Sins of the Mother (5) : Misunderstandings

By L. Crystal Michallet-Romero

Copyright © June 28, 2002 L. Crystal Michallet-Romero

All Rights Reserved

Reworked: Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Dedication:

Ari’s story is for all survivors, and the people who love them.

Disclaimers

* Xena Warrior Princess, its characters, and all related materials are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures.  All other characters are mine. 

* This story in no way reflects the life or actions of the wonderful actress, Claire Stansfield. Her portrayal of Xena’s nemesis was so wickedly inspired as to make the character of Alti the absolute evil villain.

Rated:  NC-17, not intended or suitable for children.
Violence: Physical child abuse issues are portrayed and its effects are completely explored.
Sexual Violence:  Child molestation is depicted and its effects are explored fully.

Subtext

X/G are portrayed as being in a loving, long-term relationship/marriage.

Heterosexual:

Yep, straight stuff is portrayed, but there is a reason for it, so feel free to skip the areas that you feel are icky. But if you do skip these parts, don’t ask me later why you’re lost! LOL, it may not seem like it, but there is a method to my madness.

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.

Note to Readers:

* For obvious reasons, I have not included the specific details regarding the mixture of Artemisia and Tansy tea. This combination of herbs can be extremely dangerous and should only be mixed and administered by experienced herbalist, midwife healers or physicians who are familiar with alternative medicine.

 

Ari felt the afternoon sun filter through the branches of the trees. As the travois bumped along the dirt road, she found herself drifting in and out of sleep. The pain in her body was only lessened when her dreams took over. Each time those dreams took on a sinister tone, she awoke to Gabrielle’s familiar smile. The blonde’s calm, reassuring manner dispelled any fears that may have filled her.

Despite the storyteller’s assurances, Ari had a hard time understanding her actions. Every crime she had committed should have brought the older woman’s wrath down on her, but to the girl’s amazement, she had yet to see her second mother’s anger. In fact, aside for the shorter woman’s single outburst when she learned that Ari had listened to her thoughts, Gabrielle did not turn on her, and instead allowed the girl to give her the title of Maia, and this puzzled the dark child. Rather than anger, Gabrielle willingly accept the more informal title that Ari remembered from long ago.

Although she had never been concerned about her transgressions while with Alti, Ari was now aware of her crimes. The shame of her actions against innocent villagers and her subsequent order to murder all bards was hard for her to accept. If anyone had accused her of it a few weeks ago, she would have denied it. But now that the vivid memories were returning to her like slow trickling droplets of water, the dark child could not deny being the cause of so much pain to so many innocents. Understanding this, she found it hard to believe that Gabrielle could truly forgive all the bloodshed on her hands, because for Ari, she could not truly forgive herself for it.

When her brooding thoughts were somehow sensed, she felt a slight touch cross over her forehead. Ari opened her eyes and gazed up into the soft smile looking down at her. When the travois stopped, the storyteller knelt beside her.


"How are you feeling?" The gentle voice asked. With a weak smile and a nod, Ari sighed deeply. Gabrielle stroked her hair as she continued. "We’re going to break for camp now. Your mother found a nice, open area and a secluded lake. I bet you’re anxious for a bath?"

At her words, Ari nodded as the feelings of filth returned to her. Although I’ve never truly felt clean, I’ve never felt as dirty as now, she thought as memories of the attack of the two brothers returned to her. The feel of their hands holding her, forcing her to stillness as they… No, she would not allow herself to delve too deeply into these memories because each time she did, she was taken back to the images of her childhood. Remembering their touch was as hard as remembering all that Alti had done to her, and in turn, reminded her of what she had done to the innocent people who had crossed her path. Whatever happened to me at the brothers’ hands, I deserved, a part of Ari kept thinking.

When she felt the cessation of movement by the travois, Ari opened her eyes and watched as her two mothers easily unlaced the bindings holding her in place. As the cover was removed, Gabrielle reached below her and helped her rise from her prone position. At the sudden feeling of freedom, the tall girl slowly stretched her legs and winced, keenly aware of the pain between them.

"It’s all right, honey, you’re just bruised. It will stop hurting soon," her birth mother assured as she helped her lover support and lift Ari from the travois.

"Yes, I-I am all right," Ari meekly replied. As she began to get her footing, her steps were light as she leaned heavily against the storyteller. Her movements were slow and controlled in an attempt to cause the least amount of pain possible.

Gabrielle had been keeping a close eye on her daughter. Each time the girl’s brows furrowed in her sleep, the blonde reached down and lightly stroked Ari’s temple, soothing away the nightmares. Although her daughter had yet to talk about the dreams, the Amazon knew that they had a lot to do with the girl’s confessions of murdering innocent people and of her ordering the death of the bards.

With a shiver, Gabrielle closed her eyes against the memories of all the people who had perished because of this girl before her. Many of the bards she had met through her journeys with Xena and although there were rumors that storytellers were imprisoned, after Alti’s army had been defeated, and no bards were found among the prisoners, they began to doubt that the stories were anything more than false legends fabricated to bolster up the Destroyer’s image. Now that she knew the truth, she felt a part of her soul recoil at the thought. Yet each time the blonde felt herself grow angry, she’d gaze down at the girl and watch her peacefully sleeping features. Whenever she saw Ari’s closed eyes, her easy breaths, she found it hard to believe that the girl had acted on her own desires. It was easier to believe that Alti was the driving influence behind her child’s actions.

With a slight smile at her lover, the blonde helped steady Ari as she led her toward the nearby lake. Xena nodded before she turned her attention to setting up their camp. Neither one had spoken of their plans, yet they each seemed to know what was needed. Because the girl was comfortable with her, Gabrielle would be the one to help her bathe, and then dress her in a nightshirt, while the warrior made up their bedrolls, built the fire for the night and gathered their food for dinner.

Xena felt herself torn between multitudes of thoughts about Ari’s rape. Her first and foremost concern was for her daughter’s health and that included her mental health. Although the girl was aware of her surroundings and was talking again, her rape added a whole new dimension to the warrior’s worries, which included the thought of an unwanted pregnancy.

Each time she glanced at Ari, she wondered if she should discuss the matter with the girl. But every time she saw her daughter’s staring gaze, the sadness within her eyes, Xena thought better of talking with her child. Instead the warrior turned inward as she tried to think through this new dilemma.

Ari was not ready to be a mother, this much Xena knew. Between captivity in the hands of Alti, and her time of murderous rampage as the Destroyer, and yes, even the most recent rape, the warrior princess knew that there would simply be too many things Ari would have to deal with. A baby will be too much for her, the warrior kept telling herself.

Of course, Xena tried to convince herself, the laws of probability could be in their favor, and a child might not even result from this rape. But if probability was not in their favor, could she and Gabrielle help Ari raise a baby, while also helping her to assimilate into a normal life? Each time she glanced at the girl, she saw the dark shadows under Ari’s eyes, the sadness and pain etched in her features were clearly visible.

No, Ari is not ready to be a mother, Xena told herself for the thousandth time. True, she and Gabrielle would be there, but the older woman doubted that even with their help, Ari would be any better at raising a child than the warrior princess had first been. Knowing this, and remembering everything that she had experienced at the age of 14, convinced the warrior that she had only one option. The solution was so easy, and aside for minor pain, it would not cause any long-term physical damage. Although the chances of pregnancy from the double rape were not guaranteed, even the slightest possibility was more than the dark haired woman was willing to gamble on. With this in mind, she began to formulate the least invasive plan that would insure no child would be conceived.

Ari could not explain it, but for some reason, she felt no shame in front of Gabrielle. Disrobing in front of others had always been difficult. When she was with Alti, she often times had no choice in the matter. But now that she was with her family, she felt reluctant to show herself. Ashamed of her nakedness, she maintained a strict stance on communal bathing, avoiding it at all cost. But this time was different. After the rape and beating, her body was so badly bruised that she found it difficult to even move. She could not have removed her clothing by herself even if she tried. Thankfully, the blonde was nearby to help her unclothe and clean the stench from her body.

"Ari, you’re clean now," she heard the woman’s voice and felt the soft hand covering her own. As if the filth was deep within her pores, Ari continued to scrub with the pumice stone long after the blonde had finished helping her bathe. With a grimace, she stared at her own flesh and saw the imaginary signs of filth covering her skin. Angered that she could not seem to cleanse herself of it completely, the dark girl frowned as an involuntary sigh escaped her.

"Ari, what do you think you see?" the storyteller asked gently as she took the stone from her and held the girl’s hands in hers. Submerged to her shoulders, Gabrielle waited patiently, watching her daughter’s expression closely.

The dark child’s gaze was hooded when she thought she had done something wrong. With brows furrowed, she stared at her reddening flesh. At her mother’s question, Ari thought through her responses before answering softly.

"D-Dirty. I-I a-am so… d-dirty," Ari whispered as she lowered her head in shame and tried, once again, to wipe the dark film from her forearm. Nothing could have helped her to see herself as anything less.

"Oh no, Ari. No, sweetheart," Gabrielle’s voice was so soft and tender as she stopped Ari’s movements, then cupped the girl’s cheeks and forced her to look up. "Listen to me. You are not dirty! Do you hear me? You’ve cleaned off all the grime from our travel, remember, I helped you bathe it all away," the storyteller insisted. "Honey, you are washed clean and fresh now, do you understand?"

Ari gulped as she fought back tears. She saw the conviction within her mother’s green eyes, yet found it hard to accept her words. Unable to respond, she simply closed her eyes and lowered her head in shame.

"Oh honey, how can I convince you?" Gabrielle whispered as she pulled her into a close embrace. Ari felt the woman’s naked flesh close to hers. The coolness of the water around them kept her anchored within herself. Each time she thought too deeply, or allowed the vivid memories of her past to return, she seemed to feel herself separating, moving outside of herself, but she fought these feelings and attempted to remain grounded.

"Listen to me, we’ve been in this water so long that your hands are getting all wrinkled; look," the blonde spoke softly as she took Ari’s hands in hers and opened them up. Glancing down, the girl noticed her white fingers ridged and furrowed from being too long in water, her forearms pink from constant rubbing. Blinking at the appearance of her arms, Ari gulped nervously as she turned away. She began to fear that her earlier madness was returning, but was unable to voice her fears. Understanding her reaction, the storyteller reached out and lightly brushed tender fingers over Ari’s damp hair.

"It’s all right honey, sometimes our fears and insecurities make us see what isn’t really there," Gabrielle gently explained as she led Ari’s drenched form from the cooling ripples of the lake.

Gabrielle watched as the girl scrubbed her arm nearly raw. In an attempt to peel away her first layer of skin, Ari vigorously rubbed the stone over her flesh, finally resting on her forearm. Afraid that she would tear the skin, the blonde healer intervened. Once she had Ari out of the water, she quickly dried her then pulled a clean shirt over her daughter’s battered and bruised body. Now that she was no longer bleeding, the storyteller did not bother to have Ari put on the rags worn during moon cycles.

Once covered by a clean shirt, Gabrielle felt her tall daughter wrap an arm over her shoulder and, using her as support, they slowly walked back to camp. Only when the girl was settled on her bedroll, did the blonde return to wash her daughter’s filthy clothing. On her way back, she noticed Xena searching through the tall brush. At her curious expression, her lover smiled as she held up a handful of green indented leaves and yellow flowers.

"Artemisia!" the warrior exclaimed as she returned her attention to the white tops of the cluster of bushes.

"Artemisia?" the Amazon frowned as she tried to remember what she knew about the flowers. When is appeared that her soulmate would not explain, she mentally shrugged Xena’s actions away as she moved back to the lake to finish her own bath and to wash their clothing.

The feelings, combined with the endless fatigue, were alien to Ari. Although she knew that she had just fought her way back from madness, she could not understand the pain that she felt. It was not a physical pain, as when Alti had wounded her. Nor was it like the pain of being raped by the two brothers. Instead it was a pain that seemed to engulf her entire soul and this was something entirely new to the dark child.

As her parents moved around the camp, she remained silently staring at the campfire. From somewhere in the back of her mind, she heard the slight flutters of whispers coming from both her mothers, yet turned her attention away in an attempt to avoid overhearing their thoughts. Ari sat with her shirt pulled over her knees to keep the cool night breeze at bay. With legs drawn close to her body, she rested her chin on her knees as she gazed into the mixture of orange, red and yellow colors of the warm fire. While a part of her thoughts marveled at the perfect intricacies of each flame, another part pondered these strange, new emotions surrounding her.

When her birth mother moved close to the fire, she watched the taller warrior’s movements with mild interest. With brows creased Xena ground some white fluffy flowers into fine grains then mixed them carefully with a yellow powder, which she had mashed a few minutes before. When the two mixtures were combined she poured them into a pot of bubbling water. At her mother’s smile, Ari only blinked as she turned her gaze toward the blonde. In silence, the smaller woman was monitoring the duck that was skewered over the flames.

"Umm, almost ready," the storyteller licked her lips as she glanced at Ari. "Are you hungry?"

Ari thought over her question then answered softy, "No."

At her response, the healer frowned, "I know honey, but you’ve got to eat, even if it’s only a little bit."

For Ari, telling anything but the truth had not occurred to her. She hadn’t thought that the truth would cause the woman pain, but if she had known that Gabrielle would worry over her response, she might have thought twice about answering truthfully. Instead, she had answered as she felt. In truth, she was not hungry, nor was she thirsty. Truth be known, she really didn’t feel anything. Unlike her time in darkness when she was unable to respond or break free, this time all she felt was numbness within her. When she wasn’t numb, she felt the endless pain inside her soul and to her, the better of the two was numbness. If Ari had known better how to express herself, she might have explained this to her mothers, but because she wasn’t all together certain what was or wasn’t normal, all she could do was to keep her silence.

"Here, Ari, eat a little bit," when the girl seemed to hesitate, the blonde smiled gently and added, "Can you eat a little bit for me?" Gabrielle softly pleaded as she handed a piece of meat to the girl.

In silence Ari lightly nibbled on the bird. The taste, although wonderful, did not cause the numbness of her soul to go away. Whatever hunger she might have felt before her time in darkness, did not return. But rather than pondering on it, she ate in silence as the soft drone of her mother’s voices registered in the back of her mind.

"Ummm, tea! Xena, what do we owe this small treat to?" Gabrielle asked as she leaned forward and inhaled the steam rising from the bubbling pot.

"Ah, not for you, my little bard!" the warrior princess teased as she took a mug and dipped it into the boiling liquid. "This is for Ari, it will help her," the warrior stated as she leaned over and placed the cup beside Ari.

Ari smelled the sweet scent of the tea wafting past her nostrils. Licking the juices of the meat from her fingers, she set her food down and took the steaming mug between her palms. Closing her eyes, she inhaled deeply of the herbal concoction, then opened her eyes and began to blow on it to cool it down. Once it was cool enough to drink, she tested the liquid against her lips. At the sweetness, she closed her eyes and drank the soothing tea, feeling it cross her palate and rest easily at the back of her throat. When the initial sweetness dissipated, a tangy sourness reached her taste buds. At the diverse flavors, she smiled slightly as she drank deeply from the cup.

"That’s a girl!" She heard Xena encourage, then, when the cup was empty, the older warrior refilled it with more tea. "Here you go, drink it up."

When she finished with the second, she meekly smiled as she held the empty cup to her mother. Pleased by this simple show of appreciation, Xena took the mug and filled it only half way. "Okay, but this is it. No more for you after that."

"What do you say, Ari?" her blonde mother caused Ari to pause before gulping down the tea. At her obvious confusion, the storyteller repeated, "You say, ‘thank you,’" as she gazed at Ari her eyes conveying a silent message. Remembering all of the times that the blonde had tried to teach her the right words to say, the girl nodded understanding.

"T-Thank you," her voice cracked from disuse as she lowered her eyes and drank of the soothing liquid.

"You’re welcome," she heard her birthmother say with a soft chuckle in her voice.

Once, I thought there were rules to follow around Alti. Don’t disobey. Clean the cave. Anticipate all of Alti’s needs, and most importantly, never fight the older woman off when she wanted to have pleasure with me. Any infraction of these rules would end up with Ari getting a severe beating… or worse, the dark child thought.

As she contemplated this, she realized that here in this world, with her new family, there was a multitude of new rules to remember. Everyone had to greet each other with a cheery salutation when they first woke. From her sister, it was always some platitude about Eli. For her mothers, it was a simple, "Good Morning." Then there was the rule of not saying the first thing that came to one’s mind. For instance, when her sister asked if a particular color shade in her skirt made her look fat, Ari was not allowed to tell Eve that it was not the color or the skirt, but her wide hips and ass that made her look fat. This, she could not say. Nor was she allowed to tell Xena that the morning gruel she made for them did indeed taste like something that her stallion Than might have chewed on and then spit out. Instead, she was supposed to "compliment" the warrior on being a fine cook even if she wasn’t, and if someone gave her something Ari was always supposed to thank the person.

If Ari thought that Alti had too many rules to follow, she quickly amended this notion a few days after being in the company of her mothers. Sometimes their constant rules proved too great for her to remember, Ari thought as she felt her hand slowly slipping, the empty mug dropping from her grasp. As her eyelids grew heavy, she noticed the concern on Gabrielle’s face as she and Xena moved quickly by her side. Each time Ari tried to talk, it felt like her tongue weighed as heavy as a horse. Unable to do little else, she closed her eyes as she felt herself being laid back on her bedroll.

"Xena, what was in that tea?" Gabrielle’s voice was laced with fear.

"Just some Artemisia and Tansy," the warrior explained as she gently laid her daughter’s head on the pillow. When she lifted an eyelid, she smiled slightly when she saw that Ari’s pupil was nearly dilated from the effects of the tea.

"Have I heard of those before? What are they used for?" Her lover asked as they tucked their daughter under the blankets. Holding up her finger to her lip, Xena motioned for the woman to follow her a short distance from camp. With the girl still in view, she looked down at her soulmate.

"Separately, they only offer vitamins, together they act as a, um, purifier," she explained softly, hoping that the girl was passed out enough to not overhear their conversation.

"A purifier? Like a laxative? Xena, I don’t understand, why does she need a…." Gabrielle’s brows creased into a frown.

"A feminine purifier, Gabrielle," the warrior explained then continued, "I couldn’t take the chance that Ari would become pregnant. She’s too young, and too, well, immature to be able to handle it. This was the only option I could think of to make certain that an accident didn’t happen."

Gabrielle’s lips formed a silent O as understanding settled in, and her gaze suddenly turned to their sleeping daughter. Her brows remained creased in a frown as she slowly shook her head negatively. With suddenly narrowed eyes, she looked up at her lover.

"Xena, you made that decision all on your own? Why?" the blonde asked tightly.

"What?" Xena felt her defenses rising and strove to speak gently. "Gabrielle, what was I supposed to do, wait to find out if she had gotten pregnant from her rapist? By then, it would have been too late to do anything about it!"

"That’s not what I mean, Xena," Gabrielle’s voice was laced with anger even though she kept her tone soft. "This was not your decision alone. Not talking it over with me is one thing, but this concerns Ari. Don’t you think you should have talked with her about it? Don’t you think maybe she might want to know all of the facts and then make a decision on her own?" Despite herself, the Amazon’s voice grew slightly in volume.

The taller warrior felt her brow arching at the question, her confusion growing by the minute. Within her mind, she had foreseen a problem and acted to resolve it before anyone was hurt. At her lover’s question, she found herself running over other possibilities.

"Gabrielle, there was no time. In order for it to work, the herbs have to be ingested within a 24 hour time span from when the… incident takes place. The time was getting too close for talk and I had to act quickly!" Her expression grew firm. "Besides, do you think that Ari would have understood it if I had talked with her about it first? Honey, look at her; think about it! Ari doesn’t know anything about our world. For all I know, she doesn’t even understand why she bleeds every month, let alone what could happen if a man spilled his seed into her," Xena was trying hard to convince her lover, but felt herself wavering as she saw a silent resolve in her lover’s eyes.

The small woman looked at her daughter, then back to her lover and lowered her voice to a sharp whisper. "It doesn’t matter, Xena. All of her life, she had decisions about her body taken away from her. Alti controlled every aspect of her existence, and here we’re trying to teach her… to show her that she does have free will, that her body is her own and that no one has the right to abuse her," the storyteller’s words were controlled and even. "Xena, I know your intentions may have been good, but it doesn’t change the fact that this was Ari’s decision to make regardless of how much she may or may not understand, and you took that away from her!"

The warrior gaped at her lover as the words began to strike home. By the gods, she thought. Did I screw up again? N-No! I was right… wasn’t I? "B-But, Gabrielle, I-I just…"

The smaller woman shook her head as she crossed her arms defiantly in front of her. "Xena, someday this is going to come back to haunt you, and you’re going to have a lot of explaining to do! I just hope, for your sake, that Ari is better able to understand it then, than I am right now," the blonde hissed as she turned her back to the warrior and went to kneel beside their unconscious daughter.

"Gabrielle…" Xena was going to try to explain her actions again, but at her lover’s silent form, she suddenly realized the fatal mistake of her hurried decision. Aw, shit, she thought dejectedly. When will I ever learn? I think I’m so gods’ damned smart; always one step ahead; always right. But all my greatest blunders in life seem to come from not communicating. Time after time my mistakes come back to haunt me despite all that I can do. Now it’s just happened again and this time there is nothing I can do to take back what is already taking place. Miserably, she followed her lover and sank down beside her daughter’s bedroll to watch her latest mistake play out.

