The stillness along the countryside sent an eerie chill through the crew. For nearly two days they had journeyed along the coast of Japa, looking for any signs of life. The ports that were thriving only a year ago, were now silent and empty. The only sounds that echoed off of the mountains were those of the carrion birds.
Zara heard the soft whispers of her crew as they rounded the bend. "Allah, preserve us!" Their voices were barely audible as the city of Higuchi came into view. The tall captain ignored their words as she moved closer to the railing. Without glancing at her second in command, she reached out and was immediately handed the optic lens. Holding it to her eye, she focused the view and began to inspect the site before her.
The once populous village now laid in ruin. Although there were no signs of a fire, the odor of smoldering ashes and burnt flesh still lingered in the air. Zara crinkled her nose up as the scent combined with the smell of human decay. Focusing in on the village, the captain noticed slight movements near the ashes of the buildings. Like walking dead, the people on the shore stared at the ground, occasionally picking up an item, then discarding it, as they climbed over the rubble.
In silence, the Moroccan captain moved the optical glass over the scene as she noticed an unusual sight. Standing near the shore was a woman who did not belong in Japa. Deep in thought over this new discovery, Zara lowered the glass and handed it to her second in command. In silence, she moved away from the railing as her mind raced over the situation.
'This is not going to be a good trading journey,' she thought as she unconsciously rubbed her chin with her fingers, a habit that she, like her brothers, had picked up and emulated from their father. Whenever a stressful situation arose, her father would contemplate the incident in silence. The thoughtful motions of stroking his beard enhanced his calm demeanor. Although she did not have a beard, Zara found the habit to be relaxing and that is what she needed in order to think through this new discovery. Calmness in the face of the unknown had always pulled her through, she thought as she looked at the shore.
She turned to glance at her senior crewmen. One by one, they took the cylinder lens and viewed the scene. Abu, her second, maintained a stoic expression. No one on board would be able to detect his apprehension, except Zara. Having known him for so long, she could tell his fears by looking into his eyes. For a moment, they passed their silent communication to each other before returning their attention to the shore.
The junior members of her crew gazed at the shore as their hushed words failed to mask their fears. The men were clustered on the deck, huddling close as they stared off toward the distant shore. Filled with superstitions and tales of the unknown, they each softly muttered tales of phantoms and demons amongst themselves.
"This place is cursed!"
"Why is a white ghost here in Japa?!"
"It is an ill omen!" Their voices rose from a whisper to a low rumble and many made the signs warding off evil.
Abruptly the hubbub was silenced as the tall woman spoke. "Abu, ready a boat," she ordered as she moved to her cabin. Zara did not have to look back. She knew her orders were being followed even before her sentence was finished. Despite the crew's superstitious mutterings, she knew that Abu would have everything ready.
Zara entered her cabin and unconsciously removed the ship's scrolls from their cabinet and placed them in an area where they would be easily found in the event that she did not return to the ship. At this thought, she went to the large cabinet and opened the heavy door. She removed her scimitar and belt and began to fasten it around her waist, then removed the various weapons she thought might be needed. When she was well armed, she grabbed her heavy cloak and wrapped it over her shoulders. As the weight of the fabric clung to her shoulders, she fastened the top loops, while her mind wandered over the multitude of possibilities.
Unlike her crew, she was accustomed to wearing clothes from many regions. For today, as she did not know what she was walking into, a heavy, durable cloak might protect her from any enemies, she determined as she buried away any superstitious thoughts to the back of her mind. She decided that no amount of weaponry could protect her from the ghosts they spoke of. Then she touched the plain leather wrapped hilt of the scimitar as a wry humor quirked her lips and she softly whispered, "But I am not about to leave it behind, either."
When she was ready, Zara moved in quick strides, her footfalls falling heavy upon the wooden planks of the deck. She never spared a moment to look back in her cabin. If the fears of the men were correct, her belongings would not matter, nothing would, except the survival of her ship and its crew. As she moved to the boat, she noticed Abu's handpicked men. Each of them was the strongest and bravest of fighters that her country had ever produced. With an approving nod, she glanced at Abu. When she saw him moving to climb down to the waiting boat, she raised her hand.
"You cannot go, my friend," her voice was a soft order.
"My captain!" He began to protest. With a slight smile she put a hand on his muscular shoulder and shook her head negatively. "No, my friend. You must remain here. If for some reason we don't return?" she hesitated a moment as she tried to word her order. Abu nodded understanding as he maintained a stoic expression.
"Understood," he said as his brows furrowed in concern. "What?" he hesitated for a moment, then continued, "What will I tell your father?"
Zara smiled as she tilted her head in thought. Looking into his dark eyes, she only said, "Tell my father that I am with Allah, should I not return." She answered with a confident smile. Looking deeply into her eyes, he could see her own masked fears, yet chose not to comment. Instead, he nodded, and then turned and barked orders to the men remaining on ship.
"Can I come?" An impish voice sounded over the men's. Glancing down, Zara smiled as she watched the cabin girl push her way through the throng of men. "I want to go! Please!" The little girl begged as she tried to make a beeline toward the waiting boat. Quicker than the child, Zara reached out and grabbed a hold of the little one's shirt.
"Now, hold on, Nadrah." Despite her worries, Zara was barely able to keep her laughter in check. "You cannot go with us."
"Why not?" the little girl's voice asked as her eyes pleaded her case. Glancing at Abu, Zara caught his smile before he turned away from them. In an attempt to maintain a stoic expression, the captain gazed down sternly at the child.
"Because, Nadrah," Zara began to explain, then as an afterthought, she knelt down to eye level with the child, as she softened her tone of voice, "I need you to stay here with Abu and the men. Who else will be able to help them but you! You know my habits, my routines, you can help Abu return home safely should anything happen to me." She tried to reason with the little one. At her words, the small dark eyes began to mist. With a gentle smile, Zara patted the child's head. "But we will return, do not worry little one, we will all return! But still, you cannot go with us, Captain's orders." Zara's voice changed to one of authority as she rose to her full height. At her words, the child stood tall and she nodded acceptance.
"Allah be with you!" the little voice tried in vain to conceal her sorrow as she stood beside Abu. In unison, the crew echoed the child's words as Zara glanced at her crew solemnly. With a confident nod, Zara turned from the crew and climbed down the rope ladder to the waiting boat below, then took her place at the head of the boat.
In silence, the men rowed their way over the crashing waves. As if in a trance, they maintained their silence as the distant shores grew close. Zara took a moment to look back at the ship and saw a tiny figure waving at them. With an inward smile, Zara returned her gaze to the upcoming shores.
As the waves rolled over the boat, she felt the familiar thud of the sandy embankment. In unison, the men lifted their oars and placed them in the boat before jumping into the icy cold water. As they heaved the boat to shore, Zara jumped into the shallow water. She held back her shivering at the chilling ripples and moved swiftly to the dry shore. The sand crunched below her feet as the scent of ashes wafted toward her. Without looking behind her, she felt her men protectively moving to surround her. Alert to threats that might appear, they gazed at the nearby trees as they walked to the place where the dock had once stood. From the corner of her eye she saw the white woman on the shore move toward them.
Zara glanced around the scene. She saw the people moving in the distance but could not hear any sounds except that of the waves hitting the shores. The stench of death wafted in the air and hung over the once vibrant town. As the hairs on the back of her neck rose, she looked away and glanced up at a distant mountain that had been charred on the eastern side.
"Hello," the woman's voice cut through her silent thoughts. The tall Moroccan felt her men circle her protectively as they shielded her from this woman. Although the men did not understand the stranger's dialect, Zara was able to understand that the woman was speaking in Greek.
As Zara's mind raced over a myriad of possibilities with regard to the town folks, she looked down at the smaller woman. She noticed the travel worn boots, dirt stained pants and wrinkled tunic under a lightweight coat. With a satchel on her back and carrying a tightly wrapped bundle, the woman stood with arms outstretched as she attempted to show the men that she meant no harm. At the sight of the various weapons on the smaller woman's body, the captain's eyes returned to her face.
Hardly older than herself, the Greek woman appeared to have much experience for her years. Yet, Zara noticed the dark circles enhancing the sadness that seemed harbored in the green pools of her eyes. Her hair, the color of the morning sun, was disheveled and covered with a fine dust of dirt and ash. In a matter of moments, the ships captain had assessed the woman's condition before returning her attention back to the city dwellers.
"P-Please," the soft voice pleaded, "You are the first ship to come to shore. No other ship will come close. Please, I've traveled a great distance ? I ? need a ride? passage home, " the woman's voice was soft and pleading. "I-I have money, I can pay!" she added as she reached under her coat.
At her sudden move and not understanding her words, Zara's men drew their weapons, as their ranks grew tighter. Seeing the danger she was in, the golden haired woman moved slowly as she removed a small satchel. "I can pay," was all she said as she held out the bag, glancing at the men cautiously.
Zara gave an assenting nod to one of her crewman when he looked to her for instructions. He carefully reached out and took the bag from the woman. With eyes on her, he shook the bag, and then warily opened it. Turning slightly, he poured the coins into his palm to show his captain.
"I can pay for passage," the woman's voice was calm as she made eye contact with Zara. "I can pay ? passage, to Potidaea do you know where Potidaea is? Greece? Amphipolis?" She asked. Then, in an attempt to cross the language barrier, she pointed to their ship, then to herself.
"Take me, please!" her request was a whispered plea.
Zara's men did not understand this woman's words, yet at her request, a few inhaled deeply. The tall woman could almost sense their instant fears as they each contemplated what the rest of the crew had been muttering on deck. Even though she looked real, to them, they would always wonder if this stranger was a cursed ghost.
The captain knew that she should have turned away. She should have taken her ship and sailed as far away from this place as possible, leaving this woman behind. Instead, she looked back up at the fallen village. She could feel the coolness of the ocean breeze brushing through her long hair. That feeling of uneasiness never left her as she assessed the situation and thought over her options. If she had any inclination of leaving this woman behind, it disappeared the moment that she looked down and gazed into the woman's sad, green eyes.
This woman, for whatever reason, was in the middle of trouble. Zara could tell from her expression that something very bad had happened to her. It was because of this that the Moroccan captain gave an assenting nod to her men. Then, without saying a word to them or the woman, she turned and walked back to the boat. Zara was not certain if ghosts existed, nor was she all together certain that they did not. Her mind concluded that they did not exist, but the hairs that stood on the back of her neck convinced her that there was a supernatural force at work in Higuchi. Understanding this, she decided that further investigation of the destroyed village would not be wise.
In silence she went to the boat and waited as her men readied their oars. Without a single word, the smaller woman managed to find a space for herself and her belongings near the bow. Uncomfortable by her presence, the crewmen with the oars stayed as far away from the white woman as they could in the cramped space. Zara asked no questions, nor made any mention that she understood the woman's dialect. Instead, she planned on observing this woman in hopes of uncovering the mystery of Japa.
When the boat was brought along side the ship, Zara climbed the rope ladder, and walked toward her cabin. Abu stood waiting by the cabin entrance. At his silent question, the captain nodded as she looked back down at their new guest who had clambered aboard after her.
As the silent crew began raising the boat up the side, the captain gave the expected order. "Set sails, Abu, we're going home."
"I anticipated that, we will clear the cove soon," he responded.
As she cast her glance over her crew, she noticed their reaction towards the stranger. When they saw her, they moved back, afraid that she was somehow evil. Some muttered under their voices, some gave the sign to protect them from the evil eye, and others simply stated what was on everyone's mind.
"She is a curse!" the whispered accusations flew over the deck.
Abu waited patiently as he glanced at their unexpected visitor. "This may cause problems," he stated quietly as he looked from the woman, to the crew, then turned to his captain.
"We will drop her off at the nearest working port. There will be no problems," Zara's firm voice bespoke her resolve as she took the pouch from one of her men. "Have Mansur clear the secondary cabin for our ? guest," she ordered as she made her way to her cabin.
Zara ignored her men as she moved up the cabin steps. From behind her, the woman called out, "Hey!" Surprised by such a forceful cry, the Moroccan captain turned, tilted her head, and looked down at the smaller woman.
"Do you have a name?" the guest asked, "Name? My name is Gabrielle," she said as she pointed to herself. "Gab-ri-elle." She slowly reiterated.
Zara nodded and slightly bowed her head.
"Azzah al-Zarqa' al-Agadir bint Majnun ibn Sayyar al-Hallaj abd Allah," Zara introduced herself with a tilt of her head, as she pointed her own hand to herself. Inwardly, she was pleased by the surprised expression on the woman's face. Without saying another word, Zara turned and made her way into her cabin.
Gabrielle knew that this was going to be a long trip. Ever since arriving on the ship, she could sense the hostile atmosphere around her. As if she were carrying the plague, the crew kept their distance as they muttered under their breath. Now, after attempting an introduction with the ship's captain, she was certain that the ride to ? to wherever they were going, was going to be long.
Steeling herself for the long voyage, she deeply sighed as she looked around the ship. Averting their eyes, the crewmen worked briskly to set the sails. She could tell by the low murmurs of their voices that they were in just as much of a hurry to leave Japa as she was.
From the safety of the shadows, two small dark eyes peered at the ones that everyone were calling a curse. Although she had never seen anyone as white as these two women, she found it hard to believe that they were curses. Zara would never have allowed curses to board the ship, her child's mind decided as she watched them moving over the deck. The little child found her curiosity peeked and was anxious to get to know the woman with hair the color of the sun and the taller, leather clad woman with dark hair. Nadrah was certain that if the rest of the crew only got to know these two strangers, that maybe they would stop calling them curses. At the sound of the cabin's door opening, Nadrah ducked into the darkness.
Gabrielle was not aware of the pair of eyes examining her from the shadows. At the sound of the cabin door's opening, she turned and watched the tall, burly man leave the captain's cabin. Although she wasn't certain if anyone on this ship spoke her language, she hoped that she could pick up their language quickly and be able to communicate.
