The Edge of Nowhere
"Empress!" Pyrron stepped up to the dark stallion as Xena pulled the horse to a halt at the entrance of the stables. "Any luck?"
Xena shook her head, swinging a leg over Chilon's strong back before sliding to the ground, wincing as she impacted with the hard earth. "No." She laid a hand on Pyrron's shoulder for some support and managed a small nod for the young boy who took Chilon from her and led him into the stables. "They left an easy trail right up to Alti's home… But when I got there they were nowhere in sight…" She shook her head a little as they headed towards the palace. "It's like they vanished into thin air."
"You think that's Alti's doing, Empress? That she transported them elsewhere?"
"I don't know… I never heard she was capable of something like that, but then again, I didn't know she could transfer her powers to a vessel either, so…" Xena shrugged. "Could be…"
Pyrron nodded in understanding. They walked on in silence for a few moments. "Iona was very upset when she heard you'd gone out riding without her…" The Advisor said then, in an attempt to lighten the mood a bit.
Xena managed a small grin at this. "Did you explain?"
"Well, I tried…" Pyrron muttered. "But you know how that girl gets…"
The grin increased a little. "Yeah… I know…" A few more paces. "Is she still awake?"
Her advisor shook his head. "She wanted to stay up and yell at you, but she finally fell asleep on the couch."
The Empress chuckled softly. "Well, that's for the better I guess… I'll talk to her tomorrow…"
"You're not going out there again, are you?"
"I won't stop looking until I find her and rip her throat out." Xena simply replied, her face darkening a little.
Brown eyes looked up at her. "You should let your wounds heal first. You're no match for them like this…"
A dark eyebrow raised at him sharply.
Pyrron rolled his eyes. "Empress, you didn't beat them before. It's safe to assume it won't be much easier with you being half crippled."
Xena scowled at this. "I wasn't prepared for them before…" She muttered grumpily.
"Right…" Pyrron drawled, clearly unconvinced.
The Conqueror backhanded him lightly against the shoulder. "Don't get smart with me, Ronnie…"
"Me? Get smart?" The Advisor laid a hand over his heart innocently. "Never, Empress."
Xena snorted, shaking her head. "You make that sound so convincing…"
Pyrron laughed, amicably patting the dark-haired woman on the back as they halted in front of the door leading to Xena's private quarters. "You want me to send something to eat to your room?"
Xena considered this. "Yeah, I'd like that… Just something light…"
Her Advisor nodded in understanding, then walked off.
Xena turned and placed a hand on the doorknob, but then she reconsidered and turned, taking a few paces back down the hall towards Pyrron's quarters, softly opening the door. The room was covered in darkness, only the soft moonlight shining in through the window providing some form of illumination. Xena quietly crept inside, passing through the living room and towards a door on her right, softly pushing it open and peeking inside. She smiled as she spotted Iona curled up around a pillow, only half of the blanket covering her body while the other half lay draped on the floor. "Always kicking those blankets off…" She mumbled affectionately with a soft shake of her head as she walked closer, careful not to wake the girl, and bent down, lifting up the blanket before gently spreading it over Iona's body. The child mumbling something incoherent as she kicked the far edge of the blanket off of her foot. Xena stifled a chuckle, then leaned down and placed a kiss on the girl's forehead. "You're a hopeless case, Io." She mumbled, pushing a lock of blond hair out of her face. "That's another thing we have in common."
Iona stirred a little, but then settled down again, one hand clutching at the cloth covering her torso.
Xena looked at her for another moment, then straightened and exited the room, softly closing the door behind her. Instead of heading back to her own room she walked out onto the small balcony that belonged to Pyrron's quarters. Her own balcony overlooked the garden and the forest, but Pyrron's looked out onto the city. She crossed her arms on the marble railing and silently watched the many flickering lights that pierced out through the darkness. She wasn't really all that fond of Athens, but she did like the place at night. The way the Acropolis was illuminated by torches, the small moving lights of people walking through the city streets, towards their homes… In the day time the city was crowded and busy, but at night… At night it was quiet. Only the sound of flames licking at wood, soft voices in the distance, an owl hooting from time to time…
If she closed her eyes, the silence took her back to times when she'd spend the night sitting around the campfire with her men, listening to them boast about how bravely they'd fought today. Back to times when she'd known every man in her army personally. Knew their names, their interests, knew their families… because she'd lived with them all her life, had grown up with them. If she closed her eyes she could still hear their laughter, could feel the pats on the back, could almost see the warm smiles on their faces. Smiles directed at her. Because she was their friend.
Xena released a breath, opening her eyes again. They were dead now, all of them. Killed in her relentless pursuit of Cortese, in the battles for the cities she'd taken to serve as a buffer to secure Amfipolis…
And now the whole world was secured. But Amfipolis no longer existed. Because she herself had burned it down.
If it had been anyone else's life she would laugh and call it ironic. But it wasn't anyone else's life. It was hers. Xena released a grave breath, trying to get rid of the memories of the last time she'd walked into the small town, after she'd just sacked Rome.
She was feeling quite proud of herself that day, as she rode into town, adorned in Roman jewellery, a small escort of soldiers in beautifully decorated golden armour following close behind. The last time she'd been home her mother had looked down on her. She'd become a warlord, her mother had scolded. Just like Cortese.
Xena snorted. She was nothing like Cortese. And now she could prove that. The larger part of the world obeyed her commands these days, and now her mother would have to admit she'd been wrong. Would have to admit that she, Xena, had done the right thing. When she would bring her the gold she'd taken from the Roman nobles who'd supported Caesar in his final stand against her, when her mother would see her in all this richness, surely she…Xena sucked in a breath and squared her shoulders. Surely she'd be proud of her daughter.
Xena straightened in the saddle, looking down at the villagers whose faces she remembered from what seemed like a lifetime ago. The men and women hastily bent their heads as she approached. Xena smiled broadly as she pulled her horse to a halt in the centre of the village and easily dismounted. "Stay here," she ordered, as she handed her reigns to one of the soldiers.
The door to her mother's inn creaked softly as she pushed it open. "Mother?" She called out tentatively, the sound of her voice echoing dully through the empty inn. "Mom, it's me, I'm…"
Her voice got stuck in her throat as she spotted her mother, dangling from a large wooden beam by a piece of rope strung around her neck, her eyes staring back at her daughter unseeingly. Xena took a shaky step closer. "Mom? M…" She lifted a hand to her mouth as a sob shivered through her body. "No… No, please, no…" Another step, then she noticed a small bit of parchment held between the fingers of Cyrene's limp hand. Tentatively she reached out and took the parchment, folding it open with shaking fingers, reading the seven words written in firm thick letters.
I will live in shame no more.
She stared at the letters , several emotions flicking across her face, ranging from grief to intense pain and finally setting on hatred. Her hands clenched around the note, crumpling it to a ball as she paced outside again, her eyes flashing as she walked back to her horse and grabbed onto the reigns. "Burn the village." She ordered the soldier at her side in a cold whisper.
He frowned in confusion. "But, general…?"
"Burn it," She repeated, pronunciation both words slowly and clearly, before she pulled herself into the saddle. Her eyes flicked across the small houses of her hometown for one last time, before she roughly turned her horse around. "Start with the inn."
She'd not shed a single tear. She'd felt like crying, especially those first few days, but every time she did she'd just close her eyes and envision every angry look her mother had thrown at her as a child. Remembered every spanking, every harsh word… And she forced herself to hate her. Forced herself to not think of the good times, about how they'd sit around the fire with a cup of tea and talked about school, or about the water fights they used to have, the hugs Cyrene gave her when…
Xena closed her eyes, biting her lip as she felt a single teardrop sidle down her cheek. She lifted a hand and wiped it across her face self-depreciatively. "Stupid…" She scolded herself softly. "Don't be so horribly stupid…"
It was no use though, and she knew it… She couldn't do it anymore. The wall she'd spend so many years building up was crumbling down on her, as it had those times before, with M'Lila… Lao Ma… And now…
Xena folded her hands, resting her chin on top, staring out into the darkness pensively. There was something about the warrior that… Xena released a breath. There was just something about her. Just like there had been something about M'Lila, and about Lao Ma.
Gabrielle actually reminded her a little of both. The blonde had the drive M'Lila had had and had managed, just like the Gaelic woman, to use her slim built and short stature to her advantage in battle. And Xena clearly recognised Lao Ma's spirit in the warrior, even though it was hidden under layers of hatred that reminded her of… Well, of herself really…
The big difference though, Xena realised as she watched the shadows flick over the Acropolis, was that both M'Lila and Lao Ma had reached out to her in their own way. Both had prodded at her, trying to make her open up, and had succeeded quite nicely too.
Gabrielle on the other hand hadn't prodded at all. In fact, her main goal during her stay in the palace had been to avoid Xena at all cost. It had been Xena herself who'd sought the warrior's company, who had reached out to her with gifts and leniencies, who had let her get away with knowing things about her past that she hadn't shared with anyone before…
She liked the warrior. Even though the woman had sworn to kill her, was surely going to revive the rebellion and stand against her, hated her with every bone in her body… She liked her.
And that confused the Hades out of her.
She wasn't really good at liking people after all. Children, yes, but adults… It had taken her three years before she could even condone Pyrron's presence, and it had been three more before she'd actually admit to liking the older man, but with Gabrielle… She just liked her… A lot…
"Empress?" Pyrron's voice rose up behind her in question.
Xena looked up from her pondering, shooting a small sheepish smile over her shoulder. "Sorry… I was just uhm… Thinking…"
"And you needed my balcony for that?" Pyrron said with a hint of humour in his voice as he stepped up beside her, resting his arms on the marble ledge.
"You've got the better night time view…" Xena informed him with a half smile as she returned her gaze to the city in front of her.
"I see…" The Advisor drew in a deep breath of the cold evening air, then released it slowly. "It is quite a nice night out…"
"Hmm," The Empress murmured softly in agreement. "Nice ending to a lousy day…"
Pyrron nodded quietly, folding his hands together as he looked down at the small lights, some stationary, and some moving slowly along. "So… You think one of those lights is her?"
"No, she's probably just g…" Xena bit her lip as she realised she'd been tricked, then she turned her head to look into Pyrron's wickedly twinkling eyes. "Stop looking at me like that."
Her Advisor beamed a smile at her. "Like what?"
"Like that." Xena pointed a threatening finger at him, before grumpily staring into the darkness again. "You're not safe from my wrath, old man… Be warned…"
Pyrron chuckled softly, not intimidated in the slightest. He quietly studied the dark profile next to him for a long silent moment. "Are you in love with her?"
Xena shot him a bored look. "Don't be ridiculous…" She muttered, facing forward once more, before adding in feigned casualness. "Why would you think that?"
Pyrron flashed a grin at her. "You told me you thought she had a great butt… You could never resist a woman with a great butt, Empress."
Both dark eyebrows raised at this comment, then Xena snorted, shaking her head in disbelief. "Is that so?"
"Uhuh," Pyrron smirked, very content with his small victory, then he placed a hand on Xena's shoulder amicably. "Not that I blame you… She's a very nice woman…"
Xena released a breath, running a hand through her dishevelled locks. "Yeah… And that's just the problem, isn't it? She's a nice woman and I'm the Destroyer of Nations…"
"I do admit your chances with are on the small side…" Pyrron had to agree.
"Certainly because I'm gonna have to kill her sometime in the near future." Xena mumbled on unhappily.
Her adviser looked up doubtfully. "Perhaps you could…"
"Pyrron," the Empress cut him short firmly, turning her head to look at him. "You know as well as I do that if the rebellion relives here in Athens there will be chaos. Last time some of my soldiers died because of that…" A breath. "Ismene died because of that… And no matter how I feel about Gabrielle…" She glanced down, shaking her head. "… I won't let her ruin all we've worked for…"
Her Advisor looked at the woman compassionately. "Maybe… Maybe things will work out… Maybe she'll understand…"
Xena snorted. "Right… And maybe pigs will grow wings and fly…"
"Stranger things have happened, Empress…" Pyrron managed a small smile. "Around you, strange things actually tend to happen a lot."
"All right, sit down…" Thalia ordered as she pointed her friend towards the bed, while she herself knelt down at the bedside and placed the bowl of water and the bandages she'd taken with her on the floor.
"You really don't have to do this…" The warrior tried to argue, but she was immediately shushed by the redhead, who carefully started removing a boot.