Ari awoke from a dream of fire and ice. When she sat bolt upright in her bedroll, she felt the sweat pouring down her temples. In an attempt to escape the oppressive heat, she pushed back the cover of her bedroll as she gasped from the new sensations. As if they had never gone to bed, both of her mothers were at her side.

"Ari?" she heard Gabrielle’s voice laced with concern as she pushed back Ari’s sweat drenched hair.

"Calm down, you’re all right," Ari heard Xena say as she lightly rubbed her shoulders.

Before she could contemplate the new sensations, she felt her stomach lurch, the evening meal of duck suddenly coming back to her. As a sickening sensation crossed through her, she felt the dinner threaten to climb up from her stomach. With a gagging sound, she fought to keep her food down as she wrapped arms around her roiling stomach. When this failed, she bolted from between her mothers and ran into the forest, stopping at the first tree in her path.

Once she fell to her knees, she leaned forward and allowed her vomit to spill on the earth. Just when she thought it might be over, she felt her stomach cramping as she released more of her evening’s dinner. From behind her, she felt her warrior mother’s firm hand massaging her back as she spoke soft words of encouragement. At the feel of a cool cloth against her forehead, she closed her eyes as Gabrielle softly spoke to her. Before she could regain control, Ari felt the cramps radiating downward from her stomach. At this new sensation, she closed her eyes and groaned as she pressed her palms into her pelvis, hoping to alleviate the sudden cramps. Before it could stop, she involuntarily leaned forward as she continued to vomit until all she could do was dry heave.

When Ari felt wetness between her legs, she groaned as she closed her eyes, ashamed that she had urinated on herself in front of her parents. With an embarrassed expression, she lifted her shirt and wiped at the wetness, then looked down between her legs. At the sight of the blood, she felt a heat crossing her cheeks as she glanced back up at Gabrielle.

Before the blonde could speak, Ari bolted from her spot, moving further into the forest until she was secluded between a shrub and a tree. In a crouching position, the girl leaned against the tree, sweat pouring down her forehead as the cramps surged through her again. With a groan of pain, she closed her eyes and grimaced as she involuntarily pushed down, the feel of gushing blood registering in the back of her mind.

"Ari honey, you’re okay," she heard Xena say as the older woman made her way to her.

"Ari…." Gabrielle began to speak, but at their nearness, Ari pulled away.

"Go away! I-I’m unclean! Y-You mustn’t touch me," Ari managed to shout out before another cramp took control.

"No, Ari, you’re all right, you’re going to be okay," she heard the warrior assure before the cramps caused her to double over. With a slight groan, she fell into Xena’s arms as she fought against the pain.

"Its okay, honey, you’ll be fine, don’t be afraid," she heard her birth mother say as the older woman held her in a tight embrace. When the spasm ended, she felt another gush of wetness between her legs, but didn’t have to look to know that more blood had spilled from her.

"N-No… shouldn’t t-touch me… I-I’m not clean," she gasped weakly as she tried to pull away from Xena. Ignoring her actions, the warrior only held her close as she gently rocked her in her arms.

"No, honey, I’m not leaving you. I’m here with you, I won’t ever leave you," the warrior assured.

Ari felt the heat crossing her temples, the cramps never once subsiding. She held onto her mother tightly as the pain registered in her mind. Still in a crouching position, the girl grimaced each time another wave of cramps hit and sighed when she felt her body releasing her moon time.

It has never been this way in the past, Ari thought silently. Never had her moon time been this painful, yet she had to admit to herself that she was not exactly certain what form this curse would take each month. With beads of sweat soaking her nightshirt, Ari closed her eyes to the pain until she finally passed out and was released into a dream, a memory from when she first arrived in this world…

The first time it had happened was unexpected for Ari. She had been out of the cave for nearly two moons when, to her surprise, she awoke to find herself soaking in her own blood. Afraid that she was dying, she cried out as she tried to stop the flow of blood. When Alti had awakened next to her, she glanced down at the girl and then cursed in a rage.

"You stupid little bitch! You woke me for this?" The older woman dragged the dark child out of bed by the hair and into a cold corner of the room.

"I-I’m dying!" Ari managed to cry out as she felt the hard flagstones of their quarters scraping her skin.

Angered by her words, the sorceress reached down and grabbed Ari’s shoulders. In one fluid motion, she lifted her up, only to slam her against the wall. With the air knocked from her lungs, Ari glanced up in time to see the bigger woman’s right hand lifting before she hit her in the face. Cowering away, Ari covered her head as she felt the barrage of punches and kicks, the expletives raging from the sorceress.

"You stupid, filthy little girl! You woke me for this? Don’t you know this is your curse handed to you from Xena! Every time the moon is full, you will be cursed," Alti had shouted as Ari tried to bury herself deeper into the corner of the room. When it seemed like the sorceress’ rage had ended, Ari sniffled back her tears as she kept her head lowered in shame.

Panting, and out of breath, Alti stood naked above her. With hands bunched into fists, the bigger woman glared down at her, then spoke a bit softer. "I guess it’s not your fault. I had hoped that being with me, you would be immune to Xena’s curse… but, I guess not," the raspy voice stated as she moved away from Ari. The sound of ripping cloth registered in her hearing. Ari watched as Alti took the soiled sheets and ripped them into shreds, then moved back to where she was huddled against the wall.

"Little girl, this will happen to you every time the moon is high and full. When that happens, you will wear these, catch the blood in the cloth, then wash them and let them dry, do you understand?" Alti’s voice was softer as she tossed the shredded cloth to her. "And whatever you do, do NOT touch me! I don’t want to be contaminated by your filthy curse," the older woman added as Ari was feebly placing the rags between her legs.

That night, and every time that the moon rose full, Ari spent huddled in the cold corner of the room. Although Alti had explained it, Ari noticed that it did not happen the way that the sorceress stated that it would. True, it would happen with almost every change of the moon, but sometimes it didn’t happen at the same time and there were times when it lasted less than a day, and other times when she thought she would bleed to death. The one thing remaining consistent was Alti’s insistence that Ari not touch her at those times. Afraid that Ari’s soiled condition would ruin her magic, the sorceress insisted that she stay away. Only after she stopped bleeding, did Alti order the girl to completely bathe and purify herself with scents and oils to rid her of the unclean blood in order that the older woman could once more take pleasure with her…

Ari found herself climbing from her dreams of her past. When she opened her eyes, she saw her mothers looking down at her with concern. No longer huddled in the forest, she found herself under her bedroll, her soiled nightshirt gone, and the familiar feeling of rags between her legs. Gabrielle lightly touched Ari’s sweaty forehead with a cool towel, as Xena smiled down at her. In her dazed state, the girl felt the cramps, no longer as severe, yet still striking with regularity. Remembering that she was bleeding from her moon time, she tried to push away the blonde’s hand, to keep her mother from touching her and becoming contaminated by her filth. Ignoring her concerns, the storyteller simply smiled as she gently took Ari’s hands and covered them with the blanket.

"It’s alright, honey, just close your eyes and sleep. You’ll be fine," she heard Gabrielle’s words.

Xena’s voice echoed in the distance, "That’s right sweetheart, just rest, you’ll be just fine."

The warrior princess had not expected so much blood. Only when Ari passed out was she able to examine the girl. Although it was similar to what she had seen with the other women she had given the concoction to, she could not remember this amount of blood loss or pain during a purging. Once the girl was unconscious, she was able to carry her back to camp. With Gabrielle’s help, they cleaned her as best they could and placed the clean rags between her legs.

"Xena, is… is this normal?" Fear etched her lover’s voice as she ran a cool cloth over Ari’s sweaty forehead.

The dark haired woman swallowed. "I’ve never seen anything like it," the warrior’s usually controlled voice momentarily wavered. For the first time, she began to understand how little she knew of her daughter’s physical health. Although she knew that Ari was deeply disturbed after her years with Alti, Xena was unaware of the changes her daughter’s body might have undergone while she was held in Alti’s prison.

As the warrior gazed down at her daughter, she noticed her youthful appearance. Each time Xena had seen her daughter naked, she never gave the girl’s body much thought. But now as she sat by Ari’s side, she came to the realization that she had overlooked clues, which should have been obvious. Her small breasts and sparse hair between her legs should have clued the warrior in to the fact that although Ari was much older in years, her body was still that of an adolescent.

The warrior remembered the first time she had seen Ari, how she almost didn’t believe the girl’s accusations. But when she had looked closer, she had seen both a bit of her brother, Toris and her mother Cyrene in the girl. Once she saw the physical characteristics of her family in the girl’s features, she knew that she could not deny the child, regardless if she looked too young to be her first born. There was no doubt in her mind that Ari was the product of a rape that happened at a time when the warrior princess was too young to be a mother.

Damn it! You should have known, Xena thought to herself as she gazed at her daughter’s features. Despite her child’s height and built, the warrior had overlooked the fact that her eldest was not like others her age. Xena should have known that whatever had happened to Ari while in the cave was something unnatural, something that prevented the girl’s body from aging naturally, and this disturbed the warrior.

At this thought, Xena became concerned for her daughter. The Artemisia was only meant for women. Everyone, from healers to mid-wives, knows that such a strong and powerful herb is never to be given to young girls who had just started the menses, the warrior mentally chided herself as she wondered when Ari might have started her cycle. Within the past year, by the reaction she’s having to the herb, she thought. With a shake of her head, the warrior princess closed her eyes tightly against the dread that was building within her. For the first time in a long time, she felt cold fear in the pit of her stomach as she wondered if she would be responsible for causing damage to Ari’s body — or worse.

With each cry of pain from her child, the strong warrior felt her heart aching. Her silent tears broke free as she held her daughter close. Only when Ari mercifully fell into a fitful sleep was Xena able to lay the girl down, cover her tenderly, and sit vigil by her side. Unconscious, yet whimpering in pain, the girl remained still as they cleaned her and placed the rags to catch the blood. Just when the tall woman began to fear that all hope was lost, the cramps subsided. Too weak to move, the teen wept softly in her sleep while the blonde healer wiped a cool cloth over the girl’s forehead.

"Please, oh, please let it be over now," Xena murmured under her breath as she caught Gabrielle’s harsh gaze. The blonde’s brows furrowed as she angrily stared across their suffering daughter at the warrior. With a sad sigh, the dark warrior turned away, visibly ignoring her lover’s disapproval.

~~~~~~

The morning brought little relief for Ari. Unaccustomed to speaking openly about her curse, she moved away from camp to clean herself and prepare for the day’s journey. Never in the past had she been allowed to use this as an excuse for stopping her duties, so she never thought that her mother’s would allow it either.

When she returned to camp, cleaned and dressed, no one said anything to her. Assuming that they were equally embarrassed at witnessing her disgusting display of the night before, Ari simply lowered her eyes and prepared to gather her things together. As a wave of dizziness swept over her, she sat down immediately and closed her eyes. With head cradled in her hands, she kept her eyes closed tightly as she tried to keep her nausea at bay.

"Just rest, Ari, we’ll take care of it," she felt Gabrielle’s light touch on her shoulder. Surprised at being touched, Ari glanced up in time to see the storyteller and warrior moving silently through the camp. Once her own bags were packed, the blonde quickly gathered Ari’s items together, then fastened them to Than’s back.

Ari took advantage of the solitude to watch her mother’s interactions. She noticed stiffness from Gabrielle and the silence of Xena. Whenever they moved close, or accidentally bumped, there seemed to be uneasiness in the warrior, and a quiet anger from the blonde that she had never seen before. At this change in development, Ari raised a silent brow as she tried to understand what was causing her parent’s reactions.

"Are you about ready to go, honey?" the blonde asked as she moved to help Ari to her feet. Waving away her contact, Ari rose, but was grateful to have Gabrielle near as the dizziness returned. Leaning against the smaller woman for support, she allowed herself to be led toward the travois. The anger that her stepmother showed toward Xena was gone when she helped Ari move. Curious, the dark child glanced from the storyteller, to her birth mother. When no answers became clear, she kept her silence as she felt the gentle blonde cover her, then tie the straps supporting her in the travois.

Once they got going, she could feel the uneasy tension around them. Although no one spoke, the dark child was certain that something was amiss between the warrior and bard, yet was unable to comprehend the cause. Rather than dwell on it, she closed her eyes against the early morning sun and allowed her thoughts to wander until the peaceful dreams of sleep consumed her…

From somewhere in the distance, she thought she heard a woman’s voice calling her name. The long forgotten memory from before Alti’s time returned to her in a dream. Turning in a circle, she glanced up in time to see a woman with hair of gold kneeling down with arms outstretched. Ari did not know why, but she was suddenly filled with a warm happiness. Before the dream could take hold, she felt her senses pulling her, the jarring sensation stopping all images that played through her mind….

Ari’s eyes’ snapped open as she tried to understand what had yanked her from the pleasant dream. She felt the steady motions of the travois. High above, she saw the white clouds moving slowly in the clear blue sky. When she felt the uneasy sensations, she closed her eyes and inhaled sharply. The muted sounds of mental whispers raged past her then grew silent.

Sensing the same thing, Xena suddenly stopped in her tracks. Although Ari could not see her warrior mother, she saw Gabrielle’s attentive gaze looking to where the warrior was situated. When the whispers in her mind grew soft, the girl remained silent as the warrior princess moved back to where they were.

"Gabrielle, take Ari into the brush, stay low," the dark woman commanded as she quickly released Ari from the confines of the travois.

"Why, Xena?" Gabrielle asked even as she helped Ari to her feet.

"P-Please… mother?" Ari’s eyes looked up at her warrior mother before she glanced down the dirt road, not quite certain on who was coming, but fully aware that they outnumbered their party of three.

Xena knew what her daughter was asking, yet hesitated as she contemplated her choices. Although she was certain that Gabrielle would do everything possible to protect Ari, there was always uncertainty whenever they faced greater odds. Yet when she looked at the girl, she noticed her pale complexion, the tell-tale signs of sickness still showing on her face. The warrior princess realized that even if her daughter had her sword, she doubted that the girl would have the strength to lift it, let alone protect herself. But leaving her unprotected was not an option either. As an afterthought, she reached into her boot and removed the short dagger she had taken away from the girl earlier.

When she had taken away Ari’s weapons after the girl’s last foolish attack, Xena never thought that the girl would need them so soon. She had packed them securely with the rest of their traveling packs on the back of Eve’s mule, Babu. Now that they might be in danger, the warrior regretted her actions, but was grateful that she had held on to Ari’s dagger.

"This is the best I can give, use it only as a last resort," she spoke firmly, yet softly to her daughter. With a slight smile, Ari wrapped her fingers around the hilt and nodded understanding.

"Xena, as soon as Ari is settled, I’ll be back," tension laced the storyteller’s words as she moved to her daughter.

"Gabrielle, no. I need you to stay with Ari. I don’t know who is coming down the road, but they outnumber us," the warrior replied with determination. "Gabrielle, if something should happen, I need you to stay hiding until the trouble passes. I need to know that you’ll be there for Ari — for both of our daughters."

The shorter warrior hesitated for only a moment as she glanced down at the road. Whatever was heading their way soon approached as the birds in the nearby trees flew from their perches. When she looked up, the blonde’s eyes seemed to convey her love. Accepting her soulmate’s request, the healer only nodded then turned to help Ari from the road.

As the sounds of the distant hoof beats grew near, Xena sat astride her horse, and watched as her lover and daughter disappeared into the dense forest with the black steed and travois in tow. After a moment, their forms disappeared behind the tall foliage of the forest. Once assured that her family was safely hidden, she turned and faced the road as she kept her stance casual and calm.

The sounds of thundering hooves grew closer as a dust storm billowed from the distance. When she saw the group rounding the bend, the older warrior mentally steeled herself for whatever might be approaching. Like a thunderstorm, the group of riders covered the entire road, their horses hooves pounding into the dirt causing a mini dust cloud to occur. Only when they were close, did the group begin to slow down.

Xena remained silent as she watched the men slow down to a stop. Dressed in traveling gear, wearing swords, the men were covered with cloth across their noses and mouths to keep the dust at bay. The leader of the group pulled forward, then stopped and glanced back at the riders. With a raised hand, he gave a single order then turned to face the waiting warrior.

"Xena?" A familiar voice reached her just as the leader removed his face covering. With a broad smile, the young man moved his horse closer to hers. "Xena, thank the gods you’re all right!"

"Virgil?" The warrior princess was instantly at ease.

~~~~~~

Ever since receiving the cryptic message from Eve, Virgil had been filled with dread. It was not the same feelings he had when the stories of Xena’s death in Higuchi reached them. No, when the first tales arrived he could honestly say that he went through depression. He found himself constantly remembering his travels with Gabrielle and Xena and knew that after her death, the storyteller had to be going through such pain. Yet he was too far away to even consider going to help her. If truth be told, he had to admit that he didn’t even know where Gabrielle was, or if she would ever want to return to Greece without her beloved. So rather than making a journey to her, he remained at home and helped his mother with the tavern. He wiled away his days on what he considered meaningless tasks and found no great joy in anything he did. Not even the prospect of another battle interested him.

When the news spread that an army the size that no one had ever seen before was sweeping across the land, a part of him wondered how long it would take before his family was drawn into it. Although he did not consider himself a warrior at heart, as his father was, he was not afraid to fight. If he had been alone, he might have gone to join the resistance, but worried of leaving his mother and family alone, he chose to remain home in the unlikely event that he would have to fight to protect them. Thankfully, it never came to this because Xena and Gabrielle had managed to stop the invading army in its tracks. After rumors spread of the warrior princess and battling bard’s intervention, the stories of Xena’s rebirth soon made it to their home. If the rumors were true, then he could not help but think that his friend was brought back to life for a reason, and for him, that reason was to help their countrymen fight against the tyranny threatening their land.

He had heard the rumors about The Destroyer, and Xena’s involvement and a part of him did not want to believe that such a person could be his friend’s daughter. But then he remembered all that Livia had done. Although a part of him did not feel obligated to help Eve, another part knew that if Xena and Gabrielle were in trouble, he had to help. With this in mind, he explained the emergency to his mother, then gathered as many of his friends as he could, before riding out to help his two legendary friends.

The minute he was close enough to recognize her, relief filled him. With a smile, he jumped from his horse and ran to Xena, who was also dismounting her mare. Like a weight suddenly lifted from his shoulders, he felt relief and exultation as he hugged her close.

"Thank the gods, Xena! I was so worried!" He exclaimed as he easily lifted the older warrior and swung her around joyfully, "I’ve never been so worried in my life, are you all right? Is everything okay?" He asked as she lightly pushed away from him, a smile breaking out on her face.

"Gabrielle?" He suddenly asked, realizing that the small blonde was not around.

"She’s okay, Virgil, she’s fine," Xena explained as she turned to the forest. Before the warrior could call out to her lover, the blonde made her way from her hiding place, an equally big smile crossing her features.

"Virgil!" Gabrielle exclaimed as she ran and gave him a hug. His arms wrapped around her protectively as he lightly lifted her into a hug and then returned her to the earth.

"You both don’t know how I’ve been going out of my mind!" He glanced at both of them as he shook his head in relief, "I’ve been so worried that something terrible had happened! The message I got from Eve was that you were in trouble. She said something about your daughter and that you needed help, but she didn’t really explain it," his voice was filled with excitement as he reached into his pocket and removed the small parchment that had been delivered to his mother, Meg.

Xena opened the tiny scroll and read the words, her brow arched upward before glancing down at Gabrielle, who was reading it beside her.

Virgil,

Mothers are in trouble. They urgently need your help with my sister on the road to Amphipolis.

Eve

Gabrielle read the note out loud then nodded understanding, her smile slightly wavering as she sighed. With a shake of her head, she rolled the message back up then handed it back the Virgil.

"I’m going to have to talk with Eve about being a bit more explicit when she sends out messages," the warrior princess nodded understanding.

"Well, you can see where I thought something terrible had happened. I wasn’t sure if you needed help fighting off The Destroyer!" he said as he turned to all of his friends. "My buddies here, as soon as they heard that you two were in trouble, volunteered to join me," he explained when he saw Gabrielle’s attention drawn to them.

With a smile and a nod, they glanced up at his friends. One by one, the men removed their face scarves then nodded a greeting to Xena and Gabrielle. At the look of surprise from the two women, he shrugged his shoulders and offered a weak smile.

"They were more than willing to help me out with this, and since I wasn’t sure what I was up against, I figured I could use all the help I could get," he explained as the youthful looking men began to dismount their horses.

Gabrielle’s first instinct was to reach out and touch the soft cheeks of the riders. Obviously young, most of them didn’t even appear to need to shave yet. But when she saw how shy the young men were around them, she only smiled as she nodded to each of Virgil’s friends.

One by one, the young men moved forward to introduce themselves. Taurie, Anago, Khristos, Iapeto, Markus, Klonis, Megarreu and more, their names flew by so quickly that the blonde soon gave up trying to remember them all. They’re all so young, the Amazon silently thought as she smiled at the young… well, if she were truthful with herself she’d have to admit that she was not certain how to view them. Were they men? Or were they boys? Although they were similar in build to Virgil, and they carried weapons, their appearances seemed too young to be warriors. If she had been asked, she would not have been certain if these boys even knew how to use the swords that they carried.

