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Disclaimers: Characters Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, etc. are owned by MCA/Universal. Charis, Raven, Skylla, and Arkas are my own. I am not profiting from this and it is not meant to infringe on the rights of the owners of "Xena: Warrior Princess."

Contains mature subject matter including violence, sexual assault, sexual relationships between women, and language which some may find offensive. Child abuse (including sexual) is addressed. There is nothing graphic in this sense, but some may want to skip this one. If you are under the age of 18, if you are offended by any of the above, or if this type of material is illegal where you live, please donít read this.

This story is the third in the When Friends Collide series. It follows When Friends Collide and Cryptic Karma. However, it isnít imperative that you read the other two stories in order to follow this one. Comments? aztecamazon@yahoo.com Hope you like it! :)

(c) 1999


SILENT SCREAMS
by AztecAmazon

 

The two Amazons marveled at the stunning autumn foliage. Brilliant shades of orange and yellow mingled with cherry red while a gentle breeze rustled the tree tops, ushering the couple through the forest. "Magnificent, isnít it?," said Ephiny, admiring the falling leaves.

"Mmm hmm." Charis nodded. "Absolutely gorgeous." She growled seductively and wrapped her arms around her wifeís waist, capturing her mouth with her own. Her left hand roamed over the regentís hip, stroking the soft leather before slipping beneath the edge of her skirt.

"Charisss..." Ephiny reminded her lover that they might be spotted at any moment by some unsuspecting traveler.

"All right. All right. But when I get you home..."

The regent gave her a dangerously sexy grin and reached for her hand, leading her onward down the narrow path. "We should be hearing from Xenan soon," Charis said, trying to ignore her raging libido.

"Yes, but not soon enough," she sighed and squeezed her wifeís hand. She longed to see her son. He had been away for nearly two moons and two more would pass before his return. His fatherís family had requested that the boy accompany them on their journey to the Centaur colony on the other side of Athens and his mothers knew it was best if they consented. Though they understood that it was necessary for the young prince to spend time with his kinsmen, they missed him terribly when he was away. "How many handspans do you suppose heíll grow this time?" The regent emerged from her musings.

"Hard to tell. Heís growing up so fast."

"Too fast," Ephiny groaned and then grew silent and still, tilting her head to one side. "Listen," she whispered.

"What is it?"

"I donít know." The regent reached back, pulled her sword from its sheath, and cautiously peeled back the layers of underbrush with the tip of her blade. Charis followed close behind, both women jumping back several paces when a blood curdling scream sliced through the air. Startled, they dropped their weapons and stared dumbfounded at the child cowering in the bushes.

"Donít be afraid. We wonít hurt you," Ephiny said softly. "Whatís your name?" She reached for the childís hand.

The girl, no more than nine summers old, recoiled as tears began to pour over her cheeks. "Skylla," she mumbled through quivering lips.

The regent glanced at Charis, both women wondering why such a young child was hiding in the woods alone. Realizing that the girl was terrified, they took a few more steps back. "Iím Ephiny. And this is Charis."

"Hi," the girl said timidly, clearly wary of the two strangers.

"Where are your parents?" Ephiny stared into the most amazing brown eyes she had ever seen, moved by the sorrow they seemed to harbor.

Skylla shrugged her shoulders and bit her lip. Wiping the tears from her eyes, she stood and untangled herself from the thickets. "Theyíre dead," she finally answered, sparking a look of concern on the Amazonsí faces. "Mother and father are dead."

"Why are you out here by yourself?," Ephiny asked.

"Well...," the girl paused for a moment, "...we were on our way to Thrace and...and some robbers snuck up on us and killed them. I was scared so I ran away."

"How horrible." The regent heard Charis mumble under her breath.

"Where is the rest of your family?," Ephiny probed. "Do you have any brothers or sisters? Grandparents?"

"No. Just me and mother and father...but theyíre gone now."

"How long have you been hiding out here?"

"I donít know. A couple of days I guess."

"Are you hurt? Have you eaten? Are you hungry?"

"Yeah, I ate some apples. But Iím not hurt."

Ephiny looked at her wife, studying the concerned look on her face. When she gave her a nod of approval, the regent asked, "Would you like to come home with us? Itís not far and weíre having rabbit stew for dinner."

Skylla shifted her weight from foot to foot, the troubled expression on her face suggesting that she was having a difficult time deciding what to do. She was awfully hungry... "Umm...will anybody else be there?"

"Just Xena and Gabrielle and their little boy, Galen."

"Galen?" She looked pensive. "How old is he?"

"Almost three." The regent knelt beside her. "And Xena and Gabrielle are nice ladies. I think youíll like them. Will you come with us? Please?"

"Well..." The child thought for a moment and then mumbled, "I guess so."

"Good." Ephiny smiled with relief. She didnít know what she would have done if the girl had refused. They certainly couldnít just leave her in the forest by herself.

Together, the three made their way to the dusty road which led to the quaint cabin. Skylla followed along silently, keeping a watchful eye on the two Amazons walking in front of her. When they neared the cabin, the young girl stopped dead in her tracks. Ephiny turned her head and looked back over her shoulder. "Come on, sweetie. Itís ok." But the child refused to budge. Frozen and dazed, she stared into the distance at the log home settled in the midst of a sea of rolling hills.

"Has anyone ever taught you to use a bow and arrow?," Charis piped up.

The question, seeming to rouse the child from her mysterious stupor, caused her mouth to drop open and her eyes to open wide. "No. Father says girls arenít supposed to use weapons. Itís not lady like."

Charisí eyes narrowed and she glanced at the regent who, by now, was gearing up for one of her famous women can do anything men can do lectures. "Would you like to learn?," she asked before Ephiny climbed on her soapbox.

"Well...umm...umm...y...yes." Skylla carefully inspected the surrounding area, making sure no one else was around to hear.

"Well, then...," Charis looked pleased, "...letís go."

The regent smiled at her lover when the childís feet began to move in the direction of the cabin. When they reached their destination, Skylla cautiously ascended the steps leading to the front porch. "Hey! I was wondering when you two were coming home! Have a nice walk?" Gabrielle burst through the door, scaring the young girl half to death. Ephiny and Charis watched in dismay as Skylla bolted around the corner of the cabin. "Whatís going on?" The bard looked puzzled. "Did I miss something? Whoís she?"

Ephiny grumbled something under her breath and took off around the corner after the frightened child. Shaking her head, Charis proceeded to explain Skyllaís situation to Gabrielle. The bard, upon hearing the tragic story, went inside to warn Xena. She certainly didnít want her wife to make the same mistake she had just made. Gliding her hand along the wall, she made her way down the short hallway and entered the last bedroom on the right. She tip-toed toward the bed and stretched out next to the warrior who was sound asleep, Galen draped across his motherís chest snoring louder that the bard thought possible for a child his size. "Xena?," she whispered, planting a soft kiss on her cheek.

The corner of her mouth twitched slightly and she opened one eye. "Mmm...hi babe," she mumbled and returned the kiss. By the time the bard finished telling her about Skylla, their son was wide awake, giggling and running around the bed.

"Come Ďere, you." Xena laughed and scooped the child up in her arms, mussing his golden hair.

"Stop, Mom," he protested. "Iím a warrior and warriors donít like that!"

"A warrior, huh?" Xena could see her own smile reflected in her sonís perfect azure eyes.

"Yep. A warrior. Not a bad warrior. A good warrior like you," he beamed and hopped off the bed.

Gabrielle took him by the hand and the two women escorted the spirited lad to the kitchen where Ephiny and Charis were already setting the table, having managed to convince Skylla to come inside. The girl sat next to the table, her stomach grumbling in anticipation as the smell of rabbit stew wafted through the room. "Thanks for cooking, Gabrielle," Ephiny said, carefully filling the last bowl.

"Oh, youíre welcome," the bard answered and then introduced Galen to their dinner guest.

"Hi!," the small boy blurted out. Skylla looked him over and managed a faint smile.

After dinner, Ephiny and Gabrielle tried to persuade their guest to join them outside for a game of hide and seek, but she refused. When the sky began to dim, Skylla informed them that it was time for her to take her leave. Needless to say, the idea of such a young child running around the woods in the middle of the night didnít sit too well with the women. Fortunately, after nearly a candlemark of listening to the pros and cons of staying the night, she conceded and settled onto a bedroll on the floor.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Two weeks went by and, night after night, Skylla insisted that she was leaving only to end up sprawled out on the plush green bedroll next to the hearth. Though she was still hesitant to say much to the adults in the house, she and Galen had become fast friends.

"Theyíre both fine. Snoring up a storm," Gabrielle said as she crawled into bed and situated herself beneath the covers. "And now that we know everyone in the house is asleep..."

"You donít have to tell me twice," Xena growled and pulled the blond on top of her. Her hand blazed a path directly to her throbbing center with an urgency that made her wifeís head spin. "Youíre soaked. I like that...a lot."

"Care to show me just how much you like it?," the bard gasped.

"Actually..." A conspiring grin appeared on her face and her eyebrows lifted. "I was thinking you should show me something."

"And what might that be?" Her curiosity piqued and she allowed the warrior to roll her onto her back. Her desire building, she watched her stand and walk around the bed, coming to a halt when she reached the footboard.

"Show me, Gabrielle. Show me what I do to you."

