Invitations by Gin

Invitations
by Gin
#3 in theNegotiations Series

Part 1

The organizer held perfectly still, his rasping breath echoed off the walls of the large throne room. He knew that many times in the past it was luck alone that kept him from death and he thought facing Hades himself would be less traumatic than an interview with Xena, especially now. During the few days since she had been back, The Conqueror had taken to wearing the black leather outfit that she had worn during her days of pillaging. Everybody knew that was a bad sign and someone had actually suggested canceling the Festival due to Xena’s mood. At the time he thought they were joking but now he wasn’t so sure. Concentrating on quieting his breathing and hoping not to make her angry, he prayed to any God listening that his luck held out.

Xena looked again at the message. The elegant script was unmistakable.

We humbly accept your gracious invitation to join you during your Winter Festival.
Lao Ma and Ming T’ien

Sighing, she thought. ‘This is going to complicate everything.’ She knew how Lao Ma felt toward her and recalled their final parting with a shudder. Xena had been secretly relieved when she didn’t have to make the trip to Chin in order to settle the spice trader dispute. Since Gabrielle had entered her life she wasn’t sure how to deal with her former lover.

The organizer was getting nervous at her silence but she didn’t care. ‘This is all your fault you know.’ The Conqueror’s accusation would have caused violent protest from The Warrior Princess if it hadn’t been true. I know.’ Quiet acceptance of blame drifted through Xena’s head. ‘I should have just put the Amazon Queen on the list instead of ordering all the leaders to be invited.’ Looking at the parchment again, pulled another sigh from her. ‘But who would have thought Lao Ma would make the trip from Chin just for a Festival?’ The portly organizer cleared his throat, shuffled the stack of parchments in his hands and spoke softly.

“Empress, forgive my intrusion on your thoughts but I wanted to tell you that on his way here the messenger found four highwaymen dead…..” His nervous voice trailed off, the messenger’s description of his find had been gruesome. As chief planner and organizer, he had little to do with actual safety measures, Iolaus handled that, but it still concerned him.

“Yes… I disposed of them.” She smiled her most feral smile at his shock. “They attacked a merchant’s caravan and murdered my traveling companions.” She nearly laughed at his expression, not really surprised that Iolaus hadn’t told him. Soldiers didn’t think much of bureaucrats. She knew what he was thinking. ‘Where are their heads?’ Preferring to let his imagination guide him on that question she ignored the question in his eyes and addressed his concerns. “I have doubled the patrols in the area so the visiting Royalty and leaders can feel a little safer.”

“You are most wise, Empress.” He bobbed his head a few times and then stood completely still.

“Hmmm….” She looked at the balding head and asked. “Who else will be attending?”

“King Gregor and Queen Pandora have sent their regrets…..” He jumped as Xena’s palm connected with the arm of the throne.

“I didn’t ask who WASN’T going to be here!” Exasperation filled her voice. Then curiosity got the better of her. “Why aren’t they coming?”

“Their son is sick.” He was nervous about telling her this. The Conqueror was not known to take rejection kindly. Sentiment over a sick child was not the norm for their leader so he was pleasantly surprised at her response.

“Send my sympathies and offer the services of the Imperial Healers, if they want it.” The Warrior Princess looked at the man’s stunned expression for a long moment before The Conqueror growled. “Are you going to answer my question or do I have to get another organizer?” She could tell he had forgotten the original question and sighed. ‘Just ask.’ The Warrior Princess advised. ‘It’s not like we are going to keep it a secret once she gets here.’ The Conqueror agreed. ‘No. That would be way too much for any of us.’ Looking back at the man she asked. “Has there been a response from the Amazons?” She narrowed her eyes at his trembling reaction.

“Only their acceptance, nothing more.” He looked through the stack of parchments he was holding and nervously handed her one.

Handwriting just as flowing and elegant as Lao Ma’s graced the page.

We accept your invitation to attend the Winter Festival at Corinth.

No humblys or graciouslys, just ‘we accept’; we will be there, as if having the Amazons here was an honor bestowed on her. ‘It is.’ She thought. The reason for her party planner’s nervousness was now obvious. The message was arrogant and almost rude to the point of insult. It would have gotten any other ruler a personal visit from the Conqueror and a whole lot of trouble. At the very least the messenger would be in a world of hurt.

This particular message, however, had a name at the bottom, Gabrielle, and next to that was a seal, exactly like the one on the Amazon treaty only smaller, so she knew the messenger was long gone. Wondering about that briefly, she started to hand it over the fanning motion sent a wave of lilac/leather/Gabrielle to her senses. She smiled with pleasure and drawled. “I think I’ll hold on to this one.” Her lips took on a feral curl. “I think the Amazon Queen and I are going to have a little talk when she arrives.” She watched him swallow convulsively then dismissed him with a wave of her hand. “That will be all.”

“Yes your majesty, as you wish.” He straightened the parchments in his hands and left quickly, muttering to himself. “Salmoneous, one of these days she’s gonna kill you.” Lost in his thoughts, he barely heard her belated orders but part of his mind wondered why she wanted a carpenter, that particular man’s name caused him to shudder. ‘Nevermind.’ He thought. ‘I don’t wanna know.’

—————————————–

‘It’s too much.’ Gabrielle looked at the array of clothing and supplies that were strewn across her bed. ‘I can’t take all this but…’She searched the piles again for something she could leave behind but everything seemed necessary. A knock on the door interrupted her evaluation. “ENTER!”

A head full of blonde curls tentatively poked through the door. “Uhmmm… if you’re busy I can come back…….”

“Ephiny! Come in. Maybe you can help me.” Gabrielle rushed to the door and nearly dragged her friend over to the bed. “I need to figure out what I can leave behind when we go to Corinth.”

The Regent looked at the collection and widened her eyes slightly. It was an impressive assortment of Amazon goods and clothing. Shaking her head she laughed. “Why do you have to leave any of it?”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Staff work does build muscles…” She flexed her biceps for Ephiny’s benefit. “..but I can’t carry all that.” She indicated the mountain of belongings.

Holding on to her Queen’s arm more for support than to test the muscles there, Ephiny laughed louder and wiped a tear from her eye. “Gabrielle…. there are a THOUSAND Amazons out there who would gladly carry three times this much to Corinth AND BACK just for the honor of sweating in your shadow.” The Regent saw that her Queen was not amused by that suggestion.

“Amazons are not pack horses Ephiny…. I’ll not have my warriors….” Gabrielle was just getting on a roll when Ephinys laughter stopped abruptly and she interrupted her Queen’s train of thought.

“That’s right. YOUR warriors…. Gabrielle…” Ephiny tilted her head in a half bow. “My Queen. This is not a secretive trip to deliver a message… this is a trip, by Royal Invitation, to Corinth for a festival.” She saw the slow grin beginning to spread across Gabrielle’s face and continued. “On this trip, your attendants will cater to your every whim. This time……”

“This time…” Gabrielle jumped in and finished the thought in a commanding voice that was as Imperious as anyone’s who had been born to the throne. “…… it won’t be a simple storyteller with a few traveling companions standing before the Empress Xena…..” She drew herself up to full height. “It will be The Amazon Queen and a FULL contingent of warriors.”

Ephiny chuckled and ran her fingers through her curls. “Corinth is going to think it’s an invasion.”
Gabrielle grabbing the Regent’s arm halted further comment.

“Ephiny!…” Gabrielle looked at the Amazon’s wrist with delight. “Is that a promise bracelet?”

“Yeah…” Hazel eyes turned misty, as she looked at her own wrist. “Poni surprised me with it when we were celebrating Micha’s adoption.” She looked at Gabrielle shyly. “I guess we are going to make it official.”

Gabrielle’s excitement dampened a little. “When?”

“We figured the Joining Ceremony during our Festival would be fine.” Ephiny shrugged. “It’s just a formality really……” The look in Gabrielle’s eyes forced her thoughts in a new direction. “What?”

“There is NO WAY I’m going to let my Regent be joined in an informal ceremony!” The Queen was indignant at the thought and determined to make up for the fact that she hadn’t noticed the bracelet before now. “I’ll postpone the trip. We won’t leave for several days….. we can have the ceremony before I go….” A sudden thought occurred to her. “…. unless you don’t want me…” Her doubts were assuaged by the gleaming in Ephiny’s eyes.

“No… We do… It’s just that we knew you were busy and we didn’t want to bother….” Ephiny wanted it to be clear that Gabrielle was in no way obligated to perform the ceremony.

“BOTHER?… Ephiny…” Gabrielle hugged the blushing woman tightly. “Aside from Xena you are my best friend…. You’re my son’s guardian….and The Regent Queen for Zeus’ sake…..there is nothing I would rather do.” She ushered her friend toward the door. “Now go on… I know you have things to do and so do I.”

Ephiny chuckled as she left the hut and heard the excited Queen talking to herself. ‘That is going to get her in trouble one of these days.’ The Regent thought. With a lighter heart she walked across the village to tell her love that the Queen herself would Join them.

———————————-

Xena’s boots echoed loudly through the stone corridor. Pushing open the large iron reinforced door revealed her quarters, pleasantly warmed by a roaring fire. Silence pervaded the room save for the crackling fire and quiet sobs of the blonde woman sitting at the desk. Xena wanted nothing more than to comfort the crying woman but found herself unable to move. Rooted to the spot she could only watch helpless as Gabrielle turned page after page of the journal, reading about her horrible past. She tried to cry out. ‘No please, stop….’ but no sound escaped her. Without a word Gabrielle rose from the desk and walked toward the warrior. Xena opened her arms wide to embrace the crying woman but Gabrielle walked through her and out the door without a backward glance. The door swinging shut behind her resounded with a loud echoing BOOM!

Xena sat straight up in bed. Sweat covered her and she shook off the nightmare as the storm outside let loose another volley of thunder. Lightning crackled outside the window and the earthshaking BOOM sounded again. Calming her pounding heart The Warrior Princess scrubbed her face. ‘It was just a dream… ‘The Conqueror snorted and countered. ‘It was a nightmare.’ The thought of Gabrielle actually leaving them was too much to take and she reassured herself. ‘It won’t happen. She won’t leave us.’ The Conqueror’s growl was for The Warrior Princess only. ‘She had better not… if she does I’ll kill you.’ Within her the dark sleeper, stirred. Lightning crackled close to the Palace and The Warrior Princess tried to distract the upset Conqueror. ‘Let’s go check on Argo.’

———————————————————

Gabrielle had just finished sealing a message when she heard a timid knock on the door. Since everyone was preparing for the trip to Corinth and The Regent’s joining she had told Karis guards were unnecessary during the preparations. Except for the stalker situation, guards were mostly a formality anyway. She placed the wax sealed parchment next to a similar message and rose to answer the knock when the door opened slowly, matching the hesitancy of the rapping. “Hello?” She reflexively reached for the staff leaning against her desk.

“Queen Gabrielle….” The child poked her head in the door. “Can I talk to you?”

“Micha?” Gabrielle took her hand off the staff. “Come in.” She met the girl as she entered the hut and draped her arm around the small shoulders. “What’s up?”

“I shouldn’t have bothered you.” Micha eyed the messages on the desk. “You’re busy.”

Gabrielle smiled at the child and led her to sit next to the fire. “I’m nearly done.” She retrieved the messages. “All I have to do is send these off.”

Micha jumped up. “Do you want me to get a messenger… I think Bekka is on runner duty……..” Gabrielle’s chuckling cut off her enthusiasm.

“No need.” She smiled and held the messages up over her head and called. “Hermes.” Winking at the wide-eyed child, she lowered her now empty hand.

The astonished girl whispered. “The messenger of the Gods?” She was awed by the power her Queen wielded.

Chuckling at the child’s expression she explained. “Only for the VERY important ones.” Sitting cross-legged in front of the fire she urged Micha back to a sitting position as well. “Now. What’s on your mind.”

Micha was a little flustered to have the Queen’s undivided attention. “Well.. I.. It’s just… When Ephiny and Poni are Joined..um.. I don’t know what to do…”

“You mean for the ceremony?” Gabrielle thought the girl was too nervous to just be worried about the ceremony.

“Yeah.” The little blonde head hung sadly. “And after…. where will I go?” She felt strong fingers under her chin and swallowed nervously as troubled green eyes searched her face.

“Don’t you want to stay with Eph and Poni?” Gabrielle wasn’t sure why there would be a question on this matter.

“Gosh yes…. but after they are joined, with Phantes away so much, they will want to be alone and…..” Micha almost whispered the next part of her thought not really wanting to vocalize it. “…they will forget about me. Just like…” She couldn’t finish.

Gabrielle finished in her mind. ‘Just like Brenin.’ She took a deep breath and gathered the child in her arms. “Let me tell you a story……..” It was a shortened version but Micha was treated to all the facts regarding her Mother and the twins. When it was finished the little girl’s eyes glimmered in the firelight.

“She saved them from the flood, and from the bad man?” Micha was a little jealous of the children who had so much attention from a woman she had once called mother. “And she signed the parchment because….”

“Because she loves you and wants you to be happy.” Gabrielle saw disbelief on the child’s face and continued. “And because she knows that Ephiny and Eponin love you and will take care of you.” Gabrielle saw a quiet desperation in the child’s expression, she wanted so much to believe what her Queen was telling her. Taking a deep breath she spoke very quietly to the child in her arms. “Eponin cried when I gave Ephiny the parchment.” The girl’s wide-eyed reaction made the Queen smile. “She tried to hide it but I saw the tear….. she loves you very much, so does Ephiny.”

“I love them too.” Micha was happy that she wouldn’t have to leave the couple. “But I still don’t know what to do at the ceremony.”

Gabrielle laughed at the child’s plight. “The same thing you will do for them, for the rest of your life…. you will be there and you will love them.” She paused and heard a bell tinkling. Two messages hitting her desk caused a brilliant smile to cross her face. “Does that answer your questions?”

“Yes.” Micha looked up at her Queen in adoration. “Thank you. I know you are busy.” She peeked around Gabrielle’s shoulder at the desk and the newly delivered messages, wondering exactly how fast Hermes actually moved.

“I am never too busy for a question from an Amazon.” She tapped the child’s nose. “But you are right… no matter how much I would love to sit and tell you some more stories I do have some things to take care of.” She stood, gave Micha a gentle push toward the door and walked over to her desk, picking up one message and setting it aside in favor of the other.

Micha looked back as she left to see the most wistful look on Gabrielle’s face she had ever seen. ‘That’s what love looks like.’ She thought and exited the hut with a happy heart.

———————————————————

Xena lit a candle on the stable foreman’s desk, hung her cloak on a peg next to Argo’s stall, and hoped it would dry before she went back out into the deluge. Argo snorted nervously and tossed her head at the rumbling thunder. “Shhh…. It’s all right girl… It’s just a little thunder.” She patted the wide golden nose and smiled as the mare slowly calmed down. “Good girl.” Xena reached into the pocket of her cloak and pulled out a carrot treat. Patting the horse indulgently she sensed someone watching from the shadows.

“She likes apples better.” The familiar voice from the darkness didn’t surprise her.

Looking directly at the appearing form she smiled. “Hey Bennett.”

“Hey.” He smiled and held out a small apple. “I know she gets nervous in storms….thought this might calm her down.”

“That’s very good of you. Thank you. I didn’t have time to grab a apple from the kitchen.” The Warrior Princess waved the boy closer. “Go ahead…. give it to her.” She watched the boy feed Argo the apple and asked. “How’s your Mom?”

“She’s okay…..um…she’s a little worried though.” The boy pushed a lock of curly black hair from his eyes. “You see, there’s this man that came in a few days ago and well….”

“He says he’s your father?” Xena finished for the tongue tied boy and smiled at his nod.

“Yeah…I think Mom is scared that he will try to take me away.” He looked at The Conqueror solemnly. It was funny to him all the bad things people said about her. He didn’t believe that anyone who loved their horse as much as Xena loved Argo could be all bad and she had always been nice to him. “I might be a little worried too.”

“Well, don’t worry. I won’t let him take you.” She thought for a moment as she patted Argo’s neck. “Tell him if he wants to stay in Corinth to come and see me.” She heard a very faint bell tinkling and smiled.

“Okay sure.” Bennett brightened and then looked puzzled. “Do you hear that?” He looked around to find the source of the bell.

“Yup. It means I’ve got a message coming.” Xena held out her hand, palm up, and watched the boy’s eyes widen as a message appeared as if by magic. Reading the message she frowned slightly and sighed. Retrieving a quill from the foreman’s desk she wrote in the space at the bottom of the parchment and using her hidden stash of wax and her ring, resealed the message.

Bennett found his voice just as she was finished with her reply. “You get messages delivered by….”

Xena turned to look at the boy’s astonished face and grinned, holding the message above her head she confirmed. “Hermes.” Laughing loudly she lowered her now empty hand. She again wondered how Gabrielle had managed to aquire Hermes’ services and made a mental note to ask her when she arrived. “Only the VERY important ones.” She ruffled his hair. “It’s late. The storm has passed and Argo is fine.”

She looked at him with almost affection. “Go home.” She barely suppressed The Warrior Princess’ urge to grin at the disappearing boy. ‘What do we have to grin about?’ The Conqueror asked, remembering the message.

‘Gabrielle is going to be delayed.’ Sighing The Warrior Princess agreed. ‘I know but it is only for a few days…..Gabrielle has duties as Queen just like we do.’ It seemed like forever since they had held Gabrielle. ‘I would like to hold her in my arms tonight.’ The Conqueror confessed. The Warrior Princess agreed quietly. ‘Me too…but… Do you really want her around tomorrow?’ She continued her logic hoping to placate the sullen Conqueror. ‘Besides it will give Johnathan time to finish our surprise.’ That did brighten her mood somewhat and Xena grabbed her cloak. ‘Yeah… let’s go see how that’s coming along.’ She headed out of the stables toward the carpenter’s shop.
————————————————

Solari gritted her teeth and knocked on the door to Karis’ quarters. After three and a half days of grueling travel she really wasn’t in the mood to talk to her Queen’s betrayer but she would get in serious trouble if she didn’t report in. Knocking unwillingly, she resisted the urge to lean against the door and close her eyes. She pushed the door open at the ‘Enter’ command.

Karis looked up from the table that doubled for her desk. ‘She pushed too hard to get here.’ She thought, concerned for her best guard’s health. “You must have set a new record. We weren’t expecting you back until sometime tomorrow at least.” Karis watched Solari sway slightly in her effort to remain standing. “You should get some sleep.”

“The rules say guards coming off of duty outside the Nation have to report immediately.” Solari nearly sneered at the irony of following such a petty rule when Karis was so obviously breaking a far more important one.

Karis pushed the parchment she was reading away and folded her hands on the table. Looking straight into the tired woman’s eyes she spoke intently. “We should always follow the rules, especially the first one.” She thought Solari was tired enough to store that and think about it later. “You’ve reported in… so go get some sleep.” She grinned. “Tomorrow is a big day…. Ephiny and Eponin’s Joining ceremony will be tomorrow night and we will be leaving for Corinth the next morning.”

Solari barely managed to stay upright at the shocking news. She knew that Eponin was crazy about The Regent but didn’t figure they would ever make it official. Everyone knew how devastated Ephiny was after Phantes’ death. The fact that Ephiny had agreed to a joining ceremony attested to the depth of her love for the weapons master. Karis’ voice brought her out of her thoughts.

“I didn’t plan for you to be here yet so I didn’t schedule you for duty at the ceremony. I expect you to sleep yourself out.” Karis watched the swaying woman make her way out of the hut and wondered if she would even be able to make it back to her own hut. She called after her. “I’ll have a runner bring some food tomorrow.” She didn’t know if Solari heard her but would send some food anyway.

“Time for me to get some sleep too.” She spoke to herself as she banked the fire and blew out the candle on her desk. Moving through her moonlit room Karis quickly changed.into her soft sleeping shirt and relaxed in her comfy bed. She smiled as the quiet sound of feet hitting the floor reached her ear and the click of the window shutter being locked was followed by Solan’s solid, warm body finding its place next to her. They had decided that it was best to keep their relationship sort of secret, so they didn’t confuse the guards. Bekka, Norin, and Jana knew of course but the juicier story always took precedence. The rumor mill didn’t need to be muddled with the truth. She smiled as his breathing evened out and she let herself drift off.

—————————————————-

Gabrielle lit a candle to replace the one that had nearly burned itself out and turned the page of Xena’s childhood journal. She smiled at the entry knowing that it was about her. “It wasn’t a stupid stick” The Queen mumbled. Reading on, she finished the entries regarding her first stay in Amphipolis before she closed the journal and smiled. She picked up the recently delivered message and reread it for the hundreth time. ‘Oh Xena…. I wish I could be with you tonight. It seems like ages since we’ve been together.’ She wondered what it would take to get Hermes to deliver her to Xena. She could smell the spicy sent that she had learned to associate with her love, a spicy/leather/Xena combination that had nearly left her breathless when the message was first opened. “I miss you my love.” She whispered. Blowing out the candle Gabrielle crossed to the bed and laid the Xena scented message on the pillow. Not bothering to take off her favorite oversized tunic, Gabrielle laid down next to the message and allowed herself to drift into her dreams… knowing Xena would be there waiting for her…. as always.

——————————————————

Xena rode toward the large bonfire. The Amazon burial song beckoned her as surely as any Siren’s song. She knew the leaders would be there and a surge of excitement gripped her. She smiled as she goaded them into a fight…… Alti wanted them dead. A simple thing in exchange for the power she promised. Killing was nothing to her and the traps she had set easily took care of them all. All except Cyan… she was different… no traps for her. She barely remembered the actual fight but Xena watched as the blonde leader was impaled on a tree limb. All the Amazon leaders dead for the power Alti promised. She looked closely at Cyan’s face and felt her satisfaction turn into heart wrenching terror as the face changed to Gabrielle’s.

“NO!” The scream was torn from her chest as Xena sat straight up in bed. Clutching her blanket to her heaving chest and letting her sweat soaked hair fall forward over her bare shoulders, Xena looked at the door and growled. “Get out.”

The guards who had entered at the scream looked warily around the empty room and slowly backed out.

She pulled her knees up to her chest and hugged them tightly, rocking slowly in the center of her large bed. The Warrior Princess quietly reassured her. ‘She won’t leave us.’ The Conqueror continued rocking. ‘She will hate us.’ She sneered. ‘It was a mistake to give her the journals.’ She knew she was partially to blame. ‘We didn’t give them all to her.’ The Warrior Princess calmly reminded her dark sister. ‘Most of them are here. We don’t have to give her that one.’ The Conquerer calmed her breathing and rested her forehead on her knees, considering that option. The door opening again prompted her to raise her head to see who would dare disturb her. She watched as the servant didn’t even look at the bed but walked, silently, to the bathing room. Xena was grateful to hear the water begin to fill the large tiled pool. She desperately wanted to wash away the memory of the nightmare. She thought about how long the woman had been her personal servant and called her back into the main room. “Mirriam.” She smiled as the woman instantly appeared in the doorway.

“Yes, your highness?” Mirriam was quite surprised. She had not noticed Xena was awake. Normally she simply drew the bath and left. Then it was ready when Xena awoke. “Did I wake you?”

“No. I was already awake.” Xena sneered. “Didn’t the guards tell you?”

“No, your Excellency. They said you’ve been having trouble sleeping recently but nothing more.” Mirriam didn’t like this questioning. She thought she knew what it meant and she wasn’t happy about it.

Xena smiled as The Warrior Princess whispered to her. ‘Highness….Excellency..’ The Conqueror understood and spoke to the nervous woman. “You have worked for me almost three years and you have never called me your Queen.” Xena stood and walked toward the woman, unconcerned that she was totally nude. “Why is that, Mirriam?”

Mirriam swallowed hard at the sight of Xena walking toward her. As her personal servant, she had seen the warrior naked before, that was enough to cause her heart to beat rapidly, but she had never been the target of the controlled power The Conqueror exuded. It reminded the servant of the lions she had once seen, tawny skin and smooth flowing strides that seemed to become even more graceful, right before the kill. “I’m not sure what you mean, your highness.” She backed into the bathing room again feeling like a mouse that was being ever so slowly stalked by the cat.

“There is a group of resistance fighters that believe I should not rule.” Xena slowly circled her prey. “Perhaps you are one of them.” She grinned at the shock in the woman’s eyes and continued to close in on her victim. “So maybe, just maybe, I’m not your Queen.” She smiled as that statement shocked her target into total stillness. Moving close enough to feel the heat from the woman on her bare skin Xena whispered in her ear. “Or maybe your Queen is my Queen too.” The Conqueror smiled and stepped into the gently steaming water. Laughing, she looked at the stunned woman. “Thank you Mirriam. Amazons always know just how hot to make a bath.”

Finding her voice, Mirriam spoke. “How long have you known?”

Xena found the soap that she liked and lathered her arms and chest. “Since you walked across the room this morning.” She grinned at the puzzled woman’s face. “Do all Amazons have the same trainer for that silent walk you do? It’s very distinctive.” She thought about that and not being called Queen. From those two clues alone she could think of five people off the top of her head that were also Amazon. ‘All in strategic places too.’ The Warrior Princess was impressed with her love’s ability to send the right people.

“I guess you will want us to go back to the village now.” Admitting there were others was not that big of a risk.

“No.” The Conqueror never considered that. “You should all stay at your assigned jobs. Festival is crazy enough without my entire household being in shambles too.” She ducked under the water and thoroughly wet her hair. She began to wash out the tangles with the foaming soap she loved. “Lay out my clothes for today.” That had always been a duty Mirriam performed and so it was a kind of dismissal.

“Yes your highness.” The servant’s lips twitched. “The robe with the flame pattern?” She knew that was one she liked to wear on Judgement Day.

Pursing her lips, Xena responded. “No. I want my long black leather skirt and the top with the bead work.” Iolaus had told her who was coming up for sentencing today but not why. She thought she ought to be dressed properly, just in case it wasn’t possible to give him a way out.

Mirriam frowned at the choice. ‘She has been wearing that one too much lately.’ The thought was quickly dismissed as she hurried into the main room and crossed to the clothing storage area to retrieve the outfit required.

It was still quite early so after she finished washing, The Warrior Princess relaxed back against the tile and let the warmth of the water seep into her bones. Dreading the day to come, she couldn’t help thinking how much better it would be if Gabrielle were there with her. ‘No.’ The Conqueror quietly protested. ‘I don’t want Gabrielle here for what I have to do today.’

—————————————–

Gabrielle eased back into the warm water. It was very early but this was going to be a busy day with lots to do. ‘May as well get an early start.’ She thought. She was a little worried about Xena too. Her dreams had started off peacefully but quickly turned dark and scary. Scary enough to wake her, but not scary enough to remember, only a vague sense of terror and the strangest urge to take a warm bath. Strange only because she took a bath every morning so she didn’t know why this morning would be so urgent. She leaned back against the wooden frame and let the warmth of the water seep into her bones. Sighing, she couldn’t help thinking how much better it would be if Xena were there with her.

——————————————

Xena scanned the crowd with narrowed eyes. ‘Not even dawn yet and they have already gathered.’ The Conqueror took an amused satisfaction from that. ‘Judgement Day always draws a crowd.’ The Warrior Princess didn’t think any of it was funny but remained silent. This was The Conqueror’s domain. ‘They are criminals.’ The Conqueror declared. ‘They get what they deserve.’ The predawn breeze gently blew across the courtyard and she smoothed her hair back from her face. She settled into her seat on the platform and as the first rays of light broke the horizon, called for the first prisoner to be brought forth. She looked at the pathetic man that stood before her and narrowed her eyes. “What is his crime?”

“He was caught stealing horses from his neighbor.” Iolaus watched her intently. Since she had returned he had been very careful to avoid her and when he did see her he tried not to say or do anything to upset her. Today, though, he wanted her in a really bad mood. His superiors in the Resistance wanted the sentencing to be harsh and maybe even a little brutal.

Usually petty criminals were simply sentenced by the judge at their trial, but this was the day that the more evil of the criminals were brought before Xena for sentencing. The first prisoner would set the pace for the rest of the day, and was usually put to death. There were several prisoners that he had been holding, waiting for her to return, this was one of them. Iolaus had planned on this man to be first, knowing he would probably be killed.

“Horse thief.” The Conqueror sneered. She looked at the shackled man and was surprised when he spoke.

“Yeah… I took a few horses from him… I needed them… he has more than he needs anyway” The thief glared at a fat man in the crowd, hating him for his twinkling eyes and rich jewelry. “Look at him, all smug, he thinks he is so great just because he is so rich and owns so many horses and so much land.” The condemned man was angry now, he shouldn’t be here and he knew it. He should be in a prison, sentenced by the judge who pronounced him guilty, not standing before Xena, who in all likelihood was going to kill him. His anger got the best of him. He looked up at the darkening face of the Empress. “I don’t know what the big deal is…. it’s not like they were yours.”

The Conqueror was angry now. She could feel the darkness spreading through her and for a moment relaxed into its embrace. For her it was like home. She knew Iolaus had been avoiding her since her return, and she knew this was a test of her mood. To bad for the unlucky thief, his death served her purposes. With this one extreme punishment the Resistance will be recruiting a lot of people. ‘The influx of new members will make it easier for Karis to infiltrate them.’ She thought. ‘That and Festival will make them less organized for awhile.’ The Warrior Princess remained silent as The Conqueror obliged Iolaus and the crowd with a glimpse of unbridled anger. “WRONG!” She stood and took two steps to the edge of the platform, barely registering that the entire crowd took a step away from her as she advanced and addressed them.

“EVERYTHING you see, Everything you touch, Everything you THINK you own….. IS MINE.” She looked at the cowering thief. “You thought you were stealing from him.” She pointed to the fat man who no longer had a twinkle in his eye. “But you were really stealing from ME.” She looked directly into the man’s eyes and purred. “I sentence you to death.” The crowd was silent at the proclamation so there was nothing to interfere with the sound of his screams as the guards led him to the chopping block.

The executioner had been preparing for Xena’s return and had several sharpened axes ready for today. He waited for the man to be tied in position, raised the axe and looked toward the platform. At Xena’s signal, the axe lowered and the man’s screaming ended abruptly. The crowd remained silent, no one could quite believe that a man had just been put to death for stealing horses.

Iolaus was thrilled. ‘She is in a terrible mood.’ He thought. He was glad to see she had dressed in her old fighting leathers, too. Killing a man for simple horse theft was yet another event the Resistance could use against her. This day was going to advance their cause tremendously, there were still many more prisoners to be sentenced, and he thought lecherously that the man’s widow would need consoling tonight. Xena’s voice calling for the next prisoner drew him out of his thoughts, he looked at the parchment he held to remind him of the man’s crime and smiled to himself as he announced. “Defiler of women.”

Xena only spared a moments glance at the man before she sneered at the lumpy, brute. “Death.”

It took four guards to drag him to the executioner’s block. Xena gave Iolaus her supremely bored look, raising an eyebrow she simultaneously signaled the axe to fall and sighed. “Next.”

—————————————————

Gabrielle stepped out of her hut, leaned against her staff and took a deep breath. She smiled at the sky and watched the sun break over the horizon. It was surprising to see so many people moving this early. The drums had pounded late into the night spreading the news of the Regent’s joining and she figured everyone would want to sleep in a bit. Chuckling to herself, she shook her head and thought. ‘I should have known better.’ She walked toward the Temple of Artemis. That was where the ceremony was going to be held and she wanted to make sure everything was ready. She could hear the yelling from outside the Temple and muttered to herself about stubborn Amazons as she entered.

It only took a moment to identify the problem. While decorating for the ceremony someone had decided that streamers needed to be hung from the ceiling. ‘Not a bad idea.’ She thought. The problem was to do that they had tied the ribbons to the ends of arrows and shot them into the ceiling. The acolytes were furious. As soon as it rained there were going to be several very soggy worshipers, not to mention the fact that there was really no way of getting them down aside from climbing up to the ceiling and walking along a precariously thin rafter.

Everyone was so absorbed in her take on the situation, Gabrielle’s entrance went unnoticed until the Queen’s voice cut through the din. “Quiet.” She walked slowly toward the front of the Temple and smiled to herself as the crowd parted for her. Reaching the front she looked up at the arrows and pointed at them. “Who shot those arrows?”

Two of Eponin’s students stepped forward. “We did your majesty.” They looked at the ground wondering what their punishment was going to be. Putting holes in the ceiling of Artemis’ Temple had to rate something major. They were surprised at Gabrielle’s laughter.

“Good shots. Although the fourth and fifth one’s are slightly out of line.” Gabrielle considered the arrows critically before returning her gaze to the stunned girl’s faces and dealt them their punishment. “I do need archers to accompany me to Corinth. Poni has always said you are two of the best….” She watched them beam with pride and continued. “…. It’s too bad you will be here fixing the roof, instead of joining us on the trip.” She had to bite her lip to keep from grinning at their fallen faces. She turned to the watching crowd. “As for the rest of you…..” She gave them all a significant look. “I don’t want anymore fighting today. This is a day for peace and harmony.” Grinning, she dropped her voice to a Xena like growl. “Anybody who has a problem with that can come and talk to me.” Widening her smile she watched as everyone mumbled to themselves about not having a problem with that and went back to decorating.

The head priestess quickly approached her at her signal. “Yes, my Queen?”

Gabrielle draped her arm around the woman’s shoulders and smiled. “I have a little surprise for Eph and Poni but I wanted you to be prepared…….” She led the priestess to the least occupied corner and told her about the guest she had invited.
———————————————————–

Xena gazed across the courtyard. Cool blue eyes resting in turn on the executioner who was patiently laying aside another dulled axe, the pile of bodies waiting to be taken away, the crowd that was waiting to see more blood, and finally to the last prisoner. Standing before her he was the picture of health, in his prime, strong, handsome, defiant. She remembered all the times they had together, keeping each other safe in battle, keeping each other warm at night and now he stood before her, a criminal. Even though their parting was not on the best of terms she still felt a small ache in her heart. ‘Maybe we can pardon him.’ The Warrior Princess offered hopefully and asked. “What is his crime?”

A savage grin crossed Iolaus’ face. “Murder.”

Xena’s heart sank. ‘I can’t pardon a murderer.’ She stood and walked toward the edge of the platform. Not hesitating a moment she jumped off the edge and executed a perfect flip, landing directly in front of the unflinching man. “Why did you do it, Marcus?”

“Two merchants were feuding over territorial rights. One wanted the other out of the way. He promised to give us free food for as long as he lived.” He looked Xena straight in the eye. “Times are hard, Xena. I was only trying to provide for my wife and children.”

Xena let the booing crowd fade away. The late afternoon breeze blew her hair in front of her face so that only her eyes were visible. “You could have come to me.” She saw the flinch at the suggestion of charity and became a little angry. “Is that any worse than dying like this…” She taunted him louder. “Who will provide for your wife and children now?” She watched him close his eyes in defeat and brushed back her hair before she spoke again. “You were a valuable member of my army.” A half-smile appeared on her face as his eyes flew open at the commendation. “So I will give you, a choice.” She turned her back on him and looked toward the block and the last sharpened axe held at the ready. “You can choose the block.” She whirled to face him. “Or you can choose to fight.” She saw in his eyes he knew what she was offering and she knew he was going to take it.

He stood as straight as his shackles would let him. “I choose fight.”

She smiled. “Unchain him, give him a weapon and stand back.” She circled to a safe distance and watched as he got used to the weapon he was given. “Do you want your own weapon?”

He looked at her, startled by the offer. “No this one will do.” He knew he was going to die no matter what weapon he chose but this was at least a dignified way to go.

Xena felt the shiver of excitement run through her as she unsheathed her sword, the sound nearly matching the feeling. Now they were locked in eye contact, her circling her prey, him watching her intently. With a sudden lunge he forced her to block his sword and got a good hit to her face with the back of his hand. Backing off, he watched as she tested her jaw and smiled. “Good one.” He laughed, knowing that she probably let him get in the first hit. Years ago she had told him that a little bit of pain only made her fight better. Taking advantage of his lapse in attention, The Conqueror lunged in and cut his upper arm, forcing him to switch hands on the sword. “You’re getting slow in your old age.” She taunted.

The jibe hit it’s mark and he sprang forward with a flurry of sword movements that only got his sword knocked out of his hand. He felt the back of Xena’s hand connect with the back of his head as she twirled to let him pass her. Sprawled face down in the dirt, he slowly picked himself up, counting heavily on the hope that she would not stab him in the back. As he picked up his sword and turned to face her, he saw a shadow pass over his head. Suddenly she was behind him and a blur of motion numbed his hand into dropping the sword. With her chakram at his throat, she held his chin in her other hand and whispered in his ear. “You saved my life many times on the battlefield. I regret having to take yours now.”

The Warrior Princess could feel the man shaking and saw his eyes dart towards a woman’s cry in the crowd. Looking over at the woman and the two children she continued her whisper. “I will provide for your wife and children.” The Conqueror felt his tears on her fingertips as she quickly moved the chakram from one side of his neck to the other. Slowly letting him fall she reassured him. “They will want for nothing.” Stepping back she motioned for the woman to come forward and watched as her tears mingled
with his and his life’s blood drained away.

Iolaus’ voice rang through the crowd’s cheers. “Put him in the pit with the others.”

“NO!” Xena’s voice silenced them all. “He will have a proper burial. As is fitting for a man of his courage.” She looked at his wife’s tear-stained face. “Tell them where he wanted to be buried and come to me if it isn’t done right.” She signaled the guards to take away the body and watched as the mourning woman and two solemn children followed close behind.

—————————————————————–

Gabrielle listened to the drums as she straightened her necklace, the feathers always tickled her but it was part of the formal outfit. She looked down to make sure everything was in place and smiled at the expanse of skin on her exposed abdomen. “My mother would throw a fit if I was joined by someone dressed like this.” She whirled at the soft chuckle to see her son’s head poking in the door.

Solan continued into the hut. “I don’t think you give grandmother enough credit.” He walked over to his mother and kissed the top of her head. “Now grandfather, that’s a different story.” He reclined on the bed and nearly sent her into a fit of laughter as one eyebrow raised. “What?”

“Nothing. It’s just that sometimes little things you do remind me of Xena.” It still amazed her how much he had grown in the last four months. She guessed he was never going to have an awkward phase. Practicing with the staff every day let him get used to his growing body nearly as fast as it grew. Taller than her now and nearly as tall as Xena, the wiry muscles he had acquired growing up in the Centaur village were becoming more pronounced but still not bulky. Odd that his right arm seemed slightly more developed than his left. Normally staff work built up the muscles fairly evenly. And she knew, son or not, that he was devastatingly handsome in his Royal Ceremonial outfit. She bet that Karis had something to do with the outfit choice, noting that the dark pants were just tight enough to show off his newly forming muscles and the burgandy tunic fit well now but would soon be too small in the shoulders.

“Oh.” He thought about reminding her of Xena. “Cool.” Examining his reflection in his boots and then playing nervously with his ring he asked. “Do you think I remind her of my father?”

Gabrielle sat down next to her not so little son and took a deep breath. “Yes, I think you remind her of Borias and also of her brother Lyceus.”

He snorted. “I know I reminded grandmother of Lyceus. She stared at me all the time.”

Bringing up his extended family made Gabrielle catch her breath. “Do you think you will go see her again?”

Solan considered that. “Possibly.” He looked at her and smiled. “Not until after we get back from Corinth and I have to go North for awhile after that so…. It might be next Fall before I have time to go.” He noticed her expression and tried to cheer her up. “Com’on. It won’t be that bad.”

“I know.” Gabrielle tried to smile. “I will just miss you.” She hated that he was going to be gone, and she admired how responsible he was, at so young an age. She heard the tempo of the drums change.

He heard them too. Adjusting his headband he stood, offered his hand to her, and smiled. “It’s almost time. Shall we go?”

—————————————

Gabrielle could feel the atmosphere charge as they approached the Temple. The main entrance stood open as an invitation for all to be witness to their Regents Joining ceremony. The Queen had seen the decorations in progress but the interior of the temple took her breath away. The acolytes had decided that chairs would limit the number of people that could attend so the floor was bare except for several pillars that stood in line to mark the walkway. Each was decorated in green ivy, with a large candle on top. The decorators had also replaced the torches along the walls with oil burning lamps. The far wall of the temple had been covered in greenery and flowers. Gabrielle smiled as she looked up at the streamers.

In the early morning light they had been ordinary blue ribbons but the candlelight, sunset, a slight breeze and the backdrop of green and multi-hued flowers had transformed them into a waterfall. Gabrielle wished that her own joining would be as beautiful, then caught her breath. ‘You’re not likely to have one, Gabrielle.’ She told herself sadly. ‘I don’t think Xena would want to be tied so formally.’ She saw the Solan was watching her and smiled to reassure him. Patting his arm, she caught the reflection of her ring. ‘Informally, yes.’ She thought. ‘but formally and openly…… I don’t think so.’

Solan looked around the temple with quiet awe. He had never seen it decorated quite like this and was surprised that the simplistic elements became so elegant in the candlelight. From her quiet intake of breath at their entrance, he knew that Gabrielle was impressed as well. Something else in her expression worried him. She seemed sad for a moment before she patted his arm and they continued into the building.

Gabrielle spotted Karis immediately. The head guard was patiently assigning the others their posts. It wasn’t truly necessary for guards to be here. No one would interrupt the Regent’s ceremony but it was traditional and later at the festivities the partiers might get a little rowdy. For the most part what caught her eye was the stunning outfit the young woman was wearing, it was the same formal leathers as the other guards but instead of the usual tawny brown, Karis’ was dyed a deep burgundy. Gabrielle smiled at the color, realizing it complimented her son’s clothes perfectly, and sighed as the head priestess frantically gestured to her. She patted Solan’s arm again and released it. “Duty calls.” She smiled as he made his way closer to Karis and couldn’t help thinking what a handsome couple they made before turning to the approaching priestess. “What is it?”

“It’s The Regent. She won’t come out of the dressing room.” The woman wrung her hands nervously. “I think she is going to call off the ceremony.”

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. She had officiated enough joinings to know that the participants always got nervous and many times threatened to call it off. She patted the worried woman on the back and smiled. “I’ll talk to her.” Waving off the stream of profuse thanks coming from the anxious priestess The Queen walked through the entrance to the back rooms and proceeded down the hall to the room Ephiny was in. It wasn’t that hard to find since Eponin was knocking on the door and pleading with the Regent to open it so they could talk.

“Let me try.” Gabrielle smiled at the harried woman and knocked softly on the door. “Eph…. it’s Gabrielle…….can I come in?” She smiled as the lock clicked and the door opened slowly. Turning to Eponin she reassured the weapon’s master. “I’ll talk to her.” Patting the woman on the arm she continued. “You go check on Phantes and Micha.” She watched Eponin slowly walk away before she entered the room.

Ephiny was sitting on the small couch, doubled over, with her head resting on her knees. Gabrielle could see the bracelet the Regent held between her hands and quietly sat down beside the distraught woman. She spent a moment listening to the labored breathing before she spoke softly. “The head priestess says you are going to call off the ceremony.” Brushing her friend’s dark blonde curls back over her ear, she continued. “What’s up with that?”

The familiar phrase drew a short burst of hysterical laughter from Ephiny but no comment on the situation. Her only action was to examine every tiny detail of the bracelet in her hand.

Gabrielle tried a different approach. “Is that the bracelet you’re going to give Poni for your joining?” When Ephiny only nodded, the Queen continued. “It’s very beautiful.” In a voice so low she could barely hear, Ephiny spoke.

“Do you know how long Poni and I have been friends?” She smiled at Gabrielle’s puzzled look and answered her own question. “Forever.” Ephiny saw that her friend was going to remain silent so she continued. “My first memory is of running in a field, playing with Eponin.” She played with the clasp, a miniature eagle head just like the headpiece on her staff. “I remember when Karis’ mother first arrived, we were so excited to be in her classes together….” She began to examine the links, each one a tiny replica of the large medallion she always wore around her neck, her family crest. “When I married Phantes she was right by my side.” She closed her eyes at the memory of her best friend’s tears that day and the gruff, ‘I’m happy for you.’ The Regent took a deep breath and continued. “She was there when little Phantes was born.” A sadness tinged her eyes. “She was there when I heard of Phantes death at the raided village.” Turning to look directly into her friend’s concerned green eyes, Ephiny finally got the heart of her concerns. “If we do this… and it happens again…. I….” She examined the bracelet again and whispered. “I can’t hurt like that again.”

Now Gabrielle understood. When news of Phantes death reached the Nation, Ephiny had been devastated. It took a long time for her to recover and Gabrielle recalled how Eponin had been there every step of the way. She also knew the event that drew her friend out of her depression, and thought that was the driving force behind her friend’s conflicting emotions. The Queen knew it was a very real fear, but it was also weak logic. “You have been together for a very long time…. “She brushed an errant curl from her Regent’s shoulder.”… and if that happens again…..joined or not…. you will hurt anyway.” No answer from the trembling woman prompted Gabrielle to ask the only question that meant anything at the moment. “Do you love her?” A smile tugged at the Spider Queen’s lips at the immediate response.

“Yes.” Ephiny looked at her smiling friend and sagged her shoulders in defeat. “You are good.”

Gabrielle laughed and heard feet shuffling outside the door. “I think someone wants to talk to you.” She raised her eyebrow. “You up for that?”

Taking a deep breath and pocketing the bracelet, Ephiny nodded yes.

Patting the soon to be bride’s shoulder she rose and opened the door for the waiting weapon’s master. “Come in.”

Eponin was on her knee in front of Ephiny before Gabrielle could close the door. Grateful for a moment together before the ceremony Poni held Ephiny’s hands and kissed her knuckles. “Are you all right?” Not waiting for a response, she reached up to cup the side of her love’s face and wipe away a tear with her thumb. “You know you had me worried for a moment there.”

Ephiny let out a tiny laugh. “Just for a moment?”

Eponin smiled. “You know you mean the world to me, right?” She smiled at Ephiny’s nod. “We don’t have to do this if you aren’t ready. I’ll call it off myself, if you want. Just say the word.”

Ephiny was slightly startled at the offer. “You would do that? After all the time you’ve waited to make it formal? After all the trouble our friends have gone to? After Gabrielle actually postponed her trip? You would call it off, just like that?”

The weapon’s master chuckled and stood, pulling the Regent up with her. “My love, I will do anything that you want.” She brushed the golden locks off the shoulders she loved and smiled. “Don’t you know that by now?” She leaned in to brush her lips against Ephiny’s when the sound of Gabrielle clearing her throat reached them.

“Save it for the ceremony, huh?” Gabrielle grinned as they both turned to glare at her. “Hey, it’s the rules. Partners are not allowed to be alone before the ceremony.” Her eyes twinkled wickedly. “Of course if there isn’t going to be a ceremony.” Her had moved to the door handle. “I guess I could go.”

“No.” Ephiny smiled at her dark haired love. “There will be a ceremony……” She couldn’t finish her thought due to Eponin grabbing her by the waist and swinging her around. It took several mock hits on her shoulders and a sound kiss before she was allowed to continue. “….IF I can get dressed properly.” She looked down at her usual leathers and sighed.

Eponin caught her chin with two fingers and tilted her face up. Looking deeply into the hazel eyes of her only love she smiled. “You look beautiful.” Releasing her hold, she headed for the door.

“I look just like I always do.” Ephiny’s exasperated comment stopped the weapon’s master at the door.

Looking back into the room, Eponin smiled at her soon to be official partner for life. “I know.” Winking at Gabrielle, she continued out the door with a happy heart and the frantic realization that she needed to dress too.

—————————————————–

Xena looked over the plans once more and nearly growled as Iolaus shifted his feet, again. ‘He is anxious to get somewhere.’ The Warrior Princess commented. The Conqueror nearly snorted at that remark. ‘Of course he is… did you see the horse thief’s wife? He will want to offer his condolences…. poor woman.’ The Warrior Princess shuddered at the thought and snickered. ‘We could thwart those plans.’ The Conqueror thought about that and nearly laughed. ‘Sometimes I like the way you think.’ She was about to order Iolaus himself to bring the woman to her when two guards approached the table. Anticipating the look on Iolaus’ face when his immediate plans fell apart Xena was in a playful mood. Tormenting guards was always good for a laugh so she curled her lips back and snarled. “What?”

One of the guards took a step back at the snarl and glanced at Iolaus. The braver of the two spoke. “There is a man outside who claims you sent for him.” His tone suggested disbelief.

She looked at them for a moment and when they didn’t move, threw her arms up in exasperation. “Well bring him in….” She snarled to hide a smile at their flinch away from her arms and looked at Iolaus. “Where do you find these guys?”

He just rolled his eyes and grinned, happy that she was tormenting someone else for the moment. When he saw the man being escorted in, his grin faded. ‘What in Hades….’ Iolaus couldn’t believe Spiros would just walk in like this. ‘He said Xena sent for him.’ For one panicked moment he thought his activities were exposed. Spiros’ next comment relieved him immensely.

“My son said to come and see you if I wanted to stay in Corinth.” He only glanced at Iolaus. “… and I’d like to stay.”

Xena looked at the new arrival critically before pretending ignorance. “You must be Bennett’s father.” She looked at Iolaus. “You know, the little stable boy that takes such good care of Argo.” Looking back at Spiros she continued. “Can you shoot a bow?” She remembered his callused hands from Amphipolis and knew he could.

“Yes, I am a good archer.” The dark haired man looked at her puzzled. He wasn’t sure how she knew that.

“We are preparing for a festival here in Corinth.” She glanced at Iolaus. “Iolaus is in charge of the guards but we also need hunters to supply the Royal table during the festivities.” She saw his eyes glimmer. “You may join the hunters for now. After the Festival, we can talk about a permanent placement.” She looked at the braver of the two guards. “Show him where the hunters sleep and take him to the armory in the morning.” She turned back to the waiting man. “Unless you have your own bow.”

“No. It was broken recently and I haven’t had a chance to make a new one.” Spiros was thrilled he would get a bow from Xena’s armory. He had thought that breaking his weapon was bad luck, but now it seemed it may have been for the best.

“Well then, I guess that settles that.” She turned back to the plans on the table, effectively dismissing the three men. Pointing to a weak spot in security she spoke to Iolaus. “I want guards posted here.” Moving her hand she continued. “And here, and here.”

“We don’t have the men for that!” Iolaus couldn’t imagine how she thought they could manage that formation.

“Sure you do……” She pointed to the map again. “Take some from here.”

“But that will leave the Amazons unguarded.” Iolaus protested. He wasn’t sure of their loyalties yet and had ordered extra guards around their quarters, most of which were members of the Resistance of course.

She dismissed his protest with a casual wave. “Amazons will bring their own guards.” He was about to reply when she slapped him on the shoulder and pulled out another map. This one was the interior of the Palace. “Now lets talk some more about room assignments….”

————————————————————

Gabrielle stood on the raised area in the front of the temple, directly under the blue ribbon waterfall. She looked out at the sea of faces and smiled to see Solari, still a bit bleary eyed from the trip, standing nearly at the front of the temple. Noting the direction of the guard’s gaze the Queen realized. ‘She’s not here for the ceremony. She’s here to watch Karis.’ Looking over at the head guard Gabrielle smiled. Karis looked a bit lost without Solan standing next to her until the most beautiful smile crossed the young woman’s face. Following the guard’s gaze she could feel a smile appear on her face as well.

Micha waited for the musicians to start before she walked slowly down the path defined by the pillars. It had been decided that the daughter of the Regent and the Weapon’s Master should be dressed in warrior leathers. Gabrielle couldn’t help grinning at the sight of such a small child dressed in formal leathers. The reason for Karis’ smile walked directly behind the little girl. Gabrielle found herself lost in a flood of memories as Solan walked the pathway, glancing once at Karis before moving to his designated spot for the ceremony. Phantes was next and looked surprisingly bigger dressed in formal Centaur attire. There was a wave of murmurs that Gabrielle couldn’t quite make out and then the music stopped as everyone looked at the doorway and gasped.

Ephiny and Eponin stood in the entrance, arm in arm. They were both dressed in ceremonial leathers but no one could believe the color. ‘White.’ Gabrielle was astounded. ‘How did they do that!?’ Working with leather was difficult enough and even dying it darker colors was a challenge. She watched as the couple walked down the path, together now as they would be for the rest of their lives. The deeply tanned skin of both Amazons stood in stark contrast to the white of the leather they wore. A large sea shell clip held Eponin’s long dark hair back and Ephiny’s shorter curls were held by a headband of the same white leather, interwoven with small shells and gems.

The Queen smiled at the couple as they stopped their journey in front of her. Green eyes twinkled as she raised her hands to silence the appreciatively murmuring crowd. “This is normally the time I use to remind the couple before me of their duties and responsibilities to each other.” She winked at Micha and continued. “But today the couple before me have decided to speak for themselves.” She looked at the dark haired warrior and raised an eyebrow. “Eponin…” Using Rayna’s signals she indicated the woman should proceed.

Eponin cleared her throat. “Ephiny, we have known each other for a long time.” The fearless warrior swallowed hard and continued. “And during that time I have loved you, as a friend, as a sister Amazon, as a lover and now it will be my pleasure and privilege to love you as wife.” She turned to Solan and he handed her a bracelet. Turning back to Ephiny she took the Regent’s outstretched hand and fastened the bracelet securely. “I will never leave you. I will love you forever.”

Ephiny looked at the sparkling bracelet and let the words echo through her head. ‘I will never leave you.’ It was an unexpected addition to their agreed upon words. She could feel the tear making it’s way down her cheek and cleared her throat, still only able to manage a whisper. “We have known each other for a long time.” She looked into the deep brown eyes of her love and continued. “And during that time I have loved your friendly smile, your strength and your tenderness. You have been my best friend, my sister Amazon, my lover, and now, you will be my wife.” She turned to Phantes who handed her a bracelet. Turning back to Eponin she closed the eaglehead clasp with trembling hands and whispered. “I will never leave you. I will love you forever.” Ephiny held on to the trembling hands of her love and knew that if she let go her knees would not support her.

Gabrielle cleared her throat and smiled. “I guess there is nothing else to say……” Her green eyes twinkled. “Oh yes…” She grinned and raised her hands. “If there is anyone here who doesn’t think these two should be joined speak now.” She only waited a moment before continuing. “Then as Queen of the Amazons, in the name of our patron Goddess Artemis. I..”

“HOLD!” The temple shook with the order and Gabrielle stepped to the right as a bright light briefly bathed them all. When they could see again none other than Artemis herself stood next to their Queen. Immediately the crowd knelt before the embodiment of their Goddess, including Ephiny and Eponin but not including Gabrielle or Solan. Artemis raised an eyebrow at Solan and turned to Gabrielle. “I cannot allow this ceremony to proceed.” She raised a hand to forestall any protest from the crowd and smiled. “I haven’t blessed the couple yet.” Signaling them to rise, and stepping down from the raised alter, the Goddess put her hands over the couple’s tightly clasped hands. “Go with my blessing into your future together.” Lightly kissing each woman on the cheek she stepped back up to Gabrielle’s side and informed the Queen. “Now you may continue.”

Gabrielle grinned and raised her hands again, starting exactly where she had left off. “…. declare that Ephiny and Eponin are now joined.” She lowered her arms. The entire crowd held it’s breath and watched as the couple were drawn together.

Ephiny raised a trembling hand to brush a tear of happiness from her wife’s cheek. The watching crowd faded from her consciousness and it was impossible to resist the pull of her heart. She stepped in to meet Eponin, tilting her head to look up at the slightly taller weapon’s master. The Regent closed her eyes and felt the light brush of soft lips on her own. It was the softest kiss she had ever felt. Sliding her hand around Eponin’s neck, she pulled the dark head down for a solid, passionate kiss and felt strong fingers tangling in her hair to increase the pressure. Only when the hoots, cheers and yells of the crowd penetrated their little world did they break apart.

The musicians took that as their cue and began to play a raucous tune. The newlywed couple smiled at each other giddily and began a dance that quickly spread to the crowd in a potentially destructive frenzy.

“HOLD!” Instant stillness and complete silence fell at Artemis’ order. All eyes turned to the smiling Goddess. “Amazons are my favorite people….. but if you would please take this outside….. I’d rather my temple not be destroyed any further.” She looked up to the arrows in the ceiling.

Gabrielle grinned and watched the two young archers shrink back into the silent crowd. She gratefully heard the whoosh of the bonfire being lit outside. It was cold tonight. Gabrielle watched the couple grin at each other and took a deep satisfied breath. Smiling, she identified the flowers, the smell of burning oil, hot candle wax, and something else that prompted her next statement. “Let the feast begin!”

——————————————————

Xena looked over the reports on her desk and sighed. Since the guard patrols had been set and room assignments were taken care of it was time for other Realm business. Laying aside a stack of reports regarding minor squabbles she briefly glanced at an update on the fighting between Britannia and Gaul.

Shaking her head she picked up a message from the south, Egypt was becoming more and more unstable. She thought about the situation there. It was a civil conflict, brother against sister. She really didn’t want to take sides, and wouldn’t unless the situation got worse. Getting involved in a country’s problems only meant that from then on she would be expected to deal with all the problems. It was better to let them work things out for themselves.

Barely glancing at the reports of all the new cults springing up in various countries. Xena sighed again and stood. She hated this part of running the world and at times wished she hadn’t succeeded so well. The cults didn’t bother her as long as they weren’t too violent. The Egyptian one that poured hot wax on the live girl was a little much so that one was disbanded, but for the most part she just didn’t care. People could believe what they wanted as long as they paid their taxes and didn’t tick her off. Speaking of taxes, she looked quickly at the accountant’s report, a healthy balance was showing at the bottom and she didn’t look any farther. Tossing the parchment back on the desk, she walked out of her room toward the kitchen.

Pacing down the hallway she wasn’t surprised to see the Palace busier than usual. Opening ceremonies for the Festival were only seven days away and everything had to be in order before the invited leaders began arriving.

Entering the kitchen her senses were immediately assaulted by the sounds and smells of the evening meal preparation. This was not even close to the frenzy that Festival would cause but her mood lately had been bad enough to cause everyone to be on their toes. Searching the ordered chaos she spotted the head cook, Peggy, near the spice cabinet and headed over to talk to her. Suppressing a smirk at the wave of silence that followed her progress across the kitchen, she made it to her destination just in time for Peggy to look up from measuring the expensive herbs. She did raise an eyebrow at the cook’s gruff comment at the workers.

“Ach… Get back to work…you lazy lot.” She waited for the clamor to resume before carefully putting the spice container back in the cabinet and locking it securely. Spices were too expensive and rare to run the risk of accidental spillage or theft. Having finished her task she turned to the waiting Empress. “I suppose you’ll be wantin’ to talk about the Festival.”

A bit of a smile tugged at the corners of Xena’s mouth. Peggy was probably the only person in the Palace who could keep her waiting and talk to her like that without at least losing their job, at worst losing their head. “Not exactly….. ” She looked around and gestured for the woman to follow her to the fairly secluded hearth. “I just wanted to let you know that when the Amazons arrive they may send their own cooks down to help.” She saw the bristle at the implication of incompetence and quickly explained. “It’s just that their Queen… well she has a rather large appetite and from what I’ve seen you really don’t have the people to prepare food for her and the rest of the guests as well.” Pausing for a moment to let that reality sink in, Xena continued slowly. “I believe that I will be sharing most of my meals with the Amazons so their cooks will prepare my food too.” Having said that she crossed her arms and waited for the reaction to that admission of trust. She was almost unprepared for the quick acceptance.

“For the life of me, you can have anyone you want makin’ yur meals….But don’t come a runnin’ to me if’n you get poisoned.” She grinned up at the wide blue eyes. Sensing outrage at the suggestion Peggy took a chance. “Spider Queen trapped you good, did she?” Xena was caught off guard by the intuitive question and smiled at the use of Gabrielle’s trader given title. Peggy watched the look and the smile pass across the Empress’ face before a smile of her own appeared. “Oh yeah… ” She chuckled. “She got you.”

Angry that she had been caught off guard Xena snapped. “Send Mirriam with my meal, later.” She stomped out of the kitchen shoving a few people out of the way.

Peggy watched her go and smiling began to think about Xena’s favorite dishes and decided on several to make up for causing the Empress anger. Then she thought about the true cause and was glad Xena had found someone. ‘Good for you….’ She thought. ‘It’s about time.’

————————————————-

Gabrielle looked out at the partygoers from her seat on the raised platform and smiled sadly. ‘If only Xena were here.’ She thought. It was quite a sight. None of the dancers were even close to exhausted yet but she knew they would continue well into the night, as long as the musicians could play and by morning they would probably be sleeping where they collapsed. The Regent’s wedding was a cause for great celebration, Ephiny was nearly as well liked as Gabrielle so the Queen expected this party to last nearly all night. She spotted Karis in the crowd and motioned for her to come over. It was a signal that the guard quickly complied with.

Karis had seen the sad smile and was concerned. “Yes my Queen?” The guard was very formal, she was after all on duty.

“I’ve noticed that the guards are not celebrating whole-heartedly.” She thought she knew why but let Karis voice the reason.

“No my Queen. I have ordered the guards to limit their ‘celebrating’ to one drink and those off duty will be required to go to their quarters soon.” She saw another sad smile pass over her Queen’s face. “We need to be clear headed if we want to start for Corinth in the morning.”

Gabrielle sighed and shook her head. “Tell the guards to enjoy themselves….” She looked into Karis’ widening brown eyes and continued. “…. You too.” Leaning back into her seat, Gabrielle continued. “We won’t leave for Corinth tomorrow. The next day will be soon enough.”

Karis knew how much Gabrielle missed Xena and realized what a huge concession the Queen was making for the sake of the guards in question. “Yes my Queen.” She respectfully bowed before going to spread the word among the guards.

Tilting her head to acknowledge the grateful looks as the guards heard the news, Gabrielle sighed and rested her chin in her palm. It barely registered when Artemis appeared beside her.

“Gabrielle? You are much too sad for a wedding celebration.” The Goddess studied her Chosen carefully. “What can I do to help?”

Gabrielle glanced at the concerned Goddess. Returning her eyes to the celebration, she saw Ephiny and Eponin slip away from the crowd and sighed again. “Nothing. I just miss Xena.” She wasn’t quite prepared for what happened next.

Karis looked up at the Queen’s platform just in time to see Gabrielle and Artemis disappear in a flash of light. “Well at least I don’t have to worry about her being safe.” She mumbled and finished her drink. It was only her second and she didn’t intend on having a third.

“Here.” Solan thrust a full cup under her nose. “Drink up, Karis… this is a party!” He grinned rakishly at her and downed the drink in his hand before grabbing another full mug from a passing tray.

“I’ve had enough.” She said quietly and sat her drink on the table behind her. Reaching for the mug in his hand continued. “I think you have too.”

“NO!” He turned to keep the drink out of her reach. “You can’t tell me what to do…..” Suddenly his legs gave out and he would have fallen if Karis hadn’t been there for support.

Rolling her eyes at the nearest guard, she tried to steady the very unsteady young man. “I’m going to escort the Prince back to his quarters….” She tried to make that sound like a chore. She acknowledged the okay sign with a sharp nod and shifting her hold once more on the drunken Prince started walking toward his quarters. To her surprise, he protested the destination.

“I don’t wanna go to my hut!” He looked into the deep brown eyes he loved to drown in and whispered. “I wanna go to yours.”

For one brief moment she thought she would melt and then logic took over. She didn’t want to make a scene and since she had never seen him drunk before she didn’t know how loud he would get if he didn’t get his way. “Okay.” She complied and turned toward her own hut. ‘It’s not like I’m gonna be sleeping tonight anyway.’The sound of music and cheers coming from the Village Square confirmed that thought in her mind.

Arriving at her hut it was easy to get him to lie down but then he grabbed her arm. “Stay with me.” His patented puppy dog look overruled her good sense and she let him pull her down to the soft blanket.

It was impossible for her not to feel the strength in him as she stretched out next to him, the hard muscles flowing just below his soft tan skin. She swallowed hard and tried to get up but was unable to release herself from the embrace. “Solan, Let me go.”

“No!” He was petulant at her request. “I won’t. I want you to stay.” He knew what he wanted and it only took one look in his eyes for Karis to know too.

“No… Solan… We can’t.” Now she knew this was a mistake. She had to leave now or risk doing something they would both regret.

“Why not?” He sobered for a moment. “Don’t you want me?”

Karis groaned at the surge of desire that question caused. “Of course I do……” Both hands flat on his chest barely stopped him from kissing her. “…but not like this.” She looked into his sad brown eyes and felt her heart arguing with her brain. Luckily for her her brain won. “I don’t want our first time to be like this.” She pushed his bangs out of his eyes with her fingertips. “Do you understand?” She could feel his grip relaxing and smiled.

“Yes.” He yawned and smiled. “I love you too.”

She watched his eyes close and gently disengaged herself from his arms. She covered him up with a spare blanket and took just a moment to study his relaxed face before leaning in to brush her lips against his. This had been a close one. Closer than any of the others but still the thought of Xena’s face and the unspoken command. ‘Sleep only’ was enough to keep her brain on the winning side. She hoped that Xena would understand when the day came for her heart to win. No longer in the mood to party, Karis sighed mightily and left to relieve someone, anyone of duty. ‘No sense in everyone missing the fun.’ Distracted by thoughts of Solan she didn’t notice Solari moving away from the open window of her hut.

————————————————-

Xena didn’t pay attention to the guard’s strange looks as she passed them in the hall. Muttering to herself about nosy cooks she let herself into her quarters and stopped dead in the doorway, all the anger and tension she experienced a moment before melted away. Shaking her head she closed the door, looked back at the bed and thought. ‘How?’ She didn’t really care. All she cared about at the moment was that Gabrielle was sitting in the middle of her bed. The sight of her love waiting for her was enough to leave her breathless. She devoured every curve, every detail with her eyes. Although it had only been a short time it seemed like forever since she had seen her. The Amazon’s long hair seemed longer. It cascaded over her shoulders and down her front contrasting with the white silk of her robe and the tan expanse of skin showing through the gap. The small fire in the fireplace brought out the red highlights and Gabrielle seemed to glow in the dim firelight. Hardly breathing, not wanting to disturb this image Xena slowly crossed the room. Reaching the bed and tentatively stretching her hand out to touch the image, she let out a ragged sob when she felt the soft silk and the warm body beneath it. “You’re here.” The wonderment in her voice brought a brilliant smile to her lover’s face.

“Yes Xena.” She leaned into the strong hand’s caress and reassured her. “I’m here.”

Xena pulled back from the touch and quickly removed her armor and weapons. Letting them fall haphazardly to the floor she climbed onto the bed, sitting on her knees, facing Gabrielle she reached out her shaking hands and gently tugged on the belt of the robe. She thought her heart would explode as the robe fell open. She closed her eyes. “Gabrielle….” She didn’t know if she could control the desire spreading through her.

“Xena…” Gabrielle stopped a tear traveling down the warrior’s cheek and waited for the darkened blue eyes to open.

Xena opened her eyes, stared into pure green desire and whispered. “Gods…”

Gabrielle looked out the window at the rising moon and smiled. “One Goddess to be precise…” She chuckled and slid one strap of Xena’s leathers off of the warrior shoulder kissing the exposed skin lightly.

“Artemis brought you?” The Empress was impressed by the favor granted to her love.

“Yes…” The other strap was now out of the way. “She said I was too sad for wedding festivities and asked me how she could help.” She leaned forward to smell the spicy/leather/Xena combination and to kiss the newly exposed shoulder before continuing. “When I told I missed you….. I found myself here” She traced the strong jawline with her fingertips before giving in to her own desire and capturing the warrior’s slightly parted lips. Groaning at the contact, they both moved closer each craving the other with a hunger that could no longer be denied.

Breaking off the kiss, Xena quickly removed her leathers. Pushing the robe away from Gabrielle’s shoulders, she gently lowered her back onto the bed. Covering the smaller body with her own she captured the Amazon’s lips reveling in their softness, her tongue accepting the royal invitation. This time it was Gabrielle who moaned and suddenly Xena found herself under the very determined Amazon Queen.

The warrior reached up to circle Gabrielle in her arms, pressing her closer. She could feel the entire length of the little Amazon pressed against her and still it wasn’t enough. “I can’t get close enough to you.”

Gabrielle whispered. “You have until the moon sets, to try.” She could barely send a coherent thank you to Artemis as Xena realized her allotted time was short, rolled to pin the younger woman under her and began her quest to become one with her love.

Part 2

“Solan.” Karis shook his shoulder. “Solan, wake up.” She shook the shoulder harder and supressed a grin at his moan. “Come on now… you have to get up.”

“How do you expect me to get up when you keep moving the room around like this?” His voice quavered and he shut his eyes tightly against the spinning, moaning when that only made the situation worse. “Ugh…”

Unable to resist laughing at what she knew was his first hangover, Karis handed him a cup. “Here drink this.”

He looked suspiciously at her and tried not to wince at her laughter. He took the cup and cautiously sniffed the contents. “What is it?”

Bouncing evily on the edge of the bed she laughed again. “Water.”

He groaned at the bouncing and started to hand the cup back. “I’m not thirsty.”

Karis shook her head and refused the cup. “Yes you are. You just don’t know it.” She looked at his disbeliving face and widened her eyes. “Drink it!” It was gratifying that he did. She had been a bit upset last night when he had said she couldn’t tell him what to do. It was partially an effect of the wine but she also knew a deeper issue played it’s part. Being related to royalty was quite a power trip. She knew that all too well. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to realize your mother is ruler of the world. “I don’t know if Gabrielle is back yet, but you might want to take a bath and change clothes.” She tweaked his sleeve. “We are going to go over the wagons today and double check the inventory for the trip.” She looked at him and smiled. “You wanna help?”

He casually agreed. “Sure….” Swinging his legs over the edge of the bed he slowly stood. “After my bath.” He looked at her pleadingly. “Save the weapons wagon for me?”

Karis laughed. “Sure.” She knew that was the one he would want to do. Even though Gabrielle only taught him the staff and he did occasionally use a bow for hunting he had always been facinated by the other weapons, especially swords. The one argument his mother had always used against his learning swordplay had been his age. Gabrielle simply wouldn’t allow him to take lessons so young. Now she wondered how the Queen was going to stop him from using such a deadly weapon. “I’ll be at the wagons.” She rose to leave when his exclamation stopped her at the door.

“Wait!” He looked up at her confused. “Where is Mom coming back from?” He was slightly alarmed at Karis’ casual shrug.

“She left last night with Artemis. I would assume she is back in her hut but I won’t question the Queen or the Goddess….. and at least I know if she isn’t back, she is safe.” She shook her head at his alarm. “Artemis would never put her in harm’s way.”

“You’re right.” He knew Karis was talking sense but this was his Mom they were talking about. He ignored the awful spinning sensation as best he could and walked almost normally to the Queen’s hut. As he passed through the square no one watching could have said if his walk was a result of a hangover or if he was just trying not to step on any of the exhausted dancers that littered the ground. Approaching the hut he saw that the guards had been reinstated, since the joining ceremony was over. Altering his path, he went around to the bathroom window to make his usual silent entrance.

————————————————————————————

Xena woke slowly from the most peaceful sleep she had experienced in weeks. Rolling over she reached out to find the spot next to her empty. A sharp stab of pain gripped her heart as she realized Gabrielle was gone or she thought. ‘It may have all been a dream.’ The white silk robe her hand touched broke through the fear. Bringing the soft material to her face she inhaled deeply the lilac/leather/Gabrielle combination that reassured her. “She was here.” Faint laughter echoed in her head. ‘She was indeed.’ A wave of memories made her smile and shiver.

Holding the robe and grabbing up the tray of food she vaguely remembered Mirriam bringing last night, Xena made her way to the waiting warm bath. She checked the light streaming through the window and knew she had some time before Mirriam returned to lay out her clothes for the day. Relaxing back into the water Xena mused at her much improved mood and heard a satisfied sigh from the Warrior Princess. ‘Of course our mood has improved.’ If she had control she would have rolled her eyes but settled for the Conqueror’s grin. ‘We got to see Gabrielle.’ The Conqueror picked some grapes off the tray, munching happily on her dinner turned breakfast she leaned back and closed her eyes, remembering the previous night with delightful accuracy. Mirriam’s throat clearing brought her out of her reverie.

“I’m sorry to disturb you highness. I just wanted to let you know that I have laid out your clothes.” She paused. “The black leather skirt and beaded top that you like.” She bowed and was about to withdraw when Xena’s response stopped her short.

“No. Not today.” The Conqueror seemed to think about it for a moment. “Get the Indian outfit, the
blue one with the baggy pants and the dark red sash.”

Mirriam barely controlled the surge of anger at the wardrobe choice. Xena only wore the Indian outfit when she was in a very good mood. She had seen two forms in the bed last night when she delivered the meal and recalled Ephiny’s message, Gabrielle and Xena were in love. The servant was not pleased that Xena would take someone else to her bed. The thought of her Queen being treated so badly was too much for her and she lost control of her tongue to anger.

“I guess you had a pleasant evening.” The remark was nearly a sneer and both Xena’s eyebrows raised at the tone. The Warrior Princess’ quick reminder floated through her head. ‘Amazon.’ and the Conqueror understood and smiled.

“Well I guess you didn’t quite keep your eyes averted when you brought the food.” Xena laughed at the servant’s blush. “Had you looked closer you would have recognized your Queen.” Laughing again at the disbelief on Mirriam’s face Xena gestured for a towel and rose from the cooling water. “Ask her yourself when she arrives…….” Xena toweled the water off her face and arms before continuing. “She should be here in five or six days.” Now completely dry Xena picked up the white robe and wrapped it around her, breathing deep the familiar scent and smiling as Mirriam recognized lilacs.

“She was here.” The servant was now totally confused, but no longer angry.

“Indeed she was.” Xena smiled at the laughter in her head and draped one arm around Mirriam’s shoulders. Now that she was certain of the woman’s loyalty there were some things she wanted to discuss with her. She led her long time servant to the main room and sat on the bed while the Amazon retrieved the requested outfit. Leaning back on her elbows, Xena began the conversation slowly. “Tell me Mirriam, how much do you know about….” She wrinkled her nose and gestured no when the dresser held up a jeweled head piece questioningly then grinned at Mirriam and drawled. “The Survivors of Cirra…”

———————————————————

Gabrielle sat straight up in bed as a loud crash sounded from the next room. She looked at the door to see both guards headed toward the bathroom. “Wait.” She sighed. “It’s just Solan.” She could see that they almost believed her and she took a breath to project her voice. “Solan, are you okay in there?” She grinned at the sheepish response.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Solan’s voice carried faintly through the door.

Satisfied, the guards resumed their posts outside. Gabrielle heard the water begin to fill the tub and reached for her robe, when she found it missing she realized that it must still be at Xena’s. ‘That’s one lucky robe.’ She thought and sighed. She smiled at the memory of the previous night and retrieved a second robe from her clothes chest. It was exactly the same white silk, but not as special, Xena had not given her this one.

Knocking on the door to the washroom, Gabrielle spoke softly. “Solan… umm… I kinda need in there.”

“Okay.” The door opened slowly and Solan kept his eyes averted. He had seen the redness in the mirror and didn’t want her to know he had gotten so drunk last night. Unfortunately for him she was too much a mother for that to work and he reluctantly submitted to the pressure of her fingers under his chin.

Her eyes narrowed at his bloodshot eyes and she suddenly realized how old he was. Disappointment and a touch of sadness flickered in her eyes before she released him and continued on into the washroom, without a word.

The look in Gabrielle’s eyes was enough to make Solan felt like he had been hit in the gut. He knew he had been drinking too much but after the first few he couldn’t help himself. Kneeling to stir the fire, he was grateful that the heat from the now large flame dried his tears quickly and he stood as Gabrielle reentered the main room.

“Okay…” She gestured to the washroom and tried to smile. “It’s all yours.”

He ducked into the privacy of the washroom quickly, as the forced smile and gentleness in her voice welled more tears in his eyes. He knew if he still lived in a Centaur village that his Uncle would have yelled at him at least and possibly punished him for being so reckless. ‘Warriors should never get drunk.’ It was a lesson his Uncle had impressed upon him early on. He sat in the warm water and scrubbed the dirt from his face with his hands, trying to erase the memory of disappointment in his mother’s green eyes. ‘But Mother got drunk when we were in Potidea.’ He thought, remembering the warrior’s unsteady gait when she brought his grandmother back to Lila’s. It made him feel better to remember that, and to remember that Xena was his mother too. ‘I’ll bet Xena would let me party as much as I want and not even be upset or disappointed or anything.’ He thought about that a bit more and decided. ‘Yeah… Xena would be cool about it.’ Living in the Amazon village was nice but now he began to wonder if Xena would let him stay in Corinth with her.
———————————————————————-

Gabrielle pushed distressing thoughts of Solan growing older, and away from her, to the back of her mind and dressed quickly. Choosing her favorite short skirt and wrap around shirt she grabbed her staff and headed toward the temple. Ephiny and Eponin would be there by now to give thanks to Artemis for her blessing on their union.

She wasn’t surprised to find the two young ribbon hanging archers standing at the back of the temple along with several of the acolytes. They were all waiting for Ephiny and Eponin, who were kneeling at the alter, to finish their thanks. Gabrielle waited too and when the couple stood she walked to the alter purposefully. Kneeling quickly she began to speak, loudly enough that the couple walking away could hear her, actually loud enough for everyone to hear her.

“OH Great Goddess.” She raised her arms. “Please give me a sign that my Regent will forgive me for not telling her you were going to bless her joining.” She felt a tapping on her shoulder and grinned up at the alter. “That’ll do.” Turning her head to see the Regent with her arms crossed, and lips pursed together, she nearly laughed.

“You really should have told us you know.” Ephiny glanced at Epinon. They had confessed to each other how Artemis’ arrival had affected them and neither of them could stay upset with Gabrielle for giving them such a wonderful gift, even when the Queen was so totally unrepentant.

Gabrielle laughed at them. “What’s the fun in that?” Green eyes twinkled at her friends as she rose and gestured the waiting group to go about their business. “Come on.” She grabbed her staff in her right hand and Ephiny’s hand with her left, waiting for the Regent to lock her fingers with Poni’s. “Lets go get some breakfast.” She paused and grinned. “I’m starving.” As if on cue her stomach rumbled and they all laughed as they headed for the dining hall. They were only peripherally aware of the diligent decorators, carefully restoring the Temple to it’s original state.

———————————————————–

Solan worked quietly counting the weapons in the wagon and ticking them off the list. The bath and the concentration it took to do this job correctly cleared the last bit of hangover he had. He was just finishing when he heard shouts coming from the Temple. A final check to make sure all the swords were in place only took a second. He tucked the corner of the list under the top sword and headed to the Temple to find out what all the ruckus was about. He met his mother coming from the dining hall and they entered the chaos together.

Gabrielle saw her two young archers arguing in front of the head preistess and looked up at the ceiling. They had managed to remove all the arrows except one. To make matters worse this was one that had been shot out of line so it was farther from the narrow rafter than any of the others would have been. Leaving Solan quietly studying the ceiling, the Queen walked toward the harried head preistess.

The arguing pair quieted at Gabrielle’s approach only long enough to shift the direction of their accusations from the preistess to her, and then quieted again at the look in their Queen’s eyes. Holding them in her gaze she spoke quietly. “Tell me what happened.” Immediately holding up her hand to stop their simultaneous explanations and pointed to the girl on the left. “Serina, tell me.”

She listened patiently as Serina explained how they stood on each others shoulders to reach the end of the ribbons and by pulling them gently they worked the arrows free. Until the last arrow, the girl held out the ribbon and Gabrielle examined it. It was frayed at the end and she wondered that it even stayed attached for as long as it did. She handed the ribbon back to the girl. “You worked together to get the rest of them down.” She shrugged. “So figure a way to get that one down too.”

Solan’s voice carried through the temple. “No need.” All eyes turned to the young Prince. With a running start and two bounding steps he jumped to the top of one of the pillar walkway markers and then continued his upward journey to the rafter. Grabbing the thin support with both hands he swung up and stood, walking rather easily to the arrow’s position. He only had to stretch a little to reach the cause of all the problems and dropped it to the ground before swinging down off the roof beam, landing near Gabrielle with a satisfied smile.

Gabrielle felt her heart jump into her throat as he jumped up to the ceiling. She tried to erase the memory of both sides of his feet showing on either side of the thin board he balanced on. Once he was on the ground her heart dropped back into it’s usual position but continued to race and anger controlled her tongue for a moment. She tilted her staff at him “DON’T YOU EVER DO THAT AGAIN!” Complete silence filled the Temple and she saw his smile disappear quickly. Realizing her mistake at chastizing him she tried to temper her reaction. Putting her hand over her heart, she exaggerated relief she didn’t feel yet. “At least not when I can see you.”

He was angry for a moment, embarrassed that she yelled at him in front of so many people, then he realized. ‘She was really scared.’ The guilt that thought caused was almost enough to tell her… but not quite and now he knew she would make him stop if she found out. “Okay. No more climbing the rafters in your presence.” He agreed and hugged her, whispering. “I’m sorry I scared you.”

Gabrielle tightened the embrace and whispered back. “I’m sorry I yelled.”

Karis entered the temple just as Solan and Gabrielle broke apart. “My Queen.” She knelt on one knee and waited for the standard report command.

Rolling her eyes, Gabrielle sighed. “Report.”

The guard grinned up at her. “The wagons have been inventoried and everyone chosen to accompany you to Corinth is waiting. I need to take care of one thing and then, if you wish we can leave today, instead of waiting until morning.” Karis knew very well that Gabrielle would want to leave today.

Gabrielle’s smile rivaled the sun. “Well what are you waiting for?” Resting her staff on her shoulder, she offered both hands for Karis to rise.

Accepting the hands, Karis sheepishly admitted. “Well… um… you actually…..” She saw Gabrielle’s confusion and looking around conspiratorially leaned forward to whisper to the Queen.

Solan saw his mother’s eyes widen. For a moment he thought Karis had found him out, until both women smiled and started for the door. ‘You are way to paranoid.’ He told himself and he hurried after them.

The members of the caravan had gathered in the square, in front of the musicians stage. The Royal Guard stood in a group of their own, slightly off to the side. When Karis and Gabrielle climbed the steps to the stage the guards automatically arranged themselves along the front of the stage, more from habit of training than the threat of attack.

The silent formation made Karis smile in satisfaction. Her people were the best. Which led her to her final loose end. Raising her hands she quieted the crowd. “Your attention please.” She waited for all eyes to be on her before lowering her arms. “Today we leave for Corinth and as tradition demands The Regent Ephiny will be acting Queen until Gabrielle’s return.” She waited for the wave of murmurs to sweep through the audience. “Tradition also dictates that my second in command stay to become head of the acting Queen’s Royal Guard.” This statement pulled laughter from the crowd. Everyone knew that Ephiny would have appointed Eponin to that post even if she hadn’t already been second. Karis smiled and continued. “Therefore I need a new second during the journey.” She saw the guards around the platform stand a bit straighter. “So, in recognition of outstanding performance, and her quick defense of the heir to the mask….” She paused slightly at the murmurs and smiled at her choice’s widening eyes. “….I name Solari as my new second in command.”

Gabrielle stepped forward. “I agree. Solari has always been loyal and faithful to the Amazons and their traditions.” She watched a pink tinge creep up the guard’s neck and touch the tips of her ears. Gabrielle smiled at the blushing guard and held out a small insignia cluster for Solari to take.

It was the only physical evidence of her new rank, the respectful looks she received were less tangible but much more rewarding. Solari fastened the small cluster to her shoulder. She smiled as she walked to her assigned wagon and thought about how much easier it would be to watch Karis now. Lost in thought she barely heard the command to move out and was only peripherally aware of the jealous looks from the ones who stayed behind.

—————————————————————

It had been several days since the Empress’ sudden, unexplained good mood and the Palace staff was not thrilled to see she was again wearing her fighting leathers. Xena took a deep breath and let it out slowly, feeling the comforting firmness of her leather outfit hug her ribs. The weight of her sword on her back and the smooth, cool metal of her chakram at her waist reassured her immensely. She rested her hands on the exposed part of her thigh and played with the top of her boot until the gong warned her of the dignitaries impending arrival. Glancing once around the huge but crowded reception hall, she settled herself into the throne and waited.

It didn’t take long after the gong sounded before the thick outside doors at the end of the room were opened. She watched as a group of guards entered followed by a large litter, carried by six muscular men. The procession slowly made it’s way to the bottom of the steps leading to the throne and halted. Xena narrowed her eyes as a young man exited the litter and pushed the curtains out of the way for his mother. The woman took his hand and gracefully rose from the enclosed couch. Mother and son turned toward the throne and with their hands lightly joined bowed to the Conqueror.

Xena kept her face impassive as she studied the woman. From the corner of her eye she saw the crowd part so that the litter could be moved to the outer wall and upon it’s closing, the armored guards took strategic positions between the crowd of watchers and their leaders. But that was secondary to the woman that stood before her. Xena noticed some streaks of grey showing in the long dark hair. ‘It has only been ten years.’ She thought and heard a chuckle in her head. The Warrior Princess’ quiet voice chided. ‘No it has been nearly seventeen years…. you really should stop thinking in blocks of ten.’ Dismissing that thought the Conqueror spoke formally. “Welcome Lao Ma.”

The leader of Chin bowed again and spoke softly. “Thank you, Empress. I am happy to be here.”

Ice blue eyes slowly raked across the pair and settled on the boy. “And you Ming T’ien… Are you happy to be here as well?” A smile threatened to cross her face as his expression darkened. ‘He has always hated me.’ She thought. ‘Of course he has.’ The Warrior Princess felt more guilt for the kidnapping than the Conqueror did. ‘Why shouldn’t he?’

“I look forward to the Festival.” He bowed slightly and though his words were noncommittal the message was clearly, no.

The Conqueror laughed at that. “A true diplomat!” Gesturing for a guard she motioned toward the entrance to the Palace. “Show the Ambassadors of Chin to their quarters.” The pair followed the guard and were just to the edge of the crowd when the gong sounding again stopped them. They turned to watch the new arrival curious about what other leaders were attending.

