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Invitations - Part 9
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 Thank You's for this Part :  I want to send out a great big thank you to T..... She has been a constant source of inspiration during the whole story, but especially so during this section.  I would also like to thank Kathleen and Pati for listening to all my whining about how terrible I thought the story was going....

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 9

Even though he was still dubious about his feelings toward the woman, Bennett was thrilled when Xena had asked him to ride with her.  The ground blurred by and he grinned up at the woman behind him. "This is GREAT!"

Smiling blue eyes looked down at the boy and the Warrior Princess wished she had been able to ride like this with Solan.  The memory of  their father scooping them up and riding like the wind across the field was supplied and she smiled.  With her arm securely around the boy, she urged the war horse faster, partially to hear him giggle and partially to get the ride over.  The Conqueror didn't want to be there when Gabrielle read the entries, but she did want to get back to Gabrielle before the Amazon acted on the journal.  She sighed when the nursery pasture came into view and slowed Argo down to a walk.  Shaking the arm she had wrapped around Bennett's waist and with the other hand pointed across the field.  "There's your Mom."

He followed her finger and smiled at his mom's waving form.  "Yeah."  He still wasn't sure how he felt about the circumstances of his adoption but he knew three things for certain that his Mom loved him, he loved his Mom and that Xena was his friend.  He looked up at her.  "I'll have to tell her about the kidnapping and everything."

"No you won't."  The Warrior Princess smiled at her friend. "Look."

The boy looked back toward his mother and saw someone rising to stand next to her.  By the time he recognized the person they were within earshot.  "Dad?!"

"Hello son."  He grinned up at his son and nodded to the woman behind him. "Hello, Empress."

Nodding her head she kept her expression carefully neutral. "Spiros."  Pulling Argo to a halt she grinned as Bennett jumped down and she dismounted as well.  "Busy night."

Noticing the slight blush on the shepherdess' face.  The Warrior Princess realized that the night was busier than she thought.  She didn't have time to comment on that though as Bennett questioned his parents.

"What are you doing here?"  The boy didn't dare hope that he would ever have the thing he truly wanted most, a real family.

"Just having some lunch with your Mom."  Sprios ruffled his son's hair and grinned.

"There is plenty left."  The embarrassed woman indicated the now obvious picnic for two laid out a few feet away.  "You are welcome to join us."  She was sure Xena would be used to much fancier dining and wasn't surprised when the warrior turned down the offer but she was a little surprised at why.   Bennett's knowing nod told her that she had been isolated from current events too long and she almost glared at Spiros for not telling her that the Empress was involved with someone.

"Thank you, but I really shouldn't."  The Warrior Princess spoke with all the confidence she had. "I will eat with Gabrielle when I get back to the Palace."   The Conqueror scoffed at that remark. 'Right!  Like she will want to eat with us.'  When the Warrior Princess remained silent, the angry Conqueror continued. 'She may not even be there when we get back.'  That drew a comment from her lighter side. 'Yes she will.  She promised.'

Karis allowed the children to think they had her securely and waited.  It didn't take long before the twin leaders appeared.  The girl who couldn't have been more than fourteen or fifteen summers old was most definitely in charge, no matter how much her brother had argued the contrary.  The Amazon mock struggled against her bonds, noticing that everyone flinched back except the girl.  "My Queen sent me to find you."

"Why?"  The boy glared at their prisoner.

Turning her deep brown eyes on the child it struck her that he was probably only a year or so younger than Solan. 'But not nearly as mature.'  Karis reminded herself of the hard life Solan had experienced and the training he had received.  'War ages people quickly.'  She thought and knew that these children had most likely seen the judgment day deaths but were totally naive when it came to war. 'That is how it should be.  Children shouldn't know about death on such a large scale.'  The boy's clear voice brought her out of her thoughts.

"WHY?!"  He was scared now and her silence wasn't helping.  He moved closer to the bound woman and raised his hand to strike her across the face.  "Answer me!"

Moving quickly, the young girl grabbed her brother's upraised hand. "Stop it Michael!"  She looked at Karis and apologized. "Sorry.  My brother gets over excited sometimes."  Letting the boy's wrist go, she never took her eyes off the Amazon. "Why does the Amazon Queen want to talk to us?"

"She wants to know why you risk the punishment for stealing when you don't have to."  Karis narrowed her eyes at the reaction that statement drew from all the children in the room.  The embarrassed shuffling of the children put a gentler tone in her voice. "You know you were very lucky to get off so lightly."  She saw them all flexing their hands and raised her eyebrows at their nods of acceptance.  "Then why do you do it?"

The twins looked at each other for a long moment and then the boy shook his head. "Go ahead and tell her if you want, Megan."  He shot a look at the boy who had led the Amazon here and swept his gaze across the other males in the room.  He was confident their prisoner's ropes would hold and gestured to his companions.  "Com'on guys, let's go check the traps and the nets.  We might actually get something to eat today."  Game had been scarce lately and their usual two meals a day had been cut down to one, if they were lucky.

Karis watched the boys leave and turned her gaze to the remaining leader, Megan.  She was surprised when a younger girl, probably seven or eight years old, tugged on the leaders sleeve.  "Do you want us to start a fire Mama?"

Megan reached down and brushed light brown hair out of the girl's trusting eyes. "Not yet honey.  Let's see if Michael catches anything first."  She smiled gently at the girls nod, knowing the child was hungry. "Why don't you take the little ones outside to play?"

She didn't feel much like playing but nodded. "Okay Mama."  She held out her hand for one of the toddlers and sighed as three more slightly younger children ran out the door ahead of her.

Forgetting about the ropes around her, Karis raised a eyebrow at the indulgent smile on Megan's face. "Why does she call you Mama?"  It was obvious the girl wasn't old enough to have a child that age.

"Because I'm the closest thing to a mother she has ever had."  She ran her fingers through her hair and sighed as she sat on one of the mended chairs.  "Most of us are orphans."  She smiled as a young boy, not old enough to go with the hunters, climbed into her lap.  She hugged the boy and regarded the tied Amazon. "Or their parents just don't care."

"You live here?" Karis breathless question was answered by Megan's sandy blonde head bobbing once.  "And you take care of all these children?" Megan again nodded acknowledgment.  "So why would you risk prison or worse to steal?"  She almost regretted the question when the girl's expression turned pained.

"I didn't think we would both get caught."  Sandy blonde hair shook at the memory and the desperate hours in the prison she had spent hoping the children were all okay.  "Michael was supposed to stay with the children."

Karis nodded.  Amazon training didn't exactly brim over with trust for men. She had given Solan the benefit of the doubt only to find him lying about the sword training.  That had been a bitter taste to swallow.  She wondered if Megan would be able to trust her brother for a while. "Listen do you mind if I get out of these ropes, now that the guys are gone?"

Shaking her head at that request, Megan gestured for two of the older girls to untie the prisoner.  She was slightly taken back when the ropes fell away from the Amazon before the girls reached her.

"Thanks."  Karis ignored the gasping children as she stepped out of the pile of rope at her feet. "That was beginning to itch."  It had been a strain to keep the ropes around her once she had the knots loosened.  She knew that dropping them while the guys were still here or before she was given permission would have been disastrous.  The children would have tried to protect their leader and Karis didn't want to hurt any of them.  She indicated a chair not to far away from Megan's.  "May I?"

The young blonde smiled and nodded. "Of course."  She whispered to the boy on her lap and smiled as he nodded and hopped down.  Megan kept her attention on the Amazon across from her. "Why do you care about us stealing?"

Karis settled into the seat and traced the edge of the small table with her finger. "My Queen wanted to know."  She shrugged and looked up. "And now that I've met you I'd like to hear the story."

"Who are you?"  Megan knew the extreme measures they had gone toin order to keep their existence from Xena's attention were about to become meaningless.  She also knew if the Conqueror learned that most of them were orphans they would be split up, awarded to people as trophies or worse sent to state approved orphanages.  The thought of those places made her shudder and she almost missed Karis' response.

"I'm the head of the Royal Guard."  Surreptitiously looking around the place again, she had to admit for a bunch of kids they really hadn't done too badly.

A young girl who didn't understand the title but caught the word 'royal', tentatively spoke up. "Are you a princess?"  The woman looked like a princess to her.

"Hush Amber."  Megan chided the girl. "You and your fairy tale stories."

"But Mama, what if she's our fairy Godsmother in disguise?"  The child stubbornly refused to give up on her fantasy.  The older girl's response was cut off by Karis' chuckle.

