Xena lay on her back, her eyes closed. She concentrated for a moment, then remembered where she was, as she became aware once again of the incessant rocking of her tenuous wooden platform and the occasional harsh cry of a seabird overhead. She forced her eyelids open, and then squinted at the bright mid-day sunlight which burned into her and made her eyes water. Slowly, painfully, she sat up, looking around her. The piece of sailcloth which had served as protection from the brutal summer sun had shifted, and had been allowing her to be exposed once again to the elements.
She reached above her head and grasped the cloth, pulling it forward and towards her feet. It caught on a piece of deck railing behind her and began to rip. She heard the noisy protest of the cloth and slowly turned around to look. Deciding that it would take too much effort to fix, she relented and instead mused that it would be better to just move inside the dwindling arc of shade. She cast a glance down at her own body, offered out a sarcastic snort, and thought, Then again, why bother? Her skin was reddened from exposure to the sun, and caked with sea salt. Her leather and armor were stained and stiff. Her hair was a tangled mess. Her eyes burned with the glare of the sun. Her mouth was so dry that she had to concentrate to form any words. Her eyes, tightly squinting, roamed around the large hunk of deck which she occupied, and which, somehow, perhaps by Poseidon's good favor alone, was staying afloat in the seemingly endless sea which surrounded them. Her eyes' wandering stopped abruptly, however, when they came to rest upon a limp form lying on the wood next to her. She noted that the direct sun was baking the petite blonde's already pink legs, and slowly shook her head. Won't do. Protect Gabrielle. She leaned down and over the woman, and wormed her arms underneath her companion's shoulders. With a grunt, she lifted the shoulders off the deck, and pulled her friend up and into the shade afforded by the sailcloth. At the unfortunately rough handling, Gabrielle stirred and groaned.
Xena leaned down and pulled Gabrielle's feet into the shade, then sat back, exhausted, to lean upon a bit of railing. She dropped a hand down upon her friend's shoulder, then summoned her strength to respond. "Had to. You're....... burnin'."
Gabrielle grunted, then turned her head toward Xena. She opened her eyes, blinked a few times, then rolled onto her side facing her friend. She took the near hand which lay upon her shoulder in both her own and said nothing, just studied Xena's features with her intent hazel eyes. She could see how the woman was almost beaten; her aura of exhaustion beyond words, her chapped and reddened features, her blistered lips, her sunken eyes, still shining blue through the pallor of suffering which the last few days had brought down upon them. Gabrielle swallowed heavily, then whispered, "Ship?" Xena shrugged wearily and shook her head. "One soon?" Again, Xena shrugged. She locked her blue eyes onto Gabrielle's hazel ones, and they just sat that way for an unknown amount of time. It seemed to them as if they could almost speak that way, intuit what the other person was thinking and respond. It didn't happen all the time, but it was working now, and whenever it did work, the two treated those moments with a special awe. Today's conversation was, however, very bittersweet. Gabrielle, always the bard, opted to make official their shared opinion with what was left of her voice. She strained to lean up on one elbow, then dragged herself across the very short space separating the two to rest her head and shoulders in Xena's lap. She felt weary arms drape around her, and looked up. Again the eyes connected. After a moment, Gabrielle voiced her thoughts, hoarse through parched and cracked lips.
"This......is it, isn't it?" Xena just cocked her head quizzically to one side, considering the question. "We're........goin' to die out here." Xena again thought for a few moments, then blinked and nodded her head.
"'Nother day............ two."
"Wait for me."
"Wha' you mean? You're prob'ly goin' first."
"Uh. No. You......first. Look.....at y'self. Look like shit."
Xena felt her dry, pained face break into a wide grin, and she began laughing a hoarse, wheezing laugh. "Ouch! Don' make....... me laugh. Hurts."
"Don' be. Love it when.........you........make me laugh."
Gabrielle's reddened, puffy eyes sparkled a bit at that. "Not easy. You......tough audience."
"Nah. Not f 'you." Xena smiled down at Gabrielle's face, which responded in kind and then took on a serious bent.
Xena studied the suddenly pleading eyes. Oh, oh, here it comes. "Wha'?"
"When I die....... don' ever...... forget me?"
Xena lifted a hand and stroked the stiff, salty blonde hair. "We go....t'gether."
The puffy hazel eyes bore into her soul. "Across......... the Styx?"
"Across.....stars...... 'cross universe. T'gether."
Gabrielle smiled. "See? Tol' you there.......was bard in you."
"'Sides, got to."
"Hmm?" Gabrielle lifted her eyes up toward Xena's face.
"Charon's boat fee.........you have all th' money. I got none."
This time, it was Gabrielle's turn to wheeze in painful laughter. When she settled down, she repeated the question to Xena. "Promise?"
"Promise....this. We go together."
"Love you, Xena."
"Love you, Gab. Rest, now." She watched the eyelids flutter shut and then remain so, then painfully reached around to her side with her less-encumbered arm and lifted her sharp dagger from her waist sheath. Striking the tip into the wood of the deck just next to her leg, she held Gabrielle closer to her and thought, We'll go together, love, I promise you that. I'll be just a breath behind you. Wait for me, for just that long. One breath's time is all that it will take for me to follow you. Still cradling the blonde head in her arms, Xena shut her eyes and leaned her head back against the shattered railing, impatient at the slow progress of what surely seemed the inevitable destiny of the shipwrecked. Eventually, she allowed herself to drift into a fitful unconsciousness, albeit one troubled with dark dreams which pecked at her before she was able to evade them and find a more peaceful oblivion.
Xena slowly became aware of a most pleasant sensation of coolness covering her face. She just lay still, savoring the feeling, until she noted that the motion of the ship's wreckage which had been their constant companion for a couple of days had ceased. At that, her eyes snapped open and, instinctively, her hand flashed up and grasped the wrist which hovered just above her. Her intense blue eyes focused, and found themselves staring into a pair of the largest brown eyes that she had ever remembered seeing. Instinct told her that these eyes considered her not with malice or fear, simply with curiosity and concern. As she studied the face above her own, Xena noted the straight, shoulder-length black hair and dark-brown skin. Egyptian? Her eyes quickly roamed over the features, stopping next at the tattoos at the outer edges of each eye. Three lines, parallel, running from the edge of each eye toward the ear. Egyptian. She perused the face itself. Pleasant. The face which hovered above Xena's waited patiently for the sharp blue eyes to finish their inspection. Xena next attempted to speak, but could only utter a croaking whisper. "You.... speak Greek?"
The face responded in Greek, although with a most marvelous accent. "I understand Greek. You are aboard a Greek ship."
A sharp feeling of dread stabbed Xena, and she gripped the wrist tighter, holding it close. "Gabrielle?"
"Is that your..... companion?"
The face smiled. "She is here, in the next sleeping rack. I have tended her, as well."
"She is alive. Not awake, yet. If she does not awaken soon, we must try to rouse her. You have both suffered quite badly from exposure. You must rest now, and drink water often."
Xena lifted herself up and onto one elbow, looking around the cramped cabin. She noted Gabrielle's still form in the next sleeping rack, the wet, long tendrils of blonde hair cascading across the pillow and down the side of the rack, the light skin pink from sun and shiny from an application of oil, the chest under the white cover slowly rising and falling in tune to gentle breathing. At the sight, she breathed a deep, ragged sigh of relief and allowed just a slight smile. A hand rested itself gently on her shoulder.
"Ah, my wrist?" Xena looked down. She still had a hard grip on the graceful, slender wrist. She released it, and muttered an apology. "Not at all. You have a strong grip." The Egyptian woman rubbed her wrist slightly as she knelt by Xena's sleeping rack. "Water. Drink often, but not too much at once." Xena took the proffered bowl, emptying it in one drought. "There is more, just here in the bucket. Drink as much as you feel able to."
"Where's my leather and weapons?"
"They were quite badly abused by the elements. My sister tends them. Don't worry, she is quite good with such things."
Xena reached down and placed the water bowl on the deck. Hoarsely, she whispered, "Thanks. I don't mean to seem ungrateful, it's just that I'm not accustomed to waking up naked and unarmed in a strange place."
The Egyptian woman allowed herself a musical chuckle at that, and nodded her head. "I can imagine. We will find you something to wear. Now, let us be strangers no more. What name?"
"Huh? Oh, Xena. My friend is......"
"Yes, Gabrielle." Her eyes studied the slumbering form for an instant, and then returned their gaze to Xena. "I am Ptomaniae. My name is a bit difficult for the Greek tongue, I fear."
Xena smiled, and accepted the challenge. Flawlessly, she whispered it back to Ptomaniae, who clapped delightedly. "Oh, good. My husband is the only other Greek I know who can say it correctly."
Xena dipped the water bowl into the nearby bucket, and again raised it to her lips, urging conversation in the meantime. Hoarsely, she questioned the Egyptian woman. "Your husband?"
She continued, "Yes. He is owner and master of this ship."
"I'd like to speak with him. Thank him."
"Of course. He will come to you when the two of you are, ah, feeling better."
Xena glanced over at Gabrielle, then placed the water bowl down and slowly, painfully sat erect on the side of the narrow sleeping rack. As the sheet fell away, she looked down at her body, the lighter skin which her leather had covered a sharp contrast to the red hues of the brutally sun-exposed skin. Over those portions of her body, a thin sheen of oil shimmered. She sniffed at it, then raised an eyebrow. "Olive oil, with something else in it. Smells like.....I'm not sure."
"It is from Egyptian medicine. A drug to tame the sun's fire on your skin."
"It is on your companion, as well. Her skin is more affected. Lighter, you know. Speaking of which, we should rouse her. Get her to drink. You feel able to do that?"
On the open deck, the day was pleasant and the wind very favorable for the ship's intended course. The heat was in full bloom, so much of the crew lolled around the shade afforded by a large piece of sailcloth rigged in the forward area of the sleek vessel. One crew member, however, sat in the rearward third of the ship, alone, a bowl of oil and a cloth handy, working doggedly on the salt crusting the ornate chest armor which one of their unexpected castaways had been wearing when they were found.
She squatted in the shade of the stern superstructure clothed in a simple brown tunic, belted at the waist, knife thrust into the belt at her back. Her legs and feet were bare, in mariner's fashion. Her dark eyes, straight black hair and brown skin heralded her origins as from lands other than Greece, but unlike her sister, she bore no trace of her heritage about her hair or grooming. Only her accent had a telltale brogue of the Pharaoh's lands, if one listened carefully. Her hair was long, and braided back in one long braid which hung down her back. Perhaps the most striking thing about her were the tattoos which showed themselves, a spiral on one sinewy, muscular arm and one thigh, and parallel lines which ran from one cheek across the bridge of her nose to the other cheek. Those tattoos marked her as a warrior of the predominant tribe of eastern Thracian Amazons. She was far from her tribe, but it was by her own choice. Although she missed them, she harbored no regrets for leaving. She had their blessing.
She glanced up at the approach of the ship's helmsman, a large, powerfully-built man with twinkling smile and a hint of perpetual, good-natured mischief in his manner. He smiled down pleasantly. "How's the cleanup going?"
"Done, mostly. Leather is oiled. Weapons clean. Just this armor. It has many crevices." She smiled up at him. "Come, sit."
The helmsman nodded brightly and eased his large form down onto the deck next to her. "Delightful idea, anytime I can steal a few minutes to sit with my Koenis." He enveloped her in a powerful arm, and gave a warm squeeze to her shoulders and a kiss to her hair above her ear.
"Cladiaties, you just love me because I can match you drink for drink," Koenis teased, continuing the scrubbing of the armor details.
"Oh, no. I love you because you can match me drink for drink, swear much more colorfully than I can, and fight me to a draw. You're a marvel. What mariner can ask for more in a woman?" He roared pleasantly at his own joke, she just smiling and shaking her head indulgently as she continued rubbing.
"I am Amazon. I have a reputation to maintain. No man will best me."
"And, believe me, I love you for it. Say, what's this?" He leaned forward and picked up a circular object, holding it aloft for study.
"Take care. It has a very sharp edge. A weapon, I imagine."
"Odd-looking thing. Give me a good battle-axe anytime."
Koenis smiled down at the armor. "There. Done. I will take it in to them. You will excuse me?"
Cladiaties rose and helped Koenis gather the leather, armor and weapons. "Well, if we must. I shall keep the early watch tonight. Care to tend the tiller with me?"
"I would be delighted. See you then?"
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle, wake up!" The voice probed at the edges of her consciousness, interrupting her peaceful oblivion.
"Lila? Sister? L'me sleep a li'l more. You can do chores without me."
"Come on, wake up."
"L'me alone, or I'll tell father about you and Aschuylus rolling in the hayloft."
The voice snickered at that, then became commanding again. "Gabrielle, wake up. It's me, Xena."
"Xena? Oh, my." She felt her own mind pulled unceremoniously through the mists of uncertainty to a place where she could open her eyes. When she did so, she saw Xena in front of her, a thin white sheet loosely draped about her body and giving her an otherworldly air. She blinked several times, focusing, then smiled as widely as her sunburned face would allow, whispering, "Now, that's a sight, a beautiful sight." She furrowed her brow in question, then asked, "Are we dead?"
Xena laughed. "No. We were rescued. Here, drink." Xena held the water bowl to Gabrielle's mouth, who took a tentative swallow and coughed. "Easy, slow." She did as ordered, eventually emptying the bowl. When she did so, Xena placed the bowl aside, then stacked up pillows and propped Gabrielle up against the cabin wall. She rested there for a moment, then looked at Xena.
"Yes, here. Not too fast."
Gabrielle drank some more water, then noticed her own body, the areas of red and white alternating. "Xena, I'm naked. Badly sunburned, too." She gently poked at a red area with a finger. "Why don't I hurt badly?"
"A medicine in the oil."
"Oh." She pulled the sheet up and over her torso, then wearily rested her head against the cabin wall. She stared into space for a few minutes, then looked at Xena with an expression which the warrior had come to know as Gabrielle's 'serious' expression. "I.....we almost died. I thought we would."
"I thought the same."
"Once again, we didn't."
"You said we'd......die together. You meant that?"
"Every word. But we're not going to die today." With that, she leaned forward and gently kissed Gabrielle, a kiss which intermingled the odor and taste of olive oil with the careful tenderness of lips too much abused by the sun. They drew apart just as a knock rang at the door, and it opened. Koenis entered, arms full of leather, weapons and armor.
"Ah. Pardon. I have repaired these." She squatted down and spread out the items on the deck for inspection. Xena noted their magnificent condition, and nodded approval.
"Well done. Thank you." She studied the Amazon. "You must be Ptomaniae's sister."
She nodded brightly. "Yes. Koenis." She then changed the subject of conversation, holding up the circular weapon. "Tell me about this."
"Chakram. Weapon, meant to be thrown."
"Then you must retrieve it?"
"Usually, it returns to me."
Her eyes widened. "Show me?"
Xena gave out a conspiratorial grin and nodded. She reached out for the weapon, and Koenis offered it to her. With a muttered warning, she flung the instrument. It whirred and rang as it ricocheted repeatedly off the cabin walls and beams, quieting only when Xena extended her hand and snatched it from the air. Koenis' response was enthusiastic. Another voice, however, was less thrilled. It heralded from the partly open door.
"Sister? What in the name of Osiris is happening in there?" Ptomaniae stuck her head in the room, her large eyes taking in its occupants. She noted the weapons and armor, the conspiratorial grins on the faces of her sister and Xena, the chakram in Xena's hand and the guilty look on Gabrielle's features as she sipped her water, then nodded her head in understanding. "Ah. Warriors. Of course." She entered the room, holding out two tunics. "Here, clothing. This one, for you." She indicated Xena, and held out a gray tunic of somewhat odd design. "It is from Koenis. You are both tall." She offered a white one to Gabrielle. "This one, for you."
Gabrielle accepted it, and examined it. "Thanks. Yours?"
Ptomaniae smiled. "No. My husband's. He is short, like you." She reached down and motioned to Koenis, who rose and joined her sister. "Dress now. We eat, and the captain will speak with you."
Shortly, Xena and Gabrielle had donned the tunics and found wooden bowls of stew thrust into their hands, along with a round bread. They huddled together on one sleeping rack, backs against the wall, indulging themselves in their first hot meal in days, when a knock sounded at the door. At Xena's hoarse response, the door creaked open and the captain entered. He stepped in a few paces and stood in the center of the cabin floor, a mariner's stance, feet apart, hands clasped behind his back. The two castaways and the captain perused each other for a long moment, sizing each other up before speaking.
Xena noted his stature immediately, and guessed him perhaps only a hand's width taller than Gabrielle. He appeared somewhere around thirty, but his weatherbeaten face, pleasantly crinkled and with a very close-cropped beard, could deceive. His frame was athletic, his skin deeply tanned, and his eyes dark and liquid. He was dressed in the traditional garb of a Greek mariner at sea, a simple white cloth wrap from waist to just above the knees, and it was held at the waist by a sea-speckled leather belt holding an Egyptian dagger of rather fine quality. His eyes twinkled, and then he began the conversation, bowing slightly. "Please, I am Syri. My wife tells me that your names are...." He pointed toward the bard. "Gabrielle, and that means that you are........."
"Xena." She attempted to rise, but he waved a hand.
"No, don't stand just yet. You will find that it will take a bit to regain your strength."
Gabrielle spoke now. "Syri, thank you. Your people have been good to us."
Xena added her own sentiment. "We would have died, had you not rescued us. We owe you our lives."
He waved a hand in a gesture of dismissal. "You owe me nothing. I have been in such a position before, myself." He eyed the leather, armor and weapons on the floor, then scratched his chin with a hand as he spoke. "Ah, you wouldn't be the Xena, former Macedonian warlord, would you?"
Xena grew cautious, but Gabrielle hastened to defend her mate. "She's really not that way anymore, you know."
Syri grinned a broad, friendly grin. "Yes, yes, I have heard the stories. One, I believe, told by you." At Gabrielle's surprised look, he explained, "Some time ago now, a waterfront tavern, you regaled us with a bardic tale of Xena. Ah, perhaps it was in Pydna?"
Gabrielle squinted in thought, then her expression brightened. "Of course. We were traveling overland to Thessaly. I often tell stories to earn money as we travel."
"You tell a rousing tale. If you don't mind, my crew and I would appreciate a good story, one evening soon? Ah, and you must hear Ptomaniae play the flutes. A marvel, she is! But, this is not the reason for my visit. I came first to check on you. You have what you need?"
Xena nodded. "Thank you, you have been kind."
"Good. Feel free to come out upon deck as soon as you feel able. The sea is gentle now, but it will likely pick up some soon. Then, the cabin will not be so pleasant for you."
Xena looked over at Gabrielle, who blanched a little bit and paled under her sunburned features. Syri caught the unspoken message, and attempted to reassure her. "You stay on the deck when it becomes rougher, and my cook Mios has a marvelous remedy for seasickness. He will take care of you." Gabrielle nodded uncertainly, and Xena patted her on the leg and then turned back toward Syri.
"What else is on your mind, Syri?"
Xena stretched her legs out a bit, then eyed him. "Come, now. Something else is going on up there, in that head of yours."
Syri smiled, then walked over to the opposite sleeping rack and leaned against the support post. "Very perceptive. Ah, yes. Tell me, where were you bound when you were so desperately shipwrecked?"
"You are in a hurry?"
