The Edge of Nowhere
"You have to be kidding."
Gabrielle shook her head solemnly.
"She actually saved you?"
The warrior rolled her eyes. "Yes. For the seventh time, yes."
"Well, it's kinda hard to believe, ya know?" Thalia muttered, her hands pillowed under her head as she stared up at the ceiling. "I mean, the woman is trying to kill you, right?"
"And you've been making a fool of her."
"And you've been blackmailing her out of dinners and beds."
"So?" The redhead turned on her side, propping her head up on her hand. "All sound like pretty good reasons to let you die to me. From her point of view, of course..."
"It's..." Gabrielle released a breath, pulling up a knee and leaning her chin on its surface. "These fights would be between her and me alone. No interference. She gave me her word."
"Oh, and that means something now all of a sudden, does it?" Ephiny crossed her arms, leaning against the bars separating them.
Gabrielle sighed gravely. "I don't know..."
Thalia raised an eyebrow at her. "You don't know?"
"I just..." The warrior shook her head, pulling up her other knee and wrapping her arms around them, closing her eyes. "Just forget it, OK?"
Thalia shot a glance at Ephiny, who shrugged back. "All right." Her friend allowed as she sat up, reaching out and laying a hand on her shoulder. "But don't let her get to you, Gabrielle. She's scum."
"Scum, scum, scum." Gabrielle repeated softly to herself, as if imprinting the words on the inside of her eyelids.
Thalia gently squeezed her shoulder. "You're having a pretty rough time, aren't ya?"
"No." The warrior mumbled unhappily. "And that's exactly the problem." She took a breath, ruffling her hair back. "I really need to get out of here."
"How's things on that front?" Ephiny inquired curiously.
Green eyes peeked up at her, then darted across the area, gazes from other prisoners hastily dropping. "I uhm... I can't share the details with you... But I'm getting there..."
Thalia leaned a little closer, dropping her voice. "When?"
Gabrielle considered this for a moment. "Day after tomorrow."
A small nod from the redhead. "You sure you're ready?"
"I uhm... I got some valuable info this morning. The biggest issue is finding a place to hide after we break out." A pause. "Do you remember Agenor?"
"He's still in town."
Thalia cocked her head with a small smile. "He is?"
"Hmm, Solari told me." Gabrielle nodded thoughtfully. "I don't know if he still lives at the old haunt. We could give it a go though."
"Right." The redhead nodded in understanding.
The warrior glanced around again, than leaned even closer. "What about these other people here?"
Thalia followed her gaze, then wiggled her hand a little. "I don't know most of 'm really... But from what I've picked up there's some real trash in here. There's a few that might be worth the saving though... I'll check it out for you."
"Thanks." Gabrielle shot her friend a smile, then pushed herself back to her feet. "Well, I gotta go. I've got some stuff to do..." She walked to the door, pulling it in the lock behind her. "You two take care, OK?"
"Hey Gabrielle?" Ephiny walked up to the bars, motioning her closer. "Uhm... Did you... Did you talk to Solari? About..."
"I did." Gabrielle confirmed simply.
"So?" Hazel eyes gazed at her anxiously. "What'd she say?"
"She got really mad."
Ephiny blinked at her. "Mad?"
"Yes." Gabrielle nodded. "Mad. She said the more notes you send telling her to leave, the more determined she is to stay. She loves you. And she's not leaving this palace until you do." She reached though the bars and patted the bewildered Amazon on the shoulder. "Fortunately for you both, that won't be long from now." She shot Ephiny a smile, then turned and strode off.
In the adjoining cell, Thalia snorted loudly. "Not your girlfriend, my butt!"
Gabrielle smirked as she stepped out of the prison, politely nodding at the guard before making her way up the stairs. Nothing like creating a little havoc. She chuckled, striding up the last few steps and then stepping into the large hall. If her plan worked out and they all managed to escape from here, and those two figured out what she just did, she was in for quite bit of trouble. A smile. She looked forward to it though.
And the plan would work, she was sure of it. Iona had led her past several tunnels this morning and one had been just around the corner from the entrance to the dungeons. It opened by pressing a brick on the left of it. Iona said she'd discovered it by accident, when she and Esmee had been playing and Esmee had pushed her against the wall there one time. The tunnel lead down, under the palace gardens, under the walls and straight into the city. The perfect escape route.
Now all she had to do was get back up to speed so she could knock out whoever got in their way from the cells up the secret passageway. Gabrielle walked through the open double doors into the gardens. It was a beautiful day, cloudless and sunny, and she closed her eyes for a moment, simply soaking up the sunlight that was warming her skin. Her training this morning had been all right. It hadn't been pleasant, there were a few flips her body was still unwilling to perform, a few twists that had made her cringe... And cringing was lethal in a battle with the Conqueror, so she'd have to get that under control before tomorrow.
For the moment, however, that could wait. She'd had a pretty busy day so far and she'd decided that now, a candle mark past noon, she could have a moment to herself, to let her body rest, before she started on her second bit of training. She walked over to the pond and sat down, tracing the surface with a finger absently, watching the small waves that were formed slosh against the stones that formed the pond.
The warrior looked up, then smiled as she saw Galon make his way towards her. The young man was dressed in a pair of wet, grubby pants and an old shirt and his hands were stained with mud and a few strings of algae. "Hello, Galon. The Conqueror put you to work, did she?"
"Yes." The young man nodded eagerly, then seemed doubtful for a moment, before he hesitantly sat down beside her. "I uhm... I don't really understand what it is I'm doing, but the work is easy, so I'm not complaining..."
The warrior frowned at him questioningly. "What do you mean, you don't understand? What is it you have to do?"
"Catch frogs." Galon shrugged. "She said something about revenge..." He shook his head a little. "She is nothing like I thought she'd be."
Gabrielle snorted softly. "You're telling me..."
A silence fell, an he nervously plucked at a few stalks of grass. "But uhm... I wanted to uhm.. to ask you..." He peeked up at her shyly. "...about the herbs. I don't mean to rush you or anything," he hastily added. "It's just that my wife is very anxious and... and I..."
"I understand," Gabrielle interrupted him. In all the ongoing of the previous day she'd completely forgotten about this particular goal. "I did some asking about, but... I've had no luck so far, I'm afraid."
"I see..." Gallan murmured, not quite able to hide his disappointment. "I uhm... I appreciate you making an effort and I..."
"There's one person I haven't asked yet," Gabrielle admitted, which got her another hopeful glance from the young man. She released a breath, then pushed herself to her feet, telling herself it was very selfish to leave this man in doubt because she had too much of an ego to ask a favour from the Conqueror. "I'll go ask her for you right now..."
Xena stared at the parchment blankly. It was the same piece of parchment she'd been staring at for the last quarter of a candle mark now, but for some reason she hadn't gotten past the first two sentences. From those first words she had managed to deduct this was a request for money, surprisingly enough. Money to improve the roads along the Silk Route. The roads there were dilapidated, her regent of the Indian area informed her. Below there was a recital of several arguments in favour of his plans, but the whole note, just like the hundreds of notes before this one, was written in a horribly bureaucratic way that Xena found incredibly tiring to wade through. It was so useless too. All this guy had to do was pick a piece of brittle rock off that road, wrap a bit of parchment around it saying 'Our road sucks' and she'd be more than happy to send them money. The Empress released a breath, rubbing her hands over her face tiredly.
"You still working?"
Her head shot up to see Gabrielle leaning in the doorway. She hastily regained her indifferent pose though, leaning back in her seat. "Ruling the world isn't all fun and games unfortunately."
"So it seems," The warrior said, then seemed to square her shoulders a little as she walked in. "I..." She cleared her throat awkwardly. "Caspar said you knew about herbs."
"I know about herbs," Xena admitted, watching the warrior curiously. "What do you wanna know?"
"Which herbs help prevent pregnant women from having a miscarriage?"
Xena's eyes went wide, darted down to the warrior's flat stomach and back up again.
Gabrielle released a frustrated breath. "No, not for me."
The Empress sighed in relief.
"It's for the man that tried to steal from you, the gardener who..."
"Galon," Xena easily remembered, a light of comprehension dawning. "You want to help him find the herbs for his wife?"
Gabrielle nodded mutely.
"Well..." Xena popped her bare feet onto the table. "I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint you then..."
Green eyes narrowed to slits. "You won't tell?" she growled furiously.
"Oh, no, no, no..." Xena hastily held up her hands in defence. "I'd tell you in a heartbeat... if these herbs existed..."
The warrior frowned. "But that merchant he spoke to, he said..."
"The merchant was a liar. He wanted to make a few quick extra dinars and decided to rob this desperate fellow." The Empress crossed her arms. "That's why I asked Galon for this guy's name. Had a little chat with the merchant and he has graciously offered to give up the larger part of his earnings to the family to be."
A blonde eyebrow raised at her. "Really?"
"Uhuh." Xena nodded smugly. "It's amazing how cooperative people get when you hold them upside down in the Aegean."
Gabrielle couldn't quite repress a smirk at that news, then she sobered however, as she realised she would have to tell Galon the bad news. "Well uhm... I'd better go and let him know..." She mumbled, then peeked up uncomfortably. "I uhm... I appreciate the information..."
Xena looked at her pensively for a moment, then sat up straight and pulled open a drawer. "Hold on a moment..." She told the warrior as she pulled out the box with little paper bags, selecting three and putting them aside, then taking a slightly larger, empty bag and mixing the contents of the three together. She then handed the mixture to the warrior. "Tell him she needs to drink an extract of these once a day."
Gabrielle looked at the bag, then back at the Empress. "But you just said...?"
"It's just tea." Xena informed her, holding the bag a little closer. "Come on, take it..."
Gabrielle reached out and took it, looking at the mixed herbs with a frown. "Why would you want me to give him tea?"
"A very big part of healing is mental," Xena told her as she put her herbs back in their drawer. "If she believes this'll work, that belief might be enough to make it work." A shrug. "Besides, she's probably under a lot of stress right now, with the worry of losing another child, and stress is never healthy. I put some mint in that mixture. Mint tea is very soothing."
Gabrielle cocked her head, watching the Empress with interest. "You do know a lot about healing..."
"And this surprises you?" Xena smirked, then pushed herself up from her seat, walking to a large cabinet and pulling it open. There was a small basin hidden behind the cabinet doors and she unplugged the tap and let a bit of cold water run over her hands, splashing it into her face to clear her foggy mind.
"You're the Conqueror," Gabrielle offered as a form of explanation, perching on the side of the desk, unable to not take a peek at the unrolled parchments lying on the wooden surface.
"I've been in battle. In battle you get wounded. Knowing your way around herbs comes in handy when you're wounded," Xena countered, taking a fluffy towel off a shelf and pressing it against her face.
"Birth and battle are two very different things."
Xena smirked into the towel's surface. "Is that right?" She murmured, then turned, swinging her towel over her shoulder. "I have a mixed army, Gabrielle. Things happen. I just made sure that I knew what to do if they did."
The warrior considered this, then nodded in understanding, before rising to her feet. "I should go bring these to Galon," She said, before she turned and headed for the door.
"You do that." Xena reseated herself in her chair, pulling her scroll closer. "And Gabrielle?"
The warrior stopped in the door opening, raising an eyebrow at her.
"Don't mention my name, OK? I need to keep the dark dreary image alive."
Gabrielle's lips quirked into a small smile. "Understood." She nodded, watching Xena smirk back at her before the woman returned her attention to the bit of parchment in front of her. Gabrielle hesitated for a moment, then spoke up again. "He's lieing."
Blue eyes lifted in question. "Excuse me?"
"Your regent..." She waved a hand at the parchment. "About the roads... They're in excellent condition."
Xena cocked her head at her, then glanced down at the petition in front of her. "In excellent condition, huh?" A wicked grin spread across her face. "Oh ho, is he ever in for some trouble." The Empress picked up her quill, pulled closer a clean piece of parchment, dipped her quill in some ink and hastily started scribbling. "Forcing me to go through this boring paperwork for nothing... That's gonna cost him dearly..." Another hastily scribbled sentence, then she peeked up at the warrior with a glint in her eyes. "Thank you," she smirked, before returning to her writing. "You've just made my job a whole lot more pleasant."
