Sins of the Mother (8) : Surrender
By L. Crystal Michallet-Romero
Copyright  ©  May 28, 2004 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.

Heterosexuality: You might be thinking, "Ewwwwe, yuck, there’s scenes like this in the story?" To which I’d have to say, yep, there is. But not to worry, you’re free to skip these icky, disturbing scenes. But keep in mind, if you do, don’t ask me later why you’re lost. It may not seem like it, but there is a method to my madness and everything I put into a story is there for a reason.
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@aol.com

Crystal’s web site at: http: //www.charani.org/XenaFanFicMichallet.html

 

 

Xena sat bare legged in the cool morning breeze. Abandoning her leather armor for just her cotton shift, she relaxed in the early morning sun. The few weeks since their arrival had passed without much incident. Their family life, the normal routine that occurred on a daily basis, was beginning to take on a familiar rhythm. Lately, Ari was waking up much earlier than the rest of the family to disappear for the better part of the morning. Eve, after working late into the night at Meg’s tavern, slept the morning away. Although their girls’ habits were falling into place, Xena and Gabrielle’s routine was anything but normal. Despite this, she felt that it was a welcoming change to the life of travel.

As the warrior methodically sharpened her sword, she reflected on her past. All of the images of the life before meeting her soulmate flickered past her memory until they settled on the days when she first met the storyteller. If anyone had told her back then that the plucky blonde girl would not only be her lover, but her life mate, Xena would have laughed the prediction away. Nothing would have convinced her on that first day that the small farm girl would be able to capture her heart as no other could. But she had. Just when she wasn’t looking, Gabrielle had swooped right in to take her breath away.

With a slight smile, Xena leaned back in the chair. Her hand stopped sharpening the sword as her thoughts replayed the images of her love. As a quirky smile formed, she felt a sudden heat cross her cheeks. Before her daydreams could continue, the sound of the door opening broke through her thoughts. Seeing the object of her love, the warrior smiled broadly as she set the flint down, and shifted the sword to her right hand in order to open her left arm to her mate. With the most beautiful smile she had ever seen, Gabrielle moved to her and leaned down for a kiss. As their lips met, the gentle prodding of her beloved’s tongue beckoned for entrance. Complying with her desire, the dark haired woman opened her lips and accepted the soft texture of her soulmate’s full kiss.

"Ummmmm… maybe we should go back inside?" Xena huskily whispered, as they broke apart. With her eyes closed, she took in the bouquet of aromatic fragrances that were Gabrielle’s alone. When the magic of their love threatened to pull her under, she parted her eyelids slightly, and smiled up at her lover.

"You know I would love nothing more, Xena," the storyteller whispered as she moved to sit on the warrior’s lap, her arms around the bigger woman’s shoulders as she gazed deeply into her eyes. "But, I think our girls would probably like to have breakfast this morning," Gabrielle cooed as the tip of her finger lightly traced the outline of the dark haired woman’s ear.

"Ummmm, then why are you driving me crazy, woman?" The taller woman’s grip tightened around her spouse’s waist. Gabrielle giggled at Xena’s discomfort, then reluctantly pulled away as she moved to the end of the porch.

"Sorry Xena, I shouldn’t tease you like that," the blonde smiled as she covered her mouth with the back of her hand, and turned suddenly serious. "But honest, Xena, I only wanted a kiss… and besides, you know there is more time for that later. I just want to get Ari into a pattern, help her become familiar with a routine." The Amazon explained.

"Discipline," the warrior nodded as she reached for her sheath, and pushed her sword into its protection.

"Yes, I guess you could call it that. I just want her to feel like there is a constant in her life, like there is a routine that needs to be followed. Then maybe it will be easier to start her on her lessons." Gabrielle spoke softly as she turned away to glance out at the nearby forest. "Where is she anyway?"

"She’s off in her tree again," the warrior sighed as she stood up and moved next to her partner. "Every morning, she wanders over there, climbs up it, and just sits," she explained, then added a bit softly, "sometimes, she talks to herself too."

"Oh," Gabrielle’s brow creased in thought. "Do you think that is bad? I mean, is that normal?"

Xena thought over the question. It was something she often wondered herself, yet had no answer. When she discretely followed her girl and found out what she was doing so early in the morning, she wondered if this was normal, or if this was a symptom of something worse. Truthfully, whenever she heard Ari talking to herself in the tree, or when the girl thought she was alone in the meadow and began to talk to someone no one else could see, a part of the warrior woman felt a genuine fear for her child. She remembered all of the various souls she had met in her life, many who were not sane, and how they often times spoke to the spirits in their minds. She knew that many ended up alone and destitute in a world that did not know how to handle their affliction and Xena was afraid that the same illness would be a part of Ari’s life.

At the feel of her soulmate by her side, the melancholy woman glanced down at her lover as she released a tired sigh. "I don’t know, honey. I-I want to believe that our girl will heal from everything that she’s gone through, honestly I do! B-But, I’m worried Gabrielle. It seems like lately she’s growing angrier and keeping everything inside." Xena grew solemn, then added in a hushed whisper "maybe I’m not the best one to help her with this?"

Sensing her sadness, the blonde moved into her arms. Her strong, Amazon grip hugged her close as she rested her head against Xena’s shoulder. With a sad sigh, the warrior held her lover in a tight embrace. She vainly tried to close out the disturbing images that were a constant plague to her mind ever since returning home. When she felt her lover’s palm against her cheek, she smiled down at Gabrielle.

"Xena, you will help Ari, we both will! We just have to be patient. The damage didn’t happen overnight, and she’s not going to heal from it overnight either. All we can do is be here for her, let her know that we love and support her with whatever she is going through. Sweetheart, that’s all we can do." The conviction in Gabrielle’s voice bolstered Xena’s spirits. With a slight smile, she nodded agreement, knowing that what her lover stated was true. No, they may not know what is needed to help their girl. All they could do was to let Ari know that they would always be there for her, that they would never turn away from her, no matter what.

"Why don’t you call her in for breakfast, it’s almost ready." The storyteller smiled as she pulled away from the warrior.

With a slight smile, she nodded as she moved away from the house. Cupping her lips, she called out once to her daughter. As she waited for any signs of movement in Ari’s tree, she wondered why she always had to go through this ritual. Every morning it was the same thing, she would call and call but her daughter would not respond. Only when she grew weary of the game, did Xena turn to her soulmate. With hands on hips, and a slight scowl, she glanced at Gabrielle.

"Here honey, I’ll do it." The blonde gave an apologetic smile as she lightly touched Xena’s arm. Looking back to the forest, Gabrielle called out their girl’s name. As predictable as always, Ari’s movements were seen in the moving branches of the distant trees.

"I just don’t understand her sometimes," Xena shook her head. "Why can’t she hear my voice? Aren’t I projecting far enough?" The taller woman shook her head.

"Yes, you are honey," Gabrielle weakly smiled as she looked away from Xena.

"Then I don’t get it! Is she trying to drive me crazy?" The dark warrior shook her head in frustration. Beside her, her lover sighed deeply as they waited for their girl to arrive.

"Xena, maybe she just gets preoccupied. Next time, I’ll try calling her first." The Amazon promised as the outline of their daughter was seen on the distant hill.

"If you did that, she’d probably come on the first call." The warrior princess muttered under her breath.

"Awe, Xena, I’m sure it’s not intentional." Her soulmate tried to appease her as the girl came walking down the grassy knoll.

Dust and dirt covered her dark boots while her brown britches carried the evidence of her recent tree-climbing excursion. The tunic that had been carefully laid out the previous night was now dusty and wrinkled. Her once shoulder length dark hair was beginning to grow past her shoulders. With head down, Ari walked right toward them, her body language exuding a façade of calmness.

"Honey, its breakfast time." Gabrielle reached out and lightly touched her daughter’s arm, then turned to enter their home. Ari gave her mother a weak smile as she brushed her hair back away from her eyes and followed the smaller woman into the house.

"We were beginning to wonder if you were ever going to come down and join us," Xena added with a broad smile. Just as she was getting ready to touch her daughter’s shoulder affectionately, Ari turned a gaze as cold as ice upon her. Within the blink of an eye, the warrior princess saw the full hate and anger emanating through her child’s single glare. Before she could question it, the girl turned away, her head lowered in defeat; her shoulders slumped, as she quietly followed Gabrielle into the house.

While a part of Xena understood her daughter’s actions, another part felt heartbroken by it. She knew everything that Ari was going through. The recovery from the abuse was only compounded by the girl’s experiences she underwent as a warrior. The ravages of war could not be forgotten, not even by the hardest of soldiers. Knowing that her child had far more on her plate than the average person, the older woman did her best to remain calm and understanding. Despite her best attempts, as the weeks waned on, she found it hard to brush aside Ari’s growing animosity. Yet, she was unable to think of a way to help her child.

~~~~~~

As boys go, Talouraj was of normal appearance. He did not stand out, nor did he show evidence of being extraordinary. In fact, he was hardly noticed in a crowd. Shorter than most boys his age, and with an unruly shock of reddish, brown hair that hung past his shoulders, Talouraj was a typical, ordinary teen. The only thing that made him stand out in a crowd was the occasional antics that he liked to play. Sometimes he got away with his pranks and was amused by whatever joke he played.

As he walked barefoot along the dirt path, he whistled softly to himself. With a small tin can in hand filled with earthworms and crawling creatures, he made his way toward his favorite fishing hole and easily carried the long sticks with thin cord over his shoulder. At a noise from up the hill, he raised his hand to block the early morning sun as he watched his friend running down.

Diores waved and smiled as he ran down to catch up with him. Standing a bit taller than Talouraj, Diores’ long, lean legs jogged down the slight incline. His dark, neatly cropped hair was still slicked back from the early morning washing he went through. Unlike the auburn hair youth, Diores’ clothes were fresh and neatly worn. Where the short lad had patches haphazardly covering his tattered, thread worn breeches and lightweight shirt, Diores clothing was relatively new and in good condition. Although the boys looked as different as night and day, they had found in each a friendship that seemed born throughout the ages. It was not a lovers’ bonding, rather, it was a bond found only in siblings. Like long lost brothers who had just met, the two youths found a commonality in each other that caused them to gravitate toward one another.

"Did ya get some good ones this morning, Tal?" The dark hair youth asked as he joined his friend.

"I got up before the morning began and dug out some nice, plump ones!" Tal’s smiling features beamed as he held up the tin to his friend. "We should catch some good ones today!" He smiled as he continued down the path, and then began to veer off of the road.

"Hey, I thought we were going fishing?" The dark boy asked, his face a mask of confusion.

"We are, right after we stop and see if the new girl wants to join us," the shorter lad replied with a smile as he continued up the hill.

"Are you crazy? You’re going to ask her to join us?" Diores stopped his friend by holding his arm. "Tal, I know I thought you were daft in the past, but now I really know you’re crazy! Why in the world would you be asking The Destroyer if she wants to join us?"

"Awe, Diores, don’t be like that," Tal implored his friend. "After all, we don’t know if she’s the same one. Maybe… maybe all those stories were mixed up and she’s not really the same person, I mean, you saw her. She really wasn’t all that bad," Talouraj stated.

"Not all that bad? NOT ALL THAT BAD?" the taller boy’s voice squeaked as if his voice was just changing. With a gulp, and a shake of his head, the taller youth glanced down at his friend, "Was I all alone in the alley when she almost killed us?"

"Almost is not the same as actually doing it," Tal reminded with a slight smile, and a wag of his finger, "Besides… it’s been a while now, we haven’t seen hide nor hair of them. Aren’t ya just a bit curious about them?"

Diores’ eyes grew narrow as he examined his friend, then an expression of realization crossed his features as he released a satisfied nod. "So that’s what this is about. Tal, you only want to invite her because you’re curious about her family."

"Of course, and you’re not going to tell me that you’re not curious? Not even a tiny bit?" The lad gave a knowing smile.

"Tal, haven’t you ever heard the old saying, ‘Curiosity killed the cat’?" The slender boy asked as he crossed his arms in front of his chest, a look of superiority crossed his features as he gazed down at his friend.

"Well… we’re not cats are we?" Tal would not be swayed as he continued up the hill, the fishing poles balanced on his shoulder. "Come on Diores, it will be fun! You don’t have school today, and besides, I don’t think she’s as bad as the stories say." He stated as he continued his ascent over the hill that overlooked the homestead of Xena, the Warrior Princess, her traveling companion, Gabrielle, the Battling Bard of Potidaea and their two equally famous children.

"I hope you know what you’re getting into," Diores sighed as he followed his friend up the hill.

If nothing else, Diores was as true a friend as Talouraj would ever find. In their short time as friends, they had gone through a great deal. They had a lot of fun, and shared in a lot of laughs. The dangers they went through, they did together and no matter what lay in the future, their friendship always kept them close. Although he held reservations about the dark, brooding daughter of Xena, Diores did not waver from joining his friend on his quest to befriend the infamous Destroyer.

~~~~~~

The turbulent feelings that surged through Ari left her filled with conflicting emotions. At night, when the house was silent, and everyone was asleep, she found herself pouring all of her needs into the single act which her Maia called, "getting to know yourself." For a time, finding this release helped, but it always ended the same way. Just when she was on the brink of orgasm, her memories would see Alti over her, the sorceress’ body would hold her down as the older woman’s fingers brought her such delight. But right before the pleasures could sweep her away, the face would change and she would see the image of her warrior mother in her mind, and it frightened the girl. If she could have, she would have spoken to Gabrielle. But she was too ashamed to admit to her own weakness, let alone shed the repulsiveness that always arose whenever she had to touch herself. So rather than speak openly of her feelings, she kept them bottled up deep inside until they became like a festering sore, with the object of her distain settling firmly upon her warrior mother.

As she followed the smaller blonde into the house, she fought to keep her anger at bay. Just as she used to do when in Alti’s presence, she felt a bridle of control fall over her as numbness filled her soul. Instinctively, she moved to the water basin and began to wash up for breakfast. Although she did not understand this habit, it was something that Gabrielle insisted on. Not wishing to disobey her Maia, the tall girl would follow the healer’s instructions.

"I bet you’re hungry for this." The storyteller said with a smile as she began to put chunks of warm meat onto her plate, and then poured some fresh scrambled eggs next to them. Always hungry for her bard mother’s food, Ari could only smile as she sat down for the morning meal.

"Ummm, honey, that smells wonderful!" Xena exclaimed just as the door to Eve’s room was opening up. With a tired yawn, the prophet waved at them as she made her way from the home.

Ignoring everything around her, Ari began to tear apart the bread as she devoured the morning meal. Although she heard their conversation, she put their words out of her mind. In the time that she had spent with her family she had learned not only to cloud their whispered thoughts, but to also let their voices turn from a constant monologue to a slight droning in the room. Not even when her sister joined them, freshly washed, did the girl lift her head to greet her. Instead, she continued to eat and occasionally reached down to pet her kitten. When she felt the little beast climbing up her pant leg, she scooped up the fur ball and settled him in her lap. At his insistent meowing, she took some small pieces of meat from her plate and gave it to the kitten. Apparently satisfied, her pet remained still as he concentrated on eating the morsels that she had provided.

"… it means a lot to your mother and I," Xena’s words filtered through to Ari’s senses. Glancing up from her plate, she looked around the table and noticed both of her mothers smiling at her sister.

"Oh mom, you know I don’t mind. I like working at Meg’s and the tips are great!" Eve exclaimed as she nibbled on the morning meal.

"Well, still, its helps us out a great deal. What with all of the chores around the farmstead, I’m afraid that I wouldn’t have time to also hunt to provide the meat. Your earnings are making it possible for us to keep food on the table!" The warrior princess exclaimed as she reached over and clasped her youngest daughter’s arm.

Ari watched as the two women exchanged a loving glance that suddenly reminded the girl of the bond they shared — a bond that she would never have. As the anger and jealousy slowly boiled, the dark teen scowled as she averted her eyes to her lap. She felt her brow knit as the image of Xena’s love for Eve flowed through her memories. While the women continued to speak to each other, Ari could only remain silent. Intellectually she knew that her warrior mother loved Eve more. But knowing the truth never helped her to deal with the real pain it caused. While a part of her wanted to run away in tears, another part continued to harden against the cruel realities of her life. No, Xena will never love me the same, and why should she? Her mind raged as the jealousy continued to grow.

As her emotions raged out of control, she felt a gentle touch against her bare arm. Glancing up through the curtain of her bangs, she noticed Gabrielle, her Maia, smiling softly at her. Just a single look from the blonde and Ari felt the warmth of love fill her heart.

"Honey, you are doing so much to help us out too," the blonde spoke softly and she reached up and tenderly brushed back the strands of Ari’s hair away from her eyes. "Ari, you’ve been such a big help around here with everything." Gabrielle began to say, but was cut off by a slight snort across the table. Glancing toward the owner, Ari felt her smile disappear when she saw Eve’s smirk.

"Eve!" Ari thought she heard a tinge of impatience from Xena.

"Oh, I’m sorry," Eve grew suddenly serious as she gulped. "I just… I mean, honestly mothers, you can’t tell me that it wasn’t funny to see everyone trying to clear the smoke out of the house when Ari…"

Ari felt a heat cross her cheeks as she turned away, the memory of her mistakes still fresh in her mind. Before her sister could humiliate her further, the tall girl rose from the table. With kitten in hand, she made her way to the only sanctuary that she had within this home, and that was her room.

"Eve!" she heard both of her mothers say as she climbed up the ladder to her room.

"Ari, I’m sorry!" Eve called, "Please Ari, I was only teasing, I didn’t mean anything by it." But Ari did not wait. Instead she climbed into the small opening and made her way to the corner of her room. As the early morning chill of the room settled around her, she moved to the corner of her cot and sat with her back against the wall. As she thought over her sister’s words, she lightly petted her kitten as he climbed up her body and on her shoulder.

She, more than anyone, did not have to be reminded of her mistakes because they were all etched deep in her core. Although Gabrielle did her best to teach her things around the house, she could never seem to get it right and on more than one occasion, had caught their evening meal on fire. It seemed the only chores she could help with, entailed working closely with Xena on the outside of the house, which under normal circumstances she might have enjoyed if Xena hadn’t always been around. Only under close guidance, just as she used to do with Alti, was Ari able to follow the instructions of her birth mother.

At a noise from the entrance, she glanced up and watched as the blonde climbed into the room. Once inside the darkness, the storyteller glanced around the shadows and smiled when she saw Ari huddled in the corner. Although her heart ached, the girl could not help but feel her mother’s love shinning down upon her.

"Oh Ari, I’m sorry you got your feelings hurt," Gabrielle spoke softly as she made her way to the girl’s side. After glancing around the darkness, the smaller woman reached out and lightly brushed her fingers through the girl’s hair. "Why don’t we let some sun in?" The woman softly spoke as she released the latch and opened the two panels of the bedroom window.

When the morning sunlight filtered in, she turned back and looked at the girl, her eyes searching for something. Unable to maintain eye contact, Ari looked away from the storyteller as she continued to pet her kitten, who was now nuzzling in her lap. Although she knew the blonde cared for her, at times she found it difficult to face the woman’s emotions.

"Honey, you know that Eve didn’t mean to hurt you, don’t you?" She asked softly.

Ari only shrugged her shoulders as she kept her gaze lowered.

"She sometimes forgets, you aren’t used to teasing just yet, but in time, maybe you’ll begin to understand the loving banter between family members." Gabrielle’s words were soft as she continued to stroke the girl’s hair.

"T-Teasing?" Ari’s voice was barely a whisper as she cast her mother a sidelong glance.

"Teasing, yes, it’s like… well," Gabrielle sat back as she gazed up at the ceiling in thought, then smiled down at the girl, "It’s like joking. Sometimes family members joke with each other, you know, find humor in some of the things that are done, or said. It’s normal, which is why I think Eve forgets sometimes that you don’t fully understand everything about family dynamics."

"B-But Eve was right, I did m-make a mess of the place." Ari sighed in defeat.

"Yes, and someday you’ll be able to look back at it and laugh about it," Gabrielle stated matter-of-factly. "Oh Ari, it is not anything serious, and yes, sometimes family members have a tendency to tease and joke with each other about little mishaps like that. Trust me, honey, it’s not serious and in no time at all, you’ll be able to laugh about the little mishaps happening to you," the storyteller smiled as she pulled the girl into her arms. "Please believe me, baby, Eve didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. It’s just that, well, sometimes it’s hard for all of us to remember that this is all new to you. Please, be patient with us?"

Ari glanced at her Maia as she thought over her words. At the warmth of her voice, the girl sighed as she turned away. Her fingers continued to stroke the kitten’s fur as she thought over the explanation. Although she did not understand why Eve would have reminded them of a mistake she made, she had no choice but to believe her Maia. If Maia says that this is how families treat each other, then she must be right because she would never lie to me, she thought as she looked at the storyteller and returned her smile.

"Good, then we’re ok?" the blonde asked as she examined Ari closely. With a slight smile, the girl nodded as she shyly turned her gaze away. "Good, then why don’t you come back down, I have some of those little pastries with the filling in it that your mother likes so much. I thought we deserved a treat today!"

Ari smiled at the mention of the pastry treats and lifted her kitten from her lap, depositing him upon her bed. Without needing any prodding, she rose to her full height and followed the smaller woman to the opening of her room. Although she knew that she made many mistakes, she hoped that her mother was correct and that someday, she would laugh about these times with her family.

"Mother, honest, I am sorry, but you’re not going to try to tell me now that you didn’t want to laugh the last time that Ari set our dinner on fire, are you?" Eve asked soon after Gabrielle went chasing after Ari. As she thought over her youngest daughter’s question, a slight smile caught at the corners of Xena’s lips. No, she did have to admit that although it was not funny at the time, thinking back upon it, it was rather funny watching the fumes of smoke billowing out of the windows as both Ari and Gabrielle stood covered in a thin film of soot. The warrior wasn’t certain what was more funny, the fact that three attempts to teach her how to cook failed, or the scene of the two women surrounded by the black cloud.

Despite her desire to laugh, Xena donned a serious mask as she lowered her eyes from her daughter. "Eve, regardless, Ari is still not used to us, and it’s not easy for her right now. I think a bit more understanding is called for on your part."

