Sins of the Mother
By L. Crystal Michallet-Romero
Copyright  ©  October 29, 2001 L. Crystal Michallet-Romero
     All Rights Reserved
Reworked:Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Dedication:Ari's story is for all survivors, and the people who love them.
Disclaimers:
* Xena Warrior Princess, its characters, and all related materials are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures.  All other characters are mine.
* This story in no way reflects the life or actions of the wonderful actress, Claire Stansfield.  Her portrayal of Xena's nemesis was so wickedly inspired as to make the character of Alti the absolute evil villain.
Rated:NC-17, not intended, or suitable for children.
Violence:Physical child abuse issues are portrayed and its effects are completely explored.
Sexual Violence:Child molestation is depicted and its effects are explored fully.
Subtext:  X/G are portrayed as being in a loving, long-term relationship/marriage.
Extra Warning:
As Alti raised the main character, 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, and the difficulties that her new family faces, it is important to know where she came from.
All feedback welcomed at:CrystalMichallet@charani.org
Crystal's web site at: http://www.charani.org/XenaFanFicMichallet.html

Note to readers:
I may have stated in the past that all of my stories are independent of each other and it should not be confused or assume that one will predict the outcome of another… I lied!Sorry about that, but I couldn't very well say that this series, SOTM, takes place after The Curse of Higuchi without letting the readers know how COH was going to end, now could I? So this introduction of SOTM is the part that I had to withhold in order to keep the outcome of COH hidden. SOTM takes place after COH, and picked up where our two heroes left off. Although not necessary, it does help to read my previous FIN story, The Curse of Higuchi, which can be found at: http://www.xenafiction.net/scrolls/crystal_machallet_tcoh1.hts
 

Announcement:I'm fully aware that the use of Italics, according to grammar rules, is meant to be used sparingly and only to emphasize certain words. However, for the comfort of the readers, all sections of the story that can be construed as childhood abuse scenes are now placed in Italicsin order that anyone may skip these more disturbing scenes if they so wish. I decided that as long as I knewthe rule, then it would be all right to break it especially if it helps the reader.
 

Chapter 1: Introduction

The cold steel cut into her flesh. Although the cave had grown colder than usual, Ari felt nothing. Not even the pain of her bindings caused her to whimper. Any cries and pleas of forgiveness were buried away by the endless hours of beatings and torture. Instead of crying, she hung from the chains; the weight of her body adding to the strain of the bindings around her wrists. When she glanced up in the gloomy darkness, she saw the trickles of blood falling down her arms from her wrists. Her fingers were as numb to everything around her as her mind.

"This is no good," the familiar hiss of her mother echoed in the cave.

Ari tilted her head slightly. The movement caused the iron bindings to cut deeper into her wrists. With one eye swollen, a cut lip, and the side of her face bruised, she fought to focus her remaining good eye on the tall woman who paced before her. Deep in thought, Alti's head was bent, her features hidden in the shadows as she spoke quickly.

"This is no good, no good at all! With Xena dead, all of myplans are ruined!" the sorceress hissed as she turned again on her captive daughter. "Do you know what this means,little girl?" her fingers clamped onto the girl's battered face, the painful bruising elicited a slight moan. "It means you are worthlessto me!"

Ari heard the words, yet her mind did not register the meaning. In all of her time with her mother, the dark child quickly learned that thinking, reasoning for herself was not something Alti would allow. So ever since the day of her arrival in this mysterious cave, Ari never allowed herself the luxury of independent thought. Instead, she did as she was told. She obeyed her mother because she knew the punishment for disobeying was too high a price to pay.

"Xena went and got herself killed…again!" Alti growled as she turned away and began her mad pacing. "All of my plans…all of my desires…revenge…" she gasped in a tear, "worthless…all worthless…" the tall woman's moans echoed in the cave.

In silence, the girl watched her mother's movements. She felt a dizziness fall over her as her one good eye closed. How long she had been hanging here being beaten she did not know. The girl didn't even understand why it was happening. Usually when her mother was gone for many days, she returned with a bloodlust that required a different sating. But this time, the moment that Alti entered the cave, the teen knew something was terribly wrong. As if Ari was the cause of the sorceress' woes, the taller woman grabbed her from the furs and dragged her across the cave. When the irons were put around her wrists, and Alti lifted her to the hook in the ceiling, the adolescent girlrealized this might be the end for her.

"Wake up!" Alti screamed as she slapped Ari's bruised and battered face. "No, little girl, you don't have the luxury of passing out. I want you to feel every last bit of what I give you," she hissed as she yanked on the girl's hair, a scowl crossed the sorceress features before she turned away.

"If I can't have Xena…" the woman's harsh voice echoed in the caves as she moved to a nearby table. With a slight smile, the evil sorceress glanced over the implements. Her fingers lovingly touched the cold steel as a smile crossed her features. Just as she used to do with the men that she brought into the cave, Alti planned to use these tools on Ari.

Even though the dark child had watched her mother's expertise, the idea of being on the receiving end of such treatment did nothing to Ari. She was not afraid, nor was she sad. Although she wondered about her mother's actions, deep down inside, Ari felt nothing because a part of her had died those many years ago when she was first brought to this magical cave of her imprisonment. After endless days in the chains, the countless beatings inflicted by Alti's fists, feet and teeth, the tall girl realized that she was beyond caring. Even when the sorceress reached between the girl's legs and hurt her till she bled, the dark teenager did little more than whimper in pain.

Hearing her thoughts, the tall woman turned to her. A snarl curled her lips as she held one of the implements over a burning flame. When the tip was glowing red, the dark sorceress walked slowly toward her, a slight smile curved Alti's lips.

"Don't worry my…little girl," Alti's raspy voice whispered ever so softly as she stood in front of her captive's dangling body. "Don't worry at all because I promise, this will last as long as I intended it to last for Xena," she said as she placed the hot iron on Ari's sweat drenched flesh.

At the instant sensation, a loud scream rang through the cavern as tears fell from Ari's eyes. Feigning compassion, Alti tenderly brushed her long slender fingers through the dark child's hair. Her voice cooed softly in reassurance while she held the implement of torture against young girl's sensitive flesh.
~~~~~
Gabrielle deeply inhaled the clean scent of the early dawn. The first songs from the morning doves began a melodic tune in the branches overhead. Somewhere off in the distant meadow, she heard Argo's slight sounds as she nibbled on the lush grass. Since leaving Athens, they slept out in the open and it didn't take the storyteller long to realize that in the past year of travels, she had become spoiled. When she wasn't in the comfy bed on Zara's ship, or at the residence of Arjun or the Moroccan's home, then they stayed in places that had comfortable lodging. Not even the Egyptian desert felt as uncomfortable as the hard ground of Greece.

The ground was hard and for part of the night she slept on a small rock. Finally she woke up in the middle of the night and reached under the bedroll to fish it out. For the rest of the night an insect continually buzzed around her ear. After a few failed attempts at swatting the mosquito, she gave up and pulled the bedroll over her head. But once she did this, she had to contend with the smell of Xena's gas and slight giggles that the warrior released in her sleep right after each gassing. Between contending with the insects, hard ground and her lover's bodily functions, the blonde managed to fall asleep somewhere in the early morning hours.

As the Amazon feigned sleep, she felt her lover stirring behind her. Xena wrapped her arms around her. The warrior's taller body spooned the storyteller. With slow, deliberate touches, the dark haired woman ran the tips of her fingers over the blonde's firm abdomen as her lips softly kissed, then licked the healer's ears.

"Gabrielle," Xena whispered softly as her exploring hand moved lower.

The storyteller kept her eyes closed, but released a smile as she parted her legs for her soulmate's wandering fingers. At the feel of her lover's gentle caress, the smaller woman released a groan of pleasure. Sensing her mood, the warrior's pelvis began to grind against the blonde's bottom.

"Gabrielle," the dark haired woman whispered again.

"Ummmm…." was all Gabrielle could reply.

"Sweetheart… I love you…" Xena whispered. Her voice grew tender as her lips gently tugged on her soulmate's earlobe. "Honey, wasn't last night good?" she whispered again.

Gabrielle felt a smile break free at the reminder of their night of love. Ever since her soulmate was brought back to life, their lovemaking intensified. It felt like Xena's time in the spirit form made her appreciate the sensations of touch, and the dark warrior did not hold back.

"Ummmm, Xena… every night has been good," the blonde smiled as she reached up and brushed her fingertips over her lover's soft cheek.

"Ahuh… and… sweetheart…" the warrior princess' words came in between her soft kisses. "Don't you think that… after these past few days…. maybe… it's time to let me… ummm… have my chakram back?"

At her lover's words, Gabrielle's fingers grew still. Her body froze under her soulmate's touch. With a slight frown, she opened her sleepy eyes and glared at Xena. Seeing the storyteller's anger, the taller woman gulped, then looked away.

"I-I … just thought…"

"No Xena, you didn't think which is why the chakram, and all your property belongs to me," Gabrielle said softly, careful to school her voice. Turning toward the warrior, she smiled up at the dark haired woman. Her fingers brushed through the taller woman's long, dark locks. "Awe Xena, you've got to know how much it's tearing me up inside to do this, don't you?"

The warrior averted her gaze, before releasing a sigh as she moved into Gabrielle's arms. "How much longer are you going to be angry with me?"

"Sweetheart, I'm not angry, honest," Gabrielle wrapped her arm around her soulmate and held her close. "Xena, I love you. You are my soulmate and best friend. Losing you… Xena, it was the hardest thing I ever had to live through and when I think about it, I realize that neither one of us had to go through it. If you had only talked with me when we were at Higuchi, maybe together, we would have found a way out of the problem," she explained tenderly. She felt the warrior sigh deeply as she seemed to bury herself into the blonde's embrace.

"Gabrielle, I know what I did was wrong, I know that! By the gods, I'll never forgive myself for not…. not including you in what was happening. And you're right; sometimes I'm just so… so…"

"Pig headed?"

"Well, I was going to say resolved, but…" the warrior sighed again as she pulled away and looked down at her. "I guess you're right. I was pretty pig headed back at Higuchi."

"Yes Xena, you were. You know, I may be younger than you, and maybe I haven't been out traveling the country as long as you have been, but sometimes I can think through a problem, too. Xena, you fell back on what you always do, not trusting me and running into danger… into death." Gabrielle was reminded of the pain. She closed her eyes against the tears that threatened to spill, then opened her eyes when control returned and looked up into her lover's blue gaze.

"Xena, I feel like I've got to find some way to make you understand that what you did was wrong. It not only affected you, but it also affected me too, a-and… it affected another person, too. Xena, think of what Zara had to go through, and she wasn't even with us at Higuchi. She went through so much, risked so much all because you willingly gave up your life when you didn't have to. No Xena, I don't know what else to do to get you to understand that you can't take your life into your own hands like that. I won't stand for it, not anymore. No more running off to get yourself kill, do you understand me?" The storyteller gazed into her lover's misty blue eyes.

"I understand you Gabrielle, a-and… I am sorry. I promise, no more battles, no more fights. As soon as we get home, we begin our life of domestic bliss," the dark haired woman's voice was filled with contrition.

The blonde smiled at her lover, the sincerity of the warrior's words warmed her heart. "You know, Warrior Princess, I think you've earned a little reward."

"A repeat of last night?" Xena wagged her brows as a seductive smile crossed her lips.

"I was thinking more of giving you your sword back…" Gabrielle smiled.

Xena's brow furrowed, "But I already have my sword."

"You got to carry it up until now, but it was still mine. Remember Xena? That was the whole purpose of you showing me where you buried it after Higuchi, so that I would inherit your property after your death?" Gabrielle gently reminded her lover, then continued, "Well Xena, from now on, it's really yours again." The blonde paused and smirked, "And a repeat of last night sounds good, too!" At her words, her tall Greek warrior smiled broadly.

"Oh boy! I get to keep my sword and make love again!" Xena exclaimed as she moved over the smaller body. Her excited movements let the storyteller know that on this morning, they would not be breaking camp any time soon.
~~~~~~
A few mornings later, Xena stood brushing Argo in the early morning sunlight. After smoothing the mare's coat until it gleamed, she picked up each leg to inspect the hooves. Cooing to the horse, the warrior cleaned every trace of dirt from beneath the shoes.

When she was done, the leather clad warrior walked over to a bag and pulled a few items out. Walking back to Argo, she held out her hands. "How about two apples this morning, girl? Neither is quite big enough on their own." Argo took the first apple in her mouth, munching on it as Xena chatted with her about the route they were traveling.

After finishing both apples, Argo stood while Xena put the saddle on her. "I was just wondering if we could go for a short ride, girl. Before Gabrielle wakes up. I saw an apple tree a ways back, and there might be some ripe ones we could bring with us." Argo shifted on her feet, but allowed the warrior to mount her.

As they were heading toward the road, Xena's voice took on a casual tone. "Isn't this nice, girl? It must be nice not having my weight slamming down on your kidneys for a change." Argo whickered softly. "I bet you feel a lot better when Gabrielle is in back, being lighter than me and all…"

Argo's ears immediately laid back. Before the warrior could finish speaking, the mare bunched her legs beneath her and began bucking up and down like a wild stallion. Her nose dropped down to within inches of the ground as her legs kicked up in the air. Xena flung her free arm back over her head in an effort to stay upright on the horse. "Whoa Argo, whoa girl!" Argo didn't listen and bucked her way across the clearing that camp was set up in.

Xena's eyes went wide when she saw where Argo was headed. "No, Argo stop! Ok, ok, I'll ride in back, just stooooo…" Her voice rang through the air. The mare had changed the tempo of her bucking just enough to unbalance her rider and with one final, powerful buck, the dark haired woman went flying through the air to land in a pond.

The warrior princess fought her way around and sat in the muck and water looking at the demonic horse. Her wet hair fell over her face. Pushing it back, she saw Argo placidly munching on a tuft of clover. Raising her head, the palomino blew air out of her mouth sending little pieces of plant to land on Xena's nose. She shook her head vigorously and trotted back to camp giving one final, reminder buck to the air.

Grumbling, the warrior princess hauled herself out of the water and stomped back toward camp. Reaching down, she pulled her underpants out of her backside, then looked down and scooped some algae out of her cleavage. By the time she got back to camp, wincing and stretching a kink out of her shoulder, she saw Gabrielle wiping sleep out of her eyes and giggling.

"Don't even start, bard!" Xena growled. Throwing her soaking wet leather dress into a heap on the ground, she pointed at Argo, "That…"

"Be nice…" The storyteller warned, reminding her lover that the mare could still hear her.

"That…" the dark haired woman searched for a word while hopping on one leg and making squishing noises while trying to pull off a boot, "that… HORSE… is not Argo! My horse would never try to kill me!"

"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle chuckled. "I don't think she was trying to kill you. But, ummm… I think it's obvious that she's not quite ready to forgive you either."

"You better get comfortable, Gabrielle. I'm not traveling in wet leathers today and getting chafed."

"Then maybe you can go catch some fish after they calm back down. After all, you're already wet." Xena shot her lover a look. "And after your boots dry, you can walk back and pick some of those apples I saw a ways back. Get a couple for me too, will ya?" Gabrielle laughed as the warrior stomped back toward the pond to sulk for a bit.

