The Edge of Nowhere
"I don't know why we have to take him with us anyway." Iona sulked, crossing her arms as she watched Gabrielle gently pat Caspar's cheek in an attempt to wake him up. "He doesn't even like riding. He'll just slow us down..."
The warrior peeked back over her shoulder. "We won't be going that fast anyway, remember?"
Iona scowled is dismay. "I was hoping you'd forgotten..."
Gabrielle chuckled, turning her attention back to the unconscious Caspar. "I don't forget..."
"Humph..." The girl made a face. "Can't you just forget for a second or something?"
"No." The warrior stretched the word, keeping her eyes away from the pouting face she knew was staring back at her. "That horse of yours is really strong. If he decides to take off, you'll end up in Chin somewhere before you manage to pull him to a stop."
"I don't mind going to Chin." Iona immediately responded to that.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Yeah, well I do." She muttered.
The young blonde did a handstand, bored at the lack of excitement as they waited for her brother to wake up. "Xena's been in Chin."
The warrior released a tired breath. "I know..."
"She said it was really pretty there..." Iona babbled on, walking down the corridor on her hands. "Said she would've liked to stay there."
"Really..." Gabrielle responded uninterestedly, opening one of Caspar's eyelids and peering at an unseeing orb. "Why didn't she then?"
"She screwed up." The blonde said matter-of-factly, biting her lip as her face turned slightly red. "She hurt someone she loved."
Gabrielle frowned, then turned around. "She told you that?"
"Not in so many words, but yeah..." Iona hopped back onto her feet, ruffling her long hair out of her face. "She usually doesn't talk about her past, but..." A shrug. "She was drunk. She gets a lot more talkative when she's drunk..."
Gabrielle grinned wryly. "I'll remember that..."
"Red wine works best." The twelve-year old confided. "You'll need about three bottles..."
The warrior shot her another look, then laughed with a shake of her head. "You are something else, you know that?"
"Yes. Xena tells me I am all the time." Iona stated happily, then trotted over to one of the boxes and ducked inside. "You're never going to get my brother awake by patting him a little. You need more drastic measures..."
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow, then turned back to the young boy in front of her. "Like what?"
"Like this." Was the cheerful response, before a loud splash echoed through the stables. Caspar jumped to his feet, water dripping off him. A moment, then he started coughing frantically.
"See, works like a charm." The girl stated, waving her hand at her shivering brother. "Can we go now?"
"Are you sure you're all right?" Gabrielle asked in concern, looking to her left and watching Caspar uncomfortably twitching in his saddle.
The boy peeked up at her, then nodded quickly.
"You're not cold?"
He hesitated for a moment, then mumbled in a tiny voice: "A little..."
"We could go for a bit of a gallop." Iona smoothly intervened. "That'd warm him straight up."
Gabrielle shot the girl a look, then guided Argo a bit further to their right, so they were walking in the sunshine. "How's that?"
Caspar peeked up at her shyly. "Warmer."
The warrior shot him a reassuring smile, then leaned closer and patted his knee. "If you're still cold in a little while tell me and we'll turn around, OK?"
For a moment there it looked like the boy would pass out again, but finally he just swallowed and nodded, dropping his head and staring down at his hands, fidgeting with his reigns.
Iona sighed dramatically. "See? I told you he'd slow us down."
"You were the one who tossed a bucket of water over the poor boy, lady." Gabrielle defended Caspar.
"Hey, it woke him up, didn't it?"
Gabrielle shot her another look.
Iona rolled her eyes. "Oh all right... OK, so maybe that wasn't the smartest thing I ever did... Can't be brilliant all the time, you know?"
The warrior snorted, unable to suppress a smirk.
They rode on in silence for a moment. Gabrielle leaned back in the saddle, closing her eyes and breathing in the scent of the fresh leafs and the sweet flowers. The delicate smells and familiar movement of Argo calmed her nerves a little. She went over the fight of this morning in her mind, recalling the errors she'd made to make sure she improved on those the next time. She'd need to go and drill later today, she told herself. All the worry and the good food and accommodations hadn't been doing her fighting skills any good. Maybe that was part of the Conqueror's plan, maybe she'd given her all this luxury on purpose to slow her down...
Whatever the reasons, she wasn't going to cave in this easily. After finishing this morning ride with Argo she still had the whole afternoon to train, find out about those herbs for Galon, make a quick visit to her imprisoned friends, go over Solari's notes again, hold Iona to her promise to show her some secret passageways in and out of the castle and give the girl some more lessons in return... Gabrielle released a tired breath. Piece of cake, right?
Meanwhile, Iona was steering Chilon down her own little zigzag path, guiding the horse with one hand while the other lay on her knee. On the other side of the warrior, Caspar was tightly holding onto his reigns. His clothes were starting to dry a little, fortunately, but he was still feeling pretty uncomfortable. Though, that didn't really have to do much with his outfit at all, did it? He peeked up at the woman riding beside him, then expelled a tiny breath, looking ahead of him once more. He immediately jerked back on the reigns, pulling his dark brown mare to a halt.
Gabrielle detected the sudden stop and turned Argo around, frowning at the boy, who had now hopped off his horse and was tugging the bewildered animal towards the side of the road. She shot a look over her shoulder at Iona, but the girl just shrugged back at her. The warrior turned back to the boy. "Caspar? Are you alright?"
"Yeah..." The boy hastily responded as he knelt beside a plant, then started pulling some leafs off. "Excellent."
Iona covered her eyes with a hand. "Great, herbboy's at it again... I sense a lecture coming..."
"Look!" Caspar held up a leaf up in the air triumphantly, forgetting his shyness in his enthusiasm. "Tanacetum parthenium!"
Gabrielle blinked at him. "Uhm... Wow?" She then murmured, not quite sure what else to say.
"Linus and I searched for this, but we couldn't find any... And now it's growing right here!" The boy stuffed a good amount of the herb in a pocket, then pulled himself back in the saddle.
"Really?" The warrior muttered. "So... What does it do?"
Beside her, Iona groaned unhappily.
Caspar's face creased into a huge smile, however, in the realisation he could show of some of his knowledge to the woman. "It's better known as feverfew, which is derived from Latin and means 'chase away fevers'." He informed her with an air of importance. "That's what it does, bring down fevers... And it helps with migraines. The tea you can make with it tastes nice..."
His sister snorted. "Says the guy who likes cauliflower..."
Caspar shot her an angry look. "And what's wrong with that?"
"Hold it!" Gabrielle backed Argo in between the two, giving them both a look. "If you are gonna act like this we're gonna turn right around, understood?"
Iona sulked, but did back away after shooting a last foul look at her brother, before pushing Chilon forward again. Caspar narrowed her eyes at her back, then led his mare forward as well. Gabrielle rolled her eyes at the two, before guiding Argo into a short trot to catch up. "So..." She pulled up in between the two. "You know a lot about herbs, do you?"
Caspar blinked up at her, then managed a shy smile. "Just a little..."
"You wouldn't happen to know about herbs that help pregnant women prevent having a miscarriage, do you?"
The boy's eyes went wide, then darted down to her flat stomach and back up again.
"No, no, no..." Gabrielle hastily shook her head. "Not for me. Someone else..."
"Oh..." Caspar took a relieved breath. "Uhm... I... I don't know..." He peeked up at her apologetically. "But I really don't know that much..."
"Got that right..." Iona muttered from the other side.
"...about herbs." Her brother added, darting her another foul look, before returning his attention to the attentively listening warrior.
"Hmm." Gabrielle murmured in thought. "Your teacher, would he know?"
Caspar shrugged. "Maybe... but if you really want to know for sure, you should ask Xena."
The warrior shot him a bored look. "She knows all the herbs by heart huh?"
"Normal and Latin names." Caspar confirmed with a firm nod.
"Figures..." Gabrielle muttered. "Is there anything that woman can't do?"
"No." Both her companions replied in unison.
The warrior rubbed her temple tiredly. "Oh, great, I'm stuck with the Conqueror fan club..."
"Xena fan club." Iona cheerfully corrected, pulling Chilon back as he sped into a trot for a few paces.
"Xena's nice." Her brother agreed, one of the few things they did agree on apparently. "She knows everything..."
"Can do anything too..." The young blonde added.
"Yeah." The boy nodded eagerly. "She's the best."
Gabrielle looked from one to the other, then rolled her eyes. "Right..."
Iona giggled. "You like her too."
The warrior shot her an indignant look. "I do not..."
"Sure you do..." Another giggle. "You just don't know it yet..."
Gabrielle looked at her for another moment, and was just about to reply when she spotted a river gently flowing across their path up ahead. "You know this route, Iona?"
The girl looked at her, then at the river, understanding what she was getting at. "The river isn't deep. Knee height for the horses, this time of year..."
"All right." Gabrielle nodded, taking the lead and guiding Argo down the embankment and into the water. The mare snorted in dismay as her legs sunk into the ice-cold water, but she obediently kept moving forward, deeper into the water. "Good girl." Gabrielle praised the horse, patting her neck affectionately. "Looks safe enough, just follow along, guys..."
Iona hadn't actually waited for the invite and was right behind her, the water splashing up as Chilon plumped his large hooves under time after time again, seemingly having no trouble with the water at all.
