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Xena, the Conqueror, wrecks retribution upon The Fates' temples for allowing Lyceus to be slaughtered in front of their temple. They return the blow in kind and transform her into a beast. The spell affects her entire kingdom, turning her soldiers and servants into various animals. Ares tries to reverse Xena's predicament, but can only allow Xena and her kingdom the power of human speech. Also unable to reverse the spell, Aphrodite alters it by borrowing an idea from a certain Disney classic and gives Xena an ultimatum: mutually fall in love before the rose dies, or you'll stay a panther forever.
Influences & Inspirations
Verrath's Heart Of A Leopard
Melissa Good's A Journey of Soulmates
Xena Screws Up Disney: THE MOVIE by tinka1482
Xena: Warrior Princess
Beauty and the Beast
Once upon a time in Ancient Greece, Xena, the Destroyer of Nations and the Conqueror of several lands, lived in her castle. She and her army had swept through the lands, capturing villagers and forcing them into slavery. She had them build her a mighty castle. Her name instilled fear into the populace. She punished those who opposed her or broke her rules. Xena, betrayed one too many times by those who would seek to rule her, no longer allowed her heart to be open to anyone. Even her mother who lived in the castle with her was only there because of Xena's sense of honour. Cyrene neither called Xena by her name, nor referred to her as “daughter”. As the castle's head cook, she too, called Xena by her title “Conqueror”. The only person who once had her affections was her now deceased brother Lyceus. His slain body had been discovered by Xena on her way to visit the temple of The Fates. On the steps of the temple, Lyceus had been lying face down, with a knife sticking out of his spine.
Xena laughed, watching her troops overrun the temple of The Fates. They had, only a moment ago, defeated all the guards and having slaughtered all of the priests. She would not kill needlessly. She killed in order to set an example and to strike fear into the hearts of any who saw fit to say otherwise. This would serve as a very big example. Xena was one who would dare to defy the gods. Xena cricked her neck and walked outside. There. That was her revenge for them forsaking one of their most fervent worshippers, her younger brother and best friend in the whole world, Lyceus.
‘Know my wrath! I now forsake you as you did my brother!' yelled Xena, throwing her chakram to behead the statues of The Fates.
She caught her flying weapon as it returned and with the other hand, slashed at the offerings with her sword. Xena and her army emerged from the temple. She gazed upon it and was angered by the pristine condition of the exterior.
‘Throw wood around the damn thing and burn it! I want it in ruins!' commanded Xena.
Later that night Xena's kingdom was visited by The Fates. They materialised in Xena's royal chambers. Xena threw her chakram, spitting curses at them. The Fates told Xena that she was such a destructive person. They called her an animal. They decided to turn her into one. Xena screamed as her body started contorting and changing. Her screams became roars as she eventually became a panther.
‘There, your fur reflects the darkness of your heart,' said The Fates.
However, because The Fates were more furious than ever before, they also cursed the rest of Xena's kingdom. Now Xena the Conqueror was a panther, and the rest of her subjects had been transformed into a variety of animals that would make up a very strange ecosystem. Cyrene became a hen. This vexed the cook greatly, but was somewhat placated by the fact that her kitchen hands were all monkeys. She only had to direct them to do the cooking. Thank the gods for monkeys and their opposable thumbs.
Ares, the God of War, laughed heartily when he discovered his favourite warlord's predicament. He soon stopped laughing, however, when he realised that being a warlord and conquering new lands would be difficult for Xena as a panther with an army of beasts. Sure, she herself was just as dangerous, but it would definitely affect her ability to maintain her grip on the lands. It would diminish his own influence over Greece and the rest of Xena's conquered.
‘Xena! You do NOT go around destroying temples! I never told you to do that! And now look at you!' said Ares.
He was exasperated and annoyed, but couldn't help but snicker at her misfortune. Xena snarled and swiped at him. She couldn't really hurt him, but it never stopped her from trying.
‘Yeah, yeah. Relax. I'm going to take the spell off you.'
Xena glared at Ares, only to have her eyes widen when he scratched his head at the sight of her not changing back to human form.
‘Hurry up then! I haven't got all day Ares! I've got lands to conquer! Peasants to terrorize!' Xena roared at him.
‘Well, at least you can talk now,' said Ares cheerfully.
Xena snapped her jaw shut. Her voice had an added growliness to it now.
‘Relax, gorgeous. I'll be right back,' said Ares, just before he disappeared.
He soon returned with Aphrodite in tow.
‘Eee! Ares! You got me a kitty!' squealed Aphrodite, rushing to throw her arms around the twitching panther.
She screamed in shock as the panther roared at her, causing her golden ringlets to blow backwards.
‘Hey. Sis. This is not a pet. Turn her back into Xena for me will ya? I'm guessing since you are a girl, you could tap into The Fates' spells better than I can,' said Ares.
Aphrodite sniffed, not really wanting to help such a rude and unlovable beast. But, Ares was her brother after all. And she was the Goddess of Love.
‘Sorry, dark and dangerous. I can't break this like, totally weird spell,' began Aphrodite.
‘Damn The Fates!' roared Xena.
‘Relax! I can't break it, but I can modify it. Look, here's a rose. It's like, an enchanted rose. Aren't I just so romantic? I'll give you like five… no, make that ten, I think you'll need it… I'll give you ten years to find someone who will love you. And you have to love that someone too. Then the spell will be broken. If you don't you will be this way forever. So, you have this rose to remind you that you have ten years to find love. Make sure you let the petals fall naturally. Here, I'll even throw in a mirror!' said Aphrodite.
‘Why in Tartarus would I want a mirror?' growled Xena.
‘It's a gift! Be more grateful, can'tcha? I'm guessing you probably won't be going outside as much anymore. You can see the rest of the world through this mirror, okay? Later!' explained Aphrodite, before disappearing in a pink puff of smoke.
‘Well... That was stupid. Hey, you can still go out and kill the villagers,' suggested Ares.
Xena glared at him.
‘Damn you to Tartarus!'
Ares shrugged. It wasn't his problem. He disappeared also, leaving the Conqueror to despair over her new form.
The years had passed by quickly, but also excruciatingly slowly. Many of the cocky warriors of Xena's army tried their luck to woo their leader, but failed abysmally. They were killed for their lecherous efforts. Most of them were either wolves or snakes. There was once a manservant who had been turned into a vulture. He foolishly attempted the impossible also. Xena had been so disgusted that she had swatted him out of the air and had ripped him to shreds.
Cyrene and the other subjects would go about their duties day to day. They were disappointed that Xena was not even trying to break the spell. She prowled around the castle, slashing all paintings that portrayed humans. They watched her everyday with guarded looks as she brooded over her condition.
In the wide reaching lands of Greece lay a small village called Potidaea. This was not an especially remarkable little town, but it did have a rather precocious young woman. This young woman was named Gabrielle. She wanted to be a bard because she loved stories and wanted to share them with the rest of Greece, and perhaps maybe one day, the world. Gabrielle lived with her sister Lila. The other villagers accepted Lila, but kept a wary distance from Gabrielle. Although they found her pleasant to look upon and to interact with, whenever long conversations occurred, they would be overwhelmed by her outlandish notions of adventure and life beyond tending to live stock or village life. She was a young woman who enjoyed reading scrolls.
Gabrielle awoke that morning with a smile on her face, still lingering in the residue of a pleasant dream tinged with aspects of the latest scroll that she had finished reading. She had dreamt that she was a wandering traveller. There was another with her, but the whole dream had been set during the night, so Gabrielle wasn't entirely sure who her companion was. All she remembered was that they rode a horse into a village. Usually Gabrielle was afraid of horses since they were so tall. She preferred riding their donkey Tobias since he was so close to the ground. Gabrielle found that the presence of her companion at her back had quelled her fear, dream fear or otherwise.
‘I'm going into town!' called out Gabrielle, opening the door to the little house with a windmill on top.
‘Okay!' replied Lila from the back of the house.
Gabrielle glanced at the scroll in her hand as she strolled through the town towards Salmoneus' variety store. She had been ecstatic when he had agreed to lend her his scrolls as she and Lila lacked the finances to purchase any. Gabrielle's haggling skills were forced to stick to consumable items. Besides, he had seen the way she looked upon scrolls. There was no way they would get damaged under her care.
Three astonishingly similar women with dark brown hair watch as Gabrielle passes by.
‘What is with that girl? She's always readin'. It's a wonder she hasn't been run over by a cart yet,' said Meg, snorting at the idea of reading.
‘Too twue! She should pwaise Hestia for pwotecting her! And besides! Didn't you know? Reading pwaces sinful thoughts in your head!' exclaimed Leah.
‘What are you girls talking about? Oh, look! There's Jett! Don't you think that he is just so dreamy?' said Diana, as she swooned at the most eligible bachelor in Potidaea.
Jett had moved to Potidaea from Athens because the hunting grounds were better. With most simple shopkeepers and farmers, there was hardly any competition in terms of hunting.
‘Absolutely! He can raid my treasure chest anytime!' agreed Meg.
‘Ha ha! You are so funny sometimes, Meg!' giggled Leah.
Meg rolled her eyes in response. The man in question had Joxer, his identical but younger brother, trailing after him. Joxer had convinced Jett to let him come with him to Potidaea in exchange for helping him carry his hunting trophies and keeping the home relatively clean. Joxer looked up to Jett because even though they looked the same, he was more successful in the way of swords, women and taking after their rich warlord of a father.
Gabrielle burst into Salmoneus' shop.
‘Good day to you, Gabrielle!'
‘Good morning!' Gabrielle returned his greeting. ‘I've come to return the scroll I borrowed. Do you have any new ones?'
‘Not since yesterday!' laughed Salmoneus.
‘A pity…' began Gabrielle, as she scaled the ladder leaning against the wall of scrolls. ‘May I borrow this one?'
Salmoneus looked at her chosen scroll.
‘You've already borrowed that one twice!' exclaimed Salmoneus.
Gabrielle threw a dazzling smile his way.
‘It's my favourite scroll! Far off place, daring swordfights, deals with the gods, a warrior on the path to redemption!' exclaimed Gabrielle.
‘Well, if you like it that much, you can keep it,' said Salmoneus, for once ignoring his cheapskate nature.
‘Oh no! I couldn't!' replied Gabrielle, swinging around to face the stout and bearded store keeper.
‘I insist. I only ask that you continue reading with such enthusiasm that the rest of Potidaea realises the virtues of scrolls and begin to buy them from me. ' said Salmoneus. ‘In fact, I could compromise with them. I could charge them a fraction of the price for borrowing the scrolls!'
‘Oh thank you very much! I appreciate your kindness ever so much!' exclaimed Gabrielle.
She left the shop with an added spring in her step. She began to read the much beloved scroll as she walks back towards her home. Gabrielle flinched slightly as she heard a pained cry, watching in despair as a deer collapses. She cringed when she realised who was the cause of the disturbing noise. She turned and pretended not to have noticed the two sons of the wealthiest warlord.
‘Great shot Jett! You are so awesome! You have got to be the best hunter in the Greece! No, the world!' exclaimed Joxer, trying to heft the deer onto his shoulders.
‘I know,' replied Jett, polishing his crossbow with his sleeve.
‘I wish I could be like you! You have all the girls at your feet,' gushed Joxer.
‘Except for the most beautiful one. That one,' said Jett, pointing at Gabrielle.
‘Precisely! She's the lucky girl that is going to marry me.'
‘You say that I'm the best, so don't I deserve the best?'
Joxer nodded vigorously.
‘We will have such beautiful children. We will be the most beautiful family in the whole village. And of course, Father will pay for the wedding. I'm sure she will make a wonderful little wife… Cleaning my boots, massaging me shoulders, brushing my hair…' rambled Jett, with Joxer murmuring agreements.
From their seat, Meg, Diana and Leah gazed dreamily at Jett.
‘If I were Gabrielle, I wouldn't waste my time with scrolls. I would spend more time paying attention to Jett,' sighed Diana.
‘She doesn't deserve his attentions,' agreed Meg.
‘Why would he want such a sinful woman?' wondered Leah.
They all sneered at Gabrielle as Jett and Joxer approached her.
‘Hello, Gabrielle,' said Jett, slinking up behind Gabrielle and snatching away her scroll.
‘Good morning, Jett. Hello, Joxer,' Gabrielle greeted them politely.
Joxer swelled at the recognition.
‘May I have my scroll back please, Jett?' asked Gabrielle.
Jett had been gazing at the scroll.
‘Why in Tartarus would you enjoy reading? And what's worse, there are no pictures!' said Jett, holding it up so that Gabrielle couldn't reach it. ‘How boring!'
‘People with imaginations don't need to have pictures drawn for them,' replied Gabrielle. ‘The words are all you need to see images in your head.'
‘Or hear voices in your head,' murmured Meg.
Both Leah and Diana giggle.
Jett dropped the scroll into a muddy puddle, much to Gabrielle's horror. She rushed to pick it up before it became soaked. She hoped that the muddy water would only stain the parchment and not cause the ink to fade.
‘Gabrielle, Gabrielle. You should forget about stories and scrolls, and pay more attention to important things… Like me,' said Jett.
The eaves dropping Leah, Diana and Meg nodded, as did Joxer.
‘Reading isn't healthy anyway. Women shouldn't be allowing such filth to enter their minds. Who knows what ideas you might get from these scrolls!' exclaimed Jett.
‘Hear, hear! Hestia speaks fwough him. Pwaise Hestia!' said Leah.
‘What century are you living in?' asked Gabrielle, keeping her scroll under her arm.
‘The present! Unlike you. Come, let me show you my trophies in the tavern,' said Jett, wrapping an arm around her.
‘Perhaps another time Jett,' replied Gabrielle, prying his hand off her arm.
‘What a wude woman!' said Leah.
‘She doesn't know a good thing when she sees it,' said Diana.
‘He's got a cute arse,' said Meg, gazing at Jett's backside.
‘Please, Jett. I must return home to help my sister,' said Gabrielle, managing to slip out from under his arm as Joxer accidentally bumps into them.
‘Your sister… Oh, wasn't she the one who was found dancing naked by a fire last week?' asked Joxer.
‘Yeah, I think you're right,' replied Jett.
They looked at each other and then burst out laughing.
‘How dare you talk about my sister that way! Lila didn't know that there had been henbane on those branches! She wasn't herself when she was doing that!' exclaimed Gabrielle, indignantly.
Gabrielle raced off towards the house, barely hearing Jett's curse towards his brother.
Gabrielle found Lila working at her embroidery.
‘Welcome back. Did you have a good time in town?' asked Lila, not looking at her sister lest she prick her finger again.
‘Oh, Salmoneus was ever so generous. He let me keep this scroll!' said Gabrielle with a smile.
‘How nice of him! Gosh, how much would that scroll be otherwise?' asked Lila.
Gabrielle blushed and felt a little guilty. She was very grateful for the gift, but she knew that Salmoneus was always selling something new, so he always had something of interest to the rest of the villagers.
‘I'm not sure.' replied Gabrielle. ‘Lila, sister, do you think that I'm odd?'
Lila stopped her embroidering.
‘Odd? Of course not, why the gods would you say that?' she asked.
‘Well, it's just that today… Oh, you know, I don't really fit in here. I love you dearly, but I would like someone else to talk to every now and again,' said Gabrielle.
‘Ooh, what about Jett! He's quite handsome and I know he fancies you,' suggested Lila. ‘I know everyone else in Potidaea is confused about why you haven't married him yet.'
‘He's handsome, sure, but he is rude, conceited, and he has absolutely nothing interesting nor pleasant going on in his head. Oh Lila, he's not the person for me! He is definitely not my soulmate!' said Gabrielle.
‘Soulmate! Gabrielle, I highly doubt anyone like us could find a soulmate. Be grateful that Jett is such a prestigious man. He may not stimulate your mind, but at least he can afford all those scrolls you love. You could convince him to let you spend some dinars at least, I imagine. Think of the baker, married for twenty years and he bickers constantly with his wife. And not lovingly, might I add,' said Lila.
Gabrielle looked so dejected at the thought that Lila stood up and hugged her older sister tightly.
‘Cast those gloomy thoughts from your mind and entertain me with a story while I cook our dinner,' said Lila.
Gabrielle's expression brightened up at the suggestion.
‘Well, I did think up a new one this morning as I was walking back,' said Gabrielle.
Lila smiled at her sister and listened as she chopped a carrot. Well, even if Potidaea didn't appreciate her older sister, Lila sure did, and she knew that the village's children did too. Gabrielle chased away the boredom with the pictures she conjured up.
‘Xena, Xena, Xena. What are you doing moping around the castle? Get out there and wreck some havoc!' exclaimed Ares.
‘Get out of here, Ares,' Xena snarled at him.
‘Come on, lighten up. Sure, it sucked at first, but hey, now your enemies won't see you coming!' Ares tried again.
‘Do it yourself! Or are gods incapable of doing even the most simplest things?' growled Xena.
‘Do a good job and I'll have you purring in no time,' said Ares.
Xena roared at him, her eyes flashing dangerously. Her claws emerged and she slammed a paw on to a nearby vase. Ares took the smallest step back, despite himself. Xena withdrew to her bed, slinking in under the covers. Her tail twitched, unable to stay still. Ares sighed loudly. He didn't mind the whole situation all that much. He had all the time in the world to cajole her into causing more wars. However, she didn't have much time left until she would remain a panther forever. Ares wasn't entirely sure how he felt about that. Mostly not good though, he didn't fancy bestiality at all, unlike his father Zeus. He glanced at the lump on the bed before he dematerialised.
‘Gabrielle! I'm going to go collect some firewood, and maybe some berries if I'm lucky!' called out Lila.
Gabrielle appeared from her bedroom door.
‘Firewood? Mm, you'd best that Tobias with you then,' said Gabrielle.
‘Of course! You didn't think I was going to carry it all by myself, did you?' laughed Lila.
‘I suppose not. Do stick to the path, and come back soon. Night falls quicker in the winter,' said Gabrielle, moving to wrap a scarf around her sister's neck.
Lila rolled her eyes as she closed the back door behind her. She glanced towards their donkey.
‘Well, we'd better be off Tobias! You can't collect firewood in the dark, or hunt for berries for that matter,' said Lila.