Once introductions were made, she suddenly remembered their daughter still hiding in the underbrush. Filled with curiosity, Virgil glanced from Xena, then to Gabrielle as a questioning brow rose. His fear now gone, he longed to know what had occurred to cause Eve’s cryptic message.

"Gabrielle, Xena, what’s it about?" Before she answered, the blonde moved toward the edge of the road and peered into the shadows where she had been hiding with her daughter.

"Ari?" Gabrielle softly called, "Ari, honey, its ok. You can come out now."

Virgil found it hard to contain his curiosity about the one who was called the Destroyer. As news of the battle against the dark troops was brought to Amphipolis, he had listened with great interest, hoping that it wouldn’t come to his new home. Yet he knew that if it did, like his father before him, he would be forced to take up the warrior way and defend his family and home. Thankfully, Xena and Gabrielle had stopped the fighting, and peace was once again over the land. Except that now, his two friends rode with the dark one, the one called the Destroyer.

As he moved beside his two friends, he listened to their coaxing words as he peered into the shadows. With each sound of their voices, his eyes strained to catch sight of the ominous woman who had brought terror to so many souls. At the slight sound of rustling, he focused on a single patch of darkness, his eyes straining to see the hidden figure of the Destroyer. By the diffused light, he caught a glimpse of flesh and then it disappeared back into the shadows.

"Ari, honey, its ok, he’s a friend," Gabrielle moved slowly toward the edge of the forest. "Baby, it’s all right, don’t be afraid."

"Sweetheart, it’s safe now, you can come out," Xena added, a softness filling her voice which took Virgil by surprise.

Before he teasingly commented on the woman’s change, a figure caught his attention. Leaning forward, he peered into the shadows and watched as an outline moved slightly, the diffused sunlight shinning on the vague features. At that moment, Virgil wasn’t certain if he had seen correctly, but as he gazed into the shadows, he saw the distinct outline of two eyes peering back at him. When the figure moved toward them, the first thing the young man noticed was her sick, gaunt face. As if just recovering from a long illness, the young face was pale, dark shadows were below her dull eyes.

With coaxing from the blonde, the slender figure moved cautiously from the darkness. Like a trapped animal, her gaze quickly moved from Gabrielle, to the gathered men. Surprised by how small and delicate she looked, Virgil turned to Xena with a slack jaw as he tried to imagine this young woman as the Destroyer.

"Virgil, this is our daughter," Xena smiled softy at him, aware of his surprised expression.

"Meet Ari," Gabrielle pulled his attention back as she gently urged the girl from her hiding place.

Ari had remained silent as she watched the men approaching her mother. She heard the riders’ thoughts like an incoherent rumble of waves washing through her senses. What few snatches of thoughts she overheard, were filled with nervous apprehension to enter a battle. From a few of the riders, she heard them thinking of the valiant manner in which they would… Ari pulled back further into the darkness of the trees when she realized that their anger and hatred were directed at her, or at least, at who she once was — The Destroyer.

With a shake of her head, she tried to pull away from their rampant emotions. At their closeness, she smelled the aromatic scent of their pungent odor and was reminded of the times when Alti had brought men back to their cave…

The strong odor of man was something that was permanently etched within her consciousness. When the sorceress was finished with the men, Ari experienced their strong odor first hand. Each time they forced themselves upon her, the dark child’s mind was embedded with the familiar male scent.

With a shake of her head, Ari tried to forget those memories from long ago. But with the group of men so close, she found it hard to push the hideous reflections aside. From next to her, she felt Gabrielle’s reassuring touch as they remained hidden in the underbrush of the forest. When she saw the young man reveal himself, she was taken aback by how young he looked, then was equally surprised at the greeting her mother received from him.

Silently, she turned to Gabrielle in hope of understanding who the man was that her birth mother would allow him to lift and spin her in the air. But her silent question went unnoticed because the storyteller rose from their hiding place and casually walked out, a big smile etched on her face. Confused, Ari pulled further back into the shadows, not certain if the riders had hexed her mothers with some sort of magic.

Unable to hear their words, she simply watched the exchange. When she glanced at the rest of the riders, she noticed their youthful appearances. Their body language and mannerism showed that most, if not all, had never used their weapons in combat. Before her mind could understand the situation, she saw her blonde mother turning from the man and moving toward Ari’s hiding place. Suddenly afraid, she pulled further back into the shadows. She tried in vain to disappear, but at her mother’s words, she moved slowly forward to reveal herself. At the quick movement of the man, she instinctively pulled away, disappearing back into the shadows as her heart raced out of control.

"Ari, honey, its ok, he’s a friend," she heard Gabrielle’s assuring words as she watched the man carefully, the hand on the dagger held ready to strike out should the need arise. "Baby, it’s all right, don’t be afraid," the blonde called once more as she moved toward Ari’s hiding place.

"Sweetheart, it’s safe now, you can come out," she heard Xena’s soft assurance.

When the dark child saw her mother’s hand reach out, she cautiously moved forward, her eyes never wavering from the stranger. Blinking back the bright sunlight, she lowered her head as she took her mother’s hand, encouraged by her presence until the man made another sudden move. Filled with fear once again, she retreated back into the dark shadows.

"Ari," she heard Gabrielle call as she hid behind a tree. With knees drawn up she closed her eyes as she fought to keep the memories at bay. One moment she was hiding in the darkness and the sound of the storyteller’s voice called to her. The next, she was in the cold darkness of the cave, her mind spinning out of control as she tried to hide, to disappear before her mother and the man found her.

Gabrielle recognized the look of utter fear and walked cautiously toward her child. In the cool shade of the forest trees, she slowly moved to Ari’s frightened form. As she knelt down beside Ari, she noticed her attempt to grow smaller. With legs drawn up, head bent into her knees, the girl held a firm grip around her legs. Releasing a slight sigh, the smaller woman sat in the dirt next to the child.

"Ari?" she kept her voice soft. At an approaching noise nearby, she looked up, frowned at Xena and waved her away. Assured that they were alone, she turned her attention to the girl.

"Ari, honey. Its all right, you’re safe now," she assured as she slowly reached out and touched the girl’s hands. As if her touch burned, Ari suddenly pulled away, a look of terror covering her features like a mask.

"P-Please…" Ari’s voice was such a soft whisper that Gabrielle was forced to lean forward in order to hear.

"What honey, what’s wrong?" Gabrielle asked as she lightly brushed the back of her hand over Ari’s tear stained cheek.

"P-Please… m-maia… d-don’t make me… I- I… c-can’t… not again, please," Ari begged softly before turning her face away, her body pulled inward in hope of disappearing.

Gabrielle was at a loss. She glanced back out at the road and saw her soulmate speaking softly to Virgil by himself. The rest of the young men stayed in a group and gave the two friends the privacy to speak; yet occasionally they glanced toward the forest where she was huddled with Ari. When she looked back down at the girl, she saw her shoulders shaking uncontrollably with her sobs.

"Oh, Ari!" Gabrielle’s voice was barely a whisper as she pulled her daughter into an embrace. In soft, soothing tones, she whispered words of comfort as she held her daughter close. She hoped to reassure Ari that she was safe, that whatever nightmarish vision may have pulled her under was just that, a nightmare which was not real. After what felt like an eternity, she felt her child’s tears slowly subsiding.

"M-Maia…?" Ari seemed perplexed as she pulled slightly away and glanced up at Gabrielle.

"Yes Ari, it’s me, you’re all right, you’re safe," she reassured as she took the edge of Ari’s tunic and wiped her tears away.

"G-Gabrielle… maia?" Ari’s confusion reigned as she softly spoke Gabrielle’s name.

"You’re okay now, yes?" she asked the girl as she smiled down at her.

Ari seemed confused as she glanced around her. She looked up at the canopy of branches hanging low from the trees. As her body softly shook from the last remnants of tears, she tried to pull away from the blonde.

"Ari, honey, you’re fine now. Just relax," she soothed, and was pleased when the girl leaned into her embrace, a soft sigh escaping her.

Gabrielle held her daughter close almost afraid to let her go for fear that the nightmare would return. As her fingers gently brushed through Ari’s hair, she held her in a warm embrace. When she remembered the expression of terror in the girl’s eyes, she lightly kissed the crown of the child’s head then softly asked the questions that were plaguing her.

"Ari, what was happening?" she asked, and felt the girl grow still in her embrace. Reluctant to speak, the dark child became silent. When it seemed that she was willing, she sighed as she leaned into Gabrielle’s embrace, her hand absently reaching up to pull her closer.

Ari closed her eyes against the onslaught of images threatening to return. As she felt Gabrielle’s strong embrace, she leaned into her, and took comfort in her touch. When she felt able to speak, she tried to form her turbulent thoughts into coherent words.

"I-I… t-they…." Ari shook her head, frustrated by her stammering.

"It’s all right honey, just relax," she heard the blonde speak softly as her tender touch continued.

"T-They are t-too loud, their whispers are deafening," Ari tapped her head in hope that her mother understood. The dark child wondered if she should explain their smells, how their strong odor was enough to make her feel like she was back in the cave. But remembering how Gabrielle reacted whenever she spoke so openly, Ari decided it best not to mention this at all. Instead, she shook her head as she closed her eyes and leaned into the older woman’s embrace.

Suddenly remembering that she was on her moon time, Ari quickly pulled away, a look of fear and sadness crossing her face. At her actions, Gabrielle looked stunned as she reached out for the girl. In hopes of saving her mother from being tainted, the dark child moved further away.

"Ari?" her mother’s voice was soft and filled with confusion.

"Y-You… c-can’t…" Ari shook her head as she withdrew from the blonde’s reaching hand. "I-I don’t want to soil you anymore, please, maia, d-don’t touch me."

"Ari, what do you mean? Honey, you can’t soil me, what are you talking about?" Gabrielle seemed to pull away slightly, but remained in her place.

"M-My moon t-time. I-I still bleed," Ari’s voice was barely a whisper.

Taken by surprise, Gabrielle remained silent, then slowly leaned toward her. "Ari, is that what you think? Do you feel that because it’s your moon time that you’re dirty and can’t be touched?"

In shame, Ari lowered her head as she nodded slightly. In the back of her mind, she remembered the words of ridicule that Alti would fling out whenever it was Ari’s time to bleed. Ashamed that her curse was so visible, all she could do was cower away from the blonde as she fought to keep the visions from her past at bay.

Gabrielle felt a renewed anger toward the dead sorceress, Alti. When she heard Ari’s words and understood the girl’s reluctance to be touched, the Amazon wished, not for the first time, that Alti was still alive so that she could pummel the woman to a bloody pulp. With a slight sigh, the blonde did her best to calm her anger, afraid that Ari would misunderstand and think that it was directed at her. Smiling visibly, she reached out and pulled the young woman into her arms.

"Oh, honey! That can’t be further from the truth!" Gabrielle exclaimed as she ignored Ari’s body language and hugged her close. "Being on your moon time doesn’t make you dirty or tainted, and anyone who’s told you this is wrong!"

The dark child seemed reluctant to believe her. Still afraid of tainting her, Ari tried to pull away, but Gabrielle would not loosen her hold. Instead, she sighed in sadness as she kept the girl in a tight embrace.

"Ari, the moon time is nothing that is bad, and you certainly cannot taint anyone. Why, did you know that there are many who believe just the opposite?" she asked and was rewarded with a glance from her child.

"T-There are?" Ari’s asked softly.

"Yes, there are. Why, the Egyptians believe in the moon goddess Hathor, who’s job it is to regulate the tides of the river in order to avoid famine in their lands," she said and was rewarded with Ari’s blue eyes gazing up at her inquisitively.

Before the storyteller could explain further, she heard the slight neighing of a horse. When she glanced over her shoulder, she noticed the young men gathered impatiently. Xena remained sitting astride Argo; her glance was one of nonchalance.

"Listen, remind me later to tell you the story of the greatest gift that was given to all women by the goddesses Hécate and Artemisa, all right?" she said as she pulled away from the girl and began to stand in the thicket of underbrush. "But for now, I think we should get going. I’ll ask Virgil and his friends to ride ahead, and then do you think you’ll be able to come out?"

Deep in thought, Ari glanced up, then, with a slight nod, she began to rise, ducking her head in order to make her way from the hiding place. Assured by her daughter’s actions, the storyteller turned and made her way toward the road. Although she was still angry at the damage that Alti had done, Gabrielle was able to control this anger in order to keep it away from her daughter. Despite this, she could not help but wish that whatever pain Alti had undergone, that it was severe enough to pay her back for all the harm that the sorceress had inflicted upon the innocent child.

~~~~~~

Virgil couldn’t help but be curious about the infamous person known as the Destroyer, especially after catching the initial glimpse of her. At first, he wanted to ask Xena what kind of a joke she was trying to play on him by having a scared little girl show up instead of the Destroyer. But when he looked at his friend, he saw the seriousness in her features as she quickly followed Gabrielle back into the bushes. When the warrior princess emerged with a deep-set frown, he bit his tongue and simply waited… and waited…. and waited some more.

When Gabrielle had finally come out from the brush, he glanced behind her and was surprised that the girl was not following. With a deep-set frown, she moved directly to him, then smiled up at him.

"Virgil, I need you to ask your friends if they can start down the road, and we’ll follow behind at a distance," the storyteller smiled slightly.

Confused, he stared at her for a minute. He wondered if she was in on the same joke that was being played on them. First, I’m called to help Xena and Gabrielle, and now Gabrielle is asking me to have my friends ride back without even the pleasure of the Warrior’s Company, his confused thoughts tried to understand what was happening.

"But…?" He began to ask, but stopped when Gabrielle raised her hand and stepped forward.

"I can’t explain it all now, but if she’s going to join us, your friends really need to be a distance ahead of us. Please Virgil, just tell them… tell them that she’s very shy," the blonde reiterated.

With a shake of his head, Virgil turned away and walked to his friends. In a hushed tone he spoke to the group as he mounted his horse, then reined in the mare and began to follow the men back up the trail they had just come down. As an afterthought, he turned around in time and noticed the Amazon helping the young woman from the forest as the largest steed he had ever seen trailed behind them pulling a travois. The stallion was coal black and covered with corded muscle that bunched and writhed under his satin skin as he moved. Virgil estimated that the beast must have stood at least nineteen hands high and from his bearing was obviously a great war-horse of some kind. By the gods, the young man thought enviously, how marvelous he would be to ride! Such a great beast should not be used like a common plow horse!

The slight movement nearby captured his attention. Weak from an illness, the slender, dark haired woman leaned heavily against Gabrielle. When the two were out in the open, Gabrielle and Xena helped the girl into the travois.

As they guided the steed onto the road, Vigil closed his mouth as he tried to school his look of surprise. With a slight shake of his head, he turned his attention to following his friends. Nothing could have prepared him for this, he thought as he shook his head and followed his friend’s back toward their home.

~~~~~~

"Xena, tell us how you managed to keep the Persian army at bay!" the one named Taurie called out.

"Hey, she was supposed to tell us about when she went into the underworld and stole Hades helmet of invisibility!" Anago spoke up.

"How about their battle in Higuchi?" Klonis asked, the slight peach fuzz on his chin that he proudly called a beard moved as he smiled at Gabrielle. "I want to know how The Warrior Princess came back to life, and about that fearless sea captain that we’ve been hearing other bards talk about!" At his suggestion, a few others nodded in agreement.

"Nah, I just heard that one from Zosime not more than a moon ago. I wanna hear about the time that she and The Battling Bard of Potidaea brought peace between the horde and villagers," Megareu countered.

"Hearing about the exotic sea captain from a traveling bard is not the same as hearing the story directly from the bard who experienced it, jeeze, Megareu, don’t ya know anything?" Klonis retorted, then turned an eager gaze to the blonde. "How about it, Gabrielle?" He smiled at the storyteller. Before she could open her mouth to speak, another young voice spoke up.

"Gabrielle, why don’t you tell us about your adventures with the nomads of the desert?" Iapeto asked as he gazed at the woman with admiration in his eyes.

Ari sat in the shadows far enough away that their constant whispers were not deafening yet close enough to be able to hear what they said. At the sound of the man’s voice, she rolled her eyes as she turned her gaze away from the scene. She shook her head in disbelief at the way the men were acting around her mothers.

Ever since they had found a place to camp for the night, the group of young men had seen to everything. They treated her mothers like precious items, making certain that neither the blonde nor the warrior princess exerted herself in any way. In less time than it usually took them to set up, the men had wood collected and a fire built while another group was out hunting for food. When the hunting group returned with the few carcasses of squirrel and rabbit meat, they began to prepare it over the fire. Only in this task did they allow her mother to intervene, thankfully, before the meat started to char on the open fire.

As Ari picked at the last few morsels on her plate, she listened attentively to the conversations. What she soon learned was that to outsiders, it looked like the men had broken up into two camps, those who worshipped "The Battling Bard," and those who admired "The Warrior Princess." By all accounts, it could appear that Gabrielle had far more admires than Xena. But to Ari, she wondered if this was simply an illusion.

She found herself examining the men closely and soon realized that those who worshipped Xena were, in their own way, attempting to emulate her warrior mother’s calm, stoic, silent nature. By being more reserved than the animated men of the group, it would seem that the storyteller was far more popular. But as her train of thoughts followed this line of thinking, another young man spoke up.

"Hey! I want to hear about your recent battle against the evil sorceress, Alti, and that monster, the Destroyer!" His words suddenly brought silence to the group. Confused by the sudden silence, he looked around at his friends. "What?"

"Shut up, Markus," Ari heard the one called Virgil whisper as he swatted the man on the leg.

"What did I say?" he asked again, then grew silent as a few of the men nodded to where Ari was hiding in the shadows.

As a silence fell over the camp, Ari found herself pulling further away. Their whispered words and speculation only echoed their muted thoughts. When a shiver crossed her spine, she pulled the covers of her bedroll closer as she leaned back into the crevice of the tree. Wearing only her nightshirt, she made certain to keep herself covered from the light evening breeze. Shielded from their hatred and curiosity, she kept hidden inside of the tree as she cautiously glanced back at them, but quickly lowered her eyes when she felt their embarrassed silence.

Since joining these men, Ari could do nothing but maintain her silence. She found their thoughts deafening and their presence oppressive. The pungent odor emanating from their bodies reminded her of her time in captivity. Without any way to air out, the cave had taken on the scents of those who lived within the cold, confining walls. When it was just her and Alti, she found their mingled scent strangely appealing. Yet every time the sorceress brought home a man, it was always the same. His strong, pungent odor would always remain long after he was sacrificed and discarded.

With a slight grimace, Ari pulled her knees to her chest as she felt herself slowly growing numb. From somewhere inside, she felt a part of herself fighting against this sensation, yet she also felt another part willingly entering into the void. Before she could feel herself detaching completely, a silent figure moved in front of her.

Virgil saw the young woman’s reaction to the joking of his friends. Although they had all tried to give her space, he realized that whatever troubled her was something that they had no control of. With a slight frown he turned away from where Xena’s daughter was hiding. As his friends began to talk of other things, he caught the warrior’s eyes. The sadness in them was something he was not accustomed to. When he nodded slightly toward the girl, he waited for her approval. With a silent nod, she turned away from him and began to listen to the rest of his friend’s conversations.

In slow, calculated steps, he moved cautiously toward the girl in the shadows. When he was close, he knelt down and smiled at her. Surprised by his presence, she blinked as she pulled away from him.

"It’s all right, you don’t have to be afraid," he pitched his voice softer. Using a technique of his mother’s, he smiled as he looked away from her. When he saw her empty plate, he pointed to it. "Would you like some more? There’s plenty left over if you’re still hungry," he asked with a smile.

The young woman seemed confused. When she saw her empty plate, she shook her head negatively. In hopes of putting her at ease, he looked away from her then casually reached into his pocket.

"I found this when we were out hunting dinner," he said as he removed a single, purple plum. "I thought you might like it, do you like plums?" He asked. Knowing that he was telling a lie, he handed it to her. Although he had found the ripe fruit while foraging for food, he had intended to give it to Gabrielle. But at the moment, it seemed like a better idea to offer it to this young woman.

"Ari," he whispered softly as he smiled and held the plum out, "it’s all right. I’m a friend of your mothers, I won’t hurt you."

As he watched her in the diffused light, he found it hard to believe that this woman was the cause of so much destruction. If anyone had told him before hand that she was once known as the Destroyer, he would have laughed them out of Amphipolis. Not in his wildest dreams could he ever imagine this thin, pale, sickly woman as being The Terror from the Darkness, as she had once been described. Like a frightened colt, the dark figure moved her hand toward the offered fruit, her eyes never wavering from him. In a slow move, he opened his palm and held the plum to her. Cautiously, her fingers clasped around the fruit. Before he had a chance to see the movement, it retreated back into the folds of her bedroll with the plum, all the while her eyes never left him.

Virgil leaned back and smiled as he closed his empty palm. When it seemed like she would not move he leaned forward and took her empty plate. At his move, she seemed to stiffen as she stared at him from the shadows.

"I’m just going to take this and clean it for you, ok? Then I’ll give it to your mother, Gabrielle, so she can pack it up. Is that all right with you?" He asked, yet did not expect an answer. When she relaxed, he took hold of her plate and slowly rose to his feet. With a nod and a smile, he turned and made his way toward the nearby stream. As he cleaned up the plate he wondered what could have happened to cause his two friends’ daughter to be this way.

