THE LONG WAY HOME Part 3 (Conclusion)
"I'm going back."
Janice dropped those words on us as we rested in our comfortable hotel room in Athens the day after our return from the island.
"Hmmm," Aunt Mel replied, engrossed in her book. When the words finally sank in, she looked up with a start. "You're what?"
"I'm going back."
"Now, why on God's green earth would you want to do that?" She shut her book and sat up.
"Mel," Janice replied, "you know exactly why. There are three more scrolls in that cave - Xena scrolls."
"We don't know that for sure."
Janice ignored her. "I can't just leave them there. For one thing, we need them for the translation. And for another, how long do you think it's going to take Charlie Howser to make the trip back for them?"
"Janice Covington," Aunt Mel looked at her through narrowed eyes, her drawl becoming even more pronounced, "I swear, you are stark, raving mad. I cannot believe that you are even breathing that man's name. We were lucky to get off that island with our hides intact, and I, for one, am not going to let any of us here be endangered like that again. We're going home and that's all there is to it. Honestly, Janice, sometimes I wonder just exactly where it is you store you head." She let out an irritated sigh and opened her book again, as if that were the end of the conversation.
"Fine." Janice's voice was even.
"I said, that's fine. I think it would be better if you and Carrie went back to the States. I told you from the very beginning that I thought it might be dangerous over here. I can understand why you wouldn't want to go back, and that's fine."
"But?" Aunt Mel looked at her warily.
"But, I'm going back."
Aunt Mel flung herself back in the chaise lounge and put her arm across her eyes. I thought for a minute she might be crying, but when she looked up again, her eyes were clear. She sat there and took several deep breaths. Janice and I both waited for her to say something, but she merely stared at Janice in silence.
Janice finally threw up her hands. "Well, are you going to tell me what's going on behind those baby blues of yours?"
Aunt Mel took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes then ran long, slender fingers through her shiny black hair.
"She knows you're right," I blurted out, surprising myself. "We have to go back."
They both snapped their heads around.
"We came here to get whatever is on the island," I continued, gaining a little more confidence, "and I...I don't think we should go home until we have what we came for." I glanced at Aunt Mel. "You said so yourself, that there'd be no turning back until we finished what we came to do."
Aunt Mel's mouth closed at exactly the same time one eyebrow went up.
"Carrie, honey, when I said that, I had no idea that we were going to held at gun point."
"Maybe not, but you didn't know about the scrolls then, either. Even I can tell there's something special about those scrolls. I think we should do everything we can to try and get them."
Aunt Mel opened her mouth to say something, but Janice held up her hand.
"No, wait, Mel. Listen to her." A small smile began to break across her face. "She sounds just like you."
I walked over to Aunt Mel and sat beside her on the chaise. "I know you're just worried about me. I also know that if I werent here, you'd be packing your bags right now to go back to the island with Janice. Well, I'm a Pappas, too, remember, and if I get any say at all in this, I say we go back."
Aunt Mel threw Janice a helpless look.
Janice just grinned. "Well, she's your niece, that's for sure."
Aunt Mel shook her head. "No, I will not..." she looked at Janice, "...I absolutely think that..." she turned to me, "...oh, this is just ridiculous..." She stared back and forth at us several more times until she finally let out a big breath and leaned back on the chaise. "What on earth am I ever going to tell your daddy about all this?"
"Tell him we had a lovely time," I said, "and that you can't wait until I can come back to visit again."
Janice let loose with a good laugh and when I looked at Aunt Mel, she was shaking her head from side to side, the edge of her mouth curling up slightly. "You are my niece, that is for sure."
Later that evening, Janice got in touch with her friend, Tom Reynolds, from the American embassy, calling in a favor he'd owed her since the war.
"It's all set," she said after hanging up the phone. "We leave tomorrow morning for Crete. Tom gave me the name of someone there who can get us a boat. Once we reach the island, we'll only have a few hours to get the scrolls and get out of there."
"But it took us over two hours just to get to the caves from camp, and that was in daylight." Worry sounded in Aunt Mel's voice.
"I know, but we have to do it. We have to be off the island by daybreak. It's our only chance, Mel. Tom's sticking his neck out on this one as it is, but he's a friend and he owes me. He thinks he can get the few ships in that area to look the other way if they happen to spot us, but he doesn't exactly have influence over the whole Greek navy, so we've got to get in and out as fast as we can."
Aunt Mel nodded. "All right. If you think we can do it, then I trust you."
"Good," Janice replied.
The next morning, we made the short flight from Athens to Iraklion, on the northern coast of Crete. From there, we caught a bus to the tiny port town of Sitia on the island's eastern side. That's where we were to find a Mr. Nikos Levros, the man who would rent us his boat for the night.
"You won't be able to miss him," Tom had assured Janice the night before. "He's the local eccentric - a very colorful kind of guy. And he runs the only tavern in the town. Find the tavern and you'll find Nick Levros."
Finding the tavern was easy enough - it was practically the only business in town besides a bank and a small produce stand. We crossed the street by small, elaborate Greek Orthodox church and made our way toward a faded storefront where, even from a distance, we could hear music and laughter blaring from an open window. Janice held the door while Aunt Mel and I walked inside. As if on cue, a large man with a full beard and unruly hair turned to us from behind the bar and waved.
"Come in, come in. All are welcome. You are Reynolds' friends, eh? From America?"
Janice introduced herself and Aunt Mel, but when she came to me, Mr. Levros interrupted her and, coming out from behind the bar, took both my hands, holding me out for an overall inspection.
"No, this vision cannot have a name, for she is Aphrodite returned to us in the flesh." My eyes went to the floor and I began to blush vigorously.
"I...I'm Caroline. Caroline Pappas. Melinda's niece," I whispered shyly.
