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Invitations - Part 8
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 8

The natural sounds of the night were amplified in the breathless silence the Conqueror's order created.  The Chair was not used for ordinary criminals.  It was most often used for scare tactics in political situations.  Palemon knew that the leaders of at least two countries had signed control over to Xena peacefully simply because she had brought it with her on her campaign.  They signed because they had known then what almost everyone knew now; once a person is sitting in The Chair, they don't get out.  He almost felt sorry for the blonde captive, but not really.  He jerked her to her feet and motioned for two of his guards to carry her to the horses.  She had proven to be a good fighter and he didn't want to risk cutting her ankle restraints to let her walk.

"Xena?"  Gabrielle's quiet question brought the Conqueror's hard blue eyes down on her.

"I don't want to argue with you about this."  Schooling her face to it's most impassive, the Conqueror reminded her. "You said it was my decision."

"Yes, but Xena......."  The Amazon had also heard stories of her loves most infamous creation and whispered. ".....The Chair."

The Conqueror almost melted at the Amazon's whisper and she cupped her love's face in her hands ever so gently tracing her cheekbones with her thumbs. "I'm sorry this is hurting you, but this is who I am and how I rule.  I can't change now."

Gabrielle frowned slightly and pushed the hands away from her face. "Can't or Won't?"  Her hard green eyes locked with narrowed blue for just a moment before she turned to check on Solan, leaving Xena standing alone at the entrance to the mine.

"Mom?"  Solan had seen Gabrielle remove the warrior's hands from her face and was a little upset.  He had never seen them really fight before.  "What's wrong?"

Shaking her head to indicate she didn't want to discuss it right now, Gabrielle studied her son's worried face and asked. "Are you all right?"  She reached up to brush the hair from his eyes.

Xena watched Gabrielle move to examine their son.  She crossed her arms and waited for the Amazon to let her know how he was. 'She won't tell us.' The Conqueror was still angry but now also hurt at Gabrielle's reaction to Callisto's sentence.  'Yes she will.'  The Warrior Princess had faith that Gabrielle would understand that Callisto deserved the punishment she was going to get and leaned against the stone wall.  She wondered what Solan said to make the Amazon shake her head.  When their son suddenly grabbed Gabrielle's wrist, to stop her from brushing the hair out of his eyes the still bristling Conqueror went on alert, pushing away from the wall with her shoulder and dropping her arms to her sides.  It was a state of readiness that normally came before a kill.  The Warrior Princess was appalled. 'He is our son!'  The Conqueror backed off a bit but still remained watchful of the pair.

"I'm fine Mom."  He shifted his hold from her wrist to her hand.  He tried to smile and shook her hand slightly. "Really.  You don't have to worry about me."

Gabrielle shook her head again, this time in denial.  "Of course I have to worry about you ... You're my son."  Squeezing his hand for emphasis brought a return squeeze from him and a brilliant smile to her face, just as Karis approached.

"Pardon the interruption my Queen, but we really should escort Solan back to his room."  The young guard smiled at Solan and indicated a knot of waiting Amazons.

Gabrielle suppressed a surge of maternal jealousy at the smile and acknowledged the guards presence by shaking her head. "No Karis.  Take the remaining Amazons and help Palemon round up the rest of the known resistance members."  She looked at the young guard seriously. "There should be several that we didn't know who will try to run now."  She swallowed hard. "Callisto's capture will disorganize them for a while."  The little information her scouts had gathered had told them that nothing got done in the resistance without approval from the leader.  With Callisto captured it would take time for them to reorganize and find a new leader. "I will walk with Solan."

One look into the determined eyes of her Queen let Karis know this was not the time to argue. "Yes my Queen."  She bowed and motioned the others to follow her. Stopping at a signal from Xena she started toward the mine entrance to see what the warrior wanted.

A sudden crashing through the trees caused them all to turn.  When Spiros appeared from the treeline his concern visibly turned to joy when he heard Bennett's voice.

"Dad!"  The stable boy moved slowly to the new arrival. "What are you doing here?"  His incredulous question was loud enough to carry through the night air.

"He helped us."  Karis called out to the boy.  "He led us to this place."

"Why?"  The Conqueror's suspicious voice floated through the night and she gave Karis a wait-a-minute signal as she walked over to the archer. "Why would you help us?"

Bennett was very proud that his father had helped and he was also impressed that he didn't tremble when Xena moved closer. His pride turned to near shock though when he heard his father speak.

"Because a long time ago you saved my son."  Spiros looked directly into Xena's incredible blue eyes and swallowed hard. "And now I have helped save yours."

"How long have you known?" The Conqueror poised on the edge of readiness.  The answer to that question would determine the man's fate.

"I've known since Potidea."  His quiet voice held just a hint of smile. "I watched you for several days."  He blushed at the memory of the warrior's unguarded face, watching Solan. "There really can be no mistaking that kind of love."

The Warrior Princess recalled their time in Potidea, long days spent visiting with Gabrielle's sister, watching the children play.  A smile played across her face. "No, I guess not."  She was happy she didn't have to kill the man, if he had known for that long and hadn't told Callisto then he was a good man after all.

Bennett's eyes grew wide. "You saved me?"  His mother had told him the story of his adoption but she hadn't told him that one crucial piece of information.

Shaking her head at the hero worship on his face, the Warrior Princess knew, the time for truth had come. She looked at him sadly and spoke quietly. "I saved you from my own men."  The Conqueror's quiet correction floated through her head. 'You mean my men.'  The Warrior Princess breathed deeply and answered her dark sister. 'That's what I said.'  She watched the boy's face twist from open admiration to active hatred as he realized that the person he had thought of as a friend was really his mother's murderer.  It was the most horrible feeling in her gut to know that someday, maybe soon, Bennett may also join the Resistance and if he did and the Conqueror caught him, the young boy who was her friend would also be put in The Chair.  The Warrior Princess turned to hide the tears welling in her eyes, as the angry young man and his father walked slowly away.  The Conqueror angrily motioned Karis toward her.

The Amazon Captain met the warrior half-way and was surprised to find a strong arm draped over her shoulder. She could barely concentrate on what the dark woman was saying as the Conqueror began to whisper in her ear. "There are a few other people I need you to pick up.  Tell Solari..............."  Karis nodded as Xena named off several people they had been watching and one that totally shocked her. "....... you got that?"  Taking a deep breath as Xena dropped her arm away, Karis nodded and answered.

"Yeah... we'll get them."  It was going to be a long night.  Karis glanced at Solan sighing to herself. 'He will probably be asleep by the time we are finished.'

Xena saw the direction of the guard's glance but misinterpreted it's meaning. "Don't worry.  I won't let anything happen to Gabrielle."

Karis looked into Xena's eyes and smiled. "I know you won't."  She signaled to Solari and jogged over to meet her.  Her brief outline of the nights work was greeted with a grim smile from the archer and then, melting into the trees, the Amazons were gone.

Gabrielle watched the Conqueror giving Karis her instructions and assumed they didn't involve anything too bad because the guard didn't question them.  If Xena had instructed Karis to do something her Queen wouldn't like, Gabrielle knew Karis would confirm the order with her first.  She couldn't help a bit of pride at her people's efficiency as they disappeared into the night, until she realized the only people left in the clearing were Solan, her, and Xena.  Still unwilling to talk about their captor's sentence, especially in front of Solan, Gabrielle looped her arm around her son's middle and they began walking back toward the city.  It nearly broke her heart, but she was grateful as Xena followed them, silently keeping her distance, but never staying too far away.

Karis closed the cell door on her most recent capture and started back toward the exit of the dungeon.  The prison was already full so they had started bringing the prisoners here until other arrangements could be made.  Glancing down the darkest corridor, the guard noticed a movement near Callisto's cell.  Going on full alert, Karis silently moved through the shadows to investigate.  When she recognized the form the guard let her presence be known. "Solari.  You shouldn't be here."

Jumping at the appearance of her superior, Solari growled. "She nearly killed Jana!"  It was all she could do not to go into the cell and break the captive's legs.

Karis sympathized with her second's desire for revenge.  The resistance leader had only taken Solan for awhile, but her own need for vengeance was strong too.  "She has done a lot of things, to a lot of people."  The leader of the Royal Guard spoke calmly.  "Xena will make her pay." She patted the archers arm and motioned her to follow, they still had several people to round up.

