Sins of the Mother (4) : Possession

By L. Crystal Michallet-Romero

Copyright © April 2002 L. Crystal Michallet-Romero

All Rights Reserved

Reworked: February 9, 2004

Concept for this story was derived from the novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Author’s Note: So far everything that I have ever written about Ari’s story has been difficult, but be forward, this story in particular has been the hardest piece to write. I have heard it said that before a survivor can begin the road to recovery, they must first walk through hell. Possession, Part 4 of Sins of the Mother is Ari’s walk through hell.

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
Violence:  Scenes surrounding war and revenge.
Sexual Violence:  References as well as scenes of wartime enslavement, rapes, and child abuse.
Subtext:  X/G is 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.

Feedback: CrystalMichallet@Charani.org

 

Chapter 4 - Possession

Ari felt herself floating on a sea of horrific dreams. She felt the cold wind blasting past her. The anguish and frustration raged through her soul as she stared up at a cloud of darkness. From somewhere in the distance, she heard the low rumble of the sky like a thunderstorm in the night.

Why? She heard herself cry as she stood facing the raging tempest. In answer to her question, a gust of wind pushed against her, threatening to knock her from her feet. Openly defiant, the dark child fought against the storm as the wind and rain bombarded her.

Mother, why? She yelled as the elemental forces pounded her small body.

At her defiance, a high-pitched sound pierced through the storm in her dreams, knocking her to her knees. All around her, she heard her mother’s cackling laughter fill the air. With tear-stained cheeks, Ari gazed into the storm in search of an answer. Like a veil suddenly lifting, she saw the ominous clouds suddenly part to the image of her mother’s laughing face.

Little girl, did you really think I would let you go? Ari thought she heard the howling wind ridicule her as she cowered away from her tormentor.

Look, my little girl, and see what you have done… Alti laughed as the girl was swept into a multitude of images. Like a funnel dragging her into the center of a turbulent ocean, she was pulled through a long forgotten dream — a memory so hideous that she had pushed it away, hiding it behind layers of darkness in her mind. As she felt her senses clearing, she glanced around and watched the images unfold…

In the dream, the great hall of the newly conquered palace was filled with the boisterous voices of the victorious. Their bragging words and praise for each other mixed with the music of the musicians. Too filled with the victory of battle and ale, none of the men dared or cared to question their supreme commander’s gender or motives for conquering the lands. Instead, they drank and celebrated the victory that was theirs. As the new female slaves laid platters heaping with pork, calf and lamb meat, the nervous old men of the village stood by and poured the ale for their new masters.

Ari, the Destroyer, remained sitting in the high back chair at the top of the dais. With the battle over and her armor gone, she wore a simple black tunic and breeches with knee high black leather boots. Her bearing, combined with her clothing continued to enhance her androgynous appearance. Although she did not know her mother’s intentions, the dark lord continued to enhance the mystery of her gender. Rather than spend too much time with the men, she kept to herself and rarely spoke to a crowd. Only when she was alone with her chosen generals, did she remove her armor. Even then, the straight cut of her tunic and breeches did not betray her true gender. As far as any of her followers were concerned, their leader was a young man and nothing more. Maintaining the mystery, the young warrior chose to sit in the shadows. She sat back and watched as the men enjoyed the food, spirits and serving wenches who happened to move too close to the men’s prying hands.

Like a newly crowned queen, her mother sat on the matching throne. Glancing to her mother, Ari noticed the older woman’s slight smile as she looked around the room. When she felt the girl’s gaze, she turned and smiled seductively as she leaned toward her.

"Are you having fun with your new pet?" her mother asked.

The young lord suddenly remembered the woman sitting in her lap. With a slight smile, Ari glanced at the woman wiggled in her arms. At her mother’s sudden question, the dark leader closely watched her new slave’s expression as her fingers explored under the fine cloth skirt.

It had only been a few hours ago since Ari had deflowered this wench. Once they had taken over the fortress, it took little time to discover where the king had his family hidden. When the daughters were found and brought to the main hall, the dark warlord put into place the plan that they had formulated since the beginning.

While their helpless parents watched, the eldest daughter would go first. Then, when Ari was tired of her, she would be passed to the men and the second daughter would then experience all that the dark lord had bestowed upon her sister. Once she was through with the girls, the former royal family would be executed and left hanging for all of their subjects to view.

As the dethroned king and queen watched at knifepoint, Ari had held the eldest princess down. With rough hands, she ripped at the girl’s clothing while laughing at her ineffectual struggles and pleas. Before the girl could even beg, the dark one roughly forced her armor gauntleted fingers into the virgin princess, never once stopping at the tight hymen barrier that tried to keep her at bay. The princess screamed in pain and her watching parents and sister echoed her wail. When it was over, the dark warrior pulled her bloody fingers from between the girl’s slack legs.

As the Destroyer stepped back, the girl curled up on the table, the volume of her cries lessened while her tears continued to fall. In mild fascination, the conqueror turned her gaze from her bloody fingers to the princess’s features. She saw the royal girl’s expression full of hurt and violation, as her eyes took on a dull gaze. In that split second in time, the inner child of the warrior watched as a part of the princess’ seemed to disappear before her eyes. Curious by the change, the tall commander leaned down and peered into the girl’s eyes. A part of her soul felt a kindred spirit in the girl. She knew that even as the men’s laughter rose, this girl was disappearing into herself. Just as Ari had done when she was only a child, this woman was trying to find a safe haven within the darkness of her mind. Before the commander allowed the pity for this girl to fill her soul, she had pushed away all thoughts of compassion.

At the memory of the princess’ lost virginity, Ari smiled at her mother. "I bet her father never knew daddy’s little girl was such a hot little vixen," she stated as her now bare fingers stroked between the princess’ legs, the tip of her finger spreading the young woman’s juices over her nether lips. With each slight touch, the woman sighed; her hips arching up to meet each stroke as her legs parted even further. As young leader gazed into the woman’s vacant eyes, she saw the dull, glassy gaze of the young princess.

With a slight smile, the Destroyer supported the young woman as she hugged her close. In a tender manner, Ari softly kissed the unfeeling mouth and then left a trail of soft, light kisses across the princess’ cheek to her ear. Nipping ever so gently, she suckled on the earlobe before softly whispering to the girl.

"I know you’re in there…somewhere," she whispered to her captive. "Know this, no matter how far you hide from me, I will always have this power over you," the new ruler promised before her tongue darted out to lick the captive’s ear. At her instant touch, a sigh escaped the princess control as she leaned into Ari’s embrace, the soft, cooing sounds of pleasure rising from deeply in the princess’s throat as the Destroyer continued to explore her new slave’s intimate region.

"ummmm…you are very skillful, my child," Alti smiled as she lifted the girl’s skirt up further and watched as Ari’s fingers slowly entered the woman’s vagina, her thumb slowly stroking the swollen clitoris as her fingers massaged her prize’s inner walls.

"Dear mother. I’ve learned from the best," Ari smiled, and then held the girl tighter as she felt the princess’ pleasure rising higher. Her slight whimpers became a cry of ecstasy when she unwillingly but helplessly spilled her pleasure, yet again, over her rapist’s fingers.

As catcalls and applause from her troops filled the room, the dark one looked at her mother and glanced to where the defeated king and queen stood. The guards surrounded the two royal parents and forced them watch as their child whimpered and sobbed as a part of her numbed mind registered her embarrassment and distress after her public sexual delight. The king was a broken man who hung in the guard’s arms with his expression slack, but the queen watched Ari with open hatred in her face and a longing to kill in her eyes. Before the Destroyer could begin stroking her prize again, a sudden clamor broke through the revelry.

Two of her guards were dragging a body into the room. The man they carried was hog-tied and gagged. As the bound man glanced around the room, the guards stopped only when they stood in front of their leader. With a slight scowl, they took the man and dropped him unceremoniously before her.

"This had better be good," was all Ari said as she stood up, then gently placed the half dazed girl onto the floor by the throne, and took a step toward her men. The guards looked at each other nervously, before the senior of the two stepped forward.

"Beggin your pardon, my supreme commander, but this dog was caught trying to spy on our troops," the burly man stated.

Ari glanced back at her mother who watched with interest. She could tell that she was monitoring her, quietly waiting for the young leader to make a mistake and prove that she was unworthy of leadership. Knowing this, the tall warrior felt compelled to prove herself worthy of command. With a slight nod of her head, the destroyer ordered the man’s gag and bindings to be removed. Once freed, the man rubbed his wrists before bowing before her.

"My Emperor, I come in peace!" his deep, commanding voice brought a slight hush to the room.

"What is your name, and who are you to presume to be one of my loyal subjects?" Ari maintained a deep, neutral voice as she stared down at the man.

"Why, I am Stallonus, a renowned bard of Greece!"

At the man’s words, Ari returned to her seat as she observed everything about him in a matter of moments. When she turned her attention to the man’s expression, she felt the princess huddling close to her leg. Like a cherished pet, Ari absently reached down and stroked her captive’s hair.

"If you are so renowned, why haven’t I heard of you? Mother, have you heard of this Stallonus?" the destroyer asked in a bored tone.

"Not a word," Alti’s raspy voice was barely above a whisper. With a look of disgust, the sorceress frowned as she stared at the man standing before them.

"What? Surely my name has reached this far?" the prisoner protested.

"Are you calling my mother a liar?" Ari leaned forward, her voice deep and threatening as she stared at their captive.

"Oh, no! I beg your pardon, oh great commander!" The prisoner bowed low as he lowered his eyes in subservience. When he noticed their silent attention, he smiled slightly and continued.

"Perhaps I have been away from the lands of your conquest for so long that your great Queen may not have heard of me, but let me assure you, I am a renowned bard in Greece. Why, I’ve traveled the country far and wide, recounted tales of my many adventures. Before that, I studied at the Athens City Academy of the Performing Bards with Euripides, Orion and Gabrielle, the Battling Bard of Potidaea!"

At the last name, Ari’s attention was suddenly peaked. She remembered the numerous times that this name had come up throughout her life. Like their archenemy, Xena, her bitch, Gabrielle was the second person on their list that would warrant special attention. Glancing at her mother, she saw the older woman’s lips grow tight as she studied the man carefully.

"You learned your craft from the bard Gabrielle?" Ari turned her attention away from her mother and scowled down at the man.

"Oh, no, please forgive me, she was not a teacher, but a student along with me!" he stated quickly, then added as an afterthought, "well, she was not exactly a student either, but she did spend some days with us while a bardic competition was held. We all learned much from the bard, Gabrielle!" His voice was proud.

With a slight smile, the dark ruler leaned back and remained silent. When the man began to fidget, she waited a few moments more before leaning forward in her seat. The captive gulped nervously as he looked at the half-naked princess on the floor, then at Ari.

She raised an eyebrow. "So, you are a bard. Why did you try to gain entrance into my compound?"

Stallonus smiled and spoke with great theatrics. "Because, oh great Emperor, I wish to become your bard, to travel with you and your warriors in order to tell the tales of your conquest and to, uh, advise you of course!"

"To advise me?" Ari’s expression turned dark and she sensed her mother stiffen beside her. The warrior waited for her to speak, but the sorceress held her piece. The Destroyer turned a thin gaze upon the prisoner. "Advise me, how?"

The man swallowed as he carefully chose his words. "Of many things, my commander; useful things. The lay of the lands you might be making for, uh, which people you could, ummm, subjugate without unnecessary bloodshed. A-And places your army could avoid b-because of, um, powerful enemies…" He stopped, the sweat dripped down his brows.

Ari found herself trying to think of what her mother would do in this situation. The destroyer was aware of Alti’s lack of trust in her, and she knew that she had to prove her worth to the sorceress. It was clear to her that this bard was more than he seemed to be. She knew that he would be working not for her, but for the people she wanted to conquer. He would try not to aid, but to dissuade her from her planned campaign of terror and subjugation. As she unconsciously petted the woman at her feet, her eyes grew thin as she stared down at the man. When a solution came to mind, a twisted grin crossed her features.

"So you think you will be able to retell the tale of our exploits?" The warrior smiled knowing that her mother would be pleased with the outcome of this encounter.

"My lord, I could!" Stallonus replied quickly.

"You will tell us a story, bard, and if we are entertained by it, you will be considered," she smiled as she caught her mother’s look of surprise and disapproval. Remembering Battara’s appetite, Ari turned to the burly guard who stood protectively behind her mother. Despite his insatiable proclivities during his service, Battara had proven himself a loyal guard for Alti.

"Battara, give this bard some inspiration!" Ari gave her mother a reassuring smile as she sat back in her chair and watched the burly man smile broadly as he moved toward the prisoner. The smile on the hulking guard’s face brought laughter from her warriors.

"Start the story now, bard." Ari ordered even as the bigger man was dragging the captive to the nearby table.

"Wha…" their prisoner’s look of surprise lasted for a brief moment before he started to speak quickly, "I sing the song of Hercules!" he called out, then was silenced when Battara forced him to lean over the table, face down.

"My child, there are times like this that you make me truly proud," Ari’s mother softly cooed as she reached out a hand. At her mother’s approval, the young lord felt her heart skipping a beat as the warm sensations filled her soul. With a smile, she took her mother’s hand and turned her attention to the entertainment that was unfolding. As they watched their warrior pull the prisoner’s breeches down, then position himself, the Destroyer felt her mother’s grip tighten as the anticipation grew.

"I-I s-sing of a day of heroes!" Stallonus shouted out as he closed his eyes tightly. Before his tale could continue, the burly man grunted as he forced himself past the man’s tight sphincter muscle. The initial thrust brought out a scream of pain from the prisoner. With each ramming movement from their guard, the captive cried out, the pain of his violation filling the halls as laughter erupted from the celebrating warriors.

"Bard, I can’t hear your story!" Ari shouted as she rose from her seat and stared down at the man. The sounds of the roaring laughter combined with the man’s screams and the sound of flesh slapping against flesh rose to the rafters. As the destroyer glared down at the scene, she could not help but be pleased, knowing that her mother would be proud of her solution.

"I don’t think he’s a very good bard, mother," Ari said absently as she watched the attack continue.

"There is no such thing as a good bard, my child. Remember that and our job will be completed quickly," Alti hissed as she rose and moved by the leader’s side. As Battara continued to pump into the man, the sorceress lightly brushed her fingers through Ari’s dark, shoulder length hair. The instant contact sent a pleasing shiver through the girl. When she turned to her mother, she saw Alti’s wide eyes glued to the scene, as a smile remained etched on the sorceress’s features. Feeling the girl’s attention, the older woman smiled softly before leaning down to deeply kiss her daughter’s lips.

"You shall be rewarded for making your mother so proud!" Alti whispered seductively in her ear before returning her attention to the scene.

Battara finished with one final grunt that froze the huge man’s body. His head was thrown back with eyes closed as his bearded face contorted in pleasure. When his contractions finished, the big man released a satisfied sigh as he pulled himself from the prisoner, the combination of blood and semen dripped from the captive’s backside. Without giving the man a second glance, their guard refastened his own breeches.

"I dunno what kinda bard he is, but as they go, hiss ass was only average," their guard stated matter-of-factly with a snort, then returned to stand behind his mistresses’ side.

Groans of pain and humiliation came from the prisoner as he fell to the stone floor. As he fumbled to pull his pants over himself, Ari moved toward him. When she stood above him, he looked up her, the tears still falling from his eyes. Kneeling before him, the young warrior reached out and gently wiped the wetness that fell from his eyes.

"Poor bard, you really aren’t very good, are you?" she spoke softly as she gazed into his eyes. "It is because you are not very good, that I will show you mercy. If you were a better bard, then I would be forced to show you no mercy at all. So, feel lucky, Bard Stallonus, because if you were in the same league as the Battling Bard of Potidaea, your pain and suffering would have only begun."

The man looked at her confused and in that moment, she had the blade from her boot in her hands. Before he had seen her move, she had the razor sharp edge against his throat, the gleaming metal cutting a thin, clean slice. As the blood pumped from his throat to the beat of his heart, she stood up and moved away, her gaze disinterested as his life drained away. When he remained still, she leaned down, cleaned her blade on his tunic and returned it to her boot sheath.

When she remembered her mother’s promise, she smiled, pleased that she had made her mother proud. In all of her years, all Ari strived to do was to receive approval from the stoic woman. Now that she had learned a way to earn her mother’s acceptance, she smiled as a plan unfolded in her mind.

"Petrai!" she called to one of her top generals.

"My commander!" a rough looking man rose from his place at the table.

"From this point forward, each time we capture a village, send a unit out to bring back all bards. I don’t care what standing they are, or what their ranks are, just bring them back!" she hissed as a scowl set into her features.

"Bards, my commander?" he sobered suddenly from his drunken stupor.

"Yes, from the lowliest elder telling children’s stories, to the wandering bards who are registered in Athens, I want them all!" her evil smile formed as she turned to her mother. "Are you pleased, mother? Will this make you proud?"

"Of course, my child. Bards spread insurrection, bards have been known to begin revolutions, and bards can overthrow rulers with a wagging of their tongues. We cannot allow them to infect the lands that we conquer," Alti smiled as she stepped slowly down the raised dais.

"All bards are evil!" Ari stated as she scowled down at the dead man.