She seated herself on Tobias, and then they set off down the path into the edge of the forest.
After a half candlemark, Lila had collected enough firewood for the next few days. She decided to ride a little further in hope of seeing some of the rare berry bushes that were scattered in the forest. She crowed in delight as she spotted a splash of red on green. It was, however, off the path. She considered the bush. Well, it was only a few body lengths away. She would take Tobias with her, of course.
‘Come, Tobias. I'll give you a few strawberries if you be a little more patient,' said Lila.
Tobias snorted, but followed. Lila giggled with glee as she picked a strawberry off its stem and devoured it. She offered one to Tobias and then began to pick the rest.
‘Ooh! I can't wait to see Gabrielle's face when she sees these!' exclaimed Lila.
‘Nor can I, to see yours, little one,' came a low growl.
Lila gasped and turned, only to face three wolves and a hyena.
‘Did you just talk?' asked Lila.
The hyena burst into high pitched laughter. The wolves stepped towards Lila. Tobias let out a frightened neigh. Lila scrambled up on to his back and urged him back to the path. However, the snarling and snapping wolves petrify Tobias. He bucked at them and then speeds off in the opposite direction. Lila screamed as she held on tightly to the reins with her thighs clutching Tobias' sides.
The wolves and the hyena eventually catch up again. The hyena leapt at Tobias, causing him to slam into a tree, dislodging his rider. Lila grunts in pain as she tumbles to the cold, hard ground. Lila scrabbled at the dirt under her, her hand slamming against a stone surface. She spotted a gate just a body length away. She hurled herself against the gate. It swung open. She fell to the ground. Lila kicked the gate closed, smacking the wolves in the face. The hyena can't help but laugh at them. Lila took advantage of the distraction and flung herself against the giant, wooden double doors. One opened on the third shove. She tumbled in, slamming the door close. She gazed about the dark room.
‘Hello? Is anyone there?' she asked.
She swore that she heard whispering, but maybe it was the wind.
‘Please. I'm sorry, but I need a place to stay for the night,' she persisted.
She walked towards the staircase.
‘Of course! Welcome, young miss!' said a voice.
‘Who said that?' asked Lila, turning in the direction of the voice.
Lila squinted as a smaller body ambled over towards her. It reached over and lit a nearby candelabrum. Lila gasped again as she realised that the other person was in fact a strange animal that she didn't recognise. However, it walked like a person, well, nearly. The arms were nearly touching the floor, and the face had a big grin. She ducked as a black bird swooped down, landing on the first animal.
‘Ark! She can't stay here, Autolycus! What will the Conqueror say? Hey! That's the Conqueror's chair!' squawked the bird.
‘Oh shush, Minya. The poor thing is soaked to the bone. Please, follow me,' said Autolycus, placing a paw, no, a hairy hand, on Lila's arm.
Lila was in shock, and allowed herself to be taken towards a fireplace. She was gently pushed into a high-backed chair. The fire roared to life. She immediately felt a little better. Another strange animal, like the first, but slimmer and with a tail, appeared and placed a blanket over Lila.
‘Thank you,' murmured Lila.
Lila watched in amazement as other animals appeared. A grey and white chicken and a gold furred mouse were sitting on a teacart, which was being pushed by another monkey.
‘Would you like a cup of tea?' asked the chicken.
‘Yes please,' replied Lila.
The mouse scrambled to the sugar pot.
‘One lump or two?' asked the mouse.
Lila smiled and petted him gently with a finger.
‘Solan…' began the chicken.
‘Don't worry Grandma! I've washed my paws!' said Solan.
‘Ha ha, two please,' said Lila, not bothering trying to get her head around how a chicken could be the grandmother of a mouse.
Suddenly, the door burst open and the fire was blown out. There was a dark shadow in the doorway. Minya let out a squawk and flew behind a clock. Autolycus cowered.
‘Uh oh…' said Solan, as he curled up behind Cyrene.
The other animals scrambled behind other pieces of furniture. Lila didn't dare to peek around the chair.
‘Someone doesn't belong here,' growled Xena, as she paced into the room.
‘Conqueror, please, let me explain. This young lady was lost and she needed a place to…' began Autolycus.
Xena roared at him and he toppled over in a somersault. Minya crept out from behind her clock.
‘Conqueror, please let me say that I was against this to being with. None of them would listen to me!' she said hurriedly.
Xena spun around to face Minya and roared again, giving her an icy glare for good measure. Xena leapt over the chair and landed in front of Lila. Her dark muzzle was only a hand span away from Lila's quaking face.
‘You don't belong here,' growled Xena.
Lila fell out of her chair as Xena moved her muzzle closer. Lila's feet started scrambling, pushing her back and away from the glinting teeth and mass of muscle under shiny black.
‘P-please, I wuh-wuh-was lost. I n-needed…' stammered Lila.
‘You are not welcome in my castle!' growled Xena.
Lila's eyes widen. It was one thing to be conversing with mice and chickens, but to be confronted with a large black cat was more than she could handle. She shook violently, captivated by the blue eyes that promised danger.
‘What are you staring at?' demanded Xena, towering over Lila who was now lying on the floor.
‘I'm a freak, aren't I? A great and scary BEAST!' roared Xena.
‘Please! Don't hurt me! I just needed a place to stay. Please don't hurt me!' begged Lila.
Xena regarded her for a moment with a paw raised. She lowered it swiftly and then snorted with disgust. She grabbed the back of Lila's collar in her mouth and took Lila away up the stairs. All of the animals let out shuddering breaths.
‘Aunty Xena isn't going to kill her, is she, Grandma?' asked Solan.
Cyrene shook her head, using a wing to bring Solan closer to her.
‘No, honey. But remember, don't call her that when she is around,' Cyrene reminded him gently.
‘Wow! Isn't Gabrielle going to be so happy with your surprise?!' exclaimed Joxer, as Jett emerged from a barn.
Jett blew on his nails and then brushed them against his black leather vest, grinning to himself. The whole of Potidaea was surrounding the front of Gabrielle's home. He plucked an errant piece of straw from his shoulder.
‘Oh yeah. This is her lucky day,' said Jett.
He turned to the villagers and took a deep breath.
‘Thank you all for coming to my wedding! Now, just wait a moment while I just go in and propose to Gabrielle,' said Jett.
‘Oh no! I dreaded that this day would come!' exclaimed Diana.
‘Oh Hestia. Is this weally your will?' asked Leah, looking up towards Olympus.
Meg didn't look too upset. In fact, she looked rather ruffled. She realised this and quickly began to smooth out her dress.
‘Well, I don't need to be married to the guy…' she muttered to herself.
‘Did you say somethwing, Meg dear?' asked Leah.
‘No, no. Nothing,' replied Meg hastily.
‘Oh, your hair is all wuffled. Let me help you,' said Leah, as she began to smooth Meg's hair down.
‘Joxer! When we come out that door, remember to…' began Jett.
‘I remember!' exclaimed Joxer as he starts the band to play the bridal march.
Jett conked his younger brother on the head and shushed the band.
‘Not yet, you fool!' hissed Jett.
‘Sorry, bro,' murmured Joxer dazedly.
Everyone watched as Jett knocked on the front door.
Gabrielle was three quarters of the way through her favourite scroll when she heard the knocking. She peeked through the crack in the wooden door and groaned mentally. She opened the door.
‘Why, Jett. What a… nice surprise…' began Gabrielle.
‘Indeed! And speaking of surprises, today I…' interrupted Jett, forcing his way in, only to get distracted by a mirror.
He shoved a hand through his hair and winked at himself.
‘Today I make your dream a reality!' said Jett.
‘Dream? I've never talked to you about my dreams,' said Gabrielle.
‘You've got the same dream as any other girl in Potidaea. Use that imagination you were talking about the other day.' said Jett as he sat down in Gabrielle's chair and swung his feet to land on her scroll. ‘You, me, a hunting lodge filled with my successes, you're cooking dinner and the children are rolling around in front of the fireplace with their dogs. Ten should be a good number.'
‘You want ten dogs?!' exclaimed Gabrielle.
‘Ten sons! I'll have a whole hunting party!' declared Jett.
Gabrielle covered her eyes for a moment, and then rescued her scroll, tucking it away on a shelf. By the gods, this man has no self control.
‘So what do you say Gabrielle? Wanna become an honest woman?' asked Jett, as he pinned her against the door.
‘I'm flattered, Jett. I really am. I don't know what you want me to say,' said Gabrielle.
‘Say yes, say that you'll marry me,' said Jett, leaning in to kiss her. Gabrielle desperately grasps around behind her for the door handle. She smiles as she grabs hold. Jett takes this as joy and closes his eyes and continues to get closer.
‘I'm sorry Jett, but I'm just not the right one for you,' said Gabrielle hurriedly as she open the door and let Jett go sprawling into the nearby lake.
Jett's wedding guests are gobsmacked. No one can decide on a reaction. However, Joxer snickered slightly at the sight of his big brother upside down in the lake. This catches on, and so, as Jett emerged, he only heard laughter. He became enraged. Jett grabbed Joxer by the collar and dragged him off.
‘She is going to be my wife, whether she likes it or not!' snarled Jett.
Gabrielle slammed the door shut, breathing hard from fury. How dare he conjure up such a life for her? How dare he suggest it? She ran to the back and visited the farm animals. She let herself imagine having to serve Jett, to run around at his beck and call. She shuddered. He wanted ten children! She loved children, but she didn't desire to have that many of her own.
‘Is there no one who understands me? Is there no one who appreciates the thought of adventure?' she asked the animals.
She turned around as she heard the sound of hooves.
‘Tobias! Why isn't Lila with you?' demanded Gabrielle, rushing towards the spooked donkey.
She calmed him and petted him. He jerked his head furiously.
‘Please Tobias, I need you to take me to Lila,' urged Gabrielle, as she climbed aboard.
Gabrielle let Tobias guide her to the gate of a castle. Gabrielle quelled a shiver and led Tobias through the gate, making sure to close it behind her. She glanced at Tobias again and then turned to enter the looming building.
Minya pecked at Autolycus, who waved his arms about to fend her off.
‘Why couldn't you have just stayed silent? Now the Conqueror is mad as all Tartarus!' she exclaimed.
‘What kind of per… I mean, what kind of bird are you? A vulture? No! We couldn't just leave her there to die!' retorted Autolycus.
‘Hello? Is anyone here? I'm looking for my sister. Lila! I wonder if you are here,' said Gabrielle, making her way cautiously through the shadowy corridor.
‘Grandma! There's another girl in the castle!' exclaimed Solan, bumping into Cyrene due to his excitement.
‘Please, don't bring my hopes up Solan,' said Cyrene.
Solan pouted and twitched his whiskers.
‘I'm not lying!' complained Solan.
‘Just have your bath. Come on,' commanded Cyrene.
Flora, a racoon with a very bushy tail that she used for dusting, burst into the kitchen.
‘There's another one in the castle! We may still have hope!' she exclaimed.
Solan lifted his head in pride.
‘You are so irresponsible! You never consider your actions and their consequences! You…' Minya was still telling Autolycus off.
‘Lila? Are you here?' came Gabrielle's voice.
Minya flew and Autolycus ambled towards the voice. They glimpsed Gabrielle peeking into a room.
‘It's a girl!' exclaimed Autolycus in a hushed whisper.
Minya rolled her eyes at him.
‘I can see that. We already have one locked in the tower,' she said.
‘But look! She's not afraid at all! Maybe she can break the spell!' said Autolycus.
He raced off to intercept Gabrielle. He leapt up and swung off a horizontal flagpole, landing a far bit in front of Gabrielle, who looked up at the sound. She could see a shadow figure.
‘Wait! Could you help me, please?' she called out, following Autolycus up the tower stairs.
Autolycus hid in the shadows, unable to keep a smile off his face as Gabrielle walks past him.
‘Hello? I'm sure I saw a light… Surely that means there was someone coming up here… Hello?' Gabrielle tried again.
‘Gabrielle?' asked Lila, with a cough.
‘By the gods! Lila! What are you doing in there? You're coughing and you're freezing! You must be sick!' exclaimed Gabrielle, rushing to clasp Lila's hands from between metal bars.
She looks about desperately. She turned her attention back to her sister as her hands were grasped tightly.
‘Gabrielle! Listen to me. You have to get out of here! You have to escape!' said Lila.
‘Who would do this to you?' asked Gabrielle.
‘Just go! It's not safe for you!' coughed Lila.
‘I can't just leave you here! I won't!' declared Gabrielle, crying out as someone pushed past her roughly from behind.
‘Another intruder! What are you doing here?' demanded Xena.
Gabrielle squinted in the moonlight. She could see a silhouette at her level, but she was crouching. And then suddenly, the shadow rose.
‘Answer me!' growled Xena, standing on her two back paws.
‘Who are you?' asked Gabrielle, squinting in an attempt to discern the shadowy figure.
‘I am the master of this castle. And again, what are you doing here?' demanded Xena once again.
Gabrielle clutched Lila's hand again.
‘Please, let me take my sister. She's sick! Please let her out!' begged Gabrielle.
‘She shouldn't have trespassed here,' snarled Xena.
‘Please! I don't want her to die! Is there something I could do for you in exchange for her freedom?' asked Gabrielle.
‘You?' Xena snorted. ‘There is nothing you can do for me.'
‘Please! Take me instead! I'll stay in her place!' pleaded Gabrielle.
‘By the gods, Gabrielle! No!' said Lila, coughing again.
Xena's angry expression disappeared. She turned away from Gabrielle.
‘You would trade places with her?' asked Xena, her voice surprisingly soft.
It was like Lyceus offering himself to the bullies in exchange for her all over again. As a young girl, five boys were too many to fight off. After their mother had scolded her for allowing her younger brother to get into a fight with older boys, after she had tended to Lyceus' various cuts and bruises, she had vowed to never let anyone threaten her person or that of Lyceus' ever again. That was when she had started slamming sturdy branches against the side of the stable. That was when her interest in swords and fighting cemented themselves in her thoughts.
Gabrielle was just like Lyceus. She was offering herself for her sister.
‘Absolutely! I won't try to escape! I swear. Please, if you let my sister go, I will stay here,' said Gabrielle, keeping her voice as unwavering as possible.
‘You would keep your word and stay here forever?'
‘May I please see your face?' asked Gabrielle, her curiosity getting the better of her.
The voice was deep and growly, sure, but it touched something in Gabrielle. She couldn't help but wonder if it was reflecting the loneliness of her own soul. Xena steeled herself to Gabrielle's likely reaction. She didn't particularly care, but it still hurt when people flinched without her intending to be intimidating. She stepped out swiftly, her strength and training translating over to her cursed form. Gabrielle gasped quietly, and then tilted her head, but didn't look Xena in the eye for too long.
‘May I ask how is it that you can talk?' she asked, very politely and calmly much to Xena's surprise.
‘This is not my true form,' said Xena, deciding to change the subject. ‘Now, are we going through with this transaction?'
Xena and Gabrielle regarded each other for a moment. Xena felt uncomfortable, and stiffened, as Gabrielle's eyes were no longer shy and seemed to be searching every part of her. Gabrielle returned her gaze to meet Xena's. There was a flicker of emotion that Xena didn't recognise and Gabrielle placed a hand over her chest.
‘Forever. You have my word,' said Gabrielle, sitting down crossed legged in front of the dangerous being.
‘Deal!' growled Xena, ripping open the door and grabbing Lila.
‘Gabrielle! Sister! Don't do this!' protested Lila.
‘Wait!' cried out Gabrielle, rising from the floor with her arms outstretched. ‘Won't you at least…'
‘Gabrielle!' reciprocated Lila in kind.
‘Please wait!' repeated Gabrielle, as Xena dragged Lila away in her jaws.
‘Please spare my sister!' begged Lila.
‘Her fate no longer concerns you,' growled Xena, after she drops Lila on the floor of the front room.
Xena roared for the travel servants to attend to her. She threw the sobbing Lila into the anxious arms of a pair of orang-utans.
‘Return her to the village,' commanded Xena.
Lila struggled against the strong arms holding her captive.
‘Please let me go!' cried Lila.
The orang-utans closed their eyes for the briefest moment before rushing off into the night. They were as gentle as they could be, swinging through the forest with Lila in their possession.
Xena returned to the tower on all fours. Autolycus emerged from his hiding place and inched towards Xena's path.
‘Conqueror?' he asked timidly.
‘What?!' snarled Xena.
Autolycus stilled his shivering.
‘What did those girls want?' he asked.
‘How should I know?' snarled Xena.
Autolycus managed to not give her an exasperated look, despite his fear of possible decapitation by way of forceful jaws and sharp teeth.
‘Oh. Just one more thing, Conqueror…' he quietly began, with a hopeful smile. ‘Since the girl is staying for what I imagine is some time, perhaps you would like to offer her a room?'
Xena fixed her icy glare on him. He quavered again.
‘Or not,' he squeaked, as she passes him with a rumbling growl. She slowed down as she realise that Gabrielle was now crouched over inside of what was previously Lila's cell. She was crying as quietly as possible.
‘Why wasn't I allowed to say goodbye? Oh Lila, I'll never see you again,' sobbed Gabrielle quietly, not realising that Xena had returned.
Xena's first reaction was to roll her eyes, but then she remembered the moment when she learned that Lyceus had been assassinated. She regretted her hasty actions. She too had not been given the chance to say goodbye. She then forced herself to think of Toris, and held on to the feeling of betrayal, of when he escaped into the night before the Battle of Amphipolis. She decided that Gabrielle should feel betrayed by her sister for placing her in this situation in the first place. Yes, this was logical. Had Toris been there, perhaps Lyceus would not have been murdered.
She shifted on her paws, sliding her claws in and out. She cleared her throat.
‘Come, I'll take you to your room,' she said.
Gabrielle looked up quickly. She swiped a hand across her face.
‘M-my room? But…' she began, gesturing to the cell.
‘You wanna sleep on hay in the tower?' asked Xena, surprised at her own patience.
‘Not really,' murmured Gabrielle.
‘Follow me,' replied Xena, turning to leave.
Gabrielle scrambled after Xena.
