Sins of the Mother (7) : Fears
By L. Crystal Michallet-Romero
Copyright  ©  March 2003  L. Crystal Michallet-Romero
     All Rights Reserved


Dedication: Ari’s story is for all survivors, and the people who love them.
Disclaimers:
* Xena Warrior Princess, its characters, and all related materials are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures.  All other characters are mine. 
* This story in no way reflects the life or actions of the wonderful actress, Claire Stansfield.  Her portrayal of Xena’s nemesis was so wickedly inspired as to make the character of Alti the absolute evil villain.
Rated: NC-17, not intended, or suitable for children.
Violence: Physical child abuse issues are portrayed and its effects are completely explored.
Sexual Violence: Child molestation is depicted and its effects are explored fully.

Subtext:  X/G are portrayed as being in a loving, long-term relationship/marriage.
Extra Warning:
As Alti raised the main character, I feel it’s necessary to warn that this story deals with child abuse and molestation issues.  It may trigger abuse issues for some.  This story should be unpleasant for all readers, but to know Ari, and the difficulties that her new family faces, it is important to know where she came from.

All feedback welcomed at: CrystalMichallet@charani.org

Crystal’s website can be found at: http://www.charani.org/XenaFanFicMichallet.html

 

It had been nearly a week since they arrived at their new home and Gabrielle had to admit that she was getting use to the domestic life. Although there seemed to be an endless list of chores that needed tending to, it didn’t seem too difficult to manage with both Xena and Eve helping. At times, Ari even surprised her by doing little things, like bringing in firewood for the stove and fireplace, or hauling buckets of drinking water. But mostly, Ari kept to herself, either sitting outside and staring at nothing, or tending to the animals. This chore alone freed up Xena to help with other things, the two women had reasoned.

When Gabrielle thought of all of the things that Ari had attempted to help with, yet only managed to ruin, she had to admit that it was best for the girl to keep to herself, at least until they were all settled. Although the bard had never noticed that their eldest was so accident prone, now that they were home, the blonde began to see how things would break, or burn, through no fault of her own. Like a water buffalo in a pottery shop, Ari tended to bump into things or break them and it was only recently that Gabrielle had realized how gangly and ill at ease her daughter seemed.

‘By the gods,’ she thought with a sad smile. ‘The only person I’ve ever seen before that has as many mishaps as Ari, was poor old Joxer. I always thought he was the King of Catastrophes, but between the two of them, I’m not certain but Ari might beat him out of the title!’ She shook her head. Her mothering instinct decided that for the time being, it was better for Ari to remain out of the way until the house was all set up. Once they were settled in, Gabrielle vowed that she would take more time and begin to show her child how to do different things around the house.

With an almost contented purr, the smaller woman pulled her thoughts away from her daughter. If anyone would have asked her, Gabrielle would not have been able to say what she enjoyed the most about domestic life. Not because she didn’t know what she liked, but because her private life was just that, private. She didn’t feel it was anyone’s business to know that her favorite past time was to fall asleep in a comfortable bed, snuggled in Xena’s arms after a wonderful session of love. Nor did she care to let them know that since arriving at the homestead, their love sessions had increased and grew more intense with each passing day. With soft gentle kisses that always led to deeper passion, the warrior princess would make such exquisite love to her that the healer bard often felt as if she were floating on a cloud of misty pleasure and never touched the ground.

Now that most of the tasks of settling in were complete, she and Xena chose to remain in bed later than usual. If the fact that her daughters would have to take a late breakfast bothered Gabrielle, she did not show it. Instead, she only groaned in delight as Xena’s light touches sent shivers through her body.

With a slight smile, the story teller closed her eyes against the early morning sun. A sigh escaped her control as her lover’s soft lips left a trail of kisses down her leg. Glancing down, she saw the mischievous smile on her soulmate’s lips. Gabrielle’s eyes turned to slits as she cast her lover a suspicious gaze.

"Xena … w-what are you up to?" her voice was a tormented whisper. The air caught in her lungs at the feel of the warrior’s short fingernails lightly running down her legs. With a sharp intake of air, Gabrielle pushed into the bed sheets as a tingling surge of pleasure touched her senses and she moaned deep in her throat.

"My, my, you don’t seem to ever get enough, do you?" Xena’s throaty question brought goose bumps to the bard’s flesh.

"By the gods, Xena, what are you doing to me?" Gabrielle closed her eyes as her lover left a trail of kisses down her legs, then stopped to pay homage to her feet.

"Why, I thought that was obvious, my love," Xena smiled seductively before she licked a line over the front of Gabrielle’s left foot. "I’m making love to you, can’t you tell?"

Before Gabrielle could respond, she felt her little toe being suckled by her soulmate. Gasping at the sensation, the blonde looked down and watched as the naked warrior slowly licked, then suckled each toe. When Xena moved to her last toe, the gentle warrior smiled at her, then opened her lips to take Gabrielle’s big toe into her mouth.

"G-Gods, Xena … d-don’t you know what you’re doing t-to m…" but she couldn’t finish her thoughts, instead, the smaller woman felt a shock wave of pleasure searing through her.

It started at the toe that was being suckled and surged up her leg like lightning, to land dead center in her clitoris. With an arch of her hips, she closed her eyes as her body bucked upward, her back suddenly stiffening as her hands grasped the linen bed sheet between her fingers. From somewhere in the room, she heard her own deep, guttural cry of pleasure and felt only vaguely concerned for the volume of her passion as the orgasm pounded through her entire being.

Gasping, and shaking from the aftershocks, Gabrielle lay trembling for a moment, then glanced down at her lover who was smiling at her. Unable to say much, the bard only shook her head as she fought to regain her breath. As she felt her heart beat slowing down, she also felt her lover climbing up the bed beside her.

"By the gods, Xena, what you do to me!" Gabrielle sighed as she reached down between her legs. She felt the residue of her pleasure against her inner thighs and dripping down her backside. When her fingers parted her own neither lips, she felt the beginning of a shuddering climax as a groan escaped her control. Unable to stop herself, even had she wanted to, she stroked her clitoris as a second wave of pleasure surged through her rocking the bed.

"Oh … X-Xena … oh … by the gods!" she panted as she pulled her hand away from herself and sighed from the intense sensations.

"Hummm … I’m not sure, but I don’t think I can take credit for that last one," the taller woman chuckled as she lay over her smaller lover’s naked body.

"W-What do you mean … don’t you know you can get me going just by looking at me," Gabrielle smiled up at her warrior as she pushed her lover’s dark hair away from her eyes.

"So I see," Xena smiled as she reached down, her fingers parted Gabrielle’s labia and slowly scooped up her lover’s liquid with her fingers. "My, my … my," her voice was a low whisper and she intently examined the wetness that covered her fingers, "Look what I have done to my bard," her voice seemed filled with awe as she gazed at the evidence of the blonde’s pleasure.

Gabrielle smiled at the bigger woman as she saw Xena’s intent expression examining the moisture on her fingers, the warriors lips curled slightly from a smile while she gazed at her dripping fingers. With an almost proud grin, Xena looked down at her as she licked the bard’s nectar from her long, callused fingers. Groaning in pleasure from the taste, the tall woman closed her eyes as if to savor every drop.

"Ummmm … Gabrielle, if I had known that domestic life could be like this…" the warrior princess smiled down at her as she covered the blonde’s entire body with her own.

"We would have settled down a long time ago," the smaller woman huskily replied as her legs instinctively circled around her taller lover’s hips and her arms wrapped around the strong shoulders as she pulled the warrior down into a slow, deep kiss.

~~~~~~

The dark child was immersed in an ocean of memories. Although the darkness of her past crept into her vision, another image made its way to the forefront. She found herself back in the dark cave of her captivity. The icy cold walls surrounded her completely. Beneath her, she felt the softness of the fur sending a tingling sensation down her spine. When she opened her eyes, she saw the shadows playing across the ceiling. The shadow seemed to ripple above her from the fire’s flame. At the exquisite sensations between her legs, Ari lifted her head to peer down at her naked body. Void of curves or pubic hair, her child’s body remained obedient below her mother’s ministrations. She saw the dark hair bobbing up and down, the almost frantic motions of the woman’s tongue moved over the girls neither region. Gasping at the now familiar sensations, she threw her head back and cried out her pleasure even as the woman’s slender fingers entered into her.

It was always the same. No sooner had her captor returned from the outside world than she was demanding to be sated. Unable and unwilling to refuse, Ari would only lie still and allow the bigger woman to do as she pleased. Just as it had happened before, her body soared through the pleasurable sensations only to end with a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.

Before Ari could even come down from her climatic high, her captor pulled away from her. In the darkness of the cave, she felt, more than saw, the grin on the older woman’s features. Instinctively, the girl parted her legs as the older woman moved up her body.

"You like it, don’t you, my little girl," Alti’s raspy voice whispered as her naked body covered Ari’s. The older woman’s pubic hair scratched against the girls oversensitive flesh and caused another surge of pleasure through her. When she came down from the sensations, she opened her eyes to see her mother watching her closely. The friction from the older woman’s hips never ceased and Ari was keenly aware of how it felt against her own flesh. "Tell me, little girl, you like what I do to you, you’ve always liked it, haven’t you?" the woman queried as she brought her lips close to Ari’s face.

"My little girl … you are just like me, more flesh of my flesh than you will ever know…" Alti chuckled softly before she grabbed and yank on Ari’s hair. The pain of her fingers burned into Ari’s scalp. "You are a disgusting little creature and you’ll never be anything else… you’ll always be evil," the sorceress laughed softly. "Just like me."

With an intake of air, the dark child closed her eyes to the sensations that filled her soul. She felt nausea overcome her even as her hips arched upward against her sorceress mother, her body moved instinctively to greet that exquisite friction that would bring release. Before she could relish the pleasurable sensations, she felt the strong grip on her chin forcing her eyes open.

"Look at me little girl! You open your eyes!" Alti’s voice growled.

When she looked up at her captor, Ari noticed the older woman’s finely chiseled features. By the light of the fire, she saw the sorceress glaring down at her and despite the deep-set frown, there seemed to be a sparkle in the older woman’s eyes. Like a moth moving toward a flame, Ari reached toward her, her lips opening as she sought out a kiss. When their lips touched, the girl felt her captor’s fingers moving over her neither region. The older woman’s skillful fingers stroked and caressed the girl until she whimpered in pleasure, and begged for release even as her tongue danced over the woman’s snake-like tongue. As a gasp escaped her, she pulled away even as her body wiggled against her tormentor’s touch.

"Just wait, little girl, someday we will have our revenge against Xena…soon, my little girl, very soon…" a deep chortle came from the tormentor’s lips.

As Ari felt her body rising higher in pleasure, she watched the woman’s features closely. Just as she neared the apex of her climax, she saw Alti’s face in the light. Within a single moment, the woman’s features changed, metamorphosing before her very eyes. At one moment, it was Alti who was over her, holding her down, touching her in such delightful ways. Then in the blink of an eye, the image changed and all Ari could do was to cry out in pleasure and disbelief as she saw the familiar face of her warrior mother leering down at her. With only a shake of her head, the dark child wept as she watched Xena smiling down at her, holding her down and touching her in ways that both delighted and tormented the girl...

With a silent scream, Ari sat bolt right in her bed. She felt herself kicking against the image of her dreams as she attempted to break free. When she was able to push away the nightmare, she glanced around her dark room. At the sound of silence in the house, she released a sigh as she lay back down. As she settled herself under the covers an involuntary shiver crossed her spine. At the sound of a soft meow, she looked at her kitten that sat nearby, his eyes remained fastened on her until she reached over and pulled him onto the covers.

"Just a dream," she whispered as an instant purr came from the fur ball.

As if sensing that the nightmare was over, the kitten moved up to Ari’s pillow and settled down beside her. While his paws gently kneaded the pillow, the dark child stared up at the ceiling. She tried in vain to understand the images of her dream. When she felt an all too familiar sensation, she inwardly groaned as she moved her hand into her shorts and felt between her legs. Her arousal brought an instant sense of shame.

With a deep-set frown, the girl rolled over onto her side and drew her knees to her chest. She felt her heart beat slowly increasing as a panic set in. The fear of what had happened in her dreams kept raging through her mind.

‘Xena has never hurt me like that,’ she thought as she felt the moisture between her legs. ‘She’s never indicated that she wanted that, she even told me that mothers who love their children never do that, so why would it happen in my dream?’

When she was unable to find an answer to her questions, she only groaned as she closed her eyes against the multitude of emotions that filled her soul. She did not understand the dream, and she might never understand it, just like she might never understand how Alti’s touch could bring such pleasure and shame at the same time, she reasoned. With each passing day that she spent with her family, the greater her clarity grew about things around her. Yet just as she was beginning to understand some things, yet another notion brought her to a stand still.

Her body needed something that she had no words for. And yet, she could not help but feel that what she needed was very wrong. It was as wrong as when she had tried to force herself on her sister, yet her body longed for this something.

‘Release,’ her mind whispered the word that her bard mother had said. Her body longed for a physical release, yet, she was uncertain of how to go about achieving this. The one time she had tried to achieve this on her own, she was only a child. The memory of the punishment was firmly etched in her mind. At this thought, Ari glanced at her right hand through the dark. She flexed her fingers as she remembered the searing hot flame cutting through her hand, the flesh and meat melting into one glob of liquid below the magical flame. At this thought, she shuddered as she closed her eyes against the tormenting memories.

‘…what you’re feeling now, the longings that your body is having to share with another are perfectly natural,’ Mama Gabrielle had said. Remembering her words, the dark child frowned as she rolled onto her back. Her mother bard had said it was ok to do. The small blonde had even admitted to doing it herself, so perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing to do?

At this thought, Ari steeled her resolve. She forced her breathing to stillness as she focused her concentration. When the dark child felt a stillness fall over her, she closed her eyes and reached down past the top of her shorts. Instinctively, her knees parted even as her fingers began a gentle rhythm between her legs. When her fingers moved upward to her overly sensitized flesh, a slight gasp escaped her control.

The sudden sound brought her actions to stillness. As the silence of the house filled her hearing, she gulped nervously. Ari felt her heart racing fast as she fought to control her fears. When the deep desire returned, she closed her eyes again and began a gentle exploration. She was only a child the last time she had done this, so everything seemed new to her. The feel of her moisture against her fingers, the warmth of her entrance, even the hard flesh that was near the top of her folds were all new to her. With each gentle stroke, it seemed to swell and harden as a burst of pleasure raced through her. Even the sparse hair that was between her legs was not there the last time she had touched herself, and this too brought a different sensation. Yet as her exploration continued, she felt herself rising higher and higher, yet never reaching the peak.

Half in frustration, and half in desperation, she closed her eyes and began to remember the dream that had awakened her. She reveled in the sensations of Alti’s lips between her legs. The way that the older woman’s tongue parted her nether lips in order that she could grab hold of Ari’s sensitive flesh and suckle her deeply caused the girl to gasp in pleasure. Before the imagine could take hold, her mind replayed the memory of Xena, the way that her body laid over Ari’s, holding her down and forcing her long, warrior fingers deeply into her. At the combination of disgust and pleasure, Ari cried out softly even as her fingers were rubbing herself vigorously. In wave after wave of pleasure, she felt a sickness fill her soul even as her body released the moisture between her legs.

When it was over, the girl groaned in both pleasure and humiliation as she rolled onto her side. Oblivious to Ari’s pain, the kitten remained on her pillow, his purring growing louder in the small room. As the last shudders of her orgasm racked her body, she pulled her knees to her chest. Realizing what she had done, the girl released a soft sob.

‘Alti was right, I am just like her. I am evil!’ she thought, ‘I am a disgusting creature, what else could I be? Who else would think of such things unless they were?’

But Ari couldn’t finish her thoughts, because deep down inside, she felt only shame for what she was. Despite everything that her bard mother had said, she could not shake the feelings that what she was doing was wrong. Ari was certain that if Gabrielle knew what she was thinking about in order to bring herself pleasure, that the bard would think she was disgusting.

At this thought, more silent sobs escaped the girl’s control. When Ari began to weep the tears of shame and regret onto her pillow, the kitten snuggled close. As if sensing that his master was in pain, the furry creature reached out and licked her hair. At his touch, Ari reached for the animal and pulled it close. Just like her stallion, Thanatos, she knew that this kitten would not offer up any harsh judgments. As she cried herself back to sleep, the dark child took comfort in the fact that at least there were two creatures in her life who would always love her even if she was not worth loving, she reasoned as she fell back to sleep.

The dark child did not awaken until she felt the morning sun creeping through the cracks in her window. With a sleepy yawn, she sat up and noticed the kitten sniffing around the corner of her room. Understanding what his actions would lead to, Ari pulled herself from the comfort of her blankets and scooped up the kitten.

Since arriving at their home, Ari did her best to fit in. In only a week, her family life was beginning to have a familiar routine. Usually, the dark child would awaken to the aroma of breakfast. The smell of frying eggs and meat would pull her from her dreams and she would have no choice but to get up, run to the outhouse, then return to wash up before joining her family for the morning meal.

This was something that Ari realized that she enjoyed the most especially since her bard mother knew how to fill the food with so many different flavors. In all of her time with Alti, she always assumed that food was tasteless and bland. It wasn’t until she began to travel with her family that she realized a whole new world of sensations had opened up to her, and she wanted to be able to experience everything that her blonde mother made. With this thought, she glanced around and noticed that the house was still asleep. After climbing down from her room with the kitten on her shoulder, she wiped away the sleep from her eyes as she padded outside on bare feet toward the outhouse. At the feel of wetness between her legs, the shame of her actions weighed heavily on her as she remembered what she had done.

Before entering the confinement of the small wooden closet that had been placed over a hole dug some distance from the house, Ari set her kitten on the nearby grass, assured that he would be doing just what she was about to do. With a yawn and a sigh, Ari sat upon the cold wooden seat, her shorts down around her ankles as her mind was wandering through the thoughts of one who was not quiet awake.

From the cutout moon shape in the door, she gazed out at the place that was now her home and marveled at the changes in her life. In just a few short moons her world had been turned upside down. Everything that she ever learned had to be relearned and at times, things were too confusing for her to understand. Things Alti had told the girl were right were wrong and other things she had told her were wrong were right. Murdering indiscriminately, burning down villages because they would not offer hospitality was wrong. Taking things because she wanted them was wrong. Riding along the road and not disturbing anyone was right. Basically, everything that Alti had taught her had to be wiped away, and she had to begin her lessons anew. At times … well, if truth be told, most of the time the whole thing was too confusing for Ari to understand and she simply found herself wandering through the day in a confused haze.

When she was first in the hospice, after her battle with Alti, Ari remembered the many times that she had grown impatient from the villagers around her. But at that time, she felt paralyzed and unable to do anything about it. Thinking back, the dark child had to admit that perhaps it was for the best at the time that the bad part of her was in a cloud. If it had not been this way, Ari was certain that she would have killed one or two villagers who had irritated her, and this, she knew her mothers would never have forgiven her for. No, although she didn’t know the reasons for it, she had to admit that whatever fog that she had been in kept her from making critical mistakes during her initial integration with her family and the villagers.

With a sigh, Ari leaned forward and rested her chin on her bent arm. Although she was already finished with her morning business, she lingered longer than necessary as her memories replayed the images of her past. With eyes closed, she released a tired sigh as she tried to sort through the past few months. She tried to understand why, if her mother had said that ‘getting to know yourself’ was all right, did Ari feel so dirty inside. And of all the things for her to be thinking about when she was touching herself, why was it the image of Xena that had finally helped her to reach the point of release? With a tired sigh, the dark child realized that she might never find answers to her questions. Everything about her life now was so very different than when she had been with Alti.

Not only her world, but her entire life had been turned upside down and although she had her mothers nearby to help her, she did not know how to explain the thoughts that raged through her. She did not know how to say that at times, she felt a boiling in the pit of her stomach that called for action, any action, before it would stop. And she did not know how to explain her feelings of hopeless loss because she had not yet identified it as such. All she knew was that late at night, when the house was quiet and the sound of her sleeping family filled the air, Ari found herself staring up into the darkness unable to sleep. The sensations, the thoughts, and feelings all churned within her until all she could do was allow the tears to fall. Just as she used to do those many years ago with Alti, she would secretly weep, careful to remain silent until, too tired to cry any longer, she would fall asleep on her damp, tear-stained pillow.

If she could not tell her mothers about these thoughts, how would she ever explain what had happened this morning? How could see even face her warrior mother and explain that it was her image that had finally brought her release? If she could not confess this to her true mother, what would compel her to speak to her bard mother she wondered as she reached down and felt the sticky moisture that mixed with her urine. No, she could never tell anyone what had happened, and she would never do such a thing again she silently vowed. It didn’t matter that her bard mother had said it was natural. She was certain that if the blonde woman knew what was racing through Ari’s mind when she was getting to "know herself," the woman would begin to see her for the dark and flawed thing she truly was and would flee screaming from her, never again to offer her love.

With this melancholy conviction, the dark child frowned as she closed her eyes. When a yawn escaped her control, she pulled herself from the unhappy thoughts. She glanced around the confined room, then took the soft parchment that her mother had left in the outhouse. Once finished, she stood up on the wooden floor, pulled her white shorts up, then closed the lid of the smelly hole and went out to retrieve her kitten. Still in the middle of his business, he perched on his haunches over the open hole that he had dug. With a look of abashed horror, the little kitten scrunched up his whiskers and released a protesting meow as he turned his back to her, his tail flicking out as if angered.

"S-Sorry," she said as she turned her back, giving the kitten his privacy.

As she glanced up at the nearby hill, she thought she caught a glimpse of someone on the grassy knoll. When she squinted her eyes to get a better focus, she saw someone standing on top of the hill looking down at their farm. At the sounds of her kitten scratching in the dirt, she glanced down as he was covering the hole he had made. When she returned her attention to the hill, the person was gone. With only a shrug of her shoulders, she scooped up the kitten and carried him back to the house.

She left the kitten outside before reentering the house and watched as Eve stumbled from her room only wearing shorts and a cloth bra as she made her way to the outhouse. Mumbling something incoherent, the young prophet waved at her as the door closed behind her. As Ari’s stomach rumbled, she looked around the empty kitchen, surprised that her mothers were not already awake. Curious that breakfast had not been made, the dark child merely glanced at her mothers’ closed door while she poured the cold water into a basin and began to wash up.

Before she began to splash the water on her face, the noise of her bard mother’s passion resonated from behind the closed door. Surprised by the sound, Ari stared with open amazement at the door. For a moment, she found her thoughts taking her to another place and time. She remembered the sounds that Alti had made, the pleasure resonating in the sorceress’ throat whenever Ari touched her in the right way, and the praise she would receive from her…

"That’s a good little girl, give your mamma pleasure…ohhhhhh…." her mother’s usually harsh voice disappeared into a purr as her fingers ran through Ari’s dark hair. Too little to fully understand what was happening, Ari did as she was ordered. She placed her mouth where her captor had showed her, and she suckled between the bigger woman’s legs, all the while fighting down the sick feeling that was lodged in the pit of her stomach…

At the sound of the front door opening, Ari was suddenly pulled back from the dark memory. As she fought down the nausea, the dark child nodded toward her sister as she averted her eyes. Afraid that Eve would see through her and realize the dirty secrets of her thoughts, she avoided looking into her sister’s eyes. Still half asleep, Eve walked on into the house with the kitten in hand as the tall girl turned her attention to cleaning up.

"You left him out front," Eve mumbled as she set the fur ball on the floor, released a yawn, then sat in a chair and waited for Ari to finish with the basin. When another moan of pleasure came from behind their mothers’ door, the dark child glanced at the door, then looked at her sister. Oblivious to the sounds in their mothers’ room, Eve sat at the kitchen table, her head pillowed on her arms and her eyes were closed.

Ari had no delusions about her mothers’ physical relationship. She had a good idea of what Xena and Gabrielle did together. Yet the hazy images of her past, and even the dreams that her sleeping mind would conjure up, were different from the reality of the present. And although she could not explain her feelings, she only knew that hearing her mothers’ in the throes of passion made her uncomfortable. So rather than sit and listen, she hastily cleaned up before rummaging for some bread to eat. With only a tired yawn, Eve stepped over the kitten that had found a new toy as she moved to the basin and poured herself some fresh water.

As if still asleep, the prophet went about her business, oblivious to the sounds coming from their parents’ room. With only a shrug, Ari took her kitten and a small wooden bowl and a cup of milk and bread outside. As the furry creature purred in her arms, she broke up the bread she had been eating into the small bowl, then poured some warm milk over the food before placing it on the ground. Eager for his morning meal, the kitten meowed with excitement as it wiggled in her arms. With a slight smile, she rubbed her face against the back of its soft fur, then placed it down on the ground beside the bowl of food.

Ordinarily, Ari would spend her time by herself near the house occupied in her own thoughts. For Ari, this seemed like the safest thing she could do because whenever she tried to help her family, she always ended up doing something wrong. When she tried to help Xena fix the armor on her leathers, she ended up accidentally slicing through a fragment of the leather. Although Xena said it could be fixed, the dark child knew her mother was angry when she stormed out of the house. She watched as the warrior paced back and forth talking to herself, then slammed her fist into a tree and left an indention in the bark. When it seemed that her anger was under control, the tall woman returned to the house, a smile on her face as she assured Ari that the mistake could be fixed. Yet even though she stated this, she sent Ari outside.

Not only had she made a mistake with Xena, but once, when trying to help Eve move the furniture around in her room, the dark child accidentally knocked the chair into the dresser, which caused a glass figurine to fall to the ground and break. Eve hadn’t said anything to her about this either, but Ari saw the tears in her sister’s eyes as she quietly picked up the pieces and gently wrapped them into a soft cloth. Unable to think of anything to say, the dark child simply walked from the room and went outside to sit alone.

With a slight frown, Ari released a sad sigh. Even the one time that her bard mother had entrusted the evening meal to her, the dark child let her down. All she had to do was stir the stew every few minutes while her mother hung the clothes out on the line to dry. But true to her nature, Ari’s mind had wandered to darker times and she forgot the instructions until it was too late. When the house became filled with the burning smoke from the pot, she was pulled away from her past memories. As her voice was filled with panic, the bard screamed at Ari asking what had happened as she quickly doused the fire on the stove, then opened all the windows before removing the smoking pot outside. Having never heard Gabrielle’s yell before, Ari became afraid and was unable to explain that she had forgotten to stir the food. As if sensing the girl’s terror, her bard mother released a sad sigh as she reassuringly patted Ari’s arm before sending her outside to sit alone and out of the way.

No, there didn’t seem to be anything that she could do right, and although she knew in her heart that they were accidents, she suspected that her family believed that everything she did was intentional. So lately, rather than try to help, she would remain by herself lost in her own thoughts. Alti had taught her many things, but there were also many things that she had not taught her, and now Ari was beginning to realize how truly stupid she was. ‘Throughout my whole life, there has been only one thing that I did well’, she thought sadly as her mind returned her to another place and time…

"You are so brave and strong," Alti whispered unnaturally.

She had been taken from the cave by her mother just a few moons ago, and already her mother’s predictions were coming true. The beginning of their campaign met with little resistance. To Ari’s surprise, the first sign of a real fight amounted to only a skirmish that was ended within the day.

"In no time at all we will have control of this region," the sorceress promised as her hands ran over Ari’s naked body.

Once the battle was over, her mother had removed the armor from her and began to message away the aches and pains of her muscles. So thoroughly relaxed under her mother’s touch, the Destroyer could only smile as she stood before her mother and remained silent as the warm oil was splattered and rubbed over her body. By the dim light of the torches, she saw their shadows casting an eerie shape on the cloth tent.

With a slight smile, she thought of the ruling king and queen whom she had defeated today. Now held captive outside, they would be the first that she would make an example of. As her mind began to delve into pleasant thoughts of what she would do to them, the constant drone of her mother’s voice rose in the air like wisps of smoke.

"You are the Destroyer, my baby, my child, you live for one reason and one reason only," her mothers voice seemed to sing.

"To destroy and kill," Ari heard her voice as if it were not her own. "To destroy and kill all who stand or flee before me until Xena comes to me, and then I shall kill her!" Her grin was like a sneer.

"Yes, little girl. To destroy and kill, to murder and vanquish all who stand up to us, to rid the world of Xena and her little bitch! Together, we shall rule the world as we were meant to rule," the older woman hissed. "You are my perfect little killing machine."

"I am perfect," Ari whispered her mother’s words as her eyes grew to slits. The visions of murder and mayhem replayed over and over in her head even as the feel of her mother’s hands ran over her naked flesh.

"I shall kill Xena and her whore! No one will stand in our way! And if they do…I will kill them too!" Ari felt her mother’s pride through her touch.

No one else would be able to conquer her because this is what she was meant to do. Since only a little child, she had been schooled in the art of war. Her fighting abilities were honed to the point where there was no one who could stand against her. Killing, maiming and raping is what she was trained to do, was what she did best, and it was the only thing that she knew how to do well…

Ari fought back the tears as this new memory flashed before her vision. Strangling back a sob, she lowered her head and closed her eyes against the painful images. There was something that she knew how to do, something that she was an expert at. Yet in the short time that she had been with her new family, she knew that it was something that she could never do again. The pain of disappointment from her bard mother was still fresh in her memories. Even though she had only killed bandits, Gabrielle grieved for their loss, and her anger at Ari could not be concealed.

No, her only talent was something that she could never do again, the dark child reasoned as she opened her eyes to the early morning sun. ‘But if this is all that I can do, what will become of me?’ she thought silently as the melancholy settled in.

Her only hope was that her family would teach her other things to replace them. That they would show her what she was supposed to do now that she could no longer be a warlord. Maybe in time, when they deemed her to be not so dumb, they might begin to show her how to do simple things around the house, she silently wished. Until then, she promised herself that she would only tend to the animals, and leave the rest to her family.

Sometimes she would see things that needed to be done, like gathering firewood, or cleaning out the stables, and she would do it. On this morning, since it didn’t seem like she would be starting her day with a warm meal, she didn’t feel compelled to do anything. So instead, she sat in the chair on the porch, and ate the remaining bread.

As her thoughts went everywhere, and no where, she felt the early morning breeze against her bare legs. Although still uncomfortable with public nudity, she was beginning to be more relaxed and actually found it comfortable to walk around in just her undershorts and sleeveless undershirt. The fact that she only did this early in the morning, and that her family had made no comments about it, helped her to ease into such public displays.

Ari could not have explained why she could not be like the others. At times she was envious at the openness that her mothers’ and sister displayed. They way that they would all bathe in the lakes or rivers along the road, and even the more recent baths that they would all take in the evening in the wooden tub that would be moved to the kitchen was something that Ari could not do. Even though the last time she had bathed was at Meg’s place, and she knew she was due, for a few days, she had avoided taking part, and would always be in the outhouse when she knew it would be her turn. It wasn’t until the third night, when she returned to the house expecting everyone to already be gathered in the living room, ready for the nightly stories, that she was surprised to find only her bard mother in the kitchen.

‘Your turn honey,’ her mother had smiled as she poured the last bucket of steaming water into the single size tub. Ari remembered how her heart suddenly began to beat when she saw everything laid out. Nervously, she glanced at her sister’s door, then looked around in search of her warrior mother.

‘Eve had a personal letter to write, and your mom is reading in our room. Come on, honey, hop in before it gets cold,’ her mother had given her little choice. But at Gabrielle’s assurance of her family’s whereabouts, she reluctantly complied and removed her dirty clothes. The feel of the warm water was comforting against her skin.

Ever since that night, Ari noticed that her sister and mother were always absent when it was Ari’s turn to bathe. Although she had wondered about it, she did not ask. Instead, she would bathe in the warm water and allow her bard mother’s voice to float in the air, the constant monologue somehow soothing as the woman’s deft hands helped her to scrub the stench from her body. And each night, the blonde woman would always have a fresh set of underclothes for her to wear once she was out of the tub and dry. Then, as if they had both finished whatever they were doing at the same time, her warrior mother and sister would reemerge from their rooms. They would help the blonde with removing the filthy water and store the tub away before they would settle in front of the fireplace for stories.

At the noise on the ground, Ari glanced down at the kitten. She watched as he licked the last drops of food from his dish, then began to push the empty wooden bowl across the dirt with his little paws. Glancing at the barn, she heard the horses’ soft noises, then rose from her perch and went into the house to retrieve her outer clothes. Once her pants, tunic and boots were on, she went to the barn intent on tending to the animals. She made certain that the water for the horses was filled, and fresh hay left out for everyone to eat. Once she was finished with that, she decided to take each beast outside to groom. Hopefully, by the time she was finished, her mothers’ would also be finished and she could join her family again.

As her thoughts moved in an incoherent pattern, she wiped down Thanatos’ dark coat. Saving him for last, she spent extra time pampering her horse. Apparently enjoying the attention, Than would butt his head against her, then nicker as he demanded that she scratch his chin. With a smile, she complied with his needs and spoke softly as she scratched his muzzle.

Before she even had time to return Than to the stable, the loud shout from her sister called her attention. With a deep set frown, the young prophetess leaned out of the window, her gaze firmly on Ari. Surprised by Eve’s outburst, Ari remained frozen as she watched her sister turn a dark shade of red.

"ARI! IS THAT MY FAVORITE TOP?" Eve shouted, the anger clearly heard in her voice.

The dark child had only a moment before her younger sister was out of the house and moving toward her.

"Wha…?" Ari followed her sister’s glance to the rag she held in her hand.

"Is that my top?" Eve’s voice was deep and menacing.

"I-I…" Ari gazed at the rag that was now thoroughly dirty from being used to bathe the horses. "I-I found it…over th-there," she pointed to a nearby bush.

"No! There is no possible way that you could have found it there! It was in my room, it needed to be washed. Ari, I can’t believe you’re using my favorite top to wipe down that … that big stupid horse!" Than snorted as if in protest as Eve grabbed the small piece of cloth from Ari’s hand.

"I-It was…" but Ari didn’t have time to finish her sentence before Eve grimaced at the sight of her top, then tried to slap it against Ari’s shoulder.

"HEY!" the dark child protested, but at Eve’s anger, she backed away from the shorter woman.

"How dare you!" Eve yelled as she tried to smack Ari’s arm with the wet fabric.

Ari managed to dodge her sister’s hand, which only spurred Eve to greater anger. With each step the prophet took, Ari took two to avoid her. When Eve started to chase after her, screams of anger in her voice, Ari danced around Than’s big body. Each swat from her sister landed in the air as the taller girl dodged around, behind, underneath and anywhere where her sister could not touch her. At the flurry of movement around him, Than nickered as he tried to step away from the girls’ movements.

When Ari realized the level of stress from Than, she stepped away from the horse as she tried to dodge her sister. With an amused smile, the dark child turned and ran away from her sister. Laughing at Eve’s outburst, she ran away from her family’s home, occasionally glancing over her shoulder. At first Eve tried to follow her, but as the dark child sprinted her way up the hill, the prophet gave up her chase.