Xena grew cautious. "Not particularly. Why?"
He raised an eyebrow at Xena. "How would the two of you like to help us right a wrong?"
Xena looked over at Gabrielle, who sat silently, her bowl of water raised to her lips. She raised an eyebrow and ever so slightly shrugged her shoulders, Xena responding with an almost imperceptible nod. The tall warrior then looked back at Syri, nodded, and said, "We're listening."
"Have you two ever heard of the Greek named Polidinos, an Athenian citizen?"
Xena shook her head, then looked over at Gabrielle, who sat silently, sipping water. She also shrugged slightly.
Syri nodded, then continued. "Ah, well. No matter. Suffice it to say that he is powerful in Athens. Rich, influential. His wife and children were on a ship en route to Piraeus, Athens' port, when they were taken by pirates. Not long after, he received a ransom note."
Xena guessed, "And you go to pay the ransom?"
"No. I go to rescue the captives and kill or capture the chief pirate."
Gabrielle spoke, her voice still hoarse. "Why not just pay the ransom?"
"That is not the wish of the authorities in Athens. They feel that such action will only encourage more piracy. Besides, the ransom amount is outrageous. Can't be paid."
"And they asked you to do this? Where's the Athenian navy when you need them?"
Syri laughed. "They're out there, but they have all the finesse of stampeding elephants, sometimes. We are small and fast. Catch them, hurt them, run fast with the captives. I often perform special, ah, tasks for the State."
Xena nodded. "Got a name for this pirate?"
"Otanes. Have you any familiarity with him?"
"He's not reputed to be the worst of the bunch, by any means. I suspect that he just got lucky with the capture of Polidinos' family. We are to travel to a small island near Thera, there to pay the ransom. I assume that the family is being held there."
Gabrielle interrupted, "But instead of paying, you....."
Xena finished the sentence. "......kill 'em all."
Syri scratched his chin. "With any luck, it will not take such a bloody turn. Our first job is to insure the safety of this man's wife and children. The second is to bring back, hopefully alive, this Otanes. Like you, I have tasted deeply of the brutality of war. I dislike killing as much as the next person, but we must do anything necessary to save this family." He eyed Xena for a moment, then raised an eyebrow. "Interested? I'm sure that Polidinos can be very grateful, when necessary, and we would appreciate your knowledge of the warrior's arts. Your reputation is legendary."
Xena said nothing, just looked over at Gabrielle. She returned the gaze impassively, then whispered, "It seems the right thing to do, Xena." The tall warrior then nodded almost imperceptibly and looked back at Syri, who spoke.
"You need time to discuss it between yourselves?"
Xena shook her head. "No. We are decided. Count us in."
He beamed a smile. "Good. We welcome you both. Concentrate on regaining your strength. We arrive, I estimate, in two days. In the meantime, rest, eat and drink, and get to know us."
Xena smiled. "Thanks." Syri nodded pleasantly, then turned and strode toward the door. Just before he exited, Xena called after him. "Got a plan?"
Syri paused in the door, and cracked a grin laced with bravado. "Not yet, but no doubt I'll think of something." He then left, closing the cabin's door behind him.
Xena looked over at Gabrielle, who was sipping at her water. She noted the look, and stopped. "What?"
"Are you going to be fit for this? After all, you suffered badly."
"No worse than you, Xena."
"Yes, but I heal quickly."
"Me, too. You're not going to leave me out of this, so don't even try, Warrior Princess."
Xena smiled. "Somehow, I knew that you would say that." She stood, slowly and painfully, then offered out a hand to Gabrielle. "Come on, you stubborn little bard, let's see if you can stand up."
The evening sun cast brilliant red streaks across the lightly clouded sky and the day's heat had dissipated, leaving the ship's crew breathing a sigh of relief. They worked at the ship's rigging, adjusting the large, billowing mainsail slightly, laughing and cursing pleasantly as they strained at the rope sinews and secured them tightly to the iron rings prominent along the deck's periphery. A bellowing shout from the helmsman, Cladiaties, announced that the sail was now set to the wind's good-pleasure, and the crew disbursed, each to their favorite perch along the rail.
Xena emerged from the cabins' narrow hallway, holding onto Gabrielle and steadying herself with a hand placed on the smooth wood of the cabins' exterior as they cautiously tread the deck. The evening breeze was refreshing, and the warm wooden deck was pleasant beneath their bare feet. As they appeared, an agreeable voice assailed them from just out of vision's reach. It was Ptomaniae, her distinctive Egyptian accent seeming quite musical in the evening's air.
"Ah, good to see you both up and about. You are well?"
Gabrielle smiled, still hanging on to Xena. "Well, yes. I still feel weak, though."
Ptomaniae approached and studied them both with her wide, dark eyes. "Not surprising. You must rest. Ah, how is your skin?"
Xena poked at her reddened skin with a finger. "Begins to be sore."
"You will need more oil. I will mix it for you. Apply it to yourselves several times a day, until your skin returns to its normal color."
"Thanks. Right now, though, Gabrielle wants to see the sunset."
"Of course. It is quite beautiful. Come, stand here." She indicated the rail just forward of the cabins. The two sunburned, weary women approached the rail and grasped tightly, leaning slightly over the waist-high wood to take in the glorious splash of sight, sound, and smell as the sleek ship drove pleasantly through the foamy swells of blue-green sea. Gabrielle closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, while Xena used the opportunity to examine the ship from her place on deck.
It was long, slender, and in excellent repair. She noted the smooth wood of the decks, the gratings over the holds, the fresh paint on certain portions of the wood, and the woven sinews of rope which neatly rested about deck and extended up towards the single tall mast and it's huge, tightly billowing mainsail. As she leaned out and over the rail, she noted another, smaller sail at the ship's bow, slung under the bowsprit jutting out over the water and bulging nicely. Xena nodded approvingly as she noted the speed with which the ship's bow bit into the swells, and the musical creak and hum of wooden ship and rigging as she sliced neatly through the seas. She said aloud to Gabrielle, "Nice. Fine ship."
"Thank you." The voice responded from above and behind her, and Xena turned and looked up. Syri stood at the helm, leaning upon the large, solid tiller which crossed the deck just above the cabins.
"Fast. What speed do you estimate that you can attain?"
Syri smiled. "We've been known to traverse thirty-five to forty leagues in a day, from sunrise to sunset and with the wind and seas right."
Xena cocked her head. "That's incredible."
Syri waved a hand. "She's built for speed and agility, not gobs of freight. She'll outrun anything!"
Xena eyed the rowers' seats, recessed into the edges of the deck along the rail. "Oars, as well?"
"Yes, ten per side, twenty in all."
"You keep that much crew?"
He laughed. "Oh, no. Ten, usually."
"That's a lot for a ship of this size, I would think."
"Takes 'em to handle her, sometimes. She's like a wild horse when she's in a heavy wind."
Xena grinned, nodding. "I can imagine." Her attention was distracted by a well-placed elbow in her ribs. Gabrielle was pointing.
"Look, love. Dolphins!" Xena glanced forward, noting the gray shapes which kept march with the brisk pace of the ship's bow, cutting through the water and occasionally emerging to arch from swell to swell. "Isn't this delightful? I don't think that I've enjoyed being at sea like this, ever before."
Xena looked down at Gabrielle. Her sunburned face, shiny with oil, was crinkled into a smile and her long blonde hair blew across her face. She looked up at Xena, noted the expression, and tilted her head slightly in question. "What?"
"Actually, I don't think that you've ever enjoyed just being alive this much before."
Gabrielle reflected on that for a moment, then agreed. "You're right, Xena. We almost died. I never thought we'd be alive this day. It feels good. It makes everything more intense, more real, more urgent." She paused, then leaned into Xena. "Including...... us, if that's possible."
Xena wrapped her arms closely about Gabrielle, leaning down slightly and whispering in her ear, "Yes. I know what you mean, love. I know."
During the next two days' travel, Xena and Gabrielle worked to regain their energy and allow their bodies to repair the damage done over the last few days. They stretched and exercised, ate and drank regularly, and periodically applied a light sheen of Ptomaniae's medicated oil to the sunburned portions of each other's bodies. It seemed to help immeasurably, as the skin remained supple and did not hurt during their exercises.
The tall, enigmatic Amazon Koenis showed particular interest in Xena's warrior's skills, and even sparred with her upon the open deck in front of the cabins. The crew gave them a wide birth, watching in fascination and shouting pleasant encouragement as the two women whirled and danced, the wooden practice swords clacking together or upon Koenis' small, colorful Amazon shield as they offered each other a marvelous exercise. At the sparring's end, Koenis and Xena both drank from the water barrel at the base of the mast, trading compliments and even comparing a scar or two as Gabrielle approached. Koenis eyed the petite blonde pleasantly, exhibiting an unusually talkative mood to the two.
"So, little one, you are a warrior as well?"
"Actually, I do not consider myself one. I'm more of a bard."
Xena laughed. "Don't let her deceive you. She is ferocious with a fighting staff. She sports battle scars, as well."
Koenis' dark eyes considered the petite blonde with newfound respect. "You do?"
Gabrielle pulled back the sleeve-hole of her tunic, showing a deep scar near her left shoulder. "Persian arrow." She then pulled back her hair, tilting her head and demonstrating several scars along her neck. "Thessalonian wars. Remember that one, Xena?"
"I'll say. You scared me into Hades. I thought I had lost you."
Gabrielle looked at Koenis. "She did. I actually died, for a moment. Xena brought me back."
Koenis looked at Xena. "This is possible?"
Xena nodded. "Anything is possible, if you love deeply enough."
The enigmatic Amazon cast a glance in the direction of the helmsman Cladiaties, then nodded. "That's a certain truth." She then looked back at Gabrielle. "You need a fighting staff? Wait here." Koenis disappeared into the cabins, returning in a moment with two staffs. She tapped one end of one of the staffs on the deck, then tossed it to Gabrielle, who caught it neatly. "Do you wish to exercise?"
Gabrielle looked at Xena, who shrugged and gestured toward the tall Amazon. "You could use a workout, Gabrielle. Go ahead."
Gabrielle muttered under her breath, "You shouldn't have bragged about me, Xena. She's Amazon. She'll probably beat me senseless."
Xena just smiled. "Don't forget, you're Amazon as well."
Gabrielle tilted her head as she considered the statement. "I am, aren't I?" She walked out into the center of the deck, facing Koenis, and hefted the staff, offering a couple of twirls and a battle stance. Koenis replied with a nod and a wink, then spun her own staff and advanced cautiously. The tall, dark Amazon and the light-haired Greek quickly fell into an easy martial dance, whirling their bodies and clacking their staffs repeatedly.
Xena just watched from the rail, her arms folded across her chest, her heart swelled with pride as she watched Gabrielle parry and respond to the attacks of an experienced warrior who, despite repeated tries, could never quite gain and hold the advantage over her. When they ceased, perspiring freely, they both took water from the water barrel, conversing quite pleasantly. Xena approached, just in time to hear Koenis' comment.
"You fight like an Amazon."
Xena replied for Gabrielle. "She is Amazon. Princess of one of the tribes of Thessaly."
"Ah. I hail from the tribes of Thrace." Koenis tapped the tattoos on her face. "Warrior's tattoos. I got those at sixteen years of age."
Gabrielle studied her, then asked, "An Amazon at sea? It is unusual."
Koenis just smiled. "I travel with Cladiaties. He is a mariner, and I choose to be with him." The tall Amazon then eyed Gabrielle. "A princess who lives as a bard, and does not claim a warrior's title?"
Gabrielle smiled wryly, and replied, "I travel with Xena. She is a warrior, and I choose to be with her."
Koenis studied the little blonde for a moment, then smiled. "You are Amazon, little one. I can see it." Gabrielle offered the staff back to Koenis, who demurred. "Keep it. You will need it where we go next, I imagine."
That night, after darkness fell and the sails were trimmed to the declining winds and seas, the crew, except for the watch, gathered at the entrance to the cabin area. A bit of wine was doled out, and stories were exchanged. Xena and Gabrielle joined the other two females aboard the ship, sitting cross-legged on the wooden decks still warm from the day's sun, at the edge of the small crowd of male mariners. One of the crew, a small, lithe man known as Damos, began the revelry with a story of pleasant debauchery in Rhodes, albeit leaving out certain portions of the narrative in deference to the females. He still spun a pleasant yarn and received cheers, applause, and slightly rude comments from his fellow mariners.
He relinquished his position to the powerfully-built helmsman, who told a humorous little tale of three farmers, his booming voice pleasant in the night air. The story was delivered in his typically good-natured and whimsical manner, and Xena was slightly surprised to find herself not only smiling, but actually laughing out loud at the story's conclusion. The crowd quieted, however, when the captain appeared out of the cabins, a lyre of exquisite design in his hands. He seated himself on one of the flat wooden rungs of the short ladder to the tiller platform, and, with a strum of the strings, began a song of love. His voice proved pleasant and the lyre added a beautiful, mellow accompaniment to the poetry which he recited in the typical singsong chant of Athens' bards. As he played, Xena noted that Gabrielle leaned in against her, and she shifted slightly to allow the small blonde to nestle between her legs, leaning back against her and resting her head against Xena's shoulder. As the song finished, cheers once again erupted from the group, Gabrielle and Xena applauding as loudly as they could. Xena leaned over to compliment Ptomaniae on her husband's poetic skill, but noted that the tall Egyptian was no longer beside her. She muttered into Gabrielle's ear, "Now, that's odd. Where is Ptomaniae?"
Gabrielle replied, "Right here," and pointed to one side. At that moment, a most magnificent warble arose from the deck behind them. The crowd quieted instantly, and turned to face the new music. Xena turned, and Gabrielle shifted with her, as they watched Ptomaniae pace the deck silently, a long wooden flute raised to her lips. She played, eyes closed, pacing and shifting slightly to the gentle rise and fall of the deck, one flute exuding exquisite melody, her other flute tucked under her arm. The tones seemed to quiet and sooth even the elements of Poseidon's realm, as they permeated everyone and everything around them.
Xena leaned down and placed her mouth against Gabrielle's ear, whispering, "That's the most magnificent flute I've ever heard."
In answer, Gabrielle's head just nodded. Ptomaniae stopped pacing, pulled the second flute out from under her arm, and placed both flutes into her mouth, angled slightly away from each other. As she resumed, each flute played with one hand, the two instruments wove an intricate double melody which literally captivated the listeners. All were silent, even the raucous, slightly rough mariners which populated the deck that night. As the soulful melodies rose and fell through the night, Gabrielle felt her eyes water and a tear descend the curve of her cheek. She wiped it away and cast a glance up at Xena, hoping that her lover wouldn't notice the display of emotion and tease her later, only to detect a tear trailing down Xena's cheek as well. Slightly shocked, Gabrielle whispered, "Xena, you're crying?"
Xena wiped at the tear with the back of her hand. "No, I'm not. Shut up." Gabrielle chuckled and returned her attention to the flutes. All too quickly, the performance finished, and Ptomaniae bowed slightly in answer to the cheers which resounded through the night. As she resumed her seat on the deck next to Xena, Gabrielle felt herself lifted gently, as two strong hands placed themselves under her elbows and she rose to her feet. The voice which accompanied them belonged to Syri.
"Gabrielle? You will honor us with a story? You feel up to it?"
Gabrielle looked around, the faces expectant and waiting. She smiled, and nodded. "You have all been so kind to us. How can I refuse?" She walked forward carefully, picking her way in between legs to the door frame of the cabins' entrance. Leaning against the frame, she silently wondered which story to tell. She looked at Xena, an expression of pride evident upon the warrior's features, then at the tattooed face of the enigmatic Amazon Koenis. She nodded silently to no one in particular, then lifted her head and allowed her voice to ring out. "I sing of war, a tragic, senseless conflict, and of a love so strong...." Gabrielle lifted a hand to rest it upon her chest. "... That it cheated Hades, and pulled this traveler back from the river Styx to awaken in the arms of her beloved......"
"Xena?" Ptomaniae reached out a slender hand and touched the warrior on the shoulder. Xena's eyes popped open, and she squinted up through the dawn's dim light to see the Egyptian woman leaning over her and Gabrielle. "I am sorry to awaken you, but Syri asks for your presence at the helm."
Xena leaned up on one elbow in the narrow sleeping rack, then shook the sleep from her head. "What's up?" She gently extracted her other arm from the sleeping form of Gabrielle which was curled just in front of her, and ran a hand through her dark hair.
"We are approaching the island." Ptomaniae whispered, her eyes darting to Gabrielle, but Xena just chuckled softly.
"She sleeps the sleep of the dead. It takes a runaway chariot to awaken her." At Ptomaniae's nodded response, Xena drew back the covers and eased herself over the petite blonde's slumbering form. Gabrielle murmured slightly, stirred, then resumed her soft snore as Xena stood next to the rack. "Hand me my tunic, will you?"
Ptomaniae did as she was requested, then studied Xena's body. "You have many scars."
"I'm a warrior."
"But your sunburn is healing well."
Xena slipped the tunic over her head, and it covered her to just above her knees. "Yes, thanks to you." She leaned down and covered Gabrielle with the sheet, then made for the door.
Ptomaniae followed. "It is nothing. I know a bit of healing."
"You know a lot of healing. Lead the way."
Xena climbed the short ladder leading to the tiller, taking a place beside Syri, who stood, arms folded across his chest, eyes squinted toward the distant land. The crewman at the tiller nodded a deferential greeting to Xena, who returned it as she spoke to the Captain. "What's the situation?"
"Sorry to awaken you so early, but we have found our island, I believe. This has to be it. You can just barely see, in the distance, the larger island of Thera. Now, the ransom message indicated that we were to put in to a cove on the easternmost edge of this island, and drop anchor in the middle of it. They would come out to us with instruction as to payment."
Xena studied the island in the distance. "Where are we now?"
"We approach it from the west. As you can see, the wind is half-west, half-northerly. We can, I believe, sail around the north side of the island to attain the cove."
"How long, do you think?"
"Half a day, perhaps less."
"What's your plan?"
"Don't have one. Got any ideas?"
"Let me understand this. You have no intention of paying the ransom?"
"Then, we must surprise them. It would help to know the layout of the island before we sail into the cove. Is it a large island?"
"I do not think so. Nothing of value there, except perhaps a few farms and a trading village at the cove, so they tell me."
"A perfect hiding spot for pirates."
"Indeed. Why don't we scout it out a bit? I'll put in along the north coast, and we'll see what we can see from the heights overlooking the cove."
"Good start." Xena stood, eyes squinted into slits, her mind turning over the various scenarios which were possible. "We must know something of our enemy before we attack. Drop me off along the coast, then wait for my return."
"Do you wish a landing party?"
"No. I work well alone." She hesitated for a moment, then reconsidered. "On second thought, perhaps Koenis would come along?"
"She's an excellent choice. I'm quite sure she would."
"Done, then. Let me know when we arrive." Syri nodded, then returned to studying the distant island. Xena descended the ladder, and walked to the water bucket and dipped a wooden bowl into the warm liquid, drinking deeply. She then returned to the cabin, easing the door open. Gabrielle was awake, but lying in the sleeping rack.
"Xena? What's happening?"
"We're there." She sat on the side of the rack, Gabrielle moving slightly so as to allow her room to sit comfortably.
