The crowd seemed stunned for a few moments and then the scattered chuckles began. Xena stared out at the masses with innocent wide-eyed wonder.
"What is she supposed to be?" a heckler in front began.
"Yeah, she looks like a street entertainer with all that grease paint," another one yelled.
"She must be really ugly under that stuff," one rowdy teenager said and jumped onto the stage.
He wiped half her make-up away with his sleeve revealing the battered side of Xenas face before he was thrown off.
A lone figure was hurrying its way through the boisterous mob.
"She looks kind of feeble-minded to me! Hey stupid, what day is it?"
"Please everyone, calm down!" Rhasis tried to stop the barrage of insults to his property, "Lets try to act like civilized human beings!"
A nimble hand grabbed his wrist and pressed three gold coins into his sweaty palm. The stranger then walked on stage, cut Xenas bindings, and hastily escorted her away from this painful humiliation.
Rhasis could hardly believe his eyes! It was much more than he ever dreamed hed get for her.
"Thank you for your patronage umm sir or is it madam? Please call again!" he yelled after the silent customer.
Rhasis instantly pocketed the gold coins. It was unlikely hed disclose the true amount he received to Ketaar.
The hooded patron hurried through congested street after congested street leading Xena along at a fast trot. Rounding a corner she was pulled abruptly into a shaded alcove. Momentarily shielded by this smaller persons body she scarcely had time to catch a breath for almost at the same instant Xena found herself in a loving embrace with a head buried firmly against her shoulder. She stood stiffly in this hold for some time until a sob-choked voice called her by a familiar name.
"I missed you so much Xena."
Xena pushed back the hood and turban revealing a cascade of soft blond hair.
"Lady?" she hesitantly squeezed from her throat.
"Yes sweetie its me!"
Xena collapsed into a tearful heap on the ground. Gabrielle kneeled down and gently enfolded her dear friend in sheltering arms.
"You went away," Xena said almost inaudibly, "far away without me."
Gabrielle lifted Xenas face to look into her beautiful blue eyes and began to lightly wipe off the smeared paint using the hem of her robe.
"I didnt want to leave you Xena. I got taken away against my will."
The red and purple bruises across her cheek slowly became fully visible as more of the whitish substance was removed. Xena was really vague about what she just heard and tried hard to make sense of it.
"You will stay now?"
Gabrielle delicately kissed her injured cheek.
"Yes sweetie, Im staying right here by your side."
Xena smiled and joyfully threw her arms around Gabrielle and squeezed her a little too tight. Gabrielle didnt mind though, she had her friend back in body anyway, thats all that really mattered. Xena let go and sat quietly while the last of the make-up was completely wiped off.
Gabrielle got to her feet and helped Xena up.
"Lets go find some food Im starving."
They walked hand in hand back onto the main street and disappeared amongst the crushing multitude of Baghdads bustling citizens.
"The remedy is at times
Worse than the affliction"-Unknown-
It was amazing how many different shops and street venders were wedged together on a single street. Clothing, fruit, trinkets, spices-- so many things! The numerous mouth-watering odors drifting up from open cooking pots and the myriad variety of pre-cooked treats native to these parts were too appetizing to pass up.
Xena was more interested in the jewelry vendors wares. All the sparkling necklaces hanging on the display rack held her spellbound.
"Pretty!" she exclaimed excitably.
"Wait for me here Xena, Ill be right back, okay?"
Xena absently nodded yes.
Gabrielle soon returned with handfuls of different delicacies. They walked to a quieter side street and found a pleasant spot to sit and open the little packages of food folded in thin brown parchment. Xena dug into everything in sight, each morsel was more delicious than the last. Gabrielle kept pace with her pretty well; after that desert snake episode this was like a kings banquet.
When they were done she wiped Xenas face and hands, then packed up the leftovers for later.
For a while they sat quietly; Xena with her head resting comfortably in Gabrielles lap soon started to drift into a nap. She idly stroked Xenas hair and wondered if she would ever be herself again. This childlike version was endearing, but Gabrielle wouldve given anything for one good sidelong-eyebrow-raised glance from the old Xena.
"Ive got to do something to help you," she whispered, "but what?"
Those bruises on her face didnt look good either and Gabrielle feared that there might be a break. The only thing to be done was to find a physician of some kind.
"Sweetie?" she lightly shook her friends arm.
Xenas eyes opened and focused on the concerned face gazing down at her. She smiled and brought Gabrielles hand to her lips and kissed it fondly.
"Um we have to go get you fixed up," Gabrielle said sounding really flustered.
She still found it difficult to adjust to Xenas surprising shows of affection.
"I love you lady," Xena stated in her usual childs voice and kissed her hand again.
"I ah love you too Xena."
Gabrielle could feel the blush already on her cheeks getting redder. She carefully slid herself out from under Xenas head and got to her feet. Xena sat up and looked at her little friend quizzically.
"You mad at me?"
"No Xena. Let me help you up, its time to go."
Gabrielle put out her hands for Xena to take. Xena sighed and stood up with her friends assistance.
"You look funny," she said furrowing her brow.
"Im fine. Lets go."
Gabrielle took Xenas arm and headed for the main gate. If Tytus was still there he might be able to help her find medical aide.
Way on the other end of town Ketaar was downing his third drink at an inn. He had just settled up with the twins and they were off to gather another quota of unsuspecting sheep to sell at market.
"Lucky for Mohod that I did not slice his arrogant throat," Ketaar drunkenly mumbled to himself.
He was about to lift his glass to his lips when a hard slap landed across his back knocking him forward.
"Look who sits so calmly drinking by himself!"
His drink splashed on the table in front of him. Angrily Ketaar yanked out his knife and turned around.
"Hey! You wouldnt want to kill an old friend would you?"
Ketaar smiled and put away the weapon. It was indeed a good friend he hadnt seen in a very long time.
"Ghazi! Dear fellow, you nearly lost your life!"
"Ah yes, always in a bad humor arent you! Why are you alone? I would think you would want to celebrate!"
"Celebrate? Celebrate what?"
It had been weeks since Ketaar seriously imbibed and his head swam a bit.
"Why your great find of course!"
"Speak plainly Ghazi, I do not follow."
"Ha! So modest! I am talking of Xena, my brilliant friend. Your capture of the famous warrior!" Ghazi proudly declared patting Ketaar on the shoulder, "Tell me, how did you do it?"
It wasnt difficult to locate the two boys; they were energetically running back and forth with their little strips of brightly colored orange cloth stabling new customers camels.
"Tytus!" Gabrielle called out to him.
Tytus promptly stopped in mid-stride and ran up to her a little out of breath.
"The foreign miss! Do you want your animal?"
"Not just yet. I need you for an important mission."
He opened his eyes in wonder.
"I need a healer for my friend," Gabrielle gestured to Xena, "Can you bring me to one?"
Tytus looked up at Xena; she was nervously shifting from one foot to the other.
"It is greatly distressing," he said staring at her injured face, "I will help you."
He ran over to Amir and spoke to him for a few moments then returned.
"I am ready. Come with me."
Tytus took Gabrielles hand and escorted the two women through the imposing gates once more and into the lively city.
"Xena? I did not capture Xena."
Ketaar swigged down the rest of what was in his glass and then signaled the barkeep for another drink.
"My friend, I ought to know what I saw at the auction this afternoon. I suppose with such a prize as that one would feel as if a lifes goal has been met. But cheer up, there are still bigger fish to net."
"You are talking rubbish Ghazi. What you saw was a half-wit not worth the clothes she stood in."
Ketaar then launched into a series of cryptic chuckles. Ghazi put a hand over his glass to stop him from taking another sip.
"The woman had been reduced to imbecile it is true and that fool Rhasis painted her face to disguise a beating, but you cannot tell me it was not Xena."
"You are mistaken."
"I fought on the wrong side of her sword in Amphipolis many years ago. There is no mistake."
The agonizing thought that he had let a profitable opportunity slip through his fingers slowly began to dawn on him. All the little faded images became clearer.
"OF COURSE, THE ARMOR! THE RIDER IN THE STORM! I AM THE IMBECILE!" Ketaar screamed, "WHO BOUGHT HER?"
"You have to get hold of your senses," Ghazi urged Ketaar, "the purchaser is long gone by now."
"WHO BOUGHT HER?"
Ketaar pulled out his knife and pointed it at his friend. A terrible pain then seized the back of his head. Stumbling awkwardly off his chair he made a futile attempt to stand. Ghazi grabbed Ketaar to keep him from falling.
"Those spells are getting the better of you old friend, why not see to it and forget about this loss?"
Ketaar lowered his voice and dropped the blade.
"Please, I must know who bought her?"
"I did not see the face, but the patron was small in stature almost like---"
"---A woman!" Ketaar completed the sentence for him.
"Here is the location," Tytus announced suddenly.
Gabrielle eyed the crumbling stone staircase that led up the outside of a very dilapidated building with a measure of uneasiness. Ignoring the obvious, Tytus merrily hopped to the top of the landing and motioned them to follow.
"This isnt exactly the way Id like to die," Gabrielle said as she carefully made her way up the broken steps.
Xena braced herself against the wall, following Gabrielle as close as she could.
"Whatever you do Xena, dont look down."
"Why?" Xena unsteadily asked.
"Because I just did and I wish I hadnt."
When they got to the landing Tytus was patiently waiting.
"Tabari is inside. He is expecting you."