Solan was concerned about his Mom and his mother.  Xena's quiet presence was reassuring but her neutral wave good night was confusing, she usually hugged him.  Gabrielle too, had been unusually quiet on the walk back and her good night hug hadn't been up to it's usual intensity either.  "They've got a lot on their mind."  He spoke out loud and automatically turned to the door, embarrassed, before he remembered that the inside guard had been removed to help round up the fleeing resistance members.  It made him feel a bit safer to know that there were still two Amazon guards standing outside, though he wished Karis were here.  He left the shirt of his favorite soft sleepwear open because it was unseasonably hot tonight and stretched out in the bed.  Breathing deeply, he listened to the muted music from the festival and waited for sleep to take him.  Twice he dozed off, only to be startled awake by an errant wind rattling the open balcony doors.  Running his fingers through his hair he sighed and sat on the side of the bed.  Holding his head in his hands, he rested his elbows on his knees.  The herbs had worn off and it was very late but he knew he wouldn't get any sleep until Karis was back and safe.

"Why aren't you asleep?"  Karis walked out of the secret passage quickly, concerned with his head in hand position. "Does your head hurt?  Do you want me to call a healer?"  She knelt next to him, her anxious hands feeling his head for fever.

Catching the guard's hands he  pulled her up with him as he stood. "No. I don't need a healer."  The sudden intensity of what he did need was evident in his eyes.  He smiled at her quickening breath and slight gasp.  "You aren't going to leave again are you?"

Shaking her head in answer she put both hands flat against his bare chest and whispered. "No."  Solari and Palemon were rounding up the last of the resistance members now so she was no longer required for that.  Almost on their own, her hands found their way up to his shoulders and the shirt fell to the ground.   She was unable to keep her hands from moving to the back of his head.  Tangling her fingers in his hair, she pulled him closer.  The heat from his breath warmed her lips as she whispered.  "I'm not going anywhere."

He gently pushed her back onto the bed, almost unable to believe that the moment he had been waiting for for so long had finally arrived.   "Are you sure?"  They had several long discussions about this step in their relationship and each one ultimately included his age and the reactions of his Mothers.

Smiling up at her love, Karis nodded. "Yes."  She could see in his eyes how much he wanted this so his hesitance confused her. "What's wrong?"

He stretched out beside her and stroked her cheek with his fingertips.  His whispering voice answered the question.  "I don't know what to do."  The admission was hard for him and he was grateful that Karis didn't laugh.

Rolling to pin him under her, she kissed him deeply and then rested her forehead on his. There was no reason to deny her own need anymore.  "I'll teach you."

His lover's husky voice sent a shiver through him and he could only nod as his lessons began.

Xena sat in one of the big comfy chairs by the fireplace and watched the Amazon silently moving around the room, preparing for bed.   The walk back from the mine shaft had been equally quiet and even when they said good night to Solan she only spoke a few words to him.  Now the Conqueror was beginning to feel the strain. 'She is never going to talk to us again.'  Since the moment Gabrielle had pushed her hands away, the Amazon had not spoken a word to her.  'She hates me.'  The Warrior Princess almost growled. 'She doesn't hate you.'  Her dark sister's insecurity was becoming annoying. 'She loves us all.'  Worried blue eyes watched their love changing into her favorite sleeping shirt. 'She will talk about it when she is ready.'    Seeing the solemn young Queen walk out onto the balcony, Xena only waited a moment before joining her.  She couldn't pass up the opportunity to see her love in the moonlight.

Music drifted through the night and Gabrielle envied the people who were able to enjoy festivities.  She breathed deeply, nearly tasting the various wares the booths on the thoroughfare were peddling and smiled as the spicy leather scent of Xena overpowered them all.  Resting her elbows against the top of the balcony wall, she closed her eyes and let the night breeze envelop her for a moment.

The sight was too much to resist, so the Conqueror moved to wrap her arms around Gabrielle's shoulders.  She buried her face in the silky hair as the Amazon leaned back into the embrace and the warrior started to apologize. "Gabrielle, I'm sorry......."

"No."  Patting the warrior's arms for release, Gabrielle turned within the loosened embrace.  Sliding her arms around the leather encased waist, she put her ear against the warm chest, listening to the heart she loved. "Don't apologize for being you."  She felt the arms around her tighten and looked up into the eyes of love. "I have no right to ask you to change."  She slid her hands up to caress the warrior's cheek and trace her jawbone lightly.

"Yes you do, Gabrielle."  The Warrior Princess spoke quietly and captured the Amazon's left hand, playing with the ring she found there. "You are the only one who does."

With sad green eyes, the Amazon broached she subject of their captor. "She won't talk."

Licking her lips, Xena nodded and traced Gabrielle's cheekbone lightly. "I know."

Closing her eyes at the certainty in her lover's voice, Gabrielle swallowed hard. "Then why are you going to torture her?"

Xena's answer was interrupted by the sound of footsteps in the main room.  Growling at the interruption, Xena never took her eyes off Gabrielle as she addressed the new arrival. "We are on the balcony Mirriam.... What do you want?"  She didn't need to ask the Conqueror already knew what was coming.

When Mirriam saw the tableau on the balcony she cleared her throat and apologized to Gabrielle before she got to the heart of the problem. "Sorry for the interruption my Queen but the prison warden wanted me to deliver a message to Xena."

With an apologetic smile to Gabrielle, the Conqueror turned and answered the request before it was asked. "Tell him yes."

Gabrielle tugged on Xena's arm.  "Yes?"

Patting the small hand on her arm, the Warrior Princess studied Mirriam closely as the Amazon servant explained. "The prison is full as well as the dungeon....."

Xena continued when her assistant became lost for words. "The warden wants me to declare a special Judgment Day."  She lowered her eyes, unwilling to see the pain she was about to cause. "To clear some space for him."  At Gabrielle's gasp, the warrior clenched her jaw and dropped her arms to her side. The Conqueror addressed Mirriam. "Make the arrangements... I will hold court in the main square, beginning at dawn."

Bowing slightly, Mirriam acknowledged the order. "Yes Empress."   Bowing deeply to Gabrielle, Mirriam prepared to leave. "Good Night my Queen.  Pleasant dreams."

"Thank you Mirriam."  Gabrielle smiled at her subjects thoughtfulness but wasn't sure that was possible.  The thought of ordering someone's death was enough to turn her stomach.  She couldn't imagine ordering enough to clear space in the prison.

"I don't kill them all, you know."  Xena draped her arm around the small shoulders and guided the shocked Amazon into the main room.  "Petty criminals from the Festival will be punished and set free."

Nodding at the slight comfort that fact brought her, Gabrielle smiled and asked. "Are you coming to bed?"  She indicated the fact that Xena had yet to take off her boots or leathers, although the brass armor and weapons were laid neatly on the small table next to the bed.

Gabrielle's smile sent a small shiver through the Conqueror but shaking her head, the Warrior Princess spoke slowly. "I have something to do first."

Sighing, Gabrielle nodded and looked up at her determined love. "Will you do something for me?"

"Of course, I'll do anything for you."  The words were out of their mouth before they could stop them and now, Xena knew if Gabrielle asked her to spare Callisto's life, she would.  The Conqueror silently hoped the Amazon wouldn't ask that particular favor.  The Warrior Princess almost wished she would.

Gabrielle paused, slightly taken back by the immediate answer.  She knew that Callisto's life was suddenly in her hands but Xena's ability to rule was also on the line.  She knew that if she began making decisions for Xena there was no going back from that.  Pleading green eyes focused on their loves slightly twitching lips.  "Consider all the alternatives."

"Gabrielle.  After what she did to you......"  One of the warrior's callused thumbs brushed the rope burns on the Amazon's wrists.  "..... you still ask for leniency."   Gabrielle's capacity for forgiveness amazed her.

Smiling, the small woman tugged at the dark warrior's arm until she had situated them on one of the big comfy chairs.  Sitting on Xena's lap she gently traced the dark brow with her fingertips and spoke softly. "When Brenin threatened my life......"  Gabrielle suppressed a grin at the jealous tension in Xena's frame and smoothed the wrinkled brow again. ".....the entire Royal Guard and most of the Amazons wanted her sentenced to death.  I asked Ephiny to consider all the options before passing judgment.  I'm glad she chose banishment."

"But she stalked you for a entire moon.  She threatened your life.  I don't think I can be that forgiving......" Xena knew that if it had been up to her Brenin would be dead now.

"But if she had been executed then the twins probably would have died in the flood......."  Clear green eyes drove her point home. "..... and I would no longer be Queen of the Amazons."  With a little half smile, Gabrielle kissed the stunned Empress gently on the cheek. "Every action has consequences.... you know that.  I'm just asking you to consider all your options."  Rising from her much too comfortable seat she headed for the bed.  "I know you have to go......but try not to be too long.  There isn't much time left until dawn and I would rather not spend it alone."  Settling under the light cover she mumbled.  "I sleep much better in your arms."

Xena wished she could stay, but the perfectionist in her wanted to make sure Callisto was properly secured.   Walking down the hall quickly, they nearly laughed at Gabrielle's last mumbled comment.  'She sleeps better in our arms?'  The thought was almost ludicrous, because Xena knew without Gabrielle, sleep to her was nothing but one long nightmare.

