Gabrielle strode into the hallway. There was a lot of commotion going on, soldiers running back and forth. She turned, to find her sister walking up to her. “Look, you’re staying here tonight, okay? Both of you.”
“We already paid for the inn,” Lila said.
“Doesn’t matter. I’m not letting you get out there on your own. The Amazons are staying here too.” Her eyes scanned the hallway, until she found who she was looking for. “Benitor!”
The servant looked up, then hastily walked to her side. “My Lady,” he bowed briefly.
“Can you take my sister and her…. husband to one of the guest quarters? They’ll be staying here for a few days. Some of my other friends will be too.”
“Naturally,” the older man managed a brief smile, then his face became serious again. “What is going on, Gabrielle?”
“Don’t know,” Gabrielle sighed, getting somewhat tired of getting asked that question. She caught a dark figure emerging from a corridor. “But let me go find out.”
Soldiers fell into pace beside her instantly, as Xena headed for the doorway. “Have you sent out a messenger?”
The man beside her, an officer, nodded. “On the fastest horse, My Queen.”
“Good,” Xena said, nodding a little to herself. “Good.”
The Empress swallowed, continuing on.
“Xena, wait!” Gabrielle reached her now, but the soldiers surrounding Xena kept her from coming near the woman.
Xena closed her eyes a moment, then she did stop. “Go on. Get ready.” She instructed her soldiers, who obediently walked on, out the palace doors.
Gabrielle stopped as well, watching the soldiers pace out, leaving Xena standing there, facing away from her. For a moment there was no movement, then Xena squared her shoulders and turned. Gabrielle met her eyes, searching them. There was a wall there. One she’d last seen quite a while ago, the weeks after she’d met Xena again on a road in Macedonia.
She could see past that wall now though, even if just a little. And past that wall was confusion. And fear. Lots of fear.
There were so many questions, but Gabrielle somehow found herself asking the lamest one. “Where are you going?”
Xena swallowed. “I have to go. To see if… if what he said is true.”
“About… About the army, at the border?”
The Empress nodded. “That too.”
Gabrielle hesitated a moment, then tentatively took a step closer. “What’s going on?” Her eyes searched the dark face. “I don’t understand what’s going on. Who was that guy? And this… Dahak?”
Xena lifted a hand, shushing her even at the mention of the name. “It’s complicated…”
“Well, uncomplicate it for me.”
Xena closed her eyes. She ran a shaky hand through her hair. “I… He…” A shaky breath. “I fought him. A long time ago. We locked him up. Forever, I thought. Me and…” her eyes opened, staring blankly in front of her. “Ares. Ares, of course.” She covered her eyes with a hand. “I should have never killed Ares.”
Gabrielle looked at her disbelievingly. “What? You’d rather have the King of the Gods around? The one who was trying to kill your daughter?”
Xena focused on her again. She took a step closer this time, dropping her voice. “Look. I don’t know how bad this is. Maybe he was lying. I… I don’t wanna create a stir when there’s nothing to be stirred. But I have to go see. To know.”
Gabrielle reached out to her, touching her side. “Okay. Okay, then… just give me a quarter of a candlemark. Less even. I’ll just get my things. I’ll go with you.”
A smile fleeted across Xena’s face. “No.” She reached up, touching the blonde’s cheek. “No, you can’t. I…” She dropped her voice to a mere whisper. “I need you here. To look after my kids. Iona.” She met Gabrielle’s eyes. “Promise me. Promise me you’ll let no one near her. That you’ll keep her safe.”
“I promise,” the warrior heard herself say.
Xena exhaled a breath in relief. “Good.”
“Xena?” Odilon called out from the doorway. “We’re ready.”
Xena glanced at him, then returned her eyes back to Gabrielle’s. She searched her eyes for a moment, then she leaned closer.
Gabrielle closed her eyes. The kiss was emotional, almost painful, as if a hand gripped onto her heart and squeezed. A hand slid up and into Xena’s hair, pulling her closer. Not wanting to let go.
The kiss lasted only briefly though. Gabrielle bit her lip as she felt the Empress lean her forehead against hers.
“I love you,” Xena’s voice spoke up in barely more than a whisper.
Then the next moment the Empress pulled away, turning around and walking off. The door fell shut behind her, echoing loudly through the now empty hallway.
Gabrielle pushed open the door to her room and closed it again behind her. It was dark inside, but she didn’t light any candles. She just walked over to the window, closing her eyes and letting the cold breeze blow against her face.
She felt like crying. There was no real reason to. She had no idea of what was going on. She felt insecure. She hated feeling insecure.
Xena had said she loved her. For some reason, with everything that had happened this night, that was on her mind the most. Gabrielle had known it, she’d heard the Empress’s thoughts for a moment after she’d died. But she hadn’t said it out loud.
Xena was a romantic. It wasn’t like her to just blurt that out in a hallway filled with soldiers and then run away.
And now she was gone. Gabrielle had no idea when she’d be back, what she was supposed to do in the meantime… She was supposed to protect Iona and Caspar and Niobe. But protect them from what?
With a sigh she walked over to her bed and sat down, pulling up her knees and wrapping her arms around her legs. Blankly she stared at the door. She could still go after Xena. She couldn’t have gotten far yet. Just to make her explain. Just so she would understand… Just….
A flash lit up her room suddenly. Gabrielle toppled off her bed in shock. Then hastily jumped back to her feet to face the new arrival.
A shape moved in the shadows of her room, then sighed loudly. “Ah, I see. You’re a darkness chick too.” There was a snap of fingers, then the candles in her room lit up, illuminating the room and the bright pink form standing in the center of it. “And here I thought you were different…”
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at the goddess. “What do you want?”
Aphrodite rolled her eyes. “Chill, ok. You’ve all made it very clear I’m not wanted.” She stretched out a hand, holding an item out to Gabrielle. “Just here to return something that belongs to you.”
Gabrielle stared at the hind’s blood dagger in Aphrodite’s hand. She glanced up at the goddess warily, then reached over and took it from her.
“I just took it so no one else would,” Aphrodite explained. She hesitated a moment, then added. “And I really wasn’t going to hurt the kid. I realize her High and Mighty doesn’t want me seeing her anymore now, but just… Just tell her I didn’t mean bad. Okay?” Aphrodite lifted a hand to flash herself from Gabrielle room again.
“Wait,” Gabrielle spoke up. Aphrodite lowered the hand again, cocking her head at the warrior. “This…” she held up the dagger. “This is a powerful weapon. Why would you just give it to me?”
Aphrodite shrugged. “If I keep it up on Olympus too long, they’ll find out. Something powerful like that gets noticed. I’m not strong enough to keep it for myself. And if one side gets it…” the goddess shook her head sadly. “It’d get ugly. Things are ugly enough as they are.”
Gabrielle frowned. “One side?”
“Yeah,” Aphrodite released a tired breath. “Ever since Xena offed my brother, there’s been an empty seat available in the throne hall. And you know how it is…”
“And you’re not part of any side?”
The goddess wrinkled her nose in dismay. “Nuhuh. I’m not interested.” In a softer tone she added. “And nobody’s interested in me. All I can do is zap myself around and make people fall in love with each other. Not too handy in a family feud.” Blue eyes glanced up at her. “Xena’s right, you know? About wanting to protect Iona from the family. She’s powerful. She tossed you aside like you were a plaything.”