"Ah, yes, I might have known. Pappas, from good Mediterranean stock." He leaned in and gave both my cheeks a wet, scratchy kiss. I liked him immediately.
"Now," he pronounced, "let us talk business."
The sky was deep into twilight when we walked to the small marina. There, tied to an old, dilapidated pier was his boat, a paint-deprived, weather-beaten cabin cruiser, hardly big enough, anyone might agree, to handle the deep waters of the Aegean Sea. But Mr. Levros was adamant about it sea-worthiness, telling us stories of how, in younger days, he and his brothers had explored every island in the Dodecanese group and never once had a mishap. Even had his boat been three planks nailed to a couple of logs, I doubt that Janice would have so much as blinked, so determined was she to get back to Armathia.
As soon as it was dark, we boarded the vessel, loaded down with lifejackets, food, a thermos of coffee and several thick, woolen blankets that Mrs. Levros insisted we take along.
"Follow this chart," Mr. Levros instructed Janice, handing her a worn map and an unusual looking instrument. "The sky is clear tonight and the wind is down. And the moon will give you enough light to see the horizon." He pointed to the object in Janice's hand. "You know how to read a sextant, no?"
"That is good. Then keep it steady and stay on this course." His finger traced a line between two points on the map. "The readings are there. You should reach Armathia in three or four hours." He stepped off the boat and back onto the pier, putting an arm around his wife's shoulder. "We shall pray for your safety."
"Thank you," Aunt Mel said, "both of you. We'll see you in the morning."
Janice started the engine and let it idle for a minute before easing the boat into the small bay.
"If God so wills," Mr. Levros called out after us, making the sign of the cross in front of him as a blessing for our protection.
Mr. Levros had been right. The sky was clear, incredibly so. The farther we pushed into the inky blackness, the brighter the stars became. And there were so many of them. Every time I looked up at another part of the sky, a hundred more stars seemed to appear until they formed a dense, sparkling canopy above us.
It wasn't long before the air had taken on a numbing coldness and even though I had on a shirt, a sweater and a heavy jacket, I wrapped myself in one of the blankets, draping it over my head and pulling it tightly against my cheeks.
"Maybe you should try to sleep," Aunt Mel said, her teeth chattering slightly from the cold.
"I don't think I could," I replied, handing her a blanket and helping tuck it around her shoulders. In the calmness of the night, the boat sliced through the water with hardly a sound. "Besides, it's nice out here. I like looking at all the stars."
"They are beautiful," she said, looking up, "I never get tired of..."
"Mel," Janice interrupted, "I need another reading. Now."
It was Aunt Mel's job to give the degree readings from the map, so she turned on her flashlight and read out the crucial numbers while Janice checked and rechecked the sextant against the horizon and a point in one of the constellations overhead.
"Good," Janice said, relaxing a bit, "right on course." She poured coffee into the battered lid of the thermos and shook her head when I offered her a blanket. "I wish we could use the spotlight when we land. That's going to be a bit tricky."
"It's all a bit tricky, if you ask me," Aunt Mel noted, "but I think the moon will give us enough light as long as the sky stays clear."
I looked at the eastern horizon. An enormous, full moon was beginning its arc across the night sky. For the next three hours, it marched steadily upward, turning first from muted orange to burnished gold, then to pale yellow and, finally, to brilliant white.
I had just laid my head on my knees when Janice gave a cry. "There, Mel, just ahead." Handing the binoculars to Aunt Mel, Janice checked her readings one more time. "That's it. Armathia."
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't see a thing. But suddenly, almost as if by magic, a dark shadow appeared on the horizon, and within minutes, it loomed in front of us like a great black beast.
"We'll have to circle around to the other side. Mel, you've got to help guide me in. The cove should be about a quarter of a mile once we round the southern end. Damn, I could really use that spotlight."
She pulled the rudder around and we began to turn. The island looked different from this angle. There were no cliffs, only a long, smooth beach running up into a large, black forest. The boat made a wide circle and as I squinted and strained to see, the terrain became more rugged. Soon, the familiar face of sheer rock came into view. Then, without a word, Janice cut the engine.
"Look," she whispered, pointing just beyond the cove. There, rounding the island from the opposite direction was a large, gray gunboat, searchlights trained on the same cove we were heading toward. My heart began to pound as the ship got closer and closer.
"Get down," Janice whispered again. We flattened ourselves against the bottom of the boat and I pulled my blanket over my head. It wasn't long before I could hear the engine of the cutter and the water splashing against its side. Then, out of the darkness, came the bright, narrow beam of a searchlight, shining directly on our small boat. Aunt Mel took in a sharp breath and reached over to grab my arm. There was no doubt that we had been spotted, the blinding shaft of light raking over every inch of our flimsy craft. I held my breath and said a silent prayer. A moment later, just as suddenly, the light was gone and the ship steamed past us, the noise of its engine fading into the distance. Janice was the first to look up.
She ran her hands over her face and let out a ragged sigh of relief. "Good old Tom. Remind me to thank him again when we get back." She looked at her watch. "Now, come on. We've got about four hours before the sun comes up." She turned the engine back on and headed toward the inlet. Aunt Mel stood up to peer over the windshield, straining to find the best way into the cove. "Left...a little more, now easy. All right, straighten out. No, that's too much. A little right. Okay, okay." It wasn't long before I felt the boat skid gently into the soft, fine sand of the beach.
"Pull it up a little farther," Janice instructed as we each grabbed a rope and gave it a good heave. "I'd hate to come back and find out that our boat had left without us."