"You're welcome." Gabrielle allowed, with a small smile. "And... And thanks... for the herbs..."
Xena frowned at these last words, then looked up again. But the warrior had disappeared from her room as silently as she'd entered. The Empress released a breath and returned to her work. "Anytime, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle sighed in relief as Galon finally turned around and ran off. The young man had spent the last quarter of a candle mark praising her and declaring his undying loyalty. The warrior rolled her eyes as she settled down on the grass. It wasn't that she didn't understood his enthusiasm, but she always felt awkward when she was looked upon as some sort of hero. Especially in this case, since she hadn't done a thing to help this poor man. The Empress was the one who'd come up with this, not quite truthful but most likely effective, solution. The warrior closed her eyes, releasing a breath and soaking up the sunshine silently. It didn't matter, the guy was happy, his wife was happy. All's well that ends well.
Gabrielle folded her hands under her head, enjoying the warm feeling spreading through her body as the sun did its magic. She was really glad she'd gotten this day off. Things had been getting to her, the fighting, the constant vigilance, the annoying presence of the Egyptian regent, the shamaness Alti, who made her skin crawl when she was near... But she was happy to find the shamaness had departed this morning and the soldiers had been respectfully avoiding her since yesterday's events, so she'd managed to drop her guard just a little and relax a bit more.
The warrior breathed in another breath filled with the smell of fresh flowers. She listened to the birds twittering as they flew past her, small animals scurrying around in some nearby bushes and the sound of creaking shoes.
Gabrielle smirked, but kept still, not moving a muscle. Iona was a quick learner, and had already improved immensely. To the warrior's amusement, the girl had tested her new sneaking skills on her dad and several soldiers with great success. This time she'd picked the wrong target, however. Gabrielle waited until Iona was right behind her before reaching out and grabbing onto the girl's ankle, making her yelp in shock and stumble backwards, thumping down on the grass. The warrior chuckled wickedly, rolling onto her stomach and grinning at the girl. "Boo."
Iona scowled, then crawled closer to the warrior and sat down by her side. "But I am getting better. I got this close." She held finger and thumb an inch apart.
Gabrielle mimicked the gesture with a smirk. "You were this close because I let you get this close."
The girl's eyes twinkled mischievously, in an uncanny copy of the Conqueror's. "We'll see." She drawled.
Gabrielle looked at her, then laughed, folding her fingers together and letting her chin rest on top. "Give it your best shot, shorty."
Iona giggled, mimicking the warrior's pose as she laid down beside her. They were both silent for a moment, Iona plucking at the stalks of grass restlessly. "Hey, Gabrielle?"
"Are you busy?"
Green eyes peeked open lazily and looked at her in amusement. "Terribly. Can't you tell?"
The young blonde giggled again. "Can you come play?" The cocked her head at the warrior inquisitively. "I'm bored."
"Don't you have homework to do?" Gabrielle asked, rolling on her side and popping herself up on an elbow.
Iona rolled her eyes. "Et tu, Gabrielle. Et tu..."
The warrior snorted. "Speak Latin, now do you?"
"Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum viditur," Iona stated without hesitation.
Gabrielle looked at her for a moment, then scratched the back of her neck. "I guess you do..."
Iona giggled. "Just a little bit. My Gaelic is better."
An eyebrow raised. "Your Gaelic?"
"Uhuh," the girl nodded. "Xena says I've got talent, but I still need to practice a lot. She said if she ever needs to travel to Gaul, I can come."
A second eyebrow raised. "The Conqueror knows Gaelic?"
"Gaelic, Latin, Persian, Chinese, Japanese, Egyptian..." Iona recited. "She started teaching me Egyptian, but all those little drawings make me itchy..."
Gabrielle blinked at her. "She knows six languages?"
A nod. "Fluently, yes."
The warrior shook her head a little. "Unbelievable."
"I like knowing different languages," Iona said, kicking at the air with her feet absentmindedly. "People never think I can understand them, and they just start talking and I can listen in on their whole conversation without even trying hard."
Gabrielle chuckled. "I know there had to be a hidden motive there somewhere."
Iona grinned wickedly, then sobered, looking down at the grass. "Xena was supposed to teach me today... But..." A shrug. "She's busy..."
The girl nodded. "Petitions, reports... They come in once every two weeks... She doesn't sleep much when they do... She says they're important..." Fingers tore out another stalk of grass. "More important than me."
Gabrielle looked down at the bend head in sympathy. "That's not true..."
Iona released a deep breath. "I know... I just... I wanna play..." She scowled unhappily.
"Well..." The warrior pushed herself to her feet. "Think you can manage with just me for a while?"
Iona seemed to consider this carefully, her eyes judging the warrior meticulously. "Well all right..." She finally allowed graciously. "I guess you'll do..."
"Oh, I'll do, will I?" Gabrielle reached out and tickled the girl on the side, making her squirm.
"You shouldn't do that..." Iona ducked away from the tickling fingers. "I'm the queen of wrestling, remember..." She held her hands in front of herself defensively and looked up at the warrior, a wicked gleam in her eyes. "You don't wanna make me mad, now do ya?"
Xena had considered for a moment whether she would skip dinner altogether, but had finally decided against that idea. She'd been working non-stop all day, after a night of uncomfortable sleeping on her desk, and she felt drained and stuffy. She really needed a moment of peace. Besides, there were only a few more reports to go through and she could easily finish those before midnight, which would leave her enough time to catch up on some sleep.
She paced down the corridor and into the main hall, acknowledging the salutes of the guards with a incline of her head. She ruffled her hair back into some form of order as she walked through the hallway and towards the dining room, then stopped, frowning as her sensitive hearing picked up the sound of hasty footsteps racing closer and she turned, just in time to keep Iona from running into her. "Where do you think you're going?"
"Xena!" Iona bounded around the Empress enthusiastically. "I won! I won!"
Xena looked down at her in amusement. "What did you win now?"
"A wrestling match. With Gabrielle. And I won!"
The Empress smirked. "Did you now?"
"Uhuh." Iona nodded vehemently, then looked up as boot steps filled the hallway. "Tell her, tell her I won."
"She won," Gabrielle obediently offered, dusting off her shirt, the red fabric now stained with green spots and mud.
"She's better than you are," the young blonde said to the Empress, cheerfully bounding along. "It took me much longer to beat her."
Xena chuckled amicably, picking a stalk of grass out of the girl's hair. "So I dropped down to third place, did I?"
"Yes," Iona informed her with a smirk, then she turned her attention back to the warrior. "You're gonna have dinner with us, right?"
Gabrielle hesitated, shooting a look at the Conqueror.
"Xena'll be good." Iona said succinctly, "And if she's mean I'll beat her up for you, OK?"
Xena placed her hands on her hips, looking down at the girl in mock indignation. "Hey!"
The warrior laughed, then nodded. "Can't say no to an offer like that, can I?"
"Cool!" Iona grinned at her, then turned and skipped off towards the dining room. "Let's go. I'm hungry."
Gabrielle shook her head at the girl, then glanced down at her stained outfit with a scowl. "I should probably go change first..."
"Nah," Xena shook her head, waving her towards the dining room. "You look perfect. Go on."
A blonde eyebrow raised at her, then Gabrielle shrugged and moved forward, the Conqueror falling into pace beside her. They were both silent for a moment. "You uhm... How are you doing?" Xena finally murmured.
Gabrielle shrugged a little. "Better, I guess..." A pause. "I can fight tomorrow, if that's what you're wondering..."
"That's not wh..." Xena started, then stopped, considering her words. "I never doubted that." She then said, in a softer tone.
A nod from the warrior, as they approached the double doors leading into the dining room, Xena halting and letting the warrior enter before her.
"Tell him!" Iona immediately called as they walked in. "Tell him, Gabrielle!"
The warrior sighed gravely, hearing the soft snigger from the Empress behind her. "You won."
"See! Told ya! Told ya I won!"
Caspar looked at the warrior then back at his sister. "She let you win then."
"Caspar, Iona, please..." Pyrron shot them both a look. "Sit down and be quiet."
"Shhh!" Niobe added for good measure, pointing a finger at her siblings. "Be nice!"
Gabrielle settled down in her chair during this whole exchange, across from Caspar, who looked up at her shyly as his sister stalked off and took her seat between the warrior and the Empress. "Are you feeling better today?"
Gabrielle smiled at him. "Much."
He smiled back.
"So what's for dinner?" Iona asked impatiently as servants walked in and started distributing the plates.
Xena looked at the plate that was placed before her, then smirked contently. "A Gaulic delicacy." She poked her fork into a bit of meat and lifted it towards her lips, allowing Gabrielle a glimpse of what looked an awful lot like a frog's leg. "You'll love it."
The blade shifted over her head, hissing softly as it cut through the air. Gabrielle straightened again, than blocked Xena's weapon with her own, the sound of clanging metal echoing through the arena. Her injuries hadn't been that painful this morning, but her body hadn't quite recuperated from the events of two days ago, so when the Conqueror had allowed he to chose the weapons, she'd picked the one she was best at: swords.
Unfortunately, she'd already battled the Conqueror with a sword, when they'd met again on that road in Macedonia. That had been a real fight, and she'd pulled out some of her best tricks back then. And now the Conqueror was proving how good of a student she really was, ducking under her lunges and blocking her strikes as if she was battling some amateur.
Xena lunged out again, swinging her sword overhead and then bringing it down with all her force. Gabrielle only lifted her weapon in the nick of time, straining her knees to not buckle on her. Her back nudged at her, reminding her of her injuries, the muscles along her spine straining as she pushed back against Xena's weapon and managed to toss her away a little. She immediately turned the defence into an attack, swinging out at the warrior's side, finding her path blocked, then immediately spinning to attack her other side. But again the Conqueror swatted her sword away.
Xena pushed herself off, flipping over Gabrielle's head and landing behind the warrior, turning and swinging the blade at Gabrielle's midriff. She watched as the warrior only just managed to avoid the blow by arching her back and holding her breath. "Close call there, Gabby." She smirked, parrying another shot for her head. "Good thing you passed on dessert last night, isn't it?"
"Maybe if you serve me something that does not contain frog next time, you might just beat me." Gabrielle retorted, making sure Xena's attention was on the sword that was soaring towards her side, before pushing off and walking up the warrior's body, kicking the heal of her boot against the woman's forehead, before flipping backwards and neatly landing on the ground. "Than again, maybe not..."
Xena stumbled back a few paces, lifting one hand to touch her forehead. "That is gonna leave a nasty bruise..." She muttered, then ducked under a fist. "No more frog for you. Got it..."
"And it only took one blow to the head..." Gabrielle drawled avoiding a stab. "Who says you can't resolve things peacefully these days?"
Xena chuckled in amusement, then flipped backwards, creating some space between the two. Gabrielle did what she'd expected her to do, which was rush forward to try and catch her off balance. Xena pushed off again the moment she hit ground, flying over the warrior's head, landing solidly on the ground and then spinning around to face her opponent.
She'd caught Gabrielle completely off guard, and the warrior's back was still turned towards her, the path towards her opponent's neck completely unblocked.
The world slipped into a slow motion, like it always does during a key point in battle. Like it does at that moment before the kill, where you can feel you have victory in your grasp and all you have to do is take it.
Her body remembered that feeling and her hands tightened around the hilt of her sword instinctively, every muscle tensing up, ready to finish what she'd started... Thoughts spurted through her head, possible options that would end the battle. Xena considered them, then decided what she was going to do.
She let the moment pass.
With a sudden lunge the world sped up to its normal pace and Gabrielle spun around, flinging her sword with her, in the hope of catching the Conqueror's weapon on pure luck. She found there was no weapon to catch however, and her eyes widened in confusion.
Her senses alerted her of a blade heading for her right and she brought up her sword to block it. The strike was far from powerful, unworthy of the Conqueror and she easily batted the weapon aside.