Gabrielle rubbed her side, which was still painful from the fall. “Don’t remind me.”
“They’re gonna be after her. If they’re not already. Especially now, with…” A breath. “…with him.”
Gabrielle studied the goddess a moment, then tentatively seated herself on the edge of the bed, tucking the dagger in her boot for safe keeping. “Dahak, you mean?”
“We don’t like to say his name.”
Aphrodite released a breath, leaning back against the wall. “Didn’t her Highness tell you?”
“She was in a hurry to leave.” Gabrielle spoke, somewhat bitterly.
Aphrodite glanced up at her, then dropped her eyes to the tiled floor. “Poor Xena.”
Gabrielle frowned, finding the expressed compassion for the Empress odd, considering the events that had occurred earlier that evening.
“He is…” Aphrodite continued, considering her words. “Well, you know how my family works, right? We all have some good qualities and some nastier ones. I mean, even at his worst, my brother had his good moments. And he really did love Xena. In his own weird, destructive way…” She glanced up at Gabrielle, dropping her voice. “The Persian pantheon…. Well, it’s a little more black and white. And Dahak is the black.”
“How does Xena fit into all this?” Gabrielle asked. She realized somewhere a Greek goddess wasn’t the best source of information, but any information at this time would do.
Aphrodite fumbled with the edge of her sleeve absently. “Well, in the whole world conquest thing, Ares saved Persia for the last. That wasn’t smart. He was just scared. Xena was his at the time. And if Xena went to Persia, this meant in a way he would go, even if only in name. And if he went to Persia…”
“Dahak would come after him.” Gabrielle finished, nodding a little in understanding.
“Yes,” Aphrodite confirmed. “Dahak had been gaining power in Persia, like Ares had here. The white part of their pantheon…. Well, there was hardly anyone left. Ares was afraid of him. He didn’t want to fight him.” Blue eyes lifted and met green ones. “So he sent Xena.”
The warrior’s eyes hardened in outrage. “Bastard.”
“I doubt she realized…. That she knew who he was.” A breath. “I’m not sure what happened, exactly. What Xena did. But in the end, she won.” Aphrodite still looked surprised at this fact. “She defeated one of the most powerful gods around at the time. And mightily pissed him off in the process, I’m sure.” The goddess pushed herself from the wall, walking closer to Gabrielle. “He wasn’t dead though. He was too powerful at the time for any of us to actually kill him just like that. I remember Ares saying something about locking him up.”
“I should have never killed Ares.” Xena’s words earlier suddenly made sense now. “Ares is dead. So the lock is broken. Right?”
“Right.” The goddess nodded. “And he’s out. And Xena’s gonna be at the top of his hitlist.”
Gabrielle ran her fingers through her hair, releasing a shaky breath. More then before now she wanted to saddle up Argo and ride after Xena. But if all Aphrodite had said was true, they were going to be after Iona too. And she’d promised to protect her.
Aphrodite studied the blond a moment, then managed a wry smile. “You really do care for her a lot, don’t you?”
Green eyes tracked up to her. “Of course I do.” She stated, as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
“Ah, the power of love.” The goddess smiled. “And here I had nothing to do with it.” She straightened again then. “Don’t worry. She’ll come back to you. She won’t be fine or anything, but… she’ll be in one piece. He doesn’t want to kill her. He wants to make her hurt.”
Gabrielle bit her lip, thinking, going over the events of the night. “What is the Downfall?” She then asked, remembering how the word had scared the Goddess.
Aphrodite grimaced. “A while ago…. I mean a long while, like before you great-great-grandparents were conceived, you know? The oracle in Delphi made a prophesy. Now the oracle there is controlled by my bro Apollo. All prophesies made by the oracle there are basically his. But this one wasn’t.”
“What was the prophesy?”
Aphrodite drew in a breath and released it again. Her hands were shaking lightly. “You can built walls and towers. They will not stop me. You can raise armies. I will raise them to the ground. Your temples will burn. Olympus will crumble. The Downfall has started. It has begun.”
She paused a long moment, allowing the words to settle, then spoke up again. “Daddy freaked. There was unrest up on Mount O. for months if not years. But… nothing happened. Daddy wrote it off as someone’s practical joke, but… No one really believed that. And no one forgot.”
There was silence for a moment, then Aphrodite’s head shot up, as if she’d heard something. “I have to go.” She turned her attention back to Gabrielle. “They’re looking for me. If they catch me here with you and a hind’s blood dagger I just returned to you… Well, bad news…”
“I understand,” Gabrielle nodded, rising to her feet. “Thank you, for…. Explaining things. And for the dagger.”
Aphrodite smirked. “Just put in good word for me with her Majesty.” The goddess winked, then in a flash of pink she vanished from the room.
Her head hurt. Iona tried to open her eyes, but found it hard, the dried up tears having knitted her eyelashes together.
She’d slept a candlemark at most, she was sure. She’d spent most of the night crying and feeling nauseous and miserable.
Xena had left. She’d seen the Empress riding off shortly after she’d gotten to her room. She was very upset. The last time she’d seen Xena this upset was…. No, she’d never seen Xena this upset. All the occasions before, when Ismene had died, when Pyrron had died… It was different than this.
She’d betrayed her. She’d betrayed her mother. There was no worse sin to Xena than betrayal. Xena had told her so several times. She’d blown it. Iona pushed her face into her pillow, squeezing her eyes shut to keep more tears from coming. She’d blown it. Things would never be the same now.
She lay there for another moment, then she turned over onto her back and stared up at the ceiling. She’d thought about leaving. She’d thought about going after Xena, hiding, waiting to see if she could help. A sigh. But what use could she possibly be…
Iona pushed herself to her feet. Her throat was dry. She softly walked to the door and pushed it open.
And she stopped in the doorway as she spotted a form seated on the sofa, only dimly illuminated by a single candle. Green eyes gone grey in the shadows met hers.
Iona drew in a shuddering breath, biting her lip. She turned and very precisely closed the door behind her. Then she walked forward again, her eyes watching her feet as she walked to the couch and seated herself on the other side, careful to keep a good distance between them.
Gabrielle studied the disheveled form sitting next to her. Iona’s hair was disorganized, her eyes shadowy and red. There were indents in the skin on her cheeks from the pillow she’d clung onto.
Gabrielle felt her heart melt at the sight, and any anger she’d felt vanished into thin air. “Hey?” She spoke up softly, her own voice a little husky. Blue eyes peeked up at her with a mix of guilt, pain and fear. She managed a faint smile. “Bet you feel worse than I do, huh?”
Iona sniffled weakly, her eyes growing watery again. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… to hit you. It was just. I was…. Scared and…”
“I know,” Gabrielle cut her off softly. “But you got to be careful, Iona. I can take getting flung across a room. But next time, you might really hurt someone.”
“No, I won’t,” Iona shook her head feverishly. “Cause I’m not gonna do it again. Use my… powers.” She said the word now as if it was a curse. “I should have just listened to mom.” Her voice broke on the last word and she turned away.
Gabrielle gently moved over, wrapping an arm around the girl and pulling her closer. Iona didn’t resist but turned and burrowed into her side helplessly.