Xena didn't need light to see in the dark, but Autolycus wass holding a lantern. Minya alternated between hopping along and circling overhead. Some of the statues in Xena's castle appeared ghastly at night. This and the shadows made by Minya caused Gabrielle to gasp in fear. She ran to place a hand on Xena's rump. Xena's muzzle twitched, barely stopping herself from clawing Gabrielle away from her with a rear paw. Gabrielle sensed this restraint of muscles and let go. She apologised quietly, but stayed close to Xena. She didn't see the tiny look of grateful surprise from her panther formed captor. Autolycus cleared his throat just loud enough for Xena's sharp ears. She didn't turn her head, but narrowed her gaze at him wearily. Her brows bunched up.
‘Perhaps it would help if you talk to her,' suggested Autolycus.
Xena rolled her eyes, but decided to try.
‘Gabrielle, I hope you like it here,' said Xena, snorting at Autolycus as he nodded encouragingly. ‘Should you require anything, my servants will comply.'
‘Thank you,' murmured Gabrielle, wondering at the change in demeanour.
‘You are free to roam the castle, all except for the northern chambers,' said Xena, turning to look Gabrielle in the eyes.
‘Why? Why can't I go there?' asked Gabrielle, natural curiosity setting in.
‘Because I said so!' snapped Xena, whirling around again in haste.
Gabrielle shrank back from the glint of Xena's teeth, but hurried to keep up, not wanting to be left in the haunting darkness of the corridors.
The now silent party reached Gabrielle's room. Xena opened one of the twin doors and entered. Gabrielle followed her in reluctantly. She walked past Xena towards the bed. Xena moved back into the doorway, wondering if she needed to say anything else for the time being.
‘Food! I bet she eats food. Everybody eats food. Invite her to dinner!' said Autolycus, forgetting himself and touched Xena's foreleg.
Xena twitched again. She was determined not to frighten Gabrielle anymore than the girl was already.
‘Yes! That's a great idea!' agreed Minya, also forgetting herself due to the relatively good progress, and landed on Xena's shoulder.
This proved to be too much for the already barely self-restrained panther.
‘And you will join me for dinner! As your Conqueror, I command it!' roared Xena, shaking her servants off of her.
She then leapt away into the shadows. Frightened by Xena's outburst, Gabrielle fell backwards on to the bed with a cry. Autolycus and Minya stay outside, upset that they had caused the current situation. They wanted to comfort Gabrielle, but decide to leave the girl alone. They closed the door softly.
Jett and Joxer sat in front of the fire in the tavern. Jett was spitting pieces of leather into the fire. Joxer tried to copy him but failed. Jett groaned at the sight of saliva dripping down his younger brother's face.
‘I still can't believe Gabrielle refused me! She is probably delusional. No, she IS delusional! No one says ‘no' to me!' ranted Jett.
‘Too right!' agreed Joxer.
‘Thrown out. Snubbed. Publicly dishonoured. I can't bear the shame. I'm disgraced,' continued Jett.
‘More ale?' asks Joxer, offering a wooden mug.
Jett grabbed both and cast them into the flames. Joxer flinched and sighed. He owed the tavern owner new mugs again. Or maybe he could just drop Jett's name in the hopes that his brother's reputation and half ownership of the tavern will get him out of this debt.
‘It's useless. Nothing helps. My life isn't worth living,' muttered Jett.
‘Who, yours? Jett, my brother, you've got to get it together!' exclaimed Joxer. ‘It's so weird to see you like this. You've never like this.'
Jett sneered at him and flicked his hand dismissively.
‘And besides, everyone wants to be you Jett! They'd even be glad to have your bad days!' continued Joxer. ‘Everyone loves you and they adore you!'
Joxer waved over some of the local lads. They raised their eyebrows at him. Joxer turned back to Jett for the moment.
‘You're the slickest, the quickest and you have the most manly neck,' Joxer started up again. ‘Just ask Perdicus, Talus or Virgil. If they were in an army, they'd want you to be general!'
The guys mentioned all looked at each other and nodded.
‘That's true. Everyone admires you, Jett,' said Perdicus.
‘I guess that's not hard to believe,' commented Jett.
‘He's quite a guy,' said Talus to Virgil.
‘And he's strong!' added Joxer.
Virgil decided to pat Jett on the back, and immediately regretted the action as he is engaged in an impromptu wrestling match. He howled as Jett added his teeth to the mix.
‘By the gods! He is so manly!' squealed Diana.
‘Pwaise Hestia! I'm sure she added her blessings to his good looks!' exclaimed Leah.
‘Check out his oral power!' gushed Meg, as Jett sends a piece of leather all the way across the room into the face of the unfortunate tavern owner.
Jett smiled at the sight of everyone's eyes pasted onto him.
‘As a kid I ate half of the eggs the chickens produced. But now that I'm grown, I eat all of them,' announced Jett.
He tossed an egg at Joxer, who decided to try and catch it in his mouth instead of just dodging it. It splattered all over his face. Everybody burst out laughing.
Jett retrieved his crossbow and aimed at his brother who is trying to run out of the way while cleaning the yolk off of his face. Jett fired quickly four times and pinned Joxer against the wall with the bolts. Jett casually rubbed his crossbow clean and leant back into his chair.
Lila fell through the door of the tavern.
‘Please! Someone, please help me!' she cried.
‘Lila? What's the matter?' asked Perdicus.
‘You have got to help me! We need to rescue her! She's been locked in a dungeon!' exclaimed Lila, grabbing hold Perdicus.
‘Who's been locked away?' asked Joxer, as he lunged away from the wall to free himself.
‘Gabrielle! She's been taken prisoner by a beast!' said Lila.
Meg, Diana and Leah all laughed at Lila. Meg nudged Diana and Leah.
‘I see someone has been indulging in the wrong kinds of mushrooms again. She and her sister will eat anything!' whispered Leah.
‘Lila, was it a great big beast?' asked Meg.
‘Yes! With a coat as dark as midnight!' answered Lila, relieved that someone was taking her seriously.
‘Does it have great, sharp teeth?' asked Diana.
‘It could tear a cow to shreds!' replied Lila. ‘Please, won't you help me?'
‘Sure, we'll help you out, Lila,' said Jett, signalling to Virgil and Talus.
They grabbed Lila by the arms and cast her out back into the snow.
Lila scrambled to her knees with a pained look on her face. She turned to look at the silhouettes in the window of the tavern.
‘Please…' she whispered, even though she knew no one was listening.
‘That Lila, she's as nuts as her sister! Gabrielle is probably running naked through the forest!' exclaimed Perdicus.
Everyone returned to whatever they were doing before they were cheering up Jett. The three young women continued gazing at Jett and wringing their hands in desire. Jett acquires a thoughtful look on his face.
‘Hey, Jett. What's up? Are you thinking? By the gods, you aren't sick are you?!' asked Joxer.
Jett rolled his eyes.
‘Relax, little brother. I wasn't doing too much thinking, but just enough to come up with an idea to help me with my goals. I still want to marry Gabrielle, right?' began Jett.
‘Right,' agreed Joxer.
‘And we all know that she and her sister are pretty crazy, right?'
‘Well, if I can just convince the healer to announce Lila as crazy, as in needs-to-be-sent-to-the-loony-barn crazy, then I can tell Gabrielle that if she marries me, I will use my influence to have her sister released.'
‘Wow, Jett! You are awesome!'
‘I know,' said Jett, as he smirks to himself.
Gabrielle's sobs gradually died away. She flicked her head up at the sound of knocking.
‘Who is it?' asked Gabrielle, getting up to open the door.
‘It's Cyrene, my dear,' came the reply.
‘And Solan!' squeaked Cyrene's grandson.
Cyrene and Solan sat on a teacart being pushed by a monkey.
‘I… Thank you… But…' began Gabrielle, as she walked backwards, almost warily, from the chicken and the mouse.
Gabrielle swore to herself that the mouse was smiling at her.
‘Careful of my tail!' came a cry from behind her.
Gabrielle span around and faced a peacock.
‘Oh my! I'm sorry,' apologised Gabrielle.
‘That's alright, I should have said something earlier, I suppose. My name is Vidalis. Who might you be, my dear?' asked the peacock.
‘Oh, my name is Gabrielle,' replied Gabrielle.
She turned to look at Cyrene, Solan and the monkey, and then whipped around to look at Vidalis too.
‘Am I in the wrong room? Your master put me here. I'm sorry if I've taken someone else's room,' babbled Gabrielle.
Vidalis fanned his feathers proudly.
‘Relax, young one. This is not my room. I am here to assist you in your clothing matters. That's what I'm here for,' said Vidalis.
‘And we are here to offer you some tea,' piped in Cyrene.
‘Would you like sugar and cream?' asked Solan.
Gabrielle smiled at him and nodded.
‘Take care, Solan! Don't spill anything!' Cyrene warned her grandson.
‘Yes, Grandma, I know,' he replied.
Solan finished adding the sugar and cream and patted the monkey's paw with his own. The monkey took the cup and handed it to Gabrielle.
‘Thank you,' said Gabrielle.
‘You're welcome. My name is Helena,' replied the monkey.
‘It's a pleasure to meet you,' said Gabrielle.
‘I told you, she was pretty, Grandma!' exclaimed Solan suddenly.
Gabrielle awarded him with another small smile. Cyrene shushed him.
‘Sorry,' said Solan, with a twitch of his whiskers.
It was quiet for a while as Gabrielle sipped her tea.
‘It was very brave of you, what you did,' began Cyrene.
‘Yes, we all agree,' added Vidalis.
‘To what end? I've lost my sister; she's my only family! And here, I will surely never see her again,' lamented Gabrielle.
‘Cheer up, love. Things will turn out all right in the end. I'm sure of it,' said Cyrene.
‘And you are ever so nice! I hope you like it here!' said Solan.
‘Oh dear! We'd best get back to the kitchen! I need to help organise dinner! Solan!' exclaimed Cyrene.
‘Bye, Gabrielle!' said Solan, waving as the teacart was pulled out of the room.
Gabrielle returned his goodbye half-heartedly.
‘Now that they are gone, I can go about my job! Let me see you. Ah yes, I think this green dress would look wonderful on you! It will certainly bring out your eyes!' said Vidalis.
Gabrielle shook her head.
‘Please, don't trouble yourself. I won't be attending dinner,' said Gabrielle.
‘N-Not going to dinner?!' gasped Vidalis, dropping the dress from his beak on to the floor in a crumpled heap.
There was a knock at the door and Minya peered in. She hopped in and then flew to land on the end of the bed.
‘Dinner is served. Please follow me,' she said.
Vidalis only covered his face with a wing as Gabrielle told Minya her plans for the night. Minya squawked loudly and fell to the floor in a faint.
Xena paced in front of the fireplace. She could smell the luscious banquet on the table. Her whiskers twitched. She couldn't stand waiting and couldn't stand having her mother and Autolycus' nervous gazes on her. She let out a slow and low snarl, drawing it out by showing them her teeth. Cyrene was only mildly perturbed. Flightless bird or not, she was her mother after all. Autolycus, on the other hand, quivered in fear and sharply turned his attention elsewhere.
‘Where IS she?! It is time for dinner!' snarled Xena, still pacing on all fours.
‘Please be patient Conqueror. She has lost both her sister and her freedom within a few candlemarks,' said Cyrene, perched on the mantle above the fireplace.
Autolycus tried to distract the pacing ruler.
‘Conqueror, have you had time to consider this girl as the one who could break the spell?' he asked.
Xena whirled around to glare at him.
‘You have apparently. Of course, she seemed very promising… However at this rate, I'm not so sure anymore,' growled Xena lowly. ‘And besides… no one could possibly love a beast like me.'
Autolycus and Cyrene barely heard the Conqueror's last comment, much softer than her earlier words. Autolycus decided to change tack. He was usually an optimist after all, cynical sometimes sure, but an optimist none the less. Although he believed his previous occupation proved successful with confidence and skill rather than simple optimism.
‘Won't it be wonderful? You fall in love with her, she falls in love with you, and we all sing and dance, and then the spell will be broken! We will turn back into humans! I become once again the King of Thieves!' exclaimed Autolycus.
Xena tilted her head and looked at him with a warning look.
‘Heh. I mean, I become a human, but still a faithful servant of you my dear Conqueror,' gushed Autolycus, his face twitching despite his fake smile.
‘Autolycus! Love isn't something you can force,' chided Cyrene.
‘This is the last year! The rose has already started to shed its petals,' replied Autolycus.
‘It's pointless. She is a pretty young thing, and I'm… Well?! My heart is dark as the night, isn't that what the Fates said?!' said Xena, using a paw to gesture at the length of her body.
Cyrene thought back to when Xena was merely her daughter, a young woman full of ideas and energy. Although she didn't think Xena looked hideous as a panther, she did however, look even more forever dangerous, especially with her cobalt eyes even more pronounced against black fur.
‘You must help her see past the image the Fates have forced upon you,' said Cyrene.
Xena felt a tinge of regret that her mother had to endure a transformation because of her.
‘I don't know how,' muttered Xena, her tail lashing from side to side.
‘I suggest you start by being more presentable! Stop lashing your tail about and stop flashing your claws!' said Cyrene, letting out a huff and ruffles her feathers.
Xena complied. She quivered in a sitting position, desperate to be moving. She looked as if ants were running up and down her rump.
‘When she enters, give her a dashing smile. Yes, that will work, show me your smile,' chimed in Autolycus.
Xena smiled, showing all her teeth. Her jaws were slightly apart and a brow was raised. Cyrene hopped backwards.
‘You look as if you're going to eat us! Close your teeth!' exclaimed Cyrene.
Xena tried again, this time with a smile she used to use to seduce possible competitors into her army.
‘Not that kind of smile either! What will she think?' asked Cyrene, bopping Autolycus on the head for getting distracted by Xena's seductive smirk.
‘Impress her with your intelligence,' added Autolycus.
‘Remember to be kind and gentle,' continued Cyrene.
Xena's neck was becoming strained from looking up and down, and back and forth between her mother and servant.
‘Compliment her as much as possible.'
‘But most importantly…'
He and Cyrene gave each other a quick look as they said simultaneously,
‘You must control your temper!'
They all turned expectedly as they heard the door open.
‘Here she comes!' exclaimed Autolycus, in a whisper.
Xena's ears perked up, but then lost her hopeful grin when Minya inches in.
‘Good evening…' began Minya, her entire being clenched as tight as can be.
‘Where's the girl?' growled Xena.
‘I… Uh… That is to say… She said… Well, you see… She's not coming,' rambled Minya.
‘WHAT?!?!?!' roared Xena, fur standing up, with claws out and her tail lashed violently.
She rushed out the door and up the stairs. Cyrene leapt onto Autolycus' head as he rushed out after the Conqueror. Minya recovered from nearly being trampled on and flew off in the same direction.
‘Conqueror! You majesty! Please. Calm down!' she cried out.
Xena reached Gabrielle's door and turned abruptly, kicking out a back paw against the door.
‘I expected you at dinner a candlemark ago!' roared Xena.
‘Thank you, but I'm not hungry,' replied Gabrielle.
‘Come out right now, or I shall produce more firewood!' declared Xena, crouching, ready to leap.
‘Conqueror, please. You need to win her affections, not destroy them,' said Autolycus.
‘Please, try to be more calm,' added Minya.
Xena glared at them.
‘How? She is being so stubborn!' growled Xena, directing the last word at the door with teeth flashing.
‘Be gentle,' said Cyrene, still on top of Autolycus' head.
Autolycus winced at Cyrene's claws flexing into his skull.
‘Will you come dine with me?' asked Xena, flatly, but lowering her voice.
‘No, I won't,' replied Gabrielle.
Xena whirled about and clenches her teeth. She glared at the others again.
‘Sweet and gentle,' murmurs Minya.
Xena rolled her shoulders and tilted her head to either side. She took in a deep breath.
‘I would be greatly honoured if you'd join me for dinner,' she said, trying to keep her voice as level as possible.
Minya hovered near Xena's ear.
‘Try adding a “please”,' she whispered.
Xena rolled her eyes.
‘Please,' she added.
Everyone was silent. Xena twitched her ears.
‘No, thank you,' replied Gabrielle, forcefully.
‘You can't stay in your room forever!' roared Xena.
‘Of course, I can!' exclaimed Gabrielle.
‘Have it your way! You can starve!' roared Xena, and then turned to her cowering servants. ‘Either she eats with me or she goes without.'
Xena swiped a paw against the door, leaving an indent. Gabrielle let out a little scream. Xena frowned and then leapt down the hall towards her own chambers.
Autolycus let his body slid down against the wall. Cyrene jumped off of his head, shaking her own sadly. She toddled off back downstairs to the kitchen. Minya could only keep quivering in a corner. She eventually recovered. She blinked. She gazed at the door and then huffed to herself.
‘Well, Autolycus, you had better keep an eye on his door then. Let me know if anything happens,' said Minya.
Autolycus rolled his eyes, but nodded.
‘Very well,' he replied.
‘I'd better go and help Cyrene clean up downstairs,' said Minya, as she flew off.
Autolycus gazed at the closed door. He sighed, and then stood next to it.
Xena had just added more dents into her bedroom walls, new vases had been smashed and new curtains had become shreds of fabric.
‘I can't believe I even bothered trying. I even tried asking nicely. I shouldn't have to, I'm the Conqueror, but I did anyway. And what did she say? She's not hungry… I am not an idiot, I could hear her stomach growling a field's length away! What does she expect me to do? Beg?!' ranted Xena.
She went over to her bedside table and placed her paws upon it. She looked at Aphrodite's mirror that was propped up on a stand next to the rose that was suspended in mid air under a bell jar. Xena clenched her eyes shut for a moment, and then nudged the mirror with a paw.
‘Show me the girl,' she commanded.
Vidalis wass trying to get Gabrielle's attention, going so far as to flap his wings in a most ungentleman-like manner. Gabrielle kept looking away, finally burying her face into a pillow.
‘The Conqueror isn't so bad once you get to know her. She's just... used to things a certain way,' said Vidalis.
‘Yes, she certainly is used to putting fear into people isn't she? Why would I want to have anything to do with her? She's horrible,' gasped Gabrielle, in between tears.
Xena's ears flattened against her skull, whiskers pointed towards the floor.
