The Curse of Higuchi

Chapter 10

By L. Crystal Michallet-Romero
Copyright © May 2003 L. Crystal Michallet-Romero
All Rights Reserved

A big thanks has to first be given to my guru of grammar, Bill the Semi Bard. He's helped me weed out the glaring grammar mistakes, but his contributions to this body of work are invaluable. The next thanks go to the rest of my beta reading team; Prof., Sue Rice and, of course, my honey, Jessica. I'd also like to thank the pups who answered my call, “Is there a doctor in the house?” for allow me to pick their brains again. Of this group, I'd especially like to give a big thanks to Michelle who was so graphic in her descriptions that even I was turning green! Thanks all for helping me to pull this story together!!
Disclaimer: Xena Warrior Princess, its characters, and all related materials are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures.  The other characters are mine.  Like the show, I am playing around with the historical time lines.
Rated: NC17
Violence: PG-13
Gross Meter: Meter reading in part 60 is extreme. Do not be consuming food while reading.
Sexual Violence: None
Subtext: Yes (F/F)

Note to Readers
*Addâru Lbaydâ – Was founded in the 10 century B.C.E. by Berber fishermen.  The area passed through numerous hands until, in 1515, the Portuguese rebuilt Addâru Lbaydâ, and renamed it Casa Branca.  By 1781, Spanish troops and sea merchants took it over and renamed it Casa Blanca.  1906, the port of Casablanca is starting to be developed, and the city name becomes the official name which it is known by today.
* Chatelaine - The wife/mistress of a household or of a large establishment
* Hashishiyya – The ancient word which now translates to assassin. Although there are several explanations surrounding the origin of this word, many Arabic scholars have agreed that the word can be traced to the Nizari Ismailis, a branch of Shia Islam which was once located in an area called Hashishiyya. The earliest reported application of the term Hashishiyya to the Ismailis occurred during the time of the Christian Crusades when the Christian invaders attempted to wipe out all Islamic believers from Spain, Northern African and a great part of the Middle East. Contrary to the medieval accounts written by the returning Crusades, the Ismailis were not a band of hashish induced terrorists, but in fact were a group of warriors who fought, both in overt and covert ways, for the survival of their people and beliefs. Some military scholars considered the Hashishiyya fighters as the first known warriors to have utilized the style of guerrilla warfare within their own land. It was through their superior skill and numbers that the Hashishiyya's were able to fight back the Christian invaders. In some instances, Hashishiyya members were known to have undertaken covert missions with the intent of not returning alive in order to kill their target. Modern day scholars believe that the misnomer surrounding the meaning of this word was brought about by the Crusaders themselves who wished to portray the Hashishiyya as a group of godless people who were less than human and who were always under the influence of the drug, Hashish.
* Sefarad – Sefarad is the ancient name once used for Sephardic Jews. There are two dominant branches within Judaism. The Ashkenazic and the Sephardic Jews. While many people are under the misunderstanding that the Yiddish language is the international language of Judaism, it is really the language of Ashkenazic Jews. The word "Ashkenazic" is derived from the Hebrew word for Germany. The Ashkenazic are descended from Jews that once lived in Germany and Eastern Europe. Owing to segregation, either from laws or self-imposed, much of the Ashkenazic culture was not influenced by the Christians living in their regions. The only influence they had from the European Christians was their Yiddish language which was based on the German and Hebrew languages. In the mid- to late-1800's, a large majority of the Ashkenazic Jews immigrated to the U.S.A., and demographically, they are the largest Jewish population in America today. Despite this great migration, the first Jewish congregation founded in New York City in 1684, Shearith Israel, was Sephardic and is still active. The first Jewish congregation in the city of Philadelphia, Congregation Mikveh Israel, was founded in 1740, is also Sephardic, and is still active.
The word "Sephardic" is derived from the Hebrew word for Spain. Sephardic Jews are the Jews of Spain, Portugal, North Africa (Morocco) and the Middle East. Sephardic flourished predominately in Spain until the time of the Inquisition. In 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella issued the edict which began the expulsion of Jews from Spain. Many Sephardic Jews migrated to Turkey, North Africa (Morocco), Italy, and elsewhere throughout the Arab world. Throughout history Sephardic Jews have been more integrated into the local non-Jewish culture than Ashkenazic Jews. In the Islamic lands where Sephardic Judaism developed segregation, either voluntarily or legally, was virtually nonexistent. Because of this integration Sephardic Jewish thought and culture was strongly influenced by Arabic and Greek philosophy and science. Today the Arabic influences can be found in their music, art, and language. Ladino is the international language spoken by Sephardic Jews and it is based on Spanish and Hebrew in the same way that Yiddish is based on German and Hebrew.
There are some Jews who do not fit into this Ashkenazic/Sephardic grouping. Yemenite Jews, Ethiopian Jews (also known as Beta Israel and sometimes called Falashas), and Asian Jews also have some specific customs and traditions which were influenced by their region. These smaller groups are virtually unknown in America.

Part 56

For a moment, Gabrielle felt an icy coldness surge through her. Yet when she glanced at the woman in front of her, she saw the sparkle within her dark eyes. Her complexion was dusky, like the people of Morocco, and her eyes had the natural black line that the healer had marveled over on Zara. When she saw the woman glance at Zara, her lips slightly curved into a smile, the bard could not help but feel the woman's love that she held for the tall Moroccan. With only a sigh, the bard stepped forward and took the young woman's hand in hers. She held it for a moment as a smile creased her features and in that single moment, each woman seemed to understand the other.

“My name is Gabrielle,” she introduced herself as she heard Zara release an audible sigh.

“Welcome to our home,” Inaam's voice was soft and gentle like a song in the early morning. “Shall I set up the guest room for…” she paused at the name as if it was difficult for her tongue to master, then smiled as she tilted her head slightly, “Will
Ga-bri-elle have her own room, or will she be sharing yours?”

The Moroccan captain glanced nervously from the bard to Inaam. Her cheeks turned ruddy as she nervously gulped, then looked up at Abu as if seeking an answer. The big burly man only shrugged his shoulders as he picked up the bags and moved toward the house. Following close behind, Isa glanced from his captain, to the two women. After Abu introduced Isa to the older couple, he began to lead the young man into the house.

“Come along, no need to witness any carnage on this day!” he chuckled as he glanced over his shoulder and winked at Zara, apparently pleased by her predicament. “Isa, I'll show you where we usually sleep,” Abu's booming voice announced as he disappeared into the house.
Zara expected to feel the bard's anger, but instead, all she felt was the smaller woman's curiosity. When she realized that Gabrielle would not be angry at her, she released the breath she had been holding and stepped toward the women. As the older couple came to her, the captain turn and bowed to them in a formal greeting before motioning for Gabrielle to come forward.

“Gabrielle, this is master Qaidar, and his wife Sahar. Master Qaidar is the maalem of my house, and his gracious wife is our resident cook,” she explained as the couple bowed toward their guest, then smiled as they called them to enter the home.

“Umm … Zara?” the bard stopped her, and glanced at Inaam. When she saw the expectant look from the young mistress of her home, the captain groaned and shook her head.

“Forgive me, I'm afraid I have not been … focused lately. Inaam, if you please, Gabrielle will not need a room, she will be with me in my quarters. However, you may want to add an additional guest to our home as I've asked Isa to stay on and help with business matters,” she explained as she followed the aged couple into the home.

“Zara, what was it you said Qaidar was?” the bard's voice was filled with awe as they entered the home. Her eyes went everywhere. As if afraid of missing something, she looked at the marvelous tiles that ran up the walls and over the ceiling. The windows and doorframes, like the upstairs windows, were shaped in round ovals at the top. If the outside had looked elaborate, the inside designs around the windows were opulent.

“He is my maalem, my master builder. Everything that you see, the walls, the lattice work, the tiles, the shape of the doors and windows, even the floor you walk upon, are his creation,” she smiled as she bowed again to the older man. Please by her praises, the old man gave a toothless smile as he returned the bow, then waved away her praise.

“Does mistress Zara wish to discuss the new improvements now, or perhaps later?” The older man's voice was filled with strength.

“Would that I could, master Qaidar. However, I have pressing needs to tend to at the moment. If you could notify my solicitors that I have need of them, it would be a blessing for me,” she spoke tenderly to the aged man, then turned to Inaam. “And perhaps, if you could show Gabrielle to...” Before she could finish, a strange wailing sound echoed down the hall.

With a curious arch of a brow, the captain glanced at her servants and Inaam. Each one turned their gaze away as if afraid of her reaction. Only Inaam stood immobile and unmoving. After what felt like an eternity, Zara cocked her head, then looked at the young woman.

“I had hoped to surprise you later,” the woman lowered her eyes as she moved past Zara toward the sound. Following close behind, the mistress of the house shadowed her Moroccan lover down the hall and stood frozen at the entrance to the room that she had once used as her study. In the center of the room sat a round, tightly woven basket that had been braced on wooden legs.

“Zara, am I hearing…?” Abu popped his head into another door as he looked around the room.

“Captain, is that a baby?” Isa followed close behind Abu and peered around the large body.

For a moment, all Zara could do was to look down at the squealing infant. Her brow was furrowed as she examined its tiny features that were emitting a loud cry. When she craned her head and gazed at Inaam, the woman only smiled as she reached into the bassinet and removed the infant.

“I had wanted to surprise you with your daughter,” she smiled as she pulled the baby to her chest while moving to a chair. When she reached under her top and exposed a breast, Abu and Isa suddenly mumbled something inarticulate as they quickly made their way out of the small room.

“My daughter?” Zara repeated dumbly.

“Yes, born less than two moons ago,” Inaam smiled.

“Inaam, ummm … not that I wish to contradict your words but…”

“What? Are you not pleased that I have given you a daughter?” Inaam's disbelieving words questioned as she nursed the young babe.

“W-Well….” Zara stammered as she felt the bard push past her and move to sit beside the nursing mother.

“Oh, she is so cute!” The bard cooed as she lightly ran her fingers over the babe's full, dark hair. “How old is she?”

“Almost two moons,” Inaam's pride laced her voice.

“Oh my, it seems like forever since I've seen one so little!” the bard exclaimed as she held a little hand between her fingers.

“Inaam … umm … if it were physically possible for me to…” Zara stepped forward and peered down at the babe. Before she could complete her sentence, Gabrielle shot her a freezing look.

“Zara, don't you dare say it!” The healers voice grew deep as she glared at the Moroccan captain.

“B-But … it's not physically possible…”

“For two women to conceive a baby? Why, I'll have you know that Xena and I had a child together.” When Inaam cast a surprised glance at the blonde, Gabrielle smiled and nodded. “Yes, my soul mate and I had a child together.”

“But that's not possible,” Zara shook her head as she began to pace the length of carpet. She was keenly aware of the pain that was forming between her ears.

“Not only is it possible, but it happened.” The bard's voice was firm as she smiled at the infant. “Oh, look, she has your eyes, Zara.”

At the bard's words, the captain turned sharply, her frown growing deeper as she looked from Inaam to the bard. When she saw Zara's expression, Gabrielle vigorously nodded as she looked from the nursing babe, to the tall captain. She squinted her eyes as she glanced at the round, dark blue eyes of the babe, then up to the Moroccan.

“Yes, she definitely has your eyes.” The bard affirmed.

“And her feet, look!” Inaam exclaimed happily as she pulled the light covering away from the child's feet and gently brushed her fingers over the curling toes.

“Oh, yes! I can see where she gets her feet from!” Gabrielle smiled as she winked up at Zara.

Zara remained frozen. She felt her mind swimming with thoughts and incoherent images. At one point, she saw the warrior princess holding a newborn in her arms, the afterbirth still clung to the naked baby's flesh, while the bard held both in her arms. Before the image could take hold, the sea captain shook herself from this memory, her mind fought to hold on to any sense of rationality.

“B-But … I have been at sea for over a year,” her voice lacked the conviction she tried to hold.

“Oh, pish-tosh! If you want to talk about a little technicality, then you're no different from all the rest!” the healer exclaimed as Inaam finished nursing, then smiled at Gabrielle who eagerly took the baby to burp.

“B-But…” the Moroccan captain suddenly felt as if the sky were pressing her down into the earth. When the pain in her head grew too great, she moved to the large, comfortable chair in the room and sat down heavily. With eyes down cast, she tried to sort through all that had happened.

“Are you not pleased that I have given you a child?” Inaam's voice was so soft and tender as she moved to kneel before Zara. With down cast eyes, the captain shook her head as she tried to understand all that was happening to her. While part of her mind tried to push away the troubles of her domestic life, another part tried to go over the meeting she would have with her solicitors all the while the images of the ghost's daughter kept replaying in her mind. Only when she felt the soft hand enter hers did she look up into her mistresses brown eyes. What she saw was a look of fear and sadness. When she saw this, the Moroccan sighed as she closed her eyes and nodded acceptance. Although she had never planned on children in her life, it seems that she was not in control of her own fate, she reasoned as Inaam took the newly burped babe from the bard's arms, then placed it's wiggling form into Zara's lap.

Filled with awe and amazement, the captain lightly ran her callused fingers over the baby's soft cheek. At the touch, the small creature broke out into a toothless smile as her tiny hand took a hold of Zara's finger. With only a smile, the tall Moroccan leaned back in the chair as she tried to become accustomed to this new human that was in her lap.
Gabrielle wasn't completely certain what to make of Zara's home life. A part of her wanted to get upset that her lover had omitted this little fact about her life. But when she saw the taller woman's perplexed expression, she could only smile at Zara's discomfort as she tried to hold the baby. As if holding a delicate piece of art, the bigger woman held the baby firmly and away from her body. It was not until Inaam positioned her arms, and settled the baby, that the ship captain grew comfortable. Despite this change, as soon as Abu entered to announce the arrival of guests, Zara wasted little time in returning the infant to its mother.

At the dismissal, the young Moroccan woman guided Gabrielle through the home. She pointed out the new additions with the pride of an owner. After Inaam took the bard to the room she would share with Zara, Gabrielle took a moment to examine it thoroughly. In the corner was a small closet that held the sitting chair used as a chamber pot. Unlike Arjun's palace that had been magically equipped with running water, this closet was more along the designs that the Greek was used to. When she glanced around the room, she noticed the lines and patterns along the wall and was reminded of the elaborate murals that hung in Arjun's home. For a moment, the bard wondered why Zara had no artwork and promised herself that she would question her lover. When she continued to examine the room, she noticed the lack of personality within the room. Although she found some small odds and ends that spoke of Zara's hand, for the most part, the large, open space gave no evidence of who occupied the room.

As she contemplated this, the bard moved to the balcony of the room. She looked out over the open courtyard. Below on the first floor was a window into a room that Zara was using as an office. The tall Moroccan sat in a low seat, the table in front of her was littered with scrolls. The solicitors sat around it, each one speaking softly as they handed the tall captain various parchments. No longer focused on the new infant, the Moroccan's full attention was on the reparations to the widows of her crew.

Deep in thought, Gabrielle watched as Inaam entered the room where the group gathered. As if not even noticing her, the Moroccan captain continued to talk as the young woman began to dispense cups of warm tea. Although a few looked up and thanked her, for the most part, everyone in the office seemed oblivious to Inaam's kind act. No different than the others, Zara drank of the tea, and ate of the treats that, by all accounts, had appeared miraculously.

Gabrielle felt her brow arching at this discovery. Before she could contemplate it further, a slight sound caught her attention. When she turned around, she smiled broadly as she watched Xena emerging from the shadows.

“Have you seen this place?” she asked her ghost lover as she moved to her, stopping right before they touched.

“Ummm … yeah, a bit,” the warrior princess smiled as she moved and leaned against the balcony wall.

“You know Xena, I've noticed something that's a bit unusual,” the bard's mind returned to Zara's conduct.

“Yeah, I think I'd be surprised if you hadn't noticed something,” Xena chuckled softly as she turned and smiled at her soul mate.

“No, really,” Gabrielle giggled at her lover's comments. “I've been standing here watching Zara and I noticed something, watch and see what you think,” she encouraged. For a moment, the ghost remained silent as she saw Inaam moving to Zara's side. With eyes downcast, the young woman removed the empty plate, then took a warm cloth, and wiped the captain's hands, all without a single comment from the tall Moroccan.

“Do you see how Inaam is waiting on her hand and foot?” the bard's words questioned. “Did you ever think that Zara was like that?”

“I see what you mean, Gabrielle, but it could be that she truly doesn't notice,” Xena's voice was soft as she turned away from the scene, her brow furrowed as her eyes were downcast.

“But, did she ever give off any clues that she liked to be catered to like this? You know, I thought I was better at judging people, and now I'm beginning to wonder who is this woman?” Gabrielle's voice was laced with disappointment as she moved to sit on a nearby chair. “I mean, am I with someone who I don't even know?”

Xena was silent and contemplative as she stood near her lover. With a slight smile, she moved to sit next to the bard. In a tender manner, she leaned toward the woman and reached for her, but pulled away when she realized what she was doing.

“I don't believe that things are the way you think, Gabrielle. There's a lot that Zara has to make right, a lot of things are going on right now, so much that I, uh … that she needs to take care of.” The ghost stopped herself and glanced at the bard. With eyes lowered, the small blonde gave no evidence of hearing her words. “Gabrielle, are you listening?”

“Yes, so much is happening with Zara now,” the bard repeated only half of what the warrior had said. With a satisfied smile, the Greek warrior leaned back as she gazed up at the clear blue sky.

“Then be patient, Gabrielle. Don't judge her by what is going on now. There is so much more … so many things that occupy her mind right now,” Xena's voice grew soft as she turned her attention back to the bard.

For a moment, it seemed as if the bard would not listen. But when she smiled, Xena felt herself release the breath that she had held. “That's it, honey. Just be patient, I'm sure things will change and you'll realize that you didn't misjudge Zara.”

“I guess you're right, Xena,” the bard sighed as she rose from the chair and began to pace the room. “By the way, have you noticed that there are no pictures around here, like there were at Arjun's place?” the blonde asked as she glanced at the intricate tiles that lined the outside of the windows. “It's all really beautiful, but isn't it odd that there isn't a single image of a person?”

“There are no images of people, Gabrielle, because according to their faith, they cannot have art depicting people or animals.” The ghost warrior explained. When she saw the bards confused expression, she smiled. “It has to do with their holy book, the law which forbids idols or adultery. In order to avoid any misunderstanding, or confusion that the images are being made as idols, or are praising adultery, they avoid including it in their designs. By staying with intricate patterns and vegetal shapes, it gives the impression of continuous repetition. For some, it helps them to remain focused on the nature that they believe is the core of their God, which is infinite,” Xena explained with awe tingeing her voice.

“Xena, I never knew that you were so well informed of Zara's people,” the bard smiled. “Have you had a lot of encounters before with them?”

“No, not really,” the warrior smiled. “I guess … I'm just learning to appreciate some of Zara's culture,” she explained as she looked away from the woman.

If Xena had been truthful, she would have had to explain that merging with Zara had given her a better understand of not only who the woman was, but of the beliefs that she held dear to her heart, even though she did not choose to display them. But rather than voice this and draw further questions, the warrior princess tried to brush off her bard's concerns. When she glanced over at Gabrielle, she noticed the smaller woman's intense examination of some of the tile art work. Releasing a sigh, she was thankful that the bard's normally inquisitive nature was so far appeased.

Xena wanted to tell her bard everything. Nothing would have made her happier, but she knew that she could not betray the Moroccan captain. For better or worse, they had an unspoken agreement that information shared during the possession, would not be spoken of without the agreement of both. Like co-conspirators, the warrior and captain maintained their silence with their lover. Yet there was a part of the ghost warrior that hoped that Zara would talk to the bard, if for no other reason than to let Gabrielle know that they might be in trouble.
The reparations could never equal what they had lost, but Zara hoped that the generous stipend to the widows and children would ensure that none of her fallen crewmen's families fell on hard times. As the scent of the Moroccan candles wafted to her senses, she realized how stiff her back had become. With a tired but satisfied sigh, she glanced around the table to all the men gathered.

“I think perhaps it is all in order now,” she looked at the three men and noticed that they were all her age. With nods of agreement, they glanced at each other, then began to gather their piles of scrolls together.

She turned to her friends. “Abu, Isa, you are both satisfied with the results? I trust you feel that all of your colleagues would approve?”

“Yes, captain, they would be honored by your generosity,” Abu nodded solemnly.

“Of course, captain, I agree. Thanks to you, no widow or child of these men shall ever want for anything,” Isa's grim expression remained solemn as he looked down at his folded hands.