"Oh. What now?" Xena outlined the immediate plan to her, and Gabrielle nodded in understanding, pulling back the cover and rising to stand in the center of the room. She slipped her tunic over her head, wiggling it into position, then looked about the room. "Guess I need my boots and such."
"Not just yet. It will take some time to find a suitable beach. In the meantime, let's eat. I smelled some stew cooking."
The petite blonde's features brightened at that. "Eat? I'm with you. Let's go."
At midday, the sleek ship skirted the outline of the island's northern coast. Syri stood at the deck's railing, eyes squinted tightly against the noon sun, and studied the coastline. Xena joined him, arms crossed across her chest, eyes glued to the surf and rocky coastline. "See anyplace suitable for landing yet?"
He shook his head. "No. Surf is quite rough on this side of the island. We're on the windward side, you know. Beach is thin. Don't like it."
"I agree. How much further until we round the island?"
"You can just see the hills surrounding the eastern end of the island now. There, eh?" Xena nodded. "Perhaps we can skirt the cove, and land on the southern side. It will no doubt be protected somewhat from the seas and wind. They are increasing, slightly."
"Do you expect bad weather?"
Syri glanced upward at the sky, then at the sea, and sniffed the air. "It is possible. By this time tomorrow, it could happen."
Xena leaned on the rail. "You say that there is a small trading village in the cove?"
"That is my understanding."
"Then it would be logical for a ship to take refuge in the cove, to await the passing of the bad weather?"
Syri smiled slightly, and nodded. "Yes. I think I understand you. We pretend innocence, put in at the cove, claim we are seeking fresh water or some such thing, and protection from the possible weather coming. There must no doubt be docks. If we can position ourselves properly, we can accomplish a fast getaway once we locate the hostages and this Otanes."
Xena nodded, smiling. "Syri, I like the way you think. Once you put in, we can feel around the village. Something's got to come up."
"Done. Should be there around late afternoon."
"Call when you need me." With that, Xena left the rail and headed toward the cabins, Syri watching her go. He studied her retreating form, then scratched his chin and wondered what the next day or two would bring, quickly deciding that he was thankful to Poseidon, Athena, or whoever was responsible for their marvelous good luck in dropping this odd warrior and her companion onto his decks at such an uncertain time. As he mused, a large shadow appeared on the rail next to him. Cladiaties' voice addressed him.
"Captain? What's on your mind?" Syri chuckled slightly, then outlined the change in plans to his helmsman and friend. Cladiaties listened, then raised an eyebrow.
"It seems uncertain."
"It is uncertain. Sometimes, a straightforward approach is the best, however."
"Indeed. Well, if anyone can do this, we can. Best ship and crew in Piraeus, by all the gods!"
Syri looked about him at the vessel and the crew at their various tasks, and nodded agreement. "That's a certain text. Always helps to have some more assurance, however. Think I'll have a little chat with Ptomaniae. She seems to have a way with the spiritual side of things. Mind the deck for a bit more?" Cladiaties nodded, then roared a short, good-natured laugh.
"While she's meddling with the gods, have her put in a good word for me, will you?"
Syri grinned. "Perhaps she'll put in a good thought for us all." With that, he turned and headed for the cabins.
Syri found Ptomaniae resting in their small cabin. He entered softly, and noted her eyes shut. Not wishing to awaken her, but his mind nevertheless buzzing with concern at their uncertain path, he sat gently on the rack next to her. She opened her eyes, studying him, and smiled as he spoke softly to her.
"Did I awaken you?"
"No, I was not asleep. You look concerned, husband. What is the matter?"
"Ah, I was wondering if you could tell me anything about what waits to greet us ahead."
Her large, dark eyes considered his request, then she answered, "I can try, if you like. As you know, however, I sometimes cannot see clearly those things which affect me directly."
She nodded, then rose from her recumbent place on the sleeping rack. "Then I shall try." Ptomaniae knelt beside the sleeping rack, pulling a wooden chest from underneath. She opened it, and, rummaging about inside it, withdrew a cloth bundle. Kneeling on the deck of the cabin, she unwrapped it and withdrew a stack of wooden cards. As she held them in her hands, she closed her eyes and began a soft, singsong chant. The wooden cards clacked against each other as she shuffled them for some few moments, Syri sitting silently and watching her. He did not completely understand her strange communion with the unseen realms, or her possession of the skill she displayed with such things, but he had witnessed her uncanny abilities often enough to put trust in them. Finally, she ceased her chant and turned up the first card, placing it on the open cloth spread out on the deck at her knees. The card was brightly painted with stylized Egyptian figures and hieroglyphics, and fascinated him even though he did not know enough of their meanings to discern any information from them. It was unnecessary, however; she would speak, and soon enough. She studied it for a moment, then voiced her thoughts.
"Danger ahead. Caution is indicated. But then, you knew that. Perhaps the next card will explain it." She lay another card next to the first, and spoke again. "Seth, lord of chaos and storms."
Syri inquired, "Storms?"
She nodded, then proceeded with the third card. "War. There will be violence on this trip."
He scratched his chin. "Well, there goes having an easy time of it."
She lay out the fourth card. "The influence of the sun god is waning. Nut, goddess of the sky predominates. The darkness will be our friend in this endeavor." She placed the next card down and studied it, tilting her head slightly in question. Finally, she looked up at Syri. "This makes no sense to me. I have gone as far as I can with the cards. Perhaps my fear for your safety interferes with my reading of them."
"You needn't fear. I will be quite all right."
She smiled slightly. "I always fear, whenever I know you face danger."
Syri nodded, then made to rise. He leaned forward, kissing her gently on her forehead. "Well, it's something, anyway. Thank you."
She gathered up the cards, then hesitated. "Wait. I will use other arts."
Syri looked down at her cautiously. "Are you quite sure? I know that you hesitate to employ them."
"I will do so. You must leave me alone for a bit, however. When I have finished, I will tell you what I have seen." At his questioning look, she replied, "It is all right. Just light that oil lamp for me before you leave, will you?"
He nodded, then rose and retrieved flints from his cupboard, on the wall next to his small table. He struck at the flints a couple of times, and the lamp's wick caught and offered a flame. As he placed the lamp down in front of her on the gently rolling deck, she reached into her chest and withdrew a cloth bag. "Go now, husband. I need total concentration. Rest assured, it will be fine."
"Well, if you're sure." He hesitated at the door, then looked back at her. "Be careful, will you?" She nodded, and he left the cabin, closing the door behind him. When the latch clacked, Ptomaniae opened her herb bag and withdrew a small metal bowl. Into it, she sprinkled some herbs from a pouch, then tapped some powder into the bowl from a small, ornate pottery jar. She again closed her eyes, began her singsong chants, and allowed her mind and heart to become quiet. When she felt sufficiently relaxed, she picked up the bowl, holding it at one corner with a cloth, and held it over the flame. It's contents crackled and burned, a thick plume of smoke rising into the air in front of her. Ptomaniae inhaled the smoke once, then again, and closed her eyes, seeking that which only someone of her family's heritage and training could detect.
Syri strode the deck slowly, his mind wrapped in thought, his eyes absent-mindedly studying the deck at his feet, until he noted another, smaller pair of feet in front of him. Looking up, he nodded at Gabrielle, who was studying him quizzically. She noted, "You look worried."
He smiled. "Yes. It always afflicts me before a difficult situation resolves itself."
"Then you are no different than anyone else. Xena goes crazy, sometimes. She'll pace until she wears a groove in the dirt, or polish her sword until it shines."
"Me? I just fuss at Xena, and make her have a sensitive chat with me." At Syri's questioning look, she continued, "She's not much one for sensitive chat, usually."
"Ah. A woman of action, like Koenis."
"Exactly. Warriors, eh? Of course, she can say more with a look than most people can say with a page of words."
"I noticed that about her."
Gabrielle looked past Syri, then greeted Ptomaniae. She joined the two, and placed a hand on Syri's arm. "The cove. It harbors a ship, painted black. The man you seek sails that ship. There are wooden docks and a small town, unremarkable, really. I did see a woman and children who seem in distress, but they are not on the ship. The walls which surround them are gray stone."
Syri nodded. "Thank you. Please, rest now." She smiled, then retreated quickly to the cabins. Gabrielle watched her go, then looked at Syri.
"She has been there before?"
"It's hard to explain. She has, ah, certain gifts."
Her eyes widened. "A seer?"
"Of sorts. It is something from her training in Egypt. I don't understand it completely."
"What a marvelous gift."
"One fraught with danger, I feel. I do not consider myself superstitious, but I worry when she employs them."
Gabrielle considered the confession, then attempted to reassure him. "I'm sure that she knows what she does." Their conversation was cut short by a shout from the mast head. Syri looked up to see the crewman Damos at the top of the sail, pointing.
"Captain. The cove's entrance. I can see it."
Syri looked down again, and toward Gabrielle. "It starts. Excuse me." With that, he strode toward the tiller platform, leaving Gabrielle to consider what she had just learned about the graceful Egyptian woman, and silently vowing to corner Ptomaniae on the return trip and seek the answers to questions harbored in her own heart.
The crew, cursing and sweating, wrestled the mainsail down and onto the deck, stowing it and it's thick, long wooden yard upon the hatch covers and parallel to the long axis of the vessel. That task completed, they all disbursed to the rowers' seats depressed along the railings, preparing to extend the long oars out and into the smooth waters of the large cove. At Cladiaties' bellow, the oars extended, dropped, and began their rhythmic drumbeat upon the water. The ship gained slow steerage speed, and Syri, standing at the tiller, swung the large wooden lever back and forth until they found themselves approaching the village at the innermost edge of the cove.
His eyes scanned the village as they gradually neared the cluster of buildings, Syri noting the wooden docks protruding from the waterfront dwellings. Most of the structures were not more than one or two stories tall, washed in faded white, with tiled roofs or thatch. A scattering of boats of various sizes dotted the waterfront, one prominent among them. It was painted black. He squinted, and counted several figures upon the decks. His vision then trailed along the length of the village, and he noted a gray stone structure prominent on the hillside just behind the village. It did not seem particularly imposing, although it had the appearance of having been originally built for defense.
Studying the docks, Syri spied a section which was quite vacant, and determined that they would touch there. He guided his ship into a slow approach, then concentrated upon the timing of the ship's speed. At the right moment, shouted commands caused the oars to lift from the water. The crew held them straight out, water dripping from their flat blades, then the scraping of wood on wood resounded as they were slid inboard and under the deck. Several crew members scrambled from their seats to attend the rail, dock lines of twisted rope at the ready. When the ship thumped and scraped slightly along the wood of the docks, some of Syri's crew dropped over the rail and landed easily on the planks of the dock, quickly looping the ropes thrown to them around the pilings which pointed skyward. The lines tightened, and the ship ceased it's forward motion, the crew on deck straining at the ropes and cursing until they had closed the distance between railing and dock and secured their lines to the iron rings at the deck's periphery. When they had finished, a section of the deck railing was lifted away, and the crew on the dock climbed back on board the ship.
At Syri's shouted command, they all gathered around him on the mid-deck. He kept his voice low, but firm and authoritative. "You all know why we're here and what we have to do. We have been through danger together many times before. If we keep our wits, we can pull this off and have our skins intact. We divide into two groups. Koenis, choose five. Arm yourselves from the weapons locker, then keep out of sight. Mios, Damos, and three others will remain aboard and in sight. Our story is that we seek fresh water and refuge, as we expect a storm. Xena, Gabrielle, be ready, as you will accompany the landing party. Cladiaties and I will attend the local tavern. There, we should be able to find word of this Otanes. The hostages we seek are in that gray stone structure behind the town. We go to free them after dark, with the landing party. You five that stay aboard, keep the ship ready for quick departure. We may be chased. Is all understood?" The nodding of heads and murmurs from the assembled group resounded, and Syri looked about him at the gathered faces. "Good. See to it." He turned and strode to the cabins, and the crew disbursed to attend their duties.
Xena and Gabrielle hurried to their cabin behind Syri, Cladiaties and Koenis, each entering their own small niche to dress and arm themselves. Once inside the cabin, Xena wasted no time shedding her tunic and dressing for battle. Gabrielle, however, held up her clothes. They were stained, faded, and falling apart. She grimaced, then looked over at Xena. "Look. They're destroyed. What am I going to do?"
Xena eyed the rags, then chuckled. "Go naked. Or, maybe you should start wearing leather."
"Well, wear that, then." She pointed at the tunic that Gabrielle wore. "You'll need your boots, as well."
Gabrielle cocked her head quizzically. "Where are they, by the way?"
Xena pointed to the deck underneath the sleeping rack. "There. Koenis oiled them for you."
Gabrielle pulled them out from under the rack, sitting down to slip them on. "They're nice, Xena. I'll thank her." She sat down on the rack and slipped the first one on, grunting and straining. When her foot settled into the boot, she wiggled her toes. The toe of the boot lifted slightly, exposing a toe. "Nice. Now I need new boots."
As Xena buckled her chest armor, she raised an eyebrow. "Sea water does that."
Gabrielle gave Xena her 'sarcastic' expression as she struggled with her other boot. "You know, your sympathy overwhelms me, Xena."
"Well, that's what you get for buying cheap boots. Where did you find those, anyway?"
"You got them for me."
"Oh." The tall warrior gave out an embarrassed look, slung her sword across her back, then took a step closer to Gabrielle and leaned down to kiss her. "We'll get you new clothes when we get to Athens. That will be the first thing we do."
"Promise. Now, let's go."
"All right, but I'm holding you to that."
"Oh, I know, I know. I'll hear of nothing else until we do."
"Hey! I'm not that bad." After a pause, she continued, "Am I?"
In answer, Xena just reached out an arm and hugged Gabrielle to her side. "Yes. And, whatever you do in this life, promise me one thing."
"Don't ever change."
Syri and Cladiaties strode down the docks toward the waterfront buildings, seeking out the tavern. They had changed into tunics, and wore leather walking boots, laced in front and extending to just above the ankles. Syri displayed his ever-present dagger prominently in his belt, along with a small cloth purse containing some coins. Cladiaties also had thrust a dagger into his waist-belt, but his imposing presence seldom made it necessary for him to draw it. They nodded greetings to the few mariner types or fishermen who dotted the docks, and who regarded the strangers with a curious but respectful glower.
Finding the tavern, they entered and greeted the keeper of the house. He motioned to a table, and approached with a tired, unconcerned air. Speaking briefly with the two men, the keeper drew a pitcher of ale and returned to plop it and two cups on the greasy table. Syri motioned to the keeper, and then to a bench at the table. "Come, and sit for a moment. We seek information." The keeper eyed them carefully, then nodded and sat at the table. Syri leaned close to him, taking him into their confidence. "We have just put in here. New to this island. We seek fresh water. Who can help?"
The keeper motioned toward the street. "Three buildings down, that way." He then rose, but Syri placed a hand on his wrist.
"That's not all. We seek other information."
"What's that?" At the keeper's guarded expression, Syri placed a few coins on the table. The keeper's eyes widened, then twinkled slightly as he examined the coins. "Athenian silver. Must be some important information you want."
"It is." He lowered his voice to a whisper, then continued, "Know of a man named Otanes?"
The keeper laughed slightly. "Who doesn't? Runs the show around here. Say, what do you want with him?"
"Where can we find him?"
The keeper cast his eyes about the inn, then leaned in to whisper, "Big gray structure, just behind the town. He and his men stay there when they're not out at sea."
"How many men?"
The keeper shrugged. "Twenty-five, thirty, maybe more. They are in here often."
"That black ship. His?"
"What else can you tell us about him?"
"Bloody villain. Drinks a lot of my liquor, but doesn't pay all the time. What can I do?"
Syri eyed Cladiaties. "What, indeed?" He then dropped another silver coin on the table. "Keep our conversation between us, eh?" The keeper nodded, collected the coins, then rose from the table, disappearing into the back rooms. Syri and Cladiaties each poured a cup of ale from the pottery pitcher and made a show of drinking it nonchalantly. Their eyes, however, studied the inn and it's occupants, just a couple of seedy waterfront types deep into their cups. After a bit, Cladiaties regarded his captain with a twinkling eye.
"Time to take a walk around town?"
Syri nodded. "Time." At that, they rose and left the tavern, emerging out and onto the street. A short walk revealed the layout of the village and the entrance of the gray stone building looming in the background. A couple of men loitered at it's entrance, weapons leaning against the wall, apparently absorbed in a game of dice. After a perusal of the surrounding hillside, the two mariners found their way back down the winding, narrow street and paced back toward the dock and the sleek ship moored at it's distant end.
Night descended upon the village, and with it, a pleasant coolness to the air. Lanterns were lighted, and soft glows emerged from the crew's quarters in the forward third of the ship and the cabins at the stern. Gradually, a partial moon rose to slightly illuminate the hillsides and smooth cove water, however half-hearted the attempt. Syri noted the sky and moon as he paced the deck, grumbling slightly to himself. His worrisome tramp upon the hollow wooden deck was interrupted by Xena.
Syri's head nodded toward the tavern. "Lots of noise coming from there. If we strike now, perhaps we can be finished before they realize what hit their refuge."
"Then again, let them drink a bit more. Catch them in their cups, eh?"
"Sounds like they're already there."
Xena agreed. "Anyone on the docks?"
Syri waved to Mios. He approached, and Syri spoke softly to him. "Go and scout the docks. If they are empty, we move." Mios nodded, then hustled across the deck and dropped to the dock and disappeared into the darkness. Several minutes later, he reappeared and reported to his Captain and Xena. "All quiet. No one out. They're all at home or in the tavern, I imagine."
Syri looked at Xena, who said nothing but simply raised an eyebrow. "We go now." He turned to Mios. "Ask the landing party to assemble here on deck, and quietly." The crewman nodded, and disappeared into the cabins. Figures began emerging into the darkness upon the deck, only the occasional clink of weapons audible. When all were present, Syri took a quick count. Five crewmen stood ready, swords and axes in hand. Koenis stood proudly, boots donned, the metal plates of the light leather body armor dull in the dim light. In addition to her dagger and curved, single-edged sword, she wore a bow and quiver of arrows across her back. Her small, colorful Amazon shield was prominent upon her left forearm. Cladiaties joined them, a sword from the weapons locker at his left hip and his favored battle-axe present in his hand. In addition, he carried a coil of rope slung diagonally across his powerful torso, a grappling hook dangling from one end. Gabrielle completed the complement, brown boots on her feet, fighting staff in her hand, and her hair tied back and away from her face. Syri scanned the figures, then turned to Xena. With a shade of bravado in his voice, he whispered, "Well, warlord, your army has assembled. Shall we?"
Xena nodded, then responded, "No time like now. Follow me. Cladiaties, show us the way."
The figures tread silently toward the dock, dropping one at a time onto the worn wooden planking. In single file, they melted into the night, walking at an easy pace, the five remaining crewmen upon the deck watching them. As the landing party faded into the darkness, Ptomaniae emerged from the cabin and stood at the railing. Her hands grasped the wood tightly, and she closed her eyes and breathed deeply in an effort to still her pounding heartbeat and allow herself sufficient clarity of soul to reach out and into the night with the fingers of her mind and probe the dangers ahead. Not seeing imminent danger, she sighed and relaxed a bit. To herself, she said aloud, in her native tongue, "Good speed and fortune. I will keep watch."