The Amazon went and scratched Argo's nose. "That was too funny, girl. But if you want more grain, you'd better let us get to the next village pretty soon. No more wet warriors until then, ok?" Argo snorted and nodded her head.
~~~~~
Ari never knew her body could be tortured this badly. Ever since arriving in the cave with her mother, she had felt and experienced many things, but nothing as severely as what she was going through now. The teen wasn't certain, but she thought this would be the end for her. The pain was so excruciating at times that she passed out. But each time this happened, her mother woke her so that she would feel every nuance of pain the sorceress inflicted.

"You're worthless to me now, do you realize that?" Ari vaguely heard her mother as she felt the taller woman's hands moving to the metal bindings around her wrists. "All of my plans, everything is over!" Alti hissed as she dragged the young girl's limp body across the cave.

The coarse rocks below her naked flesh cut into already open wounds. When she felt a sudden chill surround her, she closed her eyes and braced herself for the stone steps. Just as expected, Alti dragged her down the jagged steps that lead to the larger cavern. With each jarring movement, Ari groaned as the hardness slammed into her bruised backside.

"Worthless! Nothing left to do,little girl, except finish you off," the dark child heard her mother explain as she hauled her to the fountain.

Somewhere in the distance, the girl heard the sound of the spring; its water falling from the wall of the cave into an open pool of water. When she felt her mother pulling her up a second set of stairs, she knew she was being taken to the magical pool. Ever since she was a child, Ari spent time watching the images shimmering in the reflection of her mother's magical fountain. Sometimes she saw images of the woman whom her mother hated, other times she saw a shorter blonde woman, and many times she saw the two children who had everything that Ari did not. She would watch the boy who died young, and later a girl who grew into a woman. Both were cared for, loved and protected.

As the teen girl felt herself being dragged up the stairs, she closed her eyes. She wondered what it must have been like for them to be surrounded by love and affection. Before this notion settled in, her mother grabbed her and pulled her up to the fountain. Then Alti took her by the hair and turned her face down toward the waters.

"All of my plans, everything…its over, do you hearmelittle girl?"the voice hissed close to Ari's ear.

The dark child gazed at her mother through her good eye. She watched the woman and wondered what would happen next. Before anything else was said, Alti pushed her head downinto the cold water. At first, Ari remained motionless, her eyes closed instinctively. When she felt the pain in her lungs, her body began to struggle even as she felt her mother straddling her back and holding her head under the water. When she felt the first burning gulp of water enter her lungs, she thought she heard her mother's voice from under the water. Just as the realization of her own demise registered, her mother yanked her from the water and threw her to the hard surface.

"What is this?" Alti whispered even as Ari coughed and sputtered out water. With each breath she took, a pain shot through her lungs until the air began to come in a steady rhythm. Naked, bloody and covered with bruises, her confused gaze looked up at her mother. As an involuntary shiver crossed her body, a groan of pain escaped her control as she lay motionless on the cold stone floor. Hearing this, Alti turned and glanced down at her.

"Look at this,my little girl!" the sorceress smiled as she reached down and pulled Ari to the edge of the fountain. "Look!" the woman commanded as she supported the smaller, battered body.

Ari turned her head slightly so that she could see the images in the pool. She watched as four figures walked across a mountain that seemed to shift below their feet. Although two of the travelers were strangers, the other two Ari recognized. When she heard her mother laughing, she glanced up at her, then looked back as the image shimmered and changed. She saw the two women riding together on a single horse.

"She lives!" Alti cackled as she stared at the images in the magical pool. "Little girl, it's not over, do you hear me, it's not over!" the sorceress hissed as she pulled Ari's battered body into her arms. "Soon,little girl, very soon we shall have our revenge!"

If the young girl had thought it was odd that her mother was holding her so tenderly right after trying to drown her, the dark child did not mention it. Instead, she closed her eyes to the pain racking her body as the older woman cradled her close. Over and over again, she heard the sorceress promise that soon they would have their revenge. Very soon the girl would be able to give to Xena all of the pain that she had suffered through her life. As she heard her mother's words, Ari smiled and winced at the sting in her split lip. Seeing her pain for the first time, her sorceress mother gently picked her up and carried her to the furred covered bed.
~~~~~~
"What about that one, Xena?" The storyteller pointed to a honey colored mare. With a frown, the warrior looked away from the beautiful horse as a melancholy settled in.

It had been nearly two weeks since they returned to Greece, and the blonde was still angry over Japa. Although Xena conceded that she had every right to be angry, the tall woman wondered how long her soulmate was going to hold it against her. The warrior also wondered how long Argo was going to be angry with her. True, she admitted that she was stupid. She never should have gotten herself mixed up with that Higuchi mess to begin with. But even after she got involved, she should have talked to her soulmate and explained everything. Perhaps Gabrielle was right. Together they might have found a way to help the lost souls without the warrior having to sacrifice her own life.

"Stupid, that's what I was. Plain stupid, and now I have to pay for it," the warrior grimaced as she looked back at the horses in the coral.

Once they arrived in Thebes, they decided it was finally time to break into the coin purse Zara had given them and purchase a second horse that was to be Xena's. Although she understood Gabrielle's actions, and even understood why Argo had not forgiven her yet, the fact that this horse was to be hers stung. She never thought she would be relegated to any other horse than Argo, and this chafed her a bit.

"Awe, sweetheart, I'm sorry, this should really be your decision. I'd understand if you didn't want one that looked exactly like Argo," Gabrielle's sympathetic smile did not ease the warrior's pain. As the tall woman looked over the horses, the blonde lightly rubbed the palm of her hand over Xena's arm in reassurance.

"Do ya see any to your liking?" the horse dealer glanced at them, his eyes narrowed, assessing their intent. From nearby, a brown mare moved along the fence and stopped in front of the Amazon.

"My friend is looking them over right now; we'll let you know," Gabrielle explained with a smile as she began to scratch the brown mare's nose. Having found the perfect scratching post, the mare began to lean into the smaller woman's fingers, her ears slightly twitching as she shook her head, then pressed deeper into the storyteller's touch.

"You know Xena, if you don't see one you like here, I'm sure there are …" the blonde stopped when she saw the scowl on her soulmate's face.

"Gabrielle, you don't understand, it's just that…" the warrior princess released a sigh as she lowered her eyes. The utter despair and sadness at her situation settled in. "It doesn't matter how fine a horse is, she'll never be Argo!" the warrior lamented, then quickly added, "But, don't get me wrong, I know why you and Argo are still angry with me. It was really stupid what I did and not a day goes by that I'm not going to regret it. But still," the sullen woman shook her head as an expression of despair crossed her features, "There's never going to be another horse for me, not like Argo. She's one of a kind," Xena's voice grew wistful as she lowered her gaze.

From behind the small blonde, the honey colored mare moved to the tall warrior. So deep in her own depression, Xena hadn't noticed until Argo butted her head against the warrior's shoulders. After a few head butts, the tall woman visibly frowned as she glanced back at Argo.

"Not now, Argo, can't you see I'm busy," the tall woman pouted as she looked down. When the mare pushed against her again, a smile broke out on the smaller woman's features.

"Ummm, Xena…."

"Please, Gabrielle, this is hard enough as it is," the warrior princess begged as she scanned over the horses with a melancholy expression.

"But Xena…" the storyteller smiled at Argo, then the warrior.

"What?" Xena turned to her small lover, her eyes held irritation and sadness before she noticed her lover's expression. When she saw Gabrielle smiling at her, and glancing at Argo, the dark haired woman turned to the horse. Tilting her head to the side, Argo neighed, then nodded her head up and down, before butting it against the warrior's shoulder.

"Argo?" the warrior peered at the horse with disbelieving eyes. "Argo… h-have you finally… forgiven me?"

The large beast nodded vigorously before she leaned her head against Xena's shoulder. Blowing out air from her nostrils, Argo stomped her foot, as she butted against the dark warrior.

"Oh, Argo!" Xena smiled wide as she reached up and petted her horse. Her strong arms wrapped around Argo's neck and hugged her as she closed her eyes. "Oh, thank you girl! Thank you! Thank you! I'll never leave you again like that, Argo. I'll never leave you and Gabrielle like that, I promise, no more doing anything foolish! No more wars and fighting. From this point forward, we live a safe life in the background!" She swore as she scratched the honey colored mare.

"See Xena, I told you Argo would eventually forgive you," the Amazon smiled at the two, then her brow creased as a thought entered her mind. "Hey! Wait a minute! Then what will I be riding?" the blonde glanced up at her soulmate and then Argo. Hearing her words, the brown mare in the stable pushed against her shoulder beckoning for more scratches. With a slight smile, Gabrielle turned and looked into the horse's dark eye that blinked at her.

"I think you got your answer, Gabrielle," Xena smiled as she watched the blonde scratching the horses muzzle as she looked over the animal.

"I think I have, Xena," the myth maker smiled as she began to inspect the mare. "Could I see this one, please?" Gabrielle turned her beautiful smile to the horse seller. Mesmerized by her charm, the gruffy man nodded, then placed a halter on the brown horse and led her out of the stable. With lead rope in hand, the shorter man stood by the beast as the Amazon began to inspect it.

The brown bay stood fourteen hands high and had a black mane and tail. As Gabrielle glanced over the animal's body, Xena moved to the horse and inspected its teeth. Seemingly annoyed by the inspection, the bay swished its tail, slapping the blonde in the face as she was inspecting its hooves. Smiling at her lover's predicament, the dark haired warrior scratched the horse's nose. When the smaller woman moved beside her tall lover, she smiled up at the animal.

"Oh look, a star!" The blonde exclaimed as Xena inspected the rest of the horse.

"Gabrielle, you can't choose a horse because of its markings. You have to make sure of other things as well," Xena reminded as she finished inspecting the horse.

"Oh I know, but isn't that a plus, that she's got a white star on her forehead?" Gabrielle scratched at the marking, even as the horse seller chuckled soft, then silenced his amusement when Xena glared down at him.

"Well, she looks like a fine animal. Since Argo has forgiven me, I guess it's up to you if you want her," the warrior moved beside her soulmate.

"I want her," Gabrielle smiled as she glanced at the man. "I assume you have the saddle and all the tack I'll need?"

"Of course, the finest in the valley, if you'll follow me," the pudgy man began to lead her back to the barn.

"I'll be right back Xena, just let me haggle a good price from him," Gabrielle smiled and winked as she followed the tubby man.

The tall warrior only shook her head as she turned her attention to Argo. After readjusting the stirrups, she mounted the mare, waiting to see if Argo was going to buck her, as she did twice before. When the horse turned to look at her, Xena lightly patted her neck.

"Thank you, girl. I know you didn't have to forgive me, especially after how stupid I've been. But I'm sure glad to know you did!" she smiled as she trotted her horse in the open clearing. The feel of the saddle was so much more comfortable than sitting behind the saddle bare back. As she waiting for her soulmate, she thought of all that had happened since Higuchi. No, Argo really didn't have to forgive her, but then, neither did Gabrielle.

As she waited for her lover, Xena remembered the feeling of fear when her small lover had mentioned that Zara would not be traveling with them. For the first time, the Greek warrior was afraid Gabrielle had found another to love. True, they both stated that they were each others soulmates, but at that moment in time, the warrior princess wasn't certain if her lover would be able to forgive her for Higuchi. Perhaps running off and getting herself killed was the straw that finally broke the Amazon's back, and the warrior was afraid that she would lose her love to the Moroccan ship captain.

Thankfully, this fear did not play itself out and although the Amazon rightfully reminded Xena of her blunder, the blonde willing chose to remain with her and this alone brought awe to the warrior. Gabrielle was her lover, her soulmate, best friend and partner in life. But she was much more than that. She was an accomplished bard, a highly skilled warrior, a compassionate healer and an intelligent woman who wasn't reliant upon anyone. Yet, she chose of her own free will to remain with Xena, and this humbled the dark warrior. No, Gabrielle didn't need her anymore, if anything, this past year alone proved that. The storyteller wasn't staying with her out of need, but because traveling with her soulmate back home and spending the rest of her life with her love is what she wanted to do.

Although the tall woman always knew Gabrielle loved her, it warmed her heart whenever she realized her soulmate stayed with her out of love. It was because of this love that Xena vowed to never stray away again. Never would she place herself in danger and purposely get herself killed for others. If the whole journey after Higuchi had taught her anything, it was that sometimes one individual was worth more than a thousand souls. For the warrior princess, that individual was Gabrielle.

"I promise Argo… promise you and Gabrielle, I'll never be so foolish again," she spoke softly as she patted her horse.

From the barn, the sound of a horse neigh was heard, right before the thunder of hooves. Like a bat from Hades, Gabrielle tore from the barn, her body laying over the brown mare that sped past them, fully saddled, and geared up. With a smile, she watched as the Amazon queen turned the bay around, then trotted back to where Xena waited.

"She's perfect," the blonde smiled down at the horse seller who stood nearby watching her. "Here you go, as agreed upon!" Gabrielle pulled the coins from the leather purse and handed it to the man.

"Xena, isn't she perfect!" the blonde's attention was suddenly on the warrior.

Turning Argo around, the taller warrior only shook her head in amusement as she smiled at her lover.

"Perfect Gabrielle and you two look like a perfect match!" Xena agreed as they rode down the road on their own horses. "Have you thought of a name?"

"Yes I have," The blonde smiled, "I like Pyxis," the small blonde nodded.

"So, she's going to be Argo's compass?" the dark haired woman smiled.

"She has a star on her forehead, how better to find her way? Besides, as Argo's compass, Pyxis will always show her the way, and in turn, keep you on track!" Gabrielle giggled as she lightly kicked the bay's sides and galloped past her soulmate.

"Me? ME!" Xena called out, then goaded Argo to follow.

"Think of it, Warrior Princess, as long as you have a compass to show the way, you'll never go and do a fool thing again!" Gabrielle laughed uncontrollably as her new brown mare sprinted ahead.

