~ Birthright ~
by L.M. Townsend

(Submitted for the Bard's Challenge, February 2, 2001)

As usual, the characters of Xena and Gabrielle belong to Universal & Ren Pics. No copyright infringement is intended.The story and all the rest of the characters belong to me.

SPECIAL DISCLAIMER: This story involves the search for a kidnapped child. There are a couple of scenes in which some child abuse occurs. It's not explicit and it's very "mild" (as far as child abuse goes), but if these will disturb you, I'm marking these parts with a *** so you can skip over them. They provide some insight and motivation to some of the characters' behaviour, which is why I added them, but you really won't lose too much of the story by skipping theses scenes.

The silvery grey mare trudged through the blowing drifts of snow. Her rider, Princess Jaičl, trembled violently, wondering if she would ever be truly warm again. Her own country, where her mother ruled as Queen, was a more temperate land and this bitterly constant cold was not at all to the princess's liking - nor her companions'. Princess Jaičl's familiar, a long-haired tabby named Ariel, rode in a special sling, snuggled up against Jaičl's chest - the only warm spot Jaičl felt. Her best friend Aradia rode beside her, tightly clutching the thick woollen cloak she wore. Their escorts rode, one ahead and one behind, stoically silent, though when Jaičl glanced back at the smaller one behind them, the blonde woman offered the princess an encouraging smile. Jaičl returned the smile with a small one of her own before facing forward again, then sighed. The dark-haired warrior rode ahead on her golden battle-mare, her back straight, her eyes forward, though every so often, her head would incline slightly, listening for possible threats of danger. The princess kept hold of the reins, though her fingers grew more numb with each passing hour.

We were so lucky to get the Warrior Princess and the Amazon Bard-Queen to escort us, she thought, frowning. Even if Xena is a bit ... harsh sometimes. She's no worse than my sister, Dei, though... With another sigh, Jaičl wondered if they would find a place to camp soon, but she said nothing aloud, knowing Xena would get that look - the one that made Jaičl feel somehow guilty for being cold and tired. Must be a warrior-thing. Dei does that, too - expects everyone to be just as tough as she is.

The women had been travelling for weeks to reach these mountains, almost to the other side of their world - or so it seemed. Their goal was just this side of the range, a small mountain settlement where Jaičl believed she had located her lost sister, Nadi'. Nadi' had been stolen from her cradle before Jaičl was born - some said by a demon. Their mother, Queen Neptunis, had spared no expense in the search for her child, but to no avail. Although the search was, by necessity, discontinued, still the hope the queen held in her heart never ceased. Jaičl was born and grew up in the shadow of her mother's grief and sadness, although the queen adored and doted upon her youngest child and heir to her throne. It was the Elders' admonition that a child so spoiled would make a poor ruler someday which instigated Jaičl's education in the Temple school. It was the best thing that could have happened to the young princess. She was a precocious child, strongly gifted with magical talent, like her grandmother before her. She took to life in the Temple and to her studies quickly and did very well there, indeed.

In the Temple school, she met her best friend, Aradia, daughter of a magistrate of a neighbouring province. The two grew close and finally took the Oath of Spirit Sisters, an oath which connected their spirits in a bond stronger than blood ties. The two priestesses shared an empathy not only with each other, but with all and both completed their healer training. Aradia was compelled by responsibility to return to her homeland, but Jaičl remained in the Temple until she had learned all they could teach her, rising to the rank of magic-wielder. Aradia returned as often as she could and soon had also attained that most coveted rank. Together, the sisters made a formidable team. It had been Jaičl's idea, however to go on this mission, to find her lost sister. Aradia had agreed to accompany her, mainly to keep her sister out of trouble, but also because of the deep affection she, too felt for Neptunis and a desire to restore one of their own to her people. The princess suppressed another sigh, knowing the warrior's sharp hearing would pick it up and Xena would grow annoyed. She hoped Xena would stop soon, but she respected the warrior's ability to discern which stand of trees or clumps of brush afforded the best shelter from the wind and cold. Jaičl knew that when Xena found a likely spot, she would call a halt and then they could build a fire.

Gabrielle, sensing Jaičl's discomfort, rode up alongside the princess and whispered - knowing her partner would hear and get the hint. "I'm freezing! Sure hope we stop pretty soon. How are you doing, Your Highness?" asked the Bard.

"Oh, I'm fine," said Jaičl, brightly, feigning energy she didn't really have. "And please, Gabrielle, you don't have to call me that. Okay?"

"Sure," said the Bard, grinning. It had been Gabrielle who had volunteered Xena and herself as an escort to these two. Xena had agreed, partly to indulge the Bard and partly because she was intrigued. She had heard of the Princess Nadi's kidnapping and had been amazed that no trace of the child had ever been found, given the extent of the search. Now, so many years later, Jaičl claimed to have located her - using her "magic". Xena wasn't impressed by magic - too often, she had seen that "magic" was nothing more than trickery and sleight of hand - or godly interference. True magic, like that these women claimed to possess, was rare, if it existed at all, outside of Olympus - which Xena very much doubted. Yet there was something here...some sense...a feeling, of sorts, which she picked up from both Aradia and Jaičl - much like Xena experienced when a god was nearby, only deeper below the surface of her consciousness. Something she could only just perceive, but not quite capture. It intrigued her, to say the least.

At last, sensing the light beginning to fade, the warrior signalled for the others to follow as she turned off the trail and made for a stand of firs which all but hid a cleft in the rocky hillside. To the women's delight, the cleft proved to be the mouth of a cave. Xena dismounted, but Jaičl hesitated.

"Wait," said the princess, wearily dismounting herself and approaching the warrior. "It's occupied."

"What?" said Xena, exasperated.

"It's occupied," repeated the princess, closing her eyes. "There's a ... cat of some kind. A big one." The princess opened her eyes and started to walk towards the cave opening. Xena grabbed her shoulder.

"Hey," said the warrior. "If there is some kind of big cat in there, you need to wait here. Let me check it out. If I find anything in there, I'll deal with it."

"You mean kill it," said Jaičl.

"Yeah," said Xena, raising one eyebrow. "You got a problem with that? Or would you prefer being breakfast? Or riding for another couple of hours to find another campsite?"

"Killing it isn't necessary," said Jaičl, softly.

"Oh, no? Why not?" asked the warrior, crossing her arms over her armour-clad chest.

"One of Jaičl's talents is the ability to communicate with all other beings - even other species," said Aradia, dismounting. "She can forge a rapport with the creature, move it further back in the cave, and keep it deeply asleep there - and we'll be safe."

"Tremendous,' said the Warrior Princess, rolling her eyes. "And I thought I had many skills!"

