The Burning Candle Part 1
Disclaimer: Xena and Gabrielle are the sole property of MCA/UNIVERSAL, no infringement intended, no high finance under the table deals were struck. I offer this tale free from me to thee. Although Argo is not in this story she asked me to say hello for her, I quote..."Whinny, snort, whinny," unquote.
Warning: Some violence has been resorted to, but not rape. Of course this doesn't make it better, just clarifying for the more tender of heart. Loving scenes between two women are quite evident in this yarn and therefore should be avoided if this is illegal in your state, or if you are under age whichever is worse.
Please evacuate these premises now in the event that either of the above applies or suffer the wrath of <insert deity of your choice here>
Thanks to all the lovely people who read my debut story, (and you know who you are), for encouraging me to write another Xfic.
Questions? Feedback? Send to: AHladis@aol.com
Pompey's legions swept through Jerusalem. This enormous lumbering army then set its sights northwest cutting a wide trail toward Damascus.
The main body of opposing forces broke up and fled in various directions; many of which opting to take their chances far into the Syrian desert rather than face the Roman ideal of retribution.
Yet some were determined to challenge foreign tyranny. They retreated nearly a hundred miles in the vain hope of regrouping and reinforcing their numbers.
"The battle was fought hard and well, but by no means are we beaten," Xena declared from atop a bluff, "Enlist any allies we have to the north. We shall crush Caesar's swarm before they reach our homeland. I'm going back to observe their movements. I'll rejoin you soon to stop these Roman jackals once and for all!"
Though Xena had joined the resistance late, this was one battle where the odds were stacked heavily against winning. For many months she did everything in her power to aid in slowing down the advancement of these troops, but it proved futile.
Now it seemed as if nothing could stand in Rome's way to successfully conquering all of Syria as well.
The meager crowd cheered Xena on in the blazing-hot afternoon sunshine, except one. She stood quietly with her arms at their sides among the shouting throng looking up at this admirable vision of a stubborn commander.
"Travel swift and sure," she urged her small exhausted army of Greek patriots so far from home, "Till we meet again!"
Gabrielle knew the impossibility of trying to talk her daring friend out of going on a dangerous mission alone, but that little obstacle never stopped this wishful thinker before.
Walking with much difficulty through the dispersing crowd, Gabrielle inched her way closer to Xena, a disapproving expression gracing her features.
When she reached her, Xena was already busily engaged in stuffing supplies into a very worn saddlebag.
Catching sight of the familiar shadow spread before her on the ground, Xena slowly drew in a breath readying for an argument.
"I'm going alone, don't try to talk me out of it," Xena announced holding up a hand in her irked companion's direction, "Caesar's troops have to be watched closely. It's only a matter of time before they expose a weakness."
Xena's ability to anticipate Gabrielle's lectures without looking up always annoyed her concerned friend.
"I wish you'd stop waving me off before I have a chance to speak."
Xena delayed her task briefly to exchange the merest of glances with Gabrielle.
"We both know what you're going to say, so why waste time?"
She resumed her packing chore.
"Waste time?" Gabrielle miffed, angrily shot back then paused to calm herself, "All right," she sighed, "You know I don't like what you're planning to do," Gabrielle grasped Xena's forearm to get her attention, "Xena, I told you from the beginning that this isn't our fight."
"Do you think we should wait patiently until Caesar's soldiers are knocking at our door?"
She slipped neatly out of Gabrielle's hold.
"Must you always be the one to do the dirty work? Why not get someone else to carry out your orders?"
Xena tied her saddlebag onto a jet-black mare's saddle and continued to half ignore what she hoped wouldn't turn into another one of Gabrielle's emotional appeals.
"Answer me Xena, I feel as if I'm talking to a stone wall."
Xena felt quite adamant about traveling alone. The last thing she wanted to do was defend her decision. Xena stopped what she was doing and turned to face her frustrated travel pal.
"You know me better than that Gabrielle. Do we really need to go through this again?" she said taking her by the hands.
Gabrielle locked eyes with Xena's penetrating stare and said nothing.
"I'm sorry Gabrielle," Xena squeezed her hands fondly, "What I'm about to do could be pivotal in winning this war. I'll be back before you know it."
"Which really means you'll be away for who knows how long. Well, I guess I can keep the old candle burning in the window, as usual," she said in a flippant tone, then added softly, "I miss you already."
Xena tried smiling, but it didn't quite come off that way. Small tears surfaced, threatening to spill over. Quickly she shook off the impulse to display sentimentality and leaned down to say good-bye.
Gabrielle swallowed back the enormous uneasiness at being left behind and put her arms around Xena, drawing the headstrong woman into a farewell embrace. She dearly wanted to beg to be taken along, but knew it would be useless to ask.
"I'm going to be crazy with worry until you return, you know that don't you?" she whispered against Xena's shoulder.
"That's why I love you," Xena replied, barely able to keep her words steady, "because you're crazy."
She nestled her lips into Gabrielle's golden hair, taking in its sweet wind-blown fragrance, but Gabrielle had little time to return her cherished comrade's tender caresses. Xena let go, giving her a light tap on the face before swinging up into the saddle in one swift vault.
"You're really going to be okay without me, right Xena?"
Xena made a quick motion at her chest: one hand held palm down to salute Gabrielle in good-bye and pressed the eager mare to advance.
"You won't take on Caesar's army all by yourself will you? Swear to me you won't!" Gabrielle called out while running after the trotting animal.
Xena pulled up turned to her smiling, and said, "I promise," then cantered down the narrow path that led out of the encampment.
Gabrielle watched as Xena's image grew smaller and smaller until she was only a tiny dot lost in the vast landscape.
"She'll be back," Gabrielle nodded to herself, "She's coming back."
It has been said, countless times, that war brings about the better part of valor; self- less acts of sacrifice in the face of dismal failure.