Sweet Aphrodite, thought the bard. This was certainly a new request. Her stomach fluttered and her heart picked up its pace. In an effort to put her lover at ease, Xena spread her feet apart and reached between her own legs, seductively running her fingers through the dark mound of curls. Gabrielleís mouth watered as she watched, her desire heating up with every motion. Before the warrior knew it, she had worked herself into a frenzy, much to her wifeís delight. "Donít stop. I want to watch you come, Xena," she purred and the warriorís hand moved faster. Pressing harder, her fingers slipped between the saturated folds. "Come for me, Xena." Unable to hold back any longer, the bardís hand found its way between her own thighs and she joined her lover in her erotic quest.

"Ohmygods Gabrielle...mmmhmmmgods yeesss!" Xena tossed her head back, her raven tresses brushing against her back. The bard pressed her unoccupied hand to her breast and the sight of her teasing her own nipple, delving her fingers into herself, propelled the warrior over the edge. Two voices exploded at once when a wave of sheer ecstasy crashed down on the lovers, surging through their bodies, sending them collapsing onto the bed.

Out of breath and thoroughly spent, Xena worked her way into her wifeís arms. "You turned the tables on me, didnít you?"

"You didnít seem to mind..."

"Oh no. I didnít mind at all." She captured her lips, relishing the way her body quaked at her touch as the aftershocks of her climax rolled through her.

"What was that?!," the bard shouted, the intimate moment abruptly shattered when an earsplitting scream resounded through the cabin. Both women jumped out of bed, pulled their shifts over their heads, and ran down the hallway. Gabrielle ducked into Galenís room, relieved to find her son sleeping peacefully, and then followed Xena toward the large room at the front of the cabin. "Whatís going on?," Ephiny asked, she and Charis running behind them as the shouts continued to ring in her ears. In a flash, all four women were standing over the screaming child.

Skylla sat straight up on her bedroll, her eyes wide open, yelling at the top of her lungs. "Skylla? Skylla?" Gabrielle knelt beside her, giving her shoulders a gentle shake.

"Sheís dreaming." Xena stared down at the distraught girl.

"Skylla. Skylla, wake up," the bard persisted.

"Donít touch me!" The soft glow emanating from the fireplace illuminated the young childís eyes, revealing the fear behind them. Not knowing what else to do, Gabrielle backed away.

"Skylla, you were screaming. Whatís wrong?," Ephiny asked.

"Go away!" The girl burst into tears and dropped onto the bedroll in a quivering heap. Burying her head in the pillow, she sobbed uncontrollably.

The four women looked at each other, stumped. Xena gestured toward the kitchen with her eyes and they all filed into the adjoining room. "What was that all about?," Charis asked, closing the door behind her.

"She obviously had a nightmare," the warrior answered.

"Sheís got some problems. Thatís for sure," said Ephiny. Gabrielle nodded her head in agreement. "Iíve been trying to get through to her...," the regent added, "...but nothing seems to work."

"Give her time. Sheís been through a lot. Itís no surprise that sheís acting the way she is. After all, she witnessed the murder of her parents," said Xena.

"She needs us." Tears formed in the bardís eyes. "And we have to be patient."par

The three women agreed and Xena offered to hang out in the kitchen while the others went back to bed. "Iíll keep an eye on her," she assured them. "Get some rest." Gabrielle kissed her wife goodnight and headed down the hallway, trailed by Ephiny and Charis. When she was alone, Xena made a cup of warm tea and sat down at the table to figure out how to help their troubled house guest.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The regent and her wife reclined on the bed and cuddled under the pile of blankets. "We have to try to find a home for her. A permanent home," Charis said, smoothing the palm of her hand over Ephinyís shoulder.

"I know but we canít send her away in the state sheís in. Can you imagine how frightened she must be? How sad and lonely she must feel?"

"Yeah, youíre right. I keep trying to get through to her, but she keeps me at a distance. She wouldnít even let me show her how to shoot an arrow. And I could tell she really wanted to try it. Thatís whatís so strange. Itís like she wants to open up...and yet, for some reason, she canít."

"The only person she seems to trust is Galen," said Ephiny.

"Odd, isnít it?"

"Not really. After all, heís a child. Thatís one thing they have in common."

"I guess. I just donít ever remember being like that when I was a child. Not even after I saw that warlord kill my mother in battle."

"The loss of a loved one affects everyone differently. Weíll just have to be patient with her. In time, sheíll be all right." The regent kissed her wife and snuggled against her warm body, closing her eyes.

"Goodnight, sweetheart," Charis whispered.

"Goodnight."

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The warrior saddled Argo and led her through the stable doors. "Be careful," the bard said and the warrior tried not to sigh. She thought it was sweet that her wife said those words even if she was only going to town to pick up some supplies. Though she had retired from battle, Gabrielle knew Xena still had many enemies.

"Iíll be back by sunset." The warrior drew her close for a kiss and then climbed into the saddle. Nudging the horseís ribs with the heels of her boots, she headed across the lush hills into the forest.

Gabrielle watched her form grow smaller as she rode further and further away. Since her retirement, the warrior didnít wear her armor very often...only when she was going into town or when they were traveling. But the bard had to admit, she looked absolutely stunning in it. When her wife had disappeared from sight, she made her way to the well, collected a days supply of water, and carried it back to the cabin. "Mama!," Galen gleefully exclaimed and wrapped his arms around her knees when she walked through the doorway.

"Want to give your mother a hand?," the bard asked and the child grabbed one of the water skins and carried it into the kitchen. Gabrielle followed behind, smiling from ear to ear. The sight of her son seemed to have that effect on her. She could see both herself and Xena inside that tiny frame. He was curious, lively, extremely talkative, and had silky blond hair like herself. But he was also brave and sharp and had resourceful for a boy his age. And his eyes...the very essence of the warriorís.

"Galen?" Skylla peaked around the corner. "Want to go outside and play?"

The boy smiled and looked up at his mother. "Go on," Gabrielle said, shooing him out the door. She was glad he and the young girl were getting along and, besides, it was good for him to have a playmate while Xenan was away.

Ephiny and Charis, still half asleep, staggered into the kitchen. "That looks so good," the regent said, eyeing the water. "My mouth feels like itís filled with sand." She screwed the cap off one of the skins and let the cool water trickle over her parched lips.

"Did Xena already leave?," Charis asked, slumping into a chair.

"Mmm hmm," the bard nodded.

"Oh...ok."

"Why?"

"I forgot to ask her to pick up a toy for Skylla. I though it might help if she had something to call her own. Something besides the clothes on her back."

"Youíre so thoughtful," Ephiny sighed and embraced her wife, flashing a winning smile. Charis blushed and rolled her eyes in response.

"Who could that be?," the bard mumbled when someone knocked on the door. Tossing her apron on the table, she headed for the door and opened it to find a rather striking woman on the other side.

"Hi, Iím looking for Xena," the woman said. "Does she live here?'94

The bard took one look at the arsenal attached the womanís body and asked, "Who wants to know?" By this time, her Amazon friends were standing behind her, listening in on the conversation.

"I do. Oh, Iím sorry. My name is Raven. Iím an old friend of Xenaís."

Raven? The bard searched her mind and said, "Yes! Yes, Xenaís mentioned you before. She said you helped her out once. Helped her escape from a warlord who was holding her for ransom. Come in."

"Yes, thatís right." The womanís face flushed crimson as she stepped over the threshold.

"Itís nice to meet you. Iím Gabrielle, Xenaís wife."

"Xenaís married?" The expression on her face revealed her surprise.

"Three years now," she said matter-of-factly. "This is Ephiny." The regent nodded and smiled. "And this is Charis." The Amazon extended her hand and Raven gripped her wrist, accepting the friendly gesture. "Have a seat," the bard said and offered the woman a cup of tea which she readily accepted. "Xena should be home before sunset if you would like to wait," she informed her as she shuffled around the kitchen.

"Well, weíve got work to do so weíll leave you two alone to get acquainted," Ephiny said. Both of their horses needed new shoes and, fortunately, Charis was an expert. "Would you like for me to take your horse to the stables? We have plenty of room," the regent politely asked their guest.

"Iíd really appreciate it." Raven smiled and the two Amazons headed outside.

"Was Xena expecting you?," the bard asked.

"No. No, she doesnít even know Iím in the area".

"If you donít mind my asking, how did you know where to find her?"

"I went to Amphipolis and spoke with Cyrene. She gave me directions. Xena and I once spent a weekend at her motherís inn. Iím glad she remembered me."

"Oh. Well...Iím glad you made it. This place is pretty hard to find if you donít know the area."

"I think Iíd like living way out here. Itís so serene."

"Yes, it is. We love it." The bard smiled and sipped her tea.

The door suddenly flew open and Galen bolted into his motherís arms. "Whoís she?," he asked, his eyes fixed on the stranger with the shiny ebony hair.

"This is Raven," Gabrielle answered. The boy grinned from ear to ear. "Youíre pretty!," he exclaimed. "Yep, heís Xenaís son all right,í the bard chuckled.

"Xenaís..." She looked perplexed. "Iím sorry. I guess I assumed you were his birth mother."

"I am. But so is Xena." Realizing that her reply had obviously confused the woman, the bard elaborated. "Galen is a gift from the gods. His conception was...letís just say out of the ordinary. And Xena and I are both his biological parents."

