moment.” Gabrielle stated calmly. “I have a message for her.”

“Very well then.” He pointed towards the far corner of the kitchen. “You will find her there. Just look for the one who’s grouching and cursing the loudest and that’ll be her.”

The Chinese cook hadn’t been exaggerating, Gabrielle realised, as she wormed her way past cooks and maids.

“Hey! Moron! Does this look like quail to you?” An annoyed voice shot up from the far corner. “Cause it’s looking a mighty lot like chicken to me.”

“I tried, madam, but…” A tiny voice attempted.

“Now listen to me, you puff of hydra’s breath…” The brunette leaned closer to the small boy standing in front of her, dropping her voice. “When I tell you to bring me quail, you bring me quail. You don’t TRY to bring me quail, you GET quail. Is that understood?”

The boy swallowed. “But the man who’s in charge of the supplies told me…”

“I don’t care what he told you!” Solari poked a finger at the boy’s chest. “I don’t care how you get it, or where you get it, or how many people you have to kill to get it… Just get me some quail!” A pause in which the boy blinked up at her with wide frightened eyes. “Now!”

A hasty nod, then the child darted off as fast as he could, diving past some cooks and servants to exit the kitchen as fast as he could.

Solari shook her head, as she watched him go. “Incompetent…”

“He’s not gonna improve any if you yell at him, you know?”

The brunette turned her head to look at the short blonde standing behind her. “Excuse me?”

“I was criticizing your way of dealing with an employee.” Gabrielle stated calmly.

Solari turned around fully, wiping her bloody hands on her apron, smudging stripes of red over the beige fabric. Her dark eyes tracked down and then back up the warrior’s body, until she met the calm green eyes staring back at her. She snorted. “If you’re the new assistant they hired for me, please tell me now, so I can go hang myself, OK?”

The blonde crossed her arms. “I am not your new assistant.”

“My bright spot in an otherwise gloomy day.” Solari drawled, turning back and pulling open a drawer, extracting a huge butcher’s knife. “Now, if you’d be so kind as to stop wasting my time, I’ll be kind enough to not place this knife in your ribcage.” The woman flashed Gabrielle a fake smile over her shoulder, then turned back to her chopping block, grabbing an onion of a pile and neatly severing the vegetable in two.

The warrior watched the brunette in amusement. “I’d like to see you try.”

“I can assure you….” Solari started, laying the half union down on its flat side, then moving the knife in a blur of motion, reducing the vegetable to thin rings in a matter of seconds. “…you really wouldn’t…”

Gabrielle smirked, walking closer a few paces and peeking over the brunette’s shoulder, to see her chop up the other half. “Wow… You are pretty good with that thing…” She commented as Solari split another onion. “But I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. If you couldn’t handle a simple knife, you’d make a pretty lousy Amazon, right?”

Solari’s head shot up, then she yelped, looking down at her thumb to see blood seeping up from the small nick in her flesh. “Damn it…” She lifted the finger to her mouth, sucking off the blood as she turned and faced the warrior. “Who are you?”

Gabrielle hastily let her eyes flick around, spotting any possible threats, but the kitchen was so crowded and noisy no one seemed to notice them. “I’m a friend.”

“Yeah, right…” The brunette snorted. “News flash, blonde. I ain’t got no friends.”

“You have one.” Gabrielle stated. “Ephiny send me.”

Dark eyes peered at her for another moment, then the woman shrugged, turning back to work. “I have no idea who you’re talking about.”

The warrior rolled her eyes. “Right… I guess I’ll just take off then…” She took a pace closer, dropping her voice to a whisper. “But if your memory suddenly kicks in and you feel like helping me break her out of here after all, you can come bring me my lunch in half a candle mark, so we can talk…” Gabrielle straightened, then headed towards the door.

She took about three paces before a voice behind her shot up.

“Hey?”

Gabrielle turned around, raising an eyebrow at the cook.

Solari eyed her for another moment, then caved in. “What do you want for lunch?”

A grin crept onto the warrior’s face. “Chicken.”

Xena hummed a cheerful melody as walked down the hallway a few candle marks later, heading towards her study. As she passed the door to her Advisors room however, and heard voices drifting up, she paused, then turned back, knocking a few times before pushing the door open.

“Sena!” A happy little voice called out as Niobe spotted the conqueror.

“Hey, short stuff.” Xena grinned at the toddler, who was squirming in her father’s gasp in an attempt to escape and charge her favourite playmate. “You doing OK?”

“Oh right… Now she asks…” Pyrron muttered, tightening his hold on his daughter.

A dark eyebrow lifted at him as Xena crossed her arms. “Excuse me?”

Her advisor glanced at her hesitantly for a moment, then put the squirming tot down, giving her a pat in the direction of her room. “Niobe, leave us for a moment, OK?”

The girl frowned up at her father, then glanced at Xena, who smiled at her, then nodded her head towards the girl’s room. The girl scowled, then pattered off grumpily.

Xena watched her go affectionately, then she looked back up at Pyrron, her expression turning serious. “Well?”

Pyrron waited until he was sure the girl was out of hearing range, then he dropped his voice to a whisper. “She could’ve gotten seriously hurt today.” He accused in a hiss. “If Gabrielle hadn’t been there…”

“I would never let anything happen to Niobe.” Xena retorted angrily. “You know that. If Gabrielle hadn’t been there I would have stopped Cleo myself.”

“And you would have risked our trading with Egypt in the process!” Her advisor shot back. “And I would have to work overtime to fix everything again, as usual…”

The conqueror tossed up her hands. “Oh please… Our trading with Egypt wasn’t at risk.”

“That is a lie and you know it.”

“Whatever.” Xena rolled her eyes, turning away from him and walking to a chair, plumping down in it, swinging one leg over the armrest. “I dealt with the situation, OK? I had an… uhm…” A wicked grin. “…a talk with Cleo just now, and Egypt is still a loyal province of the Empire, so you have nothing to worry about.”

Pyrron crossed his arms, looking at her in dismay. “You slept with her.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

Her advisor released a breath, shaking his head. “I wish you’d deal with that woman in a more professional matter, Empress.”

Xena shrugged negligently. “She’s not complaining.”

A frustrated sigh. “That’s not my point.”

“Well, then just spill it, Ronnie. What is your point exactly?”

Her advisor considered his words for a moment, seating himself on the edge of the table. “One day you’re going to push somebody a little too far and things will escalate without you or me being able to put a halt to it. You should stop trying to see how far you can go and just be content with how far you’ve gotten.” Pyrron tossed up a hand, then let it fall back on his knee. “You approach this whole ruling the world thing as if it’s nothing more than a game, Empress.”

“Of course it’s a game.” Xena replied, pushing herself back to her feet and taking a few paces towards the window, looking out over the gardens. “Life is a game, Pyrron. Some sick game the gods thought up to keep themselves entertained and all we can do is to just score as many points as we can before we die.”

“Even if gathering points endangers other people?”

Xena turned back, leaning back against the stone wall. “I have never, or will ever, hurt your children.” She stated, her intense gaze meeting his.

Pyrron closed his eyes. “I know.” He admitted. “But I would appreciate it if you stopped using my children to get rid of your Egyptian regent from now on, Empress.”

“Who said it was ever my intention to get rid of my regent?” Xena asked innocently. “I most certainly never…”

At that moment the door burst open and Iona came bounding in, her eyes flicking across the room until they met Xena’s. “Is it true? Is she really leaving?”

The Conqueror grinned wickedly, then nodded.

“Woohoo!” The girl punched at the air with a fist in victory. “A new record! We’ve never gotten rid of her this fast before…”

Xena bit her lip, then sheepishly looked up at her advisor, who just rolled his eyes in response, not quite able to wipe a small grin off his own face.

“Is she gone already?” Iona asked impatiently. “Cause you promised we could train Chilon if she was… Can we? Now?”

“I remember.” Xena laughed, reaching out and ruffling the blond hair. “She’s leaving today. I’ll escort her to the harbour this afternoon.”

“And we can go riding after that right?” Iona blinked up hopefully. “Right?”

“If you finish your homework.” Pyrron stated, before Xena could reply.

Iona looked back at him in dismay. “Aw, dad!”

“No whining.” Pyrron warned, pointing a finger at her. “And would you like explaining to me why you’re not at school right now, young lady?”

“Because she ran out of the class when she heard of Cleopatra’s departure.” An older, bold man, with a long grey beard stood in the doorway, glaring down at Iona with crossed arms. “Just ran out.” A younger voice added, an eight year old boy copying his teacher’s pose, staring up at Iona with an angry frown.

Xena smirked at the scene. “Hello Linus. Welcome back.”

The older man looked at her, then respectfully inclined his head. “Empress.”

“Xena!” The young boy ran closer as he heard the woman’s voice.

“Castor!” The Empress mimicked the boy’s enthusiasm, before scooping him up and tossing him in the air. “Had fun in the mountains?”

Castor nodded rapidly as he was placed back on the ground, his formerly orderly arranged brown hair standing up in all directions. “We got herbs and some special mushrooms.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Wanna come see?” He tugged at her sleeve. “I found some stones too. They’re really pretty…”

“I’d love to come see…” The Empress told him seriously. “Unless your father has anything more to say about the matter we were discussing before?” She lifted an eyebrow at her advisor.

“You know I try not to waste my time on hopeless cases, Empress.” Pyrron stated, his dark eyes twinkling a little, informing Xena she was out of the red zone.

“Good.” She shot him a smile, then turned her attention back to the boy standing in front of her. “Lead the way.”

He beamed a smile up at her, then headed for the door. “We saw a falcon too. Just like the ones you go hunt with sometimes…”

“Neat.” Xena went along amiably. “Did you know that when they hunt, then can swoop down on their prey with a speed of about 200 miles per hour?”

“Really?” Caspar peered up at her with wide eyes. “Wow…” He considered for a moment, trying to compare the speed of this bird with something he was familiar with. “That’s even faster than you can run, right?”

“Yes.” Xena admitted with a straight face. “But not by much…”

Gabrielle looked up from the large book that was lying on her lap as a knock sounded on her door. “Come in.” She called out, sitting up a little straighter on the bed, closing her book and putting it down on the ground beside her.

The knob turned and the door peeked open revealing first a large platter, loaded with several bowls and plates, and then Solari, who skilfully edged into the room, then kicked the door shut with her boot without spilling as much as a drop. “Lunch is served.” The Amazon announced, walking closer and placing the tray on the bedside table. “On the menu today we have traditional Amazonian fried chicken, vegetable soup and Caesar salad with actual bits of Caesar. Enjoy.”

Gabrielle looked up at her, then leaned closer and peered at the salad suspiciously. “I do hope you’re kidding.”

“I don’t kid. That would require a sense of humour.” Solari deadpanned, seating herself on the edge of the bed. “And I lost that a long time ago.”

The warrior reached over, lifting the bowl of soup off the plate and pulling up a knee, balancing the bowl on top. “So that touch-me-and-die attitude isn’t just for show then, is it?”

A shrug from the Amazon. “It started out that way… The attitude keeps people at bay, ya know, which is safer for me and my queen. But I’ve played this role for so long now that I don’t think I could go back to being the nice, friendly, peace loving Amazon I used to be.”

Gabrielle chuckled softly, spooning up a bit of soup, gently blowing at the steaming liquid to cool it a little. “Probably not…”

“On the other hand, now I can totally beat the crap out of someone without having to worry about my conscience, which probably comes in pretty handy for you, right Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle’s eyes flicked up for a moment, then refocused on the surface of her soup. “I don’t remember telling you my name.”

“I have my ways of getting information.” The Amazon stated calmly. “You should have told me your name sooner. It would have saved you the whole business of being threatened by butcher’s knives and all…”

Green eyes peered up at her with interest. “Really?”

“Well duh.” The Amazon snorted. “Anybody who’s somebody in the resistance knows your name, Gabrielle. You’re a legend, you know?”

“Right…” Gabrielle muttered self-deprecatory, scooping a bit of bread off a plate and popping it into her mouth. “Some legend…”

“Quite.” Solari replied seriously, ignoring the sarcasm.

A short silence, in which Gabrielle pensively chewed on her bread before swallowing. “So… The resistance is still alive then, is it?”

“Yup.” The Amazon confirmed, plucking a bit of a greyish meat-like substance out of the salad and popping it into her mouth. “Alive and kicking. Only it isn’t kicking in that nice roundhouse-kick-that’ll-knock-the-conqueror’s-head-off-her-torso kinda way, like it used to. People lay low these days, especially in Athens.”

Gabrielle nodded thoughtfully, pulling up a knee and resting her chin in its surface. “Are there still people left from before…” A shaky breath. “I mean…”

Solari seated herself on the edge of the bed, leaning back on a hand. “Not a lot. Most ran off after the executions… I heard a fellow named Agenor is still around though.”

“Agenor.” Gabrielle’s face lit up. “Yeah, I remember him.”

“There’s probably some more, but I’m not up to date. Agenor would probably know more though, you should try to get in touch with him if you want to find out more.”

A moment of silence. “That can wait.” The warrior finally said, sending another spoonful of soup down her throat. “First I need to worry about getting our friends out of the dungeon.”

“I’ve done a lot of thinking on that subject.” Solari stated. “And after much consideration and many a sleepless night I’ve come to the conclusion there’s one way of getting Ephiny out of that place…”

Gabrielle cocked her head at her. “Which is?”

“She will have to become invisible and obtain the ability to pass through solid walls.” The Amazon informed her dryly.

The warrior rolled her eyes. “Very funny.”

“Nothing funny about that.” Solari objected. “It’s simply impossible to get her past all the doors and guards and soldiers without being seen.”

A shrug from the warrior. “The fact that things are considered impossible by many have never stopped me from doing them.”

Dark brown eyes studied her. “You have a plan then?”

“Not yet.” The warrior murmured pensively, crunching bit of lettuce between her teeth. “But I will.”

Solari raised an eyebrow at her. “I know about your little deal with the Conqueror. And I don’t know how you’ve managed to survive these last few days, but lemme just make one thing clear, OK? You’re nothing but a toy to her and when she’s done playing with you she’s gonna gut you like a fish.”

“We’ll see…” Was the negligent reply.

“It’ll be too late by then.” Solari muttered grumpily. “You’re not gonna be around for much longer, so you’d better hurry up…”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Relax, will you? Making plans takes time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, remember?”

“No, but it was destroyed in one.” The Amazon grumbled.

“Trust me, I’ve got a week or so left at least.” The warrior leaned back in her sea of fluffy pillows, staring up at the ceiling in thought. “I’m assuming you know something about the guards around this place? Where they’re posted, when they patrol…?”

“Of course.”

“Good.” Gabrielle reached under the bed, fishing a piece of parchment and a bit off charcoal out of their hiding place and handing them to the Amazon. “Draw me a map.”

“Sure.” Solari took the items from her, balancing the sheet on her knee as she put the first line to parchment. “I have to warn you though… Amazons are not known for their artistic skills…”

Not much later Gabrielle closed the door to her room behind her, before making her way towards the stairs at the end of the hallway. Solari had given her the information she’d asked for and then left. They both realised that any second they spent talking together was a risky one, so they’d decided to avoid each other as much as possible for the time being. Gabrielle was sure the Amazon had more useful information to share, but what she’d gotten in the last quarter of a candle mark or so would have to do for the time being.

Noises caught her attention and she looked up to see servants exiting from the room she knew Cleopatra occupied, carrying large trunks and bags from the guestroom. Another moment, then Benitor emerged, walking backwards, tugging at the handle of a large wooden chest. His face was bright red and he was obviously struggling with his burden. Gabrielle walked closer, greeting him.

“Ah, m’lady.” He smiled and straightened, inclining his head towards her politely. “Good afternoon to you.”

“I told you not to call me that.” Gabrielle scowled at him, with a hint of a smile.

She liked the older man, in spite of the fact they’d gotten off to a rocky start the first moments after her arrival here. The fact that he reminded her a little of her grandfather probably had to do with that too. He had the same shortly trimmed, dark grey hair and the same vibrant brown eyes. Her grandfather had been the only one in her family to understand her when she was younger, had been the only one supportive of her telling stories, had just smiled when he caught her day dreaming. She’d loved him more than anyone else when she was a child and when he died… She’d cried for days on end, sitting by his body and refusing to let go of his hand, even when the men came to bury him.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, I’ll be sure not to do it again.” Benitor smirked at her, then wiped his arm across his forehead. “I’m afraid you’ll have to excuse me now. I have to take these downstairs.”

“I’ll help.” Gabrielle offered, grabbing onto the other handle before he could protest, lifting the chest of the ground, seemingly without much of an effort. “Go on.” She walked around him, making sure she was the one walking backwards as they headed towards the stairs.

“It’s highly uncommon for guests here to carry things around the palace, miss.” Benitor objected half-heartedly, pretty relieved the warrior had just spared him the burden of carrying the heavy object down the stairs by himself.

“You’re not accusing me of being common, now are ya?”

A chuckle from the older man. “Never, m’lady.”

“Tch…” Gabrielle had tsk-ed him, carefully placing her foot on the first step of the stairs, tensing her muscles as the weight of the trunk slowly shifted to come to rest almost fully on her as they descended further and further.

“Are you all right?” Benitor asked in concern, glancing down the length of the chest at the warrior’s tense face. “We could stop for a moment…”

“No, it’s OK.” Gabrielle objected, her ego not allowing her to back down so easily. She just clenched her teeth, moving down the last few steps and entering the hallway. “Geez, this thing is heavy.” She muttered, releasing a breath as she lowered the chest to the ground. “Wonder what kind of junk the Queen of the Null has got stashed in there, huh?”

Benitor prudently remained silent.

Gabrielle looked up at him with a frown, then saw that his eyes were firmly fixed on the marble floors.

“How dare you!” A voice called out from behind her, and Gabrielle winced as she recognised who she was dealing with.

She bit her lip, then got her facial features back under control, working a calm, un-intimidated expression on her face before turning around and facing the Egyptian regent. The woman’s dark eyes were shooting daggers at her, the eyeliner darkening the edges of her eyes making the look particularly vicious. “Well hi there… Fancy meeting you here…”

Cleopatra actually growled, barring her teeth in a snarl. “Get away from me! And don’t dare to obscure my line of sight ever again!”

Gabrielle crossed her arms, giving the woman an amused look. “All right then. As you wish…” She smirked at the woman, then pushed off, pulling herself into a flip and neatly landing behind the regent. “There you go… Better?”

Cleopatra spun around, but Gabrielle just followed in her movement, staying out of the regent’s sight obediently. “Hey!” The Egyptian flung her hand around in frustration, trying desperately to hit the warrior. “Stop that!”

Gabrielle smirked at the woman’s back. “Say please…”

“Why you obnoxious little…”

“Hey, don’t start on the height issue…” the warrior objected, wiping a bit off dust off the regent’s shoulder carelessly. “That’s a touchy subject, you know?”

“Get away from me!” The Egyptian woman spun around once more, then started screaming at the top of her lungs. “Xena!!”

Gabrielle slapped her hands over her sensitive ears. “Ouch… Now, was that really necessary?”

A moment passed, then sharp footsteps echoed and moment later Xena entered from the hallway leading out of the south wing. She was dressed in a long, black gown with red edges and a tight bodice and her hair was elegantly braided back, tiny strands of gold highlighting the dark locks. “Yeeeeees?” She drawled, looking at the regent with forced politeness. “What’s the matter, Cleo?”

“That peasant…” Cleo snarled, followed by a row of spat out Egyptian curses.

Xena shook her head, crossing her arms. “All right… Where is she?” She asked, then blinked as a hand suddenly poked up from behind the regent’s head, the fingers wiggling cheerfully at her above the grimly set Egyptian face. “Ah…” She did her best to repress a smirk. “I see…”

“Get her away from me.” Cleopatra instructed angrily. “Now!”

“But of course…” Xena politely inclined her head at the regent, then turned her attention to the unseen warrior behind her. “Gabrielle?”

“Yes?”

“Could you stop doing that, please?”

“Sure.” The warrior stepped from behind the regent’s back, smirking up at the narrowed eyes looking down at her. “I told you…” She reached out, and patted the regent’s cheek. “All you had to do was say please…” The warrior flashed her a last grin then turned around and paced off.

“I can’t believe you are just allowing that woman free reign.” Cleopatra rambled on, grumpily staring out of the window of the carriage that was transporting them to the harbour. “Do you realise what this looks like to your staff? Not to mention your officers…”

Xena leaned back in her seat, watching the woman sitting across from her quietly. “Cleo, I explained all of this to you this morning, didn’t I?”

“Yes, you did… But that doesn’t mean I have to like it…”

The Conqueror rolled her eyes. “It’s just a little harmless fun…”

“With you, fun is never harmless, Xena, and you know it…” Cleopatra deadpanned, her dark eyes shifting to meet the Empress’s. “I did not survive a decade of ruling over Egypt because I’m blind to threats. And that toy of yours is a threat to your Empire, Xena. You should kill her while you can…”

“I’ll kill her when I can, and not a moment later…” The Conqueror assured her.

A snort from the regent, who returned her attentions to the window, quietly studying one of the armed, mounted guards riding beside the carriage. “Sure.”

Xena slowly lifted an eyebrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?” A pause in which there was no response, then more insistent. “Answer me.”

Cleopatra rolled her eyes, then looked back at the Empress calmly. “I’m just telling you to be careful.”

“Oh, you’re concerned about me?” Xena drawled, laying a hand over her heart. “I’m touched…”

“You are the key to my rule, Xena, and I am part of the key to yours.” The Egyptian balanced her elbows on her knees and leaned closer, dropping her voice. “I like the ways things are right now, and I’ll do anything I can to keep them this way…”

Blue eyes regarded the woman for a moment, then Xena chuckled, shaking her head in amusement. “You are starting to sound just like Alti.”

Cleopatra pulled back, crossing her arms. “Don’t insult me.”

“No insult intended, really.” Xena assured her with a smirk. “But, honestly, I don’t understand what you are so worried about… Do you think I can’t beat her?”

“Of course I don’t…” Cleo denied. “I’ve known you long enough to at least be sure of the fact that you don’t overestimate your own skills. If you say you’ll beat her before the month’s through, than you will.”

The Empress tossed up her hands. “So, what’s the problem?”

Cleopatra rolled her eyes. “The problem is, Xena, that whenever you go off and try to have some ‘ harmless fun’…” She shot the Conqueror a meaningful look. “…things tend to escalate.”

“Which is a problem why exactly?”

“Oh please…” The regent shook her head. “Do I really need to remind you of that little trip you decided to take to Carthage all by yourself that would have gotten you killed, if it hadn’t been for the soldiers that I send after you?”

Xena released a frustrated breath. “I thanked you for that, didn’t I? Repeatedly, if I’m not mistaken…”

“Or should I mention that time when you ran off without warning and some psycho blonde walked into your precious Athens and massacred half of the city?”

Blue eyes narrowed to slits.

“Or maybe back when you went nuts and chased down some puny warlord named Draco for destroying a small centaur village that wasn’t even under your control, leaving all other matters unattended while you…”

“Shut it!” Xena growled, her eyes icy cold as she glowered at the regent. “Don’t stick your nose into matters you know nothing about, Cleo…”

Cleopatra studied her for a moment, but then backed off, realising she’d hit a nerve and knowing all too well that pushing further would not do her much good. “My apologies.” She said, calmly looking at the Conqueror. “I was only trying to make a point…”

“Which is?” Xena grumbled, trying to get her emotions back under control.

“That the moment you let your guard down, things escalate.” Cleopatra informed her. “You are an Empress, Xena… THE Empress. Half this world wants to kill you for some reason or another. And what do you do? You invite the best assassin ever to walk the earth into your palace and give her no restrictions what so ever!” The Egyptian tossed up her hands. “Can’t you see how foolish that is? Or do you just want to die?”

Xena considered this, shifted her gaze to stare out the window, watching the small houses along the road slip by. She spotted a young boy up ahead, who had been playing in the garden in front of one of the houses. He scrambled to his feet as he heard them approaching. Even from this distance, she could see him gazing at the horses in wonder, admiring the richly decorated carriage as it got closer and closer. Another moment, then his eyes shifted and met hers, and the wonder shifted to shock. He hastily turned around and ran off, finding shelter behind his mother’s skirt. The mother just kept her head bent, refusing to look up for even a moment. As they rode past, she could see wide round eyes peeking from behind the older woman, looking up at her in utter fear…

Xena released a breath, closing her eyes. “What I want is not important…” She finally murmured. “I learned from my mistakes, Cleo. You don’t have to worry about your position in Egypt. It is not under any threat from me or the warrior, I assure you…”

Cleopatra studied her for a moment, then nodded, folding her hands together and leaning back in her seat. “Good. That’s all I need to know…”

After an hour or so they arrived in Piraeus, the harbour of the city of Athens. It had been a while since she’d been here, and Xena took a moment as she exited the carriage to glance around, taking in her surroundings. What had been a small fishing village a few years ago had grown into a massive port now, the docks lined with warehouses, men and women busily walking about, taking goods from or to one of the many ships that were anchored off. Xena took a breath, soaking in the salt stained air. The smell of the sea reminded her of times long ago, when she’d set off and roamed the seas for a while, looting ships and harbours as she sailed past. Ah yes… Xena closed her eyes and let a small smile cross her face. Those good old days…

Cleopatra exited the carriage after her, her guards hastily circling around her, their eyes anxiously flicking across the crowded dockside. Xena rolled her eyes at them, then offered Cleopatra an arm, before starting the walk down the dock towards the large Egyptian vessel that was anchored a little way off. “Your boys need to relax a bit more, Cleo. They’re too tense… It’s not good for their health.”

“It’s good for mine.” Cleopatra stated simply.

Xena chuckled. “I guess so…” She agreed, calmly letting her eyes pass over the people in her vicinity.

Most had halted their activities and were watching the Empress, the regent and her entourage now. Heads bent as her gaze flicked over the crowd and Xena got a chance to quietly check for any potential troublemakers. Athens was the centre of the world these days, and she was once again reminded of that as she saw people from all corners of her Empire. The foreigners were easily recognisable by their skin colour, or a particular way in which they dressed or acted. The Asian people, who were present here in great numbers, were all much shorter than the rest of the crowd and they acted very obediently, bowing deeply as she passed by. A small group of merchants from the Norse land, however, didn’t seem by far as impressed, keeping their show of respect to an inclining of their heads. Xena quietly observed the rough, simple clothing, made of skins and thick fabrics, quite un-functional in the warm Mediterranean climate. Xena rolled her eyes at them, slightly shaking her head. Men from the Norse land made great mercenaries, since they were strong, and reliable, but no sense ever seemed to penetrate through those thick skulls. She’d always wondered if it was the barrenness of their country that made them so headstrong, or if there was some other factor…

She paused, then cocked her head as she picked up a few whispered words from the group they’d just passed, followed by some muted laughter. “Excuse me for a moment.” She excused herself politely, then turned and strode back to the group with calm determined paces, putting a placid smile on her face as she approached them. She calmly fixed her eyes on the leader of the group, a tall, broad shouldered man in his early thirties, with long reddish hair, the unruly locks blowing sideways in the gusts of wind that floated in from the sea. When he saw her approach she saw him flinch, but then he recovered his pose and straightened, standing to his full height and flexing some muscle in a display of manly hood. She shot him a charming smile, then uttered a single syllable on the Norse tongue, before reached forward in a flash and neatly snapping his neck

As she turned her back on the group the man collapsed onto the ground, the sound echoing down the docks as his large body thudded to the ground.

Cleopatra watched the exchange, raising an eyebrow at the Empress who’d quietly returned to her side and then motioned to her they should continue on their way. The Egyptian shot another glance at the group of Norsemen, who were staring at the Conqueror with wide, fearful eyes. “What did he do?”

Xena shrugged. “He said something I didn’t like.”

“Aha…” Cleopatra mumbled, walking along beside her, considering for a moment. “If I may ask… What did you tell him?”

A wicked grin spread across the Conqueror’s face. “I told him to die.” A low chuckle. “Amazing, how well my subjects obey me these days, don’t you agree?”

The regent rolled her eyes. “Your techniques of requiring loyalty are unsurpassable, Xena.”

“Heh.” The Conqueror chortled cheerfully. “I do like to think so.”

Cleopatra tossed up a hand in defeat. “Naturally…”

Xena laughed, then fell quiet again, as she heard the soft sound of metal hitting stone. “You dropped something.” She informed her regent quietly, turning around and letting her eyes flick over the area.

Cleopatra frowned, then looked at the hand she’d just moved, only now noticing the thin, golden bracelet she’d been wearing around her wrist was gone.

Xena scanned the ground again, still unable to spot the object she was looking for. Slowly she let her eyes lift, heads hastily dropping as she did so. “Hmm… Now that’s odd…” She mumbled out loud to herself, taking a few paces closer to the crowd, people fearfully receding as she approached. “See, I’m sure I heard it drop… right…” She stopped in front of the one man that had held ground and was now shivering like a reed in the wind. He was a younger man, somewhere in his early twenties. He was short, but strongly built and his curly, dark brown hair reached down to his shoulders. “…here…” She dropped her voice to its lowest register, suppressing a wicked grin as she saw the man gulp. “You wouldn’t happen to have seen it lying around here somewhere… Would you?”

The man rapidly shook his head, bending his head even lower.

“Oh well… All right then…” Xena waved the ordeal off, turning around, hearing the relieved sigh as she did so. “I guess I musta misheard…” She took a pace away from him, then halted again, cocking her head in thought. “Unless…”

In a blur of motion she turned, wrapped a hand around the man’s throat and lifted him clean off his feet, revealing the golden bracelet he’d kept hidden under his boot. “It just mysteriously vanished and then reappeared under your sole.”

The man’s eyes grew wide as he fearfully looked down at the Empress, his eyes growing wide as he desperately tried to suck some air into his lungs. “Please…” He managed to gasp. “I didn’t mean to, Empress. I’m sorry…”

Xena produced a look of utter shock, laying her free hand over her heart. “Sorry? You mean to say you intentionally PLACED your foot over this piece of jewellery?” She shook her head sadly, tsk-ing him. “Didn’t your mother teach you stealing is bad, young man?”

He blinked at her, his face turning a darker shade of red which each passing moment.

“Well… Since she failed in educating you properly, I guess I’ll just have to teach you this little lesson myself, won’t I?” She smiled charmingly at him, then pulled back her free hand, balling it to a fist.

“Xena.”

The Empress narrowed her eyes for a moment, then turned and looked at her regent, who was looking back at her, her arms crossed.

“I don’t mind you killing off the entire population, but could you just escort me to my ship first? I’m expected to be back in Egypt before the next millennium, you see…”

Xena rolled her eyes. “Very well…” She then conceded, discarding of her burden, negligently tossing him in front of the feet of one of her own guards. “Take him back to the palace and lock him up. I’ll deal with him later.”

Gabrielle made her way down the stairs to the dungeon. The guard in front of the door nodded politely as she passed, recognising her from her previous visit, before he turned and keyed open the door. The warrior paced down the corridor, the guard following behind her quietly, the only sound the rattling of metal as the soldier selected a key from his key chain.

A few more steps, then Gabrielle pulled to a halt beside her friend’s cell and looked inside. The place was a complete mess, plates and bowls and cups scattered across the floor. In the centre of this chaos was Thalia, lying flat on her back on the ground, her hands folded over her stomach. Her eyes were closed and a dreamy smile was plastered on her face. In the cell next to her, Gabrielle spotted Ephiny lying on her pallet with a similar expression. The warrior chuckled, shaking her head in amusement. “You two enjoyed your meal, I take it?”

Eyes fluttered open, looking up at her in complete adoration. “You are divine.” Thalia managed reverently. “No, you are more than divine… You’re… You’re…” The redhead fell quiet for a moment, considering a designation to top divinity, then she gave up, closing her eyes again. “Whatever beats being divine, you’re it…”

“If I could, I’d fall at your feet right now and profess my undying loyalty.” Ephiny’s voice murmured dreamily from the other cell. “But if I did that I’d probably just end up puking all over your boots and I don’t think that’s really a good way to display my appreciation.”

Gabrielle laughed, stepping into Thalia’s cell as the guard opened it for her. “Not really, no…”

The redhead managed to lift her head a little. “I’d love to get up and give you a hug, but my body is digesting at the moment, so I’m afraid that’ll have to wait.”

Another laugh. “‘s Okay. Just stay put.” Gabrielle told her, leaning down and picking up one of the plates as she started to pile up the dirty dishes. “They got you a full five course meal, right?”

“Seven.” The Amazon corrected with a happy sigh. “Seven courses…”

Gabrielle arched an eyebrow in surprise. “Seven?”

“Three desserts.” Thalia mumbled, nearly swooning. “I’ve never had a dessert in my whole life and now I just ate three…”

“Chocolate mouse…” Ephiny licked her lips. “Baklava…”

“Roasted quail.”

“Oh, and I loved the salad.” The Amazon added, somehow managing to role onto her side, so she could look at the people she was speaking with. “There were some nicely salted meaty bits in there… Very tasty…”

Gabrielle glanced from one to the other in amusement. “Well, I’m glad you two enjoyed yourselves.” She grinned, seating herself on the bed after she’d placed the piled up dishes near the door. “You two got lucky they made a mistake. I only ordered five courses…”

“Not luck.” The redhead informed her, tiling her head back a little and regarding her friend. “Fellow that came in here said something about a thank you for saving his daughter.”

Gabrielle cocked her head. “Really?”

“Would we lie to you, oh great one?” Ephiny’s lazy voice drifted up.

The warrior chuckled. “Guess not…” A pause as she considered this bit of info. “Interesting…”

“That’s what I would’ve thought if my brain hadn’t been so busy screaming ‘Food! Food!'” A pause in which Ephiny smiled. “I found a note in my salad, by the way…”

“Did you now?” Gabrielle pushed herself up, strolling closer to the bars. “What did it say?”

“That you were even better in person than she’d thought you’d be…”

A snort as the warrior shook her head. “Your friend is quite a character… Did she tell you she threatened me with a butcher’s knife?”

Ephiny smirked. “Once an Amazon…” She muttered with a shake of her head, then she paused, turning more serious. “Is she doing OK?”

Gabrielle leaned a shoulder against the bars, considering this for a moment. “It’s hard to say…” She replied honestly. “I only spoke with her for a moment… She’s… very dedicated to you…”

The Amazon nodded a little. “She’s… a very good friend…” Hazel eyes peeked up. “Hey Gabrielle? Could you… Tell her something from me?”

“Sure.”

“Tell her…” The Amazon took a breath, returning her gaze to the ceiling. “Tell her that if this doesn’t work, I want her to leave.”

The warrior regarded her calmly. “This will work, Ephiny. I promise…”

“I believe you. But, if something does go wrong, I don’t…” A breath. “I don’t want Solari to suffer through more years like this… You know?”

Gabrielle considered for a moment, then nodded. “I understand. But I don’t think she’ll listen…”

“Make her listen.” Ephiny urged, carefully pushing herself up a little, to come to lean on an elbow. “You can make up some excuse for all I care, just make sure she gets out of here… Please?”

Gabrielle released a breath, then nodded. “I’ll do my best.”

“Thank you.” Ephiny managed a smile for her.

“Shush, Amazon, you’re getting my Gab al downish…” Thalia complained, pointing a finger at her locked up friend. “We’re supposed to be cheering her up, remember? After a Conqueror filled day she doesn’t need to see you pining away in here over your girlfriend…”

Annoyed hazel eyes shot in the redhead’s direction. “She is NOT my girlfriend…”

“Riiiiiiight.” Thalia drawled. “Sure…”

Ephiny rolled her eyes, before returning her gaze to Gabrielle. “Ignore her.” She instructed the warrior, who just chuckled in response. “So… How was your day, oh great one?”

“Nothing doing…”Gabrielle shrugged carelessly, turning a little and leaning her back against the bars. “Started the morning off searching for the Conqueror… Found her, kicked her butt, got attacked by a three year old, but sort of managed to make amend with the kid by saving her from the Pharaoh of Egypt and her guards…”

Ephiny blinked at her, then turned her head to look at Thalia, who met her gaze for a moment, before they both looked back at Gabrielle. “Forget I asked.” Ephiny finally muttered, shaking her head a little.

“If this is nothing, I really don’t wanna know what a busy day for you looks like…” Thalia added to that. “I mean, even in our rebel days we never…” She stopped as she detected sounds coming from behind the cell door. “Hey, you hear that?”

Gabrielle was already standing near the bars, her hands wrapped around the metal as she peeked outside. “Yeah, I…”

The door was kicked open, then one of the servants stepped inside, walking backwards. “OK, careful now…” He stated, waving his hands about busily. “Theodorus, move the thing back a little…” A scratching sound echoed through the dungeons, as a huge wooden object was pushed further into the hallway. “No, back, BACK, you idiot! It won’t fit through the door like this, we have to turn it on its side…”

“Excuse me?” Gabrielle called out, which caused the man to turn around, his hands on his hips.

“Yes?” He asked, raising an eyebrow at her sharply, his pose indicating he didn’t have the patience to talk with her.

“Is there something I can help you with?” The warrior asked politely, pulling open the cell door and stepping into the hallway. “I’m just visiting here.” She explained, as the man’s eyes widened.

“Ah…” Light seemed to dawn. “You must be Gabrielle then?”

“That’s my name.” Gabrielle confirmed, stepping a little closer. “What is it you’re trying to move in here?”

“The present from the Conqueror.” The servant replied cordially, waving his head towards the wooden structure that was now completely blocking the exit. “She said something about owing you… I understood you knew about this?”

Blond eyebrows frowned at him. “I don’t know anything ab…” She stopped, then inspected the wooden frame, before turning her attention back to the young man standing beside her. “Is that a bed?”

The servant inclined his head politely. “King size…”

“She even remembered to send fluffy pillows.” Gabrielle murmured with a shake of her head, as she tossed one of the feather stuffed items towards the bed, that was now taking up nearly all the space in the cell.

Thalia caught the soft item in both hands, then popped it under her head, laying down and exhaling blissfully. “This is sooooooo nice…”

“Oh yeah, rub it in, why don’t ya?'” Ephiny muttered from her spot behind the bars, glaring at the deluxe bed with a tinge of envy.

The rebel turned her head and looked at her friend, her eyes twinkling mischievously. “Getting jealous, your majesty?”

“Being queen ain’t no fun when it’s your rebel neighbour sleeping on the king-size bed.” The Amazon informed her. “You wanna trade Terror T? My title for your bed? How about it, huh?”

Thalia replied to that by just sticking her tongue out at the Amazon.

Gabrielle watched the exchange from the corner of her eye as she picked up another pillow, then launched it towards the bed, the soft surface smacking into Thalia’s smug face with a satisfying thud.

“Mhey!” Her friends muffled voice sounded in an indignant tone. Thalia pulled the pillow away from her head, her dishevelled red hair poking out in all directions. “What was that for?”

Gabrielle shrugged negligently, her eyes twinkling. “No particular reason…”

In the other cell, Ephiny burst out in laughter.

Thalia flung her pillow towards the hysterically laughing Amazon, but was of course unable to hit her and the fluffy item just bounced off the metal bars. The rebel narrowed her eyes at the woman as she started laughing even louder, then decided to turn her wrath to a victim that was within her reach. She grabbed onto the remaining pillow lying on her bed, then slowly, dangerously, crawled towards Gabrielle. “You realise this means war, don’t ya?”

“It does, does it?” The warrior drawled unimpressed, the last of the three pillows flung casually over her shoulder.

“Oh yes…” Her friend assured her, rising up to her knees as she reached the end of the bed, grabbing onto her weapon more tightly. “And, if I may remind you, you have never been able to beat me in a pillow fight before, so it’d be best for your own well being to surrender to me now, and beg for my mercy.”

Gabrielle cocked her head, seeming to consider that statement for a moment… “You’re probably right…” She admitted calmly, but then suddenly lashed out a foot, kicking the pillow from Thalia’s hands. It soared up into the air, nearly hitting the ceiling before descending again. Gabrielle reached out with her free hand and neatly scooped it out of the air, then she aimed both pillows for Thalia’s ears, neatly sandwiching her head between the two soft surfaces. “…Then again, I think I’ll take my chances…”

Thalia emerged from between the two items, looking even more frazzled than before. “Crap…” She managed to muttered, lifting a hand to rub her tingling ears. “When did you become the ultimate pillow fight champion?”

“Never did.” The warrior argued. “Argo still holds the title.”

Thalia raised a fuzzy eyebrow at her. “Who’s Argo? Another mentor of yours?”

“You could say that…” Gabrielle chuckled. “Actually, she’s my horse…”

“Oeh!” Ephiny was all ears all of a sudden. “You have a horse?”

“No. I have THE horse.” The blonde corrected smugly, before tossing one of her pillows towards the Amazon’s rolling eyes. Ephiny caught the item, before worming it through the bars and tossing it onto her pallet to join the pillow Thalia had tossed at her. “Hey, have you ever heard of a horse that killed a man with a pillow? Have you?”

“You’re kidding, right?” Thalia shot a glance at her, while pushing her disorderly hair back into order.

“I do not kid about my horse.” Gabrielle denied sternly, crossing her arms. “This guy was trying to attack me from behind, see? And she kicked out her hind legs against the pillow that was lying on my bedroll. Thing slammed into him with such force he was knocked straight off his feet. When I finished with the other thugs I noticed he was still lying there, checked his pulse… Nada… Guy got the wind knocked out of him… Literally…”

“Now that’s my kinda horse…” Ephiny grinned wickedly. “I gotta get my Amazons some of those…”

“I think Argo’s sort of one of a kind.” Gabrielle smirked. “I need to go back up top and tend to her in a moment, by the way… She’s been cooped up in the stables here for the last few days without any exercise. She hates to be…”

Sounds from outside made her halt her sentence, and she turned back and stepped outside the cell, staring at the thick wooden door that was the entrance to the dungeons.

“What is it?” Ephiny headed towards the bars herself, peeking outside. “If that’s another bed I’m gonna start a cult dedicated to your divine being right this moment, you understand that, don’t ya?”

Gabrielle softly shook her head. “No bed…”

“Bummer…” The Amazon muttered, immediately losing interest for whatever it was that was approaching and returning to her pallet.

Another moment, then the door opened and a man, his hands chained together by heavy shackles, was pushed inside roughly, stumbling as he lost his footing and nearly crashed to the ground.

“Move it!” A gruff voice sounded behind him as two muscled, armed soldiers followed him inside, one giving him another shove to move him further down the corridor. “Now!”

“Hey!” Gabrielle called out, quickly pacing towards them. “What’s going on here?”

Both soldiers looked up and studied her, then the man who’d spoken before leaned closer to his companion. “Who’s she?”

“The warrior who arrived three days ago…” The older of the two replied in a scratchy voice. “You know…”

“Oh right…. She’s the Conqueror’s pet, is she?” He whistled under his breath. “That woman sure knows how to pick ‘m…”

“I asked you a question.” Gabrielle glowered at him, crossing her arms. “What’s going on?”

The first soldier hesitated for another moment, then wrapped his hands around the captive’s collar and jerked him upright. “This piece of scum decided stealing from the Egyptian Regent was a good idea… The Conqueror disagreed… She’ll sentence him when she returns…”

Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at him. “Sentence him to what?”

“I ain’t no fortune-teller, lady.” The other guard grumbled, walking past his companion and the prisoner to a cell door, keying open the lock. “Normally the penalty for stealing is losing a hand…” The captive whimpered in fear. “… but since it was the Pharaoh he went stealing from he might as well loose his head…” An audible swallow from the young man, whose round eyes looked up at Gabrielle fearfully, pleadingly, before he was roughly shoved into the cell, the door locking behind him with a loud rattling of metal. The soldier stuck the keychain back in his pocket and then turned around, motioning for his companion to move toward the exit.

“Hey!” Gabrielle followed behind him. “Is he even gonna get a fair trail?”

“The Empress will judge him as she sees fit…” The man mumbled, not bothering to turn around.

“Is someone speaking in his defence?” The warrior continued. “What if the Conqueror’s mistaken and he’s innocent, shouldn’t he…?”

The guard sighed audibly and spun around. “Look, sweetheart…” Deadly green eyes glared at him. “I’m not in a place to be explaining the legal ways to ya… I just arrest people, I ain’t no lawyer or nothing… You wanna complain about the way things are done around here, take it up with the Empress, OK?” He instructed, before turning back again, heading down the corridor and out of the dungeons…

Gabrielle looked after the two soldiers, then at the young man huddled in a corner of his cell. “Maybe I’ll go and do just that…”

Some time later, horses thundered through the large gates that opened into the palace grounds. The carriage slid to a halt in front of the stairs that lead up to the large doors that formed the entrance to the Imperial home. Xena hopped onto the ground, circling past the four dark horses that had pulled her to Pireaus and back, patting their strong necks affectionately, before striding up the stairs, where she was greeted by her Advisor.

“The man you arrested was brought in half a Candlemark ago. He’s been taken to the dungeons.” Pyrron informed her as he fell into pace beside her. “Also, Alti wishes to speak with you.”

“All right.” Xena acknowledges the news. “Send them both to the throne room. That way I can kill two birds with one stone…”

Her advisor nodded, motioning with his eyes towards one of the servants, who hastily darted off. “I’ll arrange for the stone to be placed under your seat, Empress… And I would really appreciate it if you took care of the shamaness first, if you could…”

Xena laughed, shooting the older man an amused look. “Has she been bugging you, Ronnie?”

Pyrron rolled his eyes with a sigh. “That woman is a menace, Empress… I found her just now with her hands wrapped around the neck of a palace guard… She would have killed the man if I hadn’t intervened…”

“Alti, Alti…” Xena tsk-ed, with a slight grin. “Don’t worry, I’ll have a talk with her.”

“Thank you, Empress.” Pyrron inclined his head graciously. “Oh, last but not least, Iona told me to tell you she is taking Chilon out for a ride in a Candlemark, and you’d better be there or she’ll just take off without you…”

Xena exhaled gravely, shaking her head. “Pushy little thing…”

“Like draws to like…” Pyrron muttered under his breath, for which he was awarded with a dangerously arched eyebrow.

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.” Xena growled in mock-anger.

“Eternally grateful.” Her advisor retorted smoothly.

Xena chuckled, then slowed her steps as she neared her destination. “If you see her before I do, tell her royal pain-in-the-butt I’ll try to make her deadline…”

“Of course, Empress.” Pyrron grinned. “Do you want all of us to join you for dinner, this evening?”

“Yeah.” Xena smiled at the thought. “Yeah, I’d like that… I’ve missed my table discussions with Niobe.”

Her advisor chuckled in amusement, then bowed his head politely before turning around and walking off.

Xena took a breath, steadying herself, before turning the last corner and walking into the throne room. She only came here when she really couldn’t avoid it, when she had to receive emissaries from far away provinces, or sit in judgement upon some matter or another. The room was decorated to impress, lots of gold and silver lining the walls, works of art standing in various corners, beige, silken straps draping down from the ceiling. A long red carpet lead up to her throne, which was skilfully carved from pinewood, imported from a forest somewhere in Chin. The seat was covered by a soft, dark blue velvet. Except for the throne and a few statues, the hall was completely empty.

“Hello, Xena…” A low voice burred up, as Alti stepped from behind the large throne.

Well, maybe not completely empty, Xena amended with an inward sigh, forcing a smirk onto her face. “Alti…” She greeted the shamaness cordially, walking closer to her. “I heard you nearly flashbacked a guard of mine into extinction…”

“Flash forwarded, actually…” Alti corrected her, crossing her arms, the fabric of the dark toga she was wearing softly rustling as she did so.

“Aha…” Xena nodded in understanding, rising up the few steps that led to her seat. “And why did you do that, if you don’t mind me asking?”

The shamaness shrugged negligently. “He said something I didn’t appreciate…”

The Empress chuckled as she dropped down into her seat, casually flinging a leg over an armrest. “Sticks and stones…”

Alti snorted. “You should talk… You just killed a man because he said you didn’t look so tough as he’d imagined…”

Xena tipped her head back and regarded her shamaness, raising an eyebrow at her. “You been spying on me in that big cauldron of yours, have you Alti?”

“Hardiharhar.” Alti rolled her eyes. “I just overheard some guards talking…”

“How common of you…” The Empress chuckled, pushing herself upright again. “Now, tell me… What was the urgent matter you so desperately needed to speak to me about? And please, don’t tell me you’ve come to warn me that you are getting bad vibes from my valued pawn, OK? I’m not interested…”

“It’s more than ‘vibes’, Xena.” Alti argued angrily, narrowing her dark eyes at the woman. “When I send that guard of yours to see his future, I wanted to show him how he dies…”

“Surprise, surprise…” The Empress drawled in an undertone.

“And you know how he dies, Xena?” The shamaness continued on, uninterrupted. “He dies in an attempt to help you escape from your own dungeons.”

Xena frowned, sitting up a bit straighter. “What do you mean?”

“I mean just what I said…” Alti stated, circling the throne. “I saw you, Xena… Shackled and locked up in your own stronghold…” She dropped her voice to a raspy whisper. “That warrior will be the downfall of you, Xena… Continue down this road and your Empire will fall. Is that what you want?”

The Conqueror turned her head to look up at her. “How do you know this has anything to do with Gabrielle?”

Alti rolled her eyes. “I just know…”

“That’s not good enough.”

The shamaness tossed up her hands. “Since when?”

“Since now.” Xena replied smoothly, rising to her feet and turning to face her companion. “I have a real good opportunity here to learn, Alti. To stop standing still and grow… And I’m not gonna give that up because you dislike the one person who can teach me…”

Alti placed her hands on her hips. “Even if you risk losing all you’ve worked for?”

“To gain one thing, you often have to risk another.”

“You’re not just risking ‘another thing’.. You are risking everything!” Alti spat back, clearly frustrated. “You shouldn’t…”

Xena stopped her with a stern wave of her hand. “This discussion is over.” She growled, her blue eyes narrowing at the shamaness. “When you can give me solid proof Gabrielle is plotting against me, I’ll listen to you… Until then, I don’t want to hear another word about this matter…”

“But…”

“Not… another… word…” Xena repeated, clearly pronouncing every word. The sound of rattling metal behind her caught her attention, and she shot a look over her shoulder to see her prisoner being dragged into the room. “Now, if you’ll excuse me… I have a life to end…”

“Oh, you’ve already decided on that, have you?”

Xena spun around to watch Gabrielle stride into the room, passing the prisoner and his guard to come to a standstill in front of the young man, protectively forming a barrier between him and the Conqueror. Xena smirked, looking down at the scene. “Sheltering criminals now, are you Gabrielle?”

“This man deserves a fair trial.” The warrior stated, crossing her arms and looking up at the Conqueror, unintimidated. Her gaze tracked to the figure standing behind the throne, and her eyes narrowed at the shamaness for a instant, before she returned her attention to the Empress.

Xena crossed her arms. “Does he now?”

“He should have a chance to prove himself innocent.”

The Conqueror chuckled. “I found Cleo’s bracelet hidden under his boot. The chances of him being innocent are close to zero…” Xena settled down on her throne, leaning back in her seat and crossing her legs at the ankles.

Gabrielle blinked, then glanced over her shoulder, taking a look at the young man kneeling down behind her, his head bent shamefully. “Maybe… Maybe he had good reason… Maybe he…”

Xena lifted a hand, stopping the warrior’s guessing. “Don’t go there…” She instructed, before pushing herself to her feet, calmly meeting the angry green eyes. “Just face it, Gabrielle… Not everybody is worth saving.” She slowly, gracefully, descended down the steps. “Your tendency to make a stand for the underdog is… endearing…”

An indignant huff from the warrior.

“But don’t spend your precious energy trying to protect the life of some puny little man like this…” Xena waved a negligent hand at the kneeling figure. “Do you want me to prove him guilty?”

The warrior looked back at her suspiciously.

“Let me show you…” The Conqueror took a few paces to come to stand at the prisoner’s side, then knelt down and grabbed onto the young man’s chin, roughly jerking his face up, forcing his grey eyes to meet hers. For a moment he stared at her in shock, then his eyes hastily darted away, avoiding the intense blue gaze. Xena let him suffer for another moment, then she shoved him away, rising back to her full height. “You know as well as I do, eyes are windows to the soul…” Blue eyes met green. “He can’t even look at me… Because he knows he’s guilty.”

“Because he’s afraid!” Gabrielle argued.

Xena took a step closer, their gazes still locked. “You were afraid of me too, once… But during your trial, your eyes never left mine…”

A long silence, in which memories flooded both. Finally, Gabrielle drew in a breath. “You admit I was innocent?”

A small smile tugged at Xena’s lips. “No. You just never considered yourself guilty…” A glance over her shoulder. “This man, on the other hand…” She shook her head a little, then walked past the warrior, heading back towards her throne. “All he wanted was some extra cash, Gabrielle… To spend on liquor, or gamble away… He’s not worth your attention…”

“No. Not liquor…” The man spoke for the first time, hesitantly peeking up. “I…”

“Silence!” The guard’s voice boomed, ending his words by smacking the back of his hand onto the side of the young man’s face. “You don’t speak unless you’re spoken to…”

The prisoner thudded on his side, then scrambled back to his knees, crawling away from the soldier on instinct. Gabrielle quickly dropped down by his side, laying a hand on his shoulder to calm him, before inspecting the reddening area, where a drop of blood was sidling down from the small scratch made by the soldier’s ring.

“Get back here…” The guard growled, advancing on his captive, a hand balling into a fist, his other reaching out to push Gabrielle away from the man.

The warrior was just about to react and reach up to stop him, when the guard was stopped for her.

Xena wrapped her long fingers around his wrist, then jerked the guard’s arm back roughly. “I must be losing my hearing…” She growled at him, twisting the arm back just a little bit further, making him yelp in pain. “Cause I sure didn’t hear me order you to hit that man… Did you?”

The soldier blinked up at her, then rapidly shook his head. “I… I just thought…”

Xena snapped the fingers of her free hand. “Ah, there’s our problem then…” She gave him another icy stare, then let go of his arm, shoving him back. Then she turned and looked down, meeting Gabrielle’s eyes for a moment, before turning her attention to the man lying at her feet. The man looked back up at her fearfully, but now he was meeting her eyes at least. “Talk.” She simply instructed him, crossing her arms.

The man drew in a shaky breath. “Herbs. I needed the money for…for herbs…”

A dark eyebrow raised at him. “Herbs?”

He nodded his head feverously. “For my wife… She… She had a miscarriage, last year… And now she is pregnant again and… And a merchant told me he had herbs that could prevent her from losing another child…”

“Oh please…” Alti’s voice drifted up, sounding quite bored. “I can’t believe you’re listening to this, Xena… Stealing is stealing and… Whoa!” The shamaness jumped back as a metal ring seared past, not even an inch from her eyes. With a clang the metal bounced off the far wall, then off another, before Xena neatly scooped it out of the air. “I am getting TIRED of these interruptions!” She growled dangerously, giving the shamaness a deadly glare. “So shut up!”