Xena too looked up at the wide doors. All the other guests had arrived and the Amazons weren’t due for another day at least. Therefore, she was thrilled to see the doors flung open wide as the Amazon dancers entered the hall in a frenzy of drumbeats. She was nearly spellbound as the women whose bodies had been nearly covered in paint made their way to the base of the throne dias. It was a clever way to check out the crowd and she marveled as each of the dancers ended their performance nearly evenly spaced and in a good position to protect the approaching Queen. She hardly breathed when the next wave of Amazons appeared. They were not frenzied at all. Perfectly controlled, all wearing matching leathers two rows of Royal Guard walked forward in their standard V formation, point toward her. Xena knew what was coming but her heart raced as the double V inverted and all the guards subtly turned kneeling to their Queen. Not to Xena but to the woman standing in their midst.

The direction of the Amazons gesture of respect was not lost on the crowd and although many gasped at the fact that the obvious Queen of the Amazons was standing next to a young man, others gasped at the thought of the Conqueror being insulted. To their surprise Xena didn’t seem angry at the insult at all. As a matter of fact the ones among them who had known her the longest could have sworn Xena was pleased! They were right.

She drank in the sight of her love. Gabrielle had aquired a new outfit for the occasion and Xena decided she liked it, alot. The filmy material didn’t hide much, didn’t hide anything really but the criss-crossed leather under it covered the essentials of modesty. She heard someone in the crowd whisper ‘Spider Queen’ and realized that was exactly what the outfit looked like, a spider’s web. ‘Perfect.’ She thought. Gabrielle had yet to raise her mask and Xena wondered what she was waiting for. The warrior got her answer quickly as Iolaus, despite the formal clothing, recognized the boy from camp in India and chuckling, bent to whisper.

“Sold him to the Amazons did you?” His mirth was short-lived as the Amazon Queen raised her mask and signaled the others to do the same. Instantly recognizing Gabrielle and quickly finding Karis at the head of the guards, he grabbed the hilt of his sword in reflex. “Imposters.” A warm but painful grip on his hand stopped him from drawing.

“They were faking it at the CAMP.” She said and narrowed her eyes at Solan’s reaction to Iolaus’ short lived threat. Rising from the throne and glancing once at Lao Ma she decended to meet the waiting pair.

It was only a short walk but during that time she had to decide which plan to put into motion. Plan Alpha, Gabrielle and Solan both opposed, for obvious reasons….. Plan Beta, would increase the risk for Karis, being thrown into the Conqueror’s prison was never without danger…. or.. she smiled…..Plan Gamma the one she had been thinking about since Gabrielle appeared in her bed 5 days ago. ‘Don’t kid yourself. You have been thinking about it longer than that!’ The Warrior Princess laughed and agreed. ‘YES! Gamma…. Make everyone happy, including yourself for once.’

No greetings had been exchanged yet, Gabrielle stood relaxed and calm as the Conqueror approached her. Murmers of respect at the Amazons composure turned into a hushed silence as Xena closed the distance between them and stood silently within inches of the little Queen. It was only a matter of time now. The entire crowd held it’s breath, not knowing if Xena was going to kill the woman or not. None of them, including Gabrielle was prepared for what happened next.

Xena drilled her twinkling blue eyes deep into questioning green for a few very long moments, before she dropped to one knee and reached for Gabrielle’s hand. No one in the hall would have dared make a sound, so the thick stone walls echoed Xena’s hushed words to every corner of the room. “Marry me.” She was glad she didn’t have to say more because the tear she saw escape Gabrielle’s eye closed her throat. ‘Oh Gods.’ The Conqueror nearly panicked. ‘What if she doesn’t want a public joining?’ The slight chuckle from Gabrielle and the twinkling green eyes gave her hope.

Gabrielle couldn’t believe what she was hearing. It took her until the gasps at Xena’s proposal died to figure it out. ‘Of course.’ She thought. ‘This will make things much simpler.’ She smiled down at her kneeling love and chuckled, offering her a helping hand up. The look in Xena’s eye and the continued hush of the crowd forced her to realize she had yet to answer. Grinning up at the warrior she decided to break the tension in the room. She rolled her eyes and played with her ring. “Again?” Playfully backhanding the warrior’s stomach, and grinning at the crowd’s gasp she continued. “How many times does it take with you?”

A rare laugh of pure joy erupted from the Empress. None of the Amazons moved as Xena grabbed their Queen and spun her around happily. Xena’s ringing answer to Gabrielle’s playful question caused a few murmers. “Four!”

Gabrielle thought about that and knew that the moment Xena had put the Solstice gift ring on her finger was one. The ring had not left her finger once since the moment she had received it. A public ceremony here would be two. Naturally they would have to have an Amazon joining, three… but what was the fourth? She nearly had to ask, then she saw Solan reach out and shake Xena’s hand in congratulations. ‘Oh.’ She thought. ‘Of course, friends and family.’ The sight of a dark haired woman standing on the edge of the crowd pulled her from her thoughts. Velasca’s reports filtered through her mind. ‘Lao Ma.’ She couldn’t quite keep a smug look from crossing her face and thought. ‘That’s right Miss Leader of Chin, Xena wants ME!’ A thought reinforced by Xena leaning in to kiss her lightly.

Lao Ma had seen enough. She turned to the guard and requested they continue to their assigned quarters. Ming T’ien shot a look of pure hatred at Xena before turning to follow his mother and the guide.

Xena looked around at the staring crowd. “The Amazons were the last to arrive.” She raised an eyebrow at Gabrielle. “Opening ceremonies for Festival don’t start until tomorrow so go home.” A gesture to the guards urged the crowd to move faster and then the guards themselves disappeared out the huge doors. Only Iolaus stayed behind, for a moment.

He began walking toward the couple. “Your Highness, I would like to talk to you about security for your….” His words were cut off by a dozen swords pointed at him and a knife at his throat.

Xena laughed. “If you have security questions talk to Karis.” Seeing his puzzled look she explained. “Karis is head of the Royal Guard. I myself will be discussing security with her extensively so I’m sure you two will be able to figure it out from there.”

He looked from Xena to Karis to Xena to Gabrielle and simply stuttered his agreement. “O..Ok….I…I’ll get together with her later.” His hasty retreat was followed by the laughter of a room full of Amazons.

Now that it was only Amazons, Xena turned to Solan and hugged him tightly. “I missed you.” She released her hold but gripped his upper arms, feeling the muscles there through the material of his black puffy sleeved shirt and looked in his eyes. “How are you?”

He rolled his eyes. “Mother. C’mon.” He leaned in to whisper loudly. “You’re embarrassing me.”

Releasing her grip, she grinned and held up her hands in capitulation. “Sorry.”

Gabrielle laughed. “Xena I need to go to Artemis’ temple. I need to talk to the preistess there and I need to inform Artemis of our plans.”

“I don’t like the idea of you going alone.” Xena was reluctant to let Gabrielle out of her sight.

“Alone?” Gabrielle looked around at the kneeling guards and rolled her eyes. “I don’t think so.”

Sighing at the inevitable, Xena relented and pointed to the huge doors. “Go out those doors, turn right, go down two streets and turn left. You can’t miss it.” She looked at Solan. “Are you going with them?”

The young Prince glanced from one mother to the other and hoped he didn’t have to go. “I’d rather not.”

Gabrielle laughed. “Then stay and get settled in our rooms.” She looked up at Xena and smiled. “I’ll be back soon.” A glance at Karis was all it took for the Captain to give the signal to rise. The guards immediately stood and Xena watched as they filed out of the hall, then she walked slowly back to her throne.

Solan watched his mother’s group leave and sighed. “Boy I’m glad I don’t have to go.”

Xena settled herself on the chair and chuckled to herself. ‘You won’t be soon.’ The Warrior Princess cautioned. ‘Go slow, don’t scare him too much.’ The Conqueror smiled. ‘Oh I won’t scare him too much. I’ll only scare him just enough.’ Clearing her throat, she drew his attention from the closing doors. “Solan. Come here.”

As he turned to face her the slight smile on his face vanished. Swallowing hard he approached the throne slowly. The look in his mother’s icy blue eyes robbed him of speech so he simply waited. Every passing moment caused his heart to beat faster and he nearly jumped at her voice.

“Where is it?” She couldn’t quite keep the anger out of her voice. The Gods knew that she had lied to a lot of people in her life. ‘But never to Gabrielle.’ The Warrior Princess was also angry.

Feeling his mouth suddenly go dry he was only able to croak out. “What?” The look on Xena’s face told him it was the wrong thing to say.

“Don’t play games with me.” Xena shook her head and leaned forward, enunciating every sound clearly. “Your sword. Where is it?”

He shook his head slowly and began. “I…” Her raised hand stopped his response.

“Think VERY carefully before you lie to me.” She stressed the me and saw him swallow hard.

Suddenly he remembered the feeling all those months ago when Xena was holding a staff, attacking Ephiny. He had felt then, just for a moment, that Xena would hurt him. It was the same now. He knew, if he lied, punishment would be severe. This wasn’t like when Gabrielle had yelled at him in the temple for simply scaring her, this was him actually doing something wrong and being punished for it, he knew where a boundry was now. It was such a welcome feeling that he closed his eyes. Gabrielle was a good mother, he knew that, but the Centaurs had always been much stricter than she had ever been. Centaurs were involved in a war after all. For Xena to mirror that sort of control was almost like coming home for him. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes. “It’s in the weapons wagon.”

Unclenching her jaw long enough to growl. “Get it.” Xena waited while he nearly ran out the doors and within a few moments was back, holding a familiar scabbard with an even more familiar sword hilt protruding from it. When she saw the hilt she launched herself from the throne and took the weapon from him. Unsheathing the blade she sank to her knees as sunlight reflected off the polished metal and whispered. “Where did you get this?”

He had never actually believed his Uncle, but from her reaction it had to be true. “From the Centaurs. They said it was….”

“Your father’s sword.” She finished for him. Gripping the handle tightly she swung the weapon easily, marveling at the balance. It had been one of Borias’ most prized possesions. She touched a nick in the tip of the blade. When they first met she and Borias had fought all the time, it nearly divided their army but on one occasion it nearly cost one of them their life. It had been a long day of fighting, she recalled the silence of the exhausted men around their fires. And she was tired too, the thought of a few days rest settled over her and she began to relax when Borias announced they would push on in the morning. It was incredible how the fatigue vanished instantly at her anger.

To her surprise, her protest to his decision was met with a violent response. He had never hit her in anger before and even now she could feel the sting of his knuckles on her cheek. As unprepared for his reaction as she was, he was equally surprised to see her sword instantly in her hand. ‘That was the first time we consciously called her.’ The Warrior Princess whispered. ‘I know.’ The Conqueror knew it was dangerous to continue with this memory when she felt the dark sleeper within her stir but she couldn’t help it. For what seemed like hours they had fought all over the camp. Her men had told her later that they had always been impressed with her strategic ability and her fighting skills but that fight went beyond anything they had seen.

They said they knew during the day’s fighting she had fought harder than any of them and had taken out several hundred of the enemy on her own. They told her when she was fighting Borias it looked as though she had been relaxing all day. A bit of pride had twinkled in her eyes when they told her it was amazing to see. When she won the battle, she and Borias had watched the men looking into each other’s eyes. It was at that moment the true leader of the army was silently agreed on. It was at that moment Xena knew, the army was hers. ‘And we owe it all to her.’ The Conqueror growled. The Warrior Princess knew it was true. There was no way they could have won that fight without her, the darkest one among them, inexhaustible, unrelenting, and ruthless. Her gift from Ares, her curse.

Solan watched her examining the sword and remained quiet for several minutes. Finally the tension was too much for him and he had to break the silence. He spoke softly trying not to startle her. “Mother?”

Pulling herself from the memories she reassured him. “Sorry.” She touched the nick again. “I was just remembering when I put this nick here.”

“You fought with father’s sword?” He knew warrior’s didn’t usually just lend out their weapons.

“I fought with your FATHER.” She corrected and looked up into his sad eyes. “He never had it ground out. He said it reminded him never to hit me again.” Solan’s shocked stillness forced a smile of reassurance from her. “I guess it worked because he never did.”

‘That was mean.’ The Warrior Princess didn’t like damaging Solan’s illusions about his father. ‘He has probably thought of his father as a good man. I’m sure the Centaurs would have thought so.’ She had quite a few illusions about her own absent father that had been shattered rather forcefully and she didn’t want Solan to experience the same disappointment. The Conqueror was unrepentant and the thought of their father only strengthened her resolve. ‘He should be told the truth.’ She shook off her thoughts, stood and handed the weapon back to him. “Show me.”

He swallowed hard and took the sword. It was rather embarrassing to him. His mother was so well known for her skill with the sword and he had never even had one lesson. He had however watched the Centaurs when they trained and when he could watched Eponin training the Amazon scouts. That observation plus some modifications on the staff movements Gabrielle had taught him allowed him to pretend he was a great sword fighter when he was alone and practicing. Wiping the sweat from his palms on his thighs he took a few steps away and waited til she was seated before he began to run through the routine he had been practicing for the last few weeks.

Xena watched her son carefully and studied his technique. ‘Centaur.’ She thought. ‘…and Amazon.’ That didn’t surprise her. It only made sense that he would pick up on the fighting techniques of the people he lived with. She also recognized the staff moves and knew in a real fight he would be sliced to ribbons in moments. The thought of him being killed made her angry. “STOP!”

He stopped midswing and stared at her. He swallowed hard and tried to joke. “I’m not that bad am I?”

She walked down the steps toward him and asked. “Have you had any training at all?” She knew how Gabrielle felt about bladed weapons but she wasn’t sure if the Centaurs had trained him any.

He studied the floor and admitted. “No. I have only been watching the warriors train.” He looked up as she approached and unconciously pointed his sword at her. His jaw dropped as one minute she was walking toward him, asking a simple question and the next he was staring down the length of her sword to her scowling face.

‘NO!’ The Warrior Princess lowered the sword. “Sorry.” The Conqueror apologized to both of them and continued speaking to Solan. “Never point a weapon at me unexpectedly.”

He nodded and asked. “Will you teach me how to fight with a sword?” Ever since he found out that Xena was his mother he had hoped she would train him, she was the best.

His look of adoration and respect didn’t go unnoticed but she knew she had to be careful here. “I can give you a few pointers but I won’t even consider training you unless Gabrielle says it’s okay.” The Conqueror watched his eyes widen. “You have to tell her, tonight…..” Holding up her hand to stop his protest she continued. “…. or I will tell her tomorrow.”

His shoulders sagged in defeat. “Okay.”

Smiling at his reluctant compliance she twirled her sword. “Good.” His shoulder’s squaring widened her smile. “Now…” She tapped the blade of her sword against his. “The first thing you will have to learn …..”Tap. “….. is that a sword…” Tap. “… is not a staff.” Tap. “You will have to learn to parry and look for openings.” She slid the blades together and easily disarmed him. “Pick it up.” For the next few moments they went through the very basics of sword handling and it almost scared Xena at how fast he picked up on it. When he completed a move she knew she hadn’t shown him she called a halt to the session. “Enough.” Looking at him sternly, she reminded him of their deal. “Gabrielle will be back soon. Remember, If you don’t tell her…. I will.” Sliding her sword into it’s place on her back she draped her arm around his shoulder. “C’mon. I’ll show you your room.”

——————————————————————-

Karis stood at the entrance to the Temple of Artemis along with the rest of the Royal Guard. It was difficult to ignore the looks they were getting from the crowd that had followed them from the palace and passersby, some were just curious, some were leering, but others were almost hostile. The hostile ones were mainly from men, which Karis found extremely funny because most of the leering ones were from men too. She immediately dismissed the people in peasant clothing as a non-threat so when one of them stood out in her mind the shock almost made her cry out. Blinking she looked again and by the Gods if Gabrielle wasn’t standing in the middle of the street dressed in peasant’s clothes, leaning on a broom. She looked almost at home in the long brown skirt and blue top, Karis imagined it was something like she used to wear in her village. The guard’s shock quickly gave way to anger. ‘What is she doing!’ The urge to surround her Queen with guards was only barely surpressed and she turned her back to the crowd signaling Solari urgently. The new second quickly moved up from her place in formation.

“Yes?” She was not thrilled about being ordered about by Karis, but would put up with it for now.During the trip here it had not been as easy to keep an eye on the girl as Solari had first imagined. She had not counted on the fact that Karis could send her to do any kind of odd useless job she felt like.

Karis flared her nostrils and kept her voice low. “It seems our Queen has taken it upon herself to go for a little unscheduled, unsupervised walk.” Flicking her eyes to indicate behind her, she saw Solari look over her shoulder and gasp quietly. “Right. Take three guards and go into the temple. Tell the priestess to give you clothes and make her show you how Gabrielle got out. Beat it out of her if you have to, but get back out here and protect the Queen.”

Solari nodded once and turned to go into the temple when Karis caught hold of her arm. “Remember if anything happens to her, you won’t only have me to answer to…..” It didn’t take a philosopher to know that Karis was talking about Xena. That was a mixed bag for Solari. When Xena had proposed to Gabrielle she had felt as though the warrior meant it from the bottom of her heart. ‘But I saw her kiss Karis.’ She thought. Shaking her head to clear her thoughts, Solari signaled Ria, Jana, and Bekka to follow her. There was something much more important to think about right now. Gabrielle’s safety was all that mattered. It was the first rule of their training, Protect the Queen.

Karis turned to face the crowd and couldn’t quite keep from scowling as Gabrielle grinned and waved at her. ‘At least she thought enough to arm herself.’ It was obvious to Karis that the broom in Gabrielle’s hand could quickly turn into a staff. It took what seemed like forever before Solari appeared in the crowd and made her way to Gabrielle’s side. Karis could see the exasperation in her Queen’s eyes when Solari began berating her, in a big sister type way. It was almost funny because in any other circumstance the guard would not dare question her Queen, and Karis had to bite her lip to keep from laughing at the smaller woman’s shock when Solari grabbed her by the ear and dragged her out of the crowd. ‘Serves her right for scaring us like that!’ She thought and then felt a tap on her shoulder. The other three had not joined Solari so Karis knew what was next and didn’t wait for Jana’s report before she spoke. “Is the Queen ready to go?”

Wide-eyed admiration showed on the girls face. It had taken both Solari and the preistess to explain the deception to her. “Yes, the Queen is ready.”

Karis looked toward the door and saw Bekka and Ria emerge. Dressed in Gabrielle’s outfit, with the mask on, no one could tell that Ria was slightly taller than the true Queen. Only the Royal Guard or someone with intimate knowledge of Gabrielle’s body would be able to spot the difference in build. That thought brought up another concern. ‘How in the world am I going to explain this to Xena!’ Signaling for a tight formation, the Amazons quickly surrounded the decoy Queen and retraced their steps back to the Palace.

—————————————————————

Solan was amazed as he was led through the Palace. It was huge. Much bigger than he had imagined when he saw it and he had imagined pretty big. Long wide corridors gave way to even wider ones as they twisted and turned through the passageways. The thick carpeting lining each hallway nearly reached to the walls on each side and short tables with vases and flowers lined the walls. He had to content himself with glances at the richly woven tapestries that hung at regular intervals, Xena was too anxious to show him his room to stop. Finally she stopped at a large wooden door and opened it for him. “This is it.”

At her gesture he stepped through the door and nearly gasped. The room was huge, bigger than his mother’s whole hut! “Wow!” He grinned at the warrior next to him. “You don’t do things half way do you?”

She gave him a wry grin. “Not usually.” Ushering him on in she closed the door behind them. “I have this room assigned to Gabrielle…..” Her voice trailed off meaningfully and the twinkle in his eyes let her know that he understood. This was his room, Gabrielle would be staying in Xena’s room. “I have set up the next room for the guards, I knew they wouldn’t want to be too far away.” She watched him explore the room with childlike curiosity. Poking his head inside first the clothes storage area, and then the large bathroom. “Wow!” He exclaimed again and entered the bathroom to get a better look. There was a large tile lined depression that he could probably stretch from fingertips to toe and not touch either side.

Xena laughed at his expression. “I had my engineers modify the Amazon design to fit the structure of the Palace.” She pulled a lever and the tub began filling. “There is always hot water.” She pushed the lever back up and the water stopped. ‘No sense wasting it.’ She thought. The door opening in the other room drew them both from the bathroom and they both smiled as the guards appeared. Xena’s smile disappeared instantly when the formation opened to reveal the woman in the middle.

Karis walked forward quickly, both hands raised in a wait-a-minute gesture. “Now…. Xena…. let me explain……”

Growling through clenched teeth, Xena’s words rumbled through the room. “Talk fast.”

————————————————————

A slow smile spread across Gabrielle’s face. Solari followed her gaze and gasped. “You can’t be
serious.” She looked at the seedy tavern again. “You can’t go in there!”

The Queen’s green eyes twinkled with mischief. “Oh, yeah… this is the place.” Without waiting for Solari, she walked toward the run down building. Dressed like a peasant or not she knew Solari would follow her anywhere. When she first joined the Amazons, Solari had been assigned as her bodyguard, at that time the guard had told her she would follow her to Tartarus if that was what it took to keep her safe. Gabrielle pushed open the rickety door to the building and thought. ‘Well, Solari I guess this is pretty close.’ She looked around the filthy room, light filtering in from the cracks in the wall mingled with the light from the small fire. There weren’t many patrons and the few that were there were much more interested in their mugs than any new arrivals. The large woman behind the bar spoke loudly.

“You’ll not be needing one of those in here, sweetie” She laughed and indicated the broom in Gabrielle’s hand.

The little blonde smiled winningly at the woman but held on to the broom as she walked toward the bar. “I’m looking for someone.”

A hearty laugh escaped the woman. “Aren’t we all!”

Gabrielle tightened her grip on the broom handle, smiling when she saw the lump her ring made just under the edge of the fingerless gloves she wore. “The person I’m looking for comes in here frequently…. do you mind if we wait?”

“Honey, buy an ale and you can sit here all day.” The woman sat a mug up on the bar and started to pour a dark liquid from a handy pitcher.

“Um… I really don’t have any dinars right now….” She saw a scowl start to appear and quickly added. “I can sweep up and I’m pretty good in the kitchen…. My sister here….” She indicated Solari. “… is pretty good with fixin stuff.” Gabrielle’s eyes went to the corner containing a broken table with some broken chairs stacked on it. We can help out until our friend gets here.”

The woman was suspicious. “Can’t pay ya….”

“No need….” Gabrielle began sweeping and motioned Solari toward the corner.

Sighing, the reluctant guard examined the pile of rubble. “Do you have a hammer and nails?”

For the next couple of candlemarks Gabrielle swept and Solari mended chairs, neither said anything to anyone, including each other. The tavern was quiet and the customers that had been there the whole time were nearly asleep when the door was practically torn off it’s hinges. A group of Xena’s guards strutted in, yelled for drinks and took up the large table near the fire. They were loud and obnoxious and Gabrielle disliked them immediately…… but this was one reason she was here. Luckily she didn’t have to get very close to hear what they were saying.

“I say she’s gettin soft.” This guard was obviously new. His uniform was neatly pressed and every button was polished. His young face held no experience dealing with Xena or her tactics.

“Are you kidding…. this is the Conqueror we are talking about… there is no way she is soft.”

“But she asked the little Amazon bitch to marry her.” A quick motion from Gabrielle stopped Solari from killing the man that spoke, but the royal guard memorized his face….. for later.

“It’s just a trick… ” the oldest among them spoke knowingly. “I’ve been in Xena’s army a long time… She is just going to use the little Spider Queen to gain control of the Amazons.”

“I still say she’s going soft.. I mean why don’t we just go in and take the Amazons like we did everyone else…” It was almost a whine.

“Quiet boy.” The oldest was angry now. “You’ve never seen a day of battle in your life and if you ever let the Conqueror hear you talking like that you’re not likely to. ” He nodded when the boy was sufficiently silent. “Amazons are different, Xena knows we can’t take’em like the others… she’s dealt with them before…..”

Gabrielle nearly stopped sweeping when she heard that. ‘When has Xena dealt with Amazons before?’ There were no records in the Council reports about any meetings with the Conqueror. She couldn’t recall any stories involving Xena and the Amazons either. The door opened to admit a new patron and Gabrielle walked over to Solari. “I guess she’s not going to show up tonight. We can leave now.” She called over her shoulder to the barkeep. “Thanks.” With her attention behind her she ran into the customer just arriving. “Oh… sorry.”

The woman shrugged. “No problem.”

Gabrielle and Solari walked out into the dimming light and the Queen headed back for the Palace. She used the time to formulate a plan to get past the guards, they surely wouldn’t just let her in the Palace dressed like this.

—————————————————————-

Xena sat in a large overstuffed chair next to the fireplace. Listening to the crackle of the fire for as long as she could, she ran her tongue over her teeth and tapped her fingers on the chair’s arm. “How long have they been gone?”

Solan looked at Karis. “It’s your turn to answer.”

Sighing the guard said the same words she and Solan had been saying for the last candlemark. “One mark on the sundial longer than the last time you asked.”

Xena glared at the young woman. “She has been gone too long.” Suddenly rising from the chair Xena began to pace around the room. “Where could she be?” It was her stomach that answered her. Sighing the Conqueror pulled a cord near the head of the bed and a guard entered. “Have a tray of food sent up and a couple of pitchers.” She dismissed him with a wave and continued her pacing. ‘You’re going to wear a groove in the floor you know.’ The Warrior Princess advised. ‘Sit down, Gabrielle will be back soon. She’s a big girl.’ Xena forgot about the other two occupants of the room and spoke aloud. “I know that!”

Neither Solan or Karis knew the warrior very well but they didn’t take it as a good sign that she was talking to herself. Solan tried to calm her. “Ummm… Mother?” He waited for her blue eyes to focus on him. “She can take care of herself, really.”

‘He’s right you know.’ The Warrior Princess was beginning to get worried herself but tried not to let the Conqueror know. ‘Have a seat. She’ll be back soon.’ The Conqueror sighed and reclaimed her seat by the fire. She resumed tapping the arm of the chair until the door opened and Mirriam entered followed by two servants carrying the requested food. As the servants arranged the trays on the table, Mirriam spoke.

“I was coming to let you know, I laid out your clothes for dinner tonight, but if you are going to eat here…..” The personal servant let her voice trail off as Xena’s gaze slid past her.

“I hope you had fun.” The Conqueror’s voice was sarcastic with just enough playfulness to take the bite out of the comment.

Gabrielle turned and pulled the scarf off her head. “Not really.” She lowered her head. “Are you mad at me?” A slight quaver in her voice was enough to make Xena’s heart skip. Solan and Karis jumped up and they both recognized Solari as the other servant.

The Conqueror looked at the runaway and marveled how, even in peasant clothing, she seemed to radiate light. The setting sun streaming through the window highlighted the red in her hair and Xena caught her breath when brilliant green eyes looked at her for the answer. Sighing, Xena crossed the room and gathered the little Queen in her arms. “No, not mad. We were just concerned.”

Gabrielle let herself drift in the warm embrace for a long moment. This was where she wanted to be, always. “I’m sorry I worried you.” She looked up into deep blue love. “But I had to make contact with the scouts.” She grinned at Solari’s snort.

“I wish you would have found a cleaner place to do it.” The guard turned carpenter examined her hands and tried to wipe the dirt off…again. “Seems like a long time to spend with no contact.”

Gabrielle laughed. “But there was….” She released the embrace and pulled a folded piece of parchment from her pocket. “…the last person, the one I bumped into, that was who I wanted to see.” She let Xena take the parchment and smiled at the puzzled look it created.

“This is nothing but gibberish…. A child’s scribbling.” Xena handed the message back to Gabrielle.

“Not really.” Gabrielle folded the paper three ways lengthwise and another message appeared. “None of the scouts have been able to gain access to the top level of the resistance.” She studied the message a bit longer. “Apparently the Survivors of Cirra are very selective on who they let know about the real leaders of the group.” She nodded as she got to the end. “But this confirms that Iolaus is one of them.”

Mirriam gasped at the man’s duplicity. “He’s been here a long time.”

Xena growled. “Yes he has.” She had always trusted him as much as she trusted anyone in her employ. Like a strong drink burning in her belly and disbursing throughout her body she could feel her anger building. Then suddenly nothing mattered as Gabrielle slid her arms around her waist. She let her cheek rest against a pillow of honey-fire silk and sighed as her arms rose up to circle the Amazon’s shoulders, almost on their own.

Solan cleared his throat. “Ummm… I’m gonna go get the rest of my stuff from the guard’s room.” He headed toward the door, followed closely by Karis.

“I’ll help.” She would have time to discuss unscheduled trips with Gabrielle later. Right now she knew her Queen needed some time alone with Xena and she ushered Solari out the door ahead of them.

Mirriam stayed a moment longer, shuffling her feet nervously before clearing her throat. “Ummm… excuse me… my Queen.” At the time, the circumstantial evidence of lilac perfume had eased her suspicions, but the more she thought about it the more unlikely it seemed that Gabrielle had been in Corinth for a night.

Gabrielle was too comfortable and only mumbled acknowledgement. Xena chuckled and broke the embrace. “I think Mirriam has something to tell you.” Grinning at the servant, Xena crossed to the table and sat in one of the two chairs there. She casually picked a small piece of fruit from the tray and settled back to watch the exchange.

Gabrielle was puzzled by Mirriam’s nervousness and gently asked. “What is it Mirriam?”

It was a long moment before the Amazon servant found the words to begin. “A few nights ago I brought a tray of food to Xena’s room……” Her voice trailed off. She didn’t want the Queen to find out this way, but even if Xena killed her Gabrielle had to know. “…and I… I saw…” She couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t look into those trusting green eyes and accuse Xena of cheating.

Xena broke in quietly. “I think what Mirriam is trying to say is…. She saw two forms in my bed…. is that what you are trying to say Mirriam?” The Conqueror was curious how Gabrielle would react to that. ‘Will she be jealous or will she know it was her immediately?’ The Warrior Princess almost grinned. ‘A bit of both I think.’

Mirriam sighed. “Yes that’s what I’m trying to say.” She looked at Gabrielle and spoke quickly. “It was just such a surprise, you know… because she hadn’t…… I mean…..since she came back from the Nation she hasn’t…….”

Gabrielle’s eyes shot to Xena’s intense blue gaze. ‘Since she returned from the Nation?’ Mirriam’s voice pulled her from her thoughts.

“…. I mean I know she’s been gone alot, but since then when she’s here she’s always alone.” The Amazon was sure her Queen would be angry at the accusation but Mirriam had to find out for sure.

“Wait.” Gabrielle held up her hand. “You mean when she returned a few weeks ago?” She had resigned herself to the necessity of Xena keeping up appearances during their separation.

Mirriam shook her head puzzled. “No. I mean since she returned from the Nation…..when the treaty was signed.”

Gabrielle swallowed hard and looked at Xena who just smiled quietly and took another bite of fruit. “The other person you saw that night was me. Artemis brought me.” She never took her eyes off the relaxed warrior, gesturing absently to the relieved servant. “I think Xena and I need to be alone now.”

“Of course.” She rose to leave and bowed to Gabrielle. “Have a good evening my Queen. ” Before the door was shut Gabrielle was standing before Xena.

“Is it true?” In her heart Gabrielle knew it was. “You haven’t been with anyone else since then?”

Xena swallowed the bite of melon and put down her fork. “Why would I want to be with anyone else?” Pulling Gabrielle down to sit on her lap she brushed her fingertips against the blushing cheek and whispered. “I only want you.”

“Oh Xena.” Gabrielle closed the distance between their lips and moaned at the contact. The world melted away as Xena stood, bringing her up in her arms. She kept the soft contact between their lips but wimpered slightly when Xena bypassed the bed.

Chuckling at the woman in her arms, the Conqueror went to the clothing storage area and indicated a rock with her chin. “Push that.”

Gabrielle raised her eyebrows and grinned as the rock gave way and the entire wall swung open to reveal a passageway. As they walked through Xena leaned against the lever that would close the door. Grinning as darkness overcame them and the grip around her neck increased, she continued down the corridor. A short time later they emerged from the closet in Xena’s chambers.

Moving quickly to the bed Xena lowered her love into the softness. Tossing the outfit Mirriam had laid out for her, haphazardly to the ground she moved to stretch out beside the prone woman.

“We are going to be late for dinner.” Gabrielle indicated the outfit on the floor.

Xena chuckled and leaned in for a quick kiss before growling. “Oh… we are going to be VERY late for dinner. As our son recently pointed out to me, I don’t do things half-way.”

Desire flared brighter in Gabrielle’s eyes, she shivered in anticipation and grinned. “Oh Goody”

————————————————————————–

It was very quiet in the dining hall. The occasional clink of silver utensils on fine porcelain plates, and the soft popping of the fires in the huge fireplaces punctuated the soft harp music being played by one of the several harpists lining the walls of the large room. Salmoneous was growing more anxious by the moment. He looked at the empty chairs at the head of the huge U shaped table and sighed. It had taken a bit of doing but when he heard Xena’s proposal the seating plan had been rearranged to accommodate the Amazon Queen sitting next to The Conqueror.

From his vantage point, next to the door, he surveyed the room critically. All the centerpieces, were perfect, although he wasn’t sure why Xena insisted on lilacs. The candles lining the table were all burning, giving the diners a bit more light than the torches and fireplaces could. The only problem he had from his point of view was Lao Ma and her son. They had been the last to send confirmation of their attendance and had originally been at the far right end of the table. Now with the new arrangements Lao Ma was sitting directly to the right of Xena’s chair with her son in the next seat.

It wasn’t too bad a compromise considering any other configuration would put leaders that hated each other side by side but it was still not his idea of correct. It would have been much easier if he could have put people on both sides of the table but this was supposed to be a precursor to the Festival and during dessert there would be performers to entertain the guests and give the harpists a break.

If anyone were seated on the inside of the U they would be forced to turn to see the performers, that was unacceptable. He looked at the attendants standing patiently behind each diner. He had no hope of ever attaining enough status or wealth to have his own attendant but each person dining here tonight had one, probably more waiting in their quarters. ‘It would be such a luxury to have someone wait on you hand and foot.’ He thought.

He had seen some of the servants actually cutting the food for their employer. He snorted to himself quietly. ‘Master and slave is more like it.” He thought. It was kind of odd to see because Xena never wanted that type of attention. She did for herself and liked it. ‘More prudent in her position, and besides I wouldn’t want to be that close to her with a knife.” He thought about the lightning quick reactions of the Empress and knew anyone foolish enough to perform that particular task incorrectly would be dead. More than anything, dead was something Salmoneous did not want to be.

He glanced to his right and then left to check the guards tables. They were fairly well behaved as they were all members of the Royal guard of one kingdom or another. ‘At least most of them are.’ He thought as his eyes fell on the boy, happily eating with the Amazon guards. The young man’s status was a mystery to him but considering the fact that he was standing next to the Spider Queen when she arrived he thought it only prudent he be allowed to sit with the guards. ‘Probably some kind of bodyguard or something.’ But the thought didn’t ring true to him. The boy was too young really for that type of job, not to mention he was…well a he. Everyone knew men were not allowed on the Amazon’s land. Sighing he glanced again at the conspicuously empty chairs and resigned himself to the Conqueror’s non-attendance. Making a note to have some trays sent to her rooms he settled himself quietly on his tall seat by the door and waited for the performers to arrive.

When the line of waiters carrying the dessert entered from the kitchen, everyone let out a sigh of relief. The dinner was almost over. It was a thought Salmoneous shared with the dining royalty.

As soon as the delicacies had been placed in front of all the diners and the waiters were gone, a low male voice drifted through the room. “I guess the Empress has decided not to grace us with her presence tonight.” Ming T’ien had had enough of quiet and he was angry at Xena for the imagined insult of not wanting to eat with them. Growing bolder at the frowns on most of the leader’s faces he smiled and continued. “She must be busy with that Amazon whore of hers.” His smile disappeared when a loud crash came from the guard’s tables.

All five Amazon guards and Solan were on their feet, the stools they were sitting on scattered on the floor. Pure hatred flowed from six pairs of eyes and Karis knew at a glance that Solan was too upset to speak. Laying a calming hand on his arm she looked toward the head of the table and spoke in a warning but respectful tone. “With respect, highness, the last person to call my Queen a whore died very soon afterword. I would suggest that you are very lucky that Xena was not present to hear your comment.”

Of course being spoken to by a guard, especially a female, in such a warning tone angered Ming T’ien immediately. “Who are you to speak to me like this?”

Karis knew very well who she was but she opted for her official title. “I am Karis, head of the Amazon Royal Guard.”

Ming T’ien was not impressed. “In Chin we do not tolerate guards addressing royalty so rudely.”

A gentle squeeze on Solan’s arm warned him to remain silent. She knew that Ming T’ien was older than her. She also knew that she looked very mature for her age. Her eyes took on a wooden hardness. “In the Amazon Nation we do not tolerate insolent boys insulting our Queen.” She signaled the others to move to the door before sweeping her gaze around the table. “Your majesties, please accept my apologies for the disturbance.” She looked directly at Ming T’ien. “But an insult to our Queen will NEVER go unanswered.” Bowing again she turned her back on the Eastern leader and took her place in the formation at the door, keeping Solan in the middle as was their habit. She could hear the conversation begin before the doors were closed, running her fingers through her hair, she laughed. “Well that could have gone better.” The hall was empty so the Amazons broke formation and reached out to congratulate Karis.

“You were great.”

“Did you see his face?”

“That was so excellent.”

None of them could wait to get back to the room to tell the others that Karis had stood up to the Prince of Chin. And she wasn’t scared or anything. She even laughed afterwords. That started several of them thinking. Why wasn’t she scared. He could have ordered her jailed for insolence. She wasn’t afraid at all. She must have been confident Xena wouldn’t allow her to be punished for standing up for Gabrielle. They began to look at her in a new light. Each of them began thinking about Xena and another rumor they heard about their leader and a hayloft. If Karis was so sure that Xena wouldn’t let Ming T’ien punish her then, Gods, it must be true!

Karis felt the pats on her back and saw the look in the guards eyes change. ‘Maybe it couldn’t have gone better.’ It had been good news when Gabrielle’s contact reported Iolaus as one of the main leaders of the Resistance. She had a special lie planned for him. It was the one thing that would clench the deal and get her in to the real leaders. Now all she had to do was wait until he approached her and invited her to join the movement. When they reached the doors to the rooms she signaled the others to go on. “I want to make sure the Prince is secure. Tell Bekka and Jana they have first watch.” She slowly pushed the door open. It was highly unlikely that Gabrielle would be in this room. Karis was practically sure her Queen and Xena were in Xena’s rooms but it was better to be safe than sorry. She quickly checked the main room and then moved to the closet, bathroom, balcony all empty. She smiled and slid into Solan’s welcoming arms. “I’m sorry he upset you.”

“Thank you for handling it.” Solan was a bit upset that his anger got the best of him. “I just couldn’t think of anything but killing him.”

“Yeah. The thought crossed my mind a few hundred times too.” She ran her fingers through his hair and smiled. “You did the right thing. Remaining quiet is very difficult.”

“Yes it is.” A low voice drifted through the room and the young couple whirled at the sound. Karis immediately placing herself between the unknown threat and Solan relaxing when she saw Xena and Gabrielle standing near the fireplace. Xena continued. “Mirriam told us what happened. Good job Karis.”

Gabrielle smiled at the guard. “There was a reason I made you head of my guard. I knew you were the best.”

Karis blushed slightly and shook her head. “I should have handled it better.” She looked up with sad brown eyes. “I shouldn’t have insulted him.”

Xena chuckled and kissed the top of Gabrielle’s head before crossing the room to Karis. With both hands on the guard’s shoulders the Warrior Princess bent to look into the guard’s deep brown eyes. “You handled it just right.” Pulling the startled woman close for an uncharacteristic, almost motherly, hug Xena whispered. “I would have killed him.” Breaking the embrace the Conqueror smiled at Solan. “You’re a pretty lucky guy.”

Solan smiled and looked around the room at his family. “I think we are all pretty lucky.”

Xena laughed and sat in one of the chairs by the fire, pulling Gabrielle down into her lap. “Karis would you excuse us.” She looked at Solan. “I think my son has something he needs to tell his mother.”

Karis was puzzled at the request and almost didn’t leave when she saw the expression on Solan’s face. A slight squeeze on her hand, a forced smile and a little head shake from Solan as he walked her to the door was not enough to make her stop worrying. ‘What does he have to tell Gabrielle?’ She barely acknowledged Bekka and Jana as she pulled at her lips thoughtfully, realizing that Xena’s perfume clung to her from the hug. Grinning at the usefulness of that she pushed open the door to the guard’s quarters.

Solan watched the door close behind Karis and swallowed hard. The look in his mother’s ice blue eyes forced a thought through his head. ‘I think my luck just ran out.’

—————————————————————————-

“You should have seen her. She was magnificent.” Iolaus’ eyes sparkled as he paced the small, dingy office and talked about the event. “She had no fear whatsoever.”

“Why do you think that is?” The woman leaned back in her chair and toyed with the knife in her hand. “Why was she so brave?”

Iolaus smiled knowingly. “Ahhhh… you see that’s my point….. I think she was brave because she knew Xena wouldn’t allow her to be punished. Xena was drawn to her at the camp in India.” He explained. “but Karis hated her… I could tell from her body language that she really hated Xena. I don’t see that now… not as much. Something changed since India. Something happened during the time they were gone.”

“Something.” The sneer on her thin face only hardened her deep brown eyes. “You mean Xena took her to bed…..” She thought about that and agreed. “Possible. But that doesn’t guarantee her safety.”

“But how would she know that?” Iolaus was convinced that Xena was taking her pleasure with both Amazons and he was pretty sure the little Queen didn’t know it. “Amazon’s don’t know how Xena runs things.” When his leader remained silent he continued. “I think that the Queen doesn’t know about Xena and the guard. I think that she is holding it over Xena’s head.”

“Go on.” She wanted to see if he saw all the angles or just the pretty guard’s curves.

“As you say it is possible that she is sleeping with Xena. If she is and we can get her on our side the Empress would be easy to kill in her sleep. But even if I’m wrong and, she isn’t being bedded by Xena she is still head of the Amazon Royal Guard. She will be with Xena extensively to discuss security for the wedding ceremony. That alone is worth inviting her to join us.” He watched his leader clean her fingernails with the knife and continued, knowing she was listening whether it looked like it or not. “She could be privy to very valuable information. Valuable enough to risk inviting her.”

The leader of the resistance nodded and put the knife down on the desk in front of her. Sniffing her nose, she wiped it on the back of her hand and put her feet up on the desk crossed at the ankles. “Tell me Iolaus. How do you plan to get her to join us? Hmmm..?” Her eyes raked up and down his body slowly. “Amazons aren’t likely to fall for your…. dubious charm.” Her leering smile finished the thought. ‘Especially if they are sleeping with Xena.’

He hated it when she teased him and he tried not to rise to the bait. Keeping his voice even he responded calmly. “First I will check her out. Amazon or not they are still guards, and guards talk. Do I have your permission to ask about her?”

Irritated that he took her teasing in stride she gestured with her hand wildly. “Yes. Yes. You can ask.” Suddenly she was on her feet, leaning across the desk at him. “But that is all. Do not make a move until you report back to me what you find.”

He nodded, almost a bow. “No of course not. I’ll report back my findings first but if she is or was close with the Empress we will have to reawaken the hatred I saw in India.” He had seen the devotion to the little Queen and knew exactly how he would win the loyalty of Karis. Turning to leave when his leader’s silky voice stopped him at the door.

“Oh Iolaus.” She smiled when he turned around.

Iolaus shuddered at the manic smile his leader was so easily able to call up. It sent a cold chill down his spine each time he saw it. “Yes.”

She chuckled deeply, a sound at odds with her slight frame. “Nighty night.”

Part 3

Solan looked at his Mom sitting on his Mother’s lap and marveled at how opposite they were. Mother, dark and almost menacing without even trying, the firelight casting shadows across her face. Mom, light and smiling almost always, the firelight picked up the highlights in her hair and seemed to make her glow. He was fascinated how the black silk of his mother’s robed arms surrounded his Mom’s waist and looked as though they were meant to be there. He remembered some puzzles he used to have in one of the Centaur villages that’s what they looked like, two pieces of a puzzle that fit together perfectly. He was shaken out of his thoughts by his Mom’s uncertain voice.

“Solan? What do you have to tell me?” The way Xena had dismissed Karis and now Solan’s hesitation to begin began to worry her. She was grateful for the warm arms around her and snuggled in, grinning when the arms tightened slightly.

“Well…..” He truly had no idea where to begin. “I…. It’s just….” Shaking his head he looked to his mother for help.

Xena took a deep breath and spoke quietly. “Why don’t you show her?”

Solan swallowed hard and nodded. Rising from his seat on the couch, he crossed to the bed and reached under it.

Gabrielle was becoming increasingly worried with each passing moment. She watched Solan reach under his bed and retrieve a object. ‘What is that?’ She thought and then gasped, feeling the arms around her squeeze briefly in support. ‘Gods it’s a sword.’ She watched as he unsheathed it and ran through a quick drill routine.

Xena heard Gabrielle’s gasp of recognition when the weapon was taken from it’s hiding place. Tightening her arms in reassuring support, The Warrior Princess wished there was a easier way to tell her. Some way that would ease the pain it would cause in her love’s heart. The Conqueror too wished that she could ease what was sure to be feelings of hurt at her son’s lies but quickly became fascinated by the drill he was doing and especially the move he completed at the end. ‘I don’t believe we taught him that.’ The Warrior Princess concurred. ‘No we didn’t.’ That however was a secondary concern as she felt the stillness in the form on her lap.

Once he completed his exhibition he quietly resheathed the sword and sat on the couch to wait his punishment. He tried not to look at Gabrielle and he simply sat studying his hands intently. It was impossible not to look up when the soft voice, choked from keeping back tears, drifted through the room.

“You lied to me.” The sheer disbelief in her voice was enough to start tears spilling down Solan’s cheeks.

Xena saw that Solan was very sorry for lying and started to explain. “Gabrielle…”

Turning quickly on the warrior, Gabrielle spoke sharply now. “NO… ” Wriggling out of the supportive arms she stood to face the seated woman. “I trusted him and he lied to me.”

“Please Mom.” Solan’s choked plea whirled her around in time to see him drying his tears. ” I never meant to lie… ” He looked at Xena. “Mother…can you explain….” Gabrielle’s response cut off his plea to the warrior.

“Hold it.” Gabrielle was fast becoming furious. “You leave Xena out of this. I’m the one you lied to….. I’m the one you answer to.” She took a deep breath. With emerald color eyes that were diamond hard, she asked. “How long?” His puzzled look prompted her to expand her question. “How long have you been lying to me?”

Now he knew how to begin the story. “I’ve had the sword for as long as I can remember.” He glanced at Xena. “All my life. Uncle would never let me use it. He said I was too little, or too young but I watched the other’s training and practicing.” Not daring to look into those hard green eyes he continued. “When you found me, after I recovered, I went through the stuff the Amazons had brought back from the destroyed Centaur village. When I found the sword there I hid it.” A glance up gave him hope. His Mom’s eyes had softened considerably. “You said I was too young so I just watched Poni training the recruits. When I found out though…..”

Pulling her thoughts from his recovery, Gabrielle finished for him. “When you found out you were sixteen you decided you were old enough. So when we got back from Potidea you began to actually try some of the moves you had been observing.”

Solan sagged his shoulders. “Yes.”

“I don’t ever want you to lie to me again.” She softened her voice. “and I don’t want you to use a sword.” She held up her hand to quiet his protest. “I will have to decide a punishment for your lies. We will have staff practice tomorrow afternoon. I’ll tell you my decision then.” The tone in her voice left no room for argument, she saw his pleading look to Xena and closed her eyes when The Warrior Princess spoke.

“Solan. Do you know how to get to the stables?” She nodded when he indicated he did. “Go and find Bennett. Tell him I sent you for his mother’s report and bring it back to me.” She watched him as he left and felt sorry for the boy. He looked so sad. ‘How would we feel if we hurt Gabrielle like that? If we lie to her it will hurt her.’ The Conqueror sighed. ‘I know.’ A slight shaking in Gabrielle’s shoulder’s pulled her from her conversation with the Conqueror and the Warrior Princess closed the distance between them. She gathered the crying Queen in her arms and rested her chin on the top of the Amazon’s head.

Gabrielle took a deep breath and let herself enjoy the supportive arms around her. Then she took another deep breath and wiping the tears from her face, turned to face the taller woman. “How did you know?”

Xena smiled and wiped away a lone tear with her thumb. “When you arrived and Iolaus recognized you I saw Solan reach to his side…. like he was going to draw a sword. Then when I hugged him and held his upper arms I could feel his right biceps were more developed than the left.”

Gabrielle interrupted the explanation. “I had noticed that but I just thought it was a flaw in my training and he was using his right hand too much in the drills. But how did you know… for sure?”

Tapping the smaller woman’s nose with her index finger Xena grinned. “I asked.”

That put the twinkle back in Gabrielle’s rolling eyes. “I’m sure you were so polite about it too.” She laughed at the mock dismay on Xena’s face. “I can see it now, you taking Solan by the hand and saying, ‘Now son, Will you please tell me if you have a sword hidden away somewhere?'”

“Actually.” Xena grinned. “It was more like….” She cleared her throat and dropped her voice to a growl. “Were is it?”

“Yikes.” Gabrielle wasn’t sure even she would want to face Xena when she spoke in that tone.

Laughing, Xena ran her fingers through the silky hair. “I told him he had to tell you tonight or I would tell you tomorrow.”

“Uh huh… and then you showed him some moves didn’t you.” Gabrielle’s accusation was said with a grin so Xena defended herself playfully.

“Only a few basics…. so he didn’t cut off his own leg or something.” Smiling, the Conqueror reached for another hug. Her smile vanished when Gabrielle turned serious.

“He asked you to teach him didn’t he.” She knew he would have so it wasn’t a question but it was important to know how Xena had responded to his request.

Never breaking eye contact, the Warrior Princess answered the question. “I told him that I wouldn’t unless you said it was okay.”

“Well it’s not okay. I hate bladed weapons, they make it too easy to kill.” She dropped her eyes to the ground and whispered. “I don’t want him to be a warrior.”

Xena didn’t want to argue so she just held the little woman in her arms and swayed a bit. “I know.”

——————————————————

Solan hoped that Xena would talk to his Mom about teaching him to use the sword. He knew that if Xena taught him then no one would be able to hurt him and he could protect her and Karis better. Glaring at Bekka, who followed him as he exited the room, he signaled her to back off. To his surprise she did fall back a few steps, he always felt more comfortable with a distant escort. He was therefore a little perturbed when she pushed past him into the stables. It was an annoying habit the guards had adopted since they had gotten to Corinth, the guards always entered first and then he and his Mom could go in. His annoyance melted away when he saw Bekka’s serious expression when she returned. He nearly laughed and schooled his expression into mock seriousness too. “Are the horses secure?” He broke into a grin, hunched his shoulders and wide-eyed, wiggled his fingers. “I wouldn’t want any of them to get me….”

She rolled her eyes and took her place next to the door. Gesturing to him that it was okay to enter. Bekka managed to keep a grin off of her face until he had entered the building. Despite her traditional training she liked him.

He looked around the darkened room and saw a light spilling out from behind a door. He walked to the door and knocked. When a young boy opened it, he smiled. “Are you Bennett?”

“Yup. That’s me.” He looked suspiciously at the uninvited guest. “Who are you?”

“My name is Solan.” He smiled at the boy. “Mo…..Xena sent me to get a report from your mother. Is she home?”

“No she’s not home. ” He opened the door wider and walked across the room to a desk. “It’s springtime you know.”

Solan stepped in the room and saw that it was very small. The whole room was almost as big as the bathroom in his suite in the Palace. It was nice though, cozy, the fire warmed the room evenly and everything was very neat and clean. Bennett’s voice drew him out of his evaluation of the room.

“Here you go.” He handed the older boy a parchment.

“Thanks.” Solan absently took the report and couldn’t contain his curiosity. “Do you live here with your parents?”

The question took the shepherd boy by surprise but then he just shrugged. “My mom and I live here.”

“Where’s your father?” Solan knew it was very personal and rude to ask but he was fascinated by the idea of a father.

Bennett shrugged again. “I never knew him much. My village was destroyed when I was little and Mom adopted me. I always thought he was dead, ’til he showed up here a few weeks ago.” He looked sad and confided. “I think Mom was afraid he was going to take me away from her.”

“Take you away?” Solan was totally confused at that. “How could he? She’s your mom.”

“I heard her talking one night to the lady that tends the chickens. She said sometimes when a kid is adopted and then their parents come back… the parents get the kid back and the kid doesn’t even get to say if they like the adopted parents better or anything.” Bennett was deadly serious about this. “But Xena said she wouldn’t let him take me and gave him a job as a hunter so he could stay in Corinth and do stuff with me.”

Solan folded the parchment and stuck it in his pocket. “Thanks.” He turned to go but looked back. “Hey maybe I’ll see you at the Festival, huh?”

A huge grin split the younger boy’s face. “Yeah, maybe.”

Solan smiled and headed back through the darkened stable. He wondered what waited for him in his room.

————————————————————————-

Bekka stood by the door of the stable and waited for Solan to return. She saw a figure moving through the shadows and watched it intently. ‘No weapon.’ She thought, so she patiently waited for the person to make himself known and acted surprised when he ‘appeared’ next to her.

“Hi.” Iolaus was pleased he had snuck up and surprised the Amazon.

“Hi.” Bekka put her hand over her heart as if to calm down it’s racing.

“What are you doing out here?” Iolaus was suspicious of the Amazons in general.

“Waiting.” She indicated the stable with her thumb.

He nodded like he understood. “Waiting?”

“Uh huh. ” She pointed backwards with her thumb again. “Solan’s in there.”

“Solan.” Iolaus repeated the name questioningly. “Solan?”

“Uh huh.” Bekka was enjoying this. She wondered how long it would be until he got tired of her short answers. A horse moving in the paddock took her attention for a moment and she chuckled. ‘I guess it didn’t take as long as I thought.’ She watched him slink back through the shadows and stop. ‘He’s gonna follow us back.’ Her first thought was to try and lose him but then she thought ‘Why bother.’ It wasn’t like Xena or Gabrielle made any big deal about hiding where Solan was staying and she assumed that soon everyone would know he was Gabrielle’s son too.

When Solan returned he looked very thoughtful. Bekka signaled him that they were being followed and he acknowledged. When they got back to his room, he saw that Karis had taken Bekka’s place and when she saw him coming almost smiled. Bekka and Solan both signaling they were being followed stopped the smile cold. When he was close enough Karis opened the door and preceded him into the room. Bekka remained outside, taking the space Karis left.

When the head guard walked in to the large room she stopped dead in her tracks. What she saw took her breath away. Xena and Gabrielle, black and white, stood in front of the balcony window. The full moon sent it’s rays down on their shoulders as they stood locked in a loving embrace. Xena’s cheek rested on the side of Gabrielle’s head and the large weapons worn hands stroked her Queen’s silky hair, turned blonde in the moonlight. Karis looked at Solan who just grinned and cleared his throat.

“Ahem….” He smiled when his parents broke their embrace and looked a bit embarrassed. Taking the report from his pocket he handed it to Xena. “Here you go.” His eyes flickered briefly to the sword that had been moved to the table.

She grinned and took it. “Thanks.” Unfolding the page she read it quickly and smiled. “Thanks alot.”

Karis couldn’t stand it any longer. “So who followed you back?”

He grinned at the curious guard. “I only got a glimpse of him once, but I think it is Iolaus.”

That made Karis and Xena very happy. If he was interested enough in the Amazons to follow Bekka and Solan back then they knew Karis would soon be the topic of discussion among the guards and after that the Resistance was sure to come.

“Well I guess our plan is as close to on schedule as it can be.” Xena grinned at the head guard.

“Yeah.” She grinned back. “I wasn’t sure it would work.” Her word work turned into a yawn and she grinned again as everyone else yawned too. “I guess it’s past my bedtime.” She hugged Solan and started to walk to the door when Xena stopped her.

“Karis.” The Conqueror looked at her intently before motioning her over. “Follow me.” Xena led her to the clothes closet and went to the wall opposite she and Gabrielle had gone through. “Push that stone.” She indicated the stone and saw the guard’s surprise when it opened. “Come on. I want to show you something.” The dim light from the still open secret door was enough to navigate the narrow corridor and when they got to the other end Xena indicated quiet. “Shhhh….” She pulled the lever and opened the door slightly.

Karis was amazed to hear the guards talking. She could identify some of the voices, Norin, Ana, Solari, Ria…. This was their room and it had a secret entrance to Solan’s!

Xena closed the entrance and retraced their steps back to Solan’s room. Closing the door on this end she looked at Karis. “I thought you should know, just in case.”

Karis became too aware of the fact that she was standing in a closet with Xena. The warrior’s proximity was enough to make her dizzy. ‘Gods, girl, get a grip. She’s Solan’s mother.’ To cover for her lapse in attention Karis repeated the last part of Xena’s statement. “Just in case?”

Laughing, Xena threw her arm around Karis’ shoulder. “Yeah you know if we are attacked or he needs to get away for some reason.” She paused to consider her words then sighed. “Or maybe just if he can’t sleep well.”

The young woman’s eyes flew open at that addition and she swallowed hard. “Sometimes, he can’t sleep very well unless….”

“…unless you’re there to hold him?” Xena grinned when the guard nodded. “I know.”

“How do you….” Karis would never understand Xena. The woman knew everything.

She leaned closer to confide a secret to the Amazon. “Because I don’t sleep well without Gabrielle.” She tightened her grip briefly then dropped her arm and walked back into the main room.

Karis grinned and blushed at the confession. “Oh.” She followed right behind the warrior, not quite allowing herself enough time to stop blushing.

Gabrielle saw the rosy cheeked guard and felt a rare surge of jealousy. ‘They were in that closet a long time.’ She thought and then chided herself for being jealous. ‘Xena won’t hurt you like that stupid. She loves you.’ She took a deep breath and yawned. “Well I’m headed to bed.” She gave Solan a significant look. “Tomorrow is a big day, with the Festival’s opening ceremonies and all.” She slowly walked to the table and picked up the sword, handing it to Xena. “You ready?”

Xena gave Solan an apologetic smile and took the sword. “Yeah, I’ve got some stuff to do in the morning too. I should get some sleep.” She looked at the young couple and smiled. “Sleep well.” Putting her hand automatically on Gabrielle’s back when they walked, Xena guided her sleepy love to the closet and through the secret door.

Solan watched them walk into the closet and looked at Karis. “Where are they going?”

Karis ran her fingers through her hair and shrugged. “Back to Xena’s room I suppose.” Laughing at his confused look Karis promised. “I’ll tell you later.” She hugged him tightly. “Get some sleep okay?”

He returned the hug, kissed her neck and whispered in her ear. “I’ll try.”

Smiling at the implied ‘it won’t be easy without you’, Karis kissed him quickly on the cheek and tried not to think about his sad face as she left. Pulling the doors closed behind her she got an idea. She spoke louder than necessary to Bekka. “Hey I’m going to the kitchen to see if I can scrounge up some food for the guards. I know some of you didn’t get to go to the lovely dinner tonight.” Grinning at Bekka, she rolled her eyes as Jana chimed in.

“Yeah I would have loved to see that.” Jana looked at Bekka jealously.

Karis slapped Bekka on the shoulder. “Well Bekka was there. I’m sure she will tell you all about it.” Walking down the hall toward the kitchen she passed by Iolaus’ hiding place, knowing she had more of Xena’s perfume on her than her own and knowing that he would stay to listen to Bekka tell her version of the dinner incident with added speculation on why Karis was so ‘brave’.

——————————————

Xena put Solan’s sword in the weapon’s chest she kept at the foot of her bed. She touched the hilt once more and closed her eyes against the memories. She closed the lid and stood, sighing deeply with regret for many of the things that happened back then. Then she sighed with contentment as Gabrielle’s arms around her drove away all the bad memories.

“You showed Karis a secret passage to the guard’s room didn’t you.” Gabrielle realized that was why they went into the closet.

“You know I did.” Looking down at the smaller woman she brushed the hair back over her ears. Uncovering the very kissable ear, Xena leaned down and smiling, whispered. “Thank you for being jealous.”

“I know it’s silly of me… but when I see you hug her and then she comes out of the closet blushing well I sort of just……” She didn’t want to say it.

“Lose it?” Xena supplied and grinned. Gabrielle nodded and rested her forehead against Xena’s chest. The warrior chuckled. “It’s not silly.” That brought the blonde head up quickly.

“It’s not?” She could think of a few other words that might fit, petty, juvenile, selfish. Xena’s chuckle pulled her out of her alternate word list.

“No. It’s not silly.” She leaned down to kiss her love’s fears away. “I think it’s cute.”

Gabrielle’s eyes widened significantly. “CUTE!” She wriggled out of the embrace and took a couple of steps back. Raising her chin, and stretching to her full five foot four inch stature she replied haughtily. “I am the Spider Queen of the Amazons.” Dropping her voice very low she continued. “I am not cute!”

The Warrior Princess held up her hands in defeat. “Okay fine you’re not cute.”

Gabrielle deflated slightly. “I’m not?”

Closing the distance between them the warrior answered. “Nope.” She gently tugged on the belt of the robe and smiled as it fell open to reveal the skimpy nightdress Gabrielle wore. “You are beautiful.” She slid her hands up under the edge of the robe and pushed it off her shoulders, sliding the straps of the nightie down. “Gorgeous.” She kissed the now bare shoulders, letting the robe fall to the floor. Pulling down ever so slightly the remaining garment joined the puddle of clothing at their feet and Gabrielle stood before her, naked. “Breathtaking.” She traced every curve with her eyes, a path closely followed by her hands. “Lovely.”

Gabrielle closed her eyes at the sensation of Xena’s hands exploring her body then she realized there was something wrong with this picture. Taking half a step forward she tugged on the belt of Xena’s robe, smiling when it fell open. “And you my dear warrior are magnificent.” She reached up to push the robe off the broad shoulders and added it to the clothes at their feet, sliding the straps of the leather outfit down. “Exquisite.” She kissed the now bare shoulders and with a slight tug down, leather joined the silk at their feet and Gabrielle caught her breath at the vision before her. “Stunning.” She traced every curve with her eyes, then traced them again with her hands. “Glorious.”

Desire blocked out all the million other words that Xena knew didn’t do Gabrielle justice by half and she was left with only one thought. Four words that burned crystal clear behind her eyes. “I love you, Gabrielle.”

Forcing the warrior to walk backwards, Gabrielle smiled as Xena’s calves hit the edge of the bed and the dark warrior sank back into the soft bedding. She climbed onto the bed, stretching her full length against the warm, tan warrior. “I love you, Xena.”

Several candlemarks later they remembered how tired they were and contentedly curled up around each other. Xena thought about how wonderful it was going to be to wake up with Gabrielle in her arms and she felt the little Queen chuckle. “What?”

With a sparkle in her eye Gabrielle looked into the blue eyes of love and said. “I think it will be wonderful waking up in your arms too.” She rested her head on the tan shoulder, closed her eyes and thought. ‘I love you, so much.’

Xena felt the smaller woman’s breathing even out and chuckled. Kissing the top of her blonde head, she whispered. “I love you too.” Closing her eyes she drifted off into what was sure to be the best sleep she had in…..well, five days.

——————————————————————————–

Karis walked down the wide hallway and made her way to the kitchen. She was pretty tired but wanted to give Bekka and Jana time to give Iolaus an earful of rumor. She found the kitchen in a general state of ordered chaos. It was something she had never really thought about until their trip to India but it took alot of people to make meals for a large group of people, especially if they are spoiled brat royalty. She grimaced at the memory of the Prince from Chin. She didn’t remember any of the people here being in the camp in India but she did spot a couple of Amazons diligently working near a smaller fireplace. She ambled over and tried not to scare the person peeling vegetables. “Can I get a tray of snacks for the guards?”

The cook smiled at that polite request and moved to assemble the snack. “You could have sent one of the others to get it. You didn’t have to come down yourself.” Looking up at the dark haired young woman, her eyes twinkled. “We heard about what you did at dinner.” She leaned in to whisper. “None of the cooks like him either.”

Karis grimaced at that. Her mother had taught her long ago that it was important to stay on a cook’s good side. ‘A good leader has to be the brains and the heart of a army.’ She remembered her laughing voice. ‘But everyone has to eat.’ Laughing at the cook’s last comment she spoke to the previous one. “Yeah, well I wanted to give everyone a chance to talk about me behind my back.” She grinned as the cook winked and replied.

“Yeah, I would imagine they are doing that now.” She handed the tray to they younger woman. “Guards are such gossips.”

Laughing at the truth of it, Karis took the tray. “Yup.” She winked. “Almost as bad as cooks.” Ducking the playfully slow slap, she laughed. “Send a couple of trays up for breakfast, okay. I figure we’ll be busy tomorrow.” Karis smiled at the cooks nod and made her way back to the guards room.

——————————————————-

Solan looked around the big lonely room. He sighed and went to wash his hands. Seeing the large bath he changed his mind and pulled the lever to let the warm water start flowing into the tiled pool. He stretched out and floated on the warm water, letting it seep away his tension. Sleeping was not really an option for him tonight. He was way too worried about what his mom was going to decide. He knew it wasn’t a good sign when she took the sword. Sighing, he stood and toweled off.

Changing into some soft nightwear Ephiny had given him for Solstice, he went back into the main room, blew out the candles and crawled into the huge bed. Curling up in the middle of the bed he looked at the wall opposite the fireplace. Watching the flame’s pattern dancing on the wall helped him drift into a light sleep. He wasn’t far enough on his trip to Morpheus’ realm to miss the warm body sliding into bed next to him or to wonder how he would explain the sword to her. He was however close enough to the land of dreams to be unable to acknowledge her presence any more than shifting his position and returning the loving embrace.

———————————————————

The cool morning breeze ruffled the curtains on the balcony doors. Xena woke slowly, savoring every moment of waking with Gabrielle in her arms. The soft breath at her neck warmed her better than any blanket ever could. She smiled as the arm draped over her waist tightened and the sleepy voice drawled.

“Mmmm.. I never thought I could enjoy waking up so much.” Kissing the shoulder she had been using for a pillow, Gabrielle raised up on her elbow and grinned at Xena. “Until I met you.”

Xena laughed and gave her a quick kiss good morning. “I’m gonna take a ride this morning….” her eyes twinkled. “…come with me.” She got up and prompted by the cool breeze dressed quickly. Finding some warm leggings and a nice thick tunic she sat and pulled on her short boots. Xena looked back at the bed and stuck out her bottom lip, raising both eyebrows. “Please?”

Gabrielle sighed and began to move, unable to resist a pouting Conqueror. Shivering in the open air she too dressed quickly, taking Xena’s cue to wear warm clothes and laughed when Xena grabbed an apple she had saved from last nights dinner tray. It wasn’t going to be their breakfast and she knew it. “Forget Karis….” She grinned. “….I think I should be jealous of Argo!”

Tossing the apple up and catching it with her left hand Xena reached out with her right hand to take Gabrielle’s. “Let’s go!”

It was very early. The Palace halls were deserted except for a few guards and none of them would ever tell anyone they had seen Xena LAUGHING with the Amazon Queen. Who would believe that?

When they reached the stable, Xena greeted Argo with an affectionate pat and rested her forehead on the muscular neck, while she gave her the treat. Argo loved apples, and Xena had saved the juiciest looking one for her best horse.

Gabrielle stood back and watched as Xena murmured to the horse and smiled when the golden animal tossed her head and whinnied back. ‘I almost believe they are talking.’ With her concentration so focused on Xena she nearly didn’t hear the boy walk up next to her.

“Hello.” He was suspicious of newcomers. Sometimes during the festival new people would come to town and not all of them were nice but his face brightened when he saw Xena. “Oh, hey Xena!”

The warrior grinned at the boy’s enthusiasm. “Hey Bennett. How’s it going?”

“Great!” He glanced at Gabrielle. “I brushed her down for you. I figured you’d wanna be taking a ride this morning, since you got the report last night.” He pointed behind her. “Oiled your saddle last night.”

She looked at the familiar tack and smiled. “Thanks.” She pointed her finger at him and alternated it between him and the woman next to him. “Bennett this is Gabrielle. Gabrielle this is Bennett.” She left them to talk while she saddled Argo.

“Hello Bennett. It’s nice to meet you.” She held out her hand in greeting.

“Hi. ” He shook her hand. “You have a pretty voice. Where are you from?”

Glancing at Xena, she grinned and said. “Potedia.” Narrowing her eyes at his knowing nod, she continued, still shaking his hand. “But I live with the Amazons now.”

She felt the grip on her hand release, as his eyes grew wide. “Amazons.” He squeaked out the word and swallowed hard. “You mean…” He shot a look at Xena. “You’re her aren’t you….. you’re the Queen.” He was suddenly very conscious of the stains on his shirt and wiped his palms on his thighs. “Wow.”

Deep low chuckling drew their attention to Argo’s stall. “You’ve gotta hand it to him Gabrielle. The boy knows his stuff.” She led the now saddled horse through the wide stall door. “I rule the entire known world and get a ‘Hey.’ ” She jumped into the saddle and leaned down to offer the smaller woman a hand up. “But you, my dear, rate a ‘Wow’ ”

Gabrielle laughed and took the hand, settling herself in front of the warrior. “So where are we going?” She didn’t see Xena wink at the boy but thought she could feel it.

“You’ll see.” Was the only response she got before, Xena gave Argo the signal to move forward. Slowly at first, as they walked out of the stables then when they reached the open road, Xena urged the large yellow mare faster. She couldn’t wait for Gabrielle to see her surprise.

The little Amazon was barely able to watch the ground as it flew by. She understood that the low stone wall to the right of the road marked a boundry for a very green field. Xena slowed Argo’s gait and enjoyed the waves the morning breeze created in the field of winter wheat. It was the next block of land she was interested in. Reining Argo to a halt next to a slightly higher stone wall, she helped Gabrielle step from the back of the horse to the top of the wall, then joined her.

This had been one of those mornings when the sunrise was barely visible. The sky had turned from inky black to a beautiful spring blue in a matter of moments. Xena took a deep breath and looked up at the fluffy clouds floating in the blue sky, then back to the clover pasture and the fluffy animals grazing there. She held her breath until Gabrielle spotted the first one, releasing it with a smile that the Amazon’s voice always brought to her face.

“Oh Xena!” Gabrielle couldn’t believe it. “Lambs!” She watched the little babies running through the field and laughed as they jumped and played with each other. “Xena they are adorable.” She sat on top of the wall and watched the gangly little ones running around the huge field as the mommas rolled their eyes and grazed some more. She saw two of the little ones in a mock fight, butting their heads together again and again. “They are going to hurt themselves.”

“Nah… it’s fun for them.” Xena watched the two little rams play for a moment. “Besides, they have to know what to do when they get horns.”

Gabrielle knew they weren’t talking about the lambs anymore and sighed. “I don’t want him to be a warrior.” She watched the playful animals for a while longer before she leaned her shoulder against Xena’s and sighed again. “But I guess he should have the chance to choose.”

Xena watched the little white additions to her flock romp and answered. “Yes I think so too.” They sat for a while longer on top of the wall, watching the lambs and Xena could tell that deep inside her a little girl, who was almost three, was very happy.

————————————————-

Karis supported herself on her elbow and watched Solan’s face while he slept. She was worried about him. Last night even her presence wasn’t enough to keep away the nightmares. She wasn’t sure why he was mumbling about swords and lies, she just held him and whispered that everything was okay. That seemed to calm him but she was still concerned. Smoothing out his forehead, she kissed him lightly and made her way back to the guard’s room. It would be dawn soon and they all needed to be ready for the day.

Sneaking back through the secret passage allowed her to enter the room unnoticed. She took the opportunity to quietly inspect the guards. She was pleased at the neat and orderly way they had arranged the room, much like the barracks back in the village, but not really impressed. This was the Royal Guard after all, they were expected to perform above standard. They were all so peaceful she let them sleep long enough for her to change from her sleeping shirt to formal leathers. Standing in the middle of the room, smiling as a mother would for a child she watched them sleep a moment longer before she took a deep breath and began yelling at the top of her lungs. “OKAY YOU LAZY LAYABOUTS. WE HAVE A JOB TO DO! GET YOUR BUTTS OUT OF BED! COM’ON MOVE!” She laughed as they all scrambled out of their bunks and glared at her.

The sky had just finished turning blue by the time the guards were dressed and had the room straightened with all the bunks made. Karis leaned against the door and watched the orderly operation with satisfaction. A knock on the wood at her back put them all instantly on alert. Smiling at their caution she turned to open the doors, thinking it was the breakfast trays she had ordered last night. The individual standing in the doorway put her instantly on alert too. He didn’t have a breakfast tray, but he did have a scroll. She put a hand behind her back.

“Karis, Head of the Amazon Royal Guard?” He wasn’t sure the person he was looking for was as young as this woman seemed to be.

“Yes?” She smiled, not only at him but also because Solari had come up behind her and now pressed the handle of a knife into the hidden hand.

“Message for you.” He handed her the scroll and jumped when she brought the hand with the knife in it around to accept the offered message.

Chuckling at his nervous departure, she cut the ribbon around the rolled up parchment and read the very official looking note. “That son of a….” She reread the words just in case her eyes were playing tricks on her. Nope, she read it right. “Damn.”

“What is it?” Solari had been watching Karis closely since they arrived in Corinth. She was as proud as any of them at their leader’s display of loyalty at the dinner last night but she also knew that Karis had not slept here. She was still trying to sort out Xena’s perfume on the young woman last night. Xena wasn’t exactly the touchy feely type.

She looked up at the expectant faces of the others and grimaced. “Seems I’ve got a inquiry to attend. Apparently Mr. guards-can’t-talk-to-me-like-that Prince of Chin has requested a audience with Xena to ‘decide my punishment.'” She scoffed at the thought and tossed the scroll to her bed.

“That sounds serious.” Solari glanced at the partially open message lying on the bedroll and noticed that nowhere did it say ‘Xena’ it always referred to ‘The Empress’ or ‘The Conqueror’. ‘It was Karis who translated the official title to the friendlier casual name.’ Solari wasn’t sure what to make of that revelation.

Waving off the concern, Karis grinned with false confidence. “Nah…. Xena won’t fault me.” She noticed the effect that statement had on them and smiled. “I was, after all, protecting the Queen.” She saw them all nodding slowly and actually heard someone mutter. ‘The first rule.’ A glance at Solari told her that her new second had not figured it out yet. ‘But she will.’ Karis thought. ‘and soon I hope.’ Xena had told her not to tell Solari the plan but if the woman figured it out she was under no restriction whatsoever regarding confirming her second’s suspicions.

Another knock at the door heralded the arrival of the much-appreciated breakfast, although now, Karis didn’t feel much like eating.

—————————————————————

Xena walked into her rooms and began stripping out of her warm clothes almost immediately. The cool of early morning had quickly given way to the sun and now it was unseasonably warm. Grabbing her robe, she turned to head for the bath that Mirriam surely had ready, only to find Gabrielle a mere handspan away from her. “Gabrie….” The Conqueror’s voice trailed off as she realized that the Amazon too had shed her warm clothing. Twinkling green eyes, crinkled at the corners with sly mock innocence made her heart skip a beat.

“Where ya goin’?” A lazy finger traced one of her particularly favorite curves on the warrior’s oh so muscular body.

Swallowing hard against the unexpected attack on her senses, Xena took a deep breath and smiled. “I thought I’d wash off the dirt from this morning’s ride.”

Tilting her head to look up, the Spider Queen grinned wickedly and raised an eyebrow. Her low sultry voice made The Conqueror shudder. “Need any help?”

Xena doubted that Hades himself had anything that could compare to the heat being exchanged between them. Sliding her arms around the smaller woman’s waist she pulled her closer, one eyebrow raised in question. “Are you offering?”

Gabrielle slid her arms around the muscular shoulders and linked her hands behind Xena’s neck. Pulling the warrior’s head down until she could feel the warrior’s hot breath on her lips, she whispered. “Yes.”

————————————————————–

The guards were just finishing their breakfast when the door burst open. They all looked up to see a very upset Solan. His hair was disheveled and he was still wearing the light colored baggy pants he had slept in but he was at the moment shirtless. Karis’ voice stopped him in his tracks.

“Solan! We could have all been naked.” Karis joined in the laughter as they watched his reaction to that. She saw the scroll in his left hand and sighed. ” I guess you’ve heard the news.”

Distracted by the first comment, Solan ran his fingers through his hair and looked puzzled for a moment then brightened as he waggled the scroll absently. “Oh yeah, that.” He tossed it on her bunk, next to the other summons and flirted shamelessly with the closest guard, who happened to be Karis. Raising his eyebrows, he smiled. “Tell me again when this naked thing happens.” Pointing his thumb behind him, he looked around the room and continued. “‘Cause I can come back…… if you all need a minute.”

“Well you are already halfway there.” Karis indicated his bare upper half and smiled. “What’s up with that?” She tried to control the surge of desire that swept through her when he moved his flattened palm against his rather well defined stomach muscles.

“Oh yeah.” Solan got back to the reason he was there. “A messenger delivered that scroll for mom this morning.” He gave Karis a slightly worried look. “I was just changing when it arrived.”

Karis heard one of the guard’s mumble. “Lucky us.” She was glad her back was to them because if she had been able to identify the speaker jealousy would have gotten the woman some type of horrible job to do. She took a deep breath and spoke quietly. “You read a message for your mom?” The slight blush that rose to Solan’s cheeks made him even more attractive and she gritted her teeth at more mumbles from behind her. His voice pulled her out of plans for drill practice.

“It wasn’t sealed, only tied. I wanted to know if it was important enough to track her down or if I could just wait ’til breakfast.” He glanced at the remains of their breakfast and smiled as his stomach rumbled audibly.

Rolling her eyes, Karis picked the last whole roll off the tray and handed it to him. “Here.” She smiled as he bit into it gratefully. “We can’t have the Prince starving now can we?” Retrieving the scrolls from her bunk she pushed him out the door. “Go finish changing, I’ll meet you in a minute and we can try to find your Mom.”

“Sure.” Sticking his head back through the door, his eyes twinkled at the room in general and Karis in particular. “But you will tell me when that naked thing happens right?” He ducked back out as various soft objects, mostly pillows, were thrown in his direction, and laughed at the laughter coming from the room.

“Well.” Solari watched Karis closely. “He has certainly grown up.” Mumbles to the affirmative swept around the room. Mumbles that intensified as the second in command continued her observations. “His sword arm seems to be filling out nicely.”

Karis laughed at that. “Sword arm?” She thought about how Gabrielle hated bladed weapons and laughed. “Oh, no… That’s just from chopping wood.” She had noticed the buildup in his right arm but had explained it away as a by-product of his regular chore. “Gabri…… The Queen hates bladed weapons. She won’t let him use a sword.” She knew that for sure because she was there the day Eponin received the order from Gabrielle herself not to teach him techniques of any bladed weapon.

“Well that is a shame then.” Ria spoke up and continued quickly as Karis glared at her. “I’m just saying with as nice a sword as that is…. it’s a shame the owner can’t use it.”

Now Karis was totally confused. “What are you talking about?”

Ria stammered a bit. “The sword….. It’s real nice….. ”

Karis interrupted the nervous woman. “What sword?” The head guard was beginning to get a sinking feeling in her gut. Solan had shown her a sword once, he said the Centaurs had given it to him and that it was his fathers. He swore to her that he didn’t use it. He kept it hidden under his bed and never used it, only looked at it and thought about his father and the Centaurs that raised him. He knew how Gabrielle felt about bladed weapons.

Ria went into report mode and gave her the facts. “Well I was in charge of the weapon’s wagon during the trip. Every other day or so Solan would come and get the sword, check it for rust spots, oil it and put it back. I don’t think he knew I saw him.”

‘Gods…..’ Karis thought back to the previous night. Gabrielle handed a sword to Xena…… suddenly the pieces fell into place for her, the long disappearances from the village, his nervousness during the trip here, last night’s nightmares. All the guards saw her knuckles go white around the scrolls she held, and a bit of anger in her eyes. ‘He lied to me.’ Clearing her throat she spoke through her anger. “I’m going to find the Queen.” She looked back into the room. “Standard rotation.” She ordered and looked at her second. “Go to Solari if you have any problems…. I’ll be busy today.”

The guard’s stationed at the door of Solan’s room exchanged significant looks as Karis paced down the hall. They actually leaned away from her as she walked through the door and mouthed ‘Yikes’ to each other as even the slamming door couldn’t hide her bellow.

“SOLAN!” Karis had gone from angry to furious on the short trip from her room to his. The fact that he was practicing with the sword meant not only did he lie to her, but he could be hurt. She had seen many warriors hurt during training exercises. That was why a healer was always present during drills. For him to practice enough to build up his muscles so significantly he would have had to be alone somewhere and he would have had to practice to nearly the point of exhaustion. That was dangerous even for an experienced soldier. The thought of him being hurt made her catch her breath, then she gasped for a different reason.

The heels of his short boots echoed on the tiled floor of the bathroom as he quickly ran to the door and looked into the main room. “What’s wrong?”

For half a heartbeat Karis forgot she was angry. Solan had changed all right. His hair was now combed and held in place with a golden headband, His mid-thigh length green vest was set off by the billowing arms of a black silk shirt and matching leather pants. The buckle of the thin belt that held his vest closed at the waist gleamed the same color as his headband. He looked every bit the Prince. His innocent question made her think again of the nightmares he had suffered last night and her anger returned at the thought of him continuing to lie to her. Taking a deep breath she spoke low and even. “That is a nice outfit.”

His brows drew closer together in puzzlement and he held his hands out in front of him examining his sleeves. “Uh…yeah?”

She nodded. “Yeah.” She tilted her head and examined the clothing again. “It’s missing something though.”

“Huh?” He ran his hands down the front of his vest and looked down his length, puzzled. “What?”

She forced herself to sound casual. “A sword.” She watched the blood drain from his face and couldn’t quite keep the anger out of her voice. “That was your sword Gabrielle took away last night wasn’t it?” Her accusation made him feel as though he had been kicked in the gut.

“I was going to tell you…..” He reached for her. His explanation and move toward her were both cut off by a rebuking arm and very angry look.

“When? When were you going to let me in on your secret?” She saw him shaking his head. “When you felt like it or maybe never?” She didn’t let him answer. “Or maybe you were just going to wait until you got hurt?” That thought started a tear down her cheek.

He was within arms reach of her now and gently cupped her face with his hand, wiping away the tear with his thumb. “I won’t get hurt.” He looked her in the eye and spoke softly. “I was going to tell you.”

She swatted his hand away from her face. “But you didn’t.” She wasn’t ready to forgive him for lying to her and she wasn’t ready to talk about it anymore. Waving the scrolls in front of her she changed the subject. “Lets go see what your mother has to say about this.” She only glimpsed his hurt expression as she turned to leave and her own hurt feelings prevented the stab of pain his sad sigh would have caused her at any other time.

Solan knew he was wrong to lie to her and he also knew he deserved any punishment she chose to deal him. He sighed and followed her out the door, hoping against hope that Gabrielle would help Karis cope with his deception.

———————————————————————–

The guard at Xena’s door was asleep at his post so Karis and Solan slipped by him quietly. Both rulers exited the bathroom at the sound of the door closing. Karis noticed that their hair was damp but they seemed to be ready for the day, Gabrielle in her formal leathers and Xena in the short-skirted warrior leathers she commonly wore.

“I told the guard to knock when someone was coming in.” Xena was glad to see Solan but wondered why he was dressed so formally.

Karis smiled. “Oh we didn’t want to bother the dear.” She leaned forward and whispered loudly. “He’s sleeping.”

“WHAT?!” Xena went to the door and opened it quietly. She looked at the guard that stood so peacefully sleeping by her door and sighed. ‘Damn.’ The Conqueror was disappointed when she saw the scar on his face. ‘This is the one Karis found loyal at the camp. I can’t kill him.’ The Warrior Princess agreed but she was angry at his sleeping on the job. ‘But we can scare him enough so he will never sleep on the job again.’ Laughing at that the Conqueror took his weapon and moved closer, until her nose was nearly touching his. “WAKE UP!”

If the wall hadn’t been directly behind him the man would have fallen backwards in fright. The proximity of those blue eyes caused him to reach for his now missing weapon.

“Looking for this?” Xena stepped back and twirled the sword casually, resting it on her shoulder as she studied the pathetic excuse for a guard.

“Ummm….. I … Uhhh….” He knew he was dead.

The Conqueror moved forward with the intent to scare him witless. Gabrielle’s voice stopped her advance.

“Don’t kill him Xena.” Gabrielle stepped between her love and the guard. “Please.”

Taking one more step to wrap her free arm around the small woman in her path Xena looked over the blonde head at the guard. “This must be your lucky day.” She jerked her head to the side. “Leave. Now.”

Leaving his post was infinately worse to him than sleeping at it. “That will leave you unguarded.”

Xena looked at him like he was insane for questioning her. “What’s the difference?” When the impact of her words hit him she repeated her order. “Now GO!”

He knew better than to ask for the sword back and took off down the hall. They all watched him go and heard Xena mutter. “Moron.”

The tall warrior looked at Karis. “I don’t guess the Amazon’s could oblige with a few guards at my door could they?”

Karis grinned at the couple. “I think that can be arranged.” It had worried her that no Amazon was guarding their Queen. She handed the scrolls to Solan. “You explain this. I’ll be right back.” She headed back toward the Amazon guard’s room.

The trio walked back into the main room and Xena regarded the scrolls in Solan’s hands. “What’s that all about?”

Solan handed her Karis’ scroll and gave the one intended for Gabrielle to the little Queen. “We received these this morning.