~~~~~~

There never seemed a day when Gabrielle did not excite the warrior princess. Each time the bard released her sweet nectar, Xena felt her own wetness building. When she watched the small blonde come from just a touch of her toe, Xena found herself incredibly turned on by her lover’s passion.

As she lay over her soulmate’s soft, warm body, she lowered her head and nuzzled against the bard’s neck as she inhaled the smaller woman’s aroma. At the musky scent, she smiled as a low growl escaped her control. When she opened her eyes, she returned Gabrielle’s smile as she lifted slightly from her lover’s body, then reached down to where their mons molded as one. With only a slight adjustment, the warrior princess managed to part both hers, and her lover’s nether lips until their aroused, swollen flesh was pressed firmly against each other. At the instant sensations, Xena gasped at the pleasure as she stilled her body, then became accustomed to the feeling.

"Oh gods," she huskily moaned as she wrapped her arms under her soulmate’s shoulder.

"Xena … oh … I-I…" Gabrielle never managed to finish her words.

Xena held tightly to her lover as a wave of pleasure rocked the bard’s body. At the feel against her clitoris, the warrior closed her eyes as she felt her pleasure shooting through her senses. When the initial wave subsided, she smiled down at her lover, then began a slow, steady cadence. Like adjoining pieces of a puzzle, their swollen nubs pressed and rubbed against each other. The combination of their wetness made the protruding flesh feel like droplets of velvety rain. When it seemed as if the sensations were building, Xena pulled away from her lover’s embrace long enough to brace herself on her hands.

"Ohhhh … godsssss … G-Gabrielle…" her breathing came out labored as her intense blue eyes held her lover’s green. "I-I … l-love…"

Before the warrior could voice her endearment of love, Eve’s loud scream broke into their room.

"ARI! IS THAT MY FAVORITE TOP?" Eve shouted, the anger clearly audible in her voice.

With an irritated grimace, Xena scowled as she closed her eyes and tried to block out the interruption. When she looked down at Gabrielle, she saw the look of indecision in her lover’s eyes. She knew that her mate was concerned about their girls, yet was not ready to end their morning of love. With a growl, the warrior princess shook her head no.

"G-Gabrielle … I-I’m almost th-there…" she gasped as she moved rhythmically against her soulmate’s flesh, their clitoris’ further stimulated by the sensations.

"That’s it, sweetheart, th-that’s it…." Gabrielle encouraged as her legs wrapped tighter around Xena’s hips. Her hands stroked Xena’s arms lovingly, but her eyes wandered momentarily toward their closed door.

As Xena felt her pleasure rising, she was aware of the muffled voices from outside. The slow trickle of sweat beaded down her back. With each grinding of her hips, the intense sensations of pleasure made its way from where her body seemed to merge with Gabrielle all the way to the top of her skull. But before she could reach the heights of pleasure, more shouts rang from outside.

"ARI, so help me!" Eve shouted as Ari’s giggles followed her sister’s words.

Gabrielle lay motionless below her. As the sounds of their daughters’ argument reached them, Xena tried a few movements to bring herself to release. But each time she heard the shouts, the warrior felt her pleasure slowly dwindle. When she felt her lover’s preoccupation below her, Xena knew that she would not be receiving release at this moment. She shook her head in frustration as a growl escaped her control.

The mood was gone. Whatever pleasure she had thought she would receive turned into anger against her children. With a slight grimace, the warrior princess sighed as she closed her eyes tightly.

"Ari, you come back here! So help me, if you don’t…!"

"G-Gabrielle … I-I’m going to kill someone," she managed to say as she rolled off of her lover.

"Xena, calm down. Let’s just see what they’re fighting about, all right?" Gabrielle gasped as she sat up, shook her head and threw her legs over the edge of the bed. "I gotta admit, our girls’ timing leaves much to be desired."

With only a few muttered words under her breath, Xena frowned as she stood up and began looking for some clothes to wear. In the few days that they had been on the farm, aside for the time when Ari broke a figurine of Eve’s, the girls, overall, seemed to be getting along and the warrior princess was beginning to believe that there could be peace between her girls. But with this morning’s outburst, she began to see that such squabbles were not going to go away overnight.

The tall woman grimaced at this thought. Either the girls would have to learn to not fight, or she and Gabrielle would have to make a point of not making love in the morning, she thought. Then at this notion, she shook her head. ‘No, we are defiantly not going to start timing our love making to their schedule, so the girls had better learn fast to get along!’

~~~~~~

Ari felt elated as she ran over the distant hill. She heard her sister scream, yet continued to run as fast as she could. When she was at the top of the hill, she fell into the tall grass and peered down at her family’s home. Although her lungs felt as if they would explode, she felt exhilarated from the run. With a smile, she watched as Eve paced near the open grass, her anger clearly visible.

Before the dark child could rejoice in her victory, a slight noise from behind caught her attention. With a curious arch of a brow, she glanced over her shoulder in time to watch an older woman walking up the hill from the opposite direction. She wore a light blue dress, and open sandals. The curly, dark-haired woman softly hummed as she made her way to where Ari hid. When she saw Ari hiding in the grass, a wide smile crossed her features.

"Well, hello there," the stranger beamed at Ari.

Ari cocked her head to the side as she stared up at the woman. For a moment, the dark child wondered why the woman seemed so happy. Although she was becoming accustomed to seeing people smiling all the time, their smiles were generally never directed at her.

"It’s usually customary to say hello when someone greets you, Ari," the woman said.

Her suspicion suddenly peaked; Ari glanced at the lady with half closed eyes. "H-How do you k-know my name?"

"Oh, there isn’t much that goes on around these parts that I don’t know about," her warm smile brought a curious expression to the dark child’s lips. "For instance, I know that your sister is hopping mad at you right now," the woman nodded down toward the house as she casually sat beside Ari, craning her neck to look over the tall blades of grass.

"Sisters," the woman softly chuckled. "You know, I always thought that it would be wonderful having daughters, but I see that they’re just as much a handful as boys are!"

The dark child smiled at the woman’s comments as she glanced back down at her sister. Eve was still upset, yelling and threatening Ari and kicking at weeds as she waved her drenched top in the air. Despite this the tall girl remained hidden in the grass above the hill.

"What is Eve all worked up about?" the stranger asked.

"Aw, sh-she’s mad ‘cuz I used her top t-to give the horses a b-bath," Ari explained before she ducked down low when Eve glanced up at where she was hiding.

"Well, I can understand her anger then, but I’m sure you didn’t mean it, did you?" the stranger’s expression grew firm as she looked intently at Ari.

"N-No," the girl shook her head, "I-I didn’t even n-notice it was her top. It was in the bushes."

"Did you explain that?"

Ari shrugged as she turned her gaze to the house. She watched in silence as her two mothers exited the home. With stiff back and grim expression, Xena moved in front of Eve. From her hiding place up the hill, the dark child could see her mother’s anger. She could tell that the warrior was carefully bridling her rage. With a gulp, Ari looked at the woman beside her.

"I-I was going to tell her b-but…" Ari looked down at the ground in defeat.

"She didn’t give you a chance?"

Ari could not explain why she felt comfortable talking so openly to this woman. All she knew was that a part of her trusted the stranger like she trusted her bard mother, and yet she did not know why. For her, strangers were people to watch and assess, to gauge and determine if they were friend, or foe. But with the woman so near, she felt comfortable telling her true thoughts.

"Nah … Eve … s-sometimes … well, most of the t-time, she won’t l-listen, e-especially to m-me" Ari sighed as she watched her mother Gabrielle speaking calmly to her sister. As a sadness fell over her, the dark child looked away from her family and gazed into the woman’s deep blue eyes. "I-I guess it’s my own f-fault though. I don’t always do the r-right things … s-sometimes … m-most of the time, I’m just … b-bad," the word came out softly as she remembered what had happened this morning. As the heat crossed her cheeks, the dark child turned away from the woman in hopes that she would not see Ari’s private shame. With downcast eyes, she remembered all of the things she had done since arriving with her new family, and all of the horrible crimes she had committed before joining them. When she felt a cool touch against her hair, she looked back at the moisture-filled eyes of the older woman.

"You’re not bad, Ari. You’ve got to start telling yourself that, and then you’ll begin to believe it. I’m sure that once your sister calms down, she’ll understand that it’s all just a misunderstanding." The kindness in the woman’s gaze caused Ari to gulp as she turned away from her piercing eyes.

"Yes, I-I am bad … I don’t k-know how to be anything e-else," she whispered. "G-Gabrielle … one of my m-mothers, she’s the only one who thinks I c-can be good … but … s-sometimes … sometimes I-I think even she wonders if its possible," Ari explained, then turned imploring eyes to the woman. "It’s just that, s-sometimes … it’s so hard," the girl shook her head as a sigh escaped her control before she looked back down at her family.

Xena held Eve’s damp top in her hands as she scanned the surrounding hill. Even from this distance, Ari could see the deep set frown, the tight jaw muscle as her warrior mother’s palms were bunched into fists. As if by sheer will alone, the tall woman held back her rage as she cupped her mouth and shouted in a loud, angry voice.

"ARI!" Xena’s call echoed off the hill, "ARI, YOU GET DOWN HERE NOW!"

At the sound of the warrior princess’ voice, Ari gulped in fear. For a moment, she was reminded of all the times when Alti used to yell at her in this way, and the beatings that always followed her shouts. When the warrior shouted again, fear blanched Ari’s cheeks as she visibly frowned. At the warrior’s call, the dark child felt the urge to run and hide, to flee as far as she could from Xena’s wrath. For a moment, she was that little child who used to hide in the shadows of the cave. Then Ari pushed away her dark thoughts as she turned to the older woman and shrugged her shoulders.

"S-See…" she nodded down to her mother, "E-Even she knows t-that I’m b-bad, and s-she’s my birth mother," Ari frowned as she looked down in sadness.

"Ari, mothers don’t always know these things. Sometimes, we mothers can be very wrong with how we judge our children," the older stranger said as she lightly touched Ari’s shoulder.

Looking at the woman, she tried to understand her kindness. She did not know why a stranger would care about her, or even why she would be so kind. Not comprehending such kindness, the dark child only shrugged as she cautiously rose from her hiding spot, careful to keep concealed from her family.

"Wh-Where do you live? Will I s-see you again?" the girl asked as she glanced around, searching for a place to hide.

"Oh, I’m sure we will cross paths again. I live over there," the elderly lady pointed in the direction of Meg’s tavern and the village of Amphipolis.

"ARI!" Her warrior mother’s wrath sent a fear through her soul. With only a grimace, the dark child glanced at the woman with a look of dread.

"I’ve g-got to go. It was nice t-talking to you," Ari began to run. When she reached the bottom of the hill, she turned to wave a salutation to the woman. When she looked back up at the hill where she had just sat, she had to look twice. Still crouching to remain hidden from her mother, the tall girl saw only the empty mound. Rising to her full height, she glanced around trying to see where the woman had disappeared to. When she couldn’t find her, the dark child shrugged, then turned and ran away from the sound of Xena’s voice.

Although she had never felt her warrior mother’s full wrath since she had joined her family, she was still very much afraid of Xena. Rather than face her, with the sound of fury in her voice, Ari decided to run to the nearest forest in hopes of finding a place where she could wait out the wrath of her mother. With this in mind, she began to make her way toward the nearest outcropping of trees.