Alti stared at her for another moment, then tossed up her hands in defeat.

Gabrielle had jumped up as she’d heard the weapon leave Xena’s hand and had watched it traverse its path across the room and back in complete fascination.

“Good.” Xena shot her a toothy smile, then returned her attention back to the man at her feet. “Go on… Keep begging…”

The man blinked, then stuttered on. “The… The merchant… He asked for a great amount of money… I’m just a simple gardener, I… I couldn’t afford it, but… If Lucinia loses another child, she’ll die, Empress, she can’t go through that pain again, and… And then the bracelet dropped down in front of my feet and I…”

“And you stole it.” Xena finished for him.

The thief bent his head guiltily.

Xena turned away from him, taking a few paces, silently. “What’s your name?”

The young man blinked in surprise, then spoke up. “Gelon, Empress.”

“Gelon…” The Conqueror repeated the name thoughtfully. “You said you were a gardener?”

“Yes, Empress.”

“Hmm…” The Conqueror considered her options for another long moment, then turned towards the man. “Well, you’re a damn lucky man, Galon…” She stated, before tightening her grip on the weapon she was still holding and bringing it down in a flash.

With a loud clanging the ring impacted with the gardener’s chains, breaking the metal as if it had been a mere twig, freeing him from his bondage.

Galon blinked, then glanced over his shoulder to look at the warrior standing behind him, but Gabrielle had an equally, if not more, confused look on her face, her eyes focussed on the weapon the Conqueror was holding. He scrambled to his feet, then looked up at the Empress. “You are letting me go?”

“I’m not killing you…” Xena corrected simply. “You can be useful to me, and I hate to waste resources…” She crossed her arms, looking down on him. “I want two things from you… One: You are going to tell me the name of that merchant. And two: you are going to work in my gardens for the next moon, free of charge… Understood?”

The man nodded his head rapidly.

“Good.” She stated, then leaned closer, dropping her voice. “You are very, very lucky. You understand that too, don’t you?”

“Yes, Empress.”

“And you realise that if this happens again, I will not be so generous…”

“Yes, Empress.”

Xena patted his cheek condescendingly. “Smart boy.” She turned towards the guard she’d pushed aside earlier. “Get the shackles off his feet and bring him his belongings.” She instructed, getting a inclining of the head in response. “Then escort him home.” Another nod. “Good.” Xena reattached her circular weapon to her hip, then waved for the shamaness to join her. “Let’s go, Alti.” She glanced at Gabrielle. “I hope to see you at dinner.”

Gabrielle blinked, then nodded mutely.

Xena smirked, amused at the uncharacteristically insecure behaviour, then turned and headed towards the exit.

“What is it called?”

The Empress halted in her tracks, then turned, arching an eyebrow at the warrior.

“The ring…” Gabrielle motioned towards the Conqueror’s side. “What is it called?”

Xena looked down at the weapon, then back up at Gabrielle. “Your knowledge of weaponry is failing you, is it Gabrielle?” She chuckled good-naturedly. “It’s a chakram.” She then supplied. “Ares gave it to me.”

Gabrielle seemed to consider this for a moment, then nodded.

“Now, if that’s all… Until this evening…” Xena smiled at her, then turned around and paced off, following her shamaness out of the room.

“You just had to show that thing off, didn’t you?” Alti muttered grumpily under her breath. “I don’t like being mocked, Xena…”

“Hey, I could have cut off both the straps on your toga and left you standing in the middle of the throne room butt naked… I think I was being quite nice…”

Gabrielle pensively watched the Conqueror for another moment, then her attention shifted to the gardener, who’d been released from his chains now, and was walking towards her.

“You’re… You’re Gabrielle?” He asked, shyly, grey eyes peeking up at her from under his thick bangs.

The warrior managed a smile for him. “That would be me.”

Galon bent his head deeply. “I owe you my life…”

“You owe me nothing.” Gabrielle told him, waving the debt off. “I’ll uhm… I’ll see if I can figure out how to get those herbs for you, OK?”

The young face creased into a delighted smile. “You’d…? If you could supply them I’d give you everything I own in return… Anything you want…”

“I don’t want anything…” Gabrielle lifted both her hands before he could object. “Let me just see if I can find them first, OK?”

Galon nodded, then bent his head again, gratefully. “Thank you, Gabrielle.”

The warrior smiled wryly. “Don’t thank me yet…”

“Thank you…” Galon repeated nevertheless. “Thank you… for coming back…”

Gabrielle looked at the young man for another moment, then gently touched his shoulder. “Go home, Galon. Go see your wife.”

The young man looked up at her with a smile, then nodded, before turning around and hastily making his way out of the room.

Gabrielle waited until both he and the guard had exited the room, then she let out a grave breath, pushing both her hands against her face, before running her fingers through her hair. She stood in the room for another moment, then walked off, heading to the main hall and up the stairs. A few corridors, then she pushed open the door to her own room, stepping inside and closing it behind her again. She knelt down at her bed, and reached under it, pulling her saddlebags out from under its surface. She stuck her hand in the bag, digging past clothes and other small trinkets, until her fingers touched the metal item at the bottom. Carefully, she pulled it from its hiding place and held it up in one hand, regarding it quietly.

The sunlight that was filtering through her window shimmered off the decorated metal ring, highlighting the golden, jagged lines, the gems embedded in the metal sparkling as the light touched them. Gabrielle lifted a hand, carefully tracing the edge of the ring with a finger. “And I thought you were just a fancy wall decoration… Go figure…”

A Candlemark later Gabrielle entered the dining room. The large table was set for seven this time, and the room was not by far as abundantly decorated as it had been the first time she’d walked in here. The large Egyptian statue she’d spotted in a corner two nights ago had been removed, and the huge painting of the Nile circling its way through green riverbeds had been replaced by a set of worn down swords, blades crossed.

To her relief the shamaness was nowhere to be seen, the hall occupied only by Pyrron and his youngest daughter, who was sitting in his lap, babbling on busily, while waving her hands in the air to emphasize her point. It only took the attentive youngster a moment before she spotted the room’s new occupant and tugged on her father’s sleeve firmly, pointing a finger at the warrior. “Abby!”

Gabrielle couldn’t suppress a smirk as she walked closer, sitting down opposite from the two. “Evening.”

“Good evening.” Pyrron returned, politely inclining his head toward the warrior. “I didn’t expect you here…”

“The Conqueror insinuated I ought to make an appearance…” Gabrielle stated calmly, leaning back in her seat.

“I see.” The Advisor nodded in understanding, while he struggled to keep hold of his squirming toddler, who was trying to climb onto the table’s surface.

Gabrielle regarded the two in silence for a moment, then cleared her throat uncomfortably. “I uhm… I wanted to thank you…”

Pyrron glanced up in surprise, both grey eyebrows raised. “Pardon?”

“For the meal…” She made a vague hand gesture towards the double doors she’d just entered through. “My friends were uhm… ecstatic…” A half grin. “They won’t be able to walk for the next two weeks, but… they loved it, nevertheless…”

The older man chuckled softly. “No thanks needed… I just delivered on my part of the deal…”

“You did a little more than that…”

“So did you…” Pyrron retorted easily, giving the warrior a hesitant, but sincere smile.

Gabrielle looked at him, then produced a smile as well. “I guess we’re even then…”

“I guess so…” The Advisor agreed, then cursed under his breath as Niobe escaped his grasp and crawled across the table’s surface with amazing speed.

Gabrielle only just managed to grab onto the child before she toppled off her end of the table. Niobe plumped down in the warrior’s lap, then immediately homed in on what she’d come for, sticking a small hand in the pouch the blonde had tied to her waist. She grasped out some of the contents, then stuck it in her mouth hastily, sucking greedily on the candy.

Gabrielle cleared her throat, to catch the girl’s attention, then raised an eyebrow at her. In response Niobe produced a toothy smile, the yellow glaze from the honey drops staining her teeth conspicuously. The warrior eyed her for another instant, then smirked, shaking her head. “She’s well trained, isn’t she?”

“You betcha…” Xena’s voice drifted up from across the room, as the Empress strode in, Iona cheerfully skipping along behind her. Both were dressed in dirty, sand stained pants and grubby shirts, the odour of horse lingering thickly around them. “Just watch…” Xena continued, then whistled. Niobe immediately retrieved another bit of candy, pulled her hand back and then launched it towards the Conqueror, who neatly caught the treat between her teeth, wiggling her eyebrows, before letting the bit of candy fall into her mouth.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes at the display, while Niobe giggled, clapping her hands enthusiastically. “Sena good!”

“You’re not bad yourself, kiddo.” Xena replied easily as she walked closer.

Niobe hesitated for a moment, considering if her favourite playmate outweighed the candy. that was in her reach right here where she was, then came to the conclusion that, yes, she did, before wiggling herself free from Gabrielle’s hold and heading for the Empress. Xena scooped her up before she could fall off the warrior’s seat, lifting her up on her own shoulder as she headed towards her seat at the head of the table.

Pyrron, in the meantime, directed a question at Iona, who’d taken her seat on Gabrielle’s left, in between the warrior and the Empress. “I take it your lesson went…” He took a moment to let his eyes scan over her dirty clothes. “…as only could be expected?”

“It was great!” The young blonde stated enthusiastically, her blue eyes glinting excitedly. “I pushed Chilon into a full gallop, and Xena said he’s faster than any of the other horses she’s ever seen… Which says quite a lot since Xena’s been everywhere, of course, and…”

“Whoa, back up a minute…” Pyrron turned his attention to the Empress. “You let her ride that monster full speed?”

Xena shrugged negligently, focussing her attention on tickling the giggling Niobe.

“He’s not a monster!” Iona exclaimed indignantly, narrowing her eyes. “He’s sweat…”

“Right, and I’m Bacchus…” The Advisor muttered.

“Really?” The Empress replied drolly. “I always thought I saw a resemblance there…”

Pyrron rolled his eyes. “Oh, aren’t we being funny today.”

“Hey, it’s not my fault I was gifted with this brilliant sense of humour, now is it?” Xena retorted, flashing her Advisor a toothy grin. Pyrron just groaned in response, getting a chuckle out of the Empress. “Hey, by the way, where’s the brilliant scientist and his grey-haired sidekick?”

A grin tugged on the Advisor’s lips. “They’ll be here soon, hopefully… But you know how those two get… All wrapped up in their experiments…”

“I hope they’re not trying to get their heads to explode, or we could be here for a loooong time…” Gabrielle muttered under her breath.

Xena snickered in response

“Pardon?” Pyrron raised an eyebrow at her inquisitively.

“Inside joke, Ronnie…Don’t bother…” The Empress informed him with a grin, then turned her head as she heard footsteps approach. “Ah, I think our last dinner guests have finally arrived.” She caught the gaze of one of the servants, who’d been standing silently near the doorway, then motioned for him to go and get dinner.

“The shamaness isn’t coming then, is she?” The Advisor inquired, not quite able to hide his delight about this fact.

“Nope.” Xena shook her head. “She’s too busy moping in her room and cursing my ignorance in the ‘spiritual’ matters.”

Only moments after the servant left the teacher Linus and his younger shadow entered the room, caught up in conversation. Linus politely inclined his head towards the Conqueror as he circled her to take his seat on the left side of Pyrron, leaving the space next to the Empress available for Caspar, who immediately plumped down in the seat. Xena reached over and ruffled the boy’s thick bangs. “You’re late, mister.” She scolded him teasingly. “That’s no way of making a good first impression on Gabby, now is it?”

Caspar frowned at her, then his eyes trailed across the room for the first time, spotting the warrior, dressed in her simple, sleeveless, crimson red tunic, leaning back in her seat casually. The soft candlelight that was illuminating the room flicked over the bronzed skin of her upper arms, muscles clearly visible, shifting under the surface. He blinked, then swallowed, then blinked again.

“Caspar, meet Gabrielle. Gabrielle, Caspar.” Xena waved a lazy hand from one to the other and back.

“Hello.” The warrior said politely, managing a smile for him.

Wide brown eyes stared at her some more.

Gabrielle frowned, then arched an eyebrow at him. “You OK?”

The boy blinked, then blushed and diverted his gaze. “Uhm… Yeah….” He peeked up again hesitantly. “Hi…” He managed, before quickly resuming his study of the table’s wooden surface.

Xena glanced from the warrior to the boy in amusement. “Gabrielle’s here for… business reasons.” She informed Caspar, unable to completely smother the smirk tugging at her lips. “She’ll probably be here for a few weeks or so…”

“‘kay…” The boy managed, not taking his eyes away from the grains in the wood.

At that moment the servants started filing into the room and Caspar looked up at them, pathetically grateful for the diversion. Gabrielle glanced up at the entering people as well, then had to force herself to keep her face unmoving as she spotted Solari among the servants.

She turned her attention back to the table and focussed on the last occupant, whose name she didn’t know yet.

“Linus.” The bold, bearded man introduced himself politely as he met the warrior’s gaze, extending his hand towards her.

Gabrielle took the offered hand and shook it. “Gabrielle.”

“Pleasure meeting you.” The teacher said politely as he settled back in his seat, while a steaming plate circled around his right side and was placed in front of him.

Xena sniffed her own plate appreciatively. “Smells great.” She commented to Solari, who’d placed it in front of her.

“Of course it does. I made it, didn’t I?” The Amazon muttered in response as she stepped back and turned away from the Empress.

Xena chuckled in amusement, poking at a bit of meat and popping it into her mouth, humming in delight as the spices pleasantly stung her tongue. “You know you can only get away with that because you’re such a good cook, don’t you?”

Solari waved a hand over her shoulder negligently. “Sure.”

A short laugh, then the Conqueror called the cook to a halt. “Hey, get back here for a moment.” Xena turned her attention to the warrior. “I want to introduce you to the chef here.” She poked a thumb at the cook. “This woman makes THE best Caesar salad…”

Solari turned back towards the table. “It’s all a matter of the right ingredients.”

Gabrielle lifted her head, studying the cook for a short moment, before returning her gaze to her plate. “We’ve already met.”

Xena raised an eyebrow at her. “Oh really?”

Behind the Conqueror, both Solari’s eyebrows raised as well.

The warrior nodded. “In the kitchen, this morning. We had a disagreement about the way she was dealing with her staff.”

“You’d think that after three years people had let me just deal with the morons that surround me in my own, very effective way, but noooooooo….” The cook joined in, crossing her arms. “Newby here had complaints about my kitchen manners.”

Xena glanced at the warrior, then up at the cook with a grin. “Don’t take it personally, Solari. Gabrielle just has this tendency to stand up for… anything she can stand up for…”

“She should learn to sit down, then.” Solari muttered gruffly, then turned and strode out of the room without looking back.

The Empress smirked, scooping up a bit of rice with her spoon. “Well, she most certainly doesn’t like you, does she?”

“Can’t be friends with everybody.” Gabrielle responded, poking her fork at a carrot.

While the rest of the room’s occupants made conversation around her, Gabrielle took a moment to quietly survey the room. She liked it better this way, she decided, as her eyes tracked passed a large Roman shield, then fell upon a painting of the seawaters, the sun tainting the water different shades of yellow and red, a small boat outlined against the horizon. The room was still too huge and imposing to feel completely comfortable in, but it wasn’t as cold as it had been before. It had a slightly more personal touch now, a touch that fit the Conqueror perfectly in that it was completely incoherent and she couldn’t get a grasp on what it was the woman liked exactly. Weapons mixed with quiet landscapes, armour and painted pottery…

She felt she was being stared at and turned her head to see the young Caspar gazing at her, hastily dropping his eyes as he realised he’d been noticed, blushing a deep red. Gabrielle frowned at the boy, then shrugged it off, taking another bite from her dinner.

“So, Caspar… I was wondering…” Xena started, wiping her hands on a napkin as she finished her dinner. “Since I’ll be very busy tomorrow with the regents of the Greek provinces, I don’t think I’ll have time to entertain my guest here…”

“How horribly disappointing…” Gabrielle drawled sarcastically, only loud enough for Xena to hear.

“Soooooo…” The Empress continued on, ignoring her whispering. “I figured maybe you could chaperone her for me tomorrow… You know, make sure she doesn’t get into any trouble…”

A blonde eyebrow raised sharply. “Excuse me?”

Humoured blue eyes met hers. “You don’t deny you’ve infuriated both my valued shamaness and my highly respected Egyptian regent several times over these past few days, do you?”

“That’s not exactly a difficult thing to accomplish, Empress.” Pyrron spoke up in the warrior’s defence, taking a sip of his wine. “And I speak from experience…”

Xena shot him a look. “Hey, whose side are you on?”

“The most beneficial side, Empress.”

The Conqueror raised an eyebrow at him. “Oh really? And since when is picking the side of a former rebel more beneficial than the one of the ruler of the known world?”

“Since the rebel can kick the ruler’s butt.” Iona helpfully supplied, which even got a smirk out of the stoic warrior sitting beside her.

“Ouch…” Xena placed a hand over her heart in shock. “Et tu, Iona… Et tu…”

The girl just grinned back at her wickedly.

“Too bad… See, I was going to suggest that you could maybe accompany Gabrielle on a horse ride through the palace grounds after you finished your homework, but…” Xena shook her head in disappointment.

Iona blinked, her eyes wide. “Really?”

Xena placed a hand over her heart. “Would I lie to you?”

“Yes.” The girl replied simply, as she crawled off her seat. “Can I take Chilon? Can I?”

“Who said anything about you going?” The Empress retorted, crossing her arms. “Maybe I changed my mind…”

“Aaaaaaaaaawwwwwwww…” Iona produced the ever victorious pout. “You know I was just kidding before…”

“Oh, were you now?”

“Of course…” The young blonde stated convincingly. “You know you’re my most favourites person in the whole world…”

“Oh ho…” Xena chortled, tweaking the girl’s nose playfully. “Well, since you put it that way…”

“Yes!” Iona whispered under her breath, very content with her new victory. “So? Can I take Chilon?”

Xena considered this seriously for a moment. “All right.” She finally allowed. “As long as Gabrielle agrees, as you’re gonna be slowing her down…”

The twelve year old looked at her indignantly.

“…since you won’t be going any faster than an easy trot and you’re not gonna go further than two miles from the stables…” Xena finished, then immediately shushed the objections the blonde was about to splutter at her. “No arguments.”

Iona scowled, but then excepted defeat, grumpily turning around and directing a pleading look at the warrior on her other side.

Gabrielle smiled at her. “Fine by me.”

“Yay!” Iona bounced over and hugged the slightly stunned warrior, leaning a bit closer to whisper in her ear. “You’re actually my favourites person, but don’t tell her, OK?”

The warrior started laughing and amicably patted the girl’s back. “My lips are sealed.”

Iona giggled, then bounced off again, heading for the door. “Gonna go tell Chilon.” She called over her shoulder as an afterthought, before disappearing from the room.

“You are not gonna do any such thing, young lady!” Pyrron immediately stood up from his seat, lifting up his youngest daughter as he set in pursuit. “You are going to get a bath and change into something less smelly.”

No response.

“Iona!!” The Advisor’s voice echoed through the hallway, followed by some muted muttering as he moved out of hearing range.

“I should get back to my work.” Linus stated as he stood as well. “I have some things I need to prepare for the classes tomorrow.”

Caspar hastily scrambled to his feet as his teacher did, quickly following him out the door, not being able to resist peeking over his shoulder at the two women one last time, before dropping his eyes again and running off.

Gabrielle frowned, shaking her head as she rose from her seat, not intent on spending some quality time with the Conqueror. “Odd boy…”

“Usually he’s quite normal, actually…” Xena chuckled, leaning back in her seat comfortably. “But I’m afraid your charming presence knocked him off a little.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes at the Empress.

“You should be flattered, Gabrielle…” Xena went on with a smirk. “Caspar isn’t prone to crushes, you know?”

The warrior glanced up at her. “Excuse me?”

“Oh puhlease…” The Empress drawled, utterly enjoying herself. “Don’t tell me a peace bringer like yourself doesn’t even recognises love when its looking right at her?”

“You’re deluded.” Gabrielle muttered, as she caught on to what the Conqueror was saying. “The kid just met me…”

“Deluded maybe… But I’m definitely not blind…” Xena smirked. “Besides, I know my Caspar… He doesn’t fall often, but when he does…” She made a whistling sound, while trailing a path downward in the air.

Gabrielle crossed her arms, looking down upon the Conqueror. “He does NOT have a crush on me…”

Xena snickered, waving a hand at her negligently. “If that’s what you want to believe…”

Gabrielle shot her another look, then huffed out an annoyed breath, spinning around and heading for the doors.

Xena studied her as she paced off, letting her blue eyes track down and then back up the warrior’s well built form. “Well… At least the boy’s got good taste…” She murmured with a grin.

The warrior halted, green eyes shifting back to her with lethal intent for a mere moment, before she faced forward again, striding out of the room.

“Oh yeah…” The Empress chuckled to herself, popping her feet onto the table and placing her hands behind her head. “Excellent taste.”

Gabrielle sat on her bed, crossed-legged, her wrists resting on her knees, the fingertips of each hand barely touching one another. Her eyes were closed and she was murmuring words to herself, repeating them over and over again. “Stop willing, stop desiring, stop hating, stop willing…”

Another moment, then she let herself fall back onto the bed with a disgusted sigh, pressing her hands to her eyes. How could she stop willing to get her friends out of this place, stop hating the Conqueror, stop desiring…

She hadn’t been able to meditate properly since Lao Ma’s death. She’d been so full of hate for Ming Tien, so focussed then to end his life the way he’d ended Lao Ma’s… When she’d stuck his own dagger in his heart… Gods, it had felt so good… Satisfying… It hadn’t mattered that blood was on her hands for the first time, it hadn’t mattered then at all… It’d been like living in a haze for a moment… She couldn’t even remember escaping from his room and hiding away in a nearby forest.

She’d thought it’d stop after she’d completed her mission. Thought she’d stop feeling so hurt, so angry… But from there on, it’d just gotten worse… Every sad event she witnessed on her travels back, every sad face, every death… And then the news of what had happened to her friends…

She hated her. Gods, she hated the Conqueror so much… Hate, hate, hate… She mantra-ed the word to herself, casting out those few moment where she’d felt…

Felt what? Pity? Compassion?

Understanding?

The warrior shook her head, pushing herself to her feet briskly and taking a few paces to the small cabinet on the other side of the room. They were nothing alike. She angrily smacked her balled fist onto the wooden surface. Nothing alike.

Metal clanged as the ring lying on top of the cabinet shook from the vibrations of her hand slamming into the wood. Gabrielle’s eyes drifted to the weapon, and she stared at it for a long moment, before reaching out and lifting it up, as she’d done countless times already today.

How had it ended up in her bag? This ring, this chakram… It’d been days before she’d spotted it… All during her quest for vengeance she hadn’t touched her bag. Not needing to change, or eat or look at anything that reminded her of her mentor. The scent of Lao Ma still clung to the leather, so she avoided being near it as much as she could…

When she neared the border of Chin, however, she realised she had to stop tormenting her body if she wanted to stay alive… So she’d pulled the saddlebags closer and had stuck her hand inside for some clean clothes to change into… But her fingers had touched upon metal, unfamiliar metal, and she’d peeked inside…

And there it was. The ring with the strange golden design on top, the razor-sharp edges… half rolled up in her shirts as if it’d been there forever, belonged there…

Had Lao Ma put it there? And, if she had, then why? Why hadn’t she just handed it to her as a gift? Did she think maybe Gabrielle knew about the fact the Conqueror carried a similar weapon and wouldn’t except it? What was the point of giving her the weapon at all, when the warrior hadn’t even known until this day what it was this ring was capable of? Was this some strange joke from her teacher, to remind her again of the similarities Lao Ma had always hinted at? Why would Lao Ma, who’d always told her fighting was not the way, hand her something that could kill many with a single toss?

Gabrielle sighed, then walked to her bed and knelt down, hiding the weapon in her bag, where it had been before. Too many questions and no answers… She hated that… The warrior stripped out of her tunic and pulled a sleep shirt over her head, then pushed aside the covers and crawled into bed. She wasn’t tired, really, but she needed to go to sleep, if she wanted to be ready for her fight with the Conqueror in the morning. Though she was still more than capable of besting the other woman, the Empress had managed to avoid two of the moves Gabrielle had hit her with in their first fight. The Conqueror was a fast learner, and she needed to be prepared if she wanted to last. One wrong move and this could be all over with. One wrong move and Thalia would be stuck in that cell for the rest of her life, or, even worse, be killed. Solari would be cooking for her greatest enemy until she died. Ephiny would remain captured and would never have a chance to go back to her people…

So much was depending on her. Gabrielle closed her eyes, trying to force the worries from her mind. Sleep. She needed to sleep. She’d deal with whatever it was she had to deal with. Tomorrow.

——————-

The weapon split through the air, coming towards her with amazing speed and she was only just able to duck under the blow. The Conqueror had picked nun-chukkas for this fight, two wooden sticks with a thick bit of chain attaching them together. Gabrielle had worked with these weapons before. She’d fought off a man who’d whirled the weapon at her on her travels back to Greece and she’d spend some time figuring out how to use the weapon herself after she’d killed him. She was hardly an expert at it, though, and the Conqueror proved to have quite an aptitude for this weapon, as she swung it around her body comfortably, then made a swing for the warrior’s legs.

Gabrielle jumped up just in time, back flipping away from her opponent to give her some breathing space. Xena laughed wickedly, obviously thoroughly enjoying herself as she cart wheeled closer, then took a swing at Gabrielle’s side. The warrior blocked it with the chain, then tried an attack of her own, dropping to a knee and aiming for the Conqueror’s knees. Just at the last minute though, her weapon was swept aside by Xena’s and she had to roll away in a hurry to avoid to other side of the Empress’s nunchukas impacting with her skull.

She hopped back to her feet, then ducked to avoid another attack.

Xena chuckled, as she sidestepped a kick from the warrior. “Getter tougher, isn’t it Gabby?”

“Don’t sound so smug.” Gabrielle growled under her breath, swinging one end of her weapon over her shoulder to gain some speed, then catching the end with her other hand and sending it hurling towards the Conqueror’s upper right arm in an attempt to dislodge the weapon from her grip.

She failed miserably however, since Xena saw through the move easily and deftly caught the wood in her hand, stopping it dead. The woman quirked a wicked grin at her opponent, then pulled hard. Gabrielle stumbled forward a few paces and before she could defend herself Xena spun around and had slammed her elbow into the warrior’s unprotected neck.

The force of the blow send her tumbling to the ground, smacking onto the sand of the arena head first. She scrambled back to her knees, still holding onto her weapon with one hand, wiping at her nose with the back of her other, colouring the skin bright red.

A low chuckle made her look up to see Xena approaching, towering over her. “Disappointing…” She tsked with a smirk. “I expected a little more from you…” She informed the blonde, then kicked out towards the warrior’s head.

Gabrielle reacted on pure instinct, lashing out with her weapon. The chain wrapped itself around Xena’s ankle, stopping the Conqueror’s attack. Gabrielle grabbed onto the second wooden stick and pulled, then jerked both hands back, making the dark-haired woman lose her footing and fall onto the ground herself.

Before Xena could get back to her feet Gabrielle had one foot pressing down on the hand that was holding her opponent’s weapon, the chain of her own pressing against the Conqueror’s neck. “Better?” She growled, the green eyes flashing dangerously.

“You swept me right off my feet.” Xena drawled dryly, flashing the warrior a grin. “I humbly submit, so you can get off me now… Not that this situation is entirely unpleasant for me, mind you, but we have to worry about your reputation and all…” She added in a conspiring whisper. A remark which made breathing become a bit harder for just a moment as the metal of the chain embedded itself a bit deeper into her neck. But then the pressure lessened and Gabrielle backed away, flinging her weapon away in disgust as she stood, before walking off without looking back.

Xena snickered as she pushed herself to her feet, then winced as she put pressure on her ankle, which had been twisted as she was pulled down. “Ugh, gonna have to bandage that up…” She muttered to herself.

“Empress?” Pompey asked questioningly, stopping by her side.

Xena looked up at him, not a sign on her face of her own discomfort. “Nothing.” She informed the officer, smirking at him confidently. “Liked the show, Pompey?”

“It would have been better if you’d won, Empress.” The Roman told her bluntly.

“I’m getting there…” The Conqueror replied easily, brushing some sand off her leathers. “Nearly got her today…”

“But you didn’t…”

“I can always count on you to point out the negatives, can’t I Pompey?” Xena gave him a look. “Just be patient.”

Pompey sighed frustrated, his eyes following Gabrielle as she strode out through the gates of the Arena. “I’m not a patient man by nature, Empress.”

————————-

“Obnoxious daughter of a…” Gabrielle angrily tightened the girth on Argo’s saddle, which got her an annoyed snort from the mare. “Sorry.” She mumbled in apology, loosening the girth a little again. “She just… just…” The warrior’s hands clenched in frustration. “She just gets on my nerves and makes me wanna… Urg…” She tossed the reigns over Argo’s neck. “You know what I mean?”

Argo snorted in complete understanding.

“I just don’t get her, you know? That’s the most frustrating thing… I don’t get her…” The warrior reordered Argo’s manes. “Then again, I don’t really need to get her, right? I just need to kick her butt a few more times before we go and get out of here…”

The mare nodded amicably.

“But that’s getting harder every day and… And I want to get her…” Gabrielle tossed up her hands in frustration, then ducked under Argo’s neck to continue saddling her up. “I want to understand her. I don’t know why, but I just do… Does that make any sense?”

The mare eyed her for a moment, then snorted with a shake of her head.

Gabrielle smirked wryly. “Thanks for the support, buddy.”

Argo gently pushed her nose against the warrior’s stomach. Gabrielle smiled, rubbing the mare’s head. “Yeah, I know… I love you too…”

A soft thud echoed through the stables. Gabrielle frowned, then circled her horse and peeked outside. Caspar was lying flat on his back in the corridor, out cold. Beside him was Iona, looking down at her brother with a frown, before looking up at the warrior with a twinkle in her eyes. “Cool!” She chortled. “And you didn’t even touch him!” She bounded closer happily. “Teach me to do that?”

“I don’t know why we have to take him with us anyway.” Iona sulked, crossing her arms as she watched Gabrielle gently pat Caspar’s cheek in an attempt to wake him up. “He doesn’t even like riding. He’ll just slow us down…”

The warrior peeked back over her shoulder. “We won’t be going that fast anyway, remember?”

Iona scowled is dismay. “I was hoping you’d forgotten…”

Gabrielle chuckled, turning her attention back to the unconscious Caspar. “I don’t forget…”

“Humph…” The girl made a face. “Can’t you just forget for a second or something?”

“No.”

“Awwwwww…”

“No.” The warrior stretched the word, keeping her eyes away from the pouting face she knew was staring back at her. “That horse of yours is really strong. If he decides to take off, you’ll end up in Chin somewhere before you manage to pull him to a stop.”

“I don’t mind going to Chin.” Iona immediately responded to that.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Yeah, well I do.” She muttered.

The young blonde did a handstand, bored at the lack of excitement as they waited for her brother to wake up. “Xena’s been in Chin.”

The warrior released a tired breath. “I know…”

“She said it was really pretty there…” Iona babbled on, walking down the corridor on her hands. “Said she would’ve liked to stay there.”

“Really…” Gabrielle responded uninterestedly, opening one of Caspar’s eyelids and peering at an unseeing orb. “Why didn’t she then?”

“She screwed up.” The blonde said matter-of-factly, biting her lip as her face turned slightly red. “She hurt someone she loved.”

Gabrielle frowned, then turned around. “She told you that?”

“Not in so many words, but yeah…” Iona hopped back onto her feet, ruffling her long hair out of her face. “She usually doesn’t talk about her past, but…” A shrug. “She was drunk. She gets a lot more talkative when she’s drunk…”

Gabrielle grinned wryly. “I’ll remember that…”

“Red wine works best.” The twelve-year old confided. “You’ll need about three bottles…”

The warrior shot her another look, then laughed with a shake of her head. “You are something else, you know that?”

“Yes. Xena tells me I am all the time.” Iona stated happily, then trotted over to one of the boxes and ducked inside. “You’re never going to get my brother awake by patting him a little. You need more drastic measures…”

Gabrielle raised an eyebrow, then turned back to the young boy in front of her. “Like what?”

“Like this.” Was the cheerful response, before a loud splash echoed through the stables. Caspar jumped to his feet, water dripping off him. A moment, then he started coughing frantically.

“See, works like a charm.” The girl stated, waving her hand at her shivering brother. “Can we go now?”

————-

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Gabrielle asked in concern, looking to her left and watching Caspar uncomfortably twitching in his saddle.

The boy peeked up at her, then nodded quickly.

“You’re not cold?”

He hesitated for a moment, then mumbled in a tiny voice: “A little…”

“We could go for a bit of a gallop.” Iona smoothly intervened. “That’d warm him straight up.”

Gabrielle shot the girl a look, then guided Argo a bit further to their right, so they were walking in the sunshine. “How’s that?”

Caspar peeked up at her shyly. “Warmer.”

The warrior shot him a reassuring smile, then leaned closer and patted his knee. “If you’re still cold in a little while tell me and we’ll turn around, OK?”

For a moment there it looked like the boy would pass out again, but finally he just swallowed and nodded, dropping his head and staring down at his hands, fidgeting with his reigns.

Iona sighed dramatically. “See? I told you he’d slow us down.”

“You were the one who tossed a bucket of water over the poor boy, lady.” Gabrielle defended Caspar.

“Hey, it woke him up, didn’t it?”

Gabrielle shot her another look.

Iona rolled her eyes. “Oh all right… OK, so maybe that wasn’t the smartest thing I ever did… Can’t be brilliant all the time, you know?”

The warrior snorted, unable to suppress a smirk.

They rode on in silence for a moment. Gabrielle leaned back in the saddle, closing her eyes and breathing in the scent of the fresh leafs and the sweet flowers. The delicate smells and familiar movement of Argo calmed her nerves a little. She went over the fight of this morning in her mind, recalling the errors she’d made to make sure she improved on those the next time. She’d need to go and drill later today, she told herself. All the worry and the good food and accommodations hadn’t been doing her fighting skills any good. Maybe that was part of the Conqueror’s plan, maybe she’d given her all this luxury on purpose to slow her down…

Whatever the reasons, she wasn’t going to cave in this easily. After finishing this morning ride with Argo she still had the whole afternoon to train, find out about those herbs for Galon, make a quick visit to her imprisoned friends, go over Solari’s notes again, hold Iona to her promise to show her some secret passageways in and out of the castle and give the girl some more lessons in return… Gabrielle released a tired breath. Piece of cake, right?

Meanwhile, Iona was steering Chilon down her own little zigzag path, guiding the horse with one hand while the other lay on her knee. On the other side of the warrior, Caspar was tightly holding onto his reigns. His clothes were starting to dry a little, fortunately, but he was still feeling pretty uncomfortable. Though, that didn’t really have to do much with his outfit at all, did it? He peeked up at the woman riding beside him, then expelled a tiny breath, looking ahead of him once more. He immediately jerked back on the reigns, pulling his dark brown mare to a halt.

Gabrielle detected the sudden stop and turned Argo around, frowning at the boy, who had now hopped off his horse and was tugging the bewildered animal towards the side of the road. She shot a look over her shoulder at Iona, but the girl just shrugged back at her. The warrior turned back to the boy. “Caspar? Are you alright?”

“Yeah…” The boy hastily responded as he knelt beside a plant, then started pulling some leafs off. “Excellent.”

Iona covered her eyes with a hand. “Great, herbboy’s at it again… I sense a lecture coming…”

“Look!” Caspar held up a leaf up in the air triumphantly, forgetting his shyness in his enthusiasm. “Tan acetum parthenium!”

Gabrielle blinked at him. “Uhm… Wow?” She then murmured, not quite sure what else to say.

“Linus and I searched for this, but we couldn’t find any… And now it’s growing right here!” The boy stuffed a good amount of the herb in a pocket, then pulled himself back in the saddle.

“Really?” The warrior muttered. “So… What does it do?”

Beside her, Iona groaned unhappily.

Caspar’s face creased into a huge smile, however, in the realisation he could show of some of his knowledge to the woman. “It’s better known as feverfew, which is derived from Latin and means ‘chase away fevers’.” He informed her with an air of importance. “That’s what it does, bring down fevers… And it helps with migraines. The tea you can make with it tastes nice…”

His sister snorted. “Says the guy who likes cauliflower…”

Caspar shot her an angry look. “And what’s wrong with that?”

“It’s gross!”

“Is not!”

“Is too!”

“Is not!”

“Hold it!” Gabrielle backed Argo in between the two, giving them both a look. “If you are gonna act like this we’re gonna turn right around, understood?”

Iona sulked, but did back away after shooting a last foul look at her brother, before pushing Chilon forward again. Caspar narrowed her eyes at her back, then led his mare forward as well. Gabrielle rolled her eyes at the two, before guiding Argo into a short trot to catch up. “So…” She pulled up in between the two. “You know a lot about herbs, do you?”

Caspar blinked up at her, then managed a shy smile. “Just a little…”

“You wouldn’t happen to know about herbs that help pregnant women prevent having a miscarriage, do you?”

The boy’s eyes went wide, then darted down to her flat stomach and back up again.

“No, no, no…” Gabrielle hastily shook her head. “Not for me. Someone else…”

“Oh…” Caspar took a relieved breath. “Uhm… I… I don’t know…” He peeked up at her apologetically. “But I really don’t know that much…”

“Got that right…” Iona muttered from the other side.

“…about herbs.” Her brother added, darting her another foul look, before returning his attention to the attentively listening warrior.

“Hmm.” Gabrielle murmured in thought. “Your teacher, would he know?”

Caspar shrugged. “Maybe… but if you really want to know for sure, you should ask Xena.”

The warrior shot him a bored look. “She knows all the herbs by heart huh?”

“Normal and Latin names.” Caspar confirmed with a firm nod.

“Figures…” Gabrielle muttered. “Is there anything that woman can’t do?”

“No.” Both her companions replied in unison.

The warrior rubbed her temple tiredly. “Oh, great, I’m stuck with the Conqueror fan club…”

“Xena fan club.” Iona cheerfully corrected, pulling Chilon back as he sped into a trot for a few paces.

“Xena’s nice.” Her brother agreed, one of the few things they did agree on apparently. “She knows everything…”

“Can do anything too…” The young blonde added.

“Yeah.” The boy nodded eagerly. “She’s the best.”

Gabrielle looked from one to the other, then rolled her eyes. “Right…”

Iona giggled. “You like her too.”

The warrior shot her an indignant look. “I do not…”

“Sure you do…” Another giggle. “You just don’t know it yet…”

Gabrielle looked at her for another moment, and was just about to reply when she spotted a river gently flowing across their path up ahead. “You know this route, Iona?”

The girl looked at her, then at the river, understanding what she was getting at. “The river isn’t deep. Knee height for the horses, this time of year…”

“All right.” Gabrielle nodded, taking the lead and guiding Argo down the embankment and into the water. The mare snorted in dismay as her legs sunk into the ice-cold water, but she obediently kept moving forward, deeper into the water. “Good girl.” Gabrielle praised the horse, patting her neck affectionately. “Looks safe enough, just follow along, guys…”

Iona hadn’t actually waited for the invite and was right behind her, the water splashing up as Chilon plumped his large hooves under time after time again, seemingly having no trouble with the water at all.

Caspar took a breath. He was not too fond of water, but he wasn’t about to tell the others and look all weak, now was he? He squared his shoulders, then pushed his mare forward as well. The horse didn’t seem too anxious about soaking herself either, though, and she took a few paces back, flaring her nostrils. “C’mon!” The boy urged, pushing the horse forward, finally resorting to smacking his hand on her back harshly. The mare jumped, then leaped forward, straight into the water. The water splashed up high around her and she panicked, darting off, Caspar holding onto the saddle for dear life as the horse raced through the water and up the other embankment.

The dark brown mare sped past Chilon and Argo, before Gabrielle had even realised what had happened. “Damn it!” She cursed, tossing a look over her. “Iona, stay back!” She ordered, before immediately urging Argo forward into pursuit.

Iona snorted, giving Chilon free reign, the horse’s competitive nature flaring up instantly as he went into a full gallop. “As if.”

Gabrielle leaned forward in her saddle, watching her target come closer and closer with every stride of her mare’s hooves. She could see Caspar was clinging onto the horse, his legs tightly pressing into her sides, which wasn’t helping the matter much. “Lean back!” She yelled to the boy. But Caspar was too scared to listen, only focussing on not bouncing off the horse.

The warrior sorted through her options, then spotted the road widening up ahead. Seeing her opportunity she guided Argo slightly to her right. The mare obviously realised what she was about to do and increased her speed on her own, until she was finally side by side with the brown mare.

Gabrielle pulled her feet from the stirrups, then pushed herself up so she was crouching down on Argo’s saddle. She judged the distance, then jumped, intercepting Caspar at the waist and pulling him with her, off his frantic horse and towards the hard earth.

She twisted in mid air, shielding the boy as much as she could. She winced as her back painfully impacted with the ground, her skin scratching over the branches and small rocks, but she just bit down and kept her hold on Caspar until they finally slid to a stop.

Her eyes closed for a moment, as she sucked in a deep breath in relief. She could feel Casper’s heart pounding in his chest and she carefully turned the boy towards her, looking into his wide, frightened eyes. “Are you OK?”

He swallowed, blinked, then swallowed again, unable to speak.

Gabrielle patted his cheek, managing a reassuring smile for him. “Relax. You’re gonna be fine.”

“Woohoo!!” Iona’s voice shot up enthusiastically, as Chilon slid to a halt beside the two. “What a ride! Can we do that again??”

“The last of the regents will arrive a little after noon. When they’re all inside I want this place secured.” Xena instructed to Pompey, who was pacing beside her as they crossed the palace grounds. “Pick three of the veterans and let them try to sneak in. I wanna be sure my boys aren’t slacking…”

“Yes, Empress.” The officer nodded in understanding.

“If any of those three manage to bypass security, heads are going to roll… Make sure they know that…”

“Yes, Empress. I can assure you though they’re up to the task.”

“Just giving them a little extra incentive.” Xena smirked at him. “Can’t hurt, can it?” She looked up as she heard another set of footsteps approach. “Ah, Alti… Just the person I was looking for…”

A dark eyebrow arched. “Now there’s a first…”

The Empress chuckled. “Just wanted to come up and invite you to the meeting this afternoon.”

A second eyebrow raised. “Why?”

“I want to wallow in your delightful presence.” Xena drawled, getting a tired look from the shamaness. She snickered. “And I found out some… interesting facts about my regent in the Peloponnesus. Appears the man had been putting some of my money in his pockets. I figured you might like to meet him…”

A dark grin formed on the shamaness’s face.

“That’s what I thought…” Xena’s eyes twinkled. “The meeting will start at two candle marks past noon. Make sure you…”

Her sentence stopped suddenly as sounds drifted up from her right. Horses. Her brows frowned. Two horses.

Pompey stepped up beside her. “Trouble, Empress?”

“I’m not sure…” Xena murmured. Another moment, then two horses came trotting out of the forest. One was Chilon and the other was Argo. The latter was supporting not one but two people, Gabrielle holding on to a very exhausted looking Caspar, who was sitting in front of the saddle.

She ran towards the horses as they pulled back and stopped, a ruffled, sweaty, sand blown Iona immediately sliding of her stallion’s back. Xena knelt next to her, touching her cheek and inspecting the girl’s face, but she didn’t seem to be hurt. Actually a huge grin was plastered on her face. “What happened?”

“It was amazing!” Iona chortled happily. “Deirdre freaked and Gabrielle went in pursuit…” The girl waved her hands around busily. “…and she stood up and jumped straight off Argo’s back…”

Xena blinked, then straightened to look up at the still seated Gabrielle.

“Take him.” The warrior just instructed, lifting up Caspar and handing him down to her.

The Empress blinked again, then did as ordered, taking the boy and gently putting him on the ground. Caspar blinked up at her with wide eyes, still clearly not over the shock. Xena reached out, wiping some blood away that was seeping down from a small cut on his cheek.

“He got scratched by a branch,” Gabrielle stated, as she herself slid to the ground. As Xena looked up she could just catch a glimpse of the warrior’s back, her tunic ripped and bloodstained. “but I don’t think he’s badly hurt. Just a little shocked.”

Xena frowned at her, then looked back down at Caspar, who had attached himself to her side. She placed a hand on top of his head and he looked up at her, sniffling a little.

“He should have just sat back…” Iona commented behind her. “But he was too scared to…”

“Iona.”

The girl immediately fell silent as she heard the growl in Xena’s voice.

“Go inside. Get Pyrron.”

The young blonde blinked, then hastily tied Chilon’s reigns to a nearby branch before running off.

“Pompey.”

The officer walked closer, pulling a dagger from his belt. “She will pay for this, Empress.” He stated, his evilly twinkling eyes on Gabrielle. “For hurting the boy, I’ll…”

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed, and she balled her hands to fist, eying him wearily.

“Give me your cloak.”

Pompey halted in his tracks, blinking at her. “Excuse me?”

“Your cloak.” The Empress repeated. “Now.”

“I…” The officer looked from his leader to the warrior and back, then re-sheathed the dagger and pulled off the bright blue cloak that was attached to his armour, before handing it to the Conqueror.

Xena took it, then placed it over Gabrielle’s shoulders, covering the warrior’s injured back from sight. Wide green eyes looked back at her, and the Empress realised that if she’d made that movement a bit faster she’d be lying flat on her back right now.

“Take the horses back to the stables and have them looked after.” She then instructed her officer. “Then send some people out to look for Deirdre. She’s a dark brown mare, she’ll be tough to spot. I want her back before nightfall.” She scooped Caspar up, before turning to the warrior still standing beside her. “Go change. I’ll send Esmee up with some clean clothes.” She stated, before pacing off.

Gabrielle frowned after her for another moment, then leaned over and whispered something into Argo’s ear, after which the horse snorted and took of into the direction of the stables. She then took off towards the palace herself.

Pompey looked after the receding form, grinding his teeth as he watched the wind toy with his cloak.

“She’s injured.”

The roman turned to the shamaness, who’d moved closer to him. “What?”

“The warrior. She’s injured.” Alti repeated, keeping her voice low. “I could sense it radiating off of her.”

Pompey crossed his arms, darting another look at the blonde. “Well, good for her…”

“No… Good for you…” The shamaness corrected him, her dark eyes peering into his intensely for a long moment, before she too turned around and made her way to the palace.

Pompey cocked his head, considering her words for a moment. Then a vicious grin slowly lit up his face…

Gabrielle sat down on her bed, pulling the cloak from her back, rumpling it up and tossing it into a corner. Not that it wasn’t satisfying, seeing the face of the man who’d arrested her as she’d walked off with his cloak, but she wasn’t going to wear the smelly thing any longer than she had to. She winced, though, as the rough movement caused her back to ache painfully. She pushed herself up and trudged into the bathroom, turning and looking over her shoulder at her reflection in the mirror.

Well… She’d had worse… Gabrielle smiled wryly as she turned back, pulling the cork from the tap and letting some water flow into a small basin, sticking her hands under the flowing stream of liquid to wash the grime off them.

A soft knock sounded and Gabrielle called out a permission to enter, after which she heard gentle footsteps patter across the carpeted floor of her bedroom, before Esmee’s head poked around the doorway leading into the bathroom.

“Hi.” The warrior smiled at her, as she re-plugged the tap.

“Oh goodness…” The young girl gasped, blinking at the woman’s back in shock. “You’re bleeding!”

“Among other things, yes…” Gabrielle smirked at her, seeing the girl’s eyes widen even further. “Relax. It’s not so bad.”

“It is bad.” Esmee corrected with a frown as she padded over to the bath, pulling the plug from the tap and letting the tub fill itself with warm water. “I’ll need to clean that and it’s gonna hurt…”

The warrior frowned at her, then hastily shook her head. “Esmee, you don’t have to patch me up…”

“You’re going to clean your own back then, are you?” The girl shot her a look as she busied herself sorting through a few small bottles placed on a shelf above the sink, selecting one then pouring a small amount of the oil it contained into the water. The smell of lavender drifted up in puffs of steam.

Gabrielle scowled. “I’ve done it before.”

Esmee released a frustrated breath, placing her hands on her hips. “Look, you want me to get into trouble with the Empress?” She watched the warrior shake her head. “Then get into that tub.” She ordered, walking out of the room and digging into the bag she’d carried with her.

The warrior snorted, then considered the request for another moment, before giving in reluctantly, carefully stripping out of her tunic and then stepping into the tub, submersing herself in the water. Her back stung painfully, but she just gritted her teeth and waited for the first wave of hurt to end.

“Good girl.” Esmee complimented her as she trotted back into the bathroom, getting a chuckle out of the warrior. She placed a sponge on the bathtub’s edge, then pulled up a chair and climbed on top of it. Taking the sponge she then proceeded to carefully clean out the warrior’s wounds. “Sorry.” She apologised as she felt the warrior wince as she had trouble wiping the sand out of the deepest cut, running diagonally across Gabrielle’s shoulder blade. “Do I want to know what it is you did?”

The warrior smiled wryly. “Jumped off a horse.”

Esmee frowned at her. “That was pretty stupid.”

“The situation was a bit more complicated than that.” A low voice stated from the doorway. Xena smiled at Esmee, then motioned with her head for the girl to leave them for a moment, which she immediately did.

Gabrielle turned in the bathtub, balancing her arms on the edge. She wasn’t feeling too comfortable, being naked and all, but she forced an air of confidence and raised an eyebrow at the dark-haired woman questioningly.

Xena leaned back against the wall, keeping a respectable distance. “Caspar told me what happened.”

“How is he?” The warrior inquired.

“Good, considering…” The Empress stated, crossing her arms. “Not a scratch on him… Well, except for…” She waved a hand at her cheek.

“Glad to hear it…”

Xena stared at her silently, then she seemed to remember what she’d come for, and held up a small leather pouch for the warrior to see. “There’s two jars in here. Herb mixtures. The top one is for the burns, the second for the wounds. Esmee can help you rub those on, twice a day…”

Gabrielle looked at the pouch, then back up at her. “OK.”

The Empress nodded, pensively gazing at the floor for a moment, then pushed off the wall. “You can sleep in tomorrow. You have the day off.” She stated, turning towards the door.

“I didn’t do it so you’d owe me.”

Xena halted, placing a hand on the doorpost and looking over her shoulder. “I know.” She said, meeting green eyes for a moment. “Thank you.”

Gabrielle watched as she turned away and walked out the door, catching a few whispered words drifting in addressed to Esmee. The warrior shifted around in the tub, letting herself sink into the water again, leaning her head against the hard marble side, arguing voices incessantly spinning through her brain like a whirlwind.

“Lieutenant.” A soldier laid a fist over his heart and bowed politely. “You called for me?”

“Yes.” Pompey waved at a free chair. “Please, Cassius, sit down.”

Cassius nodded, then sat, for a moment letting his eyes flick over the other occupants, sitting around the oval table in Pompey’s office. There were three other people there beside himself, two younger soldiers, like himself, and one officer.

Pompey took a few paces closer, placing both his hands on the backrest of the chair at the head of the table. “What I’m about to say to you will not leave this room.” Pompey’s dark eyes swept across the foursome. “Understood?” Hasty nods all around. “Good.” The lieutenant took a few paces through the room, pensively. “Now… You all know the warrior the Conqueror has brought back with from her last trip to Macedonia.” Pompey smiled privately as disgruntled murmurs lifted up behind him. “And you’ve all seen her completely disrespectful behaviour around the Empress.” He turned around, facing them again. “But our leader has done nothing to stop her.”

“The Conqueror doesn’t want to tame her, if I understood her correctly.” The other officer stated, clearly not too happy about this.

“True, Thaddius. That is what she said…” Pompey seated himself on the armrest of his chair. “And, normally, I would not even consider going against the Conqueror’s wishes… But…” His eyes searched the ones before him. “But I believe this woman to be a danger to our ruler.” A pause. “I assume I’m not the only one who’s noticed the Empress’s odd behaviour, these last few days?”

“No, sir.” Cassius shook his head rapidly. “I had to bring the prisoner to her yesterday… The man she’d arrested in Piraeus for stealing… And she released him!” He dropped his voice to a conspiring whisper. “It was that woman, sir. She was there… She put a spell on her, sir, I’m sure of it…”

“See.” The Roman waved a hand at Cassius. “This is exactly what I mean… Normally, the Empress would have never let this man escape justice…” He leaned closer, balancing a hand on his knee. “That warrior is a danger to our ruler, gentlemen. The Conqueror may not realise that, but she is… And it is our job to stop her.”

“I do agree with you, Pompey.” Thaddius stated, leaning back in his chair. “But how do you suggest we come about this? We have all seen her fight. The woman is practically invincible.” The other soldiers nodded.

“She’s not invincible… In fact, she is injured.” The lieutenant supplied. “She had an accident with her horse this morning.”

Thaddius cocked his head. “Really?”

Pompey nodded. “I saw it with my own eyes…” He rose from his seat, then dug into the back pocket of his leather pants, removing a small quiver. He popped open the lid with his thumb, then pulled out a tiny dart, the tip of it stained in a deep, poisonous green. “The next time we see her, on our patrol through the palace, Gabrielle will be on her way to assassinate one of the valued regents…” Pompey grinned at them, and they grinned back conspiritually, nodding in understanding. “And I’m afraid that the only way to stop her, will be to kill her…”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this…” A short, well-dressed man fidgeted nervously with the edge of his sleeve. “A bad, bad feeling…”

The woman sitting beside him rolled her eyes at him tiredly, absently twirling a curly lock of dark hair around her finger. “You always have a bad feeling when you come here, Tanagros.”

“That’s because something bad always happens when I come here…” Tanagros replied in his squeaky voice, his eyes darting across the room restlessly. “You heard what happened to Antheus, right? The regent of Macedonia?”

“Antheus was a fool.” The woman retorted easily. “He screwed up, he got punished… That’s how things work around here…”

The short man shivered uncomfortably, pulling his dark blue robes tighter around him. “I wish I was home…” He moaned.

The doors into the room swayed open, servants scurrying in and bowing to the woman that was approaching. Xena stopped in the doorway, letting her cold eyes sweep over the people inside, who hastily got to their feet, inclining their heads respectfully to her. Xena walked further into the room, her purple robes rustling softly as she moved. “I believe most of you know my good friend Alti.” Xena smirked at several audible gulps as the shamaness entered behind her, in her trademark dark clothing. She turned her attention to the woman sitting near her. “Hesione, you know Alti, don’t you?”