The women read the parchments in their hands then exchanged messages and read those. Xena’s face grew darker by the moment and Solan was surprised to see his Mom too becoming very angry. Xena was the first to speak.

“I haven’t heard anything about this.” She was outraged that messages had been sent to the Amazons without first informing her.

Karis walked in. She handed a scroll to Xena. “A messenger just delivered this.”

Xena ran her tongue over her teeth and opened the message. Although this one was slightly more formal than the others, it spelled out the charges clearer. Ming T’ien was offended by the way Karis spoke to him at dinner and he wanted his honor restored. The scrolls requested an audience with her this afternoon but Xena was much to angry for that. She gripped the message tightly and stalked out of her rooms.

Gabrielle, Karis, Solan and the two Amazons at the door followed her as she made her way to the rooms assigned to the leaders of Chin.

————————————————————————————-

“She is perfect for us.” Iolaus was excited to finally find someone who could execute their plan. Xena would die and the world would at long last be out from under her strict control.

“Why?” The leader of the resistance felt compelled to listen to his ramblings but was under no obligation to agree with him.

She leaned back in her chair to study the man. This was not the Iolaus who saved her from the burning barn. This one would never risk his life for a stranger, they did look exactly alike though. ‘It would help if you cried.’ He had said. ‘Ha!’ Callisto’s response to that advice was born from the numbing reality that her parents were gone but time had not softened her resolve. ‘I will never cry.’ It had been many long years since the burning of her town. Her uncle had tried his best to raise her but nothing could console the young girl. Nothing but Xena’s demise.

“She has opportunity. She is with Xena alot…..” His explanation was cut off by maniacal laughter.

“Opportunity!?” She rolled her eyes. “Tell me Iolaus. How many other people have opportunity?” She tested the blade of the knife in her hands. “Motive is what she needs to be perfect.” She licked the trace of blood from her thumb and smiled. “Make friends with her. Let’s find out if she really is the perfect one for us.” She watched a slow smile spread across the blonde man’s face.

“Yes my Queen.” He looked forward to making friends with the guard and left quickly to begin his new mission.

“Queen.” Callisto spoke to the empty room. Sniffling, she rubbed her nose briefly. “I like that.”

———————————————————-

The thick carpet lining the corridor muffled even the angry footfalls of the warrior. She was barely aware of her followers as she seethed with fury at the audacity of the charges. The little procession passed a couple of guards just getting off their shift and as the drew near the rooms assigned to the representatives of Chin the new guards on duty could be heard talking.

“She is going soft.” The man leaned his shoulder against the wall. “He was asleep, for Zeus sake, and she let him live just because the little Amazon bitch asked her to.”

The other guard saw Xena coming up behind his outspoken companion and he knew the Conqueror heard the comment. Trying to save his own hide he argued with his associate. “Xena will never go soft and I don’t think she would like hearing you call the Amazon Queen that.” He grew very nervous as Xena stopped right behind the first speaker and crossed her arms. Her low voice shocked them both into total stillness.

“You know what sound I do like to hear?” She smiled as the guard in front of her turned around and she recognized him as one of Iolaus’ friends. With a satisfying crunch her fist connected with his stomach and the whoosh of air escaping him raised a eyebrow. “Ohh that’s a nice one.” He sank to his knees, gasping for air.

The Conqueror leaned against the wall and crossed her arms again, waiting for him to recover. Forgetting for a moment that it was Xena he faced, the man drew a knife and lunged at her. Quickly uncrossing her arms she knocked the knife out of his hand then put her right hand on the back of his head, her left hand on his chin and before anyone could say anything the man’s neck was audibly snapped. The Conqueror closed her eyes briefly then smiled at the remaining guard and growled. “That one is good too.” She dropped the man and grinned at the muffled thud. “That’s not a bad sound either.” She looked at the shocked expression on the remaining guard’s face and laughed. “Get him out of my sight.” Indicating behind her she said. “The Amazons will stand guard until you return with his replacement.” Unwilling to turn and face Gabrielle, the Conqueror pushed open the door and went to set the one they call The Green Dragon straight on a few points of conduct in HER Palace.

Ming T’ien jumped to his feet as the door to his room unexpectedly opened. He suddenly felt like a small boy when he saw the angry woman enter. He swallowed hard as Xena stood a few feet inside the door and the Amazon Queen, her insolent guard, and the boy that arrived with them arranged themselves behind her.

Xena looked at the row of guards standing along the wall and rumbled. “Leave us.” When they hesitated she took a step toward them and growled. “NOW!”

Much to the Prince of Chin’s dismay they did not hesitate a second time. He was about to say something regarding her treatment of his guards when Lao Ma appeared from the bathroom, her long hair damp from her morning bath caused dark patches on the shoulders of her robe.

“Xena. How kind of you to address my son’s concerns in person.” She smiled demurely at the angry Empress and glanced at the rest of the concerned party, ending with and holding Gabrielle’s intense green eyes. “It is unfortunate that our first meeting has to be under such difficult circumstances.”

Pushing aside the death of the guard outside, Gabrielle stepped forward to stand next to Xena. She smiled and with a slight tilt of her head spoke softly. “Circumstances are only as difficult as we make them.” Gabrielle went into full Spider Queen mode and shifted her gaze to Ming T’ien. “It is unfortunate that we didn’t have the opportunity to settle this among ourselves before we involved Xena.” She couldn’t quite help a little sideways smile up at the warrior. “The Empress is very busy.”

His nostrils flared as he frowned and exhaled loudly. “You expect us to believe that you would be an impartial judge for one of your own people?”

Laying a hand gently on Xena’s arm to calm the warrior, Gabrielle kept her voice soft. “I expect to be allowed to discipline my own people as I see fit. I am sure you feel the same.”

“Of course.” Ming T’ien wasn’t sure what this woman was getting at. “But none of my people are so ill trained as to address a member of royalty in such a rude manner.”

Gabrielle saw that Lao Ma was going to stay out of this and a quick glance told her that Xena was actually enjoying it. Trusting Karis and Solan not to interfere, she stepped closer to the Prince of Chin and continued her questioning. “I believe my guard called you a insolent boy. Is that correct?” Her face was a mask of non-emotion.

That term pulled another nostril flaring exhalation from Ming T’ien. “Yes.”

“I see.” Gabrielle clasped her hands in front of her and stepped even closer to the young man. “And what do you think a sufficient punishment would be for that particular insult?”

“To set an example for her peers, public whipping., five lashes.” He thought that was quite lenient. He didn’t want to risk making the punishment too severe or the Amazon Queen might discount it immediately.

Gabrielle seemed to consider this. “And who should administer this whipping?”

He smiled at the thought of restoring his honor. “As the insulted party, I should.”

“You? Really?” Gabrielle raised one eyebrow in surprise and from the corner of her eye saw Lao Ma shaking her head. She glanced back at Xena then regarded the smiling Prince seriously. “Would that be before or after I whip you for calling me a whore?”

He was stunned at the idea of being whipped. “You can’t whip me.” The thought was ridiculous. “I’m a Prince!”

Laughing at his shock, Gabrielle shook her head. “You’re right… I won’t whip you.” The turned and winked at her companions. “But if you persist in your charges against my guard, I will not hesitate to turn you over my knee and give you a good spanking.” She moved to within a half a step of him. “Because that is what we do with insolent boys in the Amazon Nation.” Intense green eyes dared him to challenge her use of the very term that started all this. Lao Ma’s soft voice drew their attention.

“I don’t believe my son will be pursuing this matter any further.” The head of the House of Lao moved to stand next to her speechless son.

Gabrielle smiled at Ming T’ien. “Good. I’m glad we could settle things peacefully.” Turning her back on them to walk to Xena’s side. “I would hate for our first meeting to end in hostilities.” She returned her gaze to the eastern rulers. “Beginnings are such delicate times.”

“You sound like a philosopher.” The Chinese leader was impressed with the small woman’s handling of Ming T’ien.

With a smile that touched her eyes, Gabrielle responded to the implied compliment. “I have made quite a study of many different philosophers and their beliefs.”

“That is very interesting.” Lao Ma kept eye contact with the Amazon. “I would very much like to discuss it with you, sometime.”

Nearly laughing as Xena heard the invitation and tensed, Gabrielle inclined her head and answered. “Of course, I would love that.” She slyly grinned at Xena. “Perhaps we can discuss it over dinner tonight?”

Before Lao Ma could answer Xena broke in. “Tonight is the opening ceremonies for the Festival.” She alternated her gaze between the two leaders. “I don’t think the atmosphere will be conducive to philosophical talk.”

Lao Ma smiled at Xena’s attempt at keeping them apart. “Perhaps some other time then?”

“Of course.” Gabrielle half-bowed and turning, signaled Solan and Karis out the door. She wasn’t thrilled at the hateful look her son directed at the Prince of Chin but wasn’t surprised. Neither was she unprepared for the return glare from the haughty ruler.

Xena watched as her son and the Green Dragon locked eyes for a moment then she drew the eastern ruler’s attention. “I don’t expect to be bothered with anymore petty problems or grievances.”

Ming T’ien watched the door close behind the Amazons he hated before shooting a glare at Xena and sweeping out of the room.

Xena looked at Lao Ma, uncomfortably aware that she was now alone with the eastern beauty. After a long moment of silence Lao Ma spoke.

“How have you been, Xena?” Her hair was dry now. She picked up a brush from the table and began brushing the long dark hair.

“Fine.” Xena thought of Gabrielle and smiled. “Better than fine.”

Lao Ma regarded Xena seriously, placing the brush back on the table she sat and crossed her legs. Her robe fell open to reveal smooth slightly tan limbs. “She is a lovely girl.”

The Conqueror didn’t want to deal with this situation at all. The Warrior Princess answered. “Yes she is a beautiful woman.”

With her hands folded demurely on her lap, Lao Ma regarded Xena seriously. “How will such a lovely young woman take it when you leave her?”

“I won’t leave her.” Xena didn’t really want to talk about her relationship with her former mentor but decided maybe it was for the best. “Profound loyalty remember?”

“When I looked into your soul all those years ago, I saw such great potential.” Lao Ma stood and crossed the room. She stopped within a handspan of her former lover. The power Xena exuded drew her now as it did then and she reached up to touch the warrior’s cheek.

Xena’s firm grip around the delicate wrist stopped the motion. “I have changed since then. Look into my soul now.” She released her hold and bored her eyes into the eastern leaders. “You will find her there staring back at you.” Lao Ma’s eyes grew wide when she realized that Xena was correct. The Warrior Princess rumbled. “I will not discuss this with you, anymore.”

Lao Ma took a step back and bowed slightly. “As you wish, Empress.” She managed to hide the pain in her heart until the door closed behind Xena and even then only one tear rolled down her cheek. She whispered to the empty room. “I will miss you.” She wiped away the tear at the same time she wiped away any hope of being with Xena again.

The Conqueror sighed as the door closed behind her. Her first thought was to go to Gabrielle but then she looked at the spot where the guard had fallen and shuddered. Instead of heading back to her rooms she walked slowly to the stables.

————————————————————–

Karis worried that something was wrong with her Queen. Gabrielle was very quiet on the walk back to her assigned room. ‘She could just be thinking about the guard.’ The young woman shuddered at the speed Xena had dispatched him. ‘He did come at her with a knife though.’ Once inside the rooms, the guard cleared her throat. “I’m going to go check on camp.” Even though the royal guard was housed in a room nearby the rest of the Amazon caravan, the cooks, healers, hunters and laborers were setup just outside the city in a small camp.

Gabrielle barely acknowledged the guard’s plans and headed straight for the secret door and Xena’s rooms. She needed to be alone. She had always known that Xena killed people, she knew the stories, she had seen the aftermath but actually seeing Xena snap the guard’s neck with her bare hands was disturbing at best. She knew at a glance that Mirriam had been there, the bed was made and the fire was burning high. Grateful for the solitude, Gabrielle stretched out on the large bed and closed her eyes. The image of the dark warrior and the guard continued to dance behind her eyes. Sighing she conceded that sleep was not an option at the moment and she looked around for something else to take her mind off the event.

Karis was satisfied with conditions at the camp. It was almost funny to think that no one wanted this site. It was perfect. There was a stream nearby with clear running water, and trees all around for cover. The other Royal encampments were all on the wide-open fields slightly east of here. She shuddered to think about camping in the open. ‘I guess they want to see if anyone is coming to get them.’ The thought was quite amusing. ‘Their guards are too lazy then.’ The thundering hooves of a horse drew her out of her thoughts and she saw Xena ride past the camp at a nearly breakneck speed. From the way she was pushing her horse there was something definitely bothering the Empress. Karis ran to the stables and grabbed her horse, not bothering to saddle it, jumped on and rode after the reckless warrior. She wasn’t aware of the eyes following her, but would have been thrilled at the raised eyebrows her sudden departure caused.

—————————————————————-

Solan rattled around the big room for a little while. He thought about going for a walk and decided against it. He really couldn’t handle the guards following him around right now. He walked out onto the balcony and looked down at the throng of people gathering for the festival. Merchant’s booths were already being set up and he could smell wonderful exotic foods being cooked for the noon meal. This aroma combined with the fact he had only one roll for breakfast prompted him to action.

He knew there was a secret door to Xena’s room, maybe there were others. He changed quickly from his formal outfit, briefly wondering if anyone, even noticed how princelike he looked in it, into a pair of nice but worn leather pants and a equally worn coarsely woven shirt. Dipping into the small pouch Gabrielle had given him, he pulled out a handful of dinars and slipped them into his pocket, he would count them later. Lighting a candle he carried it into the closet and looked around. Pushing on a stone that looked slightly different than the others Solan smiled as the door swung open. “That is so cool.” He whispered to himself as he walked into the secret passageway. Seeing the lever he pulled it and saw the door close behind him. “Excellent.” Careful not to let the candle go out he walked slowly down the corridor and began to explore the secret palace.

When half his candle was gone Solan started to get worried. Every room the tunnels had led him to were full of people. He couldn’t just appear in their rooms and he wasn’t exactly sure how to get back to his own room. Finally he found a door that led to a large empty room and he left the dark secret tunnels for the wide well lit corridors of the Palace proper. As it turned out he was near the kitchen but bypassed the familiar smells for the more exotic ones outside. He knew a bit about festivals from the Amazons. There had been two or three since he had started living in the village. This was twice as big though and it wasn’t fully set up yet. He made one circuit of the booths and tried to decide what to try first. A unfamiliar voice caused him to search the surrounding crowd.

“HEY, Solan!” Bennett waved furiously and beckoned the older boy over.

Solan spotted the waving boy and smiled. Walking over to the table, the stableboy and his friends occupied, he smiled at the others seated there. “Hey there, Bennett. No horses to tend today?”

“Nah… Argo is the only one I take care of special and Xena took her out a little bit ago.” He stuck his tongue out at his tablemates groans. “I’ll brush her down later.”

“Bennett I swear you are getting a swelled head.” A large boy with curly brown hair reached out, pushed the boy’s shoulder lightly and grinned. “You and your name dropping.” He paused long enough to loudly clear his throat then begin speaking again in a very good approximation of Bennett’s voice. “Xena said this… Xena said that…. I met the Amazon Queen…” Rolling his eyes the large boy laughed and returned to his normal voice. “Sure you did.” The other two boys joined in the laughter.

Bennett looked like he was going to beat the others into the ground but before he could say anything Solan flopped down across from him and gaped. “You met the Amazon Queen? WOW! Where?”

The brown haired boy shook his head. “In the stables of course.” He laughed. “EVERYTHING happens in the stables, according to Bennett.” He had fun teasing his friend but now wanted to know about the new arrival. “You’re not from around here huh?”

Suddenly wary of the somewhat personal question, Solan evaded as best he could. “Nah….. I just came in with my Mom for the festival.”

Bennett helped out his new acquaintance. “He got a job at the Palace as a runner.” He looked at Solan for confirmation. “Right?” Sighing when the older boy hesitantly nodded.

“The Palace…whooo hoooo….” The boy’s brown curls shook again as he pushed off from the table. “Maybe you and Bennett can trade Xena stories…. I’m gonna go find something fun to do.” He motioned for the other two and they all walked away from the table.

Solan watched the three disappear into the crowd. “Do they always bother you like that?”

With a casual wave and a grin Bennett dismissed the thought. “They don’t bother me. They were just kidding around.” He looked at his new friend. “Com’on, I’ve been saving some dinars, I’ll buy you a treat.” He looked at the shaking head. “Hey, you couldn’t have been paid yet, you just started…. you can buy next time.” He grabbed the larger boy’s hand before he could protest and dragged him through the crowded stalls. When they finally stopped the aroma from the booth cut off any protests he was going to make. The smell of baking pies was wonderful, small pastries of all sorts lined the counter set up across the front of the booth. Bennett smiled at the baker. “Hey Josh…. any berry pies yet?”

The large man wiped his hands on his apron, his eyes twinkled at the youngster. “You know there are you scamp. Your nose told you when you were five booths away.”

Bennett laughed and tapped his nose.”You’re right.” When the man went back to his ovens to get the requested treats, the stableboy turned to his cohort. “Josh is the best baker in Corinth. He sets up a booth every year but the rest of the time runs a little bakery on the edge of town.” His large brown eyes gleamed as the man reappeared with four gently steaming small pies. “How much.”

“Four coppers for the lot.” He grinned at his little friend’s immediate response.

“FOUR COPPERS!” Bennett rolled his eyes. “You’ve gotta be kidding….. I mean I know you are good but gimme a break!”

“Bennett… I’ve got some…” Solan fished in his pocket for the dinars he had grabbed.

“No way…. I told you this would be my treat…” Bennett was indignant at the idea of Solan paying for what he had promised.

Dropping the coins, Solan pulled his empty hand out of his pocket. “Okay fine…. I just thought I would help.” He looked around the other stalls to find something to occupy himself while Bennett haggled. “I’ll be over there.” He pointed to a merchant laying out several deadly looking weapons. It was a very interesting display.

—————————————————————–

Karis signaled her horse to stop when she saw Argo grazing next to a stone wall. Riding up to the patient animal she saw Xena sitting on top of the wall. The guard stepped easily from the horse’s back to the top of the wall and sat, not too close but next to the brooding warrior. “Hi.” She looked out on the pasture and smiled at the lambs cavorting around the field.

“Hi.” Xena worked a small stone loose from the wall and threw it into an unoccupied section of the pasture. Suddenly she stiffened as a cold chill raced down her spine. Turning to straddle the wall, she pulled Karis closer to her, pressing the guard’s back against her. Finding the Amazon’s ear she whispered. “We are being watched.”

The sudden assault on her senses was almost too much to manage but Karis finally found her voice to answer the observation. “We are or I am?” Xena’s low chuckle against her ear started her heart pounding.

“Good point…. probably a bit of both.” Xena rested her chin on the Amazon’s shoulder.

Karis closed her eyes and let herself drift in the comforting embrace. “So I have to pretend like I’m enjoying this right?”

Xena ran her hand down Karis’ arm and chuckled. “Aren’t you?”

“More than I should.” The warm hand on her arm was giving her goosebumps. “I’m pretty angry at Solan right now.”

“Ahhh… ” Xena settled into a more comfortable position on the wall. “Told you about the sword did he?”

Karis twisted to face the warrior. “No he didn’t. It wasn’t ’til Solari saw him without a shirt and commented on his sword arm that I figured it out.”

Narrowing her eyes suspiciously, Xena rumbled. “When did Solari see him without a shirt?”

Grinning at the protectiveness of the warrior mother, Karis rolled her eyes. “This morning, he was changing out of his sleepwear when a messenger delivered that stupid scroll from the Prince of Chin. You should have seen him busting into the guards room half dressed.”

“Where is he now?” Xena suddenly needed to know where her son was.

“I left him in his room to go check on the camp, then I saw you nearly fly by and tracked you here.” She sat back against the warm warrior and watched two little rams butt heads. “Why?”

“You stayed with him last night.” It wasn’t a question. Xena knew the guard would as soon as she showed her the passageway. Karis nodded affirmative anyway and Xena continued. “And this morning when he woke up you were gone.” Another nod from the guard, pulled a sigh from the warrior. “How long do you think it will take him to find the hidden doors on his own?”

Karis groaned and started to get up. “He is probably walking around the festival booths unprotected.”

“Probably.” Xena moved slowly. “I’ll go first. You follow in a moment, slowly, go back to the Amazon camp first. I want to see if it’s me they are watching or you.” She stood on top of the wall and whistled for Argo. “Meet me back in my rooms. We can look off the balcony and see if we spot him.” Stepping from the wall to Argo’s back Xena galloped off.

Karis stood for a moment to watch her go. Hugging herself, she sat back down to see the babies play a moment longer before heading back to the camp.

—————————————————————————-

Xena stalked around the empty rooms and wondered how long Solan had been gone. She tried not to stomp as she made her way back to her own room but her boots echoed loudly through the stone corridor. She got the definite sense that she had done this before as she pushed open the large door. She tried to take comfort in the familiarity of her quarters pleasantly warmed by a roaring fire. Silence pervaded the room save for the crackling fire and quiet sobs of the blonde woman sitting at the desk. Xena wanted to comfort the crying woman but found herself unable to move. Rooted to the spot she could only watch helpless as Gabrielle closed the journal she had been reading. ‘My horrible past.’ The Conqueror thought. ‘It’s our dream.’ The Warrior Princess was stunned at the similarity. Without a word Gabrielle rose from the desk and walked toward the warrior. Xena opened her arms wide to embrace the crying woman nearly bursting into tears herself when she felt the warm arms surround her waist. Finding her voice she asked quietly. “What’s wrong?”

“He hurt you.” The Amazon’s warm tears wet her lover’s shoulder. “I knew he double crossed you but I had no idea…” She looked up and whispered. “… he broke your legs.”

The memory of that time sent sharp pains through her legs and Xena gasped. “Caesar.” The reality of Gabrielle’s words penetrated her senses. “You were reading my journals?”

The Amazon sniffled and moved her cheek against the strong shoulder. “Yes. I was waiting for you to come back and thought it would be a good way to pass the time.” She looked up, suddenly. “You’re not mad at me for getting into your desk are you?”

The Warrior Princess nearly laughed at that. “For your information I could never be mad at you.” She hugged the relieved bard. The Conqueror sighed. “I thought you were mad at me.”

“Why….” Gabrielle thought for a heartbeat and answered her own question with a question. “Oh… because of the guard?”

“Yeah. Him….” The Conqueror hated that she lost control like that in front of Gabrielle. She just meant to punch the guy and scare him, but when he came at her with a knife, reflexes had taken over. “…..And I thought maybe something in the journals…….” Gabrielle’s small hand over her mouth stopped the rest of her thought.

“Xena, NOTHING I read in those journals will make me mad at you.” She smiled. “I prom….” Now it was the warrior’s hand stopping her own speech.

“Don’t.” Xena shook her head and whispered. “Please don’t….promise that….not until you’ve read them all.” The Conqueror sighed and the Warrior Princess knew that eventually Gabrielle would get to the entries about the Amazons. Right now however there was a pressing problem. She stroked the silky hair and kissed the top of Gabrielle’s head. “We can talk about this later okay? Right now we need to find our wayward son.”

“Huh? Solan?!” Gabrielle nearly panicked. “What’s wrong with Solan?” She headed for the door. Xena’s grip on her elbow stopped her.

“It seems he takes after you in his urge to wander unattended.” She laughed at the widening green eyes. “Don’t even try to deny it. Let’s look out here first.” She dragged the reluctant Amazon toward the balcony.

Gabrielle twisted and broke the grip. “Xena listen to me…. If he has gone to the festival, I know where he will be.” She rolled her eyes at the warrior’s puzzled look then smiled when comprehension appeared. Her voice joined Xena’s as they told each other. “The weapons booth.”

They left a message for Karis with the guards one of which ran for Solari and the other followed them as they quickly made their way to the door closest to the festival’s main thoroughfare. Neither leader was surprised when a group of Amazon guards had joined them by the time they reached the outer gate.

Part 4

”Here.”

Solan turned from admiring the gleaming weaponry to find Bennett offering him a warm berry pie. “Thanks.” He bit into the pastry carefully but greedily because it was close to lunchtime now and he was very hungry. His eyes widened in appreciation. “Wow.” He covered his mouth to keep the yummy bite where he wanted it. “This is great!” Hunger was not the only thing talking, he would have eaten this even if he were stuffed full.

“Yeah.” Bennett smiled at his new friend. “Josh is the best.”

“So how’d you do with the haggling?” Solan took another bite and chewed it slowly, listening to the boy gloat.

“I got him down to half-price and look.” He pulled a large juicy apple from his shirt. “I got this as a bonus.” He paused for a moment and smiled. “For Argo.”

Solan nearly choked on his last bite. “You buy treats for Argo?”

Bennett blushed. “Not usually. Normally I get little one’s from a tree I know.” His eyes twinkled. “But she’ll like this one much better.”

The incognito Prince wiped his hands on his thighs and eyed the big apple. “I bet she will.” He gestured to the weapons. “Look at this.” He turned and touched a sword and sheath that he had been admiring.

“You should ask to see the color of his money before you let him handle your wares. It would be a shame to let such grubby hands dirty the leather before someone who can afford it sees it.” Ming T’ien spoke to the vendor but looked at the boy at the booth. The Prince of Chin decided that the boy obviously wasn’t as important as he originally thought. His clothes were definitely common and there were no guards to be seen. He must be a ordinary servant after all.

Solan glared at the arrogant Prince. He hadn’t noticed his arrival but tried to remain calm. “I have money.”

The merchant didn’t want to take sides with a street rat over an obvious Prince. “Let’s see it boy.”

Sending a quiet prayer to Artemis, Solan reached into his pocket and hoped that the coins he had grabbed would make a decent showing. He hadn’t counted them yet. By now a small crowd had gathered and there were gasps all around when he opened his hand. Looking down he saw only two or three coppers and the rest were either silver or gold.

The merchant narrowed his eyes at the speechless boy. “Just how is it that a street rat like you has so much money?” He grabbed Solan’s wrist. “You stole it didn’t you?” Now frightened at his situation Solan panicked. He grabbed the man’s hand and tried to break the hold on his wrist. That only got him in more trouble as the weapon’s merchant saw his ring. “Whoa. That’s some
ring…. ”

Ming T’ien saw his opportunity and took it. “He must have stolen that too.”

At this point Bennett decided to stand up for his friend. “He didn’t steal anything!” He swallowed hard and turned to Solan. “You didn’t……did you?”

“NO!” The young Prince struggled to get out of the merchant’s grasp. Seeing that it was pointless he relaxed and faced his accuser. “The ring was a Solstice gift and my Mom gave me the money.”

“Ha!” The merchant didn’t notice the crowd parting and spoke sarcastically to his prisoner. “A likely story.” He released his grip on Solan’s wrist and grabbed the front of his shirt. “Just who is your Mom to give you so much gold?”

“I am.” Gabrielle leaned on her staff. Even without her mask, the Amazon Queen in formal leathers was a sight to behold. Flashing green eyes peered out from windswept reddish blonde hair. Surrounded by a ring of Amazon guards, Gabrielle was the perfect picture of a Queen. The merchant was speechless at the arrival of such a large number of Amazons. Gabrielle spoke gently, despite the growing knot in her stomach. “You can let go of him now.”

The man relaxed his grip but didn’t completely let go. “What about the ring? That’s Maxim’s work and he has never been near the Amazon Nation.”

Gabrielle felt a surge of anger at the implication of theft. She pushed it down and shrugged casually. “A Solstice gift……

“….from me.” The low rumbling voice from behind him made the merchant release his hold and spin around. Xena stepped out of the one shadow created in the mid-day sun. She growled at the crowd and Ming T’ien. “Leave now.” The crowd disbursed immediately and the Prince of Chin only stayed long enough to send a look of hatred toward Solan.

The merchant was speechless at the arrival of the Amazon Queen, but Xena’s arrival left him motionless as well. He could barely breath as she paced toward him. When he looked into the blue fire eyes he thought he could hear a predatory cat growling. The relief he felt as she passed him was temporary when he realized the Empress was checking the boy for bruises. He was immediately tense again praying that his handling hadn’t damaged the young prince. He turned and tried to talk “I…I’m…”

Xena’s icy glare caused him to lose his voice again but Gabrielle moved closer and spoke gently. “I’m sorry for any inconvenience my son’s arrival may have caused you.” Glaring at Solan, Gabrielle continued. “You were perfectly justified in holding a suspected thief.” She returned her gaze to the merchant. “I applaud your effort to uphold the laws Xena has issued.” Turning her back on the now relaxing merchant she addressed Xena. “How is he?”

“I’m….” His Mom’s raised hand and green ice stare stopped Solan’s protest. She pointed her index finger at him.

“I’m not talking to you right now.” Turning back to Xena she raised a eyebrow waiting for the answer to her question.

Xena licked her lips and suppressed a flare of protective instinct. Pushing down her own tension at the situation, she answered the waiting Queen. “He’s fine.”

Narrowing her eyes at Solan, Gabrielle unlocked her jaw. “Good.” She ground her teeth together and moved a bit closer to the nervous boy. “I want you to go to your room, and stay there. Solari will come to get you when it’s time for staff practice.” She signaled the guards and watched as three of them led him back through the crowd, toward the palace. She was much to angry to follow him back to the room.

—————————————————————-

Karis only stayed at the camp’s stables long enough to make sure someone was around to brush her horse, then started on the medium walk back to the city. Not surprising, about halfway there Iolaus rode up beside her.

“Hey, fancy meeting you here.” He grinned down at the Amazon.

“Hey yourself.” She squinted up at the grinning man. “What are you doing way out here?”

“Oh just out for a ride…. I’m off duty until opening ceremonies start.” He tilted his head at her.
“And you?”

She hated that he had been the one watching her, she had hoped it was Solari. Now she would have to deal with him and leave Solan to Xena and Gabrielle. She pointed her thumb behind her. “Just checking on things at camp.”

Nodding at that, Iolaus grinned. “Need a lift?”

Karis forced herself to pretend to think it over before she accepted. It was an odd feeling to settle herself in the saddle behind him. She was too used to riding double with Solan. Thinking about Solan reminded her of breakfast this morning, which reminded her that it was now mid-day and she hadn’t eaten yet, which reminded her stomach to rumble. Knowing Iolaus could hear her traitorous stomach, Karis leaned closer and spoke into the man’s ear. “Do you think any food vendors will be set up yet?” It was an invitation to join her for lunch and she knew it.

“Sure.” He turned his head. “I’ll get you the best meal you’ve ever eaten.”

Karis thought of Rayna’s cooking and doubted it but smiled at the blonde man’s boast. “Okay, let’s go.” She tried not to notice that he urged the horse faster to force a tighter grip from her.

———————————————————————

Noticing Xena was busy with Bennett, Gabrielle looked at the merchandise on display. Trying to calm her trembling nerves, she motioned to Solari and when the guard was close enough indicated the weapons. “What do you think?”

Instantly the merchant was animated for a potential sale. He picked up the short sword Solan was looking at and indicated the carving on the hilt. “This was done by the finest craftsman in all of Greece.”

Solari accepted the sword, ran her fingertips down the broad side of the blade and felt tiny imperfections in the metal. She snorted. “It might be good for decoration, but it would break in a real fight.” She handed the inferior sword back to the man and glanced at the rest of his wares. None of the weapons came up to her standard. No matter what the man claimed, Solari knew who the best blacksmith in Greece was and she knew this was not her work.

———————————————————————

Xena put her hand on Bennett’s shoulder. “Thank you for sticking up for Solan.”

The stableboy swallowed hard. “I didn’t know he was a Prince.” Royalty always made him nervous, except Xena, which was odd because she was royalty even to royalty.

Xena could still feel the tension singing through her blood but chuckled and ruffled his hair. “No one did…..” She managed a grin at the grinning boy. “Who ever heard of an Amazon Prince?” The merchant’s indignant voice drew her attention. “Go on now Bennett. I’ll see you in the stables.”

————————————————————————-

“DECORATION!” The weapons vendor couldn’t believe his ears. “I’ll have you know this is high quality steel and will not break easily.”

“Let’s test that.” The Conqueror’s commanding voice overrode the crowd’s murmur and the slither of her blade unsheathing made them all step back a bit.

Solari grinned and grabbed the sword in question. Sparring with Xena was like a dream come true for most Amazons. Xena was the best. The sound of metal clashing on metal rang out once, twice, and on the third time the sword in Solari’s hand shattered. The grinning guard looked at the open mouth surprise of the merchant and laughed. “You’ve been robbed friend.” She tossed the broken sword on his counter.

The Conqueror replaced her sword in its sheath and moved closer to Gabrielle. The playful sparring had released some of the worry that she felt at Solan’s predicament but so far Gabrielle was holding her feelings in check. She could feel the little Queen trembling in her embrace. “You need to relax…. He’s fine.”

‘He’s fine.’ The rumble under her ear eased her tension a bit. The twisting of her guts at the thought of Solan being in trouble or hurt, turned to the gentler rumbling of hunger. A slight breeze blew Gabrielle’s hair around her face and carried a delicious smell. Unerringly, she turned toward the baker’s booth. Glancing once at Xena, she moved purposefully toward the mouthwatering aroma. It was the distinct and unmistakable smell of freshly baked nutbread that drew her to the booth. Motioning to Jana, she spoke quietly to the guard and watched her disappear into the crowd before she turned back to the baker’s booth.

———————————————————

Solan was silent the entire way back to his room. Gabrielle had never punished him physically, but her comments to Ming T’ien this morning and the look in her eye just now made him seriously consider that possibility. Sitting in one of the big chairs by the fire, he thought about the last few weeks and all the actions he had taken, lies he told. He had nothing to do but wait to see what Gabrielle was going to do. He thought about his Mom and her flashing green eyes and the sadness that had been there the day after Ephiny’s wedding. A knock on the door pulled him from his thoughts. He looked up as one of the guards opened the door and Jana carried in a lunch tray.

“The Queen ordered this for you.” Jana set the tray on the small table and left quickly.

He crossed to the table and swallowed hard, all his favorites. He sat down quickly then felt the guilt overtake him. ‘I shouldn’t get my favorites.’ He thought. He looked at the plate, pushed some of the food around on it and sighed. ‘I shouldn’t have worried them like that.’ It was that thought that morphed into another to ease his guilt. ‘If I knew how to use a sword, they wouldn’t be worried.’ The guilt he felt turned to anger. ‘All they have to do is let me use a sword and they would never have to worry about me again. With Xena’s training, no one would be able to beat me.’ He pushed away from the table and started thinking about the arguments he could use to persuade Gabrielle into letting him learn swordplay.

—————————————————————————

Karis looked at the remains of her meal. ‘It really was rather good.’ She thought. ‘Solan would have liked it.’ She pushed that thought away, remembering that she was still mad at him. Taking a drink of the wine Iolaus insisted on, she smiled at the man. “Thank you for lunch. It was very good.”

He pushed back from the table and rubbed his belly. “Yup. When you’re with me you get the best.”

The double meaning of his words were not lost on the Amazon and the thought of being ‘with’ him nearly got him her lunch back in his lap. Swallowing hard against the nauseating thought, she smiled. “I’m sure.”

Leaning forward, he reached across the small table to touch her hair. He was tired of playing around. “You are very beautiful.” He didn’t care if she was the one the Resistance wanted or not, he wanted her, he had since India. “You should be a Queen.”

Letting him stroke her hair for as long as she could stand it, Karis smiled at the compliment and reached up to take his hand. She laughed ironically. “That’s funny.” A voice floated through her mind. ‘Perfect.’

“What’s funny?” He looked puzzled. “You being beautiful or being a Queen?”

“Both.” She put his hand down on the table. “Technically, I could be Queen.” She nearly laughed out loud when Iolaus leaned closer. ‘Gotcha.’

“What do you mean? Are you next in line?” He had no idea what the order of succession was in the Amazon Nation.

“Not really.” Karis explained. “If Gabrielle were to die the next in line to be Queen would be the Heir she named. But at the moment her Heir is too young to assume the Mask.” That much was true. Brie wouldn’t be old enough for several years. “In that case, another Queen is elected, usually someone with royal blood.”

“You are Amazon Royalty?” He didn’t understand that. He thought she was only a guard.

“Well yes and no. My mother’s true sister was Queen of a tribe in the east. We left there when I was about two I think.” She hadn’t thought of that in a long time. The idea of being royalty had passed many years ago. “Anyway… I have supporters in the Nation, and I have the blood. I am sure that if something happens to Gabrielle…” She paused for dramatic effect and let the lie fall from her lips. “….I would be the next Queen.”

Iolaus listened to the young woman’s story intently. ‘Of course.’ He thought of Xena marrying the Amazon Queen. Any betrayal by her would result in swift and merciless punishment at the hands of the Conqueror. As wife, Xena would be well within her rights to kill the little Queen if she even suspected a betrayal to the Realm. It would be the only way to get rid of the Queen without causing all out war with the Amazons. He decided to use his surprise on Karis. “Xena is having something made for your Queen.” His eyes twinkled at her disinterest. “She is having Jonathan work day and night on a ‘special project’. It’s a secret.” He leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially. “Jonathan is a carpenter…..” Now it was his turn for a dramatic pause and he smiled as he continued. “….he makes the best coffins.”

Even the thought of someone planning Gabrielle’s death made Karis’ heart beat faster. ‘Xena would never do that.’ She thought. ‘But it would help my cause…..’ She smiled at the news, like he wasn’t telling her anything she didn’t already know. “Hmmm…really?” She casually sipped her wine as the blonde guard nodded and grinned. “My, my…. she does plan ahead doesn’t she.”

The brilliance of the Empress amazed him. Xena was going to take over the Amazon Nation and she was going to do it by sleeping with two beautiful women and killing one of them, the one that was less inclined to her own violent tendencies. He had wondered about the Conqueror’s fascination with such a peaceful woman. Leaning back in his chair, Iolaus crossed his arms. “She claims she likes to be ready for anything.” The claim was backed up in his mind by Xena’s manipulation of the woman who would be Queen after Gabrielle.

Karis nodded. “That is a wise thing for a ruler to be.” She finished her wine and pushed off from the table. “Speaking of which, my Queen wanted me for staff practice this afternoon.” She looked at the shadows outside. “I better go. I don’t want to be late.”

Surprisingly, he stood and walked her out. “Sure, hey maybe I’ll catch up to you tonight?” Now that he knew Karis was only a pawn in Xena’s game he had no problem with pursuing her.

The hopeful tinge in his voice again threatened to color the ground with her lunch. She forced a smile and a thoughtful. “Maybe.” A rather noncommittal response that she could see in his eyes he had interpreted as “Yes”. She tried not to think about it as she made her way back to the Palace.

————————————————————————————

Xena was surprised that Gabrielle could even move after all she ate, but the large lunch didn’t seem to effect the little Queen at all. As Xena guided her through the palace, she grinned at the Amazon’s effort not to gape at the tapestries that lined the walls. Upon reaching the training room, Xena opened the door and entered first, made sure it was empty, then motioned Gabrielle inside. The guards accompanying them approved of this action immensely. The Amazon Queen snorted.

“You’re as bad as the guards.” The habit they had adopted of entering a room first was starting to get annoying. She grinned at her protectors affectionately.

Xena laughed and deposited Solan’s sheathed sword on the floor next to a small couch to the right of the door spoke to the guards quietly and they left, reluctantly. She sat on the soft cushion and watched Gabrielle look around the large room.

The Amazon realized that the couch was the only furniture in the room. There wasn’t even a fireplace here, just a large empty room with various weapons hanging from racks and pegs on the wall. Light filtered through the clouds and spilled in from windows in the ceiling. She could see dark patches on the wood floor that were obviously blood stains. ‘Training gets as violent here as it does in the Nation.’ She thought. The blood stains served as a catalyst to bring back her fears of Solan being hurt. The events of the marketplace confrontation and the haughty Prince’s parting look at Solan hit her again full force. Twirling her staff once, she sank to the floor, crossed her legs at the knees, keeping her calves parallel to the wall, held her arms out to her sides, closed her eyes and began breathing deeply.

Both Xena’s eyebrows raised and the corner of her slightly open mouth was pulled up with them. She realized that Gabrielle had no idea how painful her position looked. “What are you doing?”

The Amazon took a deep breath, opened her eyes and smiled. “It’s a breathing technique one of the Indian scouts taught me. It’s very helpful in controlling my fears.” Closing her eyes she continued the breathing exercise.

Xena watched amazed, as Gabrielle continued her Indian breathing the patch of light she was surrounded by intensified. She loved the way sunlight highlighted the red in Gabrielle’s silky hair. The golden light burnished the Amazon’s tanned skin and made the woman glow. Lost in the vision of perfection, Xena barely noticed the smooth transition from her seated position to a defensive posture. It was the whoosh of the spinning staff that broke her out of her admiring gaze. The Warrior Princess realized Gabrielle had finished a warm up exercise and started to repeat the drill. She cleared her throat. “Would you like to spar a bit before Solan gets here?”

Gabrielle slowed the spin of the staff and planted one end firmly on the floor. “Sure.”

Xena walked to the rack of staffs mounted on the far wall. Choosing one, she turned to the waiting woman. Twirling her new weapon experimentally, Xena closed in on her willing opponent.

Gabrielle circled her challenger. The hard wood in her hand cut through the air with a low whoosh and connected with Xena’s staff. The loud crack of wood on wood echoed through the room and down the corridor again and again.

Xena deflected blow after blow. She was impressed with Gabrielle’s ability, she had gauged her as excellent when she watched her spar with Solan in the Amazon village but this surpassed anything she ever expected. From the corner of her eye, the Warrior Princess saw Solari bring Solan in. He sat on the couch but kept his eyes on the fight and didn’t see his sword on the floor beside him.

Gabrielle used the slight distraction to knock the staff out of Xena’s hand. It was usually a great relief to disarm her opponent but this time she felt disappointed that the fight was over. The tension she felt at the memory and implications of Ming T’ien’s stare at Solan had not been completely purged from her system. Solan’s arrival had brought them back nearly full force. She pushed her inner turmoil down and began to walk toward Solan to explain what to expect from the Prince of Chin. A familiar sound caused her to whirl around and immediately go into a defensive posture.

The Conqueror felt the staff leave her hands and growled. ‘Let’s see what she can do against a sword.’ In a heartbeat the slither of metal on leather hissed through the room.

—————————————————————

The sound of metal on wood drew Karis to the open door of the room. She stopped cold when she saw Gabrielle and Xena fighting staff against sword. A quick glance, eyes only, assured her that neither Solan nor Solari were going to move. Nothing should distract Gabrielle, this was very dangerous. She saw the thin film of perspiration on both women and wondered how long they had been fighting.

Truth be told all three of the observers could have been dancing naked and it wouldn’t have distracted either of the combatants. The Conqueror was focused totally on the small woman with the big stick and Gabrielle was not aware of anything beyond the dark sword wielding menace. Circling each other, they waited for their opening. Suddenly Gabrielle lunged forward.

‘Ha!’ The Conqueror instantly saw that the move would make the Amazon vulnerable when she turned to regain her balance. Then the Ha turned to ‘Huh?’ when a complicated hand shift kept the staff between the blonde and the sword. It was a beautiful move, almost like a dance and Xena couldn’t help admire the grace her love exhibited. That was a mistake.

In the instant it took The Conqueror to figure out the move that Gabrielle had executed, the Amazon struck the sword close to the hilt, knocking it from her hand. Instinctively dodging the follow-through swing, Xena felt the end of the staff graze her ear as it whistled past. The sound of the end of the staff planted firmly on the floor echoed through the room. The fight was over and Gabrielle had won.

All three of the spectators looked in open-mouth wonder at the little blonde Amazon. Solan was amazed that Gabrielle had beaten the great swordfighter with just a staff. Solari and Karis both beamed with pride at their Queen’s accomplishment. They all knew that anyone else would have been knocked out by the last move. Xena’s extraordinary reflexes had saved her from a painful headache.

Karis dismissed Solari, with strict orders not to tell anyone about Xena’s defeat at Gabrielle’s hands. She saw her second bristle against the restriction but they both knew that it was always wise to let a enemy underestimate your abilities. The head guard watched the door close behind Solari before she turned to give the approaching couple her report. She spoke to Xena first. “It was Iolaus watching us.” At the Empress’ nod she continued. “He approached me on the way back from camp. We had a very interesting lunch.”

“Good.” Xena glanced at her scowling son. “I assume he will want to see you tonight.”

Karis nodded and started to speak when Solan interrupted. “But tonight is the opening of the Festival. I thought we could…..”

“You will not be going anywhere tonight.” All eyes turned to Gabrielle as her hard voice continued to dole out her son’s punishment. “You are restricted to the Palace until I say otherwise. Further, you will not go anywhere within the Palace without THREE Amazon guards.” She looked straight into his big brown eyes. “Two will stand at the door and one will be inside the room to watch you.”

“INSIDE!?” Now he turned to Xena pleading. “Please, I don’t need a babysitter.”

“You don’t?” The Warrior Princess was not happy he had turned to her to lessen his punishment. If it were up to her she would have punished him more, then she thought maybe it was up to her. “I always thought that boys who ran off without telling anyone where they were going did need a babysitter.”

Now Solan was angry. More than anything he hated being treated like a baby, especially in front of Karis. He stood and towered over Gabrielle. “I didn’t do anything you didn’t do.” He started to point his finger at his Mom’s chest when a hand grabbed it and bent it almost painfully behind his back. He found his face pressed against the wall for a moment before she released him. When he turned to face the women Karis’ angry voice, his mother’s ice stare and Gabrielle’s sad green eyes made him swallow hard.

“You listen to me.” Karis’ voice grated in her own ears. “Gabrielle was very brave to do what she did. When the priestess told her the scout had information on the Resistance, she had to go. It was much too dangerous to pass the information through the usual channels. She was also armed, and waited for Solari to go with her.” The guard felt tears welling in her eyes but continued. “You didn’t tell anyone where you were going. You had no weapon or guards….. We were worried about Gabrielle…” Now she backed off. “…but we were scared for you.”

“I would never ask my scouts to do anything that I wouldn’t do.” Gabrielle watched her son closely. “Do you know what would have happened if we hadn’t arrived at the booth when we did?”

Solan shrugged. “I guess the merchant would have called the guards and I would have been taken to jail.” The memory of the Amazon prison flashed through his mind, dry room, warm bed. He glared at Gabrielle. “Which is apparently where I ended up anyway.”

“NO!” The Warrior Princess was appalled at the thought of Solan being taken there. She saw the startled looks on all three faces and continued calmly. “The Conqueror’s prison is no place for you.”

Dismissing, for the moment, the stories she had heard about Xena’s prison, Gabrielle shook her head. “That is not the only thing that might have happened.” Leaning back into Xena’s warmth, she looked up at the warrior. “Tell him.”

Sighing, the warrior mother began to explain. “In the land of Chin, insults are not tolerated. Ming T’ien is very angry that he was insulted at dinner the other night, despite Lao Ma’s assurances of his dismissal of the subject. By falsely accusing you of stealing the ring, he has been proven a liar in front of his guards and a crowd of people.” Karis interrupted Xena’s explanation.

“He will want a fight to prove his manhood.” The notion was not unlike the Amazon warrior’s rite of passage. “Let him…. I can take him.” Not many people knew all of the weapons she was actually trained to use. Karis knew she could take just about anyone in a fair fight with just about any weapon.

Xena released Gabrielle, leaned against the wall and snarled. “No, he won’t want to fight you. You are just a girl. Women to him are nothing.” She turned to look at her son. “He will want to fight you Solan.”

“ME!” The young prince’s eyes grew very large. “Why me?” Despite his confidence with the staff, he knew he was far from ready to be in a sword fight.

Gabrielle spoke softly. “Because you are the only male associated with us….the Amazons.”

Xena’s growl startled them all. “I won’t allow it.” She ran her fingers through her hair. “I just won’t let him publicly challenge you.”

“Because I’m your son?” Solan knew that was part of the reason and he also knew that he couldn’t use that as an excuse.

The Warrior Princess answered. “Yes.” The Conqueror continued. “And because you are untrained.”

“That is something that can be remedied.” Gabrielle reached down and retrieved his sword. Offering it to him with reverence, she whispered. “We decided this morning that you should be able to choose your own path.” She watched him sadly as he took the offered weapon.

“Thank you Mom.” He leaned in to kiss her cheek. “I love you too.” He was determined to master the skill of sword fighting so no one would have to worry about him anymore.

Gabrielle felt like she had just signed his death proclamation and was glad she was near the couch to sit on. She heard the slither of metal on leather as he exposed the blade to the room

Solan looked at his reflection in the sword for a moment and turned to Xena expectantly. “Okay, should I go through the basics you showed me?”

The Warrior Princess crossed her arms and raised one perfect eyebrow. “You can do whatever you want.”

“Huh?” Now Solan was confused.

‘I won’t turn him into a killer.’ The Warrior thought and looked at her son. ‘I won’t make him like me.’ She heard the growling in her head. ‘I promised I would teach him.’ She countered the Conqueror’s growl. ‘No you didn’t. You never promised.’ She continued calmly for her dark sister and Solan. “Amazons can teach you what you need to know. I want no part of it.”

“But you said….” Solan couldn’t believe Xena was going back on her word.

“I said I wouldn’t even consider it unless Gabrielle said it was okay.” The matter of fact way she repeated the wording caused him to shake his head. She glanced at the seated blonde. “She said it was okay for you to learn and I considered it. Your recent childish behavior convinced me that you aren’t ready for what I have to offer.” She shrugged, seeing the hurt in his eyes caused her heart to break a little. ‘No one can teach him as well as I can.’ The Conqueror was upset. The Warrior Princess was unrepentant for her decision.

Gabrielle hadn’t expected that but she knew that it was a worse punishment than the restrictions she had put on him. She sighed and spoke to her son. “Like it or not you are a Amazon Prince. If you choose to learn swordfighting, Amazons will teach you. Karis or Solari can start your training here. I’m sure Eponin will be happy to finish when we return to the village.”

Karis heard her Queen’s words but couldn’t really believe it. Instructing the Prince was a huge responsibility. Eponin was a Master instructor at the school. Karis, head of the royal guard or not, didn’t know if she was up to the assignment. Sitting next to Gabrielle she whispered. “Are you sure?”

“He really should be allowed to make his own choice.” Gabrielle took Karis’ hand and squeezed it slightly. “We all should be able to choose our own path in life.” It had always pained Gabrielle’s heart to know that Karis’ mother had chosen a course for her daughter. There were a lot of stories about the training she had been subjected to because of her mother’s determination to make her the best. Gabrielle was one of the few people who knew the motivation behind it though.

Karis felt a small grin pulling at her lips. She understood her Queen’s reference to choosing your own path and returned the pressure on the small hand in hers. “Sometimes you get lucky and the path chosen for you, is the one you would have chosen anyway.” The whoosh of metal swinging through the air drew their attention. Solan was running through some basic drills and Karis was pleasantly surprised at Solan’s competence with the weapon.

‘He’s very good.’ The Warrior Princess studied his technique with detachment, as did the Conqueror. ‘Yes he is.’ Fighting with Gabrielle had put a touch of menace in the Conqueror’s tone. They watched as Karis chose a sword from the wall and began to spar with the boy.

Xena sat next to Gabrielle and watched the two young people training for a moment. “He is very good you know.” She felt a small hand slip into hers.

“He is your son.” The quiet reminder was reinforced by a reassuring squeeze.

“He is your son too and the son of Borias.” Xena watched as Solan improvised a move and disarmed a startled Karis. “That is the only thing that saved him.” She was sure the Centaurs would never have accepted the child if he had not been the son of their friend, Borias and she knew he would be dead now if not for Gabrielle.

“I see so much of you in him.” Gabrielle leaned against the warm shoulder and watched their son lose his sword to a flurry of movements by Karis.

“I don’t want him to be like me.” The Warrior Princess knew that was why Borias had taken him in the first place. ‘You mean you don’t want him to be like me.’ The Conqueror corrected. Sighing, the Warrior Princess replied. ‘That’s what I said.’

“I know.” Gabrielle stretched up to kiss the warrior on the cheek.

“What was that for?” Xena felt her cheek tingling where the soft lips had pressed against her.

Gabrielle snuggled closer, wrapping one arm around the warrior’s waist and laying her head on the warm shoulder, she sighed softly. “Just for being you.”

They sat in comfortable silence for several moments watching their son before Gabrielle rose quietly and walked out the door. Xena was only a few steps behind her.

Karis saw a single tear mix with the sweat on Solan’s face but remained silent and simply continued to teach the boy what he had always dreamed of learning. The old saying drifted through her head. ‘Be careful what you wish for….. you just might get it.’

——————————————————–

Gabrielle walked slowly toward their room when a gentle hand on her neck stopped her.

“How ’bout some fresh air?” The Warrior Princess smiled into sad green eyes. “Com’on.” They walked back past the training room toward the stables and heard the sound of metal against wood. She thought. ‘Karis must be testing him against different weapons.’

It was a shorter ride than she remembered. Sitting on the wall, watching the lambs, Gabrielle melted back into Xena’s warm arms. Hugging the arms around her she spoke quietly. “I didn’t expect you to do that.” She twisted to look at the stoic face. “He wanted you to teach him.”

Xena watched the two little rams butting their heads together again. The Conqueror growled. “I wanted to teach him.” The Warrior Princess spoke quietly. “I wouldn’t let her.”

Gabrielle considered that and snuggled closer. “It must be hard for you. I know you love him, and want the best for him.”

Xena leaned down and whispered into Gabrielle’s perfect ear. “Yes, we love him…..we love you, too.”

Savoring the warm breath on her ear, the Amazon closed her eyes and smiled. “I love you too.”

Xena’s soft whisper in her ear forced her eyes open. “Look.”

Clear green eyes opened to see two little lambs walking very close to their observation point. Moving very slowly, the women climbed down the inside wall and stood motionless as the curious babies approached them. Kneeling in the clover, the women nearly held their breath as the gangly animals came closer. Smiles twinkled in green and blue eyes when the little ones were close enough to touch. They spent the better part of the next candlemark petting them until their mother called them back to her side.

“We should be going too.” Xena squinted up at the sun. “We need to get ready for the opening of the Festival.”

——————————————————

Karis caught her breath from the workout on the walk back to their assigned rooms. Standing at the door of Solan’s room she patted him on the shoulder. “You did very well today.” She would have kissed him on the cheek if the guards at the door had not been there. “Go wash up and change… opening ceremonies will start soon. I’m going to give your Mom a report.” His grip on her elbow stopped her from turning.

“You won’t tell them….” Solan’s pleading eye’s caught her’s.

She patted his hand reassuringly. “I’ll give her your rating. I’ll report on your progress.” She brushed the hair from his forehead. “The rest is for you to tell.” She grinned at his smile. “Now go on. I’m sure it takes a bit of time to look as handsome as you did this morning.” She turned quickly and made her way to Xena’s room, unaware of the happy smile on his face.

‘She noticed!’ He thought. He had convinced himself that her earlier comments on his outfit were only to press the point about the sword. He started to change and was almost dressed when it hit him. ‘Why am I dressing? I’m restricted to the Palace.’ He looked out the bathroom door to see Jana at her post, inside. ‘Mom said I could move around as long as I took the guards.’ He finished adjusting his gold headband and looked in the mirror.

He fluffed up the puffy black sleeves that protruded from the burgundy vest and straightened his thin black belt. ‘Not bad I guess.’ He thought about Ming T’ien and his silk robes. Frowning for a moment with envy, a sudden thought made him burst out laughing. He walked out of the bathroom chuckling. Jana’s puzzled face forced an explanation for the outburst. “I was just thinking how difficult it would be for Ming T’ien to take to the trees in his robes.”

The guard let out a short bark of laughter. It had been a running joke among them, the Amazon guards, about the armor and weaponry the other guards wore or carried and the finery of the royalty they guarded. They knew even in rags, their Queen would outshine them all. Jana took a second look at the Prince and conceded that although he made a perfect street rat, he could also stand out in a crowd when he wanted to. The image of his half-dressed arrival in the guard’s room this morning made her catch her breath. ‘He is growing up.’ She thought. His voice called her back to reality.

“Jana?” He had already said her name twice. It wasn’t like her to drift off like that. Moving closer he held her shoulders and shook them slightly. He studied her face intently. “Are you all right?”

Gazing into his deep brown eyes, Jana barely found the voice to answer. “I’m fine.” Shaking her head and shrugging off his grip she cleared her throat and repeated. “I’m just fine.”

Solan narrowed his eyes and drawled. “Okay.” He indicated the door behind her and smiled. “Then let’s go.”

—————————————————————-

Gabrielle checked her formal outfit once more in the mirror, adjusting the feather necklace slightly. “So what is this ceremony anyway?” She turned and caught her breath. Xena was gorgeous.

The Empress had grumbled earlier about her clothing having to be neutral. With so many different countries represented here she couldn’t, even unintentionally, show preference to one by wearing their style of clothing. She settled for the leather outfit she had worn their first night in Potidea. Strips of gold accented her short leather skirt. The ornate brass armor was vaguely Amazonian in design, but not so much that anyone would comment on it. Purple fabric around her arms added a touch of royalty to the outfit, as did the black/gray cape. The Amazon barely restrained her hand from reaching out to touch the raven black hair spilling over the warrior’s claw-like shoulder guards.

Xena saw the twitching hand and smiled. Moving closer, she reached out her own hand to Gabrielle’s honey-red hair. “It’s pretty simple. First we go to the reception hall and wait for the rest of the royalty to arrive, some of which put on exhibitions of their countries talents.” She pushed the golden locks behind the small perfect ear. “Then we walk a circuit around the merchants booths.” Leaning in, Xena grazed the newly exposed ear with her lips. “We stop at the musician’s platform.” She smiled as the rhythm of Gabrielle’s hot breath on her neck increased. “I declare the Festival open, someone tries to kill me….” She teased the warm lobe with her tongue. “Then everybody dances, the wine flows freely.” She released the ear, and sighed. “Then the fights break out, the guards get to bust heads, the prison fills up, things get broken……”

“…but everyone has a good time.” Gabrielle finished, rolling her eyes and grinning. “It sounds like a typical Amazon party to me. Except for that assassination thing….” She narrowed her eyes at Xena, not sure if the warrior was joking or not.

With a sideways grin, Xena chuckled. “Oh really? Typical party huh?” She didn’t get to make a further comment. A knock on the door drew their attention. Both leaders smiled at Karis as she entered.

The guard turned trainer approached her Queen and knelt. She couldn’t quite keep the smile off her face at Gabrielle’s sigh.

“Report.” The standard order was a formality Gabrielle would have gladly dispensed with.

Karis looked up at the women. “I tested Solan on the basics. I believe his strength and skill put him at the advanced level.” She shuffled her feet and continued. “He learns very quickly. By the end of the session he had no problems with the drills I showed him.”

‘How can he be advanced? He only just started.’ Gabrielle was oddly proud and dismayed at the same time. She had known he was good, she had estimated his skill as upper intermediate, the advanced rating startled her. She rolled her eyes at Xena. “He is your son.”

Karis saw Xena’s little grin and knew a bit of pride puffed up the warrior’s chest. She also knew a big reason Solan was so good. She looked at her Queen. “He is your son too.” It was almost funny to see the Conqueror deflate. “His wrists and arm strength are largely due to your staff training, and..” Karis cut herself off. She had not intended on telling the rest.

“And what?” Gabrielle was curious about anything she had done to encourage or help Solan with swordplay.

The Amazon guard sighed. “…and no practicing meant he had more time for chores.” Seeing her Queen’s puzzlement she continued. “Cutting and splitting wood, running messages, hunting, all activities that, I believe gave him the endurance to last in a long fight.”

‘So I helped make him a killer after all.’ Gabrielle was upset at the news. A few deep, calming breaths controlled her dismay for the moment. She knew that her son’s choice would cause her concern for the rest of his life. She hoped she was concerned forever.

“Endurance?” Xena agreed with the strength aspect but doubted the endurance part. She knew that a real battle could last longer than she thought any of them could imagine.

“I believe he could hold his own for at least a candlemark in a fight.” Karis’ confidence in her statement was all it took to convince them.

‘Not bad.’ The Conqueror was impressed with the assessment although she wished she could judge for herself. ‘Karis is qualified.’ The Warrior Princess was also impressed but not exactly thrilled. If Solan thought he was good it would make him even cockier. ‘That is the last thing he needs to be.’ They knew an imagined skill was worse than no skill. Her worries were somewhat allayed at Karis’ next statement.

“I told him he was middle intermediate.” Karis saw the shock in both women’s eyes. They didn’t like their son lied to anymore that they liked their son to lie to them. She looked at Gabrielle for a moment and saw comprehension in her Queen’s eyes.

Gabrielle was about to reprimand Karis for lying then she realized outloud. “Amazons are not allowed to carry a sword unless they are rated advanced.” She looked at Xena. “The only exception is if we are at war.” She wished she could promote Karis for the understatement. “He will be allowed to practice but Solan will not be allowed to carry a sword until Karis upgrades his rating.” She looked at the guard with gratitude. “And she won’t do that until I tell her to. Will you.” It wasn’t a question but Karis answered anyway.

“No my Queen.” Karis smiled at Gabrielle. “Until you say otherwise, he is intermediate.”

Neither woman had a chance to comment on that as the object of their discussion came through the door. Both leaders couldn’t help notice how the young people’s faces lit up when they saw each other.

Karis admired Solan’s outfit choice. She had always liked the burgundy color and grinned at his choice of black for a shirt instead of the traditional white that all the other royalty seemed so fond of. Suddenly she realized she was still sweaty from the training session. “I’ll go change now.” With a quick smile at the women and a slightly longer grin at Solan, Karis left.

The Conqueror looked at her son and smiled. “I guess you had a good session.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” He looked at Gabrielle tentatively. “Is that what Karis told you?”

“Karis said she gave you a intermediate rating.” Gabrielle saw his eyes twinkle with a bit of pride. “Not bad for someone just starting.”

The Conqueror returned the twinkle and grinned. “She said you had the drills down with no problem.” The Warrior Princess continued in a more serious tone. “Swordplay is not a game. You will have to work hard to develop the reflexes necessary if you ever expect to be in a fight and win.”

Solan swallowed hard at the thought of swordfighting with anyone. Karis had seemed impressed but the intermediate rating gave him pause. He did grin at his warrior mother though. “Thanks.”

The Warrior Princess smiled back a bit sadly. “Just remember, in a real fight someone always gets hurt.” She held her hand out to Gabrielle. “Ready?”

With a wicked smile, the Amazon Queen pulled her love’s dark head down. Finding the warrior’s ear she whispered. “I’m always ready.” Green eyes twinkled at Xena’s groan.

The Conqueror was all for postponing the festivities. The Warrior Princess was tempted but simply grinned at the teasing Amazon and guided her to the door. Solan followed them and to their surprise the Royal Guard waited just outside the door for them. The procession was joined by Iolaus, a group of Xena’s guards and Karis before they reached the reception hall.

———————————————————–

Iolaus walked next to Karis. “With the Empress in the open during the opening there is always an assassination attempt. You might want to keep your Queen away from her.” He winked. “I thought I should warn you.”

“Thanks.” Karis wondered if Xena had mentioned that small fact to Gabrielle. She signaled the others to be ready and smiled as they all became twice as serious looking as before. Solari in particular seemed to radiate menace as she shifted her quiver of arrows to a more convenient angle.

The reception hall was already crowded when they arrived. Xena looked at the raised dais with her throne resting contentedly in the middle. She had never realized how lonely it looked until this moment. When their little procession reached the Amazons assigned space, Gabrielle tried to release her hand from Xena’s. A questioning look from the warrior pulled a grin from the Queen at her side. “I don’t think sitting on your lap would be very dignified.”

“I guess you can stand then.” Xena laughed and continued up toward the throne, Gabrielle in tow. She placed one booted foot on the front edge of her throne and kicked it off the dais. She turned to look at the astonished green eyes. “I guess we both stand…” Xena smiled.

Gabrielle grinned. “…together.”

“Always.” The Empress’ simple reply caused both their hearts to skip a beat.

Salmoneous’ voice pulled their attention back to the room in general. “Now for your entertainment, the royal dance troupe of Losha.” Both women on the dais watched the dancers cavorting around the open area. Neither were terribly impressed. It was not surprising that they were both thinking the same thing. ‘Amazon dancers are better.’

Solan only barely paid attention to the dancers, Amazon dancers were better anyway. Most of his concentration was spent on the fact that Iolaus had his hand on Karis’ shoulder. He hated this part of the plan but knew that Karis had to get close to the leaders of the resistance and Iolaus was the only one they knew. He hadn’t even glanced at the area assigned to the representatives from Chin but could feel the eastern prince’s eyes on him. They all would have been surprised to find that there was another set of eyes that watched the royal couple and the Amazons with extreme interest.

A hooded blonde figure watched from the shadows. Her deep brown eyes didn’t miss anything, from the tender looks the couple on the dais gave each other, to the hateful stare the young man standing with the Amazons directed at Iolaus. ‘So the little Amazon Prince has a thing for the guard.’ She studied the woman in question and wondered. ‘I wonder if it’s mutual?’ A plan for a bit of cooperation insurance and a test started forming in her devious mind. A subtle gesture brought two men dressed in guard uniforms over and she spoke to them quietly.

—————————–

They stood hand in hand through the performance of three more troupes of dancers from various kingdoms and a lovely singing performance by a young girl who’s voice was surely a gift from the Gods. When the performances were over, Xena linked elbows with Gabrielle and they began to walk toward the outside door. Amazon guards surrounded them as they walked through the merchant stalls. When they reached the musician’s stage, Solari continued up the stairs with the couple as the rest of the entourage arranged themselves along the front.

Solari looked around the crowd and booths for any sign of trouble. She dismissed Xena’s guards patrolling the rooftops, concentrating on the throng of onlookers surrounding the platform.

Xena raised her hands to quiet the crowd. “Welcome to Corinth.” She glanced at Gabrielle. “I, Xena: The Conqueror, declare this Winter Festival officially OPEN!” She lowered her arms.

In the heartbeat of silence between the declaration and the thunderous cheers, Gabrielle heard a sound. It was one she was trained for, one she knew all too well. An arrow, two arrows actually were coming toward them. She had a decision to make and in the time between one heartbeat and the next she made it. Reaching out her hand she felt the cold shaft of the arrow in her fingers stop only a fingerwidth away from the heart she loved. She looked down expecting to see the other arrow sticking out of her chest only to find familiar tapering fingers wrapped around the shaft meant to pierce her heart.

Solari saw the double catch and traced the arrow’s paths back to the shooters. Without hesitation, she pulled two arrows from her quiver and let them fly. It was without a doubt the most magnificent shot anyone had ever seen. Each arrow found it’s mark and the two would-be assassins fell from their rooftop perches.

Xena examined the arrows briefly before breaking them and tossing them aside. The Conqueror was angry and so was the Warrior Princess. ‘They tried to kill Gabrielle.’ The thought was shocking. She had not expected anyone to go after the Amazon Queen. ‘We have to get her out of here.’ The Warrior Princess had barely formed the thought when The Conqueror grabbed Gabrielle’s hand and quickly led her back to the Palace.

————————————————–

Solan watched with envy as the room cleared out. He sighed at his assigned guards. “Sorry to ruin your fun guys.”

Jana spoke for the other two. “It’s okay. Really. We’ll go later.” She winced as Ria slapped her shoulder.

“Well don’t rub it in, Jana!” Ria rolled her eyes at their young Prince and spoke sarcastically. “She is so thoughtful.”

Solan laughed. “No problem.” He hadn’t known Ria for very long but he liked her, he liked most of the guards really. Throwing one arm around Ria’s shoulder and the other around Jana’s he spoke confidentially. “When you do get out there there’s a baker’s booth you have to go to.” He described where it was and Jana nodded. It was where they had found him earlier. He released his hold on the guards and began to walk back to his room. “I guess that’s it for my Festival activities though.” He had a sudden thought. “Do you think I could get away with going to the stables?” He saw the doubtful expressions on his guards faces. “I really would like to tell Bennett thanks for sticking up for me.” He knew he was close to convincing them so he poured on the charm. “The stables are part of the Palace right?” He put on his most innocent puppy dog expression. “Please?” A huge grin crossed his face when all three women rolled their eyes at once. “Thanks guys.”

Each one of the guards mumbled to themselves as they walked toward the stables, unaware of the deep brown eyes watching them from the shadows.

Norin thought. “We are gonna get in so much trouble.”

Ria knew. “This is not a good idea.”

Jana couldn’t help noticing. “By the Gods, he has a cute butt.”

Ria whispered to Jana. “You had better cut that out before Karis hears you.” She saw the puzzled look on Jana’s face. “You can’t be emotionally attached to the person you are guarding. If Karis finds out you have a crush on Solan you’ll be reassigned.”

“I DON’T….” Jana’s indignant voice rang through the hall. She lowered her voice and hissed at Ria. “I don’t have a crush on him.”

The younger guard held up her hands in defense. “Sure you don’t… Whatever you say.”

They were all silent the rest of the way to the stables. Norin and Ria rolled their eyes as they took their posts outside the stable door and Jana entered the barn with Solan. They opened the wide door of the stables so a handler could walk two horses in. Neither of them got a good look at the hooded figure holding the reins between the animals.

———————————————————————-

When the royal couple reached the dubious safety of the Palace war room the Conqueror released Gabrielle’s hand and grabbed Iolaus by the front of his shirt. “Those were standard issue guard arrows.” She growled at the man’s incoherent stutter. As angry as she was, she wasn’t above using the situation to her advantage. “I want every guard interrogated and anyone suspected of being with the resistance dismissed.”

“We are already short-handed.” Iolaus was thrilled. He had been totally surprised by the attack but now things were working out better than he expected. Now he could get rid of all the loyal guards and replace them with his own people.

Xena glanced at the wall of Amazons surrounding Gabrielle and snarled at the whining man. “The Amazons will take over guard duties for their Queen and me. The rest of the royalty can use their own guards as well.” She addressed the Amazons. “You should take your Queen to her room.” Xena felt some of her tension ease as Gabrielle’s amused voice floated through the room.

“It doesn’t take twenty guards to escort me to my room.” The Amazon was not thrilled that someone had tried to kill Xena so publicly. “Karis, I want you to work with Iolaus on scheduling to compensate for his reduction in man power.”

Karis nodded and stepped out of formation. “Yes, My Queen.”

Gabrielle pointed to five of the guards surrounding her. “Stay to guard Xena.” She would have felt much better if Solari would have stayed too but didn’t feel like arguing the protest that order would surely bring. Finding a chink in her guard wall, Gabrielle winked at Xena before turning to go to her room.

Secure in the knowledge that Gabrielle was safe, the Conqueror turned to Iolaus. “Interrogations should begin immediately.” She gestured to Karis. Wrapping her arm around the young Amazon’s shoulder she dragged her away from the others. She whispered. “Keep track of the men Iolaus lets go.” She knew those would be the loyal ones.

“Of course.” She knew the interrogation order was not simple anger talking. It was dangerous to give Iolaus the chance to get rid of his opposition though. Glancing at the others she took this opportunity for a personal thanks. “Thank you for saving Gabrielle.” The selfless way Xena had caught the arrow meant for her Queen had impressed the guard immensely.

Liquid blue eyes regarded the Amazon sadly. “The choice of a quick death over the daily death of living without her ……” Xena shook her head. “…. it was a purely selfish decision.” Taking a deep breath Xena patted Karis’ arm and walked back to the waiting Iolaus.

Karis watched the woman walk away from her and took a deep breath herself, muttering. “Gabrielle made the same choice.” It was a true testament to the depth of their love for each other and she was not sure the ploy of Xena killing Gabrielle would convince anyone now.

——————————————————————-

Solan knocked on the door to Bennett’s quarters. A irritated voice responded. “Just a minute.” Bennett shoved a few of the small apples he was about to give to Argo inside his shirt and opened the door. The young man’s eyes flew open. “Oh sorry I didn’t know it was you.” He wiped his hands on his thighs. “Do you want me to saddle a horse for you?”

Solan laughed. “I think I could saddle my own horse if I tried really hard.” He grinned at the younger boy. “I just wanted to say thanks for sticking up for me in the market. Most people would have just let them take me away.”

Bennett scoffed. “Just told the truth. I knew you didn’t steal anything.” He hesitated and added. “..your Highness?”

“Technically, I guess Highness is right…but you should just call me Solan.” He widened his grin. “Friends don’t stand on technicalities.”

“So you just came out here to tell me thanks?” Bennett was dubious. “You aren’t going riding?”

Solan shook his head. “After today’s adventure, I’m not going anywhere.”

“That’s what you think.” The new arrival laughed as they all whirled at the sound of her voice.

Jana stepped between Solan and the woman. “Who are you?”

With a maniacal smile that touched her eyes the woman sneered. “My name is Callisto. I am one of the original survivors of the slaughter at Cirra.” She looked at Solan. “You are coming with me.”

“Over my dead body.” Jana prepared herself to fight.

Callisto tilted her head and looked at the guard. Sniffing, she wiped her nose with the back of her hand and pulled a knife from it’s arm sheath. “Okay.”

———————————————-

Gabrielle fought the terror of nearly losing Xena all the way to her room but she pushed it aside for a new knot in her stomach as they walked down the hall. ‘Where are Solan’s guards?’ She sped up, urged by a horrible feeling. Not waiting for the guards to enter first she burst through the door into the empty room. Her frantic calls for Solan echoed off the walls and she spun to Solari. “Find him.”

Solari signaled three others to follow her. The Queen called after the retreating guards. “Check the training room first.” Her mind was running faster and faster. “Bekka, those men Solari shot. Were they really guards?”

“Yes my Queen. I have seen them on duty before.” The guard was puzzled at the question.

Gabrielle paced the room. “Why would they waste men like that? Surely they knew the attempt wouldn’t work.” She wiggled her fingers. “With only two archers even if she had been alone on the platform Xena would have caught both arrows. And there was no way they would have been allowed to escape.” Suddenly the thought clicked in her head. ‘It was a diversion.’ The terror that coursed through her nearly brought her to her knees. “Oh Xena…… they have him.” Heading back out the door, Gabrielle was oblivious to the guards following her. She had to get to Xena.

————————————————————-

The Conqueror sat for a moment at her desk. She watched Karis interacting with Iolaus and was quietly impressed. The Amazon took every casual opportunity to touch the man, on his arm, on his hand. When Iolaus spoke Karis listened intently and sometimes leaned closer. Xena was fascinated with the subtle dance of seduction Karis was performing and wondered where the Amazon had learned such skills. That thought only lasted a moment as a wave of terror not her own hit her. “They have him.”

Karis and Iolaus turned at the outburst. They both saw the Empress’ pale face and rushed to her. “What is it? What’s wrong?” Both guards were curious, each for their own reason.

The warrior’s large hands gripped the arms of her seat until her knuckles were white. She whispered. “Solan.” It was all she could do to keep herself from ripping out Iolaus’ throat. He was part of it. He had to be. She looked at the traitorous guard. The only thing that saved him from a very painful death was the sheer puzzlement on his face.

“Why would they take him?” He had no illusions about who Xena was talking about. When she spoke of her enemies she always used the term ‘they’ and the resistance was the biggest enemy she had at the moment.

No one answered his question as Gabrielle burst through the door. “Xena…” The rest of her words were muffled as Xena immediately launched herself from the chair and embraced the frantic Amazon.

“We’ll find him. We’ll find him.” The low soothing murmur under her ear was as much for the
Warrior Princess as it was for her and Gabrielle knew it but she didn’t care.

—————————————

Solari looked into the empty training room and cursed under her breath. She was nearly ready to take him over her knee for the last stunt he pulled. Closing the door, she stepped back into the hallway.

“He wasn’t in the kitchen.” Anya approached the second in command. Her next question was cut off as her attention was drawn to a small figure stumbling toward them.

Bennett was relieved when he saw the Amazons in the hall. The bump on his head was making him dizzy but he knew these women could help. “A lady took Solan.” He blurted and fell into Solari’s arms.

“WHAT?!” She realized the boy had a head injury so she didn’t shake him but she gripped his shoulders tightly and looked into his eyes. “Where? Where did she take him?” She was afraid to ask about the Prince’s guards.

“It’s the little stable boy that was with Solan earlier.” Anya didn’t like the look of the bump on his temple.

Solari nodded. “Go to the stables.” She smiled as her order was carried out immediately. Focusing her attention back on the boy she spoke gently. “Let’s get you to a healer, huh?”

“NO!” He shook his head gingerly. “You have to help Solan.”

Solari soothed the boy. “Anya will track them from the stables… ”

“NO.” Bennett tried to calm down and explain. “She knocked him out…put him on a horse…there is no way anyone could tell which set of horseprints to follow out of the stable….I’ll show you….I followed them…” He turned to take a step and stumbled with dizziness.

“Just tell me how to get there…. you need your injury checked.” Solari now warred with the necessity of finding Solan and the seriousness of the boys injury.

“I have to show you… you won’t find it otherwise.” He tried to focus his eyes. “Help me.”

She lifted the child into her arms. He was about 10 but didn’t weigh that much. “Which way?”

—————————————————–

The war room door opened and a guard entered. “A young girl delivered this to the Palace gate. She said it was for the Amazon Queen.” He held out a small box.

Gabrielle glanced at Xena and pried herself loose from the embrace. She accepted the package, and glanced at Xena. Two deep breaths allowed her the courage to open the lid. She was grateful for Xena helping her to a chair. Sitting with the box on her lap, Gabrielle lifted the contents for everyone to see. A dented golden headband and a large signet ring reflected the dim light in the room.

Xena touched a smudge on the headband and gritted her teeth when she recognized it. “Blood.”

“It’s not his.” Ria limped into the room with Anya’s help. “She didn’t hurt him.”

Gabrielle jumped up immediately and motioned for Ria to sit. Once the guard was situated on the chair Xena growled. “What happened?”

Ria stuttered. “Well…we…umm…. ” The warrior’s towering proximity added to Solan’s kidnapping was very unnerving.

The Amazon Queen realized the guard’s unease and the cause. With one deep breath, she gently pushed Xena away from the shaken guard and slipped into total Queen mode. “Report.”

The standard order allowed the guard to pull herself together. “Solan wanted to thank the boy in the market for sticking up for him. The stables are part of the Palace so we escorted him. Norin and I stayed by the door while Jana went with him inside. A few minutes later we heard the sound of fighting and went to help. She fought like a demon but she didn’t hurt Solan other than use a dart to knock him out…the other boy too.” Grey-blue eyes pleaded with her Queen. “We tried to stop her… we tried….”

“Shhh….” Gabrielle held the woman’s hand. “I know you tried. What did the woman look like?”

“She was about Karis’ height, blonde with deep brown eyes.” Ria shuddered with the memory of those maniacal eyes.

Gabrielle saw the tremors and gestured to Anya. “Take her to the healers.”

“I’ll be okay.” Ria protested. “They need to concentrate on Jana right now.”

Gabrielle looked at Anya for an explanation. The guard shook her head. “Jana is hurt badly, both her legs are broken and she hasn’t regained consciousness apparently since she went down. Norin is awake but incoherent. I think both of them have head injuries.”

The Warrior Princess grabbed a blank parchment from her desk and scribbled a quick note on it. She handed it to the guard who had delivered the box. She walked him toward the door and spoke to him in a whisper. The guard nodded and was gone. The Conqueror turned to the others. “I’m going to find them.” She held up her hands to stop Gabrielle from joining her. “You stay here.”

“No. He is my son.” She was not about to stay when Solan was in trouble.

“Don’t argue with me.” Xena didn’t want to divide her attention worrying about Gabrielle’s safety at the same time she was looking for Solan.

“There is nothing to argue about.” Gabrielle walked to the door and opened it. “I’m going.” She found the exit blocked. “SOLAN!”

The boy leaned shakily against the Solari. He smiled weakly at his Mom before Solari helped him to a seat. “Hi.”

“What happened.” Xena and Gabrielle asked in unison.

Solan shook his head and swallowed. “I’m not sure. The lady came into Bennett’s room. She said her name was Callisto and I was going with her. Jana fought with her…….” His body jerked. “Is Jana okay?” He had seen Norin when they took Bennett to the healer and Ria was here.

Solari spoke up. “The healers are with her.”

Gabrielle’s hand on his cheek calmed him. “Finish the story.”

“When Jana went down Bennett and I were shot with darts and I got really sleepy. I saw Norin and Ria come in but the next thing I know Solari is waking me up in a cave just outside of town. This was lying next to me.” He handed Gabrielle a scroll. The Amazon Queen looked at the message scroll. She clenched her jaw in anger. She passed the scroll to Xena and grabbed Solan in a hug.

Xena read the message and poised on the verge of total anger.

The scroll was sealed when he found it. “Ummm….What does it say?” Solan had been sorely tempted to open it but Solari wouldn’t let him.

Xena read it out loud. “The next time, He will be dead.” There was a large X with a circle around it at the bottom of the message. Gabrielle had dismissed it as simple decoration but Xena knew better. She swallowed hard and looked at Solan. “Open your vest and shirt.”

He did and when he saw Xena shudder he looked down. “What is that?” He tried to rub the design off his skin.

The Conqueror was growing angrier by the moment. “It’s how I used to train my army.” She touched the middle of the X with her finger, feeling the beating heart just beyond. “I would draw this so my men would learn where to stab a person to kill them instantly.” She saw a tear streak Gabrielle’s face.

The Amazon Queen took a deep breath. “Solari, Anya, help Ria to the healers.” She turned slightly. “Karis, take Solan back to his room.” She hugged Solan tightly before Karis wrapped one arm around the boy’s waist and helped him to his room. He had always been extremely sensitive to knockout drugs. She hoped he could stay awake long enough to get to his room.

Xena got the hint. “Iolaus. Start the interrogations and see if anyone saw this mysterious blonde lady leaving the city with a unconscious boy.”

The Amazon guards took their orders very seriously and left quickly.

Iolaus left just as fast but wasn’t concerned with the order. He knew that Callisto wouldn’t have left a trail. It rankled him to no end that she would pull such a stunt. The two guards that Solari had killed didn’t bother him they could be replaced but she shouldn’t have captured and threatened the boy. Now the entire Palace would be on alert.

————————————————-

Iolaus found his leader studying a map in her small office. When he arrived she leaned back on her desk and crossed her arms and ankles. “What can I do for you Iolaus?” She sounded tired of his interruption and looked at him as though he was less than dirt. There were plans to be made.

“WHY?!” Iolaus was angry enough to be red in the face. The small office reverberated with his rather loud question. He had only stayed while Solari questioned the Amazons long enough to know, from the guards description, it had been Callisto herself that captured the boy. “It was never part of our plan to reveal your existence.”

“Funny, It was always part of mine.” The sneering blonde laughed in the man’s face.

“All we need to do is get rid of Xena.” He was confused at her sudden change of direction. “Then the individual kingdoms can regain control of their realms. People can be free again, not under the tyrannical rule of the heartless bitch.”

“NO!” She had spent years waiting, watching, planning and now the key had fallen into her lap. “When Xena falls I want to see it. I want to look in her eyes and I want her to know who brought her to her knees.” The maniacal gleam in her eyes matched her smile. “She will be joined soon, to a woman with a son.” Deep brown eyes closed to see the moment clearly in her mind. “She will watch her family burn just like I did.” The gleeful laughter sent chills down his spine. “And I will be there holding the torch.”

“You’re crazy.” Iolaus began to back away from the raving woman. “This isn’t a personal fight. This fight is on behalf of every person terrorized into submission by Xena’s goons.”

“You are a fool.” She grabbed the front of his shirt. “This has ALWAYS been personal.” She released his shirt and laughed as he scrambled out the door. Covering her mouth, she giggled. Tracing her neck with her index finger, she felt the vibration in her throat as she spoke to herself. “Oh Xena, I am going to enjoy this.” She laughed, reveling in thoughts of revenge.

Iolaus walked away from the office and shuddered as the vengeful laughter followed him into the night.

—————————————————–

When the guards were gone, Gabrielle turned to Xena. “I should never have brought him. I should have made him stay in the village.”

Xena slowly folded the worried woman into her arms. “He would never have stayed.”

“If I told him to stay he would have.” The Queen was indignant.

“Just like he stayed in his room?” Xena’s gentle teasing forced a smile from the Amazon. She tightened her grip on the smaller woman and kissed the top of the blonde head. “He is safe now.” She felt the grip around her waist tighten and thought. ‘And I intend to keep it that way.’ Gently tilting the little Amazons face up, The Warrior Princess leaned in for a light, reassuring kiss. “Do you feel like a formal dinner? The rest of my guests will be gathered by now.”

Gabrielle knew there was no way she could go to a formal gathering and pretend everything was okay when someone had just threatened Solan. “I don’t think I can handle that?”

Xena smiled and stroked the perfect cheek with her thumb. “Then we won’t.”

“But don’t you need to attend?” Gabrielle would have understood if Xena needed to attend the dinner.

“All I need is you.” The warrior smiled down into liquid green eyes. “Com’on.” Holding the Amazon’s hand she led her back to their room.

————————————-

Salmoneous was waiting outside their door. “Your Majesty…. the dinner is about to begin. Do you want me to stall them while you change?” She hadn’t worn fighting leathers and armor to official dinners in a long time.

“That won’t be necessary Salmoneous. Have enough for two sent up. We will be eating in our room this evening.” Ice blue eyes studied his reaction to that. “Send my regrets to my guests.”

“They will ask why.” He did not relish the thought of speaking to the royalty gathered in the dining room.

Gabrielle placed a gentle hand on Xena’s forearm to calm the growl his questioning caused. “No they won’t. The assassination attempt this afternoon scared all of them. They will most likely go back to their rooms as we are doing.”

Xena nodded in agreement. “Send Miriam with the food and tell her to only get it from the Amazon cooks.”

Salmoneous nodded and started to leave when Gabrielle’s additional order stopped him. “Please have Mirriam bring up some chicken broth for my son. He hasn’t been feeling well this afternoon.” She wasn’t sure if Solan’s kidnapping should be publicly announced. The drug used to knock him out was one that he didn’t tolerate too well. She knew his stomach would be upset and she knew he needed to eat. Earlier when she had looked for him in his room she noticed he hadn’t eaten any of his lunch.