“For which, I must thank you for your generosity as well,” A gentle smile crossed her lips as she reached over and lightly patted his hand. “Your forgoing all of Rabeé's stipend made it possible for even more to be added to the widow's fund.”

“Yes, it was a most kindly and charitable deed,” Abu murmured as the gathered solicitors made comments of agreement.

“I-It … was the least I could do, after all, I had no use of funds … a-and, I think it's what Rabeé would have wanted,” the man seemed on the verge of tears, but managed to pull himself together as a gentle smile crossed his lips.

Zara nodded silently and squeezed his hand again. Finally she returned her attention to the three solicitors. “Then if the business is concluded, may I invite you all to partake of dinner,” she queried as she rose smoothly from the low chair.

Siraaj, her long time solicitor in all business and money dealings, closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. The aroma of the kitchen wafted past their senses. “Zara, could I ever pass up one of Sahar and Inaam's dinners!” The bearded man smiled as his two companions nodded vigorously.

Siraaj and Akram had been friends with Zara long before her ship captain's days. Both were from well-known families and had shared the same tutor. Although not common, at times the genders were required to mix with each other if the girl had outgrown her own tutor, and for Zara, that happened faster than even her own mother had anticipated. Despite the slight protests from her father, the future ship captain was allowed to join the local boys in order to obtain lessons of astronomy and mathematics, lessons that were the cause for her success on the high seas. Tayseer was the newest of her solicitors, and even though she had only known him for three years, Zara learned that just as Siraaj had vouched, the young man proved to be a competent man in assisting her with her business and legal issues.

When they stepped to the foyer, she caught site of Nadrah and Gabrielle in a nearby room. Like a dutiful babysitter, Nadrah was cradling Inaam's babe in her arms as Gabrielle smiled at the two. When she saw Zara, the small woman merely nodded and waved her to them.

“The business is finally concluded. We will have dinner now, I trust you will join us?” Zara offered her Greek lover a weak smile, as she turned to her friends.

“You must be the Healer bard, Gabrielle. Zara has mentioned you to us,” Siraaj, ever the gentleman, bowed with hands pressed together, “Salam, may Allah bless you,” he greeted, as the other men followed suit. True to perfection, the bard remained formal as she mirrored their greetings, her smile ever as radiant as Zara could hope.

As a multitude of spice scents and onion mingled with olive oil swirled around them, Zara turned to Inaam, who had entered the room through a closed door. At her entrance the aroma of myrrh, sandalwood, mint, and roses, wafted past their senses as well. Wearing a long, colorful robe, the lithe woman nodded once at Zara. Seeing her puffy, long sleeves tied with a red woven cord, the captain smiled tenderly.

Although in appearance, Inaam was nothing like Zara's mother, when it came to her culinary expertise, the sea captain was always reminded of her mother. The meals she created were made with such love and devotion that it showed in the food. Although Inaam preferred the scent of jasmine in her hair, whenever she worked in the kitchen, the sweet scent of myrrh clung to her. With a slight smile, Zara remembered seeing her mother, a small, portly woman briskly moving through the kitchens. Only when the meal was served to the adults, was Zara able to snuggle in her mother's lap and inhale the scent of myrrh that hung around her like a garden of sweet herbs.

Dada, we will have dinner now,” she used the term of respect and affection for the woman who had complete control over her household and especially, the kitchen. At the open display of Zara's respect, Inaam blushed slightly as she bowed her head, then turned to reenter the kitchen where the dinner was being prepared. With only a wave of her hand, the ships captain invited her guests to join her in the larger dinning room.
While Zara had spent the day behind closed doors, Gabrielle explored the entire house. In the farthest room, she saw the older woman and Inaam quickly working in the kitchen, their soft voices and easy banter showing their closeness. When the bard tried to offer her services, the women only smiled as they shooed her from the kitchen. With nothing else to do, she continued to explore the house that was her lover's home. When she came across Nadrah and the baby, she remained with the little girl and watched as the cabin girl doted over the babe. The few times that she saw Inaam again, she inquired if she could help, but was quickly dismissed.

After introductions were made, and salutations given, Zara indicated for them to follow her to the larger dining room. Although Gabrielle was feeling more comfortable in the home, she began to watch her tall lover's movements. She tried to understand why Zara appeared so different here in her home than she had been on the ship.

Without preamble, her tall lover led the guests to the dining room. As they spoke of city politics and news, they each chose a low cushion seat and took their place around an intricately detailed circular table. Unsure of where to sit, Gabrielle took a seat directly beside the tall ship captain.

Once settled, the guests began to talk again, their voices mixing together as they continued to speak of town events. In silence, Zara, Isa and Abu listened intently to the men's words as if to catch up on the city gossip. During this time, Inaam moved quietly into the room, silently draping white cotton towels across their laps, then leaving as quietly as she had arrived.

When she returned, Zara seemed to not notice the mistress of her house and remained intent on the words of her friends as Inaam approached them carrying a silver pitcher, basin and white towel. One by one, starting with Zara, the young woman poured water over their hands, catching the water in the basin, then set the pitcher and basin down in order to dry their hands. When she finished with Gabrielle, the bard caught a hold of Inaam's hand, the young woman glanced at her surprised. With a wide smile, the bard nodded to her, thanking her for the act of kindness. As if taken off guard, Inaam looked nervously around, then looked back down at the bard when she realized that the men and Zara were still talking of city matters. The tall woman bowed her head slightly, then smiled before turning to leave. Only when the woman left, did the bard turn to her lover with a faint scowl.

Zara was completely oblivious to anything around her. With brow furrowed, she nodded occasionally as she listened to the men. Only when she felt the bard glaring at her did she glance her way, a questioning brow arched. When the bard bit her lip and looked away, the captain frowned, then returned her attention to the men.

Unbidden thoughts churned in Gabrielle's mind. 'Who is this woman I've made love to these past few months?' The bard's mind questioned. 'Is she truly as cold and callous as she appears? How can she be so charming and tender to me, yet not even see Inaam, the mistress of her house?' Gabrielle was unhappy as Inaam and Sahar began to bring out the meal. When the bread was brought out first, the men grew silent as they glanced at Zara.

“Perhaps Abu would care to offer Bsmillah?” Zara motioned to the bread with her hand. The big, bearded man demurred as he brushed away her words.

“Captain, it is your home. It is only fitting that you offer the blessing,” Abu smiled.

“Very well,” the ship captain took the bread in hand. With eyes closed and head bowed, her words flowed like a soft melody. Although the tall woman's words were flawlessly spoken, Gabrielle could detect a hesitation in her lover's voice. As if uncomfortable with such a task, the Moroccan woman spoke quickly, then raised her head and glanced around the table as she tore a piece of the bread off, and set it on her plate. Following her lead, those around the table took their piece and handed it to the next.
Zara had noticed her Greek lover's anger, yet was at a loss to understand it. Rather than try to focus on everything around her, she concentrated on the words of her friends. When the kebab koutbane was served, she picked the meat up with a slice of bstilla bread. The moment she bit into it, she savored the spicy sweet taste of the marinade and smiled across the room to Inaam. As if awaiting her judgment, the tall, dusky woman stood in the shadows. With a slight tilt of her head, Zara kept eye contact, the slight corners of the captain's lips curved upward as she eagerly took another bite. Pleased by Zara's display of approval, Inaam beamed a smile, then quickly lowered her head as she pulled the head scarf over her face, then turned to enter the kitchen.

Before another plate could be brought to the table, a sudden commotion captured their attention. At the sound of Qaidar's voice from the kitchen, Zara glanced over at Abu, who was already getting ready to draw his short blade from the belt on his waist.

“No, no, no, you cannot!” The aged man's voice protested as he walked backward through the door, his gnarled hands held against the chest of the intruder.

“I beg of you, I must speak with my sister! It is urgent!” a familiar voice rose in the dining room.

“Rashi?” Zara was already standing and moving toward the two men.

“Oh, I beg of you, mistress Zara, I tried to have him wait. I told him you were busy with dinner,” Qaidar explained, his white beard frowned as he shook his head.

“It is all right, master Qaidar. It must be very important for my brother to arrive unannounced,” she looked at her brother as she reached out to him, clasping his arms formally. After a moment, his face broke into a smile, the light beard on his chin barely noticeable in the shadows of the room. Seeing him like this brought a warmth to her heart. Beaming with a smile, she pulled her little brother into her arms and hugged him tightly.

“Little brother, my little Rashi,” she whispered close to his ear, then pulled away and held him at arms length, her taller frame towering over him as she looked him up and down. “I've missed you so, Rashi!” she smiled broadly. Mirroring her smile, his dark brown eyes seemed to sparkle, then he glanced down at her arms, his eyes growing wide as he saw the tattoo's on her arms.

“Blessed Allah, it is true!” he whispered as he pulled her long sleeve up to reveal her clan markings. “Had I known before, I would have come sooner,” his voice took on an air of desperation. “Please, sister, I beg of you, I seek refuge. I ask for your protection!” The young man fell to his knees.

Confused by her brother's words, she looked from him to her guests who had risen and were standing nearby. In tears, the young man clasped her hand firmly, his words a flow of incoherent rambles. With a shake of her head, she reached down and pulled her little brother to his feet.

“Rashi, why do you speak like this? Why do you ask this of me?” she slightly shook the boy as a way of pulling him from his madness. “From whom do you ask protection?”

“It is … that is…” He glanced at her guests as if not seeing them, then turned back to her, his face a mask of fear and uncertainty. “I beg of you sister, you are my last hope! I need your protection from … f-from … father.”

Father? I don't understand Rashi, has father hurt you?” Zara felt an anger building within her.

“Yes! I mean … ummm … no, not directly, that is, oh Zara, so much has happened since you left.” His voice was racked with tears.

“Rashi, please, get a hold of yourself and explain this to me! What has father done?” her voice became commanding as she held her brother's arms firmly.

“It's … it's…” he stammered, then shook his head. “Wait a moment…” the young man said, then turned and quickly entered the kitchen. With an arch of a brow, she looked back at Abu. The burly man merely shrugged as the door opened. When they turned around, they watched as the young man entered the room, his hand holding the arm of someone. Only when they came into the light of the dining room, did Zara feel her heart catch in her throat.

Following close behind Rashi was a small figure of a woman. Her clothing, although peasant-like, did not alarm Zara. What caused her alarm, and brought gasps from her guests were the designs upon the fabric of the woman's clothes. Her scarf was the colors of the people of Judea.

“Zara, meet Rachel … my wife.”

“By all that is…” Zara thought she heard one of her guests swear as her mind was reeling out of control.

“Little brother … what have you done?” Zara whispered. Before she could say more, a sound came from underneath the Judean woman's cloak. At the sound, Rashi turned and smiled at her, then opened the woman's cloak to reveal a swaddled babe.

“Zara, my son, Jakob Azzam,” he smiled proudly as he held the infant in his arms. When the babe began to cry, Inaam stepped forward and ushered Rashi's wife and newborn son down a hallway to a private room. Numb with shock, Zara remained silent as she tried to make sense of everything that her brother had just revealed. The Moroccan sea captain did not allow herself the luxury of pride in the fact that her brother had given his son her name. Instead, mumbled something which she could not remember, then she motioned for the meal to resume, and began to listen intently to her brother's story.

He explained how he had first asked, then argued, then pleaded with their father and how he had been dismissed, forbidden from ever seeing the Judean woman again. But he was in love, as surely as if his life depended upon it, he knew that Rachel was meant to be his, and he, hers. Angrily but foolishly telling this to his father meant even harsher punishment, which entailed being locked away while in the house and never being left alone while outside. But as soon as he could, the young man made his escape and ran straight to the people whom their father had decreed as less than human.

Despite all of his pleas, Rashi knew that his father would never allow him to ever marry a Judean woman. With a sad sigh, he told them of the words his father used that effectively listed him as a wanted man within his own country, his own city. His own father was looking for him and there was no way for him to escape the city. With a bounty on his head for a safe return, Rashi could only imagine what would happen to his wife and newborn son if his father caught them. He and his wife did not know what to do, except to wait and try to find a way out of the city for their new family. And for a time, he actually thought that his prayers had fallen on deaf ears, until he heard of the rumor of Zara's return as a figure of power. Only then did he realize that his sister might be the one person who could help him during his family's time of need.

At the end of his story, Zara released a deep sigh. She ran her fingers through her hair as she closed her eyes. When she looked up at her friends, she saw their confusion in the silence of their body language. With a shake of her head, she pushed away the half-eaten plate of food.

“And when was someone going to tell me of this?” she asked her friends unable to keep some bitterness out of her voice. All three men glanced nervously at each other, but it was Siraaj who spoke up.

“We did not tell you because we did not know of it,” his voice was calm and neutral. “Yes, we have heard of some trouble occurring with your family, but no one knew what it was about, let alone, who it affected. Trust me, my friend, had we known, that would have been the first thing we would have spoken of.”

At his words, Zara only nodded. Her trust in Siraaj was as deep as with any of her long time friends. When she glanced over at Abu, she nodded slightly as she reached for the cup of tea that had been filled when she wasn't looking.

“Abu, my friend, I fear that I must ask a favor.” Her voice was controlled, despite the shakiness that she noticed in her hand.

“Consider it done, my captain,” Abu nodded as he rose from the table and left the dining area.

“And you, my brother,” she shook her head. “Of all the women at your command, you went and chose a Judean woman,” she teasingly tsked.

“Zara, what could I do? Love spoke to my heart, it would have been a crime to have ignored its pleas.” The young man spoke like a true poet.

“But a Judean?” Sirraj shook his head. “You must have known your father would never stand for it.”

“Of course, but there comes a time when a man has to take a stand.” Rashi's words were filled with the strength of conviction.

At the sound of determination in her brother's voice, Zara smiled as she cocked an eyebrow. Her estimation of her little brother suddenly changed. Before she could comment, Abu returned to the room, sat down upon the cushion and nodded at her.

“I found a messenger and sent word. Some of my old troops should be arriving soon. The rest will be here in the morning.” Abu's deep voice hid any concerns he might have held.

“Very good, Abu, thank you,” she turned her smile on her brother. “So, tell me of your wife.”

“Rachel, she is of good stock, from a good family!” Rashi beamed with pride, “she is from the clan of Merari, of the house of Levi. She comes from a good family, and her kin accepts me as theirs.”

“Very well then, my brother. To me, it would matter not what house she was from. All that matters is that she loves you as much as you love her,” Zara smiled as she reached over and lightly touched her brother's arm. The young man's smile seemed to brighten up the room as he sighed.

“She does, Zara.” Was all that he said.

“Very well then. Sirraj, I want you to send word to my great uncle the Sultan first thing tomorrow. Tell him that my little brother Rashi, the son of his niece is now under my protection, and Sirraj, I want to be assured that there will be no confusion in the scribing. It must be clear for my great uncle,” she smiled at her old friend. For a moment, the man remained silent, then a large smiled crossed his features as he nodded understanding.

“First thing tomorrow, I will personally go to the scribing house to make certain that the translation is done clearly,” he chuckled as the men around the room began to laugh with him.

At the look of confusion in Gabrielle's features, Zara smiled at the woman. “Gabrielle, if there is a secret that needs to be kept within the city, you do not take it to be scribed at the local office for no sooner will it leave your lips, than it is flying on the wind.”

“Ahhhh,” the small blonde smiled as she nodded understanding. “So then everyone in town will know that your brother is here, and that you are protecting him.”

“Yes, and if anyone wishes to go against her protection, they will have to answer to a Sultan!” Abu laugh heartily, and the men around him joined in the joke.

“Do not worry, little brother, as soon as I retrieve mother tomorrow, you will all be sent to the Sultan to live. You need never worry about father again,” she assured.

Her brother grew suddenly quiet, his eyes lowered as a frown crossed his features. Oblivious to his change in mood, Zara turned to Isa, her words firm as she addressed the young navigator. “I will entrust you with the task of obtaining passage for my brother's family.”

“Of course, captain.” Isa nodded, then smiled at the young man.

“Zara, I won't go,” Rashi interrupted her.

Disbelief filled her expression as she turned to him. Her eyes narrowed as she felt her anger growing at his disobedience. Before she could bark an order, his lower lip grew thin as he raised his head defiantly.

“I have been ordered around throughout my whole life by father, I'll not have you take over for him!” Rashi stated firmly. Then, he sighed as he shook his head and looked at her with pleading eyes. “Please, Zara. I know you mean well, but I have no intention of going anywhere, except to Rachel's kin.”

For only a moment, silence filled the room, then, like a chorus, they all began to talk at once. Only Zara remained silent as she examined her brother closely. As she thought over his words, she turned away, her eyes lowered as she thought of what he said. For a moment, she had the memory of young, blond girl. Willful in every way, and no matter how often she forbade the girl from following her, the village girl disobeyed until the warrior princess had no choice but to accept her as a companion, and later, as a lover. At this memory, the sea captain sighed as she wiped her eyes in an attempt to stifle the images. With a slight nod, she rose her hand and waited for the silence.

“It seems my little brother is now a man,” she looked at Rashi, the slight smile escaped her control. “So tell me, little brother, where do you plan to go?”

“Rachel has kin of the Sefarad clan. We can go with them and live in peace.”

“But why join her clan? Why not simply move to another city and live amongst our people?” Akram asked.

“Because Judeans follow the line through the mothers. My son will be Judean, just as all of our children … and I, as well.” Rashi explained as he looked at Zara cautiously.

She remained silent as she examined her brother. As a thought crossed her mind, she leaned toward the young man. “Rashi, do you love her … is … is she your spirit twin?”

Rashi's eyes shone with a brilliance she was unaccustomed to. With a slight smile, he covered her hand with his. “Yes, sister, she is the one who makes my life whole.”

“Then I shall do whatever is necessary to help you reach your kin, these … Sefarad people.” She promised.

Before more could be said, Inaam entered the room carrying a tray laden with fruits. Following close behind her was Rachel, who moved to sit beside Rashi. As she turned to leave, Zara reached up and lightly touched Inaam's hand. At this slight touch, the statuesque woman glanced down at her.

“Please, join us,” Zara spoke softly, then motioned to a place on her left. With a look of surprise, Inaam tilted her head as she examined the sea captain. As if satisfied by what she saw, she nodded before moving to sit beside her.
Gabriele had seen the entire situation unfold, but didn't understand what could be causing the reactions of the men around her. As soon as Zara's brother revealed the babe, a smile broke out on her face as she moved close to the infant. When the baby started to cry, Inaam moved toward the babe's mother, glancing over the woman's shoulder and smiled at the babe.

“Come, I will take you to a private place,” the woman of the house smiled as Rashi's wife took her son, and followed her down the hall. With the sudden surprise over, the guests looked around nervously.

As if suddenly finding her voice, Zara motioned toward the table. “Come, join us brother, and tell us of your madness,” the tall ship captain's voice held a tinge of amusement.

As the men returned to their low cushion seats, Gabrielle glanced over at her lover. With only a slight smile, and a shrug of her shoulders, the tall woman shook her head as she returned to her place at the table. When all of the men sat down, Zara's brother, Rashi, glanced over at the blonde, his questioning eyes seemed to smile at her.

“Salam, I've heard so much about you, Rashi. My name is Gabrielle, I'm pleased to finally meet you,” she stated formally, her palms pressed together in a greeting. As if impressed, the young man's brows rose in surprise as he smiled at Zara.

Once they settled back down, the men listened intently to Rashi's words, and their occasional outbursts only caused the bard to flinch. Although she had seen what could happen when people of differing beliefs encountered each other, she didn't think that it would have caused such division among family. When she glanced at Zara, she noted her lover's deep concentration. The bard could tell that despite the general feelings of the men, Zara was not prone to judge her brother because of his decisions. Only when he seemed to disobey his older sister, did Zara display something close to anger. Just when she thought that she would have to calm the tall woman down, the Moroccan grew contemplative. When she asked her brother the question about spirit twins, Gabrielle glanced at the men around her. She noticed their slight glances as they looked at her with speculation, then quickly turned away.

Nothing sounded more sorrowful than the sound of Zara's voice. Knowing that she had lost her own soul mate at a young age, Gabrielle blinked her eyes quickly as she fought to control her tears of sadness. The bard was so deep in thought that she had not noticed the invitation that the Moroccan captain made to Inaam, so when she glanced over to the woman, she was pleasantly surprised to see her sitting beside Zara.