"No complaining," Thalia told her firmly, as she removed the other boot. "You've had a tough day, the least I can do is clean out your wounds…"
"I hardly even feel…" She winced as the leather scraped against her soles. "…a thing…"
"Forgive me if I'm not convinced…" Thalia drawled, shooting her a meaningful look, as she started to unroll the bandages from around Gabrielle's left foot.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes in defeat. "Fine, fine…" She muttered, as she leaned her back against the wall, feeling quite awkward as Thalia started to clean out the wound on one of her feet. "I uhm… I'm glad we got things sorted out with Solari…"
"Me too." Thalia agreed. "It was good to finally meet her. And she sure knows a lot about what's going on in the palace. That might come in pretty handy."
"Hmm," the warrior murmured in agreement, tipping her head back and regarding the ceiling thoughtfully. "But as soon as I get Eph out she's leaving that place… She's been in there for too long… It's eating her up inside…"
"I guess you're…" The redhead started, then suddenly fell silent, the movement of her hands stopping as well.
Gabrielle frowned, then looked down. "Thalia?"
Her friend stared at her foot for another long moment, then she lifted her eyes to meet green ones. "This uhm… This Alti woman… She showed you your crucifixion, right?"
Gabrielle nodded softly.
"Then how come these wounds she made aren't on top of your scars?"
Gabrielle held her friend's worried gaze for another moment, then she dropped her eye. "I… I wish I knew…" She managed in a whisper.
Thalia studied her quietly, watching her friend nervously run her fingers over her bare arms. "There's something you're not telling me…" She deduced, reading the warrior's behaviour as easily as words on an open scroll.
Gabrielle released a breath. "I… I don't know if…" She glanced up insecurely. "It was so very confusing, and…" A sigh. "Promise you won't get upset?"
"You saw what?!"
Gabrielle released a breath. "Thalia, please…"
"I can't believe this… I just can't…" The redhead tossed up her hands, pacing back and forth through the room. "You couldn't have… I mean, of all the people, the C… Argh…" She ran a hand through her dishevelled locks. "It… It doesn't mean anything…" She turned to Gabrielle, her eyes almost pleading. "Right? It's just… just something that witch thought up… false prophecies… Just to scare you… Right?"
Gabrielle studied her fumbling fingers. "Could be…" A half shrug. "I just… I don't know Thal… I…" A breath. "If it's not something that's going to happen, then Alti showed me this for a reason… To keep me away from the Conqueror…"
Thalia snorted softly. "Like you need a vision for that…"
The warrior closed her eyes, releasing a breath.
The redhead frowned, then looked up. "Gab?" Green eyes slowly lifted and met hers. "Gab, you're not even thinking of…"
"I'd…" Gabrielle sucked in a breath. "I'd rather have her on that throne than Alti…"
Thalia stared back at her in disbelief. "You've gone insane…" She then spat out, shaking her head. "I can't believe you… Don't you remember what she's done?!"
The warrior dropped her head. "Of course I remember…"
"Then why on earth would you…" Thalia growled something, resuming her frantic pacing.
"Thalia, it's…" Gabrielle closed her eyes. "You haven't seen what I've seen…"
The redhead spun around and pointed a finger at her. "No, Gab, you haven't seen what I've seen! You haven't seen how Kimon got slaughtered, you didn't hear them scream! You weren't there when…"
"I know I wasn't there!" Gabrielle shot back, her green eyes raging now. "And I hear them scream every night, Thalia, every freaking night! So don't you go yelling at me that I don't understand, cause I do!"
The redhead fell silent, their eyes holding for a long moment, then Thalia released a shaky breath. "I'm sorry…"
Gabrielle leaned her forehead on her folded hands. "So am I… I… I didn't mean to snap at you, I just…" She bit her lip. "I'm so confused…"
Thalia walked over and sat down beside her on the bed.
"I…" Gabrielle continued softly. "There's still so many times when I see her and I feel all this… this rage drifting up…And all I wanna do is pick up my sword and run her through… But then… Then I see her with Niobe, or Iona… Caspar…"
"The Advisor's kids?"
"Yeah…" Gabrielle nodded. "And she's… And they love her… They really, really love her… And… And she loves them… And… And murdering evil spawns from Tartarus don't love, Thal…" She peeked up. "People love…"
"Kimon loved… And Naxos…" Thalia argued, softly. "But now they can't anymore… Because of her…"
"I know…" Gabrielle managed, her voice thick with emotions. "And… And I hate her for that, but… But there were times when… She'd joke, or laugh or… or smile and… I just had to wonder…" She ran a hand through her hair. "I know it's stupid…"
Thalia studied her friend's profile, seeing the shadows and wrinkles these weeks, months, years had caused. She reached out a hand and gently pushed back a lock of blond hair. "It's not…" She said softly, managing a small smile as green eyes drifted up and met hers insecurely. "You're… You're just being you, Gab… You always see the good in people… Even in her…"
"I didn't for the longest time…" The warrior murmured in reply. "I just… hated and hated and… And hating is safe, you know? Cause when you hate, no one can hurt you…You just build up walls and…And you shield everyone out… But being back here…" She waved a hand at her surroundings. "All these memories reminding me of who I used to be and… And all these people looking at me like…" A grave breath escaped her. "It's… It's like being thrown into freezing water… There's all this pressure around me, and I can't seem to break through the ice and come up for air…"
Thalia gently squeezed her shoulder. "If you tell me where you're stuck I'll come and break the ice for you…"
Gabrielle managed a smile for her. "I wish you could…"
"I'm here for you…" Thalia insisted softly. "I… I may not understand… this vision or… or what you see in her, but… I'm here for you…"
The warrior's smile grew a little. "Always…"
Thalia wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her friend closer. "Always."
Xena's eyes snapped open as the door to her bedroom was opened and footsteps paced inside. "What the…" She pushed herself upright, then shot a look skyward as she spotted who'd just entered.
"You could have taken me with you…" Iona crossed her arms, looking up grumpily.
Xena sighed. "For crying out loud, Io, it's not even light out…"
"Don't change the subject just because I caught you sleeping in…" The girl deadpanned, pointing a finger at her. "You should have taken me with you…"
The Empress crossed her arms as well, looking back at the blonde determinedly. "No… It was dangerous…"
The girl lifted her chin. "I'm not afraid of danger…"
Xena rolled her eyes. "Io, you don't know what danger is… And I'd like to keep it that way…"
Iona scowled at her. "It's not fair… You go out and have all the fun and I'm stuck here doing homework…"
Xena chuckled softly, then reached out and grabbed onto an arm, tugging the girl on the bed with her. "It wasn't fun at all, trust me… I'd have much rather stayed here and done homework with you…"
Iona looked up at her. "That bad, huh?"
The Empress chuckled, ruffling the girl's hair affectionately. "That bad…"
"Well…" A deep sigh. "I guess I can forgive you then…"
"Eternally grateful," Xena drawled.
Iona flashed a grin at her. "I'll remember that…"
"Oh you will, will you?" Blue eyes glinted dangerously, then Iona squealed as fingers tickled her side.
"Don't!" A hysteric giggle. "Xena, stop it!"
"Not until you admit defeat…" The Empress growled playfully, catching a particularly ticklish spot under the girl's foot. "Gotcha…"
"Ah!" Iona tried to squirm away, but was unsuccessful. "OK, OK… I give…"
"Heh," Xena chortled, stopping her attack. "Another victory…"
Iona sat up, shaking her head to get some strands of blond hair out of her eyes. "So…" She looked down at her stretched out playmate. "Does this mean you're feeling better?"
Xena considered this for a moment, comparing the hurt in her legs with yesterday's pains. "I guess so…"
"Yay!" Iona hopped up a little, making the mattress bob up and down. "So we're going fishing then? Now? "
The Empress shook her head. "I can't, Io… I'm on a witch hunt…"
"Aw…" A pout. "Can't that wait?"
"Nope…" Xena touched a finger to the girl's nose. "I need to get rid of her, Io… Or she's gonna come back to haunt us, and I can't have that, now can I?"
The pout increased. "I guess…"
Xena rolled her eyes in defeat. "Besides, you have to organise a good fishing trip way ahead of time… Why don't you get things ready today and we'll go tomorrow, OK?"
"Really?" Iona smiled delightedly. "You promise this time? No chickening out?"
"I didn't chicken out," Xena retorted defensively. "I got attacked…"
"Well, I have considered you just set this whole thing up to save yourself the embarrassment of losing to me at wrestling…" Iona stated, looking down at the dark-haired woman smugly. "Again…"
"Oh ho…" Xena chortled, pushing herself up on her hands and bringing her face within inches of the blond girl. "Is that a challenge?"
Iona met her gaze without hesitation. "And what if it is?"
Xena smirked at her, then launched upwards in a flash, grabbing onto Iona's waist and tugging her down with a playful growl. "I think I can spare a moment to kick your butt…"
"As if!" Iona giggled, worming her way out of a hold around her neck agilely. "Looooser!"
"Why you little…" Xena grabbed for the girl again, and pulled her into a tangle of limbs and blankets.
Both looked up at the sound of a throat clearing, Xena pushing away the blanket that was half obscuring her face and Iona wiping her mussed hair out of her face.
Pyrron was leaning casually in the doorway, his arms crossed over his chest. "What did I say about wrestling before dawn, children?"
"Aw, come on, dad…" Iona ran a hand through her dishevelled hair. "Just another moment… This won't take long…"
"Hah!" Xena poked her in the back indignantly. "I beg to differ…"
Iona shot a smug look over her shoulder. "You can beg all you want, but it won't get you anywhere…"
"Oh really?" Xena's eyes sparkled mischievously.
"Hold it, you two…" Pyrron hastily intervened. "You can play later. Right now, you…" He pointed a finger at Iona. "Have to bathe and get dressed and get ready for classes…"
"Nuhuh…" The Advisor gave her a stern look. "You can beg all you want but it won't get you anywhere…"
"Pff." Iona scowled at him, unhappy at having her own lines used against her, but she did push herself up and off the bed. She turned and pointed a finger at the dark-haired woman lying curled up in the pile of blankets. "This isn't over…"
"You got that right…" Xena retorted easily, grinning wickedly.
Pyrron rolled his eyes at the two, then watched as Iona headed for the door with confident paces. As she passed him he reached out and ruffled her blond locks. "And don't forget to wash your hair…"
Iona groaned something incoherent as she paced on, not sparing him a look.
Pyrron shook his head, running a hand over his face. "I do hope that girl skips adolescence. I don't know if I can handle her if she doesn't."
Xena chuckled, sitting up and unwinding herself from her blankets. "We'll manage…"
Pyrron settled on a non-commital mutter as a reply, then decided to change the subject. "Are you going after Alti again today?"
"Of course…" Xena pushed herself to her feet, happy to find herself standing a bit more firmly then she did yesterday.
"I hate to remind you, Empress, but there is another… issue… we'll have to deal with soon…"
Xena glanced up, considering this for a moment, then she nodded. "You're right…" She paced towards the closet and selected a set of light brown trousers and a tunic of a darker shade. "But I need to check one more time… See if I missed any clues somewhere…" She shook her head a little as she walked back towards the bed, depositing her clothes there as she herself settled down on the edge beside them. "The whole situation is bugging me… But…" She looked up at him. "I'll be back here around noon and then we can set up a plan for the… Gabrielle-issue…"
"Agreed. I wish you much luck on your hunt, Empress," Pyrron bowed politely, then exited the room, closing the door behind him.
"Thanks…" Xena muttered as she stripped out of her sleep shirt and pulled her tunic closer. "I have the feeling I'm gonna need it…"
Gabrielle sucked in a deep breath of the morning air, then released it again slowly. She resettled the strap of the bag that was slung over her shoulder, filled with the leaflets Mentius had made the previous night and had delivered to Agenor's home a candlemark ago. The young man had immediately offered to deliver them for her, but Gabrielle had hastily shook her head, telling him she didn't want him to risk his life.
Which was true, of course… But… She hugged the dark cloak a little tighter around her as she snuck through the darkness soundlessly. If she was honest with herself she'd admit this was more escapism then anything else… She hadn't had any time for herself since she'd left the Conqueror's household and she needed a few moments to just get her head on straight and be ready for this new day.