The moon continued to shine steadily and by its light we were able to find the path and make our way up the side of the cliff. I was surprised at how much easier it was to climb this time, even in semi-darkness. But each step did seem to have a certain familiarity about it, and in a way, it was less frightening not knowing just how far down the rocks below actually were. When we reached "squatter's tunnel", we turned on our flashlights. With the haunting melody of the wind to guide us, we came into the Singing Caves, and finally to the large cavern where only days ago ancient secrets lay. Now, though, the beams from our flashlights met only bare rock. The cave had been stripped clean.
"You're sure this is the right place?" Aunt Mel asked in disbelief.
Janice walked to the far side and knelt down, looking closely at the tracks left in the fine silt which covered the floor of the cave.
"Someone's been here." She scooped up a handful of silt then threw it down in disgust. "They didn't leave a sou." She started to walk back toward us when she stopped suddenly and bent over, her hands braced against her knees. I thought she was going to be sick, but instead, she let loose with a slew of very colorful words. Finally, she stood up and took her hat off, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand.
"Not a damn sou."
* * *
Everything came to an abrupt stop. As sunlight began to filter into the storage area, Gabrielle pulled herself up. She looked around and took a quick inventory. Alexander was there, trying to get to his feet. Terim and Seta were dazed but unhurt, as was Aggus. Everyone else looked up in surprise, but there seemed to be no serious injuries. It was almost as if a blanket of peace had fallen over the small group and even Gabrielle felt that no matter what happened next, at least all the rocking and swaying had stopped.
"Xena," she whispered under her breath.
She looked around for her staff and finally found it against the far side of the storage area where it had been thrown.
Then she went to Alexander. "Stay here, okay? I've got to find Xena."
He gave her a puzzled stare.
"Cook," she explained with a pat to his cheek.
The ship had grounded on her side and it was difficult to walk on the steeply angled floor, but Gabrielle finally made it to the worn steps and climbed to the deck above. Pots and pans, broken bags of rice and grain were all strewn into the hallway outside the galley. She picked her way through the debris and made it to the upper deck. She was amazed and horrified by what she saw. The main mast was broken in two, the splintered ends charred from the blaze of lightning that had brought it down. Part of it hung over one side of the ship, making a huge gash along the railing where it had hit. A spider's web of rigging and tattered strips of sail hung from its remains and covered a good portion of the ship's bow. Tangled among the ropes, Gabrielle saw the bodies of several men. A wave of panic washed over her. She walked farther out onto the deck.
"Xena!" she cried, looking frantically around. "Xena!"
Then, in the distance, "Gabrielle?" That was the voice she wanted to hear. She turned and began running toward the sound of it. Just as she rounded the corner, she and Xena practically collided.
Without a word, Gabrielle flung herself into her friend's arms and held on tightly.
"Are you okay?" Xena finally asked - a familiar question from warrior to bard. Xena leaned back a little and lifted Gabrielle's chin with her hand to look deeply into her eyes.
"Yes," Gabrielle answered, pulling Xena close again, "I am now. Are you?"
"Never better. How's everyone down below?"
"Sick and miserable, but alive." Gabrielle reluctantly broke her hold. "Where are we? Where's the crew? And the captain? And the first mate?"
Xena smiled. So many questions from her bard - that was a good sign. "I don't know where we are for sure. Some island. As for the crew..." she glanced at the chaotic scene in front of them. Gabrielle nodded. "And at least six or seven were washed overboard. Haven't yet seen the captain, or his first mate."
Just then, Sercles and a number of the surviving crew approached them. Gabrielle tightened her grip on the staff but Xena shook her head. "It's okay," she whispered.
Xena looked at the ragged men and casually put her hand on the hilt of her dagger. "I'm taking command of this ship and whatever crew is left. Does anyone have a problem with that?"
The men all shook their heads and murmured their assent
"I've talked to all the men I could find," Sercles said, "and don't none of us have a problem with that. Now the captain, he and his may have other ideas, but we're here to change his mind if you need us."
"Good," Xena replied, "then let's see just exactly what kind of shape we're in. Sercles, choose a few of the men to find as many provisions as they can. That means fresh water, too. Haul everything onto the beach. We'll do an inventory once the ship's been unloaded."
Sercles nodded and tapped several men on the chest.
Xena turned to the three men standing closest to her. "You, you and you, form a burial detail." She inclined her head toward the bodies on the bow. "They might have liked to have been buried at sea, but this is the best we can do." Then she looked at Sercles and the two deck-hands who were left. "It's time to find the captain and let him know about the change in command." She made eye contact with the two men she didn't know. "Oh, and just in case either of you are thinking about switching sides at the last minute, you probably should know that I can take you both out, along with the captain and first mate, with my sword arm tied behind my back."
"The captain never was a friend of ours," one of the men spoke up, "so I don't imagine we're likely to get cozy with him now."
"All right," Xena replied, confident she'd made her point. "Wait here. I'll be back in a minute." She walked over to Gabrielle.
"So," Gabrielle said, leaning on her staff, "how does it feel to be captain of the Aegeana Fox again?"
Xena let her gaze wander around the broken vessel. "Well, considering that the ship is a wreck, the crew is half drowned and I have absolutely no idea where we are," she gave Gabrielle a grin, "it feels pretty good. Now, go on. Go liberate your precious 'cargo'."
"My pleasure," Gabrielle replied. "And Xena," she placed her hand on Xena's arm, suddenly serious, "be careful." It wasn't until Xena nodded and gave her hand a pat that Gabrielle finally turned and headed down the stairs.
"All right, boys, let's go." The small group made their way up to the quarter-deck and entered a short passageway. Just to the left was the first mate's cabin. The door was open and half the contents of the room had been thrown into the hall. She nodded to two of the men who proceeded to search the quarters. Then she and Sercles came to the captain's door. Drawing her dagger, she kicked it open. That room, too, was in complete upheaval but it soon became apparent that the captain was not there.