Bottles of every size and description lined the walls and large urns cluttered the limited floor space. Gabrielle and Xena had to walk an obstacle course to get to Tabaris examination couch.
"Hello, hello ladies, come right this way," Tytus translated for them.
Tabari was an interesting fellow. His clothes were neat but his gray hair stuck out every which way.
"Ah! I see who is not feeling so good. Madam, do sit down." Tytus echoed in Greek.
Xena looked at Gabrielle for guidance and saw that she nodded that it was okay to sit. Tabari took out a huge jewelers loop and placed it in his eye then he moved a lit oil lantern closer to Xenas face. Gently examining her bloodshot eye and badly bruised cheek he got up and quickly pulled one of the smaller glass bottles from a shelf.
"It is bad, but happily nothing is broken or permanently damaged, you may however experience double vision in that eye for many weeks until it heals. This is for the face, do not get it into your eye."
Tabari smoothed a little of the clear salve on Xenas injury.
"There is one more thing," Gabrielle piped up, "She had a bad fall not long ago and since then she cant remember who she is."
Tytuss voice trailed a few seconds after hers in Arabic. Tabari further examined Xenas head then shook his own making the equivalent of a tisk, tisk noise.
"I cannot do anything for that, I am sorry. Perhaps Al-Juba may be able to help you."
Gabrielle held out a variety of small coins in her hand and Tytus took two copper pieces and gave it to him.
"I hope Al-Juba can do something for her," he said handing the little bottle to Gabrielle.
He said a few words to Tytus and he nodded back.
"We have a short distance to go. Please, come with me."
He raced to the bottom of the staircase this time and laughingly waited for the two scared women to walk down.
The short distance happened to be quite a few streets away. Presently they came upon a street-level door with a painting of a huge hand with symbols all over the palm.
Tytus knocked hard on the door and soon it opened.
"Yes? What do you want, Im very busy!"
"Well you see, my friend had an accident and now she doesnt know who she is,"
Gabrielle explained, and Tytus quickly rattled it off in Arabic.
"Possibly a blessing for her husband no doubt," he said in a cranky tone.
Gabrielle waited for the translation to filter back to her. She was not amused.
"Can you help her or not?"
"We shall see. Come along."
Al-Juba brought Xena over to an operating table.
"Sit here," he instructed and Xena obeyed.
He made her trace his finger with her eyes without moving her head; he tapped her first on a knee, then on an elbow. He examined the wound on her head and sighed.
"From the angle of the damage I assume she is without intelligence?" he asked bluntly.
Gabrielle knew that fact about her friend stuck out a mile long, but she didnt like people referring to Xena as stupid.
"She has changed back into a child," Gabrielle snapped back.
"Just so," he said under his breath, "The injury is severe. I can prescribe a mixture of herbs but there is a strong possibility that your friend will always be somewhat limited."
"You make it sound like I should just give up," Gabrielle said almost tearing over, "She is the most important thing in the world to me," she paused to collect herself then added, "Very well, give her something and well be on our way."
Al-Juba observed the strained sound to Gabrielles voice. Her concern for this wretched creature was admirable.
"Young woman, your friend is fortunate in one respect. She has someone who loves her."
He made up a noxious potion of pineapple mint, poppies, juice from mistletoe leaves, and a lot of other things Gabrielle couldnt recognize.
"Here drink this," Al-Juba said handing Xena a small vile of the black liquid.
Poor Xena tried several times to get it close enough to her mouth but the horrible odor got in the way. Gabrielle reached up and pinched Xenas nose closed.
"Try now sweetie," she urged.
Xena gulped down the hideous elixir in one big swallow. For a moment everything was fine, then she broke out in a sweat and her face got flushed. Xena gagged and held her throat. Tytus picked up the fallen vile sniffed it and immediately recoiled from the fumes.
"Is this supposed to be happening?"
Gabrielle held onto Xena who now started violently trembling.
"It is a normal reaction. I promise you she is in no danger."
She finally began to calm down and sank to the floor completely unconscious.
"Is it working?"
"We will know when the woman wakes."
To be continued
The Burning Candle
Disclaimer:Xena and Gabrielle are the sole property of MCA/UNIVERSAL. No transgression is intended, no payment do I ask for this story, other than your reading enjoyment.
Warning:Although not terribly graphic, this story contains questionable relations between two groovy mythological chicks. There are scenes of violence, however rape is not one of them.
Any persons under the legal age (18 or 21) of their state should use caution lest they be punished severely by TPTB.
Questions? Comments? Write to: Ahladis@aol.com
Muffled music of street musicians floated through the heavily shuttered windows. The lilting strains of their instruments lent an innocent background flavor to the desperate atmosphere inside Al-Jubas dispensary.
Gabrielle held Xenas head in her lap softly petting her burning cheek waiting for the effects of the potion to wear off. Tytus sat with them on the floor nearby, ready to translate as needed.
"Miss?" Tytus broke the silence, "Your friend, she will be all right, do not look so sad."
Gabrielle didnt know how to answer the little boy without starting to cry. She just nodded slowly keeping her full attention on Xenas face watching for any subtle change. The slim possibility that Xena might be restored as her warrior friend again gave Gabrielle a tiny glimmer of hope.
"Will she remember me?" she asked not looking up.
"She is in Allahs hands young one," Al-Juba addressed Gabrielle, "I am merely his instrument to bring matters to their preordained conclusion."
Gabrielle waited patiently for Tytus to finish translating and was about to speak when Xena stirred a little. Her brow furrowed and a moan escaped from her throat.
"Xena?" Gabrielle managed to choke out in a frayed octave.
Her eyes snapped open and she sat bolt upright. Xena scanned the room with a sudden animal agitation. Twisting around to face the hopeful young woman beside her, Xenas features quickly softened; she reached for Gabrielles hand and brought it slowly to her lips. Smiling sweetly Xena kissed Gabrielles hand then held it against her cheek.
"Xena?" this time it was definitely a plea.
Xena looked at the serious faces staring at her and settled on the most familiar of all three.
"Im thirsty," came the high pitched childs voice.
Gabrielles heart sank in her chest. Her dear friend was still a little girl.
"Yes, it is she, I know it!"
Ketaars triumphant leer unnerved his old comrade.
"Who are you speaking of?" Ghazi helped him onto another chair.
"My slave, my property," he said with a wistful reverence, "She is clever, I told her so and that is what she is! You will not escape me again, no not this time little chit."
"Ha! Impossible, a woman has outfoxed you? She must be no ordinary woman."
"Indeed she is not. Tarkau has much explaining to do."
With his temporary seizure forgotten, Ketaar rose from his chair and went to retrieve the fallen knife.
"Youre not going so soon ?" Ghazi started to signal the barkeep, "Let me at least replace the drink I made you spill."
"I take my leave of you dear fellow," he said replacing the dagger in its usual spot, "There is much to be done and little time to do it in."
"Friend Ketaar, will you not abandon your fruitless search and talk over old times? This mission will serve no useful purpose."
Ketaar patted Ghazis arm fondly and walked briskly out of the back exit and onto the early evening street.
"There is no change. This news does not come as a surprise."
Tytus halted his translation and asked Al-Juba to use another word other than surprise. He thought a moment and said unexpectedly
"This news does not come unexpectedly," Tytus repeated, "As I have stated earlier, she will undoubtedly be limited."
Gabrielle left her immature companion happily rolling the empty jar of water along the tiled floor.
"I wont accept that! There has to be someone who can help her," she barely had control over her tears.
"I am sorry, I have done all I can do for the woman, I will take this young one to the kitchen," Al-Juba sighed and led Tytus out of the room.
Walking over to Xena she watched her slide the colorful jar back and forth along the cold stone floor. Smoothing a hand over Xenas long black hair, Gabrielle couldnt stop herself from shaking.
"Its almost time to go sweetie," she whispered softly.
Xena looked up smiling, but soon the smile melted away when she saw tears slowly rolling down her friends face. Xena struggled like an awkward toddler to stand and reached for Gabrielle, but she had quickly moved out of the way.
Xena stood waiting. It seemed an eternity before Gabrielle could collect herself enough to speak, then she turned around again looking completely composed and even managed a faint smile.
"Dont worry, well get another opinion. Hes not our last hope."
She caressed Xenas cheek gently tracing the soft outline down to her chin. Gabrielle gazed into the ice blue eyes wanting nothing more than to lose herself in their placid loveliness. The graceful music continued to drift in from outside bathing the moment in rich exotic overlapping tones. Her hands found their way behind Xenas head drawing it down till the lips Gabrielle had longed for were close, so close that with very little effort she could lean forward and kiss them. Xena gave no resistance; she followed her friends lead naively, willingly.
Gabrielle placed three fingers lightly against Xenas mouth to hush the passionate advance that was nearly allowed to take place.
"Not now, not like this."
Puzzled, Xena drew back; a hurt expression flashed across her face.
"I made you sad," she said taking Gabrielles hand in the friendly way that had become her habit, "I didnt mean to."
Xenas eyes misted over worried that lady was upset with her.
"No Xena, you didnt do anything. Oh sweetie dont," Gabrielle held her friend close and tried to ease her fears, "You know I love you, dont you?" Xena nodded a slow yes, then Gabrielle kissed her cheek, "There. All better now?" again Xena nodded yes.
Al-Juba came into the room with an armful of blankets and a small oil lamp.