“Yes of course.” The balding man bowed and walked quickly down the hall.

Gabrielle watched him go before entering the rooms. “Where did you find him?”

Laughing, Xena responded truthfully. “Hiding in a grain bin of one of the villages I sacked…several years ago.” She grinned at the widening green eyes. “He was dressed like a woman.”

“You are kidding me.” The Amazon couldn’t quite picture the man she just saw wearing a dress.

Xena shook her head. “Nope. With a wig and everything.” She scowled a bit. “My men wanted to kill him, but Salmoneous convinced me not to.”

“How?” The little Queen was curious about how the man had saved his skin, especially if it was several years ago. Xena was at her most ruthless then.

“He said his mother would cry.” The warrior shrugged. “Then he tried to sell me some kitchen utensils…… he had an implement that would crack a walnut into two smooth halves…” She laughed at the incredulous look on Gabrielle’s face. “Anyway, I figured if he was that much of a salesman I could probably use him.”

“I guess so.” She couldn’t imagine facing Xena in the middle of a town she had just taken and trying to sell her kitchen utensils of all things. “I’m gonna go check on Solan.” She headed for the secret passage. Xena was only a step behind. They entered the room quietly and heard a sound that made them both smile. Solan was stretched out on the bed, asleep. Karis was right next to him, stroking his hair, singing softly. When the last of the song died out Gabrielle spoke quietly.

“That was beautiful.” She smiled at Karis. “I didn’t even know you could sing.”

Karis smiled sadly. “I only sing when the spirit moves me.” She hesitated then slowly moved away from the sleeping young man.

They all walked out onto the balcony so they could talk without disturbing Solan’s rest. It was a beautiful evening. A warm breeze blew from the direction of the festival, carrying all the music, laughter and aroma of the city at play. The stars twinkled in their places and the moon shone down on the festivities.

“Sounds like everything is going all right so far.” Gabrielle leaned back against Xena’s chest and twisted her head to grin at the warrior.

“Yeah.” She wrapped her arms around the Amazon’s shoulders and swayed to the music.

Karis pretended interest in the potted plant on the far corner of the balcony until the song was over. Clearing her throat, the guard hesitantly began to speak. “I think you should send Solan home. He will be safer in the village.”

Xena started to speak but Gabrielle beat her to it. “It’s too late for that.”

The Warrior Princess agreed. “The journey back would place him in even more danger.”

The royal guard knew they were right, but the urge to protect Solan was intense and she knew the village was safe. Getting there was another story though. “So he will be stuck here until I can get Iolaus to introduce me to his leaders?”

“I think we all are.” Gabrielle’s quiet voice drifted through the night. “But we have already seen one of the leaders….or at least Solan has.”

“The woman who took him tonight.” The Conqueror explained. “Iolaus clearly didn’t know what had happened. Someone from above him in the chain of command gave the orders and I’ll bet it was her.”

“Solan remembered a bit more during the walk to the room.” The guard was amazed at the women’s deduction. “She said she was a original survivor of ‘the slaughter at Cirra.’ and she fought like a demon to take him.”

Gabrielle felt the arms around her shudder at the mention of the town. The stories of the destruction of Cirra had been quite graphic, the Amazon had hoped they were exaggerations, but if it was bad enough to make the Conqueror shake, well she wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

“They won’t be able to get him here.” The Warrior Princess assured the Amazons and was amazed when both of them shook their heads.

“They can.” Gabrielle glanced at Karis. “That’s why they took him today. To prove they could.” Karis continued.

“Norin and Ria are good fighters, but Jana is one of the best we have. This Callisto woman beat all three of them.” She bowed her head. She went on to tell them about the lunch conversation she had with Iolaus. She left out the part about the carpenter though, figuring Xena wouldn’t appreciate Gabrielle knowing about her surprise, whatever it was.

They were planning several alternatives to Karis’ story when the guard set off a chain of yawns that left them all chuckling quietly. The Warrior Princess rubbed Gabrielle’s back. “We should get some sleep.” The thought of curling up in a warm bed with the Amazon Queen was very soothing. ‘Yeah.’ The Conqueror was ready for that too.

“Mmmmm……..” Gabrielle stretched and leaned against the comforting warrior. “You are probably right.” She looked at Karis. “Tomorrow I want you to fill in Solan….” Glancing at Xena she continued. “…..and Solari.”

“Gabrielle.” The warrior’s low warning tone filled the darkness. She steeled herself as the defiant green eyes locked on her.

The Amazon understood Xena’s feelings about bringing more people in. Every new person added to their plan’s complexity but this was different. “It’s Solan’s safety we are talking about.”

Maternal instincts and flashing green eyes killed the protest on her lips. She knew the futility of arguing with her son’s Mom and yielded to Gabrielle’s decision. “As you wish.” Glancing at her sleeping son, Xena took a deep breath as she walked through the room and back to her own.

Both Amazons watched her go. Karis regarded her Queen quietly. “Does she always give in to you?”

Gabrielle’s immediate thought was ‘Of course not.’ but when she thought about it the answer surprised her. “Yeah… I guess she does.” The Amazon had no illusions that Xena would ALWAYS give in to her wishes. She briefly wondered what would happen when they did disagree.

Karis raised her eyebrows. “Wow.”

“I better go check on her.” She knew Xena was upset at the kidnapping but also at the assassination attempt. ‘I don’t think she expected one of the arrows to be aimed at me.’

“Good night, my Queen.” Karis bowed and held her breath. She didn’t plan on leaving Solan tonight and she still wasn’t entirely sure of Gabrielle’s feelings on the subject.

Brilliant green eyes regarded the young woman for a long silent moment. “He is growing very quickly.”

“Yes, my Queen.” Karis was amazed at the softness of Gabrielle’s voice.

“He is also my son.” The soft voice became slightly menacing.

“Yes, my Queen.” The guard was all too aware of who her love’s parents were. It complicated the situation but didn’t change how she felt for the young man.

There was no doubt in her mind that Karis was going to stay with Solan tonight. The certainty came from her own urge to hold Xena. They all needed reassurance now. There was only one problem with that. “Was Iolaus expecting you tonight?”

“He was.” The guard’s shoulders drooped slightly. “But with the assassination attempt and the kidnapping scare I can claim duty tonight.” She nearly begged the Queen not to make her go. “We will probably spend a lot of time together tomorrow.”

Gabrielle reflected the frown Karis had acquired during the last statement. “I know you will do what it takes to keep us safe.” She regarded the sleeping boy for a moment then looked directly into the guard’s large brown eyes. “My son is lucky to have your love.” Smiling at the guard, Gabrielle started for the secret door. She heard the rustle of the blankets as Karis rejoined Solan on the bed and just before she closed the hidden door, Gabrielle heard Karis’ whisper drift through the room.

“I’m the lucky one.”

——————————————————

Gabrielle got back to the rooms she was sharing with Xena and wondered briefly if she was being selfish in her desire to be close to the warrior. A stab of pain went through her when she found the main room empty. The bathroom was also unoccupied. She could feel the tears welling up in her eyes and berated herself. ‘This is silly. What are you crying for?’ She sat in one of the big comfy chairs by the fire and rested her forehead on her knees. ‘She just had something to do.’ She rationalized then the reality of the day sank in. ‘They could have killed Solan and they tried to kill us.’ Hugging her knees, Gabrielle let out a huge sob. The thought of losing Solan was painful, but the thought of losing Xena created such an emptiness in her it was unimaginable. Warm fingertips on her neck filled the void.

“Gabrielle?” The Warrior Princess knelt in front of the crying woman. Gently tilting the Amazon’s face up she gazed into the liquid emerald eyes. “He’s fine.” The warrior’s low voice rumbled through the space between them. “And so am I. I’ll always be here.” Xena gently traced the path of tears down the Amazon’s face. “You are so beautiful.” She leaned in for a gentle reassuring kiss that quickly became deeper as Gabrielle’s need for reassurance surfaced.

Breathing heavily, Gabrielle broke off the kiss. “Xena…”

“Shhh…” The Conqueror stood and offered her hand to the Queen. “I put the food Mirriam brought out on the balcony. It’s such a nice night, I thought you might want to eat out there.”

Gabrielle accepted the hand up but held her ground when Xena began to lead her outside. Tugging gently on the hand in her grasp the smaller woman pulled the warrior back to her. She could feel the heat radiating from her lover and thought the blood pumping through her own heart was just as hot. “Xena….” Gabrielle moved to touch as much of Xena as she could, her low voice making The Conqueror shudder. “I need you, more than I need food.”

Scooping up the smaller woman, Xena carried Gabrielle to the bed and placed her gently on the soft covers. “And you, my love, are the air that I breathe.” She felt the hollow ache caused by the thought of losing the woman in her arms.

“I’m here.” Gabrielle reassured the Conqueror. “I’m alive and I love you.”

They each spent the next several candlemarks reassuring the other that they were alive and when they finally slept, their arms, legs and even hair tangled together like the branches of two trees growing closely together, each becoming part of the other.

Part 5

“They took him because of you!” The Amazon’s hateful accusation twisted in Xena’s guts.

“No.” The weakly delivered protest turned to an anguished whisper. “Please. Don’t go.”

“NO!” Gabrielle’s hate filled eyes made the possibility of her staying not even an option. Turning to stomp out of the room the Amazon’s taunting voice echoed in The Conqueror’s ears. “They could have killed him and it’s all your fault…. all your fault….”
“NO!” Xena sat straight up in the bed. It took her a moment to control her racing heart and orient herself. ‘Morning.’ She thought, looking at the angle of the sun streaming though the windows. ‘But where is Gabrielle.’ The space next to her on the bed was empty and cold. Her heart began to beat faster as the nightmare fear returned. Frantically looking around the room, she spotted a bowl of fruit on the table with a note leaning against it. Breathing deeply she found her favorite black robe and crossed the room to read the large friendly script.

Xena
I went to check on Solan and the others.
Be back as soon as I can.
Love
Gabrielle

‘She will check on Solan first.’ The Warrior Princess advised. ‘I want to check on him too.’ The Conqueror urged the Warrior Princess to change quickly. “Hurry and we can catch up with her before she gets to the hospital.” Agreeing with her dark sister, Xena quickly changed in to her Indian outfit and headed for her sons room. She really did want to check on the injured Amazons, but mostly she wanted to hold Gabrielle and wipe the nightmare image from her mind. When the guards told her that Solan was not yet awake and the Queen had gone on to the hospital, it was a battle of wills to keep her pace a steady walk toward the infirmary and Gabrielle.

———————————–

Gabrielle rolled her eyes at Solari and her other FIVE guards. Shaking her head at the extra security, she signaled the women to wait for her outside. Grinning at Solari’s reluctant acceptance, she quietly entered the hospital.

“My Queen!” Ria and Bekka struggled to get to their feet.

“No. No please. Don’t get up.” She motioned for them to lay back and moved to sit between their bunk-like beds. “How are you doing?”

“Fine.” The guards answered immediately and simultaneously.

‘Uh huh.’ Gabrielle thought and grinned at the cheery guards. “Good.” She scanned the room and her searching eyes fell on Jana’s bed. Her grin vanished. “How’s Jana?”

That question wiped the grins off of the injured guards’ faces as well. They looked at each other sadly and Bekka spoke. “She constantly twitches, they don’t know why.” Bekka pointed to Jana’s moving hand. “But hasn’t been awake since she went down. The doctor’s stopped the bleeding and the Chinese lady fixed her legs, now we just have to wait.”

“What?” Gabrielle didn’t understand what Bekka was saying. “The Chinese lady? You mean Lao Ma?”

“Yes.” Both guards nodded their heads gently. Ria spoke softly. “She was amazing.” Bekka continued. “She waved her hands over Jana’s legs, I don’t think she even touched her but the swelling has already gone down and the healers think she will be able to use them again.” The guard added. “They didn’t think Jana would walk again before Lao Ma came.”

“Where are the healers anyway?” Gabrielle was grateful for the time alone with her people but was about to be upset because no one had even checked on them since she arrived.

Ria smiled. “The healer on duty is mixing herbs in the next room.” She indicated a hand bell on the table beside her. “All I have to do is ring this bell and he will come in.”

Gabrielle looked at the bell for a split second before picking it up and ringing it decisively. She was relieved to see the healer in the doorway before she could count to five. “Hello. I was wondering if you would tell me how these patients are doing.”

The man studied her for a moment. She was dressed in Amazon leathers but that really didn’t identify her. There was something about her bearing that was as annoying to him as any royalty but he dismissed that feeling. He was a healer, he held the power of life and death in his hands. “Ask them yourself.”

“Galen.” The low warning voice behind him froze him in place. “She asked you.” The Conqueror wanted to kill him for being so disrespectful to Gabrielle.

“Never mind Xena.” Gabrielle watched the dark warrior appear out of the shadows amazed that she could be so intimidating in such a festive outfit. She could tell by Xena’s twitching muscles that the man was in danger so she let a bit of her own irritation at his arrogance surface, knowing that if she didn’t defend herself that the Conqueror would. “All I want to know now is, can they be moved?”

“Absolutely NOT!” Galen was outraged at the suggestion and pointed to Jana. “That one was nearly dead when she was brought in.”

“Fine.” Gabrielle, glanced at Xena and walked brusquely to the door. She spoke quickly to one of the guards outside before turning back to the insolent healer. “My healers will be here soon.” She indicated the bowl and pestle in his hand. “So you won’t be bothered with caring for my guards any longer.”

“You can’t just come in here and start ordering me around.” He was angry now. “Who do you think you are?”

Calling up her most royal pose, Gabrielle spoke matter-of-factly. “I think I’m the Amazon Queen.” She looked at the injured guards. “What do you think?” She smiled as they both nodded wide-eyed. An eyebrow raised at Xena caused the healer to turn and face the Empress.

Xena saw the look of entreaty on the man’s face and laughed, holding up her hands in defeat. “Don’t look at me. I KNOW she’s the Amazon Queen.” Blue eyes twinkled past the man, to catch the flashing green of her love’s. “Why don’t you go back to your mixing.” She shoved the man back into the room he had come from and moved to hug Gabrielle. Finding the Amazon’s ear, The Conqueror whispered. “I missed you this morning.”

“I’m sorry. I wanted to check on Solan.” She reached up and stroked the taller woman’s cheek. “And you were sleeping so peacefully. I didn’t have the heart to wake you.” Mirriam had informed her that Xena had been having trouble sleeping during the time they had been separated. Unfortunately this wasn’t the time to bring it up. It was however time to talk about Lao Ma’s visit to Jana. The little Queen pulled the dark woman to a private corner of the room and pulling her head down for a gentle kiss on the cheek, spoke quietly. “I need to speak to the Warrior Princess.” She watched with fascination as Xena’s blue eyes closed and opened.

“Why do you need to talk to me?” The Warrior Princess was a little concerned. This was the first time Gabrielle had specifically asked for one of them.

“I wanted to tell you thank you for asking Lao Ma to help Jana.” Gabrielle kissed her gently and wrapped her arms around the warrior’s waist, quietly savoring the feel of cool silk quickly warming between them. “It was you that sent for her wasn’t it?” It wasn’t really a question, but an answer to the woman’s question.

Xena folded Gabrielle into her arms and rested her cheek on the side of the honey-fire hair. “Yes I sent for her.” The Amazon felt the arms tighten around her as the Conqueror added. “I wanted her to come too.”

Smiling green eyes met worried blue. “Of course you did.” She hugged the worried woman. “Thank you.” Gabrielle smiled at the relief on Xena’s face and thought about how much they had needed to reassure each other last night. “I’m gonna go check on Jana, okay?”

“Okay.” Releasing her hold on the Amazon, the Conqueror was only a step behind her as they walked to Jana’s bedside. There was no chair next to Jana’s bed, so Gabrielle knelt next to the injured guard. “Jana?” The Queen delicately held the young woman’s twitching hand. “If you can hear me, I want you to know that Solan is safe.” She squeezed the warm, moving hand a bit tighter. “Do you understand? He’s safe.” She thought she felt the movement slow a bit and repeated her reassurance. “Solan’s safe. I promise.” The hand in her grip relaxed and Gabrielle smiled up at Xena. “She just needed to know he was okay.” Releasing the now still hand, she accepted the warrior’s help up. “I want to see him now.” This time if her son was asleep, she would wake him up.

———————————————

Karis splashed cold water on her face. It had been a long night. She hadn’t slept much, continually waking to make sure Solan was there and breathing. He had roused long enough to eat almost all the broth Gabrielle had sent but she knew when he finally slept off the sleeping drug he would be very hungry.
The idea of going to the kitchen didn’t appeal to her though. She wanted to stay with him.

Earlier this morning she had talked to Solari for a bit, only long enough to find out what had happened with the kidnapping and issue orders for an investigation. She was going to have to do something special for Bennett. The boy had risked his life to follow Callisto and watch where she took Solan. The little stableboy was quick on his feet. He had seen Solan get darted and go down and pretended the same when the dart meant for him hit one of the apples in his shirt. ‘Too bad he hit his head when he fell.’ She thought and recalled her relief when Solari reported the boy would be fine. The sound of the door opening pulled her from her thoughts and from the washroom.

Gabrielle nodded to the guards at Solan’s door as they opened the barrier for their Queen. She offered each of them a pastry from the tray she carried and grinned at Xena as both guards took one. Continuing into the room, she put the tray on the table and smiled when Karis emerged from the washroom. Moving to Solan’s bedside, she was grateful for Xena’s solid warmth behind her.

‘He looks so pale.’ Gabrielle sat on the edge of the bed and brushed his long bangs from his eyes. ‘He needs another haircut.’ She thought and smiled softly at her sleeping son. “Hey.” Stroking his forehead revealed no fever so she continued her gentle prodding. “Sleepyhead. It’s time to get up.” She took a deep breath as his eyes blinked open and grinned at her groggy son. “Good morning, Sunshine.”

“Ugh….” He held his pounding head and groaned. “What happened?” His voice sounded much too loud to him and he began to whisper. “I didn’t….”

Gabrielle stilled his question with two fingers on his lips. “No you didn’t get drunk again. You were taken, kidnapped, remember?” She knew he would eventually, but at the moment he was still fighting the effects of the drug. The fact that he had an empty stomach at the time it was administered and was fairly exhausted from weapons practice didn’t help his recovery time at all.

Xena looked down on the sleeping boy. ‘He looks so small.’ She thought. ‘He is as tall as we are.’ The Conqueror corrected and watched almost jealously as Gabrielle gently woke the boy. ‘I wish she would’ve woke me up like that this morning.’ She thought. The half-asked question and Gabrielle’s response drew
the Warrior Princess’ attention. ‘Drunk?….again!?’ Motioning for Karis to follow her she went back to the table and poured the boy a juice, as she questioned the young guard. “What does she mean drunk again?”

Startled that Gabrielle hadn’t told the warrior, Karis glanced at the bed. Seeing her Queen nod approval she answered the question. “The night of Ephiny’s joining Solan partied a bit more than usual.” She grimaced at the memory of his antics.

Seeing the expression, the warrior steeled her eyes on the Amazon. “My son’s first overindulgence brought out some unexpected qualities, I take it?”

Karis chose her words carefully. The last thing she wanted to do was upset the Conqueror but both his mom’s should really know what was going on with him. “It is a difficult time for him.” She looked directly into the tall woman’s eyes and told the absolute truth. “He knows you love him, and he is trying to come to terms with being your son. He never fully understood why you are hesitant to acknowledge him to people other than the Amazons.” She glanced back at the young man holding his head. “Now maybe he will.” She took a deep breath to control the terror of what would have happened to him had Callisto known Xena was actually Solan’s mother. Sighing, she answered the original question. “When he drinks he is very aware that he has powerful mothers. He thinks he can do anything he wants….have anything he wants. I just went along with him as much as possible then let him sleep it off.”

Borias had been the same way, drink often brought out his ‘I’m a mighty warlord’ attitude. However, after a particularly raucous party, Borias would declare his undying love to her and pledge his life to hers, before he passed out. At the time Xena had thought he was crazy, she knew she didn’t feel that way about him. She loved being with him sure, he let her be as ruthless as she wanted, but she wouldn’t die for him. ‘I wouldn’t have died for anyone then.’ She thought and looked across the room at her son and the other half of her soul. The oddest feeling of warmth settled over her when she looked at her family and she knew without a doubt she would die for them.

She realized she had not responded to Karis’ explanation of Solan’s behavior and snorted. “Men! It doesn’t usually take long for them to pass out does it.” She grinned at the guard. “Of course the next morning is when the fun starts.” Winking at the guard, she continued slyly. “They are so out of it they can’t remember a thing. You can say they did anything, and they believe you.” She left the guard standing at the table and took Solan the cup of juice.

Karis watched the Ruler of the Known World drop to her knees, offer the drink to her son and gently brush his hair back behind his ear. ‘Gods that is a sight no one would believe.’ She thought. It had been shocking enough when Xena had knelt to Gabrielle and proposed in front of all those people. The Amazon guard was grateful however for Xena’s last remark because now she knew exactly how to deal with Iolaus’ advances.

———————————————————

Solari stood at the foot of Jana’s bed. The injured guard had stopped twitching since Gabrielle had reassured her of Solan’s safety, but she was still unconscious. The second in command growled to herself and spoke under her breath. “I’ll get her Jana. I’ll make her pay for this.” Swallowing her pride she moved to kneel next to the unconscious woman. She didn’t know what to say so she just held her hand and sat q quietly for a few moments until Ana came to the door.

“We’re ready.” The guard waited for Solari to acknowledge the status report before leaving quickly.

“I’m gonna show Ana where the cave is.” She glanced at Ria and Bekka’s bunks, both guards were asleep. Kissing Jana’s hand lightly, she continued. “Ana is a good tracker. She’ll find the monster that did this.” Checking again to make sure the others were asleep, she rose, kissed the severely injured guard lightly on the cheek and whispered. “Rest well.” Walking quickly to the door, Solari didn’t see the knowing look exchanged between the two injured guards that pretended to sleep.

————————————————

“Are you feeling better?” Gabrielle sat next to her son on the bed.

Solan rolled his eyes at his anxious mom. “Yes, I’m feeling just fine now.” He plucked at the end of the cover and leaned his head back on the headboard of the bed. “You don’t have to keep asking me.” He regretted the sharp sounding retort as soon as he said it, but it was about the hundreth time she had asked in the last candlemark.

“Solan.” Xena’s warning voice rumbled through the room. “We were all very worried about you.”

Sighing he ran his fingers through his hair. “I know.” He reached out and held his mom’s hand. “I’m sorry.”

She smiled and accepted his apology. “I guess being stuck in bed all morning would make anyone cranky.” Glancing at Xena she grinned. “Don’t you think so Xena?”

One perfect eyebrow arched. “Yeah, sure.” The Conqueror quickly became lost in thought about a entire morning in bed, with Gabrielle of course. ‘Cranky? I think exhausted would be more like it.’ The Warrior Princess agreed and couldn’t think of any other way she would rather spend a morning either.

Solan didn’t catch the knowing looks between his moms and sighed. “I’m just upset because my ring is gone.” He looked at his bare ring finger.

Xena chuckled, reaching into her pocket. “Here.” She tossed him the small object.

“Wha….” He barely caught the ring. “Where?”

“She sent it to us.” Gabrielle shuddered at the memory of the ominous delivery and was grateful for Xena’s warm hand on her shoulder. “It will take longer to get your headband back, the smith will have to straighten it and get the blood out of the design.”

Solan went pale. “Blood?” He reached up to touch his head.

“It wasn’t yours.” Xena explained. “She probably used what she had on her from the fight with the guards.” It was a tactic she had used herself from time to time. Since there was no way to tell blood from blood and royalty tend to get outraged when one of their own is hurt she would often just use whatever blood was available. It was one thing to kidnap/terrorize a person and quite another to actually hurt them. The first way, terror/kidnapping usually got you what you wanted. The second, actually hurting the hostage, usually got you what you wanted, then an army or two down your throat. Nothing brings royalty together like a kidnapping, she had learned that the hard way. The Conqueror knew all too well that fear was the key to power. “She wanted to scare us.”

“Well I guess she got what she wanted.” Gabrielle snorted.

“Yes she did.” Xena agreed.

———————————————————-

“So the guard that would be Queen has finally seen what I saw the other day.” Callisto looked at Iolaus. “So she is fully cooperative with our plan now?” The Amazons duplicity was concerning.

“She wants Xena dead.” The blonde man had been thrilled at lunch when Karis found him. She was so upset and ranting. “She thinks the Conqueror really loves her Queen and is angry that Xena lied to her.” He rolled his eyes. “What did she expect? This is the Conqueror we are talking about. It’s not like the woman is known for her honesty.”

“Hmmmm…. No, she’s not.” The resistance leader wasn’t entirely convinced. It seemed awfully convenient for such a defection, especially for such a feeble reason. She had her own views on love. Tracing her neck with her index finger, Callisto thought for a moment about the implications of that word, love. ‘We are very close to achieving our goal.’ She thought. ‘This guard may be exactly what we need.’ She smiled. ‘Whether she is committed to the cause or not.’

Iolaus got nervous at his leader’s silence. “So what should I tell her?”

She bit the tip of her tongue and smiled. Wrinkling her nose and crinkling her eyes with glee she made a command decision. “Bring her.” She watched him go and considered the decision again, it wasn’t really much of a risk. If it turned out that Karis was just playing with them then it would be a simple thing to kill the Amazon. ‘As a matter of fact.’ She thought. ‘I haven’t made a good kill in a long time.’

————————————————-

Xena leaned forward against the balcony wall, her hands resting lightly on the stony surface. The Festival was still going on, calmer now than the night before but soon it would pick up intensity again. She looked at the afternoon sun hanging low in the sky and wished they would get some word from Karis. The young guard had left before mid-day and had not been heard from since. She scanned the festival booths again.

“Can you see her?” Gabrielle walked out onto the balcony, moving quickly to Xena’s side.

“No.” Shifting to let the little Queen stand in front of her, Xena surrounded the Amazon’s waist with her arms and rested her chin on Gabrielle’s nearly bare shoulder. ‘ I do like Amazon leathers.’ She thought. It was so simple to tilt her head and kiss the smooth skin.

Feeling the light kiss on her shoulder, Gabrielle melted back into the warrior, her head resting back on the wide shoulder. “Mmmmmm…..”

The Conqueror quickly took advantage of the newly exposed flesh and nipped lightly at the Amazon’s soft neck. “By the Gods Gabrielle. Why do you always taste so good?”

Laughing, Gabrielle turned in her lover’s arms. “It’s the same reason you do.” She pulled the dark head down and captured the willing mouth, gently sucking the bottom lip as she broke the kiss. “It’s called love.”

“Love.” The Conqueror considered. “I like it.” She ducked down to taste it again.

“Mmmm….” Gabrielle stood on the tips of her toes. “Me too.” Lacing her fingers behind Xena’s head she pulled the warrior down to her.

“Me too.” The Warrior Princess agreed. She brushed thin strands of strawberry blonde hair away from Gabrielle’s face. “You are so beautiful.”

Gabrielle savored the light caress on her face. “Are you trying to seduce me?”

“That depends.” Xena continued her feather light exploration of Gabrielle’s exposed skin.

“On what.” The Amazon tried not to shiver in reaction to Xena’s touch.

“On whether or not it’s working.” Dropping to her knees, the Conqueror kissed the wide expanse of exposed skin on Gabrielle’s abdomen. Looking up with pleading blue eyes she whispered. “Is it working?”

“Yes.” Gabrielle pulled the warrior to her feet. “A little too well.” She hugged Xena tightly. “This is not the right time or place…..” The rest of her sentence was cut off as she felt herself swept off her feet and carried quickly inside the rooms. “Xena really, we can’t…… what if Karis is in trouble?”

“Karis can take care of herself.” Xena gently lowered the woman in her arms onto the bed. “but we can wait if you want.” She disengaged herself from the prone woman and walked to the table with a pitcher and tumblers on it. Pouring herself a drink she offered. “Do you want a drink? Are you hungry do you want something to eat?”

Rising from the bed, Gabrielle glided past Xena, to the door. She spoke quickly to the guards outside and when she returned answered the woman’s question. “No I don’t want a drink.” She took the tumbler from the large weapon’s worn hand and set it on the table. “I do want something to eat though.” She slid her hands across the cool silk of the Indian outfit, feeling the heat from the skin underneath.

“What do you want?” Piercing blue eyes searched the young Queen’s face. Her heart nearly stopped when she heard Gabrielle’s whisper.

“Love.”

————————————————————————

Karis looked across the table at the blonde man. It had taken all afternoon to catch up to him, and now she wished he had been harder to find. ‘Just a few more moments and I would have given up, looking today.’ She thought. ‘Then I could have talked to Solari.’ She regretted that her second in command had been too busy with the trackers and the cave where Solan was found to talk today. ‘I have to tell her soon.’ The head guard looked around the crowded tavern. ‘Too many people have seen me carrying on with Iolaus now.’ She knew the loyal Amazon was smart, but now that she had permission, she wanted to fill in her second before she jumped to the wrong conclusion.

The sun was beginning to set and she was going to have to make her move soon. Slow and steady was how she should play it and she knew it. The problem was, since the kidnapping and assassination attempt, she knew Callisto wasn’t going to play it like that. ‘I have to get into the resistance, at any level. Then I can work my way up.’ She thought. ‘Time is running out.’ Signaling the barmaid she ordered another round.

“I hear the guards were kept pretty busy last night.” Karis sipped her fresh drink.

“Yeah.” Iolaus quickly finished his old drink and tossed aside the tumbler, grabbing the fresh mug and smiling. “The first night is always pretty rowdy. Most of the people we picked up were just drunk though. We held them until they slept it off and tonight will probably be more of the same.” He eyed the dark haired girl curiously. “You on duty later?”

Pushing down the revulsion that question implied, Karis smiled and answered. “No, I don’t have to be anywhere tonight.” She knew where she wanted to be though, in a large room with a crackling fire and Solan sleeping next to her.

“Good.” He grinned at her and took a long gulp of his drink, tipping the mug totally upside down he got every last drop. Slamming the empty container to the table, he let out a satisfied smack of his lips and rose. “Com’on. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

Karis was concerned. ‘He’s not nearly drunk enough for what I had planned.’ She barely controlled her stomach when he wrapped a possessive arm around her and led her out of the tavern. ‘Someone to meet?’ She thought it was too early to hope for a meeting with his superiors.

No one noticed when another patron at the bar, silently followed the couple into the night.

——————————————————-

Solan sighed and paced the darkening room again. He had finally gotten Gabrielle and Xena to leave by telling them he was tired and wanted to sleep. He was actually so keyed up that he felt like he would never sleep again. Karis had been gone nearly all day and although he didn’t know entirely what she had planned, he knew it involved Iolaus and he knew it was dangerous.

Jamie watched him pace around the room. ‘Poor kid.’ She thought and shifted the staff in her hand .’He has got to be going stir crazy.’ She couldn’t imagine being stuck in the same room all day. The tribe she had been raised in didn’t even have doors on their huts and quite frankly even inside guard duty was a little closer to prison than she wanted to feel. She cleared her throat. “You seem to be over the effects of the drug.” She smiled at the young Prince as he swiveled to face her. “Do you have a practice staff here? I could spar with you if you felt like it.”

A slow smile spread across Solan’s face, then was wiped away. “No, all my weapons are in the training room.” He had always liked Jamie. She was older, maybe even older than Xena but she never questioned anything her younger superiors ordered.

“If I may suggest then…..” She looked at the young man. “Perhaps you should go get them.”

A thrill of excitement traveled through him. “Perhaps I should.” The thought of getting out of this room was enough to make him smile. “I wouldn’t want to be unarmed, now would I?”

“No, my Prince.” Jamie bowed.

—————————————————————

Gabrielle felt herself drifting in a quiet place, safe, relaxed, peaceful. This was as close to Elysia as she ever expected to get. There was nothing else like being held by Xena. Shifting slightly in the woman’s arms she looked up at the warrior’s peaceful face. ‘She is so beautiful.’ She studied every line of the relaxed visage, noting how sleep made her seem so much younger. ‘She has had a hard life.’ Gabrielle thought and no longer sleepy, disengaged herself from the resting woman.

She crossed to the desk and began to read the journals from where she left off. ‘Let’s see, I was up to Caesar, M’lila and Nicklios….’ She turned to the page she had marked and began to read more of Xena’s life in her own words. She had never imagined the warrior could be so vivid in her descriptions. If she didn’t know better she would have accused the Conqueror of being a poet. Of course the images were horrific most of the time but very, very vivid.

The Amazon forced herself to read the journal through her love’s dark time, her tortured thoughts after Caesar betrayed her, after M’lila was killed, while she was crippled and walking with a cane. Gabrielle read the exploits of the Conqueror as she forged her way east through army after army, with the great warlord Borias. Most of these stories were well known, but they were told differently by the travelling bards. Xena’s point of view made them quite different.When they met with Lao Ma, she stopped reading.

‘I need to thank her for helping Jana.’ She had been so worried about Solan and then Karis’ mission that the diplomatic courtesy task had been all but forgotten. Of course Xena had helped take her mind off things too, she grinned wryly and thought. ‘Some distractions are more fun than others.’

Marking her place in the journal, Gabrielle quickly wrote a note to tell Xena where she was in case the warrior woke up and quietly left the room.

———————————————————————–

At any other time Solan would have been thoroughly disgusted with eight guards, but now it was kind of comforting. It would have been even better if Karis was one of them. He knew though if Karis were in the Palace he would be in his room with her, not in the training room with eight guards watching him.

He quickly chose the staff he wanted and twirling it experimentally, he gestured for Jamie to come for him. It felt good to test himself against someone other than Karis or his Mom. The guard was quick and of course she was good. All the royal guard were, it was a requirement. He eyed the sword strapped to her back and in a twirling move that disarmed the startled guard, called a halt to the match. “That was great!” His bright smile lit up the room. “Can we fight staff against sword now? Karis spars with me like that sometimes……” His puppydog face was too much for Jamie and she slid her sword from it’s sheath.

‘I’ll take it easy on him.’ She thought. It wasn’t long before she discovered taking it easy was a good way to get the business end of a staff upside your head. Of course he didn’t actually hit her in the head but if he hadn’t pulled back the swing she would have been unconscious. ‘Okay boy.’ She thought. ‘If that’s how you want to play it….fine.’ She attacked with renewed vigor and was pleasantly surprised that he defended himself so well. Back and forth across the wooden floor they battled each other. In the end it was the more experienced fighter that won but she was impressed with the boy’s ability to defend himself so well using only basic moves. The watching guards were impressed as well.

“That was well done, my Prince.” Jamie slid her sword back to its place and tried to make him feel better for his defeat. “A staff is just no match for a sword.”

Chuckling, he thought. ‘That’s what you think.’ Recalling the sight of Gabrielle disarming Xena with only a staff, he smiled a the guard. “Thanks.”

She grinned back. “Anytime. It’s always fun to spar with someone that knows what they are doing.”

He leaned on his staff and bowed at the compliment. “Thanks again.” Hefting his chosen weapon he gestured to the door. “It’s probably time to be heading back. I don’t want Mom worried about me.” He felt good now. Most of his tension had been worked off and he might even be able to sleep. ‘It would be so much easier if Karis were here though.’ He sighed and knew no matter how good he felt sleep would not come easily until she returned.

——————————————————————-

“Please inform Lao Ma that Queen Gabrielle of the Amazons requests an audience with her.” The small Amazon addressed the guards at the door in the most respectful tone of voice she had.

“Lao Ma has requested that she not be disturbed for the rest of the evening.” The guard was impressed with the Amazon’s respectfulness and if it were up to him he would have admitted her. The simple fact was Lao Ma never saw anyone this late and was probably already asleep.

“I see.” She was disappointed. ‘I guess it is kind of late.’ She consoled herself. She had hoped to talk with the fascinating woman before she read about her in Xena’s journal. “Then please tell her I was here and that I would like a meeting with her at her convenience.” Pressing her hands flat together in front of her, Gabrielle bowed and walked back to her waiting guards. All TEN of them.

‘This is getting ridiculous.’ She thought. The problem was neither Karis or Solari were around so none of the guards were taking any chances. It would have been almost comforting if she only knew that Karis was all right. The fact that Solari was gone too reassured her somewhat. ‘With Solari as backup, Karis will be fine.’ Gabrielle had no doubt that the guards were well on their way to infiltrating the resistance. There was no reason for her to believe that Karis had not informed her second in command of the situation.

“Let’s go see Solan.” She began walking toward the Imperial wing of the Palace. ‘He will be worried about Karis.’ She thought and an uneasy feeling swept through her. ‘Maybe I should check in on Xena too.’

———————————————————–

The total quiet of the room woke Xena abruptly. Sitting straight up in the bed she looked around the empty room and called out. “Gabrielle.” She quickly found her robe and checked the washroom and the balcony, no Gabrielle. A vague feeling of uneasiness swept through her. ‘She’s always left a note before.’ Hugging herself more against the cold feeling settling in her gut than against the temperature, the Conqueror sat in one of the large chairs by the fire. Pulling her knees up to her chest, she stared into the fire and quietly rocked back and forth. ‘She will be back soon.’ The Warrior Princess’ comforting words fell on deaf ears but she continued. ‘I’m sure she will be back soon.’ Tuning their ears for sounds in the hall, she heard a large group moving toward the rooms. ‘See, I told you she would be back.’ The Conqueror didn’t listen, lost in her own thoughts of impending separation. The sound of the door actually opening and Gabrielle’s worried voice calling her name finally pulled her out of her despair.

With a sound of immense relief, the Conqueror pushed off the chair and half jumped, half flew to Gabrielle. Gathering the small woman in her arms, she buried her face in the honey-fire silk and reveled in the ever-present lilac/leather/Gabrielle combination that always accompanied her love.

Gabrielle was concerned at the reaction for more than one reason. Mainly because Xena was upset and she didn’t know why, but the second reason took precedence at the moment. With as much breath as she could muster Gabrielle managed to choke out. “Xena, honey, I can’t breathe.”

“Oh.” The warrior released the hold and backed off, trying to apologize. “I’m sorry…. I…”

Signaling the guards to leave, Gabrielle closed the distance between them. “Shhhh…. it’s okay.” She reached up and stroked the larger woman’s cheek. “Do you want to talk about it?” Ducking to catch downcast blue eyes, she smiled at the warrior’s silence. “Okay.” She brushed long dark hair back over the woman’s slumped shoulders. “We can talk about it later.” Sliding her arms around the quiet woman’s waist, Gabrielle listened to the heart she loved beating just under her ear. “I love you Xena.”

One warm tear slid down her cheek as she circled the small shoulders. “I love you too Gabrielle.” The thought of losing the precious woman haunted her. ‘She won’t leave us.’ The Warrior Princess had faith in the Amazon’s love for them. ‘I know she loves us now.’ The Conqueror argued. ‘But she doesn’t know.’ The image of a young woman impaled on a tree branch flashed through her mind. ‘How will she stay with us after what I did?’ The thought of waking up alone for the rest of her life caused her to tighten her grip.

The Amazon felt the increased pressure and was concerned. “Xena…” She pulled away from the embrace to look into the sad blue eyes. “…please tell me what’s wrong.” The eyes she held flickered for a moment and Gabrielle knew the direction the look had gone, straight to the desk and the journals. A sudden flash of memory forced a thought and she gently voiced her suspicion. “There is something in your journals you don’t want me to read.”

The Conqueror’s breath rate increased and her lips trembled slightly. She couldn’t speak so she nodded yes then found her voice. “I don’t want you to hate me.” Lowering her head to rest her chin on the shorter woman’s shoulder she whispered. “I don’t want you to leave me.”

Pulling back slightly, Gabrielle cupped the large sad face in her hands to force the woman to look at her. “I will never leave you. I love you. I didn’t know it was bothering you so much for me to read the journals…. I’ll stop. If that’s what you want.”

“You can’t stop now.” It was almost a howl. The Conqueror knew if she asked, Gabrielle wouldn’t read anymore and she would never say anything else about it. She also knew that the thought would fester in the Amazon’s head. ‘What could be so horrible, she didn’t want me to read?’ It would come between them, it would cause them to separate just as surely as if she did read it.

“Shhh…. it’s okay…. everything will be okay.” Gabrielle held the anguished woman tightly. “Do you want to be here when I read whatever it is?” She was trying to be reasonable with someone who wasn’t thinking clearly.

“I don’t know.” It wasn’t something Xena had thought about.

“Okay. Listen. You mark the page before the event you are worried about. When I get there I’ll tell you and you can decide then. Would that be okay?” Gabrielle saw a glimmer of hope flare in the sad blue eyes. “I promise I won’t read any farther than you mark until you say it’s okay.” Disengaging herself from the embrace she crossed to the desk and retrieved the journal she was currently on. “Is the event in this one?”

Xena looked at the date range engraved into the front leather cover and nodded yes.

“Okay.” The Amazon handed the book to Xena. “Mark the page you want me to stop at. I won’t read anymore after that.” Seeing that the Conqueror was hesitant to even open the book, Gabrielle cleared her throat. “I’m going to check on Solan.” Kissing the upset woman briefly but firmly on the lips, Gabrielle went to check on her son.

—————————————————–

Karis did her best to play up to Iolaus’ ego. She actually despised the little strutting toad, and her feelings were quickly reaching the active hatred stage. Anyone, watching however would see a couple having a good time at the Festival. She did manage to get a few more drinks in him as they passed vending booths but he was still coherent. Intoxication was making him talkative though, she had gotten him to tell her they were going to see Callisto. Intoxication was also making him a bit grabby. Not that he wasn’t before, but sobriety had kept his urges in check, the spirits in him were now taking over. He leered at her constantly and when they reached a secluded dark alley he took it as a good sign.

“Before we go see the witch, let’s have some fun huh?” He pushed her into the darkness.

‘I guess I’m gonna have to do this the hard way after all.’ It took every ounce of willpower she had not to resist the groping hands and questing lips. When she felt the filthy cold stone wall against her back, the Amazon tried to push away from it, unfortunately it only encouraged the man.

“Mmmm…” He mumbled against her chest. “There are advantages to being short.”

She was glad the darkness covered the revulsion on her face as he continued his assault. The young guard closed her eyes as his hand began to move up her leg, He had made it half way up her thigh when a sound distracted her, she opened her eyes in time to see a glint of moonlight on a sword as the hilt was smacked against Iolaus’ head. Karis felt him slide away from her, unconscious and she crouched in a defensive position.

“I’m not stupid enough to fight you.” Solari walked close enough to offer her leader a hand up. “It does take me awhile to catch on to things though.”

Karis smiled grimly and accepted the hand. “I take it you approve.”

“Not of your methods.” The archer replied. “But yes, someone needs to get into the resistance.” She looked at the man at their feet. “Is he the only way?”

Running her fingers through her hair Karis nodded. “He was going to take me to Callisto….after.”

“Oh, uh…sorry.” Solari was sorry for interrupting the plans and she was sorry for what the plan entailed. “Now what?”

Karis took a deep breath. “Now, you are going to have to rob us.” She reached down and took Iolaus’ money pouch. She took his ring and this earring and handed them to Solari. Taking her bracelet, necklace and small money pouch off she handed those to Solari too.

“Okay.” The archer turned to go but Karis’ hand on her arm stopped her.

“Wait.” Deep brown eyes searched the second in command’s face. “There’s something else you have to do.”

Solari’s eyes widened with realization. “No….. I can’t!”

Grim determination settled on Karis’ face. “You have to.” She released the woman’s arm. “It’s the only way.”

————————————————————

Xena looked at the entry in her journal and closed her eyes against the memory of that time. Turning back one page she placed a blank piece of parchment into the book. The clean sheet looked so inviting, she wished she could just go back and erase the things she had done, just start over with a clean sheet. After a short internal banter, Xena began to write on the page. ‘This is for the best.’ The Warrior Princess assured them. ‘You had better be right.’ The Conqueror wasn’t happy with the solution they had come up with but it seemed logical and they were, for once, all in agreement. ‘Well almost all of us.’ She thought. The dark sleeper at their core stirred at the thought and Xena went very still for a moment, willing their restless sister back to sleep.

She finished the note quickly and blew on the page to dry the ink and the wax. She examined the book as she closed it. ‘Children record their dreams in journals.’ She thought. ‘All this contains are nightmares.’

Pushing away from the desk, Xena suddenly needed to hold Gabrielle. It was sheer strength of will that kept her from running through the secret passage. Even then she covered the distance quickly.

————————————————————–

Gabrielle found Solan on his balcony. A cool wind blew his hair back from his face as he scanned the booths below. “Solan. It’s too dark. You will never see her from here.”

He stubbornly continued searching for a short while, then sighing he slumped his shoulders. Wrapping one arm around her shoulders he jostled her gently. “You’re right.” Guiding her back inside, they sat by the fire to warm up a bit.

“You seem to be feeling better.” Gabrielle smiled at her son. She couldn’t be sure if the color in his cheeks was just a healthy glow or if it was reflection from the fire.

“Yeah, a bit of sparring worked the last of the drug out of my system.” He unconsciously glanced at the staff leaning against the headboard of the bed.

She followed his gaze and recognized his favorite practice staff. She knew he had left it in the training room. “You went out?!” The terror of losing him surfaced full force. Her anger was apparent and, as any good guard would, Jamie jumped to Solan’s defense.

“We only went to the training room, my Queen.” She felt a little responsible for the trip and looked at the ground in supplication. “There were eight of us with him at all times.”

Gabrielle turned her attention to the guard. “Look at me.” The command snapped the woman’s head up even as she knelt at her Queen’s feet. Gabrielle immediately recognized the sharp features that characterized Amazon’s in the western tribes. Many of them had a hard time when they first arrived most opting to go home once the treaties were signed. ‘They didn’t like doors.’ She remembered. “This was your idea?” It was more an accusation than a question.

Bowing her head again, Jamie replied. “Yes, my Queen. I thought the young Prince should be armed.”

“Yes he should be!” Xena walked out of the closet door. Being in the same room with Gabrielle was enough to calm her. “You can’t punish her for wanting to protect Solan.”

Solan jumped to his guard’s defense, he didn’t want her to get into trouble because of him. “Please, Mom she only suggested the idea. It was my decision to go. I should have just sent for the staff. Don’t punish Jamie.”

The Warrior Princess was proud that Solan was taking responsibility for his decision. It would have been very easy to sit back and let the guard take the blame.

Gabrielle regarded the kneeling guard with her most royal pose. “Rise Jamie.” She looked up at the guard. “I don’t want you in here guarding Solan.” She saw the hurt in the guard’s eyes. To lose the Queen’s trust was the worst thing to happen to a guard. “I will talk to Karis or Solari about reassigning you.” Now she smiled at the guard. “I never want to see you INSIDE a room again.” Taking the guard by the arm Gabrielle gently led her to the door. “Go to the hospital and bring me a status report on Jana.”

“Yes, my Queen.” Jamie was thrilled to be out of the room. Guarding Solan was a great responsibility but being inside for that long was unnerving. She went down the hall quickly determined to bring back good news for her Queen.

—————————————————————–

The Warrior Princess stood behind Gabrielle with her arms around her shoulders. She listened to the little Queen explaining to their son about the closed in feeling western Amazon’s got in rooms with doors. She marveled at her loves ruling hand. ‘She punishes without punishing.’ The Conqueror was also impressed with Gabrielle and the way she handled her people. ‘It’s too bad she won’t be able to do that with us.’ The warrior chuckled and rested her chin on the top of the honey fire hair. ‘Who says she won’t?’ There was no good response to that question so the Conqueror remained silent and soaked in the nearness of her love.

Solan knew that Jamie wasn’t from the area around the main village. Now he was curious about the western Amazons. “Do they train with different weapons in the west?”

A wisp of sadness swept through Gabrielle. ‘He is still preoccupied with weapons.’ She thought and sighed. “The sword is their main weapon. Amazons from the western tribes are the best sword fighters anywhere.”

“What about Jamie?” The young prince knew he had almost taken her in the fight and he wanted to judge his skill level.

“Jamie is rated advanced or she couldn’t carry a sword or be in the royal guard.” Gabrielle searched the boy’s deep brown eyes. ‘He already knew that.’ She thought and continued with more information specific to Jamie. “She is better than most. I don’t think she would be able to beat Karis, but she would have a good shot at anyone else.”

Solan smiled at the news but he wanted to spar more. “Tomorrow, will I be allowed to go to the training room?”

The fact that he asked practically guaranteed the answer to be yes. Gabrielle opened her mouth to reply when the door burst open.

Xena was instantly between the door and her family. A warm hand on her arm relaxed the defensively tensed muscles.

“Relax! It’s Jamie.” Gabrielle saw the guard was panting though. “What’s wrong?….. Oh no..Jana?” If the guard had died she would have major trouble with the rest of the Amazon’s seeking revenge. ‘One in particular.’ She thought.

Jamie shook her head. “No, It’s Karis and Iolaus. They were just brought in to the infirmary.”

When he heard Karis’ name, Solan jumped up and headed for the door.

“Whoa.” The Warrior Princess grabbed his elbow. “Where do you think you are going?”

“I have to go to Karis.” He pleaded with his Mother, then turned his puppy dog look on both of them. “Please, if she is hurt she needs me.”

Pale blue eyes met misty green. ‘What if it were us?’ The shared question was clear in each others eyes and Gabrielle sighed. “Take your staff.” It was pointless to forbid it. He would go anyway. She knew because, if it were Xena, then no one would be able to stop her, either.

He gathered his weapon quickly and they all went to check on the injured guards. Gabrielle shook her head at the entourage. Her ten guards plus Solan’s eight, plus some strays of Xena’s they picked up along the way completed their small invasion force and the Amazon Queen laughed at the thought of taking over the infirmary.

———————————————————

“I’m fine.” Karis reassured the new arrivals. The Amazon healers had heard the same protest since the guard was brought in and move to check on the other patients. “I’m sure it looks far worse than it feels.” She shifted on the bed and grimaced as the bruises on her stomach were disturbed.

Gabrielle looked down at the guard and marveled at the young woman’s spirit. Her eye was darkening as they spoke but the small cut just above her eyebrow had stopped bleeding. She didn’t want to make the injured woman smile for fear the cut on her lip would reopen so she simply nodded and moved to check on Jana, leaving Solan to visit with the his love.

Solan knelt next to Karis’ bed, took her bruised hand in his own and very gently pressed his cheek against it. “You had me scared there for a minute.” He smiled at her, brushing the hair from her forehead, away from her wound.

“But I’m awake.” She smiled at the young man and winced as the action pulled the cut on her lip. “You were so out of it when they found you…. you scared me.” With her free hand she began to tug at the bedding under her and tried to change the subject. “I hate this bed.”

With the confident air of Royalty, Solan winked at his love. “Let’s see what we can do about that!” Motioning for a healer drew an instant response from three Amazon healers. “Karis is uncomfortable in this bed. I’m going to move her to her own bunk.” The plan of action drew Galen’s attention.

Stopping his examination of Iolaus’ head injury, the old healer was outraged when the other healers bowed to the boy’s request. “What is the matter with you?” He questioned his fellow healers. “Who does he think he is, telling you what to do with a patient?” The healer was still stinging from having the Amazon healers take over for him. The fact that they were all looking at him like he was stupid didn’t help matters any.

Solan stood and looked directly at the rude man. “I think I’m…….” He glanced at Xena. “….. the Amazon Prince.” He looked at Gabrielle. “What do you think, Mom?”

Gabrielle laughed and glanced at Xena who had started to chuckle. “I believe you are correct, son.”

Throwing his hands up in the air, Galen stalked to the storage room for more herbs. Laughter at his retreat didn’t help the man’s mood at all.

The Amazon healers cautioned the young woman. “If you begin to feel worse come back immediately. The bruises on your ribs and stomach could signal worse injury.”

Karis wrapped her arm around Solan’s shoulder as he helped her stand and winced as she tried to take a deep breath. “It’s not bad really. I just got the wind knocked out of me.” She saw Solari walk in and grinned wickedly. “They weren’t really that great of fighters. Kind of pathetic really. They just surprised me.”

The taunt had the desired effect and Solari glared at her Captain. Opening her mouth to retort, the archer thought better of it. She flexed her hand a few times and decided not to say anything, moving quickly to Jana’s bedside. She thought she saw Xena’s eyes twinkling and bowed to Gabrielle before kneeling next to Jana’s bed. She wanted to hold the injured woman’s hand, but not in front of all these people. Gabrielle’s warm hand on her shoulder drew her attention.

“The healers say she needs to be talked to and it helps if someone is holding her hand.” The Queen smiled down at the reluctant guard. “Xena and I have to go now.” She put a bit of plea in her voice. “Will you stay with her?”

Solari looked up into the piercing green eyes in wonder. The guard had no idea how Gabrielle could see inside a person and know exactly what they were thinking or feeling. With heightened respect for the small woman, Solari slid her hand under Jana’s and whispered. “Yes. My Queen. I’ll stay.”

Gabrielle smiled at the guard and linked her elbow with Xena. “Let’s go make sure Solan and Karis are settled.” She sighed as half the remaining guards exited first and the other half waited for them to go before they followed.

——————————————————————

“Solan.” Karis protested when they stopped at his room. “I can’t stay here.”

“You can’t stay in the guard’s room. There are too many shift changes.. you would never rest.” Solan gestured for the door to be opened. He led the injured Amazon to the large bed and once she was settled smiled. “See, now isn’t this better than that noisy guard room, with all the half naked women running in and out at all hours of the day and night…..” He seemed lost in thought for a moment. “You know, I should probably stay in your bunk since you are staying in mine.” His eyes twinkled at her. “When did you say that naked thing happens again?”

Chuckling, Karis waggled her index finger at him. “Oh no… I’m not telling you anything.” She grinned as he sat on the edge of the bed and grabbed her shaking hand. “I’m in enough trouble and so are you.”

“She’s right.” Gabrielle’s voice forced both occupants of the bed to look toward the door.

Solan rolled his eyes at their sudden appearance. “I really wish you wouldn’t do that!” He narrowed his eyes at his Moms walking toward them. “What am I in trouble for this time?”

Green eyes twinkled at the grinning boy. “I’m sure I can think of something.” Signaling the guards to leave them alone, Gabrielle laughed at his expression and looked out the window at the rising moon. “Don’t worry. It’s too late to think up anything good tonight.” She looked at Karis. “Are you comfortable? Do you need anything?”

Karis shot a brief glance at Solan. “No, I think I’m being taken care of fairly well.” She noticed Xena studying her wounds and unconsciously raised her hand to her injuries. “It’s not that bad is it?”

Xena smiled. “Just a beaut of a shiner.” Pursing her lips she grinned. “Solari has a nice swing.”

Karis was shocked for a moment that Xena had seen through their ruse, then grinned. “Better Solari’s fist in my eye than Iolaus’……” Karis cut off her thought and glanced at Solan. Clearing her throat she changed the subject. “Amazon’s are good fighters.”

Both Xena and Gabrielle noticed Solan’s sudden stillness after Karis’ abrupt subject switch. The Amazon Queen realized the young couple needed to talk. She looked up at the warrior next to her and thought. ‘We need to talk too.’ Clearing her throat she spoke softly to the injured guard. “It’s getting pretty late. Get some rest.” With a quick goodnight hug from Solan, the Royal couple went to their own room.

———————————————————-

“Xena?” Gabrielle’s voice was thoughtful. “I know you are upset about the journals….” The Amazon studied her lover’s still form. “….but why were you so upset when I went to see Lao Ma?”

That was not what the Conqueror expected her to say. “You went to see Lao Ma?” The thought of the two women talking was enough to send her reeling.

“Yes.” Now Gabrielle was puzzled. “Didn’t you get my note?”

“No.” The Warrior Princess was calm. “She didn’t get a note.”

Gabrielle shook her head and walked to the desk. “But I left it right…..” She looked at the desktop. “…here.” She was confused. “Where is it?” She knelt to look under the desk. “Ah Ha!” Half disappearing under the desk, she retrieved the wayward note. Handing it to Xena she smiled. “It must have gotten blown off the desk after I left.”

The Warrior Princess read the note.

——————-
Xena

Went to thank Lao Ma for helping Jana.
I may check in on Solan too.
I’ll be back as soon as I can.

Love
Gabrielle
—————–

‘I wish I had seen that.’ Now the Conqueror felt kind of silly for being so scared earlier. The embarrassment was enough to cause her to retreat into her corner, leaving her sister to deal with Gabrielle. The Warrior Princess smiled at their love. “This would have helped her. She was frightened.”

“But you weren’t?” She was fascinated by Xena’s response. It wasn’t often she could get them to talk about each other specifically.

The Warrior Princess took advantage of the Conqueror’s absence to hold Gabrielle in her arms. “I know you love us. I don’t have the nightmares.” She stroked the silky hair. “She is frightened that you will hate her after you read what she did.” Not knowing how long she had before the object of their discussion reappeared the Warrior Princess ducked her head to kiss the Amazon. She hadn’t had the Queen truly to herself for what seemed like a very long time.

Gabrielle broke the kiss and sat at the foot of the bed. “What she did?”

“I wasn’t strong enough to stop her.” The Warrior Princess wasn’t sure she could explain. She wasn’t sure she should try. Offering her hand to the seated woman, she smiled and changed the subject. “Are you hungry? We have bread and honey out on the balcony.”

Laughing, Gabrielle accepted the hand and wrapped her arm around the silk clad waist as they walked to the balcony. “That brings back memories….” She looked up into loving blue eyes, remembering their first meeting as adults and the wonderful bread and honey desert they had shared then. “Doesn’t it?”

Xena steadied the chair as Gabrielle sat. “Yes. Yes it does.” She kissed the Amazon on the cheek and sat in the chair opposite her, hoping the Conqueror would let her enjoy a few moments with their love. They did have a wedding to plan after all.

————————

Karis watched Solan stir the fire. She knew he was upset. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Solan stopped messing with the fire and put the poker back on it’s stand. Turning to face her, he ran his fingers through his hair. “You let Solari hurt you on purpose.”

“Well I didn’t enjoy it. I had to. It was the only way to make it look like a legitimate robbery.” She motioned him over to the bed. Her injuries weren’t all that was bothering him and she knew it. “I will do anything to make sure you and Gabrielle are safe.”

“You were going to let Iolaus….” He couldn’t finish. The thought of her being with someone else nearly consumed him with jealousy. Seeing her kiss Xena was bad enough but this was far worse.

“I wouldn’t have enjoyed that either.” Opening her arms, she motioned him to very carefully stretch out next to her on the bed. “I had planned on getting him drunk enough to pass out. I was hoping he wouldn’t remember that we hadn’t…..done anything.”

“I don’t want you to see him anymore.” The request was unreasonable and he knew it. Sighing he looked around the big room. “I’m sorry.” Snuggling closer to her, he closed his eyes. “I just don’t like it here. Everything is too….cold….. I like the villages with trees all around.”

Karis smiled at the admission. “You felt safe there.” She knew exactly how he felt.

“Yeah.” He looked up into her eyes. “The only time I feel safe here is when I’m with you or
Mom…or Xena.”

Patting his head back down to her shoulder, Karis smiled. “Well I’m here now, so get some rest.”

She smiled as the young Princes breathing evened out. This is exactly where she had wanted to be tonight and she knew she owed Solari a thank you. Resting her cheek against the top of Solan’s head, Karis tried not to think of tomorrow. Losing herself in the peace of the moment, she too drifted off to sleep.

———————————————————

“So Salmoneous will take care of the arrangements?” Gabrielle had taken a seat on Xena’s lap after the planner had left, partially to combat the cool breeze and partially to make it easier to feed each other the last few bites of their dessert. She now offered the last bit of bread and honey to the warrior.

Accepting the bite, Xena smiled as she chewed and watched Gabrielle, now out of bread, dip her finger into the honey jar. “Yes. He will take care of everything, just like we want.”

“The cooks won’t be happy.” The Amazon’s green eyes never let go of the intent blue watching her as she slowly sucked the honey from her finger. “One day is very short notice for a wedding feast.” She dipped her finger back into the honey.

“They are already cooking for the festival.” The Warrior Princess reminded her. “It won’t be that much more work.” She grabbed the Amazon’s wrist and brought the honey-coated finger up to her own mouth. “Besides if we are going to be joined on the last day of Festival, we have to have the feast tomorrow night.”

Gabrielle tried to control her shuddering reaction as Xena’s agile tongue swirled around her finger. “And you are sure you are okay with having the ceremony in the Temple?” That had been a touchy subject to bring up. The Amazon knew how Xena felt toward the Gods.

“If Artemis doesn’t mind, I don’t mind.” She looked up at the love of her life. “As far as I’m concerned we are already married. This is just ceremony.” The Warrior Princess dipped her own finger into the golden honey and offered it to the Amazon in her arms.

Gabrielle licked the sweet fluid off the tapered finger, grinning at the warrior’s own tremors before she replied seriously. “It will be dangerous.”

“Gabrielle. Life with me will always be dangerous.” A hint of sadness touched the Warrior’s blue eyes. “You can always change your mind.”

“Never.” Gabrielle leaned down and captured the slightly frowning lips, the faint trace of honey mixing with Xena’s own natural sweetness. “My place is with you.” She had been enjoying the last few candlemarks, just talking and being with Xena. “I’ve missed you.”

‘I knew she would rather be with you.’ The Conqueror pouted. The Warrior Princess shook her head. ‘I don’t think she means it like that.’

“What’s wrong.” The Amazon held the shaking head in her hands.

The Conqueror was careful not to hurt Gabrielle, but she forcibly removed the small hands from her face and accused. “You love her more. She hasn’t done bad things. You would rather be with her.”

“You’re wrong.” Gabrielle shook her head and snuggled closer. “I love you, both of you….all of you.” She traced her index finger down the Conqueror’s neck, looping it under the chain retrieving the half-chakram charm hanging there. Pulling up the pendant hanging from her own neck, she snapped the necklaces together forming the whole circle. “See? We fit together just like that.” With the tips of her fingers under the Conqueror’s chin she forced the dark head up. “Just like this.” Leaning down and using the softest of pressure pressed her lips against Xena’s.

The Conqueror moaned against the softness and tangled her hand in the Amazon’s silky hair, pulling her closer. The intensity of the ache within her surprised her, deepening the contact, needing the contact she continued the heart melding touch.

Reluctantly breaking the kiss Gabrielle rested her forehead against her lover’s. “You need me so much?”

“Yes.” The Conqueror stood bringing the Amazon up in her arms and carrying her to the bed. “I need to hold you and know that you won’t leave me.”

“I’m here for whatever you need, my Conqueror.” She smiled and stroked the dark warrior’s soft cheek. “I promise.”

Gently lowering the Amazon to the bed, Xena stretched out beside her love and circled the small woman’s shoulder with her right arm. She felt the silky softness of Gabrielle’s hair cascade over her shoulder and the Amazon’s warm breath rhythmically beat against her neck. As the small woman draped her arm across Xena’s stomach and her leg tangled with their long counterparts, Xena thought. ‘We do fit together. Just like the pendant.’ It was a comforting thought as she drifted off to sleep, safe in the arms of her love. Safe with her love in her arms.

—————————————————————————–

A knock on the door caused Callisto’s head to lift from it’s relaxed position against the wall. Her feet remained crossed on the desk and her chair remained tilted back as she answered the sound. “Come.” She narrowed her eyes as the older man walked in. “What do you want?”

“Iolaus was brought into the infirmary, him and that Amazon whore he was with.” The man shook with fury. He hated the Amazons. His pride was still stinging from their Queen’s arrogance. “They were robbed at the Festival.”

Callisto looked at the man suspiciously. “Their injuries?”

“Iolaus has a mild concussion. He is staying in the infirmary tonight. The Amazon was beat up pretty good, black eye, cut lip, bruises on her ribs and stomach.” He shrugged. “Minor injuries really. She has been moved to her own quarters, at the request of the young Prince.” His sneer at the end caused Callisto to smile.

‘So the guard and the Prince are together after all’ She smiled. ‘That means she is part of Xena’s family too, if only by marriage.’ She thought about the story Iolaus had told her about Karis being Queen and the confirmation of the guard/Prince relationship. Laughing to herself she realized the Amazon was lying to Iolaus. ‘She just want’s to get to me.’ Xena had tried before to infiltrate their ranks. It was the reason Callisto was so paranoid about letting people meet her. “Cheer up, this is happy news.” Laughing at the old man’s confusion, she continued. “I’ll bet you anything that Amazon is not in the guard’s quarters. I’ll bet she is in the young Prince’s bed right now… safe in his arms.” She sneered. “Love. I want no part of it.” She leaned her head back against the wall and thought. ‘She probably had one of her own people beat her.’
Callisto almost admired the woman’s loyalty. “Now we know the Amazon will betray us.” Taking a deep breath she smiled again. “Good.”

“There’s something else you might want to know.” He shifted his weight on his feet.

“Go on.” She leveled her deep brown eyes at him.

“I came through the kitchen on the way here. All the cooks were grumbling about the wedding feast.” He jumped as the front legs of her chair hit the floor. “It’s supposed to be happening tomorrow night.”

“Really?” Callisto raised her eyebrows significantly. “That means they have decided to hold the ceremony on the last day of Festival.” That didn’t really make sense to her. She knew that all it took was Xena’s word for the leaders of her kingdoms to believe she was married. That’s how she knew the double arrow catch was motivated by love. If Xena wanted to take over the Amazon’s by the Queen’s death she would have missed. Something was going to happen at the ceremony. Something Xena wanted the gathered Royalty to see, to be present for. “Is that all?”

“Yes.” He nervously shifted is feet again. He had only talked to the woman twice before but just the thought of her prowling the night made him nervous.

Raising her eyebrow, Callisto stood and held out her hand. “Don’t you have something for me?”

“Oh, yes.” He had almost forgotten and handed her a pouch of herbs. “These will have the desired effect.”

She opened the pouch and sniffed the contents. “Good.” Grinning wickedly at the man she laughed. “I guess I won’t have to kill you after all.” She laughed louder at the shock on his face. “Oh come now Galen. No one that associates with me stays alive for long.” Dropping her voice to a seductive register forced a maniacal twinkle in her eye. “You know that.” She loved taunting the man, in the past her jibes didn’t have quite the impact they did now though. Since Kima’s death he was the only contact she had in the infirmary but now her life mission was nearly complete and she really didn’t need him anymore.

He shuddered at the thought of her last victim. ‘The poor slob had spoken against her personal vendetta for Xena’ He thought. He wasn’t sure he wanted the dubious honor of being the one healer Callisto sent her torture victims to. He barely found his voice. “Yes, I know.”

Glittering brown eyes studied him intently. ‘A pathetic excuse of a man.’ She thought. “If you ever come here again, I will kill you. Now get out.” Her gesture was unnecessary as he was out the door before she lowered her arm. Sighing she reaffirmed her assessment out loud. “Pathetic.” Tilting her chair back against the wall and crossing her ankles on the desk she played with the herb pouch, contemplating the slight change of plans and a few backups even Iolaus didn’t know about. Thoughts of revenge pulsed through her. ‘Xena will watch her family burn, just like I did.’

Part 6

The soft sound of rain hitting the balcony woke the Conqueror slowly. Sleepy blue eyes looked around the room and then down at the woman in her arms. ‘Now this is how I like to wake up.’ She thought. The warm arm draped over her stomach tightened and she smiled as misty green eyes opened.

“Mmmm… I love waking up like this.” Smiling up at the warrior, she laughed. “How long have you been awake?”

Taking a deep breath, Xena hugged the small woman. “Not long.” She leaned down and kissed the tip of the Amazon’s nose. “I was just laying here listening to the rain, thinking about how much I love you.”

With a wry grin, Gabrielle playfully slapped her lover’s stomach. “You are just being sentimental because the wedding feast is tonight.”

“Nope.” Xena grinned. “It’s not always raining, but every morning when I wake up I think about how much I love you.” Running her tongue over her teeth, she her blue eyes twinkled at her love. “I’m just feeling really…connected to you this morning.”

“I always feel connected to you.” Gabrielle snuggled closer. The rain splattering on the balcony made her shiver.

Xena rubbed the Amazon’s arm briskly. “I would get up to get you a blanket…but I can’t right now.”

Propping herself up on her elbow, Gabrielle looked at the woman next to her. “What are you talking about?”

Licking her lips and grinning, Xena reached between them and pulled lightly on the chain around the Amazon’s neck. Following the links to the pendant, she laughed as Gabrielle realized the charms were still connected. “To get up, the halves have to be separated.”

“Mmmm… then stay. I’m warm enough here anyway.” She burrowed in next to the warm tan body and sighed, soaking in the feeling. “Can we stay here all day?”

Laughing, Xena brushed golden locks from the Amazon’s eyes. “We have a lot to do today. Aren’t you hungry?”

Gabrielle shook her head, feeling the chain around her neck tug on its connection. “Nope. I would rather stay here.”

“Well, as much as I would love to stay with you all day, I do still rule the world. I have things to do today.” The Empress grinned at Gabrielle’s disappointed look and continued. “Not the least of which is setting things in order so we can spend some time on a honeymoon.”

“Ohhh…” Green eye’s twinkled. “Where are we going?”

“Oh no…. ” She tapped the Amazon’s small nose and then kissed it. “You will have to wait and see.” Xena evaded the question because in reality she hadn’t yet decided the destination.

Sighing, Gabrielle gave in to the inevitable and reached up to the pendant connecting them, reluctantly snapping the halves apart. “Okay. I trust you.” She wiggled away from the warm embrace and made her way across the room.

The sound of the pendant snapping apart sent a sharp stab of pain through her and at a loss for words Xena could only watch the little Amazon walk away from the bed. ‘She trusts me.’ The Conqueror glanced at the journal on her desk. ‘But for how long?’ When she realized Gabrielle was headed for the balcony she grabbed the small woman’s robe and, pulling her own robe around her shoulders as she walked, went to join the Amazon. “Um..Sweetheart… this rain is awfully cold.” She draped the white silk around the small woman. “And…um… I really don’t want a riot on my hands….” She indicated the thin but growing crowd milling about the festival booths, thankfully realizing that none of them were paying attention to the balcony or the naked woman standing there. “… I suggest you come back inside.”

Sighing, the Amazon reluctantly complied. Xena knew, of course, but it wasn’t a well known fact that Gabrielle loved dancing in the rain. Warming herself by the fire, she became lost in memory. The day, not long after she began her Amazon training, came back to her in vivid clarity. It had been warm that day and she was bathing in a small secluded pool when a sudden rainshower had started. She was dashing for her clothes when a sudden urge swept over her and she stopped, allowing the drops to fall on her unhindered. A glorious feeling had swept over her as the rain washed away the last vestige of her village persona, leaving only the Amazon in her to dance in the rain. ‘That was the day I truly became a Amazon.’ She thought.

“Hey.” The Conqueror jostled the silent woman, worried for a moment she had upset the younger woman.

“Oh sorry.” She smiled at the worried woman. “Memories.”

“Okay…..” The sudden withdrawal had started Xena’s heart beating faster. The Amazon’s dazzling smile had calmed it almost immediately. “Good one’s I hope.”

Laughing, Gabrielle reached up to stroke the warrior’s cheek. “As good as they can get without you being involved.”

“Oh.” Feeling herself drift in a sea of green, Xena floated for a moment in the Amazon’s gaze. She smiled at the woman and returned the laughter. “Are you hungry?” She knew she should put in an appearance at least one breakfast. It was hard to check the time with the storm going on but she knew it was a little after dawn. “Breakfast will be served soon.”

“I guess we really should be sociable.” Stretching up, Gabrielle kissed Xena’s right cheek. “I’ll go change.” Xena’s hopeful voice stopped her in the doorway of the bathroom.

“Need any help?” Blue eyes twinkled at the slowly turning head.

Gabrielle looked back over her shoulder, coyly. “Are you offering?”

Closing the distance between them quickly, Xena tangled her hand in the reddish-blonde hair and leaned down finding the perfect ear she whispered. “Yes.”

Chuckling with a slight smile, Gabrielle reached up to lace her fingers behind the warrior’s neck. “We are going to be late for breakfast aren’t we.” It wasn’t a question but Xena rumbling answer sent shivers through her.

“Yes.”

——————————————————–

Solan supported himself on his elbow and watched Karis peacefully sleeping. Although beautiful when she was awake the weight of her duties aged her appearance. In sleep it became obvious that she was only a few years older than him. Unable to resist, he reached up to brush her dark hair away from her now blackened eye. He was, for once, glad of the restrictions placed on him, leaving the bed to ask a guard for breakfast had been bad enough. He wasn’t sure if he would have been able to leave long enough to go to the kitchen himself. Smiling at Mirriam’s quiet entrance and exit, Solan looked over the morning meal. When he spotted her favorite it was all he could do not to wake his love right then.

Karis heard the rain beating down on the balcony but refused to open her eyes. It was much too warm in her dream to wake up and spoil it. Plus, she could almost smell the berry muffins. Her dream mother always baked berry muffins for her. In reality, her mother was not a baker at all. She took a deep breath, regretting the thought of reality breaking the lovely dream and furrowed her brow. Cautiously opening her eyes, well the good eye anyway, she saw Solan contentedly sitting next to her eating a berry muffin.

“Morning, Sleepyhead.” He grinned and tore a bit of the delicious breakfast from it’s place and offered it to her.

“Mmmm.. ” The bite nearly melted in her mouth and she sat up in the bed. The bruises on her ribs and stomach, although dark, were no longer hurting. Spotting the basket, her deep brown eye’s twinkled. “Gimme.”

Laughing, Solan passed her the basket. “So I guess you are feeling better huh?”

With her mouth full of muffin, Karis mumbled her response. “Mphhff. Much better.” She grinned at the boy and grabbed another muffin.

“You have been hanging around Mom too much… Her appetite is rubbing off on you.” He grinned at the young woman’s rolling eyes.

“Very funny.” The guard playfully slapped his arm. “I don’t see you slowing down. I guess the herbs have worn off.”

Chuckling, he patted his stomach. “Yeah, I’m gonna have to do double drills to work it off.”

Karis shook her head. “I’m really not in any shape for a training session.” She hated to disappoint him.

“Aww… don’t worry about it.” He patted her arm. “Jamie will spar with me.”

A surge of jealousy narrowed her eye. “Jamie?”

“Yeah.” He carried the empty basket back to the table. “We sparred yesterday for a bit.” Holding up a tumbler he asked. “You want a drink? We have….” He looked in the pitcher. “…grape juice.”

“Sure.” She tried to control her unreasonable feeling. Just because she wasn’t around didn’t mean he couldn’t practice what she had already shown him. A knock at the door drew her out of her thoughts. Solari entered slowly.

“I don’t want to disturb you.” The second in command hesitantly took a step toward the bed. “I kind of need to talk to you.”

Solan’s usual smile was absent at the woman’s entrance, but his courtesy training kicked in. “Do you want something to drink?”

Shaking her head no, Solari continued toward the bed. “I thought you should know that Xena and Gabrielle have set the wedding feast for tonight.”

“What!” Karis started to get up.

“Ohh No…” Solan was by her side in a instant. “You stay put until the healers say you can move.” He shot a glaring glance at Solari. “You are hurt.”

“You’ll never know how sorry I am for that.” She pleaded with Solan. “I didn’t want to do it.”

“Sure.” Courtesy forgotten, Solan nearly yelled at the guilty guard. “I guess she just ran herself into your fist huh?”

“Solan.” Karis spoke softly. “I ordered her to. She wouldn’t do it otherwise.” She looked from the speechless Prince to her second in command and sighed. “We have a lot to talk about.” Gesturing for Solan to sit next to her, Karis began to outline the basics of the original plan and the changes that they had made in light of the new circumstances.

—————————————————————–

By the time the Royal couple got to the dining hall the other dignitaries had eaten and excused themselves. Breakfast was not a formal affair so they were all free to come and go as they pleased. Xena led Gabrielle to their chairs at the head of the table. She smiled as the Amazon realized all the centerpieces were lilacs.

“You requested lilacs?” The gesture was touching.

Xena simply sat in her throne and replied. “They are your favorite.” That fact was all the motivation she needed to do anything. It was a simple rule. If Gabrielle wanted it, then it happened.

Gabrielle leaned down to kiss the Empress on the cheek. “Thank you.” She sat in the chair next to Xena. Most of the food along the tables had been eaten but several bowls of fruit and a few baskets of rolls and muffins remained in the proximity of the throne. The Amazon’s eyebrows nearly reached her hairline. “Were they expecting me?”

Laughing loud enough to echo through the room, Xena reached for a roll. “I don’t think so.” Blue eyes twinkled as she tore off a bit of the bread. “Otherwise there would be more.” Popping the bite into her mouth she ducked the playful slap aimed at her shoulder.

“Ha Ha.” Gabrielle’s sarcastic reply caused a twinkle in her eyes too. She grabbed one of the muffins from a handy basket. Her first bite was only half chewed when her motion stopped.

Xena followed her gaze to the door and she swallowed the bite she had been working on. “Greeting’s Lao Ma.” She stood as Gabrielle did and nodded to the other new arrival. “Ming T’ien.” She watched Gabrielle approach the eastern leader.

“I was disappointed to miss you last night.” Gabrielle stopped a few feet from the woman. “I wanted to thank you for helping my son’s guard with her injuries.”

“When the Empress informed me of the nature of the injuries, I could do nothing less.” Lao Ma tilted her head to acknowledge the gratitude demurely.

Gabrielle’s response to the woman’s words was cut off by Ming T’ien’s sharp voice. “Your son?!”

Turning ice green eyes on the young man, Gabrielle responded matter-of-factly. “Yes. My son.” She watched as the arrogant Prince realized Solan was the same rank as he was.

“I would be most interested in that story.” The only indication Lao Ma gave to curiosity was slightly raised eyebrows. “It is not often one hears of an Amazon Prince.”

Laughing at that, Gabrielle gestured for the eastern leaders to follow her back to the head of the table. “If ‘not often’ means ‘never’ then you are right.” Reclaiming her seat, to the left of a now rather tense Xena, Gabrielle passed a basket of rolls to Lao Ma at her left. Picking up the muffin she had begun to eat earlier, the Amazon Queen began the story regarding the adoption of her unlikely son. It was harder than she thought to censor some of the information but once she started the altered story wasn’t far from the truth.

———————————————————

Solari looked at her superior in open mouth wonder. The audacity of the statement was nearly incomprehensible. “You told him you would be the next Queen?”

Karis grinned. “Yup… and he bought it.”

“Are you sure he is smart enough to be a leader in the resistance?” Solari immediately regretted the tone of the question. “I mean….”

Karis held up her hand to stop the apology. “I know what you mean.” The chance of her being named Queen was remote at best, but the possibility was enough to make the story believable. “There isn’t much chance in their believing Xena would let anything happen to Gabrielle after that double arrow catch.”

Solari’s strategic training kicked in. “At least not until after the wedding.” She smiled as Solan shook his head, confused and Karis explained.

“They don’t understand the way the Nation is governed. They think it’s the same as all the other Kingdoms in the Realm. The scenario I gave Iolaus is really only valid if Gabrielle is not joined at the time of her death. They will think that if Xena marries the Queen and then she dies, Xena will control the Nation. That is how it would be in other places…..” Solari took up the explanation.

“…..but in the Nation it’s different. A new Queen would be chosen until the Heir is old enough but since Ephiny is already named Regent she would simply assume the Mask until Brie is old enough. In the Nation joining with the Queen has nothing to do with governmental control.” It was a matter-of-fact assessment of the traditions that had been passed down since the beginning of recorded Amazon law. Taking a deep breath, Karis reached out to hold Solan’s hand.

“They believe Xena is planning to kill Gabrielle. She has her best carpenter working on a secret project. They think it’s a sarcophagus.” She laughed at that idea.

“What is it really?” Solan found the idea of Gabrielle dying quite unnerving.

Karis had her suspicions about that but kept them to herself. “I don’t know.” Sensing Solan needed a good thought to hold on to, she smiled and ruffled his hair. “But knowing how much Xena loves Gabrielle….. It must be something wonderful.”

—————————————————-

“That was quite a story.” Ming T’ien’s disbelief was evident. “Centaurs raising an orphan boy? Why would they?”

Glancing at Xena, Gabrielle carefully elaborated on that point. “They believed he was the son of their ally.”

Snorting at that, the Chinese Prince sneered. “That’s all?”

“That is enough for a Centaur. They are a very honorable race.” The patient Amazon was surprised to hear Xena’s voice. The warrior had been silent throughout the story.

“Were.” The Warrior Princess corrected. As all eyes turned toward her, the Conqueror agreed. “They WERE a honorable race, before I killed them all.”

Compassion filled eyes studied the guilt ridden woman and the Amazon made a decision. “Xena, I think I would like to check on Karis now.” She turned to the Chinese leaders and bowed as she stood. “Thank you for listening to my son’s story. I look forward to talking with you later about the philosophy you follow.”

Lao Ma smiled at the storyteller. “I will look forward to that as well.” It surprised her to realize it was true. Despite her previous feelings of jealousy and loss, the simple fact was, she liked Gabrielle. She smiled as Xena too made her excuses and followed the young Queen out of the dining hall.

——————————————–

The Conqueror was surprised when Gabrielle stopped at their room. “I thought you wanted to check on Karis?”

“Later.” Gabrielle dismissed the interior guards and regarded Xena a moment before repeating her statement from the breakfast table. “Centaurs are a very honorable race.”

“Gabrielle.” The warrior’s warning tone should have been enough to stop the discussion, with anyone else it would have. Gabrielle, however, continued speaking. Her melodic voice disguised the seriousness of the topic.

“You didn’t kill them all, Xena.” She smiled a bit sadly.

“Gabrielle.” Running her fingers through her jet black hair, the Conqueror sighed. “Phantes is not enough.” She thought of the little lone Centaur. “When he is gone……” Gabrielle’s shaking head caused her thought to trail off. “…..What?”

Gabrielle took both Xena’s hands in her own and led her to one of the big chairs next to the fireplace. Urging her to sit, Gabrielle knelt at the warrior’s knee. Never breaking eye contact, the Amazon spoke quietly. “He is not the last Xena.” She smiled at the narrowing blue eyes. “There aren’t many who escaped the war but the few we have found are now living in a settlement on the northern border of the Nation.”

Both the Warrior Princess and the Conqueror were speechless at the news. Finally, the Warrior Princess found her voice. “I had heard rumors that Athens would accept any refugees, but when none showed up I thought…..” Gabrielle’s twinkling eyes again dispersed her thought.

“I started that rumor.” She laughed softly at Xena’s reaction to that. “The refugees were intercepted before they reached Athens and directed to the village site.” Watching her lover closely, Gabrielle added. “Survivors are still being found.”

“They aren’t all dead?” The weight of her guilt was eased slightly at Gabrielle’s answer.

“No. The last count I had there were fifty-six grown Centaurs living in two villages and the surrounding caves. Half of which had wives.” She grinned at the widening blue eyes and continued. “And half of those were pregnant or had children.”

“I didn’t kill them all.” The Conqueror was incredulous. If anyone else had told her this she wouldn’t have believed them and probably killed them for lying to her, but this was Gabrielle. Gabrielle wouldn’t lie to her. She knew what she had to do. “Who is their leader? I have to talk to him. I have to apologize…..” This time it wasn’t Gabrielle’s eyes, but her lips that stopped the thought from finishing.

Sliding into the warrior’s lap, Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the dark head and kissed the breathless woman thoroughly before answering. “Your son is their leader.”

“WHAT!” Xena had seen enough of Centaurs to know they didn’t take orders from young boys.

“Well…… he will be.” She amended. “When we return to the village he is going to go North and assume a position of governmental responsibility for the group. At the moment they really don’t have a leader.” Covering Xena’s protest forming lips with her fingers, Gabrielle continued. “When they found out he is sixteen, they asked him, as the son of Borias and the ward of Kaleipus.” Smiling at the dubious warrior mother, the Amazon continued. “They know he is young. He knows it too. He convinced them not to make a hasty decision. He will go and live with them for the summer, as a trial period.” Gabrielle had recently began to doubt the boy would be able to handle it. His recent behavior was not exactly leadership material but he seemed to be settling down now. Taking responsibility for his decision to leave his room, instead of letting Jamie take the blame had been a proud moment for her. “It will be good training anyway.”

‘Training?’ The Conqueror didn’t like the idea of Solan being away from Gabrielle. The Warrior Princess was more practical. ‘If he can learn to be a good leader for the Centaurs, he should be able to step up and learn to rule the world when we step down.’ Snorting at that thought, the Conqueror spoke. “I don’t plan on stepping down anytime soon.”

“No of course not.” Gabrielle laid her head on the broad tan shoulder. “but he has to start somewhere. Even you started somewhere.”

The story of her infamous rise to power was not exactly well known. Gabrielle knew, of course, from the journals, but the memories of those desperate days in Amphipolis when Cortese attacked were still painful to the Warrior Princess. It had taken everything she had to rally the townspeople. ‘But when the real fighting started, I came to help.’ The Conqueror reminded her and sneered. ‘I’ve done all your dirty work ever since.’ She didn’t get a response to her remark as the Warrior Princess buried her face in the Amazon’s soft hair and for the first time in her life wept quietly at the loss of her own innocence. “Let’s hope he doesn’t have it quite so difficult.” Her choked whisper barely escaped her lips. “I never want him to experience that.”

Gabrielle held the dark head to her chest and spoke gently. “There is a very old Amazon saying.” Two fingers under the warrior’s chin raised the sad blue eyes to meet her loving green. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” She traced the strong jawline and smiled sadly. “You have experienced so much pain in your life. I think you must be the strongest person in the world.”
She snuggled in, wrapped her arms around her love, and laid her head on the broad tan shoulder.

Xena felt the Amazon’s warm breath against her neck and soaked in the closeness surrounding them. “You are my strength.”