Raven remained silent for a moment, absorbing the words. "Oh...wow..."

"Youíre a miracle, arenít you?," the bard said and Galen giggled when she kissed his rosey cheeks. "By the gods, child," she exclaimed. "Look at your legs." She looked at the bruises covering his shins and shook her head. "Youíve been trying to do flips off the porch again, havenít you?" She raised an eyebrow.

The boy quickly bounded off her lap and bolted down the hallway. "Where are you going so fast?," his mother called out.

"I want to play in here," he shouted and scurried into his room.

Gabrielle pulled back the drapes and peered through the window. Seeing Skylla sitting in the swing on the front porch, she returned her attention to her guest. The two women talked and sipped tea for several candlemarks, Ephiny and Charis joining them when they had finished their chores.

As the sun began to disappear behind the trees, Gabrielle heard the pounding of hooves as Argo galloped past the cabin toward the stables. "Sheís here," the bard said and walked outside. The warrior secured her horse and most of the supplies she had purchased in the barn and made her way toward the cabin. "I missed you," she said when she reached the top of the steps and kissed her wife sweetly.

"We have another guest," Gabrielle informed her.

"Really? Who?"

"An old friend of yours..."

"Who?," Xena asked again and shrugged her shoulders.

"Raven."

The warriorís jaw dropped and her palms began to sweat. "R...Raven?" What was she doing here? How did she find her? What did she want? And, most importantly, what had she said to Gabrielle?

"Mmm hmm." The bard nodded. "Thatís her name. Raven. Sheís very attractive." Her eyes narrowed a bit and she gave the warrior a toothy smile.

"Oh, come on. Letís go inside," Xena groaned and opened the door, allowing her wife to enter ahead of her.

Once inside, the warriorís eyes fell on the woman seated on the plush cushion in the corner. Her appearance was the same as it had been when they had last seen each other...all those autumns ago. Her hair fell on bronze shoulders, her body as firm and sleek as ever. And her smile could still melt a block of ice. "Raven...," she uttered.

The woman stood and crossed the room, embracing her friend when she was within reach. "Itís good to see you," she said.

"You too." The warrior glanced at Gabrielle out of the corner of her eye, finding the half-grin on her wifeís face hard to decipher.

Before long, Charis announced that dinner was ready and the five women and two children sat down to eat. During the course of the meal, Gabrielle invited Raven to stay and visit for a few days, saying there was no sense in her traveling all that way only to leave a few candlemarks after her arrival. The woman looked to Xena and, upon seeing her smile, accepted the invitation.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The bard climbed into bed and pulled the thick blanket over her bare body. "Xena?" She nuzzled up to her wife. "Tell me more about your friendship with Raven."

The warrior winced and sighed heavily. "What do you want to know?"

"Well...she mentioned that the two of you spent a weekend together at your motherís inn..."

"Yesss..."

"Oh, come on, Xena!" She was becoming annoyed. Was she really going to make her ask the question point blank?

"What?" The warrior shrugged her shoulders and rolled over, her back now facing the curious woman lying beside her.

"Gods, Xena!," she exclaimed and grumbled under her breath for a moment before finally blurting out, "Were you two lovers or not?!"

Knowing there was no way to avoid such a direct question, Xena mumbled a small, "Yes, we were lovers," and pulled the covers over her head.

The bard could feel the heat rising up the back of her neck. She had assumed the two women had been more than friends, but hearing the words..."Xena?"

"Uhh huh?"

"Was it serious? Your relationship with Raven?"

"No, Gabrielle. It was just a fling. I cared about her. After all, the woman saved my life. And I still care about her because sheís my friend. What we had was simply a strong friendship gone awry. In fact, we were only lovers for a couple of weeks before we went our separate ways."

The bard listened carefully and pondered the words. "Xena?"

"Yesss?"

"Why did she come here...after all this time?"

The warrior rolled over and slid close to her wife. "Gabrielle...she has no interest in me. She knows Iíve moved on and sheís not the type of person who would try to seduce a married woman. Sheís here because she had some spare time on her hands and wanted to catch up with an old friend while she had the opportunity."

The bard stared into sapphire eyes and a smile forced its way over her mouth. Seductively, she grazed the tip of her tongue over her lips and extended a quiet invitation which Xena readily accepted. Swept away by her loverís passionate embrace, Gabrielle knew there was no need for concern.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Ephiny and the bard sat on the steps which led to the spacious front porch, snapping beans for dinner while Skylla and Galen kept themselves occupied, giddily floundering around in a pile of leaves. "Galen! Come here, sweetie!," Gabrielle called out and the boy appeared front and center. "Run inside and get your jacket. Itís chilly out here."

The child complied, reemerging from the cabin with a deep red coat in his hand. Once he managed to get his arms in the sleeves, his mother secured the clasps on the front. "Iím hungry, Mama."

"Well, dinner will be ready in a couple of candlemarks. Would you like an apple?"

"No."

"Then you must not be too hungry." She smiled. Galen returned the smile and his eyes lit up. "Nice tits," he said and the bard nearly fell off the porch. The regent, trying to appear as though she hadnít heard the remark, covered her mouth with her hand to conceal her huge grin.

Once she managed to get over the shock of hearing the statement roll off her sonís tiny tongue, Gabrielle picked her jaw up off the ground and said, "Thatís not a very nice thing to say. Where did you hear such a thing?"

"Raven said it to Mom," he mumbled and hung his head. Ephinyís eyes popped open and she hastily jumped up and went inside.

Gabrielle looked at the boy, standing there with his bottom lip poking out and his chin pressed against his chest. "Sweetie..." She took his tiny hand in her own. "Iím not mad at you." The child slowly raised his head and looked her in the eyes. "Sometimes people say things they shouldnít...and that goes for adults too...even mothers."

"Mama?" His face shriveled as he tried to understand. "Whatís a tit?"

The bardís face turned bright red and she made a mental note to give Xena a piece of her mind when she returned from her afternoon ride with Charis and Raven. "Never mind that. And from now on, if you donít know what it means, donít say it. Now..." The smile returned to her face. "Go play so I can get dinner started." The boy threw his arms around her neck and planted a wet kiss on her cheek before scurrying across the yard. Skylla, who had been paying careful attention to the exchange between her playmate and his mother, returned to the task of piling up the colorful leaves.

Gabrielle picked up the basket full of beans and dashed inside, making a bee line for the kitchen. "Did you hear that?," she fumed and Ephiny looked up from her mug of cider. "Nice tits? Nice tits! Iíll show her nice tits!" She stomped across the room and slammed the basket down on the floor.

"Now, Gabrielle. Iím sure thereís a perfectly logical explanation..."

"Logical explanation? Yeah...two really good friends who occasionally like to take a gander at each otherís breasts? Puh..lease, Ephiny. Iím not an idiot."

The regent watched her friend settle into a chair in a huff. "You finished?," she asked when the bardís ranting finally ceased.

"Yes!," she shouted and glared at the Amazon. Ephiny glared back and Gabrielle felt her face beginning to crack as a smile forced its way over her lips.

"Gabrielle..." The regent moved her chair next to the bardís and lifted her chin with her fingers, making eye contact. "Xena would never betray you. You know that. When she gets home, ask her about it. Iím sure this is all a big misunderstanding."

The bard took in a deep breath and her anger began to subside. "Yeah, I know youíre right. I guess I was just taken off guard, ya know?"

"Well, I can understand that. I must admit, I was more than a little surprised myself when your son came out with..." Her laughter overcame her and she was unable to finish the sentence.

"Ephiny! You just wait until Xenan says something off-color. Weíll see whoís laughing then." She gave her a playful slap on the shoulder and joined in her laughter.

"Actually, he already has," the regent said. "Only...Iím afraid he meant it when he said it." She raised an eyebrow and chuckled, turning her head when Skylla and Galen bolted through the front door and headed down the hallway. "They get along so well," she sighed.

"Yeah, they do and Iím glad. But I worry about her. Sheís so skittish."

"I think sheís making some progress because I saw her riding in the saddle in front of Xena early this morning."

"Youíre kidding? She let her get that close to her?" She seemed surprised. Skylla was unusually quiet around adults, but she was particularly leery of physical contact. One night, the bard bent down to give Galen a kiss on the cheek and, since Skylla was sitting right next to him, she decided to give her one as well. But the gesture had turned out to be a bad idea. She had never seen a child jump so high or move so quickly before. Like a shot, the young girl bounded across the room and cowered in the corner.

"I was surprised too. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me, but sure enough, there she was---sitting in front of Xena."

The bard smiled, momentarily forgetting about the nice tits incident. "Good," she sighed. "Maybe Xena will be able to get through to her. I know I havenít had much luck."

Both women stared at the door when it began to shift on its hinges. "Dinner ready yet?," the warrior chimed and headed for the kitchen.

"Huh oh," Ephiny mumbled under her breath.

The bard, not wasting any time, marched straight up to her wife and grabbed her by the ear. "Iíve got your dinner,'94 she growled through clenched teeth and hauled her out the back door.

"Hey! Ouch! What the...," Xena yelled.

Once they were outside, the bard released her grip, giving the earlobe a quick tug. "Owww! Whatís wrong with you?," the warrior snapped.