Caspar took a breath. He was not too fond of water, but he wasn't about to tell the others and look all weak, now was he? He squared his shoulders, then pushed his mare forward as well. The horse didn't seem too anxious about soaking herself either, though, and she took a few paces back, flaring her nostrils. "C'mon!" The boy urged, pushing the horse forward, finally resorting to smacking his hand on her back harshly. The mare jumped, then leaped forward, straight into the water. The water splashed up high around her and she panicked, darting off, Caspar holding onto the saddle for dear life as the horse raced through the water and up the other embankment.
The dark brown mare sped past Chilon and Argo, before Gabrielle had even realised what had happened. "Damn it!" She cursed, tossing a look over her. "Iona, stay back!" She ordered, before immediately urging Argo forward into pursuit.
Iona snorted, giving Chilon free reign, the horse's competitive nature flaring up instantly as he went into a full gallop. "As if."
Gabrielle leaned forward in her saddle, watching her target come closer and closer with every stride of her mare's hooves. She could see Caspar was clinging onto the horse, his legs tightly pressing into her sides, which wasn't helping the matter much. "Lean back!" She yelled to the boy. But Caspar was too scared to listen, only focussing on not bouncing off the horse.
The warrior sorted through her options, then spotted the road widening up ahead. Seeing her opportunity she guided Argo slightly to her right. The mare obviously realised what she was about to do and increased her speed on her own, until she was finally side by side with the brown mare.
Gabrielle pulled her feet from the stirrups, then pushed herself up so she was crouching down on Argo's saddle. She judged the distance, then jumped, intercepting Caspar at the waist and pulling him with her, off his frantic horse and towards the hard earth.
She twisted in mid air, shielding the boy as much as she could. She winced as her back painfully impacted with the ground, her skin scratching over the branches and small rocks, but she just bit down and kept her hold on Caspar until they finally slid to a stop.
Her eyes closed for a moment, as she sucked in a deep breath in relief. She could feel Casper's heart pounding in his chest and she carefully turned the boy towards her, looking into his wide, frightened eyes. "Are you OK?"
He swallowed, blinked, then swallowed again, unable to speak.
Gabrielle patted his cheek, managing a reassuring smile for him. "Relax. You're gonna be fine."
"Woohoo!!" Iona's voice shot up enthusiastically, as Chilon slid to a halt beside the two. "What a ride! Can we do that again??"
"The last of the regents will arrive a little after noon. When they're all inside I want this place secured." Xena instructed to Pompey, who was pacing beside her as they crossed the palace grounds. "Pick three of the veterans and let them try to sneak in. I wanna be sure my boys aren't slacking..."
"Yes, Empress." The officer nodded in understanding.
"If any of those three manage to bypass security, heads are going to roll... Make sure they know that..."
"Yes, Empress. I can assure you though they're up to the task."
"Just giving them a little extra incentive." Xena smirked at him. "Can't hurt, can it?" She looked up as she heard another set of footsteps approach. "Ah, Alti... Just the person I was looking for..."
A dark eyebrow arched. "Now there's a first..."
The Empress chuckled. "Just wanted to come up and invite you to the meeting this afternoon."
A second eyebrow raised. "Why?"
"I want to wallow in your delightful presence." Xena drawled, getting a tired look from the shamaness. She snickered. "And I found out some... interesting facts about my regent in the Peloponnese. Appears the man had been putting some of my money in his pockets. I figured you might like to meet him..."
A dark grin formed on the shamaness's face.
"That's what I thought..." Xena's eyes twinkled. "The meeting will start at two candlemarks past noon. Make sure you..."
Her sentence stopped suddenly as sounds drifted up from her right. Horses. Her brows frowned. Two horses.
Pompey stepped up beside her. "Trouble, Empress?"
"I'm not sure..." Xena murmured. Another moment, then two horses came trotting out of the forest. One was Chilon and the other was Argo. The latter was supporting not one but two people, Gabrielle holding on to a very exhausted looking Caspar, who was sitting in front of the saddle.
She ran towards the horses as they pulled back and stopped, a ruffled, sweaty, sand blown Iona immediately sliding of her stallion's back. Xena knelt next to her, touching her cheek and inspecting the girl's face, but she didn't seem to be hurt. Actually a huge grin was plastered on her face. "What happened?"
"It was amazing!" Iona chortled happily. "Deirdre freaked and Gabrielle went in pursuit..." The girl waved her hands around busily. "...and she stood up and jumped straight off Argo's back..."
Xena blinked, then straightened to look up at the still seated Gabrielle.
"Take him." The warrior just instructed, lifting up Caspar and handing him down to her.
The Empress blinked again, then did as ordered, taking the boy and gently putting him on the ground. Caspar blinked up at her with wide eyes, still clearly not over the shock. Xena reached out, wiping some blood away that was seeping down from a small cut on his cheek.
"He got scratched by a branch," Gabrielle stated, as she herself slid to the ground. As Xena looked up she could just catch a glimpse of the warrior's back, her tunic ripped and bloodstained. "but I don't think he's badly hurt. Just a little shocked."
Xena frowned at her, then looked back down at Caspar, who had attached himself to her side. She placed a hand on top of his head and he looked up at her, sniffling a little.
"He should have just sat back..." Iona commented behind her. "But he was too scared to..."
The girl immediately fell silent as she heard the growl in Xena's voice.
"Go inside. Get Pyrron."
The young blonde blinked, then hastily tied Chilon's reigns to a nearby branch before running off.
The officer walked closer, pulling a dagger from his belt. "She will pay for this, Empress." He stated, his evilly twinkling eyes on Gabrielle. "For hurting the boy, I'll..."
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed, and she balled her hands to fist, eying him wearily.
"Give me your cloak."
Pompey halted in his tracks, blinking at her. "Excuse me?"
"Your cloak." The Empress repeated. "Now."
"I..." The officer looked from his leader to the warrior and back, then resheathed the dagger and pulled off the bright blue cloak that was attached to his armour, before handing it to the Conqueror.
Xena took it, then placed it over Gabrielle's shoulders, covering the warrior's injured back from sight. Wide green eyes looked back at her, and the Empress realised that if she'd made that movement a bit faster she'd be lying flat on her back right now.
"Take the horses back to the stables and have them looked after." She then instructed her officer. "Then send some people out to look for Deirdre. She's a dark brown mare, she'll be tough to spot. I want her back before nightfall." She scooped Caspar up, before turning to the warrior still standing beside her. "Go change. I'll send Esmee up with some clean clothes." She stated, before pacing off.
Gabrielle frowned after her for another moment, then leaned over and whispered something into Argo's ear, after which the horse snorted and took of into the direction of the stables. She then took off towards the palace herself.
Pompey looked after the receding form, grinding his teeth as he watched the wind toy with his cloak.
The roman turned to the shamaness, who'd moved closer to him. "What?"
"The warrior. She's injured." Alti repeated, keeping her voice low. "I could sense it radiating off of her."
Pompey crossed his arms, darting another look at the blonde. "Well, good for her..."
"No... Good for you..." The shamaness corrected him, her dark eyes peering into his intensely for a long moment, before she too turned around and made her way to the palace.
Pompey cocked his head, considering her words for a moment. Then a vicious grin slowly lit up his face...
Gabrielle sat down on her bed, pulling the cloak from her back, rumpling it up and tossing it into a corner. Not that it wasn't satisfying, seeing the face of the man who'd arrested her as she'd walked off with his cloak, but she wasn't going to wear the smelly thing any longer than she had to. She winced, though, as the rough movement caused her back to ache painfully. She pushed herself up and trudged into the bathroom, turning and looking over her shoulder at her reflection in the mirror.
Well... She'd had worse... Gabrielle smiled wryly as she turned back, pulling the cork from the tap and letting some water flow into a small basin, sticking her hands under the flowing stream of liquid to wash the grime off them.
A soft knock sounded and Gabrielle called out a permission to enter, after which she heard gentle footsteps patter across the carpeted floor of her bedroom, before Esmee's head poked around the doorway leading into the bathroom.
"Hi." The warrior smiled at her, as she replugged the tap.
"Oh goodness..." The young girl gasped, blinking at the woman's back in shock. "You're bleeding!"
"Among other things, yes..." Gabrielle smirked at her, seeing the girl's eyes widen even further. "Relax. It's not so bad."
"It is bad." Esmee corrected with a frown as she padded over to the bath, pulling the plug from the tap and letting the tub fill itself with warm water. "I'll need to clean that and it's gonna hurt..."
The warrior frowned at her, then hastily shook her head. "Esmee, you don't have to patch me up..."
"You're going to clean your own back then, are you?" The girl shot her a look as she busied herself sorting through a few small bottles placed on a shelf above the sink, selecting one then pouring a small amount of the oil it contained into the water. The smell of lavender drifted up in puffs of steam.
Gabrielle scowled. "I've done it before."
Esmee released a frustrated breath, placing her hands on her hips. "Look, you want me to get into trouble with the Empress?" She watched the warrior shake her head. "Then get into that tub." She ordered, walking out of the room and digging into the bag she'd carried with her.
The warrior snorted, then considered the request for another moment, before giving in reluctantly, carefully stripping out of her tunic and then stepping into the tub, submersing herself in the water. Her back stung painfully, but she just gritted her teeth and waited for the first wave of hurt to end.
"Good girl." Esmee complimented her as she trotted back into the bathroom, getting a chuckle out of the warrior. She placed a sponge on the bathtub's edge, then pulled up a chair and climbed on top of it. Taking the sponge she then proceeded to carefully clean out the warrior's wounds. "Sorry." She apologised as she felt the warrior wince as she had trouble wiping the sand out of the deepest cut, running diagonally across Gabrielle's shoulder blade. "Do I want to know what it is you did?"
