Path of Thorns


Odilon stepped into the hallway, glad to be out of the burning sun. From the hallway leading to Xena’s quarters, footsteps echoed. Moments later Benitor appeared, moving towards him and then bowing. “Good Day, Sir.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Odilon muttered, wiping at the sweat on his forehead with his arm. “Where’s Xena?”
“Her Majesty has gone to see the army. She heard of your arrival. She asked you to meet her there. She says she has something to show you.”

Odilon frowned, but then headed towards the army barracks. When he arrived he found the entire army gathered in the large square in the centre of the compound. Through the masses, Odilon was unable to see what was going on. He recognized Xena’s voice though as it rang out across the square. “Andros!”

The square around him fell silent. Odilon managed to make his way forward to catch a glimpse of what was going on. He saw the lieutenant stepping forward to come to stand in front of Xena, who was looking down at him from her spot on a small platform. On the platform were two strong wooden beams, which crossed each other in the middle. Stakes.

The Empress hair was loose and disorganized. She looked… Odilon frowned as he tried to analyze his friend’s state of mind. She looked like she had a long time ago, when he found her after her first encounter with Caesar. When she came down from Mt. Nestus where M’Lila had died. All fiery, anger radiating from her. Reborn, she’d said. A Xena with a new purpose in life. Death.

“You disobeyed me,” the Conqueror said, in a low voice.
Andros squared his shoulders, mustering up his courage. “Empress, you gave me no order to….”
“Silence!” Xena’s voice echoed loudly through the square. “Gabrielle, my advisor and the leader of my council came to you and asked for help. You denied her that.”
“Your advisor is a traitor!” Andros yelled back. “She was the cause of the massacre at Huong!”

A gasp rang through the crowd at the accusation. The young soldiers looked at each other, confused. Even they had heard of the massacre.

Andros looked around at the shocked and angry faces of the soldiers around him contentedly. He turned back to face his leader, expecting the same response.
But Xena merely laughed. Not one of her more pleasant ones. “So you admit you knew that she was the warrior who killed hundreds of soldiers in battle single-handedly?” She slowly decedent down the steps of the platform she’d been standing on. “And you did not consider that, since we are to face a force much larger than our own, a fighter who is that strong might be a useful asset?”
The lieutenant looked at her, confused.
“Idiot!” Xena spat at him, her blue eyes narrowing dangerously at her. “Gabrielle has been injured. She’s useless to me now.”

Odilon blinked, surprised at the words. He had assumed the warrior had been using Xena, but… Now Xena made the illusion it had been the other way around. Surely he couldn’t have misread her that badly.

“I….” Andros stared at his leader another moment in shock. “I don’t understand.”
“Let me make it easier for you then,” his Empress snapped. “You have betrayed me and undermined my plans. The price for that is death.” She shoved him and he stumbled back. “Pick a weapon.”
Andros looked at her in confusion. “I cannot fight you, Empress.”
“What?” She shoved him again, her eyes raging. “Disobeying me a second time?”

The lieutenant looked confused. A sword was held out to him and blindly he reached for it. The moment he had taken it up Xena unsheathed her sword and came at him. Andros only barely managed to block the strike.

Odilon pushed himself to the front. Xena swung her sword at Andros’ side, then kicked out, hitting the lieutenant squarely in the stomach, sending him stumbling back. She jumped up and flipped over the man, kicking him against the back and sending him scrambling forward, into the center of the square.

Xena looked up then, and instantly found Odilon’s gaze in the crowd. “Glad you could make it.” She told her spy, with a vicious growl, before focusing back on the fight.

Andros meanwhile had scrambled back to his feet. Before he could do so much as turn around Xena’s sword found his side. He grimaced as the blade slid through skin. Weakly he managed to push the blade away, but it just turned and swung at his other side. He lifted his sword to parry, but the force was so strong and he was so weak that his own blade was pushed right up against him, cutting his upper arm.

Xena growled, kicking at the lieutenant’s kneecap and sending him crashing to the ground. She swept her blade down and with one clean cut cut off his ear. Andros yelled out in pain, grabbing onto his head with his free hand. A gasp went through the crowd of watching soldiers.

“Get up!” Xena kicked out at him. Another kick, then Andros scrambled back to his feet and took a firmer hold on his sword. When Xena swung at him again he blocked her, then moved his weapon forward himself, trying to get through Xena’s defenses.

He failed of course, as Xena just stepped back and let him pass, smacking the back of her hilt against the back of his head. Andros turned and swung at her again, but the Empress jumped back just in time. She brought her own blade down then and with one clean stroke cut off his hand.

The lieutenant screamed, his free hand wrapping around the wrist of the other, staring at the handless stump in utter shock.

Xena grasped onto her sword with both hands and then viciously pushed it forward, shoving the blade into his stomach. Andros gasped, his eyes widening. He glanced down at the blade, then managed to lift his head to stare into ice cold blue eyes. “You could have protected her,” Xena hissed, so softly only he could hear. “You could have kept her safe. You didn’t. Your death will be slow and miserable. And when you do die, I will be waiting for you in Tartarus.”

Xena pulled back her sword and Andros fell to his knees weakly. Xena raised her head, her eyes meeting those of the watching soldiers. “We are going to war,” She stated as she slowly walked around Andros. “This evening I am leaving, taking the last of you with me to Thermopylae. Traitors will NOT fight at my side.” She pulled her chakram from her belt, then turned and shoved the weapon into his spine. A moment, then the lieutenant crashed to the dirt, unable to move.

The square was completely silent. Xena’s footsteps echoed loudly as she walked around Andros’ still body, kneeling down beside him. The lieutenant managed to move his head a fraction and looked up at her wide fearful eyes. Xena stared at him a moment, her gaze dark and unreadable.

Then she rose back to her feet and returned her attention to the other soldiers. “If you think you are worthy to fight next to me, I will see you this evening in the courtyard, ready to depart. If you are not, then leave now. Because by Hades, I will do far worse things to you if you betray me in war, then I did to him.”

Hey eyes flicked over the watching men again, then she walked back over to Andros. She grabbed onto his arm and dragged him along behind her unceremoniously. She lifted him onto the platform and pulled him towards the stakes. With one arm she placed him against the wood while she expertly loosened a leather strap and wrapped it around his wrist.

When she stepped back Andros was dangling from the stakes. He was still alive. Xena had made sure none of the wounds she’d inflicted were lethal. Somehow the lieutenant managed to raise his head. He looked at her, pleadingly. “Kill me,” he managed to say, in barely more than a whisper. “Please.”
Xena looked at him, then leaned closer, dropping her voice to a low bur. “Suffer.” She instructed him, before walking away.

Soldier hastily darted out of the way as she passed. Blood liberally covered her armor and skin.