‘I was so foolish to think that she might see me as anything but a… monster,' murmured Xena. ‘There's no point in trying.'
She watched as another petal fell from the rose. She lifted herself off the bedside table and went to curl up on top of her bed.
‘Hey, hey. Is this all you do anymore?' asked Ares, as he appeared, lying next to her.
‘FUCK OFF ARES!' snarled Xena, exploding into a raging frenzy.
Ares was too surprised by Xena's reaction to get angry. He becomes covered in scratches all over before he disappeared again. Xena ran to her balcony and let out a mournful and furious roar.
Gabrielle felt her stomach rumble for the hundredth time since Xena had been roaring at her through the door. Yes, she had been counting. A hunger strike just wasn't the best form of protest for someone like her. Lila had always joked that woe would be the future of the man who got between Gabrielle and her next meal. Xena wasn't a man, nor was she human. At least, at this very moment she wasn't. From what Gabrielle had gathered, everyone in the castle used to be human. And then it hit her. All of the others had been calling Xena by another name. Conqueror. Xena the Conqueror . She wasn't a legend after all. She was real. Then it was all true. All the bards that had passed through Potidaea had gifted her with true stories. Xena the Conqueror, ruler of all the lands had not died mysteriously. She had, in fact, been enchanted. As had the rest of the castle's inhabitants it seemed. Gabrielle was lucky. She hadn't been old enough to remember when Xena had been around, demanding supplies and taxes from the people of Greece.
No one ever went near the castle because it was so deep in the woods where all the wild animals lived. Only hunters went in the woods, but even then, they did not venture too near the castle. Many feared it haunted. Others believed it dangerous and in ruins. Now she knew the truth. Despite herself, Gabrielle wished for parchment, a quill and some ink. How she yearned to record her discovery. Her stomach rumbled again. Gabrielle sighed.
Vidalis gave up on convincing her, leaving her to retire to his room next door. Gabrielle went to the door and placed her ear against it. It didn't seem like anyone was outside, so she pushed it open a little, slipping out as silently as she could. She heard amorous murmurs from behind some curtains, so she quickly made her way downstairs, where the lingering aromas were leading her.
‘Don't say no, I can make you feel wonderful,' said Autolycus, to a raccoon.
‘No, no. You can't trick me again!' replied the raccoon, giggling as Autolycus swept her into his arms.
‘Come, Flora. I'm a changed chimp!' exclaimed Autolycus.
He noticed Gabrielle's hair just disappearing from sight through the banisters. He dropped Flora, who fell to the floor in a heap. She shrieked in annoyance, her bushy tail waving madly.
‘She's out! I've got to find Minya!' murmured Autolycus, racing off to find Minya.
‘Solan, come now. It's your bedtime,' said Cyrene, pushing her grandson towards a gravy boat filled with her own feathers.
‘I'm not sleepy,' protested Solan, yawning despite himself.
Cyrene shook her head as his eyes fluttered to a close. He was as stubborn as herself, as stubborn as his mother. He slumped against her snugly. She gently lifted him by the scruff of his neck with her beak and deposited him gently into his bed. She drew a little blanket over him, and smiled as she watched him snuggle into the warmth of her moulted feathers.
‘I still can't believe she was so rude to the Conqueror! She even said “please”! The Conqueror NEVER says “please”! Who does that girl think she is? An Amazon Queen?!' exclaimed Minya, only to be shushed by Cyrene as she fluttered into the kitchen.
‘Give it a rest, we're all tired from tonight.' said Cyrene. ‘She simply is used to conversing with people with good manners; we are short of both at the present. The Conqueror needs to learn how to control her temper, otherwise we'll stay like this for…'
They both stared at Gabrielle pushing the kitchen door open, her nose twitching as she sniffed.
‘Ah! Young Miss! How wonderful to see you outside of your room!' said Minya. ‘I am Minya, head servant of the Conqueror.'
Minya fluttered over to offer a wing to Gabrielle, who extended her hand, which was then grasped by Autolycus who slid in between the two of them. Autolycus kissed her hand.
‘It's an honour to meet your acquaintance, my lady,' said Autolycus.
Minya kicked him as she rose in the air.
‘Please… let us know… if we can do anything… to make your stay… more pleasant,' said Minya, flying about to avoid Autolycus' left foot from anchoring her to the floor.
‘Well, I am a little hungry,' she admitted.
Her stomach growled loudly. Cyrene let out a small laugh.
‘Okay, I'm really hungry,' amended Gabrielle.
‘She's hungry!' exclaimed Cyrene. ‘Okay, let's go. Time to feed the fire, get the cutlery and dishes.'
Gabrielle watched in amazement at the monkeys taking direction from the chicken. She knew which animals most of the servants were now, but it was still quite a sight to see. She had asked Vidalis about most of the inhabitants of the castle before the dinner plans had been announced. She had thought that perhaps it would take her mind off her situation. But of course, the arrival of Xena at her door brought it all back in one swift and heart-wrenching blow.
‘Remember what the Conqueror said about this,' whispered Minya, shuffling over to Cyrene.
‘I refuse to let her starve. The Conqueror can take it up with me later, I you dare tell her,' said Cyrene, a challenging tone in her voice.
Minya sighed and threw her wings into the air.
‘Fine! She can have a glass of water, some bread…' began Minya.
‘Minya! How could you? She's our guest here! We can't treat her like a prisoner!' exclaimed Autolycus, taking Gabrielle's hand and leading her from the kitchen. ‘Please, my lady, follow me into the dining room.'
‘Keep it quiet! If the Conqueror were to find out… we'll lose our heads!' hissed Minya.
‘I don't want anyone to get into trouble. It seems like there are no second chances around here,' said Gabrielle.
She began to pull away, intending to go back up stairs, but Autolycus waved it off.
‘Relax Minya, you're going to lose your feathers,' said Autolycus. ‘Please, my lady, it's no trouble at all. We're simply satisfying your obviously starving belly.'
A parrot dropped a napkin in to the lap of the seated Gabrielle. She blinked in surprise, thanking it with a smile. Cyrene emerged again on top of her tea cart, but this time with an array of drinks. Gabrielle is slightly disappointed that Solan isn't there, but she supposes that since it was so late that it would be horrible to keep the young mouse awake. Gabrielle wasn't sure what to choose, so Cyrene offered her warmed milk so that she would be able to sleep better later on. Soon after, the first few dishes arrived.
‘Thank you for the food,' said Gabrielle.
The first was a vegetable broth. All of the servants' eyes widened as Gabrielle blows on the broth once, and then drank it all down in one go. She reached for the next entrée, which had two pieces of bite-sized chicken wrapped in jamon ham. Gabrielle chewed with delight, never before having tasted such flavours. Another minute passed and she was already starting on the third entrée. This one was a new dish Cyrene was trying out. Since Xena's transformation, she had become a lot more favourable to rarer meat. However, Cyrene refused to serve bloody steaks. She had compromised and lightly smoked a leg of beef, so that it was still rare, but not so that it was completely raw and messy to deal with. She decided that it would be sliced very thinly. She had hoped to present it to Xena, but alas tonight had gone terribly wrong. She was glad now for Gabrielle to try it for her.
‘How was the thin beef?' asked Cyrene.
‘It was absolutely delicious! It just seemed to melt in my mouth! I didn't even have to chew much!' exclaimed Gabrielle.
‘I'll say!' murmured Minya, squawking when Autolycus nudged her sharply in the tail feathers.
‘Well, here comes the main course,' said Autolycus, loud enough for Gabrielle to hear.
Gabrielle's eyes lit up at the large serving dish of lamb leg. All of the servants' jaws drop as Gabrielle pushed her plate to the side and pulled the entire leg towards herself and dug in heartily.
‘My goodness, do you normally not get enough to eat, my child?' asked Cyrene.
Gabrielle stopped eating and looked at her, and then looked at the half eaten leg of lamb and blushed.
‘Oh dear. I'm sorry. Did you want some?' asked Gabrielle.
‘No, no. We've already eaten, but I was just wondering why you are so… hungry,' replied Cyrene.
‘Oh, but I've never tasted such delicious food in all my life, and I do appreciate such good food!' said Gabrielle, deciding that she had abandoned the meat for long enough, after all, she didn't want it to get cold.
‘I'll say,' murmured Minya, again.
Autolycus bonked her on the head and they began to fight. Cyrene rolled her eyes. Well , thought Cyrene, we did serve her the whole leg and she is the only one at the table… It's not wrong for her to understand that she was allowed to eat all of it .
Autolycus wailed as Minya scored another well-placed jab with her beak. Cyrene shook her head. They never did stop fighting, but it was always in good nature, so it wasn't a particularly big problem. However, she always made sure they remembered not to fight too much for too long in front of the Conqueror, lest she decided that she no longer needed their services.
Cyrene turned her attention back to Gabrielle and is less surprised than before that the young blonde was now licking her fingers after putting down the nibbled, licked, gnawed and sucked out dry bone.
‘That was wonderful! I can't wait to taste what you make for breakfast!' exclaimed Gabrielle.
Cyrene wondered if Gabrielle snacked often.
‘Would you like dessert?' asked Cyrene.
‘Oh, I wouldn't want to impose,' replied Gabrielle.
‘Nonsense!' said Cyrene. ‘Bring out the dessert!'
The youngest monkey servant toddled into the dining room and placed a piece of baklava on a small plate in front of Gabrielle, who appeared almost disappointed at the result. Cyrene hastened forward to cheer up their guest.
‘Would you like some cream with that?' she asked.
Gabrielle smiled at her with such gratitude.
‘Oh, could I?' she gushed.
Cyrene nodded and hopped forward, pushing the bowl of cream on her cart closer to Gabrielle. With her piece of baklava sufficiently smothered in cream, double clotted, by the way, Gabrielle delicately cut off a piece and ate it. So peculiar was this change in pace that Minya and Autolycus halted their squabbling to watch. It took Gabrielle a half candlemark to finish off the finger length sweet.
‘Mmm… You are such a wonderful cook, Cyrene!' said Gabrielle, eyes still closed from savouring the last bite. ‘The nuts! The pastry! The cream!'
‘Thank you, Gabrielle. It was a pleasure to feed one such as yourself, my dear,' said Cyrene, accepting her accolades.
Minya glancesd at the multitude of empty dishes on the table and wondered where all the food had gone. It certainly didn't seem to have settled down in Gabrielle's waistline. She landed on the shoulder of Gabrielle's chair.
‘Well, now that you've eaten, I'm sure you're very tired now. We'd best get you back into your room so you can get your rest,' said Minya, using her wings to gently push Gabrielle from her seat.
‘I won't be able to sleep now. I have so many questions about you all,' said Gabrielle.
‘Questions? What could you possibly be curious about?' asked Minya, nonchalantly.
‘Is everyone here enchanted?' asked Gabrielle.
‘Enchanted? Where on earth did you get that idea?' retorted Minya, with a very fake snort of amusement.
Gabrielle gave Minya a very confused look. She wasn't sure if Minya was purposely treating her like an idiot.
‘I'm sorry, but I can tell that you are all animals, yet I'm quite sure that perhaps you were once human?' said Gabrielle, quietly.
‘Of course you realised!' exclaimed Autolycus, leaping up to roughly shove Minya off the chair. ‘We just didn't want to overwhelm you.'
‘Thank you for your concern. I appreciate it,' replied Gabrielle, smiling again.
Perhaps , she thought, their enchantment is still a sensitive issue . I had better leave it alone for now.
‘May I have a look around?' asked Gabrielle, as the monkeys took her dishes to the kitchen and Cyrene bade her good night.
Autolycus smiled at her.
‘I would be delighted to be your tour guide,' he said, flipping backwards in an attempt to amuse.
Gabrielle giggled at his comical landing. Minya rolled her eyes.
‘I object. There are certain places that shouldn't be seen,' murmured Minya, jabbing Autolycus with a talon.
‘We'll be fine,' replied Autolycus.
‘Perhaps you could come with us?' suggested Gabrielle. ‘I'm sure you must know all about the castle.'
Minya puffed her feathers and preened. Well, she did know the whole history of the Conqueror's life and of the castle. The Conqueror was her hero. Even if she was angry sometimes. Most of the time. A lot of the time.
‘Certainly! Did you know that all these flags are trophies of the Conqueror's?' began Minya, gesturing to the flags adorning the corridor. ‘They all belonged to different warlords and even foreign leaders. As you can see we have Rome's flag. The Conqueror never did like Caesar. And here we have the flag of Chin. The Conqueror sure knew how to put that Ming Tien in his place. The pompous fool, he called himself the Green Dragon… My lady?'
‘Minya!' hissed Autolycus.
They both raced up a few steps to block Gabrielle's way. Autolycus had a big cheesy grin on his face with arms spread out wide. Minya was perched on his head, also spreading out her wings.
‘May I see what is up there?' asked Gabrielle.
‘What do you mean? Oh, up these stairs? Nothing of interest. The Northern Chambers are the dullest part of the castle,' said Minya.
‘Oh… That leads to the Northern Chambers… I wonder why she is so secretive about them,' murmured Gabrielle, curiosity and intrigue replacing fear once again.
Autolycus groaned at Minya.
‘Great, just great. Good one,' he said, sarcastically.
Minya stomped on his head and then flew past Gabrielle's arm, forcing the young woman to turn from the stairs.
‘Please, my lady, allow me to show you these portraits of great battles…' suggested Minya.
Gabrielle turned around again, trying to dodge Minya's swooping.
‘Surely we can do that later,' she said.
‘The gardens then! Or the library?' tried Minya.
Gabrielle glanced at Minya with shy glee.
‘You have a library?' she asked, a smile forming.
‘An absolutely comprehensive one!' exclaimed Minya, glad for the sudden interest.
‘Yes! We have books reaching up to the skies,' added Autolycus.
‘I get tired just flying to the top and around the library,' said Minya.
‘You would need to take the books with you to the Elysian Fields just to the finish them!' exclaimed Autolycus, getting into the spirit of distraction.
Satisfied that Gabrielle was following them, Minya and Autolycus started off down the fairly lit corridor towards the library. Gabrielle sighed to herself. Oh how she wanted to see the library, but her heart tugged her towards the stairs. Her curiosity was much too strong to be denied. She gave a quick glance to her guides and then climbed the stairs as quietly as possible.
Gabrielle soon began to feel worried as she gazed at the destruction of the corridor. A mirror frame was empty, its shattered contents splattered on the floor below. Paintings and tapestries had been shredded. Gabrielle entered a clawed up door and looked to her right. There was a large frame hanging on the wall. The picture was ruined, but there was one cobalt eye staring at her. She gazed at it, wondering about the person in the painting. It seemed familiar somehow. She shivered, as it seems as though that eye were looking into her soul.
A breeze caused her hair to flutter. She turned to see a bell jar on a small table. Gabrielle was captivated by the various shades of red glittering in the moonlight. She went towards the table. She lifted the bell jar and put it aside to find the rose. It was a deep crimson, almost blood coloured. There were no thorns. She extended a finger to touch a petal.
A roar sounded from behind her. She shrieked as she was thrown back onto the four-poster bed. She blinked rapidly, realising that Xena was putting the bell jar back over the rose.
‘How did you get in here?' growled Xena.
Gabrielle slid off the bed, clutching at a bed post.
‘I'm sorry…' began Gabrielle.
Xena stalked towards her.
‘Didn't I forbid you to come here?!' snarled Xena.
‘Please, I wasn't going to move it. I was just curious,' continued Gabrielle, visibly shaking.
‘Do you realise that you could have ruined EVERYTHING?!' snarled Xena, even more angry now at the reminder of her curse.
‘I'm sorry! Please, don't shout! You're scaring me!' exclaimed Gabrielle, unable to stop shaking from all the furniture being tossed around her.
Xena whipped around to face Gabrielle.
‘GET OUT! LEAVE!' she roared.
Gabrielle grasped at the door handle and fled downstairs, tears streaming down her face. She saw a cloak hanging off a banister. She grabbed it and swirled it around to cover herself. She momentarily gave her attention to Minya and Autolycus who had come racing back down the corridor from the library.
‘My lady! Where are you going?' asked Autolycus, arms waving about.
‘I'm sorry. I can't keep my promise to stay. It's just not possible,' said Gabrielle.
‘B-but! Wait! Please, stop!' Minya called after her.
Gabrielle had already reached the front doors and slammed them behind her. Autolycus and Minya looked at each other with forlorn expressions. Minya fluttered to the floor. Autolycus lifted her up gently and placed her on his shoulder. She nudged him gently with a grateful look. Autolycus sighed mightily.
Xena had finished raging. There were even more claw marks on the walls. Now, only the small table and her bed were the only pieces of furniture intact enough to be able to fulfil their functions. Xena collapsed on to the floor next to her bell jar covered rose. She was facing towards the balcony. She let out a distressed sobbing roar and covered her eyes with a paw. Her entire body was shaking.
Gabrielle raced over to the side of the castle where the stables were. She opened Tobias' stall and quickly prepared him. Her hands were still shaking but she managed to buckle everything in place. He nickered at her softly, nudging her gently. She took a moment to hug his face. She led him through the main gate and then mounted him. She urged him to race off away from the castle.
‘Show me Gabrielle,' commanded Xena, unable to cast the young woman from her thoughts.
Her mirror flashed before it revealed Gabrielle on her donkey. Xena growled in anger as she recognised the wolves chasing them. She let out a furious roar and leapt out of her bedroom window, leaping from roof to roof. She landed right in front of the stable and inhaled deeply. She then raced off, following Tobias and Gabrielle's scent.
Loud growls and howls scared Tobias into slowing down to glance about, shaking his head from side to side.
‘Well, well! Look who it is!' came a shrill and mean sounding voice.
Callisto stalked out from between some bushes, flanked by her lupine companions Draco, Dagnine and Darphus.
‘Hey boys, it's dinner time!' shrieked Callisto, laughing and leaping at Tobias and Gabrielle with claws extended and her jaws wide open.
Gabrielle screamed and flicked the reins, prompting Tobias into motion again, just missing having his flank scored by Callisto's sharp ends.
The wolf pack howled in delight and followed after their leader, racing after their quarry. Gabrielle had no idea where she and Tobias were going, but she knew that their pursuers were not far off. She could hear Callisto's intermittent maniacal laughter.