The bard's thoughts were again jarred. 'Maybe I was wrong? By the gods. These customs are so different. Maybe Xena was right. Don't jump to conclusions. That's what got her … killed … in the first place.' That thought struck with a twinge of sadness, and she swallowed a lump of pain but pushed it away as she inwardly nodded. 'All right Gabrielle. You are gonna give Zara a chance till you know the whole situation.' She caught Zara's eye and smiled an apology. The Moroccan gazed at her, then gave her a slight smile back. Satisfied, Gabrielle turned her attention back to the conversation in time to hear Siraaj speak.

“But I don't understand, why must you chose to join the Judean's? Don't you know the life of misery they live? And why travel so far? Why, there are many Judean's in our own town! Granted, they are continually trying to gain control over our land, but so far, they have not succeeded,” Siraaj spoke like a true merchant, then leaned forward and gazed at Zara's younger brother. “Rashi, the Judean's are always fighting with us, by Allah the merciful, if it's a life of misery you desire, why not stay here close to your kin?” he asked, his tongue slightly clicking as he shook his head. In an absent manner, he took a date from the center plate, and then popped it in his mouth. A look of satisfaction crossed his features as he chewed on the maple-covered treat.

“Zara, have you nothing to say about your brother walking away from everything that our people believe in,” her friend asked. “It cannot be good for a son of Allah to turn away for the Judean's way of life. Why … there must be something written in the holy scrolls that speaks against this! What say you, Zara? Have you no opinions?”

Zara remained silent as she gazed at the man. Her brow creased in thought as she sipped of her tea. “I think … that perhaps matters pertaining to theology should remain with the theologians. I am but a meek sea captain, unschooled in the knowledge of this sort.”

At her words, the men grew silent as they glanced at each other as if in disbelief, then in unison, broke out into laughter. When it subsided, someone asked, “Abu, how about you? You've never been one lacking in thoughts and are certainly not meek. What say you?”

The burly man appeared surprised to be asked his opinion. With a frown, he cleared his throat as he sat taller on the cushion pillow. The serious expression never left his features as he leaned forward, his dark eyes holding Rashi captive.

“I think…” the burly man's face grew serious. He leaned forward and stared directly into Rashi's eyes. Like a maestro in complete control, he continued, “I think … that you should purchase yourself some good walking sandals because I hear that those Judeans spend a great deal of their lives wandering through the desert!” Abu's baritone voice stated in a serious tone, right before a smile broke out on his face.

Rashi began to laugh as he shook his head. His wife lowered her head as she pulled the headscarf around her face, her shoulders slightly shaking as the laughter of the men around her became contagious. Before the laughter could get too far out of hand, a solemn voice spoke up.

“I believe there will be peace,” Isa, who had been silent through most of the dinner, spoke up. When the men heard his words, they reined in their laughter as they turned their attention to the young navigator.

“Why do you say that, Isa?” Zara asked with a smile.

“Well…” Isa's expression grew contemplative as he looked down at his fingertips, “I believe that someday, there will be peace between us and the Judeans. Why, are we not both descendants of Ibrahim? Was not Ismail the first son of Ibrahim?” He asked as he looked at those around the table. “No, I do not believe that we will always be fighting amongst ourselves for we are kin, are we not? I truly believe that one day, we will live in peace with our distant cousins.”

Gabrielle felt a smile cross her features. With a nod of understanding, the bard leaned forward. “I understand, Isa. I cannot believe that people will always want to fight. Why, someday, I believe there will be only peace in the land, and no more wars!” Isa nodded vigorously at the blonde's words.

The men in the room remained silent for a moment. As if the words of the bard and navigator had captivated their attention, they glanced at each other. Then, with a nod of understanding, they broke out into a smile.

“Zara, where did you find these two!” Akram's question brought a roar of laughter from the group. Confused by his question, the bard glanced at Zara. The Moroccan captain's lips were curved into a slight smile. When she caught the bard's glance, she tried to keep her laughter in check. With only a shake of her head, Gabrielle leaned toward her and pinched her leg.

“Ouch!” Zara's exclamation caught her friends by surprise. After a moment of silence, they began to hoot with laughter as they made comments about Zara's taste in wild women.
Before the dinner wound down, seventeen of Abu's former guards were on her door. After saying her farewell's to her guests she double-checked her friend's orders. Satisfied that all the men were strategically placed to protect her home and especially, her brother and new sister and nephew, she checked on Nadrah. With a slight smile, she looked down at the sleeping child. Wearing only her underpants, the little girl slept deeply. The covers had been kicked off her and her legs were exposed. Taking the blanket, Zara pulled it up around the small girl then tucked it around her body.

“I think she's dreaming of a baby,” Gabrielle's voice whispered behind her. With a slight smile, Zara turned and watched as the bard walked in carrying Nadrah's large cat. “Inaam was happy to have Nadrah's help with the baby today.”

“I had not realized that the child knew how to care for infants,” she whispered as she watched the bard set Prasha on the floor. The cat looked disdainfully up at them over his shoulder then with a flick of his tail sprang up on Nadrah's bed to begin washing himself vigorously. When the small blonde moved to her, the tall woman unconsciously wrapped her arms around her, her chin resting on the top of the bard's head.

“She didn't at first, but Inaam taught her, and she picked it up fast,” the bard smiled as she pulled away from the captain, her arms reaching up around the Moroccan's neck. “You know, I liked seeing you tonight.”

“Really? Why?” the taller woman asked as she watched her lover through the shadows in the room.

“Oh … it's nice to see how you act around your family and friends. I'm realizing that there is so much about you that I don't know,” she smiled up at her.

“Really?” Zara grinned. “I find it hard to believe that there is any part of me that you do not know by now.”

“I'm not talking about knowing you that way,” Gabrielle snorted. Then her expression changed. “Yes, you're very different, not at all like the tough hard ship captain that I had to knock on her butt before she would deign to even notice me.” She pinched the Moroccan's behind gently.

“I noticed you before that,” Zara said softly.

The bard colored slightly and smiled. “I know you did, but thank you.” Her voice turned serious. “Anyway, you are not just that captain of a ship that you first appeared to be. You are … maybe … so much more,” the bard's eyes turned to slits as she examined the taller woman.

“Less attractive to you?” Zara asked, almost afraid of the bard's answer.

“Oh, no! Much more attractive!” The bard gave a throaty growl as she leaned toward her and the smaller woman's inviting lips called to the Moroccan. As they kept kissing, she began to slowly walk backwards from Nadrah's room. In slow, careful steps, she guided her lover into the hall even as their tongues danced against each other. When a slight noise was heard, Zara pulled away and glanced down the hall.

Inaam stood framed by the light from her room. Her tall frame remained frozen like a statue. With a slight sigh, Zara turned to the bard. She saw the slight smile on Gabrielle's face. As if reading her mind, the blonde only nodded.

“Go ahead, go on,” her voice was low as she gazed into the captain's eyes. Then she turned and began to make her way to their room.

“Gabrielle…” Zara tried to stop her small lover.

“Look, Zara, it's alright. I'm ok with it,” the bard whispered as she leaned toward her, “Really, I'm alright with all of it. Look,” Gabrielle's voice was low as her hands touched the front of Zara's tunic, her fingers lightly tracing the patterns that ran down the front. “You've been away from her for a year, I've had you all these months. Go and spend time with her, and I'll be waiting for you.”

Zara heard the bard's words, yet found them hard to believe. She cleared her throat.

“Go on, go ahead,” the bard said again as she slightly pushed her down the hall toward Inaam's room. When she looked down the hall, she saw that Inaam no longer stood in her doorway. With an arch of a brow, she looked behind her to where the bard stood, but saw only the darkness.

With a slight sigh, she turned and walked down the hall. At the entrance of Inaam's room, she stopped for a moment and looked inside the room. Sitting in a chair, the new mother held her babe on her shoulder. A soft, gentle humming sound came from her as she lightly patted the baby's back. Moving into the room, Zara went and sat in front of her consort.

Although it seemed like forever, when she was looking at Inaam, she remembered what had originally attracted her to the woman. Standing only a nose shorter than Zara, Inaam's tall frame seemed to hold a quiet dignity. Her skin, tan like the sands of the desert, was smooth and soft to touch. Her round, almond eyes, held within them a silent passion. When Inaam looked up at her, she smiled and lowered her eyes shyly as she rose from the chair, and placed the baby in the nearby bassinet. The captain moved to stand beside her, she looked down at the sleeping baby. The little lips pursed as if to suckle as her eyes were closed to dreams.

With a proud smile, Inaam leaned against Zara. The captain absently wrapped her arms around the lithe woman, her nose rubbed against her mistress soft hair. Closing her eyes, the tall captain inhaled the scent of jasmine oil. When she opened her eyes, she saw the cautious eyes of her mistress watching her closely. With a slight smile, Zara cupped the woman's cheeks as she gazed into her dark eyes.

Dada…” Zara whispered softly as her fingertips lightly traced the shape of her lover's lips. With a slight sigh, the captain nervously gulped as she looked away for a moment, then glanced back at the mistress of her house. “You know, you don't have to do this.”

For a moment, the woman looked away, a slight tinge of red crossed her cheeks, “You no longer desire me,” Inaam whispered softly, a sad smiled crossed her features. “Perhaps, you wish to be with…” But Zara did no allow her to finish her words. Instead, she turned the woman's face to her, the smile never left as she lowered herself to kiss Inaam's lips.

It had been more than a year since they were together. Throughout their years together, each time they separated, Zara would never allow herself to think of this woman she had left behind. Better not to have to think, then it will not hurt if we never meet again, she had reasoned each day of their separation. So accustomed was she to blocking it out of her mind, that she had succeeded in convincing herself that Inaam would not be here for her. But now as the captain kissed her consort, her skilled tongue gently parting the woman's lips, she realized how foolish she had been.

Zara never liked to compare her lovers. For her, all of her lovers were unique. But as she carried Inaam to the bed, she could not help but marvel at her lightness. When she slowly undressed the woman, her fingers noticed the softness of her skin. Where Gabrielle was a hardened warrior, Inaam was soft and tender. Her hands had never held a weapon, and her fingers were callous free. The soft, womanly flesh that always enticed Zara remained the same, yet the sinewy muscles that she was accustomed to in the healer bard, were missing from Inaam. Despite this, she held the woman close. She kissed her with a long denied desire. Her hands were gentle as they caressed her companion tenderly. When she felt the tall woman writhing in her grasp, she held onto her. Her mouth, lips and hands never ceased bringing the woman pleasure, and finally, just as she had done on the night before her voyage to sea, Zara dived between the woman's shaking legs and drank of her sweet love as Inaam cried out in bliss.

Only when Inaam was sated and gasping with the aftermath of her joy did Zara turn her attention to fulfilling her own needs. Knowing exactly what her lover desired, Inaam rolled onto her stomach, presenting herself even as the captain moved over her. Filled with her own need, the sea captain pressed herself firmly against her lover's smooth flesh. At the feel against her pubic region, she shivered and held still for a moment lest it end too soon. When the sensations calmed down, she opened her eyes and stretched herself over her lover's body.

Even the feel of Inaam below her was different, she thought as she began a gentle cadence. Where Gabrielle was smaller, Inaam fit perfectly against her flesh. In unison, they moved against each other. She felt her lover pushing back even as she rode the tender woman's back. Only when she felt her pleasure mounting did she close her eyes and redouble her efforts. When the tidal wave of ecstasy washed through her, she heard herself cry out, her waters spilling as her body spasmed against her lover.

“Oh … Dada…” she whispered when it was over. Her body was covered with a sheen of perspiration as she was laying half over the woman, and half on the bed. When her strength returned, she moved from her lover and lay on the bed, her breathing slowly returning to normal even as the tall woman snuggled in her embrace.

“Zara?” Inaam's voice whispered in the room. Opening her eyes, the captain glanced up at the ceiling. She noticed the patterns of stars and moons that the lantern cast over the ceiling. With a deep sigh, she hugged the woman close, and smiled when she felt her lover draping a long leg over her body.

“Yes,” Zara's voice was barely a whisper.

“Zara … forgive me,” a soft sob escaped the woman's control.

The Moroccan captain remained silent. She thought over her mistress' words. In the silence of the night, she thought she heard the gentle cadence of her heart. As if to give reassurance, she wrapped her arms around the woman and held her close.

“Dada … d-do you … love him?” Zara asked. For a moment, she thought her lover would not answer.

“I … thought I loved him,” Inaam confessed.

Zara remained silent as she stared at the ceiling. She found herself examining her feelings and sorting through her emotions. Surprised that there was no anger, she smiled slightly as a sigh escaped her control.

“Will you be … joining him?” she asked.


“What of the babe? Will he come seeking her?” Zara found her mind instantly working out solutions to problems that were cropping up.

“H-He … died without ever knowing that I carried his child,” Inaam sobbed as she buried her face against Zara's bosom. As she held the woman close, she felt a sadness in her heart. She wondered what her consort had undergone all alone, and with a babe on the way. When her lover stopped crying, she smiled as she kissed the crown of her head.

“Zara, will you be putting us out?” Her mistresses whisper was so soft that Zara thought that she misunderstood. After a few minutes of thought, she looked down at the woman. Gently, she held her lovers chin and forced her to look into her eyes. When Inaam's dark eyes were locked on hers, Zara allowed a loving smile to cross her face.

“Dada, how could I ever turn out the mother of my daughter?” Zara smiled tenderly. Understanding her words, fresh tears began anew and the woman hugged her close. Her soft murmurs of thanksgiving escaped her lips. Not quiet certain if she was doing the right thing, Zara only smiled as she held her Moroccan lover close.
Gabrielle found herself pacing the room. Although she had sent Zara away, she had to fight down the pang of jealousy that surged through her. With arms folded in front of her, she shook her head as she moved to sit on the bed.

“This is stupid, Gabrielle. Come on, get a hold of yourself. You are asking Zara to share you with Xena, why can't you just share her with someone else?” the bard heard her own voice in the darkness of the room.

“It's not always easy to share, is it, my bard?” A familiar voice came from the darkness. Jumping slightly, the small blonde turned and smiled as Xena stepped out from the shadows.

“Xena, when are you going to learn to give a person warning?” she shook her head as she leaned down and pulled off her boots, then laid herself back on the bed.

“Sorry,” the warrior gave a sheepish expression as she moved to sit on the edge of the bed. In the shadows of the room, it was hard to tell that Xena was not truly there, that she was an insubstantial ghost. If it weren't for the coldness in the room, the bard might have never been reminded that her soul mate had died.

Gabrielle chewed at a knuckle. “I don't know why I'm having problems with this. I mean, I shouldn't, right, because she's able to sit back and let me have time alone with you. So why can't I do the same?”

For a moment, the ghost looked away. Her hands were neatly folded in her lap as she stared out the open window. Before she could answer, Xena inhaled deeply, her eyes closed as she suddenly stood up.

“What is it, Xena? Are you ok?” The bard was alert to any trouble as she moved to her soul mate. As she watched, the warrior ghost closed her eyes, her hands bunched into fists. When the dark ghost opened her eyes, she gulped as she gave a weak smile.

“Honey … I … ahhh … I n-need to leave now….” Xena seemed to shiver.

For a moment, the bard feared that her ghost lover was being taken into the afterlife. But as she saw the warrior princess' fight for control, realization came over her. With a shake of her head, the bard returned to the bed. “Guess they're movin' pretty fast, huh?” She chuckled, remembering that Xena was not only able to feel all of Zara's pain … she felt the pleasure as well.

“M-Movin' is one word for it…” Xena tried to banter, but then she moaned low.
“S-Sweetheart … I-I … ohhhh, g-gods!” Xena's words came out labored, her hands seemed to tremble as she faced the bard.

“Xena, it's all right.” The bard's voice held a courage she did not have. “Go on, I'm a big girl, I can be by myself.”

Xena stood for only a moment, the shivering of her body so slight that if one were not looking, they would not have noticed it. With a weak smile, the warrior princess raised a hand. “I'm s-sorry Gabrielle. W-We'll talk soon, I promise,” she said as her shape began to slowly fade.

When she was alone, the bard released a soft sigh. She closed her eyes, then leaned her head back against the wall. As the traitor tears threatened to fall, she sighed deeply and she tried to school her thoughts.

“This is no big deal,” she said out loud as she stood up, stripped off her clothes, then climbed naked under the light covering on the bed. “No big deal,” she whispered again as she closed her eyes to try to sleep. But the image of Zara in the throes of passion with the tall Moroccan beauty continued to play over and over behind her closed eyelids and eventually when she finally fell asleep, on into her dreams.
When her lover was in a deep sleep, Zara slowly rose from the bed. As she felt the cool night air against her damp flesh, she pulled her tunic over her head and made her way down the hall. At the entrance of her room, she saw the shadows of the bard in the bed. Suddenly self-conscious of the scent of arousal and spent passion on her skin, she turned away and made her way down to the main floor. In the darkness, she padded on bare feet over the marbled floors. When she entered into the small, bathing room and reached into the tub, the cool water sent a shiver through her. Not wishing to wake up the servants in order to heat water, the tall Moroccan gritted her teeth as she pulled her tunic off, then submerged herself into the cool water.

Despite the cool temperature, she found her desires ruling her thoughts. Although she had just taken pleasure with another, her mind was always returning to the bard. As her mind wandered over the pleasure that she might share with the blonde, she quickly did her best to wash the scent of another woman from her body. While her mind was on the bard, she left the cold water, grabbed a nearby towel and her tunic, and walked from the room. As she went quickly towards the upstairs, she felt the familiar excitement stirring within her the closer she came to where her small lover lay sleeping. Only when she was back in her room did she drop the towel and tunic on the floor.

A moment later, she crawled under the covers and snuggled against the bard's warm back, reaching around in front of her. She felt the smaller woman's gasp of surprise as she awoke to the hands caressing gently over her breasts and belly. Before Gabrielle could speak or begin to protest, the Moroccan rolled her over and covered her mouth and body with kisses, nibbling and stroking her. As if all it took was her passion alone to warm up the bard, she felt her smaller lover quickly beginning to shiver and groan in pleasure as they began their now familiar and delightful movements of love.

“Oh, Zara!” She heard the bard moaning as she arched herself against her dark lover. “Oh… yes…”

Part 57

Zara paid only partial attention to the movements around her house. She heard Abu instructing the newly arriving guards when she ate her morning breakfast. When her brother questioned her about her intentions, she only answered in short, cryptic words. Her thoughts went between formulating a plan that would guarantee her success, and the vivid memories of the night before.

Last night, after Zara had returned, she and the bard had loved one another until they had collapsed in blissful exhaustion, unable to do more than fall into a passion sated sleep in each other's arms. This morning when Zara had arisen to go to breakfast, the bard, true to her usual morning form, had mumbled something incoherent and rolled over without really waking. Although on a normal morning, the ship captain would have enjoyed the large breakfast that Inaam prepared, on this morning, all she could do was pick at the food, until she gave up and retired to the bathing chamber. As she leaned back in the warm, steaming tub, she closed her eyes and inhaled deeply in an attempt to close out any distracting thoughts.

At the slight noise from the entryway, she opened her eyes and watched as the sleepy bard walk woodenly into the room. Zara glanced at her small lover, who gave her a loving but tired smile before a huge yawn seemed to split her head from ear to ear. Afterward, Gabrielle gave a sheepish grin, then, as if remembering that she was playing a part, the bard grumbled, before quickly discarding her wrap and climbing into the steaming water with Zara. As her bath pool was not as large as the one in Arjun's home, the bigger woman found herself adjusting position in the water as she felt her lover's smooth legs draping over hers. At the feel of the warm water, the bard sighed as she leaned her head back, resting it on the tub's rim.

“Ahhhh…” Gabrielle purred contently, then slightly opened an eyelid. “Oh, I'm sorry, was this your alone time?” the bard asked, suddenly afraid that she had overstepped her boundaries.

“Of course not, I was simply bathing…” Zara grew quiet when the door opened and Inaam walked in, carrying two clean robes over her arm and a tray in her hands. With a polite nod to Gabrielle, the dusky woman sat a tray of food on the tiled edge of the tub, then turned and lay the two robes over a chair.

Red cheeked, the bard managed a weak smile and waved at the woman before closing her eyes and dipping lower into the water. With only a slight nod of appreciation to her Moroccan lover, Zara took up the powered soap and bathed. Despite the cramped condition in the tub, she managed to find enough room to scrub her body clean. At one point, she instinctively leaned forward as Inaam dutifully ran a soapy sponge over her back. When she completed her bath, she rinsed off her body, then gracefully rose from the tub, grateful that her consort was there with a large towel to dry her off.

From her vantage point, Gabrielle watched the scene unfold. She noticed how the two women did not seem to need words. As if they had gone through this many times, they moved with precise choreography. Whenever she felt Zara glancing her way, the blonde would either close her eyes as she soaked in the tub, or she would lean out of the tub to sip of the warm tea.