When the tall bearded man walked past her, she reached out and lightly touched his arm. At her tap, he turned and gazed down at her, his face a stern mask.
"Excuse me," she smiled as she tried to keep her voice soft and unchallenging. "I guess it's best to introduce myself, my name is Gabrielle," she offered as she pointed to herself.
The taller man simply looked down at her in silence. His bearded face turned into a frown. She could tell that he was assessing her, as his eyes narrowed. As if assured that she meant no harm, he absently nodded as he slightly tilted his head in an attempt to understand her words.
"Ga-bri-elle," she offered again while pointing at herself. The man nodded understanding as he pointed to himself.
"Abu Abdullah Muhammad Shams ad-Din ibn Battuta" his baritone voice rang out.
Gabrielle felt even more alone. For the first time she realized that she would be traveling for a very long distance without anyone to talk with, except Xena. At this bleak thought, she forced herself to smile and nodded understanding to the man. Satisfied that she was finished with him, he turned and left her standing on the deck as he began to bark out orders in a language she did not know.
"A very long trip indeed," she sighed. As she peered around the deck, two brown eyes ducked even further down, never once being seen by Gabrielle.
The two women stood on the deck, watching everyone around them. Mindful of the situation, Gabrielle remained silent as she assessed her surroundings. She noted the crewmen's style of dress and heard their murmured voices in a language so different from her own.
"They're from the Kingdom of Morocco," Xena explained as she examined the ship's design and listened to the dialect of the crewmen.
With only a low "ahuh," Gabrielle moved to one side of the deck as some men were pulling the ropes of the sails. Through the bustling noise, she heard the sound of a bird of prey. Looking up, she watched as it flew over the distant treetops. She had been waiting with Xena at the burned city of Higuchi for days and feared that no ship would have the courage to come to the shore and the bard had almost lost hope of ever returning home.
"Look Gabrielle!" Xena's voice pulled Gabrielle from her thoughts. Turning to her ghost lover, she saw Xena smiling and pointing into the shadows of the deck. The blonde looked to where her soulmate indicated and saw the little figure of a child. With waist length dark hair and equally dark eyes, the little one popped her head out from behind some crates and glanced their way.
"Look at the child!" Xena exclaimed as she pointed to the little figure who came out slowly from her hiding place. "Isn't she so cute?" she exclaimed, motioning toward the little girl. Xena's enthusiasm was contagious; Gabrielle couldn't help but smile at the little impish figure. Waving to the girl, the Greek traveler moved toward the child. Not wanting to frighten her, Xena stayed in her place and smiled. It was then that Gabrielle noticed the child's eyes moving from her, to Xena.
As if reading her mind, Xena exclaimed, "Gabrielle, she can see me!" Her voice was filled with an excitement that the storyteller had never heard her partner use since she had died some weeks before.
"Hello, little one," Xena calmed her voice as she waved to the child.
The little girl looked from Gabrielle to Xena. A smile was forming on the pixie face as she came out slowly from her hiding place. She looked as if she were about to speak, but at shouts from the crewmen she glanced up at the men moving toward her pulling large ropes. Like a rabbit suddenly caught outside its burrow, the little one turned and bounded up the steps. At the top of the steps, she looked back down. The child's eyes moved to each of the strangers before a smile broke free. Quickly, she turned and disappeared into the door that the captain had disappeared behind.
"Did you see that Gabrielle?" Xena asked in awe.
"Yes! She can see you too!" Gabrielle exclaimed as her mind pondered this new information. Throughout the journey, she had assumed that only she could see Xena. She believed it was their bond that enabled her to see the ghost. During her travels throughout Japa, no one had ever given any indication that they could see her lover. Now on this ship, the first person aside from her who could see the Warrior Princess, was a little child. As the two contemplated this news, they moved aside attempting to stay out of the way of the working crew.
Once the tall captain had stated her name for the stranger, Zara immediately returned to the comfort of her cabin. If circumstances had been different, she might have had a good laugh with Abu over their guest's situation. They would have sat down to compare the expression on the woman's face and laugh at her confusion. Had it not been for the gutted village where they picked her up, they could have had a good chuckle at the Greek woman's expense. But there was nothing to laugh about. Whatever had happened at Higuchi was evil, and Zara knew she had to record all that she had seen of the area. If her recount of the events could keep other ships from traveling this far for nothing, then she had to do everything in her power to record as much information as possible.
"You will have the extra cabin prepared for our guest?" she absently asked her trusted friend.
"It will take some time, Captain," Abu hesitated. "We've been using it for storage."
Zara began removing her weapons. One by one she returned them to their rightful place within the cabinet. Her mind raced with many thoughts, but her body moved with slow, deliberate ease. "I am sure she can wait," Zara's voice carried a hint of fatigue as she closed the weapon's cabinet, then moved to her parchments. She took out a clean sheet and sat behind her desk. Abu could tell their conversation was at an end. With only a nod, he made his way from her cabin. As an afterthought, she called out to her loyal friend. "Abu," she halted his retreating form.
"Have Ayyub warm some water for a bath for our guest," she ordered absently, keeping her attention to the scrolls as she proceeded to jot down her thoughts of the day's events with a feathered plume.
"There is no room in the guest cabin. Surely you don't want the tub placed on deck!" Abu asked. After a moment's consideration, Zara waved toward the open floor of her cabin. "Set it there," her voice held a slight irritation as she continued to jot her already forming thoughts on the parchment.
"As you wish, Captain," he stated before exiting her cabin. As he was leaving, a small typhoon bounded inside.
"Zara, is it true? Are they cursed?" a child's voice questioned as she ran into the cabin and plopped herself down onto the pillows of the bed. Zara made a slight guttural sound in answer to the child even though she wasn't listening to the girl's words. The captain's entire attention was focused on the words that she was scribing on the parchment.
"They've come from far away, haven't they?" the little girl asked. Nadrah watched with wide eyes as the ships cook, Ayyub, and his helper brought in the buckets of hot water, removed the wooden tub from storage, and began to pour the steaming liquid into the tub.
"Zara, it's not bath time, is it?" Nadrah's words were so mournful, that Zara looked up from her writing. When she noticed the slender cook pouring hot buckets of water into the tub, Zara smiled and shook her head.
"No, child, it's not bath time for you. It's for our guest," she assured as she returned to scribing on the parchment.
"Good, because I took one just last week!" the little girl exclaimed as she moved to the open portal. She stood on the tips of her toes and gazed out of the small window.
"Zara, why were they in Japa?" Nadrah asked, interrupting the captain's thoughts again, "What happened to the village? Where did the people go? Are they really ghosts? Are the white women ghosts, too?" The girls rapid fire questions rang out.
"What?" Zara absently asked as she turned to look at the child. Before the little girl could answer, the two men finished their last deposits of water, then signaled their captain.
"Nadrah, please go get our guest. Bring her in here so that she can wash off from her journey," she instructed as she looked back down at her parchment and continued her journal.
"Which one?" the child asked softly, looking up at Zara and waited for instructions.
"What?" Zara only half heard the child.
"Which one!" The impish voice asked.
"What do you mean, which one?" Zara had never understood the thought patterns of the youngster. As if she lived in a world all her own, the child spoke of things which adults could not comprehend.
"Which one, Zara?" Nadrah whined.
"The one that came on board ? with hair the color of the sun," Zara shook her head in disbelief. Smiling, she reached out and ruffled the top of the child's dark hair. "Now go, bring our guest."
"Well why didn't you just say that," Nadrah sighed as she turned to leave the room. Muttering under her breath, the little girl made her way down the steps and to their guest. With only a shake of her head, Zara returned her thoughts to the incomplete scroll before her.
Gabrielle had been standing in the middle of the controlled chaos. She noticed the men moving quickly to get them out of the cove. Although they knew she was on deck, they avoided her eyes. Those not whispering under their breath remained silent as they continued to work. Before she realized that another person had joined her, Gabrielle felt a small hand enter hers.
The little girl who came up to the level of Gabrielle's waist smiled as she gazed up at her. She couldn't help but notice the girl's dimples through the big smile. This was the first welcome that the Greek woman felt from the ship. As the child spoke a foreign language, Gabrielle shook her head.
"I think she wants you to follow her," Xena suggested as she looked down at the little one. At Xena's words, the little girl smiled up at the Warrior Princess, then tugged on Gabrielle's hand.
"All right, I'll follow," she answered, shrugging her shoulders at Xena and allowing the little child to lead her up the stairs. Gabrielle followed the girl and entered the darken room. As her eyes became adjusted to the darkness, she took in the whole scene. She noticed the captain sitting behind a large desk with her head bent, a single candle on the desk provided the only light in the cabin. The blonde noticed the plumed feather and glass filled with pigment that the captain used to write in some unknown script on a scroll. Along one side of the wall stood a large wooden cabinet. In the farthest corner sat a wooden bed covered with colorful pillows. In the corner was a smaller bed that held a rag doll. As the child pulled her deeper into the room, Gabrielle noticed that the open center of the cabin was taken up by a deep wooden tub of steaming water.
The little girl's words were slow and controlled, as she seemed to be giving Gabrielle instructions. Unable to understand, the storyteller looked to the captain, then to Xena. With an insistent voice, the little girl said something, and pointed to the large tub. As realization occurred, Gabrielle turned once more to the captain. She felt her cheeks grow warm when the request settled into her brain.
"Looks like she thought of everything," Xena mused as she looked around the room. "Hmmm, maybe the captain has something else in mind for you," Xena stated with a bit of a chuckle. At her insinuation, Gabrielle shook her head negatively. Before she could answer, she felt the little hands move to her clothing. In an attempt to find the fastenings, the girl's little hands moved over Gabrielle's waistband.
"Oh ? no, I'm all right," Gabrielle began to protest to the child. She managed to catch the girl's hands before she started unfastening her waistband. With a pleading look, Gabrielle glanced up at Xena for help. With only a smile and a shrug of her shoulders, Xena turned away, chuckling. The blonde warrior shook her head negatively, then she glanced from the tub to the figure at the desk.
"I can do without such public displays," she said knowing that her words were lost to the child's understanding.
For a moment, the captain's plume stood still, then, as she gave instructions to the child, the woman resumed writing on the scroll. At her orders, the little one turned her attention away from Gabrielle and moved to a darkened corner of the room. With only slight huffing sounds, she began to pull something twice her size from the dark corner. The little girl smiled as she expertly placed the Japa screen between the tub and the captain's desk. Pleased by her skill, the child smiled up at Gabrielle before moving to light some nearby lantern candles.
Zara had not been listening to the whole exchange. As she frantically wrote down all of her observations of Higuchi, Nadrah's voice droned in the back of her mind. It wasn't until she heard the woman's protest that the captain allowed her attention to waver. Once the matter of modesty was addressed, she returned to her journal, assured that Nadrah would set the screen up properly.
"Zara, is she an idiot?" Nadrah asked from behind the Japa screen. The captain heard the slight noises that the child made as she lighted some lanterns in the room. Zara couldn't help but smile as she added the finishing touches to her entry.
"She speaks a different language than us, that is all," she explained as she heard the sounds of the woman undressing. Satisfied that her account was complete, Zara dipped her plume into the pigment and finished her entry in her customary manner.
Azzah al-Zarqa al-Agadir bint Majnun ibn Sayyar al-Hallaj abd Allah
She signed it with a flare of the plume.
When Zara heard the sound of belts and weapons being deposited on the floor, she removed some dust from her desk container and sprinkled it over the parchment. As the pigment dried, she leaned back in her chair. Absently she stroked her chin while her mind tried to decipher the day's events. On the edge of her awareness, she heard the sound of splashing as the woman entered the tub.
Zara did not allow her thoughts to wander to ideas of this woman. Although it had been a very long time she had been with someone, she could not allow herself the luxury of entertaining ideas of this kind. Until she understood the full story of Higuchi, she could not allow herself to relax around this stranger, she thought as she saw the shadow of the sweetly curved body outlined against the rice paper screen.
As Zara's gaze held on the image of Gabrielle's shadow, she felt the strange sensations that she experienced on the shores of Higuchi. A sudden chill like an unseen breeze crossed her skin as the hairs rose on the back of her neck. Suddenly turning in her chair, she glanced behind her, searching the corner of the room. When nothing was seen, she sighed, chided herself, and then leaned back in her chair as she returned to her contemplation.
Nadrah was trying to speak to the woman with golden hair, until she realized that she did not understand her. Then the girl started to hum while watching the woman bathe. After a moment, the soft voice of the woman began to coax a fundamental dialogue out of the girl. She began to encourage Nadrah, and, like a mother teaching a babe to speak, Nadrah began to say the words of the items that were around them.
Zara knew that she would not learn anything about her guest that night, so she stood and stretched. As she listened to the mutterings of the two behind her, she gazed through the window down at her crew. When she felt her mind wander to more pleasant thoughts, a sudden chill surrounded her. She stiffened with the sensation that someone was standing at her shoulder. Poised to attack, she turned quickly only to find that no one was there.
'It was only my imagination,' Zara silently thought as she tried to relax.
Nadrah was still behind the Japa curtain talking in short words with the woman who was still in the middle of her bath. As the chill remained, Zara tilted her head, trying to understand the cause of her sensations. For a moment, she began to wonder if the men were right, that whatever ghosts who had inhabited Higuchi had made their way onto her ship. As quickly as this thought struck, she shook it away as nonsense. Before contemplating it any further, she turned and left the chilling cold behind her. Ordinarily Zara's fears did not govern her, but she assumed that her fatigue was catching up to her. Without giving it another thought, she made her way back on deck. The fresh breeze on her skin blew away any residual fears she might have had in her cabin, and she felt herself begin to relax.
"Abu," she acknowledged her friend as she watched the shores of Japa slowly disappearing.