"They must be eradicated, all bards must die!" the deep, raspy voice of her sorceress mother said as a hoarse laugh escaped her control.

"Are you happy with this, mother? Are you proud of me? I do this for you, my mother — my- my love," Ari pleaded in a whisper as she turned to her mother.

"Who could not be? Any mother who would turn away from you, discard you like rubbish is unworthy of you," Alti cooed as she gently stroked the young warrior’s chin. "You give me much to be proud of. Soon, my baby, when you kill Xena, you will make me the proudest mother in the land," Alti whispered before leaning down to kiss her daughter’s lips.

While their kiss deepened, Petrai’s voice reaffirmed their commandment before the voices returned to their revelry. As if the party had never stopped, the men started laughing and making rude comments about the fallen bard as they passed around the ale. Retreating from the kiss, Ari smiled up at her mother. Alti remained frozen, her gaze conveying all of her pride and love.

"Come, my darling, and let us have fun with your new toy, then when you kill her, I will reward you for your great leadership," her mother purred as she held out a hand.

At the thought of having further pleasure with the captive, and then with her mother, Ari only smiled and reached out for the offered hand. With a firm grip on the captive princess’ arm, the Destroyer followed her mother to their new bedchamber while dragging the dazed princess behind them. As they disappeared down the halls, the music from the festivity rose in the air…

As the vivid images soared through her dreams, Ari shook her head in disbelief as she slunk against the large, cold rock entrance of her dream. As the visions of her past crimes ended, she felt a sickening sensation fill her. Even as her mind tried to convince herself that this wasn’t real, another part confirmed that she had, indeed, committed these, and so many other atrocities.

YES! Your hands are not clean either, my little girl, she heard the wind howl in her mother’s voice.

While the memories of her sins surfaced, Ari shook her head negatively as she tried to stop the maddening words of her mother from consuming her. Over and over, she kept repeating that this was all a dream, it wasn’t real, it was only her fears playing on her. Yet this failed to take away the terror that racked through her being.

Pleased by the dark child’s fear, Alti released a maniacal laugh as she caused the storm to rage down upon the dark child. Feeling her heart racing out of control, the girl instinctively covered her head as she ducked away from her mother’s powerful tendrils. She felt pushed against the rock as the gale force slammed into her. When she opened her eyes to the tempest around her, she saw and heard her mother laughing at her suffering. Angered, Ari growled as she rose and defiantly stood facing the storm.

N-Noooo… she screamed out and saw the claw like fingers reaching down to her.

In her nightmare, the dark child felt her mother’s cold touch burning against her skin. Shocked by the feeling, Ari froze as a chilling sensation wrapped around her throat and squeezed the air passage shut. With a slight gasp, she stiffened for only a moment as the ghostly claws ripped through her throat, her half-released scream stifled at this single touch.

I control you, little girl, the maniacal voice echoed through the darkness, you will never utter a word lest I give you permission because you are mine! The laughter sounded like thunder as it roared past Ari’s huddled form.

Before Ari could watch the dream progress, her eyes snapped open as she gasped for air. The heat of her sweat caused her to push aside her coverings, which brought an instant chill to her bones. She glanced around in confusion as she shook from the fear of her nightmare. Before she could understand what was happening, she felt a soft touch soothing her fears.

"Ari, you’re all right, it’s ok. It’s all over," she recognized Gabrielle’s voice.

Gasping for air, the dark child gazed into the soft green eyes and saw the woman’s tender smile. At her touch, the girl remembered the other bard, the first one who died at her hands. In an attempt to confess her sins, Ari opened her mouth to speak, but found the effort futile. Her mouth formed a word, yet no sound was released. Gabrielle gently pushed her back onto the pillow and pulled the blankets around her, tucking them around her sweat drenched body. Before the girl could contemplate her inability to speak, she saw the blonde smile as the gentle woman wiped a cool cloth over the dark child’s forehead.

"Shush, it’s all right. Calm yourself, rest, don’t try to talk," the storyteller commanded as Ari’s eyelids grew suddenly heavy.

If she had been able to speak, she would have told Gabrielle of her dreams, or at least might have confessed her sins, but she could not. Her voice had been snatched away by the demon of her mother’s spirit. Unable to explain this to the blonde, Ari closed her eyes and allowed the nightmare images to sweep her away through a multitude of scenes.

"That’s it, just rest. Let the fever pass. It will be over soon," Ari heard the gentle woman’s words like a distant echo.

As she felt her fever raging through her body, she could feel herself floating into an ocean of dreams. She saw herself observing the images around her from a distance and although she was separate from them, she felt the pain as keenly as if it were happening to her all over again. Just when it seemed that she could hold on no more, a soft voice, or gentle touch broke through her nightmares to reassure her that she was not alone.

This had never happened to Ari before. In the past, when her nightmares plagued her sleep, she was always alone. No matter what hideous images she saw, she always knew that there was nothing she could do but let the dream take her where it may. At first, when she was only a child, she would wake up screaming from the tormenting sights, only to be beaten by her mother because she had awakened Alti in the middle of sleep. Adapting for survival, her body and unconscious mind soon learned to wake silently from the vile images that plagued her dreams…

In Ari’s dream, she felt hands holding her down, heard the voice of her mother as Alti laughed at her pain. As a babe, she had never felt such suffering before, nor did she know that her small body could take the excruciating violations that she was now experiencing. In the blink of an eye, Ari was taken from the safety of her parents home and into a never-ending nightmare of darkness and pain. Before she felt herself pulled into the images, the dream shifted, the colors changed as another nightmarish scene quickly replaced the first.

As she saw the waves of a red sea come crashing down upon her, the adult Ari in her dream ducked her head in a vain attempt to shield herself from the onslaught. The roar of a thousand voices filled her ears. At the sounds of their pitiful screams, Ari covered her ears as she saw the faces held captive by the oceans claws. Each face held a familiarity for Ari, yet she could not comprehend who they were until the ocean baptized her in its filthy blood.

The pain and grief soaked her to the bones before another sensation passed through her. As the moans rose in a crescendo of agony around her, she suddenly felt the fear of the dead engulf her as the realization settled in. The guilt of their pain tore into her soul. Just like the death of the man named Stallonus, she was responsible for the existence of these poor souls who were trapped in the red sea. It was because of her that they were suffering, and it was her hands that had murdered them…

With a sharp intake of air, Ari’s eyes snapped open and she was instantly pulled from the depths of the blood red dream. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dimly lighted room. Throughout her whole body, she felt the pain of stiffness from lying too long in one position. When she tried to move, it felt like shooting knives stabbing in every muscle as her body protested against her. With a grimace, she closed her eyes in attempt to still the pain and opened them again to peer around her.

A single candle burned on a nearby table. Sitting in a chair next to her was the silent form of her sister, Eve. The prophet held some bread in her left hand and a cutting knife in her right. With head bowed and brows creased, her younger sister seemed to be deep in thought. Then, feeling someone watching her, Eve looked up and was startled by Ari’s gaze.

"Oh! You’re awake," Eve said with a slight smile as she leaned forward slightly. "Your fever finally broke yesterday. I’m not sure when, but mama Gabrielle was with you through it all." Her expression held a soft smile as she leaned back in the chair, her gaze never wavering from Ari. Knowing that she could not speak, Ari remained still as she watched her sister.

"Moms aren’t here right now. They’re looking into purchasing some items for our trip home, but they’ll be back soon." Eve explained as a way to fill the silent void that lingered.

Ari remained quiet as she watched her sister’s every move while trying to still the physical and emotional pain engulfing her. Every breath she took brought the pain of her dreams searing through her heart. The past memories of her early life with Alti merged as one with the images of all the people Ari had murdered. In silence and despair, she felt her soul being consumed by the overwhelming sensations filling her.

When her gaze locked with Eve’s, she hoped she saw the pity and compassion in the prophet and in her weakness, Ari wished that Eve could stop the pain. If only I can reach the prophet, Ari thought as she fought to gather what remaining strength was in her, then Eve will understand and help me end it. As hope surged through her, she gazed down at the knife in Eve’s hand, then back up at her sister. Confused, Eve looked down at her hands, then back up to Ari.

Eve had been quietly sitting for most of the afternoon. With Ari’s fever finally gone, her parents felt comfortable with leaving the room for a short time and even though they used the excuse of shopping, Eve knew that they sought out quiet time with each other. Knowing this, Eve kept herself busy in their absence. While some of the time was spent cleaning up their shared room, the rest of the time she spent in meditation while watching over Ari.

Since Ari’s initial fever, they had moved her bed against the wall in hope of avoiding the same mistake they made when she fell from it. Although she had seen the fear in her older sister, it was hard to explain to Xena that she was the cause of Ari’s terror. Yet, when the tall warrior backed away, Ari became calm under the soothing voice of the blonde.

Once Ari was safely tucked under the blankets and given the medicinal herbal tea that Xena had made, she slept through much of her fever. On the few occasions when she woke up delirious, Gabrielle was there to soothe her troubles away. For nearly three days and two nights, her sister laid in the grip of fever, and Gabrielle was never far away. Eve wasn’t certain why the Amazon refused to leave her sister’s side. Even when both she and Xena had assured her that they could watch over Ari, the storyteller refused to leave. It wasn’t until Ari’s fever had broken that Gabrielle allowed herself to rest. Now that nearly a full day had passed, the warrior princess had convinced her soulmate that Ari could be cared for by Eve for a few hours.

"A-Are you hungry?" Eve asked when she saw Ari gaze down at her hands. With a slight smile, Eve held the bread up. She thought that Ari was going to speak. Eve watched her sister’s dry, cracked lips try to form a word, but when no sound was made, Ari seemed to sigh. Confused by her older sister’s actions, Eve watched as Ari closed her eyes, sighed deeply and opened them and she stared directly into Eve’s face as she moved her bandaged hands toward the bread.

"A-Ari?" Eve heard her own whisper as she watched her sister’s bandaged hands move to the knife, the bandaged mittens encircling Eve’s hand as Ari slowly pulled the knife toward her own throat.

The prophet recognized the desperation in the girl’s eyes as she guided Eve’s hand. When she understood what her sister wanted, Eve blinked as a nervous gulp escaped her control. In the silence of the room, their gaze locked as Ari’s pleading blue eyes held Eve’s, then, resolved with her fate, the dark child closed her eyes and turned away exposing the vein on the side of her neck.

Eve felt time standstill as the deafening silence rang in her ears. She saw her sister’s heartbeat with each pulse in her jugular vein. With shaky hands, the prophet glanced at the glint of the knife in her hands just scant inches away from her Ari’s throat. As her own heart raced wildly, Eve stared at the calmness of her sibling, marveling at the peaceful expression that covered the normally turbulent features.

In that instant, Eve felt her own hand guiding the tip of the knife against her sister’s neck as the shame and anger at Ari’s touch returned. Eve remembered the fear that had overtaken her, and the degradation when the Destroyer’s gloved hand had fondled her in public. The threat of what Ari had in mind for her was visible for all to see. With a slight sigh, the prophet closed her eyes as she felt the anger and hatred rage within her. Just as it was climbing out of control, she felt the heavenly peace of Eli fill her soul as an overwhelming surge of forgiveness and compassion welled up in her for her sister. Purpose flowed through her and she now knew she could withhold the knife stroke. Opening her blue eyes, she smiled peacefully, ready to withdraw the deadly blade.

"EVE!" the voice of her mother broke through the spell. With a start, Eve turned quickly and stood up. This action caused her to drop the knife and bread as she looked up with a startled expression to see Xena and Gabrielle standing at the threshold of the room behind her.

"Eve, what are you doing?" Gabrielle’s confusion creased her brows as she followed her soulmate into the room.

"I-I… ah… I-I…" Eve turned and tried to think of a way to quickly and concisely explain what had just happened.

The taller warrior pushed past her and quickly knelt by Ari’s bedside. Gabrielle followed her lover and picked up the fallen knife. Without glancing at Eve, the dark haired woman placed a hand under her oldest daughter’s nose to determine that she still breathed. Fear clearly visible in her, Xena examined Ari’s neck and turned to Eve. Her expression was unreadable.

"What were you thinking?" Xena’s voice was a hushed whisper as she stared down at Eve.

"Why Eve?" Gabrielle’s disappointment was visible.

"I-I… s-she was, I didn’t even, I-I mean… she woke up and… and she wanted me to…" But Eve found she couldn’t finish her explanation, all she could do was shake her head, and turn away as the memory of her anger and hatred filled her with horror. Ashamed of what she had almost done, she lowered her gaze as she turned back to both women.

"I-I’m so sorry," was all she could say. Without answering, Gabrielle pushed past Eve and moved to sit by Ari’s side. Concerned, the storyteller gently examined the girl and sighed in relief.

"Are you saying that she was awake?" the blonde laid her hand on Ari’s chest as she gazed up at her youngest daughter. "Eve, her heartbeat hasn’t changed. She’s deep in sleep, just like when we left her."

"B-But…" Eve shook her head as her gaze fell on Ari, then to Gabrielle before turning to plead with Xena. "I swear, mother, she woke up… she… she guided my hand, wanted me to use the knife."

She felt her mother’s eyes boring into her. In an attempt to gauge Eve’s words, Xena maintained eye contact, before turning away with a nod. She took the knife and returned it to the table nearby.

"Well, she’s not awake now," the warrior princess whispered as she lowered her head and released a sigh.