There are those of course who feed off war; the kind that sneak around corners waiting for perfect opportunities to carry out their evil deeds. These nomadic bands, made up of assorted criminals, gravitate to loss and misery--especially if it involves making a hefty profit. One such group emerged from hiding in the desert
Ketaar had carefully positioned his men along a shelf above one of the few main roads leading out of the war zone. They were waiting for anything that might happen unluckily into their orbit.
"The pickings are slim here," one particularly rough looking fellow grumbled.
"I agree," another echoed, "Nothing's been down this road all day, not even a flea."
"I'm with them," the third man said starting to rise, "Let's get drunk."
"Move and you're dead."
Ketaar, grinning pleasantly, produced a long knife from his sleeve and held it against the startled gentleman's greasy throat.
"We have an order to fill, don't make me angry Diakka."
He removed the knife from Diakka's neck leaving a neat pinpoint of blood in its place.
The warm wind tangled wildly through Xena's hair as the grunting horse galloped at a maddening pace. She wanted to shorten the many miles between her and the enemy's camp before dark. Just overhead, large threatening clouds loomed heavily in the sky. A brief show of lightening, then a loud booming thunderclap vibrated the ground.
It started to rain down on the hurrying duo. Xena tugged lightly back on her reins.
She knew how dangerous the road was when it got wet and didn't want to become a casualty.
"Slow down girl, I don't want you getting hurt now, do I?" Xena said as she patted the panting mare's neck.
A small blur shot out from nowhere glancing skillfully between her mount's eyes. The horse twisted around screaming in dazed agony rearing up on hind legs catching its rider by surprise.
Xena was thrown backward headfirst down a sheer embankment. She tumbled over and over striking her head several times against some loose rocks along the way. A solid mass of thick brown bushes at the bottom of the hill snared Xena's seemingly lifeless body.
Diakka dashed over to where Xena dropped out of sight, the empty sling carelessly dangling from his hand.
"You're the close friend of Xena aren't you? Will she come back soon?"
A pair of dark sparkling eyes inquired. Gabrielle almost dropped the pitcher she was carrying, not from what the young woman said, but from hearing someone calling her name. And it sounded.... Like Xena? How could it be?
"Did you hear that?" Gabrielle asked, her voice edging on alarm.
"Umm...no. What did it sound like?" the girl asked.
"If you heard it, you wouldn't have to ask."
Gabrielle hastily pushed past the puzzled girl, handing her the pitcher and rushed outside. The temporary camp was quiet; everyone had taken shelter to avoid the sudden rain shower.
She trotted aimlessly through the downpour.
Water cascaded down onto her face, into her eyes and soaked through her clothes.
"DOLT!!!" Ketaar shouted over the roaring thunderstorm, "LOOK AT YOUR HANDYWORK!!!"
All four cutthroats peered down at the limp form lying wedged in a bramble patch at the base of the steep cliff. Now and then a lightening flash lit up the motionless shape.
"My hand slipped. It could happen to anyone," Diakka scoffed.
"Yessss," Ketaar's voice took on a purring fringe.
Diakka fell choking to the ground.
"And see what just happened? My hand slipped too," Ketaar said as he wiped his blade on the dying man's shirt.
He slit Diakka's throat from ear to ear with one swift stroke. The other two stared in shock at their expiring comrade writhing in the mud. Nervously, one of the men spoke up.
"Do you want us to go get the woman?"
"Fool! Look at the blood. If she isn't dead, she soon will be. See if there is anything valuable in her saddlebag."
Ketaar transferred his attention to the black mare lying in the road.
"Imbecile! He killed the horse as well. I hate to see animals die needlessly."
He crouched down and lovingly began to pet the dead mare's muzzle, then looked up teary-eyed. Diakka's corpse emitted a gagging belch.
"Bhalba?" Ketaar addressed one of the men nonchalantly, "Do something about that scum's body."
The rain let up slightly so it was somewhat easier to make out the road under a very soggy hood. Progress went slowly because of all the deep and plentiful mud puddles; she had to lean heavily on her staff just to keep from getting her boots stuck in the mire.
How Gabrielle wished she had bought a torch or one of those new glass-enclosed oil lanterns she saw in Aleppo months ago. Xena said it was a waste of good money on a thing like that.
'Nobody sane travels far in the dark.' She could almost hear Xena saying it.
Only having traveled a few unproductive slimy miles, the evening clouds were already starting to darken the sky. Over on the right shoulder and up a bit was a nice group of olive trees with a long stone slab fallen flat in front of them; made smooth by lots of wear and tear of weary travelers bodies. She laid out her blanket on the cool marble then went searching for dry wood to make a fire. Here and there she found some pieces that weren't too wet, and weren't too dry either. It wouldn't be the first time she'd have to content herself with a smoky campfire.
Gabrielle pulled out the little flint bag from her leather satchel and started the arduous task of lighting damp twigs. At last some of them caught. She fanned the growing flame carefully adding larger and larger pieces of wood till the fire was going strong enough to make it through the clammy night.
Taking out some bread, the weary worrier ate while staring into the warm flickering yellow campfire.
"I must be insane," she said standing up then ambled back and forth, "Xena will think I've finally snapped following after her this way. And she'd be right. I'm going to have a lot of explaining to do."
Sweeping, swirling darkness wrapped itself tightly in a coil around the fallen woman's body. Its seductive web enfolded her.
Hours had passed, but she didn't know how many, nor did she bother to give it much serious thought.
'Days come, days go, how do they pass? Fast or slow?'
Old nursery rhymes from long ago pealed one right after the other in her ears.
'Coming on nine, going on ten, all good little creatures return to their den '
Two beautiful eyes blinked open to find tiny droplets of water tapping down
here and there on the moistened earth. Most hit her; others missed.
Sunrise just started to become visible over the top of the ledge.
'Pretty!' she said to herself.
Sliding one of her arms from behind her back she stretched it toward the bright yellow globe trying to grab it even though it's glare made her head ache.
"Oh," Xena said making a pouting face, "I want the pretty ball-eee," she whined trying harder to snatch at the brilliant round object.