"Her cabin is ready, as you requested," Abu said absently as he tried to mask his curiosity over the woman.
"Good?" her voice held a calmness that she did not feel. As the chill stayed away, she felt herself relaxing. She knew that she could not mention such feelings to Abu ? not yet anyway.
Standing on the deck, the two watched the mountains of Japa decreasing in the sunset. Zara had never thought that she would be so glad to leave. Although the sea called to her, she did enjoy her short visits on land. The atmosphere of the new countries and the different people were always entertaining for her. Now Zara knew that nothing in Japa would ever be the same. The trading routes to and contacts in Higuchi, which her great grandfather had established, could not continue since the city was no more.
Abu watched the distant shores in silence. He and the captain were comfortable enough with each other that words were not necessary. As if they were kin, they always seemed to know what the other thought. Like any well-trained senior crewman, Abu was always quick in anticipating Zara's orders. Without flinching, Abu would have gone through the caverns of hell for her, the captain thought as they watched Nadrah exiting the cabin with the newcomer in tow.
"Where are they going to stay?" the little girl called up to them. Zara did not answer the child. Instead she cast a momentary glance at the passenger. She noticed the way the blonde's damp hair hung loose and her cheeks, once covered with a film of dirt, held a rosy tinge from the warm bath. Although there was a profound sadness deep within the woman's eyes, the Moroccan woman couldn't help but notice how they sparkled in the rays of the setting sun. Even the dark circles under her eyes did not detract from her pale beauty. Within that split second, Zara was able to see how truly beautiful the woman was. With superior control, she maintained her stoic expression as she turned her gaze to her crewmen who were manning the sails.
"The spare cabin, Nadrah," Abu instructed in a firm voice. As he watched her leaving, Abu seemed confused. "Have you noticed something unusual about Nadrah?" he asked.
"Everything about Nadrah is unusual, Abu!" Zara smiled as she shook her head. With a soft, gentle laugh Abu nodded his head in agreement, then turned to sit on the railing.
"Captain?" his voice was low and controlled, then grew even softer, "Zara?"
She knew his questions, but had no answers for him. With an open sigh, she closed her eyes to the onslaught of images within her mind. She willed herself to forget the stench of the charred village. When that failed, she opened her eyes and gazed at her friend.
"It was that bad?" his questions were answered.
"What is bad is that I do not know what happened there, my friend," she said with a sigh. "Only she may know," she added as they watched the newcomer reemerging from the lower deck alone.
The white woman looked cautiously around the deck, and then walked to the railing. Zara watched her with a critical eye. She could detect the deep sorrow that poured from the woman's soul. Like Zara and Abu, she looked out over the ocean to the distant shape of land. Holding something within her hands, her lips began to move like she was talking to someone. The golden haired woman turned slightly, tilting her head as if gazing at a taller figure that was standing next to her. Smiling, she returned her gaze to the silhouette of Japa.
Zara glanced at Abu as a brow rose in a question. Just as confused as she was, Abu shrugged his shoulders as his expression returned to the sight of their new guest. Zara crossed her arms as her mind raced with this new information. As she watched the woman closely, the captain lightly scratched her chin with the tip of her finger.
'This woman will bear close scrutiny,' she thought to herself as the sun began to set on the distant land of Japa.
The darkness surrounded her every sense. Within her mind she knew that it was an illusion, a dream that she wanted desperately to escape, yet a dream that would never free her of its suffocating grip. She looked up into the single patch of light and saw him standing there. The evil smile crossed his features. His satisfaction that he had finally won, finally beaten, and then dominated her - controlled her entire existence. As the features of his face became clear, she felt herself being pulled away from the darkness.
In an instant she was suddenly surrounded in whiteness. The dreamer glanced around, blinked away the brightness as she took in her surroundings. As the tears moistened her eyes, she saw the distant figure. She could see the familiar woman, the one she was meant to spend the rest of her life with, standing within reach. Her soulmate's long, dark hair flowed in an unseen breeze. Her lover reached out, beckoned the dreamer closer. The familiar lips that always parted for a kiss, or spoke gentle words, now beckoned her to follow, to come near, to join her. The dreamer knew that only in this woman's arms would she find her salvation. She felt herself running toward her spirit twin, falling over the obstacles that suddenly appeared in her path. In the darkness of her dreams she felt trapped in a thicket of mud and bushes that suddenly appeared. As she fought against the obstacles that kept her from her life mate, she glanced up and watched as the woman began to fade, disappearing from sight. She felt her lungs burn as she cried out for this loss. The tears of her struggle rose from deep within her soul, the failure seared through her heart as the cackling sounds of his laughter echoed from all corners of her mind.
Falling to her knees, she held onto herself, struggling for a grip on reality. Then the light turned suddenly dark and she felt the fear of it starting all over again. She would have to see it, witness the deed, and live all of it again. The day that she lost her love, the day her soulmate was forever ripped from her life, would always replay in her darkest dreams. As she felt her heart racing, she pulled against the grip of the nightmare. The dreamer fought to regain her senses, to reach out of the darkness to her salvation. In what seemed like an eternity, she felt herself spiraling out of control. She felt her body suddenly convulse as the cold hardness slammed her into consciousness?
With a stifled scream she bolted upright in her bed. For only a matter of seconds she looked around in confusion until she was able to remember where she was. As her eyes became adjusted to the darkness, her breathing returned to normal. Gulping down the memories of her dreams, she rose and pushed aside the covers of her bed. The cold deck woke her fully. She moved to the nearby stand and poured fresh water into the bowl. She felt the sweat on her body as she shook off the memory of her fears. As she splashed the water on herself, she pulled herself from the last remnants of her dream.
Turning, the dreamer now awake, looked around the shadows as the familiar feeling of security returned. In silence, she padded over to the darkened corner of her cabin. She took a moment to gaze down at the tiny figure nuzzled under the blankets. Still deep in sleep, the child smiled as she held her rag doll close. Zara noticed the girl's easy breathing, heard her soft giggle as she dreamed her child's dreams. Nadrah's large brown cat lay nuzzled in the blankets next to the little girl. Zara reached down and pulled the cover over the small shoulders. She lightly brushed the dark hair from the girl's face, then turned, and made her way back to her bed.
In the darkness, Zara reached out and found the clothes that Nadrah had readied for her. No longer able to sleep, she quietly dressed in the darkness of the room. Silently, she left her cabin. Once on the deck, she gazed up at the myriad of stars twinkling above her. After glancing at their alignment, she made a mental note of the hour, then began to cross the deck. As she walked, she absently checked the lines of the sails, assured that they were secure. When she saw the night watchman, Talib, standing at the helm, she nodded. He gave a slight wave then returned his attention to his task. Talib, being the most junior member of her crew, had usually drawn the night duty. In a few seasons, when he had more years to his name, she was certain that Abu would raise him to a more prominent position. But for now, Talib was on duty and responsible for guiding their ship through the darkness, while the rest of the crew slept.
Assured in Abu's choice, Zara made her way below deck. The captain absently felt the ship rocking as she moved deeper through the cramped corridor. When she entered the open doorway to the crew's quarters, her nostrils picked up the scent of working men. The aroma of sweat wafted through the room and remained to mingle with the other scents that their bodies produced. As the tall woman walked through their area, she heard their sounds of sleep. The snoring, burping, occasional mumbling and gaseous noises of sleep all mixing together was like a choir of manly sounds.
With ease, the captain made her way through to the rear door of their quarters. Zara felt for the wooden door and opened it in a fluid motion. As she entered the smaller area, she reached up and took the single lighted lamp that hung by the door. Holding it out, she lighted her way down the few steps to the bowels of the ship.
Deep within the ship Zara felt the cold temperature of the sea around her. The salty scent of the ocean permeated through the cargo hold. In the darkness she heard the slight sounds of vermin stowaways. Ignoring their presence, the captain quickly inspected the cargo. Even though she knew that her crew had performed this task already, she made certain that everything was securely tied down.
After a few minutes in the cargo hold, she found an easy rhythm to the rocking ship. As Zara made her way to the opposite staircase, she heard a sound coming from above her. She stood still and looked up at the bottom of the floorboards. Her senses grew acute as she fought to understand what she was hearing. With a tilt of her head, her hearing began to separate the resonance of the oceans waves against the ship, the creaking of the wood, and the slight noise of the rodent stowaways scurrying around. After a few moments of concentration, the captain heard the sound resonate through the cargo hold.
As if in agony, the moans of a woman in pain rang out. Blowing out the candle lamp, Zara moved swiftly to the second stairway of the cargo hold. Knowing that it would lead her to the corridor where the woman stayed, Zara made her sure-footed way up the stairs silently. She knew every nook and cranny of her ship and there was no spot she could not reach, even in the pitch dark. Once at the top, she opened the door. On her left, she saw the moonlight sifting in from the open deck. To her right, a single glimmer of light showed through the guest cabin.
From this new position, Zara could hear the sound clearly. At first, the captain felt an adrenaline rush, as she readied to fight away whomever was attacking her guest. But before it could take hold, she smiled as the sounds became clearer. The slight intake of breaths, the guttural moans suddenly brought meaning. Trying to remember if anyone was missing from the crew's quarters, Zara moved silently to the door and peered through the tiny crack that released light.
A single candle burned in the white woman's cabin. With the blanket at her feet, the blonde lay completely naked. Her nipples were hard and swollen and her body was covered with a light sheen of perspiration. With eyes closed tightly in pleasure, her head thrashed slightly on the pillow.
The Moroccan fought her impulses of arousal. She knew that she should leave, but instead, she watched the woman, noticed that her knees were bent and spread as if she were being made love to. Zara did not know who or what was with the passenger, nor could she see anyone in the cabin. All she knew was that the woman was in the throes of pleasure, her small body fighting the waves of delight until she could not hold on any longer and that is when Zara witnessed her guest's sudden release. The passenger's body shook one final, violent time as a wordless cry escaped her parted lips.
Zara pulled away from the crack in the wood thinking over this new discovery. Not for the first time she began to wonder if this woman truly was cursed, or if she had a ghost or even a genie in her company. Had the white woman brought an evil spirit to her ship? As the captain's mind raced over the possibilities, she heard the woman's sounds change from those of pleasure, to sudden sadness. Leaning forward, the tall captain watched the woman roll to her side, her legs curling up to her chest as she held herself like a newborn babe.
"Xena?!" Zara heard the woman whisper through tears, before she broke down into violent sobs. As if crazed with pain, she rolled on her bed, holding herself as she allowed her tears to fall freely. The tall, dark haired woman silently watched as the blonde woman's body was racked in spasms of pain. The woman's sobs subsided long enough for the captain to hear her whisper, "Xena, come back!" Zara felt confusion when she heard these words.
As the captain's mind thought over the words, she watched the woman closely. Zara could not help but notice the tattoo marking on her back. The sign of the dragon, the symbol of luck and protection from Chin to Japa, and here this woman had it carved in brilliant colors over her skin, the dark hair captain thought as her mind tried to find answers to her unspoken questions. She could not fathom how someone with such a strong protection symbol could be an ill omen.
At the sight of her pain, Zara leaned back and contemplated everything that had happened. As her mind began to mull over the new events, she felt a sudden chill course through her spine. The hairs on the back of her neck stood as the cold seeped into her bones. Turning quickly around, she was greeted only with the darkness of the corridor. Inwardly, Zara shivered. The woman's cries had decreased in volume, yet Zara could still hear her sobs, could still tell that her body was racked with sorrow. Ignoring the icy cold sensations around her, Zara glanced at the woman. She fought her urge to rush in and hold the woman close. Instead, she turned away and made her way through the darkened corridor.
As the days passed Zara kept a watchful eye on their passenger. Although she had never ventured back to the cabin door, whenever she was unable to sleep, Zara would hear the same sounds within the cargo area and knew that whatever she had witnessed that night was occurring on a regular basis.
"Captain," Abu's voice broke through her silent thoughts. Zara had been standing on the top deck. Her gaze wandered from the distant ocean to her ship's crew. At the tone of his voice, she turned to Abu. Badr and Hakim, two of her crewmembers, stood by his side. Although the two men could have been brothers, they were as different as night and day. Where Hakim was tall and lanky, Badr was short and stocky. His shoulders were wide and his arms massive. With each movement of his body, his muscles rippled under the material of his clothes.
"Captain, a word, if you please," Abu's voice was soft and controlled. Glancing at the men, Zara gave a nod of assent. Both men bowed slightly, touched their thumbs and forefingers to their chests, lips and then foreheads in the traditional greeting of her people.
"Salam, Captain," their voices greeted in unison. Returning the gesture, she turned to face them and gave them her full attention.
"Captain, if you please," Badr began to speak then stammered his words and stopped, blushing.
"Captain, please forgive our impertinence," Hakim broke into his friend's opening statement. "We are concerned, Captain."
"Over what?" she asked, even though she knew the answer.
"Her," they said in unison as they pointed toward the blonde. Zara glanced down at the woman. Since the morning after leaving Higuchi, their guest had developed a habit of practicing her fighting skills on deck, under the early morning sun. She would begin with slow body moves, then work her way through metal weapons of Chin, and end with the swords from Greece and Japa.
"Captain, there is an ill omen surrounding her. She has brought a curse to the ship!" Badr's hushed words were stated with urgency.
"What makes you feel that she has brought a curse?" Zara asked as her gaze wandered over the crew. Near the woman, Nadrah sat crossed legged on the deck. She was alternating between watching the woman and talking with any number of her imaginary friends.
"We feel it, Captain. And not just us, but everyone!" Hakim stated. "Sometimes we are doing our duty, as prescribed, and then we feel it!" Zara knew what he spoke of. It was the same sensations she had been feeling, but never voiced. Keeping this news to herself, she maintained her silence as she listened to their complaints.