With a shake of her head, Xena chased after her lover. No, after everything that they had gone through together, the pain of their mortal separation, the warrior knew that she would never again enter into a fool's mission. Life with her soulmate was simply too valuable to her.
~~~~~
In a matter of moments, Ari felt the drastic shift in climate. One moment, she was obediently following her mother. The blindfold over her eyes kept her from seeing the hideous creatures that lived in the fog. Although the dark child had never seen them before, she had watched a few times as her mother hauled the carcasses of the dead men from the cave and threw them out into the dark fog. The sounds of animals snarling and growling for food, combined with the tearing of flesh and crunching of broken bones was the only thing that the girl heard before the skeletal remains were thrown back onto the path. With a deep, guttural laugh, her mother would kick the bones that had been picked clean aside before returning to the cave.

Ari had never seen what lived in the fog, but she didn't have to. Just knowing the creatures were there was enough to keep the dark child safe within the confines of the cave. The fact that these creatures were controlled by Alti insured that she would never venture out to the path, so she never knew where the trail led. Now with a blindfold over her eyes, she felt her mother guiding her on the trail. As if it happened yesterday, she remembered the last time she was on this path.

In tears and shaking with fear, the toddler remained frozen as the bigger woman carried her through the fog. Only when inside the cave, did Ari even venture to speak to the woman, and it was met with a hard blow that sent the child reeling. From that day forward, the child's entire life had changed. The warmth of the sun on her face and the feel of the grass between her toes were a thing of the past. She had been kept so long in the darkness that she even forgot what it felt like to hear the sounds of life around her.

One moment, she was inside the cool place that had been her captivity, then before she knew it, her mother took her by the shoulders and pushed her forward until a coolness surrounded her. Once the feel of a cold breeze brushed past her, Ari cringed, afraid of what she was feeling. At the sounds roaring in her ears, she shook her head and covered her ears.

"CALM DOWN!" her mother barked before administering a blow against her head.

Crumbling onto a hard, cold surface, Ari inhaled deeply, then instantly regretting the feel of stinging coldness in her lungs. Not even the beating she had taken before equaled the pain she was experiencing now. The coldness, the amplified sounds, everything felt overwhelming. When her mother removed the blindfold and she looked up into a black blanket, she fell to her back, her eyes wide with fear as the saw the multitude of lights above her.

"What a stupid little girl!" Alti hissed as she kicked Ari's side in disgust. "Stars, little girl, that's all they are, just stars in the sky. Now get up!" Her mother yelled as she yanked the girl to her feet. "I said GET UP!" Alti hissed as she grabbed her by the hair. With a cry of pain, the dark child was pulled to her knees. At the overwhelming sensations surging through her, she closed her eyes and covered her head.

"Too much… m-mother… please… t-too much!" she screamed as the buzzing sounds of the night insects roared past her hearing.

"Here, shush now, here, my little girl, here, drink this, drink it," Alti pulled Ari up and held a flask to her lips. Obediently, she drank of the sour liquid until the deafening sounds around her grew still. When a calmness resumed, she gasped, then began to take slow, even breaths. Opening her eyes, she saw everything around her, but felt like she was in a dream. "There you go, my little girl, that's a girl. Now come on, we need to get you inside before the sun rises."

Without a word, Ari complied. She followed her mother in numb silence. If any part of her curiosity arose, she did not show it. Instead, she allowed herself to be taken down a rocky terrain all the while listening to her mother's words. The plan Alti had made was ready to begin. Soon, after the girl was able to train in the open air, they would begin to put into place the acts that would finally bring about Alti's revenge against the bitch who was her enemy. Soon, very soon, they would meet the warrior princess and her whore, and nothing would stop them from their plans.

Although the plans had not been devised by Ari, she went along with them. When the morning came and the brightness in the sky nearly blinded her, she listened to her mother, drank the calming potion, and began the preparations that would make her the strongest warrior in the land. The tall girl always knew that someday this would happen. The only time when she began to think that her mother's plan would not be fulfilled was the day in the cave when Alti nearly drowned her. But as quickly as this event took place, her mother had her on the furs. The sorceress' touch was on her, the power of her mother's magic healed the broken bones, organs and tissue. In only a short time, the only evidence of the beating that Ari took is what remained within her memory, and even that became doubtful after enough time had passed.

With each passing day, her lessons increased. In time her eyes were accustomed to the bright sun. When she drank her mother's potion, she was no longer overcome with awe by the sight of the stars at night. Her only focus, her only goal was honing already fostered skills and toning her body even more. The only pleasure Alti allowed Ari was riding her new horse. Together they would be an unstoppable force, her mother had said, and the young warrior believed every word her mother said. In only a short amount of time her skills surpassed her mother's expectations.

During their first battle, Ari felt nothing inside. As her blade landed even blows, her thoughts were on nothing and everything. Like a quickly moving dream, she went through the motions. As the limbs and heads of her enemies flew through the air, and her sword opened the enemies' bellies, Ari watched in mild fascination as the steaming guts of her prey fell on the earth. Not even their screams caused her or her army to stop in the quest. Only when it was done did the young leader allow a sneer of a smile to cross her lips.

For the first time in Ari's life, her mother was proud of her. Pleased by all that she did, Alti rewarded her with the pick of the virgins from the villages they had conquered. First came the daughters of the ruling leaders, and then the others. Once the new warrior had her fill of sating her blood lust upon the chaste girls, her mother would take her to bed and reward her privately. After a while, the tall girl began to realize that the bloodier, the more ruthless she was in her conquests, the greater her mother rewarded her and this pleased the dark child. Never before had she felt such love and pride from her mother, and like the addictive potion that was given to her, Ari found that she longed for more. The blood running below her feet and the bodies lying dead from her blade meant nothing to her. Not even the carnage her army left caused the girl alarm, because she knew that above all else, her mother finally loved and cherished her as no other could.

"Soon," her mother cooed in the darkness of their bed, "soon we will have our revenge on Xena!" Alti whispered close to Ari's ear. With a smile, the young warrior reached for the dead virgin that was in their bed. When the dark child became bored after a night of play, she had dispatched the girl as she did all the others. Without even a second thought, she shoved on the body until it fell from their bed, before turning her attention to sating her mother's insatiable needs.
~~~~~
The road home was crowded with the wagons of refugees. As the two warriors skirted their way around the walking people, they looked down at the women, children and aged who moved past them. Their gaunt, haggard faces told the story of their days on the road.

Ever since reaching Pagasae, Xena and Gabrielle heard the tales of a conqueror's army. Although no one knew who the conqueror was, the villagers and farmers knew enough to leave the lands where they lived. Those who were unfortunate enough to not leave were never heard from again. According to the lore of the refugees, the conqueror, The Destroyer, as the fiend was called, had swept down from the sky to ravage everything in his path. The ultimate goal seemed to be the total destruction of the land and the enslavement of its people.

"Xena…" the healer bard felt a tear escape her control as she saw the children walking with their parents. Like under an evil spell, they moved in slow, methodical movements. Those who were infirmed remained impassive as they sat or lay in open wagons that shook their way down the road.

"Come on Gabrielle, I know a short cut to Pellon. We should be able to catch a ship across the strait, and then head to Potidaea," Xena's voice was deep as she turned Argo away from the road.

Their normally peaceful journey seemed a thousand years away for the blonde. Whatever laughter, whatever pleasure she felt with her lover vanished when they began hearing the tales of The Destroyer. Although a part of her hoped they were embellished stories of a demi-war lord, after seeing the number of refugees making their way south from Macedonia, Gabrielle had to admit to herself that this… creature was far more ruthless, cruel and inhumane than anyone they had ever encountered before.

Just when she was beginning to think that they could finally live a life in peace, this happened. Their plans were all laid out. They would go to Potidaea first, spend some time with Lila and Sarah, then continue to Amphipolis where she and Xena would settle down. Everything seemed perfect… "Almost too perfect," Gabrielle thought to herself as she followed her lover through the back woods. She should have known that whenever things seemed too perfect, it often was too good to be true.

As the open fields turned into gentle hills, then a steep incline, the two women took a moment to assess the path ahead. The smaller warrior noticed the deep set frown on Xena's face. Her gaze fell on the steep trail ahead, even though her lover's thoughts seemed distant and far away.

"Let's walk them up, Gabrielle," her soulmate spoke up suddenly. With only a frown the storyteller mirrored Xena's actions as she dismounted her horse. Taking the reins in hand, she began to follow her lover up the mountain. As an afterthought, the taller warrior turned to her. "Here, let's let Argo take the lead, Pyxis can follow her up," the bigger woman glanced back at her as she moved to walk next to the Amazon who released her hold on the brown mare's harness.

"Xena… I don't understand, where did this… this Destroyercome from? I mean, I can't believe that he just came from the clouds, or the mountains, or wherever people are saying. Why didn't anyone hear about him before?" Gabrielle asked with a shake of her head.

"I don't know, honey. I don't believe this Destroyerperson is a phantom, as some of the people are saying, but he definitely has a strong supporter of some sort. How else could he have conquered the land in such short of time?" Xena's brow furrowed as her gaze remained on the trail, her eyes held the look of deep contemplation. "It's just…." the tall warrior shook her head as she stopped in her tracks, her gaze turned to the scene of the green, lush valley they had just left.

"What Xena?" The Amazon followed her gaze. When she realized that her lover was deep in thought, she reached up at touched the side of the warrior's face. "What is it?"

"I don't know Gabrielle," Xena sighed as she shook her head. "Just when…just when everything seems like it's calming down."

At her soulmate's words, she took her lover's hand in hers as she resumed their walk up the trail. "I know, just when everything seems to be planned out," the blonde echoed.

"Gabrielle, please honey, don't get me wrong. I have no plans of doing anything stupid. We get to Pagasae and get a ride across… avoid all of this… war, and make it to Potidaea. From there, we should be home free," Xena smiled, even as the storyteller began to frown.

At her lover's words, the Amazon found herself thinking over Xena's conviction. She remembered the promise she elicited from her soulmate and was beginning to wonder if it was a promise that her lover was going to be able to keep. After a moment of silent contemplation, they reached the top of the hill. As though afraid to move on, the two horses stood; their bodies seemed to pace nervously as they whickered and puffed air from their nostrils. When the two warriors reached the top and moved to their horses, they took the reins and tried to calm them down.

"Xena, why are they…." but Gabrielle's words were silenced when she turned and looked down at the valley that had been hidden from view. "Oh…my gods…" the blonde whispered as she gazed upon the charred remains of a village. The breeze of the valley carried up the stench of decaying bodies. When she glanced at her soulmate, she noticed the taller woman's stern expression. Her jaw was clenched tightly as she began to lead Argo down the mountain.

During her years of traveling, there wasn't anything that Gabrielle had not seen. The death and destruction at Higuchi, the purposeful starvation of another human life, even the miracle of the dead being brought back to life. But as they made their way down the hill and the vision of the village grew closer, the healer found herself fighting for control. When they finally entered the remains of the village, she held back the urge to vomit. Instead, she removed a cloth from her packs and covered her nose as she followed Xena deeper into the center of the silent village.

The buildings had been burned to ashes. Those bodies lucky enough to have been inside of the structure were cremated along with everything in the building. For those who were not so lucky, their bodies lay out in the open, strewn across the village in a haphazard manner. Despite their presence, the carrion birds continued to pick at the meat on the bones. With a shudder, Gabrielle glanced at the bodies of men, women and yes, children. When her eyes fell on a child's body, the dark decaying skin pulled taunt against the bones, she felt the tears well up in her eyes.

"Oh… Xena…" she whispered as she lowered the cloth from her nose, her eyes remained fastened to the sight of the child's little body that had been split open by a sword.

"Gabrielle… I'm so sorry," the dark haired woman's voice was a soft whisper as she glanced around the silent village, her eyes falling on the bodies of the dead. "I-I can't keep the promise, Gabrielle. Please, sweetheart, forgive mebut I just can't stand around and let this happen. The bastard who did this has to pay!" Xena hissed.

Hearing her words, the Amazon looked at her soulmate. The anger of her mate's words filled the smaller woman's thoughts completely. Numbed, and angered by what they found, Gabrielle nodded in agreement.

"Xena, we can't sit by and let this happen. By the gods, whoever could do this… this… to women, children…" She shook her head. "Xena, we haveto stop them! If we don't try, when will it end?" Gabrielle's voice was filled with conviction.

With a cautious gaze, the tall warrior looked at her, searching her words. Seeing her lover's resolve, the warrior nodded as she released the breath she had been holding. "Let's ride to the shore, Gabrielle. If we can find a ship to take us north, we can head off the Destroyer's army and make a stand," the leather clad woman added as she mounted Argo, glanced one last time at the carnage, then tore off at a gallop toward the coast. Following close behind, the Amazon queen began to mentally prepare herself for the battle they would face.
~~~~~
The early morning sun caused a glittering reflection on the soldier's armor. Their gruff voices and laughter rolled over the hills as they readied their weapons. When their leader, theDestroyer, rode by on a beautiful black stallion, they grew silent and waited for their commander to pass. Once the rider was far from sight, they looked nervously at each other, the memories of their leader's quick temper was never far from their minds. In an attempt to feign an easy manner, the fighters returned to their slight laughter as they prepared for the upcoming battle.

The lone rider pushed the stallion to its very limits. Dressed in full armor, the Destroyer, as Ari had come to be known, rode through the throngs of men. Her attention was only partially on their forms as she pushed her beast to the top of the hill where her tent stood.

In the beginning, the dark warrior was unaccustomed to the vivid colors that assaulted her eyes. The sounds around her, although intriguing, often times left her head hurting. At first, the sights and sounds around her were painfully amplified. But as the days passed since Ari had returned to the universe of her birth, she was beginning to slowly acclimate to the surroundings of this world.

When the Destroyerfirst came to this brightly living world with her mother, Ari found it difficult being surrounded by so many people. Where she grew up there were only dark, stark colors and a cold wind that howled day and night until its wailing sound chilled her to the very bone. Upon arriving in this new world, the world of her birth, it's vividly bright colors brought pain to her eyes. Thankfully she quickly become accustomed to the numerous colors and contours and soon found herself intrigued by all that surrounded. But her curiosity was quickly curbed by her mother's commanding voice and the ever present herb that laced her food and drink. There was no time to spend in idleness, her mother would say. A plan had been forged and must now be completed, and young leader soon learned to appreciate the rewards her mother bestowed upon her with each village that they conquered.

Ari thought back to her time in solitude, before she entered this brightly living world. With only her mother for company, the Destroyer grew up surrounded by bitter coldness. The only home she ever knew was the cave that Alti had taken her to live many years ago. Aside for the few times when the sorceress brought an occasional man for sacrifice to their cave, the young woman had never seen people from the outside in such large numbers. In her world, there was only herself and her mother and the few times that Alti left, the captive was alone with nothing but the empty cave and the constant sound of the frigid wind. The young warrior was accustomed to being alone with only her sorceress mother. Now that she was surrounded by so many other humans, she found their nearness oppressive. Their thoughts, like a thundering squall, raged within her mind until she was able to learn to silence the thoughts around her. Ignoring the whispering sounds coming from the men in her army, she continued to ride up the hill toward her destination.

In full armor, with helmet drawn, it was easy to be confused for a man. The fact that she stood taller than most men, with hair barely touching her collar enhanced the ambiguity of her gender. Her armor of black that covered her torso, thighs, and arms managed to increase the illusion. The helmet, which was never removed in public, covered her face from the cheeks up, leaving her gently curving lips and firm chin exposed. All along the armor were designs inlaid with gold. For weapons, she had a battle sword strapped firmly on her hip and a shorter sword fastened on her right leg. To anyone who saw her, she would be confused for a very young man, but to those who encountered her first hand, her age and gender was secondary to the skills of combat which she possessed.

When Ari reached her tent, she pulled in the reins and jumped off of her stallion as the beast reared up at her actions. "Calm yourself, Thanatos," she cooed softly so that only the beast could hear as she lightly patted his dark muzzle with her gauntleted hand. With a groan and a snort, the beast butted his head against her hand. Ignoring his temperament, she menacingly grinned as she handed the reins to a solider, then ran into her tent. The inside of the tent was lighted with candle lamps. As her eyes became accustomed to the shadows, she glanced quickly around the area until her eyes fell on her prey.

"You see, I told you it would be easy," the scratchy, deep voice from the shadows assured with a slight purr.

With a rueful grin, Ari moved to the bound and gagged woman. Her captive's eyes stared up at her with slight curiosity. The young warrior was filled with a pleasure as she gazed down into the blue eyes of her prisoner.

"So you did, mother," the younger woman smiled as she stared at the captive. Ari knelt down and examined her prisoner closely, making certain that the kidnappers had not harmed or molested the woman in any way. When she was assured of her hostage's health, she turned her attention to the woman's face.

"She doesn't look so special, are you certain she's the one?" Ari asked as she turned to the older woman who moved from the shadows.

"Of course she is! Our spies in Chin had no problems finding her," the older woman said as she moved to stand next to Ari. "Look at her for yourself. Don't you recognize her? How long have you looked at that face?" the girl's mentor smiled as she stood by the young warrior. Rising, the dark haired girl glanced down at her prisoner and examined the woman closely. She gazed into blue eyes then, as recognition settled, the young commanders face broke into a smile as she was assured that this was, indeed, the one she sought out.

"So we have the great Livia of Rome!" the Destroyer slightly chuckled, "or should I call you Eve the prophet? Yes, you must be Eve the prophet, since I can't believe that you've ever lead an army," the young warrior woman snorted in disbelief as she knelt before the captive and stared into her eyes. "Should I kill her now, mother, or should I torture her first, then kill her? We could send what's left to her mother!" she sneered.

The older woman's hand lightly rested on her daughter's armor clad shoulder. "Have patience, my little girl. Not yet. Not until we let Xena see her… not until the Warrior Princess is able to witness the whole glorious carnage," a slight chuckle escaped the older woman's control.

"And then I can kill her, isn't that what you promised, Alti?" the excitement in Ari made her momentarily forget, until she saw the harsh look from her mentor. With an apologetic nod, the obedient girl bowed her head, waiting for the blow that would follow as she quickly amended her words. "M-Mother, when Xena is watching, then is when I can…?" the younger warrior's voice was softer as she removed her helmet. Her short, dark, straight hair fell disheveled as her piercing blue eyes glanced up at the only woman who had ever cared for her.

At the show of open obedience, Alti smiled as her mood softened. "Yes, my lovely daughter," Alti assured as her long, slender fingers brushed through Ari's locks. "Just as I promised, you will be able to seek your revenge!" A deep, harsh laugh rolled easily from the powerful woman.

With a pleased smile, Ari looked back down at her captive. Her penetrating eyes searched into the depths of this young woman's soul. "Finally, I shall have my vengeance," the dark warrior thought with a smile.
~~~~~
"Xena, we have Ikus's troops gathered on the northern plains," Gabrielle's voice held all of the commanding authority needed to govern a regiment of men. As the blue eyed warrior glanced over the maps, she noticed the commanders nearby, their eyes glancing nervously from the blonde warrior, to her.