"Actually Amber."  She smiled at the little pudgy cheeked girl. "I was a princess a long time ago."

"Really?"  The child lost her fear of the Amazon and moved to lean against her bare thigh. "Why aren't you a princess now?"

Looking down into the fascinated brown eyes Karis swallowed the lump in her throat. "Because I'm an orphan too."  She brushed the little girl's wavy light brown hair with her fingertips and tucked a lock of it behind the girl's small ear.  The Amazon wasn't sure who was more surprised when the child climbed into her lap, her or Megan but the girl settled quickly and was obviously waiting for a story.

She smiled and accepted a tumbler of water from the small boy and watched him climb back into Megan's lap before she sipped the drink.  With a deep breath that was almost a sigh, Karis recalled when all the trouble started and began. "When I was a little girl, younger than you even, I lived with a tribe of Amazons in the East."  She smiled down at the girl in her arms. "My mother's sister was Queen of my tribe."  She grinned at the other children who had quickly found seats.  The memories came easier to her than she thought and she knew most of the stories were ones her mother had told her.  Karis barely remembered her favorite aunt but still felt the tug at her heart when she started her story and spoke her name for the first time in years. "Her name was Cyane and she was a great leader.........."

Xena walked down the hall with dread.  The pounding of her heart echoed in her ears and she swallowed hard as she reached the door.  Debating the idea of opening it was out of the question, she had to go in.  Pushing the door open quietly, she steeled herself for Gabrielle's reaction.  Her pounding heart stopped as she saw the bed empty, save the open journal laying discarded in the center of it.  Crossing quickly to the deserted bed, she looked at the open book in despair.  Obvious tearstains streaked the page. 'Gabrielle I'm so sorry.'  The Conqueror wanted to find a dark place to hide.  There had been a time, once, that she would have given anything for the Amazon Queen to be out of the way.  Now it killed her to know that the woman was hurt by something she did.  'We did.'  The Warrior Princess corrected her dark sister grimly. 'We didn't have to let you.'  Shaking her head, the Conqueror could feel tears welling in their eyes. 'You couldn't have stopped me.  Not then.'  They looked around the room thinking about how empty if felt without Gabrielle here and a wave of dispair overtook her, followed quickly by anger.  'I told you she wouldn't be here!'  The Conqueror's wail echoed through their head.  The Warrior Princess' unwavering faith prompted her calm response. 'She will be back.'  She was certain there was a logical explanation for Gabrielle's absence.  'BACK?!'  The Conqueror grabbed the journal off the bed and waved it in the air. 'After reading this!?'  She flung the offending book across the room, nailing a large vase sending the pieces crashing to the floor.

Gabrielle splashed some cool water on her face and looked into the mirror as she dried her tear reddened eyes.  She heard a loud crash from the main room and thought. 'What in the world....?'   The Queen moved quickly to brace herself on the frame of the washroom doorway and look into the main room. Seeing the shattered vase, the Amazon looked at Xena's amazed face. "Are you okay?"

Belatedly remembering to breathe, Xena felt her knees giving out.  She was grateful that the bed was there to catch her as she collapsed onto the edge of the mattress simply staring at what she was sure was some sort of dream.  It didn't help matters when the vision moved closer and searched her face intently.

"Xena?"  Gabrielle reached out to hold the large head in her hands. "Xena, sweetheart, talk to me.  Are you okay?"

"Are you real?"  The Conqueror's small voice broke through the blockage in her throat.  A tentative hand reached up to stroke the tan cheek. "Am I dreaming?"

A puzzled look crossed Gabrielle's face. "Of course I'm real."  She took a moment longer to figure out what the woman was talking about.  The realization made her suck in her breath. "You thought I would leave you after I read the journal."

Hanging her head the Conqueror, swallowed hard. "I wouldn't blame you if you hated me....."

"Honey I could never hate you."  Strong fingers tilted the sorrow filled head up.  "I love you."  She searched the disbelieving blue eyes and smiled. "Don't you know that?"

"You aren't angry at all?"  The Conqueror didn't think she would ever figure out the small woman but her heart sank at the response.

"Oh yes, I am angry."  She sighed in exasperation. "You should have told me that Alti was the evil person you spoke of."

"What difference does that make?"  The Warrior Princess was confused.  Gabrielle seemed more upset that they were upset than that they had killed the Amazon leaders.

"Alti was an Amazon.  She was banished from the Nation when her dark rituals crossed the line."  Gabrielle raked her fingers through her hair. "Her crimes warranted total expulsion, all the tribes were alerted to her status."  A slight shudder rippled through her frame as she recalled reading the scroll regarding the shamaness and her practices. "I can't blame you for falling under her spell."  There was one person she could think of that they might have some problems with though.  Sighing at that eventuality, Gabrielle sat next to the warrior and rested her head on the broad shoulder. "If you had told me sooner that it was Alti you wouldn't have had to worry so much."  She unconsciously stressed the 'you' in that statement and flinched when Xena picked up on it.

"Waddaya mean 'I' wouldn't have had to worry?"  Worried blue eyes searched her loves face intently. "What are you worried about?"

Snuggling closer to the warrior, Gabrielle spoke quietly. "It's Alti.  I can't forget the scrolls about her."  She looked up at the woman holding her and whispered. "I think I know why she wanted the leaders dead."

"She hated them."  The Conqueror was confused at Gabrielle's concern. "She wanted them all dead."

Gabrielle distanced herself slightly from the dark warrior. "Did Alti take anything from them?  A lock of hair....fingernail clippings...anything like that?"  She held her breath for the answer.

The Conqueror's stomach turned as she thought back to that time.  "No, not that I can think of."  The Warrior Princess knew better. "Yes there was."  She ran her fingers through her jet black hair and swallowed hard. "She took their blood."

Gabrielle's gasp cut through the awkward silence that filled the room.  "Their blood!?"  She could feel her own blood draining from her face. "Gods!"  She stood quickly, her fingers wiggling as she remembered lines of text from a scroll she had read long ago. "I have to go."  The young Queen was nearly frantic.

"Whoa!"  Xena was by her side in an instant. "Go where?"  The Amazon was mumbling to herself and Xena shook her shoulders to get her attention. "GO WHERE!?"

With a deep breath, Gabrielle sat on the edge of one of the big comfy chairs.  "Alti claimed she could capture people's souls and use their power for her own purposes."  She rested her elbows on her knees and tangled her fingers in her hair. "The souls in her power were caught in the Land of the Dead........unable to cross into eternity."

"I've been there."  The Conqueror knelt at Gabrielle's feet. "It's very hard to get to."  She felt dirty just thinking about the process but she knew Gabrielle had to make sure that no Amazons were trapped in the Land of the Dead. "I.....I'll take you if you want......if you need to go......"

Shaking her head, Gabrielle tried to smile at her love's offer to help. "It won't be that hard if I have help."  She leaned forward and brushing aside dark bangs, kissed the woman's forehead.  The Amazon heaved herself forward and stood, she knew what she had to do and hoped Xena would understand. "I have to go to the Temple."  The warrior's dark head shaking brought a protest to her lips and then she felt the words die on her tongue as Xena spoke.

"WE have to go."  Standing slowly, the Warrior Princess stretched out her hand toward Gabrielle.

She looked at the outstretched hand.  This was more than an offer of support or comfort.  Xena wanted to go with her.  'By the Gods.....'  Gabrielle swallowed hard at the dangerous journey she was about to take. 'Do I have the right to risk both of us?'  Unwilling to accept the hand just now, the Amazon Queen looked into her lover's eyes. "What about Solan?"  She saw the blue eyes waver and continued. "What about the world?"

The Warrior Princess thought about their son for a moment and knew if this didn't work out, she would regret not seeing him mature into the man she knew he would become.  Gabrielle's next question solidified her resolve and she answered both questions for all of them.  "Solan can take care of himself."  A quizzical smile tilted her head slightly. "And YOU, ARE our world."  Her brow furrowed as she shook her head. "Don't you know that by now?"

Almost of it's own accord Gabrielle's small hand found it's way into the warrior's larger weapon's callused grip.  She always marveled at the warmth of Xena and she could feel that heat penetrating the ice her fingers had become.  "Why is it you are so warm all the time?"
The Amazon's touch released a tension she didn't know she had and Xena chuckled.  Folding the small woman gently in her arms the warrior squeezed slightly. "I think it's so I can keep you warm when you need me to."  She leaned her cheek against the silky softness of her love's hair and swayed slightly for a few moments.