"Two words, Xena. Nice. Tits." She scowled at her wife and waited for an explanation.

"Well...thanks, but..."

"Donít even try it, warrior woman! For your information, that catchy phrase came out of our sonís mouth today. He says he heard Raven say it to you. How do you explain that?"

Xena searched her memory for an answer. Nice tits? Raven? What in Hadesí name was she talking about? "Oh for the gods sake, Gabrielle!," she suddenly blurted out.

"Well? Iím waiting..."

The warrior groaned and rolled her eyes, clearly irritated by the unwarranted interrogation. "Raven was telling me a story earlier...about a drunk woman she met in Amphipolis. She said she followed her around the tavern repeating the words Ďnice titsí until, finally, Raven pelted her." She put her hands on her hips and smirked at the bard. "I guess Galen overheard some of what she said."

"Oh." Gabrielle was completely mortified. How could she have thought, even for a fraction of a candlemark, that Xena would... "Iím sorry, honey. I didnít mean to...Oh gods, please donít be mad."

The warrior forced a scowl, though she wanted to laugh. "You want me to forgive you, huh? On one condition..."

"What?" She shook her head and waited for a reply.

"Are you up to a challenge?"

"Zeus on Olympus," she groaned. "What is it this time?"

"Well...," she grinned, "...tonight, after Ephiny goes to bed..."

The bard snickered as she listened to her wife whisper in her ear. These challenges definitely kept things lively around the cabin and Ephiny and Charis issued them to one another as often as she and Xena. Fortunately, each of the four women had a sense of humor. Otherwise, they would have killed each other by now.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

After dinner, Raven set out for a moonlight ride, saying that her horse needed to stretch his legs. Charis and the regent snuggled on the floor, engrossed in a discussion of their sonís future while Xena read Skylla and Galen a story from one of the bardís scrolls. The two children sat on the bedroll next to the warrior, entranced by the imaginative tale. But as the story progressed, Galenís eyes grew heavy and he stretched out next to the hearth, quickly drifting into sleep. "Iím cold." Skylla shivered and scooted closer to the warrior.

The corner of Xenaís mouth lifted in a crooked smile and she continued on with the story. Before she knew it, the girl had crawled onto her lap. This was certainly unexpected. Though their guest seemed to be a sweet child, displays of affection were another matter. A bit flustered, the warrior continued to read.

"Itís getting cold out there!" Gabrielle, returning from a bath, entered the cabin and closed the door behind her, impeding the bitter night air. As she tossed her damp towel over the back of a chair, her eyes fell on the little girl now sleeping in her wifeís arms. "How did you manage that?," she said quietly. The warrior shrugged her shoulders and carefully placed Skylla on the bedroll. Having managed to move the child without waking her, she gently lifted her slumbering son and carried him down the hallway toward his bedroom.

"Did you see that?," the bard asked the two Amazons.

"Yep. Pretty incredible," Ephiny sighed. The sight of the notably aloof child sitting on the warriorís lap had indeed surprised her.

"She said something odd today..." Charis appeared to be lost in thought as her mind conjured up the remark she had overheard earlier.

"What?," the regent inquired.

"Well...she and Galen were sitting in the swing and I heard her tell him that her father was a god."

"Huh?" Ephinyís brow crinkled.

"A god?," Gabrielle interjected.

"Yeah. She said he was more powerful than the rest of the gods combined."

"Guess sheís got an active imagination," Ephiny said.

"I guess so," Charis agreed. "Thatís not all...she also said that he would find her some day...that he would come looking for her."

"That is odd," said the regent.

"Whatís odd?," Xena asked when she returned.

When the three women had finished telling her about the little girlís comments, the warrior excused herself and went outside. The bard remained still for a moment before following her onto the porch. "What do you make of her behavior?," she asked, planting herself on the top step next to her wife.

"Iím not sure. Could be that she just misses her family or..."

"What, Xena?"

"I donít know. I just donít know."

"Youíre growing attached to her arenít you?," the bard said through a faint smile.

The warrior inhaled deeply, filling her lungs with the crisp air. "Yeah, I guess. I just wish there was some way to help her. You know, sheís still having nightmares."

"Is she?"

"Yes...almost every night. Iíve learned to listen for her. I can hear her struggling in her sleep when the dreams start. So far, Iíve managed to get to her before she starts screaming."

"Why didnít you tell me? I had no idea..."

"I didnít want to worry you. I know how soft your heart can be when it comes to children." She pulled the bard close and kissed her cheek. "See...itís starting already. I can see the worry lines." She brushed her index finger over her wifeís furrowed brow. "By the way..." A mischievous grin emerged on her face. "Have you forgotten about the challenge we discussed earlier?"

"Gods, Xena! Youíre relentless! Ephinyís gonna kill me if I do it! You know that, donít you?"

"She wonít kill you. On the other hand, Charis might," she chuckled. "Youíd better get moving. Ephinyís already gone to bed."

"You and your silly pranks", she mumbled and trudged inside the cabin. Then again, she had been responsible for some pretty obnoxious antics herself. For that matter, so had the regent and Charis. All right. She would do it, but she knew she would have to be prepared to pay the price because there was no way the Amazons would let this slide without retaliating.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The warrior stood on an overturned bucket, peeping through the window, her eyes locked on the bard as she approached the unsuspecting Amazon. "It wonít be long now," she said to herself, suppressing a chuckle.

Gabrielle took a deep breath and leaned against the wall. I canít believe sheís making me do this. Charis is going to think Iíve lost my mind and Ephiny...ohhh mother medusa! Xena only put me up to this because she thinks Iíll chicken out. Oh no, my crafty warrior. Iím going to do this and, since youíre watching ever so closely...Iím going to give everything Iíve got. You and your little dares. Hmph! Gathering her courage, she began to slink across the floor toward her friend, curled up on a plush pillow with her face buried in a scroll. "Ohhh Charissss..."

"Huh?," the Amazon muttered without bothering to look up.

"Got a minute?" The bard sank to her knees in front of her friend and spoke in the sexiest voice she could muster.

"What is it, Gabrielle?"

Oh you poor woman. "I want to show you something." She stood and retrieved a long, flowing scarf from her cleavage.

"Thatís nice," said Charis when the blond draped the scarf across her shoulders.

Gods, she doesnít suspect a thing. I see youíre still watching, Xena. Well, my little voyeur, feast your eyes on this. The bardís face transformed, pure seduction radiating from her eyes, when she started to hum. The Amazon stared for a moment and then said only, "Gab? What are you doing?"

"Shhh." She placed her finger tips lightly on the womanís lips and her hips began to move hypnotically to the rhythm of her quiet humming.

Charis caught herself sinking into the captivating dance and shook her head in an effort to regain her composure. What am I doing? "Thatís umm...thatís nice, Gabrielle. Iím sure Xena will love it."

"Oh no. This dance is for you, my friend." She loosened the strings on her tunic and began to hum louder, her body gyrating slowly, demanding the Amazonís attention. Moving closer, she tugged on the scarf, letting slide over the womanís shoulders and across the back of her neck.

"Ga...Gabrielle..." Charis found herself panting when the bard ran her hands over her thighs, massaging the muscles.

Without warning, the sexy blond hummed louder, startling the Amazon.

Xena, now laughing uncontrollably, watched her wife turn and place her buttocks directly in front of the womanís eyes which were about to bug right out of their sockets. Better hum louder, lovely bard. After all, part of the challenge is to wake Ephiny. Gods, I canít wait to see the look on her face when she sees this!

"Gabrielle!" The Amazon shouted when the bard straddled her left thigh, humming loud enough to wake the dead. This is insane! My best friendís wife is sitting on my lap, trying to seduce me with a...the gods help me...absolutely amazing strip tease!

Ok, Gabrielle. Now youíre getting a little over zealous. The warrior felt herself turn green when she saw the bard rocking her hips against Charisí thigh.

You watching, Xena? Watch this! She reached up and grabbed the Amazonís head, forcing her face between her breasts.

"Gabrielle!" Charis screamed and attempted to free herself from the lusty womanís grasp. But it was too late...

Ephiny stood with her arms crossed over her chest, tapping her toe on the floor, steam spewing from her ears. "Well, well, well...what do we have here?" She approached to two women who were now standing side by side in the center of the room, looking extremely guilty. With a smirk on her face, she circled them, glaring at them, ready to pounce. "My wife..." She looked at Charis. "...and my best friend." She shook her head at the bard.

Huh oh. She looks really pissed. Xena bolted up the steps and through the cabin door.

"Xena." Ephiny smiled an evil smile. "Have I got news for you."

The warrior gulped and decided she had better let the bard off the hook. "Ephiny, itís not what you think. Gab..."

"Donít try to tell me what I saw, Xena! I know what I saw. Your wife was hitting on Charis!," she snapped.

"Honey, at least let her explain." Charis glanced at the bard, still trying to digest what had just taken place.

"Oh, shut up!," the regent shouted and slapped her wife on the backside. "You didnít seem to be feeling any pain yourself."

"Ephiny, sweetheart, I..."

"Donít sweetheart me!"

"But I..."

