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Invitations - Part 4
by Gin

Disclaimer: Most of the characters depicted in this story belong to the people at MCA/Universal, (You know which one's they are) however the ones you don't recognize are mine. This story was written for enjoyment for myself and the readers and is not intended for profit.

Sex: This story contains scenes of two women in love in intimate situations but there is nothing <grin> Kissing, hugging and such. You know No Big Whoop. Still, if this offends you, or if it is illegal at your age in the place you live, please don't read my story (I would consider moving as well...but that's just me). There are plenty of other stories to choose from.

Violence: It is fairly tame actually. Yes. People get beat up, smacked across the face, beheaded, etc. but no more than a typical beat em up type episode. Nothing especially graphic.

Language: Nothing more than what you would hear on ... oh let's say that Comedy channel.. around 9:00 or 10:00 on Wednesday night.

NOTE: This story picks up a few days after the events in my second story Complications. I strongly suggest reading my first story Negotiations and it's sequel Complications before you begin this one. There are several references that will make much more sense if you do.

ANOTHER NOTE: In my Xenaverse, Callisto succeeded in her mission to kill Hercules' mother. Thus paving the way for Xena to become The Conqueror as seen in the episode Armegeddon Now. However, in my 'verse, Iolaus ALSO succeeded in his mission to kill the Goddess Callisto when he followed her to Cirra. What happens to the characters after that is up to them and I'll do my best to write it all down for you.

SPECIAL REMINDER!!: The Iolaus described in this story is NOT Hercules' friend. This Iolaus has never even heard of Hercules and so has a VERY different personality than the Iolaus we are used to seeing fighting alongside the big guy..... okay?

As always, to the Goddess of Spelling I offer my humblest apologies if I have offended her in any way.

The Goddess of Grammar, however, can Bite Me!

Special thanks to Wanda and T for their inspiration and encouragement. To Wendy who I know will always give me her honest opinion. To Janet, Kym, and all my readers for Beta Reading so quickly. Their encouragement, suggestions and ramblings really helped. Hi Wolfie!

Feedback: Yes please. I am an email junkie. All comments are welcome.  Nice ones will be responded to and nasty ones will be thoroughly laughed at before being trashed. <<I really have no tolerance for intolerant people! HA!>>


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by Gin

Part 4


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.


To be continued in Part 5

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