Ari felt her thoughts wandering in a multitude of directions. She wondered why the men all whispered so loudly and why their leader felt the need to come and talk directly to her. And she found it curious that he had given her something that was obviously not meant for her. As the group continued to speak softly, she glanced at them periodically, only half-listening to the words of her mother, Xena, and not at all to the bardic tales of Gabrielle.

As the noise droned in the back of her mind, she set the fruit aside, which caused her bedroll to fall away and expose her upper legs. Ari’s eyes remained on the offering as her thoughts continued to plague her. She did not understand why a stranger would give her something and not expect something in return. In the past, when she was given favors from warlords, they always expected her to raise them in status.

Pondering this, she scratched her head as she stared at the fruit. Everything around her grew suddenly still as the voices became muffled. The dark child found her rampant thoughts pulling her deeper into darkness. At one point, she felt outside of herself, the gentle cadence of her own heartbeat sounded like a distant drum. With a deep sigh, she tried to pull herself together, to fight off the feeling that she was detaching from herself, separating, and moving to a place where she did not want to go. As the numbness consumed her, she idly touched the hilt of the nearby dagger.

The dark child froze as her mind raced over a multitude of solutions. I should call Gabrielle. She will know how to push these feelings aside, yet even as she thought this, her mind dismissed the notion. When she glanced at the blonde, she noticed her animated features and expressive gestures as she spoke to the men. All eyes were on her as she skillfully related a tale of a past adventure.

Seeing her mother like this, Ari released a soft sigh as she leaned back against the tree. I must think of a way to stop this, her mind whispered ever so softly as she pulled the blade from the protective scabbard. Void of feelings, she turned the hilt in her hand and watched as the shadows danced off the razor sharp edge. While one part of her mind wondered why her mother Xena had not reclaimed the knife, another part was grateful that the warrior had forgotten it.

Ari could not have explained her thoughts or why her body acted of its own accord. All she knew for certain was that her hand was moving in slow motion as it lowered the blade to an exposed thigh. She stood outside of herself as she watched the blade make contact with her skin and the steel blue coldness of the knife cut a shallow, even line into her flesh. At the stinging sensation, the dark child felt herself pulled back into her body, the sensations of pain overwhelming her need to separate, to hide from the overwhelming confusion of her thoughts. Ari closed her eyes against the physical pain then sighed with relief when she realized that she was no longer outside of herself — that she was able to feel again, even if the only sensation she felt was pain.

No longer detached, Ari stared down at her thigh. She watched as the blood seemed to bubble, then ooze from the thin line. At the sight of the scarlet threads seeping down her leg, she panicked as she worried about them being noticed. Hurriedly, she took her bedroll and held it against the oozing spot, then nodded in satisfaction knowing that the blood would be easily soaked into her bedroll. As she watched the red liquid flowing, she smiled as the sharp stinging sensation kept her grounded within her body.

With this new discovery, Ari felt compelled to slice again and again. Each cut was no deeper than the first, and none were so deep that they would require attention later. Yet each stroke was enough to send a slight searing pain through the dark child’s senses. As Gabrielle’s words droned on in the back of her mind, she grimaced with each methodical slice that she made, and she watched in fascination as the thin red lines welled up on her thigh.

Gabrielle couldn’t remember the last time that she had told so many tales. For what seemed like hours, Virgil’s friends had asked her for one tale right after another, and the bard’s ego complied until her throat was dry and yawns kept escaping her control. From beside her, she noticed her lover’s slight smile as the group fussed and begged for more.

Finally she yawned and stretched widely, then stood up with a weary smile. "No, really, I’m very tired, and I know we have to get up early to get back on the road," she fended them off as she began to walk away. "We’ll continue another time. G’night."

"Goodnight! Goodnight, Gabrielle," they chorused as she smiled and waved. There was silence, then a young man’s voice spoke up as the smaller woman made her way toward her bedroll. "How about you Xena, surely you’ve got some tales to tell?"

She heard her lover’s laughter before the warrior began to speak softly as she told a tale that took place before they had even met. When the Amazon glanced down at the girl who was lying in her own bedroll next to hers and Xena’s, she smiled as she crawled under the cloth and quickly removed her clothing. As she rolled over to gaze at her dozing daughter, she was surprised to see Ari’s eyes open and watching her.

"You’re not asleep yet, honey?" she asked as she lightly reached out and touched her daughter’s soft cheek. Ari only shook her head negatively as she sighed and rolled over, moving her bedding closer.

The silence was broken by Gabrielle’s yawn before Ari spoke. "M-Mother…umm, maia, w-why did he give this to me?" Her words softly stuttered as she held out a plum.

The blonde sighed as she took the fruit in hand and placed it on the ground by their heads. Motherhood, she thought wryly. Does it ever end and do I really want it to? In a tender manner, she reached out and ran her fingers through her child’s hair, then she whispered softly.

"Virgil was being nice. I think he’s trying to be your friend," she explained, then watched the girl’s eyes carefully.

"B-But… he doesn’t even know me," Ari’s voice was so soft that no one but Gabrielle would have heard her.

"I’d say, he’s trying to get to know you, sweetheart. This is just his way. Virgil is a very kind and sensitive man," the blonde healer stated as she rolled onto her back and then held her arm out in an invitation to her daughter.

Ari wasted little time in pulling her bedroll closer and snuggling with her mother. In the short time that she had come out of her silence, the dark child soon learned that the simple act of lying on the smaller woman’s shoulder brought a sense of peace. When she had first met her parents, she could not understand why Gabrielle was fond of lying on her birth mother’s shoulder. But once the healer began to have Ari lay her head down, she soon realized how really comforting it could be.

With a contented sigh, she closed her eyes as she snuggled into the blonde’s embrace, their bedrolls separating their lower bodies. As the slender fingers slowly stroked through her hair, she felt herself drifting into dreams. When a thought crossed the back of her mind, she readjusted herself on her mother’s shoulder before asking her question.

"Mother?"

"Yes Ari?" Gabrielle’s voice was so soft that Ari had to strain to hear her.

"Why are you mad at mother?" her sleepy voice asked. The woman’s hand grew suddenly still. Then, before Ari could comment on the stillness, Gabrielle’s fingers resumed the gentle stroking through her shoulder length black hair.

"It’s a matter between your mother and I," was all the storyteller would say.

"I-Is it my fault?" The girl was almost afraid of a response.

Without hesitation, Gabrielle hugged the girl tightly and softly kissed the crown of her head. "No Ari. It’s not your fault. It’s simply a… disagreement between your mother and I. It doesn’t mean we’ve stopped loving each other, it only means that when we have time, and less of an audience, she and I will have to work through it."

"Oh…" Was all that Ari said as she felt herself being pulled into the realm of dreams.

If it weren’t for the distraction of Virgil’s friends, Xena would have been forced to think about the herbs that she had given her daughter. As it was, she was able to push the thought aside as she concentrated on the numerous questions that arose from the young men. When it became so late that even she had to admit her fatigue, she left the few boys who were still awake and moved to the farthest part of camp.

The warrior princess glanced down at the two sleeping figures. Ari was deep asleep, curled under her bedroll. In the diffused light, Xena noticed the girl’s slender hands slightly twitching in her sleep. Like Ari, Gabrielle laid deep asleep, her arm resting protectively over the young woman’s bedroll.

As the older warrior began to remove her armor and clothing, she thought about Gabrielle’s closeness with Ari. When she had first met her eldest, she never thought that her lover would ever bond so closely with her. She knew that Gabrielle’s heart would naturally feel for all that Ari had experienced, but she never realized that Gabrielle’s love would make her so fiercely protective of the child. But on hindsight, she remembered how protective her soulmate was toward Nadrah. During her year as a ghost, she had seen how the storyteller took to the child and Xena didn’t think that there was anything that her lover would not do to protect the little cabin girl.

With this in mind, she crawled under the cover of their shared bedroll. As she turned on her side, she gazed at her spouse and examined her sleeping features. No matter how many years they traveled together, never a day went by that Xena was not awe struck by Gabrielle’s love. Even when she did things that the woman did not approve of, she was always assured of Gabrielle’s love, and she had to admit that she had done some pretty stupid things. From not telling her love about a past woman, Lao Mao, to not explaining all that she had planned at Higuchi, and the more recent mistake of not confiding her plans about Ari, the warrior knew that she had, and was still making some serious blunders in her life. Angered at her own stupidity, Xena released a deep sigh.

At her sigh, the blonde’s eyelids suddenly fluttered until her eyes opened slowly. Gabrielle’s first instinct was to check on Ari, then, assured that the girl slept, she rolled over and looked solemnly into Xena’s eyes. In their shared silence, the warrior found it hard to return her lover’s gaze. With a weak smile and a shrug of her shoulders, she shook her head as she rolled onto her back and stared up the branches of the treetops.

"I blew it, Gabrielle," her voice was a soft whisper. "You were right, I blew it and I didn’t even think about it until…" she shook her head as she reach up to wipe away the moisture in her eyes.

"Xena, I know why you did it… why you tried to spare her, but this was not your decision to make," her soulmate whispered as she laid her head on the warrior’s shoulder.

"I know, I just thought… I don’t know," Xena shook her head as she instinctively wrapped her arm around her lover’s shoulder. "I don’t know how to make this right to Ari, or if it’s even possible. I might lose her…" but she stopped herself from finishing the sentence.

Gabrielle remained silent in her arms. At the warrior’s unspoken thoughts, the blonde wrapped an arm over her lover’s torso. "Xena, you won’t lose Ari, you can’t lose her. She’s your daughter. She’s our daughter and she may not understand or know what to call it, but she does love you. Nothing can ever take that away," the Amazon’s voice was assured. "We’re just going to have to work hard, that’s all. This is damaging, and it may not be easy, Xena. But it’s not the end of her love for you you’ve got to believe me on this. I think I know Ari enough to be able to say this," her touch grew strong as she glanced up at her mate.

The warrior princess thought over her lover’s words. She tried to believe in what the blonde was saying. Yet even as her doubts grew, her confidence in her soulmate was stronger. With a slight smile, she nodded acceptance as she rolled to her side and pulled the woman into her arms.

"As soon as we’re home in Amphipolis, I‘ll have a talk with Ari," she promised as she gazed into her partner’s eyes. The smaller woman’s eyes crinkled at her vow and a smile crossed her face. Without any words, Gabrielle leaned forward until their lips met. At the touch of her sweet, soft lips, the warrior’s mouth opened to accept her lover’s probing tongue. When they pulled apart, she couldn’t help but sigh contentedly.

"You know, Gabrielle, it hurts when you’re disappointed with me," she whispered as they snuggled down into their bedroll, their heads nestled closed together on a shared pillow.

"It hurts to be disappointed, Xena." Gabrielle replied with a sleepy voice. "Just promise me that in the future, you’ll discuss things with me before you go off like an arrow shot from a bow and do something that you might regret."

"I promise," the warrior solemnly stated as her eyes slowly closed. Before she could feel herself being pulled into Morpheus’ arms, she heard the soft, easy cadence of her lover’s breaths, periodically interrupted by her low snores. With a soft smile, Xena allowed herself to quickly catch up to her lover’s dreams.

~~~~~~

In their few days of traveling, Ari was grateful that the numbers in their group dwindled. If she had not been paying attention, she might have missed it. But their constant whispers shouted into her senses and she had no choice but to notice the presence of the men. However, as they progressed toward Potidaea, the men began to drift away. They would say their good-byes, then begin their ride back to wherever their homes were located. Once the last few men had left for Amphipolis, it was just her two mothers and Virgil.

Ari could not understand why he felt the need to travel with them. She knew that he could have easily returned with his friends back to Amphipolis, but for one reason or another, he decided to send a message to his mother that he would be home shortly with Xena, Gabrielle and their two daughters. Confused by his actions, Ari could only ponder his motives.

No longer bleeding, and with her strength slowly returning, she walked along side Thanatos and the big stallion seemed happy she was there and no longer in the travois. With head bent, she listened to Gabrielle as her mind wandered over a multitude of topics. Far in the distance, she saw the outline of her warrior mother and Virgil riding ahead.

"I know Lila will certainly be happy to meet you," Gabrielle smiled as she kept her pace even with Ari. Just then, Ari glanced up in time to see the man turning, once again, in his seat, his gaze falling on them.

"M-Mother, why does he k-keep doing that?" she asked with a frown.

Gabrielle looked up and saw him turn away sheepishly. With a shake of her head, she smiled before inhaling deeply. Her gaze turned to the distant treetops.

"It’s nothing honey, pay him no attention," she said.

"It’s…" Ari tried to think of the correct word to use. When one didn’t come to mind, she only shook her head as she looked down at the dirt road. "I w-wish he wouldn’t do that!"

"I know its annoying, honey. Just try to ignore him," Gabrielle offered as she continued down the road.

"B-But I-I don’t understand why he insisted on traveling with us to Potidaea. W-What does he think, t-that we can’t travel without a man?" Her words spat out more harshly than she had intended and she growled, "Any one of us could kick his silly ass!"

Gabrielle softly giggled as she reached out and took Ari’s arm in hers. "Virgil’s a bit tougher than he looks, but I know it’s all annoying! You’re just going to have to get used to that reaction from some people and try to put up with it." She grinned. "You know, his father was the same way, and I’ve got to admit, I didn’t like it any better either!"

"H-His father?" Ari found her interest peak as she continued a steady pace down the road.

"Yes, Joxer, his father. Boy, now you want to know what annoyance is, it was Joxer!" The blonde laughed softly as she leaned slightly into Ari. Her gaze lowered to the ground as her eyes took on a faraway look. "First Joxer was in love with Xena, and then he fell for me, and then it would go back and forth between us. Finally, thank the gods, he met Meg, Virgil’s mother, and his interest was curbed!" she laughed.

"So th-this sort of runs in his family?" she asked as she looked up, grimaced, and turned away when she saw him glancing back at them. "I-Isn’t there some sort of... herb that will c-cure him of it?"

At her question, Gabrielle stopped in her tracks and looked up at her. Ari thought she had said something wrong, but when the storyteller broke out into a big smile, then began to laugh, the dark child relaxed as she tried to understand her mother’s amusement. Sensing her confusion, the healer shook her head as she covered her mouth in an attempt to stifle her hysterical laughter.

"Oh honey! If it was only that easy!" the blonde chuckled as she wiped the tears from her eyes. When a semblance of control returned, she smiled up at Ari. Her hand reached up and lightly touched the girl’s cheek. "Ari, sweetheart, you’re just going to have to get used to the idea that you are a beautiful woman! Yes, you are," Gabrielle reiterated as Ari felt astonishment fill her.

"Honey, you are Xena’s daughter, did you think you would be anything less than beautiful? Of course any normal, red-blooded man or woman for that matter, would take note of this fact. This is simply something that you’ll have to learn to live with," Gabrielle sagely stated as she resumed walking down that road.

"B-But…" Ari began to protest.

"Honey, he’s a good man, and he means well. And trust me when I say, he’s not nearly as annoying as his father was," the older woman’s brow shot up as she whispered the last part like a conspirator. As an afterthought, Gabrielle said, "And if it helps any, I’m sure once he gets home, he will lose interest in you and turn to the other women in his village. Just… be nice to him, I’m sure his attention will be pulled in another direction soon."

After a moment of thought, Ari frowned as she turned her gaze downward. With a shrug of her shoulders, she continued to follow her mother down the road. Taking her actions as compliance, the blonde wrapped an arm around the young girl’s waist and hugged her close.

"That’s my girl!" Gabrielle exclaimed as a big smile crossed her features, "Now, where was I? Oh yes… your Aunt Lila will be so happy to meet you…" the blonde’s words continued as they moved at a steady pace down the road.

As Gabrielle continued to talk, Ari sank deeper into herself hearing nothing of what she was saying. Only two words spoken by her mother continued to run through her thoughts. Be nice. Be nice. Be nice. Although a part of her recoiled, another part did not want to disappoint her new family, and especially not Gabrielle. Yet the thought of being nice to anyone was something that she hoped she would never have to do again. As she tried to fight down her own revulsion, she found her memories returning to a time from long ago, a time that was forever burned within her memories…

"Ari, be nice to my friend," were the words Alti had said the first time she brought a man to the cave. Not knowing what she meant, yet filled with fear, the small child stood back and watched as the big man moved toward her, the leer on his bearded face never wavering.

After spending so much time rolling in bed with her mother, Ari didn’t realize that the man would still need more. But he did, and Alti was more than happy to oblige. The combination of his hulking, naked form, and his hard erect penis, sent fear through her and all she could do was turn and run as fast as her little legs could take her.

As she fled through the cave, she heard her mother’s cursing as she and the man tried to follow her. But neither one could go into the crevice that had been her hiding place since she first arrived in the cave. Tiny enough to squeeze into it, she moved as far back as she could, putting the feel of the cold stone against her back as she saw them moving at the opening, the torch in Alti’s hand searching for her.

She saw the cold smile on the sorceress’ face. "Come out, little girl, you can’t stay in there forever!"

And Alti was right, Ari wasn’t able to stay in her hiding place forever. Once the cold caused her teeth to chatter, and her stomach was growling with hunger, she was forced to leave the sanctuary of the crevice only to be met by Alti. After a severe beating, the sorceress had held Ari down, her fingers tangled in the girl’s hair as she hissed in her ear.

"I said BE NICE to my friend!" she heard Alti say as the man roughly touched Ari, his finger pushing forcefully into her, making her ready for his entrance, before he positioned himself over her…

"Ari look!" her mother’s voice broke through her painful memories.

Glancing upward, she saw the home nestled at the end of the road. The sounds of chickens clucking near the barn reached her hearing. At the entrance of the barn, a familiar figure stood up from her chores, then a smile broke free.

"Mothers!" Eve cried out as she dropped the bucket that held seeds. At the sight of Eve, Xena was already dismounting and moving toward her youngest. The prophet’s words became muffled in the warrior’s embrace.

"Oh, thank you, sweet Eli! Thank you for returning my family!" she exclaimed as she ran to Gabrielle and pulled the smaller woman into a tight embrace.

Ari stood back and watched, not certain of what she should do, or expect from her prophet sister. Although her last memories of Eve were like a fog-induced dream, she could not help but remember the snatches of images from her time of illness. Sensing her thoughts, Eve pulled away and looked cautiously at Ari.

"Ari, I’m so glad to see you, I was so worried," Eve’s words were slow and controlled, like she were talking to a child.

"Eve…" Gabrielle began to say, but was stopped by the sounds of another woman’s voice.

"Gabrielle!" the older woman shouted as she ran from the house, the apron around her waist covered with a white powder. "Oh, by the gods, I’m glad you’re all safe!" She and the blonde flew into a tearful, laughing embraced as Xena smiled and watched. She saw Ari staring and winked.

"Ari, would you like to come into the house," Eve took a hold of Ari’s arm and still speaking slowly, began to guide her gently away. With a frown of annoyance, Ari pulled her arm away and scowled at her sister.

"I-I’m capable of w-walking," she muttered as she took Than’s reins and began to guide him toward the stable.

"Eve, that’s what I was trying to say, Ari is fine now. She’s come out of her silence," Gabrielle explained and then turned to her sister. "Lila, let me introduce you to Ari, our eldest daughter."

The older woman looked confused as she glanced from Eve to Ari, not quite certain if she had heard right. "But how can she be the oldest, I thought you had only Solan and Eve… and she doesn’t look…?"

Xena smiled as she moved between Ari and Eve, her arms easily wrapping around both girls’ shoulders. As a way to explain the ages, she chuckled softly, then said, "Yep, I know looks can be deceptive, but Ari is the oldest, and Eve the youngest."

At the older woman’s close scrutiny, Ari looked away and saw Virgil nodding a greeting to the women before he led his horse to the stable. In an attempt to escape their gazes, she began to follow behind him. With head bowed, she thought over her mother’s words and absently wondered why Xena would feel the need to mention their ages.

"She doesn’t talk very much, does she?" she thought she heard Gabrielle’s sister say as she followed behind Virgil.

"She’s getting over an illness, and she’s also a bit shy around people," Gabrielle offered as she began to follow Lila into the house.

"Mother?" Eve began to ask, but was silenced by Xena’s look.

"We’ll talk about it later, ok honey?" Ari heard her warrior mother say.

Virgil took his horse to a far stall and began to unfasten the saddle. He moved around the barn like he was familiar with the entire place. At her confusion, he smiled and pointed to an empty stall next to where Xena was leading Argo.

"M-Mother, I can do t-that," Ari offered as she moved to her mother’s side. Xena cast her a concerned look, then, with a slight smile, she lightly touched the girl’s shoulder.

"Are you sure?" the older woman asked as she cast a hard gaze at the girl in hopes of determining her state of health.

"Y-Yes, I can." Ari repeated. At the warrior princess’ smile, the dark child lowered her gaze as a heat crossed her cheeks. When she felt her mother’s palm against her cheek, she unconsciously gulped, then looked into her mother’s penetrating eyes.

"If you need some help, don’t be afraid to ask, all right?" Xena’s voice was soft as she smiled, then turned and left the horses in Ari’s care.

Once she had removed her outer tunic, Ari found herself moving methodically through the chore of bedding down the horses. Like a form of meditation, she brushed Than down to a fine a sheen, his hair glistening from her ministrations. Appreciating her attention, he bumped his nose into her side and then returned to eating the fresh hay that Virgil laid out. In an attempt to keep her distance, she cast occasional glances toward the man, before returning her attention to the task at hand. When she was finished with Than, she moved to her mother’s brown horse. Occasionally, she felt Virgil’s eyes watching her, but she ignored him as she continued to bed down the horses.

Be nice, Gabrielle’s words kept replaying in her mind. Even as a part of her rebelled against the idea, another part knew that she would comply. "Be nice," she mumbled under her breath as she took long, steady strokes with the brush.

Virgil found himself moving carefully around the young woman. In the days that he had spent with his friends, he learned little about their newest daughter. Whenever he would question Xena, she’d respond with short, cryptic answers, which only made him more curious about Ari.

As he finished up with his horse, he moved to Gabrielle’s brown mare that seemed at home in the stable. When Ari didn’t stop him, he patted the horse’s rump, then began to give the beast’s coat a vigorous brushing. At one point, he turned to pick up the jar of liniment oil and bumped his hand against Ari’s.

"Oh… um, sorry," he offered as he pulled his hand away from the jar, nodding for her to take it. He then watched as she applied the oil to Argo’s legs. Her nimble hands moved instinctively, long slender fingers stroking ever so gently along the horse’s flank and legs. When she looked up at him, he instantly closed his mouth as he averted his eyes. He tried to look casually in her direction and noticed that her glance had not wavered. A slight smile curled her lips upward.

At her open smile, he couldn’t help but feel more at ease. In a relaxed manner, he leaned against the stall and watched her work. He covertly gazed at the outline of her small, round, firm breasts that were visible beneath her cotton undershirt. When he had first seen Ari, the only impression he had of her was that of an injured bird. Pale, gaunt and with haunted eyes, she didn’t seem anything like the infamous Destroyer. Now that a few days had passed and she had rested and eaten, her entire appearance seemed to change, and Virgil could tell that it was for the better.

"You’re not at all like your sister, are you?" his voice sounded loud in the near silent barn. In answer to his question, Ari simply smiled as she turned her attention to Argo’s hoofs, yet she cast occasional glances up at him through hooded eyes.

In a casual manner, he moved a bit closer to her. His hand reached out and lightly patted Argo’s rump as he watched her lowering the last hoof. When she stood up straight, she smiled as she glanced up at him. Like he was nothing more than a fly to brush aside, the dark woman pushed her way past him and moved to the bucket of water in the corner.

Virgil felt mesmerized by Ari. He had to admit to himself that she had intrigued him ever since he learned that she had once been the Destroyer. Her shy bearings and body mannerisms, even her beauty belied all of the stories that he had heard about the woman who laid the land to ruin.

As he watched her move, he couldn’t help but think of a cat. Each step she took seemed smooth, and calculated, like a feline hunting its prey. When she dipped her hands into the clean bucket of water, it felt like his heart was beating loud enough for the world to hear. With each droplet of water that fell on her bare arms, he felt his throat getting dryer. Nervously, he licked his dry lips as he gazed down her back. Her hips, although slender, had a smooth roundness that seemed to accentuate the shapeliness of her body. Ordinarily, such treasures were hidden under the tunic she wore, but now, with just her undershirt on, Virgil was able to gaze fully at her through the fabric. The one important part of her that I can’t see through her pants, I’ll have to leave to my imagination, and oh boy, do I have a good imagination! He thought as he absently gulped. When she stood and turned to him, she tilted her head as a smile crossed her lips.

"No, you aren’t at all like Eve, are you?" He heard his question like a whisper as she sauntered slowly toward him. Her hips moved seductively with each step that she took. Her blue eyes stayed fixed on his as she walked directly in front of him. Before he knew what was happening, he felt his back pressed against the stall, and realized that she had backed him against the wall.

"Ari?" He felt his mind spinning out of control as he felt her closeness, smelled the sweet scent of her body. "Wha?" but he never got to finish his question because she covered his mouth with her freshly washed finger.

Something told him that he should leave, that he should push his way past the woman and join Xena and Gabrielle in Lila’s home. But he felt frozen in place. Her closeness brought to his senses every aspect of her being. He saw the way her piercing eyes glistened from the diffused sunlight in the barn. Her dark, shiny black hair fell in straight strands near her shoulder. The musky aroma of her sweat spurred on needs that he had thus far managed to keep at bay. Sensing his thoughts, Ari’s gentle smile broke from the confines of her full, luscious lips.

Before he realized what was happening, he felt her hand snaking down his shirt. With deft ease, her fingers pushed their way down the front of his pants until she clasped the object of their search. At her instant touch, he gulped as he closed his eyes against the exquisite sensations.

"Oh… Ari… w-we… shouldn’t," he said as he tried to push her hands away.

"Shush," was all she cooed as she covered his lips with her own while her fingers encircled his shaft and easily ran its length, causing him to get instantly hard. With each stroke, he thought he would lose his mind. If he had any will power left, it quickly disappeared when she fell to her knees before him.

"Ari?" He felt his voice come out as a raspy sound. With a hint of a smile she tugged at his pants until she freed his aching penis. "N-No…" he stammered, yet felt his hips instinctively move forward when her lips encircled the head of his engorged member, then slowly took him into her wet mouth.

"Ohhh, g-gods," he muttered as he threw his head back, "Ohhh, yes… A-Ari… yes," he gasped as he felt her alternating between circling him with her tongue, and taking him deeply in her mouth. "Ohhh… not at all like your s-sister!" he moaned as he watched her intently, his hips gently moving to a cadence as he watched himself slipping in and out past her lips.

Impatient with something, she quickly stopped her ministrations and stood before him. Surprised by her behavior, he stared at her, his breaths shallow as his needs raged on. Before he could question her actions, or lack thereof, she leaned over and grabbed a rag, then turned and pushed it into his mouth. Before he could spit the dirty cloth out, she dropped to her knees once more and wrapped her talented mouth around him.

As his mind reeled from the sensations, he closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall. The pleasure he received made him forget that he had a rag stuffed in his mouth. With each caress of her tongue, he released a muffled moan as he thrust his hips forward, the feel of her wet mouth circling him as her sliding palm clasped him completely. When he felt his pleasure rising higher and higher, he gripped tightly to the wooden wall and braced himself. With one final, forceful thrust, he threw his head back with a violent thump into the wall and saw stars as he felt the hammering explosion of his blessed release. It was like an eruption of trembling that went on and on and he groaned aloud with pleasure hardly even noticing the pain in the back of his head as the orgasm did its best to turn him inside-out through his penis.

At last the silent slow-motion explosion was over and all he could do was gasp. His heart beat like a hammer and his breathing was a hollow rasping through his open mouth. All he wanted to do was stay within her warmness forever, but before he could even begin to come down from his high, he felt her releasing her hold of him. The surrounding air felt suddenly chilly against his moist organ and he groaned again, only managing to stay standing because the wall held him up. As if it had never happened, Ari rose to her feet, her eyes staring into his for only a moment. In that single instant he noticed his moisture on the sides of her lips before her tongue reached out to lick it away. When he gazed into her eyes, still gasping for breath, he wanted to see any evidence that she had feelings for him; that her actions were due to her unspoken love for him alone. But instead, all he saw was a deep sadness that tore at his heart.

Just as it had begun in silence, it ended. Without saying a word, Xena’s daughter turned from him and walked away. In a casual move, she retrieved her tunic from the barn floor, slipped it on and then moved to the door. Once she reached the closed door, she stopped in her tracks, her head bent in thought, then she glanced back at him, a smile of satisfaction crossing her features before she turned and left him alone in the barn.

Only when she was gone did he close his eyes and collapse onto his hands and knees onto the floor before rolling over. As he lay on his back gazing up at the rafters, he saw with vision that was unnaturally sharp, dust motes circling in the air and the crystalline threads of a spider’s web. Suddenly, he was reminded of the tale of the female spider that mated and then devoured her mate. It was then that the rancid taste registered and he sat up quickly, pulling the filthy rag from his mouth and spitting out the vile taste. Tossing it aside with a shake of his head, he rolled to his knees, painfully. His mind was beginning to function again and he knew that someone could come in any second. He rose to his feet on wobbly legs and feebly pulled his britches closed. He felt like he had been chewed up, spit out and buried. Devoured is the word, all right, he thought as a last shudder of the pile driving pleasure he had just received pounded through him. He felt the slow moving of moisture down his leg and grimaced. Better find the outhouse and clean up… gonna be dripping for awhile…

With one final thought, he glanced at the closed barn door. "No, you’re not at all like your sister," he muttered as he staggered over to gather his traveling bags.

