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.  

Comments are, as always, very much appreciated...



The Edge of Nowhere
By Annemaart

 

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 protÈgÈ 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 candlemarks." 
"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 proles 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 humorless 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 honor 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 candlemarks 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 bodypart 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 warstories 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, skulling 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 in confusement. 
"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 handgestures. "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 crusified 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 tentflap, 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 tentflap 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 calmt. 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, resheating 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 confusement, 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 lunchbreak. 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 tentflap 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."

Continued in Part II


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