~~~~~~

"Eve, let me try to wash this before you get too excited," Gabrielle offered as she examined the wet and sticky top.

"Mother, it’s ruined. Just look at it!" Eve’s voice rose in pitch as she tried to fight back her tears. "It’s the last thing that…" But Eve stopped her words as she glanced away, slight tears in her eyes. "It was a gift from someone special."

"Honey, I know, and I’m sorry," Gabrielle reached out and lightly touched her youngest daughter’s arm. "I’ll do my best to clean it up, I promise."

"Did Ari say she took it on purpose?" Xena scowled as she turned her gaze to the distant hill.

"No, but she didn’t say that she didn’t either. Just like when she broke the figurine that Chen Hu gave me, all she did was smile!" The exasperation laced Eve’s words.

The bard could tell her soul mate was angry. After the interruption of their morning, it was all Xena could do to keep herself from lashing out at Eve. Understanding her lover’s sexual frustrations, Gabrielle sympathetically smiled at Xena and lightly clasped her arm. As if her very touch was a reminder of what had not happened, the tall warrior flinched, then groaned.

"That’s it! I’ve had about enough of her antics!" the warrior princess mumbled as she took the top from the bard, then stepped away from the two.

"ARI!" Xena’s call echoed off the hill, "ARI, YOU GET DOWN HERE NOW!"

"Xena, calm down. I think I can wash it, salvage it," Gabrielle spoke softly.

"Dammit, Gabrielle, if it’s not one thing with the girl, it’s another. And now this … this … running off rather than take responsibility for her own actions," Xena grimaced as she turned away from her lover. "No, Gabrielle, Ari has got to learn. I don’t know how, but she’s got to learn how to take responsibility for what she does."

"But Xena, it’s only a top. I remember a time when someone stole my favorite top to tie up a big ugly warlord who hadn’t had a bath since Zeus was a pup." The bard spoke softly as she took the fabric from her lover’s grip. She raised an eyebrow at Xena and the warrior flinched at the twinkle in the green eyes. "As I recall, we couldn’t get his smell out of it. It was totally ruined and I had to get a new one."

Xena flushed and cleared her throat. "Look, I said I was sorry…" she mumbled. "I even paid for the new one!"

"I know, and when you explained why you did it, I got over it…" Gabrielle smiled gently, then grew serious again. "But, see, Xena. You haven’t even asked for Ari’s side of it yet."

"I know, b-but how can I ask when she takes off like this?" Xena gave up on trying to conceal her anger as she looked back up at that hill. "ARI!" Xena’s voice echoed off the hills again.

"Mother, you’re always defending her!" The hurt and betrayal in Eve’s voice rang clear as she stared at the bard.

"Eve, honey, please. You don’t even know if Ari took it on purpose, and besides, I told you I would wash it. It may not be ruined, just give me a chance, all right?" Gabrielle pleaded with her youngest.

"But if she didn’t take it, then how did she get a hold of it?" Eve pouted as her brow furrowed.

Before either could say more, a sudden noise caught their attention. Glancing at the partly opened door, the three women watched as Ari’s kitten bounded out of the home. With a piece of fabric in its mouth, the furry ball walked backwards, pulling the large piece of cloth behind him. With each tug, the kitten growled softly, its small head shook as it yanked its prize from the home.

At the kitten’s antics, Gabrielle smiled broadly as she moved to the tiny creature. Seeing her near, the kitten looked up at her, released a small meow, then moved to her feet. In a single swoop, she picked the little bundle up and gazed at it.

"So you’re the culprit!" The blonde smiled as the kitten began to instantly purr. "Eve, maybe next time, before accusing your sister of taking something, you should find out more facts first."

Eve sighed as she glanced down at the clothing that the kitten had been dragging out. With a shake of her head, the prophet reached out and lightly scratched the purring fur.

"I’m sorry, you’re right, but … still," Eve shook her head. "Mother, she knew it was my top, why didn’t she ask me before ruining it?"

Gabrielle opened her mouth to reply, but the warrior interrupted. "That’s a good question, honey. And I intend to find out the answer," Xena promised as she made her way back into their home, a frown on her features.

"Eve, can we just find out Ari’s side of it first?" Gabrielle released a tired sigh as she picked up the clothing from the front porch, then entered the home. Although she hadn’t planned on washing clothes today, she knew that waiting for another day to wash Eve’s top might just cause more problems. When she saw her lover dressing in their room, she figured that whatever mood they had been sharing was now long gone. With only a shake of her head, she turned her attention to the task at hand.

~~~~~~

Ari found herself running blindly through the dense forest. The panic overshadowed any thoughts or reasons she might have held. The only thing that kept running through her mind was the sense of dread and fear of being caught by her warrior mother and for a minute, she found herself disoriented and confused. Panting, and out of breath, she glanced around and found herself surrounded by tall trees.

"No," she shook her head as the image shifted from the trees, to a cold, dark cave.

From somewhere in the back of her mind, she thought she heard the sound of her sorcerer mother’s pursuit. With a shake of her head, the dark child turned and ran headlong into the thick branches of the forest trees. When she stopped to catch her breath, she felt the wind brushing past her as her vision shifted from childhood memories to the forest trees. Before she could even contemplate where she was, she heard an all too familiar laughter rising in the air. Grimacing at the sound, the tall girl looked up and watched as the tops of the trees swayed in the wind.

"N-No…" her voice came out strangled as she shook her head at the sound.

Ariiiiii...’ the phantom voice floated in the wind.

"N-No…" Ari moaned as she touched her forehead with her fingertips, her mind trying to understand what was happening around her. Yet no matter how hard she tired, she could not understand why she was hearing Alti call to her.

ARI!’ The familiar command caused her to jump as she looked up into the tall trees around her.

"A-Alti? N-No…it-it can’t be, no," she mumbled as she felt the tears of fear forming in her eyes.

ARI!’ The command shook through the trees.

"A-Alti … m-mother…" she whispered as she felt herself instinctively responding.

Ari ... little girl …did you think you would be rid of me?’

"B-But … y-your d-dead … y-you’re supposed to be d-dead," Ari shook her head in confusion as she spun in a circle in an attempt to find where the sorceress was hiding. At her words, a menacing laughter rose in the air.

You will never be rid of me, little girl,’ the strange voice laughed.

"No, y-you’re dead, I-I saw your b-body burned…" the dark child felt her tears beginning to fall. Like a madness that was suddenly consuming her, Ari closed her eyes to the voice as she cupped her ears with the palm of her hands in an attempt to silence the laughter.

"Ari?" A voice that was not Alti’s cut through the madness. Spinning toward the voice, the girl looked with fear at the older woman whom she had just met on the hill overlooking their home.

Ariiiiii...’ The sorceress’ voice caused the girl to turn away from the older woman. The girl’s blue eyes darted to the treetops, scanning them for any evidence of Alti’s existence before turning to the darkness of the forest.

"Sh-She’s here," Ari whispered as she glanced at the trees before turning to the kind woman.

"Who’s here, Ari?" the lady moved toward her, the confusion etched on her features as she reached out and lightly touched the girl’s sleeve.

The cackling laughter of Alti’s voice rose in the air. Filled with a sudden fear, Ari glanced around her, searching for the owner of the laughter. At the gentle touch against her arm, she turned and looked down at the woman.

"D-Didn’t you hear that?" the girl whispered, her expression one of fear.

"Hear what, Ari? What did you hear?" concern filled the stranger’s voice.

What did you think, little girl, that you could get away from me? Did you think you could just leave and be a part of their foolish, maudlin world full of weaklings and slaves?’ Alti words ended in a maniacal laugh.

"N-No, it c-can’t be," Ari shook her head as she turned toward the voice as the shorter woman reached up and touched her arm.

You will never be a part of their world, you will always belong to me!’ the sorceress’ voice hissed in the wind. ‘You and I are the same, little girl, we are alike in so many ways and that is why they will never accept you!’

"N-No … X-Xena … Gabrielle…" Ari shook her head negatively in an attempt to push the accusation away.

"What about Xena and Gabrielle?" the older woman pulled at Ari’s attention. Looking at her as if the first time, Ari cocked her head to the side, the confusion etched in her features.

"M-Mama G-Gabrielle … s-she doesn’t think I’m … b-bad," the dark child half whispered through tears.

"Oh, Ari, of course she doesn’t think you’re bad! Because you aren’t bad; trust me baby, you are not at all bad," Despite the woman’s reassuring words, the cackling laughter of the sorceress commanded Ari’s attention.

What do they know about you? Only I know your inner darkness, only I can see into your heart and soul! Only I can see how evil you are! It’s in your blood, little girl, the evil runs through your veins! ’ The voice of her sorceress mother grew into a soft whisper. ‘Ariiiiii…come, my little girl. Come back to me now. You and I were destined to be together! You know what you want to do to them. Go ahead, do it! Kill them, kill them all!

"Noooooooooooo!" Ari fell to her knees, her hands pressed firmly against her ears as if to silence the voices in the wind.

"Ari, talk to me, what are you hearing?" the woman asked as she knelt before her, her hands gently removing the dark child’s hands from her ears.

"I-I’m not evil … I’m not evil … not evil, no, can’t be…" the girl’s words were like a litany as she rocked back and forth in an attempt to drown out the visions that raged through her mind.

"No, honey, you aren’t," the woman spoke softly, yet Ari did not hear her voice. Instead, she closed her eyes tightly to the tears that fell.

There is only one thing that you do well, little girl, the one thing that I trained you to do. What point is your life if you do not accept your fate? Why bother to live if you do not become what you were destined to be!’ her sorcerer mother’s voice droned on. When she realized that someone was pulling on her hands, she glanced up, the look of fear in her eyes.

"Ari, whatever you’re hearing, fight it! Do you hear me? Fight it! It isn’t real, do you hear me?" the stranger commanded, yet Ari continued to hear Alti’s voice in the wind.

Who knows you better than me, little girl? Who has seen into your heart? Who knows everything that you did, and everything that you were meant to be. Everything that you ARE!’ The voice gently coaxed.

"ARI, fight it! Do you hear me, fight whatever you are hearing!" the elder woman commanded.

With only a grimace, Ari closed her eyes tightly. She bowed her head as she felt the helplessness consume her. Then, at the older woman’s touch, she felt a sudden strength bolster her courage. The dark child felt the older woman’s hands gripping hers firmly as if to give her courage. With a slight nod, the dark child sighed once, then called upon all of her will power.

"Alti," her voice was a soft whisper, then grew in volume as she held fast to the woman’s hands, "LEAVE ME ALONE!" she screamed up to the treetops.

At the sudden shout of her voice, she felt as if a weight was lifted from her shoulders. When she opened her eyes, she saw the stranger smiling at her, her gaze of compassion never once softening. From somewhere nearby, she heard the gentle chirping of the birds nestled in the trees. As the slight breeze brushed past them, Ari glanced around cautiously.

"You see, you can fight whatever it was that you were hearing," the older woman smiled. At her kindness, Ari blinked her eyes for a moment, then sighed with relief. Before she could speak, she heard the voice of her warrior mother coming from the trail that she had followed into the forest.

"Ariiiiii!" Xena’s call caused the girl to gulp as a different fear entered her.

"Ari, why don’t you go to your mother. Tell her what happened here?" the stranger suggested.

The dark child frowned as she considered the woman’s suggestion. But when she heard her mother’s voice call again, she gulped nervously.

"AR-RIIIII!" The warrior princess seemed none too happy.

"I-I c-can’t," she whispered as she rose from her place, glancing at the trail that she had come from, then around her in the clearing. "I can’t!"

"But, Ari, talk to Xena, explain…" But the girl only shook her head, a look of desperation in her eyes.

"C-Can’t … no…" was all she said as she began to back up from the spot. "I g-gotta go," was all she could manage to say as she imagined her warrior mother’s wrath descending upon her.

She knew that the warrior was still upset about Eve’s top, and she could tell that there was a rage building up within the older woman. Rather than face her, or even tell her what had just happened, the dark child chose to run and hide, even if it was only for a little bit. Without another word, she turned to run in the opposite direction.

When she reached the end of the clearing, she pushed apart some tree branches, then turned around to wave to the kind stranger. As if like magic, the woman was already gone, whatever trail she had left on remained a mystery. At the sound of Xena calling, Ari dismissed this incident and returned her attention to the forest trail as she tried to find a place where she could hide away, if even for a little bit, from her warrior mother.

Back when Ari was the destroyer, there would have never been a person able to track her. So keen was the girl in the art of stealth that she could travel with Alti, and never be followed by another living human being. But that was before her time of transition, before she rejoined her birth mother and returned to her rightful family. Much had happened to the dark child since her return. The slow withdrawal from the drug that she had been taking since a child, the conflicts of her heart at realizing who her true mother was, and simply adjusting to a new and different way of life had taken its toll on the once-warrior child. Now, with a deep and unending fear of her birth mother’s wrath, Ari left a clear trail to follow as she fled.

~~~~~~

Although Xena was angry with the interruption of their morning’s love-making, as time wore on, she found herself cooling off. True, she had been interrupted by the girls’ fight, but some of the blame lay with Eve. Once the culprit who took her daughter’s top was discovered, all that was left to learn was why her eldest used it without asking Eve first.

With a shake of her head, Xena stood on top of the hill overlooking their home. The warrior frowned when she saw the neat pile of blades of grass that had been broken as if someone had been sitting alone. When she looked around and saw the direction of where the girl went, the older warrior shook her head.

Ari was not going to make it easy. Taking off for the nearest forest, the girl would make it hard for Xena to find her. With only a sigh, the warrior princess made her way to the forest.

When she stood outside of the wall of trees, she saw the clear trail and the wake of her daughter’s footsteps in the dirt. Through the silence, she thought she heard a slight noise, like a voice talking alone. Cocking her head to the side, Xena concentrated on the sound until she could make out the distinct voice.

"Ari!" she called out, hoping that the girl would respond and save her the trouble of having to find her. For a moment that seemed to stretch out to eternity, she waited and listened for any reply. What she heard next not only surprised her but caused her anger to surface once more.

"LEAVE ME ALONE!" Ari’s shout rang from the forest.

"That’s it!" Xena grumbled out loud, then cupped her hands around her mouth, "ARI!" she screamed a second time, hoping that her girl would know better than to run away again. When only silence came from the forest, the older warrior shook her head as she began to make her way into the dense growth of trees. At one point, when she heard her daughter’s solitary voice on the wind, she called out again, yet was greeted with only silence.

"So help me, I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m definitely going to teach that girl a lesson!" the warrior princess vowed as she stomped down the trail in search of her daughter.

Yes, she had been initially angry. But upon reflection, she realized that her anger was not at the fact that Ari might have ruined Eve’s top. The warrior was angry that the girls’ petty bickering had successfully managed to stifle any bodily release of her passions. Frustrated, and still uncomfortable from the swollen flesh between her legs, Xena turned her concentration away from her own discomforts and focused the search for her daughter.

~~~~~~

The dark child found herself going deeper into the forest. For a moment, she felt herself disoriented; her mind and thoughts a jumble of mixed emotions. Although a part of her knew that she was running from Xena, another part felt the dreaded fear of Alti enter her. As if she was that child from long ago who was always trying desperately to find a place to hide deep within the cave, Ari searched in vain to find a place that took her safely away from her mother’s wrath. When her legs could carry her no more, she stopped and leaned forward, her breath coming out in deep pants.

For a moment, Ari looked around and tried to get her bearings. When she glanced up at the large tree, she moved to the wide trunk and began to climb its limbs. Only when she reached the very top, high in the limbs of the tree, was she able to stop and catch her breath.

With a deep sigh, the dark child leaned against the trunk and closed her eyes. She felt her heart racing out of control as her mind raged through a multitude of thoughts. The sound of Alti’s voice upon the wind was still fresh in her mind. Remembering the sorceress’ voice, she felt herself thrown back into a memory from long ago, a memory that she longed to dispel from the depths of her imagination…

It had only been a matter of days since she had arrived in this cold, dark place. The memories of her mommy and daddy were still fresh in her mind. Frightened and all alone, she huddled naked in the corner of the fur bed. She had her knees drawn up and arms around her legs as she watched the tall sorceress pacing before her.

"This will all work out, I know it will, and then…then I’ll have my revenge. Yes, oh yes I will!" Alti spoke out loud as her evil smile turned on Ari. "And do you know how I will have my revenge, little girl?"

At her question, Ari only shook her head negatively. Her eyes were wide with fear. Seeing her like this, the sorceress joined her on the bed. The tall woman moved with cat like grace as she stalked the little girl.

"Because, little girl, when you finally meet Xena, when she sees that you and I are the same … that you are a bad little girl, then I shall have my revenge," a deep, guttural laugh escaped the woman’s control.

"But I’m not bad. My mommy says I’m a good little girl," Ari’s impish voice spoke up. She was still too new to her surroundings to understand that silence was needed if she was to survive.

At her words, Alti frowned, then scowled as she reached for the tiny body. With a violent shake, she pulled the child off the fur-lined bed. The sorceress held the little face inches away from hers as she hissed in an evil tone.

"You are my little girl now, do you understand? By the time I finish with you, no one will ever doubt that I am your true mother!" Alti’s lips turned into an evil smile as she lowered the girl to the furs, then stretched out beside her. "Isn’t that right, my baby … my little girl?" Alti cooed unnaturally as her fingers brushed aside the little girl’s tears.

Ari remained silent, her little body frozen with fear as she stared into the penetrating eyes of the sorceress. At the feel of her captors fingers brushing through her hair, the girl gulped as she tried to remain calm, tried to fight back the fear of the sorceress touch. It had only been a few days and already Ari was terribly homesick for the only people whom she had known as her parents…

At the memory from long ago, the dark child sighed as she closed her eyes and shuddered from the memory. Alti had promised that she would turn Ari into her daughter. She had sworn on numerous occasions that no one would ever be able tell them apart. So alike in evilness, there was no one who had believed that Ari was not the daughter of Alti.

With a shake of her head, Ari closed her eyes to the sorrow that filled her soul. Although she had tried her best to be good around her new family, her best was never enough. Nothing she did, nothing she could ever do or say, would make her anyone else but who she was, and Ari had soon realized that in all respects, Alti was right. Ari was bad. Ari would always have the darkness of Alti deep in the core of soul, and because of this, she could never be the person who Xena wanted her to be, or the person who Gabrielle believed she could be.

When she heard a slight noise from the ground, Ari grew deathly still as she peered down. She saw her warrior mother moving below the tree. Xena’s glance fell on the ground, then glanced around the area. When the leather clad warrior walked away, Ari released the breath she had been holding. She knew that most of the morning was gone and that her parents would be angry, yet she was afraid to climb down from her secluded perch.

Although she knew that she would eventually have to return home, when she thought of doing so, she felt a sickness in the pit of her stomach. She remembered seeing the deep-set frown and the rage within Xena and a part of her did not feel ready to leave her spot in the tall tree branches. Ari knew that Xena was not Alti, yet another part kept reminding her that even with the bard to protect her, Xena was capable of having as much, if not more, anger than Alti ever harbored. Afraid to be the recipient of her warrior mother’s wrath, the girl remained hidden on her perch. With a frown, Ari decided that staying up in the tree was preferable to facing Xena … at least for now.

Just as she was contemplating her predicament, a slight whooshing sound registered next to her. When she looked up, she blinked in surprise when she saw her mother perched on the limb next to her. Xena gazed at her with a severe expression. Blinking away her surprise, Ari only lowered her head to avoid her mother’s penetrating stare. After a moment of silence, she heard her mother breathe deeply, then move to sit down on the limb.

"You’ve got a nice view from up here," the warrior’s voice was low and controlled.

Ari glanced up at the woman through her bangs. She noticed how Xena slightly smiled as she looked out through the branches of the tall tree. When the warrior turned to look at Ari, the dark child lowered her eyes. The silence which had always been her friend seemed to betray the girl as she tried to figure a way out.

"Ari, do you want to tell me your side of the story?" Xena’s voice grew suddenly soft as she leaned against the opposite side of the tree trunk from Ari.

The dark child blinked as she tried to find the right words. When none could be found, she only shrugged as she turned away from her mother. Part of her wanted to tell her mother about what she did early in the morning. She wanted to be able to confess to her nasty secret in hopes that the warrior could help her to understand why it was that Ari envisioned her warrior mother when she was touching herself. And another part wanted to offer a defense about Eve’s top. She longed to tell Xena that she didn’t know why Eve was upset. Yet in the end, she knew that it really didn’t matter. No matter what she did, or did not do, Ari knew that the core of her soul was bad, and because of this, she could not help but be any other way.

"You know, you mother feels that she can save Eve’s top, so it should be all right," Xena explained softly. "I guess I’m just wondering why you chose to use her top to wash the horses in the first place, and why, rather than stay and explain yourself, you chose to run away?"

Ari was certain that if she told her mother that she hadn’t noticed that the dirty cloth under the bushes was Eve’s top, Xena would not have believed her. Nor did she think that the warrior would understand why sometimes, at least in her mind, it was easier to run away and hide rather than stay and face the punishment. So rather than voice any of this, Ari only shrugged as she kept her gaze lowered. She found herself reacting instinctively as a part of her withdrew behind the protective barrier that was always in place. As a child, she had learned early on that although her body was easily accessible, the inner most part of herself could be hidden away from harm. Although Alti had found her way into Ari’s hiding place, after that first time, the sorceress never bothered to go into Ari’s secret world again, and this is where Ari found herself retreating to now. While her body sat silently beside her warrior mother, she knew that a part of her had already retreated into the place of safety and security.

Ari felt her warrior mother’s frustration, yet remained passively silent to the older woman’s emotions. For a moment, she thought her mother would lash out at her when she heard the warrior breathing deeply as if entering into a meditation. When it seemed like time itself was running by, she heard her mother release a deep sigh, then felt Xena reach out and touch her sleeve.

"The morning is already gone, Ari. We were going into town, so why don’t you climb down and join us," Xena soft words were an order.

At the command, Ari only nodded as she snaked her arms around the tree, and carefully made her way down using each branch like a ladder. When she was on the ground, she looked up and saw her mother staring down at her from the tree limb. When she caught a glimpse under her mother’s leather skirt, a heat crossed her cheeks and she quickly turned away. At the memory of what she had done alone in her room, the dark child gulped nervously as her heart skipped a beat in fear. Only when she felt control return, did she quickly looked up and saw the stony mask of her mother’s gaze looking down at her.

As if assured that Ari would not try to climb back up to hide, the warrior had waited until she was safely on the ground, then, with a slight frown Xena took a single step off of the limb and landed with a slight bounce next to Ari. Curious by the way that her mother got down from the tree the dark child glanced back up and tried to understand how the warrior had managed such a Herculean feat. Without offering any words of explanation, Xena only turned away and began walking back to their home, assured that her daughter was following close behind.