"Oh mother, I know!" The prophet smiled as she began to clear the plates from the table. "I just can’t help it, sometimes the things she does are just so… so… funny!" She chuckled softly as she placed the plates in the warm water that was in a small tub. As she began her chore, the sound of feet climbing down a ladder caught their attention. Turning up to the girl’s room, they watched as Gabrielle climbed down first, then was followed by Ari. At a freezing look from the blonde, Eve quickly wiped the smile from her face.

"I think its time for a bit of a treat before we all start out the day, don’t you?" Gabrielle acted normally as she moved into her domain. Ari glanced shyly at both women, then lowered her gaze as she moved to her place at the table.

"Ari, I’m sorry," Eve offered as she moved to her sister, placed her hand on the taller girl’s shoulder, and gently squeezed. Ari glanced up at her sister, and nodded as she turned away. As a way to make her feel at ease, Xena leaned forward and lightly touched her child’s hand.

"Ari, what your mother was saying, she’s right. You’ve been a big help around here, what with all of the work that you’ve helped me do, I couldn’t have done it without you." Her warrior mother smiled, then her eyes grew wide and a smile formed on her lips when she saw the blonde carry a small plate of pastry treats to the table.

"Ummmm, honey, to what do we owe such an occasion?" Xena’s attention suddenly turned away from her child as she reached for a treat.

"No reason, I just felt like it," the Amazon smiled as she leaned back and watched her family enjoy the food. Since settling in, Gabrielle soon realized that she enjoyed making meals for her family. When she and Xena were on the road, she had always been relegated to cooking , which is why at times it felt like a chore. But now that she had her girls with her, she could not help taking delight in seeing them eagerly eat whatever meal she prepared, even if it was Xena’s favorite dish.

It had been a few weeks since Ari’s outburst, and things around the home seemed to be calming down. Although Virgil and his friends repaired the home, there was much around the land that was in disrepair. With Ari’s help, Xena managed to repair some of the things while Gabrielle kept the home running smoothly. During the day and most of the evening, Eve left to help Meg run the tavern. The thought that they were dependent upon Eve’s wages rankled the warrior at the beginning, but as the days wore on, she had to admit that it was nice to be able to pay for the various things that they needed around the homestead.

After eating her pastry treat, Xena leaned back comfortably in her chair as she sipped her mug of warm tea. She released a satisfied smile as she watched her family. Eve licked off the jelly from her fingers that fell from the pastry, then turning to chat aimlessly with Gabrielle. True to form, Ari remained silent as she played with the kitten in her lap, while eating the pastry treat that Gabrielle prepared.

With Eve’s wages, Gabrielle’s kitchen was stocked with the basics that she needed for cooking and baking. The extra wages helped them purchase supplies needed to build a corral. Once she and Ari finished some heavy chopping and cutting, they began to construct a corral for the horses to run in while not in the barn.

Xena didn’t have the heart to tell her daughter that the main reason for the corral was to put Ari’s beloved horse in it while Argo and Pyxis roamed free without needing to fend off Thanatos’ advances. Not gelded, the stallion did everything possible to interest the mares, but no matter how hard he tried, neither Argo nor Pyxis would allow him to mount them. This, more than anything, brought a slight chuckle to Xena. Yet being sympathetic to the mares’ needs she decided that a cooling off time would not hurt Than, and would give the smaller mares the relief they so badly needed.

At a funny comment from her soulmate, Xena smiled as she released a satisfied sigh. Leaning back, she began to tuck the bottom of her shirt into the waist of her pants that she had changed into before breakfast. Normally, when in the village she wore her leather garments and armor. But when they stayed home, like Gabrielle, she donned comfortable work clothes. Depending on what the daily chore would be, she would either wear a short, comfortable skirt and top. On other days when she knew the work would require a lot of hard, manual labor, she wore long breeches like her eldest daughter. Today, she wore the faded brown breeches that were tucked into her leather boots, and a comfortable short sleeve shirt.

"No more? You’re ok? Because there’s some more if you’re still hungry," Gabrielle took Xena’s empty plate and was ready to refill it.

"No honey, I’m fine, very full!" Xena patted her stomach for emphasis.

"I don’t want my farm girl going to work hungry." The storyteller’s eyes crinkled as she cast the tall warrior a loving smile.

Since the last disastrous attempt at love making a few weeks back, the two had managed to make up for that very bad day. Xena could not have explained her voracious sexual needs, all she knew was that ever since coming back to life after Higuchi, she couldn’t seem to get enough of her soulmate. No, it was not like the urges she felt while possessing Zara’s body. It was more like a thirst lingering in the back of her mind, which was finally sated when she could fully share with her lover. For Xena, it was as if she had been reborn with acute senses. Everything seemed so much better this time around. What she saw was far more beautiful than she ever remembered, the scent was enhanced and her sense of touch and taste increased. She loved life. That is what Gabrielle had told her one day. It was like the year of existing in the spirit form gave the tall woman an appreciation for life.

Apparently reading her mind, the smaller woman’s cheeks turned a crimson shade of red as she shyly lowered her eyes. Gabrielle, more than anyone, would know what Xena was thinking. And right now, the warrior princess was wondering if they would have time to steal a few moments away from their girls in order to grab a quickie, as the Amazon once called it. Before she could contemplate this further, a sound from outside caught her attention. Hearing the same noise, the blonde tilted her head slightly as she turned her attention to the door.

"C-Can I have the rest?" Ari asked, oblivious to the commotion outside.

"Of course honey, here you go." Gabrielle smiled tenderly at their girl as she held the plate with a single pastry toward their eldest daughter.

While Xena rose from the table, Ari devoured the puffy treat unaware of the visitors outside. Alert to trouble, Eve glanced at the storyteller, and then turned to watch her warrior mother leave the house. With a smile of assurance, Xena patted her daughter’s shoulder as she moved to the door and opened it carefully. Standing in the opening, the two young boys she remembered from the village were whispering to each other, arguing about who was to knock on the door.

"Good morning!" Xena allowed her smile to beam at the two boys. Surprised by her sudden appearance, they each took a step back as they gulped nervously. Moving out to the edge of the porch, she stood tall, towering over the two youths, then relaxed and leaned against the beam of the porch as she took in the two lads.

Xena would never forget their faces when they were in the village. Just remembering the way they were kneeling in front of Eve, their hands folded in prayer as they listened to her prophet daughter’s words, caused the tall woman to smile. She thought it was amusing the way they occasionally glanced fearfully over their shoulders.

The warrior princess was never fooled about what had happened in the town square. Although Ari never mentioned it, the dark warrior was certain that these boys sudden conversion after throwing ripe tomatoes at Eve had more to do with their fear of Ari, and not their sudden desire to find peace with Eli. Despite this knowledge, neither Xena nor Gabrielle made mention of it. Instead, they allowed their eldest to think they were unaware of her actions to protect her sister.

"So, looks like you’re going to get in some fishing, ‘ey boys?" Xena asked as she placed her hands into her trouser pockets and beamed the boys a smile. True to form, the two youths blushed, as they were held spellbound. When neither of the boys answered her, she nodded at the fishing poles the shorter, auburn hair boy carried over his shoulder.

"Fishing, you boys going fishing?" She asked again.

"Oh… ummm…" the smaller youth suddenly pulled himself from his trance and glanced at the poles, then nodded vigorously. "Oh, yes, me and Diores here, we was just going to go fishing."

"Oh, good morning for it, boys! Over at the lake?" They nodded, which caused a stir of excitement in the woman. "I used to always fish there myself in my younger days, yesser. Me and my brothers would go over there and get us some nice big ones. Say, have ya ever tried fishing with your hands?" She stepped from the porch. The boys looked at each other in confusion, then shook their heads negatively. "Oh, too bad because it’s the best! All you have to do is, ya stick your hand underneath the water, and ya feel around ‘til ya find a great big, succulent fish. And then you do this," she explained as she wiggled her fingers. "See, you wiggle your fingers so it looks like bait and then, whammo!" She pretended like she was slugging the air. The boys smiled as they watched her, then seemed to grow excited at the idea.

"We’ve never fished like that, we only use a pole." The dark haired boy spoke up for the first time.

"Yeah, this is the only way we know how ta fish," the shorter youth added, then his eyes grew large when he suddenly remembered something, "oh, my name is Talouraj, Tal for short, and this is my friend Diores. We thought, since there was no school, maybe your daughter would like to join us for some fishing," the one named Talouraj stated, as Diores nodded vigorously. Before anything could be said, both Eve and Gabrielle came out of the house.

"Hello," Eve’s voice held a different tone, one that was not commonly used with her family. "Are you here for some spiritual guidance?"

At Eve’s question, the boys’ smiles suddenly turned downward as they looked at each other with panicked expressions. When the taller boy nudged Tal, the auburn youth gulped and glanced up at Eve. His forlorn expression revealed his true sentiments. At noise from the doorway, both boys began to smile as they watched Ari come out of the house. With a half-eaten treat in her hand, napkin still in the collar of her shirt, and a smudge of fruit spread on her chin, the girl looked perplexed at the gathering.

"We was wondering if you might want to go fishing today," Tal spoke up quickly, then looked at Eve shyly, "Sorry, miss, but we sort of… ummm, well that is to say, if you wanted to come, I don’t see why you can’t!"

As if the thought of spending the day fishing was more than she could bear, Eve scowled slightly as she glanced at the can in Tal’s hands. Mistaking her glance for interest, the boy lifted the tin up and showed her the dark earth filled with thick, crawling worms.

"Bait!" He exclaimed to Eve’s horror.

Curious about the item, Ari stepped forward and looked down into the tin as she munched on the last piece of her breakfast. When she saw one crawling close to the top, she reached in and picked it up, holding it up to the light to examine its crawling form. Confused by it, she looked at Xena who was smiling at her daughters’ reactions.

"Oh, that’s a nice one! It’s going to make a nice supper for a fish!" Xena nodded as she took the worm from her daughter and inspected it.

"Ewww, gross! Mother, how can you stand those things!" Eve scowled as she pulled away from the two. "It’s all right, you both can go fishing with Ari if that’s what you want," She shook her head and turned away, blanching at the sight of the crawling worms.

"I don’t know much about worms, but if Xena says they’re good, I’m sure you’ll catch some big ones with those." Gabrielle softly spoke up for the first time.

"So, if it’s ok with both of you, maybe your daughter might want to join us?" The taller shy boy spoke up as he looked at Ari.

Xena was both concerned and pleased. She was pleased that after only a short time, Ari might begin to make friends with other people. Yet she was concerned about her daughter’s temper. Although Ari had not acted up lately, the warrior was worried that something might happen, and her child would take out whatever anger she held on these boys. Despite this, she glanced at Gabrielle for guidance. In tune with each other’s thoughts, their communication passed between them. When her smaller lover shrugged her shoulders and looked at Ari, Xena turned to her daughter.

"What do you think honey, would you like to go fishing with…" Gabrielle turned to the boys.

"He’s Diores and you can call me Tal," he introduced themselves again for Gabrielle’s benefit, then quickly added, "I live a few hills over with my father, and he lives on the outskirts of Amphipolis with his grandparents." At the boy’s introduction, Xena noticed how the Amazon cast their oldest daughter a cautious glance. Like the warrior, the blonde was wondering how their girl would react around others. When Ari continued to look into the tin of crawling worms, Gabrielle released a soft sigh and a nod.

"Oh, ok, well, Ari, if you’d like to go with Tal and Diores, I’m sure your mother could spare you for the day." Her soulmate looked at Xena for reassurance.

"Well, I was hoping to finish the corral today, but, of course Ari, since it’s close to a rest day, we might as well take the day off. Go and have fun while the fish are still out!" Xena added enthusiastically.

Ari’s features were a mask of indecision. She looked at her bard mother first, then to Xena. When neither one spoke again, she looked at the boys, almost afraid of the prospect, then gulped as she nodded in agreement.

"Oh, here honey," Gabrielle stopped the tall girl. The shorter woman took the napkin that was tucked in Ari’s shirt collar and tenderly wiped at the food smudge on her chin. After a concerned look, the blonde smiled up at the tall girl. "Ok, now go and have fun" The storyteller smiled. With only a shrug, Ari began to follow the boys up the hill, her head bent as she listened to them, occasionally nodding at something that they said.

"Xena?" her soulmate’s fears tinged her voice.

"Don’t worry honey. As soon as they’re out of sight, I’ll follow and make sure that nothing happens," the warrior sighed as she reached around her spouse’s shoulder and pulled her into an embrace. "Too bad…" Xena allowed her words to trail off as her lips lightly kissed the crown of her lover’s head.

"It’s ok Xena there will be other times for quickies. Right now, its good for Ari to make friends," Gabrielle smiled, and when their daughter looked back down at them from the hill, the healer waved at the girl, then leaned into Xena’s arms. "This could be the best thing for her."

"I hope so, Gabrielle." Xena replied.

If there was anything that Alti taught Ari, it was to obey without question. When Xena showed her how to chop wood, or dig holes, she did so without complaint. Sometimes, when the sun was beating down on her and her back ached from the work, a part of her felt angered that she was forced to do such menial labor. When she returned home that first day with aching hands, she was upset to have been forced into this type of work. Although she had developed calluses from carrying weapons, she soon learned that there were parts of her hands that still had not formed the hard, protective flesh, and this angered her. Never had Alti ever forced her to do such things. In fact, this type of work was left to the slaves. The only thing that Ari ever had to do was to train, fight wars and please Alti in every way, and this she knew she was good at.

On that first night after working, the dark child remained silent as her Maia covered her palms with a salve, then wrapped her hands in bandages. Although they had taken the next day off, after that Xena had her back at work. A part of her wanted to protest. She longed to have the strength she once held prior to joining her family. Back then, she would have barked an order, and know that it was being obeyed. But things were different now. She was no longer the leader of an army and Alti was dead. Ari’s life as a fighter was over. She now had to learn to live in this world with her family and as hard as it was at times, she knew that there was little she could do but obey and follow Xena’s commands. So like she did with Alti, the dark child did as she was told without thought or question. If her mother told her to chop wood, then she was out all day chopping down trees until the palms of her hands were bleeding, and her back ached from sheer exhaustion. She wouldn’t stop for breaks until her warrior mother instructed her to, and then, she wouldn’t allow herself the luxury to relax until she knew that their day was finally over, and they were heading back home.

One advantage to the days when she worked hard was that Ari no longer had time to think. Without this, the memory of her dream that included her mother did not enter her mind and she was able to sleep most of the night away. Not even her urge for release nagged at her, because she was simply too tired to think about it. All she could do was follow her mother’s instructions, and obey her words. This is what she did when the two village boys began to walk away from her. Although she did not know why Xena wanted her to join the boys, she decided that obeying the warrior was preferable to arguing with her.

"See, you just hook the worm like this, and toss the line in, then wait," Tal, the shorter of the two boys said as he threw her line into the water, then settled the wooden stick into the ground with a rock propping it up.

"You’ve never gone fishing before?" He asked.

"N-No," Ari replied softly as she followed the line into the water. "A-And now what?"

"We wait!" Diores laughed as he settled back on the grass.

"Yep, we wait," his friend added as he laid back, hands behind his head as a pillow as he closed his eyes.

Ari remained silent as she glanced at the two boys, then back to the water where the cord met the ripples. The early morning sun cast a glow over the shimmering waves that gently rolled through the lake. Behind them in the distant trees, she heard the choir of birds chirping in the tall tree branches.

As her mind began to wander, she pondered the purpose of this activity. She had never fished because to her, it served no purpose. She always knew from Alti’s lessons that the better meat was the wild game and that fish would be eaten only when no other sources were available. She never liked the taste of fish. Although she did have to admit that ever since traveling with her mothers, she learned that the food her bard mother prepared was far different than what Alti used to make. Gabrielle’s meals were always tasty and a pleasure to consume. Even the fish that her warrior mother caught held a distinct flavor that was appealing.

"Are you going to go to school?" The taller boy broke her concentration.

"S-School?" She turned to Diores, a look of confusion on her face.

"Yeah, I go to school to learn to read and write. My grandparents want me to one day go to the Academy in Athens." He eagerly added.

"Diores is going to be a scholar!" Tal laughed as he nudged his friend, then turned a serious expression on Ari, "Me, I don’t need no schooin’, I like being able to fish and do whatever I want, whenever I want!"

"Well, not all of us can do that," the dark haired lad frowned as he brushed away his friend’s teasing. "What about you, Ari, are you going to go to school?"

"I d-don’t know. Maia, umm, Gabrielle s-said I c-could learn." She frowned slightly as she glanced down at the reflection of the sun in the rippling water.

"Then maybe you’ll get to go to my school! The old schoolmarm, Miss Bruousa, isn’t so bad. She’s renowned in Macedonia for her teaching and she can get me a personal meeting with the head of the Athens Academy!" the young lad smiled proudly, then added, "It would be nice if you could go, then at least there would be someone to talk to."

Confused, she looked at Tal, "You d-don’t want to learn too?"

"It’s not that I don’t want to learn," his voice grew soft as he sat up, averting his gaze from her as he took a blade a grass and began to pull it with his fingers, "it’s just… just that…." He sighed and shook his head.

"His father can’t afford the cost. Ever since his mom died, the farm hasn’t been the same," Diores explained softly as he patted his friend’s shoulder. "Maybe someday, but until then, I try to show him what I’m learning."

"And it ain’t much good!" Tal laughed as he seemed to brush away any previous sadness, "Things just don’t stick in my head like they should," he explained to Ari, then waved his hands as a way to end the discussion. "But tell us, Ari, which one is your mom?"

"W-Which one?"

"Tal! Don’t be rude, you shouldn’t ask that." The darker boy whispered as he softly slugged his friend’s shoulder.

"Wha? I’m only wondering, you know that you’ve wondered the same thing. Since we’re friends now, why can’t I ask?" The shorter youth explained, then turned again to Ari, "Is Xena your real mom or Gabrielle?"

"Oh," dawning registered for Ari as she nodded understanding. "X-Xena is the one who gave b-birth to me." She looked away, heat crossed her cheeks as an uncomfortable feeling settled in.

"Which stories are true about them?" The ever-persistent youth asked.

"S-Stories?" The dark child frowned in confusion.

"Yeah, you know… the stories. Which ones are true, the ones where they’re just friends, or where they’re, you know, more than friends" He smiled, then gently pushed against her with his elbow.

"Tal, knock it off! That’s none of our business." Diores shook his head as he frowned at his friend.

"I was only asking because…."

"Well, it’s none of your business, besides, does it matter?" The dark boy stated as he admonished Tal.

"I’m just curious is all..."

As the two boys began to argue with each other, Ari released a soft sigh as she watched their exchange with interest. In all of her life she had never been this close to outsiders in this way. True, after conquering many of the villages, the villagers were brought to her, but never had she taken the time to talk with them. Not even when she was with Gabrielle’s family did she get to know them. For her, the only purpose of getting to know villagers was to look over the virgins and chose the ones that she would deflower. Beyond that, she had little use for them.

"So, how old are you?" The ever-inquisitive redhead asked. At his sudden question, Ari turned her attention to the boys. Thinking that she did not understand them, he asked again, "Are you sixteen or seventeen? You’re tall enough to be seventeen, but ya don’t look much older than me."

"Tal’s only asking because Meg’s a stickler on who she sells her spirits to, and we usually sell the fish we catch to earn enough coins for a few mugs of ale," the lithe boy chuckled. "You remember when she used to have a height requirement?"

"Yeah, yeah, bring that up again," the auburn boy waved away his friend’s words, "She had to change the height requirement when I turned sixteen." He explained, then added, "I don’t think she’ll give ya a hard time though, seeing as you’re so tall and all." Both boys chuckled as Ari looked away.

In an absent manner she pulled her legs to her chest as she thought over Tal’s question. She had never thought about her age, and she realized that she did not know how old she was. The only thing she knew for certain was that she was Xena’s first born, but exactly when she was born, Ari didn’t know. As the day progressed, she silently contemplated this thought. From time to time, she listened to the boys’ conversations, and answered their questions, when asked. Although the situation was unique to her, she found their periodic bouts of talk as interesting as their moments of silence. It was like they had always been around each other enough to know when words were necessary. As her mind wandered over a myriad of thoughts, she heard the shorter boy’s voice calling her attention.

"So… have you?" Tal’s voice asked again as he broke into her train of thought. "Hello, anyone in there?" His hand moved in front of her eyes. Blinking in surprise, she pulled away from the youth, and looked away.

"W-What?" Her brows creased as she tried to understand Tal’s question.

"Have you? You know… I mean, I assume you prefer girls, right?" The shorter boy maintained his eye contact. Diores remained silent as he watched Ari intently, waiting for her answer. "I just thought that, ya know, you preferred girls and I’m wondering if you’ve been with any… ya know, in that way?"

Ari understood his question yet did not know why he would ask it. As a part of her felt a flush of embarrassment, memories flashed before her. Images of faces, women she did not know, but used for her own pleasure. At these memories, she gulped nervously as she looked away from the boy.

"You know, it’s ok if you’re a virgin, I mean, I don’t believe all of the stories told, that is, we don’t believe them." The taller boy said gently.

With a suspicious glance, she looked from Tal, to Diores then asked, "A-Are you?"

"Who me?" Tal was the first to laugh. "Nah, why I’ve… that is we…" He looked at his dark haired friend who nodded vigorously.

"We aren’t virgins." The tall boy laughed nervously.

"No, not at all, why I must have been with at least a hundred woman!" Tal scoffed.

"Oh yeah, hundreds!" Diores agreed.

Ari looked at them incredulously, her gaze moved from Tal to Diores. After a short time under her scrutiny, Tal frowned and turned away from Ari’s penetrating gaze. "Well… maybe not quite a hundred."

"Yeah… maybe more like… ummm… none!" Diores’ face was a bright shade of red as he looked at his friend, then away from Ari.

"Unless you count in our dreams!" The shorter boy laughed heartily as he leaned over and pushed his friend in a good-natured manner.

"Oh, at least a thousand!" His taller friend hooted loudly as he pushed back against his friend. After a few moments of jostling each other, the boys stopped, their laughter subsiding as they turned to Ari.

"So, I was wondering, maybe ya might be up for a visit to Elenh’s place? What do you say? All we’d need is some dinars, and we’d be in!" Tal smile broadly as he glanced from Ari to Diores.

"That’s the problem, Tal, I don’t have any dinars. What little we have, my grandparents need." The taller boy released a sigh as he looked away, a frown on his face.