Odilon saved a last glance for Andros’ body, then he hastily ran after Xena. “Xena!” He called after her and she stopped, her back still turned to him. “What’s g…rgh!” he gasped as a hand wrapped around his throat tightly, cutting off his air supply.
“You set her up.” Xena hissed at him.
“Xena!” Odilon managed to say, desperately struggling for air, his eyes wide.
Icy eyes stared at him for a long moment. Then she lifted her free hand and reached for his. She grabbed hold of his seal ring and pulled it off his finger. Then with a vicious growl she shoved him away from her. Odilon thudded to the ground harshly. “Don’t show your face to me again.” Xena spat at him as he sat up, looking up at her in complete confusion. “Ever!”

The door slammed loudly as she let it fall shut behind her. At the end of the hallway Aphrodite’s face appeared. The brown eyes widened as the goddess saw the blood that was liberally covering her body. But before she could speak, Xena just lifted her hand in a resolute gesture. The Empress pulled open the door to her own bedroom and closed it behind her.

Silence fell. Xena leaned her back against the door and closed her eyes. Her heart was pounding fast.

She let a moment pass, then she moved over to her bed and sagged down on it. The blood on her legs clung to the clean sheets.

Xena rested her hands on her knees and opened one. In the center of her palm laid Odilon’s seal ring. The mark of her power. Of her trust in him.

She leaned over and pulled open the drawer of the small cabinet standing next to her bed. She reached inside and pulled out a second ring, similar to Odilon’s. It came to rest on the palm of her other hand.

Pyrron’s ring.

Xena closed her eyes, drawing in a shaky breath. In all her travels. In her hectic, dangerous life. She’d only fully trusted two people. Two people, who she shared the power with she’d conquered. Xena stared down at the two rings lying in her hands.

Now…. Now there was no one left. There was only her.

She bit her lip, feeling the weight of that realization settle on her. The enemy had entered Greece. They stood at her doorstep. And she was the only one left to fight. She had no allies. There were no gods to pray to. She was alone.

The door was suddenly opened and Xena rose to her feet instantly, spinning around. Niobe stumbled inside then stopped as she spotted the Empress.

It was as if time stood still for a moment as they stood there. The child in the door opening, young and innocent. And Xena, on the other side of the room, dressed in her armor and covered in blood.

Niobe blinked a few times, then toddled forward into the room. “Sena? You go play with red pait?”
Xena managed a laugh, then quickly dropped to a knee, coming eye to eye with the child. “Yeah… Something like that.” She reached for the girl, stroking her cheek.

It left a smudge of red on the toddler’s skin. Xena hastily reached over and wiped it off.

Aphrodite’s anxious face appeared in the doorway. “Xena, I’m sorry,” she said. “She got away from me. I didn’t want her to….”
“It’s okay,” Xena quickly cut her short, then returned her attention to the child. “Hey, short stuff?”
Brown eyes looked up at her in complete trust. “Yes?”
Xena hesitated a moment, then motioned a hand towards Aphrodite, who was still standing in the doorway. “You like her?”
Niobe glanced over her shoulder at the goddess, then looked back at Xena with a smile. “Yes. All pink! Is good!”
The Empress smiled at her. “You always were a good judge of character,” she told the child, who giggled in response. “How do you feel about going on a little trip? Hmm?”
“Holday?” Niobe beamed her a smile. “Good!”
“That’s the spirit,” Xena grinned at her, then rose to her feet, meeting Aphrodite’s eyes. “I need to go change. How about you ask your aunt Aphrodite to help you pack?”
“Kay,” Niobe said, turning around and toddling back over to the goddess. “Afdite?”

“I’ll be over in a moment,” the goddess managed a smile for her. She watched the child run back into the living room, then turned her attention back to Xena.

The Empress was staring at some objects lying in her hand. Then she tossed them away, the two rings hitting the wall and bouncing off it with a clinging of metal.

“What happened?” Aphrodite asked, indicating Xena’s bloodied outfit.
The Empress squared her shoulders, a set expression on her face. “I got…. reacquainted with a part of myself I thought I didn’t need anymore.” She walked up to the goddess, looking her in the eyes. “Help the children pack their things. Not too much. You’ll need to be able to move fast.”
“B…” Aphrodite stared at her in shock. “I…”
“I’m gonna go with my gut, and say you can be trusted,” Xena told her. “You’re the only one I know who can protect my children from your Pantheon. I have no choice but to leave them with you.” She leaned a fraction closer. Aphrodite flinched at the tangy smell of blood clinging to her. “I’ll leave one of my best assassins with the hind’s blood dagger. If you betray me, you’ll regret it. Understood?”
Aphrodite swallowed. “Y… yes.”
“Good,” Xena nodded, then moved past her. “I need to clean myself up. I’ll be back in a few moments. Make sure the kids are ready by then.”

They’d placed her in a room on the northern side of the palace. Gabrielle stepped inside, the sound of her boots echoing off the stone walls. It was dark inside, since there were no windows, and the place was illuminated by a large number of candles.

Two women were standing next to a wooden table, wrapping fine linen around the body lying on top of it. They both bowed as Gabrielle stepped closer. “Leave, please.” Gabrielle said softly, and the two women hastily did as ordered.

The sound of the door closing behind them. Gabrielle took another step closer to the table, looking down into the face of the woman. There was a small smudge of dirt on her cheek and Gabrielle reached out, wiping it off with her thumb. “You always did have trouble keeping your face clean,” she murmured, her fingers trailing down the cold cheek. “But…. You turned out good in the end, Callie. Bet you’re disappointed in yourself right now.” A faint smile. “Fighting Him to save me. How stupid an idea was that, huh?” Her voice broke a little and she had to stop and close her eyes, forcing back the tears. “You were my best friend for the longest time. No one really got that. You and me. I’m pretty sure you didn’t either. Considering how annoying and chatty I was.” A breath. “When I first got to Athens, I’d kinda lost my way. You helped me find it. You were confident and strong and… and someone I could look up to. Count on to save me, when I got into trouble. I think…. I think we kept each other sane, a little.” Gabrielle gently folded a lock of blond hair around her fingers. “I really thought… I thought we could find each other again, in the end. But I guess that wasn’t meant to be.”

Gabrielle hesitated a moment, then leaned closer, softly pressing a kiss to the pale lips. “I hope you’ve found that peace you were searching for. You deserve it.” A tear slid down her cheek. “Thank you. For getting me out of trouble one last time.”