Gabrielle had long been on her way since a little before dawn. Walking on the side of the road she managed to avoid the swampier patches and made better time traveling. Her squishing footsteps and an occasional bird chirping served as escort.
"At least Xena has a horse to talk to," she mused, "I can just imagine those conversations." The very absurdity made her laugh out loud.
All at once she caught sight of a dark outline in the distance. Gabrielle was sure it had something to do with Xena and took off down the road as fast as her tired legs could carry her.
But I found my love once more
Still I knew her.
"Hello!?" she yelled out hoping a very annoyed Xena would meet her with one eyebrow hoisted.
Then Gabrielle saw clearly what the vision was---Xena's black mare. Now it lay sprawled across the road dead. A growing ache tightened around the poet's heart.
"Xena?" she called out.
Walking up the road a bit she followed what looked like several human footprints and an aging pool of blood.
"Xena?" Her nervous voice carried lightly through the morning air.
Faint whimpers floated up from far below the road. Gabrielle stepped to the edge of a steep ridge and peered down. There sat Xena all alone at the base of the chasm covering her eyes with her hands.
"XENA!!" she shouted frantically throwing aside the gear she was carrying and scrambled downhill to reach her friend.
Along the way she saw Xena's sword and chakram tossed a fair distance apart from each other, causing Gabrielle some concern that Xena hadn't tried to recover them.
"By the God's, I'm so glad you're safe!"
Relieved to find her alive, Gabrielle joyfully enfolded Xena in thankful arms.
"Are you all right?" she drew away at once, "Let me take a look at you," then gently pushed back some rumpled hair from an oozing head injury.
Xena was scraped up from the fall and a narrow stream of dried blood had run passed her hairline onto her forehead. She was also weeping, really bemoaning something to the depths of her soul...what?
"I can't reach it," Xena muttered through the sobs.
"What Xena, what can't you reach?"
Xena looked intently into the young woman's eyes and pointed up at the sun.
"The yellow ball-eeeee!"
She threw herself onto poor baffled Gabrielle deeply embedding her head against a shoulder sobbing in dramatic intervals. She found Xena's peculiar behavior somewhat disconcerting and tried to calmly reason with her.
"Wait a minute, you're kidding me right? You think the sun in the sky is a ball?"
More sobs wracked Xena's throat as she gripped Gabrielle harder.
"Oh no Xena you're really serious."
She lifted Xena carefully away then clasped her face in her hands.
"What's happened to you?"
"I fell down," Xena said, choking out the words, and gesturing, "My head hurts!"
Gabrielle resumed her examination of the large gash in Xena's hairline.
"That looks bad," she thought of the puddle of blood on the road, "Did someone try to ambush you?"
Xena didn't understand the question and continued whimpering. Gabrielle wiped some of her friend's tears away and kissed a damp cheek. Xena quieted down then looked up, unexpectedly beaming at her.
"What?" Gabrielle said doubtfully smiling back.
"I like you pretty lady," her warrior chum replied in a babyish voice, "Who are you?"
She gaped at Xena in shock.
"You don't know who I am?"
Xena slowly shook her head from side to side.
"Uh-huh let's work on getting you back up there," she said motioning at the top of the ridge, "We'll handle names later."
Gabrielle helped Xena to her feet, not as easily as she'd have liked.
"There we go. Okay give me your hand, I'll lead the way."
She figured she'd bring Xena out of the ravine first, and then go back down the hill to get her weapons.
Xena cautiously put her hand out for Gabrielle to take.
"It's okay honey, I won't let any more harm come to you."
She felt silly having to reassure her like a little girl, yet it seemed appropriate for the time being. Gabrielle took Xena's hand, firmly holding it in hers.
"Come, let's go."
They made their way gradually up the side of the cliff that wasn't quite as steep, but the climb proved to be very rough going, especially with a confused, regressed adult to deal with.
"Just a little further, we're almost there," she said, pulling Xena up most of the way.
Xena maneuvered herself along, as any two-year-old would, with limited success.
Losing her balance for a split second, Gabrielle started sliding backwards. Xena, who had been useless up to now, grabbed her dumbfounded sidekick around the waist and jumped ten feet in the air landing easily at the top of the hill.
"That was fun lady, let's do it again!" Xena jubilantly hopped up and down clapping her hands.
"Ah yeah sure maybe later," Gabrielle said eyeing Xena closely, "Right now I think we better take those bulky things off of you."
She unfastened the scabbard and complex shielding from Xena's leather foundation then removed that as well. In her present condition it didn't seem likely that she'd need them any time soon.
Feeling a lot less hampered in her light undergarment; Xena exuberantly turned and skipped over to the dead horse's carcass that was now teaming with flies. She stooped down about to pet its fur.
"NO! STOP! DON'T DO THAT!"
Gabrielle dropped the battle equipment and rushed to grab Xena's hand away from touching the putrefying animal.
"What were you thinking?" Gabrielle demanded.
Xena's eyes grew large. Tears swam in them. Soon her face compressed into a frown and she began to cry again.
"You don't like me," she wailed and stormed off.
Xena ran a short distance away and leaned against a tree. Gabrielle caught up with her.
"Xena I didn't mean to yell at you," she said petting Xena's back and feeling very awkward, "Please, I'm sorry."
Xena turned around to find Gabrielle utterly bewildered.
"Do you like me lady?" Xena tearfully sniffling asked.
She gazed up at her changed comrade.
"Yes, I like you very much."
Xena instantly took hold of Gabrielle lifting her off the ground and into a huge bear hug. With her brief upset forgotten, she put her little playmate down and continued to prance about like before.
In the middle of catching her breath from being squeezed so tightly, Gabrielle spotted some round shiny pieces of quartz scattered here and there on the road. An idea sprang to life. She picked a few of them up, then walked briskly to Xena, who stopped romping long enough to receive the pink and yellowish rocks.
"Do you think you can find more of those for me?"
Xena nodded quickly and went about searching the immediate area. Gabrielle figured it was safe enough to leave the distracted woman alone and went back down the hill to retrieve the uncollected arsenal.