"Xena," said Gabrielle, placing a hand on her friend's arm. "I've read about this. Let her try - if it doesn't work, you can always kill the cat."

Xena shrugged, and waved an arm towards the cave. "Be my guest, Your Highness," she said.

Feeling very awkward, Jaičl entered the cave and found the sleeping leopard. She approached, entering into a rapport with the beautiful creature, insinuating herself and the others into its dreams. Then she "spoke" to the leopard, and it arose, still deep in sleep, and walked to the back of the cave before lying down again. Jaičl knew that it would sleep deeply through the night, lying unseen in the shadows of the deepest recesses of the cave.

She emerged, smiling and motioned for her companions to enter. The cave was very large, tunnelling deep into the mountain - big enough to bring the horses in. The horses, however had other ideas, and shied away from the smell of the predator. What do you know? thought the warrior. There is something in there - or there was....

Xena's mare, Argo, stood firm, refusing to enter the cave. Smiling at Xena, Jaičl approached, rubbing Argo's velvety nose and whispering to her. To Xena's amazement, the mare nuzzled Jaičl for a moment, then tossed her head in what Xena could swear was a nod, whinnied to the others and led them inside the cave.

"Argo doesn't usually listen to anyone but me," said the warrior, nonplussed. "Not even Gabrielle - how'd you do that?"

Jaičl, feeling a little shy with the warrior, smiled and said, "I just explained to her that there was no danger and asked for her help with the others. They look to her as their leader. I knew they would follow."

Xena shook her head, but merely followed Jaičl into the cave, pondering. While Jaičl and Xena had been dealing with the horses, Gabrielle had already started a fire with tinder and kindling Aradia had gathered from the debris which had blown onto the cave floor. A few days ago, Xena had brought down a stag and the cold weather had kept the meat very fresh. Jaičl got the parchment-wrapped meat and began preparing it for the evening meal while Xena cared for all of the horses. Once the work of setting up the cosy camp was done, the women sat around the fire on their sleeping furs, waiting for the food to cook. They sat in silence, each lost in their own thoughts, Xena sharpening her sword, Gabrielle writing in her scroll, Jaičl, staring off into the distance, absently stroking Ariel, and Aradia, reading from another of Gabrielle's scrolls.

After the meal, Jaičl washed the dishes, re-packing them for the night and the group laid down to sleep around the glowing embers of the fire. Xena laid awake, now very aware of the leopard, although she hadn't seen it. A part of her knew that it was not only there, but also that it was not a danger, Another part was sceptical. Yet she had seen Jaičl "speak" with Argo - and Argo respond - with her own eyes. That alone wasn't enough to convince Xena of the women' s "magical" abilities completely, but it was something to think about. Finally the warrior drifted into that half-drowse from which she could awaken instantly if the need arose.

The day dawned early and Xena arose before the sun, getting them all up and on the road after a hasty breakfast of dried fruit. It was a little warmer today and Jaičl was grateful, but Xena's brow remained furrowed in concern. "Snow conditions," she muttered under her breath, and set a very rapid pace. By mid-morning, it was bitter cold again, but the women could see a town tucked away into the mountains. The sight of the buildings, some spiring into the clouds, as well as Xena's tension and insistence that she "smelled" snow coming, spurred the women on even further. The only sounds were the crunching of the horses hooves and their occasional snorts as they blew cold air from their velvety noses.

"Oh the poor trees!" exclaimed Jaičl. "But...oh, aren't they beautiful!"

Indeed they were, each bare branch encased in a glaze of ice, prisms in the bright sunlight, casting colours upon the sparkling white drifts. Jaičl stopped for a moment to gaze upon the jewel-like beauty and she wondered if spring ever came to these remote mountains - and thought how beautiful that must be if winter gave this kind of loveliness.

Xena once again set a fast pace, trying to get them into the town before dark, since most towns and villages closed and locked the gates by nightfall. Towards midday, the wind blew colder, but brought with it the welcome - if not altogether pleasant - scents of respective urbanity. Jaičl looked forward to a night in a warm bed. She was so tired of the cold! She also looked forward to the end of this journey she had begun so eagerly and with such hope.

Xena looked at the settlement, realising it was much larger than she had first anticipated. Good, thought the warrior. Maybe they'll have a tavern. I could use a shot of...something...and I imagine the rest of them would like to sleep warm - for once.

They arrived at the gates of the town just before sunset. The language was difficult at first, but with Jaičl's gift - and their coins, the best interpreter of all - Gabrielle managed to get them all a room and dinner - and best of all, hot baths. But Jaičl went first to the window and looked out at the moon, for the first time realising how long this journey had been. She worried about her mother and felt filled with a sense of urgency - would Neptunis still be ruling with all her power and grace when they returned? Thus far the crippling bouts of pain which no healer save Jaičl or Aradia could abate were the only signs betraying the disease which raged in the body of the queen - and which Jaičl knew would soon take her mother from her.

Aradia looked to her little sister, gazing out of the window as hot water for the baths was being brought to the room. She recognised the look in Jaičl's eyes. It wasn't just worry for Neptunis alone. Jaičl was afraid of completing this quest. Aradia knew her sister's mind better than anyone. If Nadi' was found, there was a chance Jaičl would no longer be the Queen's heir. Nadi had been declared heir before Jaičl was born. By law, if she was found, she could re-claim her birthright. Not that Jaičl would begrudge Nadi' the Crown - Jaičl had never wanted to be queen in the first place. She would, in fact, be perfectly content to remain in the Temple for the rest of her days.

Jaičl was worried about the effect facing Nadi' would have on Neptunis, of the pain it may cause her mother to see the daughter she had lost so long ago, no longer a child, except in the queen's memory. Of course, there was always a chance that Nadi' wouldn't remember - or even refuse to return with them. In any case, Jaičl knew that there were repercussions to this mission - both in success or failure.

"Hey, you need to get away from this window - it's too cold, " said Aradia, approaching Jaičl. The princess chuckled.

"Like I haven't been out in the cold for the past weeks?" she said. "I'm not that - "

"Delicate. I know," said Aradia. "But you're also worrying. Come away from the window. Xena went down to the Tavern and Gabrielle went to bring us something to eat. You have time for a bath before they get back."

"Xena went to the Tavern?" said Jaičl, frowning. "Maybe I should go, too - get my mind off of ... things."

"Jai' you'll just get into trouble," said Aradia. "You know you can't hold your drink."

"Who said anything about drinking?" said Jaičl. "I just want to go and..."

"See what Xena's doing, I know," said Aradia, with a sigh. "I don't think she'll like that."

The princess looked down. "She despises me, I know," she said.