"Oh no. You want a strip tease. Iíll give you a strip tease. Iíll give ALL of you a show youíll never forget." A wild glint appeared in Ephinyís eyes and she stared down at her feet. The humming was low at first, but quickly grew loud...obnoxiously loud and the other three women were shocked when the regent began to rotate her hips. Dancing slowly, alluringly, she could have easily convinced a legion of Hestian Virgins to follow her to bed. Focused on her mission, she stared at her prey and slowly removed her shift, tossing it to the side.

Utterly astonished, they stared at the woman now standing stark naked before them. "What? No comments? Cat got your tongues?," Ephiny said and then broke into a fit of laughter. "Gotcha!," she exclaimed and retrieved her shift, quickly pulling it over her head.

The warrior shook collected herself and grinned. "Yep. You certainly did," she chuckled.

"I know Gabrielle better than that." The regent smiled at her friend and snuggled up to her wife. "When I came in here and saw her sitting on your lap with her tits in your face, I knew Xena had to be behind it."

"So, my strapping wife, did I meet the demands of your little challenge?," the bard gloated.

"Yeah yeah." Xena nodded and the four women headed for bed, laughing all the way.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Xena reclined on the bed, wrapping her arms around her wife. "You nearly made me jealous, you know," she confessed.

"Nearly?," Gabrielle sighed and slipped her hand under the warriorís shift.

Xena concentrated on the fingers now expertly caressing her heated center. "Thank the gods," she sighed and gave herself over to a night of pleasure.

In the next room, Ephiny yawned and stretched her muscles. "Iím exhausted," she moaned. Charis undressed, draped her clothes over the headboard, and crawled into bed next to her wife. "Are you really that tired?," she whispered and pressed her body against the regentís.

"Iím never too tired for that," she said when Charis wrapped her mouth around her breast, gently tugging at the erect nipple.

"You sure? Because I could always stop?"

"Donít you dare." The regent felt the warm breath descending over her abdomen and parted her thighs in anticipation. The warmth traveled lower, causing her body to tremble. "Pleassse," she begged. Charis smiled and teased her mercilessly with the tip of her tongue.

"Charisss, you know that drives me crazy. Ohhh..."

"Iím trying to drive you crazy." She pressed her mouth against the inviting flesh, drinking her in, delighted by her loverís body writhing beneath her.

"Charis I..." Her body jolted and the woman nestled between her legs lapped faster, harder, making her insane. "Charis! I...I...ohgoddsss!" Driven by the exclamations of pleasure, her lover moved on her, over her, inside her. Lost in desirous frenzy, they felt their bodies merge, rising and falling as one in passionate splendor.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The next morning, the bard cautiously emerged from her room, peering around the corner into the kitchen where Ephiny and Charis were eating breakfast. "Come on out, Gabrielle. You have to face us sometime," said the regent.

Slowly, she rounded the corner, smiling sheepishly. "Morning." She threw her hand in the air, giving them a feeble wave.

"Good morning, Gabrielle," both Amazons chimed in unison. "Or should we address you as the notorious stripping bard?," the regent added.

"You know I canít ignore Xenaís challenges! And, besides, I didnít actually take anything off. You were the one flashing your royal goodies," she snickered.

The regent blushed and then laughed at herself. "Well, maybe so, but you and Xena are going to pay for that little prank," she warned. "Where is Xena anyway?"

"She and Raven took Galen and Skylla to the field. Xena finally convinced Skylla to give the bow and arrow a try," the bard said with a smile.

"Iím glad because I could tell she really wanted to do that," said Charis. "And she still wonít have much to do with me. Xenaís really good with her."

"Yes, she is. Skylla trusts her for some reason," Gabrielle replied and turned to face the door when she heard it open.

"Mama!," Galen exclaimed and rushed into her arms.

"Did you have fun?," his mother asked. The boy nodded enthusiastically. "How about you, Skylla?." She turned toward the young girl.

"I hit the bullseye," she announced with pride.

"Thatís great!"

"Mama?" Galen tugged on her skirt. "Can I go outside?"

"Sure." She watched the two children race out the door. "I guess Xenaís still in the barn. Think Iíll walk out there. I need to fill the water skins anyway," she said to the Amazons and excused herself.

As she started to lift the latch to the stable door, she heard voices coming from inside. Pressing her ear against the cool wood, she listened closely.

"The gods help me!" Ravenís voice rang out. "A little lower...mmmahh right there. Gods, Xena! Please! I canít stand it! Itís starting to burn!"

"Ok. Ok, I can feel it. Almost. Hang on. Almost," Xenaís voice replied. "Iíve got it between my fingers. If I wiggle it just a little..."

"Ahhhyeah. Thank you. Thank you so much!"

"Feel better?"

"You have no idea."

Her ears on fire, Gabrielle threw the door open and burst into the barn. "Whatís going on in here?"

Both women, obviously startled, nearly snapped their necks when they turned their heads toward the door. There they sat. Xenaís hand was tangled in her friendís hair and she looked terrified...not to mention guilty. "What are you two doing in here?," the bard demanded.

"A tick, Gabrielle. Raven had a tick in her head and sheís allergic to them..."

"I break out in hives," Raven interjected.

"I was just removing it," said the warrior, finally managing to free her hand from the womanís flowing mane.

"Oh." Gabrielle looked down at her feet, kicking at the straw. "I figured thatís what you were doing. I mean...what else could you have been doing? A tick. Yep, thatís what I thought."

Xena and Raven exchanged a knowing glance and both women found it hard not to laugh.

Before the conversation could progress any further, Ephiny appeared in the doorway. "Xena, Gabrielle, you two had better come with me." The look on her face told them that something was terribly wrong and the two women hurriedly followed her back to the cabin, leaving Raven to secure the stables.

"Ephiny, whatís wrong?," Gabrielle asked, moving up on the Amazonís heels.

"Just hurry."

The women vaulted over the steps and into the cabin. Charis sat on the floor, cradling Galen in her arms. "What happened to him?," Xena growled, taking inventory of the cuts and bruises covering the childís body.

"Xena..." Ephiny hesitated, trying to find the words to explain.

"Galen, sweetie, are you all right?" Gabrielle lowered herself to the floor and pulled her son onto her lap. His arms and legs were black and blue and blood trickled from his bottom lip.

"He doesnít have any broken bones and he wonít need any stitches," said the regent.

"What happened?," the warrior angrily repeated.

"Why donít you come outside with me so we can talk while Charis and Gabrielle tend to his wounds?," Ephiny suggested.

Xena leaned down and kissed her sonís forehead before reluctantly accompanying the regent outside. When the door was closed behind them, she demanded, "Tell me what the hell happened to my son!"

"Sit down." The warrior complied and lowered herself onto the step. The Amazon sat next to her and began to speak. "I was in the kitchen looking out the window and I saw Galen and Skylla heading for the woods. After a few moments, I couldnít see them anymore and decided to go check on them. It took me a little while to find them and when I did..."

"What? Tell me, Ephiny."

"Xena, Skylla did that to him."

"Skylla? What are you talking about?"

"When I found them, I saw Skylla holding a stick in her hand. She had him pinned to the ground and..."

"Where is she now?"

"I sent her to my room. Sheís still there. Xena...Galen wasnít wearing any clothes when I found them."

"What?"

"I asked him about it, but he was too upset to..."

"Dammit!," she shouted and slammed her fist against the hard wood.

"Xena, you donít think..."

"Yes, Ephiny, I do. And you can bet she didnít learn this behavior on her own." A distraught expression moved over the warriorís face and her eyes grew dark. "I have to tell Gabrielle about this. I have to talk to her and check on Galen. Then Iím going to have a talk with Skylla. I want to know what in Tartarus is going on here." She stood and went inside.

His wounds cleansed and bandaged, her son slept soundly on the bed next to the bard. Planting a kiss on his head and another on her wifeís cheek, she stretched out next to them and whispered in Gabrielleís ear, explaining the situation. When the two finished their discussion, she assured her wife that everything would be all right and then rolled off the bed and headed down the hallway.

Standing at the entrance to the Amazonsí room, her eyes locked on the young girl sitting in the center of the bed. "Skylla?"

"Go away!"

"I only want to talk. Iím not mad at you."

"I donít want to talk!"

Xena persisted despite the girlís protests and moved toward the bed, taking a seat on the edge.

"I said go away!," the child screamed and began to sob. "I know Iím in trouble! I know you hate me!"

"Skylla, I donít hate you. I just want to ask you a question."

"What?"

"Galenís pretty upset..."

"So?"

"He doesnít understand why you hit him."

"I hit him because he was bad." She hid her face behind her hands and continued to cry.

"Bad? What did he do?"

"He has a doll," she mumbled.

"A doll?"

"Yeah and father says dolls are for girls and Iím in trouble!" She collapsed on the bed, her shoulders shaking.

"Why? Why do you think youíre in trouble?"

"Because of this morning."

"This morning?"

"The bow and arrow."

"What do you mean?"

"Father says weapons are for boys. And boys and girls donít do the same things. Heíll find out. I know he will!" She hid her face, tears pouring from her eyes, soaking the blanket.

"Skylla, your father is dead. Do you know what that means? When a person is dead..."

"Heís not dead! Heíll find me! Wait and see!"

The warrior fell silent. Her father was alive? But she had told Ephiny and Charis that... "What about your mother, Skylla? Is she alive too?"

"No. Father killed her." Her sobs became more intense when she said the words.