"Stay here tonight," he said in Arabic-accented Greek, "Boy is asleep," then he walked swiftly out of the room.
Gabrielle made up their "beds" as comfortably as one could on a hard floor. The relief of spending a night off the grainy sand seemed like a good trade to her and so did Xenas welcome company. As always, Gabrielle placed them close together and put the small oil lamp on a low stool nearby. She lifted the corner of the blanket for Xena to crawl into and then tucked in the ends around her.
"Goodnight Xena," she whispered and turned over to sleep.
But Xena soon felt a little restless.
"Lady?" no answer.
Gabrielle turned around.
"Whats the matter?" she answered sleepily.
"Kiss me good-night?" a tiny voice squeaked out.
Gabrielle sighed, fluffed, and adjusted the covers again. Xena lay very still in the semi-darkness smiling. Gabrielle couldnt remember when Xena looked lovelier. She lowered herself down, pausing for a moment to tilt her head and then lightly touched her lips against Xenas forehead.
"Good-night Xena, pleasant dreams."
Gabrielle lingered above a little while looking down at her. She moved loose hair away from Xenas eyes and gingerly stroked the injured side of her face. Xena took hold of Gabrielles wrist and planted a kiss in her palm. It didnt matter that this was accomplished ungracefully, Gabrielle loved the child Xena all the more for it.
How easy it wouldve been for her to take advantage of Xenas impaired situation. This wasnt the scenario she secretly carried around in her heart for so long. She wanted it to be beautiful, romantic; in a lovely setting
Maybe by moonlight? Gabrielle thought to herself.
Certainly not with this person who might as well be a stranger.
"Time to sleep now, we have a busy day tomorrow."
"Okay," Xena answered softly.
Gabrielle turned on her side to sleep, and immediately felt Xena timidly snuggle up against her back, then a long arm drape itself around her body drawing them tightly together. The light gusts of air from Xenas nose gently blew into Gabrielles hair lulling her blissfully to sleep.
Ketaar hurried through street after empty street. Every once in a while he came upon a vendor packing up for the night that would grace him with a frightened glance as he quickly passed by.
What he wanted wasnt to be found at a simple vendors shop.
"I dont know how the little chit acquired the necessary funds. Perhaps that buffoon let the woman go for next to nothing," he thought maddeningly to himself.
The house of Rhasis, dealer in rare articles, the decorative plaque read. Ketaar pounded his fist hard on the door totally ignoring the convenient doorknocker, which clinked every time the hinge jiggled.
The cut out slid open.
"State your business."
"The sparrow awaits the cat," he recited hastily, "I seek your master Rhasis."
"My master is in bed and does not wish to be disturbed. Thank you, please call again."
The small square slipped closed. Ketaar hammered on the door again.
"DOLT! I AM NOT A CUSTOMER!!"
Metal screeched against metal as the large couplings unbolted. The door flew open and there stood a brawny guard staring down at him.
"Be gone flea, or I will be forced to liberate your head from your neck."
"Harun!" a tired voice came from behind the guard, "That is enough now, show my guest inside."
The guard shifted to the side and gestured for Ketaar to enter.
"Dear fellow, what is the crisis so late in the day?"
"I desire some information," Ketaar said pushing past Harun.
"Could this not wait until normal business hours?"
"Dismiss the oaf, I wish to speak with you in private."
Harun made a threatening move towards Ketaar.
"All right, all right calm down dear boy. Wait for me in the jade room, Ill be along shortly," Rhasis patted his sentrys muscular arm.
Dramatically exhibiting great restraint Harun left them alone in the main hallway.
"Your taste in companionship eludes me. Why do you not prefer intellect over size?"
Rhasis shrugged his rounded shoulders.
"The intelligent ones steal from me and then they depart. The weak minded ones are much more delicious," Rhasis said and smiled in the direction of his waiting bodyguard, "But this is not what you wanted to me talk about, come this way."
Rhasis directed Ketaar to a very pleasant anteroom that served most of the time as his private office. He took a seat behind a huge rose marble table and lit a lamp then motioned his visitor to sit which offer he instantly declined.
"The imbecile, who bought her?"
"My friend I cannot say. I know that the person was short and had a small hand with a firm grip. Gold was pushed into my fist and then they both took their leave. I never saw the face so I could not tell you whether it was man or woman."
Ketaar paced up and down.
"Did you see the direction they went?"
"Down a side street I believe. Why is that one so important to you? I thought you couldnt wait to get her off your hands."
Ketaar chuckled quietly.
"I cannot bear to be parted from her company," He came closer to whisper, "You best not keep your eager friend waiting."
"Ah um yes, of course. Dont you want your share of the sale?"
"Keep it for me. I will expect it when I return."
With that, Ketaar left the room and once again found himself on the lonely dark streets.
Rhasis stared for a long time at the doorway that Ketaar had breezed out of. He wasnt quite sure if he meant for the money to be paid to him tomorrow or in two weeks from now.
Harun knocked at the open door and stuck his head through.
"Arent you coming to bed?" he asked in a huff.
Rhasis smiled and extinguished the lamp.
"How impatient are the young. Lead on, I will join you presently."
Hurrying at a great pace Ketaar threaded a complicated path through the dreary alleyways back to the inn; each step inducing a fury that screamed for restitution.
"There is much to do much to do," he muttered to himself along the way.
No twittering birds, no gentle breezes tossing loose strands of hair, no lapping of water breaking against a scenic shore; only long bands of sunlight coming through closed shutters gradually extended themselves across the floor. Gabrielle was the first to wake; stretching herself and yawning then feeling Xena tucked in a ball behind her. She turned around to find her friend snoring contentedly in her sleep. It was almost too precious a picture to disturb, but Gabrielle knew that time factored heavily in finding a cure.
"Xena?" she gently nudged at her shoulder, "Xena, its time to go."
She sleepily rubbed at her eyes and sat up.
"We going home now lady?" Xena asked scratching her head.
"Not yet sweetie we still have to find someone to help you."
"Yes, I must bring you to another place like this. Come we have to get started "
Xena narrowed her eyes and furrowed her brow.
"I dont want to," she said folding her arms.
"But, you want to get better dont you?" Gabrielle reasoned.
"NO!" came the loud response.
It didnt take much reckoning to figure out why Xena was being obstinate. Her last cure wasnt exactly a pleasant experience.
"Please Xena," Gabrielle bordered on begging, "I only want you to be happy."
Thats a silly reason, she suddenly thought to herself, Xena is happier the way she is.
Xena glanced down at Gabrielle; a hint of a raised eyebrow almost made her look like her old self, but the shrill childish voice that tumbled out ruined the illusion.
"No more dirty water!"
Gabrielle put her arms around Xena and squeezed her tight.
"I promise, no more dirty water," she repeated, "Okay?"
"Okay," Xena sighed.
There was a slight rap on the door and in stepped Tytus.
"Al-Juba extends his greetings to you this morning. He asked me to say that one other may help the sick lady and I am to take you to her."
Gabrielle nodded then opened her bundle and took out the leftovers. All three ate quickly before readying to leave.
Blankets folded, parcel packed she quickly glanced around the room to make sure nothing was left behind.
"Okay, lets go," Gabrielle said brightly and led her small group out of the room.
Al-Juba stopped them in the narrow hallway leading to the front door.
"Madam Su-Chen is a most remarkable woman," Tytus began translating, "She has much knowledge in many fields and may be able to help."
"I hope she can," Gabrielle said shaking his hand, "Thank you for the kindness youve shown to my friends and me. It was really good of you to let us stay the night."
She started to take money from her pouch, but Al-Juba waved it off.
"I have not earned payment. May Allah watch over you."
He abruptly opened the door and urged them to be on their way.
"But----?" Gabrielle managed to say before the door quickly shut behind them with a dull thud.
"This way," Tytus said pointing into the distance.
The name gave it a size that it wouldve otherwise lacked on its own. Madam Su-chens Sanctuary was located deep inside the city where the crowds thinned out to a passing few. The whitewashed adobe building from the outside looked identical to any one of the numerous cozy homes they already walked by. There were no signs, or painted symbols on the front door; only a straw mat with the Chinese character "life" woven into it.
This time Gabrielle was the one to announce their presence. Next to the front door a long pull-cord ran along the frame held in place by a neat row of metal loops fixed to the wood. She grabbed the handle hanging on the end and gave it a light tug. They didnt have to wait long; the door opened and there stood a tiny woman, her gray hair pulled back into a tight bun, that smiled charmingly up at Gabrielle.
"Welcome, I am Su-Chen. How may I help you?"
Gabrielle paused to answer until Tytus completed the translation. The woman interrupted politely.
"I understand your language quite well. You may speak freely without the aid of an interpreter."
Gabrielle, obviously relieved, repeated the story one more time.
"My friend received a severe blow to her head several days ago. Now she has the mind of a child who doesnt remember anything. Please, can you help us?"
"This is the one in question?" she asked placing a hand on Xenas arm.
Gabrielle nodded yes.
"Follow me my dear," Xena shot a worried look in Gabrielles direction, "Have no fear, your friends will be joining us."
They were led into a sunny room where Su-Chen seated Xena in a low chair while she stood on a footstool to closely examine the top of her head. She then hopped down and began to test Xenas eyesight, by covering one of her eyes at a time and asking questions. Tytus, meanwhile, amused himself by looking at all the strange things that floated in clear bottles on a shelf.