Just as in the past, it seemed to take Xena and Gabrielle less time to reach their destination than expected. The constant, non-stop riding once they hit the shores enabled them to make their way around the Destroyer's army in order to find a fighting force strong enough to offer resistance. Once the army knew who they were, it took little time for them to turn to the warrior princess and Gabrielle for leadership. Glancing at her soulmate, the tall, dark haired woman's gaze remained expressionless, before returning her attention to the maps.

"Good, we'll be able to strike down from the north when they break through the front lines," Xena added.

"I don't understand why we can't strike now!" Delko moved close, his hand bunched in a fist in anger. "We move now, they will never know what hit them!"

The grumbling voices of the commanders echoed Delko's words. The men, hungry for vengeance, longed to strike back at the force that was consuming their lands. With a frown, Xena turned on the men.

"Because they called for a parley, that's why! And if there is any thing that can be done to avoid massive bloodshed, I will do it!" The tall leader's voice was deep and commanding as her eyes dared any man to disobey her. Beside her, Gabrielle's expression held the men's, her body language conveying her full support for Xena's military authority.

"How do you know it's not a trap?" Aleaster asked, his gray beard seeming to frown as the fatigue of the past days were etched on his tired features.

"I don't know, but I'm willing to take the chance if it will save lives. In all of their campaigns in Macedonia, they have never called for a parley… now they do and I'm curious to know why, so if anyone wants to take away the authority you gave me to lead your men in this battle, just say the word," Xena dared them to speak.

With eyes downcast, the men frowned, and glanced nervously at one another. The warrior nodded understanding of their actions, "Good. Since we're all in agreement, move to your areas and wait for my orders!" her voice was coolly calm. As each man filed out, the tall woman turned to her lover, her blue eyes betraying all of her fears.

"Xena, how bad is it?" the Amazon asked as she moved closer.

"We're outnumbered, and out maneuvered… unless we're able to reach a truce…" Xena let her words trail off.

"We'll be massacred," the Amazon's voice trailed off as she glanced down at the map. "Maybe…"

"No Gabrielle, don't start second guessing yourself. It was a good idea to have Ikus' troops in the north," Xena added as she moved to her soulmate.

"I wasn't sure. I was just thinking that if we fooled them, put our most experienced fighters near the end and the weaker ones in the front and at the last minute, switch the troops so that the enemy thinks they're fighting weaker warriors… maybe the Destroyer's army will be fooled," the blonde warrior explained as she glanced over the map.

"Sort of like the Trojan horse?" Xena smiled slightly as she nodded at her lover's plan.

"I was also remembering what Zara did with the Malaysian pirates," Gabrielle sighed as she leaned forward, the fatigue of the past days seemingly weighing up her.

Remembering that time, Xena smiled as she nodded agreement, "Any ruse should work."  The taller woman smiled softly as she began to kneed her mate's tense shoulders.  Before she could message out the knots, the blonde leaned back into her arms.  As the storyteller released a soft sigh, the dark haired woman wrapped her arms around the blonde's shoulders.

"I'm sorry Gabrielle," the dark warrior whispered softly.

"No Xena, you didn't break your promise to me.  I wanted this too, remember?"  Gabrielle leaned into her embrace.

"I know, but… Sweetheart, I don't know if…" Xena found it hard to finish her thoughts.

Understanding her unspoken fears, the healer reached up and laid her hand over her soulmate's arm.  "Xena, if we aren't meant to make it through this, then at least we'll go together," Gabrielle whispered before she turned in her lover's arms.  Her gentle gaze held the taller warrior's as a smile crossed her lips.  "It doesn't matter to me Xena, as long as we're together, do you understand?"

Xena did understand.  Unlike her antics at Higuchi, the warrior princess knew that if they failed in this battle, it would mean all of their lives.  It would mean the lives of the warriors who fought alongside them, her own and Gabrielle's.  Yet it didn't matter.  All that mattered was that whatever happened, she and her soulmate would go through it together.

The Amazon caught her lover's attention when she moved her hand to her belt.  "Xena, considering what we're up against," she lifted the chakram from its hook and held it out toward her lover, "I think you need this more than I do."

Tears sprang to Xena's eyes and her hand shook as she reclaimed her weapon.  "I've wanted this back for so long, and now I wish you were still keeping it.  Ironic, huh?"

The blonde wiped a tear from her warrior's cheek, "I know what you mean.  But I was getting ready to give it back soon anyways.  Frankly, Xena, I have more weapons than I have hands for as it is."  The warrior princess glanced from the katana to the sais.  When she noticed Gabrielle's smirk, they both burst out into laughter that was a welcome release of the building tension.

"Seems like it's about time for you to ask me for something," a deep, all too familiar baritone voice spoke from the shadows of the tent. At the intrusion, the two women broke apart as they turned to the familiar voice.

"Ares! Figures you'd be here!" Xena scowled before turning her back on the God of War as she gazed down at the maps.

"Ares, you of all people are not welcomed here," Gabrielle added defiantly, her hand resting on her katana from Japa.

"You know, I liked you better when all you did was tell stories," Ares glared at the blonde with contempt.

"Ares, what do you want?" The leather clad warrior interrupted the verbal argument that was about to begin.

"Just to offer my help, in whatever way I can," his tone sounded innocent as he held his hands open to them.

"And what is in it for you?" Xena's eyes narrowed to slits as she stared at the God of War, trying to find out the gods motive.

"Xena, I'm hurt that you would raise such an accusation. Can't I simply offer my help than for no other reason but to help?" His voice took on the soft quality that always managed to sway the taller woman's resolve. He moved to her side, his finger's reaching out to lightly touch the woman's cheek. As he gently brushed the tips of his fingers over her soft cheek, her body seemed to relax and lean into his touch, her lips parted, beckoning a kiss. Realizing the presence of his intoxicating powers, the warrior princess shook her head as she quickly pulled away from his touch.

"No, Ares, you never make things that easy!" Xena seemed to hiss as she faced down the dark God.

"For you, there's always a reason for what you do," Gabrielle snorted as she stated the obvious. Both Xena and Ares glanced at the blonde, noticing her for the first time. With a smile, the tall woman moved by her lover's side.

"She's right, Ares. Why would you offer to help us? I would have figured that you were helping theDestroyer," Xena voiced, then, as a thought crossed her mind, she smiled as she leaned against the table. "That is, unless you did offer your help to the Destroyer, and he didn't accept it!"

With a scowl, Ares frowned slightly. He turned his back to the women as he unconsciously stroked his dark beard. His brows were creased, as the frown remained etched on his features.

"That's it, isn't it!" Gabrielle's voice shot up as a smile crossed her lips.

"For your information, shewouldn't have anything to do with me!" the warrior god turned on them as he spat out his anger. When he saw their surprised expressions, he smiled ruefully as he nodded. "Oh yeah, the Destroyer isa woman, but you're actually going to be fighting against two women… and trust me, the Destroyer is the least of your worries."

Xena remained silent as she tried to understand how her spies overlooked this information. While a part of her mind wandered over this thought, another part started to reevaluate the upcoming battle. Although men and women fought the same, the warrior knew that if she was up against a woman, it could be a foe as fearsome as Callisto had been, and this would change the battle entirely. Fighting for domination over land was not the same as fighting for revenge, the bigger woman thought silently as she tried to remember if there were any female enemies who were still wishing for a fight.

"How did you…?" Gabrielle began to ask, but was silenced by the anger in Ares eyes.

"I'm the God of War! I know things like this," he huffed as he took a few paces away, "oh, that helmet on the face never fooled me. I knew from the very first day. And yes, I did go to her, but I couldn't even get near her. That handler of hers… she refused my offer, so I'm placing my backing here. But if you don't want it, that's fine with me," he stated as he began to disappear.

"Ares, wait!" Xena called out, the tone of her voice kept him from leaving. The god, hearing her call, had a moment of hope that she would still change her mind and let him back into her life.

"What do you know about her? What are we up against?" Xena asked.