She stopped and glanced up, judging the wall of the building before her carefully for a moment. When she'd pinpointed her route she hopped up and grabbed onto a small ledge, pulling herself up higher. Another jump and her hands folded around a flagpole, which veered slightly under her weight. Gabrielle swung her body back, then forward, then back again, before letting go, using the veering of the flagpole to launch herself upwards, landing skilfully on top of the roof.
The warrior stood there quietly for a moment, watching the early morning sun as it cast its first soft rays across the city of Athens. Spread out below her was the Agora, the marketplace, and even at this time of day it was already bustling with activity. Merchants were setting up their stalls and laying out their wares, while the first shoppers were prowling through the ranks, eager to find the best bargains and snatch them away in front of the noses of the competition. She could see several soldiers in strategic positions glancing around the square with watchful eyes.
She wasn't worried about them in the slightest though. No matter how watchful their eyes were, they wouldn't spot her. And even if they did… She could handle them…
Her gaze slid around again, until they finally settled on the marble stairs right below her, leading up to the building she was standing on top. The temple of the King of the Gods… She'd chosen this place on purpose, not just because it was the highest building in the Agora, allowing her a good view of her surroundings, but also because this was the place she'd been arrested all those years back, and making her first stand here in three years seemed… appropriate…
The light around her became a shade brighter, and she realised this was not the time to reminisce. She knelt down beside the bag and pulled back the flap before lifting the pack up. She waited a moment, until a firm breeze blew in from the north, before she toppled the contents out, letting the wind do its job and distribute the bits of parchment, letting them rain down on the Agora.
People looked up as the first leaflets touched the ground, some reaching down and picking one up, reading the contents, before nudging the person next to them and passing it along. Gabrielle smiled, listening to the wondering muttering that drifted up.
The warrior shifted her gaze to the voice booming across the Agora and saw one of the soldiers pointing right at her, the others immediately springing to action, running towards her as fast as they could.
Gabrielle couldn't quite suppress a wicked chuckle as she hopped off the ledge, letting herself fall down several feet until her hands touched the wood of the flagpole, letting her momentum swing her around the wood… Once, twice, then she let go, pulling herself into a neat flip before landing on the ground with a nearly soundless thud. The soldiers looked a little taken aback by this display, but soon regained their composure and charged towards her, drawing their swords. The warrior pulled her own weapon from her cloak in reply, swinging it around her body comfortably, patiently waiting for the first of her attackers to reach her.
You could of course just take off and avoid conflict, a voice in the back of her mind scolded her, but a second laughed, enjoying the surge of adrenaline that was now pumping through her body far too much.
With one stroke she disarmed the first two soldiers, before slamming her fist into one and her sword hilt into the other, knocking them both unconscious. The third proved to be a bit more of a challenge, and she exchanged a few parries with the young woman facing her. Her opponent didn't expect the flip though, and Gabrielle hopped over her with ease, then elbowed her against the back of the head.
"Just give this up, warrior," A voice called out to her and she looked up to see an older officer walking closer. "You're outnumbered. You can never win…"
"I can't?" Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at him, then kicked out at a soldier who was trying to sneak up behind her. "Really?" She ducked under a sword, then hopped back onto her hands and kicked out with both feet, sending her attacker flying backwards, taking another three soldiers down with him. "I thought I was doing pretty decent so far…"
The officer seemed hesitant, but then squared his shoulders and drew his sword. "The Conqueror has not send out orders to kill you…"
"How nice…" Gabrielle drawled. "I'm feeling all warm and fuzzy inside…"
He pushed his sword towards her, but the warrior simply sidestepped, then slammed the flat of his hand against his wrist. The metal clattered onto the ground, and his eyes shot up at her, widening in fear.
Gabrielle just produced a sweet smile for him. "Tell her Gabrielle says hi," she instructed, before slamming her forehead into his and then watching him slump onto the ground.
"I don't see what the problem is," Pompey muttered grumpily, looking at the guarded entrance to the army complexes which were situated a few miles north of the palace. "I'm a lieutenant. No, THE lieutenant… When they see me they'll let us straight through…"
Callisto rolled her eyes. "The problem is, dear, that they know you are dead and when your little friends see you, they're gonna run screaming into the forest…" A thoughtful pause. "Though that might not necessarily be linked to the fact that you're dead of course…"
Pompey crossed his arms indignantly. "And what does it matter if they do run? We'll get in there just the same, won't we?"
"You don't grasp the concept of a stealthy take- over, do you?" Alti shot him a look. "It generally involves the person you're trying to best NOT knowing about your plans."
Pompey narrowed his eyes at the two women. "You know, I don't think I like your attitudes much. Need I remind you, I was send here by the great Ares himself. You should show some more respect for me and…"
"Oh puhlease…" Callisto sighed, then lifted her hand and poked her index finger at the lieutenant's forehead, making his head topple back. She smirked contently at the result. "There… much better…"
Alti smothered a grin.
Pompey placed his hands on his hips, then turned around and faced the two women once more, shooting them an angered look. "That was completely uncalled for."
Callisto crouched down behind a bush, judging the wall before her carefully.
"Why don't we just… Whoa!" Pompey dropped down to his knees as Callisto yanked hard on his armour. He hastily lifted a hand to his head, making sure it stayed put. "Geez…" He shot the blonde next to him a tired look. "Why did I get stuck with you anyway? I'm starting to like hanging out with Alti better…" He considered this statement for a moment. "That's a scary thought actually…"
Callisto kept her eyes on the wall, listening to the sound of boot steps pacing somewhere behind it. "Alti sticks to the spiritual side of this partnership… I'm more of a physical kinda girl myself…"
"And you're going to sneak into the encampment here?" Pompey shot her a disbelieving look. "You really think none of those soldiers in there are going to notice you?"
"Fortunately for us, most of those soldiers are looking for us somewhere near the Aegean, since they don't know we got some godly assistance and got zapped straight back here." Callisto cocked her head, listening intently for another moment. "Stay here." She then ordered the lieutenant, before prowling away, taking a few long strides and then vaulting over the wall in one go.
Pompey actually looked kind of impressed at this. "Neat…" He muttered, staring at the spot where she'd disappeared over the wall for a few moments, until suddenly motion caught his attention and he saw a thick piece of rope being thrown over the wall. He looked left, then right, checking for any guards coming his way, then he snuck from his hideout, grabbing onto the rope and hauling himself up.
With a soft thud he landed on the other side, crouching down and glancing around for any sign of trouble. They were hidden behind one of the commander's tents, out of view from any busy areas, so no one appeared to have noticed their entrance. He glanced beside him to watch Callisto haul in the rope. "I hate to admit it, but… that was pretty stealthy…"
The blonde looked up and flashed him a charming smile. "Why thank you, dear."
Pompey nodded curtly, then hastily grabbed for his head as the movement nearly sent it toppling back again. "This is driving me insane…" He growled under his breath. "There has to be some way to fix this…"
"Sorry honey, I left the superglue back in my pit…" She giggled, then cocked her head as another thought occurred to her. "I might be able to help you out though…"
Pompey turned his eyes to look at her. "How?"
Callisto smirked at him, then wrapped the thick bit of rope she still had in her hands around his neck, nice and tight, tying it off with a neat bow. "There…" She studied at her creation in satisfaction. "Very… decorative."
Pompey shot her a bored look. "And I was just warming up to you…"
The blonde giggled, then grabbed onto an arm and tugged him along. "C'mon bowboy… Lets go talk to some of those buddies of yours…"
It was a little before noon when Xena returned to the palace. She dropped Chilon off at the stables, then walked back towards the palace, happy to be able to do that again without aid. Alti's magic had done its worst and she was well on her way to recovery. The hurting was tolerable.
But her physical pain was not what bothered her, it was the mental bit that was doing her in. She'd found no clue whatsoever as to where Alti and co. had taken off to, and that was bugging her immensely. Xena didn't like to lose. Of course, she's lost to Gabrielle, but she hadn't minded that too much really, since she respected the warrior's great skills in the martial arts department. Gabrielle was a worthy opponent, and she wasn't ashamed to admit defeat to the likes of her… But Alti…
Xena scowled in dismay. Alti was smart, sure, and she had that whole spiritual thing going on… But really, if Xena was being honest with herself, she had to admit she should have seen this one coming. Alti's obvious dislike of the whole situation, her sudden departure, her odd behaviour on return… She should have been able to put the pieces together… But she didn't… She'd been too… distracted…
And now here was another puzzle laid out for her, and though at least she recognised it for what it was this time around, she was lost, without a clue of how to put the pieces together and figure out what Alti was up to… And that bugged her immensely.
There was something… Something she wasn't seeing… Some little thing… But what was it? What the Hades was it…
Xena looked up from her pondering as she saw Pyrron walking towards her, one of her lieutenants, who was sporting a mean bruise on his forehead, in tow. She raised an eyebrow at the duo in question.
"I'm afraid the Gabrielle-issue has become a bit more of a pressing matter, Empress…" Pyrron told her, holding out a slip of parchment for her to take.
So Xena did, folding it open and reading the few words written on it
For even the strongest force will weaken with time,
And then its violence will return,
And kill it.
Xena chuckled, not having to read the name penned down at the bottom to know who these words belonged to. "She doesn't waste any time, does she?"
"I'm afraid not, Empress." Pyrron agreed, following her as they entered her study and Xena circled her desk and sat down behind it. "She was distributing these on the Agora this morning."
Xena studied the bit of parchment for another moment, then glanced up, looking past Pyrron to the lieutenant standing behind him. "And I'm guessing she had a little run in with the military?"
The man dropped his head, looking ashamed. "I failed you, Highness."
"I couldn't beat her myself, Dorian, it'd be very hypocritical of me to punish you for not being able to accomplish what I can't do myself." Xena told him, but she approved of his behaviour though, not making excuses for his failure gained the man a few extra points. "Any casualties?"
"Mostly bruises, Highness." Dorian informed her. "One of the guys got nicked by a sword when he got tossed against two other soldiers…"
Xena suppressed a grin at this.
"…but he should be fine."
Blue eyes turned pensive for a moment. "So… No deaths?"
Dorian shook his head. "No, ma'am."
"Hmm… Interesting…" Xena drummed her fingers on her desk for a moment in thought.
"She uhm…" Dorian cleared his throat uncomfortably. "She told me to tell you she said… hi, Empress."
Surprised blue eyes blinked up at him, then the dark-haired woman couldn't suppress a short laugh. "Really?" A nod from her lieutenant. "Well, I'd tell you to say hi back, but I doubt you'll want to be seeing her again any time soon, right?"
The lieutenant released a grave breath. "Quite right, Empress…" A short pause in which he considered his words. "She is a very skilled fighter, Highness… You should take the threat she poses seriously…"
Xena folded her hands together, leaning her chin on top of her entwined fingers. "I am, Dorian…" She murmured, then looked up at him, motioning him toward the door with her eyes. "Leave us…"
The lieutenant tapped his chest respectfully, then retreated.
Pyrron limped closer, seating himself on the Edge of Xena's desk. He looked at the thoughtful woman, quietly waiting for her to finish her thoughts and put them to words.
Silence lasted for another few moments, then Xena settled back in her seat, meeting Pyrron's eyes. "You think this is a death threat?" She waved her hand at the slip of parchment.
The Advisor considered this question seriously, then shrugged a little. "She's not one to bluff, Empress…"
"True…" Xena had to admit , continuing her pondering. "But she didn't kill any of my soldiers today… If she's so set on vengeance, killing off some guards in a nice display of show-offiness would have been a nice start…" She shook her head a little. "That's Gabby for ya, always keeping me guessing…" Another pause, then in a more businesslike tone. "Your advise?"
Pyrron exhaled, then set his mind to trying to look at things objectively. "Word of mouth travels fast, definitely when Athenian merchants are involved. Adding those notes to her little display… It's fair to say she forms a significant threat to the stability of this city and the Empire." Pyrron leaned back on a hand. "The way I see it, you really only have two options. One: you can ignore what happened today. Not mention one word about it. By taking no action you might be able to convince the people this is all some big hoax. Or that you just don't consider Gabrielle a threat worthy of your attention…"
Xena glanced up at him. "And two?"
