Bard and the Conqueror

OR

Things Never End Up As You Though They Would

Summary:

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

( watch?v=gYBRcE_6lC8&videos=DtZMS7tokWg)

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.

'The storyteller?'

'Precisely! She's the lucky girl that is going to marry me.'

'But—'

'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.

Gabrielle sighed.

'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 were gobsmacked. No one could decide on a reaction. However, Joxer snickered slightly at the sight of his big brother upside down in the lake. This caught 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 was 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.