"I’ve got that covered too, listen, both of you, here’s all we have to do," the shorter boy waved them closer as he glanced around to make certain that they were not being heard. "That traveling merchant will be here in a few days. All we have to do is look around our houses for anything that our families don’t use, then we take it to the merchant and there ya go! We have some dinars to buy time with the whores!"

Diores pulled away, a frown on his face. "I don’t know about that, Tal."

"Listen, if it’s something that your family never uses, then they won’t miss it, right?" He asked as he turned from first Ari, to Diores. "Ari, aren’t there things in your house that your moms never use?"

The girl had to think about his question as a nod of acquiesce formed.

"Well there ya go! If they never use it, then how can they miss it, right?" His words seemed to make sense.

"S-So if I find things that they d-don’t use?" She asked in hopes of understanding his instructions.

"Then we’ll take everything that we have to the peddler, and he will give us dinars for it. But remember, whatever we get from our own homes, we keep ourselves, ok? No offense, but I want to be able to use all of my dinars on the best woman at Elenh’s place! Sorry, but you both will have to make due with what your trade items bring you," he nodded confidently, then added, "But above all else, do not tell your parents about it."

"Why n-not?" Ari asked, as confusion etched her features.

"Because, if either of your mothers know, they might try to stop you from having fun, right? So don’t tell them. What they don’t know won’t hurt them. And if they haven’t used the items that we’re going to sell, then they won’t miss it, right?" He added confidently.

Although Ari didn’t understand his words, she had to admit that it made sense. When she saw the look of confidence in Tal’s eyes, she mirrored his smile as she nodded in agreement. Both teens turned to their silent friend. The look of indecision in his eyes was easily replaced by a slight smile.

"It sounds like it might work," Diores agreed, as he looked first at Ari, then Tal. "Yes, it could actually work!"

Ari remained silent as the two boys looked at her. When the shorter one raised a brow, she looked away confused. Although his plan sounded easy, there was a part of her that felt something was not right. Like the warnings in her gut that she used to get when a trap was laid for her, she felt that same stirring in the pit of her stomach. Yet when she realized that this was not war, that this was only a plan to visit a whorehouse, Ari had to concede that perhaps it was a good plan. And he’s right, if there are things that they don’t use, why would they miss them? She thought as she turned to the boy and nodded, a slight smile tugging at the corner of her lip.

"Good, then its agreed!" The teen added as he laughed, then turned to his friend, his ribald words explained what he would do once he was at the whorehouse. As the boys spoke, Ari listened intently to their words. She did not completely comprehend everything they were saying, but she paid close attention in hopes of understanding. When they lay down in the afternoon sun, she turned her attention away. Although the needs within for release were damped by the hard work, she knew that they still existed. Now that a plan was made, she realized that the possibility of releasing her needs were close. With a slight smile, she inhaled deeply as she closed her mind to the chatter of the boys.

"So what is she like?" A voice suddenly pulled at her attention. As the morning sun grew hot from the progressing day, Ari realized that she had dozed off while the boys continued to talk. Suddenly awake, she looked at the two.

"W-Wha? Who?" She looked at Diores, her hand was shielding her eyes from the sun. "Eve, your sister, what is she like?" He asked as Ari sat up and looked around the quiet lake.

She thought of her prophet sister and remembered all of the times that she had made the girl furious, yet rather than speak of it she only shrugged her shoulders. At this time, it didn’t seem necessary to explain how there were times when Eve wished that Ari had never been born. In fact, knowing how her sister and mother felt, Ari was reluctant to tell the boys exactly how Xena and Eve felt about her. Rather than explain it, she only turned away.

"Awe, sounds like your sister just needs a good tail pulling!" Tal chuckled deeply.

"A-A tail pulling?" Ari looked down at the boy, his reddish brown hair seemed to glisten in the afternoon sun.

"Yeah, you know, play around with her, do a joke or something. Maybe then she won’t be so stuffy, besides, it’s what siblings do, isn’t that right Diores?" The boy sat up and looked down at his friend.

"Yeah, I used to play so many jokes on my bigger sister. Man, she always used to scream so loud, but in the end, we’d just end up laughing so hard!" The darker boy smiled whimsically as his eyes took on a far off gaze. Then, realizing what he had done, he grew suddenly serious. "When she was alive, my sister and I used to always play jokes on each other," he smiled at Ari. "Maybe Tal is right, you just need to play a few on her and then she’ll lighten up a bit?" He shrugged.

"A joke?" She repeated confused.

"Yeah, here, listen, I’ll tell ya a good one to play, it always works for me!" The shorter boy proceeded to explain, as his voice grew softer in order to pull her into his narration. As intently as she concentrated on Xena’s instructions, she listened to this boy with interest. She might not have fully understood the interactions of these boys, but she hoped that in time, she might begin to understand why it was that her mothers wanted her to spend the day with them.

Later, when the afternoon sun grew oppressively hot, they each began their separate ways home. With all of their chatter, very few fish were caught on that day. Rather than concern herself with it, the dark child continued to think over her new friends’ words. Although she did not fully understand the concept of a joke, both her Maia and the boys agreed that it was something that occurred in families. She was not certain if it would work, but after listening to what Tal had said, she had to admit that it might be something good to do to Eve. With a mischievous smile, she made her way back over the hill. Ari knew what she was going to do and hoped that it had the desired effect Tal had spoken of.

~~~~~~

Just as promised, Xena followed her daughter once the three disappeared from sight. Making sure to stay a good distance behind, she hid in the brushes and trees, just as she used to do when tracking her prey. Although time had passed since she last had to utilize this skill, she was pleased to discover that she had not lost her touch. In fact, she was so good at this, that she had followed the youths close enough to listen to their every words, yet never once be detected by either of them.

For the better part of the morning she had settled in behind some bushes near where they fished. She found herself slightly amused by the boys’ attempts to pull her daughter out of her shell. The few times that they caught a fish, she was almost tempted to jump up and congratulate them, but rather than blow her cover, she maintained her control. Throughout the morning, the kids fished, and dozed off in the sun. Their conversations were not anything that Xena would have deemed interesting, yet she maintained her vigilance in hopes of averting any temper that flared up from Ari.

When it neared midday a slight noise caught her attention, and she turned around and saw Virgil walking near the path. Angered that he might blow her cover, she quickly stood up, caught his attention, and motioned for him to be silent. Surprised by her presence, his jaw grew slack as a dull expression crossed his face. Just like his father he stared at her in confusion until he glanced to the nearby lake, then nodded understanding.

Xena debated if she should leave her daughter unattended, but when she listened in to their conversations about virginity and whores, she decided that it was not a discussion that was worth listening to. So rather than stay longer, she made the decision to trust that Ari’s temper would not flare up. Silently, she hoped that she would not be wrong.

When she was close to Virgil, she smiled as she waved him further down the trail. No longer wearing a bandage on the bridge of his nose, the skin where she had pummeled was turning from a bluish purple shade, to a dark yellow. With a slight nod, she smiled at the young man as they walked quietly down the trail.

"Xena, why were you in the bushes? Are you worried they might do something to Ari? Because if you are you don’t have to be, those boys are basically harmless. A bit mischief-makers when together, but overall, they wouldn’t hurt anyone." He assured as they continued down the trail.

"No, it’s not that I’m worried what they will do," she began to say, then shook away his words, "Never mind, what are you doing here?" She asked.

"I thought you needed help with the barn roof? Mother doesn’t need me today, so I thought," he shrugged as he held up his wooden toolbox. "Thought maybe I’d see how much I could do today."

"Oh! Good idea, say, the two of us should be able to get that done in no time!" She agreed as she began to quicken her steps toward her home.

"You’re not working with Ari today?" The disappointment showed in his features.

"Nah, I gave her the day off. She’s fishing. We thought it would be good for her to take a day off. Besides, with you here, I think we can handle it!" She gave him a confident nod.

Pleased by her words, he smiled as he followed closely behind her.

The early morning breeze worked perfectly with Xena’s plans of the day. Since returning from the lake, she climbed onto the barn and began to inspect the damaged shingles. She hadn’t realized how much work was really needed to get the roof ready for the coming winter. Thankfully with Virgil by her side, the job of repairing the roof would be finished by the end of the day.

Despite her anger at Virgil, Xena was able to look beyond the young man’s action and although he still seemed nervous around her, as the time passed, he was becoming more at ease around her. In virtual silence, they worked in unison. Although in the beginning she was worried about Ari being alone with the boys, once the girl returned home in the late afternoon with no fish to show for her morning, the warrior was able to relax and concentrate on the chore. One by one she would rip an old shingle off, then nail a new one in its place. By the time she realized the hour of the day, they had nearly half of the roof completed.

When she stopped for a moment, the warrior princess felt the oppressive heat against her back. Even in the halter-top and men’s breeches, it felt like the sun was scorching her skin. With a sigh, she glanced up at Virgil and noticed the sweat dripping down his bare back. At the stark reminder of the last time she had seen him like this, she slightly grimaced and turned away. At her sudden movement, he wiped at the sweat on his brown, and glanced at her curiously.

"You know, Xena, we could always work on a corral for the horses." He offered as he nodded down to the animals that were grazing in the open field in front of their home near the half built corral.

The warrior, turned homesteader, thought about it a moment, then shook her head. "Nah, I don’t think so. Argo seems to be fending for herself. Besides, that was a job that I was going to finish with Ari, and I gave her the day off today." She said as she watched her daughter’s black stallion moving closer to Argo. In his customary manner, the big black horse nuzzled at Argo’s hindquarters. The tan mare flicked her tail a few times. When this proved futile in dissuading the stallion, she abruptly turned and nipped at his nose. With a protesting sound, the black stallion turned away and began to make his way toward Gabrielle’s brown mare.

"That’s my girl!" Xena smiled proudly. Virgil shook his head as a smile escaped his control.

"Hey, Xena, how tall is Than?" The young man asked.

The warrior glanced down at her daughter’s horse, then shrugged her shoulders. "I’d say sixteen hands high."

"Are you sure?" He asked as a noise at the door caught their attention.

Glancing down from their perch, they watched as Ari left the home carrying two buckets. Unaware that they were watching her, the girl left one bucket on the porch, then ran away from the house carrying the second empty bucket. They watched as the dark child made her way past the open field to the nearby hill. When the young girl stopped at the top, she bent over, picking things from the ground to put into the bucket.

When Xena squinted her eyes and focused in on her eldest daughter, she noticed her picking wildflowers to put into the bucket. With a curious arch of a brow, she tilted her head. Next to her, Virgil had a big smile on his face as he watched Ari’s movements. When he saw the warrior nearly scowling next to him, the smile disappeared as he returned his gaze to the horses.

"So, you really think Than is sixteen hands high?" He asked, deflecting her memory of what she had caught him doing with her daughter away.

"Yep, sixteen." She answered coldly.

Ignoring her sudden mood, Virgil pointed to the horses. "Did you measure him? I think he must be at least… oh… at least nineteen or twenty hands high, don’t you think?"

His statement pulled Xena from her sullen mood and she stared at him with open mouth amazement. "What? Are you crazy? Than’s not that tall!"

"Are you sure? ‘cuz I could of sworn that he had to be that big," Virgil shook his head as he stared down at the large beast.

"Virgil, I have yet to see a horse that stands that tall! Not even the Gods rode horses that big!" The dark warrior shook her head in disbelief.

"I’ve seen one that was that big!" Virgil protested. At Xena’s incredulous expression, he got an air of authority as he nodded vigorously. "I have too seen a horse that big! When I was a kid and my father and I traveled to Sparta for some supplies. There was the most enormous horse I had ever seen," Virgil held out his hands to demonstrate the animal’s size. "My father said that it had to be at least 25 or 30 hands high."

"Oh, Joxer was the one who told you that," Xena snorted in amusement as she shook her head in disbelief. The memory of Joxer and his various antics played within her mind.

"Are you trying to say my father lied?" Virgil suddenly frowned. Seeing his features, Xena schooled her smile as she cleared her throat.

"Not at all, Virgil," she managed to answer in her usually stoic voice. "But I’m telling you, Than is not that big. Argo is only 15 hands tall, and even though he’s bigger than her, he’s not that much," Xena explained as she cast a critical gaze down on the black stallion who had just gotten his nose nipped by Gabrielle’s mare, "I’d say he’s about 16, perhaps 17 hands tall, no more than that."

"Are you sure?" Virgil’s voice was laced with disbelief.

"I’ve never heard of Andelusians being bigger than that." She explained.

"Oh, is that the kind he is? I’d wondered about that." His gaze got a far away look as he watched the stallion being chased away from Argo’s rump.

Before either one could say anything, Ari came bounding down the hill, the bucket half-filled with the fresh wild flowers that she had just picked. As if all alone the girl ran to a bush near the front of the house, and then hid the bucket under the thick foliage. When she took the empty bucket from the porch and began to walk around the house to where the well was located, both Xena and Virgil glanced at each other with curious expressions.

"Have you ever thought of breeding Argo and Than?" Virgil asked, rather than question the actions of Ari.

"I haven’t given it much consideration. I guess that’s something we’ll have to eventually think about. But for right now, I think Than is pretty much getting the message." She smiled as Gabrielle’s horse nipped at the large horse, then turned and walked a few paces away.

At the sound of humming, they looked down and watched as Ari carried the full bucket of water back into the house. When the door closed, Xena contemplated her daughter’s actions. After so many years of abuse, and her recent sickness that led her into silence, the tall warrior wasn’t at all certain if Ari was on the road to recovery.

With a sad sigh, Xena tried to remember what her soulmate had told her. She knew that Gabrielle was right, sometimes it was hard to not compare Ari and Eve, yet she knew that she had to stop this. Ari might never be as emotionally mature as her sister. Her years of captivity, emotional and sexual abuse, might prevent her from ever acting older than a… a child, Xena thought grimly. But then again, Ari’s entire appearance made it hard to see her as any older than a teenager.

As the warrior’s thoughts began to examine this phenomenon a familiar shout came from the house. The storyteller’s voice rose in anger as the sound of a scuffle came from inside. Instantly alert, Xena glanced down at the home.

"Ari, don’t throw that in here!" Gabrielle’s words rang out as Ari’s giggles rang in the air.

"MOTHER, MAKE HER STOP!" Eve shouted out in defense.

When the door slammed open and Eve came barreling out, Xena was almost ready to rise from her place to stop whatever new argument was coming from her two daughters. Before she began to move, she saw the slight smile pulling at Eve’s lips. Ari, with bucket filled with water, chased her from the house, while Gabrielle followed close behind.

"Ari, if you throw that water out, you’re going to have to haul more in!" the Amazon shouted with a smile as she watched the two girls circling each other.

"Ari, put that down. I’m warning you!" Eve stood still, her finger pointing at Ari in a serious manner, as a slight smile crossed her features. "Don’t you dare!"

"W-What? I thought you s-said you w-were hot." Ari reminded as she held the bucket menacingly, her arm ready to let loose of the water at any minute.

"Don’t you dare, mother, make her stop!" A slight giggle escaped Eve’s control as she ran behind the blonde, attempting to use the smaller woman’s body as a shield.

"Don’t get me in the middle of this!" Gabrielle laughed as she ducked and pulled away from the prophet’s grasp.

"You s-said you were hot!" Ari smiled as she wiggled her eyebrows.

"NO YOU DON’T!" Eve screamed, then tore off running around the house.

With a slight giggle, Ari ducked near the bush, put the water bucket down and grabbed the bucket of wild flowers. At the look of surprise from Gabrielle, the dark child put a finger to her lips.

"Shush," she smiled, then tore off after her sister.

From behind the house, they heard Eve’s high-pitched screams, then the sounds of footfalls on the ground. When the two girls came running back to the front of the house, Ari still held the bucket at ready, her arm threatening as she gave her sister a daring smile. Taking cover on the porch, Gabrielle stood behind the wooden beam and watched the two girls at play.

"Ari, so help me!" Eve screamed as a smile crossed her lips while she backed away from her sister.

"S-So help you what?" Ari smiled, but before the prophet could say anything, Ari released the bucket. At the same time that the flowers went flying in the air, Eve took a single step backward toward the bush. As the flowers came raining down upon Eve, a look of shock crossed the prophet’s features. Expecting water to drench her, the younger sister held her hands out in front of her. When she realized the trick that Ari had played, Eve’s foot got caught inside of the hidden water bucket. Like a falling tree, she fell to the ground with a hard thud onto her bottom. With wide eyes, Eve looked down at the tipped bucket that her foot was in, the water spilling on the dirt and soaking up her short yellow skirt.

At the outcome of her trick, Ari stood with open mouth amazement as she held the empty bucket in her hands. The dark child glanced from her flower covered, and mud soaked sister, to Gabrielle, who was bent over laughing hysterically. When she looked back down at Eve, she shrugged as the prophet’s expression turned to a frown.

"Why I’ll…" Eve threatened as she pulled her foot from the bucket and jumped to her feet. With only a yelp, Ari dropped the empty bucket and tore off running toward the grassy knoll. Momentarily distracted from his pursuit of a mate, Than glanced up at his young mistress who was giggling hysterically as she ran away from her angry sister. When it seemed that nothing was amiss, the black stallion returned his attention to sniffing Argo’s posterior.

"Do you think maybe you should go break it up?" Virgil asked as he craned his neck to follow the sight of the two women running up the nearby hill.

Xena watched her daughters ready to jump in and stop whatever fight that might ensue. When she saw Eve catching her older sister, she almost rose from her spot, but then remained sitting as she saw her youngest daughter tackling Ari and sitting astride her. Using her own body to hold down her sister, Eve began to tickle the young woman, all the while lecturing the girl on the folly of playing with water.

"Nah, I think they’ll be ok," Xena nodded as she glanced down at her lover.

Now in control of her laughter, Gabrielle smiled up at the distant hill, and then looked up to where Xena sat. With a shrug of her shoulders, the smaller woman made an expression as if to ask, "what can a parent do?" At her silent question, Xena smiled as she returned her soulmate’s shrug, and then shook her head as she returned her gaze to the two young women who were grappling and tickling each other on the hill.

At first Ari thought that her sister was going to kill her, but when the prophet began to tickle her, the girl could only give up to the laughter that her touch brought. A few times, she was able to tickle back, but overall, Eve had complete control over the situation, and she was using it to her advantage. When she was near tears, the smaller woman’s hands suddenly stopped. Finally able to catch her breath, the teen glanced up at her sister and watched as Eve moved from her, to the grass beside her.

"That was a pretty good joke, Ari. Where did you learn that from? The two boys?" Her younger sister asked.

No longer laughing, Ari nodded as she sat up beside the girl. "F-From Tal," She replied as she gasped for air.

"I don’t know if I like the idea of you having friends," Eve caught her by surprise. Ari’s eye brow arched in a question as she glanced at her little sister. "Oh, I’m just teasing! Of course it’s great that you’re getting friends! I’m just going to have to keep on my toes, that’s all." She chuckled.

With a smile, Ari turned away as she glanced down at farm below. Gabrielle had long ago retreated back into the home to continue cooking their dinner. The sound of pounding hammers and falling debris echoed up the hill as Xena and Virgil mended the barn roof. As she watched the two working together, she wondered how long it would take Virgil to realize that she would never again allow him to be near her, as she did in the past. Not only was it something that upset her parents, but she had since found other ways to release the emotions that were pent up inside of her. Now that she had the prospect of being able to spend time with some of the women at the brothel, she realized that the shame that was an aftermath of her touching would not be present. She felt better knowing that soon she would be able to vent her energies on a working girl. Before she could contemplate this, her sister’s voice broke through her concentration.

"Do you love him?" Eve asked.

"L-Love?" Ari turned back to her sister.

"Virgil, do you love him?" She asked again.

Scrunching up her face, Ari looked away, then shook her head negatively, "N-No."

"Oh, I thought maybe because of… oh well, never mind," her sister smiled warmly. "You shouldn’t have to worry about all that anyway. When you’re ready, the right person will cross your path."

Ari thought about her sister’s words, and remembered the hopelessness that she felt. At this moment in time, nothing could have convinced her that she would ever meet someone who would love her in that way. Rather than dwell on it, she only shrugged as she looked away.

Seeing her sister’s reluctance to talk, Eve only sighed as she lightly clasped the girls arm, then pulled her into a brief hug, and then pulled away. At the awkward embrace, Ari’s cheeks grew red as she averted her eyes. When there seemed to be nothing more to say, the prophet rose from her place and glanced down at the girl.

"I need to go to work, Meg is expecting me in a while, I’ll see you in the morning." The smaller woman smiled as Ari only glanced up at her. With nothing else to say, Eve turned and made her way down the hill. The dark child watched her sister’s movements, then looked away.

As she sat and dwelled on what just happened a noise caught her attention. Glancing over her shoulder, she watched as a familiar figure walked toward her from the distant trees. With a smile, Ari tilted her head and waited until the woman was close to her.

"H-Hello." She smiled at the woman.

"Why Ari! Hello again, no chores today?" The shorter woman asked.

"No, Xena, ummm, my m-mother said I could go f-fishing today," she explained, then when she saw the older woman looking for fish, Ari shrugged, "we didn’t catch much."

"Oh, so I see," the blue eyes seemed to sparkle as a smile crossed the woman’s features. "Well, as long as you had fun," she said as she began to settle down next to her. "Would you mind if I sat with you?"

Ari glanced up at the sun, then toward the barn where her mother and Virgil worked. She thought of her mother and wondered if she would be upset if she remained sitting. But when she glanced at the smaller woman again, the girl realized that her mother had given her the day off, so she would not be missed. Shrugging, the dark child nodded as the woman settled in.

"You know Ari, my own children always used to love to fish in that very lake." The sound of the woman’s voice seemed to float in the air.

"Really? Ummm…." Ari looked away as she tried to remember the woman’s name. Like a mind reader, the older lady reached over and lightly touched her hand.

"Cyrene, please, call me Cyrene," She leaned forward and lightly touched Ari’s hand. At the warmth of the woman’s touch, Ari felt a heat fill her soul that seemed to comfort her. Smiling, she looked at the woman again, and no longer shy, began to ask questions about her children. With a please smile, Cyrene gazed lovingly at the girl, and then began to talk about her own children like it was only yesterday.

Ari had not noticed how the afternoon sun suddenly seemed to move in the sky. Instead, she was mesmerized by the woman’s stories. She listened with interest to all of the funny things that her children did to each other. The jokes that were played, and the way that they played with each other, brought a smile to Ari’s lips. Although Cyrene’s stories were not as fast moving as the tales that Gabrielle told, simply listening to her voice, and the description of what her children were like, brought a smile to the girl’s face. Only when she felt a slight breeze did she pull herself from the trance of the woman’s voice.

Ari could not have explained why she felt comfortable around this woman. She only knew that she could talk to Cyrene openly. She didn’t feel guarded or afraid and although she had never tested her theory, she was certain that no matter what dirty secrets she told the woman, that Cyrene would not judge her harshly. Because of this, it was easy to fall into an easy conversation with the stranger who was fast becoming a friend.

From on top of the barn, Virgil glanced up the hill and saw Ari sitting alone. He noticed how she turned to her right, her head tilted as if listening to someone right as she spoke. With a curious arch of a brow, he glanced at Xena briefly, then turned back to watch the girl’s actions. Following his gaze, the warrior watched her daughter closely. Although he could not see anyone with Ari, the girl continued a conversation while she was all alone. When he looked back at her mother, he noticed the older woman’s brows knitted together, the creases in her forehead deepened as she turned away and continued to work on the barn. Obviously not willing to discuss the strange habits of her daughter, the warrior princess continued to pound the nails into the shingles. Virgil frowned as he turned his attention back to the work. He did not know a lot about this strange girl who seemed to have captured his heart, but he hoped that in time, she would begin to see him as a friend and allow him back into her life. Until then, all he could do was try to help, and at the moment, he decided that helping her mother was the same as helping her.

Ari stayed on the hill with Cyrene long after she saw Eve leaving on her white mule. Only when she saw her bard mother leave the house to go to the barn did she remember the task that she had to complete. With the house now empty, she knew that she could secret away some items for the peddler.

"Oh! I-I have something I need t-to do." Ari exclaimed as she felt a momentary panic settle in as she glanced down and watching her Maia climb the ladder to the barn roof.

"Oh, Ari, I am sorry. I do tend to ramble at times, but I can’t help but talk about my children," Cyrene explained.

"I-It’s all right, it’s just… I have to do something," the girl absently chewed on her lower lip, then gave a weak smile, "b-but I liked listening to your stories too."

"Good, then we’ll have to make a point of meeting again," the woman smiled as she gracefully rose from the patch of grass. "Next time, you can tell me about yourself, all right?"

Ari nodded as she rose to her feet, then glanced down the hill. Turning again, she smiled at the woman, "G-Goodbye C-Cyrene."

"Goodbye Ari." the older woman’s eyes shone brightly as her soft touch lightly grazed across Ari’s cheek. With a blush, the girl lowered her gaze, then nodded before bounding down the hill. When she was at the bottom, she turned to wave at the woman, but instantly froze when she saw the place empty. Squinting her eyes, she scanned the terrain looking for her friend, but when she saw nothing, she only shrugged, and then turned back home. Filled with the stories of her new friend, Cyrene, Ari began to contemplate the day’s events.

After leaving her friend, she stepped onto the porch and saw Gabrielle on the roof of the barn, a small satchel of treats in hand for her mother and Virgil. When the blonde waived down at her, she released a weak smile as she returned the salutation, then quickly entered the house. She hoped that no one would catch her doing this, and that the secret would remain safe.

Look around for anything that our families do not use, Ari remember Tal saying. Once found, she would be able to trade it for dinars. With this paramount in her mind, she glanced around the kitchen, not at all sure of what her mother would miss. Not knowing what everything was used for, she shook her head in frustration as she entered her mother’s room. Through the open window, she heard the soft sound of the conversation on the barn roof. When her eyes rested on Xena’s sword, she moved toward it, her hand lightly touching the scabbard.

"Something that they do not use," she whispered as she stared at the weapon, then shook her head, knowing that her mother sharpened this thing on a nightly basis. Knowing this, she began to open the wooden drawers where their clothing was kept. When all she found was clothing, she began to grow frustrated, knowing that she would not be able to join the boys on their trip to the whorehouse. It was not until she reached the bottom drawer that she felt her heart skip a beat.

Nestled in between some blankets were the most beautiful weapons she had ever come across. The first item that caught her eye was the gold handled sword with red weaving on the handle. When she pulled the weapon out and held it in her hands, she smiled, knowing that this might give her enough for a visit of pleasure. Quickly, she removed the strange looking sword and continued looking in the drawer, only to find what she assumed was her mother’s armor. The entire items were a golden breastplate, gauntlets with red leather gloves, a short metal skirt and greaves. In addition to the strange armor, she found an old pair of Xena’s leather gauntlets that she never saw her mother wearing. Taking all of the items, she reached in and pulled out an old, tattered blue shirt and quickly wrapped them up. When a slight noise caught her attention, she looked further into the drawer and removed a wooden box. Opening it carefully, she saw a thin plume, the tip covered with a slight pigment that had since dried. Something they don’t use, she mentally repeated as she added it to the bundle of weapons.

With items bundled, she closed the drawer, then picked up the items and quickly made her way to her sister’s room. Careful not to disturb anything, she took the bundle and laid it on the outside of the open window. Although it was placed close against the wall, she hoped that the bundle would not be detected until she could move it further away from the house. If all went according to plan, she would be able to hide the bundle near the road so that she could pick it up when she went into town. Actually convincing her mother to let her go to town alone was another hurdle she had to pass. As she thought this second problem through, a noise from outside caught her attention. At the sounds of footsteps on the porch, she quickly retreated from her sister’s bedroom as her blonde mother entered the house.

"Ari," Gabrielle’s brow arched upward as she looked from Ari, to Eve’s open door. "Were you in Eve’s bedroom?"

"Y-Yes." She answered honestly.

"Why?"

Remembering Tal’s order to not tell her parents anything, she nervously gulped, then said the first thing that came to mind. "I-I was looking for P-Pooka." She lied.

"Oh, ok. Well, I’m sure he’s around here some place. Why don’t you help me warm up some water for your mother’s bath. I’m sure after working in the hot sun all day, she’s not only going to enjoy a bath, but she’s going to need one!" The storyteller crinkled her nose to indicate the offensive scent that would be coming from her mother’s body. Smiling at the woman’s words, Ari nodded as she moved to get the bucket in order to bring in fresh water to be warmed on the wood burning, iron stove.