————————————————————————

A quick knock followed by the door opening put Solari instantly on alert. Before the new arrival was identified, the second in command had placed herself between the door and the young people sitting on the bed.

Karis laughed at Solari’s defensive stance. “I don’t think an attacker will knock.” She winked at Solan as the guard relaxed. Redirecting her gaze to the door, her smile disappeared. “Hello Jamie.”

The western guard smiled at the small group. “Hello. Oh Solari. Good. I’m glad I don’t have to track you down.” The messenger quickly crossed the room and stood at attention until Karis’ ‘Report’ command prompted her to speak. “Norin and Ria have been released from the infirmary.” She smiled and looked at Solari. “Jana is awake.”

Solari felt her heart jump at the news. ‘Thank Artemis!’ The relief from that thought washed over her and the silent wish she could run to Jana’s bedside closed her eyes briefly. They reopened quickly at Karis’ words.

“Solari. Go to the infirmary and see if Jana remembers anything about the attack.” Karis nearly smiled at her second. “And be sure to tell her we are all glad she is awake.” She did smile quietly after the anxious guard had gone. It was a heartbreaking thing to watch when the object of a person’s affections didn’t feel the same. Sighing at the inevitable end to that scenario, Karis looked back at Jamie. “Have Xena and Gabrielle been informed?”

“They weren’t in their room when I stopped.” Jamie shuffled her feet nervously. She knew she should have tracked the Royal couple down first before informing Karis, but she was already so close to the Prince’s room it seemed a waste of energy not to go ahead and inform the head guard.

Karis nodded. ‘Probably at breakfast.’ She thought. “Anything else?”

Glancing at Solan, the messenger hesitantly admitted. “Iolaus was released this morning too.” It was very strange to be telling Karis about the man she was with last night, while the head guard sat with their Prince in his bed.

Sighing again, Karis squeezed Solan’s hand. “I should go give the Queen a status report and I suppose I should go find Iolaus.”

“No.” Solan’s protest was almost contested until he amended. “Not until the healer’s say you are okay.” He looked at Jamie. “Please bring Amanda or Sandi to check her out.” He silently wished Salla was here, but he was glad that his grandmother had the best care too.

Bowing at the order, Jamie replied. “Yes, my Prince.” A glance at Karis let her know the head guard had nothing further to say and she left quickly on her appointed task. She had hoped to give Queen Gabrielle the good news herself but Karis’ status report comment made it clear that her obligation to deliver that report was over. Her new orders from the Prince took precedence.

————————————————

Gabrielle had no idea how long she had been holding Xena and the only reason she loosened her grip now was the slight sound of stone scraping stone that came from the closet. Looking toward the dark opening, she heard Xena’s slightly menacing voice rumble beneath her.

“Who’s there?” The Conqueror was not happy about being interrupted.

“It’s just me.” Solan walked into the room.

Gabrielle jumped off of Xena’s lap to meet Solan. She ran her fingers through his hair and forced him to look her in the eye. “What’s wrong? Are you okay? Where’s Karis?”

“Whoa!” The young Prince held up his hands to fend off his Mom’s concern. “She is fine. Sandi gave her the okay.” He looked at the floor. “She went to find Iolaus.”

Ducking to catch his gaze, Gabrielle spoke gently. “She has to do that you know. If nothing else just to discuss security for the feast tonight.”

Taking a deep breath and running his hand through his hair, Solan tried to smile. “I know.” Then he brightened considerably. “Ria and Norin were released too, and Jana is awake.” A sudden thought hit him. “Hey, yeah….the feast…” He spoke almost to himself. “… that is a great idea.”

Xena narrowed her eyes and dropped her voice. “What is a good idea?”

“Well. Karis has been trying to think of something to do for Bennett, since he helped find me and all.” He looked hopefully at the couple. “I thought we could invite him to the banquet. I know he likes that sort of thing.”

“Not like you huh?” Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled at her son. The news about Jana and the guards was such a relief, giving in to her playfulness was a natural by-product. She knew he didn’t like formal dinners at all.

He rolled his eyes at that. “You know I’d rather sit with the guards.”

“Not this time.” Xena was firm. “As Gabrielle’s son it is your right to sit with us at the main table.” She regarded him with a slight smile. “As a Centaur leader it is your duty.”

“Aww…Mom….” He shook his head. “You told…. ” He saw the serious look on Gabrielle’s face and understood that she wouldn’t have told anyone, even Xena without a good reason. He continued seriously. “That hasn’t been decided yet. They may hate me once I start living with them full time.”

“How they feel has nothing to do with it.” The Conqueror spoke evenly. “Nearly everyone hates me….. but I am the Ruler wherever I go.” Gabrielle’s quiet opposition shocked her.

“I disagree.” Green eyes traveled from Xena to Solan and back again. “The people you rule should like you. Everything is so much easier when your subjects are agreeable.”

Blue eyes locked on to the Amazon’s gaze. “You disapprove of my ruling techniques?”

“Forcing people to do what you want is not usually a good idea.” Gabrielle noticed the tension in the Empress but wasn’t about to back down from her beliefs.

The Conqueror was stung by Gabrielle’s words. Her retort was born of childish anger. “Well, it’s worked just fine so far.”

Gabrielle cautiously moved closer to the upset woman. “I never said your methods didn’t work.” She reached out to slide her arms around the upset woman’s waist. “I just think it’s easier if people like you and aren’t trying to kill you all the time.”

“It wouldn’t matter.” Although popularity was one reason, it wasn’t the only reason for assassination and usually wasn’t the main reason. “Anyone who wants power would still try to take it.” The strong arms around her waist calmed her. The Warrior Princess circled the small shoulders with her arms. The Conqueror laid her cheek on the honey-fire silk. “My death would cause chaos, every petty warlord and king would see it as his chance to rise in my place.”

Turning in place, to keep the strong arms around her and face her son, Gabrielle chuckled. “I guess we’ll have to make sure the next ruler is ready for when you step down then.” Green eyes twinkled at the wide eyed young man.

Laughing, Xena rested her chin on top of the Amazon’s head and thoughtfully agreed. “Yes, I’d say so.” She hugged the woman tighter and reassured Solan. “But I don’t plan on stepping down anytime soon.”

Tilting her head to look back at the warrior, Gabrielle smiled. “Of course not.” She knew Xena would never give up control of the world until Solan was ready for it, until the world was ready for him. ‘We have a lot of changes to make in the world before that happens.’ She thought and looked at her unlikely son. ‘He will have to change some too.’ The thought of that made her a bit sad. With a deep breath she reached up to hug the arms around her and voice her thoughts. “There are too many changes to be made first.” She winked at Solan and indicated the secret door with her eyes, smiling when he got the message and waved goodbye. The Amazon watched her son disappear into the closet and turned to face the love of her life. “But after the changes are finished…..” She reached up and brushed the raven hair back over Xena’s shoulder. “…..You are all mine.”

Sliding her hand behind Gabrielle’s head, Xena meshed her fingers into the silken tresses. “Wrong….” With the gentlest of pressure, she held the little Queen in place and leaned down to capture the perfect lips. “….we are already yours.”

Breaking the kiss and smiling, Gabrielle asked. “Do we have time to go see the lambs this morning?”

Xena glanced at her desk and saw the pile of reports Mirriam had left there while they had been gone to breakfast. She knew she should stay and go over the days business before she did anything else but a little voice in her head piped up and wanted to see the lambs too. Smiling she shook her head. “Sorry, not today.” Seeing the disappointment on Gabrielle’s face she laughed. “They wouldn’t be out in this weather anyway.” At that moment a loud rumble of thunder rolled through the room, grinning at her love she whispered. “Not everyone loves to dance in the rain.”

Rolling her eyes at the gentle tease, Gabrielle laughed. “Okay.” She kind of liked the idea of the little baby animals all snug in their barn. “I’m gonna go check on Jana.”

Nodding, Xena leaned down to kiss the Amazon on the cheek. “Okay. I’m gonna try to get through these reports. I’ll meet you down there if you like.”

“Hmmm….” Eyeing the stack of parchments as she quickly checked her formal leathers, Gabrielle changed the meeting place. “Why don’t you just meet me in the dining hall for lunch?”

Sighing, Xena glanced at the desk and nodded. “Yeah, that will probably be best.” She sat at the desk and reached for the first parchment. Gabrielle’s warm arm around her neck distracted her for a moment. She shivered as the Amazon’s warm breath tickled her ear.

“I will miss you.” She tugged gently at the conveniently positioned earlobe and breathed. “I’ll show you how much…..later.”

The Conqueror watched as Gabrielle walked away and sighed as the door closed. Later could not come soon enough for her. Shaking her head to clear the thoughts of later, Xena tried to concentrate on the writing in front of her, scowling as the words registered in her mind.

————————————————————

Solan walked through the dark passageway, lost in thought. ‘The next Ruler…..Gods.’ He ran his fingers through his hair. It was amazing to him that the thought hadn’t really occured to him. He knew with Xena as his mother he could have or get anything he wanted, but he never really thought about what would happen after she stopped ruling. His recent behavior struck him like a fist in the gut. ‘Gods I have been so childish…..’

That thought was cut off by the realization he had missed the entrance to his room and was now quite lost in the maze of secret corridors. For a moment the darkness closed in on him and he panicked, then logic took over. ‘Okay, there are entrances everywhere… I’ll just explore until I find one I can use and take the real hallways back to my room.’ He knew both his Moms would be angry but there was nothing else he could do. Feeling very much like a large rat, Solan began to look for a way out of the labyrinth.

————————————————————

Karis was told that Iolaus had gone to the guard’s room of the dungeon. The very existence of the place was creepy. The Conqueror had a whole prison to deal with criminals, so Karis knew the dungeon was really just for the Empress’ own amusement. As she walked down the dank corridor, the Amazon instincts she usually listened to were screaming for her to run back to the Queen and get her as far from the evil, dangerous woman who created this place as possible. The battle with her instincts made her jumpy, but she knew that the Xena with Gabrielle would never hurt the Queen. It was a trust born of observation and also oddly enough of Amazon instincts. She trusted her Queen’s judgment. Light pouring into the corridor and Iolaus’ voice slowed her advance.

“She shouldn’t have taken the boy like that.” Iolaus knew their leader was out of control. “She is going to ruin everything.” Taking courage from the agreeing murmurs he continued. “We have to go to her and tell her she has to stop her personal vendetta.”

The utter silence that followed that statement made Karis bite her lip to keep from laughing. ‘Looks like you’re on your own there bud.’ She thought and decided she had heard enough. “Iolaus?” She called out. “Are you down here?” He appeared immediately in the doorway.

“Hey, what are you doing here?” He rubbed his hands together and unconsciously glanced back into the room.

Forcing a laugh, Karis rolled her eyes. “Well it’s nice to see you too.” She closed the distance between them and ignoring the turning of her stomach, gently stroked his cheek. “Do I have to have a reason to want to see you?”

Even with a black eye she was very beautiful. He wished he didn’t have duties tonight, but he figured she would be pretty busy herself. “No, of course not. I was just surprised to see you that’s all.” He grinned and wrapped an arm around her waist. “Com’on, meet the gang.”

Karis took it as a good sign that he was going to introduce her to others in the resistance. She had hoped that their meeting with Callisto would have been rescheduled for today, but she would take what she could get. Two of the ten people in the room she recognized from the camp in India. ‘Those two are going to be trouble.’ She thought as she studied their suspicious looks from the corner of her eye. ‘I may as well get it over with now.’ She thought and twirled to face them. “Do you have a problem?”

“Yes.” One of them spoke up. “This is no place for a woman.”

“Really?” Karis smiled at the middle-aged man. “Why?”

“Because, this is the dungeon lady. Man stuff goes on here.” He pointed at her well defined biceps. “I don’t care how much muscle you have you’re not a man.”

Smiling, Karis laughed. “I don’t want to be a man.”

“All Amazon’s want to be men.” He began to tick the items off on his fingers. “You ‘go for’ girls, you hunt with weapons, you fight…. and no matter what you say, I don’t think any of you can beat a man in a fight.”

Shaking her head and chuckling, Karis taunted him. “Tell you what, you show me a man and I’ll beat him.” She sidestepped his flying body as he lunged for her. “Oh I’m sorry.” She knelt next to him and patted him on the back. “Can I help you up?”

With a cry of frustration, he rolled to try and grab her and bring her down with him. Instead he found himself locked, with his arms pinned behind him, face down on the floor. Karis’ low voice found his ear.

“If you EVER attack me like that again, I will kill you.” She released her hold and looked at Iolaus. Using the little display to her advantage she spoke sharply to the curly headed guard. “I’m tired of fooling around with ‘the gang’. When do I get to meet her?”

Iolaus smiled a bit sadly. “Soon, but not today or tonight.” He looked around the room. “There are preparations to be made for the feast.”

Karis nodded, that was true. “So let’s get on with it.” Linking her elbow with his she guided him into the dark corridor without a backward glance at the remaining group of resistance members.

———————————————————————-

Gabrielle waited almost patiently while two of her guards checked out the infirmary. She leaned over to speak with Bekka. “Do they think the sick people will attack me?”

“We have our orders my Queen. We are to take no chances with you or the Prince. It’s better to be safe than sorry.” Bekka knew the restrictions were getting to the Queen. Even when there had been only three guards assigned to her in the village Gabrielle had begun to chafe against the protection.

Snorting at that comment, Gabrielle grinned. “Not to mention the wrath of Karis if anything should happen to me.”

Rolling her eyes, Bekka agreed and added. “Karis would be bad enough….. but we have to think about Xena too.”

Before she could comment on that, the infirmary door opened and the guards gave the all clear sign. Sighing at how misunderstood Xena could be sometimes, Gabrielle tried to think of the words to adequately describe the depth of her gratitude to the guard. She knew they all took an oath to die for her, and Solan, but when a guard demonstrated that loyalty to such a degree ‘thanks’ just didn’t seem to be enough. Arriving at the foot of the injured guard’s bed, the Queen realized there were no words for what she wanted to say. Smiling at the guard she wiped away a tear of gratitude and, as Solari moved back, silently moved to the side of the bed where she knelt and kissed the woman lightly on the cheek, whispering. “Thank you.” When Jana’s brown eyes locked with her green for a moment, she realized there didn’t need to be any more words than that. Gratitude expressed and accepted, Gabrielle continued in a lighter mood. “You gave us quite a scare there. For awhile we thought we were going to have to haul you back to Salla before you would get better.”

Smiling at that, Jana rolled her eyes. “Please, anything but that!” The last time she had been hurt on duty Salla had lectured her for several candlemarks on proper safety, of course the circumstances were very different.

“I just want you to get the best care and get better soon.” Gabrielle glanced at Solari and out of sight to the second in command, winked at the injured woman. “We all miss you.”

“I have been getting pretty good care here.” With a glance a Solari she smiled back at the Queen. “And it doesn’t seem that I’m left alone for too long.” It had been a shock to wake up to a roomful of healers. Then when she slept for real and woke to find Solari with her head resting on the bed next to their interlaced fingers, she had been speechless. Jana had no idea the guard felt so strongly toward her. “I’m just glad Solan is okay.”

Smiling at the injured woman, Gabrielle spoke quietly. “Me too.”

—————————————————–

Solan continued his journey behind the walls of the palace. ‘No wonder Mother wanted these built in.’ He thought as he passed yet another room and listened to the occupants talking. ‘This is the best way of gathering information ever.’ He had also discovered, quite by accident that some smaller stones could be moved to allow a glimpse into the rooms in question. It was all very interesting but he knew he had been gone a long time and should really get back as soon as he could. After he passed a few more rooms, that were full of people, he finally found one that was empty. Slipping out of the secret door he was just about to exit the closet when the main door opened. Shrinking back into the shadows of the closet he watched a cloaked, hooded figure pass a pouch of something to a familiar looking woman. He stopped trying to place the other woman when the cloaked figure threw back her hood. Clenching his jaw, he listened to Callisto giving her orders.

“Tonight send a few pitchers of wine with some of this in it to the Amazon guards and at dinner, put some in the Empress’ tea. Be sure you get some in the Amazon Queen’s drink too, and if you can the little brat Prince.” Callisto was not thrilled he had been found so quickly. She had assumed he wouldn’t be found until he woke on his own. Iolaus had told her the stableboy had led the Amazons to the cave. “And for a little appetizer before the main course, I’m gonna take care of the little stable rat that ruined my plans.” She almost spoke to herself. “With everyone attending the feast it will be easy to get to the stables unnoticed.” The look on the conspirator’s face made her stop her thoughts of revenge. “What?”

“Umm….” She was hesitant to question her leader. “I was just wondering what this will do to them.”

Rolling her eyes at the concern, Callisto sneered at the reluctant woman. “It’s just a bunch of sleeping herbs.” She laughed at the relief registering on the woman’s face. “I want to be the one to kill them…. and I want to look in their eyes when I do it.” She moved very close to the shaking accomplice. “If you can’t do it, I’ll find another servant who will.”

‘That’s it!’ Solan thought. ‘She was a serving girl at the dinner the first day we arrived.’ It was a dreadful thought. He had been warned by Xena and Gabrielle not to eat any of the food unless he knew it was prepared by the Amazon cooks. ‘But if the server is the one poisoning the food then it doesn’t matter who makes it.’ The leader’s sneering voice brought him out of his thoughts.

“I was going to wait until after the joining ceremony, but now I know I don’t have to.” She sounded like she was going to be sick. “I have been watching them and it doesn’t matter if they go through the ceremony or not. They are a family…..they are Xena’s family…… and I want them dead.”

It was all Solan could do to keep still at the threat to his family. Clenching his hands tightly, he waited for the women to leave the room before quickly getting his bearings and running back to Xena and the guard’s room.

————————————————————-

Gabrielle took a deep breath, she had visited with Jana for quite awhile now and knew the guard was getting tired. “Well Jana, I’m glad you are feeling better.” She got up and motioned to Sandi.

The healer was by her side immediately. “Yes my Queen?”

“I wanted to ask you to come by Solan’s room later and check him again. I know he says he feels fine but he has never tolerated those herbs very well. I’d rather be sure.” She smiled at the healer’s nod. “Thanks.” Gesturing to Bekka, Gabrielle walked toward the door and discussed her next destination with the guard. “I want to go to the training room now.” She felt like sparring for a bit and she had some time before she was supposed to meet Xena in the dining hall.

—————————————————————

Xena looked at the parchment in her hand and laughed, adding it to the large pile on the floor next to her. “Unbelievable.” The next sheet was from a different person but was worded practically the same.

____________

Congratulations on your impending joining to the Amazon Queen. Please consider our kingdom at your disposal should you choose to visit during your honeymoon. We are happy to offer any services you want to make your stay pleasant and carefree.

____________

The Conqueror snorted. “They spend years trying to keep us out of their countries and now they are inviting us in.” Laughing at that the Warrior Princess quietly wondered what the royal families would do if they were actually taken up on their offers. The Conqueror laughed at that. ‘Well after they changed their underpants, they would be scrambling to make everything ready for our arrival.’ Her laugh was cut short by the words on the next parchment. ‘Damn. As if they didn’t have enough trouble.’ She continued reading about the growing religious movement in Britannia when a frantic Solan burst into the room.

“Mother! Callisto is going after Bennett.” Solan knew he was dirty from the secret passages but he didn’t care. “We have to stop her.”

“Whoa! Calm down….” She saw the state of his clothes and frowned. “You’ve been in the passages again.” Her accusation was cut off by his frantic waving.

“I got lost……. but that doesn’t matter…..listen… Callisto is planning on drugging our food tonight at the feast and she is going to get Bennett… We have to help him.” He grabbed her hand, pulling her toward the door. “Please. I don’t want him hurt because of me.”

“Wait!” Brushing past him she opened the door and ordered the closest guard to bring the stableboy Bennett to her. With those orders given she turned back to their now calmer son. “Tell me what you heard and where you heard it.”

With a deep breath Solan told her how he had gotten lost and then the conversation he had overheard between Callisto and the servant girl.

Xena gripped the arms of the chair tightly as their son related the story. It was heartstopping to think that Solan almost confronted the woman. Xena considered the new information. ‘This is a personal fight for her.’ The Conqueror wasn’t thrilled at the development. ‘That is good for us though.’ The Warrior Princess knew they had advantages now. ‘She won’t be as covert as before.’ The fact that the woman seemed to come and go as she pleased in the Palace was not comforting at all. ‘I wonder how she plans to take us?’ The Conqueror knew she wouldn’t just stroll into a room full of royalty and carry off three unconscious people no matter how many conspirators she had. Solan’s concerned voice drew her from her thoughts.

“What about Bennett?” He didn’t like to think of the boy being in danger.

“As soon as Anya finds him, she will bring him here.” Xena knew there were several options the boy had. She wasn’t sure which one he would choose though. “We will fill him in on the situation and let him decide how he wants to handle it.” She smiled at her son and remarked. “You will make a great leader one day. Concern for your people is something I am only now learning.”

“He is my friend.” Solan was a bit confused. “You care for your friends. Don’t you?”

With her senses on hyper-alert, Xena heard footsteps outside the door. Rising to put herself between the entrance and Solan, she placed a reassuring hand on her son’s shoulder briefly. Smiling sadly, she looked down into his big brown eyes. “I’ve never had any friends to care about before.” Leaving her speechless son to ponder that, she turned to face the opening door, relaxing when Bennett entered.

“Ummmm…Hey Xena.” Bennett didn’t know why he had been brought here to…. His eyes grew wide as he looked around. “Wow! Is this your room?” It was bigger than a lot of barns he had seen.

Chuckling at the boy’s reaction, Xena dismissed Anya with a wave and returned to her big comfy chair by the fireplace. Gesturing for Bennett to join her, she answered his question. “Yes. This is my room.”

Solan was occupying the other chair so the stableboy sat on the hearth and tentatively asked. “Am I in trouble?”

Glancing at Solan, Xena smiled. “Not from me.” Chuckling at the boy’s visible relief, she added seriously. “But Callisto is very angry at you…..” She watched Bennett’s eyes grow twice their normal size. “….it seems you ruined her plans. She wanted us to be scared for Solan longer than we were.”

Bennett looked at Solan and back to Xena in surprise. “Now what do I do?”

Resting her elbows on the arms of the chair, Xena leaned back and laced her fingers over her stomach. “Funny you should ask.”

The boy’s eyes grew wider with each passing word as Xena explained the situation in detail and gave him his options.

————————————————————

The storm had not yet passed so the training room wasn’t really well lit from the skylights. The royal guard watched as their Queen practiced with her chosen weapon, weaving in and out of the dim patches of light. It amazed them all that the woman could make even standard staff drills look like a dance.

Gabrielle ran through her warm up drills quickly and with a wicked grin glanced at the seven watching guards. “So who will it be?” She twirled the weapon in her hand absently. “Which one of you will be unlucky enough to spar with me?”

They all looked at each other in surprise and they were all thinking the same thing. ‘Unlucky?’ Facing off against the Queen was more than many Amazons could ever hope for. They all took a step toward her, then hesitated as they deferred the honor to each other.

Laughing at their reluctance, Gabrielle gently taunted her protectors. “Okay, if you’re scared….” She laughed louder and turned her back on them, twirling the staff easily between two fingers. ” I guess I’ll just have to ask Karis to assign someone else to guard me.”

Bekka laughed. “You should decide who gets the honor, my Queen.” She swept her open hand to indicate their little group. “None of us feel worthy.”

Laughing at that, the Queen tilted her head and smiled. “Well then maybe there is safety in numbers…..” She gestured for them to come at her. “Com’on.”

“But there are seven of us.” Ana was as shocked as the others and Bekka agreed.

“Seven against one would not be fair, my Queen.” Bekka knew Gabrielle was the best in the Nation with a staff but seven to one was a little extreme, especially when some of them had swords.

Rolling her eyes, Gabrielle grinned at the guards shock. “Don’t worry, I’ll take it easy on you.” Beckoning them on she seemed to drop her guard for a moment. “And cut the ‘my Queen’ stuff… my name is Gabrielle.” She planted the end of her staff firmly on the floor and not so gently taunted the reluctant women. “I have never seen Amazon’s so reluctant to fight before. Are you sure you are Amazons?” Bekka pulled her sword at that and Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled. “Yeah….” She grinned, stuck out her tongue and wrinkled her nose at them. “Com’on.” That was too much for them and they quickly formed a circle around the taunting woman.

This was only sparring so once a person was disarmed or knocked down they were ‘out’ and moved to the side to make room for someone else to attack. Gabrielle was ready for the first attack and swept her opponents legs out from under her. The second attacker, Ana, almost swept the Queen’s feet but Gabrielle jumped the staff, arcing her own weapon down and connected wood to wood, disarming the startled guard. Next was a sword wielder, Gabrielle blocked several blows from the metal weapon before disarming the woman. The next three attacked almost simultaneously and the watching guards were amazed to see their sisters losing a three against one battle. They had all known their Queen was good but this was really unexpected. Sweeping one opponent and sending the other two’s weapons flying, Gabrielle turned to face the only person left in the group, Bekka. “How ’bout it Bekka? Think you can take me?” She grinned as the guard charged.

This fight lasted the longest. ‘She is good.’ Gabrielle thought. ‘But she has a disadvantage.’ It was the same disadvantage everyone had when fighting sword against staff. ‘She thinks swords are better.’ Performing a sweep, she knew Bekka would jump Gabrielle continued to roll with the arc of her staff and before the guard could land, raised her foot to push Bekka’s momentarily useless feet out from under her so instead of landing on her feet, the guard ended up being dumped on her butt. Laughing at the expression on the suddenly seated woman’s face Gabrielle offered her a hand up. “Good fight.” She grinned as the guard accepted the help and swept her green gaze across the group of watchers. “All of you, good fight.” She felt the hair matted to her head and sighed. “I should go back to the room now. I don’t want to show up for lunch all sweaty.”

————————————

Xena studied Bennett’s wide eyed face. “Do you want to discuss it with your mother before you decide?”

He frowned at that idea. “Nah…. I don’t want to pull her out of the fields for that.” There were still three ewes that were close to having babies, he didn’t want to worry her.

“Your father?” Xena wasn’t sure it was a good idea to bring Spiros in on it, but Bennett was his son.

“Me and my Dad don’t really talk much about important stuff, besides he’s out hunting right now.” Bennett still didn’t trust the man who suddenly appeared in his life.

Solan glanced at Xena, subtly correcting the boy’s grammar and giving him some almost advice. “My father and I never got the chance to talk at all. I think you are lucky to have the chance.”

“I guess so.” Bennett looked from Solan to Xena and gave her his answer. “I’ll do whatever you want me to.”

The Warrior Princess smiled. “Okay. The first thing we have to do is get you some clothes.” She smiled at his fallen face. “You’re clothes are fine for working in the stables, but for a formal wedding feast you will need something a little less, um…worn.” She grinned at Solan. “Take him to your room and see if you have anything he can wear.”

Nodding to his mother, Solan stood and gestured to the boy. “Com’on Bennett. I think I know what you can wear.”

Gabrielle walked in just as the boys were leaving. She smiled at the wide-eyed boy. “Hello again Bennett.”

“Uh…hi…” He was tongue tied and nervous.

Laughing, Xena joined the group at the door. She put her arm around the Amazon’s shoulders. “The boys were just leaving.” Nodding at them to proceed, she guided Gabrielle on into the room. “We’ve got a lot to talk about.”

“Okay.” Gabrielle was a little concerned at the tone of that last statement but Xena seemed fairly relaxed. “Can you tell me while I wash up?”

Immediately altering her path, the Conqueror guided the Queen to the washroom. “I think that can be arranged.”

————————————————-

“Ah Ha!” The young prince held up the garment. It had taken longer than he thought to find it. “Here. Try this on.” Solan tossed a finely embroidered tunic to Bennett and smiled at the boy’s sigh.

“Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.” Bennett discarded his shirt and reached for the tunic Solan just offered.

The Amazon Prince sat on the edge of the bed and spoke seriously to the stable boy. “If you are having second thoughts, now is the time to tell us.”

“No, I want to help.” He pulled the tunic over his head and turned to Solan for approval. “It’s just that there will be so much royalty there….. I would be nervous even if we weren’t going to catch Callisto.”

“We hope to catch her.” Solan gestured the boy over and cinched up the belt a bit tighter. Standing he turned Bennett toward the mirror and adjusted the shoulders of the garment slightly. “That’s not too bad a fit.” He nodded approvingly and sat back on the bed, thinking about the boy’s earlier comment. “Royalty really makes you that nervous?” He furrowed his brow at Bennett’s affirmative nod. “But M….Xena is royalty. You aren’t nervous around her.”

“She’s different.” Bennett shrugged. “She has always been very nice to me.”

Solan was fascinated. “Really? How long have you known her?” Most of the rumors and stories about his warrior mother were terrible renditions of the evil actions she had taken to gain power over the world. To hear someone talking about her like a nice person was a refreshing change.

“All my life.” He shrugged. “Mom has always worked for Xena.”

“And your Mom? She’s not nervous around Xena either?” Solan was curious about the boy and felt close to him. He guessed it was because they were both adopted.

The stableboy pulled the tunic over his head and put his own clothes back on. “I think she is a little but they really don’t talk very much. My mom stays in the field, with the herd, most of the time.”

“Your Mom is the best shepherd woman I have.” Xena smiled as both boys jumped, startled by her voice and sudden appearance. She indicated the garment he just removed. “That one will be good for tonight.” She grinned as the stableboy’s black curls shook. “Are you still sure you want to do this?”

“Yes.” He managed to put a scowl on his face. “Let’s get her.”

Laughing at such a fierce phrase coming from the normally gentle boy, Xena draped her arm around his shoulder. “Let’s get lunch first, huh?” Draping her other arm around Solan’s shoulder’s she led them both out the door, back to her room.

—————————————————-

Karis pushed her plate away from her and looked across the table at Iolaus. She had been surprised when he suddenly became courteous and went to fetch their plates and drinks from the overworked waitress. “Well now that lunch is over, I guess we should get back to planning the security for the feast tonight.” They had, after several candlemarks of arguing, finally agreed on the amount of guards to be present. Iolaus had not wanted to pull his people from crowd control at the festival, claiming the royal feast wouldn’t be that troublesome. Now all they had to do was decide the placement of the guards. “You have plans for the dining hall in your office, right?”

Iolaus popped his last bite of bread into his mouth and grinned. “Yup. But before we get back to work, let’s get dessert.” He rose and gestured her to follow him. “Com’on.” Holding her hand, he dragged her down the main ‘road’ of the Festival. It was nice that the rain had ended.

Dreading what his idea of ‘dessert’ was, Karis rose and followed the pig of a man. She ignored the turning in her stomach and was pleasantly surprised when he led her to the baker’s booth. ‘This is the one Gabrielle likes so much.’ She thought and took a deep breath of relief. The air surrounding the booth was filled with the smell of baking pies and cakes. ‘Mmmm… no wonder she likes it.’

Iolaus paid for two of the small hand-held pies the baker was famous for and handed one to Karis. “Try one of these.” He urged her to take a bite. “Go ahead….they’re great.”

The guard bit into the pastry and was mildly surprised that the filling was warm. ‘Apple.’ It was her favorite fruit, but as good as the treat was she knew it would be a hundred times better if she were here with Solan instead of Iolaus. She complimented the man on his selection and tried not to think about how often Solan was appearing in her thoughts. “Yum. These are very good.”

The blonde man’s eyes twinkled. “I knew you would like it.” He began walking back toward the Palace. “Com’on. We can eat and talk on the way.” Seeing her sway a bit, he supported her by the elbow and smiled. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m……ugh…no…” Karis broke the grip he had on her and bolted between two booths. Once out of the main traffic area, she dropped to her knees and began to retch uncontrollably, continuing even after her lunch was purged. She barely heard Iolaus’ half-hearted assurance.

“I’m going to get a healer.” The guard only watched her for a moment before leaving to find a healer. ‘Damn that Callisto. She told the servant girl it was just sleeping herbs.’ He clenched his jaw and his hands as he walked. ‘I didn’t even use that much.’ He had only wanted her drowsy and more….receptive, not unconscious and certainly not completely ill.

Now that the most violent of her spasms had passed, Karis could feel the darkness coming for her. ‘He poisoned me.’ She thought and tried to push aside the whirling in her head. She felt the cool, moist dirt under her cheek and hoped Iolaus really was going for a healer. The certainty that the poison wasn’t only meant for her forced her eyes closed and she battled the coming darkness, focusing on the smiling face in her mind’s eye. ‘I have to warn Sol…….’ She didn’t get to finish her thought before the darkness won.

——————————————————

Solari sat in the quiet infirmary. She looked at Jana peacefully sleeping and knew that she should leave. ‘She is going to be fine now.’ She reassured herself. Any other thought was dismissed as the door was opened quickly and a couple of Xena’s guards entered, carrying a unconscious woman on a stretcher, followed by Iolaus. A glimpse of the patient’s face made Solari’s heart jump. ‘Karis.’ Immediately Solari took control of the situation, calling for the Amazon healers that were in the storage room. “Sandi! Amanda!” The women were at the door in an instant and quickly moved to the sick guard’s bedside. Solari concentrated her attention on Iolaus. “What happened?”

“We just finished eating lunch and she got sick.” He shrugged casually. “Maybe the stew didn’t agree with her.”

Solari summoned all her will power and barely avoided slamming her fist into the smug man’s face. She looked at the healer’s still attending the guard and caught Sandi’s attention. “I’m going to inform the Queen.” Iolaus caught her by the elbow.

“Why?” He didn’t want the Queen and her entire entourage coming down here. He hoped Karis would get better before the banquet. If the Amazon Queen delayed her appearance at the feast for any reason Callisto would be very upset that her plans were ruined. She was going to be upset enough that he had taken some of the herbs without asking her. He really, really didn’t want Callisto upset with him. “There is nothing she can do….and she has her wedding banquet coming up tonight.”

Solari pretended to think about it for a minute. “You’re right.” She lied. “We shouldn’t bother the Queen.” Sighing she ran her fingers through her dark brown hair. “I’m second in command though so you had better fill me in on what arrangements have been made.”

“Sure.” He gestured for her to follow him. “Com’on to my office. We were just getting ready to decide placements.”

‘Good.’ Solari thought. ‘When I go to give the guards their stations I can tell Gabrielle about Karis being sick.’ She narrowed her eyes at the man’s swagger and was impressed that Karis had managed to let the pig touch her.

————————————————-

Solan grinned and rolled his eyes at Bennett as Gabrielle moved to sit on Xena’s lap. “Com’on… Let’s see if we can find some polish for your boots.” He rose from his seat. Picking a final bite of bread from the remains of their lunch, he motioned for the boy to follow him, widening his grin when Bennett hastily rose at the gesture. He glanced again at his mothers, each so absorbed in the other that everything around them could go up in flames and they wouldn’t know the difference.

Bennett walked into the main room, only a step behind the Prince and tentatively asked. “Are they always like that?” He really wasn’t used to seeing anyone kissing but Xena and the Amazon Queen went beyond anything his inexperienced imagination could have shown him. After the details for tonight were worked out, the two women had become almost completely interested in each other.

Solan snorted. “Pretty much.” He dug through a large chest and practically disappeared before his muffled cry of triumph could be heard. “Ah Ha!” Holding up the small vial, he gestured for Bennett to take off his boots. “Com’on. We’ll shine up yours and then we can do mine.”

The little stable boy traded his left boot for a cloth with some polish on it and began to shine his right boot. He stole a few glances at Solan as they worked and marveled at the older boy’s attitude. ‘He acts like he shines stable boy boots everyday.’ Bennett knew that none of the other Royalty would do that. None of them would take the time or energy to get to know a lowly servant and he realized he didn’t know anything about the Prince. “When were you adopted?”

Solan stopped polishing for a heartbeat and then resumed, speaking casually. “When I was a baby I was adopted by my first family.” He stopped polishing and looked directly into Bennett’s eyes. “When they were killed in a raid, Gabrielle adopted me.” With a half smile he began polishing again. “That was about three years ago.”

“Oh.” Bennett had about a thousand other questions for the Prince but instead of asking simply went to work polishing his boot. Everything had to be perfect for tonight.

————————————————————-

Gabrielle lightly traced her lover’s jaw. “I think we ran the boys off.” When her fingertips stopped at the warrior’s lips, she replaced them with her own lips.

“Mmmm….” Xena tasted the soft Amazon lips and gestured inside the room absently. “They’re fine.” The Conqueror concentrated on the woman in her arms. Sliding her hands up the Amazon’s arms, she cupped both sides of the young Queen’s face and pulled her in for another taste of softness. Regretfully breaking the kiss, Xena sighed. “We do need to make sure Karis is informed though.”

Gabrielle rested her forehead against Xena’s and sighed. “Yeah, you’re right.” Grinning with mischief, the Amazon slowly slid off her lover’s lap. Circling around behind the motionless warrior, she brushed aside the long dark hair and whispered in the perfect ear she found there. “We can finish this later.”

Xena sat still for a moment and watched as Gabrielle walked into the main room. Taking a deep breath, the Conqueror tried to calm her pounding heart and grinned. ‘I do love…later’. She quickly joined the others in the main room. Just in time to hear Gabrielle send for Karis and a messenger. “Why do you need a messenger, love?”

“I have to tell Ephiny about the ceremony we are going to have here.” Gabrielle was sorry she had waited this long to send a messenger out.

Xena laughed. “Why don’t you just get Hermes to deliver it for you?” She had forgotten to ask about the messenger God and how Gabrielle had managed to procure his services.

Blushing slightly, Gabrielle grinned. “I can only ask him to deliver really important messages, like to Artemis.” Holding up her hand to stall the next question she smiled. “But he is very nice and if he is already delivering something for me he will take others too…. I got him to bring our acceptance to the Festival, when I sent Artemis a message about Brie being the Heir to the Mask.”

“And when you said you were going to be delayed?” Xena was curious what was important enough to send to Artemis then.

“That was when I informed her of Ephiny’s joining and asked her to come and bless the couple. I couldn’t go to the temple for that because there were too many people that would have known.” She grinned at the memory. “I wanted it to be a surprise.”

Xena widened her eyes. “I’ll bet it was.”

Solan laughed. “Yeah. You should have seen the looks on all the Amazon’s faces when Artemis showed up.”

Bennett had completely forgotten his polishing and was now alternately staring at the three people he had just had lunch with. “You have met the Gods?” He swallowed hard at the thought, that would be even more nerve wracking than royalty.

Xena and Gabrielle just grinned at the boy’s question but Solan actually answered him. “I saw Artemis when she came to Ephiny’s wedding…..” He rubbed a spot he had missed on the boot in his hand and sighed. “….. but I haven’t met……”

Both women held out their hands and yelled “Don’t say it!” too late.

“….Ares.” Solan looked up confused at the women’s outburst as a bright light suffused the room. He was amazed to see a man dressed in black leather appear in the center of the room and stood up at the unknown threat to his family.

“Go away Ares.” Xena’s growl filled the air. “We don’t want you here.”

Ares frowned and shook his dark curls, placing his hand over his heart. “I’m hurt, Xena… The boy called for me, so of course I’m wanted.” He walked over to Solan, draping one arm over Solan’s shoulder and grinning at Xena.

“Get your hands off him.” The Conqueror snarled and took a step forward. She barely felt the tug on her arm or Gabrielle’s soft voice.

“Xena don’t…. please.” Gabrielle pleaded with her love not to confront the God of War.

“Listen to her Xena. She is a irritating little blonde but she fights well, albeit with a staff.” He released his hold on Solan and walked toward the Amazon. “If only you weren’t an Amazon and you fought with a sword.” He reached out to touch the reddish blonde hair. “Then you would be mine too.”

The Conqueror moved to intercept the touch, grabbing his wrist and flinging his hand away from Gabrielle. “Stop it Ares.”

“Really Xena….” He scoffed at her attempt to stop him from doing anything. “…Do you want to fight me over this piece of…”

“You don’t wanna go there Ares.” She could feel the darkest among them waking. Touching Ares even for a moment was enough to rouse his Chosen.

He laughed. “You think you can beat me?”

“I know I can’t.” The Conqueror managed to answer before the darkness consumed her. “But I know I can.” The room fell away and there was nothing but her and the threat to her family. She could feel the low growl rumbling in her chest but really didn’t care. Slowly circling her prey, she taunted the now placating God. “Do you want to try me?”

“Now Xena, just calm down.” He held up his hands in defeat. “We don’t have to do this.” Ares knew his Chosen when he saw her. He had created her and given her the ferocity and skills necessary to win against her enemies, even if the enemy was him. He knew that if they started to fight even though he couldn’t be killed he would be an a world of hurt before it was over. He also knew that for it to be over he would have to kill her. That was not something he wanted to do, yet. “The boy called for me, you know….and he is a warrior in training.”

She spit in his direction. “He is not yours Ares.”

“Any warrior who fights with a sword is eventually mine.” The God argued calmly. “You know that.” He glanced at Gabrielle when she gasped at the statement.

Seeing the glance, she moved close enough to feel the heat radiating from the War God and whispered. “And if you ever try to touch Gabrielle again, I swear by any God you name, I WILL kill you.”

“Okay, okay… Hands off….I got it….” He took a deep breath and looked her in the eye. “But the boy will be a warrior…. my warrior….. someday…..” He grinned and stroked his beard. “….just like his mother.” His laughter floated on the air for a moment after he had disappeared.

Gabrielle’s soft voice broke the silence. “Solan take Bennett back to your room.” She smiled as Bennett moved quickly to comply and she prompted Solan’s departure with the silent signal for ‘I’ll be fine’. Turning back to Xena, she moved cautiously closer.

Seeing the slow careful movement nearly broke Xena’s heart. “I frighten you.” It wasn’t a question, she could see the fear in the Amazon’s eyes.

Slowly shaking her head side to side, Gabrielle answered. “Not really. I just didn’t want to startle you.” Without further hesitation, she moved closer and slipped her arms around the leather clad waist. “I know you won’t hurt me.”

Xena rested her cheek against the top of the Amazon’s head and with infinite care embraced the smaller woman. She knew it was time to go. Gabrielle’s strong arms around her soothed her and she murmured. “They were right to trust you.”

Gabrielle wasn’t exactly sure what that meant but she felt the arms around her soften and looked up into loving blue eyes. She reached up and stroked the tan cheek with the back of her fingers. “Are you okay?”

The Warrior Princess held the hand still against her face and smiled. “We’re fine.”

Part 7

Solari pointed to the schematic again. “This door needs covered.”

Iolaus laughed at her paranoia. “That’s the kitchen!”

“I don’t care.” She couldn’t believe that Karis had agreed to so few guards and was glad to know the guard was working with Xena. ‘I would have jumped to the total wrong conclusion if she hadn’t already filled me in.’ She thought. She continued her argument with Iolaus. “That door WILL be guarded.”

“Fine.” He threw up his hands in mock defeat. “Do what you want.” He was just glad he was able to convince her to go for less guards. He took a breath to say something else when a guard walked in.

“Message for you.” The man was happy to get rid of the parchment and left quickly.

Iolaus read the message and could feel the blood draining from his face. ‘Damn.’ He thought and looked at Solari. “I have to go.”

Solari was curious about the message but didn’t ask. “Fine. We were really finished here anyway.” She narrowed her eyes as Iolaus nodded absently and left quickly. Stepping out the door a moment later, she saw his curly blonde head disappearing around the corner. She only had to think for a moment before she decided her path.

———————————————-

As soon as they were back in Solan’s room Bennett began to breathe again. “Wow!” He had never been able to imagine Xena doing the things the stories said she did and thought they were exaggerations, but now after seeing her stand up to Ares he wasn’t so sure.

“Yeah. She can be intimidating at times.” Solan was a bit unnerved at the ferocity of his mother and the revelation that if he fought with a sword he would belong to Ares didn’t help his inner turmoil. ‘I guess it’s a good thing…..’ His thought was cut off by Bennett’s sudden question.

“He said your mother was a warrior.” The stable boy looked at the young Prince with awe.

“My mother IS a warrior.” He corrected absently

“You know who your mother is?” Bennett was incredulous and confused. “Then why did the Amazon Queen adopt you?”

“Yes, I know her…. we just recently found each other.” He looked at Bennett seriously. “My father stole me away from my mother when I was a infant.” Looking directly into the little stable boy’s eyes, Solan confided in his friend. “Xena is my mother.”

Bennett’s eyes just about popped out of his head. “WOW!”

———————————-

Callisto paced around her small office, muttering to herself. She heard the footsteps and was ready for her visitor when he opened the door.

Iolaus sighed and pushed open the door. He hoped he could explain. A snarl, an arm against his chest, and a knife at his throat cut off any hope he had. Freezing at the look in Callisto’s eye, he swallowed hard, feeling the blade scrape his adams apple. “Callisto.” He tried to talk his way out of being killed. “What did you want to see me about?”

The blond leader shook with the effort to control herself. “I wanted to kill you for ruining my plans.” She pressed the point into the soft flesh at his neck, taking great satisfaction at the drop of blood that gathered there. Lowering her voice, she grinned at the terror in his eyes. “You are going to die a slow painful death.”

“Oh, Com’on.” He was gaining confidence now. If she was going to kill him she would have done it by now. “I did you a favor.”

Abruptly releasing him, she toyed with the knife in her hand. “How do you figure?”

“You told Leann they were only sleeping herbs…. obviously Galen lied to you.” Iolaus was hoping she would believe he was that stupid. He wiped the trickle of blood away from his neck.

Rolling her eyes at his obtuseness, Callisto sneered at her subordinate. “Of course he didn’t lie to me… he knows I’d kill him. Leann was reluctant to perform her task… I simply eased her conscience.”

Now Iolaus was confused. “You want them to be sick?”

‘By the Gods, he is an idiot.’ She thought and rolled his eyes. “Of course, how else do you think I can get them away.” She sighed at his continued confused look. “If they simply got sleepy they would go back to their rooms… guarded…. but if they get sick they will go to the infirmary…..” She let her explanation trail off as comprehension dawned on the man’s face.

“….and Galen will order everyone out. You’ll be able to take them out the back easily.” Not many people knew about the small outside door in the herb storage room. ‘She will probably have guards waiting to whisk them away as soon as Galen says it’s clear.’ Iolaus was impressed. He had thought his leader was too consumed with thoughts of revenge to plan so well.

Deep brown eyes glittered at the thought. “Oh yes, they will be in my world soon.” She crossed her arms, never letting go of the knife, and traced her jawline with the index finger of her free hand. “Then Xena will know. She will know exactly how it feels to lose her family.” Pulling herself abruptly from her thoughts, she glared at Iolaus. “If my plans are ruined because of your little stunt, you will pay dearly.” She snarled at the man’s retreating back. “I will kill someone tonight….. one way or the other.”

Iolaus shuddered, knowing the statement was more of a promise than a threat. Squinting up at the afternoon sun, he walked slowly back to his office. ‘I should probably go check on Karis sometime’ He thought.

—————————————————

Xena took a deep breath and looked in the mirror again. ‘What does she see in us?’ All the Warrior Princess could see was the image of a ruthless warlord. The Conqueror looked into the mirror and reached for her armor. ‘I don’t know. I may never know.’ She sighed. ‘I’m just glad she does.’ Warm arms sliding around her waist changed the mirror image from frowning warlord to smiling woman.

“Hey you.” Gabrielle’s soft voice floated through the room. “You look great.”

Xena felt soft lips pressing against the exposed skin on her back. Dropping her armor and closing her eyes at the sensation, she answered the comment. “You do too.”

Gabrielle’s melodic laughter filled the room. “You aren’t even looking!”

Keeping her eyes closed the Warrior Princess turned in place and unerringly kissed the Amazon. “I don’ t have to look.” Twinkling blue eyes opened. “You always look great.”

With a slight blush, Gabrielle ducked her head and mumbled a protest. “Not always.”

“Yes, always.” Gently lifting the Amazon’s head up, Xena met the shining green eyes with a smile. “No blushes for the truth, love.” Unable to resist, the Conqueror leaned down for a taste of pure Gabrielle. Breaking the kiss, she saw disbelief in the young Queen’s eyes. Holding her by the shoulders, Xena turned to place Gabrielle between herself and the mirror. Pointing to the reflection she smiled. “See?” Gathering the long tresses of honey-fire silk in her hands, Xena gently smoothed them down the Amazon’s back. Resting her chin on the exposed shoulder, she grinned wickedly. “Bare shoulders are nice but I do like the other leathers too.”

Now Gabrielle grinned and rolled her eyes. “These are entirely appropriate for the occasion.”

“I guess so.” The Conqueror pouted a bit. “But the others show off you abs so well…. this set covers them up completely.” She put her hand on the dark russet leather surrounding the Amazon’s waist. “You probably can’t even feel that.”

Shaking her head, Gabrielle laughed and turned to face the warrior. “My love, I definitely feel it when you touch me.” She smiled. Moving closer to slide her arms along the dark leather, she laid her head against the warrior’s shoulder. Taking a deep breath, she reveled in the spicy/leather/Xena combination she recognized as the smell of safety and love. “I love you Xena.”

“We love you too.” The Conqueror hugged the treasure in her arms gently and kissed the top of her head. “We always will.”

“Xena…I…” Long tapered fingertips stopped the Amazon’s response. The Conqueror wasn’t ready to believe that Gabrielle would always love her. She didn’t want to hear it until Gabrielle knew everything.

“We need to go check on the boys.” The Empress briefly replaced her fingers with her lips and smiled sadly. “It’s almost time.”

“I’m a little worried.” Gabrielle admitted. Since Solari had informed them of Karis’ illness the Conqueror realized Callisto’s plan. The fact that she knew about the training symbol to paint on Solan’s chest meant someone who used to be in her army was advising the rebels. Not so well known to the general public was a fact her men knew well, Xena always had a back way out of her infirmaries. Often she would need a way to let her injured escape, at least that was the excuse she used. In reality the fact was she hated being in a room with only one way out. “Do we really have to involve the boys?”

“If Solan isn’t there Callisto will know something is wrong with her plan.” She gently stroked the Amazon’s cheek with the back of her hand. “I want Bennett there to keep an eye on him. There’s no telling what she would do to him for ruining her plan to scare us.”

Catching the warrior’s hand, Gabrielle grinned up at her dark lover. “You really care about him don’t you?”

“Yes.” The Warrior Princess confessed. She remembered the boy as an infant squirming in her arms and smiled sadly. “When my army destroyed his village, they acted against my orders and burned everything, killed everyone. When I returned from my scouting mission, I saw the devastation and nearly killed Darphus for his insubordination.” Taking a deep breath, she continued. “When I arrived and confronted Darphus, I heard a baby’s cry. Darphus was angry that the boy had slipped through his carnage but I wouldn’t let the men kill the baby.” She looked directly into the compassionate green eyes of her love and smile sadly. “The mother had shielded him from the flames, and the swords. She died to save him.” Tracing the curve of Gabrielle’s cheek with her fingertip, the Warrior Princess confessed. “I didn’t understand that until I met you.”

Gabrielle didn’t know what to say to that, so she just hugged Xena tightly before taking a deep breath and smiling. “We should go.”

Nodding The Conqueror buckled her armor in place and bounced a bit to settle her sword on her back. She hadn’t worn armor or weapons to a dinner in a long time, but it wasn’t unheard of and she felt better able to handle any situation that might arise.

———————————————

Solan checked his reflection again. It was the same burgundy outfit he had worn at Ephiny’s wedding and he thought it was appropriate for the occasion. He smiled at the memory of Karis in her matching color leathers and wished again he had time to go check on her. The last report the guards had brought him said ‘slight improvement.’ Twisting a bit to settle the leather against his skin he turned to inspect Bennett’s garb. Smiling at the stable boy’s shuffling feet, he reached out and tweaked the shoulder of his tunic. “Hey that looks pretty good.”

Letting out a breath he didn’t know he was holding, Bennett smiled. “You think so?” He had been a little astounded by the transformation of Solan. The palace runner he had met in the stable was now, suddenly a Prince. Not just a prince but Prince of the World! The younger boy had been nearly speechless when his friend had told him Xena was his mother and now he was almost at a loss for words again. The young Prince’s outfit was definitely fit for royalty right down to the thin gold band around his head. “It feels kind of weird to me.”

Laughing, Solan handed the boy a hair brush. “You’ll get used to it.” He grinned at the boy’s dubiously shaking head. “I did.”

Bennett watched his reflection brushing it’s hair and sighed. “Yeah but you are a Prince. I’m just a stable boy.”

“Wrong.” Solan stretched his legs out on the bed and leaned back against the headboard. “You are my friend.”

Satisfied with the condition of his hair, Bennett turned to face the reclining older boy. “But we don’t have anything in common. How can we be friends?”

Laughing at that, Solan swung his legs off the bed and stood. “We have more in common than you think.” He grinned. “Where I was raised…..everyone was a stableboy.”

Melodic laughter at that comment forced both boy’s heads to turn toward the door. Gabrielle’s radiant smile lit up the room. “I would say that was a accurate statement.”

Xena wasn’t as thrilled. “They made you muck out their stables?” Her low growl did not bode well for the Centaurs before she realized there was only a handful left.

Solan heard the threatening tone and standing his full height, nearly eye to eye with Xena he spoke gently. “I was young and wanted to help.” He reminded her casually. “They were at war.”

‘War with me.’ The Conqueror felt as though she had been punched in the gut. ‘I killed the only family he had ever known.’ The Warrior Princess looked at the defiant spark in her son’s eye and swallowed hard. “We are sorry…” Gabrielle’s warm hand on her forearm stopped any further comment.

“It’s time.” The Amazon Queen looked at the boy’s approvingly. “Are you ready?” Gracing them with another light dimming smile, she linked arms with Xena and headed back toward the door. “Then let’s get to it.”

—————————————————-

Karis slowly began to feel the soft bedding under her. She was surprised that the spinning she felt earlier was almost gone and cautiously opened her eyes. ‘Okay so far.’ She thought and slowly swung her legs over the side of the bed. “Still not bad.” She mumbled. Running her fingers through her hair she looked around the empty infirmary. She vaguely remembered Amanda and Sandi telling her they were moving Jana to the camp and Galen was going to take care of her until they returned. Rising with only a little shaking in her knees, Karis looked out the window and realized the feast would already be in progress. ‘The kitchen door won’t be guarded.’ She thought. Moving slowly but steadily, the guard headed for the door with only one thought on her mind. ‘I have to warn them.’

—————————————————-

Solari looked around the crowded dining hall, from her kitchen door post, with satisfaction. All the Amazons were in place, the obvious ones, and the not so obvious ones. She nodded to the harpists, three of which sent her the ‘ready’ signal back. She doubted Callisto would show up here personally, but she wanted to be ready just in case.

Salmoneous watched the Amazon guard checking her people’s placement for a moment before occupying himself with his own concerns. He looked at the head of the U shaped table sighing at the four empty chairs. Everyone else had arrived and they were not thrilled to see two extra chairs placed at the head of the table. He had not been thrilled himself when Xena informed him that the stable boy Bennett would be joining them for the feast. It had taken some juggling to get the arrangements made, especially when the Amazon Queen asked to be seated next to the leader of Chin. He sighed. ‘The things I do to keep my skin.’ He thought.
He smiled at the little girl standing on the musician’s podium. She had performed at the Festival opening ceremonies and the Amazon Queen had requested her talents at the feast. The request was unexpected and, startled, he had looked to Xena for confirmation. His surprised raised a notch when the Empress shrugged and simply replied. “What Gabrielle wants, Gabrielle gets.” He was pulled abruptly from this afternoon’s memory when the door next to him opened. Salmoneous wasn’t really surprised that the royal couple was late. Xena was rarely early for these events preferring to make people wait for her, what did surprise him was the fact that both women were dressed, rather obviously, in leather armor and although the Amazon only carried a staff, both women were armed.

The Conqueror scanned the room quickly, taking in the placement of guards, the gathered dignitaries, and the table arrangements almost as easily as she breathed. ‘Everything’s ready.’ She though and felt a small squeeze on her arm as Gabrielle realized the same thing. Gazing down into worried green eyes, a grin of encouragement tugged at her lips. “Ready?”

The absurdity of asking that now broke through the Amazon’s concern. Her smile reached her twinkling eyes as she replied. “Always.”

Laughing out loud at that, the Warrior Princess escorted her partner to their seats at the head of the table. Both women were aware of the scrutiny the gathered diners gave them as they passed but neither showed any sign of caring what the visitors thought. Holding the chair to her right for Gabrielle, Xena leaned down to speak quietly to the Amazon. “Do you want the girl to sing during the meal or after?”

Licking her lips at the warm breath in her ear, Gabrielle chuckled. “Mighty sure of ourselves now aren’t we?” The possibility of them being here long enough for there to be an after was slim to none. A raised eyebrow forced a smile and an answer from the Amazon. “During.” She caught the dark head as it was rising and pulled the warrior closer to ask her own question. “Do you think it would be scandalous for me to kiss you right now?”

The Conqueror felt her heartrate increase and wished they didn’t have to be here right now. “At a normal dinner, yes. But this is a wedding feast…” She leaned in and pressed her lips firmly against the Amazon’s smile. “…OUR wedding feast.” Standing, Xena signaled the musicians to begin, made sure Gabrielle’s staff was secure, leaning against the back of her chair, and settled herself into her seat just as the singer’s voice joined with the instruments. Looking to her left she checked to see how the boys were holding up under the scrutiny. Solan seemed fine but Bennett’s nervousness was beginning to show. The low voice from her right didn’t help.

“I won’t eat with a stableboy.” Ming T’ien leaned forward in his chair to sneer at the youngster.

“Ming T’ien, silence.” Lao Ma was becoming more and more disappointed with her son and his deplorable lack of manners. She had never been able to convince him that his father, Ming T’Soo, was incorrect in his handling of people.

Xena opened her mouth to respond but Solan was quicker. “He is my friend.”

“Ha!” Ming T’ien snorted. “I’ll bet. Would you like me to order you a special dish for dinner.” The Prince of Chin was sarcastic. “Perhaps a nice plate of hay to remind you of home?”

Gritting his teeth, Solan replied slowly. “Centaurs don’t eat hay.”

Ignoring his mothers reprimanding voice, Ming T’ien sneered. “They don’t eat anything anymore do they? Xena saw to that.” He looked at the Empress and smiled. “Thank you for ridding the world of those abominations.”

The last word was barely out of Ming T’ien’s mouth before Solan was on his feet. Xena put a restraining hand on Solan’s arm, as Lao Ma did the same for the now standing Ming T’ien. At some point during the exchange the music had stopped so Xena’s commanding voice carried easily though the room.

“Solan, sit down.” The Warrior Princess knew what was about to happen as well as she knew she would take another breath.

“I can’t. He insulted the Centaurs.” Looking directly into his mother’s sky blue eyes he nearly begged her. “I can’t let that slide.”

“You’re challenging me?” Ming T’ien laughed and again ignored his mother’s protest. “I accept.”

Gabrielle closed her eyes when she heard the insult. ‘Solan won’t be able to let that pass.’ It felt like a hand in her guts twisting when the challenge was subtly given and definitively accepted. One thought repeated itself over and over in her mind. ‘Don’t let it be to the death….please….don’t let it be to the death.’

Xena looked at the pain on Gabrielle’s normally serene face and knew what the Amazon feared. Standing to project her voice to all corners of the room, she declared. “This is supposed to be a wedding feast but a challenge has been issued and accepted. I place only one condition on this fight.” She glanced down at the now open and hopeful green eyes, she gave her love a half smile. “This will not be a fight to the death. First blood only.”

Ming T’ien was agreeable to the condition. All he cared about was beating the arrogant boy and in his own eyes redeeming himself against the insults he had received from the Amazons. He walked around the end of the table quickly, collecting a sword from one of his guards on the way. Once in the middle area of the table he waited for his challenger to join him. Xena’s next action caused him a little concern but he tried to ignore the increased beating of his heart.

The Warrior Princess pulled her sword and tentatively offered it to Solan. Her whispering voice barely carried past the first few people but Solan heard it and so did Gabrielle, who closed her eyes worried about the potential answer to the offer. “You can use my sword if you want or we can send a guard to the training room for yours.”

Solan reached out and touched the cold steel with his fingertip. “Thank you.” His dark brown eyes glistened and begged her to understand. “but I don’t think so.” He closed her hand around the hilt of the sword and moved to kneel at Gabrielle’s side. “Mom?” He smiled as she opened her eyes. “Do you think I could borrow your staff for a little bit?”

Nodding at the request, Gabrielle felt a tear escape it’s green prison and almost laughed as she subtly corrected his grammar. “Yes, you may.”

Smiling at the familiar correction, Solan stretched up and kissed her gently on the cheek. “I love you, Mom.” Standing up fully, his hand closed around the well formed hardwood staff. This was the weapon he was trained on, this was the weapon he chose to fight with. With a wink to Gabrielle and another to Xena he also chose a more direct route to the fight area. Instead of walking around the end of the table, he took two running steps back to his own seat and using the edge of his chair, propelled himself over the table with a flip. Landing a few feet away from his opponent, Solan twirled the staff experimentally and grinned at it’s balance. ‘Perfect.’

“A staff?!” Ming T’ien laughed at his challenger. “How do you expect to draw first blood with a staff?” He circled the younger boy, taunting him. He knew it was better to let your opponent attack first. “You can’t really believe you are going to win this fight with a staff?”

“Maybe not.” He glanced at the head of the table. “But things are not always as they seem.” Returning his attention to his opponent, Solan too taunted his rival. Circling the young Chinese man and slowly twirling the staff in his hand, he smiled. “You for example look like a nice enough fellow….. until you open your mouth.” Deflecting the sword strike easily, Solan laughed and continued circling. “Is that all you’ve got? I thought you were supposed to be good?”

“I am one of the best swordsmen in the land of Chin.” He hated that the boy could insult his skill and get away with it but he knew anything said during the fight would be considered part of the fight and not a separate insult.

“Wow… are you sure you want to insult your fellow countrymen like that?” He grinned, deflected another overhead blow from the sword and didn’t miss a beat. “Because I gotta tell you I’ve seen some Amazon trainees that could beat you.”

Growling at the insult, Ming T’ien gritted his teeth. “No woman could beat me.”

Laughing at the term, Solan replied matter-of-factly. “I wasn’t talking about women.” He grinned at the slightly confused look on his opponents face and readied himself. “Trainees are young girls.”

With a frustrated yell, Ming T’ien could no longer hold back and he attacked with everything he had.

————————————————————–

Karis was amazed at the rapid dissipation of the drug in her system until she realized how often Galen had given her sips of water. ‘Galen’s in on it too.’ The thought was almost staggering, she couldn’t believe she had fallen for two men drugging her in one day. ‘I knew there was something strange about him.’ Now that she thought about it, it made sense the Resistance would have another contact in the infirmary. She was drawn out of her musing by the total silence coming from the dining hall. Opening the kitchen door she was just in time to hear Xena declare a First Blood Challenge. When she saw who the combatants were she nearly jumped to stop it. Solari stopped her first.

“Karis don’t.” The archer’s strong arm held her Captain back and explained. “The hothead from Chin insulted the Centaurs.”

‘Damn.’ Karis closed her eyes briefly. “He can’t let that pass…. he is the only one here to defend them.” She shook off Solari’s grip and nodded. “I won’t interfere.” Both guards turned to watch the duel. One with the hope that her Prince would do well in the fight and one with the hope that the love of her life didn’t get hurt.

———————————————————–

Solan deflected blow after blow from Ming T’ien’s sword. He recognized the pattern the older boy was using quite early in the fight. Each swing of his sword took the Chinese leader slightly to the right, so after two or three swings he had to step back to the left to regain his balance and maintain his position. When he decided the fight had gone on long enough, Solan began to count the strikes. One he deflected easily. Two, he narrowed his eyes at his attacker. Three, he deflected the steel away from his stomach and dropped, twirling the staff to meet his opponents feet as they stepped, probably unconsciously, back into position. With his opponent flat on his face, Solan followed the sweep with a tap to the back of Ming T’ien’s head. Although it was a potential killing blow, Solan checked his strength and only hit hard enough to drive his opponents nose into the floor. He rolled away and stood, twirling the staff into a defensive position, waiting.

————————————————————

‘Nice move.’ The Warrior Princess was impressed with her son’s ability, apparently Gabrielle’s skill was not the only one they had misjudged. ‘He should have seen the pattern much earlier.’ The Conqueror was grudgingly impressed. Chuckling at her dark sister’s scowl, the Warrior Princess answered matter-of-factly. ‘He did.’ She watched with satisfaction as the Prince of Chin rose from the floor and wiped the trickle of blood from his nose. “First Blood” The room echoed with her declaration. “The fight goes to Solan.”

The entire room was silent for two heartbeats, until the beaten Prince broke the tableau. “NO!” He attacked Solan again.

Xena started to jump to Solan’s side when a warm hand on her arm stopped her motion. Looking down into sad green eyes, she heard Gabrielle’s soft request.

“Don’t.” The Amazon took a deep breath. “He has to learn to deal with his people, on his own.” She was talking about the future, not just with the Centaurs but with the whole of the world.

Xena nodded. “You’re right.” Although Lao Ma was the ruler of Chin now, in time Ming T’ien would take over for her, just like Solan would take over for Xena someday. She sighed and turned to watch the fight. “We can’t be there to save him every time.” The Conqueror reluctantly agreed and scowled. ‘If he gets hurt, I will deal with Ming T’ien.’

———————————————–

Karis was very proud when Solan won the fight. It was partially because she knew she had taught him that very move and partially because even though he was fighting because of an insult to the Centaurs, Amazon honor was at stake. When the arrogant Prince ignored the first blood declaration, Karis nearly jumped to Solan’s aid. Solari’s grip on her elbow stopped her.

“Don’t.” The archer locked eyes. “He needs to deal with this alone.”

Nodding slowly, Karis agreed and shook herself free of the grip. She growled under her breath. “If he gets hurt. The Prince of Chin will pay dearly.”

Solari grinned and indicated the scowl on Xena’s face. “I think you will have to stand in line for that one.”
———————————————————

Solan had never let his guard down and was ready for the continued assault. He deflected several blows before he tried to talk some sense into the enraged young man. “Com’on. It’s over.” Jumping a sword swing, Solan rolled to the right and up to his feet. “Stop this. I don’t want to hurt you.” He pushed the tip of the sword away from his cheek and swept his opponents legs, dropping him to the ground, again. “Just stay down. It’s over.” He hoped the Chinese man was smart enough to stay down but he held his staff at the ready anyway.

Rising slowly from the floor, Ming T’ien adjusted his grip on the sword and renewed his attack.

Sighing, Solan shook his head and warned his opponent. “Don’t make me do this.” He deflected strike after strike, pleading with his opponent. “It’s over. You can put an end to this now.”

Sneering at the younger boy, Ming T’ien’s low voice carried through the room. “It will end with your heart around my blade.”

‘I don’t think so.’ Solan thought and informed his opponent. “Don’t say I didn’t give you a chance.” With a deep breath, he went on the offensive. Several of the strikes he made hit home, on Ming T’ien’s arms, sides, and legs. Then he started the move Gabrielle had used to disarm Xena. He heard the crowd gasp as the complex hand shift kept the staff defensively placed and then the only sound he heard was the crack of the end of his staff connecting with his opponent’s temple. He could only hope he had checked his swing enough not to kill the man. When he heard the muffled groan from his fallen rival, he took a deep breath of relief.

————————————————————–

“Your son fights with wisdom.” Lao Ma regarded her slowly rousing son. “I regret that I have been unable to teach my son such discipline.” She knew not many people would have hesitated to kill her son under the same circumstances.

Smiling demurely at the compliment, Gabrielle shook her head and studied her slightly out of breath son. “His wisdom comes from the Centaur’s training. He is a natural fighter.” She glanced at Xena. “That is something his parents gave him at birth, but he has never killed.”

“Surely Amazon training plays a part in his extraordinary control.” Lao Ma was quietly surprised that the woman didn’t take credit for the boy’s actions.

Before Gabrielle could deny it, Xena answered for her. “Amazon training IS what makes him the best. Not even the natural ability his parents gave him can compete with that.” She looked directly into the Chinese leader’s eyes and smiled. “Just because we give birth to them doesn’t mean we control them.”

The sounds of Ming T’ien’s guards helping their Prince to the infirmary died away as Lao Ma understood. ‘Solan is Xena’s son.’ The thought was incredible and judging from his age she suspected Borias was his father. “I can see how being a fighter would come easily to him.” Rising from her seat, Lao Ma bowed to both Xena and Gabrielle. “I must go see how my son is doing.”

Inclining her head, Xena accepted the graceful exit. Gabrielle also nodded and added. “Perhaps we can discuss philosophy some other time?” She had hoped to talk with the fascinating woman tonight and had requested the seating to accommodate that desire.

“Of course.” Lao Ma bowed again. “I believe I would enjoy that.” Sweeping her smile around the still silent table of dignitaries, the leader of Chin walked gracefully out the door and toward the infirmary.

Xena watched her go and realized that Solan was still standing in the center area, supported by the staff. “Well done Solan.” She smiled at the inch taller he stood after the praise and signaled the musicians to begin playing. “So are we going to get on with this feast or what?”

Solan took a deep breath and walked back to Gabrielle’s seat. Leaning the staff back where he found it, he kissed his Mom on the cheek. “I didn’t want to hurt him.”

Nodding, Gabrielle wiped away a tear before it spilled down her cheek. “I know.” She smiled at him. “You did everything just right. I’m very proud of you.” She grinned at his beaming smile and indicated the kitchen door with her thumb. “I think someone else is proud of you too.”

Solan followed her pointing finger and widened his eyes when he spotted Karis standing next to Solari. “Ummm….” He wanted to run to her.

Laughing at his unspoken request, Gabrielle glanced at Xena and granted his wish. “Go on.” She grinned at Xena as the warrior reclaimed her seat and they both turned to watch the young couple reunite.

————————————————————-

Karis watched the fight with mixed feelings. She wanted Solan to win, naturally, but it was looking more and more like he would have to kill the arrogant young man to do it. When she saw him begin the final move the head guard thought her heart would stop. She sent a silent prayer to Artemis. ‘Don’t let Solan kill him.’ She knew physically he was sixteen and many young fighters had killed by that age, herself included, but mentally he was still adjusting. The trauma of killing someone, self-defense or not, was not something she wanted Solan to suffer through. Wincing at the echoing crack of the final blow, she clenched her jaw. She sent a quiet ‘thank you’ to Artemis when the beaten combatant’s moans could be heard. She wanted to run to Solan but held herself back as he spoke quietly to Gabrielle. When her eyes met his it was extremely difficult to resist their pull and she felt her heartrate increase as he walked over to her. She was glad that Solari faded back into the shadows.

Solan approached her slowly. He ached to take her in his arms and bury his face in her hair. He stopped short of reaching out to stroke her cheek with his fingertips. “How are you feeling?”

His hesitation to touch her helped calm her inner turmoil. “Much better.” She needed to tell him Galen was in on the plan though. She would tell Solari too, but Solan would be better able to inform Xena. Unfortunately there was no way to silently sign Galen’s name without making it obvious. So she took a deep breath and moved closer to her love. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she found his ear and whispered. “Galen was keeping me drugged. I think they are going to try to take you after the feast.”

Solan heard the musicians change songs and the sound of silverware on plates so he wasn’t so self-conscious about showing Karis how he felt. Reaching up, he stilled her report with his fingertips, and smiled. “Shhhh…. ” Leaning in to replace fingers with lips, he nodded. “We know.” It was important to know that Galen was in on it and he would tell Xena but first, he eased his hand around to the back of her neck and gently pulled her closer. When his lips made contact with hers nothing else mattered.

Karis melted into the kiss. She was thankful that she had told him the important part because the soft pressure of his lips on hers, drove away every thought she had in her head.

Pulling back from the kiss, Solan looked deeply into the dark brown eyes he loved. “You need to rest.” His low voice reached inside her as he stroked her cheek with the back of his fingers. “I have to stay and take care of this.” Unable to resist one more quick kiss, he smiled and asked. “Wait for me?”

The internal war between her heart and her brain was suddenly over as her heart decisively won. “I’ve waited this long.” She smiled. “A few more candlemarks won’t kill me.”

Realizing what she meant, Solan kissed her again, deeply. “I love you, Karis.”

“I love you too.” She smiled at him and pulled away. “You better go.”

Nodding, he caressed her cheek one more time and sighed. “Yeah.” He reluctantly turned and walked back to his seat next to Xena. When he got there and looked back at the kitchen door, Karis and Solari were both gone.

———————————–

“I should have just left.” Bennett was horrified that his presence had caused the problem.

“No.” Xena, Solan, and Gabrielle all protested. Solan waved off the empty chairs.

“He’s had it in for me from the beginning.” The Amazon Prince grinned at his friend. “Don’t worry about it.”

Xena’s nod confirmed Solan’s statement and she added in a near growl. “You belong here more than he does, Prince or not.”

Gabrielle didn’t say anything to the little stable boy, but her gentle smile and twinkling eyes reassured him just the same.

————————————

Horses shuffling the hay in their stables barely concealed Callisto’s growl as she prowled around the empty living quarters. ‘The little brat is gone.’ She thought. Her fingers alternately opened and closed around the hilt of her dagger. ‘And I was so looking forward to introducing myself.’ The disappointment was lessened a bit by thoughts of greater fun later tonight. She hoped Leann would do her part, the girl had served the Resistance faithfully in the past. Callisto would almost regret killing her. ‘But even if Leann does chicken out.’ Her glittering brown eyes looked around the empty room once more. ‘There is always my backup plan.’ With a wicked smile, the vengeful woman went to the designated place to await the arrival of her guests.

————————————

Solari walked out the door with Karis and once in the hallway and alone, began to tell her Captain about the plan to catch Callisto. It was fairly simple. She told Karis about Solan seeing Callisto give the servant the herbs. “When they heard you were sick Xena figured Callisto was going to poison them and when they get to the infirmary she will take them out the back.” She almost grinned at her leader. “Iolaus probably thought they were just sleeping herbs and wanted you drowsy for awhile before the feast.”

Karis nodded in agreement, ignoring the disgust she felt at the thought of being with the arrogant man. “That makes sense.” She glanced around suspiciously and lowered her voice just in case. “Galen is working with the resistance.” She licked her lips and continued. “He kept me drugged. The effects wear off very quickly once the doses stop.”

“They are going to pretend to be sick, go to the infirmary sick room and when Callisto makes her move they will be ready.” Solari grinned at Karis’ incredulous look.

“How dare she risk the Queen like that!” Running her fingers through her hair, the head guard sucked in her breath. “And Solan.”

“We have taken every precaution we can think of.” Solari assured her. “but I have to get back in there.” She studied her leader’s face. “Are you sure you are okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine.” Karis nodded and patted her second’s arm in reassurance. “Solan asked me to wait for him. So I think I’m gonna go lie down for awhile.”

Solari nodded. “Good idea.” She started back toward the door. “There’s no telling what residual effects the herbs will have.”

Nodding at her second, Karis headed off in the general direction of the Amazon’s guard room. Of course, as soon as Solari’s form disappeared behind the dining hall door, Karis changed her direction completely. She had no doubt of Solari’s ability to take every precaution she could think of. ‘It’s the circumstances we can’t think of that worry me.’ She thought and silently padded down the hall.

———————————–

With the grumpy Chinese Prince and his rather intimidating mother gone, the rest of the ambassadors and royalty began to relax a bit. There was still Xena to consider but this was her wedding feast so they thought she should be in a fairly good mood. The wine flowed freely and after several rounds the guests became increasingly jovial.

For the most part the leaders of the countries didn’t have a problem with Xena, she rarely asked for anything other than her share of the taxes and those were paid by the people. Most of the gathered guests were actually just grateful that Xena had not killed them in her quest for world dominance. It was by her grace that they still had their titles and most of their power so they were ready to show their gratitude at any moment. It was in that spirit that a man at the end of the table stood and raised his glass.

“I propose a toast.” He sent a smile around the table, stopping at the Empress and her chosen bride. “To Xena and Gabrielle. Long life and much happiness.” He looked over the top of his cup as everyone around the table drank to Xena’s continued health but he knew that they were mostly drinking to the hope of happiness. ‘If the little Amazon can keep her in as good a mood as she is in tonight…. the world will be a much more relaxed place.’ It was a nice thought.

“Thank you Brutus.” Xena smiled as Gabrielle reached across the small space separating their seats and held her hand.

“You’re very welcome, Empress.” He inclined his head. “Have you had a chance to evaluate Rome as a stop on your honeymoon?” The invitation had been hastily written when he heard the proposal, but he thought it had been adequate.

“I am still considering my options.” Xena replied non-commitally. “There are several invitations to consider.” She smiled at Gabrielle’s laughter.

“I think everyone here has offered us the services of their countries.” Gabrielle’s melodic voice silenced the crowd. Xena was amazed that after only one sentence they were all hanging on her every word, herself included. “We appreciate your hospitality and hope to come to a decision soon.”

Bringing Gabrielle’s hand up, Xena kissed the Amazon’s knuckles. “Well said, love.” She winked at Solan and Bennett and at the boys smiles almost imperceptibly nodded. Taking a deep breath she put their plan into motion. “So is this a feast or what?” Raising her voice a bit, she smiled. “Bring on the food.”

———————————————

Karis slowly pushed open the door and looked around the room. She smiled when Sandi and Amanda were immediately by her side. Karis signed. ‘Don’t drink the water.’ The head guard nodded as the Amazon healers eyes widened in understanding. They helped her back to the bed she had vacated earlier, although she didn’t need help.

“We need to finish attending to Ming T’ien.” They had thought it was odd when Galen didn’t seem to know what to do for a simple broken nose. That was actually one of the more common injuries during Amazon training. It is always difficult for the trainees to check the strength of their blows and many times became overzealous in their practice duels.

Nodding, Karis gave them permission. “Sure.” She smiled. “Galen will take care of me.” She indicated Xena’s healer standing in the doorway to the storage room. He had a cup of water in his hand and offered some to her. “Thanks.” She accepted the cup and took a big drink. Smiling she nodded and handed him the cup back. The head guard watched the Imperial healer go into the herb mixing room and as soon as he was gone, spit the water on the floor next to her bed. Settling in to the soft bedding, Karis smiled to herself. ‘I promised Solan I would wait for him.’ She held her eyes half-lidded to watch the room. ‘I never said WHERE I would wait.’

———————————————-

Solan’s intake of breath warned Xena. She smiled as he indicated the servant girl walking toward their seats. ‘That’s the one.’ Nodding she passed the warning along to Gabrielle, as he leaned over to tell Bennett. Judging from the time Karis had been brought into the infirmary after her lunch and figuring Iolaus had given her a higher concentrated dose, Xena thought they would be able to get away with almost enjoying themselves for a while. For the next few candlemarks they played a subtle game of shuffle the dishes, carefully avoiding the ones Leann brought while sparingly enjoying the others.

———————————————-

Callisto paced around the room. Her irritation was growing worse by the moment and it was becoming obvious that Leann had failed at her mission. She wished she had made arrangements for her backup plan to take effect sooner. Images of Xena wailing over the bodies of her family danced in her head. ‘Soon.’ She consoled herself and toyed with the dagger in her hand. ‘Very soon.’ She walked out of the stony entrance, into the night, toward her destiny.

———————————————-

Gabrielle eyed the latest dish Leann had set before her and sighed. ‘That looks so good.’ The urge to reach out a finger for a small taste of the dish was overcome, but not without some difficulty and a glare from Xena. She opted for the dish next to it and as Xena nodded approval for the choice began to eat the stew. She smiled at the Empress’ indulgent look and offered a spoonful of the spicy mixture to the warrior.

Holding up her hands to ward off the spoon, Xena shook her head. “Oh no, I’ve eaten enough to last until the wedding.” She indicated a half-empty bowl in front of her. She grinned. “You were too busy eating to notice.” The warrior teased her love gently, easing a bit of her own tension at the same time. She was beginning to feel a little jumpy at the situation. They should start faking the illness soon. It made her stomach turn to think about how many things could go wrong.

Laughing Gabrielle finished the fragrant dish. She laughed at the thumbs up Solan gave her as he pointed to his empty bowl.

“We need to get this recipe for Rayna.” He smiled at his Mom’s enthusiastic nod and leaned over to Bennett. “How are you doing?”

“I’ve never seen so much food in all my life.” He swept his hand over the table. “Except maybe during the Festival.” He grinned and added. “At all the booths combined!” Putting his hand on his stomach he whispered. “I’m not going to have any trouble faking a stomach ache.” Grimacing as another pain, sharper this time than the last shot through his middle. “I think I ate too much.”

Solan grinned at his young friend and then frowned as his own stomach did a flip. ‘Oh no.’ He turned to tell Xena that something was wrong when he noticed all the guests beginning to hold their stomachs and moan. The sharp pain in his stomach took away his breath and he was barely able to gasp. “Mother.” Before darkness filled his vision.

Solari watched the gathered royalty enjoying the dinner and after awhile almost relaxed. Standing next to the kitchen door she got to see all the servants when the entered and left the room. She especially watched the little girl that Gabrielle’s silent signal indicated. There was apparently a very good dish being served at the moment because she saw Solan indicate the bowl and saw him say ‘Rayna’. She watched her Prince speak to his young friend and then became concerned as he seemed to be in some trouble. ‘Oh no.’ She thought and started to move toward the head of the table when a servant bumped into her. A sharp pain in her arm stunned her and she looked to see a small dart in the man’s hand. A final glance around the room before she hit the floor caused one thought to pass through Solari’s head. ‘Callisto got us all.’

———————————————

The blonde resistance leader toyed with her dagger as she approached the head of the table. It was a great temptation to just kill them and rid herself of her worst enemy, she was actually within a few steps of the unconscious warrior when she stopped. Tilting her head, Callisto’s deep brown eyes darted to the table. Grinning at the deception, she moved to hold the dagger on the unconscious Amazon Queen and spoke to one of the other resistance members. “Tie Xena up.” She became annoyed at his hesitation. “Do it!” With just a hint of maniac glee as he moved to tie the Empress’ hands, she spoke to Xena. “If you resist at all Xena, I’ll kill her right now.”

The guard tying Xena’s hands thought Callisto was crazy, Xena was out cold. There was no way he would ever get this close if she wasn’t. Cinching up the ropes on the warrior’s wrists, he grinned up at his captive’s face. Clear blue eye’s lanced through him. ‘Gods.’ The pure hatred pouring from the woman was enough to force him to step back and set him shaking. He knew without a doubt if Xena ever escaped from Callisto’s grasp, he would be dead.

Xena studied the man’s face, her eyes resting briefly on the quickly increasing pulse point on his neck. She would let his blood flow freely soon enough, right now she had to worry about Gabrielle and Solan’s safety.

Callisto saw the blue eyes open and her lackey’s reaction. Laughing, she ignored his reaction and ordered him to tie her feet as well. As he shakily moved to obey, the resistance leader clucked her tongue at Xena and shook her head. “You’ve been a bad girl, Xena. You didn’t finish your stew… ” She grinned at the Empress’ continued silence. “….But don’t worry. Soon there will be barbecue enough for everyone.” Tracing the tip of her knife from the tip of Gabrielle’s nose, along her jawline, to her ear she smiled and wrinkled her nose. “How do you like yours? Well done? Medium?” Laughing at the now working muscle in Xena’s jaw, Callisto ordered the man to tie up Solan and Bennett as well. The herbs her backup used although fast acting didn’t dissipate as quickly so Callisto relaxed her hold on the Amazon, motioned for Gabrielle to be tied and walked over to Xena.

She had seen the Conqueror from afar, on Judgment Day and other public events, but being this close was exciting, almost intoxicating. The blonde leader could feel herself falling into the crystal blue pools of the dark woman’s eyes, drawn to the power Xena exuded even in her captive state. By sheer will alone she stopped herself from reaching up to stroke the silky dark hair. “See what love does to you? It makes you weak.” Backing away from the still silent captive, Callisto spoke matter-of-factly. “I would have never been able to capture you if you weren’t worried about her.” She knew with absolute certainty that if Gabrielle’s life hadn’t been threatened the half-drugged warrior would’ve killed every resistance member in the room. A unfamiliar surge of jealousy passed through her as Xena sent a worried glance at Gabrielle and the warrior spoke quietly.

“Take me.” She let her eyes flicker to the other captives. “It’s me you want. Let them go.”

Callisto laughed and moved closer to Xena, this time climbing onto the seat with the Empress, her legs straddling the seated captive, her knees firmly pressed against the back of the chair, the balls of her feet pressed on the edge of the seat. She leaned in to whisper in her prisoner’s ear. “I was hoping you would say that.” Pushing off the chair edge, Callisto flipped into a standing position and motioned her compatriots to take the captives away reinforcing the command verbally. “You know where to take them.” Speaking loud enough for all her followers to hear, she ordered. “If Xena resists in any way. Kill the Amazon Queen.” Looking around the room at the fallen royalty, she scoffed “Pathetic.” before exiting the room and following the guards carrying the captives.

———————————————————

Karis watched Galen go back into the storage room and quickly spit out the mouthful of water. This was getting ridiculous, it had been too long. She was nearly ready to jump up and run back to the dining hall when the infirmary door opened. Sighing with relief that the plan was finally unfolding, the head guard watched as the King and Queen of Losha were helped into the room, followed by several other guards each helping a obviously important person. ‘Oh Gods.’ Karis thought and jumped to her feet when she saw Solari nearly dragged into the room. Rushing over to her second’s side she demanded a explanation. “What happened?” With a growl of desperate frustration Karis issued her standard order. “Report!”

Solari had trouble clearing her thoughts until her superior’s order cut through the fog. “I saw Solan in trouble and started to help when I was darted.” She moved her arm slightly and Karis saw the slightly swollen puncture wound. “When I woke up…..” Solari’s brown eyes pleaded with her leader as she whispered. “…. Sweet Artemis… They were gone.”