"Yes, Captain. We all feel it!" Badr offered his encouragement to his friend.
"Yes, a cold feeling, like the devil's own fingers wrapping around our soul!" Hakim's urgency was no longer masked. "It's all we can do but call to Allah!"
"Yes, Allah, preserve us!" Badr cried out as his arms rose up toward the sky in offering, his muscles growing taut under his shirt as his bearded face contorted into a mask of pain.
"Yes, Allah preserve us, we say and then the hand of the devil is dispelled! Captain, something must be done about this devil woman in our midst!" Hakim urged.
"Why, if I had a free hand, with the help of Allah, I would beat the devil from the woman! Show her that she cannot bring her evil curse to our ship!" Badr's words were a boast as he spit on the deck for emphasis.
With an inward smile, Zara watched the woman's controlled movements. Wearing only her boots, a short skirt and covering for her breasts, the white woman moved with great skill. Zara noticed the muscles finely etched in the woman's body. Somehow Zara doubted that Badr would be able to do anything to this woman, let alone any curse she might have brought with her. After a moment of thought, Zara turned to Badr and nodded assent.
"If that is what you feel will rid you of this so called curse, I will not stop you." At her words, Badr's face grew suddenly pale. From behind him, Hakim smiled broadly as he smacked his friends arm.
"Allah, be praised!" he exclaimed, "The devil woman will be taught a lesson!"
As if masking an unspoken fear, Badr nervously glanced at his captain. When Zara only nodded assent, his back grew stiff as he fortified his courage. With only a grunt, he turned and quickly left the captain's side with Hakim close behind.
"Captain? Was that wise?" Abu asked as they watched Badr stride over to the woman.
"Wise for who, Abu? For the woman or for Badr?" she asked as she smiled at her friend.
At her words, Abu looked down at the white woman. His eyes narrowed as he went over what she had said. When he finally understood the meaning, he smiled as he nodded in agreement, "Perhaps you are right captain."
"And if nothing else, we may be able to learn something of her," Zara said as she watched her two crewmen walk up to the woman to begin a fight. Badr began by calling her a "foreign devil," in a loud voice and made grinding and pounding gestures with his hands that clearly indicated what he was going to do to her.
Zara and Abu maintained their silence and watched the unfolding scene. When Badr had first begun the fight, the woman glanced up at her. When she saw that Zara would not interfere, she shrugged her shoulders as she turned to the man who was twice her size. She lay her sword and other weapons carefully aside and stepped forward to meet him.
"Trust me, you don't want to do this," Zara heard her say as the two fighters began to circle. Zara, of course, understood her, but Badr had no idea what her words meant. In any case, being ready to beat the devil from her, he would not have cared. He frowned at her and spat on the deck as he moved in.
When news spread of the current fight, the men began to gather. They formed a circle as bets began to flow through the crowd. Coins were going from hand to hand as they cheered their man on. The fight was over in a matter of minutes, though it must have lasted longer than Badr wanted, as the woman seemed to turn into a spinning, leaping dervish dealing out punishing blows with hands and feet that the large man was never able to return. It ended with Badr splayed on the deck, a very large lump forming on the back of his bald head without having ever touched her. Next to Zara, Abu sighed in sympathy for the headache the man would have.
If it had ended there, Zara would have been satisfied. But when Badr fell, her crew took it as a personal attack to the honor of their ship. One by one, each man moved toward the small woman. They each took their turn, and in turn they each fell beneath her blows. Zara could only stand and watch as her men, some of them the most renowned fighters of her land, went flying in the air. Some landed on the deck, while others flew into the air and landed in the icy cold waters of the ocean. Abu found himself busy either removing the men from the deck, or getting others to help him fish them from the depths of the ocean. It was not until the end, when no one stood and Abu was tired of getting his men from the water that the usually calm man turned and looked up at Zara. At his silent request, she nodded and watched as Abu set aside his weapons and approached the blonde woman.
Obviously tired, the woman brushed aside a sweaty lock of blond hair. She took only a moment to steel herself for the new battle. Then, when the tall man came charging at her, she was at battle ready.
Zara knew that Abu was the next strongest fighter, next to her. When it came to hand to hand combat, the only person who could beat Abu, was Zara. Knowing this, she watched and waited for the outcome of this new match that she thought would follow. In surprise, she noted the length of time the fight took. A bit longer than the others, as the two fighters gave equal blows. Abu's tall frame dwarfed the blonde, despite this, their guest was able to make connections against her larger opponent, ducking and spinning beneath many of his blows to hammer at his vital spots. When Abu did connect, the woman always seemed to manage to give back with his strike so as not to take the full brunt of it. It went on and on, as they swapped kicks and punches. Then suddenly it came to an end as the small woman somehow leaped into the air and kicked both feet into Abu's chin. As Zara saw this final blow come, she closed her eyes in sympathy, then opened them in time to witness her friend land upon the deck like a newly felled tree.
Panting and out of breath, the blonde stood in a half crouch and looked around her. "Anyone ? else ? want some?" she husked, turning in a circle as she faced them all. She noticed how the crew drew back, voices muttering under their breath. When she looked back up at Zara, she stood tall as she fought to regain her normal breathing.
The tall captain remained silent. She did not allow any expression to cross her features. When she saw the men going to help their fallen friend, she gazed down at the woman. With head tilted back, the captain focused her eyes on the woman then gave a nod toward her before turning and moving to the railing of her ship. As the tall woman watched the waves go foaming away behind the ship, she determined that this was no ordinary woman. She did not believe the men's tales of ghosts; instead she knew that their passenger was highly skilled in the art of war. With this in mind, she contemplated her next move as the ship continued its course through the ocean waves.
Zara allowed a week to pass before she made her move, for she wanted her opponent to be well rested and ready for a fight. The tall captain had no interest in defeating an opponent who had battered her way through the whole crew and was weakened from fight after fight. Winning in such a case would be a hollow victory indeed. Rising refreshed, she moved to the window and glanced at the deck below. Today, the small woman was again on deck, practicing with her weapons with no signs of discomfort. The men, no longer in a hurry to beat the devil from the woman, were conducting their chores in silence. Occasionally, one would glance at the white woman, touch their swollen eye or splinted limb, and wince at the memory of the beating they had received.
The captain knew what had to be done. It was no longer a pride issue; Zara tried to convince herself as she began to remove her weapon from the cabinet. As she fastened the belt around her waist, she thought of the possibilities that lay before her. The men seemed convinced that this woman was a curse, how else could she have beaten them all unless she had the devil's power with her, they muttered as their duties began to take a back seat to their gossip. Despite their words, Zara wanted to know for herself whether or not this woman had a curse that made her more powerful than a mere human. With this in mind, she left her cabin and went to stand on the deck where the woman was practicing.
It did not take long for the men to see her standing there. With pleased smiles, they began to pass the word as they gathered near their captain. Their laughs and crude jokes barely made it to her senses.
"Now we'll see what the witch has to say!"
"The captain will be the one to beat the demon out of her!"
"No one has ever bested our captain!"
"From the hand of Allah, to our Captain, the demon will be struck back!"
"My next wages are on the Captain!"
Their words passed her by as she steeled herself for battle. From the corner of her eye, she saw Nadrah standing on a box. Her head slightly tilted as she spoke to thin air. "The captain's never been beaten!" Nadrah told her imaginary friend. When the blonde woman turned to face her, Zara noticed her visible sigh and the look in her eye. Shaking her head, she stood in front of Zara.
"You really don't want to do this," the woman's voice was soft and assuring. "Trust me, you don't want this!"
In answer to her words, Zara smiled as she withdrew her scimitar and held it at ready. For a moment, the woman's eyes grew large when she saw the size of the blade. Then the blonde sighed and rolled her eyes to the heavens. Zara smiled at her reaction. She was pleased that in this one aspect, the woman knew that she had met her match.
Zara felt everything around her grow still. In a part of her mind she knew that the noise of the men was deafening, but she ignored it. Instead, she trained all of her mental abilities to the task at hand. She watched the curve of the woman's brow as the Greek sword was drawn.
"Trust me, please," the woman begged once more, "You really don't want to do this!" her voice did little to convince Zara to change her mind. When it seemed that nothing would sway her, the woman shook her head, shrugged her shoulders then readied herself for the battle.
Time was endless and infinite. Nothing mattered at this point in time. Zara felt her body grow taut as her muscles became like fine honed steel. Within the blink of an eye she saw everything around her. Zara watched and waited. When the woman raised her sword, Zara knew that it had begun. The captain leaped forward and their blades clashed, once, twice, three times and then the taller woman's scimitar slithered in and plucked the sword from the surprised white woman's hand. As it clattered away, the blonde's eye was drawn towards it and Zara tripped her to the deck with a leg sweep. As the passenger landed on her back, the captain was on top of her, her blade inches from her neck.
So easy! Zara almost laughed; instead she smiled down at the woman who gazed up at her with determined silence. Just as Zara was about to remove the blade and help the woman up, the blonde's hips twisted quickly as her foot reached out and made contact against the back of the captain's foot. It was then that Zara registered a sudden pain in her right heel. She felt the sharpness shoot up her leg as she suddenly lost her balance and was hurled sideways from her opponent and onto the hard wooden deck.
Zara did not know how it happened. One moment she was ready for a compassionate victory, the next she was gazing up into the heavens, the sails of her ship flapping in the wind and her scimitar was ? not where it should be. Ignoring the pain in her foot and back, she stood quickly and turned on the smaller woman, who was on her feet as well.
"I told you, you don't want to do this," the blonde repeated, as she made ready to fight, bare handed.
With a smile and a nod, Zara moved forward feeling every muscle in her body move in unison. She attempted to catch this woman off guard with a feint to the side followed by a blow that would have caught an ordinary opponent flat-footed. However, the woman suddenly did a back flip away, kicking at Zara's face as she went. The Moroccan managed to block so that the kick did little damage, and she struck back, but for every blow that Zara landed, the woman landed one of equal strength.
Once the captain grappled with her, she noticed the smaller woman's white skin, how smooth and unblemished it was. As the sun beat down upon them, and they began to perspire, Zara inhaled the Greek warrior's aromatic scent. Like an aphrodisiac, it tickled the taller woman's senses and tore away at her concentration. Although the Moroccan had never been this close to her before, Zara tried not to notice or care. Yet the harder she fought it, the stronger the woman's scent wafted past her until she had to fight to maintain her concentration. When her resolve returned, the captain's full concentration was on the battle she fought against the blonde passenger.
Although at another time the feel of the muscles concealed beneath her soft flesh would have interested Zara, right now they were of no concern to the Moroccan. The muscles of the smaller woman rippled across her flesh, but the tall captain paid no attention. Only when taken by surprise, did Zara readjust her judgment of the foreigner. Each time she thought she would win this battle, the Greek woman suddenly had her down, or threw her in the air like she was nothing more than a bug to be brushed off of her sleeve. The catcalls of the crew were muted against the sounds of their labored breathing. The intensity of the passenger's green eyes shown against Zara's blue.
The rising sun marked time. The captain remembered the sun's first rays, cooling against her back. Before she realized it, the sun was high above their heads. Once during the battle, she was pinned below the woman. The smaller woman's lips were scant inches from her ear. Zara heard her labored breathing as she whispered again, "Please, you really don't want this," to Zara. Before anymore could be said, the Moroccan woman managed to shift, to grab hold of the woman and flip her over, pinning her smaller body to the wooden deck with her own larger body. Zara felt her wiggling below her; she could feel the softness of the Greek's rump against her pelvis. As the sensation of the blonde's wiggling reached her senses, the taller woman allowed a smile to escape as she lowered her head and teasingly licked the salty sweat from the woman's neck. Freezing from the contact, the guest remained still. Then, before Zara could register a change, the smaller woman rolled over, pinned her to the deck and dug her elbow into Zara's stomach. Once her breath returned, the captain climbed to her feet, watched the woman do the same, then lunged at her smaller body. Before Zara could grab hold, the golden haired woman grunted at her as she released a powerful kick.
Zara's vision blurred for a moment before it filled with stars; her lips opened in a round "O" from which no sound issued. She heard Abu inhaling in sympathy as she fell to the deck, her hands covering the injured portion, her eyes closed against the pain between her legs, until the momentary blindness left her. As she shook away the tears in her eyes, she saw the woman standing, panting for air, and watching. Not yet ready to give up, Zara rose on wobbly legs. The pain was still very real, yet her determination never wavered. Ignoring her discomfort, she lunged at the woman, grabbed her and threw her over her hip, slamming her onto the deck with a hard sound.
The tall Moroccan bent over, both hands on her knees as she swayed, watching the woman through the dripping sweat and pulsating waves of pain from her lower regions. To her disappointment, the smaller fighter lay with her eyes closed for only for a moment, before she rolled slowly over and crawled to her feet once more, breathing hard and wincing with discomfort. There was a groan from the crew as the small woman got up, and then without warning came slithering back to their captain with both hands wind milling blows, which Zara met with determination.
The fighting had continued in this manner. When the morning was still young, the crewmen's wagers were fresh and their bantering loud. Their words of encouragement rang in the air as the two women fought in hand-to-hand combat. But as the sun moved in the sky, one by one, each man left the scorching heat to resume their duties, until only Abu was left. Eventually he too resumed his duties while occasionally watching the battle of his captain. There were several times when he almost thought it over, when each woman was on the deck, panting and out of breath as they leaned against each other, their backs holding them up, or standing and facing each other as they supported one another. But before it could end, one would get a burst of energy and resume the battle once more.