Hesione inclined her head politely. “Of course.”

The shamaness eyes just pierced into the other woman’s intensely.

“My regent of Crete.” Xena supplied, as if the shamaness had trouble remembering the woman. “And this…” She waved a hand at the small man beside her. “…is my regent of the Peloponnesus. Alti, meet Tanagros…”

The short man bent his head, unable to prevent from shaking. “How do you do?”

Alti flashed him a wicked grin, then reached forward, wrapping her hand around his neck, lifting him clean off his feet. “I’m doing great, thank you.”

Tanagros’s eyes bulged out at her fearfully as he struggled, his short legs kicking out wildly at the empty air. Pleadingly he looked over the shamaness’s shoulder at the Conqueror. “Empress! Help me!”

“Help you?” Xena raised an eyebrow at him amusedly. “My dear man, from what I’ve heard, you’re more than capable of helping yourself…”

Tanagros blinked at her.

“Oh come now…” Xena scowled at him. “Don’t you remember putting some of that money I sent you to built a reservoir in your own pocket?”

Tanagros shook his head frantically at her. “I didn’t, Empress!” He managed to choke

Xena tsk-ed at him. “Alti, refresh his memory, will you?”

The shamaness tightened her hold on the man, her fingernails digging into his neck. The regent’s head shot back and he screamed out in pain, a trickle of blood suddenly seeping from the corner of his mouth. “Oops.” Alti shot an apologetic look over her shoulder. “Wrong memory.”

“That’s all right.” Xena patted her on the shoulder supporting. “We all make mistakes… Do try again…”

Another pain filled cry pierced the air and the short man’s arm suddenly twisted into a very unnatural position.

“Ouch…” The Conqueror looked at him sympathetically. “I bet that hurt…”

“Empress, please!” Tanagros managed, before his head shot back again as it was filled with another memory. “Please!” He panted, his grey eyes meeting hers. “I’m sorry, Empress! I beg you…”

“Oh you beg me, do you?” Xena crossed her arms. “Just like you begged me for more money because you ran into ‘unforeseen trouble’ when you were building those granaries at Epidavros?” The Conqueror looked at him in utter contempt. “Alti, show him what I would have done if you hadn’t been here, would you?”

“My pleasure.” The shamaness drawled, her dark eyes piercing into him unmercifully.

Tanagros’s eyes widened as the vision was pushed into him, filling his senses. “Empress… Empress, no! Please, n…!”

His body fell to the floor limply, thumping onto the marble floor. Alti gazed at the head she still held in her hand in boredom, holding it as far away from her as she could, as to not let the blood drip onto her toga. “Decapitation again, Xena?” She shot a look over her shoulder. “You’d think after all these years you’d come up with something original…”

“Go on now, get a move on it! Empress doesn’t like to be kept waiting. Shoo!” Solari shoved another plate of food into a servant’s hands, before waving her hands at him to get going. “And if you drop that I’m gonna stuff you so full of broccoli you’re gonna wish I’d just killed ya!” The cook shook her head, turning around and placing the dirty plates and bowls into the sink. “Incompetent load of…” She gritted her teeth as she heard more footsteps, then spun around, angrily pointing a dirty blade at the newcomer. “Didn’t I tell you to…” A pause. “Oh… It’s you…”

“Uhm… yeah…” Gabrielle scratched the back of her neck. “Is this a bad time?”

“No, no, no…” Solari hastily shook her head, her eyes flicking across the deserted kitchen. Deserted since the rest of the staff was waiting on the Empress and her regents. “C’mon, lets get outta sight, just in case…” She tugged Gabrielle along towards the storage room. She pushed the woman inside, then closed the door behind them. “What’s up?” Her dark eyes shifted to Gabrielle anxiously. “I thought we weren’t meeting until the day after tomorrow… Something go wrong? Ephiny’s OK, right? Right?”

“She’s fine.” The warrior assured her, not quite able to hide a smirk. “She just told me to tell you something and I just figured…” A negligent shrug. “Since I’m not sure if I’m gonna be around tomorrow I’d better tell you now.”

Solari crossed her arms, arching an eyebrow at her. “Where’d all that the-fact-that-things-are-considered-impossible-by-many-have-never-stopped-me-from-doing-them stuff fly off to? Not getting cold feet, are ya?”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “My feet are perfectly warm, thank you. But Ephiny said this was pretty important, so I just don’t want to take any chances.”

Solari frowned. “So? What’d she say?”

“If this doesn’t work out she wants you to leave and go home.”

The Amazon stared at her for a moment, then snorted, shaking her head as she pushed open the door and exited the storage room. “If that’s what you came here to tell me you’ve wasted your time.” She stated, picking up a dirty spoon and tossing it into the sink.

Gabrielle followed her outside, crossing her arms. “Solari, she was very serious.”

“Yeah, well so am I.” The brunette angrily smacked one of the tables with her tea towel. “That blasted daughter of a…” She tossed the cloth away, flinging it across the room to thump against one of the cabinets before falling to the ground. “Every time, every TIME she gets a chance to send me a note, that’s what it says… ‘Solari, get out of here. Solari, just go.'” The Amazon huffed out an angry breath. “For once, just this once it would be nice to just get a note saying ‘Thanks for being here, Sol. You’re the greatest, Sol. I l…'” Solari took a breath, hiding her face in her hands for a moment. “Tell her…” She finally murmured from behind her palms. “Tell her I’m staying. And that the more notes she sends, the more determined I am to stay.” Brown eyes peeked up at her. “And makes sure she gets it this time, OK?”

Gabrielle smiled reluctantly. “OK.” She promised, giving Solari a reassuring pat on the shoulder before exiting the kitchen, careful not to draw any attention to herself.

“Next stop…” She murmured, going over her options as she turned down another corridor. Having tomorrow off came in pretty handy really, she had to admit. Drilling with her back the way it was would be far from pleasant, and she was glad she could give her skin a day to heal. The herb mixture the Conqueror had provided was working remarkably well though. The only disadvantage of that was that her skin was itching like crazy and she had to constantly restrain herself from scratching at her healing wounds. But that beat lying in her bed in agonising pain, so she wasn’t complaining.

She could go over and see Iona, but she had a feeling the girl had gotten quite a verbal lashing from the Conqueror about this morning’s ordeal. She’d told Esmee what had happened while the girl was tending to her back, and she had informed her Caspar has a big fear of water, and Iona apparently knew this. The warrior hadn’t been too happy with this news herself at first, but then she’d figured Iona had probably been too excited about the whole outing and had forgotten to mention it when they crossed the water. True, she was manipulative, mischievous, a little devious even, but she wasn’t mean and Gabrielle doubted the girl would have done this on purpose, knowing what the outcome would be.

She walked into one of the halls of the servant’s quarters, steps leading up to higher levels. She’d already asked Linus about the herbs for Galon, to no avail unfortunately, so that only left one thing on her list, which was to go and see her friends down below. Which was, coincidentally, her favourite thing on the list. Gabrielle grinned to herself, as she passed another guard on her way to the main hall. She was looking forward to asking Thalia about her first night in a king-size bed, and she needed to pass on the message Solari had…

She blocked the staff with her upper arm on pure instinct, reaching out and grabbing onto the wood and jerking it out of her attackers hands. She spun round and swung his own weapon at him, hitting him on the side of his head. He thudded to the ground, unconsciously.

A soldier. Gabrielle frowned down at him. One of the Conqueror’s own men… More footsteps closed in on her and she looked up to see more soldiers racing towards her, weapons raised. A quick glance behind her showed an equal number moving towards her from the other side. I knew it. Gabrielle narrowed her eyes, tightening the hold on her weapon angrily. I knew she wouldn’t stay true to her word. She pushed the staff back, poking one of her attackers in the stomach. And she doesn’t even have the guts to do it herself… She swept the leg out of under another, then kicked at a third, before elbowing a fourth into unconsciousness. She vaguely felt her back aching, but the adrenaline pumping into her system made her able to forget her wounds and focus on the fighting.

There were so many. One actually managed to wrap his hands around her neck and it was brute strength that made her grasp onto his arms and pull him over her head, flinging him into three on rushers. She couldn’t keep this up for long, though, she realised as she ducked and let a soldier fly over her head. She needed to find a way of escape.

Her eyes darted up, seeing if there was a rope, or chandelier, or anything else nearby she could climb onto. No such luck though. The only way to get up higher was…. Her brain stopped as she spotted a figure standing on the staircase on the other side of the room.

Pompey. The man who’d taken her in once would be arresting her again. With a growl she snapped her staff in two, then slammed the pointy ends into two attackers that had been coming at her from each side. She let go of the remains of her weapon and ran blindly towards the officer. If she was going to die she was damn well taking him down with her.

Pompey’s eyes widened as he realised her intent and he hastily dug into his pocket, removing the dart and aiming. He pulled his hand back, then tossed the it straight towards her.

She realised too late what it was the lieutenant held in his hands. She slid to a halt, but even her reflexes were not fast enough to duck as the dart got closer, and closer and…

And flew inches past her as she was suddenly jerked aside, arms catching her at the waist and pulling her down. With a thud she landed on the marble tiles, another, taller body landing on top of her. She blinked, then focused on her saviour, to see…

“Hi.” Xena greeted her cheerfully, her face hovering inches above her own. “Can’t keep your nose out of trouble, can you?”

Gabrielle was just about to scream at her indignantly to get off when the Conqueror saved her the trouble by hopping to her feet all on her own.

Pompey swallowed as he realised his plan had just fallen to bits on him, murderously cold blue eyes fastening themselves on him. “Empress, I was only trying to protect you.” He tried, holding up his hands cautiously. “That woman is a threat to you and…”

“Oh, shut up!” Xena growled, pulling her chakram out from under her robes and flinging it at him, the metal bouncing off a wall and then slicing through Pompey’s throat, before returning to its wielder, who neatly scooped it out of the air. The Roman gasped, grasping for his neck, blood staining his hands as he fell back, thumping down a few steps until he slid to a halt, his half severed head falling limply to one side.

“Much better.” Xena muttered, wiping her free hand on her dress, while turning to look at the miniature battlefield before her. Uneven footsteps rushed closer and she looked up to see Pyrron running in as fast as he could, which wasn’t really all that fast because of his wooden leg. “Ah, Ronnie, just the guy I was looking for…” She waved a hand at her surroundings. “I think we’re going to have to start recruiting again.”

“Wha…?” Her Advisor blinked, looking from a guard with a broken stick pushed through his heart to the slumped form of Pompey the Magnus on the stairwell. “What just…?”

“Good old Pompey was feeling a little neglected, I think…” Xena muttered angrily, her eyes flicking across the room, taking in every face of every soldier who’d just betrayed her, the living and dead ones. “Got jealous of all the attention Gabrielle was getting and decided to do her in…”

“This wasn’t your idea??” Gabrielle, who was still dazedly sitting on the floor, leaning back on her hands, looked at her in complete confusion.

“Me?” Xena pointed a thumb at her own chest. “Of course not… Why would I do a thing like this?”

Gabrielle frowned. “Well… Cause… Because…” She stuttered, her brain not cooperating in finding the right words for her.

Xena rolled her eyes, then walked closer to the warrior. “If I’d ordered this I wouldn’t have just killed one of my highest officers, now would I?” She stated in a serious voice. “Or saved you from a dart that I’m guessing was poisonous.” She stopped at the warrior’s feet, then extended a hand down towards her, raising an eyebrow questioningly.

Gabrielle looked up at her hesitantly, but then she placed her hand in Xena’s and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet, nearly toppling over as her body yelled out complaints. A hand on her shoulder steadied her, however. “Are you all right?” Xena asked in a voice that in any other case the warrior would have qualified as concerned.

“Yeah.” Gabrielle sucked in a breath, straightening herself, blinking the fog away from her eyes. “Yeah… Just uhm…”

Xena grinned down at her wryly. “Not your day, huh?”

Gabrielle snorted softly, shaking her head. “Not my life…”

Blue eyes regarded her quietly for another moment, then the Empress waved Pyrron closer. “Escort Gabrielle to her room, will you? I’ll take care of matters here.”

“Yes, Empress.” Her Advisor nodded, offering his arm politely, to allow the warrior to lean on him without loosing face.

Gabrielle looked up at him with a tiny, grateful smile, then placed her hand on his arm. She was just about to walk off when she felt a gentle squeeze from the hand that she now noticed was still resting on her shoulder.

“Gabrielle?”

The warrior turned her head and looked up at the Empress questioningly.

“I…” Xena peeked down at her, uncertainly. “I’m sorry… about… all this…”

Green eyes stared up at her for a long moment, then Gabrielle nodded a little, before walking off towards the guest quarters.

Hidden in the shadows, Alti watched the whole exchange with narrowed eyes.

“There you go.” Pyrron guided her to the bed, letting her sit down on the edge before walking into the bathroom. “I’m really very sorry about all this.”

“‘s Okay.” Gabrielle murmured for the fifth time in the last few minutes, wiping absentmindedly at the blood on her hands. “It was hardly your fault.”

The Advisor returned moments later with a mug of water, which he handed to the warrior.

Gabrielle took the mug, downing the content greedily. “Thanks.” She mumbled, peeking up over the rim of the mug at Pyrron.

The Advisor waved her off with a smirk. “Anything for the woman who keeps saving my children.”

The warrior smiled wryly. “How’s Caspar doing?” She mumbled, scuttling back a little and leaning against some soft pillows, wincing a little as her back stung.

“Nasty scratch on his face.” Pyrron said, emerging from the bathroom a second time with a bowl filled with water and a sponge. “But he’s doing fine otherwise. He already ran off to Linus again to show him the herbs he brought with him. Tane something… he seemed very excited about ‘m…”

Gabrielle smiled wryly. “I’m glad to hear he’s OK… He seems like a nice boy…”

“Oh, he is…” Pyrron agreed as he placed the bowl and sponge beside her on a small bedside table. “Certainly compared to those two sisters of his…” His eyes darted around the room. “I heard Xena sent up some of those jars of cream. They still here?”

“Top drawer.” Gabrielle instructed, reaching over and squeezing out the sponge before running it over her arms, face and neck, rinsing away the sweat and grime on her skin. She gave him a thankful smile as he placed one of the jars beside the bowl of water, twisting the top off.

Pyrron waved her off. “How bad is it?”

Gabrielle took inventory, then shrugged a little. “Had worse.”

Pyrron looked at her for another moment, then snorted softly, slightly shaking his head.

“What?” A blonde eyebrow arched up at him.

The Advisor smiled at her. “Nothing you want to hear, I think.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Comparing me to the Conqueror?”

“Coming from me, that is a compliment, Gabrielle.”

The warrior peeked up at him thoughtfully in the silence that followed. “Why is that?” She finally muttered shaking her head.

Pyrron tossed a look over his shoulder, then considered the question for a moment. “We have seen very different sides of her, you and me. You have seen her as she appears to the people. Ruthless, cold, controlled. That’s all I saw at first too, and she scared me to death… She still does, sometimes…”

“But?”

“But there’s more there than meets the eye.” The Advisor stated calmly, digging around for some bandages, finally retrieving some from the bottom drawer of the cabinet. “For one, she is the smartest person I’ve ever known. She knows the name of every soldier under her direct command, she can remember words I said moons ago almost literally, she can think her way out of situations as easily as she wields a sword…”

“Yeah, well, she should do that more often then, instead of chopping off heads the moment she gets a chance to.” Gabrielle muttered, dipping a finger in the herb mixture and spreading it onto the cut in her upper leg.

Pyrron frowned his brows for a moment, thoughtfully considering his words, before speaking up again. “What is the last war you remembering hearing of?”

Green eyes blinked up at him. “Sorry?”

“The last war. When was that, do you think?”

“Uhm…” Gabrielle had to actually think hard about that question. “I… The last one I heard about was the battle for Gaul. And that was… Five years ago?”

“Six.” Pyrron corrected her. “Six years without any major battles in an Empire stretching from the tip of Africa to the cold plains of Siberia.” A pause. “That’s why I follow her, Gabrielle.” He smiled at her, then politely inclined his head. “Now, if there’s nothing more I can do for you, I have petitions to read.”

Gabrielle watched him walk out and close the door behind him. He is manipulating you. A voice in the back of her head spoke up. He’s trying to win you over. Make you see her in a different light. Trying to you soften you up. But that’s not going to work, is it? A long pause as the voice waited for a reply, then, a little more insecurely. Is it?

“Boys, boys, boys…” Xena tsk-ed as she slowly descended down the steps of the platform her throne was placed on. “Now what am I going to do with you?” She crossed her arms, towering over the six, shackled men kneeling at her feet. “Hmm?” Xena knelt down beside the first soldier, leaning close to his ear. “I give you the one, simple assignment to NOT mess with my GUEST…” The young man cowered, trying desperately to get away from the noise that was bursting his eardrums. Xena saved him the trouble though, by straightening again, and bringing her voice down to its normal volume. “And you blew it.” The Conqueror took in a deep breath, then released it again sadly. “You betrayed me, fellows… And…” A sniffle. “…you know how I get when people betray me…” With a jerk she pulled back the head of the third by his curly brown hair, forcing him to look up at her. “Don’t ya?”

He swallowed, trying desperately to avoid her gaze but failing miserably.

“Don’t ya?” Xena repeated in a growl.

“Y…Y…Yes, Empress…” He stuttered, blinking up at her fearfully.

Xena released her hold on the man roughly. “And that just really makes it worse, doesn’t it? That you intentionally hurt my… my delicate feelings.” Xena placed a hand over her heart, looking profoundly hurt. “…and I think you boys also know, that when someone hurts my feelings…” She pulled a dagger from her belt, then leaned closer to the sixth soldier, slowly drawing the tip of the blade down his cheek. “…I have to hurt them back.” A trickle of blood sidled down the man’s face and he swallowed audibly, but remained silent.

“Well…” Xena straightened again, toying with the dagger in her hand. “I’ve had a little time to think up how to punish you… And a lot of interesting ideas crossed my mind… Decapitation…” She placed the edge of her dagger on her thumb, counting on her fingers. “But its been pointed out to me that’s not original, so I scratched that…” She touched the dagger to her index finger. “Then I thought of torturing you all to death, but I realised I would have to listen to you scream all those candle marks before you actually die, and that gives me such a headache, you know? Then of course there was crucifixion, an all time favourite…” A pause as Xena stopped in front of the six. “And then it hit me…” She smiled down at them. “I don’t have to kill you…”

All six head shot up as one, looking completely shocked. “Y…you don’t?” The fourth mumbled, blinking.

“No…” Xena knelt down in front of him and patted his cheek comfortingly. “Of course I don’t have to kill you…”

The man gazed up at her, looking very, very relieved. “Th… Thank you Empress, I…”

“I just have to bury you…”

His sentence stocked in his throat and his eyes widened. “Pardon?” He managed to blurt out.

“Bury. You know, where we dig a hole and we put you…” She pointed a long sleek finger at him. “And you…” She pointed her dagger at the man sitting beside him. “And you, and you, and you…” She stood again, motioning down the line. “and you into that hole. Nice and cosy, together with your already dead friends. And then we put the sand back in the hole, on top of your little heads. And then you can all be together forever and ever…” She smiled at them peacefully. “Poetic almost, don’t you agree?”

“You… You want to bury us alive??” The first soldier gasped, his pupils dilated in fear.

Xena considered this for a moment, then nodded cheerfully. “Yes.”

“But… But you can’t!”

The Conqueror laughed. “Silly boy… Of course I can…” She smiled at him charmingly. “Let me show you…” She lifted a hand, waving the guards closer. “Take them away.”

Chains rattled and the men were dragged to their feet roughly.

“No! Empress, I beg of you!” The first man in line managed to pull himself lose and fall to his knees before her. “Please, great Conqueror, forgive me. I didn’t want to, highness. It was all Pompey’s idea. Pompey the Magnus. I was only following orders… Please, Empress, please…”

Xena took a happy breath, grinning broadly as she wrapped an arm around the shoulders of one of her guards. “Don’t you just love to hear people beg?” She waved a hand at the soldier allowing. “Go on…”

He blinked. “I… I have a wife, highness… And… And children… lots of children…”

“You do not…” Xena snorted. “You have a demented old father who can’t even remember your name, three goats and a cow.” She sighed in dismay. “I can’t stand people who lie… They make me all itchy… And I hate being itchy…” She turned away from him, waving a hand over her shoulder negligently. “Bury him first, then toss Pompey and his merry men on top of him.”

Xena settled herself back in his chair, letting the fearful screams of the soldier wash over, her face a mask as she watched them all be dragged from the room. “Dorian?”

A man hastily stepped up to her, tapping his chest and bowing. “Empress?”

“Follow them to the pit. At the last moment, fish the sixth one out of there. The one with the cut on his face. Bring him to me.”

“Yes, Empress.” Dorian inclined his head, then turned and paced out of the room after the prisoners.

Xena’s eyes followed him to the door, then she sighed tiredly as she spotted another figure standing there. “Oh, puhlease don’t…” She swung a leg over the arm rest. “If I hear the words ‘warrior’ and ‘fall of your empire’ combined in one sentence out of your mouth, you’re going right into that pit after them, understood?”

Alti strode into the room, her dark robes sliding over the marble tiles behind her. “I didn’t come here because of my visions, Xena. I know now its no use talking to you about them…”

“Already?” The Conqueror murmured under her breath. “My, you’re so quick…”

Alti narrowed her dark eyes at the warrior. “I have come here to inform you of my departure.”

A dark eyebrow raised slowly. “You’re leaving me, Alti?” Xena wiped at a non-existent tear. “And I thought things were going so great between us… I was really starting to feel we were connecting…”

The shamaness crossed her arms and produced a grin for the dark-haired woman. “Well, fortunately for you then, we’ll have more than enough time to ‘connect’ when I return.”

Xena smirked at her. “Looking forward to it already…”

“I’m sure you are…” Alti shot her another look, then turned around and paced towards the door.

“Hey?” The Empress called after her. “What is this trip about?”

“Oh, the usual…” The shamaness drawled, not looking back as she exited the throne room. “Places to go… People to see…”

Xena frowned, then turned her thoughts away from Alti and focussed them on the man who was dragged back into the throne room and tossed at her feet. Sand fell from his clothes and onto the marble tiles.

“Welcome back, Skiron.” The Conqueror commented, wiggling her fingers at him. “How was your trip to the big sandbox? Had fun playing with your friends?”

Skiron remained silent, sitting on his knees before her, his head bent.

“No, I didn’t think you did…” Xena pushed herself to her feet, gracefully descending down the few steps until she stood before him. “But really, Skiron… I can understand that those young boys were foolish enough to defy my authority, but you…? Smart fellow, responsible, wife, kids… I thought you wouldn’t risk your life so easily…”

No word came from the soldier.

Xena looked down at him calmly. “Do you regret what you did?”

A long silence, then the young man spoke up. “I regret disobeying you, Empress. But I do not regret wanting to protect you from the warrior. I feel I acted as a soldier of the Empire should, willing to die in your defence.”

Xena circled him, placing her hands behind her back thoughtfully. Then she waved a guard closer, motioning towards the man’s chains. The guard knelt down beside the captive and unlocked his shackles.

Skiron looked down at his hands as they were freed disbelievingly, then up at the woman standing before him.

“I will give you one more chance.” Xena lifted a single finger at him. “Don’t waste it. Or I’ll waste you… understood?”

The soldier bent his head deeply, his forehead nearly touching the ground.

“Good.” Xena circled past him and walked towards the exit. “You are stripped of any rank you possessed. Now go back to your post.”

“Yes, Empress.” Skiron scrambled to his feet hastily.

“Oh, and Skiron?”

The man looked up at her.

“I don’t think I have to tell you, that if you ever even consider disobeying an order of mine again, your death will be far, far gruesome than the one you could have suffered today. Do I?”

Skiron swallowed, then shook his head hastily.

“Good.” Xena purred, flashing him a smile, before disappearing out of sight.

The rest of the day was filled with the after-effects of her meeting with her regents, reading petitions, double checking reports and considering solutions to the problems that had been mentioned to her. The whole process was tiresome and she was happy when the time came to leave her study for a moment and have dinner. Fortunately she’d scared off the regents so badly they’d decided to high tail it out of the palace the moment they could, which left her free to dine with Pyrron and his family.

When she entered the dining room all the others were already present. Pyrron was sitting on one side, and Caspar on the other side of her chair, while Iona had picked a spot a bit further away from her this time and was doing her very best to ignore the Empress’s entrance with a grumpy frown on her face. Niobe didn’t have that problem though, and called out to her enthusiastically, immediately wobbling over to her with outstretched arms. “Hey, shorty.” Xena scooped her off the floor as she walked toward the head of the table, giving a polite nod to Linus, and ruffling Caspar’s hair affectionately. Her eyes flicked over the empty seat, next to Caspar, where Gabrielle had sat yesterday, and for a moment she felt slightly disappointed at the warrior’s absence.

“Sena?”

“Hmm?” The Empress turned her attention back to the toddler hanging around her neck.

“y’Okay?” Niobe asked with a frown, blinking up at the dark-haired woman.

“Fine…” Xena assured her with a smile, sitting down at the head of the table. “How about you? Had a good day?”

“No go hossies.” Niobe scowled in dismay.

The Empress produced a half smile. “Short stuff, horses are too big for you… Your feet don’t reach the stirrups.”

The toddler crossed her arms grumpily. “No need strups.”

“Yes, you do.” Xena countered, touching a finger to the girl’s nose, the dark brown eyes squinting to keep the fingertip in focus. “You just need to get a bit taller, OK? Then I’ll get you a horse and we’ll go riding together, deal?”

“May I suggest you get her a pony first, Empress.” Pyrron stated, poking a fork at a bit of meat. “A very small pony, preferably.”

Xena raised an eyebrow at him. “What? You have issues with the pets I chose, Ronnie?”

The Advisor rolled his eyes. “I remember the day you came home with Pookie all too well, Empress.”

“Pookie!” Niobe giggled happily. “Pookie good!”

Xena smirked. “And what’s wrong with Pookie?”

Pyrron shot her a look. “She’s a tiger, Empress.”

“So?” Xena spooned up a bit of rice innocently.

A tired sigh. “She has teeth, Empress. Big, sharp teeth.”

The Empress chuckled amusedly. “Chicken.”

“Pok pok!” Niobe warbled, pointing a finger at her father and giggling.

Xena laughed while Pyrron just groaned in defeat.

Dinner was served then and she focused her attention on the plate before her, trading bites with the restless Niobe as she listened to Pyrron summery of what he’d gotten done this day.

“So, I finished writing a note to the regent of Gaul about those extra supplies he asked for to get through the winter with…”

“You did tell him to take precautions against the next bad harvest, didn’t you? I’m getting really tired of bailing him out time after time again…”

“Of course…” The Advisor nodded. “I made sure that he knows if he asks more favours of you he won’t be in office much longer…”

Xena nodded as she chewed another bit of meat. “What else?”

“Well, then I got interrupted by screaming and walked out into the battlefield that was once a clean palace hall…”

“Ah yes…” Xena grinned. “Never a dull moment with Gabby around, is there?”

“It was hardly the warrior’s fault, Empress.” Pyrron spoke up in the blonde’s defence.

“True enough…” Xena allowed, leaning back in her seat. “How is she doing?”

“She said, and I quote, ‘Had worse’.” He shot the Empress a meaningful look. “Which in warrior language means something like ‘it hurts like Hades, but I’m too tough to tell anyone it does’.”

Caspar’s head had shot up at the mention of the warrior’s name, and he gazed from one to the other anxiously. “Gabrielle got hurt?”

Pyrron nodded at him. “Some people tried to attack her. She fought them off.”

Xena cleared her throat loudly.

Her advisor rolled her eyes. “The Empress helped.”

Iona frowned at this news, then bit her lip, staring down at her feet miserably.

“She isn’t hurt bad?” Caspar looked at his father anxiously. “Is she?”

“She’ll be fine.” Pyrron assured him with a smile.

The boy nodded, not looking entirely at ease. He poked his fork at his food for another moment, then peeked up at Xena. “May I be excused?”

A chuckle from the Conqueror. “You may be…”

Caspar hastily scrambled off his seat and was just about to rush out, when Xena waved him closer. The Empress leaned closer, whispering a few words in his ear, after which the boy blushed, smiling shyly before taking off.

Xena picked up her glass of wine, hiding her smirk by lifting it to her lips.

Pyrron eyed her warily. “Do I want to know what you just told him.”

“Just gave him some good advise…” The Empress replied innocently, shooting her Advisor a charming smile. “Now, you were telling me about petitions?”

Pyrron sighed, but then continued on his summery, while Xena listened to him quietly, commenting here and there on some things she wanted to have changed. Finally the older man nodded and pushed himself up. “I’ll get back to work then. I’ll get things arranged this evening.”

“Excellent.” Xena nodded her consent to him, and to the teacher Linus, who also rose from his seat. Her advisor took Niobe from her, under loud protest from the toddler, and headed for the door. Iona hastily stood as well, following her father.

“Iona.”

The young blonde bit her lip, but halted in her tracks.

“C’mere.”

Iona sighed, but did as ordered, walking back until she was standing beside the Conqueror. “I’m sorry…” She mumbled unhappily, her head bent. “I didn’t mean to get Gabrielle hurt, I really didn’t…”

Xena looked at the twelve year old for a moment, then gently reached out and stroked back a lock that was obscuring the girl’s face. “I know you didn’t.” Iona peeked up at her insecurely. “But you acted irresponsibly, Iona. Your brother is younger than you are, and you know he’s not good at riding horses. And that he doesn’t like water. You should have kept an eye on him.”

A sigh. “I know…”

“And you shouldn’t have taken advantage of the situation by galloping along after Gabrielle. If Chilon had reacted to something you could have gotten both Gabrielle and you brother into even more trouble… And you could have gotten hurt…”

“I know.”

Xena placed a finger under the girl’s chin, tilting her head up and making their eyes meet. “Promise me you won’t do something like this again?”

Iona peeked up at her. “I promise.”

Xena studied her for a moment. “You’re not crossing any fingers, are you?”

Iona managed a half smile. “No.”

“Toes?”

The smile grew. “No.”

Fingers tickled her side teasingly. “You sure?”

A laugh. “Yes!” She grabbed onto the squirming fingers. “Stop that… That tickles!”

“That is the point.” Xena purred at her, wiggling her eyebrows, which made Iona giggle, before smiling, tugging the girl closer by their linked hands. “C’mere you.” She reached out and lifted the girl off her feet, then enfolded her in a hug.

Iona wrapped her arms around the Empress in return.

“All good?” Xena’s voice burred in her ear questioningly.

She nodded back happily. “All good.”

——————

Gabrielle stared up at the ceiling in utter boredom, watching the shadows twirl around on its surface as the soft breeze flowing into her window toyed with the flames of the candles illuminating her room. She’d considered getting up, she’d tried it even, but then her body had screamed at her to get the heck back on that pleasantly soft bed, so… Here she was… Lying on that pleasantly soft bed… Staring at the ceiling…

The warrior released a tired breath. Gods, she wish she had something to read. Well, she did have something to read of course. Lao Ma’s book. But she knew that one by heart, so staring at the written symbols in it would really be quite pointless. Some sort of story would be nice, though, something to take her mind off everything around her for a moment. Unfortunately, she realised that the chances the Conqueror had any of Aristofanes’ works lying around were quite slim.

She was just about to turn onto her side and stare at the wall for a quarter of a Candlemark, when a soft knock at the door made her look up. “Yes?”

The door opened slowly, then a head poked in. “Hi.”

“Caspar.” Gabrielle smiled at the boy, carefully pushing herself up a little. “Come on in.”

Caspar shuffled inside, his hands behind his back. He let the door fall shut behind him. “I uhm… I wanted to… to thank you for…” He stared at his feet intensely. “…for saving me, so I uhm…” He pulled his hands from behind his back and out towards the warrior. “I brought you this…”

It was a single flower, with a thin stem and long, delicate bright red peddles, placed in a small pot of earth. Gabrielle reached out and took the flower from his hands, instinctively bringing it to her nose.

“It uhm… It’s an anemone…” Caspar peeked up insecurely. “I… I left it in the earth cause… cause otherwise it’s just going to wither and die and… And that’s sad, so I uhm…”

Gabrielle looked up at him, then put the flower on her bedside table and leaned closer, placing a kiss on the boy’s cheek.

Wide dark brown eyes shot up at her, blinking.

“Thank you.” She shot him a smile. “That’s very sweet of you.”

His mouth opened as if he was going to say something, then it closed again with a snap of his teeth. He cleared his throat awkwardly. “Y… You’re w… welcome.” He stuttered finally, his skin turning a dazzling shade of red.

The warrior worked very hard to repress a smirk. “I’m glad you stopped by. I was getting pretty bored lying here doing nothing…”

“My daddy said, people attacked you…” Brown eyes peeked up at her hesitantly. “Did they hurt you?”

Gabrielle shrugged. “A little bit. But I’ll be fine.”

“Good.” Caspar smiled shyly. “I’m glad…”

A tense silence fell, and Gabrielle watched the boy nervously shuffle his feet. Looking for a good topic of conversation, her eyes fell on the flower Caspar had brought her. “Hey, do you know where the anemone comes from?”

“The Eastern part of the Mediterranean area and Asia Minor.” Caspar readily supplied.

The warrior chuckled softly. “That’s not exactly what I meant. I mean, do you know the story? About the nymph Anemone?”

The boy blinked, his brows frowning. “What’s a nymph?”

A laugh escaped the warrior, then she patted a spot beside her on the bed. “Have a seat, and I’ll tell you.”

“Sure!” Caspar’s face lit up and he quickly hopped onto the bed, scrambling over the bouncy surface before plopping down against a few fluffy pillows.

“All right, you ready?”

Rapid nodding.

Gabrielle smiled down at him in amusement. “OK then… A long, long time ago, there was this goddess named Flora…”

——————

Iona happily skipped up the stairs of the guest quarters. Things were a lot more fun, now that Xena wasn’t mad anymore. They’d played for a while. Wrestled. And she’d won. Again. Iona giggled happily. Xena was so lousy at wrestling.

She turned another corridor and then cocked her head as she heard voices. No, actually, she heard just one voice. Gabrielle’s… She bounded closer, then pushed open the door, peeking inside.

Gabrielle was sitting on her bed, relating some tale or another in a pleasant, clear voice and she was waving her hands about busily, in an attempt to form the scene she was describing out of the empty air.

Her brother was sitting on the bed beside her, looking up at the blonde in complete fascination.

“So Flora turned Anemone into a frail flower, so she’d be at the mercy of the strong North Wind for ever.” Gabrielle finished her story, shooting a smile at Iona and motioning her inside with a subtle hand gesture.

“Wow…” Caspar stared her, completely unaware of his sister’s entrance. “That really happened?”

“Well, I didn’t actually see it happen or anything. But the gods have done stranger things…” Gabrielle told him with a smile. “Now, I think your sister’s here to come take you home, so…”

Caspar’s eyes widened and shot to the door, only now spotting his sister smirking back at him wickedly. Hastily he scrambled off the bed, his cheeks turning a bright red.

The warrior looked from one to the other, immediately feeling sorry for the boy. “Hey Caspar?” She motioned him forward and he obediently shuffled closer, trying very hard to ignore his older sister. Gabrielle pushed herself up a little, whispering in his ear. “If she teases you too badly, you just come get me OK? I’ll beat her up for you…”

The boy grinned. “OK.”

Gabrielle chuckled, then placed another kiss on his cheek. “Thanks for keeping me company.”

Caspar bit his lip, smiling a little, then spun around and ran out of the room.

Gabrielle grinned at the whole scene, shaking her head a little in amusement as Iona hastily ducked out of the room in pursuit of her brother. A moment though, and she poked her head back through the door opening. “Hey, Gabrielle?”

Green eyes looked up at her. “Yeah?”

“You know I’m sorry about what happened with the horses and stuff, don’t ya?”

The warrior smiled at her. “Yeah, I know.”

“Cool.” The girl wiggled her fingers at her, before hastily darting off again. “See ya!”

Gabrielle laughed, leaning back in her pillows as she listened to the voices drifting up through her still open door.

“Caspar and Gabrielle, sitting in a t…”

“Shut up!”

A wicked laugh. “Make me!”

—————–

Xena looked up from her work as yelling echoed through the hallway. She pushed herself up from her chair and walked into the hallway to bump into Caspar, or better said, to have Caspar bump into her legs.

“Xena!” Pleading brown eyes looked up at her. “Tell her to stop!”

The Empress looked over the boy’s head at Iona, who blinked back at her innocently. “What did she do?”

“She’s mean.” Caspar scowled.

“Really?” Xena drawled, lifting the boy off his feet with one arm. “What’d she say?”

“I said: Caspar and Ga…” Iona supplied all too willingly, only to be cut off by a growl from her brother.

“Shut up!!”

Xena suppressed a smirk. “Ah, I see…” She turned her back to Iona, walking towards the door that led to Pyrron’s chambers. “Just ignore her, buddy…”

“‘kay.” Caspar nodded a little, sticking his tongue out at his sister over Xena’s shoulder.

Iona replied with a similar gesture.

“So, how’d it go?” Xena asked. “Did she like your present?”

“Yeah.” Caspar released a small sigh. “She said I was sweet…” He touched his cheek. “And she kissed me… Twice.”

“Heh.” Xena chortled, patting him on the back. “Told you… Flowers, oldest trick in the book…”

Iona skipped along behind the two, unhappy with her lack of involvement in the conversation. “When I walked in they were lying real close on the bed together.”

Caspar shot her an angry look.

Xena laughed loudly, ruffling Caspar’s hair with a grin. “That’s my boy!”

“She was telling me a story.” Caspar mumbled indignantly.

“Was she now?” The Empress looked down at him. “Good one?”

“Yeah.” Caspar laid his head down on the woman’s shoulder. “It was pretty. It was about the flower I brought her.”

“Must have been quite exciting.” Xena went along amiably as she pushed open the door and walked into Pyrron’s room. “Heya Ronnie.”

Pyrron looked up from the scrolls lying unrolled on the table. “Don’t you ever knock?”

“She’s the Empress of the known world. She doesn’t need to knock.” Iona explained cheerfully, bouncing towards her father. “Hey, you wanna hear what Caspar did?”

The boy’s shot a furious look at his sister. “Iona!”

Xena shook her head at the girl. “Now, you stop teasing your brother, hear?” She pointed a finger at the blonde warningly. “Unless you want me to tell him what I used to call you when you were younger…”

Iona’s eyes widened in shock, then she hastily shook her head.

“Good.” Xena flashed her a wicked grin. “Now go to bed.”

The girl scowled. “But Xe…”

A dark eyebrow raised at her.

“Ow…” Iona huffed out a breath, but spun around and walked off, angrily muttering the word ‘blackmail’.

Xena’s eyes followed her in amusement, then she placed her burden on the ground. “You too.”

“‘kay.” Caspar smiled up at her. “Thank you.”

The Empress patted his cheek affectionately. “Anytime, buddy.”

Pyrron watched with a frown as his son ran off towards his room. “What’s he so cheerful about?”

Xena chuckled. “He just went to visit his new true love.”

Her advisor released a breath. “So that’s where he rushed off to…”

“Yup.” The Empress confirmed cheerfully.

Her advisor turned to her, his face serious now. “Do you really think this is a good idea though? Considering the subject of his affections…”

His companion rolled her eyes. “Ow please… Gabrielle wouldn’t hurt a hair on his head…”

Pyrron shook his head. “I know that. It’s you hurting hairs on her head that has me worried.”

Xena frowned, for a moment there not understanding what he was referring to. Then it hit her though, and she frowned, considering the problem. “I uhm… I hadn’t thought about that…”

Her advisor smirked at her. “Gabrielle’s presence is not only affecting the mental state of my son, then?”

The Empress shot him a bored look. “If you don’t stop being so witty, old man, I’ll see myself forced to ask Cleopatra for an extra visit…”

Pyrron chuckled, hastily holding up his hands. “No witty comments will cross these lips ever again.”

“Right.” Xena drawled, looking at her companion for a moment, before taking a few paces through the room, thinking about the problem just presented to her. “I’ll uhm… I think Gabriele will be with us for a few more weeks or so. Maybe he’ll have gotten over his infatuation for her by then.”

“And if he hasn’t?”

“Then I’ll deal with it.” Xena told him.

“That’s good enough for me.” Pyrron shot her a smile, then motioned his hand towards one of the unrolled scrolls. “Now, I should finish these, I think.”

Xena nodded at him. “I’ll leave you to your work then.” She turned and headed for the door, then reconsidered and stopped. “I forgot… What’s the word on the troops?”

Pyrron chuckled as he seated himself in his chair. “Your cruelness is growing exponentially. Last thing I heard you dragged the disobedient soldiers miles and miles behind your chariot, flogged them for hours, cut of several body parts with a blunt knife and then buried them alive.”

“Heh.” Xena chortled contentedly. “I knew good old Skiron wouldn’t let me down.” She then continued on more seriously. “I want to keep a close watch on them from now on, Pyrron. I don’t want anything like this to happen again.”

“Understood, Empress.”

“Have Brutus and Dorian report to me every day from now on.”

Pyrron nodded. “I’ll have them meet with you in the morning.”

“Thanks.” She shot him a smile, then headed to the door. “See you tomorrow, old man.”

——————–

Gabrielle woke up as a soft light edged its way over the horizon, announcing the coming of dawn. She released a breath, wishing for once she could just sleep in on her day off, like a normal person. She shot a look at her shoulder then tensed up her biceps experimentally, content when it at least hurt less than the day before.

Well, since she had one day to get back up to speed, she’d better get started, right? She slowly pushed herself up from the bed, wincing at the aching of her limbs, but she just bit down and stood, then moved into the bathroom, a little unsteadily. Placing both hands on the basin for balance, she looked into the mirror and scowled at her ruffled reflection. “Somehow I don’t think you were meant to be a morning person, Gabrielle.” She told herself with a shake of her head, as she let some water flow into the basin, scooping up a handful and splashing it into her face. A cold breeze blew through the open door, still filled with the cold of the past night and it chilled her wet skin. She fished a towel off a rack and rubbed the water off her face, then left the cloth hanging over the edge of the basin as she trudged back into the bedroom, seating herself on the bed. With one hand she expertly unwound the bandage from her upper arm, pleasantly surprised as she uncovered the wound to see it was healing quite well. Those herbs were really doing their magic.

Gabrielle redressed the wound, then checked her other cuts and bruises. In retrospect, yesterday hadn’t turned out too bad, really, considering what could have happened. Her back was sore, but with the herbs and her natural gift of fast healing that too would be more than bearable by the end of the day. The slash in her left arm she’d gotten in the fight was obnoxious, but at least her right arm was left unscathed, so she could still wield a weapon without cringing in pain. That wound was the only real painful memorabilia she’d gotten from yesterday’s battle, however, for which she praised herself quite lucky. The only moment she’d been really close to facing death was at the hands of Pompey himself. She would have surely died from that dart if it hadn’t been for…

Gabrielle released a frustrated breath. Being saved by the Conqueror… That just really, really sucked. For a moment she considered whether death would have been preferable to that after all. However, she realised, she had too many responsibilities to let her bruised ego dominate her rational thinking. The Conqueror had done her a favour yesterday, so she would have to deduct this act from all the ones that had been directed against her, which only left her hating the woman… Gabrielle did some calculating. …99 percent of the time. Well, OK, maybe 98 percent, counting the king size bed for Thalia… And then there was the fact that the Empress hadn’t mentioned that whole thing even once, to boast or drag a thank you from her, which Gabrielle respected, so that reduced the number to 97 percent, but that’s as low as she was gonna go…

During this bit of subtracting she’d dressed herself in a pair of black leather pants and a sleeveless red shirt and had stepped into the hallway, her attentive emerald eyes flickering around the area. It was perfectly silent in the guest quarters at this time of day. That was the one good thing about getting up early, the fact that there were no noises, no stress, no one hurrying about. Everything was just nice and quiet.

Gabrielle carefully found her way down the stairs, the sound of her boots on the marble echoing through the empty hall. Her mind flicked to the day ahead, and she summed up for herself what her tasks were. The missed items of yesterday’s list immediately came to mind, but since she doubted either Iona or Thalia was up at this time of day, she dismissed both and went to a third item, the inevitable training.

The warrior placed her hands behind her back, strolling along quietly. She needed to find some secluded spot. It was not a good idea to show her weak spots to any potential attackers, and considering the events of the other day, those now included all the Conqueror’s soldiers. The arena was out, in other words. She considered the attic Iona had lead her to a few days ago, but considering the Conqueror’s reaction to her being there she scrapped that option off too. Besides, the roof was too low there, she would be unable to practice her flips.

The warrior walked into the main hall, pausing for a moment. Her best option was probably to go outside, into the forest. Of course, there was the risk of running into the Conqueror there, since the woman was probably halfway through her morning run by now. Still, it was a better option than…

“Gabrielle!”

The warrior looked up to see Esmee walking closer. “Hey.” She greeted her with a warm smile.

“What are you doing out of bed.” The girl crossed her arms and looked up at her sternly. “You’re wounded, you shouldn’t be walking about…”

Gabrielle looked down at her in amusement. “I’m fine, really.”

“Right.” Esmee muttered, clearly completely unconvinced. “So, where are you going?”

“Outside, to drill.”

Esmee rolled her eyes. “Warriors.” She muttered with a shake of her head.

A blonde eyebrow raised at her sharply. “And what is that supposed to mean?”

The girl sighed gravely, but seemed to ignore the question. “Xena told me to tend to you the moment you woke up.”

A second eyebrow raised. “Tend to me?”

“Clean your wounds, bandage your wounds, bring you breakfast, help you around the palace…” Esmee ticked off on her fingers.

“I got a cut in my arm, Esmee, I’m not crippled.” Gabrielle argued grumpily. “I can walk just fine by myself.”

“She also told me to tell you,” the girl went on obliviously, “that if there’s anything you want you just have to ask, that you’re free to go anywhere on the palace grounds today and that if you want to work out you can use her private exercise area in the South wing. She’ll be busy the whole day today, so she won’t be ‘bugging’ you. Her words.”

The warrior blinked at the girl’s rapid speaking. “Right.” She finally mumbled. “Got it.”

“Good.” Esmee nodded businesslike. “Now, can I get you something for breakfast?”

“Uhm…” Gabrielle scratched the back of her neck. “Some juice would be nice?”

“What kind of juice?”

A frown. “What kind do you have?”

Esmee released a tired breath, then started reciting the list of options. “Apple, orange, pear, strawberry, pineapple, mango, peach, grapes…”

Gabrielle held up her hands, stopping the enumeration of fruits. “Orange. Orange will be fine…”

“Orange juice, got it.” The girl said with a nod. “You want me to bring it to the exercise area?”

Gabrielle shrugged. “Sure.”

“All right then. See you in a bit.” Esmee trotted off. “And don’t overstrain yourself!”

Gabrielle turned with a sigh and headed towards the corridor leading into the south wing. A guard was standing on either side, but they just bent their heads politely as she passed, apparently informed about her unrestrained access to any part of the palace. She walked further, her eyes scanning past the doors. “Which door was it again?” She muttered to herself, frowning. “Those are the Advisor’s living quarters, this was her bedroom, that’s…”

Gabrielle frowned at the open door leading into the Empress’s study. The woman couldn’t have finished her run now, could she? The sun was barely peeking over the horizon. She walked a few paces closer, peeking into the room.

A blonde eyebrow raised and she carefully took a pace closer, to come to stand in the doorway. The desk was littered with scrolls and other bits of parchment, and lying amidst this mess was the Empress herself, her forehead balancing on an opened ink jar, a quill still held loosely in her hands. The steady, even breathing indicated the woman was fast asleep.

Gabrielle crossed her arms, unable to prevent a small grin working its way onto her face. Oh, this was such good blackmail material. She stifled a chuckle, then considered her options. She could just move on and let the woman sleep. Her more mischievous side immediately dismissed that option though, and focussed her attentions on a glass standing on the edge of the table, still half full of water. Carefully she tiptoed closer, lifting the glass of the table, then neatly flicked the contents against the Conqueror’s face.

“Wah!” Xena jumped up from her seat, her warrior instincts immediately flaring to life. She brought her hands up and balled them to fists, taking on a defensive position.

Gabrielle looked at the woman, her dishevelled hair standing out in all directions, her blue eyes flicking around in alarm, drops dripping down the sides of her face. Some of these drops had mixed with the circle of ink on her forehead created by the top of the ink jar she’d been leaning on and were now painting black stripes on her face. The warrior watched the anxious eyes settle on her, then she just burst out laughing.

“What the…?” Xena blinked at the laughing warrior in complete incomprehension.

Gabrielle gasped in another breath, peeking at the Empress, muffling another snort. “You…” Xena frowned at her inquisitively, which made the circle on her forehead turn into a little rain cloud, and Gabrielle started laughing again.

“What??” Xena asked anxiously. “I what??”

Gabrielle nearly choked on another breath, then tapped a finger on her own forehead.

The Empress looked at her indignantly. “Excuse me?”

The warrior realised her error and laughed even louder.

Xena swept a hand over her face, in an attempt to wipe off some of the excess water, getting quite pissed off now at being laughed at.

Gabrielle leaned back against the door, grabbing onto her stomach.

Xena tossed up her hands in defeat. “I really don’t…” Then she paused, looking at the ink stained palm of her right hand. She frowned, then pulled open a drawer of her desk and retrieved a small mirror. “Oh gods…” A groan escaped her as she stared at her reflection, before she covered her eyes with a hand for a long moment, trying to keep her cheeks from turning bright red. She heard the warrior’s laughter wind down and she peeked through her fingers sheepishly. “If I told you I always paint stripes on my face when I go out into town to scare little children with… Would you believe me?”

Gabrielle chuckled, shaking her head, the green eyes smirking back at her.

And their gazes met and held, both sets of eyes twinkling. Held longer than they had before, both allowing themselves for a moment to soak up the odd feeling of familiarity, of being at ease in each other’s presence.

It was Xena who looked away first, focussing once again on her dishevelled self reflecting back at her from the surface of the mirror. “So…” She murmured. “Did you just come here to laugh at me, or is there a purpose to you being here?”

Gabrielle smirked, wincing as she straightened and her back complained about the overdose of laughing. “I uhm… I was just on my way to go and work out a little. Walked past your room, and… Well…” A half muffled snort.

“And you couldn’t resist to toss water in my face and watch me make an idiot of myself, yeah, I get it…” Xena shook her head but couldn’t repress a grin. “Thanks a lot, Gabrielle.”

“You’re welcome.” The warrior replied smugly, then waved a hand towards the door. “I’m just gonna leave you with your ink, I think.”

“Oh, very poetic.” Xena drawled, then peeked up as the warrior headed through the door and into the corridor, before hesitantly calling out. “Hey, Gabrielle?”

Green eyes peeked back at her over a bare shoulder.

“I uhm… I’m glad you’re feeling better.” She muttered, scratching the back of her neck, then biting her lip as she realised how stupid a move that was. “Oh damn.”

Gabrielle smirked at her in amusement, before she walked on, disappearing out of the Empress’s line of view.

Xena waited for a moment, until she heard doors open and shut, before releasing a held breath. She stared at the empty doorframe for another moment, then shook her head a little to clear it, before turning around and heading towards the bathroom in search of water and lots of soap.

“You have to be kidding.”

Gabrielle shook her head solemnly.

“She actually saved you?”

The warrior rolled her eyes. “Yes. For the seventh time, yes.”

“Well, it’s kinda hard to believe, ya know?” Thalia muttered, her hands pillowed under her head as she stared up at the ceiling. “I mean, the woman is trying to kill you, right?”

“Yes.”

“And you’ve been making a fool of her.”

“Yes.”

“And you’ve been blackmailing her out of dinners and beds.”

“Yes.”

“So?” The redhead turned on her side, propping her head up on her hand. “All sound like pretty good reasons to let you die to me. From her point of view, of course…”

“It’s…” Gabrielle released a breath, pulling up a knee and leaning her chin on its surface. “These fights would be between her and me alone. No interference. She gave me her word.”

“Oh, and that means something now all of a sudden, does it?” Ephiny crossed her arms, leaning against the bars separating them.

Gabrielle sighed gravely. “I don’t know…”

Thalia raised an eyebrow at her. “You don’t know?”

“I just…” The warrior shook her head, pulling up her other knee and wrapping her arms around them, closing her eyes. “Just forget it, OK?”

Thalia shot a glance at Ephiny, who shrugged back. “All right.” Her friend allowed as she sat up, reaching out and laying a hand on her shoulder. “But don’t let her get to you, Gabrielle. She’s scum.”

“Scum, scum, scum.” Gabrielle repeated softly to herself, as if imprinting the words on the inside of her eyelids.

Thalia gently squeezed her shoulder. “You’re having a pretty rough time, aren’t ya?”

“No.” The warrior mumbled unhappily. “And that’s exactly the problem.” She took a breath, ruffling her hair back. “I really need to get out of here.”

“How’s things on that front?” Ephiny inquired curiously.

Green eyes peeked up at her, then darted across the area, gazes from other prisoners hastily dropping. “I uhm… I can’t share the details with you… But I’m getting there…”

Thalia leaned a little closer, dropping her voice. “When?”

Gabrielle considered this for a moment. “Day after tomorrow.”

A small nod from the redhead. “You sure you’re ready?”

“I uhm… I got some valuable info this morning. The biggest issue is finding a place to hide after we break out.” A pause. “Do you remember Agenor?”

“Sure.”

“He’s still in town.”

Thalia cocked her head with a small smile. “He is?”

“Hmm, Solari told me.” Gabrielle nodded thoughtfully. “I don’t know if he still lives at the old haunt. We could give it a go though.”

“Right.” The redhead nodded in understanding.

The warrior glanced around again, than leaned even closer. “What about these other people here?”

Thalia followed her gaze, then wiggled her hand a little. “I don’t know most of ‘m really… But from what I’ve picked up there’s some real trash in here. There’s a few that might be worth the saving though… I’ll check it out for you.”

“Thanks.” Gabrielle shot her friend a smile, then pushed herself back to her feet. “Well, I gotta go. I’ve got some stuff to do…” She walked to the door, pulling it in the lock behind her. “You two take care, OK?”

“Hey Gabrielle?” Ephiny walked up to the bars, motioning her closer. “Uhm… Did you… Did you talk to Solari? About…”

“I did.” Gabrielle confirmed simply.

“So?” Hazel eyes gazed at her anxiously. “What’d she say?”

“She got really mad.”

Ephiny blinked at her. “Mad?”