Solari glared through the small window in the thick wooden door.   She knew Karis was right, and she should let Xena handle it, but the desire to make Callisto pay for Jana's injuries was strong.  At least she could gloat at the resistance leader's capture.  Callisto had been strapped to the straight-backed hardwood chair, with chains and metal shackles around her ankles and wrists but the most startling was the thick leather restraint circling her neck and another securing her forehead.  It was the most uncomfortable contraption she had ever seen and didn't doubt for a moment the horror stories she had heard about it.  A hand on her shoulder and a low voice in her ear made Solari jump.

"What are you doing here?!"  The Conqueror had nearly killed the Amazon before she realized it was Solari and not a resistance member trying to free their leader.

In a heartbeat Solari realized if anyone would understand her desire for revenge it would be Xena. "I want to make her pay for hurting Jana."

Nodding, the Conqueror recalled the injured Amazon's twitching body as Gabrielle soothed her into calmness.  With a deep breath, she smiled, motioned the vengeful woman and opened the door to the cell. "Stay here."

The creak of the door opening focused all Callisto's attention on the dark doorway and her visitor.  With a bright smile she greeted her guest. "My my... twice in one night."  Looking behind the warrior her smile turned to a smirk. "Where's your little pet?"

With a dangerous half smile, Xena spoke slowly and deliberately. "My wife is in our room, in bed."

The resistance leaders eyes glittered in the dim candlelight. "You mean you left your wife...." She sneered the title. ".. to come and see me?  I'm flattered."

"Don't be."  Xena circled the chair cautiously, making sure each strap and shackle was buckled and fastened as she spoke. "You will be out of here soon.  I have ordered a special Judgment Day."  Satisfied with the restraints Xena stopped in front of the woman and presented her offer. "Tell me what you know about the other resistance members and I'll let you live."

"NO!"  Solari burst through the door.  Not thinking about who she was disagreeing with. "She broke Jana's legs... and threatened the Queen.  She should die!"  Solari abruptly found it very difficult to breath as Xena's large hand wrapped around her throat.

"I rule here, Amazon."  The Conqueror growled at the interruption and at the Warrior Princess' quiet voice floating through her head. 'Let her go.'  Abruptly releasing the archer, the Conqueror ordered the gasping Amazon to leave. "Get out."   She watched with satisfaction as Solari scrambled out the door.  'We are going to have to make that up to her.'  The Warrior Princess advised. 'I will.'  The Conqueror's low chuckle shook their frame.

Deep brown eyes peered out from under the leather restraint, watching the dark warrior.  She could feel her heartbeat increasing as she felt Xena's low growl vibrate her bones.  The Conqueror's voice always sent a thrill through her and the thought of the warrior's warm hands on her, even on her throat, was enough to settle a warmth just below her belly.  When the Amazon exited and the dark woman began to chuckle a barely visible shudder raced through the captive.  It was barely visible but Xena saw it and grinned.

'Gabrielle was right.'  The Warrior Princess chuckled.  She had thought the little Queen was stalling for time in the mine shaft.  Now she knew that although what Callisto felt for her may not be love, it was at the very least, lust.  The Conqueror felt the need to taunt her captive and since she was not wearing weapons moved closer to The Chair.  Dropping her voice to it's lowest register,  the Conqueror rumbled. "Well Callisto.  It seems your little escapade with Gabrielle has garnered you some enemies."

Straining her eyes sideways, the blonde rebel tried to see Xena as she circled the chair.  Frustrated by her inability to turn and look at the woman behind her, Callisto snarled.  "Why are you here.  We both know you are going to kill me.  Even the peace-loving Amazon Queen knows."  The sudden low voice next to her ear made her shudder.

"But what if I've changed my mind?"  The Conqueror smirked at her captives shudder and recalled Gabrielle's hypnotic voice.  "We could have a little fun together before I decide your fate."  Brushing the wavy blonde hair back from the restrained head, Xena found Callisto's ear and continued to whisper. "Perhaps you could convince me not to kill you."

Swallowing hard, the prisoner tried to sneer. "What about your little wife?"

"Oh yes... her... well.... She wouldn't have to know would she?  I could keep you here until she goes back to the Amazon Nation.  Then I would be all yours."  The Conqueror moved back into her captive's line of site and smiled, careful to keep her voice low. "Then you would know what it is like for me to hold you in my arms."  She moved closer to the woman.  "Where I like to be touched."  She gently stroked the thin captive arm, noting the fine hairs standing on end.  "What sounds I make in my sleep."  Looking directly into the now panting woman's dark eyes she licked her lips, and continued.  "Then you will find out if I sigh softly or cry out in ecstasy."  She was so close now that the smallest motion would have closed the gap between their lips.  Her prisoner's rapid breath warmed her face and she almost smiled at the slight whimper backing off caused.  "What do you say?"

Callisto hated her body for responding to the murderer and wanted Xena to kill her more than ever. Finding her voice she tried her best to make it happen. "I say that WHEN I escape, I'm going to make your precious Gabrielle squeal like a pig before I kill her."

'I've had enough of her.'  The Conqueror moved in for the kill when the Warrior Princess stopped her. 'No!'  Looking at the captive with almost pity, she advised. "You still have several candlemarks to think about my offer."  She repeated the original terms. "Tell us about the other members and I'll let you live."  It was the only true deal Callisto would get.  Xena knew the rebel wouldn't take it, but now she could tell Gabrielle she tried.  "You will have until you are brought before me tomorrow to decide."  Yanking open the door, Xena shook her head as Callisto strained against the shackles. "Don't fight it, Callisto.  It'll give you peace if you let it."  She smiled as she closed the door on the thrashing woman.

Immediate danger swept over her and she took a deep breath, readying herself. "Don't do it Solari."

The archer walked out of the shadows, bow held drawn, with two arrows ready to fly. "You can't let her live."  The Amazon's hands shook in the effort not to release the arrows.  Gabrielle would be devastated if something were to happen to Xena.  The Queen would never believe Xena would cheat on her, even if Solari had heard it with her own ears.

Moving forward slowly, the Warrior Princess soothed the irate archer. "The only reason I'm even considering it........ is because Gabrielle asked me to."  She moved slowly, reaching out to gently push the arrows away from her, and take the bow from Solari. The Conqueror's rage matched the Amazon's and she let it all pour out through her eyes into the deep brown of the archer. "She will pay.  I promise you."  When Solari nodded acceptance, Xena handed her the bow and arrows back and walked on toward another small cell.  There was one other thing she had to take care of before she could return to her room and her one true love, Gabrielle.

Gabrielle tried to drift off to sleep but visions of Xena torturing Callisto and jangling nerves kept her from closing her eyes for very long.  Sighing at the futility of trying to sleep before Xena returned, the Amazon decided on a little reading.  Retrieving the journal from the desk, she turned to the bookmarked page and spoke quietly to herself. "No where was I?  Oh yes... we had just arrived in Chin."

She had wanted to wait and talk to Lao Ma before reading this section but it was late and she was sure the eastern leader was asleep by now.  So she began to read the Conqueror's somewhat choppy handwriting.

Gabrielle was surprised that the entries for Xena's time in Chin were so brief.  She knew Xena had spent quite a long time there.  Most of the entries were in the Conqueror's choppy handwriting and the Amazon realized that she didn't keep the journal as frequently as the Warrior Princess did.  The few entries in the Warrior Princess' smooth flowing script told how Lao Ma had saved her from the hunting dogs and the few days she spent in the Chinese leaders company trying to show her a different path.  "Something else I have to thank Lao Ma for."  She murmured as she read through a few more of the Conqueror's entries regarding their exit from Chin.  It wasn't a pretty story and Gabrielle found herself holding her breath at the outcome of the dice game for possession of Xena.  She gasped as she turned the page, startled to find a page with her name at the top and Xena's seal at the bottom.  Sitting up on the bed, Gabrielle slowly read the flowing script.


We have done many horrible things in our past, as you well know.  The next entry is the event we most regret.   When you read it, please try to remember, we will always love you and we trust you.

Gabrielle was amazed to see the Warrior Princess' signature and seal, right above the Conqueror's signature and seal.  Below the two large signatures Xena's name appeared several times, each with a distinct style.  'They all signed it.' She thought. 'Gods!  Ares' Chosen said they were right to trust me.'  Smiling at the note she carefully marked the page and closed the book.  The note implied it was okay to read the entry, but she had told Xena she would not read further until the warrior said it was okay.  There were still several candlemarks until dawn so, sighing, she replaced the journal on the desk.  Curling up on the bed, trying to sleep, unable to get comfortable without Xena's warmth to curl around, Gabrielle thought about what could be so terrible it would worry Xena.  Nothing could be bad enough to make her leave Xena, could it?  Closing her eyes, Gabrielle took a few deep breaths and let her mind drift.  She was surprised when she did actually doze off but was awakened pleasantly by Xena's warm form sliding next to her.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you."  The Warrior Princess had spent several moments just watching their love sleep.  The Amazon was so beautiful and peaceful it took her breath away.