"No, I don't think that she does at all," said Aradia. "She's just...distant. She's a warrior - you know how they are. Look at Dei."

"No, she really doesn't like me, I can tell," said Jaičl. "It doesn't matter - after we get Nadi' she'll never have to see me again. I wish mother had let us come without an escort, Ari'."

"We wouldn't have made it and you know that," said Aradia.

"Or even just Gabrielle," said Jaičl, with a sigh. "I like her. She has the best stories - and she can fight, too. And she's not so...distant."

"You know, Jai', people back home say you're pretty distant," said Aradia. "And me, too. It's part of wielding magic. So much of what we do depends upon secrecy and mysteries. Warriors, now - they can't let themselves get too close because the people they become the closest to often end up dying in battle."

"I know," said Jaičl. "But that happens to everyone every day. And I am not distant."

"Not to those who know you, no," agreed Aradia.

"I guess I'll just have that bath and go to sleep," sighed Jaičl. "I'm not really very hungry - just tired."

Aradia looked at her, trying to discern whether Jaičl were hiding something from her, or really just tired. With a sigh, she decided her friend was exhausted, and closed the make-shift privacy curtain around the tub so Jaičl could have her bath. She picked up one of the Amazon Bard's scrolls - Gabrielle had said she could read as many as she wished - and sat to wait for her sister to finish the bath. While she was reading, Gabrielle returned with some food.

"Xena's downstairs in the Tavern," said the Bard. "She's trying to pick up information about Nadi' - like where she might be now. I'm going back down to tell some stories while Xena tries to gather the information. Hopefully some of my selections will trigger a memory or two. We'll probably be out late, so you two just get some rest."

"Right - only don't let Jai' know you're telling stories," said Aradia. "She'll be down there in a minute. She loves your stories."

"Really?" said Gabrielle, grinning. "Then I'll make one up - just for her - all about this mission and how her great love for her ailing mother....'I sing of Jaičl, Princess of....' Oh, I'm doing it again. Sorry - I just...when a story comes to me, I just have to let it out."

"That's perfectly alright," said Aradia, smiling. "I think Jaičl will be very pleased to have a story made about her by the great Bard of Potidaea. In the meantime, though..."

"Right," said Gabrielle, as she left the room. "Save it for the mission."

Smiling, Aradia picked up the scroll again and sat comfortably to read. So caught up in the stories was Aradia, she didn't notice how long she'd been reading without Jaičl emerging from behind the curtain.

"Jai'? What'd you do, fall asleep in there?" chuckled Aradia, carefully re-rolling the parchment and rising. "Jaičl?" Aradia arose, concerned when Jaičl didn't answer and pulled back the curtain. Jaičl wasn't there. "Oh, great! She must've snuck downstairs after all. Oh, well. Xena's down there - what harm could come to her?"

All Jaičl had to hear was that Gabrielle was telling stories in the Tavern and she slipped on her cloak and went downstairs while her sister spoke with the Bard. She found a table in a corner, hidden in the shadows and sat, ordering a cup of wine, which she promised herself she would only sip at throughout the night. This didn't prove to be a difficult promise to keep as the wine was awful. The princess saw Xena, sitting at a table with a rowdy bunch, laughing and back-slapping. Jaičl frowned. She's friendlier with that nasty lot than she is with me, thought the princess. Oh, why doesn't she like me? Why do I care so much that she doesn't? I wish I were more like her...

Almost she didn't hear the gruff voice, but at last when she looked up she beheld a rough, unshaven and very large man, leering at her. At first, she was sure she hadn't heard him correctly - what he suggested simply wasn't humanly possible - was it? Jaičl really didn't care to find out - especially with this great, unwashed brute. She shook her head and returned her attention to the Bard. Then he grabbed her and Jaičl uttered a word her mother would have washed out of her mouth with strong lye soap if the queen were there to hear it.

"Take your hand off of me," said the princess, her voice low - just as she imagined Xena's would be in the situation - not that the warrior would find her self in a predicament like this one. "You really don't want to make me angry."

The man laughed until the princess turned her eyes upon him. Eyes that suddenly changed colours and seemed to pierce right through him, reading his soul and all that lay within it. The man felt fear and let go of her, backing away.

Jaičl sighed. She hated using the magic this way - she didn't like turning people inside out, seeing their hopes and dreams and fears. It seemed wrong, and yet so was what this man was trying to do her. "Go home to your wife," said Jaičl. "Although she deserves better than you - she loves you. This would hurt her in ways you cannot imagine."

"Especially if she became a widow." Jaičl looked up to see Xena, standing there with her hands on her hips, her deep blue eyes sparking angrily. The man looked back and forth between the two women and laughed nervously.

"Sure, yeah, heh - honest mistake, huh?" he said. "I didn't know she was yours, Warrior. You ought to keep this one under a tighter rein, though. She'll only get into trouble in here."

"Thanks for the advice," said Xena, dryly. "That's exactly what I intend to do. You - upstairs. Now."

Jaičl's eyes narrowed - no one dared to speak to her like that! Not even the Mighty Warrior Princess. She opened her mouth to speak, then sighed and let Xena lead her back to the room.

"You could have blown it," said an angry warrior as they stood just outside the door to their room. "I was talking to them, trying to find out about your sister."

"I just...I just wanted to hear Gabrielle tell her stories," said Jaičl, miserably. "I didn't know what you were doing."

Xena sighed. She could see the tears starting in the princess's eyes, as well as Jaičl's valiant effort to keep control. And she could feel the princess's confusion and fear - and ... something else. Grief? thought the Warrior Princess. Over a sister she never even met? Or for the mother she's about to lose? Xena found that she couldn't stay angry with Jaičl. She really hadn't known what Xena was doing - and Xena herself had wanted to unwind a little in the Tavern, even while she worked the crowd for information.

"Tell you what," said the Warrior, more gently. "How about if I ask Gabrielle to tell her stories to you? Right here, where you'll be safe. This place really is too dangerous for you, Your Highness."

"You'd ask her to...? Oh, Xena, thank-you," said Jaičl, her eyes shining. "Only please, don't call me 'Your Highness'. I'm just Jaičl."

Just then, Aradia opened the door. "Thank the Goddess! Jaičl, I was worried," she said.

Xena gently pushed Jaičl into the room. "Stay here," she said. "I'm going back down and see if I can finish what I started."

Aradia, led her sister into the room, closing and locking - as Xena had earlier instructed her to do - the door. "What happened? You were projecting all over the place. Your shields are usually much better than that," said Aradia.