The warrior smiled wryly. "Jumped off a horse."
Esmee frowned at her. "That was pretty stupid."
"The situation was a bit more complicated than that." A low voice stated from the doorway. Xena smiled at Esmee, then motioned with her head for the girl to leave them for a moment, which she immediately did.
Gabrielle turned in the bathtub, balancing her arms on the edge. She wasn't feeling too comfortable, being naked and all, but she forced an air of confidence and raised an eyebrow at the dark-haired woman questioningly.
Xena leaned back against the wall, keeping a respectable distance. "Caspar told me what happened."
"How is he?" The warrior inquired.
"Good, considering..." The Empress stated, crossing her arms. "Not a scratch on him... Well, except for..." She waved a hand at her cheek.
"Glad to hear it..."
Xena stared at her silently, then she seemed to remember what she'd come for, and held up a small leather pouch for the warrior to see. "There's two jars in here. Herb mixtures. The top one is for the burns, the second for the wounds. Esmee can help you rub those on, twice a day..."
Gabrielle looked at the pouch, then back up at her. "OK."
The Empress nodded, pensively gazing at the floor for a moment, then pushed off the wall. "You can sleep in tomorrow. You have the day off." She stated, turning towards the door.
"I didn't do it so you'd owe me."
Xena halted, placing a hand on the doorpost and looking over her shoulder. "I know." She said, meeting green eyes for a moment. "Thank you."
Gabrielle watched as she turned away and walked out the door, catching a few whispered words drifting in addressed to Esmee. The warrior shifted around in the tub, letting herself sink into the water again, leaning her head against the hard marble side, arguing voices incessantly spinning through her brain like a whirlwind.
"Lieutenant." A soldier laid a fist over his heart and bowed politely. "You called for me?"
"Yes." Pompey waved at a free chair. "Please, Cassius, sit down."
Cassius nodded, then sat, for a moment letting his eyes flick over the other occupants, sitting around the oval table in Pompey's office. There were three other people there beside himself, two younger soldiers, like himself, and one officer.
Pompey took a few paces closer, placing both his hands on the backrest of the chair at the head of the table. "What I'm about to say to you will not leave this room." Pompey's dark eyes swept across the foursome. "Understood?" Hasty nods all around. "Good." The lieutenant took a few paces through the room, pensively. "Now... You all know the warrior the Conqueror has brought back with from her last trip to Macedonia." Pompey smiled privately as disgruntled murmurs lifted up behind him. "And you've all seen her completely disrespectful behaviour around the Empress." He turned around, facing them again. "But our leader has done nothing to stop her."
"The Conqueror doesn't want to tame her, if I understood her correctly." The other officer stated, clearly not too happy about this.
"True, Thaddius. That is what she said..." Pompey seated himself on the armrest of his chair. "And, normally, I would not even consider going against the Conqueror's wishes... But..." His eyes searched the ones before him. "But I believe this woman to be a danger to our ruler." A pause. "I assume I'm not the only one who's noticed the Empress's odd behaviour, these last few days?"
"No, sir." Cassius shook his head rapidly. "I had to bring the prisoner to her yesterday... The man she'd arrested in Piraeus for stealing... And she released him!" He dropped his voice to a conspiritual whisper. "It was that woman, sir. She was there... She put a spell on her, sir, I'm sure of it..."
"See." The Roman waved a hand at Cassius. "This is exactly what I mean... Normally, the Empress would have never let this man escape justice..." He leaned closer, balancing a hand on his knee. "That warrior is a danger to our ruler, gentlemen. The Conqueror may not realise that, but she is... And it is our job to stop her."
"I do agree with you, Pompey." Thaddius stated, leaning back in his chair. "But how do you suggest we come about this? We have all seen her fight. The woman is practically invincible." The other soldiers nodded.
"She's not invincible... In fact, she is injured." The lieutenant supplied. "She had an accident with her horse this morning."
Thaddius cocked his head. "Really?"
Pompey nodded. "I saw it with my own eyes..." He rose from his seat, then dug into the back pocket of his leather pants, removing a small quiver. He popped open the lid with his thumb, then pulled out a tiny dart, the tip of it stained in a deep, poisonous green. "The next time we see her, on our patrol through the palace, Gabrielle will be on her way to assassinate one of the valued regents..." Pompey grinned at them, and they grinned back conspiritually, nodding in understanding. "And I'm afraid that the only way to stop her, will be to kill her..."
"I've got a bad feeling about this..." A short, well-dressed man fidgeted nervously with the edge of his sleeve. "A bad, bad feeling..."
The woman sitting beside him rolled her eyes at him tiredly, absently twirling a curly lock of dark hair around her finger. "You always have a bad feeling when you come here, Tanagros."
"That's because something bad always happens when I come here..." Tanagros replied in his squeaky voice, his eyes darting across the room restlessly. "You heard what happened to Antheus, right? The regent of Macedonia?"
"Antheus was a fool." The woman retorted easily. "He screwed up, he got punished... That's how things work around here..."
The short man shivered uncomfortably, pulling his dark blue robes tighter around him. "I wish I was home..." He moaned.
The doors into the room swayed open, servants scurrying in and bowing to the woman that was approaching. Xena stopped in the doorway, letting her cold eyes sweep over the people inside, who hastily got to their feet, inclining their heads respectfully to her. Xena walked further into the room, her purple robes rustling softly as she moved. "I believe most of you know my good friend Alti." Xena smirked at several audible gulps as the shamaness entered behind her, in her trademark dark clothing. She turned her attention to the woman sitting near her. "Hesione, you know Alti, don't you?"
Hesione inclined her head politely. "Of course."
The shamaness eyes just pierced into the other woman's intensely.
"My regent of Crete." Xena supplied, as if the shamaness had trouble remembering the woman. "And this..." She waved a hand at the small man beside her. "...is my regent of the Peloponnese. Alti, meet Tanagros..."
The short man bent his head, unable to prevent from shaking. "How do you do?"
Alti flashed him a wicked grin, then reached forward, wrapping her hand around his neck, lifting him clean off his feet. "I'm doing great, thank you."
Tanagros's eyes bulged out at her fearfully as he struggled, his short legs kicking out wildly at the empty air. Pleadingly he looked over the shamaness's shoulder at the Conqueror. "Empress! Help me!"
"Help you?" Xena raised an eyebrow at him amusedly. "My dear man, from what I've heard, you're more than capable of helping yourself..."
Tanagros blinked at her.
"Oh come now..." Xena scowled at him. "Don't you remember putting some of that money I sent you to built a reservoir in your own pocket?"
Tanagros shook his head frantically at her. "I didn't, Empress!" He managed to choke
Xena tsk-ed at him. "Alti, refresh his memory, will you?"
The shamaness tightened her hold on the man, her fingernails digging into his neck. The regent's head shot back and he screamed out in pain, a trickle of blood suddenly seeping from the corner of his mouth. "Oops." Alti shot an apologetic look over her shoulder. "Wrong memory."
"That's all right." Xena patted her on the shoulder supportingly. "We all make mistakes... Do try again..."
Another pain filled cry pierced the air and the short man's arm suddenly twisted into a very unnatural position.
"Ouch..." The Conqueror looked at him sympathetically. "I bet that hurt..."
"Empress, please!" Tanagros managed, before his head shot back again as it was filled with another memory. "Please!" He panted, his grey eyes meeting hers. "I'm sorry, Empress! I beg you..."
"Oh you beg me, do you?" Xena crossed her arms. "Just like you begged me for more money because you ran into 'unforeseen trouble' when you were building those granaries at Epidavros?" The Conqueror looked at him in utter contempt. "Alti, show him what I would have done if you hadn't been here, would you?"
"My pleasure." The shamaness drawled, her dark eyes piercing into him unmercifully.
Tanagros's eyes widened as the vision was pushed into him, filling his senses. "Empress... Empress, no! Please, n...!"
His body fell to the floor limply, thumping onto the marble floor. Alti gazed at the head she still held in her hand in boredom, holding it as far away from her as she could, as to not let the blood drip onto her toga. "Decapitation again, Xena?" She shot a look over her shoulder. "You'd think after all these years you'd come up with something original..."
"Go on now, get a move on it! Empress doesn't like to be kept waiting. Shoo!" Solari shoved another plate of food into a servant's hands, before waving her hands at him to get going. "And if you drop that I'm gonna stuff you so full of broccoli you're gonna wish I'd just killed ya!" The cook shook her head, turning around and placing the dirty plates and bowls into the sink. "Incompetent load of..." She gritted her teeth as she heard more footsteps, then spun around, angrily pointing a dirty blade at the newcomer. "Didn't I tell you to..." A pause. "Oh... It's you..."
"Uhm... yeah..." Gabrielle scratched the back of her neck. "Is this a bad time?"
"No, no, no..." Solari hastily shook her head, her eyes flicking across the deserted kitchen. Deserted since the rest of the staff was waiting on the Empress and her regents. "C'mon, lets get outta sight, just in case..." She tugged Gabrielle along towards the storage room. She pushed the woman inside, then closed the door behind them. "What's up?" Her dark eyes shifted to Gabrielle anxiously. "I thought we weren't meeting until the day after tomorrow... Something go wrong? Ephiny's OK, right? Right?"
"She's fine." The warrior assured her, not quite able to hide a smirk. "She just told me to tell you something and I just figured..." A negligent shrug. "Since I'm not sure if I'm gonna be around tomorrow I'd better tell you now."
