Sins of the Mother (3)

BY L. Crystal Michallet-Romero

Copyright © February 8, 2002 L. Crystal Michallet-Romero
All Rights Reserved

I'd like to give big thanks to my two beta-readers, Sue Rice and Bill the Semi-Bard. This is not an easy story to get through, in yet they both manage to not only read it and give feedback, as well as correct the grammar, but they also give feed back that will help me to bring out more emotions from the story. Credit for the ending Eve scene is entirely Bill's, and I think you'll agree that he's much more than a “semi-bard”. Thanks Bill, for not letting me run all over Eve!

Disclaimer:  See Part One
Extra Warning: As the main character was raised by Alti, I feel it's necessary to warn that this story deals with child abuse and molestation issues. It may trigger abuse issues for some. This story should be unpleasant for all readers, but to know Ari, it's important to know where she came from.

All Feedback Welcomed At:

Ari found herself submerged deep within a raging storm of dreams. The images flashed before her with the quickness of lightening. Only a very few stayed long enough for her to catch a glimpse of, and even those were too horrific for her to view for long. At one point she saw the form of a child, the innocent eyes gazing at her, pleading for Ari to help. For a moment, she thought she was seeing herself as a child, but as she tried to move toward the girl, the figure was quickly replaced with the carnage of a battle. Ari studied the battlefield, taking in the view of the mass of bodies strewn over the land. She tried to turn away, but her feet were held in place by the sticky blood that seemed to ooze from the earth. When she looked closer, she saw amidst the butchery, the single face of the little girl, now dead, her body frozen and discolored as her empty eyes looked up at Ari.

With an inward shudder, Ari felt herself trying to pull away from this nightmare. She vainly fought to turn away from the scene. What she saw instead was her reflection in a pool of blood at her feet. Ari saw herself in the armor of black, the gold inlaid designs covered with blood. When she looked down at her hand, she saw her sword shining red in the sun, the edge covered in blood … her hands covered in blood.

Panting and out of breath, Ari opened her eyes and instantly felt the cold chill against her flesh. For a moment, Ari forgot where she was and glanced around in confusion, the dream still very real within her mind. She expected to feel the soft furs of her mother's bed, the heavy pelts keeping them warm as her mother slept soundly beside her. But instead, Ari was out in the open under a canopy of stars. Where there should have been the darkness of the cave ceiling, in its place were now tree limbs hanging high above her. As her mind tried to fathom the change, she sat up and glanced down at herself, surprised that she was in her undergarments; that she no longer wore her outer clothing.

Confused, she pushed back the cover of her bedroll and looked around in bewilderment. Rather than a single fire pit in the corner of the cave for warmth, she saw a round campfire, the fire's flames now replaced with glowing embers. In only a matter of seconds, Ari closed her eyes as her mind tried to comprehend if this was yet another dream, or if it was real.

As her troubled mind fought for clarity, Ari heard the slight whispers in the back of her mind. Like a jumbled incantation, the slight voices rose in the darkness to surround her senses. Although these whispers had first come to her when she entered this world, Ari had quickly learned how to keep them at bay with her mother's help. For awhile, the lessons from Alti worked, but now that she was with her adopted family, the whispered voices had begun to slowly return with a vengeance.

Calling upon all of her inner strength, Ari pushed the clamor aside until the whispers were nothing more than a slight droning vibration. She fought to remember the events that had brought her into these present circumstances. The flimsy memories played through her mind. When she finally remembered where she was, and whom she was with, she glanced at the bedrolls around the campfire. Through the embers of the fire, she saw the outline of her birth mother and Gabrielle snuggled in an embrace under their bedroll. Nearby Eve lay nestled under her covers; the only parts of her that were visible were her fingertips.

Not for the first time, Ari felt confused and disoriented as she tried to remember how she had gotten near the campfire. As she glanced at Eve's bedroll, she remembered the anger that the prophet had spewed at her yet was unable to fully understand it. The vague dreams that plagued Ari's soul caused an unfamiliar pain deep within her heart and although she could not remember doing what Eve accused her of, the nightmares were enough to make her wonder if Eve was right.

'What redemption could there be, for one like me?' she
wondered as she fought to remember, to grasp hold of anything that would confirm that she had tried to rape her sister. When no images came to mind, she only sighed in defeat as the pain began in her head. As fresh tears threaten to spill, Ari closed her eyes tightly as she fought for control. She could remember, she was always aware of Xena's love for Eve and she knew that the warrior princess could never forgive anyone who would hurt her youngest daughter … even … her oldest daughter.

Ari understood her position in Xena's life. For Ari, it didn't matter what Xena said, for the dark child knew the truth and more importantly, she knew how her warrior mother thought of her. She would never be able to rise to the level of Eve. Even though she was Xena's firstborn daughter, nothing she did would help her to be viewed as anything more than the daughter of Alti, the evil sorceress who was Xena's worst enemy. Eve's accusation, regardless if Ari could remember it, would only reinforce who Ari's true mother was within Xena's eyes, she reasoned silently.

After Eve's revelation, Ari knew that
there was nothing that she could do or say that would change Xena's mind. Although in the past Xena was quick to claim her as a daughter, Ari believed that deep down inside, the warrior princess felt that Ari was as evil as Alti. Now, after Eve's words, Ari was certain that Xena would never change her opinion, and perhaps in this the warrior princess was correct.

Ari realized that redemption was not for her because Xena's worst enemy had cared for and taught her many things and most of them were dark and dreadful. Ari remembered the lessons of Alti, her firm hand controlling everything that the child did, from learning how to sword fight, to hand to hand combat. When a lesson was needed that Alti could not teach, the sorceress would simply leave and return with a teacher in tow. With a shudder, Ari closed her eyes against the onslaught of memories from her childhood. She could not bear to remember what would happen to her teachers when they were no longer needed.

Only after the final confrontation with Xena, did Ari begin to realize the lies of her mother. Alti had not been truthful with her,
and in her deceit, she had doomed Ari's soul. 'I may not have been the one to end my tutor's lives, but I might as well have been,' she thought grimly as a sorrow filled her soul. 'If I could have hurt people, like I did in my dreams, then surely I must have tried to hurt Eve.'

Ari knew that her sister's words were enough to convict her of the crime
regardless if she could recall it. She had known from the look on Xena's face the night before, that she had committed an evil against Eve. Such a thing as this, Xena would not easily forgive and although Gabrielle had seemed to truly care for her, Ari, more than anyone, knew that if Xena no longer wanted her, then the decision had been made.

As the sadness filled her, Ari remained still as she tried to think through her options. She had never needed to make any decisions for herself in the past. Since she had first arrived in Alti's mysterious cave, everything was decided for her. From the time she woke up to when she went to relieve herself. From the amount of time she spent exercising to make herself stronger, to what she ate, drank, or wore, her adopted mother had decided everything. Even the time that she was to emerge into the world was carefully planned beforehand.

Once she was free of her mother's binding control, Ari was still not free to decide, yet this never truly bothered her. In fact, she found it comforting to let Xena make the decisions for her. It was as if the weight of her future was suddenly lifted from her the moment that her birth mother took over. But this, Ari knew, was about to change. With Eve's news, Ari was convinced that Xena would never allow her to stay.

The daunting prospect of life alone weighed heavy upon her soul; yet the idea of Xena asking her to leave sent a searing pain through her heart that she had never felt before. As the melancholy crept through her, Ari silently rose and slowly dressed. She was not certain what her future held, but she knew that she could not bear to face Xena's anger and ultimate rejection. With this in mind, Ari swallowed hard as she made the first decision of her life.

Careful not to waken anyone, she slowly gathered her sword, pack and bedroll, then made her way silently from the camp. Ari remembered her lessons well as she crept soundlessly over the dirt, fallen leaves and branches. With each slow step she took, she glanced back over her shoulder to assure that no one had awakened. Only when she was in the darkness away from camp did she move a bit faster to where the horses awaited. After setting her sword and pack aside, she rolled her bedroll into a tight bundle, and then turned her attention to Thanatos.

As if understanding her thoughts, her horse snorted softly then moved to her side, his nose pushing against her until she reached up to scratch his muzzle. For a moment she rested her forehead against his as she closed her eyes and fought back tears. Ever since arriving in this strange world, Ari had never felt closer to anyone or anything than she did to Than. He was only a yearling of two when she had first laid eyes on him, and together they both finished their final year of tutelage until they had transformed into the team they had become. With a sigh she gazed into the liquid darkness of her horse's black eyes and knew that he understood all that she was feeling at this moment.

A deep depression settled over her at the thought of leaving. In the short time that she had been with her new family, she had begun to feel
comfortable, or at least as comfortable as she had ever felt in her life. But now it seemed that she had little choice.

Filled with a new resolve, she took Than's blanket and saddle and quickly readied him for their journey. As the sounds of the night crickets registered in her senses, she blanked everything else
from her mind. The soft whispers that were always near were blocked from her mind as her concentration focused on preparing for her departure. When her saddlebag and bedroll were tied to the back of Than's saddle, she glanced back at the camp as she strapped her sword around her waist. At the silence from the sleeping women, Ari took Than's reins and led him away from the only family she had ever known.

Ari felt the familiar pain in her head growing with each passing minute. Ignoring it, she silently walked Thanatos down the dirt road. With each step she took, the soft whispers slowly disappeared until all she heard were the sounds of the forest around her. As her mind wandered over a myriad of thoughts, she contemplated many things. She didn't know where she was going, nor did she know what her future held. All she knew was that for the first time in her life, she had made a decision on her own and it frightened her.

Only when she was far enough away, did Ari mount the big
horse. As she held the reins loosely, she glanced back through the darkness. Somewhere around the bend, her family was still asleep. If she had wanted to, she could have returned and no one would have known. But even as this thought crossed her mind, it was quickly wiped away by the memory of Xena's expression from the night before. The tall warrior's look of disbelief, then the anger that had surged within her dark features was enough to bolster Ari's courage to leave.

Without another thought, she kicked her boot heels into Than's sides and urged him down the road. Ducking low in her saddle, she held on tight as her faithful friend tore off at full speed. As the wind whipped past her, she closed her eyes against the blinding tears that threaten to fall. Ignoring the gloom that surrounded her heart, Ari willed herself to stillness as she rode away from her birth mother all the while unaware that even as she rode, the prophet, her sister, had awakened with an urgency that would not be silenced.
Ari was not certain how long she had been riding, nor how much distance she had covered. Her mind wandered over past events and the slight memories of her childhood. Everything came back in a pile of jumbled images that only managed to make her head ache even more.

As she approached a junction in the road, she slowed the horse down. For a moment she read each sign on the wooden boards. As the dull ache pounded in her head, Ari glanced at the name of each town.

Pella was the closest village down the left trail. Its defenses were non-existent and it's fighting force laughable. The road on the right led to the coastal city of Pydna and although it was considered small, compared to some villages, it housed a well-equipped army and stockade. The road that went forward led
to Therma, a village that held only the most modest of defenses, yet was under the protection of the local magistrate because of its busy location. Alti had said that Therma held the key to all roads because it was at Therma where the roads that lead to both Poteidaia and Amphipolis were located.

With only a sigh, Ari reached up and rubbed her aching head as she tried to make yet another decision. What she knew of the region had only to do with each village or town's defenses. Anything else was a complete mystery to her. Although Alti had always taught her what she needed to know to conquer the various kingdoms and the land, very little was mentioned about the people who lived in the areas. With a slight grimace, Ari continued to gaze at each name, the dull ache of her head turning into full-blown pain as she tried to organize
her thoughts.

Not for the first time, Ari found herself cursing her mother. Alti had thought of everything. She had taught Ari to read and write, as well as how to make maps and she taught her battle strategy, all while physically training her for conquest. Despite all of her training, Ari found that she
was almost incapable of making the simplest decisions on her own. If only Alti had explained this little ability as well, then Ari may have had an easier time now that she was alone but that would have meant relinquishing a measure of her control of the child and that the sorceress would never do.

'But mother never expected me to be alone … she never expected me to live long after the battle with Xena,' Ari thought as a grimace crossed her features. With an audible sigh, Ari closed her eyes as she tilted her head back. She felt the early morning sun on her skin and smiled at its warmth.

Ari allowed her mind to wander as the sun bathed her exposed flesh. She remembered the cold darkness of the cave, its shadows caused by the lighted torches hanging from nooks in the rock wall. When her mother had first brought her out into this world, Ari found the light blinding. For a time, she was forced to wear a shield on her eyes whenever she was out under the sun until she gradually became accustomed to its brightness. Having never seen or felt it before, Ari had found that she wanted to spend as much time as possible
basking in its warmth, but this longing was easily squelched by the back of her mother's hand. All it took was a few hard blows from the sorceress and Ari quickly contained any interest she had in this strange, new world while she practiced and maintained strict military discipline.

As Ari's memories began to form the different images of her past, she turned away from the sun. Her eyes were focused on the ground, yet she stared at nothing. Just as she almost became lost in the nightmares of her past, the sound of hooves and a
slight whisper brought her back to reality.

Curious, she looked around as the murmur grew louder within her head. Ari tilted her head as she heard the rider grow closer and looked over her shoulder. She
squinted as she focused on the single rider, then released a sigh as she shook her head in disbelief. With a grimace, she turned Thanatos toward the costal town of Pydna.

“Ari, wait!” Eve's voice shouted as she held fast to Argo. Ignoring her sister, Ari continued to ride down the road; her focus remaining impassive as she steeled herself against whatever Eve had planned. For the first time since Alti's death, Ari donned her warrior's expression as she mentally prepared for the encounter with her sister.

“Damn it,
Ari! STOP!” The younger woman shouted as she rode to catch up.

Never once stopping her horse, Ari glanced over her shoulder and then returned her attention to the road ahead of her. In hopes that her silence would discourage her younger sister, Ari held a grim expression as
she continued down the road.

“I know what you're doing and I'm not going to let you do it!” Eve pulled Xena's horse up along side her. From the corner of her eye, Ari noticed the slight bruising on the younger woman's face and suddenly remembered the blinding rage that had led her
to strike out at Eve. With a frown, Ari glanced away from the evidence of her weakness.

“Go back to your mother, little girl!” Ari scowled at Eve before returning her eyes to the road.

“Please don't do this, Ari.
You can't leave!” Eve pleaded as she rode beside Ari's horse. “Leaving like this is going to hurt mother, don't you understand that?”

“I don't know what you're talking about. My mother is dead, or haven't you heard?” Ari spat down at her sister.

“No, you don't mean that! Alti was never your mother. She stole you, kept you captive, and hurt you. Ari, she was never your mother to begin with,” Eve implored.