"Skylla..." The warrior lifted the girl into her arms, relieved that she didnít object. "Tell me about it. Tell me what happened to your mother."

The child swiped at the tears on her cheeks and sniffled, trying desperately to stop crying. Xena felt her chest tighten as the pitiful girl tugged on her heart strings. "You can tell me, Skylla. Iím not going to let anybody hurt you."

She lowered her head and began to speak. "I was watching father chop wood. He makes me go with him when he goes outside. And mother came and told him that she burned his supper. He chased her with the ax and he...and he..." Her tears took her breath away and she couldnít go on.

"The gods. No wonder," Xena whispered and held her close. The neckline of her dress hung low, revealing the scars on her shoulders and the warrior felt her skin crawl at the thought of someone hurting the defenseless girl. With tears in her eyes, she placed her hand on the childís chin and gently lifted her eyes to meet her own. "He hits you, doesnít he?," she reluctantly asked. Skylla nodded, confirming the warriorís suspicion. "Skylla?" She decided to press her luck. "Why wasnít Galen wearing any clothes when you two were in the woods?"

"I told you. Because he was bad. He has a doll and dolls are for girls."

Xena studied the expression on the girlís face, hoping that her next question wouldnít send her into a fit. "Skylla? Does your father make you take off your clothes when youíre bad?"

Tears welled up in the childís eyes and she stared out the window as though she was in some kind of trance. "Skylla, did you hear me?" The muscles in the girlís face twitched slightly, but she refused to answer.

"Skylla..." She repositioned herself, moving directly in front of her. The child looked down at the blanket on the bed, fixing her eyes on the pattern. "Does your father make you take off your clothes when youíre bad?" Xena watched her closely and, finally, the tiny girl nodded. "Does he touch you...in places he shouldnít?" And again, the child nodded.

The warrior knew she had pushed her to her limit, but there was one more question she had to ask. "Skylla...did you...did you touch Galen like that today?" She felt her muscles tense and her jaw tighten. The gods, she didnít know what she would do if...

"No. I promise I didnít. I just made him take his clothes off because he was bad. Iím sorry. Iím sorry!" She fell forward into Xenaís arms, burying her head in her chest, a river of anguish surging from her eyes.

The warrior blinked back her own tears and held onto the child, vowing to make sure no one ever hurt her again. That sorry bastardís going to pay for this. If itís the last thing I do, Iíll make him pay.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The morning sun peeked over the bare trees, illuminating the sleepy haven. Xena and Raven listened to the crisp fallen leaves crackling beneath their strides as they ambled over the hills. "Where will you go from here?," the warrior asked.

"The Amazon village."

"The Amazon village?"

"Mmm hmm." She nodded and a mysterious grin appeared on her face.

"All right...What are you up to?," Xena asked through a sly grimace. Patiently awaiting her friendís reply, she stopped and leaned against a tree.

"Well..."

"Well?" She waggled her eyebrows up and down.

"Someone is waiting for me there." She confirmed the warriorís surmise.

"Yesss?"

"Her name is Salir. Do you know her?"

"Yesss..."

"Sheís great, isnít she?" She raised her hand to conceal the colossal smile on her face.

"You tell me." The warriorís shoulders shook slightly when she chuckled quietly to herself. "How long has this been going on?"

"For a while...on and off. I was on the road, traveling to my motherís village, and I ran into her. She was in the middle of trouncing a group of hoodlums who had tried to rob two elderly women. I gave her a hand, though she certainly didnít need my help, and our relationship sort of evolved from there." Her eyes bounced back and forth across the landscape and Xena could tell she was hiding something.

"Thereís something youíre not telling me..."

Raven stared at her boots and her companion watched her face change colors until, finally, it was so red that Xena was certain the womanís head would explode. "Oh come on, Xena! Why do you insist on making everything your business?," she giggled nervously.

"Tell me more about the evolution of this relationship," the warrior pressed, giving her a quick slap on the back.


"You are so nosy!"

"I want details," she said through a naughty grin.

"Xenaaaa," the embarrassed woman whined. "Maybe it was the heat. Maybe there was something in the water we were drinking. Tartarus! I donít know! We...it just sort of happened!"

The warriorís grin got even bigger, taking up most of her face. "You bagged her right there on the spot, didnít ya? Didnít even know her name, did ya? You horny fiend you," she teased.

"Well, I wouldnít put it that way," she shrieked.

"How would you put it?"

"Well...I...I mean we...ahh hell, all right, I bagged her right there on the side of the road," she chuckled.

par "I knew it!"

"But I assure you, the exchange was quite mutual!"

"So then it was a mutual bagging?," she joked.

"Xenaaa! Youíre so crude!"

"Hey, Gabrielleís got me on a pretty tight leash. Sheíd pelt me one if she heard me talking like this so I have to get it out of my system while I have the chance."

"Oh, she does not keep you on a leash! And, if she did, Iím sure youíd love it!"

"Well...actually..." She smiled and winked.

"So Iím to assume the bard doesnít mind your fondness of all things kinky?"

"Can I tell you something?" She moved closer and lowered her voice.

"By all means."

"Gabrielle puts me to shame."

"You mean to tell me thereís a new queen of kink?," she laughed.

The warrior grinned, draped her arm around her friendís shoulders, and the two began to walk slowly through the trees. "Tell me about Salir," she said, changing the subject.

"Sheís everything Iíve ever wanted in a woman. Weíre planning on spending some time in Lesbos ... getting away for a while. We need some time together to decide where this thingís going." She paused, momentarily lost in her thoughts before confessing, "I think I love her, Xena."

"Well, thatís good! Isnít it?"

"Yeah. Yeah, it is."

Taking their time, they drifted toward the cabin, each absorbed in her own thoughts. The warrior had been thinking a lot about Skylla and how to handle the situation with her father. "Raven?"

"Hmm?"

"Would you like to take a trip with Charis and me? Weíll be heading out tomorrow to see what we can find out about Skyllaís family."

Ravenís eyes grew cold when she reflected on the things Xena had told her about the child and the torture she had suffered at the hands of her depraved father. Having endured similar abuse herself as a child, her heart went out to the little girl. "Yes. Iíd like to go with you," she said through clenched teeth.

"Good. We could use your help." The warrior had spent the last couple of days devising a plan for locating the twisted man and tomorrow morning, she would don her armor for a worthy cause. As her mind continued to wander, her anger flourished. "Iím going to kill him," she snarled and Raven knew she meant it.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The bard had been reading to the child for more than a candlemark when she asked, "Skylla, would you like to read for a while?"

The little girlís face contorted and she stared down at the dress Gabrielle had given her, running her fingers over the pale blue fabric. "Skylla, do you know how to read?," the bard asked.

Staring out the window with a blank expression on her face, the child mumbled a quiet, "No."

What am I thinking? Of course she doesnít know how to read. Iím sure that good-for-nothing father of hers considers reading to be reserved for males. Somebody needs to knock him upside his sexist fool head. How could anyone look at this child...this innocent gift from the gods...and want to hurt her. Sorry bastard. Her mind wandered back to that awful day in the woods, when Draco and Allmar attacked her...raped her...shattered her soul. Hell, she was an adult and had barely made it through it. She couldnít imagine how hard this must be for such a young girl. How had she managed to survive such brutality? And at the hands of her own father? "Would you like for me to teach you how to read?," she asked, bridling the animosity simmering inside her. A smile forced its way to her face when she saw the child nod in agreement and cautiously, she put her arm around her shoulders and handed her the parchment. For the first time since her arrival, Skyllaís eyes lit up and they spent the remainder of the morning lost in the page, the bard patiently helping her sound out the words.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Ephiny embraced her wife, their lips merging in a tender kiss. "I love you," she whispered between kisses. "Be careful and come home as soon as you can. Iím going to miss you...ohhh how Iím going to miss you." She gave her a seductive smile and pulled away.

"You are sooo very bad," Charis purred and nibbled at her ear. "I promise to ravage you thoroughly when I get back." The regent sighed and watched her climb onto her horse.

"You and Ephiny be sure to keep your hands to yourselves while Iím gone, all right?," Xena grinned.

"Xena!" The bard gave her a shove and then drew her near. "Youíve got to let that go, you know?," she laughed. Her eyes briefly met the regentís and images of the night they had spent together so long ago flashed in their minds.

"You know Iím just giving you a hard time," she snickered. "You two take care of yourselves. I love you." Her mood instantly shifted and a serious expression forced its way past her smile.

"I love you too and donít worry. Weíll be fine." She gave her a kiss and called Galen over. "Tell your mother goodbye." The boy threw himself into the warriorís outstretched arms. His mother instructed him to mind his mama, told him that she loved him, and jumped onto Argoís back.

Skylla, refusing to come outside, watched through the window as the three women vanished from sight. They hadnít told her where they were going, but she knew. Xena had been asking a lot of questions about her family over the past few days---where they had lived, what their names were, whether or not they had any other relatives or friends. The young girl knew they were going after her father and, even though he had brought her nothing but misery, she was worried about the man.

"So, what do we know so far?," Raven asked the warrior once they were in the forest.