"They're on the ship somewhere and we've got to find them," Xena said as they all met back in the passageway. "I want you two to start searching the upper decks and work your way down. Sercles and I will start below and work our way up." The men nodded. "And try not to kill them unless you have to. I'd like to make this as bloodless as possible."
"That's a good one, coming from you, Xena," one of the men said, remembering stories he'd heard about the infamous Warrior Princess.
"Yeah, well, I'm just full of surprises. Now get going."
Xena and Sercles headed for the lower decks. As they passed the galley, she made a quick detour and found her bag among the litter on the floor. Pulling out her sword, she reveled for just a moment in the confident, familiar feel of it in her hand. Making their way through the narrow corridor to the hold, Xena noticed that the door outside the storage area was closed. She carefully placed an ear to the rough wood but heard no sound coming from within. Quietly, she lifted the latch and swung open the door.
"Xena!" Gabrielle shouted. "Look out!"
In a flash, she raised her right arm, her sword deflecting a hard blow. Just as quickly, her assailant let the force of the deflection give his sword momentum to swing powerfully around and come up from below. Again, Xena deflected his move and this time swung in tightly from the side, her sword making contact with the man's left arm. He staggered back a step and in that instant, Xena recognized her assailant. It was the first mate. He renewed his attack with a vengeance.
"I should have done this a long time ago," he snarled between blows.
"What's the matter," Xena replied with a glint in her eye, pressing her advantage, "didn't you like my cooking?"
Finally, with one forceful strike from Xena, the man's sword flew from his hand and landed with a clank several feet away. In a quick move, she swept his feet out from underneath him and aimed the tip of her sword at his throat as he hit the ground. She quickly looked around. On one side of the room, Terim and the others huddled together, terrified. The captain stood on the opposite side holding Alexander tightly by the neck. Beside him, Gregor had one of Gabrielle's arms wrenched painfully behind her, his dagger to her throat.
"Very nicely done, cook - or should I say Xena," the captain announced with a smirk. "I'm ashamed at myself for being so easily deceived, but I must admit, the disguise was perfect, right down to the dialect. Now all I need to know is just exactly what the Warrior Princess wants with my ship and my crew?"
"Let's just say this ship has sentimental value to me."
"Well," his eyebrows went up, "then maybe we can make some kind of deal that will be beneficial to both of us."
"Maybe we could, if I had any interest in benefiting you. But, I don't, so I guess there won't be any deals."
"In case you haven't noticed," the captain said, gritting his teeth and tightening his hold on Alexander, "I seem to have the advantage in this situation. I hardly think you're in a position to disagree with anything I might want."
"Oh, I think I have a little leverage here," Xena replied as she pressed the tip of her sword a little deeper into the first mate's flesh.
The captain laughed derisively. "Kill him if you want to. He's nothing to me."
The first mate jerked his head angrily to face the captain. At that exact moment, the ship shifted slightly, throwing everyone off balance. Chaos suddenly broke out. Gabrielle took advantage of Gregor's temporary loss of footing and forcefully rammed her elbow into his stomach, breaking his hold on her neck and leaving him gasping for breath. She stepped forward and scooped up her staff. In a moment of fury, she turned to the captain. He had been tossed to the floor and had taken Alexander with him, his arm still tightly wound around the boy's neck. Before he could get to his feet, she was standing over him and with one quick jab, hit him hard in the chest with the end of her staff. He fell backwards, both hands out behind him. Alexander was thrown slightly to the side and in an instant, Gabrielle grabbed him and propelled him across to Terim, who quickly pushed him into the midst of the group, out of immediate danger. At this same time, the first mate had recovered his sword and jumped to his feet, lunging at Xena. He misjudged the angle, though, and as he charged toward her, she side-stepped slightly, letting her boot catch his leg just above the ankle. Lurching helplessly past her, he flew directly into the path of Sercles' drawn sword. His eyes opened wide in surprise for a moment then he fell to the floor, lifeless. As soon as Gabrielle saw that Alexander was safe, she turned again to face the captain. But as she did so, Gregor came up on her blind side and gave her a brutal kick to the ribs, causing her to spin slightly to the right. The captain, taking the advantage, grabbed her by the hair from behind and pulled her painfully to her knees. Just as Gregor was about to kick her again, Xena was at his back. She fastened her steely grip on his collar and yanked him away from Gabrielle, pinning him against the wall. In less than a breath, her dagger was in her hand and then up to its hilt in the paunchy flesh just below his heart. She felt no pleasure as she watched the life drain from his eyes, but there was no regret either. As she turned to face the captain, she found him kneeling beside Gabrielle, the tip of his blade to her throat.
"Don't try it, Xena, or your friend is dead." He looked around at the other crew members. "I'm still the captain of this ship," he shouted, "and I demand that you do what I tell you."
Sercles took a step forward. "We've got another captain now, so you best just let the girl go."
"Sercles," the captain replied, suddenly pleading, "you've been with me a long time. Come on, we can still make the best of this. We just have to kill Xena. Then we can repair the ship and get the slaves to Lydia. I'll split the profit with you - with all of you. That's more dinars than any of you would see in a year."
Sercles glanced at the men around him. They all shook their heads. "We've got another captain now," he repeated.
"No!" the captain wailed, clutching his dagger tighter to Gabrielle's throat so that a small amount of blood began to trickle down from his blade. Faster than thought, Xena pulled out her chakram and launched it with deadly precision. It hit his throat slightly off-center, narrowly missing Gabrielle, but accomplishing its purpose. He dropped his dagger and fell to the side. Xena leapt forward and grabbed onto Gabrielle before she could be dragged down with him. Pulling her into her arms, Xena ripped a small square of material from her shirt and pressed it to Gabrielle's neck. After a moment, she looked at the wound. It was only a surface cut and would quickly heal. The captain's, however, would not.