"Show me with your fingers what you see."
Two fingers were held up. Xena copied her by holding up two fingers.
"What do you see now?" she asked after covering the other eye and holding up only one finger.
Xena hesitated for a moment then using both her hands she held up one finger on each. Su-Chen then gently examined the bruises on Xenas face.
"This injury is recent. How did it happen?"
Gabrielle, recalling that terrible night, walked over and kneeled down next to Xena taking her hand.
"She was beaten by a slave trader."
Tarkau waited outside the inn as instructed. He couldnt figure out why Ketaar was in such a hurry to get started on another slave hunt so soon. He looked forward to a few days rest and maybe even a little recreation thrown in as well. Surprisingly, these things never interested his master and now the whole day would be spent in gathering necessary items for the tedious journey back to Syria.
"I have finished making inquiries," Ketaar said suddenly appearing out of nowhere, "The prize I seek is still at hand."
Tarkau had no idea what he meant by that. All night long Ketaar would only talk about trapping his prize, or seizing his treasure without saying what this thing was.
"There is much to be done," he motioned Tarkau to go with him and together they hurried to restock their supplies.
"Have you sought aid elsewhere?"
Madam Su-Chen selected a few thin needle-like implements varying in length and set them on a tray nearby.
"Yes, with Tytus help we visited two healers. Tabari gave us a liniment for her face."
"May I see?"
Gabrielle took out the small bottle and gave it to Su-Chen. She removed the stopper then sniffed at it.
"Very good. I shall apply another layer."
Gently she smoothed a small amount of the thick substance over Xenas cheek.
"Your friend is most seriously afflicted," Su-Chen continued, "My healing art may only have a minimal effect or none at all."
Picking up one of the shorter needles she speared it quickly into Xenas neck, then a longer one close to her temple. There was no blood and Xena didnt cry out, she didnt look as if she were in pain at all.
"What are you doing?" Gabrielle asked trying not to sound alarmed.
Su-Chen calmly twisted each needle a little as she answered.
"These are part of my healing arts. Your friend is unharmed. The blood must flow through the body evenly. I am merely helping it to do so."
After a few minutes she removed the needles and applied pressure with her small hands to various points on Xenas upper body. Fascinated, Gabrielle watched with a renewed hope. She had seen Xena use her pressure point skills on a lot of occasions, sometimes for good, other times Gabrielle didnt feel right about it; especially if it was used to roughly extract information.
Madam Su-Chens fluid movements with her fingers were beautiful to see; lyrical, supple as they danced here and there across Xenas shoulders then just below her jaw. She aimed two fingers together as Xena always did and jabbed a spot at the bridge of her nose hard. Xenas head immediately dropped forward. She moaned softy then coughed once.
Su-Chen clasped Xenas face in her hands and lifted it up.
"How do you feel?"
Xena knitted her brow in thought.
"Sleepy," the answer came in the same old child-like voice.
Gabrielle felt a wave crash against her heart, then another. She stepped away feeling very dizzy and lowered herself in the nearest chair she could find. Tytus walked quietly over to her and lightly touched her arm.
"Miss? Are you unwell?"
Gabrielle didnt answer she covered her mouth with one hand and clutched her chest with the other in an attempt to ease the pain that desperately wanted to escape from her throat. Tears rushed to her eyes and spilled over.
Madam Su-Chen hearing the little boys concerned words knelt down by Gabrielles side.
"My dear, this display of emotion is not useful to your friend. She is dependent on you, do not waver now that she needs your strength."
"Will she ever change back?" Gabrielle said trying to control herself but already knowing the answer in her heart.
Su-Chen looked deeply into Gabrielles eyes.
"This much I can say: there is one other whose advice I believe in, Al-Farabi. I taught him my skills and I have heard that he has learned many others and now teaches."
"Yes, Ive heard of him. Is it true that he uses music as a cure? Is he far from here?" she excitedly asked.
"Music is his main field. He no longer dwells in this city. Al-Farabi left for Damascus many years past. Seek him my dear, if he can do nothing then it rests solely in your hands. Help her. Teach her the things she has lost. It will be her face but not the woman you once knew. Can you do this?"
Gabrielle took Su-Chens hand.
"Thank you Madam Su-Chen. Ill do my best."
To far away Damascus
One more unknown cure.
Another busy trade route
Id never seen before.-G-
After leading Xena and Gabrielle back to the liveliest section of the bazaar Tytus took his leave but not before Gabrielle handed him a few well-earned coins. He pocketed them quickly and then waved goodbye as he scurried away.
"We need to get some things for our journey across the desert," Gabrielle said mostly to herself than Xena, "Im going to buy some traveling clothes for us and supplies; well be carrying a lot of things. Are you still sleepy?"
Xena shook her head no.
Their first stop was a clothing vendor that looked at Gabrielle strangely as she held several pieces of male attire up to Xenas body to check for size. She selected a pair of low brown boots, loose fitting muslin pants; a collar-less white linen blouse topped off with a black embroidered short vest and red sash. The woman brought Xena behind a curtain and helped her to dress. A few minutes later Xena emerged. She was magnificent in her new outfit! The proprietor smiled and nodded her approval as well and began to twist Xenas hair into a white turban. Gabrielles attire was similar the difference being the boots (she kept her old ones), the color of her vest (she preferred blue) and a short white sash with gold fringe on the ends. She too was treated to the same complimentary smile and also got her hair neatly wound into a white turban.
Dressed as they were, no one gave them a second look, as was the case while wearing the worn-out female garb. Gabrielle just pointed to what she wanted and the merchants served her willingly without giving her a sideways glance.
"I think thats everything we need. Can you make it to the main entrance?"
Their arms were heavily laden with robes, extra blankets, dried meats and fish, dried fruit of all kinds, loaves of bread, large water skins, flints, a crude medical kit, and several other things.
Xena nodded yes enthusiastically.
"We going home now lady?" she said in a happily breathless way.
"Damascus is on the way home."
"Is it far, far away? Far away from here?" Xena asked hopefully.
"We are leaving this city sweetie, never to return."
Xena jumped up and down and a few passers by took a moment to stare at her joyful performance. Gabrielle smiled graciously as she nudged her excited friend along and away from the curious crowd.
The tremendous main gates didnt seem as scary to Xena this time; she walked jauntily under the vaulted arch as if it were nothing special.
Tytus and Amir spotted them immediately not fooled at all by their different attire.
"Hello foreign Miss! Are you ready for your animal?"
"Yes Tytus, we are leaving your enchanted city."
Gabrielle presented her little orange strip of cloth then quick as a flash Amir snatched it from her hand and both boys ran off to the stables. A short time later they came running back with Grumpy trotting behind them. The boys helped Gabrielle arrange and tie their surplus neatly onto the howdah.
Xena was first to climb aboard then Gabrielle seated herself in front. Grumpy slowly rose to his full height and snorted.
"Will you return to Baghdad Miss?" Tytus asked smiling and holding onto the bridle.
"Not for a very long time Im afraid."
"Youll not forget Amir or me?" the smile widened on his face.
"I could never forget what youve done for us. Ill always remember here," Gabrielle gestured to her heart.
"I will remember you too Miss. Bas Salaam! Safe journey!"
Tytus let go of the bridle and pushed her camel to go. Grumpy ambled swiftly through the sand and disappeared over a low sun drenched dune.
There it was, proof positive of Xenas true identity: the brass armor and leather gear packed in rags by Gabrielle to look like nothing important. Ketaar lifted up the heavy breastplate caressing it gently between his long fingers.
"I shall drag your useless remains to the noble Roman regiment. They will pay a kings ransom for the greatest woman warrior alive or dead," he whispered holding the breastplate close to his lips.
Tarkau neared his boss cautiously. All day he had a bad feeling about Ketaars behavior. He never saw him so agitated or single-minded over anything like this supposed treasure he kept babbling about. This time Tarkau was afraid that his employer had finally lost his reason.
"I have the torches," he said in a normal voice.
Ketaar whirled around almost dropping the precious parcel he just opened.
"Ah! Very good! Pack them away my friend."
"Will we be leaving tonight?"
Ketaars lips pulled back from his white pointed teeth.
"No need for delay, Ive learned what I wanted to know. Let us be on our way."
Ketaar had an idea, but wasnt absolutely sure if Xena and Gabrielle left the city or not. The merchants in the bazaar were very reluctant to impart any significant information; however, chatting up the friendly little boy with the red fez was easier than he imagined. All Ketaar had to do was hold up a gold coin; the child told him everything even down to the color of their eyes.
So it is with these greedy little beggars, he chuckled to himself while leading his camel out of the stable, theyll do anything for money.
It was still early enough in the day to do what he had to do and catch up with his quarry during the night. He and Tarkau mounted their braying transports and tramped leisurely into the desert.
The sun sparkled lightly off the blue waters of the Euphrates. Its pure loveliness still caused Gabrielle to stand in awe of it. They traveled the twenty miles easily with no difficulty. Xena rode the whole way holding onto her friend tight and resting a weary head against her.
Gabrielle steered their animal into the shallows and across to the opposite bank.
"Lets tidy up a little. Its going to be a long time before we get to bathe again," she said nimbly hopping off the camel, "Look at it Xena, isnt it the most beautiful thing youve ever seen?"
Xena cocked her head to one side and studied the peaceful scenery. She had an unimpressed expression on her face and slid clumsily off Grumpys back.