~~~~~~

There were times that Gabrielle regretted not raising Eve. Sometimes she felt that had she and Xena only raised the young woman, then it would have been easier to understand Eve’s blowups and her anger. It was true that the prophet was worried sick over the fate of the man she fell in love with from Chin. But the bard didn’t understand why the young woman would take it out on her sister. As it was, Gabrielle could only guess as to the prophet’s actions.

"Eve, I just don’t understand why you let something minor get you so upset," the blonde shook her head as she began to clean up after breakfast. She would have preferred to wait for Ari and Xena, but at the growling of her own stomach, she could not wait and made her and Eve a light breakfast.

True to her word, Gabrielle had washed and hung the girl’s top up to dry. As the morning sun gave way to the afternoon heat, and Xena still hadn’t found Ari, the bard was beginning to worry. But knowing that Xena was an expert tracker, she knew that her lover would find their girl and bring her home. Hopefully, this would happen before too much of the day was gone.

"I … I don’t know why either, mother. I’m sorry. It’s just that when I saw the top that … mother, it was a gift from Chen Hu. I-I guess … I just sort of freaked, I’m sorry," Eve lightly touched her mother’s arm.

"Well, I think the ones you need to apologize to are your mother and sister … especially your mother," Gabrielle muttered under her breath as she shook her head. She proceeded to cover the kneaded flour that would turn into the freshly baked bread for their dinner with a linen cloth. As the smell of the yeast filled the home, the front door opened and Xena walked in, followed by their dejected looking daughter.

"Thank goodness you’re both all right!" Gabrielle smiled as she went and hugged her soulmate, then turned to her child. "Ari?" The girl looked up at her, an expression of indecision crossed her features, then she looked away, a slight tinge of red crossing her features.

Xena spoke firmly. "Ari, why don’t you go and harness the horses. Are you both ready to go into town? Eve, while your mother gets the supplies she needs, we’ll see about sending some messages to some of my contacts to see if they can find your young man," the warrior’s voice was curt. Without a word, their eldest turned and left the house. Confident that her orders were being followed, the warrior princess moved to their room and took her sheathed sword from the dressing table.

"Did you get everything resolved?" Gabrielle followed her soulmate into their room. Xena only sighed and shook her head in frustration.

"When is anything ever resolved with that girl?" the warrior frowned, then when she glanced at her soulmate, her expression softened with a smile. "I know it’s not Ari’s fault. I blame all of this on Alti, but still, how am I supposed to resolve anything when she runs away and then won’t talk? Gabrielle, I look at her and can tell that she’s turned inward, that she won’t say anything, not even in her own defense. Hades, she looks at me in sheer terror, as …as if I’m that bitch Alti!" Xena’s voice grew ragged with fury as she turned away from her lover.

"Xena, just be patient with her," the bard spoke softly as she touched her lover’s shoulder. "Honey, remember how hard it must be for her, after all of those years of not being able to speak freely to the only mother she knew, is it no wonder that she can’t talk to you now, even to defend herself? Sweetheart, think of how long she was held a prisoner. Our little girl was held captive and physically and mentally abused for many years. Ari is not going to get better overnight. We need to be patient and just be there for her. Try to understand what she might be going through," she pleaded as the tall woman sat on the edge of the bed. With bent head and grim expression, Xena closed her eyes as she shook her head.

"This is all my fault…" a strangled sigh escaped her control. "All of it."

"No Xena, it’s not," Gabrielle’s words were steady as she knelt before her soulmate. Her hands held the bigger woman’s hands firmly. "Xena, there is nothing that you could have done differently. If any blame is to be laid, then place it where it belongs. On Alti! It’s her fault. She is the only one responsible for hurting our baby."

The warrior princess looked into Gabrielle’s tender green gaze. For a moment, it seemed as if she was unable to believe her lover’s words. Then, gentle tears fell from the Xena’s eyes.

"Oh, Gabrielle, I just don’t know what to do anymore. I know you’re right, I know this is Alti’s fault, and by the gods, if she was still alive today, I’d make her pay dearly for what she did to our baby," the tall woman wept as she shook her head in frustration. "But I just don’t know what to do every time Ari runs away, or even when I see her, and know that she isn’t there, that she’s disappeared someplace within her own mind where no one can follow. Hades, Gabrielle, I don’t even know what to do when she looks at me, fear hidden in her eyes, and I know that she is seeing Alti, and not me!"

Gabrielle released a sad sigh as she stood up before her lover and pulled her close. Like a lost child, Xena’s arms wrapped around her waist and held her close as her body was racked with sobs. At the immensity of her soulmate’s pain, the smaller woman closed her eyes as her arms held the warrior close, her fingers gently brushing through Xena’s long, dark hair. When she heard a noise by the door, she glanced up and saw Eve’s concern. With only a shake of her head, the bard smiled at the prophet, then wiped at her own tears. Sensing that her parents needed this time alone, Eve only nodded toward the door, then left the house to wait. Only when her lover’s tears subsided did Gabrielle move to sit on the bed beside Xena.

"I don’t know what to do either," Gabrielle softly whispered. "Xena, this is all new to me too, and I have to be honest, I’ve never encountered anything like it, so I don’t even know if we’re doing everything right. The only thing that I can think of is that we need to be here for Ari. I know it will take time. By the gods, Xena, she was held for so long! She went through what no child should ever have to go through, and if she’s ever going to heal from this, it’s going to take time. All we can do is to be patient and understanding," she said as she gently wiped the tears from her lover’s tanned cheek.

Xena seemed deep in thought, then, with a slight smile, she looked at her lover. "Gabrielle, don’t ever sell yourself short. You know more about this than I ever could," Xena shook her head as she wiped away the rest of her tears. "Hades, you make a better mother than I ever could!"

"No, Xena, I don’t, and maybe, alone, you don’t either. But together, I think we’ll be able to work through this, don’t you think?" The blonde smiled as she brushed the back of her hand over her tall lover’s cheek.

With a crooked smile, the warrior looked down at her. She took the bard’s hand and gently kissed the palm, then held it tightly. Sighing as if to release the tension, Xena nodded affirmation of Gabrielle’s words, "Yeah, we do make a pretty good team, don’t we?"

"The best! And we’re pretty good mom’s, if I do say so myself!" the small blonde smiled, her confidence becoming infectious.

With a nod of agreement, the warrior pulled her lover into a tight embrace. "Oh, Gabrielle, do you know how much I love you?"

"Ummm … I could let you show me the way, but I think, if we started that again, our girls might come pounding on our door!" the bard giggled as she wrapped her arms around Xena’s firm waist. "But I know what you mean. I love you too, with all my heart."

After a moment, the warrior pulled away, a slight smile on her face. "I think our morning is pretty well shot, but at least the whole day isn’t gone. I can at least get a message out and see if we can find out what happened to Eve’s young man. Maybe, if we find out, then she won’t be so stressed," the tall warrior spoke softly as she rose from the bed.

Gabrielle released a sigh as she ran her fingers through her short blond locks. "You’re right, Xena. I just hope we will hear something soon about him."

"Me too, honey, me too," Xena smiled slightly as she lightly brushed her palm over her lover’s soft cheek. "Shall we go? Maybe this trip will help the girls talk about this little tiff they had so we don’t have to repeat another morning like today," the warrior’s voice was laced with discomfort.

"Oh, poor thing," the blonde smiled in sympathy as she remembered her lover’s predicament. "Honey, I promise, tonight, all of my attention will be for only you," Gabrielle whispered softly as she leaned up to kiss her lover. With a slight growl, her tall lover pulled her into a tight embrace as their lips met. When she heard their daughter’s voices, they reluctantly pulled apart.

"I’m going to hold you to that promise, bard-girl," Xena held a wicked smile, then winked as she reached behind her lover and pinched the blonde’s firm bottom.

"Xena!" Gabrielle yelped, then teasingly slapped her lover’s arm. The warrior chuckled, ducked the smaller woman’s hand, then made a quick escape to join the girls. With only a slight smile, the bard shook her head as she followed in her lover’s footsteps.

Although domestic life brought different challenges, Gabrielle knew that she would never have chosen another path. Just being with her soulmate and living with their daughters was far more rewarding than anything they had ever accomplished in the past, she reasoned as she grabbed her coin purse, before closing the door to their home, and walked to her horse.

When she glanced at Ari, she noticed her downcast eyes. As if surrounded in sorrow, the girl kept her gaze lowered. After the bard mounted her brown mare, she ducked her head low in order to smile up at her eldest. Seeing her like this, Ari blinked in surprise.

"That’s good, I was just wondering if you were there," Gabrielle smiled, then winked, which caused the girl turn a crimson shade of red. With only a shake of her head and a chuckle, the blonde turned away and began to follow her lover’s honey colored mare down the road that led to town.

~~~~~~

Amphipolis was much like a lot of villages that Ari had seen. The center of the town was crowded with shops, inns, and pubs. On the outskirts of town sat Meg’s inn and pub and it was because of this that Ari originally assumed that the village was small. But now that she had a chance to see more of the area, she was amazed by how large the city really was. All around her, the people all seemed to move like a swarm of ants on a dead carcass. With a slight grimace, the dark child blinked under the glaring sun as she stood near the horses.

With a slight frown, Ari released a deep sigh. Although no one mentioned it, she knew that her family was upset. As they rode into town, her bard mother had questioned her softly, asking why she used Eve’s top. If there was a way for her to explain it, she would have, but Ari could think of no reason that would make sense. She knew that she should have noticed that it wasn’t a rag that she was using, but for some reason, it hadn’t dawned on her until she had heard Eve yelling at her. A part of her wanted to confess what had happened when she thought of her warrior mother, yet her own shame would not allow her to speak so openly to her bard mother. She even knew that she should have told her bard mother about hearing Alti’s voice in the wind. But rather than explain this, she only shrugged in response to the bard’s questions. As if realizing that she would get nothing more from the dark child, the blonde only sighed and remained silent. Knowing that she had caused Gabrielle sorrow, Ari frowned as she tried to understand what was happening to her.

A year ago, she never would have envisioned herself in this situation. Then again, a year ago, her thoughts, her very life, were not her own to live. Instead, she had lived and breathed only for Alti’s plan. With a slight grimace at the memory, she glanced over her shoulder into the shop. Seeing her looking in, Xena smiled and nodded as she continued to talk to the shop owner, while Eve, equally intent, nodded at her mother’s words. In the corner of the shop, Gabrielle was shuffling through some scrolls, her brow furrowed in concentration as she scanned over one, then set it aside to continue searching through the scrolls. With a shake of her head, Ari shrugged and turned away, a sigh escaped her control.

The dark child didn’t understand her sister’s need to send a message to someone in Chin. Although she heard her parents talk about it, Ari didn’t understand why Eve was so desperate to get word to some man. But when Ari thought about it, she realized that for whatever reason, both of her mothers felt it was important to find this man for Eve.

At the noise behind her, she turned and watched as Eve left the shop. The young prophet held a hopeful smile as she moved beside Ari. Glancing back over her shoulder, Eve smiled at Xena, then turned back to her sister.

"Moms’ are just looking for a scroll, then we’ll be ready to go home," Eve explained as she lightly petted the muzzle of her short, fat horse, then glanced around the village.

With only a sigh, Ari sat on the wooden plank of the walkway, resting her chin in her hands. She was beginning to wonder about the logic of journeying into town during the hottest part of the day. Before she could contemplate this further, she noticed her sister moving away. As if filled with a purpose, the young prophet walked across the dirt road to the nearby center square. Curious, Ari glanced up and watched as Eve moved to stand on a raised, wooden platform.

"Hello, my neighbors," her voice called to any who passed by. "I wish to tell you about the good news, the news of Eli’s love…."

Ari sighed as she rolled her eyes and shook her head. As her sister’s voice droned in the back of her mind, she glanced at the gathering villagers. She noticed their innocent appearance.

‘We were going to conquer these people,’ the dark child thought as her gaze fell on the elderly and young alike. It hadn’t even been a full year since Alti had died, and Ari knew that if the evil sorceress were still alive today, both Potidaea and Amphipolis would have fallen under their army.

As if the memory was still fresh in her mind, Ari grimaced slightly as she turned away from the villagers. The guilt and shame of what she had almost committed weighed heavily on her soul. Although she could not find a way to voice her guilt, she felt as if it was a part of her features, as if everyone who looked at her knew the hideous plans that almost took place.

Before her dark thoughts pulled her deeper into despair, a slight movement to her right caught her attention. Glancing over at the distant vegetable stand, she watched as two young boys huddled close together, they glanced in the direction of Eve as they hid some vegetables under their shirts. Ari watched the two boys for a moment. She noticed their youthful features and wondered briefly if these were some of the men who had ridden with Virgil. Like those men, these were young. Neither one appeared to have facial hair, yet their body structures already showed hints of maturity. Seeing that they were not yet men, but no longer boys, Ari shook her head and silently watched their activity. When they appeared to giggle, then tore off behind a nearby building, Ari arched a curious brow as she stood up and crossed the dirt street. As she followed them, she mentally determined their stature in a single glance. Both wore the simple clothes of farmers. While one was taller than the other, neither was as tall as Ari. The taller of the two had dark hair, and the smaller one had brown, reddish hair.

When the two disappeared behind a building, she moved carefully against the wall. As if old lessons were returning, she leaned against the wooden structure as she listened to their footfalls. Ari found her body moving of its own control. She followed with stealth behind the giggling teens. As their sounds led her behind the buildings, she glanced cautiously around the corner in time to see them disappearing from view. Curious by their actions, she took off at a quick run and stopped when she reached the end of the row of buildings.

By the time the dark child glanced around the corner, she saw the two young men running toward the crowd. Their giggles, hoots, and mocking slurs filled the air. As if surprised by the two figures, the crowd of villagers turned and parted as the boys ran up, their hoots and hollers rang in the air right before they let loose of a volley of tomatoes.

Ari never thought that she would be angry at seeing someone else attacking her sister, even if it was with a vegetable. But when she saw Eve’s pained expression, the way that the tomatoes smeared against her sisters clothing, and her sad look when a particularly ripe tomato dripped down her forehead, the dark child felt an inner rage building up. When the two teens ran out of things to throw, they turned, hoots of laughter rising from them, as they ran back to the alleyway.

For a moment, the dark child felt a blinding rage. She kept herself concealed behind the wall, hearing their footfalls with each beat of her heart. Just when they passed in front of her, she reached out and grabbed them roughly by the collars. Her arms, once accustomed to daily battles, grabbed them and yanked them close. With a surprised yelp, they stared at her, their eyes wide with fear as they struggled against her grip.

Ari knew she was capable of murder. Like a vivid dream that never ended, the multitude of faces that had died at her hands were beginning to creep back into her memory. For one fleeting moment, the urge to end their lives, slowly and painfully seared through her thoughts. But then she had a vision of her mothers. She imagined the look of disappointment in Gabrielle’s sad, green eyes. The heartbreaking sigh of Xena, an expression which showed both her frustration and disappointment replayed in Ari’s memories. The tall girl slowly lowered the two young men to the ground, her gaze never once wavering.

"Wha…" the auburn boy squeaked as he glanced up at her. The other one tried to squirm away, then grew still when he felt her hand holding his collar firmly.

"Hey, we was just havin’ some fun!" the dark haired teen said, a look of fear in his eyes.

"Th-That is m-my s-sister," she hissed as her eyes grew to slits, the anger etched her features.

"You … y-you’re the one they said was … the … the … Destroyer!" the shorter one stammered.

"We d-didn’t know, honest!" the other one stammered.

With only a growl, Ari shook them violently. The muscles in her body shook as she fought for control. At her anger, they yelped as they covered their heads with their arms. After a moment of thought, she got a rueful smile as she pulled the boys close, her arms draped over their shoulders until she was able to hold them tightly around the neck.

"Th-This is wh-what you will do," she whispered as she cast a menacing smile at first one, then the other. "You w-will g-go back th-there and say you’re s-sorry and y-you’ll ask her for the forgiveness of E-Eli."

"Wha?" the auburn teen looked at her in shock.

"But what if she wants to preach to us?" the other’s voice cracked as a look of dread crossed his face.

Ari only smiled as she lightly ruffled their hair. "Th-Then you w-will listen to all that my s-sister has to teach."

"And if we don’t?" the taller one asked as he glanced at his friend.

The dark child allowed an evil grin to cross her features as she looked at each one. "Y-You have the choice of listening to m-my sister … or answering to me!" Ari’s expression was deadly serious as she gazed into the taller one’s eyes.

The shorter boy grew deathly pale and gulped before he glanced over at his friend. "Come on, Damasi, I think we fare a better chance with that other one than this one."

"I think you’re right," the dark haired boy nodded vigorously as he quickly followed his friend, both teens glanced over their shoulder suspiciously at her, their nervous expressions evident.

Once assured that they were following through, Ari smiled slightly as she turned and made her way back to the waiting horses. When she emerged from the alleyway, she glanced over at the crowd, a pleased smile crossed her face at the sight of the two young men on their knees, their hands clasped together as if in prayer as they were apologizing to Eve. As Ari crossed the dirt street, she noticed her warrior mother looking at her with a curious arch of a brow, then glancing over at the scene in the town square. The bard’s eyes were narrowed suspiciously as she watched the scene in the town square, then turned and looked at Ari with an unspoken question.

"Ari?" Xena glanced at her suspiciously, her single word filled with curiosity. Ignoring her mother’s inquiry, Ari only shrugged her shoulders as she mounted her horse.

"L-Looks like her E-Eli d-drivel reached s-some of them," the dark child shrugged nonchalantly as she watched the older warrior mounting her saddle, her curious glance going between Eve and Ari, even as the bard concealed her smile as she loosely held the reins of her horse.

"Yeah … it … looks like it," the side of the warrior’s lips slightly curled into a smile as she turned her gaze away from the dark child.

With only a bored sigh, Ari leaned against her saddle horn. She watched as her sister bestowed her forgiveness upon the two teens. Her tomato crusted face smiled as she spoke softly to each boy, the palms of her hands lightly touching the crown of each head before she closed her eyes and began to pray to Eli.

Ari rolled her eyes and shook her head at the sight of her sister’s idiotic actions. Although a part of her knew that sending the two teens to Eve, rather than killing them herself is what both of her mothers’ would want, she could not help but regret her decision. At least, if she had just broken their necks, the boys would be free of Eve’s jabbering nonsense. Her family could have been on their way home by now rather than having to wait while her sister spewed off hot steam in an effort to convert the two hooligans. For all she knew, the sun would set before her sister finished her converting session, Ari glumly thought as she settled into her saddle with the notion that another day with her family was slowly ending.

~~~~~~

While Xena was speaking to the owner of the mercantile, Gabrielle was searching through the piles of scrolls. Having never taught anyone how to read and write before, she wanted to find some scrolls that might give her help in teaching Ari the fundamentals of Greek. She knew that everything had to be basic in order to help her daughter to learn to master the skill, yet everything she found was not geared toward teaching the basic fundamentals.

"Can I help you find something?" The store owner’s wife appeared by her side, the smile welcoming.

"Oh, I’m sorry if I’m making a mess," the bard sheepishly grinned as she began to restack the scrolls as she had found them.

"Oh, it’s no trouble at all! I just thought that maybe I could be of some help," the woman’s voice held a slight laughter.

Gabrielle was pleased. "Well, actually, maybe you could. I was looking for something that explained how to teach the basics of reading and writing, but I can’t seem to find anything here."

"That would be that pile over there, we have many different philosophies to chose from, Socrates thoughts on children’s education, Plato’s formula for an advanced child," she woman explained as she began to pull different scrolls from a corner that the bard hadn’t seen. "Now, if it’s an education that you want to give your child, I suggest you talk with Bruousa, umm … Miss Bruousa," at the shop keepers words, and elderly lady who was searching through the spices glanced their way. "Miss Bruousa is the teacher around here, she runs a little school here in town. Maybe you might want to send your child there instead?"

At the woman’s words, the older lady smiled as she moved toward Gabrielle. With hand extended, she lightly took the bard’s hand as a way of introduction.

"Of course I would welcome another student. You can’t have too many as far as I’m concerned," the schoolmarm’s pleasant voice comforted the small woman.

"Umm, have you been teaching long?" Gabrielle asked as she began to wonder if sending Ari to a school would help her to socialize better.

"Ever since I could pick up a scroll," the older woman smiled with pride, then lightly tapped the bard’s hand, "but you’re wondering how long I’ve taught children, yes? Well, longer than I care to remember! So don’t you worry, I’ll have no trouble teaching your child, which, by the way, how old is your child again?" she asked as she began to glance around the store, looking for a little one.

"Bruousa, this is Gabrielle, the Battling Bard of Potidaea!" the store owner lightly chuckled when she realized that the teacher wasn’t aware of who she was talking to. "She doesn’t have little children, Bruousa, haven’t you heard?"

"Yes, that’s true, I don’t have little children," Gabrielle slightly smiled at the schoolmarm’s confused expression.

"Oh?" Dawning suddenly crossed the teacher’s face, "Gabrielle? Then … you are the one who travels with the, uh, Warrior Princess?"