"Not much," Xena sighed. "Skylla told me that her fatherís name is Arkas and her motherís is...was Rheia. She said they had a house in Pilos. Thatís where they were living when Arkas killed her mother. As far as I know, she has no other living relatives and they didnít have many friends. But, then again, they never do, do they? They need privacy so they can carry out their deranged deeds. These sickos will do anything to keep their victims isolated. They donít want anybody to know what theyíre doing and they sure as hell donít want anyone to stop them."

"For the life of me, I canít understand how anyone could be so cruel," said Charis.

"Some say that people turn to their children because they canít help themselves...that itís some sort of disease of the mind," Raven responded.

"Thatís such a load of shit," Xena grumbled. "They do it because theyíre selfish, heartless pricks who have no conscience whatsoever."

Charis pondered the statement before asking, "Do you suppose the whole disease argument is just another method of excusing the way so many men use their manhood as a weapon against women? Just another way to keep us in check?"

"You have to remember, Charis, that not all child molesters are men and not all victims are female," said Raven. "But considering that, in most cases, men are the attackers and females are their victims---and in light of the fact that, in your own words, Ďitís a male world,í your theoryís not half bad."

"I can guarantee both of you that, when I find Arkas, Iím not gonna waste any time analyzing his head," Xena growled. "Iím gonna cut it off."

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

"You all right?" Ephiny walked across the porch toward her friend and placed her arm around her waist. With tears in her eyes, the bard looked up at the clouds drifting through the azure sky. The incident with Draco and Allmar played on her mind, exacerbating her hatred for the man she had never met, the man who had managed to single-handedly annihilate Skyllaís spirit. "I hate him, Ephiny. I see what heís done to her and I hate him for it," she said.

"Iím not real fond of him myself. But you canít let it eat you up inside. After all, it wonít do any good and it certainly wonít make things better for Skylla. She needs us, Gabrielle, and we have to be there for her. Even though the man is a monster, heís still her father. We have to remember that. This canít be easy for her."

"Yeah, I know. It just makes me so angry. I hope they find him and..."

"Theyíll find him and, when they do, theyíll see to it that he pays for his crimes," Ephiny said with certainty. "Weíll just have to wait. In the mean time..." She flashed a smile. "You can try to figure out what Charis and I have in store for you. We havenít forgotten that little prank you pulled the other night and, Iím warning you, youíre in for it," she laughed.

The bard managed a meager chuckle and shook her head. "Xena and her challenges. She gets me in more trouble!" She threw her arms in the air and went inside.

"Oh, donít go blaming it all on Xena! Youíve come up with more than your fair share of the ruses around here!," the regent called out after her.

Gabrielle made her way into the kitchen where she found Galen and Skylla sitting at the table. Her heart fluttered when she saw the young girl staring at the parchment in front of her, laboring over the words in an attempt to read the story to the boy. "Youíre doing a nice job," she said encouragingly. Being the author of the scroll, she knew the girl was making most of the story up. But, occasionally, she would get a word or two right and the bard couldnít help but smile.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

When the heavens transformed, growing dark as the sun settled in the western sky, the three women decided to stop for the night. Quickly, they kindled the fire and sat down to warm themselves, the bitter gusts of air making their teeth chatter. "Winter will be here before you know it," said Raven.

"Mmm hmm." Xena nodded and smiled, her mind roaming. "Galen wants to build a snowman this year. He was too little to be outside in the cold last season."

"You like being a mother, donít you?," Raven asked.

"Surprisingly, I do. There was a time when I couldnít imagine actually raising a child myself. When I left Solan in the Centaur colony, I told myself that I would never be a mother...that I had blown my only chance." Her eyes grew sad and she fell silent. She was so grateful for Galen and for having a woman as wonderful as Gabrielle to share the experience with her. But she still missed her first born son and she knew she always would. "Do you plan on having children some day?"

"No. We...errr...I donít want children." She blushed, realizing her slip of the tongue.

"Youíre really serious about Salir, arenít you?," Xena asked.

"Yes, but Iím not sure she feels the same way about me. I guess Iíll know soon enough," she sighed.

"Salir?!," Charis exclaimed.

"Yep. Ravenís got the hots for our old friend," the warrior announced.

"For the gods sake, Xena! Could your mouth be any bigger?," Raven exclaimed.

"I respect Salir. Sheís a good woman," said Charis.

"Donít I know it," Raven snickered.

They spent the remainder of the evening gathered around the fire, bantering back and forth about virtually every topic imaginable, before finally settling into their bedrolls. Tomorrow would be a busy and, hopefully, prosperous day.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Gabrielle crept down the hallway and peered into the room where the regent was sleeping. "Ephiny? Ephiny?," she said quietly and made her way toward the bed. "Ouch! Gods bless! Owww!," she exclaimed in a harsh whisper when she slammed her toes against the bottom of the bed post.

"Gabrielle?" The Amazon sat up, scratching her head. "What in the name of Zeus are you doing?"

"Couldnít sleep." She sat down on the corner of the bed and wrapped her hand around her bruised toes.

The regent looked at her friend and smiled. "Come on," she said and pulled the corner of the blanket back. Gabrielle crawled under the covers and stretched out on her back, staring up at the dark ceiling. "Ephiny?"

"Hmm?"

"Do you really think Xena will turn Arkas in? Or do you think sheíll do to him what she did to Draco and Allmar?"

"Do I think sheíll kill him?" The regent thought for a moment. "I donít know. I guess that depends on what happens when they find him. But I can tell you this---Charis is going to insist that he have a trial."

"Amazon law...," Gabrielle thought aloud. _93Every one deserves a fair trial, no matter what the crime. I agree, but sometimes itís easier said than done."

"Get some sleep. You need it." She leaned over and gave her a peck on the cheek.

"Goodnight, Ephiny."

"Night, sweetie." The regent smiled and said a silent prayer, asking Artemis to watch over the three women.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Dawn didnít arrive soon enough for the travelers. They couldnít wait to bring Arkas to justice. Rising with the sun, they quickly packed their belongings and mounted their horses. Munching on the bread the bard had packed for them, they followed the main road into Pilos, stopping at the local tavern when they arrived in the tiny village.

Raven and Charis watched the warrior weave her way through the noisy crowd. After a brief conversation with the barkeeper, she turned and headed for the door. "Well?," said Charis, following behind her.

"He gave me directions to Arkasí house. He said he hasnít seen the man in a while, but he also said that wasnít unusual," Xena answered. "Itís just around the corner and up the hill." She pointed to her right and gave Argo a gentle nudge.

Within moments, they could see the dilapidated house in the distance. The wooden walls were so badly damaged that it was a wonder the place didnít crumble to pieces before their eyes and the roof was no better. In fact, it only covered half of the house. The other half was open to the elements, protected only by a few remaining boards. "Can you believe he was raising a child in this dump?," Charis said, obviously appalled.

"Knowing what heís done to his own daughter, Iíd believe just about anything as far as this man is concerned," Xena grumbled. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Raven staring at a conspicuous patch of earth and, despite the time that had passed and the overgrown weeds, the warrior could tell she was looking at a shallow grave. "This must be where he buried his wife," she said, her contempt for the man seething beneath her skin. "The place looks deserted, but arm yourselves. You never know what this guyís going to pull." All three women retrieved their swords from their backs and the warrior knocked on what was left of the door. "Arkas! Arkas, open up!," she shouted and pounded on the bowed wood.

When no one answered, she kicked the door off its hinges and went inside. There was only one room and, though it was hard to tell through the clutter, it appeared as though the place had been abandoned for quite some time. "The son of bitch isnít here," the warrior snarled and the women returned to their horses.

"Wait," Charis said and jumped out of the saddle.

"Gotta pee?" Xena grinned.

"Iíll be right back," she answered and disappeared behind the house, reemerging with a tiny clump of wild flowers. "Theyíre nearly dead, but itís the best I can do," she said and placed them on top of the shallow grave. "Ready?" She looked at her companions.

Without a word, they followed the trail back to the main road, each finding herself desperately missing her mother.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The glow from the candle flickered on the walls, lighting the cozy room. "Iíll tuck him in," Ephiny said and lifted the bardís sleeping son. Gabrielle followed her down the narrow hallway to check on Skylla who was, by now, fast asleep. "You turning in?," she asked the regent once Galen was snug in his bed.

"No. Not yet. Iím not really tired."

"I think Iíll make some tea. Do you want some?," the bard asked.

"Warm with lemon?"

"You got it." Within moments, she was pouring the steaming water into the cups.

"I wonder if theyíve found him yet," the regent said when the bard handed her the tea and took a seat across the table.

"I hope so. I worry about Xena when sheís away. Itís really hard this time because itís been so long since sheís been gone overnight. Iíd almost forgotten what it was like."

"Yeah, I worry about Charis too. I know she can take care of herself, but I still find myself biting my finger nails. I hate being away from her."

"Youíve gone soft in your old age," the bard teased.

"Soft? Old? Maybe we should hold our own private weapons competition right here in the kitchen. Maybe I need to grab my staff and wipe the floor with your ass!," she laughed.

"Are you challenging me?" The former queen batted her eyes.

"Yes! As a matter of fact I am! On your feet." She walked around the corner and retrieved hestaff from the adjoining room. "Iím serious. Get your staff. Iíll show you soft and old."

"Ephiny, Iím not going to battle it out with you in the kitchen! Have you lost your mind?," she laughed.

"Are you backing down from a challenge, Amazon?"