* * *
We spent the next month touring around Greece. Somehow, Aunt Mel convinced Janice that it would be foolish not to take advantage of the opportunity while we were here. We saw all the major tourist attractions, of course, as well as some fascinating out-of-the-way places that only an archaeologist and an expert in ancient languages would know about. A whole new world opened up to me. Aunt Mel was a fantastic teacher, and everywhere we went, she brought ancient legends and myths alive. Even Janice got into the spirit of things and between the two of them, I gained a wonderful education in all things Greek, both past and present, during those four glorious weeks.
Our last few days in Greece were spent in the upper eastern region, close to the Gulf of Strimon, where the Pappas family had originated centuries before. There I met second and third cousins I never knew I had, and although all my conversations had to be filtered through Aunt Mel or Janice, it didn't stop any one of us from becoming great friends. When the day came to say good-bye, pictures were taken, promises to write were made and familial bonds were formed that still remain strong. Getting to know these people, who were so different from me and yet in many ways so alike, was a revelation, and I began to understand the love one can have for one's heritage. Good Mediterranean stock, as Mr. Levros had put it, and I was so proud to be a part of it all.
It was the end of July when we finally arrived back in the States, back to the quietness of the small college town and back to a way of life I'd almost forgotten existed. I'd lost a little weight but my muscles had grown firm and strong. My hair was longer and my skin had taken on a deep, golden brown from all the hours spent in the warm, Mediterranean sun. When I looked in the mirror, I saw a very different girl than the one who had begrudgingly boarded the train in North Charleston just five short weeks before. Different on the outside, and certainly different on the inside. It was definitely not going to be the same girl who would return to her mama and daddy, who would take her place in the sophomore class at Parmenter Academy and who would find more quality time to spend with her great-aunt Helen.
Even though Aunt Mel was anxious to return to her translating project, she decided to take the train back with me to Charleston for a week's visit. Janice, who I thought would be upset at the delay, was all for it. She knew it would make Aunt Mel happy, and gruff as she might seem at times, when it all came down to it, making Aunt Mel happy was always uppermost on her list of priorities.
We were leaving on the two o'clock train, so I spent the morning packing my bags and trying to finish the Gabrielle Stele. Ever since returning from Greece, I had discovered an insatiable appetite for the books Aunt Mel had scattered around her apartment.
"Honey, you can take it with you, you know," Aunt Mel said, poking her head though the bedroom door.
"Oh, I know, but I'm taking six already and I just thought if I could finish this here, it'd be one less thing to pack."
She gave a little laugh. "You're getting this whole traveling thing down pat, aren't you?"
"Well, just so you know, we've got to leave for the station in about two hours."
Just then the doorbell rang.
"Well, who on earth..." That had turned out to be Aunt's Mel standard line whenever someone came to the door unexpectedly.
"I got it," Janice yelled from the sitting room.
A few minutes later, there was a terrific commotion on the stairway. I closed my book and walked into the other room. Just then, Janice came through the door on one end of a large wooden crate. The delivery man was on the other end, and they awkwardly got it into the sitting room and sat it down heavily on the floor. Janice reached into her pants pocket and pulled out a couple of bills, handing them to the man who took them with a nod and left.
Janice walked to the hallway closet and after rummaging around a bit, came back with a crowbar in her hand. I gave her a funny look.
"You never know when something like this might come in handy," she explained, as if everybody should keep one in their closet.
"Janice Covington," Aunt Mel said with friendly accusation, "what in the world did you order now?"
Janice looked at her and shrugged. "Nothing...that I can remember anyway."
"Well, what do you suppose it is?" Aunt Mel persisted.
"Well, why don't we open it and find out," Janice replied with a grin.
With that, she shoved the tip of the crowbar between the lid and the crate and gave it a good push downward. The nails squeaked and groaned as they were pried out of the wood. She worked her way around the lid and soon it was loose enough to lift off. Inside, all we could see was shredded packing material, and both Janice and Aunt Mel dove into it, their hands searching and grasping.
"I've got something," Aunt Mel cried, trying to get a grip on it and pull it from the crate. "It's heavy."
With much effort, she finally lifted the object from the crate and sat it down on the floor. There in front of us was a teardrop shaped cask with a flat bottom. Aunt Mel looked at Janice in amazement. Janice renewed her search with a vengeance. Within minutes, three identical casks were lined up outside the crate.
"Mel," Janice whispered breathlessly, "get me a screwdriver and a hammer."
Aunt Mel ran to the closet and returned with the tools Janice had requested. Carefully, Janice coaxed the lids off of all three casks, and within each one was a scroll, neatly rolled and preserved in the airlessness of the container.
"Where did they come from?" I asked, my own eyes wide.
"I have no idea," Janice replied, studying the label pasted to the crate. "All it says is 'Point of Origin: Rome'."
"Rome?" Aunt Mel shook her head. "I don't get it. We don't know...Who would have...? How could...?" For the next few moments, Aunt Mel seemed unable to utter a complete sentence. In the meantime, Janice continued to dig through the packing material, looking for some clue as to the identity of who had been responsible for this incredible delivery. In the end, though, all she came up with was a pile of shredded straw.
I looked at my watch. It was twelve fifteen. I wasn't sure how anyone else felt about it, but there was no way I was leaving now. I got up and went to the phone, dialing a familiar number. "George Pappas, please," I said after a minute. "Daddy, it's me. No, no, everything's fine, but, uh, we're going to have to delay our trip home for a little while. No, there's no problem. Just something that's come up and we need to take care of it before we leave here. Yes, I know. I'm anxious to see you, too. But we'll be there soon, okay? I'll call you in a few days with some new arrangements. All right. I will. My love to her, too. Bye."