“Yes.” Gabrielle nodded. “Mad. She said the more notes you send telling her to leave, the more determined she is to stay. She loves you. And she’s not leaving this palace until you do.” She reached though the bars and patted the bewildered Amazon on the shoulder. “Fortunately for you both, that won’t be long from now.” She shot Ephiny a smile, then turned and strode off.

In the adjoining cell, Thalia snorted loudly. “Not your girlfriend, my butt!”

Gabrielle smirked as she stepped out of the prison, politely nodding at the guard before making her way up the stairs. Nothing like creating a little havoc. She chuckled, striding up the last few steps and then stepping into the large hall. If her plan worked out and they all managed to escape from here, and those two figured out what she just did, she was in for quite bit of trouble. A smile. She looked forward to it though.

And the plan would work, she was sure of it. Iona had led her past several tunnels this morning and one had been just around the corner from the entrance to the dungeons. It opened by pressing a brick on the left of it. Iona said she’d discovered it by accident, when she and Esmee had been playing and Esmee had pushed her against the wall there one time. The tunnel lead down, under the palace gardens, under the walls and straight into the city. The perfect escape route.

Now all she had to do was get back up to speed so she could knock out whoever got in their way from the cells up the secret passageway. Gabrielle walked through the open double doors into the gardens. It was a beautiful day, cloudless and sunny, and she closed her eyes for a moment, simply soaking up the sunlight that was warming her skin. Her training this morning had been all right. It hadn’t been pleasant, there were a few flips her body was still unwilling to perform, a few twists that had made her cringe… And cringing was lethal in a battle with the Conqueror, so she’d have to get that under control before tomorrow.

For the moment, however, that could wait. She’d had a pretty busy day so far and she’d decided that now, a candle mark past noon, she could have a moment to herself, to let her body rest, before she started on her second bit of training. She walked over to the pond and sat down, tracing the surface with a finger absently, watching the small waves that were formed slosh against the stones that formed the pond.

“Gabrielle!”

The warrior looked up, then smiled as she saw Galon make his way towards her. The young man was dressed in a pair of wet, grubby pants and an old shirt and his hands were stained with mud and a few strings of algae. “Hello, Galon. The Conqueror put you to work, did she?”

“Yes.” The young man nodded eagerly, then seemed doubtful for a moment, before he hesitantly sat down beside her. “I uhm… I don’t really understand what it is I’m doing, but the work is easy, so I’m not complaining…”

The warrior frowned at him questioningly. “What do you mean, you don’t understand? What is it you have to do?”

“Catch frogs.” Galon shrugged. “She said something about revenge…” He shook his head a little. “She is nothing like I thought she’d be.”

Gabrielle snorted softly. “You’re telling me…”

A silence fell, an he nervously plucked at a few stalks of grass. “But uhm… I wanted to uhm.. to ask you…” He peeked up at her shyly. “…about the herbs. I don’t mean to rush you or anything,” he hastily added. “It’s just that my wife is very anxious and… and I…”

“I understand,” Gabrielle interrupted him. In all the ongoing of the previous day she’d completely forgotten about this particular goal. “I did some asking about, but… I’ve had no luck so far, I’m afraid.”

“I see…” Gallan murmured, not quite able to hide his disappointment. “I uhm… I appreciate you making an effort and I…”

“There’s one person I haven’t asked yet,” Gabrielle admitted, which got her another hopeful glance from the young man. She released a breath, then pushed herself to her feet, telling herself it was very selfish to leave this man in doubt because she had too much of an ego to ask a favour from the Conqueror. “I’ll go ask her for you right now…”

Xena stared at the parchment blankly. It was the same piece of parchment she’d been staring at for the last quarter of a candle mark now, but for some reason she hadn’t gotten past the first two sentences. From those first words she had managed to deduct this was a request for money, surprisingly enough. Money to improve the roads along the Silk Route. The roads there were dilapidated, her regent of the Indian area informed her. Below there was a recital of several arguments in favour of his plans, but the whole note, just like the hundreds of notes before this one, was written in a horribly bureaucratic way that Xena found incredibly tiring to wade through. It was so useless too. All this guy had to do was pick a piece of brittle rock off that road, wrap a bit of parchment around it saying ‘Our road sucks’ and she’d be more than happy to send them money. The Empress released a breath, rubbing her hands over her face tiredly.

“You still working?”

Her head shot up to see Gabrielle leaning in the doorway. She hastily regained her indifferent pose though, leaning back in her seat. “Ruling the world isn’t all fun and games unfortunately.”

“So it seems,” The warrior said, then seemed to square her shoulders a little as she walked in. “I…” She cleared her throat awkwardly. “Caspar said you knew about herbs.”

“I know about herbs,” Xena admitted, watching the warrior curiously. “What do you wanna know?”

“Which herbs help prevent pregnant women from having a miscarriage?”

Xena’s eyes went wide, darted down to the warrior’s flat stomach and back up again.

Gabrielle released a frustrated breath. “No, not for me.”

The Empress sighed in relief.

“It’s for the man that tried to steal from you, the gardener who…”

“Galon,” Xena easily remembered, a light of comprehension dawning. “You want to help him find the herbs for his wife?”

Gabrielle nodded mutely.

“Well…” Xena popped her bare feet onto the table. “I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint you then…”

Green eyes narrowed to slits. “You won’t tell?” she growled furiously.

“Oh, no, no, no…” Xena hastily held up her hands in defence. “I’d tell you in a heartbeat… if these herbs existed…”

The warrior frowned. “But that merchant he spoke to, he said…”

“The merchant was a liar. He wanted to make a few quick extra dinars and decided to rob this desperate fellow.” The Empress crossed her arms. “That’s why I asked Galon for this guy’s name. Had a little chat with the merchant and he has graciously offered to give up the larger part of his earnings to the family to be.”

A blonde eyebrow raised at her. “Really?”

“Uhuh.” Xena nodded smugly. “It’s amazing how cooperative people get when you hold them upside down in the Aegean.”

Gabrielle couldn’t quite repress a smirk at that news, then she sobered however, as she realised she would have to tell Galon the bad news. “Well uhm… I’d better go and let him know…” She mumbled, then peeked up uncomfortably. “I uhm… I appreciate the information…”

Xena looked at her pensively for a moment, then sat up straight and pulled open a drawer. “Hold on a moment…” She told the warrior as she pulled out the box with little paper bags, selecting three and putting them aside, then taking a slightly larger, empty bag and mixing the contents of the three together. She then handed the mixture to the warrior. “Tell him she needs to drink an extract of these once a day.”

Gabrielle looked at the bag, then back at the Empress. “But you just said…?”

“It’s just tea.” Xena informed her, holding the bag a little closer. “Come on, take it…”

Gabrielle reached out and took it, looking at the mixed herbs with a frown. “Why would you want me to give him tea?”

“A very big part of healing is mental,” Xena told her as she put her herbs back in their drawer. “If she believes this’ll work, that belief might be enough to make it work.” A shrug. “Besides, she’s probably under a lot of stress right now, with the worry of losing another child, and stress is never healthy. I put some mint in that mixture. Mint tea is very soothing.”

Gabrielle cocked her head, watching the Empress with interest. “You do know a lot about healing…”

“And this surprises you?” Xena smirked, then pushed herself up from her seat, walking to a large cabinet and pulling it open. There was a small basin hidden behind the cabinet doors and she unplugged the tap and let a bit of cold water run over her hands, splashing it into her face to clear her foggy mind.

“You’re the Conqueror,” Gabrielle offered as a form of explanation, perching on the side of the desk, unable to not take a peek at the unrolled parchments lying on the wooden surface.

“I’ve been in battle. In battle you get wounded. Knowing your way around herbs comes in handy when you’re wounded,” Xena countered, taking a fluffy towel off a shelf and pressing it against her face.

“Birth and battle are two very different things.”

Xena smirked into the towel’s surface. “Is that right?” She murmured, then turned, swinging her towel over her shoulder. “I have a mixed army, Gabrielle. Things happen. I just made sure that I knew what to do if they did.”

The warrior considered this, then nodded in understanding, before rising to her feet. “I should go bring these to Galon,” She said, before she turned and headed for the door.

“You do that.” Xena re-seated herself in her chair, pulling her scroll closer. “And Gabrielle?”

The warrior stopped in the door opening, raising an eyebrow at her.

“Don’t mention my name, OK? I need to keep the dark dreary image alive.”

Gabrielle’s lips quirked into a small smile. “Understood.” She nodded, watching Xena smirk back at her before the woman returned her attention to the bit of parchment in front of her. Gabrielle hesitated for a moment, then spoke up again. “He’s lying.”

Blue eyes lifted in question. “Excuse me?”

“Your regent…” She waved a hand at the parchment. “About the roads… They’re in excellent condition.”

Xena cocked her head at her, then glanced down at the petition in front of her. “In excellent condition, huh?” A wicked grin spread across her face. “Oh ho, is he ever in for some trouble.” The Empress picked up her quill, pulled closer a clean piece of parchment, dipped her quill in some ink and hastily started scribbling. “Forcing me to go through this boring paperwork for nothing… That’s gonna cost him dearly…” Another hastily scribbled sentence, then she peeked up at the warrior with a glint in her eyes. “Thank you,” she smirked, before returning to her writing. “You’ve just made my job a whole lot more pleasant.”

“You’re welcome.” Gabrielle allowed, with a small smile. “And… And thanks… for the herbs…”

Xena frowned at these last words, then looked up again. But the warrior had disappeared from her room as silently as she’d entered. The Empress released a breath and returned to her work. “Anytime, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle sighed in relief as Galon finally turned around and ran off. The young man had spent the last quarter of a candle mark praising her and declaring his undying loyalty. The warrior rolled her eyes as she settled down on the grass. It wasn’t that she didn’t understood his enthusiasm, but she always felt awkward when she was looked upon as some sort of hero. Especially in this case, since she hadn’t done a thing to help this poor man. The Empress was the one who’d come up with this, not quite truthful but most likely effective, solution. The warrior closed her eyes, releasing a breath and soaking up the sunshine silently. It didn’t matter, the guy was happy, his wife was happy. All’s well that ends well.

Gabrielle folded her hands under her head, enjoying the warm feeling spreading through her body as the sun did its magic. She was really glad she’d gotten this day off. Things had been getting to her, the fighting, the constant vigilance, the annoying presence of the Egyptian regent, the shamaness Alti, who made her skin crawl when she was near… But she was happy to find the shamaness had departed this morning and the soldiers had been respectfully avoiding her since yesterday’s events, so she’d managed to drop her guard just a little and relax a bit more.

The warrior breathed in another breath filled with the smell of fresh flowers. She listened to the birds twittering as they flew past her, small animals scurrying around in some nearby bushes and the sound of creaking shoes.

Gabrielle smirked, but kept still, not moving a muscle. Iona was a quick learner, and had already improved immensely. To the warrior’s amusement, the girl had tested her new sneaking skills on her dad and several soldiers with great success. This time she’d picked the wrong target, however. Gabrielle waited until Iona was right behind her before reaching out and grabbing onto the girl’s ankle, making her yelp in shock and stumble backwards, thumping down on the grass. The warrior chuckled wickedly, rolling onto her stomach and grinning at the girl. “Boo.”

Iona scowled, then crawled closer to the warrior and sat down by her side. “But I am getting better. I got this close.” She held finger and thumb an inch apart.

Gabrielle mimicked the gesture with a smirk. “You were this close because I let you get this close.”

The girl’s eyes twinkled mischievously, in an uncanny copy of the Conqueror’s. “We’ll see.” She drawled.

Gabrielle looked at her, then laughed, folding her fingers together and letting her chin rest on top. “Give it your best shot, shorty.”

Iona giggled, mimicking the warrior’s pose as she laid down beside her. They were both silent for a moment, Iona plucking at the stalks of grass restlessly. “Hey, Gabrielle?”

“Hmm?”

“Are you busy?”

Green eyes peeked open lazily and looked at her in amusement. “Terribly. Can’t you tell?”

The young blonde giggled again. “Can you come play?” The cocked her head at the warrior inquisitively. “I’m bored.”

“Don’t you have homework to do?” Gabrielle asked, rolling on her side and popping herself up on an elbow.

Iona rolled her eyes. “Et tu, Gabrielle. Et tu…”

The warrior snorted. “Speak Latin, now do you?”

“Quid quid latine dictum sit, altum viditur,” Iona stated without hesitation.

Gabrielle looked at her for a moment, then scratched the back of her neck. “I guess you do…”

Iona giggled. “Just a little bit. My Gaelic is better.”

An eyebrow raised. “Your Gaelic?”

“Uhuh,” the girl nodded. “Xena says I’ve got talent, but I still need to practice a lot. She said if she ever needs to travel to Gaul, I can come.”

A second eyebrow raised. “The Conqueror knows Gaelic?”

“Gaelic, Latin, Persian, Chinese, Japanese, Egyptian…” Iona recited. “She started teaching me Egyptian, but all those little drawings make me itchy…”

Gabrielle blinked at her. “She knows six languages?”

A nod. “Fluently, yes.”

The warrior shook her head a little. “Unbelievable.”

“I like knowing different languages,” Iona said, kicking at the air with her feet absentmindedly. “People never think I can understand them, and they just start talking and I can listen in on their whole conversation without even trying hard.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “I know there had to be a hidden motive there somewhere.”

Iona grinned wickedly, then sobered, looking down at the grass. “Xena was supposed to teach me today… But…” A shrug. “She’s busy…”

“Still?”

The girl nodded. “Petitions, reports… They come in once every two weeks… She doesn’t sleep much when they do… She says they’re important…” Fingers tore out another stalk of grass. “More important than me.”

Gabrielle looked down at the bend head in sympathy. “That’s not true…”

Iona released a deep breath. “I know… I just… I wanna play…” She scowled unhappily.

“Well…” The warrior pushed herself to her feet. “Think you can manage with just me for a while?”

Iona seemed to consider this carefully, her eyes judging the warrior meticulously. “Well all right…” She finally allowed graciously. “I guess you’ll do…”

“Oh, I’ll do, will I?” Gabrielle reached out and tickled the girl on the side, making her squirm.

“You shouldn’t do that…” Iona ducked away from the tickling fingers. “I’m the queen of wrestling, remember…” She held her hands in front of herself defensively and looked up at the warrior, a wicked gleam in her eyes. “You don’t wanna make me mad, now do ya?”

Xena had considered for a moment whether she would skip dinner altogether, but had finally decided against that idea. She’d been working non-stop all day, after a night of uncomfortable sleeping on her desk, and she felt drained and stuffy. She really needed a moment of peace. Besides, there were only a few more reports to go through and she could easily finish those before midnight, which would leave her enough time to catch up on some sleep.

She paced down the corridor and into the main hall, acknowledging the salutes of the guards with a incline of her head. She ruffled her hair back into some form of order as she walked through the hallway and towards the dining room, then stopped, frowning as her sensitive hearing picked up the sound of hasty footsteps racing closer and she turned, just in time to keep Iona from running into her. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“Xena!” Iona bounded around the Empress enthusiastically. “I won! I won!”

Xena looked down at her in amusement. “What did you win now?”

“A wrestling match. With Gabrielle. And I won!”

The Empress smirked. “Did you now?”

“Uhuh.” Iona nodded vehemently, then looked up as boot steps filled the hallway. “Tell her, tell her I won.”

“She won,” Gabrielle obediently offered, dusting off her shirt, the red fabric now stained with green spots and mud.

“She’s better than you are,” the young blonde said to the Empress, cheerfully bounding along. “It took me much longer to beat her.”

Xena chuckled amicably, picking a stalk of grass out of the girl’s hair. “So I dropped down to third place, did I?”

“Yes,” Iona informed her with a smirk, then she turned her attention back to the warrior. “You’re gonna have dinner with us, right?”

Gabrielle hesitated, shooting a look at the Conqueror.

“Xena’ll be good.” Iona said succinctly, “And if she’s mean I’ll beat her up for you, OK?”

Xena placed her hands on her hips, looking down at the girl in mock indignation. “Hey!”

The warrior laughed, then nodded. “Can’t say no to an offer like that, can I?”

“Cool!” Iona grinned at her, then turned and skipped off towards the dining room. “Let’s go. I’m hungry.”

Gabrielle shook her head at the girl, then glanced down at her stained outfit with a scowl. “I should probably go change first…”

“Nah,” Xena shook her head, waving her towards the dining room. “You look perfect. Go on.”

A blonde eyebrow raised at her, then Gabrielle shrugged and moved forward, the Conqueror falling into pace beside her. They were both silent for a moment. “You uhm… How are you doing?” Xena finally murmured.

Gabrielle shrugged a little. “Better, I guess…” A pause. “I can fight tomorrow, if that’s what you’re wondering…”

“That’s not wh…” Xena started, then stopped, considering her words. “I never doubted that.” She then said, in a softer tone.

A nod from the warrior, as they approached the double doors leading into the dining room, Xena halting and letting the warrior enter before her.

“Tell him!” Iona immediately called as they walked in. “Tell him, Gabrielle!”

The warrior sighed gravely, hearing the soft snigger from the Empress behind her. “You won.”

“See! Told ya! Told ya I won!”

Caspar looked at the warrior then back at his sister. “She let you win then.”

“Did not!”

“Did too!”

“Did not!”

“Caspar, Iona, please…” Pyrron shot them both a look. “Sit down and be quiet.”

“Shhh!” Niobe added for good measure, pointing a finger at her siblings. “Be nice!”

Gabrielle settled down in her chair during this whole exchange, across from Caspar, who looked up at her shyly as his sister stalked off and took her seat between the warrior and the Empress. “Are you feeling better today?”

Gabrielle smiled at him. “Much.”

He smiled back.

“So what’s for dinner?” Iona asked impatiently as servants walked in and started distributing the plates.

Xena looked at the plate that was placed before her, then smirked contently. “A Gaulic delicacy.” She poked her fork into a bit of meat and lifted it towards her lips, allowing Gabrielle a glimpse of what looked an awful lot like a frog’s leg. “You’ll love it.”

The blade shifted over her head, hissing softly as it cut through the air. Gabrielle straightened again, than blocked Xena’s weapon with her own, the sound of clanging metal echoing through the arena. Her injuries hadn’t been that painful this morning, but her body hadn’t quite recuperated from the events of two days ago, so when the Conqueror had allowed he to chose the weapons, she’d picked the one she was best at: swords.

Unfortunately, she’d already battled the Conqueror with a sword, when they’d met again on that road in Macedonia. That had been a real fight, and she’d pulled out some of her best tricks back then. And now the Conqueror was proving how good of a student she really was, ducking under her lunges and blocking her strikes as if she was battling some amateur.

Xena lunged out again, swinging her sword overhead and then bringing it down with all her force. Gabrielle only lifted her weapon in the nick of time, straining her knees to not buckle on her. Her back nudged at her, reminding her of her injuries, the muscles along her spine straining as she pushed back against Xena’s weapon and managed to toss her away a little. She immediately turned the defence into an attack, swinging out at the warrior’s side, finding her path blocked, then immediately spinning to attack her other side. But again the Conqueror swatted her sword away.

Xena pushed herself off, flipping over Gabrielle’s head and landing behind the warrior, turning and swinging the blade at Gabrielle’s midriff. She watched as the warrior only just managed to avoid the blow by arching her back and holding her breath. “Close call there, Gabby.” She smirked, parrying another shot for her head. “Good thing you passed on dessert last night, isn’t it?”

“Maybe if you serve me something that does not contain frog next time, you might just beat me.” Gabrielle retorted, making sure Xena’s attention was on the sword that was soaring towards her side, before pushing off and walking up the warrior’s body, kicking the heal of her boot against the woman’s forehead, before flipping backwards and neatly landing on the ground. “Than again, maybe not…”

Xena stumbled back a few paces, lifting one hand to touch her forehead. “That is gonna leave a nasty bruise…” She muttered, then ducked under a fist. “No more frog for you. Got it…”

“And it only took one blow to the head…” Gabrielle drawled avoiding a stab. “Who says you can’t resolve things peacefully these days?”

Xena chuckled in amusement, then flipped backwards, creating some space between the two. Gabrielle did what she’d expected her to do, which was rush forward to try and catch her off balance. Xena pushed off again the moment she hit ground, flying over the warrior’s head, landing solidly on the ground and then spinning around to face her opponent.

She’d caught Gabrielle completely off guard, and the warrior’s back was still turned towards her, the path towards her opponent’s neck completely unblocked.

The world slipped into a slow motion, like it always does during a key point in battle. Like it does at that moment before the kill, where you can feel you have victory in your grasp and all you have to do is take it.

Her body remembered that feeling and her hands tightened around the hilt of her sword instinctively, every muscle tensing up, ready to finish what she’d started… Thoughts spurted through her head, possible options that would end the battle. Xena considered them, then decided what she was going to do.

She let the moment pass.

With a sudden lunge the world sped up to its normal pace and Gabrielle spun around, flinging her sword with her, in the hope of catching the Conqueror’s weapon on pure luck. She found there was no weapon to catch however, and her eyes widened in confusion.

Her senses alerted her of a blade heading for her right and she brought up her sword to block it. The strike was far from powerful, unworthy of the Conqueror and she easily batted the weapon aside.

Their spectators were completely unaware of what had just happened, Xena knew as she lunged her sword out and continued the show. In a fight as fast as this one was, only a great warrior would recognise the past moment for what it had been.

She looked up and met green eyes through the shimmering of blades and that one look showed her that Gabrielle was one of those warriors. Not that she had expected any less from the blonde.

Then the eye contact was lost as Gabrielle performed a perfect roundhouse kick which impacted harshly with the back of her right hand, her weapon flying from her grasp. A split second then a sword hilt slammed against the already aching spot on her forehead, making her stumble back a few paces. Before she could recover from that her legs were swept out from under her, and she fell down onto the sand with a thud.

A moment, then she heard a second sword clatter onto the ground, indicating Gabrielle considered the battle won. Xena lifted a hand to touch her now throbbing forehead, releasing a pained breath. “Well…” She then started, pushing herself back to her feet, straightening. “I guess this fight is over w…”

Bones cracked as knuckles slammed harshly against the side of her face. Xena stumbled back again, only just managing to keep herself upright this time. She blinked, then her head shot up, her eyes meeting raging green ones.

“Don’t you ever do that again!” Gabrielle yelled, pointing a threatening finger at her. “Not ever!” Then she turned briskly and strode off.

Confused muttering drifted up among the watching soldiers.

Alti opened her eyes with a growl. She glared up at the clear blue skies above, enraged, then pushed herself to her feet. “You have nothing to worry about, Alti…” She drawled, rolling up her bedroll with firm, frustrated movements. “I’ll kill her as soon as I can…” She strode over to the brown mare tied to a thick branch, tossing her gear on its back, the animal jumping as it was startled out of its slumber. “Your rule is about to end, Xena.” She untied the reigns, then stuck a foot into a stirrup and hauled herself into the saddle, turning the mare around roughly. “And mine is about to begin.”

The sound of water dripping echoed dully off the stone walls. A rat poked his nose out from under a piece of wood, his black, beady eyes flicking past the shadows, trying to make out anything that could be of danger to him.

Apparently, the coast was clear, and he scurried forward, sniffing the air with his pointy nose, in search of something to eat. A small black beetle ran across the rat’s path, but he ignored it, having no interest for insects. There was a sweet smell in the air here, some sort of fruit maybe, or…

A tug at his tail stopped him, and moments later he was flawing his little paws at the air as he was lifted off the ground. He felt himself going higher and higher, past a short leather skirt, a bare midriff, a black top with streaks of blond hair scattered across the shoulders until finally the upward movement stopped and he found himself staring into a pair of intense, dark brown eyes.

“Well hello there,” a voice greeted him cheerfully. “I’m so glad you could join me…” A giggle. “You know, it gets lonely. All this time I’ve been in here, with nothing to do…” The rat felt his feet touch upon the skin of a callused hand. “I’ve tried singing, but when I got to three million four hundred and seventy five bottles of beer on the wall, I’d sorta finished with that too…” A finger traced a line from the tip of his nose, between his ears and down his spine. “But now you’re here. And we are going to have so much fun together… Just you and me…” The woman rocked forward and back again. “You and me…”

The rat didn’t like all of this at all, but… He sniffed the air. That scent was stronger here. And it was definitely a fruit. Another sniff. An apple, maybe?

Brown eyes regarded him, the woman cocking her head as the rat smelled the air again. “Oh, I see…” Her voice was sad now. “You didn’t come for me at all, did you?” She reached out her free hand and pulled something from behind her back. “You came here for this, didn’t you?”

She held a piece of the golden apple in front of him. He poked his nose further towards the fruit, but she pulled it back in response, making sure he couldn’t get near the treat. “I knew it…” She shook her head. “Well, I have to tell you, my friend… Immortality is highly overrated… Though I imagine it’s more fun when you’re not trapped…” She watched him as he struggled to crawl closer to the fruit. “Xena trapped me in here. Years ago now, I think… Can’t really be sure…” She waved the hand with the piece of apple at her surroundings. “No sunlight, see?” An unhappy frown. “Once I get out of here I’ll really have to work on my tan…”

The rat paid no attention to the woman’s odd noises, however, focussing his attention entirely on the flying piece of apple. “You really want this, do you?” The bit of fruit danced back and forth in front of him. “Well, I could give it to you… Than we can both be together for ever and ever… Would you like that?” He felt himself lifted up again, and the tempting sight of the apple was replaced with those scary eyes once more. “But you know what I think? I think…” She poked a finger at his head, causing him to swing back and forth by his tail. “…that when I give you my apple, you’re just gonna run off… Just… run off and leave me here all by myself…” She released a sad breath, then popped the bit of apple into her mouth, chewing contently. “I don’t think I can let you do that…” A finger traced one tiny ear, then the other. “You understand, don’t you?”

A loud squeak, followed immediately by the sound of bones breaking. The woman giggled.

“So, this is how you spend your time here, Callisto? Killing rats?”

Callisto’s head shot up, to see a woman standing in the centre of the room, arms crossed, staring down at her. “Oooohhhh.” She chortled then, hopping to her feet smoothly. “Entertainment.” A giggle. “How nice.”

The woman raised an eyebrow at her. “Nice is not a term I’d use to describe myself with.”

Callisto cocked her head at her, slowly prowling closer. “Now I wonder… How did you get in here?”

A low chuckle. “You don’t expect me to just give you that information, do you?”

“Actually…” The blonde smiled charmingly. “I expect you to do just that.” In a flash she reached out with her hand towards the intruder’s neck.

Only to pass right through. Her eyes widened, then she frowned passing her hand through the woman’s neck another few times to make sure she wasn’t imagining things. She released a disgusted sigh. “That’s just great…” She muttered angrily. “I finally get someone to play with and she ends up being a ghost…” She kicked at a loose pebble, watching it fly straight through a knee. “No fair.”

“I am not a ghost.”

Brown eyes peeked up at her. “You’re not a ghost?”

“No.”

Callisto considered this for a moment, drumming her fingers on her bare thigh. “Well, if you’re not a ghost, but I can pass straight through you…” A frown. “I am a ghost?”

Her companion rolled her eyes tiredly. “You are an immortal, aren’t you?”

The blonde placed her hands on her hips. “Hey, our former king of the gods had a full grown, armoured woman popping out of his head… Stranger things have happened…”

“You are not a ghost.” The other woman insured her with a sigh. “And you can pass through me because I am not actually here…”

Callisto looked at her for a moment, then grabbed for her head with both hands. “Con-fu-sing…”

“It’s actually quite simple…”

“Don’t tell me it’s simple.” Callisto shot back. “I hate it when people tell me things are simple when they are obviously NOT.” The blonde pointed a finger at the intruder. “Now you just tell me who, what and where you are.” She counted the three questions on her fingers.

The woman released a tired breath, then tossed up her hands allowing. “Very well… My name is Alti.”

“Alti, Alti, Alti…” Callisto hummed, considering the name. “Sounds sorta familiar…” She cocked her head at the woman. “Ever been to Cirra?”

“No.”

“Too bad… It was a really nice town, you know? Before Xena send it up in flames of course… After that it was sorta blackish and…”

“Shut up!” Alti growled.

Callisto crossed her arms indignantly. “Hey, I’m opening my heart to you here…”

“Close it.” Was the rasped response.

“Fine, fine…” Callisto waved a hand at her dismissively. “Go on…”

Alti took a breath to calm herself. “I am here to offer you a deal…”

“You skipped two questions.” The blonde wiggled two fingers at her.

The shamaness tossed up her hands in complete frustration. “Do you want to get out of here, or not? Hmm?”

Callisto considered this question for a moment. “Getting out would be quite nice.” She finally decided.

“Well, just shut up and listen then!”

Callisto remained prudently quiet.

Alti took a breath, regaining her calm. “I have a problem, and I could use your help to solve it.”

Silence from the blonde.

“Are there any more golden apples?”

Callisto pointed a thumb behind her, indicating a tree, which was quite appleless.

Alti released a tired breath. “I was afraid of that…” She glanced at the woman before her, considering. “Well, our partnership will have to last a bit longer than expected then…”

“Partnership?” Callisto cocked her head, unable to remain quiet any longer. “We’re gonna team up?”

“Yes.”

“And why would I want to team up with you?”

“Because if you do you’ll get to destroy Xena and help me take over her Empire…”

Brown eyes glinted in delight. “Good reason… A verrrry good reason.”

Pyrron looked up from his work as the door opened and Xena strode inside, her blue eyes darting across the room searchingly. “Good day, Empress.”

“Hi,” Xena murmured absently in response, her eyes still restlessly flicking about.

The advisor pushed himself up from his chair. “Are you looking for something?”

“Someone actually…” Xena corrected, releasing a breath. “Have you seen Gabrielle around?”

A bushy grey eyebrow raised at her. “Why on earth would Gabrielle be in my room, Empress?”

“I… I don’t know…” The Empress muttered in annoyance, tossing up a hand. “I figured she might come in to see Iona, or something…” She ruffled her dark hair back. “I looked in her room, the training area, dining room, the kitchen, went to the dungeon… But she’s nowhere to be found…”

Pyrron frowned, worried now. “You don’t think she would attempt to escape in broad daylight, do you?”

“No, no, no, it’s not that…” Xena hastily shook her head. “It’s just… We fought this morning and… And I did something to upset her and she stalked off…”

The concerned look was replaced with a smirk. “You did something to upset her, Empress?”

“Not on purpose.” Xena muttered defensively.

Pyrron crossed his arms. “Let me get this straight: you, the Empress of the known world, did something to upset Gabrielle, a well known rebel who’s trying to push you off the throne, and you are looking for her now to… make up?”

“Yes, I don’t want h…” Xena stopped abruptly, then lifted her gaze to meet Pyrron’s twinkling dark eyes. “Don’t look at me like that…”

“Like what?” The Advisor replied innocently.

“Like that.”

Pyrron chuckled amusedly. “Forgive me, Empress.”

Xena shot him a bored look. “Your grovelling needs work, Ronnie.” She muttered, then turned back towards the door.

The advisor smirked. “You know, I was in a similar situation once…”

Xena looked over her shoulder. “You were the ruler of the world and had temped your nemesis to training sessions in exchange for the release of her friend?”

A low laugh. “No, not that part… But I did meet this woman once and we fought constantly… I tried to be polite to her but she snapped back at whatever I did… I thought she was one of the most obnoxious people alive…”

Xena raised an eyebrow at him. “So what did you do?”

“I married her,” Pyrron replied with a grin, laughing as the Empress groaned, rolled her eyes, and strode out of the room.

One hand touched the earth, and then another. With some effort Callisto swung her upper body over the edge of the hole she was climbing out of. She blinked against the bright daylight that flooded towards her for the first time in years. Slowly she rose to her feet, closing her eyes for a moment and taking a deep breath of the fresh air. “I’m baaaack…” She chortled under her breath, before launching herself into an intricate series of flips. “Oh, this feels goooooooood.”

A throat cleared behind her and she stopped her movements and looked over her shoulder to see Alti standing a little way off, her arms crossed. “Well well…” She folded her hands behind her back, sauntering towards her saviour, letting her eyes run down and then back up the other woman’s body. “So… Are you the real thing?”

“I am.”

“Hmm…” Brown eyes regarded her judgingly for another moment. “I have to say… you looked better in the dark.”

Alti raised an eyebrow at her. “Is that so?”

“Uhuh…” Callisto circled her, then reached out and poked a finger at the woman’s upper arm, which got her a completely outraged look from Alti. She laughed. “I could beat you up with both my hands tied behind my back.”

Alti released a tired breath. “What is your point?”

“Well, it’s clear what I bring to this partnership of ours, my dear…” Callisto drawled, completing her circling and coming to stand in front of the woman. “But what would I gain from dragging you along with me, hmm? From the looks of you, you’d only be slowing me down…”

Alti rolled her eyes, wishing once more she didn’t need this woman. “I am more powerful than you think.”

“Really?” The blonde placed her hands on her hips, gazing at her in amusement. “Well, come on then… Show me your great powers…”

“Well…” Alti smiled at her charmingly. “If you insist…”

An elbow smacked into her nose harshly, then a kick against her feet sent her falling backward and she thudded onto the ground, the rocks scraping against her hands. Hastily she scrambled back to her feet. “Just give up, Xena! You can’t kill me!”

“I don’t have to,” a dark voice replied smugly, then there was that sound of a metal disk shifting through the air, the clattering as it impacting with a lever. Stone scraping against stone as the corridor that had led her into the room started to close.

“Bye,” Xena wiggled her fingers at her cheerfully, then ducked under the door.

“No!!” She yelled, jumping towards the exit, sliding across the sand, her hand reaching out… But it was too late, and the large stone door closed right in front of her. “Noooo!!”

Callisto blinked, as the memories suddenly faded and she found herself on her knees at Alti’s feet. Hastily she scrambled upright, creating some space between them. “Crap…”

“Do you want another demonstration or is this satisfactory?” Alti asked innocently.

The blonde shook her head a little to clear the last bit of fog away, then she looked up, cocking her head at Alti in interest. “You’re a witch?”

“I’m a shamaness.”

Callisto waved a hand at her dismissively. “Excuse me for not being up to date on the correct political terms… Been stuck here for…” A frown. “How long has it been?”

“Four years,” Alti supplied, then turned and walked towards her horse, untying the animal from the branch the reigns had been knotted around.

“Four years…” Callisto repeated, seemingly slightly shocked at the news. “Wow…” She watched Alti mount her horse, then steer the animal towards the road. “So…” She jogged towards the shamaness until she was walking beside her. “Did I miss anything?”

Alti shook her head, keeping her attention focussed on handling her horse. “Things have been peaceful.”

“Eeeuw.” Callisto scrunched up her nose.

The shamaness grinned darkly. “Finally something we agree on.”

They walked on for a few paces, in which Callisto glanced up at the shamaness from time to time. “Uhm… You know I could uhm… I could probably get up there behind you…”

Alti looked down at her. “Excuse me?”

“On the horse…” Callisto clarified, waving at the empty spot behind the shamaness.

A snort. “Forget it.”

Callisto crossed her arms. “What? You expect me to walk all the way to Athens?”

“We’ll get you a horse in the nearest town.”

The blonde rolled her eyes. “The nearest town is miles away.”

Alti shrugged her shoulders uncaringly. “Tough luck…”

Callisto glared up at her, huffing out an angry breath. A few more paces, then a small grin tugged at the blonde’s lips. She cleared her throat, then started humming a cheerful melody.

From the corner of her eyes she saw Alti slipping her an annoyed look.

The humming turned into whistling.

Alti bit her lip but refrained from comment, focussing her attention back on the road.

Callisto smirked, then decided it was time to move in for the kill. “I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts, taratatata, here they are a standing in a row…”

“That’s it!” Alti growled in frustration, pulling her horse to a halt. “If I let you ride, would you stop singing that horrific song?!”

“Sure.” Callisto produced a cheery smile, then allowed herself to be pulled up and settled comfortably behind the saddle. “Now see, this isn’t so bad, now is it?”

Alti growled something in a foreign tongue.

“We’re going to be great together, I just know it.” Callisto went along cheerfully, then amicably patted the shamaness’s side.. “Now, let’s get going, partner… I need to kill a man about a horse…”

With a growl Gabrielle smacked the branch which now served as a staff against the trunk of a tree. She blocked a non-existing lunge, then pulled her body into a flip, before striking out again. She’d been at this since she’d stalked off early this morning. Now the sun had risen to its zenith, small beams that managed to worm their way through the foliage warming her skin from time to time. Not that her skin needed to be warmed, mind you. Sweat was dripping from her forehead and down her bare arms liberally, as result of her non-stop drilling. The salt stung as it slid across the scrapes on her back and the now damp bandage wrapped around her left arm was rubbing uncomfortably against her skin.

Gabrielle flipped backwards, her feet touching the bark of a tree halfway up the trunk and she pushed herself off, while tossing her weapon into the air. She reached out and wrapped her hands around a branch and swung her body upwards, ending up crouching onto the wooden limb, extending a hand and deftly catching her staff again.

It wasn’t good enough. She wasn’t good enough.

She stepped off the branch and let herself fall down, landing onto the ground with an almost soundless thud. Immediately she swung her staff back and it impacted with the base of the roots of a tree harshly, and some leaves were unable to cling to their branches and drifted down around her. The warrior straightened, then started to repeat every combination move she knew once again, the sound of wood hitting wood echoing through the forest around her.

A moment of this, then her eyes narrowed. A block, a strike, then she angrily flung her weapon backwards.

Fingers folded around the wood as Xena neatly scooped it out of the air. She twirled the staff around playfully, then placed one end on the ground, leaning on the other. “So…” She lifted her gaze to meet the raging green eyes staring back at her. “What did the tree do?”

The warrior didn’t respond, drawing air into her lungs with heavy rasps.

“Well, whatever it was, I’m sure he deserved it…” Xena straightened, letting the staff rest on her shoulder as she sauntered closer. “Trees these days, huh? So out of control. If only their parents would a raised them better…”

Gabrielle’s eyes followed her every move. “Go away.” She growled in an undertone.

The Empress stopped her approach. “Why?”

“I’m not in the mood to listen to you,” was the hissed response, as the warrior did her best to keep her calm.

Xena studied the face in front of her quietly. “No, I can see that… You’re in the mood to beat yourself up…”

Gabrielle huffed out an angry breath, turning away from the Conqueror. “Leave me.”

Xena stared at the warrior’s back, seeing the red stains on her tunic. “You’re bleeding.”

“That’s none of your concern, now is it?”

The Empress shot a look skyward. “OK, just tell me… What did I do?”

Gabrielle snorted, spinning back around to face the dark haired woman. “What did you do? What did you do?!” A humourless laugh. “You don’t really want me to answer that question, do you?”

Xena shot her a bored look. “I was referring to this morning…”

“You know exactly what you did this morning!” the warrior retorted sharply.

“Enlighten me…”

“You had a chance to finish this!” Gabrielle shot at her, furiously. “And you let it pass!”

The Empress stared back at her disbelievingly. “Let me get this straight: you’re mad at me for NOT killing you this morning??”

“I don’t want your pity!” was the growled response.

Xena tossed up a hand in desperation. “I didn’t do it out of pity!”

“Why then?” A snort. “Out of the goodness of your heart?” Sarcasm was dripping from her voice.

Xena placed her hands on her hips. “I did it cause…” A breath. “Because… There’s still things you can teach me.”

“I am NOT your disposable tutor!” Gabrielle pointed an accusing finger at her. “We have a deal and I expect you to respect that!”

“You were injured! I gave you a break!”

“I didn’t ask for a break!”

Xena covered her face with a hand. “Fine. Next time I’ll just kill you, OK? Will that make you happy?!”

“Yes!”

They stared at each other, blazing blue eyes meeting equally intense green ones for a long moment, both of them breathing heavily now. Finally Xena looked away, shaking her head a little. “Tell me, Gabrielle… Does this make you feel better?” She cocked her head at the warrior. “Hmm?”

A blonde eyebrow raised at her. “What?”

“Thinking of me as a soulless monster,” Xena clarified, her eyes gone cold. “Does it ease your conscience?”

Gabrielle looked at her, then snorted indignantly. “What are you talking about?”

“You want me to be heartless, don’t you?” Xena continued. “So you can blame me… So I can be the reason for every wrong thing in the world. Isn’t that right, Gabrielle? Every death, every supposed accident, every still born child… It’s all because of me, isn’t it?”

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Shut up!”

“You want me to be the embodiment of evil, don’t you? So you can focus all your anger on me and suppress your own guilt…”

“My guilt?!” Gabrielle pointed a finger at her furiously. “I have nothing to feel guilty for! You killed them!” Her breathing was coming in heavy rasps now. “It was you! All you! I wasn’t even…” her voice caught, faltering. “I wasn’t even there…” She finished, in a softer voice, turning away hastily to mask the expressions on her face.

The rest of her tirade died on her lips. Xena studied the bent shape of the warrior quietly for a long moment. And she felt… She cocked her head a little, analysing this feeling that was drifting to the surface. Sympathy? Yes, that was it. Because she understood exactly what it was the warrior was dealing with. That gnawing guilt… It had haunted her for years now, and she had the feeling it would haunt her forever more. The memories resurfacing at the moments she least expected them. That feeling, like knives carving into your soul…

She watched as Gabrielle ran a shaky hand through her hair, trying to regain her shattered composure. “If you had been there, there was nothing you could have done to stop it.” She said then, matter-of-factly. “You would have only gotten yourself killed. And that wouldn’t have done anyone any good…”

Gabrielle bit her lip, suppressing the urge to voice how death could only be more enjoyable than her current state of being.

“You wanna blame me for the world’s woes? That’s fine. The gods know the rest of the world does…” A self-deprecatory chuckle. “But stop this pointless self-chastisement and get those wounds looked at.” She turned away, heading back towards her palace. “I expect a better fight tomorrow.”

Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment, waiting until the sound of footsteps had receded far enough, before turning around, leaning back against the bark of a nearby tree, pensively staring at the empty spot the Conqueror had occupied only moments before.

“Aaaaahhh…” Callisto sighed ecstatically, slowly withdrawing her dagger from the chest of a young man. She looked at the bloodied blade with wide grin, then lifted her free hand and drew her index finger across the blade’s surface slowly, collecting a droplet of blood on the tip and then lifting the finger to her lips. “Oh, how I missed this…”

Alti looked down at her from atop her horse with a bored expression. “If you had me deal with the boy we could have made it seem like a natural death.”

Callisto raised an eyebrow at her. “Now where’s the fun in that?”

The shamaness rolled her eyes. “It would have been less conspicuous.”

“There is nothing wrong with being conspicuous,” the blonde informed her, tucking the still bloody knife into its sheath.

“Well, I would prefer it if Xena didn’t get word of her impending death beforehand,” Alti muttered, waving a hand at the corpse. “At least put him somewhere out of sight.”

Callisto sighed, but complied, grabbing onto an arm and dragging the guy off the road unceremoniously. Then she walked back and grabbed onto the reigns of her new horse and pulled herself into the saddle. “You know, there’s this one tiny little thing I’ve been wondering about,” she said, turning the horse in the direction of Athens and then pressing her heels into its sides, pushing it into a trot.

Alti followed her, one hand clinging onto the saddle tightly to help her keep her balance.

“And what’s that?”

“Well, you’re Xena’s little pet shamaness, right?”

Dark eyes narrowed. “I’m not Xena’s little anything,” Alti snapped back.

Callisto glanced at the woman amusedly. “I sense suppressed feelings of rejection…” A giggle at the furious look shot at her. “Anyway, what I’m getting at is, you were obviously in a pretty cosy little spot… So why pop me up now all of a sudden?”

“Xena is losing her edge,” Alti clarified, her mood darkening. “She’s getting soft…”

“Soft?” Callisto shot the shamaness a disbelieving look. “The Conqueror, The Destroyer of nations is getting soft?”

“She’s letting people… live…” The last word left a particularly vile taste in Alti’s mouth and it showed in her bitter expression. “She’s had these merciful bouts before, but they always faded soon enough…”

“With some incentive from you, I’m sure…” Callisto drawled.

A smirk. “A dreaded memory never hurt no one…” A dark chuckle. “Well…” Then the shamaness’s eyes narrowed again. “But that’s not working this time… there’s an… interfering element…”

A blonde eyebrow raised at her. “An element?”

“A woman…”

“A woman?” Callisto laughed. “Don’t tell me the Conqueror is getting conquered by luuuuv…” She rolled her eyes. “How awfully common…”

Alti shrugged negligently. “I wouldn’t know.” She admitted, fixing her eyes on the nothing ahead. “All I know is that she’s repeatedly ignored my advise…”

“Good enough reason to kill her,” Callisto agreed casually. “But wouldn’t it be more beneficial to kill this interfering element first?”

“Been there, done that…” Alti sighed, shaking her head. “But Xena’s protecting the little brat, so to get to the blonde, I’ll need to eliminate Xena first.”

“And how about vice versa?”

“Her protecting Xena?” A snort. “She’s a former rebel. She hates Xena.”

Callisto cocked her head in interest. “A rebel? Really?” She watched the shamaness nod absently. “What does she look like?”

Alti glanced at her, then shrugged. “Short, blonde, green eyes…”

“Hmm…” Callisto murmured, intrigued.

“…lots of muscles. She’s a warrior…”

“Hmm.” The intonation was completely different this time. “No one I know then…”

Alti waved a hand at her. “All you have to worry about right now is Xena.” She said, dismissing the subject. “The warrior is of no concern right now…”

“But afterwards…?”

“Oh, most definitely…” A wicked grin crept onto Alti’s face. “She’s on my to-do list…”

“Empress?” Pyrron poked his head around the door of Xena’s study.

“Hmm?” Xena’s voice drifted up from her spot by the window, hidden in shadows. She didn’t turn to face him, but kept her eyes fixed on something outside.

“I finished those reports,” her advisor informed her, placing a pile of parchments on her desk. “Nothing remarkable in these…”

“Good,” Xena nodded a little. “Very good.”

Pyrron cocked his head, intrigued, then he walked closer over to the window and peeked out. “Ah…” He grinned a little. “Spying on her, are you?”

“Not exactly.” A grin tugged at her lips as she watched Gabrielle twirl a set of swords around, the reddish light of the setting sun reflecting dully of the metal. “She knows I’m watching… She’s showing off…”

“Really?” Pyrron crossed his arms, watching the warrior toss up her weapons, flip and land solidly before scooping the two swords out of the air and continuing her twirling effortlessly. “To what purpose?”

“To try and make me forget certain moments of weakness…”

A grey eyebrow raised at her. “She has moments of weakness, does she?”

Blue eyes peered at him through the shadows. “We all have our demons, Pyrron. Some people are able to hide them better than others, but they’re always there…” The Empress’s gaze shifted back to the window. “Gabrielle is haunted by many demons… Add a few more years and she might even beat me in that department…”

Pyrron studied her quietly for a moment, then looked outside as well, following the warrior’s fluent movements for a moment. “Has Brutus told you?”

Xena released a breath. “Yes.”

A nod from her advisor. “What are you going to do?”

Xena let her head rest against the windowsill. “It’s not like I have any options, Pyrron.”

“No… No, I guess not…” Pyrron agreed quietly. They were both silent for a moment. “Caspar will be crushed…”

“Yeah…” Xena rubbed a hand over her face tiredly. “I’m not too thrilled about it either…” She closed her eyes, then angrily punched her fist against the wooden windowsill. “Damn her… Why can’t she just stay put? Does she really think I don’t know what’s going on in my own palace?”

“Sometimes, we believe only what we want to believe, Empress…”

“Stupid…” Xena shook her head, turning away from the window and pacing to her desk, sagging down in her seat. “Damn her…” Xena pressed both her hands against her face exhaling gravely. “And damn me…”

She sat like that for a moment, ordering her thoughts, then she dropped her hands into her lap. “I want thirty men in that passageway, I want patrols in the city doubled near the exit and I want to be alerted the moment she makes her move.” Xena folded her hands together, resting her chin on top of the entwined fingers. “She’s not leaving this palace alive.”

“That is so cool!”

Gabrielle paused and turned around, to see Iona watching her in rapt fascination. “I thought you’d be asleep by now.”

“Pff.” Iona waved her off. “Sleep’s for kids.”

A blonde eyebrow raised at her. “And what are you then?”

“A semi-adult.”

A chuckle. “I see.”

“Could you teach me to do that?” Iona continued anxiously. “You know, twirl and flip and catch and…”

Gabrielle swept her swords around lazily. “Do you know how to handle a sword?”

A shake of the blonde head. “No.”

“Don’t you think it’s a good idea to start at the beginning then? You know, learn how to hold a sword first?”

“Just holding it?” Iona’s face scrunched up in dismay. “That’s boring… Anybody can do that…”

“Yeah? Wanna bet?” She held out one of her weapons to the girl. “Ten pieces of candy say you can’t hold it.”

“You’re on!” Iona greedily reached for the weapon, grabbing onto it with both hands. It was heavier than she’d thought, but she could lift it without straining her muscles too much. “See? Told you I could… Hey!”

Gabrielle had kicked the toe of her boot against the sword hilt, sending it flying from the girl’s hands. The warrior reached out, then swooped the blade from the air. “I win.”

“That’s not fair!” Iona argued, crossing her arms. “You didn’t say you were gonna kick at it.”

“Never said I wouldn’t either.” Gabrielle smirked back at her.

Blue eyes looked at her for another moment, then Iona sighed in frustration. “Fine, fine… I’ve got some honey drops in my room… Are you busy, or can you come get ‘m?”

Gabrielle cocked her head, extending her senses. “Depends… The Conqueror is done watching me, right?”

Iona frowned, then shrugged. “I’ll check.” She looked up at the window over Gabrielle’s shoulder. “Yo, Xena!”

Gabrielle covered her eyes with a hand. “Oh gods…”

The sound of footsteps drifted through the window, then Xena poked her head out. “Yeah?”

“You done spying on Gabrielle?”

The warrior snorted, shaking her head a little. “So much for subtlety.” She muttered under her breath, turning around and looking up at the Conqueror.

The Empress laughed. “That depends…” She looked at Gabrielle. “Is the show over?”

The warrior dropped her head, not quite able to repress a smirk. “Yeah.”

Xena grinned and then started applauding her. “Great performance.” She drawled. “Very impressive.”

Gabrielle half suppressed a chuckle, then she bowed with an elegant wave of her free hand.

Xena laughed, her eyes twinkling as Gabrielle looked up and met them for a moment. A moment, then the twinkle receded, to be replaced with another emotion hidden in the depths of the blue orbs. “I wish it could last longer.”

She was in luck today. Gabrielle easily parried a blow, then ducked under a second. Xena had picked chobos as her weapon of choice. A big mistake, since Gabrielle’s tutor had been a master at the chobos and had taught her everything he knew. Though she preferred the directness of the sword, chobos were second on her list of favourites, and she comfortably wielded her weapons around, easily sidestepping another lunge from the Conqueror, before starting an attack of her own. A rapid pounding of wood on wood filled the air as Gabrielle attempted lunge after lunge, until she was finally able to catch the Empress on the back of the legs.

Xena winced, adding another bruise to her list of small injuries, then quickly focused on defending herself as Gabrielle came at her once more. Her options were limited, but she wasn’t ready yet to let this fight come to an end, so she hastily lifted her weapon, aiming and then jabbing the end of one of her chobos against a particular point on the warrior’s thigh.

Gabrielle’s attack stopped immediately and the warrior hastily skipped back a few paces, looking down at her suddenly very limp right leg. “What the Hades…?”

Xena chuckled, taking advantage of the off guard moment by hopping back to her feet. “Welcome to the wonderful world of pressure points, Gabrielle.”

“Pressure points?” Gabrielle cocked her head in interest, suppressing the pain stinging through her leg, while bringing up her chobos defensively.

“Uhuh,” Xena smirked at her, very content with her tiny victory, before quickly bringing up both chobos to block an attack. “I just…” A smack to the warrior’s side, which was deflected with ease. “….cut off…” A strike to the lower left leg. “…the flow…” Wood thudded on wood. “…of blood…” A parry and a counterattack. “… to your leg.” She swept both her chobos at Gabrielle’s head simultaneously, forcing the warrior to focus all her attention on defending herself, and then hastily jabbing at Gabrielle’s thigh again, releasing the pressure point. “Can’t keep it blocked too long though, or you’ll lose that leg…” A sly grin. “And that’d be a real waste, now wouldn’t it?”

Gabrielle put some weight back on her leg, which was tingling a little, but didn’t appear to have been permanently damaged. “Interesting technique.” She murmured, blocking the Empress’s next attack almost absently.

“Works very well with chobos.” Xena said between breaths as she slowly started circling her opponent.

Gabrielle cocked her head pensively, adding this new information to the knowledge she had of the human body, mentally pinpointing the position she’d have to hit and then lunging forward. She executed a few combination moves and then kicked out at the warrior’s left leg, getting her off balance before jabbing one of her chobos against Xena’s thigh.

Xena back flipped, creating some space between them. “Nice try,” She complimented. “Not bad for a first time…” She then pointed her weapon at a spot slightly lower of where she’d been hit. “Try to hit me here. And don’t just jab. Twist your weapon a little on impact.”

A blonde eyebrow lifted at her. “Who’s tutoring who now?”

Xena chuckled amusedly. “You’ve got a problem with this?”

Gabrielle seemed to consider this question seriously for a moment, but then shook her head. “No. Just uncommon.” She twirled a chobo around lazily. “Normally people don’t teach lethal pressure points to those who attempt to kill them, after all.”

“Yeah well…” Xena launched off, flipping over the warrior’s head and then turning, swinging her chobos towards Gabrielle’s left. “I’m not really normal, am I?”

Gabrielle blocked them both with one of her weapons, while jabbing the other at Xena’s leg once more, now hitting the exact right spot. “Won’t argue with that.” She murmured, while spinning and swiping Xena’s legs out from under her before pouncing on her victim, ending up with both her chobos pressed against the Conqueror’s neck in a V-shape. “Gotcha.”

Xena let both her hands fall to her sides in a pose of defeat. “You got me.” She pointed a finger towards her leg. “I need to undo what you did to my leg within the next thirty seconds.”

“Hmm…” Gabrielle gazed down at her thoughtfully for a moment, not moving an inch. “There’s nothing in our set of rules that says I can’t make you lose a limb, now is there?”

Xena looked up at her calmly, folding her hands under her head. “No.”

Green eyes studied her. “You don’t seem too worried…”

A negligent shrug. “Would being worried get me anywhere?”

“No.”

“Well, there ya go…”

Gabrielle gazed at her for another moment, then shook her head a little, before rolling off her opponent and neatly hopping back to her feet.

Xena pushed herself up and quickly jabbed two fingers at her thigh, not quite smothering a sigh of relief as the pressure in her leg subsided. “You like to cut it close, don’t you?”