“Sir,” the general bowed politely as Khrafstar entered. “I am sorry to disturb you from your prayers.”
“Fortunately for you, I believe in shooting the messenger,” Khrafstar told him calmly, his dark eyes studying the man of war calmly. “What do you wish to speak to me for?”
“News has come to us from our scouts,” the general told him, pointing at the map that lay on the table standing in between them. “The enemy is gathering here.” He pointed.
Khrafstar studied the map, then nodded. “The Pass of Thermopylae. Our Lord spoke of it.”
“Our Lord is wise,” the general said reverently. “It is a location not in our favor. The pass is narrow and high. Only a few men can move through it at one time.” He pointed to the map again. “It would be wiser to move around it. Then we can strike Delphi..”
The general blinked at him. “Sir?”
“No. We will meet Xena at Thermopylae. The Dark Lord wishes it so.”
“But, sir,…”
“No!” Khrafstar cut him off firmly. “We shall defeat Xena when her chances to win are greatest. When we do this, the rest of the world will tremble in fear. And Dahak will rule.”

The general looked at him doubtfully for a moment, then he pointed to another location on the map, this one on the Persian coast. “The Egyptian forces are moving up through Persia. Because most of our forces are stationed here, they are finding hardly any opposition. Within two, maybe three days, they will be here. Our numbers are great, sir, but fighting a war on two fronts is never wise.”
Khrafstar folded his hands behind his back. “We will be at Thermopylae tomorrow night. We will strike at the light of day. We outnumber her troops, do we not?”
The general grinned. “Five to one, sir.”
Khrafstar grinned back. “We will strike at the light of day. Xena’s forces will be obliterated. If the Egyptians do not run when they hear of the defeat, we will deal with them before we move on to Delphi.” He bowed his head. “Dahak wishes it so.”
The General inclined his head. “His will be done.”

Xena let a sponge fill with water, then lifted it and squeezed. The water trickled onto her am, mixing with the blood there and then sliding off her arms.

She finished cleaning, then dunked her head under water a final time before rising from the tub. She picked up a towel, swinging it over her shoulder and then heading for the door, stepping back into her old bedroom.

She stopped dead as she saw the figure standing at the back of the room, her arms crossed, her foot tapping impatiently. “Are you nuts?” Aphrodite asked, her dark eyes staring pointedly at Xena.
Xena blinked at her a few times, then regained her composure. “Are you? What the Hades are you doing in my bedroom?”
“This is so not going to happen!” The goddess pointed a finger at her. “I mean, I’m here, trying to protect your kid and then you walk in all grody and blood dripping and you yell at me to take your kids and protect them from some way pissed off and powerful deities and then, and top of it all, you threaten to kill me if I don’t!” Aphrodite tossed up a hand in frustration. “I’m so totally not your pet goddess. So back off!”

Xena narrowed her eyes dangerously. “Aren’t you the one hiding in my household?!”
“Oh yeah,” Aphrodite pointed at her bare stomach, which had a nasty dark scorch mark on it. “Lotta good that’s done me, huh?”
“Now you listen to me,” Xena took a step closer to her threateningly. “This is not…”

At that moment the door swayed open. Xena halted her speech and turned her head, to see Gabrielle standing in the doorway.

The warrior glanced from the clearly angry Aphrodite to the clearly naked Empress, then lifted an eyebrow. “What’s going on here?”
“Gabs, tell you girlfriend to get real, would ya?”
“Well,” Gabrielle scratched her head, studying Xena. “This is about as real as she gets, honestly.”
“Hardihar,” Aphrodite grumbled, crossing her arms angrily.

Gabrielle ignored her, crossing the room and stopping in front of Xena. “Why are you naked?”
“I just finished my bath.”
“And you decided getting dressed took up too much of your valuable time?”
Xena rolled her eyes. “No.” She nodded her head towards the grumpy Aphrodite. “Then she distracted me.”
“Right,” Gabrielle shook her head a little, then retrieved the dark tunic that was lying on the bed and held it out to her. “Wear that. You’re distracting me.”
Xena snorted, then turned around and started toweling her hair dry.

Meanwhile Gabrielle walked over to the goddess waiting on the other side of the room. “What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong is, I’m the Goddess of Love,” Aphrodite told her sharply. “Not of babysitting. I mean, the kids are sweet, they really are. But I’m so not up for this.”
“Huh?” The warrior stared at her, not understanding what she was getting at at all.
“I mean, it’s fine here, where there’s soldiers and guards and those freaky Amazons and where there’s her royal butt kicking highness at the ready to save the day in the nick of time. But I can’t take care of those kids all alone! I mean, I know I got a kid myself, you know? But with us gods kids just sorta… you know, pop out of our heads or thighs or drift up from the ocean in a big sea shell or something.”

Green eyes stared at her another moment, then Gabrielle turned around, facing Xena. The Empress was just straightening her tunic with impatient hands. “You asked her to look after the kids?”
Xena released a tired breath, sitting down on the edge of the bed.
“Here, see!” Aphrodite pointed a finger at Gabrielle. “She doesn’t agree with you either. It’s not just me!”

Gabrielle walked up to the Empress, stopping in front of her. “Why?”
Blue eyes looked up at her, then she reached for the blonde’s hand, intertwining their fingers. “Last night… Something happened to Iona.”
Gabrielle looked at her anxiously. She’d known something had happened, but the two of them hadn’t had a chance to talk about it.
“She was attacked.”
“By who?”
“Strife,” Aphrodite dropped in, in a subdued voice. “My cousin.”

Gabrielle frowned, darting a glance at Aphrodite before turning her attention back to Xena. “Why? To get to you?”
The Empress shook her head a little. “No. It’s…” A breath. “When Ares died…. When I killed him. The power he had was lost.”
“I know,” Gabrielle cut her short. “Athena told me. Ares hid it somewhere. The entire Greek Pantheon was cracking open pebbles looking for it. But they couldn’t find it.”
“Well,” Xena looked up at her, sadly. “They found it.”
“They f…” Green eyes widened in shock. “No way…”
“Yeah. Ares’ last piece of revenge.” Xena managed a wry smile. “Worked out swell for him.”

Gabrielle stared at her another moment, then she moved closer. Xena wrapped her arms around the warrior, resting her head against the woman’s abdomen. “The entire Greek pantheon is going to be after her soon.” Xena said, tired. “This just keeps getting better, huh?”
Gabrielle ruffled her fingers through the dark hair. “We’ll… We’ll work it out. Don’t worry.” She sounded far from sure though. “Is there any way to… get that power Ares had… out of her?”
“It’ll only be returned to the family if she’s dead,” Aphrodite told her, sadly.
“Athena offered me an alternative,” Xena corrected her, then reached for a small pouch lying on the bed and pulled it open, retrieving its contents.