Closing her eyes at the confirmation of her greatest fear, Karis could feel the despair welling up in her. She wanted to breakdown right now and just cry. Her mother’s firm voice echoed in her head. ‘Now is not the time for tears. You have a job to do.’ With a deep breath, she patted Solari’s arm and nodded. “Okay. As soon as you feel up to it, gather as many people as you can and begin a search.” She ran her fingers through her hair. “I’m going to try and track them.” Her mother’s voice insisted ‘There is a better way.’ just as Galen walked into the room. Before the man knew what hit him, Karis had him pinned to the wall with her left forearm, her right hand poised to strike. “Where are they?”

Galen tried to be indignant. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He pushed away from the wall.

Karis slammed him back against the wall and growled. “Don’t give me that! I know you are working with her… else why would you keep me drugged. You supplied her with the herbs didn’t you?…..” His silence infuriated her and she slammed him into the wall again. “…DIDN’T YOU?!”

“YES!” The confession was torn from his lips and he sagged against her arm. “Yes….. but I don’t know where she took them.”

“You’re lying.” She backhanded him in the face and slammed him against the wall again. “Tell me where they are….NOW!”

Stinging from the hit, Galen pleaded with the guard. “I can’t….please… She will kill me…”

Everyone in the room held their breath as the Amazon went very still. Karis’ voice cut through the charged air. “Tell me now, or there won’t be enough of you left for her to bother with.” Pulling back her hand for another strike, she growled. “You really don’t want to try me.”

Flinching back from the potential blow, Galen gave in. “Okay, okay….. she usually takes people to the caves.” He breathed a sigh of relief when she release her hold and added quickly. “But I don’t know for sure that’s were they are.”

Clenching her jaw, Karis nodded. “It’s a starting point though.” She had been to the cave Callisto had left Solan in. That one wouldn’t be large enough for four people, much less the guards it would take to watch a prisoner as dangerous as Xena.

“She wouldn’t take them to the caves.”

Karis spun to face the unfamiliar voice. “How do you know?” She studied the man’s hunting garb and muddy boots and realized that this was the man Xena spared in Amphipolis. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously at his answer.

“I know her.” Spiros shrugged his shoulders at her snarl and continued. “She will take them to an abandoned mine.” He was infuriated with his former leader and wished he had returned from his hunting trip sooner. “We used to hold meetings there, so I know it’s big enough. And there are side tunnels that can be used as cells.”

Karis was dubious of the man’s sincerity. “Why should I believe you?”

“Because she has my son too.” His quiet statement was enough to convince her.

“Let’s go then.” Turning to face Solari, she reassured her second. “I’ll leave a trail for you.”

Solari nodded and tried to stand, but she quickly sat back down as a wave of dizziness overtook her. Sighing at her weakness, she nodded. “We’ll be there as soon as we can.”

Nodding sharply in acknowledgment, Karis followed Spiros out the door.

————————————————

The Conqueror remained calm as the boys were shoved into a separate room. She quietly studied the guard’s faces as they looped a chain around Gabrielle’s bindings effectively holding her to the wall. Unlike her own restraints, heavy metal bracelets around each wrist fastened securely to equally heavy chains anchored to the wall. She watched the men leering at her love, each man’s face memorized behind crystal blue eyes. They would pay a thousand fold for every scratch on the Amazon. It was a comforting thought.

‘Easy.’ The Warrior Princess cautioned. ‘Wait for the right time.’ It was not in her nature to wait and the Conqueror growled against the mental restraint even as she tested her physical bonds. ‘I know it’s difficult but Gabrielle can help when she wakes up.’ The Warrior Princess was insistent and the Conqueror contented herself to glare at Callisto.

The resistance leader laughed at the malevolent gaze and couldn’t help taunting the mighty Xena. Grinning at the sight of Xena standing helpless before her, shackled and chained, Callisto affected a mock frown. “Awww…. what’s wrong?” She moved close to Gabrielle and petted her hair. “Worried I’ll hurt your pet?”

“If you hurt her, I swear by any God you name….” The Conqueror thrashed against her bindings, pulling the chains to their limit, not quite half-way to the taunting woman. The anchors in the wall moved slightly from the stress but Xena quickly eased the tension as the heavy metal cut into her wrists.

“You’ll do what?” Callisto sneered. “Make my life a living hell?” Leaving the unconscious Amazon to hang from her shackles, the blonde resistance leader took the opportunity to move closer to the dark, growling woman. “Old hat dear. You did that years ago when you barbecued my family.” Laughing at Xena’s stunned face, she continued. “Why Xena! I do believe you are speechless. How marvelous.”

“She’s not speechless.” Gabrielle’s soft voice echoed off the stone walls.

Immediately Xena’s attention was on her love and Callisto spun to face the now conscious woman. “How did you wake up so fast?!” She paced closer to her captive. “And what do you mean, she’s not speechless.”

“I was never knocked out.” Gabrielle’s clear green eyes attested to the fact that she wasn’t the least bit drugged. She smiled at her captor as she realized the chains above her head that held her to the wall had been looped through the ropes that bound her wrists. “And I mean that there simply isn’t a word for what she will do to you when you are caught.”

A glance into the Empress’ ice blue eyes, confirmed the Amazon’s words and for a brief moment Callisto was scared. She pushed that feeling down and covered it with another question. “You think she loves you?” The word love came out in a sneer, as it always did when she spoke it.

Shaking her head negative and smiling quietly at the sneer the word had caused, Gabrielle gazed at Xena and whispered softly. “I know it.”

The Conqueror’s relief at Gabrielle’s quiet statement turned into full blown anger as she watched Callisto move closer to Gabrielle. It was all she could do to remain still as their captor leaned toward the Amazons face. “How do you know I won’t kill you right now?”

With emerald green eyes, Gabrielle looked calmly into the dark eyes of her captor. “Because you want to know what I know first.”

Raising an eyebrow at the unexpected answer Callisto laughed. “My my…. are you trying to figure me out?” Glancing at Xena, the resistance leader was intrigued enough by the Amazon’s response to ask. “What exactly is it that you think I want to know?”

The Conqueror was calmer just knowing that Gabrielle was awake but she didn’t like the attention Callisto was giving the Amazon. ‘She is buying the others time to get here.’ The Warrior Princess was amazed at her loves ingenuity. ‘And if anyone knows how to stall….. it’s Gabrielle.’ The chuckle in her head didn’t agree with the scowl on her face but Xena listened as Gabrielle answered their captor.

“You want to know what it’s like to be loved.” Gabrielle’s soothing voice drifted through the dimly lit space. “More specifically you want to know what it’s like to be loved by Xena.”

Laughing at the absurdity of the idea, Callisto answered her captive with her standard response. “You’re wrong. Love is a trick nature plays on us. I want no part of it.” Her sneer reached her eyes.

Now Gabrielle nodded and her serious voice became silky and flowing. “No. You have hated her for too long. She has become a part of you.” It had been very difficult for Gabrielle to remain still when the extent of Callisto’s feelings for Xena had become clear to her. She smiled at her captor’s sudden stillness and the Spider Queen knew her words were hitting their mark. Lowering her voice to it’s most sultry, the Amazon continued speaking softly, almost hypnotically. “I can tell you many things….. what it’s like when Xena holds you in her arms….. where she likes to be touched….. what sounds she makes in her sleep……does she cry out in ecstasy or sigh softly…. oh yes… I can tell you many things….”

“QUIET!” Callisto held her fists over her ears. She glared at the attempt at distraction and sneered. “Another word out of you and I’ll kill the boy.”

Gabrielle knew the threat was serious and quit talking but, after a glance at Xena, continued to look at her captor with knowing eyes and a slightly smug smile. She was confident that the Amazons would be here soon. She knew Karis had left the dinner after the fight so the head guard was probably on her way here by now.

—————————————————–

Solan became aware of his surroundings slowly. He tried to figure out were he was when a sound from the darkness forced him to remain still. “Who’s there?” The near total darkness of the cell was disconcerting. He thought the door had to be pretty thick if he couldn’t hear anything from the outside. A flickering light tried it’s best to cut through the gloom, the product of one small candle left next to the door.

The weak voice from the darkness was raspy but familiar. “It’s me.” Bennett was embarrassed to admit that he had gotten sick. He hoped Solan wouldn’t think he was a baby for retching up his dinner. He knew it wasn’t only the herbs. The darkness and the space closing in on him contributed greatly to his near panic and nervous stomach. There was a reason he preferred wide open pastures and big airy barns.

“Are you okay?” Solan relaxed a bit and moved closer to the light, but was worried about the boy’s tone. He flexed his wrists, testing his bindings. ‘Great.’ He thought and reassured Bennett. “It’s gonna take me awhile to get out of these ropes… but we should be free by the time the Amazons get here.”

“You think they are coming?” The younger boy was incredulous. His voice absorbed quickly in the porous stone around them.

“Oh yes.” Solan nodded and explained. “Karis wasn’t at the dinner. She left right after the fight so she wasn’t drugged. She’ll be here.” His confidence waned slightly as he continued the thought in his head. ‘As soon as she hears what happened.’ He pushed that thought out of his head and concentrated on the ropes around his wrists.

——————————————————————–

Karis hid behind a large tree trunk and studied the stony entrance carefully, covered in vines and brambles it would have been easy to miss. Glancing at the trees around her, she smiled and trilled out a spate of bird calls. When the answering calls indicated all ready, the head guard breathed a sigh of relief. She had not been happy at all to find the royal guard out cold in their room and was glad that Callisto had overlooked the Amazon camp. They weren’t the elite troops she was used to, but at this point Karis wasn’t going to be choosy.

Hefting a large rock she stood and threw it at the entrance, quickly ducking out of sight. The guard that came to investigate the noise was taken care of quickly and she muttered to herself. “One down.” They had figured there were at least seven guards plus Callisto. Picking up another rock she threw it in almost the same spot. The guard that came to check this time fought harder and was barely taken before he could send up an alarm. ‘Whew.’ Karis wiped some sweat from her brow. ‘That was close.’ She took a deep breath and threw another stone. ‘If we can just get a few more singled out.’ Two guards came this time and she whistled the signal for phase two. Immediately a young Amazon popped up out of the bushes and laughed at the two men. Karis watched the runner take off, closely followed by the guards. ‘Good girl.’ Karis nodded in approval. The trap Spiros was waiting to spring would take care of them and she counted them out. ‘Four down.’ It was enough and she signaled the others to close in.

———————————————————————-

Ignoring the Amazon’s gaze, Callisto picked up a small bucket and waved it under Gabrielle’s nose. “Gotta go make sure your bed is nice and cozy.”

The smell of oil in the bucket was enough to drain the blood from Gabrielle’s face but she was still able to respond with a knowing smile. “My bed is always warm.” The black look Callisto gave her was not nice, but Gabrielle liked it. She had seen her captor glance at Xena and knew she had hit her mark. Now Callisto was thinking about it and Xena might have a chance to take her out when the blonde tried to satisfy her curiosity.

With only a fleeting glance at Xena, Callisto glared back at the Amazon. “Well tonight it’s going to be hotter than ever.” The resistance leader grinned and snaked her free arm out to grab the back of Gabrielle’s hair. Moving closer she whispered. “Maybe in more ways than one.” Without warning she pulled the shorter woman’s hair to force her head back and captured the Amazon’s lips with her own.

The Conqueror was now fully enraged. Her world narrowed to focus tightly on their captor and
her imminent demise. The sight of Callisto forcing a kiss on Gabrielle was nearly enough to wake the sleeper within her. She barely heard the blonde woman’s laughing voice as the kiss was broken.

“Now don’t go away.” Laughing at the disgusted look on Gabrielle’s face. Callisto hefted the bucket with one hand and bit the tip of her index finger on the other. Wrinkling her nose, she hitched her shoulders and smiled. “Be right back.” The gleeful captor spared the briefest of glances at the dark warrior straining against her chains before she laughed and skipped like a schoolgirl farther into the tunnel.

Gabrielle took the time to swirl her tongue in her mouth and spit out the memory of the forced kiss
before she turned her attention to the warrior. “Xena?” She watched her lover struggle against her chains. “Xena you’re going to hurt yourself.” Unlike her own rope bonds that the guards had simply attached to the chains, Callisto’s men had actually shackled Xena to the wall. The warrior’s arms were spread wide with not much slack to work with.

Growling her response, the Conqueror pulled at her restraints ignoring the pain the shackles caused
against her wrist. “I’m going to hurt HER!”

Unable to watch Xena hurt herself anymore, Gabrielle slipped out of her rope bindings and moved to calm the warrior. She had nearly made it across the space when a sound from the outside caught her attention. Looking toward the distraction, she identified the sound as Amazon. Smiling she turned toward the enraged woman, just as the warrior’s chains were wrenched free from the wall.

As always when the rage overtook her, Xena could feel time slowing down. The sudden release from her bonds sent her hands flying forward. She saw that Gabrielle was too close but only managed to deflect the direction of her hand a little before it connected with the Amazon’s cheek. The Conqueror watched in horror as the impact turned her lover completely around and knocked her to the ground. “Oh Gods…. Gabrielle?” Xena immediately knelt next to her fallen love. “Gabrielle, I’m sorry…I..”

Pushing herself up from the floor, Gabrielle groaned and shook her head. “It was an accident.” She smiled at the worried warrior. “I’m fine.” She stood up, brushed the dirt off her hands and spread her arms wide. “See?”

Naturally, the Conqueror took the opportunity to hug the smaller woman before the sounds of the Amazon’s fighting the remaining guards reached her senses. ‘Damn. That will warn her we are loose.’ She thought as she remembered Callisto and growled. “I’ll be right back.” Releasing the embrace, she looked deeply into the sea green eyes. “Don’t follow me.” It was not a request.

Gabrielle knew Xena was furious with their captor. She closed her eyes and nodded. Without another word she moved silently to the door where Solan and Bennett were being held but she did look back at the form of her lover disappearing into the darkness of the tunnel. ‘She’s going to kill her.’ Her thoughts were interrupted by Karis and the others joining her. Karis offered a key ring she had taken from one of the guards and Gabrielle began trying the keys one by one in the heavy wooden door. On the third try the lock clicked and she swung the door open. “Solan? Bennett?” She tentatively looked into the dark room. She was sure this was the room they had been put in. “Are you in here?”

“Mom?” Solan’s questioning voice floated out of the darkness.

Relief flooded through her. “Yes. Com’on… the Amazons are here.” She stepped into the room. “We have to go.” She smiled as Solan and Bennett came forward and she motioned them to hurry. After all they didn’t know how many of Callisto’s people would be here. She may have invited them all to come and watch.

The boys blinked as they stepped out of their dark prison and Bennett looked around. “Where’s Xena?”

Solan watched a cloud of sadness pass over Gabrielle’s face as she indicated farther back in the tunnel. “She went after Callisto.”

“She’s gone.” The flat angry voice coming from the darkness caused them all to focus on the approaching form. “She must have heard the fighting.” Her unquenched rage made her tremble.

“Good.” The Amazon Queen faced the incredulous looks. “I think it’s better that she wasn’t killed. We need to know who else is in the Resistance. We need to know how many other leaders there are.”

The Warrior Princess’ voice floated through her head. ‘She’s right.’ The Conqueror calmed slightly at Gabrielle’s voice and the logic it held. She just wished. Visions of Callisto’s broken body flashed behind her eyes.

“My Queen?” Solari’s voice from the entrance of the tunnel prompted all of them to move toward the exit.

Stepping out of the entrance to the mine, Gabrielle took a deep breath of crisp night air and answered the guard. “Yes, Solari?”

“We have a present for you.” The second in command indicated a group of men, dressed as Xena’s guards.

Gabrielle recognized them as the men Iolaus had dismissed when Xena gave the order to weed out anyone thought to be a traitor, after Solan’s capture. She gasped as they moved aside and Callisto was revealed. Tied with her hands and feet behind her the woman struggled to free herself from her bonds. She tried to focus on Solari’s words.

“I gathered the loyal guards to help.” The second in command chafed at that necessity, but she would do anything to get Callisto. “We were following the trail Karis left when we found her fleeing. It was quite a fight. The infirmary will be busy but no major injuries.” The ferocity of the captive had taken them all by surprise and Solari understood why three Amazons weren’t able to stop her, but even Callisto’s will to survive couldn’t stand up to twenty well armed, Xena trained guards. She took a deep breath and continued her report. “I wanted you to know we had her and Palemon says they can keep her in the prison until we are ready to leave. Unless you want to pass sentence now?” Solari had wanted to kill the woman out of hand, for threatening the Queen and for hurting Jana. She shifted her grip on her bow and readied herself to draw her arrows, just as soon as Gabrielle gave the order.

Finally the realization of why their captor had been brought before her was clear. She spoke for the benefit of Xena and her guards. “You want me to sentence her to death for trying to kill me.” She shook her head. “I’m not the only one she threatened.” Turning with only a tinge of sadness in her voice, she knew what the punishment would be. Looking up into Xena’s sky blue eyes, Gabrielle spoke softly. “The punishment is yours to set.”

‘She doesn’t want us to kill her.’ The Warrior Princess was amazed at the forgiving capacity of her love. ‘I know.’ The Conqueror gave in for a moment and the Warrior Princess ordered the guards. “Take her away…. I’ll decide in the morning.” A smile tugged at her lips as the relief was evident in Gabrielle’s face.

Palemon’s eyes glinted in the moonlight, he had been thrilled when the Amazon had approached him for help and was ready to take his revenge for the mistreatment he had received. That pompus little pig of a man Iolaus was already chained to the prison wall. He signaled his men to pick the prisoner up. “Off to the prison with you.” He taunted with a smile. His smile fell as Xena’s voice rang through the night.

“NO!” The Conqueror would only relent so far and now took firm control. She could almost ignore the threat to herself, she almost felt she deserved it after Cirra but Callisto had threatened the life of Gabrielle and Solan and Gabrielle was right, they needed information about the resistance. “Take her to the dungeon…… ” Her voice, low and menacing, caused them all to shudder. “….put her in The Chair.”

Part 8

The natural sounds of the night were amplified in the breathless silence the Conqueror’s order created. The Chair was not used for ordinary criminals. It was most often used for scare tactics in political situations. Palemon knew that the leaders of at least two countries had signed control over to Xena peacefully simply because she had brought it with her on her campaign. They signed because they had known then what almost everyone knew now; once a person is sitting in The Chair, they don’t get out. He almost felt sorry for the blonde captive, but not really. He jerked her to her feet and motioned for two of his guards to carry her to the horses. She had proven to be a good fighter and he didn’t want to risk cutting her ankle restraints to let her walk.

“Xena?” Gabrielle’s quiet question brought the Conqueror’s hard blue eyes down on her.

“I don’t want to argue with you about this.” Schooling her face to it’s most impassive, the Conqueror reminded her. “You said it was my decision.”

“Yes, but Xena…….” The Amazon had also heard stories of her loves most infamous creation and whispered. “…..The Chair.”

The Conqueror almost melted at the Amazon’s whisper and she cupped her love’s face in her hands ever so gently tracing her cheekbones with her thumbs. “I’m sorry this is hurting you, but this is who I am and how I rule. I can’t change now.”

Gabrielle frowned slightly and pushed the hands away from her face. “Can’t or Won’t?” Her hard green eyes locked with narrowed blue for just a moment before she turned to check on Solan, leaving Xena standing alone at the entrance to the mine.

“Mom?” Solan had seen Gabrielle remove the warrior’s hands from her face and was a little upset. He had never seen them really fight before. “What’s wrong?”

Shaking her head to indicate she didn’t want to discuss it right now, Gabrielle studied her son’s worried face and asked. “Are you all right?” She reached up to brush the hair from his eyes.

Xena watched Gabrielle move to examine their son. She crossed her arms and waited for the Amazon to let her know how he was. ‘She won’t tell us.’ The Conqueror was still angry but now also hurt at Gabrielle’s reaction to Callisto’s sentence. ‘Yes she will.’ The Warrior Princess had faith that Gabrielle would understand that Callisto deserved the punishment she was going to get and leaned against the stone wall. She wondered what Solan said to make the Amazon shake her head. When their son suddenly grabbed Gabrielle’s wrist, to stop her from brushing the hair out of his eyes the still bristling Conqueror went on alert, pushing away from the wall with her shoulder and dropping her arms to her sides. It was a state of readiness that normally came before a kill. The Warrior Princess was appalled. ‘He is our son!’ The Conqueror backed off a bit but still remained watchful of the pair.

“I’m fine Mom.” He shifted his hold from her wrist to her hand. He tried to smile and shook her hand slightly. “Really. You don’t have to worry about me.”

Gabrielle shook her head again, this time in denial. “Of course I have to worry about you … You’re my son.” Squeezing his hand for emphasis brought a return squeeze from him and a brilliant smile to her face, just as Karis approached.

“Pardon the interruption my Queen, but we really should escort Solan back to his room.” The young guard smiled at Solan and indicated a knot of waiting Amazons.

Gabrielle suppressed a surge of maternal jealousy at the smile and acknowledged the guards presence by shaking her head. “No Karis. Take the remaining Amazons and help Palemon round up the rest of the known resistance members.” She looked at the young guard seriously. “There should be several that we didn’t know who will try to run now.” She swallowed hard. “Callisto’s capture will disorganize them for a while.” The little information her scouts had gathered had told them that nothing got done in the resistance without approval from the leader. With Callisto captured it would take time for them to reorganize and find a new leader. “I will walk with Solan.”

One look into the determined eyes of her Queen let Karis know this was not the time to argue. “Yes my Queen.” She bowed and motioned the others to follow her. Stopping at a signal from Xena she started toward the mine entrance to see what the warrior wanted.

A sudden crashing through the trees caused them all to turn. When Spiros appeared from the treeline his concern visibly turned to joy when he heard Bennett’s voice.

“Dad!” The stable boy moved slowly to the new arrival. “What are you doing here?” His incredulous question was loud enough to carry through the night air.

“He helped us.” Karis called out to the boy. “He led us to this place.”

“Why?” The Conqueror’s suspicious voice floated through the night and she gave Karis a wait-a-minute signal as she walked over to the archer. “Why would you help us?”

Bennett was very proud that his father had helped and he was also impressed that he didn’t tremble when Xena moved closer. His pride turned to near shock though when he heard his father speak.

“Because a long time ago you saved my son.” Spiros looked directly into Xena’s incredible blue eyes and swallowed hard. “And now I have helped save yours.”

“How long have you known?” The Conqueror poised on the edge of readiness. The answer to that question would determine the man’s fate.

“I’ve known since Potidea.” His quiet voice held just a hint of smile. “I watched you for several days.” He blushed at the memory of the warrior’s unguarded face, watching Solan. “There really can be no mistaking that kind of love.”

The Warrior Princess recalled their time in Potidea, long days spent visiting with Gabrielle’s sister, watching the children play. A smile played across her face. “No, I guess not.” She was happy she didn’t have to kill the man, if he had known for that long and hadn’t told Callisto then he was a good man after all.

Bennett’s eyes grew wide. “You saved me?” His mother had told him the story of his adoption but she hadn’t told him that one crucial piece of information.

Shaking her head at the hero worship on his face, the Warrior Princess knew, the time for truth had come. She looked at him sadly and spoke quietly. “I saved you from my own men.” The Conqueror’s quiet correction floated through her head. ‘You mean my men.’ The Warrior Princess breathed deeply and answered her dark sister. ‘That’s what I said.’ She watched the boy’s face twist from open admiration to active hatred as he realized that the person he had thought of as a friend was really his mother’s murderer. It was the most horrible feeling in her gut to know that someday, maybe soon, Bennett may also join the Resistance and if he did and the Conqueror caught him, the young boy who was her friend would also be put in The Chair. The Warrior Princess turned to hide the tears welling in her eyes, as the angry young man and his father walked slowly away. The Conqueror angrily motioned Karis toward her.

The Amazon Captain met the warrior half-way and was surprised to find a strong arm draped over her shoulder. She could barely concentrate on what the dark woman was saying as the Conqueror began to whisper in her ear. “There are a few other people I need you to pick up. Tell Solari……………” Karis nodded as Xena named off several people they had been watching and one that totally shocked her. “……. you got that?” Taking a deep breath as Xena dropped her arm away, Karis nodded and answered.

“Yeah… we’ll get them.” It was going to be a long night. Karis glanced at Solan sighing to herself. ‘He will probably be asleep by the time we are finished.’

Xena saw the direction of the guard’s glance but misinterpreted it’s meaning. “Don’t worry. I won’t let anything happen to Gabrielle.”

Karis looked into Xena’s eyes and smiled. “I know you won’t.” She signaled to Solari and jogged over to meet her. Her brief outline of the nights work was greeted with a grim smile from the archer and then, melting into the trees, the Amazons were gone.

Gabrielle watched the Conqueror giving Karis her instructions and assumed they didn’t involve anything too bad because the guard didn’t question them. If Xena had instructed Karis to do something her Queen wouldn’t like, Gabrielle knew Karis would confirm the order with her first. She couldn’t help a bit of pride at her people’s efficiency as they disappeared into the night, until she realized the only people left in the clearing were Solan, her, and Xena. Still unwilling to talk about their captor’s sentence, especially in front of Solan, Gabrielle looped her arm around her son’s middle and they began walking back toward the city. It nearly broke her heart, but she was grateful as Xena followed them, silently keeping her distance, but never staying too far away.

—————————

Karis closed the cell door on her most recent capture and started back toward the exit of the dungeon. The prison was already full so they had started bringing the prisoners here until other arrangements could be made. Glancing down the darkest corridor, the guard noticed a movement near Callisto’s cell. Going on full alert, Karis silently moved through the shadows to investigate. When she recognized the form the guard let her presence be known. “Solari. You shouldn’t be here.”

Jumping at the appearance of her superior, Solari growled. “She nearly killed Jana!” It was all she could do not to go into the cell and break the captive’s legs.

Karis sympathized with her second’s desire for revenge. The resistance leader had only taken Solan for awhile, but her own need for vengeance was strong too. “She has done a lot of things, to a lot of people.” The leader of the Royal Guard spoke calmly. “Xena will make her pay.” She patted the archers arm and motioned her to follow, they still had several people to round up.

—————————

Solan was concerned about his Mom and his mother. Xena’s quiet presence was reassuring but her neutral wave good night was confusing, she usually hugged him. Gabrielle too, had been unusually quiet on the walk back and her good night hug hadn’t been up to it’s usual intensity either. “They’ve got a lot on their mind.” He spoke out loud and automatically turned to the door, embarrassed, before he remembered that the inside guard had been removed to help round up the fleeing resistance members. It made him feel a bit safer to know that there were still two Amazon guards standing outside, though he wished Karis were here. He left the shirt of his favorite soft sleepwear open because it was unseasonably hot tonight and stretched out in the bed. Breathing deeply, he listened to the muted music from the festival and waited for sleep to take him. Twice he dozed off, only to be startled awake by an errant wind rattling the open balcony doors. Running his fingers through his hair he sighed and sat on the side of the bed. Holding his head in his hands, he rested his elbows on his knees. The herbs had worn off and it was very late but he knew he wouldn’t get any sleep until Karis was back and safe.

“Why aren’t you asleep?” Karis walked out of the secret passage quickly, concerned with his head in hand position. “Does your head hurt? Do you want me to call a healer?” She knelt next to him, her anxious hands feeling his head for fever.

Catching the guard’s hands he pulled her up with him as he stood. “No. I don’t need a healer.” The sudden intensity of what he did need was evident in his eyes. He smiled at her quickening breath and slight gasp. “You aren’t going to leave again are you?”

Shaking her head in answer she put both hands flat against his bare chest and whispered. “No.” Solari and Palemon were rounding up the last of the resistance members now so she was no longer required for that. Almost on their own, her hands found their way up to his shoulders and the shirt fell to the ground. She was unable to keep her hands from moving to the back of his head. Tangling her fingers in his hair, she pulled him closer. The heat from his breath warmed her lips as she whispered. “I’m not going anywhere.”

He gently pushed her back onto the bed, almost unable to believe that the moment he had been waiting for for so long had finally arrived. “Are you sure?” They had several long discussions about this step in their relationship and each one ultimately included his age and the reactions of his Mothers.

Smiling up at her love, Karis nodded. “Yes.” She could see in his eyes how much he wanted this so his hesitance confused her. “What’s wrong?”

He stretched out beside her and stroked her cheek with his fingertips. His whispering voice answered the question. “I don’t know what to do.” The admission was hard for him and he was grateful that Karis didn’t laugh.

Rolling to pin him under her, she kissed him deeply and then rested her forehead on his. There was no reason to deny her own need anymore. “I’ll teach you.”

His lover’s husky voice sent a shiver through him and he could only nod as his lessons began.

——————————————————

Xena sat in one of the big comfy chairs by the fireplace and watched the Amazon silently moving around the room, preparing for bed. The walk back from the mine shaft had been equally quiet and even when they said good night to Solan she only spoke a few words to him. Now the Conqueror was beginning to feel the strain. ‘She is never going to talk to us again.’ Since the moment Gabrielle had pushed her hands away, the Amazon had not spoken a word to her. ‘She hates me.’ The Warrior Princess almost growled. ‘She doesn’t hate you.’ Her dark sister’s insecurity was becoming annoying. ‘She loves us all.’ Worried blue eyes watched their love changing into her favorite sleeping shirt. ‘She will talk about it when she is ready.’ Seeing the solemn young Queen walk out onto the balcony, Xena only waited a moment before joining her. She couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see her love in the moonlight.

Music drifted through the night and Gabrielle envied the people who were able to enjoy festivities. She breathed deeply, nearly tasting the various wares the booths on the thoroughfare were peddling and smiled as the spicy leather scent of Xena overpowered them all. Resting her elbows against the top of the balcony wall, she closed her eyes and let the night breeze envelop her for a moment.

The sight was too much to resist, so the Conqueror moved to wrap her arms around Gabrielle’s shoulders. She buried her face in the silky hair as the Amazon leaned back into the embrace and the warrior started to apologize. “Gabrielle, I’m sorry…….”

“No.” Patting the warrior’s arms for release, Gabrielle turned within the loosened embrace. Sliding her arms around the leather encased waist, she put her ear against the warm chest, listening to the heart she loved. “Don’t apologize for being you.” She felt the arms around her tighten and looked up into the eyes of love. “I have no right to ask you to change.” She slid her hands up to caress the warrior’s cheek and trace her jawbone lightly.

“Yes you do, Gabrielle.” The Warrior Princess spoke quietly and captured the Amazon’s left hand, playing with the ring she found there. “You are the only one who does.”

With sad green eyes, the Amazon broached she subject of their captor. “She won’t talk.”

Licking her lips, Xena nodded and traced Gabrielle’s cheekbone lightly. “I know.”

Closing her eyes at the certainty in her lover’s voice, Gabrielle swallowed hard. “Then why are you going to torture her?”

Xena’s answer was interrupted by the sound of footsteps in the main room. Growling at the interruption, Xena never took her eyes off Gabrielle as she addressed the new arrival. “We are on the balcony Mirriam…. What do you want?” She didn’t need to ask the Conqueror already knew what was coming.

When Mirriam saw the tableau on the balcony she cleared her throat and apologized to Gabrielle before she got to the heart of the problem. “Sorry for the interruption my Queen but the prison warden wanted me to deliver a message to Xena.”

With an apologetic smile to Gabrielle, the Conqueror turned and answered the request before it was asked. “Tell him yes.”

Gabrielle tugged on Xena’s arm. “Yes?”

Patting the small hand on her arm, the Warrior Princess studied Mirriam closely as the Amazon servant explained. “The prison is full as well as the dungeon…..”

Xena continued when her assistant became lost for words. “The warden wants me to declare a special Judgment Day.” She lowered her eyes, unwilling to see the pain she was about to cause. “To clear some space for him.” At Gabrielle’s gasp, the warrior clenched her jaw and dropped her arms to her side. The Conqueror addressed Mirriam. “Make the arrangements… I will hold court in the main square, beginning at dawn.”

Bowing slightly, Mirriam acknowledged the order. “Yes Empress.” Bowing deeply to Gabrielle, Mirriam prepared to leave. “Good Night my Queen. Pleasant dreams.”

“Thank you Mirriam.” Gabrielle smiled at her subjects thoughtfulness but wasn’t sure that was possible. The thought of ordering someone’s death was enough to turn her stomach. She couldn’t imagine ordering enough to clear space in the prison.

“I don’t kill them all, you know.” Xena draped her arm around the small shoulders and guided the shocked Amazon into the main room. “Petty criminals from the Festival will be punished and set free.”

Nodding at the slight comfort that fact brought her, Gabrielle smiled and asked. “Are you coming to bed?” She indicated the fact that Xena had yet to take off her boots or leathers, although the brass armor and weapons were laid neatly on the small table next to the bed.

Gabrielle’s smile sent a small shiver through the Conqueror but shaking her head, the Warrior Princess spoke slowly. “I have something to do first.”

Sighing, Gabrielle nodded and looked up at her determined love. “Will you do something for me?”

“Of course, I’ll do anything for you.” The words were out of their mouth before they could stop them and now, Xena knew if Gabrielle asked her to spare Callisto’s life, she would. The Conqueror silently hoped the Amazon wouldn’t ask that particular favor. The Warrior Princess almost wished she would.

Gabrielle paused, slightly taken back by the immediate answer. She knew that Callisto’s life was suddenly in her hands but Xena’s ability to rule was also on the line. She knew that if she began making decisions for Xena there was no going back from that. Pleading green eyes focused on their loves slightly twitching lips. “Consider all the alternatives.”

“Gabrielle. After what she did to you……” One of the warrior’s callused thumbs brushed the rope burns on the Amazon’s wrists. “….. you still ask for leniency.” Gabrielle’s capacity for forgiveness amazed her.

Smiling, the small woman tugged at the dark warrior’s arm until she had situated them on one of the big comfy chairs. Sitting on Xena’s lap she gently traced the dark brow with her fingertips and spoke softly. “When Brenin threatened my life……” Gabrielle suppressed a grin at the jealous tension in Xena’s frame and smoothed the wrinkled brow again. “…..the entire Royal Guard and most of the Amazons wanted her sentenced to death. I asked Ephiny to consider all the options before passing judgment. I’m glad she chose banishment.”

“But she stalked you for a entire moon. She threatened your life. I don’t think I can be that forgiving……” Xena knew that if it had been up to her Brenin would be dead now.

“But if she had been executed then the twins probably would have died in the flood…….” Clear green eyes drove her point home. “….. and I would no longer be Queen of the Amazons.” With a little half smile, Gabrielle kissed the stunned Empress gently on the cheek. “Every action has consequences…. you know that. I’m just asking you to consider all your options.” Rising from her much too comfortable seat she headed for the bed. “I know you have to go……but try not to be too long. There isn’t much time left until dawn and I would rather not spend it alone.” Settling under the light cover she mumbled. “I sleep much better in your arms.”

Xena wished she could stay, but the perfectionist in her wanted to make sure Callisto was properly secured. Walking down the hall quickly, they nearly laughed at Gabrielle’s last mumbled comment. ‘She sleeps better in our arms?’ The thought was almost ludicrous, because Xena knew without Gabrielle, sleep to her was nothing but one long nightmare.

——————————————————

Solari glared through the small window in the thick wooden door. She knew Karis was right, and she should let Xena handle it, but the desire to make Callisto pay for Jana’s injuries was strong. At least she could gloat at the resistance leader’s capture. Callisto had been strapped to the straight-backed hardwood chair, with chains and metal shackles around her ankles and wrists but the most startling was the thick leather restraint circling her neck and another securing her forehead. It was the most uncomfortable contraption she had ever seen and didn’t doubt for a moment the horror stories she had heard about it. A hand on her shoulder and a low voice in her ear made Solari jump.

“What are you doing here?!” The Conqueror had nearly killed the Amazon before she realized it was Solari and not a resistance member trying to free their leader.

In a heartbeat Solari realized if anyone would understand her desire for revenge it would be Xena. “I want to make her pay for hurting Jana.”

Nodding, the Conqueror recalled the injured Amazon’s twitching body as Gabrielle soothed her into calmness. With a deep breath, she smiled, motioned the vengeful woman and opened the door to the cell. “Stay here.”

The creak of the door opening focused all Callisto’s attention on the dark doorway and her visitor. With a bright smile she greeted her guest. “My my… twice in one night.” Looking behind the warrior her smile turned to a smirk. “Where’s your little pet?”

With a dangerous half smile, Xena spoke slowly and deliberately. “My wife is in our room, in bed.”

The resistance leaders eyes glittered in the dim candlelight. “You mean you left your wife….” She sneered the title. “.. to come and see me? I’m flattered.”

“Don’t be.” Xena circled the chair cautiously, making sure each strap and shackle was buckled and fastened as she spoke. “You will be out of here soon. I have ordered a special Judgment Day.” Satisfied with the restraints Xena stopped in front of the woman and presented her offer. “Tell me what you know about the other resistance members and I’ll let you live.”

“NO!” Solari burst through the door. Not thinking about who she was disagreeing with. “She broke Jana’s legs… and threatened the Queen. She should die!” Solari abruptly found it very difficult to breath as Xena’s large hand wrapped around her throat.

“I rule here, Amazon.” The Conqueror growled at the interruption and at the Warrior Princess’ quiet voice floating through her head. ‘Let her go.’ Abruptly releasing the archer, the Conqueror ordered the gasping Amazon to leave. “Get out.” She watched with satisfaction as Solari scrambled out the door. ‘We are going to have to make that up to her.’ The Warrior Princess advised. ‘I will.’ The Conqueror’s low chuckle shook their frame.

Deep brown eyes peered out from under the leather restraint, watching the dark warrior. She could feel her heartbeat increasing as she felt Xena’s low growl vibrate her bones. The Conqueror’s voice always sent a thrill through her and the thought of the warrior’s warm hands on her, even on her throat, was enough to settle a warmth just below her belly. When the Amazon exited and the dark woman began to chuckle a barely visible shudder raced through the captive. It was barely visible but Xena saw it and grinned.

‘Gabrielle was right.’ The Warrior Princess chuckled. She had thought the little Queen was stalling for time in the mine shaft. Now she knew that although what Callisto felt for her may not be love, it was at the very least, lust. The Conqueror felt the need to taunt her captive and since she was not wearing weapons moved closer to The Chair. Dropping her voice to it’s lowest register, the Conqueror rumbled. “Well Callisto. It seems your little escapade with Gabrielle has garnered you some enemies.”

Straining her eyes sideways, the blonde rebel tried to see Xena as she circled the chair. Frustrated by her inability to turn and look at the woman behind her, Callisto snarled. “Why are you here. We both know you are going to kill me. Even the peace-loving Amazon Queen knows.” The sudden low voice next to her ear made her shudder.

“But what if I’ve changed my mind?” The Conqueror smirked at her captives shudder and recalled Gabrielle’s hypnotic voice. “We could have a little fun together before I decide your fate.” Brushing the wavy blonde hair back from the restrained head, Xena found Callisto’s ear and continued to whisper. “Perhaps you could convince me not to kill you.”

Swallowing hard, the prisoner tried to sneer. “What about your little wife?”

“Oh yes… her… well…. She wouldn’t have to know would she? I could keep you here until she goes back to the Amazon Nation. Then I would be all yours.” The Conqueror moved back into her captive’s line of site and smiled, careful to keep her voice low. “Then you would know what it is like for me to hold you in my arms.” She moved closer to the woman. “Where I like to be touched.” She gently stroked the thin captive arm, noting the fine hairs standing on end. “What sounds I make in my sleep.” Looking directly into the now panting woman’s dark eyes she licked her lips, and continued. “Then you will find out if I sigh softly or cry out in ecstasy.” She was so close now that the smallest motion would have closed the gap between their lips. Her prisoner’s rapid breath warmed her face and she almost smiled at the slight whimper backing off caused. “What do you say?”

Callisto hated her body for responding to the murderer and wanted Xena to kill her more than ever. Finding her voice she tried her best to make it happen. “I say that WHEN I escape, I’m going to make your precious Gabrielle squeal like a pig before I kill her.”

‘I’ve had enough of her.’ The Conqueror moved in for the kill when the Warrior Princess stopped her. ‘No!’ Looking at the captive with almost pity, she advised. “You still have several candlemarks to think about my offer.” She repeated the original terms. “Tell us about the other members and I’ll let you live.” It was the only true deal Callisto would get. Xena knew the rebel wouldn’t take it, but now she could tell Gabrielle she tried. “You will have until you are brought before me tomorrow to decide.” Yanking open the door, Xena shook her head as Callisto strained against the shackles. “Don’t fight it, Callisto. It’ll give you peace if you let it.” She smiled as she closed the door on the thrashing woman.

Immediate danger swept over her and she took a deep breath, readying herself. “Don’t do it Solari.”

The archer walked out of the shadows, bow held drawn, with two arrows ready to fly. “You can’t let her live.” The Amazon’s hands shook in the effort not to release the arrows. Gabrielle would be devastated if something were to happen to Xena. The Queen would never believe Xena would cheat on her, even if Solari had heard it with her own ears.

Moving forward slowly, the Warrior Princess soothed the irate archer. “The only reason I’m even considering it…….. is because Gabrielle asked me to.” She moved slowly, reaching out to gently push the arrows away from her, and take the bow from Solari. The Conqueror’s rage matched the Amazon’s and she let it all pour out through her eyes into the deep brown of the archer. “She will pay. I promise you.” When Solari nodded acceptance, Xena handed her the bow and arrows back and walked on toward another small cell. There was one other thing she had to take care of before she could return to her room and her one true love, Gabrielle.

—————————————

Gabrielle tried to drift off to sleep but visions of Xena torturing Callisto and jangling nerves kept her from closing her eyes for very long. Sighing at the futility of trying to sleep before Xena returned, the Amazon decided on a little reading. Retrieving the journal from the desk, she turned to the bookmarked page and spoke quietly to herself. “No where was I? Oh yes… we had just arrived in Chin.”

She had wanted to wait and talk to Lao Ma before reading this section but it was late and she was sure the eastern leader was asleep by now. So she began to read the Conqueror’s somewhat choppy handwriting.

Gabrielle was surprised that the entries for Xena’s time in Chin were so brief. She knew Xena had spent quite a long time there. Most of the entries were in the Conqueror’s choppy handwriting and the Amazon realized that she didn’t keep the journal as frequently as the Warrior Princess did. The few entries in the Warrior Princess’ smooth flowing script told how Lao Ma had saved her from the hunting dogs and the few days she spent in the Chinese leaders company trying to show her a different path. “Something else I have to thank Lao Ma for.” She murmured as she read through a few more of the Conqueror’s entries regarding their exit from Chin. It wasn’t a pretty story and Gabrielle found herself holding her breath at the outcome of the dice game for possession of Xena. She gasped as she turned the page, startled to find a page with her name at the top and Xena’s seal at the bottom. Sitting up on the bed, Gabrielle slowly read the flowing script.

————————–

Gabrielle,

We have done many horrible things in our past, as you well know. The next entry is the event we most regret. When you read it, please try to remember, we will always love you and we trust you.

————————–

Gabrielle was amazed to see the Warrior Princess’ signature and seal, right above the Conqueror’s signature and seal. Below the two large signatures Xena’s name appeared several times, each with a distinct style. ‘They all signed it.’ She thought. ‘Gods! Ares’ Chosen said they were right to trust me.’ Smiling at the note she carefully marked the page and closed the book. The note implied it was okay to read the entry, but she had told Xena she would not read further until the warrior said it was okay. There were still several candlemarks until dawn so, sighing, she replaced the journal on the desk. Curling up on the bed, trying to sleep, unable to get comfortable without Xena’s warmth to curl around, Gabrielle thought about what could be so terrible it would worry Xena. Nothing could be bad enough to make her leave Xena, could it? Closing her eyes, Gabrielle took a few deep breaths and let her mind drift. She was surprised when she did actually doze off but was awakened pleasantly by Xena’s warm form sliding next to her.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.” The Warrior Princess had spent several moments just watching their love sleep. The Amazon was so beautiful and peaceful it took her breath away.

“I wasn’t sleeping.” Gabrielle protested and rested her head on Xena’s shoulder, her arm finding it’s way across the warrior’s stomach on it’s own. “I was just resting my eyes.” She relaxed against the oddly firm softness of Xena’s body and as Morpheus’ realm got closer she whispered. “I love you Xena.”

Chuckling at the familiar protest, Xena kissed the forehead that was so close to her lips and stroked the hair under her hand. “Okay then, I think I’ll rest my eyes too.” The smaller woman’s slow even breathing wavered briefly and the Amazon’s faint whisper barely reached her ears, but Xena could feel the words caressing her soul.

——————————————-

Her internal clock, as always, woke Xena before dawn but on this morning gentle teeth tugging at her earlobe helped the process considerably. She felt the lips against her ear smile as a low chuckle escaped her. “You’re up early.”

Whispering into the warrior’s ear, Gabrielle slipped closer. “I have good motivation.” Gently kissing the warm neck, the Amazon traced Xena’s collarbone with her tongue and smiling, moved lower. Her lover’s sharp intake of breath and sudden arching of her back only helped her quest.

Gasping at the unexpected warm mouth, the Conqueror half-heartedly protested. “Gabrielle. I need to get ready.” She could see the predawn light begin to lighten the sky and tried unsuccessfully, to focus on the day ahead. Gabrielle’s smile against her abdomen drove every other thought from her and settled an intense ache just below her navel. The Amazon’s low sultry voice caused a shudder to course through her.

“You seem pretty ready to me.” Gabrielle’s hand brushed past her love’s taut breasts, smiling at the slight whimper ilicited from the warrior. Continuing to trace the tan ribs with her fingertips, Gabrielle slid down farther and grinned up at the darkening blue eyes. “Oh yes, very ready.”

Filling her lungs, the Conqueror tried to push herself closer to the Amazon’s smile but found the small hands on her stomach holding her in place. “Gabrielle.” Xena’s low voice begged for release.

Chuckling at the feeling of Xena rumbling her name, Gabrielle shook her head. “Oh no.” Smiling wider at the shudder under her hands, the Amazon dropped her voice and kissed her lover’s navel softly. “Begging won’t help you now.” Gabrielle breathed in the scent of her love.

Regretfully the Warrior Princess sighed. “Gabrielle, If you keep this up we’ll be late.” They had told Mirriam the sentencing would begin at dawn.

Gabrielle traced a small circle on the soft skin of Xena’s muscular thigh and kissed the middle of it, her teeth gently nipping the muscular flesh. “Uh uh, I told Mirriam to organize the prisoners and we would be there in about a candlemark…..” Looking up at the single raised eyebrow, Gabrielle grinned wryly at her lover and drawled. “….or two.”

‘We?’ The Warrior Princess caught the phrasing but Gabrielle’s ministrations quickly blanked the thought. The Conqueror didn’t pay attention to anything but Gabrielle’s smooth skin sliding against hers.

—————————————————–

The first rays of true dawn were beginning to race across the land when Karis awoke. Solan’s warm body pressed against her comfortably and she drifted for a moment in the peaceful feeling. A soft knock at the door made her move regretfully but silently away from her love. Grabbing the first shirt she found on the floor, Karis hastily dressed as she walked over to cautiously open the door. “Solari?” She stepped back to allow her second inside.

Solari stepped inside quickly and was momentarily stunned by what Karis was wearing. When she was on duty, Karis normally had her hair pulled back or braided, now her leader’s dark hair fell in thick waves over the shoulders of the top half of Solan’s sleepwear, which was barely closed. She had not realized, exactly, how beautiful the young woman was. ‘Almost as gorgeous as Jana.’ She thought and unconsciously glanced at Karis’ bare, unbroken legs. A single thought stuck in her mind. ‘She’s wearing Solan’s shirt!’ Glancing at the sleeping form again, the archer sucked air in through her teeth as she realized the young couple had been together. ‘I would hate to be her when Gabrielle finds out.’ She thought and shook her head against thoughts that were none of her business. “I wanted you to know that the sentencing has been moved back a bit. It should start in about a candlemark.” Mirriam had told them last night on occasions when the prison’s were full Xena usually held a special Judgment Day and it usually started around dawn.

Nodding Karis moved to the small table and indicated a pitcher. “You want some juice?” She poured the dark liquid into a tumbler.

Shaking her head, Solari declined the drink. “I should be going. They are going to move Callisto soon and I want to be there.”

Nodding understanding, Karis finished her drink and walked the archer back to the door. “Yes I would feel better if you were there too.” Opening the door, Karis looked into her friend’s eyes. “And then I want you to get some sleep.”

“I will sleep when Callisto has paid for what she did.” The hatred in her voice surprised even Solari.

Narrowing her eyes at the tone, Karis cautioned. “Be careful.” Taking vengeance was Amazon tradition, but many others would see it as murder.

A small chuckle escaped the archer as she raised her eyebrows and tilted her head to indicate the bed. “You too.”

Nodding at that understatement, Karis smiled and closed the door. Turning back toward the bed, the guard sighed. ‘There isn’t much time.’ Sliding back into the comfort of Solan’s arms would have been so easy and she almost gave in to the urge but she had lived with denying herself for so long that duty again won out over her heart. With a regretful smile, Karis went to the washroom instead.

—————————————–

The Warrior Princess was content to stay in bed with Gabrielle in her arms all day long. A soft knock on the door, followed by Mirriam entering the room ruined those plans.

“The prisoner’s will be moved shortly.” The Amazon servant was very sorry to interrupt, but the crowd was already gathering and the prison warden had asked her several times when Xena would arrive in the square.

Sighing, Xena nodded and started to tuck the covers around Gabrielle when contented green eyes focused on her. “Don’t bother. I’m getting up too.”

“You don’t have to be there you know.” The Conqueror wasn’t sure she could deal with the prisoner’s in her usual manner if Gabrielle was there.

Nodding and stretching up to kiss the slightly frowning lips, Gabrielle spoke quietly. “Yes I do. She threatened me too.”

Mirriam sensed the private nature of the conversation and headed to the washroom. Xena’s voice stopped her.

“No bath this morning, Mirriam.” The Empress looked out the balcony doors at the increasing light filling the brilliant blue sky. “No time.” She wanted to get the judgments overwith, knowing Callisto would be the last one brought before her.

Bowing, the servant changed her direction toward the clothes storage area. “Do you have a outfit chosen or should I pick one?” As Xena’s personal servant, Mirriam had grown to sense her employers moods. She thought today’s judgment would either be conducted wearing the black leather outfit she had been favoring lately or her favorite flame pattern robe.

Absently waving the woman toward the clothes, the Conqueror never took her eyes off the woman in her arms. “You choose.” Not caring if the Amazon was watching or not Xena slid down and kissed the Queen soundly. “And what are you going to wear?”

Snuggling in closer for a few last moments of peace, Gabrielle traced her index finger down Xena’s arm. “I guess just formal leathers.” Patting the arm, the Amazon hauled herself out of the bed. “I’ll go check on Solan.” She grabbed her favorite white robe and headed for the secret door. “Back in a bit.”

Smiling at the tan flesh quickly covered by the silky robe, Xena nodded and rose to begin her morning routine.

——————————————–

Gabrielle looked down at her sleeping son. Solan was on the bed, his bare chest rising and falling in a contented rhythm. She smiled and let herself drift in the secure knowledge he was safe when a soft gasp from behind her caused her to whirl around. The sight of Karis wearing only the top half of Solan’s favorite sleepwear also drew a gasp from the Queen. Glancing back at the bed, her nostrils flared at the thought of her son and this, this…. She forced her anger down but glared at the guard.

Karis had never been a modest person. No one growing up in an Amazon village was, but at this moment she was painfully aware that the shirt she wore was only fastened with one fastener at her stomach and a great deal of cleavage was allowed to show through the gap in the unfastened portion. The guard and the Prince had both known if they took this step one of the things they would have to deal with would be his parent’s reactions. He was more worried about Xena, but Karis was far more concerned with Gabrielle’s reaction. With a pounding heart, Karis slowly moved her head up and down in a sort of informal bow. “My Queen.”

‘Yes. I am the Queen.’ She thought and slipped into Queen mode easily. “Report.” The startled look Karis shot at the bed, did not amuse Gabrielle at all and she clarified the terse order. “Did you get all the resistance?”

With a small breath of relief, Karis nodded. “All of them we agreed to get.” Part of the plan had been to leave a few of the less prominent rebel contacts in place, believing their cover safe, in order to catch the members that escaped and monitor any future resistance movement. That would be changed if Callisto talked but Karis didn’t believe she would. Right now her main concern was Gabrielle’s reaction to her relationship with Solan. The anger evident in her Queen’s voice constricted her heart.

“Get dressed.” Clenching her jaw against the maternal anger coursing through her, Gabrielle focused on the day ahead. “I will expect all the Amazons, who are able, to be present at the sentencing.” Callisto had committed several crimes against the Amazons up to and including threatening the life of their Queen.

“Yes, my Queen.” Bowing as low as her current state of dress allowed, Karis swallowed hard at the formal tone and answered in a similar fashion. “As you wish.”

“I won’t mention this to Xena yet.” Gabrielle wasn’t sure what Xena’s reaction would be but she thought if her own feelings were any indication, Karis would be in a lot of trouble. “We will deal with you later.” A few deep calming breaths helped the Queen control her anger and after a last glance at her not-so-young son silently went back through the passageway to the room she shared with Xena.

Karis also breathed deeply, the knowledge that her actions had hurt the Queen hurt worse than she ever imagined it would. She almost regretted her decision until Solan sighed and rolled over. ‘No.’ She thought. ‘I don’t regret a thing.’ Smiling softly at the sleeping form, she decided to get dressed before she woke him. ‘We will never leave the room otherwise.’

————————————–

Gabrielle walked slowly through the dark passageway, trying to compose herself. She had known this day was coming but the desire to assign Karis far away from her son was very tempting. The upset Amazon mother forced herself to smile as she exited the passageway and then the smile turned genuine as Xena in her favorite black robe, lounged on the bed. “Why aren’t you dressed?”

“I was waiting to see how Solan was and I need to tell you something.” Opening her arms wide, the Warrior Princess smiled as Gabrielle quickly filled the void. “So how is he?”

“Sleeping.” Gabrielle didn’t want to lie to Xena. “I told Karis to wake him in time for Callisto’s sentencing.”

“You want him there?” The Warrior Princess was not sure the boy should be there.

“No I don’t want him there!” Frustration made her statement sharper than she wanted and she sighed. “He has the right. Callisto threatened him too.”

Nodding, Xena tightened her embrace and leaned her cheek against the top of Gabrielle’s head. “Sometimes it seems like only yesterday he was a baby in my arms.”

Gently rubbing Xena’s stomach, Gabrielle smiled at the feel of the firm flesh under the silky material. “He isn’t a baby anymore…..” The memory of half-clothed Karis standing in the washroom doorway flashed in her mind. Sighing at the inevitability of that event, she thought of another reason too. “….. the fight with Ming T’ien last night proved that.”

Laughing, Xena gave the Amazon’s small shoulders a final squeeze and released her. “Gabrielle. He will always be my baby.” Rising from the bed, the Conqueror let her robe fall to the floor and reached for the outfit Mirriam had laid out for her, smiling at the servant’s choice. She had always liked the flame pattern robe.

Nodding at the sentiment, Gabrielle too rose and began to dress for the day. Reaching for her favorite leathers she remembered Xena’s earlier remark. “What did you need to tell me?” She sort of hoped the sentencing wouldn’t last too long and almost mentioned it to Xena then thought better of it. Requesting the day be shortened would undoubtedly bring about more quick decisions and Gabrielle didn’t want to risk the judgments being made against the prisoners becoming too harsh just because she was impatient.

Xena smiled as her robe fell away and began to tell the Amazon about a very special prisoner.

———————————————

Xena looked across the crowded square. The spectators consisted of commoners and royalty alike. Their expectant hush was broken by the Conqueror’s personal banner snapping in the warm breeze. She could see the large group of Amazons to her right and wished Gabrielle had agreed to be up on the dais with her. It had been a hard decision but they both knew it was best for everyone if Xena handled the sentencing on her own. Even from here she could see her love’s twinkling green eyes and felt her heart rate increase at the memory of this mornings activities. Solan and Karis joined the little group and the Warrior Princess was slightly confused at Gabrielle’s almost cold reaction to them but didn’t have time to think about it.

Nodding to Palemon, the Conqueror gave the signal and the first group of prisoners were brought before her. It was the custom to present the least serious crimes first. The Conqueror preferred the hardened criminals to see the increasing severity of the punishments while waiting for their turn before her. Her grinning chuckle at the trembling criminals that had been brought before her in the past was abruptly stopped as the Warrior Princess realized the makeup of the first group. ‘They are only children!’ She studied the young faces in horror. ‘Children should not be in the prison.’ The fact that the guards had arrested such young people was appalling to her. The Conqueror disagreed. ‘They are criminals.’ She firmly took command of the situation. “What is their crime?”

Palemon consulted the scroll in his hand quickly and answered loudly enough for all to hear. “These were all caught pickpocketing at the festival.”

“They’ve been in the prison overnight?” The Conqueror’s attention was drawn to the pained expression on Gabrielle’s face as her new head guard answered.

“Yes. Some of them have been there two nights.” Palemon gloated at Iolaus’ poor handling of the children. They should have just been scared and sent on their way, not arrested.

Pursing her lips, the Conqueror stood, barely suppressing a smile as the children all took a step back. “Who is the oldest among you?”

“I am.” A young boy pushed his way forward but a slightly taller girl interrupted.

“No!” She glared at the boy. “I am the oldest.” She stood straighter as the Conqueror approached the little group.

Studying the girl as she approached the Conqueror noticed a slight resemblance, both children had sandy blonde hair cut in a similar style and the same curve to their nose. “He is your brother.”

The young girl’s hair blew in the breeze and she nodded. “My younger brother.”

“I am not younger. Mother said I was born first.” The boy’s protest stopped at his sister’s glare.

The Warrior Princess’ heart constricted at the sight of the twins standing up for each other. A voice floated through her head. ‘Just like Lyceus and me.’ The Conqueror snorted. ‘You weren’t criminals. You were just mischievous.’ The children’s bickering was silenced by the Conqueror’s raised voice. “ENOUGH!” Her cold blue eyes raked across the trembling group. “How many of you want to go back to the prison?” She watched as their eyes grew wide and they all shook their heads negative. Grinning at their reaction, she nodded. “You’re smart and it seems you’re also lucky.” Glancing at Gabrielle, the Conqueror drawled. “I happen to be in a very good mood right now.” Gesturing for the guards to unlock the children’s shackles, she turned to walk back to her seat. “You are free to go, but don’t ever let me see you appear before me again.” Chuckling at their agreement and quick disappearance into the crowd, Xena settled herself back in her seat. She raised an eyebrow at Palemon. “Next?”

Gabrielle smiled at the lenience. She hoped Xena didn’t think this morning was just about putting her in a good mood and thought. ‘But I’ll have to remember how well that particular technique works.’ Still uncomfortable at Karis and Solan’s appearance, Gabrielle signaled the head guard to approach her.

“Yes, my Queen?” Karis was carefully formal. She didn’t know exactly how angry Gabrielle was yet and didn’t want to make things worse.

“Track those children and find out WHY they were stealing.” Gabrielle wasn’t convinced they were all pranksters, nor did any of them look hungry, not hungry enough to steal anyway. She grabbed Karis’ hand as the young woman started to gesture to Solari. “See to it personally.” Glinting green eyes challenged the guard to deny her request and added. “I want to talk to the twins too.”

‘Personally!’ Karis’ heart fell. ‘That will take all day!’ The look in her Queen’s eyes told her this was part of her punishment. Gabrielle wanted her separated from Solan all day. Sighing to herself Karis adjusted her headband and nodded. “Yes, my Queen.” With a ‘you’re in command’ signal to Solari and a ‘see you later’ signal to Solan, Karis’ keen eyes picked one of the children from the crowd and headed toward him. She saw the disapproval in Gabrielle’s face when she signaled ‘later’ to Solan and suppressed a pang of hurt. Gabrielle’s friendship meant a lot to her and she wished they didn’t have to be at odds over Solan, after all they both loved him.

Squaring her shoulders Karis put her personal problems aside, the Queen had given her an assignment and she intended on doing it. ‘As quickly as I can.’ She thought and moved quickly through the crowd, amused that they seemed to move aside for her. When she caught up with the still shaking boy, she took a moment to soothe his nerves before she asked him where the others would be. She was surprised when the boy offered to help her find his partners in crime. ‘This might not take as long as I thought.’ She thought and they were about to go when Xena greeted Iolaus. She held on to the boys shoulder and knowing her mission had been shortened by the child’s cooperation, turned to watch the sentencing. She wanted to know what Xena had in mind for the resistance members.

Gabrielle informing Solan and Solari of Karis’ new assignment left her barely enough time to notice the next few group judgments but she paid enough attention to know the sentences were extremely light. Her explanation to Solan and Solari where Karis had gone was nearly finished when the tone in the Conqueror’s voice captured the Amazons attention quickly. “Bring her out.” There was no doubt Xena was referring to Callisto and Gabrielle was surprised. No one had ever been released from The Chair once they were put there, not until they were dead. The collective gasp of the crowd as the resistance leader was brought forward momentarily deprived her of breath as well. The Chair’s legend remained intact as four guards carried it and it’s occupant out to face the Conqueror.

The Warrior Princess barely remained aware of her surroundings as the Conqueror’s rage consumed her. The morning’s good mood was instantly gone and now there was menace behind the once impassive expression on Xena’s face. Knowing she had to stay focused on the task at hand, the Conqueror tore her eyes away from the object of her anger and with a gesture to the guards, ordered the rest of the resistance members brought forward. She was momentarily surprised at the large number in the group. ‘Karis was busy last night.’ She found the guard’s face in the crowd and nodded approval of the round up, narrowing her eyes at the Amazon’s surprised reaction. For some reason she had assumed the resistance was smaller than that and held no illusions that for every one they had captured two or three had escaped. “Well Callisto it seems you have collected quite a following.” Raking her blue eyes across the group, her icy gaze came to rest on the curly blonde locks of her former head guard. “Hello Iolaus.” She grinned at the black look he shot at her. “What’s the matter? Prison guard’s not treating you right?”

“There aren’t enough guards.” Iolaus felt nauseous. The small number of guards assigned to the prison had been his idea. It left the large cell used for the main prison population, for the most part, unsupervised. The prisoners were able to do basically whatever they wanted to each other without much problem. If the prisoners killed each other it just meant less work for the guards and if the inmates showed a bit too much affection for each other, that was overlooked too.

“So your fellow prisoners gave you a warm welcome huh?” Blue eyes twinkled at his uncomfortable shifting feet. “I’ll bet they did, cute guy like you.” Grinning at his shudder, the Conqueror could read his body language easily. He was ready to die, he wanted death rather than the continued abuse of the long term prisoners. “I guess you can return the favor for them in the years ahead.” Smiling at his widening eyes, she gestured for the guards to take him back to the prison. “Take a good look around Iolaus. You won’t see this side of the prison wall again.”

“No! You can’t do this.” He struggled against the guards grip. “I hate you….. I will kill you.” He was frantic now. Life in the prison was no life at all. Threatening Xena was a good way to get killed and he knew the quick death of the executioner’s axe was preferable to the affections of the inmates. He knew a life sentence would not be reconsidered. As soon as he was back inside, meager food and poor health care would be the only pleasant things that would possibly shorten the sentence. He wanted Xena to just kill him now. He breathed a sigh of relief as the Conqueror held up her hand and the guards stopped dragging him away.

She answered his first panicked outcry calmly. “I can do anything I want.” Her cold voice carried through the silence her gesture to the guards had caused. “but I admire your honesty. I’m sure you do hate me and would try to kill me if you ever get out.” Glancing at Callisto’s apparent glee at the man’s sentence, she tried not to notice Gabrielle’s effort to hide her emotions and continued. “So for being so honest I will say this now. You will always be fed a decent meal, and if you are ever injured the best healers will tend to you.” With a little sideways smile, she nodded and waved for the guards to continue taking him away, calling after his struggling form in a laughing voice. “Don’t worry, Iolaus. You will live for a long, long time.”

Karis watched with satisfaction as the man was being dragged away. She almost felt sorry for the poor bastard, almost. Keeping her grip firmly on the little thief’s shoulder she glanced at Gabrielle. ‘It must be difficult to see Xena be so ruthless.’ She knew it was kind of disturbing to her so she really couldn’t imagine what it must be like for Gabrielle.

The Amazon Queen stood with her people. None of the commoners in the square could tell the turmoil going on behind the regal expression but most of the Amazons could tell their Queen was upset. Solan moved to stand by her side and silently offered his hand to hold.

She took the offered hand and smiled up at her son. ‘My grown up son.’ She thought and realized it was wrong for her to send Karis away. ‘I’ll have to make it up to her.’ Squeezing the large hand wrapped around hers, Gabrielle shuddered as the Conqueror’s voice cut through the crowds murmurs.

“As for the rest of you.” Her cold blue eyes raked across the shackled group. “I have had several requests from various countries, including Egypt, for sla….workers…” She smiled as the groups eyes widened in surprise. “Of course I can’t send all of you to Egypt. Cleopatra has enough problems as it is without a bunch of rebels but groups of ten or twelve will be chosen and permitted to go.” She watched them nearly unconsciously group themselves into the size imposed. They all wanted to live that was for sure, but stories of the treatment of ‘workers’ Egypt were well known. It would be a hard life, little more than slavery and considerably shortened by any number of things including the whim of the slave boss. Each group hoped they were not chosen to make the journey to Egypt.

Gabrielle too watched as the prisoners banded together into smaller groups. One small group in particular caught her attention and releasing Solan’s hand she stepped forward to speak. “Empress. May I make a request?” All eyes turned toward her unexpected question, including the Conqueror’s own baby blues. Xena’s former harsh growl was replaced with softness as she answered her love.

“You can have anything you want.” She looked into the brilliant green eyes and smiled. “You know that.”

Nodding at that fact, Gabrielle and projected her voice across the square. She indicated the smallest group of rebels. “Then I want the women.”

“They’re yours.” The Conqueror immediately granted the request, of course, but was curious. “May I ask why?”

Bowing slightly at the waist, Gabrielle explained. “The Amazon Nation is currently going through some….. changes.” She glanced at Solan briefly. “There are several tasks to be done that I would rather not waste my warriors on.” The Amazon Queen was sorry that the rebels were just as scared of going to the Amazon Nation as they were of going to Egypt but that couldn’t be helped.

Shrugging indifferently, the Conqueror nodded and watched three Amazon guards lead the captive women away. When they were out of sight she redirected her gaze to the remaining groups. “Who will speak for each of your groups?” One person from each of the five remaining groups stepped forward quickly. ‘Good.’ The Conqueror thought. ‘Now we know who the leaders are.’ The Warrior Princess cautioned. ‘Not all of them.’ Agreeing, the Conqueror responded logically. ‘No, but it’s enough to get my point across.’

Glancing once at the executioner standing at the ready, Xena stood and regarded the five sub-leaders. “Most of my past problems have been like snakes. Cut off the head….” She indicated Callisto. “…. and the body withers and dies.” Sighing and shaking her head, the Conqueror looked gravely at the nervously shifting sub-leaders. “This time however my problem is like a hydra, so I have to cut off all the heads at once.” Signaling the guards, Xena’s judgment fell on the five’s shoulders, driving them all to their knees. Ignoring their pleas for mercy, the Conqueror tried not to think about how disappointed Gabrielle would be at the sentence and confirmed the vague order. “Death.” The rebels watched in horror as their five leaders were dragged toward the executioner’s block.

Without another look at the doomed prisoners, the Conqueror turned to the remaining, now leaderless, captives. She saw Gabrielle flinch each time the axe fell but continued with her sentencing. Knowing they had grouped themselves according to their own friendships and alliances she decided to break them up. “Two people each from the remaining groups….” She nodded as the guards moved to comply with her order and when the new groups were formed she pointed to each on in succession, assigning their destinations. “Egypt, India, Gaul, Britannia.” Avoiding Gabrielle’s gaze, the Conqueror turned to face Callisto. “And what about you? By all rights I should kill you, you threatened my life and the lives of my family. You poisoned every member of royalty present at my wedding feast. You have probably killed more people than I even now about.” The charges were serious. Even without the murder charges, the fact that she even threatened Xena was enough to garner the death penalty. The blonde maniac peered up from her restraints and spoke with a sneer.

“Your offer last night was very tempting…….” Straining her deep brown eyes as far to the side as she could, she saw Gabrielle’s puzzled look and wrinkled her nose. “….. I think I’ll take you up on it.”

One dark eyebrow arched. “You are going to tell me about the Resistance?”

“I like the other deal better.” Callisto laughed at the total stillness in Xena’s frame. “but yes. I talk, I live.” For several candlemarks last night she had craved death, but this morning with the five leaders corpses still oozing blood only a few feet away Callisto had suddenly had a change of heart. If she could just stay alive, it was only a matter of time before she escaped or her people rescued her. Then she could finish her mission and extinguish the pain in her heart. She would see Xena dead one day. “That’s the deal right?”

“That is the deal.” The Conqueror confirmed the arrangement and waited. She was curious to see what Callisto would tell her, smiling to herself because she thought she already knew and because the prisoners compliance made it easier to justify the sentence.

“Okay then I will tell you who helped me poison all the royalty.” Naming the man would fulfill her part of the bargain and punish him for betraying her, the royals weren’t knocked out nearly long enough. And she wanted to see the look on Xena’s face when she realized she would have to keep her end of the deal. She didn’t care if the Roman died or not as long as she stayed alive. With a closed tooth grin that touched her eyes, Callisto called out her accomplices name. “Brutus.”

All the royalty present quickly looked toward the Roman section of the square but they didn’t see the man standing with his people. The Conqueror’s voice cut through the crowd’s murmurs.

“Bring him!” She smiled as Callisto’s grin was wiped from her face. The guards brought the Roman out quickly, his hands shackled behind him, his face bruised and bloodied. Now it was her turn to widen a toothy grin. “You’re a little slow aren’t you?”

“You knew the stew was drugged.” Dawning comprehension passed across Callisto’s face. “That’s why you only ate half of it.” She looked at the warrior in disbelief. “You let your family eat it anyway.” The crowd murmured at Xena’s seeming coldness.

“I thought it would be best if Solan was kept out of the fight.” She shrugged apologetically at her son and glanced at his Mom. “I didn’t think Gabrielle would be out too long.”

“Why not?” She had been curious since she first discovered the herbs didn’t work on the Amazon.

Gabrielle spoke up to explain not to Callisto but to the crowd. Xena’s public image needed to be changed and this was as good a time to start as any. “Xena knew that when I first came to live with the Amazons, I had problems sleeping. The healers gave me that herb to help. Over time it took more and more to be effective until finally they had no effect at all.” That wasn’t exactly true, they did effect her but in the opposite way. The dosage in the stew had kept her jumpy for quite awhile after they returned to the Palace. She smiled as the crowd’s murmurs changed tone from disbelief of Xena’s coldness to grudging admiration of her quick thinking.

Callisto studied the battered form of her accomplice and sneered at Xena. “I kept my end of the bargain. I told you about him. Now you have to keep yours and let me live.”

“I always keep my word.” The Conqueror growled at the implied insult and took a deep breath projecting her voice down off the stage and throughout the square. “The sentence of death for threatening my life is commuted. I hearby sentence Callisto to life imprisonment on Shark Island…..” Smiling at the crowds murmur, she held up her hands to silence them. “But I am not the only one she threatened.” Looking toward the Amazons briefly, the Conqueror continued to dole out Callisto’s punishment. “The unusual nature of her crime calls for a break in my usual punishment.” Looking directly at Callisto’s now utterly still form, the Conqueror’s harsh voice filled the courtyard. “No one has ever been released from The Chair once they are put in it……. until now.” She thought the collective gasp of the crowd did as much to make the festival banners wave as the slight breeze did. Gesturing to the guards she watched as the prisoner was unshackled and continued her speech during the process. “…….You will not begin your stay on Shark Island until you have served your punishment for your crimes against the Amazons.” The Warrior Princess saw Gabrielle’s aborted attempt to stop the sentencing and heard the Conqueror’s angry voice say the words she had said a thousand times before. “Put her on the cross.”

Gabrielle knew that despite her instinct to stop another person from being hurt, her warriors needed the prisoner to be punished. The wave of murmurs she heard from the warriors behind her confirmed that thought. She had already seen the signs of true anger in Solari and sighed. She knew enough stories of Xena’s sentencing to know what was coming next. With deep regret, she simply watched the woman being tied to the cross and waited.

When the blonde resistance leader was secured on the crossed wood, Xena looked toward the Amazon section. It was fortuitous that Karis was gone and she called for the second in command. “Solari.”

Glancing at Gabrielle for permission, Solari quickly moved to stand in front of Xena. “Yes, Empress?”

“You are the highest ranking Amazon guard presently off duty?” The Conqueror knew she was because only an assignment would take Karis away from Gabrielle’s side today of all days.

“Yes Empress.” The archer stood proudly in front of the stage.

“Then you should carry out the final part of Callisto’s punishment, for her crimes against the Amazon guards.” The Conqueror was glad to be able to repay the guard for choking her last night in the dungeon and growled. “Break her legs.”

Callisto’s screams filled the courtyard as Solari swung the sledgehammer with extreme force and accuracy. The Warrior Princess was shocked but the Conqueror only chuckled. ‘It’s not like she is going to need her legs again anyway.’ In a week when the next ship left for Shark Island the woman would be back in The Chair and shipped out. It would make the transport to the prison island much safer for the ships crew, and her stay at the prison much easier for the guards there too. For the rest of the day today though, the former resistance leader would hang on display in the square.

Jumping off the platform Xena took a moment to straighten her robe before moving toward the last captive. “Brutus.” She circled the shackled man and reached up to wipe a bright red smear off his cheek with her fingertip. Licking her finger and ignoring the noises of disgust that pulled from the crowd, she brought one eyebrow up to meet her hairline. “Strawberry?”

Bringing his hands out from behind his back, Brutus dropped the shackles and rubbed his wrists. With an impudent grin he wiped the rest of it off and tasted the mixture. “Yeah, it was the best I could do on short notice.” When Xena had come to see him in his cell last night he had thought she was going to kill him. Even though it was the truth he knew he was lucky to convince her of his story. From the time the resistance leader approached him for help and the wedding feast there had been no opportunity to inform the Empress of the plot. He had been surprised to be arrested but glad to be put in a small cell of his own.

Gabrielle moved to stand next to Xena. “You did a wonderful job.” She reached out to shake his hand. “Thank you.” The man had risked his life to help them and she would be grateful to him forever. Xena had told her of Brutus’ duplicity and knew if Callisto had succeeded he would have been killed. The herbs he was to give the royalty were supposed to keep them out for much longer.

Smiling at the small woman he gently grasped the Amazon’s hand and kissed her knuckles gallantly. “I meant what I said in the toast. I wish you all the happiness in the world.” Unlike some leaders Brutus actually liked Xena. When she killed Caesar so long ago, she had done him a huge favor. He had been there when Xena proposed to the Amazon Queen and knew big changes were in store for the world. He wanted to be in on the ground floor when they happened.

Squinting up at the sun, Xena put her hand on Gabrielle’s back and smiled when the woman didn’t pull away. “It’s nearly lunchtime.” She rubbed her hand tentatively up and down the Amazon’s nearly bare back. “You hungry?”

Glancing toward the executioner’s block, Gabrielle winced. “Not really.” She felt the hand fall away from her back and before she knew it the Amazon was wrapping her arm around the silk clad waist. “I think a short ride would stimulate my appetite.” She had been horrified by the sentencing of the five, and couldn’t look at Callisto suspended from the cross. She truly couldn’t fault Xena though, she had asked the warrior to consider the consequences and basically made her wishes for the death penalty to be commuted known. ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ She thought. Her favorite saying suddenly took on new meaning.

The Conqueror smiled with relief at the Amazon’s warm arm around her waist and circled the woman’s small shoulders. “I think that can be arranged.” She looked into the loving green eyes for a moment before turning back to Brutus. “Thank you again for your help.”

“Yes.” Gabrielle tore her eyes away from Xena’s regal profile and smiled at the man. “We hope to see you at the ceremony tomorrow evening.”

Tilting his head to acknowledge the offer, he adjusted his leather armor and smiled. “I wouldn’t miss it.” He walked away with a smile. Gabrielle radiated such goodness that there was no way it wouldn’t soften the Conqueror and he knew in fact it already had. Without Gabrielle in her life, Brutus knew the Conqueror would have killed all the resistance members without hesitation.

“Do you want to change before we go for a ride?” The regal flame pattern robe was perfect for passing judgment’s on criminals but Gabrielle didn’t think it was the best choice of outfits for riding.

“Yeah.” Xena looked down at the long wide sleeves. “I’ll change and meet you at the stable okay?”

Smiling, Gabrielle nodded. “Sounds good.” She reached up and patted the warrior’s tan cheek. “I’ll be waiting.”

Capturing the small hand in her own, Xena kissed the palm and smiled. “THAT sounds good.” Falling into the sea of green, the Conqueror gently stroked the Amazon’s hair and leaned down for a quick kiss, surprised when Gabrielle pulled back.

“Xena we are in public here.” Gentle displays of affection would go a long way in changing the Conqueror’s image in her people’s eyes but Gabrielle wasn’t sure if Xena was ready for that change to start yet.

“So?” The Empress shrugged. “Let them be jealous.” She grinned at her love’s rolling eyes and kissed her cheek instead of capturing the perfect red lips as she had started to. “I won’t be long.”

Smiling at the slight tingle on her cheek where Xena had kissed her, Gabrielle nodded. “Okay.” The Amazon only watched for a moment as her love moved gracefully across the courtyard before she walked toward the stable.

——————————————————————-

Karis waited for the revelation of Brutus’ duplicity before she looked down at the boy in her grasp. “Okay, we can go now.”

“This way.” He guided her through the streets of Corinth then a ways away from the city proper.

The Amazon was appalled when she realized a dilapidated farm house was their destination. “What is this place?”

“It’s an old homestead they say is cursed. Years ago there was a huge sudden fire in the barn. The woman who lived here was killed.” His eyes grew wide. “They say she was pregnant at the time. They say it was a fire ball from the Gods because she had been unfaithful to her husband.” He shrugged. “No one comes here…. so it’s a perfect place for us kids to play.”

Nodding at that, Karis remembered a few hidey holes she and her friends used to have too. ‘I guess all kids are the same.’ She had been upset when Gabrielle gave her this assignment. She had thought it was a punishment for disobeying Xena’s unspoken ‘sleep only’ order, but now she saw it was more than that. Now she too was curious why such seemingly happy children would risk stealing, when they knew the punishment could be severe. Petty theft was usually punished by a broken finger or two, the children had gotten of very easily. Ducking under the overhang on the porch, she followed the boy inside. Surprised that the interior was in halfway decent shape.

Obviously discarded furniture had been brought in and repaired fairly competently. There was a large stack of wood next to a semi-clean fireplace they probably used for cooking. There were several doors off the main room but she didn’t have time to consider them before she felt the rope falling around her. ‘Great.’ She thought. ‘Now I’ve got KIDS capturing me….. perfect.’ Sighing with resignation she thought. ‘Well at least they didn’t drug me.’ It took a short bit of effort but in the space of a few deep breaths the guard calmed herself and waited to see what the children were going to do before she decided what course of action to take in freeing herself.

—————————————————

Gabrielle walked into the empty stable. “Heeellllllooooo?” She didn’t see any movement other than the horses in their stalls and shrugged. Moving to Argo’s stall she smiled. “Hello girl. How are you?” The large animal still made her nervous but she was getting better and this time she had brought a treat. “Easy.” She offered a large juicy apple to the golden mare and patted the long nose. “Good girl.”

“You going riding?” Bennett wasn’t sure if the small woman would be able to handle Argo on her own or even if he should let the Amazon ride Xena’s horse at all.

Smiling at the young stableboy, Gabrielle nodded. “Xena will be here in a little bit.” She pointed to the saddle that rested on top of the railing. “Would you saddle Argo please?”

“Yes Ma’am.” He began to perform his duties quickly, hoping to be finished before Xena arrived. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to see the warrior yet. The revelation that it had been her army who raided the village, that killed his mom, it was just too much for him to handle at the moment.

Gabrielle watched the boy go about his job quietly and efficiently but his actions betrayed him. “I know you are upset about Xena…..” She smiled as he looked up sharply.

“How do you know that?” Bennett reached for Argo’s favorite brush and began to smooth out the hair on her mane.

“You were friends… and then you found out something that she did in her past…. something that hurt you.” Gabrielle moved closer to the boy and held his chin in her fingers. “Anyone would be upset when that happens.”

“She killed my mother.” The stableboy was torn. He didn’t really remember his birth mother. He couldn’t imagine that she would have loved him more than his mother now did.

“No!” Gabrielle shook her head sadly. “Her army acted against her orders. The man responsible was beaten for it and later she killed him.” Darfus had almost taken over the army during that time. She recalled the journal entries clearly and thought Bennett should know everything. “She would have kept you if she could have.”

He was glad the brush he was using had a strap that fit over his hand or he would have dropped it. “What?”

“Solan had been taken from her.” Gabrielle knew Solan had confided in the boy about his birth mother. “She seriously thought about keeping you but she knew if you were associated with her then your life would be in danger.” Taking the brush from Bennett’s hand, she replaced it on its hook and smiled at his speechlessness. “She cares about you very much.”

“Why didn’t she tell me?” The boy’s plaintive question echoed through the barn and he flopped down on a bale of hay.

“She was scared.” Sitting next to him, Gabrielle put her arm around him and shook his shoulders gently. “She didn’t want to lose your friendship.”

Argo snorted and tossed her head. Lowering her huge nose, the horse nudged the seated boy.

“Cut it out Argo!” He pushed the animal away.

“Don’t push her away.” Gabrielle patted the horses neck and smoothed the boy’s hair out of his eyes.

“Why not?” Plucking at the strands of hay he was seated on he hung his head. The answer to his question snapped it up again.

“Because she cares about you.” Xena stood in the door of Argo’s stall. “She just doesn’t want to see you upset.”

Gabrielle and Bennett were both startled by Xena’s sudden appearance but Gabrielle found her wit’s faster. “Xena. Can I talk to you?” She grabbed the warrior’s arm and dragged her out of the stall before she heard the obvious answer.

“Of course.” Xena looked curiously at the Amazon. “What’s wrong?”

“You need to talk to Bennett.” Gabrielle bit her lip. All this talk about things that happened in the past had gotten her to thinking about the journal. She broached the subject. “And I have some reading to do.” Sighing into loving blue eyes she spelled it out. “I’m to the page in the journal that you marked.” Swallowing hard as the look in Xena’s eyes shifted to ice she asked. “Is it okay for me to continue? Do you want to be there?” Those were the questions Xena had not been sure about the other night.

The Conqueror didn’t want to be there. She didn’t think she could handle the slow hatred she was sure she would see. The Warrior Princess wanted to be there, to try and explain their actions but they all agree on one thing. Looking everywhere but at the Amazon, Xena answered. “Yes you can read it.”

Narrowing her eyes at the permission, Gabrielle reached up and firmly held her love’s head in place. Sounds of the stable faded away and she never took her eyes off Xena. “That’s a yes from the Warrior Princess, but I won’t read it until I get a yes from the Conqueror as well.”

“It’s okay, you can read it.” The Conqueror was glad she had asked instead of just taking the Warrior Princess word for it.

“Do you want to be there?” Gabrielle watched the Warrior Princess shake her head.

“I do.. but she doesn’t.” Sighing at the problems that caused they reached a compromise quickly. “I’ll talk to Bennett and come back to the room in a little bit.” Now it was her turn to cup the small head in her hands. “Promise you will wait until we get back. Promise you will talk to us before ….” The Warrior Princess couldn’t say it and the Conqueror finished the thought in their head. ‘before she leaves us.’

“I promise.” Gabrielle drew the dark head down and was struck by the infinite tenderness in the kiss she received. It tore at her heart because she felt as though Xena were saying goodbye. Smiling at the sad warrior, the Amazon patted her cheek and tried to reassure her. “I love you, Xena.” Puzzled when the sentiment wasn’t returned, Gabrielle walked out of the stable.

Breathing deeply, the Warrior Princess turned to the still silent Bennett. “You probably hate me now.”

Shaking his head, Bennett merged the stories his mother had told him with the incredible statements Gabrielle had made. “Mother says the woman who saved me risked her life for me.”

“My men acted against my orders.” She thought about that time and shuddered. “My second was trying to take over the army and because I saved you he made me run the Gauntlet.”

The boy’s eyes widened. He had heard of the Gauntlet, but he had never heard a story of anyone surviving. “You were beat up because of me?”

There were still nights she relived the run through the double line of men and she usually woke up feeling as though it had happened again but she smiled at the stable boy and replied. “You were worth it.”

“Are you still going for a ride?” He knew Xena was supposed to meet Gabrielle later but didn’t know how long she would wait before returning to their room.

The Warrior Princess wanted to go back and be with Gabrielle now but nodded. “Since you have her all saddled and everything, sure.” She led the golden mare out of the stall and leapt into the saddle. Smiling down on the boy, she held out her hand. “You wanna ride?” Seeing his hesitation, she coaxed. “It won’t take long.”

“Well if you wouldn’t mind.” He accepted the hand up and settled in front of his friend. “Mom is in the nursery pasture. I think I might need to talk to her.”

“I don’t mind at all.” She ducked under the doorway of the barn and urged Argo faster as they hit the open road.

—————————————————-

Gabrielle reached their room before she realized it. She almost ordered something to drink when she saw the pitchers on the table. She turned to the guard at the door. “Who brought those drinks?”

“Mirriam….m…my Queen.” The girl was a bit nervous talking to the Queen. She was normally on duty when Gabrielle was asleep and didn’t usually get to speak with their ruler.

Gracing the young guard with a brilliant smile, Gabrielle reassured the guard. “You’re Kayden aren’t you?” Nodding at the girl’s affirmative gesture, the Queen pointed her finger at the guard. “I’m told to expect great things from you.” Her green eyes twinkled at the slight blush her compliment caused.