“What do you know of anything?” Ari verbally lashed out at the smaller woman, her gaze like cold steel.

“I … I know that Alti wanted you dead, that she was going to kill you … kill all of us, if you hadn't killed her first!” Eve's voice was filled with a sudden power. Seeing the momentary shock in Ari's eyes, Eve continued, “Ari, your mother … our mother is alive! She is very much alive and she's going to be hurt if you leave us like this … don't you understand that?” Eve's eyes seemed to plead, her voice softening as she tried to break through Ari's resolve.

“I don't care!” Ari spat out as she pulled in the reins of her horse, Than's body easily blocking Eve. “Do you think for one minute that
I care about … your mother's feelings? If you do, then you are sadly mistaken. As far as I'm concerned, my mother died by my hands! My mother, Alti, is gone, and I have no mother left…”

'And Xena feels this way as well,' Ari's unspoken thoughts finished her sentence as she leaned forward toward Eve. 'Nothing I could ever say to Xena could get her to forgive me for … for … what I did…' Ari couldn't even finish her thoughts because although she remembered Eve's anger and hatred quite clearly, she was unable to recall any memories of the crimes that she committed against the young prophet. Silently she suddenly wondered how many others she had hurt like this.

Ignoring her inner turmoil, Ari's face held the expressionless determination that had become her trademark as the Destroyer. “Xena is nothing to me, as are you! So I suggest that you go running back home to your mother, little girl, because I have no intentions of continuing this with you!” Ari hoped that her voice had
been filled with venom as she turned Thanatos around and continued down the dirt road.

For a moment, Ari thought that
she had gotten through to Eve. She hoped that the girl had taken her seriously and would turn around to ride back to Xena. As she sat straight-backed on Than, Ari closed her eyes, blinking back the tears that threatening to spill as she listened for the sounds of a retreating horse. But rather than the sound of retreating hooves, she heard a slight groan, and then something that resembled a battle cry right before Argo took off at full speed.

NO! I won't let you go!” Ari heard Eve shout before she felt her sister's body tackling her with full force.

Ari felt the wind knocked from her as Eve landed on her and her weight pushed both of them from Thanatos' back. With an audible grunt, the taller rider landed on the side of the road, her shoulder taking the impact of the fall before she rolled sideways, her body instinctively pushing Eve off of her. Trained for just this sort of encounter, Ari continued the roll, gained her feet and came up in a crouch ready to fight. With surprise, she saw that her younger sister was also on her feet, looking none-the-worse for wear. Ari was used to thinking of her sister as a harmless do-nothing, who mouthed platitudes, not as someone athletic enough to tackle another person off of a horse and land unscathed on the ground. The dark warrior narrowed her eyes; had she made a mistake? For a moment, she almost drew her sword, but when she saw that Eve was unarmed, she left it in its sheath.

Her sister stood tensely, but her words were calm. “When I woke up this morning and saw your things gone, I knew what you were trying to do. I can't let you do this; I don't care how you feel about mother. No matter what you say, Xena is still our mother and that goes for Gabrielle too, and you can't leave like this!” Eve stated, and her body was ready for battle as she stared into her taller sister's eyes. “Don't you see Ari, you'd hurt both of them leaving this way more than you can imagine. You can't do it.”

“And you think you're going to be the one to stop me?” Ari felt a slight pull as her lips curled into an evil smile. Rising from her stance, she reached down and unfastened her sword belt. Never once losing eye contact, she dropped her weapon by her feet before she started to circle the smaller woman.

Eve's words were filled with a strength that
Ari had never seen before in the girl. “If I have to, I will. You're not leaving like this and I plan to bring you back. Either you'll come back on your own, or I'll drag you back. It doesn't matter to me and it's all up to you.”

“You dare to threaten me? You, the prophet of Eli, the Queen of Peace is threatening me?” Ari's sarcasm laced her words, “Who do you think you are, to challenge me?
I can crumple you up and wipe my ass with you!” Ari's tone grew suddenly deep as it held all of the menace of the Destroyer. In a split second of time, Ari noticed her sister's indecision. Like a thin veil, it covered Eve's expression, but was quickly replaced with determination.

“We'll see,” said Eve quietly and somehow she seemed to straighten and fill out. “In any case, you are coming back.”

Ari felt her body moving instinctively. All of her years of training came to the forefront as she leapt at her sister, her hands bunched into fists. Although she felt the red-hot anger of the night before threatening to consume her, she managed to keep it at bay. Her concentration willed it to silence as she fought to control her own instinctive need to kill. Rather than spew her full wrath upon her sister, Ari withheld her full strength, yet all the while moving toward the single goal of punishing her sister enough to silence her will.

With fists bunched, Ari swung a blow for the side of Eve's face. Her fist made contact just as her sister reached out to deflect the blow. Momentarily stunned, the prophet of Eli staggered away and shook her head; then turned to face her taller opponent. Like a cornered mountain lion, Eve struck back, but a laughing Ari deflected the blow. The dark warrior's laugh became a grunt when the prophet spun about and her foot kicked her sister in the thigh with surprising force. Surprised by this change in Eve, Ari moved slightly back to regroup before turning her full force against her younger sister's advance.
Gabrielle was awakened by her lover's stressed-out voice. With a deep-set frown, she sat up and shot an evil look at Xena. In quick, hurried moves, the warrior was rushing through the camp haphazardly shoving various items into their bags and in bundles. Each loud bang or clattering of their camping gear caused the bard's scowl to deepen.

“Xena, this had better be good!” Gabrielle's voice was full of sleepy menace.

“It's the girls … hurry Gabrielle, ya gotta get up!” Xena's harried expression conveyed the urgency of the situation.

“Th-The girls?” Gabrielle parroted Xena's words as she glanced around confused. 'It is way too early in the morning,' the bard thought to herself as she struggled to pull her fogged mind from sleep.

“They're gone, Gabrielle! Get up … we've gotta get to them before they kill each other!” Xena stated as she began to bundle up their gear.

Not quiet understanding her lover, Gabrielle rubbed the sleep from her eyes as she said, “You won't have to worry about the girls killing each other Xena ... Not if I get to them first.” Then, when the warrior's words filtered through her senses, she glanced up at the taller woman.

“Gone?” The blonde felt every nerve suddenly awake as she jumped out of their bedroll and quickly pulled her clothes on.

“They went on down the road, Ari first, then Eve, but I don't know how much of a lead time they have on us,” Xena was explaining as the healer bard fastened her Sai's to her leg holsters, and then quickly ran from the camp. “If we're lucky, we can stop any bloodshed,” Xena was saying as she turned to their now empty bedroll and began to roll it up tightly.

With only one thought in mind, Gabrielle had her horse saddled and ready to go. “Xena, hurry up!” was the last thing she said before spurring her beast down the road.

Now alone in camp, Xena glanced up
to see her departing lover's fast disappearing form, “Hey! Gabrielle! God's dammit … wait for me!” With a final curse she threw down the bedroll and kicked it, then grabbed it and began rolling it up again. “Ohhh, somebody's gonna pay for this! You see if they don't!” She promised grimly.
'All I know is, if they aren't dead by the time I reach them, I'm going to kill them,' Gabrielle thought to herself as she rode after the two girls. 'Why did they leave? Why did Ari leave first?' Gabrielle felt half asleep as her mind tried to sort through the morning's events. As if a light suddenly went off in her head, the answer to her question was suddenly clear. 'Wait, she was trying to run away!'

At this thought, Gabrielle's expression turned to a deep frown, as realization settled in her mind. 'Despite what had happened last night, Ari was running away. No matter what we had shared, the girl was determined to leave … and she left while everyone was still sleeping! And Eve followed her!' The bard was furious
as she held fast to her horse, the sense of betrayal filling her. Spurred with a sense of determination, she urged her horse to greater speeds.

'So help me … there are going to be two girls who have a lot to answer for!' The bard thought furiously as a number of curses rose in her mind.

She had been awakened way too early, there wasn't a single thing cooked for her to eat even if she had enough time to eat, and to make matters worse, her bladder was screaming for attention. She pushed all other thoughts out of her mind as she focused her energy
on the single act of catching up with the two girls. 'Well, I may not have brought either of you into this world, but I can sure as Hades take the both of you out of it!' The angry mantra rang through her mind with each gallop her horse took.
Ari had planned on ending this quickly. After only a few moves, she had fully intended to knock Eve around enough so that the prophet would leave her be. Despite what she thought was a well made plan, Eve had other ideas and to Ari's surprise, the peaceful prophet carried a mean left hook and the fight had gone on for a long time now. Her younger sister was quite agile and seemed skilled in combat as well, which was a bit of a shock to the warrior. They rained blows upon one another and Ari was breathing hard, but Eve seemed to always have enough breath to keep yapping about love and peace.

“Ari! If you will … only accept Eli's love … you will … see how all this … violence is unnecessary!” During this speech, Eve was bobbing and weaving and warding off her opponent's blows. She did more circling and fending off than striking, but seemed to have no qualms about landing a blow or two when needed.

“Will you … shut UP?” Ari panted, furious that she couldn't seem to silence her talkative sister.

“Certainly … if you will … accept Eli's … peace…” Eve was gasping but still talking a mile a minute.

“Argggh!” For answer Ari charged her sister. Every time she had tried this before, Eve had danced aside, but she was tired too and this time couldn't dodge fast enough. Battered and bruised, the two women grappled with each other. When Ari managed to grab Eve into a headlock, she felt a momentary surge of pride knowing that soon, this whole scene would be over. As her grip tightened around the shorter woman's neck, she concentrated on the amount of pressure she applied around Eve's throat. She knew that it would only take a slight movement to break her sister's neck, and tempting as it was, Ari decided to only cut off the flow of air to the girl's lungs in order that she would pass out. Once out cold, she would take Eve to the shadows of the trees where she would wake up and return to her mother, or where Xena could find her. Either way, Eve would no longer be a problem, she reasoned.

From somewhere nearby, she heard a familiar voice shouting out her name. Glancing up at the road, she saw Gabrielle riding at full speed, her blond tresses seeming to flow in the wind. As defeat covered her like a blanket, Ari shook her head.

Before she registered a change, Eve shifted in her grasp. With a quickness that Ari was only getting used to, Eve pulled her right arm upward, and shoved it with full force into Ari's side. As Eve's elbow made contact with Ari's fresh stitches, a blinding pain seared through the taller girl. Numbed by the sensations, Ari instantly released her captive as she stumbled backward away from her.

Ari's knees felt weak from the excruciating throbbing in her side. Her hand covered the stitches as she held her eyes closed tightly against the ache. Falling to her knees on the ground, she gasped as she held back the tears of pain.

Eve was bent over gasping for air, her fingers instinctively reaching up to her neck as tears stung her eyes. When she was unable to remain standing, Eve fell to her knees as she fought to breathe. Her lungs seemed to constrict in pain as she tried to inhale as much oxygen as she could hold.

Before either girl could recover, a shout rose in the air. Like a Fury driven mad with rage, Gabrielle reined her horse within a few feet of the fallen girls. Filled with a commanding presence, she jumped from her horse and ran between the two girls.

STOP IT, BOTH OF YOU!” The bard shouted as she held her hands up to both fallen forms.

Seeing Gabrielle like this, her smaller body between them like a barricade, Ari felt a smile tug at her lips. As the pain seared through her side, she glanced over at Eve in time to see her look of disbelief as the prophet looked up at the blonde. When the sisters eyes made contact, their mutual smiles took control and quickly turned to fits of laughter.

As the two girls hooted with laughter, Gabrielle glanced from one, then to the other. Her brow rose in confusion as she tried to understand the humor of the situation. Before she could fathom their laughter, a pressing need screamed out.

“Both of you, hold that thought!” Her stern voice ordered before she ran to disappear behind the nearest bush.

At the sight of her retreating form, Ari could only chuckle louder, each deep laugh causing the pain in her side to increase. Echoing Ari's giggle, Eve shook her head and wiped tears of laughter from her eyes as she watched Gabrielle disappearing behind the bush. Despite the pain it caused, neither girl was able to control their fits of hysterical laughter at the bard's expense.
Gabrielle felt her anger boiling beyond control. With her first discomfort taken care of, she marched out to where the two girls remained laughing hysterically on the ground. Looking at Eve, then at Ari, she shook her head as she knelt by Ari. Although Eve's nose was bloody and her cheek bruised, and Ari's face was equally damaged, what caught the bard's attention was the way the taller girl held her side. As if in pain, Ari had her left palm against her stitches.

“You both have a lot of explaining to do,” Gabrielle glared at Eve, then Ari as she quickly pushed away Ari's hand, then lifted the dark girl's shirt and peered at the stitches. The corner threads had been pulled apart and a slight open wound remained. Gabrielle could immediately tell that Ari had taken a blow at full force. The warm swelling flesh surrounding the stitches turned a bright shade of pink and purple. Upon closer inspection, she noticed the slight moisture seeping from the healing wound.

“Your mother is going to be furious when she sees what you did to her work!” Gabrielle tsked at Ari, before she shot a stern glance at Eve.

Seeing Gabrielle's anger, Eve grew suddenly quiet as she rose and moved to stand nearby. Her face was racked with remorse as she knelt by Ari. “I'm sorry … I-I, didn't mean to hurt you,” Eve apologized as she glanced from Ari's wound, to the bard. “Mother, I'm sorry. I only wanted to stop her from leaving, honest!”

“And why were you going to leave?” Gabrielle's voice was steady and firm as she took a part of Ari's shirt and covered the moisture.

Ari's laughter was now under control and all she could feel was the ache in her side. As if Alti had just sliced into her again, the pain filled her senses. Blinking back her tears, she only half listened to Gabrielle as she fought to keep the pain at bay. Understanding her situation, Gabrielle turned to Eve.

“Scout around and see if there is someplace where we can camp. Make sure there is a stream so we can boil some water and clean the wound,” Gabrielle ordered. When Eve was out of sight, the blonde turned and looked down at Ari, her gentle hand instinctively brushed back Ari's locks of dark hair.

“So you want to tell me what this was about?” Gabrielle asked again.

Ari looked up to the bard's green eyes. She felt the tenderness in her glance. With a shrug that caused her to grunt, she lowered her gaze from the woman.

“Ari. Why were you leaving without telling us?” Gabrielle asked again.

“I-I … Xena was … she was … she would never have…” But Ari couldn't finish her thought; instead, she only closed her eyes as she fought against the pain of her wound and the pain in her soul.

“You thought Xena would ask you to leave?” Gabrielle gently stated what Ari could not.

“Y-Yes…” Ari replied with a sheepish expression.