When Eve saw both of her mothers turn away, she closed her eyes and moved to her bed. Although they did not say it, she knew that they were disappointed in her. In truth, she was disappointed in herself as well. Angered at her own flaws and momentary lack of compassion for her sister, Eve sat on her bed. She turned away from her mothers and Ari in an attempt to understand why she had almost allowed her weakness to control all that she had learned as Eli’s prophet. She understood her own anger, had seen it many times from the countless victims she created when she was Livia, the bitch of Rome. Yet, as the prophet of Eli, she should have held compassion toward her sibling. Even though compassion was found in the end, she could not help but feel disturbed that it took her so long to harness and that thought disturbed the prophet. When no answers were found, Xena’s youngest daughter released a sigh as she crawled under the blanket.

~~~~~~

Ari knew that if this was death, then it was all that she deserved. The endless dreams of pain, the memories of Alti’s touch, the stench of the cave combined with the images of the victims who had fallen at her hand replayed endlessly in her dreams. Just when she thought that it could get no worse, the images sent a searing pain through her until her eyes opened to the darkness around her.

Momentarily blinded by the single candle, Ari forgot where she was, but when she tried to move and felt the pain in her body, she realized that her sister was weak after all. Eve had not granted her the release she longed for. Filled with anger and defeat, the dark child turned her gaze slightly and saw the Greek warrior sitting where Eve once sat. With a smile, the tall woman gazed down at her and then leaned over to take something from the table.

Never once lowering her gaze, Ari watched the woman closely. At the feel of the cool towel against her forehead, she couldn’t help but close her eyes at the soothing sensation. When she reopened them, Xena was smiling down at her.

"You’re awake now, that’s good," her birth mother said softly as she returned the towel to the basin, then brushed her fingers through Ari’s hair.

"I’m sorry, I know you’d probably rather have Gabrielle here but," the warrior shrugged, "She’s downstairs right now, earning some dinars for us."

On cue, the sound of clamorous laughter filtered through the floor beneath them. The Greek warrior glanced over her shoulder, her head tilted in order to hear the sounds clearly. When she looked back down at Ari, she shrugged her shoulders.

"I tried to earn some money, but, unfortunately, in times of peace, it’s her skill that earns us more," she explained as she rewetted the cool cloth and began to run it over Ari’s neck and bare shoulders.

"I don’t know how much you remember, you were pretty sick when I found you," the warrior princess explained as the cold cloth moved over her daughter’s flesh. "I-I’m very glad that I found you in time… Oh Ari," the warrior sighed, "if you thought I wanted you to go away, I’m so sorry. I never meant that, it was just… I-I was afraid," the older woman’s voice was softer than anything the teen had ever heard.

"Sweetheart, I could never want you out of my life. I know you don’t believe this, but I hope I can prove it to you, show you how much I do love you," Xena smiled as she tenderly bathed Ari with the cool cloth, then when she was done, she tucked the blanket in around her patient and smiled down at her.

Her gaze was filled with a tenderness that took the dark child by surprise. Her birth mother reached out and brushed her fingers through Ari’s locks, then tenderly brushed her palm against the girl’s soft cheek. At her daughter’s continued silence, the older warrior stood and moved to the far corner. In the diffused light, the girl heard the mixture of muffled laughter and the soft sound of splashing water. When the warrior returned by her side, the teen mutedly gazed at her.

"Here honey, drink this slowly," Xena said as she sat on the edge of the bed, reached behind Ari and gently supported her head up while placing a cup to her lips. At the move, the girl began to instinctively pull away as fear filled her soul, but stopped at the warrior princess’ words.

"Ari, it’s only water, I promise," the woman assured as the cool water brushed against her lips. The teen closed her eyes and began to greedily drink of the quenching liquid. "Slow down, honey, that’s it, take it easy," the older warrior’s words cautioned, before she pulled the cup away.

At the feel of her hand behind her head, Ari’s thoughts suddenly grew clear as she felt a surge of hope. The never-ending pain of her dreams, the sensations filling her heart were threatening to overwhelm her and now, she might have found a way out. If only she could call upon Xena’s compassion, then maybe the warrior princess could do what Eve could not.

When her birth mother turned and gazed down at her, Ari tried to form words, to ask for mercy — beg for the compassion of a quick stroke to end her life. But no sound made its way past her lips. Instead, she only formed words and closed her eyes at the futility of her efforts.

"Ari, what is it?" Xena’s voice was softly soothing.

Ari felt herself sigh as she opened her eyes and stared into eyes that were as blue as her own. In that single moment, she felt a surge of sorrow from the older woman. The whispers that were muffled sounds only rang in the younger girl’s ears. With a slight smile, Ari reached out for Xena. She felt her hands, still bandaged, moving toward the woman’s free hand. At the confusion in the warrior’s expression, Ari blinked once before taking the woman’s hand between hers and guiding it to her neck.

P-Please… Ari thought silently as she turned her gaze away and bared her neck, the tears in her eyes slowly sliding down her cheek.

Xena looked confused as she felt the girl’s bandaged hands holding her fingers against her neck. But as her daughter’s request became clear, she closed her eyes realizing that the similar situation had happened with Eve when she and Gabrielle walked in. Inwardly cursing herself for her hasty conclusions, the warrior princess fought to find a way to help her older daughter. When she opened her eyes, a soft smile crossed her lips.

"Oh honey, I know you don’t understand this right now, but I can’t help you like this. Trust me, sweetheart, there’s going to be a time when you’ll be glad that I didn’t do this for you," Xena spoke softly as she brushed her fingertips over Ari’s neck, the girl’s steady pulse beating against her fingertips.

"Ari, I know you’re hurting, I really do. But this is not the answer. I know you’re in pain, but trust me on this, dying… it’s not the solution," the warrior promised as Ari felt the defeat settling in her soul.

Just like Eve, Xena can’t help free me from the torment of life, she thought as she closed her eyes to the tears. Sensing her sorrow, the warrior princess remained sitting close, her hand moved from Ari’s neck to her arm, which she gently rubbed.

"Ari, you know, there was a time when I walked away from my entire army," Xena’s voice pulled the dark child’s thoughts toward her. Turning, the girl gazed up at the older woman. With a smile that Ari was slowly becoming accustomed to, her birth mother gazed down at her, the warrior’s fingers moved to wipe the tears from her daughter’s cheeks.

"It’s true," Xena assured her softly as she smiled. "I was tired of it all! I had way too much blood on my hands, and I didn’t know how to leave it all behind or how to make the blood go away," the older woman’s voice slightly shook as she gazed down at the tips of her own fingers, "Hades, your grandmother was so ashamed of me and you know that’s bad when your own mother turns away," the warrior princess slightly smiled as her eyes grew moist with tears.

Suddenly pulling herself back to reality, Xena shook her head as she swiped at her eyes. "I knew who and what I was, Ari, and I was ashamed of myself. The only thing I could think of doing was to walk away from it, so I buried everything I owned, my leathers, sword, everything," the older warrior’s voice grew soft as she looked down at the bed coverings and absently readjusted the covers as an unfamiliar expression crossed her features.

"I had decided that since I couldn’t do it myself, I was going to let my enemies just take me as I was and be damned with everything else," she said as she turned her gaze to Ari. Her blue eyes were moist as she looked into the girl’s eyes.

"I know what you’re going through, Ari, I do! I know the guilt you’re feeling over all of the people you’ve hurt and killed, because I had that guilt too, and just like you, I wanted someone else to end it all for me," her voice grew soft as she lightly brushed the back of her hand against her daughter’s cheek.

"Sweetheart, I can’t claim to know what you’ve been through while in the hands of Alti, but the guilt of taking innocent lives? Well, I’m sorry to say that I know it all too well." Sadness covered her like a blanket as her gaze took on a far away look. Before she became lost in her own personal hell, she added, "And your sister Eve does too. We both do and I want you to know that I’m here for you; both of us are. We’re here to help you through this because someday, you’ll be glad that you lived past these feelings," Xena assured as fresh tears welled up in her daughter’s eyes.

"Oh honey!" Xena shook her head as she moved to pull Ari into her arms. "I know you don’t believe me now, but someday you will," she whispered as she gently rocked Ari.

As the pain and guilt seared through her soul, Ari closed her eyes to the tears as Xena held her close. Even this act of kindness, the warms arms holding her close, brought pain to the girl. She did not feel worthy of such love and her heart ached with remorse. When it seemed that the tears had subsided, her birth mother smiled down at her. Tenderly, the warrior laid a kiss on Ari’s forehead, before pulling away.

"Here, why don’t we get a bit more comfortable," the warrior said as she moved behind Ari. After she took the pillow and placed it against her breastplate, she pulled her daughter into her arms and held her close.

As Ari settled into Xena’s embrace, she closed her eyes as the woman’s voice spoke softly behind her. "Wanna know what helped me through this?" the warrior princess asked. Glancing over her shoulder, Ari nodded as she saw the older woman’s smile.

"After I had buried my armor, there was a group of village girls who were being taken captive by a slave hunting warlord. Amongst the bunch was a spunky blonde… she was all mouth, always sassing the guards and trying to fight back," Xena chuckled with remembrance, "boy, she couldn’t fight worth a dinar, but did she have guts!"

At Ari’s slight movement to settle in against her, the dark haired woman lightly brushed her fingers through her girl’s hair. "You know, she had more courage than anyone I’d ever met, and she was smart, by the gods, she is so smart!" the warrior sighed softly.

"After I was able to free her village, she continued to tag along with me despite my best efforts to be rid of her… the annoying little…." The warrior’s voice trailed off into silence, then suddenly remembering the story, she smiled down at Ari as she continued to stroke the girl’s hair.

"She was the best thing to ever enter my life… and she’s been with me ever since," she said as Ari glanced up at her quickly.

"Yeah, it was Gabrielle. She’s the one who gave balance to my chaotic existence. If it wasn’t for her, the pain I had inside of me might have taken complete control. Oh Ari, I don’t know how to help you; I can’t even claim to know how to help you overcome Alti’s abuse. But I do know, if you just let us in, we can love you the way you are meant to be loved. Gabrielle, she loves you dearly. She’d do anything for you, sweetheart! A-And… so would I. Please honey, you’ve got to believe this," the warrior whispered as she lightly brushed her lips on the top of her child’s head.

As the warrior woman’s words sank in, Ari felt her body floating outside of herself. Her eyes drifted closed, as the sound of her birth mother’s voice grew faint in the distance. When it seemed that she could not hold her eyes open anymore, the dreams of peaceful times began to form…

Like an artist’s palette, the colors transformed until she saw the open, green pasture and the blue sky above. With a sigh, she allowed herself to float into the peaceful scenery. She did not know how long she would be able to enjoy these dreams until the hideous images of Alti’s touch combined with her own crimes would return to her. Rather than dwelling on it, she relaxed in the surroundings as the soft but firm voice of her birth mother caressed her senses.

~~~~~~

Xena’s soft hum filled the room as she gently rocked her daughter to sleep. When she glanced down, she saw Ari’s serenity, as the girl was deep in sleep. In only a matter of seconds, the peaceful expression screwed up into a frown. At the all too familiar signs of a nightmare, the warrior continued to stroke her daughter’s hair and hummed softly. At the slow movements, Ari’s features relaxed as the nightmares were abated, if only for a little while.

Gazing down at the girl, Xena felt the remorse consume her thoughts. Once again, she chided herself for not being under control. If she had not allowed her emotions to rule her, then perhaps Ari would not have misunderstood her anger and rode to the place that was her childhood prison. Although they had just learned of the girl’s ability to hear people’s thoughts, the warrior did nothing to school her own when she thought that Gabrielle was hurt, and this she regretted dearly.

Ever since her return to life after the battle at Higuchi, the warrior princess vowed to live this life differently. She did not want to act hasty, or run headlong into trouble. This time her life was going to be different. Ever since she almost lost her soulmate to the enigmatic sea captain, she thought that this time around, she would live her life differently. But the moment her angry thoughts were released on the girl, the older warrior knew that just like before her death in Higuchi, she was making the same mistakes again. But her fears of losing her love kept her from stopping Ari.

But maybe I wanted her to leave? Xena’s thought plagued her. The Gods know that I was angry with her, especially after I realized how badly she hurt Gabrielle. All I could see was red, and I took it out on Ari, her melancholy thoughts ruled.

Yes, perhaps a part of her did long for the girl to leave. This had been the single thought that plagued her since finding Ari. She remembered the conversations she had with the wise prince of Indus and she wondered how much of what was happening to her had to do with karma. Although the notion was not new to her, she had to admit that everything she did in the past was suddenly coming back to haunt her. Why wouldn’t what happened with Hope also form my karmic path? The warrior wondered as she cradled the girl in her arms.

As she glanced down at her child, she felt her heart tugging. She had given Gabrielle no choice in the matter with Hope. Rather than try to raise the girl together, to help her know the right way to live, she forced her lover to make a choice — a choice that no mother should make. Now, watching her own daughter sleeping in her arms, she wondered what choice she would make if her life mate forced her to choose. Would she go against Gabrielle, to save Ari? Or would she do exactly what Gabrielle did?

That’s the problem, warrior, Xena bitterly thought, Gabrielle would have never forced you to make the choice. She never would have made you kill your own child like… I did. A muted cry escaped her control before she held on to Ari fiercely. No, I could never lose you, not again, not after all that has happened. Oh baby, if there is a part of you that is hearing me, please know that I love you. Please…forgive me, the warrior allowed a single tear to escape her control as she held on tightly to her child.

Her private musing were interrupted when the door to their room opened. Glancing up, she saw the tired features of her soulmate. With the door open, the music from the tavern filtered through the corridor and filled the air. The warrior glanced up as the blonde walked into their room.

"Eve is still working, they had a full house tonight," Gabrielle softly explained as she moved to their side. Her eyes glanced over Ari with concern as she gently examined their daughter. With a slight smile, she looked up at her lover.

"She woke up for a short time," Xena whispered softly.

"Her fever’s finally broken," Gabrielle whispered and smiled at her partner. "And you? How are you?"

At her soulmate’s inquiry, Xena shrugged as she continued to hum. With a smile, the blonde leaned down and tenderly kissed the warrior’s forehead. As a sigh escaped the dark woman’s control, the Amazon’s lips moved downward to kiss her lover. At the touch, the warrior princess felt warmth fill her as her lips instinctively parted to accept her lover’s tongue. Like long lost lovers, their tongues danced against each other, then gently pulled apart.

"I think the worst is over," the blonde healer whispered.

Xena continued to hum as she watched her lover’s every move. Filled with fatigue, the storyteller walked across the room and began to slowly undress. With each movement, the warrior noticed her partner’s stiff movements.

She spent so many sleepless nights by Ari’s bedside, the warrior princess silently thought as she gently extracted herself from her daughter’s grasp. Deep asleep, Ari remained still as the warrior laid her head on the pillow, then pulled the blanket up around her naked body.

As quietly as she could, she made her way across the room and moved behind her lover. In a familiar manner, Xena began to knead Gabrielle’s tense muscles. At her touch, the smaller woman groaned as she leaned back against her.

The worst of Ari’s fever was over and Xena felt a weight lifted from her shoulders. Now that her fears were calm, she began to feel another emotion rising to the surface. Sensing her needs, her lover leaned into her embrace as she tilted her head to the side, baring her neck. With soft little touches, the tall warrior lightly nipped, then kissed her lover’s smooth neck as her arms wrapped under Gabrielle’s. As her fingers lightly traced the Amazon’s firm abs, she held her lover close.

"Ummm… that feels so good," the blonde whispered.

"I missed you so much," Gabrielle said in a slight voice as Xena inched her fingers down her lover’s stomach and past the waistband of her skirt. As she kissed her lover’s neck, her fingers sought out the treasure between the woman’s legs. When they found their moist target, the storyteller released a low groan as she leaned back, her legs parting as she fought to keep her balance. At the feel of her life mate’s wetness, the warrior smiled as she ran her finger over the smaller woman’s slowly swelling clitoris while her lips suckled on the blonde’s earlobe.

"Oh, by the gods, Xena, I really want you," her voice was husky with need

As the Amazon leaned back into her, Xena easily supported her as her fingers continued to slowly stroke her lover. At the feel of Gabrielle’s body, the warrior nuzzled the blonde woman’s hair and then closed her eyes, inhaling the woman’s sweet scent. In slow, gentle strides, she led the blonde back to their bed and turned her soulmate in her arms.

Gabrielle smiled up at her, her questioning eyes searching the warrior’s motives as her arm hung loosely around the taller woman’s shoulders. "You’re not the only one with needs!" the tall woman whispered close to her soulmate’s ear as she began to unfasten her lover’s skirt. With wide eyes, the blonde looked shocked as she glanced from Ari’s bed and back to Xena.

"Xena, we can’t!" Gabrielle whispered before the warrior lowered her lips to capture the storyteller’s mouth. The warrior held her firmly as her tongue danced in her mouth, the silky texture of the smaller woman’s tongue brushing across hers. At the urgency of her kiss, she felt her lover’s reluctance, yet as her kiss deepened, the blonde’s resolve quickly crumbled. In a teasing manner, Xena clasped her lover’s lower lip between hers as she gazed down into green eyes. When she pulled away, Gabrielle’s lids slit like a cat’s as her smile widened.

"All right, but we gotta be quiet," the smaller woman whispered as she quickly moved to unfasten the warrior’s armor. With a slight smile, Xena helped her lover out of her clothes while Gabrielle’s skilled fingers unlatched the armor and leathers. Once naked, they climbed under the covers of their shared bed.

With soft giggles, and hushed whispers, they moved against each other. Just as she had done that first night, when they were out of the cave of Amenta when her life was restored, and every night before fighting against Alti and Ari, the warrior princess began to make love to her soulmate. Accustomed to every nuance of the smaller woman’s body, the warrior moved her fingers over the blonde. Where they touched, her tongue soon followed. As her mouth covered an erect nipple, she felt the Amazon’s fingers entwined in her hair as Gabrielle arched her back.

"Ohhh…." Gabrielle moaned, but was stopped when Xena reached up and gently covered her mouth. Rising from the pink nipple, she moved up her lover’s body.

"Shush, my sweet bard," the warrior whispered as she kissed her lover’s lips while her fingers left a trail down the muscular but slender body.

Conscious of their child’s closeness, Gabrielle closed her eyes as she fought to control her whimpers of passion. Each time she forgot, Xena would kiss her and whisper softly, "shush" by her ear. As the warrior lay partly over her body, she held her smaller lover close as her fingers explored Gabrielle’s nether lips. Occasionally, she dipped her finger into the woman and massaged her inner walls. At the blonde’s rising pleasure, the warrior princess felt her desire to taste her soulmate overwhelm her.

"Roll over, my love," she whispered glancing quickly over at Ari. While the storyteller turned over, Xena positioned the smaller woman on her knees and then crawled under her lover. Knowing that this was one of Gabrielle’s favorite positions, she smiled as she held onto the firm bottom and pulled the blonde down onto her waiting tongue.

At the first contact, a low, soft moan came from deep in her lover’s throat. Careful with the volume of her passion, the Amazon buried her face in a pillow when the pleasure rushed out of control. At her hushed sounds, Xena explored her spouse thoroughly. The warrior’s tongue moved up the woman’s labia, circling the blonde’s engorged bud. Each time she held fast to Gabrielle’s clitoris, her soulmate gasped as she thrust her hips down onto Xena’s mouth. When it seemed like the sucking movements were too much for her lover, the taller woman would run her tongue down the Amazon’s vulva, darting into her wet opening. No longer able to control herself, the smaller woman sighed softly as her body contracted. At this movement, the taller woman licked back up her beloved’s neither lips, then latched once more onto the storyteller’s clitoris. With soft, little meowing sounds, Gabrielle’s body shuddered as she buried her face in the pillow. At the muffled sounds, the tall beauty held fast and rode out her soulmate’s pleasure. Only when her spouse’s orgasm ended did Xena release her hold, her tongue lapping greedily at her love’s intoxicating nectar.

When she felt Gabrielle’s movements cease, Xena crawled from under the woman and climbed up the bed. Smiling, the warrior held her soulmate close. With a satisfied smile, the blonde reached up and pulled her love into a deep kiss, tasting her own pleasure on the taller woman’s warm lips. Groaning, she moved her hand down between the warrior’s legs, a smile crossing her features when she felt her lover’s wetness.

"I want to drink you too," the storyteller whispered softly.

Just then, a sound of applause was heard from the tavern below. With a glance over her shoulder, Xena was assured that Ari was still sleeping. When she tried to gauge the time, she turned to her smaller lover.

"Sorry honey, but I think Eve is due back at any minute," she said as she laid soft kisses over Gabrielle’s face and neck as she moved to straddle her lover’s thigh. "I think, for the time we have left, I’ll have to get that from you at a later date, when we can be assured of no interruptions," Xena smiled down at her lover as she felt the Amazon’s leg rising instinctively to press against her pubic region.