Abu remembered seeing Nadrah on the side, eyes intently watching the battle. When the sun was at its highest, she had moved to the shade of the ship, dutifully watching her captain. As Abu continued in his duties, he noticed the little girl sleeping in the shade as the women's fight covered the entire deck. When the smell of the evening meal reached his nose, he woke the sleeping child and together they went below with the rest of the crew. Throughout the entire meal they heard the clamoring up above and slamming thuds that shook the ceiling. Some looked up at the wooden planks and only shook their heads before returning to their meal. When darkness fell over the ship, many went below to end their shifts, knowing that tomorrow would be a full day of work. Making certain to stay to one side, they each went past the women on deck. They noticed that while the women's blows were less forceful, they were still very active.
Zara did not know how time had escaped her so fast. All she knew was that in what seemed a matter of minutes she had glanced around her and saw instead of sun and sky, nothing but darkness. The bright stars blinked down at her as the cool breezes of the night and sea breeze surrounded them. She felt her breathing labored, her body covered with sweat and uncounted aches and pains. She reached up and pushed away some dried blood from her forehead. She felt her eye, tender and swollen, with her fingertip. With each breath she took, she felt the sharp pain in her ribs. Behind her the woman stirred. Zara turned her head slightly and gazed at the silhouette of the smaller woman. Bruised and battered, the woman remained sitting as she panted for air. Zara realized that they had been sitting like this, sweaty back to sweaty back, each one holding the other up, but did not know how long they had been like this.
"I really ? don't want ? to do this anymore," she heard the small woman's voice say softly in a breathless kind of whisper.
Zara glanced around her and saw only the night watchman on deck. With his concentration drawn to the stars, he paid them little attention. After a moment of thought, Zara sighed as she rose from the deck. Every muscle in her body ached as she turned to the woman. With a groan, the blonde rose on wobbly legs as she began to get ready for another battle.
"It is?" Zara panted as she spoke in the Greek language to the woman, "an even match then," She offered as she nodded toward her opponent. The look of surprise in the smaller woman's stance did not matter to Zara.
"You ? speak my language?" she asked. Nodding, Zara answered her as she placed her hand to her head; its throbbing increasing with every movement of her body.
"Yes," Zara answered. "We agree then, it is an even match, no winner, no loser?" she asked again. The smaller woman only shrugged as she sat weakly on the deck.
"Agreed," she echoed Zara's words.
"Allah ? be praised." The tall captain said with a small smile, then winced as the up-turning muscles reminded her of several more aches in her face.
"Amen ? to that?" The small blonde released what might have been intended as a giggle, but which turned into a cough of pain as she held her stomach with both hands.
Paying her late enemy no further attention, Zara called upon her supreme will to move her body the short distance over the deck to her cabin. When she climbed up the stairs, every pain in her body was magnified. With only one thought in mind, she made her way to the bed in her cabin. Once there, she fell face first into the soft cushions as darkness consumed her senses.
Nadrah never thought that she was special. She never thought that her life was too different from others or that the way she saw the world was strange. To her, everything about her life was ordinary. Living on a ship, traveling to distant places and seeing things that were so different from her own life was absolutely normal to her. To give it a second thought would have taken up too much of her time, time that she could use in other ways.
>From as far back as she could remember, Nadrah had no memories of parents. Her earliest recollections were of the filthy back streets of Addâru Lbaydâ, and the gang she lived with. No one in the gang were grown ups, and they lived by simple codes that were set up by the children of the streets before them. One of the main codes had to do with adults. The gang of children could steal, cheat, even rob adults, but never could adults be given trust and most of all, they all believed that adults were to be avoided at all cost. However, Nadrah didn't always believe what the older kids told her. She never believed that all adults were bad or that if a grown up got Nadrah alone, that they would try to do nasty things to her. Nadrah simply didn't want to believe that all of them were to be mistrusted. Even when the kids tried to tell her that her parents had thrown her away, discarded her like the garbage left on the streets to be eaten by the wild dogs, she never believed them because Nadrah knew a different reality. Sometimes it was a realty that was confirmed in secrecy from one of the leaders of their gang.
Like any fine tuned organization, their group held a strict hierarchy of leaders. The oldest boy in their group, Aalam was not only the leader, but he was seen as the supreme counselor whenever disputes broke out amongst the children. Having been born and raised nearly nine year of his life in Marra Kouch, before coming to live alone in the streets for another five years, Aalam was seen as a world traveler. Were it not for his vast experienced in life, Aalam would have naturally been the leader because of his age and bigger built.
The next appointed leader was the most beautiful woman that Nadrah had ever seen. At fourteen winters old, Bahij had seen more of life than anyone her age should have seen. Despite this, she was never without a kind word for the little ones. On some days, when the children would tease Nadrah about her thoughts, Bahij would shoo them away before pulling Nadrah into her lap. With soft, soothing words, Bahij would quiet Nadrah's tears as she reassured the girl that it was not foolish to have dreams. Hope, she would say, is sometimes the only thing we have left. And hope is what Nadrah held on to. She held on to the hope that she was correct, that someday her dreams would come true because she had a special friend that not even Bahij knew about.
By day, she had a friend other than the kids. Sometimes her friend would show herself and talk with her. She would tell her not to worry and not to believe everything that the kids told her. She would reassure Nadrah that she was going to be all right, that she would not let anything bad happen to Nadrah. When the little girl asked her if she was her mother, the lady answered that she was a guide of the spirit world and that no one could see her but Nadrah. The small urchin quickly learned to keep her thoughts to herself, and she learned that her special friend was meant for only her. Like a treasure, Nadrah kept a jealous guard over her spirit guide.
Every night when Nadrah huddled close to the others for warmth she would dream. She would feel herself going to another place, a warmer place, a place where hunger was never felt and where the beds were as soft as the clouds in the sky. And in this place there was a woman who held out her arms in welcome to her. Nadrah never saw the woman's face because she was always surrounded in brightness. It was not bright like the sun, or bright like a lighted candle. It was more like sensing another human surrounded in the whitest of clouds, and that is where the woman stood. Standing tall before Nadrah with her arms held out, Nadrah would go to her. The warmth of the woman would cover her like a blanket and Nadrah would look up at her, her dark eyes searching through the brightness until she'd ask the familiar question.
"Are you my mother?" Nadrah heard her own voice in her dreams. The woman would smile, but Nadrah wouldn't see the smile because of the bright light, she would only feel the smile. And the woman would take her and place Nadrah on her lap and would hug her close. Her voice, as soft as a bird's song, would say to her, "Yes little one, I am your mother and you, my beloved child."
The dreams were always like this. Sometimes the woman would take a brush through Nadrah's long hair. Sometimes she would take her by the hand and they would walk through the most enormous garden she had ever seen. There would be all types of fruit trees, berry bushes and flowers. And the sounds of the garden would rise up like a beautiful lullaby. The songs of the birds, the insects in the trees, the butterflies floating in the air would seem to sing for only them. At this part of the dream Nadrah couldn't help but smile as she and the woman, her mother, would walk together, hand in hand, as they talked. The lady would show and teach her many things, and everything that the woman knew she would share. Nadrah would be loved and protected by the woman, because that is what mothers do.
That was Nadrah's dream and perhaps the reason for her demise with her orphan gang. In most things Nadrah would maintain her silence but when they told her that she had no mother, she felt obliged to correct them. It didn't matter to Nadrah that the kids towered over her, and it didn't matter if there were more of them than her. All that mattered was that she remedy their confusion. So she told them that they were liars and that they didn't know what they were talking about because she did have a mother. Then she told them her dream, and how her mother would be there to hold her close and comfort her and care for her. When they all laughed, she could think of nothing else except to let them taste a bit of her anger.
If she had known that this was the last time she would see her friends, she might have said goodbye to them before she began to attack them. But she didn't know. She went into the fight will full force. Nadrah felt the pain in her body when they hit and kicked her, but she also felt the pain in her fist when she would cause a nose to be bloody. Before she even realized that the fight was over, the kids were running away, screaming and shouting that everyone should hide. For a moment she was filled with satisfaction, knowing that she had been the one to run them off, until she felt someone grab hold of her shirt and pull her off of her feet.
Nadrah had not known that an adult had entered their alleyway. Angered that she was not allowed to finish the fight, she began to strike out at the hand that held her in a firm grip. She heard the deep chuckling of her captors as her little legs tried to kick her abductor. The harder she struggled, the firmer the grip became. After a moment, the hand that held her would shake her hard enough to rattle the girl's teeth, and then stop. Each time Nadrah tried to fight back, another hard shake was felt until she quieted down.
With hair falling in front of her eyes, she gazed out at the tallest woman she had ever seen. Despite the fact that she was a woman, Nadrah suspected that this was no ordinary lady. The woman wore the clothes of men and she carried weapons, as men did. She was not pretty like the women who colored their cheeks, but there was a beauty about her.
"Abu, is this a child or an alley rat!" the woman asked as she gave Nadrah a slight shake.
"It's hard to tell what is below all the dirt and fleas," the large man standing next to her said.
"I do not have fleas!" Nadrah's temper flared as she tried to strike out at the stranger.
"Whoa, slow down little one!" the burly man laughed as he feigned a blow from her. At her sudden attempt to strike out, she felt the grip on her shirt grow tighter right before she was roughly shaken again. Once she calmed down, they turned her around.
"Tell me child, would you like to travel on a ship, see distant lands and people?" the woman asked, her eyes never wavering from Nadrah's.
"Is there danger?" Nadrah's childish curiosity asked.
The taller woman turned to her friend. "What do you think, Abu, will it be dangerous?"
"Oh, most assuredly, Captain. Pirates may be there, too," he added for emphasis.
Returning Nadrah's gaze, the woman nodded at her and said, "Yes child, there will be dangers. Possibly even pirates. Why, if you live I would be very surprised," she said as Nadrah's eyes grew wide and a smile crossed her lips. Anxious for an adventure, Nadrah nodded vigorously.
"Is that a yes?" the captain's lips curled into a slight smile.
"Yes!" Nadrah answered quickly.
"Very well then, but you must remember that there are rules aboard the ship. First, no one fights on the ship unless the Captain gives permission, and I am the Captain. Do you understand?" the woman asked as she deposited Nadrah to the ground.
"Ahuh," was all Nadrah could say as she gazed up at the towering woman.
"And second, you must always obey me, your captain. Is that agreeable?"
After a moment of thought, Nadrah only shook her head in agreement as she said, "Ahuh."
"Good. Then it's agreed. You will become the newest member of our ship, but child, we are only taking you, not your fleas!" the woman told her as she lightly flicked aside a strand on Nadrah's hair with her fingertips, then turned and walked down the alleyway.
"I don't have fleas!" Nadrah protested as she skipped to keep up, the itching of her hair causing her to reach up and scratch the top of her head.
"That's another rule, child. Do not talk back to the Captain. Not only is it rude, it is against the rules. Abu, tell the child what happened to the last one she is replacing," the captain's voice echoed in the alley as the three of them walked past the dark shadows where the orphan gang was hiding.
"Why, the one you're replacing was a child about your size!" the burly man named Abu began to explain as he lightly patted Nadrah's back in encouragement. "But, poor thing, she talked back to the Captain, so we had to eat her," he tsked. Nadrah's eye's grew quite large as she looked up at the burly man and then at the tall woman.
"Yes, poor thing. And just when we had her completely trained, too," the Captain tsked. Then, as an after thought, she turned and gave a wink to Abu that Nadrah hadn't seen. "But she was not very tasty, perhaps maybe cook added just a bit too much chermoulah."
"Oh, I beg your forgiveness, Captain. Next time I will tell Ayyub to go light on the chermoulah!" his voice was firm as the two moved into an easy banter.
"Good ? good, because you know how chermoulah affects children? makes them way too stringy and tough, very difficult to get out of the teeth," the woman added as she picked her teeth with her fingernail for emphasis.
"Oh yes, much too stringy. Ayyub tended to over cook the last one too, I rather like my meat rare. It's much better on the digestion," the big man said as he patted his stomach before releasing a loud belch.
"Oh, forgive me, Captain, must be from the memory of that meal," the burly man sheepishly stated.
"Of course, Abu, I completely understand." The woman responded.
Their banter was light an easy as they made their way from the alley. As Nadrah followed them, she glanced over her shoulder and saw one of the bigger kids glaring at her. With nose bloody and an eye swelling up, he made a fist at her. Now under the protection of others, Nadrah stuck her tongue out at the boy before running to catch up to the two adults.
When she first arrived they had expected her to go easily into a great basin of steaming water. Remembering their warning about the girl she was replacing, she began to fight, thinking that they were preparing her for a stew pot. It wasn't until Abu explained that she was expected to wash off any stowaways that were on her, that she clamed down. Angered and humiliated, she sat in the hot water while Abu used a rock to scrub her skin.
"Is this how you kill children?" she asked with eyes closed as a stinky cream mixture that had been lathered in her hair grew hard and stiff. With a powder mixture, the one named Abu used the water and rock to create a soapy lather all over her body.
"Nonsense, we're only insuring that you do not have any fleas or dirt on you. We don't want you near the Captain like that!" His voice assured as she felt like he was removing the first few layers of her skin with the coarse rock. Throughout the entire event, the woman captain had been nearby and although she did not give any indication that she noticed them, Nadrah would catch her watching every once in a while.
Once she was deemed clean and rid of fleas, she was standing before the captain in an oversized white shirt. Her hair was damp and combed in place. She watched the captain in silence as the woman was busy behind a large desk. Nadrah glanced up at Abu and caught his wink, which caused her to smile.
"So," the Captain's voice broke through the silence. Nadrah craned her neck to look up at the woman who had moved to stand in front of her desk. Leaning against the desk, the Captain looked at her with a questioning eye. "You did a very good job, Abu. I was beginning to wonder if you were going to wash away the child. I would have hated to have to go in search of another."
"Thank you, Captain." Abu smiled as he patted the top of Nadrah's head.
"So, this is what was under all that mess," the Captain said as she glanced over Nadrah. "Have you a name child?"
"Nadrah, good," the woman nodded her head. "Now then, Nadrah, you are a member of our crew you will have responsibilities. And this, will be your first responsibility," the captain said as she handed a basket to Nadrah.