"Um... Xena?"  Gabrielle mumbled against the warrior's shoulder. "We should go."  Regretting the necessity of moving, she smiled up at the love of her life. "I don't know how long this will take and we have a wedding ceremony to attend tomorrow."

The fact that Gabrielle still wanted to go through with the ceremony made them all feel light as a feather.  Twirling the Amazon in their arms, the Warrior Princess rolled her eyes.  "Then what are we waiting for?"

Hand in hand with determined strides the Royal couple walked out the door.  Neither of them commented when their guards fell in behind them, they simply kept walking toward Artemis' Temple.

Solari looked down at the sleeping form and sighed.  Sitting next to the injured Amazon's bed, she gently took the woman's hand in her own.  The order to break Callisto's legs had been unexpected but she had gladly carried out the command. 'Almost too gladly.' She thought.  The surge of anger she had felt when she picked up the sledgehammer was so intense it had almost scared her and she had surprised herself with the viciousness of the swing.  Now she was ashamed that she had, for a few brief moments, relished the experience.  'But it didn't help.'  The truth of that thought was inescapable.  'Jana is still hurt.'  The warm hand in her own tightened and she looked down into the patient's deep brown sleepy eyes.

"I heard you broke her legs."  Jana regarded the woman holding her hand seriously.  "Do you feel better now?"  She tried to move but winced as the splints pulled on her tender legs.

"No."  Solari wished she could take Jana's pain away.  She knew she would do almost anything to ease the woman's suffering. The archer looked at the prone woman in amazement as a fleeting smile crossed her face, then came back to stay.

"Good."  Jana knew she was smiling and didn't care. "I don't think I could love anyone who took pleasure in hurting others."

Solari was so captivated by the woman's smile she barely registered the words and when she did her own smile rivaled the sun. "Love?" Sudden wariness gleamed in her eyes. "I thought you ....."  The young woman's crush on Solan had been readily apparent to anyone that took the time to watch her around the boy.  It had been heartbreaking to see the guard's attention so focused on the boy she obviously couldn't have and it had been heartbreaking to know that Jana wouldn't be interested in her.  Solari had resigned herself to the fact that some Amazons liked men better than women.

Jana saw the hesitant look in Solari's eye and sighed. "You've heard the rumor that I like Solan...."  Shaking her head she muttered. "I'm gonna kill Norin."  She sighed and looking up at Solari's incredulous face, she rolled her eyes.  "Don't tell me that you haven't noticed how cute he is getting...."  With a little sideways grin Jana waggled the index finger of her free hand at her friend. "....I saw the look in a certain archer's eye when our young prince came busting into our room the other morning."

Solari blushed slightly at the memory of the half clad young man standing in the doorway.  "He is filling out rather nicely....."  A sudden realization stopped her sentence mid-thought and she looked directly at the teasing woman. "You were watching me?"

Now it was Jana's turn to blush. "Ummm... yeah... I kind of do that... when you aren't looking."  She flashed a shy smile up at the woman and realized she was now talking to her superior, when her feelings had first made themselves know they had been on basically the same level rank-wise. "I was awfully proud when Karis named you second in command."

"Yeah?" The thought of Jana being proud of her was enough to put a slow smile on her face, until she realized what a problem that would be.  'Sweet Artemis, I'm her superior now.'

"Uh huh."  Jana let her hand slip out of the archers and slid her fingertips up the muscled arm. "You looked so surprised."  She reached up and tentatively brushed some of the woman's brown hair behind her ear and licked her grinning lips. "You blushed all the way up to the tips of your ears."

Solari focused on Jana's gentle touch and absently answered the comment. "Did I?"

"Yup."  Tangling her fingers in the archer's hair, Jana pulled the woman down to her.  "And all I wanted to do was run up and hug you."

"You mean like this?"  Solari stretched out next to the stunned woman and slid her arms under the guard's back.  She closed her eyes as she felt the injured woman's arms surround her shoulders and Jana's smile against her neck.  "I wish you would have."

"Mmmm..."  Jana ignored the splints pulling on her legs and agreed. "Me too."

Pulling away slightly, Solari rested her forehead against Jana's. "If you had.....  I would have done this."  Trembling slightly, Solari tilted her head and captured the guards lips with her own.  Softly at first and then with more solid confidence.  She smiled as she pulled away from the breathless woman. "I've waited a really long time to do that."

Jana pulled the archer gently closer and breathed deeply to catch her breath. "You can do that anytime."  She smiled as Solari's chuckle vibrated against her.  She didn't know how long they stayed in the embrace but the archer moved to resume her sitting position when the sound of running footsteps stopped outside the tent.

Solari was formulating a scathing rant at whoever dared to interrupt them, but the words in her mind died as a breathless Kayden burst into the tent.

"Solari.... you have to come...quickly..... It's the Queen."  Kayden doubled over and held her side.  On horseback the distance between the Amazon's camp and Corinth was negligible, but the young guard had ran full out the entire way.

Shooting an apologetic look at Jana she gave the injured woman's hand a quick squeeze and tried to smile. "Duty calls."

Nodding at the obvious, Jana returned the squeeze and the smile. "Be careful."  She meant 'Come back to me safely.' and they both knew it.

Solari leaned down for a quick kiss and answered the spoken and the unspoken comment.  "I will."

Solan went through the drill again.  When he had executed the spinning staff move during the fight with Ming T'ien it had felt awkward.  He looked around the empty training room a little disappointed that there was no one here watching him perfect the move.  Since the rebel roundup the number of guards assigned to him had been cut back to two, both of which were outside the door.

His bare chest heaved slightly at the exertion and he decided he had trained enough for now.   Wiping the thin film of sweat from his torso with a soft towel, he put his shirt back on.  In a habit formed from long training sessions with Gabrielle, he dropped to a cross-legged position on the floor.  The deep breathing exercise rapidly slowed his heart to the normal rhythm.  He had just reached a semblance of calm when running footsteps and excited voices outside the door pulled him from the meditation.  'What in the world.....?'  He rose to see what the commotion was about and gripped the staff tighter as the door was flung open.

"Prince Solan!"  Jamie spread out her fingers and held her hands wide open to show she was unarmed and a friend. "Come quickly...... " She watched the concern in his eyes turn to fear as she continued. "..... it's your mother."

The royal guards took their places outside the entrance of the Temple.  Xena's order to stay outside was reinforced by the Amazon Queen's silent gesture.  The empty room echoed with the royal couple's footsteps as they entered.  Gabrielle took a deep breath and holding tightly to Xena's hand walked toward the alter.  She ignored the appearance of a priestess at the side door and, releasing the warrior's hand, knelt before the large alter.  The Amazon had been surprised when Xena agreed to ask for Artemis' help.  She knew how the dark warrior felt about the Gods and was even more surprised when Xena knelt next to her.  Trying to cover her shock, Gabrielle bowed her head and concentrated on the Goddess she wanted to talk to.  After a few deep breaths, she whispered. "Artemis."

Xena noticed the priestess' presence and motioned for her to leave, she raised a eyebrow when the silent command was obeyed without question but then she felt the small hand let go of hers.  The Warrior Princess studied the kneeling woman for several heartbeats before she too knelt before the alter of Artemis.  'I DO NOT KNEEL TO THE GODS!'  The Conqueror was outraged and tried to stand, surprised when she couldn't. 'This time you do!'  The Warrior Princess clenched her jaw and forced her dark sister to look at Gabrielle. 'Look at her! Can't you see how much this means to her?'  The Amazon was kneeling with her head bowed and her eyes closed.  She looked so peaceful and still that the Conqueror almost reached out to touch her just to make sure she hadn't turned into a statue.  Then she heard a faint whisper escape her love and their attention was turned toward the blinding flash of light in front of them.

"Gabrielle.  What's wrong?"  Artemis was upset that her Chosen had seen fit to call her so formally and the fact that Xena was kneeling next to her was not lost on the hunter Goddess.

Raising her head, Gabrielle tried to smile at the Amazon's patron Goddess. "I believe the Amazon's may have a problem...... and I am here to ask your help to solve it."

Offering her hands to help her Queen rise, Artemis hugged the small woman and smiled. "What is the problem child?"

Accepting the hands and the hug, Gabrielle voiced her concern. "It's..... Alti."  She didn't know what kind of reaction to expect from the Goddess when the former Amazon's name was mentioned but the fleeting look of disappointment that crossed Artemis' face, replaced quickly by anger, was not it by a long shot. "I think she may have trapped some Amazon's in the Land of the Dead.  I need to make sure that they have passed into Eternity."

Nodding at the seriousness of the problem, Artemis regarded her Chosen's determined face. "You want me to send you to the Land of the Dead?  Gabrielle do you know how dangerous that is?"