“Whoa!” Aphrodite stared at the ambrosia in shock.
Gabrielle stared down at the red substance, lying on Xena’s palm. “Are… Are you…?” She glanced up, meeting the blue eyes.
A moment, then Xena shook her head. “No. If I give this to her, then yes, she’ll live, but…” She swallowed. “Athena will use her as a weapon. She will have to go to war. Fight Dahak. I won’t let that happen.”
“Then why did you take it?”
“To make Athena believe I was thinking about it,” Xena told her. “And I thought… It’s powerful stuff. If I…”

She left the thought unfinished, but Gabrielle knew what she was saying. “No,” She touched Xena’s cheek, forcing her to look up. “You can’t. That’s not what you want.”
Xena managed a wry smile. “There’s a lot of stuff going on I don’t want.”
“Then don’t make it worse,” Gabrielle instructed her firmly. “If… If you think you need someone on your side with that kind of power, then let me take it.”

“Whoa!” Aphrodite said again, finally grasping what the conversation was about. “You wanna eat that and become a Goddess?” She studied Gabrielle pensively for a moment. “That’d be swell! You’d make a good one.”
Green eyes darted her a frustrated look.
“Which is… not the point, obviously, sorry.” The goddess muttered, hastily backing away again.

Gabrielle sighed, then turned her attention back to Xena. The Empress stared back at her. Then she drew in a breath. “The Ambrosia, it… it doesn’t matter. What matters is… I’m going to war. I can’t protect her.” A breath as Xena cast her eyes down. “You won’t be able to either. Aphrodite is the only one who has the power to keep the kids safe. She defended Iona last night.”
“Yes, and let me point out again,” The goddess motioned towards her charred skin. “Not an all out success.” A breath. “Your kid was okay ‘cause you came running in and did the hero thing, Xena. It wasn’t because of me.”
“I would have been too late to do the… ‘hero thing’, if you hadn’t been there,” Xena replied shortly.

Gabrielle glanced from one to the other, then she took a step forward in Aphrodite’s direction. “Look, you say you’re not like them. Like your family. That you care for Iona. Then prove it. Help us.” A breath. “Help her. There’s no one else that can.”
“I…” Aphrodite looked around, unhappily. “I don’t know if…”
“I need to know she’s safe.” Xena added, rising to her feet. “She’s my child. I love her. Like you said, you’re the Goddess of Love. Doesn’t that mean anything?”
“Well,” Aphrodite shuffled her feet. “Technically, maternal love isn’t my department. But…” She hastily added as Xena was about to protest. “I’ll…” A sigh. “I’ll give it my best shot.”

Gabrielle smiled, taking a few more steps forward and giving Aphrodite a hug. “Thank you,” she said softly.
“Well,” the goddess awkwardly patted the warrior’s side. “It’s, uhm…” She cleared her throat as Gabrielle stepped back, smiling at her. “Wow…. Haven’t had one of those in a while… I’d uhm… better go and help Cupid help the kids pack.”

Xena watched the goddess head out the door pensively. Gabrielle stepped up to her and she turned her head to look down at the blonde. “You can be pretty persuasive.”
Gabrielle smiled at her, then sobered. “You trust her?”
Xena considered this a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t know. She got hurt, protecting Iona. I do believe she means well, and that she likes her. I just….” A breath. “I don’t want to trust anyone with my daughter.”
“It’s just temporary,” Gabrielle said, wrapping an arm around her. “Until we sort out this mess with Dahak.”

“Yeah,” Xena murmured, staring at the closed door for another moment, before turning back to Gabrielle. “I want to give you something.” She motioned towards the bed. “Sit down for a moment.”
The warrior looked at her curiously, then did as ordered. Xena followed, kneeling down before her so they were eye to eye. “I uhm…” Xena drew in a breath. “Here.”

She held out her hand and opened it, to show Gabrielle what was lying on her palm. The blonde stared at the ring lying there, then her eyes shot up to meet Xena’s. “Y… You’re… giving me a ring?”
“Yeah, I…” Xena started, then her eyes tracked to her kneeling form as she suddenly realized what this looked like. “Oh, no, no… I mean, yes, I’m giving you a ring, but it’s not that kind of… I…” She hastily picked the ring up and held it closer to Gabrielle’s eyes. “Seal ring.”
“Oh,” Gabrielle managed a small, nervous laugh. “Right. Right. Of course, I…”
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have done the kneeling and everything, I…” Xena sucked in a breath. “No proposal. Just ultimate power. Sorry to disappoint.”

The blonde chuckled softly. “I’ll… get over it.” She took the ring from Xena, studying the seal closely. “I heard you took this from Odilon.”
“I did, but…That isn’t his ring.”
Gabrielle glanced up. “Pyrron’s?”
“It’s…” Xena looked at her sheepishly. “It’s mine. It was the smallest size,” she added quickly as she saw Gabrielle grin. “The other ones wouldn’t have fit you.”
“Right,” the warrior smiled, then leaned forward and kissed her. “That’s very practical of you.”

Xena hesitated a moment, then reached out and pushed a lock of blond hair back. “I should have given you this earlier. I don’t know why I didn’t, I just wasn’t thinking I guess… If I had, the army would have had to listen when you asked…”
“Shhh…” Gabrielle held a finger to her lips. “Don’t.”
“Don’t.” The blonde repeated softly, reaching out and touching Xena’s cheek. “I…” She stared into the blue eyes only inches away, letting the emotions she felt for the other woman take control. “I l…”

Xena hastily rose to her feet, spinning around to find her daughter standing in the doorway. She was looking mightily pissed off. “Iona…”
“What’s going on?” The girl demanded, her eyes blazing. “Why are we leaving?”
“We’re not,” Xena corrected her, looking the girl squarely in the eye. “You are.”

Iona stared at her several moments. “What?” She shook her head firmly. “I’m not g….”
Before she could continue though Xena grabbed onto her daughters shoulders with both hands, forcing her to face her. “Now you listen to me and you listen good. I am sending you with Aphrodite….”
“I won’t go,” Iona cut her off, her face set.

“Yes, you will,” Xena snapped back, with an intensity that made Iona flinch. “You disobeyed me before and look where it got us.” Xena dropped her voice to a hiss. “Because you talked to Athena the entire Greek pantheon is after you now. There is an army waiting for me at the border. I can’t fight them and worry about some Greek deity sneaking up at me from behind!”

Iona stared at her with wide eyes, clearly shocked.

Xena stared back at her, then knelt down, so they were eye to eye. “Aphrodite can protect you. You are going to listen to her. Promise me.”
“Promise me.” Xena insisted.
“I promise,” Iona managed, her eyes watery.
“That’s more like it.” Xena managed a smile for her, gently patting her on the cheek. “Now go pack.”
Iona hesitated a moment, then did as ordered, running back over to her room.

Xena slowly rose back to her feet. She was shaking. Gabrielle walked up behind her, wrapping both her arms around her waist and leaning against her. “I…” A shaky breath. “I’m not sure I can do this.”
“You can,” Gabrielle murmured, her fingers finding Xena’s and intertwining. “Let’s just… get this over with.”
Xena bit her lip, then nodded, moving forward, Gabrielle following close behind.