The bard sighed. “Ari, didn't our conversation last night mean anything to you? I thought we were starting to understand each other. Don't you know that I love you? Don't you think that leaving like this would not only hurt your mother, but it would hurt me as well?”

“I didn't think … I mean … what Xena wants, Xena gets, no?” Ari asked as she found the courage to look into the penetrating green eyes.

“No, that is not how it works!” Gabrielle's voice grew deep with anger and disbelief. “By the gods, Ari, what do you think I am, just a sidekick? Because if you do, you are sadly mistaken! I don't do things just because Xena says so, and I most certainly would not have allowed her to ask you to leave! Don't you realize this by now?”

Ari tried to lower her gaze but Gabrielle's gentle fingers against the girl's chin would not allow her to turn away. At the bard's question, Ari was unable to think because of the sounds of the whispers growing louder in her head. Although she knew that Gabrielle was more than a sidekick, she had not realized that Xena's lover would ever go against the warrior's wishes.

“Ari, what can I say to make you understand? What I told you last night is the truth. There is nothing I wouldn't do for you and Eve. Don't you understand that you are both like my daughters?” Gabrielle seemed to plead as her anger was replaced with sorrow.

Looking into her eyes, Ari saw the deep pools of green grow moist from tears. The conviction in the blonde's words settled within her mind. As if understanding the smaller woman's declaration, Ari nodded as she closed her eyes to the fresh tears that slowly flowed.

“I-I … didn't want to leave … b-but I didn't want X-Xena to be the one to ask me to leave … I-I've been … I-I think I've done … h-horrible things. I couldn't bear to see her angry again,” Ari tried to explain as she felt Gabrielle's arm wrap around her shoulders, her gentle sounds soothing Ari's soul.

“It's all right, sweetheart, don't you worry,” the blonde cooed as she gently rocked the girl in her embrace. “You need to believe that we would never ask you to leave, no matter what … but most importantly, you need to trust me when I say that I would never allow Xena to ask you to leave. I love you, Ari, I only want to help you,” she explained as she pulled away from the girl, her smile gentle as she tenderly wiped away Ari's tears. “You have to trust us, Ari. We love you!”

“B-But … I-I … was horrible to people … especially E-Eve … a-and … I-I … have hurt so many others,” Ari shook her head as she lowered her eyes in shame.

“Ari, listen to me…” Gabrielle's voice was firm as she pulled the girl's gaze to her, “Xena … your mother, has battled the same types of demons. If you'd just let her in, she could help you through this.”

“R-Really?” Ari's voice was a whisper.


With a slight smile, Ari lowered her gaze as she sighed. The weight of her pain seemingly lifted, if only for a moment. Before more could be said, the sounds of rustling bushes caught their attention. Looking about at the noise, they watched as Eve broke through the nearby foliage.

“Mother, there's an open clearing down here,” Eve said as she moved to them.

“Ok, we'll plan on setting up as soon as…” but before Gabrielle could finish her thought, a panic stricken expression fell over her face. “Oh my….Xena!” She exclaimed as she stood and moved to look back down the road. With a slight smile, then a slight frown, she turned on Ari and Eve. “You two are both going to have some explaining to do to your mother!”

“Why…?” Eve began to ask, but before she could finish her question, she grew silent as she suddenly understood and glanced at Argo. “Oh, sweet Eli.” Eve's voice was almost a whisper. “Mother is riding Babu.”

“She is going to have a fit all right!” Gabrielle stated as she stood up on the tips of her toes and glanced down the road from which she had just arrived.

Ari heard their words. Her brows creased into a frown as she tried to understand why riding Eve's horse would upset Xena. True, Babu wasn't very much use, as horses go. But he managed to get Eve from place to place, albeit at a slower pace. When her confusion grew, she glanced up at the two women.

“Why is Xena going to have a fit because she has to ride your horse?” Ari asked her sister.

With a long suffering sigh and a shake of her head, Eve glanced down at her, “Ari, for the last time, Babu is not a horse! He's a mule!”

“What's the difference, horse, mule, they both look the same to me,” she said just as a clattering sound rose from the distance.

All three women glanced down the road in time to see Xena approaching on the white mule. Her long legs dangling over the animal's side, her heels periodically kicking the beast, which only seemed to make the creature move slower.

“Heeya!” Xena tried to coax the mule to keep moving down the road. It seemed to take its time as it sauntered down the dirt path, periodically stopping to nibble on patches of grass. As well as carrying the tall warrior woman, Babu had a large bundle of the camping gear strapped to his back and hiding his rear end.

When Xena glanced up and saw how close the group was, she pulled her long leg up over the animal and dismounted. For a moment, she tried to pull the reins of the beast, but when he wouldn't budge from his patch of grass, she shrugged her shoulders, then turned, and made her way to them.

Someone has got some explaining to do!” The warrior princesses' tone was deep and commanding, her voice taking on a tinge of anger as she gazed at the group. Gabrielle avoided her eyes as she turned slightly away, her hand in front of her face as she tried to stifle her laughter. Eve, equally failing at hiding her amusement glanced down at the tips of her sandals in an effort to hide her smile. Only Ari sat with a puzzled expression. Seeing this, Xena turned to the bard.

“I suppose you've already yelled at them for running off?” Xena asked, her brow threatening to arch at the sign of the bard's laughter.

“Ah … y-yes, I did do some scolding,” Gabrielle quickly turned away, her shoulders slightly heaving before she regained composure and turned back to face her lover.

Xena eyed her soulmate long enough to count to ten. “Good … then … I guess there's no need for me to scold them as well.” Then her eyes suddenly narrowed on Eve. “But, you! You've got some explaining to do, young lady!”

Eve was genuinely confused. “Me! Why me?” She squeaked.

“Because you took my horse, that's why!” Xena shouted as Argo moved toward her and whickered. “There you are, my poor baby!” The big woman suddenly cooed as she moved to stroke her horse's nose.

“Don't you ever take my horse again without asking, do you hear me!” Xena pointed a threatening finger at her youngest daughter before turning her attention to inspecting her animal for injuries. “That's a girl, are you ok? She didn't hurt you, did she?” Xena cooed to Argo.

“B-But, I asked her, and she was ok with me taking her,” Eve protested as she took a few steps back from her mother. Seeing her, Babu lifted his head, before he moved toward his mistress all the while chewing on some blades of grass. “Besides, how was I supposed to know that you would be awake before I was able to bring Ari back? Babu wouldn't have been able to catch up with Thanatos despite his best efforts,” she added as she began to stroke the muzzle of her mule.

“I don't care what excuses you have, don't you ever touch Argo again, do you hear me?” Xena growled, and then glanced down at Ari as if seeing her for the first time. Seeing her still on the ground, her gaze suddenly alerted to the way her daughter leaned toward the side.

“Ari…!” Xena suddenly forgot about her horse and moved to kneel down by the tall girl. Without a thought, the warrior lifted Ari's shirt and peered at the healing wound, “You pulled some stitches, what happened?” Xena's anger began to boil as she lightly touched the inflamed flesh. “Eve, get me the medicine pouch from the mule!” She ordered. Obediently, the younger woman moved to the bundles and easily extracted the healing bag.

“Mother … I…” Eve stepped forward handing the bag to Xena, but before she could speak up, Ari cast a sharp glance at her sister.

“I fell off Than as I was trying to out-ride Argo,” Ari lied as she glanced from Eve, then to Gabrielle with a pleading expression. Both women remained silent as Xena took the medical bag, and then looked from the wound, then to Eve, and up to her soul mate. Eve was unable to hold her mother's penetrating gaze, so she returned her attention back to Babu. Gabrielle, biting her lip against a smile, only glanced up into the heavens as she avoided her lovers gaze.

“So … Argo's that fast, huh?” The warrior princesses crooked smile was filled with pride. “Well, good, so you know now that you can't outrun me, even if you tried,” she said as she mixed a poultice with some water from her flask. Once mixed, Xena placed a firm palm over the wound. Grimacing in pain, Ari closed her eyes at the stinging sensations.

“You're lucky that the, um, fall didn't cause any permanent damage,” Xena said as she made certain to cover the entire wound. “To be on the safe side, we should camp somewhere nearby and give the swelling time to go down.”

“There's a place nearby, mother,” Eve offered.

“Good, then … if no one else intends to run away, how about we find this place and make camp … except for you, Ari. You will do nothing but rest, which is not a request!” Xena stated with finality.
After a few days of resting, the four riders resumed their travels at an easy pace. As the afternoon sun beat down on their silent forms, Ari allowed her mind to wander. The slight pain in her side subsided yet the pain in her head still remained. With each passing day, it became more difficult for Ari to ward off the effects of the withdrawal from Alti's drugs or the whispers that continually resounded within her head.

Ever since she had rejoined her family, Ari tried twice as hard to get along with the group. Although she had managed to maintain her temper, and she was able to bite her tongue when her sister got on her nerves, Ari knew it was only a matter of time before she slipped up, or said something that would make the others angry. But rather than dwell on this, she tried to turn her focus away from her gloomy thoughts and insecurities.

Closing her eyes tightly, Ari concentrated on stilling her melancholy. When she felt control return, she sighed as she turned her attention to the road ahead. Not for the first time, her eyes fell on the back of the warrior princess. She noticed the way the older woman's body sat on top of her horse, and the way her body gently swayed with the easy gait of the horse, yet still managed to appear stiff as a board.

Even after spending so much time with Xena, the warrior was an enigma to Ari. For some reason, Ari had thought that her birth mother would be different. With all that her mother, Alti had said, Ari thought that Xena would be filled with anger and hostility. Ari always imagined that the Greek warrior would be taller, and … ugly. But Ari had been wrong. In the short time that they were traveling as a group, the young woman saw nothing of what Alti accused Xena of being, nor what she had seen within the magical pool of water.

'But then, nothing is the way that mother said it would be,' Ari thought to herself and suddenly wondered if perhaps Alti's pool had somehow distorted the things that it had shown.

With eyes half closed, she turned her attention to the other women in the group. Ari slightly smiled as she cast a quick sidelong gaze to Eve. The prophet was sitting with eyes almost closed, the same idiotic smile that was always on her face still visible. The dark young woman sighed as she turned her gaze away from Eve and focused her attention on her younger sister.

Ever since Ari had arrived in this world, she realized that she had a special ability. The first time her mother learned of it, the older woman was pleased to discover the younger woman's gift. After living alone for so long, once people surrounded Ari, she was able to hear whispers in her head. The whispers, she soon learned, were the unguarded thoughts of those around her. In the beginning the thoughts were more like shouts that filled her brain with confusion. After a few weeks of Alti's lessons, and an increase of the daily drug, Ari was able to block the whispers out yet was still able to listen to anyone who she focused her attention on.

As her mind grew still, Ari felt her gift reaching out. She felt the slight stirring in the back of her mind as she sought out the thoughts of her sister. When she began to hear the soft murmurs, she smiled slightly and waited for the whispers to become clear.

'Oh blessed Eli, you are so good and great. You give us your words and your wisdom and we are so undeserving … I am so undeserving!' the angst of Eve's thoughts caused Ari to smile broadly. Seeing Ari's grin, Eve glanced at her, then shook her head, 'Help me to have patience with someone who is so lost! Oh blessed Eli, help my sister to understand your ways!'

“I doubt that!” Ari chuckled under her breath.

“What?” Eve turned to her, her brow creased in a questioning expression.

“What? I didn't say anything,” Ari replied to her sister as she let a mask of innocence fall over her face. Eve frowned as her gaze focused on Ari, then with a shake of her head, the young woman sighed and returned to her private thoughts of the Devi, Eli. Listening to her sister's thoughts for a moment further, Ari wondered how the prophet had heard her hushed words. The longer she knew Eve, the more of an enigma her younger sister was becoming. 'How could she fight like that and still spout all that Eli crap,' Ari thought with confusion.

Finally bored with her sisters inane beliefs, Ari turned her attention to Gabrielle. She stared for a moment, her concentration narrowing in on the blonde woman as she pushed away Eve's whispers. As soon as the bard's thoughts became clear, Ari smiled to herself knowing that the bard's story would keep her entertained for a while.

'And the warrior princess left Ares, the God of War, on the farm….no, that doesn't flow… something's not sounding right,' the bard thought to herself as her head tilted slightly, 'The bard, concerned for her warrior asked “how are you doing…” yeah, right Gabrielle! Like that's really what I would say… Sweet Aphrodite, why can't I get this right! …. Come on Gabrielle, you know why you can't, you're horney as Hades
and need some satisfaction and damn soon!'

Ari chuckled out loud at the bard's thoughts. With an arch of a brow, Gabrielle glanced back at her as Eve took a quick look at Ari before returning to her silent prayers.

“Gabrielle?” The bard's movement caught Xena's attention. With only a shrug and shake of her head, Gabrielle returned her gaze to the road ahead as she drifted back to her earlier thoughts.

'Gods, Gabrielle, get a hold of yourself! Now you're beginning to be suspicious of nothing! It was bound to happen, after so many weeks of not having any, I'm starting to think that Ari can hear my thoughts! That is ridiculous, Gabrielle, you know that isn't possible … Goddess bless, I really, really need Xena! Doesn't she see my needs? Can't she tell that I am twitchy with need?' the bard glanced at the warrior who rode the honey colored mare silently by her side.

'How long has it been?' Gabrielle contemplated as she mentally calculated the days. 'It took nearly two weeks to reach Macedonia … .another week to get organized with the troops … Ari was recovering for five weeks… and we've been on the road now for how long? Goddess, has it been that long! No wonder you're so suspicious, Gabrielle…a little over two moons and not a single bit of love to be had!' She chuckled in her mind as a smile crossed her face.

'And now we're traveling with the “kids”… Xena, if you don't think of something, I'm going to have to drag you off under a tree while we send Eve and Ari to hunt! I can't take much more of this, Xena. I need you, need to touch you, taste you … and oh, do I need to feel you so badly! Just to have your mouth on my…' Gabrielle's thoughts continued to flow with images of Xena's naked body, the warrior princess mouth covering the bard's most intimate places.

Ari quickly retreated from the bard's thoughts. As a slight heat crossed her cheeks, the dark daughter
glanced away from the blonde in an attempt to regain control. Gulping down her embarrassment Ari returned her attention to the road, her eyes remaining on Xena's back. 'I've never been able to hear your whispers,' Ari thought as she gazed at the back of her birth mother's head. 'What secret whispers do you hold?' The young warrior's thoughts asked as she stared at Xena with half closed eyes.