The Advisor looked back at her wryly. "You know what option number two is, Empress…"
A sigh. "Yeah, I guess I do…"
Silence fell again, and Pyrron waited patiently as Xena's eyes turned inward again to consider her course of action. "She is a serious threat," the dark-haired woman said finally. "I'm not going to lie to myself and pretend she's not. I think she's a more reliable factor than Alti is at this stage, since I can at least expect certain moral standards from Gabrielle, where as Alti… well… I don't think moral is in her vocabulary, really… But still…" Long fingers lifted up the slip of parchment and reread the words written there again. "I don't know where she stands, not really…" A breath, then she looked up at Pyrron. "I agree though that launching a full scale counter attack will be like flashing a red cloth at the resistance… The situation should be dealt with a bit more tactfully…" She sat up straighter, pulling open a drawer and pulling out a sheet of parchment. "Do we still have people under cover in the resistance?"
Pyrron nodded. "A few."
"Send word to them to get busy and find out where she is." Xena scribbled some words onto her parchment, then blew on the ink to let it dry. "When they hear anything I want a report on my desk a.s.a.p." She folded the parchment, then picked up a burning candle and tipped it over the note, letting a bit of wax drip onto it, before quickly pressing her seal ring into the warm liquid. "I want some extra patrols on those streets, but make the guys wear plain clothes. No armour, no leathers… An incognito sorta thing…"
Pyrron nodded. "And…. And what if they do find her, Empress? If the soldiers corner her somewhere…?"
Blue eyes glanced up at him. "I… I prefer it if she'd be taken alive, Pyrron…" She handed him the letter. "But she is a danger, and if bringing her here alive is an impossibility…"
The Advisor's gaze met hers in understanding, the thought not needing to be finished.
Brutus ran a hand through his hair, ruffling some dust from the short dark locks. He'd been out hunting since sunset of the previous day and he had to struggle to keep his eyes open. Normally he would easily be able to cope with an all-nighter, but with all the tension lately, the execution of Pompey, the extra work that'd left him, the constant threat of the presence of the rebel Gabrielle… Well, let's just say life hadn't been all that pleasant lately.
He pushed open the door to his quarters, unhooking his cloak from his shoulders and tossing the cloth over a chair. He lifted a foot and grabbed onto his boot with both hands, one placed at the toe and one at the heel, then started to tug the foot garment off.
With a thud the lieutenant thumped onto the ground, flat on his butt, his eyes wide as he looked up, staring at the figure standing before him, dressed in armour, the top button of his tunic buttoned up tightly, holding up a strip of white cloth covering his neck "No…" He shook his head in disbelief. "It's not possible… I'm… I'm tired… You're not here…"
"Oh, I am here…" Pompey refuted, crossing his arms and looking down at his former colleague. "I've been waiting for you, my friend. Come…" He held out a hand. "Get up…"
Brutus glanced up hesitantly for another moment, then he took the offered hand, looking at it as he was hauled to his feet, before glancing up into Pompey's face. "You're… you're not dead? But Xena…"
"Slid my throat, yes, don't remind me…" Pompey muttered grumpily, crossing his arms.
"But then how…?"
Now a broad grin crossed Pompey's face. "Ares brought me back."
Brutus's eyes widened. "Ares? Ares, the King of the Gods himself?"
"The one and only…" Pompey confirmed, not quite smothering the pride lingering in his voice. "He chose me, Brutus. He chose me to lead us all into a new era." An indignant snort drifted up from under the table, but Pompey just kicked his heal against a wooden leg and stopped any more comments. "Ares feels this world is ready for a change…" He dropped his voice. " A change in leadership…"
The lieutenant's eyes were practically bulging out of his skull now. "Ares brought you back to take on Xena???"
Pompey nodded sternly. "But you realise I can't defeat her by myself. I'm going to need some help…"
Brutus blinked. "I…" A shake of the dark head. "No, no, I can't… I pledged my life to her, I can't just betray her like this…"
"I always made good on my promises to Xena, and look where it got me." Pompey shot back, tugging the fabric around his throat down a little, showing his companion the gash in his neck. "She killed me to save her little toy, Brutus. I was doing my job, trying to protect her, and she killed me…" He leaned closer, dropping his voice again. "Don't sit around and wait for her to get tired of you, my friend."
"I… I don't…" Brutus stuttered on bewilderedly.
Pompey released a tired breath. "Let me lay out the facts for you." He took a few paces through the room. "Xena has flipped her lid. This Gabrielle's working her magic on the Conqueror and Xena's falling for it. We have an obligation to do what's right for this Empire, Brutus. And even Ares now realises she is no longer the right person to lead us." He stopped his pacing and laid a hand on the lieutenant's armoured shoulder. "Join me, Brutus. We stood side by side in battle so many times before. Let's fight side by side again. For the sake of the Empire…" Brutus blinked up at him doubtfully. "Come on… What do you say?"
"They say she flew straight down from the heavens and she defeated those legions without even breaking a sweat…"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, wrapping her dark cloak around her a bit tighter as she strode on. Her plans had worked out the way she'd hoped and word had spread about her return like wildfire. And now she almost wished it hadn't…
"Think she can do it? Beat the Conqueror?" Another whispered voice drifted into her ears.
"Of course she can." A second replied immediately, almost indignantly. "She's Gabrielle…"
Gabrielle increased her paces, turning into a quieter alley. She released a heavy breath and closed her eyes, wishing she could shut down her sensitive hearing for just a moment and avoid listening all this undiluted praising.
Naxos had turned her into a legend and in doing that he'd kept the leftovers of the resistance breathing, slowly but steadily. She could hardly blame her friend for that. A part of her realised she should be thanking him, actually, for saving her the trouble of starting from scratch and having to rebuilt all they'd worked for before. There were a lot of people out there who were cheering for her, just because of her name and the stories they associated with that name. She didn't have to convince them with long campaigns, she didn't have to make them see standing up to the Conqueror was the right thing to do… They would just stand up anytime she told them to… And if someone would ask why, they'd just point at her and say 'because she's Gabrielle'…
The warrior rubbed her temple, trying to rid herself of the pounding headache that was drilling at her skull. She'd gone back to Agenor's place after her morning activities, but soon enough Mentius and some of his friends had showed up on the doorstep and started to relate in glorious detail all the stories they'd heard about her… After a while she just couldn't take it anymore, couldn't take the words or the looks of unwavering faith she was getting, so she'd excused herself, grabbed her cloak and snuck out the back door.
Being out here on the streets wasn't really all that pleasant though, she realised now as she turned another corner, trying to get as far away from the busy shopping streets as she could. She'd considered slipping out the city gates, whistling for Argo and taking the horse for a ride. But she really couldn't do that, now could she? Taking off for a long stretch of time was irresponsible, and there were a lot of people counting on her right now… Gabrielle sighed tiredly. Gods, smacking up the Conqueror was a field trip compared to this…
Xena unrolled another scroll, going over its content quietly. She'd been working on reports for the last few candlemarks, since she'd gotten way behind on her reading because of her hunting the previous day. Her thoughts kept straying though, and she finally gave up on the scroll, leaning back in her seat and tipping her head back, gazing up at the ceiling tiredly. She'd spend a short while sparring with some of her soldiers, in an attempt to blow off some steam, but she'd soon grown tired of that. No matter how talented they were, they weren't half the challenge Gabrielle had been.
Reading over boring bits of parchment wasn't doing her sanity much good either however… Xena released a breath. Maybe she could go outside for a while, a breath of fresh air might be able to boost her energy levels a little. Maybe…
An anxious voice drifted in and Xena cocked her head, then pushed herself to her feet and walked to the window, placing her hands on the sill and leaning out a little. She saw Esmee run into the garden, calling out Galon's name. Her new part-time gardener looked up from his spot near the pond, straightening. "What's wrong?" She heard him ask.
"There's a woman at the door," Esmee panted as she slid to a halt by his side. "She says your wife's gone into labour…"
Even from this distance she could see his eyes widen in fear. "But… She can't be… It's too soon…"
"She can't be… It's too soon…"
"Come on…" Esmee tugged at her sleeve urgingly. "The healer said to hurry…"
She'd jumped on her horse and galloped off, away from the line of shackled men and women, straight back to the palace, ran up the stairs, turned the corner and rushed into Pyrron's quarters…
And slid to a halt in the doorway to her Advisor's bedroom, seeing Pyrron on his knees by the bed, his face buried in Ismene's hair, his shoulders shaking uncontrollably. The healer rose to his feet as he spotted her, his head bent. "I tried all I could, Empress… But she was too weak…"
Xena just stared past him, looking at the still form in disbelief. This couldn't be happening… She'd only been gone for a few candlemarks… This couldn't be…
Her eyes tracked from the long flowing blond hair, past the closed eyes and finally settled on Ismene's still swollen belly. Her eyes shot to the healer's bent form. "The child…?"
The man simply shook his head.
Xena's mind raced around in circles for another moment, stuck between grief and disbelief, then she roughly pushed the healer aside and walked into the room, dropping to her knees beside her Advisor's wife, pulling a dagger from her boot, the blade still tainted red by the blood of the man she'd killed as she'd tried to settle today's skirmishes.
Beside her Pyrron lifted his head, his eyes red and swollen, and he watched her lift the blade in complete non-understanding. "What… What are you doing?"
Xena stuck the blade in Ismene's stomach, then yanked it towards her in a rough gesture, cutting open the skin.
"No!" Pyrron jumped towards her, but Xena backhanded him against the wall almost carelessly with one hand, while she continued her cutting with the other.
The healer took a step towards her carefully. "Empress, I don't underst…" He fell silent as Xena tossed her dagger aside, then used both her hands to pull the small child from its mother's womb. She pressed it against her, cradling the baby in one arm while rinsing out its mouth with a finger of the other.
A moment, then a small cough, followed by loud screaming as the child blinked open her eyes and took in the chaotic world around her for the first time and decided she didn't like it much.
Pyrron scrambled back to his feet, looking at the tiny baby in the Empress's arms, who was now grabbing weakly at Xena's armour. The dark-haired woman turned to him, her face a mask as she placed the bundle into his arms without a word. Pyrron looked down into brown eyes that matched his own perfectly, then he tentatively lifted a hand and stroked the baby's cheek with a finger. "Our daughter…" He managed to whisper in a thick voice.
Xena didn't hear him though, as she looked down on Ismene's pale face. She closed her eyes, forcing back the emotions that were threatening to overtake her, then she leaned closer and pressed her lips to the woman's forehead. "Forgive me…" She murmured into an unhearing ear. "I tried, but I… I couldn't…" Her gaze hardened as she remembered why it was that she'd left the palace in the first place. "I swear to you, they'll pay for this… I'm not going to rest until this Rebellion is wiped out completely…"
Xena swallowed back a lump in her throat as the memories faded slowly and she was returned to the present day. Gallon had dropped his gear and was hurrying towards the palace gates now. Xena followed his path hesitantly for a few moments, then she turned and headed for the door herself, grabbing onto her cloak on the way out.
There was a commotion up ahead and for once it didn't involve her. Gabrielle walked closer, curiously, looking at the group of people crowding around a small house. She tapped someone on the shoulder. "Can I ask what's going on?"
"Woman in there's a giving birth…" The older woman said, glancing over her shoulder at the cloaked stranger. "But it waren't time yet… Someone went to fetch her husband, but…"
"Rhea!" Gabrielle looked up as she heard Galon's anxious voice to see the young man rush closer, shoving several people out of his way. "Rhea, I'm here!" Before Gabrielle could say a word to him he'd wormed his way past her.
The people crowded in around him, all curious as to what was going on inside. Gabrielle tried to follow Galon into his home, to offer any support she could, but she got caught between a chubby woman and the bulky shape of a man. She was just about to shove the two aside forcefully when a low order drifted up somewhere behind her. "Move."
Gabrielle froze, recognising the voice immediately. She turned her head and looked over to where it had come from to see Xena staring down the crowd, her icy blue eyes flashing at them warningly. The warrior lifted a hand and touched her hood, making sure it was obscuring her face.
"Move." Xena repeated, a little more forcefully, and the shocked masses hastily backed away, allowing the Empress passage into Galon's home.
Gabrielle watched from her spot at the back as the Conqueror moved forward, seeming not to notice the odd looks she was getting, the hushed whispering…
More people joined the line up, intrigued by the infrequent visit from their ruler, especially since there didn't seem to be an escort of any sorts nearby. Gabrielle felt the crowd pushing in from all sides, but she just pushed back, keeping a tolerable amount of space around her as she wormed her way forward through the crowd with purposeful movements, ending up somewhere near the door, where she was just able to peer past a shoulder to see Xena pushing aside an older woman. She was the healer apparently, judging by her garments, but she'd clearly lost control of the situation and was now having a minor breakdown…
Xena reached out and ran probing fingers over the woman's belly. The woman was sweating liberally and now she cried out in pain and tossed her head back. Galon reached for his wife's hand, looking quite panicky, the Conqueror's sudden appearance in his home probably doing nothing to settle his nerve. Xena looked up at the scream, then reached over and poked a finger in the woman's side, before continuing her probing.