Only when Zara was out of the tub and the strength of the tea awakened the bard, did she sit up in the water and begin to bathe. Through her movements, she noticed how gentle
Zara's lover was. With a surprising tenderness, Inaam took the towel and completely dried the captain's nude body, then held the robe open for her. As this went on, Gabrielle watched with a certain appreciation for the captain's naked beauty. To watch Inaam, who was Zara's lover as well as she was, drying her off, Gabrielle felt slightly titillated. The Greek found herself wondering what it might be like to have Zara's chatelaine perform such a service for her and felt her cheeks grow warm.

When she felt her lover's eyes on her, the tall Moroccan turned to the bard. She noticed her blonde lover closely watching her, yet didn't understand Gabrielle's actions. With a questioning arch of a brow, Zara closed her robe and held the Greek woman's gaze.

“Gabrielle?” her voice seemed to pull the bard from whatever thoughts that filled her mind. The bard only smiled and shrugged her shoulders as she gingerly reached over and popped a date into her mouth, then returned to bathing.

“Go ahead, I'll be along shortly,” Gabrielle's said before she began to soap up her hair.

At her words, the sea captain nodded, then left the bathing room. Idly, she knew that Inaam followed close behind her, yet she did not allow herself to dwell on this. Instead, she returned her attention to preparing herself for the visit with her father.

As she dressed, Zara absently felt the soft fabric of the new clothes. Although she was accustomed to dressing herself, she remained silent as her Moroccan companion helped her to dress, knowing that this was Inaam's way of showing her love, concern, and support. When she glanced down at herself, she gazed at the clothes that her great uncle had given her. The white Dishdasha undershirt was similar to the Moroccan one she wore for special occasion. Its soft cloth against her skin was the only evidence of its superior weaving.

In the periphery of her senses, she heard Abu's deep, commanding voice from the main floor as he spoke to his former guards. She heard Nadrah down the hallway singing softly to Inaam's baby. Faintly she could also hear Gabrielle speaking softly to the servants, before she padded on bare feet back to their room.

When Gabrielle entered the room with a plate stacked with tasty treats for breakfast and her hair slicked back and wet, she gave her lover a sheepish smile, then she sat the plate on a table, and began making short work of the food as she returned her attention to drying her hair. Zara nodded formally to the small woman then returned her attention to dressing herself. As the tall captain took the small Thagiya skull cap and placed it over her head, she looked at her reflection in the mirror. When she noticed the intricate designs on the clothing, she promised herself that later, when this was over, she would take the time to admire the beautiful embroidery on the cloth. For now, all she wanted to do was focus on the task at hand. Behind her, she heard the Greek woman rustling through the room as she pulled her garments on while eating her breakfast.

When she heard a new sound behind her, she looked over her shoulder as Inaam went to the large closet. The Moroccan mistress glanced at the bard for only a moment before opening the doors to the large closet. The bard smiled and nodded at the tall woman as she scooted out of the way and finished dressing, then began to don her various weapons. Before the captain realized it, Inaam had removed Zara's scimitar from the closet, and brought it to her. With only a slight smile, Zara watched as her Moroccan lover took the belt and helped her wrap it around her waist. As she watched the dusky woman, she marveled at her feminine beauty. When she glanced up at her, Zara reached down and adjusted the belt, then reached out and cupped Inaam's cheeks in the palm of her hands. At this slight touch, the woman reached up and held the captain's hand against her cheek, and her eyes closed as a sigh escaped her control. As if realizing her show of emotion, Inaam pulled away with eyes lowered. The show of affection brought a smile of love to Zara's lips.

With a slight cough, Gabrielle's voice drew her attention back. “I'll be waiting outside,” she said softly as she took the empty plate and turned to go. “Take whatever … time you need.” She looked at Inaam, then she glanced back to Zara with a loving smile before leaving.

For a moment, Zara had a vivid image of the bard from many years before. Gabrielle was much younger and had longer hair. Her cheeks were round and her body not yet sculpted by years of physical training. The only thing that captured her attention was the deep sadness within the bard's eyes, and the knowledge that she was the cause of it. Yet there seemed nothing that she could do because her body yearned to feel Marcus' hard, smooth body against her as she had before … with a grimace, Zara shook her head. She closed her eyes tightly against the images and feelings that were soaring through her mind. “Not me,” she mumbled tensely. “Xena…”

She became aware of Inaam. Her consort was watching her as if troubled. She opened her mouth to speak, but closed it again. As if ashamed to show so much open affection, the tall feminine beauty lowered her eyes.

With an effort, Zara shook herself loose from Xena's memories and forced herself to smile in reassurance. “It is all right, Dada…” She whispered, touching her Moroccan lover's cheek with a palm. “Go, I will be along soon.”

Inaam turned her face into the palm on her cheek and kissed it softly, keeping her warm eyes on the captain's. Then she drew a breath and moving like a shadow, followed the bard out of the room.

With only a nod, Zara turned away as the door closed behind Inaam. As she reached for the Bisht coat, her mind tried to focus on the task that awaited her once more. As she mulled over the things she might have to say or do when she saw her father she was interrupted.

“Zara, you have got to tell Gabrielle what's happening with us,” the ghost's voice come sharply. With an arch of one eyebrow, she thought over Xena's words, then dismissed them as she turned and pulled the coat over her shoulders.

“There is nothing to be served by telling her,” she replied to the air as she glanced at the shimmering image that moved toward her.

“Dammit, Zara!” The ghost was close to her shoulder, the coldness emanated from her and her voice was harsh. “Gabrielle needs to know what's happening, she's got to be aware that something isn't right … by Hades, even I'm becoming disoriented. Half of the time, I don't know what is my history any more and what is yours!”

Zara sighed deeply as she closed her eyes. If asked, she would not have been able to explain exactly what was happening. But with everything occurring at once, she only shook her head as she pulled the scarf over her head, then easily tied it down with the agal cord. From the color of the scarf, to the gold color embroidery on the sleeves of her outer coat, the colors were that of her uncle's clan. With a slight smile, she looked at her reflection in the mirror. She noticed the shimmering essence move behind her, looking over her shoulder. Although she could not see the ghost smile, she could feel it through the tentative bond that they shared.

“I will discuss the matter with Gabrielle at a later date,” she said neutrally as she pulled on the coat and adjusted her shoulders in the white fabric, then pulled the loose piece of scarf around her face to conceal her identity.

“Oh, that's a very good touch!” the ghost confirmed as her cold hand was felt on the Moroccan's shoulder. “I can't wait to see father's…” the ghost stopped in mid-sentence, cursed herself softly, and continued, “I mean, I can't wait to see your father's expression when you lower the veil and he sees our tattoos.”

Assured by her words, Zara nodded as she pulled the scarf to conceal her features, then with one final hitch at her sword belt, she straightened her shoulders and left the room.
Fully armed and ready to go, Gabrielle was waiting for Zara on an intricately carved and polished olive wood bench near the front doors of the house. She was looking at the beautiful decorative wooden door panels when Inaam came quietly down the stairs. Zara's companion nodded at the bard and made as if to continue on into the rear of the house, but stopped when the small blonde spoke. “Inaam, could I … talk to you for a moment?”

The lithe woman hesitated and gazed at the Greek as if undecided.

Gabrielle smiled and patted the bench beside her. “Please?” She asked softly.

Lowering her head, the Mistress of Zara's home came and sat beside the bard. She folded her hands neatly in her lap and sat in obedient silence. Despite her casual manner, the blonde could see the dusky woman glancing sidewise at her from under long lashes.

Gabrielle cleared her throat. “You've … known Zara for a long time, haven't you.” She made it a statement. After a moment, Inaam nodded silently. “You have been her companion … her, um…” the blonde swallowed, “her … f-friend for a long time as well, I believe.”

Inaam continued to stare at the tiled floor. She said nothing but her manner was alert.

“Oh, Zeus … I'm doing this all wrong,” Gabrielle groaned. She put forth a hand and touched the woman's soft brown arm. “Inaam, you love Zara. I know this, because a person doesn't just present a child to someone they don't care for a great deal. You must truly love them. I know this from personal experience. And Zara and I … we, are…” The bard stopped, seeming unsure of how to proceed.

Inaam eyed the small white hand on her arm, then looked up at Gabrielle for the first time since she had sat down beside her. “You love her as well,” she said softly.

Gabrielle smiled. “Yes. I love Zara, too.” She shook her head. “She has been so kind and loving to me these past few months. She's helped me through the worst time of my life. Done more for me than almost any other person I have ever known, perhaps save one…” Her voice caught and her green eyes shown with tears as she blinked rapidly.

The Moroccan woman put her hand gently over the Healer-bard's and her skin was soft. “She has helped me as well,” she whispered. “My … love is all for her.” Her voice turned sad. “She loved me too this way, once. Now she is with you…”

“Oh, Inaam, no. She still loves you,” the bard choked. “She loves me too, I believe, but she still loves you, never doubt that.”

Inaam's face showed something like wonder and her voice trembled. “Th-Then you have not come to … to put me aside and take her love from me?”

Impulsively the bard hugged the other woman to her. “Oh, Inaam. No, NO! Gods, yes, I love her but I would not take her away from another who loves her so much.” She pulled back and looked earnestly into the dark eyes beside her. “A year ago I might have thought that a person can only love one other person at a time, but since then … I have gone through, have learned so much that I've been forever changed. I'm certainly not the naive little girl I was when I left Potidaea so long ago…” She smiled, then her expression grew puzzled. “I understand that you and Zara love each other, I just have difficulty understanding how she can treat you like a piece of … of furniture when you keep her house for her. When you bring her pillows and food and drink before she even asks! You do all these things for her and yet she ignores you.”

“Zara does not ignore me,” said the Mistress of the house in surprise. “But to show outward affection is not the way of our people.” Her face turned beautiful as she continued. “Part of how I show my love is to make certain that she is always comfortable, always served. That she always has food and drink before she even knows she wants it. To have all things in this, her house, always perfect. Clean and neat and without blemish so that she, the one I love most in the world shall never want for anything.” She gazed at the bard. “Is it not so in your country?”

Gabrielle shook her head. “Our countries ways are certainly different,” she sounded bewildered. “I loved Xena and would have given my life for her and she would for me, but we both expected … oh, I don't know, little mutual courtesies like a 'thank you' given back when one of us did something for the other.” Her eyes widened as a sudden thought struck her. “But, by the gods! Now that I think of it, Xena has never been very forthcoming with shows of affection. Doesn't talk all that much. Pretends to never notice me…” Her gaze became tender, “but despite it all, I always have known that she loves me.”

Inaam pursed her dark lips. “I think perhaps our two countries are not so different after all, Gab-re-elle. Among our people love is perhaps more hidden, yours more openly shown, but I think that both of our loves run just as deep. We both seek to make the ones we care for happy, it is just in how we show our love and devotion that our two peoples are different.”

“I think you're right, Inaam.” The bard wrinkled her nose as a smile spread across her face. “By the gods. The more things I learn in life, the more things I find out that I don't know.” She took Inaam's dark hands in her own and spoke earnestly. “But one thing I do know. We both love this same woman, this sweet, vulnerable, strong ship captain, Zara al-Zarqa and I will do my best to help her be happy.”

“As will I,” whispered the regal Moroccan, smiling for the first time. The two women hugged one another for a moment and Gabrielle was aware of the sweet smell of Jasmine clinging to Inaam that reminded her of Zara. Then at the sound of long striding footsteps at the head of the stairs, the two pulled apart and stood up smiling to await their Moroccan lover's coming.

Part 58

Walking briskly downstairs, Zara ignored everything around her as she made her way toward the front doors.

“Captain?” Abu's voice caught her attention. Turning, she saw him standing near the door, his weapons fastened to his waist. Behind him stood six of his biggest and most trusted friends. She saw Gabrielle and Inaam waiting there as well. The bard was ready with her weapons and the chatelaine had her hands folded in front of her.

Neither of the two women she loved said anything as Abu spoke again. “Captain, we are ready.”

“Good … very good,” she said as she turned and looked back at her brother. He stood in the open room near his wife. The big, burly forms of Abu's former guards stood battle ready throughout her house. Without saying a word, she nodded as she turned away, her cape swirling behind her as she briskly left her house to enter the waiting carriage.

In the periphery of her senses, she knew that the bard had joined her in the carriage. When she felt the vehicle shaking, she was aware that Abu had taken the seat on top next to the driver. As the carriage pulled out of her courtyard, she glanced out the window and noticed six of Abu's men riding along, three on either side of the carriage. With a deep sigh, Zara leaned back and closed her eyes in an attempt to stop the images of another life from playing in her mind.

She saw the darkness around her as she felt the vicious blows her own men were raining against her body. While one part of her mind realized that this was another memory of the ghost warrior, the image played through her memories as if it happened to her. She knew that the gauntlet was her only chance to get out, her only salvation from the sins of her past. True, it was her men and Darphus who had butchered the women and children, but she was just as guilty as if it were her hands that had killed them. Now, the only redemption she could find was to stand up to their wrath in order to save the life of an innocent baby. The physical blows were nothing compared to the knowledge that each of these men had once swore their allegiance to her and now they were running her through the gauntlet which to her knowledge, no one had ever survived. Even on the chance that she did live through it, they would still send her into exile.

“No, this did not happen to me,” she half whispered as she lowered her eyes from the horsemen who rode alongside the carriage.

“Zara?” Gabrielle glanced at her with concern, her hand moving to take Zara's larger one. “Sweetheart, is everything all right?” The green eyes searched her for a moment, until she was able to nod and wave away the bard's concerns.

From somewhere in the back of her mind, she heard the all too familiar voice, 'You'd better get a hold of yourself,' the ghost's spirit cautioned. 'Gabrielle's not stupid! Unless you want to start explaining the situation to her now, you'd better pull it together! I don't think this is the time you wanna choose for this little revelation!'

“Yes, of course,” she nodded, as if to herself and then glanced up at the healer. “Nothing. It is nothing,” she replied softly before turning back to the sights out the carriage window. However the memories of a past not her own continued to mix with the images she was seeing and concentration was difficult. With supreme effort, she found herself moving through the motions. One moment, she was riding next to the healer in silence, then the next she was walking up a familiar pathway. Abu flanked her on one side, while the Greek warrior-healer was on the other.

When she entered her father's home, she stood silent and waited for her arrival to be announced. Like an unwanted visitor, she was kept waiting in the antechamber. Only when Abu began to pace the length of the hall were the large doors leading into her father's office opened. In silence, she began to walk into the all too familiar room, then stopped when she heard Abu and Gabrielle protest. Turning, she saw her father's house servants keeping them at bay.

“It is all right, wait for me here,” Zara heard herself say as she waved away their concerns.

“Zara!” The bard's voice overpowered even Abu's protests.

“No. Wait here, I shall be back.” She spoke again, her voice changing in pitch as if she were issuing an order and closed the doors behind her.

When she entered the familiar office, she glanced around the shadows and noticed that nothing had changed. Sitting behind his large desk, her father stared down at a pile of scrolls that were laid out in front of him. With a grimace, she took long, purposeful strides and stood before him.

He looked up at her and his face twisted with irritation or something else. “You brought nothing back from Japa.” He accused.

Angered by his words, she scowled at him. “Is this how you greet visiting royalty?” Her voice was cold.

At her statement, Zara saw the look of surprise in her father's eyes. Then it quickly turned to outrage. He glared at her as he rose from his chair. Before he could say anything, she reached up slowly, the sleeves of her coat falling down as she pulled the scarf away from her face. In that single moment, her new status was revealed to him. Whatever words he had been set to speak were lost to him as he stared at her for a long moment.

“So you would make your father bow down to you? You would show such disrespect for your kin?” His voice was deep and full of controlled venom as he tried a ploy that used to send fear through her.

“Don't listen to him, you have all the power here,” she heard the ghost's voice next to her. With a smile, Zara nodded at the ghost's comments as she took a single step forward and sat easily on the chair in front of his desk.

As she adjusted her scimitar, a slight smile creased the corner of her lips. “My kin shall never be forced into such formalities … unless you feel that it is … necessary?”

Clearly flustered, the older man gulped as he looked away, his eyes scanned the scrolls on his desk. As if unable to continue with his ploy, he sat heavily in his chair. With a deep-set frown, he looked up at her with rage smoldering in his eyes.

“You have my son,” he accused hoarsely.

“You have my mother,” she countered.

“What I do with my wife is my business!” her father's voice was filled with hate. “This has nothing to do with your mother, it has to do with my son! You have him. I want him returned to me as well as that … that….Judean whore!” He thumped the desktop with a fist and his body seemed almost to swell up and his voice rose to a bellow of fury at the last.

Despite herself, for a moment Zara felt a twinge akin to fear as all of the times her father had misused her seemed to come crashing in on her and she felt like a helpless little girl again. Then she heard the ghost. “He has no power.” Xena spoke firmly and with a trace of humor. “Look at him. What a blowhard. If he isn't careful he'll bust a gut with his yammering and keel right over!” Zara saw the shimmering image moving to stand behind her father. “He thinks you're still a kid he can bully. He's nothing to be afraid of. Just an old dog barking with no teeth. You could break him in half if you chose to.” The ghost moved a hand close to his back and Zara could tell that he felt the coldness surrounding him as he shivered slightly. Seeing him powerless against the presence of the ghost warrior, the Moroccan captain released a breath she had not realized she had been holding and smiled.

“What form of evil did you bring back from Indus?” The old man growled as he jumped up from his desk. Quickly glancing around him, he searched the darkness of the shadows and made the crook-fingered sign against devils.

“The only evil here is the evil that has always existed in this home,” she looked up at him, her voice holding a calmness and strength that she did not know she had.

He gritted his teeth and raised his hands, his fingers hooked like claws. “You! I said you have my son! I want him now, do you understand me? Do you dare to defy me?” he barked as if his voice still held power over her.

He did look like a yapping street mongrel, Zara thought with faint surprise. She only smiled coldly as she stood up. Rising to her full height, she glared down at him, her hand easily resting on the hilt of her scimitar. “My brother came to me seeking refuge and refuge I have promised him. All I have come for is my mother, and what is my right … what is my due. But as I know you will never give me what I rightfully earned, then I will take the only thing that I can.” She lowered her voice. “You know what it is that I wish, and you had best not fight me on this … old man,” she hissed.

“How dare you…” The bearded, gray haired man's voice growled as he took a few steps toward her, his hand raised and pulled back as if the slap her. In a single motion she reached out and captured his wrist in her hand and clamped tightly around his bony wrist. With a strength forged from years at sea, she bent his arm back with ease, causing him to grunt suddenly with the pressure. He drew back his other fist to strike her and she seized this one as well and applied downward force. He fought against it with an animal-like sound of frustration but was forced down despite all he could do. She watched in mild fascination as his eyes grew wide with disbelief as he dropped to his knees before her.

“How dare you, father!” she hissed as she stared down at the man. “How dare you let me believe that my kin from the east was the cause of my imprisonment! Yes, father, I know the truth now. You may have lied to me before, but you cannot anymore.”

With wide-eyed fear, the old man stared at her. His face was contorted with agony as she crushed his wrists within her grip. “You will never again torment me or my kin again. Do you understand?”

Close to tears, her father grimaced as he lowered his head. The beads of sweat began to form across his forehead as he groveled before her, the pain of her grip clearly visible on his features.

“I said, 'DO YOU UNDERSTAND?'” she gritted.

With only a weak nod, he panted from his efforts to be free of her and ceased struggling. A choking sound issued from his throat and he panted some more as sweat ran down his face and dripped on the tiled floor.

With this clear evidence of the powerlessness of this man she had suffered so much from, Zara should have felt triumph, but instead she felt almost dirty inside. It was as if she were the one doing evil to this weak and pathetic old man. Despite this, she felt her rage building.

“All this time … all these years, you had me believing things that were untrue,” she whispered and her voice was suddenly choked as a lump formed in her throat and her vision swam with tears. “You would have let me go on believing that my pain … the loss of my split apart…m-my soul mate, was caused by my kin from the east. Why, father? Why would you let me think this?” Her voice was almost pleading now. “W-Why … did you even do it? Why do you hate me so much that you would have done such a thing? Why, damn you! WHY?” She whispered harshly through the tears of anguish running down her face.

True to form, her father merely glared up at her. His face was a blood bloated red mask of hatred from his struggles and his breathing was heavy, but he said nothing further.

Before she could speak again, a sudden, intense pain shot through her head. Like a mallet driving an iron spike against her temple, she felt it splintering into her skull. The agony was like a force seeming to push against her eyeballs until all she could do was release her father and hold her head as she fought for control.