"Is someone taking my name in vain?" Xena smiled warmly as she moved to join them.

"So, your daughter is…?" the older woman looked from the imposing form of the tall warrior, to the blonde woman.

"Xena, umm … this is Miss Bruousa, she is the teacher in this town. Perhaps we could send Ari to her school?"

"A-Ari?" the older woman seemed suddenly uncomfortable as she gulped nervously.

"Oh, she was wondering how old Ari is," the bard whispered softly to her tall companion.

"Oh, ummm…" The Greek warrior appeared ill at ease as she looked at her soulmate.

"Sixteen…?" the smaller woman suggested.

"Sometimes thirteen!" Xena shook her head as an exasperated sigh escaped her control.

"Aren’t they all at that age!" The store owner’s wife chuckled softly as she shook her head. When her laughter calmed down, she gently rested her palm on the elder teacher’s shoulder. "Well, I’ll leave you all to discuss your private business."

"So, ummm, how much do you charge for tuition?" Being practical, Gabrielle asked the question that not even Xena wanted to know.

"Well, ordinarily I charge five drachms," the woman kept her features firmly set into a smile.

"Five drachms! Not even Socrates himself would charge such an amount," the bard whistled as she shook her head.

"We’ll, I could go as low as four, if it poses a hardship," Bruousa offered, then at the smaller woman’s continual expression of amazement, she sighed and shook her head. "Very well, three drachms, but that is the lowest I can manage," she shook her head negatively as she folded her hands in front of her as if to indicate that there would be no further bartering.

"Alright, three drachms a day," Gabrielle shook the schoolmarm’s hand with a pleased smile. Before more could be said, a commotion was heard outside.

"I think your oldest is finding some trouble," the storeowner called to them as he glanced out the door where people from the street were running toward the town square.

"Xena?" Gabrielle glanced at her soulmate who was already making her way out the door. With only a backward glance, she smiled at the elderly schoolteacher, and nodded once. As if in dismissal, the schoolmarm only nodded as she too moved to the window to peer out at the commotion in the village.

"What in the…?" Xena half whispered as she stood near the horses and watched as their youngest was standing over two young boys.

"Xena, what happened?" The blonde’s curiosity rose as she noticed Eve covered in the goop of smashed tomatoes.

"I’m not sure, but I think those boys may have something to do with it," Xena took a step toward their girl. She noticed the frightened eyes of the boys glancing from Eve, toward a part of a distant building. As if afraid of what they would see, the teens would quickly turned and spoke to the prophet, their words of supplication begging for her forgiveness.

From a nearby alleyway, the warrior princess noticed their eldest girl moving from the shadows and walking to where their horses were tethered. Although they had never seen Ari with a smug smile, they could not help but notice the way her lips slightly curved upward as she glanced at the scene of Eve with the two teens. As the dark child crossed the dirt street, Xena’s brow arched in a silent question before she turned and gazed to the unfolding scene. Gabrielle’s eyes were narrowed suspiciously as she watched the scene in the town square, then glanced at Ari with a questioning arch of a brow.

"Ari?" Suspicion laced the tall woman’s words and the tone of the warrior princess held silent questions. Ignoring Xena’s inquiry, Ari only shrugged her shoulders as she mounted her horse. Mirroring her daughter, the bard took the reins of her brown mare, then mounted the horse.

"L-Looks like her d-drivel reached s-some of them," their daughter shrugged her shoulders as she watched Xena mounting her saddle, the warriors curious glance going between Eve, and Ari even as the bard concealed her smile as she loosely held the reins of her horse.

"Yeah, looks like it," the side of Xena’s lips slightly curled into a smile as she turned her gaze away from the dark child. With only a bored sigh, Ari leaned against her saddle horn. The disinterest for her sister’s actions covered her features.

With only a shake of her head, the warrior princess smiled to herself as she waited patently for their prophet daughter to finish. Although she hadn’t seen what had happened, Xena suspected that for the first time, Ari had stepped forward to protect her sister. At this thought, she released a sigh of relief. Perhaps from now on, things would not be as hard as she had thought, the warrior mused silently.

~~~~~~

Bruousa had watched the family from inside of the store. Once they all rode away, she left the mercantile for the small home that was nestled close to the school. With each step that she took, she felt her heart beating out of control. The beads of nervous perspiration formed on her upper lip. Only when she was behind closed doors did she release a sigh of relief.

How she had allowed herself to be talked into teaching that child, she did not know. As soon as she had discovered who the bard was, she had every intention of refusing to teach the girl. She had hoped that by overpricing her services that the two women would become discouraged. But instead of this, the blonde began to barter like a seasoned pro. In the heat of the bartering Bruousa lost all control of the situation until she had little choice but to agree to take the unwelcome student.

"Oh, Zeus … what have I done?" the older woman sighed as she sat heavily in the rocking chair.

With a sad sigh, she closed her eyes as she remembered the face of her dear sweet niece. Barely old enough to be on her own, the young girl had ventured out to begin her own life and find students to teach. Although Bruousa was afraid for her niece’s safety, she had little choice but to let her begin her own life. Who could have known that the young schoolmistress was walking right into the path of the Destroyer’s army? The aged teacher thought as a sob escaped her control.

"Cenaria," she whispered the young girls name out loud. "What have I done?" she asked as she wiped at the tears that fell down her cheek. Ever since the poor girl’s parents had died during a tragic flood, she had raised the girl as her own. Not having any children of her own, she relished the years that she spent raising her niece, and had taken pride as she watched her mature from a child to a young woman.

With a shake of her head, the old school teacher closed her eyes as the tears fell slowly down her crinkled cheeks. The thought that had plagued her over and over was the face of her beloved niece, taken away from her at a young age, and the sight of the Destroyer with the bard and warrior princess.

"What am I to do?" she fretted as she shook her head. The thoughts of even being near that beast of a child sent a sickening feeling through her. In the darkness of her home, the old schoolmarm sat alone and rocked in her chair, her mind constantly churning over the horrible dilemma that her life had suddenly stumbled into.

~~~~~~

As they rode away from town, Ari listened to her sister’s excited words. She saw her bard mother’s slight smile as she glanced down at Eve. Although her clothes were soiled from the vegetables that were thrown at her, and her hair matted from the drying pulp of the tomatoes, the young prophet’s voice was filled with excitement as she explained how Eli’s love had brought her two new converts. With a slight smile, Xena glanced back at Ari, the knowing glance held Ari’s eye’s for a moment, then turned away. When the dark child saw even her bard mother glance back at her, Ari only shrugged her shoulders as she turned her gaze away from her family as she lowered her head and followed them in silence.

As the sound of her sister’s voice droned on and on, Ari found her thoughts wandering in incoherent patterns. The memory of Alti’s voice floating in the wind, the accusations and encouragement to murder replayed in her mind. She thought of the young boys who she had wanted to kill, and wondered why she had let them go. It would have been so easy to kill them, and in the past, she would not have hesitated. But for some reason the urge to kill had been abated.

The dark child contemplated this and found her memories taking her back to her time with Alti… The chaotic images of death and destruction replayed in her mind. The women, the children who died or suffered at her hands began to seep into her consciousness. She envisioned the blood red waves crashing down upon her to take her away. The guilt of her own past began to gnaw at the core of her heart. Just when she felt as if she would lose control, as if the melancholy would take over, she glanced up and looked around her. In that split second in time, she felt as if she was being thrown through a tunnel in time. When she looked at the trees, an unfamiliar sensation coursed through her spine.

The dark child suddenly remembered riding down this path. The tree’s, although different in size were the same as she remembered seeing on that fateful day of her captivity. As she felt her heart suddenly skipping a beat, she turned the reins around and glanced at the trees on either side of the dirt road. With a frown, she lowered her head deep in thought as the memories slowly returned to her…

Although she had felt the trickle of her urine running down her legs, Ari stood frozen in place as she watched in silence as the giant woman cut her parents into pieces. She was only a child, small enough to be thrown over a saddle like a sack of grain. Once there was nothing recognizable left of her parents, the stranger swooped up Ari and left the farmstead. As the tall woman rode at full speed down the road, Ari felt the saddle horn against her stomach and saw the road spinning below her. If she could have, she would have thrown up. But the constant bumping of her torso, and the painful saddle horn against her stomach, kept her from losing what little breakfast she had. Since waking up, everything had happened so fast that she didn’t even have time to think about what she saw happening to her parents…

Ari felt herself reeling from the flurry of images that ran through her mind. In silence, she dismounted her horse and moved near the outcropping of brush. As she glanced up at the tall tree limbs, she gulped nervously as she stared at the familiar patterns. From somewhere in the back of her mind, she thought she heard her mother’s voices, but remained silent as she stared at the wall of bushes in front of her.

~~~~~~

"Xena," Gabrielle’s voice interrupted Eve’s excited monologue. Turning in the saddle, the warrior saw Ari standing in front of an outcropping of trees. The girl’s eyes were vacant as she stared up at the forest wall. With a sigh, the warrior lowered her gaze and shook her head, then moved her horse toward her lover’s. Although they had passed this way before, the warrior hoped that her daughter had forgotten the road that once existed.

"She’s remembering," Xena explained as she dismounted and walked toward her eldest daughter.

"Remembering?" the shorter woman had followed her and was moving behind their daughter. Only Eve, who was suddenly silent, remained on her mule, a confused expression on her face.

"Ari?" the warrior reached out and lightly touched her daughter’s shoulder.

"Honey, what is it?" Gabrielle turned from her daughter, to the trees that had suddenly caught the girl’s attention. Before either of them could speak, Ari looked at the bushes, then tore off running, her body pushed against the foliage until she was able to break through the barrier.

"Xena?" the panic filled Gabrielle’s voice as she tore off running after Ari.

"She’s remembering, Gabrielle. There used to be a road here leading to her foster parents’ home," Xena explained as she followed in her child’s footsteps.

~~~~~~

Ari heard their voices, yet found it hard to focus on the words. As she stared at the trees and the forest in front of her, a rush of images ran through her mind until she felt ready to scream. With only a gulp, she closed her eyes once, then, when she opened her eyes and saw the image of a road that was no longer there, she tore off running through the bushes and past trees. She felt the low hanging branches grabbing her hair, but ignored everything around her. For what felt like a maddening amount of time, she ran in silence, the footfalls and the sound of her beating heart were the only things that registered in her mind. Only when she broke free of the trees was she able to see a familiar clearing.

Ignoring the sounds behind her, she ran over the now overgrown patch of grass. She felt her legs kicking and remembered a time when she was young and had done just this, although not as far from home. Only when she rounded the bend of the overgrowth of the road did she slow down as she saw the dilapidated farm loom in the distant clearing. When she ran to the house, she felt as if her mind would scream out in pain. Instead, she stopped in front of the tattered porch, her eyes scanned the entire home as she felt her fears suddenly raging out of control.

Behind her, she felt her mothers catching up and stopping nearby. For a moment, neither one said anything. When it seemed that they had caught their breath, Gabrielle spoke first.

"Xena, is this the place?" Gabrielle asked as Ari’s courage returned and she took a step onto the dilapidated porch. She felt the old wood sagging in the middle. It’s aged, creaking boards protested under her weight.

"Yeah, this is where she spent the first few years of her life," her warrior mother’s voice registered in the back of her mind.

The door hung open on a single hinge. When she pushed on the door, Ari heard the loud squeaking of metal and the slight scurrying of vermin from within. With a frown, she stepped into the room, a net of webs clung to her. As she absently pulled the webs from her face and hair, she looked around the dank room.

Everything was as it had been, except for the additional spider webs, dust, and dirt. The larger chair in front of the fire place still held the familiar blanket over the back. In the corner sat a loom with dust covered thread. The kitchen table was still set, the food either decayed or eaten away by the vermin. When she moved into the room, Ari looked at the kitchen chairs. At the sight of them toppled over, and the discoloration of the wooden floorboards, she inhaled deeply as the memory of the slaughter replayed in her mind.

"W-We were j-just having b-breakfast," she whispered to no one in particular.

"I know. It happened in the morning," Xena’s voice added as she lightly touched Ari’s shoulder.

With a frown, Ari turned in the room, she saw the corner stove covered with rusty pots. When she saw a closed door, she broke through the spider webs and moved to the wooden door. Almost afraid, she closed her eyes as she pushed the door open. Like magic, it opened and her mind saw the bright, colorful room that it once was. Instead of the dark shadows, cobwebs and dirt, Ari’s eyes saw how bright and cheery the room used to look. Her parents’ large bed sat empty with a quilt over it. In the corner of the room was a smaller bed.

Ari gulped nervously as she stepped toward the corner of the room. When she glanced down, she saw the child’s bed neatly made, the single rag doll lay smiling at her. As she reached down, she felt the sticky tendrils of the spider’s net against her hand. Ignoring the web, she picked up the doll, blew off the dust and gazed into the black, unblinking eyes. She remembered watching the chubby blonde woman making this doll. As if it were only yesterday, she heard the woman softly humming as she completed the last finishing touches to the doll’s dress. With a smile down at her, the woman tied off the loose thread, then leaned down from her chair and handed it to Ari’s grasping hands.

From somewhere in the room, she heard the soft voices of her mothers, but ignored their words as she reached down and picked up the faded quilt from the small bed. As she held the doll and blanket close, she turned and looked at everything in the room. On top of a dresser drawer, she saw the familiar comb sitting in a brush. When she moved to it and lightly touched the dusty surface, she remembered the numerous times that her mother had combed out her hair.

"By Apollo, look at your hair. How does it get to be so tangled in such a short time?" Ari whispered the words her mother always spoke, the gentle laughter in the woman’s voice would bring a smile to the child’s face.

~~~~~~

Gabrielle had been listening to her youngest girl’s eager words. She couldn’t help but smile at Eve’s excitement over her new disciples. Before she even realized a change, she noticed Ari dismount her horse as she stared transfixed at the shrubs and trees that lined the dirt road.

When Xena answered her question, the bard felt an initial panic as she watched her child’s far away gaze. As if called by spirits, the girl tore off running through the thick bushes and overhanging trees. Without any thoughts, Gabrielle followed her daughter through the forest, knowing that Xena was close behind them. Only when they stood in front of the ramshackle farm house did she stop and look at the open meadow around her. As if abandoned for many years, the once tilled soil was now overgrown with a meadow of wild flowers. When Ari entered the house, Gabrielle turned her attention away from the beauty of the meadow and followed her daughter into the home.

As she stood behind Ari, she looked around the room. She saw Ari’s painful expression when she gazed at the kitchen table. When the girl entered a back bedroom, Gabrielle moved into the kitchen and looked down at the chairs. Like fallen trees, the two chairs were toppled onto the ground, the dinner plates that once held food were now empty, the evidence that they were once overrun with crawling rats was left everywhere. When she saw the baby’s wooden high chair, she smiled as she ran her hand over the smooth, dust covered wood, knowing that at one time, Ari had sat in this very chair.

Wiping away the tears that fell for her child, Gabrielle followed her soulmate and daughter into the back room. As she glanced at the covered bed, she moved further in, and waited in silence. When Ari moved to the smaller bed and picked up a dirty rag doll, the blonde found it hard to keep her tears at bay.

‘Ari was only a baby when she was taken by Alti,’ Gabrielle thought as she saw how small the child’s bed was. Her heart broke at the realization of truly young her daughter was when she was kidnapped by Alti.

As she fought back the tears for her child, she watched as the girl turned and glanced at the top of a drawer. The look of pain and confusion in Ari’s expression caused Gabrielle’s breath to catch. She watched her daughter’s body language carefully, knowing that the girl was not with them, but was somewhere deep within a memory. As Ari lightly touched the comb, a whisper sounded in the room. Stepping close to her child, Gabrielle lightly touched Ari’s hand and gazed into her unfocused gaze.

"Ari, would you like this? Do you want to take it with you?" Gabrielle asked, but at the girl’s continual silence, she turned to Xena. With only a shrug, the warrior looked away as she covertly wiped away the tears from her eyes.

"W-Where did they go?" Ari’s voice remained neutral as she asked the question softly.

"Your parents, honey?" Xena’s voice was filled with pain as she moved close to her. Ari only nodded and glanced blankly around the room.

"As soon as mother sent me word of what happened, I came here and found them," Xena lightly touched Ari’s shoulder, then sighed as she brushed her fingers through the girls dark hair. "Baby…none of the villagers would come in here once they saw what happened. I-I’m the one who buried them and left everything as it was… I just couldn’t see leaving them out in the open like that," Xena explained.

At Ari’s pain filled gaze, Xena released a sigh and wrapped an arm over the girl’s shoulder. "Come on honey, I’ll show you where they are," the warrior stated as she led her from the room.

Gabrielle gazed around the empty room. The musty scent filled the space as the spider webs floated in the air. The bard almost turned to leave, but as she glanced at the comb, she moved to the item and picked it and the brush up. When she saw a dust covered box, she blew on it, and carefully opened the lid. Inside, she saw a few items of jewelry. When she closed the box, she took it and looked around the room. As she placed the box, comb and brush set on the larger quilt, she looked carefully for anything that Ari might one day wish to have.

"Mother?" Eve’s voice startled her. Turning, she smiled as she wiped away her tears.

"I’m just collecting some things for Ari. She might like to have these one day," Gabrielle explained as she turned to the large bed and began to pull the quilt off.

"Oh, how about these?" her youngest asked as the prophet moved to the corner and knelt down, taking each of the wood carved toys in hand and putting them on the quilt beside the other items. Gabrielle smiled as she gave a slight nod, afraid that if she spoke, the tears for her eldest would begin to flow again.

~~~~~~

Ari knew she was walking out toward a distant clearing, yet felt as if she were outside of herself. With her warrior mother’s arm loosely around her shoulder, the dark child followed in mute silence. Only when they stood in front of a large tree did the two stop and gaze upward.

"This tree wasn’t so big when I first buried them," Xena half whispered, then glanced down at the earth. "It was the middle of the rainy season. At the time, there wasn’t enough dry wood to burn them, so I buried them right there," the warrior princess pointed below the tree. "I-I didn’t know that you weren’t…." her mother’s voice grew silent as she turned away from Ari. "I thought you were with them," she finally finished.

Ari gazed down at the earth and watched as the gentle breeze brushed over the tall green grass. She felt as if she were walking in slow motion as she moved to the clearing below the tree. When she gazed down, she only sighed as she fell to her knees, the rag doll, and blanket still clutched in her hands.

The numbness of her pain embraced her like a long lost friend. As the summer breeze brushed past her, she stared in silence at the place where her parents were buried. While a part of her wondered where the tears for her first family were, another part replayed that morning over and over in her mind. For what felt like an eternity, she sat in silence. Only when she felt her mother’s soft touch, did she looked up and see Gabrielle kneeling beside her.

"Honey, we need to get going if we’re going to reach home before dark," Gabrielle’s gentle words coaxed. With only a nod, Ari glanced back down at the unmarked graves. A sigh escaped her control as she stood up and looked at the two items in her hand. "It’s alright honey, you can keep those, they’re yours," Gabrielle assured as they began to walk through the open meadow.

~~~~~~

Xena didn’t have the heart to pull her daughter away from the unmarked grave site. So instead, she waited with her until Gabrielle showed up, then she turned and left the two alone. All she could think about was the sight of Ari’s foster parents when she first found them. Although she had told the truth to Ari, she could not bring herself to admit that she had no choice but to bury them together because what few intact pieces of their remains she had found, could no longer be distinguished as human except by the few pieces of meat and bone fragments. With a shake of her head, the tall warrior made her way back to her youngest as her mind recalled that horrible day. As if it were yesterday, Xena remembered the day that she had found the carnage at the farm…..

Their remains were strewn through the room, the floorboards, furniture and walls were splattered with the blood of the innocent victims. When she first saw their dismembered bodies, the Warrior Princess assumed that even her babe was mixed in with the body parts. When she buried the remains, it hadn’t even occurred to her to take part of it to her family crypt because within her heart, she knew that her daughter belonged to this couple. Even if she wanted to separate her daughter’s remains, there would have been no way to know which pieces of flesh belonged to whom, so instead, she buried the entire family together.

What began as a chore in the morning took most of the day to complete. The normally stoic warrior allowed her tears to fall as she gathered up as much of the remains as she could. Alone and in silence she had dug a deep hole in the muddy earth to place them. Unconcerned with the blood on her hands, she simply covered the grave and stood silently over them. After a few moments, the deep and pitiful sound of a song rose from her soul and she allowed herself to sing not only for loss of an innocent family, but for the loss of a child she would never know . Although she could remember very little about the baby she gave birth to, a part of her heart cried out for the child’s death.

When she was finished, she felt an anger boiling out of the control. It was assumed that raiders had murdered the innocent family, her mother explained. No one knew where the bandits came from, nor where they disappeared to. All the villagers knew was that there was a great evilness that had fallen on the farmland and no one, not even Cyrene, dared to enter the property line. With a seething anger, Xena vowed that this would not go unpunished. She promised that she would take her army and scour the land, hunting down any and all bandits that got in their way. She would use her army to sweep over the neighboring land until madness like this never happened again. Through her rule, she would bring order to her country so that no other innocent would be brutally murdered in this way, Xena vowed as a scowl crossed her features…

With brows furrowed, Xena made her way back to the road where her youngest daughter waited all the while remembering the sight of the bloodshed that she found on that day. She could remember the silent vow she made and only shook her head. It had started out as a noble plan, yet somehow it went astray. What should have turned out for the best only grew worse with her increase in power.

As she broke through the foliage, the dark warrior frowned at these memories. Her mind wandered over the experiences that her child underwent, how Ari witnessed the whole scene of her parents’ massacre and then the subsequent abuse at the hands of Alti. Is it no wonder Ari has so many problems now, the warrior thought glumly. When she moved to the open road, she saw Eve securely tying a bundle to her mule’s back.

"Mother, did Ari see what happened to her parents?" her youngest daughter asked as Xena moved to the horses.

"I believe so," Xena replied as she lightly patted Argo’s descendant’s nose. Eve sighed deeply as she paced a few steps, then turned to her warrior mother.

"Oh, poor thing. What she must have gone through!" Eve said in a hushed voice.

With only a shake of her head, the young prophet moved to the side of the road and sat on a patch of grass. Apparently deep in the thought, Eve occasionally scratched Babu’s nose each time he butted his head against her shoulder as they waited patiently for the rest of the family. Just when Xena was beginning to contemplate checking on the two, her lover and daughter emerged from the dense forest. In silence, Ari moved to her horse, then stuffed the rag doll under her shirt and the small quilt over the saddle horn before climbing into the saddle.

When Xena glanced at her soulmate in search of an explanation, all she received was the Gabrielle’s shake of a head, as the blonde climbed into her saddle. The bard wiped at the tears that streaked down her own cheek, then turned her attention back to the road.