Tobias made an effort to leap over a log, only to land on to a frozen pond. Their weight, combined with their momentum, forced them through the ice. Gabrielle barely stopped herself from screaming as the ice water hitting her bare legs, soaking her brown skirt. The pond was fairly small, so Tobias was able to make it to the other side. However, this meant that the wolves and hyena could too. Callisto managed to leap in front of Tobias and snapped at his legs. He stopped abruptly, sending Gabrielle over his and Callisto's heads. He stamped at Callisto. She cackled and leapt out of his reach. She whirled back around to wink at her wolf pack. They snarled at Tobias and stalked towards him.
Draco whined at his head being smacked by Gabrielle.
‘Get away from him!' she cried.
She had found a branch. Darphus leapt at her and snatched it from her grasp. His mandibles crushing her weapon in half. Dagnine launched himself at her and knocked her over. Draco paced back and forth in front of Tobias, keeping him wary of moving closer to Gabrielle while Callisto and the others regrouped, all facing her and ready to pounce on to their meal. Callisto took the first leap, only to be knocked aside as a massive black furred body slammed into her side. Wheezing and gasping for air, Callisto staggered to her feet and realised who had joined them. Xena had placed herself between the turncoats from her army and Gabrielle. She made herself as large as possible.
‘Xena! What a wonderful surprise! Now we can eat you and your little whore too!' laughed Callisto.
‘I should have hunted you all down when I had the chance!' snarled Xena.
Draco took advantage of Xena's blazing attention on Callisto and snuck an attack to Xena's side. She sensed his approach, but too late to stop him from ripping a massive wound into her shoulder. She gutted him. He gurgled his surprise as his blood flowed out of him, seeping into the snow. Dagnine and Darphus attack at the same time, scoring Xena's sides. She batted Darphus to the side and managed to kick Dagnine up and out of the way. He let out a howl as he was speared against the icicles on a nearby tree. He thrashed about and the icicles break, dropping him to the ground. He struggled to get up, only to fall back down, causing the icicles to finish the job.
Callisto had been laughing this whole time. She spotted Gabrielle frantically trying to find a way past the battle. Gabrielle had thrown herself against a tree, the fighting too widespread for her to reach Tobias, who was now stuck because his reins had caught on to a branch. Callisto crawled towards the blonde. Xena glimpsed her dirty blonde hair moving and turned to stop her. This gave Darphus a chance to bite a forepaw. Xena roared and locked her jaws into his neck. Being larger than the wolf, her jaws were heavier and much stronger. He cursed himself for placing his being within her jaw reach. She shook him twice and threw his body on top of Callisto.
Gabrielle screamed at the blood splattering her pale blue top and parts of her face. Callisto scurried out from under Darphus' corpse, her claws scrabbling at snow and dirt, and lunged towards Xena, clawing her black muzzle. Xena and Callisto leapt away from each other, only to stalk the other around in a tight circle. Callisto had not gotten away lightly either, Xena had nipped off half of an ear as they had separated. Callisto's eyes looked especially bright against the blood running down her fur.
‘What's the matter, Xena? You look tired. You should go lie down… and die!' snarled Callisto, unable to help but snicker.
Xena cricked her neck, eyes glaring back at her adversary. Callisto had never been the perfect soldier, always disregarding orders. Minor ones mostly, but eventually she had convinced a small portion of Xena's army to defect. They had fled the castle grounds during the night a few years ago. Xena had decided not to hunt them down because she was too ashamed to emerge from her castle, lest she ever meet any villagers. Evidently, not many had survived.
‘You will die on this night,' growled Xena.
‘No! It is you who will die! It is YOU who will answer for the deaths of my family!' screamed Callisto.
Gabrielle threw a rock at Callisto, giving Xena the moment she needed to lunge at Callisto, landing on top of her. Callisto squealed and tried to jump out from under Xena, but the panther's greater body mass overwhelmed her. Xena crushed Callisto with all her weight. She then latched her jaws on to Callisto's neck. With a mighty effort and roar, Xena removed the top part of Callisto's spine from her body, but not before Callisto, with her body twisting and turning as much as possible, used her rear paws to claw her belly, inflicting more damage.
With all of her enemies dead, Xena turned to look at Gabrielle. She let out a sigh of relief at the unharmed but fearful looking Gabrielle. Damn it to Tartarus , thought Xena as she slumped to the ground, now she definitely thinks I'm a monster . Her last image was of Gabrielle crawling towards Tobias. Well, at least she's alive. Ah… I'm going to die here anyway... It doesn't matter anymore. I don't care. I'm too tired . With that last thought, Xena closed her eyes with exhaustion and slumped on to her side.
Gabrielle managed to calm Tobias. She breathed deeply, closing her eyes and placing her cheek against Tobias'. She peeked a look at Xena's body. She went to Xena and reached out a reluctant hand, expecting Xena to leap up at any moment. Eventually, her hand touched Xena's fur. A lot of it is soaked in blood and there was no movement from the Conqueror. Gabrielle went back over to Tobias and led him towards Xena. She got him to kneel and she used all her might to pull Xena's considerable mass onto his back.
Tobias was trembling, but remained calm because the predator was unconscious and his mistress was talking softly in his ear as they made their way back to the castle. He knew that he had to get them back to the castle. It was the last warm place they were in. He couldn't fail his mistress now. Gabrielle was just barely keeping upright, holding on to his shoulder. Tobias nickered and snuffled Gabrielle's hair, trying to get rid of the snow.
The warmth of a fire and of Cyrene's tea had eventually brought Xena back into consciousness. Autolycus, Minya and Cyrene watched as Gabrielle attempted to help clean Xena's wounds. Of course, as a panther, Xena had become accustomed to using her tongue for cleaning herself much more often. Minya and Cyrene would often find themselves preening themselves with their beaks, while Autolycus had caught himself eating any bugs he might have picked up whenever he went outside. Even Solan often found himself cleaning his whiskers, much to his grandmother's adoring amusement. He would pretend that he hadn't seen her smile, twitch his nose, and then leave the room with as much dignity as a little mouse could have.
‘It'd be better if you didn't lick that,' began Gabrielle, staying her hand and trying to remain calm as Xena growled at her.
Xena eyed the wet cloth in Gabrielle's hand with great trepidation. Gabrielle had asked Minya where they kept the herbs and Gabrielle had returned with a bowl of hot water and herb mixture. It smelled familiar. Xena was sure that Gabrielle had chosen a stinging herb on purpose. She lifted her lip warningly, a large canine flashing with flames. Gabrielle moved her hand towards scratches on a limb, only to have it pulled away by the owner.
‘Look, I want to thank you for saving my life,' said Gabrielle, looking Xena right in the eye.
‘So, thank me and get that cloth away from me. Don't think I don't know what's in that water,' replied Xena.
Gabrielle huffed. Typical. Here is a vicious Conqueror who has flipped death off in many battles, but was afraid of a sting in her wounds.
‘If you know what's in it, then you'll know it's the best herbs to get you healing up,' said Gabrielle, appealing to Xena's logical mind.
This time, Xena huffed.
‘How do you know so much about healing herbs? You don't look old enough to have been accepted as a village healer,' grumbled Xena.
‘I'm not a healer, no. But I've read all the medicinal texts in Salmoneus' store. I don't a bit of non-fiction once in a while,' replied Gabrielle.
The servants aren't sure how to help. Whenever Xena had gotten injured before, they had always been instructed to leave medicinal herbs out for her, but never to attend to her. She would always look after herself. But since they had all been turned, Xena hadn't been much for fighting, let alone leaving the castle, so she never had any wounds to be taken care of.
At least Gabrielle wasn't getting her head chewed off, but they couldn't say the same for themselves. Solan, however, had noticed that Gabrielle needed some help. He bravely twitched his whiskers and then approached the Conqueror and Gabrielle from the table on which the bowl was placed.
‘Gabrielle, would you please tell us what happened? I would like to hear how the Conqueror saved you. Is that alright, your Majesty?' asked Solan.
Cyrene stopped herself from breathing in too quickly. She gazed on with slight fear. Xena regarded the little mouse. There was a softened look in her eye. She sighed and nodded. Solan squeaked happily, turning to Gabrielle with eager ears. Cyrene indulged in a small smile.
‘Very well. Tobias and I were being chased by a hyena and three wolves. They could talk too. They were saying awful things, like how they were going to eat us,' began Gabrielle.
Xena glared at the fire.
‘Callisto. She was the hyena. And her followers were Draco, Dagnine and Darphu…ARGH!' Xena finished by roaring and flicked her head about to glare at Gabrielle who was now tentatively dabbing at various wounds, instead of covering them completely with the cloth as she had to Xena's foreleg while Xena had been explaining who the attackers were.
‘You were distracted, I thought it was a good time to clean these wounds,' said Gabrielle.
Cyrene removed her wing from her breast. It had flown there when Xena had let out the roar of pained surprise. She didn't think it was possible for anyone to have snuck a move on the Conqueror, but she admitted that when Xena got angry, she tended to forget about other things. Besides, there were no threats in the castle. Xena had purged the castle of all potential threats long ago. Only the most loyal and most frightened subjects remained alive to watch their Conqueror grow even more restless and unbearable each passing year.
And Gabrielle. She had clearly demonstrated during her time here that she was no threat. Or at least, to anyone's wellbeing she wasn't. In other matters, she perhaps was. Right now, Cyrene watched with bated breath as the young woman tended to her errant daughter. Xena was no longer making any sound. Her muzzle twitched at times, but other than that, there was no reaction. Xena's pride was obviously pushing to the forefront.
‘And so, with a mighty roar, Xena ended Callisto's treachery, sending her to Tartarus with the rest of her horrid crew,' finished Gabrielle, as she wrapped a bandage around Xena's flank.
Autolycus and Minya unconsciously clutched at each other in fear as Xena's flank twitched violently. Gabrielle tied the bandage off snugly and checked over the rest of Xena's scratches and her injured foreleg before nodding to herself. Xena stopped her minute trembling. Autolycus and Minya let out a breath of relief simultaneously, only to glare at each other and then pull away in embarrassment.
‘I notice you didn't mention how monstrous I was, practically cannibalising them,' rumbled Xena.
‘You were protecting yourself… and me. Thank you. I owe you my life,' said Gabrielle, trying to catch Xena's eye.
Xena cracked her neck, avoiding Gabrielle's gaze. It was much too adoring and her eyes were much too shiny for Xena to feel comfortable to look back at them.
‘What kind of ruler would I be if I let my subjects run loose to maim and kill innocents?' grumbled Xena half-heartedly.
Gabrielle sighed to herself, but smiled mightily as Xena finally acknowledged her gaze and bestowed a small smile in return.
‘You're welcome,' murmured Xena, only loud enough for Gabrielle to hear.
Gabrielle lightly kissed Xena's furry cheek. There was a massive and collective gasp by the rest of the animals. Gabrielle glanced about. Xena was shocked into stillness and wide eyes.
‘What?' asked Gabrielle.
Solan giggled at all the adults' reactions.
Galen glanced about the room, light only by a single candle on the table in front of him. He didn't hold back a sneer at the sight of cobwebs above his head. He looked at Jett and Joxer.
‘Well? Don't waste my time boys. I don't normally abandon my asylum during the night, but I was told that you would compensate me for my time,' he said.
Jett threw a hefty sack of dinars onto the table. Galen smirked. He took a dinar and made a show of examining it.
‘Carry on, then,' he said.
‘Gabrielle, my would-be-wife, needs… persuading to see her future,' began Jett.
‘She keeps rejecting his marriage proposal,' interrupted Joxer.
Jett shoved Joxer off his chair.
‘She and her sister are already considered quite strange by the rest of Potidaea. Lila was just in the tavern earlier tonight, raving about the Conqueror, as if she is still alive…' continued Jett.
‘Well, young people do love to elaborate stories. Isn't Gabrielle a bard? Surely it is simply her stories that Lila is recalling. She is harmless in exaggerating stories. There is no danger to anyone,' replied Galen.
‘But my point is that she is dear to her sister. Both their parents are dead. All they have left is each other. I know Gabrielle would do anything to keep Lila with her,' said Jett.
‘Even marry Jett!' exclaimed Joxer, excited to add to the conversation.
Jett grabbed Joxer and placed a headlock on him, making sure that his brother's face was nice and cosy in his sweaty armpit. Galen rolled his eyes as Joxer's arms flailed about.
‘So I guess you want me to deem Lila insane and have her institutionalised unless Gabrielle agrees to marry you?' asked Galen.
Jett & Joxer stared at each other with slight confusion.
‘You want me to threaten to send her to the loony bin, in other words,' sighed Galen.
Jett and Joxer beamed at him. Joxer nodded vigorously.
‘Ah, it's like you read my mind!' exclaimed Jett.
‘Then we have an agreement,' said Galen, tying the sack of gold securely to his waist.
Lila packed the last of the remaining food supplies and a rope into her sack.
‘I can't just leave Gabrielle in the Conqueror's clutches. It HAS to be her. Who else would be so horrible and deformed? Mother always used to say that ugliness came from an ugly heart. I don't care what the legends say, she is alive and she has my sister. I've got to rescue her, even if no one else will help me,' said Lila, out loud to herself.
She shivered as she remembered being trapped face to face with the transformed Conqueror. Who knew what the beast was doing to her sister?
Lila didn't even bother to turn and take a last look at their house before entering the foreboding woods once more.
‘Gabrielle! You home? Lila?' called Jett.
Joxer peered into the window.
‘Empty. Guess we can't get the plan to work,' remarked Joxer, as he started to walk away.
Jett grabbed hold of his brother's nose. Joxer cried out in pain.
‘No, it's their home. They are bound to return sooner or later. So. You will wait here until they do,' declared Jett, shoving Joxer into some bushes.
‘But it's cold here!' whined Joxer.
‘Then you'd better hope they come home soon!' replied Jett, as he left, not bothering to turn his head to regard his brother.
The whole of the castle's servants watched from their various places as Gabrielle scattered stale breadcrumbs for a small flock of birds surrounding her in the tree overhead. Xena watched Gabrielle also, but from atop a large branch of another tree. She was within leaping distance should the birds cause Gabrielle any trouble. Little sparrows and fairy wrens they may be, but one never knew when they might turn their beaks to soft eyes. Those soft, green eyes had come to mean something more to the Conqueror when directed at her, than an annoying inquiry combined with confusion over her behaviour. Xena glared at the birds, annoyed that they could befriend Gabrielle so easily.
The young blonde was vaguely aware of her protector, as she has come to refer to Xena in her mind. She imagined that if she didn't know of the Conqueror's well-meant intentions, she imagined that she would be rather frightened. Perhaps like skittish prey sensing the gaze of a predator. However, after the events of the other night, Gabrielle found herself thinking of Xena without any fear in her heart. Had Xena really ever meant her harm she would not have rescued her, regardless of the curse. Gabrielle was sure that the charisma of the Conqueror could snare the heart of any willing person, assuming she learned how to keep her temper under control.
Gabrielle smiled at Solan as he crawled over to join her and the birds. He requested a story and Gabrielle complied. She chose to recount the tale of how the Amazons first came into being. She wasn't sure of the origins of the tale, but knew that all stories had a grain of truth to them.
Minya and Autolycus settled themselves on a nearby branch to Xena, ever ready to serve their Conqueror. Xena didn't spare them a glance. She knew that while they were listening to Gabrielle weave the tale of the first Amazon queen, they were keeping a portion of their attention to her. This had always been so, ever since she had become the Conqueror, whether it was from fear, a true desire to serve or a combination of both.
‘I don't understand. Even after all I've done to her, she is smiling and telling stories. I want to do something for her. I want to give her something she'd enjoy… But what could I possibly give her?' mused Xena, out loud.
Autolycus and Minya perked up. Could their Conqueror possibly be asking for their advice?
‘You could always start with flowers and chocolates. Why even just basking in your presence is a gift, my Conqueror! Or even pretty baubles. Girls always love some shiny rock on their finger…' began Minya, only to be knocked off her perch by Autolycus.
‘Don't be ridiculous! Gabrielle is obviously not like other girls! She wouldn't like those sorts of empty gestures! Don't take any notice of Minya's advice, your Majesty,' chided Autolycus.
Minya flew back up towards the branch and head butted Autolycus from behind. Autolycus managed to grab her legs before he toppled off the branch. Both went tumbling down into a heap. Xena ignored them.
‘She is very special…' murmured Xena.
Then she realised something as Gabrielle regaled a tale she'd heard before to a wide-eyed Solan, who was perched on the young woman's knee.
‘And then the Conqueror leapt to your rescue?' asked Solan eaerly, even though he knew the end of this story.
‘Yes, she certainly did,' replied Gabrielle, smiling warmly at him, only to shift her adoring gaze in Xena's direction.
‘Where are we going?' asked Gabrielle.
‘Somewhere I think you will enjoy. But you have to close your eyes first,' replied Xena, barely containing her anxiety and excitement.
‘Why?' asked Gabrielle.
She had such an innocent and inquiring expression that Xena almost told her.
‘It's a surprise. Trust me,' said Xena, immediately regretting her choice of words.
However, Gabrielle seemed content with this explanation and closed her eyes. Xena sighed internally, and then nudged her shoulder underneath Gabrielle's hand. Gabrielle grasped Xena's fur gently and allowed Xena to guide her through the darkness. Xena turned her head and licked Gabrielle's hand. She only just caught the pleased gasp from her guest.
‘Stay here for a moment,' said Xena, the slight tone of command making Gabrielle giggle.
‘I'm in no hurry,' said Gabrielle.
Xena padded over to the closed curtains, grasping one corner in her teeth and pulled towards the right side of the window frame. Light burst into the room. Xena did the same with the other side and soon, light was battering against Gabrielle's closed lids. Her body was screaming at her to take note of the new information.
‘May I open my eyes now?' asked Gabrielle, unable to contain her curiosity any longer.
Gabrielle was already inching forward towards Xena, who glanced about and then inhaled.
‘Yes. Now,' said Xena.
She barely stopped herself from pacing about in front of Gabrielle as the young blonde gazed around the room in amazement.
‘A library! I have never seen so many scrolls before!' exclaimed Gabrielle, although in an awed hush.