With a sigh of resignation, Ares scowled as he turned away, disgusted at himself for showing such open emotions. When he realized the battle that Xena and her little blonde would go through, a smile formed on his lips. He chuckled softly, shook his head, and glanced down at her. "Not that you need my help, but just to let you know, she isn't calling this parley in order to beg your forgiveness," he stated and then he was gone.
~~~~~
The Destroyer sat on top of her steed, his hooves firmly planted in the green soil. Periodically, the beast's head would shake in anticipation as he blew puffs of air from his nostrils. His flank was ready for battle, like his rider, his whole body was geared for the single action that would soon take place.

From behind her, she listened to the sound of the nail being hammered into the wooden stake. As the slight sounds of her men reached her hearing, her gaze remained focused on the opposing army on the other side of the hill. Many looked like ordinary farmers. While some were old, many were young boys barely old enough to carry weapons. Their bearing showed how ill at ease they were with the weapons they carried. Seeing this, Ari smiled, knowing that today held an easy victory.

"She's there, I can feel her," the ragged whisper of her mother stated. Bolstered by the presence of her sorceress mother, the young warlord felt an unnatural confidence reinforce her courage. Turning her glance slightly, Ari watched as the older woman sat on top of a white and gray spotted horse. The older woman's eyes were closed as she was reaching out with her magical powers. Dressed in a full black cape, the hood pulled over her head, the enemy would not recognize Alti until the sorceress deemed it the right time.

At the thought of this confrontation, Ari turned her horse around and watched as the men pulled the young captive to the pole that was buried in the ground. With hands still bound and mouth gagged, the young woman was roughly placed against the wood, her arms lifted up until she slightly dangled in the air. In the new position, the prophet was forced to stand on the tips of her toes in order to keep the binds around her wrists from biting into her flesh. When the Destroyer saw the prisoner's discomfort, she smiled malevolently at the sight of the prophetess discomfort.

"How many years have I seen Eve living a life of peaceful tranquility, and now it is over," Ari thought with a wicked grin.

While she had been living with Alti in the outer realm of cold and darkness, Ari had watched the progress of this woman, and the boy, Solan. Never a day went by that the Destroyer wasn't gazing into the magic crystal pool to watch as Solan grew from a babe to a boy, until his death. Then when this woman Eve was born, the captive child filled her life with watching the progress of this girl. Livia had been surrounded by uncommon wealth and love. Eve, as she later came to be called, was given all the advantages that her foster parents could offer. "Once Livia met her real mother, the prophet was given the keys of the kingdom," Ari thought as she scowled and returned her gaze to the two figures that stood out from the enemy soldiers.

With a guttural war cry, the Destroyer yanked the reins of her horse, kicked its sides. She felt the strength of her stallion ripple through his muscles. As they galloped down the hill toward the enemy, Ari felt her heart beating rapidly with excitement. Filled with confidence, she cried out again as she rode directly toward the enemy ranks, then, at the last minute, she turned her horse away to ride in front of them. In a demonstration of her abilities, the young warlord rose and stood on her saddle, her perfect balance keen as she felt the animal move below her, then she dropped, waited a second, then leapt off to the side only to bounce on the earth and return to her saddle. Like a dream, she felt herself going through the motions; her body perfectly attuned to everything that she commanded of it. At her antics, her men suddenly shouted out a cheer, their voices rising in a roar high above the wind.

The encouragement led her to another thought. With quickness, she turned her horse around and coaxed it back to her men. She rode up to the wood stake that was concealed by the formation of men, then reached down and with a single yank, pulled her captive's bindings from the nail. With an easy heave, Ari yanked the weight of the woman free and hauled her over the hard, leather saddle. Like a sack of flour, the masked warrior held the woman face down as she rode back toward the enemy line. Stopping within a few paces of her target, Ari glanced down through the eye holes in her helmet. She noticed the icy stone expression from the warrior princess.

"You wanted a parley? You've got it," Xena's voice was not at all what Ari expected. For some reason, the dark warrior expected the Greek woman to have a deep, menacing voice. To hear it's soft, controlling quality surprised the young leader.

With a frown, Ari turned her attention to the gathering. As her black horse stomped in place with anticipation, the Destroyer glanced at the old men and young boys behind Xena. Ignoring their scowls, she looked at the warrior bitch before turning her attention on her blonde sidekick.

Ari took a moment to gaze at the smaller woman in an attempt to assess the woman's fighting abilities. Dressed in a red, two piece outfit, the woman's finely toned muscles were visible to anyone who looked. At her waist she wore a sword unlike any that the dark child had ever seen before, and strapped to her boots were the handled weapons Ari saw the woman fighting with in the cave's magical pool. Ignoring her weapons, the Destroyer gazed upon her features. At her beauty, the young warlord felt a familiar lust fill her soul. As her mind wandered over the various thoughts of what she would do to this blonde, the young warlord turned her attention back to the bane of her existence. With a sinister smile, Ari tilted her head as she leaned slightly toward the older warrior.

"The only parley that will go on will be the conditions of your surrender," Ari stated with a slight hiss. When the Greek warrior moved from the ranks of her men, the young commander pulled her horse back, moving away from the warrior woman.

"And what makes you think we'll surrender?" Xena asked casually. Masking her curiosity, the opposing leader glanced at the figure of the captive woman over Ari's saddle, then back to the black clad warrior.

"Because if you don't, I will kill every last one of your soldiers, and when I'm done, my army will move on to Potidaea. While Potidaea burns to the ground and the stench of the townspeople fills the air, I will move toward Amphipolis. No one in either village will ever live to see the rising sun once my army arrives." Ari's voice was deep and firm, a slight scowl crossing her lips.

"And if we surrender, then the towns will be left alone?" Xena's voice did not exhibit any emotions.

"No, I will still burn them to the ground and kill every last one of the villagers. But I would also have killed all of your men here today. If you surrender, some of them might live to join my army," she informed as she suddenly smiled, then turned her horse around in order that the Greek warrior could see her prisoner. "And if you surrender, then you'll have the privilege of witnessing my handiwork on this woman… I might even make it quick," she smiled as she grabbed a handful of hair and yanked the captive's head up.

"Eve!" Xena's mask of control quickly faded as she took a step forward.

With a smile, Ari pulled her stallion further away. "No, Warrior Princess, there will be no mercy for Livia of Rome, or for Eve, the prophet of Eli."

"Release my daughter NOW!" a growl came from Xena.

Ari began to laugh at the woman's predicament, and then shook her head. "You are in no position to order me to do anything!" the angry young woman hissed.

"I promise you that if anythinghappens to my daughter, you will have to answer to me!" Xena's deep, firm voice was laced with fury.

Filled with anger, the shorter blonde stepped behind her tall warrior, "And to me as well!"

At their words, Ari suddenly smiled as a chuckle burst from her, "That, I will welcome gladly!" Her voice held all the venom that she had stored up within her life as she stared down at the two women.

A slight movement by her side caught Ari's attention. Knowing who it was, she smiled at her enemies as she pulled back until her stallion was beside her mentor… her mother. With hood still concealing her features, the older woman remained motionless.

"Is it time, mother?" Ari asked as she smiled at the only woman who filled her life with hope.

"Yes," Alti's voice was a low whisper as she moved toward Xena. The sorceress glared down at the Greek warrior from her horse. As if she had been planning this all of her life, the older woman lowered her hood as she smiled down at her enemy.

"Alti! B-But how… how did you?" the confusion was clearly heard in Xena's voice before control returned. "I might have known!" anger raged in the warrior.

"How did I come back to life?" Alti chuckled, "No, Xena, I am not the one you knew from this universe. But I am who I appear to be. You see, I am the strongest one who ever lived and with my vast powers, I was able to travel between planes… between various existences and different worlds. When I came to this universe and saw you were alive and Alti was dead... I knew you had to die, just like when I killed Xena in MY universe!" Alti's ragged voice was firm and controlled as she gazed down at her enemy.

The Greek woman frowned as her palms bunched into fists at her side. When the warrior took a step towards them, Ari moved forward slightly, her right hand pressing against the captive's spine. Seeing the Destroyer's movement, Xena stood still.

"Careful or she stops feeling her feet!" Ari warned. When the warrior remained frozen in place, the warlord released a slight chuckle. "I think she's afraid of us, mother," the girl smiled at Alti.

"And who wouldn't be, my precious darling!" Alti's voice sounded like a coo as she lightly ran her fingers over Ari's exposed chin.

"What fun it will be, mother, to have the Warrior Princess as my slave, to have her witness all that I will do to her preciousdaughter!" Ari's deep laugh rang out as her gauntlet hand reached under the bound woman's skirt, rough fingers fondling the prophet's sex. At this action, the prophet of Eli tried to struggle from her captor's touch while Xena's body grew stiff as the older warrior fought for control. The Destroyer took delight in watching the dark haired woman's valiant battle at self-control.

Dressed as she was, Ari knew that her identity was concealed from both her men, and those of the enemy. Her actions of fondling the captive foretold what was in store for Xena's daughter. Pleased by this, the leader removed her hand from under the skirt and kept it firmly on the woman's back as she glanced at her mortal enemy.

"Who are you? Why do you have my daughter?" Xena asked in an angry hiss as she stared up at Ari, then looked at Alti. "If you want a fight, let it be between us!"

Alti chuckled deeply before she shook her head. "You'd like that, wouldn't you, Xena?" the older woman asked, but did not wait for an answer. "This, Xena, is my ultimate revenge. The Destroyer, my daughter… your first bornchild, will slaughter your followers and in the end, you will be able to witness the death of your youngest child by her sister's hands!" Alti's maniacal laugh rang out as the older warrior's stunned gaze shifted from Ari, to Eve, then to Alti.

"Yes Xena. Did you think you could keep that little… incidenta secret?" Alti asked, and then gazed lovingly at Ari. "As soon as I found out how you abandoned this poor baby, I adopted her as my own. That's right," Alti affirmed the warrior princess's shocked expression, "your first born child, Xena. Think of it, what you abandoned and discarded, I adopted and cherished! Since the age of five she has lived with me in my world! How sweet the whole plan is, how deliciously pleasing, because in my world, the aging process is slower. Here she is, Xena, your daughter from forty years ago with the body of a young, strong warrior only half her true age! And with my tutelage, she is unstoppable!" the craze cackle escaped Alti's control.

"Wha…?" Xena began to ask, but was silenced when Ari leaned slightly forward.

"You didn't think I'd ever come back to claim my heritage… my birthright, did you, mother," Ari spat out the words as the anger and hatred of abandonment filled her soul. "You discarded me like rubbish, and now I'm here to repay you in kind!"

Alti smiled at her foe, then glanced at Ari. Her hand reached out and lightly touched the young warlord's soft, smooth cheek, "Poor thing, abandoned at birth by her mother… well, I'm here to tell you, Xena, you may have birthed her, but I gave her life!"

At her mentor's laughter, Ari smiled, then turned her horse toward camp. "Mother, it is time we prepare for the slaughter," she stated as she made her way back to her men.

The older warrior leveled her gaze on Alti. The anger boiled within, and her jaw clenched tightly as she fought for control. With a growl, she took a tentative step toward the evil sorceress.

"Alti, why?" Xena growled deeply while trying to maintain control.

"Why, Xena?" the sound of disbelief resonated in the evil sorceress' scratchy voice. "Why?" a chortle rose and soon turned to a deep laugh. "Why? Because I can!" Alti's maniacal laughter followed her words. The sound of the sorceress' amusement rose in the air as she turned her horse away from the warrior princess.

The Destroyer had not heard the exchange between the two women. Instead, she continued to ride toward her troops, assured that her mother was following close behind her. Once at the stake on the top of the hill, the young warrior roughly grabbed her captive, took the bound wrists, and hung the prisoner like a side of meat from the large nail.

"You will have a front row seat to the carnage that I will do," Ari hissed close to the prophet's ear. At the look of panic in the woman's eyes, the young warrior smiled as she roughly grabbed the prophet's chin, pulled her face up until their eyes met. "Yes, my little sister! Once I have our mother as my prisoner, then we shall get… acquainted properly!" the young warrior felt an uncontrollable laugh escape as Eve's eyes opened wide.

"It will be so much fun taking you," Ari whispered close to her captive's ear, then leaned down and bit Eve's neck roughly, a muffled cry of pain came from the prisoner. With a rueful smile, the dark warrior lightly kissed, then licked the redness that formed on the prophets flesh. "Yes… so very much fun!" the Destroyer promised before galloping off to lead her men into battle.
~~~~~
Battle's were always predictable. With Alti commanding the generals, Ari watched and waited until she could join in the mêlée. Once her mother gave permission, the young leader rode into the thickest part of the fight, a battle cry released as she slashed her sword down on the enemy. As the adrenaline surged through her veins, the warlord saw and felt nothing. All she felt was the anger which soared from her soul. Without a concern for the enemy, the Destroyer sent them each to their own gods and never once cared if they suffered on their way.

In the dark child's mind, she was the goddess Keres, the personification of violent death in battle, the goddess who craved the blood of her enemies. Like the goddess of Alti's lessons, Ari strived to bring as many men to a violent death all the while smiling in order that her image was the last thing they would remember before entering into the dark world. This image of the goddess always played within her mind as she rode her black beast through the throngs of men while her sword came crashing down on the enemies bodies.

Against other defense forces, her army easily finished all opposing factions. This time was different. With the advice of her mentor, the general's moved their units into the fighting. Joining her men, Ari worked her way from the center in a circle. With each thrust of her weapon, she felt the blood of the dying splattering against her leg and on the flank of her horse. Sometimes, it splattered against her mask, the oozing liquid momentarily blinding her until she shook it off and resumed her downward slashes.

Ari thought the battle would be over quickly, but she was wrong. Before she realized a change, a roar of warriors greeted them as they seemed to appear out of nowhere. The hard, trained bodies wielded weapons unlike any of the farmers who were the first line of defense for the villagers. Realizing that the whole thing had been a ruse, the warlord silently cursed her general's for their stupidity as she turned her attention to the highly skilled warriors who rained down upon them from all sides.

The battle ended when the setting sun fell over the mountains. Frustrated that they still did not have control over the village, Ari's deep-set frown etched her features as she followed behind her mother's stiff form. At the entrance to their tent, the young warrior stood and glanced down at the shadows on the battlefield. With the night came an uneasy truce that would allow for both sides to regroup for the next day's battle. Those who were rested were posted on the perimeters of the camp while the wounded were tended to in the field hospital.

Angered that this battle had not gone as planned, the dark warrior turned and entered her tent. In fury, she removed her helmet and threw it against the canvas wall. Ari paced the length of the tent, her head bent as her mind raced over the day's event. Then she went to a table and sat grimly in a chair, her eyes unfocused as the fatigue of the battle weighed upon her body.

From the corner of the tent, she heard her mother's soft rustling. The young warrior glanced up in time to notice the older woman mixing her potions. A white substance was crushed with a pestle in a mortar then a yellow herb was added to the mixture. Not at all concerned with her mother's sorcery, Ari turned her gaze to their captive.

She noticed the young woman's alert eyes looking from Alti, then to her. Although gagged, Ari felt the woman's unspoken questions from her inquisitive gaze. With a scowl, the young leader turned away as her mother approached.

"Here, my baby," Alti purred as she held a goblet to Ari's lips. "Drink, my child, and you will be refreshed."

At the promise, Ari drank the bitter liquid. She swallowed the thick port, its liquor soothing to her taste buds. As she closed her eyes, she detected the faint taste of the herbal drug that was always present in her food and drink. Once the goblet was empty, the girl smiled at her mentor… her mother. The young warrior's drowsy eyes fell down on her captive. With a rueful smile, Ari rose on wobbly legs. As she moved to the bound prisoner, the young woman removed her gauntlets and tossed them toward her helmet. The warlord knelt in front of the woman as a slight smile crossed her lips. In curiosity, she reached out and lightly touched Eve's hair.

"What are you going to do with your toy?" she heard Alti ask with a slight chortle.

"I do what I wish," was her groggy response as she gazed lustfully down at the captive woman. "Pity that her mother isn't here to witness this," Ari added as she reached out and fondled the woman breasts. At her instant touch, the prisoner stiffened before her eyes closed tightly against Ari's assault. At Eve's reaction, the young warrior pulled her captives chin until she could look into the prophet's eyes. The dark commander was reminded of the warrior princess as blue eyes gazed back at her. Remembering how badly the day had gone on the battlefield, Ari scowled as she closed her eyes to the onslaught of images from the day. When she looked at her bound captive, the leader growled as she released her hold of the woman.

"You! This is your doing!" the young woman screamed as she shook Eve, her rough hold leaving bruises on the woman's shoulders. "I will have pleasure with you first, and then I will kill you tonight!" she shouted as she pushed the woman to the ground, her body covering the smaller form. Below her touch, the prophet struggled, her bound body wiggled as she tried free herself from the groping fingers.

"You will be still!" Ari hissed as her fingers wrapped around the prophets neck. With an inner pleasure, the warlord smiled as she watched the woman struggle, her mouth opened against the gag as she fought for air. From out of nowhere a heavy hand landed against Ari's face. At the blinding pain, she released her grip from the prophet as she rolled over and ducked away from her mother's wrath. As a fear suddenly filled her soul, the girl wiped the fresh blood from her lips, careful to keep her head bowed in obedient respect.

"You stupid!" Alti screamed as she raised the back of her hand in front of Ari's crouching form. Instinctively, Ari flinched, covered her face, and waited for the next blow. What came were two strong hands that grabbed her armor and pulled her to her feet. "You would kill the only leverage we have against Xena! You are a stupid little girl!"

"W-What does it matter? We haven't won the battle, like you p-promised! You said it would be over within a day," Ari reminded. Her words brought anger from her mentor.

"Who are you to question me?" Alti screamed as she shook Ari's armor until the young leaders teeth rattled, then dropped her to the floor unceremoniously. On her knees in front of her mother, the dark child maintained her silence, her head bowed in subservience as she awaited her punishment.

"By tomorrow, Xena will be ours and then you can have your fun with your little sister," the sorceress promised as her touch suddenly became gentle. The tall woman lifted Ari to her feet and smiled at her young, frighten adopted daughter. At her movement to unfasten the girl's armor, the dark warrior flinched as if expecting a blow. With a slight smile, Alti lightly petted Ari's dark hair to give reassurance.

"My poor, poor baby," her ragged voice cooed. "You have waited for so long, and you are anxious," Alti's voice, although softer, still held a scratchy quality as her long, bony fingers began unfastening the clasps on the dark armor. When the front part was free, Alti tossed it aside, and continued removing the protection from the muscularly slender figure.

"I promised you your revenge," Alti continued to whisper as she stood in front of Ari, her long, slender fingers brushing the younger woman's hair from her eyes. Then, with a knowing smile, the dark sorceress knelt in front of her and began to remove her armored leg coverings.

Ari heard her mother's words like a soft, soothing ballad as she felt a part of her mind separating from her body. From somewhere in the back of her mind, she felt the ever-present drug enhance her sensations. The young warrior heard these promises everyday, and everyday she held on to them like a cherished gift. With eyes close, Ari remained silent as she felt Alti unclothing her, each movement done with care. Once she stood naked in front of her mentor, Alti took the water basin filled with steaming water and a wash cloth that had been left in the tent and began to wash the sweat and blood from the young warrior's body.