~~~~~~

Ari remained silent as she followed her mothers down the road. She felt the rag doll secure under her shirt and the quilt over her saddle. At the few questions that her mothers had asked her, she answered in her normal tone of voice. To anyone who saw her, they would assume that nothing was out of the ordinary. Yet to Ari, she felt the numbness within her spirit comforting her aching heart. Although she heard the voices of her family, she found it hard to focus on the words being spoken. Rather than try, she simply closed them out as she rode in silence.

Over and over in her mind, she tried to remember the two people who were once her parents. She could remember glimpses of a chubby blonde woman, her warm and strong arms holding her close. The loud laughter of a man was close to her conscious, yet she could not remember what he looked like. Nothing about her parents returned to her memory, and this tore at her very soul. Somehow she felt that she had to remember. Because they were the first people in her life, she should have a vivid memory of them, but she did not. Frustrated that she could not recollect anything, she began to shut out all thoughts and feelings until all she felt was the comforting numbness that was her friend. Before she realized it, the memories of her past pulled her under into an ocean of images…

Ari did not know how long she had been held captive in the cave because time seemed endless. The days were only marked by the times when she fell asleep in the furs next to her mother, and even then, sleep was not a way to judge time. Often Alti would awaken with a thirst and wake the child up from her slumber. Once the sorceress had finished with Ari, she would roll over and fall back to sleep, leaving the little girl alone in her torment.

When not sleeping, or training for Alti’s revenge, the little girl would lean on the edge of the magical pool. Only when Alti wasn’t with her, she would glance into the dark waters and think of the warrior princess. She watched in awe as the figure of the two women became clear. Sometimes she only saw them traveling together. Other times they were laughing and playfully teasing one other, yet through each image, Ari remained transfixed on the reflection of the warrior princess. The dark child’s smoldering anger remained on the surface of her subconscious mind. Despite this, the single question remained.

Why? Why had her birth mother abandoned her so? Why didn’t she love her enough to keep her? When she saw how Xena was going to reclaim Solan, Ari’s heart ached knowing that the warrior would not have made the same decision for her. When Alti showed her the birth of Eve, Ari’s heart became harden because if she had allowed it to remain as it was, the pain would have seeped out.

"Look at her," Alti had said as they both glanced into the dark waters. In silence, Ari watched as Eve took her first breath. She felt a scowl cross her lips as she imagined all that she could do to the infant in Xena’s arm.

"Look at how she has two parents. Little girl, Xena loved her youngest daughter so much that she made sure that the bastard girl would have a good home and two parents. Look, little girl, look at what should have been yours!" Alti’s raspy whisper was close to her ear.

The image of the girl’s loving parents, and the luxuries in the home dug into Ari’s mind. Each time she saw the two parents holding and hugging Eve, her brow creased deeper into a frown. Although she remained silent, the dark child’s mind began to conjure images of things that she would do to Eve — to her little sister.

Yes, Alti was right all along. Xena loved her two youngest children so much, that she went to great lengths to insure their safety. In yet the warrior princess did nothing for Ari, and this alone caused the blackness in the young girl’s heart to grow…

As her memories ran over the images from her past, Ari drew inward. The pain that had been her friend for so long simmered below the surface of her psyche. Time seemed endless as she rode behind her family. While her soul was frozen, her thoughts were churning through chaotic images of a past filled with pain, torture, and humiliation that she could barely remember. When they reached their home, it hadn’t occurred to Ari to wonder where the time had gone. Instead, she moved instinctively as she dismounted her horse.

For a moment, Ari thought she heard a slight whisper. A voice that was always near, coaxing and taunting her, yet when she tried to find the source, it disappeared only to resurface like a whisper. It tickled at the back of her subconscious mind until it floated through the air like a hushed voice.

Look at her, see how she mocks you,’ the whisper rose so slowly, that not even Ari knew where it came from.

While you suffered, she lived the life of royalty!’ a familiar cackle registered in her hearing. ‘See how she mocks you, little girl.’

As the bodiless voice droned near her, Ari stood silently scowling at her sister. In the back of her mind, she saw Eve’s startled expression, her smile turned to a puzzled frown as she returned Ari’s look. The dark child had only a moment to register the prophet’s confused expression, then the questioning arch of her brow, before an all consuming hate filled her soul.

"Would you just shut up!" Ari screamed at her sister as she moved toward the shorter woman.

"I didn’t say anything…" Eve did not have time to finish her sentence before Ari lashed out at her.

Without thought, Ari released a low growl before she struck out at her sister. But before she could make contact, she felt a strong grip on her shoulder, then a forceful shove that knocked her to the ground. From somewhere in the back of her mind, she thought she heard Xena’s voice, she felt the warrior’s hands on her, yet she fought against the stronger woman as she tried to strike out at her sister. Only when she felt a sharp pain, did she grow still.

~~~~~~

Xena was as surprised by Ari’s outburst as Gabrielle had been. Throughout their ride home, their daughter rode in silence. Her entire thoughts were on Ari and the memories of finding the bloody carnage in the home. The moment they arrived at the homestead, she saw her daughter’s deep set frown fall on her younger sister and realized that the girl would take whatever emotions she was experiencing out on Eve. Once the warrior saw Ari step forward, she had little time to react. With only a single thought in mind, she reached for Ari’s arm, stopping her bunched fist from making contact with Eve right before she dropped the girl to the ground. Even as she was commanding her to stop, the girl struggled until all Xena could do was use her greater force against her child. But not even grabbing the girl and throwing her to the ground stopped her from attacking.

"Make her shut up! Make her shut up!" Ari kept screaming over and over again even as she fought against Xena’s body.

At Ari’s anger, the warrior princess pinned the struggling girl to the ground. She ignored the powerful punches to her torso, and the hard kicks against her legs. Instead, she covered Ari entirely with her body, her hands gripping her around the shoulders even as the dark child screamed her outrage.

"Ari, stop, honey. Calm down, you’re all right. It’s ok, no one’s going to hurt you," Xena kept her voice low and gentle. Like a trapped animal, the girl fought back with all of her strength while her eyes held nothing but fear. When this failed to produce results, she loosened her grip. "Ari honey, it’s all right, you’re all right. Shush, calm down, sweetheart, calm down. It’s Mamma, Ari, you’re going to be all right now, it’s Mamma, stop it," she whispered as she softly stroked her child’s hair all the while watching her daughter’s expression suddenly soften.

Like a magical elixir, each word the warrior princess spoke caused the girl’s struggles to lessen. When her fists stopped pounding into Xena, and her body stopped struggling, the warrior princess loosened up her grip even more. Covered in sweat, with spit dripping from her lips and tears in her eyes, Ari glanced around in confusion.

"Mommy…" she whispered as she grew still.

"Yes honey, it’s Mommy. You’re going to be fine now, just calm down, alright?" Xena whispered as she wiped at the tears falling down Ari’s cheeks.

"Mommy…I-I…just want her to s-shut up…that’s all, j-just shut up," the confused fear etched Ari’s voice as she closed her eyes.

"That’s enough now, honey," Xena sighed with relief as she rose from her daughter’s body, then reached down to help her to her feet. For a moment, the warrior noticed the helpless look on her child. Like a trapped animal, Ari glanced around in search of an escape. Seeing the fear in her eyes, the warrior took a hold of the girl’s chin and forced her to look up at her.

"Ari, that’s enough now. No one is going to hurt you," Xena smiled as she spoke softly to the girl. For a moment, it seemed as if she was reaching her but before she even pulled her hand away, a deep set frown settled on the girl’s features. With a fiery look of hatred, Ari glared up at the warrior. Whatever fear Ari held was replaced with anger. As a low growl escaped the girl’s control, she pulled away from Xena’s touch. She turned away as if to run, but then stopped and remained frozen in her place.

"Ari?" the warrior stepped closer to her eldest. She reached out and lightly touched Ari’s shoulder, but when the girl pulled away, Xena remained silent for a moment. "Ari? Honey, please, let me…." She tried again, but was rebuffed when the girl pulled away as if Xena’s touch was contamination.

"Ari!" the warrior found her patience dwindling. "Listen, sweetheart…" but each time she approached the girl, Ari pulled away, her back remained to the warrior. At the open disrespect, Xena tried to think a way to handle the situation, yet each time she tried to approach the girl, she was met with the same reaction. Finally, frustrated by it, the warrior shook her head as she turned and caught her lover’s sympathetic expression.

"I give up!" Xena muttered under her breath, the anger barely contained as she took the reins of the horse and began to lead them toward the barn. "Eve, give me a hand!" She shouted at her youngest, then instantly regretted her words. With only a grumble of an apology, the warrior lead the animals to barn. While part of her thoughts was on the task, another part was mulling over the situation of her daughter. No, things with Ari were definitely not going to be easy.

~~~~~~

Gabrielle had noticed their daughter’s silence, and knew that Ari was trapped deep within a memory of her childhood. Although she tried to talk with the girl before her outburst, she only received bland responses to her inquiries. When it seemed that she would not get anywhere with Ari, the bard maintained her silence and simply rode along side the girl.

As they rode in silence, Gabrielle found herself recalling the homestead that had been Ari’s childhood home. Although the place was in disrepair, she could see the amount of love that had been poured into the home. From the quilts on the bed to the simple decorations on the walls, the blonde had a distinct impression of the people who were Ari’s first parents.

With a sad sigh, Gabrielle glanced back to their daughter. With eyes downcast, Ari rode behind the group. Her shoulders were slumped in utter defeat, while the rag doll and child’s blanket were clutched in her grip. At the sight of such sadness, the green-eyed woman only shook her head as she returned her gaze toward the road. Periodically, she would reach up and wipe at the wetness that streaked down her cheeks.

When she saw Xena’s concerned glance, she weakly smiled, then shook her head as she turned away from her soulmate. Like her, Xena looked behind them to their child. The expression of sadness etched the warrior’s face before a stern expression crossed her features. Her jaw muscles clenched as a frown creased her forehead before she too returned her gaze to the road.

Gabrielle felt that if she had kept a better watch of things, she would have noticed Ari’s changing mood. But lost in her own thoughts, she didn’t realize that their girl would resort to violence. Whenever Ari was lost deep in her own thoughts, she always grew silent and melancholy. Not since their first week of traveling together had Ari tried to attack her sister in this way.

One moment, they had just arrived home and were dismounting their horses. Then next, her attention was drawn to the struggle between Xena and Ari, the surprised movement of her lover drowned out Ari’s anger filled growl. Shocked into silence, Gabrielle stood for only a few seconds before her adrenaline kicked in.

"Xena!" She screamed even as Xena had tackled the girl, her body lying fully over the thrashing child.

"ARI!" the warrior princess voice was filled with all of her commanding presence even as she held the girl’s shoulders against the ground.

"Make her shut up! Make her shut up!" Ari kept screaming over and over.

"ARI! Calm down!" Gabrielle echoed her soulmate as she knelt by Xena, her gaze passing from her lover, to the frantic expression on her child, then to Eve’s confused gaze.

"Mother, I didn’t say anything! Did you hear me say anything?" Eve stepped away from her thrashing sister.

"Honey, I don’t know what’s going on," Gabrielle reassured the girl.

"Mother, honest, I didn’t do anything," Eve’s voice was laced with tears as she glanced from the bard, to her warrior mother and sister on the ground.

"I know sweetheart, I know," her voice was low and commanding as she waited and watched as the girl calmed down after Xena began to speak to her.

After a moment, Ari looked as if she had just awakened from a horrible nightmare. Flat on her back, the dark child laid motionless against the older warrior’s greater strength as Xena whispered inches away from Ari’s face. Although fearful for her girl, Gabrielle kept her distance and watched as her soulmate stood up, then pulled Ari from the dirt. Each time the warrior princess tried to speak to Ari, the girl seemed to grow defiant until Xena lost her patience.

"I give up!" Xena growled under her breath as she took the reins of the horse and began to lead them toward the barn.

"Eve, give me a hand!" Xena’s shout caused even the bard to flinch. Although she was surprised by her soulmate’s reaction, Gabrielle quickly turned her attention to their child. When she saw the rag doll and child’s blanket nearby, she picked them up, dusted them off, then handed them to the girl. As if they were her anchor, the dark child hugged the doll and blanket as she glanced down at them, then looked at Gabrielle with red, swollen eyes and runny nose. When the smaller woman noticed the mucus dripping from the girl’s nose, she half smiled as she took the hem of the girl’s shirt.

"Here honey, I think it’s alright to use it for this, this one time," she spoke softly as she wiped the girl’s nose with the cloth of her tunic. "Feeling better now?" she asked as Ari nodded meekly.

At the look of helplessness in her child’s expression, the healer bard sighed softly as she cupped Ari’s cheeks. "Ari, honey," she said as a sadness seemed to cover the girl.

Ari remained silent for a moment as she tried to look away. With a sad sigh, the girl looked at Gabrielle, then turned away as if embarrassed. At the look of utter pain and shame in her daughter, the blonde released a sigh as she wrapped an arm around the girl’s waist and led her away from the house to the grassy knoll. When they reached the nearest tree, the bard sat below the shade and pulled her daughter next to her.

"Ari, what’s going on? Do you want to talk about it?" Gabrielle made sure to keep her voice low as her fingers tenderly brushed the girl’s dark locks away from her face. In a matter of moments, she watched as her daughter’s features rapidly changed from anger, to frustration and then to sadness.

"Oh …Ari…" Gabrielle felt her heart aching for her daughter. Before she could say more, Ari leaned against her, her head resting on the smaller woman’s shoulder. When she felt the grief emanating from her child’s form, she quickly wrapped an arm over Ari’s shoulder and held her tight.

"Honey, why did you try to hurt your sister?" the older woman kept the tone of her voice low.

After a moment, Ari only shrugged as she clutched the rag doll close. Confused by the girl’s conduct, Gabrielle glanced down at their home. The peaceful solitude of the place hid all evidence of the battle that almost broke out.

"Baby, look at me please," Gabrielle pulled away and forced the girl to look at her. "Ari, honey, please tell me, what was going on in your mind when you tried to hurt Eve? Can you remember?"

For a moment, the dark child’s gaze wavered. She looked down at the dirty, dust covered doll, then glanced back at Gabrielle. When holding her gaze seemed too painful, Ari looked down, a tinge of red covering her cheeks.

"E-Eve….s-she…." Ari stammered softly, then released an audible sigh. "Eve had two parents…" her whispered words were so low that Gabrielle almost missed what she said. "They l-loved her…p-protected her….and….and…" But Ari did not finish. She only shrugged her shoulders in defeat as she lowered her head in shame.

It only took Gabrielle a moment to understand her child’s words. At the sorrow from the girl, she shook her head as she pulled Ari into her arms. With soft, gentle words, she held Ari close as she whispered words of comfort and understanding.

"Oh my poor baby," she cooed as she felt Ari shaking against her shoulder. "You’re jealous that your sister had loving parents and you didn’t. I’m so sorry baby, I’m so very, very sorry," she rocked her eldest tenderly as she whispered words of comfort to the weeping girl. In gentle swaying motions, she rocked her daughter as she held her close. After a moment, Ari grew silent her body occasionally shook from a hiccup as she stared at the rag doll in her hands.

At a sound from the barn, Gabrielle glanced up and saw her lover and youngest leaving the barn. Xena glanced up at them, then frowned as she followed Eve to the house. Although the blonde healer knew how painful it must be for Xena, she wasn’t sure how to change things. She did not know why Ari felt closer to her, rather than the warrior. Gabrielle only knew that for some reason, Ari was able to open up with her in ways that she could not with Xena. Knowing the pain that this caused her soulmate, Gabrielle wished that there was some way to help Ari become closer, more trusting of her mother.

"M-Mamma…" Ari’s soft whisper broke through Gabrielle’s thoughts.

"Yes honey?" Gabrielle held her in a firm embrace. When she felt a shudder running through the girl, she closed her eyes and kissed the crown of Ari’s head. "What’s the matter baby?"

"M-Mamma…I-I…don’t remember them…" the girl pulled away slightly, her misty eyes beckoning Gabrielle.

"Your parents?" the smaller woman asked as she cupped the girl’s soft cheeks. Ashamed, Ari glanced down at the doll once more, then turned to her with pleading eyes. "Oh, baby, you don’t remember what they were like, or who they were?" At her words, the girl looked away as a single tear feel heedless down her cheek. Understanding her daughter’s sorrow, Gabrielle reached out and wiped the tear away as she thought over the problem. When an idea came to mind, she smiled as she glanced to the house, then rose in one fluid, easy motion.

"I think there is someone who can help with this," Gabrielle smiled as she held her hand out. Confused, Ari stared up at her for a moment. When she saw that the bard would not budge, she only shrugged her shoulders, then took her mother’s hand and rose from under the shade of the tree.

~~~~~~

As if sensing her anger, Eve went through the chore of bedding down the animals in silence. Although Xena could feel her daughter’s concerned glances every once in a while, she ignored her youngest as she thought over her relationship with Ari.

‘How in Hades am I suppose to help her when she won’t let me near?’ The warrior silently fumed.

Once the animals were tended to, both women left the silence of the barn together. When Xena glanced up at the shady grass nearby, her frown grew even deeper when she saw Gabrielle holding Ari so close. For a moment, a pang of jealousy and regret filled her at once. She wondered what it would be like to have Ari turn to her like this. A part of her felt sadness for all of her lost years with Ari. She wondered what it would have been like to hold the girl when she was young and the warrior princess felt her own regret and shame at walking away from the babe. Remembering back to that time, Xena closed her eyes against her own tears as she made her way into the house….

So sick of the memory of the gang rape, Xena couldn’t even bare to feed the baby more than once. Throughout the pains of birth, the young teen found herself deep in the memories of the attack. Once the girl was born, Cyrene had smiled as she cleaned the crying baby, then handed her to Xena.

Although a part of her knew that this baby was innocent, she could not bear to look at her. Just hearing her crying reminded the young village girl of what had happened to her. So rather than reach out for the babe, she turned her gaze away.

"Xena, you have to feed her! She’s your baby!" Cyrene insisted as she pulled on Xena until she sat up. Angered, the young woman remained emotionless as her mother placed the baby in her arms, then helped the newborn infant to find her nipple. At the awkward sensations, all Xena could do was close her eyes and try to drown out the memory of the men, their hands on her body as they…

"No!" Xena screamed as she pulled the parasitic creature from her breast. At the sudden move, the baby began to squeal. With a scowl the young mother held the creature at arm’s length for only a moment before her mother took the baby from her.

"Xena, you’ve got to feed her, she needs her mother’s milk!" Cyrene begged, but Xena only closed her eyes as she rolled onto her side, turning her back on her mother and the screaming infant. The painful swelling of her full breasts didn’t even matter to her because all she felt was a dark depression as the memories of her attack replayed in her mind.

"Xena, she’ll die without your milk, for the love of Athena, you’ve got to feed her or she doesn’t stand a chance for survival!" the young mother heard each day that her mother brought the baby into the room, but Xena only shook her head.

"I don’t care," she hissed through gritted teeth as she would pull the blankets around herself in an attempt to stop the pain of her full breasts.

"No, you can’t mean that. Xena, she’s your baby, oh my little one, you can’t wish for her death," Cyrene lightly touched her shoulder. Her mother would beg day after day until finally one day, Xena snapped and turned on her mother.

"Get out…" Xena hiss, then turned, and lashed out at her mother, "I said GET OUT! I don’t care what happens to the brat. Let it die, like its father should! Just get it away from me!"

At her scream, Cyrene pulled away, the shock and sadness on her face. With only a shake of her head, the older woman stepped back, then glanced down at the crying baby in her arms. Ignoring her mother’s presence, Xena rolled back over to her side. Although a few days had passed, the pain of childbirth was still fresh. As she heard her mother leaving the room, she closed her eyes to the ache in her body and soul. She did not know how she was going to find the men who did this to her, but she vowed that someday, she would get her revenge….

With a slight sigh, Xena closed her eyes to the memory. Yet no matter how hard she tried to push it away, the images from that time kept returning. As she sat wearily on the couch, she stared at nothing as her mind wandered through incoherent thoughts. The warrior princess remembered how she worked hard to tone her body and mind. She had only one focus, and that was to get her revenge. But she was never able to seek out her revenge because after a few moons, she had to admit that the faces of her attackers were like a hazy dream. Even her hatred of the baby began to dwindle. A year later when she went to the foster parents who had her child, she could not bring herself to take the baby back.

Xena remembered standing in the distance hidden behind the trees as she watched the young family together. The portly woman was doting over the smiling babe. The toddler held her tiny hands as the pudgy legs took their first step. The farmer stood nearby watching his wife and child, the smile evident across his features. As she watched their pride, Xena knew that she could not take the child away from the only parents she ever knew.

From that time forward, the warrior princess would stop by the farm whenever she went home to visit. Concealed behind the trees and underbrush, she watched as the little girl’s first steps soon turned into giant leaps. She would smile as she watched the child run and play in the grass under the watchful eyes of her parents, and sometimes, Cyrene. Once or twice when Xena watched, she noticed her mother glancing her way. But when they were together, they never spoke openly about the child. Although a part of Xena’s heart longed to go to the girl, she could only stand by, hidden nearby as she watched her daughter smile and laugh while picking wild flowers with little hands. When she saw the girl had given her adopted mother the flowers, Xena could not help but feel the pain of jealousy. Despite this, she knew that she could not take her child. So in silence, Xena would always leave her hiding place and return to her horse. Each time she left her little girl behind, she would glance toward the farm before leaving, and then smile at the sight of the girl as the tears of regret fell unheeded.

"Mom," Eve’s voice broke through her thoughts. At the feel of her youngest daughter’s hand in hers, Xena glanced down, a slight smile curved her lips as she clasped the hand firmly. "Mom, I’m sorry that Ari is being so…so…" the prophet shook her head as a frown crossed her features.

"Childish?" Xena offered.

"Yes, childish," the young woman turned her gaze to Xena’s. "I don’t know what I did to provoke her this time. Honest, I wasn’t thinking of saying anything that might have upset her so."

"I know honey. This isn’t about you, it’s about Ari. Something that she’s going through, and …and I’m not sure how to help her," Xena felt the exasperation filter through her voice. Before more could be said, the front door opened, the sunlight filtered in causing both warrior and prophet to blink as their eyes were assaulted by the light. When the door closed, she saw her lover holding Ari’s hand as they stood momentarily at the entryway.