Jaičl related to her sister what had happened. Aradia gravely nodded. "Xena's right," she said. "This place is too dangerous. I can feel it - something's not right here. It's not just this building -"

"The whole town is being affected by it. I know," said Jaičl, quietly. "But Nadi' is close - I can feel her. Ari', we have to get her and leave - soon. Something here ... there's danger. Not just to us, but to our whole people."

Later, as Xena had promised, Gabrielle returned. She was delighted to tell her stories to Jaičl and Aradia, for she had grown very fond of the two princesses. Jaičl sensed the Bard growing weary and yawned herself - although she could have listened for hours longer, mesmerised by the Bard's voice and the tales she told.

The next morning, Xena was pensive. While the others slept, she sat beside Gabrielle.

"Jaičl did something last night," she said, quietly so as not to wake the other two. "That man - "

"I know, but Xena she just wanted to hear the stories - quite a compliment, if you think about it," said Gabrielle, brightly.

"No, not that," said Xena. "The man - the one who accosted her - she did something to him. He's been muttering since last night - something like 'cleia'. In the language of this place, that means something like 'witch' or 'terrible woman' - it doesn't exactly translate, but the way he said it, I got the impression he meant someone specific."

"'Someone' being Jaičl?" asked the Bard.

"No," said the warrior, shaking her head. "I think he may mean - "

"Nadi'," said Jaičl, who was standing behind the warrior and the bard.

"By the gods!" cried a startled Gabrielle.

"How did you...?" began Xena, frowning.

"'Cleia' has a lot of meanings, but Nadi' was none of them," said Jaičl, her eyes far away. "By all accounts, she was a happy, spirited little girl - nothing like the fearsome warrior-sorceress a 'cleia' is."

"Jaičl, a lot could have happened in the years she was gone," began Gabrielle, gently placing a hand on the princess's shoulder.

"Yes, I know," sighed the princess. "But I don't believe Nadi' has changed all that much. It's just a feeling. But I've learned over the years to trust those."

"There's more," said Xena, grimly. "The people live in fear of the ruling family - the House of toh Randor. They've nearly died out from too much intermarriage and the last Lord Randor died over a decade ago, leaving a daughter, but no heir, since no woman may sit in the Ruling Seat of this Province. His daughter - are you ready for this? - has been widowed sixteen times. She herself has one daughter, but no sons."

"Cleia toh Randor," said Gabrielle, musing. "One of the women in the kitchen mentioned that name. Putting it together made me remember."

"And?" said Xena, as always, proud and amazed of her friend's natural - and non-aggressive - ability to extract information from people.

"She's Lord Randor's daughter," said Gabrielle. "Only - well, the woman I spoke with said that, supposedly Cleia toh Randor was born two years after the death of her father's first wife, but seven years before he married his second. One day Lord Randor was childless, the next he has a seven year old daughter. This woman's daughter works in the Temple here, and she told her the records had been altered - but it's not healthy to 'remember' it any other way."

"So, if no woman may rule here, just who is running this land?" asked Jaičl, frowning.

"No one," said Xena. "At least, not officially."

"This Cleia toh Randor has been ruling - and quite efficiently, I might add," said Gabrielle. "Through her husbands - until they die, that is - all quite suddenly and mysteriously."

Aradia had arisen and stood beside her sister as Jaičl sat down suddenly and Ariel jumped up in her lap.

"So - this Cleia may be Nadi', after all," said the princess, absently stroking the cat who lay contentedly in her lap, purring away.

"Maybe," said Xena, eyes narrowing. "But she is definitely very much feared as a very powerful witch."

"Not to mention a ruthless, power-hungry murderess, " added Gabrielle.

"Whatever she is," said Jaičl. "We have to go and see...see if..."

"Yes," said Aradia looking up meaningfully at the Warrior and the Bard. "We will - won't we?"

Xena shrugged. "Whatever - but whatever we do decide, we better make it fast - it's going to snow," said the warrior. "And when it does, wherever we are, that's where we're going to stay. I'd just as soon that not be in the home of a power-hungry, ruthless, murdering witch."

Swiftly, the women dressed and retrieved their packs and mounts, riding towards the Castle toh Randor. The sky was grey and the air damp and cold, but not as bitterly cold as it had been. They cautiously approached the castle, a rocky, greyish sort of place, square in shape and stark in manner. A youthful guard challenged them at the gate.

"Who are you and what business have you with toh Randor?" he asked.

Xena growled menacingly, but Gabrielle, smiling with a disarming charm approached and spoke to the young man.

"Hi!" she said. "I'm Gabrielle. These are my friends - Xena, Aradia, and Jaičl. What's your name?"

"Xena?" said the young man, squinting at the warrior. "Not...that Xena?"

"Yeah," drawled the warrior. "That Xena. You gonna let us in....or not?"

"Uh, yeah, okay, sure," stammered the youth. "Only....could you tell me what you...uh, I mean I have to ask...."

"It's alright," said Jaičl, gently, dismounting. "Your mistress already knows we're here - and why."

"Sh - she does?" asked the nervous guard. "S-s-so she's expecting you?"

"Yes, I'd say so," said Xena, eyeing the figure standing silhouetted in one of the upper windows of the castle.

"Uh, okay...." said the young man, stepping aside. Jaičl followed Xena's eyes up to the window, but saw nothing; the figure was gone. Instead, the princess watched a single, large, lacy snowflake fluttering down.

"We'd better get inside," said Aradia, eyeing other lacy bits, floating down around them.

They were greeted inside the castle proper by a tall man, completely hairless, and dressed in black. His eyes were a cold, steel grey and even his pale skin had a greyish cast to it, as if he were truly an animated extension of the castle. "Follow me," he said, his voice as grey as the rest of him. "The Lady has been expecting you."

"Has she indeed?" muttered Xena, feeling like she was walking into a snare - and not liking that feeling one bit. She walked behind the others, all of her senses on the alert, her hand never straying far from her chakram, as the man led them through a series of a corridors and staircases to a large suite.

"My Lady has ordered these rooms prepared for you," said the man, bowing low. "Dinner will be served to you here and my Lady will meet with you afterward. Now, if you will excuse me...."

"Hold on!" said Gabrielle. "What do you mean - these rooms? We're not staying; we just need to-"

"Gabrielle, we're staying," said Xena grimly, indicating the window. The snow was falling so thickly that Gabrielle could see nothing but white clumps falling wetly past the panes of glass.

"Oh," said the Bard, plopping down in a nearby chair. "I guess we're staying. What time did you say was dinner?"

"Soon," said the man, leaving and closing the heavy wooden door behind him. Xena listened carefully for the click of a lock being engaged, but didn't relax even when the sound never came. Instead, she walked through the suite of rooms, eyeing possible hidden entrances and checking the general security. At last, satisfied that the rooms were defensible in the event of an attack, she sat in another chair by Gabrielle. Jaičl was standing in front of the window, grimly looking out at the snow and Aradia was pacing nervously, lost in thought.