"No, Iím postponing it. I promise you---in the morning, weíll go out in the yard and Iíll kick your butt. Will that work for you?"

The regent laughed. "I suppose. Since youíre obviously intimidated by my cunning moves."

"Youíll get yours...in the morning." The bard gulped down her tea, yawned, and announced that she was going to bed.

Ephiny trailed behind her toward the end of the hallway, smiling when her friend stalled and looked back at her. "Oh get in here," the Amazon laughed and the two women crawled into bed together. She knew Gabrielle was still afraid to sleep alone. She had been that way since Allmar and Draco abducted her in the middle of the night.

"Eph?"

"Hmm?"

"Thanks for understanding."

"You donít have to thank me. Good night, my friend."

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

"Mama?" Galen yanked at the blankets and crawled onto the bed next to his mother.

"What is it, honey?" The bard forced her eyes open.

"Whereís Skylla?"

"Sheís still asleep. And you should be too. Itís still dark."

"Sheís not asleep. Sheís gone."

"Gone?" The bard sat upright and gave the regent a shake.

"What? Whatís wrong?," Ephiny grumbled.

"Get up." In a panic, she jumped out of bed and followed her son to the bedroom where Skylla had been sleeping. "Ephiny!," she called out when she realized that the child wasnít there. "Ephiny!"

The regent stumbled across the hall to her friendís side. "What...where is she?"

"I donít know." Both women darted around the cabin, throwing their clothes on piece by piece.

Within a fraction of candledrip, they were outside, combing the surrounding area. Frantically, they searched the yard, the barn, and edge of the forest, but the girl was no where to be found. "Iím going to look for her," said Ephiny and she headed for the barn to saddle her horse.

"Iím going with you," the bard replied.

"Gabrielle, you canít. You need to stay here with Galen and, besides, she probably just wandered off. What if she comes back and weíre not here?"

The bard realized that her friend was right. "Ok. But please...be careful."

The regent gave her a lingering hug and began to gather her things. In no time, she mounted her horse and headed toward the trees.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

A nasty grin surfaced on the manís face as his eyes shifted and settled on the shivering child. Contempt shown on his face and venom dripped from his lips when he uttered, "Howís daddyís little harlot?"

Skylla trembled, consumed by fear. She recognized the words and knew all-too-well what they meant. A slap to the side of her head sent her tumbling backwards into the splintery wall. Tears streamed down her face and she pleaded with her father, her eyes fixed on his hands as he fumbled with his waistband. "Stop your whining and do what I taught you!," he yelled and kicked her in the gut, sending her crashing to the floor.

Pulling her knees tight against her chest, the child buried her face in her hands and sobbed. "Turn over!," he shouted and jerked her up by her arm, slamming her face down on the floor. Without another word, he ripped the sleeping shift from her body, and grabbed the back of her neck.

The young girl closed her eyes tightly and, in silence, she screamed.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Tired and frustrated, the warrior slammed her empty mug on the counter and turned to the women seated beside her. "Dammit where is he?"

"Weíve searched every where. I honestly donít know where else to look," Charis sighed.

"Who you looking for, honey?," the barkeeper intrusively asked.

"A man by the name of Arkas...dear," Xena snarled, one corner of her mouth curling upward as she tried to refrain from pelting the chubby man.

"Arkas?" The barkeeper raised an eyebrow. "He came by here early this morning. Before sun up, matter of fact. I live in the loft over the tavern and I canít tell you how many times that man has stood outside hollering, waking me up. Always wants at least a weeks supply of ale. Had his daughter with him this morning. Imagine dragging a little girl like that to town so early..."

"Wait." The warrior leaned over the counter and looked the man in the eyes. "Did you say he had his daughter with him? Are you sure it was his daughter?"

"Oh yes. Iíd know little Skylla anywhere. Cute little girl." He smiled.

"Letís go," Xena said and quickly settled the tab before the three women rushed to their horses.

Ephiny saw the women in the distance and gave her horse a nudge. "Ephiny? What are you...," Charis began when the regent rode alongside her.

"Skyllaís missing," she said.

"He took her home," Xena growled and the four took off, their horses in full gallop.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Arkas pinched the childís cheeks between his fingers and forced her eyes to his own, staring at her as though she were his lover. "Did you like that?," he whispered through a crooked smile.

Tears streamed down the girlís cheeks and she knew she couldnít speak if she tried.

"I said did you like that?," her father screamed and squeezed her jaws so hard she was certain to have bruises.

The warrior felt her temperature rise and her blood begin to boil when she saw the man hovering over the naked child. Charis, Raven, and the regent fell back at Xenaís command and watched their friend launch her attack. A swift kick to the head sent the man sailing across the room, giving Ephiny the opportunity to grab Skylla and whisk her out the door.

"Did you like that?," the warrior yelled, backhanding the man. Charis and Raven looked on, poised to provide backup, though it didnít appear as though she would need.

Arkas stood and spit at Xenaís feet, expelling a couple of broken teeth and a pool of blood. "Yeah, I fucked the little harlot. Whatís it to ya?," he grinned wickedly.

Raven'92s mind drifted back in time, thoughts of her own fatherís viscous attacks raining down on her. She heard his bones crack when her boot connected with his shins, taking him down. Unable to stop herself, she raised her fist and delivered an overhead strike to the back of his neck. The snap resounded throughout the room and she knew he was dead. Tears scorched her cheeks when she felt the warriorís hand on her back. Xena pulled her close and held onto her while she wept, purging herself of the grief she had harbored for so long.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The four women and Skylla arrived at the cabin in the middle of the night to find Gabrielle sitting on the front porch, waiting for their return. After tucking the girl safely into bed, the women gathered around the kitchen table and painstakingly recounted the gruesome events which had transpired, explaining to the bard that Arkas was dead.

Raven, unable to sit still any longer, excused herself and made her way down the hallway. Skylla, lying face down on the bed, lifted her head and the dark-haired woman was more than a little surprised at the smile on the young childís face. "He canít hurt me any more," the child said and lowered her head again, burying her face in her arms.

"No, Skylla. No he canít," Raven said softly, smoothing her hand over the girlís back. "Are you all right?"

The child raised her head again and nodded. Raven felt her heart skip a beat. Where did she get her strength? Silently, she sat next to the girl, rubbing her back until she finally drifted into sleep.

The day had been long and the night soon proved to be even longer as the five women and the little girl tried to make sense of what had transpired. Skylla wrestled with her tumultuous emotions. Part of her rejoiced in the knowledge that the cruelty she suffered at her fatherís hands was a thing of the past. Yet another part recognized that she was now alone in the world. With her fatherís last breath, all that she had ever known had ceased to exist, disintegrating before her eyes. Her emotions culminated in a strange mixture of happiness and sorrow, comfort and pain, hopefulness and doubt; a celebration for new-found freedom and a funeral for innocence lost.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Epilogue

Two moons had passed since that fateful night. Raven had set out for the Amazon village. The Amazonsí son had returned home. And Xena and Gabrielle had decided to raise Skylla as their own. The young girl was adjusting to her new life quickly, talking and smiling more often than she had when she first arrived. She seemed happy with her new mothers and enjoyed the time she spent with her brother and Xenan.

The three women looked out over the hills, watching the children and the warrior frolicking in the snow. When the bard wasnít looking, Ephiny tossed her leather armband off the porch. "Oops! My armband," she dramatically exclaimed. "Iíve been looking everywhere for that Gabrielle, could you hand that to me please?"

"Sure," the bard said and leaned forward, reaching for the brown armband.

The regent crept up behind her and placed her boot on her backside, giving her a shove that sent her toppling off the porch. "Got her," she said and she and Charis roared with laughter at the sight of the bard head-first in the snow drift, her legs flailing in the air. The prank wasnít quite as imaginative as some they had concocted before, but it was certainly funny!

The Amazons watched their friend thrashing around, finally managing to extract her head from the frigid slush. "Let me guess..." She shook her head, sending tiny white specks flying through the air. "Another challenge?," she managed, though her tongue was frozen solid. "You dared her to dump me in the snow?" She rushed onto the porch and grabbed Charis by the arm, tugging furiously, dragging her toward the edge of the steps. Ephiny howled, doubling over with laughter when her wife slipped into the icy embankment. "Thatíll teach ya," the bard snickered. "Where are you going?," she asked Xena as she passed by the cabin.

"To the barn. I need Argo."

"Argo? Why?" Gabrielle looked puzzled.

The warrior raised her arm, gesturing toward the snow-covered field. "Oh for the gods sake," the bard shrieked, her eyes growing wide. "Get a load of that, will ya?" She looked at the Amazons. The three women squinted, unable to believe their eyes. In the center of the field sat the biggest snowball they had ever seen. So big, in fact, that Xena needed Argo to haul it closer to the cabin. "Xena? What are you planning to do with that?," Ephiny asked.

"Look, Iíve waited for three years to build a snow man with my son...and my daughter. And I intend to make sure itís one theyíll never forget."

"But Xena, that thingís bigger than all of us put together," said Gabrielle. "You canít make a snow man with that. How do you suppose youíre going to stack the other snowballs on top of it?"

"She has many skills!," Galen and Skylla shouted in unison. The warrior winked and, bursting with pride, made her way to the barn, leaving the three women standing on the porch shaking their heads.

The End


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