Their spectators were completely unaware of what had just happened, Xena knew as she lunged her sword out and continued the show. In a fight as fast as this one was, only a great warrior would recognise the past moment for what it had been.
She looked up and met green eyes through the shimmering of blades and that one look showed her that Gabrielle was one of those warriors. Not that she had expected any less from the blonde.
Then the eye contact was lost as Gabrielle performed a perfect roundhouse kick which impacted harshly with the back of her right hand, her weapon flying from her grasp. A split second then a sword hilt slammed against the already aching spot on her forehead, making her stumble back a few paces. Before she could recover from that her legs were swept out from under her, and she fell down onto the sand with a thud.
A moment, then she heard a second sword clatter onto the ground, indicating Gabrielle considered the battle won. Xena lifted a hand to touch her now throbbing forehead, releasing a pained breath. "Well..." She then started, pushing herself back to her feet, straightening. "I guess this fight is over w..."
Bones cracked as knuckles slammed harshly against the side of her face. Xena stumbled back again, only just managing to keep herself upright this time. She blinked, then her head shot up, her eyes meeting raging green ones.
"Don't you ever do that again!" Gabrielle yelled, pointing a threatening finger at her. "Not ever!" Then she turned briskly and strode off.
Confused muttering drifted up among the watching soldiers.
Alti opened her eyes with a growl. She glared up at the clear blue skies above, enraged, then pushed herself to her feet. "You have nothing to worry about, Alti..." She drawled, rolling up her bedroll with firm, frustrated movements. "I'll kill her as soon as I can..." She strode over to the brown mare tied to a thick branch, tossing her gear on its back, the animal jumping as it was startled out of its slumber. "Your rule is about to end, Xena." She untied the reigns, then stuck a foot into a stirrup and hauled herself into the saddle, turning the mare around roughly. "And mine is about to begin."
The sound of water dripping echoed dully off the stone walls. A rat poked his nose out from under a piece of wood, his black, beady eyes flicking past the shadows, trying to make out anything that could be of danger to him.
Apparently, the coast was clear, and he scurried forward, sniffing the air with his pointy nose, in search of something to eat. A small black beetle ran across the rat's path, but he ignored it, having no interest for insects. There was a sweet smell in the air here, some sort of fruit maybe, or...
A tug at his tail stopped him, and moments later he was flawing his little paws at the air as he was lifted off the ground. He felt himself going higher and higher, past a short leather skirt, a bare midriff, a black top with streaks of blond hair scattered across the shoulders until finally the upward movement stopped and he found himself staring into a pair of intense, dark brown eyes.
"Well hello there," a voice greeted him cheerfully. "I'm so glad you could join me..." A giggle. "You know, it gets lonely. All this time I've been in here, with nothing to do..." The rat felt his feet touch upon the skin of a callused hand. "I've tried singing, but when I got to three million four hundred and seventy five bottles of beer on the wall, I'd sorta finished with that too..." A finger traced a line from the tip of his nose, between his ears and down his spine. "But now you're here. And we are going to have so much fun together... Just you and me..." The woman rocked forward and back again. "You and me..."
The rat didn't like all of this at all, but... He sniffed the air. That scent was stronger here. And it was definitely a fruit. Another sniff. An apple, maybe?
Brown eyes regarded him, the woman cocking her head as the rat smelled the air again. "Oh, I see..." Her voice was sad now. "You didn't come for me at all, did you?" She reached out her free hand and pulled something from behind her back. "You came here for this, didn't you?"
She held a piece of the golden apple in front of him. He poked his nose further towards the fruit, but she pulled it back in response, making sure he couldn't get near the treat. "I knew it..." She shook her head. "Well, I have to tell you, my friend... Immortality is highly overrated... Though I imagine it's more fun when you're not trapped..." She watched him as he struggled to crawl closer to the fruit. "Xena trapped me in here. Years ago now, I think... Can't really be sure..." She waved the hand with the piece of apple at her surroundings. "No sunlight, see?" An unhappy frown. "Once I get out of here I'll really have to work on my tan..."
The rat paid no attention to the woman's odd noises, however, focussing his attention entirely on the flying piece of apple. "You really want this, do you?" The bit of fruit danced back and forth in front of him. "Well, I could give it to you... Than we can both be together for ever and ever... Would you like that?" He felt himself lifted up again, and the tempting sight of the apple was replaced with those scary eyes once more. "But you know what I think? I think..." She poked a finger at his head, causing him to swing back and forth by his tail. "...that when I give you my apple, you're just gonna run off... Just... run off and leave me here all by myself..." She released a sad breath, then popped the bit of apple into her mouth, chewing contently. "I don't think I can let you do that..." A finger traced one tiny ear, then the other. "You understand, don't you?"
A loud squeak, followed immediately by the sound of bones breaking. The woman giggled.
"So, this is how you spend your time here, Callisto? Killing rats?"
Callisto's head shot up, to see a woman standing in the centre of the room, arms crossed, staring down at her. "Oooohhhh." She chortled then, hopping to her feet smoothly. "Entertainment." A giggle. "How nice."
The woman raised an eyebrow at her. "Nice is not a term I'd use to describe myself with."
Callisto cocked her head at her, slowly prowling closer. "Now I wonder... How did you get in here?"
A low chuckle. "You don't expect me to just give you that information, do you?"
"Actually..." The blonde smiled charmingly. "I expect you to do just that." In a flash she reached out with her hand towards the intruder's neck.
Only to pass right through. Her eyes widened, then she frowned passing her hand through the woman's neck another few times to make sure she wasn't imagining things. She released a disgusted sigh. "That's just great..." She muttered angrily. "I finally get someone to play with and she ends up being a ghost..." She kicked at a loose pebble, watching it fly straight through a knee. "No fair."
"I am not a ghost."
Brown eyes peeked up at her. "You're not a ghost?"
Callisto considered this for a moment, drumming her fingers on her bare thigh. "Well, if you're not a ghost, but I can pass straight through you..." A frown. "I am a ghost?"
Her companion rolled her eyes tiredly. "You are an immortal, aren't you?"
The blonde placed her hands on her hips. "Hey, our former king of the gods had a full grown, armoured woman popping out of his head... Stranger things have happened..."
"You are not a ghost." The other woman insured her with a sigh. "And you can pass through me because I am not actually here..."
Callisto looked at her for a moment, then grabbed for her head with both hands. "Con-fu-sing..."
"It's actually quite simple..."
"Don't tell me it's simple." Callisto shot back. "I hate it when people tell me things are simple when they are obviously NOT." The blonde pointed a finger at the intruder. "Now you just tell me who, what and where you are." She counted the three questions on her fingers.
The woman released a tired breath, then tossed up her hands allowing. "Very well... My name is Alti."
"Alti, Alti, Alti..." Callisto hummed, considering the name. "Sounds sorta familiar..." She cocked her head at the woman. "Ever been to Cirra?"
"Too bad... It was a really nice town, you know? Before Xena send it up in flames of course... After that it was sorta blackish and..."
"Shut up!" Alti growled.
Callisto crossed her arms indignantly. "Hey, I'm opening my heart to you here..."
"Close it." Was the rasped response.
"Fine, fine..." Callisto waved a hand at her dismissively. "Go on..."
Alti took a breath to calm herself. "I am here to offer you a deal..."
"You skipped two questions." The blonde wiggled two fingers at her.
The shamaness tossed up her hands in complete frustration. "Do you want to get out of here, or not? Hmm?"
Callisto considered this question for a moment. "Getting out would be quite nice." She finally decided.
"Well, just shut up and listen then!"
Callisto remained prudently quiet.
Alti took a breath, regaining her calm. "I have a problem, and I could use your help to solve it."
Silence from the blonde.
"Are there any more golden apples?"
Callisto pointed a thumb behind her, indicating a tree, which was quite appleless.
Alti released a tired breath. "I was afraid of that..." She glanced at the woman before her, considering. "Well, our partnership will have to last a bit longer than expected then..."
"Partnership?" Callisto cocked her head, unable to remain quiet any longer. "We're gonna team up?"
"And why would I want to team up with you?"
"Because if you do you'll get to destroy Xena and help me take over her Empire..."
Brown eyes glinted in delight. "Good reason... A verrrry good reason."
Pyrron looked up from his work as the door opened and Xena strode inside, her blue eyes darting across the room searchingly. "Good day, Empress."
"Hi," Xena murmured absently in response, her eyes still restlessly flicking about.
The advisor pushed himself up from his chair. "Are you looking for something?"
"Someone actually..." Xena corrected, releasing a breath. "Have you seen Gabrielle around?"
A bushy grey eyebrow raised at her. "Why on earth would Gabrielle be in my room, Empress?"
"I... I don't know..." The Empress muttered in annoyance, tossing up a hand. "I figured she might come in to see Iona, or something..." She ruffled her dark hair back. "I looked in her room, the training area, dining room, the kitchen, went to the dungeon... But she's nowhere to be found..."
Pyrron frowned, worried now. "You don't think she would attempt to escape in broad daylight, do you?"
"No, no, no, it's not that..." Xena hastily shook her head. "It's just... We fought this morning and... And I did something to upset her and she stalked off..."
The concerned look was replaced with a smirk. "You did something to upset her, Empress?"
"Not on purpose." Xena muttered defensively.
Pyrron crossed his arms. "Let me get this straight: you, the Empress of the known world, did something to upset Gabrielle, a well known rebel who's trying to push you off the throne, and you are looking for her now to... make up?"
"Yes, I don't want h..." Xena stopped abruptly, then lifted her gaze to meet Pyrron's twinkling dark eyes. "Don't look at me like that..."
"Like what?" The Advisor replied innocently.
Pyrron chuckled amusedly. "Forgive me, Empress."
Xena shot him a bored look. "Your grovelling needs work, Ronnie." She muttered, then turned back towards the door.
The advisor smirked. "You know, I was in a similar situation once..."
Xena looked over her shoulder. "You were the ruler of the world and had temped your nemesis to training sessions in exchange for the release of her friend?"
A low laugh. "No, not that part... But I did meet this woman once and we fought constantly... I tried to be polite to her but she snapped back at whatever I did... I thought she was one of the most obnoxious people alive..."
Xena raised an eyebrow at him. "So what did you do?"
"I married her," Pyrron replied with a grin, laughing as the Empress groaned, rolled her eyes, and strode out of the room.
One hand touched the earth, and then another. With some effort Callisto swung her upper body over the edge of the hole she was climbing out of. She blinked against the bright daylight that flooded towards her for the first time in years. Slowly she rose to her feet, closing her eyes for a moment and taking a deep breath of the fresh air. "I'm baaaack..." She chortled under her breath, before launching herself into an intricate series of flips. "Oh, this feels goooooooood."
A throat cleared behind her and she stopped her movements and looked over her shoulder to see Alti standing a little way off, her arms crossed. "Well well..." She folded her hands behind her back, sauntering towards her saviour, letting her eyes run down and then back up the other woman's body. "So... Are you the real thing?"
"Hmm..." Brown eyes regarded her judgingly for another moment. "I have to say... you looked better in the dark."
Alti raised an eyebrow at her. "Is that so?"
"Uhuh..." Callisto circled her, then reached out and poked a finger at the woman's upper arm, which got her a completely outraged look from Alti. She laughed. "I could beat you up with both my hands tied behind my back."
Alti released a tired breath. "What is your point?"
"Well, it's clear what I bring to this partnership of ours, my dear..." Callisto drawled, completing her circling and coming to stand in front of the woman. "But what would I gain from dragging you along with me, hmm? From the looks of you, you'd only be slowing me down..."
Alti rolled her eyes, wishing once more she didn't need this woman. "I am more powerful than you think."
"Really?" The blonde placed her hands on her hips, gazing at her in amusement. "Well, come on then... Show me your great powers..."
"Well..." Alti smiled at her charmingly. "If you insist..."
An elbow smacked into her nose harshly, then a kick against her feet sent her falling backward and she thudded onto the ground, the rocks scraping against her hands. Hastily she scrambled back to her feet. "Just give up, Xena! You can't kill me!"