~~~~~~

As the days passed, Ari had succeeded in moving the bundle further away from home. Now she had to find a way to ask her mother for permission to journey to the city alone. She went over the plans in her head, remembering every word that her new friend, Tal, had said. Yet each time she tried to bring up the subject, she grew suddenly mute, unable to say anything to Xena.

As they stood side by side at the new corral, they watched Than walking around in his new area, alternating between sniffing and chewing at the grass below his feet. When she heard her mother sigh deeply, Ari cast a sidelong glance at the tall woman. The warrior princess’ elbows leaned casually on the corral rail.

Accustomed to seeing her mother in work clothes rather than her leather armor, the girl didn’t think twice about the men’s breeches and shirt that Xena wore. The long sleeves, usually pulled down to protect her arms against the bramble weeds in the forest underbrush, were now rolled up past her elbows. The light brown cloth of the shirt seemed to enhance the shimmering shade of the older warrior’s dark hair. The bigger woman’s dark pants hung on her body as if they were tailor made, with the bottom cuffs flaring out over the boots. With an almost pleased smile, Xena seemed to be lost in her own thoughts. Gulping, the tall girl inhaled deeply as she bolstered her courage, and cleared her throat while turning to face her mother.

"W-Would it…ummm, I mean, c-can I go to t-town tonight with Tal and Diores?" Ari heard her own voice like a meek whisper.

Xena was pulled away from her own thoughts. The woman’s smile suddenly disappeared as she turned and gazed down at the girl. Confusion etched her features.

"You want to go to town? Isn’t that a bit soon, I mean, you’ve only known the boys for a few days." Her mother asked. With a slight frown, Ari turned away from the woman. She tried to find an answer to her mother’s question, but found her thoughts disarrayed.

"I-I…" Ari stammered as she looked down at the tips of her boots, a heat suddenly flushing her face. "T-They ask me to join them, and… a-and I thought, maybe I could ride home with Eve so Virgil didn’t have to."

The noon sun seemed to grow hotter with each moment of silence from her mother. She felt Xena’s intense scrutiny, yet was unable to face the woman. Instead, Ari remained quiet.

"Oh, honey, I don’t know," Xena sighed as she turned away, then softly added, "I don’t feel you’re ready to be out alone."

"B-But Eve goes out all the time," Ari spoke up, and instantly regretted it when she saw her mother’s sharp gaze.

"Well, Eve is different Ari. She has a job, she works at Meg’s," Xena countered, her voice remained soft as her words were biting into Ari’s soul.

"I-If I had a job?" the girl spoke up, almost unafraid of what her mother would say.

"No honey. I just don’t feel that you’re ready for that. Look, I know you want to help but right now, you’re just too…well," Xena seemed at a loss for words as she reached out and touched the girls arm. "Ari, you don’t need to get a job. You’re not ready for that yet."

"B-But you won’t let me go into town just to be with my friends?" Ari held her mother’s gaze. The girl watched as the warrior princess seemed to grow cold. The pupils of her mother’s eyes dilated as her features grew stern.

"Honey, I don’t think you’re ready for that, you’re just too…" the taller woman’s words grew suddenly silent as her gaze broke away.

"I’m too w-what?" Ari was almost afraid to ask.

As the birds in the nearby forest continued their chirping, and the gentle breeze brushed past their forms, the girl waited for her mother’s reply. Just when it seemed that Xena would not answer, the older woman turned and looked down at Ari. Although her features were soft, the emotions that raged within the girl began to slowly boil.

"I just don’t think that you’re ready to go to town alone." Xena stated firmly.

"Because?" Ari continued to probe as her mind conjured up the answer. "B-Because you don’t trust me," she finished her mother’s thoughts.

"No Ari, that’s not …"

But the girl didn’t hear her mother’s words. Instead, she moved away from the woman, her back turned on Xena as she gazed down at the grass with unseeing eyes. She felt the warrior’s hands on her shoulders, yet did not hear her words.

There were some certainties that Ari knew. The first was that whatever Alti did to her as a child, she must have deserved. If she did not deserve it, then why did it happen? The other truth was that no matter what Xena said, deep down in the warrior’s heart, she held no love for Ari, only distrust and responsibility. The warrior princess had not said it openly, but the dark child knew that her mother would have been glad at Ari’s death. Yet knowing it and accepting it were two different things.

Before the emotions could take effect, she began to walk away from the tall woman. She ignored everything around her as she continued to walk blindly up the hill. From somewhere near the home, she heard her mother shout out, yet the girl paid her no heed.

Xena cursed herself as she watched her daughter walking away. With head bent, and shoulders sagging, the tall girl moved at a fast pace away from the house. Sighing deeply, the warrior reached up and messaged the ache that suddenly formed between her brows.

"Xena?" the soft voice of her soulmate caught her attention. Turning, she noticed the concern on the blonde’s features as she watched their daughter disappearing over the nearby hill. "What happened? I thought you two were having a good day?" Gabrielle asked as she wiped the flour from the bread dough on her hands onto her apron.

"I thought so too," the dark haired woman shook her head. "We were just watching Than and then out of the blue she asked if she could go into town with those boys."

"And?" Gabrielle examined her closely.

"And what? What could I say? Of course she can’t go into town with the boys, not alone! By the gods, Gabrielle, not only is she not ready for such a thing, but she’s too young," the warrior tried to explain.

"You didn’t tell her that she was too young, did you?" The smaller woman asked, her brows arched up in a silent question.

"Well… no, I mean, not in so many words," the warrior princess explained.

"Xena, it’s been a while since her flare up with Eve, don’t you think maybe Ari just needs a change of scenery? Maybe she just needs to get out with other people her age?" Gabrielle offered, then added, "Come on Xena, you said that Ari did good when she was fishing with the boys. Don’t you think that maybe she’s trying to find her way?"

The dark haired woman looked up to where their daughter had disappeared. While her frustrations were calming down, she thought over her lover’s words. This isn’t going to get any easier, she thought as a frown covered her face, then said, "I’d better go and talk with her."

"Would you like me to?" Gabrielle offered, her eyes soft and her voice soothing. Looking at the smaller woman, Xena couldn’t help but smile. She reached out and lightly touched her lover’s cheek.

"You know, I’d be messing the whole thing up if it wasn’t for you." The warrior softly stated.

The storyteller’s eyes seemed to be examining her closely as a smile broke free, "I’m glad you’re with me too," the blonde stated what was in Xena’s heart.

At the warmth and love, the taller woman smiled, then lowered herself to kiss her mate’s lips. The feel of the soft lips, the strong Amazon arms that reached around her, filled her soul with love. Out of everything that life offered, Xena had to admit that this is what she missed the most during her year of being dead. She missed being able to hold and touch her lover. Yes, it was true that she was able to have that again when she possessed Zara’s body, but it was different. When in possession of the sea captain, she always felt that there was another soul watching and feeling everything. Now that she was back in her own body, the sensations, the feelings were all her own, and this she cherished greatly.

When she pulled away from the smaller woman, she smiled down at her. "Let me see if I can fix my mess," was all she said as she turned to follow her daughter’s path.

Ari felt like retreating into the forest to her favorite tree. She could not explain why the habit of sitting in her tree was comforting, she only knew that when she was up there all alone that she could be herself, and the single time that she found a stranger there, well, she dealt with it as best as possible. Although a part of her would have liked to knock the stranger from her tree, she knew that she could not do this. To hurt anyone, even a stranger, would have upset her Maia, and this she did not want to do.

With head bent and a frown on her face, she walked quickly toward the forest. Before she could make it onto the path, she heard a sound ahead of her. Glancing up, she saw the smiling face of Cyrene as she walked towards her.

"Why, hello Ari, how are you this fine day?" The older woman’s voice sounded like a gentle song. Stopping in her tracks Ari looked away as she tried to calm her rampant emotions. "Oh no, something’s not right, what is it?" The gentle woman asked.

Ari scowled as she turned away, her face lowered as the anger slowly boiled within.

"This does not look good, why don’t we go sit under some shade and you tell me all about it." Cyrene spoke softly as she firmly wrapped her arm around Ari’s waist and guided her to a nearby tree.

By the time Xena made it over the hill, she saw her daughter sitting alone under a distant tree. With head bent, the girl looked like she had been crying.

"Now you’ve done it." The warrior whispered softly as she chided herself. Sometimes she didn’t know what to do or say yet everything she seemed to do was wrong. No matter how she tried to manage Ari, she was always doing or saying something that hurt the girl.

As she made her way over the hill a slight sound caught her attention. Stopping in her tracks, the warrior tilted her head as she focused in on where her child sat. With her acute hearing, she picked up first one word, and then another. Like a gentle whisper, her daughter’s voice floated to where she stood.

"…y-you don’t understand," the girl was talking to someone that Xena could not see. "She will never see me as an adult, no matter what I do. She hates me, I know she does!"

The warrior remained frozen on the distant hill, her eyes watching her daughter’s body language as the girl continued to speak to the phantoms of her mind. "I’ll never be what she wants me to be!" The strangled cry escaped Ari’s control as her words continued to flow, "I-I know, I remember everything that she thought about me. She thinks I don’t remember, but I do! S-She… she wishes that I had died with Alti!"

The moment the words left her daughter’s lips, Xena remembered that moment in time when all sanity and reason had left her. Her mate, her beloved was unconscious and unmoving. Her breathing was shallow and the gape on her head continued to bleed no matter how much pressure was applied. The warrior remembered thinking of the great ironies of her life. For over a year she held on to the hope that there would be a way to return to life so that she could join Gabrielle, only to have the gentle blonde taken from her, and all because of her daughter, Ari.

I should have never saved you! I should have let you die! Xena’s innermost thoughts came back to haunt her. Yes, she had thought this about her daughter, her child, and the bitter shame cut her to the core. She had abandoned her own flesh and blood as a baby, and when she thought that Ari was responsible for Gabrielle’s death, she had abandoned her once again. It didn’t matter that the warrior hadn’t spoken the words out loud. What mattered was that at that moment she not only thought the words, but she had hoped that Ari would hear her thoughts as clearly as if they were spoken.

"Nothing I ever do will please her, she’s never going to trust me because…" the girl’s words floated to where she stood, "b-because she knows. Xena knows," the pain etched every syllable from Ari’s lips, "Xena knows that I’m j-just like Alti, I’m just like… my mother." The girl cried softly.

Xena felt frozen in time. After so long the warrior thought that Ari understood that Alti was not her mother. She had hoped that the power Alti held over the girl was lessening, but her daughter’s words reinforced that in Ari’s mind, Alti was the only mother she knew.

"N-No, I know that Alti is not my birth mother, I know that," the pain in the girl’s voice caused it to rise in volume. "But tell Xena that!" Ari pleaded to the imaginary phantom sitting next to her in the distance. "Every time she looks at me, I know what she’s thinking. She’s thinking about Alti and everything that she did to me, and… and I-I’ll always be dirty. Dirty and contaminated by the sorceress’ touch, that’s why Xena doesn’t trust me, that’s why she’ll never see me as Eve’s equal. I-I’m just a dirty, nasty embarrassment and if I hadn’t lived, Xena would be happy today!"

Her child’s words held her frozen in place. While her mind ran over the new discovery, sadness and guilt covered her soul. Although she did not want to see this about herself, Xena saw a truth in her child’s words. Unable to take a step toward the girl, she turned away and began to walk back toward the house.

It was all suddenly clear to her. The anger that Ari showered on her, the occasional looks of hatred made sense. Xena always prided herself on being in control of her own emotions. She always knew that as a warrior, emotions were a hindrance, but when it came to her daughter, her child… her own flesh and blood, she had allowed her emotions to surface in the most ugly way and now she had to find a way to repair the damage, if she could.

While Gabrielle covered the freshly kneaded dough with a cotton cloth, she sighed as she stretched. The slight sounds of cracking bones were heard. "I’m getting too old for this," she spoke out loud with a smile.

Who would have thought that I’d be feeling this way? She mused. Was it really only a short time ago that I was traveling on a ship with Zara? She asked herself as she moved to sit on the couch. With a smile, she allowed herself to think of the enigmatic ship captain. She remembered how her long, wavy hair fanned out in the ocean’s breeze and how her lips would easily curve into a smile. Since returning home Gabrielle had not spoken openly of Zara for fear of causing Xena pain. But she could not help think of the woman from time to time, especially on quiet days like today. When the house was still and all that was heard were the sounds from outside, the storyteller wondered how her friend was, and if she had found her peace.

Before her thoughts could go further, the door opened to Xena’s tall, imposing form. With downcast eyes, her lover silently closed the door and turned quickly to their room. Gabrielle became aware of the sadness that hovered over her lover.

"Xena?" She sat up straighter as her soulmate disappeared in their room. Confused by her lover’s actions, the blonde moved from her seat and followed the tall woman into the room. With the shutters open, the afternoon sun cast a brilliant glow over the area. At the sight of her lover sitting on the bed with her shoulders slumped, the small woman was suddenly by her side.

"Xena?" Gabrielle’s voice was soft as she examined her lover’s features.

With head bent and brows furrowed, the warrior princess remained silent. Only when the gentle healer reached out and touched her lover’s cheek did she receive a reaction from the taller woman.

"Oh Gabrielle, I’ve made a mess of it all!" The woman groaned as she buried her face in her hands.

"Xena, what happened? What are you talking about?" The storyteller probed.

"Its… Ari. I’ve made a complete mess of it all!" Xena moaned as she moved into her lover’s arms.

"Why Xena? What happened? Is she alright?" Gabrielle’s mind began to quickly decipher her soulmate’s words.

"It’s just, gods be damned! I just can’t seem to get anything right with that girl!" Xena pulled away as she wiped at the tears on her cheek. "I was going to go and talk to her, explain my concerns…" Her warrior stumbled over her words as she rose from the bed and began to pace the length of the room.

"Were you able to?" The blonde asked.

"I-I couldn’t, I just…" the warrior seemed to crumble in front of her, "I overheard her talking to herself again, and… Ari, she believes that I don’t love her, that I don’t want her, and it’s all my fault!" The warrior princess knelt in front of Gabrielle, her arms reaching around the woman’s waist as she laid her head against the storyteller’s bosoms. "I was such a fool. I don’t know why I also thought it!"

"Xena, what are you talking about? What do you mean?" The blonde pulled away and forced her lover to look up at her.

"When you were hurt, when I thought I was losing you," Xena looked away, her silent tears falling unheeded, "I wished that Ari had died with Alti. I was afraid that I was losing you, Gabrielle, and I was angry and now… now," the taller woman’s words drifted into silence.

"And Ari heard your thoughts," the blonde finished her soulmate’s words.

With head bent and tears streaming, the warrior princess remained silent. Her shame covered her completely.

"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle sighed as she pulled her lover into her arms. Feeling the Amazon’s strength, the warrior began to cry fresh tears; her body shook as she clung fiercely around the blonde’s torso. "My poor babies," the storyteller whispered as she thought of both her lover and their child.

Sometimes their lives were so mellow and slow paced that it was easy to forget that their family had a lot to deal with. It was easy to forget that Xena was still dealing with the guilt of abandoning her newborn babe, and easier still to forget that the kidnapping and abuse had emotionally scarred their child. But when issues like this occurred it made it impossible for them to forget that their family was still struggling to remain intact.

As she cradled her lover close, she closed her eyes as her own tears of empathy fell. Gabrielle was not certain what she would do. The only thing she could manage at the moment was to hold her lover close. She would comfort her and listen to what Xena had to say, and together they would find a way to help Ari get through whatever misunderstanding she might hold.

For Ari, all she could do was pour out her thoughts to her new friend. She did not know why Cyrene was always kind and gentle, or why she always seemed to be near whenever the girl needed to talk. But she was grateful for the woman’s strong, yet gentle presence. Once she finished talking, Ari looked down at the blades of grass.

"Oh Ari, I don’t think Xena hates you. I can’t imagine her ever saying such a thing." Cyrene tried to reason with her.