Xena couldn't help but grin with all of her fangs showing. The glint of sunlight off of them caught Gabrielle's eye. The bard turned to look at Xena, a smile so awed that Xena couldn't believe that it was directed at her.
‘You like it then?' asked Xena, still a little unsure.
‘It's amazing! I can only imagine how much knowledge and lore is stored here. And the stories!' gushed Gabrielle.
‘In that case, it's yours. All of it,' stated Xena.
‘Oh, but I couldn't! It is in your castle!' protested Gabrielle.
‘I have read most of the scrolls here, but I surely could never enjoy them as much as I know you will. As Conqueror of this castle, it is my will that this library now belong to you, Gabrielle,' replied Xena.
Gabrielle was speechless. Her eyes widened even more than Xena thought possible. Due to her honed reflexes, Xena almost leapt out of the way as Gabrielle rushed towards her. It was because she had such control of her body that Xena did NOT leap away.
‘Oh, thank you!' cried Gabrielle, hugging Xena fiercely.
Cyrene, Autolycus, Minya, Flora and Solan watched as Gabrielle freely and safely embraced their Conqueror. Xena seemed to welcome the blonde's touch. Solan climbed up on top of Autolycus' head and danced about.
‘I want a hug too!' he exclaimed.
Cyrene chuckled at her grandson and took him into a wing, cuddling him against her fluffy chest.
‘Isn't that just precious?' she asked, glancing momentarily at her comrades.
‘Indeed, I am glad that our Conqueror was able to figure it out,' replied Autolycus.
‘I knew her Majesty would think of the perfect gift! She's very clever!' boasted Minya, an adoring note colouring her words.
Cyrene laughed, quite proud herself that her daughter had managed to think of someone other than herself, although she admitted that Xena had always made sure that she and Solan were taken care of.
‘I think this is an event to be celebrated!' said Flora.
‘What event? What did I miss?' asked Solan, his words muffled by his grandmother's feathers.
‘You would, gorgeous,' agreed Autolycus, leering at the raccoon playfully.
Minya rolled her eyes at them and petted Solan on the head. She shared a smile with Cyrene. Their Conqueror had been increasingly pleasant to deal with under Gabrielle's influence. Who would have guessed that such a frightening confrontation in Xena's chambers would have resulted in Gabrielle hugging Xena without fear or caution? It was notable however, that Gabrielle no longer explored the rooms with such unguarded abandon. She would often confer with Minya or Autolycus as to the nature of the room behind a door, only then to ask Xena whether she would mind if Gabrielle had a look inside.
Xena granted her permission for every room Gabrielle asked after. Gabrielle never mentioned the northern chambers. Xena felt bad about the whole event, but appreciated the apologetic gesture, as Gabrielle also did not enquire about the surrounding rooms and corridors of her bedchambers.
‘Can I go and play with Gabrielle and the Conqueror?' asked Solan.
‘They aren't playing, love. But come, we've chores to do. Come along Solan, into the kitchen with you,' commanded Cyrene.
Solan followed reluctantly.
‘I still want to know what we are celebrating,' he groused.
The next day, Xena watched as Gabrielle emerged from her room, refreshed from sleep. Xena leapt down and landed beside the bard. Gabrielle shrieked in surprise.
‘Xena! You gave me such a fright!' exclaimed Gabrielle, clutching at her chest.
Cyrene glared at Xena with only a mother's nerve from behind a banister. Xena snarled slightly, glancing about for any other observers. Gabrielle gave a her a quick but questioning look, only to look to the floor. Solan had skittered up to Gabrielle. She leant down to pick him up.
‘Good morning Gabrielle,' he chirped.
‘Good morning Solan,' replied Gabrielle.
‘Permission to come aboard, Conqueror?' asked Solan, directing his attention to Xena.
‘Permission granted,' replied Xena, as Gabrielle placed Solan on her neck, between her shoulder blades.
Gabrielle smiled, a hand to her chest as it slows down from the fright, as Solan whispered into Xena's ear. Xena nudged him gently with her nose in agreement. She's so gentle with him , thought Gabrielle. Even before the whole I got to know them all.
‘I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I didn't mean to frighten you. I won't greet you like that anymore,' apologised Xena.
‘Oh Xena, I know you must be used to being stealthy. It must have been a necessary tactic in battle?' commented Gabrielle.
They made their way outside into the courtyard.
‘Yes, but you shouldn't have to suffer for it,' admitted Xena quietly, her tail swishing about behind her.
Due to her embarrassment, Xena whirled and snarled at a servant who accidentally bumped into her. The gazelle, who had brought over another cloak for Gabrielle and one for Xena also, cowered mightily and was close to tears.
‘A cloak? Does it look like I need a cloak?' growled Xena.
Xena only just caught the disappointment flash across Gabrielle's face. She spun away from the cowering deer and watched as the young bard approached her servant.
‘Hello. Did you bring that for the Conqueror? That was wonderfully considerate of you,' said Gabrielle.
‘I'm glad you think so, my lady,' came the soft reply.
Xena pretended not to notice as the deer snuck a quick and frightened glance her way.
‘I don't think we've been introduced. I'm Gabrielle, what is your name?' asked Gabrielle, keeping her voice soft and gentle as possible.
‘Jerra. It's nice to meet you, Gabrielle,' replied the deer.
‘It's nice to meet you too, Jerra. Thank you for the cloak. I'm sure that the Conqueror had momentarily forgotten that she was no longer around her troops, and in fact appreciated your gesture.' said Gabrielle.
Jerra was still struck dumb as she did not move to hand the cloak to Gabrielle.
Xena began to feel even more unworthy of Gabrielle's sweet nature. She surely could no more consider Xena a monster from her easing into a bloody fray, to screaming and roaring at her, to how she acted with her own servants. Xena wondered at the morality of even just thinking about attempting to cement herself in the presence of a gentle soul such as Gabrielle. Surely if she did succeed, Hades would ensure that she'd rot and burn in Tatarus for it.
Perhaps it was time to try and change the way she conducted herself. Not completely, Xena knew that wasn't possible. But perhaps she could try Gabrielle's way. She cleared her throat.
‘Gabrielle is right. Thank you, Jerra. I'm sorry for scaring you,' said Xena, inching forwards to accept the cloak.
Jerra was dumbstruck. Never had she ever heard the Conqueror apologise, and here she was apologising to a mere servant like herself! Eventually, much to Gabrielle's amusement, she shook her head clear, bowed to Xena and Gabrielle, and then leapt away back into the castle.
Xena groaned at herself as she has her cloak in her mouth and no way to place it on herself, let alone work the clasp together. Gabrielle touched her shoulder lightly, Xena was surprised that her muscles didn't twitch in the battle ready way that they have always reacted since she began her warlording days.
‘May I be of service with these hands, your majesty?' asked Gabrielle, with a twinkle in her eye.
Xena mumbled something around the cloak before depositing it into Gabrielle's hands.
‘What was that?' asked Gabrielle.
‘I said, yes please. And you needn't call me that, Gabrielle. You may call me by my name. I think you have earned every right to do so and more,' said Xena.
‘Although I'd imagine I'd best address you by your title in front of your subjects though,' murmured Gabrielle, thoughtfully.
‘If you wouldn't mind, otherwise my authority would be lessened,' conceded Xena, inwardly thrilled that Gabrielle had voiced that problem out so promptly.
‘And yet I find that many, like Minya, use your title reverently. Frightening as you often are to most, many appreciate you defending them and allowing them to continue living in the castle grounds,' commented Gabrielle.
‘Yes, I am ever so generous,' remarked Xena, sarcastically. ‘It's the least I can do since it is my fault that they are all animals.'
Gabrielle felt her entire being perk up. She knew when a story was nearby.
‘Oh?' she asked.
Xena went on to explain how the gods had transformed her, the servants and the soldiers.
‘But why, Xena? Why would the Fates do that?'
‘Because I was foolish enough to believe that destroying their temple would bring my brother back. You see, Gabrielle. He was murdered outside their temple. He was a great believer of the Fates and so he'd go often to pray to them. I was foolish to let him go without an escort, but he insisted that the Fates would be offended by untrue visitors. Someone who hated me enough decided to kill him. I had believed that the Fates had forsaken my brother, an ardent follower of theirs. So I went and decimated their temple.'
Gabrielle was silent, her face contemplative. Xena took the silence as a bad thing and hunched her shoulders slightly.
‘What you see now is my punishment,' said Xena.
Gabrielle looked at her with an unreadable expression on her face.
‘For some reason they found it just to damn my kingdom also,' added Xena bitterly, trying to fill the silence, which was suddenly unsettling to her.
‘I'm sorry that happened to you. All of it. I wish I could do something to help,' said Gabrielle, finally.
Xena was surprised.
‘There is nothing one can do about the past,' said Xena, gruffly, but pleased with Gabrielle's reaction.
‘Except make a better future, yes?' suggested Gabrielle.
Her expression was so full of caring that it caused a smile to force itself to settle on Xena's face.
‘That is a difficult thing for a being like me. There has been too much death, destruction and betrayal. There is no hope left for me,' stated Xena, despite the warmth she felt from Gabrielle's encouraging smile.
As selfish and taciturn she had always been, with the mass scattering of her moments of fury, she retained one regret. This regret being that her mother, her subjects and her only son also had her curse imposed on their beings. How did the Fates consider punishing them alongside her as fair?
She nudged Gabrielle gently in the direction of the frolicking Solan, who was racing about pelting Autolycus and Minya with tiny mouse paw sized snowballs. Xena closed her eyes as, before she turned away, Gabrielle ran a hand across the fur on Xena's neck. Xena relished the touch, slowly opening her eyes to realise that Gabrielle hadn't noticed that she had allowed her to touch her so intimately, let alone that she had been invading the Conqueror's personal space. Gabrielle no longer felt tense at all around Xena. Her body seemed to act on it's own sometimes. Xena watched Gabrielle giggle in delight as Cyrene, with a single stern expression, caused Solan's whiskers to droop and for him to drop his newest snowball, which had been aimed directly at the cook. Cyrene fluffed herself and then stalked away triumphantly.
Xena felt her chest clench. And to desire the selfless love of one such as Gabrielle… It was too much. Xena couldn't bear the thought of condemning another for her own sake. Without alerting the now distracted Gabrielle, she slunk away back into the castle. Gabrielle noticed, but didn't let on. She decided that it was time for a bit of investigating.
‘Minya, may I ask you a question?' asked Gabrielle.
The serious look on Gabrielle's face caused Autolycus some concerns and he steered Solan back into the kitchen, luring him with promises to get him a cake or two from under Cyrene's nose before lunchtime.
‘What is your question, Lady Gabrielle?' asked Minya.
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose.
‘Well, first off, I'd like for all of you to stop calling me that. Just Gabrielle is fine. It's my name, so use it,' said Gabrielle.
Minya looked perplexed, but then nodded, with a fluttering of her wings in a bow.
‘Good to know we've got that sorted out,' said Gabrielle. ‘Did the Conqueror really kill Callisto's family?'
‘Oh, Miss… I mean, Gabrielle. That is wholly untrue. The Conqueror had nothing to do with that,' said Minya.
‘And I can validate that story. I was there,' said Autolycus, appearing before them again without Solan in tow. ‘Callisto blamed our Conqueror for the burning of Cirra and consequently the death of her family, but the Conqueror never gave that order. It was Draco, Darphus and Dagnine who commandeered that portion of the army who took torches into Cirra. They were tired and hungry from the previous day's battle. While the Conqueror and half of that scouting party had gone back to retrieve the majority of the army from the battleground, they had decided that they couldn't and wouldn't wait. The villagers refused to give into their demands, of course, because the Conqueror wasn't present. They feared her, but never truly feared her army until that day. Those men torched Cirra and by the time the Conqueror had returned, with Callisto who was in that half of the scouting party, all had died.'
‘Why in Tartarus would Callisto run with those who caused the deaths of her family and village?' asked Gabrielle.
‘She went crazy with grief, and an aggrieved mind is easily swayed. Darphus got to her first, telling her lies. These lies were compounded by the stories of Draco and Dagnine when they vouched that the Conqueror had in fact told them to burn down Cirra. With what she knew of the Conqueror's ruthlessness, Callisto believed this and would not be swayed otherwise,' explained Minya, shuddering at the memory of Callisto's rampage which killed half of the guilty men in the Conqueror's army.
‘And of course, this all happened just before the Conqueror's own loss… The Conqueror never got around to telling her side of the story,' added Autolycus.
Gabrielle looked towards the castle.
‘Her brother…' she breathed.
Minya and Autolycus watched Gabrielle anxiously, not entirely sure of how Gabrielle was taking their recount of events. She finally turned back to face them, her eyes wet, but with a small smile gracing her face. Do they know that she consumes herself with guilt about their transformations every day? She shook her head. She doesn't let them know, does she?
‘Thank you both for telling me what happened. I appreciate it,' said Gabrielle. ‘Shall we all go back inside for lunch now?'
Solan met them at the door. As she placed Solan on her shoulder, her stomach let out a massive growl.
‘Oh, I'm hungry too, Gabrielle!' exclaimed Solan. ‘That piece of cake was tiny!'
‘How did you know that was me?' asked Gabrielle, mock shocked.
There was no answer except for laughter from the other three.
Over the next few weeks, Gabrielle began subtly and slowly introducing Xena to the realisation that many of her subjects were not truly bitter at all about their predicament. True, as beasts it was harder to do many things, but many of them had considered this an opportunity to use their minds and discover more innovative methods of going about their chores and lives. Once Gabrielle had asked about it, there were concessions that Xena was not an altogether unpleasant ruler. Xena's roaring temper tantrums were relatively minor when considered alongside her actions during her warlording days. There was more death and bodily harm as punishments in those days.
While Gabrielle didn't agree with how Xena had handled getting rid of her initial wannabe suitors, she came to understand the feeling behind it as the many gushings of how the servants were so pleased that she and the Conqueror were getting on so well became all a little too much to bear. What happened between herself and the Conqueror, whatever it was that was happening between them, was none of their business. She couldn't understand why everyone found their relationship to be such an exciting topic. She might be the only person they had all seen in so many years, but still!
Xena, on the other hand, was feeling less and less alone in her self-induced guilt. She conceded that Solan was rather happy for a child who knew he shouldn't be a mouse. Then again, her mother was the one raising him. Cyrene had always been an adaptable person. Xena was as proud to be able to call Cyrene her mother as much as she was ashamed to call herself Cyrene's daughter.
How she was now feeling about Gabrielle was becoming stronger and stronger every day. It was due to the young woman's influence that the servants no longer cowered in the Conqueror's presence. It was all thanks to her that Xena now heard the smiles instead of the fear in the voices of her servants, and sometimes the whispered scorn from the supposedly hidden ones. It was now that Minya no longer fluttered outside of paw swipe distance. It was now that Autolycus felt no need to dampen his cheeky and witty quips. It was now that Solan ran up to her and hugged her forepaw without asking permission. He never had needed to, but she had never told him that.
With a light heart, Cyrene watched her only daughter smile so many times more in a single day than she had for the past ten years, or ever really. She had been a relatively serious child around others, except for her younger brother Lyceus, of course. Cyrene allowed herself to shed a tear for her youngest child. She hugged herself as she realised that she no longer cared about turning back into a human, only that her daughter was happy, and that happiness was derived from being around Gabrielle.
‘Grandma!' exclaimed Solan. ‘I want a hug too!'
Cyrene chuckled at him, letting out a cluck. Solan laughed as Cyrene quickly settled a wing over her beak, only for him to pull it down towards him.
‘It's okay Grandma. It was bound to happen. You ARE a chicken right now, you know. It'll go away later when Gabrielle turns us back into humans,' said Solan, very a matter-of-factly.
Cyrene's expression grew serious. Yes, the young woman had given them all hope, since she was certainly a joy to be around, and certainly she had affected Xena in a wondrous way… However, as far as Cyrene knew, her daughter had never had a real lover. Sure, she'd heard the stories of various slaves or warlords of both genders being beguiled into servicing her conquering offspring, but never had she been aware of Xena ever knowing true affection. And even if this was to be Xena's first it would be precarious, not to mention that Gabrielle was young. She too, surely could not have ever experienced true love and affection for another, let alone a physical relationship. She blushed at this thought.
Cyrene couldn't pick two more different and yet similar people. And then she felt a fear in her heart. If this relationship were to work, it would be dazzling. But if it were to fail, she felt that all would be lost. Not only their humanity, but something very dear to her. Her newly rediscovered daughter.
Xena used to never spend time with her and the other servants as much as possible. Now she showered a kind word on to them for fulfilling their duties. And it was only Solan who could coax her into seeing the outdoors without the intent to hone her deadly skills and muscles, and even then, only on occasion. Now, with Gabrielle's gentle influence and stark stubbornness, did Xena venture outside for pleasure. To watch the birds and eat fruit off the trees, no less. Cyrene sighed and gazed at Solan's curious eyes. Well, perhaps he's right. Children do tend to see the truth of such things.
‘I think you're right, Solan,' said Cyrene, rubbing her cheek against his side.
‘Grandma, your feathers are tickling me! And of course I'm right! Gabrielle knows heaps of stories, she will know the right magic spell!' he giggled, placing a mousy kiss on her beak. ‘And you know what else I know?'
‘What is that my dear?' asked Cyrene.
‘It's Gabrielle's birthday tomorrow!' he exclaimed loudly, only to whip his head around to check if the young bard was close by.
‘Is that so? Well, we had better let the Conqueror know. Will you go tell her for me, Solan?' asked Cyrene.
Solan's head motored up and down.
‘I know where she is now!'
‘With Gabrielle in the library!'
Cyrene muffled a laugh.
‘Of course, she is. But perhaps you should tell the Conqueror without letting Gabrielle know.'
‘Maybe the Conqueror will throw Gabrielle a surprise party?'
Solan's eyes widened.
With a smile, Cyrene gently placed Solan on the ground, letting him decide how to secretly inform Xena of this piece of new information.
As Solan regaled her with the news, Xena's eyes flashed. Autolycus took the moment as a good one.
‘Then we must celebrate! Conqueror, may I suggest a party? Or a candlelit dinner for two?' he exclaimed, unable to not dance about.