~~~~~~

The sound of a squalling child pierced through the room and sent sharp, jabbing pains into Ari’s head. With a curious look, she glanced at the baby who sat in a high chair next to the table. His little eyes were squeezed tightly as his mouth made a perfect O shape and sounds like a cat being skinned alive issued from the hole. Each time his mother tried to feed him, he’d spit the mush out and continue to bawl what seemed an endless amount of tears. If anyone had told Ari that a creature this tiny could make so much noise, she would have not believed them. But now that she sat right next to the child, she had to conclude that there was much in this world that she knew little about.

"I’m sorry, he’s teething right now," Sara, Gabrielle’s niece, apologized as she picked up the babe and carried him to the front porch.

Since arriving in Potidaea, Ari was able to sit back and watch the interaction of her family. She noticed the way that her dark haired mother maintained a relaxed manner around Gabrielle’s sister, Lila, and her niece Sara. With Sara’s husband, the warrior managed to interact as any new acquaintance would, with polite interest; although unlike the blonde, Xena had only a mild interest in Sara’s baby. Ari saw Virgil slip into the room and sit down near the fireplace. He glanced her way and his cheeks acquired twin red spots. Unconcerned, she looked back at the table trying to follow the confusing conversation of her new extended family.

"Gabrielle, Xena, you can’t imagine how upset we were when we first heard about what happened in Japa," Aunt Lila frowned as she took her sisters hands in hers. A look of sorrow crossed her features, but was quickly replaced by a smile the seemed to go from ear to ear, "but no sooner had word reached us of your death, and suddenly you both were on your way home from Egypt, both alive and well!"

"I hadn’t realized how quickly word would travel, I’m sorry that I couldn’t be the one to explain everything to you," the blonde smiled softly at her sister.

"No matter, as long as you are both alive and well, that’s what concerns me the most. All of the rest of the stories about exotic ship captains, pirates, Indus royalty and a journey to the underworld, that can all wait for later!" Lila waved her hand in the air as an easy smile crossed her lips, then she turned and glanced at her daughter and grandson. "We sent word to you when Sara had Selani, and again later when she and Adriano were handfasted," Lila said as she smiled at her daughter’s disappearing form.

"I think the messages must have by passed us while we were on the road," Gabrielle sighed with a sad smile. "But that shouldn’t happen once we’re settled in Amphipolis."

"So you and Xena are going to settle down, Gabrielle?" Lila asked as she turned from her sister, to the warrior princess. The tall woman only smiled as she turned to the blonde.

"Yeah, we’ve talked about it. With two daughters now, we don’t think the life of mercenaries is the safest way to live. It’s not something we want to put the girls through," the storyteller added as she reached over and lightly touched Ari’s hand, a smile of love crossing her features.

"Good, I’m glad to hear that! I’m just sorry we weren’t able to reach you before. I think you both would have enjoyed the hand fasting. You should have been here, it was a grand event," Lila added as she rose and began to clean up the empty dinner plates from the table.

"Everyone from two towns over showed up! Many said they were here to wish us well, but I personally think they just wanted a reason to hit the flasks!" the tall, slender man named Adriano stated with a slight chuckle.

"And like you didn’t do your share?" Lila playfully slapped him on the shoulder with her apron.

"Hey, Mama, watch it or Xena will come to my defense!" He raised his hands in surrender as he playfully moved away from the smaller woman and then ducked behind the warrior princess.

"Nah, I think I’d have more fun watching this match!" The warrior winked at her sister-in- law, then smiled at Ari as she leaned aside. "He’s all yours, Lila! Want me to hold him?" The grinning warrior pretended to reach for the man.

Lila grinned and snapped her kitchen towel at the man. "That’s all right, Xena! I don’t need any help to handle the likes of him!"

"Get him, Lil!" Gabrielle giggled from her seat at the table. Her sister made a mock lunge for him and Adriano pretended great fright.

"Whoops! That does it! I can’t win when even Xena’s against me! Help! Saraaaa!" He turned and fled for the front porch leaving the field to the laughing women.

Ari remained silent as she watched the interaction unfold. With Eve’s help, Lila took the dirty dinner items to the kitchen and returned to the dining room with a warm pot of tea. Once the cups were filled, she returned to her seat at the table while Eve stayed in the kitchen washing the plates.

"He seems like a good man," Gabrielle remarked as she glanced in the direction of where Adriano had disappeared with Sara and the baby.

"He is, Gabrielle. Not many men would have been so willing to take another man’s son as his own, and he is very good to Sara, good to us both," the older woman smiled as she drank slowly from her cup.

"He seems like a gentle man. I’m glad to see that things have worked out for Sara; I was worried about her after that business with Gurkhan," Gabrielle grimaced, then smiled again, "but Sara has recovered wonderfully. I’m so happy for her. In fact for both of you!" The Amazon reached to her sister and took the wrinkled hands in hers.

"Thanks, Gabrielle." There was a trace of moisture in Lila’s old eyes, but she smiled back at her sister and squeezed her hands.

Ari glanced at their two pairs of hands. She noticed how smooth Gabrielle’s hands were compared to the older woman’s. Yet Ari knew from personal experience that the blonde’s palms and fingers were covered with well-earned calluses. Her years of carrying a weapon had hardened her grip. Despite this, her gentle touch was always near to offer love and encouragement. When the dark child looked at Lila’s hands, she couldn’t help but see the difference. Weather beaten by time, the older woman’s hands were covered with age spots and wrinkles and she found herself wondering how much older Lila was than Gabrielle. She looked and acted at least fifty, and the blonde seemed to be at least thirty years younger than her sister. That was a long time and Ari found it hard to contemplate why their parents had waited so long to have her after her sister.

As the sounds of the crying baby filtered into her senses, Ari found herself thinking about Alti. Although she had always considered the sorceress old, she now had to admit that the woman had not appeared as old as she could have been. Then again, no one believes that I’m older than Eve, she silently mused as she glanced at the others around the table.

She watched while Lila gazed at her sister’s shoulder and touched the tattoo with something like awe. "Gabrielle, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to seeing this Dragon thing on your back and calves. Did… did it hurt when you got them?"

"Like the dickens," smiled the blonde, "but Xena was there keeping me company, so it wasn’t too bad." She winked at the warrior, who smiled back. Then the storyteller looked soberly at her sister before continuing. "On the other hand, if Akemi hadn’t put it on me, I probably wouldn’t be here now."

"Akee-mee?" Lila said the word as if tasting it. "I don’t remember that name in any of the tales from Japa. Who was he?"

"She," the storyteller corrected gently with a side-glance at Xena. The warrior was suddenly looking grim and Gabrielle shook her head slightly as an unseen communication seemed to pass between the two lovers. Then she raised her hand as her sister opened her mouth to speak. "I can tell that you’ve only heard the short version of the story. Trust me, Lila, it’s a long story, and I’d rather not get into it right now, but I’ll tell ya all about it later, I promise."

"Hmm. After a statement like that, you’d better, sis!" Lila frowned, then shrugged and turned to Ari, her words breaking through the dark child’s musings. "Ari, I hope you don’t mind sharing a room with your sister." Before the girl could reply, Lila turned to her sister, "Remember how we used to stay up giggling the night away?"

"Oh, do I ever! And father would have to come in and quiet us down!" the smaller woman joined in her sister’s giggling and Ari felt confused. Gabrielle must have been just a baby when Lila was thirty. How could they have stayed up giggling together? Before she could contemplate any of this, her attention was called by Xena’s voice.

"It’s only for a few nights," Xena smiled. "I’m sure they can manage," she added confidently, as she cast Ari a warning glance.

At her mother’s strict look, Ari bowed her head once in understanding. She knew that whatever antics she might have contemplated in the past, her mother would not stand for them now, especially not here in Lila’s home. With this clearly understood, the girl sighed as she rose from the table.

"Tired, honey?" Gabrielle smiled at her.

"Y-Yes, if I could…?" She looked at Xena for permission. At the older woman’s nod, she gave a slight smile to their host and moved to the room that she had been shown earlier. Throughout the entire exchange, she made certain to avoid eye contact with Virgil.

When she entered the room she quickly stripped down to her underclothes and washed up at the corner basin. For what felt only a short amount of time to the dark child, she scrubbed her hands, her need to be clean driving her irrational actions until she blinked and noticed the redness of her skin, her fingertips were wrinkled from being in the water too long. With Herculean strength, she pulled herself away from the basin. As the sounds of muffled voices reached her senses, she moved to the double size bed and sat on the edge. Although she had cleaned up for the night, she could not help but feel dirty, the very sight of her hands made her inwardly recoil at their filthy condition. Knowing that she was the only one who saw this, she sigh as sadness crossed over her. With bowed head, Ari listened to the sounds of Gabrielle’s voice as she spoke to her sister, all the while wondering why it was that she felt so alien amongst these people.

Face it, a year ago, all these people, Lila, Sara, Virgil, Adriano, the young men on the trail; these would have been the people we marked for death, a part of her mind stated. With a grimace, she closed her eyes as she felt numbness threaten to consume her once more. Attempting to sort out her rampant emotions, she stared down at her hands. She marveled at how just a few months ago, she had wanted to lay Potidaea to waste. With Alti’s encouragement, she would have slaughtered every last person in this town, and not even have blinked an eye as she moved on to the next conquest.

Ari sighed heavily as a strangled gasp escaped her control. Before she could feel the tears build up, the dark child felt the all too familiar sensations of floating outside of herself. She wondered about the sensations of numbness that seemed to consume her. But before she could dwell on it for too long, the teen tried to fight her way back. She tried in vain to move back into the shell of her body that sat silently on the edge of the bed. Like a voyeur watching from the outside, the girl saw her own hand reaching down to her bags in order to remove the dagger. Nodding understanding, Ari closed her eyes as she awaited the feelings that would grip her and yank her back to reality.

At the first slice, the dark child grimaced as she threw her head back. The cut on her upper thigh registered keenly in the back of her mind. With eyes closed to half-slits, she held the blade steady as she lowered the sharp edge to her flesh and watched as the thin line produced a single trickle of blood. Unable, and unwilling to stop, she continued over and over until her thigh was covered with crisscross patterns of reality that helped shut out the numbing void that hovered just outside her mind.

Xena sat back and watched the interaction of her lover and sister-in-law. Occasionally, she glanced at Virgil. Each time their eyes met, he turned a deep shade of red, and quickly looked away. With a curious arch of a brow, she turned away from him, wondering what he thought he had done to cause this reaction.

As she sat, the voices around her began to fade in the back of her mind as the hair on the back of her neck suddenly stood up. At this new sensation, she lowered her gaze and concentrated on everything around her. Sara and Adriano sat on the floor playing with little Selani. Eve and Virgil were talking in low, muted tones, and Gabrielle and her sister were as animated as ever. With a slight frown, she rose from her seat and moved down the hallway toward the bedrooms.

The tall warrior stood silently outside of the room that Ari and Eve would share. She waited a moment and listened for any sounds within. As her instincts took control, she turned the handle on the door, then opened it to the small room. By the single candle light in the room, Xena took in the entire scene. She saw her daughter sitting on the edge of the bed in just her undershirt and cotton shorts. With head bowed, the girl was staring intently at the bloody mess of her upper thigh as she held the dagger precariously over the already cut flesh. The older woman’s eyes grew wide as she stifled a gasp of horror at what she saw.

"Ari, what are you doing!" The tall woman felt her fears rising as she ran to her daughter, knelt in front of her and took the dagger from the girl’s hand.

At the interruption, the dark child seemed confused, and then when she glanced up at Xena, she grimaced as she returned her attention to her thigh. In an attempt to cover it up, the girl put her hands over the blood then shook her head. Reaching into her daughter’s bag, the warrior princess fumbled in the clothes until she found a second white undershirt. In an attempt to staunch the flow, she covered the blood, as she gazed up at her daughter.

"Xena, what’s…?" Gabrielle words stopped in mid-sentence as she gaped at the sight in the room. Behind the storyteller, the others in the house began to gather, the obvious urgency seeming to spread to everyone.

"Gabrielle, go get the medical satchel, and please, close the door behind you," the warrior princess instructed in what she hoped was a firm yet calm voice. At her instructions, Gabrielle nodded as she turned and left the room, closing the door to the curious onlookers.

"Ari, why in the world did you do this?" she asked as she gazed into her daughter’s vacant eyes. "Honey… sweetheart, look at me," she beckoned the girl. Ari looked at her, the creases around her eyes growing deeper as her mouth opened to speak, but then closed as she shook her head negatively.

"Honey, why would you do this? Please help me to understand," Xena begged just as Gabrielle entered the room with the satchel in hand.

"Ari, what happened?" She asked as she knelt beside Xena. "Was this an accident?" At her question, Xena lifted the bloody dagger as she glanced into her lover’s green eyes. At first Gabrielle didn’t understand, then as realization occurred, she gasped in horror.