With a shake of her head, Ari looked at the older woman, the tears flowing down her cheeks, "It’s true. Nothing I ever do will please her, she’s never going to trust me because…" the dark child’s words spilled out, "I will always be just a child to Xena. A child who is corrupted by Alti’s touch and nothing will ever get her to change her mind about me! She’s always going to hate me! She’ll always keep me imprisoned like a child! I might as well have died because Xena will never allow me around people without her. She’s afraid that I’m going to be just like Alti!" The girl cried as she fell into the older woman’s arms. As her tears reigned, the gentle woman readjusted the girl so that Ari’s head was lying in her lap. She felt Cyrene’s soft, tender fingers brushing through her hair as words of comfort filled the air.

"There, there now, it will be all right. You’ll see," The older woman kept repeating. After a while, Ari began to believe her words. She felt an unfamiliar calmness radiating from the older woman. Like a warm blanket on a cold winter night, the girl clung to the woman’s words. She held fast to the feelings of comfort and peace as she allowed the stranger’s voice to seep into her subconscious mind.

Later, when the tears were gone and she could do nothing but hiccup, she sat staring at the grass. When she felt the older woman’s touch on her arm, she looked up at her through puffy eyes. In a casual manner, the girl wiped her nose across the sleeve of her shirt. Cyrene smiled as she brushed her fingers through the girl’s hair.

"Feel better?" Cyrene asked.

"Yes," Ari replied, surprised that she did, indeed, feel better after releasing the tears. Like a cathartic ritual, the spent tears lessened her pain. Sighing deeply, she looked at her friend and smiled weakly.

"Yes," she again answered softly.

"Good, I’m glad. And I think what happened today was a misunderstanding. Talk to your mother again. Maybe if you talk and find out what she is afraid of, it will help her to see you not as a child, but as a young adult. What do you think?" Cyrene’s words were full of wisdom.

"A-Alright, I’ll try to talk to her again," Ari felt her nervousness building as she thought of approaching her mother again. But feeling that Cyrene was correct, she inhaled deeply as she bolstered her courage, then smiled at her friend. "I’ll go right now and ask."

"Good girl! That’s the spirit! Now you go on and talk to your mother." The woman smiled broadly as she rose to her feet. Following her example, Ari stood and stretched her long legs. With an arm around her back, the smaller woman guided the girl up the hill, her soft words fortifying Ari’s courage. As she listened to everything that Cyrene said, she nodded occasionally. She did not fully understand what the woman meant about mothers allowing their fears to rule, but she decided to keep her silence and simply listen to all that her friend said. When they reached the top of the hill, the girl stopped and looked down at the older woman.

"Now you go and talk to your mother. Don’t run away, and don’t make the mistake of thinking that she won’t understand you. Trust me, we mothers can sometimes be swayed." The woman smiled as she winked at the girl.

Ari ducked her head as a slight smile escaped her control. "I-I will talk to Xena," she promised, then added, "Thank you, Cyrene," she spoke the words that had been taught to her. Sometimes she didn’t fully understand the different phrases that her family taught her, let alone when to say them. But right here, right now in this gentle woman’s presence, the dark child felt that these were the right words to say to this woman.

"You’re welcome, Ari," Cyrene smiled up at her as her palm lightly touched the girl’s cheek.

In that single touch, Ari felt a depth of emotions from the woman. She noticed her eyes glistening over with moisture, right as the smaller woman turned away. "Ok now, you scoot along and get this fixed with Xena. You can tell me all about it later," she said as she waved Ari goodbye.

Ari nodded as she turned and made her way down the hill. When she reached the porch of her home, she looked back up at the hill almost expecting to see her friend there. But she was not. Just as she had in the past, Cyrene wandered away before the girl could wave to her. The girl only shrugged away her friend’s habits as she turned to walk into her family’s home.

Upon entering the home, the first thing she was greeted with was the scent of freshly baked bread. All of the windows were open wide to allow the sun to shine in, and the heat of the stone oven to leave. The silence of the place prepared Ari for what was to come.

As she moved into the home, Gabrielle walked out from the room she shared with Xena. With a bright smile, the small blonde moved to her. Following close behind, her warrior mother moved into the room, the sheer size of her body seeming to take over the whole room. Grimacing at the tall woman, Ari lowered her eyes in what she hoped was a show of subservience.

"Ari, we need to talk." Her warrior mother said as she moved into the living room. Glancing up at her through her bangs, Ari watched as her mother moved to sit on the sofa, then patted the seat next to her as a smile formed on her lips. Although the girl knew that she had to talk with her mother, a part of her hesitated, almost afraid to be so near the bigger woman. It was not until Gabrielle lightly touched her arm that courage filled her soul.

"Come on honey, it will be ok." Her Maia reassured as she took Ari’s hand and led her to the sofa. Once settled between her mothers, the girl glanced at Xena nervously.

"Honey, I think you misunderstood me earlier and I want to clear things up," Xena began to say, then averted her eyes when Ari looked at her.

"I want you to know that the only reason I said no to you was because I love you. Ari, please try to understand, I’m just trying to do what’s best," Xena pleaded as she reached out to touch Ari’s cheek, her eyes growing misty. "Sweetheart, please try to understand, I’m just trying to protect you. I don’t want you hurt anymore."

"S-Someone in Amphipolis wants to hurt me?" She asked her mother softly, then turned to look at Gabrielle in hopes of understanding Xena’s words.

"Oh no, honey, no one wants to hurt you," Gabrielle was quick to assure as she glanced at her spouse.

"Well, no honey, as far as we know, there isn’t anyone in Amphipolis who wants to hurt you," Xena quickly added, "But just because we don’t know if anyone is intent on hurting you doesn’t mean that there aren’t people, or things that can hurt you. I just…" The warrior looked away for a moment and then glanced back at Ari as her fingers began to brush through the girl’s hair.

"Honey, I’m just worried because you’re so young, and…" Xena couldn’t continue and was interrupted as Ari spoke up quickly.

"B-But you let Eve go alone?"

"Well, yes. That’s true," Xena’s hand dropped to her lap, then glanced momentarily at her spouse, and then back to the girl. "But Ari, that’s different."

"W-Why?"

"Well, you see, it’s just that, Eve is old…" the warrior stopped herself short, then continued, "Your sister is more experienced."

"You w-were going to say older." The girl accused. Her glance grew hard as she looked at her warrior mother.

"Well… yes," the dark woman admitted.

"B-But… I-I’m older than Eve, aren’t I? W-Wasn’t I born first?" she looked to her warrior mother for confirmation, then to Gabrielle, who only smiled as she released a stress filled sigh.

"Yes honey, it’s true. You are technically older than Eve, but…" the warrior princess seemed at a loss for words. With a deep sigh, she turned to the girl, her voice soft and gentle. "Ari, honey, you may have been born before Eve, but what happened to you, what Alti did, and I mean, by taking you away, that is what makes you different." Her mother tried to explain. When the girl remained silent, Xena continued "Baby, you are my oldest, but the place where Alti held you, it’s a different place from here. It had powers that I know nothing about. I don’t know fully how it happened, but when she returned you to our world, your age is far younger than what it should be. Honey, you look only fifteen, maybe sixteen years old. That’s how you look to us, and that’s how other people will see you." The older warrior allowed her words to sink in, then continued, "Ari, I am not saying this because of anything that happened to you. What Alti did, the things that she did, baby, it wasn’t your fault! I want you to know that I understand that it wasn’t your fault and that I do trust you."

Ari thought about her mother’s words. She looked away from the woman as her brows creased into a frown. Filled with resolve, she turned to her mother and asked the single question that had been plaguing her. "T-Then why won’t you let me go? If it’s not my fault and you t-trust me, w-why can’t I go to town with my friends?"

Xena looked away, a nervous gulped escaped her control as she stood up and began to pace the length of the room.

"Ari, it’s really hard to explain. There is so much more going on than just age," the warrior sighed, then turned to her lover. "Can you give me a hand here?"

"Honey, what your mother is trying to say is that while Eve has had experience with people, you haven’t," Gabrielle quickly chimed in as she took the dark child’s hand in hers. "Your mother and I just worry that you might not be able to…"

"B-But I-I’ve been around people too!" Ari’s voice grew in volume as she interrupted her bard mother.

"It’s not the same, honey," Xena was on her knees in front of the girl. "Don’t you understand that when you were here with people, Alti controlled you. She controlled everyone around you. In many ways, you’re innocent. You don’t understand how to interact with people, or how to know when someone is taking advantage of you. Honey, I’m just worried and I don’t want you to be hurt."

The dark child held her mother’s gaze. Her mind went over everything that the woman had said. When she looked at her Maia, she noticed the woman’s gentle smile. The blonde nodded affirmation of Xena’s words as her palm lightly ran over Ari’s back.

"S-So…" Ari found the courage to speak her thoughts, "b-by keeping me here alone with just us, I-I will learn how to interact with the villagers?"

Gabrielle felt pride the moment Ari asked this question. She realized, even if Xena did not, that Ari was growing up before their eyes. No, her physical appearance had not changed. But her mind, her thoughts were beginning to show a level of maturity that had been missing. Ari was right. How could she learn to interact with other people if they kept her here, locked up, with just the three of them. Yes, she had been away with the local boys on one occasion, and aside for Virgil and the few trips to town, Ari did not know what it was like to be around people, and she would never know unless… unless they allowed her this brief amount of freedom.

With a slight smile, the blonde looked at her soulmate. Xena’s smile faded as the girl’s words sunk in. Looking to her for back-up, the warrior pleaded with her gaze. Shrugging her shoulders, Gabrielle looked away as she lowered her eyes, her palm resting lightly on her daughter’s shoulder.

"Hummm…well…" Xena seemed at a loss for words as she sat back on her heels. Her gaze lowered as she was deep in thought. When she released a sigh, she looked up at Ari, a helpless grin on her features. "You know, honey. You’ve got me there." She nodded as she smiled at the girl. Her hand reached up to brush aside a long strand of dark hair from the girl’s face.

"How will you ever learn if we don’t let you try?" The warrior princess asked, but did not expect an answer. Instead, she smiled at her daughter, then asked, "You’ll be with the boys the entire night?"

Ari looked mystified. She glanced from the dark haired woman, to Gabrielle. When she realized that Xena required an answer, she gulped, and gave a weak nod. "All right then. You can go, but you’ve got to promise me that if you get into any trouble, you’ll go to your sister." Xena wagged a finger at her.

In answer, Ari nodded as a weak smile formed on her lips.

As the day progressed, Gabrielle couldn’t help but smile as she watched her daughter’s preparation for her night away from her moms. Over and over Ari chose clean clothes, only to discard them in favor of a different outfit. Having only four to choose from, the storyteller was surprised that her daughter had difficulty in choosing an outfit. To both of the women’s surprise, once their daughter settled on what she would wear, she requested a bath. Since she seldom initiated such a chore, neither of the women said anything. Instead, they quickly got the buckets of water warmed and in the tub, their silent questions passed between their slight glances.

"Remember what I asked." Xena fussed over Ari, her fingers tenderly brushing down the girl’s damp, slicked hair.

Now bathed and wearing clean clothes, Ari stood outside with Than. As the sun began to set, the girl glanced over her shoulder as she impatiently listened to Xena’s instructions. Gabrielle tenderly smiled as she stood with her arms crossed in front of her.

"If you get into any trouble, go to Eve or Meg," the warrior instructed.

"Or Virgil," the Amazon was quick to add.

"Yes, of course, Virgil, he can help out too," the tall woman agreed.

"I-I will," Ari promised as she mounted her horse, then glanced at the setting sun again.

"Maybe I should go with you, just this once," the dark haired warrior began to say, but was stopped by Gabrielle’s sharp gaze. "Or maybe not," Xena weakly smiled.

"Ari will be fine Xena," the smaller woman assured as she cast her daughter a wink, which brought a slight smile from the girl. Ari was almost ready to leave before Xena’s words stopped her movements.

"Oh, and if anything happens, ask Virgil to ride back with you both!" The warrior quickly added.

"I-I will," the girl replied as she began to turn Than around.

"Oh! And…." The warrior’s voice stopped the girl.

Gabrielle reached up and touched her lover’s arm. Feeling her strong grip, the warrior princess looked down at her. When Xena saw her soulmate’s warning gaze, she gulped as the blonde turned a smile up at their daughter.

"Honey, be safe, and have fun," the Amazon said as she waved at the girl.

"Yes," Xena smiled as she reached around her lover and pulled her close, the smaller woman’s back nestled against her front. After a single nod, Ari slightly kicked Than’s side, which caused the stallion to gallop away.

The once blue skyline turned a slight hue of orange and purple. As they watched their daughter riding away, the small blonde leaned back into her lover’s embrace. She felt the sorrow from her mate, and understood it. They had only had her for a short time and already Ari was growing up. She was reaching out for other people outside of the family, and she was taking the first step needed to move away from the comfort of home. No, she was not leaving them anytime soon, but just taking this first step was enough to make them realize that their little girl would not remain little forever. Someday, if the fates allowed, their child might find someone to share her life with, and then she would leave them. Although Gabrielle was proud of her daughter, like Xena, she could not help the sadness that crept in.

"Well…" Xena’s sighed as her soft voice rose between them. "We’ve got the house to ourselves tonight," the warrior lamented.

"Yeah," Gabrielle’s hands covered her soulmate’s.

"I guess I could do some sewing," the taller woman said out loud.

"Or… we could find other things to do." The blonde pushed back against her lover, her hips rubbing against the taller woman’s body. When she glanced back up at her soulmate, she caught the woman’s surprised expression before it was replaced with a smile.

"Hummm… you do have a point." Xena smiled.

Before she realized a change, the bigger woman swooped her off her feet. With laughter, Gabrielle wrapped her arms around her spouse’s neck as she gazed into the cerulean eyes. "I might begin to like our girl’s independence," she whispered as Xena carried her into the house.

"I think I might too," a deep, throaty purr escaped the warrior princess’ voice as she kicked the door shut behind them.

~~~~~~

Tal sat staring at the distant treetops. The wind brushed by the limbs like a gentle finger over water. To the casual observer, he might have seemed relaxed or busy in a daydream as he sat on the grass under a large tree. But to Tal, as he waited for his new friend, he was anything but casual. Although he never spoke it, he found himself thinking through his life’s dilemmas. He often times found himself questioning the Gods about his fate. Why was he in this place? Why was it always hard to do the right thing? And most important, why did his mother leave him?

The young teen was not angry at his mother for leaving. It wasn’t her fault that when the plague spread, she caught it and quickly succumbed to its deathly grip. In fact, through all of this, she was the innocent. It was because of the plague that his mother had lost her baby, a little sister that should have been born when Tal was only eight. But the plague swept through the land taking most of its people with it, and sending many to their beds to wait, or pray for death. His mother should have never been taken. Her heart was so pure and so good that everyone who spoke of her echoed the same sentiments. No, if circumstances had been different, she might have never caught the vile illness, but it was her good heart that placed her right in the line of its path. If it had not been for her constant ministrations over Tal when he was laid up with the illness, she might have survived. She and his sister would still be around today. But just as she always did whenever her baby boy was sick, she had tended to him, sitting with him day and night until the fever broke and he was safe from the worst of it.

With a slight grimace, Tal turned away from the serenity of the forest. His brow furrowed as his mind wandered over brooding thoughts.

At a noise from the nearby road, he glanced up and watched as the single rider came towards him. The jingling of a metal bundle that was tied to her saddle was heard in the silence. Although he had only met Ari once, he felt comfortable in the strange girl’s presence. He could not have explained it to anyone, but for some reason, he felt a kinship with her. It was not the same way that he felt toward Diores, but something close to it. It was as if they had a shared experience that made them close. But if you were to ask Tal, he wouldn’t know what the experience was. In fact, from everything that he knew of the girl, they were as different as night and day. While she had traveled the world leading an army with an evil sorceress, he remained safe at home. Even her experiences with women were greater than anything he had. Yet there was something about her that made him feel that they had more in common than what meets the eye.

As she rode up to him, he stood and smiled. He noticed how her damp hair hung loose past her shoulders. The clothes she wore were ones he had not previously seen. When she was close, he asked, "Did you have trouble leaving?"

"N-No." She responded in her usual cold voice.

"Good, good. Did you tell them what I said?" He smiled, not taking her cold tone of voice for anything beyond it being her personality.

"Y-Yes. I told my m-mother’s that I would ride home with Eve, j-just as you said." She nodded with a slight tilt of her head.

"Great! So we have a few good hours that we can spend at Elenh’s! Come on then, let’s get to the trader before he closes up for the night!" Tal smiled, then watched as the girl nodded and then continuing down the road toward Amphipolis.

"Hey!" He shouted, an incredulous expression etched across his features. At his shout, she stopped her horse in his tracks and turned to Tal, her expression quizzical.

"Aren’t you going to give me a ride?" He asked.

Ari looked away, her gaze grew distant as her eyes seemed to narrow in thought. Then, without missing a beat, she looked at him and with her usual cryptic voice said, "No," then turned her horse and continuing down the road.

Tal stood frozen in dumb silence as the girl continued without him. When he realized that she would not stop, or give him a ride, he simply shrugged his shoulders as he ran to keep up with her.

No, although he hadn’t known her for very long, Tal was already becoming accustomed to the strangeness of this girl who was once a fierce warlord.

~~~~~~

Salmoneus and Son, by all appearances was nothing more than a one-wagon operation controlled by a single person. No one who saw the wagon of goods for sale and trade would have thought that there was once a large conglomerate of retail mercantile that was spread from Laconia to Thrace, but it was. At least it was when Sarrius, son of Salmoneus, was in charge.

Sarrius was a middle-aged man of portly stature, much like his father. With balding head, and a graying beard, he could have been the exact image of his father if it were not for one thing. Where his father always had an easy smile, Sarrius was prone to frowning. Only when around customers did he don his salesman smile, and only if he felt that a profit would be made in his favor. When not making deals, he was silently grousing about the fate that his life took.

When Sarrius reached the tender age of twelve, his father had disappeared while in route to Macedonia. When no word was received, they had all assumed that he had either met with an ill fate, or had run off with any number of women whom he was rumored to have bedded. Regardless of what actually happened, Sarrius had vowed to take over the business and prove that he was a great, if not better, merchant than his father. At first he worked as an apprentice until he was old enough to reclaim the name that his father had started. Salmoneus and Son prospered under Sarrius’ care in ways that it had never prospered under his father. Not only was he making a profit, but he was also able to open numerous mercantiles across the country, and all with the name of Salmoneus and Son. For a long time, Sarrius didn’t have to travel to keep the business going, and left it to his numerous associates to act as his liaison. This worked perfectly, and at a relatively young age, he was able to relax and enjoy his days with his wife, children and aging mother. But this quickly changed.

Out of the blue, Salmoneus returned looking no older than when Sarrius last saw him. His ramblings of being kidnapped, taken into the sky on a chariot that floated near the stars was almost too much for Sarrius to bear. But he put up with the fantastic stories of little green men and his father’s insane fantasy of helping establish a new race of people on the concepts of mercantilism because it made his dear mother happy. To finally have her husband back, to have his nonstop chatter, was a comfort to her, so he put up with his father. He didn’t raise an argument when the elder man took over the business once more. By the time his father’s madness had a full grip, it was too late for Sarrius to fight, or even reclaim the business he had built.

Yes, Salmoneus is crazy, the merchant thought. He had to be mad! No sane person would have sold off their mercantile business until they were back to only owning one store and a wagon! No person in their right mind would have then taken all of those profits to founding a school of scholars dedicated to thoughts of the heavens! A sane, rational person would not have been paying charlatans and schemers good dinars to research how to make a chariot that would fly through the air. Such a thing only the Gods can do! Sarrius thought as he angrily packed away wares for the night. Yes, after so many years of being without a father, the longing to know his fate, the desire to simply have his guidance during times of need, could not outweigh the anger Sarrius now felt toward the man who had returned and ruined his life.

As the sun dipped behind the mountains and night was falling over the town of Amphipolis, Sarrius groused about his father, the fate of his thriving business, and the lack of any profits from this town. Amphipolis was a large city with enough people who liked to spend. This much he remembered from the time when his own store had been opened for business. The profit margin from this sector was enough to keep a smile on Sarrius’ face. But that store was no more once his father sold it. So now the younger merchant was left with trying to get his one-time customers to buy his items from the wagon, rather than the local merchants, which was not an easy feat. No, like many other larger towns that he had once controlled, Amphipolis would not bring about any profits for him… at least not until he was able to get another foot hold in, and open another chain of stores. But the next time he would make certain that his father would not have any dealings with the business.

Just as Sarrius made this silent vow, the noise of a horse’s hooves caught his attention. Closing the large panel of the wagon, he looked up in time to see two boys running along side of a gently trotting horse. Upon the horse sat a young woman… no, not a woman, Sarrius corrected himself, but a girl perhaps no more than his oldest son who was an apprentice for a local merchant in Sparta. Sixteen, perhaps seventeen years old, Sarrius estimated as he returned his attention to locking the panel closed. Once locked, he turned to the three young people who made their way toward him.

With a curious arch of a brow, he waited as the young woman dismounted, then followed the two young boys to his wagon. The taller of the boys smiled weakly, and then turned to the shorter one, who was obviously their leader. One look at the redhead boy and Sarrius knew that this hooligan was no good. With hair disarrayed, his clothes tattered and threadbare, and worn out boots, the boy stepped forward with an air of authority. Before the boy could say a word, Sarrius waved them away.

"We’re closed, come back tomorrow." The merchants voice grew deep for these kids who he knew were not customers.

"We’re not here to buy anything," the leader spoke up as he stepped forward.

Sarrius turned on the boy, towering over him by a good head. With an arch of a brow, he dared the hooligan to speak. When the boy saw the seriousness in his expression, he blinked as he gulped away his fear.

"Tell him Tal." The taller, dark haired youth whispered as he nudged his friend.

"I will, just…" the one named Tal turned to his taller friend and waved him to silence, then turned back to the merchant. "We aren’t here to buy, but to sell you some things that will make you a big profit!"

"I doubt that!" Sarrius snorted as he continued to latch down the wagon in order that he could prepare to sleep inside of its comfortable surroundings.

"We do, look, we’ve got things to sell and I know you’ll be able to make a profit!" The dark haired boy stepped forward eager to prove Sarrius wrong. Looking at the seriousness in the boy’s dark eyes, the peddler sighed as he shook his head.