With a sigh, Xena rested momentarily as she became accustomed to the familiar sensations. The taller woman felt the slickness of her pleasure rubbing into the blonde’s firm, smooth leg. By the single candlelight, she glanced down and smiled into her soulmate’s green eyes. With slow, controlled movements, the taller woman began to gently rock against her lover’s leg, her hips gyrating in a single, fluid motion. As her pleasure mounted, she lifted herself on her hands and began to quickly rub against the familiar softness of her bard. Seeing Xena’s breasts swaying above her, Gabrielle reached up to lick and suckle her lover’s nipples. The combination of the friction and the storyteller’s kisses and gentle touches spurred the warrior princess to greater delights.

"Shush, my love," the blonde whispered before she turned her attention to stroking her lover’s back and muscular bottom. With a smile, Xena nodded understanding as she felt her pleasure rising. At her lover’s reminder, the warrior glanced over to the far corner, her hips never once missing a beat as she rode her lover’s leg. Assured that Ari still slept, the dark haired woman looked back down in her partner’s eyes. She concentrated on Gabrielle’s smile as the friction against the muscular leg brought her such exquisite sensations. With one final thrust, the warrior arched her back as a soundless gasp escaped her control. As she felt her pleasure spilling and her body spasm out of control, the dark woman fell down on the storyteller and held fast to her. The warrior’s cry of pleasure came out muffled against her lover’s neck until the spasms slowly subsided.

"Oh… Gabrielle…" she whispered close to her lover’s ear as she felt the smaller woman’s hands gently caress her sweat drenched back.

"Xena…" Gabrielle’s voice was so soft and tender. Her strong arms held the warrior close as she waited for her lover to come down from her climatic high.

When her heartbeat returned to normal, the warrior rolled off of her smaller lover. Lying on her side, she cradled Gabrielle’s head in her left arm as she held her soulmate’s left hand with her right. As was always the case, no words were needed as they relaxed after their lovemaking. From somewhere in the tavern, the music was playing on as the sounds of laughter and singing filtered to their room. Basking in the afterglow of their love, they cuddled close as their fingers intertwined. Remembering her earlier encounter with their daughter, Xena softly kissed the life mate’s temple.

"Xena?" The gentle woman whispered softly. Gabrielle always knew when something was bothering her mate. With a smile, she gazed down at her lover. After releasing her hand, the warrior’s finger absently traced the blonde’s hairline, then down across her cheekbone to her lips.

"I think we owe Eve an apology," Xena whispered. Without waiting for a response, she sighed as she rolled onto her back and pulled her lover into her arms. As she stared up at the ceiling, she softly recounted the night’s events. Gabrielle listened quietly, the only indication that she heard were her slight movements as she nodded understanding. Once the dark haired woman was finished, she felt her lover’s leg drape over hers as the smaller woman snuggled close.

"Tomorrow, Xena. We’ll talk to Eve… tomorrow," the storyteller’s tired whisper replied as a yawn escaped her control.

"All right," was all the warrior said as she softly kissed the crown of her soulmate’s head, then closed her eyes. After a few days of staying at the Inn, they had become accustomed to the sounds of the tavern. As the music filtered into their room, they felt sleep quickly embracing them.

Despite what many people thought, Eve was not unaccustomed to hard work. Tending to the tavern customers was a task that she had done from time to time during her journeys. This time had been no different. With Gabrielle offering her bardic talents to earn money, Eve offered to help the single, overworked serving girl. Together they managed to work the overcrowded tavern and Eve was able to turn her earnings over to her parents.

Not like this changes how they feel about me, she unhappily mused as she made her way through the throngs of customers with a tray laden with mugs of ale.

Once Gabrielle had left the stage, she returned to their room in silence. Although her parents had not said anything to her, Eve knew that they were still upset about the knife incident. It didn’t seem to matter that she wasn’t going to hurt Ari, because their silence only made it harder for Eve to talk to them about it.

"Hey love! Why don’t you marry me?" one of the tavern’s patrons called out to her as she quickly picked up the empty mugs and replaced them with the new mugs of ale.

"Because you are too handsome for me! I could never trust that you wouldn’t run off," she teased the man, knowing that the friendlier she was, the more tips she would get.

At her joke, the nearby customers laughed as they slapped the man on the shoulder. With a shake of her head, she made an automatic run of the floor, picking up empty mugs and quickly replacing them with filled ones. When her tray held only empty ones, she made her way back to the kitchen.

"It’s a crowded night!" Mallica, the tavern owner’s wife stated as she glanced out the door.

"Yes, very crowded," Eve agreed as she began to empty the mugs into the large sink. With a sigh, the prophet turned and moved toward the giant bins that held the ale.

"Eve, are you all right?" Mallica asked with concern.

"Yeah, I’m fine, I just haven’t been getting very much sleep lately," she replied with a weak smile.

After a moment of thought, the older woman tsked as she shook her head. "Well, no wonder with a sick sister and all. Here now, love, why don’t you put that down and turn in for the night. This group here is bound to be playing for a better part of the night!"

"No, I couldn’t…" But Eve’s protests were stopped by Mallica’s raised hand.

"Nonsense! I can see that you’re pale, haven’t had a good night sleep and your moms probably haven’t even noticed it what with the sick babe upstairs. Well don’t you worry none! I noticed and I’m not asking, I’m ordering you. Go on love and get some sleep. Here are your wages for the night, and enough to cover all your tips, yes?" the kind woman asked as she took out some dinars from a hidden mug.

"Are you sure?" Eve replied as she held her night’s earnings in her hand.

"Positive, now scoot along. There will be enough work in the morning with the clean up and all," Mallica shooed her toward the back servants’ staircase.

"Thank you, Mallica," Eve smiled as a yawn escaped her control.

As she walked up the stairs to their room, she sighed deeply. Mallica thought she had lost sleep over Ari’s illness yet Eve knew what the real reason was. Although she was worried about her sister, as of lately, she found it hard to sleep each time she thought of the silence she was receiving from her moms. Their combined reaction toward her cut deeply into her heart, yet she did not seem to know how to make it better.

From behind her, the music continued as the voices of the patrons joined along in the song. With a shake of her head, she smiled before she slowly opened the door to their room. As she entered the room, a heady scent of musk greeted her. Once her eyes became adjusted to the shadows, she glanced at her mothers’ bed and smiled when she saw their naked bodies tangled in an embrace, the aroma of the room an obvious indication that they had completed a session of lovemaking.

As she became accustomed to the distinctly female scent, she made her way silently toward the nightstand. Careful not to wake them, she laid the dinars by her mother on the table. By the single candlelight, she saw her mother’s smooth back, as she lay curled, spooning Gabrielle. With a sigh, she leaned down and took their blanket and pulled it up to her mother’s shoulder. At her touch, Xena turned quickly, then relaxed when she recognized Eve.

"I’m sorry, I didn’t want you to catch a chill," Eve whispered, then moved to her own bed and began to remove her clothes. When she climbed under her blanket, she heard Xena moving from the bed. Ignoring her mother’s movements, Eve only sighed as she turned her back and faced the wall.

"Eve," her mother’s soft voice caused her turn back over.

"Mother?" she was ready to get up, but stopped when Xena lightly touched her shoulder and sat on her bed. With a robe on, the warrior looked away, then turned and smiled down at her.

"Eve, I owe you an apology. Gabrielle and I both owe you one. You didn’t explain what really happened the other day, but now I know what happened." Her warrior mother spoke softly in an attempt not to wake up the others in the room.

"You do?" Eve was surprised by her mother’s words.

"Yes, Ari tried to ask me for the same thing tonight. I-I think I understand what must have happened, and I’m sorry that we didn’t realize it until now," Xena said as she smiled for the first time in many days.

Eve felt warmth enter her heart at the words. With a smile, she took her mother’s hand in hers, "thank you."

When it seemed like Xena would leave, Eve spoke softly, "Mother, is Ari going to be all right now?"

"Yes Eve. The fever has broken, we just have to work with her to get her used to walking again. I don’t think there will be any physical problems from it, but we have to wait until she’s rested before I’ll know for certain," the warrior explained.

"Good, I’m glad, mother," Eve smiled.

With a soft pat on her shoulder, Xena nodded understanding before she released a sigh.

"I know you are, honey. Goodnight," her mother said before leaning down to kiss her on the forehead.

At the familiar contact, the prophet smiled as she closed her eyes. Unlike other nights, Eve knew that sleep would finally be her friend. As her mind wandered over all of the events that brought them back together, she heard Xena moving through the room. With a pleased smile, Eve pushed the thoughts away. On this night, her dreams carried her away to peaceful dreams of green open fields and the presence of Eli.

~~~~~~

Gabrielle gazed into the void of Ari’s deep blue eyes. She smiled at the girl, hoping that some part her daughter recognized who she was. When she finished running the comb through the dark child’s black hair, she sat back on her heels and smiled at her.

"There you go, are you ready?" she asked, knowing that she would receive no response.

Ever since Ari had woken from her fever, she had not spoken a word. Although they could see nothing physically wrong with the girl’s voice, the teen remained silent. At times it seemed that there was understanding within her eyes as she glanced curiously around the room. Whenever this would happen, their daughter’s bright eyes would look at each of them as if she heard everything they said, but she never spoke. Yet at other times, like now, her eyes took on an empty quality. It was at these times that Gabrielle felt her heart breaking for the girl’s illness.

"Mother, what is wrong with Ari?" Eve whispered next to Xena.

In the two weeks since Ari woke from her fever, this was the first time that this question had been asked so openly. It felt like they were all afraid to voice out loud the girl’s condition for fear that it would become permanent. Although she had talked with Xena in private when Eve was watching her sister, they had never talked openly about it. Part of them hoped that their child’s silence would disappear. They had thought that when they began to work with her to exercise her atrophied muscles, that she would become vocal from the pain, but this had not happened. While at times they could see the pain clearly in her eyes, their girl never spoke or verbalized her discomfort. Instead, she remained silent as they performed the various exercises needed to strengthen her legs. At times, she made occasional noises of discomfort, yet at other times the dark child held a vacant stare and simply allowed them to help her through the routine. Even though they held out hope that she would talk, as the days passed, they had to come to the conclusion that for some reason, she could not speak.

"I’m not sure," Xena spoke softly as she unconsciously wrapped an arm over her youngest daughter. "I’ve seen this sometimes from the men who served under me. But for them, it tended to happen after a battle," the warrior quietly explained as Gabrielle began to tie the lacings of Ari’s shirt, "it’s like they’re trapped inside of themselves. They saw and experienced things that their mind could not comprehend, so rather than face it, they went… inward. It’s like they are alive, but a part of them has gone away."

"Did any of your men who acted like this ever… come out of it?" the prophet asked.

With a frown, Xena said nothing as she moved to gather up the few belongings that remained in their room. Understanding her mother’s reluctance to talk, Eve sighed as she took her bag from the floor. As she smiled slightly at Gabrielle, the prophet moved to follow her mother out of the door.

"But Ari wasn’t in a battle, mother, she only had a fever," Gabrielle heard Eve say softly as they walked out of the room.

"Honey, we don’t know what horrors she might have gone through while she was fevered. It could have been as severe as a memory of a bloody battle, or something we can’t even comprehend. I just don’t know. All I do know is that we’ve got to keep trying to reach her," the warrior softly said.

As she readied the girl for travel, Gabrielle gazed at Ari’s gently curving eyebrows and sensuous lips that mirrored those of her lover. With a slight smile, Gabrielle noticed the girl’s cheekbones that were so similar to her grandmother, Cyrene. Seeing the combination of the two women, both of whom she loved, the storyteller shook her head in an attempt to ward off her tears. With a tender smile, she reached out and cupped the dark child’s face gazing intently into the vacant blue eyes.

"Ari, I know you’re in there," her voice was barely a whisper as she forced the girl to look at her. "Please, honey, try to come back to us!"

Ari only blinked as she returned a vacant gaze to Gabrielle. Void of comprehension, the sea blue eyes stared at her blankly. With a sigh, the blonde leaned forward to plant a soft kiss on the girl’s forehead.

"Come on, your mother is waiting," the blonde healer smiled as she stood and held her hand out. With a tilt of her head, Ari glanced from Gabrielle’s eyes, to her outstretched hand. Demonstrating her only known comprehension, the girl accepted the hand as she rose from the bed. As she followed the Amazon, Ari scanned the room before reaching up and touching the place where Gabrielle had kissed. Before the storyteller turned to see this, Ari had her head bowed as she followed obediently behind the older woman.

~~~~~~

Malako stood standing near the brothel entrance. With long, straight, dark hair, and a military bearing, he remained silent during his solitary vigil. With a pint in hand, he gazed periodically across the town square to the inn. As the clamor of voices and music rose around him, he scowled as he moved closer to the threshold. The feel of his brothers’ closeness caused him to glance over his shoulder.

The two younger men peered over his shoulder, each of them expecting to see the object of their hunt. Angered by their obviousness, he growled deep in his throat as a way to order them off. Seeing his anger, his brothers pulled away quickly and then feigned disinterest as they glanced around the bordello.

Ceno, the youngest, was the first to speak up. "Malako, I don’t understand why we’re even here. We’ve got fields needing to be planted otherwise we’ll have no harvest, and nothing to live on during the winter," the boy spoke up.

Malako looked back at his youngest brother. The boy’s dark, curly hair hung past his shoulders. Whenever he looked at Ceno’s features, he was always reminded of his baby sister. Both had been born at the same time, with Ceno being the oldest by a minute or so. Where his twin sister’s hair had been long and straight, like their fathers, Ceno’s had gentle waves in his hair like their mother.

Just like Ladro, Malako thought as he choked back his grief. Glancing at his youngest brother, he could not help but see both the image of their sister, and his now dead son, Ladro. Ceno’s youthful features, which used to break out into a smile were mirrored in Ladro’s face. And like his uncle, little Ladro had dark eyes. For Ceno, the combination of his boyish good looks and his curly hair was enough to attract the attention of young maidens. Like this weren’t enough, they only had to look at Ceno’s gentle face before they were all professing their undying love for him, the eldest brother thought with a silent chuckle.

Ladro would you have been the same, had you lived? The gruff man asked himself silently. Remembering their mission, Malako growled as he turned away from his little brother.

"Stupid kid! You know why we’re here," Damisi hissed at Ceno, who glared back.

Where Ceno was a quiet, contemplative soul, Damisi was loud and boisterous. While Ceno was tall and thin with muscles of a farmer, Damisi was stout with muscles of a forest man. Intelligence seemed to have bypassed Damisi and gone straight to the twins. Despite this, Damisi had a heart of gold. There was no mission, or task that he would not take upon himself if ordered by his eldest brother, Malako.

Before his brothers could begin to quarrel, Malako broke in. "Both of you, shut up!" he ordered as he glanced around the crowded brothel. A few curious faces glanced their way, but then became bored and returned to whatever activity they were doing. When it seemed that they had managed to disappear again, Malako looked back out at the inn across the way. With a gleeful smile, he watched as four figures suddenly left the building.

"There they are!" he whispered triumphantly as he scanned the four unfamiliar faces for the one they sought.

"Malako, are you sure?" Ceno asked, his boyish features screwed into a frown as he gazed at the group of women.

"Listen, you," Damisi had turned to the skinny stranger that had guided them to this pub, and grabbed a handful of his shirt, causing the smaller man to squeak. "By the gods, if you’re trying to cheat us, I’ll…"

"Leave him be, Damisi!" Malako ordered as he grabbed a hold of the hands that were clinging to the little stranger’s tunic.

"But what if he’s lying?" Damisi asked plaintively.

"He’s not lying, are you, Purro?" The eldest brother smiled as he pulled the wispy man close to him. "That’s her, isn’t it?" He asked as he pointed to the youngest one. With head bent, her dark hair concealed her face and it was not until the smaller blonde indicated for her to mount her horse that they got a clear view of her.

"Oh, aye, that’s her all right," cackled the skinny man. "I’d know that face anywhere!"

Despite this assurance, Ceno whispered, "Shit, Malako, it doesn’t even look like her!"

"Don’t be daft! Look at that stallion, I’d bet my life that it belongs to her," Damisi growled before Malako could answer.

"But what if it was sold to them, and they aren’t the ones we’re looking for?" Ceno’s voice squeaked slightly as it resonated between that of a boy and a man.

"I mean, think about it, she doesn’t even look like her," Ceno added when his voice was under control.

"Purro, so help me…!" Damisi grabbed their informant again as his little brother’s words settled in.

"Leggo! It’s her, I swear it’s her," the little man wailed.

"Shut up, all of you!" Malako’s hiss stilled both his brothers and the informant. "It is her! She is The Destroyer, I can feel it in my bones!" He yanked the whining little man away from his brother.

At his declaration, the three brothers watched the unsuspecting group of women ride out of town.

"She’s the one we’ve been looking for! Soon, little brothers, she’ll pay for what she did!" Malako promised. At the wiggling from under his arm, he glanced down at the little man. With a slight smile, he nodded as he turned to his youngest brother.

"Ceno, pay Purro for his valuable information!" he ordered.

"Ya, like he say, pay old Purro!" Seconded the informant with a leer.

The younger one frowned but pulled a leather pouch from around his neck. Once opened, he removed the dinars and reluctantly placed them in the scrawny man’s greedy palm.