Solari crossed her arms, arching an eyebrow at her. "Where'd all that the-fact-that-things-are-considered-impossible-by-many-have-never-stopped-me-from-doing-them stuff fly off to? Not getting cold feet, are ya?"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "My feet are perfectly warm, thank you. But Ephiny said this was pretty important, so I just don't want to take any chances."
Solari frowned. "So? What'd she say?"
"If this doesn't work out she wants you to leave and go home."
The Amazon stared at her for a moment, then snorted, shaking her head as she pushed open the door and exited the storage room. "If that's what you came here to tell me you've wasted your time." She stated, picking up a dirty spoon and tossing it into the sink.
Gabrielle followed her outside, crossing her arms. "Solari, she was very serious."
"Yeah, well so am I." The brunette angrily smacked one of the tables with her tea towel. "That blasted daughter of a..." She tossed the cloth away, flinging it across the room to thump against one of the cabinets before falling to the ground. "Every time, every TIME she gets a chance to send me a note, that's what it says... 'Solari, get out of here. Solari, just go.'" The Amazon huffed out an angry breath. "For once, just this once it would be nice to just get a note saying 'Thanks for being here, Sol. You're the greatest, Sol. I l...'" Solari took a breath, hiding her face in her hands for a moment. "Tell her..." She finally murmured from behind her palms. "Tell her I'm staying. And that the more notes she sends, the more determined I am to stay." Brown eyes peeked up at her. "And makes sure she gets it this time, OK?"
Gabrielle smiled reluctantly. "OK." She promised, giving Solari a reassuring pat on the shoulder before exiting the kitchen, careful not to draw any attention to herself.
"Next stop..." She murmured, going over her options as she turned down another corridor. Having tomorrow off came in pretty handy really, she had to admit. Drilling with her back the way it was would be far from pleasant, and she was glad she could give her skin a day to heal. The herb mixture the Conqueror had provided was working remarkably well though. The only disadvantage of that was that her skin was itching like crazy and she had to constantly restrain herself from scratching at her healing wounds. But that beat lying in her bed in agonising pain, so she wasn't complaining.
She could go over and see Iona, but she had a feeling the girl had gotten quite a verbal lashing from the Conqueror about this morning's ordeal. She'd told Esmee what had happened while the girl was tending to her back, and she had informed her Caspar has a big fear of water, and Iona apparently knew this. The warrior hadn't been too happy with this news herself at first, but then she'd figured Iona had probably been too excited about the whole outing and had forgotten to mention it when they crossed the water. True, she was manipulative, mischievous, a little devious even, but she wasn't mean and Gabrielle doubted the girl would have done this on purpose, knowing what the outcome would be.
She walked into one of the halls of the servant's quarters, steps leading up to higher levels. She'd already asked Linus about the herbs for Galon, to no avail unfortunately, so that only left one thing on her list, which was to go and see her friends down below. Which was, coincidentally, her favourite thing on the list. Gabrielle grinned to herself, as she passed another guard on her way to the main hall. She was looking forward to asking Thalia about her first night in a king-size bed, and she needed to pass on the message Solari had...
She blocked the staff with her upper arm on pure instinct, reaching out and grabbing onto the wood and jerking it out of her attackers hands. She spun round and swung his own weapon at him, hitting him on the side of his head. He thudded to the ground, unconsciously.
A soldier. Gabrielle frowned down at him. One of the Conqueror's own men... More footsteps closed in on her and she looked up to see more soldiers racing towards her, weapons raised. A quick glance behind her showed an equal number moving towards her from the other side. I knew it. Gabrielle narrowed her eyes, tightening the hold on her weapon angrily. I knew she wouldn't stay true to her word. She pushed the staff back, poking one of her attackers in the stomach. And she doesn't even have the guts to do it herself... She swept the leg out of under another, then kicked at a third, before elbowing a fourth into unconsciousness. She vaguely felt her back aching, but the adrenaline pumping into her system made her able to forget her wounds and focus on the fighting.
There were so many. One actually managed to wrap his hands around her neck and it was brute strength that made her grasp onto his arms and pull him over her head, flinging him into three onrushers. She couldn't keep this up for long, though, she realised as she ducked and let a soldier fly over her head. She needed to find a way of escape.
Her eyes darted up, seeing if there was a rope, or chandelier, or anything else nearby she could climb onto. No such luck though. The only way to get up higher was.... Her brain stopped as she spotted a figure standing on the staircase on the other side of the room.
Pompey. The man who'd taken her in once would be arresting her again. With a growl she snapped her staff in two, then slammed the pointy ends into two attackers that had been coming at her from each side. She let go of the remains of her weapon and ran blindly towards the officer. If she was going to die she was damn well taking him down with her.
Pompey's eyes widened as he realised her intent and he hastily dug into his pocket, removing the dart and aiming. He pulled his hand back, then tossed the it straight towards her.
She realised too late what it was the lieutenant held in his hands. She slid to a halt, but even her reflexes were not fast enough to duck as the dart got closer, and closer and...
And flew inches past her as she was suddenly jerked aside, arms catching her at the waist and pulling her down. With a thud she landed on the marble tiles, another, taller body landing on top of her. She blinked, then focused on her saviour, to see...
"Hi." Xena greeted her cheerfully, her face hovering inches above her own. "Can't keep your nose out of trouble, can you?"
Gabrielle was just about to scream at her indignantly to get off when the Conqueror saved her the trouble by hopping to her feet all on her own.
Pompey swallowed as he realised his plan had just fallen to bits on him, murderously cold blue eyes fastening themselves on him. "Empress, I was only trying to protect you." He tried, holding up his hands cautiously. "That woman is a threat to you and..."
"Oh, shut up!" Xena growled, pulling her chakram out from under her robes and flinging it at him, the metal bouncing off a wall and then slicing through Pompey's throat, before returning to its wielder, who neatly scooped it out of the air. The Roman gasped, grasping for his neck, blood staining his hands as he fell back, thumping down a few steps until he slid to a halt, his half severed head falling limply to one side.
"Much better." Xena muttered, wiping her free hand on her dress, while turning to look at the miniature battlefield before her. Uneven footsteps rushed closer and she looked up to see Pyrron running in as fast as he could, which wasn't really all that fast because of his wooden leg. "Ah, Ronnie, just the guy I was looking for..." She waved a hand at her surroundings. "I think we're going to have to start recruiting again."
"Wha...?" Her Advisor blinked, looking from a guard with a broken stick pushed through his heart to the slumped form of Pompey the Magnus on the stairwell. "What just...?"
"Good old Pompey was feeling a little neglected, I think..." Xena muttered angrily, her eyes flicking across the room, taking in every face of every soldier who'd just betrayed her, the living and dead ones. "Got jealous of all the attention Gabrielle was getting and decided to do her in..."
"This wasn't your idea??" Gabrielle, who was still dazedly sitting on the floor, leaning back on her hands, looked at her in complete confusion.
"Me?" Xena pointed a thumb at her own chest. "Of course not... Why would I do a thing like this?"
Gabrielle frowned. "Well... Cause... Because..." She stuttered, her brain not cooperating in finding the right words for her.
Xena rolled her eyes, then walked closer to the warrior. "If I'd ordered this I wouldn't have just killed one of my highest officers, now would I?" She stated in a serious voice. "Or saved you from a dart that I'm guessing was poisonous." She stopped at the warrior's feet, then extended a hand down towards her, raising an eyebrow questioningly.
Gabrielle looked up at her hesitantly, but then she placed her hand in Xena's and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet, nearly toppling over as her body yelled out complaints. A hand on her shoulder steadied her, however. "Are you all right?" Xena asked in a voice that in any other case the warrior would have qualified as concerned.
"Yeah." Gabrielle sucked in a breath, straightening herself, blinking the fog away from her eyes. "Yeah... Just uhm..."
Xena grinned down at her wryly. "Not your day, huh?"
Gabrielle snorted softly, shaking her head. "Not my life..."
Blue eyes regarded her quietly for another moment, then the Empress waved Pyrron closer. "Escort Gabrielle to her room, will you? I'll take care of matters here."
"Yes, Empress." Her Advisor nodded, offering his arm politely, to allow the warrior to lean on him without loosing face.
Gabrielle looked up at him with a tiny, grateful smile, then placed her hand on his arm. She was just about to walk off when she felt a gentle squeeze from the hand that she now noticed was still resting on her shoulder.
The warrior turned her head and looked up at the Empress questioningly.
"I..." Xena peeked down at her, uncertainly. "I'm sorry... about... all this..."
Green eyes stared up at her for a long moment, then Gabrielle nodded a little, before walking off towards the guest quarters.
Hidden in the shadows, Alti watched the whole exchange with narrowed eyes.
"There you go." Pyrron guided her to the bed, letting her sit down on the edge before walking into the bathroom. "I'm really very sorry about all this."
"'s Okay." Gabrielle murmured for the fifth time in the last few minutes, wiping absentmindedly at the blood on her hands. "It was hardly your fault."
The Advisor returned moments later with a mug of water, which he handed to the warrior.
Gabrielle took the mug, downing the content greedily. "Thanks." She mumbled, peeking up over the rim of the mug at Pyrron.
The Advisor waved her off with a smirk. "Anything for the woman who keeps saving my children."
The warrior smiled wryly. "How's Caspar doing?" She mumbled, scuttling back a little and leaning against some soft pillows, wincing a little as her back stung.