Once ashore, the party quickened its pace, carrying it up through the narrow, winding streets toward the gray fortress. They quickly emerged from the village without incident, and spread out along the edges of the dirt road leading to the large fortress' door. About a stone's throw from the door, the party halted at Xena's raised hand and whispered command. She stared into the night, then turned and placed a hand on Koenis' shoulder. Leaning into the Amazon's ear, she whispered, "See anyone?"
The Amazon advanced a few paces and peered intently into the night. After a bit, she replied, "No. The door must be bolted from the inside, or they would have guards."
"I agree. Let's open it." The party advanced again, as silently as they could muster, weapons at ready, scarcely daring to breathe. They reached the door without being challanged, and Xena examined the large iron rings hanging from the doors. She gave a push, and the door did not budge. "Bolted. We go over the wall."
Cladiaties slipped the rope coil off his shoulder and placed it on the ground. As the party stood back somewhat, he measured out an arm's length of rope, the grappling hook dangling from his hand. He spun the hook in a circle several times, then released it. It flew up and into the night, clanking off the stones as it disappeared over the wall. When it silenced, he pulled several times upon the rope, assuring its solid connection, then turned to Syri, who made a motion to take the rope. Xena placed a hand on his shoulder. "Let me. Koenis, follow. We open the door. Be ready."
Without waiting for a response, Xena ascended the rope, hand over hand, quickly and silently. Koenis waited until the warrior was almost to the top of the wall, then slung her shield over one shoulder and quickly followed. The rest of the party waited, listening intently for sound of anything amiss, and heard nothing. After a few agonizing minutes, there was a thump and scrape from the other side of the door. One half swung partially open, and a voice hissed through the opening, "Come, quickly." Syri drew his sword, and, followed by Cladiaties, Gabrielle and his five mariners, slipped through the narrow opening.
Once inside, they remained huddled in the shadows of the wall, casting a glance about the inner courtyard. A few torches cast a dim light near doors, and caused long shadows to stretch outwards from stone steps and the occasional wagon or the well which sat in the courtyard. Xena pointed toward one door, brightly lit, and a man who leaned against the wall next to the torch angling outward from the nearby wall. "There. Main rooms, I am guessing. We go there."
Syri whispered to the party, "Weapons at ready. Take whomever you see. No survivors."
Xena responded, "No. Give me at least one. We need to know where the hostages are."
"Koenis, can you reach him with an arrow?" The Amazon slid forward and took a place next to Xena, then nodded. "Good. Stay here, and do so as we approach the door. Then join us quickly."
Wordlessly, she pulled the bow from her back and notched an arrow into it. Xena rose and gestured with a hand. In single file, Syri, Gabrielle, and the mariners faded into the wall's shadows at a crouch and filed forward, keeping to the walls as they approached the door. Koenis considered the distance as she drew back the bow, keeping an eye on the progress of the landing party as they slowly wound their way around the courtyard and through the shadows. When they were close to the door, Koenis held her breath and concentrated. The bow twanged, and her arrow sought its target in the night.
Inside the main hall, long wooden tables and benches occupied the large room near a fireplace which crackled and lit the hall in yellow light. A dozen or more men sat about, drinking and talking, or moving with bored familiarity about the room. Remnants of a meal littered the table, and one man snored, his head down upon the table and his cup empty beside him. In a group of three comrades who sat near the fire, one looked toward the door. "Where's that fool Siplus? He went outside some time ago."
Another of the comrades waved a hand, slightly drunkenly. "Aah, let him alone. He went to get some fresh air."
"He's probably chasing one of those village girls. Just like him, to hold out on us." The man rose and walked toward the door, the other two elbowing each other and laughing. They watched nonchalantly as their comrade reached the door. He looked about him in the night, then called, "Siplus?" No answer. Again, he called out, but his call was cut short when he looked down at his feet. Siplus lay in a tangled heap at his feet, an arrow protruding from his chest at the level of his heart, a pool of dark blood forming around him.
One of the other two called from his seat, "Let him be. He's probably found one." Another round of laughter began, then increased as the man staggered away from the door, his back still to the room. "What's this? You drunken pig. Try to stay on your feet tonight, hey? We're tired of carrying you around." This raised a few howls from those watching, howls of laughter which stopped abruptly as the man fell backwards, collapsing on the stone floor with a loud thud. A spurt of blood shot from a deep gash in his neck, a sight which caused all watching within the hall to freeze and stare numbly toward the door. As one man rose from his place at the table, reaching for the sword which lay upon the table near his hand, he opened his mouth to call an alarm, but found that he had no time. Figures charged into the room through the door, led by a tall, imposing female in leather and armor. She howled a battle cry, and swung her sword in a wide arc, beheading the nearest man. Seven more joined her, spreading out and charging, axes and swords flailing. Several of the dozen or so occupants of the room rose to meet them, but barely had time to recover and draw their weapons before they were beset by the landing party. True to Syri's instruction, no mercy was shown. Axes and swords swished through the air, men falling where they stood, others clambering over tables and benches in a frantic attempt to retrieve their weapons or simply escape the marauders. A woman servant carrying a large pottery urn of wine screamed and dropped it on the stone floor, shattering it and spraying the dark liquid over herself. She stood frozen, until a young woman wielding a fighting staff grabbed her by the front of her tunic and pulled her aside, and up against the wall. She shook the servant and looked into her panicked face.
"Stay here, and you won't get hurt. Understand?" The servant stared blankly. She was shaken again. "Understand?" The servant nodded, and the young woman wheeled and took a few paces forward, bringing her staff down hard upon the head of a pirate. He fell, then tried to rise again. She clubbed him again, and he dropped to the floor and did not move.
In a very short time, the carnage was ended. The only ones left standing were the landing party, who stood at ready, eyes searching about the room, weapons leveled, spatters of blood evident across their torsos, arms and faces. Their victims lay scattered about the room, twisted into grotesque shapes, pools of blood forming about them. Xena quickly counted, and then turned and spoke. "I count thirteen. Syri?"
He nodded, waving his Egyptian sword, the blade and his hand bloodied. "I count the same. Everyone all right?" He looked about. His mariners were all accounted for, and Gabrielle stood, leaning on her staff. Koenis entered the door, curved sword drawn, shield up, and then stopped to take in the sight. Without a word, she took her place near her captain.
Xena strode around the room, looking at the bodies, and cursed quietly under her breath. "All dead. I wanted one alive."
Gabrielle answered, "Xena, we have one." She motioned to the servant woman standing by the wall, frozen in fear. "Come here. Come on, we won't hurt you." Slowly, cautiously, the woman advanced toward the party.
Xena approached her. "Look, you're all right with us. We won't hurt you. We need to know where a woman and her children are being held." The servant did not answer immediately, and Xena grew impatient. "You speak Greek?" The woman slowly nodded. "Good. A woman and children. Do you know what I'm talking about?" Again, the woman nodded. "Show us."
She pointed with a shaky hand toward stairs, and mumbled, "That way. Upstairs, and left."
Xena smiled, her eyes still hard. "Good. Now, you know Otanes?" She grimaced, then nodded. "Where is he? What does he look like?"
She found her voice now, wavering, tentative, but effective. She began speaking rapidly, in stutters and starts. "Ah, his rooms are there, upstairs. He looks, um, ah,......"
Syri walked close. "No harm will come to you. Come on, now, we don't have all night."
"Yes, yes, ah, wears a tunic of blue. Bearded, nasty." She winced at her own description of him, then looked imploringly at the armed men around her.
Syri continued the interrogation. "One thing more. There are thirteen here. Otanes has perhaps twenty-five or thirty with him. Is that right?" She looked about the room, then nodded. "Where are the rest?"
"They, um, they are gone to the ship. They will return tonight, soon, I think."
Syri cast Xena a glance. She tapped him on the arm with her knuckles and motioned toward the stairs. "Come on. No time. Let's get this done before they return."
Syri nodded, then looked back at the woman. "You live in town?" She nodded. "Then get away from here, as fast as you can. Go home." She nodded, then turned and ran for the door, slowing down to gingerly step over the body at the door frame before disappearing into the night. Syri turned toward his men. "You and you, attend the gate. Give us warning if they come back from the ship. Go!" The two mariners wheeled and ran through the door. Xena watched them go, then waved her hand and began her ascent up the stairs, the landing party forming behind her and following as they creaked up the heavy wooden steps.
On the second floor, they looked about themselves and noticed a hallway with several doors, all closed. Xena walked forward softly, listening, watching for any sign of the unusual. She stopped at the first door, and gave it a push. It swung open, and the room was dark. Cladiaties pulled a lighted torch off the wall and entered, waving it about as he scanned the room. In a moment, he reappeared. "No one here. Sleeping pads, nothing else."
They continued down the hall to the next doors. Again, Xena placed a hand on the door and pushed it open, then stood aside as Cladiaties entered with the torch. Its light illuminated a surprised face, who approached the door and spoke. "Hey! What is this?" The face stopped as it viewed the imposing form of Cladiaties, who said nothing, just held up the torch in his left hand and brought his battle-axe down upon the head of the room's occupant with his right. A dull crunch resounded, and the man collapsed like a dropped stone. Cladiaties waved the torch around the room, then turned back to the landing party.
"Nothing here, either."
Xena growled, "Then we keep looking. This door." She pushed at it, but it did not budge. "Locked. This is it, I'll bet." She noted the large keyhole, then stood back and kicked at the door. It shuddered, but did not open. She kicked again, and it still held fast. Before she could strike it a third time, a muscular leg swung past her and smashed the wooden slab open. It swung back on its hinges, pieces of wood scattering about the floor and the iron lock mechanism clattering at their feet. Xena looked over her shoulder, and eyed the large helmsman who stood at her side. Nodding slightly, she said, "Thank you."
Cladiaties bowed slightly, answering, "Honored, good lady. After you." His eyes caught Xena's, and they both allowed a slight grin to curve up at the corners of their mouths. Before Xena made a motion to enter the room, she actually smiled.
"Been a long time since I was called that." Behind her, she thought that she could discern a snicker which sounded remarkably like Gabrielle's. She muttered, "Oh, gods. I'm going to be teased for a month about that." Pulling herself to her full height, she assumed a dignified expression and entered the room, her sword level, Cladiaties just behind her with the torch held aloft. They looked about the room, and noted a sleeping pad and a few food bowls scattered about. The scurrying and squeaking of a couple of rats sounded from a near corner. As they entered the room, looking about, Xena noted two small figures huddled in a corner. She approached, Cladiaties' torch just behind her, and as the circle of light advanced with them, the forms of two children became evident. They were standing in a corner, eyes wide, expressions unblinking as they studied the adults before them. Xena approached them.
"Is your father Polidinos?" The children did not answer. "Well, speak up. Is your father Polidinos?" Again, the children did not answer. Gabrielle wormed her way to the front of the group, placing a hand on Xena's arm.
"Xena, you're scaring them!"
"No, I'm not. How can I be scaring them?"
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at Xena. "You would scare the living Hades out of me like that."
"Look at yourself." Xena looked down, noting splatters of blood across her arms and chest. Her bloodied sword was held aloft, and pointing toward the children.
"I see what you mean. Gabrielle, take charge of them. Get them downstairs and to the main room. We'll meet you there. We've still got to find the mother and Otanes."
Syri motioned to one of his mariners. "Stay with her, and protect her." The mariner nodded and stood aside, taking his place near the petite bard. Syri then looked at the children, and said, "Where is your mother? We'll find her for you. You must tell us where she went, though."
The older child, a boy, answered softly, "Men took her a bit ago."
"Where?" The boy shrugged, and Syri looked at Xena.
"No time to waste. Let's keep looking." They backed out of the room and resumed their slow tread down the hallway as Gabrielle, the mariner hovering near her, herded the two children back toward the main hall's stairs with soft words and whispers.
Not far down the hallway, Xena stopped outside a door. She listened intently, then reached out with her free hand and pushed on the latch. It did not move. She motioned toward the door, and looked at Cladiaties. "Do you mind?"
He shrugged. "Not at all." He handed the torch to Xena, then kicked ferociously at the latch. The door splintered, but did not open. He kicked again, and the door shattered, falling off its hinges and crashing to the floor, shards of wood scattering about. The room was lit with several oil lamps, and a bearded man in a blue tunic faced them, sword in hand. Behind him, a woman cowered in the corner. Xena looked the situation over, then narrowed her eyes into slits, offering her most menacing countenance. She handed the torch to one of the mariners and entered the room slowly, sword out, her voice a low growl. "Otanes, I presume?"
"Who are you? How did you get up here?"
Xena smiled, although her eyes remained very cold. "Walked. Put the sword down, and you just might live to see the sunrise." She slowly advanced, Cladiaties and Syri just behind her. They spread apart slightly as they entered the room, weapons at ready. Otanes backed up slightly, sword out, and began looking about him desperately. His manner indicated fear, but he radiated the deep danger of an animal cornered. "Come on, now. Put it down. Don't make this difficult." Otanes wavered just a bit, then advanced and attacked Xena. She deftly parried his sword's swing, and then brought her sword's hilt back up to strike him in the face. He staggered backwards, flattening up against the wall, blood pouring from his nose. He shook his head a couple of times, then reached out with his free hand and grabbed the woman by her hair. Holding her in front of him, he offered her out as a shield and advanced, swinging his sword wildly towards the intruders and making for the door.
The three in the room spread out, blades in front of them, allowing him to pass, parrying his sword's thrusts with their own but hesitating to offer him combat. As he passed, Syri flashed down with his sharp Egyptian sword and a scream echoed through the room. Otanes dropped to his knees, holding out the stump of an arm. Cladiaties grabbed the woman by her tunic and shoved her into the waiting arms of the landing party in the hallway. She collapsed at their feet. Xena stood, dispassionately watching the man on the floor stare aghast at his severed forearm, spurts of blood issuing from the end. After a moment, she kicked the sword from his other hand and reached out to grip his forearm tightly. The spurts of blood slowed to a trickle. Glancing up, she growled, "Find something to make a tourniquet out of, will you?" Syri walked over to the bed and pulled the blanket off the straw mattress. He ripped a wide strip from its length, and wrapped it as tightly as he could around the arm. Xena watched him, then looked back over her shoulder. "Where's that torch?" Cladiaties retrieved it from one of the mariners, and offered it out. "Hold it just here," she commanded, nodding with her head to a space just in front of the kneeling pirate. He saw the torch approach, and began to struggle. Xena replied with a stinging elbow to the face, and the remark, "You want to live, don't you?" He ceased resistance at that, but watched with horrified eyes as she thrust the stump of his arm into the flame. The flesh sizzled and smoked, and the scream that accompanied it was piteous. The acrid, charred smell of burning flesh permeated the room. Otanes passed out and dropped to the floor. Xena let go of his arm and wiped her hands together. She stood erect, and looked over at Syri. "Got what we came for. Let's get out of here." He nodded, and motioned to his two remaining crewmen to collect the form which lay in front of them. They entered, lay the blanket out on the floor beside Otanes, and rolled him onto it, one man taking each side. Xena said nothing, just walked past the landing party and out into the hallway. She stood silently for a moment, then stared down at the floor, almost as if she were relaxing after a strenuous exercise. Then, with a sigh, she straightened up and announced, "Let's go."
The landing party hurried down the hallway, two of the mariners carrying Otanes, Koenis half-guiding, half-carrying the woman. She appeared to be in a state of shock, not speaking, not responding, staring straight ahead. As they passed the open doors and descended the stairs, the woman shook her head and looked about her, as if suddenly realizing where she was. She looked back up the stairs. "My children..."
Koenis tightened her grip on the woman, and ushered her down the stairs with the rest of the party. "They are safe. We have them."
"There." They had reached the bottom of the stairs, and the woman saw two children perched on a table top, Gabrielle and a mariner standing guard over them. At the sight, the children brightened, and the woman found strength to break free of Koenis' grasp and run to them, hugging them tightly in her arms. Xena watched the display of emotion, pacing constantly, and restraining her impatience for a bit so that the reunion could be uninterrupted. She stopped pacing when she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. She turned, and looked down into two very worried hazel eyes.
The response was rougher than Xena had intended, as it poured out of her and echoed all her impatience and worry. She felt a red flush of rage arise in her own cheeks. She hissed, "What?" Gabrielle backed up a pace or so, tilting her head slightly and regarding the tall warrior with caution, her staff vertical in front of her. Xena's eyes were aflame and her countenance fierce, spatters of blood and a couple of stray hanks of hair adding to her fearsome appearance. Her battle rage was in full bloom, and Gabrielle had seen it before. At those times, it was not wise to do anything other than to allow Xena the time and space to exorcize the demons of war from her own soul. Any other course could prove dangerous, as she had once found out, for at those times, Xena was not totally in control of herself.
Xena stared at Gabrielle, watching her back away. The red flush of rage melted away as she, dumbfounded by her own reaction, realized with horror that Gabrielle was actually afraid of her, afraid of her anger, afraid of her lethality, afraid of her....touch. She felt her own shoulders droop slightly, and was actually struck to the soul by the look of fear which she saw reflected in the eyes of the one she loved more than life. Xena leaned back against a table, bowed her head, and sighed deeply, a ragged sigh which seemed to relax her and allow her exorcism to complete itself. When she raised her head, the pleasant blue eyes were evident again. Gabrielle studied her face, then took a tentative step forward, keeping the staff vertical in front of her. "Xena?"
Xena felt suddenly ashamed, and mumbled a soft, "Sorry. C'mere." She lay her sword on the table beside her, and held out her arms. Gabrielle melted into them, arms around Xena's waist, head nestled against her shoulder. "I'm so sorry."
The arms around her waist tightened a bit. "It's all right. I'm just glad to have you back."
Xena kissed the forehead in front of her. "Come on, now. We're not out of this yet. Back to work."
Gabrielle stepped back, and picked up her staff. "I'm with you, love."
Xena looked up, to see the landing party standing ready. Syri smiled slightly, then offered a hand out in a gesture toward the door. "Shall we?"
Xena nodded, picked up her sword, and smiled a lopsided grin. "Now is the time, I think." She turned and strode toward the door, the landing party rallying behind her, the mariners carrying their captive, and Koenis, a little girl in her arms, herding the mother and the boy child ahead of her.
Ptomaniae stood on the darkened deck, watching, waiting. She strained to see into the darkness of the village, and noted nothing out of the ordinary. Unable to remain still any longer, she turned and paced the deck, her feet soft on the wood, the hem of her ankle-length tunic rustling quietly in the night. Mios' voice caught her attention. "Look! From the black ship. They leave, and make their way up the dock. They're heading for the village." She returned to the rail, her heart pounding loudly in her chest. She, too, could see the silhouettes of men trailing into the town. She strained, but could not count their numbers. They seemed many, however. She hurried over to Mios and Damos, who stood watching their progress.
"Can we not warn the landing party?"
Mios sounded apologetic. "That was not the Captain's orders, my lady. He wanted us to remain, and have the ship ready for quick departure." She nodded, not responding. Mios continued, "It will be all right. Our captain knows what he does."
She walked slowly away from the rail, her eyes closed and her mind reaching out into the night. She concentrated until she ached, and thought, Be careful, my love. Danger approaches.
As the landing party reached the village and sought out the narrow, crooked street leading back down to the waterfront, Syri stopped abruptly. He stood, sword in hand, every nerve tingling, the hair on the back of his neck seeming to bristle. After a moment, he heard Xena's voice just behind him. "What is it?"