"Thank ye, master! You a kind gentleman." With a black-toothed grin, the informant snatched the coins and moved away to buy a pint of ale and leer at the whores who suddenly surrounded him. Seeing the man waste their planting money on spirits and women caused Ceno to shake his head in disgust. When he turned to his brothers, he noticed them leaving and quickly followed in their tracks.

Ceno was not certain why he was reluctant to join them. His sorrow and anger was just as great as theirs, yet, for some reason, he did not feel the burning hatred his brothers held. Despite this, he followed his older siblings even though he continued to have a bad feeling deep in the pit of his stomach.

~~~~~~

Ari was separated from herself, yet she saw all that was happening around her. When Xena would massage her unused muscles, she felt in pure heaven, yet when the massage led to the warrior’s slow, methodical movements that caused the girl’s legs to bend and move, the pain that racked through her muscles intensified her silent scream. As the weeks after her injury passed, and the bandages were removed from her feet and hands, she found herself being led daily through exercises and walking. In time, she was able to move with little discomfort. The fact that it would take some time for her fingernails to return, if they did at all, didn’t even phase the dark child because she was trapped within the prison of her mind.

Through her ordeals, the dreams plaguing both her waking and sleeping thoughts continued. Sometimes, when she thought she was awake, she’d hear her mother’s maniacal laughter. Alti’s ever-present mocking was never far away and this only reminded Ari of what it was that her mother had taken from her.

Unable to speak, Ari found herself trapped in a nightmarish existence that had no end. She heard her family talking to her, yet she was unable to respond. All she could do was sit and watch, her eyes focused on their actions. At times, when she thought she was in a dream, she heard their voices softly speaking, questioning each other about her condition, yet she could do nothing except wonder if this was a dream, or reality. In time, she learned to simply allow whatever was to happen, to happen without thoughts of her own.

On their first day of traveling, Gabrielle stayed close by her side. Ari felt herself drifting in and out of dreams as she sat on top of Than. His gentle, steady motions soothed her troubled thoughts and although she was only partially aware of her surroundings, she knew that her family had resumed their travels.

As if she were still injured, Xena chose to end their travels early. In muted silence, Ari stood watching the orderly movements of the women. Occasionally, they would offer her a smile or a word. Sometimes, she thought they asked her a question, but at times she was unable to understand them, let alone respond. So instead, she stood and watched as her thoughts were pulled away and she felt herself drifting from her body into a world of memories…

Ari saw the darkness of the clouds hovering in the recess of her mind. As the storm raged within her, she huddled in the safe corner of the make-believe rock wall that was always in her mind. The coldness of the stone seeped into her being as she felt the wind blowing past her….

Before her mind could be dragged further into the dark recesses of her psyche, she felt a pulling until she blinked her eyes and was standing in front of Gabrielle. "Come on Ari, don’t fight me," she heard the blonde say as she was trying to untie Ari’s breeches. With each attempt, the girl instinctively pulled away, pushing at the woman’s hands until the storyteller finally gave up.

When she looked down at Xena’s consort, she felt a heat cross her cheeks as she gazed at the blonde’s nakedness. Seeing Gabrielle like this, her breasts bare and hanging with pink nipples that stood erect and the tight gold curls leading to her nether region, caused Ari to blink as she quickly turned away. Feeling like she had sneaked a peek at a forbidden fruit, she gulped nervously. Glancing around, the dark child saw her birth mother already submerged in the water. Her sister only laughed at Gabrielle’s predicament before turning and diving into the lake head first, her bare white bottom popping into the air before she swam to the deeper part of the water.

"All right, you’re still shy," she heard Gabrielle say as the storyteller moved her to an open space near a tree and made her sit. "Ari, you stay here, do you understand?" the girl felt the woman’s palms cup her cheeks as the blonde forced her to gaze into green eyes.

"Ari?" she asked again. Blinking back the fog threatening to consume her, the girl nodded understanding as she positioned herself with her back toward the water, her eyes averted as her mind began to drift away.

"Good girl," she heard Gabrielle’s voice like a distant echo.

Ari was aware of everything at once. She felt the afternoon sun on her back and heard the voices of her family in the water. When she pulled her knees to her chest and rested her head on them, she became aware of the floral scents around her. As her eyes began to get heavy, she felt herself rising outside of herself. The familiar sensations of weightlessness returned like a warm blanket. As she waited for her family to finish bathing, Ari felt the cold wind of her nightmares knocking at her senses…

The storm of her heart began to slowly churn as she saw the blood red waves rising high above her. In the distance of her mind, the cries began to wail, and then grew suddenly louder with each approaching wave. Inwardly cringing, she thought the wave would sweep her away, as it had in the past. As she braced for the anguishing coolness, a slight whisper began to enter her thoughts.

"Ariiiiii," she heard it in the distance.

Mother? The dark child’s mind called out as the familiar but loathsome voice beckoned her near. When the gentle fingers of the breeze caressed Ari’s cheek, she lifted her head and looked around. She saw her family playing in the water, their childish antics bringing laughter to their throats.

"Arriiiiiii," Alti’s whisper grew louder with each brush of the wind.

The dark child glanced around again, looking for the place where her mother hid. With a frown, Ari stood and faced the green forest as she tried to see the voice calling her. At the sound of a breaking twig, Ari turned quickly and stared at the opposite end of the forest.

"Ari… my pet… my little girl," the whisper of the sorceress rose in the air like a soft melody.

Ari wondered if this was real, or another nightmare. Turning to her family, she watched them and wondered if they had heard Alti too. As they continued to splash and play, the girl turned her attention to the sounds of the forest. Like a lodestone pulling at an iron nail, she was drawn to follow the sounds of the haunting voice, moving slowly toward the woman who had always controlled every aspect of her life.

Mother… where are you? Ari’s mind formed the silent question as she made her way toward the forest.

"Ariiiii… come here, my baby, come near," she heard Alti’s coaxing words.

M-Mother… y-you’re not supposed to be here, Ari silently thought as she made her way through the tree-lined forest. The winds gentle touch brushed over the tops of the trees as a deep chortle resonated through the forest. With a frown, the dark child stopped and gazed up at the tall trees. She tried to locate the source of the voice as it began to resonate within her ears.

"Ariiiiii…" her mother’s seductive whisper called out to her.

At the sound of her mother’s voice, Ari scrunched up her features as she shook her head negatively. Her mind screamed to be free from the sorceress powers, even as she strove to find the familiar caller. As she glanced around her, Ari felt like the trees had suddenly come to life and were gazing down with critical eyes.

"Ari!" the sudden loudness of the sorceress’ voice caused the dark child to spin in her tracks as she tried to find where Alti was hiding. "What’s the matter little girl, you look surprised. Did you think you’d be rid of me so easily?"

No, the defeat registered in Ari’s soul. You’re dead mother… y-you can’t be here, Ari searched through the trees and bushes for the source of her pain.

"No, Ari, you are mine and I will always be yours. We are the same, you and I. My baby girl, I am a part of you, for always and ever," Alti’s voice promised as the branches of the trees suddenly shook from the force of the wind. "You will always belong to me, little girl!" The dark laughter rose through the air to swallow what little was left of Ari’s assurance.

Filled with defeat, the frightened girl shook her head negatively as she crouched down low. As the wind pushed against her, she wrapped her arms protectively around her head. Over and over, she tried to convince herself that this was only a dream - a nightmare that was dragging her deeper and deeper into madness, as the cackle of Alti’s laughter seemed to fill the air.

Gabrielle had only turned her back for a moment. In the time it took to return a volley of splashes from her lover, she turned to find Ari was gone. In panic, she ran from the creek as Xena and Eve followed behind her.

"Xena, Eve, did you see where Ari went?" she asked as she quickly dressed, ignoring the towel at her feet.

"I…" the warrior glanced around as she began to pull on her cotton shift. "She was just here, she couldn’t have gone too far, look, here’s her trail." The warrior pointed to the boot prints that left the area.

Without words, the three quickly dressed and began to follow Ari’s trail. As they moved deeper into the forest, they called out her name, hoping that she would at least be able to follow their voices. Outwardly Gabrielle knew that she appeared calm, yet on the inside, she felt her panic rising.

Suddenly, Eve called out. "Mother, there she is!"

Running to their youngest, they peered over the bushes and saw Ari’s huddled form. Crouched with her head buried under her arms, the girl rocked slowly back and forth on her heels as a soft moaning came from her throat. Glancing around the clearing, they each looked for anything menacing that might have caused the girl’s fright. When nothing was detected, they moved toward her frightened form.

"Ari," the storyteller made certain to keep her voice low as she crouched before the dark child. When she lightly touched Ari’s arm, the girl pulled back in fear as her gaze looked up at Gabrielle. As recognition dawned, her daughter’s mouth opened to speak, but only released what sounded like a faint cry. Kneeling by her side, Xena scanned the girl quickly before scooping her up in her arms.

"Its ok honey, you’ll be all right now," Gabrielle assured as she followed her lover back to camp.

"That’s right, Sweetheart, you’re safe now," the warrior added as she cautiously glanced around the forest, her eyes and ears instantly alerted for any danger.

~~~~~~

Up in the trees the three men watched as the women moved away. Glancing at each other, they saw the defeat in their expressions as they realized that this had been their best chance to take the object of their search. Once the women were out of hearing range, the eldest released his grip and fell easily to the ground.

"Ceno! You had the best chance! Why didn’t you take her?" The middle brother, Damisi hissed as he followed his youngest brother down the tree.

"Wha…?" the young man jumped to the ground, then looked at his brother with an expression of confusion and glanced at where the women disappeared. "I-I’m… n-not sure about this," Ceno shook his head.

"What do you mean you’re not sure?" Damisi turned on him, his brows creased in angry confusion.

"I’m not sure if she’s the one," Ceno tried to explain.

"Shut up, both of you!" Malako said as he cuffed his youngest brother across the ear.

"Ow!" Ceno rubbed at the spot. "What did you do that for?"

 

"Because you didn’t get her when you had the chance, stupid!" Malako growled as he turned away and marched back to their waiting horses.

"I told you before, I-I don’t know if she’s the right one! How can you expect me to grab the wrong one?" Ceno argued.

"Listen to me…" Malako turned angrily on his youngest brother, "You said she was the one, and now I’m saying it’s her, so shut up about it and the next time we have the chance, you get her. Understand?"

"B-but Malako, what if I made a mistake? What if she’s not the right one? I-I mean, that girl doesn’t look like the Destroyer. I remember the Destroyer as being… I don’t know… taller," Ceno shrugged his shoulder.

"Listen Ceno, either she is, or isn’t! Which is it?" Damisi hissed at him.

"I don’t know! That’s what I’m trying to tell you!" Ceno cried out in frustration.

"Bah! What does a kid like you know of it anyway," Malako scowled and turned to walk away.

"Hey, I was the one who saw it all, remember? Neither of you were there, you both left to hide in the hills! You both left me behind! I was there! I was one of their slaves, not you! I was the one that was rap…"

Ceno stopped himself before revealing his private shame to his brothers. At the memory of his days in captivity, and the violations he underwent as a slave, he turned away as he felt the tears well up as the memories of the raid and his subsequent days in captivity replayed in his mind. Angered by his words, Malako turned on him, his fist raised above the youngest brother. Before he could lower it, Damisi stopped his brother’s hand.

"Malako, maybe he’s right, he did see it all. Who is better to know if she is the Destroyer?" The usually obedient voice of Damisi asked.

"And you did not lose your wife and son to them did you?" Malako asked as he pulled from his brother’s clasp and grabbed Ceno by the collar. He swallowed and his voice thickened. "You aren’t the one who returned home to find her body… desecrated, or your only son lying near her… both of them left for the buzzards and rats!" Malako glared down into his younger brother’s eyes.

"Malako, Ceno isn’t saying that, he’s only saying that he witnessed what the Destroyer did first hand! That’s all he said," Damisi stepped in again, his pleading voice cut through Malako’s anger.

At his brother’s plea, the older man gazed into the dark eyes of Damisi, then turned to look back at his youngest brother. Ceno seemed on the verge of tears. At the sight of his youngest brother’s tears, Malako felt his anger disappearing as calmness returned.

Malako took a deep breath as he absently smoothed out his youngest brother’s tunic. "Very well. You think long and hard on this, little brother. If she is the Destroyer, like I know she is, then we take her back home to stand trial, do you understand?"

With a slight smile so reminiscent of their mother’s, the young man nodded as he lowered his eyes. Pleased by the sudden peace, Malako nodded as he cupped his hand behind the young man’s head. "Come on now, let it go. We’ll get another chance. We have a lot to prepare and you’ve got a lot of thinking to do," the eldest smiled at his youngest brother as he began to pull him toward their horses.

Malako allowed calmness to come over him. Yes, we will take The Destroyer back to stand trial. And on the way there, bereaved as we are, who could blame us if we repay a little bit of what the Destroyer has done to our family, he thought grimly as the hunger for revenge consumed his soul.

~~~~~~

Ari sat mutely as a shiver ran through her body. As she glanced around the camp, she saw her family gathered nearby. When Gabrielle looked up at her, she gave her a warm smile, then leaned toward Ari and pulled the blanket over her shoulders.

"You’re back with us now, aren’t you?" the blonde whispered softly as she ran her fingers through Ari’s hair.

At the woman’s touch, Ari noticed her damp hair for the first time. When she looked down at herself, she saw a clean nightshirt and her feet were bare under her bedding. Blinking back her confusion, she looked up mutely.

"It’s all right, it was just the two of us," Gabrielle whispered close to her ear, then lightly kissed her temple before making certain that the blanket was wrapped tightly enough to keep the night chill away.

The dark child tried to remember where the time had gone. Her last memory was of hearing her mother’s voice calling her. The evil sorceress had been everywhere at once, and it had frightened Ari. Before she was able to find her mother, Ari blanked out and was pulled into the nightmare dreams of blood red waves and chilling screams.

A slight ticking noise caught her attention. When she glanced across the fire, she saw Xena sitting crossed-legged, her head bent as she worked her knife over a piece of hollowed out wood. Curious at her activity, Ari watched the methodical movements as the warrior princess’ hand swiped the sharp blade over the thin wood. Sensing her gaze, her birth mother looked up at her with a smile.

There was a part of Ari that wanted to go to the woman and tell her everything. Just like she longed to confess her crimes to Gabrielle, Ari wanted to explain the nightmares that consumed her soul to the warrior princess. If she were only able, she would have explained how Alti was not dead, that she was very much alive and hunting for her somewhere out in the darkness. But Ari found it impossible to move, let alone find the voice that the sorceress had stolen from her. So rather than try to speak to Xena or Gabrielle, she only sighed as she lowered her unhappy gaze to the fire’s flame.

Xena felt her smile disappear at Ari’s lowered gaze. With a sigh, she returned her attention to whittling the piece of wood as she thought through her eldest daughter’s condition. Although she had seen it before in a few of her battle weary men, she could not remember a single man who had managed to come out of their self imposed prison. But then again, it’s not like I really cared to keep in contact with them, the warrior thought glumly as she returned her attention to her project.

The sound of a single twig snapping in the darkness caught her attention and an owl hooted when it was disturbed. Without missing a beat, Xena continued to whittle the piece of wood. When the night owl grew silent, Eve sat up and looked out into the darkness.

"Mother…" Her blue eyes were worried.

"I know," the warrior quietly answered her youngest daughter’s unspoken question.

"I think there are two, maybe three," Gabrielle whispered as she continued to stroke Ari’s hair. Unconcerned with everything around her, their eldest daughter had curled up under her blanket and laid her head on the storyteller’s lap.

"Who are they?" Eve’s tone grew calm as she returned her attention to both her mothers.

"I don’t think they’re warriors, for as much noise as they’re making trying to stay hidden," Gabrielle’s gaze lowered to Ari’s features as her fingertips lightly traced the line of the dark child’s eyebrow. At the touch, the girl’s eyes closed as a sigh escaped her control.

"Farmers or villagers, not sure, but whoever they are it’s certain they don’t want to show themselves to us," Xena agreed with her lover as she took her knife and returned it to its sheath.

"I think for now, we should turn in, we’ve got a long day ahead of us," she said as she began to strip for the night. Following her example, Gabrielle repositioned Ari under the covers and then removed her own clothing before climbing into their bedroll.

"Night moms," Eve said before rolling over to sleep.

"Night honey," Gabrielle smiled as she unconsciously made sure that her sais were within reach.

As the two women moved close together, Xena made certain to keep her sword close by. When she felt her lover moving against her, she sighed as their bodies molded together as one. Although she did not know who was in the forest, she vowed to keep her diligence up, as a light sleep fell over her.

The next morning, Ari watched the figures moving around her. Their slight voices barely reached her senses as she felt the overwhelming sensations threatening to pull her under. Holding the feelings at bay, she sat in muted silence. When she heard a high-pitched sound, her gaze shifted to Xena. At Ari’s movement, the warrior smiled wide as she moved to the silent girl.

"Here honey," the older warrior said as she placed a leather cord around Ari’s neck. "See… if you ever get separated from us again, use this, all right?" the warrior held the wooden part up, placed her lips over an end and blew air through the hole.

Ari watched in fascination as Xena’s cheeks puffed out with air, then emptied as her breath flowed through the hollowed out wood. The high-pitched sound rose from the new whistle. The older woman smiled and held the piece up as she gently took a hold of the girl’s chin and pulled her face upward.

"Ari, do you understand? If you ever get lost, or we get separated, you blow into this, ok?" her birth mother explained in the slow controlled tone as if talking to a child.

Taking the whistle, Ari looked at it, then placed it between her lips and blew. The shrilly sound of the whistle rose in the air. Pleased, the warrior smiled as she lightly patted Ari’s shoulder.

"That’s it honey, you just remember, if we get separated, you blow into it, do you understand?" Xena’s words were soft, yet commanding.

The dark child glanced down at the whistle, her gaze dull as she remained in muted silence, then she looked back up at her birth mother. Ari longed to be able to respond to Xena, but knew that she could not. Rather than attempt to speak, she looked away as she felt herself being pulled deeper into madness…

The perpetual images filled her mind even while she knew that they were traveling. Thanatos’ easy cadence swayed her into calmness as the nightmares dragged her into darkness. When she felt a firm touch against her face and heard Gabrielle’s command, she blinked away the fog of her nightmares and glanced around her.

"Ari, do you hear me?" the blonde asked again in a hushed voice as she cupped Ari’s cheeks and forced her gaze to look into her eyes. "Ari, stay here with Eve, do you hear? Stay close to Eve and don’t come out until we tell you to."

At her order, Ari blinked and nodded understanding. With a slight smile, the blonde leaned forward and kissed the dark child’s forehead. "Good girl," she whispered before turning her attention toward her lover.

When Xena nodded at her, the two women took off into the forest with their weapons drawn. Confused by their movements, Ari looked at her sister who stood holding the reins of the horses near a tree. Before Ari could contemplate the situation, the slight whisper of the wind called out her name.

"Arriiiii…." Alti’s familiar voice beckoned.

She turned to see if her sister had heard the voice. Eve smiled slightly at her, before she turned away and stood on the tips of her toes as she peered in the direction of where the storyteller and warrior disappeared. As the slight touch brushed against Ari’s shoulder, the voice called to her again.

"Ari. Come here!" Alti commanded.

In that instant, she felt like a child again. Ari knew the punishment for disobeying her mother. Instinctively, she began to move toward the voice. As she made her way through the forest, her mind saw the dark walls of the caves. Only when she stood in the open did she glance around and see the limbs of the trees. When a twig broke behind her, she turned around quickly. Her eyes grew large with fear and in that instant she remembered Xena’s instructions and reached for the whistle around her neck. Seeing her intentions, the large hand grabbed the whistle and ripped it from her neck before grabbing her roughly and carrying her away.