The warrior carefully laid a hand on the girls head, a little unsure of what to do. Should she encourage Iona in giving up her powers? She was pretty sure Xena would welcome it. But what sort of right did she have to give any sort of instructions to Xena’s daughter? Maybe she shouldn’t say anything at all…
Iona solved her problem though by speaking up herself. “There’s stuff I need to tell you. I need to tell mom, but I can’t, so I need to tell you.”
“Okay,” the warrior nodded softly. “Tell me.”
“You’ll be mad.”
“Do I have cause to be?”
“But you still want to tell me?”
Gabrielle managed a smile. “Tell me then. Maybe I’ll get mad, but… after that, we’ll work things out. Together. Okay?”
Iona nodded a little, then pulled away a little, looking up at Gabrielle. “You know how… How I’ve been really good with my homework lately?”
“Well…” Iona drew in a deep breath, then released it. “I had some extra motivation…”
“We need protection.” Apollo paced across the room restlessly. “Armor, weapons…”
“Who’s going to make that armor?” Artemis crossed her arms, eying her brother. “Heffie’s not on our team, remember?”
“Well, then we need to get him on our team!” Apollo snapped. “Should be easy winning him over. Ugly fellow. Hasn’t gotten any in years. Send some of your amazons over to seduce the guy or something.”
“Not hearing this,” Hestia quickly covered her ears, humming loudly. “Not listening…”
“Hey, you leave my amazons alone!” The Goddess of the Hunt retorted angrily, striding over to her sibling. “If you think I’m gonna use my girls as some sort of escort service, you’d better…”
Everyone fell silent instantly. With a sigh Athena rose from her seat, walking forward to stand in the centre of the group of family members. “Any arguing at this stage is useless. We don’t have the facts yet.”
“Oh come on, Athena.” Apollo turned to her. “You felt that. You must have.”
“Of course I did,” the Goddess of Wisdom easily admitted. “But a feeling doesn’t mean anything.”
“To you maybe,” Hestia mumbled sub vocally.
“Do you think it makes me happy to think that Dahak was in my city? My Athens?” She watched her familymembers wince as she pronounced the Persian god’s name. “I’m not going to just believe that without knowing what actually went on.” Athena looked up as footsteps echoed through the marble hall. “And here’s the one who can tell us.”
“I found her hiding in one of her temples,” Hera said, shooting the woman she’d dragged inside with her a disgusted look.
Aphrodite managed to wurm herself free of the older godess’s grip, rubbing her painfull arm. “And you wonder why stephmothers have such a bad rep?”
“You shouldn’t be hiding at a time like this,” Athena walked over to her sister, towering over her, not so much in height but in presence. “We were all worried.”
“Right,” Aphrodite drawled, clearly not buying a word. “Since when did you start looking out for me, big sis? Hmm? Didn’t see you around when our brother had me locked up and tied down.” She tapped her chin, pretending to think. “Where were you again? Oh right…” She gave the other goddess a pointed look. “You were hiding.”
“I have appologised to you,” Athena sot her a bored look. “Get over it.”
“You be locked up for ten years. Let’s see how fast you forget.”
“Let’s focus on the present, shall we?” Athena said, remaining calm. “What have you seen?”
Aphrodite looked back at her, defiantly, crossing her arms over her chest. “Seen?”
“Oh, please,” Athena rolled her eyes. “You were there, at Xena’s palace this night. We all know something happened there. We have seen Xena run. Xena does not run from just anything.”
Aphrodite turned her head away, refusing to speak.
“Come on, Dite,” Hestia spoke up, her voice coaxing. “This was big. We felt it. And I’m scared.”
Aphrodite looked up at her, doubtfully.
“We are your family. Your uncles, aunts, sisters, brothers… No matter what any member does… in the end you have to defend them. Family is sacred.”
“We just need to know what’s going on,” Apollo added. “To prepare.”
Aphrodite looked hesitantly from one to the other.
Athena saw the indecision and zoomed in on it, taking a step closer and forcing Aphrodite to lock eyes with her. “Was it Him?”
Aphrodite hesitated another moment, then she nodded.
Curses sounded from all the present familymembers. Except Hestia, who hastily covered her ears again.
Athena remained silent, thinking before she spoke up again. “Did he say anything?”
Another nod from the Goddess of Love. “He had an emissary, a mortal. He spoke for him.”
“He’s not strong enough to speak for himself then. To appear.” Athena conducted.
“He was in the flames, but not…. Solid, no…” Aphrodite confirmed.
“That’s something,” Hera muttered, walking over to Athena’s side. “And he appeared to the mortals first. His prime goal is Xena.”
“Xena’s important,” Athena said quietly. “She’s the only one who’s ever beaten him.”
“Is someone keeping an eye on her?”
“Of course,” the goddess of wisdom murmured.
“Leave Xena alone,” Aphrodite spoke up, her eyes narrowing at her sister.
All the gods turned to her in surprise, then after a moment Hera snorted. “You and your mortals.”
“At least they are somewhat trustworthy,” Aphrodite snapped back.
“Trust is a bad remedy for the absence of knowledge,” Athena spoke up, before turning back to the other gods. “So now we know it’s him. And it appears he’s not at his full strength yet.” Athena started pacing around the room pensively. “He’s after Xena first. Xena has run off. She was heading for the border. Which means he must be too.”
“Xena took him out once…” Artemis murmured. “Maybe she can do it again.”
“She will weaken him, at least,” Athena agreed. “We can use that to our advantage.”
Aphrodite looked from one to the other, then she laughed. Not one of her more pleasant ones. “Always the same.” She tossed up a hand, somewhat hopelessly. “Don’t know why I even bother.”
She turned and headed for the door, only to find Hera blocking her path. “Not so fast.”
“Look, I told you,” Aphrodite retorted. “This is all I know. He’s here, he’s trouble…”
“She might know more,” Apollo murmured in Athena’s ear. “She might run off and tell Poseidon.”
Athena studied her sister pensively. “She might.”
Aphrodite started to argue, but before she could she was pulled aside, someone stepping in front of her protectively.
Cupid pulled back the string of his bow, his arrow aimed first at Hera, then at Athena. “Don’t mess with my mom.”
“Hah!” Hera laughed scathingly. “What are you going to do, loverboy? Shoot at me with your arrows of love?”
“Maybe,” Cupid drawled. “Or maybe I’ll look up the minotaur and give him a new object of affection.” He shot Hera a pointed look. “Could get ugly, grandma.”
Aphrodite giggled. “Eeuw, Cupie. Nasty.” She patted his side. “You are so my boy.”
“Let them go.” This was Athena speaking up again. “They’re not important.”
Aphrodite huffed out an indignant breath.
“Let’s go, mom,” Cupid grabbed onto his mother’s arm, then spread his wings, lifting up from the ground. “This place smells.”
“You said it, kid.” Aphrodite darted a last look at her family members, then turned away from them, allowing her son to fly them both away.
Gabrielle leaned her hands on the windowsill, staring out over the city. Dawn had come and the first rays of light now painted the city in beautiful shades of red.
The beauty of the sight didn’t much fit her mood. She’d spent a good deal of the night talking with Iona, about all the things the teenager had been up to. Athena, the Isle of Shadow they’d visited together, the well that had talked, the goddess helping her with her powers…. Iona had confessed it all.
Gabrielle hadn’t quite known how to respond. She felt sure Xena would have been very angry. Xena had given rules and Iona had broken them. The Empress didn’t deal very well with her authority being challenged.