"Tomorrow," Alti promised as she gently dabbed the cloth against the blood on Ari's lip, "Tomorrow everything that I promised will come true," the older woman smiled as she turned and moved to the table. With a slight scowl, the dark child glanced down at her captive prisoner. She had so wanted to seek her revenge on this woman tonight, but her mother stopped her. Alti had a plan, and in all of her years of living with the sorceress, the new warlord quickly learned that Alti's words were always to be obeyed.

"That's good, my child. You are such a good daughter, so special," Alti's softly soothing words rose in the tent like the wisps of smoke from a candle. "Xena was a fool to have abandoned you," Alti said as she led Ari to the soft cushions of the bed in the corner. With soft, gentle touches, she guided the lithe warrior under the covers, then covered her with a blanket.

As Ari stared up at the ceiling of the tent, she watched the light of the flickering candle as she heard Alti speaking to their captive. "Bet you didn't know that you had an older sister, did you?" the warrior heard as her eyes grew heavy from the port and drug. "And you thought that you were the only one who Xena abandoned, didn't you? Well, Eve, the prophet of Eli, you weren't. And now, you will be paying for the sins of your mother."

Ari didn't know when Alti had joined her. As her mind conjured drug-induced visions, she remained still as the older woman crawled naked under the covers with her. With only half awareness, the young, dark leader began to move gently against her mentor, her adopted mother. The blood lust of the battle still fresh within her, she longed for a physical release. Unable and unwilling to stop what her body craved, the warlord moved against her guide, her body raged with a need fueled by the drug and control that Alti held over her. And as she had done since the first day that Alti had saved her, Ari allowed the older woman to guide her in all ways.
~~~~~
The fatigue of the day's battle wore into every muscle in her body. Gabrielle was reminded of that battle on Zara's ship, and how her arms and back ached after rowing the small boat away from the larger Moroccan craft, only to have to turn it around and return when help finally arrived. Just like that day, the blonde knew she would not be getting much rest tonight.

With a tired sigh, Gabrielle stretched as she closed her eyes. The memories of the parley replayed over and over in her mind. Even after all of this time, realizing that her lover still held secrets tore into her heart. But as she thought about it, she realized whatever had happened to her soulmate, whatever caused her to give up her first born must have torn into Xena's heart until all she could do was push the memory aside. After leaving the healer's tent, Gabrielle wandered through camp until she found the somber woman sitting alone in front of a campfire.

"There you are. I was wondering where you disappeared to," Gabrielle smiled as she sat tiredly beside her lover on a log. In a casual manner, she leaned forward, placing her arms on her knees as she stared into the flames of the campfire. When she noticed that her lover seemed withdrawn, she leaned toward Xena and gently brushed her fingers through the warrior's long hair.

"Xena?" Gabrielle's voice was soft, her questions gently prying answers from her mate.

"I-I…." But Xena found it hard to explain. With only a shake of her head, she closed her eyes and turned away from their campfire. In the distance, she heard the slight sounds of the men settling in for the night. She felt a sigh escape her control as she lowered her eyes.

Xena did not know how to explain to her soulmate what had happened to her those many years ago. Within her own mind, it was hard to remember the incident that occurred when she was only fourteen. What happen in the woods should not have happened to anyone, least of all a child, the blue-eyed woman thought grimly.

"Xena, is it true, is she your daughter?" Gabrielle softly asked.

With a nod, the warrior princess wiped a single tear that fell down her cheek. "I was only fourteen… it was…." Her voice grew deep as she fought for control, and then Xena shook her head as the memories of that day flooded past her vision. "Gabrielle, there was nothing I could do. There were more of them, and I hadn't even started to train to fight yet… I-I just couldn't…" a sigh escaped her control as she closed her eyes.

At the look of despair, the small blonde reached out for Xena. She wrapped her arm around the strong, muscular shoulder as the warrior laid her head against Gabrielle's shoulder. The smaller woman stroked her lover's arm to give reassurance.

"I couldn't stand the baby when she was born. The first time I heard her cry and my mother gave her to me, all I could see were the men's hands as they held me down as each one took their turn." Her lover pulled away and shook her head, reliving the memories. When a slight control returned, the warrior continued, "My mother tried for days, b-but I couldn't… Gabrielle, I-I couldn't even stand to feed her… oh, gods, I didn't even care if the little, innocent baby lived or died. When my mother took her to be fostered, I didn't even ask, and by the time I did, it was too late…" Before she could feel the sorrow engulf her, her soulmate pulled her close. Strong, gentle arms held her as tender fingers ran through Xena's hair, the soft words of the blonde offering such compassion.

"Oh, Xena! I'm so sorry," Gabrielle whispered as she offered her lover a comforting embrace.

"When I first heard what happened to her foster family, I went to their farmstead… Oh, Gabrielle, we all thought she had died with her parents… What I found… what was left of her foster parents… I-I always thought my baby had died in the raid," Xena's voice was a hushed whisper as she fought to control her strangled cry of sorrow.

With a shake of her head, the dark warrior closed her eyes as she nestled her head against the gentle woman's soft shoulder. Her mind was filled with a myriad of thoughts. Although she had heard the Destroyer's words, she did not want to believe that the little baby she had given up could be filled with such anger and hatred. A part of her wanted to cast the entire blame on Alti. Knowing how the Alti of her world had been, it was easy for Xena to lay the full blame on the evil sorceress.

Although she could place the blame on Alti, Xena knew that a great deal of it remained with her. If she had listened to her mother when the babe was born, then perhaps Alti wouldn't have gotten hold of the little girl. If only she had been able to look beyond her own pain and see the innocent baby that needed her… but the dark warrior had not. Now, all of these years later, the baby girl she bore had returned to seek revenge. And who could blame her? The tall woman thought as she remembered how she screamed out her hatred and turned her back on the crying infant.

As this thought raced through her mind, Xena tried to devise a plan that would save both Eve and her first born child. Instinctively, she wanted to crash into their camp and physically remove the two from captivity. But knowing that her daughters were under Alti's control, the warrior princess knew that any rescue might result in the death of both girls. Understanding this, she tried to think of a way to avoid the inevitable bloodshed that would happen when the sun rose in the sky.
~~~~~~
The coolness of dawn was swallowed by the afternoon sun. As the crashing of metal reverberated over the hills, the sounds of men in battle echoed within the young warlord's ears. The scent of the dead wafted around her like a cloud. Although she was confident of her mother's guidance, as the day wore on, her confidence wavered. This battle should have been won. According to her mother, the spies informed them that this army was outnumbered. The young girl did not want to believe that the warrior princess was responsible for keeping Ari's army at bay.

From somewhere nearby, she heard the familiar battle cry that rang over the fray. Turning her horse around, Ari searched for the source. When she found the Greek woman in the middle of the fight, the young warlord urged her stallion toward the source of all her pain. With a low growl, she swept by the woman, her sword grazing off of Xena's gauntlet. The tall warrior glanced down at her arm then stared up at her. Ari, angered that her blow had no impact, turned her horse around, then screamed as she jumped out of the saddle.

"I've had enough of this!" she heard Xena shout as the leather clad warrior moved toward her, sword coming down in a fierce blow.

Ari's body moved instinctively. Her arms, feet, and body had been trained for this single encounter. Remembering all of the lessons of her mother, the young warrior parried with her enemy. With each bone jarring blow, the fighter returned the blows, guttural screams raging from her soul.

"We don't have to do this!" Xena screamed as she thwarted off the young warrior's blows while also managing to keep Ari's men at bay. The battle began to turn in Ari's favor as the Destroyer's men began to advance upon the town folks land.

"I have waited all my life for this!" Ari hissed back, her sword moving to cut the older woman's mid-section, but missed as the warrior flipped backward out of reach of the sword.

"What, mother, don't you want to meet me?" the young warrior mocked as she opened her arms wide. "Come to me, my mother, and let us finally embrace," a sneer formed across her lips as she pointed the tip of her sword toward the woman who was the bane of her existence.

Ari noticed the look of indecision on the warrior woman's face. An almost sad expression crossed her enemy's features as she circled around the Destroyer. Each warrior had her sword ready. Regardless of everything else around them, Ari knew that no matter what happened, she would take this bitch down. The pain of her past, the torture she endured was caused by Xena, and now she would have her revenge.

"Listen! I'm sorry about what happened, but I couldn't take care of you… I-I wasn't in any shape to take care of myself, let alone a baby!" The tall woman's voice grew soft as her gaze tried to implore Ari's understanding. With only a growl, the Destroyer moved forward, her sword raised as she struck out at the older warrior. However, Xena fended off the young warrior's blows. "I tried to find you! As soon as I was able, I went to look for you…." The leather clad fighter stated as she deflected the young warrior's sword. After a few parries, the bigger woman sent Ari's sword flying from her hands. With a deep growl, the warrior princess got a tight grip of the young fighter's armor. Holding tightly, the dark haired woman pulled the young fighter close, and shook her slightly.

"You liar!" Ari screamed as she roughly pushed Xena back, causing the Greek warrior to fall on her back. In this vulnerable position, the young leader took a flying leap, landing squarely on the leather clad woman. "You didn't try to find me, you didn't care if I lived or died!" the Destroyer hissed as her gauntlet landed on the Greek warriors face.

At the sight of spurting blood from her enemy's mouth, Ari smiled as she watched the older woman spit out blood, a bruise forming on her enemy's lip where the young warlord hit. Before the girl knew what happened, she felt herself flying off the woman, a hard blow landing on her chest knocked the air from her lungs, then she was pinned below Xena.

"It's true! I went there… b-but… I couldn't… don't you understand, I couldn't take you away from the only parents you knew," Xena's words were deep with conviction.

"No, YOU LIAR!You never cared. I saw you, I watched you turn away from me!" Ari felt her anger welling up before she reached up and landed a hard blow against the side of Xena's head. The bigger woman's brow furrowed before she shook her head, then the older warrior bunched her fist up again and landed a blow on the girl's chest, bringing her to stillness as she fought for air.

"Damn it! Just listen to me! As soon as I heard about the raid on the farmstead, I went to the farm where my mother left you!" the words hissed close to Ari's face as Xena slammed her head back against the ground, a slight dizziness crossing the young woman's vision. The pain of the blow seared through the young warrior's head while the air returned to her lungs as she heard her enemy's desperation. "I went there, but they were gone! The villagers said that raiders had murdered the family that lived there!"

Ari saw a brief image flash before her eyes. There stooda chubby woman with hair the color of the sun. Her rosy cheeks smiling down at her as an older man laughed loudly at the antics of the little girl. Then it was gone and was replaced by the image of her parents massacred, torn bodies strewn across the wooden floor of their home…and the horrible life that emerged from their deaths. Unable to move after the vision, the fighter remained frozen on her back, her expression one of shock as the memories flooded over her.

When the young warrior stopped fighting, the warrior princess stopped striking her opponent. She felt her ragged breathing as she lay over the armored body. At the change in the battle, the older warrior's hands moved to the helmet that concealed the fighter's features. She had not seen her baby since she was only a little girl. As the fighting continued around her, Xena unfastened the helmet and carefully removed the mask that hid her child's features.

Xena's initial instinct was to ask what type of joke was being played upon her because the warrior below her appeared no older than a teenager. But as she examined her daughter's features, she saw a familiarity in the girl. The shape of her eyes mirrored her brother Torris, and her delicate nose looked so much like Lyceus'. When she recognized her brothers in the girl, she knew that this was the same child she had given up many years ago. How the girl remained looking so young, the older fighter didn't know, nor did she care. All she felt was an endless love for the girl who was given back to her.

"Do you have a name?" Xena's voice was barely a whisper as she brushed the back of her fingers over the girl's soft cheek, then ran her fingers through sweat drenched black locks.

"A-Ari," the bluest eyes Xena had ever seen suddenly looked back at her under the brow furrowed in confusion.

"So… you never changed your name," the bigger woman smiled tenderly.

Ari, the Destroyer, watched the older warrior whisper the name softly. As if looking upon a treasure, Xena tenderly gazed down at the girl, her blue eyes taking in the younger woman's features. The first thing the young warrior saw was an expression filled with… Ari was not certain. All she knew was that the older woman's eyes were misty as she gazed down at her. There was a quivering frown on the woman's lips as she shook her head, her fingers lightly brushing aside the girl's sweat drenched hair. Like an observer looking upon a piece of art for the first time, the bigger woman's eyes fell over Ari's face, her smile shinning down upon the fallen warrior.

"Oh… Sweetheart… I-I'm so sorry," Ari heard the words like a distant echo as she tried to swallow down the pain that remained housed within her soul. For what felt like an eternity in time, their eyes locked, their gazes seemed to take in each other's intent. With a slight smile, Xena sat up on the young warrior's prone body. The older woman sighed then nodded as a way to ask for Ari's permission. At this trust, the girl blinked back her tears, then nodded acceptance.

All around Ari, the sounds of the battle raged on. Panting and out of breath, she glanced up and watched as the older warrior stood and moved on wobbly legs up the hill to where Eve was hanging, once again, on the wooden pillar. Although her mind was filled with confusion, the Destroyer, barely a child, tried to sort out the images that were playing through her disjointed memories. Her childhood memories altered between those two people who she could barely remember, and her time with Alti. She heard the words of Alti continually reminding her of Xena's crimes against her, then shifted to the images of Alti, her adopted mother. The dark child suddenly remembered all of the times when she felt outside of herself when in Alti's presence…

As the child would look down from outside of herself, Ari would watch as her adopted mother held her down against her will. The young warrior suddenly remembered how, as a child, the sorceress's touch made the child feel dirty. She remembered seeing the tears streaming down the girls face as the older woman brought her pain. Through the shame and degradation, Alti repeated over and over how this was Xena's fault until Ari's inner child believed everything that the evil sorceress had told her…

But now, as the vivid memories of her painful past returned, Ari's mind began to question everything that Alti had said. From somewhere in the distance, she heard the all too familiar scream of Alti. Blinking away the memories that clouded her visions, the girl glanced up as Alti stood over her. The dark sorceress panted hard as she glared down at the fallen warrior with contempt.

"You are useless! You're letting her get away when we're winning? Remember what she did to you? How she abandoned you! What you had to endure because sheleft you alone!" Alti screamed, then, seeing Ari's unmoving form, the sorceress shook her head then spit on the young warrior's prone form. "I should have known you wouldn't have it in you! You're pathetic… worthless… I should have drowned you when I had the chance!" Then the sorceress turned and was running up the hill toward Xena's back.

Everything seemed to move in slow motion. Rising from the ground, Ari reached for her sword, then screamed out a deafening cry, "NO!" as she chased behind her mother's running form. From somewhere nearby, she heard the panic scream of the blonde woman calling out to her lover. At the dual warnings, Xena turned, her eyes wide as Alti raised her sword behind her archenemy.

"Mother, NO!" Ari screamed again as she grabbed Alti's hand, stopping her from cutting down the warrior princess. Shocked by this action, Alti turned on her. The sorceress' gaze moved from the girl's defiant hand her own arm to the girl's face.