Three bags were lying on the table and Caspar was hunched over one, placing some of his books inside. Cupid was helping him. Aphrodite was over on the other side of the room, helping a suspiciously quiet Iona.

Niobe spotted her first, happily running over. “Sena!”
Xena smiled, lifting the toddler up. “Her, shorty.”
“Yous no reds no more.”
“Not anymore, no.” The Empress ruffled her hair affectionately. “Are you done packing?”
Niobe nodded. “I go take tigger pajama.” She said, pointing to her bag, her pajamas lying squarely on top. “You forgots to make tail.”
“I know, but…. I can’t right now, shorty.” Xena murmured, darting Caspar a smile. The boy managed a smile back. Xena could tell he knew something was wrong though.
“You pwomise!” Niobe said, indignantly.
“I know, I know,” Xena placed the toddler back on the ground. “I will… When...” She swallowed. “When you come back from holiday. Okay?”
“Sena!” Niobe still looked dismayed.

Gabrielle smoothly intervened. “Hey sweetie, come over here.”
Niobe spotted the warrior, then forgot about her tiger tail and toddler over to her, allowing the older woman to pick her up. “Abby, you go on holday too?”
Gabrielle gently stroked her hair. “Later.”

Xena turning away from the room’s inhabitants and drew in a deep breath, trying to calm herself. She’d really thought she could do this, but…. She swallowed. It was so hard.

She’d never had to say goodbye to family before.

The Empress bit her lip, then turned around, facing Aphrodite. The goddess was dressed in a black cloak, which covered most of her pink attire.
“Are….” The goddess cleared her throat. “I’m not sure what to do. Where to take them, I….”
Xena cut her off. “Just keep running. Get away from Greece. Far away.” She hesitated a moment. “Head west, then go north. Dahak will go to Egypt first. The Norse land isn’t interesting for him just yet.”

Aphrodite gazed at her, then moved even closer, dropping her voice to a mere whisper. “Dahak will only move past Greece once you….”
“Here.” Xena held out a letter to the goddess. Aphrodite hesitated, but the Empress held it out even closer. “Take it.” The goddess did, staring down at the small scroll, the ends held together by Xena’s seal. “If you hear any news about me,” Xena continued firmly. “Give that to Iona.”
Brown eyes stared at the scroll another moment, then she looked up, staring at Xena compassionately. “Okay. I will.”

Meanwhile Caspar had walked up to her and Xena shifted her attention to him. “Hey, sport. You ready to leave?”
The boy nodded quietly.
The Empress hesitated a moment, then knelt down before him, looking him in the eyes. He looked back at her, sadness predominant in his brown eyes.

He knew. Not everything, he couldn’t, but… He knew enough. Xena touched his cheek. “You are so much like your father. You know that?”
He managed a small smile. “I am?”
“Yes,” Xena confirmed. “You’re kind. And you’re loyal. And you are so smart. Just like him.” She gently stroked his cheek. “He was so proud of you. He was always telling me about something brilliant that you’d said or done. He knew you were meant for great things. And he was right.”
“I…” Caspar swallowed. “I don’t want to do great things. I want to stay with you and watch you do great things.”
Xena smiled at him. “Not this time. I need you to look after Niobe. Don’t let her wander off and get into trouble.” Caspar just nodded, before hugging her tightly. Xena hugged him back, kissing the top of his head. “You are going to do great things. If I close my eyes, I… I can see you doing them.” She leaned back, looking down at him. “You know I had a son once, right?” She stroked a lock of his dark hair. “I never got around to knowing him, but…. In my mind he was always just like you. Perfect.”

Caspar blushed and looked down at his feet. Xena pulled his head closer, pressing another kiss to his forehead, then gently shoved him in the direction of his sister. “Go see if your sister is ready, hmm?”
“Kay,” Caspar said softly, clasping her hand a last time, before moving away.

Xena watched him go, then she rose back to her feet and looked up. She froze then, as she saw Iona standing in the doorway of her room, a bag slung over her shoulder. The girl stared back at her a moment, then she dropped her eyes, staring at her feet.

Her feet moved forward, though she hadn’t consciously ordered them to. She stopped moments later in front of her daughter. She could see Iona’s shoulders heave as she drew in a deep breath, then the girl looked up.

Those eyes. Her eyes. Xena swallowed down the lump in her throat.

Her mind was telling her to keep her distance. It would be easier. For her. For Iona. Just to pretend. Pretend this was temporary. Pretend that….

Emotions took over though, and she reached down, wrapping her arms tightly around the girl and lifting her off her feet. Iona dropped her bags and wrapped her arms around her neck. “I didn’t mean to make things harder for you,” Iona got out. “I really didn’t. I should have just listened. I’ll never not listen to you again, mom.”
“I’ll remember you said that,” Xena managed to grin. “I love you, kid.”
“Don’t go, mom.” Iona sniffled, hiding her face in her mother’s dark hair.
“I have to go.” Xena forced herself to pull back and look at her daughter. “Okay. Now… Listen to me. This is important.”
Iona swallowed, but did look up at her. She watched as her mother pulled something out of a small bag tied to her belt.
“This is…. Something that belonged to your father. To Pyrron.” She said, to clarify which father she meant. She reached around the girl’s neck, attaching the ends of a necklace back together. A ring now lay in the hollow of Iona’s throat. “It’s my seal. I gave it to him. It meant he… was mine. And that I trusted him beyond any other.” Xena touched her daughter’s cheek, looking into her eyes. “I am trusting you with your brother and sister. I am trusting you to protect them. Understand?”
Iona swallowed, then her eyes took on a determined look and she nodded.
“That’s my girl,” Xena smiled, then hastily pulled Iona closer again, so she wouldn’t see the tear that slid down her cheek. She hastily wiped at it, then pulled back again. “Listen to Aphrodite. Don’t trust anyone else. And be careful. When this is all over with…. I’ll come find you. Okay?”
“Okay,” Iona responded softly.

Xena patted her cheek, then she rose to her feet, though her shaking limbs were making it hard to stand on her own. She looked up, to see Gabrielle talking to Caspar. Aphrodite and Cupid were watching her from a few steps away. The Empress drew in a breath. “You’d better go.”
Aphrodite nodded, then walked over to Caspar and Niobe, holding out her hands to them. “Clasp on, kiddos. I hear a nice, sunny beach with big waves calling our names.”

Cupid walked closer to Xena and her daughter, holding his hand out to Iona. “Come on. Let’s zap, beautiful.”
Iona took his hand, then with a last look, reluctantly let go of her mother’s. Xena felt her fingers slipping over her own. The emptiness as her daughter’s touch vanished was physically painful. When she looked up she found Cupid looking back at her respectfully. He reached out his free hand and she clasped it. “Good luck, Warrior Princess.”
Xena managed a smile for him. “Haven’t been called that in a while.” She murmured, as she let go of his hand.