"I wasn't sleeping."  Gabrielle protested and rested her head on Xena's shoulder, her arm finding it's way across the warrior's stomach on it's own.  "I was just resting my eyes."  She relaxed against the oddly firm softness of Xena's body and as Morpheus' realm got closer she whispered. "I love you Xena."

Chuckling at the familiar protest, Xena kissed the forehead that was so close to her lips and stroked the hair under her hand. "Okay then, I think I'll rest my eyes too."  The smaller woman's slow even breathing wavered briefly and the Amazon's faint whisper barely reached her ears, but Xena could feel the words caressing her soul.

Her internal clock, as always, woke Xena before dawn but on this morning gentle teeth tugging at her earlobe helped the process considerably.  She felt the lips against her ear smile as a low chuckle escaped her. "You're up early."

Whispering into the warrior's ear, Gabrielle slipped closer. "I have good motivation."  Gently kissing the warm neck, the Amazon traced Xena's collarbone with her tongue and smiling, moved lower.  Her lover's sharp intake of breath and sudden arching of her back only helped her quest.

Gasping at the unexpected warm mouth, the Conqueror half-heartedly protested.  "Gabrielle.  I need to get ready."  She could see the predawn light begin to lighten the sky and tried unsuccessfully, to focus on the day ahead.  Gabrielle's smile against her abdomen drove every other thought from her and settled an intense ache just below her navel.  The Amazon's low sultry voice caused a shudder to course through her.

"You seem pretty ready to me."  Gabrielle's hand brushed past her love's taut breasts, smiling at the slight whimper ilicited from the warrior.  Continuing to trace the tan ribs with her fingertips, Gabrielle slid down farther and grinned up at the darkening blue eyes. "Oh yes, very ready."

Filling her lungs, the Conqueror tried to push herself closer to the Amazon's smile but found the small hands on her stomach holding her in place.  "Gabrielle."  Xena's low voice begged for release.

Chuckling at the feeling of Xena rumbling her name,  Gabrielle shook her head. "Oh no."  Smiling wider at the shudder under her hands, the Amazon dropped her voice and kissed her lover's navel softly. "Begging won't help you now."  Gabrielle breathed in the scent of her love.

Regretfully the Warrior Princess sighed. "Gabrielle, If you keep this up we'll be late."  They had told Mirriam the sentencing would begin at dawn.

Gabrielle traced a small circle on the soft skin of Xena's muscular thigh and kissed the middle of it, her teeth gently nipping the muscular flesh. "Uh uh, I told Mirriam to organize the prisoners and we would be there in about a candlemark....."  Looking up at the single raised eyebrow, Gabrielle grinned wryly at her lover and drawled. "....or two."

'We?'  The Warrior Princess caught the phrasing but Gabrielle's ministrations quickly blanked the thought.  The Conqueror didn't pay attention to anything but Gabrielle's smooth skin sliding against hers.

The first rays of true dawn were beginning to race across the land when Karis awoke.  Solan's warm body pressed against her comfortably and she drifted for a moment in the peaceful feeling.  A soft knock at the door made her move regretfully but silently away from her love.  Grabbing the first shirt she found on the floor, Karis hastily dressed as she walked over to cautiously open the door.  "Solari?"  She stepped back to allow her second inside.

Solari stepped inside quickly and was momentarily stunned by what Karis was wearing. When she was on duty, Karis normally had her hair pulled back or braided, now her leader's dark hair fell in thick waves over the shoulders of the top half of Solan's sleepwear, which was barely closed.  She had not realized, exactly, how beautiful the young woman was. 'Almost as gorgeous as Jana.'  She thought and unconsciously glanced at Karis' bare, unbroken legs.  A single thought stuck in her mind. 'She's wearing Solan's shirt!'  Glancing at the sleeping form again, the archer sucked air in through her teeth as she realized the young couple had been together. 'I would hate to be her when Gabrielle finds out.'  She thought and shook her head against thoughts that were none of her business.  "I wanted you to know that the sentencing has been moved back a bit.  It should start in about a candlemark."  Mirriam had told them last night on occasions when the prison's were full Xena usually held a special Judgment Day and it usually started around dawn.

Nodding Karis moved to the small table and indicated a pitcher. "You want some juice?"  She poured the dark liquid into a tumbler.

Shaking her head, Solari declined the drink. "I should be going.  They are going to move Callisto soon and I want to be there."

Nodding understanding, Karis finished her drink and walked the archer back to the door.  "Yes I would feel better if you were there too."  Opening the door, Karis looked into her friend's eyes. "And then I want you to get some sleep."

"I will sleep when Callisto has paid for what she did."  The hatred in her voice surprised even Solari.

Narrowing her eyes at the tone, Karis cautioned. "Be careful."  Taking vengeance was Amazon tradition, but many others would see it as murder.

A small chuckle escaped the archer as she raised her eyebrows and tilted her head to indicate the bed. "You too."

Nodding at that understatement, Karis smiled and closed the door.  Turning back toward the bed, the guard sighed.  'There isn't much time.'  Sliding back into the comfort of Solan's arms would have been so easy and she almost gave in to the urge but she had lived with denying herself for so long that duty again won out over her heart.  With a regretful smile, Karis went to the washroom instead.

The Warrior Princess was content to stay in bed with Gabrielle in her arms all day long.  A soft knock on the door, followed by Mirriam entering the room ruined those plans.

"The prisoner's will be moved shortly."  The Amazon servant was very sorry to interrupt, but the crowd was already gathering and the prison warden had asked her several times when Xena would arrive in the square.

Sighing, Xena nodded and started to tuck the covers around Gabrielle when contented green eyes focused on her. "Don't bother.  I'm getting up too."

"You don't have to be there you know."  The Conqueror wasn't sure she could deal with the prisoner's in her usual manner if Gabrielle was there.

Nodding and stretching up to kiss the slightly frowning lips, Gabrielle spoke quietly. "Yes I do.  She threatened me too."

Mirriam sensed the private nature of the conversation and headed to the washroom.  Xena's voice stopped her.

"No bath this morning, Mirriam."  The Empress looked out the balcony doors at the increasing light filling the brilliant blue sky. "No time."  She wanted to get the judgments overwith, knowing Callisto would be the last one brought before her.

Bowing, the servant changed her direction toward the clothes storage area.  "Do you have a outfit chosen or should I pick one?"  As Xena's personal servant, Mirriam had grown to sense her employers moods.  She thought today's judgment would either be conducted wearing the black leather outfit she had been favoring lately or her favorite flame pattern robe.

Absently waving the woman toward the clothes, the Conqueror never took her eyes off the woman in her arms. "You choose."  Not caring if the Amazon was watching or not Xena slid down and kissed the Queen soundly. "And what are you going to wear?"

Snuggling in closer for a few last moments of peace, Gabrielle traced her index finger down Xena's arm.  "I guess just formal leathers."  Patting the arm, the Amazon hauled herself out of the bed.  "I'll go check on Solan."  She grabbed her favorite white robe and headed for the secret door.  "Back in a bit."

Smiling at the tan flesh quickly covered by the silky robe, Xena nodded and rose to begin her morning routine.

Gabrielle looked down at her sleeping son.  Solan was on the bed, his bare chest rising and falling in a contented rhythm.  She smiled and let herself drift in the secure knowledge he was safe when a soft gasp from behind her caused her to whirl around. The sight of Karis wearing only the top half of Solan's favorite sleepwear also drew a gasp from the Queen.  Glancing back at the bed, her nostrils flared at the thought of her son and this, this....  She forced her anger down but glared at the guard.

Karis had never been a modest person.  No one growing up in an Amazon village was, but at this moment she was painfully aware that the shirt she wore was only fastened with one fastener at her stomach and a great deal of cleavage was allowed to show through the gap in the unfastened portion.  The guard and the Prince had both known if they took this step one of the things they would have to deal with would be his parent's reactions.  He was more worried about Xena, but Karis was far more concerned with Gabrielle's reaction.  With a pounding heart, Karis slowly moved her head up and down in a sort of informal bow. "My Queen."

'Yes. I am the Queen.' She thought and slipped into Queen mode easily. "Report."  The startled look Karis shot at the bed, did not amuse Gabrielle at all and she clarified the terse order. "Did you get all the resistance?"

With a small breath of relief, Karis nodded. "All of them we agreed to get."  Part of the plan had been to leave a few of the less prominent rebel contacts in place, believing their cover safe, in order to catch the members that escaped and monitor any future resistance movement.  That would be changed if Callisto talked but Karis didn't believe she would.  Right now her main concern was Gabrielle's reaction to her relationship with Solan.  The anger evident in her Queen's voice constricted her heart.