Rhea sucked in a surprise breath. "The… the pain… it's gone…" She panted, looking up at her husband in disbelief.
"Enjoy it while it lasts," Xena muttered, reaffirming her diagnosis before looking up. "Rhea, right?"
The woman nodded meekly.
Xena pulled a small knife from a scabbard toed to her waist. "How do you feel about scars, Rhea?"
Gabrielle's eyes widened as she saw Xena pull out the knife. Her instinct was to clobber the remaining people in her way over the head and rush inside, but her more rational side noted that it was hardly Xena's style to attack a pregnant woman while she was down and even if she would stoop to that level, it was to be doubted she'd have a calm chat to the woman in question before doing it. The warrior watched as Galon's wife nodded tersely at the Conqueror's words, then turned her head as the dark-haired woman lifted her blade and carefully made the first incision.
It was fascinating. Gabrielle watched the large hands, which were so very lethal in combat, carefully pry away a layer of skin. She'd done this before, that much was clear. Still, Gabrielle could see her hands shaking just a little and when she looked up at the Empress's face she could see emotions shifting over like thin, wispy clouds. The warrior cocked her head, mentally adding another piece to the puzzle that was Xena, not too surprised when it turned out that this bit didn't seem to fit anywhere either…
Moments later a small shape was lifted up, wrapped in a soft blanket and then handed to his mother. "Congratulations… You have a son…"
Galon blinked, looked at the bundle, then at his wife, then at Xena's bloody hands… Then his eyes rolled back in his sockets and he sagged onto the floor, unconscious.
The Empress shook her head with a small sigh, then motioned the healer closer and pointed at the cut she'd just made, giving her a few instructions.
The people around her pressed forward, women circling the bed cooing at the baby, some men walking over to Galon's side and hauling the young father to his feet, one gently tapping his cheek in an attempt to wake him up.
Gabrielle backed up, allowing more people from the neighbourhood to flood into the little house and offer their congratulations. The area around her cleared a little and she took a breath in relief, her head feeling much better now her senses weren't overloading it with data anymore. She listened to the enthusiastic voices inside, the baby's crying…
She caught movement from the corner of her eye, someone slipping out of the house silently, passing right beside her, the fabric of her own cloak brushing against Gabrielle's. The warrior watched as Xena strode away from the scene, pulling the hood of her cloak over her head and disappearing into the shadows the twilight was casting over the streets.
Her room was peacefully silent and she closed her eyes and soaked up that quietness. She let her cloak slide off her shoulders and fall to the ground negligently, finding her way towards the bed and falling onto the soft mattress. She closer her eyes and exhaled, then opened her eyelids again and lifted her hands, gazing at them.
Covered in blood. But good blood this time.
Xena dropped her hands at her side, staring up at the ceiling pensively. She wasn't worried about shattering her reputation. She'd done little things like this before, but people tended to forget these events real fast so they could go back to hating her. The whole situation had stressed her out a little though, with the memories of Ismene drifting up, and the multitude of people surrounding her, all whispering words they assumed she couldn't hear…
The Empress slowly pushed herself up again, getting to her feet and walking into the adjoining bathroom. She pulled the stop from the tap and let warm water flow into the tub, watching it trickle down absentmindedly for a moment, listening to the splashing sound as the water hit the bottom of the tub, letting it become her world. When she realised she was letting herself drift off she shook her head at herself, then reached down and tugged off a boot, and another, before starting to unbutton her tunic.
The water was very soothing and the heat loosened her tense muscles. Xena leaned her head back against the edge of the tub and just soaked for a while, until she was feeling more calm and composed. She reached for a bar of soap lying nearby, running it between her hands and cleaning off the remainder of red still sticking to her skin.
You're letting this get to you too much, her calm, calculating side informed her as she scrubbed at her arms, enjoying the smell of the soap mixing with the damp air. Really, if you look at this all objectively, there is nothing to worry about. I mean, so what if Alti tried to kill you? So what if she got herself an immortal sidekick to help her do the job? So what if a rebel legend, capable of doing some serious damage to your exterior, is walking the streets tossing around notes with death threats? Big deal… Not like that never happened before, right?
Oh well, so, OK, that never did happen before… Point is, you've sacked cities outnumbering you three to one in a quarter of a candle mark. This is peanuts… You just have to find Alti and the blonde, which really is just a matter of time, right? I mean, how long can it take for a witch and an immortal to get noticed? Won't be too long. And when you find 'm you can chop them both into pieces and have that over and done with.
And as for Gabrielle… Well, it'd be fun if you could keep her around and all, since she really isn't all that unlikable, but… You've killed people that you didn't particularly dislike before, when it needed to be done for the sake of the Empire. And if you need to, you can do it again…
Xena pushed herself out of the bath and vaulted over the edge, then stuck a hand in the water to pull the stop loose.
Gabrielle is your enemy. You need to remember that… You just need to get over the whole liking aspect and start thinking rationally again. She fished a towel off the rack and swung it over her shoulder casually, and opened the door to exit the bathroom. It won't be that hard, really. Out of sight out of mind. And it's not like she's gonna come visit you anytime soon, right?
She took one step into her bedroom, then stopped dead as she saw the figure standing at the back of the room, outlined in the soft candlelight.
Gabrielle's eyes widened, then she hastily spun around, staring at the wall in shock.
Xena scratched the back of her head. "Well, there goes that theory…"
"I… I… uhm… I'm sorry…" Gabrielle stuttered, feeling very uncomfortable. "I didn't know you'd be so… uhm…"
Xena glanced down at her own body. "Naked?"
"Uhm… Yeah…" Gabrielle cleared her throat. "I uhm, I'm sorry I bothered you… I'll just take off and uhm…"
"No, no, no…" Xena bit her lip, realising that might have sounded a bit too anxious. "Just uhm… hang on…" She snatched a clean, deep red shirt from the nearby closet and hastily tugged it over her head. "There… All covered up…" She glanced down at the shirt that was covering her from neckline to about mid thigh. Well… Maybe not 'all' covered up, she corrected herself quietly, but the essential parts were hidden from view anyway.
Gabrielle tentatively peeked over her shoulder, then turned around fully, still looking quite flustered.
"Better?" Xena inquired casually, trying to regain her stoic I'm-a-warlord-I-don't-care attitude in an attempt to make up for her little slip a few moments ago.
Gabrielle cleared her throat again. "Yeah uhm… Much more… dressed…"
The Empress glanced down at her barely covered body, then raised an eyebrow at the warrior.
"Oh well…" Gabrielle managed a half smirk. "A little more dressed anyway…"
Xena chuckled softly in amusement, then seated herself on the bed, taking the towel from her shoulder and starting to dry off her hair. Silence lasted for a few moments, only filled with the sound of the towel ruffling through dark locks. "So…" Xena glanced up at the still standing warrior, feeling inclined to end the tense silence. "To what do I owe this visit?"
The comment seemed to snap Gabrielle out of her pondering and make her refocus on the present. "I uhm…" She sucked in a breath, sending some more oxygen to her brain to be able to produce a full sentence. "I saw what you did."
"You saw what I did…" Xena repeated softly as she rubbed some droplets off her exposed arms. "Well, I did a lot of things today, Gabrielle… I went on a witchhunt, I sparred with my soldiers, I signed a death warrant…"
"You saved Galon's wife and child," the warrior got straight to the point.
Xena stopped her enumeration, a bit of stone crumbling off her stoic faÁade at the warrior's directness. She shrugged a little. "Yeah… That too…"
Gabrielle crossed her arms, leaning back against the wall. "That was a good thing you did."
Xena's snapped her fingers. "Darn… I did one of those good things again… Another scar on my evil soul…"
The warrior rolled her eyes, not quite suppressing the small grin tugging at her lips. "That's not what I meant."
"I know…" Xena managed a half smile, pulling her foot up on her knee and drying it off too. "I just…" A shrug. "I heard Esmee telling him about his wife and I just figured…"
"…you could go and help out?" Gabrielle finished for her.
"…that child had a right to live." Xena corrected calmly, switching feet. " and I wasn't going to take that right from him."
"I see…" A soft nod from the warrior. "Well… Whatever the reason, I just wanted to say… it was a good thing."
Blue eyes glanced up at her, studying her quietly for a moment. "So… Lemme just get this straight…" She leaned back on her hands, coming within inches of uncovering certain areas that needed to remain covered. "You just snuck into the palace grounds and climbed up these walls and into my room, while there's several guards right outside ready to storm in and drag you off to jail, to… pat me on the head?"
Gabrielle looked back at her for a moment, then dropped her head, unable to repress a soft snort. "I uhm…" She looked back up with a half grin. "It seemed like a nice challenge…"
Gabrielle shrugged casually. "It was entertaining…"
Xena laughed softly. "Coming from you that's a compliment, I guess…"
Another moment of silence, then Xena looked up, her face serious again. "Did you come here to kill me?" She asked, deciding on the direct approach.
Green eyes studied her quietly. "What makes you think that?"
A shrug. "I got your note…" She waved a hand at the bedside table, where the bit of parchment she'd received from Dorian this morning was lying. "For even the strongest force will weaken with time and then its violence will return and kill it." She repeated the note off the top of her head. "Sounded pretty serious to me…"
Gabrielle managed a half smile. "I'm not your violence," she then stated. "It… was something Lao Ma wrote… It wasn't a threat or anything, just… Just the truth…"
"Ah…" Xena nodded, not being able to help looking a little relieved. "So… you don't want to kill me?"
Gabrielle cocked her head, considering this question seriously for a long moment. "I don't know what I want…" She finally murmured, "but… I didn't come here to kill you, no…"
"Hmm…" Xena smirked. "Bright spot in a gloomy day…"
"No luck finding Alti and Callisto, I'm guessing?"
Xena shook her head. "No. I tracked them to a spot a little south from here, but then… It seems like they just vanished…" She released a tired breath. "I should have noticed Alti was up to something… The clues were all there, but I just… I didn't see 'm…"
Gabrielle dropped her eyes and studied the floor. "Sometimes…" A shrug. "Sometimes you just don't notice those sort of things…"
The Empress glanced up, her eyes twinkling softly. "I always notice, Gabrielle."
"Always?" Green eyes peeked up at her inquisitively.
A grin formed on the Empress's face. "Always. Well, except now with Alti of course…"
Gabrielle studied her quietly, wondering if she understood correctly... "So… You knew about…"
"…your ingenious escape plan, yes." Xena finished. "I had uhm… I had soldiers waiting for you in the corridor."
Gabrielle frowned, letting her mind reorder some of the events of the day before last. This changed things… Xena's act of setting her free now changed from a random act of kindness to keeping her from getting killed. And keeping Thalia from getting killed too, and… Green eyes looked up and met blue. "How much did you know… exactly…?"
Xena leaned an arm on a bedpost. "Worried about your Amazon friends?"
The warrior closed her eyes for a moment, her mind racing. "Don't hurt them…" She then said, more of a plea than an order. "I don't want them getting hurt because I screwed up… I'll come back and finish our month of sparring if you want me to, just…"
Xena watched the blonde, propping her head up on a fist. "Tempting offer…" She murmured, "But, since I'm being honest today, I feel inclined to tell you I knew about my chef's dishonesty the day she arrived in my household."
Both blonde eyebrows shot up at this. "You knew Solari was an Amazon?"
A nod. "Sure."
"And you still let her stay?"
Xena crossed her arms. "Have you tasted that woman's Caesar salad?"
Gabrielle snorted, softly shaking her head.
"I'm not gonna send a kick-ass cook like that to Hades…" Xena deadpanned. "He might think I'm starting to like him…" A chuckle. "Besides… The woman hardly poses a threat. Just a little love sick fool with an overdose of loyalty…"
The warrior studied her companion for a moment. "You keep surprising me, you know that?"