~~~~~~

After talking with Gabrielle, a part of Ari wanted to tell her mother everything. As they stood at the threshold of the home, she wanted to explain how the voice of Alti was beckoning her to hurt her sister. If she could have only explained how, in the middle of the morning, she thought she heard the sorceress’ voice on the wind, then perhaps she would have been able to confess her other dirty, nasty secret. But so ashamed of it all, the only thing she could do was blurt out the first things that crossed her mind.

When she thought about it, she realized that she was angry at her sister. Eve had never known pain. Throughout all of her years of growing up, there were two people who loved the prophet above all else. Her younger sister had never felt the pain of abandonment; she never felt what it was like to be held under the stronger body of a woman who would hurt her in ways that even Ari found hard to remember. And Eve never knew what it felt like to be physically tortured to the point where she wished for death. Most importantly, Eve didn’t know what it felt like to know that your own birth mother had turned away from you when you were born.

Ari knew all of this. She knew what it felt like to have her hand scorched by a magical flame, only to realize that whatever pain had been inflicted was an illusion. The dark child was keenly aware of the inhumanity that existed, because she had seen it from both sides. As a child, she felt the direct effects of cruelty, the touch of adult hands on her, the way that they tormented her in ways that no child should ever experience. Later, as an adult, she was the one that inflicted all of her anger against others. Although Ari tried to push the memories away, there were times in the solitude of her existence that images cropped up within her mind. Things she did to others that even she found hard to accept. All of this Eve had never experienced, and because of this, Ari found her anger boiling toward her sister.

"Honey, you’re going to be alright," Gabrielle’s confident voice whispered near her as they stood near the front door.

Although her mother held confidence, Ari was unsure of herself. A part of her knew that Xena felt differently toward her than she did toward Eve. Oh, there was love, or at least what Ari was beginning to recognize as love. But sometimes Ari also felt anger and distain from her warrior mother. There were times when Ari made mistakes, like when she accidentally broke Eve’s things that she sensed a carefully bridled anger from the warrior princess. This more than anything seemed to bore a hole in the dark child’s heart.

"Ari, you’re going to apologize to your sister and then your mother," Gabrielle left little room for debate. At her stern expression, Ari looked down in shame as a sigh escaped her control. "Honey, you can’t do what you did and not apologize. You know that Eve didn’t start it, right?"

"Y-Yes…" Ari’s voice was a scant whisper.

"Good, then you will apologize to your sister for such an accusation, and to your mother for lashing out against her. Is that understood?" Gabrielle’s voice was firm, yet her touch was gentle as she wiped the tears from Ari’s cheeks. At the feel of her tenderness, Ari gave a wordless nod of assent. "Good, remember, I’m going to be right here for you," the shorter woman stated as she opened the door, then pushed Ari through it, closely following behind.

Even though the girl felt her blonde mother’s hand in hers, she could not silence her rapidly beating heart. Once her eyes became adjusted to the shadows in the home, she gulped as she turned away from her sister and warrior mother on the sofa, to look down at Gabrielle. With a smile of reassurance, the smaller woman squeezed her hand before gently pushing her forward.

"Go, go on," Gabrielle whispered as she stood behind Ari.

From somewhere in the back of her mind, the dark child heard the beating of her heart grow louder. Her palms suddenly grew moist with sweat and the room felt oppressively hot. As she glanced around the shadows, she gulped as she tried to form her coherent thoughts. When this failed, she looked at her sister, then turned back to her bard mother. With only a nod, and a gesture, the blonde encouraged Ari to speak. Swallowing her fears, the dark child turned and looked directly at her sister.

"I-I….ummm….I-I’m s-sorry," it seemed to take an eternity for the words to make it past her lips. At her sister’s continual silence, Ari frowned as she looked away, her mind trying to think of what to say, "I-It w-was….i-it…w-wasn’t y-yo…" Ari tried over and over to make her speech form her thoughts into coherent words. Frustrated at her own lack of skill, Ari almost turned to run, to bolt from the room in hopes that she could leave all these feelings behind her. Before she could act upon her instinct, she felt Gabrielle’s hand on her shoulder, the confidence radiating through her touch.

At the feel of her mother’s touch Ari closed her eyes and stilled her thoughts. While the warmth of Gabrielle’s hands radiated through the fabric of her shirt, she took a deep breath as she concentrated on what she would say. When her courage returned, she released a sigh, and kept her eyes closed, as the words poured gently past her lips in a hushed whisper.

"I-I’m sorry, it wasn’t you, it’s just…I-I…" just as she was ready to explain, a soft touch against her hand was felt. When she opened her eyes, her sister was standing in front of her, a tender smile crossing her lips as she held Ari’s gaze.

"It’s alright Ari, I understand," Eve smiled as she clasped the dark child’s hand. "I’m really sorry for…what happened to your parents, and for what you had to go through," her prophet sister said as a tear trickled down Eve’s cheeks.

Ari released the breath she was holding as she looked down at her hand that Eve clasped in hers. When the young woman squeezed it gently, Ari smiled slightly, before she remembered what else had to be done. Looking down at her mother, she took a step toward Xena, then knelt before her.

With head bowed, she closed her eyes as she steeled herself for the next task that she had to complete. Behind her, she felt both her bard mother, and sister lightly resting their hands on her shoulders. Filled with resolve, Ari kept her gaze averted from her mother’s penetrating blue eyes and spoke softly.

"M-Mother…I-I’m…." but she wasn’t able to finish it because her warrior mother had leaned forward and pulled her into a tight embrace. At the feel the warrior’s grip, Ari felt the air leave her lungs, then a warmth surrounded her as the anger and sorrow washed away from her.

"I-I’m s-sorry, mother, I d-didn’t m-mean…" her words were silenced when Xena pulled away and cupped Ari’s face with her hands.

"Shush, I understand," Xena smiled at her, then gently pulled on Ari, until the girl rose from her kneeling position to sit beside her mother. At the feel of Xena’s arm around her shoulder, the dark child closed her eyes as she leaned into her mother’s embrace. As if it never existed, all of the pent up anger from before seemed to wash away with her mother’s gentle embrace.

~~~~~~

Through her racking sobs, Xena held her daughter close. She had seen how difficult it was for Ari to apologize to Eve and felt the anguish of her child’s inability to speak clearly. Unable to see the girl go through this again, Xena pulled her into her arms and held her close as the child wept softly. With a look of understanding, Gabrielle smiled down at her, then lightly clasped Xena’s arm before moving to sit on a nearby chair. In the silence of the room, Eve moved and sat in front of the bard’s chair. In a casual manner, the blonde began to run her fingers through Eve’s hair as they waited in silence.

While her daughter wept, the warrior pulled the girl alongside her. As they sat on the sofa side by side, she kept her arm over Ari’s shoulder in hopes of offering comfort. As the girl grew quiet in her arms, Xena tried to find the words to explain her regret. She wanted to tell her child everything but held back, afraid that Ari would not understand. While Xena tried to find the words that would comfort the girl, Ari’s slight whisper came muffled against her shoulder.

"What honey?" the warrior princess pulled away and glanced down at the girl.

"I-I….don’t remember…." The dark child whispered again.

With a mask of confusion, taller woman looked down at her girl. She watched as Ari’s brow furrowed in concentration. When Xena realized what her daughter meant, she ran her hand through Ari’s dark hair.

"You’re parents?" Xena asked.

Ari nodded slightly, and then frowned as if trying to remember memories that were buried deep in her subconscious mind yet drifted away before they could become clear. As if she could not hide her thoughts anymore, the girl softly spoke.

"I-I d-don’t even r-remember them," she whispered as she closed her eyes tightly. "I-I don’t e-even r-remember who th-they were. Shouldn’t I at least r-remember who th-they were?"

"Oh honey, it was a very long time ago, and you were only a child," the warrior lightly kissed the side of Ari’s head as she hugged her tighter. Accepting Xena’s comfort, the girl rested easily against her. After a moment of silence, Xena began to speak softly.

"Neoda was your adopted mother’s name. Neoda’s family was originally from Thessaly, and her mother, Mari, was your grandmother Cyrene’s best friend," Xena’s voice was soft. "Neoda was older than I was, so I never really got to know her, but mother loved both Mari and Neoda as if they were members of the family. I was only a child when Neoda and Falleri were married. They tried for so long to have a baby, and after many years, they finally did but...it was stillborn. The little boy never survived its birth."

"A boy?" Ari whispered as she lowered her eyes.

"Yes, but he wasn’t born alive and it nearly broke their hearts. And then…" Xena lowered her gaze as if the memory was too painful, then shook her head as she reached up to wipe the single tear that fell down her cheek. "You were born a day after their boy, a-and I wasn’t able to take care of you, so," the older woman sighed deeply as she allowed herself to remember that time from long ago. "Neoda’s milk hadn’t dried up yet and she was able to feed you every day that first week.…after nearly a week, mother felt it was providence. Within the span of a few days, the couple had buried one child, and welcomed another into their home and hearts." The warrior smiled at the thought, then looked down as if trying to remember something.

"Neoda was a seamstress. Everyone knew that she could take any pieces of cloth and make wonderful clothes from them. And Falleri was a craftsmen and a farmer. He planted the small piece of land around his farm with enough food for his family, and extra for anyone who may have needed some help during the winter. In the winter when he wasn’t able to farm, he crafted wooden items. He made the headboard in our room, and the chairs at our table. And he could make toys for the kids," Xena half smiled at the memory, "He was Amphipolis’ Senticles."

Ari had pulled away from her mother and was watching her carefully. After a moment of silence, the dark child asked, "D-Did you know them? D-Did you v-visit when I-I was w-with them?"

"No, honey, I couldn’t bring myself to get to know them better," Xena frowned slightly, before a sadness crossed her features as she brushed her fingers through Ari’s hair. "Whenever I was home with my army, I would go to the farmstead. The first time I went there was with the intention of taking my baby back," the warrior’s voice grew firm.

"Y-You were going t-to….?" Ari couldn’t finish her question, instead, she felt a twinge of disbelief.

Xena merely looked at her, her gaze firm and unwavering. "Yes honey. I had every intention of taking you back…but…I couldn’t," Xena’s voice disappeared into a whisper as she averted her eyes. "The first time I was there, I hid in the forest and watched my baby take her first step. By the gods, I was so proud seeing those strong little legs carry you through the grass! Then I saw Falleri with his arms open wide right before he scooped you up and hugged you so tight. Both he and Neoda were so happy and proud," the warrior princess frowned as a tear fell free. With a sad sigh, she shook her head as she ignored the tear drops that trickled down her cheeks.

"How could I take their baby away?" Xena whispered ever so slightly. As if hearing her own words for the first time, the warrior princess gulped deeply, then turned and faced Ari. "Baby, I couldn’t bring myself to take you away from the only parents you ever knew. As much as my heart wanted you, as much as I cried over the mistake I made, I just couldn’t bring myself to hurt you even more."

Ari felt the intensity of her mother’s words. She noticed how the tears of the warrior sparkled like crystal by the dim candle light in the room. From nearby, she thought she heard the slight sniffles of her family in the room.

For what felt like an eternity in time, Xena felt her child’s gaze. A multitude of questions appeared to soar through Ari’s mind.

"Y-You w-watched me?" she whispered, then spoke a bit louder, "y-you really w-wanted to t-take me w-with you?"

"Oh sweetheart, every time I saw you, I was so tempted to go and take you," Xena softly smiled as she touched Ari’s cheek with the palm of her hand. "Baby, if there was any way that I could show you, prove to you how badly my heart ached to have you back…"

At the look of utter sadness in the girl’s eyes, Xena weakly smiled as she pulled Ari into her arms. With soft, tender kisses, she hugged the girl close. "Oh sweetheart, I’m so sorry for what I did. I never should have let you go, but by the time I realized my mistake, it was too late…it was just, too late," Xena whispered as she held the girl close. After a moment, Ari slid down from the warrior’s shoulder and curled up beside her, her head resting on the woman’s lap.

Although the dark child remained silent, the warrior felt the girl’s body shaking and the wet tears falling on Xena’s bare legs. She remained silent as she sensed the girl’s sorrow and knew that Ari’s tears had started anew. With only soft words of comfort, she rubbed her daughter’s back and occasionally rested the palm of her hands on her daughter’s shoulder in hopes that the girl would feel Xena’s comfort.

"Oh baby," Xena whispered as she lightly brushed her fingers through her daughter’s dark hair. "I’m so very sorry… I never should have walked away from you, I know that now. And I promise, Ari, I’m going to make it up to you somehow. I don’t know how, but I will, my poor baby girl," she whispered softly as she continued to stroke her grown daughter’s hair.

Xena was not all together certain how she could ever make up the years of misery that her child had to endure under Alti’s control, but she vowed that somehow, she would find a way. If it took her the rest of her life, she would be there for the girl. Never again would she abandon her baby, she silently vowed.

When Xena felt her daughter’s stillness in her lap, she glanced down at her. Through the diffused light, she saw Ari’s swollen eyes closed, her breathing calming down as slight hiccups escaped her control. As the girl became heavier, Xena realized that her daughter had cried herself to sleep. Sighing as a way to release her own tension, the warrior princess leaned her head back closed her eyes.

Will this ever get easier, she wondered as she felt a slight touch on her arm. Opening her eyes, she noticed her soulmate’s moist eyes watching her. With a sad smile, Gabrielle knelt in front of her and glanced down at the girl. Tenderly, she brushed her fingers through Ari’s hair.

"Poor baby," Gabrielle whispered softly, then looked up at Xena, the silent tears trickled down her cheek, "my poor love," her whisper was so soft as she stroked the warrior’s arm. At her touch, Xena felt her lover’s strength. With a nod, she sighed as she felt the tensions of the encounter float away.

"Thank you," was all Xena could whisper as she looked down at Ari’s sleeping form.

She watched her daughter for a moment, then picked up Ari’s hand and held it within her own. The first time Xena held her child, she was unable to appreciate the feel of her baby’s flesh against her own. But now, as she held the girl’s hand, she marveled at how perfect her daughter was. Although Ari’s hands were calloused from carrying a weapon, and her nails damaged from when she tried to claw her way through a rock wall, Ari’s fingers were long and slender, just like her own. As the warrior examined the girl, she could not help but see her brother Lyceus’ hands. Strong, yet gentle, Lyceus was a hero to Xena, and once he was gone, her world seemed to spin out of control.

Xena closed her eyes to this thought as a tired sigh escaped her control. Carefully, she lifted her daughter’s head and gently laid it down, then rose from where she sat. When she felt the slight pain in her side, she grimaced. Although she could understand what had caused Ari’s anger, she knew that if left unchecked, the girl could hurt someone. With a shake of her head, she turned her attention to her sleeping daughter.

"Xena?" Gabrielle was by her side. "Oh Xena, you’re hurt."

"Just bruised," Xena whispered as she began to remove her daughter’s outer tunic and britches.

The bard cast a critical eye over her, then nodded before moving to the kitchen to pour some water into a basin. From nearby, Eve had busied herself with picking up around the house, her expression quiet and contemplative.

Xena felt at a loss as to what to do. Day by day she felt as if she was losing contact with her child. Although she was grateful that the girl had Gabrielle to turn to, Xena could not help but feel as if she was losing her opportunity to make a connection with the girl.

Once Ari was lying in her underclothes, Xena took a blanket from the back of the sofa and covered the girl. When Gabrielle saw the rag doll and blanket on the floor, she set the basin beside Ari, then picked up the fallen items. With only a nod, Xena took the soaking cloth, dipped it in the basin, and began to wipe it over her sleeping child’s face.

"Poor thing, it must have been a shock for her after all this time," Gabrielle whispered as she carried the dirty items to the basket filled with clothes that needed washing. "But I don’t understand Xena, why take it out on Eve?"

"Yeah, why take it out on me?" Eve echoed her mother’s words, then seeing them looking at her, she only shrugged her shoulders before moving to the basket of clean clothes that needed mending. "I mean, it’s not like I did anything to provoke her," the prophet mumbled as she turned her attention to darning a sock.

Xena only shook her head, then caught her youngest looking up at her. As if sensing her mother’s distress, Eve shrugged her shoulders and stated very softly, "Its ok, Mom. I mean, I’ve gotten worse reactions from people," the young woman smiled, then winked as she began to mend a sock.

With a shake of her head, Xena returned her attention to Ari’s sleeping form. As the warrior gently wiped the cool cloth over her daughter’s face, she felt the girl’s easy breathing. Ari’s eyes were closed and she was oblivious to her family in the room.

"This is all my fault," the warrior whispered softly.

"Xena, no, don’t torture yourself like this. You didn’t know what would happen. Honey, you were barely a woman when it happened. You couldn’t expect yourself, under the circumstances, to be strong. Someday, Ari will understand this," Gabrielle’s whisper pleaded.

"I know…" Xena nodded as she stood up with the basin of water in hand. At the twinge in her side, she stopped for a moment and grimaced.

"Xena, are you sure it’s just a bruise?" Gabrielle asked, a look of concern on her face.

The warrior smiled slightly, then left the basin on the table before making her way to their room. At the sudden aches and pains in her body, she sighed as she moved into their bedroom. Behind her, she felt her soulmate following close behind, the look of concern in her eyes.

"Gabrielle, help me out of this, would ya," Xena clenched her teeth as she closed her eyes, a slight hiss escaping her control when the bard released a clasp on her armor. "By the gods, Gabrielle, I’m getting too old for this!"

Accustomed to the fastenings, the smaller woman removed the leather armor with deft hands. When she began to remove her lover’s cotton shift, a gasp escaped Gabrielle control. At the sight of the bruises that ran up and down Xena’s torso, she shook her head and began to examine her lover’s condition.

"Nothing’s broken, Gabrielle, but I think she did some good bruising," Xena hissed as she threw her head back and sighed with relief.

"Oh Xena, I hadn’t realized…"

"It’s all right, there wasn’t anything you could do. I just had to wait it out," the older warrior closed her eyes even as Gabrielle’s gentle hands were examining her ribs.

"Well you’re right. Nothing feels broken," Gabrielle shook her head as she saw her lover’s flesh turning a dark purple color.

"Just let me rest for a minute, that’s all honey. I’ll be all right," the warrior closed her eyes as she lay back on the bed. With loving tenderness, Gabrielle quickly helped the taller woman under the covers, then tucked her in.

"You just rest and if you need anything…."

"I know honey, I’ll call you," Xena gave Gabrielle her most convincing smile in an attempt to remove the look of concern from the bard’s features.

"Good, you call because I’m going to be right out the door making dinner. Don’t you even think of getting up, do you hear?" the bard’s voice took on a deeper tone as her brow furrowed. Her expression held a no nonsense expression.

"I promise, cross my heart," Xena smiled up at her lover, then inhaled, and gasped at the slight pain, "yep, my bard, I’m getting way too old for this," she muttered softly.

"Too bad because I was hoping to help you with that…ahh, earlier problem you had," Gabrielle whispered seductively as she leaned down and kissed Xena’s lips. At the sudden reminder of her earlier discomfort, the warrior’s eyes pleaded to her.

"Oh, Gabrielle!" she began to whine at the memory of what hadn’t been fulfilled.

"Shush, warrior, don’t start with me. You are in no condition to do anything tonight," Gabrielle’s voice was firm as she began to walk from the room. When she reached the threshold of the door, the small blonde glanced back with a seductive smile and winked at the warrior, "of course, just because you can’t do anything, doesn’t mean that I can’t!"

"Wha..?" Xena felt her smile forming at her lover’s promise. As if seeing her changing mood, Gabrielle’s smile disappeared as she wagged a warning finger at her.

"Only if you get some rest!" the bard warned, then winked before leaving the room.

With a slight smile, Xena laid back on the pillow. Her mind wandered through the images of her soulmate’s promise. Although the bruises were uncomfortable, she could not help the sense of growing excitement at Gabrielle’s words.

"Well, maybe not too old for some things," the smiling warrior whispered as she closed her eyes to pleasant dreams.

~~~~~~

Gabrielle did everything possible to keep her mind off of Ari’s situation. After checking on the girl, the blonde entered the kitchen and began to prepare her family’s meal. As she busied herself in the kitchen, her youngest moved to sit at the table. With a smile over her shoulder, Gabrielle continued to work the dough with her hands. Eve only smiled as she glanced toward her sleeping sister. For a moment, she watched as the small kitten fought to climb his way up the blanket until he was on top of Ari’s sleeping form. After turning in circles a few times, he snuggled down into the blanket against his mistress’ chest.

"Mother, is Ari going to be ok?" Eve asked softly. "I swear mother, I wasn’t saying anything. I don’t know why she thought I was," the young woman shook her head as she glanced down at the table top, her expression one of deep thought.

"Honey, I know you didn’t. It’s just that, for Ari, she’s starting to feel things that she’s never felt before. Going to her childhood home, it only reminded her again of what her life was like before that evil woman got a hold of her. Eve, honey, I know it’s not fair to you, but for Ari, it’s painful for her to think of how well your childhood was compared to what she went through," Gabrielle softly explained as she moved to sit beside the young woman.

Eve released a sigh as she glanced toward the sofa, then shook her head as a sadness crossed her features. "I know it was hard for Ari and I’m sure it must hurt her to think of how I was raised compared to her. I-It’s just…oh mother, I’m doing my best, but I don’t know what it is about me that she hates so much. Maybe if I wasn’t around, things would be easier?" Eve suggested.

"No Eve, that won’t solve the problem. We’re a family, we’re supposed to be together. You leaving will not help your sister to heal. Just be patient Eve, we need you here, and Ari needs you," Gabrielle whispered softly as she lightly touched her youngest daughter’s arm. At her words, the prophet caught the sincerity in her mother’s green eyes. Filled with such conviction, Eve could not help but feel the confidence of the bard.

"You’re right, mother," the girl finally whispered, "I do want to help Ari, when she’s ready for me to help."

"Eve, I think that Ari has a lot of healing yet to do. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to let her see the home she once lived in, I don’t know. But, I think that whatever she might have been remembering may have caused her outburst," the healer bard half whispered as she tried to reason through her eldest child’s outburst.

At the sound from the bedroom, they glanced around and watched as Xena walked from the darkroom. Only wearing a robe, she moved carefully to a chair, then sat with a slight grimace that only Gabrielle noticed.

"Xena, you were supposed to be resting," Gabrielle began to chastise as she moved to her lover’s side.

"I know, but I couldn’t sleep," she waved away her soulmate’s concern. At Xena’s dismissal, Gabrielle smiled, knowing her lover was worried about Ari. With a slight sigh, the blonde returned her attention to preparing the dinner.