So what was she supposed to do? Was she supposed to yell at Iona on Xena’s behalf? Gabrielle had decided against that. Mostly because… Well, because she understood very well where Iona was coming from. Her parents had often forbidden her to do certain things like telling stories or playing with certain children and they’d never told her why. And back then she’d done what any twelve year old would do: search out all those forbidden things and do them anyway. And so had Iona. She could hardly blame the girl for that.
Athena was a goddess and from the sound of it a powerfull one at that. It was to be expected Iona would gladly accept any help the goddess was offering.
It was obvious the goddess had used Iona, had tried to gain information, had tried her out to measure her powers. Her talk last night with Aphrodite now proved very helpful to understand Athena’s motives. Iona had powers and Athena had needed to know how much power the girl had. How useful she could be to her, in her own struggle for the throne.
What remained was the story of the well, that iona said had spoken to her. He will come for you. And you will lose. One way or the other, you will lose. The words echoed through her head as she tried to figure out their meaning. Was the he the well spoke of Dahak? What was the well warning her of exactly? And should she trust a warning by a hole with water in it?
Gabrielle sighed. All this devine stuff was very confusing. She understood very well suddenly why Xena had wanted as little part in the godly world as possible.
Gabrielle turned to see Niobe walking over to her, the toddler rubbing at her sleepy eyes with a hand. The child looked absolutely adorable, dressed in her striped payama’s. The warrior smiled. “Good morning.”
“Why’s you here?” Niobe asked as she stopped next to the blonde, looking up at her inquisitively. “Wes Sena?”
Gabrielle knelt down to come face to face with the child. “Your Sena had to go away for a little while.”
Abby pouted unhappily at this news. “No gbye?” She said, somewhat accusingly.
“She’ll be back real soon,” Gabrielle said, gently ruffling the toddler’s hair. “How about we make some breakfast together huh?”
“Pancakes?” Gabrielle considered this, then decided they all deserved a good dose of sugar. “Yeah, why not.”
“Yay!” Niobe squeeled in delight, running over and hugging her. “Love ya!”
Gabrielle chuckled. “You’re easily won over, cutie.”
In the meantime Caspar had walked in, following them into the kitchen. “Where did Xena go?”
Gabrielle darted him a unsure look. “I’m not really sure. She was heading for the border, I think.”
The warrior released a breath. “It’s kinda complicated.”
“Is it big?”
“Hmm,” Caspar sat down at the kitchen table, folding his hands on the surface. “Is it Iona’s fault?”
Gabrielle darted the boy a look. “No.”
“Why is she upset then?”
“How do you know she is upset? You haven’t seen her this morning.” Gabrielle frowned.
“I heard her come in late last night.”
Gabrielle watched him a moment longer, then turned back to Niobe, who had found a big bowl in one of the cupboards and had placed it on top of her head like a helmet. She was now blindly waving her spoon around. “Niobe, could you go find Benitor and get us some milk and eggs?”
“Kay,” Niobe nodded, the bowl on her head rolling back over her head as she did.
Gabrielle watched her run off, then she walked over to the table and sat down next to Caspar. “A lot happened last night.”
“At your party?”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle nodded. “The short version is: some people crashed the party. And they weren’t nice to Xena or me. Or Iona.”
“Is Iona hurt?” There was concern in the boy’s eyes now.
“Yes, but only here,” Gabrielle tapped her heart. “Anyway, the people that were mean, they got away. And Xena had to go after them.”
Caspar thought about this a little, then nodded in understanding. That was what Xena would do. “Will she be away long?”
“I don’t know,” Gabrielle answered him honestly. “I hope not.”
Caspar was quiet for a moment, then looked up and met green eyes. “Now what?”
“Now…” Gabrielle smiled as Niobe came toddling into the kitchen again, carrying a bottle of milk and a few eggs in her helmet. “Now we make pancakes.”
Ephiny walked out onto the balcony, looking out over the garden. She closed her eyes, drawing in a deep breath of the fragrant, misty air. “You know, it’s weird…”
“What is?” Solari asked from her place inside the room, making the bed.
“What isn’t?” Ephiny retorted with a smile, which brought a faint laugh floating outside to her. “I mean, I was here for over three years, locked away in a dungeon. And now I’m standing out here, on a balcony in this fancy room, thinking what a beautiful place this is.”
She turned around, leaning back against the metal railing and watching her companion work. “Why are you making the bed anyway? You don’t have to, you know?”
Solari pounded the pillow a few times before placing it at the head of the bed again. “I don’t have people work for me.”
Ephiny smiled warmly. “No. You wouldn’t.”
“B’sides,” Solari fluffed the other pillow, then started tucking in the edges of the sheets under the matras. “Helena probably still cleans these rooms. She’s older and she’s got a bad back.”
A blond eyebrow raised. “And the Conqueror forces her to keep working?”
The amazon snorted faintly. “Nah. Helena is a workaholic. Says she doesn’t feel useful sitting behind a window drinking tea. That and she has this weird loyalty to the Empress.”
“She saved her son in a war sometime.” Solari rolled her eyes. “Boy wouldn’t have been in trouble if it hadn’t been for the stupid Empress. Told her so too, but… silly old git wouldn’t listen.”
Ephiny smirked. “So you liked her huh?”
“She was so annoying and stubborn.” Solari peeked up, a gentle twinkle in her eyes. “She reminds me of my mother.”
Ephiny laughed, walking inside again and circling the bed to face her lover. “So…” She wrapped her arms around the other woman’s waist. “Do I get to meet her? And your other friends here?”
“Not a lot of those,” Solari stated with a light shrug. “Mostly yelled at people and told them to bugger off. Safer, I thought. If there’s no people around to talk to, you don’t have to explain stuff.”
“Must have been lonely.”
Another shrug. “Sometimes. But…” Hazel eyes peeked up somewhat hesitantly. “It was worth it.”
Ephiny smiled, clearly charmed. “Glad you think so.” She said, before leaning closer…
The door opened then hastily closed again with a yelp. Ephiny rolled her eyes. “Your timing sucks as always, Red.”
“Sorry,” Thalia’s voice sounded meekly from behind the door.
Solari unwound herself from their embrace, walking towards the door and pulling it open. Ephiny seated herself on the bed, leaning back against one of the nicely fluffed pillows. “Come on in.”
Thalia did, mouthing another sorry at Solari as she walked inside. “I brought food, if that helps any.” She plucked an item from the basket she was carrying, tossing it at the Amazon Queen.
Ephiny neatly scooped the item out of the air, then smiled as she sniffed the offering appreciatively. “Ah, cinnemon rolls.” She looked at Thalia with a smirk. “Fond memories.” She took a bite, enjoying the taste of the freshly baked bread. “Speaking of… How’s my hero?”
“Haven’t spoken to her this morning,” Thalia said as she seated herself on the other end of the bed. “But she wasn’t too happy last night.”
“With just reason, I’m afraid,” Ephiny muttered, breaking her treat in half and offering the other half to Solari, who was standing next to her. “Not sure what the heck that all was last night, but I sure hope for her warriorness that this isn’t an average day of her life. Cause that would just be nasty.”
“I’m pretty sure this was pretty abnormal, even for Gab’s standards.” Thalia murmured, pensively. “You have any idea what that was?”