"Yes."  The faint admission barely qualified as a response, then the Queen found her voice. "But they are my people and I have to make sure......"  The protest was cut off by Xena's gruff question.

"How dangerous is it?"  Rising from her place at the alter, the Conqueror regarded the Goddess with Gabrielle in her arms.  Her voice sounded harsh in the wake of Gabrielle's hushed tones.   The Conqueror didn't like the Gods but she wasn't above asking them for information, as long as she didn't have to beg for it.  She also wasn't above physically stopping any God from doing anything that might endanger Gabrielle and they all felt their muscles tense in preparation of a fight, just in case.

The Goddess studied Xena's battle ready stance and answered honestly. "It's very dangerous.... the longer she is there the harder it will be for me to pull her back.  That is why I won't let her go......."  She raised her hand to forestall Gabrielle's immediate protest. ".... I won't let her go....."  She glanced at her Chosen then looked directly into Xena's eyes. "......alone."

The Conqueror's ice blue eyes never left the Goddess' intense gaze as the Warrior Princess reached out, found the Amazon Queen's arm and pulled her out of Artemis' grasp to their side.  "Then send me too."

Gabrielle allowed herself to soak in the warrior's comforting presence for a few heartbeats.  She debated with herself again about the ethics of allowing Xena to come with her.  The low rumble in the warrior's chest and the Goddess' slow nod of acceptance told the Amazon Queen that she really didn't have much choice in the matter.

"Lay on the altar."  Artemis' words sent a shiver through both women as the Goddess gestured toward the flat surface.

Gabrielle stretched out on the cold stone and was grateful when Xena's warm arms surrounded her.  "You don't have to do this."  It was a last desperate attempt to keep the warrior safe, to be sure that Solan didn't lose both of them.  Two warm fingers pressed against her lips stopped her protest.

"Shhhhh....."  Dark hair mixed with honey gold as the Warrior Princess pulled the Amazon close to her.  She was barely aware of Artemis waving her hands over them.  She watched Gabrielle's loving green eyes slowly close and as the whirling darkness overtook her she whispered. "I will never leave you."

Gabrielle opened her eyes on a wind-swept vista of rock and dirt.  She was aware of a great sense of sadness all around her but took comfort in the warm arms holding her firmly and a faint  light in her mind that connected her to Artemis.   She struggled to clear the last of the spinning feeling from her head and whispered quietly. "Is this it?"

The Warrior Princess chuckled. "Yup... this is it."  Standing, she looked around the rocky expanse and brushed the dirt from her hands.  She offered an assisting hand to the Amazon and tried to remember what Alti had told them about this place.  'The gate is in that volcano isn't it?'  The silence that greeted her internal question was, for a moment, a shock but she knew that she was right.  Gesturing to the mountain, she smiled grimly. Even if the souls couldn't pass through, they would gather at the gate.  "We need to go that way."

The young Queen trusted her companion's statement and laced her fingers in the warrior's large hand. "Okay then....let's go."  As they began walking Gabrielle realized the connection she felt to the Goddess and home became dimmer with every step.

Artemis looked down at the women on her altar and gasped as one pair of eyes opened.  "But I sent you......"  It wasn't easy to confuse a Goddess but the Conqueror managed to do it with her quiet statement.

"No, not me.  You sent her."  She felt an odd sort of empty as she looked at the temporarily lifeless body in her arms.  The Conqueror wasn't sure how much of the void was created by the ache for Gabrielle's return and how much was due to the sudden absence of the Warrior Princess.

Solari barely had time to dismount before Solan arrived at the temple steps. "What's going on?  What happened?"  His questions caused a lot of shuffling feet and murmured responses from the guards.  The evasions caused his already thin reserve of patience to stretch to it's limit. Calling upon the few but vivid memories of Gabrielle slipping onto Queen mode, the young Prince stood slightly taller and snapped. "Report!"

Solari saw the guards bristle at the standard order being given by a boy and pushing down her own Amazon training, sighed.  'Sometimes being in charge really doesn't pay.'  Bowing to the irate boy, Solari spoke quietly. "I don't know what's going on yet, my Prince."

"The Queen ordered us to stay outside."  Ria was upset that this assignment seemed to be going wrong.  She had only just been declared fit for duty and couldn't help the bit of superstitious guilt that seemed to settle in her gut.  The last assignment she had been on almost got Solan killed.

"Really?"  Solari raised a eyebrow at that news and glancing at Solan shook her head. "Well she didn't order ME to stay outside."  Matching Solan's relieved grin with a reassuring smile, the guard gestured to the Prince. "Com'on... Let's go find out what's happening."  Her long steps were halted just inside the door as her mind barely understood what it was seeing.  She heard Solan's gasp as she reached behind her and grabbed the first Amazon her hand came into contact with.  Rock hard eyes bored into the subordinates wide eyes imprinting the grating commands directly onto the girl's mind. "Double the guards around the building."  Ria simply nodded as Solari released her grip and continued. "And find Karis."  Nodding again, Ria stood petrified for two heartbeats, until Solari's command gave her legs the courage to work. "NOW!"

Karis looked at the children gathered around her seat and smiled as they all murmured at the stories ending.  She had barely finished swallowing the last of the drink the young boy had brought her when Amber's little hand on her cheek drew the guard's attention to the girl still in her lap.

"I'm sorry you are a orphan too."  Liquid brown eyes looked up at the almost Princess.  "You should stay here with us.  We can be your family."

Smiling wider at the touching offer, Karis patted the hand on her face. "Thank you Amber, but the Amazons are my family."  She thought about that and realized that in spite of his previous immature behavior, she felt stronger about Solan than ever.  The stories she had been telling the children about Cyane had started her thinking about her aunt and her mother too.  She wished that they could meet Solan and as she looked down into Amber's trusting face, wondered what her children would look like.

Megan cleared her throat and grinned at the children's sudden attention to her. "Why don't you all go outside and let Karis and I talk for a bit huh?"  She patted the little boy on the butt as he climbed down from her lap. "Do you think you could find anymore of those pretty rocks today?"

His face broke into a beautific smile at the request. "Sure Mama!"  The rocks he had found yesterday weren't half as nice as the ones he had been collecting.  He almost had enough for a necklace he wanted to make for their pseudo-mom.  It was going to be her birthday soon and they had all been working on surprises for her and Michael.

The women watched as the last of the children filed out of the house and Megan filled the silence.

"Those were good stories."  She rose and gestured to the empty tumbler, raising a eyebrow in question.

Nodding, Karis handed the bamboo container to her.  "Thank you.  My mother used to tell them to me all the time."  She watched the young woman pour them both another drink.  The guard waited until Megan was seated again before she asked her original question, again. "So, why do you steal?"

"It's been a long winter."  The blonde girl regarded the woman across from her for a long thoughtful moment.  This was the moment for decision.  Should she lie or tell the truth?  Should she trust this Amazon with their biggest secret?  Would she even care? "Some of the children were sick this year.  The healer was very expensive and he said if we didn't pay him he would tell the Conqueror where we were and we would be split up."

"So you were stealing to get the money to pay him?"  That almost made sense.

"No. Not really."  Megan took a sip of her water and sighed. 'Truth is best.' She thought and spoke slowly to her guest. "Someone else, a friend, paid the healer.  We were trying to get enough money to pay him back."

"You think he would want to be paid back with stolen money?"  Karis was doubtful that someone generous enough to help out a bunch of orphans would accept stolen money and she was surprised when Megan laughed.

"Why not?  That's how he got it in the first place."  Megan debated on telling Karis anymore about their benefactor but the Amazon pushed the issue slightly.

"He is a thief?"  She had never heard of a thief that would just give up his loot for a bunch of kids.

Shaking her head, Megan settled her blonde hair with a rake of her fingers. "No not just a thief.  He is the KING of Thieves."

Karis gasped. "Autolycus."  She had heard of the legendary thief, the tales of his fearless robberies and clever disguises were unmatched in all of Greece. "You know what he looks like?  I mean really looks like?"

"Yes he stays with us sometimes.  Everyone around here thinks this place is cursed so none of the adults will come here."  Megan knew what Karis was thinking.  There were huge rewards for the man's capture in almost every kingdom.  The children would have more dinars than they ever needed if they turned him in to the guards.

"So he stays with you in the winters and teaches you how to pick pockets?" Karis wasn't sure a man like that, who steals for a living, could be trusted with children.