A broad grin brightened up the Empress's visage. "Why, thank you…" A short pause. "The feeling's mutual…"
Gabrielle smirked, then pushed herself off the wall. "I uhm… I guess I should go… It's getting late…"
Xena's good mood dropped a little. "I guess…" She agreed reluctantly, her brain searching for reasons to get the warrior to stay just a bit longer. "Hey Gabrielle?"
"Think you could uhm… go and say hi to Iona? If she finds out you stopped by just to see me I'd never hear the end of it…"
Gabrielle laughed, then nodded. "Sure, I'll go see her." She said, then hopped up and crouched down in the windowsill.
"You could of course just take the door…" Xena suggested.
"Pff," The warrior waved a hand over her shoulder indignantly then hopped out, disappearing into the darkness.
Xena watched the empty windowsill in silence. The voice in her head sighed. OK, so maybe this disliking her thing might be a little tougher then I'd initially thought…
Gabrielle grabbed onto a branch, letting her momentum swing her around until she was crouching down on top of the wooden limb. Now, this was turning out to be a pretty interesting evening, filled with lots of info and many confusing new puzzle pieces. Gabrielle hopped onto another branch quietly, then glanced down as two soldiers marched along below. Well, the good thing was, she reasoned as she waited for them to pass, that she could rest assured now that Ephiny and Solari were safe for the time being. And knowing Xena knew she knew about the hidden passageway could save her from some embarrassing situations too.
Gabrielle swung across to the next tree, on her way to the window leading into Iona's room, but she paused as she heard a familiar voice drifting up from another window nearby.
So she changed course and hopped onto the windowsill of this other room, peeking inside. Then rolled her eyes as she spotted the girl resting in a filled tub of steaming water. What is it with me and bathing people today…
"This is ridiculous," Iona muttered grumpily to herself, slapping a flat hand at the water. "Bathing twice in one day… That's just stupid…."
A chuckle sounded behind her and she spun around, then let a broad smile take over her face. "Gabrielle!"
"Shh," The warrior pressed a finger to her lips, before jumping into the room. "My being here is not exactly legal…"
"Gotcha…" Iona whispered conspiritually, touching her thumb to her index finger in an OK-sign.
Gabrielle smiled at her. "How are you doing?"
"Except for the fact that I'm bathing for the second time to today, you mean?"
A chuckle from the warrior. "And why's that?"
"I just went over to the stables to brush the horses and stuff… And then dad said I smelled and locked me in here until I had a bath…" The blonde rolled her eyes. "Stupid…"
"You poor thing…" Gabrielle drawled, getting a scowl from the girl in return.
"Don't get smart with me…" Iona pointed a finger at the warrior, but couldn't quite repress a smile. She folded her hands over the edge of the tub, laying her chin on top. "So… How are you doing? Xena said you got hurt… again…"
Gabrielle managed a half smile. "I'm OK… Had a little run in with Alti…"
Iona winced. "Yuk…"
"My sentiments exactly." The warrior agreed, folding her hands behind her back. "She doesn't rate too high on my list of favourite people, that's for sure…"
"Did she hurt you bad?" Iona inquired, sounding slightly worried.
Gabrielle lifted a hand in response, showing the girl her bandaged hand in response. Iona winced again, obviously understanding what she was referring to, but the warrior shrugged it off. "Hardly feel it now… Stings a little, but it's OK…"
"Good…" Iona managed a smile for her. "So… Did you come back to teach me more sneaking?"
Gabrielle laughed at the hopeful look. "No, sorry, not right now… I need to get back to my friends before they start worrying…"
"Hmm, bummer…" The blonde drummed her fingers on the edge of the tub. "So… you just dropped by to say hi then?"
"Pretty much," Gabrielle confirmed.
"Well, that's cool too, I guess…" The girl allowed. "It's been quiet here without you around, ya know?"
"Yup," Iona leaned back and dunked her hair under water, then resurfaced again. "Xena's been busy, dad too… I've had no one to play with…" She pointed to a row of bottles standing on a shelf nearby. "Could you pass me the shampoo?"
"Sure," Gabrielle walked over and picked up one of the bottles.
"No, not that one…" Iona pointed a finger at another bottle. "The one on the right. With the flakes…"
Gabrielle put her choice back down, then picked up the indicated item. "Picky, are ya?"
"Xena makes this one for me especially," Iona explained, not wanting the warrior to think she was vain or anything.
"Really?" Gabrielle twisted the top off and sniffed. "What's so…?"
Her question stopped and she cocked her head, trying to remember where she knew the familiar smell from.
"C'mon, hurry up will ya…" Iona held out her hand impatiently. "I'm pruning…"
"Sorry," The warrior walked closer and handed the girl the bottle, a pensive look still plastered on her face. "Hey, Iona?"
"Hmm?" Was the murmured response as the girl tipped some of the liquid onto her hair, then started rubbing it in.
"Are you a natural blonde?"
Iona stopped what she was doing, then looked over her shoulder, her brows frowning. "Excuse me?"
"Do you…" Gabrielle drew in a breath. " I mean, is blond your natural hair colour?"
"Yeeeaah…" The girl drawled, shooting the warrior an odd look. "Of course it is… Why?"
Gabrielle shrugged, diverting her gaze. "Just wondering…"
Iona gazed at her for another moment, then continued her shampooing. "Right…" She muttered, deciding to let the subject rest as a more interesting matter popped into her head. "Oh, hey, are you busy tomorrow?"
Gabrielle looked up from her pondering. "I don't know…. Why?"
"I was thinking maybe you could come fishing with us…" Iona suggested, before disappearing under the water and rinsing out her hair.
"Me, Xena, Niobe…" A grave sigh."…and Caspar."
"Your brother is real nice," Gabrielle tsk-ed, but couldn't quite repress a grin.
"Whatever…" The blonde muttered, clearly disagreeing on that matter. "But, can you come?"
Gabrielle bit her lip. "I don't know, I don't think…"
"Aw, puhleeeeeaaaase…" Iona batted her lashes at her innocently. "It'll be so much fun… Even if you could just drop by for a little while…"
The warrior still seemed hesitant. "I'm probably going to be busy tomorrow…"
"You can be busy the day after that…" Iona immediately supplied. "Xena's busy too, but she says sometimes she has to relax, or she's gonna explode…" She shot her companion a look. "You don't wanna explode, now do ya?"
A reluctant chuckle. "No, not really…"
"Great," Iona beamed a smile at her. "That's settled then…"
The warrior sighed in defeat. "Has anyone ever told you you are very manipulative…"
The girl just grinned wickedly in response.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "I'll see if I can spare some time, OK? But I'm not making any promises…"
"I can live with that…" Iona conceded, then watched the warrior turn back towards the window. "We're gonna be at the lake I told you about on our horse ride…"
"I'll find you…" Gabrielle responded, then wiggled her fingers at the girl, before she hopped out the window.
Iona giggled as she watched the warrior drop straight down and disappear out of sight. "She is so cool…"
"Ah, there you are," Thalia said, looking up from the scroll she was reading as she spotted Gabrielle walking past her door.
"Here I am," the warrior confirmed, backtracking and stepping into her friend's room.
"Where'd you go off to for so long? I was getting a little worried,"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Thal, I can slug a dozen soldiers into unconsciousness… You really don't have to worry too much about my safety…"
The redhead snorted. "True I guess…" A pause. "So where did you go?"
Gabrielle shrugged, dropping her gaze. "Just walked around town a little… Trying to clear my brain, you know?"
"Did it work?"
Gabrielle produced a wry grin. "Not really, no… I think I actually succeeded in adding another layer of clouds…"
"Hmm," Thalia cocked her head at her. "You wanna talk about it?"
A shake of the blonde head. "I uhm… I think I wanna sleep on it first…"
"Sure…" Her friend agreed, knowing from experience the warrior only talked when she felt like talking and not a moment before. "I'll see you tomorrow morning at breakfast then?"
Gabrielle smirked at her. "Have I ever skipped breakfast?"
A laugh from the redhead, then she shooed her friend out of the room. "Go on… Get some sleep you…"
Gabrielle managed a half smile, then walked out of the room, turning down the corridor and towards her own bedroom.
Caspar rubbed at his eyes, suppressing a yawn. It was still dark out, being about a candlemark before dawn. "Why do we have to leave so early?"
"Cause that way the day'll be longer," Iona told him, tugging the now saddled Chilon from the stables. "Now stop whining."
"Iona…" Xena's warning voice burred as the Empress emerged from the stables as well, leading a chestnut stallion by one hand and holding onto Niobe with the other. She'd dressed up in a simple set of dark brown leathers this morning and was wearing a pair of high boots. The leather formed a better protection then the simple tunics she'd normally wear, and considering the current circumstances she felt protection was probably in order.
"Sorry…" the young blonde apologized weakly, clearly not meaning it.
"Casper, c'mere…" Xena motioned the boy closer with her head, then placed the horse's reigns in his hands. "Hold onto these for a moment."
Caspar complied obediently, and Xena swung the toddler onto the stallion's neck, holding onto her with one hand while pulling herself into the saddle with the other. "You comfortable, short stuff?"
Niobe glanced up at her and nodded, sucking on her thumb contently.
"All right then…" She took the reigns from Caspar, then held out her free hand to the boy. "Up ya go…"
Caspar allowed himself to be hauled aboard, wrapping both his arms around Xena's waist and laying his cheek against her back, yawning again and closing his eyes. The Empress patted his knee amicably, then glanced over at Iona, who'd just mounted Chilon. "You sure you got everything?"
"Bread, clean clothes, blankets, flints…" Iona continued ticking off several more items she'd brought.
"A simple 'yes' would suffice…" Xena shot her a look, then gently nudged her horse forward, Chilon soon falling into pace beside her.
After a few moments a soft snore drifted up from behind her and Xena couldn't quite suppress a chuckle. "That didn't take him long…"
"He stayed up all night working on some mathematical problem or something…" Iona shivered at the mere thought.
"I see…" Xena smirked. "How about you, shorty…" She directed her attention to the toddler sitting in front of her. "Are you sleepy?"
Niobe shook her head feverously. "No sleepy. Fun." She managed to murmur around her thumb.
"Yeah, I think so too…" Xena agreed amicably. "I'm up for some fun…"
"I hope Gabrielle's gonna show…" Iona dropped in.
A dark eyebrow raised at her. "And why would Gabrielle show?"
"Cause I invited her," the blonde replied.
"Oh really," A second eyebrow raised. "You could have asked me about that…"
"Do you mind if Gabrielle comes along?"
"There ya go…" Iona waved a hand at her. "I asked, you approved… Let's drop the subject…"
Xena rolled her eyes. "You are such a brat…"
"Flattery will get you nowhere…" Iona smirked back at her, then giggled as Xena shot a hopeless look skyward. "Hey, this trip was your idea, you know?"
Xena sighed in disgust. "What am I going to do with that sister of yours?" She directed the question at Niobe. The toddler half turned, and looked up at her, then turned to the blonde riding beside them. "Jona, be good!" She pointed a threatening finger at her sister, while hugging Xena's arm a little closer in comfort. "No tease Xena. 's Bad!"
"Sis, you d…"
"Bad!" Niobe repeated sternly.
"Heh," Xena chortled, her eyes twinkling. "You tell her, short stuff."
Iona narrowed her eyes at the two outlines in the darkness. "This is a conspiracy."
"I prefer to call it pay-back time," Xena corrected her with a smirk.
The young blonde leaned back in the saddle grumpily. "A conspiracy by any other name…"
Xena chuckled softly, then let the silence slip around them again. She closed her eyes for a moment and sucked in a breath of the cool morning air. She was looking forward to this trip. There had been a lot of things on her mind lately, and it would be nice to just relax for a little while. To not worry about the ongoings of the Empire for a day and focus on the three F's. Fun, fish and forcefully dunking obnoxious children under water. Xena grinned at the darkness up ahead. Today would be a good day.
Gabrielle glanced up as she heard the door to the kitchen be pushed open, then smiled at the person who entered. "Hi, Thal."
The redhead halted in the doorway and crossed her arms, giving her friend a look. "Don't tell me you went out to kick some more soldiers around this morning…"
Gabrielle shook her head with a small smile, then took a sip from her tea. "Woke up…"
"You woke up before dawn?" Thalia released a soft snort. "I guess miracles do happen after all…"
"Hardihar…" Gabrielle shot her a look, then held out her cup to the redhead. "Here, drink up… Maybe the herbs will do your horrible sense of humour some good…"
Thalia chuckled, taking the cup and then seating herself at the kitchen table. She took a sip from her drink, while watching Gabrielle get up and move across the room to pour herself another cup of tea. "You seem to be doing better…"
The warrior nodded absently as she picked up her cup and crossed back over to the table. "Yeah… I guess I am…"
An eyebrow raised. "Doesn't seem too enthusiastic."