"I don't have to," a dark voice replied smugly, then there was that sound of a metal disk shifting through the air, the clattering as it impacting with a lever. Stone scraping against stone as the corridor that had led her into the room started to close.
"Bye," Xena wiggled her fingers at her cheerfully, then ducked under the door.
"No!!" She yelled, jumping towards the exit, sliding across the sand, her hand reaching out... But it was too late, and the large stone door closed right in front of her. "Noooo!!"
Callisto blinked, as the memories suddenly faded and she found herself on her knees at Alti's feet. Hastily she scrambled upright, creating some space between them. "Crap..."
"Do you want another demonstration or is this satisfactory?" Alti asked innocently.
The blonde shook her head a little to clear the last bit of fog away, then she looked up, cocking her head at Alti in interest. "You're a witch?"
"I'm a shamaness."
Callisto waved a hand at her dismissively. "Excuse me for not being up to date on the correct political terms... Been stuck here for..." A frown. "How long has it been?"
"Four years," Alti supplied, then turned and walked towards her horse, untying the animal from the branch the reigns had been knotted around.
"Four years..." Callisto repeated, seemingly slightly shocked at the news. "Wow..." She watched Alti mount her horse, then steer the animal towards the road. "So..." She jogged towards the shamaness until she was walking beside her. "Did I miss anything?"
Alti shook her head, keeping her attention focussed on handling her horse. "Things have been peaceful."
"Eeeuw." Callisto scrunched up her nose.
The shamaness grinned darkly. "Finally something we agree on."
They walked on for a few paces, in which Callisto glanced up at the shamaness from time to time. "Uhm... You know I could uhm... I could probably get up there behind you..."
Alti looked down at her. "Excuse me?"
"On the horse..." Callisto clarified, waving at the empty spot behind the shamaness.
A snort. "Forget it."
Callisto crossed her arms. "What? You expect me to walk all the way to Athens?"
"We'll get you a horse in the nearest town."
The blonde rolled her eyes. "The nearest town is miles away."
Alti shrugged her shoulders uncaringly. "Tough luck..."
Callisto glared up at her, huffing out an angry breath. A few more paces, then a small grin tugged at the blonde's lips. She cleared her throat, then started humming a cheerful melody.
From the corner of her eyes she saw Alti slipping her an annoyed look.
The humming turned into whistling.
Alti bit her lip but refrained from comment, focussing her attention back on the road.
Callisto smirked, then decided it was time to move in for the kill. "I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts, taratatata, here they are a standing in a row..."
"That's it!" Alti growled in frustration, pulling her horse to a halt. "If I let you ride, would you stop singing that horrific song?!"
"Sure." Callisto produced a cheery smile, then allowed herself to be pulled up and settled comfortably behind the saddle. "Now see, this isn't so bad, now is it?"
Alti growled something in a foreign tongue.
"We're going to be great together, I just know it." Callisto went along cheerfully, then amicably patted the shamaness's side.. "Now, let's get going, partner... I need to kill a man about a horse..."
With a growl Gabrielle smacked the branch which now served as a staff against the trunk of a tree. She blocked a non-existing lunge, then pulled her body into a flip, before striking out again. She'd been at this since she'd stalked off early this morning. Now the sun had risen to its zenith, small beams that managed to worm their way through the foliage warming her skin from time to time. Not that her skin needed to be warmed, mind you. Sweat was dripping from her forehead and down her bare arms liberally, as result of her non-stop drilling. The salt stung as it slid across the scrapes on her back and the now damp bandage wrapped around her left arm was rubbing uncomfortably against her skin.
Gabrielle flipped backwards, her feet touching the bark of a tree halfway up the trunk and she pushed herself off, while tossing her weapon into the air. She reached out and wrapped her hands around a branch and swung her body upwards, ending up crouching onto the wooden limb, extending a hand and deftly catching her staff again.
It wasn't good enough. She wasn't good enough.
She stepped off the branch and let herself fall down, landing onto the ground with an almost soundless thud. Immediately she swung her staff back and it impacted with the base of the roots of a tree harshly, and some leaves were unable to cling to their branches and drifted down around her. The warrior straightened, then started to repeat every combination move she knew once again, the sound of wood hitting wood echoing through the forest around her.
A moment of this, then her eyes narrowed. A block, a strike, then she angrily flung her weapon backwards.
Fingers folded around the wood as Xena neatly scooped it out of the air. She twirled the staff around playfully, then placed one end on the ground, leaning on the other. "So..." She lifted her gaze to meet the raging green eyes staring back at her. "What did the tree do?"
The warrior didn't respond, drawing air into her lungs with heavy rasps.
"Well, whatever it was, I'm sure he deserved it..." Xena straightened, letting the staff rest on her shoulder as she sauntered closer. "Trees these days, huh? So out of control. If only their parents woulda raised them better..."
Gabrielle's eyes followed her every move. "Go away." She growled in an undertone.
The Empress stopped her approach. "Why?"
"I'm not in the mood to listen to you," was the hissed response, as the warrior did her best to keep her calm.
Xena studied the face in front of her quietly. "No, I can see that... You're in the mood to beat yourself up..."
Gabrielle huffed out an angry breath, turning away from the Conqueror. "Leave me."
Xena stared at the warrior's back, seeing the red stains on her tunic. "You're bleeding."
"That's none of your concern, now is it?"
The Empress shot a look skyward. "OK, just tell me... What did I do?"
Gabrielle snorted, spinning back around to face the dark haired woman. "What did you do? What did you do?!" A humourless laugh. "You don't really want me to answer that question, do you?"
Xena shot her a bored look. "I was referring to this morning..."
"You know exactly what you did this morning!" the warrior retorted sharply.
"You had a chance to finish this!" Gabrielle shot at her, furiously. "And you let it pass!"
The Empress stared back at her disbelievingly. "Let me get this straight: you're mad at me for NOT killing you this morning??"
"I don't want your pity!" was the growled response.
Xena tossed up a hand in desperation. "I didn't do it out of pity!"
"Why then?" A snort. "Out of the goodness of your heart?" Sarcasm was dripping from her voice.
Xena placed her hands on her hips. "I did it cause..." A breath. "Because... There's still things you can teach me."
"I am NOT your disposable tutor!" Gabrielle pointed an accusing finger at her. "We have a deal and I expect you to respect that!"
"You were injured! I gave you a break!"
"I didn't ask for a break!"
Xena covered her face with a hand. "Fine. Next time I'll just kill you, OK? Will that make you happy?!"
They stared at each other, blazing blue eyes meeting equally intense green ones for a long moment, both of them breathing heavily now. Finally Xena looked away, shaking her head a little. "Tell me, Gabrielle... Does this make you feel better?" She cocked her head at the warrior. "Hmm?"
A blonde eyebrow raised at her. "What?"
"Thinking of me as a soulless monster," Xena clarified, her eyes gone cold. "Does it ease your conscience?"
Gabrielle looked at her, then snorted indignantly. "What are you talking about?"
"You want me to be heartless, don't you?" Xena continued. "So you can blame me... So I can be the reason for every wrong thing in the world. Isn't that right, Gabrielle? Every death, every supposed accident, every still born child... It's all because of me, isn't it?"
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed to slits. "Shut up!"
"You want me to be the embodiment of evil, don't you? So you can focus all your anger on me and suppress your own guilt..."
"My guilt?!" Gabrielle pointed a finger at her furiously. "I have nothing to feel guilty for! You killed them!" Her breathing was coming in heavy rasps now. "It was you! All you! I wasn't even..." her voice caught, faltering. "I wasn't even there..." She finished, in a softer voice, turning away hastily to mask the expressions on her face.
The rest of her tirade died on her lips. Xena studied the bent shape of the warrior quietly for a long moment. And she felt... She cocked her head a little, analysing this feeling that was drifting to the surface. Sympathy? Yes, that was it. Because she understood exactly what it was the warrior was dealing with. That gnawing guilt... It had haunted her for years now, and she had the feeling it would haunt her forever more. The memories resurfacing at the moments she least expected them. That feeling, like knives carving into your soul...
She watched as Gabrielle ran a shaky hand through her hair, trying to regain her shattered composure. "If you had been there, there was nothing you could have done to stop it." She said then, matter-of-factly. "You would have only gotten yourself killed. And that wouldn't have done anyone any good..."
Gabrielle bit her lip, suppressing the urge to voice how death could only be more enjoyable than her current state of being.
"You wanna blame me for the world's woes? That's fine. The gods know the rest of the world does..." A self-deprecatory chuckle. "But stop this pointless self-chastisement and get those wounds looked at." She turned away, heading back towards her palace. "I expect a better fight tomorrow."
Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment, waiting until the sound of footsteps had receded far enough, before turning around, leaning back against the bark of a nearby tree, pensively staring at the empty spot the Conqueror had occupied only moments before.
"Aaaaahhh..." Callisto sighed ecstatically, slowly withdrawing her dagger from the chest of a young man. She looked at the bloodied blade with wide grin, then lifted her free hand and drew her index finger across the blade's surface slowly, collecting a droplet of blood on the tip and then lifting the finger to her lips. "Oh, how I missed this..."
Alti looked down at her from atop her horse with a bored expression. "If you had me deal with the boy we could have made it seem like a natural death."
Callisto raised an eyebrow at her. "Now where's the fun in that?"
The shamaness rolled her eyes. "It would have been less conspicuous."
"There is nothing wrong with being conspicuous," the blonde informed her, tucking the still bloody knife into its sheath.
"Well, I would prefer it if Xena didn't get word of her impending death beforehand," Alti muttered, waving a hand at the corpse. "At least put him somewhere out of sight."
Callisto sighed, but complied, grabbing onto an arm and dragging the guy off the road unceremoniously. Then she walked back and grabbed onto the reigns of her new horse and pulled herself into the saddle. "You know, there's this one tiny little thing I've been wondering about," she said, turning the horse in the direction of Athens and then pressing her heels into its sides, pushing it into a trot.
Alti followed her, one hand clinging onto the saddle tightly to help her keep her balance.
"And what's that?"
"Well, you're Xena's little pet shamaness, right?"
Dark eyes narrowed. "I'm not Xena's little anything," Alti snapped back.
Callisto glanced at the woman amusedly. "I sense suppressed feelings of rejection..." A giggle at the furious look shot at her. "Anyway, what I'm getting at is, you were obviously in a pretty cosy little spot... So why pop me up now all of a sudden?"
"Xena is losing her edge," Alti clarified, her mood darkening. "She's getting soft..."
"Soft?" Callisto shot the shamaness a disbelieving look. "The Conqueror, The Destroyer of nations is getting soft?"
"She's letting people... live..." The last word left a particularly vile taste in Alti's mouth and it showed in her bitter expression. "She's had these merciful bouts before, but they always faded soon enough..."
"With some incentive from you, I'm sure..." Callisto drawled.
A smirk. "A dreaded memory never hurt no one..." A dark chuckle. "Well..." Then the shamaness's eyes narrowed again. "But that's not working this time... there's an... interfering element..."
A blonde eyebrow raised at her. "An element?"
"A woman?" Callisto laughed. "Don't tell me the Conqueror is getting conquered by luuuuv..." She rolled her eyes. "How awfully common..."
Alti shrugged negligently. "I wouldn't know." She admitted, fixing her eyes on the nothing ahead. "All I know is that she's repeatedly ignored my advise..."
"Good enough reason to kill her," Callisto agreed casually. "But wouldn't it be more beneficial to kill this interfering element first?"
"Been there, done that..." Alti sighed, shaking her head. "But Xena's protecting the little brat, so to get to the blonde, I'll need to eliminate Xena first."
"And how about vice versa?"
"Her protecting Xena?" A snort. "She's a former rebel. She hates Xena."
Callisto cocked her head in interest. "A rebel? Really?" She watched the shamaness nod absently. "What does she look like?"
Alti glanced at her, then shrugged. "Short, blonde, green eyes..."
"Hmm..." Callisto murmured, intrigued.