"I’m going to regret this," he said out loud for the boys benefit. "Very well, come on to the back and show me what you’ve got." He shook his head as he moved to the back door of the wagon. With the last rays of sun, he waited until the taller boy handed him a small bundle of items. Opening the cloth, he examined the pendants, rings and brooches one by one. Although the items were common, he knew that in some of the smaller villages he might be able to sell them off for a profit. With this in mind, he frowned as he turned to the young man.

"These really won’t be bringing me a profit, you realize that, don’t you boy?" He groaned dramatically as he wrapped them back up into a cloth bundle. When he saw the look of disappointment on the boy, he released a well-rehearsed smile, "tell ya what, because you have an honest face, I’ll give ya two dinars for the whole lot. And I’m taking a loss by doing that!" He released a pain expression.

"Two dinars?" Diores smiled as he turned to Tal. "Did you hear that? Two whole dinars!"

"So it’s agreed," Sarrius ignored the boy as he reached into his pouch and produced the coins, then neatly placed them into the lad’s palm. "Ok, so now that I’ve been practically robbed, what have you got?" He looked at the auburn haired boy who had a hopeful smile. Reaching into his pocket, he removed a small bundle, then opened the cloth and held the item out for the merchant to inspect.

Upon first look, Sarrius saw only a worn, old blade. It was something that might have once been sharp enough to cut a rabbit up for stew, if the blade didn’t break on the rabbit’s bones first. When he picked it up in his hands and inspected it closer, his frown grew when he realized that it was, indeed, just an old, worn out blade.

"You’re kidding, right?" Sarrius cast an incredulous look at the youth. The young man began to frown as he glanced at his taller friend, then back to the merchant.

"No, I’m not. What would you give me for it?"

"I wouldn’t give you half a dinar for this… this thing!" He shook his head as he handed it back to the boy, who was frowning.

"But this was my great grandfather’s!" Tal protested.

"Yes, and I can tell that he got a lot of use out of it. Now back away, boy," the portly man gave the bundle back as he waved at the boy, then looked up at the tall girl. "Don’t tell me you’ve got some useless knives too," he shook his head in disbelief. Before he could say more, she pulled a carefully wrapped bundle from the saddle of her horse, then handed it to Sarrius. At the weight of the bundle, the shorter man huffed a bit as he heaved it on to the back plank of his wagon. With a look of disbelief, he glanced at the girl as he began to open the bundle.

If Sarrius had happened upon a silver mine he would not have shown any expression of joy until the deed for the land was free and clear and in his name. Just as schooled with his emotions, he remained silent while inwardly he began to jump for joy. Never in his life had he seen such exquisite pieces of craftsmanship. The sword, the armor, everything that was in the bundle was a wealth just waiting to be sold! At the anticipation of his find, he absently licked his dry lips as he ran his fingers through his beard. When he saw a box in the pile, he took it and carefully opened the small latch that revealed a carefully maintained plume. With an arch of a brow, he moved some items around and froze when he came across the aged, leather gauntlets. On the inside of the leather was a familiar stencil that identified the owner. Recognizing the design, his heart skipped a beat.

Xena! His mind shouted out while his expressions remained neutral. As soon as he realized who had once owned the gauntlets, he knew whom the rest of the armor belonged to. He also realized that the writing implement had to belong to none other than Gabrielle, the Battle Bard of Potidaea! Although he had never seen the legendary woman or her companion, he grew up hearing many stories about them from his father. When word spread about her last battle in the distant land of Japa, and then her later resurrection in the land of the Pharaohs, he didn’t give it much thought. But now that he was looking at the weapons, he felt glee as his heart raced out of control.

Here in front of my eyes is the legendary warrior woman’s battle gear from Japa! What pretty dinars it will bring! If I thought I could get a lot just from the armor and weapons, just think what her admirers would pay to have an original weapon and garments in their collection! And the plume that the famous bard used would bring a handsome price! His merchant’s brain began to calculate the amount that he could earn if he sold it as one piece, or began to separate it off for many buyers. An auction! That’s what I’ll do, I’ll auction off the pieces one by one. That would earn a lot, perhaps even enough to buy back most of what the crazy old man sold off!

He felt the smile tug at his lips, but quickly got control over it. With a slight frown, he turned to the young woman and looked up at her. He was taken back by her stony expression, but quickly recovered as he began to tsk while looking at the items.

"I won’t make any kind of profit with these things, why, look at these gauntlets, their all worn out! Just look at all these nicks and dings in the metal! And the leather… ick, its atrocious!" He shook his head as he tossed the items aside, "And what happened to this?" he held up the gold breastplate, the signs of a battle evident by the numerous mars in the metal. The cloth beneath it had holes and was badly stained.

"I suppose you think people will want to buy this too, huh?" He held up the foreign looking sword. "Nope, no one in Greece will ever want to buy something like this, why look, the handle isn’t even shaped like ours!" He exclaimed as he set it aside, and then saw the bluish aqua cloth that the items had been wrapped in. Taking it, he lifted it up and examined it closely. Obviously it was once a shirt, worn by a smaller man, or perhaps a woman. But where the cloth of the back should have been was now an open hole, the fringes of the cloth blackened by a fire. Silently he cringed, hoping that whoever had been wearing this shirt had better luck than the cloth did. With a shake of his head, he tossed everything aside and picked up the plume once more.

"Well, you are just lucky that I need a new plume. My last one is worn down to the nub. I’ll give you one dinar for it," he spoke slowly as he looked over the rest of the items. In a slow, drawn out voice, he lowered his gaze as he turned to the girl once more, "tell you what, because I’m feeling generous, I’ll take all this metal off of your hands for… oh, say…twenty five dinars," he looked at her hopefully. While the boys grew excited, the girl merely stared at him, her eyes never wavering.

"All right! All right! Boy, you’re a good haggler!" He smiled, then added, "I’ll take it off your hands for fifty dinars." He nodded, hoping that she would go for the new offer. Her friends looked at her expectantly while she continued to stare at Sarrius. The older, portly man felt like the girl’s eyes were boring a hole into his soul. With a nervous gulp, he turned away as he mentally calculated how much he could possibly get for all of the items. Three, maybe four hundred dinars! What’s a hundred dinars to pay off the girl? He decided as he turned to her.

"Ok, ok!" He chuckled as he began to wrap the items back into the cloth, "You drive a really hard bargain, listen, for the whole lot I’ll give you…" he looked at the bundle and pretended to mentally calculate an amount, then turned to the tall girl again. "One hundred and fifty dinars, and that is my final offer!" He nodded as he schooled his features to turn hard.

Ari had been standing watching the funny little man intently. As he was looking at her mother’s items, she thought she heard a slight chuckle, a giggle of happiness, come from the man’s unbridled thoughts, but she did not understand its cause. When he made an offer, she remained silent, wondering if she should accept his offer, or explain to Tal that she did not understand what a dinar was. As she had done in the past, she mentally cursed Alti for not teaching her about such things, and wondered if it would be difficult to learn what a dinar was, and what items were valued at. Misunderstanding her silence, he began to increase the offer, each time going higher. When he grew silent and was staring up at her, she arched a brow as her eyes grew to slits. Never once removing her eyes from the man, she leaned toward Tal, who whispered in her ear.

"That’s a great price Ari! Take it!" He seemed excited.

As she looked at the short man, she gave a slight nod as her gaze grew cold. She saw the merchant gulp nervously as she pointed to the knife that Tal had offered. "M-My friend deserves some money." She said.

The merchant’s eyes grew wide as he saw the flare of anger in her eyes. With a slight stammer, he nodded as he picked up the old blade. "Oh, ummm, yes, I see what you mean," he stated as he turned to Tal. "Tell you what, son, because I like you, I’ll give you a half a dinar…" but he stopped when he saw Ari’s glare, "ummm, a dinar for this blade. Ok? Is that good for you?" He smiled as he wrapped an arm over the shorter boy’s shoulder.

With a wide smile, Tal looked at Ari and Diores before holding out his hand, "A dinar will be just fine!"

"Good, good, here’s your dinar, and for you, young lady, "One hundred dinars!" The peddler smiled as he began to count out the coins.

"Hey now, you said a hundred and fifty!" Diores spoke up.

"Oh, yes I did! Such a good boy to remind me!" The older man nodded with an irritated smile as he continued to count out the coins. Ari watched him in silence as she felt the coins in her hand. When he had finished, she looked at her cupped hands and wondered how she was going to carry it all.

"Tell you what, for a dinar, I’ll give you a satchel for all of that," the round man said, but at the stony glare from Ari, he gulped as he stepped back, "Just kidding! Why, with such a good saleswoman as yourself, I’ll give you one, compliments of Salmoneus and Sons!" He nervously chuckled as he reached into a drawer and removed a leather pouch. "There you go, Miss, and don’t forget me should you ever find more…ummm, scrap metal like this, ok?" He winked, then patted her arm. "Now run along, it’s already getting late and I’m sure your parents are wondering about all of you." He smiled as Ari was turning away and walking toward the lights of Amphipolis.

"Can you believe it! We’ve got us some dinars, easy as all that!" Tal exclaimed as Ari fastened the pouch to her leather belt.

"Oh boy! I can hardly wait! How much time do you think we can spend with one of Elenh’s girls?" Diores asked.

"Why, I think maybe at least half the night! And Ari," Tal laughed loudly, "She can buy herself one for that amount that she earned!! Man, Ari, I had no idea that you found so much good stuff!"

Ari turned to her friends, her brow arched at the comment. Seeing her expression, Tal shook his head as he waved away anything that she might have said.

"I didn’t mean it that way, Ari. A deal is a deal. We all keep our own coins. You earned it, you keep it all. I’m sure we’ll be able to figure other ways to earn coins later, won’t we Diores?" Tal smiled as he slapped his friend’s back.

"Of course we will. But at least for tonight, we can experience another kind of pleasure!" He guffawed.

As they made their way down the busy streets of Amphipolis, Ari listened to her friend’s words. When they stood in front of the brightly lighted house, Ari tied her horse’s reins to the post, then turned to her friends. With looks of awe and fear, they stood looking up at the wooden plaque.

"This is it!" Diores half-whispered, then turned and looked at Tal as a serious expression etched his features. With a nod, Tal gulped and turned to the dark haired lad.

"Diores, this is it. Tonight we become… men," Tal said solemnly as he clasped his friend’s arm.

When Ari heard his words she only shook her head and rolled her eyes, then turned to enter the establishment. As the bright lights from inside cascaded out of the open door, the girl blinked until her eyes became adjusted. The first thing she noticed when she looked around was the large open area with chairs and sofas, each one made with colorful fabric. The windows were covered with long, red curtains that kept the interior of the house hidden from the outside world. Near the door was a tall desk with a parchment and plume.

At a noise from a nearby door, Ari looked up and saw a young girl, her face painted with stuff to make her seem older. For clothes, she wore a tight fitting dress that pushed her bosoms up and out, and the skirt was cinched up on one side to her waist to reveal a slender leg. With a broad smile, she looked Ari over, then turned to the open doorway.

"Ladies, we have some customers," she called out. At the young woman’s announcement, a sudden cackle of voices rose up as women began to pour from the room behind the door. Each one smiled and spoke, their animated words of welcome assailed Ari’s senses.

As the women moved around the three, Ari glanced at each woman. She noticed that they were all different. Some were tall, and others short. While some were wiry thin, others were portly. Their hair coloring was all different, some blonde, some dark, and some redder than Tal’s hair. As the women circled them, Ari tried to understand what was happening. She tried to concentrate past their voices that seemed to cover her with a tidal wave of words. As their hands touched her shoulder and back, she tried to pull away from them. Just when she felt like she would lose control, a single voice rose over the din of noise.

"That’s enough!" A deep, commanding voice spoke up. Instantly obeying, the girls pulled away and allowed room for the newcomers.

If Ari had known that today she would be face to face with the woman whom she had seen upon her arrival in Amphipolis, she might have changed her mind about this foray. But now, as the shorter woman moved toward her, the dark child could only stare. When the woman’s brown eyes grew too intense for her, she looked away.

"So, we have some customers. A bit early, but I think we can accommodate you," Elenh smiled as she stepped behind the tall desk, then opened the parchment that had scribbles on it. "So, what I can do for all of you? How can we serve you?" She looked from Ari, then to the two boys.

Both Tal and Diores grew suddenly mute as they looked from the line of smiling girls, back to the madam. With blushes on their cheeks, they almost giggled as they leaned toward the desk.

"I’d, that is, we’d like to sample some of your most delightful pleasures." Tal took on an air of authority, while Diores eagerly nodded.

"Well now, gentlemen and lady," Elenh smiled at Ari, "I’m sure we can accommodate you. The going rate for one of my girls is two dinars for a standard time, if you want the whole night, it will cost eight dinars. If you want any special form of pleasure, that’s for you to negotiate with the girls." At her words, Tal’s smile disappeared as he looked away. Seeing his friend, Diores stepped forward.

"Look, we’ve got three dinars between us, what can we get for that?" The boy questioned.

Ari leaned toward Tal and whispered in his ear, "Take a dinar from me."

"No, I couldn’t, really," he quickly responded, then turned to his best friend, "It’s ok Diores, you go and have fun."

With a slight frown, the taller boy pulled Tal aside. "Look, we’re best friends and I’m not doing this without you. So let’s see if we can work something out!" Then he left his friend and returned to the desk.

"We’ve got three dinars between the two of us, what can we get for that?" He asked.

"First timers?" Elenh smiled, as she winked at the boys. "We do have a girl who not only takes first timers but doesn’t mind taking a cut from her wages. Mara!" She called to her working girls. From the group of women, a short, cubby woman with long brown hair bounced from the group. With an eager smile, she ran and stood in front of the madam and two boys.

"Mara, we’ve got ourselves two first timers, and they only have three dinars between them." Elenh explained as the whore smiled while sizing up the two boys.

"Ohhhh, virgins!" Mara clapped with glee before reaching over and tweaking the boys’ cheeks. "You both are very lucky that you’ve arrived so early! Why, with it being so slow, I would love to take care of you and not to worry about the loss in pay, I’m sure I’ll make it up tonight!"

"So there you have it, boys. Mara will be glad to see to your needs." The madam smiled as she held out her hand. Once the boys deposited their coins in her palm, she winked at the boys, nodded to her girl as she placed the coins in her skirt pocket. Then she turned her attention to writing down some notes on a scroll. Ari watched as the two boys walked down the hall, the prostitute between them, her arms linked with theirs as she chattered nonstop. When she saw the smile of her friends’ faces, she sighed and turned her attention to the owner of the house.

"Now then, I hope you have two dinars?" Elenh smiled as she leaned against the desk, her bosoms seemingly pushing up to entice Ari.

"I-I have dinars," Ari managed to stutter.

"Good. So is there a girl here that interests you?" The older woman asked.

Ari turned away from the woman. Her eyes scanned over the numerous women who were vying for her attention. Each one was more beautiful than the next, their bodies voluptuous in ways that excited the girl. But after glancing at all of the choices, she found herself looking back at the madam. As her eyes fell on the woman’s full bosoms, she instinctively licked the dryness from her lips. Following the trail of the madam’s smooth collarbone, her eyes came to rest on the dark gaze of the owner.

"Well now, if that is your choice, it’s going to cost you a whole lot more than two dinars," Elenh had a seductive smile as she moved with cat-like grace from behind the counter, "I cost a great deal more than any of my girls, and no one has ever been able to afford me in the past. Do you think you can?" She whispered as the tips of her fingers lightly traced a pattern over the girl’s exposed neck.

Ari gulped as she blinked, then reached for the pouch at her waist and unfastened it from her belt. Without wavering her gaze, the customer took the small bag and held it in front of the woman. With a surprised expression, the madam arched a brow as she took the bag from her, then peered inside to see the contents. Smiling at what she saw, the older woman tilted her head as her gaze held the girl mesmerized.

"It’s a start," is all she said as she began to lead her in the opposite direction of where her friends had gone.

If an emergency had happened where Ari had to find her way out, she would not have been able to. She was so engrossed in the madam that all she could do was follow her through some twisting curves of hallways until she got to a door at the end of the passage. With a seductive smile, the shorter woman opened the door and stepped into the dimly lighted room.

"I’ll have you know that not many people get this far back into my establishment." Elenh smiled as she moved into her room.

Elenh of Amphipolis had many years of experience in the art of love. More than she wanted to remember. When she first saw this woman child in Meg’s place, she was tickled at the girl’s attention. Later, when she saw the family riding out of the city, she couldn’t help but tease the young woman. Although she had learned all about this child, and her legendary parents, she had to admit to herself that there was something mysterious and enchanting about the girl. And like a moth to a flame, Elenh could not help but fly toward its brightness, even if it meant she would be burned.

With a slight smile, she moved to a lamp and lit the wick, then turned and glanced at the customer in her room. No, having someone in her private chambers was unheard of. Only the few girls who had her favor, and her daughter, had ever entered into her domain. Yet now she had allowed a paying customer into her chamber, and if asked, she would not have been able to explain why.

As she glanced at the girl, she noticed the way her eyes darted around the room. Like a trapped animal, her gaze fell everywhere quickly, then averted to the wooden floor below her boots. Taller than Elenh, the young woman wore clothes more fitting of a man, yet she knew that hidden somewhere under the layers were smooth, delicate curves that beckoned to be touched and tasted.

Smiling at the thought, she took a few steps toward her customer and stopped within arms reach.

"Do you have a preference?" She asked, as she examined the girl closely. She noticed the way the tall woman looked at her like a wounded animal, then glanced away. At the sweat building on her upper lip, and the visible pulse of her heart on the girl’s neck, Elenh could tell the level of her arousal. When she stepped closer, she noticed how the young woman seemed to flinch, the way that her breath caught in her throat.

So that is how you like it? The madam thought as her eyes took on a serious expression.

Being dominated by a stronger lover and taking pleasure from pain was nothing new to Elenh. In fact, it had been her specialty when she first started working in this profession. Although she had long since grown away from it, she knew full well that for some, this was the only way that they could receive their pleasure.

"Take off your clothes." Her voice grew deep with authority as she moved to a nearby chair. With a slight smile, she sat easily in her high backed chair as she watched the girl closely. At first the teen gulped, her eyes grew wide as she glanced around the room in search of an escape. Then she looked back at Elenh as she began to unfasten the lacings of her garments.

One by one, the garments were peeled away like the skin of a fruit. Elenh held a lustful smile as she watched the outer tunic give way to a light undershirt. When an item was discarded on the floor, the girl looked up at her expectantly. Her gaze filled with fear and excitement.

"That’s it. I want it all off," Elenh’s voice was deep and commanding as she watched the teen slowly undress.

Once naked, the girl stood frozen in place, her hands to her side, her head lowered. With a slight smile, the older woman leaned back and allowed her eyes to feast upon the young woman’s beauty, and young woman she was! Elenh had been right. Concealed under the baggy men’s clothes were delicate curves. Modest sized breasts that were still perky with youth, and a patch of hair between her legs that looked soft to the touch.

The madam of the house gazed at the girl through slightly parted eyelids. "Have you a name, girl?" Her voice purred through the silence of the room.

"A-Ari." The poor thing stammered, her words barely able to form.

Elenh thought of this new discovery. A part of her wanted to find out what traumas this teen had experienced to have affected her speech so. But when she noticed the leather pouch on her table, she knew that this was not the time. Right now, this customer wanted something from her, and she knew that she would give it.

Leaning further back, the madam of the house pulled up her skirt as she scooted her bottom near the edge of the soft, cushioned chair. When she draped a curved leg over the arm of the chair, she revealed her bareness below. She noticed how the girl looked at her with lust. How she licked her lips as her eyes remained fastened on the patch of hair between the older woman’s legs.

"Come here Ari, kneel down and show me what you know." Elenh ordered as the girl looked up at her, a mixture of fear and pleasure in her eyes.

For Ari, she felt the moisture building between her legs. Her heartbeat, normally under control, began to increase its cadence. The sweat on the palm of her hands flowed as her mouth felt suddenly dry. She knew that she desired, no, craved something, but could not name it. When the madam ordered her to her knees, she suddenly knew that what she had was a thirst that only this woman could sate. In deaf obedience, she moved swiftly. She felt herself kneeling in front of the woman as her lips dived between the spread legs.

The first taste brought the girl back to a vivid memory…

It had been her first time and she did not know what to do. Alti stood before her naked, her legs slightly parted as she hissed for the girl to come near. Although afraid, and wishing for her mommy and daddy, Ari knew that she could do nothing but comply. When she was close enough to smell her captor’s scent, the little girl looked up at the giant sorceress, her eyes begged to be told what was expected of her. Rather than voice an order, the dark woman roughly grabbed the girl by the hair and pulled her until her face as buried between the woman’s legs. Unable to breath, she involuntarily gagged as she struggled and pulled away.

"Get back here!" Alti barked as she forced the girl to comply.

At first, Ari fears threaten to overcome her. But with sorceress’ instructions, she obeyed. She did all that was ordered of her and soon learned how to please her mother. Every nuance of the older woman’s body, she learned to read until she was able to give the woman pleasure with just her mouth, lips and tongue. Although she did not know it at the time, this skill came in handy when she grew up. Not only was she able to pleasure her mother, but she also gave pleasure to her captors. Despite being held against their will, Ari always took delight in the sounds that they made as her mouth devoured their innocence, just as Alti had done to her…

Remembering that first time, Ari closed her eyes and basked in the woman’s scent before she dived into the liquid that was offered. Her lips first kissed along the folds, then her tongue parted the soft flesh and dipped into the older woman’s warmth. At her instant touch, a deep moan escaped Elenh’s control. Glancing up, Ari noticed how the madam had her head thrown back, her eyes closed as her lips were opened to form a small "O". Inwardly smiling, the girl closed her eyes and returned her attention to pleasing this woman. With her skillful tongue, she suckled upon the woman’s flesh. Her mouth left a trail of pleasure as the palm of her hands held on to the older woman’s hips. Each time the madam cried out, Ari simply held on tight, and never once stopped her movements.

For Elenh, she could not remember the last time she had felt this good. Yes, although she had shared herself from time to time with various people, it seemed liked it had been forever since anyone had stirred these feelings in her and she wanted more from this young woman. In wave after wave of pleasure, she cried out as her back arched, her face contorted from ecstasy as the wetness seeped like an endless fountain from her body. During her spasms of pleasure, she reached down, her fingers lacing into the dark hair as she held the client’s head against her.