“Is there any other way to cut?” The warrior replied dryly, strolling over to the Conqueror’s side while the dark-haired woman pushed herself back to her feet, still favouring her right leg a little. “So… Are there any more of these… pressure points?”

Xena looked down at her companion in amusement. “Why would I tell you if there were?”

Gabrielle considered this for a moment. “You know that roll-and-kick thing I did yesterday?”

“Where you send me flying back ten feet?” A low chuckle. “How could I forget…”

“I can teach you how to do that.”

Xena went over that offer for a moment. “All right… that buys you… two pressure points…”

Gabrielle snorted. “Two? That move would send anyone else to their death. Besides, it’s an excellent way to show off. It’s worth… six at least.”

“Six?” Xena laughed. “I’ll give you half of that. Three.”

“Five.”

“Four.” The Empress pointed a finger at her. “And that’s my final offer.”

“You got yourself a deal.”

The Empress shook her head with a grin. “You know, Gabrielle, you’d make a pretty decent politician.” A sideways glance. “I have a spot available up in Macedonia…”

Gabrielle lifted a hand, stopping her sentence. “Don’t even go there…”

Xena released a breath, facing forward again. “It was worth a shot…”

“Oh, look who’s back…” Xena drawled as she entered the hallway. “Alti, are those bags under your eyes or did you slip with the eyeliner again?”

The shamaness crossed her arms, glaring at her. “It’s always such a joy to be back here…”

The Empress chuckled wickedly, closing the distance between them. “How was your little trip?”

“Oh, it was very…productive…”

“Is that so?” Xena cocked her head at the woman. “Anything you wanna share with me?”

“Oh most definitely,” A wicked grin. “But not right now. I rode all night, I need to catch up on some sleep first.”

“What? You’re tired?” Xena tsk-ed at her. “You do realise sleepiness is a human flaw, don’t you Alti? I thought you’d distanced yourself from the human race years ago…”

The shamaness rolled her eyes tiredly. “You’ll forgive me if I’m not in the mood for your witty remarks right now, Xena.” She turned away from the woman and headed towards the guestrooms. “We will… speak… this evening…”

Xena looked after the woman with a frown, then shrugged and turned towards her private quarters. She didn’t get far though, before she was ambushed by a bouncing blonde, followed shortly by her younger sister. “Sena!” Niobe called out enthusiastically, increasing her pattering speed and heading straight for the warrior. “Sena! Up!”

“But of course, your highness,” Xena drawled, obediently scooping up the toddler and tossing her into the air a little.

Niobe chortled in delight. “Again!”

A grin tugged at the Empress’s lips as she complied, meanwhile greeting the twelve year old standing in front of her. “Hey Io. How’s things?”

“That depends,” Iona stated, looking up at her. “Dad said you’re finished with those reports…”

“I am.”

“Cool!” The blonde reached for the warrior’s tunic and turned, tugging Xena along behind her. “Come on then…”

Xena allowed herself to be dragged along amicably. “And where are we going, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Horsies!” Niobe informed her enthusiastically. “Go horsies!”

“Horsies huh?” Blue eyes darted from the burden that had attached herself to her side to the blonde in front of her. “And what if I don’t feel like going to the horsies.”

“Chilon is really restless… He needs to get out of his box…” Iona made an attempt at rationalising her actions.

“Well, you can just put him in the meadow then, right?”

Frustrated blue eyes looked up at the Conqueror. “Aw, come on…” A pout. “Please? Just for a little while…”

“Go horsies.” Niobe joined in, tugging at Xena’s hair impatiently. “Go, go!”

“All right, all right…” Xena laughed, putting a hand on Iona’s shoulder and guiding her towards the stables. “Horsies it is then…”

“Yay.” Niobe cheerfully bounced up and down a little, then smacked a kiss on Xena’s cheek. “Luv ya.”

Xena rolled her eyes. “There’ll be a day when that trick won’t work anymore, short stuff…”

Niobe giggled, happily wrapping her arms around Xena’s neck and pillowing her head on the Empress’s shoulder.

Xena smiled down at toddler affectionately. “Then again, maybe not…”

“Hey Xena?” Iona tugged on her arm.

“Hmm?”

“Can Gabrielle come?”

Blue eyes glanced down at the blonde for a moment, then faced forward again, a slightly regretful look on the dark features. “You can ask her… But I have the feeling she’s busy with… other things…”

“Oh…” Iona considered this then shrugged. “That’s all right then. You’ll do for today…”

Xena snorted. “Oh, I’ll do, will I?”

“Yes,” Iona smirked up at her, then ran ahead before Xena could launch any sort of tickling attack. “I’m gonna go saddle Chilon.”

Xena shook her head at the young blonde. “What are we going to do with that girl?”

Niobe cocked her head at the Empress. “Jona?”

“Uhuh.” Xena confirmed.

“Luv Jona.”

“You would…” Xena affectionately ruffled the thick brown bangs, making the toddler giggle. “Is there anybody you don’t love?”

“Yes.” Niobe nodded vehemently.

“Who?”

“Bad lady.”

Xena chuckled in amusement. “You’ll have to be a little more specific, short stuff. Which bad lady?”

“Which.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m asking.”

“No…” Niobe’s face scrunched up in dismay. “Which lady.” Niobe wiggled her fingers in front of Xena’s face, narrowing her eyes. “Spiwitul powess.”

Xena looked at her for a moment, then burst out laughing. “Oh gods… That is the best impression of Alti so far. Show your father that sometime, OK? He could use a good laugh.”

“Atti bad.” Niobe poked out her lower lip. “No play nice.”

Xena sobered a little as she stepped through the double doors and into the garden, taking a deep breath of the fresh morning air. “No, she doesn’t… But don’t you worry, short stuff… I’ve got it all under control.”

Gabrielle leaned back in her seat, judging the lines and numbers she’d just drawn on her bit of parchment. She glanced at the chakram lying beside her, then reached out and hefted the ring for a moment, thoughtfully, then she jotted another number on the parchment with her free right hand. The first thing to learning how a weapon worked was figuring out why it worked the way it did. And this chakram was a pretty complex piece of weaponry, Gabrielle realised, as she multiplied the mass of the ring with several speeds, then compared the resulting numbers. Not only was it important how you threw it, or how fast it flew, but you also had to realise at what kind of angle it was going to hit the object you were aiming for, whether it had enough force to dig its sharp edges into the target, or whether it would just bounce off and continue on its way. And if it did bounce off, you had to know what the resulting trajectory would be to be able to catch the chakram as it returned.

Which led her to conclude Xena was either a brilliant mathematician or a natural talent with this weapon. Gabrielle rolled her eyes. Actually, the woman was probably both.

Solving all the mysteries about this chakram and mastering handling the weapon before tonight seemed impossible however, so she took the parchment and folded it, then folded it again, before tucking it into the back pocket of her pants. She didn’t have the space here to practice throwing it anyway, using it inside this room would probably cost her her head. She’d work out what exactly this ring could do when she got out of here…

If you get out of here, the more rational part of her brain corrected. Don’t get ahead of yourself, Gab. The warrior released a breath, then pulled her bag from under her bed and tucked her possessions back inside. Silently she went over the steps again in her mind. A little before sunset she’d go and take Argo for a ride. She’d put all her stuff on the horse, ride far away from the palace and into the woods, and then let the mare go. The palace grounds were huge, and it’d take Xena days to search it all, even if she put her whole army to the task. And Argo was smart, she’d be able to avoid any people coming at her long enough for the warrior to find her and sneak her out some way or another.

It wasn’t really a fool proof plan, but getting a horse out of a heavily armed palace unnoticed was pretty impossible, so this seemed the best solution on short notice. She loved Argo, and hated to leave her in a potentially dangerous situation, but her main concern now was Thalia. Besides, if Xena did manage to catch the mare, she knew how much Gabrielle cared for the horse and would use her as leverage, to bribe the warrior into coming back, so Argo’s life wasn’t at stake.

After dropping off Argo she’d sneak back into the palace, take down the guard, go ‘visit’ the prisoners and then they could make their escape through the passageway down the hall and reach the city around midnight.

Gabrielle pushed open the door and exited her room, letting her eyes flick across the hallway and extending her other senses. There were a few soldiers walking along, some servants busying about, but that was all completely normal. Gabrielle had noticed during her stay here that this palace never slept. It was quieter at some hours than others, but there was always someone up doing something somewhere. A young servant who was mopping the floor looked up and smiled at her warmly. “Good day, ma’am.”

“Hi.” She smiled back at him as she walked past.

The initial wary looks directed at her had vanished abruptly after her bit of toying around with the Regent of Egypt a few days back. Benitor had told her afterwards she was now worshipped by the larger part of the staff, since almost all of them had had a run in with the obnoxious Cleopatra one time or another and hated the pretentious woman deeply. She was demanding to the staff, never uttered a nice word about anything, no matter how hard they tried, so finally seeing her get her butt kicked was satisfying, to say the least. Who said beating people up never got you any friends…?

Gabrielle smiled to herself as she rounded another corner, making her way towards the kitchen. It was a little after lunchtime, about a candle mark past noon, and asking the kitchen staff for lunch would be an easy way of getting close to Solari and giving her a sign the plan was going down for tonight. She’d actually purposefully left the Amazon out of most of her planning, knowing she’d be safer that way, but she did need Solari to tell them about good places to hide, since she wasn’t up to date on the on goings in the city. During her time in the rebellion they’d continually changed hideouts, moving from one spot to another and back, to create confusion and what she remembered most of Agenor was his calculating nature, so she was quite sure he’d continued doing that. Which basically meant she had no idea where to find him. But Solari did, or at least, she knew people who knew people who knew people who did, so she needed the Amazon with her the moment she got into the city.

The kitchen was bustling with activity, and she carefully avoided a few servants rushing out with plates. “Gabrielle!” The Chinese chef she’d encountered on her first trip here bowed to her politely. “I’m honoured to meet you once more. I hope you’re well?”

“I’m great, thanks.” She beamed a smile at him. “Actually, I was trying to dig up something for lunch.”

Ch’u Feng tsk-ed at her. “You should just call for someone. They could bring it to your room for you.” He neatly split an union into two equal halves, then started dicing one half into tiny slivers. “We are paid to offer you service.”

“I know,” Gabrielle smiled at him, her eyes flicking across the room and spotting Solari in her usual corner, hidden in the shadows. “I just felt like stretching my legs a little…”

“All right then…” The Chinese man looked up at her with a smile, his knife continuing his slicing on pure instinct. “But at least let me make you something special.”

“Won’t say no to that,” Gabrielle flashed him a grin, which made him laugh, then he turned around and opened some cabinet doors near his feet and removed a few ingredients.

“You like omelette?”

“Sure.”

He nodded a little, then started dicing a bunch of mixed vegetables at top speed.

Gabrielle shot another look at Solari’s corner and as luck would have it the Amazon looked up at her at the exact same moment. Gabrielle held her gaze for a moment, then inclined her head slightly, imperceptible to anybody but the brunette. Solari looked back at her, understanding, and then returned to her work as if nothing had happened. Gabrielle silently complimented the woman again on her handling of the situation, calm and reserved, certainly for someone who’d been here stuck serving the Conqueror for years on end and was now being told tonight might be her ticket to freedom…

Meanwhile, Ch’u Feng was flipping his vegetables around in the large half-orb-shaped black pan he was holding over the flames. “You want bread or rice with that?”

“Bread’ll do…” Gabrielle said, focussing back on her soon to be lunch.

“Ah, you show your western roots, Gabrielle.” The Chinese man flashed her a grin as he tapped an egg on the edge of the pan, breaking it, then opening it expertly with one hand, while he kept flipping the veggies with his other. He tossed in a variety of herbs, then took a wooden spatula stirred and flipped his creation over. A boy came walking over with a plate with two pieces of bread and the chef neatly laid out his vegetable omelette on top of the slices, then dropped the pan in a bowl of cold water, steam drifting up as a soft hissing filled the air. “I hope you like it.”

Gabrielle spiked up a bit of omelette with her fork and tested. “Love it.” She confided to the cook around a mouthful. “There’s…” She tasted again, frowning a little now. “There’s something familiar about the taste…” She sniffed up some of the fragrant air. “Something…”

“The herbs.” Ch’u Feng said. “They come from Chin.”

It was the spicy smell mostly that brought her back to her senses. Gabrielle opened her eyes, blinking against the bright sunlight streaming into… A frown. Into where? Where was she? She tried to push herself to her upright, but her aching body protested and she dropped back on the mattress, muffling a cry of pain.

“Don’t try to get up,” A soft voice drifted up from the other side of the room, then gentle footsteps made their way over to the bedside. Gabrielle turned her head to see a Chinese woman with long black hair and dressed in light yellow robes slide towards her, a placid smile on her face. “You’re injured…” She put a tray filled with a steaming plate and a cup of some hot liquid onto on a small table at the blonde’s bedside. “Do you recall what happened?”

Gabrielle blinked at her for a moment longer. Her suspicious nature was ordering her not to tell this woman anything, but her more trusting side finally won over, supported by the calm aura her companion seemed to emanate. “I uhm…” She cleared her throat, dry from not having spoken for so long. The woman wordlessly handed her a cup of hot tea. Gabrielle took a sip of the liquid, then peeked up and managed a smile. “Thank you.”

Her companion smiled back easily. “You are welcome.”

The blonde’s own smile increased a little, then she let her eyes dart across the room, uncomfortably.

“You are in the house of Lao,” the woman answered her unasked question. “I am Lao Ma. I found you on the roadside on my way back from the village nearby.”

Roadside? Gabrielle dug into her memories, trying to recall what had happened. “I uhm… Someone offered me a ride to the next village. I excepted. He gave me a spot on the back of his cart and…” A breath as images of what had happened started to filter through. “There were raiders blocking the path up ahead… He told me…” She dropped her gaze and studied the blankets pulled over her. “He told me to jump off and hide… I uhm…” She waved a hand at her legs. “I can’t walk well…I didn’t want to get in his way, so I jumped, rolled off the road…” She bit her lip, closing her eyes. “They killed him. I saw them kill him, but I…” Her voice faltered. “I couldn’t even…”

A hand gently touched her shoulder, and Gabrielle looked up, her eyes watery. “Calm now…” Lao Ma looked down at her compassionately. “It was hardly your fault…”

Gabrielle shook her head sadly. “You don’t understand… I’m a trouble magnet…People who hang around me, they…” A breath, then she made another attempt to push herself to her feet. “I should go…”

The pressure on her shoulder increased and she was gently pushed back into the pillow. “You should not.”

A blonde eyebrow raised. “You don’t tell me what I can or can’t do.”

A grin tugged at the edges of Lao Ma’s lips. “Why do I always end up taking care of the stubborn ones…” She muttered under her breath.

Gabrielle frowned at her. “Excuse me?”

“Nothing.” Her companion said, then grabbed hold of the edge of Gabrielle’s blankets and tugged, pulling the covers off her bare legs.

“Hey!” The blonde called out indignantly. “What do you think…?”

“Shush.” Lao Ma lifted a finger at her, the simple gesture stilling all protest. “Do you want to walk without pain?”

Gabrielle let her head fall back on her pillow. “I went to every healer I’ve heard off. No one could help me.”

Lao Ma remained quiet, kneeling down at the bedside and rubbing her hands against each other to warm them a little, before reaching out and touching the blonde’s knee and letting her touch slide down her lower legs. “The bones were not set properly… They were shattered…” Her touch trailed lower, until she reached Gabrielle’s feet and there she halted. Gabrielle could feel the previously steady touch faltering, her hands shaking softly against the blonde’s skin. Lao Ma stared at the small, circular wound for a long moment, then bent her head. “She crucified you.”

Gabrielle closed her eyes, forcing back the memories that immediately drifted up with those words. “I don’t wanna talk about it.” She managed from between clenched teeth.

In the silence that followed she felt the woman’s hands pull away from her skin. This Lao Ma now realised too the situation was hopeless, the blonde thought as she bit her lip, forcing her emotions down. She was doomed to…

Her thoughts suddenly stopped as a warmth surrounded her feet, then slowly started to spread its way up. It was like nothing she’d ever felt before, as if warm clouds of pure goodness were slowly shifting through her skin. The feeling lasted for several moments, and when it faded it left her feeling oddly empty and yet full.

Gabrielle blinked open her eyes, then pushed herself up, mentally bracing herself for the pain that action would cause. But there was no pain. She glanced down her body in confusion, down her bare legs, to see unscathed, straight skin. All that remained were two tiny scars, one on each foot, the places where the nails had been driven through.

“Better?” A soft voice inquired, and for the first time she looked up at Lao Ma, who was smiling down at her.

“B… But… How d…?” She stuttered in return.

“Come.” The woman cut her short, spreading her arms. “Stand up.”

Gabrielle blinked, unsure for a moment, but then she swung her legs off the bed, her bare feet touching the cold floor.

And then she was standing. Solidly, without pain, for the first time in months. The sensation brought tears to her eyes, and she hastily wiped at them with the back of her sleeve, as she tried to swallow back the lump in her throat. When she felt she had her emotions at least party under control she looked up gratefully. “Thank you. This is… amazing…” She took a step closer, bending her head in reverence. “How did you do that?”

Lao Ma smiled at her fondly. “I did nothing.”

“Sure you did,” Gabrielle insisted. “You healed me.”

The woman shook her head. “I did nothing to accomplish that.”

The blonde frowned at her. “I don’t understand.”

Lao Ma laughed softly. “You will…”

“Gabrielle?” Ch’u Feng’s hesitant voice cut through her pondering. “Did I do something to upset you? Or is the food not to your liking?”

“No, it’s…” The warrior shook her head a little, clearing it. “I’m sorry, I just drifted off there for a moment…” She shook her fork at the plate she was still holding. “The herbs… brought back some memories…”

He nodded in understanding. “Good or bad?”

Gabrielle took a breath, then managed a small smile. “Good memories.” She took another bite of her lunch, chewing. “Very good. They just… leave a bitter taste…”

The cook nodded, then reached behind him, wordlessly handing her a glass of water.

“More fast! Go more fast!” Niobe chortled, the wind toying with her thick brown locks.

Xena tightened her hold on the young girl sitting in front of her. “This is about as fast as horses go, shorty.” She burred in the toddler’s ear.

“More fast!” Niobe insisted again, giggling in complete delight. “Go, go!”

The Empress rolled her eyes. “She’s worse than you are, Io.”

Iona laughed happily, leaning back in Chilon’s saddle comfortably. “Family trait.”

Xena glanced at the girl riding beside her with a half smile. “You don’t know the half of it…”

“What?” The blonde called over the noise of the rushing wind surrounding them.

“We need to slow down,” Xena retorted, gently pulling the mare she was riding back into a trot.

“Ba-ounce ba-ounce!” The toddler in front of her kirred as she hopped up and down in the saddle.

Xena chuckled, then slowed the horse down even more. “No more bouncing for you. You’ll get your brains all scrambled.”

“Fun!” Niobe said, tipping her head back and looking up at her playmate in complete adoration. “Luv ya.”

“Right back at ya, short stuff.” Xena ruffled the dark brown locks affectionately. “You know you’re my favourite…”

“Hey!” Iona called indignantly as she fell into pace beside the Empress.

“…three year old,” Xena finished, flashing Iona a grin.

“That’s more like it…” Iona smirked back at her, then leaned over and patted Chilon’s neck. “Good job, boy.”

Chilon snorted.

“G’job.” Niobe agreed, patting Xena’s thigh amicably.

Xena snorted.

Niobe giggled.

“Hey, Xena? Can’t we keep riding for a bit longer?” Iona suggested. “I mean, you finished those reports right? You have time…”

“I have time… You on the other hand…” Xena shot the blonde a look. “You are not getting out from under your homework, Io.”

“Who says I’m trying to ditch my homework?” The young blonde shot her an indignant look. “Maybe I just missed spending time with you…”

Xena shook her head decidedly. “It’s not gonna work…”

Iona pouted. “I just…”

“No.”

“But…”

“No.”

Iona released a grave breath. “Fine, fine… I’ll do the boring homework…”

Xena leaned closer and patted her knee amicably. “That’s my girl.”

They exited the forest and pulled to a halt near the stables. Iona swung her leg over Chilon’s head, then slid off the stallion’s back, impacting with the solid earth with a soft thud.

“Here, take your sister…” Xena said, lifting the squiggling Niobe off the horse and handing her down.

“Don’t wanna!” Niobe objected. “Stay horsie! Go fast!”

“Took the words right out of my mouth, sis.” Iona muttered, looking at Xena pointedly.

The Empress just rolled her eyes at the two, then dismounted herself. “Come on, the both of you. Lets get these horses settled.” She shot a glance up at the skies, judging it about a Candlemark before sunset. “Even if I wanted to we couldn’t go out again. I have a meeting with Alti…”

“You could skip that for once,” Iona argued, putting Niobe on the ground, the toddler immediately returning to Xena’s side and looking up expectantly.

“Not today.” Xena shook her head, obediently scooping up the toddler with one arm, while holding onto the reigns of her horse with the other. “But uhm…” She considered for a moment, thinking of the pile of work resting on her desk. “Maybe if you work ahead on your homework a little, we could take tomorrow afternoon off… Go fishing or something…”

“For real?” Iona’s mood swung around to overly delighted. “I’d love that!” She hastily tugged Chilon forward, falling into pace beside Xena. “Can you teach me to catch ‘m too? With just my hands?”

“Maybe…” Xena drawled, smiling at one of the stable boys who bowed to her politely. “But only if you do a good job on that homework of yours, understood? No slacking…”

“My homework will be slackless…” Iona vowed solemnly, tugging Chilon ahead of Xena’s mare and leading him into the stable first. “It’ll be just you and me, right?”

“Ey!” Niobe objected, tugging at Xena’s hair. “Wanna cum!”

Iona glanced behind her, considering for a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t mind that. As long as Caspar stays behind…”

“I heard that!” An indignant voice called out, then Caspar’s head poked out of one of the boxes.

Iona looked surprised for a moment, then regained her composure and stuck her tongue out at the boy.

Caspar’s brown eyes narrowed to slits.

Xena rolled her eyes. “Cut it out you two. I don’t want any fighting in my stables.” She warned. “You’ll upset the horses.”

“Be nice!” Niobe added, waving a finger at her siblings warningly.

The Empress chuckled. “You tell ‘m, short stuff.”

Iona shot her brother another look, pulling Chilon into his own box. “What are you doing here anyway… You don’t even like horses…”

“He was helping me,” a fifth voice dropped in as Gabrielle rose to her feet, brushing some dust off her tunic.

Caspar crossed his arms, his pose a bit more confident now that he had Gabrielle towering behind him. “And I do like horses. I just don’t like your horse…”

Chilon snorted indignantly, shaking his dark head.

“Abby!” Niobe called out enthusiastically, wiggling in Xena’s hold. “Sena! ‘s Abby!”

The Empress grinned. ” I noticed.” She placed the toddler on the ground, then watched her scurry out of the box.

Niobe pattered on, ducking past Caspar and towards Gabrielle, who’d dropped back to a knee and was brushing Argo’s lower legs. “Abby!”

The blonde looked up, then smiled at the three year old. “Hey.”

Niobe wrapped an arm around the warrior’s leg, hugging her, then glanced up to look at the mare towering over her. “Aggo.”

“Good memory,” Gabrielle praised, impressed.

“Aggo good.” Niobe reached out a hand, patting the horse’s skin, then looked up at Gabrielle. “Abby good.”

The warrior smiled, then reached out and ruffled the girl’s hair affectionately. “Glad you think so.”

“It seems I’m loosing control of my army of munchkins,” Xena commented, leaning in the doorway, looking down at the duo in amusement.

Gabrielle glanced up. “Oh, I doubt that…” She rose to her feet, lifting Niobe up with her and placing the toddler on Argo’s strong back. The girl squealed in delight, patting the mare affectionately, chattering on about how good a horse she was.

A dark eyebrow raised at her. “Is that so?”

“Uhuh…” Gabrielle nodded, keeping one hand on Niobe’s back to keep her balanced. “I’ve just spent the last Candlemark listening to an ode to your intelligence…”

Xena frowned, then looked down to see Caspar shuffling his feet uncomfortably. “Ah…” Understanding dawned. She reached out and patted the boy’s cheek. “Thanks for standing up for me, sport.” She looked up again with a twinkle. “So… Did he convince you?”

Gabrielle looked back at her calmly. “If I had ever underestimated your intelligence, I doubt I’d be standing right now.”

The Empress chuckled. “Probably… I…” Her head shot up as Iona came racing by, Chilon’s halter dangling over her shoulder and the saddle in her hands. “Hey? Where are you rushing off to…?”

“Gotta go do my homework!” Iona called back, then ran out the door.

Gabrielle raised both eyebrows at the words. “What happened to her? She coming down with something?”

Xena laughed softly. “No… I just gave her a bit of an incentive…” She smirked at the warrior, then looked down at the boy by her side. “Could you do me a favour and run up to tell your father I won’t be making it to dinner tonight?”

“Sure,” Caspar nodded eagerly, turned to race off, then changed his mind and spun around again. “Gabrielle?”

“Hmm?” The warrior straightened after she’d deposited Niobe back on the ground and looked at him questioningly.

“Are you gonna come to dinner?”

The warrior hesitated for a moment, shooting a glance at Xena, before shaking her head. “No… I’ve… got some things to do… I wanna take Argo for a ride before it gets dark…”

“Oh,” he couldn’t mask his disappointment. “I see…”

Gabrielle took a breath. “Maybe… we can catch up later… OK?”

This brought a smile back to his face. “OK,” he said happily, then rushed off.

Xena kept quiet during the exchange, and now reached down to swoop up Niobe. “I have some things to do too.” She said, looking up and meeting Gabrielle’s eyes. “Enjoy your ride…”

The warrior nodded softly, wondering what that odd look in the Conqueror’s eyes was all about. “I will.”

Xena’s eyes held her gaze for another moment, then the dark-haired woman turned around and walked away.

Niobe looked back at the warrior over Xena’s shoulder, wiggled her fingers at her cheerfully. “Bye bye.”

Gabrielle took a breath, managing a smile tinged with a bit of regret. “Goodbye,” she mumbled.

“Alti,” Xena greeted her shamaness as she spotted the woman walking in the gardens. “Had enough rest?”

“For now…” The shamaness drawled as she looked up, her dark eyes taking in the Conqueror and the child sitting on her shoulder. Niobe’s eyes narrowed as Alti let her gaze settle on her. “Do you have a moment? There is something I want to show you…”

“Sure,” Xena shrugged negligently, then put Niobe back on her feet. “Go on, short stuff.”

The toddler blinked up at her, then shot a look at Alti, clearly uncomfortable. Instinctively she stuck close to the Empress, wrapping an arm around Xena’s leg possessively.

The Empress shook her head with a small smile, then knelt down, patting the girl’s cheek. “Go on now.”

Deep brown eyes peered up at her insecurely. “Bad lady,” Niobe whispered. “No good, Sena.”

“There’s nothing to worry about.” Xena ruffled the short brown locks affectionately. “Go to your daddy, OK? I’ll see you later.”

The toddler seemed in doubt for another moment, then reluctantly let go of her hold on the woman and pattered off, looking back over her shoulder a few times, insecurely.

Xena shook her head at the girl, then turned towards Alti, who had watched the whole exchange with crossed arms. “All right… I’m all yours…”

The shamaness chuckled wickedly. “Excellent.” She shot the Conqueror a grin, then turned, heading towards the forest edge. “Follow me.”

“Sure,” Xena agreed amiably, folding her hands behind her back and walking along after Alti. “What’s this about?”

“Oh, you’ll see…”

Xena shrugged. “OK.”

They only managed to walk a few paces though, before a voice called her back. “Empress! Wait!”

Xena frowned, turning around to see a young man rushing closer, his face red and puffy, sweat dripping from his forehead. “Yes?”

He skidded to a halt in front of her, his breath coming in heavy rasps. He tapped his hand to his chest in salute. “Empress, I…” A breath. “I bring you news. My lieutenant told me to come straight to you.”

The Empress crossed her arms, cocking her head in interest. “What’s so important then?”

“We were patrolling, Empress. On the road between here and Thebes we found a man.” He swallowed, still trying to get his breathing under control. “He was dead, Empress. Murdered. There was a dagger wound in his chest.”

“Murdered?” A dark eyebrow raised sharply. “This close to Athens? That’s very rare…”

“That’s why my lieutenant sent me, highness,” the messenger said. “He thought you would want to know.”

“He was right,” Xena mumbled, pensively. “I’ll look into the matter. Go inside and find my Advisor and tell him about this. He’ll get you something to drink and a place to rest. Tell him…” She glanced at Alti for a moment, then turned back. “Tell him I have something to do first, but I’ll be back as soon as possible.”

The soldier bowed politely. “Yes, Empress.” He saluted again, then strode off.

Xena watched him go, then turned to the shamaness standing beside her. “This won’t take long, will it?”

“Oh no…” Alti shot her a charming smile. “It won’t take long at all…”

Gabrielle settled her bags behind Argo’s saddle, securing them tightly. The sun had made its way down, towards the horizon and was now casting rays of blood red light across the landscape. Gabrielle had calculated this was the best time to depart. She’d kept an eye on Xena, who’d disappeared into the woods with her shamaness a little while ago. The Conqueror’s absence would make things a lot easier, she realised, as she led Argo outside, then pulled the horse to a halt and adjusted the stirrups. Some guard getting in her way wouldn’t slow her down in the slightest, but the Conqueror was a bit more of a challenge, to say the least.

The warrior grabbed onto the reigns, then stuck a boot into a stirrup and pulled herself into the saddle. If she hurried up a little she could be back here within a quarter of a Candlemark. It’d be dark by then and she could get her plans under way.

Gabrielle took a breath and squared her shoulders, then clacked her tongue. Argo moved forward obediently.

Twilight had fallen now, the dim light still emanating from the sun drawing long, eerie shadows across the forest path, which moved back and forth as the wind toyed with the foliage high above.

“I thought you said it wouldn’t take long,” Xena muttered, clearly annoyed. “We’ve been walking for quite some time now, Alti.”

“Nearly there…” The shamaness said calmly, keeping the pace.

“I have work to do.” Xena continued, her eyes flicking over her surroundings judgingly. An unpleasant tingle was racing up and down her spine now, her instincts alerting her of some impending danger. There was nothing threatening around her though, just the trees, the shadows, the soft trickle of water of a brook up ahead…

Still, there was something… Xena took a breath, then released it again. She’d been in a state of constant vigilance since the day she’d met Gabrielle again and all this being alert was just getting to her. She’d enjoyed the warrior’s presence, but she was a liability and had to be watched for at all time. Especially now. That was probably the reason for the tension she was feeling… Xena nodded a little to herself, then refocused her attention on the shamaness pacing in front of her. “This had better be very important.”

“Oh, it is…” Alti sounded slightly smug. “Very important.”

A giggle drifted down from above. “Well, I’m flattered…”

Xena’s eyes widened, then she spun around. A form dropped down from a branch with a piercing war cry and Xena rolled aside just in time to avoid the body pouncing down on top of her. She scrambled back to her feet hastily, bringing her hands up defensively.

Her attacker laughed psychotically. “Oh, I’ve been waiting sooooo long for this…” A giggle. “Are you ready for a rematch, Xena?”

Xena’s eyes narrowed, then shot towards the spot where Alti had been only moments before, but the shamaness had vanished into thin air. “Alti!” The Conqueror growled, her eyes narrowing to slits.

She’d been betrayed. Alti had traded the alliance they’d had for a deal with this scrawny little blonde. This… Xena flicked through her memories, finally stumbling upon the images she was looking for. “You were the girl from Cirra.”

“Yes,” the blonde hissed, taking a step closer. “That’s what I was… Now however…” With a scream she rushed forward, lunging her sword towards Xena’s head. “I am the woman who’s about to end your existence.”

Alti slid through the darkness soundlessly. The sounds of the battle in the distance became muted as she moved further and further off the road, until finally she could see the flickering of flames up ahead. Moments later she entered a small clearing, a campfire lit in the centre. Around the fire lay a number of items. A variety of herbs, several powders, a bowl of blood… Alti grinned wickedly, as she reached out and dipped two fingers in the blood, then smeared streaks of red across her forehead.

Xena ducked under another lunge, then rolled away from her attacker. Her fingers touched wood as she did so, and she immediately grabbed onto the thick branch lying on the ground and lifted it above her head, just as Callisto took another swing at her. The edge for the blade dug itself into the wood and Xena twisted her branch, wringing the sword hilt from Callisto’s hands.

The blonde growled in frustration, then kicked out, her boot impacting with the wood, sending both branch and sword flying a few feet away.

In the meantime Xena had performed a flip, landing on her feet solidly, before turning around and facing her opponent.

“No more weapons…” Callisto looked at her, then laughed, cracking her knuckles audibly. “Ripping you to bits with my bare hands will be more enjoyable anyway.”

Xena snorted, her eyes watching attentively as her opponent slowly started to circle her. “You may be immortal, but with some creative carving I can make you suffer for the rest of your eternity. You know that, don’t you?”

“Oh yes… I know the risks…”The blonde smiled at her charmingly. “But I just can’t resist you, dear.” She pushed herself up and into a flip, heading towards the Empress, but Xena simply responded by jumping up as well so they only ended up changing places.

A giggle from the blonde. “You can’t keep this up forever, Xena. I can…”

She swung a fist at Xena, but the Empress blocked the strike with an upper arm, then hopped over a kick aimed at her feet. “I don’t need forever…” She growled, then spun around and slammed out an elbow, impacting with the blonde’s nose harshly, sending her staggering back a few paces.

“Ouch!” Callisto said indignantly, placing a hand on each side of her nose and then pushing the bones there back in place with a crack. “Now that wasn’t nice…”

“Oh, I’m sorry…” Xena drawled in mock sincerity. “Then let me just apologise in advance for this…” She kicked the heel of her boot against the woman’s ribs. “…and this…” A fist impacted with Callisto’s jaw. “…and this…” She hopped up then started kicking at the blonde’s chest, pushing her backwards with each kick until she felt her falter and slip. She pulled herself into a flip, neatly landing a few feet away as Callisto thudded to the ground.

Xena rolled her eyes, then took a few paces back towards the sword lying embedded in the wooden branch and grabbed onto the hilt as she placed a foot on the branch, pulling the weapon free. “You are starting to bore me…” She stated matter-of-factly, looking down at the bent shape lying at her feet as she twirled the sword in her hand. “I think its about time to finish this…”

A low laugh from Callisto, then the blonde lifted her head and looked up at her. The dark brown eyes glimmered with a deep red light for just a moment. “Oh, I agree…”

She pulled her sword from the soldier’s chest, then turned around, focussing her attention on the small boy. “And now for the kid” She growled, advancing on him, pointing her sword in his direction.

But her path was blocked. “What are you doing?” Lao Ma asked, staring at her in shock.

“Now we can wipe out the entire line,” she explained, as if it was the most logical thing in the world. ” Then it’ll just be the house of Lao. We can rule the whole kingdom of Chin together. You can do all your noble stuff and Borias and I will keep the piece.” She grinned wickedly. “We’ll have some laughs along the way.”

She tightening her hold on her sword, but before she could take another step in the boy’s direction Lao Ma had pulled back her hand, then pushed it forward again.

It was like an huge iron fist impacted with her stomach and it sent her flying back, slamming against a wall harshly. She slid to the ground, thudding onto the floor, but was picked up again moments later by unseen hands, which tossed her against a wooden pillar on the opposite side. Blood dripped from the corner of her mouth…

Xena gasped in a breath as the memory receded and she found herself sitting slumped at the base of a tree. Something tickled its way down her chin and she wiped at it with her upper arm, smearing a streak of blood across her skin.

Callisto laughed in delight. “Oh, this is fun!” She chortled. “Do it again!”

A fist impacted harshly with her cheek. She staggered back a few paces, but managed to recover her composure just in time to duck under the sword swung at her head. She quickly launched a counter attack, slamming her fist against the back of his head, knocking him out cold. She glanced up. The battle was raging around her, the people from her village fighting heroically. She sidestepped another lunge, kicking the attacker in a particularly sensitive spot and sending him straight to his knees. Her eyes roamed on, searching… “Lyceus!” She smacked the hilt of her sword onto someone’s forehead.

“Here!” A voice drifted up, and she immediately looked in the direction it had come from, her eyes soon finding her brother in the crowd as he stuck his sword into his opponents leg. He then turned and looked up at her, raising his sword in salute, grinning brightly.

He didn’t see the man sneaking up behind him. Didn’t hear him pull his sword from the scabbard.

“Lyceus!! Look out!!” She rushed towards him. But it was to no avail. His eyes widened as the sword was pushed into his chest. His strength left him and he fell.

“No!!” She ran as fast as she could, dropping down to her knees and catching him before he could thud onto the earth. “Lyceus?” Her hand stroked his cheek. “Ly?”

His eyes stared up at her, unseeingly for another moment, then suddenly his body went limp in her embrace. “No… No, no, no…” She croaked, as she patted his cheek, squeezed his hand with hers. “Lyceus, come on… Come on, Ly… Please…” Tears slid down her cheeks. “Please… Don’t leave me…”

Somehow she heard the sound of footsteps behind her and on pure instinct she ducked away to avoid a dagger from piercing her heart. She couldn’t avoid the weapon completely though, and it embedded itself into her right shoulder, making her scream out in pain. Her hand touched the hilt of a sword and her fingers wrapped around it tightly. All her pain, all her anguish turned to hate and she spun around and lunged her weapon towards her attacker, neatly cutting through the veins in his throat.

Blood splurted out and onto her weapon, dripping its way down the blade and onto her hands, staining them in blood for the first time…

Callisto laughed ecstatically. “Alti, honey, you can stay in my body forever if you keep this up…”

Thanks but no thanks… A voice in the back of her mind spoke up. Your brain is a mess, I prefer my own…

“Suit yourself.” Callisto shrugged negligently, then walked over to the panting Conqueror, who was cradling her injured arm with her other, her cheek now sporting a huge bruise, her tunic and face stained with blood, her eyes puffy and watery. “Having fun yet, Xena?”

Blue eyes looked up, then narrowed at her dangerously.

Callisto laughed. “I know I am… You know, I think I…”

Before she could finish that sentence Xena had strained her legs and pushed both her feet against the blonde, shoving her off and making her fly across the road. “This isn’t over yet,” the Empress hissed, pushing herself up, biting back the jolts of pain that were racing through her arm as she did so. “I am not…”

Caesar waved a hand over his shoulder negligently. “Break her legs.”

A cry of agony rang through the forest. Xena fell to her knees, tears streaming from her eyes now.

“Oh, you’re very right, dear.” Callisto’s voice drifted over the haze of pain. “This isn’t over, yet…” She giggled in utter delight, then reached down, wrapping her hand around Xena’s throat and lifting her up, off her feet. “I’m gonna make this moment last…”

Author’s note: I wrote this part before the tragic news about Kevin Smith. It is, of course, not my intention to offend anyone with my portrayal of the character of Ares at the end of this part. I just wanted to have this said because there have been people who’ve asked me to not put Ares in the following bits of this story and I hate to disappoint anyone, but I simply can not honour that request, even if I wanted to. Ares has a pretty important role in parts of this story, even though he might not be present in this or the next part all that much, and I just can’t twist my plot around at this stage. On a more personal note, I believe that people live on in the memories of others and to shun the character is, from my perspective, just not the right thing to do. I hope those of you who read this can understand my view on the matter and see my use of the character the way I intended it, as a show of respect towards the character and the actor who so perfectly portrayed him. May he rest in peace .

Argo started as a scream echoed through the woods. Gabrielle’s head shot up. “What the…”

Another cry of agony, this one even more overloaded with pain than the one before. Blond eyebrows furrowed, then Gabrielle slid of Argo’s back, giving the mare an absent pat. “Go girl. But stay close.”

Argo snorted in understanding, then took off in the opposite direction at an easy trot.

Ignoring the paths, she rushed through the dense forest, the occasional scream guiding her closer and closer until she suddenly spotted two figures. She slid to a halt. One was a blonde, her back turned towards her, and she held the second, the Conqueror, in the air, a hand wrapped around her neck. Xena cried out again, tossing her head back, the expression of utter agony on her face clearly visible from the warrior’s point of view. Gabrielle watched in disbelief as a huge gash suddenly formed on the Empress’s forehead out of nothing.

The Conqueror was clearly losing. She was streaked in blood, her body hanging in the blonde’s grip weakly. She made a feeble attempt at escape from time to time, but her body was too exhausted and every attempt was followed by more yells of pain.

This is your chance! A voice in the back of her mind called out. She’s no longer a threat to you now. You can run back to the palace, get Thalia and be out of here within moments!

I can’t… Another, much softer voice disagreed. She’ll die.

And what if she does? She’s the one who crucified you, remember? The one who killed Naxos, and Kimon… The one who locked Thalia up… Locked Ephiny up…I don’t care what happens to her! I…

And at that moment Xena looked over her attacker’s shoulder, the pained blue eyes meeting her own… pleadingly.

And she answered that plea, without a second thought, without a thought at all really, simply rushing forward and hurling herself at Xena’s attacker.

Within moments she’d wrapped her arm around the blonde’s neck, snapping her head to the side with a quiet, decise motion.

Callisto dropped her victim from shock more than anything else. On pure instinct she launched herself upwards, flipping back and thereby worming her out of her attacker’s hold. She landed, then spun around to face her new opponent.

A wicked grin lit up her face. “Well, well, well…” She laughed. “Look who we have here…”

Green eyes widened, staring at her in complete disbelief. “Callisto?”

“Oh, I was hoping it was you…” Callisto licked her lips expectantly. “When she described you I was thinking: ‘My, that sounds a lot like dear old Gabs.'” A giggle. “I like your hair better this way…A lot less… frilly.”

“I thought you were dead…” Gabrielle breathed, unmoving. “I heard…”

“So that’s why you didn’t come looking for me?” Callisto cocked her head in question. “You just…assumed I was dead?” She slowly closed the distance between them, tsk-ing. “Gabby, Gabby… You of all people should know to never make assumptions about me…” She reached out a hand, touching the back of her fingers to the warrior’s cheek. “We were so close after all…”

Gabrielle swallowed. “I didn’t know…”

“Oh, you didn’t know…” Callisto released a grave breath, shaking her head a little as she circled the warrior, then she leaned close, whispering in her ear. “Well, that’s awfully convenient, isn’t it?”

Gabrielle turned her head, looking at the blonde over her shoulder.

“I opposed your placid theories. And people agreed with me.” Callisto went on, trailing a finger from the top of a shoulder down the warrior’s arm. “And then I suddenly disappear from the picture… But you couldn’t help, could you? Cause you didn’t know… So you ju…” Callisto paused for a moment, then whistled under her breath. “Great biceps there, Gabby. Verrry nice. I didn’t believe it was you when Alti described you as a warrior. I couldn’t picture my sweet, naïve, peace loving little Gab like that…” Dark eyes glanced down then back up the warrior’s form. “But I have to say… it becomes you…”

“I didn’t want t…” She stopped, as Callisto’s words registered. “Alti?”

“Yes,” Callisto smiled charmingly. “Alti’s my girlfriend now… I’m sorry, dearest, you had your chance…”

Gabrielle turned, backing away from the blonde a few paces. “Callisto, you can’t trust Alti. She’s evil.”

“That may be so… But at least she took the effort to dig me out of the pit I was stuck in for four years…” Callisto folded her hands together thoughtfully. “And I had a lot of time to think in there, Gabs. I had a lot of time to really, really learn to hate you… I had a lot of time to realise about how you betrayed me…”

“I didn’t…” Gabrielle argued weakly.

“But never, ever…” Callisto continued on. “.. did I think you were in league with that…” She shot the Conqueror, who was lying curled up on the ground, a despising look. “…that piece of filth.” She shook her head. “Very disappointing, Gabby… Very disappointing… I’d really hoped, maybe in time, we could have settled out differences… But I guess not…”

“You don’t understand…” Gabrielle argued, finally regaining her composure a little. “Callisto, you can’t help Alti. Don’t you see? If you kill the Conqueror and she takes the throne, things are not going to change for the people. Most likely it’ll just get worse…”

Callisto cocked her head a little, considering this. “Well… yes, I guess that’s true… Things won’t change for the people…” Her eyes twinkled. “But they’ll definitely change for me…”

“But that’s what the resistance was all about, that’s what we strived for all those years.”

Callisto laughed. “That’s what YOU strived for, my dear. You know what I strived for…” She pointed a long sleek finger at the Conqueror. “That is what I strived for. Seeing her crawl… Making her crawl…” She turned her gaze on Xena once more, narrowing her eyes.

Xena yelled out again, curling up into a tighter ball.

Gabrielle frowned, not quite understanding what was happening, only that it was her ex-colleague who was doing it. “Callisto, stop it!”

A snort. “Why?”

“Because it’s wrong.”

“Wrong?!” The blonde pointed a finger at her, her voice dropping to a growl. “You know what’s wrong? Burning my village was wrong. Killing my mother, my father… That was wrong, Gabrielle. This…” She waved a hand at the Empress negligently. “This is justice.”

Gabrielle lifted her hands, calmingly. “Cal, I know how you feel, OK? But there’s other ways. Better ways. The gods know I’ve been tempted too, but… But you have to think about the greater good…”

Urg… Alti’s voice drifted up, sounding very bored. I’ve had about enough of this…

“Me too.” Callisto agreed, before focussing again on the warrior. “Because of our… history, I’m gonna give you a chance to walk away now, Gab. I suggest you take it…” She stated, then turned her back on Gabrielle, heading back towards Xena’s shivering form.

But her path was blocked. Gabrielle had flipped over her head and was now making a stand in front of the Empress, both hands holding onto the sword she’d picked off the ground, the edge pointing at Callisto. “I can’t let you do this…”

Callisto raised an eyebrow at her. “And what are you gonna do? Hmm? Kill me?”

Gabrielle took a breath, squaring her shoulders. “I will if you leave me no choice.”

Callisto shook her head in disappointment. “See, this is the thanks I get… You save a girl’s life and next thing you know they’re trying to kill ya…”

Gabrielle tightened her fingers around the sword hilt. “I can’t let you help Alti rise to power.”

A laugh, then Callisto started moving forward again, not impressed by the threats at all. “If you won’t get out of my way, I’ll just have to move you myself…” The blonde stated calmly, then lunged forward, kicking out.

Gabrielle ducked under the kick, then pushed her sword forward, aiming it for Callisto’s side, intent on wounding her badly enough to make her give up. She felt the blade cut through flesh, then waited for the blonde’s response, for her to stagger back, of fall to the ground, or just scream out in pain…

But there was nothing. Gabrielle frowned, then looked at her sword, to see it had indeed been pushed through Callisto’s skin… But there was no blood.

“Nice shot, dear.” Callisto drawled. “Problem is, I gave up on dying…” Gabrielle gasped as a hand suddenly wrapped itself tightly around her neck, making it hard to breath. “Now you on the other hand…”

No playing around, Callisto. Alti warned. Xena’s regaining her senses. We need to finish her off. Now.

“Yeah, yeah…” Callisto muttered under her breath, then focussed back on Gabrielle. “It’s been fun seeing you again, darling. But I’m afraid I’m gonna have to cut our meeting short… Don’t worry though, I’m not gonna toy with you…” A giggle. “I’m gonna send you straight to the good stuff…”

The pain seared through her as the nail was slammed into her hand harshly.

Gabrielle screamed out as a wound formed on her left hand, blood dripping down her palm.

Another jolt of pain as a second nail edged through flesh, then a third, slamming through her feet. She could feel the blood flowing out of her body, and it left her weak and dizzy. The air rushed around her, chaotically, until all of a sudden it stopped and she was hanging. Through the blur of pain she could hear shrill laughter.

Gabrielle’s outcry brought Xena back to her senses and she looked up to see the warrior dangling, her feet inches above the ground. In horror she saw wounds forming on the warrior’s hands. “No! Gabri…” She struggled to get back to her feet, but her body was aching all over and she was unable to stand. Instinctively she reached for her chakram, but her brain reminded her that the weapon would be useless against an immortal.

She lifted her body up to breath, the pain searing through her hands. She felt weak, and drained and she wanted it to end. She felt herself slip away, deeper and deeper… But before she could give up completely, a voice called her back…

Xena’s hearing picked up sounds in the distance, the very soft crackling of fire. She closed her eyes for a moment, focussing all her attention on pinpointing the location of those sounds. Then she lifted her chakram and with all her power she hurled it away.

“Gabrielle.” The voice was warm and loving, and she couldn’t resist it. She forced her eyes open and turned her head to look at the person hanging from the cross next to hers. Xena smiled back at her warmly.

The chakram soared through the forest, until it found its way into a small clearing. It bounced off a tree, then ricocheted all through the open space, back and forth, until finally it cut through skin.

Callisto yelled out in agony, grabbing for her head as a wisp of smoke escaped from her skull, screaming, and fled back into the forest.

Gabrielle crashed onto the ground, panting, her eyes wide as remnants of her vision kept flashing in front of them.

“No!” Callisto growled, as she realised Alti’s spirit had vanished. “No! Not when I’m this close!” The dark eyes flicked around, then finally settled on the sword Gabrielle had dropped. She reached down and picked it up. “Well, I guess I’ll have to just do this the old fashioned way then…”

But before she could advance on Gabrielle, hooves thundered closer and a large solid form crashed into her, sending her sprawling back. Argo snorted, stamping her front hoof on the ground angrily, defensively taking up a position in front of her rider.

Callisto scrambled back to her feet, tightening the hold on her sword. “Stupid beast…” She lifted her weapon. “You are gonna pay for this…”

With a shifting of air the chakram flew back and Xena forced herself to lift her hand and grab for the ring, somehow managing to scoop it out of the air. The next moment a scratchy voice called out. “Callisto!”

Callisto seemed hesitant for a moment, torn between her desire to kill Xena, Gabrielle and the obnoxious horse and the shamaness’s pain filled yell. She took a breath, seeing Xena lifted her chakram in defence from the corner of her eyes, then she pointed her sword at the trio threateningly. “This isn’t over.” She stated, before turning and running off.

Xena gasped in another breath, her eyes following the blonde until she was sure she wasn’t coming back, then she pulled all her effort into crawling closer to the fallen warrior. “Gabrielle?”

Wide green eyes turned in her direction, but the warrior seemed to be looking through her more than at her, utterly dazed and confused.

Xena closed the distance between them as fast as she could, then tentatively reached out and touched Gabrielle’s arm. “Hey?”

Gabrielle blinked, the Empress’s touch bringing her back from her haze. “I…” She looked up into concerned blue eyes. “It was so real…”

“It was Alti…” Xena offered, not sure what else to say. “She has the power to show people things… Visions…” The Empress’s gaze trailed down, her eyes regretfully looking at the warrior’s bleeding hands. “Past events…”

Gabrielle sucked in another breath, trying very hard to kick-start her brain again. A gentle shove against her back made her look up to see Argo looking down at her compassionately. “Hey girl…” She said softly, lifting her hand to stroke the horse’s nose. “Great timing… You…” Her motions stilled as her gaze settled on the hole in her palm and she stared at it, flashes from the vision filling her mind’s eye again.

It had hurt. Gods, it had hurt so much. But at the same time she’d felt so…. light. Peaceful. And the moment Callisto had let go of her hold the burden of her anger had settled on her like an icy stone pressing against her heart.

These visions, they had been nothing like her crucifixion. The feelings, the far off laughter… Xena… What was going on?

Xena watched the warrior stare at her bleeding hands, a lump forming in her own throat. She took a breath, then grabbed onto her tunic and ripped off a fairly bloodless strip from the bottom, before reaching out, carefully, and touching the warrior’s wrist. Gabrielle’s gaze shifted, her trance broken, and she looked up at the Empress. Xena held her eyes for just a moment, then glanced down, carefully winding the strip of cloth over Gabrielle’s wound.

The warrior blinked, looking at her hand as the long fingers carefully looped the bandage over her palm. “You… You don’t have to do that…”

“Yes, I do…” Xena mumbled, almost inaudibly. “I do…”

“I’m OK,” Gabrielle assured her softly. “Really.”

The Empress’s eyes tracked up and met hers insecurely and Gabrielle was instantly reminded of the picture she’d found in the attic a few days back, seeing that same innocence in the woman’s gaze… No more barriers, the shield around the Conqueror had dropped away, allowing the warrior to look straight into Xena’s jaded soul.

A moment, then they both dropped their heads, breaking eye contact. Gabrielle drew in a breath. “We should go.”

Xena swallowed, closing her eyes. “Yes. We should.”

Gabrielle nodded softly, then reached out and grabbed onto a nearby stirrup, using it to help pull herself to her feet. The wounds in her feet stung, but the pain was bearable. She looked back down at the Conqueror. “Can you stand?”

Xena blinked, having nearly forgotten her own injuries in her concern for the warrior, then she sucked in a lungful of air and placed her hands flat on the ground, pushing herself up, gritting her teeth as her body complained. She pulled her legs under her, then shifted her weight to them, attempting to stand.

Bursts of pain raced through her, making her dizzy and nauseous. She bit her lip, trying to fight it, but her legs had been shattered so badly and no matter how much she willed it, she couldn’t keep upright. Her knees buckled and she lost her balance, tumbling forward. But before she could impact with the harsh ground an arm wrapped around her and pulled her back upright. “Come on,” Gabrielle’s voice sounded very close to her ear. “Easy…”

“I… I’m sorry,” she hastily stuttered. “I didn’t mean…”

“It’s OK,” Gabrielle cut her short. “Let’s just get you on the horse.” She helped Xena over to the patiently waiting mare, then mounted as the Empress struggled to keep herself upright, aided by Argo’s sturdy form. She settled in the saddle, took the reigns and then reaching out a hand. “Come on…”

Xena looked up at her, then grasped onto the warrior’s arm and allowed herself to be pulled up, settling behind the warrior. She bit her lip, but couldn’t suppress a small whimper of pain.

Gabrielle looked over her shoulder. “You OK?”

The Empress swallowed, but nodded. “Broke a rib,” she managed from between clenched teeth, as she waited for the aching to subside a little. “Broke my nose too, I think…”

Gabrielle urged Argo forward with a soft nudge of her heels. “Broken ribs, broken legs, broken nose…” She muttered softly. “Any part left of you intact?”

Xena considered this for a moment. “I think my little toe is still in one piece…”

The warrior snorted, shaking her head a little.

Silence fell for a moment, in which Xena pensively stared ahead of her, making out the outline of the trees in the dim light. “Gabrielle?”

“Hmm?”

“You saved my life.”

The blonde gazed into the distance quietly. “Yes.”

“Why?” Xena asked softly.

A light shrug. “Because it was the right thing to do.”