"...lots of muscles. She's a warrior..."
"Hmm." The intonation was completely different this time. "No one I know then..."
Alti waved a hand at her. "All you have to worry about right now is Xena." She said, dismissing the subject. "The warrior is of no concern right now..."
"Oh, most definitely..." A wicked grin crept onto Alti's face. "She's on my to-do list..."
"Empress?" Pyrron poked his head around the door of Xena's study.
"Hmm?" Xena's voice drifted up from her spot by the window, hidden in shadows. She didn't turn to face him, but kept her eyes fixed on something outside.
"I finished those reports," her advisor informed her, placing a pile of parchments on her desk. "Nothing remarkable in these..."
"Good," Xena nodded a little. "Very good."
Pyrron cocked his head, intrigued, then he walked closer over to the window and peeked out. "Ah..." He grinned a little. "Spying on her, are you?"
"Not exactly." A grin tugged at her lips as she watched Gabrielle twirl a set of swords around, the reddish light of the setting sun reflecting dully of the metal. "She knows I'm watching... She's showing off..."
"Really?" Pyrron crossed his arms, watching the warrior toss up her weapons, flip and land solidly before scooping the two swords out of the air and continuing her twirling effortlessly. "To what purpose?"
"To try and make me forget certain moments of weakness..."
A grey eyebrow raised at her. "She has moments of weakness, does she?"
Blue eyes peered at him through the shadows. "We all have our demons, Pyrron. Some people are able to hide them better than others, but they're always there..." The Empress's gaze shifted back to the window. "Gabrielle is haunted by many demons... Add a few more years and she might even beat me in that department..."
Pyrron studied her quietly for a moment, then looked outside as well, following the warrior's fluent movements for a moment. "Has Brutus told you?"
Xena released a breath. "Yes."
A nod from her advisor. "What are you going to do?"
Xena let her head rest against the windowsill. "It's not like I have any options, Pyrron."
"No... No, I guess not..." Pyrron agreed quietly. They were both silent for a moment. "Caspar will be crushed..."
"Yeah..." Xena rubbed a hand over her face tiredly. "I'm not too thrilled about it either..." She closed her eyes, then angrily punched her fist against the wooden windowsill. "Damn her... Why can't she just stay put? Does she really think I don't know what's going on in my own palace?"
"Sometimes, we believe only what we want to believe, Empress..."
"Stupid..." Xena shook her head, turning away from the window and pacing to her desk, sagging down in her seat. "Damn her..." Xena pressed both her hands against her face exhaling gravely. "And damn me..."
She sat like that for a moment, ordering her thoughts, then she dropped her hands into her lap. "I want thirty men in that passageway, I want patrols in the city doubled near the exit and I want to be alerted the moment she makes her move." Xena folded her hands together, resting her chin on top of the entwined fingers. "She's not leaving this palace alive."
"That is so cool!"
Gabrielle paused and turned around, to see Iona watching her in rapt fascination. "I thought you'd be asleep by now."
"Pff." Iona waved her off. "Sleep's for kids."
A blonde eyebrow raised at her. "And what are you then?"
A chuckle. "I see."
"Could you teach me to do that?" Iona continued anxiously. "You know, twirl and flip and catch and..."
Gabrielle swept her swords around lazily. "Do you know how to handle a sword?"
A shake of the blonde head. "No."
"Don't you think it's a good idea to start at the beginning then? You know, learn how to hold a sword first?"
"Just holding it?" Iona's face scrunched up in dismay. "That's boring... Anybody can do that..."
"Yeah? Wanna bet?" She held out one of her weapons to the girl. "Ten pieces of candy say you can't hold it."
"You're on!" Iona greedily reached for the weapon, grabbing onto it with both hands. It was heavier than she'd thought, but she could lift it without straining her muscles too much. "See? Told you I could... Hey!"
Gabrielle had kicked the toe of her boot against the sword hilt, sending it flying from the girl's hands. The warrior reached out, then swooped the blade from the air. "I win."
"That's not fair!" Iona argued, crossing her arms. "You didn't say you were gonna kick at it."
"Never said I wouldn't either." Gabrielle smirked back at her.
Blue eyes looked at her for another moment, then Iona sighed in frustration. "Fine, fine... I've got some honey drops in my room... Are you busy, or can you come get 'm?"
Gabrielle cocked her head, extending her senses. "Depends... The Conqueror is done watching me, right?"
Iona frowned, then shrugged. "I'll check." She looked up at the window over Gabrielle's shoulder. "Yo, Xena!"
Gabrielle covered her eyes with a hand. "Oh gods..."
The sound of footsteps drifted through the window, then Xena poked her head out. "Yeah?"
"You done spying on Gabrielle?"
The warrior snorted, shaking her head a little. "So much for subtlety." She muttered under her breath, turning around and looking up at the Conqueror.
The Empress laughed. "That depends..." She looked at Gabrielle. "Is the show over?"
The warrior dropped her head, not quite able to repress a smirk. "Yeah."
Xena grinned and then started applauding her. "Great performance." She drawled. "Very impressive."
Gabrielle half suppressed a chuckle, then she bowed with an elegant wave of her free hand.
Xena laughed, her eyes twinkling as Gabrielle looked up and met them for a moment. A moment, then the twinkle receded, to be replaced with another emotion hidden in the depths of the blue orbs. "I wish it could last longer."
She was in luck today. Gabrielle easily parried a blow, then ducked under a second. Xena had picked chobos as her weapon of choice. A big mistake, since Gabrielle's tutor had been a master at the chobos and had taught her everything he knew. Though she preferred the directness of the sword, chobos were second on her list of favourites, and she comfortably wielded her weapons around, easily sidestepping another lunge from the Conqueror, before starting an attack of her own. A rapid pounding of wood on wood filled the air as Gabrielle attempted lunge after lunge, until she was finally able to catch the Empress on the back of the legs.
Xena winced, adding another bruise to her list of small injuries, then quickly focused on defending herself as Gabrielle came at her once more. Her options were limited, but she wasn't ready yet to let this fight come to an end, so she hastily lifted her weapon, aiming and then jabbing the end of one of her chobos against a particular point on the warrior's thigh.
Gabrielle's attack stopped immediately and the warrior hastily skipped back a few paces, looking down at her suddenly very limp right leg. "What the Hades...?"
Xena chuckled, taking advantage of the off guard moment by hopping back to her feet. "Welcome to the wonderful world of pressure points, Gabrielle."
"Pressure points?" Gabrielle cocked her head in interest, suppressing the pain stinging through her leg, while bringing up her chobos defensively.
"Uhuh," Xena smirked at her, very content with her tiny victory, before quickly bringing up both chobos to block an attack. "I just..." A smack to the warrior's side, which was deflected with ease. "....cut off..." A strike to the lower left leg. "...the flow..." Wood thudded on wood. "...of blood..." A parry and a counterattack. "... to your leg." She swept both her chobos at Gabrielle's head simultaneously, forcing the warrior to focus all her attention on defending herself, and then hastily jabbing at Gabrielle's thigh again, releasing the pressure point. "Can't keep it blocked too long though, or you'll lose that leg..." A sly grin. "And that'd be a real waste, now wouldn't it?"
Gabrielle put some weight back on her leg, which was tingling a little, but didn't appear to have been permanently damaged. "Interesting technique." She murmured, blocking the Empress's next attack almost absently.
"Works very well with chobos." Xena said between breaths as she slowly started circling her opponent.
Gabrielle cocked her head pensively, adding this new information to the knowledge she had of the human body, mentally pinpointing the position she'd have to hit and then lunging forward. She executed a few combination moves and then kicked out at the warrior's left leg, getting her off balance before jabbing one of her chobos against Xena's thigh.
Xena back flipped, creating some space between them. "Nice try," She complimented. "Not bad for a first time..." She then pointed her weapon at a spot slightly lower of where she'd been hit. "Try to hit me here. And don't just jab. Twist your weapon a little on impact."
A blonde eyebrow lifted at her. "Who's tutoring who now?"
Xena chuckled amusedly. "You've got a problem with this?"
Gabrielle seemed to consider this question seriously for a moment, but then shook her head. "No. Just uncommon." She twirled a chobo around lazily. "Normally people don't teach lethal pressure points to those who attempt to kill them, after all."
"Yeah well..." Xena launched off, flipping over the warrior's head and then turning, swinging her chobos towards Gabrielle's left. "I'm not really normal, am I?"
Gabrielle blocked them both with one of her weapons, while jabbing the other at Xena's leg once more, now hitting the exact right spot. "Won't argue with that." She murmured, while spinning and swiping Xena's legs out from under her before pouncing on her victim, ending up with both her chobos pressed against the Conqueror's neck in a V-shape. "Gotcha."
Xena let both her hands fall to her sides in a pose of defeat. "You got me." She pointed a finger towards her leg. "I need to undo what you did to my leg within the next thirty seconds."
"Hmm..." Gabrielle gazed down at her thoughtfully for a moment, not moving an inch. "There's nothing in our set of rules that says I can't make you lose a limb, now is there?"
Xena looked up at her calmly, folding her hands under her head. "No."
Green eyes studied her. "You don't seem too worried..."
A negligent shrug. "Would being worried get me anywhere?"
"Well, there ya go..."
Gabrielle gazed at her for another moment, then shook her head a little, before rolling off her opponent and neatly hopping back to her feet.
Xena pushed herself up and quickly jabbed two fingers at her thigh, not quite smothering a sigh of relief as the pressure in her leg subsided. "You like to cut it close, don't you?"
"Is there any other way to cut?" The warrior replied dryly, strolling over to the Conqueror's side while the dark-haired woman pushed herself back to her feet, still favouring her right leg a little. "So... Are there any more of these... pressure points?"
Xena looked down at her companion in amusement. "Why would I tell you if there were?"
Gabrielle considered this for a moment. "You know that roll-and-kick thing I did yesterday?"
"Where you send me flying back ten feet?" A low chuckle. "How could I forget..."
"I can teach you how to do that."
Xena went over that offer for a moment. "All right... that buys you... two pressure points..."
Gabrielle snorted. "Two? That move would send anyone else to their death. Besides, it's an excellent way to show off. It's worth... six at least."
"Six?" Xena laughed. "I'll give you half of that. Three."
"Four." The Empress pointed a finger at her. "And that's my final offer."
"You got yourself a deal."
The Empress shook her head with a grin. "You know, Gabrielle, you'd make a pretty decent politician." A sideways glance. "I have a spot available up in Macadonia..."
Gabrielle lifted a hand, stopping her sentence. "Don't even go there..."
Xena released a breath, facing forward again. "It was worth a shot..."
"Oh, look who's back..." Xena drawled as she entered the hallway. "Alti, are those bags under your eyes or did you slip with the eyeliner again?"
The shamaness crossed her arms, glaring at her. "It's always such a joy to be back here..."
The Empress chuckled wickedly, closing the distance between them. "How was your little trip?"
"Oh, it was very...productive..."
"Is that so?" Xena cocked her head at the woman. "Anything you wanna share with me?"
"Oh most definitely," A wicked grin. "But not right now. I rode all night, I need to catch up on some sleep first."
"What? You're tired?" Xena tsk-ed at her. "You do realise sleepiness is a human flaw, don't you Alti? I thought you'd distanced yourself from the human race years ago..."
The shamaness rolled her eyes tiredly. "You'll forgive me if I'm not in the mood for your witty remarks right now, Xena." She turned away from the woman and headed towards the guestrooms. "We will... speak... this evening..."
Xena looked after the woman with a frown, then shrugged and turned towards her private quarters. She didn't get far though, before she was ambushed by a bouncing blonde, followed shortly by her younger sister. "Sena!" Niobe called out enthusiastically, increasing her pattering speed and heading straight for the warrior. "Sena! Up!"
"But of course, your highness," Xena drawled, obediently scooping up the toddler and tossing her into the air a little.
Niobe chortled in delight. "Again!"
A grin tugged at the Empress's lips as she complied, meanwhile greeting the twelve year old standing in front of her. "Hey Io. How's things?"