When she returned all was well; Xena was completely absorbed in gathering small colorful stones and playing with them. Gabrielle, in the meantime, towed all the fighting articles safely away, making sure they were well concealed.
Xena caught sight of her and came running over excitedly.
"Yours," Xena said shyly handing Gabrielle a particularly interesting bauble.
It was a small sleek oval of red jasper. Its opaque luster caught the afternoon sun revealing tiny particles of violet colored dust firmly fixed in the center.
"It's beautiful," she said, turning the stone over in her hand.
Xena moved a bit closer and planted a hasty kiss on Gabrielle's mouth. The suddenness of the affectionate gesture caught her completely by surprise. Stepping back, Gabrielle collected her loss of equilibrium. Xena never exercised this much impulsive fondness. She promptly slipped the fine stone into a special hiding place in her boot for safe keeping.
"Um all right, now we're going to get you fixed up nice and tidy. Would you like that?" Xena nodded unenthusiastically at the ground.
Gabrielle got her first aid kit, which consisted of a few needles, silk thread, knife, and some all-purpose salve.
"Let's sit over here," she said leading her to an old tree stump.
Xena sat down unhappily, making a face. Gabrielle began parting her hair here and there checking for any hidden injuries. That gash was worse than originally thought. She was surprised Xena didn't lose her life let alone more blood than she had. Gabrielle left that one for last, cleaning up the other cuts and scrapes with a little water.
"Xena, I have to sew up the wound on your head. I'm sorry, but it's going to hurt. You can scream or cry out all you want to, but you can't move."
"Hurt?" Xena whined.
"Yes. Can you be a big girl for me? I'll try to do it fast, okay?"
Xena squared her shoulders.
"I'm not afraid of anything!" She said in a child's bold voice as she hit her fist to her chest.
Gabrielle felt tears rushing to her eyes and quickly turned away to ready the things she needed. First she washed the gash thoroughly, used her sharp knife to carefully cut hair away from around the injury preparing it for the next step then threaded a needle.
"Here goes "
Poised with sewing instrument in hand, Gabrielle glanced down at Xena who sat perfectly still, her jaw set in a serious grimace.
She began by sliding the needle through the open flesh ends, slowly pulling them back together then looping the thread and slipping the needle through a half dozen more times until her wound was neatly closed up. Delicately dabbing at it with water, applying some all-purpose salve, her brief surgery was done.
"You were a very brave girl. I'm so proud of you."
Xena looked up into her friend's smiling face. A single tear trickled down her cheek in answer. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena, hugging her close.
"My brave little Xena my brave little Xena," she repeated very softly.
Having succeeded in packing up the heavy supplies in a workable bundle, Gabrielle lugged all of it on her back. Xena, carrying only a small leather satchel, capered merrily about up ahead as they walked away from Xena's original destination.
Gabrielle's thoughts where unpleasantly dark as she watched Xena skipping down the road. Her warrior pal had been reduced to this infantile person who didn't
have a clue who she was.
'It looks like her, but the Xena I knew is gone.'
Drab clouds billowed in from the east blanketing the remaining stains of sunlight in the sky. After setting up camp and finally succeeding in putting a very fidgety Xena to bed, Gabrielle sat alone near the fire overwhelmed with the images of the day.
"I can't bear to see her acting like a helpless little girl. If this spell she's in isn't temporary how will I be able to help her?" The tears that she had been holding back burst free.
Xena awakened to something she heard in her sleep. That nice lady who kissed her goodnight was making strange sounds. Carefully she crept to the blond girl and dropped to her knees beside her. Gabrielle felt a timid hand stroking at her hair.
"Nice lady, you cold?" Xena asked in a breathless tone.
Gabrielle sat up, quickly mopping at the tears on her cheeks.
"No I'm...I'm not cold," she answered trying to suppress her sob-choked voice.
"Awww, lay-deee, why you crying? You hurt?" she naively probed.
Gabrielle fought back new tears that demanded to flow and smiled painfully.
"My heart just aches a little sweetie...it's nothing."
"I can fix it!" said Xena tilting herself forward and placing tiny kisses on various parts of the distressed woman's face.
"Better?" she asked smiling brightly.
This only made Gabrielle break down again. Xena sat back furrowing her brow and studied the sad person thoughtfully.
"I know!" she said all at once, then clumsily gathered Gabrielle to her, cradling the weeping creature like a precious doll and began to softly sing a song:
'Birds sang very merry in the cherry tree,
But my lovely one sighed and cried.
They sang of happy lands far, far away,
Yet my lovely one only cried.
"What a pity! Such sad tears are these!"
The little birds called out with surprise.
They could only listen and bow their heads,
As my lovely one sighed and sighed,
As my lovely one sighed and sighed
"Oh pity me dear ones, dear ones do,
I've no pain greater then the kind I
Share with you."
They only listened to this maiden
And bowed their heads,
As my lovely one softly sighed,
As my lovely one softly sighed.
"Dry those tears pretty maiden,
Don't you sit and fret.
Your dear one loves you
Of that do not forget."
I took her in my arms
To lay a kiss upon each eye
Now my lovely one never cries,
No, my lovely one never cries.
"Lady, what's a heart?" asked Xena, but Gabrielle had sailed off to sleep lying cozily inside her good-natured embrace. Xena shrugged and sang her song once more, slowly rocking the slumbering young woman in her arms.
"Psssst lady?" a worried childish voice piped up.
Gabrielle awoke to someone tugging at her bedding.
"Hmmmm? What ?"
Gabrielle saw Xena staring down at her nervously. Even though this Xena acted nothing like her old companion, those eyes were as extraordinary as ever, which usually made the little poet feel a bit...intimidated.
Gabrielle instinctively reaching for her staff jumped up preparing for danger.
"I'm hungry." Xena grumbled while peeking up at her through a blanket.
