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Invitations - Part 7
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 graphic....steamy..yes... graphic... no. <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!>>

SEND IT TO: xenabard@hotmail. com

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by Gin

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."


To be continued in Part 8

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