“Thank you, my Queen.” Kayden had no idea that the Queen even knew she was alive much less was expecting great things from her.

“You’re welcome.” Gabrielle closed the door slowly and poured herself a drink. Sipping the juice she looked at the desk and sighed. “I guess I should get this overwith.” Leaving her drink on the table, Gabrielle retrieved the book from the desk and opened it to the marked page. She couldn’t believe anything could be as bad as Xena was making it out to be and put a smile on her face. The first words wiped her smile away.

We were preparing to take on the Amazons when Alti appeared………….

“Gods……Alti.” Gabrielle gasped and read the entries quickly her concern growing with each word. By the time she reached the section regarding the funeral pyre and the killing of the Amazon leaders she was crying. “Oh Xena, why didn’t you tell me.”

Part 9

Even though he was still dubious about his feelings toward the woman, Bennett was thrilled when Xena had asked him to ride with her. The ground blurred by and he grinned up at the woman behind him. “This is GREAT!”

Smiling blue eyes looked down at the boy and the Warrior Princess wished she had been able to ride like this with Solan. The memory of their father scooping them up and riding like the wind across the field was supplied and she smiled. With her arm securely around the boy, she urged the war horse faster, partially to hear him giggle and partially to get the ride over. The Conqueror didn’t want to be there when Gabrielle read the entries, but she did want to get back to Gabrielle before the Amazon acted on the journal. She sighed when the nursery pasture came into view and slowed Argo down to a walk. Shaking the arm she had wrapped around Bennett’s waist and with the other hand pointed across the field. “There’s your Mom.”

He followed her finger and smiled at his mom’s waving form. “Yeah.” He still wasn’t sure how he felt about the circumstances of his adoption but he knew three things for certain that his Mom loved him, he loved his Mom and that Xena was his friend. He looked up at her. “I’ll have to tell her about the kidnapping and everything.”

“No you won’t.” The Warrior Princess smiled at her friend. “Look.”

The boy looked back toward his mother and saw someone rising to stand next to her. By the time he recognized the person they were within earshot. “Dad?!”

“Hello son.” He grinned up at his son and nodded to the woman behind him. “Hello, Empress.”

Nodding her head she kept her expression carefully neutral. “Spiros.” Pulling Argo to a halt she grinned as Bennett jumped down and she dismounted as well. “Busy night.”

Noticing the slight blush on the shepherdess’ face. The Warrior Princess realized that the night was busier than she thought. She didn’t have time to comment on that though as Bennett questioned his parents.

“What are you doing here?” The boy didn’t dare hope that he would ever have the thing he truly wanted most, a real family.

“Just having some lunch with your Mom.” Sprios ruffled his son’s hair and grinned.

“There is plenty left.” The embarrassed woman indicated the now obvious picnic for two laid out a few feet away. “You are welcome to join us.” She was sure Xena would be used to much fancier dining and wasn’t surprised when the warrior turned down the offer but she was a little surprised at why. Bennett’s knowing nod told her that she had been isolated from current events too long and she almost glared at Spiros for not telling her that the Empress was involved with someone.

“Thank you, but I really shouldn’t.” The Warrior Princess spoke with all the confidence she had. “I will eat with Gabrielle when I get back to the Palace.” The Conqueror scoffed at that remark. ‘Right! Like she will want to eat with us.’ When the Warrior Princess remained silent, the angry Conqueror continued. ‘She may not even be there when we get back.’ That drew a comment from her lighter side. ‘Yes she will. She promised.’

———————————————————

Karis allowed the children to think they had her securely and waited. It didn’t take long before the twin leaders appeared. The girl who couldn’t have been more than fourteen or fifteen summers old was most definitely in charge, no matter how much her brother had argued the contrary. The Amazon mock struggled against her bonds, noticing that everyone flinched back except the girl. “My Queen sent me to find you.”

“Why?” The boy glared at their prisoner.

Turning her deep brown eyes on the child it struck her that he was probably only a year or so younger than Solan. ‘But not nearly as mature.’ Karis reminded herself of the hard life Solan had experienced and the training he had received. ‘War ages people quickly.’ She thought and knew that these children had most likely seen the judgment day deaths but were totally naive when it came to war. ‘That is how it should be. Children shouldn’t know about death on such a large scale.’ The boy’s clear voice brought her out of her thoughts.

“WHY?!” He was scared now and her silence wasn’t helping. He moved closer to the bound woman and raised his hand to strike her across the face. “Answer me!”

Moving quickly, the young girl grabbed her brother’s upraised hand. “Stop it Michael!” She looked at Karis and apologized. “Sorry. My brother gets over excited sometimes.” Letting the boy’s wrist go, she never took her eyes off the Amazon. “Why does the Amazon Queen want to talk to us?”

“She wants to know why you risk the punishment for stealing when you don’t have to.” Karis narrowed her eyes at the reaction that statement drew from all the children in the room. The embarrassed shuffling of the children put a gentler tone in her voice. “You know you were very lucky to get off so lightly.” She saw them all flexing their hands and raised her eyebrows at their nods of acceptance. “Then why do you do it?”

The twins looked at each other for a long moment and then the boy shook his head. “Go ahead and tell her if you want, Megan.” He shot a look at the boy who had led the Amazon here and swept his gaze across the other males in the room. He was confident their prisoner’s ropes would hold and gestured to his companions. “Com’on guys, let’s go check the traps and the nets. We might actually get something to eat today.” Game had been scarce lately and their usual two meals a day had been cut down to one, if they were lucky.

Karis watched the boys leave and turned her gaze to the remaining leader, Megan. She was surprised when a younger girl, probably seven or eight years old, tugged on the leaders sleeve. “Do you want us to start a fire Mama?”

Megan reached down and brushed light brown hair out of the girl’s trusting eyes. “Not yet honey. Let’s see if Michael catches anything first.” She smiled gently at the girls nod, knowing the child was hungry. “Why don’t you take the little ones outside to play?”

She didn’t feel much like playing but nodded. “Okay Mama.” She held out her hand for one of the toddlers and sighed as three more slightly younger children ran out the door ahead of her.

Forgetting about the ropes around her, Karis raised a eyebrow at the indulgent smile on Megan’s face. “Why does she call you Mama?” It was obvious the girl wasn’t old enough to have a child that age.

“Because I’m the closest thing to a mother she has ever had.” She ran her fingers through her hair and sighed as she sat on one of the mended chairs. “Most of us are orphans.” She smiled as a young boy, not old enough to go with the hunters, climbed into her lap. She hugged the boy and regarded the tied Amazon. “Or their parents just don’t care.”

“You live here?” Karis breathless question was answered by Megan’s sandy blonde head bobbing once. “And you take care of all these children?” Megan again nodded acknowledgment. “So why would you risk prison or worse to steal?” She almost regretted the question when the girl’s expression turned pained.

“I didn’t think we would both get caught.” Sandy blonde hair shook at the memory and the desperate hours in the prison she had spent hoping the children were all okay. “Michael was supposed to stay with the children.”

Karis nodded. Amazon training didn’t exactly brim over with trust for men. She had given Solan the benefit of the doubt only to find him lying about the sword training. That had been a bitter taste to swallow. She wondered if Megan would be able to trust her brother for a while. “Listen do you mind if I get out of these ropes, now that the guys are gone?”

Shaking her head at that request, Megan gestured for two of the older girls to untie the prisoner. She was slightly taken back when the ropes fell away from the Amazon before the girls reached her.

“Thanks.” Karis ignored the gasping children as she stepped out of the pile of rope at her feet. “That was beginning to itch.” It had been a strain to keep the ropes around her once she had the knots loosened. She knew that dropping them while the guys were still here or before she was given permission would have been disastrous. The children would have tried to protect their leader and Karis didn’t want to hurt any of them. She indicated a chair not to far away from Megan’s. “May I?”

The young blonde smiled and nodded. “Of course.” She whispered to the boy on her lap and smiled as he nodded and hopped down. Megan kept her attention on the Amazon across from her. “Why do you care about us stealing?”

Karis settled into the seat and traced the edge of the small table with her finger. “My Queen wanted to know.” She shrugged and looked up. “And now that I’ve met you I’d like to hear the story.”

“Who are you?” Megan knew the extreme measures they had gone toin order to keep their existence from Xena’s attention were about to become meaningless. She also knew if the Conqueror learned that most of them were orphans they would be split up, awarded to people as trophies or worse sent to state approved orphanages. The thought of those places made her shudder and she almost missed Karis’ response.

“I’m the head of the Royal Guard.” Surreptitiously looking around the place again, she had to admit for a bunch of kids they really hadn’t done too badly.

A young girl who didn’t understand the title but caught the word ‘royal’, tentatively spoke up. “Are you a princess?” The woman looked like a princess to her.

“Hush Amber.” Megan chided the girl. “You and your fairy tale stories.”

“But Mama, what if she’s our fairy Godsmother in disguise?” The child stubbornly refused to give up on her fantasy. The older girl’s response was cut off by Karis’ chuckle.

“Actually Amber.” She smiled at the little pudgy cheeked girl. “I was a princess a long time ago.”

“Really?” The child lost her fear of the Amazon and moved to lean against her bare thigh. “Why aren’t you a princess now?”

Looking down into the fascinated brown eyes Karis swallowed the lump in her throat. “Because I’m an orphan too.” She brushed the little girl’s wavy light brown hair with her fingertips and tucked a lock of it behind the girl’s small ear. The Amazon wasn’t sure who was more surprised when the child climbed into her lap, her or Megan but the girl settled quickly and was obviously waiting for a story.

She smiled and accepted a tumbler of water from the small boy and watched him climb back into Megan’s lap before she sipped the drink. With a deep breath that was almost a sigh, Karis recalled when all the trouble started and began. “When I was a little girl, younger than you even, I lived with a tribe of Amazons in the East.” She smiled down at the girl in her arms. “My mother’s sister was Queen of my tribe.” She grinned at the other children who had quickly found seats. The memories came easier to her than she thought and she knew most of the stories were ones her mother had told her. Karis barely remembered her favorite aunt but still felt the tug at her heart when she started her story and spoke her name for the first time in years. “Her name was Cyane and she was a great leader……….”

—————————————————–

Xena walked down the hall with dread. The pounding of her heart echoed in her ears and she swallowed hard as she reached the door. Debating the idea of opening it was out of the question, she had to go in. Pushing the door open quietly, she steeled herself for Gabrielle’s reaction. Her pounding heart stopped as she saw the bed empty, save the open journal laying discarded in the center of it. Crossing quickly to the deserted bed, she looked at the open book in despair. Obvious tearstains streaked the page. ‘Gabrielle I’m so sorry.’ The Conqueror wanted to find a dark place to hide.

There had been a time, once, that she would have given anything for the Amazon Queen to be out of the way. Now it killed her to know that the woman was hurt by something she did. ‘We did.’ The Warrior Princess corrected her dark sister grimly. ‘We didn’t have to let you.’ Shaking her head, the Conqueror could feel tears welling in their eyes. ‘You couldn’t have stopped me. Not then.’ They looked around the room thinking about how empty if felt without Gabrielle here and a wave of dispair overtook her, followed quickly by anger. ‘I told you she wouldn’t be here!’ The Conqueror’s wail echoed through their head. The Warrior Princess’ unwavering faith prompted her calm response. ‘She will be back.’ She was certain there was a logical explanation for Gabrielle’s absence. ‘BACK?!’ The Conqueror grabbed the journal off the bed and waved it in the air. ‘After reading this!?’ She flung the offending book across the room, nailing a large vase sending the pieces crashing to the floor.

Gabrielle splashed some cool water on her face and looked into the mirror as she dried her tear reddened eyes. She heard a loud crash from the main room and thought. ‘What in the world….?’ The Queen moved quickly to brace herself on the frame of the washroom doorway and look into the main room. Seeing the shattered vase, the Amazon looked at Xena’s amazed face. “Are you okay?”

Belatedly remembering to breathe, Xena felt her knees giving out. She was grateful that the bed was there to catch her as she collapsed onto the edge of the mattress simply staring at what she was sure was some sort of dream. It didn’t help matters when the vision moved closer and searched her face intently.

“Xena?” Gabrielle reached out to hold the large head in her hands. “Xena, sweetheart, talk to me. Are you okay?”

“Are you real?” The Conqueror’s small voice broke through the blockage in her throat. A tentative hand reached up to stroke the tan cheek. “Am I dreaming?”

A puzzled look crossed Gabrielle’s face. “Of course I’m real.” She took a moment longer to figure out what the woman was talking about. The realization made her suck in her breath. “You thought I would leave you after I read the journal.”

Hanging her head the Conqueror, swallowed hard. “I wouldn’t blame you if you hated me…..”

“Honey I could never hate you.” Strong fingers tilted the sorrow filled head up. “I love you.” She searched the disbelieving blue eyes and smiled. “Don’t you know that?”

“You aren’t angry at all?” The Conqueror didn’t think she would ever figure out the small woman but her heart sank at the response.

“Oh yes, I am angry.” She sighed in exasperation. “You should have told me that Alti was the evil person you spoke of.”

“What difference does that make?” The Warrior Princess was confused. Gabrielle seemed more upset that they were upset than that they had killed the Amazon leaders.

“Alti was an Amazon. She was banished from the Nation when her dark rituals crossed the line.” Gabrielle raked her fingers through her hair. “Her crimes warranted total expulsion, all the tribes were alerted to her status.” A slight shudder rippled through her frame as she recalled reading the scroll regarding the shamaness and her practices. “I can’t blame you for falling under her spell.” There was one person she could think of that they might have some problems with though. Sighing at that eventuality, Gabrielle sat next to the warrior and rested her head on the broad shoulder. “If you had told me sooner that it was Alti you wouldn’t have had to worry so much.” She unconsciously stressed the ‘you’ in that statement and flinched when Xena picked up on it.

“Waddaya mean ‘I’ wouldn’t have had to worry?” Worried blue eyes searched her loves face intently. “What are you worried about?”

Snuggling closer to the warrior, Gabrielle spoke quietly. “It’s Alti. I can’t forget the scrolls about her.” She looked up at the woman holding her and whispered. “I think I know why she wanted the leaders dead.”

“She hated them.” The Conqueror was confused at Gabrielle’s concern. “She wanted them all dead.”

Gabrielle distanced herself slightly from the dark warrior. “Did Alti take anything from them? A lock of hair….fingernail clippings…anything like that?” She held her breath for the answer.

The Conqueror’s stomach turned as she thought back to that time. “No, not that I can think of.” The Warrior Princess knew better. “Yes there was.” She ran her fingers through her jet black hair and swallowed hard. “She took their blood.”

Gabrielle’s gasp cut through the awkward silence that filled the room. “Their blood!?” She could feel her own blood draining from her face. “Gods!” She stood quickly, her fingers wiggling as she remembered lines of text from a scroll she had read long ago. “I have to go.” The young Queen was nearly frantic.

“Whoa!” Xena was by her side in an instant. “Go where?” The Amazon was mumbling to herself and Xena shook her shoulders to get her attention. “GO WHERE!?”

With a deep breath, Gabrielle sat on the edge of one of the big comfy chairs. “Alti claimed she could capture people’s souls and use their power for her own purposes.” She rested her elbows on her knees and tangled her fingers in her hair. “The souls in her power were caught in the Land of the Dead……..unable to cross into eternity.”

“I’ve been there.” The Conqueror knelt at Gabrielle’s feet. “It’s very hard to get to.” She felt dirty just thinking about the process but she knew Gabrielle had to make sure that no Amazons were trapped in the Land of the Dead. “I…..I’ll take you if you want……if you need to go……”

Shaking her head, Gabrielle tried to smile at her love’s offer to help. “It won’t be that hard if I have help.” She leaned forward and brushing aside dark bangs, kissed the woman’s forehead. The Amazon heaved herself forward and stood, she knew what she had to do and hoped Xena would understand. “I have to go to the Temple.” The warrior’s dark head shaking brought a protest to her lips and then she felt the words die on her tongue as Xena spoke.

“WE have to go.” Standing slowly, the Warrior Princess stretched out her hand toward Gabrielle.

She looked at the outstretched hand. This was more than an offer of support or comfort. Xena wanted to go with her. ‘By the Gods…..’ Gabrielle swallowed hard at the dangerous journey she was about to take. ‘Do I have the right to risk both of us?’ Unwilling to accept the hand just now, the Amazon Queen looked into her lover’s eyes. “What about Solan?” She saw the blue eyes waver and continued. “What about the world?”

The Warrior Princess thought about their son for a moment and knew if this didn’t work out, she would regret not seeing him mature into the man she knew he would become. Gabrielle’s next question solidified her resolve and she answered both questions for all of them. “Solan can take care of himself.” A quizzical smile tilted her head slightly. “And YOU, ARE our world.” Her brow furrowed as she shook her head. “Don’t you know that by now?”

Almost of it’s own accord Gabrielle’s small hand found it’s way into the warrior’s larger weapon’s callused grip. She always marveled at the warmth of Xena and she could feel that heat penetrating the ice her fingers had become. “Why is it you are so warm all the time?”

The Amazon’s touch released a tension she didn’t know she had and Xena chuckled. Folding the small woman gently in her arms the warrior squeezed slightly. “I think it’s so I can keep you warm when you need me to.” She leaned her cheek against the silky softness of her love’s hair and swayed slightly for a few moments.

“Um… Xena?” Gabrielle mumbled against the warrior’s shoulder. “We should go.” Regretting the necessity of moving, she smiled up at the love of her life. “I don’t know how long this will take and we have a wedding ceremony to attend tomorrow.”

The fact that Gabrielle still wanted to go through with the ceremony made them all feel light as a feather. Twirling the Amazon in their arms, the Warrior Princess rolled her eyes. “Then what are we waiting for?”

Hand in hand with determined strides the Royal couple walked out the door. Neither of them commented when their guards fell in behind them, they simply kept walking toward Artemis’ Temple.

——————————————————–

Solari looked down at the sleeping form and sighed. Sitting next to the injured Amazon’s bed, she gently took the woman’s hand in her own. The order to break Callisto’s legs had been unexpected but she had gladly carried out the command. ‘Almost too gladly.’ She thought. The surge of anger she had felt when she picked up the sledgehammer was so intense it had almost scared her and she had surprised herself with the viciousness of the swing. Now she was ashamed that she had, for a few brief moments, relished the experience. ‘But it didn’t help.’ The truth of that thought was inescapable. ‘Jana is still hurt.’ The warm hand in her own tightened and she looked down into the patient’s deep brown sleepy eyes.

“I heard you broke her legs.” Jana regarded the woman holding her hand seriously. “Do you feel better now?” She tried to move but winced as the splints pulled on her tender legs.

“No.” Solari wished she could take Jana’s pain away. She knew she would do almost anything to ease the woman’s suffering. The archer looked at the prone woman in amazement as a fleeting smile crossed her face, then came back to stay.

“Good.” Jana knew she was smiling and didn’t care. “I don’t think I could love anyone who took pleasure in hurting others.”

Solari was so captivated by the woman’s smile she barely registered the words and when she did her own smile rivaled the sun. “Love?” Sudden wariness gleamed in her eyes. “I thought you …..” The young woman’s crush on Solan had been readily apparent to anyone that took the time to watch her around the boy. It had been heartbreaking to see the guard’s attention so focused on the boy she obviously couldn’t have and it had been heartbreaking to know that Jana wouldn’t be interested in her. Solari had resigned herself to the fact that some Amazons liked men better than women.

Jana saw the hesitant look in Solari’s eye and sighed. “You’ve heard the rumor that I like Solan….” Shaking her head she muttered. “I’m gonna kill Norin.” She sighed and looking up at Solari’s incredulous face, she rolled her eyes. “Don’t tell me that you haven’t noticed how cute he is getting….” With a little sideways grin Jana waggled the index finger of her free hand at her friend. “….I saw the look in a certain archer’s eye when our young prince came busting into our room the other morning.”

Solari blushed slightly at the memory of the half clad young man standing in the doorway. “He is filling out rather nicely…..” A sudden realization stopped her sentence mid-thought and she looked directly at the teasing woman. “You were watching me?”

Now it was Jana’s turn to blush. “Ummm… yeah… I …um… kind of do that… when you aren’t looking.” She flashed a shy smile up at the woman and realized she was now talking to her superior, when her feelings had first made themselves know they had been on basically the same level rank-wise. “I was awfully proud when Karis named you second in command.”

“Yeah?” The thought of Jana being proud of her was enough to put a slow smile on her face, until she realized what a problem that would be. ‘Sweet Artemis, I’m her superior now.’

“Uh huh.” Jana let her hand slip out of the archers and slid her fingertips up the muscled arm. “You looked so surprised.” She reached up and tentatively brushed some of the woman’s brown hair behind her ear and licked her grinning lips. “You blushed all the way up to the tips of your ears.”

Solari focused on Jana’s gentle touch and absently answered the comment. “Did I?”

“Yup.” Tangling her fingers in the archer’s hair, Jana pulled the woman down to her. “And all I wanted to do was run up and hug you.”

“You mean like this?” Solari stretched out next to the stunned woman and slid her arms under the guard’s back. She closed her eyes as she felt the injured woman’s arms surround her shoulders and Jana’s smile against her neck. “I wish you would have.”

“Mmmm…” Jana ignored the splints pulling on her legs and agreed. “Me too.”

Pulling away slightly, Solari rested her forehead against Jana’s. “If you had….. I would have done this.” Trembling slightly, Solari tilted her head and captured the guards lips with her own. Softly at first and then with more solid confidence. She smiled as she pulled away from the breathless woman. “I’ve waited a really long time to do that.”

Jana pulled the archer gently closer and breathed deeply to catch her breath. “You can do that anytime.” She smiled as Solari’s chuckle vibrated against her. She didn’t know how long they stayed in the embrace but the archer moved to resume her sitting position when the sound of running footsteps stopped outside the tent.

Solari was formulating a scathing rant at whoever dared to interrupt them, but the words in her mind died as a breathless Kayden burst into the tent.

“Solari…. you have to come…quickly….. It’s the Queen.” Kayden doubled over and held her side. On horseback the distance between the Amazon’s camp and Corinth was negligible, but the young guard had ran full out the entire way.

Shooting an apologetic look at Jana she gave the injured woman’s hand a quick squeeze and tried to smile. “Duty calls.”

Nodding at the obvious, Jana returned the squeeze and the smile. “Be careful.” She meant ‘Come back to me safely.’ and they both knew it.

Solari leaned down for a quick kiss and answered the spoken and the unspoken comment. “I will.”

—————————————————

Solan went through the drill again. When he had executed the spinning staff move during the fight with Ming T’ien it had felt awkward. He looked around the empty training room a little disappointed that there was no one here watching him perfect the move. Since the rebel roundup the number of guards assigned to him had been cut back to two, both of which were outside the door.

His bare chest heaved slightly at the exertion and he decided he had trained enough for now. Wiping the thin film of sweat from his torso with a soft towel, he put his shirt back on. In a habit formed from long training sessions with Gabrielle, he dropped to a cross-legged position on the floor. The deep breathing exercise rapidly slowed his heart to the normal rhythm. He had just reached a semblance of calm when running footsteps and excited voices outside the door pulled him from the meditation. ‘What in the world…..?’ He rose to see what the commotion was about and gripped the staff tighter as the door was flung open.

“Prince Solan!” Jamie spread out her fingers and held her hands wide open to show she was unarmed and a friend. “Come quickly…… ” She watched the concern in his eyes turn to fear as she continued. “….. it’s your mother.”

——————————————

The royal guards took their places outside the entrance of the Temple. Xena’s order to stay outside was reinforced by the Amazon Queen’s silent gesture. The empty room echoed with the royal couple’s footsteps as they entered. Gabrielle took a deep breath and holding tightly to Xena’s hand walked toward the alter. She ignored the appearance of a priestess at the side door and, releasing the warrior’s hand, knelt before the large alter. The Amazon had been surprised when Xena agreed to ask for Artemis’ help. She knew how the dark warrior felt about the Gods and was even more surprised when Xena knelt next to her. Trying to cover her shock, Gabrielle bowed her head and concentrated on the Goddess she wanted to talk to. After a few deep breaths, she whispered. “Artemis.”

Xena noticed the priestess’ presence and motioned for her to leave, she raised a eyebrow when the silent command was obeyed without question but then she felt the small hand let go of hers. The Warrior Princess studied the kneeling woman for several heartbeats before she too knelt before the alter of Artemis. ‘I DO NOT KNEEL TO THE GODS!’ The Conqueror was outraged and tried to stand, surprised when she couldn’t. ‘This time you do!’ The Warrior Princess clenched her jaw and forced her dark sister to look at Gabrielle. ‘Look at her! Can’t you see how much this means to her?’ The Amazon was kneeling with her head bowed and her eyes closed. She looked so peaceful and still that the Conqueror almost reached out to touch her just to make sure she hadn’t turned into a statue. Then she heard a faint whisper escape her love and their attention was turned toward the blinding flash of light in front of them.

“Gabrielle. What’s wrong?” Artemis was upset that her Chosen had seen fit to call her so formally and the fact that Xena was kneeling next to her was not lost on the hunter Goddess.

Raising her head, Gabrielle tried to smile at the Amazon’s patron Goddess. “I believe the Amazon’s may have a problem…… and I am here to ask your help to solve it.”

Offering her hands to help her Queen rise, Artemis hugged the small woman and smiled. “What is the problem child?”

Accepting the hands and the hug, Gabrielle voiced her concern. “It’s….. Alti.” She didn’t know what kind of reaction to expect from the Goddess when the former Amazon’s name was mentioned but the fleeting look of disappointment that crossed Artemis’ face, replaced quickly by anger, was not it by a long shot. “I think she may have trapped some Amazon’s in the Land of the Dead. I need to make sure that they have passed into Eternity.”

Nodding at the seriousness of the problem, Artemis regarded her Chosen’s determined face. “You want me to send you to the Land of the Dead? Gabrielle do you know how dangerous that is?”

“Yes.” The faint admission barely qualified as a response, then the Queen found her voice. “But they are my people and I have to make sure……” The protest was cut off by Xena’s gruff question.

“How dangerous is it?” Rising from her place at the alter, the Conqueror regarded the Goddess with Gabrielle in her arms. Her voice sounded harsh in the wake of Gabrielle’s hushed tones. The Conqueror didn’t like the Gods but she wasn’t above asking them for information, as long as she didn’t have to beg for it. She also wasn’t above physically stopping any God from doing anything that might endanger Gabrielle and they all felt their muscles tense in preparation of a fight, just in case.

The Goddess studied Xena’s battle ready stance and answered honestly. “It’s very dangerous…. the longer she is there the harder it will be for me to pull her back. That is why I won’t let her go…….” She raised her hand to forestall Gabrielle’s immediate protest. “…. I won’t let her go…..” She glanced at her Chosen then looked directly into Xena’s eyes. “……alone.”

The Conqueror’s ice blue eyes never left the Goddess’ intense gaze as the Warrior Princess reached out, found the Amazon Queen’s arm and pulled her out of Artemis’ grasp to their side. “Then send me too.”

Gabrielle allowed herself to soak in the warrior’s comforting presence for a few heartbeats. She debated with herself again about the ethics of allowing Xena to come with her. The low rumble in the warrior’s chest and the Goddess’ slow nod of acceptance told the Amazon Queen that she really didn’t have much choice in the matter.

“Lay on the altar.” Artemis’ words sent a shiver through both women as the Goddess gestured toward the flat surface.

Gabrielle stretched out on the cold stone and was grateful when Xena’s warm arms surrounded her. “You don’t have to do this.” It was a last desperate attempt to keep the warrior safe, to be sure that Solan didn’t lose both of them. Two warm fingers pressed against her lips stopped her protest.

“Shhhhh…..” Dark hair mixed with honey gold as the Warrior Princess pulled the Amazon close to her. She was barely aware of Artemis waving her hands over them. She watched Gabrielle’s loving green eyes slowly close and as the whirling darkness overtook her she whispered. “I will never leave you.”

————————————————-

Gabrielle opened her eyes on a wind-swept vista of rock and dirt. She was aware of a great sense of sadness all around her but took comfort in the warm arms holding her firmly and a faint light in her mind that connected her to Artemis. She struggled to clear the last of the spinning feeling from her head and whispered quietly. “Is this it?”

The Warrior Princess chuckled. “Yup… this is it.” Standing, she looked around the rocky expanse and brushed the dirt from her hands. She offered an assisting hand to the Amazon and tried to remember what Alti had told them about this place. ‘The gate is in that volcano isn’t it?’ The silence that greeted her internal question was, for a moment, a shock but she knew that she was right. Gesturing to the mountain, she smiled grimly. Even if the souls couldn’t pass through, they would gather at the gate. “We need to go that way.”

The young Queen trusted her companion’s statement and laced her fingers in the warrior’s large hand. “Okay then….let’s go.” As they began walking Gabrielle realized the connection she felt to the Goddess and home became dimmer with every step.

————————————————-

Artemis looked down at the women on her altar and gasped as one pair of eyes opened. “But I sent you……” It wasn’t easy to confuse a Goddess but the Conqueror managed to do it with her quiet statement.

“No, not me. You sent her.” She felt an odd sort of empty as she looked at the temporarily lifeless body in her arms. The Conqueror wasn’t sure how much of the void was created by the ache for Gabrielle’s return and how much was due to the sudden absence of the Warrior Princess.

————————————————-

Solari barely had time to dismount before Solan arrived at the temple steps. “What’s going on? What happened?” His questions caused a lot of shuffling feet and murmured responses from the guards. The evasions caused his already thin reserve of patience to stretch to it’s limit. Calling upon the few but vivid memories of Gabrielle slipping onto Queen mode, the young Prince stood slightly taller and snapped. “Report!”

Solari saw the guards bristle at the standard order being given by a boy and pushing down her own Amazon training, sighed. ‘Sometimes being in charge really doesn’t pay.’ Bowing to the irate boy, Solari spoke quietly. “I don’t know what’s going on yet, my Prince.”

“The Queen ordered us to stay outside.” Ria was upset that this assignment seemed to be going wrong. She had only just been declared fit for duty and couldn’t help the bit of superstitious guilt that seemed to settle in her gut. The last assignment she had been on almost got Solan killed.

“Really?” Solari raised a eyebrow at that news and glancing at Solan shook her head. “Well she didn’t order ME to stay outside.” Matching Solan’s relieved grin with a reassuring smile, the guard gestured to the Prince. “Com’on… Let’s go find out what’s happening.” Her long steps were halted just inside the door as her mind barely understood what it was seeing. She heard Solan’s gasp as she reached behind her and grabbed the first Amazon her hand came into contact with. Rock hard eyes bored into the subordinates wide eyes imprinting the grating commands directly onto the girl’s mind. “Double the guards around the building.” Ria simply nodded as Solari released her grip and continued. “And find Karis.” Nodding again, Ria stood petrified for two heartbeats, until Solari’s command gave her legs the courage to work. “NOW!”

———————————————————–

Karis looked at the children gathered around her seat and smiled as they all murmured at the stories ending. She had barely finished swallowing the last of the drink the young boy had brought her when Amber’s little hand on her cheek drew the guard’s attention to the girl still in her lap.

“I’m sorry you are a orphan too.” Liquid brown eyes looked up at the almost Princess. “You should stay here with us. We can be your family.”

Smiling wider at the touching offer, Karis patted the hand on her face. “Thank you Amber, but the Amazons are my family.” She thought about that and realized that in spite of his previous immature behavior, she felt stronger about Solan than ever. The stories she had been telling the children about Cyane had started her thinking about her aunt and her mother too. She wished that they could meet Solan and as she looked down into Amber’s trusting face, wondered what her children would look like.

Megan cleared her throat and grinned at the children’s sudden attention to her. “Why don’t you all go outside and let Karis and I talk for a bit huh?” She patted the little boy on the butt as he climbed down from her lap. “Do you think you could find anymore of those pretty rocks today?”

His face broke into a beautific smile at the request. “Sure Mama!” The rocks he had found yesterday weren’t half as nice as the ones he had been collecting. He almost had enough for a necklace he wanted to make for their pseudo-mom. It was going to be her birthday soon and they had all been working on surprises for her and Michael.

The women watched as the last of the children filed out of the house and Megan filled the silence.

“Those were good stories.” She rose and gestured to the empty tumbler, raising a eyebrow in question.

Nodding, Karis handed the bamboo container to her. “Thank you. My mother used to tell them to me all the time.” She watched the young woman pour them both another drink. The guard waited until Megan was seated again before she asked her original question, again. “So, why do you steal?”

“It’s been a long winter.” The blonde girl regarded the woman across from her for a long thoughtful moment. This was the moment for decision. Should she lie or tell the truth? Should she trust this Amazon with their biggest secret? Would she even care? “Some of the children were sick this year. The healer was very expensive and he said if we didn’t pay him he would tell the Conqueror where we were and we would be split up.”

“So you were stealing to get the money to pay him?” That almost made sense.

“No. Not really.” Megan took a sip of her water and sighed. ‘Truth is best.’ She thought and spoke slowly to her guest. “Someone else, a friend, paid the healer. We were trying to get enough money to pay him back.”

“You think he would want to be paid back with stolen money?” Karis was doubtful that someone generous enough to help out a bunch of orphans would accept stolen money and she was surprised when Megan laughed.

“Why not? That’s how he got it in the first place.” Megan debated on telling Karis anymore about their benefactor but the Amazon pushed the issue slightly.

“He is a thief?” She had never heard of a thief that would just give up his loot for a bunch of kids.

Shaking her head, Megan settled her blonde hair with a rake of her fingers. “No not just a thief. He is the KING of Thieves.”

Karis gasped. “Autolycus.” She had heard of the legendary thief, the tales of his fearless robberies and clever disguises were unmatched in all of Greece. “You know what he looks like? I mean really looks like?”

“Yes he stays with us sometimes. Everyone around here thinks this place is cursed so none of the adults will come here.” Megan knew what Karis was thinking. There were huge rewards for the man’s capture in almost every kingdom. The children would have more dinars than they ever needed if they turned him in to the guards.

“So he stays with you in the winters and teaches you how to pick pockets?” Karis wasn’t sure a man like that, who steals for a living, could be trusted with children.

“Yeah that…and how to pick locks, undo rope knots, etc…. He also chops wood and hunts with the boys.” Megan had begun to hope that the man would stay with them and give up his thieving ways. They had all been sad to see him go this time, he was the closest thing to a real father most of them had.

“So he is your friend huh?” Karis smiled at the slow nod and winked. “Okay then, I won’t say anything about his being here.” She grinned at the relief on Megan’s face and raised her eyebrows significantly. “That will be up to you when you meet Gabrielle…..the Queen.” She saw the girl’s eyes widen slightly and knew what was coming next.

“You call your Queen by her name?” Megan had never heard of such disrespect from a guard toward their ruler.

“Our Queen doesn’t stand on ceremony. She hates all that formal stuff.” Glancing out the window, Karis saw the sun lower in the sky than she realized. “It is late today and I’m sure Xena and Gabrielle have plans for dinner.” She stood and grinned at Megan’s reaction to the use of Xena’s name. “Do you want to come with me and spend the night in the Palace or do you want me to come back and get you in the morning?”

“Huh?” Megan had forgotten the guard’s original mission.

Karis reminded her gently. “My Queen wishes to speak with you and your brother.”

“I don’t want both of us to be gone again.” Megan’s concern for the children’s welfare was serious. After her first frantic thoughts in prison she had vowed that they would never again both leave at the same time.

Karis understood the unspoken reason. Her mother had taught her well when it came to matters of security. “Then you have two choices.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “You can go and speak with her while Michael stays here. Or I can bring the Queen here.” She never heard Megan’s decision. The children’s screams from outside drew their attention. The Amazon was impressed at the speed Megan displayed when she thought the children were hurt.

The scene outside proved that the children were anything but in trouble. The pile of children assaulting the squirming form was almost comical to Karis until she recognized the face under the human mountain. “Ana?!” Careful not to hurt any of the attackers, Karis and Megan helped pull the small bodies off Ana’s prone figure. Helping the tracker to her feet Karis suddenly got a terrible feeling in her gut. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s the Queen.” Ana swallowed at the scene Ria had described in the temple. “You should go to the Temple quickly.” She didn’t know if she should say anything but she had served with Karis for a long time and despite the rumors about Xena, Ana knew the young woman’s feelings toward the Prince were strong so she ventured a personal comment. “Solan will need you now.”

The thought of Gabrielle being in trouble started her heart beating faster. The thought of Solan hurting pulled a curse from her and without even a backward glance at Megan the head guard began running toward Corinth, the Temple, and Solan.

——————————————–

The whistling wind played with the women’s hair as they climbed another hill. The Warrior Princess held out her hand and smiled at her Amazon companion. “You okay?”

Gabrielle took the hand and hauled herself to the crest with a grunt. Xena’s warm hand and the slight but present link with Artemis decided her answer. “Of course I am…” She suspected the Warrior Princess had a devious reason for asking. “….why?”

Grinning at the suspicious tone, Xena teased. “Well we just never ate lunch… so I thought you might be hungry.”

Nearly laughing at the familiar jibe, Gabrielle rolled her eyes at the gentle tease. She pointed her finger at the exposed skin on the warrior’s chest. “You should know better.” Walking on towards their destination, the Queen tossed her hair over her shoulder and laughed. “I’m ALWAYS hungry.”

Xena caught up to the small woman quickly and swept her up in her arms. It was such a joy to be with Gabrielle without having to worry about the Conqueror butting in. ‘I’m actually alone with her.’ The wonderment of the thought was broken by a small voice floating through her head. ‘I’s here.’ They reached the last ridge before the volcano and Xena answered the small voice as the sight below registered. ‘We’ll talk later.’

Gabrielle waited for Xena to catch up with her before they approached the group of Amazon’s waiting below them. The feeling of sadness was so thick in the air she was surprised she could breath. The link to Artemis and home gave her strength as they got closer to the trapped spirits. The obvious leader of the tribe was standing on a large rock with her feet slightly apart and her arms crossed. Calling on the memory of Melosa’s training to help her, Gabrielle went through the formal motions of greeting from one Queen to another and spoke softly. “Greetings Cyane, I regret that we have to meet under such circumstances.”

“You used the ancient formal greeting of truce…….” Her gaze swept past the non-threatening Queen to her companion. “…..Yet you travel with our enemy.”

Stepping forward quickly, the Warrior Princess began. “We…… I am sorry for our……my actions.” She glanced at Gabrielle’s compassionate face and steeled herself for Cyane’s cold eyes. “We…. I didn’t know…….” Gabrielle’s hand on her arm stopped the halting apology.

“Your true enemy is Alti. Xena was just as much a victim of her spells as you were.” Gabrielle felt the arm under her hand tense as Cyane jumped down from the rock and the Spider Queen kept herself between the long dead Amazon and the warrior. “She didn’t know what Alti had planned for you.”

Advancing slowly on the pair, Cyane scoffed at the qualifier. “And if she had known? You think that would have made a difference? You think she wouldn’t have killed us?”

The Warrior Princess spoke quietly. “I wouldn’t have but the person I was then probably still would have….yes.” She looked at the denial in Gabrielle’s eyes and tried to smile. “The Conqueror was very strong back then.” Comprehension dawned on her love’s face.

“She’s not here is she.” Gabrielle was momentarily speechless as the warrior’s dark head shook slowly. She realized why the apology had been so troublesome. “Are you okay with that?”

Brushing reddish bangs away from her love’s forehead, the Warrior Princess sighed. “I’m getting used to it.”

Nodding at the reassurance, Gabrielle turned back to Cyane. “It doesn’t matter if she would have or not. It’s done. Now we have to decide how to open the gate to Eternity so you and your tribe can rest.”

Nodding agreement at that, Cyane added. “We really shouldn’t fight anyway. After all we are practically family now.” Karis’ warm thoughts about the boy she loved had imparted some interesting information to the long dead Amazon. The fact that Xena had a son was very interesting indeed.

“Huh?” Xena heard the words but didn’t understand what the Amazon was talking about. ‘Family?’ She saw Gabrielle shake her head warningly but the tall blonde continued speaking.

“I mean I know there hasn’t been a joining ceremony yet, but they are sleeping together.” Cyane didn’t understand Gabrielle’s motions and became angry at Xena’s blank reaction. “What’s the matter? Do you have some reason you don’t want your son to be with my niece?”

“Niece?” The Warrior Princess saw Gabrielle’s shoulders sag in defeat and looked at her love as she turned to face her.

“Karis is Cyane’s niece.” Hooded green eyes watched the warrior replay Cyane’s words and swallow hard as the realization of what she had said became clear.

The Warrior Princess unclenched her jaw long enough to growl. “When?”

“I think last night was the first time.” Gabrielle begged the warrior to drop the issue for now. “Can we discuss this later? Please?”

Xena nodded acquiescence to Gabrielle’s wishes out of sheer necessity. She was finding it very difficult to deal with things when none of the questions in her head were being answered.

Gabrielle kept herself between Cyane and Xena just in case and addressed the other Amazon. “Do you know why the gate won’t open?”

Shaking her head sadly, Cyane sighed. “After Alti was killed……” She tilted her head toward Xena. “…. our holy word should have been enough to open the gate.”

“Sounds like you need a new holy word.” It was a logical solution to the problem presented. If the current word didn’t work then they needed a new one.

“Xena!” Gabrielle’s tone was sharper than she intended and the Amazon quickly circled the warrior’s waist with her arms. Careful to take the edge off her voice, she spoke quietly. “It’s not that easy.”

“Why not?” She spoke over Gabrielle’s head, reveling in the muscular arms around her waist. Logic had never failed her before. “Just get a stronger holy word and open the gate.”

Cyane was angry now. “Our Holy Word is Courage, Xena.” Her eyes flashed at the casual attitude the warrior took. “Nothing is stronger than Courage.”

“Courage.” Gabrielle repeated the word softly. She stopped listening to the warrior’s rapidly beating heart and looked up at the woman in her arms. “What is stronger than courage?”

Smiling at the golden flecks swimming in a sea of green, the Warrior Princess couldn’t resist bending her head to kiss the question from Gabrielle’s lips. Cyane clearing her throat broke the kiss but Xena never took her eyes off of Gabrielle. “There is only one thing I know of that is stronger than courage.”

With a smile that sent a twinkle straight to her eye, Gabrielle turned in Xena’s arms and leaned back into the warrior’s warm embrace. She took a deep breath and heard Xena speak at the same moment she did. “Love.”

“Love.” Cyane repeated the word incredulous at it’s simplicity.

As soon as Cyane spoke the word a gentle rumble began in the ground below them. Gabrielle smiled as a bright light appeared just beyond them and laughed as the long dead Amazon’s cheered their release from this plain of existence. Her smile only dimmed slightly when she realized she could no longer feel the link with Artemis.

——————————————–

Solan approached the altar slowly. The sight of Gabrielle unconscious in Xena’s arms was rather unnerving and he wasn’t sure what he should be feeling. He didn’t see Artemis anywhere but was certain that if his Mom was in trouble the Goddess would be nearby. Gabrielle was her Chosen after all. His quiet voice was nearly absorbed by the silence in the room. “What happened?”

Xena’s low voice rumbled through the Temple. “Get out.” She didn’t want to deal with anyone right now.

“I just want to know…..” Solan jumped at Xena’s snarl.

“I SAID GET OUT!” The Conqueror growled at the small group of people at the door and was surprised at the urge to strike out at them. “Get out.” When they hesitated, Xena lunged at them. “NOW!” She followed the group’s hasty retreat and locked the door. Barricading the door behind them she turned and looked at the altar before shaking the walls of the temple with her demand. “ARTEMIS! SHOW YOURSELF!”

When no one appeared Xena growled and picked up the nearest chair, smashing it against the wall. She realized the Warrior Princess would have never allowed this kind of tantrum and reveled in the freedom of being without her controlling ways. “ARTEMIS! YOU COWARD!” Continued silence at her demands, infuriated the Conqueror. She leaned against one of the huge pillars that lined the aisle and with some effort pushed it over. “ARTEMIS! I WILL DESTROY THIS TEMPLE AND EVERY OTHER TEMPLE YOU HAVE UNTIL YOU SHOW YOURSELF!”

Frustration and anger increased her strength and as she smashed vase after vase into the floor and wall she felt the sleeper within her stir but doubted that even Ares’ Chosen could stop her now. Picking up the last large vase the Conqueror was amazed as it stopped midway in it’s journey toward the wall and returned to it’s original position. “Artemis?”

“Yes Xena.” The voice floated through the room before Xena located the Goddess’ shimmering form appearing next to Gabrielle. “I heard you the first time.”

Moving quickly to stand at her fallen love’s side, the Conqueror tempered her demand slightly. “Bring her back.” Her voice quavered in anguish and she begged. “Please.”

The Goddess poured as much compassion in her voice as she could and shook her head sadly. “I can’t.”

“Don’t give me that. You’re a Goddess.” The Conqueror snapped and accused. “You sent her there, now bring her back!”

“I can’t.” The sad admission was pulled from the Goddess as she looked down at her Chosen’s peaceful face. “Don’t you think I would if I could?”

“Why did you send her if you couldn’t bring her back?” Balancing on the edge of fury the Conqueror waited for the Goddess to answer.

“She wanted to go and she knew the risk.” Artemis looked into the cold blue eyes of fury. “You know that.”

Xena’s low growl vibrated the earth she stood on. “She is NOT dead.” The warrior’s nostrils flared and her heartrate increased at the thought. “Stop talking about her as if she is.”

“Xena……” The Goddess tried to be reasonable.

“NO! You are telling me you could bring her back but now you can’t…. Why?” The Conqueror knew that the Gods were petty and cruel but she also realized that Artemis truly wanted Gabrielle to return.

“When I send someone to the Land of the Dead, I can still hear them for a time. Gabrielle knew that the longer she stayed the fainter our connection would be.” Looking down at the peaceful face. “She took that risk to help her people.” Reaching out to brush the reddish bangs from the Amazon’s forehead, Artemis smiled sadly. “That is why she was my Chosen.”

“SHE IS NOT DEAD!” The Conqueror’s cry echoed off the walls.

“I can only keep her body in stasis for so long, Xena.” Artemis was furious with herself for allowing Gabrielle to go.

Xena was desperate to find a way to bring her love back. “You’re telling me you can’t contact her now?”

Artemis shook her head. “A short time ago our link was broken.” The Goddess knew one thing that would do that. “The gate to Eternity must have opened. She will be drawn through with all the others.”

“NO!” She hated the feeling but she knew she had to rely on the Warrior Princess now. “The Warrior Princess won’t let her go. Gabrielle means too much to us.”

“IF….” The Goddess stressed the qualifier. “….she doesn’t go through the gate before it closes then there is a chance I will be able to bring her back.” She still didn’t understand the way Xena spoke of the Warrior Princess as if she were with Gabrielle but decided to humor her. “and the Warrior Princess too.”

The Conqueror was much calmer as she reassured herself and the chorus in her head that it was only a matter of time before Gabrielle returned to them. The idea of getting the Warrior Princess back wasn’t as thrilling. She was incredibly jealous that the warrior had been alone with Gabrielle in the Land of the Dead all this time.

———————————————

Solan and Solari watched the door close in their face and could hear the barricade go up. The crashing of the Conqueror’s tantrum did nothing to help anyone’s anxiety but Solan was quickly occupied with concerns of his own when a bright light flashed off to the side of the steps.

“Ares.” Solan’s gasp turned all their attention to the newly arrived God.

The smiling God spread his arms wide. “In the flesh.” He rested his hands on the hilt of his sword. “I’ve got a small proposition for you.”

A small thrill chased down Solan’s spine at the God’s words but he recalled Xena’s reaction to the War God’s presence before. He glanced at the battle ready Amazons nearby and steeled himself for the God’s possibly furious reaction. The Amazon Prince looked directly into the War God’s dark eyes. “Not interested.”

A brief wave of rage swept through Ares then he relaxed. “Like mother like son huh?” He laughed. “But you haven’t even heard my offer.”

“I said…..” Solan’s word’s trailed off as Ares continued his offer.

“I will bring your Mom back safe.” The smile that crossed his face at Solan’s expression was very wolflike.

“What do you want from me?” Solan didn’t think there was any harm in listening to the offer.

Ares reached out to put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, laughing slightly as Solan ducked the grasp. “Pledge your sword to me. Fight for me and I will bring your Mom back. You will be the greatest fighter in history.” The God’s eyes twinkled. He knew it was what the boy had always wanted. The God reached out and circled the boys shoulder with one strong arm and gestured to the space in front of them with the other hand. “Just picture it. Your name a legend. Solan. The greatest fighter of all time, passed down from generation to generation.”

Solari held her breath. It was a very tempting offer, she wasn’t sure she could’ve refused the same deal and wasn’t sure who was more surprised by Solan’s reaction her or Ares.

“Get your hands off me Ares.” Solan ducked away from the companionable arm. “I know how Mother feels about you.” The boy smiled grimly at the God of War. “And apparently there are a few things you need to know about me.” He began to tick them off on his fingers. “First….. I don’t fight with a sword. Second….. If I DID fight with a sword it would be for the glory and honor of Artemis, not you.” He saw the guards all move into battle formation and went on to explain the second point. “Where were you when the Centaurs were being slaughtered? Where were you when my family was killed? You were helping the Conqueror do it… you were spurring her on to greater atrocities… It was Artemis and the Amazons that became my family and now my family is her family too.” Solan hadn’t had much training in battle plans and strategies but the War God’s devious motives were clear to him. “You just want me to pledge my loyalty to you so you can get Mother back. You know you’ve lost her….. you’ve lost her to us and you can’t stand it.”

“You are smarter than I gave you credit for.” Ares could feel the sting of the boy’s truthful words and wished the Conqueror wasn’t INSIDE his sister’s Temple. “but there will be other times….” He glanced at the newly arriving guard and raised an eyebrow. “….other reasons….. for us to talk.” In a flash of light the War God disappeared leaving only his mocking laughter to drift off into the wind.

“Wow!” Solari voiced the sentiment for the Amazon’s present. They all had a great deal more respect for their Prince now.

“What is going on?” Karis hugged Solan quickly and searched his face.

“Solari will fill you in.” Solan smiled at his love, grateful she was here but his mind was focused on the high, small window in the priestess’ study. “I have something to do.” He wanted answers and Xena was going to give them to him.

——————————————————–

“Okay people. This is it!” The joy in Cyane’s voice was almost visible. “Our wait is over.” She smiled as one by one her people began entering the gate.

Every grateful look that disappeared into the light increased the urge Gabrielle had to follow them. “Isn’t it beautiful Xena?” The shining gate glowed brighter with each Amazon’s entry beckoning her closer. “Don’t you wonder what’s on the other side?”

“NO!” The Warrior Princess was terrified at the tone in Gabrielle’s voice. “There is nothing there for us.” She forced the curious eyes to focus on her own. “We are still alive!” The warrior melted as Gabrielle’s warm arms surrounded her but her sigh of relief quickly became a gasp as the young Queen spoke.

“I can’t feel Artemis anymore.” She listened to the steady pounding of the heart she loved and sighed. “I don’t know if we can get back.”

“We will.” She hated the feeling but she knew she had to rely on the Conqueror now. “The Conqueror will find a way.” She stroked the Amazon’s silky hair and kissed the top of her head. “You mean too much to us.”

——————————————————

“You have to keep trying!” The Conqueror barely overcame the urge to physically grab the uncooperative immortal and glared at the Goddess. The chorus of gentle murmuring voices in her head did more to infuriate her than they did to calm her and for a heartbeat she wished the Warrior Princess were here to help her maintain control. She felt the dark sleeper stir and the other’s double their comforting efforts. None of them wanted Ares’ Chosen to awaken, not now.

“Xena.” The exasperated Goddess tried to explain. “It’s been too long. The gate has surely closed by now, and I still can’t reestablish the link.” With a note of finality Artemis reached out to touch her seemingly sleeping Chosen. “She is gone, and I can’t get her back.”

“NO!” Solan burst through the inner door and glared at the Goddess. “You bring her back NOW!”

Artemis would have chuckled if the situation had not been so grim. Although Solan’s eyes were brown and Xena’s were blue the intensity was the same. There was no doubt, he took after his mother. The boy’s demand reminded the Goddess that Gabrielle was more than her Chosen, she was also a mother. “Solan. I’m very sorry for your loss.” Artemis knew, more than anyone else, how much joy Solan had brought to her Chosen’s life, son of Xena or not.

“SHE IS NOT DEAD!” Mother and son were in perfect synch with their words.

Sighing, Artemis tried to explain one last time, for Solan’s benefit. “The reason I didn’t want Gabrielle to go alone is because, as an Amazon, when the gate opens she will be drawn through. Once she goes through the gate there will be no way to contact her. If she doesn’t go through, when the gate closes I might be able to get her back.” Shaking her head at the hopeful looks, the Goddess continued. “Every moment the gate is open the pull will become greater. I didn’t want her to go alone because she will never be able to withstand the temptation.” She looked at the Conqueror sadly. “I don’t know why you didn’t go when I sent her.”

Solan turned on his mother. “You had the chance to go with her and didn’t, why?” He used the silence that met his question to call up the most evil insult he could think of. “Were you too scared?”

In a moment of pure reflex, the Conqueror brought her hand up from her side and connected the back of it with Solan’s cheek. She watched in shock as the boy glared at her from the ground but she was still able to growl her response. “I’m not scared of anything.” Then she looked toward the altar, with a shudder her voice softened. “Except losing Gabrielle.”

Solan rose slowly and tested his jaw. “Then why didn’t you go?” Dark eyes glared at his mother.

“The Warrior Princess went.” The Conqueror hated that she wasn’t with Gabrielle and knew that if the Warrior Princess was here they would never have hit Solan.

That brightened Solan’s eyes considerably and he turned to the Goddess. “See she isn’t alone.” Gabrielle had tried once to explain about the Warrior Princess and the Conqueror. Now he understood, sort of, why Xena had hit him.

“I don’t understand.” Artemis was totally confused at their insistence that the Warrior Princess was with Gabrielle. With her hand palm up she directed Solan’s attention to his mother. “Xena is right here.”

The Conqueror shook her head and spoke softly. “Not all of us.”

————————————————-

Gabrielle leaned back into Xena’s warm embrace and watched the last few Amazon’s walk into the light. She could feel it pulling her closer, calling to her. Suddenly unable to resist the gentle glowing whispers, the Amazon Queen wriggled free of Xena’s embrace and took two steps toward the gate before she felt the warrior’s strong hand catch hers. Tearing her eyes from the beautiful light, Gabrielle looked back at the Warrior Princess and pleaded with her. “Come with me Xena. Come and be with me in Eternity.” She gently pulled the warrior a step closer to the gate, a step closer to freedom. “We can be together forever.”

The Warrior Princess gazed into the sea of pleading green and could feel her resolve slipping. The temptation was very great. She took another step forward, then the small lone voice in her head whispered to her urgently. With the last bit of strength she had, the Warrior Princess resisted the enticing offer and pulled Gabrielle back to her. The warrior’s voice was rough as she held the Amazon to her tightly. “There is nothing there for us.” She looked over the reddish head to Cyane. “You had better go now.”

Nodding, Cyane took a deep breath and smiled. “You are an Amazon at heart, Xena. I have always thought so.” She looked at the couple for a long moment. “Thank you.” She saluted them both and then turned to disappear into the gate. Nearly immediately the large ethereal doorway began to shrink.

“No!” Gabrielle squirmed to get out of Xena’s grasp. She begged to be released into the light. “Please there is still time.”

“No!” The Warrior Princess held the struggling Amazon firmly. “We can’t let you go.”

Gabrielle watched the gate close and as the light disappeared she felt the pull toward the gate almost disappear too. As she melted into the warrior’s embrace, she felt the residual ache for release vanish and good sense return. “You saved me.”

Xena buried her face in the Amazon’s silky hair. She couldn’t answer the comment. She wasn’t sure she had saved Gabrielle at all. ‘I could have just sentenced us to wander here forever.’ The silence that greeted her thought brought tears to her eyes and for a heartbeat she wished the Conqueror was there to make a snide remark.

———————————————-

The group of Amazons outside the temple stood combat ready. Karis ordered them to maintain battle readiness partially due to the increasing number of curious onlookers and partially to keep their minds off the possibility of losing Gabrielle. The head guard was surprised to see Megan and several of the orphan children arrive soon after Solan left but was unable to speak with them at the moment. Right now she was too busy trying to keep her own impatience under control. Solari had made the mistake of going against the Queen’s orders by entering the building and she was going to make sure that particular error wouldn’t happen again. She did wish she knew what was going on inside the Temple though and didn’t blame Solari a bit for trying to find out.

————————————————

The Conqueror wished she hadn’t broken everything because she really really wanted to smash something right now. The Goddess was so infuriating, she had given up on Gabrielle and Xena had no idea how to force Artemis to try again.

Solan was also frustrated by the Goddess’ seemingly uncaring attitude. He had to convince her somehow to try and retrieve Gabrielle. He knew force wouldn’t work so he relied on Gabrielle’s technique, talking. Unfortunately he didn’t quite have his temper under control so his words spilled out unchecked. “I should never have pledged my sword to you.”

“WHAT?!?” Both women were stunned. Knowing how Gabrielle felt about bladed weapons, the Goddess had never for a moment thought that the boy would fight with a sword and even if he did she naturally assumed he would fall under Ares protection.

Solan was angry now. “I told Ares that if I ever fought with a sword it would be for your..” He pointed at the Goddess. “…honor and glory.” He sneered at the stunned immortal. “If I had realized how little you care for your people, how easily you give up on them I would have considered Ares offer more seriously.”

‘Ares offer?’ The Conqueror’s surprise at the boy’s words were quickly replaced with anger. ‘How dare he tempt Solan.’ The God’s devious ways were well known to her and she clenched her teeth. ‘He probably offered to make Solan the best swordfighter.’ Blue eyes studied the boy, her son, arguing with the Goddess. ‘By the Gods, Solan turned him down.’ She watched as he tilted his head and gestured to the altar. It was amazing and it was also, ‘Just like Gabrielle.’ The thought was comforting. She had been missing the Amazon Queen’s calming presence but now her son’s training could be the only thing that convinced Artemis to try again. It was the hardest thing she ever had to do, but the Conqueror held back and stayed quiet as Solan tried to persuade the hopeless Goddess to bring Gabrielle back.

“I know you are upset and you miss her.” Artemis could see the pain in his eyes when he looked at the altar but the fact remained that the link was broken.

“Of course I miss her.” Solan was becoming more and more frustrated. He gestured to Xena. “Mother misses her.” He ran to the door and removed the barricade, flinging the doors wide open. All the Amazons on the steps turned to look inside the Temple. “They all miss her too.” He gestured them inside, grateful that Karis moved to his side quickly. The rest of his argument was interrupted by a cry from just outside the doors.

“Amber NO!” All eyes turned to the entrance as a little girl wormed her way between the bodies of the Amazons standing there.

Much to Solan’s surprise the child squealed when she saw him and came straight for Karis. Leaning against his love’s mostly bare leg he could only wait for the guard’s response to the little girl’s innocent question.

“Your Prince is very handsome isn’t he?” Amber was thrilled when Karis picked her up and she settled quickly on the guard’s hip. Her wide brown eyes twinkled at Solan as her new friend whispered in her ear.

“Yes he is.” Karis couldn’t help smiling at Solan as the little girl in her arms giggled. The guard narrowed her eyes at the darkening bruise on his cheek but didn’t have time to comment.

Amber looked around the temple and widened her eyes at the sight of Gabrielle laying on the altar. “Ohhhh…. the Sleeping Princess…. ” Wriggling out of Karis’ arms, the child didn’t pay attention to the protests and she ran to Gabrielle’s sleeping side. She looked closely at the Amazon Queen’s relaxed face before she turned to the watching adults. “Where is the Prince to kiss her and wake her up?”

“No one kisses Gabrielle but me!” Xena nearly lunged at the child but found her way blocked by Solan and Karis.

“She’s just a child, Xena!” Karis held out her hands to fend off the angry Conqueror.

Solan’s cheek still ached from the earlier hit but spoke clearly as his mother approached him. “She is talking about the fairy tale.” He recalled Gabrielle telling the story of the Sleeping Princess to Micha and the others once. It wasn’t his kind of story but he did remember how it went. “The Prince kisses the Sleeping Princess to break the spell that the evil fairy Godsmother put on her.”

“I don’t think I like that reference.” Artemis was sure she didn’t like being referred to as an evil fairy godsmother.

“Yeah well if the shoe fits….” Solan was glad to get a few jibes in at the Goddess. He was still angry at her and now had no idea how to convince her to help his Mom.

“No no no, not the one with the shoe…..” Amber’s small voice broke the tension. “That is the wrong story…. this is the Sleeping Princess…. her true love has to kiss her and make her wake up.” She rolled her eyes at their denseness.

“True love huh?” The Conqueror moved to stand next to Amber. She squatted down to be at eye level with the girl and smiled. “Gabrielle is my true love.”

“Really?” Young brown eyes glittered at the ruler and with the innocence of a child she reached out to pat Xena’s cheek. “Are you hers?”

The question was a good one but the answer caught her off guard. “Yes.” The warm certainty that she was Gabrielle’s true love was overshadowed only by the fact that the Warrior Princess was too.

“Then kiss her and wake her up.” Amber wasn’t sure what the problem was and her exasperated tone expressed her confusion.

The Conqueror heard an expectant hush fall over the crowd as Xena looked at the little girl for a long moment. The ruler’s thought was dark as she regarded the child. ‘They are waiting for me to hurt you for talking to me in that tone of voice.’ The child’s brown eyes met hers with unwavering confidence. ‘She truly believes a kiss from Gabrielle’s true love will wake her.’ The thought was rather daunting. ‘What if I’m not her true love? What if I’m not enough?’ Rising slowly from her squatting position, Xena looked at the woman laid out next to her. The ache of Gabrielle’s absence was not something she wanted to feel anymore and she knew she would do anything to make that feeling go away. The brief thought of sending the crowd away evaporated as her eyes locked on the peaceful face of her love. The whole world fell away as she circled around the altar to take her original position. She looked at the temporarily lifeless form in her arms and whispered. “I will never leave you.” The softness of Gabrielle’s lips never ceased to amaze her as she brushed them lightly with her own.

————————————————–

“Anything yet?” The Warrior Princess knew better than to ask. Gabrielle would have told her if the link was reestablished so she wasn’t surprised when the Amazon shook her head in response.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Gabrielle wasn’t confident with Xena’s plan although it sounded logical. The idea was to go back to the place Artemis sent them to. That was where Gabrielle felt the link the strongest so Xena deduced that the Goddess may be able to contact Gabrielle if they went back there.

Stopping to sit on a patch of rockless soil, the Warrior Princess beckoned the Amazon to sit next to her. “Gabrielle there are only two things I am sure of.” She held up her index finger and tapped the end of her love’s button nose. “I love you…. ” She looked around the expanse of nothing in front of them. “….and this is where we were when we started.”

“Yeah?” Gabrielle was certain about the love part but she looked dubiously at their surroundings.

“Yup.” The confidence she had in those two statements however was all the confidence she had. She needed to think. Out of sheer habit she withdrew to work out the problem the way she always did, logically. This time however the Conqueror wasn’t there to take over. This time there was only one other waiting in the darkness.

As Gabrielle looked around the vast nothingness that could very well be their new home, a sweeping feeling of hopelessness rushed through her and she remembered the craving to go through the gate. “Why wouldn’t you let me go? Why didn’t you want to come with me?” The long silence that greeted her question caused her to turn and look at the warrior. “Xena?” She studied the face closely and realized she hadn’t met this person before. “Hello.”

“Hi.” The voice from the warrior wasn’t much different but it wavered slightly.

“You didn’t want me to go either, did you?” Gabrielle could feel the remembered ache in her heart recede slowly. The dark head shook in response and the Amazon continued her questioning. “Why?”

“Seres no lams sere.” Blue eyes blinked and looked everywhere except at Gabrielle, even when the small woman clarified the answer.

“There’s no lambs there?” Green eyes narrowed as the woman next to her shook her head.

“Nope.” Large weapons callused hands played with the fringe of her leather skirt and she took a deep breath. “We has to go home for lamss.”

“How old are you?” Gabrielle recalled the signatures on the note Xena had left in the journal. Some of them had reminded her of Brie and Gabe’s block type of writing so she really wasn’t surprised at the answer.

“Almos sree.” The child warrior played with three of her fingers on her right hand.

“You told the Warrior Princess that there weren’t any lambs in the light.” Gabrielle smiled at her companion, almost catching her eye before she ducked away.

“Yes. She forgot sat sere aren’t any lams sere.” Nodding at that logic, she examined a rock she found in her hand. “We has to go home for lamss, alright?”

“Alright.” Gabrielle smiled and reassured the full grown child. “We’ll go home and see the lambs.”

Sighing, Xena nodded. “Do you want to talk to the Warrior Princess now?”

“That is up to you and her.” A sudden thought occurred to Gabrielle and she casually asked her new friend the same question she had asked Xena before. “Where is she?”

Xena shrugged. “Sinking.”

“Thinking?” She found herself nodding the confirmation of her translation.

“Yeah… hers is as good sinker.” She played with a clod of dirt before crushing it in her large hands.

“You’re a pretty good thinker too.” Gabrielle’s laughter drifted across the arid landscape. “Both of us had forgotten that the lambs were at home.” She held her breath and placed her hand in the woman/child’s. “Thank you for saving me.” She stretched up and kissed her love’s cheek gently.

“Your welcome Gasrielle. I has to save you cause I love you. You are Solan’s good Mama and you make se Conqueror be good.” She could feel the spot on her cheek tingle where Gabrielle kissed it. Sighing again, she almost looked at the Amazon beside her. “I has to go now.” She wiped her dirty hands on her thighs. “Bye.”

“Bye.” Gabrielle sort of wished she could talk to the warrior child more but perhaps the Warrior Princess had thought of something. She was always fascinated when the switch was slow and she saw the muscles in Xena’s jaw tense briefly. It was easier to switch back and forth with the Conqueror, because despite what they thought Gabrielle knew they weren’t THAT much different. Going from three to thirty five took a little bit though so she waited a moment before speaking and didn’t expect an answer right away. “Hi.”

“Hi.” Xena smiled and looked Gabrielle in the eye. “Did you have a nice talk?”

“Yes.” Green eye’s glittered at her amused companion. “Did you think of anything?”

“Yeah.” Xena stretched out where they were when they woke up and gestured for Gabrielle to join her. “I think you need to go to sleep.” She sighed as the Amazon settled in her arms. “I’ll watch over you.”

Gabrielle moved quickly to comply with Xena’s request and, hard ground or not, felt very relaxed in the warrior’s arms. “I’ll try.” It was worrisome because she didn’t want Artemis to only be able to retrieve her and not Xena too.

Chuckling as the old mind reading trick kicked in, the Warrior Princess smiled. “No worries love.” She licked her lips and moved closer, the Amazon’s warm breath mixing with her own as she whispered. “I will never leave you.” She brushed the Amazon’s soft lips lightly with her own then gave in to the ache in her heart. Increasing the pressure, she reveled in having Gabrielle nearly all to herself.

———————————————————

Artemis was stunned that Xena would even try the little girl’s suggestion, much less try it in front of all these people. It was a strong testament to the love her brother’s Chosen displayed for the Amazon Queen. She barely heard the Amazon’s murmuring approval of Xena’s treatment of their Queen as her entire formidable mind was focused on a glimmer of the link she thought she had lost. Quickly catching the fleeting connection Artemis smiled and, with a regal sweeping wave, brought her Chosen home.

———————————————————–

Part 10

Gabrielle settled into the Warrior Princess arms and totally ignored the rocky ground they were stretched out on. Closing her eyes, she melted into the warrior’s kiss. The whirling feeling she experienced was not really unusual, not when she was kissing Xena anyway, but when she felt the intensity of the kiss change Gabrielle opened her eyes slowly. Vaugely aware of the alter under her, the Amazon looked up into smiling blue eyes and grinned. “Now that is how I like to wake up.”

“I’ll have to remember that.” The Conqueror was ecstatic; Gabrielle was back! She hopped off the altar and helped the still dizzy Amazon to her feet.

Gabrielle patted the warrior’s arm and released herself from the grip. She took a moment to balance herself before she turned to Artemis and bowed. “Thank you for our safe return.” The wording of her thanks made her think twice and with a gasp, she reached quickly for Xena, studying the warrior’s face intently. “We did come back, didn’t we?” The Conqueror’s confused face doubled the Amazon’s heartbeat until a wry grin appeared.

“Yes love. We are all here.” The Warrior Princess grinned at the panic on the Amazon’s face. “We’ll go see the lambs, whenever you are ready. Alright?”

“Ugh…” Gabrielle pushed the back of her hand into the warrior’s stomach. “Don’t you ever scare me like that again.” For several rapid heartbeats the Amazon thought the Warrior Princess had remained in the Land of the Dead.

Grunting at the gentle backhand, the Warrior Princess smiled and promised. “Okay, I’ll never scare you like that again.” The Conqueror, tired of the teasing, wrapped her arms around the Amazon’s shoulders. “I missed you.”

Gabrielle returned the hug and, looking around the nearly demolished Temple, she raised her eyebrows. “I see that.” She grinned as the Conqueror’s face turned light crimson and, laughing, the Amazon realized a small knot of smiling people, including Solan and Karis were waiting near the door. A second look at her son wiped the grin off her face. Releasing the warrior, the Amazon Queen moved quickly to Solan’s side and examined the large bruise on his cheek.

‘You hit him!’ The Warrior Princess was furious. ‘How could you hit him? He is our son!’ The Conqueror tried to defend her actions. ‘He called me a coward.’ It was a lame excuse and she knew it. It had all happened in two blinks. One moment Solan was standing before her calling her a coward and the next he was lying on the ground holding his cheek. She had regretted hitting Solan a heartbeat after she had done it. To avoid thinking about the shameful action, the Conqueror’s darting eyes fell on the Amazon next to her son. The Warrior Princess clenched her hands into fists as the sight of Karis replayed Cyane’s revelation about the young woman and her activities with their son. As the memory of the long dead Amazon’s words echoed in their head, they barely heard Gabrielle speaking to the boy.

“What happened?” Gabrielle’s fingertips on his chin gently turned her son’s face so she could get a better look at the injury.

“I was mad and spoke before I thought.” Solan shrugged and glanced briefly at Xena. “It wasn’t her fault.”

The head guard watched the examination and listened closely to the brief explanation. When she heard Solan describe the incident she sucked her breath through her teeth and thought. ‘Xena hit him!’ The dark look Karis shot at the warrior was met with an equally dark expression.

It took Gabrielle a moment to realize Solan was talking about Xena. ‘So the Conqueror did more than trash the Temple.’ She tried but couldn’t quite keep the disappointment out of her eyes as she turned to her love.

‘No!’ The Warrior Princess struggled to keep the Conqueror from striking out at Karis. ‘It will only make things worse.’ She could feel the angry look on her face. ‘Solan LOVES her and she loves Solan.’ The Conqueror wasn’t convinced. Solan was theirs and Karis was not going to take him away. ‘No.’ The Warrior Princess soothed her dark sister. ‘He doesn’t belong to us. We will still be able to love him.’ The Conqueror was about to protest but the disappointment in her lover’s eyes sent her retreating into the darkness, glad that she could, knowing that the Warrior Princess was there to take over.

Gabrielle watched the subtle shift of muscles in Xena’s face and spoke quietly, unable to conceal her increasing disappointment. “She hit him!”

“It was a reflex. She didn’t mean to.” The tone in Gabrielle’s voice tore at her heart and the Warrior Princess was very glad that she wasn’t the one their love’s displeasure was directed toward.

“Just like she didn’t mean to trash the Temple?” The Amazon Queen spread her arms to encompass the mess. She had been amused, at first, that her love had missed her so much but she realized this was more than a simple tantrum. Striking their son was unfathomable to Gabrielle and the violence the Conqueror had apparently reveled in while she had been here alone was disturbing.

Calm blue eyes studied the Amazon’s flashing green ones and the Warrior Princess gently cupped the small woman’s head in her hands. “Please don’t be angry at her Love.” She could feel her dark sister making herself as small as possible in her favorite corner of their mind. “She truly regrets hitting Solan……” Two fingers on the Queen’s lips stopped her protest and Xena continued. “…. and I would have destroyed the Temple too, if I had been here.” She smiled as the Conqueror spoke up from her corner and echoed Gabrielle’s surprised response.

“What?” The Amazon Queen was at a loss for words. The fact that her lover would willingly destroy the Amazon’s patron Goddess’ Temple was surprising to say the least.

“Oh yes.” Xena nodded as she replayed the events as the Conqueror had shown them to her. “Artemis had left and the Conqueror didn’t know how to get her back. Destroying the Temple is a perfectly acceptable and logical way to attract the Goddess’ attention.” She smiled as comprehension dawned across Gabrielle’s face and as she felt her dark sister uncurl from the corner. “It has worked for us many times in the past.”

“I’m sorry I hit Solan.” The Conqueror hung her head for a long moment. She swallowed hard as Gabrielle’s strong fingers under her chin forced her head up and then moved to brush the dark hair out of her eyes.

“I know you are sorry.” The Amazon tangled her fingers in the raven tresses and pulled the warrior down to her. “Just don’t let it happen again.”

Slowly nodding compliance with the order, blue eyes peered from their dark frame for a long moment. Then with a wry, almost hopeful smile, Xena nodded her head once more. “Yes Mistress.”

A mischievious twinkle slowly replaced the disappointment in Gabrielle’s eyes and she fought to keep from laughing. Hidden from everyone’s view except Xena’s she raised her eyebrows and mouthed, ‘Later.’ Grinning at the shudder the soundless promise sent through her lover, the Amazon turned to speak to the guards.

‘Later indeed!’ Later could never come soon enough for the Conqueror. If it were up to her she would have swept Gabrielle off her feet and carried her all the way to their room. The playfulness that thought brought quickly turned to concern as the Amazon Queen nearly fainted. “Gabrielle!?” Xena’s quick reflexes caught the falling Queen and held her close. “Are you okay?”

“Whoa.” Gabrielle furrowed her brow and held up her hand to fend off her guard’s concern. “Just a little lightheaded that’s all.” She smiled up at the woman holding her. “I guess traveling to the Land of the Dead can exhaust a person huh?”

Shaking her head, Xena grinned. “Nope.” She glanced out the open Temple doors and smiled down at the woman in her arms. “But going without food all day is bound to take it’s toll.”

“Yeesh!” The mention of food immediately caused Gabrielle’s stomach to growl. “I haven’t eaten yet have I?” She grinned at Solan and the guards, smiling at the long standing joke, then affected a pout as Karis made a quick sign and a runner took off instantly. “Was that necessary?”

She knew her Queen was teasing and Karis returned the mood. “I’m afraid it was my Queen.” She bowed and smiled. “The kitchen had to be warned.” Gabrielle’s stomach growling proved her point for her and the guard smiled as she realized Gabrielle had accepted her relationship with Solan. Her lover’s Mom would never have been so playful if she hadn’t accepted the situation.

Laughing at the joke, the Warrior Princess draped her arm around Karis’ shoulder. “Solan why don’t you escort your starving Mom to the dining hall.” The grip on the guard shifted slightly and the Conqueror’s smile became honey sweet. Anyone within the sound of the Empress’ voice shuddered at the low tone. “Karis and I have some things to discuss.”

Karis swallowed against her suddenly dry throat as the companionable arm around her shoulders shifted to warm hard fingers gripping the back of her neck. The warrior’s rumbling voice mixed with the increased pounding of her heart and she recalled how Iolaus had described that particular sound. The soft velvet sound of death had been his term and Karis agreed with the pig’s description. When the last of the guards followed Gabrielle and Solan out the door, the grip on her neck released, however, the warrior’s words gripped her heart.

“I know you are sleeping with my son.” Xena stressed the last two words and watched Karis nod acknowledgement. “I just wanted you to know…….” Deadly blue eye’s bored into the guard’s. “….If you ever hurt him, I will kill you.”

“I…” Karis stressed the word. “…would never intentionally hurt him.” The flicker of guilt she saw in the warrior’s eyes did little to ease her feelings on the subject. The Temple’s desecration was bad but she knew she would have done it too if it was the only way to bring Gabrielle back. She was very angry, however, that Xena had hit Solan. She found herself disappointed that Gabrielle hadn’t insisted on an actual punishment instead of just accepting the reluctant apology. “I would rather cut off my arm than hurt him.”

The Conqueror raised an eyebrow at the declaration. “Right or left?” She almost smiled as the Warrior Princess’ laugh floated through her head.

Karis’ lips twitched in amusement and she never broke eye contact as she answered seriously. “Both.”

Nodding, Xena smiled. “As long as we understand each other.”

The guard let the love she had for Solan filter into her voice and fill her eyes as she responded to the intimidating woman. “We do.”

———————————————————–

Karis had told him this morning that Gabrielle had been in their room so as glad as he was to have his Mom back, he was also glad to see her playfully teasing Karis. They had only taken a few steps out of the Temple when the tone of Xena’s voice struck him. Solan gasped and glancing around at the surrounding guards, he whispered to his Mom. “She knows doesn’t she?”

Gabrielle took a deep breath and looked into his concerned brown eyes. “Yes.” She patted the arm linked in hers and smiled with as much confidence as she could. “The Warrior Princess won’t let her get hurt.”

“I love her Mom.” He didn’t know what it was like for her and Xena, but he did know that he could never imagine his future without Karis as a part of it. After last night he knew Karis felt the same and he tried to convey that to his Mom. “And I think she loves me.”

Smiling at the wistful tone, Gabrielle nodded. “Yes she does.” Green eyes twinkled at the smile her confirmation brought to the boy’s face. “She has for a long time.”

“So you are okay with……everything?” Solan really wanted Gabrielle’s approval of the relationship. He knew he would ask Karis to Join with him eventually and he wanted to know it wouldn’t cause problems with Gabrielle.

She barely altered her stride as the guards in front of them opened the large gate leading to the Palace courtyard. Gabrielle glanced around the immaculately landscaped statue garden and smiled at her son’s concern. “I have considered Karis a part of my family for quite a while now.”

Solan stumbled at that bit of information. “What? Since when?”

They walked into the dining hall, surprised to see many of the royal guests already enjoying their dinner. Gabrielle closed her eyes breathing in the savory aroma of the feast being laid out before she answered casually. “Since the night Brenin was arrested.” Patting her son’s arm, Gabrielle proceeded to their seats at the head of the table but in a moment of pure mischief sat in Xena’s chair instead of her own.

Solan was dumbstruck for a moment. ‘Since Brenin was arrested? That was a long time ago!’ Snorting at Gabrielle’s choice of seats, he reclaimed the seat he had occupied during the ill-fated Wedding Feast, which put him right next to her.

Grinning at her son’s chuckle and the murmurs of the guests, Gabrielle settled into the throne. She noticed Solari quickly assigning guards around the room and decided security was well in hand before she eyed the feast before her. She was just reaching for her favorite dish when Xena and Karis walked into the hall. The Amazon nearly laughed as her lover and her head guard both surveyed the Amazon’s placements around the room and nodded satisfactorily as much to Solari as to themselves. Marveling at the matching movements, the Queen thought. ‘They are so much alike.’ She heard Solan suck in his breath as Karis started to join the others at the guards table and Xena grabbed her by the elbow.

When Karis realized where they were headed she was totally surprised. After the threat in the temple and the silent walk back to the Palace she hadn’t expected such a public show of acceptance. Her expression was mirrored by Solan when Xena gently but firmly sat her in the chair next to their son before the Empress continued on to her own seat. The sudden absence of sound in the room gave Karis the impression everyone was looking at her, then she realized all eyes were on Xena.

Raising an eyebrow at her throne being occupied, she leaned over to whisper to her love. “You are in my chair.”

Green eyes twinkled and the Amazon’s lips formed a small oh before she examined the chair she was sitting in. “Am I?”

“Yes.” Xena held a cherry up to the teasing woman and smiled when the Amazon’s white teeth pulled the tiny fruit from it’s stem. “You are.” She tossed away the stem and reached for another plump cherry.

Gabrielle swirled the small fruit in her mouth and grinned impishly. “Are you going to do something about it?”

“Yes. I am.” The Conqueror licked her lips and settled into the empty chair on Gabrielle’s right. She offered the cherry to the grinning Amazon and raised an eyebrow. “Later.” A smile played across her face as the other guests let out a sigh and resumed their meal.

Plucking the offering from the long tapering fingers, Gabrielle laughed. “We’ll see.”

Solan’s laughter distracted them both and Xena looked at the young couple. “I’m not exactly sure what Solan sees in her.” It was a comment straight from the mother in her. The guard had proven her loyalty and intelligence time and again, but still it was their son they were talking about.

Gabrielle grinned and with one small hand on her love’s cheek forced the blue eyes to connect with hers. “I do.” Holding the large head in place, she leaned over the wide arm of the throne and kissed the grumbling mother. “She is just like you.” Grunting and wincing slightly the Amazon pushed herself off the barrier between them and rubbed her ribs where the arm of the throne had dug into them.

“Let’s hope not……” Any further comment from Xena was stalled when a child’s voice rang through the hall.

“I KNEW IT!”

The Amazon Queen looked up to see a small girl with wavy brown hair running to the head table. She bit back a grin at Karis’ shock when the child practically jumped into her lap and breathlessly continued her comments. “I just knew you were a princess, ’cause no one but princesses get to eat with Princes.” The child’s eyes glanced at Solan then twinkled at her new friend, her very own princess. “Just like the story.” She looked at Karis’ feet. “Where are your shoes?”

Karis’ shock changed to puzzlement. “Shoes?” The confused guard glanced around the hall. Most of the guards present were trying their best not to smile and Megan was standing in the doorway, mortified.

When the guards had inisted that she and Amber come with them to the Palace she had been nervous, but Karis said the Amazon Queen wanted to talk to her so she agreed. Amber’s behavior made her rethink the decision to come until Solan answered the child’s question.

“Most of the time Amazon’s don’t wear shoes.” He glanced at his love and grinned at the little girl. “But shoes or not, Karis will always be a princess to me.”

Gabrielle listened to Xena’s murmuring explanation of the events in the temple and smiled at the child’s reference to the rags to riches fairy tale that had always been her favorite. She saw Karis look toward the woman at the door and recognized the pickpocket she had asked to speak with earlier. The child was obviously connected with her somehow. “Are you going to introduce me to your friend Karis?”

Karis smiled and rose from her seat, gently setting the girl on her feet before kneeling to Gabrielle. “This is Amber.” She looked at the child. “Amber, this is the Queen of the Amazons.”

The girl’s brown eyes went wide when Karis knelt and they grew even wider when she heard Gabrielle’s title. Her breathless echo of Karis’ introduction made them all smile. “The Queen.”

The object of the little girl’s awe grinned and winked. “You can call me Gabrielle.” She gestured for the child to approach her. Her grin turned to a full fledged smile of shock when the child leaned against her bare leg and declared.

“You are even more beautiful than any story princess.” Amber was caught in the twinkling green eyes of the Queen and was thrilled when the woman gestured her up. She climbed into the offered lap quickly and looked back toward the door with a smile. “Look Mama, I’m sitting with the Queen.” The child was too thrilled to notice that most of the royalty seated around the table were grinning at her.

The Warrior Princess almost grinned too as she watched the child hesitantly approach Gabrielle. She raised her eyebrow at the child’s comment and the Conqueror agreed. ‘The kid knows what she’s talkin’ about.’ There was a brief surge of jealousy when the child crawled into Gabrielle’s lap. ‘I wish I could do that.’ The jealousy was quickly overcome by confusion when Amber called the young girl at the door ‘Mama’. The pickpocket was obviously too young to have a child Amber’s age.

Gabrielle’s thoughts echoed Xena’s as she mentally established the age of the pickpocket, who was nervously shuffling her feet. She picked a small apple from the bowl in front of her and absently picked up a small but sharp table knife. Slicing a bite from the fruit she popped it in her mouth and chewing quietly pointed to the door with the utensil. “Your ‘Mama’ is kind of young huh?”

Nodding absently at the comment, Amber focused on the fruit. The apple looked much juicier than the one’s Michael usually brought home and it smelled wonderful. She licked her lips and admitted. “She’s not my real Mama.” The child stretched up and whispered a secret into the Queen’s ear.

“Really?” Of course, Gabrielle wasn’t surprised at the out loud confession but she was a bit taken back by the whisper. She glanced at Xena, Solan and Karis. The warrior was eating a slice of melon slowly but the Amazon knew Xena was listening intently to their exchange. Solan had an unreadable look on his face and Karis smiled with a touch of sadness before signing, ‘orphan?’. Nodding at the signal, Gabrielle sliced another portion from the apple and as she was bringing it to her mouth looked into the child’s brown eyes. Diverting the bite from her lips, the Queen offered it to the child, careful to keep the sharp edge of the knife toward herself.

“Thank you.” Amber bobbed her head once as she delicately took the offering from between Gabrielle’s thumb and the knifeblade.

Smiling at the child’s courtesy, the Amazon sliced another bite for herself and casually asked. “Where is your real mother?”

“I don’t know.” Amber’s clear brown eyes looked up at the curious woman. “I just woke up one day and she was gone.” She chewed the last of her piece and licked her fingers. “I was so glad.”

The Royal family all stopped their motion cold and the Amazon guard’s radiated silent tension at the child’s final comment. Gabrielle cleared her throat and calmly sliced another piece from the apple. “Why glad?” Her tone was curious but not threatening. She raised the bite to her lips stopping short at the child’s quiet word.

“No.” Amber protested. “That piece is mine.” Liquid brown eyes almost apologized as she reminded the Queen softly. “You had the last piece, remember?”

All the Amazon’s murmured at the child’s audacity. Coming between their Queen and food was never a good idea. Karis met Solan’s eyes as they grinned at Gabrielle’s momentary loss of words.

Xena chuckled. “She’s right love. You did have the last piece.”