"Get dressed."  Clenching her jaw against the maternal anger coursing through her, Gabrielle focused on the day ahead. "I will expect all the Amazons, who are able, to be present at the sentencing."  Callisto had committed several crimes against the Amazons up to and including threatening the life of their Queen.

"Yes, my Queen." Bowing as low as her current state of dress allowed, Karis swallowed hard at the formal tone and answered in a similar fashion. "As you wish."

"I won't mention this to Xena yet." Gabrielle wasn't sure what Xena's reaction would be but she thought if her own feelings were any indication, Karis would be in a lot of trouble. "We will deal with you later."  A few deep calming breaths helped the Queen control her anger and after a last glance at her not-so-young son silently went back through the passageway to the room she shared with Xena.

Karis also breathed deeply, the knowledge that her actions had hurt the Queen hurt worse than she ever imagined it would.   She almost regretted her decision until Solan sighed and rolled over.  'No.'  She thought. 'I don't regret a thing.'   Smiling softly at the sleeping form, she decided to get dressed before she woke him.  'We will never leave the room otherwise.'

Gabrielle walked slowly through the dark passageway, trying to compose herself.  She had known this day was coming but the desire to assign Karis far away from her son was very tempting.  The upset Amazon mother forced herself to smile as she exited the passageway and then the smile turned genuine as Xena in her favorite black robe, lounged on the bed.  "Why aren't you dressed?"

"I was waiting to see how Solan was and I need to tell you something."  Opening her arms wide, the Warrior Princess smiled as Gabrielle quickly filled the void.  "So how is he?"

"Sleeping."  Gabrielle didn't want to lie to Xena.  "I told Karis to wake him in time for Callisto's sentencing."

"You want him there?" The Warrior Princess was not sure the boy should be there.

"No I don't want him there!"  Frustration made her statement sharper than she wanted and she sighed. "He has the right.  Callisto threatened him too."

Nodding, Xena tightened her embrace and leaned her cheek against the top of Gabrielle's head.  "Sometimes it seems like only yesterday he was a baby in my arms."

Gently rubbing Xena's stomach, Gabrielle smiled at the feel of the firm flesh under the silky material.  "He isn't a baby anymore....." The memory of half-clothed Karis standing in the washroom doorway flashed in her mind.  Sighing at the inevitability of that event, she thought of another reason too. "..... the fight with Ming T'ien last night proved that."

Laughing, Xena gave the Amazon's small shoulders a final squeeze and released her.  "Gabrielle.  He will always be my baby."  Rising from the bed, the Conqueror let her robe fall to the floor and reached for the outfit Mirriam had laid out for her, smiling at the servant's choice.  She had always liked the flame pattern robe.

Nodding at the sentiment, Gabrielle too rose and began to dress for the day. Reaching for her favorite leathers she remembered Xena's earlier remark. "What did you need to tell me?"  She sort of hoped the sentencing wouldn't last too long and almost mentioned it to Xena then thought better of it.  Requesting the day be shortened would undoubtedly bring about more quick decisions and Gabrielle didn't want to risk the judgments being made against the prisoners becoming too harsh just because she was impatient.

Xena smiled as her robe fell away and began to tell the Amazon about a very special prisoner.

Xena looked across the crowded square.  The spectators consisted of commoners and royalty alike.  Their expectant hush was broken by the Conqueror's personal banner snapping in the warm breeze.  She could see the large group of Amazons to her right and wished Gabrielle had agreed to be up on the dais with her.  It had been a hard decision but they both knew it was best for everyone if Xena handled the sentencing on her own.  Even from here she could see her love's twinkling green eyes and felt her heart rate increase at the memory of this mornings activities.   Solan and Karis joined the little group and the Warrior Princess was slightly confused at Gabrielle's almost cold reaction to them but didn't have time to think about it.

Nodding to Palemon, the Conqueror gave the signal and the first group of prisoners were brought before her.  It was the custom to present the least serious crimes first.  The Conqueror preferred the hardened criminals to see the increasing severity of the punishments while waiting for their turn before her.  Her grinning chuckle at the trembling criminals that had been brought before her in the past was abruptly stopped as the Warrior Princess realized the makeup of the first group. 'They are only children!'  She studied the young faces in horror. 'Children should not be in the prison.'  The fact that the guards had arrested such young people was appalling to her. The Conqueror disagreed. 'They are criminals.'  She firmly took command of the situation.  "What is their crime?"

Palemon consulted the scroll in his hand quickly and answered loudly enough for all to hear. "These were all caught pickpocketing at the festival."

"They've been in the prison overnight?"  The Conqueror's attention was drawn to the pained expression on Gabrielle's face as her new head guard answered.

"Yes.  Some of them have been there two nights."  Palemon gloated at Iolaus' poor handling of the children.  They should have just been scared and sent on their way, not arrested.

Pursing her lips, the Conqueror stood, barely suppressing a smile as the children all took a step back.  "Who is the oldest among you?"

"I am." A young boy pushed his way forward but a slightly taller girl interrupted.

"No!"  She glared at the boy. "I am the oldest."  She stood straighter as the Conqueror approached the little group.

Studying the girl as she approached the Conqueror noticed a slight resemblance, both children had sandy blonde hair cut in a similar style and the same curve to their nose.  "He is your brother."

The young girl's hair blew in the breeze and she nodded. "My younger brother."

"I am not younger.  Mother said I was born first."  The boy's protest stopped at his sister's glare.

The Warrior Princess' heart constricted at the sight of the twins standing up for each other.  A voice floated through her head.  'Just like Lyceus and me.'  The Conqueror snorted. 'You weren't criminals.  You were just mischievous.'  The children's bickering was silenced by the Conqueror's raised voice. "ENOUGH!"  Her cold blue eyes raked across the trembling group. "How many of you want to go back to the prison?"  She watched as their eyes grew wide and they all shook their heads negative. Grinning at their reaction, she nodded. "You're smart and it seems you're also lucky."  Glancing at Gabrielle, the Conqueror drawled. "I happen to be in a very good mood right now."  Gesturing for the guards to unlock the children's shackles, she turned to walk back to her seat. "You are free to go, but don't ever let me see you appear before me again."  Chuckling at their agreement and quick disappearance into the crowd, Xena settled herself back in her seat.  She raised an eyebrow at Palemon. "Next?"

Gabrielle smiled at the lenience.  She hoped Xena didn't think this morning was just about putting her in a good mood and thought. 'But I'll have to remember how well that particular technique works.'    Still uncomfortable at Karis and Solan's appearance, Gabrielle signaled the head guard to approach her.

"Yes, my Queen?"  Karis was carefully formal.  She didn't know exactly how angry Gabrielle was yet and didn't want to make things worse.

"Track those children and find out WHY they were stealing."  Gabrielle wasn't convinced they were all pranksters, nor did any of them look hungry, not hungry enough to steal anyway. She grabbed Karis' hand as the young woman started to gesture to Solari. "See to it personally."  Glinting green eyes challenged the guard to deny her request and added. "I want to talk to the twins too."

'Personally!' Karis' heart fell. 'That will take all day!'  The look in her Queen's eyes told her this was part of her punishment.  Gabrielle wanted her separated from Solan all day. Sighing to herself Karis adjusted her headband and nodded. "Yes, my Queen."  With a 'you're in command' signal to Solari and a 'see you later' signal to Solan, Karis' keen eyes picked one of the children from the crowd and headed toward him.  She saw the disapproval in Gabrielle's face when she signaled 'later' to Solan and suppressed a pang of hurt.  Gabrielle's friendship meant a lot to her and she wished they didn't have to be at odds over Solan, after all they both loved him.  Squaring her shoulders Karis put her personal problems aside, the Queen had given her an assignment and she intended on doing it.  'As quickly as I can.'  She thought and moved quickly through the crowd, amused that they seemed to move aside for her.  When she caught up with the still shaking boy, she took a moment to soothe his nerves before she asked him where the others would be.  She was surprised when the boy offered to help her find his partners in crime.  'This might not take as long as I thought.' She thought and they were about to go when Xena greeted Iolaus.  She held on to the boys shoulder and knowing her mission had been shortened by the child's cooperation, turned to watch the sentencing.  She wanted to know what Xena had in mind for the resistance members.

Gabrielle informing Solan and Solari of Karis' new assignment left her barely enough time to notice the next few group judgments but she paid enough attention to know the sentences were extremely light.  Her explanation to Solan and Solari where Karis had gone was nearly finished when the tone in the Conqueror's voice captured the Amazons attention quickly.  "Bring her out."  There was no doubt Xena was referring to Callisto and Gabrielle was surprised.  No one had ever been released from The Chair once they were put there, not until they were dead.  The collective gasp of the crowd as the resistance leader was brought forward momentarily deprived her of breath as well.  The Chair's legend remained intact as four guards carried it and it's occupant out to face the Conqueror.