"Something's wrong. I don't like it. Be careful. Be ready."
"I don't know. It's just ahead." He resumed his walk down the narrow, dimly-moonlit street, and they turned a corner. Thirty or so paces in front of them and approaching them was a crowd of men, talking softly among themselves. As they walked up the narrow street toward the landing party, Syri looked about him. There was an alley just behind them, but it seemed even narrower, and there was no assurance that it lead anywhere. He muttered, "Damn. Can't go back."
A voice hailed them from the group. "Hello. What are you bunch doing out tonight?"
Syri responded, "Just mariners returning to our ship."
"Ah, the brothel just up the street."
There was a moment of silence from the group, and the voice rang out, "What? There's no brothel up the street." Syri could hear swords being unsheathed.
"Of course there is. Don't tell me you haven't found it yet."
Some hoarse laughter came from the group. "Then you'll have to show it to us, friend."
"Come here, then. We'll show it to you, all right."
From behind him, Syri heard Xena's voice, low in the night. "We go right through them. Get ready."
He nodded. It was the logical thing. The street was narrow, and three abreast, skilled at arms, could keep such a larger group at bay. But, for how long? Xena faded back into the group. She whispered to Gabrielle, "Take the children and their mother. Guard them. Koenis, come here." Koenis released the little girl, and as Gabrielle herded the three back and took her place in front of them, Xena pushed Koenis and Cladiaties forward to stand beside Syri. She whispered, "You three hold their front. I flank them." Koenis looked around at Xena, but she was no longer beside them. A rustle and thump above them told the Amazon that Xena was already on the tiled roofs above the street.
The group from the black ship slowly approached. The voice once again hailed them. "What ship are you bunch from, did you say? That pretty one?"
"That's right. You from the black one?"
Otanes' hoarse voice echoed through the alley, resounding from behind the landing party. "It's an attack, you idiots! They have me! Take them! Take them, by......" His voice was cut short by the sound of a resounding whack. There was shocked silence in the narrow street for an instant, then the group from the black ship drew their weapons and advanced. Syri stood to meet them, suddenly wishing he had brought a shield. His sword in his right hand, he drew his dagger with his left and prepared to meet the enemy. At his sides appeared the imposing bulk of his helmsman, battle-axe at ready, and the tall Amazon, curved sword and colorful shield aloft. The three stood shoulder to shoulder, blocking the alley, mariners behind them.
As the crew from the black ship drew near, they began their rush. Koenis raised her shield and sword high, and the ear-splitting, demonic howl of the Thracian Amazon war cry filled the alley. The rush faltered slightly at that, and Syri chose that instant to lead his own attack.
The three closed with the front rank of Otanes' men; screams, shouts, and the clash of metal resounded through the still street. Syri slashed downward, and dropped his opponent quickly, catching the next on the upswing. Cladiaties brought his heavy battle-axe down on a head, and the impact hurled the decapitated form back into his comrades. Koenis, for her part, hefted her shield and slashed sideways with her long, curved sword, catching two men across the face. They both dropped heavily. She smashed another in the face with her shield, and he dropped, as well.
The men from the black ship attempted to crowd forward, trampling the bodies of their comrades in their effort to defeat their enemies and rescue their captain, but it was to no avail. The three who guarded the alley that night fought with skill and persistence, slashing again and again with battle-axe, Egyptian sword or curved Amazon blade to knock the front ranks of their enemy to the street's cobblestones. Superior numbers did the pirates no good; the street was much too narrow to pass by their adversaries and flank them. The half-dozen or so in the back of the group, witnessing what was happening in front of them, determined to backtrack through the winding alleyways and get behind the strangers blocking the alley. They turned, but before they made three or four paces, a dark form dropped from the low roof and took it's menacing place in front of them. When it spoke, a low, sultry female voice addressed them.
"Going somewhere?" It drew a sword from behind it's shoulder and advanced toward them. As it came closer in the night, the men witnessed a female warrior, tall, in leather and armor, approach them. One of the men addressed her.
"Who in the name of all the gods are you?" The answer was swift. A glinting blade flashed out, and the lead man fell backwards. The others raised their weapons and rushed to attack, thinking that their number could overwhelm her. They were wrong. Their repeated strikes were deflected by the flashing blade, and, one by one, their number dwindled. The assailants fell heavily, thudding on the cobblestones, weapons clattering across the street, as she expertly vanquished the best among them. Finally, only one was left. He backed away from the scene of carnage, the tall warrior approaching him, her sword's tip in front of him and glistening with the wetness of blood illuminated by the moon. He found a wall at his back, and could retreat no more. The shafts of moonlight which lit the alley in patches illuminated her face as she approached, the blade of her sword just a hand's width from his chest. Light eyes flashed in the dim silver moonlight, surrounded by black hair, some hanging loose, and a determined, feral grin. The sight caused his knees to buckle under him. He dropped his sword, and fell to his knees against the wall. The sword's tip scratched his chest, then raised itself to tap him under his chin and raise his face toward her. He could smell the blood on her blade and feel it smear his chin. She leaned in toward him, studying him closely. He was about to die, of that there was no doubt in his heart. He was deathly afraid, but wished to know only one more thing before he met Charon's boat.
He licked his lips and croaked, "Who are you?"
The answer was a growl. "The last thing you'll ever see. My name is Xena."
"I.....have heard of you. They say you fight for those who cannot.....fight for themselves."
A soft voice sounded from a few feet away. "Don't, Xena. He's just a kid."
He saw the glistening light eyes flash, widen momentarily, then soften and study him again. "Oh? How old are you?"
"Do you wish to see nineteen?"
His mouth was dry, but he found power to speak. "Surely."
"What did you do before you were a pirate?"
"Then do as I say. Are you listening?" He nodded weakly. "Run from here, back to your fishing, as fast as you can. And when you're old, tell your grandchildren that the bard Gabrielle saved your ass from Xena." She stood, and motioned with her sword. "Do it now." He tried to stand, but his legs failed him. She reached down, grasped the front of his tunic and lifted him to his feet. She slung him toward a side alley, and he staggered a bit, then looked back. She stood, watching him. He looked at the smaller woman standing nearby, leaning upon her staff, then turned and ran down the alley, ran as fast as he could on wavering legs, ran offering a prayer of thanks to Athena that he would live the night out, after all.
Ptomaniae was aghast at the sight which greeted her when the landing party returned to the ship. They were exhausted and splattered with dark streaks of blood. She could sense the tension of battle which still animated them, the dark, violent air which laced their words and actions. As four mariners wrestled a large bundle onto the deck and dropped it, she leaned forward, a lantern in her hand. Syri's hand restrained her. "Be careful. He is quite dangerous. Let us handle him, and then you can tend his wounds."
She looked at Syri, then back at Otanes. "His hand is missing, and I smell a bad burn."
"Yes. See first to Cladiaties and your sister, will you?"
"Oh. They are hurt?"
"A bit. Not badly, I think." Ptomaniae sought them out among the crowd, and found Koenis first. She stood, sheathing her curved Amazon sword, her expression blank. Ptomaniae raised the lantern, examining her in the soft light.
"Koenis? You are hurt?"
"A few slight wounds. Nothing."
"It is never nothing. Come here, let me tend you." She pulled on Koenis' light leather armor, guiding the warrior aside. In the lantern's light, she noted streaks and patches of blood, and the Amazon limped noticeably. "Where?" Koenis raised an arm, and she noted a streak which bled freely. As her vision trailed down her sister's body, she detected a rivulet of darkness staining the deck slightly at her foot. "Come into the cabin. I will see to that."
From his position on deck, Syri noted the exchange, then called out to Cladiaties. The helmsman responded, and Syri pointed to the cabins. "Go with them. Let Ptomaniae tend you."
"What? Oh, guess I got a few scrapes. It's of little concern."
Syri grinned at his friend, and pointed. "Just go. We will see to this. Besides, I think that Koenis is hurt."
Cladiaties' expression clouded. "What? Where is she?"
"There, in the cabins." The helmsman, battle-axe still in hand, strode toward the cabins' entrance, Syri watching him go and chuckling to himself. "Thought that would get you in there, my friend." He straightened up, and called to the figures milling about on deck, "Listen, now. We may still be the object of an attack. Are you five all right?" At the nods which answered him, he continued, "Stand watch. Keep your weapons about you. At first light, we leave. Until then, keep alert." The men responded by positioning themselves along the deck facing the docks, alert and peering intently into the night. "Damos! Mios!" Two figures appeared at his elbow. Syri pointed to the recumbent figure on the deck. "Bind him and keep a close watch on him. Arm yourselves. If he attempts to escape, kill him." They received the command without murmur, and bent themselves to their task. He then wandered toward the railing, speaking individually with each of the five mariners who had accompanied him that night, assuring himself that they were uninjured and congratulating them on their performance. They each received the comments with thanks and their hand tapping their foreheads, a gesture of respect towards their captain. His final act before seeking out the cabins was a glance about the deck. He noted Xena and Gabrielle standing near the cabins' superstructure, Polidinos' wife and children huddled with them, and crossed the deck to take his place with them.
At his approach, Xena eyed him. "Where did you want them?" She indicated the woman and her children with a gesture, and Syri pointed to the cabins.
"Unoccupied cabin, just across from yours." He looked the woman over. "You all right?"
She found her voice now, her manner reflecting her upper-class Athenian breeding. "Yes, many thanks to you and your friends. We are grateful. How can we ever repay you?"
He waved a hand. "Your husband will see to that. He sent us. Gabrielle will show you the cabin. In a few days, you will be back in Athens and under his protection. Until then, you are under ours."
Gabrielle accepted the hint, and led the woman and her children into the narrow hallway, leaving Xena and Syri alone on the deck. He looked up at her, noticing her arms crossed across her chest and her quizzical expression studying him. A trace of a grin touched the corner of her mouth, and she simply said, "You know, for a small man, you're good to have around in a fight."
With a laugh, Syri replied, "So I've been told. Xena, I'm glad you were with us." He offered out a hand, and she took it warmly. As he shook it, he slapped her gently on the arm, and she grimaced. "What, you're hurt, as well? Get into the cabins and let Ptomaniae tend you. No arguing with me, now. Come on."
She relented, and followed Syri into the cramped hallway, her voice echoing slightly. "Now you sound just like Gabrielle. She never lets me get away with anything."
A familiar voice responded from behind her, at the door to the cabin housing Polidinos' family. "I heard that." Xena looked over her shoulder, and saw Gabrielle leaning on her staff. The petite blonde grew serious when she saw her friend favoring an arm. "Xena, you're hurt?"
"Nothing. I'm going to tend it now."
Gabrielle approached, placing the tip of her staff into Xena's back and giving her a gentle prod. "Damn right you are. Honestly, Xena, I don't know what you'd do without me, always having to fuss over you. No arguing, now. Get in there. No, I don't want to hear it, Warrior Princess."
The tall warrior rolled her eyes. Syri watched the exchange, then snickered and scratched his chin. "Is she always so, with you?"
"Always. There's only one way to shut her up." With that, Xena reached out and gathered the bard into her arms, planting a firm, passionate kiss on her mouth. Gabrielle mumbled, then fell silent, leaning back against the wall when she was released. Xena smiled, then asked, "Now, you were saying?"
Gabrielle shook her head, then tilted it slightly as she looked from Xena to Syri, then back again, her expression slightly smoky in the hall's dim light. "Huh?"
Xena smiled, her victory evident. "See?" As she bent down slightly to enter Syri's cabin, he raised his eyebrows in exclamation.
"Hm. Works. I'll have to try that."
Gabrielle found her sense of speech again, and joked, "Xena might have something to say about that."
"Ah, yes, ahem. Of course, I meant......" He blushed noticeably, and indicated the cabin where his wife tended the wounded. At Gabrielle's sly smile, he just chuckled and nodded his head. "Aah. A joke from the bard." At that, a long arm reached out from the cabin's door, grasped the front of his tunic, and dragged him in. Xena's voice accompanied it.
"You'll learn her sense of humor soon enough. Now get in here and get treated as well, Captain."
The inside of Syri and Ptomaniae's cabin was crowded. The mystic Egyptian had her medicine bag open, and was leaning over her sister tending a wound on her thigh by the light of her lantern. Next to her, Cladiaties sat, holding a cloth to his cheek, his forearm already wrapped in clean, white bandage. As Syri felt himself pulled in by Xena, he glanced about and attempted to judge the extent of the wounds for himself. Ptomaniae glanced up as he entered, having heard the conversation in the hallway. She looked from Syri to Xena, her face concerned. "You are all injured?"
He gave an air of nonchalance as he viewed the red line on his own arm. "Cuts and scratches, I imagine. How fares Koenis?"
Ptomaniae spoke as she returned her gaze to the examination of the Amazon's thigh wound. "Her arm is minor. This will need sewing. It is fairly deep." She grimaced, then continued, "I have not done that in a while."
Xena knelt beside the Egyptian. "I have. If you wish, I can tend that while you see to the others." Ptomaniae considered the offer, then nodded.
"Let me treat you first." Her eyes lifted to her sister's, and the enigmatic Amazon nodded and pressed a cloth over the wound.
"Go ahead, sister. I can wait until last." She sat, back against the wall, waiting patiently as Ptomaniae examined, cleaned and bandaged the others who waited. After all was done, Xena and Ptomaniae returned their attention to Koenis. Under the light of several lanterns, Ptomaniae cleansed the deep gash, then knelt aside while Xena prepared to sew the wound shut.
Ptomaniae placed a hand on her sister's shoulder. "Do you wish a drug for the pain? It will take a while to take effect, then we can proceed."
Koenis shook her head. "No time. We may yet be attacked tonight. Just sew."
Xena offered a thought. "I can take the pain away, for a time. Pressure points." She drilled her fingers into Koenis' hip, and the Amazon tilted her head back against the wall. "Numb?"
Koenis tapped her leg with a finger. "Yes. A most remarkable feeling."
"It won't last long. Let's get started. Hold your leg so that the edges of the wound close." With that instruction, Xena bent low over the tattooed thigh, and began an intricate pattern of stitches as her brow furrowed in concentration, lighted by the yellow light of oil lanterns.
On deck, Syri paced nervously, his bandaged wound beginning to sting annoyingly. He seated himself on the bow railing, studying the docks in the half-hearted moonlight, then the sky. There were still a myriad stars shining, evidence to him that the sky was clear. The air, in addition, had no smell of wetness about it. He took that as good evidence that fair weather would hold for a bit more. Perhaps the return journey to Athens would be rapid, after all. Then, Ptomaniae's warning regarding Seth, lord of chaos and storms flashed through his mind. He growled, and brought his fist down upon the railing upon which he was seated. Ptomaniae was never wrong, and she had hinted at such. Well, he conjectured silently, there were many islands along the path home which could offer shelter should the elements of Poseidon's realm turn against them. They would just have to chance it, as they certainly couldn't remain here. No doubt, they had crippled the strength of the pirates, but they certainly hadn't killed them all. No telling how many more there were, lurking about the waterfront. Perhaps they were making plans at this very moment to attempt to retrieve their captain and his well-to-do hostages, and take revenge upon him and his crew for the insult which they had been dealt tonight. His brooding was interrupted by a soft voice. "Husband? You look quite worried." A slender, graceful arm draped itself across his shoulders, and he felt suddenly a bit embarrassed to have been caught in such a brooding state by Ptomaniae. He always tried to offer the best side of his temperament around the marvelous woman, and save his melancholy fits of temper for when he was alone. He briefly considered attempting to fool her with reassuring words, but knew that she would see through the act in an instant. Her instinct for reading people was uncanny.
He reached out and hugged her close to him. Softly, he spelled out the many concerns which plagued his mind, then fell silent. She considered what he had said, then regarded him with the large, dark eyes which, he felt, could literally read his soul. She spoke reassuringly, her lilting accent seeming as much musical as her flutes. "Seth is the lord of chaos. He is unpredictable, as are storms. The cards speak of what can be, not of what must be. They offer warning and possibility, not certainty. Your mariner's senses tell you the sky is clear. We can trust that, perhaps more than Seth. Now, let it worry you no more. As to an attack tonight, I do not feel any impending sense of danger at the moment. No doubt you bloodied them severely. I have seen their captain, when I tended his arm. He is a brutal man, evil. Perhaps they do not wish to reclaim him. They may simply bid him good riddance, and the next strongest will take charge."
"We humiliated them tonight. They will respond, I think, for vengeance."
"I do not understand this need to avenge defeat in combat. But, then, I am not a man, nor a warrior."
"I understand it. That is why it worries me so."
Another voice emanated from the darkness, a low, sultry, female voice. It was Xena. "I understand it, as well. I've done it." She approached the couple, and stopped a few paces from them. "Koenis has been tended. The wound is closed and dressed. Cladiaties fusses over her in their cabin."
"Thank you, Xena."
Xena studied the couple, then nodded wearily. "It was the least I could do." She turned to leave, then hesitated. "Do you have any more need of me? Shall I stand a watch?"
Syri shook his head. "No. You have done more than your share tonight. My crew will watch, and raise an alarm if we are attacked. Get some rest." Xena gave a slight nod, then turned and slowly walked back toward the cabins, weariness evident in her stride.
At the entrance to the cabins' hallway, Gabrielle met her. Wordlessly, they entered their cabin, and when the door closed, they embraced, a desperate, clinging embrace which seemed to them to last for a long time. Often, after danger haunted them, they would embrace so, as if the feel of each others' touch could dissipate the gnawing aftermath of battle and erase the frightening specter of the possible loss of one of them. It was a dark fear which they shared, a fear which, although they did not often voice it, haunted them both in their constant dreams and innermost souls. Then, seemingly reassured, they parted and they both undressed, bathing themselves and each other from the bucket in their cabin. Afterward, they lay in the darkness, wrapped around each others' forms, trading soft kisses and whispered endearments and seeking a small moment of peace in the atmosphere of brutality which had surrounded them on that night.
The first dim flickers of dawn broke over the cove, a soft, gray glow on the distant horizon. Syri paced the deck, his mind worried and his manner melancholy. They had not been attacked during the night; that was good. Perhaps the remnant of the pirate crew was awaiting daylight to take their revenge upon him, his ship and his passengers. That would be very bad, indeed. He studied his surroundings for what seemed the millionth time, and determined that they would put to sea as soon as enough light gathered to permit them safe passage out of the cove's mouth.
As he wandered the deck, he found himself at the ship's bow. Silently, his eyes wandered over the docks and the village. The occasional bark of a dog or the crow of a rooster were all that answered him. No movement seemed evident in the dim dawn. He shook his head and scanned the scene again. Something seemed different. After a moment, he felt a stunned shock as he realized that the black ship was gone. He strode over to a crewman standing silently at the railing, and tapped him on the arm. "How long have you been at watch?"
The crewman shrugged. "Some time now, Captain."
"Did you see the black ship leave?" The crewman drew his expression into a puzzled look, then gazed out over the docks.
"No. They must have slipped out during the night. It was rather dark."