Xena considered this. “How do you know?”

The warrior was quiet for a moment, mulling over this question. “You just do…” She finally answered.

The dark haired woman seated behind her released a breath, closing her eyes and shaking her head slightly. “I don’t.”

Gabrielle peeked over her shoulder, studying her quietly for a long moment. “I… I think part of you does,” she finally said softly, turning back. “You’re just not listening to it…”

Blue eyes opened, gazing into the darkness in front of her in silence, not sure of what to reply to that.

Argo quietly moved forward as they exited the forest. Several torches illuminated the palace garden and as they walked into the light she could hear anxious calls drifting up. Gabrielle pulled Argo to a halt, then swung her leg over the mare’s head and dismounted. She’d barely touched the ground when she was surrounded by soldiers, all pointing their blades at her threateningly. “Conqueror?” A officer in charge looked up at the Empress anxiously. “Are you all right?”

“Back away from her!” Xena ordered, her eyes narrowing at the crowd.

The soldiers blinked up at her in confusion.

“Now!” The Conqueror snapped. “If any of you so much as lay a finger on her, I will personally cut off your head, stick it onto a spike and put it on display on the Agora. Do I make myself clear?”

The weapons dropped away in an instant, the soldiers even backing up a few paces, just to be sure they stayed clear of the warrior at any cost.

“Get back to your posts,” Xena snapped, still seated on Argo’s back. “Except you, Curtius. I wanna have a word with you.”

The officer bowed his head. “Of course.” He hastily waved a hand at the men, who scattered immediately.

“Empress!” Pyrron’s voice called out, anxiously, as the Advisor came limping over as fast as he could. “I thought you said you’d be back within moments… Are you OK?”

“No,” Xena muttered, swinging a leg over Argo’s head and letting herself slide down to the ground. Her knees nearly buckled on her and Pyrron was beside her instantly, supporting her on one side while Gabrielle provided some help on the other.

“Good gods…” The advisor’s dark brown eyes widened in shock, as he saw the cuts and bruises on the Conqueror’s skin, which had before been hidden by the darkness, the blood seeping down her nose. “What happened to you?”

“Alti,” Xena growled under her breath as she carefully took a step towards the palace. “That bitch double-crossed me.” She turned her head and looked over her shoulder at lieutenant Curtius. “Run to the barracks and alert the troops. If you find Alti and the blonde that’s helping her before the night is through, I might consider not killing you too brutally.”

The man’s eyes widened and he gulped, then nodded hastily and darted off without another word.

Pyrron was still staring at Xena’s battered form in disbelief. “Xena, your legs…” He managed, staring at the shattered limbs in horror.

“I know,” The Empress cut him short as she moved shakily towards the palace, aware of Gabrielle’s presence close behind. “Don’t make a fuss.”

“You can’t walk like this…” Pyrron argued, shaking his head.

“Sure I can. Doing just great.” Xena refuted, gritting teeth.

“No, you’re not.” The Advisor released a breath, then reached down and wrapped an arm around her knees, lifting her straight off the ground. “Hold on.”

“Pyrron!” Blue eyes flashed at him in outrage. “This is ridiculous. Put me down.”

“Nuhuh.” The man shook his head determinedly. “You carried me off a battlefield once too, Xena. It’s about time I returned the favour.”

The Conqueror scowled, considered struggling for a moment, but then she just accepted the situation and allowed herself be carried into the palace. “Fine, fine… But if you break your back it’s your own damn fault.”

Gabrielle grinned wryly as she followed them inside, walking past Pyrron and his burden to open the door to the Empress’s quarters for the Advisor. Pyrron shot her a grateful look as he passed and Gabrielle smiled back at him, then watched from the doorway as Pyrron deposited Xena on her bed carefully.

Xena’s private chambers were nothing like she’d expected. Which was something she should have expected by now really… The room was bare and functional, void of any form of decoration. There was a simple, single bed, made of rough oak wood with plain dark blue sheets. There was a closet made of the same material and a single comfortable-looking chair standing next to a small table that had a chessboard resting on its surface, the pieces scattered somewhere in mid-game. But except from those few bits of furniture there was nothing. No paintings, no expensive Persian carpets, no bronze statues… There were some golden swirls painted on the ceiling, but they seemed to be more of a standard in the palace rooms than something the Conqueror had placed there on purpose. The room was simple and functional. Impersonal.

While Gabrielle studied the Conqueror’s bedroom, Xena studied the warrior. “Hey?” She called softly, dragging Gabrielle from her pondering. “Come here,” she waved the warrior inside, then pointed at the chair near the bedside. “Sit down.”

The comment reminded Gabrielle of her hurting feet and she made her way into the room, sighing in relief as she settled in the seat.

Xena’s eyes followed her quietly as she walked closer, as she sat down, as she pulled one of her feet up on her knee and tentatively touched the sole of her boot, flinching as her wounds stung at the pressure. Then she turned to her advisor, who’d knelt down beside the closet and was digging several bandages and small jars from a drawer. “Pyrron. That can wait. I want you to do something for me first.”

The advisor looked over his shoulder questioningly, then straightened. “What could be more important?”

“Go to the dungeons and get the rebel leader,” Xena stated quietly. “Bring her here.”

Pyrron’s eyes met hers for a moment, then he inclined his head and turned, striding out of the room.

The Empress watched him go, then forced herself to look at the warrior sitting by her side. Confused green eyes blinked back at her, Gabrielle’s body frozen somewhere in mid-motion. Xena dropped her gaze, fumbling with the edge of her blanket a little, uncomfortably. “The uhm…” She waved a hand at the warrior’s wounds. “The pain will fade quicker now that Alti’s been weakened… Hopefully it won’t take too long to heal… You’ll have to clean those wounds out thoroughly though, so uhm… if you don’t have a place to go to you can use the facilities here, before you leave…”

Gabrielle’s mouth opened several times, but no coherent sound came out. “You… I’m…?”

Xena let her head sink back into her pillow. “Yes.”

“And… Thalia…?”

“Her too.” Xena confirmed, staring up at the ceiling quietly. “I’m not dragging her from her cell so we can go play midget golf, you know?”

“I…” Gabrielle gazed at her in disbelief. “B… Why?”

“Cause…” Xena turned her head, blue eyes meeting emerald ones quietly. “There’s this part of me saying… it’s the right thing to do.”

“Where is she?” Thalia’s voice drifted in from the hallway. “I swear, if you so much as harmed a hair on her head, I’ll… I’ll… I’ll do something really horrible to you.” Footsteps got closer, then Pyrron walked into the room again, soon followed by the still spluttering redhead. “Whatever you have in store for me, it won’t…” She stopped as she spotted Gabrielle’s sitting at the Conqueror’s bedside. “Gab!” She took a step closer, then caught sight of the warrior’s unbandaged right hand. Her eyes narrowed to slits, then lifted to look at the Conqueror. “You bitch! I’m gonna…”

“Thalia.” Gabrielle lifted a hand decisively, stopping her ranting. “Be quiet.”

The redhead blinked, but obediently kept her mouth shut.

“Gabrielle?”

The warrior turned back to look at the Empress.

“When you step outside, things will be as they were before. I will be a ruler. You will be a rebel.” A pause. “Do you understand?”

The warrior nodded. “Yes,” she confirmed. A moment of hesitation, then she reached out and covered one of Xena’s hands with her own. “Thank you.”

Long fingers closed around hers for a moment. “No. Thank you.” Then Xena let go, allowing the warrior to rise to her feet. Gabrielle turned and walked towards the door, laying a hand on Thalia’s shoulder as she passed the redhead, guiding her out.

“Pyrron, make sure no one tries to stop them.” Xena ordered softly, her advisor quickly nodding and following the two women towards the door. Gabrielle ushered Thalia out in front of her, halting in the doorway for a moment and looking back, their eyes meeting for a last time, before she disappeared into the hallway.

Xena stared at the empty door opening for another moment, then she let herself sink back into her pillow and closed her eyes, a small content smile lighting up her face.

Moments passed in utter silence, until uneven footsteps echoed closer once more. Pyrron re-entered the room, walking straight to the still open drawer and kneeling down beside it, removing another rolled up bit of bandage.

Xena glanced at him, then stared back up at the ceiling, quietly listening to her advisor’s rummaging about. “So… Do your job, Ronnie…”

Pyrron gathered the bandages and stood, carrying them towards the bed. “Empress?”

“Evaluate the current situation,” Xena clarified for him. “I just made a grave tactical error, didn’t I?”

Her advisor settled at the bedside, dipping a clean rag in water, before starting to wipe the blood of the Conqueror’s arm. “Yes,” he affirmed quietly, reaching out with his other hand and handing Xena a mug filled with water and a the small box of herbs he’d picked up as well. “You know as well as I do Gabrielle is a legend among the people. And when legends arise, they soon draw a following.”

Xena nodded quietly, mixing several herbs into her water. “So, you think I made the wrong decision?”

“As your Advisor on the matters of the Empire, I’d have to say yes. You have just complicated matters immensely.”

Xena lifted her mug and downed the mixture in one big gulp. She winced at the bitterness of the herbs. “Nothing wrong with complications…”

Pyrron half smiled. “No. No, nothing wrong with that…” He looked up at her with a twinkle in his dark eyes. “It was a good call, Empress.”

A dark eyebrow raised at him. “Thought you just said it was a wrong decision…”

“Strategically speaking it was a horribly stupid move…” Pyrron affirmed, winding a bandage around a cut on Xena’s arm. “On the other hand, you have managed to avoid the wrath of the children, saved me the torture of comforting my broken-hearted son and we now have one less prisoner to feed, which saves us exactly three dinars and thirty-five cents a day.”

Xena chuckled wryly. “We’re saved. Now we won’t have to make those budget cuts after all.”

Pyrron grinned, tying off the bandage and moving on to the next wound. “I doubt though that you did this because of the economic benefits, Empress.”

Xena settled back in her pillow, serious now. “She saved me, Pyrron…” She bent her head. “I crucified her, I destroyed her life and… she saves mine… It doesn’t make any sense…” A shake of her head. “She makes no sense to me…”

Brown eyes studied her for a moment, then Pyrron returned to his task with a soft laugh.

“What?” Xena lifted her head and looked at him indignantly.

“It’s just…” Her advisor shook his head a little. “From my perspective you’re so alike, Empress. It surprises me that you understand so little of one another…”

A dark eyebrow raised at him. “We’re alike?” A snort. “Ronnie, you’re deluded…”

“No, I’m not. It’s quite obvious.” Pyrron said easily, wincing at the angry bruises on the Conqueror’s legs. “Uhm, you might wanna…” He poked at the empty air with two fingers.

Xena lifted her upper body up, then jabbed at a pressure point on her leg. “What do you mean, it’s obvious?” A poke on her other leg.

“Well…” Pyrron grabbed hold of her ankle, then pulled back and twisted the limb, hearing the pop as bones slid back into place. “You’re both warriors…”

Xena rolled her eyes. “Oh right, I see it now… We’re perfectly alike…”

The Advisor gave her a bored look as he moved on to her second leg, repeating the procedure. “You’re both smart, skilled and horribly stubborn…” More cracking of bones. “You value honour, are true to your word, willing to die for those you care for…” Pyrron checked her legs with a hand, making sure the bones were properly set. “All done…”

Xena looked around, then grabbed for the clean tunic Pyrron had brought. She placed the fabric between her teeth, then reached up and released the pressure points. And immediately dropped back in her pillow, her teeth grinding down on the edge of the tunic. A guttural sound of pain escaped her, but she managed to keep herself from crying out.

Finally the pain subsided and she gasped in a breath, taking the tunic from her mouth and flinging it away, spitting at the dry taste on her tongue. “Bwah… Damn, I hate that…”

Pyrron picked the garment up, sighing as he spotted the tiny holes in the fabric, neatly lined up a half circle. Wordlessly he tossed the tunic into a corner then walked back to the closet and pulled another shirt out.

Xena pushed her upper body up, leaning back on her hands and studying her legs. “You did leave some essential elements out of that summery of yours…”

“Like what, Empress?”

“She’s a rebel and I’m the tyrant she opposes…”

“You’re not a tyrant, Empress.” Pyrron shook his head, handing her the clean shirt. “I would never serve I tyrant.”

Xena considered this for a moment as she pensively tracked a cut on her thigh. “But you don’t agree with certain things I did… The executions, the torture…” Blue eyes peeked up at him. “Did you?”

“No. No, I didn’t… I don’t…” Her advisor settled on the bedside, wiping some of the blood off her face carefully. “And I wish sometimes… I wish some things could have been dealt with less… brutally…”

Xena dropped her head.

“But I’ve seen enough of this world to know how it works, Empress…” He continued calmly. “I’ve seen enough people lie and cheat and manipulate to try and get what they want. No matter what the costs. And I know that if those people weren’t afraid of you, didn’t know that stepping out of line would mean their deaths… then a whole lot of innocents would suffer unnecessarily…”

“Innocents have suffered unnecessarily,” Xena countered unhappily. “At my hands.” She released a breath. “Sometimes… Sometimes I look back at my life and… And it makes me sick…”

Pyrron looked at her for a moment, then reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder. “You did a lot of good too. This Empire is prospering because of you…”

The Empress mumbled something inaudible.

“Iona wouldn’t be alive today if it hadn’t been for you…” Pyrron tried a more personal note. “And Niobe…”

“Niobe would have had a mother if it hadn’t been for me.” Xena shot back, her blue eyes blazing angrily now.

Pyrron shook his head. “That is not true. I know you wanted to be there…”

“But I wasn’t!” Xena turned away from him, staring out the window. “I wasn’t. I was out there killing people…”

“Ismene was a month early,” Pyrron continued on, a hint of sadness tainting his voice. “You couldn’t have known. That you managed to save Niobe was a miracle, Xena. And I’m sure that she is so grateful to you for saving her child… Just like I am…” He gently squeezed her shoulder. “No one blames you for that…”

“I blame myself,” Xena muttered unhappily. “I… I loved her, Pyrron…” She looked up at him. “Not like you loved her, but… she…”

“She was your friend.”

A breath. “Yeah… And I… I never told her that…”

Her advisor managed a small smile. “She knew.” He wiped a smudge of blood of her cheek. “She always knew.”

Xena closed her eyes, sucking in a deep breath to calm her shattered nerves. “What a day…” She finally mumbled softy. “My shamaness betrays me, I nearly get flashbacked to death, I set free my toy and now I’m having sensitive chats… What is this world coming to?”

Pyrron chuckled, happy to see the Conqueror’s sarcastic side resurfacing. “It was a day of changes, Empress.”

“Yeah…” Xena rubbed her face tiredly. “Let’s hope tomorrow turns out a bit more conservative, huh?”

A knock sounded and Agenor looked up from his book with a frown. “Who on earth…?”

Another knock, this one a bit more demanding.

“Just a moment.” Agenor put the book aside and rose to his feet, running a hand through this curly blond hair. He glanced down, making sure the dagger he held hidden is his boot was not visible, then he walked towards the door and turned the knob. “Yes? Can I…”

His sentence halted and he just stared at the duo standing in front of his door, his jaw slightly ajar, his eyes widening more with every passing moment.

“Hi,” Gabrielle smiled at him. “Could we come in?”

The man blinked. “I… Y…B…”

Thalia rolled her eyes. “Are you gonna go through the whole alphabet now or could you get us some tea first?”

“Tea?” His hazel eyes looked at her dazedly, then he shook his head, clearing it. “Yes, tea, of course… I… Come in!” He hastily waved them forward. Thalia held on to Gabrielle’s shoulder tightly, helping her over to a nearby chair. The warrior sat down gratefully, placing the saddlebags she’d had lying over her other shoulder next to the chair. Agenor watched them, as he closed the door. “Forgive me, I’m just…” He shook his head a little in disbelief. “Fay! Fay, get in here! Come see who’s here! Quick!”

Some stumbling sounded from the other room, then a door opened and a chubby woman entered the room, her dark brown hair pulled back. She rubbed her palms on her stained apron, trying to wipe the flour of them. “I’m here, I’m here…” She muttered grumpily. “Whas the matter with y…” A long pause in which she stared at their two visitors. “Oh my…” She finally managed, staring at Gabrielle as she took a shaky step closer. “It’s you…” Her eyes drifted up to Thalia, who was standing by the warrior’s side. “Both of you… I…” She took another breath, then just stepped forward and wrapped an arm around Thalia’s shoulders, pulling her into a hug.

The redhead chuckled, patting the woman on the back amicably. “Good to see you too.”

Fay leaned back a little, cupping Thalia’s face between her large hands. “Can’t believe it’s really you. Goodness, child, it’s been so long…” Her gaze shifted to look down at Gabrielle. “And you…” She knelt down, tentatively touching the warrior’s cheek. “Girl, what have you done to that beautiful hair of yours?”

The comment struck Gabrielle as funny and she started laughing, reaching out and wrapping her arms around the woman. “Missed you too, Fay.”

“Words were whispered on the streets,” the woman murmured as she pulled back. “People said you’d returned, that you…” She stopped abruptly, then took one of Gabrielle’s hands in hers. “Gracious…” She looked at the warrior. “Don’t tell me she did it to you again?”

“No, no…” Gabrielle hastily shook her head. “It’s uhm… It’s a lot more complex…” She managed a smile as Agenor held out a cup of tea for her. “Thank you.”

“Aggie, get that girl some bandages, will you?” Fay ordered, before heading back toward the kitchen herself, returning moments later with a bowl of lukewarm water and a sponge. “Come on, sweetie, let’s get you cleaned up…” She reached over and took one of Gabrielle’s hands, winding the bit of cloth that was wrapped around her palm off, tossing it on the ground near the warrior’s saddlebags. “So, the situation is more complex, you say?”

“Yeah,” Gabrielle smiled wryly, then looked up at her other two companions. “You’d better pull up a seat. We’ll be at this for a while…”

——————-

“So…” Gabrielle took a sip of her tea, letting the mixture sooth her dry throat. “There I was, just about ready to send Argo on her way and head back, when I hear this scream.”

“The Conqueror?” Thalia hazarded, leaning forward with her knees on her elbows, fascinated.

“Exactly.” The warrior nodded in affirmation.

“But you said this Alti woman didn’t have the power to fight her?” Agenor cut in.

“She had help…” She looked up, her eyes finally settling on Thalia. “It was Callisto.”

The redhead immediately sat up straight, her eyes wide now. “You’re kidding! But she’s… She’s dead!”

Gabrielle solemnly shook her head. “Far from.”

Meanwhile, Fay was looking from one to the other with a frown. “Who’s this then?”

Agenor crossed his arms. “Callisto was a resistance member from just about the beginning. But she… disappeared before you joined. She was very driven. Willing to do anything that was necessary. Whenever something really dangerous had to be done she’d step up and do it. She was fearless…”

“She had a death wish,” Thalia corrected, with a shake of her head. “The Conqueror killed her family. She was obsessed with the woman.”

Gabrielle released a breath. “She wasn’t so bad at first…” She peeked up. “She did save me, remember?”

Gabrielle kicked at a pebble. It was getting dark early this time of year and she rubbed her forearms with her hands in an attempt to stay warm. She’d arrived in Athens only days ago, but she was already regretting even thinking of coming here. She’d had barely enough dinars to get her here and now she was flat broke, with no place to go and nothing to eat. She sneezed. “It’s all her damn fault…” She muttered angrily, kicking at another pebble in frustration. “Death to the Conqueror…”

“Now, that is not a nice thing to say, little lass.”

Gabrielle’s head shot up to see several soldiers blocking her path. “I… I didn’t mean…” She hastily backed away a few paces.

“Sure you didn’t…” The soldier drawled, clearly not convinced. “But you know the penalty for making death threats to the Empress, don’t you?” He reached out a hand. “You come with me n…Ah!” He hastily pulled back his arm, cradling it against his chest.

“Nuhuh…” Callisto waved a finger at him condescendingly. “No touching the merchandise, boys… Don’t want your greasy little fingerprints all over her.”

“Who the Hades..?!” The soldier growled, then waved his colleagues forward. “Get her!”

With a wicked laugh Callisto launched herself into the battle, ducking under a punch and then grabbing onto her attacker’s head, twisting it around savagely. She kicked aside another, then head butted a third.

Gabrielle watched her in complete fascination. This woman was incredible. She saved her from the gods only know what kind of horrible punishment and she wasn’t afraid of the Conqueror’s men in the slightest. Another man fell limply to the sand. It was just like in her stories. A hero. Someone who stood up for others, just because she could. She had to try to commit the whole event to memory, so she could write this down later. What a great story this would make when she…

A hand wrapped around her arm and dragged her along. “Let’s go, sugar,” her saviour said as she ran by. “Gotta dash. Don’t wanna be caught at the scene of the crime, now do ya?”

Gabrielle followed, nearly tripping over her dress as she tried to keep up. “Th…” She breathed heavily. “Thank you f… for…”

“Shush,” Callisto tugged on her sleeve harder. “Run now, thank later…”

Agenor looked at her in disbelief. “You thought she was a hero?”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “I just came from Potedeia, OK? The most amazing thing I’d seen before was a house trained goat.”

“I guess Callisto can top that, yeah…” Thalia muttered wryly. “But she only saved you because she felt like a good fight, Gab. You should stop trying to make excuses for her.”

“I know, I know…” Gabrielle released a breath. “Old habits die hard, I guess…” A sigh. “Definitely in this case unfortunately…”

A frown from the redhead. “What do you mean?”

Gabrielle rubbed a hand over her face tiredly. “I fought her and….”

“Wait, wait…” Agenor interrupted now. “She was beating the Conqueror and you stopped her??”

“She was working with Alti.” Gabrielle said. “Alti is so much worse than the Conqueror.”

“That’s hard to imagine,” the man muttered under his breath.

Fay poked him in the side. “Aggie, would you just let the girl talk already?” She smiled at Gabrielle. “Go on, dear.”

The warrior leaned back in her seat. “I wanted her to back off, so I tried to wound her. I stuck my blade in her side. But nothing happened.”

“Nothing happened?” Fay blinked at her. “What do you mean?”

“Oh gods…” Thalia breathed in understanding. “She did it, didn’t she? She’s immortal?”

“Immortal?” Fay looked from one to the other. “You serious?”

“She always talked about that…” The redhead said pensively. “Talked about some place where she could find golden apples or something…”

“Yeah, well, she got ‘m…” Gabrielle mumbled, taking another sip of her tea. “Anyway, so I tried to stab her, but that didn’t work, then she grabbed onto my neck and used Alti’s powers on me…” She lifted a bandaged hand. “So that’s how I got these.” She put her cup back down again. “And then the Conqueror managed to wound Alti and Argo came to my rescue just in time…”

Agenor cocked his head. “Who’s Argo?”

“My horse.”

“Your horse??” He looked at her in disbelief. “You got saved by a horse??”

Another poke from his wife. “Be quiet.”

Gabrielle smiled a little. “Anyway, we rode back to the palace and then…” A shrug. “Then she let me go…”

“I still can’t believe that… I just can’t…” Thalia ran a hand through her hair. “Where’s the catch? There has to be a catch…”

Green eyes studied the redhead quietly. “I did save her life, Thal…”

“She is the Conqueror, Gab.” Her friend retorted sharply. “She’s a soulless creature straight from the fires of Tartarus. She wouldn’t know what mercy was if someone’d hang her upside down and stick her head in it.”

For a moment Gabrielle considered arguing that statement, but then she reconsidered. She was too tired to get into a discussion with Thalia right now. Besides, how sure was she herself that there was no catch? The woman had seemed honest enough but… Thalia was right, she was the Conqueror. Gabrielle released a breath. “I don’t know why she did it Thal. And frankly, I don’t care. We’re out of there and we’re alive. That’s the most important thing right now…”

“I’ll second that.” Agenor said, then pushed himself to his feet. “I think it’s about time we all turn in. It’s well past midnight by now.”

“Yeah, you two go on now,” Fay agreed with a smile. “I’ll clean up the mess here.”

Thalia pushed herself to her feet, stifling a yawn. “Thanks, Fay.”

“No problem, dear.” The woman replied easily, picking up the tray with empty cups and carrying it back into the kitchen. “I’m sure you’re looking forward to sleeping in a comfortable bed.”

Gabrielle chuckled, straightening and swinging her saddlebags onto her shoulder.

Thalia wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “I can’t believe you can walk with those wounds, Gab.”

The warrior shrugged negligently. “I’ve had worse.”

“Like when?”

“Like when I nearly cracked my skull when I got slugged by an elephant.”

Thalia’s mouth dropped open. “You did not get slugged by an elephant!”

“Did so.”

“Did not!”

Fay smiled as she re-entered the living room, hearing the muted arguing as the trio moved down a pair of stairs and out of hearing range. Ah, she’d missed those two. She’d forgotten how much. She walked back into the room and picked up the bowl of water. Things had been so quiet these last few years. But now everything was changed. Thalia was back. And more importantly even, Gabrielle was back. And if anyone could blow new life into the rebellion, it’d be them. She walked over to Gabrielle’s chair, leaning down to pick up the bloodied bit of bandage she’d left there, but it wasn’t there anymore. She frowned for a moment, then shrugged it off, straightening and heading back towards the kitchen.

“Here you go…” Agenor pulled open a door for her, stepping aside to let her enter first. “It’s a bit dusty I’m afraid, I tried to keep it clean but…”

Gabrielle stood in the doorway and stared inside. It was a small room, a single bed placed against the far wall and a small desk near the now open door, some shelves above it, stacked with rows of books and a few little trinkets. “I can’t believe it…” She mumbled, almost hesitantly stepping into the room. “It’s… it’s exactly like I left it…”

The man scratched the back of his neck self-consciously. “I uhm… I considered clearing it out a few times, but…” A shrug. “Never could bring myself to actually doing it…” He walked inside after her, placing the candle he’d carried with him on her desk. “Besides, I knew it’d just be a matter of time before you came back.” He turned around, gently touching her shoulder. “You get some good night’s sleep. There’s lots of work to be done in the morning.”

Gabrielle nodded absently. Agenor managed a half smile, then walked out, softly closing the door behind him.

The warrior looked around her, standing silently in the centre of her room. It was like she’d gone back in time. Like nothing had changed. Like these last three years had never happened.

The flames from the candles sparkled off a faceted crystal hanging by a thread attached to the ceiling, casting small dots of yellowish light across the room.

“My mom gave it to me when I was little, because I was afraid in the dark. She said there were dreams inside and when it got dark and there was a moon shining they’d come out and fly across the room.”

Gabrielle stared at the gift in wonder, but then shook her head, holding the crystal out to him. “Naxos, I can’t take this…”

“I want you to have it…” he assured her, closing her fingers over the item. “This is what I want to give you for your birthday, Gabrielle. Dreams.” He smiled. “I figured… maybe when you wake up, you could write about ‘m… And then… maybe… the people who’ll read it will start dreaming too…” He looked at her hopefully. “Isn’t that what we’re trying to do after all? Make people dream again?”

Gabrielle reached out, standing on her toes so she was just able to touch the crystal. She gave it a gentle push with a fingertip and the tiny flecks of light immediately started to dance across the room.

Dreams… How long had it been since she’d had dreams? How long had it been since she hadn’t been plagued by images of Lao Ma’s dead body, of Ming Tien’s wide eyes as she pushed the dagger through his heart, then twisted it about savagely, plagued by the accusing voices of her friends, asking why she hadn’t been there. Why she hadn’t even cried.

She had no room for tears, she’d tell them every time. Tears accomplished nothing after all. She needed to revenge their deaths. There was only room for hate.

Gabrielle sat down on the edge of the bed, the wood creaking softly as she did so. The blankets were soft and they smelled like spring. Fay always made things smell like spring.

She looked up as she heard soft footsteps coming closer. “Gab?” Thalia whispered, poking her head inside. When she saw the warrior was still awake she carefully walked inside and settled down next to her on the bed.

They were both quiet, staring at the opposite wall, until Thalia spoke up again. “Freaky, isn’t it?”

Gabrielle released a breath. “Very,” she murmured softly. “I… When I was travelling, on my way here, I always thought about how nice it would be to get back… To come home…” She fidgeted with the edge of her blanket. “To walk back into this room, to see… everyone again…” A breath. “But now…” She folded her hands in her lap, staring at the bandages pensively. “So much has happened… And I…” She shook her head softly. “I don’t feel… right… being here…”

Thalia studied her friend quietly. “Of course you being here is right…” She then countered softly but firmly, reaching out and pushing a lock of hair that was obscuring the warrior’s grim face behind an ear. “I know…” She released a shaky breath. “I know things are rough… For me too, I mean… It’s been nearly three years, ya know?” She placed a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “But now we’re back. You and me. And we’re gonna shake this town up a little.”

A smile tugged at Gabrielle’s lips as she peeked up at the redhead. “Just like the good old days, huh?”

“You bet,” Thalia grinned back at her. “The dynamic duo is gonna kick butt like they’ve never kicked butt before.”

Gabrielle laughed softly, then half turned and wrapped an arm around her friend, pulling her into a hug.

Thalia replied wholeheartedly. “It’s good to hear you laugh again,” she mumbled. “You’ve been so worried these last few days back in…” Her sentence pulled to an abrupt halt. “Oh gods…” She pulled back, looking at Gabrielle with wide eyes. “Ephiny…”

The warrior smiled reassuringly. “I didn’t forget about Ephiny.”

“Yeah, well I did…” Thalia shook her head with a scowl. “Some friend I am…”

“You’ve just walked the streets of Athens for the first time in years, Thal. I think she’ll forgive you,” Gabrielle assured the redhead. “You just leave the Ephiny issue up to me, OK?”

Thalia frowned at her. “You’re not gonna go back there, are you?” A pause. “Gabrielle, that place is a fortress. You can’t get in there…”

The warrior chuckled softly. “We’ll see…”

“Gab, I’m serious…” Thalia continued unhappily. “I really don’t wanna leave Eph stuck in there, but I’m sure she wouldn’t want you risking your life on a suicide mission…”

“I’ll get her out,” Gabrielle cut her short firmly. “I made her a promise. I’ll just need some time to work out a plan.”

“Oh, another plan…” The redhead muttered under her breath.

“Hey,” Gabrielle shot her an indignant look. “I’ll have you know my plan would have worked perfectly.”

Thalia smiled. “I’m sure it would have…” She covered one of Gabrielle’s hands with her own. “Thanks for getting me out, Gabrielle.”

“No problem.”

A soft snort. “Right…”

The warrior chuckled softly, then gently patted the hand resting on top of hers. “It’s late… We should get some sleep…”

Thalia took a breath, then softly shook her head. “I think I’m just gonna sit up for a while… Wait for the sun…” A small smile. “It’s been a while since I saw the sun rise…”

Gabrielle studied her for a moment. “Want some company?”

The redhead shook her head. “You need to sleep. You’re tired…” She got to her feet, then leaned closer and placed a kiss on the warrior’s forehead. “Good night, my friend.”

“Good night.” Gabrielle murmured in response as she watched Thalia walk out and close the door behind her. Then she reached for her saddlebags and pulled open a flap, digging out a clean white sleep shirt. She pulled off her tunic, careful not to jar her multitude of injuries, then folded the fabric up and laid it on top of her bags before slipping into her shirt.

She crept under the blankets, laid her head to rest on the soft pillow and stared up at the ceiling, where the little flecks of light were still chasing one another. Isn’t that what we’re trying to do after all? Naxos voice rung in her head again. Make people dream again?

She closed her eyes, trying to shut out the memories. Why don’t you dream anymore, Gabrielle? The voice inquired softly. Why did you stop dreaming?

Gabrielle swallowed. “Because it hurts,” she whispered softly to the empty air. “Because… Because I miss you so much…” She opened her eyes again and followed one of the dreams as it flew across the room. “But you know that, don’t you? You can hear my thoughts, right? You know I… I’m sorry… for not…” A shaky breath. “Being here when you needed me, even though I promised… I’d always be there for you…”

A single tear silently trickled down her cheek, landing on her pillow with a soft splat. “Forgive me,” Gabrielle whispered in a husky voice. “Please… Forgive me.”

“Ah!!! Would you be careful!”

“Don’t whine.” Callisto tied off the bandage around the shamaness’s stomach, nice and tight. “I saved your witchy butt at the expense of my own entertainment. Grovelling is in order.”

“I don’t grovel,” Alti muttered indignantly, wincing as the slash Xena’s chakram had cut stung painfully. “If this was such a sacrifice for you, why’d you come back anyway? You could have taken another shot at those two…”

“Three…” Callisto corrected in a mutter, judging the straw roof of the shack they’d found shelter in. Until recently it was occupied by an older man, but after grandpa had accidentally walked straight into Callisto’s sword… Well… “And don’t think I didn’t consider that. Cause I did…”

“But?”

The blonde rolled her eyes. “I’m not stupid, dear. You might be into premonitions, but I can look ahead too.” She walked to a nearby table and filled a mug with water from a large jar. “If I killed tall, dark and nearly dead, her boring Advisor would have taken command and I would be haunted by soldiers for the rest of my eternity… No fun…” She strode back to the bed. “You have some influence at the palace though. They’re afraid of you… So… If you take control, I won’t get hunted and I will probably get some nice position in charge of… say…” She held the glass out to the shamaness, but kept it just out of the woman’s reach. “…the army?” Callisto looked at the shamaness meaningfully.

Alti rolled her eyes. “Whatever…”

“Good,” Callisto smiled cheerily as she handed the shamaness the mug and watched her greedily gulp the fluid down. “Besides, I kinda like your style. It would be a great disappointment to the world to lose a lean mean torturing machine like yourself…”

Alti chuckled a little in genuine amusement. “Well, I’m glad you enjoyed yourself.”

“Oh yes, quite…” Callisto nodded enthusiastically. “Watching Xena squirm was very entertaining… And with the extra bonus of sweet Gabs to top it…” The blonde hummed under her breath appreciatively.

“Yes, that was interesting actually…” Alti cocked her head. “I had no idea you knew her…”

“Oh, me and the Gabster, we go way back…” Callisto giggled. “She was my biggest fan a few years ago…” A frown. “But then she started hanging out with the wrong crowd and that annoying Thalia intervened and made her all righteous and democratic…” She shivered. “Such a waste… She had great potential…”

“Until a few days ago, I thought she would make a great ally…” Alti agreed thoughtfully. “The amount of hate that was pouring from her was… incredible…”

A blonde eyebrow raised. “And now it’s not?”

The shamaness gazed at the roof pensively. “It’s still there, but… There is something else…” She turned her head and looked at her companion. “You saw the vision, didn’t you?”

“The crucifixion. Yes.” Callisto agreed, cocking her head a little. “That was funny, actually… It felt different then the flashbacks I gave Xena… Almost…”

“Like you were there yourself…” Alti added with a nod.

“But Gabs got nailed to that cross while I was stuck in that pit…”

“Yes, but I did not show the warrior her past…” The shamaness murmured. “I showed her the future…”

A moment of silence. “Oh!” Callisto then chortled in delight. “You mean we’ll get to see ‘m crucified? Both of ‘m?”

“Apparently so…” Alti nodded pensively. “But only if we play it right…”

The blonde raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“Did you hear the laughter? In the background?”

Callisto considered this for a moment. “Yes,” she finally nodded, remembering. “It was…” A frown. “…a low voice… Male…”

“Exactly…” The shamaness muttered. “Without him the vision won’t come true… We’ll need him…”

Callisto drummed her fingers on her thigh. “OK… but how do we find out who this fellow is then? Half the population is male, last time I checked…”

“Oh, I know who he is…” Alti grimaced a little. “Unfortunately, I know exactly who he is…”

It was still dark when Xena blinked open her eyes, her internal clock waking her just before dawn. Experimentally she flexed the muscles in her upper arms. She was mildly content with the result, painful, but not something that would keep her pinned down for the rest of the day. Her legs were more of a problem however…

Xena pushed herself upright and flipped the blankets off her body, shivering a little as the cold morning air shifted over her exposed skin. Experimentally she prodded a finger at her knee, then let a flat hand slide down her right leg… As she had expected, the fractured bones were healing quicker then they would under normal circumstances. Though Alti’s powers were great, the wounds created by her flashbacks were not like those inflicted in the here and now and healed much more rapidly, especially when their source was weakened, like now… She winced as she lifted her knee up with her hand and guided her leg off the bed. Walking was not going to be fun though for the time being. With a grimace she guided her second leg off the mattress, and then pushed herself up, only just able to bite back a groan of pain. “Oh that bitch is so going to pay for this…” She hissed between her teeth, finding some support from the bedpost. “When I find her…” She took a shaky pace forward. “I’m going to tie her to a wall and use her for target practice…” Another step. “And when she’s all bled out I’m going to drag her rotting carcass all over town…” Another. “And then I’ll chop her into bits and send parts to every province…”

She’d reached her study and sagged down in her chair with a sigh of relief, taking a moment to catch her breath before pulling open the drawer and digging for some herbs. She mixed them in her mug of water and then gulped the mixture down greedily, before leaning back in her chair, closing her eyes and waiting for the herbs to kick in.

Soon enough the pain in her legs numbed and she was capable of focussing her attention on other things than her aching body. She pulled on a bit of rope dangling near her and heard the faint echo of a bell in the hallway. Then she leaned down a little and opened a drawer, reaching inside, her fingers probing the surface of the wood until she felt the hilt of a blade and pulled it loose from its hiding place. She looked up as a guard paced into the room, saluting to her obediently. “Highness?”

“Any report from the hunters I sent out yesterday?”

The man shook his head. “I’m afraid not, Empress. They have not returned yet.”

Xena nodded at this news. “Go get another regiment ready to move out. And get my horse saddled.” She put the dagger she’d just retrieved on the table, the thin layer of hind’s blood on the blade shimmering dully. “I’ll lead them myself.”

“Yes, Empress.” He bowed politely, then strode off.

Xena watched him go, then she released a breath, leaning back and staring at the ceiling tiredly. Today was not going to be fun, she realised. In spite of the nice challenge of finding Alti and her immortal blonde sidekick, today was going to be painful, both mentally and physically. Now she’d have to deal with the events of yesterday. The spur of the moment decisions she’d made.

Xena folded her hands together, resting her elbows on the table’s surface. Did she regret it? She considered this question seriously for a moment, then shook her head softly. No. Because the alternative would have been killing Gabrielle and she readily admitted to herself she had no desire to do that whatsoever… Not anymore…

Xena sighed gravely, hiding her face in her hands. Good gods, it was finally happening… She was growing soft… Some pretty blonde flashed her eyelashes a little and she gave up all her principles and just let the woman walk right off, no matter what the effects of that were on the Empire… She was turning into a big wuss…

Her hearing picked up tiny footsteps pattering closer and moments later Niobe poked her head through the door. “Sena?”

The Empress peeked through her fingers. “Hmm?”

The toddler wobbled closer, coming to stand beside her, looking up. “y’Okay?”

A smile tugged at her lips. “C’mere, shorty…” She reached down and swooped the toddler up and into her lap.

Niobe reached out and touched a small cut on Xena’s forehead with a finger. “Owie?”

“Owie.” Xena confirmed.

Niobe narrowed her eyes. “Bad lady.”

“Yeah.” The Empress ruffled the dark brown hair a little. “You were right, kiddo. I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you.”

“Hurt Sena.” Niobe muttered angrily. “Bad.”

“Very bad…” Xena agreed quietly. “Hey… You wanna know who saved me?”

“Abby.” The toddler stated matter-of-factly.

Both dark eyebrows raised in surprise, then Xena chuckled in amusement. “You are so good.”

Niobe grinned happily. “Good.” She giggled. “Abby good.”

“You’re right.” Xena nodded. “Gabby is good…”

“Good.” The toddler repeated again for emphasis. “Go Abby!” She then instructed. “Say thank yous.”

The Empress shook her head. “We can’t, short stuff… I sent her home.”

“Home?” Niobe frowned unhappily. “Abby way?”

“I’m afraid so…”

“Gabrielle’s gone?” A third voice dropped into the conversation, as Iona walked inside.

Xena looked up at her, then nodded.

“But… But she can’t be gone!” The girl put her hand son her hips. “She wasn’t finished teaching me yet!”

“Teaching you what?”

“To sn…” The blonde hastily swallowed what she was about to say. “Uhm… to uhm… snare…”

Xena bit back a smile. “Snare?”

“Uhuh…” Iona nodded full of conviction. “You know, how to make snares… Catch bunnies and stuff…”

“Catch bunny?!” Niobe called out in horror. “No, no! No good! Bad! No catch bunny.” She looked up at Xena pleadingly. “Sena?”

The Empress chuckled happily. “No bunny catching.” She promised, hugging the three year old a little closer. “OK?”

“kay…” Niobe muttered, still unsettled, laying her head on Xena’s shoulder.

Iona rolled her eyes then hopped up and took a seat on the edge of Xena’s desk. “So you got hurt, huh?” She watched the Empress nod. “Pretty bad?”

“Quite,” Xena admitted. “My legs aren’t working properly.”

Iona looked at her unhappily. “No fishing, I’m guessing?”

Xena leaned forward and patted her cheek. “Sorry. I know you were looking forward to it…”

Iona glanced down, shrugging. “I understand…”

“How about…” Xena bit her lip. “How about we make it a day trip, huh?”

Blue eyes peeked up hopefully.

“As soon as I’m better we’ll go out to the lake. We’ll bring some lunch. Stay there the whole day…”

“Really?” Iona smiled broadly.

“Really,” Xena confirmed, then laughed as Iona hopped off the desk and started bouncing across the room.

“You are the coolest!” The blonde informed her cheerfully, bouncing over and giving her a hug. “I’m gonna go tell dad!” She said as she ran towards the door, disappearing from sight.

Xena chuckled, shaking her head at the girl with a tolerant smile. “I just can’t seem to say no to that girl, you know that?” She commented to the three year old, who peeked up at her inquisitively.

“Jona?”

“Yeah.” Xena smiled at the toddler. “What do you think, short stuff? Honestly… Am I getting soft?”

“Yes.” Niobe stated without hesitation, wrapping her arms around Xena’s neck contently. “All soft.” She pulled herself up and placed a sloppy kiss on Xena’s cheek. “Luv ya.”

Blue eyes looked down at her, then Xena just caved in and excepted her predicament, laughing softly. “Well, you know what?” She murmured, placing a kiss on top of the girl’s head. “I love you too …”

Gabrielle rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, then pushed herself up a little. Her body complained, but she ignored it, as she always did, and sat up straight, her bandaged feet touching the cold stone floor. There was no sunlight coming into her room, since it was situated in the basement of Agenor’s home, so she couldn’t officially tell what time it was, but her internal clock was pretty trustworthy and she was guessing a little before dawn. The candle Agenor had brought with him yesterday had nearly burned down and Gabrielle scolded herself for not extinguishing the flame and saving her friend the trouble of buying a new one… Oh well, the damage was done now… Maybe she could do some chores around the house to pay him for that and her stay here.

While she was pondering on this, she carefully unrolled the bandage around her left hand and took a peak at the wound in her palm. It was healing quicker than normal, and the wound wasn’t bleeding anymore, but it still hurt quite a bit.

Gabrielle bent forward and reached for her saddlebags, pulling them closer and digging inside for the clean bits of bandage she knew she had hidden there somewhere. She frowned as her hands touched upon something unfamiliar and she pulled it out, studying it quietly as it rested on her hand.

It was a small wooden jar. She opened the top and peeked inside. Xena’s herb mixture, the one she’d given her for her wounds. Gabrielle blinked, confused. She was sure she hadn’t packed that… So how…?

She sighed gravely, closing her eyes. This was all so complex… She placed the jar next to her on the bed, then opened the other saddlebag and pulled out the ripped bit of fabric from Xena’s tunic, which she’d tucked in there because…

Well, just because.

Pensively she fingered the material, scenes from her crucifixion resurfacing. The feeling, the pain, Xena’s face… Tiredly, she ran the fingers of her free hand through her dishevelled hair. So horribly complex… What was she supposed to do with this… this vision anyway? It wasn’t about the past, that much was clear. And it couldn’t possibly be the future… Could it?

Gabrielle shivered at the mere thought. She had no desire to be crucified again anytime soon. She didn’t know if she could stand that sort of pain again… She quietly studied her unbandaged hand. So what was this supposed to mean then? Was it a sign? To stay away from Xena? Or just the opposite, to not stay away from her? But why on earth would Callisto or Alti give her a sign of any sort?

Gabrielle shook her head, discarding the subject. It was no use thinking about it. She had more important matters to attend to today. She gently folded the bloodied bit of tunic back up and placed it securely at the bottom of a saddlebag, then she picked up the jar and took the top off, dipping a forefinger in the cream before spreading it on her wound.

Soon enough she’d redressed all her wounds and pulled on an old pair of leather pants and her green top with the Chinese design. Then she walked, a little unsteadily, into the hallway and towards the stairs. She poked her head into Thalia’s room for a moment, checking if her friend was in, but she wasn’t. She’d probably gone out for a walk, see the sun rise over the Acropolis. They used to watch the sunset together a lot, and discuss resistance-accomplishments of the day. Maybe they could do that again tonight. Gabrielle smiled a little as she headed to the stairs, grasping onto the banisters for some support as she got up the first step. She was looking forward to that. Rebuilding the resistance was probably gonna be hard, attracting people again and…

She cocked her head as she heard voices drifting in from the living room. Voices she didn’t recognise, muttering amongst themselves.

“Would all of you stay quiet!” She heard Agenor hissing. “She deserves her rest. I am not going to let you wake her up.”

Gabrielle frowned, then turned the last corner. And stopped dead, her eyes widening as she took in the packed living room, filled with men and women, Agenor’s head poking out as he stood on his chair, trying to calm the crowd.

“I don’t believe you.” She heard a young man say grumpily. “I think you’re upset you’re no longer in charge, old man, and you thought this up to get some attention.”

“But I saw her, Mentius!” A woman’s voice argued. “I saw her riding into town. On a huge horse and…”

“Oh, right, and it had wings and was breathing fire, right?” Mentius snorted, getting a few laughs out of the group around him.

“But I did see her!” The woman insisted firmly.

“You couldn’t have!” Mentius shot back. “Gabrielle is dead!”

Gabrielle decided this was a good time to clear her throat. “Uhm… Excuse me?”

Complete silence fell, then the crowd turned as one, all eyes suddenly focused on her.

“Hi.” The warrior wiggled her fingers at them. “Would you mind letting me through for a moment? I’d like to get some breakfast…”

Dozens of eyes kept goggling at her for another moment, then enthusiastic muttering rose up. “See, I told you!” The woman called out triumphantly. “It is her! I told you!”

Mentius wormed his way forward and she could now see he was a little younger than she was, had blond, curly hair and determined hazel eyes. She produced a polite smile for him, but he just narrowed his eyes back at her. “We don’t know that’s her.”

Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at him, crossing her arms. “Excuse me?”

But Mentius ignored her. “I’ve heard the stories of Gabrielle. And they never said she wore anything like… that…”

The warrior glanced down at her outfit. “What’s wrong with this?”

“And she has long hair.”

Gabrielle tossed up her hands in defeat. “I cut it off. It happens…”

Mentius stepped in front of her, facing the crowd. “The stories say she was a peasant girl, right?” He waved a hand over his shoulder. “This isn’t a peasant girl.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Whatever,” she muttered, then stepped past him. “You can think I’m one of the Furies for all I care. Just let me get to the kitchen, OK?” She stepped forward and the crowd immediately parted, allowing her passage through.

It felt like a walking a gauntlet, the scrutinizing looks she was getting weighing down on her, the close presence of so many people prodding at her senses, but she kept her calm and just kept going forward.

“Gabrielle?”

She stopped at the hesitant voice called out to her and looked to the woman on her right, who’d managed to find her way towards her. She had long, dark blond hair and deep grey eyes, that were looking back at her shyly, but warmly.

“I…” She hesitantly reached out and touched the warrior’s shoulder. “I know it’s you.” She dropped her head. “You probably don’t remember, but…”

“Egeria?” Gabrielle smiled at her, happy to find a familiar face. “Of course I remember.” She covered the hand on her shoulder with her own. “When I last saw you, you wanted to quit, because…” She cocked her head inquisitively. “Did everything go OK? With the pregnancy?”

“Great!” Egeria beamed a smile back, delighted at being recognised. “We had a son. He’s almost three now.” A shy look. “We named him Gabriel. After you.”

The warrior blinked at this news. “I’m… I’m flattered.” She managed to stutter, then she waved a hand at the kitchen door. “Have you had breakfast?”

The woman shook her head.

“Well, come on then.” She wrapped an arm around Egeria’s shoulders. “Lets sit down. I wanna hear all about this little boy.”

“Sure!” The woman easily let herself be steered towards the kitchen. “He’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever seen…”

“Definitely picked a good name for him then,” Gabrielle commented cheerfully, getting a laugh out of the woman.

The crowd closed in behind them, murmuring drifting up again.

“It has to be her, Mentius.” A woman said softly, looking up at the young man at her side. “How could she have known about Egeria otherwise?”

“She could have planned this,” Mentius insisted, but doubt was now clearly lingering in his voice. “Or… Or Agenor could have told her.”

The woman shot him a disbelieving look. “Do you really believe that?”

“I’m not about to hand over leadership of the resistance to some impostor,” Mentius hissed under his breath. “I need proof she is who she says she is…”

“But what if it’s true?” A bearded man on his right inquired. “What if she really is Gabrielle?”

“If she is…” Mentius murmured, then looked up at his friend. “If she is… then a new era has begun… And I’ll gladly let her lead me into it.”

Fay muttered some curses as she sliced off another bit of bread, then walked over to the table and handed it to Gabrielle. “Here you go, dear.”

The warrior smiled up at her gratefully. “Thanks, Fay.”

“I’m very sorry about all of this…” the woman muttered as she took a seat beside the blonde. “We didn’t ask for these people to come, you know? They just showed up one by one and wouldn’t leave…”

“They mean well,” Egeria offered, a little guiltily. “Everybody just got so excited when they heard you’d come back…”

Gabrielle frowned, swallowing back another bite of bread. “Why is that anyway? I mean, I know I’ve been gone for a while…” She waved a hand at the door. “But I don’t even know most of the people out there…”

“Oh, but they know you, sweetie,” Fay said as she cut an apple into four equal parts, handing one to the warrior and one to her guest. “You’re a bit of a legend.”

Gabrielle snorted, shaking her head. “I’m not a legend.”

“Oh, you are,” Egeria insisted. “There are scrolls circling among the people about all the amazing things you did. I’ve read all of them.” She said proudly. “They are wonderful.”

“Scrolls?” Gabrielle looked at the woman, then turned to Fay. “What kind of scrolls?”

“The scrolls, dear. The ones that Naxos wrote.”

Gabrielle’s eyes widened. “Naxos wrote??”

Fay looked surprised. “You didn’t know?”

“No, I…” Gabrielle shook her head, disbelievingly. “I mean, I know he wanted to. He always said he wished he could write, just like me, but… I never…” She released a breath. “I can’t believe he kept that from me.”

“He didn’t write that much at first.” Fay offered in a way of explanation. “But after you left the stories kept coming and coming… The members where so sad that you left and the stories gave them faith again… I think… he was afraid to tell you before, because he didn’t know how you’d react.”

Gabrielle balanced her head on her hand, not sure of what to say. “They’re… about me? All of them?”

Egeria nodded vehemently.

“He really admired you, Gabrielle. He looked up to you…” Fay said. “The way he was constantly tagging along behind you…” She laughed softly in remembrance. “The boy would have driven me nuts with all his curiosity. It’s a good thing you were so patient.”

“His curiosity is what I liked most about him,” the warrior said softly, taking a sip of her tea to moisten her dry throat.

They all remained silent for a moment, then Gabrielle looked up from her thoughts. “These… scrolls… Could I read them?”

“Of course.” Fay said, getting up from her chair. “I think I have the first one around here somewhere…”

“The first one…” Gabrielle repeated softly. “So… How many of these scrolls are there?”

“Twenty two.” Egeria eagerly supplied.

“Twenty two?!” Green eyes looked at her in disbelief. “There’s twenty two scr… How did he manage to fill twenty two scrolls about just me??”

“He learned from the best, dear,” Fay murmured, the sound slightly muted as she dug around in a cabinet. “Ah, here we go…”

Gabrielle could see her pull back a brick from the wall, then stick her hand inside and retrieve a single scroll. The parchment was worn and had obviously been read very often, judging by the many folds and cuts. Gabrielle reached out and took the scroll as it was handed to her, then rolled it open at the top and started reading.

Help me, great muses, to tell this story of your chosen one, Gabrielle of Potedeia. Gifted bard. Leader of the rebellion. And my best friend.

Gabrielle lifted a hand and rubbed at her eyes, quickly wiping away the beginnings of tears. “I uhm…” She stared at the familiar handwriting for another moment, then rolled the scroll back up. “I think I’ll read this… a little later. If that’s OK.”

Fay gently placed a hand on her shoulder. “Of course, sweetie. You just take as long as you need.”

The door was pushed open and Thalia wormed her way inside, curious faces peeking around the edge as it opened, trying to catch a glimpse of Gabrielle.

“For crying out loud…” The redhead muttered, slamming the door shut behind her. “Freaking bunch of overgrown…” She turned to the three woman at the table. “I hate to complain, Fay, but this is turning into a pretty crappy hideout.”

The woman chuckled, then waved her into a seat, pushing a plate with a bit of fresh bread and some fruit towards her. “Agenor is trying to get rid of ‘m, but they won’t take no for an answer, I’m afraid.”

Thalia plumped down in her seat gracelessly. “What are they doing here anyway?”

Gabrielle ran a unsteady hand through her hair. “They’re here to see me.”

Her friend frowned, then looked at her. “Excuse me?”

“Apparently, I uhm…” The warrior scratched the back of her neck uncomfortably. “I’ve turned into a bit of a legend of sorts…” She pushed the scroll towards Thalia. “Naxos wrote some stuff about… me…”

“I heard he started scribbling,” Thalia muttered, unrolling the scroll and letting her eyes flick over the first line. “Hmm hmm chosen one, Gabrielle of Potedeia, leader of the… Hey!” She looked up indignantly. “When did you start running this Rebellion single-handedly?”

Gabrielle laughed softly, holding her hands up in defence. “Hey, I didn’t write this…”

“No, your little fan did…” Thalia muttered, shaking her head and returning her attention to the scroll, reading a few more lines, unable to suppress a small smile. “Gods, that boy sure was in awe of you, Gab.” She shook her head a little. “You know, back when, before…” A tense pause. “…you know…”

Gabrielle nodded mutely.