I looked at the two quizzical faces staring at me. "Well, you can't expect us to go off and leave these scrolls unread, can you?"
"That's my girl," Aunt Mel replied with a smile.
For the next two weeks, long into the night, Aunt Mel and Janice poured over the scrolls. Together with the one Janice had brought back with her, they made a complete set, each scroll telling another chapter of a unbelievable tale of friendship and adventure. It was a story of slavery and freedom, of storms, shipwreck and survival, of lives lost and lives redeemed, with Xena and Gabrielle at the very heart. With each new revelation from the scrolls, another piece of the puzzle was solved and the mystery of the stone began to unravel. More and more it became apparent that the author of the scrolls and the one who had chiseled the story into stone had shared this remarkable experience.
* * *
Gabrielle glanced over at the small pile of blank parchment Xena had found for her in the captain's quarters and sighed contentedly. Writing had been a wonderful diversion during her convalescence from two broken ribs. She looked at the scroll on her lap. Already she had filled three of them relating their entire experience from the time they left Athens until this very day. She laid down her quill and stretched. Alexander was playing by the water nearby. She rocked herself into an upright position and walked toward him.
"What's all this?" she asked, kneeling down beside the boy.
"Seta's teaching me how to write," he replied happily, continuing to make the oddly shaped figures in the sand, ones Gabrielle had never seen before. "It's a story, just like the ones you write."
"Really? What does it say?"
"Well," he replied slowly, "this one means 'storm', this one 'ship', and this means 'island'."
"What about this one," Gabrielle asked, pointing to the last symbol.
"Oh, that one means 'friends'."
"So, this is the story about a storm, a ship, an island and friends?"
"Uh-huh. It's about what happened to us - all of us. There was a storm while we were on a ship, then we came to an island, and now we're all friends."
"I see." Gabrielle gave Alexander a big smile and playfully ruffled his hair. "Then it's just like the story I'm writing."
It seemed he had grown an inch during the two months they'd been on the island. His cheeks now had a healthy rosiness to them and he had filled out so much. It was hard to imagine that this was the same scrawny boy who had poked his head through the galley door not so very long ago. Gabrielle stood up and squinted, her hand shading her eyes. There in the distance was Xena. She, the crew members and the Cilician men had been working steadily on a new mast and other repairs to the ship. It looked as if they would complete the job in a matter of days. Close by were a few of the Cilician women and children, washing clothes in a small inlet. Health had returned to all of them since their days on the island - an island which was blessed with fresh water springs, rich soil, a variety of fruit trees and enough wildlife to provide meat for a long time to come. If there really was any grace attached to the gods, Poseidon had indeed been gracious to send them here.
Seta squatted barefoot on a flat rock, scrubbing her family's few garments with cheerful abandon. Beside her sat a woven basket and every now and then, a soft, sweet gurgle would emerge from it. Gabrielle smiled as she approached.
"Another perfect day," she observed, sitting down next to Seta.
"All the days are perfect," Seta replied. "Now."
"What's really perfect is this little bundle." Gabrielle reached down into the basket and tenderly lifted out the cutest, brightest baby she'd ever seen.
It had been only days after their landing when Seta went into labor. Xena delivered the baby, a little girl, and both mother and child came through the process safely. Seta and Terim named the baby Gabrielle, much to Xena's delight, but it wasn't long before 'Gabrielle' became affectionately shortened to Gabi.
"Gabi. I like that," Xena had noted one evening when the two of them were cleaning up after dinner. "Maybe I should start calling you that."
"Maybe," Gabrielle replied with a little laugh, "but one Gabi is probably enough for now."
Everyone was in love with little Gabi, but no one more so than Alexander. He had taken to her immediately and spent most of his free time with Seta and the baby. Even now, every few minutes, he would look up at them and wave. Seta was always quick to wave back.
"He's such a good boy, and he loves the baby so much."
"Hmmm," Gabrielle agreed. "He loves you, too. You and Terim."
"He's a child. He loves giving love - and being loved. Both come easy to him. He's been a blessing to us, just as he is to you."
Gabrielle bit her lip slightly. "He told me that you're teaching him to write."
"Oh, that," Seta laughed. "Just a few words. He's very smart, and he's picked it up quickly. Did he show you his story?"
Gabrielle nodded. "I'm glad he can find nice things to think about and not all the horrible things that happened to him on the ship."
Gabi began to squirm in Gabrielle's arms and her mouth formed into a tiny frown.
"Uh-oh, our little girl is getting restless. It must be time for lunch."
Seta wiped her hands on her skirt and took the baby from Gabrielle. A moment later, Gabi was vigorously sucking at her mother's breast.
"Speaking of lunch," Gabrielle said as she started to get up, "I made some for the workers. I imagine they're getting a bit hungry, too."
She set off toward the small, makeshift village. When she had loaded a basketful of stuffed fig leaves, she wandered down to the ship.
"Provisions have arrived," Xena called out with a grin. "Time for a break."
The men swarmed around the basket like bees at a hive.
"You're a sight for sore eyes," Xena remarked as she plopped down beside Gabrielle, fig leaf in hand.
"Me or the food?"
"Well, you, mostly, but the food looks pretty good, too."
They sat in silence for a few minutes while Xena ate.
"You know, Xena," Gabrielle started, "I've been thinking. When we get back to the mainland, we should try staying in one place for a while. Maybe at your mother's."
"Oh," Xena replied, glancing at her out of the corner of her eye. "And why is that?"
"Because I think it would be good for Alexander to go to school and be around other kids his age."