"That depends," Iona stated, looking up at her. "Dad said you're finished with those reports..."
"Cool!" The blonde reached for the warrior's tunic and turned, tugging Xena along behind her. "Come on then..."
Xena allowed herself to be dragged along amicably. "And where are we going, if you don't mind me asking?"
"Horsies!" Niobe informed her enthusiastically. "Go horsies!"
"Horsies huh?" Blue eyes darted from the burden that had attached herself to her side to the blonde in front of her. "And what if I don't feel like going to the horsies."
"Chilon is really restless... He needs to get out of his box..." Iona made an attempt at rationalising her actions.
"Well, you can just put him in the meadow then, right?"
Frustrated blue eyes looked up at the Conqueror. "Aw, come on..." A pout. "Please? Just for a little while..."
"Go horsies." Niobe joined in, tugging at Xena's hair impatiently. "Go, go!"
"All right, all right..." Xena laughed, putting a hand on Iona's shoulder and guiding her towards the stables. "Horsies it is then..."
"Yay." Niobe cheerfully bounced up and down a little, then smacked a kiss on Xena's cheek. "Luv ya."
Xena rolled her eyes. "There'll be a day when that trick won't work anymore, short stuff..."
Niobe giggled, happily wrapping her arms around Xena's neck and pillowing her head on the Empress's shoulder.
Xena smiled down at toddler affectionately. "Then again, maybe not..."
"Hey Xena?" Iona tugged on her arm.
"Can Gabrielle come?"
Blue eyes glanced down at the blonde for a moment, then faced forward again, a slightly regretful look on the dark features. "You can ask her... But I have the feeling she's busy with... other things..."
"Oh..." Iona considered this then shrugged. "That's all right then. You'll do for today..."
Xena snorted. "Oh, I'll do, will I?"
"Yes," Iona smirked up at her, then ran ahead before Xena could launch any sort of tickling attack. "I'm gonna go saddle Chilon."
Xena shook her head at the young blonde. "What are we going to do with that girl?"
Niobe cocked her head at the Empress. "Jona?"
"Uhuh." Xena confirmed.
"You would..." Xena affectionately ruffled the thick brown bangs, making the toddler giggle. "Is there anybody you don't love?"
"Yes." Niobe nodded vehemently.
Xena chuckled in amusement. "You'll have to be a little more specific, short stuff. Which bad lady?"
"Yeah, that's what I'm asking."
"No..." Niobe's face scrunched up in dismay. "Which lady." Niobe wiggled her fingers in front of Xena's face, narrowing her eyes. "Spiwitul powess."
Xena looked at her for a moment, then burst out laughing. "Oh gods... That is the best impression of Alti so far. Show your father that sometime, OK? He could use a good laugh."
"Atti bad." Niobe poked out her lower lip. "No play nice."
Xena sobered a little as she stepped through the double doors and into the garden, taking a deep breath of the fresh morning air. "No, she doesn't... But don't you worry, short stuff... I've got it all under control."
Gabrielle leaned back in her seat, judging the lines and numbers she'd just drawn on her bit of parchment. She glanced at the chakram lying beside her, then reached out and hefted the ring for a moment, thoughtfully, then she jotted another number on the parchment with her free right hand. The first thing to learning how a weapon worked was figuring out why it worked the way it did. And this chakram was a pretty complex piece of weaponry, Gabrielle realised, as she multiplied the mass of the ring with several speeds, then compared the resulting numbers. Not only was it important how you threw it, or how fast it flew, but you also had to realise at what kind of angle it was going to hit the object you were aiming for, whether it had enough force to dig its sharp edges into the target, or whether it would just bounce off and continue on its way. And if it did bounce off, you had to know what the resulting trajectory would be to be able to catch the chakram as it returned.
Which led her to conclude Xena was either a brilliant mathematician or a natural talent with this weapon. Gabrielle rolled her eyes. Actually, the woman was probably both.
Solving all the mysteries about this chakram and mastering handling the weapon before tonight seemed impossible however, so she took the parchment and folded it, then folded it again, before tucking it into the back pocket of her pants. She didn't have the space here to practice throwing it anyway, using it inside this room would probably cost her her head. She'd work out what exactly this ring could do when she got out of here...
If you get out of here, the more rational part of her brain corrected. Don't get ahead of yourself, Gab. The warrior released a breath, then pulled her bag from under her bed and tucked her possessions back inside. Silently she went over the steps again in her mind. A little before sunset she'd go and take Argo for a ride. She'd put all her stuff on the horse, ride far away from the palace and into the woods, and then let the mare go. The palace grounds were huge, and it'd take Xena days to search it all, even if she put her whole army to the task. And Argo was smart, she'd be able to avoid any people coming at her long enough for the warrior to find her and sneak her out some way or another.
It wasn't really a fool proof plan, but getting a horse out of a heavily armed palace unnoticed was pretty impossible, so this seemed the best solution on short notice. She loved Argo, and hated to leave her in a potentially dangerous situation, but her main concern now was Thalia. Besides, if Xena did manage to catch the mare, she knew how much Gabrielle cared for the horse and would use her as leverage, to bribe the warrior into coming back, so Argo's life wasn't at stake.
After dropping off Argo she'd sneak back into the palace, take down the guard, go 'visit' the prisoners and then they could make their escape through the passageway down the hall and reach the city around midnight.
Gabrielle pushed open the door and exited her room, letting her eyes flick across the hallway and extending her other senses. There were a few soldiers walking along, some servants busying about, but that was all completely normal. Gabrielle had noticed during her stay here that this palace never slept. It was quieter at some hours than others, but there was always someone up doing something somewhere. A young servant who was mopping the floor looked up and smiled at her warmly. "Good day, ma'am."
"Hi." She smiled back at him as she walked past.
The initial wary looks directed at her had vanished abruptly after her bit of toying around with the Regent of Egypt a few days back. Benitor had told her afterwards she was now worshipped by the larger part of the staff, since almost all of them had had a run in with the obnoxious Cleopatra one time or another and hated the pretentious woman deeply. She was demanding to the staff, never uttered a nice word about anything, no matter how hard they tried, so finally seeing her get her butt kicked was satisfying, to say the least. Who said beating people up never got you any friends...?
Gabrielle smiled to herself as she rounded another corner, making her way towards the kitchen. It was a little after lunchtime, about a candle mark past noon, and asking the kitchen staff for lunch would be an easy way of getting close to Solari and giving her a sign the plan was going down for tonight. She'd actually purposefully left the Amazon out of most of her planning, knowing she'd be safer that way, but she did need Solari to tell them about good places to hide, since she wasn't up to date on the ongoings in the city. During her time in the rebellion they'd continually changed hideouts, moving from one spot to another and back, to create confusion and what she remembered most of Agenor was his calculating nature, so she was quite sure he'd continued doing that. Which basically meant she had no idea where to find him. But Solari did, or at least, she knew people who knew people who knew people who did, so she needed the Amazon with her the moment she got into the city.
The kitchen was bustling with activity, and she carefully avoided a few servants rushing out with plates. "Gabrielle!" The Chinese chef she'd encountered on her first trip here bowed to her politely. "I'm honoured to meet you once more. I hope you're well?"
"I'm great, thanks." She beamed a smile at him. "Actually, I was trying to dig up something for lunch."
Ch'u Feng tsk-ed at her. "You should just call for someone. They could bring it to your room for you." He neatly split an union into two equal halves, then started dicing one half into tiny slivers. "We are paid to offer you service."
"I know," Gabrielle smiled at him, her eyes flicking across the room and spotting Solari in her usual corner, hidden in the shadows. "I just felt like stretching my legs a little..."
"All right then..." The Chinese man looked up at her with a smile, his knife continuing his slicing on pure instinct. "But at least let me make you something special."
"Won't say no to that," Gabrielle flashed him a grin, which made him laugh, then he turned around and opened some cabinet doors near his feet and removed a few ingredients.
"You like omelette?"
He nodded a little, then started dicing a bunch of mixed vegetables at top speed.
Gabrielle shot another look at Solari's corner and as luck would have it the Amazon looked up at her at the exact same moment. Gabrielle held her gaze for a moment, then inclined her head slightly, imperceptible to anybody but the brunette. Solari looked back at her, understanding, and then returned to her work as if nothing had happened. Gabrielle silently complimented the woman again on her handling of the situation, calm and reserved, certainly for someone who'd been here stuck serving the Conqueror for years on end and was now being told tonight might be her ticket to freedom...
Meanwhile, Ch'u Feng was flipping his vegetables around in the large half-orb-shaped black pan he was holding over the flames. "You want bread or rice with that?"
"Bread'll do..." Gabrielle said, focussing back on her soon to be lunch.
"Ah, you show your western roots, Gabrielle." The Chinese man flashed her a grin as he tapped an egg on the edge of the pan, breaking it, then opening it expertly with one hand, while he kept flipping the veggies with his other. He tossed in a variety of herbs, then took a wooden spatula stirred and flipped his creation over. A boy came walking over with a plate with two pieces of bread and the chef neatly laid out his vegetable omelette on top of the slices, then dropped the pan in a bowl of cold water, steam drifting up as a soft hissing filled the air. "I hope you like it."
Gabrielle spiked up a bit of omelette with her fork and tested. "Love it." She confided to the cook around a mouthful. "There's..." She tasted again, frowning a little now. "There's something familiar about the taste..." She sniffed up some of the fragrant air. "Something..."
"The herbs." Ch'u Feng said. "They come from Chin."
It was the spicy smell mostly that brought her back to her senses. Gabrielle opened her eyes, blinking against the bright sunlight streaming into... A frown. Into where? Where was she? She tried to push herself to her upright, but her aching body protested and she dropped back on the mattress, muffling a cry of pain.
"Don't try to get up," A soft voice drifted up from the other side of the room, then gentle footsteps made their way over to the bedside. Gabrielle turned her head to see a Chinese woman with long black hair and dressed in light yellow robes slide towards her, a placid smile on her face. "You're injured..." She put a tray filled with a steaming plate and a cup of some hot liquid onto on a small table at the blonde's bedside. "Do you recall what happened?"
Gabrielle blinked at her for a moment longer. Her suspicious nature was ordering her not to tell this woman anything, but her more trusting side finally won over, supported by the calm aura her companion seemed to emanate. "I uhm..." She cleared her throat, dry from not having spoken for so long. The woman wordlessly handed her a cup of hot tea. Gabrielle took a sip of the liquid, then peeked up and managed a smile. "Thank you."
Her companion smiled back easily. "You are welcome."
The blonde's own smile increased a little, then she let her eyes dart across the room, uncomfortably.
"You are in the house of Lao," the woman answered her unasked question. "I am Lao Ma. I found you on the roadside on my way back from the village nearby."
Roadside? Gabrielle dug into her memories, trying to recall what had happened. "I uhm... Someone offered me a ride to the next village. I excepted. He gave me a spot on the back of his cart and..." A breath as images of what had happened started to filter through. "There were raiders blocking the path up ahead... He told me..." She dropped her gaze and studied the blankets pulled over her. "He told me to jump off and hide... I uhm..." She waved a hand at her legs. "I can't walk well...I didn't want to get in his way, so I jumped, rolled off the road..." She bit her lip, closing her eyes. "They killed him. I saw them kill him, but I..." Her voice faltered. "I couldn't even..."
A hand gently touched her shoulder, and Gabrielle looked up, her eyes watery. "Calm now..." Lao Ma looked down at her compassionately. "It was hardly your fault..."
Gabrielle shook her head sadly. "You don't understand... I'm a trouble magnet...People who hang around me, they..." A breath, then she made another attempt to push herself to her feet. "I should go..."
The pressure on her shoulder increased and she was gently pushed back into the pillow. "You should not."
A blonde eyebrow raised. "You don't tell me what I can or can't do."
A grin tugged at the edges of Lao Ma's lips. "Why do I always end up taking care of the stubborn ones..." She muttered under her breath.
Gabrielle frowned at her. "Excuse me?"