"No," Xena answered calmly removing her vest.
Gabrielle stared at Xena for a moment.
"What is the most beautiful thing youve ever seen?" she asked amused by Xenas serious manner.
"You are," she replied softly.
Resting on the cool rim of the Tigris the boys were taking their noon break. Tytus dipped his hand into the refreshing water, Amir turned a shiny coin in his palm; it caught the afternoon rays of the sun and glinted brilliantly.
"What have you got Amir?" Tytus asked as he sipped some water from his cupped hand.
"A fine gold piece! See how pretty it is."
Amir held the coin out to his friend who instantly sat up and took it from him.
"Where did you get this?"
"A man. A tall man with little white teeth gave it to me."
"Did you promise to do a favor?"
"No, he asked about the two ladies and I told him which direction they went."
Tytus grabbed Amir by his collar.
"You have betrayed them for gold? He may cause harm to the ladies, did you think of that?"
"But he was very nice, he smiled as he spoke."
Tytus pushed his friend roughly away from him.
"Exalted one," he said raising his arms to the sky, "protect them!"
Ketaar seemed to have led them monotonously in a set direction for hours, then suddenly he slowed his camel to a walk and stopped.
"This is far enough I believe."
Ketaar turned and threw his knife; it whizzed through the air finding its mark deep inside Tarkaus shoulder. He let out a stunned shriek and toppled to the ground. In an instant Ketaar was on him tying his hands together, then looping the rope around Tarkaus neck he pulled his kicking and screaming victim several yards to the nearest anthill.
"My dear fellow, you will not escape your destiny."
It was much harder to snare the flailing legs of his prey but he succeeded by breaking one of Tarkaus kneecaps with a single sharp blow at its center. Ketaar finished trussing him up then stuffed a gag in his mouth. He next drove two wooden stakes into the sand near the anthill, one at the head and one at the foot.
"You may be asking yourself, Why is he doing this to me? What have I done? well, I will answer as best I can, but first I must capture the little creatures attention."
Ketaar stamped on the anthill hard then rolled Tarkau face down over the angry insects nest and tied his frantic employee hand and foot to the posts.
"You see, I know all about your treachery," his voice never wavered from its pleasant tone, "The chit still lives. You lied to me."
He yanked his knife out of Tarkaus shoulder and wiped it off on a clean handkerchief. The miniature army covered the enemys face in seconds gnawing their way up his nose and inside his ears.
"As my little angry friends chew on your worthless hide do reflect on that error in judgment," he said tossing the used cloth at him.
The furious ants had worked their way through the invaders clothes to the bare flesh stinging him many times at once. Garbled shouts of agony fell away into the distance as Ketaar rode off to find his lost prize.
"Oh right, like I could ever measure up to that," Gabrielle said feeling really flustered.
Xena moved closer. She thought she saw a look in Xenas eyes that sparked then disappeared.
Me and my imagination, Gabrielle shrugged it off.
The same open innocent expression remained intact.
Xenas favored phrase floated pleasingly from her mouth. She leaned forward and kissed Gabrielles cheek. When this Xena acted upon her frequent affectionate impulses it caused terrible repercussions for her little friend. Gabrielle pulled away to get out two robes and two bars of soap from one of the packs.
"Here," she said breathlessly handing her the brownish square, "Im going around to the other side."
Gabrielle gave Xena a robe and walked fast beyond the tall grasses that grew on a small island in the middle of the shallows.
"Ha! You handled that really well didnt you?" Gabrielle muttered to herself while undressing.
The water was cool and refreshing, just like the day before. Gabrielle splashed about dunking her head under and shooting back again to the surface. She soaped herself up and slowly washed off the suds delighting in how the blue liquid shaped to her bare skin. Gabrielle repeated the procedure, then quickly grabbed her robe to dry herself. She dressed and was about to wrap up her wet hair when all at once she heard Xena cry out in pain.
Gabrielle rushed to her aid madly dashing through the water. There she found Xena sitting in the water holding her eyes and wailing.
"Whats wrong? What happened?"
"It hurts!" she yelled.
Gabrielle crouched down in the water and took Xenas hands away from her face. Some of the lather had dribbled down into her eyes.
"Dont worry, its only soap sweetie."
Gabrielle eased Xenas head down gently so that the offending residue could be bathed away; then she rinsed the suds from her whimpering friends hair.
"Hold still Xena Im almost finished."
She squeezed excess water from Xenas lovely dark tresses, carefully flipping the soggy mane away from her face.
"Is the hurt all gone?"
The Xena she knew would never have put up with this reassuring baby talk, and even Gabrielle felt silly saying these things to her. She nodded yes.
"Let me look at you," she raised Xenas face to examine her.
Gabrielle then inspected the damage; Xenas eyes were red from the soap as well as the ordeal.
Wrestling silently in her mind, Gabrielle wondered whether she ought to comfort her friend or not. She knew the old Xenas pattern very well: Xena would get upset, Gabrielle would try to comfort her, and then shed be swiftly rebuffed most of the time. Thats what she was used to, but with the way this Xena acted on impulse, anything could happen.
"Wait here sweetie, Ill get your robe."
Gabrielle walked back to the shore were the robe had been left in a heap. As she turned around Xena was standing right in back of her stark naked and dripping wet. Her extraordinarily statuesque body glistened in the bright sunshine, lovely and strong as ever.
"Oh uh you didnt have to I couldve well "
Gabrielle hastily slipped the robe around her friend trying very hard not to seem affected, but the little poet's burning red cheeks betrayed her true feelings.
"You stay away. Why?" Xena asked sadly, tears gathering in her eyes again.
"Xena," Gabrielle began slowly, "I dont know how to answer in a way youll understand."
They stood in front of each other for a few moments; Gabrielle staring at the ground, Xena waiting for an explanation.
"You said you loved me," the child-like womans words took on an angry edge.
Gabrielle let out an exasperated sigh and held her friend close. Xena didnt return the embrace; she stood still until Gabrielle let her go.
"I have to fill the water skins before we leave. Can you dress yourself?"
Xena turned away from her without answering and started to get dressed.
Gabrielle carried the empty receptacles to the rivers edge and dipped each skin under the water until they were full, then gathered up the few things lying around, and stowed everything away.
"Xena? Are you ready to go?"
Xena, fully clothed, sat near the rivers edge. She was gazing thoughtfully at the long ribbon of blue water. Gabrielle sat down next to her.
"What are you thinking about Xena?" she asked softly.
"I dont like it," Xena answered then turned to look at her friend, "It makes me sad."
"The river makes you sad?"
"No," she looked down, "You stay far away."
Gabrielle put an arm around her.
"Xena, sometimes away is not what it seems. Im worried about you. I want you to be well again. If Im distant its only because I care too much to be with you right now."
Xenas chin trembled slightly, and then tears trickled down.
"Didnt you understand anything I said?"
What was not clear before had to be expressed in another form. Gabrielle held out her arms and Xena quickly lost herself in their tender refuge.
A fresh set of tracks ran through the dark brown earth of the embankment and reappeared in the sand on the low cliff overlooking the Euphrates.
"A nice clean trail for me to follow," Ketaar chuckled, "I will have you come nightfall sweet ladies."
He tapped the bag filled with torches at his side in anticipation of success; after all, Ketaar wasnt far behind them and he had the advantage of needing very little rest.
"With any luck well be out of this wasteland in less than three days," she said to Xena, and then on to find Al-Farabi, she completed in her head.
Gabrielle had picked up the pace a little; she was feeling fairly confident that they were traveling in the right direction. The near brush with disaster forced her to pay close attention to landmarks, stars, and the suns position in the sky at all times.
If it wasnt for that pin-point of light
Xena held her in a firm arm lock; it didnt exactly make for a comfortable ride, but she felt safe, like she used to before---
"Is it getting dark?"
Gabrielle squinted fleetingly up at the sky.
"Yes it is."
"I dont like the dark."
This came as no particular surprise. Xena did well spending the previous night indoors but out in the desert again in the dark was bringing up traumatic memories.
"Itll be okay Xena. Weve got plenty of twigs to make a fire. Well be fine."
"Bad things are in the dark."
She could feel Xena tense up behind her and start to shudder.
"Thats why Im going to make a big campfire. Bad things stay away from fire."
Gabrielle brought Grumpy to a lazy stop, gently eased Xenas grip, and hopped off. She made him kneel down so that Xena could dismount with little trouble.
"Ill get the blankets, you can bring a water skin."
Most of the gear would remain on the camels howdah for the night; he didnt seem to mind. She made up their sleeping area close together as always and went about collecting twigs from dry shrubs and dug up old thin roots to burn.
"Look-ee!" Xena said pointing her arm straight at a bright yellow object.
Funny, Gabrielle hadnt noticed the flickering ball of light in the distance till now. A sudden wave of foreboding shot through her thoughts then it quickly passed.
Probably another camp being set up back there; nothing to fret over.
She went on gathering burnable bits of things for the fire and brought back handfuls at a time till there was a nice stockpile.
"I think its just enough to carry us through the night Xena."
That glow continued to disturb her. Every once in a while she saw its shimmering yellow-orange out of the corner of her eye. It appeared to have doubled its size in the last half-hour. Then it vanished. Gabrielle strained her eyes in the early twilight searching the horizon; in a few moments the light appeared again.
This time there was no mistake; it unquestionably glowed larger and brighter.
"No oh Gods not him!"