"Honey, ummm….I’ve been thinking…" Xena’s voice was low as she glanced over to the darkness where their child slept.

"… that maybe it’s too soon to send our girl to learn in a public school?" Gabrielle finished Xena’s sentence. With only a smile, the warrior nodded.

"Don’t you two think it’s a bit creepy how you finish each other’s sentences?" Eve asked as she glanced from one mother to the other.

"What…" Gabrielle began to say.

"….do you mean?" Xena finished, then winked at her daughter who cast them a surprised expression. With only a shake of her head, Eve laughed softly as she leaned back in the chair.

"But, as to what you were saying. For the time being, I’ll just work with Ari and see if I can teach her," the bard spoke softly, her hands preparing the meal without much thought. "When I first heard the price, I knew it would be hard to come up with the tuition for her, so maybe it’s for the best that we keep her home for now."

"And as time goes by, if her temperament becomes a bit more predictable and we have the funds, then we can reconsider sending her to the local school," Xena added.

"Ummm, moms, I’ve been meaning to ask you both, would either of you mind if I was to help Meg at the tavern? She’s already told me that she could use the help, and she’s willing to pay! Maybe the extra drachms could help out here at home?" Eve asked, hoping they would agree.

Gabrielle and Xena glanced at each other. They both knew that their youngest did not require their permission. Already a full grown adult, Eve was capable to making decisions on her own. But the fact that she would ask permission first displayed her maturity and respect for them. When the blonde smiled and returned her attention to the food, Xena nodded in approval. "Well, I think that would be a fine idea if it’s something that you wanted to do and if it’s ok with your mother."

The shorter woman had taken the prepared food and placed it into the corner stone oven. Once the meal was settled in the back of the open oven, she turned to her family. Knowing that it would be a while until the meal was finished, she rejoined her soulmate and daughter.

"I don’t see why you couldn’t do it, if it’s what you want. If I end up needing any help around here, I’ve got your mother and Ari to lend a hand. And you’re right, I’ll only be able to work in the tavern on weekends, so the extra money would definitely help the family," the story teller enthusiastically agreed as she sat in a chair next to Xena. In an absent manner, the warrior woman leaned toward her and wrapped an arm over the bard’s shoulder.

"I’m afraid that tonight’s meal is going to be meatless," Gabrielle sighed softly as she leaned into Xena’s arms. In a comforting manner, the dark warrior wrapped her arms around the smaller woman as her calloused fingers ran through the bard’s blonde hair.

"Oh, I’m sorry honey. I was a bit preoccupied today. I’ll hunt tomorrow," Xena lightly kissed the side of her lover’s face.

"It’s alright Xena, I know the day didn’t exactly go as planned," she smiled as she reached behind and ran her fingers over her lover’s soft cheek, "tomorrow will be better."

"As long as I’m with my family, that’s all I care about," Xena spoke softly as her grip tightened for a moment around her soulmate’s shoulders.

With a slight smile, the smaller woman leaned back into the strong embrace of her lover. As the conversation between her soulmate and daughter continued, she listened to them while also going over the dilemma of Ari. Although she was secure in her own knowledge of writing, she had never taught anyone and a part of her did not feel confident in teaching the basics to her daughter. Yet, after today’s outburst, Gabrielle knew that they could not trust their daughter to be able to interact with other people, let alone children. Hopefully in time, Ari would be able to adjust to her new life and they could trust her to be around others, the bard silently hoped.

"Ummmm, Mom, what smells so good?" Eve’s open pleasure brought Gabrielle to the present. As the young prophet rose from the chair, she began to light the candle lamps in the room, then glanced down into the open stone oven to take a peek at dinner.

"Oh, thank you honey, I almost forgot!" Gabrielle jumped out of Xena’s arms as she ran to peer in at the food. "I’m not quiet sure what it is, but I think it should fill us up for dinner. I had to put a little of this and that together," she explained as she took a nearby cloth, then reached in to the flat plate, pulling out the round, flat, spherical bread.

"Ummm, I don’t know what it is, honey, but it sure smells good!" her soulmate exclaimed as Eve began to set the table.

"Mom, should we wake up Ari?" Eve glanced at her sister’s sleeping form as she set the mugs on the table.

"Ummm….I don’t know. Maybe we should save her some? She had a pretty rough day," Xena began to say, but before anyone could answer a slight sound of shuffling blankets was heard from the sofa. Glancing at the shadows, they saw her poke her head up, tilt her head slightly and sniff. With sleepy eyes, she glanced at her family in confusion.

"There’s our girl now!" Gabrielle smiled at Ari. Although the girl’s appetite had waned when they first arrived, since settling into their home, Ari’s hunger was revived.

Xena chuckled softly as she shook her head, "Figures she would have gotten her appetite from you!" the warrior teased, then looked up at the sleepy girl. "Come on honey, come and join us for dinner."

Without needing any prodding, Ari rose from the darkness, the kitten in her hand as she rubbed her sleepy eyes. In only her white undershorts and shirt, she walked toward them and set the furry kitten on the ground. When she sat in her chair around the kitchen table, she yawned as she wiped the sleep from her eyes.

Once all of her family was gathered at the table, Gabrielle set the evening’s meal in the center. An expression of confusion covered Xena’s face as she looked at the meal. Eve, not quiet certain of what to say, only gazed at the round object. Ari, still half asleep, yawned again as she fought to wake up.

"Ummm….honey, I don’t want to seem critical but….what is it?" Xena arched a curious brow as she glanced from the round bread, to her soulmate.

"You know, I’m not really certain. The bottom is bread, I didn’t allow it to rise as I normally would, and I crushed the tomatoes that Meg gave me to make the base, I added some salt, pepper and a lot of garlic to the paste and different herbs. Oh! And remember the goat cheese that Virgil said was from farmer Menai? Well, that’s what I put on top, its sort of my own creation!" Gabrielle smiled, pleased that she was able to put together what little ingredients she had in her kitchen to provide a meal for her family.

"Ummm, that’s great honey, but, ummm…how do we eat it?" Xena looked at her confused.

"Well," the bard gazed down at the round object as she tried to find a way that they could eat the meal.

Before she could even respond, Ari reached over with her drawn eating knife. Taking the point of the blade, she cut a clean line down into the bread towards herself. Once one line was cut through the cheese, she cut another line until a triangle piece could be torn away. Without preamble, she yanked at the bread, the melting cheese dripping from it, and began to devour it as she held it to her mouth.

After a few moments of watching the girl, Xena shrugged, then cut another line and pulled a triangle piece off and placed it on Eve’s plate. Once they all had a piece, they began to eat the meal, imitating Ari. The smiles on her family’s faces as they ate the new delicacy was reward enough for Gabrielle.

~~~~~~

Ari ate her dinner in silence. If her stomach hadn’t been growling, she might have waited for her parents to decide on how to cut the round bread, but she was hungry and her hunger ruled her actions. Without thought, she cut herself a piece and began to devour it. After a few bites, she glanced at her parents, worried that they would be mad at her for eating it with her hands. When they saw how easy it was, they only shrugged their shoulders as they cut themselves some pieces and followed her lead.

Although her family was talking around her, the dark child remained silent as she concentrated on the meal. Occasionally, she had to pause to lick the dripping cheese from her fingers, but then she would return to eating with much gusto. Whereas her warrior mother and sister were filled with only a single piece, Ari took a second piece, and although she was certain that she could have eaten another whole piece, she offer the last one to her bard mother. With a slight smile, her mother took the last piece, cut it in half, and gave Ari half of it.

When they were both finished, they each sighed contentedly. As if noticing them for the first time, Ari looked at her warrior mother and sister. Both had a knowing smile as they watched Ari and Gabrielle. Not quiet certain why they were staring at her, Ari lowered her gaze, afraid that she had done something wrong.

"What?" Gabrielle wiped her mouth, then pushed the plate aside.

"Now I really know where Ari gets her appetite!" Xena snorted as she drank her ale. At her words, Eve laughed as she rose from the chair and began to clear away the plates.

"Oh, well, at least we get it honestly!" Gabrielle winked at her soulmate as she reached out and cupped Ari’s cheek with the palm of her hand, "Don’t we?"

Confused by her question, Ari swallowed the last of the tasty bread as she gazed at her mother. As if sensing her panic, her bard mother only sighed as she stood up and lightly rested her hand on Ari’s shoulder. "Come on honey, let’s relax a bit," she encouraged as she guided the girl into the main room.

When she saw Gabrielle sit on the sofa and hold her arms open, Ari allowed a slight smile to form as she moved to sit by the blonde. Leaning against the woman’s body, she felt her mother’s fingers running through her hair, her arm wrapped around Ari’s shoulder.

At the slight feel by her leg, she reached down and picked up her kitten, held it on her chest and began to stroke its mane. In a typical manner, the little creature began to battle with her fingers as a loud purring sound came from his throat. As she played with the kitten, her bard mother held her close and brushed her fingers through Ari’s hair.

"Honey, you know, you haven’t named him yet. Don’t you think he should have a name?" Gabrielle asked softly.

"N-Name…?" Ari glanced over her shoulder at her mother, then down at the kitten playing on her chest.

"Everyone needs a name, honey," Xena added as she used a flint to light the wood in the fireplace, before moving to sit beside her.

When Ari began to move to let her warrior mother sit beside her mate, Ari felt her warrior mother’s hand lightly touching her, indicating for Ari to remain where she was. Glancing at Xena through half lowered eyes the girl noticed her mother’s smile as she watched the furry ball fighting with her fingers. "Have you thought of a name honey?" the warrior asked after she got in a few gentle jabs at the kitten, then leaned back smiling.

"N-No…I-I didn’t even think about it," she confessed softly.

As the sound of her sister cleaning the plates was heard, Ari began to stroke the kitten as he grew tired and rested on her chest. While she thought over her mother’s question, she stared into the fireplace. She watched in silence as the flames licked upward. The reds and orange bolts danced together as the crackling sounds of the wood sputtered in the air. When she released a deep, sad sigh, she felt Gabrielle’s arm wrap around her tighter.

"How about Tiger?" Eve’s voice broke through her thoughts as she joined them in the room. Glancing at her sister, Ari frowned at the suggestion. With only a smile, Eve sat on the floor as she smiled at the kitten on Ari’s chest. "He looks like a Tiger," she stated firmly as she looked at Ari.

"Tiger? What do you think honey?" Xena asked. At the unusual name, Ari looked away from the two, hoping that she would not upset them.

"N-No…something…m-maybe something like Than?" Ari spoke softly as the kitten yawned, stretched out to his full, tiny size, then nuzzled back down and closed his eyes.

"You mean you want the name of a god for him?" Gabrielle asked. At her question, Ari glanced back at her, then sighed and nodded before her mother’s hand resumed the movements against her hair. "How about Pooka?" her smaller mother asked.

"Oh, now that’s a name for him!" Xena snorted as she shook her head.

"Mother, I’ve never heard of that word before. What is a Pooka?" Eve asked.

"A Pooka is a trickster spirit, and quiet mischievous!" Gabrielle laughed softly, "When your mother and I were in Britannia, we heard many stories about the fae folk, wood sprites and other mysterious creatures," the story teller explained, then began to tell the tale of the trickster spirit from a land Ari had never heard of. As she felt her mother’s arms around her, and listened to her soft, yet animated words, the dark child couldn’t help but smile at the images that were playing through her mind.

~~~~~~

"So have we thought of a name for him?" Gabrielle smiled down at her eldest, her hand gently brushed over the girl’s hair. In a tender manner, she tucked the blankets around Ari, then scratched behind the kitten’s ear. At her touch, the small creature tilted his head to the side, and only snuggled against the dark child’s body when the bard stopped scratching his fur.

With all that had happened, she had allowed the girl to forego the nightly bath. Knowing that Xena was still uncomfortable from her bruises, she enlisted Eve’s help and put the tub in their bedroom before filling it with steaming water. Once assured that her lover was stripped and in the bath relaxing, she turned her attention to sending her girl to bed.

Although she had discussed Xena’s habit of viewing Ari differently from Eve, Gabrielle realized that she fell victim to the same thing. She realized that while she did not govern Eve’s habits, that she did set down rules for Ari. The healer bard tried to reason that Ari needed structure, and she needed guidelines that lay the foundation of rules. Even though Ari’s life was horrible, Gabrielle knew the girl had no concept regarding proper conduct and rules. Hopefully, by setting down the same bedtime, the basic foundations were being put into place.

As if considering her bard mother’s question, Ari’s brow creased in thought as she petted the kitten. With a slight smile, she nodded as she glanced up at the blonde.

"I-I like P-Pooka," Ari stammered, her voice nearly a whisper.

Pleased by the sight of her child’s rare smile, Gabrielle’s eyes crinkled as a smile crossed her features.

"I think that’s a wonderful name for him!" the blonde agreed, then leaned down and kissed the girl’s forehead. "Now you and Pooka get some sleep, alright?"

Ari only nodded even as her eyes began to flutter close. When she saw the girl’s slow, even breaths, Gabrielle released a soft sigh as she gazed at Ari’s gentle features. Remembering the events of today, seeing Ari’s childhood home and the subsequent fury of the girl, the healer bard sighed softly as she wiped at the moisture in her eyes. Although she was not certain she was doing everything right to help her daughter, she hoped that her instincts were guiding her in the right direction.

‘Hopefully, with all of our help, Ari will be able to heal from her past abuse and learn to live a peaceful life,’ Gabrielle silently prayed as she made her way from Ari’s room.

When she walked through the home, she found Eve still awake on the sofa. A single candle lamp burned near the young woman as she read from a scroll. With a slight smile, Gabrielle leaned over her youngest child’s shoulder and read the words from a scroll that was written many years ago. At the familiar passage, she rested a palm over Eve’s shoulder.

"Don’t you ever get tired of reading that one?" Gabrielle asked softly.

Eve blushed slightly as she glanced back at the bard. "Nah, you know I’m a hopeless romantic! Besides, I enjoy reading about when you and Mom first realized that you were in love with each other."

With a surprised look, the story teller glanced down at the girl, the smile tugging at the corner of the blonde’s lips. "Why, what gives you the idea that this is a story about your mom and me? If I remember correctly, no names were ever mentioned!"

"Yeah right, the tales of A Warrior Princess and Bard really hides who the tale is about!" Eve snorted as she shook her head. At her words, Gabrielle laughed softly before planting a kiss on the top of the girl’s head.

"You have a point," she conceded before turning away from the girl. "Sleep well, sweetheart," she called back.

"Night Mom, you too," Eve echoed, then called out, "Mom?"

Stopping at the closed door of her bedroom, Gabrielle turned to her daughter. "Yes?"

"Do you think this is when you and Mom conceived me?" Eve asked with a serious expression as the older woman felt her cheeks grow hot. Seeing Gabrielle’s embarrassment, the young woman smiled broadly and winked. "Never mind, I’m just teasing."

"Brat!" Gabrielle shook her head, then blew a kiss to the girl. "Night, Sweetheart."

"Night, Mom."

Upon entering the dimly lit room, Gabrielle released an audible sigh as she leaned against the closed door. Finally the day was over and she could allow herself the luxury of relaxing. At the slight chuckle from the dimly lit room, she opened her eyes and glanced across the bedroom to where her lover sat submerged in the steaming water.

"Rough night putting the girl’s to sleep?" Xena smiled as she leaned back in the water, her eyelids hooded as a smile broke across her face. At the sight of her naked body glistening from the hot steaming water, Gabrielle found herself filled with thoughts that did not pertain to motherhood. Shaking her head, she stepped away from the closed door, slowly discarding her items of clothing as a wicked smile crossed her features.

"Let’s not talk about the kids tonight," she purred softly as she stepped into the steaming water and waited a moment as Xena adjusted herself until the tub could accommodate two people.

"Oh, and what would you like to talk about?" Xena held a seductive expression as she leaned toward the bard, her blue eyes sparkling mischievously.

"Oh….I think we can find something to discuss…." Gabrielle whispered ever so softly as she leaned toward her soulmate, her lips barely touching Xena’s. As she gazed into her lover’s eyes, she allowed the palms of her hands to wander over her lover’s silky soft flesh. "Or, rather than talk, we could … find other distractions…."

"Ummm….perhaps a game along the line of warrior and captive again?" Xena’s brow arched upward, the look of excited pleasure on her face.

"No," the bard answered quickly. Before Xena’s expression could turn to full blown disappointment, the smaller woman continued with a smile, "I was thinking more of, Amazon Queen and warrior captive," Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed to slits before her lips pressed against her lover’s. At the slight growl from Xena, she inwardly smiled as she felt the warrior’s tongue artfully dancing against her own.

Although she longed for a repeat of last night’s escapade, she knew that Xena’s poor bruises would do better with gentle love play. Knowing this, she decided that for tonight, she would be in control. Once her lover was forced to stillness, then the bard would be able to make such exquisite love to Xena, and in the process keep her from pain. No, on this night, she only wanted to give her soulmate pleasure, she decided as their kiss deepened while their gentle love play began.

~~~~~~

Ari lay silently weeping in the confines of her room. The house was bathed in darkness when she awoke from a disturbing dream. Although she could not remember all of it, what did return to her memories were the pleasing touches from the sorceress. Either unable, or unwilling to push away the feelings, the dark child resolved her needs in the only way she knew how. And just as it had happened before, while she was touching herself, she found her thoughts returning to the dream of Alti’s touch. Only in the end, when she felt herself reach the height of pleasure did the face change to that of her warrior mother, and this disturbed the child.

Alone, and very much afraid of what her dark, sick thoughts meant, Ari silently cried as she held her kitten, Pooka, against her. She was so convinced that her mothers would hate her if they knew what she was doing, that she hadn’t even thought of confessing her dark thoughts. Instead, she lay in the darkness, her mind trying to fathom what was happening to her as the unending shame filled her soul. When no answers came to mind, she simply allowed herself to drift back into disturbing dreams.

~~~~~~

With a slight sigh, the ghostly form sat alone in the dark home. Ever since she found herself back at her home, and not the Elysian Fields, Cyrene did not understand what was happening. At first, she was worried that Xena, Gabrielle, or Eve were in trouble. But when she saw the girl with them, she instantly knew she had not been brought back for them. No, although Ari was only a babe when given away to foster parents, Cyrene would know her grandchild anywhere. And just as she was certain of who the girl was, she knew that for some reason, she was sent back to help her granddaughter.

When she was finally able to fully appear to the girl this morning, she was elated. But her happiness was quickly dispelled after the incident in the forest. Cyrene had not heard the voices that Ari was hearing and this more than anything sent fear through the ghost. Whatever horrible things had happened to her grandchild while in the hands of that evil woman must have damaged the girl badly, and the grandmother knew that this is why she was brought back from the peace of the afterlife.

With a slight smile, the ghost moved to Eve’s room and looked down at her. She marveled at the young woman’s beauty. Although she had only met her once, the memory of Eve’s smile, and how much like her mother she seemed, remained embedded in the phantom’s memories. Now to see her so peaceful, Cyrene released a soft sigh before leaving the young woman’s dark room.

When she moved into her mother’s living room, she sat easily into the rocking chair. The ghost glanced around the old house and marveled at how much it had changed by simply having people living in it again. At the sounds of lovemaking from behind the closed door, Cyrene smiled as she leaned back and began to gently rock in the chair.

The ghost woman closed her eyes as she remembered the many times that her daughter had visited the inn with her blonde friend. At first, Xena tried to conceal their relationship, but as time passed by, there was no way that their love could be hidden. Although Cyrene had always known of her daughter’s love for the small blonde woman, she waited and kept her silence until Xena was comfortable enough to tell her. Once the secret was revealed, and she showed only acceptance towards Gabrielle, it seemed as if a weight was lifted from Xena’s shoulders.

With a smile, Cyrene remembered those days with fondness as the sounds of pleasure came from the closed door. Although she did not know how many years had passed since she last saw her children, she assumed that since her own death, many years had passed. When she first saw Meg, and noticed the uncanny resemblance of the woman, Cyrene thought that her child had aged considerably. But after learning that Meg was a mutual friend of Xena’s, and then seeing Xena’s family riding home together, she realized that although the years had passed, it was not enough to cause a visible change for her daughter.

Before she could think more of this, the spirit heard the silent whimpers of the oldest girl and frowned. Like other nights, she knew that her grandchild would not sleep well. Despite the silence that the girl showed by day, she knew Ari was filled with so much pain, fear, and sadness that it only came out in the middle of the night when the house was dark.

Certain to not do anything that would cause fear, the ghost of Cyrene moved to stand in the shadows of the girl’s room and watched her eldest grandchild from afar. She felt the sorrow pouring out with each tear that Ari shed. As she stood there in the dark, the ghostly figure allowed herself to feel the total anguish of her eldest grandchild. Her ethereal tears mirrored the droplets that now fell unheeded upon Ari’s pillow as the dark child slowly drifting back to sleep. When she felt Ari between the two worlds, Cyrene began to hum the familiar lullaby that had always soothed her own daughter.

No, Cyrene did not know how it was that her spirit had returned. She only knew her grandchild needed her and although she was no longer in the land of the living, Cyrene vowed she would do anything to help Ari heal from her past ordeal.

As she glanced down at her granddaughter, she felt Ari drifting into sleep. With the change, the spirit moved and smiled down at her granddaughter. She noticed Ari’s dark hair, so much like her mother’s, and her sensuously curved lips and thick lashes. Cyrene’s ghost could not help but see Xena in the girl. At this thought, the older woman gracefully sat on the floor beside the child. She began to hum a soft, melodic song as she reached down and lightly ran her ghostly fingers through the girl’s hair.

As of a few nights ago, it was always the same. Alone and in the dark, the girl would cry herself to sleep. Sometimes she would waken and pleasure herself, but as soon as her pleasure ended, the girl’s tears would begin. Although Cyrene could do nothing about this, whenever her granddaughter cried in her sleep, the ghost offered what little comfort she could. Each time Ari’s dreams took her into dark memories, the ghostly touch would soothe her brows and banish away the dreams.

"You’ll be alright baby, my little girl. Grandma is here for you, nothing can ever hurt you again," she whispered in the dark as the child was pulled back into her dreams.

No, Cyrene was not at all certain how she had managed to leave the comfort of the Elysian Fields. She only knew that for some reason, she was needed. If all she could do was hold the dreams at bay or help her granddaughter fight whatever voices beckoned to her, then she vowed that this would be her sole purpose for returning in the spirit form to the home of her youth. Nothing, not even death itself, could force her to abandon the child that needed her the most.

The End Of

Part 7

Sins of the Mother

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