"Nothing." Her companion said, then grabbed hold of the edge of Gabrielle's blankets and tugged, pulling the covers off her bare legs.
"Hey!" The blonde called out indignantly. "What do you think...?"
"Shush." Lao Ma lifted a finger at her, the simple gesture stilling all protest. "Do you want to walk without pain?"
Gabrielle let her head fall back on her pillow. "I went to every healer I've heard off. No one could help me."
Lao Ma remained quiet, kneeling down at the bedside and rubbing her hands against each other to warm them a little, before reaching out and touching the blonde's knee and letting her touch slide down her lower legs. "The bones were not set properly... They were shattered..." Her touch trailed lower, until she reached Gabrielle's feet and there she halted. Gabrielle could feel the previously steady touch faltering, her hands shaking softly against the blonde's skin. Lao Ma stared at the small, circular wound for a long moment, then bent her head. "She crucified you."
Gabrielle closed her eyes, forcing back the memories that immediately drifted up with those words. "I don't wanna talk about it." She managed from between clenched teeth.
In the silence that followed she felt the woman's hands pull away from her skin. This Lao Ma now realised too the situation was hopeless, the blonde thought as she bit her lip, forcing her emotions down. She was doomed to...
Her thoughts suddenly stopped as a warmth surrounded her feet, then slowly started to spread its way up. It was like nothing she'd ever felt before, as if warm clouds of pure goodness were slowly shifting through her skin. The feeling lasted for several moments, and when it faded it left her feeling oddly empty and yet full.
Gabrielle blinked open her eyes, then pushed herself up, mentally bracing herself for the pain that action would cause. But there was no pain. She glanced down her body in confusion, down her bare legs, to see unscathed, straight skin. All that remained were two tiny scars, one on each foot, the places where the nails had been driven through.
"Better?" A soft voice inquired, and for the first time she looked up at Lao Ma, who was smiling down at her.
"B... But... How d...?" She stuttered in return.
"Come." The woman cut her short, spreading her arms. "Stand up."
Gabrielle blinked, unsure for a moment, but then she swung her legs off the bed, her bare feet touching the cold floor.
And then she was standing. Solidly, without pain, for the first time in months. The sensation brought tears to her eyes, and she hastily wiped at them with the back of her sleeve, as she tried to swallow back the lump in her throat. When she felt she had her emotions at least party under control she looked up gratefully. "Thank you. This is... amazing..." She took a step closer, bending her head in reverence. "How did you do that?"
Lao Ma smiled at her fondly. "I did nothing."
"Sure you did," Gabrielle insisted. "You healed me."
The woman shook her head. "I did nothing to accomplish that."
The blonde frowned at her. "I don't understand."
Lao Ma laughed softly. "You will..."
"Gabrielle?" Ch'u Feng's hesitant voice cut through her pondering. "Did I do something to upset you? Or is the food not to your liking?"
"No, it's..." The warrior shook her head a little, clearing it. "I'm sorry, I just drifted off there for a moment..." She shook her fork at the plate she was still holding. "The herbs... brought back some memories..."
He nodded in understanding. "Good or bad?"
Gabrielle took a breath, then managed a small smile. "Good memories." She took another bite of her lunch, chewing. "Very good. They just... leave a bitter taste..."
The cook nodded, then reached behind him, wordlessly handing her a glass of water.
"More fast! Go more fast!" Niobe chortled, the wind toying with her thick brown locks.
Xena tightened her hold on the young girl sitting in front of her. "This is about as fast as horses go, shorty." She burred in the toddler's ear.
"More fast!" Niobe insisted again, giggling in complete delight. "Go, go!"
The Empress rolled her eyes. "She's worse than you are, Io."
Iona laughed happily, leaning back in Chilon's saddle comfortably. "Family trait."
Xena glanced at the girl riding beside her with a half smile. "You don't know the half of it..."
"What?" The blonde called over the noise of the rushing wind surrounding them.
"We need to slow down," Xena retorted, gently pulling the mare she was riding back into a trot.
"Ba-ounce ba-ounce!" The toddler in front of her kirred as she hopped up and down in the saddle.
Xena chuckled, then slowed the horse down even more. "No more bouncing for you. You'll get your brains all scrambled."
"Fun!" Niobe said, tipping her head back and looking up at her playmate in complete adoration. "Luv ya."
"Right back at ya, short stuff." Xena ruffled the dark brown locks affectionately. "You know you're my favourite..."
"Hey!" Iona called indignantly as she fell into pace beside the Empress.
"...three year old," Xena finished, flashing Iona a grin.
"That's more like it..." Iona smirked back at her, then leaned over and patted Chilon's neck. "Good job, boy."
"G'job." Niobe agreed, patting Xena's thigh amicably.
"Hey, Xena? Can't we keep riding for a bit longer?" Iona suggested. "I mean, you finished those reports right? You have time..."
"I have time... You on the other hand..." Xena shot the blonde a look. "You are not getting out from under your homework, Io."
"Who says I'm trying to ditch my homework?" The young blonde shot her an indignant look. "Maybe I just missed spending time with you..."
Xena shook her head decidedly. "It's not gonna work..."
Iona pouted. "I just..."
Iona released a grave breath. "Fine, fine... I'll do the boring homework..."
Xena leaned closer and patted her knee amicably. "That's my girl."
They exited the forest and pulled to a halt near the stables. Iona swung her leg over Chilon's head, then slid off the stallion's back, impacting with the solid earth with a soft thud.
"Here, take your sister..." Xena said, lifting the squiggling Niobe off the horse and handing her down.
"Don't wanna!" Niobe objected. "Stay horsie! Go fast!"
"Took the words right out of my mouth, sis." Iona muttered, looking at Xena pointedly.
The Empress just rolled her eyes at the two, then dismounted herself. "Come on, the both of you. Lets get these horses settled." She shot a glance up at the skies, judging it about a candlemark before sunset. "Even if I wanted to we couldn't go out again. I have a meeting with Alti..."
"You could skip that for once," Iona argued, putting Niobe on the ground, the toddler immediately returning to Xena's side and looking up expectantly.
"Not today." Xena shook her head, obediently scooping up the toddler with one arm, while holding onto the reigns of her horse with the other. "But uhm..." She considered for a moment, thinking of the pile of work resting on her desk. "Maybe if you work ahead on your homework a little, we could take tomorrow afternoon off... Go fishing or something..."
"For real?" Iona's mood swung around to overly delighted. "I'd love that!" She hastily tugged Chilon forward, falling into pace beside Xena. "Can you teach me to catch 'm too? With just my hands?"
"Maybe..." Xena drawled, smiling at one of the stable boys who bowed to her politely. "But only if you do a good job on that homework of yours, understood? No slacking..."
"My homework will be slackless..." Iona vowed solemnly, tugging Chilon ahead of Xena's mare and leading him into the stable first. "It'll be just you and me, right?"
"Ey!" Niobe objected, tugging at Xena's hair. "Wanna cum!"
Iona glanced behind her, considering for a moment, then shrugged. "I don't mind that. As long as Caspar stays behind..."
"I heard that!" An indignant voice called out, then Caspar's head poked out of one of the boxes.
Iona looked surprised for a moment, then regained her composure and stuck her tongue out at the boy.
Caspar's brown eyes narrowed to slits.
Xena rolled her eyes. "Cut it out you two. I don't want any fighting in my stables." She warned. "You'll upset the horses."
"Be nice!" Niobe added, waving a finger at her siblings warningly.
The Empress chuckled. "You tell 'm, short stuff."
Iona shot her brother another look, pulling Chilon into his own box. "What are you doing here anyway... You don't even like horses..."
"He was helping me," a fifth voice dropped in as Gabrielle rose to her feet, brushing some dust off her tunic.
Caspar crossed his arms, his pose a bit more confident now that he had Gabrielle towering behind him. "And I do like horses. I just don't like your horse..."
Chilon snorted indignantly, shaking his dark head.
"Abby!" Niobe called out enthusiastically, wiggling in Xena's hold. "Sena! 's Abby!"
The Empress grinned. " I noticed." She placed the toddler on the ground, then watched her scurry out of the box.
Niobe pattered on, ducking past Caspar and towards Gabrielle, who'd dropped back to a knee and was brushing Argo's lower legs. "Abby!"
The blonde looked up, then smiled at the three year old. "Hey."
Niobe wrapped an arm around the warrior's leg, hugging her, then glanced up to look at the mare towering over her. "Aggo."
"Good memory," Gabrielle praised, impressed.
"Aggo good." Niobe reached out a hand, patting the horse's skin, then looked up at Gabrielle. "Abby good."
The warrior smiled, then reached out and ruffled the girl's hair affectionately. "Glad you think so."
"It seems I'm loosing control of my army of munchkins," Xena commented, leaning in the doorway, looking down at the duo in amusement.
Gabrielle glanced up. "Oh, I doubt that..." She rose to her feet, lifting Niobe up with her and placing the toddler on Argo's strong back. The girl squealed in delight, patting the mare affectionately, chattering on about how good a horse she was.
A dark eyebrow raised at her. "Is that so?"
"Uhuh..." Gabrielle nodded, keeping one hand on Niobe's back to keep her balanced. "I've just spent the last candlemark listening to an ode to your intelligence..."
Xena frowned, then looked down to see Caspar shuffling his feet uncomfortably. "Ah..." Understanding dawned. She reached out and patted the boy's cheek. "Thanks for standing up for me, sport." She looked up again with a twinkle. "So... Did he convince you?"
Gabrielle looked back at her calmly. "If I had ever underestimated your intelligence, I doubt I'd be standing right now."
The Empress chuckled. "Probably... I..." Her head shot up as Iona came racing by, Chilon's halter dangling over her shoulder and the saddle in her hands. "Hey? Where are you rushing off to...?"
"Gotta go do my homework!" Iona called back, then ran out the door.
Gabrielle raised both eyebrows at the words. "What happened to her? She coming down with something?"
Xena laughed softly. "No... I just gave her a bit of an incentive..." She smirked at the warrior, then looked down at the boy by her side. "Could you do me a favour and run up to tell your father I won't be making it to dinner tonight?"
"Sure," Caspar nodded eagerly, turned to race off, then changed his mind and spun around again. "Gabrielle?"
"Hmm?" The warrior straightened after she'd deposited Niobe back on the ground and looked at him questioningly.
"Are you gonna come to dinner?"
The warrior hesitated for a moment, shooting a glance at Xena, before shaking her head. "No... I've... got some things to do... I wanna take Argo for a ride before it gets dark..."
"Oh," he couldn't mask his disappointment. "I see..."
Gabrielle took a breath. "Maybe... we can catch up later... OK?"
This brought a smile back to his face. "OK," he said happily, then rushed off.
Xena kept quiet during the exchange, and now reached down to swoop up Niobe. "I have some things to do too." She said, looking up and meeting Gabrielle's eyes. "Enjoy your ride..."
The warrior nodded softly, wondering what that odd look in the Conqueror's eyes was all about. "I will."
Xena's eyes held her gaze for another moment, then the dark-haired woman turned around and walked away.
Niobe looked back at the warrior over Xena's shoulder, wiggled her fingers at her cheerfully. "Bye bye."
Gabrielle took a breath, managing a smile tinged with a bit of regret. "Goodbye," she mumbled.
"Alti," Xena greeted her shamaness as she spotted the woman walking in the gardens. "Had enough rest?"
"For now..." The shamaness drawled as she looked up, her dark eyes taking in the Conqueror and the child sitting on her shoulder. Niobe's eyes narrowed as Alti let her gaze settle on her. "Do you have a moment? There is something I want to show you..."
"Sure," Xena shrugged negligently, then put Niobe back on her feet. "Go on, short stuff."
The toddler blinked up at her, then shot a look at Alti, clearly uncomfortable. Instinctively she stuck close to the Empress, wrapping an arm around Xena's leg possessively.
The Empress shook her head with a small smile, then knelt down, patting the girl's cheek. "Go on now."
Deep brown eyes peered up at her insecurely. "Bad lady," Niobe whispered. "No good, Sena."