Gabrielle shrugged a little, warming her hands on the wooden mug. "I can walk and stuff, I'm happy about that… But I can feel I'm still a little off balance…"
"Could've fooled me…" Thalia muttered into her cup.
A small smile. "There's just still things going on, under the surface, if you know what I mean…"
The redhead peeked up at her. "Physically or mentally?"
"Both," Gabrielle admitted, after a short pause to think. "These last few days have been quite hectic…" She ran her fingers over her mug absently. "There's a lot of pressure…"
"Hmm," Thalia nodded in understanding. "I told Mentius to back off after you left yesterday, but I don't think he really got what I was saying… He's in the I'll-do-anything-for-the-Defender-of-Democracy haze."
The warrior managed a wry grin. "He's not the only one, I'm afraid… When I was walking around town yesterday, everyone was whispering…"
"Good stuff of bad stuff?" Her friend inquired.
"Both," was the reply. "Some people are afraid. They don't want change. They're fed, live in a decent home, got some money to spare… They've got a good life and they don't wanna risk that.
"And the others?"
"The others are the same others we knew before. They want change, will scold the Conqueror behind her back, but they're not willing to stand up and say things out loud…"
Thalia scowled. "Things aren't that different after three years after all, huh?"
Gabrielle shook her head, pensively staring into her cup. The two women both thought their own thoughts for a moment, then the warrior spoke up. "Do we have anything important on the schedule today?"
Thalia looked up, then considered this. "Solari is going to drop by tonight. She was here yesterday and she said she had some news, but she wanted to talk to you personally…"
"Ok," The warrior nodded, "I wanted to talk to her anyway…"
"But except from that…" A shrug. "I don't think so… It's best to sit tight today and let word of mouth do its thing…" She cocked her head at her friend. "Why? You got anything particular in mind?"
Gabrielle hid her face in her mug, downing the last bit of her tea. "No… Not really…"
"We've got about a third of the army," Pompey said, crossing his arms as he looked down at the shamaness sitting in her chair. Brutus had offered them his house, which was situated on the outskirts of Athens, as a place of shelter. They'd snuck in there last night and had now taken up residence in the inner rooms, careful to stay away from the windows and get noticed.
"Just a third?" Alti looked dismayed.
"We've got the element of surprise, a dead guy and my immortal self. That's more than enough…" Callisto stated, as she stood on her hands, leaning against the far wall. She bit her lip in concentration, then lifted a palm off the floor and kept herself in balance on one hand only. "More than enough to take care of the remaining army, anyway… Taking care of Xena might be a bit more… troublesome…"
"True…" Alti agreed, leaning back in her seat. "Xena has this obnoxious tendency to survive…"
"Exactly," Callisto switched hands. "We need to find ourselves a secret weapon…"
Both women frowned, then looked at Pompey. "Excuse me?" Alti raised an eyebrow at him.
"The warrior. Gabrielle." The lieutenant clarified. "She is a risk factor. Last time, you two thought you had everything worked out and she shows up and blows the whole thing… We need to deal with her first."
Callisto pushed off and hopped onto her feet. "There's a screw loose in your head, Pomster. Gab the Reb is one of those people with a conscience, remember? She's never going to help us out…"
Pompey narrowed his eyes at the blonde. "Not voluntarily, no…"
"Oeh!" A twinkle lit up Callisto's dark eyes. "Does this plan involve violence then? Cause if it does I'm all for it…"
"Stick!" Niobe beamed proudly as she tossed another branch onto a pile of wood.
"Good job, shorty," Xena smirked up at her, placing another stone on the dirt to complete the circle she'd formed around their campfire-to-be.
"Xena! There's a fish right here!"
Iona poked her brother in the arm. "Not anymore, you idiot. You scared him away, screaming like that."
Caspar crossed his arms, the water reaching up to his chest. "I did not! They can't hear me."
"Can not! Fish don't have ears, do they?"
Xena rolled her eyes. "Shut it you two. Fish have a sixth sense for detecting arguing siblings and if you keep this up we are not going to be able to catch any lunch."
Iona placed her hands on her hips. "Fish do not have a sixth sense."
"Really? Then why aren't there any fish near you two, hmm?"
"Cause we're talking," the blonde shot back. "We're making too much noise."
Xena raised an eyebrow at her. "And how are they going to hear that noise without ears?"
"Ha!" Caspar chortled. "Told ya! Told ya they couldn't hear!"
The Empress chuckled, then half turned and ruffled Niobe's hair a little. "You stay here for a moment, short stuff. Guard our gear for us, will ya?"
"Gad gea." Niobe nodded seriously.
Xena patted her cheek affectionately, then tugged off both her boots before heading to the water. She waded on until the water came up to her thighs, then stood still and cocked her head, listening intently. Iona swam up behind her, Caspar following not far behind. "Any fish?" The boy asked, trying to peer through the dark water as he treaded water beside her.
"Uhuh," Xena confirmed with a nod, then pointed a finger at a spot a little in front of her. "Right there. Two of 'm…"
"So, how do you know?" Iona, who was just able to place her feet flat on the ground, wondered, peering at the spot as well. "I don't see anything."
Xena tapped her ear. "You have to listen."
Casper cocked his head, biting his lip as he focussed real hard on listening. Finally he gave up with a sigh. "I don't hear anything either…"
"All right…C'mere…" Xena grabbed onto his arm and tugged him closer, wrapping the arm around her neck and then pulling the boy onto her back, so he didn't have to swim to keep his head above the surface. Casper wiggled a little to find a comfortable spot, then peeked over Xena's shoulder, looking at the spot where the fish were. "OK, now… You guys hear the birds, right?"
Nods from both.
"Stop hearing 'm."
Iona looked up at her. "How can I not hear the birds? If they're singing so loud I can't possibly not hear 'm…"
"When you're playing and Pyrron call's for you, you don't hear 'm half of the time either, do you?"
Iona considered this for a moment, then nodded. "Good point…"
Meanwhile Niobe had found her way over to Xena's abandoned boots and discovered they were actually intriguing toys. She stuck a hand in one then lifted it up, raising the leather footware up with her and letting it fall to the ground again, making a little hole in the grass with the heel. Niobe giggled, then repeated the process, making another indentation just left of the previous one. She continued making a circle around her until she was about half way and noticed movement behind a nearby tree. She looked up, then a huge smile took over her face.
Gabrielle smiled back at her, placing a finger to her lips.
"Sena! 's Abby!"
The warrior rolled her eyes. "Not the entrance I was hoping for…"
"Gabrielle!" Iona swam closer, wading out of the water to greet her. "I knew you'd come!"
The warrior grinned at her. "Did you now?"
"Uhuh," the girl nodded confidently, then tugged on the warrior's arm. "C'mon… Xena's teaching us how to catch fish…"
Gabrielle looked at the Conqueror, who was indicating something to Caspar, talking to him over her shoulder. The boy wasn't really paying attention though, since he was too busy gazing at Gabrielle in adoration. "Catch fish huh? So where's the fishingr…"
Right then Xena's hand dove into the water, the sudden movement nearly sending Caspar toppling off the leatherclad back. Moments later a particularly large fish was pulled out from the water, squirming in the dark-haired woman's grasp.
"Ah… I see…" Gabrielle finished, watching calmly as the animal was flung towards the shore and landed right in front of her feet, flapping from side to side a few times before it laid still. "Interesting method…" She added as a second fish dropped down next to the first.
"Cool huh?" Iona tugged her towards the water again. "Xena says I have to stop hearing the birds and the wind and the leaves of the trees and then I can catch 'm too…"
"Right," Gabrielle went along amicably, reaching down to pick up the toddler that was tugging at the edge of her tunic incessantly.
Niobe giggled happily, wrapping her arms around the warrior's neck. "Missed ya."
Gabrielle chuckled. "It's good to see you too,"
Another giggle. "Hey Abby?"
"You catch fishies too?"
"Can you?" Iona joined in, curiously. "You're better at everything than Xena is, right?"
"Quite right," the warrior agreed with a smirk.
The young blonde turned and yelled across the water. "Hey Xena! Gabrielle says she can catch fish better than you can!"
"Is that so?" Xena straightened, after having just deposited Caspar back into the water, and placed her hands on her hips. "Prove it then…"
A challenge. Gabrielle held down the heel of one boot with the tow of the other and pried her foot free. She'd never been able to turn down one of those. She kicked off the second boot, then headed into the water, Iona cheerfully skipping behind until the water got too high for her to skip at which point she just gracefully dived in.
"Fishies!" Niobe chortled, happy to join the rest of the group in the water.
Iona resurfaced again, just beside Xena. "I bet she can catch a bigger fish than you…"
"You do, do you?" The Empress drawled, then glanced up as the warrior waded closer. "Hi."
Gabrielle stopped and looked back up at her. "Hi."
"So…" Xena crossed her arms. "You're better at fishing then me, are ya?"
A negligent shrug. "I don't know… never tried…" She lifted Niobe off her shoulder and handed the toddler to her older sister. "Guess we'll find out…"
"I guess so…" Xena drawled, watching as Gabrielle laid a hand against her neck and popped some bones there, then cracked her knuckles, before cocking her head and focussing on the water's surface. "I have to tell you though, the chances you'll catch a bigger fish than the one I caught is pretty slim…"
"Really?" Gabrielle murmured, bringing her head closer to the surface.
"Uhuh," Xena nodded confidently. "Fish here don't tend to get much bigger than th…Whoa!"
The rest of her words was lost in an explosion of bubbles and she tumbled back and disappeared under water. Gabrielle straightened, pulling the foot she'd grabbed onto above the water, wiggling it at the loudly laughing children before letting go.
Xena gasped for air as she managed to stick her head above the water, her hair obscuring the larger part of her face, streams of water running off of her leathers. Another breath, then she tossed her head back, sending her hair flying to the right side of her head, so she got a clear view of the laughing children and the smugly smirking warrior.
"Big fish!" Niobe chortled, pointing a finger at her, making both Iona and Casper laugh even louder while Gabrielle had to lift a hand to her mouth to cover her wicked grin.
"Oh, you think this is funny, do you?" She took a dangerous step towards the foursome. "I'll show you funny…"
She slapped both her flat hands on the surface, water flying up around them and soaking them all. Iona ducked her head to avoid being hit in the face, then she looked up again, her eyes twinkling wickedly now and she immediately set in a counter attack, pushed handfuls of water at the Empress with her free hand. Niobe giggled, slapping both hands at the liquid enthusiastically, while Caspar dove forward and caught their opponent around the waist.
Xena shook her head, sending droplets flying around in all directions as she made her way back to dry land.
"Aw, come on! Just a little longer!" Iona called to her, pleadingly.
Xena turned and walked a few paces backwards. "You wanna eat those fish raw, do you?"
Iona scowled. "No, but…"
"Then don't whine…" Xena cut her short as she turned again, picked up the two fish, and headed for the pile of sticks. She placed the fish on a rock beside her, then pulled her flints from their gear and struck them together. Once, twice, then a spark caught the dry leaves. Xena pulled a few sticks from the pile before they could catch flame and spiked the fish she'd caught. She stuck the first stick in the ground, so the fish was suspended over the flames, then continued with the next.
She looked up as footsteps came closer, her eyes following Gabrielle as she walked over and settled down on the opposite side of the fire, pulling up her knees and holding her hands to the flames. The warrior was shivering slighty. "You cold?"
"A little," Gabrielle admitted.
"Well, suits you right," Xena placed the second fish over the fire. "That's what you get for tossing me in the water."
The warrior chuckled. "A good water fight is worth the cold."
Xena grinned at this, leaning back on her hands, staring out over the water, watching Iona, Casper and Niobe play in the lake for a long quiet moment. "I'm glad you came…" She then said, glancing across the fire. "For the kids, I mean…" She added quickly, facing forward again. "They really like you, and I don't want them to miss out because… because of me…"
Gabrielle watched the angular profile, shadows cast by the flames flicking over the tanned skin. "They're good kids… Even Iona, though she pretends to be otherwise…"
The Empress's lips quirked up in a faint grin.