"Yes, yes. Keep alert. We put to sea shortly." The crewman nodded, then resumed his vigil. Syri strode quickly back to the cabins, then knocked at the door of the cabin which Cladiaties and Koenis called home. After a moment, it creaked open and Cladiaties stepped out into the hallway. At his inquisitive look, Syri explained, "Prepare yourself, we put to sea." He nodded, then ducked back into his cabin, returning in a moment with his weapons. On their way toward the deck, Syri paused and knocked on the cabin given to Xena and Gabrielle. A muffled voice answered them, then the door opened slightly, Xena's head peering around the edge of the thick wood. She, too, nodded at Syri's brief instruction, and the captain and his helmsman emerged onto the deck to rouse their crew and prepare to take their ship to sea.
By the time Xena and Gabrielle left their cabin, the ship's crew were scurrying about, coiling and stowing thick loops of dock-line and taking their places at the oars. The ship was already floating freely next to the dock, and the oars on the far side scraped out and extended into the air, hovering over the water. Cladiaties' bellow caused them to splash into the murky cove waters, then offered them a cadence with which to pull the ship away from the docks, slowly gaining distance until the oars on the dock side of the vessel had enough room to join the labor. The ship gained slight speed, angled out toward the cove's center and proceeded toward the mouth of the cove. Xena joined Syri at the tiller, Gabrielle leaning on her staff near the cabins' entrance and watching with fascination the mariners' labors.
Syri cast a sidelong glance at the tall warrior. "The black ship had disappeared during the night."
She peered over toward the docks, then nodded. "It is unusual for a ship to leave port during the night, is it not?"
"Very. They know these waters, though. They could do it."
"That tells us that they still possess enough men to manage their ship. What do you suspect of them?"
Syri grimaced, then answered, "I suspect that they lay just outside the cove to attack us."
"My thoughts exactly. The entrance is narrow. It would be the place."
Syri nodded, then studied Xena, raising an eyebrow. "Tell me, warrior, are you on good terms with Poseidon?"
Xena snorted. "I'm seldom on good terms with any of the gods."
"Yes, but how about today?"
Xena smiled. "We shall see, won't we?"
Syri answered with a grin of his own. "Indeed. In the meantime, grab an oar, won't you?"
Xena nodded, then descended the short ladder to take her place at an oar. Passing Gabrielle, she tapped her on the shoulder and waved her to a vacant place at the oars. As they settled into their seats and slid the long oars out over the water, Gabrielle whispered loudly, "Xena, I've never done this before."
"Just watch me and do what I do. You'll catch on quickly."
Gabrielle snickered and responded, "It seems like I've heard that one before, love."
As Xena pulled on her oar, she said nothing for a moment, then just shook her head. "Gabrielle, you're awful." She cast a glance across the deck, and noticed Koenis at an oar. The enigmatic Amazon's eyes flickered toward them, then seemed to crinkle in a silent laugh. Xena could feel a slight blush warm her cheeks, then returned her concentration to the cadence of the oars striking the water, eventually laughing out loud at the jest.
The ship gained some slight speed, and slipped through the mouth of the cove and into the lightly rolling seas beyond. At a respectable distance from the cove, a bellowing shout from the helmsman caused the oars to be lifted from the water and slid inboard, their wood scraping and water dripping from the blades. The crew quickly emerged from their depressed seats along the rails and ran to their respective stations at the rigging, wrestling the large mainsail up and into position before the mast. All free hands went to the halyard, and a rhythmic chant began as they hauled the huge sail and its heavy wooden yard aloft. Xena and Gabrielle found places along the thick, rough rope and hauled as well, watching its progress as it climbed skyward. The light offshore breeze caught the sail, and it billowed outward, finally settling into a tight bulge as the mariners expertly adjusted its tension and position relative to the wind. As the thick halyard was looped and knotted into the base of the mast, the crew disbursed to attend the much smaller bowsprit sail, and Xena placed a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. The bard was examining the palms of her hands, and looked up at her friend with a slightly pained expression.
"Xena, they're blistered."
Xena examined the small hands, and winced slightly. "That must hurt. Go and see Ptomaniae, why don't you?"
Gabrielle's eyes widened. "Good idea. I've been wanting to talk to her, anyway." With that, she gathered her staff from the rower's seat where she had left it and trotted toward the cabins. Xena watched her go, and scratched her head. Koenis joined the tall warrior on the deck and motioned toward the retreating blonde.
"Yes. She is unused to this type of work. She lost her farm girl's callouses some time ago."
"Ah. They will harden again." She held up her own palms, deep with callous. "Mine did. Do not worry."
"Surely. Well, what do we do next?"
The Amazon shrugged. "The Captain has a plan, I am sure."
They both glanced up at the helm to see Syri leaning upon the broad wooden tiller and squinting into the sky. "I'm sure. Never hurts to ask, though. Excuse me?"
In the narrow hallway, Gabrielle tapped at the frame of the open door to the captain's cabin. At the soft reply, she entered to find Ptomaniae sitting at the small table, perusing a large papyrus chart of the Aegean. The Egyptian looked up, her large eyes studying the small blonde.
"Ptomaniae? Can you help me?" At the questioning look, Gabrielle simply leaned her staff against her shoulder and held out her hands, palms forward. Ptomaniae looked at them, then nodded her head, rising and gesturing toward the stool upon which she had been seated.
"Of course. Honored. Sit. I will tend you." Gabrielle perched on the stool, placing her staff against the wall, watching Ptomaniae silently as she opened her trunk and withdrew her large medicine bag. She then knelt between Gabrielle's feet and took one hand in her own. The Egyptian opened a jar, soaked a small bandage with liquid, and began to pat the blisters. "This will sting for a bit, then you will feel it no more. It cleanses the skin."
As Gabrielle watched her work, the slender, graceful, dark hands expertly wrapping her own palms in clean white cloth, she began to question the mysterious woman. "I understand that you have some gifts as a seer. How did you come by that?"
"It is in my family. My father was priest and physician in Egypt. I learned at his side to develop whatever meager gifts I was given by the gods."
"Does Koenis have them, as well? You are sisters, aren't you?"
"We are sisters. Not everyone in our family has them. If she does, she has never wanted to train them. She is a warrior, an Amazon. That is her pride, her certainty."
The large eyes considered her for a moment. "I only do what I can for those around me."
"You read the future through cards?"
"That is one way to see what the future may hold, of course."
"Would you read your cards for me?"
"For you, or for Xena?"
Gabrielle felt herself blush, and her eyes trailed away from the large, dark eyes which seemed to drill into her. Ptomaniae said nothing, just continued working, and after a moment, Gabrielle found the courage to meet those eyes again. "For both of us."
"Are you certain that you wish to know what the future may hold for both of you?"
Ptomaniae nodded. "Then I will attempt it." She paused and sat back, kneeling on the cabin's deck in front of Gabrielle. "Whenever you are ready, but there is no time now. I feel danger is just ahead. I fear another battle." She gazed at Gabrielle, smiling slightly, her eyes assuming a soft, warm expression. "Your hands are wrapped. Stay well, little one. Come to me when this is over."
Xena climbed the short ladder to the tiller and assumed a place next to Syri. He nodded pleasantly to acknowledge her presence, then returned his gaze to the seas and sky. She leaned against the stern railing, then spoke. "What do you expect to happen next?"
Syri regarded her through eyes squinted against the sun. "The black ship is out here somewhere. I anticipate that they will attack us."
"Oh? Perhaps they ran. They no doubt saw what we did to their comrades. They may have lost the stomach for fighting."
Syri grinned slightly. "You don't believe that any more than I do. We both know what the lust for revenge does to one's mind."
Xena's expression grew distant, her eyes searching the mists of her past. "That's the truth." She shook her head, then returned to their conversation. "So, what's your plan, Captain?"
"The wind is from half-west, half-north. We cannot gain the northern side of the island. We will have to sail south, then attempt as much of a westerly course as we can, and hope that Poseidon shifts the wind to favor our return to Piraeus."
"And if he doesn't?"
Syri raised an eyebrow. "Then how does Crete sound?"
"As good a place as any for a vacation, I suppose."
Syri laughed out loud. "Always the optimist, eh? I wouldn't have expected that from a former warlord."
"What can I say? Gabrielle tends to rub off on me."
"She rubs off on all who know her, I imagine. Quite a girl, she is."
"Quite." With that, Xena left the tiller platform and descended to the deck, just in time to greet Ptomaniae. The Egyptian emerged from the cabins, her medicine bag over her shoulder, a lantern in her hand. She stopped Xena with a hand laid gently on her arm.
"How is your wound?"
Xena flexed her arm. "Quite all right, thanks to you."
"It is nothing. I go to tend our prisoner. Would you accompany me? He is quite dangerous, and you can stand by. Besides, you have some knowledge of healing."
"Lead the way." They walked over to the gratings covering the nearest hold, then waited as Cladiaties and a couple of mariners opened a section of it. A ladder descended into the dimmer recesses of the ship's interior. Xena descended first, followed by Ptomaniae. When they reached the deck of the hold, Ptomaniae held the lantern aloft, and Xena scanned the interior with her eyes. The pirate captain sat in one corner, a blanket covering him, not moving, but watching them with glowering eyes. Xena approached carefully, Ptomaniae following. As they neared him, he growled and attempted to sit up.
Xena looked down at him. "Otanes? How's the arm?"
"Missing, thanks to you lot. Hurts like fire."
"She is here to tend you. Don't try anything, or I'll kill you on the spot."
He snorted. "I'd almost prefer it. I suppose you're taking me to Athens?" There was no answer to that. "Do you know how they handle pirates in Athens?"
Xena nodded. "The silver mines at Laurium, I imagine. You're lucky. If it were up to me, you'd be dead already."
"Lucky? A man doesn't live more than a couple of years there. Just kill me now and get it over with."
"Shut up. We deliver you alive."
"I'll remember that, when my men take your pretty little ship and......." He stopped speaking, and returned to glowering at the warrior. She studied him through an extremely intimidating expression, then reached forward to grasp his tunic. She lifted him up towards her, and spoke the next thought as a deep growl.
"And what? What do you think that your men will attempt?" He said nothing, just kept his eyes upon her. She shook him. "What?" Another silence greeted her. She released him, then drilled her fingers into his neck. He froze, coughing, a trickle of blood seeping from his nose down over his beard. "I've just cut off the flow of blood to your head. You die in seconds, unless you tell me what I want to know."
He hissed the next thought through clenched teeth. "Rot!"
"Have it your way."
She stood, gazing down at him. His eyes bulged, then he stammered, "All right! Just undo this!"
"That's more like it." She leaned down, again jabbed her fingers into his neck, and he fell back, coughing and gasping. After a moment, Xena pressed him. "Come on, now. I don't have all week." He hesitated, and Xena backhanded him across the face. "Let's talk now, shall we?"
He gasped out his response, breathing heavily. "We are joined by a pact. When one of our number suffers maiming or death by an outsider, we seek revenge. We are pledged. They will attack you, be certain of it."
"How many stay on the ship, usually?"
"Maybe a dozen, more at any one time."
"Where? Where will the attack come?"
"I'm surprised it hasn't happened already."
"Who's in charge there now?"
"My second was on the ship. He will lead. Torelas."
"What kind of man is he?"
"Clever. He will outwit you."
"Nice try." She then drew her sword and held the tip at his throat. "Try nothing." To Ptomaniae, she whispered, "Go ahead. Tend him." She nodded, knelt by his injured arm, and unwrapped the bandage, examining the stump. After a moment, she withdrew clean bandages from her bag and laid them out. She then pulled a small bottle from her bag and opened the stopper. Holding a bowl under the stump, she looked at the prisoner.
"This will hurt." She poured the contents of the bottle over his arm. He screamed and sat up, swinging his uninjured hand toward Ptomaniae's face. She flinched, but the hand did not reach her. It was contained by Xena's grip. She leaned down, her face close to his.
"I told you to try nothing." She brought the handle of her sword down on his head, and he fell backwards, unconscious. Looking over toward Ptomaniae, she offered a worried look. "You all right?" Ptomaniae nodded. "Wrap his arm." She did so, and they quickly retreated to the ladder, climbing it to the sunlit deck. As the mariners closed the hatch after them, Ptomaniae regarded the warrior with wide eyes. Xena replied with a concerned thought. "He's dangerous. Let me tend him next time."
"He is also infected. You could smell it, as well as I. He will die before we get him to Athens."
"Not if we amputate the arm above his elbow."
"The shock of it will kill him."
"Perhaps not. You are quite skilled with medicine. We drug him, then take it off quickly. With any luck, he may live."
The Egyptian nodded. "He will most assuredly die, if we do not."
Xena nodded. "Then it's settled. I will tell Syri what we found out."
Damos was at the masthead, the wiry little man perched atop the mainsail boom. As the sleek ship rounded the southernmost tip of the island, he cried toward the deck, "Sail ahead."
Syri, relieved from his turn at the tiller, stared up toward the figure at the masthead. "What more?"
Damos peered into the distance, his hand covering his eyes. After a moment, he responded, "Black ship. Full sail."
Syri felt his stomach knot. The battle was about to begin, and he quickly offered a silent prayer to Poseidon and Athena that the afternoon would be their friend. Even as he did so, though, he reflected on his past experience with war and knew that it might not be without dreadful cost. The life of mariners at sea was uncertain at best, and it did not take a philosopher to know that it could also be very short. He turned toward the deck and shouted, "Pirates ahead! Arm yourselves and see to your places on deck!" The crew scrambled to comply, and as he strode toward the cabins, he gave a shout to the mariner at the tiller, "Keep your course!" The crewman nodded, and, satisfied that Cladiaties would see to the deck, Syri ducked into the cramped hall. Xena, Gabrielle in her shadow, met him. They eyed each other for a moment, then he stood aside and they passed wordlessly, a set determination evident on each of their faces. When he reached his cabin, he placed a hand on Ptomaniae's shoulder. "Latch the door from inside. If this goes badly, you know what to do." She nodded, then turned toward the sleeping rack and withdrew a long dagger, placing it in easy reach.
"They will not take me alive. See to yourself, husband. I will not lose you today."
"Is that the seer in you speaking, or your heart?"
She stepped close to him, and whispered, "They are one and the same." With that, they offered each other a desperate embrace and a kiss, and he stepped back into the hall, closing the door. She reached out and drove the iron latch home, then picked up her dagger and knelt on the deck, closing her eyes and awaiting the outcome of the struggle.
The afternoon was hot and sunny, the wind from the north now, and the black ship much more evident on their beam. Its sails bellowed out, the dark prow throwing up splashes of white foam as it made its best time toward them. Cladiaties took his place beside his captain, and offered his report. "We're set for battle." He squinted at the black ship, then continued, "Damn them, they're upwind and ahead of us. Perfect spot to take us from. We may not be able to avoid them."
"We don't need to fight. If we can dodge them, we shall. If not, then we are well-peopled by warriors today. We will carry the day." Syri looked out across the water again, and perceived the black ship closing from the north, the wind behind them and their sails tight. "They're at good speed. Our own angle to the wind is less than perfect. We cannot attain our best speed. They will catch us, of that I have no doubt. Prepare yourself for battle, my friend."
"I'm with you, Captain." Cladiaties hefted his battle-axe, and motioned toward several shields stacked on mid-deck. "After you." They each hefted a shield, and strapped it onto their left arms. Striding to the north rail, they took a stance and their mariners gathered behind them.
Syri looked about the suddenly silent decks, noting his crew armed and standing nervously. What seemed to give him the most reassurance, however, were the three figures standing behind him: an Amazon, a staff-wielding bard and a former warlord. With those three at his back and Cladiaties by his elbow, he felt suddenly reassured. If ever a victory were in Ptomaniae's cards for them, it would be today.
The black ship was very close now, bow waves foaming and figures on deck gathering for the assault. It steered to a spot just ahead of Syri's vessel, then executed a tight turn to their right, bringing it parallel with his own railing, and just ahead of them. Their single, large sail began booming and flapping, unable to take the wind on their new heading, but they did not adjust it. They were unconcerned with their loss of speed; they would allow Syri's ship to overtake them, then grapple it close and attempt to board. The contest was now in earnest, and the day would inevitably play out with yet another display of brutality and the loss of much life. Such was the destiny, it seemed, of the mariner captain and the strange assemblage of companions who stood by him on the hot decks that afternoon.
They overtook the black ship, their rails less than an easy stone's throw apart. As they watched, grappling hooks snaked through the air and banged on the decks, pulling rapidly back toward the railing. They caught on rower's seats or the railing and their lines tightened, the two ships bearing closer, ever closer, until the railings were an arm's width apart. At that, shouts erupted from the black ship's deck, and figures leapt across the narrow track of water, scrambling to gain hold of rigging or land on the deck.
A piercing, bone-chilling Amazon war cry erupted just behind Syri, startling the mariners and goading them all into action. Cladiaties stepped forward and swung his heavy battle-axe over his head and into the chest of a boarder, knocking him back off the railing. He fell down between the two ships, just before the shudder and thump sounded which told both attackers and defenders that the ships were now locked together. Syri raised his shield against a sword's blow, then struck out and felt his own blade connect with a skull. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Koenis limp to the rail and take down three opponents with rapid flashes of her long, curved Amazon blade.
The occupants of the black ship literally poured over the railing now, screams and shouts intermingling with the clash of metal on metal as the battle took on its own life. As Syri pushed with shield and swung with sword, he glanced around the deck. His mariners were keeping their own, clumps of fighting men scattering about the deck. A glance toward the cabins showed Gabrielle stationed in front of the cabins' entrance, her staff swinging wildly and frustrating the attempt of the pirates to gain access to the cabins. A shrill, uncommon battle cry sounded above the fray to his right, and he turned in that direction. Its author was none other than the former warlord, Xena, who, eyes blazing and feral grin showing, had plowed into a group of boarders and was felling them rapidly, bodies collapsing about her feet and weapons scattering across the deck. She fought with the spirit of Ares himself, resembling a demon loosed from the underworld, taking awful vengeance upon those who dared invade the sacred domain of his ship at sea. With each flash of her double-edged blade, a limb severed, a head rolled, a form collapsed at her feet or spun backwards over the railing. She seemed invincible, a study in deadly dance and form.
Syri turned and glanced over the deck, advancing to strike down stray boarders who had spread themselves out over the deck and were locked in combat with his crew. His shield rang as he deflected blows, and his sword bit into flesh and bone until he felt himself covered in sweat and his arms weary from effort. As he turned to choose his next opponent, he saw only the faces of his comrades regard him from their places upon deck, panting, sweating, bloodied. He stood, blinking a few times, and slowly, the realization that the battle was over dawned in his mind. Even Xena stood, sword at ready, eyes in his direction, as they awaited his next command. Cladiaties' booming voice broke the strange silence which permeated the hot day. "Captain? Do we board?"
Syri stepped over several still forms as he approached the railing. He looked about him once again, then brought his sword down upon one of the ropes stretching across the railings. It bit into the wood of the black ship's rail, and the rope severed. Several others took the example, and in a few seconds, the rails parted and the black ship veered away from his own, wallowing somewhat and losing speed. His own vessel, freed of its bindings to the black ship, seemed to respond and pick up some slight speed.
Once again, Cladiaties was by his side. "Captain? Orders?"
Syri gazed at the carnage which littered his decks, then at the faces of the mariners, of Koenis, and of Xena and Gabrielle. He sheathed his sword and stood to his full height, dented shield hanging by his side, and addressed his crew. "Once again, we live. Poseidon has given us victory this day. Now, we see to our duties. Well done, all of you!" He then turned to face his friend and helmsman, who studied him with a bemused look. He shrugged wearily, and asked, "What's on your mind?"