She lowered her staff and crouched down carefully easing the blanket away from Xena's face. Gabrielle didn't say anything; she just gazed at her looking slightly annoyed due to the false alarm. The childlike woman smiled weakly, only half assessing that she'd done something wrong. Gabrielle got to her feet and took out the bread from her bag.
"Here. Don't eat too fast, it's a little dry," she said handing Xena a good sized piece.
Xena quickly gobbled it down, then threw off her blankets. Gabrielle let her run free around the campsite figuring she'd tire herself out eventually.
It wasn't long before Xena found some fireflies darting in circles just out of reach.
She happily frolicked after them, laughing merrily as they blinked their little glowing bodies on and off in the semi-darkness.
'All those terrible memories that haunted her have been wiped away. This Xena is completely untouched by horror. She's been blessed by suddenly becoming a child again.'
Gabrielle sleepily viewed this formerly dour commander prance hither and yon trying to catch the little phosphorescent insects that eluded her grasp.
Two indistinct shapes leaped out of the shadows and bared down heavily upon Xena throwing her brutally to the ground. Her sudden cry of pain brought Gabrielle to her feet grabbing for the trusty staff that was always at the ready.
"Looking for this?" Ketaar sweetly whispered in melodious Arabic.
Gabrielle didn't understand this foreign dialect, but upon whirling around to face the intruder she understood well enough.
A tall emaciated gentleman smiled charmingly as he twirled her staff effortlessly between his fingers. An impeccably clean white turban wound loosely around his head made the skin stretched across his bony face look darker than it was.
She turned swiftly from him and hurried to rescue Xena who was now hysterically screaming from under a choke hold one of the captors had around her neck.
Midway, a withering blow to the back of Gabrielle's head prevented her from any hope of saving Xena. She sank unsteadily to her knees and then flopped forward.
"Do you see how it is when it's done right?" Ketaar asked his men.
He stooped down to pick up Gabrielle's staff that lay indifferently on the earth close to her paralyzed body.
"Such a useful toy in an expert's hands."
"LAAAAY-DEEEEEEEEE!!! LAAAY-DEEEEEEE!!!" Xena's frightened voice noisily wailed over and over in the background.
"Will one of you clods please shut her up?" Ketaar said while casting Gabrielle's staff aside.
Bhalba, the larger of the two men holding Xena, brought his fist down hard on her skull cutting short the deafening din. She teetered for a moment, then slumped over.
"Crude, but effective," Ketaar casually remarked, "Pack her onto the caravan first."
He perused their sparse possessions that had become scattered around the campground during the vicious scuffle. One bundle looked particularly interesting. Ketaar cut it open and all of Xena's armaments came tumbling out at his feet.
'Interesting,' he thought while lifting a large circular item from the rest, 'What use would these women have for armor?'
Ketaar's accomplices returned to the camp and stood in front of their leader waiting for further orders.
"You can load this one next," he said indicating Gabrielle by pushing at her with his foot, "I'll carry these articles."
"I want the little girl," Bhalba said pointing at Gabrielle on the ground.
Ketaar laughed heartily and drew closer to both men.
"Surely you jest my friend. These two fill the quota. I don't see Tarkau here asking the impossible. Take this and go amuse yourself."
Ketaar handed Bhalba the Chakram and started packing up his plunder.
"I said," Bhalba took a step toward Ketaar, "I want the little girl."
Ketaar was no fool. He needed Bhalba's incredible strength. Of course it would be easier to slit his throat
"My dear fellow, you must listen to reason. Rhasis is eagerly awaiting our arrival. He expects us to supply a set quantity. And with help from this war we've been able to furnish him regularly. Do you want to ruin everything over a whelp of a girl?"
"I want the little girl!"
'Ah, the mysteries of a simpleton's mind,' he thought amusingly to himself.
"I have a solution. What say you to escorting our chit across the great wasteland? She will be yours until we disembark at our appointed destination. Agreed?"
Ketaar held out his hand to the brutish oaf. Bhalba took it and nodded yes.
"Very good. Get her ready, it's nearly daylight."
Bhalba and Tarkau cinched Gabrielle's wrist's firmly behind her back then dragged her off to the waiting bevy of camel.
It had been the feral beings
That lurked in the dark.
They changed her
They fed their fill
Only to feed again; by and by
She reached far into the lowest depths of whatever reserves were left. It was safe where she rested. A pair of sturdy arms kept her from falling off the towering cliffs that threatened to crumble underneath her drowsy feet.
Waves crashed in her head. Where there should have been the soft scent of salt air in its place was an acrid, foul odor of unwashed brawn.
Defying the imagined fall from dizzying heights, Gabrielle opened a wary eye. She found herself swaying to and fro riding sidesaddle atop a grunting camel, harshly gripped between a pair of iron muscled arms. The pain at the nape of her neck beat in time to the beast's footfalls.
Gabrielle scanned her immediate surroundings. It was clear that escape, at the moment, appeared impossible. Nothing but powdery sand and gravel encircling them for as far as the eye could see. Two more camels, bellowing just as loud as hers, trudged side by side leading the way.
'But what way is this?' Gabrielle asked herself.
The steady wind blew fine dust everywhere. It flew into her eyes and down her throat. She was amazed that these men could see where they were going.
"Excuse me whoever you are," Gabrielle addressed Bhalba cautiously, "I need water."
He shook his head and looked puzzled. Gabrielle gestured without the use of her hands; they were firmly tied behind her back. She made like she was swallowing.
"Mmmmm, water...you know, splish-splash?"
That didn't work. Out of frustration, she stuck out her tongue and wiped it across her lips. No effect, Bhalba stared at her blankly. Then she did it again.
Now he seemed to understand! A big smile spread across his sweaty face. He puckered up his lips and brought her closer to him.
"No! Wait! You've got it wrong noooooo--!"
All that signaling succeeded in doing was to plant the wrong idea in this buffoon's mind. Bhalba locked his lips onto Gabrielle's and kissed her hard. When he finally let go, Gabrielle gagged and spat, trying to get the taste of his slobber out of her mouth.