Ari felt her mind focus, her thoughts gearing toward a single goal. She felt herself reaching out, the powers and gifts that were hers alone sought out a single source. For a moment, she thought she heard a slight sound, a gentle hush that was barely a whisper that tickled her senses but before it became clear, the warrior princess quickly stopped the horse in her tracks, and her sharp gaze turned on Ari. Taken by surprise, Ari gasped, then blinked as the connection was instantly lost. With hooded eyes, Xena stared at her daughter. For a moment, Ari felt as if her birth mother were entering her very soul, but when the woman's gaze softened, Ari blinked innocently as she turned her gaze down to the ground. As if at ease with her conduct, Xena returned her attention back to the road as she urged her horse into movement.

“Xena?” Gabrielle's voice was filled with concern.

“It's nothing,” was the only thing that the warrior princess said.

When nothing more was said, Ari returned to her own thoughts as silence returned to the travelers. She had never tried that before, and she knew that she would not try it again. For some reason, there were only two people's whispers that Ari was unable to hear. One of them was Alti, and now she had discovered that Xena was the second. With this in mind, Ari contemplated the situation. She wondered if it was better to not hear the warrior's thoughts. In this way, at least for a while, she would not hear what the woman really thought of her.

Although Xena's words were always kind and gentle, Ari sometimes wondered how her birth mother felt toward her. Xena knew what Ari tried to do to Eve, yet the warrior continued to treat Ari with kindness and this confused the younger woman. Now that it was over, each time Ari thought about it, she felt … well, she wasn't certain of what she felt, but there was an ache in her that was hard to quiet.

Before she could contemplate it further, a noise from the side of the road caught her attention. In front of her, Gabrielle's horse reared up on hind legs as Argo whickered as she pulled away from the sudden obstacles in the road. Standing up in the saddle, Ari noticed the group of men blocking their way. With a confused glance, she looked at Eve who simply shrugged her shoulders after stopping her … well, Ari had been told it was a mule, but to her, it still looked like a horse. A very short, fat horse.

“Well, well, look what we have here!” One of the men stated, his sword drawn and resting easily over his arm. When he smiled, he revealed blackened, rat-like
teeth. “There's enough for all of us!” the leader snickered to his men, his long stringy hair flying over his shoulders as he glanced at the group.

“Who?” Ari turned to Eve.

“Bandits,” Eve whispered back.

Bandits were people Ari had never encountered. Although some of her former troops had run across them, she had never seen any before. Now that she looked at them, she wondered why so many people were cowered by them. True, they were great in numbers, but not too many to take care of, the young woman thought as Xena leaned against her saddle horn, her voice holding a casual tone.

“You know, you really don't want to get in our way, so I suggest that you just step aside and let us pass,” Xena told the leader of the men.

With a wide grin, the leader turned to his men “Whattaya think boys, shall we let th' ladies go peacefully on their way?” The men laughed roughly and made lewd comments. “I didn't think so!” He snickered, in a voice that was cruel with lust. “Take 'em!” He shouted as he charged forward and with a roar his men followed.

Before the battle was joined, Xena glanced over her shoulder, her eyes conveying a silent message for Eve to take cover, and then she looked Ari. “Protect your sister,” Xena ordered even as Eve was pulling Babu away from the fight.

With only a nod, Ari turned her horse around and followed her sister into the shadows of the trees. Every ounce of fiber in her being, longed to be in the melee with Xena and Gabrielle. As the sounds of swords clashed, and the shouts of men rang in the air, she watched the entire fight unfold. Xena flew from her horse and landed in the middle of the men while the bard jumped from her horse and began to defend herself against some bandits, kicking and punching with her Sai's. Ari noticed her mother's sword dispatching bandits, the older warrior's battle cry rising in the air.

From somewhere in the mob, Ari heard the thought whispers of the leader, his intent rising to the top of his mind. 'The blonde will be easier to take! While my men are distracting the warrior, I'll take the little bitch … and be the first to have my pleasure with her!' He turned his attention away from the warrior princess and toward the smaller fighter who had her back to him. With sword drawn, the man began to run toward the bard who was unaware if his intent.

“Oh no…” Ari whispered next to Eve.

Confused by her words, Eve glanced up at her sister with an arch brow. Filled with panic, Ari's complete concentration turned on the battle scene as she heard his whispers raging through her head. Ignoring the prophet's gaze, Ari stared down at the scene, her mind taking in the nuances of the advancing man.

Gabrielle!” Ari felt herself goading Thanatos toward the battle as she drew her sword. In the short time it took to reach the bard, Ari had her sword raised; every muscle in her body was focused on the single motion. Then, when she was on top of the man, she smiled gleefully when he turned and looked up at her, the sheer terror etched on his face. Before she could see the look of surprise in Gabrielle's eyes, Ari sliced downward, the blade cleanly severing the leader's head from his body. His body collapsed, neck spouting blood like a fountain as the head rolled away to stop with the eyes open and the grimace of death frozen upon the face.

At the sight of their leader's death, some of the men turned and ran. The remaining ones who fought glanced around to see what had caused the fear. After the death of the leader registered, their fighting quickly ended as they tried to scurry away.

A part of Ari felt exhilarated at the kill. As the all-consuming blood lust raged through her soul, she continued to ride towards the fleeing men. One man Thanatos managed to catch up with turned and held his arms protectively in front of his face. Ignoring his actions, Ari held on tight as Than reared up on his hind feet, then came crashing down upon the man. As if he too were enjoying the battle, the war steed stomped down on the man, the soft flesh quickly being pounded into the earth as the sounds of breaking bones and cartilage registered.

In the back of Ari's mind she heard Xena calling, her words screaming for Ari to stop. Despite this, Ari saw only red as her war steed finished his deed, then returned to chasing down the bandits. One after another, she sliced through them with her long sword. When one turned and tried to fight, Ari jumped from Than's back as she moved menacingly toward the man. With a deaths-head grin, she toyed with him for a moment before ending his struggles with a few quick swipes of her sword. When the sounds of breaking tree limbs caught her attention, she glanced to her left in time to see a portly man trying to make his escape. With a hideous smile, Ari ran after him, grabbed him by the back of his pants and with a great heave, pulled him down from the hill to land unceremoniously at her feet. With whimpers and tears, he begged her for his life.

“Ari, I said stop!” Ari heard Xena's bellowed command, but was blind to her words.

Without any thoughts, Ari placed the tip of her sword against his belly and shoved it through the man's midsection. Just as she had done to her mother, she held fast to the hilt as she pulled it sideways through the meat and bones, then quickly pulled it from the body and watched as the steaming guts spilled forth. The man screamed in pain, his body entering into shock as he tried to grab his entrails and pull them back into his body.

“By the gods! Ari!” Gabrielle's words caught her attention. For the first time since it all began, Ari glanced up at the voices. Panting from the battle, she stood still as she saw Xena's look of distaste while Gabrielle eyes were brimming with tears. “Xena, he's suffering!” the bard added.

Ari glanced down at the man and saw him lying upon the ground, his screams rising in the air as he vainly clutched at his wound. Although Ari did not fully understand Gabrielle's concern, she glanced down at the man as she lifted her sword. With one final blow, she lowered her blade and evenly sliced through his neck. At the familiar sound of the blade slicing through flesh, Ari closed her eyes to avoid the spurting blood, and then stepped back from the dead man as she turned to Xena and Gabrielle.

What are you doing?” Xena shouted as she grabbed a hold of Ari's shoulder and shook her.

Shocked by Xena's anger, Ari stared at her with wide eyes as she tried to think of a response. “I-I was … G-Gabrielle said … h-he was … t-they...” she stammered as she blinked away her confusion and fought for control.

“Ari, I told you to protect your sister!” The warrior princess shouted. “Why did you do this?”

“I-I…” Ari shook her head as she glanced around at the carnage.

You wouldn't even listen to me!” Xena's anger was building with each word. “How am I suppose to trust you when you won't listen to me?”

“You wouldn't trust me no matter what I did!” Ari shouted back, surprising herself by her own volume. Instantly regretting her words, Ari ducked her head instinctively and awaited Xena's blow.

Xena took a deep breath, and when she spoke, her words were controlled.
“What do you mean?”

“It will never matter what I do, you'll never trust me anyway,” Ari frowned as she turned away.

“Ari, I asked you to watch your sister,” Xena said again, her voice more controlled and calm.

“But Eve was fine, they weren't even going for her,” Ari felt her frustration growing, the pounding in her head increasing with each volley of words spoken. Although she always knew how Xena felt towards Eve, it was hard for Ari when faced with the truth. It didn't seem to matter that Ari was trying to protect Gabrielle because in the end Xena would never recognize Ari like she did Eve. Like a golden child who could do no wrong, Eve would always be Xena's favorite, Ari reasoned as she tried to fathom her birth mothers anger.

“Eve won't fight, don't you understand? I asked you to protect your sister because she wouldn't protect herself,” the tone in the warrior princesses' voice was getting deeper from frustration.

“She won't fight and I'm suppose to watch out for her even when she isn't in danger?” Ari asked, the venom laced within her voice as she shot Eve an evil glance. With an air of injured innocence, Eve looked away; her gaze fell upon the ground as a deep-set frown came over her features. Seeing Eve like this only spurred Ari's anger. “She can't even protect herself?” That's a laugh, she thought, she didn't have any trouble hitting me awhile ago!

YES! If I tell you to protect your sister, that's exactly what I mean!” Xena allowed her impatience to rule as she shouted again down at Ari. The change in her voice causing Ari to blink as she instinctively pulled away, her left arm drawn up to ward off Xena's blow. Realizing that one would not follow, Ari lowered her defiant gaze as she glanced around them.

“B-But … I-I was only trying … t-they were … h-he wanted to hurt Gabrielle,” she tried to defend herself as she pointed toward the first man who had fallen under her sword.

“You do not kill men who are running away, and you certainly don't cut them down when they're begging for their lives! Didn't you hear me yelling at you to stop?” Xena shouted, but did not wait for a response. Instead she glanced down at Ari's bloody sword. “Give me that!” she commanded as she took the sword from Ari's hand.

“It's mine!” Ari felt anger seething within her.

“No, not until you prove that you know how and when to use it!” Xena's voice was filled with anger while she unceremoniously reached down and unfastened the belt that held the sheath.

“B-But he was going to h-hurt Gabrielle, he was going to take her away while you were distracted and … and…” Ari tried her best to remember the bandit's exact whispers, but managed to only cause the pain in her head to grow.

“You don't know that! And Gabrielle would have been able to defend herself against him,” Xena shouted as she put the sword into the sheath and began to wrap the belt around it.

“I DO KNOW IT!” Ari shouted, before reaching up to rub her forehead as the accusing whispers grew louder in her head.

“Ari, how is it that you would know what he planned to do?” Gabrielle softly asked as she placed her hand on Xena's arm to try to calm her down and then reached up as if to wipe the splattered blood from Ari's face.

“I know because I heard him,” she explained softly, then glanced up in time to see the bewilderment on her family's faces. Before she thought better of it, she spoke up, “I-I h-heard what he was thinking … a-and … I knew.”

Eve remained further back from the group, yet was able to hear Ari's words. With a sudden frown, the young woman glanced at Xena to gauge her response, before looking back at Ari. Xena's expression was hard as stone and Ari couldn't tell if Xena was angry at the new information, or still angry about the death of the bandits. When she glanced at Gabrielle, she noticed the bard looking away as her face was flushed pink. Then, as if suddenly understanding the meaning of her words, Gabrielle looked up at her.

“H-How can you
hear thoughts? How m-much do you hear?” Gabrielle seemed afraid to know, and therefore was afraid to ask.

With a slight sigh, Ari lowered her gaze from the bard's hurt-filled eyes. “I-I ... d-don't know … b-but … I c-can hear the whispers that people have … e-ever since I first came here. I-I hear everyone's … w-whispers…” she confessed.

“Everything?” Gabrielle asked again as she stepped forward.

“Everything,” Ari confirmed as she looked into Gabrielle's eyes.

She saw the bard's expression changing before her. As if taking in the full meaning of Ari's words, the bard covered her mouth in shock as she stepped slightly away. Then, when another trail of thought crossed her mind, the bard turned her full wrath on Ari.

“How dare you invade people's privacy like that! How dare you invade my thoughts!” Gabrielle shouted as her finger poked into Ari's shoulder. “What I was feeling today, that was you, wasn't it?”

Embarrassed, Ari nodded and lowered her gaze from the bard. The emotions, which now soared through Ari, were unfamiliar. In one instant, she felt elated knowing that she helped to save Gabrielle. But in the next moment, all she wished for was that the earth would open up and swallow her whole, take her away from the full wrath of Xena, and especially from Gabrielle's anger.

“Don't you ever violate anyone's thoughts again, do you hear me!” Gabrielle screamed in frustration as she turned and began to march away. Before she had taken a few paces, she turned on her heels and moved to stand in front of Ari again. For a moment, Ari thought that the blonde would strike her, but instead, Gabrielle pointed a finger directly at her. “You … why I ought to … arugh! I can't even talk to you right now!” Gabrielle's voice was a low growl, but she did not wait for a response. Instead, the blonde turned and marched away, the toe of her boot occasionally kicking at a rock in frustration and anger

Ari watched the bard's departure, confused by her anger. At the movement from her mother, Ari watched as Xena removed something from the packs on Babu's back, then returned in front her and unceremoniously shoved the wooden handled shovel into her hands. “You murdered them, you bury them,” Xena stated.

Ari stared speechlessly at her warrior mother, then at the shovel.

With a stern expression, Xena returned and mounted her horse. “We'll make camp down the road. While you're thinking about what you did, bury these men, then come down and join us,” she ordered then reached down and took the reins of Ari's horse. Without another word, the three women turned and made their way down the trail, leaving Ari surrounded by the bodies of her kills.
Ari felt the beads of sweat pouring down her neck. Her outer tunic had been abandoned long ago near where she worked. As she broke through the earth, she tried to understand what Xena wanted her to think about. Although she knew that her family was angry with her again, she did not understand why.

For a fleeting moment, Ari had hoped that defending Gabrielle would be the action that would endear her to her family, and Xena would finally be pleased with her. For only a moment, Ari looked forward to finally being Xena's chosen, instead of her evil dark daughter. But like everything else that Ari ever did since joining her family, her actions this day had only managed to push her further away from them.

There didn't seem to be anything that she could do to please Xena, Ari thought dejectedly. Not even saving her lover brought Ari any closer to Xena, instead, it seemed to push her further away, and Ari did not understand this. While Eve sat and did nothing, she always managed to be the favorite, but when Ari tried to do something, she was pushed further away from Xena's acceptance. Ari tried to shake off the gloomy thoughts that filled her mind.