“He was always so convinced you’d come back. He never doubted it for a moment. And whenever I was on the brim of just giving in he’d show up and start chastising me that I couldn’t just give in now and that if I gave up and you came back you’d be so disappointed and you’d blame him for not supporting me and he wasn’t going to have any of it…” She shook her head sadly. “Gods, I miss that boy…”

Gabrielle pensively studied the grains in the wooden table. “Me too.”

They were all quiet for a moment, no one sure of what to say. Then finally Thalia looked up. “So… Now what?” She wave a hand at the door. “Your fandom can’t keep hanging around here, Gab. We’ll have the Empress’s troops on us in a heartbeat if they do.”

Gabrielle sighed, hiding her face in her hands for a moment, trying to get her brain to stop spinning and start functioning. “You’re right…” She finally murmured, pushing herself back to her feet.

Thalia followed suit. “What’s the plan?”

“I’m gonna send these people home.” The warrior stated, walking towards the door and pushing it open resolutely.

Silence fell again as Gabrielle walked back into the living room. From the looks of it even more people had entered since she’d disappeared into the kitchen. She felt Thalia step up behind her, her friend’s close presence reassuring her as she looked at the masses staring back at her curiously. She sucked in a breath and squared her shoulders, then decided she’d have to be higher up to address the entire crowd. “Thal? Stand back a little, would you?”

Thalia frowned, but complied. “Why do y…?” Her sentence stopped abruptly as she watched Gabrielle push off and flip over the people, landing neatly on top of the table in the centre of the room. “Oh… Right…”

The warrior lifted both her hands, trying to hush the murmuring that drifted up around her. “Please, listen to me.” Silence fell around her immediately, the attention of the entire room focussed on her. “I… I appreciate all you coming here to see me.” She swallowed, suppressing her uncomfortable-ness with this whole situation. “Before I woke up this morning I thought the resistance was dead, but I know better now…”

Some cheers went up at the back of the room and enthusiastic voices rose again.

“But…” Gabrielle hastily lifted her hands again. “But now I need all of you to leave. To go back to your homes.” She looked at them pleadingly. “The Conqueror is looking for me and if all of you stay here it won’t be long before she figures out where I am… So please, go home…”

“But we want to help you!” A voice called out.

“Listen!” The warrior called over the cheering that followed. “I don’t want you to do anything careless on my behalf.” The crowd calmed a little at this. “Thalia and I will be moving to another hideout as soon as we can. We’re gonna need some time to regroup and make plans, but you can be sure that when the time comes I’ll be counting on every one of you to help me.” Gabrielle let her eyes flick over the crowd. “Now, though, I need you to leave. And to not mention where I am to anyone. Understood?”

Nods and consenting murmurs followed, then the ones at the back of the room turned and headed for the door.

Gabrielle watched the room empty from her elevated position atop of the table. Most seemed to be obeying her hesitantly, but dutifully, yet a small group of men and woman wasn’t moving. She recognised the man in the middle as the one who’d spoken against her before. They muttered amongst themselves, then finally the leader stepped forward, towards her.

Gabrielle hopped off the table, letting the man have the advantage of height, him being a few inches taller than she was.

Mentius stopped before her, hazel eyes studying her for a moment. “I need to speak with you.” He finally stated.

Gabrielle looked back at him, taking in his confident stand and sense of authority, then produced a smile for him. “Sure…” She waved a hand at the kitchen. “After you…”

They re-entered the kitchen and Mentius sat down on one side of the table, while Gabrielle circled to the other and took a seat across from him. She saw Fay narrow her eyes at the young man and slide over to come to stand behind her, where she joined Agenor and Egeria. Two muscular men took up spots behind Mentius, while Thalia pulled up a seat next to the warrior and settled down as well, casually popping a foot onto the table. “Hey Gab…” She whispered, leaning closer. “Did anyone tell you that you are a major show off?”

Gabrielle smacked her on the shoulder, but chuckled nevertheless, appreciating her friend’s attempt at lightening the mood. Then she focussed her attention on the man before her. “So… You wanted to talk?”

He sat up straight, folding his hands together. “My name is Mentius. I’ve been leading this rebellion for over a year now.”

“I see…” Gabrielle nodded, understanding his suspicious reaction better now.

“I’ve done my best to keep everything as hushed up as possible. Since the executions two and a half years back…”

Gabriele and Thalia both flinched, but kept quiet.

“… it’s been hard, getting people to join, to keep opposing the Conqueror…” He leaned forward, balancing his elbows on the table’s surface. “And I am not going to let someone ruin everything I’ve worked for.”

The warrior eyed him calmly. “I don’t want to ruin anything…”

“Perhaps…” Mentius leaned back in his seat, crossing his arms. “But over the years I’ve learned to be cautious. You could be an assassin sent by the Conqueror, for all I know…”

Thalia rolled her eyes. “That’s ridiculous. Gabrielle would never…”

“Thalia…” The warrior hushed her friend. “Mentius here is right to be careful… We would be too…” She turned her attention back to the young man. “So, you think I might be an assassin?”

Mentius shrugged. “You could be…”

“Well, I guess…” Gabrielle started, then reached for her boot in one fast move, drawing a dagger from its hiding place and flicking it towards him before his two bodyguards could do so much as flinch. She dagger seared just over his head, cutting off a few hairs before firmly embedding itself in the opposite wall.

Mantis’s spun around in his seat to look at the dagger stuck in the wall, then looked back at her with wide eyes.

“I’m not an assassin.” Gabrielle stated calmly, folding her hands. “If I wanted to kill you, I would have done it before.”

One of the men at Mantis’s side took a threatening pace forward, but before he could reach for Gabrielle, Mentius had raised his hand, silently ordering him to stop. He looked doubtful for a moment, but then took a step back, resuming his position.

Mentius focussed his attention back on Gabrielle, studying her quietly. “The scrolls never mentioned you could wield weapons of any sort.”

Gabrielle smiled. “A lot can happen in three years time…”

“Indeed…” Mentius nodded quietly. “Indeed…” He took a breath, then met her eyes for a long moment. “My heart is telling me to trust you…” He finally said, with a small smile. “And I tend to listen to my heart…”

“You wouldn’t be in the resistance if you didn’t,” Gabrielle stated.

A chuckle. “True enough…” He admitted, then straightened and bowed his head. “Welcome back, Gabrielle of Potedeia.” He looked up at her again, and Gabrielle instantly saw the change in his eyes, which had gone from reserved and cautious to open and hopeful, reminding her of the dozens of eyes that had been looking up at her only moments before. “What is it you want me to do?”

“Highness!”

Xena spun her horse around, then headed in the direction the call had come from. Moments later she entered a small clearing, where a threesome of soldiers was waiting for her. They all saluted her as she rode up to them.

“The remnants of a fire, Empress.” The first said, pointing at a pile of ashes lying in the centre of a circle of stones.

Xena stared down at the ashes, then let her eyes flick around the clearing. “This is it…” She affirmed, noticing the slices in several trees where her chakram had ricocheted off the wood.

“These were near the fire, general.” A second soldier said, handing her a few pouches and a bowl.

Xena took the items, glancing into the bowl first, seeing the dried blood clinging to the wood. “Figures… Woman can’t do anything that doesn’t involve blood…” She focussed her attention on the pouches, dipping her finger in one and sniffing. “Hmm…” She checked a few more. “Interesting combination…” She murmured, tucking the bags into her saddlebag before looking up. “Any tracks around here? Any indication of where they went?”

“There’s some blood here, Empress.” The first soldier said, kneeling on the ground. “And some broken twigs too…”

Xena nodded. “South it is then… Call the others over. You guys lead the way…”

“Yes, Empress.” Was the unanimous reply, before the soldiers moved in the indicated direction, one pulling a horn from his pack and lifting it to his lips.

Xena watched them go, then looked back at what had previously been the campfire where Alti had sat. “I’m gonna find you, Alti…” She whispered into the wind. “And when I do…” She lifted the wooden bowl and then flung it away with all her strength, the item smacking up against a nearby tree and shattering to bits.

“She’s following us…”

Callisto rolled her eyes, tugging on a reign and guiding her horse around a few trees. “Geez, miss psychic. Ya think?”

Alti shot the blonde a look, seriously considering flashbacking her into a nice encounter with an arrow, but she decided against it, realising having them both injured while Xena was on their heals was probably not real handy. “I’d prefer it if you kept your witty remarks to yourself…”

“I’d prefer it if you told me where the heck we’re going.” Callisto retorted easily, looking at her companion pointedly.

Alti released a tired breath. “There’s a small house on the tip of the peninsula. It’s where I live…”

Dark eyes studied her. “We’re going to your home?”

A nod from the shamaness.

“And you haven’t considered that Xena might figure out about this ingenious hideout of yours?”

Alti rolled her eyes. “There is something there I need to get.”

The blonde shook her head. “Yeah, well, I don’t think this…”

“Callisto.” Alti cut her off with a sharp hand gesture.

Her companion raised an eyebrow at her.

“You’ll understand when we get there… Just trust me…”

Callisto looked at her doubtfully for another moment, then she faced forward again, spurring her horse into a faster pace. “I trust you implicitly, dear… As long as it suits my purposes…”

“But we could…”

“No…” Gabrielle cut in. “No, we can’t…”

Mentius blinked back at her. “But with you here, isn’t this…”

“No!” The warrior tossed up her hands in frustration. “We aren’t going to overthrow her tomorrow just because I’m here, Mentius. It doesn’t work like that…” Gabrielle rubbed her face with a palm. “These things take time.”

Thalia stepped up behind her friend, laying a hand on the warrior’s shoulder. “Let’s just get those flyers ready before tomorrow, OK? Let’s focus on letting this town know we are back, before we start doing anything rash.”

“I… I guess…” Mentius seemed a little disappointed.

“Good, glad you agree.” Thalia said shortly. “Now take off and get things arranged. Get those bits of parchment here before dawn, got it?”

The young man blinked, then looked at Gabrielle questioningly. “Is that what you want, Gabrielle? Just the flyers?”

The warrior nodded. “For now, yes.”

“All right…” Mentius rose to his feet. “I’ll get things arranged.”

“Thank you.” Gabrielle managed a smile for him.

He bent his head reverently, then turned and strode out of the room, followed by his two companions.

Gabrielle released a tired breath, then looked up at the redhead gratefully. “You’re my hero…”

Thalia chuckled, patting her friend’s cheek affectionately. “Good to know I’m somebody’s hero these days…”

The warrior bit her lip apologetically. “Is this bothering you?”

Thalia circled the blond and took a seat across from her, considering this question seriously for a moment. “A little bit…” She finally admitted. “I mean, I don’t care much for fame and glory and all that, you know that, right?”

A nod from the warrior.

“But…” A shrug. “I guess I had sorta hoped some people would remember me at least…”

Gabrielle glanced down at her folded hands. “I’m sorry…”

“Hardly your fault, Gab.” Thalia leaned forward, covering the warrior’s hands with one of her own. “I know this is tough for you… And… And I’m sorry that I can’t take some of this weight off of you…”

Insecure green eyes looked up at her. “They all…” A breath. “They look at me like I’m the solution to all their problems… They think that now that I’m back, everything is going to just be OK all of a sudden…” Gabrielle shook her head. “How do I explain to them that it doesn’t work like that, Thal? I’ve tried, but… they just won’t listen…”

“They’ll figure it out eventually,” the redhead ensured her, her voice filled with the confidence Gabrielle felt she herself was lacking. “Don’t listen to them, OK? We’re just gonna go about things our way, and if they’ve got a problem with that they can just scram and find another blond haired, kick ass legend to put their faith in.”

Gabrielle chuckled in spite of herself, then gently squeezed her friend’s hand. “I wouldn’t know what to do without you… You know that, right?”

Thalia flashed a grin at her. “Yup, I know, I know…”

The blonde rolled her eyes, but couldn’t repress a smile. “Brat.”

“Heh,” her friend chortled happily. “You know I…”

A knock sounded.

“…am going to send whoever that is away from here…” Thalia completed her sentence with a growl, pushing herself up from the table.

Gabrielle chuckled. “Go at ‘m, girl…”

“You just stay here,” The redhead ordered, before walking into the living room and towards the door, pulling it open. “What do ya want?”

The brunette in front of the door raised an eyebrow at the woman. “I’m here to see Gabrielle.”

“Well, too bad…” Thalia snapped her fingers. “She just left. Come back tomorrow…” She tried to close the door, but a foot blocked it from falling into the lock.

Gabrielle chose this moment to walk into the living room, having heard a familiar voice. “Solari?” She smiled as she spotted the Amazon blocking the doorway. “Thal, it’s OK, she’s a…”

With a growl Solari shoved open the door, sending Thalia flying backwards. She rushed inside, pulling a dagger from her belt and tossing it towards the warrior.

Gabrielle ducked, letting the metal fly past and embed itself into the door behind her. “…friend…” She finished in a murmur, blinking at the brunette in confusion.

“You liar!” Solari snapped, flinging a fist towards her head, which Gabrielle only just managed to avoid. “You cheating…” A kick. “…lying…” A blocked elbow. “…double-crossing…”

“Solari, stop it!” Gabrielle pushed herself up, flipping over the Amazon’s head and landing behind her, quickly grabbing onto an arm and twisting it behind the woman’s back. “Stop it!” She repeated as the brunette struggled in her grasp. “I don’t wanna hurt you…”

“Well, I wanna hurt you!” Solari spit back, her eyes blazing angrily. “You said you’d help her! You said you’d get her out! But you were just doing this to save your own neck all along!”

“That is not true!”

“Bitch! You conniving piece of… ”

The warrior twisted the Amazon’s arm, stopping any further insults. “Now, you listen to me and you listen good!” She hissed in the brunette’s ear. “I have had a crappy day and am not going to listen to your whining for another second.”

Solari growled something incoherent, but didn’t speak.

“I wanted to help Ephiny, but stuff happened, OK?” Gabrielle continued, her voice a bit calmer now. “The Conqueror told me to walk off and take Thalia with me. What was I supposed to say? ‘No, I won’t go unless I can bring Ephiny too?’ That would have been a little stupid, don’t you agree?” Gabrielle allowed a moment to let this sink in, then she released her hold on the brunette, taking a step back to put some distance between them

Solari turned, her hands balled to fist as her eyes flashed at the warrior. “You…” She took a shaky breath. “You promised!”

“Hey, Gabrielle’s been through enough today and…” Thalia tried to stand up for her friend, but the warrior turned her head and shot her a look, slightly shaking her head. So she stopped speaking, simply taking up a place at her friend’s side silently.

Gabrielle looked at the Amazon. “I will get her out,” she stated solemnly. “You’re right, I promised, and I make good on my promises.” She took a step closer. “But you have to give me some time.” Another step. “Please?”

“I heard you saved the Conqueror.” Solari eyed her suspiciously. “Give me one reason to trust you?”

The warrior released a breath. “If I was working for her, don’t you think I would have told her about you? Don’t you think you would have been dead by now if I had?”

Solari frowned, mulling over this statement for a moment. “I… I guess that’s true…”

“How about we stop fighting and sit down for a chat, OK?” Gabrielle suggested, waving her towards a seat.

The Amazon looked hesitant.

Thalia decided she’d had enough of all this standing back and being quiet and stepped forward. “Look, you’re not going to get Ephiny out of that hellhole by standing here and yelling at Gabrielle…”

Solari turned her attention to the redhead. “And who might you be?”

“Thalia,” the redhead introduced herself, extending a hand towards the Amazon. “I’ve heard a lot about you…”

Solari took her hand, cocking her head in question. “You have?”

“Sure.” Thalia affirmed. “Eph talks about you all the time…”

A happy little smile tugged at the brunette’s lips. “She… She does?”

Gabrielle stifled a grin. “Let’s sit down, OK? I think we have a lot to talk about…”

Twilight had set in by the time Callisto and Alti rode up to the small hut that Alti lived in. They dismounted, Alti wincing as she jarred her injuries, then headed into the house.

Callisto looked around with a frown, judging the interior of the small house. “Lovely place…” She said sarcastically, picking up a human skull that was lying forsaken in a corner, blowing in one eye socket, sending dust flying out of the other. “Geez…” She coughed loudly, waving the dust particles away with her free hand. “Ever thought about getting a housekeeper?”

“I don’t spend much time in this place…” Alti stated, walking over to a desk on the far left, digging into its drawers.

“I wonder why…” Callisto muttered, her eyes tracking over the sparse interior, a desk, a bookcase and some chairs, all covered by a multitude of cobwebs.

“If you’re done judging the way I live,” the shamaness looked at her pointedly. “…you can start a fire in the fireplace over there…”

Callisto looked into the indicated direction. “A fire?” She turned back to the shamaness. “Like one with smoke drifting up that people who are tracking us can easily spot? That kind of fire?”

Alti sighed gravely, muttering some curses in a foreign language. “I need a fire.” She growled.

“Oh, this is another one of those things I have to trust you on, right?” Callisto drawled, then she waved a hand at the shamaness dismissively. “Fine, dear… You’re the one running the risk, being mortal and all…” She said, before kneeling down next to the fireplace and pulling a few dust-covered wooden logs from a basket close by.

Alti shot a look skyward, then continued her rummaging.

Meanwhile Callisto rubbed to flints together until the wood caught fire, crackling softly. “Here we go…” She said contently, straightening and dusting her hands off, before turning to the shamaness. “Did you find what you’re looking for?”

“I can’t seem to…” Alti started, then stopped, drawing an item from the back of the drawer. “Ah… Yes, I just did…”

Calisto watched as Alti lifted the item up, cocking her head in intrigue. “Interesting…” It was an blue orb, about the size of Alti’s palm. The exterior seemed to be made of some sort of glasslike material and inside there were black clouds shifting, small sparks of blue lighting up the darkness from time to time. “What is it?”

“A portal.” Alti said calmly, walking over to the fire. “Stand back.”

Callisto obeyed, then watched as the shamaness tossed the ball into the flames. She shielded her eyes as the orb exploded with a bright flash. When she looked back the black clouds had filled the fireplace completely, but oddly enough the fumes seemed to stay inside and not drift out into the room. “Nice trick…” She complimented the shamaness. “But what exactly is th… whoa!”

She took a step back as a figure suddenly stepped out of the darkness, ducking under the wooden beams that supported the chimney’s structure, before straightening slowly and letting his dark brown eyes slide across the room until they finally settled on Alti. He crossed his arms over his leather clad chest. “I was having a grand time torturing Odin, so this had better be important…”

“I didn’t call you over here because you’re such great company, Ares,” Alti retorted, unintimidated as the king of the gods narrowed his eyes at her.

Ares snorted. “Let me guess… You couldn’t keep her in line, could ya?” The look in the shamaness’s eyes answered his question. “That’s what I thought… You leave a woman in charge and look what you get…”

Alti rolled her eyes. “Oh please… Like you have so much control over what Xena does.”

The god placed his hands on his hips. “Well, I sure have more control over her then you do. I mean, obviously…”

“Excuse me?”

They both turned and looked at Callisto.

“Is anyone concerned by the fact we’re being hunted down by the leader of the known world and her pack of merry men or is it just me?”

Ares frowned. “Hunted?” He glanced at Alti. “Why is she hunting you down?”

“Well…” Alti started hesitantly.

Callisto tossed up her hands. “Cause we tried to kill her of course…”

The shamaness narrowed her eyes at the blonde.

“You…” Ares glanced from one to the other. “You tried to kill her?”

Alti released a breath. “The situation was getting out of control…”

“So you decide to KILL her??” Ares tossed up his hands in utter frustration. “Are you INSANE?!” Alti tried to explain once more, but Ares cut her off before she could even start. “Do I need to remind you what happened to the last person who tried to kill her??”

“Not really…”

“She strung him up by his feet, then cut off parts of his anatomy at regular intervals until he bled to death. First an ear, then a hand, then a nose, then… then some other very vital parts…” Ares shivered at the mere though, then pointed a finger at her. “That woman’s got a hind’s blood dagger and I do not feel like being chopped into little pieces…”

“She’s got a hind’s blood dagger?” Callisto joined in. “You didn’t tell me she had one of those!”

“Argh,” Alti growled, covering her face in her hands. “This reminds me why I generally work alone…”

“I can’t believe you’d be foolish enough to even think about attempting to assassinate her,” Ares continued on obliviously. “I mean for the love of…”

Alti lifted her head and looked at him, then narrowed her eyes savagely. Ares gasped in a breath as visions flooded his senses.

A hooded warrior blocking a road in Macedonia.

Xena fighting a blonde woman in the arena.

And losing to her.

The Empress snatching a dart meant for the blonde out of the air, then slicing her chakram through the neck of one of her lieutenants.

Another battle in the arena where Xena was clearly winning, but consciously refrained from ending the fight.

This warrior defending Xena as she was lying helplessly on the ground.

Blue eyes meeting green.

Ares’ eyes shot open as the images receded. He blinked, looked at Callisto, then turned to Alti. “OK…” He shook his head a little, trying to shake of the dreadful visions of Xena displaying mercy. “I uhm… I get your point now….”

“Bout time…” The shamaness muttered.

“Maybe…” He took a few paces, considering the situation. “Maybe you’re right, maybe it’s time Xena got… replaced…”

“Glad we agree.” Alti drawled, crossing her arms. “So, does this mean you’re gonna help?”

Ares’ head shot up. “Well uhm… I uhm…” He scratched the back of his neck. “You know, I’d love to, but uhm…” He waved a hand at the empty air nervously. “I’ve still got some business with the Norse gods and all…”

Alti shot him a bored look. “Right…”

“But…” Ares narrowed his eyes at her. “I know someone who can help you out while I’m… detained…”

He snapped his finger and vanished in a flash of dark blue, then reappeared again, a silent, armoured form standing beside him. “Here you go…”

Callisto raised an eyebrow, looking at the frame of what appeared to be one of Xena’s lieutenants. He seemed to be missing some important parts though. “Uhm…” She waved a hand at the figure. “Where’s his head?”

Ares looked at her, then turned to the headless man beside him. “Oh…” He poked a hand through the spot where the head was supposed to be. “Darn…” He stood on his tiptoes, glancing into the soldier’s armour. “Head, head, head…” He muttered, then finally cheered up. “Ah, here we go…”

He grabbed onto the figure’s shoulders and spun him around, making him face forward.

“Oh…” Callisto crossed her arms, looking at the head that was dangling by a tiny bit of un-severed skin, the man’s dark blond hair resting against his well armoured back. “Funky…”

At this the man blinked his eyes open, dazedly looking around the room. “Where am I?”

“Oh, and it talks too…” Callisto chortled. “Nice…”

“What are you talking about?” The officer snapped at her, then frowned. “And why the Hades are you standing on the ceiling? Show some respect for Pompey the Magnus and get down from there!”

Callisto looked at him, then glanced up at Ares. “Your boy toy’s not too smart, godking.”

Ares glowered back at her, then turned to Alti. “She’s obnoxious.” He pointed a thumb at the blonde.

“You’re telling me…” The shamaness sighed in response.

Callisto crossed her arms indignantly. “Oh yeah… And this coming from the god who’s afraid of a tiny little dagger…”

“You!” Pompey called out angrily, turning towards Alti as he heard the familiar voice, lifting a hand and pointing a finger at the empty spot behind him. “Witch! You set me up! You told me to attack her and then I…” His sentence pulled to an abrupt halt. “And then I… I died…” He instinctively lifted a hand to touch his throat, his eyes widening as he touched nothing but air. “What the…” He glanced down, straight up at the thatched roof. “Whaaaa!!” He started hopping around frantically. “What is going on here!!!”

“Easy, darling…”Callisto grabbed onto a shoulder. “Don’t lose your head…” She giggled, then grabbed a handful of the officers bangs and tugged, pulling his head back on top of his torso. “Now there… That’s more comfortable, don’t you agree?”

“Wh…” He glanced down at the floor, then back up at her. “Bu…”

“Very eloquent fellow…” Callisto commented to her other two companions over her shoulder. “If we want to bore Xena to death, he’ll come in quite handy…”

“Xena?” Dark eyes narrowed. “I served her faithfully for years and what is the thanks I get… She just ki…” He blinked, then glanced up at Alti. “She did kill me… right?”

“Quite.” The shamaness affirmed with a nod.

“Bitch…” Pompey growled. “So uhm…” he glanced at his companions. “How come I’m uhm… here?”

“Because I brought you here…”

Pompey looked up, then his eyes widened as he recognised the king of the gods. “Great Ares…” He bowed deeply. “I’m… I’m honoured…”

“Heh,” Ares crossed his arms, looking down at the bowing soldier smugly, then he shot Alti and Callisto a meaningful look. “See, ladies, this is how this worshipping thing works… You two could learn a lot from this good fellow…”

Alti and Callisto looked at each other, then rolled their eyes simultaneously, before Alti turned back to the god. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate your.. gift… But what exactly is his use?”

Ares smirked at her. “Good old Pompey here is going to make you some friends in the military.”

“Empress!” Pyrron stepped up to the dark stallion as Xena pulled the horse to a halt at the entrance of the stables. “Any luck?”

Xena shook her head, swinging a leg over Chilon’s strong back before sliding to the ground, wincing as she impacted with the hard earth. “No.” She laid a hand on Pyrron’s shoulder for some support and managed a small nod for the young boy who took Chilon from her and led him into the stables. “They left an easy trail right up to Alti’s home… But when I got there they were nowhere in sight…” She shook her head a little as they headed towards the palace. “It’s like they vanished into thin air.”

“You think that’s Alti’s doing, Empress? That she transported them elsewhere?”

“I don’t know… I never heard she was capable of something like that, but then again, I didn’t know she could transfer her powers to a vessel either, so…” Xena shrugged. “Could be…”

Pyrron nodded in understanding. They walked on in silence for a few moments. “Iona was very upset when she heard you’d gone out riding without her…” The Advisor said then, in an attempt to lighten the mood a bit.

Xena managed a small grin at this. “Did you explain?”

“Well, I tried…” Pyrron muttered. “But you know how that girl gets…”

The grin increased a little. “Yeah… I know…” A few more paces. “Is she still awake?”

Her advisor shook his head. “She wanted to stay up and yell at you, but she finally fell asleep on the couch.”

The Empress chuckled softly. “Well, that’s for the better I guess… I’ll talk to her tomorrow…”

“You’re not going out there again, are you?”

“I won’t stop looking until I find her and rip her throat out.” Xena simply replied, her face darkening a little.

Brown eyes looked up at her. “You should let your wounds heal first. You’re no match for them like this…”

A dark eyebrow raised at him sharply.

Pyrron rolled his eyes. “Empress, you didn’t beat them before. It’s safe to assume it won’t be much easier with you being half crippled.”

Xena scowled at this. “I wasn’t prepared for them before…” She muttered grumpily.

“Right…” Pyrron drawled, clearly unconvinced.

The Conqueror backhanded him lightly against the shoulder. “Don’t get smart with me, Ronnie…”

“Me? Get smart?” The Advisor laid a hand over his heart innocently. “Never, Empress.”

Xena snorted, shaking her head. “You make that sound so convincing…”

Pyrron laughed, amicably patting the dark-haired woman on the back as they halted in front of the door leading to Xena’s private quarters. “You want me to send something to eat to your room?”

Xena considered this. “Yeah, I’d like that… Just something light…”

Her Advisor nodded in understanding, then walked off.

Xena turned and placed a hand on the doorknob, but then she reconsidered and turned, taking a few paces back down the hall towards Pyrron’s quarters, softly opening the door. The room was covered in darkness, only the soft moonlight shining in through the window providing some form of illumination. Xena quietly crept inside, passing through the living room and towards a door on her right, softly pushing it open and peeking inside. She smiled as she spotted Iona curled up around a pillow, only half of the blanket covering her body while the other half lay draped on the floor. “Always kicking those blankets off…” She mumbled affectionately with a soft shake of her head as she walked closer, careful not to wake the girl, and bent down, lifting up the blanket before gently spreading it over Iona’s body. The child mumbling something incoherent as she kicked the far edge of the blanket off of her foot. Xena stifled a chuckle, then leaned down and placed a kiss on the girl’s forehead. “You’re a hopeless case, Io.” She mumbled, pushing a lock of blond hair out of her face. “That’s another thing we have in common.”

Iona stirred a little, but then settled down again, one hand clutching at the cloth covering her torso.

Xena looked at her for another moment, then straightened and exited the room, softly closing the door behind her. Instead of heading back to her own room she walked out onto the small balcony that belonged to Pyrron’s quarters. Her own balcony overlooked the garden and the forest, but Pyrron’s looked out onto the city. She crossed her arms on the marble railing and silently watched the many flickering lights that pierced out through the darkness. She wasn’t really all that fond of Athens, but she did like the place at night. The way the Acropolis was illuminated by torches, the small moving lights of people walking through the city streets, towards their homes… In the day time the city was crowded and busy, but at night… At night it was quiet. Only the sound of flames licking at wood, soft voices in the distance, an owl hooting from time to time…

If she closed her eyes, the silence took her back to times when she’d spend the night sitting around the campfire with her men, listening to them boast about how bravely they’d fought today. Back to times when she’d known every man in her army personally. Knew their names, their interests, knew their families… because she’d lived with them all her life, had grown up with them. If she closed her eyes she could still hear their laughter, could feel the pats on the back, could almost see the warm smiles on their faces. Smiles directed at her. Because she was their friend.

Xena released a breath, opening her eyes again. They were dead now, all of them. Killed in her relentless pursuit of Cortese, in the battles for the cities she’d taken to serve as a buffer to secure Amfipolis…

And now the whole world was secured. But Amfipolis no longer existed. Because she herself had burned it down.

If it had been anyone else’s life she would laugh and call it ironic. But it wasn’t anyone else’s life. It was hers. Xena released a grave breath, trying to get rid of the memories of the last time she’d walked into the small town, after she’d just sacked Rome.

She was feeling quite proud of herself that day, as she rode into town, adorned in Roman jewellery, a small escort of soldiers in beautifully decorated golden armour following close behind. The last time she’d been home her mother had looked down on her. She’d become a warlord, her mother had scolded. Just like Cortese.

Xena snorted. She was nothing like Cortese. And now she could prove that. The larger part of the world obeyed her commands these days, and now her mother would have to admit she’d been wrong. Would have to admit that she, Xena, had done the right thing. When she would bring her the gold she’d taken from the Roman nobles who’d supported Caesar in his final stand against her, when her mother would see her in all this richness, surely she…Xena sucked in a breath and squared her shoulders. Surely she’d be proud of her daughter.

Xena straightened in the saddle, looking down at the villagers whose faces she remembered from what seemed like a lifetime ago. The men and women hastily bent their heads as she approached. Xena smiled broadly as she pulled her horse to a halt in the centre of the village and easily dismounted. “Stay here,” she ordered, as she handed her reigns to one of the soldiers.

The door to her mother’s inn creaked softly as she pushed it open. “Mother?” She called out tentatively, the sound of her voice echoing dully through the empty inn. “Mom, it’s me, I’m…”

Her voice got stuck in her throat as she spotted her mother, dangling from a large wooden beam by a piece of rope strung around her neck, her eyes staring back at her daughter unseeingly. Xena took a shaky step closer. “Mom? M…” She lifted a hand to her mouth as a sob shivered through her body. “No… No, please, no…” Another step, then she noticed a small bit of parchment held between the fingers of Cyrene’s limp hand. Tentatively she reached out and took the parchment, folding it open with shaking fingers, reading the seven words written in firm thick letters.

I will live in shame no more.

She stared at the letters , several emotions flicking across her face, ranging from grief to intense pain and finally setting on hatred. Her hands clenched around the note, crumpling it to a ball as she paced outside again, her eyes flashing as she walked back to her horse and grabbed onto the reigns. “Burn the village.” She ordered the soldier at her side in a cold whisper.

He frowned in confusion. “But, general…?”

“Burn it,” She repeated, pronunciation both words slowly and clearly, before she pulled herself into the saddle. Her eyes flicked across the small houses of her hometown for one last time, before she roughly turned her horse around. “Start with the inn.”

She’d not shed a single tear. She’d felt like crying, especially those first few days, but every time she did she’d just close her eyes and envision every angry look her mother had thrown at her as a child. Remembered every spanking, every harsh word… And she forced herself to hate her. Forced herself to not think of the good times, about how they’d sit around the fire with a cup of tea and talked about school, or about the water fights they used to have, the hugs Cyrene gave her when…

Xena closed her eyes, biting her lip as she felt a single teardrop sidle down her cheek. She lifted a hand and wiped it across her face self-depreciatively. “Stupid…” She scolded herself softly. “Don’t be so horribly stupid…”

It was no use though, and she knew it… She couldn’t do it anymore. The wall she’d spend so many years building up was crumbling down on her, as it had those times before, with M’Lila… Lao Ma… And now…

Gabrielle…

Xena folded her hands, resting her chin on top, staring out into the darkness pensively. There was something about the warrior that… Xena released a breath. There was just something about her. Just like there had been something about M’Lila, and about Lao Ma.

Gabrielle actually reminded her a little of both. The blonde had the drive M’Lila had had and had managed, just like the Gaelic woman, to use her slim built and short stature to her advantage in battle. And Xena clearly recognised Lao Ma’s spirit in the warrior, even though it was hidden under layers of hatred that reminded her of… Well, of herself really…

The big difference though, Xena realised as she watched the shadows flick over the Acropolis, was that both M’Lila and Lao Ma had reached out to her in their own way. Both had prodded at her, trying to make her open up, and had succeeded quite nicely too.

Gabrielle on the other hand hadn’t prodded at all. In fact, her main goal during her stay in the palace had been to avoid Xena at all cost. It had been Xena herself who’d sought the warrior’s company, who had reached out to her with gifts and leniencies, who had let her get away with knowing things about her past that she hadn’t shared with anyone before…

She liked the warrior. Even though the woman had sworn to kill her, was surely going to revive the rebellion and stand against her, hated her with every bone in her body… She liked her.

And that confused the Hades out of her.

She wasn’t really good at liking people after all. Children, yes, but adults… It had taken her three years before she could even condone Pyrron’s presence, and it had been three more before she’d actually admit to liking the older man, but with Gabrielle… She just liked her… A lot…

“Empress?” Pyrron’s voice rose up behind her in question.

Xena looked up from her pondering, shooting a small sheepish smile over her shoulder. “Sorry… I was just uhm… Thinking…”

“And you needed my balcony for that?” Pyrron said with a hint of humour in his voice as he stepped up beside her, resting his arms on the marble ledge.

“You’ve got the better night time view…” Xena informed him with a half smile as she returned her gaze to the city in front of her.

“I see…” The Advisor drew in a deep breath of the cold evening air, then released it slowly. “It is quite a nice night out…”

“Hmm,” The Empress murmured softly in agreement. “Nice ending to a lousy day…”

Pyrron nodded quietly, folding his hands together as he looked down at the small lights, some stationary, and some moving slowly along. “So… You think one of those lights is her?”

“No, she’s probably just g…” Xena bit her lip as she realised she’d been tricked, then she turned her head to look into Pyrron’s wickedly twinkling eyes. “Stop looking at me like that.”

Her Advisor beamed a smile at her. “Like what?”

“Like that.” Xena pointed a threatening finger at him, before grumpily staring into the darkness again. “You’re not safe from my wrath, old man… Be warned…”

Pyrron chuckled softly, not intimidated in the slightest. He quietly studied the dark profile next to him for a long silent moment. “Are you in love with her?”

Xena shot him a bored look. “Don’t be ridiculous…” She muttered, facing forward once more, before adding in feigned casualness. “Why would you think that?”

Pyrron flashed a grin at her. “You told me you thought she had a great butt… You could never resist a woman with a great butt, Empress.”

Both dark eyebrows raised at this comment, then Xena snorted, shaking her head in disbelief. “Is that so?”

“Uhuh,” Pyrron smirked, very content with his small victory, then he placed a hand on Xena’s shoulder amicably. “Not that I blame you… She’s a very nice woman…”

Xena released a breath, running a hand through her dishevelled locks. “Yeah… And that’s just the problem, isn’t it? She’s a nice woman and I’m the Destroyer of Nations…”

“I do admit your chances with are on the small side…” Pyrron had to agree.

“Certainly because I’m gonna have to kill her sometime in the near future.” Xena mumbled on unhappily.

Her adviser looked up doubtfully. “Perhaps you could…”

“Pyrron,” the Empress cut him short firmly, turning her head to look at him. “You know as well as I do that if the rebellion relives here in Athens there will be chaos. Last time some of my soldiers died because of that…” A breath. “Ismene died because of that… And no matter how I feel about Gabrielle…” She glanced down, shaking her head. “… I won’t let her ruin all we’ve worked for…”

Her Advisor looked at the woman compassionately. “Maybe… Maybe things will work out… Maybe she’ll understand…”

Xena snorted. “Right… And maybe pigs will grow wings and fly…”

“Stranger things have happened, Empress…” Pyrron managed a small smile. “Around you, strange things actually tend to happen a lot.”

“All right, sit down…” Thalia ordered as she pointed her friend towards the bed, while she herself knelt down at the bedside and placed the bowl of water and the bandages she’d taken with her on the floor.

“You really don’t have to do this…” The warrior tried to argue, but she was immediately shushed by the redhead, who carefully started removing a boot.

“No complaining,” Thalia told her firmly, as she removed the other boot. “You’ve had a tough day, the least I can do is clean out your wounds…”

“I hardly even feel…” She winced as the leather scraped against her soles. “…a thing…”

“Forgive me if I’m not convinced…” Thalia drawled, shooting her a meaningful look, as she started to unroll the bandages from around Gabrielle’s left foot.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes in defeat. “Fine, fine…” She muttered, as she leaned her back against the wall, feeling quite awkward as Thalia started to clean out the wound on one of her feet. “I uhm… I’m glad we got things sorted out with Solari…”

“Me too.” Thalia agreed. “It was good to finally meet her. And she sure knows a lot about what’s going on in the palace. That might come in pretty handy.”

“Hmm,” the warrior murmured in agreement, tipping her head back and regarding the ceiling thoughtfully. “But as soon as I get Eph out she’s leaving that place… She’s been in there for too long… It’s eating her up inside…”

“I guess you’re…” The redhead started, then suddenly fell silent, the movement of her hands stopping as well.

Gabrielle frowned, then looked down. “Thalia?”

Her friend stared at her foot for another long moment, then she lifted her eyes to meet green ones. “This uhm… This Alti woman… She showed you your crucifixion, right?”

Gabrielle nodded softly.

“Then how come these wounds she made aren’t on top of your scars?”

Gabrielle held her friend’s worried gaze for another moment, then she dropped her eye. “I… I wish I knew…” She managed in a whisper.

Thalia studied her quietly, watching her friend nervously run her fingers over her bare arms. “There’s something you’re not telling me…” She deduced, reading the warrior’s behaviour as easily as words on an open scroll.

Gabrielle released a breath. “I… I don’t know if…” She glanced up insecurely. “It was so very confusing, and…” A sigh. “Promise you won’t get upset?”

“You saw what?!”

Gabrielle released a breath. “Thalia, please…”

“I can’t believe this… I just can’t…” The redhead tossed up her hands, pacing back and forth through the room. “You couldn’t have… I mean, of all the people, the C… Argh…” She ran a hand through her dishevelled locks. “It… It doesn’t mean anything…” She turned to Gabrielle, her eyes almost pleading. “Right? It’s just… just something that witch thought up… false prophecies… Just to scare you… Right?”

Gabrielle studied her fumbling fingers. “Could be…” A half shrug. “I just… I don’t know Thal… I…” A breath. “If it’s not something that’s going to happen, then Alti showed me this for a reason… To keep me away from the Conqueror…”

Thalia snorted softly. “Like you need a vision for that…”

The warrior closed her eyes, releasing a breath.

The redhead frowned, then looked up. “Gab?” Green eyes slowly lifted and met hers. “Gab, you’re not even thinking of…”

“I’d…” Gabrielle sucked in a breath. “I’d rather have her on that throne than Alti…”

Thalia stared back at her in disbelief. “You’ve gone insane…” She then spat out, shaking her head. “I can’t believe you… Don’t you remember what she’s done?!”

The warrior dropped her head. “Of course I remember…”

“Then why on earth would you…” Thalia growled something, resuming her frantic pacing.

“Thalia, it’s…” Gabrielle closed her eyes. “You haven’t seen what I’ve seen…”

The redhead spun around and pointed a finger at her. “No, Gab, you haven’t seen what I’ve seen! You haven’t seen how Kimon got slaughtered, you didn’t hear them scream! You weren’t there when…”

“I know I wasn’t there!” Gabrielle shot back, her green eyes raging now. “And I hear them scream every night, Thalia, every freaking night! So don’t you go yelling at me that I don’t understand, cause I do!”

The redhead fell silent, their eyes holding for a long moment, then Thalia released a shaky breath. “I’m sorry…”

Gabrielle leaned her forehead on her folded hands. “So am I… I… I didn’t mean to snap at you, I just…” She bit her lip. “I’m so confused…”

Thalia walked over and sat down beside her on the bed.

“I…” Gabrielle continued softly. “There’s still so many times when I see her and I feel all this… this rage drifting up…And all I wanna do is pick up my sword and run her through… But then… Then I see her with Niobe, or Iona… Caspar…”

“The Advisor’s kids?”

“Yeah…” Gabrielle nodded. “And she’s… And they love her… They really, really love her… And… And she loves them… And… And murdering evil spawns from Tartarus don’t love, Thal…” She peeked up. “People love…”

“Kimon loved… And Naxos…” Thalia argued, softly. “But now they can’t anymore… Because of her…”

“I know…” Gabrielle managed, her voice thick with emotions. “And… And I hate her for that, but… But there were times when… She’d joke, or laugh or… or smile and… I just had to wonder…” She ran a hand through her hair. “I know it’s stupid…”

Thalia studied her friend’s profile, seeing the shadows and wrinkles these weeks, months, years had caused. She reached out a hand and gently pushed back a lock of blond hair. “It’s not…” She said softly, managing a small smile as green eyes drifted up and met hers insecurely. “You’re… You’re just being you, Gab… You always see the good in people… Even in her…”

“I didn’t for the longest time…” The warrior murmured in reply. “I just… hated and hated and… And hating is safe, you know? Cause when you hate, no one can hurt you…You just build up walls and…And you shield everyone out… But being back here…” She waved a hand at her surroundings. “All these memories reminding me of who I used to be and… And all these people looking at me like…” A grave breath escaped her. “It’s… It’s like being thrown into freezing water… There’s all this pressure around me, and I can’t seem to break through the ice and come up for air…”

Thalia gently squeezed her shoulder. “If you tell me where you’re stuck I’ll come and break the ice for you…”

Gabrielle managed a smile for her. “I wish you could…”

“I’m here for you…” Thalia insisted softly. “I… I may not understand… this vision or… or what you see in her, but… I’m here for you…”

The warrior’s smile grew a little. “Always…”

Thalia wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her friend closer. “Always.”

Xena’s eyes snapped open as the door to her bedroom was opened and footsteps paced inside. “What the…” She pushed herself upright, then shot a look skyward as she spotted who’d just entered.

“You could have taken me with you…” Iona crossed her arms, looking up grumpily.

Xena sighed. “For crying out loud, Io, it’s not even light out…”

“Don’t change the subject just because I caught you sleeping in…” The girl deadpanned, pointing a finger at her. “You should have taken me with you…”

The Empress crossed her arms as well, looking back at the blonde determinedly. “No… It was dangerous…”

The girl lifted her chin. “I’m not afraid of danger…”

Xena rolled her eyes. “Io, you don’t know what danger is… And I’d like to keep it that way…”

Iona scowled at her. “It’s not fair… You go out and have all the fun and I’m stuck here doing homework…”

Xena chuckled softly, then reached out and grabbed onto an arm, tugging the girl on the bed with her. “It wasn’t fun at all, trust me… I’d have much rather stayed here and done homework with you…”

Iona looked up at her. “That bad, huh?”

The Empress chuckled, ruffling the girl’s hair affectionately. “That bad…”

“Well…” A deep sigh. “I guess I can forgive you then…”

“Eternally grateful,” Xena drawled.

Iona flashed a grin at her. “I’ll remember that…”

“Oh you will, will you?” Blue eyes glinted dangerously, then Iona squealed as fingers tickled her side.

“Don’t!” A hysteric giggle. “Xena, stop it!”

“Not until you admit defeat…” The Empress growled playfully, catching a particularly ticklish spot under the girl’s foot. “Gotcha…”

“Ah!” Iona tried to squirm away, but was unsuccessful. “OK, OK… I give…”

“Heh,” Xena chortled, stopping her attack. “Another victory…”

Iona sat up, shaking her head to get some strands of blond hair out of her eyes. “So…” She looked down at her stretched out playmate. “Does this mean you’re feeling better?”

Xena considered this for a moment, comparing the hurt in her legs with yesterday’s pains. “I guess so…”

“Yay!” Iona hopped up a little, making the mattress bob up and down. “So we’re going fishing then? Now? ”

The Empress shook her head. “I can’t, Io… I’m on a witch hunt…”

“Aw…” A pout. “Can’t that wait?”

“Nope…” Xena touched a finger to the girl’s nose. “I need to get rid of her, Io… Or she’s gonna come back to haunt us, and I can’t have that, now can I?”

The pout increased. “I guess…”

Xena rolled her eyes in defeat. “Besides, you have to organise a good fishing trip way ahead of time… Why don’t you get things ready today and we’ll go tomorrow, OK?”

“Really?” Iona smiled delightedly. “You promise this time? No chickening out?”

“I didn’t chicken out,” Xena retorted defensively. “I got attacked…”

“Well, I have considered you just set this whole thing up to save yourself the embarrassment of losing to me at wrestling…” Iona stated, looking down at the dark-haired woman smugly. “Again…”

“Oh ho…” Xena chortled, pushing herself up on her hands and bringing her face within inches of the blond girl. “Is that a challenge?”

Iona met her gaze without hesitation. “And what if it is?”

Xena smirked at her, then launched upwards in a flash, grabbing onto Iona’s waist and tugging her down with a playful growl. “I think I can spare a moment to kick your butt…”

“As if!” Iona giggled, worming her way out of a hold around her neck agilely. “Louise!”

“Why you little…” Xena grabbed for the girl again, and pulled her into a tangle of limbs and blankets.

“Ahum…”

Both looked up at the sound of a throat clearing, Xena pushing away the blanket that was half obscuring her face and Iona wiping her mussed hair out of her face.

Pyrron was leaning casually in the doorway, his arms crossed over his chest. “What did I say about wrestling before dawn, children?”

Xena snorted.

“Aw, come on, dad…” Iona ran a hand through her dishevelled hair. “Just another moment… This won’t take long…”

“Hah!” Xena poked her in the back indignantly. “I beg to differ…”

Iona shot a smug look over her shoulder. “You can beg all you want, but it won’t get you anywhere…”

“Oh really?” Xena’s eyes sparkled mischievously.

“Hold it, you two…” Pyrron hastily intervened. “You can play later. Right now, you…” He pointed a finger at Iona. “Have to bathe and get dressed and get ready for classes…”

“Aw, dad…”

“Nuhuh…” The Advisor gave her a stern look. “You can beg all you want but it won’t get you anywhere…”

“Pff.” Iona scowled at him, unhappy at having her own lines used against her, but she did push herself up and off the bed. She turned and pointed a finger at the dark-haired woman lying curled up in the pile of blankets. “This isn’t over…”

“You got that right…” Xena retorted easily, grinning wickedly.

Pyrron rolled his eyes at the two, then watched as Iona headed for the door with confident paces. As she passed him he reached out and ruffled her blond locks. “And don’t forget to wash your hair…”

Iona groaned something incoherent as she paced on, not sparing him a look.

Pyrron shook his head, running a hand over his face. “I do hope that girl skips adolescence. I don’t know if I can handle her if she doesn’t.”

Xena chuckled, sitting up and unwinding herself from her blankets. “We’ll manage…”

Pyrron settled on a non-committal mutter as a reply, then decided to change the subject. “Are you going after Alti again today?”

“Of course…” Xena pushed herself to her feet, happy to find herself standing a bit more firmly then she did yesterday.

“I hate to remind you, Empress, but there is another… issue… we’ll have to deal with soon…”

Xena glanced up, considering this for a moment, then she nodded. “You’re right…” She paced towards the closet and selected a set of light brown trousers and a tunic of a darker shade. “But I need to check one more time… See if I missed any clues somewhere…” She shook her head a little as she walked back towards the bed, depositing her clothes there as she herself settled down on the edge beside them. “The whole situation is bugging me… But…” She looked up at him. “I’ll be back here around noon and then we can set up a plan for the… Gabrielle-issue…”

“Agreed. I wish you much luck on your hunt, Empress,” Pyrron bowed politely, then exited the room, closing the door behind him.

“Thanks…” Xena muttered as she stripped out of her sleep shirt and pulled her tunic closer. “I have the feeling I’m gonna need it…”

Gabrielle sucked in a deep breath of the morning air, then released it again slowly. She resettled the strap of the bag that was slung over her shoulder, filled with the leaflets Mentius had made the previous night and had delivered to Agenor’s home a Candlemark ago. The young man had immediately offered to deliver them for her, but Gabrielle had hastily shook her head, telling him she didn’t want him to risk his life.

Which was true, of course… But… She hugged the dark cloak a little tighter around her as she snuck through the darkness soundlessly. If she was honest with herself she’d admit this was more escapism then anything else… She hadn’t had any time for herself since she’d left the Conqueror’s household and she needed a few moments to just get her head on straight and be ready for this new day.

She stopped and glanced up, judging the wall of the building before her carefully for a moment. When she’d pinpointed her route she hopped up and grabbed onto a small ledge, pulling herself up higher. Another jump and her hands folded around a flagpole, which veered slightly under her weight. Gabrielle swung her body back, then forward, then back again, before letting go, using the veering of the flagpole to launch herself upwards, landing skilfully on top of the roof.

The warrior stood there quietly for a moment, watching the early morning sun as it cast its first soft rays across the city of Athens. Spread out below her was the Agora, the marketplace, and even at this time of day it was already bustling with activity. Merchants were setting up their stalls and laying out their wares, while the first shoppers were prowling through the ranks, eager to find the best bargains and snatch them away in front of the noses of the competition. She could see several soldiers in strategic positions glancing around the square with watchful eyes.

She wasn’t worried about them in the slightest though. No matter how watchful their eyes were, they wouldn’t spot her. And even if they did… She could handle them…

Her gaze slid around again, until they finally settled on the marble stairs right below her, leading up to the building she was standing on top. The temple of the King of the Gods… She’d chosen this place on purpose, not just because it was the highest building in the Agora, allowing her a good view of her surroundings, but also because this was the place she’d been arrested all those years back, and making her first stand here in three years seemed… appropriate…

The light around her became a shade brighter, and she realised this was not the time to reminisce. She knelt down beside the bag and pulled back the flap before lifting the pack up. She waited a moment, until a firm breeze blew in from the north, before she toppled the contents out, letting the wind do its job and distribute the bits of parchment, letting them rain down on the Agora.

People looked up as the first leaflets touched the ground, some reaching down and picking one up, reading the contents, before nudging the person next to them and passing it along. Gabrielle smiled, listening to the wondering muttering that drifted up.

“Up there!”

The warrior shifted her gaze to the voice booming across the Agora and saw one of the soldiers pointing right at her, the others immediately springing to action, running towards her as fast as they could.

Gabrielle couldn’t quite suppress a wicked chuckle as she hopped off the ledge, letting herself fall down several feet until her hands touched the wood of the flagpole, letting her momentum swing her around the wood… Once, twice, then she let go, pulling herself into a neat flip before landing on the ground with a nearly soundless thud. The soldiers looked a little taken aback by this display, but soon regained their composure and charged towards her, drawing their swords. The warrior pulled her own weapon from her cloak in reply, swinging it around her body comfortably, patiently waiting for the first of her attackers to reach her.

You could of course just take off and avoid conflict, a voice in the back of her mind scolded her, but a second laughed, enjoying the surge of adrenaline that was now pumping through her body far too much.

With one stroke she disarmed the first two soldiers, before slamming her fist into one and her sword hilt into the other, knocking them both unconscious. The third proved to be a bit more of a challenge, and she exchanged a few parries with the young woman facing her. Her opponent didn’t expect the flip though, and Gabrielle hopped over her with ease, then elbowed her against the back of the head.

“Just give this up, warrior,” A voice called out to her and she looked up to see an older officer walking closer. “You’re outnumbered. You can never win…”

“I can’t?” Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at him, then kicked out at a soldier who was trying to sneak up behind her. “Really?” She ducked under a sword, then hopped back onto her hands and kicked out with both feet, sending her attacker flying backwards, taking another three soldiers down with him. “I thought I was doing pretty decent so far…”

The officer seemed hesitant, but then squared his shoulders and drew his sword. “The Conqueror has not send out orders to kill you…”

“How nice…” Gabrielle drawled. “I’m feeling all warm and fuzzy inside…”

He pushed his sword towards her, but the warrior simply sidestepped, then slammed the flat of his hand against his wrist. The metal clattered onto the ground, and his eyes shot up at her, widening in fear.

Gabrielle just produced a sweet smile for him. “Tell her Gabrielle says hi,” she instructed, before slamming her forehead into his and then watching him slump onto the ground.

“I don’t see what the problem is,” Pompey muttered grumpily, looking at the guarded entrance to the army complexes which were situated a few miles north of the palace. “I’m a lieutenant. No, THE lieutenant… When they see me they’ll let us straight through…”

Callisto rolled her eyes. “The problem is, dear, that they know you are dead and when your little friends see you, they’re gonna run screaming into the forest…” A thoughtful pause. “Though that might not necessarily be linked to the fact that you’re dead of course…”

Pompey crossed his arms indignantly. “And what does it matter if they do run? We’ll get in there just the same, won’t we?”

“You don’t grasp the concept of a stealthy take- over, do you?” Alti shot him a look. “It generally involves the person you’re trying to best NOT knowing about your plans.”

Pompey narrowed his eyes at the two women. “You know, I don’t think I like your attitudes much. Need I remind you, I was send here by the great Ares himself. You should show some more respect for me and…”

“Oh puhlease…” Callisto sighed, then lifted her hand and poked her index finger at the lieutenant’s forehead, making his head topple back. She smirked contently at the result. “There… much better…”

Alti smothered a grin.

Pompey placed his hands on his hips, then turned around and faced the two women once more, shooting them an angered look. “That was completely uncalled for.”

Callisto crouched down behind a bush, judging the wall before her carefully.

“Why don’t we just… Whoa!” Pompey dropped down to his knees as Callisto yanked hard on his armour. He hastily lifted a hand to his head, making sure it stayed put. “Geez…” He shot the blonde next to him a tired look. “Why did I get stuck with you anyway? I’m starting to like hanging out with Alti better…” He considered this statement for a moment. “That’s a scary thought actually…”

Callisto kept her eyes on the wall, listening to the sound of boot steps pacing somewhere behind it. “Alti sticks to the spiritual side of this partnership… I’m more of a physical kinda girl myself…”

“And you’re going to sneak into the encampment here?” Pompey shot her a disbelieving look. “You really think none of those soldiers in there are going to notice you?”