"Mother… p-please… no…" Ari prayed that there was a part of her mentor who still felt the motherly ties that they had formed. It seemed like Alti would listen to her. Then, with a smile and a shake of her head, the sorceress pulled her arm free.

"You worthless…." She hissed.

Ari closed her eyes and flinched as she waited for the blow to strike her face. Instinctively, she raised her left arm to her head in protection. Instead of her mother's blow, she felt a sharp, hard impact against her torso, then a sudden pain came from the slight seam in her armor, and then a stinging ache in her midsection. Disbelief in her eyes, the young warrior glanced down at her abdomen in time to see Alti's sword being pulled from the only vulnerable place in her armor. At the excruciating pain, Ari's left hand covered the gaping hole that oozed blood, then looked back up at Alti with disbelief.

"M-Mother…?" Ari felt the betraying tears sting her eyes as she tried to understand her adopted mother's actions.

"What? Did you think I wasn'tgoing to do this? Did you honestly believe I would let you live?" Alti's deep laugh reverberated in her throat. "Little girl, this was always in my plan… except I was going to wait until you killed your sister in front of Xena's eyes, then I was going to kill you in front of your mother!" The evil sorceress cackled, "I was going to be the one to kill Xena. Your cowardice just made me change my plans," she hissed close to the girl's ear, then returned her attention to Xena, who was at the top of the hill freeing her daughter.

Ari's glance moved from her mother's back, to the sight of Xena running back down the hill to confront the sorceress. Without thought, the young warrior's grip grew tighter on her sword, then she grabbed Alti's arm before she ran too far. Confused, the sorceress frowned at the girl. Her gaze fell on the gloved hand, then to her eyes. As the young warrior stared into the eyes of the only mother she ever knew, the dark child lifted her sword and shoved it upward into the sorceress. With no armor, the blade entered easily, cutting through leather, flesh, bones and organs until it poked out through the older woman's back. Although weak, the girl was able to grab a hold of the hilt with two hands as she yanked her sword upward, the sharp blade tearing apart any chance that Alti would survive. Then, the older woman took a few steps backward, her gaze glued to the hilt of Ari's sword protruding from her abdomen before she fell backward and landed on the bloody grass, her body spasming before growing deathly still.

Unable to remain standing, Ari fell to her knees, the growing weakness filled her. The pain in her abdomen seared through her senses as numbness slowly consumed her. Gulping down the pain, she allowed herself the lay upon the grass, her focus turned to the battle scene. She saw her men, their fear suddenly evident as they saw their two leaders fallen. Like rats leaving a sinking ship, the men quickly turned away from whomever they were fighting, and ran from the battle, their opponents quickly chasing after them.

In the haze of the moment, the fallen warrior felt herself being turned over, her eyes unable to focus. Then she felt herself being lifted, armor and all, as she was being carried from the battle. All around her she heard the commotion as the battle came to an end. When she opened her eyes, she saw her former enemy's grim expression. Feeling Ari's eyes on her, the older warrior smiled reassuringly.

"You're going to be ok… don't you worry. I'm not going to lose you now, not after all this time," the words took Ari by surprise. As she laid her head on Xena's shoulder, she closed her eyes as a dark blanket seemed to cover her senses. "That's it, sweetheart, you close your eyes and rest. You'll be ok, I promise, baby…"

Ari found herself submerged in a darkness filled with pain. The dreams passed by her vision in incoherent patterns. Unable to break free, she simply grew still and allowed the images to unfold before her eyes. She did not know how old she was, she only knew that her entire life existed within the darkness of the cave. Whatever warmth, whatever kindness she may have felt during her earlier years of life, was not even a memory. All she knew was the endless pain inflicted on her by her mother. The sorceress touched her in ways that the child could not comprehend and although a part of her relished her mother's love, another part felt sickened each time the older woman touched her. As she felt herself slipping in and out of dreams, she heard voices that she had only heard when gazing into the magical pool…

"Mother….i-is she going to be ok?" Ari heard the voice of the prophet near her. Although weak, she fought to climb toward consciousness. When she opened her eyes, she looked up from a table in the middle of a healer's tent. All around her, she felt people moving quickly. As she looked up at her former enemy, she was taken by surprise by the sight of her compassion filled eyes. Before she could hear Xena's response, the dark child passed out as the flow of blood was slowly drained from her body.
~~~~~
"Eve, help me get this off of her," Xena's panic was clear to those who knew her well.

Obeying her mother's words, the prophet began to work the fastenings on the armor, then removed each piece. The memories of her captivity brought an initial revulsion to Eve, but as she remembered the way the older woman pampered this girl, the way the sorceress forced the warrior to call her mother, and the way the older one abused this woman, was enough to make Eve pity the young warrior. Ignoring her revulsion, she moved quickly to help her mother save her former captor.

"Mother, is it true? Is she my sister?" Eve asked as she examined the unconscious woman's features.

Ever since Eve arrived in the hands of Alti and this woman, Eve had not even realized their relationship. It was not until she was held over the Destroyer's horse, and she heard the proclamation of their relationship that her mind recoiled. No, this… this child, because that is what she was, could not be her sister. Eve did not want to believe the hand that touched her in intimate places would even be related to her. But even before her mother confirmed Eve's question, the young prophet knew the answer. All she had to do was look at the girl's features to see the slight resemblance to her mother, and possibly, to her.

"Eve… please, not now," the older warrior seemed to plead before turning her attention to the wound in the girl's abdomen that oozed blood.

"Xena, here," Gabrielle handed the medical satchel to her soulmate, while the dark woman carefully pulled away the material from her eldest daughter to exam the wound.

The blonde healer noticed her lover's hesitation. Only she saw the shaking of her soulmates hands. At Xena's fear and uncertainties, the Amazon queen stepped forward and lightly touched the warrior's hands. Gabrielle felt both concern and compassion as she drew her partner's attention.

"Xena, I can do this, if…" the small blonde was ready to move in and take over. She watched as the dark haired woman inhaled deeply and closed her eyes after looking at her daughters wound.

"Honey, I know you can do this. You know what to do; I'll be right here for you," Gabrielle made sure to convey her trust, yet also offer whatever help she could.

Xena looked at her, then with a nod, she turned her full attention to her eldest daughter. As the woman moved quickly to heal her child, Gabrielle looked down at the fallen warriors face. Glancing from the woman, to her lover, then to Eve, the healer began to notice the resemblances. The young woman's lips looked so much like her mothers, and even though her eyes were closed, the blonde could see the shape of her soulmate's eyes in this young woman. Then she took a moment to glance over her face and noticed the ashen color of her skin. When she touched the girl's forehead, the coldness registered immediately.

"Xena, she's losing a lot of blood," the blonde failed to conceal the panic in her voice.

"I know… Eve, lay down on that table. Gabrielle, I need you to find some items for me," the older woman's voice was laced with urgency as her fingers began to work inside of the patience's wound. Following all of her lover's instructions, the Amazon turned and began her search for every item. The storyteller was not certain if Xena could save the girl, but she silently promised to do all that she could to assist her lover in saving her long lost daughter.
~~~~~
Ari felt herself drifting in and out of consciousness. Her dreams were a mixture of pain induced nightmares, and memories from long ago. At one point, she saw the images of the man and woman who she had always thought were her parents. Then, before the vision could continue, it was squelched by the image of a single raider. The tall, dark, leather clad woman seemed unstoppable as she slaughtered first her father, and then her mother before the toddler was swooped away by the woman.

Her initial entrance into the magical realm filled her with fear. She was only child, too young to realize what had happened to her mommy and daddy, yet old enough to recognize that what they once were was reduced to the mass of flesh, blood and entrails that were strewn in their once peaceful home. With this image still in her memory, she remained frozen in fear as the tall woman carried her through a thick fog. The only sounds Ari heard were stones crunching under the bigger woman's feet and the slight snarls and growls coming from the thick fog lining the path…

Waking from the dream, Ari opened her eyes in the dim light. The brightness from the candle lamp caused her to blink as she focused her vision. When her vision finally cleared, she saw Xena's consort sitting beside her. The blonde woman smiled as she gently wiped a cool cloth over the girl's forehead.

"You're all right Ari, you're going to be fine," she heard the woman say. From somewhere in the background, she heard the noise of men talking all at once. Before their words could register, thought she heard her birthmother's voice, the deepness taking her by surprise.

"She is MY daughter, and if anything happens to her, someone here is going to have to pay!" the warrior princess was warning someone.

"She is the Destroyer, how can you ask us to let her lay beside those that she wounded! Surely you understand how our people feel," the man's voice pleaded.

"When she is able to travel, we'll leave here, not before then," Xena's voice was firm.

Ari turned her head slightly away from the blonde. Through a fog-like vision she saw her former captive lying on a bed next to her, a contraption of thin hoses attached to the prophet's arm, blood dripping from the hose and into a gourd that hung between their cots and above their heads. Glancing at the contraption, the dark child noticed the wires which carried blood from the gourd to her arm. With a slight smile, the prophet of Eli waved at Ari with her free hand before the weight of fatigue pulled the girl back into darkness.
~~~~~
It had been a while since Xena had healed anyone, not since before her death at Higuchi. When she stood over the injured girl's prone form, she felt her hands shaking, the fear and uncertainty filling her. Just when she felt that she could not go on, her soulmate softly touched her hand. Gabrielle's look of concern, and sympathy mingled as one.

"Xena, I can do this, if…" the small blonde was ready to move in and take over. When the leather clad warrior glanced back down at the gaping wound in her daughter's abdomen and the blood that oozed out, she inhaled deep and closed her eyes.

"Honey, I know you can do this. You know what to do; I'll be right here for you," the conviction in Gabrielle's voice pulled Xena from her self doubts.

With only a nod, the warrior princess turned her full attention to healing her eldest child. She was not certain if the girl would pull through it, but she silently vowed to do everything she could. No, after all of these years of thinking that her eldest was dead, Xena refused to allow the thought of doom to enter her mind. She would not lose her daughter, her thoughts kept repeating as she worked feverishly on the young woman's open wound.

Once the surgery was complete, Xena would not leave the girl's side. For the first day, Eve spent a candlemark near them, the contraption that the older warrior devised allowed the injured girl to replenish her blood. When Eve had given enough, the warrior princess took her place hoping that her blood would add to the amount that the girl lost, yet not really certain if it would help. She had used this contraption of hollow reeds moving blood from the arm of a healthy person to that of a sick person before. However, many times transferring blood from one person to another seemed to do more harm than good, and she had no clue why blood helped some people yet harmed others. She could only hope that the blood from Eve and her own body would work since they were all so closely related. Eventually, the only thing that older warrior could do was to sit beside the girl's bed, the fatigue of the ordeal weighed heavily upon her. She breathed a small sigh of relief several candlemarks after the blood procedure when Ari's condition didn't get any worse. In the few days since bringing her child to the hospice, the girl remained unconscious, waking only once, but quickly passing out again. As the warrior kept a silent vigil, she felt herself drifting into sleep.

"M-Mother… d-don't… please…" the whisper shook Xena awake in the chair. Glancing down at the girl, she saw beads of perspiration on her daughter's forehead, her eyes closed tightly against a dream. Reaching for the cloth in the nearby bowl, the dark haired woman wrung the water out, then lightly placed it against the girl's forehead.

"You're all right now, everything will be ok." The warrior princess spoke softly to the girl while wiping the cloth over Ari's forehead.

"M-Mother…."

"Yes baby, I'm here, you're going to be fine now," she tried to answer the plea of her child.

"... p-please… please…" the features of her daughter bunched into a frown, her eyes closed as the tears fell down her cheeks.

"I'm here baby, Mother is here, you'll be ok now," she tried to assure the girl who was deep within a dream.

"… Mother… please… d-don't… h-hurtme anymore… please, I p-promise to be good… I promise…" Ari's voice was barely above a whisper.

At the girl's pleas, Xena remained frozen. She watched Ari thrashing her head on the pillow in an attempt to break free from her disturbing dream. Almost afraid to hear more, the bigger woman gulped as she leaned down toward the girl.

"Baby, tell me what happened," she whispered softly next to her child's ear.

The girl remained still, her body unmoving, and then she began to whisper softly. With each word, Xena felt her heart aching in her chest. The sound of despair, the descriptions of the beatings and emotional torment that Ari repeated in her fevered state brought tears to the stoic warrior's eyes. Only when her child grew quiet did the older warrior sit back, her mind frozen on the images of the physical torture that her girl went through under Alti's control.

"Xena?" the soft voice of her soulmate pulled the woman back to reality. With tears streaming down her cheeks, the warrior gazed up at her lover. The concern shone through the blonde's eyes. "Honey?"

"It's just…" the dark haired woman shook her head as she wiped her tear stained cheeks, "Oh Gabrielle, what she went through," she shook her head as the storyteller knelt by her side. Glancing at Ari's prone form, the small blonde remained silent, then turned to Xena and took her hands in her own.

"Xena, she's going to be ok now. She's safe now. Alti can't hurt her anymore," the Amazon assured.

"I know… b-but… oh Gabrielle, what have I done? This is entirely my fault. I-I never should have…" but her words were silence by the blonde's fingers pressing against her lips.

"Xena, don't do this to yourself. It wasn't your fault; it's Alti's fault. I don't know what things your daughter has to overcome, but Xena, we're going to be here to help her. I promise, we're going to make it through this," Gabrielle confidently stated.

"How can you be so sure," the warrior's lower lip trembled as she gazed at the unconscious form of her oldest daughter.

"Xena, we've been to Hell and back, walked through the fires of Higuchi, and found the eternal flame of the gods. Together, we ventured into the Dwelling of the Godswhere your life was restored! By the gods, Xena, don't you see that together, we can do this?" the strength of her conviction laced her words. When she heard Gabrielle's confidence, the warrior princess felt strength enter her being as she nodded in agreement to her soulmate's words.

"Oh… Gabrielle… thank you," she smiled as the smaller woman reached up to wipe the tears from her eyes.

"We're a family, Xena. We're going to get through this," her life mate whispered before moving to tenderly kiss the warrior's cheek. "I promise, our little girl won't go through this alone," the blonde vowed.
~~~~~
Gabrielle wiped the sweat from the young girl's face. As she took over for her spouse, she monitored the unconscious patient. In the beginning she was having a hard time admitting that this young woman was her lover's daughter. With a tired sigh, the healer watched the unconscious girl. She could not help but stare at Ari's sleeping features because even though she knew the truth, there was still a part of her that had a hard time believing this child could be her soulmate's oldest daughter. The girl's features appeared so young that it was hard to imagine she could be in her forties. Yet Xena confirmed that the child was her first born, given up shortly after birth. When the blonde examined the girl, she could see her lover's features in her. The dark hair, delicate brows and shape of her eyes were so much like her mother's. Her lips, softly sensual, were the same as Eve and Xena.

Although she had never voiced this to her soulmate, a part of Gabrielle recoiled at the thought of the future that lay before them. True, ever since Higuchi she began to reevaluate her future. Spending so much time with Nadrah and later Fatimah made her realize there was something lacking in her life. That was when she began to toy with the idea of raising a child.