"Nasty scratch on his face." Pyrron said, emerging from the bathroom a second time with a bowl filled with water and a sponge. "But he's doing fine otherwise. He already ran off to Linus again to show him the herbs he brought with him. Tane something... he seemed very excited about 'm..."
Gabrielle smiled wryly. "I'm glad to hear he's OK... He seems like a nice boy..."
"Oh, he is..." Pyrron agreed as he placed the bowl and sponge beside her on a small bedside table. "Certainly compared to those two sisters of his..." His eyes darted around the room. "I heard Xena sent up some of those jars of cream. They still here?"
"Top drawer." Gabrielle instructed, reaching over and squeezing out the sponge before running it over her arms, face and neck, rinsing away the sweat and grime on her skin. She gave him a thankful smile as he placed one of the jars beside the bowl of water, twisting the top off.
Pyrron waved her off. "How bad is it?"
Gabrielle took inventory, then shrugged a little. "Had worse."
Pyrron looked at her for another moment, then snorted softly, slightly shaking his head.
"What?" A blonde eyebrow arched up at him.
The Advisor smiled at her. "Nothing you want to hear, I think."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Comparing me to the Conqueror?"
"Coming from me, that is a compliment, Gabrielle."
The warrior peeked up at him thoughtfully in the silence that followed. "Why is that?" She finally muttered shaking her head.
Pyrron tossed a look over his shoulder, then considered the question for a moment. "We have seen very different sides of her, you and me. You have seen her as she appears to the people. Ruthless, cold, controlled. That's all I saw at first too, and she scared me to death... She still does, sometimes..."
"But there's more there than meets the eye." The Advisor stated calmly, digging around for some bandages, finally retrieving some from the bottom drawer of the cabinet. "For one, she is the smartest person I've ever known. She knows the name of every soldier under her direct command, she can remember words I said moons ago almost literally, she can think her way out of situations as easily as she wields a sword..."
"Yeah, well, she should do that more often then, instead of chopping off heads the moment she gets a chance to." Gabrielle muttered, dipping a finger in the herb mixture and spreading it onto the cut in her upper leg.
Pyrron frowned his brows for a moment, thoughtfully considering his words, before speaking up again. "What is the last war you remembering hearing of?"
Green eyes blinked up at him. "Sorry?"
"The last war. When was that, do you think?"
"Uhm..." Gabrielle had to actually think hard about that question. "I... The last one I heard about was the battle for Gaul. And that was... Five years ago?"
"Six." Pyrron corrected her. "Six years without any major battles in an Empire stretching from the tip of Africa to the cold plains of Siberia." A pause. "That's why I follow her, Gabrielle." He smiled at her, then politely inclined his head. "Now, if there's nothing more I can do for you, I have petitions to read."
Gabrielle watched him walk out and close the door behind him. He is manipulating you. A voice in the back of her head spoke up. He's trying to win you over. Make you see her in a different light. Trying to you soften you up. But that's not going to work, is it? A long pause as the voice waited for a reply, then, a little more insecurely. Is it?
"Boys, boys, boys..." Xena tsk-ed as she slowly descended down the steps of the platform her throne was placed on. "Now what am I going to do with you?" She crossed her arms, towering over the six, shackled men kneeling at her feet. "Hmm?" Xena knelt down beside the first soldier, leaning close to his ear. "I give you the one, simple assignment to NOT mess with my GUEST..." The young man cowered, trying desperately to get away from the noise that was bursting his eardrums. Xena saved him the trouble though, by straightening again, and bringing her voice down to its normal volume. "And you blew it." The Conqueror took in a deep breath, then released it again sadly. "You betrayed me, fellows... And..." A sniffle. "...you know how I get when people betray me..." With a jerk she pulled back the head of the third by his curly brown hair, forcing him to look up at her. "Don't ya?"
He swallowed, trying desperately to avoid her gaze but failing miserably.
"Don't ya?" Xena repeated in a growl.
"Y...Y...Yes, Empress..." He stuttered, blinking up at her fearfully.
Xena released her hold on the man roughly. "And that just really makes it worse, doesn't it? That you intentionally hurt my... my delicate feelings." Xena placed a hand over her heart, looking profoundly hurt. "...and I think you boys also know, that when someone hurts my feelings..." She pulled a dagger from her belt, then leaned closer to the sixth soldier, slowly drawing the tip of the blade down his cheek. "...I have to hurt them back." A trickle of blood sidled down the man's face and he swallowed audibly, but remained silent.
"Well..." Xena straightened again, toying with the dagger in her hand. "I've had a little time to think up how to punish you... And a lot of interesting ideas crossed my mind... Decapitation..." She placed the edge of her dagger on her thumb, counting on her fingers. "But its been pointed out to me that's not original, so I scratched that..." She touched the dagger to her index finger. "Then I thought of torturing you all to death, but I realised I would have to listen to you scream all those candle marks before you actually die, and that gives me such a headache, you know? Then of course there was crucifixion, an all time favourite..." A pause as Xena stopped in front of the six. "And then it hit me..." She smiled down at them. "I don't have to kill you..."
All six head shot up as one, looking completely shocked. "Y...you don't?" The fourth mumbled, blinking.
"No..." Xena knelt down in front of him and patted his cheek comfortingly. "Of course I don't have to kill you..."
The man gazed up at her, looking very, very relieved. "Th... Thank you Empress, I..."
"I just have to bury you..."
His sentence stocked in his throat and his eyes widened. "Pardon?" He managed to blurt out.
"Bury. You know, where we dig a hole and we put you..." She pointed a long sleek finger at him. "And you..." She pointed her dagger at the man sitting beside him. "And you, and you, and you..." She stood again, motioning down the line. "and you into that hole. Nice and cosy, together with your already dead friends. And then we put the sand back in the hole, on top of your little heads. And then you can all be together forever and ever..." She smiled at them peacefully. "Poetic almost, don't you agree?"
"You... You want to bury us alive??" The first soldier gasped, his pupils dilated in fear.
Xena considered this for a moment, then nodded cheerfully. "Yes."
"But... But you can't!"
The Conqueror laughed. "Silly boy... Of course I can..." She smiled at him charmingly. "Let me show you..." She lifted a hand, waving the guards closer. "Take them away."
Chains rattled and the men were dragged to their feet roughly.
"No! Empress, I beg of you!" The first man in line managed to pull himself lose and fall to his knees before her. "Please, great Conqueror, forgive me. I didn't want to, highness. It was all Pompey's idea. Pompey the Magnus. I was only following orders... Please, Empress, please..."
Xena took a happy breath, grinning broadly as she wrapped an arm around the shoulders of one of her guards. "Don't you just love to hear people beg?" She waved a hand at the soldier allowing. "Go on..."
He blinked. "I... I have a wife, highness... And... And children... lots of children..."
"You do not..." Xena snorted. "You have a demented old father who can't even remember your name, three goats and a cow." She sighed in dismay. "I can't stand people who lie... They make me all itchy... And I hate being itchy..." She turned away from him, waving a hand over her shoulder negligently. "Bury him first, then toss Pompey and his merry men on top of him."
Xena settled herself back in his chair, letting the fearful screams of the soldier wash over, her face a mask as she watched them all be dragged from the room. "Dorian?"
A man hastily stepped up to her, tapping his chest and bowing. "Empress?"
"Follow them to the pit. At the last moment, fish the sixth one out of there. The one with the cut on his face. Bring him to me."
"Yes, Empress." Dorian inclined his head, then turned and paced out of the room after the prisoners.
Xena's eyes followed him to the door, then she sighed tiredly as she spotted another figure standing there. "Oh, puhlease don't..." She swung a leg over the arm rest. "If I hear the words 'warrior' and 'fall of your empire' combined in one sentence out of your mouth, you're going right into that pit after them, understood?"
Alti strode into the room, her dark robes sliding over the marble tiles behind her. "I didn't come here because of my visions, Xena. I know now its no use talking to you about them..."
"Already?" The Conqueror murmured under her breath. "My, you're so quick..."
Alti narrowed her dark eyes at the warrior. "I have come here to inform you of my departure."
A dark eyebrow raised slowly. "You're leaving me, Alti?" Xena wiped at a non-existent tear. "And I thought things were going so great between us... I was really starting to feel we were connecting..."
The shamaness crossed her arms and produced a grin for the dark-haired woman. "Well, fortunately for you then, we'll have more than enough time to 'connect' when I return."
Xena smirked at her. "Looking forward to it already..."
"I'm sure you are..." Alti shot her another look, then turned around and paced towards the door.
"Hey?" The Empress called after her. "What is this trip about?"
"Oh, the usual..." The shamaness drawled, not looking back as she exited the throne room. "Places to go... People to see..."
Xena frowned, then turned her thoughts away from Alti and focussed them on the man who was dragged back into the throne room and tossed at her feet. Sand fell from his clothes and onto the marble tiles.
"Welcome back, Skiron." The Conqueror commented, wiggling her fingers at him. "How was your trip to the big sandbox? Had fun playing with your friends?"
Skiron remained silent, sitting on his knees before her, his head bent.
"No, I didn't think you did..." Xena pushed herself to her feet, gracefully descending down the few steps until she stood before him. "But really, Skiron... I can understand that those young boys were foolish enough to defy my authority, but you...? Smart fellow, responsible, wife, kids... I thought you wouldn't risk your life so easily..."
No word came from the soldier.
Xena looked down at him calmly. "Do you regret what you did?"