Gabrielle grabbed her friends sleeve and pulled her a good five lengths away from the path.
"Xena wait here for me."
She raced back to the makeshift camp and collected everything, down to the last twig and ran back to where she left a very baffled Xena.
"Sweetie listen," she began nervously out of breath, "Im going to be gone for a short while, but Ill be back as soon as I can, okay?"
"Dont leave me," Xena whined.
"I wont be long, wait right here," Gabrielles words had an impatient edge.
"Please lay-deee, dont leave me alone!"
"Gods Xena! Theres no time for this now!" she raised her voice, "Wait here and dont move!"
Gabrielle hurried away to mount Grumpy. She kicked him into a fast trot down the trail into the semi-darkness.
Xena drew her knees up to her chin and muffled her cries of fear against them. She knew something was happening and hated to be left alone.
"Lady promised me she promised," Xena whimpered to herself, "I want laay-deee!"
The dreaded crisis gradually neared,
A fiend with many faces we feared.
Our chances were slim
That two could outwit him
Once the signs of battle appeared.
Charcoal clouds hung overhead, slowly creeping across the sky. Weighted footfalls drummed in Gabrielles ears as she forced Grumpy into a faster gait. When she felt sure that she had gone far enough, Gabrielle turned the animal carefully around and painstakingly followed the same tracks to where she started. It would be easy to tell that she had doubled back come the morning, but for now her little ruse might buy them some time.
When she finally returned Gabrielle could just make out the footprints leading away from the path, but the light in the distance had become less round, more pronounced in shape; it was clearly a torch. Jumping swiftly off the camels back she led him to where Xena was curled up in a ball on the bare sand.
"Xena?" she called softly.
Xena stirred and sat up trying to make out the image coming toward her.
"Whos there?" she asked cautiously.
"Its me sweetie."
"Oh lady, you came back!"
"Ive got to go away one more time," Gabrielle interrupted Xenas emotional outburst, "Grumpy will be here to keep you company."
Gabrielle made him kneel down close to Xena then she took off with a blanket and headed for the main trail. She was barely able to see where their extra footprints broke from the path and started to frantically erase them with the blanket. Crawling backward Gabrielle beat the sand at a frenzied pace until the telltale tracks smoothed to a fairly even plane.
Finishing up as best she could, Gabrielle tried to find her friend again in the gloom.
"Xena, where are you?"
Xena reached out in the total darkness catching Gabrielle around the waist then she pulled her into an anxious embrace.
"Whats wrong lady?" Xena asked excitedly.
"We have to stay very quiet," she said in a shaky voice, "No sounds of any kind; not even a whisper," Gabrielle paused to catch her breath, "Someone is coming sweetie, someone bad."
"Okay," Xena answered in a tiny voice.
Huddled close against Grumpy they waited as the torch beam grew brighter and brighter. The hulking shadowy images slowly came into view. Grumpy fidgeted in the sand behind them.
Its him! Gabrielle could feel her eyes widening in panic.
Ketaar sat grinning aboard his camel illuminated against the night sky sweeping the blazing torch from one side to the other searching carefully for something or someone. He stopped the mini caravan and held out his burning light in their general direction.
She next felt her heart jumping in her chest and gripped onto Xenas arms that were wound around her. Xena remained amazingly calm holding her friend tight against the violent shaking convulsive fit Gabrielle suddenly found herself in. She closed her eyes and prayed silently to herself that he wouldnt see them. Then Grumpy snorted. Gabrielle almost leaped out of Xenas arms in fright.
"Hes gone," Xena whispered to her trembling friend, "He went away."
She could hardly believe that he was fooled by her simple trick. Hysterical giggles threatened to explode from her throat but instead it changed into tears. Gabrielle turned around and buried her face in Xenas neck; wave upon wave of faint sobs shook her body.
"Lady dont cry. I wont let anything happen to you."
Her kind words of comfort soothed the temporary loss of control.
"Im sorry Xena, I guess Im not as strong as I thought."
Gabrielle wiped her eyes and stayed in Xenas arms listening to her steady heart beating in her chest. It would be a while before Ketaar found out that he had been deceived and it wouldnt take him long to retrace his steps even more meticulously next time around.
But until then, Gabrielle let herself drift for a few minutes dreaming that they were home and safely out of Ketaars reach.
"I love you Gabrielle," Xena whispered low and throaty into the silky blond hair resting just below her lips.
"I love you too Xena," Gabrielle answered dreamily.
It was so strange to be lying in the pitch-black of night with no blazing campfire nearby; it gave everything a surreal effect. With eyes closed there was no up or down. For all Gabrielle knew she could be floating in space among the stars---
Ketaar had opted to walk the path for a while; it made it easier to follow the tracks in the soft sand.
The lizards surely nibbled his eyes at sunset, Ketaar mused, I should have liked to watch.
He could well afford to give a secondary thought to his former comrade. Wasnt he nearly tasting victory?
You will not share the same fate dear chit. No, you shall be mine.
He was so deep in thought that he lost the trail. Retracing his steps he went back to where he must have veered off course. Ketaar held the torch closer to the ground trying to find the primary footprints. Everything remained in a straight line, no deviations of any kind. Gradually, physical evidence revealed the obvious.
She had outwitted him.
"CURSE you!" he screamed.
This abrupt outburst caused Ketaar to stagger forward dizzily, hardly able to concentrate on the trail before him.
"No not the same fate clever Miss; a worse one!"
He grabbed the reins of both animals and unsteadily made his way down the trail to hunt for the prey all over again.
Gabrielle twisted herself around in an attempt at facing Xena in the dark.
"You said my name?"
She searched for Xenas mouth and placed her ear close to it.
"Please, say it again, say my name."
Xena took a breath and then whispered, brushing her lips lightly against Gabrielles cheek as she spoke.
Her little friend suppressed the joy that wanted to burst from her heart.
"Xena, have you come back?"
"I dont understand," Xena replied softly in her natural tone.
"Who are you?" Gabrielle held her tight.
"Im your friend."
In the middle of answering, Xenas voice shot up to the child-like octave. Gabrielle relaxed her hold. Maybe she was beginning to remember, but Gabrielle didnt want to assume anything or start celebrating. That madman could return at any time and she needed her thoughts to be unclouded.
"Try and get some rest Xena. Our little playmate will be coming back and well have to be ready for him."
"But Im not tired."
"Come on," she said putting her arms around Xena, "close your eyes, and count something nice to help you fall asleep; count umm count "
" Pretty rocks?" Xena offered.
"Yes sweetie, like the one you gave me."
Xena snuggled her head against Gabrielles shoulder; she began to count one then two and started over again.
"Oh, I forgot," Xena said raising herself up a little, then pressed her lips to Gabrielles throat, "Goodnight."
Staring up at the star-less sky Gabrielle gently caressed Xenas hair waiting for Ketaars certain return.
She woke up to Xena shaking her arm.
"I think I hear something," Xena whispered.
The urgency in her voice put Gabrielle on immediate alert. In a few minutes she could hear it too--the unmistakable sounds of heavy footsteps. A bright beam instantly lit up the path a few yards in front of them. Xena spontaneously threw her body across Gabrielles to shield her from the approaching danger. She didnt mind the much heavier womans full weight on her. Xenas firm hold and uniform breathing helped to quiet her quivering nerves.
Ketaar examined the white sandy ground before him looking for any clues that he missed during the first sweep, but his heart was too consumed with rage to pay close enough attention to subtle changes of surface level. He shambled by, passing the torch along the edge of the trail; first one end of the outer perimeter then the other.
Before long one of his camels refused to travel any further and stubbornly dug in its heels.
"Walk on you troublesome beast!" he spat out in Arabic.
He pulled hard on the reins trying to get the groaning animal to budge with no success. Finally he dropped the leather straps and patted the camels head.
"Yes, yes my friend, you are tired," he whispered, "I will rest here with you."
Not fifteen yards separated them from their pursuer. Gabrielle held onto Xena too afraid to even breathe. Her heart beat fast in her chest like a captive birds.
"Gabrielle," Xena whispered so softly that Gabrielle could hardly hear her, "dont worry, Ill protect you."
Gods Xena, look at us, she thought to herself, You couldnt handle this fellow if you wanted to and Ive become a trembling mess. What a team!
She didnt know how far into the night it was. Would he be leaving soon?
And if not, how will I be able to stand the strain?
Ketaar settled down with his tired caravan in the middle of the path. If he stayed until daybreak the possibility of silent escape seemed unlikely. Grumpy was sure to make a noise at some point before that instantly giving away their position.
"You shouldnt be so afraid lady, I said I would protect you," Xena softly reassured back in child mode, "dont you believe me?"
The last thing Gabrielle wanted to do was engage in conversation while the enemy lay close by. It wasnt so much that she feared for her own life; she feared for Xenas. Ketaar was capable of almost anything and she knew Xena would quickly die at his hands trying to save her.
"Yes, I believe you," Gabrielle paused finding it hard to catch her breath, "Please Xena, we must not talk, he might hear us."
Xena made a little sigh as she shifted her weight off of her friend. Gabrielle managed to take a deeper breath and continued to shiver. The cold of the evening desert chilled her to the very bone; she had to jam a fist in her mouth to stop her teeth from chattering.