The girl took hold of the basket, then flinched when she felt it move in her hands. Before she could be afraid, she heard a meowing sound came from inside. When she lifted the lid the girl saw two black eyes staring back at her, its little mouth opening to meow in protest. The small ears twitched as it shifted in the basket, then stood on hind feet to reach up to her. With a contagious smile, Nadrah put the basket on the floor and reached in to remove the brown fluff ball.
"Is it really mine, Captain?" she asked as she hugged the kitten close.
"Yes Nadrah. He is yours, but he is also a great responsibility. You will have to take care of him, teach him how to live on our ship, show him how not to stay underfoot when the men are working. You'll always have to make sure that he is healthy because he is an important part of our crew. Right now he is only a babe, and you will have to feed him from your plate. As he gets older, he will begin to find more food on his own. Can you handle this grave responsibility?" Shaking her head vigorously, Nadrah agreed as she giggled when the brown kitten meowed then licked her face.
"So what will his name be?" the captain had asked.
After a moment of thought, Nadrah smiled up at the Captain. "Prasha," she said as the cat began to nuzzle into her hair and purr.
"Good, now take Prasha over to your bed. It's late and you will have a very long day ahead of you," the captain ordered as she began to lead her to the bed in the corner of the room. Abu stood back and watch like a proud grandfather. As Nadrah crawled under the clean, soft sheets, she felt the kitten nuzzling close to her head. Nadrah glanced up at the captain and saw the light from the candle forming a brilliant glow behind the captain's head. Seeing her like this, Nadrah couldn't help but smile.
"Are you my mother?" she asked, hoping that this woman was the one she had dreamed about. The tall women leaned down toward Nadrah. With only a smile, the captain tucked the blankets under Nadrah's arms then lightly brushed her fingers through the new crewmember's damp hair.
"No child, I am not." The captain responded with amusement, before she stood at her full height over the bed.
Moving beside her tall form, Abu chuckled as he smiled down at Nadrah. "She is not your mother, little one. She is your Captain," Nadrah heard him say as her eyes slowly closed and her dreams began to take over.
This is how Nadrah's life began on board the ship. Although there were times that she missed Aalam's presence, and especially Bahij's comforting lap, she never gave her past life much thought. It was a few months later that Nadrah learned what really happened to the girl she was replacing. She had not been eaten by the Captain and Abu, as they had said. Instead, she had found a home with one of the crewmen who, because of his advancing age, was deemed too old to set sail. With a generous stipend from the captain, the man had returned to his home with a new girl who would become a member of his family. With her, his family grew to be four daughters and a very large, very fat retiring ship's cat. With the little girl's departure, the Captain was left to find another who could take her place, and that is when Nadrah was found.
Nadrah did not know how long she had been on the ship. She only knew that when she first arrived the bed was very roomy and Prasha was just a kitten. Now, her toes almost reached the edge of the bed and there was little room to spare when Prasha decided to join her. Now twice as big as any cat she had ever seen, he took up most of the bed. When he stretched out, she often times found it hard to sleep comfortably. But she never minded. Prasha was her friend. He was the only one who was able to see her spirit guide, and he was the only one who was her constant companion.
Life on the ship was better than she ever remembered life in the streets being. She was able to climb the sails faster than any man on board, she could spit as good as the men on the ship and she had even learned how to pee standing up, not just standing and letting it dribble down her leg, but actually standing, like the men, on the edge of the rail and letting the stream shoot out into the ocean's waves. This was a feat which even the Captain was impressed to witness.
But life on the ship wasn't all play. When she wasn't busy with chores like cleaning up the captain's cabin, laying out the next day's clothes that the Captain would wear, making sure that the Captain's clothes were properly cleaned, or helping the Captain to dress or undress, then she was busy with studies. By night she learned the stars and navigation with Isa, so that she would always be able to find her way home. In the daytime she learned to cook with Ayyub, the ship's cook, so that if anything happened to him, she would be able to make sure that the Captain was always well fed because a hungry Captain is not a happy Captain, the skinny cook would say. And in the evening, she would learn the art of scribing. While sitting on the Captain's lap, Nadrah would carefully write out the scripts then she would decipher some scripts that the Captain would show her.
Between her chores and her studies, Nadrah was very busy. Through it all, her spirit guide would talk with her daily. She would encourage her to do well, to learn all that she could because some day it would make her mother proud. With this promise, Nadrah held on to the hope that someday, she would be welcomed into her mother's arms.
When the two women boarded the ship she wondered if maybe one of them was her mother. She hid and watched them, trying to figure out if one of them was her mother. Eventually she was able to get the courage to talk with them. In the beginning she thought the smaller woman was an idiot, but learned that she simply didn't speak their language. With time and a lot of Nadrah's help, the one named Gabrielle was beginning to pick up more of their language so that she did not seem like such an idiot. The other woman, the tall, dark haired warrior, was able to start talking with Nadrah. Although her words were a bit slow at first, eventually she was able to remember and speak as if she had been born with the language.
Nadrah found it hard not to tell her private secrets to this warrior, but unaccustomed to honesty, she never told the tall woman about her dreams, or about the spirit guide who was never far from her side. Instead, Nadrah kept her secrets safely locked within herself. There was only one time that she allowed herself the luxury of speaking freely.
As the warrior woman's mate, Gabrielle, was practicing her fighting, Xena stood by Nadrah and watched. Her smile was the prettiest thing that Nadrah had noticed about the tall woman. Without even thinking about it, she reached up and lightly touched the warrior woman's arm.
"Are you my mother?" she asked the dark haired one. Xena's brows creased into a frown then she smiled as she sat down on the crate next to Nadrah. "No, honey, I'm not your mother. But I would be proud if I was!"
"Oh." Nadrah couldn't hide the disappointment in her voice as she returned her eyes to the sight of the blonde. She fought in vain to hold back the slight tears that misted her eyes. "I was just wondering," the girl shrugged her shoulders by way of answering Xena's concerned expression. After a moment of silence, she felt the strong woman's arm lay over her shoulder as her fingers began to brush through Nadrah's hair.
"You know, Nadrah. I have children," Xena said casually.
"Really?" Nadrah glanced up at her through the sun's bright rays.
"Yes, two of them, as a matter of fact," the woman smiled as she got a far away look in her eyes.
"What are their names?" the child asked her warrior friend. Xena seemed to think over her questions, her eyes glistened with moisture, and then she smiled down at Nadrah.
"I had boy named Solan. He was the brightest and smartest little man I ever saw," Xena's voice grew sad. Then, with a smile she looked down a Nadrah. "You two would have been good friends," she said.
"Really? Where is he now?" Nadrah asked as Xena sighed and looked at Gabrielle.
"He died," Xena's voice held such sorrow.
After a moment of silence, Nadrah leaned into Xena's arm and nuzzled in the comfort of her touch. "I bet you were the best mother ever!" the girl said, which brought a slight chuckle from Xena.
"Oh, I don't think so. With Solan, I did just about everything wrong. I never gave him the type of mother he deserved."
"But I bet he loved you the best," she glanced up at Xena. Looking down at her, the warrior smiled, then lightly touched Nadrah's nose with her fingertip.
"I also had a little girl, cute like you, too!" the warrior smiled. "She's? I'm not sure where she would be now, but she became a traveler. She was spreading the message of peace to anyone who would hear her."
Since the two travelers had arrived on their ship, that is how Nadrah spent her days. When not doing her chores or studying, she was spending time with her new friends, either talking with Xena, or teaching Gabrielle their language, or talking with Gabrielle through Xena. Nothing unusual happened on the ship until the day when the men were competing against Gabrielle. After that day, Nadrah had assumed that it was over and was surprised when later in the week the Captain also challenged the smaller woman.
When the fight between her captain and Gabrielle began, Nadrah assumed that the Captain would win. In her short time on the ship, the girl had never seen anyone who could beat the Captain. So thinking it was to be a short match, Nadrah waited patiently. She watched as Xena stood, her eyes intently watching the game. With hands bunched up into fists, she mirrored Gabrielle's moves, occasionally giving verbal encouragement.
"That's it, Gabrielle, keep at her!" she shouted over the men's voices. When the shorter woman got in a good hit, Xena grimaced and shook her head, "ouch, she's going to feel that one tomorrow!" she sympathize with the captain's pain, then quickly shouted out to her lover, "that's it, keep it up, she can't last forever!"
Nadrah sighed as her eyes moved from the match, to Xena, then back to the match. Whenever the captain landed a good hit, Xena would squint her eyes, duck her head as if she had been the one to feel the blow. "Ouch," was all she'd say before returning her attention to encouraging her lover.
Both Nadrah and Xena were watching the battle when the captain had licked the blonde's neck. Accustomed to her teasing, Nadrah giggled at the familiar ploy that the Zara used. Before the captain was able to complete her teasing, Gabrielle turned it around, hit the taller woman in the stomach, and then jumped to her feet. Nadrah must have blinked her eyes because one minute she was watching the captain moving to the Greek storyteller, and the next minute her captain had grunted as she fell to the ground, grabbing between her legs.
"Ouch," Xena sounded like she felt the hit. Clutching between her legs in sympathy, Xena sat on the crate beside Nadrah. With a grimace, she looked at little girl. "What do you think? Think that's gonna hurt?" Nodding assent, Nadrah sighed as she leaned against Xena.
"Yep," was all Nadrah said with a sigh.
In an absent manner, Xena wrapped her arm over Nadrah's shoulder and said, "oh yeah, that one is definitely gonna hurt!"
As time wore on the girl ended up curling into a ball on the crate and falling asleep. After Xena woke her, she roused herself enough to move to the shade and fall asleep next to Xena. Nadrah did not notice the warrior woman shake her head negatively as she watched Gabrielle's match against the captain and mumbled more effective counter-attacks below her breath for both women. When she noticed how late in the day it was, Nadrah got up and ran quickly through her afternoon chores. Throughout her duties, she kept hearing the fight and would peer down at the battling women. Only when her day chores were complete did Nadrah return to sitting beside Xena in the shade, her eyes watching the battle with interest, until they grew heavy and she dozed the remaining day away.
A few moments later, when the sun was setting and the smell of dinner registered, Abu roused the child from her slumber. With sleepy eyes, she followed Abu to the eating cabin. Even after dinner, neither the Captain nor Gabrielle ended up winning. With only a shake of her head, the child went to Isa and began her nightly lessons. Throughout his lecture, he'd stop periodically to glance over his shoulder at the two fighting women. Every once in a while, he'd shake his head negatively, reach up and touch the bruise on his cheek that had been left by their passanger. Only when Nadrah was no longer able to keep her eyes open, did Isa end the night's lesson. With sleepy eyes, Nadrah made her way past the two battling women and went directly to her bed. As she yawned, she took her outer clothes off, and then climbed under the blanket with Prasha quickly settling in beside her.
In the middle of the night, Nadrah woke to the sound of the captain entering the cabin. She rose in time to see the tall woman fall face first onto the bed. Hurriedly, she ran to her captain and began to pull the tall woman's boots from her feet.
"Captain, who won?" she asked as she yanked at the uncooperative boots. The captain only grunted, then began to snore into her pillow. "Captain?" she ventured again when the boots were off. When no reply was heard, she pushed the captain until she rolled over. Accustomed to this duty, Nadrah began to remove the woman's clothes. Once she had the captain naked, Nadrah pulled a cover over the woman's body, then discarded the smelly clothes in the corner of the cabin.
Nadrah turned and ran to the window. On tippy toes she saw Gabrielle sitting on the deck as Xena attempted to coax her. Leaving the confines of the cabin, Nadrah ran over to her friends. She knelt in front of Gabrielle and examined her face.
"Wow!" was all she could say as she stared into the night and saw Gabrielle's black and swollen face.
"You can say that again," Xena sighed as she lightly tapped Gabrielle's cheek. "Hey, wake up!" Xena commanded but was rewarded with a grunt.
"Who won?" Nadrah asked Xena.
"I don't think either of them won," the Greek warrior replied, then looked up at the watchmen nearby. "We need to get her inside, get her under some warm blankets. Can you help?"
At the warrior woman's question, Nadrah smiled as she felt herself growing two feet taller. "Of course I can help! That's my job!"
Nadrah saw the white smile in the darkness as Xena ran her hand over Nadrah's hair. "That's a good girl!"
Nadrah took a hold of Gabrielle's arm as she always did when the captain had wobbly legs, and placed the blonde's arm over her own shoulders. With her other hand, Nadrah reached around Gabrielle and used all her might to pull on the woman.
Returning to consciousness, Gabrielle mumbled as she turned and look at Nadrah. "You're so little! Why is someone so little on this pirate ship?" Gabrielle's incoherent words asked in a language Nadrah didn't comprehend.
Looking for an interpretation, Nadrah looked up at Xena who shook her head, "She's just delirious, don't mind her."
In her short life Nadrah had experienced many things. Some were more adventurous than others. On this night, she was able to add one more phenomena to her experiences. Nadrah learned that it didn't matter how small a person was, they could still be heavy. Gabrielle looked so much smaller than the captain, yet she felt twice as heavy. Grunting and huffing, the girl half lead, half carried Gabrielle to her cabin.
"That's it, honey, just lay her down," the warrior woman instructed as she stood by.
"I know how to do this, Xena. I do it all the time for the Captain," Nadrah's little voice said with authority.
"Then, by all means, don't let me get in your way," Xena smiled at the child.
With deft ease, Nadrah found the fastenings of Gabrielle's garments and just as she did for her captain, she quickly removed Gabrielle's outfit, then covered her with a blanket. As she gathered the clothes, she stood back and watched as Xena looked over her lover.
"Is she going to be all right?" she asked her warrior friend. Like a healer, Xena's hands examined the softness of Gabrielle. She lightly touched the black bruises on her face. At her touch, Gabrielle slightly moaned, then became quiet as Xena stroked her hair.