Xena watched as Cupid led Iona over to where Aphrodite and the kids were standing. She felt a touch at her waist and blindly reached for Gabrielle’s hand.
Niobe waved enthusiastically. “Bye bye, Sena! Bye, Abby!” She called out, smiling broadly, as Aphrodite lifted a hand and snapped her finger. A cloud of pink dust drifted over them.

Xena’s eyes found Iona’s, staring into them until the clouds of pink settled over her completely. A flash and then…. The room was empty.

Xena continued to stare blankly at the spot where her daughter had stood moments before.

Fingers squeezed hers and she stared down, looking into green eyes. “It’s…” She had to pause as her voice broke. “It’s for the best.” A breath. “Right?”
Gabrielle just nodded.
Xena glanced back to where the children had stood. “It’s for the best.”

A small pop and a spark drifted up from the fire burning in the living room of what had once been Pyrron’s quarters. Xena sat on a chair in front of it, staring into the flames silently. The warmth of the fire was burning against her cheeks.

Besides the soft sounds of the fire, there was silence. Gabrielle was in her old room, across the hall, taking a bath in preparation of their departure. Xena closed her eyes, leaning her forehead against her balled fist and hiding her face in the shadows.

After a moment she sat back, drawing in a breath. The smell of burning wood filled her nostrils. She reached for a small pouch lying on the table beside her and removed the string tying it closed. The small piece of ambrosia fell onto her hand, glittering softly in the firelight.

She stared at it a long moment. Then she closed her hand around it, and with a resolute movement tossed the ambrosia into the fire. Sparks flew all around as the divine food entered the flames and was consumed by it.

Silence returned again to the room. Xena stared into the fire again, watching the last bit of ambrosia melting away. There was a flash of light behind her, but she ignored it.

Athena stared over her shoulder at the fire. Then she shook her head softly. “You have just signed your death warrant.”
Xena smiled wryly. “My death was a certainty the moment I was born. We all die. All we have a say in, is how we die. And I plan on dying with dignity. And a sword in my hand.”

Athena gazed down at the dark head a moment, then she closed her eyes, extending her senses, searching. After a moment she opened her eyes again. “Where is Iona?”
A soft chuckle. “Wouldn’t you like to know….”
Athena’s dark eyes blazed. “She is the most powerful weapon you have, and…”
“She is not a weapon.” Xena turned around, her eyes meeting Athena’s with equal intensity. “She is a child. My child.”
“You’re not the only parent involved in this, Xena,” Athena shot back. “The men and women you are sending into war. They have spouses. Sons and daughters. If you use the power Iona has, they may be spared.”
The Empress laughed, humorlessly. “Oh please. Don’t pretend you care about the poor mortals.”
“This is not about emotions,” the goddess returned sharply. “This is about simple mathematics. Weighing the pro’s and cons. And then making a rational decision on what is the best course of action. Your brains are in your head, Xena. Not in your heart. It is either taking a shot with Iona, and having a chance of survival. Or it is guaranteed death. For you and those fighting beside you.”
A smile from the Empress. “I know. It’s guaranteed death for me. For you.” She leaned closer, dropping her voice. “And it’s life for my daughter.”

Athena stared back at her a moment longer, then she tossed up a hand in frustration, turning around. “You cannot be reasoned with.”
Xena smirked at her. “You left, Athena. You walked out of Greece. And reason slipped out the door with you.” She straightened as the goddess turned back around. “This is my country now. And I no longer have any need for reason. You are obsolete.”

The goddess narrowed her eyes. “I will find your daughter. I will hunt her. And the power she has will be mine. One way… or the other.”

Gabrielle stepped out of the bath and reached for the towel slung over the sink. She wrapped the warm fabric around her, then picked up a smaller towel and started to ruffle it through her hair.

Darkness had fallen now, and the room was lit with candles. She crossed over to the window, glancing outside to see torches lit and soldiers marching back and fro.

The door behind her opened and Gabrielle turned around to find Xena standing in the doorway, her form outlined by the light falling into the room from the corridor. The Empress stared at her. The backlight had cast her eyes in shadows, so Gabrielle was unable to see her expression. The warrior smiled. “Hey.”

Xena continued to look at her another moment, then she walked inside fully, turning to close the door behind her. Gabrielle walked over and opened her mouth to speak again. But before she could say a word Xena had spun back around and closed the distance between them with a few steps. She cupped the warrior’s face between two hands and leaned closer, kissing her soundly.

Gabrielle closed her eyes from the intensity of it, reaching out and grabbing onto the Empress’s tunic to keep herself from falling. Xena gently pushed her back, until the back of her legs touched the edge of the bed. The next moment they were tumbling down onto the soft sheets, somehow managing to not break the kiss for an instant.

Gabrielle hummed softly as she snuggled closer, burying her face in Xena’s neck. “You know I’ll have to take a bath again now.”
Xena chuckled faintly, resting her cheek against the blond hair. “You complaining?”
Gabrielle turned her head a little, laying a finger against the Empress’ cheek and lazily claiming the other woman’s lips. “Nope.” She murmured, then paused a moment. “I uhm… I was afraid I’d have to think of him.”
“Did you?”
“A little at first,” Gabrielle replied, honestly, letting her hand trail down the Empress’s throat and come to rest against her chest to feel the beating of her heart. “But not for long. You’re stronger than he is.”

Xena managed a smile at this, reaching for Gabrielle’s hands and folding them between her own. She pressed a kiss against her fingers, then rested her head back on her pillow. Gabrielle followed her example. They gazed at each other. The Empress finally lifted her hand, gently laying it against Gabrielle’s cheek. “If… If I only had seconds to live…. This is how I’d want to live them. Looking into your eyes.”

Gabrielle kissed her palm and was about to respond, when a horn sounded from outside. The warrior took a look at the window, then returned her attention to Xena. There was sadness in those blue eyes now. “I guess it’s time.”
Xena swallowed, then nodded. “Better get going.” She murmured, stroking Gabrielle’s cheek with the back of her fingers, before sitting up.

Gabrielle watched her stand up and walk into her study. Then she pushed herself up, swinging her legs out of the bed. She’d left a tunic lying over the chair by the bedside and she pulled it over her head, straightening the fabric with an absent smile.

Footsteps behind her again and she turned, to see Xena holding out a mug to her. She took it, and looked at the liquid inside. Herbs were drifting in the water. “I feel fine. The bruises and things… They hardly hurt anymore.”
“Take it anyway,” Xena told her, as she pulled a shirt over her head. “It’s a long ride. Better to take precautions.”