The warrior studied her for another moment, then spoke up again. "Can I ask you something?"
Xena looked away from the children and up at her. "Sure…"
"What happened to Iona's mother?"
The Empress's head dropped, her fingers tugging at a few stalks of grass uncomfortably. "I uhm… I figured someone had told you already…" She took a breath. "Pyrron's wife…"
"I wasn't asking about Pyrron's wife," Gabrielle cut her short quietly. "I was asking about Iona's mother…"
Blue eyes shot up and met hers in shock. Xena looked at her, searching for a long moment, then she chuckled softly in resignation, returning her gaze to the playing children. "What clued you in? Was it her great looks or the charming personality?"
"The shampoo, actually…" Gabrielle smirked at her. "The stuff you use, to dye her hair blond… We used the same thing in the resistance sometimes, when someone had to go under cover… I recognised the smell…"
Xena gave her an honestly impressed look. "Good work, detective."
Gabrielle smiled back at her over the flames, then she sobered and took on a more serious expression. "She loves you a lot…"
Xena released a breath, shaking her head. "Don't go there…"
"Why not?" The warrior pressed on. "She has a right to know…"
"Don't!" The Empress repeated in a growl, sitting up, her blue eyes flashing.
The warrior wasn't frightened though, she had no reason to be, and she studied the woman sitting across from her quietly. "You're afraid." She deducted, a slight tone of wonder in her voice.
Xena balanced her elbows on her knees and leaned her head against her folded hands, hiding herself in the shadows of her own body.
"No!" Xena blurted hastily, then she took another breath, shaking her head softly. "No, it's not her… It's…" A sigh. "It's her father."
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at her. "Pyrron?"
A snort. "No, not Pyrron…"
"Oh right…" Gabrielle scratched the back of her neck. Pyrron had been married at the time Iona was conceived, and the Advisor wasn't the type to cheat on his wife. Besides, Pyrron and Xena… Gabrielle grimaced. Not a likely combination really…
The warrior considered this new issue for a moment and came up blank. But then again, what did it matter, really? "So… You won't tell Iona cause you're afraid of some guy?"
Xena managed a wry grin. "He's not just some guy…"
"No, well, I'm sure he's really special and all…" Gabrielle muttered. "But you are the ruler of the world. You've got guards and soldiers to protect her and…"
Xena lifted her head and looked at the warrior. "Guards and soldiers won't hold back the King of the Gods, Gabrielle."
The warrior's flow was cut off abruptly and green eyes tracked up and met hers. "The ki…" Gabrielle blinked at her. "Ares?"
"Ares is…" The eyes widened. "Iona is a half god?"
"Goodness…" Gabrielle faced forward, her eyes numbly following the young blonde as she bounded through knee deep water with Niobe on her back. "I… I don't…" She turned her gaze back to meet Xena's. "He wants to kill her?"
"Yes," The Empress confirmed softly.
"B… why?" Gabrielle frowned at her. "If she's his daughter…"
Xena released a breath, laying her forehead against her folded hands again and staring at the ground quietly. "Ares and I… We used to get along quite well… He was my mentor… But the better I got, the more I realised that I didn't need him. That, really, he was only slowing me down. While he was telling me to do things that would benefit him, I could be out there benefiting myself…" A shrug. "So, we sort of drifted apart a little. But we kept in touch… A god is a good ally, and I proved useful to Ares on more than one occasion." The dark head raised a little, blue eyes pensively staring at the nothing in front of her. "We were always…struggling for the upper hand in our…" A faint grin. "…our relationship… For the longest time we were balanced, but then… Then Ares asked me to kill the Golden Hind."
"To kill Zeus," Gabrielle added, knowing about that part of the story.
"Exactly," Xena nodded in confirmation. "I gave him the dagger and he killed his father… He didn't know, though, that I'd covered another dagger in hind's blood and kept it for myself." She waved a hand at the empty air. "Time passed, Ares got cocky, being the King of the Gods got to his head and he thought he could boss me around. I disagreed. I pulled out the dagger, placed it against his throat and told him that if he didn't want to end up headless he'd back off and leave me the Hades alone…"
"But he didn't?" Gabrielle hazarded a guess.
"Oh, no, he did… For a while… But Ares and I have had this struggle for power going on for years, and he's not one to give up a fight easily. Because I had the hind's blood dagger, I had the upper hand. He knew he needed something to hold up against me, so…" A breath. "He came by one night. Said he realised he'd acted foolishly and he wanted to make it up… I thought…" A self deprecatory laugh. "I thought it wouldn't matter… Having him on my side could prove beneficial after all, so…" A shake of the dark head. "I was always real careful, knew at which time of the month I had to avoid him… But… Gods don't need our cooperation apparently."
Xena looked up from her spot on the bed, watching Ares secure his belt around his waist. "Excuse me?"
The god's dark eyes focussed on her, twinkling in delight, a smug smile around his lips. "You, my dear, are pregnant."
The Empress stared back at him for a moment, then snorted, shaking her head. "Ares, if this is your idea of a joke."
"Oh, no, no, no… No joke…" He took a step closer, trailing a finger down her cheek. "I figured, in honour of our… renewed partnership… I'd offer you a token of my affection…" A low laugh. "You have the honour of carrying the child of the King of the Gods, Xena."
Xena looked at him in disbelief, as it slowly started to sink in that he wasn't kidding. That she was… "You bastard…"
"Oh ho…" Ares chortled, laying a hand on his heart in mocked hurt. "You wound me Xena… I give you the greatest gift any woman could possibly get and this is the thanks I get?"
A hand balled to a fist and Xena swung out at him in rage, but the god blocked the punch, grabbing onto her arm and drawing her closer. "You could of course have an abortion. Kill your baby…" He laughed at the pained expression in her eyes at those words. "But you can't, can you? Not after poor little Solan…"
Tears were welling up in her eyes now, but Xena pushed them back, not wanting to give Ares the satisfaction of making her cry.
"If you'd only ridden a bit faster then. If you'd only managed to stop old Draco before he shot an arrow through your boy's heart…"
"Shut up!" Xena snapped at him, worming her arm away from his grasp, ready to strike out at him again.
But Ares just chuckled delightedly. "I just gave you another shot at this, Xena…" His eyes met hers, making sure she understood what he was saying. "Don't waste it…"
Gabrielle stared at the woman across the fire, who was completely lost in memories. "Did… Did anyone else know?"
Xena glanced up briefly. "Pyrron figured it out. He knows me well." A breath. "And I think Ismene would have figured it out too if she hadn't been pregnant herself at the time…" A small, sad smile crossed the Empress's face. "Her and Pyrron had wanted a child for so long… And she was so glad when I told her she'd finally…" A shake of the head, as Xena scolded herself for straying from her story. "Anyway, it came in handy for me, cause Pyrron could get certain herbs and other stuff I needed that would otherwise have alerted people in the household." A breath. "Nine months passed and… at a certain point I felt it was time. I went back into my room, told the guards no one was to disturb me and… And I gave birth…"
The baby cried loudly, putting her vocal chord to good use.
"Shhh," Xena hastily grabbed for a towel, gently folding it around her baby before lifting her up, using the corner of the fabric to gently clean some blood of the small face. "Shh, be quiet now…" She gently rocked the child back and forth in a soothing rhythm. "It's OK…" The soft words and motion calmed the child and she stopped crying, then looked up into the face of her mother. Immediately intrigued, she reached out a small hand and grabbed for the nose hovering inches above her.
Xena produced something stuck between a laugh and a sob, then reached out a finger and stroked the baby's cheek. "You are so beautiful…" She murmured in wonder.
She'd made this. She'd made this life. The fact that she'd made it with Ares didn't matter whatsoever. She smiled as the girl's tiny hand wrapped itself around her finger. This was her baby. "He's not going to hurt you." She leaned forward and pressed a kiss to the tiny forehead. "Never, ever."
She sat there for another moment, watching her child's eyes drift shut, just feeling… Proud. She sucked in a happy breath. She was proud and… And she had to show someone…
And really, there was only one person she could show, so she got her dishevelled form into some order, then snuck out of her room, the baby held in the crook of her arm, careful not to run into any guards.
She headed for Pyrron's and Ismene's quarters, then stopped as she saw her Advisor standing in the hallway, leaning his forehead against the wall.
Quietly she stepped up to him. "Pyrron?"
He looked up and she could see the tears staining his eyes. "Emp…" He produced a pained smile as he spotted the bundle Xena was holding. "Congratulations, Empress. Boy or a girl?"
"A girl," Xena said, pushing the blanket aside a little and showing the older man the child.
The Advisor swallowed back a lump. "She's beautiful…"
Dark brows frowned at his odd behaviour. "What's wrong?"
"It's…" He released a shuddering breath. "Ismene just gave birth…"
Xena smiled. "Well, that's…"
"The child was stillborn…"
"Oh…" Xena dropped her head. "I'm sorry… I…"
"I tried to save it… Took it to the healer, but…" Pyrron shook his head, then looked up again and met Xena's eyes. "She doesn't know yet… I have to go in and tell her…" The man closed his eyes, a tear trickling down his cheek. "I have to tell her our child is dead…"
Xena looked at the bent form before her, then her eyes tracked to the sleeping infant cradled in her arm. "No, you don't…"
"It was the perfect solution…" Xena murmured, her voice thick with emotions. "Ismene never knew. She thought Iona was her child and…" A breath. "And she was… is…All the goodness Iona has inside of her, that's all Ismene's…" A wry chuckle. "All the brattines is from me…"
"And the eyes. The ability to do backflips without even thinking, the intelligence, the aptitude for languages…"
Blue eyes glanced across the fire. "Please don't tell me you're trying to make me feel better, Gabrielle…"
The warrior managed a small smile. "No… Just stating the truth…"
Xena chuckled weakly. "You've been doing a lot of that lately."
Silence lasted for a few moments. "What about Ares?" Gabrielle wondered, wanting to hear the end of this story now.
Xena studied the ground. "I took Pyrron's stillborn, wrapped her in a blanket and walked out into the woods, to some desolate spot where no one would hear me. And then I called Ares."
"You called?" Ares flashed into the clearing, then he grinned smugly as he spotted the bundle Xena held in her arms. "Oh my… I'm a father…" He chuckled in delight. "You enjoying motherhood yet, Xena?"
Xena didn't say a word. She just stared at him, her expression blank and unreadable. Without taking her eyes from him she pulled her dagger from her belt.
"I'm sure you…" Ares frowned as the metal blade reflected in the moonlight. "Xena? What are y…" His eyes widened as Xena shoved the dagger into the bundle she held. "In the name of…!"
Xena's eyes tracked down for the first time since she'd entered the clearing, looking at the blood-covered blade in her hand. Her fingers lost their grip and the dagger fell to the ground with a soft clanging of metal. She didn't have to force the tears to form, they did of their own accord.
"What have you done?" Ares breathed, his plan falling to bits on him. "Why d…?"
Ice cold blue eyes lifted and met his. "I will never, ever let you control me. Never." She took a slow step closer to him, dropping her voice to a raspy growl. "If you ever pull a stunt like this again, I'll take that hind's blood dagger and stick it in your chest."
The god stared back at her, his mouth opening a few times to speak, but no words came out. Finally he just narrowed her eyes at her, then snapped his fingers, disappearing from the clearing in a flash.
"It was so tempting just to kill him then…" A shake of the dark head. "But I knew if I killed the king of the gods there'd be a struggle for his throne. There'd be chaos. And I'd just gotten my empire into a semi-stable state, so…." A shrug. "We've spoken since then, but only when either one of us had some major problem that couldn't get fixed without the other… He tries to avoid me now… He's afraid…"
Gabrielle released a breath, her mind still working on wrapping itself around this whole story. "Can I just ask one more question?"
Xena nodded a consent.
"Why did you tell me all this?"
The Empress managed a small smile, looking over into green eyes. "Cause you asked…" A breath. "And I know you wouldn't do anything to hurt her…That you consider her your friend…. I wanted you to know, to understand… why. Why I've kept this from her."
"I…"Gabrielle's gaze tracked to the water to see the kids had finished their water fun and were wading back to the shore. "I don't know what to say…"
"Don't say anything." Xena replied softly, more of a plea then an order.
"Hey Xena!" Iona slid to a halt, then thumped down next to the Empress, making sure to spread as much water over the nearly dried skin as she could manage. "Those fish ready yet?"
Continued in part IX