"I thought that you might want to board the black ship, and take it as a prize."
"No. We're mariners, not pirates. We defend what is ours, not steal what is other's." After a moment, he completed his thought, tapping the body of a pirate with his foot. "Now, let's get this mess cleaned up. You know how I hate garbage on deck."
With a nod and a roar of good-natured laughter, Cladiaties responded, "Right away, Captain," and strode toward the center of the deck, his bellowing voice rousing the tired crew to action. "All right, you bunch, bodies overboard. Wounded to one side. Let's get this deck washed down with seawater. Then, double issue of wine and food to all!" The mariners stirred into life with ragged cheers and some pleasantly rude comments, as the helmsman took charge of the deck and began to twist the ragged aftermath of the chaos which had invaded their decks into some semblance of order.
The ship sat at anchor in the harbor of an obscure Aegean island, twisting slowly in the blustery fits of wind and warm rain which pelted the decks. Several crewmen stood naked in the most forward area of the bow, next to the slightly-open hatch leading to the crew's quarters, and bathed in the rain. Smoke, rising from the hatch and rapidly dissipating in the downpour, hinted at a soon-forthcoming hot meal. Toward the stern, just aside the entrance to the cabins, a vertical sailcloth partition had been rigged. It was here that the females aboard the ship, protected from male eyes, took their own turns at bathing, anxious to erase the sweat and smell of the last couple of days from their skins. The two children of Polidinos' family squealed with delight and ran to and fro across the wet decks, happy to be allowed this brief freedom, as their mother perched at the cabins' entranceway and watched.
Syri, hair still damp from his own bath, looked up from the small table in his cabin, as Ptomaniae entered and wearily dropped her medicine bag on the deck next to the sleeping rack. She sat on the edge of the rack, weary from work and wet from the rain, her reddened hands careful not to touch anything, and looked at Syri. "The amputation seems to have gone well. Xena is quite capable in that regard."
Syri eyed her bloody hands and forearms, and grunted. "He is still drugged?"
"Oh, yes. I gave him enough to kill a cow. He will sleep for some time."
"And the wounded pirates whom we captured in this last fight?"
"All three are still alive. One will recover; the other two, I cannot say."
"Any bad news among our own crew?"
"They do nicely. No infections to the wounds they suffered. They will heal."
Syri stood and stepped toward his wife. He leaned down and kissed her gently on the forehead, then suggested, "As always, thank you. I don't know what I would do without you here. Why don't you bathe now, and then rest? I will bring you some food when it is ready."
She studied her hands. "Yes, I need a bath. Xena is already there, I think." She stood, then motioned. "Will you undo the shoulder brooches of my tunic? I don't wish to touch them." Syri did as requested, and the tunic fell to the floor at her feet. She stepped away from it, and Syri picked the clothing up from the floor and held it up to her. Ptomaniae slipped from their cabin, softly treading down the hall, holding her long tunic across the front of her body with her forearms. Syri leaned out and into the hallway, watching her slender, dark form disappear around the corner and smiled wistfully, remembering how they had first met and marveling at how deeply and how quickly they had learned to love. As he slowly walked toward the front of the hallway, lost in thought, a door squeaked and a soft voice brought him back to attention.
"I've rarely met Egyptians before. She's really quite beautiful."
Syri looked over to see Gabrielle standing at the door. He smiled, and nodded. "I wish you would tell her that. She does not see herself so."
"Really?" The petite blonde, hair still wet from her bath, eyed the door and then turned back to the mariner captain. "How does she see herself?"
"Lacking in beauty by Greek standards. Too tall. Too skinny. No curves. A face marred with tattoos. A former slave, looked upon as a barbarian, even a witch, by polite Athenian society."
"Is she really seen so?"
Syri nodded. "By many. For my part, though, I see her as you do. Grace, wisdom, beauty. I'll just never understand what she sees in me."
Gabrielle laughed. "I feel the same about Xena. I have no idea why she says she loves me so."
Syri leaned against the wall and crossed his arms contemplatively. "I imagine for much the same reasons that I love Ptomaniae. We, who have drunk deeply of the brutality of the world, crave a symbol, an example of goodness to keep us human. You and my dear wife are such to us."
Gabrielle blushed slightly at that, then could only shrug and mumble, "I do what I can for Xena." She looked at Syri and questioned, "You have seen much brutality, haven't you?"
"Is it so obvious?"
"The scars on your lower back. Xena pointed them out to me."
"Ah." He turned to look out the hallway entrance as he spoke. "I was once a slave in Persia."
"Many years ago, a plague hit Athens. I buried my mother, and my wife and child all at the same time. I then retreated back to the sea, seeking.....I'm not sure what...... peace or oblivion, and instead got attacked by Persians. They took several of us. I, alone, escaped after a year's captivity."
"How horrible it must have been. I'm sorry for you."
He looked back at Gabrielle, and smiled slightly. "Don't be. It put me where I am today: owner of the finest ship in Piraeus, and, unworthy as I am, in love with a truly magnificent woman. What man is as rich as I?"
Gabrielle nodded. "I feel that way with Xena. We are poor. We are travelers, vagabonds. But, I am rich in her."
"No doubt." Syri studied her for a moment, then continued, "I'm sorry that this trip has taken such a bloody path. Foolishly, I had hoped that it would not. It seems that I was wrong."
Gabrielle rested a hand on Syri's arm. "I will tell you what I told Xena. You are a good man, Syri, as Xena is good. You only did what you had to do. We all did. Were it not for you and your crew, those children and their mother would probably have died at the hands of brutal men. You have nothing to be repentant about."
A deeper, sultry voice echoed in the hallway. "I've learned a long time ago to listen to her. You should, as well, Syri." Xena stood at the entrance to the hallway, still dripping from her bath, wrapped shoulders to ankles in her blanket. She joined the two in the hallway and stood behind Gabrielle, wrapping her arms around the smaller woman. Gabrielle leaned her head back against Xena's shoulder and smiled slightly at the touch. Syri considered the two for a moment, then gave Xena a twinkling smile.
"Well, my 'former warlord' friend, it would seem that you and I are lucky, as few are in this life."
Xena looked down at the top of Gabrielle's head. "In any life, my mariner friend, in any life."
The wind and rain had eased somewhat, and the water barrels which had been wrestled out onto the deck to catch the rain were almost full. The late afternoon offered a lazy, unconcerned atmosphere over the ship, and its occupants were delighted to rest or keep a lighthearted company with each other. Since the ship was at anchor in protected waters, the only watch necessary was the guard posted over the captured pirates in the hold. Syri, Xena, Cladiaties and Koenis sat in the cabin shared by the latter two, swapping stories and tasting a bit of wine. Their voices and laughter could be heard in the hall.
In the captain's cabin, though, a different scene prevailed. The door was shut for privacy, and Gabrielle sat cross-legged on the cabin's deck. In front of her, Ptomaniae knelt, legs folded underneath her, cloth spread out between them, her stack of cards making soft clacking sounds as she shuffled them and intoned a melodic sing-song chant in her native tongue. Gabrielle watched in fascination as the Egyptian woman, eyes closed, concentrated deeply, then opened her eyes. She peered at the blonde Greek with large, dark eyes, and then questioned her. "Are you ready?" Gabrielle nodded. Ptomaniae leaned forward slightly and cautioned, "You must understand that the cards do not tell what must be. They speak only of what portends. The destiny that awaits you and Xena lies in your own hands and heart."
"That's what Xena says, that we make our own destiny."
"Do you believe that, as well?"
"I never used to. I used to believe in the gods."
"Oh? What happened?"
Gabrielle smiled. "I met some."
The edges of Ptomaniae's mouth twitched upward in a slight smile. "Ah, yes. I understand. It is even so with the Egyptian gods." She breathed deeply and then held out the first card, laying it on the cloth. She studied it for some few seconds, then voiced a thought. "This speaks of your past. You have always been a dreamer, a seeker, ill at ease with your origins."
"I was raised on a farm in Potidaea. It was rather boring."
The next card was placed down. "But you sought adventure, knowledge beyond your ken. I sense a striving for perfection inherent in your soul." She laid out the next card. "Ah. You have traveled much, but for you the horizon is limitless. You will see exotic realms, unknown to most."
"The realms of which I speak are of the heart and soul. Foreign lands are possible, however." She laid out the next card. "Now, to your present state." She perused the cards for a moment, then thought aloud, "There is a darkness which haunts you. Conscience?"
"Xena and I have had some.... difficulties...... in the past."
"But you have resolved them?"
"No." Gabrielle stared, speechless. Ptomaniae regarded her with knowing eyes. "Not in your own soul. You ache for whatever happened. You have not forgiven yourself for past imperfections. You must do so."
"I thought that I had."
"Search your heart. You have not. You see yourself as terribly flawed. You are not. You have merely been tempered by flame, much as metal is." Gabrielle sat still, saying nothing. "You must forgive yourself."
The words struck Gabrielle to the quick. In an instant, she realized that the words were true. "I.....can't."
"You can. You must. It is the way to wisdom, to love oneself." She sat quietly, studying Gabrielle. "Speak with the other half of your soul. Speak with Xena."
"She thinks it's all behind us. I can't bring it up again." Ptomaniae just tilted her head slightly, never taking her eyes away from the hazel ones which began to mist with tears. "I can't."
"Do not fear. Xena will protect you. You must believe in her."
"I do, but....."
"Then why do you fear?" Gabrielle said nothing, just wiped at an eye and sniffed. "Do it tonight. You will not regret it." Gabrielle nodded, and looked down at the cards. "Do you wish to continue?" Again, she nodded. Ptomaniae offered out the next card. "Capacities yet unfulfilled. You have much longer to travel on your journey, little one."
"Perhaps, or perhaps it speaks of the journey of one's soul. You will achieve greatness, if you believe in yourself. Strength, such as that of the warrior. Wisdom, such as that of the goddess. It is a very good portent." They both sat silently for some moments. Ptomaniae regarded Gabrielle kindly, then asked, "You have further questions?"
She wiped at an eye once again, then nodded. "Xena?"
Ptomaniae placed a card out, then another, and then a third. She studied the cards for some time, seemingly lost in thought. Then, she looked intently at Gabrielle and spoke softly. "I can only tell you that the bond you and she share is uncommon in its strength. It is the fortress that keeps safe both you and her. Guard it carefully and tend it constantly, as you would a beautiful but fragile flower. Thrill in it, every hour of every day. It is a rare diadem in the crown of humankind, out of the reach of most. The two of you possess a truly priceless gift."
Gabrielle smiled a bit at that. "You should be the bard."
"It reaches its zenith in a land...... beyond the sun? That makes no sense to me. Do you know of such a land?"
She shrugged. "No."
"Well, perhaps it speaks of the journey of the soul."
"Perhaps." They both sat silently, Ptomaniae patiently awaiting Gabrielle's next thought. Finally, the Greek simply said, "Thank you."
Ptomaniae nodded, then said, "Not at all. It was my honor." They both rose, and then, as Gabrielle made to leave the cabin, Ptomaniae placed a hand on her shoulder. "Remember, tonight."
"I will." She looked up into the kindly, wide eyes, then impulsively hugged Ptomaniae tightly. "Thank you." As she released her to open the door, Ptomaniae bowed slightly, a graceful, elegant bow, and regarded her with a smile. Gabrielle stepped out into the hallway, and wiped at a stray tear. She looked back at the door, then walked slowly down the hall toward the cabin which she and Xena shared.
Ptomaniae watched the bard leave, shutting the door behind her, then gathered up her cards and wrapped them in the cloth. Still holding them, she walked to the shuttered windows and opened one to look out over the harbor, watching the rain fall gently. Softly, and to herself, she said, "Little one, I hurt for you. You will suffer many times over, I think." Then, after a moment, she added, "But you will shine brightly. Such is the price."
As afternoon progressed into evening, the rain slowed to a slight drizzle and the wind subsided somewhat. Syri forecast a better day for the next day, and hoped that the return of the summer's heat would offer a wind favorable to their return to Piraeus, Athens' port city. Hot food was offered out to all, and the children delighted some of the crew with their excitable antics, receiving much attention from those mariners who saw in them a vision of their own children and longed for the upcoming reunion with their families in Piraeus. Most of the crew and passengers retired early, as the decks were still wet and dreary, and unpleasant for homegrown entertainment.
In the cabin Xena and Gabrielle shared, a single oil lamp burned, casting a soft, flickering yellow light over their forms. They lay close together in their sleeping rack, not speaking much, just relishing the temporary tranquility and the chance to indulge in some lazy solitude. After a bit, Gabrielle stirred slightly and looked at Xena's face. Her eyes were closed, but she could tell by the slow patterns that Xena's fingers absent-mindedly traced on her back that the tall warrior was not asleep. Gabrielle sighed deeply, wondering how to begin the conversation that she, for inexplicable reasons, dreaded having with her companion. Finally, deciding that directness was the best approach, she cleared her throat slightly and whispered, "Xena?"
"Are you asleep?"
"No." Xena cracked an eye open and studied Gabrielle's face in the soft light. "You have your 'serious' face on. Are we about to have a sensitive chat?" Gabrielle smiled at that, in spite of herself. She then looked at Xena's face and saw one eyebrow raised, an expression of curiosity and anticipation. She moved her hand slightly and began nervously twirling a lock of Xena's hair between her fingers as she gathered her thoughts. Xena teased, "This must be important. You're playing with my hair and your heart is pounding like a drum. I can feel it. What did you do, wreck our chariot today? Spend our food money on dice games and liquor? Roll in the hayloft with the barmaid?"
"Oh, Xena, I'm trying to be serious."
Xena chuckled, "Sorry." At Gabrielle's hesitation, her smile turned to concern, and she tilted her head to meet the hazel eyes. Gabrielle's eyes were not focused back at her, however; they studied the lock of hair which was wound between her fingers. Xena felt a thread of fear thrill through her. "Gabrielle? You're scared to death. I can feel it from you. What on earth is it?"
Finally, eyes still not meeting Xena's, she responded with a hoarse whisper, "I just wanted to say that I'm so sorry for all of it, for everything I did to hurt you. I'm just so sorry."
"Sorry for what? What are you talking about?"
"You know...... betraying you in Chin. Making a deal with Ares. Lying to you about Hope. And....."
"Solon's death." Xena said nothing for several moments, but sighed deeply and stared toward the ceiling. Gabrielle's eyes flickered up at the stoic, beautiful face and grew deeply worried. The silence in the cramped cabin seemed to her a deafening noise, one that tortured her beyond any words. Finally, in desperation, she said, "Xena? Say something. Say anything."
The steely blue eyes turned back to her and seemed to drill into the depths of her soul. "What do you wish me to say? I thought that it was all in the past, that we had dealt with that."
"I guess I haven't. I'm sorry, just so sorry."
Xena stared at her, then tugged her a bit closer. "Do you want to hear me say that I forgive you? I do. I did, long ago. I understand, believe me. I understand more than you credit me for. I understand everything." Gabrielle nodded slightly, but her acknowledgment was unconvincing. "You must forgive yourself."
"I....can't, after what I did. How can you love me, Xena?"
Xena replied, "I ask myself that same question, every day that we're together."
Gabrielle felt her heart literally drop to her knees. "Wh...what?"
"How can I, who have been the harbinger of so much darkness and brutality, find it within myself to love someone like you? How can I, who have razed villages and slaughtered untold numbers, cling so desperately to the example of nobility which you set before me every day of my life? How, indeed, can I love you? I, who am unworthy of the joy that you bring to me with a smile or a touch. I, a veteran of the most hideous and tortured crevices of human nature, now so desperate for the goodness which radiates from you. I, whose name once struck fear into countless hearts, now aching to become even a shallow reflection of you. I, Xena, once the destroyer of nations, disciple of Ares." She paused for a moment, then thought aloud, "How, indeed, can one such as I love Gabrielle of Potidaea?" She smiled. "Answer me that one, bard."
"You honor me too much, Xena. I'm not worthy of it."
"Nonsense. I don't honor you enough. I have seen and been the face of evil, Gabrielle. Trust me, you could never go where I've been, nor do what I've done. Your innate goodness makes you incapable of it. You forgive me all that I've done, and yet you can't forgive yourself? You look at me and see only the best in me. Me, whose past is littered with horror. You forgive me that, and yet you can't forgive yourself? You grace someone like me with your body and soul, the deepest affections of a stout heart, the reassurance of your kindest thoughts, and yet you can't forgive yourself?" She drilled her eyes into Gabrielle's, then stroked the blonde head with a gentle touch. "So you're not perfect. None of us are. What you are, though, is just the closest thing to perfection that I've ever found, and believe me, I've known a lot of people. None have ever approached you in my eyes, and I sincerely doubt that any ever will."
Xena glanced down to see the fingers still quietly playing with her hair. The intent hazel eyes were fixed upon a place on the cabin wall, studying it, but elsewhere at the same time. She felt a warm wetness on her chest, and heard a sniffle. Hugging Gabrielle a bit more tightly, she placed a kiss on the forehead and whispered, "No one blames you for anything, certainly not me. You alone hold a grudge against yourself. When you drop that weight from your soul, then we can both soar. I need your goodness, your light. I need you to shine for me. If you don't, then like a flower in darkness, I will wither and die. For me, Gabrielle, if not for you, do it. Forgive yourself, for my life depends upon it. I depend on you to keep me right."
Xena saw the hazel eyes tightly close and felt Gabrielle's body begin to shudder rhythmically. She said nothing, just stroked the blonde head gently and held her tightly as her friend underwent the purging of her own soul, an occasional vocal sob sounding among the quiet ones. For a long time, Xena lay still, offering quiet sympathy and a loving embrace to her dear friend as she chased old demons from her memory, wetting Xena's chest with tears. After some time, Gabrielle quieted. Sniffling loudly, she wiped at an eye with her hand and looked up at Xena. Blue eyes smiled back at her, and a sultry voice offered a greeting. "How do you feel now?"
"Better. Yes, better."
"So, have you?"
Gabrielle sniffled again, then nodded. "I think so. I feel so light, so free."
Xena nodded. "You have."
Gabrielle glanced down at Xena's chest, suddenly apologetic, and began mopping at her with the corner of the light blanket which covered them. "I soaked you, Xena."
"Don't worry over it. Needed a bath anyway, I guess. Isn't that what you keep telling me, when we're traveling?"
Gabrielle smiled, her puffy, red eyes actually showing a twinkle. "Well, you do get rather ripe sometimes."
Xena raised an eyebrow at that, pleasantly retorting, "I'm not the only one. Do you have any idea what those boots do to your feet on a summer's day?" She looked down at Gabrielle. "Trust me, it wasn't the salt water that ate up your boots." Gabrielle's mouth hung open at that, then she drilled all ten fingers into Xena's ribs. The warrior twitched spasmodically, then started laughing. "It's true, love. Why do you think I'm always away from the fire when you take your boots off at night?"
"Because my feet stink? You never said anything. By all the gods, how long have you felt this way?"
"Let's think back, now. How long have we been traveling together?"
Gabrielle retorted teasingly, "Well, if I didn't always have to tolerate such cheap boots, maybe my feet wouldn't smell like road kill by the day's end."
"You know, my thoughts exactly. When we get to Athens......"
"The best. Nothing less, for my girl."
Gabrielle smiled at that. "Xena, you spoil me too much."