Gabrielle considered this a moment, then had to admit the Empress did have a point there. She sat down on the edge of the bed and lifted the cup to her lips, drinking the mixture in a few gulps. She winced as the bitter taste of the herbs clung to her tongue. “This stuff is vile. Can’t you add anything to it, like honey or something? Make it taste a little better.”
“Sugar counters the effect,” Xena murmured, not turning around. “Did you drink it all?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Let me see the cup.”

Gabrielle frowned, but handed over the now empty cup for Xena to inspect. “What? Don’t trust me?”
Xena gazed at the bottom of the cup, seeing only a few green flecks remaining on the bottom. “I do, I just…. Wanna make sure.” She placed the cup on the bedside table, then returned her attention to Gabrielle. “If you don’t drink it all, it doesn’t work.”
The warrior smacked her lips unhappily, the nasty taste still lingering. Her mouth felt… a little numb. “Did you put something else in this time? It tastes a little different…”
“I added something a little stronger,” Xena admitted softly, before reaching out and turning Gabrielle’s face toward her. She leaned closer, letting their lips meet again.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, letting herself drown in the kiss. When Xena backed away, Gabrielle rested her forehead against the Empress’, her eyes still closed. “Guess we won’t get to do that for a while, huh?”
“No,” Xena responded, her voice thick with emotions.
Gabrielle backed away a little, looking up into the blue eyes only inches away. “You okay?”
“No,” the Empress repeated again.

Gabrielle frowned and was about to ask further, when a dizzy spell suddenly overtook her. She clasped onto the fabric of the bed, trying to steady herself. “Whoa.” She felt Xena’s touch at her arm and she looked up. She blinked, trying to get the Empress in focus.

Xena smiled back at her. “It’s okay.” She said, reaching out and touching the warrior’s cheek. The look in the blue eyes was intense and, though the entire room had slowly started spinning, Gabrielle managed to keep those eyes in focus. “There is a ship, waiting in the harbor. There is food on there, weapons. And enough gold to last you quite a while. When the crew sees my seal ring, they’ll know it’s you.”
“But…” Gabrielle swallowed and blinked her eyes again, confused.
A finger touched her lips to silence her. “When you wake up, it’ll be too late. The battle will be over. He’ll be coming here.”
“No,” the warrior managed, her fogged mind finally grasping what was going on. She struggled weakly in the other woman’s grasp. “Xena. No.”
“I’m sorry,” Xena said softly, a tear tracing down her cheek as she gently laid Gabrielle down on the sheets. “But I can’t let you die. I won’t.” She leaned closer, placing a kiss on the blonde’s forehead. “Go to the harbor. I’d like it if….” She swallowed. “If you could find the children. Take care of them, now that I can’t anymore.”

Gabrielle tried to speak, but she found that her mouth had gone entirely numb now, and she couldn’t. Her eyelids were falling shut, and, though she tried to fight it, sleep was tightening its hold on her. The last thing she heard, was Xena’s voice, whispering in her ear. “Always remember, I love you.”

The sound of boots marching drifted up from the courtyard. Xena spent a moment listening to it, then she turned back to the armor she had laid out on the table. She’d washed, quickly, in cold water. Her skin was chilly and her hair still dripping, drops occasionally sliding down her shoulders.

The armor was golden, decorated with black and reds. A blacksmith in Jappa had made it for her. She’d only worn it once, in the final battle she’d fought in the Land of the Rising Sun. It had been more of a formality then a fight really. She’d wanted armor to impress, most of all.

She settled the gold plated skirt around her, securing it with a belt. The golden top followed. She covered her hands and lower arms in the red gloves, placing the golden gauntlets on top.

She pulled on the boots last and stood, glancing down and securing a few last buckles. She reached for her chakram and attached it to the catch at her side. The hind’s blood dagger she’d left with Gabrielle. She had no need for it.

The sound of her boots echoing on the marble tiles sounded loudly through the empty apartment. Xena stopped in front of a painting and glanced up, to the weapon hanging above it. She hesitated a moment, then reached up and grabbed onto the hilt of the katana and lifted it.

With her free hand, she pulled the weapon out of its scabbard. The metal sung as it was released from its leathery prison. Xena stared at it, seeing one of her blue eyes reflected clearly in the well polished metal. “Been a while.” She murmured softly to the katana, which just glimmered back at her.

The sound of a horn again, this time more urgent. With a resolute gesture, Xena resheated the katana, attaching it to her belt.

She stepped into the hallway and headed for the hall. But she could only take two steps, before a voice called her back. “Xena!”
Xena closed her eyes, drawing in a breath to calm herself. “Get away from me, Odilon.”
“Not for the love of Ataecina!” Odilon, walked around her, blocking her path. He was dressed in his own armor, silver, with a blue cloak lying over his shoulders. “I’m not going to let you go off by….” He stopped, then studied her armor. “Y… You’re going off to the biggest battle of all times and you’re wearing that?!” He snapped, pointing at her bare abdomen. “What are you? Suicidal?”
“You are not coming with me,” Xena told him, ignoring his comments as she circled around him and continued on her way. “I don’t fight beside traitors.”
“I did not betray you!” Odilon countered as he set in pursuit. “I was looking out for your best interests. It’s what I’ve always done! I am your friend…”
Xena stopped and looked him in the eyes. “I have no friends.”

Odilon stared back at her. The comment had pained him, she could see it in his eyes. Finally he swallowed, squaring his shoulders. “Fine. Maybe I am not your friend. But you are still mine. And I’m not staying behind.”
“I don’t want you with me,” Xena told him, as she continued walking down the hallway. Odilon opened his mouth to speak again, but Xena cut him off. “If you’re so determined to do something, to redeem yourself to me, then stay here. And protect Gabrielle.”

Odilon stopped and frowned. “She’s… not coming with you?”
“No,” Xena said, before turning the corner and slipping out of sight. “She’s not.”

Toris lifted his head at the sound of footsteps. He stepped up to the bar, glancing at the staircase, hoping it was Thalia.

Moments later though a tall body stepped into the torchlight. The flames reflected off his sister’s golden armor.

She looked impressive, dressed in her armor, her hair loose and disordered. Then he squared his shoulders and took on an uninterested look. “Come to kill me then, have you?”

Xena didn’t respond, didn’t even bother to look at him. She stepped up to the bars and stuck a key in the lock, turning it. With a soft squeak the door opened. Then she turned back around, and started marching back out.

Toris blinked. “Whoa! Hey!” He quickly stepped out of the cell, calling after his sister. “What’s this about?”
Xena stopped, then spun back around. “I’m leaving. Off to war. Can’t be bothered to deal with you. So I’m allowing you to run.” She smirked at him, sarcastically. “You’re still good at that, aren’t ya? Running?”
“I…” Toris started, then stopped, confused.
“Bye, Toris,” Xena said, before turning around and continuing back up the stairs. “It’s been a pleasure not knowing you.”