"There's nothing to worry about." Xena ruffled the short brown locks affectionately. "Go to your daddy, OK? I'll see you later."
The toddler seemed in doubt for another moment, then reluctantly let go of her hold on the woman and pattered off, looking back over her shoulder a few times, insecurely.
Xena shook her head at the girl, then turned towards Alti, who had watched the whole exchange with crossed arms. "All right... I'm all yours..."
The shamaness chuckled wickedly. "Excellent." She shot the Conqueror a grin, then turned, heading towards the forest edge. "Follow me."
"Sure," Xena agreed amiably, folding her hands behind her back and walking along after Alti. "What's this about?"
"Oh, you'll see..."
Xena shrugged. "OK."
They only managed to walk a few paces though, before a voice called her back. "Empress! Wait!"
Xena frowned, turning around to see a young man rushing closer, his face red and puffy, sweat dripping from his forehead. "Yes?"
He skidded to a halt in front of her, his breath coming in heavy rasps. He tapped his hand to his chest in salute. "Empress, I..." A breath. "I bring you news. My lieutenant told me to come straight to you."
The Empress crossed her arms, cocking her head in interest. "What's so important then?"
"We were patrolling, Empress. On the road between here and Thebes we found a man." He swallowed, still trying to get his breathing under control. "He was dead, Empress. Murdered. There was a dagger wound in his chest."
"Murdered?" A dark eyebrow raised sharply. "This close to Athens? That's very rare..."
"That's why my lieutenant sent me, highness," the messenger said. "He thought you would want to know."
"He was right," Xena mumbled, pensively. "I'll look into the matter. Go inside and find my Advisor and tell him about this. He'll get you something to drink and a place to rest. Tell him..." She glanced at Alti for a moment, then turned back. "Tell him I have something to do first, but I'll be back as soon as possible."
The soldier bowed politely. "Yes, Empress." He saluted again, then strode off.
Xena watched him go, then turned to the shamaness standing beside her. "This won't take long, will it?"
"Oh no..." Alti shot her a charming smile. "It won't take long at all..."
Gabrielle settled her bags behind Argo's saddle, securing them tightly. The sun had made its way down, towards the horizon and was now casting rays of blood red light across the landscape. Gabrielle had calculated this was the best time to depart. She'd kept an eye on Xena, who'd disappeared into the woods with her shamaness a little while ago. The Conqueror's absence would make things a lot easier, she realised, as she led Argo outside, then pulled the horse to a halt and adjusted the stirrups. Some guard getting in her way wouldn't slow her down in the slightest, but the Conqueror was a bit more of a challenge, to say the least.
The warrior grabbed onto the reigns, then stuck a boot into a stirrup and pulled herself into the saddle. If she hurried up a little she could be back here within a quarter of a candlemark. It'd be dark by then and she could get her plans under way.
Gabrielle took a breath and squared her shoulders, then clacked her tongue. Argo moved forward obediently.
Twilight had fallen now, the dim light still emanating from the sun drawing long, eerie shadows across the forest path, which moved back and forth as the wind toyed with the foliage high above.
"I thought you said it wouldn't take long," Xena muttered, clearly annoyed. "We've been walking for quite some time now, Alti."
"Nearly there..." The shamaness said calmly, keeping the pace.
"I have work to do." Xena continued, her eyes flicking over her surroundings judgingly. An unpleasant tingle was racing up and down her spine now, her instincts alerting her of some impending danger. There was nothing threatening around her though, just the trees, the shadows, the soft trickle of water of a brook up ahead...
Still, there was something... Xena took a breath, then released it again. She'd been in a state of constant vigilance since the day she'd met Gabrielle again and all this being alert was just getting to her. She'd enjoyed the warrior's presence, but she was a liability and had to be watched for at all time. Especially now. That was probably the reason for the tension she was feeling... Xena nodded a little to herself, then refocused her attention on the shamaness pacing in front of her. "This had better be very important."
"Oh, it is..." Alti sounded slightly smug. "Very important."
A giggle drifted down from above. "Well, I'm flattered..."
Xena's eyes widened, then she spun around. A form dropped down from a branch with a piercing warcry and Xena rolled aside just in time to avoid the body pouncing down on top of her. She scrambled back to her feet hastily, bringing her hands up defensively.
Her attacker laughed psychotically. "Oh, I've been waiting sooooo long for this..." A giggle. "Are you ready for a rematch, Xena?"
Xena's eyes narrowed, then shot towards the spot where Alti had been only moments before, but the shamaness had vanished into thin air. "Alti!" The Conqueror growled, her eyes narrowing to slits.
She'd been betrayed. Alti had traded the alliance they'd had for a deal with this scrawny little blonde. This... Xena flicked through her memories, finally stumbling upon the images she was looking for. "You were the girl from Cirra."
"Yes," the blonde hissed, taking a step closer. "That's what I was... Now however..." With a scream she rushed forward, lunging her sword towards Xena's head. "I am the woman who's about to end your existence."
Alti slid through the darkness soundlessly. The sounds of the battle in the distance became muted as she moved further and further off the road, until finally she could see the flickering of flames up ahead. Moments later she entered a small clearing, a campfire lit in the centre. Around the fire lay a number of items. A variety of herbs, several powders, a bowl of blood... Alti grinned wickedly, as she reached out and dipped two fingers in the blood, then smeared streaks of red across her forehead.
Xena ducked under another lunge, then rolled away from her attacker. Her fingers touched wood as she did so, and she immediately grabbed onto the thick branch lying on the ground and lifted it above her head, just as Callisto took another swing at her. The edge for the blade dug itself into the wood and Xena twisted her branch, wringing the swordhilt from Callisto's hands.
The blonde growled in frustration, then kicked out, her boot impacting with the wood, sending both branch and sword flying a few feet away.
In the meantime Xena had performed a flip, landing on her feet solidly, before turning around and facing her opponent.
"No more weapons..." Callisto looked at her, then laughed, cracking her knuckles audibly. "Ripping you to bits with my bare hands will be more enjoyable anyway."
Xena snorted, her eyes watching attentively as her opponent slowly started to circle her. "You may be immortal, but with some creative carving I can make you suffer for the rest of your eternity. You know that, don't you?"
"Oh yes... I know the risks..."The blonde smiled at her charmingly. "But I just can't resist you, dear." She pushed herself up and into a flip, heading towards the Empress, but Xena simply responded by jumping up as well so they only ended up changing places.
A giggle from the blonde. "You can't keep this up forever, Xena. I can..."
She swung a fist at Xena, but the Empress blocked the strike with an upper arm, then hopped over a kick aimed at her feet. "I don't need forever..." She growled, then spun around and slammed out an elbow, impacting with the blonde's nose harshly, sending her staggering back a few paces.
"Ouch!" Callisto said indignantly, placing a hand on each side of her nose and then pushing the bones there back in place with a crack. "Now that wasn't nice..."
"Oh, I'm sorry..." Xena drawled in mock sincerity. "Then let me just apologise in advance for this..." She kicked the heel of her boot against the woman's ribs. "...and this..." A fist impacted with Callisto's jaw. "...and this..." She hopped up then started kicking at the blonde's chest, pushing her backwards with each kick until she felt her falter and slip. She pulled herself into a flip, neatly landing a few feet away as Callisto thudded to the ground.
Xena rolled her eyes, then took a few paces back towards the sword lying embedded in the wooden branch and grabbed onto the hilt as she placed a foot on the branch, pulling the weapon free. "You are starting to bore me..." She stated matter-of-factly, looking down at the bent shape lying at her feet as she twirled the sword in her hand. "I think its about time to finish this..."
A low laugh from Callisto, then the blonde lifted her head and looked up at her. The dark brown eyes glimmered with a deep red light for just a moment. "Oh, I agree..."
She pulled her sword from the soldier's chest, then turned around, focussing her attention on the small boy. "And now for the kid" She growled, advancing on him, pointing her sword in his direction.
But her path was blocked. "What are you doing?" Lao Ma asked, staring at her in shock.
"Now we can wipe out the entire line," she explained, as if it was the most logical thing in the world. " Then it'll just be the house of Lao. We can rule the whole kingdom of Chin together. You can do all your noble stuff and Borias and I will keep the piece." She grinned wickedly. "We'll have some laughs along the way."
She tightening her hold on her sword, but before she could take another step in the boy's direction Lao Ma had pulled back her hand, then pushed it forward again.
It was like an huge iron fist impacted with her stomach and it sent her flying back, slamming against a wall harshly. She slid to the ground, thudding onto the floor, but was picked up again moments later by unseen hands, which tossed her against a wooden pillar on the opposite side. Blood dripped from the corner of her mouth...
Xena gasped in a breath as the memory receded and she found herself sitting slumped at the base of a tree. Something tickled its way down her chin and she wiped at it with her upper arm, smearing a streak of blood across her skin.
Callisto laughed in delight. "Oh, this is fun!" She chortled. "Do it again!"
A fist impacted harshly with her cheek. She staggered back a few paces, but managed to recover her composure just in time to duck under the sword swung at her head. She quickly launched a counter attack, slamming her fist against the back of his head, knocking him out cold. She glanced up. The battle was raging around her, the people from her village fighting heroically. She sidestepped another lunge, kicking the attacker in a particularly sensitive spot and sending him straight to his knees. Her eyes roamed on, searching... "Lyceus!" She smacked the hilt of her sword onto someone's forehead.
"Here!" A voice drifted up, and she immediately looked in the direction it had come from, her eyes soon finding her brother in the crowd as he stuck his sword into his opponents leg. He then turned and looked up at her, raising his sword in salute, grinning brightly.
He didn't see the man sneaking up behind him. Didn't hear him pull his sword from the scabbard.
"Lyceus!! Look out!!" She rushed towards him. But it was to no avail. His eyes widened as the sword was pushed into his chest. His strength left him and he fell.
"No!!" She ran as fast as she could, dropping down to her knees and catching him before he could thud onto the earth. "Lyceus?" Her hand stroked his cheek. "Ly?"
His eyes stared up at her, unseeingly for another moment, then suddenly his body went limp in her embrace. "No... No, no, no..." She croaked, as she patted his cheek, squeezed his hand with hers. "Lyceus, come on... Come on, Ly... Please..." Tears slid down her cheeks. "Please... Don't leave me..."
Somehow she heard the sound of footsteps behind her and on pure instinct she ducked away to avoid a dagger from piercing her heart. She couldn't avoid the weapon completely though, and it embedded itself into her right shoulder, making her scream out in pain. Her hand touched the hilt of a sword and her fingers wrapped around it tightly. All her pain, all her anguish turned to hate and she spun around and lunged her weapon towards her attacker, neatly cutting through the veins in his throat.
Blood splurted out and onto her weapon, dripping its way down the blade and onto her hands, staining them in blood for the first time...
Callisto laughed ecstatically. "Alti, honey, you can stay in my body forever if you keep this up..."
Thanks but no thanks... A voice in the back of her mind spoke up. Your brain is a mess, I prefer my own...
"Suit yourself." Callisto shrugged negligently, then walked over to the panting Conqueror, who was cradling her injured arm with her other, her cheek now sporting a huge bruise, her tunic and face stained with blood, her eyes puffy and watery. "Having fun yet, Xena?"
Blue eyes looked up, then narrowed at her dangerously.
Callisto laughed. "I know I am... You know, I think I..."
Before she could finish that sentence Xena had strained her legs and pushed both her feet against the blonde, shoving her off and making her fly across the road. "This isn't over yet," the Empress hissed, pushing herself up, biting back the jolts of pain that were racing through her arm as she did so. "I am not..."
Caesar waved a hand over his shoulder negligently. "Break her legs."
A cry of agony rang through the forest. Xena fell to her knees, tears streaming from her eyes now.
"Oh, you're very right, dear." Callisto's voice drifted over the haze of pain. "This isn't over, yet..." She giggled in utter delight, then reached down, wrapping her hand around Xena's throat and lifting her up, off her feet. "I'm gonna make this moment last..."
Continued in part VII
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