"Ari', you're making me nervous," said Jaičl, her eyes never leaving the snow outside.

"Sorry," said Aradia, finding another chair and sitting down.

"Not as nervous as you're making me, Princess," said the warrior, eyeing Jaičl, who stood perfectly still, staring at the falling snow as the wind outside picked up, whirling the whiteness, both that falling and that in drifts below. "What are you doing?"

"Trying to find the source of the storm," said Jaičl, quietly.

"You think it's..." began Aradia.

"Not natural at all," said Jaičl, darkly. "Whoever is making this storm is very powerful. Yet I don't sense mischief or maliciousness. Just...desperation."

"More mumbo jumbo," muttered Xena. "It's a storm, for crying out loud. Not unheard of in these mountains. Not everything has a 'magical' source."

"You're absolutely right, Xena," said Jaičl, turning from the window, at last, to face the warrior. "But this particular snow storm does. I feel it. I can't explain it any more than that, but I do."

Before Xena could reply, there was a knock on the door and several servants entered, bearing trays of food. The women waited until they were gone, then began lifting the covers, sniffing appreciatively.

"Wait," said Aradia, stretching her hands over the food. "It's okay - no poison or drugs."

"Thank-you," said Gabrielle, eyes wide. She hadn't even considered the possibility. Apparently Xena had, however, for she was gingerly tasting of the food, not trusting the magic-wielder's methods.

"Yeah - it's okay," said the warrior, at last. The women began to eat, although Jaičl merely picked at her plate despite her faith in her sister's pronouncement that the food was safe. Soon after they had finished, servants again appeared and whisked away the dishes.

"I guess we can expect our hostess any time now," said Gabrielle, sitting back in the chair, comfortably full. Almost as if her words summoned it, the door burst open and a woman entered. She smiled, baring even, milk white teeth, and bowed slightly to each of the women. Jaičl saw behind her, a small girl with dark braids, her little head hung, eyes down.

"I am Cleia toh Randor," said the woman. "What is your business with me?"

"I would have thought you'd have 'divined' that by now," said Xena, dryly. Cleia's eyes narrowed at the warrior and Gabrielle jumped in to deflect Xena's words.

"We're looking for someone," said the Bard, smiling. "Her name is Nadi'. She's a princess. Jaičl here is her sister and she believes that Nadi' is here somewhere."

"Is that so?" said Cleia, turning dark eyes on Jaičl. The princess arose and approached the woman.

"You know it is," she said, looking unflinching into Cleia's eyes, inwardly shuddering at what she saw - and did not see - there. "As you know a good many other things."

"Pray continue, Your Highness," said Cleia. "I am interested - curious, even - and that is a rare occurrence, indeed."

"My mother, Queen Neptunis is desperately ill," said Jaičl more calmly than Aradia would have expected, sensitive as she was to her sister's raw emotions. "In fact, she's dying and none can cure her - not even our greatest healers can so much as ease the terrible pain which possesses her betimes."

"Ah, and you seek some miraculous rare herb within my poor borders? By all means, take all you wish - if you can find it under all the snow," said Cleia, smiling a terrible smile.

"No," said Jaičl, sadly. "Though if there were such a thing, I'd go to Tartarus and knock at the gate of Hades himself to get it."

"Really?" said Cleia, seemingly amused by that. "I should think as the queen's heir you would hasten to ease her out of this terrible pain and into the eternal sleep - and yourself onto the throne."

"Perhaps," said Aradia, only just controlling her rage at the fresh wave of pain and shock she empathically felt wash over her sister. "Perhaps you would, Lady Randor - but that is not our way."

Cleia laughed merrily.

"Sorry if I offended," she said, though Gabrielle thought angrily that she didn't seem sorry at all. "But I still don't know what it is you want of me."

"Yes you do," said Jaičl. "You know that you are not who you claim."

Cleia stiffened almost imperceptibly, but Xena noticed and her hand strayed near her chakram at the perceived threat. Jaičl, too noticed that the woman was now on her guard and proceeded with utmost caution.

"Really?" said the woman, coolly. "And just who else would I be?"

"Nadi'," said Xena, eyes narrowing. "And you knew all along, didn't you?"

***Suddenly there was a crash and a gasp from a shadowed corner. Xena had almost forgotten the small girl who had followed Cleia into the room. Now the child stood, staring at the woman in abject terror, a small ceramic knick knack in pieces at her feet. Swiftly, Cleia was across the room. Equally swift was the blow delivered which rocked the child's head to the side with an audible snap.

"You stupid little beast!" said Cleia, quietly, through clenched teeth. "Get out of my sight and stay away from me until I send for you."***

Silently, the child left the room quickly, head still hanging, but without so much as a sniff.

"Your daughter?" said Jaičl, coldly.

"Yes - and I suppose disciplining children is 'not your way' either?" said Cleia with a smirk that Jaičl would have liked to slap right off of her face.

"It is hardly our place to criticise your actions in your own home," said Aradia, coldly. "We are not accustomed to ...your methods."

Cleia smirked again and Gabrielle almost had to physically restrain an angry Xena.

"That child is my bane," said Cleia, sitting in a chair. "But she is my own child and unless I bear a male heir - which is unlikely - I shall have need of her to make a decent marriage - since no woman may - legally - rule in this province. Useless thing, really, but until I can marry her off my hands, I must have the care of her, I suppose. Now about this Nadi nonsense...."

"It's not nonsense - and you know it," said Jaičl, still seething over the child. "Nadi' was - is - is my sister. She was stolen from her cradle and my mother searched by every and any means available at that time. Nadi' was never recovered, nor any trace of her ever found. Now, through my own means, I have tracked her to these mountain - to this very castle, in fact. And you Lady, are not of toh Randor."

"That much I must concede," sighed Cleia. "Now, how much will your silence cost me?"

Jaičl arose, trembling with anger. "I will not be silent in this," said the princess. "I am here to ask - nay, to plead - with you, as your sister, to return with us and allow our mother to see her lost daughter one last time. After that, we will give you an escort back here - or you may remain with us, in our own land with all the honour of Neptunis's daughter, your daughter raised as befits the grand-daughter of the queen."

"Live as befits Neptunis's forgotten daughter, you mean," said Cleia bitterly. "Neptunis's forsaken, left for dead daughter? I think not. As for the brat - well, no doubt that would be a burden lifted, but as I explained, I shall have need of her in a few years."

"Nadi'', please, for Mother's sake - " said Jaičl.