~~~~~~

In the time it took them to realize the trap, Gabrielle and Xena returned quickly to where they left Eve and Ari. The horses stood rider less while the mule was busy eating some nearby shrub. As they glanced around the area, they heard the sounds of footsteps on the underbrush. With sword drawn, the warrior princess moved toward the noise.

"Mother!" Eve shouted as she broke through the bushes, her eyes wild as she looked from Xena’s raised sword to Gabrielle’s drawn sais.

"Eve, where have you been?" Xena asked as she returned her sword to its scabbard.

"Mother, I swear, I didn’t leave her for a minute! I was here the whole time and then when I turned around, she was gone. I tried looking for her, but I don’t know where she went. I followed her trail out there, but I lost it," Eve’s voice was filled with panic.

"Come on, show me," the tall warrior fought to keep her fear at bay as they followed behind Eve.

When they reached the end of Ari’s footsteps, she glanced around the area in search of clues. Although Eve was unable to pick up the trail from that point, Xena had little difficulties in finding the clues when she moved further away from her eldest daughter’s footprints. With quick strides, she followed the slight trail as far she could. Only when they reached the end did she stop, her breath suddenly catching in her throat as she knelt down and picked up the last clue.

"Oh… Ari…" she heard her lover’s gasp behind her. Turning, she held up the whistle that she had made, the leather cord had been ripped and the force of whatever yanked it had caused the leather to tear in half. As gloom threatened to fill her senses, Xena frowned as she turned toward the thick forest, the whistle gripped firmly in her hand.

"ARI!" she yelled out, knowing that her child could not answer.

~~~~~~

With hands bound tightly behind her back, she felt the rough bouncing movements of the horse that carried her away. Whoever held her captive had gagged her and placed a dark hood over her head as well. In her mouth, the taste of the cloth was overshadowed by the pain of it tearing into the corner of her mouth. Periodically, she felt the horse stop as hands grabbed her and roughly transferred her over the saddle of a different horse, before they were moving at a fast gallop again.

Each time Ari felt herself drifting into the world of her mind, the stinging pain in her ribs, or the coarse rope around her wrists would bring her back to reality. After what felt like an interminable amount of time, the ride finally ended. Without ceremony, she felt herself pushed from the saddle to land like a sack of flour in the dirt.

"We lost them," she heard a deep voice say as someone grabbed her and dragged her from the ground.

"Are you sure?" a different voice asked as she felt the hood suddenly removed.

At the blinding light of the afternoon sun, Ari blinked as she gazed around her for the first time. The three men looked at her intently, each one seeming to scrutinize her. The one who acted like the leader moved forward and roughly grabbed her cheeks, then forced her head to turn.

"Finally!" he exclaimed as a smaller man stepped forward.

"Malako, why do you have this on her," a younger man asked as he began to remove the cloth that was wrapped tightly around her mouth.

"So she won’t scream for help, that’s why," the man named Malako protested as he moved to refasten the bindings around her mouth.

"She won’t scream," the younger one said as he glanced at her curiously.

"What do you mean she won’t…." he began to protest, but stopped when he saw Ari’s soulless gaze.

At his intense scrutiny, she lowered her eyes. Although she was uncertain of their motives, she was not afraid. In fact, she even wondered if they were all a part of Alti’s plan to drive her further into madness. As she contemplated this thought, she felt herself retreating further into herself. The men’s words and actions soon became lost to her as she drifted into her dark dreams…

~~~~~~

Gabrielle wasted little time in removing Ari’s bag from Than to Babu.

"Eve, I want you to go ahead of us on the trail and wait there. If we don’t show up in a day, then move as fast as you can," Xena instructed.

Gabrielle climbed into the saddle on Than’s back. At the difference in her weight, the horse reared up. "Go to my sister Lila in Potidaea, tell her what happened and then send word to Virgil. Together, they can help." Pulling in the reins, the blond held fast as she spoke softly to her daughter’s stallion. When he calmed down, the Amazon turned in time to see Eve climbing onto Pyxis, the storyteller’s brown mare, as the prophet’s mule was tethered to a long rope.

"Just one day, Eve," Gabrielle reminded.

"And then I go to Lila and send word to Virgil," Eve nodded.

"If we don’t see you in one day, we’ll meet up in Potidaea," the dark warrior added to her soulmate’s instructions, then turned Argo around and clicked her tongue to get the mare to move.

Eve touched Gabrielle’s arm and tears shown in her eyes. "Find her mother…" she whispered. "Find my sister."

"We will. Go now, and be careful."

"I will." Eve swallowed but smiled. "Go with the blessings of Eli, mother."