The Warrior Princess barely remained aware of her surroundings as the Conqueror's rage consumed her.  The morning's good mood was instantly gone and now there was menace behind the once impassive expression on Xena's face.  Knowing she had to stay focused on the task at hand, the Conqueror tore her eyes away from the object of her anger and with a gesture to the guards, ordered the rest of the resistance members brought forward.   She was momentarily surprised at the large number in the group. 'Karis was busy last night.' She found the guard's face in the crowd and nodded approval of the round up, narrowing her eyes at the Amazon's surprised reaction.  For some reason she had assumed the resistance was smaller than that and held no illusions that for every one they had captured two or three had escaped.  "Well Callisto it seems you have collected quite a following."  Raking her blue eyes across the group, her icy gaze came to rest on the curly blonde locks of her former head guard.  "Hello Iolaus."  She grinned at the black look he shot at her. "What's the matter?  Prison guard's not treating you right?"

"There aren't enough guards."  Iolaus felt nauseous.  The small number of guards assigned to the prison had been his idea.  It left the large cell used for the main prison population, for the most part, unsupervised.  The prisoners were able to do basically whatever they wanted to each other without much problem.  If the prisoners killed each other it just meant less work for the guards and if the inmates showed a bit too much affection for each other, that was overlooked too.

"So your fellow prisoners gave you a warm welcome huh?"  Blue eyes twinkled at his uncomfortable shifting feet.  "I'll bet they did, cute guy like you."  Grinning at his shudder, the Conqueror could read his body language easily.  He was ready to die, he wanted death rather than the continued abuse of the long term prisoners.  "I guess you can return the favor for them in the years ahead."  Smiling at his widening eyes, she gestured for the guards to take him back to the prison.  "Take a good look around Iolaus.  You won't see this side of the prison wall again."

"No!  You can't do this."  He struggled against the guards grip. "I hate you..... I will kill you."  He was frantic now.  Life in the prison was no life at all.  Threatening Xena was a good way to get killed and he knew the quick death of the executioner's axe was preferable to the affections of the inmates.  He knew a life sentence would not be reconsidered.  As soon as he was back inside, meager food and poor health care would be the only pleasant things that would possibly shorten the sentence.  He wanted Xena to just kill him now.  He breathed a sigh of relief as the Conqueror held up her hand and the guards stopped dragging him away.

She answered his first panicked outcry calmly. "I can do anything I want."  Her cold voice carried through the silence her gesture to the guards had caused. "but I admire your honesty.  I'm sure you do hate me and would try to kill me if you ever get out."  Glancing at Callisto's apparent glee at the man's sentence, she tried not to notice Gabrielle's effort to hide her emotions and continued. "So for being so honest I will say this now.  You will always be fed a decent meal, and if you are ever injured the best healers will tend to you."  With a little sideways smile, she nodded and waved for the guards to continue taking him away, calling after his struggling form in a laughing voice. "Don't worry, Iolaus.  You will live for a long, long time."

Karis watched with satisfaction as the man was being dragged away.  She almost felt sorry for the poor bastard, almost.  Keeping her  grip firmly on the little thief's shoulder she glanced at Gabrielle.  'It must be difficult to see Xena be so ruthless.'  She knew it was kind of disturbing to her so she really couldn't imagine what it must be like for Gabrielle.

The Amazon Queen stood with her people.  None of the commoners in the square could tell the turmoil going on behind the regal expression but most of the Amazons could tell their Queen was upset.  Solan moved to stand by her side and silently offered his hand to hold.

She took the offered hand and smiled up at her son. 'My grown up son.'  She thought and realized it was wrong for her to send Karis away. 'I'll have to make it up to her.'  Squeezing the large hand wrapped around hers, Gabrielle shuddered as the Conqueror's voice cut through the crowds murmurs.

"As for the rest of you."  Her cold blue eyes raked across the shackled group. "I have had several requests from various countries, including Egypt, for sla....workers..."  She smiled as the groups eyes widened in surprise. "Of course I can't send all of you to Egypt.  Cleopatra has enough problems as it is without a bunch of rebels but groups of ten or twelve will be chosen and permitted to go."  She watched them nearly unconsciously group themselves into the size imposed.  They all wanted to live that was for sure, but stories of the treatment of 'workers' Egypt were well known.  It would be a hard life, little more than slavery and considerably shortened by any number of things including the whim of the slave boss.  Each group hoped they were not chosen to make the journey to Egypt.

Gabrielle too watched as the prisoners banded together into smaller groups.  One small group in particular caught her attention and releasing Solan's hand she stepped forward to speak. "Empress. May I make a request?"  All eyes turned toward her unexpected question, including the Conqueror's own baby blues.  Xena's former harsh growl was replaced with softness as she answered her love.

"You can have anything you want."  She looked into the brilliant green eyes and smiled. "You know that."

Nodding at that fact, Gabrielle and projected her voice across the square.  She indicated the smallest group of rebels. "Then I want the women."

"They're yours."  The Conqueror immediately granted the request, of course, but was curious. "May I ask why?"

Bowing slightly at the waist, Gabrielle explained. "The Amazon Nation is currently going through some..... changes."  She glanced at Solan briefly. "There are several tasks to be done that I would rather not waste my warriors on."  The Amazon Queen was sorry that the rebels were just as scared of going to the Amazon Nation as they were of going to Egypt but that couldn't be helped.

Shrugging indifferently, the Conqueror nodded and watched three Amazon guards lead the captive women away.  When they were out of sight she redirected her gaze to the remaining groups.  "Who will speak for each of your groups?"  One person from each of the five remaining groups stepped forward quickly.  'Good.' The Conqueror thought. 'Now we know who the leaders are.' The Warrior Princess cautioned. 'Not all of them.'  Agreeing, the Conqueror responded logically. 'No, but it's enough to get my point across.'

Glancing once at the executioner standing at the ready, Xena stood and regarded the five sub-leaders. "Most of my past problems have been like snakes.  Cut off the head...." She indicated Callisto. ".... and the body withers and dies."  Sighing and shaking her head, the Conqueror looked gravely at the nervously shifting sub-leaders. "This time however my problem is like a hydra, so I have to cut off all the heads at once."  Signaling the guards, Xena's judgment fell on the five's shoulders, driving them all to their knees. Ignoring their pleas for mercy, the Conqueror tried not to think about how disappointed Gabrielle would be at the sentence and confirmed the vague order. "Death."  The rebels watched in horror as their five leaders were dragged toward the executioner's block.

Without another look at the doomed prisoners, the Conqueror turned to the remaining, now leaderless, captives.  She saw Gabrielle flinch each time the axe fell but continued with her sentencing.  Knowing they had grouped themselves according to their own friendships and alliances she decided to break them up.  "Two people each from the remaining groups...."  She nodded as the guards moved to comply with her order and when the new groups were formed she pointed to each on in succession, assigning their destinations. "Egypt, India, Gaul, Britannia."   Avoiding Gabrielle's gaze, the Conqueror turned to face Callisto.  "And what about you?  By all rights I should kill you, you threatened my life and the lives of my family.  You poisoned every member of royalty present at my wedding feast.  You have probably killed more people than I even now about."  The charges were serious.  Even without the murder charges, the fact that she even threatened Xena was enough to garner the death penalty.  The blonde maniac peered up from her restraints and spoke with a sneer.

"Your offer last night was very tempting......."  Straining her deep brown eyes as far to the side as she could, she saw Gabrielle's puzzled look and wrinkled her nose.  "..... I think I'll take you up on it."

One dark eyebrow arched. "You are going to tell me about the Resistance?"

"I like the other deal better." Callisto laughed at the total stillness in Xena's frame. "but yes.  I talk, I live."   For several candlemarks last night she had craved death, but this morning with the five leaders corpses still oozing blood only a few feet away Callisto had suddenly had a change of heart.  If she could just stay alive, it was only a matter of time before she escaped or her people rescued her.  Then she could finish her mission and extinguish the pain in her heart.  She would see Xena dead one day. "That's the deal right?"

"That is the deal."  The Conqueror confirmed the arrangement and waited.  She was curious to see what Callisto would tell her, smiling to herself because she thought she already knew and because the prisoners compliance made it easier to justify the sentence.

"Okay then I will tell you who helped me poison all the royalty."  Naming the man would fulfill her part of the bargain and punish him for betraying her, the royals weren't knocked out nearly long enough.  And she wanted to see the look on Xena's face when she realized she would have to keep her end of the deal.  She didn't care if the Roman died or not as long as she stayed alive.  With a closed tooth grin that touched her eyes, Callisto called out her accomplices name. "Brutus."