"I don’t understand, Ari, why?" She pleaded to their daughter.

Why? That was a question Ari could not answer. How could she begin to explain what it felt like to not feel? Would she ever be able to describe what it felt like to be outside of herself and to desperately try to hold on to whatever fragment of reality was left? Was there any way that she could rationalize her need to feel pain, because at the moment in question, she felt absolutely nothing and it frightened her. Rather than try to explain it all, she frowned as she lowered her head in shame.

Once again, she had messed things up. She tried to stay focused and to stay within her body, but the solution she had come up with was upsetting to her mothers. As they moved quickly to stop the flow of blood, she remained silent, her brows creased into a frown.

"Ari, I just don’t understand," Gabrielle shook her head as she took the boiling pot of water from Eve, and moved back to the bed.

"Mother, what’s going on? Is she…?" She heard her sister’s unspoken question.

"That’s fine, Eve, thank you," Xena’s curt reply took Eve by surprise. Her expression went blank, and then knowing that they would not give her any answers tonight, the prophet silently spun on her heels and quickly retreated from the room, banging the door behind her.

Gabrielle looked after her then pointedly back at Xena. Her lover paid no attention as she worked with various herbs from the satchel. Rolling her eyes, the blonde silently shook her head as she sat the steaming kettle down next to the bed and knelt beside it.

"Ari, I don’t know what to do…" the older warrior let her words lapse in exasperation as she was mixing a healing poultice in her palm.

"Honey, surely you know why you did this? Can’t you tell us?" Gabrielle shared her lover’s frustration as she gently took a warm cloth and cleaned the blood from Ari’s thigh. When their inquiries brought nothing but silence, the two women grew quiet as they moved as one. The dark child began to nervously bite her lower lip as she silently watched Gabrielle lift the cotton shorts from her other leg.

"Xena, look," the storyteller whispered as she gazed at the previous marks that were already healing.

"Oh, Ari!" Xena exclaimed then silently shook her head as she lightly touched the redness around the wounds. She bit her lip. "Gabrielle, it looks like there’s already infection in it … I’m going to have to open them, and apply the poultice to the area."

Ari remained silent through the whole exchange. She found herself shifting between the sensations of the pain in her legs, and the sadness she felt from both of her mothers disappointments in her. Once her right thigh was covered with the poultice and bandaged, Xena moved to her other thigh and began to work on the infected flesh. The warrior glanced up at Ari as if to speak, then she took the blade and reopened the scabbed over lines. At the stinging sensations of her flesh tearing, the girl grimaced, yet kept her silence as she watched the warrior working the infection from the cuts and then laying the poultice over the opening. When both thighs were wrapped in clean bandages, the older women sighed as they looked at each other and a silent communication seemed to pass between them.

Finally turning to Ari, Gabrielle spoke. "Honey, I’m going to want to know why you did this to yourself. Do you understand?" Her voice was soft and patient as she helped Ari slide under the covers. While she tucked the blanket under her arms, Xena moved through the room, looking intently at everything. When the dark child watched her mother’s actions, she noticed the warrior searching and taking any item in the room that was sharp. Frowning, Ari gazed up in the blonde’s eyes.

"Do you understand, Ari?" The blonde gently asked. Ari visibly sighed as she lowered her gaze. "I know honey, we don’t have to talk about it now. But I want you to think about it, so that you can explain it to your mother and I."

"A-All right," was all she could say as Gabrielle smiled down at her, then leaned down and softly kissed her temple.

"Get some sleep, honey," the gentle woman smiled sympathetically before rising from the bed. At the door, Xena handed her lover a bundle of items, then moved to sit on the bed beside her daughter.

Ari thought her birth mother was going to say something to her; perhaps a comment about being disappointed in her. But to Ari’s surprise, Xena released a tired sigh as she glanced away from her. When it seemed that no words were needed, she smiled down at the girl, lightly ran her palm over the dark child’s cheek, then rose to leave. As an afterthought, the older woman reached over and took the lighted candle from the nightstand beside Ari. Only when she reached the door did she turn to her daughter.

"Good night, Ari," the warrior princess said tiredly before she turned and left the room, closing the door behind her.

As the silence of the room surrounded her, Ari tried to understand what was happening to her. Her mind raged on. When numerous possibilities came to mind, she sighed as she rolled over onto her side. The pain in her upper thighs brought a smile to her face as she slowly closed her eyes. As long as I hurt, then I am alive, her thoughts whispered as sleep took over.

~~~~~~

Throughout her entire stay with Aunt Lila, Eve had been filled with fear. She had arrived safely in Potidaea and was able to send out a message to Virgil all within the same day, yet she never knew if Virgil had acted on her plea for help. Once she saw her family approaching the home, a weight was lifted from her shoulders. After Gabrielle had told her that Ari was doing better, Eve was relieved. But when her birth mother had cut her off so short in the bedroom, she rushed outside into the cool night, feeling a resentment that took an hour or so of solitary praying with Eli to bring her around to a state of calmness again. She knew her mothers both loved and worried for her as well as her sister and that Xena had to be close to her wits ends to speak as she had. When she was finally able to go back in the house, almost everyone was already asleep. Sparing only a smile and nod to Virgil, she made her way silently to the room that she now shared with Ari.

As quietly as she was able to, Eve moved around the dark room, removing her clothing and putting it neatly away beside the bed. When she looked at the sleeping figure of her sister, a sigh escaped her control. Ari was back with them, and she was no longer held captive in the world of silence. Although her speech was slower, and at times she stumbled over her words, her sister was able to communicate, and by all appearances, comprehended everything around her. Despite this, Eve knew that her sister was not completely well. Careful not to bump into her sister, she crawled under the covers and lay back on her pillow. Next to her Ari slept peacefully unaware of Eve’s presence.

Why did she hurt herself like that? Eve silently wondered as she stared up at the dark shadows on the ceiling. Like her mothers, she could not fathom why Ari would purposely inflict wounds on herself. With a silent shake of her head, she rolled over and watched her sister’s sleeping face. With the help of Eli, you’ll find your way, Eve thought as she reached out and lightly touched her older sibling.

"Don’t you worry, Ari, I’ll be here for you, and so will moms. We’ll all be here to help you through this, a-and… I’ll pray to Eli for you, I promise," Eve’s voice was merely a whisper of air coming out of her mouth, but the dark form beside her stirred and she held her breath. Ari squirmed slightly, then grew still as her breaths came out in deep, even cadence.

Oh, blessed Eli, hear my plea… Eve closed her eyes and began to pray. Thoughts of healing and redemption filled her senses as she tried, in the only way she knew, to call upon the power that had saved her. It really worked for her and she knew it could help her sister through whatever troubles that ailed her as well. As she prayed, Eve felt the calmness that always filled her when she called upon Heaven. As peace fell over her, she released a smile because she knew that all would be well. She was certain of it.

~~~~~~

Virgil listened to the sounds of the sleeping house. The floorboards creaked as the night wind howled outside. At the sound of crackling wood, he glanced at the log in the fireplace and watched as the embers slowly drifted up the flume.

He did not understand Ari at all. One minute she was down on her knees giving him some of the most exquisite pleasure he had ever felt, and then she completely ignored him. Although he wondered about this, he found that there was no one he could talk to. If he knew Sara’s husband better, he might be able to talk to him. But after only meeting him today, Virgil was reluctant to approach the man. And forget about talking to Xena, he thought sullenly. No, he knew that above all else, the warrior could never know what had happened because in all honesty, he wasn’t altogether certain that she would not kill him.

With a tired sigh, he lay on his back and stared up at the firelight dancing across the ceiling. It was at times like this that he missed his father. Oh, it was true that he knew the truth about his father’s life, but despite the fact that everyone saw his father as the comical relief didn’t take away from the fact that as a father, he was the best thing that Virgil had ever seen. As a child, there was never a day when Virgil couldn’t turn to his dad and ask him questions. No matter how big or small, Joxer was always there to answer his inquiries, and if the man occasionally exaggerated the truth, it never upset Virgil because he knew that no matter what his father loved him. As he felt his eyes closing to sleep, he found himself saddened at the fact that he would never know what his father would say about Ari.

Ari awoke from a disturbing dream that was forgotten the moment her eyes opened. When she sat up, she glanced around the dark room. At the slight mumbling from the bed, she looked down and saw her sister fast asleep. With closed eyes, the prophet mumbled something incoherently before she rolled over in her sleep.

As she sat in the darkness, the dark child felt the telltale sensations coursing through her senses, and she glanced around the room quickly. The panic set in as she felt the numbness begin to seep in. When she tried to think of a way to stop the maddening feelings, she closed her eyes in frustration, remembering that her mother had taken everything sharp from the room. She was slipping away from herself again. She could feel it. Frantically she tried to think of what she could do to stay inside her body. With one thought left, she rose and moved swiftly but quietly from the room.

In the darkened hallway, she glanced at each door. Ever since Eve arrived, they had given her the baby’s room that held the crib and had moved the baby in with his parents. This meant that behind the farthest door was Sara, her husband and baby. In the room next to them was Lila, and across from Lila was the extra room that they saved for guests, which now housed her mothers.

Ari tilted her head and listened for any sounds from the rooms. Once assured that all were asleep, she made her way with stealth toward the living room. At the threshold of the room, she froze, as her eyes grew accustomed to the shadows that the fireplace gave off. When she saw the figure sleeping on the floor in his bedroll, she moved and stood silently above him and quietly watched him sleeping.

For as deep as he sleeps, it’s impossible that he is a warrior, she thought silently and with some scorn as she tilted her head and examined him a bit longer. Mother said to be nice. Be nice, but… As she shook her head at the conflicting emotions, the sensations of standing outside of her body continuing to creep slowly into her senses. Maybe… just maybe… her mind stated as resolve filled her.

In a purposeful manner, she pulled her undershirt off and discarded it on the floor, then reached for the string of her underpants and began to open the fastening, then slid it gently down, careful to avoid pulling the bandages around her thighs. Once naked, she knelt down and lifted his bedroll, then crawled in beside his warm body. At her touch, Virgil instantly woke up, a look of panic filling his eyes.

"Oh, gods, Ari, no! We can’t," he whispered even as her hands were roaming over his chest, her legs rubbing against his.

"Shush," she whispered in return as her fingers sought him out.

"No! Your mother… Xena will ki…" she placed her finger over his lips to silence him.

"I-I… d-don’t feel anything," she whispered as the numbness and separation threatened to take control. At his uncomprehending expression, she sighed and shook her head, "P-Please… h-help me to f-feel… t-to feel s-something, anything!"

His resolve crumbled from the combination of her pleading words and touches. When he groaned and threw his head back, she turned her attention to pleasing him. Her mouth moved feverishly over his lips and down his neck. Each time he tried to touch her, or return the kiss, she pulled away long enough to stop his actions. When all he could do was stroke her back, she returned her attention to his body. After the bath, his strong, musky male scent was not as pungent to her senses. As she inhaled his aroma, she made her way down his chest; her tongue licked a thin trail around his nipples before her mouth suckled each one, wringing subdued gasps and moans from him.

As she made her way lower, she felt the telltale signs of his excitement. With a pleased smile, she closed her eyes and began to move instinctively. Since the time when she was little, she learned how to please men. After the initial encounter, she realized that there wasn’t any way for her to escape what Alti had planned for her, so rather than fight, she complied and learned all that the sorceress had to teach her. As her lips encircled Virgil’s hardness, she closed her eyes as she remembered the first time she had performed this act on a man…

Her hands were small and moved clumsily over the man. Her mouth, too tiny to take him in, could only cover the top, her tongue was left to do the rest. Remembering back to that time, she inwardly chuckled at the memory of the first time a man spilled his liquid from her touch. Shocked by his action, she had accidentally bitten down, which brought a loud scream from the man, and raucous laughter from Alti. Although she had never done that again, it was the only time that she could remember when she and Alti were able to laugh together. In time, as she grew, and learned different ways, and when she grew up more, she was able to take any of the men deep within her skillful mouth…

When she pulled her attention back to the task at hand, she pulled away long enough to straddle his form. As the creeping numbness threatened to consume her, she reached down and positioned him, then lowered herself onto him. At the instant sensation of fullness, she closed her eyes and tried to search for the elusive feelings that she sought. Like a repeating dream that vexed her every thought, the separation of her mind slowly disappeared with each movement of her hips. Ari kept her eyes closed as she concentrated on every nuance that she was feeling. Below her, she felt him pushing upward into her as his hushed voice sounded out a trail of whispered words.

Ari growled at the interruption to her concentration that his comments were making. Sitting still on top of him, she glanced around for anything that would shut Virgil up, then took the first thing she saw and shoved it in his mouth. With only a groan, he reached up to her, his hands tried to fondle and touch her breasts, but she pulled away and held his hands at bay as she returned to her rhythmic movements.

For what felt like an eternity in time, she moved in this way. Ari’s body sought the feelings that reassured her that she was alive, that she was here, sane and safe. The girl longed to be assured that her soul, her mind would not disassociate from her body again. As she felt him deep within her, she smiled as she felt herself rising closer toward her climax. Just when she felt it nearer, a searing pain shot from her thighs to her brain. Opening her eyes, she glanced down in time to see him pulling his hands away from her bandaged thighs as a hiss of pain escaped her control. At the added sensation, a low gurgling moan escaped her control as she felt herself plummeting into an orgasm.

If he had released himself, she did not take note. Instead, she concentrated on her own sensations and rode him over and over. A few times, she felt him grow soft within her, but she did not heed his reaction. Instead, she doubled up her movements, clenching and unclenching until he grew hard again. Each time she felt on the brink, she would take his hands and force him to clasp onto her thighs, the exquisite sensations of pain and pleasure holding her fears at bay. Only when he was drenched in sweat, and would not grow stiff again did she finally stop her movements.

With a sigh of contentment, she laid over him and allowed her breathing to return to normal. Ari ignored his movements as he removed one of his dirty socks from his mouth. Equally out of breath, he wrapped an arm over her shoulder as he fought for air.

"Gods, Ari… w-where did that come from?" Virgil asked with a groan. "Woman, you’ve worn me out…" his voice trailed off weakly and she didn’t answer because the question didn’t seem to require one.

When he grew still, she looked down at him with a curious expression. His eyes were closed and his mouth was open as a deep rattling sound escaped his lips. Rising from his sleeping body, she pulled her under shorts back on and then pulled her cotton shirt over her head. She noticed that the bandages were spotted with blood and realized that her actions had reopened the wounds on her thighs. Ignoring this slight discomfort, she looked down at Virgil’s peaceful features for a short time before she shook her head and turned to make her way back to her sister’s room.

Typical, Ari silently mused as she moved through the darkness and into the room where her sister slept. Ever since she had learned to take a man like this, she never knew one who could match her stamina. As this thought crossed her mind, she crawled under the covers and snuggled into the pillows. The sensations of detachment no longer near, she closed her eyes as dreams from the past came flooding into her mind…

Ari didn’t know how young she was when she first sat astride a man. With Alti’s tutelage, she had learned to not be afraid. Even though the men towered over her, she was able to manipulate them until they begged for her release.

"It’s the innocence, little girl," Alti had said close to her ear as Ari’s small body rocked against the man, her eyes fixed on every nuance of his expressions. Each time the man tried to reach up to fondle the girls flesh, Alti would scowl and slap his hands away, before returning her attention to the little girl.

"You see, it’s your innocence they take, do you understand, little girl? Your innocence makes them stronger, and in turn, their strength will make us stronger," the sorceress explained as Ari’s childish body soared through feelings and sensations that no child should have experienced at such an age. Only when she would cry with release would the sorceress’ laughter register in the back of her mind.

In the end, it was always the same. Ari would want for more, yet they could not give it. Using this as an excuse, Alti would bind the men and sacrifice them. Each one would weep and look at Ari pleadingly like she had some sort of control over their lives, as Alti held a knife to their throats.

"You didn’t fulfill my daughters needs," the older woman hissed by the men’s ears. "She wanted more, and you just shriveled away… well this is what we do to men who can’t perform for us!"

Then the old mage would pierce their living throats and hold a cup to the gushing wound as the man would jerk and quiver. In silence, Ari would sit and watch as the life disappeared from their eyes…

"Ari," a gentle sound called her from sleep. The slight touch against her arm brought her eyes slowly open. With a slight yawn, she rolled over and lay on her back as her eyes became adjusted to the bright sunlight in the room.

"Hey, sleepyhead, aren’t you hungry?" Gabrielle asked as she lightly touched Ari’s cheek. At the mention of food, the child’s stomach suddenly growled. "I thought so," the smaller woman chuckled as she rose from the bed. "Come on honey, your aunt has something special planned for today, and it’s already lunch time. The whole house has been awake for hours! Well, except for you and Virgil. I don’t know what’s up with him, but as soon as he ate breakfast, he went out under a tree and fell asleep," her mother shook her head as her eyes seemed deep in thought. Ari only shrugged her shoulders as she glanced down at the bandages on her thighs.

"Oh, we cleaned and changed them this morning. Boy, Ari, I never realized how much thrashing you must do in your sleep," Gabrielle commented, then smiled down at her. "Which tells me how soundly your sister must sleep too, because she said she never noticed you kicking around at all. I’m beginning to think Eve must have some of my blood in her, though how, I couldn’t tell ya!" She grinned, rumpling Ari’s hair. "Come on and get up. Get dressed, we’re all going to be sharing lunch outside today. Sort of like a picnic."