With a sigh, Ari glanced up at the sky and blinked at the brightness of the sun. Although the
warmth of the sun was usually her friend, on this day, it seemed to be working against her. With a shake of her perspiring head, she turned away from its brightness and glanced down at the hole in the ground. When she looked up at the nearest body, she tilted her head, gauging the length and depth that the hole had to be. Once she determined that it was correct, she dropped the shovel onto the mound of earth, and then climbed out of the thigh high hole.

As a child, Ari was accustomed to watching her mother dragging bodies from their lair. Following her example, Ari bent at the waist and grabbed hold of the man's legs before she dragged him the short distance to the hole. Without ceremony, she dumped the body in, glanced down at the carcass for a moment, then sighed as she moved to take the shovel and push the dirt over the remains. After the task of covering this bandit was complete, she stomped on the loose earth, and then glanced around her.

All over the area were the torn and mangled bodies of the bandits. When a shadow crossed over her, she glanced up to see the first bird circling high in the sky. Ari shook her head as she tiredly moved to the next body. Nothing Ari did was right. Even when she tried to help, it ended miserably, she thought as she began to force the shovel's edge into the rock hard dirt.

It had been the same with Alti. When she was first with the sorceress, Ari did everything wrong. She was afraid of knives, she threw up rather than kill her only pet and when she watched her mother kill the first man, all Ari could do was run and hide in the shadows of the cave. The end result of each of her failures was a severe beating from her mother until finally, as time passed and she grew up, Ari was able to do anything and
everything that Alti bid her without thoughts or questions.

For Ari, it seemed that she would never know what she was supposed to do around her family. With only a sigh, she closed her mind to the nagging thoughts that plagued her and tried to focus on the task at hand.
The three women moved around in silence. Each one knew what was needed to set up their camp. Once the camp was set up and Xena returned with the fresh, skinned kills, Gabrielle began to cook them over the flames. As she watched it cooking, she sat staring into the licking flames.

At first she wanted to kill Ari, not because of her uncontrolled rage, which needed to be addressed, but because of her easy entrance into other people's most private thoughts. Gabrielle wanted to take Ari and physically shake her until she got the girl to understand how wrong her violation was. But remembering how Ari flinched each time Xena seemed upset or angry, the bard was able to control the worst of her temper with the girl. Despite this, Gabrielle could not keep the rage within her from spilling out.

Gabrielle had never felt so violated in her life. Not even when Dahak took her and forced her
to carry his child had she felt this way. At this thought, she remembered what it felt like to hold her baby girl in her arms. To see the little eyes staring up at her, and to feel her small fingers circle around one of her fingers, brought about such joy that she had never felt before.

'Hope,' Gabrielle silently said her daughter's name. Hope was her baby girl, born of her and a demon god, yet Gabrielle could never believe that her child was wholly evil. Despite how she felt, Xena never trusted that Hope was not evil and tried to force her to kill her only daughter. But she could not because deep down inside, she did not believe that any single person was ruled by evil alone. 'And yet, my poor child, I tried twice to kill you with my own hands and finally acted as the bait that got you killed, but at the time there seemed to be no other choice!' She swallowed with grief at her past deeds.

As a silent tear trickled down her cheek, Gabrielle blinked as she lowered her eyes from the flames. Seeing this, Xena moved close to her, her hand lightly resting on the bard's shoulders. From her bedroll, Eve watched the exchange silently.

“G-Gabrielle … I'm sorry … it was wrong of Ari to do that,” the warrior's voice was soft.

Gabrielle smiled slightly as she shook her head; her lower lip trembled as she tried to rein in her tears. “It's not Ari; Xena … it's just that, I was thinking about … Hope.”

Xena pulled her hand away and the bard easily read her body language. With a deep-set frown and a stiff back, the warrior princess turned her gaze into the flames. Just as she had done in the past, the Greek warrior seemed to build a wall around her.

Sensing the change in mood, Eve slowly rose from her bedroll. She nodded with her head toward the nearby trees before excusing herself. As if understanding that her parents needed some privacy, she began to move away from the campfire.

“Xena … if I had raised Hope, maybe she wouldn't have been evil,” Gabrielle whispered softly.

“After all these years, you still think of her?” Xena's voice was soft as she lowered her eyes.

“She was my daughter, Xena; don't I have a right to think about her? Don't you ever think of Solan?” she asked as she turned sharply on the taller woman. “She was my daughter, Xena. Yet, in all of our years together, we have never talked about what happened. Don't you ever wonder about … Hope?” she kept her voice low, her words non-threatening as her gaze softened on her lover. She watched as Xena's eyes lowered, the deep-set frown quivered as Xena's dark eyes turned to gaze at her.

“I-I've thought of her, Gabrielle. Not a day goes by that I don't wonder if you were right, but now I don't know,” Xena offered as she turned her eyes away.

“You're thinking that Ari is like Hope, aren't you?” Gabrielle asked.

Xena remained frozen in place. Her eyes blinked away her tears as she thought over Gabrielle's question. As if riddled with guilt, Xena sighed as she lowered her head; her deep sigh answered the bard's question.

“Xena, Ari is not evil! You can't believe that!” the bard whispered as she reached out and forced her lover to look at her. When she saw Xena's teary eyes, she smiled softly.

“Xena, Ari was raised by an evil woman, but that does not make her evil. There is goodness within her, I know there is!” she tried to convince her soul mate.

“Oh, Gabrielle … I … I can't help but wonder if this is my punishment for what I made you do … what if … this is the Fates way of making me atone for my sins against you and … Hope,” Xena said as the tears fell freely. “I believed that Hope was evil, but what if you were right? What if she might not have become evil if you had raised her? And now … here's Ari,” she shook her head in defeat.

“Xena, you've got to believe that Ari's not evil, she simply doesn't know any better!” Gabrielle's voice was soft as she pleaded with Xena.

“I'm not certain of that, Gabrielle. Maybe, at first, I thought we would be able to help her, to teach her how to live in our world, but now,” Xena shook her head in defeat. “Gabrielle, she cut those men down in cold blood, and there was nothing I could do to stop her. She simply moved in without thought. How many more will she kill before I'm able to get it through her head that she can't do that? Sometimes I just wish … maybe it would have been better if I hadn't…” Xena's words trailed off into silence.

The blonde watched her closely. When she saw her lover's expression, she began to shake her head. She reached over and forced the warrior to look into her eyes.

“No! Don't even say that, or even think it, do you hear me?” Gabrielle's voice was stern. “Xena, she's your daughter, don't you ever say out loud what I think you were going to say! I live with my regret everyday, Xena, so don't you dare even think like that!”

Xena drew back from the bard's anger. As she blinked away her tears, she turned her gaze toward the darkness down the road. Before more could be said, she felt Gabrielle leaning against her, her head rested lightly on her shoulder.

“Xena … Ari reacted because she thought someone was going to hurt me. Is that something that an evil person would do?” Gabrielle asked as she glanced up at her lover.

Xena seemed to think about it for a moment before releasing a sigh. “No, we just need to work with her some more, I guess,” Xena replied as she stared down at their evening meal.

True to her perfect timing, Eve broke through the nearby bushes. She remained frozen for a moment as if to assess the scene. When she saw Gabrielle's light smile, she smiled and moved to her bedroll.

“Dinner should be ready,” Gabrielle stated as she turned her attention to the meat. “Xena, Ari's portion is going to burn…” she said as she was taking the meat from the flames and placing them on their plates. When she turned to her lover, she noticed Xena's head tilted as she stared down the dark road.

“She's still digging,” Xena shook her head, “I hadn't realized it would take her this long.”

“It's been awhile since they've had rain in these parts,” Eve said as she began to eat her dinner. When both women looked at her, she shrugged her shoulders. “The earth is hard as rock,” she explained before taking a bite of her meat.

“Oh Xena,” Gabrielle shook her head and sighed as she left her plate by the fire, her appetite suddenly gone. “Here I was only worried about her listening to me thinking about a stupid story … I didn't even think about that!”

“You're not the only one,” Xena softly said. “I'll give her a few more minutes...” The warrior princess stated as she continued to listen to a far off sound.
Ari hadn't noticed the hot sun being replaced with the cold night, nor did she think to retrieve her outer tunic to cover her sleeveless undershirt. While her body moved instinctively, her mind was wandering through a myriad of feelings. Her thoughts centered on the wrath of her family. Over and over her mind replayed Gabrielle's words.

'Don't you ever violate anyone's thoughts again, do you hear me!' Gabrielle had shouted in anger.

Somewhere between burying the first man, and working her way to the last one, Ari found her memories returning to a time long ago. Although she fought to push it away, it crept into her thoughts until it bore a hole in her consciences. With a grimace, she felt the shivers of the memories scorch through every fiber of her being….

'Ari,' she remembered feeling Alti's mind reaching into the darkness of her safe haven.

Ever since the sorceress had held her captive, Ari had learned to retreat into herself. While her mother touched her in ways that both repulsed and excited her, the dark child found a safe refuge within the darkness of her mind. As if retreated behind a fortress wall, Ari delved inward. She imagined herself hiding in the shadows of her thoughts, her knees bent and held to her chest as she closed her eyes against the onslaught of sensations around her.

'Little girl, you can't hide from me!' her mother's voice held a menacing tone as she grew nearer.

With only a slight whimper, Ari pulled further into the darkness. For a while, she had been able to go to this safe place. But after a time, it seemed that Alti realized something was different. Each time the sorceress touched Ari, there was no outward reaction. When it became clear that Ari was hiding a part of herself, Alti grew angry. Demanding answers, Alti first screamed, and then beat Ari. When that produced no results, the sorceress called upon her magic.

In the short time that she was with Alti, Ari had never felt such a violent action as what happened on that day. As if pleased by Ari's reaction, Alti reached deeply into her mind. The dark essence of the sorceress soul sought out Ari's spirit through the labyrinth of the child's mind. With a gleeful chortle, Alti smiled wide when she found Ari's impish form huddled in the darkness. Without preamble, Alti covered Ari and circled her within a darkness that seared through every part of Ari's soul….

At the memory of that time, Ari remained frozen in the dark. The cool evening chill sent a shiver through her as she stared off at nothing. With a suppressed groan, she looked around for the first time and saw the fresh mounds of graves all around her.

'Don't you ever violate anyone's thoughts again, do you hear me!' Gabrielle's words suddenly held meaning as the memory of what Alti did returned to her.

'What I did … what I've been doing … is the same thing that Alti did to me,' Ari silently shuddered
at the thought. 'I am no better than Alti,' she reasoned as she began to make her way through the darkness. With shovel in hand, she kept her eyes downcast as she walked on the dirt trail. As the memory of that day replayed over and over in her mind, she made her way toward their camp.
Gabrielle saw Ari's shadow moving toward the horses. Leaving her meal untouched, the bard rose from her place and walked toward the girl. With no other thoughts but talking to Ari, she made her way through the darkness to where the girl sat in the darkness. For a moment, she examined the girl and noticed that her head was lowered, her shoulders slumped in defeat. The air of utter despair clung to the girl.

Sighing, Gabrielle moved toward her as she softly called out, “Ari.”

The dark child turned her head slowly. Through the diffused light of darkness, the blonde noticed the vacant stare of the girl. Ari's gaze seemed to look through her right before an expression of deep fear crossed the child's face.
Not yet ready to face the anger of her family, and especially that of Gabrielle's, Ari avoided their fire and moved to the horses. She noticed that Than no longer wore his bridal gear or saddle and his coat was brushed to a fine sheen. The signs of the battle had been washed away from him. As she greeted her horse, she wiggled her toes and felt the dirt and pebbles in her boots. Fatigued beyond belief, Ari moved to sit on a nearby log and pulled each boot off, tipping them upside down to empty the dirt. After placing them on the ground, she remained sitting as her thoughts became a jumbled canopy of frightening images.

At one point, she saw herself alone and afraid, then the image changed and she was being held down, Alti's chilling touch sending shivers of pain and pleasure through her. Before she could free her mind of the images, a slight noise was heard behind her. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw a shadow approaching. Like a phantom from her darkest nightmare, Alti's shadow loomed beside her, calling her to come near, to merge and become one as no other could.

Angered at what the sorceress had done to her, and angry at
herself for becoming like Alti, Ari rose without thought, her seething anger toward Alti boiling over as she lashed out at the woman. In fascination, she watched, as everything seemed to move in slow motion after her initial strike. Alti's eyes grew wide with surprise, before she retreated a few steps, the heel of her boot caught on something and tripped her. While the shadow fell backwards, her arms were reaching out in vain as she landed on the ground, and then Alti was still.

When it was done, the sound of the night magnified in Ari's ears as she gazed down at the fallen body. For a moment, she felt glee at the thought of finally ending her torment. But just as the elation set in, a sudden realization crossed her mind, and she recognized the green eyes that had stared at her. As a panic set in, she moved toward the fallen woman and glanced down.

“Oh … no … G-Gabrielle!” her voice was barely a whisper as she reached down to touch the blonde's cheek, the closed eyes never opened, and the bards breathing was shallow. When she moved to lift the smaller woman up, her palm felt wetness from behind the blonde's head. Surprised by this, she gently lowered Gabrielle back down and drew her own hand up, looking at the blood in fascination.

“Ari, what have you done!” The sound of Eve's words caught her attention. Glancing up, she tried to form words, to explain how the shadow of her mother was trying to capture her again, but nothing came from her. Instead, she held her hand up, her brows furrowed as she held an outstretched bloody hand toward Eve.

As if sensing something amiss, Xena moved from the campfire and was standing beside Eve. Ari noticed the looming body of the warrior, the campfire's flame casting her shadow over them. When Xena saw Ari's outstretched hand, she ran toward her, then inhaled deeply when she saw Gabrielle laying in the dirt.

“Gabrielle!” Xena screamed as she knelt by her bard. “Gabrielle, wake up!” She commanded as she gently tapped the blonde's face. When this produced no results, the Greek warrior reached under the fallen body and tenderly lifted her into her arms before rushing back to camp.

“Gabrielle, come on, wake up, Sweetheart. Please, don't do this, wake up!” Xena strained to keep the panic and tears from her voice as she tended to her lover. “Oh, gods, no, please!” Xena seemed to beg and she pulled the blonde into her arms, gently rocking her back and forth.

Eve quickly rummaged through their gear for the medical satchel and brought it to her mother. Not knowing what to do, Ari stood nearby, her grief stricken expression remained frozen on Gabrielle. As if noticing her for the first time, Xena looked up at her, then gently laid her bard down before rising at her full height.

“You!” Xena's voice was low and threatening as she moved in front of Ari, “You stay away from Gabrielle, do you hear me!” She shouted at Ari as her eyes grew dark with rage. “You stay away from my family, do you hear me, do you?” Xena was poking Ari's shoulder, causing her to take a few steps backward.