A long silence, then the young man spoke up. "I regret disobeying you, Empress. But I do not regret wanting to protect you from the warrior. I feel I acted as a soldier of the Empire should, willing to die in your defence."
Xena circled him, placing her hands behind her back thoughtfully. Then she waved a guard closer, motioning towards the man's chains. The guard knelt down beside the captive and unlocked his shackles.
Skiron looked down at his hands as they were freed disbelievingly, then up at the woman standing before him.
"I will give you one more chance." Xena lifted a single finger at him. "Don't waste it. Or I'll waste you... understood?"
The soldier bent his head deeply, his forehead nearly touching the ground.
"Good." Xena circled past him and walked towards the exit. "You are stripped of any rank you possessed. Now go back to your post."
"Yes, Empress." Skiron scrambled to his feet hastily.
"Oh, and Skiron?"
The man looked up at her.
"I don't think I have to tell you, that if you ever even consider disobeying an order of mine again, your death will be far, far gruesome than the one you could have suffered today. Do I?"
Skiron swallowed, then shook his head hastily.
"Good." Xena purred, flashing him a smile, before disappearing out of sight.
The rest of the day was filled with the after-effects of her meeting with her regents, reading petitions, double checking reports and considering solutions to the problems that had been mentioned to her. The whole process was tiresome and she was happy when the time came to leave her study for a moment and have dinner. Fortunately she'd scared off the regents so badly they'd decided to high tail it out of the palace the moment they could, which left her free to dine with Pyrron and his family.
When she entered the dining room all the others were already present. Pyrron was sitting on one side, and Caspar on the other side of her chair, while Iona had picked a spot a bit further away from her this time and was doing her very best to ignore the Empress's entrance with a grumpy frown on her face. Niobe didn't have that problem though, and called out to her enthusiastically, immediately wobbling over to her with outstretched arms. "Hey, shorty." Xena scooped her off the floor as she walked toward the head of the table, giving a polite nod to Linus, and ruffling Caspar's hair affectionately. Her eyes flicked over the empty seat, next to Caspar, where Gabrielle had sat yesterday, and for a moment she felt slightly disappointed at the warrior's absence.
"Hmm?" The Empress turned her attention back to the toddler hanging around her neck.
"y'Okay?" Niobe asked with a frown, blinking up at the dark-haired woman.
"Fine..." Xena assured her with a smile, sitting down at the head of the table. "How about you? Had a good day?"
"No go hossies." Niobe scowled in dismay.
The Empress produced a half smile. "Short stuff, horses are too big for you... Your feet don't reach the stirrups."
The toddler crossed her arms grumpily. "No need strups."
"Yes, you do." Xena countered, touching a finger to the girl's nose, the dark brown eyes squinting to keep the fingertip in focus. "You just need to get a bit taller, OK? Then I'll get you a horse and we'll go riding together, deal?"
"May I suggest you get her a pony first, Empress." Pyrron stated, poking a fork at a bit of meat. "A very small pony, preferably."
Xena raised an eyebrow at him. "What? You have issues with the pets I chose, Ronnie?"
The Advisor rolled his eyes. "I remember the day you came home with Pookie all too well, Empress."
"Pookie!" Niobe giggled happily. "Pookie good!"
Xena smirked. "And what's wrong with Pookie?"
Pyrron shot her a look. "She's a tiger, Empress."
"So?" Xena spooned up a bit of rice innocently.
A tired sigh. "She has teeth, Empress. Big, sharp teeth."
The Empress chuckled amusedly. "Chicken."
"Pok pok!" Niobe warbled, pointing a finger at her father and giggling.
Xena laughed while Pyrron just groaned in defeat.
Dinner was served then and she focused her attention on the plate before her, trading bites with the restless Niobe as she listened to Pyrron summery of what he'd gotten done this day.
"So, I finished writing a note to the regent of Gaul about those extra supplies he asked for to get through the winter with..."
"You did tell him to take precautions against the next bad harvest, didn't you? I'm getting really tired of bailing him out time after time again..."
"Of course..." The Advisor nodded. "I made sure that he knows if he asks more favours of you he won't be in office much longer..."
Xena nodded as she chewed another bit of meat. "What else?"
"Well, then I got interrupted by screaming and walked out into the battlefield that was once a clean palace hall..."
"Ah yes..." Xena grinned. "Never a dull moment with Gabby around, is there?"
"It was hardly the warrior's fault, Empress." Pyrron spoke up in the blonde's defence.
"True enough..." Xena allowed, leaning back in her seat. "How is she doing?"
"She said, and I quote, 'Had worse'." He shot the Empress a meaningful look. "Which in warrior language means something like 'it hurts like Hades, but I'm too tough to tell anyone it does'."
Caspar's head had shot up at the mention of the warrior's name, and he gazed from one to the other anxiously. "Gabrielle got hurt?"
Pyrron nodded at him. "Some people tried to attack her. She fought them off."
Xena cleared her throat loudly.
Her advisor rolled her eyes. "The Empress helped."
Iona frowned at this news, then bit her lip, staring down at her feet miserably.
"She isn't hurt bad?" Caspar looked at his father anxiously. "Is she?"
"She'll be fine." Pyrron assured him with a smile.
The boy nodded, not looking entirely at ease. He poked his fork at his food for another moment, then peeked up at Xena. "May I be excused?"
A chuckle from the Conqueror. "You may be..."
Caspar hastily scrambled off his seat and was just about to rush out, when Xena waved him closer. The Empress leaned closer, whispering a few words in his ear, after which the boy blushed, smiling shyly before taking off.
Xena picked up her glass of wine, hiding her smirk by lifting it to her lips.
Pyrron eyed her warily. "Do I want to know what you just told him."
"Just gave him some good advise..." The Empress replied innocently, shooting her Advisor a charming smile. "Now, you were telling me about petitions?"
Pyrron sighed, but then continued on his summery, while Xena listened to him quietly, commenting here and there on some things she wanted to have changed. Finally the older man nodded and pushed himself up. "I'll get back to work then. I'll get things arranged this evening."
"Excellent." Xena nodded her consent to him, and to the teacher Linus, who also rose from his seat. Her advisor took Niobe from her, under loud protest from the toddler, and headed for the door. Iona hastily stood as well, following her father.
The young blonde bit her lip, but halted in her tracks.
Iona sighed, but did as ordered, walking back until she was standing beside the Conqueror. "I'm sorry..." She mumbled unhappily, her head bent. "I didn't mean to get Gabrielle hurt, I really didn't..."
Xena looked at the twelve year old for a moment, then gently reached out and stroked back a lock that was obscuring the girl's face. "I know you didn't." Iona peeked up at her insecurely. "But you acted irresponsibly, Iona. Your brother is younger than you are, and you know he's not good at riding horses. And that he doesn't like water. You should have kept an eye on him."
A sigh. "I know..."
"And you shouldn't have taken advantage of the situation by galloping along after Gabrielle. If Chilon had reacted to something you could have gotten both Gabrielle and you brother into even more trouble... And you could have gotten hurt..."
Xena placed a finger under the girl's chin, tilting her head up and making their eyes meet. "Promise me you won't do something like this again?"
Iona peeked up at her. "I promise."
Xena studied her for a moment. "You're not crossing any fingers, are you?"
Iona managed a half smile. "No."
The smile grew. "No."
Fingers tickled her side teasingly. "You sure?"
A laugh. "Yes!" She grabbed onto the squirming fingers. "Stop that... That tickles!"
"That is the point." Xena purred at her, wiggling her eyebrows, which made Iona giggle, before smiling, tugging the girl closer by their linked hands. "C'mere you." She reached out and lifted the girl off her feet, then enfolded her in a hug.
Iona wrapped her arms around the Empress in return.
"All good?" Xena's voice burred in her ear questioningly.
She nodded back happily. "All good."
Gabrielle stared up at the ceiling in utter boredom, watching the shadows twirl around on its surface as the soft breeze flowing into her window toyed with the flames of the candles illuminating her room. She'd considered getting up, she'd tried it even, but then her body had screamed at her to get the heck back on that pleasantly soft bed, so... Here she was... Lying on that pleasantly soft bed... Staring at the ceiling...
The warrior released a tired breath. Gods, she wish she had something to read. Well, she did have something to read of course. Lao Ma's book. But she knew that one by heart, so staring at the written symbols in it would really be quite pointless. Some sort of story would be nice, though, something to take her mind off everything around her for a moment. Unfortunately, she realised that the chances the Conqueror had any of Aristofanes' works lying around were quite slim.
She was just about to turn onto her side and stare at the wall for a quarter of a candlemark, when a soft knock at the door made her look up. "Yes?"
The door opened slowly, then a head poked in. "Hi."
"Caspar." Gabrielle smiled at the boy, carefully pushing herself up a little. "Come on in."
Caspar shuffled inside, his hands behind his back. He let the door fall shut behind him. "I uhm... I wanted to... to thank you for..." He stared at his feet intensely. "...for saving me, so I uhm..." He pulled his hands from behind his back and out towards the warrior. "I brought you this..."
It was a single flower, with a thin stem and long, delicate bright red peddles, placed in a small pot of earth. Gabrielle reached out and took the flower from his hands, instinctively bringing it to her nose.
"It uhm... It's an anemone..." Caspar peeked up insecurely. "I... I left it in the earth cause... cause otherwise it's just going to wither and die and... And that's sad, so I uhm..."
Gabrielle looked up at him, then put the flower on her bedside table and leaned closer, placing a kiss on the boy's cheek.