Once left alone, Ari stretched as she rose to her feet. As she scratched her belly and yawned she smiled as she felt alive. Although it was not as quick as using the blade, she had to admit to herself that this new form of chasing away the numbness was one to consider for the future. Moving slowly, she dressed in the clothes that her bardic mother had laid out for her.

~~~~~~

What Ari assumed was a gathering of just Gabrielle’s family, turned out to be a function where all of Potidaea showed up. Or least that was how it seemed to her. The open field next to the house was turned into a colorful array of tables with cloth and food set on top of it. Around the area were more people than Ari thought could gather in such a small area. When she emerged from the home, she was slightly taken back by the sheer numbers of visitors.

"Ari, good morning!" Lila smiled as she greeted the dark child. "Everyone, this is Gabrielle and Xena’s oldest daughter, Ari."

The storyteller sat in a chair nearby as she spoke to a group of women. Her face smiled as she waved Ari over. The tall girl could do little but move to her mother’s side, her eyes quickly scanning the women before she averted her gaze. Suddenly she felt like her world was growing small again. As if she was back in the cave, she felt the oppressive weight of the people keenly as she did her best to mute their rambling whispers within her head.

Although Ari felt herself cowering internally, on the outside she maintained a neutral manner and greeted the people. She knew that she would never remember names, so she didn’t even try to begin. Instead, she tried to be what she felt Gabrielle and Xena would want her to be. At times when she was unsure of herself, she’d retreat away from the crowd and watch them from afar.

"Is it a bit overwhelming?" Gabrielle’s voice broke through her thoughts later in the day. Ari had been sitting alone under a tree watching the people move around in their complicated dance of talk, interaction and social pairings. Their laughter and merriment were foreign to the dark child and all she could do was puzzle over their actions.

"A-A bit," the young woman managed to say as she pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs. Although the food was delicious, and she liked the idea of it being available in abundance, she wasn’t certain if having so many people around at once was too high of a price to pay.

Understanding the dark child’s thoughts, Gabrielle reached over and lightly embraced the girl. The smaller woman’s arm hung loosely over Ari’s shoulder as she settled back against the tree that Ari leaned against. With an almost contented sigh, her mother nodded.

"I know, it’s a bit too much for me too, but your aunt Lila wanted to have something special for us. Your mother and I have been through an awful lot these past years, and well, we haven’t been back this way for a long time and it’s sort of her way of welcoming us home. You understand, don’t you?" She asked as she gazed at Ari.

Only half-listening, Ari could only nod as she watched the people moving about. While some were still eating, others were playing various games in the open space. The large number of adults seemed outnumbered by the children who were running around in what appeared to be senseless games of hiding, falling down or wrestling one another ineffectually. The mock combats seemed to have no rhyme or reason; no one was killed or even wounded substantially. Ari couldn’t fathom the purpose of them and it irritated her.

"I notice that Virgil’s not watching you all the time like he used to. Is everything all right between you two?" Gabrielle asked.

"Y-Yes. I-I am being nice to him," Ari offered without hesitation.

Gabrielle seemed pleased. "Good… good, I’m glad to hear that. I’m sure that must be why he’s backing off so much. He was just curious and now that you two are being nice to each other, his curiosity isn’t in control," the storyteller nodded sagely to herself. Ari listened, then nodded in agreement when it seemed that her mother was finished.

"Well, I’d better go and help your mom. Looks like she’s trying to clear a space so that I can tell some stories," the smaller woman smiled before rising and moving toward the warrior princess.

The girl watched her mother helping Xena move a table aside, then begin to arrange some chairs and blankets on the grass. When Ari saw Lila struggling with an armload of dirty plates, she rose and moved to her aunt. With a meek smile, she offered to take the dirty load in to be washed.

"Thank you, Ari, you are so sweet," Lila’s words brought a blush to the dark child as she turned and made her way into the house, then to the back kitchen.

"Oh great! More to wash!" Eve exclaimed with a chuckle and turned to some of the younger women who gathered with her in the kitchen and smiled. "Isn’t that just our lot in life, ladies? Always dishes to be washed!"

Ari shrugged as she retreated from the room of giggling women. With head bent she began to make her way from the house, but stopped when she heard a slight noise. When it sounded from the hallway, she tilted her head in hopes of hearing it clearer. As she made her way toward the back of the home, she wondered what might be happening to cause the child to scream so loudly.

At the entrance to Sara and Adriano’s room, Ari hesitated. Then she cautiously pushed on the partly open door and peered into the shadow filled room. In the corner of the room sat the crib that had been removed from the room she shared with Eve. Inside of the crib stood the wailing figure of Selani. His toothless mouth was wide as he released howls and shrieks. With his eyes tightly closed, the largest tears that Ari had ever seen made their way down his rosy red cheeks.

As she looked curiously at the boy, she wondered what might have happened to have caused such a fearsome reaction. When Ari gazed down at the ground, she saw his rag toy sitting on the floor, his little hands reaching out to it as his fingers curled. Moving into the room, the girl glanced cautiously at the child as she picked up the toy and handed it to him. As quickly as it had begun, the babe’s tears dried up as a big smile crossed his face and he hugged the toy close. Speaking in a language that she did not understand, the boy looked up at her as he pulled the rag doll closer into an embrace.

Ari found the little creature curious. She moved closer to the crib and gazed in at him. Her brow arched upward when she realized that he took pure joy in the simple toy. As her mind was contemplating this, she tilted her head as she examined him closely.

So little, she thought silently as she gazed at his clear complexion. His little fingers continued to play with the doll as his tiny lips formed a babble of uncomprehending words. When she reached carefully into the crib, he looked up at her and smiled as she slowly petted his head. When he didn’t scream, or worse, make the smell in his diaper that she had been unfortunate enough to witness first hand, she stepped closer to him. Just like she did to Than or Argo, she petted his hair, marveling at its softness.

So soft… so… little, her mind echoed as she gazed at Selani. "So innocent," she whispered out loud. At her own words, she drew back sharply and stared at the dark brown eyes that smiled back at her.

So innocent and… and pure, she repeated silently to herself. Was there ever a day when I was like him’ she wondered as she moved slowly back to stand beside his crib. Look at him; so little… and innocent and pure… so little… so trusting… so pure… so innocent… the words played over in her mind like a litany.

Just as her mind marveled at her discovery, a dark thought entered her consciousness. She blinked as she tried to understand where the thought was coming from, then it reared its ugly head with full force. She felt a silent rage building up within her

I’ll never know what it’s like, she thought to herself, I’ll never know what it feels like to be this… pure… this innocent and… and… trusting.

With a deep gulp, Ari blinked as she stared at the smiling face suddenly realizing something. He trusts everyone. Everyone! She felt a vein of jealousy creep through her soul.

At this thought, she scowled as anger pierced through her. The pain and rage began to build deep inside and all she could think to do was to take this child, to teach him what it was like to lose one’s innocence, to show him what pain meant — to do to him what had been done to her. She wanted to use his trusting nature and rip the pure innocence that he still held within him. With this single thought, she frowned deeply as she moved toward him, her hands reached out to take the child, to touch him as she had been touched, to seek revenge against this innocent for all that she had lost. To teach him as Alti had taught her, that he had no control over his own life…

This sudden thought stopped her in her tracks. As a moan escaped her control, she noticed her hands close to the babe. Like she had been burned by fire, Ari yanked her hands away. The dark child took a few steps back from the crib, her palms buried under her armpits in order to keep them under control. Her stark gaze never wavered from the smiling boy. As she felt her hands shaking with uncontrollable tremors, her heart raced out of control. As the tears began to fall, she turned and ran, hoping that enough distance would take her far away from her maddening thoughts — far enough away so that she would not follow through with her hideous plan to spoil what was so innocent and pure.

Virgil saw Xena’s daughter running from the house and toward the barn. Confused, he looked around to see if anyone else had noticed. As Gabrielle sat surrounded by villagers, she continued to tell the story of how an innocent girl had inadvertently released the Titans from their prison. The warrior princess stood leaning against the house, a smile on her face as she watched and listened to her lover’s story.

Concerned about Ari’s sudden departure from the house, he followed her into the barn. When he entered the dark stable, he moved to a lantern and lighted it, then held it up as he searched the shadows. From the farthest corner, he heard the sound of Ari’s soft weeping as he moved cautiously toward her.

"Ari?" he called out as he peered around the corner and saw her huddled against the wall. When the light fell on her, she seemed to moan as she tried to pull further into the wall.

"Hey, are you alright?" His voice was soft as he hung the lantern onto a nearby hook. "Do you need your mothers?" He asked low as he crawled cautiously to her side.

Before he could make the decision to go and get Xena or Gabrielle, Ari looked up at him, the tears flowing slowly down her face and her eyes seemed to beseech him. Seeing her so helpless, he sighed as he reached for her and pulled her into his arms. He began to treat her like she was one of his younger siblings who had just woken from a nightmare, he rocked her gently in his arms as he cooed soft words to her.

"Hey, it can’t be all that bad. Come on, Ari, what happened? Why are you crying?"

At first, he thought she was going to continue to remain silent as she usually did around him. But instead, she seemed to hold to him tightly as her body shook with tears. "I-I…" She stammered as she tried to get her words out.

"Shhh. It’s ok, it’s all right! Just calm down and tell me," he said kindly.

"I-I… a-am… evil," her whispered words came out like a hiss.

"Oh, no, Ari, you aren’t. I promise, you aren’t evil!" Virgil tried to assure her.

Surprised by his words, she pulled away as she looked at him. Her tears momentarily subsiding as she gazed deeply into his eyes. "I-I almost d-did… almost hurt…" she shook her head and turned away, the blush in her cheeks easily seen even in the diffused light.

"What Ari? What did you almost do? Who did you almost hurt?" The young man asked in puzzlement as he tried to wipe away her tears with his fingertips.

Just then, she pulled away from him, her head shaking negatively as she slowly rocked back and forth. When her movement stopped, she sighed as calmness seemed to fall over her. Like a blanket had just been laid over her, her entire expression turned to peacefulness. Realizing the change, she looked slowly at him, her eyes peering deeply into his.

"Ari?"

"I-I… c-can’t feel," the dark haired woman whispered.

"What do you mean, you can’t feel?" Virgil’s jaw grew slack as he tried to understand this strange woman. Ari only shook her head as she looked at him with imploring eyes.

"I-I’m not here. I’m over t-there," she pointed to the shadows of the barn. Involuntarily, Virgil looked to where she pointed but saw nothing. With a puzzled frown, the young man turned away from the darkness and looked into Ari’s teary eyes.

"Wh-What do you mean?" He felt like his mind was racing faster than a chariot out of control as he tried to understand her words.

"P-Please!" she begged softly as she pulled on his collar. "I-I want… t-to feel."

Ari felt the all-consuming sensations of stillness lowering upon her once more. As one part of her fought to regain control, another part knew that it had begun. Like a moth spinning its cocoon, she felt each fragment of her soul slowly passing out and away from her. The core of her emotions, the essence of her mind began to disassociate from her body and she could feel herself standing in the distance. The empty husk of her body operated as only a mouthpiece, a source that would convey her fears and desires.

In desperation the dark child watched from afar as her hands grabbed Virgil by his shirt and pushed him to the ground. The look of surprise on his face was quickly replaced with a smile when she grasped at his pants, her hand reaching in and stroking him, before her mouth lowered in the quest to bring him to life. At the stirring of his member, she smiled up at him alluringly.

"Oh, gods! Ari…" he muttered as her skilled ministrations dashed away any thoughts he might have had of stopping her. Urgently, she tugged at his pants until he lifted his hips, allowing her to slide the fabric down to his knees. Without thought, Ari pulled away and stood up. She noticed his delighted smile as his eyes watched her unfastening her pants. She dropped them to the ground as she kicked off her boots and then slowly tossed her underwear aside, in an attempt to not remove the bandages from her thighs.

"Ahh… ummmm, wait, wait…" he stopped her from straddling him as he meekly smiled and nodded to her top. "Take it off… please. L-Let me see you…" Virgil pointed to her tunic. She felt instant irritation and she almost slapped him. Stupid fool, can’t he see what I need? Then the words "be nice," passed through her mind. Mechanically, she grabbed hold of the hem of her tunic and undershirt and ripped them over her head, then dropped the pile to her feet. With a slight growl, the now naked girl pushed him to his back as she straddled him. At the feel of him entering her, a sigh escaped her. She closed her eyes and began to rhythmically move on him. When she leaned forward, a low moan escaped through her parted lips as she felt his fullness pressing on her inner pleasure area. As her hips moved instinctively over Virgil, her mind remembered back to that first time when Alti’s fingers were inside her...

Ari never knew what this spot was called, she only knew that since the first day her sorcerer mother had taken her, the dark child felt overwhelming sensations of ecstasy whenever this area inside of her was touched. Before the dark child even realized what was happening, Alti’s slender fingers bent without notice and massaged somewhere in the front of the little girl, the pleasure quickly replaced the pain, until the child was only able to cry out from the exquisite pleasure of her captor’s touch.

With eyes partly closed, Ari watched Virgil as her breath came out slow and controlled. She knew that for each movement of her rocking hips, every time she clenched her inner walls, he felt explosive new sensations. But rather than ride him for his pleasure, she strove only to gain her own. If in the process, he got his along with her, it really didn’t matter to Ari. All she cared about was the sensations that his fullness brought to her. Leaning forward on his body, she heard him gasp and moan. Lifting partly from him, she felt the intense feel of him parting her neither lips, then she dropped on him, the tip of him seeming to rub every part of her inner walls. Every nuance of sensations began to register in the back of her mind. When she closed her eyes and threw her head back, she began to concentrate on the wonderful feeling of him moving deep inside of her.

"Oh, yessss… Ari… t-tell me… p-please," she heard him moan as he stripped his shirt off from his sweaty torso then reached up trying to touch her. Ignoring his words, she took a hold of his wrists and held his hands at bay as she gently swayed over him. "Ari… please, tell me. Tell me it’s the same for y…" her hand reached down and covered his mouth.

"Shush," she hissed at him. When he continued to speak and moan below her hand, she glared at him as she pushed his head back onto the straw covered ground. "Shut up, just shut up!" she growled and was rewarded with his sudden silence.

When he grew quiet, she smiled as she released her grip of his mouth. Ari closed her eyes and basked in the sensations as she felt herself slowly returning to her body. With a pleased moan, she threw her head back as every fiber of her being felt alive. Below her, she felt him thrusting upward, his breathing growing husky and ragged as his pleasure mounted. Without any concern for his needs, she continued with her movements until she felt the intense bliss pull her over the threshold. Ari felt the shudder race through her as a slight gasp escaped her control as she released herself on him. Only when the sensations subsided did she realize that he had spilled himself into her at the same time.

"Ohhh, godddsssss…" He gasped, fighting for air. "Ari, p-please?"

Still astride him, she glanced down at him and contemplated taking his shirt and shoving it in his mouth to silence him. Just as she began to reach for the cloth, he shook his head as he lightly grasped her hand. His eyes begged her before he spoke softly.

"Ari… be nice, please? Let’s do something different, all right… please?" Virgil’s pleading registered in her mind.

Be nice, she remembered Gabrielle saying.

"Ari, be nice to my friend," she thought she heard Alti’s raspy voice order.

So it would be.

~~~~~~

As the sun was slowly setting, the villagers began to leave the gathering. When the warrior princess glanced at her lover and noticed how happy she was surrounded by her childhood friends and their kin, she smiled as she began to help clean up the area. With the help of a few villagers from Potidaea, the task was quickly completed. When only the family remained, she began to help Lila return the house chairs back to the dining table.

"I’m glad you had a good time, mother," Xena heard Eve telling Gabrielle and smiled.

When she glanced around the room, the tall warrior turned to her youngest. "Where’s Ari?"

Both Eve and Gabrielle looked around the room, "She was in here earlier, but that was some time ago, mother. Did she go to sleep already?"

"I’ll go check," Gabrielle spoke up as she went down the hall.

Just as it had happened the night before, the warrior princess suddenly felt the hairs standing up on the back of her neck. Alert to everything around her, the leather clad warrior moved to the porch. Her eyes scanned the property as she searched for her daughter.

"Xena, she’s not in there!" Panic laced her soulmate’s voice as she moved beside the warrior.

"What’s wrong? Ari isn’t in bed?" Lila asked innocently as she pushed a wayward strand of hair from her eyes. At her sister’s negative shake of her head, the older woman sighed as she followed Xena’s gaze. "I’m sure she’s all right. Maybe it was too much for her, the poor girl. I should have thought about how shy she was before inviting the whole village over…" Lila’s chattering words registered as a foreign language in the dark haired woman’s mind as her gaze fell on the barn.

The first thing that caught Xena’s attention was the door that was slightly ajar. As her mind conjured up all of the sharp objects that were in the barn, panic set in as she moved in quick loping strides. Afraid of what she would find, she flung open the door and ran inside.

In the few seconds that it took her to cross the path, leather-clad warrior was mentally prepared to find Ari in a bloody mess. She thought that the girl would be huddled in a corner with one of the sharp tools, slicing her flesh as she had done previously for what reason that Xena could not even fathom. Perhaps she will be dead or dying from blood loss, she bludgeoned herself with thoughts of horrid scenarios that were all her fault for not keeping a better eye on her daughter. What she found instead, she had not anticipated in any of the thoughts that had flashed through her frantic mind.

Xena felt her mind fill with rage as she stood over Virgil’s half naked form. In that split second in time, the warrior princess noticed every nuance of the scene that unfolded. She saw the beads of sweat dripping down the young man’s back. His larger frame covered Ari’s naked body as he was thrusting into her, the muscles in his back straining with each movement of his hips as ragged breaths escaped his control. The girl’s legs were wrapped loosely around his hips, a slight trickle of blood soaked up the bandage on her thigh while her arms were wrapped around his neck. When Ari noticed her, she remained silent and unmoving, her eyes holding a vacant stare as her hips moved rhythmically upward to greet his thrusts.

"VIRGIL!!!" The warrior felt the scream from deep in her gut as she grabbed the man with strength just short of superhuman and ripped him off of her daughter, flinging him to the dirt floor. Surprised and stunned, the young man stared up at her from the ground and his eyes grew large as he hastily moved to pull his britches up over his hard and dripping member.

"Xena, I-I c-can explain!" He held his hands out to ward her off. Ignoring his choked plea, she yanked him up and shoved him half-running out of the barn, following right on his heels. He turned to her, almost babbling, his expression full of fear. "P-Please, let me explain…"

"You can explain it after a mouthful of these!" Xena roared as her fist slammed into his face, the blood instantly spurting from his nose as he fell backward, his hand covering his face.

"How dare you!" She hissed through gritted teeth as she continued to advance on him and he scrabbled backward. Her strong hand reached for him as she bunched up her other fist, ready to land another blow.

Gabrielle had barely enough time to run between her lover and Virgil. At the sight of his bloody nose, she ran to him and managed to throw herself between them. With her back toward Virgil, she held her arms out in an attempt to protect the young man from her lover’s wrath. Seeing her for the first time, Xena growled as she looked beyond her to where Virgil huddled and pushed at the smaller woman’s hands.

"Xena, what in Tartarus is wrong? Are you out of your mind? This is Virgil!" the blonde screamed as she began to take a defensive stance with her partner.

Having not seen the spectacle in the barn, she didn’t understand Xena’s wrath. A part of her wondered if her tall lover had finally lost her mind, and was repaying the son for the annoyance of the father. Just as surprised by her soulmate’s outburst was her family who gathered open mouthed in the near darkness to watch the scene unfold.

"Gabrielle, get out of my way so that I can beat this little shit to a bloody pulp!" The warrior princess snarled as she spat over her lover’s head at the fallen man.

"Xena, STOP IT!" the Amazon screamed as she reached out and pushed her lover back. "This is Virgil, our friend! We’ve saved each others lives before, remember?"

"Gabrielle, he was…" Xena stopped in mid-sentence, her words suddenly flustered, "He… He was in there with… on top of… why I oughta…!" The warrior woman tried to dodge around the small obstacle that kept pushing her back, but she didn’t follow through on her threat against Virgil because Ari had approached from behind.

The minute that the blonde saw Ari’s disheveled state, Gabrielle suddenly understood the situation. In a haphazard manner, their child absently tucked her undershirt into her pants before she reached up to remove some straw from her hair. As disbelief crossed her features, the protective Amazon turned and stared down at Virgil’s swelling nose and bloody face. Seeing her silent question, he smiled weakly and shrugged his shoulders.

Ari knew she should have been ashamed the minute her birth mother saw her naked below Virgil. But at the moment it happened, she had a mental flashback of all the times that Alti had stood over her, watching with a leering smile as the men thrust into her. Before the image could take hold, he had been pulled from her and the sudden chill of the evening air yanked her from the impending memory of her horrid childhood.

In the instant it took for her mother to hit Virgil, the dark child was up and searching for her clothes. By the time the light from the sunset filtered in from the open barn door, she was pulling her pants up and over her bandaged thighs, and pulling her boots on as she tugged her shirt over her head. At the sight of her two mothers facing each other in anger, an instant panic set in as the real threat of them coming to blows became clear.

"V-Virgil?" Gabrielle seemed confused as she turned to the young man, the tone of her voice asking for confirmation.

"Listen, it-it’s not like you think, honest!" The young man held his hands in front of him to ward off their anger. "S-She loves me, she… she came to me!"

At this statement, the storyteller and the warrior looked at one another, seemingly stunned. Then, slowly, moving as one, both women turned to their daughter with wide eyes. Their silence felt deafening as they waited for Ari to say something. Confused by everything that had unfolded, she looked from Virgil, to Xena, and then to Gabrielle but said nothing.

Gabrielle’s mouth moved, but no sound came out. Then she wet her lips, cleared her throat and tried again. "Ari… is… is this true?"

"Did you go to… to him?" Xena grimaced at the thought.

"I-I…" Ari felt herself falling into a deep pit that she had no way of getting out of. With a shake of her head, she looked at Virgil. His imploring eyes remained on her.

"Ari, tell them! Please!" he begged.

"Is he telling the truth? Did you go to him?" Her warrior mother rapped out. She suddenly seemed to swell in size and her back grew stiff as she stared down at Ari.

"Yes," the dark child answered firmly.

"Ari, why?" The pain in the warrior’s voice seemed to drown her anger toward Virgil.

"B-Because…" The girl gulped as she looked away from her mother’s penetrating eyes, "M-Mother told me to."

"Wha…?" Both Xena and Gabrielle exclaimed. Then, understanding Ari’s words, the warrior princess turned on her smaller lover.

"Y-You told Ari to-to… with… Virgil?" The disbelief filled her voice as an expression of disgust crossed her features.

"HOLY ZEUS! NO, Xena, I never! I never told her… Ari, why do you say this?" Gabrielle at first tried to face her lover then turned on the girl.

When they both faced her, Ari felt her heart racing out of control, her fears beginning to reign as their disappointment began to register. Sickly, she knew that she had, once again, made a terrible mistake. She lowered her eyes and wondered if this was the transgression that would cause the women to turn on her and beat her for her misdeeds. Up until this time, she had not felt their true wrath and she idly wondered if it would hurt as badly as Alti’s had. Ari glanced up at them hesitantly then looked away from their intense eyes. At this moment in time, she would have considered it a blessing if the earth had opened up and swallowed her. But as fate would have it, she was forced to remain standing in front of her two mothers until she was able to sort through what error she had made.

"M-Mother… s-she said… mama Gabrielle asked me t-to… t-to be nice to him," she finally stammered.

"Ari, I said be nice to him, not fuc…" Gabrielle’s words trailed off as her face flushed and turned away, then with a slight sigh, she turned back to the girl. "I don’t know how you could have thought that I meant for you to do… that, with him!" The blonde’s words were filled with emotion.

"Ari, why would you think that your mother asked you to do that by being nice to him?" Xena’s voice had returned to normal. She stepped toward her daughter and forced the girl to look up at her. "Honey, why would you think that being nice is the same as…"

"B-Because… Alti, she always t-told me to b-be nice to the men she brought back to the cave… and… a-and… I did!" Ari felt tears welling up as the anger from her mothers seeped into her soul.

"Oh, oh, by the gods, honey," she felt her warrior mother pull her into her strong arms, her shoulder pillowed Ari’s face as silent tears fell down her strong, tanned cheeks. "Poor baby… my poor little girl," Xena whispered as she hugged the girl fiercely.

"Sweetheart, that’s not at all what I meant," the storyteller joined them and wrapped her arms around Ari, as her voice whispered close to her ear. "Honey, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know… Being nice is not at all the same as being sexual with anyone. Sweetheart, Ari, trust me, this is not what I meant when I asked you to be nice to Virgil," Gabrielle assured as she turned the girl in her arms and cupped her face. "Oh, Ari, can you ever forgive me? I had no idea that this is what you thought I meant, honest," the blonde reiterated.

"And you!" Xena turned again on Virgil, who had by now cupped his bleeding nose as he tilted his head back and stood nearby. "You had no right to take her like that!" The warrior’s trembling finger was pointing threateningly in his face.

"Sh-She came to me! She loves me! Ari, tell her! Tell them that you love me!" He pleaded with her.