"Yeah that...and how to pick locks, undo rope knots, etc.... He also chops wood and hunts with the boys."  Megan had begun to hope that the man would stay with them and give up his thieving ways.  They had all been sad to see him go this time, he was the closest thing to a real father most of them had.

"So he is your friend huh?"  Karis smiled at the slow nod and winked. "Okay then, I won't say anything about his being here."  She grinned at the relief on Megan's face and raised her eyebrows significantly. "That will be up to you when you meet Gabrielle.....the Queen."  She saw the girl's eyes widen slightly and knew what was coming next.

"You call your Queen by her name?"  Megan had never heard of such disrespect from a guard toward their ruler.

"Our Queen doesn't stand on ceremony.  She hates all that formal stuff."  Glancing out the window, Karis saw the sun lower in the sky than she realized.  "It is late today and I'm sure Xena and Gabrielle have plans for dinner."  She stood and grinned at Megan's reaction to the use of Xena's name. "Do you want to come with me and spend the night in the Palace or do you want me to come back and get you in the morning?"

"Huh?"  Megan had forgotten the guard's original mission.

Karis reminded her gently.  "My Queen wishes to speak with you and your brother."

"I don't want both of us to be gone again."  Megan's concern for the children's welfare was serious.  After her first frantic thoughts in prison she had vowed that they would never again both leave at the same time.

Karis understood the unspoken reason.  Her mother had taught her well when it came to matters of security.  "Then you have two choices."  She ticked them off on her fingers. "You can go and speak with her while Michael stays here.  Or I can bring the Queen here."  She never heard Megan's decision.  The children's screams from outside drew their attention.  The Amazon was impressed at the speed Megan displayed when she thought the children were hurt.

The scene outside proved that the children were anything but in trouble.  The pile of children assaulting the squirming form was almost comical to Karis until she recognized the face under the human mountain.  "Ana?!"  Careful not to hurt any of the attackers, Karis and Megan helped pull the small bodies off Ana's prone figure.  Helping the tracker to her feet Karis suddenly got a terrible feeling in her gut. "What's wrong?"

"It's the Queen."  Ana swallowed at the scene Ria had described in the temple.  "You should go to the Temple quickly."  She didn't know if she should say anything but she had served with Karis for a long time and despite the rumors about Xena,  Ana knew the young woman's feelings toward the Prince were strong so she ventured a personal comment. "Solan will need you now."

The thought of Gabrielle being in trouble started her heart beating faster.   The thought of Solan hurting pulled a curse from her and without even a backward glance at Megan the head guard began running toward Corinth, the Temple, and Solan.

The whistling wind played with the women's hair as they climbed another hill.  The Warrior Princess held out her hand and smiled at her Amazon companion.  "You okay?"

Gabrielle took the hand and hauled herself to the crest with a grunt. Xena's warm hand and the slight but present link with Artemis decided her answer.  "Of course I am..."  She suspected the Warrior Princess had a devious reason for asking.  "....why?"

Grinning at the suspicious tone, Xena teased. "Well we just never ate lunch... so I thought you might be hungry."

Nearly laughing at the familiar jibe, Gabrielle rolled her eyes at the gentle tease.  She pointed her finger at the exposed skin on the warrior's chest.  "You should know better."  Walking on towards their destination, the Queen tossed her hair over her shoulder and laughed. "I'm ALWAYS hungry."

Xena caught up to the small woman quickly and swept her up in her arms.  It was such a joy to be with Gabrielle without having to worry about the Conqueror butting in.  'I'm actually alone with her.'  The wonderment of the thought was broken by a small voice floating through her head. 'I's here.'  They reached the last ridge before the volcano and Xena answered the small voice as the sight below registered. 'We'll talk later.'

Gabrielle waited for Xena to catch up with her before they approached the group of Amazon's waiting below them.  The feeling of sadness was so thick in the air she was surprised she could breath.  The link to Artemis and home gave her strength as they got closer to the trapped spirits.  The obvious leader of the tribe was standing on a large rock with her feet slightly apart and her arms crossed. Calling on the memory of Melosa's training to help her, Gabrielle went through the formal motions of greeting from one Queen to another and spoke softly. "Greetings Cyane, I regret that we have to meet under such circumstances."

"You used the ancient formal greeting of truce......."  Her gaze swept past the non-threatening Queen to her companion. ".....Yet you travel with our enemy."

Stepping forward quickly, the Warrior Princess began. "We...... I am sorry for actions."  She glanced at Gabrielle's compassionate face and steeled herself for Cyane's cold eyes. "We.... I didn't know......."  Gabrielle's hand on her arm stopped the halting apology.

"Your true enemy is Alti.  Xena was just as much a victim of her spells as you were."  Gabrielle felt the arm under her hand tense as Cyane jumped down from the rock and the Spider Queen kept herself between the long dead Amazon and the warrior.  "She didn't know what Alti had planned for you."

Advancing slowly on the pair, Cyane scoffed at the qualifier. "And if she had known?  You think that would have made a difference?  You think she wouldn't have killed us?"

The Warrior Princess spoke quietly. "I wouldn't have but the person I was then probably still would have....yes."  She looked at the denial in Gabrielle's eyes and tried to smile. "The Conqueror was very strong back then."  Comprehension dawned on her love's face.

"She's not here is she."  Gabrielle was momentarily speechless as the warrior's dark head shook slowly.  She realized why the apology had been so troublesome. "Are you okay with that?"

Brushing reddish bangs away from her love's forehead, the Warrior Princess sighed. "I'm getting used to it."

Nodding at the reassurance, Gabrielle turned back to Cyane. "It doesn't matter if she would have or not.  It's done.  Now we have to decide how to open the gate to Eternity so you and your tribe can rest."

Nodding agreement at that, Cyane added. "We really shouldn't fight anyway.  After all we are practically family now."  Karis' warm thoughts about the boy she loved had imparted some interesting information to the long dead Amazon.  The fact that Xena had a son was very interesting indeed.

"Huh?" Xena heard the words but didn't understand what the Amazon was talking about.  'Family?'   She saw Gabrielle shake her head warningly but the tall blonde continued speaking.

"I mean I know there hasn't been a joining ceremony yet, but they are sleeping together."  Cyane didn't understand Gabrielle's motions and became angry at Xena's blank reaction. "What's the matter?  Do you have some reason you don't want your son to be with my niece?"

"Niece?"  The Warrior Princess saw Gabrielle's shoulders sag in defeat and looked at her love as she turned to face her.

"Karis is Cyane's niece."  Hooded green eyes watched the warrior replay Cyane's words and swallow hard as the realization of what she had said became clear.

The Warrior Princess unclenched her jaw long enough to growl. "When?"

"I think last night was the first time." Gabrielle begged the warrior to drop the issue for now. "Can we discuss this later?  Please?"

Xena nodded acquiescence to Gabrielle's wishes out of sheer necessity.  She was finding it very difficult to deal with things when none of the questions in her head were being answered.

Gabrielle kept herself between Cyane and Xena just in case and addressed the other Amazon. "Do you know why the gate won't open?"

Shaking her head sadly, Cyane sighed. "After Alti was killed......"  She tilted her head toward Xena. ".... our holy word should have been enough to open the gate."

"Sounds like you need a new holy word."  It was a logical solution to the problem presented.  If the current word didn't work then they needed a new one.

"Xena!"  Gabrielle's tone was sharper than she intended and the Amazon quickly circled the warrior's waist with her arms.  Careful to take the edge off her voice, she spoke quietly.  "It's not that easy."

"Why not?"  She spoke over Gabrielle's head, reveling in the muscular arms around her waist.  Logic had never failed her before. "Just get a stronger holy word and open the gate."

Cyane was angry now. "Our Holy Word is Courage, Xena."  Her eyes flashed at the casual attitude the warrior took. "Nothing is stronger than Courage."

"Courage."  Gabrielle repeated the word softly.  She stopped listening to the warrior's rapidly beating heart and looked up at the woman in her arms. "What is stronger than courage?"

Smiling at the golden flecks swimming in a sea of green, the Warrior Princess couldn't resist bending her head to kiss the question from Gabrielle's lips.  Cyane clearing her throat broke the kiss but Xena never took her eyes off of Gabrielle. "There is only one thing I know of that is stronger than courage."

With a smile that sent a twinkle straight to her eye, Gabrielle turned in Xena's arms and leaned back into the warrior's warm embrace. She took a deep breath and heard Xena speak at the same moment she did. "Love."

"Love."  Cyane repeated the word incredulous at it's simplicity.