All the royalty present quickly looked toward the Roman section of the square but they didn't see the man standing with his people.  The Conqueror's voice cut through the crowd's murmurs.

"Bring him!" She smiled as Callisto's grin was wiped from her face.  The guards brought the Roman out quickly, his hands shackled behind him, his face bruised and bloodied.  Now it was her turn to widen a toothy grin.  "You're a little slow aren't you?"

"You knew the stew was drugged."  Dawning comprehension passed across Callisto's face. "That's why you only ate half of it."  She looked at the warrior in disbelief. "You let your family eat it anyway."  The crowd murmured at Xena's seeming coldness.

"I thought it would be best if Solan was kept out of the fight."  She shrugged apologetically at her son and glanced at his Mom.  "I didn't think Gabrielle would be out too long."

"Why not?"  She had been curious since she first discovered the herbs didn't work on the Amazon.

Gabrielle spoke up to explain not to Callisto but to the crowd.  Xena's public image needed to be changed and this was as good a time to start as any.  "Xena knew that when I first came to live with the Amazons, I had problems sleeping.  The healers gave me that herb to help.  Over time it took more and more to be effective until finally they had no effect at all."  That wasn't exactly true, they did effect her but in the opposite way.  The dosage in the stew had kept her jumpy for quite awhile after they returned to the Palace.   She smiled as the crowd's murmurs changed tone from disbelief of Xena's coldness to grudging admiration of her quick thinking.

Callisto studied the battered form of her accomplice and sneered at Xena. "I kept my end of the bargain.  I told you about him.  Now you have to keep yours and let me live."

"I always keep my word."  The Conqueror growled at the implied insult and took a deep breath projecting her voice down off the stage and throughout the square. "The sentence of death for threatening my life is commuted.  I hearby sentence Callisto to life imprisonment on Shark Island....."  Smiling at the crowds murmur, she held up her hands to silence them. "But I am not the only one she threatened."  Looking toward the Amazons briefly, the Conqueror continued to dole out Callisto's punishment. "The unusual nature of her crime calls for a break in my usual punishment."  Looking directly at Callisto's now utterly still form, the Conqueror's harsh voice filled the courtyard. "No one has ever been released from The Chair once they are put in it....... until now."  She thought the collective gasp of the crowd did as much to make the festival banners wave as the slight breeze did.  Gesturing to the guards she watched as the prisoner was unshackled and continued her speech during the process. ".......You will not begin your stay on Shark Island until you have served your punishment for your crimes against the Amazons."  The Warrior Princess saw Gabrielle's aborted attempt to stop the sentencing and heard the Conqueror's angry voice say the words she had said a thousand times before. "Put her on the cross."

Gabrielle knew that despite her instinct to stop another person from being hurt, her warriors needed the prisoner to be punished.  The wave of murmurs she heard from the warriors behind her confirmed that thought.  She had already seen the signs of true anger in Solari and sighed.  She knew enough stories of Xena's sentencing to know what was coming next.  With deep regret, she simply watched the woman being tied to the cross and waited.

When the blonde resistance leader was secured on the crossed wood, Xena looked toward the Amazon section.  It was fortuitous that Karis was gone and she called for the second in command. "Solari."

Glancing at Gabrielle for permission, Solari quickly moved to stand in front of Xena. "Yes, Empress?"

"You are the highest ranking Amazon guard presently off duty?"  The Conqueror knew she was because only an assignment would take Karis away from Gabrielle's side today of all days.

"Yes Empress."  The archer stood proudly in front of the stage.

"Then you should carry out the final part of Callisto's punishment, for her crimes against the Amazon guards."  The Conqueror was glad to be able to repay the guard for choking her last night in the dungeon and growled. "Break her legs."

Callisto's screams filled the courtyard as Solari swung the sledgehammer with extreme force and accuracy.  The Warrior Princess was shocked but the Conqueror only chuckled. 'It's not like she is going to need her legs again anyway.'  In a week when the next ship left for Shark Island the woman would be back in The Chair and shipped out.  It would make the transport to the prison island much safer for the ships crew, and her stay at the prison much easier for the guards there too.  For the rest of the day today though, the former resistance leader would hang on display in the square.

Jumping off the platform Xena took a moment to straighten her robe before moving toward the last captive. "Brutus."  She circled the shackled man and reached up to wipe a bright red smear off his cheek with her fingertip.  Licking her finger and ignoring the noises of disgust that pulled from the crowd, she brought one eyebrow up to meet her hairline. "Strawberry?"

Bringing his hands out from behind his back, Brutus dropped the shackles and rubbed his wrists.  With an impudent grin he wiped the rest of it off and tasted the mixture. "Yeah, it was the best I could do on short notice."  When Xena had come to see him in his cell last night he had thought she was going to kill him.  Even though it was the truth he knew he was lucky to convince her of his story.  From the time the resistance leader approached him for help and the wedding feast there had been no opportunity to inform the Empress of the plot.  He had been surprised to be arrested but glad to be put in a small cell of his own.

Gabrielle moved to stand next to Xena. "You did a wonderful job."  She reached out to shake his hand. "Thank you."   The man had risked his life to help them and she would be grateful to him forever.  Xena had told her of Brutus' duplicity and knew if Callisto had succeeded he would have been killed.  The herbs he was to give the royalty were supposed to keep them out for much longer.

Smiling at the small woman he gently grasped the Amazon's hand and kissed her knuckles gallantly. "I meant what I said in the toast.  I wish you all the happiness in the world."  Unlike some leaders Brutus actually liked Xena.  When she killed Caesar so long ago, she had done him a huge favor.  He had been there when Xena proposed to the Amazon Queen and knew big changes were in store for the world.  He wanted to be in on the ground floor when they happened.

Squinting up at the sun, Xena put her hand on Gabrielle's back and smiled when the woman didn't pull away. "It's nearly lunchtime."  She rubbed her hand tentatively up and down the Amazon's nearly bare back.  "You hungry?"

Glancing toward the executioner's block, Gabrielle winced. "Not really."  She felt the hand fall away from her back and before she knew it the Amazon was wrapping her arm around the silk clad waist.  "I think a short ride would stimulate my appetite."  She had been horrified by the sentencing of the five, and couldn't look at Callisto suspended from the cross.  She truly couldn't fault Xena though, she had asked the warrior to consider the consequences and basically made her wishes for the death penalty to be commuted known.  'Be careful what you wish for.' She thought.  Her favorite saying suddenly took on new meaning.

The Conqueror smiled with relief at the Amazon's warm arm around her waist and circled the woman's small shoulders.  "I think that can be arranged."  She looked into the loving green eyes for a moment before turning back to Brutus. "Thank you again for your help."

"Yes."  Gabrielle tore her eyes away from Xena's regal profile and smiled at the man. "We hope to see you at the ceremony tomorrow evening."

Tilting his head to acknowledge the offer, he adjusted his leather armor and smiled. "I wouldn't miss it."  He walked away with a smile.  Gabrielle radiated such goodness that there was no way it wouldn't soften the Conqueror and he knew in fact it already had.  Without Gabrielle in her life, Brutus knew the Conqueror would have killed all the resistance members without hesitation.

"Do you want to change before we go for a ride?"  The regal flame pattern robe was perfect for passing judgment's on criminals but Gabrielle didn't think it was the best choice of outfits for riding.

"Yeah."  Xena looked down at the long wide sleeves. "I'll change and meet you at the stable okay?"

Smiling, Gabrielle nodded. "Sounds good." She reached up and patted the warrior's tan cheek. "I'll be waiting."

Capturing the small hand in her own, Xena kissed the palm and smiled. "THAT sounds good." Falling into the sea of green, the Conqueror gently stroked the Amazon's hair and leaned down for a quick kiss, surprised when Gabrielle pulled back.

"Xena we are in public here."  Gentle displays of affection would go a long way in changing the Conqueror's image in her people's eyes but Gabrielle wasn't sure if Xena was ready for that change to start yet.

"So?"  The Empress shrugged. "Let them be jealous."  She grinned at her love's rolling eyes and kissed her cheek instead of capturing the perfect red lips as she had started to.  "I won't be long."

Smiling at the slight tingle on her cheek where Xena had kissed her, Gabrielle nodded. "Okay."  The Amazon only watched for a moment as her love moved gracefully across the courtyard before she walked toward the stable.

Karis waited for the revelation of Brutus' duplicity before she looked down at the boy in her grasp. "Okay, we can go now."

"This way."  He guided her through the streets of Corinth then a ways away from the city proper.

The Amazon was appalled when she realized a dilapidated farm house was their destination.  "What is this place?"

"It's an old homestead they say is cursed.  Years ago there was a huge sudden fire in the barn.  The woman who lived here was killed."  His eyes grew wide. "They say she was pregnant at the time.  They say it was a fire ball from the Gods because she had been unfaithful to her husband."  He shrugged. "No one comes here.... so it's a perfect place for us kids to play."