“M-Mad … you are mad!” Her father choked. On his knees he scuttled behind his desk hugging his numbed wrists into his armpits as she turned to stagger away from him.

She paid him no attention as the never-ending pain seared into her brain and she felt herself being pulled into a darkness of sorrow. Gasping at the sensations, tears ran down her cheeks as she fell to her knees feeling her world spinning out of control. Using every droplet of strength she had left, she opened her eyes and found herself surrounded by swirling darkness. Through the chaos only one thought ran through her brain.

“Mother,” she gasped as she felt the pain cutting through her heart. “Oh … mother,” she cried out as she rose on wobbly legs, the vision seeming to pull her closer, guiding her toward the object of her search.
“I don't like this one bit,” Gabrielle fumed as she paced the length of the hallway, then glanced up at the closed doors. “It's too quiet in there.”

“I like it no better, little bard,” Abu grunted as he remained standing near the door, his thumbs hooked into the belt that carried his sword.

Although the bard knew that it had only been a short time since Zara disappeared behind the door, to her it felt like an eternity. A faint mutter of voices came from the door, but no words could be distinguished. Even with two of Abu's biggest guards with them, she felt uneasy as she glanced around the room. She tried to use all of her training to calm her shaky nerves. When humming a Yogic mantra failed, she returned to pacing the length of the room.

“This is…” She began to say, but stopped in mid-sentence when a hoarse scream came from the room. In shock she and Abu stared at each other for a moment, then as one they started for the doors. Before they could get there, the panels flew open and Zara ran out. In tears, the tall Moroccan ran from the office. As if blinded by everything around her, she ran unseeing past them and down a nearby hall. With only a glance at Abu, the bard tore off running after Zara, calling her lover's name.

The Moroccan paid no heed and kept going and Gabrielle ran as fast as she could, trying but failing to keep up with Zara's longer strides. She could hear Abu and his men calling as they thundered along a short distance behind her, but she paid them no more attention than Zara paid her. The house corridors twisted and turned and at one point, she found herself running down a flight of stairs. Only when she was surrounded in the shadows of a cool, dank corridor, did she stop long enough to get her bearing. Panting and out of breath, she looked behind her in time to see Abu and his two men. Abu lifted a torch from the wall, then proceeded past her as if he knew where the corridor led. When they reached the hallway's end, they found Zara, her hands trying to push open a large, wooden door as her panic-filled eyes shed silent tears.

Gabrielle caught the look from Abu. As if afraid of what he would find, he grimaced as he handed her the torch, then moved to the door and gently pulled his captain away from it. Zara allowed him to pull her away, but pushed unseeing at him trying to get to the door. When his two men came up, the burly second mate looked a command at them. As one, the huge men nodded and slammed their shoulders against the door as if the sheer size of their girth would break it free from the hinges that held it closed.
Xena found herself standing near the old man. Each time she felt Zara's fear rising, she had spoken to her, bolstering her courage. As if the torture and captivity had happened to her, the ghost warrior felt a deep and festering anger toward Zara's father. When her father moved to strike Zara, Xena was ready to step in, to enter her body in order to teach the old bastard better manners. But the warrior princess never had to take possession of the tall Moroccan, because no sooner had the old man raised his hand, than Zara stopped him with a single crushing grip on his arm.

Before Xena could even enjoy the scene before her, she felt a gentle tugging on her senses. Blinking at the sensations, she turned around in the office, trying to home in on the feelings she was receiving. Xena felt her breathing grow suddenly still as she felt herself being pulled away through the walls and corridors of the home. She zipped past Abu, Gabrielle and the two guards and not even the bard noticed her. Everything was a blur until she found herself in a cold, dark room.

Confused, she moved slowly in the room, glancing around. She saw the single window high on the wall, its opening boarded up until all that could enter were a few feeble rays of sunlight. When she looked down, she saw the filth covering the greasy tile floor. Why was she in this place? What had drawn her here? Focusing her mind, she felt a faint brightness like a guttering candle flame in the gloom and turned to look into the dark shadows of the room.

“Oh … by the gods,” a sob of pity escaped the ghost's control as she knelt by the lone figure curled up in a fetal position on the floor. As ghostly tears began to fall, she lightly touched the half-conscious form in the odorous and filthy clothing. As if stirring from a dream, the gray haired woman rolled slowly over to look up at her. Her lips, parched from dehydration, and her eyes once full of life, barely moved. Instead, they remained confused and glazed as she looked at Xena. With a weak smile, the old woman mumbled incoherently as she reached out a bony hand, but her fingers went through the ghostly form.

“Just … a … dream…” The woman sighed, “…only another dream…” she whispered and her withered hand fell back as she closed her eyes. Before the warrior princess could call for help, she felt Zara on the other side of the door, her bare hands banging on the massive door. When a sudden silence filled the room, the ghost looked back down at the weak woman.

“Don't worry, mother … it w-will be over soon,” Xena whispered brokenly as she ran her cold, spirit fingers gently through the old woman's hair. “I promise…” As if filled with understanding, the old woman only nodded with her eyes still closed but what might have been a faint smile passed over her lips as a shuddering crash announced the door breaking down.
The moment that Abu's men had the door open, Zara was inside and searching for her mother. Gabrielle hurried in as well, wrinkling her nostrils. Although the stench in the room assaulted the captain's senses, she ignored it and searched the darkness until she found the huddled mass on the floor. When she found the slight form, she moved to it and knelt down on the filthy tile.

“Mother?” Her voice was a strangled gasp as she ran her fingers over her mother's cool flesh. When the eyes fluttered open, and a soft smile crossed the old woman's withered lips, Zara released the breath she had been holding as she quickly removed her coat. True to her nature, the bard was now kneeling beside her, her hands and eyes quickly assessing the woman's state. After only a moment, she glanced at Zara.

“She's all right to move, but we need to get her out of here, now!” Zara saw the urgency within the bard's eyes as the smaller woman's voice remained firm. With only a nod, the tall Moroccan gently lifted her mother and placed her coat around the old woman's shoulders, then lifted her into her arms.

“Zara?” Her mother's voice was barely a whisper. “I-Is it … truly … you, my … little one?”

Fresh tears ran down her cheeks but her voice was steady and controlled. “Calm yourself, mother. You will be fine now. I promise you, he will never hurt you again,” she vowed as she moved in quick strides from the room.

These hallways and corridors had once been her place of amusement when she was a child. So many times she had been down in these cavernous spaces, playing children's games with her siblings. Never in her wildest dreams would she have thought to be frightened of these dark corridors because as a child, they had remained empty, their purposes a mystery to her. But now, as she ran toward the light of the afternoon sun, she realized the grisly purpose of these rooms that her father had hidden below his home and cursed his name.

“Come,” the sea captain heard Abu call as he guided her through the ground floor. As they went she realized that his guards now flanked them, shoving questioning house servants aside.

When they exited the home, she felt herself blinking in the harsh rays of the afternoon sun. Half blinded by the light, they stumbled toward the carriage where others of Abu's men awaited, hands on weapons. As the sound of their footfalls upon the dirt reached her senses, she smiled down at her mother's half consciousness form. Her mother's eyes gazed up at her with a never-ending love. With a slight smile, Zara kept a firm hold on the smaller woman. She tried to push down her own fears as she felt how light her mother was in her arms.

“You wanted to know 'Why?' you bitch!?” The scream from her father caught her attention.

Before she had even made it to the carriage, she turned to face the man. As if the commotion had roused them from their stupor, Zara's brother's had left the home to stand by their father's side. While his eldest sons tried to hold him back, the others were simply watching the scene unfold with puzzled or angry expressions.

“You want to know why, I will tell you why,” the old man's face scowled as he pulled away from his sons and took a few steps toward her. “Because she's a whore!” He pointed an accusing finger at the woman in Zara's arms. “That's right, she is nothing but a filthy whore who brought her bastard daughter to my sacred home! Why do you think her own father disowned her and took away her dowry? Because he knew what she was! How else can you explain yourself, you gangly monster?” He spat the words venomously. “Look at you! You look nothing like the rest of my children!”

“Zara. Come on, honey. Don't listen to him. Let's go,” she heard Gabrielle next to her even as her mind silently raged. “Sweetheart, your mother needs care. Please, let's just go.” The bard tugged at her arm.

Zara nodded understanding as she turned and handed her mother to the bard. “Take mother into the carriage,” she instructed as she pulled away from the two. Her face was pale and her expression hideous to see.

“Zara, no,” the bard whispered, but the captain did not listen. Instead, she whirled about to go running toward the man. Before she was even to him, her scimitar had been drawn as her body braced for impact. With a screech of terror, her father called for his sons to protect him, but Abu and his men quickly formed a circle around her with weapons drawn, keeping her brothers at bay.

Blanching with fear, her father turned to run back into the house, but Zara was upon him like a tiger and spun him around to face her. The roiling anger pounding in her brain turned her vision red and hazy and shut out all outside sound. All she longed to do was to end this man's life the same way that her beloved Alaya's had ended. He saw his death in her face and tried to strike her. She dodged easily and her fist smashed into his nose in an explosion of blood which knocked him onto his back. Then she unhurriedly knelt on his chest, holding the sharpened edge of her scimitar tightly against his neck.

For what felt like an eternity, she stared down into the frightened man's eyes and the blood bubbled from his broken nose as his panting breath whistled in and out. Then she spoke through gritted teeth. “If you need an explanation, her father disowned my mother because she had the audacity to marry beneath her station! To marry you! A common merchant!” she hissed. “And I look nothing like you because I am the mirror image of my mother's kin, the Sultan's clan!” The spit of her words flew into his face as her hand grew shaky holding her sword. “Tell me now why I should not remove your foul head and leave it as a plaything for the wild dogs!” She screamed in anger.

For a moment, she saw the realization of her words settle in. Still on his back, he stared up at her and gulped nervously as his breath wheezed and burbled through the blood from his nose and he tried to keep his neck from pressing into her sword. As the anguished memories of her past flooded her senses, a past full of torment because of this one small and petty man, a low growl sounded from her throat and she pulled the sword away and rose to her feet. Thinking that she must have changed her mind, the old man released a sigh of relief and in that split second, her scimitar was raised high. With both hands on the hilt, she released a guttural scream as she began to plunge the blade down.

Zara, noooo!” The weak voice broke through the madness that was consuming the captain and stopped her sword a hairsbreadth from his shuddering chest. The words froze her in mid strike before she could take her father's life. Her body heaved as she panted for air and tried to get control of herself once more. As she blinked away the sweat from her eyes, she turned toward the voice. There held tenderly in the carriage by Gabrielle, her mother reached out from the folds of her Bisht coat, her eyes pleading for the old man's life even as her weak voice called to Zara.

“Captain, it is over,” she felt Abu by her side, his hand reached for the scimitar and removed it from her grasp. “Zara, nothing good will come of this! We have what we came here for, let us leave,” the gentle man whispered as he wrapped an arm over her shoulder and began to guide her away. With head bowed and tears in her eyes, she had not caught the look of disgust that Abu and his men gave to her father and the men of his house. Instead, she only felt a numbing sorrow, as she was led into the carriage with her mother and the bard.

Part 59

Gabrielle thought she had seen the worst of humanity. She witnessed the results of war, the total destruction and lives lost. She had seen the remains of humans left behind, the bodies strewn over the land and although she considered herself knowledgeable in the hideous ways that humanity was, she had to admit to herself that she had never witnessed this before. True, she had seen children malnourished after their farmland had been turned into a battlefield. She had seen mothers, their milk gone dry because they didn't have food of their own to eat, and were unable to feed their infants. But as she tended to the old woman, she had to admit to herself that she had never known of anyone who was purposefully being starved to death when there was food in abundance available.

With a grimace, the bard closed her eyes to the memories of that dark room that had been this poor woman's prison. As if she were nothing more than an animal, bowls of food, or something resembling food, had been pushed in below the door. Although she had not inspected the contents of the bowls, the healer in her knew that what substance they were feeding the old woman was not enough to sustain life … at least, not for long.

As if neither one had anything to say, she and Zara quickly tended to the old woman's condition. Once the thin, bony frame was stripped, they gently bathed her slight form. When she was cleaned of the filth and stench, the tall Moroccan gently carried her mother like a babe to a warm, well-lighted room. With a tenderness she rarely allowed to be seen, Zara tucked the clean covering around her mother.

“Baba … baba…” the old woman's words were so soft, that they had to strain to hear her. When her aged eyes gazed up at Zara, a smile broke her confused features and she reached up and lightly touched the captains, cheek. “Azzah, where were you? I called and called,” she asked as her eyes got a far away look. Then, as if in a dream, she glanced past Zara, “Baba?”

Gabrielle gazed at Zara in question. “Baba?”

“She is calling for her mother,” the tall woman whispered as she ran her fingers through her mother's gray hair. The pain in her voice clear despite the smile that she cast down on her mother.

At her lover's explanation, Gabrielle nodded understanding as she tucked in her side of the covers. When the healer bard glanced across the patient to the Moroccan, she saw the fear within her lover's eyes. Yet when Zara glanced down at her mother, she only smiled and whispered words of encouragement. When she caught Zara's attention, she nodded and moved away from the aged woman.

“She will be all right now,” Zara said it as a statement. Seeing her lover's determination, Gabrielle used her Healer's smile as she fought to keep from showing her true thoughts.

“I don't know how long she was kept down there. Zara, honey, she's hallucinating, she's…” the bard grew silent when her Moroccan love gazed down at her with a pitiful expression.

“She's going to be fine,” Zara stated as a plea.

For a moment, the healer didn't know what to say. She longed to be able to tell her lover what she wanted to hear. But she could not make a promise that she was not certain she could keep. Instead, she reached up and smiled at Zara, the palm of her hand brushing across her lover's soft cheek.

“I'll do everything that I can,” she promised. At her words, the captain released the breath she had been holding as she nodded acceptance.

“Baba … baba … where are you, baba?” the old woman's soulful voice caused Zara to return by her side. Filled with devotion, she took the old woman's hand in hers and held it close to her cheek.

“You are all right now, mother. Please, don't fear, you are safe. I promise, nothing will every hurt you again, just rest, mother. Rest and heal yourself,” the tall Moroccan commanded in a whisper as she brushed her fingers over her mothers forehead. At her words, the old woman smiled at her, her eyes never wavering from Zara's gaze.

In an attempt to wipe away the tears that were coming to her eyes, the Greek woman turned away from the sight.

“We have this, perhaps it will help,” Inaam spoke softly as she moved beside the bard. Glancing down at the small bowl, the slight pleasant aroma of the liquid reached her senses. At the bard's questioning look, the tall woman ran the spoon through the liquid, the slight hummus rolled through the liquid.

“It is harira, a lentil soup,” Inaam explained.

With a grateful smile, she clasped the taller woman's arm, and nodded. “Yes, Inaam, that is perfect, but please, only give her the broth. She won't be able to process the lentils right now. Perhaps later in the day, you might be able to make a soupy broth with the mashed lentils?”

The tall woman thought for a moment, then smiled, “Of course. When you feel mother can eat it, I will prepare the meal.”

“Thank you, Inaam … and please, make certain that she eats slowly and only a small amount at a time,” she sighed as she nodded toward her patient. As if pleased to be given a part in the healing of Zara's mother, the young woman moved near the side of the bed.

“Mother, I have prepared this for you, but healer Gabrielle only wants you to eat a little at once,” Inaam whispered softly as she took a small amount in a spoon and held it to the old woman's lips.

As she watched her two lovers tend to her mother, Zara was shaken to see how much effort it cost the aged matriarch to drink even that little bit. She kept her face expressionless, but the rage ran through her and she silently cursed her father to the darkest demon-haunted depths of the underworld. Despite her mother's plea, the captain was regretting not following through with her final blow that would have sent the man to whatever fate awaited him in the afterlife.

Satisfied that she had done everything she could to see that the patient was clean and as comfortable as she could be, the bard moved slowly from the room. As she left, Rashi, and his wife entered, their fears and concerns hidden behind smiles as they carried their infant son into the room. When the healer bard glanced back in, she noticed the look of devotion from the captain's eyes as she lightly ran her fingers through the old woman's hair. As if pleased by their presence, the aged mother smiled as she looked from her daughter, to Inaam, and then to her son and his wife and child.

Gabrielle wiped at the tears in her eyes as she realized with sadness and a growing anger that she had never before seen anything like this in her life. Such a severe form of cruelty from a man against his own wife was something that that she had never before witnessed, and she hoped that she never would again.

“Oh, Zara…” she whispered to herself with a sob. “There's nothing more I can do for her. Its now all in the hands of a power greater than mine.”
Zara tried to not think of the place where her mother had been held captive. She tried to wipe the memory of the meager food that her mother had been living on out of her mind. Instead, she smiled at the woman as she ran her fingers through her white hair. When her brother entered the room, she smiled when she saw her mother's wrinkled face crease into a smile.

“Mother, I want you to meet my wife and son,” Zara heard her brother whisper as they made their way to the side of her bed. For a moment, their mother looked confused. But then she gazed at the infant son with such love that it seemed to radiate from her eyes.

“Rashi … my babe,” the gray haired woman spoke softly as she reached for the infant, then smiled at the young man. Although she did not speak again, the old woman's pleased eyes seem to sparkle with pleasure.

When Inaam's babe began to cry, Zara's consort rose from her place and left the room quietly. As if hearing the sound of birds, the aged patient closed her eyes and tilted her head, then opened her eyes and gazed at Zara as if to ask a question. With a smile, the ship captain left her mother's side and went to the crying baby. As if surprised by her presence, Inaam looked up at her, then smiled slightly as she held her infant daughter against her bare breast.

“Mother heard her,” she explained. With an understanding nod, Inaam smiled as she gazed down with love at her feeding babe.

As she watched her lover, the tall captain felt a mixture of awe and wonder. She marveled at the sheer perfection of this woman who was both lover and mother. Although she had seen nursing mothers before, she could not contain the wonderment she held for her companion. When Inaam was finished, she covered herself, then held the baby to her shoulder, gently patting the babe's back. After a few moments, she pulled the baby away, wiped away the spittle and burped milk, then handed the infant to Zara. As if she were holding a cherished gem, the tall captain walked carefully back to her mother's room.

“Mother, I would like you to meet my daughter … your granddaughter,” she explained as she showed her mother the babe.

“Oh, so beautiful!” Joy belied the weakness in the old woman's words. With a curious look, she turned to Zara as if asking a silent question.

“Umm … Inaam, have you named her?” Zara was ashamed that she had not asked this question before.

“No, as is our custom, I did not name her,” Inaam explained as a slight blush crossed her cheeks.

Zara smiled at the woman. She should have known that Inaam would not have strayed from the traditions of their people when it came to naming her child. With a sigh, the tall Moroccan looked down at the child in her arms. Although she had only known this tiny human for a few days, she knew that it was her duty to name the child of her house.

“Mother, her name shall be Fatimah…” Her voice was soft as she looked into the intense gaze of the child. “She shall carry your name, mother,” Zara smiled. As an after thought, she looked up at Inaam, “Fatimah Gabrielle bint Azzah al-Zarqa,” she spoke the formal name that she would give the child.

If anyone in her family wondered why the name ended with her own name and not her fathers, they did not ask. Instead, they smiled as they gently repeated the name out loud. When the infant began to grow impatient in her arms, Zara smiled gently at her mother, then turned to hand the baby back to Inaam. When Gabrielle came back in to check on her patient, Inaam pulled her aside and informed her of the babe's name. As if pleased by the decision, the bard smiled so broadly that her nose wrinkled and her eyes became tiny slits of joy.

“This is … is the second baby who bears my name,” she choked through her tears as she hugged first Inaam and then Zara. “I am so honored. Thank you. Both of you.”

The captain hugged her back and rested her chin on the smaller woman's head as Inaam watched with a proud smile. Finally, the happy bard pulled back, wiped at her eyes and straightened up. “Let me check on your mother,” she sniffled and cleared her throat.

Moving to the bed, Gabrielle's face formed into the Healer's non-committal mask as she focused on her duty once more. The old woman's eyes were closed and her breathing was shallow. The Healer-bard lay the inside of her wrist over the older woman's forehead to test her temperature, then gently raised her arm and felt for a pulse. After a moment, she laid the frail arm back and stroked her fingers through the white hair.

Zara came near. “G-Gabrielle?” she whispered. Her voice was worried.