Xena fared far worse. She sat shackled hand and foot on the right flank of her animal's heavily laden howdah. Tarkau rode with Xena, but kept his distance--after all, she'd bitten him twice!
Frightened out of her wits, Xena cried out for Gabrielle. She wanted nothing more than to be held in the 'nice lady's' soothing arms.
Ketaar rode alone, traveling slightly faster than Tarkau to escape Xena's emotional entreaties. The incessant screaming tormented him greatly. Glancing over at her he wondered which course of action would best take care of this irritating problem.
Gabrielle could barely make out Xena's silhouette through the thick clouds of churned up sand, but every once in a while she caught bits and pieces of her sobbing and calling "LADY!" when the wind shifted. Gabrielle feared the worst. She knew they wouldn't put up with that commotion for long.
The two camels up ahead suddenly stopped moving.
"SILENCE!!" Ketaar roared at Xena.
For a moment it seemed like she was going to calm down out of fear. Unfortunately, when Xena saw Ketaar lift up a hand menacingly, she started to scream again.
Since his original warning didn't work as planned he took stronger measures and backhanded her savagely across the face. Her head swung on its axis to the left.
Xena, dazed from the impact, quieted down to pitiful whimpering. Even that was too loud for him.
"QUIET I SAY!!"
He raised his arm again to strike---
"STOP YOU!" Gabrielle shouted interrupting Ketaar's next blow.
She had to do something---anything to take his attention off Xena. Struggling valiantly, Gabrielle managed to slip through Bhalba's grasp. She dropped off the ungainly animal landing on her side then rolled across the sharp gravel. Hands still tied firmly behind her back Gabrielle got up and advanced toward the leader of this delightful procession.
"STOP HITTING HER YOU PIG!"
Distracted away from Xena for the moment, Ketaar gazed down at Gabrielle highly entertained by her bravado.
"Ah, the chit! You prattle much too quickly. I haven't spoken in my native tongue for many years. Speak slower please."
His diction was perfect, if a little stilted. Gabrielle took in a deep breath and hissed through her teeth slowly enunciating each syllable as she spoke.
"KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF OF HER!"
"Yes, yes, I understand! Such a lilting language, I miss it. How nice of you to bring back fond memories of my homeland."
His demeanor was one of fine manners and pleasant expression as he hopped off the camel he rode. Ketaar strolled up to Gabrielle and grabbed a wad of her long golden hair winding it maliciously around his hand till his fist met her cheek.
"And if you call me a pig again, I will take great pleasure in removing your ears."
Gabrielle could feel the tears of pain and anger burning her eyes as she faced this leering madman.
'Never let the enemy know how scared you are,' That's what Xena taught you. USE IT!'
Instead of putting on a show of pathetic tears, Gabrielle forced the corners of her mouth to curl into an angelic smile.
"In that case PIG, do your worst," she warbled sweetly into his face.
Ketaar immediately erupted into spirited laughter. He untangled his fist from the blond tresses and gave Gabrielle a mighty push backwards. She skittered a few feet away falling to the ground with a faint thud.
"Ha! You're pluck dazzles me chit."
Gabrielle rose painfully to her feet, but she kept the sweet smile glued on her lips. Should she try reasoning with him? Perhaps it was time to change tactics. There was just no telling what he'd do next.
"Do I dazzle you enough to let me ride with my friend?"
"Are you seriously trying to bargain? I am intrigued!"
"It would end your inconvenience as well as hers."
"The woman will be taught to keep still. I shall see to that.""
"You will fail. Haven't you heard her crying for me?" Gabrielle shifted her glance to where Xena was fettered. "She speaks in the same language I do."
"I pay no attention to the babbling of half-wits."
She bristled internally over the term he used for Xena.
"But you do pay attention to the noise they make. "
Ketaar came closer to Gabrielle and seized her by the shoulders.
"Why all the bother? What is this imbecile to you? Look at her, she is less than nothing."
Gabrielle had to stifle her inclination to list Xena's fine points. She knew it would probably backfire and make things worse.
"She does something that few are able: She makes me laugh."
Ketaar released his hold. This mild explanation evidently satisfied him.
"I will give you three minutes to instruct her. Be thorough chit, my patience is at an end."
Gabrielle was shuttled briskly over to Xena. She was crying softly, a trickle of drying blood flowed from lip to chin.
"How can I talk to her from the ground? Can't you let me sit next to her?
"No. I do not trust you little one. You are too clever. Time is wasting. Say what you have to say."
Their brief words were to be exchanged from uneven heights. Ketaar walked away leaving Xena and Gabrielle to speak privately.
She moved closer to where Xena's bare foot hung down from the camel. Gabrielle leaned her head against it for a moment, then kissed it tenderly.
"Lady?" Xena tearfully asked.
"Yes, it's me," Gabrielle rubbed a cheek against her and looked up, "Are you okay sweetie?"
"I'm scared. We go away from here soon?"
"No Xena, we have to stay."
"I don't like it here."
"Neither do I. Listen carefully Xena; there isn't much time. Remember how quiet and brave you were when I sewed up your wound?"
Xena nodded eagerly.
"You must do it again. No matter how afraid you are you've got to be as quiet as a mouse. Can you do this for me?"
"No, it won't hurt at all."
"Okay," she answered softly
Xena paused looking rather thoughtful.
"Make like before."
"What? I don't understand."
"Tuck me in?"
Xena's image misted in Gabrielle's eyes. Tears overflowed.
"It's hard to reach up to you right now sweetie."
"Okay," Xena's frown turned into a smile; "Do you still like me lady?"
"Yes, I still like you very much."
The sound of men's voices arguing in this barren windy setting rose suddenly, then fell away.
"I love you pretty lady."
"I love you too Xena. You won't forget your promise to be quiet?"
"Like a mouse?" Xena whispered.
"Like a mouse."
"Your time is up. You will be riding with me."
She touched her lips to Xena's foot one more time. Ketaar took Gabrielle firmly by an arm and started pulling her away.
"Don't worry sweetie, I'll see you soon."