Wide dark brown eyes shot up at her, blinking.
"Thank you." She shot him a smile. "That's very sweet of you."
His mouth opened as if he was going to say something, then it closed again with a snap of his teeth. He cleared his throat awkwardly. "Y... You're w... welcome." He stuttered finally, his skin turning a dazzling shade of red.
The warrior worked very hard to repress a smirk. "I'm glad you stopped by. I was getting pretty bored lying here doing nothing..."
"My daddy said, people attacked you..." Brown eyes peeked up at her hesitantly. "Did they hurt you?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "A little bit. But I'll be fine."
"Good." Caspar smiled shyly. "I'm glad..."
A tense silence fell, and Gabrielle watched the boy nervously shuffle his feet. Looking for a good topic of conversation, her eyes fell on the flower Caspar had brought her. "Hey, do you know where the anemone comes from?"
"The Eastern part of the Mediterranean area and Asia Minor." Caspar readily supplied.
The warrior chuckled softly. "That's not exactly what I meant. I mean, do you know the story? About the nymph Anemone?"
The boy blinked, his brows frowning. "What's a nymph?"
A laugh escaped the warrior, then she patted a spot beside her on the bed. "Have a seat, and I'll tell you."
"Sure!" Caspar's face lit up and he quickly hopped onto the bed, scrambling over the bouncy surface before plopping down against a few fluffy pillows.
"All right, you ready?"
Gabrielle smiled down at him in amusement. "OK then... A long, long time ago, there was this goddess named Flora..."
Iona happily skipped up the stairs of the guest quarters. Things were a lot more fun, now that Xena wasn't mad anymore. They'd played for a while. Wrestled. And she'd won. Again. Iona giggled happily. Xena was so lousy at wrestling.
She turned another corridor and then cocked her head as she heard voices. No, actually, she heard just one voice. Gabrielle's... She bounded closer, then pushed open the door, peeking inside.
Gabrielle was sitting on her bed, relating some tale or another in a pleasant, clear voice and she was waving her hands about busily, in an attempt to form the scene she was describing out of the empty air.
Her brother was sitting on the bed beside her, looking up at the blonde in complete fascination.
"So Flora turned Anemone into a frail flower, so she'd be at the mercy of the strong North Wind for ever." Gabrielle finished her story, shooting a smile at Iona and motioning her inside with a subtle hand gesture.
"Wow..." Caspar stared her, completely unaware of his sister's entrance. "That really happened?"
"Well, I didn't actually see it happen or anything. But the gods have done stranger things..." Gabrielle told him with a smile. "Now, I think your sister's here to come take you home, so..."
Caspar's eyes widened and shot to the door, only now spotting his sister smirking back at him wickedly. Hastily he scrambled off the bed, his cheeks turning a bright red.
The warrior looked from one to the other, immediately feeling sorry for the boy. "Hey Caspar?" She motioned him forward and he obediently shuffled closer, trying very hard to ignore his older sister. Gabrielle pushed herself up a little, whispering in his ear. "If she teases you too badly, you just come get me OK? I'll beat her up for you..."
The boy grinned. "OK."
Gabrielle chuckled, then placed another kiss on his cheek. "Thanks for keeping me company."
Caspar bit his lip, smiling a little, then spun around and ran out of the room.
Gabrielle grinned at the whole scene, shaking her head a little in amusement as Iona hastily ducked out of the room in pursuit of her brother. A moment though, and she poked her head back through the door opening. "Hey, Gabrielle?"
Green eyes looked up at her. "Yeah?"
"You know I'm sorry about what happened with the horses and stuff, don't ya?"
The warrior smiled at her. "Yeah, I know."
"Cool." The girl wiggled her fingers at her, before hastily darting off again. "See ya!"
Gabrielle laughed, leaning back in her pillows as she listened to the voices drifting up through her still open door.
"Caspar and Gabrielle, sitting in a t..."
A wicked laugh. "Make me!"
Xena looked up from her work as yelling echoed through the hallway. She pushed herself up from her chair and walked into the hallway to bump into Caspar, or better said, to have Caspar bump into her legs.
"Xena!" Pleading brown eyes looked up at her. "Tell her to stop!"
The Empress looked over the boy's head at Iona, who blinked back at her innocently. "What did she do?"
"She's mean." Caspar scowled.
"Really?" Xena drawled, lifting the boy off his feet with one arm. "What'd she say?"
"I said: Caspar and Ga..." Iona supplied all too willingly, only to be cut off by a growl from her brother.
Xena suppressed a smirk. "Ah, I see..." She turned her back to Iona, walking towards the door that led to Pyrron's chambers. "Just ignore her, buddy..."
"'kay." Caspar nodded a little, sticking his tongue out at his sister over Xena's shoulder.
Iona replied with a similar gesture.
"So, how'd it go?" Xena asked. "Did she like your present?"
"Yeah." Caspar released a small sigh. "She said I was sweet..." He touched his cheek. "And she kissed me... Twice."
"Heh." Xena chortled, patting him on the back. "Told you... Flowers, oldest trick in the book..."
Iona skipped along behind the two, unhappy with her lack of involvement in the conversation. "When I walked in they were lying real close on the bed together."
Caspar shot her an angry look.
Xena laughed loudly, ruffling Caspar's hair with a grin. "That's my boy!"
"She was telling me a story." Caspar mumbled indignantly.
"Was she now?" The Empress looked down at him. "Good one?"
"Yeah." Caspar laid his head down on the woman's shoulder. "It was pretty. It was about the flower I brought her."
"Must have been quite exciting." Xena went along amiably as she pushed open the door and walked into Pyrron's room. "Heya Ronnie."
Pyrron looked up from the scrolls lying unrolled on the table. "Don't you ever knock?"
"She's the Empress of the known world. She doesn't need to knock." Iona explained cheerfully, bouncing towards her father. "Hey, you wanna hear what Caspar did?"
The boy's shot a furious look at his sister. "Iona!"
Xena shook her head at the girl. "Now, you stop teasing your brother, hear?" She pointed a finger at the blonde warningly. "Unless you want me to tell him what I used to call you when you were younger..."
Iona's eyes widened in shock, then she hastily shook her head.
"Good." Xena flashed her a wicked grin. "Now go to bed."
The girl scowled. "But Xe..."
A dark eyebrow raised at her.
"Ow..." Iona huffed out a breath, but spun around and walked off, angrily muttering the word 'blackmail'.
Xena's eyes followed her in amusement, then she placed her burden on the ground. "You too."
"'kay." Caspar smiled up at her. "Thank you."
The Empress patted his cheek affectionately. "Anytime, buddy."
Pyrron watched with a frown as his son ran off towards his room. "What's he so cheerful about?"
Xena chuckled. "He just went to visit his new true love."
Her advisor released a breath. "So that's where he rushed off to..."
"Yup." The Empress confirmed cheerfully.
Her advisor turned to her, his face serious now. "Do you really think this is a good idea though? Considering the subject of his affections..."
His companion rolled her eyes. "Ow please... Gabrielle wouldn't hurt a hair on his head..."
Pyrron shook his head. "I know that. It's you hurting hairs on her head that has me worried."
Xena frowned, for a moment there not understanding what he was referring to. Then it hit her though, and she frowned, considering the problem. "I uhm... I hadn't thought about that..."
Her advisor smirked at her. "Gabrielle's presence is not only affecting the mental state of my son, then?"
The Empress shot him a bored look. "If you don't stop being so witty, old man, I'll see myself forced to ask Cleopatra for an extra visit..."
Pyrron chuckled, hastily holding up his hands. "No witty comments will cross these lips ever again."
"Right." Xena drawled, looking at her companion for a moment, before taking a few paces through the room, thinking about the problem just presented to her. "I'll uhm... I think Gabrielle'll be with us for a few more weeks or so. Maybe he'll have gotten over his infatuation for her by then."
"And if he hasn't?"
"Then I'll deal with it." Xena told him.
"That's good enough for me." Pyrron shot her a smile, then motioned his hand towards one of the unrolled scrolls. "Now, I should finish these, I think."
Xena nodded at him. "I'll leave you to your work then." She turned and headed for the door, then reconsidered and stopped. "I forgot... What's the word on the troops?"
Pyrron chuckled as he seated himself in his chair. "Your cruelness is growing exponentially. Last thing I heard you dragged the disobedient soldiers miles and miles behind your chariot, flogged them for hours, cut of several body parts with a blunt knife and then buried them alive."
"Heh." Xena chortled contentedly. "I knew good old Skiron wouldn't let me down." She then continued on more seriously. "I want to keep a close watch on them from now on, Pyrron. I don't want anything like this to happen again."
"Have Brutus and Dorian report to me every day from now on."
Pyrron nodded. "I'll have them meet with you in the morning."
"Thanks." She shot him a smile, then headed to the door. "See you tomorrow, old man."
Gabrielle woke up as a soft light edged its way over the horizon, announcing the coming of dawn. She released a breath, wishing for once she could just sleep in on her day off, like a normal person. She shot a look at her shoulder then tensed up her biceps experimentally, content when it at least hurt less than the day before.