“Fortunately for us, most of those soldiers are looking for us somewhere near the Aegean, since they don’t know we got some godly assistance and got zapped straight back here.” Callisto cocked her head, listening intently for another moment. “Stay here.” She then ordered the lieutenant, before prowling away, taking a few long strides and then vaulting over the wall in one go.

Pompey actually looked kind of impressed at this. “Neat…” He muttered, staring at the spot where she’d disappeared over the wall for a few moments, until suddenly motion caught his attention and he saw a thick piece of rope being thrown over the wall. He looked left, then right, checking for any guards coming his way, then he snuck from his hideout, grabbing onto the rope and hauling himself up.

With a soft thud he landed on the other side, crouching down and glancing around for any sign of trouble. They were hidden behind one of the commander’s tents, out of view from any busy areas, so no one appeared to have noticed their entrance. He glanced beside him to watch Callisto haul in the rope. “I hate to admit it, but… that was pretty stealthy…”

The blonde looked up and flashed him a charming smile. “Why thank you, dear.”

Pompey nodded curtly, then hastily grabbed for his head as the movement nearly sent it toppling back again. “This is driving me insane…” He growled under his breath. “There has to be some way to fix this…”

“Sorry honey, I left the superglue back in my pit…” She giggled, then cocked her head as another thought occurred to her. “I might be able to help you out though…”

Pompey turned his eyes to look at her. “How?”

Callisto smirked at him, then wrapped the thick bit of rope she still had in her hands around his neck, nice and tight, tying it off with a neat bow. “There…” She studied at her creation in satisfaction. “Very… decorative.”

Pompey shot her a bored look. “And I was just warming up to you…”

The blonde giggled, then grabbed onto an arm and tugged him along. “C’mon bowboy… Lets go talk to some of those buddies of yours…”

It was a little before noon when Xena returned to the palace. She dropped Chilon off at the stables, then walked back towards the palace, happy to be able to do that again without aid. Alti’s magic had done its worst and she was well on her way to recovery. The hurting was tolerable.

But her physical pain was not what bothered her, it was the mental bit that was doing her in. She’d found no clue whatsoever as to where Alti and co. had taken off to, and that was bugging her immensely. Xena didn’t like to lose. Of course, she’s lost to Gabrielle, but she hadn’t minded that too much really, since she respected the warrior’s great skills in the martial arts department. Gabrielle was a worthy opponent, and she wasn’t ashamed to admit defeat to the likes of her… But Alti…

Xena scowled in dismay. Alti was smart, sure, and she had that whole spiritual thing going on… But really, if Xena was being honest with herself, she had to admit she should have seen this one coming. Alti’s obvious dislike of the whole situation, her sudden departure, her odd behaviour on return… She should have been able to put the pieces together… But she didn’t… She’d been too… distracted…

And now here was another puzzle laid out for her, and though at least she recognised it for what it was this time around, she was lost, without a clue of how to put the pieces together and figure out what Alti was up to… And that bugged her immensely.

There was something… Something she wasn’t seeing… Some little thing… But what was it? What the Hades was it…

“Empress!”

Xena looked up from her pondering as she saw Pyrron walking towards her, one of her lieutenants, who was sporting a mean bruise on his forehead, in tow. She raised an eyebrow at the duo in question.

“I’m afraid the Gabrielle-issue has become a bit more of a pressing matter, Empress…” Pyrron told her, holding out a slip of parchment for her to take.

So Xena did, folding it open and reading the few words written on it

For even the strongest force will weaken with time,

And then its violence will return,

And kill it.

Xena chuckled, not having to read the name penned down at the bottom to know who these words belonged to. “She doesn’t waste any time, does she?”

“I’m afraid not, Empress.” Pyrron agreed, following her as they entered her study and Xena circled her desk and sat down behind it. “She was distributing these on the Agora this morning.”

Xena studied the bit of parchment for another moment, then glanced up, looking past Pyrron to the lieutenant standing behind him. “And I’m guessing she had a little run in with the military?”

The man dropped his head, looking ashamed. “I failed you, Highness.”

“I couldn’t beat her myself, Dorian, it’d be very hypocritical of me to punish you for not being able to accomplish what I can’t do myself.” Xena told him, but she approved of his behaviour though, not making excuses for his failure gained the man a few extra points. “Any casualties?”

“Mostly bruises, Highness.” Dorian informed her. “One of the guys got nicked by a sword when he got tossed against two other soldiers…”

Xena suppressed a grin at this.

“…but he should be fine.”

Blue eyes turned pensive for a moment. “So… No deaths?”

Dorian shook his head. “No, ma’am.”

“Hmm… Interesting…” Xena drummed her fingers on her desk for a moment in thought.

“She uhm…” Dorian cleared his throat uncomfortably. “She told me to tell you she said… hi, Empress.”

Surprised blue eyes blinked up at him, then the dark-haired woman couldn’t suppress a short laugh. “Really?” A nod from her lieutenant. “Well, I’d tell you to say hi back, but I doubt you’ll want to be seeing her again any time soon, right?”

The lieutenant released a grave breath. “Quite right, Empress…” A short pause in which he considered his words. “She is a very skilled fighter, Highness… You should take the threat she poses seriously…”

Xena folded her hands together, leaning her chin on top of her entwined fingers. “I am, Dorian…” She murmured, then looked up at him, motioning him toward the door with her eyes. “Leave us…”

The lieutenant tapped his chest respectfully, then retreated.

Pyrron limped closer, seating himself on the Edge of Xena’s desk. He looked at the thoughtful woman, quietly waiting for her to finish her thoughts and put them to words.

Silence lasted for another few moments, then Xena settled back in her seat, meeting Pyrron’s eyes. “You think this is a death threat?” She waved her hand at the slip of parchment.

The Advisor considered this question seriously, then shrugged a little. “She’s not one to bluff, Empress…”

“True…” Xena had to admit , continuing her pondering. “But she didn’t kill any of my soldiers today… If she’s so set on vengeance, killing off some guards in a nice display of show-offiness would have been a nice start…” She shook her head a little. “That’s Gabby for ya, always keeping me guessing…” Another pause, then in a more businesslike tone. “Your advise?”

Pyrron exhaled, then set his mind to trying to look at things objectively. “Word of mouth travels fast, definitely when Athenian merchants are involved. Adding those notes to her little display… It’s fair to say she forms a significant threat to the stability of this city and the Empire.” Pyrron leaned back on a hand. “The way I see it, you really only have two options. One: you can ignore what happened today. Not mention one word about it. By taking no action you might be able to convince the people this is all some big hoax. Or that you just don’t consider Gabrielle a threat worthy of your attention…”

Xena glanced up at him. “And two?”

The Advisor looked back at her wryly. “You know what option number two is, Empress…”

A sigh. “Yeah, I guess I do…”

Silence fell again, and Pyrron waited patiently as Xena’s eyes turned inward again to consider her course of action. “She is a serious threat,” the dark-haired woman said finally. “I’m not going to lie to myself and pretend she’s not. I think she’s a more reliable factor than Alti is at this stage, since I can at least expect certain moral standards from Gabrielle, where as Alti… well… I don’t think moral is in her vocabulary, really… But still…” Long fingers lifted up the slip of parchment and reread the words written there again. “I don’t know where she stands, not really…” A breath, then she looked up at Pyrron. “I agree though that launching a full scale counter attack will be like flashing a red cloth at the resistance… The situation should be dealt with a bit more tactfully…” She sat up straighter, pulling open a drawer and pulling out a sheet of parchment. “Do we still have people under cover in the resistance?”

Pyrron nodded. “A few.”

“Send word to them to get busy and find out where she is.” Xena scribbled some words onto her parchment, then blew on the ink to let it dry. “When they hear anything I want a report on my desk a.s.a.p.” She folded the parchment, then picked up a burning candle and tipped it over the note, letting a bit of wax drip onto it, before quickly pressing her seal ring into the warm liquid. “I want some extra patrols on those streets, but make the guys wear plain clothes. No armour, no leathers… An incognito sorta thing…”

Pyrron nodded. “And…. And what if they do find her, Empress? If the soldiers corner her somewhere…?”

Blue eyes glanced up at him. “I… I prefer it if she’d be taken alive, Pyrron…” She handed him the letter. “But she is a danger, and if bringing her here alive is an impossibility…”

The Advisor’s gaze met hers in understanding, the thought not needing to be finished.

Brutus ran a hand through his hair, ruffling some dust from the short dark locks. He’d been out hunting since sunset of the previous day and he had to struggle to keep his eyes open. Normally he would easily be able to cope with an all-nighter, but with all the tension lately, the execution of Pompey, the extra work that’d left him, the constant threat of the presence of the rebel Gabrielle… Well, let’s just say life hadn’t been all that pleasant lately.

He pushed open the door to his quarters, unhooking his cloak from his shoulders and tossing the cloth over a chair. He lifted a foot and grabbed onto his boot with both hands, one placed at the toe and one at the heel, then started to tug the foot garment off.

“Hello, Brutus.”

With a thud the lieutenant thumped onto the ground, flat on his butt, his eyes wide as he looked up, staring at the figure standing before him, dressed in armour, the top button of his tunic buttoned up tightly, holding up a strip of white cloth covering his neck “No…” He shook his head in disbelief. “It’s not possible… I’m… I’m tired… You’re not here…”

“Oh, I am here…” Pompey refuted, crossing his arms and looking down at his former colleague. “I’ve been waiting for you, my friend. Come…” He held out a hand. “Get up…”

Brutus glanced up hesitantly for another moment, then he took the offered hand, looking at it as he was hauled to his feet, before glancing up into Pompey’s face. “You’re… you’re not dead? But Xena…”

“Slid my throat, yes, don’t remind me…” Pompey muttered grumpily, crossing his arms.

“But then how…?”

Now a broad grin crossed Pompey’s face. “Ares brought me back.”

Brutus’s eyes widened. “Ares? Ares, the King of the Gods himself?”

“The one and only…” Pompey confirmed, not quite smothering the pride lingering in his voice. “He chose me, Brutus. He chose me to lead us all into a new era.” An indignant snort drifted up from under the table, but Pompey just kicked his heal against a wooden leg and stopped any more comments. “Ares feels this world is ready for a change…” He dropped his voice. ” A change in leadership…”

The lieutenant’s eyes were practically bulging out of his skull now. “Ares brought you back to take on Xena???”

Pompey nodded sternly. “But you realise I can’t defeat her by myself. I’m going to need some help…”

Brutus blinked. “I…” A shake of the dark head. “No, no, I can’t… I pledged my life to her, I can’t just betray her like this…”

“I always made good on my promises to Xena, and look where it got me.” Pompey shot back, tugging the fabric around his throat down a little, showing his companion the gash in his neck. “She killed me to save her little toy, Brutus. I was doing my job, trying to protect her, and she killed me…” He leaned closer, dropping his voice again. “Don’t sit around and wait for her to get tired of you, my friend.”

“I… I don’t…” Brutus stuttered on bewilderedly.

Pompey released a tired breath. “Let me lay out the facts for you.” He took a few paces through the room. “Xena has flipped her lid. This Gabrielle’s working her magic on the Conqueror and Xena’s falling for it. We have an obligation to do what’s right for this Empire, Brutus. And even Ares now realises she is no longer the right person to lead us.” He stopped his pacing and laid a hand on the lieutenant’s armoured shoulder. “Join me, Brutus. We stood side by side in battle so many times before. Let’s fight side by side again. For the sake of the Empire…” Brutus blinked up at him doubtfully. “Come on… What do you say?”

“They say she flew straight down from the heavens and she defeated those legions without even breaking a sweat…”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, wrapping her dark cloak around her a bit tighter as she strode on. Her plans had worked out the way she’d hoped and word had spread about her return like wildfire. And now she almost wished it hadn’t…

“Think she can do it? Beat the Conqueror?” Another whispered voice drifted into her ears.

“Of course she can.” A second replied immediately, almost indignantly. “She’s Gabrielle…”

Gabrielle increased her paces, turning into a quieter alley. She released a heavy breath and closed her eyes, wishing she could shut down her sensitive hearing for just a moment and avoid listening all this undiluted praising.

Naxos had turned her into a legend and in doing that he’d kept the leftovers of the resistance breathing, slowly but steadily. She could hardly blame her friend for that. A part of her realised she should be thanking him, actually, for saving her the trouble of starting from scratch and having to rebuilt all they’d worked for before. There were a lot of people out there who were cheering for her, just because of her name and the stories they associated with that name. She didn’t have to convince them with long campaigns, she didn’t have to make them see standing up to the Conqueror was the right thing to do… They would just stand up anytime she told them to… And if someone would ask why, they’d just point at her and say ‘because she’s Gabrielle’…

The warrior rubbed her temple, trying to rid herself of the pounding headache that was drilling at her skull. She’d gone back to Agenor’s place after her morning activities, but soon enough Mentius and some of his friends had showed up on the doorstep and started to relate in glorious detail all the stories they’d heard about her… After a while she just couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t take the words or the looks of unwavering faith she was getting, so she’d excused herself, grabbed her cloak and snuck out the back door.

Being out here on the streets wasn’t really all that pleasant though, she realised now as she turned another corner, trying to get as far away from the busy shopping streets as she could. She’d considered slipping out the city gates, whistling for Argo and taking the horse for a ride. But she really couldn’t do that, now could she? Taking off for a long stretch of time was irresponsible, and there were a lot of people counting on her right now… Gabrielle sighed tiredly. Gods, smacking up the Conqueror was a field trip compared to this…

Xena unrolled another scroll, going over its content quietly. She’d been working on reports for the last few candle marks, since she’d gotten way behind on her reading because of her hunting the previous day. Her thoughts kept straying though, and she finally gave up on the scroll, leaning back in her seat and tipping her head back, gazing up at the ceiling tiredly. She’d spend a short while sparring with some of her soldiers, in an attempt to blow off some steam, but she’d soon grown tired of that. No matter how talented they were, they weren’t half the challenge Gabrielle had been.

Reading over boring bits of parchment wasn’t doing her sanity much good either however… Xena released a breath. Maybe she could go outside for a while, a breath of fresh air might be able to boost her energy levels a little. Maybe…

An anxious voice drifted in and Xena cocked her head, then pushed herself to her feet and walked to the window, placing her hands on the sill and leaning out a little. She saw Esmee run into the garden, calling out Galon’s name. Her new part-time gardener looked up from his spot near the pond, straightening. “What’s wrong?” She heard him ask.

“There’s a woman at the door,” Esmee panted as she slid to a halt by his side. “She says your wife’s gone into labour…”

Even from this distance she could see his eyes widen in fear. “But… She can’t be… It’s too soon…”

“She can’t be… It’s too soon…”

“Come on…” Esmee tugged at her sleeve urgingly. “The healer said to hurry…”

She’d jumped on her horse and galloped off, away from the line of shackled men and women, straight back to the palace, ran up the stairs, turned the corner and rushed into Pyrron’s quarters…

And slid to a halt in the doorway to her Advisor’s bedroom, seeing Pyrron on his knees by the bed, his face buried in Ismene’s hair, his shoulders shaking uncontrollably. The healer rose to his feet as he spotted her, his head bent. “I tried all I could, Empress… But she was too weak…”

Xena just stared past him, looking at the still form in disbelief. This couldn’t be happening… She’d only been gone for a few candle marks… This couldn’t be…

Her eyes tracked from the long flowing blond hair, past the closed eyes and finally settled on Ismene’s still swollen belly. Her eyes shot to the healer’s bent form. “The child…?”

The man simply shook his head.

Xena’s mind raced around in circles for another moment, stuck between grief and disbelief, then she roughly pushed the healer aside and walked into the room, dropping to her knees beside her Advisor’s wife, pulling a dagger from her boot, the blade still tainted red by the blood of the man she’d killed as she’d tried to settle today’s skirmishes.

Beside her Pyrron lifted his head, his eyes red and swollen, and he watched her lift the blade in complete non-understanding. “What… What are you doing?”

Xena stuck the blade in Ismene’s stomach, then yanked it towards her in a rough gesture, cutting open the skin.

“No!” Pyrron jumped towards her, but Xena backhanded him against the wall almost carelessly with one hand, while she continued her cutting with the other.

The healer took a step towards her carefully. “Empress, I don’t underst…” He fell silent as Xena tossed her dagger aside, then used both her hands to pull the small child from its mother’s womb. She pressed it against her, cradling the baby in one arm while rinsing out its mouth with a finger of the other.

A moment, then a small cough, followed by loud screaming as the child blinked open her eyes and took in the chaotic world around her for the first time and decided she didn’t like it much.

Pyrron scrambled back to his feet, looking at the tiny baby in the Empress’s arms, who was now grabbing weakly at Xena’s armour. The dark-haired woman turned to him, her face a mask as she placed the bundle into his arms without a word. Pyrron looked down into brown eyes that matched his own perfectly, then he tentatively lifted a hand and stroked the baby’s cheek with a finger. “Our daughter…” He managed to whisper in a thick voice.

Xena didn’t hear him though, as she looked down on Ismene’s pale face. She closed her eyes, forcing back the emotions that were threatening to overtake her, then she leaned closer and pressed her lips to the woman’s forehead. “Forgive me…” She murmured into an unhearing ear. “I tried, but I… I couldn’t…” Her gaze hardened as she remembered why it was that she’d left the palace in the first place. “I swear to you, they’ll pay for this… I’m not going to rest until this Rebellion is wiped out completely…”

Xena swallowed back a lump in her throat as the memories faded slowly and she was returned to the present day. Gallon had dropped his gear and was hurrying towards the palace gates now. Xena followed his path hesitantly for a few moments, then she turned and headed for the door herself, grabbing onto her cloak on the way out.

There was a commotion up ahead and for once it didn’t involve her. Gabrielle walked closer, curiously, looking at the group of people crowding around a small house. She tapped someone on the shoulder. “Can I ask what’s going on?”

“Woman in there’s a giving birth…” The older woman said, glancing over her shoulder at the cloaked stranger. “But it weren’t time yet… Someone went to fetch her husband, but…”

“Rhea!” Gabrielle looked up as she heard Galon’s anxious voice to see the young man rush closer, shoving several people out of his way. “Rhea, I’m here!” Before Gabrielle could say a word to him he’d wormed his way past her.

The people crowded in around him, all curious as to what was going on inside. Gabrielle tried to follow Galon into his home, to offer any support she could, but she got caught between a chubby woman and the bulky shape of a man. She was just about to shove the two aside forcefully when a low order drifted up somewhere behind her. “Move.”

Gabrielle froze, recognising the voice immediately. She turned her head and looked over to where it had come from to see Xena staring down the crowd, her icy blue eyes flashing at them warningly. The warrior lifted a hand and touched her hood, making sure it was obscuring her face.

“Move.” Xena repeated, a little more forcefully, and the shocked masses hastily backed away, allowing the Empress passage into Galon’s home.

Gabrielle watched from her spot at the back as the Conqueror moved forward, seeming not to notice the odd looks she was getting, the hushed whispering…

More people joined the line up, intrigued by the infrequent visit from their ruler, especially since there didn’t seem to be an escort of any sorts nearby. Gabrielle felt the crowd pushing in from all sides, but she just pushed back, keeping a tolerable amount of space around her as she wormed her way forward through the crowd with purposeful movements, ending up somewhere near the door, where she was just able to peer past a shoulder to see Xena pushing aside an older woman. She was the healer apparently, judging by her garments, but she’d clearly lost control of the situation and was now having a minor breakdown…

Xena reached out and ran probing fingers over the woman’s belly. The woman was sweating liberally and now she cried out in pain and tossed her head back. Galon reached for his wife’s hand, looking quite panicky, the Conqueror’s sudden appearance in his home probably doing nothing to settle his nerve. Xena looked up at the scream, then reached over and poked a finger in the woman’s side, before continuing her probing.

Rhea sucked in a surprise breath. “The… the pain… it’s gone…” She panted, looking up at her husband in disbelief.

“Enjoy it while it lasts,” Xena muttered, reaffirming her diagnosis before looking up. “Rhea, right?”

The woman nodded meekly.

Xena pulled a small knife from a scabbard toed to her waist. “How do you feel about scars, Rhea?”

Gabrielle’s eyes widened as she saw Xena pull out the knife. Her instinct was to clobber the remaining people in her way over the head and rush inside, but her more rational side noted that it was hardly Xena’s style to attack a pregnant woman while she was down and even if she would stoop to that level, it was to be doubted she’d have a calm chat to the woman in question before doing it. The warrior watched as Galon’s wife nodded tersely at the Conqueror’s words, then turned her head as the dark-haired woman lifted her blade and carefully made the first incision.

It was fascinating. Gabrielle watched the large hands, which were so very lethal in combat, carefully pry away a layer of skin. She’d done this before, that much was clear. Still, Gabrielle could see her hands shaking just a little and when she looked up at the Empress’s face she could see emotions shifting over like thin, wispy clouds. The warrior cocked her head, mentally adding another piece to the puzzle that was Xena, not too surprised when it turned out that this bit didn’t seem to fit anywhere either…

Moments later a small shape was lifted up, wrapped in a soft blanket and then handed to his mother. “Congratulations… You have a son…”

Galon blinked, looked at the bundle, then at his wife, then at Xena’s bloody hands… Then his eyes rolled back in his sockets and he sagged onto the floor, unconscious.

The Empress shook her head with a small sigh, then motioned the healer closer and pointed at the cut she’d just made, giving her a few instructions.

The people around her pressed forward, women circling the bed cooing at the baby, some men walking over to Galon’s side and hauling the young father to his feet, one gently tapping his cheek in an attempt to wake him up.

Gabrielle backed up, allowing more people from the neighbourhood to flood into the little house and offer their congratulations. The area around her cleared a little and she took a breath in relief, her head feeling much better now her senses weren’t overloading it with data anymore. She listened to the enthusiastic voices inside, the baby’s crying…

She caught movement from the corner of her eye, someone slipping out of the house silently, passing right beside her, the fabric of her own cloak brushing against Gabrielle’s. The warrior watched as Xena strode away from the scene, pulling the hood of her cloak over her head and disappearing into the shadows the twilight was casting over the streets.

Her room was peacefully silent and she closed her eyes and soaked up that quietness. She let her cloak slide off her shoulders and fall to the ground negligently, finding her way towards the bed and falling onto the soft mattress. She closer her eyes and exhaled, then opened her eyelids again and lifted her hands, gazing at them.

Covered in blood. But good blood this time.

Xena dropped her hands at her side, staring up at the ceiling pensively. She wasn’t worried about shattering her reputation. She’d done little things like this before, but people tended to forget these events real fast so they could go back to hating her. The whole situation had stressed her out a little though, with the memories of Ismene drifting up, and the multitude of people surrounding her, all whispering words they assumed she couldn’t hear…

The Empress slowly pushed herself up again, getting to her feet and walking into the adjoining bathroom. She pulled the stop from the tap and let warm water flow into the tub, watching it trickle down absentmindedly for a moment, listening to the splashing sound as the water hit the bottom of the tub, letting it become her world. When she realised she was letting herself drift off she shook her head at herself, then reached down and tugged off a boot, and another, before starting to unbutton her tunic.

The water was very soothing and the heat loosened her tense muscles. Xena leaned her head back against the edge of the tub and just soaked for a while, until she was feeling more calm and composed. She reached for a bar of soap lying nearby, running it between her hands and cleaning off the remainder of red still sticking to her skin.

You’re letting this get to you too much, her calm, calculating side informed her as she scrubbed at her arms, enjoying the smell of the soap mixing with the damp air. Really, if you look at this all objectively, there is nothing to worry about. I mean, so what if Alti tried to kill you? So what if she got herself an immortal sidekick to help her do the job? So what if a rebel legend, capable of doing some serious damage to your exterior, is walking the streets tossing around notes with death threats? Big deal… Not like that never happened before, right?

Xena scowled.

Oh well, so, OK, that never did happen before… Point is, you’ve sacked cities outnumbering you three to one in a quarter of a candle mark. This is peanuts… You just have to find Alti and the blonde, which really is just a matter of time, right? I mean, how long can it take for a witch and an immortal to get noticed? Won’t be too long. And when you find ‘m you can chop them both into pieces and have that over and done with.

And as for Gabrielle… Well, it’d be fun if you could keep her around and all, since she really isn’t all that unlikable, but… You’ve killed people that you didn’t particularly dislike before, when it needed to be done for the sake of the Empire. And if you need to, you can do it again…

Xena pushed herself out of the bath and vaulted over the edge, then stuck a hand in the water to pull the stop loose.

Gabrielle is your enemy. You need to remember that… You just need to get over the whole liking aspect and start thinking rationally again. She fished a towel off the rack and swung it over her shoulder casually, and opened the door to exit the bathroom. It won’t be that hard, really. Out of sight out of mind. And it’s not like she’s gonna come visit you anytime soon, right?

She took one step into her bedroom, then stopped dead as she saw the figure standing at the back of the room, outlined in the soft candlelight.

Gabrielle’s eyes widened, then she hastily spun around, staring at the wall in shock.

Xena scratched the back of her head. “Well, there goes that theory…”

“I… I… uhm… I’m sorry…” Gabrielle stuttered, feeling very uncomfortable. “I didn’t know you’d be so… uhm…”

Xena glanced down at her own body. “Naked?”

“Uhm… Yeah…” Gabrielle cleared her throat. “I uhm, I’m sorry I bothered you… I’ll just take off and uhm…”

“No, no, no…” Xena bit her lip, realising that might have sounded a bit too anxious. “Just uhm… hang on…” She snatched a clean, deep red shirt from the nearby closet and hastily tugged it over her head. “There… All covered up…” She glanced down at the shirt that was covering her from neckline to about mid thigh. Well… Maybe not ‘all’ covered up, she corrected herself quietly, but the essential parts were hidden from view anyway.

Gabrielle tentatively peeked over her shoulder, then turned around fully, still looking quite flustered.

“Better?” Xena inquired casually, trying to regain her stoic I’m-a-warlord-I-don’t-care attitude in an attempt to make up for her little slip a few moments ago.

Gabrielle cleared her throat again. “Yeah uhm… Much more… dressed…”

The Empress glanced down at her barely covered body, then raised an eyebrow at the warrior.

“Oh well…” Gabrielle managed a half smirk. “A little more dressed anyway…”

Xena chuckled softly in amusement, then seated herself on the bed, taking the towel from her shoulder and starting to dry off her hair. Silence lasted for a few moments, only filled with the sound of the towel ruffling through dark locks. “So…” Xena glanced up at the still standing warrior, feeling inclined to end the tense silence. “To what do I owe this visit?”

The comment seemed to snap Gabrielle out of her pondering and make her refocus on the present. “I uhm…” She sucked in a breath, sending some more oxygen to her brain to be able to produce a full sentence. “I saw what you did.”

“You saw what I did…” Xena repeated softly as she rubbed some droplets off her exposed arms. “Well, I did a lot of things today, Gabrielle… I went on a witch-hunt, I sparred with my soldiers, I signed a death warrant…”

“You saved Galon’s wife and child,” the warrior got straight to the point.

Xena stopped her enumeration, a bit of stone crumbling off her stoic façade at the warrior’s directness. She shrugged a little. “Yeah… That too…”

Gabrielle crossed her arms, leaning back against the wall. “That was a good thing you did.”

Xena’s snapped her fingers. “Darn… I did one of those good things again… Another scar on my evil soul…”

The warrior rolled her eyes, not quite suppressing the small grin tugging at her lips. “That’s not what I meant.”

“I know…” Xena managed a half smile, pulling her foot up on her knee and drying it off too. “I just…” A shrug. “I heard Esmee telling him about his wife and I just figured…”

“…you could go and help out?” Gabrielle finished for her.

“…that child had a right to live.” Xena corrected calmly, switching feet. ” and I wasn’t going to take that right from him.”

“I see…” A soft nod from the warrior. “Well… Whatever the reason, I just wanted to say… it was a good thing.”

Blue eyes glanced up at her, studying her quietly for a moment. “So… Lemme just get this straight…” She leaned back on her hands, coming within inches of uncovering certain areas that needed to remain covered. “You just snuck into the palace grounds and climbed up these walls and into my room, while there’s several guards right outside ready to storm in and drag you off to jail, to… pat me on the head?”

Gabrielle looked back at her for a moment, then dropped her head, unable to repress a soft snort. “I uhm…” She looked back up with a half grin. “It seemed like a nice challenge…”

“Was it?”

Gabrielle shrugged casually. “It was entertaining…”

Xena laughed softly. “Coming from you that’s a compliment, I guess…”

Another moment of silence, then Xena looked up, her face serious again. “Did you come here to kill me?” She asked, deciding on the direct approach.

Green eyes studied her quietly. “What makes you think that?”

A shrug. “I got your note…” She waved a hand at the bedside table, where the bit of parchment she’d received from Dorian this morning was lying. “For even the strongest force will weaken with time and then its violence will return and kill it.” She repeated the note off the top of her head. “Sounded pretty serious to me…”

Gabrielle managed a half smile. “I’m not your violence,” she then stated. “It… was something Lao Ma wrote… It wasn’t a threat or anything, just… Just the truth…”

“Ah…” Xena nodded, not being able to help looking a little relieved. “So… you don’t want to kill me?”

Gabrielle cocked her head, considering this question seriously for a long moment. “I don’t know what I want…” She finally murmured, “but… I didn’t come here to kill you, no…”

“Hmm…” Xena smirked. “Bright spot in a gloomy day…”

“No luck finding Alti and Callisto, I’m guessing?”

Xena shook her head. “No. I tracked them to a spot a little south from here, but then… It seems like they just vanished…” She released a tired breath. “I should have noticed Alti was up to something… The clues were all there, but I just… I didn’t see ‘m…”

Gabrielle dropped her eyes and studied the floor. “Sometimes…” A shrug. “Sometimes you just don’t notice those sort of things…”

The Empress glanced up, her eyes twinkling softly. “I always notice, Gabrielle.”

“Always?” Green eyes peeked up at her inquisitively.

A grin formed on the Empress’s face. “Always. Well, except now with Alti of course…”

Gabrielle studied her quietly, wondering if she understood correctly… “So… You knew about…”

“…your ingenious escape plan, yes.” Xena finished. “I had uhm… I had soldiers waiting for you in the corridor.”

Gabrielle frowned, letting her mind reorder some of the events of the day before last. This changed things… Xena’s act of setting her free now changed from a random act of kindness to keeping her from getting killed. And keeping Thalia from getting killed too, and… Green eyes looked up and met blue. “How much did you know… exactly…?”

Xena leaned an arm on a bedpost. “Worried about your Amazon friends?”

The warrior closed her eyes for a moment, her mind racing. “Don’t hurt them…” She then said, more of a plea than an order. “I don’t want them getting hurt because I screwed up… I’ll come back and finish our month of sparring if you want me to, just…”

Xena watched the blonde, propping her head up on a fist. “Tempting offer…” She murmured, “But, since I’m being honest today, I feel inclined to tell you I knew about my chef’s dishonesty the day she arrived in my household.”

Both blonde eyebrows shot up at this. “You knew Solari was an Amazon?”

A nod. “Sure.”

“And you still let her stay?”

Xena crossed her arms. “Have you tasted that woman’s Caesar salad?”

Gabrielle snorted, softly shaking her head.

“I’m not gonna send a kick-ass cook like that to Hades…” Xena deadpanned. “He might think I’m starting to like him…” A chuckle. “Besides… The woman hardly poses a threat. Just a little love sick fool with an overdose of loyalty…”

The warrior studied her companion for a moment. “You keep surprising me, you know that?”

A broad grin brightened up the Empress’s visage. “Why, thank you…” A short pause. “The feeling’s mutual…”

Gabrielle smirked, then pushed herself off the wall. “I uhm… I guess I should go… It’s getting late…”

Xena’s good mood dropped a little. “I guess…” She agreed reluctantly, her brain searching for reasons to get the warrior to stay just a bit longer. “Hey Gabrielle?”

“Hmm?”

“Think you could uhm… go and say hi to Iona? If she finds out you stopped by just to see me I’d never hear the end of it…”

Gabrielle laughed, then nodded. “Sure, I’ll go see her.” She said, then hopped up and crouched down in the windowsill.

“You could of course just take the door…” Xena suggested.

“Pff,” The warrior waved a hand over her shoulder indignantly then hopped out, disappearing into the darkness.

Xena watched the empty windowsill in silence. The voice in her head sighed. OK, so maybe this disliking her thing might be a little tougher then I’d initially thought…

Gabrielle grabbed onto a branch, letting her momentum swing her around until she was crouching down on top of the wooden limb. Now, this was turning out to be a pretty interesting evening, filled with lots of info and many confusing new puzzle pieces. Gabrielle hopped onto another branch quietly, then glanced down as two soldiers marched along below. Well, the good thing was, she reasoned as she waited for them to pass, that she could rest assured now that Ephiny and Solari were safe for the time being. And knowing Xena knew she knew about the hidden passageway could save her from some embarrassing situations too.

Gabrielle swung across to the next tree, on her way to the window leading into Iona’s room, but she paused as she heard a familiar voice drifting up from another window nearby.

So she changed course and hopped onto the windowsill of this other room, peeking inside. Then rolled her eyes as she spotted the girl resting in a filled tub of steaming water. What is it with me and bathing people today…

“This is ridiculous,” Iona muttered grumpily to herself, slapping a flat hand at the water. “Bathing twice in one day… That’s just stupid….”

A chuckle sounded behind her and she spun around, then let a broad smile take over her face. “Gabrielle!”

“Shh,” The warrior pressed a finger to her lips, before jumping into the room. “My being here is not exactly legal…”

“Gotcha…” Iona whispered conspiritually, touching her thumb to her index finger in an OK-sign.

Gabrielle smiled at her. “How are you doing?”

“Except for the fact that I’m bathing for the second time to today, you mean?”

A chuckle from the warrior. “And why’s that?”

“I just went over to the stables to brush the horses and stuff… And then dad said I smelled and locked me in here until I had a bath…” The blonde rolled her eyes. “Stupid…”

“You poor thing…” Gabrielle drawled, getting a scowl from the girl in return.

“Don’t get smart with me…” Iona pointed a finger at the warrior, but couldn’t quite repress a smile. She folded her hands over the edge of the tub, laying her chin on top. “So… How are you doing? Xena said you got hurt… again…”

Gabrielle managed a half smile. “I’m OK… Had a little run in with Alti…”

Iona winced. “Yuk…”

“My sentiments exactly.” The warrior agreed, folding her hands behind her back. “She doesn’t rate too high on my list of favourite people, that’s for sure…”

“Did she hurt you bad?” Iona inquired, sounding slightly worried.

Gabrielle lifted a hand in response, showing the girl her bandaged hand in response. Iona winced again, obviously understanding what she was referring to, but the warrior shrugged it off. “Hardly feel it now… Stings a little, but it’s OK…”

“Good…” Iona managed a smile for her. “So… Did you come back to teach me more sneaking?”

Gabrielle laughed at the hopeful look. “No, sorry, not right now… I need to get back to my friends before they start worrying…”

“Hmm, bummer…” The blonde drummed her fingers on the edge of the tub. “So… you just dropped by to say hi then?”

“Pretty much,” Gabrielle confirmed.

“Well, that’s cool too, I guess…” The girl allowed. “It’s been quiet here without you around, ya know?”

“Quiet, huh?”

“Yup,” Iona leaned back and dunked her hair under water, then resurfaced again. “Xena’s been busy, dad too… I’ve had no one to play with…” She pointed to a row of bottles standing on a shelf nearby. “Could you pass me the shampoo?”

“Sure,” Gabrielle walked over and picked up one of the bottles.

“No, not that one…” Iona pointed a finger at another bottle. “The one on the right. With the flakes…”

Gabrielle put her choice back down, then picked up the indicated item. “Picky, are ya?”

“Xena makes this one for me especially,” Iona explained, not wanting the warrior to think she was vain or anything.

“Really?” Gabrielle twisted the top off and sniffed. “What’s so…?”

Her question stopped and she cocked her head, trying to remember where she knew the familiar smell from.

“C’mon, hurry up will ya…” Iona held out her hand impatiently. “I’m pruning…”

“Sorry,” The warrior walked closer and handed the girl the bottle, a pensive look still plastered on her face. “Hey, Iona?”

“Hmm?” Was the murmured response as the girl tipped some of the liquid onto her hair, then started rubbing it in.

“Are you a natural blonde?”

Iona stopped what she was doing, then looked over her shoulder, her brows frowning. “Excuse me?”

“Do you…” Gabrielle drew in a breath. ” I mean, is blond your natural hair colour?”

“Yeeeaah…” The girl drawled, shooting the warrior an odd look. “Of course it is… Why?”

Gabrielle shrugged, diverting her gaze. “Just wondering…”

Iona gazed at her for another moment, then continued her shampooing. “Right…” She muttered, deciding to let the subject rest as a more interesting matter popped into her head. “Oh, hey, are you busy tomorrow?”

Gabrielle looked up from her pondering. “I don’t know…. Why?”

“I was thinking maybe you could come fishing with us…” Iona suggested, before disappearing under the water and rinsing out her hair.

“Us?”

“Me, Xena, Niobe…” A grave sigh.”…and Caspar.”

“Your brother is real nice,” Gabrielle tsk-ed, but couldn’t quite repress a grin.

“Whatever…” The blonde muttered, clearly disagreeing on that matter. “But, can you come?”

Gabrielle bit her lip. “I don’t know, I don’t think…”

“Aw, puhleeeeeaaaase…” Iona batted her lashes at her innocently. “It’ll be so much fun… Even if you could just drop by for a little while…”

The warrior still seemed hesitant. “I’m probably going to be busy tomorrow…”

“You can be busy the day after that…” Iona immediately supplied. “Xena’s busy too, but she says sometimes she has to relax, or she’s gonna explode…” She shot her companion a look. “You don’t wanna explode, now do ya?”

A reluctant chuckle. “No, not really…”

“Great,” Iona beamed a smile at her. “That’s settled then…”

The warrior sighed in defeat. “Has anyone ever told you are very manipulative…”

The girl just grinned wickedly in response.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “I’ll see if I can spare some time, OK? But I’m not making any promises…”

“I can live with that…” Iona conceded, then watched the warrior turn back towards the window. “We’re gonna be at the lake I told you about on our horse ride…”

“I’ll find you…” Gabrielle responded, then wiggled her fingers at the girl, before she hopped out the window.

Iona giggled as she watched the warrior drop straight down and disappear out of sight. “She is so cool…”

“Ah, there you are,” Thalia said, looking up from the scroll she was reading as she spotted Gabrielle walking past her door.

“Here I am,” the warrior confirmed, backtracking and stepping into her friend’s room.

“Where’d you go off to for so long? I was getting a little worried,”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Thal, I can slug a dozen soldiers into unconsciousness… You really don’t have to worry too much about my safety…”

The redhead snorted. “True I guess…” A pause. “So where did you go?”

Gabrielle shrugged, dropping her gaze. “Just walked around town a little… Trying to clear my brain, you know?”

“Did it work?”

Gabrielle produced a wry grin. “Not really, no… I think I actually succeeded in adding another layer of clouds…”

“Hmm,” Thalia cocked her head at her. “You wanna talk about it?”

A shake of the blonde head. “I uhm… I think I wanna sleep on it first…”

“Sure…” Her friend agreed, knowing from experience the warrior only talked when she felt like talking and not a moment before. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning at breakfast then?”

Gabrielle smirked at her. “Have I ever skipped breakfast?”

A laugh from the redhead, then she shooed her friend out of the room. “Go on… Get some sleep you…”

Gabrielle managed a half smile, then walked out of the room, turning down the corridor and towards her own bedroom.

Caspar rubbed at his eyes, suppressing a yawn. It was still dark out, being about a Candlemark before dawn. “Why do we have to leave so early?”

“Cause that way the day’ll be longer,” Iona told him, tugging the now saddled Chilon from the stables. “Now stop whining.”

“Iona…” Xena’s warning voice burred as the Empress emerged from the stables as well, leading a chestnut stallion by one hand and holding onto Niobe with the other. She’d dressed up in a simple set of dark brown leathers this morning and was wearing a pair of high boots. The leather formed a better protection then the simple tunics she’d normally wear, and considering the current circumstances she felt protection was probably in order.

“Sorry…” the young blonde apologized weakly, clearly not meaning it.

“Casper, c’mere…” Xena motioned the boy closer with her head, then placed the horse’s reigns in his hands. “Hold onto these for a moment.”

Caspar complied obediently, and Xena swung the toddler onto the stallion’s neck, holding onto her with one hand while pulling herself into the saddle with the other. “You comfortable, short stuff?”

Niobe glanced up at her and nodded, sucking on her thumb contently.

“All right then…” She took the reigns from Caspar, then held out her free hand to the boy. “Up ya go…”

Caspar allowed himself to be hauled aboard, wrapping both his arms around Xena’s waist and laying his cheek against her back, yawning again and closing his eyes. The Empress patted his knee amicably, then glanced over at Iona, who’d just mounted Chilon. “You sure you got everything?”

“Bread, clean clothes, blankets, flints…” Iona continued ticking off several more items she’d brought.

“A simple ‘yes’ would suffice…” Xena shot her a look, then gently nudged her horse forward, Chilon soon falling into pace beside her.

After a few moments a soft snore drifted up from behind her and Xena couldn’t quite suppress a chuckle. “That didn’t take him long…”

“He stayed up all night working on some mathematical problem or something…” Iona shivered at the mere thought.

“I see…” Xena smirked. “How about you, shorty…” She directed her attention to the toddler sitting in front of her. “Are you sleepy?”

Niobe shook her head feverously. “No sleepy. Fun.” She managed to murmur around her thumb.

“Yeah, I think so too…” Xena agreed amicably. “I’m up for some fun…”

“I hope Gabrielle’s gonna show…” Iona dropped in.

A dark eyebrow raised at her. “And why would Gabrielle show?”

“Cause I invited her,” the blonde replied.

“Oh really,” A second eyebrow raised. “You could have asked me about that…”

“Do you mind if Gabrielle comes along?”

“No, but…”

“There ya go…” Iona waved a hand at her. “I asked, you approved… Let’s drop the subject…”

Xena rolled her eyes. “You are such a brat…”

“Flattery will get you nowhere…” Iona smirked back at her, then giggled as Xena shot a hopeless look skyward. “Hey, this trip was your idea, you know?”

Xena sighed in disgust. “What am I going to do with that sister of yours?” She directed the question at Niobe. The toddler half turned, and looked up at her, then turned to the blonde riding beside them. “Jona, be good!” She pointed a threatening finger at her sister, while hugging Xena’s arm a little closer in comfort. “No tease Xena. ‘s Bad!”

“Sis, you d…”

“Bad!” Niobe repeated sternly.

“Heh,” Xena chortled, her eyes twinkling. “You tell her, short stuff.”

Iona narrowed her eyes at the two outlines in the darkness. “This is a conspiracy.”

“I prefer to call it pay-back time,” Xena corrected her with a smirk.

The young blonde leaned back in the saddle grumpily. “A conspiracy by any other name…”

Xena chuckled softly, then let the silence slip around them again. She closed her eyes for a moment and sucked in a breath of the cool morning air. She was looking forward to this trip. There had been a lot of things on her mind lately, and it would be nice to just relax for a little while. To not worry about the on goings of the Empire for a day and focus on the three F’s. Fun, fish and forcefully dunking obnoxious children under water. Xena grinned at the darkness up ahead. Today would be a good day.

Gabrielle glanced up as she heard the door to the kitchen be pushed open, then smiled at the person who entered. “Hi, Thal.”

The redhead halted in the doorway and crossed her arms, giving her friend a look. “Don’t tell me you went out to kick some more soldiers around this morning…”

Gabrielle shook her head with a small smile, then took a sip from her tea. “Woke up…”

“You woke up before dawn?” Thalia released a soft snort. “I guess miracles do happen after all…”

“Hardihar…” Gabrielle shot her a look, then held out her cup to the redhead. “Here, drink up… Maybe the herbs will do your horrible sense of humour some good…”

Thalia chuckled, taking the cup and then seating herself at the kitchen table. She took a sip from her drink, while watching Gabrielle get up and move across the room to pour herself another cup of tea. “You seem to be doing better…”

The warrior nodded absently as she picked up her cup and crossed back over to the table. “Yeah… I guess I am…”

An eyebrow raised. “Doesn’t seem too enthusiastic.”

Gabrielle shrugged a little, warming her hands on the wooden mug. “I can walk and stuff, I’m happy about that… But I can feel I’m still a little off balance…”

“Could’ve fooled me…” Thalia muttered into her cup.

A small smile. “There’s just still things going on, under the surface, if you know what I mean…”

The redhead peeked up at her. “Physically or mentally?”

“Both,” Gabrielle admitted, after a short pause to think. “These last few days have been quite hectic…” She ran her fingers over her mug absently. “There’s a lot of pressure…”

“Hmm,” Thalia nodded in understanding. “I told Mentius to back off after you left yesterday, but I don’t think he really got what I was saying… He’s in the I’ll-do-anything-for-the-Defender-of-Democracy haze.”

The warrior managed a wry grin. “He’s not the only one, I’m afraid… When I was walking around town yesterday, everyone was whispering…”

“Good stuff of bad stuff?” Her friend inquired.

“Both,” was the reply. “Some people are afraid. They don’t want change. They’re fed, live in a decent home, got some money to spare… They’ve got a good life and they don’t wanna risk that.

“And the others?”

“The others are the same others we knew before. They want change, will scold the Conqueror behind her back, but they’re not willing to stand up and say things out loud…”

Thalia scowled. “Things aren’t that different after three years after all, huh?”

Gabrielle shook her head, pensively staring into her cup. The two women both thought their own thoughts for a moment, then the warrior spoke up. “Do we have anything important on the schedule today?”

Thalia looked up, then considered this. “Solari is going to drop by tonight. She was here yesterday and she said she had some news, but she wanted to talk to you personally…”

“Ok,” The warrior nodded, “I wanted to talk to her anyway…”

“But except from that…” A shrug. “I don’t think so… It’s best to sit tight today and let word of mouth do its thing…” She cocked her head at her friend. “Why? You got anything particular in mind?”

Gabrielle hid her face in her mug, downing the last bit of her tea. “No… Not really…”

“We’ve got about a third of the army,” Pompey said, crossing his arms as he looked down at the shamaness sitting in her chair. Brutus had offered them his house, which was situated on the outskirts of Athens, as a place of shelter. They’d snuck in there last night and had now taken up residence in the inner rooms, careful to stay away from the windows and get noticed.

“Just a third?” Alti looked dismayed.

“We’ve got the element of surprise, a dead guy and my immortal self. That’s more than enough…” Callisto stated, as she stood on her hands, leaning against the far wall. She bit her lip in concentration, then lifted a palm off the floor and kept herself in balance on one hand only. “More than enough to take care of the remaining army, anyway… Taking care of Xena might be a bit more… troublesome…”

“True…” Alti agreed, leaning back in her seat. “Xena has this obnoxious tendency to survive…”

“Exactly,” Callisto switched hands. “We need to find ourselves a secret weapon…”

“The warrior.”

Both women frowned, then looked at Pompey. “Excuse me?” Alti raised an eyebrow at him.

“The warrior. Gabrielle.” The lieutenant clarified. “She is a risk factor. Last time, you two thought you had everything worked out and she shows up and blows the whole thing… We need to deal with her first.”

Callisto pushed off and hopped onto her feet. “There’s a screw loose in your head, Pomster. Gab the Reb is one of those people with a conscience, remember? She’s never going to help us out…”

Pompey narrowed his eyes at the blonde. “Not voluntarily, no…”

“Oeh!” A twinkle lit up Callisto’s dark eyes. “Does this plan involve violence then? Cause if it does I’m all for it…”

“Stick!” Niobe beamed proudly as she tossed another branch onto a pile of wood.

“Good job, shorty,” Xena smirked up at her, placing another stone on the dirt to complete the circle she’d formed around their campfire-to-be.

“Xena! There’s a fish right here!”

Iona poked her brother in the arm. “Not anymore, you idiot. You scared him away, screaming like that.”

Caspar crossed his arms, the water reaching up to his chest. “I did not! They can’t hear me.”

“Can so!”

“Can not! Fish don’t have ears, do they?”

Xena rolled her eyes. “Shut it you two. Fish have a sixth sense for detecting arguing siblings and if you keep this up we are not going to be able to catch any lunch.”

Iona placed her hands on her hips. “Fish do not have a sixth sense.”

“Really? Then why aren’t there any fish near you two, hmm?”

“Cause we’re talking,” the blonde shot back. “We’re making too much noise.”

Xena raised an eyebrow at her. “And how are they going to hear that noise without ears?”

“Ha!” Caspar chortled. “Told ya! Told ya they couldn’t hear!”

The Empress chuckled, then half turned and ruffled Niobe’s hair a little. “You stay here for a moment, short stuff. Guard our gear for us, will ya?”

“Gad gea.” Niobe nodded seriously.

Xena patted her cheek affectionately, then tugged off both her boots before heading to the water. She waded on until the water came up to her thighs, then stood still and cocked her head, listening intently. Iona swam up behind her, Caspar following not far behind. “Any fish?” The boy asked, trying to peer through the dark water as he treaded water beside her.

“Uhuh,” Xena confirmed with a nod, then pointed a finger at a spot a little in front of her. “Right there. Two of ‘m…”

“So, how do you know?” Iona, who was just able to place her feet flat on the ground, wondered, peering at the spot as well. “I don’t see anything.”

Xena tapped her ear. “You have to listen.”

Casper cocked his head, biting his lip as he focussed real hard on listening. Finally he gave up with a sigh. “I don’t hear anything either…”

“All right…C’mere…” Xena grabbed onto his arm and tugged him closer, wrapping the arm around her neck and then pulling the boy onto her back, so he didn’t have to swim to keep his head above the surface. Casper wiggled a little to find a comfortable spot, then peeked over Xena’s shoulder, looking at the spot where the fish were. “OK, now… You guys hear the birds, right?”

Nods from both.

“Stop hearing ‘m.”

Iona looked up at her. “How can I not hear the birds? If they’re singing so loud I can’t possibly not hear ‘m…”

“When you’re playing and Pyrron call’s for you, you don’t hear ‘m half of the time either, do you?”

Iona considered this for a moment, then nodded. “Good point…”

Meanwhile Niobe had found her way over to Xena’s abandoned boots and discovered they were actually intriguing toys. She stuck a hand in one then lifted it up, raising the leather footwear up with her and letting it fall to the ground again, making a little hole in the grass with the heel. Niobe giggled, then repeated the process, making another indentation just left of the previous one. She continued making a circle around her until she was about half way and noticed movement behind a nearby tree. She looked up, then a huge smile took over her face.

Gabrielle smiled back at her, placing a finger to her lips.

“Sena! ‘s Abby!”

The warrior rolled her eyes. “Not the entrance I was hoping for…”

“Gabrielle!” Iona swam closer, wading out of the water to greet her. “I knew you’d come!”

The warrior grinned at her. “Did you now?”

“Uhuh,” the girl nodded confidently, then tugged on the warrior’s arm. “C’mon… Xena’s teaching us how to catch fish…”

Gabrielle looked at the Conqueror, who was indicating something to Caspar, talking to him over her shoulder. The boy wasn’t really paying attention though, since he was too busy gazing at Gabrielle in adoration. “Catch fish huh? So where’s the fishingr…”

Right then Xena’s hand dove into the water, the sudden movement nearly sending Caspar toppling off the leather clad back. Moments later a particularly large fish was pulled out from the water, squirming in the dark-haired woman’s grasp.

“Ah… I see…” Gabrielle finished, watching calmly as the animal was flung towards the shore and landed right in front of her feet, flapping from side to side a few times before it laid still. “Interesting method…” She added as a second fish dropped down next to the first.

“Cool huh?” Iona tugged her towards the water again. “Xena says I have to stop hearing the birds and the wind and the leaves of the trees and then I can catch ‘m too…”

“Right,” Gabrielle went along amicably, reaching down to pick up the toddler that was tugging at the edge of her tunic incessantly.

Niobe giggled happily, wrapping her arms around the warrior’s neck. “Missed ya.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “It’s good to see you too,”

Another giggle. “Hey Abby?”

“Hmm?”

“You catch fishies too?”

“Can you?” Iona joined in, curiously. “You’re better at everything than Xena is, right?”

“Quite right,” the warrior agreed with a smirk.

The young blonde turned and yelled across the water. “Hey Xena! Gabrielle says she can catch fish better than you can!”

“Is that so?” Xena straightened, after having just deposited Caspar back into the water, and placed her hands on her hips. “Prove it then…”

A challenge. Gabrielle held down the heel of one boot with the tow of the other and pried her foot free. She’d never been able to turn down one of those. She kicked off the second boot, then headed into the water, Iona cheerfully skipping behind until the water got too high for her to skip at which point she just gracefully dived in.

“Fishies!” Niobe chortled, happy to join the rest of the group in the water.

Iona resurfaced again, just beside Xena. “I bet she can catch a bigger fish than you…”

“You do, do you?” The Empress drawled, then glanced up as the warrior waded closer. “Hi.”

Gabrielle stopped and looked back up at her. “Hi.”

“So…” Xena crossed her arms. “You’re better at fishing then me, are ya?”

A negligent shrug. “I don’t know… never tried…” She lifted Niobe off her shoulder and handed the toddler to her older sister. “Guess we’ll find out…”

“I guess so…” Xena drawled, watching as Gabrielle laid a hand against her neck and popped some bones there, then cracked her knuckles, before cocking her head and focussing on the water’s surface. “I have to tell you though, the chances you’ll catch a bigger fish than the one I caught is pretty slim…”

“Really?” Gabrielle murmured, bringing her head closer to the surface.

“Uhuh,” Xena nodded confidently. “Fish here don’t tend to get much bigger than th…Whoa!”

The rest of her words was lost in an explosion of bubbles and she tumbled back and disappeared under water. Gabrielle straightened, pulling the foot she’d grabbed onto above the water, wiggling it at the loudly laughing children before letting go.

Xena gasped for air as she managed to stick her head above the water, her hair obscuring the larger part of her face, streams of water running off of her leathers. Another breath, then she tossed her head back, sending her hair flying to the right side of her head, so she got a clear view of the laughing children and the smugly smirking warrior.

“Big fish!” Niobe chortled, pointing a finger at her, making both Iona and Casper laugh even louder while Gabrielle had to lift a hand to her mouth to cover her wicked grin.

“Oh, you think this is funny, do you?”