Xena kept her vow of silence and waved a shackled hand sadly to her friend.
Parted were we
Yet we shared a path
With nothing on the horizon
There was nothing on the horizon
Bhalba's resentment seethed inside him. Ketaar lied! He was to be the one carrying his 'little girl'! Bhalba grumbled jealously to himself as he watched Gabrielle riding and talking with Ketaar.
"Why were you women carrying armor?"
Gabrielle wondered how long it would take him to ask.
"Simple, we stole it actually I stole it."
"Very intelligent to wrap it up to look like nothing. I'm never wrong in my observations; you are clever."
Had he noticed that it was armor made for a woman? If he did Ketaar kept it to himself.
"May I ask a question?" Gabrielle carefully inquired.
"Of course dear chit! I am in the best of humor now that I have peace."
Naturally the only peace Gabrielle wished for this barbaric individual was the eternal kind.
"Where are you taking us?"
Ketaar grinned sinisterly.
"To 'God given' little one. To Baghdad"
Baghdad, beautiful, beautiful Baghdad: Oasis of the desert! How many times in the past did she listen to wonderful stories about that far away city? At last Gabrielle would get her chance to see this romantic trade route metropolis for herself. But the fantastic dream rang hollow. Being escorted through the main gates like a slave would be a hard blow to bear.
"Is it as magnificent as people say?"
"And more. This time tomorrow you shall see for yourself."
Unhappily, it seemed a certainty. Whatever he had planned for them once they reached Baghdad, Gabrielle prayed that she and Xena wouldn't be separated.
"We'll stop here for the night!" Ketaar abruptly announced to his men.
The camel's heavier burdens got unloaded carefully onto the soft white sand, then the beasts lowered slowly to their knobby knees and rested in a circle.
Gabrielle's hands were now tied in front of her, as some sort of thanks for keeping Xena quiet she guessed. Whatever the reason Gabrielle was relieved; the pain from being tethered so long in one position had grown increasingly unbearable.
"Here," Ketaar threw her a long thick hooded robe, "to keep out the cold."
All of the routine things took place: meals were quickly distributed and eaten, fires were lit; finally, everything fell to a hush as the small caravan rested for the night.
Nothing moved. No sound except a sporadic snore broke the silence of the camp. Gabrielle lay where she was deposited a few hours before: against a large crate of something that emanated a pleasant spicy bouquet.
Unable to sleep she gazed miserably up at the twinkling stars dotting the heavens. Their quiet beauty deepening her sorrow she closed her eyes away from them. The overwhelming feeling of uselessness engulfed her. She blamed herself for the trouble they were in.
'Xena never would've let herself get captured. She'd die first.'
But that was in the past, this Xena needed her, and Gabrielle longed to be able to find a way of escape. But even if they did manage to steal away into the darkness, how long would it be before Ketaar and his men tracked them down? He'd be sure to make them both pay dearly.
Gabrielle fretted about Xena terribly. She only caught a fleeting glimpse hours earlier as Tarkau dragged her to the other side of the stationed camels. Xena smiled and tried to wave while being hauled away harshly by the scruff of the neck.
'This time tomorrow,' Ketaar said, 'you shall see for yourself.'
Perhaps after tomorrow she'd never see Xena again. Taking out the hidden piece of red jasper Xena gave her, Gabrielle cut away at the leather thong that bound her hands together. It didn't take long for the stretched hide to give under the vigorous tearing motions of her sharp edged stone.
There was a tiny click and her hands were free.
Creeping as quietly as she could, Gabrielle moved rapidly towards the four peacefully sleeping animals. One of them raised its head when she got a little too close so she waited for what seemed an eternity until the beast relaxed. Once again she started to slide herself across the cool sand making her way around the camels to find where Xena was.
At first Gabrielle didn't see her, then she spotted something a short way off with a hood over its head. Shallow puffs of breath ballooned the black cloth out and in when Xena inhaled partially molding it to the contours of her face for a brief moment. When Gabrielle got to her, she untied the rope that held the hood closed around Xena's throat and removed it.
That's when she saw the awful thing waiting underneath.
In the dim light of the campfire Gabrielle could see that Xena's face had been beaten severely; one of her beautiful blue eyes was swollen shut and dried blood ran from her nose. A large bruise decorated her left cheek while the other bore a thin scratch. Gabrielle gasped in horror.
"Nice lady? Is that you?" Xena whispered hoarsely.
Gabrielle gently smoothed away the soggy hair from Xena's face, her tears of rage getting in the way of seeing clearly.
"Yes Xena, it's me," she said placing a kiss on her forehead.
"I was quiet as a mouse. Is that good?"
"Oh sweetie, I'm so sorry "
She put her head against Xena's shoulder and cried bitterly into it.
"Don't cry lady," Xena said trying to pet Gabrielle's hair, but couldn't.
Gabrielle raised herself up, tears streaking down her face.
"Xena, we might not see each other for a long time. I just want to tell you that I love you and no matter where you are I'll find you."
"Then we can go away, far away?"
"We'll go home together," she said smiling sadly.
A tense look came across Xena's face as she stared at something behind Gabrielle.
"Very sweet my dear chit, and very disappointing."
Gabrielle turned around slowly to find Ketaar standing in back of her smiling. He lunged for her arm, but Gabrielle was too fast for him; she dove out of Ketaar's way making him fall forward from the violence of his movement. Quickly getting to her feet she ran for her life. Ketaar was soon up again and raced after his elusive property.
All this frenzied activity woke the other two men. Tarkau was the first on the scene trying to tackle Gabrielle as she passed him; he missed and went flying into Bhalba who had walked right into his path.
Where did she think she was going? She couldn't leave Xena alone with these men. If she fought them, the only way to ensure Xena's safety would be to kill all three, and that was never an option. Gabrielle stopped running and waited not knowing what Ketaar would do to her.
"You should not have run away. That makes me very angry," Ketaar said as he sidled crookedly up to her.