"Gabrielle, we've been over this a million times..."
"I know we have," Gabrielle replied, suddenly defensive, "but you just don't understand how I feel."
Xena sighed. "Yes, I do," she said softly.
Tears suddenly sprang to Gabrielle's eyes. "Oh, Xena, I'm sorry. Of course you understand. But, I don't know if I can...if..." The tears were coming in earnest now and she buried her face in her knees, unable to continue.
Xena put down her lunch and reached over to hold her friend. It was several minutes before Gabrielle looked up.
"You're right," she said between gulps of air. "I know you are. And if I could, I'd hate you for it. He just means so much to me. It's too hard to think about never seeing him again." She blew her nose on the rag Xena had pulled from her belt and offered to her.
"You'll see him again. I promise."
Gabrielle looked into Xena's eyes. "I'm going to hold you to that."
"I'm sure you will." Xena let the back of her hand brush against Gabrielle's cheek. "Then, we should talk to them tonight?"
Gabrielle nodded, the tears beginning to flow again. "Okay."
That evening, after dinner, Xena sat outside the small grass hut she, Gabrielle and Alexander had shared for the last two months. Next to her on the soft, warm sand were Terim, Seta and Aggus. A cheery fire blazed in the stone fire pit while a full, luminescent moon began its arc across the southern sky. Gabrielle emerged from the hut with stone cups, salvaged from the ship, filled with hot, honeyed tea. Alexander played on the rocks not far away while the baby slept peacefully inside.
"The ship should be seaworthy within a week," Xena said, "thanks to everyone's hard work."
"It is you who deserves all thanks, Xena," Aggus replied. "You and Gabrielle. There is nothing we could do that would ever repay..."
"Aggus, you've thanked us enough already," Xena interrupted with a pat to the old man's arm, "and we appreciate it. But the past is over and it's the future we should be talking about now. In fact, we have something about the future, something important, to discuss with all of you." She looked over at Gabrielle who took in a deep breath and nodded.
"Its about Alexander," Gabrielle began haltingly, sitting down next to Seta.
"Alexander?" Terim asked in alarm, seeing the sudden tears in Gabrielle's eyes. "Is everything all right?"
"Yes, everything's all right. It's just that Xena and I have been talking and she...that is, we think that...that he would be happy as part of your family. If you would be willing to take him, that is."
Seta looked questioningly at Terim and then at Gabrielle. "You mean that you wish us to keep him here with us, after you're gone?"
Gabrielle tried to answer, but could only nod.
"We know," Xena said quickly, "that you love him a great deal. All of you." She looked each one in the eye and found confirmation there.
"And it's obvious," she continued, "that he loves you, too. And he's completely attached to the baby."
"Yes," Seta replied, tears coming to her own eyes. "He is that." She reached over and took Gabrielle's hand. "But he's attached to you as well. There would be a great emptiness in his life. And in yours, I think."
Gabrielle looked at Seta and drew her hand to her cheek. "He would always be in my heart. But it would be a better life for him to be settled, to stay in one place." She glanced at Xena. "We couldnt give him that. And this way I would know that he was happy, and loved."
Xena turned to Terim. "What do you think of all of this?"
He was silent for a moment, taking time to control his voice. "I think it would be a great honor to be given such responsibility. I would raise him to be strong and honest. I would show him the beauty that there is in life. I would love the boy, as if he were from my own flesh. I...I can think of no greater blessing than to call Alexander my son."
Xena smiled gravely. "Then the answer is yes?"
The three Cilicians looked at each other. "Yes," Terim said at last, "yes, yes, the answer is yes."
There were tears on both sides when Gabrielle sat down with Alexander and told him about his new family. But over the next few days, it became apparent to everyone that the right decision had been made, and even before the ship was ready to sail to Athens, Alexander began to make the emotional journey to his new home.
"You're absolutely positive that you won't come with us?" Xena asked Terim the day before departure.
"There is nothing in Athens for us. There is nothing back from where we came. No, this is our home now. It has everything we need - food, water, good stone for building. We are stone masons, most of us, after all. I've worked with stone all of my life, and I was well on my way to becoming the village historian. I have a new history to write for our village now, and a new daughter - and son - to pass it down to. There is nothing more I could ask for."
"You are a good man, Terim." Xena clasped his arm tightly. "There will be tears tomorrow, but I know Alexander is where he belongs, and for that - for Gabrielle's sake Im grateful."
There were tears, many of them. And long embraces. And broken hearts. Even as the island drifted from sight, Gabrielle still stood silently at the back railing of the ship. Xena finally motioned one of the men to take over at the helm. She walked quietly up behind her friend, not wanting to break into her thoughts and yet needing to know that her heart was not permanently damaged.
"I know you're there," Gabrielle said softly without turning around.
"You're getting so good at that," Xena replied.
"I learned from the master."
"You're a good student."
"Then teach me how not to hurt."
Xena walked to Gabrielle's side and leaned against the railing, looking out at the ship's wake. "I wish could."
"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle said, letting herself be pulled into strong, comforting arms. "I love you. So much. You're the only reason my heart won't break completely."
It was then that tears came to Xena's eyes and she laid her head gently on soft, golden hair. And you, the thought whispered through her mind, are the only reason mine isnt.
The Aegeana Fox glided into the harbor and docked at the same pier Xena had found her at months before. All of the crew members who had come back with them to Athens had gone to find legitimate captains to serve under and Xena and Gabrielle were left alone on the ship.
"Now what?" Gabrielle asked. "What happens to the ship now?"
"I have a plan," Xena confided.
Gabrielle looked at her warily. "Last time you had a plan, my teeth were black for weeks."
"Don't worry. This plan doesn't involve any disguises. But it does mean another journey. We leave tomorrow."