"I don't spoil you nearly enough. That's something that I intend to change." She smiled down at the hazel eyes. "There's a lot that I intend to change, and it's all for the better."
Gabrielle nodded. "Me, too."
"Oh? Like what?"
"Like telling you every day how much you mean to me. How your smile thrills me. How your touch reassures me. How your nearness keeps me safe. How I love you so much that I fear that I will burst sometimes."
Gabrielle felt the arms tighten around her, and the sultry voice whisper, "Then you begin to know how I feel about you."
They were silent for a few moments, then Gabrielle thought aloud, "That much, huh?"
"That much, and more."
"Yes?" In reply, Gabrielle said nothing, just scooted up slightly in the rack and kissed Xena deeply, passionately. After a time, they parted, Xena's eyes reflecting surprise, amusement, and a slight smokiness. Huskily, she said, "What was that for?"
Gabrielle, imitating her friend's sultry voice, teased, "It's the only way I know of to shut you up."
An eyebrow raised in reply. "In that case, I suppose I'd better learn to talk more." They kissed once again, melting into each other's arms. The yellow flickering of the oil lamp's light and the gentle drumming of the rain upon the cabin's roof were the only witnesses to the act of love which followed, an act of such pure affection that two hearts beat as one, two bodies moved as one, and the quintessence of two souls melded so completely that the heavens themselves seemed moved to weep tears of joy at the union.
Morning brought with it a clearing sky, and streaks of sun once again warmed the decks of the sleek ship. The crew, roused from their inactivity by the prospect of returning home, bustled about the deck as the anchor broke free from the muck of the harbor's bottom and was lashed into place. Oars were manned, and once again splashed rhythmically as the ship scooted out of the harbor's safety and nosed into Poseidon's realm. Sails were set, and a fresh, pleasant breeze from the south-east heralded a quick return to the Gulf of Salamis and its port of Piraeus.
The day's sail was invigorating to the mariners and thrilling to the passengers. With the wind behind them, the ship took to the seas like a colt at play. The sails were full out and set tight, and rigging hummed and squeaked as she attacked the swells with her sharp bow, occasional splashes of froth and spray cascading over the forward railing and wetting the deck. The return of the sun's heat seemed not to dissuade any among them from attending the deck, so intent were they on experiencing the marvelous day.
Gabrielle, for her part, seemed to particularly enjoy the decks, an oddity that Xena quickly noted and breathed a sigh of relief over. On past voyages, the bard had suffered badly from seasickness; however, on this one, she seemed quite unaffected by such malady. Finally, curiosity getting the best of her, Xena approached the rail and, holding on with one hand against the rocking of the deck, she wrapped the other around Gabrielle's waist from behind. The smaller woman leaned back against her and turned her head. "Isn't this fantastic, Xena?"
"You're really taking to this voyaging, aren't you?"
"Yes, isn't that odd? Usually, I'm leaning over the rail and you're hanging onto my skirt. I wonder why it isn't so this time?"
"Perhaps you've finally gotten your sea legs. Or, perhaps it's because we're not on a plodding old merchantman this time. We're on a fast ship. It's a totally different feel."
"Or, perhaps that couple of days we spent on that piece of deck broke me of seasickness. Whatever it is, I'm thankful."
"Me, too. I hated to see you so sick." She teased, "So, where do you want to sail to next?"
Gabrielle was silent at that for a moment, then turned to look at her friend. "Is there anywhere farther from Greece than Chin?"
Xena shrugged. "I would imagine so."
"Have you ever heard of a land beyond the sun?" Xena stiffened noticeably at that. Gabrielle studied her, and then pressed the questioning. "You know of it?"
Xena looked out over the sea, saying nothing for a bit, then turned to face the woman, a tight smile on her lips. "It's called 'the land of the rising sun'. Believe me, Gabrielle, we don't want to journey there. Leave it alone." She looked down, but the hazel eyes peered back at her and were literally bursting with question. "Please, as a favor to me? I beg of you, leave it be."
The blonde head cocked quizzically, then slowly nodded. "All right, love. We don't need to talk of it, if it bothers you that badly."
"Thanks. I appreciate it." She bent down slightly and kissed her forehead, then hugged her tightly. "Look, I have to speak with Syri. See you in a bit?"
"Yes. I'll be out here."
"Don't get sunburned." With that admonition, Xena left the rail and strode toward the cabins. Gabrielle watched her go and wondered at the conversation, finally deciding that she would drop the subject forever, out of regard for Xena. She returned her eyes to the sea, lost in it until another voice interrupted her train of thought. It was Ptomaniae's.
"So, little one, how do you feel today?"
Gabrielle turned to see the tall, mystic Egyptian take her place at the rail next to her. The enthusiasm of her own answer surprised even her. "I feel wonderful, thank you."
"So, did you speak with the other half of your soul?"
"Yes. You were right. I never should have feared."
"Xena will protect you, even from yourself."
"So it would seem."
Ptomaniae looked the smaller woman over, then commented, "Your skin has healed nicely."
Gabrielle looked down at herself. "I'm even getting tanned. Me, with a tan." She held her arm next to Ptomaniae's. "Not like you, though."
"I am Egyptian. I was born dark, although the sun affects me as well."
Gabrielle recalled her conversation with Syri in the cabins' hallway, then resolved to repay, in some small way, the kindnesses that this woman had shown repeatedly. She looked up at the tall Egyptian. "You know, you're quite beautiful. I envy you a bit."
Ptomaniae's eyes widened in surprise. "Beautiful? Little one, the sun has affected your eyes, I think."
"No, really. Look at you. Tall, graceful, dark-skinned, large eyes, beautiful expression. You're so.........alluring. How do you do it?"
Ptomaniae seemed to blush slightly. "I have never been seen so. In Athens, they think me unattractive, even ugly by Greek standards. Look, I have no curves." She swept a hand over the front of her tunic. "I am not, ah, endowed."
"Trust me, they're overrated. They just get in the way, and then sag when you're old."
Her hand went to the three lines prominent at the edge of her eye, leading back toward her ear. "I am marred with tattoos."
"I think that they add to your mystique. I'd love some, myself."
"I am skinny."
"I saw you bathing. You're slender, not skinny. There's a difference."
"And much too tall."
"Something else I envy about you. Just once, I'd like to look Xena in the eye when we're standing."
They both fell into a bout of giggling at that, and Ptomaniae whispered, "Syri must look up at me. I must admit, I rather like it."
"There, you see? Believe me, you don't want to be short, especially in a crowd." Ptomaniae gave her a questioning look. "The view is not that pleasant, sometimes." Another bout of giggling ensued, then the Egyptian quieted and looked at Gabrielle intently.
"Do you really think me beautiful?"
Gabrielle nodded, and patted Ptomaniae's forearm with a hand. "Oh, yes. Trust me, if we were both unattached, I'd be chasing you around the deck even now."
Ptomaniae laughed aloud at the mental picture of that, then smiled broadly. She looked intently at the smaller Greek, then leaned forward and hugged her. "Thank you. You are sweet." With that, she turned and paced toward the cabins. As Gabrielle watched her go, she thought that there was just a bit more bounce in the Egyptian's step than was usual for her. With a smile, she returned her eyes to the distant horizon. Xena rejoined her at the rail, and echoed her last words.
"Chasing her around the deck, huh?"
Gabrielle started, then blushed slightly. "Xena? Er, how long......"
Xena leaned her forearms on the railing, and looked out over the sea, a twinkle in her eyes and a laughing upturn at the edge of her mouth. "Long enough." She allowed Gabrielle to stand in an embarrassed silence for a minute, and then attempt an explanation.
"Uh, look, I was just......"
"Flirting with her?"
"No. Um, yes. Actually........" Xena could no longer keep a straight face, and laughed aloud. Gabrielle squinted at her through narrowed eyes, then shook a finger in her direction. "You're having a lot of fun with this, aren't you?"
Xena swept out an arm and hugged Gabrielle to her side. "That was a very nice thing you just did for her."
"Well, it's all true. Don't you think she's beautiful?"
"I most certainly do."
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow and teased, "Oh? I suppose that you'd like to chase her around the deck a bit, yourself?"
"Well, now that you mention it, there is someone on this ship that I'd like to chase around the deck."
Gabrielle reflected a bit of shock, then a twinge of jealousy. "Oh? Who, by all the gods?"
Xena grinned evilly, then leaned over and whispered in Gabrielle's ear, "I'll give you a five-second head start."
Gabrielle smiled at that. "Me? That's sweet, Xena." She looked at her lover, and her eyes widened. "You are joking, aren't you?"
"Ah, wait, now....."
"Think about this."
"Oh, I am. Two."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Oh, by Zeus...."
"One." At that, Gabrielle took off, sprinting toward the cabins. Xena was right behind her, pacing her and laughing delightedly. She saw the petite bard heading for the cabins' entranceway, and shot past her to block the door. Gabrielle swerved and began heading for the ship's bow, the tall warrior just behind her, their bare feet thudding along the deck. At the sight, crewmen and passengers on the deck applauded and shouted pleasant words of encouragement. Gabrielle rounded the mast, then began heading back toward the cabins. As Gabrielle passed the water bucket, she heard a shrill cry. Xena had somersaulted over her head to land just in front of her, her feet spread and arms out. Gabrielle halted, panting, and held up her hands.
"Now, Xena, that's cheating!" She glanced to one side, then pointed, and said, "Look! Dolphins!" Xena's eyes flickered toward the railing, and at that moment, Gabrielle fell to her hands and knees and crawled under Xena's legs, rising and sprinting for the cabins. Raucous applause and cheers accompanied them as Gabrielle ducked into their cabin, just inside the entranceway, and shut the door. Xena stopped at the door, then assumed a dignified pose and knocked.
A voice resounded from inside the door. "I won!"
"I still won!"
"Well, if you insist. I suppose that I'll just have to find someone else to chase around the deck." At that, the door opened, and those on deck saw an arm flash out and grasp Xena by the front of her tunic, pulling her inside. The door slammed again, and the sound of an iron bolt being clacked shut echoed from the hallway. More cheers and laughter resounded across the deck, and some applause.
At the tiller, Cladiaties scratched his chin and muttered, "Now what in the name of Dionysus was that all about?"
Koenis chuckled, and replied, "Amazon mating ritual."
"Ah." He nodded, then looked askance at his mate, who grinned an uncharacteristic grin, the tattoos on her face pleasantly crinkling. Cladiaties caught the joke and pleasantly bellowed with laughter as he leaned back on the tiller, slightly correcting the ship's course.
At the bow, Mios stood halfway out of the hatch to the crew's quarters, the smoke of a mid-day meal issuing up from behind him. Damos squatted on the deck next to the hatch, repairing the chafing on a thick dock line. Mios watched the entertainment, then tapped Damos on the leg and motioned toward the cabins. "Ah, to be in love, eh?"
Damos, eyes on his work, just shrugged. "I wouldn't know. I'm a married man."
Mios chuckled, then retorted, "I know you, my friend. You're only married when you're in Piraeus. When we touch a foreign port, you're as single as I am."
Damos laughed slightly, then looked up at his comrade with a false show of irritation, his eyes twinkling. "Are you going to cook, or not?"
Mios waved a hand. "Yes, yes, it's almost ready. Try not to eat it all, will you?"
"Why not?" He motioned toward the cabins. "Something tells me that we'll have two less for the mid-day meal."
Mios scratched the beard stubble on his chin. "Oh, I don't know. That sort of thing always gave me an appetite. Besides, the little bard eats like a horse. I'll put some aside for them both."
Damos stopped his work, and looked over at his old friend. "Mios, you're just a hopeless romantic, aren't you?"
Mios nodded. "Damned right, friend. Damned right." He cast one more look over at the cabins, smiled wistfully, then ducked down into the hatch, leaving his shipmate squatting in the sun and shaking his head pleasantly as he resumed his mending.
Piraeus' waterfront was a bustling, colorful, noisy sight. Merchants and warehouses lined the wharves, wagons and people thronged the cobbled streets, and a virtual babble of different languages could be heard if one roamed the docks. Syri's ship sat moored alongside the docks, the crew hastening to put into final order the hundred details which needed attention before they would be paid and released for a week or so.
Polidinos had arrived earlier, shed tears of joy over the sight of his family, and offered the sky and moon to Syri. The mariner, however, just accepted the agreed-upon payment and expenses, and an invitation to dine at Polidinos' house later in the week. A military escort which arrived with the influential Athenian took charge of the pirates, carting them off to be tried for their crimes. With money in their captain's hand, the crew worked fast indeed, soon lining up for their pay and disappearing into Piraeus' crowded streets, each to their own home and hearth.
Xena and Gabrielle stood on the stones near the bow of the sleek ship, taking a last glance at what had been their home for the last week. They noted the sharp bow, the black bowsprit with its furled sail ascending over their heads, and the large, unblinking eyes painted on the prow. The ship seemed to regard the two humans dispassionately as it gazed down at them from its place at the docks. After a while, Xena reached out and gently took Gabrielle's hand, interlacing their fingers. "Are you ready to go?"
Gabrielle looked down at the hands, then smiled as she noted, "Xena, you never hold my hand in public. What's gotten into you?"
"I told you, lots of things are going to change. I like holding your hand."
"I like it, too." She then looked back at the ship, and sighed. "I really enjoyed this voyage. I think I finally understand a mariner's love for the sea. It speaks to one's soul, does it not?"
"It does that, love. I've felt it, as well. I almost hate to go back to tramping down dusty roads."
"I feel the same. Do you think that we can sail with them again, sometime?"
"Syri said we were always welcome."
They turned, and began walking down the crowded docks. "I'll miss them, Xena. They were good people."
"Generous, as well." Xena looked over at Gabrielle and laughed aloud. "It's a good thing that Syri didn't want his tunic back."
Gabrielle looked down at herself as they slowly strolled, hand in hand. Her tunic was loose about her, and her thin brown boots allowed toes to peek through occasionally. Her one possession was the fighting staff that Koenis had refused to accept back, stating that an Amazon without a weapon was a sad sight indeed. "A sad sight," Gabrielle echoed aloud.
"Look at me, Xena. I look like a homeless orphan. I lost everything in the shipwreck."
"Oh, I don't know. You still have me."
"You know what I mean. And what are we going to do for money? I lost that, too." She snorted, then added, "Not that we had much to start with."
Xena smiled. "I've got a bit."
"You do? Since when?"
"Since Syri paid us our share of the fee for recovering Polidinos' family and capturing Otanes."
"You accepted money from him? That isn't right. They saved our lives, Xena. They rescued us."
"And, by mariner's tradition, we became a part of his crew. He paid us, same as he would pay any crew member."
Gabrielle puzzled over the logic of that, then nodded. "All right, I suppose that I can accept that." They walked on silently for a moment, the tapping of Gabrielle's staff echoing their tread on the stones, then she looked up at Xena. "So, how much?"
"Hmm?" Xena was nonchalant, her eyes in constant motion as she scanned the shops and merchant stalls.
Gabrielle pulled on Xena's arm. "How much? Twenty? Thirty? That's probably what a mariner gets, isn't it?" Xena raised an eyebrow, and began humming a tune to herself. Gabrielle stamped a foot, then tugged on Xena's hand. "How much?"
"Two hundred and fifty, Athenian silver."
Gabrielle's jaw dropped. "What?"
Gabrielle sputtered a bit, then pulled Xena to a halt. "Each? Fi..." She lowered her voice, then finished the thought in a whisper. "Five hundred? By all the gods, Xena, that's a fortune!"
"A small one, yes. As Syri said, Polidinos can be very generous."
Xena felt her hand squeezed. "We've never had that much money in our lives. We're rich!"
"Right you are, little bard." She looked Gabrielle over, then added, "Now, it's time you stopped looking like a homeless orphan. There's a shop over there. Shall we?"
Gabrielle dropped her staff and literally jumped into Xena's arms, throwing both her own arms around the tall warrior's neck, and planted a kiss directly on her lips. Then, both laughing, she let go and touched her feet to the street, slapping Xena on the arm.
"What was that for?"
"So when were you going to tell me this?"
"Right after you asked what we'd pay for your new boots with."
Gabrielle squatted down and retrieved her staff. "Xena, you're a tease. Say, where do we go next?"
Xena smiled and took Gabrielle's hand as they approached the shop. "First, boots and clothes for you. Then, we get Argo out of the stable, and head north to Athens proper. How would you like to stay there for a day or two and see the sights?"
"Oh, I'd love it. Do you think that I could drag you out to attend a play?"
"Ten, if you wish."
"And we can have a hot bath for each of us?"
"I need some scrolls, Xena, and a quill, and a vial of ink, and a brush for my hair. And,......."
Xena laughed. "And a bag to carry it all."
"Yes. Good thought."
"I have them every so often."
Gabrielle nodded. "You do at that, you know. So, where to after we've seen Athens?"
"You're a farm girl at heart. We'll visit one."
Gabrielle cocked her head quizzically. "I beg your pardon?"
Xena grinned her best lopsided grin. "There's a prosperous olive farm less than a league outside of the north city gate of Athens. Syri and Ptomaniae stay there when they're in port. It belongs to his sister and her husband. Delightful people, he tells me. We've been invited for a stay. You up to it?"
"We get to see them again? That's wonderful, Xena. I'd love it."
"Done, then." They approached the shops, and Gabrielle tugged on Xena's arm once again. "What is it, love?"
"Xena, don't you need anything? What can I buy for you?"
"Nothing. I have all that I need, next to me."
"That's sweet." Gabrielle thought for a minute, then cast a twinkling eye at her friend. "Listen, I was thinking. Although we have money, we shouldn't be frivolous with it. We should be quite careful, and not overspend."
Xena lifted an eyebrow cautiously. "What do you mean?"
"Those daily baths in Athens?"
Gabrielle grinned evilly. "We'd better get just one every day, and share it."
Xena laughed out loud at that, then hugged Gabrielle to her side as they entered the shop. "I like the way you think, 'little one'."
"'Little one', am I? Watch it, 'good lady'."
"I wondered when you were going to hit me with that one."
"I was saving it for just the right time."
"Hey, why don't you get some different clothes this time, Gab? A new look for you."
"How about a leather outfit?"
"Me, in leather?"
Xena's voice was slightly husky. "Yes. Skimpy leather."
Gabrielle laughed brightly. "In your dreams, Warrior Princess! In your dreams!" She eyed Xena coyly, then suggested, "But I could go for a tattoo."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "What?"
"Yes. I think that they're rather sexy."
"You do, do you? By all the gods, if your family didn't hate me before, they surely will after this. All right, bard. We'll get tattooed in Athens. Deal?"
"Deal. Don't chicken out on me, Xena."
"Are you kidding? I'll be fine. You'll probably have to get drunk first, though."
"Not on your life. I want to be sober for this. If you choose it, there's no telling what kind of tattoo I'll wake up with. A big 'X', right on my......"
"Hmmm. True enough. If you don't like my choice, I'll probably hear about it for an eternity."
"Am I really that bad? I'm not really that bad, am I?"
Xena hugged Gabrielle close to her, and rested her chin on the small blonde's head. "Yes. And whatever you do......."
Gabrielle smiled, and snaked an arm around Xena's waist. "I know. Don't ever change."
"I couldn't have said it better myself. Now, let's get you some clothes, hey?"
The End. -djb, January, 2003.