A thick woolen covering presently spread across her body. Having blindly searched around in the dark, Xena located the blanket that was used to rub out their footprints. Warm fingertips tucked in loose ends then delicately pet her cheek, smoothing a way for the warmer lips that took their place. Gentle hands clasped her face between them; a hint of exhaled air preceded the kiss upon her mouth. Gabrielle nearly gasped from the suddenness of contact with Xenas lips.
It did not linger; Xena drew away almost immediately.
"Better now?" she asked innocently.
Her little comrade wasnt sure how to answer this. The pleasure she wouldve normally experienced was somewhat colored by Ketaars presence not far away.
"Yes, much better," she whispered back.
She fussed some more with Gabrielles blanket then nestled close to her. Xena fell asleep with no trouble at all, completely oblivious to the danger. Not true for Gabrielle; sleep became a rather complex undertaking. Every time she drifted off shed snap wide-awake again. The constant threat of discovery and the hours slowly passing by, each one more exhausting than the next, tore her jangled nerves to shreds.
He probably knows that were here and is just playing with us.
Complete darkness eventually gave way to early dawn. Barely an hour in total had been spent sleeping and now she had to get ready to leave. Gabrielle didnt have a remarkable plan of escape, only to sneak off and elude him again, and failing this what then?
"Xena, wake up. We have to go," she rasped anxiously in Xenas ear.
Xena sat up and stretched. Taking her friends queue, she answered in a whisper.
Gabrielle rolled up her blanket and stuffed it between some things on Grumpys howdah. She didnt think it possible that their camel could stay relatively quiet the entire evening, but he did.
"Ill get on first then help you up."
She climbed aboard then reached down for Xenas hand. Gabrielle could just make out her shape in the dark and gripped the outstretched arm below hoisting Xena onto the space behind her. The animal stood up awkwardly raising his back end first then the front, see-sawing them roughly to and fro till he got to his full height.
Carefully Gabrielle steered Grumpy across deeper sand alongside the main trail as quietly as was possible. If they traveled parallel to this path for a few miles, she hoped it would make it difficult for Ketaar to realize that they had passed him in the dark.
Ever so slightly she could feel her spine uncoil from the unbearable stress of the evening. The beautiful golden yellow on the horizon made the trail a bit more visible, Xena held on tight as she did the day before, everything was working out just fine.
Grumpy decided to blast an enormous grunt from his nostrils.
The fair morning breeze had altered almost imperceptibly. An out of place noise awakened Ketaar out of a deep stupor; his head whipped around to see where it came from. In the dismal half-light he saw a fleeing camel galloping at full tilt over the smaller dunes. He loosely bound the front legs of one of his two transports and mounted the other.
"This wont take long my friend," he said smiling at the temporarily abandoned animal and took off after the retreating shape. He couldnt tell if the chit and Xena were the ones speeding ahead; he was too far away, but not for long.
"See if hes following us Xena," Gabrielle called behind her.
Xena twisted around and strained her eyes through the semi-darkness. She thought something was there, though she couldnt be sure. It was hard for her to focus accurately on anything because of the occasional double vision in her injured eye. Xena turned back around to give her report once again holding onto Gabrielle for dear life.
"I think so," she answered loud in Gabrielles ear nearly deafening her in the process.
Her heart boomed in her chest. Hope against hope of an easy escape quickly died away.
"Thanks a lot pal!" she sarcastically shouted at Grumpy.
"Youre welcome," Xena answered in the same loud volume.
"I was talking to Grumpy!" Gabrielle yelled back still squinting from the noise.
She aimed him toward the smoother path; it seemed the smartest thing to do if they were to try and outrun their pursuer.
Hes traveling lighter than us, she thought to herself, hes going to catch up.
Gabrielle reached down on her left side and pulled out Xenas heavily wrapped chakram from the howdahs bindings.
If Im going to die, Im going down fighting.
She freed the circular weapon from the cloth package and secured it to her sash. Xena turned to look behind her again and this time she could see a distinct figure coming after them.
"I see it now!" she announced almost proudly.
Ketaar blinked at the large clouds of sand being kicked up in front of him. No matter, he could make out the two riders clearly.
The little one has spirit, Ive always said so.
He took out his knife and prepared to throw it.
No, not nearly close enough.
Ketaar clamped the blade between his teeth and drove the animal on relentlessly; he ignored its angry grunts of protest as the gap steadily narrowed between him and his victims.
Gabrielle heard the extra set of galloping feet and placed her hand on the chakram that bounced against her thigh. She cursed herself that she never learned how to throw it right. All Gabrielle could do at best was mimic Xenas style of motion.
Who am I kidding? This thing is a part of her arm.
She pulled the reins suddenly to the right, steering Grumpy clear of a few large stones; something flew low at them piercing one of the heftier water skins next to Xenas leg. Clear liquid sprayed all over the place wetting everything around it. Xena plucked the object out of the deflated container and held it in front of Gabrielles face.
"Hey lady look! Look what he threw at us."
Gabrielle took the knife immediately out of Xenas hand and stuck it into her waistband.
"Its a knife Xena, he wants to hurt us."
He guided his camel alongside theirs and tried to grab for the reins. Xena kicked out at Ketaar connecting with his jaw causing him to fall back a few lengths.
"ILL HAVE YOU YET!" he screamed shaking his fist at Xena.
In a way he was right, they werent going as fast as before. Grumpy started to tire from the terrific pace and Ketaar was closing in fast.
"COME ON, COME ON DONT GIVE UP NOW PLEASE!" Gabrielle frantically yelled at the weakening animal.
It was no use; the poor thing had spent its last reserves of speed and barely trotted. She hastily loosened her sash taking up the chakram and tried desperately to aim it at their attacker.
"DUCK OUT OF THE WAY XENA!"
Xena placed a calm hand over Gabrielles.
"Leave him to me," she said smiling a half grin and took the weapon from her friend.
Hair loose and tossed by a stiff breeze, she whirled around, holding the old familiar ring firmly in the fighting posture grip Gabrielle thought shed never see again. Xena closed her bad eye and hurled the gleaming weapon with a ferocious fluid motion in Ketaars direction. It spun through the air neatly slicing apart the thick band that held his camels howdah in place then arced in a high curve smoothly returning to her hand.
Ketaar fell sideways off the speeding beast landing hard in a cloud of sand. He flipped over once or twice coming to a stop face down in a patch of shrubs. Xena and Gabrielle saw him lying still but didnt wait around to inquire about his state of health; they trotted away losing no time to put as much distance between them as possible.
His liberated animal kept running eventually coming to a stop a fair ways from its fallen master. Ketaar shook his head and looked around. It was strange that he felt no pain at all from such an unexpected dismount.
How foolish of me, he thought amusingly to himself, to be caught off my guard. It shall not happen again.
Ketaar wanted to get up but the desire to just lay there was overwhelming. No reason to rush, he had plenty of time to repair the damage to his howdah and then hed be on the hunt once more.
"Ha! Run all you like, you cannot elude me," Ketaar mumbled as he tried to move, "I will catch up and when I do "
He paused in mid sentence; he couldnt feel his legs.
Xena had resumed her position of holding onto Gabrielle as Grumpy loped over the low sand hills.
"You were wonderful back there."
"Really?" her little high-pitched voice asked shyly.
Gabrielle covered one of the hands Xena had locked around her waist.
"Know what?" Xena asked happily.
She nuzzled next to Gabrielles ear.
Gabrielle burst into merry gales of laughter, hugging Xenas folded hands close to her.
Late afternoon and he was only able to drag the useless lower half of his body a short way up the trail. Being at this task for hours, Ketaar rested a while propped up on his elbows. He was sure this was merely a temporary condition; the feeling would return and hed be on his way again.
Far off and to the right a wandering tribe came into view. Ketaar wisely removed his white turban and used it to signal them. These nomadic bands were always accommodating to lone travelers in distress. Unfortunately, he had to count himself as one who needed their help.
"Over here good people!" he called out in his most gracious manner.
Two men from the small party came hurrying over to aid the light-haired gentleman lying on the trail.
"Where are you injured?" one of the young men asked.
"My legs, Im unable to walk."
He motioned to his companion and they both proceeded to lift him up then carried Ketaar to their waiting caravan. After being placed on a plush rug, one of the women unplugged a water jug and held his head while she fed him some of the cool liquid. Her husband stood over them quietly watching.
"I am Alaran, you will do well in my wifes hands."
"Thank you for helping me. I am in your debt."
Alaran looked down at the man oddly, wondering why he didnt return the courtesy of telling him his name and continued the inquiry.
"We found a lone camel not far from here. Is it yours?"
"Yes it is mine. My binding um separated at a run and I was left as you see me."
"You say you cannot walk, do you mind if my wife examines you?"
"I would welcome it dear fellow."
Alarans head jerked forward at that last sentence. Something familiar about the strangers intonation made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. His wife gently turned Ketaar on his side and touched him here and there along his spine. He twitched at one of her taps. She eased him onto his back and walked over to Alaran to whisper in his ear.
"My wife tells me that you have nothing to fear, it is a passing malady caused by the fall."
Ketaar set his jaw. He didnt know how long hed be able to endure these people and their irritating questions.
"I have business to conduct. When will this condition leave me?"
Alarans wife whispered in his ear again.
"Another two days."
Ketaar smiled. All of his sharp pointed teeth gleamed white against the dark tanned skin of his face.
"A pity," he said, "Well, it cannot be helped. I shall have to see about my property at a later date."
Alaran clapped his hands together once.