‘Tomorrow… is so very soon,' mused Xena. ‘I doubt even Cyrene and her crew could muster a party for tomorrow.'
‘How about both?' suggested Solan. ‘You have dinner with her tonight, and then we have a party the next day? We can show her just how special she is and still have time to prepare! I'll go tell Grandma!'
He hurried off, only to skid to a stop, and then turned around guiltily. Xena just managed to halt a laugh bursting out. She gazed upon the tiny mouse and nodded solemnly.
‘Make it so, Solan.'
‘He's a very smart lad, that Solan,' commented Autolycus fondly.
‘He certainly is,' agreed Xena.
‘Please, my lady, I really think that you would look absolutely gorgeous in one of these dresses! I design them all, my helpers sew them together, but then I remember that there is no one to where them! No one to model them, no one to appreciate them! And just imagine how thrilled the Conqueror will be to see you all dressed up for dinner tonight!' Vidalis implored Gabrielle once more.
‘Okay, let's make a deal. You start calling me by my name, and I'll wear one of your dresses. Deal?' suggested Gabrielle.
Vidalis sighed in relief. It was an easy deal to make.
He scurried away to choose which of his creations would suit her hair, colouring and stature best.
‘Do you really think that the Conqueror will like seeing me in a dress?' asked Gabrielle, quietly, so that Vidalis only just heard her as he returned with two monkeys in tow.
‘Of course, my… I mean, Gabrielle! Of course, anybody who is anybody would love to see you in a beautiful dress!' he exclaimed. ‘Now, I've narrowed it down to two, well, I did have this other cute little green number, but the shade wouldn't suit you at all. It isn't the right green for you, no, unfortunately it would end up all quite hideously bilious!
Gabrielle frowned to herself. She wasn't sure to feel insulted that he thought she could look hideously bilious in anything or pleased that Vidalis wasn't about to let her greet Xena in a repulsive outfit.
‘Yes, my Conqueror?'
‘Tell me, WHY DO I LOOK LIKE A LITTLE GIRL AT HER FIRST BARN DANCE?'
The force of Xena's roar caused Autolycus to tumble backwards into the wall. Xena's personal dresser was blown out the door, just as Flora poked her head in.
‘Flora! Go get Vidalis!'
Flora's face flew into uncertainty, ‘But… My Conqueror! He's still with Gabrielle.'
Xena frowned. Well, she couldn't very well just demand that he attend to her instead of Gabrielle now could she?
‘Very well. Nevermind. I'll pick out something myself.'
Flora exhaled heavily. Although the Conqueror had been a lot more understanding about things lately, it was difficult to shirk off the wary fear that had been ingrained into her for so many years. Flora watched as the Conqueror shook her head at her mirror image. Xena gripped the collar of the ridiculously frilly dress in her teeth and ungraciously ripped it off of her body, letting the ruined garment fall to the ground, ruffles and all.
I can't wear any clothes. It all looks ridiculous on me! Fine, I'll go as I am. It's not as if I am truly naked anyway.
All the servants in the room gaped as Xena simply sat down and began grooming herself with her tongue.
‘Going au naturale , Conqueror? A marvellous choice, I think,' murmured Autolycus, as he came to.
‘Permission to make a suggestion, Conqueror?' came a small voice.
Gabrielle kept gazing at herself in the mirror nervously. It was a nice dress, but would it be enough? Relax! It's just dinner! You've had dinner with Xena before. Well, maybe not just the two of you… Completely alone…
It was confusing; Solan, at least, would usually dine with the two of them.
‘Please don't fiddle with that ribbon, Gabrielle. I don't want to have to tie it again,' remarked Vidalis, only just hiding a smirk.
Gabrielle turned around quickly and ducked her head at him apologetically, a blush covering her cheeks.
‘I'm sorry. I don't know why I'm acting like this. It's just the dressing up I suppose. Did the Conqueror say why we were dressing up tonight?' she asked.
‘No. Sometimes the Conqueror just requests things, we don't question it.'
‘Sorry, just curious.'
‘Don't worry Gabrielle, it's alright to be curious. Relax, you look absolutely stunning.'
‘Really? Thank you.'
Gabrielle looked down at the slinky, green dress that was, in Vidalis' honest and professional opinion, a foresty shade that complemented her eyes wondrously. Gabrielle felt a little self-conscious from the figure hugging quality to the material, which was as soft as downy fur to touch. After all this time from wearing the common village clothes, she had no idea that she had a figure at all. No one in Potidaea ever dressed like she was at the present.
She supposed that all that time racing Lila, and sometimes the sheep, into the barn from all the way across the paddock had done her some good after all. She and Lila had discovered that you couldn't force the sheep to go to wherever you wanted them to unless you had a dog, but their family hound had passed on even earlier than their parents had. However, by running past them, they were given the idea that there was something to run away from and so would join her and Lila in their escape from imaginary wolves. Of course, once the sheep got going, it was hard for them to stop, so the sisters had found that it was best for them to be faster than the sheep, and also to have developed adequate dodging skills.
‘Well, my dear, I think that it was time that you made an appearance into the main hall. I imagine the Conqueror would like to escort you to dinner,' said Vidalis, admiring his handiwork with a single tear falling from his right eye.
Gabrielle smiled briefly before turning to exit her room. She stood just outside, took a very deep breath and then made her way to the stairs. Gabrielle took comfort from the warmth of the candles that lit her way down. This warmth was strengthened by the equally affectionate smiles from all the new friends she had made in the castle. She returned all of their soft compliments upon her flame coloured curls. Vidalis had fashioned her hair so that ringlets cascaded down a soft beehive that sat atop her head.
But it was the sight on the other side of the main hall, on the top of the stairs opposite her that stalled her breath. The Conqueror, the great feline of the darkest fur and the brightest of cobalt eyes, stood enshrouded in a royal purple cloak.
Cyrene had to cover her beak with a wing. As the only one behind the Conqueror, only she could see the slight tremble that ran through the muscled form at random moments. She stepped forward and then with as much dignity as she could muster, hopped up on to the banister next to Xena's ear.
‘Don't be nervous. Be proud, my child, for you make for a striking figure and I know Gabrielle agrees,' she whispered.
Xena's ear twitched towards her and as Xena broke her gaze away from Gabrielle's shy one to look at her mother.
‘Thank you,' murmured Xena.
The sight of Xena inclining her head to briefly touch foreheads with the cook brought a teary smile to Gabrielle's features. She wasn't sure exactly of the nature of their relationship, but something told her that it was one that has been living longer than the Conqueror's relationship with any of her other servants. And then Xena captured her gaze again. Gabrielle inclined her head and they both descended the stairs in unison.
She is gorgeous and kind, and sweet and loving, and she is patient and beautiful. She has become someone who I hold close to my heart. Who knew that was still around? I must tell her tonight. I must tell her now!
‘Before we attend to dinner, will you please join me out on the balcony?'
Gabrielle's smile widened, Xena now said “please” without reminding herself.
‘Of course. It would be my pleasure, my Conqueror.'
Xena stiffened at her title. It had never sounded more wrong coming from Gabrielle's lips than at that moment. She relaxed at Gabrielle's concerned hand on her shoulder. Gabrielle held on and let Xena lead her outside.
‘Oh the sky looks wonderful tonight, look! Do you see that? That looks like a bear!'
Xena looked up. She strained to see the bear that Gabrielle was pointing out.
‘… I can see a dipper,' she offered.
Gabrielle gave her a mock-scandalised look.
‘You can see a dipper, but not my bear? Xena, it's right there. There's the head, the little ears, the giant belly and its snout!' said Gabrielle, providing Xena with a fingered outline.
Xena shrugged. She looked at Gabrielle through her peripheral vision while pretending to still be looking for the bear within her dipper.
‘Are you happy here, Gabrielle?'
Xena sighed quietly, and then she resigned herself to finishing Gabrielle's thought.
‘I would give anything to see Lila. I miss her so much.'
Xena's face fell. What were you meant to say to that when you are the reason they were no longer able to see each other?
‘Climb on top of me. Get a good grip. We're going for a climb.'
Gabrielle was a little teary from remembering Lila, but she was curious. She shifted Xena's cloak to the side and settle on top of Xena as best she could in her dress. She threw her arms around Xena's sinewy neck and clasped her hands together as tight as she could. She felt a little anxious as she felt Xena's muscles bunching up. Gabrielle let out a little cry of surprise as she and Xena exploded into the night sky, towards a nearby balcony. Xena shifted direction and leapt up on to a roof. Eventually they reached the balcony of Xena's bedchambers. Xena landed in her room and Gabrielle slide off of her. Xena urged her to approach the table where the rose and mirror lay.
‘Take the mirror and tell it what you want to see.'
Gabrielle gave Xena a funny look, but did as she was told.
‘I would like to see my sister please.'
The mirror flashed and then the image of Lila appeared. She was coughing and trudging through the forest. Gabrielle gasped.
‘She's sick! Why isn't she at home? She's all by herself!'
Xena's ears fell flat against her head as she made a decision.
‘You should go to your sister.'
‘What do you mean?'
‘Take my cloak and go. You are no longer a prisoner here. You are free.'
Xena unclasped her cloak with her teeth and offered it to Gabrielle, who accepted it gratefully.
‘Oh Xena…' said Gabrielle, cupping Xena's furry cheek. ‘Thank you.'
Gabrielle was about to say more to Xena who had closed her eyes, but then she heard Lila go into a coughing fit and it spurred her to movement.
‘I'm coming Lila!'
She places the mirror back on the table.
‘No. Take it with you. It will let you remember the servants… and me.'
‘Thank you for understanding,' replied Gabrielle, this time placing a kiss on Xena's cheek. ‘I will never forget you.'
Gabrielle raced out the door and down the stairs, into the main hall, stirring up all of the servants present. She ran into her room and changed back into the clothes she had arrived with. She then wrapped Xena's cloak around her, grabbed her bag, threw some of her belongings and the mirror into it, and then raced back down the stairs and through the front doors.
‘Gabrielle! My lady! Where are you going?!' cried Autolycus, waving his hands in the air.
Minya flew around frantically before finding Xena out on her balcony.
‘Conqueror! I don't know what happened but Gabrielle has escaped again!'
‘I freed her.'
‘Oh, that was nice of… WHAT?!'
‘I had to do it.'
‘But I thought… I… Why, Conqueror?'
Xena let out an anguished and grumbling howl.
‘Because I LOVE HER!'
In her desperation to find out what was going on, she leapt from the serving cart and landed on top of Autolycus.
‘What is going on?!'
‘Minya... She… She said that the Conqueror let Gabrielle go.'
All of the servants simultaneously started exploding with questions and exclamations.
‘Oh Xena…' murmured Cyrene. ‘You've learnt to love another.'
‘Well, shouldn't I be a man again then?' demanded Autolycus.
‘Yes, shouldn't I being growing arms and legs again?' agreed Minya with equal vehemence.
Cyrene sighed heavily.
‘Gabrielle has to love our Conqueror also before the spell ends.'
‘Then we are doomed to be like this forever,' said Flora, slumping against the wall.
Many of the other servants mirrored her action, others dropped their heads and some were stunned into immobility from having such a tender hope ripped from them.
‘Lila! Sister!' cried out Gabrielle, spotting her sister's form hung over a fallen tree trunk.
She spurred Tobias towards Lila and slid off him quickly. She helped the barely conscious Lila onto Tobias' back and climbed on too, holding Lila upright as they rode home.
Joxer shivered violently underneath the stairs leading up to the front door of Lila & Gabrielle's home. As soon as Gabrielle let the door slam shut behind them, Joxer tumbled out of his hiding place, shaking violently and scrambled towards the tavern to alert Jett.
‘By the gods, Gabrielle… Wait, how are we at home?'
‘Oh Lila, how could you do this to yourself? You are dreadfully sick!'
‘What… but what about the Conqueror? Did the servants help you escape?'
Gabrielle drew the laid out Lila into her arms and hugged her tight.
‘Lila, I didn't need to escape. She freed me.'
‘Why would Gabrielle need to escape from us? Doesn't she like us anymore?' came a small voice from inside Gabrielle's bag.
‘Oh! The little mouse!' exclaimed Lila.
‘Oh Solan…' murmured Gabrielle, lifting him up and out of her bag. ‘That's not why I left.'
A loud knock interrupted them. Gabrielle petted Solan reassuringly as she got up to answer the door.
‘Who could that be? It's so very late,' murmured Lila.
‘I don't understand. There has to be some mistake!' exclaimed Gabrielle.
‘No mistake, my dear child. Lila has been considered dangerous, I must take her away to the asylum,' replied Galen.
Gabrielle bristled at being called a child. She hadn't been one for a long time now. Having no parents and having to look after your younger sister tended to do that to you. They had been lucky that none of the people of Potidaea had tried to take their home away from them. Everyone was content with what they had and didn't want the burden of having to look after another piece of land, let alone two young women.
‘She is not dangerous. My sister is very sound of mind,' declared Gabrielle, no longer keeping her voice down.
‘She told everyone that the Conqueror had become a beast and had kidnapped you, but clearly you are unharmed. She incited panic among the people last night. That is very dangerous. Now step aside, girl,' demanded Galen.
‘What's going on?' asked Lila, appearing at Gabrielle's side.
Galen grabbed her arm and pulled her through the front door.
Lila let out a cry and tugged herself back into the house, but Galen was stronger as he now also had other hands in his aid.
‘Let her go!' shouted Gabrielle, pulling at Galen's shoulders for all she was worth.
Galen slipped on the icy stairs and cried out as he lost his grip on Lila, tumbling downwards into the frosty mud below. The two men helping Galen caught Lila before she could get away.
‘This just proves to me that you BOTH are dangers to society! Take them both away!' he shouted.
The gathering townspeople all gasped at his declaration. Could it be? Sweet Gabrielle was just as crazy as her mad sister? Madness was contagious!
The people standing around Gabrielle began giving her a wider berth. Jett sidled up alongside Gabrielle as she struggled against Galen's two men, holding her back from ripping Lila from Galen's grasp.
‘Ah, Gabrielle. How your family does seem to run into trouble all the time,' he said.
‘Jett! My sister isn't crazy. You know I'm right,' she implored.
‘Well, my family IS influential in Potidaea. I'm sure I could clear things up for you…' began Jett.
Gabrielle stilled and then looked at him suspiciously, ‘If?'
‘It's simple, marry me and they will never cause trouble for your family ever again!' exclaimed Jett, smiling broadly at her with open arms.
He let out a high pitched grunt as she kicked him between his legs.
‘Fine! I'll leave it alone,' he squeaked, shuffling away from her.
‘Gabrielle!' cried out Lila as she stomped with all her might on to Galen's foot, forcing him to release her.
The sisters ran to each other, hugging each other tightly.
‘She's obviously just as nutty as her sister!' exclaimed Joxer to the observing Potidaeans.
‘It's true, Lila is crazy. She kept going on and on about how the Conqueror is alive and had kidnapped Gabrielle. Even after we threw her out of the tavern, she went around for a while banging on everyone's doors. And hey, Gabrielle always turned away my affections,' said Perdicas to Joxer, who nodded vigorously.
‘Only a crazy girl would reject an obvious looker like you,' agreed Joxer, stoking Perdicas' ego.
‘But it's true! The Conqueror does live! She isn't lying!' yelled Gabrielle, pulling the mirror from her belt. ‘Show me the Conqueror.'
Many of the Potidaean's screamed when the mirror flashed, and then revealed Xena roaring out into the forest, baring her sharp and deadly whites. Gabrielle regretted her actions immediately. She had no right to allow others to see Xena like this. Xena had given her the mirror in confidence; that only Gabrielle would look upon her with her unawares.
‘A mwonster!' shrieked Leah, falling into a faint against a disgruntled Meg.
The murmurs of the other villagers began to rise in volume and alarm.
‘You're wrong! The Conqueror isn't really like that at all. She has changed. She saved me from certain death by wolves. And she has become so very dear to me,' said Gabrielle, hugging the mirror to herself.
‘Oh, perhaps we are wrong,' mused Diana. ‘People have been known to change their ways under the right influence.'
‘I dunno, isn't there like a condition for when you get feelings for your dungeon master?' snorted Meg.
Jett wrenched the mirror away from Gabrielle.
‘Is it just me or do you actually have feelings for this monster you supposedly call the Conqueror, who, if that's true, correct if I'm wrong, is a woman!' he sneered, turning to address his rapt audience. ‘This “Conqueror” was a menace then and is a menace now! Don't you remember the stories our parents told us of their hardships under her reign? Look at how easily she enslaves the minds of our young women!'
Potidaeans roared their agreement at him, sending the ends of his hair flying backwards. They may be an unremarkable bunch, with Potidaea not known for much, but they all did have strong lungs and voice boxes to match.
‘Look at those maws! Those sharp and deadly teeth! They'd rip your children to shreds before your very eyes!' yelled Jett, thrusting the mirror into the faces of terrified mothers.
‘You're wrong! Jett, you stupid fool!' exclaimed Gabrielle, gripping his arm, trying to get the mirror back. ‘She would never do that!'
‘I'm a fool? I'm a fool for wanting our village to be safe? You really are crazy,' he sneered, knocking her backwards and into Lila. ‘Lock them both in their cellar! If we let them go free, they'll warn the Conqueror. We must kill her! For the children!'
Gabrielle yelled and struggled, lashing out at the many hands grabbing at her. She whapped a few on the head, forcing them to release her momentarily. This was enough for her to make a break for the forest.
‘Must I do everything myself?' roared Jett, running up behind Gabrielle and grabbing her hard enough to bruise.
He threw her into the arms of Perdicus and Tallus who had already locked Lila into the cellar through the outside door. They promptly did the same with Gabrielle.
‘Fathers, husbands and brothers! To me! We'll rid our Potidaea, no, we'll rid Greece of this menace!' declared Jett, thrusting his sword upwards.
All of the male villagers over ten seasons seized their weapons, all pieces of various farming equipment, and stomped on after Jett.
‘By the gods, what have I done?' sobbed Gabrielle, hammering uselessly against the heavy door of the cellar.
The castle is in complete silence, most of them all despairing at not only their loss of possible return to humanity, but to the clear heartbreak of their master. She had become something dear to them during Gabrielle's short stay. Only Minya could be heard mumbling angrily and bemusedly. This soon changed.