Well, since she had one day to get back up to speed, she'd better get started, right? She slowly pushed herself up from the bed, wincing at the aching of her limbs, but she just bit down and stood, then moved into the bathroom, a little unsteadily. Placing both hands on the basin for balance, she looked into the mirror and scowled at her ruffled reflection. "Somehow I don't think you were meant to be a morning person, Gabrielle." She told herself with a shake of her head, as she let some water flow into the basin, scooping up a handful and splashing it into her face. A cold breeze blew through the open door, still filled with the cold of the past night and it chilled her wet skin. She fished a towel off a rack and rubbed the water off her face, then left the cloth hanging over the edge of the basin as she trudged back into the bedroom, seating herself on the bed. With one hand she expertly unwound the bandage from her upper arm, pleasantly surprised as she uncovered the wound to see it was healing quite well. Those herbs were really doing their magic.
Gabrielle redressed the wound, then checked her other cuts and bruises. In retrospect, yesterday hadn't turned out too bad, really, considering what could have happened. Her back was sore, but with the herbs and her natural gift of fast healing that too would be more than bearable by the end of the day. The slash in her left arm she'd gotten in the fight was obnoxious, but at least her right arm was left unscathed, so she could still wield a weapon without cringing in pain. That wound was the only real painful memorabilia she'd gotten from yesterday's battle, however, for which she praised herself quite lucky. The only moment she'd been really close to facing death was at the hands of Pompey himself. She would have surely died from that dart if it hadn't been for...
Gabrielle released a frustrated breath. Being saved by the Conqueror... That just really, really sucked. For a moment she considered whether death would have been preferable to that after all. However, she realised, she had too many responsibilities to let her bruised ego dominate her rational thinking. The Conqueror had done her a favour yesterday, so she would have to deduct this act from all the ones that had been directed against her, which only left her hating the woman... Gabrielle did some calculating. ...99 percent of the time. Well, OK, maybe 98 percent, counting the king size bed for Thalia... And then there was the fact that the Empress hadn't mentioned that whole thing even once, to boast or drag a thank you from her, which Gabrielle respected, so that reduced the number to 97 percent, but that's as low as she was gonna go...
During this bit of subtracting she'd dressed herself in a pair of black leather pants and a sleeveless red shirt and had stepped into the hallway, her attentive emerald eyes flickering around the area. It was perfectly silent in the guest quarters at this time of day. That was the one good thing about getting up early, the fact that there were no noises, no stress, no one hurrying about. Everything was just nice and quiet.
Gabrielle carefully found her way down the stairs, the sound of her boots on the marble echoing through the empty hall. Her mind flicked to the day ahead, and she summed up for herself what her tasks were. The missed items of yesterday's list immediately came to mind, but since she doubted either Iona or Thalia was up at this time of day, she dismissed both and went to a third item, the inevitable training.
The warrior placed her hands behind her back, strolling along quietly. She needed to find some secluded spot. It was not a good idea to show her weak spots to any potential attackers, and considering the events of the other day, those now included all the Conqueror's soldiers. The arena was out, in other words. She considered the attic Iona had lead her to a few days ago, but considering the Conqueror's reaction to her being there she scrapped that option off too. Besides, the roof was too low there, she would be unable to practice her flips.
The warrior walked into the main hall, pausing for a moment. Her best option was probably to go outside, into the forest. Of course, there was the risk of running into the Conqueror there, since the woman was probably halfway through her morning run by now. Still, it was a better option than...
The warrior looked up to see Esmee walking closer. "Hey." She greeted her with a warm smile.
"What are you doing out of bed." The girl crossed her arms and looked up at her sternly. "You're wounded, you shouldn't be walking about..."
Gabrielle looked down at her in amusement. "I'm fine, really."
"Right." Esmee muttered, clearly completely unconvinced. "So, where are you going?"
"Outside, to drill."
Esmee rolled her eyes. "Warriors." She muttered with a shake of her head.
A blonde eyebrow raised at her sharply. "And what is that supposed to mean?"
The girl sighed gravely, but seemed to ignore the question. "Xena told me to tend to you the moment you woke up."
A second eyebrow raised. "Tend to me?"
"Clean your wounds, bandage your wounds, bring you breakfast, help you around the palace..." Esmee ticked off on her fingers.
"I got a cut in my arm, Esmee, I'm not crippled." Gabrielle argued grumpily. "I can walk just fine by myself."
"She also told me to tell you," the girl went on obliviously, "that if there's anything you want you just have to ask, that you're free to go anywhere on the palace grounds today and that if you want to work out you can use her private exercise area in the South wing. She'll be busy the whole day today, so she won't be 'bugging' you. Her words."
The warrior blinked at the girl's rapid speaking. "Right." She finally mumbled. "Got it."
"Good." Esmee nodded businesslike. "Now, can I get you something for breakfast?"
"Uhm..." Gabrielle scratched the back of her neck. "Some juice would be nice?"
"What kind of juice?"
A frown. "What kind do you have?"
Esmee released a tired breath, then started reciting the list of options. "Apple, orange, pear, strawberry, pineapple, mango, peach, grapes..."
Gabrielle held up her hands, stopping the enumeration of fruits. "Orange. Orange will be fine..."
"Orange juice, got it." The girl said with a nod. "You want me to bring it to the exercise area?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "Sure."
"All right then. See you in a bit." Esmee trotted off. "And don't overstrain yourself!"
Gabrielle turned with a sigh and headed towards the corridor leading into the south wing. A guard was standing on either side, but they just bent their heads politely as she passed, apparently informed about her unrestrained access to any part of the palace. She walked further, her eyes scanning past the doors. "Which door was it again?" She muttered to herself, frowning. "Those are the Advisor's living quarters, this was her bedroom, that's..."
Gabrielle frowned at the open door leading into the Empress's study. The woman couldn't have finished her run now, could she? The sun was barely peeking over the horizon. She walked a few paces closer, peeking into the room.
A blonde eyebrow raised and she carefully took a pace closer, to come to stand in the doorway. The desk was littered with scrolls and other bits of parchment, and lying amidst this mess was the Empress herself, her forehead balancing on an opened ink jar, a quill still held loosely in her hands. The steady, even breathing indicated the woman was fast asleep.
Gabrielle crossed her arms, unable to prevent a small grin working its way onto her face. Oh, this was such good blackmail material. She stifled a chuckle, then considered her options. She could just move on and let the woman sleep. Her more mischievous side immediately dismissed that option though, and focussed her attentions on a glass standing on the edge of the table, still half full of water. Carefully she tiptoed closer, lifting the glass of the table, then neatly flicked the contents against the Conqueror's face.
"Wah!" Xena jumped up from her seat, her warrior instincts immediately flaring to life. She brought her hands up and balled them to fists, taking on a defensive position.
Gabrielle looked at the woman, her dishevelled hair standing out in all directions, her blue eyes flicking around in alarm, drops dripping down the sides of her face. Some of these drops had mixed with the circle of ink on her forehead created by the top of the ink jar she'd been leaning on and were now painting black stripes on her face. The warrior watched the anxious eyes settle on her, then she just burst out laughing.
"What the...?" Xena blinked at the laughing warrior in complete incomprehension.
Gabrielle gasped in another breath, peeking at the Empress, muffling another snort. "You..." Xena frowned at her inquisitively, which made the circle on her forehead turn into a little rain cloud, and Gabrielle started laughing again.
"What??" Xena asked anxiously. "I what??"
Gabrielle nearly choked on another breath, then tapped a finger on her own forehead.
The Empress looked at her indignantly. "Excuse me?"
The warrior realised her error and laughed even louder.
Xena swept a hand over her face, in an attempt to wipe off some of the excess water, getting quite pissed off now at being laughed at.
Gabrielle leaned back against the door, grabbing onto her stomach.
Xena tossed up her hands in defeat. "I really don't..." Then she paused, looking at the ink stained palm of her right hand. She frowned, then pulled open a drawer of her desk and retrieved a small mirror. "Oh gods..." A groan escaped her as she stared at her reflection, before she covered her eyes with a hand for a long moment, trying to keep her cheeks from turning bright red. She heard the warrior's laughter wind down and she peeked through her fingers sheepishly. "If I told you I always paint stripes on my face when I go out into town to scare little children with... Would you believe me?"
Gabrielle chuckled, shaking her head, the green eyes smirking back at her.
And their gazes met and held, both sets of eyes twinkling. Held longer than they had before, both allowing themselves for a moment to soak up the odd feeling of familiarity, of being at ease in each other's presence.
It was Xena who looked away first, focussing once again on her dishevelled self reflecting back at her from the surface of the mirror. "So..." She murmured. "Did you just come here to laugh at me, or is there a purpose to you being here?"
Gabrielle smirked, wincing as she straightened and her back complained about the overdose of laughing. "I uhm... I was just on my way to go and work out a little. Walked past your room, and... Well..." A half muffled snort.
"And you couldn't resist to toss water in my face and watch me make an idiot of myself, yeah, I get it..." Xena shook her head but couldn't repress a grin. "Thanks a lot, Gabrielle."
"You're welcome." The warrior replied smugly, then waved a hand towards the door. "I'm just gonna leave you with your ink, I think."
"Oh, very poetic." Xena drawled, then peeked up as the warrior headed through the door and into the corridor, before hesitantly calling out. "Hey, Gabrielle?"
Green eyes peeked back at her over a bare shoulder.
"I uhm... I'm glad you're feeling better." She muttered, scratching the back of her neck, then biting her lip as she realised how stupid a move that was. "Oh damn."
Gabrielle smirked at her in amusement, before she walked on, disappearing out of the Empress's line of view.
Xena waited for a moment, until she heard doors open and shut, before releasing a held breath. She stared at the empty doorframe for another moment, then shook her head a little to clear it, before turning around and heading towards the bathroom in search of water and lots of soap.
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