“I-I…” Ari began to stammer, but was cut off by Xena's shove, then a push until Ari lost her balance and landed on her butt in the dirt.

“You heard me, stay away!” The warrior princess screamed as Ari gazed up at her through tears.

If it had only been Xena's words, Ari might have been able to maintain control. But like a gust of wind that rose in the air, a sudden, sharp whisper resonated from Xena's mind. At the immensity and sheer hostility, Ari cringed as thoughts spilled forth.

'I should have never saved you! I should have let you die!' The whisper from Xena's mind was like a shout. Ari cringed at the strength of her mother's hatred.

“N-No…” was all Ari could say as her tears began to flow. At the intensity of Xena's thoughts, Ari scooted back until she was able to climb from the ground and run away toward the darkness.

Without any thoughts, she ran on bare feet to Thanatos. Blinded by her grief and pain, she jumped onto his back and held on tight as she turned him around and goaded him back down the road that they had just traveled on. As if accustomed to her riding on him bare back, Than galloped swiftly down the dirt road.

As the guilt of her actions seared through her soul, Ari rode through the night. Her thoughts were a jumbled mess of images and feelings. A part of her wanted to turn her horse around, to go back to her family, and beg for Xena's forgiveness. Yet another part felt unworthy of it or of anyone's forgiveness.

She had killed Gabrielle and nothing would ever redeem her from this crime, she reasoned as she held on tight to Than, her body slowly numbing to the sensations around her. Despite the fact that Ari had no where to go, she guided Thanatos back to the place where it all began. Somehow she was going to find a way back into the cold cave and lock herself away so that she would never hurt anyone again.
Twilight brought a low chorus of songs from the forest birds. With tear stained cheeks, Xena glanced down at her beloved as she gently wiped a cool cloth over the smaller woman's face. The fear and pain of losing Gabrielle nagged at the core of her being.

Gabrielle lay unmoving. A bandaged was wrapped around her forehead to cover the cloths that had been placed over the new stitches on back of the bard's head. Although Xena hoped that the open gash was not too severe, she always knew that head traumas were nothing to ignore. Gulping down her fear, she watched her lover closely. She noticed Gabrielle's pale face as it took on a deathly shade and her lips were showing the tell-tale sign of dehydration. When Xena noticed the bard's eyelids slowly flutter, hope soared through her. With a smile, she lightly touched Gabrielle's cheek as she glanced up at Eve. Eve smiled at her as hoped returned to them both.

“Gabrielle … hey, wake up, come on bard, open your eyes,” Xena gently coaxed. When she saw her lover's eye lids slowly flutter, then close, she smiled and lightly touched Gabrielle's soft cheek. “That's it, sweetheart, you can do it. Open your eyes,” the warrior's voice was low and soft.

“Mother, wake up,” Eve added as she gently held Gabrielle's hand in hers.

For a moment, Gabrielle's eyebrows furrowed, then she grimaced as she fought her way toward consciousness. With a gulp, her lips grew tight as her eyes opened. The pools of green focused on the two above her, her eyes shifting from each woman, then looking beyond them toward another.

“A-Ari,” Gabrielle whispered.

“Shush, honey, it's all right, calm yourself. We know Ari did this, I won't let her ever hurt you again,” Xena said as she held the flask of water to Gabrielle's lips. At the taste against her lips, the blonde closed her eyes and drank of the quenching liquid. Then she opened her eyes, the question remaining etched on her face.

“N-No … it's … Ari,” the bard fought to form a coherent sentence.

“She can't hurt you, mother,” Eve said as she kissed the back of Gabrielle's hand.

“Eve's right, we won't let Ari hurt you,” Xena added.

“No, w-where is Ari?” Gabrielle asked again as she closed her eyes against the pain.

“She's…” Xena glanced around, for the first time looking for her eldest daughter. With a slight shrug she smiled down at her lover, “She's probably with Than right now.”

“Ummm…” Eve broke in as if afraid to speak up. “Mother, she's … gone.”

“What?” Xena's sharp gaze turned on her youngest.

“After you yelled at her, she left. I thought you saw her leave too?” Eve explained as a frown crossed her lips. “Mother, I thought that is what you wanted, wasn't it?”

Xena seemed to contemplate Eve's words as she turned to her lover. “Gabrielle, I…”

“Xena, you need to go get her,” Gabrielle whispered.

“Gabrielle, you're hurt. I'm not leaving you!” Xena exclaimed as she shook her head, then added softly, “besides, Ari is the one who….” But didn't finish her sentence as she realized what she had almost said.

Gabrielle caught her unspoken thoughts and only shook her head negatively, then winced at the pain it caused.

“No, Xena, you don't understand,” Gabrielle took her lovers hand as she closed her eyes to the pain. “It wasn't me … I mean … Ari didn't intend to hurt me. Xena, I saw her eyes and they were the same way when she attacked Eve. She wasn't there!”

“What do you mean?” Xena felt confused as she tried to calm her soul mate.

“Xena, Ari wasn't seeing me, she was seeing … I don't know, but whatever she was seeing, she wanted to lash out at. Don't you understand, in her eyes … in her mind, she wasn't seeing me, but something or someone else. Please, Xena, you've got to go and get her!” Gabrielle's voice grew deeper.

As the meaning of Ari's violence became clear, Xena closed her eyes and released a deep sigh. Taking this as a rejection of her plea, Gabrielle suddenly sat up. “Xena, if you don't go and get her back, I will!” at the movement of sitting, the bard clutched her head as the fresh pain seared through her injury.

“Gabrielle, you are in no condition to sit up, let alone chase after Ari,” Xena ordered as she helped her lover back to the comfort of the soft pillow. 'But I can't leave you alone, either,' Xena thought wildly as she tried to find an answer.

“Mother, I can watch after Gabrielle,” Eve offered. “Ari only has around an eight, maybe nine candle-mark lead on you. You should be able to catch up with her.”

The tall warrior thought over her options. When she saw her lover's pleading gaze, she smiled as she lightly brushed her fingers through Gabrielle's blonde locks. With a slight smile she nodded assent.

“As soon as she can travel, you take her to Therma, find a healer for her.” Xena instructed Eve as she absently tucked the blanket around her mate, “Then get a room for us … all of us!” the warrior added with determination. At her instructions, Gabrielle smiled.

“I understand mother. We'll be waiting for you and Ari at Therma,” Eve promised as the warrior gazed into her lover's eyes.

For a moment Xena was afraid to leave Gabrielle. As if they'd never see each other again, she remained unmoving as she smiled down at the only person who ever made her feel whole. With a slight sigh, she lightly touched Gabrielle's cheek with her fingertip then lowered herself to kiss her bards softly sweet lips. At the instant contact, she felt all of Gabrielle's love shower upon her. When their lips parted, she lightly placed her cheek against the blonde's cheek.

“Don't you leave me, Gabrielle,” she softly whispered for the bard alone.

“I won't, Xena … just
bring our daughter back … please!” She heard her lover softly plead before she pulled away.

“I will, my beloved, I promise!” Xena vowed before rising, gathering her weapons, and moving toward Argo. As she readied Argo for the journey, she tried to think of where Ari would go. Although she remembered Ari's pain, she had not thought that the girl would have run away again. If she had known that, she might have been able to stop this, but instead, she allowed herself to lose control, which was something she tried to never do. Despite her silent thoughts, Xena knew that when it came to Gabrielle, there was very little thought or reason in her mind except to protect and save her soul mate.

When she heard a noise behind her, she turned and saw Eve approaching. With only a nod, Xena continued to harness Argo as she made ready for her journey. When Eve handed her something, the dark warrior glanced down and noticed the cape that Gabrielle had made for her.

“Mother, you may need this,” Eve said. With a grateful smile, Xena took the offered cape and wrapped its familiar warmth around her shoulders. At the instant contact, Xena felt as if her bard's arms were wrapping around her shoulders.

“Thank you,” Xena smiled as she mounted Argo. “Eve…” She began to say something as she glanced toward the campfire.

“I know mother, I'll take care of her. Don't worry, just get Ari back safely,” Eve answered Xena's unspoken thoughts. “If it's of
any help to you, Ari was originally running away to Pydna. You may be able to find her there,” Eve offered.

As Xena glanced down at the saddles on the ground, she noticed Thanatos saddle sitting next to his blanket. Putting this to memory, Xena nodded to her daughter, then reined in Argo, coaxing her to follow Ari at full speed. As the wind whipped past her, she tried to think through the entire situation.

Knowing that Ari had left her tack behind could only mean that the girl was in a panic and dazed. If she had taken it with her, Xena might have believed that Ari was running away to her original destination. Without it, Xena could not imagine her daughter going to a town without any equipment or supplies. This meant that Ari could only be heading for one place. At this new information, all Xena could do was try to reach her daughter before the villagers that Ari and Alti had tried to conquer in Macedonia found her first. With this in mind, the warrior princess held on tight to Argo as she raced down the dirt road while the twilight was replaced with the early morning sun.
For Ari, nothing existed around her. The land she crossed, the people she passed on the road, were not there. Even the whispers that usually rang within her head were quieted under the turmoil of her grief. All that she remained focused on was riding as fast as she could, each step taking her further and further away from the rejection. Yet, no matter how far she traveled, it felt as if the ghosts of her past were close on her heels. The memory of Gabrielle's fallen body, the blood on Ari's hands became the blood of all of her past victims that could never be wiped away. This sensation of defeat only spurred her onward toward what she hoped would be her final destination.

What had taken her family a few weeks to travel at a leisurely pace, Ari now covered in a shorter time. If she had not been blinded by the images of her past and her self-hatred, she might have noticed the villages and farms that she had passed. But for Ari, nothing was clearly within focus. She did not see anything around her, nor did she feel the hot sun during the day, or the cold chill at night. On the few occasions that she had fallen asleep on Than's back, she would awake a few candle-marks later, Than would be drinking from a nearby pond, or eating the lush grass below his hooves. Once awake and alert to her turmoil, Ari would hold on to Than's thick main and urge him onward down the road. A few times, she would join Than and drink of the cool water before climbing back on and urging him onward. With an undying loyalty and obedience, Than would take off running back down the road that would lead her to the only home she had ever known.

Ari was not certain how many days had passed when she finally arrived at the foot of the mountain. When she glanced up, she saw the rocky terrain over the steep slope. She remembered the last time she had seen these mountains, how bright and brilliant the colors were to eyes that were accustomed to dim lighting. With a sigh, Ari closed her eyes as the vivid memories of that first day returned to her. The painful sensations against her sight outweighed the curiosity she held toward this new and strange world.

In an attempt to remain focused, Ari shook her head as she willed the myriad of images to silence. When she glanced up at the horizon, she saw the sun quickly approaching the mountains and knew that darkness would be upon her. Sighing, she dismounted her horse and moved on bare feet to stand in front of him.

“This is it for us, my friend,” she whispered as she lightly petted his muzzled. Neighing, Than butted his head against her. Ari smiled up at him, the sadness in her voice resonating with each word, “No, my friend, you can't come with me. The mountains are too steep, and the rocks are sharp. Besides … you have a chance now. You stay hidden and when you find someone who you want to be with, you go to them. Someone as fine as you will be taken care of,” she told Thanatos as she leaned her head against his nose.

For only a moment, she allowed herself to dwell on the friendship of her beloved horse. But before she felt the memories engulf her completely, she pulled away and smiled at the beast. She lightly scratched between his eyes, then reached up and scratched his ears.

“You've always liked that, haven't you?” Ari said as she watched Than leaning into her fingers. With a gulp, Ari replaced her smile with a frown of determination as she stepped away from the large war steed.

“All right now, time to go,” she said as she stepped near the foot of the mountain. Than stood staring at her, his head tilted to one side as his hoof lightly dug at the ground. When he flicked his tail, a high pitch neigh escaped his throat before he shook his head. Ari watched as his main fanned out in a multitude of shapes before it returned to lying neatly over his massive neck. For the first time, Than refused her order and stood solidly before her.

“You heard me, go!” she shouted. He stood unmoving like a stone statue. Tilting his head to the side, the beast stared at her, his eye blinking as he watched his mistress
. When he refused to budge, her face grew grim before she moved to him and swatted his hindquarters, “I said GO!” she shouted.

Neighing in protest, Than reared up, then took off at a slow gait down the mountain. As she watched his black form disappearing into the shadows of the nearby forest, Ari raised her hand in farewell, then wiped at the tears in her eyes. Assured that he would be safe, she turned back to the mountain, glanced up it's massive length, then began to make her way up the steep hill.

'Home.' Ari thought as she numbly moved over the hard, jagged rocks. 'What is home? I don't know. Alti never called it home … she never called it anything. It was simply a place,' Ari reflected as she felt the air around her slowly grow cold…

“You'll thank me for this place later, little girl,” Alti had once said. “In here, you will age slow, and this will give me more time to tutor you in what you will need to know to defeat the bitch who abandoned you.”

“Mother, it's important for me to stay younger?” Ari had asked.

“Of course it is, just think, little girl, while Xena ages, you'll stay young!” Alti had cackled her low laugh as they prepared for sleep. With a lustful grin, the sorceress watched Ari moving toward their shared bed. When she saw her mother's eyes on her, the familiar instinct to run overcame her. But just as in the past, this instinct was overshadowed with the knowledge that she had no where to go. Now that she was too big to hide in the nooks and crannies of the cave, and since her mother had found her most secret of places within her mind, Ari had little choice but accept whatever happened.

Ari would never forget the day that Alti invaded her mind, because it was the day that she had totally surrendered everything to her adopted mother. With downcast eyes, the girl moved to join her mother under the multitude of furs but stopped when the older woman sat up and gazed at her with a lustful
smile. The older woman's hands moved to Ari's nightshift, her fingers unlacing the front until she was able to pull the shift over Ari's head.

“Aging at a slower pace has so many advantages and rewards,” Alti had murmured as she smiled and placed her palms over the two fleshy bumps that were beginning to show on Ari's chest. “Don't you think so, my little girl?” Alti asked as she smiled up at Ari's adolescent features.

Ari had closed her eyes against the painfully exquisite sensations, her mind trying to will her body not to react. But just as it had betrayed her in the past, she felt her breath catching in her throat as she closed her eyes to the wonderful feelings of her mother's touch. When she opened her eyes, she glanced down and saw Alti's evil smile.

Little girl, don't ever forget that this is for Xena,” Ari thought she heard her mother whisper, but pushed it out of her mind as she lowered her lips to the sorceress soft, inviting mouth….