Raising an eyebrow at her lover’s shaking shoulders, Gabrielle chewed her lip and nodded. “So I did.” Tilting the bite to the girl, she apologized. “Sorry.”

Amber took the piece, again carefully avoiding the sharp knife blade. “That’s okay.”

Gabrielle watched as the child bit into the slice and asked again. “Why glad?” She felt the girl’s heartbeat increase and she followed the child’s gaze to the door, where Megan stood nodding.

With a reluctant sigh, Amber nodded and told what she thought was the truth. “I was bad. She got tired of punishing me so she left.”

“You weren’t bad.” The Warrior Princess’ growl turned all eyes toward her. “You are just a little girl.” Her heart went out to the child. She was appalled at the unknown woman’s treatment of her own daughter. The Conqueror snorted. ‘Like our mother was any better.’ The Warrior Princess’ growl rumbled through their head. ‘I don’t want to get into this now.’ Her angry thought effectively silenced her dark sister but only after a snide parting remark. ‘You never do.’

The child chewed her bite and regarded the growling woman. “That’s what Mama says.”

Gabrielle also studied her growling love for a long moment before she glanced at the door and saw the young woman wiping a tear from her eye. “Your Mama is very smart.” She smiled and nodded to the girl by the door. Slicing another bite from the fruit in her hand, she offered it to the child and raised her eyebrow in question.

Amber giggled. “Oh, that one’s yours. I had the last piece, remember?”

Twitching her lips at the contagious giggle, Gabrielle nodded. “So you did.” She popped the slice in her mouth and laid the half eaten fruit back on the table. “I would like to talk to your Mama after dinner.”

“Her name is Megan, my Queen.” Karis spoke for the benefit of everyone in the room and signed for the benefit of the Amazon’s present. ‘Other children at home. Worried about them.’

Gabrielle berated herself for not realizing that the girls nervous shuffling had less to do with speaking to royalty as it did with other concerns. “On second thought,” Gabrielle lifted her chin. “I think tomorrow will be soon enough for our discussion.” She smiled at Megan’s relief and tilted her head to indicate Karis. “Karis will show me the way.”

The thought of having the Queen visit their home was rather daunting. She would almost rather stay and worry about the others just so the woman wouldn’t see the house, but she thought since the Queen wasn’t arriving until tomorrow they could all get to bed early and then at least straighten up and dust a bit in the morning before she got there. Nodding agreement, Megan held out her hand. “Com’on Amber. It’s time to go.” She saw the child’s hesitation and gesturing, coaxed the little girl from her coveted seat. “Michael may have brought back some nice fat rabbits by now, and maybe Piper will feel like playing for us tonight.” A few candlemarks of dancing and she figured she would be able to get them all to sleep early then she could possibly get some cleaning done tonight.

Amber grumbled at the enticement. “The one he brought back yesterday wasn’t fat at all.” She reluctantly gave in to Gabrielle’s gentle hands helping her down and sighed as she walked away from the head table.

Gabrielle doubted she was meant to hear the child’s murmuring comment but thought about it even after Megan had led her out the door. “Karis?”

“Yes, my Queen?” The guard was still a bit uncertain of her relationship with the Queen and so she tried to be very formal, especially in front of all the other royalty that was present.

Gabrielle began carving the roast rabbit now being set in front of her. “How many children does Megan take care of?”

“I counted fourteen my Queen.” Karis nodded at the widening green eyes. “but I can’t be sure that was all of them.”

‘Sweet Artemis.’ She thought. ‘Fifteen mouths to feed!” Gabrielle’s respect for Megan edged up a notch. Placing a large portion of succulent meat on Solan’s plate, she stopped short of cutting it into bite sized chunks for him. Xena’s questioning voice stopped any comment her son was about to make.

“Are you sure there were that many?” The Warrior Princess was dismayed and thrilled at the number. Dismayed that there were so many children in the same situation and thrilled because with that number there was a way to solve the situation easily, if things worked out the way she thought they would.

“Yes.” Karis cautiously sipped the wine from her goblet. “At least that many.”

Gabrielle’s curious look garnered her a twinkling blue wink before the rest of the royalty began arriving in the dining hall. Lao Ma’s entrance with her son caused another wave of silence to crash across the room as the eastern leaders made their way to the same seats they were assigned last night.

The Conqueror studied the woman as she walked toward them. ‘She is very beautiful.’ The Warrior Princess agreed. ‘She always will be.’ Gabrielle’s low voice interrupted her evaluation.

“Trade with me Xena.” The Amazon Queen stood and rubbed her mid-section again. “I want to be able to talk to Lao Ma without breaking a rib in the process.”

Standing quickly, the Warrior Princess’ large hand examined the injured area and whispered. “I can kiss it and make it better.”

Laughing at the offer, Gabrielle patted the hand on her stomach and let her eyes meet her love’s. “Later.”

Grinning at the familiar promise, the Conqueror lifted the smaller woman in a hug and finding her ear whispered. “I do love later.” Twirling to exchange places, Xena set the Queen back on her feet and kissed her quickly before settling into her familiar seat with an exaggerated sigh.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes at her lover’s mock relief and settled into her own chair just as Lao Ma adjusted to her own sitting position. The eastern leader’s soft voice floated through the muted silence in the room.

“Interesting that you exchange places so easily.” Dark brown eyes regarded the woman next to her but the answer to her response came from farther down the table.

“Gabrielle has every right to sit here. Her word is law.” The Conqueror swept her gaze around the table. “Just as much as mine.” They took note of which leaders nodded acceptance and which ones hesitated to respond.

Lao Ma nodded immediately at the statement. She had known that the women’s souls were intertwined since the Amazon Queen had chastized her son. ‘Each are a part of the other.’ She thought. ‘I’m not sure the young one is ready for such responsibility though and I think she knows it.’ Turning a peaceful smile on the young Queen, Lao Ma tilted her head in question. “You would make decisions that effect the world?” She wasn’t surprised by the answer.

“No.” Gabrielle bit back a grin at the gasps around the table before she reached for Xena’s hand. “I won’t make any decision that doesn’t directly involve Amazons, without discussing it with Xena first.”

“But you could.” The Conqueror smiled and raised the small hand to their lips, kissing the knuckles lightly. “My love for you makes it so.”

Smiling at the gentle lips on her hand, Gabrielle nodded and let herself drown in a sea of blue. “And my love for you assures that the Amazons will follow you anywhere.”

The gathered leaders murmured at the unexpected statements. For Xena to give the Amazon such power was absolutely amazing and although Xena’s army was known for their fighting skills, the thought of Amazons fighting on Xena’s side was daunting. Brutus watched those who had been slow to accept Gabrielle’s elevated status and nearly laughed as they realized the implication of the small woman’s declaration. No one would be stupid enough to lead a rebellion against Amazon fighters!

Gabrielle ignored the murmurs of the diners around her, floating in a moment of peaceful blue. She grinned as her stomach made it’s intentions known and mumbling an apology to Lao Ma for not continuing their conversation, the Amazon dropped Xena’s hand and again amazed the gathered royalty, this time by consuming more food than any of them had thought humanly possible, at least not for such a small person. She was glad to see that Xena was keeping up with her for a short time. ‘She will need all her strength, later.’ The Queen smiled and shivered at the pleasant thought.

—————————————————————————-

Gabrielle smiled as she took the last bite of her sweet apple dumpling dessert and even as she was still chewing, exchanged her plate for one with a large hunk of nutbread on it. Swallowing the apple treat, she realized the diners pleasant background banter had stopped and looked around the table. All eyes were on her. “What?”

Grinning at the puzzled look, the Warrior Princess gestured to the room in general, the pile of empty dishes in front of them and the remaining plate of nutbread. “They are waiting for you to take one more bite and explode.”

Brutus addressed Gabrielle. “If I may be so bold your Majesty, where do you put it all?” He was aware of the Amazon guard’s bristling and the young Prince’s eyes narrowing in his direction. He was extremely glad for the non-threatening noise from the warrior.

Smirking at Xena’s chuckle, Gabrielle answered as she raised a bite of bread to her lips. “It takes a lot of energy to be me.” Seeing all the female guests around the table blush furiously and glance at Xena, Gabrielle swallowed her bite, sipped her juice and clarified. “Life as an Amazon is not an easy one, not even for me.”

One of the red faced women lost her demureness in a moment of confusion. “But you are a Queen!”

“No Ma’am.” Karis had held her tongue at the Roman’s obvious admiration of her Queen but this woman’s term needed corrected. “She is THE Queen and any of us would do anything to ease her burdens, if she would let us.”

The woman Karis addressed widened her eyes as the Empress raised one perfect eyebrow and chuckled. “I do believe Karis just called you stubborn, my love.” Xena’s eyes twinkled at the mock indignation Gabrielle affected and playfully asked. “Shall I have her killed?” Her playful expression was wiped away by the sudden stillness in the room.

Gabrielle ignored her tense dinner companions and sized up Karis thoughtfully. “Hmmmm… unnecessary I think.” She smiled as the diners let out their breaths. “It is, after all, the truth.” Silence from the warrior widened the Amazon’s green eyes slightly and a chuckle from her right drew her attention.

“It is a wise woman who knows when not to speak.” Lao Ma smiled at the Imperial couple.

Laughing at that Gabrielle popped another bite of nutbread into her mouth. Pushing herself up from the table, she cupped Xena’s strong jaw in her hand and traced the warrior’s cheekbone with her thumb. “I’m going for a walk in the statue garden. “Join me?”

“Actually, I have some things to do. I’ll met you back in the room later okay?” The Warrior Princess gritted her teeth against her dark sister’s inevitable remark, surprised when there was no protest. ‘You are right.’ The Conqueror’s reluctant voice floated through their head. ‘We do have things to do.’ She was glad that Gabrielle would be distracted for a little while. The Amazon’s low voice nearly made her change her mind though.

“Later then.” Green eye’s twinkled down for a long moment before turning on Lao Ma. “Will you join me for a walk?”

“I would be honored.” Lao Ma rose gracefully, nodding to Xena then following the co-leader of the world out the door.

Xena watched the women leave and pushed the slight worry out of her mind. ‘What will they talk about?’ The Conqueror wasn’t sure she liked the idea of their former lover talking to Gabrielle. ‘She never knew us the way Gabrielle does.’ The Warrior Princess knew Lao Ma had never known when she was present. Gabrielle’s ability to always know who she was talking to had always amazed her. ‘Yeah well, back then we didn’t talk much either.’ The Conqueror could feel the anger in her build just from the memory of those days.

Slight movement from the corner of her eye drew her attention to her former lover’s brooding son. Ignoring the slightly sneering young man, she stood and regarded the young couple to her left. The large bruise on Solan’s face forced a pang of regret through her and she moved her attention to the Amazon next to him. ‘If you ask her to come, he will come too.’ The Warrior Princess didn’t want him along for this. The Conqueror, naturally, disagreed with the evaluation. ‘He has to learn.’ She also wasn’t above putting another small scare into both of them and lowered her voice to a growl. “Karis, come with me.”

Karis rose quickly and Solan scrambled to his feet. “I’m coming too!” He breathed deeply to calm the sudden pang of fear his mother’s tone caused in him. The memory of Gabrielle’s reassurance that Xena wouldn’t hurt Karis was enough to get him over the worst of his anxiety quickly but even so, his mother was a very intimidating woman. He knew that any punishment Xena saw fit to give them should be his to bear as well as Karis’. The decision to take their relationship to a physical level was definitely mutual.

‘He’s scared of us.’ The Warrior Princess was furious that her dark sister insisted on terrorizing the young couple. ‘They didn’t listen to us and deserve any terror they get.’ The Conqueror was not happy that her lighter side was going to let such blatent disobedience to the ‘sleep only’ rule slide. ‘They are in love. How would you feel if someone told you to stay away from Gabrielle?’ The gentle reminder and question didn’t change the Conqueror’s mind. ‘That’s different.’ Her stubborn tone signaled the end of the argument and she stalked out of the dining hall, ignoring the furtive glances of her guests, confident that Solan and Karis were following as closely as they dared.

———————————

Gabrielle and Lao Ma walked through the statue garden in relative silence until they reached a pair of seats on either side of a covered wishing well. As the leaders settled into their respective seats their guards took positions around them to secure the area. Lao Ma’s two protectors stood a respectful distance back but were close enough to help if there was trouble. Gabrielle’s four guards were not as lienient. The Amazons basically circled their Queen permitting a break only to allow Gabrielle a line of sight to her eastern peer.

“Your guards are very…… attentive.” The night’s gentle breeze carried Lao Ma’s amusement with her comment.

“Yes.” Gabrielle eyed the hovering guards. “Too much so at times.” At her annoyed gesture, her guards moved back to a reasonable distance. All of them were a bit upset at the chastizement.

Smiling at the instantaneous compliance with the small woman’s hand motion, Lao Ma tilted her head slightly. “They are very disciplined too.”

Gabrielle regretted berating her guards even jokingly and returned the eastern ruler’s smile. “Amazon Royal Guards are the best at what they do.” She grinned at the now blushing guards. “They have to be to put up with me.” Arching her eyebrow, she challenged them to argue with her. None of them did.

Lao Ma sympathized with the Amazons, knowing that if anyone else had insulted their Queen like that the person would have been in serious trouble, but when the person was Gabrielle herself they were helpless to protest the slight. She was about to make a comment when one of Xena’s lackey’s hesitantly approached them.

Salmoneous bowed courteously to Lao Ma and then turned to Gabrielle. Wringing his hands, the man didn’t know exactly how to begin and was silent for a long moment.

Seeing his distress, Gabrielle smiled to try and alleve his worry. “Is there a problem Salmoneous?”

“Well, um, yes,” He held up his hands and added quickly. ” ….sort of.” He looked into her concerned green eyes and hated what he had to tell her. The idea of disappointing this gentle woman was suddenly heartbreaking. He grimaced at the words as he spoke them. “I don’t know who or why but it seems that vandals have trashed the Temple of Artemis.” He nearly dropped to his knees in apology. “I don’t know how we will ever get it ready in time for the wedding ceremony tomorrow night.”

Gabrielle wiggled her fingers in apparent contemplation of the news but she actually just wanted to feel the reassuring weight of the ring on her finger. ‘As far as I’m concerned we are already married.’ She thought. ‘I don’t really care where the ceremony is held here.’ She could see the man’s breathing increase the longer she remained silent so she patted his nervous hands. “It’s okay. Just move the ceremony to the outer reception hall.” She bit back a laugh at the almost comic relief on his face. “We will have a celebration in the village Temple later to appease the Amazons.” She grinned as from the corner of her eye, Gabrielle saw Norin about to burst. Gossip this juicy was going to be spread quickly. The party for the Queen’s wedding would be a spectacular event and all the guards present knew it.

Salmoneous nodded gratefully. “Yes of course I’ll begin the preparations right away.” He quickly thought of all the work the new location would need to be ready for tomorrow night and sighed, wondering if he would be able to find enough staff to do the job correctly.

Hesitating for a heartbeat, Gabrielle gestured to her guards. Two immediately came forward and dropped to one knee.

“Yes, My Queen?” The voices were in perfect sync. Gabrielle breifly wondered how long they had practiced that before shaking the thought from her head.

“Kayden. Norin. Go with Salmoneous and help him with the preparations.” She smiled at the man as the two rose and stood ready to accompany him. “Recruit as many other Amazons as you need.”

“Yes your majesty, of course, thank you your majesty.” He switched his thinking from what needed to be done, to how many people it would take to do it. Lao Ma’s gentle question pulled him out of his thoughts.

“Shouldn’t you ask Xena?” The ruler had remained silent during the interview and even now her question was directed at the man not the Amazon Queen.

“Ahhh…” The bearded man rolled his eyes, searching for the right way to phrase his response finding no alternative but the truth. “No. I have strict orders from Xena. A simple rule that is to be followed without question.”

Gabrielle grinned slightly as Lao Ma prompted. “And that rule is?”

He shrugged. “What Gabrielle want’s, Gabrielle gets.” He rubbed his hands together and regarded his new assistants with dawning hope. “C’mon ladies. We have work to do.”

There was silence between the leaders until the party planners had disappeared. Lao Ma’s peaceful tone drifted through the night. “That’s some rule.”

“It makes Xena feel better to tell people that.” The Amazon regarded her companion thoughtfully. “We all want to give the people we love the world, and the moon, and the stars.”

Lao Ma nodded. “Of course, but very few of us actually have the hope of getting it.” She smiled. “You are in the enviable position to actually recieve the world. The power you were given tonight is quite considerable.” With an amused twinkle in her eye Lao Ma waited for the Amazon to continue the conversation.

“I won’t use it.” Gabrielle could feel herself teetering on the slippery edge of that power. Once she started down that path, wielding the power Xena had given her, there would be no turning back. The nervous energy that thought brought took a bit to get under control.

“You are very wise.” Lao Ma watched her young companion wrestle with her thoughts and offered some advice. “The entire world is driven by a will, blind and ruthless. In order to transcend the limitations of that world you need to stop willing, stop desiring, stop hating. Heaven endures and the world lasts a long time because they do not live for themselves.”

Gabrielle recognized the phrase from the copied book of wisdom her scouts had brought back from Chin. However, Amazons had their own philosophy regarding life and the journey it takes you on. “We all visit the precipice. Each one of us has to find our own way down.”

Lao Ma nodded. “Yes but the wisdom to know the best way down is hard to come by.”

Nodding, Gabrielle rose slowly from her seat. “Yes, but each day infuses us with the knowledge we carry into tomorrow.” Gesturing to a path that led deeper into the statue garden, Gabrielle linked elbows with the philosophical eastern leader and they began a lengthy discussion of their different beliefs as they toured the torchlit pathways.

————————————————–

Karis watched Xena pacing through the shadows ahead of them. The Amazon kept her eyes on the woman’s catlike movement’s and breifly wondered where they were going. It was a good bet that Xena wasn’t taking them out for a night of fun at the Festival. She gasped when she understood where they were headed. She hadn’t realized their destination in time to prepare herself but wasn’t sure she could have prepared for the sight anyway. Stopping next to Xena’s still form, Karis looked up and swallowed hard as she felt Solan’s hand slip into hers. She wanted to turn to him. She wanted to reassure him and tell him that he would never have to do this to anyone, even though the possibility existed. The problem was she couldn’t turn away from the sight of Callisto on the cross.

The resistance leader’s wavy blonde hair covered her face as her head hung forward, the ropes cutting into her wrists unleashed bright rivulets of blood to run over old paths already dried in the afternoon sun. Karis could tell that the woman’s breathing was labored but she didn’t know if it was from being tied to the cross or from the obvious extreme pain her legs were causing her. The limbs hung limply from her body, bruised, swollen and at the moment, possibly for the rest of the life, useless. The Amazon tightened her hand on Solan’s when she heard Xena speak.

“Karis do you agree the sentence for kidnapping Gabrielle and Solan has been carried out?” The Conqueror turned to the shocked Amazon and placed her hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Karis?”

Not trusting herself to speak, Karis pulled herself up a bit straighter and nodded once. The iron in Xena’s voice sent chills through her.

“Cut her down.” Her voice sounded cold even to her. The sight left the Warrior Princess speechless because it reminded her of the pain they had gone through at the hands of Caesar. ‘I killed Caesar for that.’ The Conqueror was not happy about leaving the woman alive. She had tried to kill Gabrielle. ‘Gabrielle is the one who asked for lenience.’ The Warrior Princess was ashamed to admit it but she had been glad when her dark sister took care of Caesar and she didn’t really want Callisto left alive either. The Conqueror laughed, much to the dismay of the young couple next to her and the guards carrying the prisoner inside the prison. ‘Sometimes I do like the way you think. Can we go now?’ Her task was finished for the evening and she wanted to get back to Gabrielle. ‘No, there are a couple more things I have to take care of.’ The Warrior Princess was surprised when her dark sister gave up control quickly and she turned to Karis. “Take me to see the orphan children.” She wanted to check out the children’s house for herself, just to be sure Gabrielle would be safe tomorrow. Not that she didn’t trust Karis’ assessment but when it came to Gabrielle it was better to be safe than sorry.

Shaking the memory of Callisto’s torment out of her head, Karis focused on the task at hand and nodded. “Of course, I was going to go back and check it out tonight anyway.” Gabrielle’s safety was too important to risk, even though there really was no longer a threat from the resistance. Her lover’s small voice nearly broke her heart.

“What will happen to her?” Solan couldn’t tear his eyes away from the prison door.

Xena regarded her son for a long moment before she answered honestly. “The healer will dress her legs and, when they are healed enough to bend, she will be put back in the chair for the rest of her natural life.” She tried to smile at the young man. “C’mon.”

“I can’t go there with you.” The beat in Solan’s chest punctuated every word. “And I don’t mean to the orphan’s house.”

Loving blue eyes studied his face quietly before she smiled. “I know what you mean.” She reached out and gently traced his uninjured cheek with her thumb. “You are so much like your father. He was more into treaties and alliances than killing and torture.” She almost laughed at the incredulous looks on both young people’s faces and ammended. “But he didn’t hesitate in battle.” Dropping her hands to her side she continued holding her son’s eyes with her own. “He was a great man and would have been a great leader, almost as good as the one you will be someday.”

“I have a lot to learn.” He liked it when Xena talked about his father as more than the monster most people did. There were places where the name Borias still carried a tinge of fear with it and he knew that his father wasn’t always a nice man, but somehow when Xena talked about him the admiration in her voice made him think that if Borias had lived, his father would have loved him.

“You’ll learn.” It was a sad promise on their part because both the Warrior Princess and the Conqueror knew it was very likely that one day their son would know the heartache of ordering a death he didn’t actually want. ‘Like Marcus.’ The Conqueror still regretted that and was glad the Warrior Princess had suggested they at least make his death honorable, even though she had left most of the actual fighting and the killing blow to her. ‘You always do the killing.’ The Warrior Princess reminded her matter-of-factly and wasn’t surprised at the odd mix of sadness and glee in her dark sister’s reply. ‘I know.’

Solan glanced at the dark doorway to the prison. “There are some things I’m not sure I want to learn.”

Nodding, Xena smiled sadly. “There are some things I wish you didn’t have to learn either.” Draping her arm around his shoulder, she shook him slightly. “But ruling isn’t all bad.” She gestured to Karis to proceed and as they followed the guard Xena explained some of the good things a person with power can do.

——————————————————————-

Gabrielle and Lao Ma walked through the rapidly cooling night in companionable silence. Their long discussion of just about every topic, including Xena had ended several moments ago and neither woman cared to break the freindly silence until the cool night breeze made Gabrielle smile.

“Yum!” She inhaled the delicious fragrance again. Her face lit up when she identified the scent. “Muffins!”

Chuckling at her companions glee, Lao Ma followed closely behind the younger woman. Lost in thought, wondering how Gabrielle could possibly be hungry after the huge dinner she ate, she nearly slammed into the still form of the younger woman. The abrupt stop was explained by the silent tableu surrounding the kitchen’s large outdoor hearth.

A woman was lying on the ground holding her side. Standing over her was a man not much bigger than her but his large fist was still clenched around a short rather thick branch. It was very obvious that he had hit her with it. Gabrielle felt her heartrate increase as she flashed back to the morning in Potedia when Perdicus hit her sister. Quickly checking to make sure Lao Ma’s guards were going to keep her away from the rabble, she let the anger she felt at the scene flash in her eyes. “What is going on here?”

He looked up at the new arrivals, tossed the weapon aside and unclenched his jaw. “Stay out of this. It’s none of your business.”

“Wrong!” Gabrielle made a gesture and her two remaining guards emerged from the shadows, moving quickly to help the woman. “This is most definately my business.” She waited for the guards to help the groaning woman to her before she broke her eye contact with the man. Turning her attention to the woman she gently examined her injuries. The bruise spreading on her abdomen was nasty but Gabrielle couldn’t feel any obvious broken ribs. What most concerned her was the small but growing bump on her head from where she fell. She gently questioned the silent woman. “Do you have a headache?” Gabrielle pursed her lips when the woman nodded and winced at the motion. The Queen looked at her guards. “Take her to the healers.” Holding up her hand she answered their unspoken protest at leaving her unattended. “I will be fine.” She patted their backs and urged them on toward the Palace infirmary. “She needs to be attended to.”

“Lady I don’t know who you are, but you have no right to interfere in this.” The pointed in the direction the guards had taken. “I don’t know about where you come from, but here in Corinth we have rules. That was my wife.”

Holding eye contact, Gabrielle drawled. “Too bad for her.”

He was angry now, more so than when he had lashed out. “She slaves away here in this kitchen, cooking for you royals and all she brings home are a few lousy dinars a month.”

Gabrielle longed for the feel of a staff in her hands and asked a question she thought she probably already knew the answer to. “And what do you do?”

Hatred burned in his eyes as his fists clenched at his side. “Nothing right now. Bastard wagon builder hates me, but a friend of mine is going to get me on as a guard.” It was a longshot gamble but he thought it might be worth the risk and he invoked the Empress in his argument. “Xena likes me.”

Gabrielle closed the distance between them, glad her guards weren’t there to stop her. She looked up into the slightly taller man’s eyes and never breaking eye contact, smiled sweetly. “Bet she likes me better.”

Furious that his ploy hadn’t worked, the man raised his fist to hit the unflinching woman in front of him. A low voice from the darkness stopped his raised hand at the top of it’s swing.

“Finish that strike and die where you stand.” Solari could feel all eyes on her as she emerged from the darkness, her bow held ready to back up her threat.

He looked over his victim’s shoulder at the two arrows nocked in the bow and for a second thought that they were intended for his eyes. ‘No one could make a shot like that!’ He thought, very much aware his fist was still ready to strike. “You have no right to interfere!”

“Well, sir…” The archer sneered the title and wished Gabrielle would move away from the man. “I would have beaten you senseless for what you did to the woman in the infirmary. But you are about to hit my Queen and for that, I’ll kill you.” She smiled as all the blood drained from his face.

“Don’t kill him Solari.” Gabrielle backed away as heavy booted footsteps approached. When she was far enough away, she turned her back on the man and smiled at the approaching guard.

“Palemon! Good to see you.” She didn’t fake the relief she felt at the man’s arrival. There was no doubt that she or Solari could have handled the situation but she was very reluctant to use the power Xena had so recently bestowed on her.

Xena’s head guard slowed to a halt and nodded to the small woman. “Your Majesty.” He looked around. “One of the healer’s said there might be some trouble here.” His eyes narrowed at the scene.

“Yes.” Gabrielle indicated the man. “Take him to the prison until Xena has a chance to deal with him.”

“Xena herself can’t do anything to me.” The man was adament now. “That was my wife.” He recovered the stick he had used as a weapon. “And this is what I hit her with.” He handed it to Palemon and held up his right thumb.

The head guard sent a shocked glance at the watching crowd then questioned the man incredulously. “You are invoking the rule of thumb?” Palemon hated that rule and he hated men like this. He knew that there was no reason to ever hit a defenseless woman. Pushing aside the thought of Trisha’s blue eyes filled with pain, he took the stick and compared it to the man’s hand. Cursing lightly, he announced the results. “The weapon is smaller than his thumb.” The guard gritted his teeth and reluctantly admitted. “There is nothing I can do.”

“No?” Gabrielle waited for the more serious charge to be summarily dismissed before she spoke. “He threatened to hit me.” She looked at Palemon. “Take him to the prison and hold him until Xena has a chance to sentence him.”

Grabbing the man immediately, the guard pulled a length of rope from his belt and quickly tied the abuser’s hands behind his back. He was extremely thankful that the added offense gave him an excuse to take the man away. He had been wishing for the opportunity to toss the man in jail for some time. Holding the jerk by the back of his collar he bowed to Gabrielle. “I’m sorry your evening was interrupted, your majesty. Please don’t trouble yourself with this matter anymore.”

Gabrielle watched the guard roughly shoving his prisoner toward the jail and bit her lips together when Palemon’s guiding hand slammed the man into the wall next to the gate, twice, before pushing him through the opening. She imagined the prison door would feel the impact of the man’s face a few times too, before he was finally taken to his cell. Sniffing, Gabrielle rubbed her nose and cleared her throat, mostly to cover the small laugh that escaped her, before she turned to Solari. “Good timing.”

“I was getting some herbs for Jana when they brought the woman in.” Solari shrugged. “Right place at the right time I guess.”

“Mmmmm… I guess so.” Gabrielle picked up a basket and grinned. “Lucky me.”

Now that the confrontation was over Lao Ma’s guards allowed her to move forward. “Why didn’t you just sentence him? You have the authority, he threatened your life.”

The Amazon Queen placed a large muffin in the basket she was holding and smiled. “I rule over the Amazons.” Glancing once at Solari, she put another muffin in the basket and continued. “I don’t want to abuse the power Xena has seen fit to bestow on me.” She sighed. “Even though I was, in this case, sorely tempted.”

“You are very wise.” Lao Ma bowed and smiled when Gabrielle returned the gesture. “And I am very tired. Please forgive me but I really must retire for the evening.”

“Of course. It was very nice talking to you.” Bowing again, Gabrielle watched the eastern leader enter the Palace before she finished filling the basket she held with the rapidly cooling baked goods. Handing the treats to the nearest servant she smiled. “Take these to my son’s room.” Picking up one of the larger examples of the cooks handiwork she absently tore off a bite, delighting when it melted in her mouth. “Mmmm…. Have Mirriam bring some of these to Xena’s room too.” She laughed as a runner was immediately dispatched to find Mirriam. Satisfied that everything was in order here, she walked back toward Solari and motioned her to walk with her into the Palace. “How is Jana?”

“She is doing fine, my Queen.” The archer was very proud of her love’s progress. She knew the guard was still in a lot of pain but she never complained. She kept her pride to herself though as well as some of the healer’s report, although she should have known Gabrielle would have already known it.

“Fine?” The small blonde tore another bite from her snack and chewed thoughtfully. “But the healers say the trip home will be hard on her?” Casting her eyes sideways, Gabrielle saw a slight blush creep into Solari’s cheeks.

“Yes, my Queen.” Jana had begged her not to tell anyone about the healer’s prediction, but Gabrielle already knew. “They say moving now could damage her legs further and she may never be able to use them properly again.”

Nodding at the admission, Gabrielle swallowed her bite and smiled. “We’ll see what we can do about that.” They walked in silence as she finished her snack. Arriving at her room just as the last bite was swallowed, Gabrielle pushed open the door and for a moment was glad that Xena wasn’t back yet. She glanced at the pile of her packs the guards had stacked in the corner, then did a double take. Moving quickly, she searched the pile and sighed. “One of my packs is missing.”

Solari was immediately by her side. “Are you sure? We were very thorough.”

“Yes. It’s light brown with red laces.” All the packs here were dark brown with black laces. Gabrielle ran her fingers through her hair and looked at Solari’s shocked face. “What?”

Solari could feel the blush heating up her cheeks. “During the trip here, some of the packs fell off the wagons. They got mixed up so we looked inside to see who’s was who’s.”

Gabrielle felt a smile tugging at her lips but swallowed it and prompted. “And?”

“Well, that one…..” Solari didn’t know how to say this so she just got it all out in a rush. “I sent that one to the camp with the prison supplies.”

Supressing a laugh but not a smile, Gabrielle raised her eyebrows. “Prison supplies? I’m going to have to pay closer attention to our system then.” She put a bit of mischief in her eyes and asked. “How many prisoners do you know that rate silk ropes and soft leather restraints?”

The blush burned the tips of her ears now. “Um…. ”

Letting her laughter spill out, she waved off Solari’s response. “Nevermind.” Sitting on one of the big comfy chairs by the fireplace, she leaned back and closed her eyes. “Just bring me the pack.” Solari was nearly out of the room when she remembered Amber’s whisper, “Solari?”

“Yes, my Queen?” The gaurd halted mid-step.

“Who else besides Karis knows where the children live?” She didn’t want to compromise the location too much, until she knew more about the situation.

Solari thought for a moment. “I belive Ana was the one who tracked Karis to the place.”

“Send Ana to me then.” Gabrielle had a very special assignment for her.

Bowing, Solari was grateful to exit the room and for the chance to go back to camp. She wanted to make sure Jana was doing okay before she started her shift on guard duty. “As you wish, my Queen.”

Gabrielle relaxed back into the cushion and rested her eyes for a long moment after she heard Solari exit, listening to the music from the Festival, waiting for Xena to arrive.

———————————————————————–

Xena crept slowly up to the window. Karis and Solan were both on lookout, so she felt fairly safe turning most of her attention into the house. They had all heard the pipe music as they approached but Xena was amazed at who was playing. Recalling Megan’s comment to Amber at dinner about getting Piper to play for them, the Warrior Princess decided that ‘Piper’ must be his nickname. She was fascinated by the boy’s fingers flying over the pan flute and almost echoed the children’s disappointment when the song was over. Megan’s laughter drew the Warrior Princess’ attention.

“Now now.. Piper is tired.” She smiled tolerantly at the young musician. “You know we don’t want to make him sick again.”

That comment warranted a more critical appraisal of the boy. The Warrior Princess looked at him with narrowed blue eyes. He was fairly thin, but his eyes were bright so he was obviously recovering from whatever illness he had experienced. An appraisal of the rest of the children garnered similar results because they were all fairly thin, but they all seemed rather happy. Her estimation of Megan and Michael went up a notch. ‘This may work out okay after all.’ The thought was met with a sulking Conqueror’s silence but she didn’t care and continued to watch the scene inside.

“It’s time for all good little children to be in bed now.” Megan smiled as they all groaned and the older children began helping the younger one’s move toward a door in the back. Her smile disappeared as Amber remained where she was. “Amber, I said it was time for bed.”

“No. You said bedtime for good children.” The little girl swung her legs off the chair. “I’m not good so I get to stay up.” She had been inadvertantly reminded, while talking to the Queen, that she was bad and that her mother didn’t want her.

Megan’s heart broke for the child and she wished she knew something to say, that the little girl would believe. Kneeling in front of the chair, Megan rested her arms on the girl’s lap and looked her in the eye. “You are not bad. You are one of the best little girls I know.” She reached up to hold the little girl’s bowing head up. “And I know a lot of them. Okay?”

Amber nodded slowly. “Okay Mama.”

Smiling, Megan whispered. “Okay.” She opened her arms and gestured the girl forward. “Com’ere.”

Amber hugged the older girl’s neck and rested her head on the broad shoulder. “I love you Mama.”

Megan wiped a tear from her own eye before she answered. “I love you too honey.” With a deep breath, she pushed aside the emotional moment and poked the little girl in the side lightly. “Hang on now.”

Giggling at the poke, Amber doubled her grip. Megan stood with an exaggerated grunt. “Wow.. you are getting to be a big girl.” She leaned back to look at the child’s face. “You better stop going to big fancy dinners and sitting on Queen’s laps.” She tickled the girl’s belly and echoed the contagious giggle.

“That was fun though.” Amber caught her breath. “Is she really coming here tomorrow?”

“Yes.” Megan looked around the room, seeing only the mess tonight’s dancing had made. “That is why we all need to get some sleep.” As she carried Amber back to the sleeping rooms, she tried not to think about what might happen to them when Xena realized that she and Michael were only fifteen.

The Warrior Princess watched the older girl carry Amber through the door in the back. ‘She is a good mother.’ The Conqueror sneered. ‘Not like ours.’ The Warrior Princess clenched her teeth at her dark sister’s comment. ‘Don’t start!’ The Conqueror’s laugh came with her as she stalked to where Karis was waiting and growled at the guard. “We’ve seen enough.” Knowing that Solan would be protected, she didn’t wait for the guard. She simply started walking toward the one person who could calm the turmoil her dark sister caused in her heart.

——————————————————

Solan saw Xena speak to Karis and he joined the guard quickly. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know.” Karis was worried. “She seemed upset.”

“Should we go with her?” Solan knew if Karis was worried then something was definately wrong.

Laughing, Karis looped her arm around his waist. “If we did, it would be to protect innocent bystanders. I wouldn’t want to cross Xena in the mood she is in now.”

Solan was immediately worried. “She is going to see Mom…….”

“She would never hurt her!” Karis smiled at her love’s concern and cupped his uninjured cheek in her hand. “She loves Gabrielle. Just like I know you would never hurt me, because you love me.” She kissed the slow smile spreading on Solan’s face. “See?”

Reassured by the words and the kiss, Solan understood but his eyes twinkled with mischief. “Ummm… I’m not sure…” He grinned at his love. “You wanna explain it again?”

Sighing, Karis shook her head sadly. “If I have to.” She grinned at the Prince’s laughter and kissed him again. “I’ll explain it all, in depth, when we get back to the room.” She was determined to make him understand, even if it took all night.

————————————————————————–

Xena stalked through the streets of Corinth, taking the most direct route back to the Palace meant traveling through the most populated part of the Festival. Her expression alone parted the crowd. As she passed the stage, the music died down and she was only aware of the silence in her wake until she heard someone actually addressing her.

“Empress. A moment please……” The voice from behind her trailed off as she whirled toward him.

“What!?” They were in no mood for delays; Gabrielle was waiting for them.

Palemon was taken back for a moment, then continued calmly. “We have a new prisoner I thought you should know about…….”

The Conqueror listened impatiently as the guard explained the situation, when he got to the part about the threat to Gabrielle she cursed vehemently and headed toward the prison.

Palemon was thrilled that Xena was going to take care of the man now. He could tell she was in terrible mood and hoped that translated into bad things for the jerk. He noticed the music start again as soon as Xena stepped off of the main festival street.

—————————————————————————–

The large door opening forced sleepy green eyes open. When she saw Mirriam set the tray of muffins and juices on the table she closed them again. A short time later the door opening again raised her heavy eyelids and she saw Ana waiting near the door and Solari approaching her. Lacing her fingers together she stretched her arms out in front of her and yawned. Rolling her neck, she stood and accepted the pack. “Thank you.”

“You are welcome, my Queen.” Solari bowed. “I’m sorry for the mix up.”

Gabrielle chuckled and thought. ‘I’ll bet you are.’ Waving away the apology she tossed the pack into the corner with the others. “No apologies necessary.” She heard the music die down and absently thought it was a funny place to stop the song. “You will be on duty tonight?”

“Yes, my Queen.” Solari nodded confirmation.

“Who else will be guarding my door?” Gabrielle wasn’t sure how well sound traveled through the thick doors, but she wanted to guards to be prepared for whatever they might hear. Although, it was getting very late and if Xena didn’t arrive soon she would be alseep before they even got started.

“Bekka.” Solari had never really had a chance to get to know the young guard so she hoped to possibly get a conversation going tonight. As second in command, she was trying to get to know all the members of the Royal Guard a bit better.

Nodding at the choice, Gabrielle smiled. “Okay, just checking.” Bekka had been on duty many times during Xena’s stay in the village. She returned to her chair and smiled. “That will be all.”

Bowing, Solari grinned. “Have a nice night, my Queen.”

Laughing, Gabrielle ran her hand through her hair and looked seriously at the guard. “I’ll try.”

Solari smiled and left quickly to take up her post.

At a gesture from her Queen, Ana moved forward quickly and knelt. “You wished to see me?”

“You know where the children are?” Gabrielle smiled and reached out to help the guard rise.

Accepting the hands, Ana nodded. “Yes.”

“Good.” The Queen patted the tracker’s hands and then surrounded her shoulders with one arm, leading her back to the door. “Then here is what I want you to do…………”

Ana listened carefully to her orders, a slow smile spread across her face as she thought of her Queen’s soft heart. When her instructions were finished she nodded once. “It will be done.” Bowing, Ana left quickly to organize her morning task.

Gabrielle chuckled and after changing into her favorite white silk robe, she sat back in the chair. Closing her eyes, she listened to the music that had resumed and wondered what Xena was doing.

————————————————————-

The Warrior Princess was furious that someone had threatened Gabrielle and they weren’t there to protect her. She wasn’t furious enough to keep the Conqueror from taking control though. It was after all part of their agreement. This was the Conqueror’s domain, she ruled here. ‘You just don’t have the stomach for what I do.’ The Conqueror’s taunt was well placed and correct, the Warrior Princess doubted she could ever do the things the Conqueror did so easily. ‘Ha!’ The self-satisfied laugh rang through their head. ‘You just admitted you need me!’ When the jibe was met with silence the Conqueror turned her attention to the task at hand and stepped into the small cell Palemon indicated.

Six men were shackled to the walls of this room, two on each wall. She regarded them carefully, taking in their thin frames and shabby clothes before turning to the obvious new arrival. “I’m told you hit your wife and threatened to strike the Amazon Queen.”

“That little bitch had no right to interfere. I didn’t break the law.” He was very angry now.

A slow evil smile spread across the Conqueror’s face. Her eyes became ice as the other prisoner’s urged him to keep quiet. The Warrior Princess knew it was much too late for that as her dark sister chuckled. “Maybe you don’t know the law as well as you think.”

“Of course I do.” He sneered. “As long as the stick isn’t any bigger ’round than my right thumb, I can hit her whenever I have reason.”

The Conqueror licked her lips and moved closer to the chained man. Leaning in she whispered in his ear. “Guess who gets to say if your reason is valid.” She laughed as the blood drained from his face. She turned to see Palemon’s grinning face and ordered. “Bring him.”

The guard reached for his keys and quickly unlocked the shackles from the wall, pulling the man after the Conqueror’s disappearing form.

“What is she going to do to me.” The man was terrified now.

Palemon dragged him down the corridor. “I don’t know but if she doesn’t kill you it will be less than you deserve.” The guard grinned when he saw Xena disappear into the sentence room and urged his reluctant prisoner faster with savage jerks on the chains.

When they arrived, the Conqueror was examining the wide array of axes hanging on the wall. She waved to Palemon absently. “Right hand. You know what to do.”

The guard nodded and moved to chain the man to the large executioner’s block that stood in the middle of the room. After attaching his left hand to a metal ring protruding from the side of the block, Palemon tied the man’s right hand flat on the top of the large wooden stump.

The Conqueror chose a medium sized cleaver and tested the edge with her thumb as she spoke. “Since there is no reason that could possibly justify you hitting your wife and I am in no mood to try and convince you of that, I am simply going to prevent you from ever using that law again.” Glancing down at his hand, fingers splayed out on top of the block, she looked into his eyes and brought the cleaver down. Holding his eyes for a moment longer, she smiled and spoke to Palemon. “Take him to the healer.”

Mesmerized by the blue eyes holding his, the prisoner’s forehead furrowed. ‘Healer?’ The order didn’t make sense to him until he felt a slow warmth making it’s way up his arm. Looking down he saw the cleaver neatly separating his thumb from his hand. The warmth turned to heat, then to pain and he started to scream.

Walking toward the exit of the prison, the Conqueror stopped at a large water basin and washed the spatter of blood off her arms and hands. Looking at the pink tinged water, she wondered for a moment how Gabrielle would react to the sentence she had carried out on the man. ‘You should have thought of that before.’ The Warrior Princess was sure that Gabrielle loved them but this was not a years old offense that could be forgiven as a past mistake. ‘I rule here. She as much as said so at dinner.’ The Conqueror tried to keep confidence in her voice. The Warrior Princess knew that the Conqueror was just as anxious to see their love as she was. ‘Let’s go.’ The prison wasn’t that far from the Palace but the short walk would give them a chance to collect their thoughts.

As she walked toward the Palace the large amount of activity there drew her attention. ‘What the…..’ Salmoneous’ voice gave her a target for her questions and she stalked over to the harried man. “What is going on here?”

“Xena!” The planner’s voice rose an octave at his surprise to see her. “I didn’t think you would be out this late.”

“What is going on here?” She saw that the reception hall was being prepared for a wedding, but the only wedding scheduled was her own and that was going to be held in the Temple. The blood drained from her face as she realized what had happened. ‘I trashed the temple.’ The Conqueror felt horrible at the turn her temper tantrum had caused and she lashed out. ‘You weren’t there to stop me!’ She cringed as the wry laugh rang through their head. ‘Ha! You just admitted you need me!’ The Conqueror retreated as her own words were thrown back at her. The Warrior Princess surveyed the workers and noted the large number of Amazons helping. “You asked Gabrielle and she said to move the ceremony here.” It was a statement but Salmoneous answered.

“Yes, your Majesty.” For a moment he thought he had done something wrong.

She nodded. “Well it seems as though you have everything under control.” She patted his shoulder and moved on, hoping there would be no more delays before she reached her room.

——————————————————–

Gabrielle floated on the edge of Morpheus’ realm, she heard the music drifting in on the breeze but was unsure if it was played by real or imaginary performers. A myriad of dream images flew past, warm arms surrounding her, her robe being removed, the momentary coolness of the silk sheets, the solid form of Xena sliding into bed next to her. It was the last one that forced her eyes open. “Xena?”

The warrior whispered. “Yes love?”

Wriggling to turn and drape her arm across the woman’s stomach, Gabrielle rested her head on the broad tan shoulder with a peaceful sigh.

Xena looked down at the sleeping woman with a half smile and stroked the honey red hair. “Yes, that’s right. Sleep now. We will talk about everything in the morning.” She was thankful for the delay in getting the Amazon’s reaction about having to move the ceremony. Realizing how tired she was too, she closed her eyes, content in the knowledge that they were safe in Gabrielle’s arms once again.

———————————————————

Part 11

A sudden lack of warmth next to her woke Xena quickly. She propped herself up on one elbow. “Gabrielle?” She saw her lover’s golden form pull on her white robe. “Where are you going?”

“Be right back love.” Gabrielle smiled and headed to the washroom.

Nodding, Xena laid back and snoozed for a few minutes. It wasn’t even dawn yet and this was going to be a very busy day. ‘Busy but great.’ The Warrior Princess was looking forward to the ceremony tonight and she knew the Conqueror was too. Gabrielle’s warm body sliding next to her drew her from her thoughts and she berated herself for missing the chance to watch the Amazon walk across the room. “You’re up early.” She hugged the woman, who was practically laying on top of her.

“Yeah well I was asleep earlier than you.” Gabrielle rested her chin on the warrior’s chest. “Sorry about that.”

“No worries love.” The Warrior Princess tapped the Amazon’s nose. “You had a long day, and you were tired.”

Sighing, Gabrielle replaced her chin with her ear and listened to the strong heart beating under the smooth skin. “I know, but…..”

“Ah…” Xena stroked the silky hair so conveniently under her hand. “No buts… you were tired, and quite frankly I wasn’t up to much beyond sleeping either.”

“Really?” The admission startled Gabrielle. Xena hardly ever admitted a weakness.

“Yeah.” The Warrior Princess sighed regretfully, then continued on a cheerier note. “And today is going to be very busy. We have a lot of things to do.”

“Yes.” Gabrielle agreed. There was one thing she wanted to do first. A promise of sorts that she needed to keep. “Can we….”

“Yes.” Xena’s immediate response cut off the rest of the Amazon’s request.

Gabrielle laughed and playfully slapped the warrior’s exposed shoulder. “You don’t even know what I was going to ask!”

“It doesn’t matter.” Intent blue eyes twinkled as she echoed the Amazon’s laughter. “Whatever it is, the answer is yes.”

Raising her eyebrows, the Amazon grinned and challenged. “Yeah? Well what if I’ve decided that I do want the stars?”

Cupping the Amazon’s cheek in her large hand, the Warrior Princess whispered. “Then I would have to find a way to get them for you.” She pulled the woman closer and captured the grinning lips with her own.

Melting into the kiss for a long moment, Gabrielle felt the same as she did when they were in Amphipolis. At this moment she knew, if she really did ask for the stars, Xena would get them for her. Unfortunately now was not the time and she reluctantly broke the kiss. “We need to go.”

“Where?” Xena was moving to rise even as she asked the question.

Smiling, Gabrielle changed into her favorite leathers. “I need to keep a promise. Alright?”

A childlike smile crossed Xena’s face. “Alright!”

——————————————————-

Megan felt the sun warm her face and groaned. She had worked late into the night straightening up the house. She was fairly satisfied with the appearance of the place now, as long as she could keep it that way until after the Queen’s visit. The sound of children laughing pulled another groan from her and she moved quickly to see what kind of damage they had done to her hard work.

“Why did you let me sleep so late?” She started speaking as she walked down the hall. The sudden silence at her voice worried her. “You know….. ” The sight that met her drove the thought away.

“SURPRISE!” All the children laughed at their Mama’s expression and they all moved forward into a giant group hug.

“What is going on here?” She couldn’t help smiling as she was bombarded with laughs and hugs.

“Oh c’mon sis!” Michael stepped forward and playfully punched her shoulder. “You know today is our birthday.”

In fact, she had completely forgotten. “Oh.”

A knocking on the door froze them all. Michael held up his hands for them to all stay were they were as he moved cautiously to the door. “Who’s there?” He frowned as the person on the other side of the door identified herself.

“My name is Ana. I bring a gift from the Amazon Queen.” The guard waited patiently outside the door. Gabrielle had explained that her gift may not be immediately received.

Michael was dubious but Amber made up his mind for him as she ran to the door and flung it open. Ana smiled down at the child who had captured all their hearts at dinner last night. “Hello Amber.”

“Hi!” The child peeked around the guard, disappointed that Gabrielle wasn’t there yet. “When will the Queen be here? Is Karis coming too? Will the handsome Prince be here too?”

Ana laughed. “She will be here later, I don’t know and I don’t know.” She reached down and pinched the girl’s rosy cheek. “But until the Queen arrives, she sent this for the party.” The tracker reached over and pulled a large basket into sight. Seeking out Megan, she asked. “May I come in?”

“Of course.” Megan gestured to Michael. “Help her.”

Ana bristled at accepting help from the boy, but relented only because there was a second basket to carry in as well. Setting the second basket on the table next to the one Michael placed there, Ana nodded to Megan. “Enjoy your birthday.” She winked at Amber as she exited. It was hard to resist the urge to stay and watch the party but with the wedding ceremony tonight she knew there was too much to do at the Palace to justify staying here. The children’s squeals of delight as they uncovered the contents of the baskets made it even harder not to look back through the window.

Megan was still stunned that the Queen had known it was their birthday then she remembered Amber whispering. ‘If she knows then Xena knows too.’ Her worries were overridden by small hands tugging her forward.

“Come and look at what the Queen sent!!” The children’s eyes gleamed up at their protector. “Have you ever seen so many treats?”

She looked at the baskets, and breathed deeply. “No I haven’t.” The children’s obvious glee chased away her fears for the moment.

“Let’s see if they taste as good as they look huh?” Her brother offered her a sample of the gift.

Accepting a large muffin from Michael, she saw in his eyes that he was worried too. She often thought about how their roles in the group had been attained. When their mother died, she had stepped into the ‘Mama’ persona fairly easily, but Michael remained as a sort of ‘big brother’ to them all. She guessed it was because she had been able to benefit, for a while, from their mother’s lessons, while Michael had never really had a father to teach him anything. Squaring her shoulders, she nodded to him and tried to smile. “Happy birthday brother.”

Returning the almost smile, Michael squeezed her shoulder gently. “Happy birthday sis.” He held her eyes for a long moment, until the boys pulled him toward the table.

“C’mon Michael.” The younger boys urged their friend to dig in. “It’s your birthday too!”

Giving in to the children’s pressure, the twins tried their best to enjoy the moment and hoped it wasn’t the last time they were all together.

———————————————————————

Xena squinted against the sun rising in a now brilliant blue sky. Leaning back against the wall, she smiled as Gabrielle leaned back into her embrace. They looked out on the nursery pasture and watched the little lambs playing their little lamb games. She felt a smile cross her face unbidden as Gabrielle laughed at the animals antics.

“I’m going to have to spend more time in the northern villages. I had forgotten how much I love baby animals.” Gabrielle’s smile only lasted until she looked up to see the now serious look on Xena’s face. “What’s wrong?”

“You are going back.” The Conqueror couldn’t quite keep the hurt out of her voice. She had known they would be apart again but now that it was spoken, the thought seemed much more real.

“I am the Queen Xena. I have to be there.” Gabrielle hugged the arms around her. “But we have plenty of time to think about that.” Silence from the still form behind her forced her to turn around. “Xena?”

“Yes love?” The warrior kept her eyes focused on the frolicking animals.

“Xena look at me.” Gabrielle gentle tone along with her touch on the warrior’s cheek forced the blue eyes to meet hers. “You know I love you right?”

“Yes love.” Xena swallowed hard and nodded slowly.

“Good.” The Amazon smiled. “Because no matter where you are in this world and no matter where I am, that won’t change. Ever.”

“I know. I just hate being without you.” The Conqueror’s pout was echoed by the other’s in her head.

Smiling at the pout on her lover’s face, Gabrielle leaned in and kissed the dark woman’s worries away. “We have lots of time to think about that.” Turning back to the lambs, Gabrielle snuggled back into Xena’s embrace and reluctantly admitted. “We really should be going though.”

“You think we’ll be there in time for the party?” Xena grinned. She had been dismayed to discover that Megan and Michael were only fifteen, but thanks to Gabrielle’s helpful suggestion, her solution to the problem would still work.

“Well I was kind of giving them time. I really don’t want to intrude on their celebration. Amber said they were going to have the party this morning.” Gabrielle was glad the child had whispered the secret to her. It was nice to have this time alone with Xena, she knew the rest of the day would be hectic. “But we do have quite a few things to do today.” In addition to dealing with the orphans, they still needed to speak with Solan regarding his role in the ceremony and then prepare for the ceremony itself.

“Yes we do.” The Conqueror tightened her hold on the Amazon. It was ridiculous. She couldn’t believe how excited she was. It was just a stupid ceremony, right? ‘Right!’ The Warrior Princess was also excited.

“Well then let’s get going.” Patting the arms around her, Gabrielle looked around for Argo.

Laughing, Xena put her fingers up to her mouth and let out a ear piercing whistle.

Gabrielle laughed as all the lambs in the field stopped playing for a moment, then laughed again as Argo trotted into view. “You really are going to have to teach me that!”

Blue eyes twinkled as Xena helped Gabrielle from the wall to the horses back.

——————-

Karis surveyed the ordered chaos in the reception hall. She took note of the decorations and decided where she wanted the guards and sentries posted. A meeting later today would settle any complaints from the attending royalty’s guards. She wasn’t looking forward to that meeting. Some of the other head guards were quite stubborn when it came to listening to women, sometimes she hated being so young. From the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of dark blonde hair moving toward her through the chaos and she thought. ‘Sometimes it’s pretty great though.’

“How’s it going?” Solan ran his fingers through his hair and looked around with grudging approval. They had created a reasonable facsimile of Artemis’ Temple. He could see the exhaustion in most of the workers and knew that if they had tried to have the ceremony at the real Temple the crew would still just be cleaning the rubble.

“Pretty good.” Karis smiled at the still sleepy Prince. “I think they have done a good job.”

“Yeah.” He laced his fingers together, bending them backwards as he stretched his arms out in front of him and yawned. “Seems so.” He looked around once more. “You ready?”

Nodding, Karis resisted the urge to yawn. “Let’s find Palemon and then we can go.”

Yawning again, Solan nodded and followed her through the unfinished decorations and diligent workers.

————————————————————-

Argo covered the distance from the nursery pasture to the children’s house quickly. In the early morning light the house looked more run down than Xena remembered it, and she looked at the overgrown lawn and thought. ‘Good cover.’ Without the sounds of the party inside, no one would believe anyone lived here. Through the tall grass she saw something that gave her pause. Reining Argo to a halt, she dismounted and helped Gabrielle down. “I’ll be right back.” She knew Gabrielle wanted to see the children so she moved quickly to the markers, aware that the Amazon followed closely behind.

“What is it Xena?” Gabrielle tried to see around the warrior.

“Grave markers.” She moved aside and wrapped one arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders. She pointed to the larger one with her free hand and whispered the name engraved there. “Amphytrion.”

Surrounding the leather clad waist with her arms, Gabrielle looked up at the warrior. “Did you know him?”

“Only by reputation. He was before my time.” The man was almost a legend. “He was a great leader.”

“A soldier?” Gabrielle thought he had to be.

“Yes. One of the best.” Xena looked at the slightly smaller grave next to him and was filled with an inexplicable sadness. “That must be his wife.”

“Did they have any children?” Gabrielle didn’t know what answer she was hoping for, but obviously someone had buried the woman.

“One, a son.” The Conqueror thought for a minute. “I think.”

“So he was orphaned too.” Gabrielle’s thoughtful voice pulled Xena from her thoughts.

“Yeah…. ” Squeezing the Amazon’s shoulders, she smiled sadly. “Appropriate huh?”

Gabrielle rested her head on the warrior’s smooth shoulder for a long moment before speaking. “It’s really sad when a child loses a parent.” She wondered how Lila would explain Perdicus’ death to Gabe and Brie. She doubted either of them were old enough to remember much about the man. ‘I’ll bet she makes him out to be a misunderstood guy.’ She hoped Brenin had sense enough to tell the children the truth.

Xena thought about that. ‘It’s sad to lose a parent.’ and wondered where her father was. She hadn’t seen him since she was seven or so. It wasn’t a pleasant thought that he had ran out on them, nor was it fun to think that he had been killed in battle. ‘Maybe he will come back someday.’ The Warrior Princess’ wistful thought was stopped as a young petulant voice filled her head. ‘He will NEVER come back!’ The anger in the seldom heard voice shook her to her very core.

“Xena?” Gabrielle felt the trembling muscles under her arms. “Are you okay?”

Burying her face in the Amazon’s soft hair, the Warrior Princess took a few moments to compose herself. “We’re fine now. Thanks”

“Okay.” Gabrielle sounded dubious but took the Warrior Princess’ word for it. “Let’s go then.”

They made their way back through the overgrowth to the front door. They both smiled as their knock was met with a dead silence followed by shuffling feet and lots of shushing commands. There was obviously a small hole in the door as Amber’s excited voice rang from the other side.

“It’s her!” The child flung the door open. “You’re just in time!” She wiggled between the two women at the door and took each of their hands in one of hers, dragging them into the room.

Megan’s startlement that Xena was with the Amazon Queen was totally overridden by her confusion at Amber’s statement. “Just in time for what?”

Amber looked at Megan with rolling eyed exasperation. “Your presents of course.”

Amber guided the royal couple to a low couch and waited for them to sit before she turned and giggled at Megan. With tiny determined steps, she crossed the room to their Mama. Small hands on the teen’s stomach pushed her back to the rocking chair where she had been sitting.

Gabrielle watched the scene with fascination, although she felt very much like an outsider just then. With all the children sitting cross-legged on the floor around the girl in the chair, it was readily apparent that, within these walls at least, Megan was the Queen.

When they were all settled, one of the older girls urged the youngest girl, who couldn’t have been more than five, to give Megan her present. Gabrielle felt the warrior beside her go very still as the child approached her ‘Mama’.

“This is for you Mama.” The child smiled as she handed Megan a piece of paper. “The babies helped.”

“Thank you Clara.” Megan looked at the picture they had drawn and hugged the girl. “It’s the best picture of the tree’s ever.”

Gabrielle tightened her grip on Xena’s hand when the child’s face lit up at the praise and watched as a boy, no older than Clara stood and moved toward Megan.

“This is from …..Xenos and Aaron and me.” Two of the younger boys squirmed when their names were mentioned and he handed Megan a rolled length of leather. “You said you needed a new belt, cause your clothes were too big now…….” Suddenly he was worried the present wasn’t good enough and grudgingly admitted. “Michael helped with the buckle.”

Gathering the boy up in a hug, she was suddenly laughing as the other two boys were quick to get their thank you hug too. “Thank you all… this is a wonderful belt.”

A slightly older boy stood as the three took their seats. He walked up and handed her a small jar. “This is from me.” His gruff voice carried through the room. He didn’t wait for a hug before he sat back down.

She looked at the jar and smiled. “Honeycomb!… Thank you Jess. That is my favorite.”

Gabrielle thought she saw a smile tug at the boy’s lips but he kept his gruff expression firm as he nodded acceptance of the thanks. The Amazon saw Solan and Karis standing at the door and motioned them to stay quiet as the rest of the gifts were given.

Now it was Amber’s turn. She stood and helped Piper stand. She handed Megan a red piece of paper shaped like a heart and spoke to the older girl as Piper settled into his stool. “You give us those when we are scared or sad. Now this one is yours.” She moved to stand closer to the young musician. “Piper has written a song for your birthday, and I’m gonna sing it for you.” Turning to face the seated children, Amber saw the Prince and her new friend Karis by the door and smiled. “I’m going to sing it for all of you.” She nodded and Piper started playing.

Who was the first to send it
no one will ever know
if in a time of grief or happiness
this little heart was shown

but it has gone from one to many
silent in its quest
to change the lives of everyone
to whom it has been sent
a tiny red reminder
that someone out there cares

a simple symbol from the soul
of the love that’s hidden there
Gods speed to little paper hearts
as they travel through this world
encircling this dismal earth
with love and faith renewed

Amber’s voice died away as the music did and she turned to Megan. “Did you like it?”

The seated girl let out a burst of incredulous laughter and wiped a tear away from her eye. “Did I LIKE it!!!” She tried to be serious. “No.” Opening her arms to the musicians, she hugged them both tightly. “I LOVED it. Thank you!”

Amber helped Piper back to his seat, and a slightly older boy stepped up. He handed Megan a small wrapped object and stood quietly while she opened it.

“Oh Ren, it’s wonderful.” She held up the small carving for them all to see. It was a perfect carving of a horse. “Thank you.”

Like Jess, Ren didn’t allow himself to be hugged. Although he didn’t speak, he did smile as he reclaimed his spot on the floor.

Another older boy came forward. He explained as he handed her the small package. “We all collected the stones.” He waited for her to unwrap the gift and hold it up for them to see. “But I did the metalwork.”

She hugged him tightly. “Thank you Matthew. It’s the most beautiful necklace I’ve ever had.” She wasn’t just saying that either, the boy was amazing when it came to jewelry making.

Two of the older girls, stood and one waited for the other to go get their present. “We have been working for the tailor, doing odd jobs…..sweeping and stuff.” The other girl returned with a larger package and handed it to Megan. “We bought this material and we used our spare time to work on it.”

Unwrapping the gift, Megan stood and held the new dress up against her. It was a little large in the middle but the woman smiled. “It’s perfect. I can wear my new belt with it and my necklace.” She grinned at all of them. “Why, I’ll be so dressed up I won’t know what to do!”

“If you had a good pair of shoes, you’d have a whole outfit!” Michael’s eyes twinkled at his sister. “Why don’t you try these?” He held out a brand new pair of sandals. The questioning look in her eye forced an explanation from him. “I promised the cobbler one rabbit pelt a month for the next year.”

“What about you?” Megan took the sandals. “It’s your birthday too.”

“Matthew and Ren made me this knife.” He showed her the new weapon. “Ren carved the handle and Matt forged the blade.” He reached unhooked a small pouch from his waist and spilled the contents into his hand. “The boys got me some nice rocks, perfect for the sling… and some arrow heads.” Looking at Kayla, Leah, Amber and Clara he grinned. “And the girls got me a new shirt that, if I’m not mistaken, matches your dress.”

Satisfied with her brother’s gifts, Megan looked at the door and smiled. “Thank you for waiting. You can come in now.”

Karis and Solan moved into the room and sat at the table, Palemon stayed standing just inside the door.

“That is a lovely outfit.” Solan commented on the girl’s gifts. She was quite pretty, but didn’t hold a candle to Karis.

“Thank you…… your majesty.” Megan used the young man’s title uncertainly. “I’m really not sure where I’ll wear it though.”

“To the Palace, of course.” Xena’s tight voice matched her expression as all eyes turned to her. “When you come to give me your monthly report.”

“Report?” Megan didn’t understand.

“Of course.” The Warrior Princess shed her unexpected stillness at the scene and smiled at the confused girl. “All the directors of the orphanages come to the Palace once a month to give me a progress report.”

“Director……..” Megan still wasn’t getting it.

Nodding, Xena continued. “If there had been fewer of you, I would have sent you to the other homes already in operation. But since there are fifteen of you, there is no reason to split you up.” She looked around. “You have done quite well for yourselves here.”

“You aren’t going to split us up?” The joy in her heart made it hard to breath. “We can stay?”

Gabrielle spoke up now. “She is very young for such a responsibility Xena.” The entire room fell silent at her words and the Amazon continued. “She is only fifteen. I would feel much better if there were some adults here.”

“Hmmmm……” Xena agreed. “Fifteen is pretty young.”

“Jana is still recovering from her injuries. The trip home will be dangerous for her. I suggest that she stay here, along with…say one other Amazon. Just for a year or so until her legs completely heal. By then Megan will be old enough for it not to worry me so badly.” Gabrielle looked at Megan and waited for her comment on the idea. She was glad to see the girl dubious, it meant she thought ahead.

“An injured Amazon?” The babies were bad enough to deal with. Megan wasn’t sure she could keep a constant watch on an injured woman. They were all surprised by the voice from the door.

“Perhaps Trisha could come here too.” Palemon looked around the room and let his gaze settle on the royal couple. “She really has nowhere to go now, her husband left town after he saw the healer last night. They had been staying with his family.” He pleaded the woman’s case. “She could continue to work in the kitchen and be here for the kids the rest of the time.”

The Warrior Princess could see Megan bristling at the idea of adults being here and spoke to ease her fears. “Okay, the Amazons and Trisha, but it is to be made perfectly clear that Megan is in charge.”

Gabrielle nodded. “No problem here.” She grinned wryly at Karis. “My guards are used to taking orders from young women.”

“I’m sure Trisha won’t have a problem with that either.” He was glad to find the woman a nice place closeby. He didn’t want to see her moving away from Corinth.

“Well I guess that is settled then.” Xena stood and offered her hand to Gabrielle who held it lightly as she rose. “Megan, come to the Palace tomorrow afternoon and ask for Salmoneous. He will give you your monthly allowance and tell you all the rules state orphanages have to follow.” She looked at a small hole in the back wall. “Salmoneous will also set up a time for the carpenter’s to come and fix that.”

Smiling so wide it hurt, Megan nodded. “I will.. Thank you…” She wanted to hug the rulers but didn’t dare. “Thank you so much.”

Gabrielle returned the smile and hugged the grateful girl. “Happy Birthday.” Releasing the newly appointed Director, the Amazon stepped back and allowed all the children access to their Mama. The group hug/pile up that followed was enough to make even Palemon laugh.

The royal couple exited, followed closely by their son and Karis. Xena whistled for Argo but didn’t mount up when the horse appeared. She simply took the reins in one hand, Gabrielle’s hand in the other, and began walking toward town.

“Hey!” Gabrielle gently shook the hand holding hers. “You were awfully quiet during all that. You okay?” Awfully quiet was an understatement, Xena hadn’t moved a muscle from Clara’s first tentative steps until Michael had handed his sister the sandals. When her question was met with silence, the Amazon took another more subtle approach. “The children’s gifts were all very nice.” The muscle working in her lover’s jaw and Xena’s lips pressing tighter together made it very apparent that Xena was holding something back. She smiled and started recalling the presents. “I think I gave my mother almost that exact same picture when I was five. I guess all children do huh?”

“No. Not all of them.” The Warrior Princess’ quiet response barely made it to Gabrielle’s ears. The resigned sadness in her eyes was focused straight ahead.

Gabrielle’s breathing paused for just a moment. ‘Oh.’ The sudden realization of what was bothering her love made her heart hurt. Her hand on the warrior’s arm stopped their forward movement. Moving to stand in front of her sad love and put Argo between them and their followers, Gabrielle ducked to make eye contact. She smiled compassionately. “Solan never gave me one like that either.”

Circling the Amazon’s strong shoulders with her arms, Xena rested her chin on top of the red-gold head. “I missed so much…..” Her voice filled with self-loathing. “How could I have given that up?”

Listening to the rapidly beating heart, just beyond her ear, Gabrielle murmured. “It wasn’t your choice. Borias…..”

“No!” Pulling away far enough to make eye contact, the Warrior Princess took the blame. “It WAS my fault. I made her stop looking!”

“Of course you did!” Pressing the warrior’s large hands between hers, Gabrielle held the anger tinged gaze. “It was the logical thing to do.”

“Gabrielle, since when does logic have anything to do with love?” Hot liquid welled up in her eyes.

“Since the moment you realized that loving him could get him killed.” The Amazon reached up and wiped away the single tear that escaped it’s prison. “Since the heartbeat you decided to let him live in anonymity, to keep him alive, no matter how much it hurt you.”

The Warrior Princess, froze at Gabrielle’s gentle touch. All she could do was drown deeper into the pure green eyes of love. Swallowing hard, she could feel her heart pounding in her ears as the Amazon continued.

“When you found out I had adopted him, you thanked me for saving him.” Gently cupping the warrior’s cheek in her hand, Gabrielle made sure Xena couldn’t turn away. “But you saved him first.” She smiled at the incredulous warrior. “So thank YOU for saving my son.”

Xena thought an eternity must have passed as she lost herself in Gabrielle’s eyes. “I thanked you for LOVING him.” She corrected. “And he is OUR son.” She recalled that first meeting and smiled. “I had no choice. I had to let him go.” She found the Amazon’s ear and whispered. “He was the part of me I set free into the world, to find you.” She trailed kisses down her jaw until the small woman couldn’t stand anymore torture.

“Gods ……Xena.” Her thought was cut off by a determined warrior capturing her lips. She would have stayed locked in Xena’s embrace all day, but Argo had other ideas. The horse snorted and pawed the ground, head-butting the couple apart. Gabrielle laughed and patted the golden mare’s neck. “Oh so now you are jealous of me huh?” She caught a glimpse of Karis, Solan and Palemon trying their best not to watch the royal couple and laughed. She had asked Karis to join them at the orphanage to set the children more at ease. As it turned out the guard’s presence wasn’t required, but it was good she was here. There were several things she wanted to discuss with the guard, regarding the ceremony tonight. The Amazon Queen, linked arms with her lover for a long moment as they walked a few steps. “I need to talk to Karis.”

Wiping the last of dried tears from her face, Xena nodded. “Good idea. I should talk to Solan too.”

Gabrielle kissed Xena quickly and the Amazon fell back to walk in step with her son. “Xena wants to talk to you.” She urged Solan to catch up to Xena and held Karis’ arm. “And I need to talk to you.”

Karis let a single glance stray up to Xena and Solan before most of her attention was focused on the Queen. She knew most of what Gabrielle was going to say and used a small portion of her unoccupied mind to think of who she wanted to appoint as second in command while Solari stayed here with Jana. She also used a bit of her spare consciousness to wonder what Xena was saying to Solan.

——————————————————————-

“What’s up?” Solan grinned at his mother. “Mom said you wanted to talk to me?”

“Yeah.” The Warrior Princess pressed her lips together. It was harder than she thought to talk to him. Especially after the little scene she had with Gabrielle a few moments ago.

Solan furrowed his brow at Xena’s silence and tried to break the tension. “The kids were cute huh?”

“Yup.” Her nod was a short as her one word answer.

“Am I in trouble?” Solan couldn’t understand why Xena asked to talk to him and then didn’t talk. “Mother? Are you still mad about Karis?”

“No, not mad.” She sighed and ran her fingers through her hair. “I will, at times, be angry at your actions, or the choices you make, but I will never be mad at you.” She glanced at him then focused straight ahead. “I never could.”

Solan took a long moment to absorb that before responding quietly. “I love you too mother.”

The Warrior Princess nearly missed a step at their son’s words. She looked at him, blue eyes focusing on the large bruise on his cheek. “I’m sorry I hit you.”

He shook his head. “You didn’t hit me.” His brown eyes held hers. “The Conqueror did….” He smiled as the blue eyes widened. “… and I know she is sorry.”

The Conqueror took the opportunity she didn’t have before. “I AM sorry.”

Nodding, Solan repeated. “I know.” He thought that the Conqueror might be uncomfortable with a mushy talk, he knew he was, so he tried to lighten the mood. “So….” He grinned and put a bit of teasing into his voice. “Did Mom spank you for it?”

“SOLAN!!” The suggestion from their son was shocking for a heartbeat then she burst out laughing. Draping her arm over the boy’s shoulders, she finally felt comfortable enough to talk to him about the ceremony tonight and, if he chose to, the part he would play in it.

————————————————————

Karis stalked down the hall toward the practice room. Her meeting had lasted longer than she thought and now she was late meeting Solan for training. Still seething from the other head guard’s condescending remarks, she felt a flare of jealousy as she got closer to the practice room and heard the sounds of weapons clashing. She couldn’t quite keep the feeling out of her voice as she entered the practice room. “Hello Jamie.”

Solan frowned at the tone of his lover’s voice and stepped back out of Jamie’s range. He propped the staff he had been using against the wall and quickly moved to Karis’ side. “What’s wrong?”

Smiling at his concern, the guard reassured him. “I’m fine.”

He raised one eyebrow. “The meeting with the other guards didn’t go so well huh?”

Running her fingers through her hair, Karis sighed. “As well as could be expected.” She grinned. “You know you look like Xena when you do that?”

“Do I?” The thought of resembling his mother was kind of nice.

“Mmmm… yes you do.” Karis smiled. “It’s time to get ready for the ceremony though. We need to be ready and out of your room so your Mom can prepare separately from Xena.”

Laughing, Solan nodded. “Right! I need to talk to you for a minute anyway.” The Prince turned to wave bye to Jamie. “Thanks for the sparring, Jamie. See you later?”

Jamie shot a startled look at Karis before she responded cheerfully. “Sure. Anytime.”

Karis berated herself silently. ‘Geez, get over it! He loves YOU.’ Waving bye to Jamie, she happily linked arms with Solan as they walked back to their room.

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Gabrielle drew her robe around her and leaned back into the large overstuffed chair. Her hair was still slightly damp from her bath and she soaked up the warmth from the small fire. The quiet of the room was broken only by the occasional snap of wood in the fireplace and a breeze rustling the curtains of the balcony door. Xena would be back soon and the Amazon used this time to herself to reflect on the day. Since they had returned from the newly proclaimed orphanage, she and Xena had spent little time together. Even lunch had been rushed as affairs of state called the Empress away in the middle of the meal. She was waiting to dress for the ceremony though, she wanted to talk to the warrior for at least a few minutes before they began and she didn’t want Xena to see her recently delivered outfit. Resting her arms on the padded arms of the chair, Gabrielle leaned back and closed her eyes.

——————————————————-

Xena opened the door to their room slowly. She hoped Gabrielle would be in the washroom or on the balcony so that she could hide her surprise, but this was even better. Completely forgetting about the small box in her hand, Xena quietly walked to the chair opposite the Amazon and sat. It was a rare opportunity to study the relaxed face of her love. Reddish blonde hair spilled over her shoulders haphazardly, contrasting with the white silk of her robe. The Amazon’s beautiful green eyes were closed and her face was relaxed and peaceful. The small fire nearby highlighted Gabrielle’s golden skin and it was all the Conqueror could do to resist touching the glowing beauty. Her breath caught as Gabrielle took a deep breath and smiling, opened her eyes.

“Xena?” Glancing at the sun angling through the balcony door, she frowned. “What time is it?”

“Almost time.” The Warrior Princess smiled. “I was just about to wake you.”

“Uh huh.” Gabrielle doubted the sincerity of that claim. Knowing Xena she would have sat there all night, keeping everyone waiting, just to watch her sleep. ‘If the tables were turned I know I would.’ She thought and berated herself for not being awake to see Xena walk across the room.

“I was really!” The mock pout on the warrior’s face gave way to a smile. “I wanted to give you something before the ceremony.”

“Oh?” The Amazon’s eyebrows raised as she smiled seductively. “What would that be?”

Chuckling, Xena smiled and sighed. “If only we had time love.” Sliding off the chair, the warrior knelt on one knee in front of Gabrielle and held out a small flat box. “I know you didn’t ask for them, so I hope you don’t mind that I got them for you anyway.”

Puzzled, Gabrielle took the box and opened it slowly, gasping when she saw the contents. “Xena!” The blood pounding in her ears nearly drowned her whisper. “What have you done?”

Retrieving the sparkling necklace from it’s resting place, the Warrior Princess put the box on the floor. Pointing to a small stone in the middle of the twinkling lace she explained. “Artemis has promised me that this is a part of the moon.” Sweeping her fingertips over the rest of the jewelry she smiled. “And the Priest at the Temple of the Heavens has assured me that each twinkle you see is a part of a star from the night sky.”

“Xena it’s beautiful.” Gabrielle was moved by the gift.

“No.” The Conqueror corrected. “It’s just a necklace. YOU are beautiful.” She reached around the Amazon’s soft neck and fastened the clasp on the gift. Kissing the speechless Amazon, the Warrior Princess moved back to reclaim their chair. “I guess it’s time to get dressed for the ceremony huh?”

Gabrielle brushed the delicate sparkling pattern with her fingertips and shook her head. “No. I need to give you your present first.” Her brilliant smile dimmed the star slivers around her neck and she moved to retrieve her gift.

‘By the Gods, she is beautiful.’ The Conqueror was sure whatever outfit Gabrielle had chosen for the ceremony would not be more beautiful than the simple robe and smile she wore now. ‘Yes she is.’ The Warrior Princess agreed with the statement but not the future prediction. ‘She grows more beautiful every day.’ They watched as their love crossed the room toward them, devouring her with hungry blue eyes, not even noticing the package in the Amazon’s hand until she spoke.

“Actually it isn’t finished yet.” Gabrielle held out the wrapped gift. “But I’ve been very busy lately.” She grinned and shook the package slightly. “Go on… take it.”

Opening the package, the Warrior Princess felt her heartbeat increase when she saw the design, her personal insignia, tooled into the cover of the leather bound book. With a startled look at the Amazon, they opened the book. The large scripted letters confirmed their suspicions. ‘This can’t be.’ The Conqueror was astonished that Gabrielle had time to do this. ‘She told us she had already started working on our story.’ The Warrior Princess fell back on logic. ‘And she did say she wasn’t finished.’ Running her fingers over the border illustrations, she looked questioningly at the Amazon.

“I had Jaye, Leah, Mari and Tari working night and day making the parchment for this.” She smiled. “They drew the borders and small illustrations where I told them and I put the lettering in when the page was finished.”

Nodding absently, Xena realized no one else had seen this story yet. The warrior also caught the phrasing of the explanation. “Small illustrations?” Her question was answered as she turned the page. The emotion of the picture took her off guard. “Gods Gabrielle.” The scene depicted wasn’t the usual battle landscape, this one seemed to be taken directly from her memory. “This is…… How did you….”

“I told you I have been working on this a long time.” Kneeling in front of the warrior, she rested her chin on Xena’s knees. “I have heard stories about you all my life. And I have always drawn pictures and painted you. This is from the first story I heard about you, I was probably about six.” Smiling at the startled look, Gabrielle explained. “No I didn’t draw this then, but I remembered how I felt when I first heard the story. I was very sorry about your brother.”

The Warrior Princess looked back at the picture and felt a tear making it’s way down her cheek. ‘I couldn’t save him.’ She traced the face on the page, a younger version of her kneeling on the ground, cradling her dying brother in her arms. ‘I couldn’t either.’ The Conqueror felt all the rage of that day return. ‘but I made them all pay.’ Her knuckles turned white as she gripped the edge of the book. Small hands on hers eased the tension considerably.

“I didn’t mean to upset you.” Gabrielle berated herself. “I should have know this wasn’t the time……”

“No.” The Warrior Princess shook her head. “This is the perfect time.” She indicated the book. “This is our past.” She smiled down at the Amazon. “You are our future.” She reached down and pulled her love to her, the book on her lap prevented them from embracing fully.

Pulling back from the embrace, Gabrielle tugged the book from between them. Silently setting it aside, she resumed the embrace unhindered by the barrier.

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Solan checked his reflection once more and smiled as two additional arms slid around his middle. Hugging the arms close and leaned back into Karis’ embrace. “I guess I’m ready to go.” He turned and circled the guard’s bare abs, examining the Amazon’s formal leathers critically. “I guess you are too huh?”

Smiling apologetically Karis pulled away from the embrace. “Um… not quite.” She disappeared into the washroom for a moment. When she returned, she saw the curiosity in his eyes die.

“Oh.” Solan swallowed hard as he realized the addition Karis had made.

Nervously adjusting the sword on her back Karis tried to catch his eye. “I’ve been trying to tell you all evening.”

“I understand.” Solan reassured her. “The Honor Guard have to have swords.”

Holding his gaze, Karis spoke quietly. “You can too, if you want. I’m raising your rating to Advanced.” A smile pulled at her lips as his eyes widened. “Your Mom wanted me to tell you before the ceremony. She wanted it to be your choice whether you carried a sword or not.”

“You are going to allow weapons at the ceremony?” That didn’t sound like something Karis would agree to and he knew she was in charge of security.

Shuddering at the thought of Gabrielle standing in front of a room full of armed guests, the guard shook her head. “No.” Closing the distance between them, she stroked his jaw lightly. “You are special though.”

Capturing her hand in his, Solan kissed his love’s palm. “My sword is in the training room.”

“We can go get it if you want.” Karis hoped he would choose not to wear it and realized he still might make that decision. “You look very handsome without it though.”

“Yes he does.”

The unexpected voice caused Karis to whirl and place herself between Solan and the intruder. From the corner of her eye, she noted that the Prince was also in a defensive position. She took her hand off the hilt of her sword when she realized who was standing in the room with them.

“Mom!” Solan rolled his eyes. “You scared the life out of us!” He grinned and crossed the room to hug her. “You look great!” He twitched the sleeve of her robe and teased. “Is that a new outfit?”

She looked at Karis. “My son the comedian.” Adjusting the robe on her shoulders caused it to fall open slightly and expose her neck. Smiling at Karis’ gasp, she looked up at her son’s raised eyebrows and appreciative voice.

“That’s new.” He reached out but didn’t dare touch the sparkling necklace.

“Yes it’s Xena’s wedding gift to me.” The Queen smiled and brushed her fingertips over Xena’s latest offering.

Karis moved in for a closer look. “I’ve never seen diamonds sparkle like that.” She narrowed her eyes as she recognized a pattern in the lace design. “That looks like a constellation.”

Nodding Gabrielle agreed. “Yes, I believe the priests kept them in their proper places.”

“Priests?” Solan had never heard of priests that made jewelry.

“Yes, the priests at the Temple of the Heavens.” She resisted the urge to reach up an ruffle her son’s hair. “They tend to be very protective…..”

“Ye Gods!” Karis blurted her realization. “She gave you the stars?!”

Smiling, Gabrielle nodded. “Yes.” She touched the larger stone in the middle of the pattern and added quietly. “And the Moon.” Nearly laughing at the rapt expressions on the young couples face, the Queen shook herself out of her reverie. “G’wan now, I need to change.”

Karis warred with herself, she had a really lot to do but, although at the moment the Queen was the picture of calm, she didn’t want to leave Gabrielle alone. “Do you need help dressing?”

“Thank you.” Gabrielle’s green eyes twinkled at the guard. “But Mirriam will be here shortly, and I know you have things to do.” She ushered the younger couple out the door. Only after they were gone did she let her hands shake in anticipation. This was going to be a great night, she could feel it.

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Solan was amazed at the activity in the Palace. So far during his stay he hadn’t seen the halls very busy, most of the visiting royalty were out at the Festival or in their rooms. Now, since they were all gathering to attend the ceremony, he realized that the Palace was actually full of guests. He had followed Karis to the kitchen, partially to watch his lover work and partially to sneak a taste of his Mom’s favorite dish.

“The Queen’s gonna be upset if you end up eating all her favorites.” The Amazon cook’s eyes twinkled at the unrepentant young man.

Laughing at the woman’s comment, Solan took another bite. “You think Mom would deny me a few bites?”

With one hand on her hip and the other hand shaking a finger at him the woman smiled. “She wouldn’t deny you anything, you scamp, and you know it!”

Grinning at the truth of the cook’s statement, Solan popped another bite into his mouth. He saw Karis heading his way and winked at the laughing cook. “Gotta go.”

Karis jogged up next to him. “Ready?” She rolled her eyes as he licked the last of the treat from his fingers.

“Always.” He looked at the last of the sticky icing on his index finger and grinned as Karis backed up slightly.

“Solan now don’t you even think about it. I don’t want that stuff all over me, I have to be dignified for the ceremony!” She took another step back as he moved closer. “Solan I mean it!”

Laughing, he sucked the icing off his finger and watched her relax. Twinkling brown eye followed her path out the door before he turned to the cook. “You wouldn’t happen to have any extra icing would you?”

“I do happen to have a bit extra.” The cook looked at him suspiciously. “Why?”

“Just wondered.” His innocent curiosity wasn’t really an answer but when Karis poked her head back in the door and gestured for him to follow her, the cook had her suspicions basically confirmed.

“I usually put the extra in a bowl, on the table by the fire.” She pointed to a small table next to the hearth.

Solan smiled at the cook and gestured thanks as he moved to join Karis outside. The gardens were secure and for a moment, walking side by side with her, he forgot that they had responsibilities. Then loud voices from the gate drew him back to reality. They made their way toward the commotion quickly.

“This is an outrage!” The man at the gate was obviously upset at the guard who wouldn’t let them pass. The man behind him tried to calm him.

“Now Vitalis, it’s not his fault.” The calm tones did nothing to calm the spokesman.

“No your majesty! You should not be treated like this!” The subordinate’s exasperation carried clearly in the evening air.

Karis started to speak when Solan’s hand on her arm stopped her.

“What’s the problem here?” The young Prince’s voice dropped as he took on the royal persona.

The guard knew who Solan was, he had seen him arrive with the Amazons and he knew the boy was special because his quarters were so close to Xena’s. He didn’t think Solan was royalty however and avoided using any title. “The Palace is full, sir.”

“Outrageous!” Vitalis insisted. “King Gregor was invited!”

Solan opened the gate himself and gestured the outraged man and the royal couple he spoke for inside. “The Palace is filled, but I’m sure we can arrange something.” He turned to the woman. Smiling at her and the child in her arms, he bowed low. “Queen Pandora, it is an honor to meet you.” When she tilted her head in acknowledgment, he continued. “I think the story of you finding your son in the river will soon surpass the one of your grandmother and her curiosity.” Actually the story of finding the boy in the river was one of his favor