Ephiny shook her head. “Never heard of that Dahak guy. But our home is quite a ways from the border, so that doesn’t say much.”
“Conqueror’s brat sure grew up and got nasty,” Solari commented, inspecting the bread cautiously before tasting. “Tossed your hero across the room with a flick of the wrist.”
“Yeah, how freaky was that?” Ephiny joined in. “And have you noticed that girl looks frightingly like her mother?”
“Like one isn’t enough,” Thalia muttered.
They were all quiet for a moment, then Thalia turned to her friend. “How come you never come see me when there’s no crisis?”
Ephiny laughed, letting herself slide of the pillow, looking up at Thalia effectionately. “Damn, I missed you, Red.”
“Missed you too,” Thalia admitted.
“Wanna be an Amazon?” Ephiny asked, patting her thigh. “I’m sure you’d make a good one.”
“Nah,” Thalia smirked. “I might start a rebellion and dethrone you.”
“Good point,” Ephiny admitted with a smirk, then pulled herself up again. “So…. Now what?”
Thalia shrugged. “There’s a councilmeeting planned for today.”
“I’ll ask Gabrielle if we can be present,” Ephiny said, darting a look up at Solari, who inclined her head a fraction in agreement. “I’d like to know what’s happening. And maybe we can help.”
Gabrielle walked through the halls, on her way to the council meeting. She’d just dropped the children off at school. She’d had a little talk with Linos, instructing the teacher to not leave them alone. And she’d told Iona to come see her at lunchtime. She wanted to keep tabs of Xena’s daughter most of all.
She thought about what she was going to say to the council. Should she tell them everything she knew? Her democratic principles required her too, she felt, but…. She didn’t want to say something that might endanger Iona.
Footsteps came closer, a multitude of those. Gabrielle looked up, then grimaced.
“Where is she?” Cleopatra demanded as she stopped in front of her, her servants hastily slowing to a halt as well. “I hear she has left the palace last night.”
“You hear correctly.”
“And Odilon as well.”
“Yes,” Gabrielle affirmed again. “Xena needed to go to the border. To check something out. It was an urgent matter.”
“Don’t play word games with me, warrior,” Cleopatra snapped, her eyes blazing. “Was it Dahak?”
Gabrielle was somewhat surprised by the question. The Egyptian Queen seemed to know who the Persian god was. “Yes, it was.” She answered. “He sent someone to speak for him. He threathened Xena and told her he was sending an army to the border, to take over Greece.”
The Egyptian Queen lifted a hand, a servant hastily rushing up to her and bowing. She spoke several rushed words of Egyptian to her, then the man nodded and ran off. She turned to the guard at her side and gave him some instructions too, after which he bowed and walked off himself.
Gabrielle hesitated a moment, then spoke up again. “I’m heading for a councilmeeting. There will be representatives from the city there, the Amazons are coming. You’re welcome to join us.”
“Hah!” Cleopatra huffed out an indignant breath. “No, you go and talk, warrior. I have better things to do.” She stated, before stalking off, her servants instantly setting in pursuit at a respectable distance.
Gabrielle released a tired breath, rubbing her temple tiredly. “Great. Great start of the day.” She murmured, continuing on her way again. “Wonder what’s next…”
A guard ran into her path, the young man hastily sliding to a halt to avoid crashing into her. She recognized him as Ellos, the prison guard.
“Ma’am!” Ellos panted, trying to catch his breath. “She’s gone!”
“Huh?” Gabrielle frowned at him. “What are you talking about?”
“The prisoner, ma’am.” Ellos clarified. “She’s escaped.”
Gabrielle stared at him several long moments, then she just covered her eyes with a hand in defeat. “I just had to jinx it, didn’t I?”
Khrafstar winced as he carefully removed the bandage from his arm. The cut in his arm was deep and painfull. It needed stitching, but it was hard to stitch anything up using just one hand.
It did not matter. He would bare the pain and the scar that followed proudly. The young man smiled darkly. His mission last night had been very successful. His master had been pleased with him. Xena had been very afraid. It had been a delight to see.
Of course, things had gone somewhat downhill when that blonde warrior had gotten involved. She was small, but he had been surprised by her strength. She had been very attractive. He would enjoy playing with her. Before the end.
A knock sounded at the door and Khrafstar looked up, frowning. Perhaps the landlord, inquiring about rent? He rose from the bed he’d been seated on and walked towards the door, pulling it open.
There was a small, slender blond standing outside, dressed in no more than a few rags. “Yes?”
“Hi,” the blonde waved at him cheerfully. “Are you the guy worshipping the powerful, destructive Persian flameball God?”
Khrafstar’s eyes widened, his eyes darting across the hallway to see if anyone had overheard. When he saw no one had, he grabbed onto the woman’s arm and pulled her inside. In the same motion he reached for the dagger at his side, unsheating it and flying it at the woman’s chest.
The blonde watched as the item thudded into her heart, then looked back up at the Persian man, very miffed. “Honey, we gotta work on your manners. You never toss daggers at strangers. It’s very impolite. First you introduce yourself.” She wiggled her fingers at him. “Hi, I’m Callisto.” She pulled the dagger free, then flung it back at Khrafstar, the metal catching the colar of his tunic and effectively pinning him against the wall. “See? Now isn’t that a much nicer way to say hi?”
Krafstar hastily pulled the dagger from the wall, holding it in front of him protectively. “I will not speak a word to you of my master, Greek deity. If you wish to kill me, then do so.”
Callisto smirked, clearly amused. “Deity? Oh, you smart talker, you.”
The flames in the fire place rose, if only a fraction. A voice sounded. Callisto found she could hear it to. It seemed to be the same voice as yesterday, only somewhat weaker.
Khrafstar listened intently, then he inclined his head, dropping his weapon. He looked back up at Callisto. “You should not speak of our master among others. It will endanger the quest.”
The blonde winced at the term ‘master’ but with a glance at the flames she let the word slip. “Hey, it’s not like I knew the secret password or anything.” She cocked her head, considering. “Could we have a secret password? That would be cool.”
Khrafstar darted her a look, then reseated himself on the bed, sorting out a bandage so he could rebandage his arm. “So, you are not a deity?”
“Nope.” Callisto giggled. “But that’s easily changed.”
Gabrielle placed her hands on the back of her chair, glancing at the room's occupants. She’d just finished telling about the events of the previous night, sticking mostly to the events starting after Khrafstar’s arrival.
“So,” Odell spoke up. “The Empress knows more about this…. Dahak. But instead of sharing this information with us she… ran off?”
“Xena didn’t run,” Gabrielle defended the empress. “She had to go check the border. If there’s an army headed our way it’s kinda handy we know about it.”
“She could have sent someone else,” Mentius dropped in.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Look, we’re not here to blame Xena.”
“Pity,” Odell muttered.
“We’re here to discuss the situation and settle on the best course of action in Xena’s absence.” She leaned a little closer. “This may not have occurred to you, but with Xena away, that leaves us in charge. Of the city at least. Now, we can’t do much about Dahak himself, since we don’t know enough about him. But we have a powerful man who serves this Dahak, who is mortal. And we have Callisto on the loose. We can take care of those.”
“We need to calm the people,” Megan added quietly. “When word gets out about this deity, which we all know it will, there will be fear and unrest. We should minimalize this, if we can.”