Only when it felt that she could not go on any longer, did she push the teen away. Her groan was more a comment of her delight than anything. When her breath returned, she opened her eyes to see the intense blue eyes of the woman looking at her. As if seeking something, the young woman waited, her eyes ever alert. Elenh smiled as she released a cat-like stretch as she rose from the comfort of her chair.

"You are good." She purred huskily as she moved away from the girl, her hands moving slowly over the fastenings of her own garments. One by one she peeled away the layers of her clothes until she stood naked in front of Ari. With a slight smile she looked down at the girl. Although she was smaller, she could tell that this young woman seemed to cower. Curious by this, she tilted her head as she moved to sit on the edge of the bed. When she gazed down at the kneeling woman, she smiled when she saw Ari looking down in subservience.

"Come here," her voice cut through the silence of the room. In obedience, Ari rose and moved before the bed. Elenh smiled up at the client, her eyes taking in the slender woman’s form. Like an artist paying homage to a statue, her hands began to move over the taller woman’s body. Skilled palms first cupped, then squeezed the younger woman’s firm breasts. At the sound of Ari’s intake of air, the madam smiled as she reached behind the girl and pulled her close.

Elenh was not a stranger to making love with another woman. She knew what she desired, and in turn, gave to her women what they needed. As she pulled the customer’s body close, she leaned up and took a firm breast between her lips. She sucked, licked and at times, nipped at the tender flesh until she felt the patron responding to her ministrations. While her mouth covered every inch of the young woman’s breasts, her right hand made a trail down the firm abdomen and rested against the sparse patch of hair between the client’s legs. When she felt the moisture covering the girl, the older woman smiled as she pulled away and looked up at the girl.

"My… my… did we have pleasure too?" Elenh smiled, but when she saw an instant look of panic from Ari, her smile disappeared. "It’s all right Ari. That’s what you are here for, to receive pleasure." She explained as she pulled away, her gaze resting on the girl.

What has happened to you? She wondered, but quickly brushed it away, knowing that it was not her right to pry into a customer’s life.

She rose from the edge of the bed long enough to pull the covers back, before crawling onto the soft mattress. Once comfortable against the pillows, she looked back at the young woman, her smile rested on her as she gazed at the young beauty. Like a colt, Ari’s body held hidden muscles. There was evidence of the carefully bridled strength below her soft, sinewy flesh.

"Come here, lay with me," Elenh ordered. Without missing a beat, the tall woman climbed onto the bed to lay next to her, the young woman’s eyes never left her. Smiling seductively, Elenh moved toward the tall woman, the tips of her fingers began to make circular patterns over the teen’s shoulders. At her touch, the dark haired girl groaned softly as she closed her eyes.

"No, no, no," Elenh took a hold of Ari’s chin and forced to teen to open her eyes, "I want you to see everything, feel… everything." She released a mischievous smile as she climbed over the taller body.

"Do you hear me?" She asked as she straddled the client’s naked flesh, rubbing against her to let the customer know how much she was desired. If there was anything that she had learned after her many years in this business, it was that the customer must always feel desired. Although it had been many years since she was paid for her services, Elenh never lost sight of the fact that her job, her task, was to bring the customer as much pleasure as possible in the time allotted.

With this in mind, she wiggled her hips seductively as the tips of her fingers began to trace a slow pattern over the customer’s flesh. Ari moaned as she arched her hips, her hands reaching up to touch Elenh’s swaying breast. Before the teen could make contact, the madam smiled as she took the girl’s hands in hers.

"You honestly don’t want it to be this easy, do you?" Elenh asked as she took the young woman’s hands and moved them over her head. As the older woman’s breast hung inches away from Ari’s lips, the madam moved a few pillows aside until she was able to grab the soft cloth that was fastened to her headboard. With expert ease, she took the cloth and easily tied the young woman’s hands above her head.

"There now, isn’t that so much better?" she whispered huskily as she returned her attention to her client. "I can tell," she smiled as her fingertip left an invisible mark over the girl’s forehead and nose, and came to rest against her grimacing lips. "Do you want to know how I know?" she asked as the pried her legs between the taller woman’s legs until they spread open for her. At the young woman’s attentive gaze, Elenh smiled.

"It’s because of this," she whispered so close as her fingers dipped into the customer’s folds, the tips of her fingers scooping up the young woman’s pleasure and forced the teen to taste of her own liquid. "This is how I know," the madam whispered with a smile as she turned her entire focus on pleasing this young woman.

Ari could not remember the last time that she had felt these feelings. Groaning from the taste of her own pleasure, she thrashed in an attempt to be free. But as the older woman continued to rein down kisses upon her flesh, all the girl could do was to surrender, as she had so many times in the past. With a deep intake of air, she instinctively pulled against the bindings around her wrist, but grew still when she felt the madam’s lips fasten to a breast.

"Oh," was all that came from her lips, the soft hush barely more than a whisper as she felt her thoughts taking her back to a time not too long ago…

She had spent an entire day of training within the cave. Although she did not know it, she felt that soon her mother would make her move. Now that they learned that Xena had returned from the dead and had her blonde whore in tow, Alti would begin her plan of revenge and Ari knew that she was a part of that plan.

With sweat dripping down her body, the tall girl turned to her mother. She noticed the cold stare of the woman and knew what Alti desired. Although a sick shudder passed through her, a slight feeling of elation soared within. But before she could even think of responding, Alti had her on her back in the corner of the cave. The sword she had been working out with a moment ago was gone and in its place were the cold, steel manacles around her wrists. No longer free, all she could do was to succumb to the pain of her mother’s touch, knowing that soon the pleasure would begin…

As Ari lay below Elenh, her vision changed from the images of her captivity, to the woman who was now above her. She felt every touch, every scratch and bite of the woman and although the pain was not nearly as severe as what she was accustomed to, she found herself rising in pleasure nonetheless. When the madam’s expert touch moved between her legs, Ari cried out in pleasure as she pulled on the bindings around her wrist. With a jerk, and a spasm, she found herself climbing higher and higher in ecstasy as she released herself to this woman’s magical touch.

Elenh noticed everything. She saw how the young woman’s body writhed at her touch. The slight beads of sweat covered the teen’s soft flesh like a down of hair. When she first began with gentle touches, she knew that her client’s pleasure was waning. Only when she began to be more forceful, to touch her roughly, did the young woman’s pleasure return. With her expert skills, the madam made love to her customer as roughly as she dared. When her fingers slipped into the wet, warm folds, she moved over her and looked down into the dark haired teen’s eyes. Elenh noticed the vacant gaze as Ari gasped for air. With a pleased smile, she watched the beads of sweat formed on her customer’s upper lip.

"Is this what you like?" the madam whispered softly as her fingers dived into the writhing body. Her client only groaned, her legs spreading further as her hips arched up to meet the fingers thrusting into her. "Look at me and tell me, is this what you like?" She asked again in a more forceful tone.

Ari heard the words, yet felt lost in its command. The sounds around her, the scent of the madam, and the warmth of the older woman’s soft body grew small within her mind’s eye. Unable to comprehend anything around her, she closed her eyes as she cried out in pleasure. Elenh’s touch, quick and rapid, never skipped a beat. Before she realized it, she heard the question, and opened her eyes to see Alti staring down at her.

Disbelief racked her brain as she felt her body responding of its own accord. Unable to stop her body from responding, she groaned as her hips arched upward, the bindings around her wrists grew tight as she thrashed upon the bed. Although she knew that Alti was dead, she could not shake away the image of the sorceress over her, holding her down as she tortured her with such exquisite pleasure…

"Tell me, little girl, you know you want this," Alti’s raspy voice reached her senses.

"N-No… n-no…" Ari heard her own voice in the room as she negatively shook her head even as her body reached the pinnacle of bliss.

"Look at me!" she heard the sorceress order.

Looking up at the woman, her vision blurred. She saw the walls of the cave surrounding her once more, only to shift to the home that she lived in with her parents, and then to return to the walls of the madam’s private room in the whorehouse. Like the surrounding walls, the image of the woman above her shifted from the figure of the madam, to the glaring gaze of Alti and then to the leering face of… Xena!

Feeling her warrior mother above her and Xena’s long, forceful fingers entering her, sent Ari over the edge. She heard herself cry out her mother’s name only to be followed by a slight meowing cry of pleasure as her body shook uncontrollably. In wave after of wave of pleasure, she cried out even as her body released her moisture.

Elenh felt her client close to the brink. She watched as the young woman’s body responded to her touch. Yet, although the teen was looking directly at her, she knew that it was not her whom the young woman saw, but someone else. It was not until Ari came, her body shuddering uncontrollably, that the madam knew who her customer saw.

"Xeeenaaaa!" Her patron cried out in pleasure as her body’s moisture covered Elenh’s buried fingers. With little moaning sounds, Ari continued to writhe, her body spasm a few more times, and then she grew still.

Elenh watched as the young woman’s body was panting out of control. When she first heard her customer cry out her own mother’s name, a part of the older woman was disturbed. She felt an initial revulsion that she always held when she heard of such close liaisons between relations. Despite this, she focused on her task. She set aside her own preconceived ideas of right and wrong and continued to pleasure her customer. Only when the young woman remained still did she know that her job was complete.

As her fingers left the client’s body with a slight sloshing sound, she heard the young woman groan softly. Glancing down at the customer, she smiled knowing that she had performed exactly what she was being paid to do. The sheen of sweat covering the teen’s flesh, the way her breasts heaved with each intake of breath, was enough to let Elenh know that her patron had received her money’s worth. Before she could take this all in, she saw the change in her customer. With eyes closed tightly, the teen tried to break free of the binds as her body shook, right as the tears began to fall.

"You’re all right, here, let me loosen them," Elenh spoke softly, knowing that the young woman would respond better to her normal voice. Ignoring Ari’s struggles, she quickly loosened the knots in the bindings around the young woman’s wrists. Once free, the teen turned away from her, her body shook as the silent tears racked through her.

"Oh, honey, you’re all right, you’re fine." She cooed as she wrapped her arm over Ari’s shoulders. When she felt the coolness in the air, she reached down and pulled the disheveled blankets over their naked bodies and gently pulled the younger woman into her arms. As she held her close, she whispered soft words of comfort. Her fingers brushed through Ari’s hair.

"Poor, poor baby," she whispered as she kissed the crown of Ari’s head. "Poor thing, what you must be going through."

Elenh was not ignorant of who this girl was. She knew the stories of The Destroyer, who almost laid the land to waste, and the evil sorceress who controlled the young woman. The madam knew about Xena, the young woman’s birth mother. But what she had not realized was the power the Warrior Princess held over Ari, and the continual abuse that this young woman was experiencing at the hands of her own mother.

The bitch has stepped in where the sorceress once was, Elenh thought with disgust as she held the weeping teen. How long has Xena been touching her daughter in this way? How the poor girl must feel disgusted, perhaps she blames herself for what her own mother does to her. Is it no wonder that the poor thing comes to me for release?

As the madam held her client close, she found her memories taking her back to her own dark times. The memories of her father as he took her against her will were never far away from her thoughts. Although she had managed to bury them, there were times when she could not ignore her own sad past.

When it first began, she was no longer a child, yet not quite a woman when he began his nightly visits. Although she had accepted his actions, there was always a part of her that felt disgust toward herself for not fighting against him. Not even telling her mother about his actions stopped it from happening and there didn’t seem to be anything that she could do to escape his advances… until she ran away from home the following year.

Elenh never thought that she would find a place that would take her in. When she finally arrived in Corinth, dirty, disheveled and half-starving, a kind woman name Estir gave her shelter. Estir had fed and clothed her and gave her a place to sleep. At first, Elenh only helped the other maids by cleaning the madam’s house, and tending to the laundry of all her working girls. After a few years, the enterprising young girl saw the advantages of working as one of Estir’s girls, and after many moons of badgering her, the older madam agreed to let her begin working as one of the girls. So kind was the madam that she allowed Elenh to keep her entire profits from her first time, which was the beginning of Elenh’s savings that would later start her own home. From that first time, Estir took the young woman under her wings. She taught her how to please both men and women as well as how to run a home, negotiate with the clients, and manage the many temperaments of a house full of working girls. By the time Elenh was ready to go off on her own, Estir had taught her everything that was needed to run a successful business. And that is what she brought to her business in Amphipolis.

The madam, once whore, never once looked back at her childhood. True, at times the dreams would return, but as the years passed, and her success as a businesswoman grew, the dreams became infrequent and only appeared sporadically. As she held the weeping girl in her arms, she knew that tonight, the dreams would return. Despite this, she held Ari close and spoke the words of comfort that she used to hear Estir say to her many nights. And like her mentor, she cradled the injured soul and kept her close as the tears of the girl’s pain racked through her naked body.

When Ari grew still, and the weight of her body grew heavy, Elenh glanced down at her client. She noticed the dark haired woman’s eyes closed as her breathing grew calm. She lightly placed a kiss on the girl’s forehead. With a frown, she released a sigh as she hugged her customer close.

"Poor girl," she whispered softly. "Don’t you worry, you’re safe now. You’re safe with me," She told the sleeping girl, not at all sure if her words would be lost to dreams.

Ari did not know how long she slept. She only knew that when she awoke, she was wrapped in the warm arms of the whorehouse madam. Surprised by the position she was in, she jumped away from the woman. When she felt the strong hands hold her in place, all she could do was to remain lying in her arms.

"You’re all right, Ari," Elenh’s voice was a strong, soft whisper. Looking up at her, the girl glanced at the woman in surprise. When she saw the madam’s confident smile, she wondered if this is how all whores treated their customers.

"Listen to me," the madam’s words broke through her silent thoughts. "When you are with me here in this room you will always be safe. Do you understand?"

The dark child’s brow arched up in confusion.

Elenh smiled as she brushed her fingers tenderly through Ari’s shoulder-length hair. "You don’t ever have to worry, what happens behind my closed door, remains here… always."

The woman’s words of assurance brought a slight blush to the girl. Lowering her eyes, she returned her head to resting on the madam’s soft shoulder. As she felt the naked body close to her, she sighed deeply as a shiver escaped her control.

"You’re all right, Ari, don’t ever forget this. You will always be safe with me," Elenh’s words assured as her fingers lightly traced a pattern over the girl’s back.

The combination of her words and touch brought comfort to the tall girl. To her shame, she had screamed out her birth mother’s name at the height of her pleasure and this embarrassed her. But the madam’s promise made her realize that she would not tell Xena of this transgression. Nor would her Maia be told of the nasty secrets that Ari harbored deep inside. Now at ease in the woman’s arms, she felt her body responding to the gentler touch. Rising from the woman’s arms, she looked at down, her silent question forming even as she felt her hips gyrating against the older woman’s leg.

"Again?" Elenh asked with a wry smile.

"P-Please?" the dark child’s hands moved down the older woman’s body, the palm of her hand resting on the madam’s hips.

"It will cost you more." The older woman’s eyes crinkled into a smile.

Ari lowered herself to kiss the woman’s lips. As their lips parted and their tongues danced against each other, she shifted her position in the woman’s arms. Like a mind reader, Elenh’s leg lifted between the girls parted legs. At the pressure against her neither regions, she gasped and froze for only a moment before her hips began to move against the older woman’s leg. Bracing herself, she glanced down at the smaller woman, her eyes remained fixed on the madam’s brown eyes as she strived to bring herself to pleasure yet again. As her body moved, she felt Elenh’s fingernails racking against the flesh on her back and every once in a while, the older woman reached up to gently nip at her shoulder. The combination of pleasure and pain raced through her sensations and just as she had done before, she spilled her pleasure over and over again upon the woman’s soft flesh.

~~~~~

The silence of the house began to be filled with the noise of music and voices. From outside of the closed door, Ari could tell that the house was filling with other paying customers. As she dressed, she glanced occasionally at the madam of the whorehouse. Her eyes fell on the curves of the woman as she dressed. Once they were both clothed, she shyly turned away from the woman as she took the leather pouch of dinars in hand.

"So… my girls go for two dinars, but as I stated earlier, I go for a whole lot more," Elenh smiled as she moved toward Ari. "My going rate is six dinars for the special treatment that you initially required. For the following favor, I’ll cut you a bargain because this is your first time in my house and only charge you three dinars. So, Ari of Amphipolis, tonight’s fee will be nine dinars," she stated matter-of-factly as her arms crossed in front of her chest.

Ari looked from the woman to the pouch. A heat crossed her cheeks as she looked away embarrassed. She did not know how much the woman was asking for and therefore didn’t know how much to give to Elenh. Shyly, she looked down at the pouch, and began to open it. When she glanced in at the contents, she blinked as she nervously gulped, then looked up at the older woman. With a shrug of her shoulders, she handed the bag to the woman, and looked away.

"No, honey, this is way too much," the madam smiled kindly as she poured out some coins into her palm. "See, one, two, three…" she counted out the coins, and stopped when she had her fee. "This is my going rate, and although I think you would be saving your money if you had chosen one of my girls, I can’t fault you for your outstanding taste!"

The dark child looked at the older woman, wondering if she was teasing. When she saw the madam’s smile, she looked away quickly, not certain how to react. After receiving the coin pouch back, she fastened it to her belt, then looked down at the older woman.

"Ari," Elenh’s voice caught her attention. She noticed the older woman’s serious expression. With a slight frown, the madam looked up at her and held her gaze. At first she thought that the woman would say something to her, but instead she only smiled, and then reached up to lightly brush her palm over Ari’s cheek.

"Ari of Amphipolis… Ari of few words, what do you have locked up inside of you?" The older woman spoke softly as her eyes grew moist. Unable to respond, the girl frowned. Seeing this change, Elenh smiled as she brushed her fingertips over Ari’s forehead. "Perhaps you’ll come back on a regular basis so that you’ll let me inside of here?" the madam asked as she rested her hand over the dark child’s heart.

The anguish of her question rested in Ari’s expression. Before it could grow, Elenh shook her head, then looked up at her with a serious expression. "Ari, I hope you know that you will always be safe here, behind this door. The moment you come into my room and that door closes," she pointed to the only entrance into her room, "whatever happens between us remains here. Do you understand?"

Ari thought of her question, then nodded understanding.

"Good, then perhaps you’ll come back again?" Elenh smiled seductively as her gaze fell lustfully over Ari’s body, then returned to her eyes. "Yes?"

"Y-Yes," Ari managed to stutter as the older woman’s scent reached her nostrils.

A part of Ari wanted to spend the entire night in this woman’s arms. She wanted to have this woman control and command her and bring her such pleasure. And she wanted to lay over the small, soft body again, rubbing herself against the smooth flesh as she cried and released her wetness upon her. But she remembered that her friends were waiting for her, and that her mothers would be expecting her home soon. Not wishing to bring out any anger from either of her parents, she refrained from spending more time with this woman, but knew that she would return again.

Elenh seemed to sense her needs, and leaned up to kiss Ari on her cheek. "Go on now, scoot along. I’ve got a business to run." The older woman commanded.

Ari nodded, a slight smile crossed her lips as she turned and made her way from the room.

As she watched the tall girl close the door, Elenh released a sigh. While a part of her ached for what this poor girl had and was going through, she could not deny that she also received pleasure from the young woman. Moving across her room, she opened a drawer, then deposited the coins within a small wooden box.

If she ever asks me to take her in, what would I do? She wondered. Would I risk the wrath of the Warrior Princess by taking in her daughter? Without thinking about it, Elenh of Amphipolis knew what the answer would be. She knew that she could never turn away someone who was in need, and just the fact that Xena was abusing her daughter in this way was enough to make Elenh angry.

"Yes, if Ari ever wanted to escape the bitch’s clutches, I couldn’t turn her away," she spoke out loud, then smiled as she thought of her mentor. "Estir, you were right. My soft heart may just be the end of me." She chuckled as she closed the drawer.

With a shake of her head, she made her way from her room to join her girls who were already entertaining the night’s guests with some conversations and drink, before retiring to their private rooms.

~~~~~~

Diores kicked himself for not standing up to Tal and his crazy schemes. He didn’t know why he always went along with him, he only knew that for some reason, every time his friend came up with an idea, he found himself completely swept into it. Now was not any different.

He had sold some of his grandmother’s most prized pieces, but only because it was at her insistence. Although Tal had instructed them to not tell their guardians, Diores found that he could not lie to his grandparents. For the tall boy, they were everything to him. After the death of his whole family, they took him in and raised him since he was a child. They loved, cared and nurtured him and for this, he would always be faithful to them. Which is why when his grandfather approached him and asked why Diores was so withdrawn, he found himself telling the older man everything. While he might have been embarrassed to speak so openly to his grandmother, he was never afraid to speak honestly with the old man. To his surprise, his grandfather understood his plight and had approached his grandmother unbeknownst to him. And this is how he ended up with the jewelry. Much to his surprise, the older matriarch handed him the bundle with a slight smile and wink.

"We were once young too," was all she said as she patted him on the shoulder.

The young teen had not told his friend about this for fear that Tal might not understand. While lying and omitting the truth to his father came easy to Tal, for Diores, it was not so easy to deceive his grandparents. But rather than explain this to his best friend, he kept his silence and went along with the plan. Now, as he stood behind the closed door of the whore’s room, he began to wonder if he should have spoke up.

Diores did not want to be here. Yes, he had the normal drives and desires of anyone his age. There were enough times when he awoke to a very pressing need that he always managed to control with his own hand. But being here, right now, in this room, with this stranger was not something that he desired. In fact, if she hadn’t taken them both, he would have offered the money to his friend since it was Tal who seemed to want this so badly.

"Come now, I won’t bite," the whore smiled at him after she removed her clothing and was lying on the bed. "Come, my young man, this is what you’re paying for, yes?"

"Ummm…." Diores found himself stuttering as badly as his new friend, Ari, did. When he saw the woman’s expectant gaze, he smiled shyly as he approached her.

"Come, come now, my little friend. It only takes some courage." She waved him to her side.

When he moved toward the bed, she reached out and began to touch him through his clothes. He felt his heart skip a beat as her hand moved over his chest, then down his front. With a look of surprise, she arched a questioning brow as she ran her fingers along the cloth of his pants.

"What is this? Is my little man asleep?" She smiled softly. "Well, don’t you worry, Mara knows what will wake him up, hummm?"