Nodding at that, Karis remembered a few hidey holes she and her friends used to have too.  'I guess all kids are the same.'  She had been upset when Gabrielle gave her this assignment.  She had thought it was a punishment for disobeying Xena's unspoken 'sleep only' order, but now she saw it was more than that.  Now she too was curious why such seemingly happy children would risk stealing, when they knew the punishment could be severe.  Petty theft was usually punished by a broken finger or two, the children had gotten of very easily.  Ducking under the overhang on the porch, she followed the boy inside.  Surprised that the interior was in halfway decent shape.

Obviously discarded furniture had been brought in and repaired fairly competently.  There was a large stack of wood next to a semi-clean fireplace they probably used for cooking.  There were several doors off the main room but she didn't have time to consider them before she felt the rope falling around her. 'Great.'  She thought. 'Now I've got KIDS capturing me..... perfect.'  Sighing with resignation she thought. 'Well at least they didn't drug me.'  It took a short bit of effort but in the space of a few deep breaths the guard calmed herself and waited to see what the children were going to do before she decided what course of action to take in freeing herself.

Gabrielle walked into the empty stable.  "Heeellllllooooo?"  She didn't see any movement other than the horses in their stalls and shrugged.  Moving to Argo's stall she smiled. "Hello girl.  How are you?"  The large animal still made her nervous but she was getting better and this time she had brought a treat. "Easy."  She offered a large juicy apple to the golden mare and patted the long nose. "Good girl."

"You going riding?"  Bennett wasn't sure if the small woman would be able to handle Argo on her own or even if he should let the Amazon ride Xena's horse at all.

Smiling at the young stableboy, Gabrielle nodded. "Xena will be here in a little bit."  She pointed to the saddle that rested on top of the railing. "Would you saddle Argo please?"

"Yes Ma'am."  He began to perform his duties quickly, hoping to be finished before Xena arrived.  He wasn't sure that he wanted to see the warrior yet.  The revelation that it had been her army  who raided the village, that killed his mom, it was just too much for him to handle at the moment.

Gabrielle watched the boy go about his job quietly and efficiently but his actions betrayed him. "I know you are upset about Xena....."  She smiled as he looked up sharply.

"How do you know that?"  Bennett reached for Argo's favorite brush and began to smooth out the hair on her mane.

"You were friends... and then you found out something that she did in her past.... something that hurt you."  Gabrielle moved closer to the boy and held his chin in her fingers. "Anyone would be upset when that happens."

"She killed my mother."  The stableboy was torn.  He didn't really remember his birth mother.  He couldn't imagine that she would have loved him more than his mother now did.

"No!"  Gabrielle shook her head sadly. "Her army acted against her orders.  The man responsible was beaten for it and later she killed him."  Darfus had almost taken over the army during that time.  She recalled the journal entries clearly and thought Bennett should know everything. "She would have kept you if she could have."

He was glad the brush he was using  had a strap that fit over his hand or he would have dropped it. "What?"

"Solan had been taken from her."  Gabrielle knew Solan had confided in the boy about his birth mother. "She seriously thought about keeping you but she knew if you were associated with her then your life would be in danger."  Taking the brush from Bennett's hand, she replaced it on its hook and smiled at his speechlessness. "She cares about you very much."

"Why didn't she tell me?"  The boy's plaintive question echoed through the barn and he flopped down on a bale of hay.

"She was scared."  Sitting next to him, Gabrielle put her arm around him and shook his shoulders gently. "She didn't want to lose your friendship."

Argo snorted and tossed her head.  Lowering her huge nose, the horse nudged the seated boy.

"Cut it out Argo!"  He pushed the animal away.

"Don't push her away."  Gabrielle patted the horses neck and smoothed the boy's hair out of his eyes.

"Why not?"  Plucking at the strands of hay he was seated on he hung his head.  The answer to his question snapped it up again.

"Because she cares about you."  Xena stood in the door of Argo's stall. "She just doesn't want to see you upset."

Gabrielle and Bennett were both startled by Xena's sudden appearance but Gabrielle found her wit's faster. "Xena.  Can I talk to you?"  She grabbed the warrior's arm and dragged her out of the stall before she heard the obvious answer.

"Of course."  Xena looked curiously at the Amazon. "What's wrong?"

"You need to talk to Bennett."  Gabrielle bit her lip.  All this talk about things that happened in the past had gotten her to thinking about the journal.  She broached the subject. "And I have some reading to do."  Sighing into loving blue eyes she spelled it out. "I'm to the page in the journal that you marked."   Swallowing hard as the look in Xena's eyes shifted to ice she asked. "Is it okay for me to continue?  Do you want to be there?"  Those were the questions Xena had not been sure about the other night.

The Conqueror didn't want to be there.  She didn't think she could handle the slow hatred she was sure she would see.  The Warrior Princess wanted to be there, to try and explain their actions but they all agree on one thing. Looking everywhere but at the Amazon, Xena answered. "Yes you can read it."

Narrowing her eyes at the permission, Gabrielle reached up and firmly held her love's head in place.  Sounds of the stable faded away and she never took her eyes off Xena. "That's a yes from the Warrior Princess, but I won't read it until I get a yes from the Conqueror as well."

"It's okay, you can read it."  The Conqueror was glad she had asked instead of just taking the Warrior Princess word for it.

"Do you want to be there?"  Gabrielle watched the Warrior Princess shake her head.

"I do.. but she doesn't."  Sighing at the problems that caused they reached a compromise quickly.  "I'll talk to Bennett and come back to the room in a little bit."  Now it was her turn to cup the small head in her hands. "Promise you will wait until we get back.  Promise you will talk to us before ...."  The Warrior Princess couldn't say it and the Conqueror finished the thought in their head. 'before she leaves us.'

"I promise."  Gabrielle drew the dark head down and was struck by the infinite tenderness in the kiss she received.  It tore at her heart because she felt as though Xena were saying goodbye.  Smiling at the sad warrior, the Amazon patted her cheek and tried to reassure her. "I love you, Xena."  Puzzled when the sentiment wasn't returned, Gabrielle walked out of the stable.

Breathing deeply, the Warrior Princess turned to the still silent Bennett. "You probably hate me now."

Shaking his head, Bennett merged the stories his mother had told him with the incredible statements Gabrielle had made. "Mother says the woman who saved me risked her life for me."

"My men acted against my orders."  She thought about that time and shuddered. "My second was trying to take over the army and because I saved you he made me run the Gauntlet."

The boy's eyes widened.  He had heard of the Gauntlet, but he had never heard a story of anyone surviving.  "You were beat up because of me?"

There were still nights she relived the run through the double line of men and she usually woke up feeling as though it had happened again but she smiled at the stable boy and replied. "You were worth it."

"Are you still going for a ride?"  He knew Xena was supposed to meet Gabrielle later but didn't know how long she would wait before returning to their room.

The Warrior Princess wanted to go back and be with Gabrielle now but nodded. "Since you have her all saddled and everything, sure."  She led the golden mare out of the stall and leapt into the saddle. Smiling down on the boy, she held out her hand. "You wanna ride?"  Seeing his hesitation, she coaxed. "It won't take long."

"Well if you wouldn't mind."  He accepted the hand up and settled in front of his friend. "Mom is in the nursery pasture.  I think I might need to talk to her."

"I don't mind at all."  She ducked under the doorway of the barn and urged Argo faster as they hit the open road.

Gabrielle reached their room before she realized it.  She almost ordered something to drink when she saw the pitchers on the table.  She turned to the guard at the door.  "Who brought those drinks?"

" Queen."  The girl was a bit nervous talking to the Queen.  She was normally on duty when Gabrielle was asleep and didn't usually get to speak with their ruler.

Gracing the young guard with a brilliant smile, Gabrielle reassured the guard. "You're Kayden aren't you?" Nodding at the girl's affirmative gesture, the Queen pointed her finger at the guard. "I'm told to expect great things from you."  Her green eyes twinkled at the slight blush her compliment caused.

"Thank you, my Queen."  Kayden had no idea that the Queen even knew she was alive much less was expecting great things from her.

"You're welcome."  Gabrielle closed the door slowly and poured herself a drink.  Sipping the juice she looked at the desk and sighed. "I guess I should get this overwith."  Leaving her drink on the table, Gabrielle retrieved the book from the desk and opened it to the marked page.  She couldn't believe anything could be as bad as Xena was making it out to be and put a smile on her face.  The first words wiped her smile away.

We were preparing to take on the Amazons when Alti appeared.............

"Gods......Alti."  Gabrielle gasped and read the entries quickly her concern growing with each word. By the time she reached the section regarding the funeral pyre and the killing of the Amazon leaders she was crying.  "Oh Xena, why didn't you tell me."


To be continued in Part 9

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