“Good point,” Gabrielle nodded. “I’d like ideas on how to do that.”
“Let’s assume the worst, and there is an army standing at the border,” Thalia said. “Then what? Should we prepare for that?”
Gabrielle tapped her fingers on the wood of her chair, considering. “We have no authority over the army,” she then said pensively. “Not sure if it’d do any good if we did. I may know a few things about fighting, but I don’t know a lot about war or strategy.”
Megan tapped her quill on her parchment. “War is partly strategy, but also partly good, reliable preparation. Many simple things are often overlooked. The soldiers will need to be packed, you’ll need fresh horses. You’ll need food and drink, blacksmiths and bakers and cooks to sustain the forces if the battle lasts longer than expected.”
Gabrielle nodded again, impressed by Megan’s knowledge of warfare.
Solari rose up from her seat. “I did the kitchen preparations for some of Xena’s smaller campaigns. I could help there.”
Odell looked at the Amazon, then frowned. “Kitchen preparations?”
“Long story,” Thalia drawled, then turned back to Gabrielle. “You’re not going to be able to do all this.”
“Huh?” Gabrielle frowned at her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re gonna run the council, calm the masses, prepare for the war, run the household and protect the Empress’s kids?” Thalia shot her a look. “Maybe we should vote on lengthening the day for you, hmm? So you can squeeze all that in.”
Gabrielle chuckled faintly. “Good point.” She looked down at Thalia. “Maybe you should take over leading the council for a while.”
The redhead hastily lifted both her hands in defense. “That’s not what I had in mind.”
“I know, but that would work,” Gabrielle cut her off. “You did most of the organizing back in our rebel days anyway. I know you’re good at it.”
“Shouldn’t we be all democratic and vote on this?” Thalia asked, unhappily glancing at her fellow council members.
“Fine,” Gabrielle said, looking around. “Hands in favor of temporarily reassigning leadership of the council to Thalia?”
Everyone raised his hands, except for Odell. Gabrielle bit back a smirk as even Ephiny waved her hand enthusiastically. “Excellent. Never agreed on anything this fast before.” Gabrielle looked down at Thalia, who was looking quite miserable now. “Look, you’re right. I don’t have time for doing all that needs to be done. And basically, most my concern is with keeping the children safe right now. You’d really be helping me out on this.”
“Fine, fine,” Thalia sighed.
There was a soft knock on the door then. A moment later it opened, to reveal Iona standing in the doorway. “Hi,” she said softly. “I’m sorry to disturb, but you told me to come here when school was finished, so….”
“That’s okay, Iona. Have a seat.” Gabrielle smiled, pointing at a few chairs in the corner. “I’m nearly finished here.”
Iona nodded, quietly closing the door behind her and walking over to the assigned seat.
“Okay,” Gabrielle turned back to the group. “So we need ideas to calm the people on the streets and we need a plan to prepare things, in case there is going to be a battle. Thalia takes over for a while and reports to me each day. I’ll try to be present at as many meetings as I can, but as I said, I have a lot of stuff to look after right now.”
“We also should gather more information,” Megan said, tapping her quill on her parchment. “We cannot make good decisions if we know nothing about this Dahak, or things like the strength of the army, and the strength of their army if there is one.”
Iona focused on the speaker, as she continued to list a number of things she needed information on. She frowned. There was something not quite…. Right. Iona narrowed her eyes a little, trying to look closer at the woman. There was something different about her. Her skin was different. It was…. Glowing a little.
“As I said, I don’t know anything about the army,” Gabrielle said. “But maybe I can talk to one of the officers and ask him to join the next meeting.”
Megan smiled. “That would be most helpful.”
Gabrielle wanted to say something else, but she stopped as she felt a presence at her side. It was Iona who had walked up next to her. She laid a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Iona, I just need another moment, okay?”
But Iona was staring right past her, looking inquisitively at Megan. “Who are you?”
Megan turned her eyes to Iona, meeting her gaze easily.
Gabrielle frowned, darting a glance at Megan, before focusing her attention on Iona again. “What are you talking about?”
Blue eyes turned to her for a moment. “I… I don’t think she’s mortal.”
A smile spread across Megan’s face. Then she started laughing. “Very good, Iona. Didn’t think you would be able to do that.”
Gabrielle quickly stepped in front of Iona, as Megan rose from her chair. And as she did she changed, her gray hair regaining a blond color, her wrinkles disappearing. A moment later a blonde woman was standing across from her, dressed in golden armor.
“What the…!” Odell hastily backed away from the table in shock, his example soon followed by the other council members.
“Athena,” Iona said as she recognized the woman. “What are you doing here?”
Gabrielle’s eyes snapped to the girl standing next to her. “That’s Athena?”
“Yes,” Iona nodded in confirmation.
The warrior’s eyes refocused on the goddess, narrowing. “Good.” She said, then jumped up into a flip, slamming her feet against Athena’s chest and making the goddess fall backwards. Gabrielle reached for her boot and pulled the hind’s blood dagger from it’s hiding place, pinning down the goddess arms with her knees and lifting the dagger to the goddess’s neck. “I have been wanting to meet you.”
Athena chuckled, amused. “Excellent. You are very good, Gabrielle. But…” She moved her hands forward, a blast of air flying forward and impacting with Gabrielle, sending the warrior toppling backwards. Athena hopped back to her feet gracefully, dusting off her armor. “…you are not a god.”
Gabrielle hastily scrambled back to her feet. “Some god you are!” She spit at the goddess, her eyes flaring dangerously. “Using a child, posing as an old lady in my council… That’s very divine of you!”
“Maybe not divine, but very effective,” Athena drawled. “I could have come in here blazing, tossing the thunderbolts, but subtlety is far more efficient in these cases.”
Gabrielle held the dagger in front of her, pointing it at Athena. “Get out!”
The goddess glanced at the dagger, then behind her to see both the attending Amazons had gotten up and armed themselves and were heading towards her. She turned back to Gabrielle, shooting her a polite smile. “Yes. Let’s.”
She snapped her fingers and the next moment Gabrielle found herself standing in a clearing, surrounded by trees. She glanced around, finding Athena watching her calmly, her arms crossed. “So, Iona told you, did she?” The goddess reasoned. “Well, that was to be expected after last night. She must have been very afraid.”
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at the goddess, her hand clenching around the hilt of her dagger. “What do you want?”
“Peace and stability for my family.”
Gabrielle snorted, clearly not buying a word. “Right.”
Athena’s lips quirked a little. “You have been spending too much time with Xena.”
“This has nothing to do with Xena,” Gabrielle tossed back, starting to circle the goddess predatorily. “This has to do with you using Iona to gain information. Using me and my council. That pisses me off!”
With a quick move Gabrielle launched herself forward, managing to wrap and arm around the goddess’ neck and drag her down.
Athena winced as she thudded on the ground. “Fine, you want it this way,” she murmured as Gabrielle tried to keep her pinned to the ground. The goddess pushed her lower body up, managing to wrap her legs around Gabrielle’s waist. This got the warrior off balance and Athena used this moment to pull herself free and hop back to her feet.
Gabrielle quickly did the same, meeting Athena’s next strike just in time as the goddess’ fist came at her face. She deflected two more blows, then lashed out with the dagger again, Athena only just able to hop away from the edge of the blade. Gabrielle used the goddess’s backward momentum and ran forward, jumping and then kicking Athena in the stomach with one foot, then in the face with the other.