“She's just asleep. Let her rest,” the bard spoke softly, her Healer's voice betraying nothing. “She needs all the strength she can get.” Then she began to quietly shoo the visitors from the room and went with them. Only Zara remained behind to hold a silent vigil beside her sleeping mother. From the door, Gabrielle watched her lover for long moments as she sat holding her mother's hand. Then as the tears gathered in her eyes, the bard turned and left them alone.
It was some time later before the captain realized how quiet the house was. Despite the bard's suggestions that she should get some rest herself, Zara had not left her mother's bedside. Instead, she sat near her, watching the old woman sleep, and occasionally closing her eyes for a few moments of rest. She was nodding in her chair when the sound of her mother's voice caused the captain to stir stiffly.

“Baba…baba…” her mother's voice was so weak and helpless. Leaning toward her, she took a cool cloth from a basin of water nearby, then lightly ran it over her mother's forehead.

“Mother, you are all right. Your mother is not here now,” Zara felt a fear enter her as she tried to help her parent. After a moment, her mother looked directly at her, the clarity in her blue eyes seemed to sparkle as she gazed at Zara.

Zara,” the old woman's voice was weak.

“Yes mother, I'm here. I'm with you,” she smiled.

Leaning forward in her chair, she ignored the twinges in her back and neck from sitting so long and set the damp towel aside. “I'm here, mother…” she said softly. “Do you need anything? Some water?”

“Zara, w-we … must talk…” Her mother closed her eyes as if these few words had drained what little energy she had left. The old woman reached a wavering hand for her.

Zara took the hand gently; the skin felt cool and thin as parchment. “Mother, you are weak. Please, you must rest,” she ordered in as gentle a tone of voice as she could.

“No … Zara … p-promise me,” the wrinkled hands took hers and held it firmly.

“Anything mother, I shall promise you anything your heart desires,” she whispered as she looked into the woman's eyes.

“Don't hurt him…” the old woman whispered as she held Zara's gaze.

“Mother, what?” At first she was confused, then as understanding came, she was angry. She fought to keep it out of her voice. “Mother, he deserves…”

Her mother's eyes were intent upon hers. “Please … he is your father!”

At a noise in the hallway, Zara looked up and saw Abu staring in at them. For what felt like an eternity, they held each other's gaze. When she felt her mother weakly squeeze her hand, she looked back down.

Please…” the old woman begged.

“I promise, mother. I will never touch my father again,” she said brokenly as she took the cool, wet cloth and wiped it over her mother's brow.

As if satisfied with her response, the aged matriarch closed her eyes and laid her head back on the pillow. Her features grew still, the withdrawal visible. As she watched the transformation in her mother's face, a sharp pain registered in the center of the captain's heart. Unable to do little else, she watched and waited, holding her mother's hand in hers. Her mother's breathing continued in slow, shallow breaths until they did not come at all.

Looking up into the hallway, Zara saw only darkness where Abu had stood. With a sigh, she closed her eyes for a moment. Then, unable to maintain her control as a sadness filled her soul, she lowered her head on her mother's bed. She held the still warm hand in hers as she tried to allow her silent and unshed tears to fall for the first woman she had ever loved. But no tears came. Instead, she felt only the numbing coldness of grief that seemed to engulf her soul.

She did not know how long she remained with her head on the bed, holding her mother's cold hand. In the back of her mind, she heard a slight noise and lifted her head. With dry eyes, she watched as the bard moved to her patient, concern within her eyes as she examined Zara's mother. The healer seemed to hesitate for only a moment, then glanced at her with a sad expression. When Zara nodded understanding, the small blonde moved away from her patient.

“I'll let your brother know,” Gabrielle's voice was laced with tears.

Zara had not needed the healer's confirmation of what she already knew. With a sad sigh, she gazed at her mothers lifeless features. The dark eyes that once held such love were now devoid of any spirit. Fighting back her sadness, the captain leaned toward her mother and closed the matriarch's eyelids knowing that she would never look into them and know that love again.

When she heard Gabrielle's low words outside and the disbelieving cry from her brother, the tall woman rose from her place as she glanced around the room. The ship captain was not a religious woman. She had never considered herself devout, but she knew that regardless of her own self doubt, she would always honor her mother and show respect. Yet, she had not followed the rituals that were required of her. Out of denial, Zara did not make the Dua' on her mother's behalf while the woman was still alive and near death. As a daughter, she had not humbled herself, nor encouraged her mother to seek forgiveness from Allah for any past deed because a part of her wanted to believe that her mother would survive. At her realization of this clear omission, the tall Moroccan woman closed her eyes as she fought to gain some control over herself.

When she had, she gazed down at her mother's lifeless form, and released a deep sigh. Then she began to openly speak the Shahada, the prayer that she should have said with her mother before her death. “La ilaha ella Allah,” she said in a whisper. The words came out in a wooden monotone as she tried to put conviction behind the prayer. When her brother ran into the room, she looked up at him, and shook her head, then spoke in a louder voice, “La ilaha ella Allah, There is no God but Allah.”

With a strangled moan, Rashi fell to his knees by their mother's side and took her lifeless hand into his. “No…Oh, no…” he wept. He pressed his face to the hand, crying heavily as a man cries, the sobs wrung from him shaking his whole body with anguish. With a cry, Rachel ran in and bent over him, wailing with her face in his hair as her arms clasped around him.

“La ilaha ella Allah,” Zara continued the litany as she tried to focus on what was needed to prepare her mother for burial.

In silence, she watched as her brother wept openly as he was held by his wife. Not at all concerned with their traditions, he wept freely as he continually kissed their mother's hand, begging for their mother to open her eyes, to sit up and start talking again. But when she did not, his lament slowly started to quiet as he began accepting her death.

“Zara,” Inaam interrupted her thoughts.

Anticipating her needs, Inaam entered the room with something in her hand. With a sad expression, the mistress of the house handed a prayer mat and head covering to Zara. With a nod of thanks, she took it from the woman and laid it out on the floor. Although she did not consider herself a religious person, she felt that she must do this for her mother. As she settled herself on her knees, and covered her hair with the shawl, she caught her brother's indecision.

He glanced from Zara, then to his wife before a decision was made. Rising from their mother's side, he moved to where the captain sat facing Mecca, the holy place, and sank down beside her. After glancing over his shoulder, Inaam stepped forward and offered him a head covering, as if expecting that he would request one. With a nod of thanks, he pulled it on, then turned to Zara. In unison, they began the ritual that neither one wished to take part in. With eyes closed the two siblings prayed, as they bowed their heads, touching their forehead against the carpet. “La ilaha ella Allah,” they spoke the prayer in unison, their voices echoing in the room as they beseeched their creator on behalf of their mother's spirit.

Only when the Dua' was complete, did they rise up together and move once more to their mother. In silence, the brother and sister looked down at their mother. When she heard her brother sigh, she gazed up at him and saw the tears beginning to well up in his eyes.

“Rashi … I-I…” she started to say, but found it hard to hurt her brother in any way.

As if knowing her thoughts, he only nodded as he looked up at her. “I know, Zara. I must go for you need to … pre-prepare her f-for burial,” a sob escaped his control.

With only a nod, Zara reached down to pick her mother up in her arms. Rigor mortis had not yet set in and her mother hung loosely in her arms. When she glanced down, she noticed the peaceful expression, as if she was merely asleep, instead of her body being the empty shell that it now was. At the feel of her lightness, Zara gulped as she gazed down at the pale features. Careful that the sheet did not fall from her, the ship captain grimly carried her mother's body past her brother, sister-in-law, and her two lovers. They followed her through her home, down the stairs and to a small bleak room set behind the kitchen that was rarely used.

“Zara, I'm here. What can I do to help?” she heard the healer bard ask as she gently laid her mother's body on the rude unornamented table. With a confused expression, the Moroccan gazed down at her small lover, her mind seemingly in a fog. The words made no sense to her. Surely the bard knew what she was asking was impossible? As if sensing Zara's needs, Inaam stepped close to the bard and gently touched her arm.

“This is not something you can do, healer Ga-bre-elle…” she said softly. At the crestfallen look on the smaller woman's face, she went on. “It is against our holy laws for those not of our faith to prepare our dead. But if you can, please hand to us the items that we will need,” Zara's consort requested, indicating a small table where the female servants were beginning to lay out towels, soaps and herbal perfumes.

“Of course,” Gabrielle bowed her head and went to the table to inspect the items she would be expected to give them.

Without another word, Inaam handed a thin string to Zara. With a grateful nod, the sea captain took it, and turned to the body of her mother.

“La ilaha ella Allah,” Zara said as she took the string to bind her mother's slack jaw in place. When that was done, she and Inaam removed the sheet from her body. Ignoring all around her, the captain turned her attention to her task. She took clean cloths from Gabrielle, dipped them in the warm basin of water, and began to wash the body as they prepared her for burial. Through silent tears, Inaam began at the feet, while Zara began at her head. She only half noticed Inaam's movements. When she saw her mother's withered anatomy and noticed how she was barely skin and bones, she shook her head, before turning away as she bridled her anger. In an effort to regain control, Zara turned her entire concentration to the acts of purification and cleansing and made certain to speak the prayers that were needed.

"Everyone shall taste death. And only on the day of resurrection shall you be paid your wages in full. And whoever is removed away from the fire and admitted to paradise, this person is indeed successful. The life of this world is only the enjoyment of deception," she spoke the words from the Qu'ran as she prepared her mothers body for eternity.

"Every soul shall have the taste of death," Inaam finished. "Nor does anyone know what it is that he will earn tomorrow. Nor does anyone know in what land he is to die…” the tall beauty glanced at her when she spoke the verse, as if applying the sentiment to Zara's years of traveling the seas.

With a sad smile, Zara reached toward her Moroccan lover and lightly clasped her shoulder. “Verily with Allah is full knowledge and Allah is acquainted with all things,” despite her lack of conviction, her voice grew stronger as she took a seat at her mother's head, then nodded to someone, who poured a vase of warm water over the dead woman's hair. Once the hair was thoroughly wet, she began to run a soapy mixture through it. She tenderly ran her fingers through the thinning, gray hair. Before she had even realized the amount of time that had passed, she and Inaam had bathed and cleansed her mother's body three times. Each time she said the same prayers over and over again until she could not go on anymore. Oblivious to everything around her, she ran a comb through her mother's hair. When the tangles were gone, she began to entwine it in a single braid that she always remembered her mother wearing.

“Zara?” Inaam's voice interrupted her thoughts. Glancing up, she noticed Gabrielle's sad eyes watching her from a distance. Although she was helping by handing them items, Zara knew how much it must hurt the bard to not be able to help in a greater capacity. However, she didn't know what else to do; the rituals were very clear. No non-believer was to aid in preparing a Muslim body for burial. With a tired smile of thanks to the bard, the captain turned her attention back to her Moroccan lover.

“What is left to do?” she asked softly.

“Zara, I believe we are ready to dress her now,” the tall woman stated as she glanced down at the braid that had just been finished.

The grieving daughter glanced at her mother's body and noticed that Inaam had not only helped bathe the old woman, but she had also dried her entire body and the table below. Looking down at the braid in her hands, Zara gulped down the pain. She shrugged as a sigh escaped her control.

“I-I am not very good with these,” Zara half whispered. Leaning down, Inaam examined the captain's handiwork, then smiled softly.

“Your mother would be pleased,” she offered her encouragement.

Accepting her words, Zara rose from the stool she sat on, and helped her lover to clothe the old woman's body. Once the loincloth was wrapped around her mother's waist, she took the wrinkled hands and folded them across her chest. Then she took the shawl and, lifting her mother's head, placed it around her hair as she would have done in life. Only when the burial shroud was around her mother's entire body, did she begin to tighten the cloth around the dead woman's form.

“La ilaha ella Allah,” Zara repeated softly as she lightly touched her mother's cold forehead, marveling at how peaceful she now seemed.

She did not know if there was a Paradise, nor if such a place would ever exist for her. All she knew was that her mother believed, and because of her mother's belief, Zara spoke the words in a slight hush. As she gazed at her mother's features, a thought entered her mind.

“Rashi! Please, ask Rashi to come here,” she looked at Inaam first, then to Gabrielle. For a moment, Inaam appeared surprised that Zara would break from tradition. But after a moment, her features grew soft as if filled with an understanding. Unaccustomed to their traditions, the bard quickly left the room without question, then returned a moment later with the grieving man behind her.

“Zara?” The young man stepped cautiously into the room, ready to avert his eyes.

Ignoring his confusion, she looked down at the face of her mother. “We will look at our mother's features one last time, little brother,” she looked at him. With a grateful expression, he nodded as he stepped near the table, and tears ran as he looked down at the dead woman's face.

"May the Angel of Death be put in charge of you, mother, and may the Angel of Death Duly take your soul, then you shall be brought back to our Lord," Zara stated the prayer softly as she pulled the sheet around her mother's face. Together she and her brother looked one last time at the peaceful features. When she glanced at her brother, she saw a quiet resignation settle over him as he looked from their mother, to her. With a nod, he stepped back, allowing Zara to close off the funeral shroud.

When it was finished, she closed her eyes and spoke the last words softly while Rashi and Inaam joined her. “La ilaha ella Allah, There is no God but Allah.” Gabrielle said nothing, but bowed her head in respect while they spoke.

There was silence for long moments after the words of the prayer ended, then Zara stepped back and looked at her lover's and brother. Inaam gazed back calmly. Gabrielle's face held concerned sorrow. Her brother looked troubled.

“We must bury her, but where…” Rashi grew silent as a frown crossed his features.

“She will return to the land of her kin. I made a promise to bring her home, and I will,” the captain said firmly as she remembered that her mother could no longer be buried on the land of her father, even if she wanted to. But under the circumstance, Zara knew that she would never give her father the satisfaction of granting such a favor. Instead, she would honor her promise to her uncle. Her mother would be buried in the land of her people.

“Did mother…” Zara began to ask, remembering that there was one last task to perform. “Did she have any debts?”

“Oh, no! None. If anything, there are many who are still in great debt to her,” Rashi smiled softly as the memories played in his mind. “Mother was always there to help anyone who came to her. She never turned her back on a living soul.” Then he gasped as he tried to hold back his tears.

“Very well,” was all Zara could say as she felt the numbness encircle her heart.

Part 60

In the tradition of her own people, and with Inaam's blessings, Rahsi's wife Rachael had covered every mirror in the house with a thin cloth. The shutters were closed as if to keep the sounds of life from entering into the home that was grieving the loss of a cherished member of the family.

When the bard saw her soul mate's ghostly form sitting on the patio, she joined her.

“Xena, I just don't understand,” the bard whispered as she glanced at her lover. “Zara hasn't cried at all, and her brother Rashi? He's locked himself away. Inaam and the others are going about their duties. No one is acting as if they cared about their mother being dead,” Gabrielle sighed as she turned her back on the scene.

The warrior's voice was full of sorrow. “It's not that they don't care, Gabrielle, it's just that according to their beliefs, they can't be overly demonstrative of their grief, any more than they show their love openly. They can cry, and weep softly, but anything more can be seen as criticizing Allah's will,” Xena lowered her head. “They will now enter into a period of Edda, the period of mourning that lasts for three days.”

The warrior princess sat on a chair overlooking the patio. A look of utter sadness was on her features as the silence filled the house. Not even the sounds of the two babies could be heard. Seeing her soul mate like this, the bard sighed as she wiped at the tears that fell down her own cheeks. “Oh, Xena. If only I had been, I don't know, faster maybe … or more skilled. Maybe Zara's mother wouldn't have died…”

“There wasn't anything you could do, it was … too late,” Xena offered without even turning to look at her.

“Oh, I guess I know that,” the bard said wanly as she looked to where Xena's attention was held. Standing all alone in the middle of the open courtyard, surrounded by the beautiful array of plants and flowers, Zara remained frozen in place. Her head was hung low and her shoulders slumped. “But knowing that there wasn't anything I could do doesn't make it feel any better.” Gabrielle whispered bitterly.

“I know,” the ghost said softly but her voice broke at the end.

At the warrior's words, the bard turned to her soul mate. “Oh, gods. I forgot your connection to Zara and how you feel what she feels. Is it as bad for you as for her, Xena? How are you?”

The warrior gave a weak smile, then shook her head. Her gaze never left Zara.

“Yes. No. I don't know. But I've been thinking about Cyrene and how I wasn't there when she needed me the most,” Xena's voice was a hushed whisper. “If I had been there for her, then maybe she would still be alive…”

“Xena, you don't know that you could have helped her,” Gabrielle tried to reason with her ghost lover.

“I know, Gabrielle. Gods, do I know.” Xena grimaced as she turned to the bard. A ghostly tear left a crystal stain down the warrior's cheek. “It's just…” the warrior princess hesitated as she returned her attention to Zara. “It-it's like you said. Knowing that I couldn't have helped … doesn't make it feel any better.” She sighed. “That's what I've been sitting here thinking.”

“Oh, Xena…” Following her gaze, the bard could only nod. She could see the pain filling her Moroccan lover, and was powerless to help. Yet knowing that experiencing the grief was as important to recovery as life itself, she had hope that Zara would be able to find her way to peace after her time of sorrow.
Zara had not realized how long she stood in the open courtyard. In the back of her mind, she heard the soft tears of her brother and his wife coming from behind their closed door. Even when she had helped to clean and wrap her mother's body for burial, she had not wept. Instead, she found herself falling into a dark numbness.

“All is ready,” Inaam's voice broke through her silence. With a slight arch of a brow, she glanced over her shoulder to the young woman. “There is some food prepared. Please, come in and eat something.”

The tall sea captain only shook her head and turned away. As if dismissed, Inaam nodded as she turned to leave. With a slight sigh, Zara turned and called to her mistress.

Dada…” her soft, sad voice stopped the woman. Gulping down her pain, Zara reached out to her and when the woman took her hand, she smiled weakly. “Dada, thank you … for everything.”

With a pleased smile that was laced with pain, Inaam nodded as she lightly brushed her fingers through Zara's long thick hair. Before she could open her mouth to speak, a slight noise caught their attention. Like the stroking of a tightly woven string, it sang ever so slightly in the air. Cocking her head to the side, Zara glanced up at a nearby house. With the early morning sun in her eyes, she raised her hand to block the glare and saw the outline shadow of a crouched figure on the distant rooftop.

From this point forward, everything seemed to move in slow motion. The singing hum that cut through the air held her spellbound in place. Beside her, she felt Inaam grasp her hand tightly as she too saw the projectile, then a slight scream rang out of the woman's gentle lips.

Noooooo..…” Zara heard Inaam's scream right before the slender figure flew in front of her, her back pressed firmly against the sea captain's chest as the wasp-like buzz grew near. In shock, she watched as the arrow cut through the air to strike squarely between Inaam's lovely breasts. When the lithe woman was driven back into her, the captain took hold of her and steadied her down to the ground.

There was a sudden pounding of feet nearby and she heard one of Abu's men shout,
“Hashishiyya! Quickly, get him!”

As she knelt to the ground, she cradled her lover in her arms. She heard Abu's deep voice shouting and then the sound of arrows soaring away above her. Somewhere in the distance, she heard the thud as a body fell to the dirt outside of her compound.

A shadow passed over her and Abu spoke. “Hashishiyya? Could he have hired one?” His voice was filled with astonishment. “Will that bastard never give up?” Zara heard Abu curse as he stood above her, using his body as a shield as his eyes scanned the rooftops for more assassins.

“Dada….please, don't you leave me too…” She whispered as the woman lay bleeding in her arms. Too weak to speak, Inaam blinked slowly as a faint smile crossed her lips. Then she coughed and a thin trickle of blood ran out of her mouth. “Oh … my Dada … please…,” Zara whispered as the sound of shouts and footfalls registered in her ears.

“Look out! There's another one!” --“Aieee!” --“Get him!” --“Where did he go?”

Ignoring the commotion all around, she gently held her lover close, whispering to her.
Above her, Abu suddenly bellowed in pain and she saw him spin about and sprawl to the ground nearby with an arrow sticking through his left shoulder. “Captain,” he gasped with urgency as he tried to pull himself to her. “Quick, get behind me…”

Looking listlessly at him over Inaam, she was puzzled. What was so urgent? Her mother was dead … Inaam was dying. What need for hurry now? Her gaze went past Abu and she saw one of his men thrashing on the ground with an arrow in his throat. Then a movement above drew her attention and she looked up to the roof of the next house over and saw a man in black. He was aiming a bow at her deliberately. She could see the point aimed at her face glitter viciously in the sun. Saw him let out his breath as he prepared to loose. Disinterestedly she heard Abu scream her name as she waited to see what would happen next.
Gabrielle was pulled from her sadness by a female scream from below the patio. At the same time Xena leaped to her feet and wailed, “Inaam! DON'T!”