Even though she had fear and misgivings, Gabrielle smiled with reassurance at her youngest daughter, before turning Ari’s horse around to follow her lover. Despite the panic rising in her as she rode, she fought to maintain control. Ari will be fine, she kept thinking as they moved quickly to follow the trail of the abductors who had swept their other daughter away.

~~~~~~

Ceno took out his blade to cut the bindings around their prisoner’s hands. At his move, Damisi moved forward, his anger visible as he grabbed the discarded rope. Turning to his eldest brother, he held it up.

"Now this is going too far! It’s one thing to remove the gag, but the bindings too?" Damisi protested.

"Ceno, tie her hands back up!" Malako ordered as he glanced in the direction from where they rode.

"B-But…" The youngest began to protest.

"Damn it! Don’t argue with me, boy! Tie her hands, now!" Malako turned and faced the younger man.

Ceno recognized his brother’s determination and merely shrugged his shoulders. With an apologetic smile to the girl, the youngest brother took the rope, and then fastened it loosely around her wrists. When it was tied, he sighed as he looked at her.

"It’s not too tight?" he asked softly.

For the first time Ceno was able to examine the girl closely. Although she appeared older from a distance, when he was this close, he could not help but notice her youthful features. He gauged that she must be either his age, or younger. When the girl didn’t answer, he took a hold of her chin and forced her to look at him.

"Can you talk?" he asked after a moment of silence.

Within her eyes he thought he saw her struggling to say something. But rather than move her lips, her eyes bore into him. Blinking at the contact, Ceno removed his touch as he stepped back.

"You can’t talk, can you?" he asked softly.

"Malako, are we going to camp here?" the youngest brother heard Damisi ask.

"No, we rest the horses for a bit then move on. The sooner we get her back for trial, the faster she’ll pay for her crimes," he stated as he moved to retrieve something from the pack.

"Malako," Ceno called to his brother as he continued to gaze into the vacant blue eyes. "I don’t think this is her."

"What do you mean you don’t think it’s her? Of course she’s the Destroyer!" Damisi chuckled as he took a flask of water to his horse, cupped his hand, and poured water for his horse to drink.

"It’s her, little brother. Trust me," the eldest stated as he absently glanced at a parchment map.

"No… I-I don’t think so," Ceno stammered as he guided the girl to a tree trunk. "She’s a mute, Malako. She can’t even talk. Look for yourself!"

As his two older brothers moved to them, Ceno took his lightweight jerkin off and placed it over her shoulders. Although his heart longed for revenge, a part of him felt an initial sickness at the thought that they might have grabbed the wrong person. When his brothers knelt in front of the girl, they looked at her closely.

"Malako, Damisi, look at her, she’s a mute… probably deaf as well," he said as he took the girl’s chin and gently pulled her face up. As they gazed at her, they noticed the vacant stare of her eyes.

"It’s a trick! It’s got to be a trick!" Damisi hissed as he roughly grabbed her by the hair and yanked her head back.

"Come on, Destroyer, talk to me!" he growled. When no words were forthcoming, the burly man slapped her hard, "I said talk, damn you!"

The movement brought a slight trickle of blood from the corner of the girl’s lip as the side of her face was red from the contact. Despite the slap, her blue eyes were unfocused as she sluggishly lowered her head. Seeing this, Damisi grew angrier as he lifted his hand again.

"I said talk!"

"Damisi, stop this!" Ceno’s voice grew deep as he stopped his brother’s hand from landing a second blow. "Can’t you see she’s a mute! I don’t think it’s her. We made a mistake."

"How can we make a mistake? You saw her for yourself, she was traveling with Xena and the Battling Bard of Potidaea, and you know that they are the ones who are riding with the Destroyer, so why are you fighting against us?" Malako asked as he rose from his place and glanced out into the forest.

"How would you know, I’m the one who saw her, Malako," Ceno stated more firmly as he pulled his shirt tighter around her shoulders. He was keenly aware of the cool breeze without his outer jerkin on. "You weren’t there, Malako, neither were you Damisi, neither of you were there, I was! And I’m telling you, I don’t think she’s the one," he said as he rose to his full height and turned to his brother.

"Why… I ought ta…" Damisi was about to backhand the younger man, but stopped when Malako held his hand back.

"Ceno, you didn’t lose the only woman you’ve ever loved, or a son. But we did lose our mother and sister," Malako’s voice grew soft as he became teary eyed at the memories. "We’ve told you before, we had to leave or the Destroyer’s troops would have forced us into their army. You being the youngest, they wouldn’t have done anything to you a-and, besides, you didn’t want to leave mother, remember?"

At his brother’s words, Ceno turned away as a heat crossed his cheeks. It was true that he had not lost a wife and child, but he witnessed the slaughter of his mother and baby nephew. And although he and his twin sister were taken together, they remained on their farm long enough to see the rape of their sister in law. Knowing that she was no longer a virgin, the invading troops had their sport with Malako’s wife again and again, in the end, it almost seemed to Ceno that death was a merciful way out for her.

On orders from their commander, the Destroyer, the advanced war party had rounded up the virgins and brought them to a main area unharmed and intact. At his obvious youth, he was taken along with the young maidens. Apparently, it didn’t matter the gender since Ceno saw some of his male friends also rounded up and brought in along with their sisters. When he and his friends saw what was happening to their sisters, they didn’t think that they could possibly witness anything worse in their lives, but they were wrong.

The young man wanted to tell his brothers exactly how wrong everyone was. The raiders did not just take the food and leave after raping of the women. They were not satisfied with taking just one home they had to take them all. In their quest to lay down a path of destruction, the invaders had stripped the land of both its natural resources, and the people who tended to it. With a grimace, Ceno longed to explain exactly what had happened to him and the other young boys who stayed behind, but the memory of the violation brought a deep shame to him, so he chose to keep the information of those days in captivity to himself. The only ones who knew the truth were others who had survived it. Many of his friends chose to keep it private, but Ceno always recognized the survivors. All it took was a look in their eyes and he knew that they had experienced much the same thing he did. But knowing this did not help him in dealing with his brothers. They don’t know what happened, and they won’t understand, he concluded. Rather than voice his thoughts, he looked down at the bound girl on the ground and felt compassion overcoming him.

"I don’t think she’s the destroyer, t-the destroyer was taller, a-and bigger," Ceno explained as he indicated to his shoulders and upper arms. "This one here, why, she’s just a little girl, look at her, she couldn’t be older than Ella’s age!"

His brother’s grew silent as they looked down at the girl on the ground; the mention of their baby sister’s name brought back memories of her youthfulness. At their silence, Ceno reached into a pouch around his waist and knelt in front of their captive. In an attempt to put the girl at ease, he smiled.

"Are you hungry? We can’t start a fire, but I’ve got some jerked meat," he said as he took the bite-sized piece and placed in at her lips. At the feel, her mouth opened to accept his offer. With downcast eyes, the prisoner silently chewed on the meat as he turned to his older brothers.

"I think we’ve made a mistake… I don’t think she’s the one we’re looking for," he stated again in hopes of talking some sense into his brothers.

With the quickness of lightning, Malako backhanded him across the face. The sting forced Ceno to take a fall backwards. At the sudden attack, the younger brother looked up angrily at his elder and then rose to stand before the man.

"Now you listen to me, boy, and you listen good!" Malako hissed through gritted teeth, his finger pointed in Ceno’s face. "We did not make a mistake! Remember how everyone was fooled into believing that the Destroyer was a man? Ceno, she is the Destroyer and anytime you begin to doubt, little brother, you remember this; first, she was riding with her lousy mother, Xena. Second, she was riding that damn black stallion and third, we have eyewitnesses who say she is the one. So you’d better drop this I’m a little innocent crap and start acting like a man, ‘cause she’s going back for trial and Hades himself couldn’t stop it! Do I make myself clear?" Malako’s snarling face was only a few inches away from Ceno’s.

Ceno could only nod as he rubbed at the stinging redness across his cheek. At the open subservience, Malako suddenly smiled as he cupped his palm behind the younger man’s head. Cringing, Ceno waited for another blow, then sighed when he saw his brother’s smile.

"Good, now, be a good boy and scout behind us. Don’t get too close, but find out if they’re on our trail," Malako ordered.

Ceno swallowed as he glanced back down at the girl. A part of him wanted to take the girl and return her. Although there was a part of his mind that felt she could be the Destroyer, when he looked at her now, he could not imagine that this mute was capable of accomplishing the tyranny that the Destroyer had committed. But rather than argue any more with his brother, he simply nodded as he turned to leave the camp.

Ari had heard their exchange, yet remained passive. She felt the familiar numbness within her body. As they argued, she stole a glance at the men and briefly wondered if they were another dream, or were in fact real. When no answer came easily to her, she lowered her gaze as she felt her mind slipping away...

The familiar red ocean baptized her in the blood of her victims. The screams of pain rose upon the wind as the stench of the dead filled her nostrils. Just when she thought the horrid images would end, she saw herself standing at an open pit, the bodies of the dead and wounded enemies were being piled high as her men circled the ditch. Their laughter at the suffering rose to a deafening crescendo.

Before Ari could assimilate the images, the picture changed. No longer were they disposing of the enemies in the pit. Now, in village after village, her army brought out the village bards who stood accused of treason. With no trial or jury, each one was marched before the burning pit of fire and then thrown in, their scrolls and all, to burn into ashes that were carried on the wind with their screams of agony. The memory of the stink of burning flesh, the pleas for mercy and the shrieks of burning human beings remained embedded in her subconscious, even though her memory tried to forget…

For some reason, as the days drifted by, Ari found it easier to remember the crimes of her past. Although she could not see the full images, what little that surfaced came in snatches of visions and dreams. Now, with her hands bound, she sat in muted silence as she watched everything unfold.

Before she could feel the tug toward madness, she felt her captors rough hands on her. Like a rope suddenly pulling her back from a high cliff ledge, their touch yanked her from the nightmare vision of the fire’s pit. Blinking back surprise, she glanced up and saw the leader of the men smiling grimly at her.

Malako kept thinking about what his brother had said. The accusation that he and Damisi were cowards who had not stayed to fight dug into his pride. When the larger town of Chalkidike fell to the invading army of the Destroyer, Malako knew what had to be done. Their village was in the path of the invading army. With less than 100 souls, there would be no way that they could keep their village safe. The only option left was to gather as many able bodied men that he could and go to the mountains. Only in the mountains would they be able to find the other freemen who were forming a band of resistance. Don’t fight them, give them food, treat them like guests and they won’t harm you, he had told his wife and mother. But he had been wrong, so horribly, hideously wrong!

With a frown, Malako moved to the edge of the encampment as the memories ate at him. Estia had been the only woman in his life, next to his mother and sister. They had grown up together and what was once a friendship had grown into love. Malako was never certain what he loved the most about Estia, her golden hair, her beautiful smile or the way she was quick to giggle. Estia was not only a wonderful mother, but she was a devoted wife. There was never a time that went by when she withheld her love, he reflected as he turned and gazed at their prisoner. How quickly it all changed, he thought as he felt his jaw stiffen in anger and frustration.

At the time, Malako did not want to believe the rumors. He could not believe that the invaders had burned through his village, killing anyone who stood in their path, and taking the rest as slaves. When he and Damisi returned to their farm with a small band of resistance fighters, they were greeted with the sounds of the birds and the stench of death. His mother’s body had been left in the front of their home, the wound in her belly was filled with maggots as her body slowly decayed under the sun.

It was in the open clearing that he found his wife and his little boy Ladro. Even after all these moons, the memory of his boy’s body, torn in half and covered with feeding carrion birds remained etched in his memory. If this alone had not been enough to spur his lust for revenge, then the body of his wife would have surely sent him to fight more fiercely. She had been violated and tortured in the open clearing, and in the end, they inflicted a mortal wound and left her to die a slow death all alone. With her last breath, she managed to crawl to her baby’s body. She was bloody and the pieces of her torn clothes left a trail from where they had wounded her, to her final resting place with her arms wrapped around her baby boy.

At the memory of that day, Malako whimpered as he closed his eyes tightly. He felt the grief rising within him, yet fought to keep it down. Now is not the time for grief, he repeated as he steeled himself for the task at hand.

Wiping tears from his eyes, he ground his teeth as he remembered. It was only later, when Ceno was freed, that they learned the whole story, and the story of their sister’s attack at the Destroyer’s hands. The combination of his mother, his wife and his child’s death, and the suicide of his sister only enhanced Malako’s hatred for the Destroyer. As they waited for Cero to return, he paced silently. While the words of his brother and the images of his family’s bodies replayed over and over in his mind, he looked down at their captive. Her downcast eyes only enhanced his anger. With a slight hiss, he crossed the distance and knelt in front of her.

"You are her, aren’t you?" a growl came from his throat as he roughly grabbed her chin and stared into her eyes. Their captive only blinked, her gaze never wavering. At her dazed and confused expression, Malako felt a rage boiling up.

"How dare anyone compare you to my baby sister!" he choked as his inner rage boiled like a quiet storm. As he stared at the captive, he felt his temples swell with the pounding blood in his brain.

"Malako?" he heard Damisi’ voice from behind him.

Turning to his brother, the eldest smiled like a hyena as he took the captive’s bound hands and lifted them over her head.

"This is for my son, my wife, my mother, my sister! For our family!" he ground out as he grabbed the nearby rope and wrapped it around the tree trunk, and then fastened the rope to their prisoner’s tied wrists.

"Our…?" confusion rose in Damisi’ voice.

By way of explanation, Malako grabbed their prisoner’s hips and yanked her toward him, his intention suddenly registering in his brother’s mind. Without a struggle or a fight, their captive simply watched him as he roughly pulled at the waist of her breeches. Behind him, he heard his brother’s laughter as he moved closer.

"Yes, you bitch! This is for my family, you remember them, don’t you?" Malako’s menacing whisper asked as he pried her legs apart and unfastened the lacing of his pants. "Do you remember the order to your advance troops, how you ordered them to lay waste to everything, and bring back the virgins to you? Do you remember that? Do you know what they did, how they murdered my little boy who was barely 5 summers old, do you know about them?" he asked as he reached down and pulled each of her boots off, then yanked her pants down past her ankles. His movement caused the woman to look away in muted silence.

"No! You are going to look at me, do you hear!" the anger etched each of his words as he clasped her chin and forced her to look up at him. "Do you even remember my sister? Do you?" he growled as he forced her to look into his eyes. As he saw her slight grimace, he was reminded of his sister and how she used to smile and laugh at his jokes. With a frown, he lightly brushed the tips of his fingers across the prisoner’s soft face.

"We lived on a small farm in Macedonia, a little village called Bisaltia. It’s nothing you’d ever remember, but it was our home. My mother would have gladly given you all that we had, you would have been an honored guest," his voice was husky with emotions, "My sister, my w-wife, my little boy… Th-They were so young and full of life… so innocent," he softly whispered as he felt the tears welling up.

"That is, until your troops arrived," Malako growled as he remembered his task. "You ordered your men to do what they wished with my mother, wife and boy, and you ordered that all the virgins be gathered together, do you remember? Do you?" his grasp on her face grew tighter as he stared down into her blue eyes.

"You were the one who took my sister, not your men, no one but you. Do you remember her now? She had long dark hair with eyes the color of night, and a smile that was always welcoming. Does this jog your memory? Can you see her now? Do you remember how you brutally took her innocence, then passed her on to your men when you were done with her. In the end, her madness overcame her until she willingly threw herself on a blade! Does this bring back any memories, Destroyer?" His voice was casual as he released his hold of her face, then pulled at her hips to position himself.

"Tell me, Destroyer, do you remember how you grabbed her like this so that you could have your fun? Do you?" he asked softly, never once taking his gaze from her.

"Maybe this will remind you, Destroyer!" he hissed and pushed himself into her.

At the initial thrust, he expected to hear her cry out in pain, but instead, she released only a slight gasp. Angered by her lack of emotions, Malako growled as the anger and thirst for revenge consumed him. In his blinding rage, he thrust himself into her over and over again, each time he plunged into her was more violent than before. He felt his body responding to the tight friction. With each movement, he inwardly smiled knowing that he was repaying the murder of his wife and son, while also hurting this bitch the same way that she had hurt his sister. In the blindness of his fury, he thought he saw the disapproving eyes of his wife. With a shake of his head, he brushed this image aside as he strove to hurt the woman below him, just as his family had been hurt. For what felt like an eternity, he moved against her until finally, in one final thrust, he felt the blinding pleasure explode as he reached his climax and unknowingly screamed his wife’s name.

When he was finished, he looked down at the prisoner’s unmoving body. With moist eyes, she gazed at him. The look of sadness filled her eyes. Panting and out of breath, he rose from her and moved away as he fastened his breeches. Before he could even regain his composure, Damisi had taken his place.

Filled with rage, Damisi struck out at their captive, each blow landed cleanly against her face. When he tired of the attack, he positioned himself where Ceno once was, then forced himself into the silent prisoner. The expletives rolled off of the younger brother’s tongue as he forced himself upon their captive. Once his brother was finished, Malako moved back to the captive in an attempt to get a reaction from her.

Malako positioned himself again, then looked at her face. He saw her left eye bruised and swelling, and the blood that trickled from her nose mixing with the blood from her split lip. As his gaze looked into her eyes, he froze. When a slight tear trickled down her cheek, the prisoner stared at him with her piercing blue eyes.

"What are you crying for? You’re the one who raped, pillaged, and murdered many innocent people! You’re the one who’s the criminal," he hissed as he grabbed her face roughly. When her gaze would not waver, he lifted his hand to pummel her, "Stop looking at me like that!"

The burning anger within threatened to consume him. He wanted to beat this woman into submission. If he thought it would have gotten her to turn away, he would have done just that, but rather than give in to this form of revenge, he growled as he moved slightly, then flipped her on her stomach.

"So you won’t stop looking at me, will you? We’ll see about that… we’ll see what you think of it now, you murdering bitch!" he growled near her ear as he yanked her hips to him.

At the initial entry, he felt the resistance, yet pushed even harder. The cry he longed to hear from the woman never took place. Instead, she released soft, whimpering noises as he pumped himself into her anus. He rammed harder and harder as he felt the blood from her bottom moistening his entrance and tears of righteous rage flooded down his cheeks. As the revenge and hate filled his soul, he smiled all the while knowing that he was finally bringing pain to the Destroyer, the woman who had robbed him of his family.

Ari heard their words yet could say nothing. As their attack raged on, she felt herself slipping away. While part of her mind was aware of the pain from their assault, another part was yanked back to the first time that she felt a man on top of her...

"Everything that her mother has done never caused pain like this," the child remembered thinking to herself as that first man moved into her. She could not remember how old she was when it first happened. All she knew was that after a time of being with her mother, the sorceress had left her alone for what seemed an eternity. When her mother returned, she had a man with her. At first, Ari grew jealous at the attention the man got. While he and her mother touched each other in bed, she was forced to sleep on the cold stone ground. After a time, when it seemed that Alti had gotten all that she could from the man, she turned his attention to Ari. Afraid of what he would do, Ari tried to hide in the recesses of the cave. When they had finally caught her, she was beaten by Alti and then turned over to him.

With a slight grimace, Ari recoiled at the earlier image. Before it could take hold, she felt the rising storm around her. Above her, she watched in fascination as the branches of the trees shook under the wind’s gentle caress.

"Arriiiiiii…" her mother, Alti called to her.

Confused and afraid, the dark child closed her eyes, yet was unable to stop the images from flowing. She saw the familiar bloody sea, the bodies churning within. From her side, she saw the ghostly figure of her mother pointing out to the multitude of bodies that pushed and shoved against each other. They each reached for her, pulling and tugging at her in an attempt to drag her under.

"Did you think you would go unpunished, little girl?" Ari heard her mother’s voice whisper close to her ear as the landscape changed to the open green pasture. It should have been a beautiful and peaceful place of life and growing, but when she turned, she saw the open fire pit, the flames licking up into the sky as the smoky stench filled the air. The cry of a thousand voices rose up to consume her very soul.

"You did this, little girl. It was at your hands that they died," the deep, raspy chuckle stated as one by one, the bards were marched into the open flames. With each face that passed, Ari felt a soundless cry rising from her throat. Like a never-ending nightmare, she watched in horror as among the execution throng, a familiar face moved close. When the blonde storyteller silently approached the pit of death, Ari felt the strength leave her legs as she fell to her knees.

"Nooooo… Gabrielle…. no, mama, please, noooo…" she wailed out in her nightmarish vision as she fell forward, her head buried in her arms as she wept for the lives lost at her hands…

When the second assailant rose from her, she was pulled back from the hideous world of her nightmares. She opened her eyes in time to see the first man’s hate filled gaze. The accusations of his loss tore into her heart. Unable to voice her regrets, she simply looked at him as a single tear fell from her eyes for his lost loved ones. Angered by this, the man spoke harshly as he grabbed her chin and raised his hand to strike her, like his brother did. Before she even felt his blow, he grabbed her roughly and flipped her onto her stomach.

No, her mind silently begged when she felt him pulling at her until she was on her knees with him behind her. When she felt the excruciating pain of his forced entry, a part of her soul cried out as her mind dragged her back to the cave, back to the days when she was under Alti’s control…

The sound of the wind echoed deep into the cave. Frozen in fear, she felt her mother’s touch as it sent pain through her body. In all of Ari’s short life, she had never known that anything like this could ever happen. She had never experienced it before, so she had no reference to fall back on. All she knew is what the sorceress had told her, and this, she tried to understand.

"Hold still and take it!" Alti barked as her fingers roughly pushed into the girl’s bottom, the pain, so excruciating for the child’s body that all she could do was cry her torment into the pillow below her. "Remember this, little girl, I know it hurts now, but you remember, this is Xena’s fault. Xena is to blame for it! For all of it," her mother chuckled as the tears fell from Ari’s eyes.

She did not know who this Xena person was, but Ari was beginning to learn that all her pain was caused by this unknown being. And although she was too young to understand the concept of revenge, her child’s mind hoped and prayed that someday she would be able to meet this Xena person so that she could… Ari didn’t know what she wanted to do because at her age, she was too young to realize that she could do anything. So instead, she tried her best to hold still as the pain of the sorceress touch burned through her small body. Somewhere deep within her mind, a silent scream rose through her soul…

Ceno had gone as far as he dared to go without running into the warrior and her sidekick. When he had gauged their distance, he silently made his way back to his brothers. Although a part of him had doubts about this girl, he had to admit that his brother had a convincing argument. If she is not the Destroyer, then who is she? He asked himself for the hundredth time. The fact that their plan had worked so far also caused Ceno to wonder if the fates were working in their favor. Using a crisscross pattern, they each separated into trails that would overlap each other. After passing the girl from horse to horse, the warrior would be uncertain which tracks to follow, Malako explained, and so far, his plan had worked.

As he moved quickly back toward the clearing, he wondered how long it would take to return her to their village. Once there, she would be given a fair trial. If there were enough people who felt that she was innocent, like he believed her to be, perhaps she would be set free, he hoped. Then his mind seemed to freeze as he stopped dead in his tracks. Confused by what he saw, he glanced at his oldest brother who stood near his horse eating an apple. When he gazed down at the captive, he recoiled at the sight of Damisi ramming himself again and again against the girl’s backside as her hands were bound tightly above her head to the tree.

"What are you doing!" he screamed as he ran to his brother and grabbed his shoulders to pulled him off of the girl. Damisi landed in the dirt on his bare ass, his erection covered with a mixture of the girl’s blood and semen. With a groan and a hiss, his brother stared up at him.

"Get away from her, damn it! It’s my turn! You can go next!" he growled at Ceno as he began to crawl back onto the girl’s bloody bottom.

"NO! You keep away from her!" Ceno shouted as he rolled his brother down away from her, then moved to the girl. With a quick swipe of his short knife, he cut her bindings and began to help her move.

"Ceno!" Damisi shouted as he staggered to his feet and began to fumble at pulling his pants up.

"Ceno, what in Tartarus do you think you’re doing?" Malako roared as he entered the fight.

Ignoring his brothers, Ceno helped the girl to pull her pants on, then took his discarded tunic and wrapped it over her shoulders. As he began to lead her away, he saw his brother’s angry looks.

"NO! I AM NOT GOING TO STAND BY AND LET YOU DO THIS!" He shouted at them, and the deadly rage in his voice caused them to shrink back.

"What’s the matter Ceno, don’t you like girls? Is that it?" Damisi laughed mockingly.

"Ceno, you can do what you want with her, once we’re done. Don’t you understand, boy?" His older brother’s voice grew deep like their father’s used to.

"Shut up! Both of you, just SHUT UP!" Ceno turned his rage on his brothers, "What is the matter with you two? We aren’t animals! Why did you do this?"

"Because she did it to our sister!" Malako shouted back. "Your own twin, Ceno! She deserves it…"

Ceno cut him off. "You weren’t there, you don’t know that for certain!" Ceno had not even realized the courage it had taken to stand up to his brothers. Instead, he kept his arm around the shivering, frightened girl as he led her as far away from his brothers as he could. "You couldn’t even wait for proof or… or a trial! You’re animals!" he gave one last scream.

From somewhere in the shadows, a figure in red emerged from the bushes just as a high pitched battle cry rang out before the tall leather clad woman dropped down from the trees. If he hadn’t been yelling at his brothers, Ceno would have seen the warrior landing behind Malako. Instead, he kept an arm behind the girl for support as he led her to safety. By the time the noise attracted his attention, he had the girl safely tucked behind a tree.

Like a mad woman on a rampage, the warrior moved swiftly through the camp. Ceno had only a moment before he saw Malako draw his sword and move cursing toward the tall woman. As easily as gutting a fish, she fended off his single blow and then spitted him through cleanly with her sword. The big man shrieked as she pushed him off of the blade with her foot and he collapsed writhing to the ground. Instinctively, Ceno drew his sword to try to help his brothers. From the opposite direction, Damisi was sparring with the blonde woman. Not one to concede defeat, his brother fought until the small woman ducked his swing and seized his arm. Holding it turned at an angle, she gripped him firmly as she spun, easily breaking his arm. Screaming with pain, Damisi dropped to his knees in defeat.

Filled with a battle lust, the warrior princess turned quickly on Ceno. Her blue eyes were flashing steel and the expression frozen on her face held no mercy as she stalked towards him. Seeing her blinding rage, he instantly dropped his weapon to the ground and fell to his knees with head bent. He did not know what fate was in store for him, Tartarus or the Elysian fields. He only hoped that the transition would be quick.

The silent scream of her dream shook Ari back into herself. As she watched the scene unfold, she marveled at the swiftness of the two women. When the first man fell, she felt a sorrow fill her soul. She could not remember his family, nor could she remember committing the crimes he accused her of. Despite her lack of memory, the guilt of the unknown remained lodged in her heart. When the second man fell to his knees before Gabrielle, Ari sat up and watched as Xena turned her wrath on the only one who had been kind enough to help her.

As she watched the warrior woman raise the sword, and saw it moving in slow motion, Ari’s mouth opened, yet all that came out was a soft, guttural noise. In desperation, she closed her eyes in concentration. She tried to find whatever energy she had while the soft laughter of the sorceress, her mother…

No, Alti is NOT my mother! Ari silently corrected herself as she felt the nightmare swirling in her mind like a whirlwind.

"He’ll die because of you," Alti’s raspy voice accused as her laughter broke out.

No… Ari thought to herself in that split second of time, M-Mother… no, you are NOT my mother… you are Alti! Alti, leave me be! The growling thought began deep in the pit of her stomach and rose upward through her chest. When the laughter of the sorceress suddenly stopped, Ari opened her eyes to see that her mother had not yet completed her blow.

"NOOOO!" the sound came from her throat in one loud, blood-curdling scream that flowed in one steady stream. As her voice broke free, Ari doubled over, her arms wrapped around herself as she was bent over in wailing tears of sorrow. Like a newly released floodgate, the pain and sorrow of her past came pouring out with each released tear. She wept for the memories of her painful childhood, and for her crimes that she committed as an adult. And Ari mourned for all of the lost souls who died by her hands.

With a look of shock, Xena froze at the scream. Then she turned to where Ari was huddled in a sobbing bundle of anguish. Without stopping to think twice about the man at her feet, the warrior lowered her sword and ran to the dark child’s side. Following her lover’s actions, the Amazon moved quickly to their eldest daughter.

"Ari?" Xena dropped her sword by her feet as she fell to her knees, her hands softly touching and lifting Ari’s face so that she could look into her eyes. Her daughter’s face was contorted with pain, the tears falling freely as the sorrow broke through her tears.

"Oh Ari, you’re all right sweetheart, you’re ok now," the older woman whispered as Gabrielle moved beside them.

"Ari?" the storyteller reached out, but at her touch, Ari pulled away and buried her face in Xena’s chest. Shocked by her aversion, Gabrielle pulled away, a look of hurt disappointment on her face.

"It’s all right, Ari, you’re safe baby. You’re safe," Xena cooed as she held her eldest daughter close and sent her lover a gentle look. The girl held fast to her, her arms wrapped around her so tightly that the warrior thought her armor would bend. Ignoring the child’s tight grip, the older woman held her daughter close as waves of tears broke free from the girl.

"M-Ma… t-the…" The girl tried to speak through her weeping.

"Shush… honey, it’s ok, you’re all right now, its ok," the tall woman assured as she began to softly hum while gently rocking the girl in her arms. When the sound of her voice calmed the girl, Ari’s tears slowly abated.

"I-I… i-it’s all my f-fault!" Ari managed to whisper as she clung to her birth mother. "I-I… k-killed t-them… it’s all my fault!"

"Honey, Ari, we talked about this, I know baby! It’s all right now, we can work through it," the warrior princess assured.

"N-No… it-it’s G-Gabrielle," the whisper was so slight that even the storyteller leaned forward.

"Ari, it’s all right, sweetheart. I’m right here, its ok," the blonde assured as she lightly touched Ari’s shoulder.

"D-Don’t… h-hate me… you will, I know y-you will ‘cuz it’s all my f-fault!" her voice sounded dry from disuse.

"No honey, I will never hate you, I love you. Don’t you know that?" the blonde moved close to Ari and tried to hold her close, but the girl recoiled away and buried her head against Xena’s neck. The warrior princess looked helplessly over her daughter’s head at her puzzled lover. The smaller woman pursed her lips. "Ari, why would I hate you?"

"T-The v-villagers, t-the b-bards… it was my f-fault, it was all my fault!" the girl choked through uncontrollable tears.

"What bards are you talking about?" Gabrielle’s voice was low as she patiently spoke to the girl. "Ari, honey, talk to us, what do you mean?"

"I-I had my men… I-I ordered them to… they m-murdered their family," she stuttered through tears as she looked at the men who had once held her captive. Then she continued, "A-And I-I… ordered my men t-to…" She swallowed and looked directly at Gabrielle as she continued. "I h-had them g-gather all the b-bards… th-then I m-made them th-throw them into a pit of f-fire!"

In spite of herself, the small blond gasped, and Ari was seized with fresh tears as she sobbed anew. "Ohhh, i-it was my f-fault… e-everything was my fault!" she wept.

Gabrielle looked helplessly at her lover and Xena pulled away slightly and wiped the tears from her daughter’s eyes. "Ari, who were these bards?"

"Th-The first w-was… he was… s-someone named S-Stallonus..."

"Stallonus," Gabrielle whispered as she closed her eyes.

Ari continued. "I-I don’t remember w-where he was from… a-and… there was a K-Krino of Larissa… Bakxi of Smyrna…" She continued to repeat the list of names that she could remember, each one bringing a slight sigh from the storyteller.

"Honey, Ari, shush, sweetheart," the warrior stated as she rocked the girl gently. When she looked up at her lover, Xena saw the pain etched in her features and her blue eyes shone with emotion and sympathy. Gabrielle passed a hand over her face as if to wipe the pain away. Then to convey her support, she reached out and touched Ari’s shoulder and the dark child winced.

Gabrielle ignored the wince. "Ari, I don’t hate you. No matter what happened in the past, do you understand?" The blonde spoke softly brushing her fingers through Ari’s hair.

"Y-You d-don’t? Not even after I-I…" Ari’s words were stopped when the storyteller placed her fingers over her lips.

"Shush, Ari. What happened in the past is just that, do you understand. It’s in the past. It’s something that we can work on… together," Gabrielle tried to assure. Still uncertain of the storytellers words, the girl looked deeply into the older woman’s eyes.

"You…h-how can you… I-I mean…w-will you… a-are you s-still my… Maia?" Ari’s voice shook, almost afraid of the blonde’s reply.

With a sad smile, Gabrielle ran her hand through Ari’s dark hair as the tears ran unhindered down her soft cheeks. She felt her heart skip a beat at the girls question because she knew the meaning of the request. Pleased by it, she smiled as she slowly nodded acceptance. "Oh Ari, honey, my baby, I will always be your Maia. Don’t ever doubt this my baby girl," her voice came as a whisper as she pulled the girl into a comforting embrace while the tears flowed gently down her own cheeks.

As Ceno sat by his brother’s side, he heard the women’s voices speaking softly behind him, but ignored their presence. Instead, he focused on his brother, his hands instinctively moving to stop the flow of blood as he cradled the bigger man in his arms. When Malako tried to speak, Ceno smiled in an attempt to give reassurance.

"Shush, Malako, be still, don’t move," his voice was soft as he smiled.

"B-Brot…" A foam of blood bubbled from the corner of Malako’s lips.

"No, shush, don’t try, just rest. We’ll get you to a healer," the younger man promised as he quickly glanced down at his hand. The gaping wound was too large for his hand to keep closed. Despite this, he did his best to apply pressure as he comforted his brother.

When Malako gazed past Ceno’s shoulder, the younger man glanced around quickly, but saw no one standing behind him. Confused, he smiled at his brother. While his hand was swimming in his brother’s blood, he spoke softly.

"It’s all right, you’ll see a healer and pull through this," he assured.

"C-Ceno…" Malako smiled at him and glanced over his shoulder again. "E-Estia…"

At the mention of his deceased wife, Ceno frowned. When Damisi moved by their side cradling his arm, the youngest merely glanced at him and shook his head negatively. As the tears began to form in Damisi’s eyes, Ceno turned his attention to his eldest brother.

"Estia… o-oh, my Estia…" Malako’s voice was so low that they had to strain to hear him.

"Malako, it’s all right, go to her if she calls," Ceno said even as the tears began to flow.

"F-Forgive… me…" Malako’s words were barely a whisper.

As he cradled his brother in his arms, he leaned down and strained to hear the slight plea. With a frown, the younger man glanced over at their now freed captive. In tears, she spoke to the two women in hushed tones. Glancing back down at his brother, he sadly smiled as he gently rocked the bigger man in his arms.

"Shush, my brother. Do not fret, all will be well," he cooed to the bigger man as Ceno glanced with tear-filled eyes to Damisi. Seeing the gravity of their eldest brother’s wound, Damisi openly wept. He no longer seemed concerned for his broken arm.

Despite everything, Ceno knew that deep down inside, Malako was not a bad man. He was simply a man who had lost everything — A man who was struggling to survive when many others could not. Because of this, and because of the war, the normally gentle man had been twisted into a vessel filled with hateful revenge. Now, may you finally find peace, Ceno silently prayed.

Malako lay in his own blood and marveled at how peaceful it all felt. He saw his youngest brother smiling at him, his words of assurance brought a smile to the older man’s lips. Cradling his arm, Damisi knelt by his side. Malako smiled at each one as the taste of copper filled his mouth. Before he could say anything, he saw the vision of his wife standing behind Ceno. Her smile was so radiant, so clear that he felt he could almost touch her.

"Estia… o-oh, my Estia…" He whispered her name as she drew near.

"Shush, my husband, calm yourself," the apparition whispered so softly.

Remembering the crimes he had committed during the war, and the most recent rape of their captive, he felt tears break through his control. As the rape replayed in his mind, he closed his eyes and tried to recoil from the beauty of his wife’s spirit. With the gentle kindness that he remembered, she moved to him and held him close.

"Shush, my husband, my love… all will be well soon," she cooed gently to him.

Ashamed at his own cruelties, he gazed up at her, his heart nearly breaking for the sins of his past.

"F-Forgive… me…" he managed to plea for his soulmate’s pardon as he gazed into her eyes.

"Be at peace, now, my husband," she said as she rocked him gently. From somewhere in the background he heard the giggles of his son and smiled. As a peace filled his soul, he eagerly embraced the warm, soothing whiteness that was suddenly pulling him away to a restful place where there was no pain…

Ari heard Gabrielle’s words, yet found it hard to believe. When she gazed into the blonde’s green eyes, she saw the woman’s sincerity. As the overwhelming sense of relief filled her, she reached for the woman; her arms encircled and held her close as the gates to her tears opened again. The relief combined with the pain of her past mixed together until she couldn’t tell the two apart.

"M-Mo…." She stuttered as she pulled away and looked up at the blonde, her eyes turned to Xena and she reached out a tentative hand, "M-Mother… A-Alti’s n-not my m-mother, is she?"

"Oh no, Ari, she never was your mother," the warrior smiled as she reached out and absently wiped a tear from her own cheek.

"B-But you are," Ari whispered as she reached out and touched her mother’s hand, then turned and sheepishly looked up at the blonde who still held her close, "a-and y-you’re my m-mother too? M-My Maia?" But she hesitated, still not certain if Gabrielle could over look her crimes and still love her.

"Of course, Ari, my darling baby, always!" Gabrielle’s voice was soft as she pulled her daughter into an embrace.