"Of course!" he said advancing on Ketaar, "You are the scum that sold me into slavery!"
Ketaar started to reach into his sleeve suddenly realizing that his cherished weapon was in anothers possession.
"I am not the one you speak of friend," he said trying to recover from being recognized by a former property.
"Do you know how many years it took to get back to my family?" Alaran said completely ignoring Ketaars denial, "No you would not. And why should you care, a miserable heartless cretin like you."
Ketaar sighed. Hed been caught and no amount of protest would convince this man otherwise.
"Very well, yes I am that man."
All the members of the party had stopped what they were doing and gathered around to listen.
"I am willing to pay restitution," Ketaar said looking tensely around at the small crowd.
"I have an amount in mind," Alaran coolly stated, "Your life."
"My life? It is poor compensation. Once I am dead what have you? Nothing."
Alaran smiled at his family then back at Ketaar.
"I shall have the satisfaction that no one will ever suffer at your hands again."
"Well then be quick about it fool," Ketaar sneered, "I do not wish to die of boredom."
"No my friend, I can guarantee that you certainly will not be bored."
On to Damascus?
Of this I was not sure.
Xenas old afflictions
Did not need a cure.
It was turning into early evening; and they had barely talked during the day, only briefly exchanging a few words to pass food or water to each other. Gabrielle felt very uneasy about Ketaar and it weighed heavily on her mind. She couldnt be sure if hed been thoroughly outwitted or just slightly inconvenienced and her thoughts were skipping forward to the evening.
He wasnt moving, Gabrielle reasoned quietly, it might only be a matter of time before he comes after us again.
Gabrielle didnt want to spend another night on the desert without a nice warm campfire nearby, but lighting one would put them in too much danger. Xena seemed able to handle the inconvenience pretty well. The only thing that got her really upset lately was to be left alone in the dark. Even with all the newly acquired drawbacks Xenas toughness still shined through and Gabrielle desperately needed to draw on it.
After camp was set up, Gabrielle pulled out the little bottle of salve and carefully applied some to Xenas face. The bruises were nearly gone, just a light discoloration here and there--scarcely visible. Her eye was another story. It remained bloodshot and problematic. The soap Xena got into it earlier didnt help much either.
She sat peacefully; though Gabrielle sensed that there was something preying on Xenas mind. An expression of extreme puzzlement washed over her features.
Xena once again slipped back into her fascinating version of lucid mode. This new addition however, since the night before, Gabrielle had thought best not to dwell on.
"Where is my sword?" she asked, eyebrows knitted together.
Gabrielle was completely floored by this question, and sat there briefly with her mouth hanging open then tried vainly to stabilize her balance.
"Did I lose it in a battle?"
Xena peered at her friend patiently waiting for an answer. Seeing none was forthcoming she stood up and started to poke around and under things looking for it. Gabrielle watched her moving about with growing disbelief.
"Umm...no, it was taken from you well, that and everything else---except your chakram, you still have that," she managed to squeeze out of her throat.
Gabrielle discreetly studied Xenas reaction.
"Really? I dont remember."
Xena sat back down next to Gabrielle and examined the foreign outfit she had on as if shed never seen it before.
"These clothes are interesting, Im not sure if I like them. They look nice on you though."
Xena stopped talking. She rested calmly next to Gabrielle, knees drawn up to her chin and looking out in the distance beyond their humble campsite. Some minutes passed by, Gabrielle wanted so much to believe that Xena had returned, the Xena she knew. Her contained excitement showed no sign of even a tiny ripple on the surface; she feared overwhelming her friend and kept it to herself.
Xena then turned her calm gaze on Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, where are we?" she said in her natural tone.
This was the Xena she waited so long for radiating through those beautiful, beautiful blue eyes.
Gabrielle put a hand to her mouth in an effort to keep all the bottled up emotions from spilling out at once. Xena immediately responded to her friends distress and drew her into a concerned embrace.
"Its okay sweetie," Xena whispered, trying to comfort her.
Sweetie? Xena thought to herself, I never call her sweetie! Where did that come from?
"Xena, Im not sad," Gabrielle sniffed and smiled up at her long lost friend, "Youve come back, dont you see?"
Mystified, Xena stared into Gabrielles face trying to make sense of her strange behavior.
"What are you talking about? Gabrielle, what is going on?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath.
"It all started with the war---"
"War? What war?"
"The war in Jerusalem," Xena seemed more confused, "You dont remember fighting Pompeys army?"
"Being captured by Ketaars men? Auctioned off in Baghdad?"
Xena struggled to recall these things.
"No," she looked around for a moment, "Its getting dark, shouldnt we get a fire going?"
Gabrielle enlightened Xena as to why they shouldnt have one and Xena seemed unconcerned.
"I have no intention of spending an evening without a campfire. If this person decides to pay us a call Ill be ready for him."
She got up and started to collect everything and anything burnable then heaped it into a big pile. Gabrielle located the brand new flint box they bought in Baghdad and handed it to Xena.
"Thats better!" she said after lighting the makeshift blaze.
She then spread her blanket closer to the fire and settled down. Gabrielle was a little hesitant about making her bed next to Xena. All of a sudden she had reverted back to being unassuming around her friend and made a place for herself off to the side.
"Ive heard so much about Baghdad," Xena began slowly, "You say we were there, but I dont remember a moment of it."
She was obviously inviting her to talk. Gabrielle moved her blanket over and sat beside Xena.
"Can you remember anything Xena? Anything at all?"
"Not really. Only fleeting images, they escape before I can grasp them. I remember you, I know who I am thats all."
Gabrielle slipped an arm around her.
"Youve been through so much swee---Xena, these things will start to come back, youll see."
The stumbled over word went unnoticed, much to Gabrielles relief.
"Everything feels so strange. What if my memories never return? Ill be living as only half a person."
"If that is what the fates have planned for you then we will see it through together."
They sat for a long while, not saying a word; Xena was the one to brake the silence.
"I seem to have a vague memory of singing to you," she said smiling, "Did I?"
Gabrielle wrung her hands together remembering that occasion all too well.
"Yes you did."
"Ha! You shouldve stopped me."
Xena looked away, the amused smile fading from her lips.
"Gabrielle, Im so afraid."
Gabrielle enfolded her in a warm embrace and rocked her gently like she did when Xena had the mind of a child. Then reality quickly set in; she remembered that this brave warrior didnt like drawn-out shows of affection so she started to pull away, but Xena wouldnt let her go.
"Please hold me a little longer," Xena said in a small voice, "I know youd rather not "
"What? Oh Gods Xena, I cant think of anything I want to do more in this whole world," Gabrielle paused thinking she went a little too far, " I mean, your being my best friend and all well I love you."
"I love you so much Gabrielle," Xena drew back a bit then lightly brushed her lips against Gabrielles and kissed her. Gabrielle gasped and let Xena kiss her lips again.
Could there be were there street musicians playing somewhere in the distance?
"Do you hear music?" Gabrielle dreamily asked.
Xena smiled down at her friends lovely face.
"Yes, it must be coming from my heart."
Gabrielle gently guided Xena into meeting with her lips once more.
There was no moonlight as she had hoped for, but there were stars in the night sky and they filled in quite beautifully.
This tale has now ended, yet am I quite done?
One mystery still lingers
And then therell be none.
A small caravan of prisoners advanced along the perimeter of the Euphrates headed by two men who resembled each other in every way except for the difference in their temperaments.
"What is that?"
Mohod had spotted something lying in the marshy shallows a fair distance away.
"Wait here, Ill go and investigate," his twin brother Marduk replied.
He kicked up his camel to a gallop and arrived at where the odd looking thing stuck three quarters of the way out of the mud. Marduk dismounted and walked as far into the marsh as he could without sinking knee deep in the mire. It was in the shape of a man, whatever it was. It looked something like a ceramic statue in a sitting position tilted over on its side.
"Hmmmm," Marduk said softly, "No wonder they left it here, the artist lacks skill."
He tapped at the indistinct features of its face with his knuckle. It didnt make a hollow noise as he expected and this caught Marduks curiosity. With the handle of his knife he rapped hard on the terra cotta head. A large chunk fell away revealing burned flesh, a set of sharp white teeth, and a terrible odor. Marduk jumped back in horror covering his nose with a handkerchief.
Mohod had secured the three camels front legs together lest any of the prisoners attempt an escape and joined his brother at the shallows.
"Is it something we can use?" Mohod asked then stopped dead in his tracks.
"Hardly," Marduk answered while backing further away from the monstrosity.
"So we will not be expecting friend Ketaar to show up then?" his brother pointedly offered.
It was Ketaar under the thick ceramic crust; baked to a crisp.
"Once again you show your gift of stating the obvious Mohod. He must have met his death weeks ago."
"May we take this as a sign brother?"
"Yes, my thoughts exactly. Untie the prisoners and give them all our supplies. You and I will walk the rest of the way to Baghdad."
Mohod nodded and ran back with Marduks camel to the caravan; he then began untying the prisoners. The five captives stared at him with suspicion.
"Have no fear, you are free, take everything. Allah has willed it."
One of the male prisoners translated for the others and they stood in shock for a moment before scrambling onto the four unattended beasts and briskly trotted away in the opposite direction.
"Well Marduk," Mohod said to his twin brother, "We have a long walk ahead of us, shall we get started?"
"By all means," Marduk said looping a large water jug over his shoulder and smiling, "By all means."
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