The next morning, before dawn, Xena eased the ship from the dock and slowly made her way into open waters. When they had reached a point far enough away from shore, but still within view of the harbor, Xena let down the skiff and piled their few belongings into it. Then, with an almost ritual solemnity, she proceeded to set fire to the ship. As the flames shot high into the dusky sky, she and Gabrielle pushed off in the skiff, and at a safe distance, watched as the Aegeana Fox made her final voyage. The sun was high overhead when the last, charred remains of the once graceful vessel plunged into the waiting sea.
Xena sat for a long time staring at the spot where the ship had disappeared.
"She was so beautiful," she said at last, sadness glistening in her eyes.
"I know, I know. It's okay," Gabrielle replied, her voice soft and soothing as she inched closer to her friend and threaded their arms together. "She'll always be beautiful in your heart."
Xena looked at Gabrielle with a wistful smile and slowly began to row toward shore.
* * *
It was time for me to get back to Charleston. School would be starting soon and I knew that I would need at least a week to adjust for re-entry into my life there. Even though work on the translation wasn't yet complete, Aunt Mel decided to come back with me as planned. In the mean time, Janice would begin writing the draft for the paper which would eventually be published under the title The Long Way Home: Final Voyage of the Aegeana Fox.
Janice drove us to the station in the green DeSoto. After our luggage had been checked, we all stood on the platform waiting for the last call.
"Janice," I began hesitantly, suddenly self-conscious about the farewell speech I had prepared, "I...I just want you to know that...that these past couple of months have been the best in my whole life. I want to thank you for letting me come and for putting up with me, and not treating me like a dumb little kid. I know I probably was one at times...but you never acted like you thought I was, and that meant a lot to me and I just..."
Janice held up her hands. "Okay, okay, I get the idea. You're welcome. Maybe next time you come we won't get into quite as much trouble. Course, that wouldn't be any fun, would it?" She gave me a little wink and a quick, awkward hug. Then she turned to Aunt Mel and, pulling a piece of paper out of her pocket, began to tick off what was on it.
"Now, remember to contact Dr. Tennison at the University of South Carolina when you get there."
"And don't forget to tell her that we'll have a draft of the paper ready in a month or so."
"And if she has any questions that you can't answer, tell her that she can..."
"...contact me and..."
Aunt Mel took Janice's face in both hands and kissed her fondly. "I'll miss you."
"Well, I'll, ah...oh, Mel, for the love of...just get on the train, will you?" Flustered, Janice took off her hat and began to shoo us on board, but not before I caught just the slightest blush rising in her cheeks.
Our train arrived two hours ahead of schedule so we took a cab to the house. I noticed Daddy's car parked in front and knew that he was home to pick up Mama so they could go to the station together. Ringing the front bell just for fun, I put my finger to my lips when Harriet, our housekeeper, answered the door.
"Who was at the door, Harriett?" Mama asked from the parlor.
"Nobody but us chickens," I answered with a laugh, popping out from behind Harriet's ample frame.
"Well, for heaven's sake," Daddy exclaimed, scooping me up into a big embrace. "You're the best looking chickens I ever did see." He swung me around one more time then looked over at his younger sister. "Melly. My, my, but it's good to see you." He pulled her into his arms and gave her a good swing as well.
"Hi, Mama," I said, walking over to where my mother stood.
Mama leaned in and gave me a quick peck on the cheek. Then, taking my hands, she turned them palm downward and studied them carefully.
"Caroline Pappas, just look at your fingernails. They are a sight."
"Oh, Mama," I said, pulling her into a hug, "I missed you, too." To my surprise, she reached around and held me tightly for a moment. Then she dropped her arms and straightened her dress, turning to Aunt Mel.
"Hello, Lenore," Aunt Mel replied with a smile, extending her hand. "It's been a while."
"Yes, it has." She stared at Aunt Mel's hand for a moment, then suddenly took it in both of hers. "Too long." A smile broke over her face, something I hadn't seen in a long, long time. "Well, you two are as brown as berries. You must have had quite some adventure." She turned back to me with a new look in her eyes. From that moment on, I was never to see disappointment in them again.
"We did, Mama," I answered, looping my arm through hers. "Come on and I'll tell you all about it."
A few miles from the station the train begins to slow down. That's my signal to start packing up for arrival. I put my laptop back in its case and gather the few notes I've scattered across the empty seat beside me. I'm to be the keynote speaker at an international symposium next month in Paris. My subject is entitled Xena and the Amazons: The Socio-Economic Impact of Women Warriors on Ancient Hellenic Culture, and it's the paper for that talk that I've been so delinquent about working on during this train ride. But I'm not worried. It's a topic I've come to know quite well. In fact, the only person who knows it better is the one I'm here to visit. I want to pick her brain a little, to garner more of her wisdom - and maybe get a generous dose of love and encouragement in the bargain. Of all the trips I've made here, I have never once left empty-handed.
Aunt Mel has aged gracefully, her once jet-black hair now the color of shimmering silver, but her clear, bright eyes still as radiantly blue as they ever were. Her last book, The Love Poems of Gabrielle, was published just a few months before Janice died. It has been at the top of the New York Times Bestsellers list for a record three years. Critics continue to rave about the poems, and they are wonderful, but I'm convinced that people cherish the book just as much for the beautiful and touching dedication Aunt Mel wrote to a certain beloved archaeologist.
Inside the dimly lit terminal, I look around for a familiar face. In the distance, a tall woman bounds off the bench along the opposite wall and strides quickly toward me. Her back is a little bent now, but she's still a vision in gabardine slacks and silk shirt. As she wraps me in a wonderfully warm embrace, I catch just the hint of lilac and realize once again how very, very lucky I am.
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