The startled bard gaped at the ghost, then looked into the garden in time to see Inaam leap in front of Zara as an arrow plunged into the lithe woman's chest. “By the gods, no!” she breathed as her lover lowered Inaam to the ground. A movement caught her eye on the nearby rooftop as hoarse shouts sounded below. She saw a man in black fall off the roof as an arrow from one of Abu's men struck him in the eye. Gabrielle watched as Abu tried to shield Zara and Inaam as the two women lay on the ground. Obviously he expected more trouble.

Cursing, the bard sped across the patio and back into the room she shared with Zara. She grabbed the chakram from where she had left it with her other weapons after they had returned with the captain's mother. There was more shouting outside and a hoarse male scream that she recognized as Abu's voice as she plunged for the patio door with the weapon.

“Ohno, ohno, ohno, ohno…” the blonde moaned as she sprinted back onto the patio. She saw it all at a glance. Xena, tears running down her face, seeming paralyzed with the horror and grief she was getting from Zara. Abu down with an arrow in his shoulder. Zara holding Inaam as a man on another rooftop aimed a bow at her. One of Abu's guards screaming and pointing at the man. Three others beginning to swing their weapons in that direction, but too late to stop him from shooting.

With barely time to contemplate what she was doing Gabrielle skidded to a stop, hurling the chakram in the same motion and the weapon spun away toward the assassin.
As Zara watched the man and waited for death, from somewhere came a flittering whine and the arrow and bow were both smashed by the glittering circle of a chakram that struck dead onto them and snarled away. The head of the smashed arrow jagged across the would-be assassin's forehead in a spray of blood and the man shrieked in pain as he clapped both hands to his face. Then, with the suddenness of magic, three arrows seemed to explode out of his chest. His scream died in a gurgle and he slowly toppled over to vanish from her sight. There was a faint thud moments after, then silence. Dazed at her unexpected reprieve she just stared at the spot where the man had been, trying to understand what had just happened.

“Z-Za-ra…” At Inaam's weak gasp, the captain looked back quickly. Zara stared down at her lover, and heard the weak, ragged breathing and the pain of her struggles was agony for the captain to see.

“Oh … Dada … forgive me,” Zara whispered brokenly as she rocked her lover in her arms.

In the last moments of her life, Inaam smiled faintly. Her eyes held Zara's and endless love shone out of them.

Zara smiled back through brimming eyes. When she felt Inaam's body grow suddenly slack, she shook her head in disbelief. The guilt of knowing that the arrow had been meant for her filled her with a pain that bordered on numbness. Zara closed Inaam's lifeless eyes as she held the body close, the arrow protruding from the innocent woman's chest.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, Zara heard the ghost warrior scream out a pitiful cry and she heard what sounded like a thousand voices rise up to release a mourning wail. Yet when she opened her eyes, she realized that the sounds of pain were coming from her and no one else. Unable to do little else, she sat on her knees as she rocked the body gently and openly wept for the loss of her mother and now, for the loss of the woman who had given her own life so that Zara might live.

The Moroccan was not certain how long she was in the courtyard. She knew that her house was suddenly alive, that every servant in the house was aware of the loss of their mistress, and their grief flowed through the home. Even while Abu's men secured the area, master Qaidar, and his wife Sahar, knelt near Zara, their grief at the loss of Inaam echoed through the courtyard.

“Zara…” a gentle voice was heard nearby as a tender hand ran over her hair and back. The bard's attempt to reach her was felt. With a blank expression, she turned her face to the blonde.

“Zara…we need to get inside,” the healer spoke softly as she glanced up at the nearby rooftops, then swallowed as she looked down at the body in the captain's arms. Zara merely stared at the Greek as if she had spoken gibberish. Gabrielle tried again. Cupping her hands around the Moroccan's cheeks, she looked into her eyes. “Zara, Inaam. She needs to be taken care of.”

Suddenly realizing what the bard had said, the captain inhaled deeply as she looked down at the still body of her lover. The blood around the arrow had turned a deep purple as it thickened. Eventually it would turn black. With only a nod, Zara inhaled deeply as she stood up in one fluid motion, the lifeless body hanging limp in her arms. Ignoring all around her, she made her way into the house. She walked past everyone, not seeing them clearly in her vision. Only when she entered the small room did she stop to catch her breath.

In numb silence, she laid her dead lover on the table. She glanced around and watched as the female servants once more began to lay out the items that would be needed. When she looked back to the table, she watched as Sahar bound Inaam's slack jaw closed with string and then began to gently remove the clothing. The aged cook tended to Inaam gently as if she were her own daughter. Only when she had the body stripped did Sahar stop and stare at the still protruding arrow. Then her face grew grim as she shook her head as the tears fell down her cheeks.

At the woman's reaction, Zara looked down at the naked body of her consort. The breasts that she had caressed and kissed only the night before no longer moved with breath. She stared at the arrow, knowing that it had to come out. With a grimace, the captain fought down her revulsion and reached toward the shaft. Before she touched it, she felt her hand trembling and had to stop to calm herself, massaging her hand. Finally, taking a ragged breath, she took hold of the arrow. She grasped it firmly, then, with eyes closed, she gave an upward yank. In shock she felt the head of the thing grate and catch on bone somewhere within her lover's chest and the body seemed to shudder. Gasping with horror, she gave a frenzied yank of blind rage and it ripped loose in a spatter of blood, pulling flesh and bone fragments from the body as it came.

Zara grimaced at the sight and felt her gut churn, then dropped the bloody thing from nerveless fingers. The room seemed to spin for a moment and she leaned on the table with her arms spread for support. When she looked down at the gaping wound, she felt sickness building in the pit of her stomach. She had kissed and licked that very spot during their lovemaking the night before and Inaam had gasped with desire. Now that living, breathing body was still as stone. Inhaling deeply, she closed her eyes for a moment. As control slowly returned, she breathed deeply and looked down at the body of her lover.

“Mistress…” Sahar's grief-filled voice caught her attention. When she looked up, she saw the old woman handing her a needle with thread. Confusion filled Zara for a moment along with images of mending clothing before she realized what the older woman meant her to do. Then anger shook her for a moment and her thoughts were savage. 'Must I be the one to do everything around here?' Instantly she felt ashamed. 'Inaam, forgive me…' she thought with a sob. She took a deep breath, then nodded silently as she took the instrument and looked back down at the wound.

The Moroccan captain was no stranger to death. She had seen the bodies of her men, seen their blood covering the deck of her ship. In her time as a ship captain, she had witnessed all forms of injuries and death. Yet when she looked at Inaam and she saw the seemingly endless blood on her dead lover's chest, she could not control her emotions.

Gulping back bile, she grasped the slippery skin around the jagged laceration and pinched it together. With one hand, she tried to hold the wound closed and with the other she poked the point of the needle into the soft breast flesh. Her hands shook and slid as she tried to pull the thread-burdened needle through the dead flesh. She trembled as with an ague and the air seemed to rush in and out of her lungs in great panting gasps. When she glanced at Inaam's face, the way that her features seemed so peaceful, she felt all control vanish.

“Zara…” the bard spoke softly behind her. The Moroccan only shook her head as she stepped away from the table, dropping the needle and thread to the ground. Blinded by her pain, she pushed out the back door and ran to the small courtyard behind the servant's kitchen as the bard followed.

“Zara, honey, it's ok to feel this. Cry. Scream. Pound the wall. Do something. Let it out, just let it go.” Gabrielle spoke softly even as the captain felt her stomach churn.

The pounding of her heart echoed in her ears. Her breath came in short ragged gasps. As she leaned against the tall wall, she felt the bard behind her. Any meaning of the words she spoke was lost to Zara as she fought for control against her anguish. In a futile attempt to steel her emotions, she closed her eyes tightly, the coldness of the stone was felt against her forehead as she tried to settle herself. But when she opened her eyes and turned around to rest her back against the wall, she looked down and saw her blood covered hands.

At the instant sensations of sickness, Zara turned away from the bard. She felt her stomach heaving as she leaned over, bracing herself as she lost all control. As she vomited, she thought she could smell the foul stench of the room where her mother had been held prisoner. The sight of her mother's death ran past her inner vision and then that of Inaam as well.

As the captain heaved out what little food was in her stomach, she felt the bard behind her. Although she could not make sense of her words, she felt the gentle hand rubbing her back as the other held her hair back, keeping it out of her face as she voided the contents of her stomach. When she was finished, she rose up on rubbery legs and moved away from the place where she had been sick. Her head throbbed and her skin felt damp. After a moment, she raised tired eyes to her home and staggered in that direction.

Gabrielle placed hands against her shoulders and she rocked to a stop. “Zara. Please, honey, you don't have to do this,” she finally heard the bard as she closed her eyes, her breathing labored. “Zara … sweetheart. Sahar and the others, they can take care of Inaam…” she said as she glanced toward the open door of the small room.

“I-I must see to her. It's…” Zara tried to voice her thoughts, to explain how it was all her fault. When her voice would not come out, she shook her head as she pushed past the smaller woman and made her way back to the dismal room where her dead lover lay.

When she reentered the room, she watched numbly as Sahar and the servants bathed Inaam's body. The fresh stitches on Inaam's chest were the only evidence of what had killed her. The blood that had once covered her chest was washed clean. Unable to do little else, she remained in the threshold and watched. When a young servant moved to her with a pitcher and towel, Zara held her hands out and allowed the girl to cleanse the blood from her hands. With a grateful nod, the captain shook herself. Then she saw Sahar moving a chair to the end of the table where Inaam's head lay.

“No,” she said. Her voice came out as a croak and she cleared her throat. “No.” she said again. With a question in her eyes, Sahar stopped and gazed at her. “I will do it…” Zara whispered. The older woman nodded and stood aside wiping at her eyes while the captain moved to the head of the table. As she had done for her mother, she sat in the chair and began to wash her lover's hair.

A part of her marveled at the beauty of Inaam's dark hair. She allowed it to run through her fingers as the water was poured over it. As she lathered it with soap, she closed her eyes to the silent tears that fell.

“La ilaha ella Allah, There is no God but Allah,” she heard what sounded like her own voice. The servants in the room spoke the prayers softly, their gesture for the house mistress their way of showing respect. While the sounds around her filtered past her ears, she remembered the first time that she had met her gentle lover.

She had returned from her first voyage to find the tall beauty alone on the dock. Standing apart from the crowd, she was concealed in the shadows. Inaam had watched as the men left the ship. While the other working girls openly approached the men, Inaam had separated herself from them. She allowed herself to be seen, but did not approach anyone. It was this shy nature that had attracted the ship captain. Although the woman went home with Zara, the tall Moroccan did not pay for her services, nor did she approach her for any sexual favors. Instead, she allowed the stranger to rest and settle into the home. After nearly a full moon, it was Inaam who approached her and although Zara was hungry to feel the softness of a woman, she was gentle with her lover. She moved slowly in her lovemaking and marveled at how innocent the woman seemed. As if never having experienced sexual passion before, the feminine beauty had writhed with pleasure in her grasp, and then asked for more.

No, they had both known that they were not each other's spirit twins. But a loving connection was made between them. It was not until later when she learned how similar they were.

Inaam was not a working girl. She had never sold her body to survive. That day that she was on the dock was the day that her mother's husband had kicked her from the house because she would not accept his advances. He turned her out to make her way alone in the world, and that is when Zara found her. Although theirs was not a deep and undying love, it had grown and formed a bond between them, and together they had made a home and a life together. For the first time since she had begun her shipboard travels, Zara now looked forward to returning to her home town because she always knew that Inaam would be there waiting for her.

With a shake of her head, Zara looked down at the dead woman's hair, then wiped the tears from her cheeks before returning to combing Inaam's hair. No longer able to say the words, she only listened as the servants spoke the prayers for their dead mistress. Numbly she braided her dead lover's hair, marveling at its thick softness. She remembered the feel of her mother's thinning hair. When she realized that not even a day had passed since she was sitting here, her hands stopped moving. She remained frozen for a moment as she felt her thoughts racing through incoherent patterns.

“Zara…” a soft voice pulled her from the maddening thoughts. Turning, she saw the bard's green eyes looking at her with concern. “Sweetheart, are you all right?” the bard knelt down beside her, her eyes seemed to examine the captain as her hand rested on Zara's arm.

“Inaam…” Zara whispered to the bard.

“I know, honey … I'm so sorry,” Gabrielle whispered.

“Mother…” the captain shook her head as she looked back down at Inaam, then rose from her seat and moved to stand beside the woman. As she looked down at the corpse, she felt herself losing control. “It's all my fault,” she whispered as she lightly touched Inaam's cold cheek. As she gazed at her dead lover, she remembered the smiling face of her first love, Alaya. She could almost hear the sound of Alaya's soft laugh, but before this memory took hold, she had the vision of her soul mate's final horrible moments of life.

With a grimace, she closed her eyes and shook her head. “It's all my fault. All of it!”

“No, honey, it wasn't your fault,” Gabrielle said firmly. “Never think that!”

She heard the bard, yet refused to believe her. “They died because of me, all of them. It's all my fault, don't you see. All of it!” she gulped down the tears as she stared down at the bard. “Mother died because of father's hatred for me! Inaam … Alaya … both because of me!” She shook her head, “By Allah, it should have been me!” She felt the room seem to reel as the realization hit home. Shaking her head, she threw herself onto Inaam and pulled her dead body into her arms.

“Oh … Inaam … forgive me, oh, please forgive meeee…” she began to weep and she held the cold body close.

Through her tears, she heard the servants talking to her, begging her to let go of the body but she held on moaning her lover's name over and over and pleading forgiveness. How long it went on she never knew, but at some point through her agony she felt hands gently stroking her hair and a loving voice speaking softly in her ear.

“It's all right, my love. It's all right. Shhhh. Come away now. Come away. Inaam knows you love her. She forgives you and wants you to let go now. She is in paradise with your mother and Alaya and they all want only good things for you. They love you and I love you and we will never leave you.”

Shaking with uncontrollable tears, Zara allowed the soothing words and hands to pull her away from the table with its awful burden and backed away until she felt the wall behind her. Then she slid down to the floor as the strong gentle arms rocked and cradled her and the sweet voice assured her that she was loved.

“My fault … all my fault…” she wept uncontrollably.

“No, Zara. Shhh. Shhh. It was not your fault. None of it was ever your fault. You were born an innocent babe just like Fatima. It was not your fault that a madman vented his hatred upon you and your loved ones.”

The captain stirred slightly. “G-Gab-rielle?” She asked hoarsely.

“Yes, sweetheart…” The bard kissed her cheeks and continued to cradle her, rocking her back and forth.

Zara swallowed painfully. “Inaam … she's…”

“Inaam is safe now. She will not feel pain anymore…” The bard whispered tenderly. “She gave you the greatest gift a person can give for the one she loves and you have done her honor, but now she wants you to rest…” With surprising strength for one so small, she helped the taller woman up. “Come away now. You must cleanse yourself and rest and find time to grieve...”

Zara did not know what was happening to her. She only knew that her world was spinning out of control. Through her tears, she knew that her small lover was guiding her through the home. Unable to stop crying, she moved numbly, following the bard's every command. Even when she was in the bathing tub, submerged in the steaming water, she wept as the bard tenderly bathed, then dried her, just as Inaam once did. Through her grief, she knew that the bard had given her an herbal tea that would send her into a deep slumber. Yet despite this, she did not care. All thoughts or longings were gone as a black hole of guilt seemed to pull her inside and suffocate her soul.
“Honey, hold on to Prasha's basket and wait by the dock with Rashi's family and Abu's
friends,” the bard smiled at Nadrah. With large, dark eyes, she glanced up at Zara, then over at the numerous guards who surrounded them. Although she had asked nothing, Gabrielle knew that the little girl was filled with questions. But afraid to voice them, she only nodded as she moved away.

When the blonde rose from her kneeling position, she turned and looked at Zara. The pale, gauntness of her face was evidence that something was wrong. Concerned for her lover, the bard smiled as she lightly ran her palm over Zara's soft cheek. As if paralyzed, the tall woman stared down at her blankly.

“It will be all right now,” the bard whispered softly.

“Yes … yes … all will be right,” Zara repeated as her brow furrowed, the frown seeming to take over her entire face. As if a thought crossed her mind, the tall Moroccan turned to Isa.

“You will tell my great uncle…” her voice faltered as she looked down, confusion on her face.

Equally concerned for his captain, the young navigator looked at Gabrielle, then back to Zara. With a slight nod, he lightly touched her arm. When she looked up at him, he nodded understanding. “Captain, I understand. I will give your great uncle your regrets, and explain that you will follow shortly.”

“Good … good,” Zara half whispered. “There are promises that must be kept. My brother, his family … yes … Gabrielle and Xena…” she looked at the bard with an arch of her brow as if to seek confirmation.

“It's all right, Sweetheart. We'll make sure that your brother and his family reach safety,” the bard promised as she cast a slight smile to the young navigator.

Isa nodded. “And do not worry, Captain. Your trust in me is not misplaced, I will see that your mother returns to her kin,” the young man promised as his eyes grew misty. As if on cue, men from the dock began to carry the casket of her mother onto the waiting vessel that was leaving at daybreak for the kingdom of Hadhramaut.

“Abu… master Qaidar, and his family?” a thought, not yet formed, crossed Zara's mind.

“They are fine, my captain. There are plenty of men staying with them. The transfer of your home will go to Master Qaidar, there should be no repercussions against them,” the burly man explained.

“Then … Inaam's body?” Zara's eyes pleaded with him.

“Her remains will not be touched. She rests in Master Qaidar's crypt. Captain, they both loved her like a daughter. Inaam always treated both of them with a daughter's respect for her parents,” Abu smiled gently. “They will always welcome you back, Captain, as well as Inaam's child, your daughter.”

Zara only nodded blankly, her vision glazed over with sadness.

“Captain, all has been taken care of,” Isa added softly. “You family shall be taken care of here, as well as in Hadhramaut.”

“And I will be waiting for you both in the Land of the Pharaohs, when you finish your business on the isle of Philae,” Abu's voice was deep and firm.

“Of course, my friend, of course,” Zara spoke as if she grasped his meaning, yet her tone indicated that she lacked understanding.

When Fatima began to cry, they glanced over at the second waiting ship. Rashi motioned toward the planks, then to the babe in Rachel's arms. Waving at them, the bard smiled as she watched the hand picked guards follow the small family up the planks, their bows and arrows ready as their eyes darted up to the roof tops and all around in search of any assassins. Seemingly oblivious of the danger, the young couple made their way to the ship, each one carrying an infant in their arms. Thankfully, Rachel seemed to have enough milk to nurse both her own and Inaam's baby as well.

“Abu, are you sure you can't come with us? I'm just a bit concerned that you might become a target for…” but Gabrielle stopped as she glanced up at Zara's blank expression.

The mate with the bandaged shoulder shook his head. “I have some last minute business to attend to, besides, I am not allowed on that isle unless I have a request of my own, and I do not. It is best that I wait for you all outside of the temple,” the big man smiled softly as he touched her arm. With a look of concern, he nodded toward her and pulled her slightly away.

“Gabrielle. Will Zara be … is she…” but his words were left unfinished.

The bard bit her lower lip as she glanced up at the tall Moroccan. As if in a fog, Zara remained standing, her eyes never left her mothers casket. With only a sigh, the blonde looked up at the burly man.

“Abu, she's in shock right now. So much has happened…” She grimaced. “As soon as she's able to process it all, I'm sure she'll be all right,” she said, hoping that she was not mistaken.

Abu seemed to take her words to heart. With a deep sigh, he nodded as he blinked, then wiped at his eyes. “Good, good. Healer Gabrielle, I don't think I need to explain … the captain, that is … Zara, she is like kin to me, she is like my very own sister.” He said as he watched the Moroccan with her personal guards moving like a sleepwalker toward the second ship once the casket of her mother could no longer be seen.

“I know and I promise, I'll take care of her.” The bard gave a confident smile as she patted his shoulder. “You just take care of yourself and get to the Land of the Pharaohs as fast as you can!”

“Of course, by the break of morn three days hence, I will be on a ship following your wake,” the bearded man smiled. “Go with Allah's merciful blessing, little bard.”

“You as well, my friend,” she whispered huskily as she hugged the burly mate. With nothing remaining to say she nodded to Isa, then moved toward the second passenger ship where Zara had already gone aboard. Lightly resting her hand on Nadrah's back, they walked up the unsteady plank to the waiting ship. Once at the top, she looked down and waved at the two men who waved back.