As soon as Cyane spoke the word a gentle rumble began in the ground below them.  Gabrielle smiled as a bright light appeared just beyond them and laughed as the long dead Amazon's cheered their release from this plain of existence.  Her smile only dimmed slightly when she realized she could no longer feel the link with Artemis.

Solan approached the altar slowly.  The sight of Gabrielle unconscious in Xena's arms was rather unnerving and he wasn't sure what he should be feeling.  He didn't see Artemis anywhere but was certain that if his Mom was in trouble the Goddess would be nearby.  Gabrielle was her Chosen after all.  His quiet voice was nearly absorbed by the silence in the room. "What happened?"

Xena's low voice rumbled through the Temple. "Get out."  She didn't want to deal with anyone right now.

"I just want to know....."  Solan jumped at Xena's snarl.

"I SAID GET OUT!"  The Conqueror growled at the small group of people at the door and was surprised at the urge to strike out at them. "Get out."  When they hesitated, Xena lunged at them.  "NOW!"  She followed the group's hasty retreat and locked the door.  Barricading the door behind them she turned and looked at the altar before shaking the walls of the temple with her demand. "ARTEMIS!  SHOW YOURSELF!"  When no one appeared Xena growled and picked up the nearest chair, smashing it against the wall.  She realized the Warrior Princess would have never allowed this kind of tantrum and reveled in the freedom of being without her controlling ways.  "ARTEMIS! YOU COWARD!"  Continued silence at her demands, infuriated the Conqueror.  She leaned against one of the huge pillars that lined the aisle and with some effort pushed it over.  "ARTEMIS!  I WILL DESTROY THIS TEMPLE AND EVERY OTHER TEMPLE YOU HAVE UNTIL YOU SHOW YOURSELF!"  Frustration and anger increased her strength and as she smashed vase after vase into the floor and wall she felt the sleeper within her stir but doubted that even Ares' Chosen could stop her now. Picking up the last large vase the Conqueror was amazed as it stopped midway in it's journey toward the wall and returned to it's original position.  "Artemis?"

"Yes Xena."  The voice floated through the room before Xena located the Goddess' shimmering form appearing next to Gabrielle.  "I heard you the first time."

Moving quickly to stand at her fallen love's side, the Conqueror tempered her demand slightly. "Bring her back."  Her voice quavered in anguish and she begged. "Please."

The Goddess poured as much compassion in her voice as she could and shook her head sadly. "I can't."

"Don't give me that.  You're a Goddess."  The Conqueror snapped and accused. "You sent her there, now bring her back!"

"I can't."  The sad admission was pulled from the Goddess as she looked down at her Chosen's peaceful face.  "Don't you think I would if I could?"

"Why did you send her if you couldn't bring her back?"  Balancing on the edge of fury the Conqueror waited for the Goddess to answer.

"She wanted to go and she knew the risk."  Artemis looked into the cold blue eyes of fury. "You know that."

Xena's low growl vibrated the earth she stood on. "She is NOT dead."  The warrior's nostrils flared and her heartrate increased at the thought. "Stop talking about her as if she is."

"Xena......"  The Goddess tried to be reasonable.

"NO!  You are telling me you could bring her back but now you can't.... Why?" The Conqueror knew that the Gods were petty and cruel but she also realized that Artemis truly wanted Gabrielle to return.

"When I send someone to the Land of the Dead, I can still hear them for a time.  Gabrielle knew that the longer she stayed the fainter our connection would be."  Looking down at the peaceful face. "She took that risk to help her people."  Reaching out to brush the reddish bangs from the Amazon's forehead, Artemis smiled sadly. "That is why she was my Chosen."

"SHE IS NOT DEAD!"  The Conqueror's cry echoed off the walls.

"I can only keep her body in stasis for so long, Xena."  Artemis was furious with herself for allowing Gabrielle to go.

Xena was desperate to find a way to bring her love back. "You're telling me you can't contact her now?"

Artemis shook her head. "A short time ago our link was broken."  The Goddess knew one thing that would do that.  "The gate to Eternity must have opened.  She will be drawn through with all the others."

"NO!"  She hated the feeling but she knew she had to rely on the Warrior Princess now.  "The Warrior Princess won't let her go.  Gabrielle means too much to us."

"IF...." The Goddess stressed the qualifier. "....she doesn't go through the gate before it closes then there is a chance I will be able to bring her back."  She still didn't understand the way Xena spoke of the Warrior Princess as if she were with Gabrielle but decided to humor her. "and the Warrior Princess too."

The Conqueror was much calmer as she reassured herself and the chorus in her head that it was only a matter of time before Gabrielle returned to them.  The idea of getting the Warrior Princess back wasn't as thrilling.  She was incredibly jealous that the warrior had been alone with Gabrielle in the Land of the Dead all this time.

Solan and Solari watched the door close in their face and could hear the barricade go up.  The crashing of the Conqueror's tantrum did nothing to help anyone's anxiety but Solan was quickly occupied with concerns of his own when a bright light flashed off to the side of the steps.

"Ares."  Solan's gasp turned all their attention to the newly arrived God.

The smiling God spread his arms wide. "In the flesh."  He rested his hands on the hilt of his sword. "I've got a small proposition for you."

A small thrill chased down Solan's spine at the God's words but he recalled Xena's reaction to the War God's presence before.  He glanced at the battle ready Amazons nearby and steeled himself for the God's possibly furious reaction.  The Amazon Prince looked directly into the War God's dark eyes. "Not interested."

A brief wave of rage swept through Ares then he relaxed. "Like mother like son huh?"  He laughed. "But you haven't even heard my offer."

"I said....."  Solan's word's trailed off as Ares continued his offer.

"I will bring your Mom back safe."  The smile that crossed his face at Solan's expression was very wolflike.

"What do you want from me?"  Solan didn't think there was any harm in listening to the offer.

Ares reached out to put his hand on the boy's shoulder, laughing slightly as Solan ducked the grasp. "Pledge your sword to me.  Fight for me and I will bring your Mom back.  You will be the greatest fighter in history."  The God's eyes twinkled.  He knew it was what the boy had always wanted.  The God reached out and circled the boys shoulder with one strong arm and gestured to the space in front of them with the other hand. "Just picture it.  Your name a legend.  Solan.  The greatest fighter of all time, passed down from generation to generation."

Solari held her breath.  It was a very tempting offer, she wasn't sure she could've refused the same deal and wasn't sure who was more surprised by Solan's reaction her or Ares.

"Get your hands off me Ares."  Solan ducked away from the companionable arm.  "I know how Mother feels about you."  The boy smiled grimly at the God of War. "And apparently there are a few things you need to know about me."  He began to tick them off on his fingers. "First..... I don't fight with a sword.  Second..... If I DID fight with a sword it would be for the glory and honor of Artemis, not you."  He saw the guards all move into battle formation and went on to explain the second point. "Where were you when the Centaurs were being slaughtered?  Where were you when my family was killed?  You were helping the Conqueror do it... you were spurring her on to greater atrocities... It was Artemis and the Amazons that became my family and now my family is her family too."  Solan hadn't had much training in battle plans and strategies but the War God's devious motives were clear to him. "You just want me to pledge my loyalty to you so you can get Mother back.  You know you've lost her..... you've lost her to us and you can't stand it."

"You are smarter than I gave you credit for."  Ares could feel the sting of the boy's truthful words and wished the Conqueror wasn't INSIDE his sister's Temple.   "but there will be other times...."  He glanced at the newly arriving guard and raised an eyebrow. "....other reasons..... for us to talk."  In a flash of light the War God disappeared leaving only his mocking laughter to drift off into the wind.

"Wow!"  Solari voiced the sentiment for the Amazon's present. They all had a great deal more respect for their Prince now.

"What is going on?"  Karis hugged Solan quickly and searched his face.

"Solari will fill you in."  Solan smiled at his love, grateful she was here but his mind was focused on the high, small window in the priestess' study. "I have something to do."   He wanted answers and Xena was going to give them to him.

"Okay people.  This is it!"  The joy in Cyane's voice was almost visible.  "Our wait is over."  She smiled as one by one her people began entering the gate.

Every grateful look that disappeared into the light increased the urge Gabrielle had to follow them. "Isn't it beautiful Xena?"  The shining gate glowed brighter with each Amazon's entry beckoning her closer.  "Don't you wonder what's on the other side?"

"NO!"  The Warrior Princess was terrified at the tone in Gabrielle's voice. "There is nothing there for us."  She forced the curious eyes to focus on her own. "We are still alive!"  The warrior melted as Gabrielle's warm arms surrounded her but her sigh of relief quickly became a gasp as the young Queen spoke.