‘What the Tartarus is all that noise?!' yelled Minya.
‘What are you squawking about now, feather face?' groaned Autolycus, covering his ears, but climbing up to her side.
‘Hera's tit! Crazy people are coming towards the castle! They are waving pitchforks, hoes and torches!' yelled Minya, into Autolycus' ear.
‘Go alert Captain Palaemon!' Autolycus roared back at her.
He then leapt off the window ledge.
‘Tell everyone!' cried Autolycus, swinging and leaping here, there and everywhere to alert the servants. ‘We're under attack!'
Solan skittered over to the cellar door from inside Gabrielle and Lila's home. He scrambled up a nearby chair and did his best to yell through the keyhole.
‘Gabrielle! Gabrielle!' he called.
‘Solan? Oh, Solan, can you find the cellar key? You can open this door with that key,' said Gabrielle, only to sound pained in her next statement. ‘By the gods, why did I put it under the flower mug?'
Solan sent his gaze towards the table in the middle of the room. He twitched his whiskers and then grimly made his way down the chair, across the room and up the table.
‘Conqueror. The castle is under attack,' said Cyrene, from the doorway of Xena's bedchambers.
‘Leave me alone,' murmured Xena.
‘They are after you. What shall the troops do?' persisted Cyrene.
‘I don't care. Let them in,' replied Xena.
Cyrene fluttered over to Xena as quickly as she could, set her wings upon her feathery hips and glared up at the Conqueror.
‘XENA! I will NOT stand by and watch my child be slaughtered! You must do something!' demanded Cyrene.
Xena looked down at her tiny mother and gave her a poor excuse for a smile.
‘It's alright, Mother. It's time I paid the price for all the bloodshed. It's alright, you'll have Solon with you,' she said.
‘And when you are gone? Who will protect him?' Cyrene squawked in frustration. ‘And Gabrielle?! Do you think she will be fine with this course of action?'
‘Gabrielle is better off without me,' said Xena.
‘How do you know that? Did she tell you that?' demanded Cyrene.
‘No…' murmured Xena.
Cyrene huffed and then hopped back the stairs.
‘They've almost broken through the windows!' yelled Autolycus.
‘Everybody take cover! Remember, birds, pick them off as they come in!' commanded Palaemon, trying to ignore the fact that their Conqueror was not directing them. ‘Everybody else, take down any who get through!'
The soldiers and servants all scattered off into their hiding places as the glass imploded, distributing a gleaming, but dangerous carpet across the stone floors. They held their breaths as the first few boots could be heard crunching down.
And then the bird shaped soldiers and servants dropped their various sized cargos. Yells of pain filled the air. And then there were cries of disgust reaching the castle inhabitants ears. Palaemon smirked grimly. When this was all over, he was pretty sure the servants would kill him for using fertiliser as ammunition.
‘The Conqueror, huh? You look like a big ol' sack big, sad cat to me,' sneered Jett, entering Xena's bedchambers with an arrow nocked in his bow.
Xena regarded him for a moment, and then turned away with miserable disinterest. Ares appeared beside her, although not visible to Jett.
‘What are you doing?! He's gonna shoot you!' yelled Ares, right in Xena's delicate ears.
Xena swivelled her gaze towards him. Jett stepped back in fright. Ares snorted.
‘Look at this guy, you've been a rock and he's jumping at the barest movement! Kill him, it's all he deserves,' said Ares.
‘Leave me be. I really don't care anymore, Ares,' said Xena.
‘No! You are my Warrior Princess! You sweep the lands of other gods awash with blood for me. Do it, start with him, and I will promise you anything you want,' declared Ares.
‘And look how well that ended for me last time,' Xena laughed bitterly.
Jett quirked a brow. Okay, he was pretty sure that she wasn't talking to him. By the gods, she could talk! Well, she was supposed to have been Xena the human Conqueror once before, so he supposed that it wasn't supposed to be weird that a giant, black cat was talking to itself.
‘Solan! Don't do that! You'll tip over!' exclaimed Gabrielle, watching as Solan clutched tightly on to the top of the chair and rocked it with all his might.
‘Exactly!' yelled Solan, as his efforts paid off.
What Gabrielle hadn't seen was that Solan had placed several objects in the way on either side of the back legs of the chair, holding it firmly in place as it tipped over. Gabrielle and Lila leapt backwards as the chair slammed into the door. They scrambled back to the door as they heard a peculiar noise. And soon they heard the click.
‘Try opening the door now,' called Solan.
‘By the gods…' murmured Lila, as Gabrielle did just that.
The knob turned and Gabrielle could pull the door towards them.
‘Geronimo!' exclaimed Solan, leaping off of his perch and into Gabrielle's suddenly waving hands.
‘Solan!' scolded Gabrielle. ‘That was so dangerous! What if I hadn't caught you?!'
‘Don't worry Gabrielle!' replied Solan cheerily. ‘I've had so many jumping lessons from the Conqueror!'
‘Still…' said Gabrielle, letting it go. ‘We'll talk about this later, young man.'
Solan could only giggle in reply, scampering up her shoulder. Gabrielle turned to regard her sister. Lila was still goggling a little at the little mouse perched on her older sister's shoulder.
‘Lila…' began Gabrielle.
‘But nothing, Gabrielle. I'm coming with you. If it's true that the Conqueror saved your life, I need to go thank her. Personally,' said Lila.
Gabrielle simply smiled at her. They held hands and then nodded to each other.
‘Go ahead and shoot me then. Be the mighty hunter,' sneered Xena, both giving up, but not above mocking Jett while she was at it. ‘Here, I'll make it easier for you.'
She puffed herself up, making her body a larger target, even if she did blend into the night, the moon outlined her body. Jett twitched, annoyed that still, she wasn't even paying him the courtesy of looking at him.
‘Your hide will be my new sleeping fur!' declared Jett, letting the arrow fly.
Xena roared in pain as it pierced her flesh right under her shoulder.
‘A good spot… if you wanted to take down an escaping stag. You fool, I'm stationary!' roared Xena, causing Jett to flinch yet again.
She was just like his father, always yelling at him to do better, even though everyone else was always telling him that he was perfect. Jett squared his shoulders; surely bringing the pelt of the Conqueror would please his father.
‘Xena! By the gods, don't let him kill you!' screamed a voice.
Xena nearly pitched herself over the balcony.
‘Gabrielle!' she exclaimed breathlessly. ‘You came back!'
Gabrielle gazed up at the large beast with a look of apologetic despair. It softened as they ignored everything else around them.
‘Oh Xena, I had to tell you…' began Gabrielle.
She then screamed in alarm as she watched Jett thrust a dagger into Xena's side, forcing both on to another roof below. She left Lila and Solan on Tobias and raced into the castle.
Minya swooped from group to group, cheering everyone on. She soared into the air, pirouetting before striking a retreating Joxer in the right butt cheek with her rather large beak. Autolycus whooped with glee at his shout of pain.
‘Take THAT, you damn sheep lovers!' yelled Autolycus, reaching up and snatching a surprised Minya from the air.
Minya cried out as Autolycus proceeded to noogie her with her head in his armpit.
‘Help!' shrieked Minya.
The simple farmers of Potidaea were overwhelmed both physically and mentally. How was it that these animals were so capable of fighting back? Were these not dumb beasts like the sheep that they herded everyday? And why were they fighting to protect the terror that was once known as the Conqueror? Shouldn't they welcome the death of the Destroyer of Nations? With these desperate, but fleeting thoughts in mind, the villagers either ran or fell out of the castle doors and windows.
‘Gabrielle! You're back!' exclaimed Flora, catching all of the servants' attention.
They all watched as Gabrielle ran past them, tears streaking down her face.
‘Where are you going?' called out Autolycus. ‘Gabrielle?'
‘Leave her be, the Conqueror will look after her. We'll find out what's going on after we help anyone who's been injured,' commanded Palaemon.
Xena grunted in pain, determined to not to cry out again, not with the stupid idiot landing right on top of her. Her pride wouldn't let her. Jett rolled off of her, leaping to his feet. He had dropped the dagger, but grabbed it again as Xena got up slowly. Jett grinned, waving his dagger her way.
‘Leave now and I'll let you live,' said Xena, letting herself only just lean against a nearby statue.
Jett threw back his head and laughed.
‘Let me live? Let ME live?! I'm going to kill you and then take Gabrielle to be my wife.' laughed Jett, not noticing Xena shifting her stance. ‘Did you fall in love with her? Did you really think that she would stay with you? She's a little cocktease! And besides, don't be stupid. People don't mate with freaks!'
‘You talk too much,' growled Xena, leaping at him.
She slashed upwards at his face, leaving four claw marks from chin to forehead. Jett yelled in pain, falling backwards, slamming against a column. With blood and pain streaming down his face, Jett cowered at Xena's huge form and shadow cast over him. The moon and the darkness illuminated Xena's flashing eyes even more. Jett's eyes bulged as Xena slammed a paw across his throat, pinning him to the stone behind him. He gurgled in desperation as she pricked the skin of his neck with her claws.
‘P-Please! D-Don't hurt me anymore!' he squealed. ‘I swear I'll leave.'
Xena's sneer melted away. Hadn't she just gotten used to no longer seeing such fear in the eyes of others? Here it was again. Xena closed her eyes, frowning to herself.
‘Then get out of here,' growled Xena. ‘Right now.'
She released Jett. He fell to the ground in a gasp.
Xena turned and was greeted with the sight of Gabrielle running at her. She let out a huff of air as Gabrielle encircled her arms around her.
‘Gabrielle,' murmured Xena, nuzzling the young woman's hair. ‘It's okay. I'm alright.'
‘By the gods, Xena. I was so worried,' said Gabrielle, looking up into Xena's eyes.
She caressed Xena's furry cheek. Neither saw the look of pure revulsion and fury on Jett's face.
She would touch that monster so tenderly and yet constantly refused him? He didn't want Gabrielle to be his wife. Oh no, not that little whore. Jett snarled as he turned back towards them, dagger aimed right at Gabrielle's back. Xena spotted him just in time. She spun them around, shielding Gabrielle.
‘Solan! You stay here with Minya!' commanded Cyrene, as she raced up the stairs towards Xena's bedchambers.
The young bard screamed as Jett pushed the dagger into Xena, below her right shoulder. Instead of pulling it out, he used all of his might to yank it down. This whole time, Xena had been gritting her teeth, not quite yelling out, but indeed letting out a rolling growl of pain. But now, with her muscles being torn apart, she screamed. She sagged against the balcony. Gabrielle slipped out from her arms and cried out in anger as she shoved at Jett. In his surprise, he let go of the dagger, staring at her in shock as he tumbled over the edge of the balcony. Sweet and beautiful Gabrielle had just pushed him over a balcony. He didn't even have a chance to consider what this meant because his body slammed down onto a spire.
‘Oh gods, Xena!' sobbed Gabrielle, as she turned away from the horrid scene that she had just caused. ‘Tell me what to do, what do I do?'
She didn't dare press her hands against Xena's wound for fear of making it larger. She wouldn't be able to cover it, even with two hands spread as far as they could go. Instead, she took off her cloak and laid it over Xena's body. She then lifted Xena's head very slowly and as gently as she could, laying it back down on her lap. She leaned over and pressed her lips very gently on a furry cheek. She tried to ignore the blood pooling around them.
‘I…I'm sorry,' Xena choked out. ‘Gabrielle, I'm sorry.'
‘H-Hey, that's my line,' murmured Gabrielle. ‘You have nothing to be sorry for.'
Cyrene just stopped herself from screaming at the sight of her child, in the body of a beast, but nonetheless her child, laid out on the balcony with a gaping wound on her body. She whipped her head to look upon the rose that supposedly mirrored her second-born's life. The petals were dropping faster than ever before now. Was there any point now? If her child was doomed to die so soon, it no longer mattered to her whether or not she ever returned to human form. After so long, having feathers and a beak had become normal for her. Cyrene squawked in utter shock when she heard a familiar young voice down on the balcony.
Xena strained to nuzzle Gabrielle's cheek. Her tongued poked out of her muzzle and she could taste fear, despair and salt in Gabrielle's tears. She felt a prickle of her senses. She lifted her lip up in a silent snarl as the fur on the back of her neck lifted too. Gabrielle felt the changes.
‘Xena? What's wrong?' she asked, lifting her head.
‘If you want to save her, you had better plant those lips that you're always flapping, on to hers,' stated Ares.
Gabrielle let out a little scream of shock.
‘Relax mortal. I'm not gonna hurt ya,' he said.
She relaxed a little.
‘Well, not right now, anyways,' he continued with a laugh.
Gabrielle flinched and hugged Xena a little tighter. Xena glared at Ares with all her might.
‘Leave us be, God of War. This is no concern of yours,' she rumbled quietly.
‘Xena, Xena, Xena. When are you gonna learn that when you cark it, it'll mean I have to wait another millennia at least or so before I start having any fun again,' replied Ares. ‘Sides, you don't want to cark it just yet do you?'
‘Then, please, God of War, heal her!' exclaimed Gabrielle.
‘Gabrielle!' rasped Xena. ‘Never ask the God of War for a favour.'
‘She's right, toots. But even if I wanted to right now, I can't, cause she'll stay like this forever, and I want my Warrior Princess back, boobs, legs and all,' said Ares, winking at a livid Gabrielle.
‘Then go away! Leave us alone!' yelled Gabrielle.
‘Yeah, Bro. You aren't helping the mood at all,' agreed Aphrodite, materialising out of a cloud of sparkles and hearts.
Xena still had the strength to roll her eyes. Damn the gods and their insistence in meddling with her life.
Who was going to pop up next? Were the Fates going to appear and curse her with a new animal form? Maybe a puppy?
As soon as she felt a peculiar but familiar tickling and burning sensation, she immediately regretted her thoughts.
‘Er… what's happening here?' asked Ares, not smiling cockily anymore.
‘I think we just lost your Warrior Panther…' began Aphrodite, trailing off as they watched the shrinking form.
Gabrielle scrambled about futilely tried to pull the light melting off Xena's form back into her lap.
With a heavy heart, Cyrene had forced herself to go back downstairs and let the rest of the castle know what was going to be their fate. Solan ran to her, cuddling her leg. All of the animals' ears drooped in response to Cyrene's silence and heaving chest.
Ares leapt in shock as Aphrodite let out a hundred decibel squeal right next to his ears.
‘It's a puppy!' said Aphrodite, reaching out to hug the suddenly much smaller and much more canine form of Xena Warrior Princess.
Xena, the Destroyer of Nations, had been transformed into a black puppy with cobalt eyes. Aphrodite squealed again, but this time in fright as the puppy snapped at her hand. The puppy then growled with all the veracity of a lion, but with the volume of an ewe's sneeze. Xena seemed to realise this and lowered her ears against her skull, a great pouting expression appearing on her muzzle. Ares and Aphrodite burst out laughing. Gabrielle, on the other hand, had finally realised who that little dog was.
‘Xena!' exclaimed Gabrielle. ‘Why are you a puppy?!'
Puppy Xena pricked her ears up at the sound of the young bard's voice and bounded over to her. At the same time that she was exuberantly licking the laughing Gabrielle's face, in the back of her mind she was extremely embarrassed and enraged with herself. But she couldn't help her behaviour. She wanted to examine her new predicament further, but somehow was compelled to roll over in Gabrielle's lap for a tummy rub instead. And by the gods, it felt so good!
‘I feel nauseated,' declared Ares, disappearing in a puff of smoke & lights.
‘Yeah, this scene blows,' agreed Aphrodite.
Well, if she couldn't hug the puppy there was just nothing keeping her here. Aphrodite didn't do well with boredom. Aphrodite just shrugged and then disappeared in her signature pink puff of sparkles and love hearts.
All of the servants' eyes widened as they felt her bodies changing.
‘Grandma! I'm changing!' exclaimed Solan. ‘We're all changing!'
They all ran, each of them transforming back into their original human bodies as they made their way up the stairs to the Conqueror's bedchambers.
‘Xena!' cried Cyrene, her long, black hair sprinkled with some grey burst out of her head and flowed behind her.
The little “Ruff!” that greeted her confused her. Had someone not been able to transform back?
‘Gabrielle! Where is Xena?' demanded Cyrene.
Gabrielle got up as the puppy leapt from her lap and then began to crawl towards Cyrene almost reluctantly, rubbing her belly across the floor.
‘She's fine, Cyrene…' began Gabrielle.
‘What is it Gabrielle? And who is this little girl?' asked Cyrene, leaning down to lift the puppy up.
‘That's Xena right there,' replied Gabrielle. ‘In your arms.'
Cyrene looked down at the little puppy and then gave a great wail of hysterical and exasperated amusement. The puppy yelped and scrambled out of Cyrene's arms. Gabrielle lunged and just caught the little falling body. She sighed in relief and Xena just licked her face in thanks.
‘Well, young lady, I think it's safe to assume that you won't be taking up the mantle of the Conqueror again, any time soon. I am going to take this chance to free everyone of their servitude to you,' said Cyrene, once she had composed herself.
Solan was excitedly bouncing about and petting Xena, who let out a little huff at Cyrene.
‘But where will we live then, Grandma? You can't live in a castle without servants!' exclaimed Solan.
‘You're right, Solan. All stories say that castles must have rulers and servants and since there are none here, you will both have to come live with Lila and me. What do you think?' suggested Gabrielle. ‘We are awfully lonely there, all by ourselves.'
Solan started bouncing about again and cheering.
‘Oh yes! You can tell me stories everyday!' replied Solan, nodding furiously. ‘Oh Grandma, please say yes!'
Cyrene pretended to contemplate this thought. Solan tugged at her skirt lightly and made a very pouty face.
‘Yes, Gabrielle, we'd be honoured to come live with you and Lila,' said Cyrene finally.
‘And yes, you're coming with me too, Xena,' said Gabrielle. ‘And let me tell you, this will make one Tartarus of a story!
Xena just whined mightily. Why wasn't anyone distressed by the fact that she wasn't able to speak anymore? And why weren't they trying to find out how to turn her back into a human? She laid her head on Gabrielle's knee and placed her front paws over her muzzle.
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