"You'll be fine," the tall woman whispered as she lightly kissed Gabrielle's forehead, as an after thought, she looked at Nadrah. "Thank you, Nadrah, you did good. She's going to be fine."
Proud of her abilities, Nadrah smiled as she began to back from the cabin. As if she had never been there, Xena's attention turned to Gabrielle. She laid against the cabin wall, her arm cradling Gabrielle's head as she stroked her cheek. The warrior laid soft, gentle kisses over her bard's face.
"Xena," Gabrielle's whispered in the room.
"I'm here, Gabrielle," she reassured. "Don't worry, I won't leave you. I'm here."
At her words, Gabrielle released a slight cry. "Xena, I miss you."
"I know, I'm sorry," Xena answered, her brows creased in a frown.
"Xena? I love you? come back to me?" Gabrielle pleaded as she felt herself drifting into a deep sleep, her body cradled in the warmth of her lover's embrace.
"I love you too, Gabrielle. You are the best thing about me. I'll always love you," a tear fell down Xena's cheek as she held her lover close.
Nadrah left in silence. As she closed the door, she heard their soft voices. Assured that Gabrielle was in good hands, she turned and made her way to the captain's cabin. Although she was little, she knew that it was her job to take care of her captain, and this she had promised to always do, Nadrah's childish mind reasoned.
Zara felt her head swimming in pain. Her dreams were filled with images that she could not escape. At one point she woke up to the sounds of voices singing, a soprano voice of a child began and was followed by the mixture of baritone and tenor voices. Each man followed the cadence of the girl's voice. Their morning prayers rocked against her senses like the waves of a storm-tossed sea until she was mercifully pulled into the darkness of sleep.
During part of her fitful dreams, Zara felt herself waking in a hazy cloud. She saw a woman, tall with long, dark, straight hair and eyes that mirrored her own. This woman stood over her, looking at Zara with concern as her icy cold fingers probed the painful spot on her head. Dizzy from the sensation, Zara could only gasp as she recoiled from the freezing cold hands.
"Is the captain going to be all right?" the child's voice sounded like an echo in a canyon.
"Yes, I think so," the woman's slight accent rang in the captain's ears. Zara looked up and tried in vain to focus her eyes but gave up when the searing pain felt like it was shattering her brain. Sighing, she lay back on her pillow and closed her eyes.
"Are you sure she's going to be ok?" Nadrah asked as her voice was tinged with concern.
"She's lucky it was her head and not anything important," the deep voice of the strange woman chuckled. "She's going to have a nasty headache, maybe even a bump for awhile, but I think she'll be ok. I have a feeling her head is hard enough to take it from my bard," Zara heard the stranger chuckle as the covers were pulled up. "She's just going to sleep for awhile, and then she'll be good as new!" was the last thing Zara heard before she was mercifully pulled under a fog of darkness.
By the time Zara fully awoke, the sun was filtering through the cabin, and the memories of her dream were all but forgotten. Her back, neck and head ached. When she sat up, it felt like a million hammers were pounding against her temples. In a slow, deliberate move she rose from the bed. With each intake of air, the jabbing pain returned to her ribs. She grimaced as she stood on weak legs and made her way to the pitcher of water. Once poured into the bowl, she liberally splashed her face with the cold liquid, in an attempt to revive herself.
Zara was amazed that she could even move so easily, she thought as the sounds of her crew drifted to her. In slow, deliberate moves, she carefully dressed herself. She heard the familiar sounds of the men's shouts as they finished the sails, then made their way below deck for dinner. Once dressed, she walked on wobbly legs from her cabin. At the smell of dinner, she moved to the opposite deck and climbed down into the kitchen galley.
Her crew seemed surprised to see her. In greeting, they called out as they made room at the table. With only a nod, Zara went and sat at the end of the table. Her stomach growled as the scent of the warm food filled her nostrils.
"Captain, we weren't sure when you were going to join us," one of her men called out as the pounding in her head grew louder. With a half smile, she nodded as the cook put a plate in front of her. The minute Zara looked at the food, she felt nauseous at the sight of the harees. The meat and wheat porridge, though usually appetizing, had a different effect on her this morning. Although she was hungry, after not eating in such a long time, the sight of the mixture of food caused a sickening lump in the pit of her stomach. Gulping down her reaction, Zara reached out and pulled a piece of the flat bread from the loaf, then attempted to eat the mixture.
Across the table, two small eyes watched her every move. With a nod and a smile, Zara acknowledged the child. Before she could speak to Nadrah, the men's voice grew deathly silent as their visitor entered the cabin. Some, not wanting Gabrielle's nearness, rose from the table and took their meals to the top deck. Others simply averted their eyes from her as they continued to eat in silence.
Zara couldn't help but notice the slight bruising under the blonde's right eye. When the cook dropped a plate in front of Gabrielle, she offered her thanks to him as her gaze wandered across the table. When their eyes met, Zara smiled, nodded to her, then winked before gingerly shoveling the breaded meat into her mouth. Visibly frowning, Gabrielle turned her attention to her plate.
The simple act of eating, something Zara's stomach longed to do at this moment, was not usually difficult. Today, the captain thought it would be impossible. With the first bite of the meat, her sore and slightly swollen chin protested. The pain shot from her lower jaw to the back of her head. In an attempt to appear more cavalier than she was, Zara smiled and wiggled her brows every time the Greek woman glanced her way. If she had not been sore, she might have been able to flirt with Gabrielle throughout the whole meal. As it was, the captain could manage only a few bites before she decided to forgo eating.
"But Captain! You hardly ate anything!" Ayyub exclaimed as he glanced at her plate. His bony hand took it, sniffed its content, and then looked at her in disbelief. "Is it not to your liking, Captain?" the skinny man asked.
"It's fine; I'm not hungry," Zara tried to keep her voice casual as she stood and walked stiffly to the galley door.
"But Capt?." Zara turned on the cook and silenced him with a glare. "Yes Captain, as you wish," his small voice said as she turned and made her way from the galley.
From behind her she heard Nadrah's voice call out, "I'll eat it!"
"Yes, leave it to you, little mouse, to clean the plate," the cook's exasperation sounded as the little girl giggled and took the leftover food from Zara's plate. Throughout the exchange Zara never noticed the blonde woman's injuries, nor did the passenger act as if she was even hurt. Were it not for the slight bruising, Zara would have wondered if their fight had been a dream rather than reality.
Sore, and in pain, Zara walked up the few steps to the open deck. She attempted to move slowly and carefully in hope of avoiding further pain from the soreness between her legs. At the top of the steps, she looked across the deck and noticed her crew milling around. Those who had not chosen to eat their meals on deck had returned to their afternoon duties. At the far end of the deck, Abu sat on a wooden bench. With skilled hands, he was tightly weaving the hemp into the mast rope. Upon seeing Zara, he nodded toward her as he finished tying off the rope. With only a nod, the tall woman moved slowly to his side. As she crossed the deck, she noticed the setting sun over the ocean.
"Captain, all is well for you?" Abu rose from his seat as he greeted her.
With only a nod, Zara moved to stand by her friend. "Fairly well, my friend," she smiled as she closed her eyes and inhaled the cold sea air. "Tell me Abu," she began to ask, but her friend stopped her with a chuckle and a wave of his hand.
"Almost a week, Captain," his voice was low. "I trust that you have rested well?" the hint of a smile crossed his lips.
"A week! Blessed Allah!" came Zara's incredulous response. "I would have slept well Abu, if it weren't for one thing," she smiled at her friend and winced at the feel of the soreness in her body. The big man's brow arched as he glanced down at her. At his silent question, she simply sighed, "I would have rested better had it not been for the herd of wild elephants that trampled me!" she nodded towards the figure who exited the mess galley.
>From the farthest end of the ship, the blonde woman climbed onto the deck. Zara noticed her careful pace as she walked passed the crewmen. By this time, the Greek must be aware of how unwelcome she was on the ship, the tall Moroccan thought as she watched her glancing around the deck. They watched the passenger squint her eyes as she became accustomed to the brightness. Upon seeing the captain, the smaller woman nodded slightly. At her greeting, Zara used great effort to bow to her guest. Zara and Abu watched the mysterious woman make her way to them. Although the blonde showed no outward sigh of discomfort, the woman's movements were slow and calculated.
"Abu?" Zara whispered a question to her second in command.
Understanding her unspoken inquiry, Abu smiled and shook his head. "Today is her first day from her cabin as well, Captain," he affirmed. Before more could be said, Gabrielle stood in front of them.
"Salam, may Allah bless you both," the smaller woman bowed, her palms pressed together in a formal greeting. Her words were spoken in their native language and at her slow, deliberate movements; Zara knew that she must have spent some time practicing this greeting. The captain's brow arched upward in surprise as she glanced at Abu. Both were impressed by their guests attempt at courtesy. With a visible smile, the tall burly man nodded and bowed slightly to their guest, returning the formal greeting, then turned to Zara.
"Captain, if you will excuse me," Abu had a hint of a twinkle in his eyes. With only a nod, Zara dismissed him before returning her attention to the smaller woman.
"I'm sorry, I can't help but feel that I've gotten off on the wrong foot somehow," the blonde's language returned to her mother tongue. At Zara's continual silence, Gabrielle sighed, as she shook her head. "I ?"
"It is all right," Zara decided not to prolong the woman's discomfort any longer.
"Umm? how long??" the blonde woman hesitantly asked.
"Have I spoken your language?" Zara turned and leaned against the rail, her arms crossed casually as she smiled down at the woman.
"You've understood me all this time, haven't you?" she asked, her green eyes never wavering from Zara's blue.
"Yes?" Zara glanced at the men on deck, watched them moving through their chores, occasionally glancing at the two women, then whispered amongst themselves as they continued their duties. The captain made a mental note of their actions before returning her attention to her guest. "I am sorry. Perhaps I should have told you earlier?but, you see, it was the only way that I could learn about you."
"Did you think of just asking?" the Greek's words held a tinge of anger, her attention turned to the sight of the distant waves.
"Perhaps you would not have been as honest with me," Zara calmly defended her actions.
"Perhaps I would have," Gabrielle offered as she mimicked Zara's stance.
Zara thought over her words. Although she had known this day would occur, she had to admit to herself that she never truly prepared for its eventuality. Now that it was here, she wasn't sure how much trust she could give to their guest.
"Perhaps you would have," Zara conceded as she stood and deeply bowed to the woman. "May I apologize to you for my deception?"
The blonde seemed to think over the apology, then, as if the past battle had never happened, she nodded to Zara. "Good, now, can we please start over? My name is Gabrielle," her smile was infectious.
"Gabrielle," the named felt foreign to Zara's tongue. "My name is Azzah al-Zarqa al-Agadir bint Majnun ibn Sayyar al-Hallaj abd Allah," she bowed and introduced herself.
"And I'm supposed to call you that?" Gabrielle looked at her incredulously as she asked the question.
"You may call me Captain," Zara smiled easily.
"Good, Captain sounds appropriate," the smaller woman added, "and a lot easier to say."
From the moment of their first encounter, Zara was painfully aware of this woman's beauty. Despite this, she had kept her feelings under tight control. Rather than allow the image of the blonde to stay within her mind, Zara maintained restraint and focused on the situation surrounding the stranger. Now that they spoke openly, she was shown a side of the woman that she had never contemplated before. She learned of Gabrielle's journeys as a traveling bard, and Zara began to understand the fullness of the woman's life experiences as well as a painful experience that she had yet to speak of. She listened to the men's concerns and assured them that she would discover the mysteries of this traveler. But even though she gave her assurances, she was not certain that she could break through the wall that kept the storyteller's secrets safe.
As her mind pondered over Gabrielle's situation, Zara had to admit that the truce between them had opened new possibilities to their encounters. But this change only brought more problems for the captain. Now that they spent more time with each other, the tall woman was able to notice every nuance of the smaller woman. She was keenly aware of Gabrielle's sweet scent and admired the colorful dragon's image upon her tanned, muscular back. As the blonde practiced, the captain could not help but notice how the sinuous muscles of her legs rippled and contracted with each movement. Zara knew that self-control was becoming increasingly difficult around this woman. Utilizing her discipline, the captain maintained her stance as she allowed this woman's presence near her.
As the days on board the ship increased, Zara continued her duties. With each passing day it became easier to move without physical pain. Although she was learning more about her new passenger, she couldn't help but feel that something was not being told. For some reason, Gabrielle was withholding information. Knowing this, Zara made certain to keep her eyes open. She attempted to learn something of this woman's secrets by observing her actions and listening to her words.
One day, as they stood on deck, Zara began to show Gabrielle one of the fighting moves that had tricked the small blonde during their battle. As with any student, Zara made certain to show the move slowly, using the other as an example. Together, they worked on it, progressively increasing their speed until Gabrielle understood it fully. With brows creased in concentration, she placed her heel behind Zara's leg, as she was shown, then twisted at the waist while reaching out with her hands.
Before Zara was aware of the successful maneuver, Gabrielle had her flying in the air and on the deck. Landing on her sore back, Zara's eyes closed against the bruising pain. She opened her eyes in time to see the woman flying in the air, landing squarely on the captain's stomach. At the sudden loss of air, Zara glance into the green eyes that were scant inches from her. She sensed, more than felt, Gabrielle's slender fingers gripping the neck of her shirt. Aware of their closeness, Zara noticed the smile on Gabrielle's lips as her eyes twinkled mischievously.
For a moment Zara felt the urge to tease her smaller opponent, to reach up and press her lips against the blonde woman's soft mouth. As if reading her mind, Gabrielle pulled away, quickly stood, then offered a helping hand. Sighing at the situation, Zara shook her head as she took the offered hand and allowed the woman to pull her to her feet.