"I can't feel Artemis anymore."  She listened to the steady pounding of the heart she loved and sighed. "I don't know if we can get back."

"We will."  She hated the feeling but she knew she had to rely on the Conqueror now.  "The Conqueror will find a way."  She stroked the Amazon's silky hair and kissed the top of her head.  "You mean too much to us."

"You have to keep trying!"  The Conqueror barely overcame the urge to physically grab the uncooperative immortal and glared at the Goddess.  The chorus of gentle murmuring voices in her head did more to infuriate her than they did to calm her and for a heartbeat she wished the Warrior Princess were here to help her maintain control.  She felt the dark sleeper stir and the other's double their comforting efforts.  None of them wanted Ares' Chosen to awaken, not now.

"Xena."  The exasperated Goddess tried to explain. "It's been too long.  The gate has surely closed by now, and I still can't reestablish the link."  With a note of finality Artemis reached out to touch her seemingly sleeping Chosen. "She is gone, and I can't get her back."

"NO!"  Solan burst through the inner door and glared at the Goddess.  "You bring her back NOW!"

Artemis would have chuckled if the situation had not been so grim.  Although Solan's eyes were brown and Xena's were blue the intensity was the same.  There was no doubt, he took after his mother.  The boy's demand reminded the Goddess that Gabrielle was more than her Chosen, she was also a mother.  "Solan.  I'm very sorry for your loss."  Artemis knew, more than anyone else, how much joy Solan had brought to her Chosen's life, son of Xena or not.

"SHE IS NOT DEAD!"  Mother and son were in perfect synch with their words.

Sighing, Artemis tried to explain one last time, for Solan's benefit. "The reason I didn't want Gabrielle to go alone is because, as an Amazon, when the gate opens she will be drawn through.  Once she goes through the gate there will be no way to contact her.  If she doesn't go through, when the gate closes I might be able to get her back."  Shaking her head at the hopeful looks, the Goddess continued. "Every moment the gate is open the pull will become greater.  I didn't want her to go alone because she will never be able to withstand the temptation."  She looked at the Conqueror sadly. "I don't know why you didn't go when I sent her."

Solan turned on his mother. "You had the chance to go with her and didn't, why?"  He used the silence that met his question to call up the most evil insult he could think of. "Were you too scared?"

In a moment of pure reflex, the Conqueror brought her hand up from her side and connected the back of it with Solan's cheek.  She watched in shock as the boy glared at her from the ground but she was still able to growl her response. "I'm not scared of anything."  Then she looked toward the altar, with a shudder her voice softened. "Except losing Gabrielle."

Solan rose slowly and tested his jaw.  "Then why didn't you go?"  Dark eyes glared at his mother.

"The Warrior Princess went."  The Conqueror hated that she wasn't with Gabrielle and knew that if the Warrior Princess was here they would never have hit Solan.

That brightened Solan's eyes considerably and he turned to the Goddess. "See she isn't alone."  Gabrielle had tried once to explain about the Warrior Princess and the Conqueror.  Now he understood, sort of, why Xena had hit him.

"I don't understand."  Artemis was totally confused at their insistence that the Warrior Princess was with Gabrielle.  With her hand palm up she directed Solan's attention to his mother.  "Xena is right here."

The Conqueror shook her head and spoke softly. "Not all of us."

Gabrielle leaned back into Xena's warm embrace and watched the last few Amazon's walk into the light.  She could feel it pulling her closer, calling to her.  Suddenly unable to resist the gentle glowing whispers, the Amazon Queen wriggled free of Xena's embrace and took two steps toward the gate before she felt the warrior's strong hand catch hers.  Tearing her eyes from the beautiful light, Gabrielle looked back at the Warrior Princess and pleaded with her.  "Come with me Xena.  Come and be with me in Eternity."  She gently pulled the warrior a step closer to the gate, a step closer to freedom. "We can be together forever."

The Warrior Princess gazed into the sea of pleading green and could feel her resolve slipping.  The temptation was very great.  She took another step forward, then the small lone voice in her head whispered to her urgently.  With the last bit of strength she had, the Warrior Princess resisted the enticing offer and pulled Gabrielle back to her.  The warrior's voice was rough as she held the Amazon to her tightly.  "There is nothing there for us."  She looked over the reddish head to Cyane. "You had better go now."

Nodding, Cyane took a deep breath and smiled. "You are an Amazon at heart, Xena.  I have always thought so."  She looked at the couple for a long moment.  "Thank you."  She saluted them both and then turned to disappear into the gate.  Nearly immediately the large ethereal doorway began to shrink.

"No!"  Gabrielle squirmed to get out of Xena's grasp.  She begged to be released into the light.  "Please there is still time."

"No!"  The Warrior Princess held the struggling Amazon firmly. "We can't let you go."

Gabrielle watched the gate close and as the light disappeared she felt the pull toward the gate almost disappear too.   As she melted into the warrior's embrace, she felt the residual ache for release vanish and good sense return.  "You saved me."

Xena buried her face in the Amazon's silky hair.  She couldn't answer the comment.  She wasn't sure she had saved Gabrielle at all.  'I could have just sentenced us to wander here forever.'  The silence that greeted her thought brought tears to her eyes and for a heartbeat she wished the Conqueror was there to make a snide remark.

The group of Amazons outside the temple stood combat ready.  Karis ordered them to maintain battle readiness partially due to the increasing number of curious onlookers and partially to keep their minds off the possibility of losing Gabrielle.  The head guard was surprised to see Megan and several of the orphan children arrive soon after Solan left but was unable to speak with them at the moment.  Right now she was too busy trying to keep her own impatience under control.  Solari had made the mistake of going against the Queen's orders by entering the building and she was going to make sure that particular error wouldn't happen again.   She did wish she knew what was going on inside the Temple though and didn't blame Solari a bit for trying to find out.

The Conqueror wished she hadn't broken everything because she really really wanted to smash something right now.  The Goddess was so infuriating, she had given up on Gabrielle and Xena had no idea how to force Artemis to try again.

Solan was also frustrated by the Goddess' seemingly uncaring attitude.  He had to convince her somehow to try and retrieve Gabrielle.  He knew force wouldn't work so he relied on Gabrielle's technique, talking.   Unfortunately he didn't quite have his temper under control so his words spilled out unchecked. "I should never have pledged my sword to you."

"WHAT?!?"  Both women were stunned.  Knowing how Gabrielle felt about bladed weapons, the Goddess had never for a moment thought that the boy would fight with a sword and even if he did she naturally assumed he would fall under Ares protection.

Solan was angry now. "I told Ares that if I ever fought with a sword it would be for your.."  He pointed at the Goddess. "...honor and glory."  He sneered at the stunned immortal. "If I had realized how little you care for your people, how easily you give up on them I would have considered Ares offer more seriously."

'Ares offer?'  The Conqueror's surprise at the boy's words were quickly replaced with anger. 'How dare he tempt Solan.'  The God's devious ways were well known to her and she clenched her teeth. 'He probably offered to make Solan the best swordfighter.'  Blue eyes studied the boy, her son, arguing with the Goddess. 'By the Gods, Solan turned him down.'  She watched as he tilted his head and gestured to the altar.  It was amazing and it was also, 'Just like Gabrielle.' The thought was comforting.  She had been missing the Amazon Queen's calming presence but now her son's training could be the only thing that convinced Artemis to try again. It was the hardest thing she ever had to do, but the Conqueror held back and stayed quiet as Solan tried to persuade the hopeless Goddess to bring Gabrielle back.

"I know you are upset and you miss her."  Artemis could see the pain in his eyes when he looked at the altar but the fact remained that the link was broken.

"Of course I miss her."  Solan was becoming more and more frustrated.  He gestured to Xena. "Mother misses her."  He ran to the door and removed the barricade, flinging the doors wide open.  All the Amazons on the steps turned to look inside the Temple. "They all miss her too."  He gestured them inside, grateful that Karis moved to his side quickly.   The rest of his argument was interrupted by a cry from just outside the doors.

"Amber NO!" All eyes turned to the entrance as a little girl wormed her way between the bodies of the Amazons standing there.

Much to Solan's surprise the child squealed when she saw him and came straight for Karis.  Leaning against his love's mostly bare leg he could only wait for the guard's response to the little girl's innocent question.

"Your Prince is very handsome isn't he?"  Amber was thrilled when Karis picked her up and she settled quickly on the guard's hip.  Her wide brown eyes twinkled at Solan as her new friend whispered in her ear.