The force of the kicks sent Athena further backwards, the goddess thudding against a tree. She laid a hand against it for balance, then raised the other hand just before Gabrielle could reach her again. A blast of air gushed forward.
Gabrielle thudded on the ground a few feet away, wincing as a rock stuck into her back. She ignored the pain though, crawling back to her feet and heading for Athena again. “No need to fight fair, right?” She spit at the goddess.
“How is this not fair?” Athena reasoned calmly. “You use the powers you have. I use mine.” She raised a hand, spreading out her fingers. Electric sparks shot from one fingertip to the other. “Stand down, Gabrielle. Let’s discus this as civil beings.”
Gabrielle ignored her however, rushing forward.
The lightning bolt hit her square on and the force was unlike anything she had felt before. She was blasted back, hitting a tree and sliding down the trunk helplessly. Gabrielle stared ahead of herself with wide eyes. Her arms and legs were tingling, she could barely move them.
Her ears were humming. The sound of footsteps coming closer was faint and chaotic. She managed to turn her head a fraction as Athena knelt down beside her.
The goddess cocked her head at the warrior, studying her with interest. “You are either very brave or very foolish. Maybe a little of both.” Athena smiled pleasantly. “While I have your attention, let me explain a few things to you. Yes, I used Iona. And yes, I used your council. We do what we have to survive. You of all people should know this.”
Gabrielle swallowed. Her stomach was hurting badly. She had to focus all her attention on not passing out.
“My brother has never shown much interest for mortals. Well, for one, yes.” Athena rolled her eyes. “But he cared very little about the rest. You were all toys to him. But not to me. I have been down here, listening. Figuring out your strength. And I see a lot of strength in Iona. And in you. And even in some other council members, like your Thalia.” Athena reached over, taking Gabrielle’s chin and forcing the woman to look at her. “We can be useful to one another. Especial now, with Dahak around. We can help each other.”
With that Athena reached out and let her hand hover inches from Gabrielle’s stomach. Gabrielle felt a glow touching her skin and the next moment the pain and the tingling was gone. She looked down to see the tunic covering her abdomen had been burned away. But behind there now was no wound, but clean, uncut skin.
Athena got up and took a step back, giving Gabrielle some space. “You are smart to pick a fight with the only goddess who has the power to heal you afterwards,” the goddess commented casually.
Gabrielle rose to her feet slowly, her legs still a little shaky. “What do you need us for?” She managed to comment, working hard on keeping her voice even. “You’re a god. And your family are gods. All those gods can’t handle one measly Persian?”
Athena’s lips quirked up. “Unfortunately, no.” She considered her options a moment, then spoke up again. “The death of my brother, though liberating as it was, had limited us somewhat in the power department. When a God is killed by another God, the power of the killed deity is given to the killer. This is how Ares got most of his power. By killing our father.”
“Ares was killed by Xena.”
“Yes,” Athena confirmed. “In which case the power should have been equally distributed among the other family members. But it was not.”
The goddess shook her head. “No, power does not just disappear. The laws of physics dictate this. It gets transferred.” Athena folded her hands behind her back. “In his dying moments, Ares must have transferred his powers somewhere, to keep them from us.” Athena looked dismayed. “Selfish, even in death.”
Gabrielle carefully pushed herself away from her tree, finding she could stand on her own again. “Where could he have hid it?”
“Anywhere,” Athena shrugged. “Trees, rocks, birds, bees. Anything, living or dead. He could have hidden it in a pebble on a rocky path. The leaf of a tree.” She shook her head a little. “Some of us have tried to find it, but I believe this is useless. That power is lost to us. So we have to make do with what power remains.”
“Like Iona’s?” Gabrielle commented with a snarl.
“Yes, like Iona’s,” Athena easily admitted. “She is only a half god, so her powers are probably not that impressive, but with the total amount of power in the family diminished, she is powerfull enough to be an asset to us.”
“She doesn’t want to be an asset to you.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure of that,” Athena countered. “I did not force her to come with me. She came of her own free will.”
“You manipulated her!”
“Yes. Just as Xena has manipulated her against us.” A smile. “Raising children is no more than putting your ideas of what is right into their heads.”
Athena walked closer, coming face to face with Gabrielle. “Look, the fact of the matter is, we are not powerful enough to defeat Dahak. Neither are you. You know nothing of warfare, you said this yourself. I could help you. I could help you prepare this campaign. I could get you weaponry far more powerful than anything you could create. I could rally troops.”
“You help us prepare for war and then you leave to let us fight it.” Gabrielle concluded, her green eyes drilling into Athena’s, not intimidated.
“Xena knows how to defeat Dahak,” Athena reasoned. “She has done it before. She will have to face him again. All I want is to help her succeed.”
“Xena won’t agree to your help.”
“No, she won’t. Because she has projected her feelings for certain members of my family on all of us. But we’re not all like Ares.” The goddess eyes bore into Gabrielle’s. “I understand Xena’s anxiety, but in this we have to see the bigger picture. You are an intelligent young woman, I am sure you see this. Think about it, Gabrielle. Think about how helpful we could be to each other.” Athena backed away a pace, lessening the tension. “Talk it over with the council, if you wish. But don’t take too long. There isn’t much time.”
A flash and then Gabrielle found herself back into the council chamber.
Ephiny, who had just been running out the door screeched to a halt. “Whoa!”
“Gabrielle!” Thalia hastily stepped up to her, touching her shoulder. “Are you okay?”
“No,” the warrior sighed, rubbing her temple. “I have the worst headache.”
A hand touched her side and Gabrielle looked down to see Iona looking up at her, worriedly. Gabrielle managed a smile for her, laying a hand on top of the girl’s hair. “Good catch.”
Iona leaned against her, a little helplessly. “It’s my fault she was here.”
“Nah,” Gabrielle shook her head. “Megan was part of the council before Athena got in touch with you. She was just prying for information.”
“And boy did she get some,” Thalia muttered, then glanced down at Gabrielle’s ripped tunic. “Do you realize you’re walking around half naked?”
“Yeah, I’d better go change,” Gabrielle sighed, wrapping an arm around Iona’s shoulders and steering her towards the exit, where she joined Ephiny and Solari.
“What happened?” Ephiny asked, darted a look at the tunic.
“Got hit by a thunderbolt.”
Hazel eyes widened. The Amazon shot a look at Gabrielle’s bare, unscathed abdomen, then looked back up at Gabrielle in disbelief. “I realized you have great abs, but… wow.” The Amazon queen muttered, drawing a reluctant chuckle from Gabrielle.
Lila sat quietly, bent over her plate. Gabrielle had invited her and Perdicas to lunch. Perdicas wouldn’t come. He was too proud sometimes. But he’d agreed she should go alone and spend some time with her sister.
Her sister was in high demand though. Lila looked as Gabrielle sat talking surrounded by her friend Thalia and two women dressed in leather, who she’d been told were Amazons. Iona, the Empress’s daughter, sat near her too and answered the occasional question.
She seemed so different now, different from the girl she’d know. Gabrielle had left them as a young girl, sneaking out in the dead of night. Lila smiled a little at the memory. She’d been trying to be quiet, but Gabrielle had always been such a kluts and had tripped over the bedpost, the bag she’d been carrying falling on the ground and all the contents spilling out onto the floor.