Before he knew what was happening, she was sitting up in the bed and pulling at the fastening of his pants. Whatever protests he might have had were drowned away when he felt her firm grip around his penis. After a few strokes, he thought he felt himself coming to life, but when nothing happened, he only groaned as he tried to figure a way out of this situation.

"Oh, our little boy is shy, is he?" Mara’s voice was soft and gentle as she readjusted herself again. "Well, you just let Mara coax you out of the shyness, yes?" She looked up at him with a confident smile right as she dipped her head, taking his flaccid flesh in her mouth.

Diores yelped at the sensation because he had never felt it before. Glancing down, he watched as she took him into her mouth. Like a bird bobbing for fish, her head moved up and down as her tongue began to do artful things with his member. At the sensations, he closed his eyes as he felt his hips slowly trusting into her warm mouth. He found his mind taking him far away from this place. The images that danced in his vision were all new and exciting for him. With a groan that sounded like pleasure and pain, he instinctively reached down and placed his hands in the woman’s hair. When he felt the length and softness of her hair, he opened his eyes. He saw her head moving over his semi-erect penis. Gazing further down, he noticed how her breasts swayed from her movements, and that is when he lost it.

As soon as he felt himself shriveling up, he quickly pulled away from her. Hastily, he pulled his pants back up and quickly retied the fastenings. Gazing over his shoulder, he noticed the woman’s bewildered expression.

"I-I’m sorry. This was a… it was a mistake." He stammered as a blush covered his cheeks.

"But I don’t understand?" The prostitute looked hurt as she rose from her kneeling position, her nakedness only causing him further embarrassment.

"Look, ummm… please, it’s not you. Honest. You’re very beautiful, it’s just that, well, for me, this is a mistake," he shook his head as he tried to put his thoughts into words. "Listen, why don’t we just… ummm… talk?"

The woman looked at him with a critical eye. Her incredulous expression held his gaze. Just when he thought she would protest, a knowing smile crossed her lips.

"I see." She smiled as she moved to her robe and put it on.

"You see?" Diores echoed her words, "I don’t understand?"

"Don’t you worry, my little man, whatever happens behind that closed door stays here. Your secret is safe with me," She smiled tenderly as she wrapped her arm around his waist and guided him to her bed.

"Secret?" The young teen was confused.

"Oh, my young friend, anything that happens between me and my clients will never leave my lips. Secrets are always safe, do you understand… um…" Mara seemed like she was searching for a name.

"Diores. My name is Diores," He explained as he sat beside her on her bed.

"Diores, you need not worry, your secret is safe." She smiled again as she patted his arm reassuringly.

"Secret?" Confusion laced his voice.

"No matter," she waved away his confusion. "If you wish to talk, we will talk. So tell me, Diores, what would you like to talk about?"

At her genuine smile, he forgot all about his confusion. He found himself feeling more comfortable in her presence. After a moment of thought, he looked at her, an expression of curiosity etched his features.

"So how did you get into this line of work, Mara?" He asked. Pleased that he had remembered her name, she smiled, then sighed as her eyes got a far away look and began to tell him all about her life.

This is how Diores spent his first time with a woman. As the evening progressed, he found himself laying on her bed, fully clothed, and listening of her journeys that led her to this life. He found everything she had to say interesting. When she made a joke, he found himself laughing at her amusing words, and when she grew serious, he felt a genuine empathy for her. In the end, they realized that they had more in common than initially thought.

"Oh my! I’m afraid your time is up!" She looked at him with concern. Glancing around the room, he realized that more time had passed than originally thought. With a smile, he nodded understanding.

"Yeah, my friend will be climbing the walls soon," his words brought a slight chuckle to her as he rose from the bed. "Mara, thank you and about…" he looked at her with concern. Before he could even say anymore, she smiled, winked, then went to the bed and pulled the blankets off, discarding them onto the floor.

"Don’t worry, Diores, everything will be fine. Remember, your secret is safe with me," She winked as she lightly touched his cheek with her palm, then leaned toward him and left a soft kiss upon his cheek.

"B-But…" He stammered as she was opening the door.

"Shush," she placed her finger to her lips as she pushed him through the door. "Next!" Mara called to Tal, who was already on his feet and moving toward the room. When he passed Diores, he nudged him, then released a slight giggle, before disappearing into her room. Still confused by the woman’s word, the dark haired boy turned and looked at her with a perplexed expression.

"Shush, your secret is safe," She whispered with a wink and closed the door on him.

"Secret? What secret?" He asked softly to the closed door. When no answers came to mind, he simply shrugged, then turned and made his way back to the waiting room chairs.

Tal had indeed been climbing the walls. Just sitting out in the hall in the chairs, watching the beautiful women walking around, their smiles, winks and giggles were enough to get him going. When he thought about what his friends must have been going through behind the closed doors, he felt his own anticipation building as each moment seemed to drag on for eternity. Once the door that Diores disappeared into opened, he was already out of his seat. He felt his hardness pressing against the fabric of his breeches. When a few of the whores saw him, they giggled, which only brought about a smile from the young teen as a blush crossed his cheeks.

Upon entering her room, he noticed the blankets discarded on the floor, the sheets of the bed disheveled, and his smile grew knowing that his friend must have had a good time already. He was not certain if it was his imagination, but he thought he could smell the scent of a woman’s pleasure in the room, and this caused his penis to jump with anticipation. When the woman moved to the bed, she looked at him, a question in her eyes as she scanned him.

"Would you like me to make up the bed with new linen?" She asked as she waved to the bed.

"Why bother when we’re only going to mess it up again?" He broadly smiled as he began to move toward the bed.

"Oh, I see," She nodded as he pulled his tunic over his head, dropped it to the floor and began to unfasten his pants as she laid down on the bed to watch him unclothe.

As Tal kicked his old, tattered boots off, he took in everything about the woman. He noticed how her full, voluptuous form was seen below the fabric of her robe. When she stretched out on the bed, pillows behind her, he noticed the fabric of her robe open. Below, he saw her rolls of flesh, so inviting that he felt himself moving toward her mesmerized as he unfastened his pants.

"Oh…" He tried to remember her name, and was grateful when she spoke up.

"Mara," she smiled coyly as she opened her robe to reveal her full, round breasts. The pink orbs were so inviting.

"Oh Mara, you are so beautiful." His husky whispered escaped his control as he dropped his pants, then stepped out of them.

"Ummm, my little man is all ready to go." The woman smiled as he climbed onto the bed.

"Always." He thought he heard himself whisper, which brought a giggle from the woman.

Tal climbed onto the bed in between the woman’s parted legs. He felt his hardness bobbing around as he positioned himself over her. As he gazed down at her, he felt his heart skip a beat as he looked at her womanly curves.

"Oh, I think my little man was joking, surely this is not your fist time." She smiled wickedly even as he was fumbling between her legs, trying to position himself at her entrance. Without commenting about this, she reached down at gently guided him into her.

"Oh…." His eyes opened wide as he instinctively braced himself over her, his hands holding himself up as her body began to swallow him. The moment he felt the connection, he knew he was lost. The pleasure shot right from the tip of his penis, all the way up his spine to the center of his brain. "Argggg…" He cried out as he felt himself jerk, the liquid squirting from him before he could dive his full length into her. As he caught his breath, he felt his member shriveling and falling from her opening.

"Oh no," He whispered as he looked down at himself. His once large girth now shrunk and hung loosely between him and the prostitute’s body. Embarrassed and angry at himself, he pulled away from her and sat on the edge of the bed, his hands covering his shame.

"I-I’m sorry," He apologized as he felt her moving on the bed.

"Oh, no worries my little man. No worries at all," she cooed as she wrapped her arms around his naked shoulders. Glancing at her, he noticed her sincere smile as she gazed at him, her fingers running through his hair.

"You have the most beautiful color of hair," she commented as she examined it. "So unlike any Greek man I’ve ever known."

"That’s because my mother was from the north." He explained as he lowered his head, still ashamed that he released himself prematurely.

"Oh, that explains why sometimes it looks like the morning sun, and other times, like the evening sky," she whispered almost to herself. After a moment, she reached below his chin and forced him to look up at her. "Listen…"

"Tal," he introduced himself for the first time.

"Listen, Tal, it is all right. Come now, you will see, everything will be fine," she smiled as she pulled him back onto the bed. "Everything will be ok."

"B-But I didn’t get to pleasure you," He stammered as he allowed her to position him on his back.

"Shush now, let Mara take care of things, yes?" She placed her fingertips gently over his lips as her smile wooed him in.

Feeling comfortable in her presence, he relaxed and gave himself up to her. At first, she only examined his features, her fingers gently tracing a line over his face, then down his neck. Before he realized it, she leaned over him and kissed him on the lips. The instant touch brought about a groan of pleasure. When her tongue pushed against his closed lips, he eagerly opened his mouth to accept her exploring tongue.

Nothing Tal had ever experienced so far in his life could compare to that kiss. And although he had touched himself many times, it had never felt the same way as it did when Mara touched him. Her lips, once finished with his mouth and tongue, moved down his neck and chest. When she stopped and suckled each nipple, he felt himself jump with surprise, then relax under the gentle touches of the woman. With each delicate move, he felt himself coming back to life. When her tongue left a trail down his abdomen, he looked down in time to find her smiling at him as she made her way toward his rising member.

"Ohhhhhh…." He moaned when she wrapped her fingers around the base.

"There, there now. Mara told you it would be fine, and it is. See?" She smiled as she lowered her head to take his full length in her mouth.

"Oh," the sound from his lips was more of a squeak than an exclamation as he felt himself rising through the sensations of pleasure. Time seemed to stand still for him as the waves of delight raced through him. Instinctively he thrust his hips upward past her skillful lips. More than once, he felt on the brink of pleasure, but just as skillfully at bringing him pleasure, Mara could also hold it at bay. Each time she felt him ready to let loose, she stopped her movements and squeezed at the base of his penis, which allowed him time to take in the sensations, while holding off his own pleasure.

"Oh… gods, Mara…" He managed to moan as he thrashed his head on her pillows. Her scent wafted to him as she licked his throbbing member.

"There we go, my little man, my Tal," she smiled as she rose from him. "You see, it wasn’t that difficult." She smiled as she rose from her place, and straddled his body.

"B-But… don’t I have to pleasure you?" He asked in confusion.

"Oh, Tal, there are many ways to pleasure a woman, see for yourself," She smiled as she took his hand and put it between her legs. When he felt the moisture, he looked at her surprised. With a slight giggle, she shook her head as she removed his hand and straddled over his erect penis.

"Do you think men are the only ones to release liquid?" She asked as she lowered herself onto him.

Tal watched as his shaft disappeared into her womanly folds. When she sat upon his body, there was collective groan of pleasure from both. Placing his hands on her legs, he looked up at her and watched her features. With eyes closed, she seemed to be taking in the feel of his fullness. A smile crossed her lips as she moved on top of him. At the sensations around his penis, he gasped, then sighed at the exquisite feelings.

"You see…" she panted softly, "More than one way to please a woman." She opened her eyes and smiled down at him.

"Yes, I see," He gasped as he swallowed hard, the pleasure already building up inside of him.

Tal had never felt this before. Nothing he ever did with his hands had ever come close to these feelings. As the woman swayed and moved on him, he watched her closely. He noticed her full body, the way her rolls of flesh seemed to bounce with each movement. Her breasts, fuller than any woman’s he had ever known, swayed with each gyration of her hips. He felt her shaking uncontrollably a few times, her face screwed up with intense delight that was followed by a sigh, then she resumed her movements on him. The few times he felt himself ready to lose control, she would stop her movements, her inner walls tightening around him until she was certain that he would not come yet. Then she would begin her ministrations all over again. And through it all, his eyes beheld the way her womanly beauty rippled over him.

No, she was not thin like Eve, Ari’s sister. Nor did Mara look like a fuller woman with hard muscles like Gabrielle or Xena. Yes, Mara was anything but waif and it was her fullness that Tal found appealing. The way that her fleshy body moved over his, the sounds that she made as she rode him for her own pleasure and the aromatic scent that her body secreted was intoxicating for the young man. Although he had not planned on it, he found himself falling in love with this gentle woman who was teaching him the art of love.

"Ohhhh Mara," he groaned as he watched her face contort with pleasure. "Oh, how I love you, Mara," He cried out as he felt her grind down on him, her body stiffing as a cry of release escaped her control. Mirroring her, his body spasm, his hips arch upward as a cloud of dark pleasure pulled him under as he felt himself release his seed into her.

When it was over, he tried to remember if this was a dream or real. When he felt her weight on top of him, making it difficult for him to breath, he realized that it was no dream. With a smile, he wrapped his arms around her girth, the squishy softness of her flesh molded against his. As he felt his penis shrivel and fall from her body, he kissed the crown of her head tenderly.

"Mara, I love you." He whispered softly as he felt her panting for air. After a few moments, she rose from him, pushed her long locks back, and smiled down at him.

"You see, there were no worries," She smiled down at him as she laid a tender kiss against his lips.

A few moments later when they regained their strength, Tal found himself dressing in the near silence of the room. Occasionally, he glanced up and watched as Mara donned her many layers of clothing. When she felt him watching her, she cast him a sidelong wink, as she adjusted her clothing.

"Mara… ummmm," He tried to find a way to ask her if she loved him, if she would ever consider leaving this line of work to marry him. But unable to work his courage up, he only sighed as he turned away from her, his gaze resting on the bed that they had just made love in.

Misunderstanding him, she looked at the bed, then moved to his side, her arm wrapping around his arm. "Tal," her voice was a soft melody to his ears. "My dear sweet Tal, don’t worry. What happened before, it was your first time and it will remain our secret. You understand, yes? What happens behind my closed doors with my clients remains a secret between us. No one will ever know of your little… mishap. Besides, I’m confident to say that it will never happen again to you!" She ran her fingers through his hair tenderly.

"Oh no Mara, it will never happen, as long as I’m with you!" He smiled broadly, forgetting what he was going to ask her.

"Good, then you remember that, and next time you have enough dinars, come back and visit me, yes?" She asked as she began to lead him to the door.

"I will Mara, I promise," He smiled as she walked him from her room.

When he saw his friends waiting for him, he felt a blush cross his cheeks. With a backward glance at the woman, he waved while moving to join his friends. Ari stood silently watching him with her usually stony stare. Diores glanced at Mara, blushed, then looked away from Tal as he rose to move to the exit door.

"Ready?" Ari’s voice was low as she glanced back at the madam of the house. He noticed her tip her head slightly, and she led them all out of the house.

No, Tal may not have experienced love, but he knew after tonight, that he was in love. As surely as the sun would rise, and the leaves would turn colors, he knew that he loved Mara with all his heart. All he had to do was to figure a way to woo her to him.

~~~~~~

"Ari, aren’t you going to give your friend a ride?" Eve asked in the darkness as they rode back home. Stopping her horse, the tall girl looked back down the road at Eve. She watched as her sister struggled to keep Babu on the road. Next to them, on foot, Tal walked with head bent in thought.

"No." Ari answered her sister’s question, then turned her horse back onto the trail that led to their homes.

"Oh for goodness sake! Tal, come on, hop on the back." She heard her sister say.

"Huh? What?" Her friend was confused, then the sound of him climbing onto the back of the mule could be heard.

Both Ari and Tal spent the ride lost in their own thoughts. Occasionally Tal answered the prophet’s questions, but overall, Ari could tell that he was deep in his own private world, just as she was. Before she realized a change, she stopped at the top of the hill leading to Tal’s home.

"I want to thank you both for coming into town to ride home with me. It was awfully nice of you to think about that." Eve smiled at Tal, and glanced up at Ari.

"Awe, it was nothin’, honest. It was our pleasure, wasn’t it, Ari?" Tal asked as he looked up at her through the darkness.

Ari remained silent as she watched her friend. Instead of commenting on her silence, he waved as he turned and made his way home. With a slight skip, running gait, he went down the trail to the single home that was lighted in the night. Reining in her horse, she returned Than onto the road that would lead them home.

"You know, it wouldn’t kill you to be bit more hospitable to your friends. After all, they are your friends!" Eve’s voice was deep with irritation.

As she rode down the trail, Ari felt a slight prickling sensation. She could not put her fingers on what was the cause, all she knew was that she felt the hairs standing on the back of her neck. The dark child felt as if something was very much amiss. Stopping her horse on the rode, she tilted her head, trying to figure out what was causing these feelings for her.

"I-I will catch up with you," She told her sister as she began to ride back to Tal’s house.

"Forget something?" She heard her sister ask. When Ari didn’t answer, she heard Eve mumble, "Why should you answer me, after all, I’m only your sister. By Eli, you don’t even acknowledge your own friends…" Ari ignored the rest of Eve’s mumbling as she rode back down the road, then guided Than down the hill toward her friend’s house.

When Tal had entered his house, he felt like he was flying in the clouds. But the feeling of elation quickly faded away when he saw his father passed out on the chair in front of the fireplace. The bottle of ale tipped on the floor below his dangling hand.

Moving as quietly as possible, the young teen tried to make it to his bed without waking his father up. When a creak from the floorboards betrayed his presence, he cursed himself for wearing these old boots. Usually, he walked around barefoot, but for tonight, with it being so special, not only had he bathed in the lake, but he wore the old, tattered boots that were always kept for important events.

"Wha?" His father sat up in the chair, a confused look crossed his features as he quickly gazed around the room. "Where were you boy?" The bigger man’s voice grew deep as he focused his attention on Tal.

No longer able to escape his father’s attention, he stood frozen in his place and looked at the half-drunk man. The older man’s face was covered with the stubble of a few days from not shaving. His clothes were wrinkled and smelled of the same spirits that emanated from his breath.

"You heard me, boy, where were you?" The man bellowed out as he rose to his feet.

"Out with my friends," The auburn haired teen spoke up quickly.

"Making trouble?" The man said with a sneer as he moved toward him.

"No father, we was just out. We weren’t making any trouble, honest." His voice grew soft as he backed away from the towering figure that loomed above him.

"Liar! You good for nothing!" The man screamed as his bunched fist landed against Tal’s cheek.

The young boy stumbled back as he clutched the side of his face. "No, honest Papa, I wasn’t making any trouble, I swear!"

"You’re a good for nothing, stupid, worthless liar!" The giant of a man screamed as he reached for something on the wall.

"No, honest, I’m not lying," Tal begged as his eyes grew wide, and he saw his father remove the switch from its holding place.

"You’re nothing but trouble! You should have died instead of your mother! Do you hear me, boy! You worthless, rotten, trouble making little…" the diatribe spilled from the man’s lips.

Tal cried out when the first lash landed against him. Huddled in the corner, he did his best to protect himself against the anger of his father. With hands over his head, he curled up into a ball. The screams of pain registered somewhere in his mind as his own, yet the actual whips could not be felt. After what felt like an eternity, the beating stopped, right as he heard the loud thud as his father fell to the floor.

Cautiously, the young teen looked out from behind the protection of his arms. When he realized that it was over, he rose on shaky legs. He felt the pain in his shoulder, left arm and hands. Glancing down, he saw the thin lines of blood on his arm and the back of his hands. As a breath escaped his control, he realized that he had been crying. Reaching up, he wiped at the tears that fell down his face, and then moved to his father.

Although in pain, he managed to lift the bigger man. With one arm over his shoulder, he carried him to the corner where the beds were, and deposited him into the larger one. Like routine, he removed his father’s boots, placed them on the floor, and then covered him with the blankets.

"Should… have been you instead," the older man mumbled in his sleep.

"I know father, I know," he whispered as he gazed at the older man. "I wish I had been the one to die instead, I honestly do," his voice cracked with the pain of his tears.

As Tal moved to his bed, he sat wearily on the edge as he looked at his father. He would have liked to have told him that tonight he was a man. Tal wished that he could share this milestone of his life with his father, as Diores shared with his grandfather. With a sigh, he stared at the sleeping man.

"Tonight I meet a wonderful woman, Father," he spoke softly as the tears fell down his cheek. "She was so kind, and… I think I love her," He said, not disappointed that he did not receive a response.

Yes, he wished with all of his heart that he could have told his father that tonight he was a man, but as he looked at the blood dripping from his torn shirtsleeve, he felt anything but manly. Right now, in pain, with a bruise forming on his cheek, he felt like that little, small boy who always took the beatings from his father after his mother died. And Tal knew that just like that little boy that he once was, he would always take his father’s beatings no matter how old he was.

I’ll never be man, he thought to himself as the tears flowed down his cheeks. Men don’t allow themselves to be beaten like this. At this thought, a hushed groan escaped his control, How will I ever get Mara to fall in love with me if I’ll never be a man? He wondered as the melancholy filled his soul.

From outside of the open window, Ari looked in at her friend. She did not know why she felt the need to return, she only knew that something felt wrong. When she was close enough to the house, she dismounted and left Than in the clearing. Using her past stealth, she moved toward the front door, but stopped the moment she heard the screaming from inside. Moving toward the open window, she watched as the bigger man slung a string of words at her friend. When he first struck Tal, she had the urge to run into the house and stop him. But something within her own mind caused her to freeze, to remain still and hide in hopes that the wrath of this person would not turn on her. As she watched her friend huddled in the corner as he was beaten, she remembered the numerous times that she had been huddled in the corner of the cave. Alti’s fists and kicks left bruises on her that sometimes took more time to heal, but what never really healed was the string of words that the sorceress screamed out.

When it was over, Ari remained frozen as she watched her friend half-carry, half-drag the bigger man to his bed. With a slight sigh, she pulled away from the house and walked back to Than. After mounting the saddle, she turned him around and gently goaded him with her heels. As her mind thought over what she had just seen, she rode up the road and caught up with her sister.

"Everything all right?" Eve asked.

Ari remained silent, then sighed deeply as she looked up at the stars above. "Y-Yes."

"Good," a yawn escaped Eve’s control as they made their way home.

For Ari, everything was all right. The beating she had just witnessed was nothing new to the girl. It had been something that occurred to her almost every moment of her life after she joined Alti, so she did not think that there was anything unusual about it. Just as sure as she was in the normalcy of such an event, she wondered how long it would take before Xena began to beat her, just as Alti used to. Time and time again, the girl thought she had pushed the warrior princess close to the edge, yet each time, the tall woman never showered her wrath down on Ari. The dark child was convinced that it was only a matter of time.

Soon, Xena will begin the beatings, that’s how its supposed to be, the teen thought as she rode in silence.

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