His movements were odd. Did he walk like this because he was angry? She had no time to ponder this mystery; Ketaar took Gabrielle by the throat and started to lift her off the ground.
He wanted her dead! Gabrielle gasped and choked for air where there was none. She grabbed frantically at his hand; punched it, scratched it, anything to get him to let her go. Ketaar's unsmiling face became hazy; fading away to nothing.
A tremendous blow to Ketaar's body sent him rolling across the desert sand.
"YOU KILLED THE LITTLE GIRL!" Bhalba shouted at his stunned leader.
He scooped Gabrielle into his arms and headed for the agitated group of camel. Vaulting onto one of the bellowing creatures, Bhalba kicked it into action. Spitting angrily the animal stood up and loped out of the camp disappearing from sight.
"WHY ARE YOU STANDING THERE LIKE A LOST CALF? GO AFTER HIM!"
"But he's only taken the dead girl. We don't----"
"AM I NOT MAKING MYSELF HEARD? GO AFTER HIM!!"
He produced the dreaded knife from his sleeve. This was more than enough to convince Tarkau to obey his orders. Lighting a torch and mounting another beast, Tarkau followed quickly after Bhalba.
Ketaar rose uneasily to his feet. He had taken quite a hit from his fellow bandit. The ache in his shoulder was agony.
Xena stirred in her chains, the light tinkling caught Ketaar's attention.
"Ah, the tiresome one has something to say? No?"
He moved closer to where she was confined and lifted her chin up with a long finger.
"Rhasis dislikes damaged goods," he said casually inspecting her battered face, "I am quite displeased."
Xena stared into his face, something like hostility flashed through her childish personality.
"Ha! I do believe it wants to bite me!"
"Lady is hurt. I don't like you," she said scowling at Ketaar.
He sputtered into unbridled laughter.
The desperate flight into the desert continued at a terrific pace across the ever-brightening desolate landscape. Gabrielle bounced along clutched tightly in the large man's arms. A cough escaped her throat and she moved uncomfortably.
"What's going on?" Gabrielle asked slightly confused.
Bhalba looked down at Gabrielle; he could barely contain his joy; the 'little girl' wasn't dead. Muttering something in Arabic, Bhalba hugged her close to his breast.
"Oh no, not you again!" she said trying to push him away.
He promptly loosened his grip, then patted her head. Gabrielle looked around suddenly realizing that they were quite alone.
"Where are the others? Where are you taking me?"
But he simply smiled and nodded maintaining the blistering clip set by the cantering beast.
"Of course. You don't understand a word I'm saying."
Tarkau wasn't even close to where his intended target headed. Mistakenly, he had been following the tracks they all made earlier. This small detail only became clear when the morning sunshine lit up the trail. Afraid to go back empty handed, Tarkau prayed for a miracle.
"I wish I could make you understand!"
For the longest time she'd made a great effort to communicate with this man. Gabrielle wanted him to turn back. There was no chance of that now.
The wind subtly changed direction and picked up a bit. Far in the distance an enormous black funnel wound its way speedily towards them.
Bhalba pulled back on the camel's reins slowing it to a stop. He watched the horizon for a few seconds then cringed in wild panic.
"HABOOB!" Bhalba shouted terrified at the top of his lungs, "HABOOB!"
Without a moment to spare, he turned the animal around and made a mad dash away from the ominous shadow that followed close behind them.
Gabrielle didn't know what a 'Haboob' was, but she knew she'd be finding out mighty fast.
Ketaar dropped the unwieldy bundle he was attempting to load all by himself. His shoulder pained him nonstop and proved to be quite useless.
"I will roast that buffoon's heart on a stick for this!"
Precious time had been lost. Ketaar was determined to attend his pre-arranged rendezvous a number of miles away. Two other men, Marduk and Mohod, were waiting with the rest of the order. He knew these ruthless brothers would meet the quota at all costs, so the problem of losing one component didn't particularly bother him.
But, in a buried corner of his warped mind, the killing of the girl did. She had amused him and perhaps he even liked her.
"It is too late for recriminations. What's done is done," he said quietly to himself.
A whisper of a tear rose to the surface.
"Your soft insides will be your undoing one day," Ketaar mumbled under his breath.
Surrounding them in unexpected twilight, an eerie brew soon overtook the fleeing transport. Shrill wind howled in their ears as its unrestrained fury whipped up everything in sight.
Bhalba couldn't hold the faltering beast any longer. The sheer force of the wind pitched them violently sideways; the two riders were hurled from their toppled animal then down a shallow hill. Gabrielle sprang to her feet and flayed about trying to get the loose flapping reins under control. With a mighty pull she forced the frantic creature into kneeling down so that they could weather the storm safely behind its sturdy frame.
"Come on, you've got to take cover!" she screamed into the suffocating gale.
Bhalba lay face down almost twenty feet away. Gabrielle fought hard through the driving chaos to get to him and with great difficulty, managed to drag his immense bulk in back of the complaining beast.
Holding on tight to Bhalba and the straps of the rigidly secured howdah, Gabrielle hid her eyes from the biting gusts of sand and sharp bits of debris.
Tarkau's prayer had been answered. He smiled at the huge storm in the distance.
"May Moloch take the both of them!"
Turning his mount, Tarkau headed back to Ketaar's camp. He leisurely lumbered along, there was no hurry; this welcome catastrophic event would fill in the necessary gaps for him.
Gabrielle shook the sand out of her hair and sat up. The tempest had passed very near at full force. Luckily they were partially shielded by a small jagged lip that stuck out just above them.
"That was close. What did you call it? Haboob?" she asked shaking Bhalba's arm, "I'll never forget that word!"
Gabrielle poked him, then tugged at his sleeve.
"Hey uh you, we're safe now, the storm's on its way back to Tartarus."
She tugged his sleeve a little harder, then rolled him around to face her.
The early afternoon sun glinted brilliantly off Xena's chakram as it sat perfectly erect embedded halfway inside Bhalba's abdomen.
Gabrielle gently reached down placing a hand over his eyes and closed them.
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