"Yes he is."  Karis couldn't help smiling at Solan as the little girl in her arms giggled.  The guard narrowed her eyes at the darkening bruise on his cheek but didn't have time to comment.

Amber looked around the temple and widened her eyes at the sight of Gabrielle laying on the altar. "Ohhhh.... the Sleeping Princess.... "  Wriggling out of Karis' arms, the child didn't pay attention to the protests and she ran to Gabrielle's sleeping side.  She looked closely at the Amazon Queen's relaxed face before she turned to the watching adults. "Where is the Prince to kiss her and wake her up?"

"No one kisses Gabrielle but me!"  Xena nearly lunged at the child but found her way blocked by Solan and Karis.

"She's just a child, Xena!" Karis held out her hands to fend off the angry Conqueror.

Solan's cheek still ached from the earlier hit but spoke clearly as his mother approached him. "She is talking about the fairy tale."  He recalled Gabrielle telling the story of the Sleeping Princess to Micha and the others once.  It wasn't his kind of story but he did remember how it went. "The Prince kisses the Sleeping Princess to break the spell that the evil fairy Godsmother put on her."

"I don't think I like that reference." Artemis was sure she didn't like being referred to as an evil fairy godsmother.

"Yeah well if the shoe fits...."  Solan was glad to get a few jibes in at the Goddess.  He was still angry at her and now had no idea how to convince her to help his Mom.

"No no no, not the one with the shoe....."  Amber's small voice broke the tension. "That is the wrong story.... this is the Sleeping Princess.... her true love has to kiss her and make her wake up."  She rolled her eyes at their denseness.

"True love huh?" The Conqueror moved to stand next to Amber.  She squatted down to be at eye level with the girl and smiled. "Gabrielle is my true love."

"Really?"  Young brown eyes glittered at the ruler and with the innocence of a child she reached out to pat Xena's cheek.  "Are you hers?"

The question was a good one but the answer caught her off guard. "Yes."  The warm certainty that she was Gabrielle's true love was overshadowed only by the fact that the Warrior Princess was too.

"Then kiss her and wake her up."  Amber wasn't sure what the problem was and her exasperated tone expressed her confusion.

The Conqueror heard an expectant hush fall over the crowd as Xena looked at the little girl for a long moment.  The ruler's thought was dark as she regarded the child.  'They are waiting for me to hurt you for talking to me in that tone of voice.'  The child's brown eyes met hers with unwavering confidence. 'She truly believes a kiss from Gabrielle's true love will wake her.'  The thought was rather daunting. 'What if I'm not her true love?  What if I'm not enough?'  Rising slowly from her squatting position, Xena looked at the woman laid out next to her.  The ache of Gabrielle's absence was not something she wanted to feel anymore and she knew she would do anything to make that feeling go away.  The brief thought of sending the crowd away evaporated as her eyes locked on the peaceful face of her love.  The whole world fell away as she circled around the altar to take her original position.  She looked at the temporarily lifeless form in her arms and whispered. "I will never leave you."  The softness of Gabrielle's lips never ceased to amaze her as she brushed them lightly with her own.

"Anything yet?" The Warrior Princess knew better than to ask.  Gabrielle would have told her if the link was reestablished so she wasn't surprised when the Amazon shook her head in response.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?"  Gabrielle wasn't confident with Xena's plan although it sounded logical.  The idea was to go back to the place Artemis sent them to.  That was where Gabrielle felt the link the strongest so Xena deduced that the Goddess may be able to contact Gabrielle if they went back there.

Stopping to sit on a patch of rockless soil, the Warrior Princess beckoned the Amazon to sit next to her.  "Gabrielle there are only two things I am sure of."  She held up her index finger and tapped the end of her love's button nose. "I love you.... "  She looked around the expanse of nothing in front of them. "....and this is where we were when we started."

"Yeah?"  Gabrielle was certain about the love part but she looked dubiously at their surroundings.

"Yup."  The confidence she had in those two statements however was all the confidence she had.  She needed to think.  Out of sheer habit she withdrew to work out the problem the way she always did, logically.  This time however the Conqueror wasn't there to take over.  This time there was only one other waiting in the darkness.

As Gabrielle looked around the vast nothingness that could very well be their new home, a sweeping feeling of hopelessness rushed through her and she remembered the craving to go through the gate. "Why wouldn't you let me go?  Why didn't you want to come with me?"  The long silence that greeted her question caused her to turn and look at the warrior.  "Xena?"  She studied the face closely and realized she hadn't met this person before. "Hello."

"Hi."  The voice from the warrior wasn't much different but it wavered slightly.

"You didn't want me to go either, did you?"  Gabrielle could feel the remembered ache in her heart recede slowly.  The dark head shook in response and the Amazon continued her questioning. "Why?"

"Seres no lams sere."  Blue eyes blinked and looked everywhere except at Gabrielle, even when the small woman clarified the answer.

"There's no lambs there?"  Green eyes narrowed as the woman next to her shook her head.

"Nope."  Large weapons callused hands played with the fringe of her leather skirt and she took a deep breath. "We has to go home for lamss."

"How old are you?"  Gabrielle recalled the signatures on the note Xena had left in the journal. Some of them had reminded her of Brie and Gabe's block type of writing so she really wasn't surprised at the answer.

"Almos sree."  The child warrior played with three of her fingers on her right hand.

"You told the Warrior Princess that there weren't any lambs in the light."  Gabrielle smiled at her companion, almost catching her eye before she ducked away.

"Yes.  She forgot sat sere aren't any lams sere."  Nodding at that logic, she examined a rock she found in her hand. "We has to go home for lamss, alright?"

"Alright."  Gabrielle smiled and reassured the full grown child.  "We'll go home and see the lambs."

Sighing, Xena nodded. "Do you want to talk to the Warrior Princess now?"

"That is up to you and her."  A sudden thought occurred to Gabrielle and she casually asked her new friend the same question she had asked Xena before. "Where is she?"

Xena shrugged. "Sinking."

"Thinking?" She found herself nodding the confirmation of her translation.

"Yeah... hers is as good sinker."  She played with a clod of dirt before crushing it in her large hands.

"You're a pretty good thinker too."  Gabrielle's laughter drifted across the arid landscape. "Both of us had forgotten that the lambs were at home."  She held her breath and placed her hand in the woman/child's.  "Thank you for saving me."  She stretched up and kissed her love's cheek gently.

"Your welcome Gasrielle.  I has to save you cause I love you.  You are Solan's good Mama and you make se Conqueror be good."  She could feel the spot on her cheek tingle where Gabrielle kissed it.  Sighing again, she almost looked at the Amazon beside her. "I has to go now."  She wiped her dirty hands on her thighs. "Bye."

"Bye."  Gabrielle sort of wished she could talk to the warrior child more but perhaps the Warrior Princess had thought of something.  She was always fascinated when the switch was slow and she saw the muscles in Xena's jaw tense briefly.  It was easier to switch back and forth with the Conqueror, because despite what they thought Gabrielle knew they weren't THAT much different. Going from three to thirty five took a little bit though so she waited a moment before speaking and didn't expect an answer right away. "Hi."

"Hi."  Xena smiled and looked Gabrielle in the eye. "Did you have a nice talk?"

"Yes."  Green eye's glittered at her amused companion. "Did you think of anything?"

"Yeah."  Xena stretched out where they were when they woke up and gestured for Gabrielle to join her. "I think you need to go to sleep."  She sighed as the Amazon settled in her arms. "I'll watch over you."

Gabrielle moved quickly to comply with Xena's request and, hard ground or not, felt very relaxed in the warrior's arms. "I'll try."  It was worrisome because she didn't want Artemis to only be able to retrieve her and not Xena too.

Chuckling as the old mind reading trick kicked in, the Warrior Princess smiled. "No worries love."  She licked her lips and moved closer, the Amazon's warm breath mixing with her own as she whispered. "I will never leave you."  She brushed the Amazon's soft lips lightly with her own then gave in to the ache in her heart.  Increasing the pressure, she reveled in having Gabrielle nearly all to herself.

Artemis was stunned that Xena would even try the little girl's suggestion, much less try it in front of all these people.  It was a strong testament to the love her brother's Chosen displayed for the Amazon Queen.  She barely heard the Amazon's murmuring approval of Xena's treatment of their Queen as her entire formidable mind was focused on a glimmer of the link she thought she had lost.  Quickly catching the fleeting connection Artemis smiled and, with a regal sweeping wave, brought her Chosen home.


To Be Continued (hopefully concluded) in Part 10

No fairy tales were harmed during the writing of this section.

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