”What’s with the bag?”
Gabrielle’s head had shotten up in shock, then she’d bitten her lip, thinking. After a moment she’d stood, her bag forgotten, and settled on her own bed. “Lila, I’m going to Athens.”
She could do nothing but laugh. “Are you serious?”
“Absolutely,” Gabrielle nodded confidently. “I’m going to the Academy. I’m going to be a bard.”
“How are you going to get there?” Lila sat up a little, looking at her sister sternly. “Gabrielle, Athens is miles from here! And at night, with all these soldiers around…”
Gabrielle released a breath. “Lila, you know I’m different from everybody else in this town.”
“I know you’re crazy.”
Her sister managed a small smile at this. “Well, call it what you like. The point is… I don’t fit in here. And the idea of marrying Perdicas…” She shivered a little at the thought.
“He loves you, you know?”
“But I don’t love him,” Gabrielle responded, then leaned a little closer. “I… I overheard dad talking with Perdicas’ father. They’ve set a date. In a moon from now.” The blonde bent her head sadly. “I told them, him and mom. I told them I didn’t want to. But they didn’t listen.” A sad breath. “They never listen. They don’t hear me.”
“I hear you,” Lila replied softly. “I don’t want you to leave, Gabrielle. I’ll be alone.”
“I’ll come back and visit,” her sister said. Her eyes lit up again, dreams shimmering in te back of them. “When I’m a bard I’ll travel around, telling stories.”
“Promise,” Gabrielle had gotten up and hugged her tightly. Then she’d picked up her bag, placing the items that tumbled out earlier back inside. She squared her shoulders, then headed for the door, pulolinig it open. The cold wind drifted in, ruffling her bright blue dress. Gabrielle turned her head, darting her sister a last look. Lila stared back at her, sniffling back tears. Gabrielle managed a watery smile in return. “Cheer up… You'll finally have a room of your own.”
Lila bit her lip. She remembered those first days after Gabrielle’s departure. Her parents had been so mad. They’d been yelling all the time. At each other. At her. Then Perdicas’ parents had come over to yell at her parents. She remembered sitting with Perdicas on the stairs ouside their door. Just sitting there, not talking, trying not to hear.
Perdicas had been the only one not yelling. He’d just sat there, his hands folded tightly together, looking down at the mud. He’d never showed he was mad or angry. He’d never cried, at least not as far as she knew. But his heart had been broken. And it never did heal.
Gabrielle hadn’t become a bard. The first time Lila saw her again was after the crucifixion, when her friends in the rebellion were sneaking her out of Greece. They’d needed a place to spend the night as they made their way up north. She’d found her sister lying on a stretcher in the back of a cart. She was badly wounded and pale. But that wasn’t the real damage done to her. The real damage Lila saw when Gabrielle turned her head and opened her eyes.
Muted. The dreams that had always danced around in the green irisses were gone. They were emptied of hope. And all she could see now were emotions that didn’t fit her sister. Fear. Disillusionment. And the first seeds of anger.
How different it all could have been, if Gabrielle had stayed home. How much suffering could have been spared all of them.
A touch at her leg and Lila was called from her musing and looked down. It was the three year old. The Empress’s youngest child, Niobe. Or, not the Empress’s really, she’d heard. Lila released a breath. This household was very confusing.
“Hi,” the child looked up at her with wide brown eyes. “Who’s you?”
“I’m Lila,” Lila introduced herself. “Gabrielle’s sister.”
“Abby?” Niobe studied at her critically. “Yous not like Abby.”
Lila’s lips quirked up a little in a wry smile. “No. I’m not really, am I?” She shot a glance at her sister, then turned back to the child. “I think I want to go for a walk. Care to join me?”
“Kay,” Niobe took her hand as she stood, walking with her towards the door. “Wanna go see hosses?”
“Is that far?”
The girl considered this a moment, then nodded. “Yes.”
“That’ll be great then,” Lila murmured, pulling the door closed behind them.
Xena lifted a hand as they reached the militairy camp at Delphi, then placed her hands back on the reigns and pulled, slowing Chilon to a halt. The black stallion snorted, shaking his dark head around, foam flying from his lips. The animal was breathing heavily.
They had ridden all night and all morning at full speed. She’d sent the rider on the fastest horse ahead to inform the captain at Delphi of their arrival. Xena slid of Chilon’s back, her feet thudding into the dry earth, dust drifting up around them. A soldier came running up, saluting before taking the reigns from her. “I want him brushed dry, fed and ready to go in a candlemark.”
“A candlemark?” Odilon managed to say between breaths as he slid to a halt beside her. “Xena, we need to rest.”
Xena ignored him, walking over to the captain, who saluted her. “Guideon.”
“General,” Guideon inclined his head. “Your messenger only just arrived, but the horses you asked for are nearly sadled.”
“Good,” She gave him a brief pat on the shoulder, before walking past him. “Knew I could count on you.”
“Anything for you, General.”
Odilon slid of his horse now, wincing as his legs nearly buckled from the long ride. He was exhausted. Getting up in the middle of the night and then driving for endless miles without stopping. He shook his head in disgust. He was getting too old for this.
He walked up to the captain. “We need food and water for the men,” he instructed. “And I’d like some exact info on the troops you have here. Numbers, experience… That sorta stuff.”
Guideon frowned at him. “And who might you be?”
Odilon rolled his eyes, then lifted his hand, flashing him his ring.
Guideon looked at the seal, then his eyes widened a fraction. “Excuse me, sir.” He bowed politely. “I’ll have them ready for you in a few moments.”
Odilon walked past him, glancing around the camp. It was set up just outside the town of Delphi, high up in the mountains. It was close to the entrance of the temple complex and in the distance Odilon could see the lines of people outside the gate leading up to the oracle.
Someone handed him a mug with water and he downed the liquid in a few hasty gulps. Around him he heard the soldiers that had escorted them had retreated to the shadows. They were all war veterans. Strong men that didn’t complain. And would follow Xena to Hades and back if she told them to without a single complaint.
Xena had distanced herself from the group and stood in the burning sun. She stood on the edge of a cliff wall, leading straight down into the valley before them.
Odilon hesitated a moment, then grabbed another mug from one of the soldiers and walked up to her, stopping at her side. “Here. Drink something.”
Wordlessly she took the mug from him, taking a sip, her eyes never leaving the horizon.
Odilon studied her for a moment, seeing the tired posture and the shadows under her eyes. “Look, I understand the rush. You know I do. But a few extra candlemarks won’t make much of a difference, will it? It’ll give your soldiers a breather and these guys here can line up some fresh horses…”
“No.” Xena shook her head detereminedly.
“Come on, Xena. You can’t keep going like this,” Odilon insisted. “You haven’t slept. And in all honesty, you look like it.”
“No!” The Empress repeated again, blue eyes turning to face him. “We can’t stop.” She faced forward again, her eyes focusing again on the horizon. “I can’t stop,” she repeated, in a softer voice. “If I stop, I…” She swallowed, closing her eyes a moment. Then she shook her head, as if that would help to expel the thoughts from her brain. “I can’t stop, Odie. Just let me keep going.”
Odilon seemed doubtful for a moment, but then he relented. “Find some shade, would you?” With a pat on the shoulder, he turned away and left her to her thoughts.
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