"Your mother, not mine!" screeched Cleia, leaping to her feet. "Your mother who abandoned to me to these gods-forsaken hills! Your mother who gave away my birthright and replaced me - with you. Your mother can rot in Tartarus for all I care! I have no mother!"

Jaičl looked at her companions. "Come on," she said. "I was wrong. We'll tell our people...I was wrong. My sister is dead. We will leave for home now - tonight."

"Um, one problem," said Xena. "The storm. We're not going anywhere."

"There is no need to leave," said Cleia, quietly. "These rooms have been prepared for you and I offer the hospitality of the castle - as is still my right - for as long as you have need."

Jaičl turned to the others. "Well?" she said. "Since it seems we have no choice, then I thank you. But we will leave as soon travel is possible."

"And Neptunis? What will tell her - of me?" said Cleia.

"I shall tell her nothing of this - only that I was wrong," said Jaičl. "I will not burden her with the pain of old memories - and lost hope."

Cleia nodded thoughtfully, then left, closing the door behind her.

"Well," said Xena. "That was quite the performance."

"What do you mean?" asked Gabrielle.

"That wasn't Nadi'," said Aradia.

"It - it wasn't?" said Gabrielle.

"It was," said Jaičl, quietly. "And it wasn't. It was her body, but Nadi' isn't in there - not anymore. I guess my sister is truly dead."

"I'm sorry, Jai'," said Aradia, hugging her little sister. "I know much you had hoped that...well, I just know how much you hoped."

"I'm sorry, too," said Gabrielle, tears forming in her green eyes. "I really thought...."

"Thank-you," said Jaičl, pain in her eyes. Abruptly, Xena arose, grabbing her cloak.

"I'm going out to check on Argo," she said. "You three stay here." She looked pointedly at Jaičl. "Gabrielle, keep your staff handy."

"W- Okay, Xena," sighed the Bard, as the warrior left the room.

Xena walked cautiously through the corridors to the stables, her eyes constantly moving. Something was very wrong here - she didn't trust Cleia toh Randor - and what was this talk about it was her body, but not her? Magic - Xena didn't believe in it - and if she did, she wouldn't trust it. Aradia seemed alright, but Jaičl - there was something about her...something Xena couldn't quite grasp. It frustrated her, and as a result, she was more harsh with the princess than she intended. After all, the girl had started this whole expedition to do something nice for her dying mother - sort of a last gift or something. It wasn't an ego thing for Jaičl - in fact, she was willing to take a backseat to this "lost sister" if she'd found her, give up the crown, go quietly in to the Temple...maybe that was it. Xena didn't understand why - there was no ego in the girl. Unlike Cleia toh Randor - who seemed all ego. And all nasty, as well.

Gabrielle had started a story, and as much as Jaičl really loved her stories, she couldn't seem to focus on the Bard's words, instead she stared out of the window at the falling snow. Suddenly, Jaičl gasped. She ran to the door.

"I'll be right back," she said, her face stricken.

"Wait - Xena said to stay here," cried Gabrielle, leaping up and dropping the scroll.

"I - I can't - I found - I just can't," said Jaičl as she ran out of the door.

"Great!" said Gabrielle, grabbing up her staff and starting after her.

"Wait," said Aradia, gently pulling the Bard back into the room. "Let her go - she'll be back. This is important - Jaičl despeartely wants Xena's approval - she wouldn't deliberately defy Xena unless she had a really good reason."

"Yeah but will Xena think it's a really good reason?" said Gabrielle, sitting back down.

"I don't know," said Aradia. "Jaičl often defies reason. I know her better than anyone else does, and even I don't always know the reasons for what she does - but they always turn out to be the right ones, so I've learned to just let her be. She'll be back."

Jaičl hurried down the corridors, deftly navigating the labyrinthine passages until she came to a door. Slowly, she pushed it open and saw the child who had been with Cleia earlier, sitting on a bench, tears silently streaming from her dark brown eyes. Jaičl knelt before the little girl, gathering her into her arms and crooning softly.

"It's alright," said the princess. "I'm here to take you home."

Xena returned to the rooms. It had been an uneventful trip to the stables, but an informative one. She came in to find Jaičl gone and cursed, until the door swung open and the princess appeared hand in hand with Cleia's daughter.

"We're taking her with us," announced the princess. Xena's eyebrow rose and her respect for the princess rose a notch as well.

"Of course," said the warrior, nodding in approval. "So where do we hide her while we're waiting for the storm to subside?"

"It's already stopped," said Jaičl, smiling at the little girl. "Hasn't it?" The child nodded, then looked shyly up at the warrior through thick black lashes.

"Do you have a name?" Xena asked gently. The child merely shook her head, sadly.

"You will," said Gabrielle, kindly. "As soon as we think of one. Do you have anything you like to be called?' Again the head shaking.

"Okay," sighed the warrior. "I found our way out of here, but it's going to be rough. Even though it's stopped snowing, it's still pretty deep out there. I know Argo can make it, but I'm not sure of the others..."

"They'll make it," said Jaičl, grimly. "It won't be easy, but they will."

"Okay - we take only what we need," said the warrior. Ariel jumped up into the little girl's arms and purred approvingly as the child rubbed her little face against the soft fur.

Quickly, the women gathered what they could and followed Xena through the a corridor. They made it to the stables and had begun to leave on horseback, when all of a sudden, there was Cleia, with a dozen of her guard, grinning at them.

"Leaving so soon? And I had hoped for another of our sisterly chats. Ah, I see you have my daughter - perhaps you were only taking a pleasure ride - an outing for the day. No? Then you are stealing my child," she said, wickedly. "What, Jaičl, you thought to bring her to our mother and tell her she is Nadi' - a child, like I was when Neptunis left me here in these hills to rot. Couldn't return empty-handed could you? Admit to our mother that you are a failure - a poor replacement for me. Just had to get that last little 'pat on the head', didn't you? How pathetic!"

"That's not true," said Jaičl, calmly.

"Really?" said Cleia, smiling, coldly. "Admit it - you've grown up in my shadow, haunted by the fact that the only reason Neptunis had you was because she lost me. You've been trying to win our mother's love - but you never have - because she all she wanted was me back."

"No," said Jaičl, quietly. "I don't believe that." Aradia looked at her sister and suddenly knew that Cleia had indeed tapped into all of Jaičl's hidden fears - just as she knew that Cleia's words were false. Jaičl was adored by her mother in her own right - and in her heart Jaičl knew that too. But Cleia's words were having their intended effect on the princess. Jaičl's resolve wavered. Then she heard a small sigh and looked over at the child, perched behind Xena on Argo, and she straightened her shoulders, strengthened.

"We're taking her back with us," she said. "You hurt her - and I won't allow that to happen - ever again."