As the crew ran to cast off the lines holding the ship to the dock, Gabrielle glanced around the ship looking for any sign of Xena, but the ghost was not in view. With a dejected sigh, she lowered her gaze as the images of the night before replayed in her thoughts. With everything else that had been happening, she was worried about Xena as well as Zara. The bard hadn't seen her soul mate at all since she had smashed the assassin's bow with the chakram and caught the returning weapon. The bard remembered seeing the warrior ghost standing in the patio near the courtyard where Zara sat holding her dead lover. The look of pain etched Xena's features as she echoed Zara's screams of grief over Inaam's death. When the Moroccan's scream stopped, an eerie calm fell over the place for only a moment. At the strange sound of silence, she turned and watched as Xena's ghostly form stood frozen in place, her shoulders slumped in defeat as her sad glance remained on Zara. Before she could even step toward her soul mate, the ghostly form shimmered slightly, and then vanished like the hush of wind. As if she had been trapped in another world, she felt the sounds around her grow suddenly louder as everything seemed to happen at once.

Despite Gabrielle's initial concern for Xena, her attention was focused on the wounded. With no other thoughts but to help, she grabbed her medical satchel from the room and ran down to the garden. Although covered with Inaam's blood and softly sobbing, she saw instantly that Zara was unhurt. One look, and the healer bard knew that she was too late to help Inaam. Yet for Zara's sake, she had examined the body. As she had expected, she found no signs of life and turned her attention to Abu. The burly mate was up walking under his own power, insisting that his wound was of little consequence.

She had noticed that the initial shock of the arrow striking clear through his shoulder may have momentarily put him out of action. But in his usual gruff manner, he ignored this minor inconvenience. Operating on pure adrenaline, he had snapped the head off of the shaft and then pulled the rest of it through his shoulder with a grunt before tossing it aside, before returning to barking orders to his remaining men. Despite the chaos around them, his single focus was on the defense of the home. Only when assured that the parameters were secure did he stand still long enough to let the healer bard quickly tend to his bloody wound. Once a hasty bandage was in place, the Greek woman turned her attention back to Zara.

Gabrielle tried to get her lover into the safety of the house. Initially, when Zara and the servants gathered in the courtyard, their weeping and the shouts of Abu's men sounded like bedlam. The bard knew that if there were more assassins about, they would all be prime targets for another round of attacks. But her Moroccan lover seemed frozen in grief still holding her consorts body as her body swayed to and fro in a gentle cadence. Only when the blonde made mention of Zara's duty to Inaam, did the captain finally manage to pull herself from her anguish.

For a moment, the bard had to fight back the feeling of déjà vu when she watched her lover laying the body on the table. When she realized that this was the second time that Zara would be preparing the body of a loved one within a day, she released a soft sigh as she allowed her tears to fall. Only when she saw the tall Moroccan back away from Inaam's body, her face a mask of pain as she looked down at her bloody hands, did Gabrielle manage to pull her own grief under control.

Everything from that point forward seemed like a blur to the bard. As she stayed with Zara, offering what little comfort and help she could as the tall woman vomited in the dirt, the bard closed her eyes to her own memories of loss. She knew the numbing pain that Zara was going through, because it had been the same for her when she had seen Xena's body hanging, her head missing. Never in her life would she ever be able to wipe away the sickening feelings she had experienced when seeing her lover's body like that and she knew that the tall captain would never be able to either.

Despite her own painful memories, the healer bard was able to hold herself together. She even begged Zara to step away, to let the other servants do this duty, but the Moroccan would not listen. When Zara sat and washed Inaam's hair, Gabrielle could only wait and watch her lover's great suffering spill forth in silent tears. It was not until Zara's outburst that the bard was able to talk to her lover, to finally calm her down enough so that she would release Inaam's lifeless body so that the grave clothes could be fastened around her by Sahar and the other women. As she sat on the floor, the pain in Zara's eyes seemed to beg the bard for help and the healer was able to understand the enormity of her lover's pain. As they watched the shroud close off Inaam's peaceful face, Zara moaned and buried her face in the bard's shoulder with a sob.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Gabrielle whispered sadly, cradling the taller woman in her arms and stroking her hair as she wept. She knew that Zara blamed herself for all of it. For the death of her spirit twin, for the death of her mother and now for Inaam's death as well.

As the silent tears fell down her lover's cheeks unabated, the bard helped the tall woman from the bleak room and to the sun filled kitchen. Once the Moroccan sat in a chair, the blonde rummaged through her medical satchel and removed several bottles of herbs before moving to the stove. With a glance over her shoulder, she kept a wary eye on Zara as she brewed the sleeping drought. Void of any emotions, her lover sat silently staring at the tiled floor. When the potion was done, she set it aside to cool as Abu came in to report that his men were on duty and the house was closely guarded. As the house servants moved quietly around her, the burly man was trying to talk his captain. In a calm, and deep voice, he tried to talk to Zara and explain that what had happened was not her fault. When the bearded man turned pleading eyes toward her and the house cook, Gabrielle and Sahar joined in as well, but the captain paid them little attention.

No matter how hard they tried to convince her that she was not to blame, the captain would not hear them. Instead, she remained engulfed in the agony of her guilt, her world suddenly becoming void of everything except the knowledge that her loved ones had died instead of her. Gabrielle finally decided that there was little that she could do to help her lover except to enable her to rest and asked Abu to help get her to bed.

As she began to help her lover up the stairs, she was taken back by the surprised disbelief from Abu and Sahar. As if she had just committed a heinous crime, both Sahar and Abu objected strenuously. Before she could speak, Abu explained the strict tenants of their religious beliefs, that Zara must be cleansed after handling Inaam's body. While Sahar stood by stiffly, the bard glanced from the older woman to Abu as a warm flush crossed her face. Embarrassed by her ignorance, the bard had apologized for her lack of knowledge. At her apology, Sahar had unbent and then helped her to get the Zara's sullen form to the bathing room. She had been in many foreign cultures during her years with Xena and knew that each held their own views on many things, especially death. Having no medical objections and knowing that Zara was covered with filth, she gently walked her lover to the bathing room.

Once there, Sahar left, giving the two women privacy. Although she had not said it, the bard knew that the older cook and servants would be waiting their turn to bathe. Once she had gotten her weeping lover undressed and into the tub, the bard stripped off her clothes and joined her. As she gazed into the dazed eyes, the healer gently helped the tall woman to bathe, scrubbing her back and body, and washing her hair. In silence, Zara remained motionless as Gabrielle washed herself before she was able to get the Moroccan out of the tub. Just as she had seen Inaam do the morning that they had gone to get Zara's mother, the healer tenderly dried her lover then dressed both of them in fresh robes, before guiding the taller woman upstairs as the house servants came into the bathing room to cleanse themselves.

When they were in their room, the bard tucked Zara into the bed and retrieved the sleeping draught from the kitchen. She found it cool and then mixed it into a tea which she then took back up to the room. No longer tucked under the covers, Zara sat on the bed, her face a mask of confusion as she sat staring at the wall. With only a shake of her head, the healer helped her lover to drink the sleeping draught. In soft, soothing tones, she encouraged her lover to drink, all the while Zara remained withdrawn and silent. When she noticed the captain nodding, she knew that the potion was working. Seeing this, the grateful bard got her lover to lay down and covered her warmly, kissing her on the forehead. Then she sat on the bed and stroked her lover's hair until she was sure she was asleep, before leaving her side.

As she withdrew, she was surprised to hear Zara speak her name softly and saw that her eyes were open. Sitting back down, she asked, “What is it, honey?”

The captain gazed at her with wet eyes. “I need to … to th-thank you,” she said hoarsely.

Gabrielle smiled with love. “For what?”

“For … For every … thing you have done f-for me and mother and…” Zara swallowed. “And for Inaam…” A tear ran down her cheek.

Gabrielle wiped it away and kissed her cheek, then looked deep into the blue eyes. “Oh Zara, you owe me nothing. That's what friends do. And you are my friend and I will always be yours.” She laid her blonde head on Zara's shoulder and whispered, “Now rest, sweetheart.”

Half asleep, Zara mumbled something and the bard snuggled against her but did not close her eyes. She stared at the walls and ceiling and sighed with sadness as her mind replayed the sorrowful days events. Finally certain that the Moroccan was asleep, the small blonde got up carefully and went downstairs again carrying the container with the remaining tea and sleeping draught. As the bard padded barefoot to the kitchen, she noticed that everyone had gone to bed except for Abu's guards. By light of the few lamps on the wall, the bard washed out the container that held the sleeping potion. Once dry, she set it aside and glanced at the door to the small sad room behind the kitchen then listened carefully. The house was quiet except for a lone jrad cricket, is slight high pitched sound rang gently from the courtyard as Gabrielle opened the door, entered the cold cubicle and closed it behind her. As she gazed down at the wrapped and shrouded form of Zara's lover, tears came to her eyes.

“Oh, Inaam,” she sighed. “If the dead can hear our thoughts of them, I want to say thank you for Zara's life. I wish I had known you better. You loved her so much and she loved you. You deserved a better fate, but you died gladly, saving the one you loved and there is no better way to leave this life.” She lay her hand on the dead woman's shrouded head for a moment and bit her lip. “Had I had the chance, I would have done the same for Xena…” she swallowed. “Or for Zara as well...” Wiping at her eyes she whispered, “Rest now, Inaam. May you find joy in your paradise.” She lowered her face and kissed the woman's shrouded head, then after a moment, she turned and left the silent room.

Going slowly upstairs, Gabrielle thought that she had never been so tired. So much had happened that it seemed ages since that first night in the house, when she and Zara had made love after the captain had come back from being with Inaam. Looking into their room, she saw that her lover was still fast asleep and she longed to climb in with her and stretch out to sleep as well, but she had something to do first.

Gabrielle had not seen or heard from Xena since the ghost had stopped screaming with Zara at Inaam's death in the garden. She had then winked out like a dying candle flame, endless tears running down her cold cheeks. The bard grimaced as she recalled this. Something was wrong; there was something she was not being told. The bard had to know what was going on with her ghostly soul mate. She knew that Xena had gotten closer to Zara while making love to Gabrielle in the captain's body during the past weeks, but now the ghost seemed to feel everything that the Moroccan felt so intensely that Gabrielle was certain that something else was going on as well. She was also positive that Xena was hiding something from her. She could feel it in her bones from the countless other times when the warrior had kept her in the dark and she was determined to get some answers. She secluded herself in another room near the captain's, lit a lantern and seated herself in an upright wooden chair at a table to call Xena.

She had called and called, but to her dismay the ghost did not come or answer and finally the exhausted bard herself had fallen asleep. She awoke the next morning to find herself still in the robe, but covered up in bed next to the sleeping captain with no recollection of how she had gotten there. Yawning and wondering how this had happened, she had gotten up quietly without disturbing her lover and relieved herself in the small chamber in the corner. Afterward, the delicious smell of cooking food wafting from below had reached the bard's nose, causing her mouth to water. Quickly she had dressed and went out closing the door quietly as Zara slept on.

Downstairs, she went to the kitchen to find Sahar and some of the serving girls preparing breakfast for the numerous guards in the house. The hungry bard had begged some food and while she was eating at the table, Abu had come in from checking the house. Gabrielle asked him if he knew how she had gotten into the room and the bed. Glancing at Sahar and blushing slightly, the burly mate nervously admitted that he himself had found her fast asleep in the hard chair with her head on the table. Since she had not stirred when he had spoken to her, he had carried her into the captain's room for the night. Thanking him for caring for her and assuring the embarrassed man that she was grateful for his kindness, Gabrielle filled a plate for Zara and went back upstairs.

When she entered the room, the bard found the captain already awake, staring wordlessly at the ceiling. Zara looked at the bard as she entered and the Healer was glad to see that she seemed dry-eyed and composed. However, when she said good morning, the Moroccan merely nodded. When Gabrielle put the food before her, Zara ate mechanically as if knowing that she needed nourishment, but paid no attention to what it was that she was eating. The Healer thought that her lover seemed almost normal, but she moved woodenly and when she spoke her voice was raspy with no inflections. She initiated no conversations and answered any questions the bard asked her in monosyllables.

Later that day, worried over the attempt assassination, Gabrielle, Abu and Isa, along with master Quadar and Sahar had conferred on the whole situation while the captain sat silently at the table. During the discussion, Zara was uncharacteristically silent on most subjects and when she did speak, she was worried about returning her mother's body to her Great Uncle the Sultan, as well as seeing that Inaam was buried properly and carrying out her promise to Xena and Gabrielle. Other than those topics, she sat and silently stared at her hands as the other three conversed and planned for contingencies. Finally the others decided that the house was no longer safe for the captain and a plan was made to go to sea again as quickly as possible.

This is what had happened the night before, and now they were on the ship again. Gabrielle sighed as she held Nadrah's hand and watched the dock began to slowly recede as they put to sea. The sadness of the past days, combined with the fears for her lovers mental health, kept any excitement of bringing Xena back at bay.

Beside her, the girl stirred. “Gabrielle?” Her voice was plaintive.

“Yes?” The bard asked looking at her tenderly.

The child hesitated then plunged in. “Th-The captain will be all right … won't she?”

Gabrielle swallowed. She was not exactly certain if Zara would ever come out of her grief, she only hoped that some distance and time would help her loved one through the painful loss of both her mother and lover. She kissed Nadrah's forehead and hugged her tightly. She didn't want to tell the girl yes or no and have it turn out to be a lie later, but she didn't have any hard and fast answers to the question.

“Gabrielle…?” The child asked again. “She will, won't she?”

Tears filled the blonde's eyes. “I hope so, sweetheart. Zara is strong, but she has had … a lot of shocks in a very short time. All we can do now is to help her the best we can.” She ruffled the child's hair as tears ran unnoticed down her cheeks. “I believe that whether or not she recovers is truly in Allah's hands now.”

Nadrah gazed into her face for a long moment, then spoke firmly. “Then Prasha and I will pray for her,” she said and went off toward Zara's cabin carrying the wriggling basket with her cat.

Gabrielle watched her go with tear blurred vision, then wiped her eyes and bowed her head as a breeze blew across the deck and parted her short hair with it's passing like waves of summer wheat. “And so will I,” she whispered.

Part 61

From the dock, the two men watched in silence as Zara's ship cast off and the sails bellied out to catch the wind. Slowly the craft moved off into the harbor and then plunged into the open sea. After a moment, Isa glanced up at Abu, the unspoken thought remained on the tip of his tongue. As if unable to contain his silence anymore, he cleared his throat.

“Abu, uh, forgive me for asking, but, what business have you that would cause you to risk your life?”

The bigger man only frowned as he turned away from Zara's ship. Absently, he scratched his chin. His brow was creased in thought, then he glanced at the navigator.

“For one, I will see Azeem about the title belonging to a certain ship,” was his gruff response.

“The captain's brother? Will he give such a title to her?” Isa arched a questioning eyebrow.

Abu nodded. “Azeem and I go back many years. Once, he was like a brother to me. I'm certain that with a bit of … encouragement, he will sign over the deed of that ship to our captain.”

Isa remained silent for a moment. His glance filled with a multitude of questions. Rather than voice them, he only turned away. The young man glanced up at the ship he would travel on and the grief of this voyage settled into his soul.

“May Allah find your meeting favorable, Abu,” he sighed as he ran his fingers through his hair. “Allah knows, our captain deserves to retain ownership of her vessel.”

“Yes, she does at that,” was Abu's soft reply.

“You mentioned another matter?” Isa turned to him, his questioning eyes searched the bigger man for answers. With a shrug, Abu cleared his throat.

“A … private matter, something that should have been taken care of years ago,” the big man half whispered as he glanced around at his former guards, then looked back down at Isa. The expression in his eyes did not betray his thoughts. Seeing the bigger man like this, the young navigator only nodded.

“Then I shall pray for Allah's blessing for you on this as well,” Isa said as he reached out to clasp the burly man's hand. Nodding, Abu took his hand and squeezed it tightly. When their eyes met and he saw the intensity of the bigger man's eyes, Isa felt a cold chill run through him for a moment. Although he did not know what the second matter was, the navigator decided that at times, ignorance was preferable to knowledge.
Abu stayed on the docks until both ships had gone to sea on the early morning tide. Once assured that his friends were out of harms way, he made his way to the city mosque. He spent the entire day fasting, in prayer and meditations. Although he did not consider himself a religious man, he knew that Allah existed. As sure as he was of his God, he knew that for some men, their hearts were turned away from the beneficence of Allah's presence. Understanding this made it easier for him to comprehend when bad things happened to good people. It did not excuse the evil in his mind; it only made it easier to understand why such things happened.

When the sun set in the distance, he rose from his devotions and gathered his prayer rug. As the men around him spoke softly, he answered them easily, his smile never wavering. Filled with a sense of peace, he returned to the house of his dear friend and left his items by his packed bags, then left the house in silence.

Yes, in all of his journeys he had met many different people. Some were so kind as to cause one's heart to warm by the sheer closeness of their presence. Yet other's were filled with such hate that he could not deny that the hand of Satan was upon them.

As he reflected upon his meditations, he began upon the task that he knew should have been undertaken years ago. He moved with stealth through the dark shadows of the estate and made his way through a dark window into the home. Although many would doubt that he could move in this way because of his bulk and the minor inconvenience of his shoulder wound, his years as a mercenary had taught him well. When he reached the part of the house that he had intended to, he hid in the shadows and waited with great patience and calm. Part of the time he continued to spend in prayer and meditation, while the rest was spent in thoughts of the past.

Yes, Zara was more than just his captain and friend, she was kin to him. He could not have explained it to anyone, but he had known since the day that he had lifted her up from the darkness of her imprisonment when she was barely a child, that she would always hold a part of his heart. No, it was not a romantic affection he held for her, but rather the affections of a brother for a sister. And perhaps part of his feelings stemmed from the knowledge that her own brothers seemed to hold her with little regard. Not even her father cared for her, and this, more than anything, was enough to disturb the burly man.

At the noise of the door opening and a glint of hand held lamp, Abu faded further back into the shadows in absolute silence. He watched as the man moved through his bedroom, preparing himself for sleep. It was an older man and he seemed to have some trouble breathing, for as he went, he would suck air through his nose with a whistle and exhale noisily out through his mouth. As the light showed his face, it became evident that his nose had been broken recently. Even in the shadows, Abu could see that it was bruised, red and swollen to twice its normal size. Unaware of the mercenary's presence, the old man donned his nightshirt, then crawled wheezing under his ornate blanket. He leaned toward the lamp and blew it out, then settled back in the bed with a sigh, his breath still snuffling through his nose and open mouth. Once the light was gone and the prey had relaxed, the hunter made his way through the darkness.

By the light of the full moon coming through the open windows, Abu moved and stood directly over the bed. With eyes already adjusted to the night, he gazed at the bearded man breathing raggedly in the bed for one last time. Suddenly, as if sensing that implacable gaze upon him, the old man's eyes shot open. He clearly saw the shadow hulking above him, but before he could open his mouth to scream, Abu placed his massive hands over the man's face. Like a vice, his left hand kept the man's mouth closed while his right closed off the air into his nostrils.

“I only do what should have been done years ago,” Abu whispered as the man struggled in his grip and made a faint squealing noise inside his head as he tried to scream but could not.

“May Allah find me worthy for banishing the world of one more devil,” the mate said like a prayer as he stifled the man's breathing. His wounded shoulder twinged at the pressure he was bringing to bear but he ignored it. Even an arrow through his brain would not have stopped him from carrying out this justice so long denied. Even after the old man stopped flailing, Abu closed his eyes and began to recite some verses from the holy words. When more than enough time had passed, he released his grasp and the empty corpse sprawled onto the bed, the trapped breath rattling out of his inert lungs with a reedy sound. As he turned away from the dead man, a deep sigh escaped Abu.

“Yes, this I have done for my friend … my sister in all but name. You were never worthy to have a daughter such as her,” he told the dead corpse that lay upon the disheveled pillow. The lifeless, vacant eyes stared up as if the man had seen the image of God himself and had been struck down for his evilness. “Now, may Allah have mercy upon your soul,” Abu whispered, “because I never could.”

With a final nod, the mercenary turned sailor made his way from the darkness of the room. Once on the balcony of the dead man's private room, the big man inhaled deeply. He was not certain if it was his imagination or if it was real, but the air around him seemed suddenly filled with the scent of jasmine and myrrh and an overwhelming peace seemed to settle in his soul. With a slight smile, he massaged his tingling shoulder for a moment, then made his way out of the home undetected.

The end of Chapter 10,
of The Curse of Higuchi.

Chapter 11

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