Soon after returning to the Isle of Philae and seeing how Nadrah was surrounded with loving parents, the storyteller knew she could not ask to adopt the cabin girl. As much as she loved her, Gabrielle just didn't have the heart the take a child away from a loving home. With the change of plans, she decided to reexamine her desires. Although the main plan of settling down with Xena remained paramount in her thoughts, raising a child was always in the back of her mind.

With this thought, the blonde glanced down at the patient. "Be careful what you wish for, Gabrielle, because you just may get it," she thought to herself. Yes, she did want to raise a child with her soulmate, she just didn't realize they would be raising a full grown child! One who already had a firmly established reputation as a killer! But then again, what else could be expected from a girl raised by Alti? If Xena had raised Ari, then this girl might not have turned out this way.

As the Amazon pondered this notion, her thoughts turned to her daughter, Hope. They had not talked about her, but the child was always in the back of the Amazon's mind. Hope was her baby, her little girl. Regardless of who her father was, the child was part of Gabrielle's flesh and blood. Just as she wondered if Ari would have turned out differently had Xena raised her, the blonde thought about her daughter and how she might have turned out if things were different.

The storyteller sighed as she wiped the unshed tears from her eyes. When she glanced down at the unconscious girl, she wondered if this is how her life path was meant to be. Arjun spoke of fate, and if fate plays out as it should, then perhaps helping this girl is what Gabrielle and Xena were suppose to do. Raising Ari and teaching her how to live in their world would not bring back Hope, but perhaps it would help to alleviate that gnawing pain of regret still embedded in the blonde woman's heart.

As the healer pondered this, she turned away to dip the cloth into the cool basin. When she looked back at the girl, blue eyes glared at her. The girl's jaw was clenched tightly as her brow furrowed into a frown. Gabrielle felt a chill run through her as she remembered all of the rumors of everything for which this girl was responsible. The massacre of every village in her path, the capture, torture and rape of both young women and men alike was enough to send a chill through any seasoned warrior.

"Where is my mother?" the young, wounded warrior hissed. Shocked by the sheer hostility from the girl, Gabrielle remained frozen. "WHERE IS MY MOTHER!" the girl growled again.

"Just a moment," the Amazon rose from the chair beside the patient and left the small enclosure. The moment she left the partitioned room, she searched out her lover. When she saw her moving through the main room of the hospice with a tray of food in hand, the blonde walked past the beds that lined the large tent toward the tall warrior. "Xena, she's asking for you."

"She's awake? She asked for me?" The dark haired woman seemed confused, then grimly nodded as they made their way toward the guarded room. "Are you sure…" the warrior's words were cut off when they opened the cloth that acted as a door to her daughter's room.

Despite her wound, the young woman was sitting up in the bed, a grimace of pain in her features as she struggled to stand. "Whoa, wait a minute, don't you move," Xena ordered as she set the tray down and knelt in front of the patient. "You can't get out of bed, honey. You need to rest."

"W-Where is my mother?" the young patient asked again as she tried to fight against the bigger warrior. In her weakened condition, the girl only managed to push slightly against the taller woman's strength.

"You mean Alti?" Xena asked, and Gabrielle heard the slight sadness in her soulmate's voice. When she caught her lover's glance, the blonde felt her heart ache when she realized her misunderstanding.

"I-I want to see my mother," Ari whispered, her head bowed, beads of sweat on her forehead, as she leaned heavily against Xena's body.

"All right, ok sweetheart. I'll take you to her, but you can't walk," the warrior princess ignored her lover's gaze as she turned her attention to her eldest.

She could not lie. When Gabrielle told her that Ari was asking for her, a part of her heart leapt for joy. But when she realized who the girl was asking for, not even her strength could keep the disappointment from her voice.

For Ari, only one thing went through her mind and that was to see her mother. The dreams that plagued her, the images of what had happened made it impossible for her to determine what was a truth and a lie. Only when the bigger woman kept her from moving did she stop struggling. Each movement she made sent a searing pain through her wound. But every time she felt it, she bit down the pain and reminded herself that she had felt far worse. Her mother had inflicted far more pain than this mild discomfort, she kept repeating to herself over and over again.

When the warrior princess, her former enemy, began to dress her in a knee-length gown, Ari remained silent. Her brows knitted into a scowl. Not even when the tall woman wrapped a blanket around her, and lifted her in her arms did the dark child speak. Instead, she remained silent as the taller woman easily carried her through the hospice. Despite the angry glances of both patients and healers, the young girl remained silent. It wasn't until they were out in the open and moving near the outskirts of the village, that the young warrior could not hold back a reaction. The stench that assailed her caused her nostrils to crinkle as she instinctively buried her head in the warrior's shoulders.

"We're almost there honey. I'm sorry, I'll try not to jostle you," she heard the warrior promise, misunderstanding Ari's reaction.

"Xena, are you sure?" Ari heard the small blonde's voice from somewhere nearby.

"See wants to see her; she needs to see her," Xena replied before they stopped.

Peering out from the blanket, Ari saw the large, deep pit filled with the decaying bodies of the men from her army. Glancing around, she noticed the village men piling the carcasses into the pit. With scarves over their faces to hold off the stench and wraps around their hands, they moved over the dead in a uniformed pattern.

"Xena?" an older man moved away from the group, lowering his scarf.

"Ikus, my daughter asked to see Alti's body," the sound of the warrior's voice took her by surprise.

Her birth mother's voice was deep, as if holding back pain. Glancing at the woman, Ari saw nothing that betrayed the bigger woman's emotions. All she saw was her grim expression. At the warrior princess' words, the older man nodded, then turned away from them as he walked back to where the majority of the men were working.

Ari tried to free herself from the blanket she had been wrapped in. At her slight struggles, the tall woman's grip tightened as she took a few steps closer to the pit. "Hold on, honey, you'll get to see her," Xena promised as some of the villagers spoke to the older man, then nodded before moving to something on the ground.

"Hers was the last body," Ikus explained when he returned to them. "Our own people already received proper burials. These bastards here, even this is too good for them," he spit as a body was brought to the edge of the pit.

Although Ari was held at a distance in Xena's arms, she recognized her mother's clothes. The body that was now in them was hardly recognizable. Despite the color of the skin and the stiff limbs that seemed frozen in place, the girl could see her mother's hidden features. With yellowed, open eyes, hollowed features, and her jaw jutted open in a death mask, Alti's body remained unmoving. At a nod from Ikus, the two men lifted the lifeless body of the sorceress, then heaved and tossed her corpse onto the pile of dead warriors.

"MOTHER!" Ari cried out when she saw her mother landing on the pile. In a frantic move, she wiggled until she broke free of Xena's grip then limped near the pit. Before she could even get a few steps, she was stopped. Strong arms wrapped around her as she fell to her knees.

"No, Ari, don't," someone was talking near her, but she refused to acknowledge them. Instead, she watched in horror as the men set the pile of bodies on fire. As the flames licked up into the air, the girl felt her tears falling as she watched the flames consume what was left of her sorceress mother's body.

"I'm sorry honey, I'm so sorry," Xena held her daughter tightly, keeping her from trying to join Alti's burning body. Ari wept as she stared, trancelike, into the flames that surrounded what was left of Alti and her fallen warriors.

"Mother… n-no…" the girl cried in Xena's arm.

"Xena," the Amazon moved quickly to Ari's other side. Following her lover's gaze, she noticed the blood that was soaking up the white cloth of her daughter's gown.

"Honey, I'm sorry. You've broken a stitch, and I've got to mend it. You can't stay here," she tried to talk to the girl, but her daughter was too far from hearing. Instead, her eyes remained on the flames as the tears fell down her cheeks. With Gabrielle's help, they wrapped the blanket around Ari's shoulders before the bigger woman lifted the lithe form in her arms.

"I'm sorry honey, I'm so sorry," Xena kept saying over and over as she carried her girl back to the hospice. While a part of the warrior princess understood Ari's mourning for the only mother she ever knew, the older woman could not help but feel the sadness over the loss of her girl. She did not know if her baby would ever begin to understand that Alti was not her mother. She wasn't even certain of how to explain everything to her oldest child. The warrior only hoped that with time, they would find ways to help her daughter heal from her years of Alti's captivity.
~~~~~~
Ari had never felt so alone in her life. Although intellectually she realized that her mother was the cause of her foster parent's death, the absence of Alti in her life caused a loss within her heart and her soul felt empty of purpose. The girl knew that despite what Xena had done, the older warrior's actions were not the cause for Ari's pain. The young woman knew that it was Alti who led her down this darken path. Regardless of this knowledge, the dark child felt the burden of grief weigh heavily up her heart. When she would dwell on it, she felt the sorrow threaten to pull her under as she remembered her mother's eyes as she died from Ari's hand.

Even though no one spoke of it, the young warrior could tell that they were all grateful for Alti's death. Short of declaring her a hero, the three women she had come to know as her family shared little regarding their feelings for what she had done to Alti. Instead, they tried as best they could to cast no judgments on Ari as they defended her against the local authority.

While recuperating and lying in the bed, Ari's eyes were closed as she feigned sleep. It was then that she heard Xena's arguments with the local authorities and understood that her birth mother placed all of the blame on Alti. Everything that the girl did, all of the atrocities that she committed, were at the orders of the evil sorceress, the Greek warrior argued. Later, when the men spoke to Ari, she said very little, her eyes avoiding their accusing glare as she tried to will herself to disappear from their anger and hatred. The guilt and shame of her actions made it impossible to look into the men's eyes. The pain of her healing wound, and the sudden loss of her adopted mother, brought a solemn, meek posture to the dark child. Although she could not explain it, without Alti, Ari felt alone and lost. It was because of her bearing that the local authorities felt pity for the girl who had been kidnapped as a child, rather than hatred for the young woman she had become under Alti's tutelage. With the warrior princess' assurance that she would monitor the girl closely, the men allowed her to leave rather than commit her for her crimes.

Once she was able to travel, Ari joined her new family in hopes that she would be able to leave the nightmares of her past behind. As the four women rode away from the village and all of its memories, the girl remained silent. Xena and Gabrielle rode in front. Ari rode her large black stallion, Thanatos, while the warrior princess was on her honey colored mare and the storyteller on a brown mare. Beside the dark child, Eve, her sister, rode a white mare that was, in Ari's estimation, too short and fat to be of any use. But still the prophet, her sister, only pampered the beast.

Without her armor, Ari felt smaller than before. Her tall, looming frame seemed dwarfed without the concealing protection of the body armor and helmet, or so it felt to her. Ever since she entered this universe from the sorceress world, the dark haired girl was filled with a sense of power. But since her mother's death, she felt powerless in all ways.

The four women moved slowly down the road. Beside Ari, Eve's voice was prattling on. Part of her words drifted into the tall girl's senses, while another part of her was trying to calm her mind in order that the pain in her head would go away. Her body was beginning to miss something, but she could not remember what it was. As if she were just waking from a fog of dreams, her memories of the past was a jumble of images that were hard to capture. Knowing this was a weakness, Ari kept her silence as she fought for control over the strange sensations and emotions.

"…and I just knew that through the love of Eli, I was able to be free of all my pain, guilt and suffering," Eve's voice prattled on.

With a grimace, the dark haired girl glanced at Eve. Since the prophet's freedom, Ari had never seen her sister without a smile, or kind word. Not even her time as the Destroyer's prisoner got the woman mad or broke her spirit into silence. In fact, her words seemed to never stop and at times the former warlord regretted allowing the gag to be removed from her sister's mouth. Frowning, the taller woman sighed as she shook her head.

"What?" Eve caught her shaking her head.

After a moment of thought, Ari glance back at the woman. "Would you just shut upalready!" The pain in her head combined with the slight tremors of her hands controlled the girl's actions.

"What?" Eve's voice sounded hurt.

"J-Just shut up! All you ever p-prattle about is 'Eli' this and 'Eli' that! 'Love is the way,'… 'only through non-violence!' All mightyHades, it's enough to drive a person crazy!" Ari shouted.

"You didn't seem to mind in the hospice," Eve protested, a hurt look crossed her features.

"I was half out of my mind or unconscious at the time!" Ari screamed back. "I'm not in a fevered s-state anymore, unfortunately, because if I have to listen to your rubbish, I'd rather be unconscious!"

"But I'm only trying to help! With a little guidance, you'll be able to feel at peace too!" Eve protested.

"Well maybe I don't want your help," Ari mimicked her sister in a sing-song voice.

"If anyone needs guidance, it's you!" Eve nodded solemnly. At her words, the dark child shook her head, then reached over and slightly shoved her sister in hopes of silencing the woman's words. With a frown, Eve leaned over and pushed back. The open challenge could not be overlooked and Ari reached back and shoved even harder.

"Hey!" Eve protested, then reached over, and shoved back.

"HEY!" Ari shouted back then reach over and pulled a lock of Eve's hair, which brought a slight, high pitched scream from the prophet.

"Why …!" Eve began to protest as she was reaching over the pull Ari's hair, but was stopped in mid-stride by Xena's deep, commanding voice.

"Hey!" the warrior princess shouted back as she stopped in the road and turned in her saddle.

"But, mother, she started it!" Eve protested.

"S-She's been doing nothing but going on and on about p-peace and love and all that dung!" Ari defended herself, and she could see that Eve was about to open her mouth in protest.

"Both of you, be quiet!" The older woman shouted back, as Eve was about to protest again. Before the younger one could speak, Xena pointed a finger at her, "I said, be quiet! Both of you! Eve, stop tormenting your sister, and Ari, stop touching your sister!" She commanded.

In begrudging silence, Ari shot Eve a pure look of hatred. Seeing her sister's expression, Eve stuck her tongue out at Ari, which brought a look of surprise. If Eve had not turned away, the girl might have caught the slight smile that crossed the young prophet's lips. Instead, all the dark child noted was the strange way that her sister chose to mock her.

"I said both of you, Stop It!" Xena ordered again as she shot Eve a warning glance. "Don't make me come back there!" their mother's voice held a menacing promise to both of her daughters.

At the mysterious threat, Ari blinked at the commanding woman, then lowered her eyes as a show that she was backing away from a fight. Eve glanced over at the distant trees as a sigh escaped her control. Pleased by their new silence, Xena nodded, then turned back to face the road they were traveling on. With a grim expression, she goaded Argo forward.

In silence the party of four continued down the dirt road.

"Xena," Gabrielle pulled her mare closer to her soulmate, "What would you have done if you had to go back there?"

The warrior princess maintained her stoic expression, her eyes never wavering from the road, then she answered her soulmate softly.

"I don't know, but it seemed to work on me and my brothers, so I thought I'd use it," the dark haired woman shrugged as she kept her voice low.

With a slight smile, the storyteller nodded as she glanced back at the two silent figures. "Hopefully you'll figure it out if it ever gets that far," the blonde softly chuckled.

"I hope so, Gabrielle, I really do," Xena sighed, before her expression grew stern, and she returned her eyes to the road ahead of them.
 

The end of
Sins of the Mother - Intro


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