"Very well," said Cleia, grinning slyly. "You may have her - on one condition. You defeat me in a duel. A duel of magics."

"And if I lose?" said Jaičl, as Aradia looked on in horror.

"No, Jai' - she can't be trusted," said Aradia.

"If I lose?" repeated the princess.

"Then your companions will escort me to Neptunis - and when she is dead, I will take my rightful place as queen - as I should have from the beginning. Make no mistake - this is a battle to the death," said Cleia, no longer smiling.

"Will you do it?" Jaičl asked Xena. "If I lose, will you make sure Cleia is safely taken to my mother?"

"I think the whole thing is a stupid idea," said Xena. "We're taking this kid and we're leaving - you think that puny guard can take me? Let's go, then." The warrior drew her sword. Cleia laughed and threw a bolt of lightning at the warrior. Argo stepped aside in time to evade it.

"So, you don't believe in magic, eh Warrior?" she said. "Maybe you will when this is over." Turning glinting black eyes upon the princess, Cleia spoke again. "A battle of magics - and power - yours against mine. If I win, I return to our homeland and rule after the old queen is dead."

"And if I win, we take this child unharmed and unimpeded back to my mother," said Jaičl.

"You seem to value the brat overmuch," sneered Cleia. "If you win, you may take her back with you - unharmed and unimpeded."

"Jai' - " began Aradia.

"Done," said Jaičl, not seeming to hear the warning in her sister's voice, as she dismounted from her horse. The snow was very deep. Jaičl hadn't realised just how deep until she landed up to her knees, stumbling in the cold whiteness. Her companions dismounted and Cleia's guard backed off a bit, except for the grey man, who stood behind her and took her cloak. Aradia, looking very worried leaned over and whispered to Xena and Gabrielle, "If Cleia wins, she will rule our people in the same ruthless and despotic way she has ruled the people of these mountains."

"We can't let that happen," said Gabrielle, looking up at Xena. Xena turned cool blue eyes from her best friend to Aradia.

"Would Jaičl have accepted this challenge if there was any chance she could lose?" asked the warrior. She read the answer in Aradia's grey-green eyes even before the other woman spoke.

"To rescue a child in trouble? Jaičl would accept this challenge if there was even a slight chance she'd win," she said.

Xena nodded, and turned to watch. The two combatants were but a few inches from each other now and both suddenly dropped to their knees, oblivious to the snow. Gabrielle stifled a cry of alarm, but Jaičl was beyond hearing now. After that, the silence was deafening. A few moments later, a humming began, low at first, but rising in volume and intensity. A flash, then a strange light enveloped the two magic-warriors, pale lavender about Jaičl, and muddy orangish around Cleia. Xena watched in dread fascination; here was the magic, here power. Gods, but what strength - what incredible, immense power - the very air was alive with it. They could even smell and taste it, the magic was so thick. Then the crackling tension broke. Two figures shot into the air above the arm-locked, entranced sorceresses. A silver and white unicorn reared up at an black demon with glowing orange eyes - a demon of indescribable ugliness, whose fangs dripped an ominous, milky substance. The black nightmare attacked first, uttering a sibilant hiss, but the Unicorn defended itself with an almost feline grace.

Xena gazed at the spectral warriors, flinching herself each time the demon's claws sank into the ethereal white flesh - that bothered the warrior - how could Cleia's demon be so solid-looking against the pale, translucent figure of Jaičl? Then suddenly, the Unicorn reared again, silver wings waving a sweetly-scented breeze over the spectators, and gored the monstrosity with her silver horn. She knocked the wounded creature out of the sky with her silver hooves and it came plummeting down into Cleia; she grinned evilly and rose in triumph as the Unicorn blinked out of the sky and Jaičl collapsed into the cold drifts.

"Neptunis' crown is mine - at long last!" cried Cleia, as she whirled around and stalked back to the castle, accompanied by the grey man and her guard. The little girl remained with Xena and Gabrielle, but approached the fallen princess. Slowly, unbelieving, Aradia too went to Jaičl. The child knelt, one tear frozen into a crystal on her cheek.

"I - I don't understand," said Gabrielle, a tremor in her voice. "Aradia, what happened?"

"I don't know," whispered Aradia, not trusting her own voice. "I thought she'd won - "

"Cleia doesn't fight fair," whispered the child.

"What?" said Xena. She had thought the child incapable of speech, either mute from birth or bullied into it. "Little One, what did you say?"

The child turned to Xena, who now knelt beside her over Jaičl. Xena could almost see - could indeed see the outline of a crescent shimmering between the child's large dark eyes - a sign which was ordinarily invisible to any but a gifted and Temple-trained sorceress - like Jaičl and Aradia. Those deep, black eyes were glazed with unspilled tears.

"The sky-warriors were to be but projections of their true selves - their essences or souls," said the little girl. "The princess's was beautiful and pure, noble and strong - like the Unicorn she appeared to be. And Cleia, the soulless one, but took her own true form. She does not fight fair, for how can a spirit-form do fair battle against a true-form? What is more, Cleia poisoned her fangs. The princess, rather than allow the poisoning of her soul, chose to surrender, so she might return to the Goddess unscathed and unspoiled."

"But Nadi' wasn't soulless," said Aradia. "And she certainly was no demon."

"And is not - for I am Nadi'," said the child. "Cleia stole the body of Neptunis'' daughter, but the soul cannot die. When Cleia lay with a man and conceived this body, I was there and claimed it. When I discovered my sisters were coming for me - and bringing the Warrior Princess and the Amazon Queen, oh, how I prayed! I thought that Xena would surely defeat the demon and then I could at last go home to my mother and sisters. I never expected Jaičl to stand up against her."

"Why would you think that Xena would fight her and not Jaičl?" asked Gabrielle. "Xena doesn't use magic - isn't that what you need to kill a demon?" The child turned her dark eyes upon the Bard.

"Xena does have a kind of magic to fight demons - because she fought and defeated the darkness in her own soul - and that is the hardest of all battles," said the girl. Then she sighed. "Even demons must obey certain laws. I should have known Cleia would find a way to break them."

***"You traitorous, lying little brat!" screeched Cleia, who now approached them quickly, striding into their midst. "How dare you! How dare you make up such lies about your own mother - and such filthy, horrible lies to these - these women?" She raised a fist to strike the girl, but was caught by Xena's swift hand, catching her wrist.

"You had better learn to control your temper and don't ever strike this child - or any other - in the presence of any of us - especially mine," said the warrior, teeth clenched tightly against the overwhelming desire to knock the woman across the field into a patch of trees. "I have very little tolerance for anyone who abuses those who are smaller or weaker - and most especially children."