"You have gotten much better, Gabrielle," she offered a sincere compliment as she moved to retrieve her outer shirt. Smiling at her, Gabrielle reached up and wiped the sweat from her brows then retrieved a cup from the bucket of water on deck.
"Thank you, but I do have a good teacher," the Greek's voice was softly melodic.
"I have a feeling that it is I who could learn a great deal from you," the captain stated.
"Maybe," was all that the mysterious woman said as her smile grew.
"Perhaps, tomorrow you will tell me something," Zara asked as she watched Gabrielle's expression. The sweat on the smaller woman's forehead lay on her skin like crystal droplets of rain. As she drank the water, her green eyes watched Zara. "Perhaps you will share with me the secret that you harbor?" Zara's voice was low as her eyes held onto Gabrielle's. She watched the blonde woman closely. The storyteller visibly flinched at her questions. For an eternity in time it seemed as if their eyes were locked, each one searching the other.
Unable to maintain the eye contact, Gabrielle looked away as she finished her drink, and then sighed as control came back to her. "I don't understand," the strange woman's words were soft as she returned Zara's gaze. With a smile, she offered the cup of cool water to Zara.
The captain watched Gabrielle's every move. She noticed the darkness under her eyes, and felt, more than saw, the look of fear in the smaller woman's expression. Like a frightened rabbit, Gabrielle attempted to pull a mask over her emotions. In that split second of time, Zara felt elated to know that her suspicions were correct. There was a secret that plagued the blonde, one which the Moroccan intended to discover.
"It is all right, Gabrielle," Zara attempted to put the Greek woman at ease as she reached for the cup of water in Gabrielle's hand. Zara knew the art of seduction; she was fully aware of her body language. Never once lowering her eyes, she held Gabrielle's gaze as she turned the cup and drank from the same spot where the passenger's mouth had touched. At this move, Zara was pleased to see the smaller woman gulp, her lips close as her head tilted slightly.
"There is no hurry, Gabrielle. Your secrets are you own" the captain's lips curved into an easy smile. Turning away, Zara returned the cup to the water bucket.
"I don't understand what you mean?" the blonde woman's voice belied. If the bard was not going to be truthful with her, then she would simply have to bide her time and wait until the Greek was comfortable with her, Zara reasoned. With only a smile, the dusky woman nodded toward her passenger, then slightly bowed. Signaling an end to their encounter, the captain turned and made her way to her cabin. After such a work out, a bath was called for. As her mind recalled the image of the blonde, the softness of her skin and the sweat covering her body, the captain decided to forgo warming the water and simply damper her needs with the icy cold waters of the sea.
In the darkness of the cabin, Gabrielle tossed and turned. She felt the hard bump of the mattress below her spine. Grumbling to herself, she sat up and pounded her fist into the hard, lumpy fabric. As if willing it to softness, she pounded all of her frustrations into the mattress.
"What's the matter, can't sleep?" Xena's low, sultry words chuckled.
"Who can on this lumpy, smelly thing!" the blonde grumbled as she grabbed the scratchy blanket and rolled over.
"Hummm, doesn't seem too bad to me," her warrior lover teased.
"Yeah, that's because you're ?." Gabrielle stopped herself before she said it, as if saying it would make it true. In some part of her mind, she decided that if she never spoke the obvious, that it would not be real. This way, she could forget about the incident that was the root of all her pain. Even though she knew this wasn't healthy, it seemed the only way for her to keep her sanity in this situation.
"Maybe you just need a distraction," the husky whisper purred close to her ear.
"Xena!" the blonde tried to forestall her lover's hands, but quickly stopped protesting as the warrior's hands worked their magic over her body. "Xena?." Gabrielle's soft pleas rang out in the cabin as the tingling sensation of her lover's breath brushed against her earlobe. The shocks of pleasure seared through her soul and caused her to gasp, to inhale sharply as the sensations coursed through her body.
Gabrielle felt Xena's cold hands on her naked skin. In the pitch black darkness of the cabin, she could not see her lover, only feel her closeness. The tall body molded against her back, the familiar breasts against her skin. Xena's hands, calloused, warrior hands that were skilled in battle and love, covered her flesh with soft, gentle touches. As she leaned back into her lover's embrace, she allowed herself release. The tensions of the day, the sorrows of the night were a thing to be forgotten? at least for these few moments in time.
When it was over and Gabrielle had received her blessed release, she felt a deep sorrow within her soul. As if she had been dumped into a cavern of utter grief and despair, she felt her tears fall. The pain of the emptiness within her heart broke free of the suppressive chains and flowed through her consciousness. "Xena!" her whispered cry called out.
"I know, Sweetheart, I'm here for you," her tall, dark lover assured while stroking her hair. Xena held her close and kissed the side of her face.
"Come back to me, please. Don't leave me again," Gabrielle's weeping filled the room as she felt her lover hold her close. Her body was wracked with pain, her mind void of any thought as she released all of her sorrow and despair. When it seemed as if she could cry no more, she softly hiccupped and listened to the sounds of the night. From somewhere far away, she heard the dull cadence of footfalls.
"It's the captain," Xena answered her soulmate's unspoken question.
"Why is she up so late?" Gabrielle felt it unusual to hear the steady sounds of footfalls.
"She does that sometimes," Gabrielle felt Xena shrug against her in answer. "I don't know why, I've just noticed that on some nights, she'll be out walking in the dark. No one is up except the night watchman and her."
At Xena's words, Gabrielle closed her eyes and leaned into her lover's embrace. She felt fatigue pulling her under. As if the sexual release had drained her of energy, she drifted into a fitful slumber. Each time the horror of her dream woke her, she was soothed by Xena's soft words. It was not until the early morning that she sat bolt upright, the stifled scream held in her throat as she glanced around. One part of her mind was trapped in the nightmare, the other on her cabin surroundings. When reality returned, she turned in the cabin's bed, her bare legs dangled over the edge for a moment as the tips of her toes felt the cold wooden deck. Before she could contemplate her nightmare, she stood, and slowly moved from the hard mattress.
With nothing to do, Gabrielle's time on the ship seemed long. In the beginning, no one spoke to her except the little child. Unable to speak her language and with no ability to communicate with the crew, she felt completely isolated and alone. Although she was learning the language, Gabrielle knew that she still could not communicate with the crew. For one reason or another, they had chosen to ostracize her, yet she did not know why. It wasn't until recently that another avenue of communication opened when she realized that the captain spoke her language.
Once washed and dressed, Gabrielle left the confines of her cabin. The sky held the last remnants of the dark morning. Leaving the corridor of the ship, Gabrielle made her way passed the crates. When she glanced up at the bow, she was surprised to see the captain standing against the railing. For a moment, she examined the tall woman's form.
The captain's thick, dark, curly hair flowed freely in the sea breeze. Wearing a dark cloak, she stood still as she stared off at some unseen image. The tall woman's concentration never wavered as the ship swayed under her feet. Gabrielle could see the woman's hands gripping the rail, steadying herself against the rocking ship, the white sleeve of her shirt taking some of the wetness from the splashing waves.
As some of the crew moved to the deck, Gabrielle climbed the few steps needed to reach the captain's perch. Shivering from the breeze, the shorter woman glanced back and watched some of the men lay out blankets while Nadrah moved to stand on some crates of boxes before the men. The little girl smiled, then waved at Gabrielle, before the impish figure turned her attention to the men. The male voices repeated the same phrase as they each took their place.
The first time Gabrielle had woken to the sounds of a child's voice, she thought it was simply a way for Nadrah to pass time while doing her chores. But when the men's voices began to echo the little girl, she thought it might be a celebration. As if on cue, Nadrah closed her eyes as she began the soft song. Following her example, the crewmen's voices began to rise in the air, the beat of their words taking on an easy, controlled cadence that resembled a song. It wasn't until later, after seeing their actions with their words, that she realized their songs were prayers.
When Gabrielle moved close to the rail, the captain seemed to pull back from her thoughts. The Greek healer noticed the usual frown and arched brow as the captain acknowledged her nearness. Sometimes the smaller woman found it hard to open a conversation with the tall captain because Gabrielle never knew if the woman was angry with her or simply wished that she had never boarded the ship. With a weak smile, the blonde nodded up at the captain.
The brooding captain seemed to examine her, to see her standing near the rail. After a moment of thought, the taller woman reached up and removed her cloak, then wrapped it over Gabrielle's shoulders.
"No, it's all right," Gabrielle tried to protest as she tried to push away the captain's hands. When this proved futile, she simply smiled and latched the clasp at the collar. "Thank you," she offered to the Moroccan. In response, the captain simply nodded and returned her gaze to the ocean.
"Why do they do that throughout the day?" Gabrielle asked.
After a moment, the dark haired woman glanced over her shoulder. "It is their morning prayers. According to customs, it is expected that prayers take place a specific times throughout the day," she answered as she turned and leaned her back against the railing.
"And the words they are saying?" she asked as the men were on their knees, eyes closed, hands raised palms up as they faced toward the northwest area of the ship. Although Gabrielle did not understand the custom, she noticed a pattern to their actions.
"They are giving praise to Allah, to God," the woman explained to Gabrielle, her thick accent filled with the richness of her mother tongue.
"And they always face in that direction?" the inquisitive Greek asked.
"It is written in the Qur'an that the righteous must face the holy mosque of Mekkah, the Ka'bah. So depending on where we are on our travels, the men pray facing in the direction of the Ka'bah of Mekkah." The captain smiled slightly as she watched Nadrah and the men singing the morning prayers.
"And you don't pray?" Gabrielle asked with an inquisitive arch of a brow.
"No," the dark one stated as her gaze turned away. "I do not believe in Allah's blessings."
At her words, Gabrielle turned and looked sharply at her. She wondered what could have happened to bring such a bitter response from the captain. At her silent question, the captain seemed to look down at her, and then turned her eyes away quickly.
"Allah? has not granted me any gifts," was her only reply to Gabrielle's silent thoughts.
"I think I understand," the smaller woman sighed as she pulled the heavy cloak against her. "Sometimes it doesn't feel like there are any gods left? at least not any that care." Gabrielle fought down her own bitterness. The captain gazed sharply down at her. The blonde could feel the unspoken questions. With a slight smile, she looked up at the taller woman.
"In my life time, I've gotten to know a lot of gods and goddesses, and one thing remains true for them," her voice came out light and easy despite the pain in her heart. Intrigued by her words, the dark haired woman maintained her eye contact. Seeing the intensity of her blue eyes, Gabrielle turned away. "One thing I've learned is that the gods do not care about us mortals."
Hearing her words, the captain only nodded in agreement, and said, "No, it does not seem like our lives matter to them, if they do exist."
Gabrielle found herself examining the captain's words. She silently wondered why the woman seemed so distant and, at times, uncaring. After knowing Xena, seeing how she had changed, metamorphosed in front of her, the shorter woman wondered if the captain could be a mirror image to Xena's younger days. As this thought crossed her mind she heard the familiar sounds of the men rising from their prayer blankets. Their voices low as they began to move toward their individual duties. When she glanced over the deck, Gabrielle saw Nadrah standing in the corner talking with Xena. Before she registered a change, Xena leaned down and surprised the child with some tickles to her side. With a loud squeal of laughter, Nadrah turned and ran over the deck as giggles rose from the ship's smallest crew member.
Both women watched as the little girl ran in a haphazard fashion through the ship. Her little legs carried her over the deck where the men were beginning their chores as Xena was chasing her. "I'm gonna get you!" Xena teased as she reached out and touched the girl's hair.
"Noooo!" the child laughed as she ran around some crates, then quickly turned around and touched Xena squarely on the hip. "Now you're it!" Nadrah laughed when the tall warrior quickly stopped, then turned and ran back over the deck, climbed the few steps up and circled around the bow to where Gabrielle and the captain stood.
"Perfect way to get the morning started!" Xena explained to her lover as the little girl circled them, screamed, and pounced on Xena. She then turned and ran down the deck again.
With a smile, Gabrielle looked up at the captain and shrugged her shoulders. She noticed the captain's long suffering sigh as she watched the little girl bounding over the deck like a giant jack rabbit.
"I apologize for the child," the captain offered as she shook her head.
"No, it's all right. She's really very sweet," Gabrielle couldn't help but laugh as she watched Xena making a clown face, then reached out and tickled the little girl. Knowing that the captain could not see Xena, she tried to mask her laughter as she gazed up at the taller woman. "Children have such active imaginations," was all Gabrielle could offer.
"Yes, that one is more active than most, I suspect," the captain sighed as she shook her head.
In their time together, Gabrielle was aware of the captain's interests. She noticed the looks from the woman. The closeness was sometimes more than her senses could handle. Rather than lead the tall woman on, she would pull away, regroup and make certain that she had, in no way, given the wrong impression. Despite this, the healer bard could not help but feel a need to reach out and touch the warm softness of a living person.
At her thoughts, Gabrielle felt a stabbing pain of betrayal. She wasn't certain why, she only knew that such feelings should not be happening. Gabrielle felt, somewhere deep inside of her heart, that she must remain true to Xena. To feel Xena's touches at night, to be able to always talk with her, that should be enough, she tried to convince herself. Yet she could find no way to escape the emotions that washed over her. The initial touches from her warrior princess always lead to Gabrielle's arousal. The final climax should be enough for her. Yet every time Xena touched her, once the small blonde had come down from the high, she felt as if her heart was being torn from her very soul and she silently feared that eventually there would be no heart left. For this, the Greek healer had no solutions.
It should have been no surprise to her or anyone else that she felt a tinge of happiness that someone was paying attention to her, even if that someone was the only adult aside from Xena who could talk to her. However it did surprise the bard. Despite this, she had accepted the captain's offer for dinner. Not quite knowing what to expect from the tall, mysterious woman, Gabrielle decide to leave all options open.
The End of
Continued In Chapter 2
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