At the memory, Ari visibly shivered. She stopped for a moment and glanced around her. The crescent moon hung overhead. It's deceptive image seemed close enough to touch. The stars that surrounded it seemed to laugh at every step she took. Gulping down this thought, Ari glanced down at the trail she had left behind her. The white jagged rocks disappeared into darkness. As she focused on the rock, she noticed a distinct mar on its surface, and it was then that she realized the bloody trail of her steps.

Ari lifted a foot and looked at the blood that covered the scrapes and cuts on her feet. With a curious arch of a brow, she reached down and lightly touched the open gashes, surprised that she could not feel any pain. As she thought of this, she tilted her head to one side as she focused on her surroundings. It was then that she realized the familiar numbness that had always covered her senses. Like an old friend, it blinded her to the chilling winds around her. It pushed her deeper into her subconscious mind and allowed her to do what must be done.

This numbness had been with her from the first day of arriving in the cave, and had never left her. It was with her as a child when Alti would touch or beat her. It had stayed with her each time Alti had given her over to the various men who had entered into their cave, and like a faithful companion, it was always surrounding her each time Ari watched her mother kill. When she grew up and they moved out of the cave, the numbness never left her during battles or conquests.

With a slight shudder, Ari closed her eyes to the scenes of carnage that raced past her memories. In disgust, she shivered as the images of the various village women she had forced herself on rose from her memories. Just when it seemed that Ari could she take no more, the vivid image of the children that lay before her bloody sword came crashing down upon her senses. Then, as if the pain and horrors of her past were not enough to consume her, she saw the vision of Gabrielle lying dead before her.

“Oh, Gabrielle,” a hoarse whisper escaped her control as the tears warmed her cheeks.

The bard was the only person in her birth family who never showed anger or disgust because of who her mother was. Ari was always aware of Eve's harsh judgments and knew that the prophet felt her unclean and in need of Eli's forgiveness. Within Xena's eyes, Ari knew that she would always be lacking.

Ari was fully aware of how Xena felt toward Eve and she knew that no matter what she did, Xena would always favor her youngest child. Only Gabrielle seemed willing to treat Ari as if she were a cherished member of their family. It was the bard who had talked with her gently, who never made fun of her because of the mistakes she made around them, and only Gabrielle who had ever said that she loved her.

“Gabrielle,” Ari whispered as the memory of what she had done to the bard filled her mind. 'Mother, what have you done to me?' her mind asked as she glanced up at the darkness of the sky.

“Mother, what did you do to me?” The dark child spoke out loud to the wind. “Why? Mother, Why?” She cried out, hoping that her voice would be carried to wherever Alti's spirit lived. “What have I done to make you do this to me?”

Ari remained frozen for a moment, hoping beyond hope that Alti would answer her. Instead, she heard the sounds of the wind rising up from the mountaintop and flowing down to the valley. As it passed by her, Ari closed her eyes to the icy cold tendrils that brushed past her form. Then, in anger, she stood straight up, her fists clutched at her sides as she stared off into the darkness of the night sky.

“MOTHER, WHYYYYYY?” She screamed with all her might before falling to her knees in tears.

“Why, why did you make me this way? What have I done that you would to do this to me?” She wept uncontrollably as the cold rocks cut into her flesh and the wind whipped past her. From somewhere in the darkness of the wind, she thought she heard Alti's laughter. With tear stained eyes, Ari glanced up into the darkness, she strained to hear the sounds of the wind. Just when she thought it was her imagination, she heard it again, the deep, low cackle as the wind howled past her.

Unable to take the mocking, Ari shook her head as she returned her concentration to climbing the mountain. Her mother was dead, she tried to reason with each step. Alti was gone, she remembered watching from her sick bed as Xena burned the sorceress' body. Despite these thoughts, Ari could not shake the sensations that Alti was following her closely, her bone chilling touch reaching out for Ari. The sorceress' fingers making contact even as Alti's laughter rose in the wind. With only one thought in mind, she kept climbing higher and higher, ignoring the pain in her feet even as the numbness consumed her.
At the bottom of the mountain, Xena sat frozen in her saddle. She cocked her head to the right and listened to the sounds that were carried in the wind. Then she heard it, the deep, soulful cry as Ari called out to her, asking her why.

“Oh gods…” Xena said out loud and her voice caught. 'This is entirely my fault, I should have listened to mother. How could I have abandoned her like that?' She thought as she urged Argo toward the foot of the mountain.

Despite her best efforts, the warrior had not been able to catch up with her daughter's war horse. With the trail fresh, she had been able to follow her for days, and although she suspected where Ari was going, Xena had never known the exact location where Alti had emerged with the girl. Xena's only option was to follow the clear trail that Ari left in her wake.

When she approached the end of the forest, she heard a familiar sound. Immediately on alert, she glanced around the darkness for any signs of trouble. Just as she was ready to grab her sword, a black shadow emerged from the trees.

“Thanatos,” Xena called out as she jumped from her saddle. The larger animal moved toward her, his muzzle bumping into her as he neighed. “So this was the end for you?” she asked as she ran her palm over his body, feeling to see if he was covered in sweat in order to gauge how far she was behind Ari. At the cold dryness of his hair, her expression grew grim.

“She has a good lead on me, huh, boy?” she spoke as she lightly scratched his chin. “Ok, then, I guess I've got some climbing to do now. Argo, you and Than go for cover, I'll be back as soon as I can,” she ordered as she gave a scratch to both horses, then turned and faced the looming mountain before her.
When Ari climbed over the final ledge, she glanced ahead and noticed the distant blackness of smooth rock. She instantly remembered the last time she had seen this flat surface. Ignoring the powerful winds around her, she rose on wobbly legs and moved the final few feet to her destination. When she got to the hard wall, she reached up and tried to find the way into the portal.

Ari closed her eyes as she tried to remember what her mother did to open this door to the other world then remembered that she had been blindfolded and saw nothing before her. Frowning, the girl closed her eyes as she rested her forehead against the chilling rock. When it seemed futile, she shook her head.

“There is no place now to go,” she sadly reasoned. Before this notion could take hold, her jaw grew tight as she stood back and stared up at the enormous wall.

“No, you will open for me!” she shouted, as she stood in front of it filled with determination.

For a moment, Ari thought that by sheer will alone, she could get the portal to open. When this failed, she tried to think of another option, but all that kept crossing her mind were the images of everyone she had ever hurt. Filled with defeat, she allowed her inner rage to grow before throwing herself at the rock wall. Like a trapped animal, she clawed at it, kicked it, and screamed her outrage all in hopes of opening the door that had led her into this world. For what felt like an eternity, she did all that she could to regain access to her world, until finally, battered, bruised and exhausted, she fell in a heap to the hard rock surface.

“It's not fair,” she cried as her fingers continued to claw at the rock, the freezing wind sending shivers through her body.

“You made me like this, and didn't tell me how to get back. It's not fair,” her voice was hoarse from the bitter temperature that bathed her in its grip.

“Mother … why?” She whispered to the wind as her body slowly fell into a deep, freezing sleep.
In the darkness, Xena hadn't seen how tall the mountain was, nor was she certain if she was climbing up in the right direction. When the morning sun began to cascade over the distant mountain, her suspicions were confirmed in a horrible way. For a moment, she remained still as she stared at the single set of bloody footprints that preceded her up the mountain. With a shudder, she pulled her cape closer to her body as she felt the cold wind against her skin. With no other thoughts, she returned her attention to the trail.

Before the sun managed to pass above the distant mountain, Xena made her way to the final ledge. As she glanced over the scene, she noticed the bloody streaks running down a hard rock wall. At the sight, she felt her heart skip a beat as she ran toward the wall. Just as she was scanning the area, she saw the footprints leading to a nearby shadow where Ari lay crouched against the wall, her head bowed, and her body unmoving.

“Oh … Ari…” Xena whispered brokenly as she quickly pulled her cape off and ran to her daughters side. When she felt for a pulse, a low moan escaped the girl before the girl's eyes opened slightly. The warrior quickly examined the girl and noticed her bloody fingers and the soles of her feet. When she took one of Ari's hands, she glanced at the fingers and noticed the nails pulled back, the dried, frozen blood covering the torn nails and flesh that had been scraped away. With a sigh, Xena looked up at the wall and saw the remnants of her daughter's struggle to return to that cave that had been her childhood prison.

“Mother?” Ari's cracked lips managed to whisper.

“Yes, baby, its me. You'll be all right now. Oh Ari, I'm so sorry, I'm so very sorry,” Xena said as she began to wrap the cape around the girl's shoulders.

“No…” Ari whispered, as she shook her head, then glanced up at her, the look of terror in her eyes, “NO! Go away, leave me alone!” The girl screamed as she weakly pushed herself away.

“Ari, I've got to get you down the mountain, you can't stay here, honey. Come with me, please,” Xena tried to coax gently.

“Get away from me … don't touch me … please, mother … leave me alone…” Ari wept as she feebly tried to push away Xena's hands. Too weak to give any real fight, Ari was quickly bundled up for the journey down the mountain.
Ari found herself submerged within a never-ending nightmare. When she woke up from the dream, she saw Alti moving near her, the woman's touch against her hands causing pain. Without thinking, Ari pulled away from the evil sorceress, she tried in vain to shout at her to get way, to stop touching her, to simply leave her alone, but her pleas had fallen on deaf ears and she was bundled up and carried away.

For a moment, Ari thought she saw Xena once during the dream, but the image was quickly replaced with the face of Alti. Afraid to fight against Alti, Ari tried to run, but was quickly tackled and held down, a hand placed over her mouth to silence her, then her world grew black.
Xena had taken most of the day to carry Ari down the hill. Once at the bottom, she lifted the younger woman in her arms and began to walk back toward the forest. After only taking a few steps, she heard the approaching voices and quickly ducked into the shadows. It was then that Ari had opened her eyes and looked at her. With a slight smile, Xena placed her own finger over her lips to indicate silence from the girl. As if the mere action were torture, Ari's eyes grew wide before she rose up and began to run. Panic set in as Xena lurched from the shadows and ran after the girl, tackling her in time to push her under an outcropping of trees. Struggling and trying to scream, Ari fought against her and Xena was forced to cover her daughter's mouth with her hand.

“Hey, did you hear that?” a man asked as they moved nearby. Silence filled the forest for a moment.

“Nah, didn't hear anything.”

“I could of sworn….”

“Baric, it was nothing but the wind. What are you so nervous about? That demon child won't be coming here, you heard the magistrate. She's more likely to storm into the village to finish the job she couldn't do the first time! Once she shows up there, the militia will take her in, give her a proper trial, and then execute her before the cock crows!”

“Yeah … I guess your right,” the first man's voice replied. “Well, come on then, let's finish up this area so's we can tell them it was cleared. My wife has made my favorite porridge for dinner, and I aim to have some while it's still hot!”

“One track mind, you have there, Greedy Guts! Not even concerned with the fact that The Destroyer is on her way back!”

“Bah, on who's word, some neighboring villager? Why, I'd not likely put any stock in their reports. Remember Xena was looking after her youngin. I doubt that she would let the girl out of her sight. She looks like one not to cross, and I'm sure her children know that as well!”

“I hope you're right, I truly do!” the men's voice's disappeared into the distance.

When Xena glanced down at her daughter, she noticed her eyes closed, body slacked as she had passed out again. With only one thought in mind, she lifted the girl into her arms and made her way to where she left Argo and Thanatos. Time was no longer her friend, she reasoned as she tried to think of way to get Ari as far away from this village while also keeping her from going into shock.
Ari felt herself being carried through a kaleidoscope of images. At one point, she thought she was back in the cave, Alti giving her a lesson in hand to hand combat, then it was replaced with the sensations of one of her mother's men on top of her. The smell of his scent, so unlike her mothers, caused her nose to crinkle in distaste as he lay on her, painfully forcing himself into her while her mother sat nearby watching with a smile. All of the images came in and out of focus and at times, were replaced with the feelings of coldness against her cheek.

For a moment, Ari thought she was being carried on a horse. Two strong arms were around her and holding the reins. Pressed closely behind Ari was the warmth of another body. When she glanced back, she saw only a radiant smile, then darkness covered her again to return her to the nightmare images that were always near.

Nothing made any sense to Ari. The images were like vague memories that were returning with a vengeance. Yet, at times, she saw Xena looking down at her, the smile so clear and fresh that she almost thought it was real, and not a dream.

'But Xena hates you … how could she not hate you after you killed her lover,' Ari's still, small voice deep within her subconscious told her right before the image was replaced with the face of Alti.

At one point, she thought she saw villagers as they passed them on the road, their whispers rising to encircle Ari with their blinding rage. But then, the curious expressions on their faces would take Ari by surprise, before she'd close her eyes to the darkness of dreams. With each passing moment, Ari hoped that this was merely a journey that would soon take her to the afterlife. Although she had not managed to find a way into the cave, death would be another way for her to resolve her past sins, she reasoned.

“Ari,” a familiar voice called out to her. When she opened her eyes, she saw the blonde woman, her round pudgy face and rosy cheeks smile down at her. Ari was barely three summers old when she had last seen her, but Ari knew she could never forget the face of her mother.

“Mommy?” She whispered and smiled when she saw the portly woman leaning down toward her, the corner of her eyes crinkled from her smile. “I-I'm s-sorry … I-I … left you…” Ari said with a raw and scratchy voice.

“No, honey, you're safe now,” She heard her mommy whisper as the woman wiped a warm cloth over her face, bathing Ari as she use to do when she was only a babe.

“S-She … t-took m-me … I-I couldn't … d-didn't know what to do … o-or … how t-to get back to you and f-father,” Ari explained as she felt the towel over her skin. For a moment, the towel stopped moving, as if her mommy was deep in thought, and then it began again.

“It wasn't your fault, baby. You were too young to know your way back,” the familiar voice reassured.

“B-But … I didn't even try to get away … m-mommy … s-she d-did things to me … s-she touched me … m-made me touch her … I couldn't ... didn't know how to make it stop…” Ari cried as she tried to explain.

“Ari, honey, it wasn't your fault! You're a good girl, you're our good girl. You aren't to blame do you hear me? She stole you from us, she made you to do all of that, it wasn't your fault.” The gentle woman reassured.

“B-But … mommy … f-forgive me, please … I-I did horrible things, I-I … I am an evil person, p-please, d-don't hate me…” she begged as she reached for the woman's warm hand, the tears falling freely.

“Baby, you are not evil! You have so much goodness inside of you,” her mommy tried to reassure even as Ari's body was racked with tears, “Oh Ari, sweetheart, don't you know I could never hate you! Trust mommy, I'll always love you. Shush now, don't cry. You need to rest, honey. Close your eyes, let mommy take care of you now. You're safe, you're home, you're with your family now and we won't ever let anyone hurt you again,” the sweet voice reassured as she gently washed Ari's face of tears. As Ari gazed up at the familiar face, she thought she saw a tear falling down her mommy's chubby cheeks, but then it was wiped away.