Cleia smirked and lowered her arm. "Thanks for your oh so thoughtful advice," she sneered. "I shall try to keep it in mind." ***

"So," said Cleia. "I am the victor. You will honour the princess's obligation, I expect? Good. Then we leave immediately. And I shall arrive ... unscathed." She eyed Xena's

sword pointedly.

"You're forgetting something," said Gabrielle. "The snow - we can't travel very far through these mountains in this stuff."

"Oh, now I think Xena has a way to get through - after all, you were leaving when I intercepted you, weren't you?" said Cleia. "Come now, Xena, I know you had a plan"

"Nope," said Xena, her eyes boring into Cleia's. "I was just gonna get us as far as I could and hide out until the snow cleared."

"That was your plan?" laughed Cleia. "Oh, 'Great' Warrior Princess, how in earth did you ever lead an army?"

Xena merely glared at the woman, then turned slightly to see Aradia, lifting Jaičl out of the snow. The warrior's eyes softened in sympathy.

"She is to have a warrior's pyre - in our own land - before our people," said Aradia, her voice breaking.

Cleia shrugged. "It matters not at all to me what you do with her corpse," she said, then smirked nastily again. "Though I doubt anyone will care to attend the pyre of a coward."

Xena took one look at Aradia's stricken face and swiftly had her sword drawn and ready.

"I told you how I felt about bullies," she said, her voice low and dangerous.

Cleia laughed, merrily. "Oh, Xena, put that thing away," she said. "If you harm me, you jeopardise the honour of your precious princess. Besides, she did surrender to me - is that not cowardice? Had she continued, she would undoubtedly have defeated me. Of course, her soul would have been....less than perfect, but she would be alive, after all. But enough - I said to put that thing away - unless you intend to use it?" Cleia smiled her nasty smile while Xena stood her ground, sword still drawn. "Beware a counter-challenge - you stand to lose a great deal more than that one. She merely lost her life - you place your very soul in jeopardy - for that I claim as prize in answer to your challenge." Cleia licked her lips in anticipation as she watched to see what the warrior would do, her eyes glittering.

"And what would you know of souls, Demon? Except how to poison them," said Xena, grinning as she sheathed her sword. "You don't even have one."

"I told you the brat lied!" Cleia screeched. "It always lies - everything that comes out of its mouth is a lie; that's why it's forbidden to speak in my presence."

"And that is my challenge to you," said Xena. "Prove it. Prove that the child lies about you, and I myself shall escort you to Neptunis and place you on the high seat. Prove that Jaičl was a coward and that you are indeed Nadi' and I myself shall place the crown upon your head when the old queen crosses over and shall serve you with loyalty. If you cannot, then we will leave - with the child and Jaičl - unassaulted and unimpeded."

Cleia stood, rooted in place, her face darkening with rage and hatred.

"Noooo!" she screeched, and suddenly in her place was the orange and black demon. It rose up on its wings, but Xena had already re-drawn her sword with deathly speed. Gabrielle and Aradia gathered the little girl - whom they now knew to be Nadi' - close to them and watched the battle which ensued, admiration in their eyes for Xena. The Warrior Princess challenged a demon for the honour of one she did not know, but had come to respect in her own way - risking not only her life, but her soul - whose own redemption had been hard-won over many years and many battles with her own darkness.

Xena fought well and bravely, despite the sharp claws - and evaded the fangs which still dripped the milky poison, a poison which seemed to burn through her flesh where it touched. Xena seemed not to notice her wounds, but fought on. Aradia looked on in awe. Is it any wonder men tremble in terror and dread to face her on the field of battle? she thought. The very sight of the Warrior Princess meant death to any unfortunate enough to face her terrible sword or deadly chakram - and her prowess in battle did not fail her now. Aradia, not a warrior by any means, except in the healing tents, gazed in fascination as Nadi' sat, sifting snow through her little fingers.

Xena slashed at the thing and it lost a wing. Still it came hobbling back at her, Xena side-stepping and evading yet another swipe of the deadly claws, ducking a lunge from the poisonous fangs - for although she fought in her physical form, still the poison would do it's work if the fangs were to pierce her flesh. Thick, black blood oozed from the demons many wounds, steaming in the snow. Once again, it leaped crookedly at the warrior - only to lose it's head; but still it continued to attack until at last, Xena put her gleaming sword through its dark heart, killing it, its body shrivelling and curling up into itself, leaving only a dry husk-like thing behind.

The warrior cleaned her sword of the poison and blood in the pure white snow, then went to Gabrielle's side. Aradia quickly cleaned her wounds with the snow, chanting in a language neither the warrior nor the Bard knew, but the wounds began to close of their own accord. Xena looked at Jaičl, then knelt beside the still princess.

"I know you can hear me - wherever you are. The dead hear the thoughts of the living. You are avenged - your people are safe - and I'll take your sisters home to your mother - as I promised. You should have just let me handle her," the warrior whispered, brushing away the snowflakes which now fell on Jaičl's pale face. "You didn't have to die."

"She didn't," said Nadi', approaching, carrying Ariel. She set the cat down. "Go and get your mistress." Ariel ran off into the trees. "Jaičl intended this. Her familiar told me - It was predestined that Jaičl - not I - should rule our people after our mother. I was Temple-born - twice, now. Her familiar will go and bring her back to us."

As soon as the child finished uttering the words, the cat returned, carrying something which none of the women could quite discern in her mouth. She jumped upon the Princess and dropped whatever it was on her chest, then jumped down and twined about Nadi's legs until the child picked her up again. Suddenly there was a crash of thunder and lightning rent the sky like skeletal fingers ripping through cloth. The Unicorn flew through the portal it created, rearing and beating its silver wings, the sweetly scented breeze created by those wings blew away the dry husk that had been the demon, Cleia. Then it was gone and Jaičl's eyes fluttered opened. The princess smiled and sat up, holding out her arms to Nadi'. The child helped Jaičl to her feet, allowing herself to be enfolded in a tight hug.

"Come on," said Jaičl. "Our mother has waited a long time to see you again."

"This really is touching," said Xena, dryly, arms folded across her chest. "But we still have the problem of the snow - no way we can get through these mountains in this stuff. We're not going to be going anywhere for a while."

In answer, Nadi' turned and smiled at Xena, showing a charming gap where she'd lost two teeth - once again a sweet six-year old child - only the falling snow turned to a warm rain and the blowing wind turned warm, too - swiftly melting the drifts of whiteness. It was then the warrior realised that the magic was not only real, it was still with them - and Jaičl saw that springtime in these mountains was very lovely indeed.

The End

L. M. Townsend's Scrolls
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