Ari could only stare at him. His words made no sense to her. As she gazed into his moist eyes, she wished that she understood what he was asking of her, but she did not and this only made it all the more confusing for her.

"Come on, honey, lets go inside," she heard Gabrielle softly coax as she was being led away past her suddenly silent family. With head bowed, she complied with her mother, not completely certain of what had just occurred.

When her daughter and soulmate was out of sight, Xena turned on Virgil, her voice more controlled than before. "And you! You should have known better!" She hissed at him as she poked her finger into his bare chest.

"No… Xena, sh-she came to me. Honest! I-I wouldn’t have done… uh, anything if she hadn’t. She loves me I know she does! Why else would she have…" His words choked off when he looked into the warrior’s glaring eyes.

"BECAUSEshe’s sick! Dammit, Virgil. Haven’t you figured that out?" She felt her teeth grind down as she fought to control her anger. "Why do you think she doesn’t talk around you? Haven’t you noticed her speech, how she stutters over her words? Can’t you even see how confused she is? By the gods, Virgil, she may seem old enough on the outside, but in here," the warrior pointed at her own head, "she isn’t!"

He stood silently watching Ari and Gabrielle going into the house. When he seemed unwilling to accept her words, Xena shook her head in frustration, "Virgil, did you ever hear her say that she was in love with you?" At his silence, she gave a toothy smile that was half- anger and half-annoyance. "I didn’t think so. She never said it, because she doesn’t feel it! By Zeus, I don’t even know if Ari knows the meaning of love!"

"It… it can’t be," he whispered as he bowed his head.

"Believe it, Virgil," she muttered. Then she leaned toward him, her voice barely a whisper. "You listen good, we are leaving first thing in the morning, and I don’t want you to travel with us. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll ride tonight because if I see you tomorrow…" She shook her head. "You should never have taken advantage of her, Virgil."

His face was a study in pain. "B-But I didn’t…"

Xena’s voice was harsh as she cut him off. "I can’t talk to you about this anymore, Virgil! Especially not now! Just… just go!" She threw up her hands and without waiting for a reply, turned and moved briskly toward the house. In the gathering dusk, Eve frankly stared while Gabrielle’s family looked away discretely.

The young man stared open mouthed after her. "P-Please, Xena… I-I l-love h…" he whispered brokenly towards her retreating back. After a long moment, he turned and walked head down, back towards the barn.

Attempting to give the three women privacy, the rest of Lila’s family and Eve moved to their individual rooms and left Gabrielle, Ari and Xena alone in the living room. In an attempt to control her anger, the warrior breathed deeply as she paced in the room, her mind going over the misunderstanding that had just occurred.

Gabrielle sat next to their daughter on the couch. She was grateful that her family had given them this time alone because she knew that there were a lot of things that they had to discuss with the teen. As she thought of what the girl said outside, her heart silently wept. Over and over the image of the child being forced to have sex with men replayed in her mind. Although she had always known that Ari had undergone horrendous treatment at the hands of Alti, the gentle blonde had to admit that neither she nor Xena truly understood the true scope of damage that had been inflicted on their child. With a gulp, the storyteller closed her eyes as she tried to hold her tears back.

Xena released a sigh as she stopped pacing and pulled up a chair in front of Ari. Gabrielle noticed her lover’s body language. Although still angry, the tall woman was doing her best to hold her emotions at bay. At last, the warrior released a sigh, looked up at Ari and smiled.

"Honey, I’m not angry with you, we’re not angry with you," the warrior added as she glanced at Gabrielle for confirmation.

"That’s right, we aren’t mad at you." The blonde supported her soulmate’s words.

"It’s just that, well, you have to be careful, honey. You can’t go and do that with a man without thinking things through. Ya see, there are um, consequences; things that can happen to you that neither your mother nor I want you to have to go through." The dark haired woman explained then quickly added, "There are diseases to consider and there is pregnancy as well. Ari, I just don’t feel you’re ready for any of this. By the gods, honey, you’re much too young to have to worry about taking care of a baby."

The minute Xena spoke the words; a look of confusion masked the girl’s face. Seeing that expression, the warrior frowned as a sigh escaped her. With an almost pleading expression, the warrior asked Ari, "Honey, do you know how babies come about?"

Gabrielle felt a heat cross her cheeks as she caught her lover’s glance. They remained silent, as Ari’s brows furrowed upward, and her gaze fell to her hands. As a tinge of red crossed her cheeks, their daughter looked up with a frown on her face.

"D-Do you mean l-like Selani?" The girl asked meekly, her speech slow and controlled.

"Yes, exactly! Do you know how Selani was conceived?" Gabrielle spoke softly as she took the girls hand in hers. After a moment of thought, Ari looked from her then turned to Xena.

"I-I overheard t-that S-Sara was… s-she went t-to M-Madador in a place called N-North Africa and g-got him there," Ari answered as she looked at them both, hoping that she had answered their question correctly. In that instant, Xena released a string of low expletives against Alti.

The Amazon sighed as she remembered how Ari felt about her moon time. When she combined the two together, Gabrielle suddenly realized the scope of the girl’s naiveté. As she at last understood this, the blonde felt the tears in her eyes as she shook her head. "Oh, you poor baby, you don’t know! You don’t know at all, do you?" She whispered as she clasped Ari’s hand in both of hers.

The beating that Ari had anticipated for her mistake had not taken place. Even after her time with her mothers, it still surprised her that they had not taken her to task for all of the errors that she had made. Yet a part of her was relieved each time she realized that neither her birth mother nor Gabrielle would resort to hitting, or beating her. But at times like this, she sometimes wondered if it would have been easier to simply be beaten and have the whole incident finished instead of feeling the profound disappointment from her two mothers.

She sat silently before Xena and Gabrielle and their words registered in her troubled thoughts. She had only done what she thought she was told to do while at the same time making certain that she did not lose herself once more. Although she understood her own reasoning, explaining it to her mothers was hard to do. Rather than try to explain, she watched their expressions intently. When she saw redness come over Xena’s face, she arched a brow as she wondered what had caused her mother to flush. Before Ari could begin to contemplate it, her warrior mother stood up abruptly and began to pace the length of the room.

"You see… Ari, it’s like this," Xena began as she paced a moment, then returned to sitting in front of her daughter. The warrior smiled as she tried to keep her voice soft. "Ari, when a man and woman get together…"

"They usually love each other first, Ari," Gabrielle interrupted.

"Yes… yes, of course, thank you honey. Your mother is absolutely right, Ari, there is normally love involved. Now, when a man and a woman who are in love decide to…"

Again Gabrielle interrupted. "But love doesn’t only mean that you can only fall in love with a man. Honey, your mother and I love each other deeply too, however, we don’t have to worry about a child being conceived from our love," her soulmate added with a shy smile as she gazed at Xena.

"Of course, that’s right," Xena agreed with an almost bashful grin as she turned away from her lover. "So, if you were to find out later, say… twenty or thirty years from now, that you…"

"Xena!" Gabrielle’s voice grew sharp as she cast her spouse a glare.

"All right, say… ten… no? Okay… five or… okay, maybe less than five years from now…" Xena kept lowering the age as she saw the disapproval from her mate. "Okay, honey, if later on sometime, when you’re old enough to understand what love is, and it happens to be with a woman, OR a man, because either gender is fine, honey, then that is when you, umm, you, uh, share yourself in that way, see?" Ari watched with interest as her mother turned a deep shade of red. The color started at the top of Xena’s hairline and moved down her face, to her ears and all the way down her neck.

"Ahem. But, if you should decide that it’s a man who you want to be with, when you become um, sexual with him, as you were doing w-with Virgil," She gritted her teeth, then smiled sickly as her fingers bunched into a fist before she continued in a calmer voice that only thinly masked her anger. "Then the possibility exists that a child can be conceived, you understand?" The whiteness of her teeth offset the blush over her face.

Ari’s brows furrowed in confusion as she tried to understand her mother’s words. Before she even said anything, Xena sighed, as she seemed to steel herself for more.

"Honey, when a man becomes… ummmm… well, as he’s excited and he… you know, when he releases his, um… oboy…" Xena sighed as she shook her head, then turned a pleading look to her lover. "Gabrielle, you know, you can feel free to jump in at any time!"

"Sweetheart, it has to do with your moon time. Remember I told you how special it is, that it’s not a curse?" Gabrielle smiled as she leaned forward. Her voice was soft and melodic as she jumped into the explanation. "Honey, your monthly blood cycle means that you are given the gift of bearing children. When you have… umm… you know, sex, with a man, then the… umm…" the blonde stammered as she lowered her eyes. Her lighter complexion turned an even deeper shade of red than Xena’s had.

"Ari honey, when the man releases his seed, it is planted in the woman," Xena jumped back in, apparently ready to fill in the rest of the story. "So when his, uh, seed is planted, then the woman’s body conceives a child, and her monthly cycle ends for nine months while the child grows inside of her! Yes, I know honey, it’s a bit disturbing when you think about it like this," the warrior princess chuckled when she saw Ari’s face screw up in disgust. "But trust me, honey, it’s the most beautiful thing when it happens.

"So, you see, Ari? Your moon time has a lot to do with whether you can conceive a child or not, which is why it’s a gift," Gabrielle added with an understanding smile at her soulmate.

Xena cleared her throat. "Yes, honey, and that’s why you have to be careful. If you… ummm, share yourself in that way, then your chances are greater that you may conceive a child, and if you’re not careful, you could catch a nasty disease that might prevent you from ever having children at all, or worse…" The warrior’s voice was filled with more confidence as her voice deepened to convey the seriousness of the worst things that could happen, beyond diseases.

"But, Xena, remember Dahak?" the smaller woman interrupted then turned to Ari. "Sweetheart, I had a child once, a little girl named Hope. I conceived her in Britannia while your mother was fighting Khrafstar. You see, honey, the evil god Dahak had me trapped in a fiery flame, and as I was unconscious, he, the god I mean, planted his seed in me without us having a physical relationship!" Her mother explained, but before Ari could even begin assimilating this strange information, Gabrielle became animated. She snapped her fingers and looked at the warrior sharply, "And Xena, we can’t forget about Eve!"

"Oh, yes! Eve," the warrior nodded vigorously. "You see honey, your mother and I were dead, and while in the after life…" For Ari, Xena’s words were beginning to sound like the babble of geese honking in a cold stream. The girl had difficulty keeping up with her mother’s words and at times, found herself completely lost. Just when she thought she understood their explanations, they said something that made her realize that she didn’t really understand them at all. "…and you see, when Callisto…"

"This was good Callisto, honey, not the evil one of my tales," Gabrielle interrupted her lover.

"Yes, good Callisto! When she touched me, and when your mother and I woke up from the dead, I soon realized that I was carrying Eve and boy, was that ever a surprise for me!" Xena chuckled.

"For you? What about for me?" Gabrielle frowned and shook her head. "Can you imagine how I felt? Xena, we were lovers, why didn’t you tell me you had been with someone?"

"But, honey, I didn’t know," the warrior threw her arms up in surrender.

"Oh, I know, Xena, I’m just saying that’s how I felt at the time, that’s all. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ is what I was thinking when you told me!" The storyteller said, like this explained everything. Ari stared at her as her mother leaned back on the sofa with a soft smile. "But we survived, didn’t we?"

"Yes, and we had a beautiful little girl together… although I’d have to say, I’m not sure I’d want you and your ‘sailors hands’ around me as a midwife again!" The taller woman slightly chuckled.

"Hey! I thought I did pretty good all things considering," Gabrielle defended herself with a pout. "After all, how calm could I be with Zeus waiting around the next tree ready to blow us to Tartarus with his lightning bolts," She shivered, then shrugged. "Well, we survived anyway, that’s the thing to remember."

As the two women grew silent, they gazed with such love at one another that they were lost in a private place of their own. Ari found herself continually moving her head, her gaze falling first on Xena, then on Gabrielle, before moving quickly back to her warrior mother. When they didn’t speak, it seemed they were finished and would not go on. In confusion, the girl lowered her eyes in thought. Like a deer caught in the line of sight, Ari’s brows furrowed, as her thoughts seemed to freeze, spinning slowly in place.

When she noticed the silence in the room, Xena cleared her throat and seemed to shake herself loose from Gabrielle’s shining eyes. They both looked back to their daughter. "So, Ari honey, do you understand now why it’s important not to be so casual?" She asked when she saw her daughter’s frown.

Ari looked up at her mother as she began to nod "yes", then quickly changed her nod to one that was negative as her brows creased. Xena looked helplessly at her lover, then closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose as a sigh leaked out of her. The smaller woman leaned back as her brows creased in thought.

There was a moment of silence, then the warrior took her daughter’s hands in hers, gazing into her eyes. "Ari, honey. Why don’t you just think about what we said tonight, and tomorrow, if you have questions, your mother and I will do our best to answer them," she suggested.

"That’s a good idea, Xena. Sweetheart, just think about what we talked about, and remember that your mother and I are always here for you, all right?" Gabrielle agreed.

With brows creased into a frown, Ari glanced from her warrior mother, to the blonde, then back again. Finally, in silence she stood and moved slowly from the room. When she was at the door to the room she shared with Eve, she heard the slight voices of her mothers begin again, then entered the dark room and closed the door behind her.

"Well, that went rather well!" Xena said after releasing a puff of air through her lips. Leaning forward, she rested her elbows on her knees and her chin on her hands as she gazed down at the wooden floorboards.

"Yes, very well," her life mate agreed as she leaned back on the sofa, her eyes remained glued to Xena’s figure. When the warrior looked up, she saw the silent question on Gabrielle’s face.

"We stunk!" both women groaned at the same time.

With a shake of her head, Xena moved from the chair and sat on the sofa with her lover. As her eyes gazed into the fireplace, she watched the dying embers slowly crackle. Her lover’s arm wrapped around her before the blonde placed her head on the warrior’s shoulder.

"Do you think that this is going to be the hardest thing we have to do?" Xena asked carefully after a time.

Her soulmate seemed to quietly contemplate the question. When the dark warrior felt her lover’s fingers begin to play with her hair, she glanced down at Gabrielle. In an absent manner, the blonde sighed as her idle hand rested lightly on Xena’s arm.

"You know, Xena, I would like to believe that it is but something tells me that it’s only just begun," Gabrielle whispered softly.

"Any regrets?" Xena kept her gaze on her lover.

At her question, Gabrielle lifted her head and looked into Xena’s eyes.

"Never a regret, Xena. I never regret anything about our life together," the smaller woman stated with confidence.

The warrior princess couldn’t help but smile as she lowered herself for a kiss. As their lips met, she felt the petite body moving against her. Despite all that had happened that night, the anger and need to inflict bodily damage on Virgil, the dark haired woman found that her desires were firmly in place. As an afterthought, she pulled reluctantly away from her soulmate.

"Gabrielle, did you think that maybe we had trouble explaining because it’s been awhile?" She tried to don her most innocent expression. At her lover’s smile, she leaned forward and whispered close to the blonde’s ear, "What do you say, Gabrielle. Wanna make love on your parent’s bed?" she asked with a mischievous grin, knowing that they were staying in the room that Gabrielle’s parents had once occupied.

"Oh, you are so evil, Warrior Princess," Gabrielle huskily replied as the leather-clad warrior stood up, then reached below her lover and easily lifted her into her arms.

"Damn, Gabrielle, are you putting on weight?" Xena teased, knowing that her lover had filled out with more muscles since the last time she had carried her like this.

"Are you going to complain, or ravish me?"

Without further ado, Xena quickly moved through the darkened hallway. Gabrielle’s arms wrapped around her shoulders as the storyteller’s tongue were doing magic against the taller woman’s ear. As the sensations spurred her needs, the warrior pushed all troubling thoughts away.

Tomorrow, she silently thought as she kicked the bedroom door closed behind her, tomorrow we’ll think of a better way to help our daughter, but for now… the warrior shivered as her thoughts turned to matters of a more urgent need.

~~~~~~

Ari didn’t know how long she had stood at the open window. In the dark, with the faint moonlight, her mind was able to wander. Past experience with Alti lead her to believe that there was something grave in both her mothers words. With Alti, her double-speak and cryptic words always held meaning, if one looked deeply into what the sorceress had said. After living so long with the woman, Ari thought she was adept at deciphering messages, but lately, with her new family, she realized how very little she really knew.

As the night air surrounded her, she tried to work through her mothers words, yet was unable to understand precisely what it was that they were trying to tell her. Although she was fairly certain that what she had done with Virgil was very wrong, she didn’t fully understand why they thought it was wrong except that they were worried that she might get pregnant. Truth be told, as frightening as that had sounded, Ari knew she didn’t want to have any part of it!

"Ari, it’s cold! Close the window and come to bed," Eve’s sleepy voice commanded.

The dark child glanced over her shoulder once, then turned and closed the window. When she moved to the bed, she removed her clothing and climbed under the cool covers. As she laid there, she stared up at the ceiling, her mind soaring through a multitude of thoughts. She still did not fully understand what the word love meant. Until she joined Xena and Gabrielle, Ari had never been shown love, so it was something that she knew nothing about. All she knew about the word was that her parents wanted her to wait until she found this ominous thing in another person before she shared her body with them.

What I did with Virgil might be wrong in my mothers’ eyes, but by the gods, it felt good! She shivered. Not only did it feel very, very good, but also it was the only way, short of cutting herself, that she was able to keep the sensations of numbness away. Her mothers’ disappointment pretty much let Ari know that cutting herself was no longer an option. But if she could not fight the numbness away like this, and they didn’t want her to be nice to Virgil, or other men for that matter, then what was there left to do when the frightening feelings of separation began; perhaps with another woman? At least the pregnancy danger would then be minimal, she thought.

Eve rolled over and yawned, then grumbled slightly before opening her eyes. "What’s the matter, Ari, can’t sleep?"

Ari only shrugged as she maintained her silence.

"Ari, I’m sure it will blow over. Did you get into a lot of trouble?" Eve asked as she rested a hand on the girl’s arm. When Ari stiffened, the young woman sighed next to her. "Yeah, I was listening at the door. I heard pretty much all of it."

Ari wasn’t certain how to answer. "T-They are d-disappointed."

Eve remained silent, then, in an unusual gesture, she reached out and pulled her sister close to her. When Ari’s head was pillowed on her shoulder, the prophet sighed as her fingers stroked through her sister’s dark hair. After a moment like this, the dark child glanced at her sister through the diffused light from the waning moon.

"E-Eve?"

"Yes?" Her sister’s hand never stopped stroking Ari’s hair.

"I-I … didn’t understand what they were trying to tell me."

Eve seemed to contemplate her words, then shifted in the bed slightly. "Ari, I think the most important thing to remember is that you should wait until you love the person that you share yourself with. The rest of it, well, I don’t know how much of that matters."

"B-But…?"

"Ari, one rule of thumb that I follow is that when it comes to our mothers, nothing is ordinary. I can’t look at either mom and assume that everyone is like them, I mean, think about it, how many people do you know have actually gone through what they have? How many have lived and died and come back again?" she shook her head, then grew still as if in deep thought.

"Come to think of it, I don’t know of anyone who’s ever lived most of their life in a magical cave either," Eve softly chuckled. "I guess that would mean that I’m the normal, ordinary, boring one of the family, huh?" She grinned ruefully.

"T-That’s good?" Ari asked.

"Damned if I know, but I don’t think it matters either way," Eve said as Ari felt her eyelids closing. As she felt herself slowly drifting, she asked one more question that had been plaguing her mind.

"Eve, what is it like?" Her voice was barely a whisper.

"Do you mean, love?"

"Ahuh," was Ari’s soft reply.

"It’s the most wonderful feeling to experience, Ari. It’s like everything in the world is brighter, and the birds seem to be singing only for you," her sister’s words floated to her senses as she drifted slowly into sleep. "And when you’re laying in your lover’s arms, you finally realize what it truly means to be home…" was the last thing the dark child heard as her dreams took her to a far away land filled with peace, and calm. It was a fairy tale land that never saw pain or sorrow — a place where Ari longed to someday be….

~~~~~~

As the complaints of the crickets sounded in the tall blades of grass, Virgil stood frozen in the darkness like at statue. He made certain that Ari did not see him. When she finally closed the window, he released a soft sigh as he moved out from the dark shadows of the nearby trees.

He stood there with his thoughts running wildly through his head. He did not know how he could have been so wrong. Deep down inside, he wanted to believe that he was right, that she loved him and wanted him. But even as this thought entered his mind, he had to concede that he was wrong. A part of him had known it all the time, but he didn’t want to believe it. Virgil had seen how sick she looked. He had known that she had difficulties around people yet he wanted to believe that she was with him of her own free will.

"What an idiot I am," he whispered softly as he turned away from the home of his friends and walked dejectedly down the dirt road in the silvery light of the crescent moon.

"Father, I sure could use you now," he whispered softly as he stopped one last time and looked back at the darkened home. With a shake of his head, he mounted his horse and quietly sat. Not even the pain of his throbbing nose hurt as bad as the pain in his heart.

Even if his father was still alive, Virgil doubted that he would be able to help him. After all, dad, how could you understand this? It’s not like you were ever in love with someone you could never have, he thought to himself before he reined his horse around towards Amphipolis. With a sad sigh, he turned his attention to the dark road as he tried to wipe the memory of Ari from his battered thoughts.

 

The End of

Sins of the Mother - Misunderstandings

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