“Mommy, am I dead?” Ari whispered as she watched the woman closely.

“No, baby, you're not dead. You'll be fine. You were brought back to us in time,” she heard the words like a distant song as she closed her eyes and fell into a fitful sleep.
Gabrielle felt her heart grow heavy at Ari's words. Ever since the accident, she was filled with dread. She knew what would happen if the girl had been caught without Xena and was worried that her soul mate would not have been able to catch up with Ari. But now that they both returned, Gabrielle's new fear was for Ari's health.

While she cleansed Ari's body of the road dirt and sweat, Xena was carefully removing the bandages from around the girl's feet. Once each foot was properly washed, the warrior applied a fresh poultice to the open gashes. Brushing away her silent tears, Gabrielle reached for Ari's hands in order to remove the thick bandages. When she reached the last remnants of fabric, she had to soak Ari's fingers in the basin of water in order to peel the material away from the raw skin.

With a deep sigh, Gabrielle closed her eyes for only a moment, then opened them again and examined Ari's fingertips. Each digit had been bloodied and raw, the skin torn through. As she examined the wounds closer, she noticed that a few of the girl's fingernails had been pulled completely off, or were hanging by a mere thread of flesh.

“Oh Xena, I was afraid something like this would happen,” the blonde spoke softly as she gently cleansed the girls hands before applying the healing herb to the open wounds.

“She tried to claw her way into a solid rock wall,” Xena explained softly as she finished re-wrapping a foot with clean bandages, and then began to apply bandages to Ari's other foot. “Gabrielle, are you sure you're ok for this?”

Gabrielle only smiled at the taller woman, then nodded assent, “Yes, Xena, I told you I was cleared by the healer.” She stated as she carefully cleaned the wounds on Ari's fingers. As she was gently pouring some water over the wounds, the light touch of the drip tore a loose nail free. When Gabrielle heard a gagging sound, she glanced up in time to see Eve running from the room, her hand over her mouth. With a shake of her head, Gabrielle returned her attention to Ari's wounds. Once she had cleansed one hand and re-wrapped it, she moved to the second and did the same. Only when the girl's wounds were completely bandaged
did Gabrielle return her gaze to Ari's face.

With eyes closed, and the dirt of their travel washed from her face, it was hard to believe that this was the same person that Xena had ridden in with. Ari had been unconsciousness during most of the ride, and only woke up when Gabrielle was running a wash cloth over her. The first time the girl had called her mommy sent a silent shiver through the bard. But when Ari talked about her father, the bard knew that the girl was deep within a fevered dream.

Gabrielle softly sighed as she gently tucked the blankets around the feverish girl. “When we were packing up camp, I found her boots and tunic and was afraid that she would catch a chill.”

“I tried my best to reach her in time, but … things didn't work out,” Xena explained as she took the basin of water and emptied it, then took the dirty, bloody rags and disposed of them.

“What else can be done, Xena?” Gabrielle asked as she touched Ari's arm, confirming for the girl that she was not alone through this.

“Watch and wait, that's about it, Gabrielle … all we can do is wait.” Xena sighed, the fatigue in her voice evident as she took up a place on the other side of the bed. Each determined to hold a silent vigil while the girl was asleep with her fitful, fevered dreams.
Ari found herself floating in and out of dreams. Sometimes she was back home with her two parents, her child's memory seeing them as so much bigger than they actually were. But most of the time, Ari was not lucky enough to have a lot of dreams of those peaceful first years of her life. Instead, she found herself trapped within the darkness of the cave, her body and spirit was tortured in ways she could have never dreamed of. When a particular dream threatened to pull her under, she managed to break free.

“Ari, drink this,” she heard a voice say, but was not able tell who spoke to her. With a slight groan, she opened her eyes and focused on the single sound. As the image grew clear, she felt her heart suddenly skip a beat as a terror seared her soul.

“N-No…” Ari heard herself beg as she pulled her head away from the cup that was being held in front of her. For a moment, she thought she heard Alti muttering while Ari fought against her. Although she knew that she would eventually capitulate, for now, she tried to fight against the inevitable.

“Drink this…” she heard the voice again as she pulled her face away from the cup.

“No … NO!” Ari screamed as she pushed away, the movement causing her to fall backward until she fell from the bed and onto the hard floor. As she had done so many times as a child, Ari scurried across the floor in a vain attempt to find a place to hide. When she was backed into a corner, she buried her face against the wall.

“Ari, it's all right, I'm not going to hurt you,” She heard someone say, but refused to budge from her spot. Each time the cold hand touched her shoulder, she tried to lash out, to strike at Alti. Just as she was giving up hope, a familiar, soft voice was heard.

“Ari?” the tender voice almost whispered.

“G-Gabrielle?” Ari turned her face from the protection of the wall as she glanced toward the voice. For a moment, she didn't know if this was reality or a dream as she gazed into green eyes.

“Ari, it's all right, calm down,” the bard spoke softly as she gently ran her palm over the girl's fever drenched forehead.

“G-Gabrielle … mommy?”
Ari asked confused as the images shifted between that of the bard, and her mother. When the bard came back into view, she felt her heart fill with grief, “Gabrielle… I-I'm so s-sorry … I didn't mean … t-to … kill you,” she wept as she fell into the bards embrace.

“Oh, Ari, honey, I'm fine! You didn't kill me,” Gabrielle's voice tried to reassure, but Ari wasn't listening. Instead, she continued to cry as she wrapped her arms around the bard's shoulders.

“I-I d-didn't know … I th-thought … Alti … she was there, I didn't know it was you,” she wept into the blonde's shoulder.

“Shush, Ari, I'm all right. I'm not dead,” the voice soothed.

With a slight frown, she looked up at the bard, her tears slowly subsiding as the words settled in. Before she could say anything a slight movement caught her attention. Glancing toward the shadows, she saw the tall form looming above her. As fear filled her, she gulped as she tried to pull away from the figure of Alti.

“Honey, it's all right, she won't hurt you, she just wants you to drink the broth, it will help.” Gabrielle tried to reassure.

“No, you don't understand … s-she kills them … takes their blood and drinks it. S-She m-makes me d-do it too … b-but I don't want to anymore. P-Please, d-don't make me,” Ari pulled away from the bard as she tried to disappear into the corner again. Unable to comprehend anything more than her own fears, she pulled her arms over her head to protect herself from Alti's evil touch.
The healer bard was as surprised as her lover when Ari pushed away and fell from the bed. Each time the warrior tried to approach the girl, the panic and fear was evident in Ari's eyes. Like a cornered animal, she sat naked and huddled against the wall, her knees drawn up to her chest, while her head was buried in the corner as she lashed out with bandaged hands. Once Gabrielle had moved by her side and spoke, she was able to reason a bit with the girl, but each time Xena approached, Ari's fear would return.

“Mother, she thinks you're Alti,” Eve said as she sat up in bed, the commotion from Ari suddenly waking her from her sleep.

“What?” Xena's confused expression fell from Eve, then to Gabrielle. “No, how can she confuse me for…” but she silenced her words when she saw Ari's dark blue eyes pleading up at her.

“Xena, she's fevered and hallucinating. Just, step back for a minute, all right,” Gabrielle asked as she leaned down toward the girl. “Ari, baby, you can't stay here,” Gabrielle cooed as she smiled at the girl.

“Mommy?” Ari gazed up her, the locks of her dark hair plastered to her forehead as the worst of the fever racked through her body. As she had done before, in her confused state, Ari mistook her for the woman who had adopted her from Cyrene. With a slight smile, Gabrielle leaned forward.

“Yes, baby, its mommy, now put your arms around my shoulders, that's a good girl,” She coaxed as she reached under the taller girls body.

“Gabrielle! You're just up yourself. Let me … I don't want you to hurt yourself.” Xena's protest grew silent when the bard shot her a look of determination. Before more could be said, the blonde easily lifted the girl in her arms and carried Ari the few steps to the bed.

After depositing the girl in the bed, Gabrielle reached for the cool towel and, once dipping it in the basin and wringing it out, she ran it over Ari's sweat drenched face. For a moment, she gazed into the girl's eyes and saw the depths of devotion. Overwhelmed by it, the bard smiled as she leaned down and lightly kissed Ari's forehead, then moved to sit against the headboard in order the wrap an arm over the girls shoulder, careful to not harm Ari's bandaged hands. At this move, Ari instinctively laid her head against the bard's shoulder. When it seemed she was comfortable, Gabrielle reached for the cup that Xena held.

“Ari, I want you to drink this, ok? It will help bring the fever down,” She explained as she kept her tone softly soothing.

“Y-you made f-for me?” Ari's glazed eyes were no longer focused on Xena, instead, she smiled softly up at Gabrielle.

“Yes, it was made just for you, now drink it up,” She encouraged as she held the cup to Ari's lips. Without protest, the younger woman drank the entire cup, and then lay back against Gabrielle's shoulder, her sleepy eyes never wavering from
the bard.

“It's all right now, honey, close your eyes and sleep. No one can ever hurt you again,” Gabrielle assured as she lightly brushed her fingers over Ari's warm cheeks as Xena took the empty cup away. As an after thought, the bard began to softly hum, then, when she saw Ari's eyes closing, Gabrielle softly sang the words to a song she remembered. “Moon shines bright, By fire's light, Amazon child sleep tonight…Hushabye … Please don't cry, Ari sings her lullaby,” she kept her voice soft as she held the fevered girl in her arms.

Gabrielle didn't understand why Ari felt closer to her than to Xena. She only knew that for some reason, she was able to reach Ari in ways that Xena could not. As she felt the girl falling asleep in her arms, she wondered briefly if this was meant to be her way to redeem herself for turning her back on her own daughter. As the thought slowly filled her mind, Gabrielle closed her eyes to the tears that threatened to form for the transgressions she had committed against Hope.

'If only I had stood my ground, and raised her as my own….' The bard thought silently, 'perhaps her goodness would have overpowered the darkness.'
In her corner of the shared room, Eve lay with her back to her family. With eyes wide open, she stared at the wall. Ever since her mother had returned with Ari, she heard the ramblings of her sister. Even though she had seen many hideous things during her time as Livia the Bitch of Rome, the images of Ari's captivity seemed too much to conceive. With a slight shiver, she closed her eyes and pulled the blanket over her shoulder in an attempt to push away the chills that coursed through her. When this failed, she simply sighed as the vivid images of rape, torture, bloodletting and mind control filled her vision.

It seemed inconceivable that anyone, let alone a child, could undergo such things and still be whole, she silently thought. 'But then again, Ari is hardly whole,' she reasoned as she rolled over and glanced at the bed where her sister lay. 'And what of me?' She thought sadly. 'How many men and women have I slain, tortured, sold into slavery, crucified and mutilated in Rome's name? Only the love and forgiveness of Eli allowed me to escape my sins of the past, but I still feel I have to atone every day for my deeds.' She blinked back a tear. 'Mother has Gabrielle to help her find forgiveness, I have Eli … but who does Ari have?'

Like a baby in her mother's arms, Ari was fast asleep as Gabrielle softly sang a song to her. As Eve looked closer at her sister's face, she noticed the usual grimace that had been on her face every time she slept was now replaced with a contented smile.
Then as she watched while the bard sang softly to her older sister, Eve smiled too as she thought, 'She has Gabrielle, and mother and me. We all know what our sins were. We all live with them every day. Surely if we try, we can help Ari to live with hers! Eli's path of Love can us show the way.'

Sensing that she was being watched, Gabrielle looked up and gazed directly at Eve. The prophet only smiled and nodded. At her other daughter's expression, Gabrielle smiled back and her nose crinkled, but she never once stopped her fingers from brushing through Ari's sweat drenched hair. Despite the bard's smile, Eve could see the sorrow within Gabrielle's eyes and wondered if Ari was the whole cause of her sadness. With only a sigh, Eve lay back down on her pillow and closed her eyes for a few minutes. Daring to peek at the blonde again, she opened her eyes in time to see Gabrielle laying a tender kiss on top of Ari's head.

Eve looked at the nearby chair where her mother sat. Although tired from the long, hard ride, Xena sat motionless in the high-backed chair, her gaze never wavering from the bard and Ari. As if the weight of the world were on her shoulders, the warrior remained motionless as the fatigue was etched in her features.

Eve felt an urge to give her mother a hug. For a moment she resisted, feeling too grown up to do such a thing. But another look at her mother's tired eyes and grim face was too much. Rolling quietly out of her bed, the prophetess moved to the warrior princess and silently knelt before her, putting her arms around her mother and laying her head in her lap.

Xena blinked, then her expression softened and she tenderly stroked her youngest daughter's hair. A tear ran down her cheek as a sigh trembled through her.

At the tremble, Eve looked up and saw the tear. She too blinked as she felt her own eyes fill and touched Xena's wet cheek and whispered, “Oh, mother. Don't cry. Ari will be all right. You'll see…”

“Oh, Eve…” the warrior princess whispered brokenly. “Look at her. How can she be all right, with the things she has endured … because I was weak…”

“Mother,” the prophetess smiled through her own tears. “None of us can foresee what harm our simplest actions may cause … all we can do is try to make them right when we discover them … and … and we will all help Ari. With you and Gabrielle, and me to show her Eli's love, she will come around; you'll see.”

Xena hugged her daughter fiercely. “Thank you, honey…” But inside she thought, 'By the gods, Eve, I hope you're right, but I just don't know if Ari or anyone could be made whole again after enduring such horror…'

Unaware of her mother's uncertain thoughts, Eve, once known as Livia the Bitch of Rome, laid her head back on the comforting lap and closed her eyes listening to Gabrielle's song. In the darkness behind her eyelids, images of horrible things she would rather not have seen strayed into her mind and she concentrated upon the song and Eli's love with all of her being.
Ari felt herself drifting into the realm of dreams as the constant whispers swirled incoherently within her head. At one point, she thought she heard Eve's sanctimonious whispers, but was unable to fully understand everything that the prophet was thinking. Rather than dwell on her sister's ramblings, Ari dived deeper into the dream images that filled her unconscious mind.
Each time she felt the dreams turning into a nightmare, the soft touch of her mother's hand would soothe her brows, and the strange lullaby would rise in the air. As the words from a song she had never heard before reached her senses, she snuggled down deeper into the warm embrace. A part of Ari knew that something was different, that this person who comforted her did not feel like her mother. Yet another part didn't want to contemplate it. Rather, she only wanted to enjoy the feelings of warmth and protection that she had not felt since she was a babe.

Fin – At least for now…

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