Soldiers saluted her as she stepped into the court yard. Torches were lit around the square and it shimmered off the armor of the hundreds of soldiers lined up. The noise of clattering weaponry and edgy voices stopped as they noticed her arrival. Salutes and respectful nods were directed at her.

Xena stepped up to the lieutenant, who saluted. “All is in order, General.” He said, as he fell into pace beside her. “The men are ready. We have several carts of food and weaponry with us.”
“Good,” Xena nodded as she continued walking. “How many men abandoned us, after that little… demonstration of mine this afternoon?”
“None, ma’am.”
Xena darted him a look, then smirked wryly. “Ah…. All idiots then, hmm?”
“Yes, General,” the lieutenant agreed easily. “Very loyal idiots.”

“My favorite kind,” Xena responded in a mumble, then halted as she spotted Cleopatra walking closer. Where as the Egyptian soldiers that circled her wore only white loincloths and some light chain mail, Cleopatra herself was well adorned. Her upper body was covered in beautiful golden armor. She wore a large necklace, shaped like a scarab, its wings spread out and covering her shoulders. The metal was inlaid with hundreds of small stones in various shades of blue and green.

“Xena,” Cleopatra inclined her head a fraction. “You look….” She let her eyes travel down the Empress’ mostly bare body. “…good.”
“Thanks,” Xena drawled, then motioned her closer. Cleopatra waved a hand at her guards, who instantly bowed and backed away, giving them some privacy. Xena glanced over the Egyptian’s shoulder to the contingent of Egyptian chariots. There were about a hundred archers and an equal number of spearmen, armed with spears and large, man-sized shields. “You should… take some of your troops and head south.”
“South?” Cleopatra looked at her inquisitively. “Why?”
“You should join the troops moving up through Persia.” Xena explained. “Circle around. We can meet up at Thermopylae. Force them into a two front war.”

Cleopatra cocked her head, studying Xena with quite some interest. “If I am not mistaken, you are trying to get rid of me.”
Xena snorted. “I’m just trying to work out a good strategy.”
“Odilon informed me of the number of troops waiting at Thermopylae.” Cleo continued calmly. “You must know as well as I do, that your forces can never hold out long enough for my army to attack from the north.”

Xena watched her a moment, then released a breath. “When… If Dahak gets past me, he’ll head for Egypt next. You should go home. Get ready to defend your lands.”
Cleopatra stared at her another moment, then a look of realization crossed her features. “Ah… I believe I understand the lack of armor now.”
Xena rolled her eyes. “Fine. We understand each other then.”
Cleopatra considered this a moment, then smiled. “Hardly.” She turned and headed back towards her troops.

Xena watched her go, then shook her head a little. She wanted to follow the Egyptian, but before she could a stable hand walked up to her, leading Chilon along. The young girl inclined her head politely. “Your horse, ma’am.”
Xena stopped, glancing at the large black stallion. She then shook her head, continuing on. “Take him back to the stables.”
The girl blinked, confused. “But….”
“Take him back,” Xena repeated, not turning back. She heard Chilon snort in outrage as the horse was led away.

Horns blew, a last time, and the soldiers took up their places and turned towards the gates. Wheels rolled up and a chariot stopped at her side, two beautiful white horses stamping the earth restlessly. Cleopatra stood on the back of the chariot, holding onto the reigns. “Not even bringing your horse, are you?”
Xena looked at her. “He’s too slow.”
“Is Odilon too slow as well? And your peasant?”
Xena tried to repress a wry smile. “You think you’re so smart, don’t ya?”
“I don’t just think it,” the Egyptian returned easily, then motioned towards a spot beside her on the chariot. “Come.”

The Empress hesitated a moment, then gave in, stepping up into the chariot. “Tell me one thing though? If you’re so smart, why come with me? You are going to die. You know that.”
Cleopatra considered this a moment. “Well… I believe it was a wise woman who once told me that immortality is reserved for those who are worth remembering. All others just…. Fade into oblivion. But those who live on in the memory of others, have eternal life.”
Xena darted her a look. “I told you that.”
“Oh, you did?” Cleopatra feigned surprise. “Not a wise woman after all, then.”
The Empress rolled her eyes, but looked amused.
“My eternity is ensured,” Cleopatra continued. “When I die I will be embalmed and sit beside Osiris.” She looked up at Xena. “If I am meant to live forever… I’d better make sure I have some good company. Otherwise I may be bored.”

Xena chuckled, shaking her head a little. She reached for the Egyptian’s shoulder, squeezing it. “Thanks.”
Cleopatra inclined her head in acceptance, then clucked her tongue and loosened the hold on her reigns. The horses moved forward instantly, pulling the chariot forward.

Thalia looked up from her conversation with the storekeeper at the mention of her name. She looked around, then spotted the person who’d called her making his way over, struggling through the crowd. “Toris?” She murmured in confusion, leaving the storekeeper behind and walking over to meet him. “Toris, what… How did you escape? Please don’t tell me you….”
“I didn’t,” Toris hastily cut her of as he tried to regain his breath. “I didn’t escape. She let me go.”
“Gabrielle did?”
“No,” Toris shook his head. “Xena.”
“What?” Thalia stared at him, in clear disbelief. “Why would she do that?”
“She left, for war. I saw her riding out of the city, on a chariot. This was… two, maybe three candlemarks ago. I’ve been looking for you all over town.”
The redhead frowned. “But… But Gabrielle was leaving with her. I’m sure Gab wouldn’t just leave without saying goodbye….”
“I didn’t see Gabrielle,” Toris told her. “That’s why I though…. You should know.”
“Good thinking,” Thalia agreed, grabbing onto his hand. “Come on. We need to get to the palace. See what’s going on.”
Toris released a breath at the prospect of returning to the palace again, but allowed himself to be dragged along.

Odilon stood quietly, watching Gabrielle’s sleeping form from the corner of the room. “Well…” he murmured softly, watching the slow rise and fall of the warrior’s chest. “Guess we have something in common after all, Gabrielle.” He smirked. “We are both fools for her.” A pause. “You somewhat more of a fool then me, since you let her drug you. Which was really, really blond of you.”

He slowly moved forward, crouching down at her bedside, looking at her face. “She asked me to guard you. Until you woke up.” A chuckle. “I’m obviously not going to do that. I’m a spy. I investigate and then take action. I’m not someone who just…. Stands by and waits.” He rose back to his feet and crossed over to the fireplace. “You know, I have been investigating that… Achilles’ heal of yours.” There was a small metal pot standing in the fire. He lifted some roots, which were a deep brown color, tossing it into the cauldron, reaching in with a wooden spoon and stirring. The mixture turned a poisonous green. “Turns out now though…. I won’t even need it….”

To be continued

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