~~~~~~

Ceno double-checked the ropes on his packs before he moved to his brother’s horse. With head lowered, Damisi silently sat on the saddle. His arm hung securely in a sling. After he tapped his older brother’s leg, the stocky man looked at him and nodded before lowering his head in sorrow and shame.

Although they had taken her daughter, and even after what his brothers had done, the warrior and her partner did not seek their revenge. Instead, they had set Damisi’s arm, and helped Ceno wrap his dead brother in a funeral cloth for the journey home. Together, they had set up camp in time for the approaching darkness. Throughout the night, they spoke softly while tending to their injured family members. Now that it was day, the time to separate was near. When he moved around his horse, he watched as the warrior secured the makeshift travois to the large black stallion.

"You’ll make sure that his hand doesn’t start to turn blue." the blonde healer’s voice pulled his attention away from the warrior.

Ceno smiled slightly as he glanced up at his brother, then back down to the shorter woman.

"Yes, I’ll keep an eye on him, and if there’s anything wrong, I’ll take him to a healer," he answered as the warrior princess moved to join them. He glanced at the girl in the travois and looked at the tall woman. "Is she going to be all right?"

He watched as her brow furrowed, then her gaze turned to the girl before she released a sigh. "I think she’ll make it, but it won’t be easy for her."

"For any of you," he added, which brought a slight chuckle from the woman.

"You don’t know the half of it!" she shook her head as she glanced over at his horses. "What about you, are you going to be okay?"

Ceno followed her gaze and saw the white bundle of his brother’s body laid over his horse. If his mother had been alive, it would have been a hard thing to return home. But now it was only the two of them, he and Damisi would soon learn what it meant to be alone with only each other to rely on.

"We’ll be fine," he nodded as he glanced at the storyteller and warrior. "I… uh… I want you both to know that my brothers weren’t always like this. They weren’t always cruel, it’s just that the war, it changed them, changed us all, for the worst." He closed his eyes briefly then sighed. "I know it won’t take back what they did to your daughter, I-I just hope you understand."

Gabrielle had turned her gaze away as a frown crossed her normally smiling features. With a grim expression, Xena looked with anger to his brother sitting on the horse and Damisi reddened and looked down in shame. Demonstrating her supreme control, the warrior sighed as she turned from the last surviving man who had raped her daughter. Deep in thought, she looked away in silent contemplation and smiled at Ceno.

"I know, Ceno. War does terrible things to people; it brings out their ugliness. I don’t think anyone alive knows that better than I do." She seemed sad and shook herself from it. "Just make sure he sees someone so that he can heal… rid his spirit of his pain." she smiled as she lightly patted his shoulder. "And you? What will you do now?"

"Take my brother’s home, bury Malako beside my mother and sister," he said softly and then glanced down as his voice grew grim. "Funny, but I thought after I buried my sister and mother next to my father that I wouldn’t have to ever do that again. Gods, how wrong I was," his voice grew choked as the tears welled up in him. When control returned, he sighed as he absently looked up at the early morning sun.

"Ceno, what will you tell your village? I mean, about…" Gabrielle’s words caused him to glance at the girl.

"The Destroyer?" he asked the woman as he looked away from the girl. At Gabrielle’s nod, he looked at the blonde, then at Xena.

"I will tell them the truth that the Destroyer has paid for her crimes and died awhile back. Any punishment they may want to give will never bring back the people we lost, at it certainly couldn’t equal what she’s already gone through," he sighed, then added, "or what she will go through," he said with finality.

For the first time in a long time, Ari heard the early morning songs of the birds in the forest. The sky above her head was the deepest blue she had ever seen. As the wind gently brushed past her, she caught the scent of fragrant flowers.

In an attempt to not cause herself too much pain, she laid still in the travois that her mother had built. The swelling of her left eye combined with her split lip brought fresh pain. She felt the new bruises on her body and her aching nose. Between her legs she wore the clean rags that were only worn during her moon time. Still bleeding, Gabrielle had assured her that this was normal after such a thing. But the storyteller didn’t have to remind her because even though Ari might have forgotten the numbers of times Alti left her bleeding, she did remember the many victims her army had left in their wake.

With a grimace, the dark child closed her eyes as she strove to pull her dark thoughts under control. When control returned, she glanced up at the clear blue sky. Although her body ached, she tried to think of other things.

The first thing Ari longed for was a bath. With Gabrielle’s help, she had managed to clean herself as best as possible. But still, she felt dirty and soiled, and there was no water nearby for her to bathe in. In an attempt to turn her attention away from this discomfort, she concentrated on the multitude of sounds around her. When she heard the slight footfalls, she glanced up with her single good eye at the young man named Ceno. He knelt by her side as he gave her a warm and kindly smile.

"You’ll be all right now," Ceno said as he lightly touched her shoulder.

"I-I… t-thank you," her voice was scratchy from lack of use.

"You’re welcome, I’m only sorry that…" But his voice trailed off as a blush crossed his face, and turned away. As the sun glistened off his dark, curly hair, she wondered what hidden secrets he harbored. Although they had not spoken much, there were times when she saw a familiar look in his eyes. Like someone haunted from a past pain, he carried sadness in his heart.

"C-Ceno," she tried to smile, but found it difficult. Instead, she covered his hand with hers, "I u-understand."

His black eyes caught her blue ones and held them. In that silent interlude, they seemed to exchange all of the apologies that were harbored deep inside. When they realized that they understood each other, he smiled as he patted her shoulder gently.

"You have a nice voice, try not to lose it again," he smiled softly as he stood up and looked down at her.

"I-I’ll try," her slight voice replied and grew silent as she watched him walk away.

As he mounted his horse, he glanced back and waved at them one last time before turning away and leading the extra horse behind. As if this was their cue, she felt her warrior mother guiding Thanatos in the opposite direction. The jostling of the travois brought a slight pain to her lower body, but soon even this disappeared as she gazed up past the treetops to the white clouds above.

"You let us know if you need to rest," Gabrielle said as she walked by the travois.

"I-I will," she answered as she felt the gentle movements of the travois. "M-Maia…"

"Yes?" Gabrielle smiled down at her as she paced beside Ari.

"W-What if I f-fall asleep?" Ari asked.

"Then you’ll get some rest and we’ll wake you when we have a break," the blonde explained.

"B-But… what will happen if the d-dreams return? W-What if Alti c-calls me again?" she asked as she felt a drowsiness fall over her.

"Then call for me. I won’t let you go through it alone," the gentle woman’s voice was like a soft lullaby.

"You’ll be there for m-me?" Ari asked as she unconsciously reached out her hand toward the storyteller.

"I will always be there for you, my baby," Gabrielle assured as she took Ari’s hand and held it firmly. "We all will."

At her touch, the dark child felt her dreams swirling around her. For a split second in time, she thought she heard the distant call of her name on the wind. Is it the hushed voice of Alti beckoning me near? Before she could answer her own silent thoughts, the evil voice was quickly pushed away by the songs of the birds and the gentle voices of her mothers’ conversations. Although she did not know what her future held, she knew that she would never be alone again.

The End

Of

Sins of the Mother 4 - Possessions

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