The Curse of Higuchi

Chapter 2

By L. Crystal Michallet-Romero

Copyright © August 2001 L. Crystal Michallet-Romero
All Rights Reserved

Credits: A big thank you to my beta readers, Bill the Semi-Bard, Sue Rice and my soul mate, Jessica. Jessica is not only one of my readers, but I've loosely based the Moroccan captain after her, and she doesn't seem to mind. Thanks honey!
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: NC-17
Violence: One part has a scene of a crew member who was injured, another has extreme violence depicted.
Sexual Violence:
Although nothing is graphic, there is a scene which includes the attempted molestation of a minor. 
Subtext: Yes
* Safihah, commonly known as an astrolabe.  At this time, there were two forms of astrolabe used, one was a slendar piece of wood, which held a silver ball that gave the location readings.  This astrolabe could be used during the day.  The second form of astrolabe is the one most commonly known of today, which is made of metal and was used for night navigation. The primary wooden astrolabe, and the metal compass were invented by Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn Yahya al-Zarqali (1028-1087 B.C.E),  a Spanish Arab.
* Chermoulah is a Moroccan leek.
* Harees, an Arab dish, consisting of small pieces of meat, wheat, and water.  The dish is prepared by putting meat in the pot and adding wheat on top of it and then cooking it in boiling water until the meat is tender.  These ingredients are then mixed together and thoroughly beaten until it is like porridge.  In the final stage, the pot is surrounded by charcoal and is left to cook overnight.  This dish is eaten at any time but particularly during the Holy month of Ramadan.
* Balaleet, a sweet Arab pasta dish usually eaten for breakfast with a side of dates, sweet bread and tea.

Part 6

Zara was not a superstitious person, instead she considered herself a woman of science. Everything that was considered unusual or supernatural had a logical explanation.  The old tales told to scare children, or influence weaker minds were not things that the captain subscribed to.  A superstitious person would have listened to their feelings.  The moment that the coldness surrounded her, when the hair stood on the back of her neck and the feeling of suffocation enveloped her, Zara should have known that the evening with Gabrielle was not meant to be. If she had listened to the ill omens, she would have stopped the dinner plans before they got underway, but Zara was not a superstitious person.

Since Zara would not fall victim to fears, she ignored the feelings.  She pushed them to the back of her mind.  The dark haired women reasoned that these feelings had been with her for a long time.  What she did not want to remember was that they had been with her ever since Higuchi.  Rather than ponder these thoughts, she continued in her plans and readied her cabin for her guest.  Zara found herself excitedly stressed to the point where she barked orders to the scullery crew, only to offer an apology moments later for her harshness.  Had Zara taken the time to listen to the omens around her, she would have cancelled the entire evening.

There had been clues which showed the fate of Zara's plans for the bard.  The candles that would not light, the wine that mysteriously fell to the ground, its glass decanter shattering just when her passions were rising, and then there was the coldness.  Sometimes she could not help but shiver from the bitter cold that seemed to be only around her.  All these clues foreshadowed the fruitless evening that was in store for her.

Rather than honor the omens, Zara continued her plans.  Once dinner was over, and the chill had finally left the room, she was able to truly enjoy her time alone with the bard.  After they moved to the bed, they were able to relax and openly explore each other's touch.  For a moment, she began to feel as if everything was going to be all right.  Just as the memories of the ill omens were wiped away by the feel of the bard's soft lips, as they embraced, their hands exploring each other's curves through the cloth of their clothes, the ill omens returned as a painful reminder of their continual presence.

One moment Zara felt swept up in her desires, the next she felt a sharp pain in the palm of her left hand.  Pulling away from the smaller woman, she glanced down at her left palm as a thin bead of blood began to form across the open gash.  Zara pulled away from Gabrielle, and rose from the bed as she clutched her wrist.  She glanced up in time to see the look of shock on the smaller woman's features as she rose to join the Moroccan, her lips forming a wordless O as her teary eyes were captivated by the wound.

“Oh….”  The blonde's voice was soft as she reached out toward the captain. “I-I'm… sorry,” her words were barely a whisper.

Without saying a word, Zara turned to a nearby cabinet, reached in, and removed a thin strip of bandage.  As she tried to stanch the flow of blood from the wound, she watched Gabrielle remove the weapon and place it on the nearby table.  Then, turning she moved toward Zara and took her hand.

“I-I'm…” the bard's voice trembled as she looked at Zara's bloody hand.  The taller woman noticed the Gabrielle's smaller hands, usually so confident, were now shaking as she attempted to hold the cloth against the wound.

“It's all right, no harm is done,” Zara tried to calm the smaller woman.  While the bard was wrapping her wound tighter, Gabrielle began to shake her head as her eyes were frozen on the blood soaked cloth.

“I can't do anything right,” Gabrielle whispered to no one in particular. 

Misunderstanding her, Zara smiled as she reached out with her right hand and lightly touched the smaller woman's cheek.  “No, it wasn't your fault,” the captain attempted to say, but didn't quiet finish.

“It's all my fault.  I can't do anything right,” Gabrielle's green eyes filled with tears as her features frowned.  Quickly, the bard began to pace the length of the cabin, her body trembling slightly as she continued to shake her head negatively, her eyes never wavered from the floor.

Zara tried to approach her, to hold her tight and assure her that it was merely an accident, a cut that would heal.  However, the moment the captain touched her, Gabrielle pushed her away, the look of revulsion etched in her features as her green eyes were moist with tears.  Her body began to shake uncontrollably as she cornered herself against the wall.  Like a trapped stag, the woman frantically looked around the cabin for an escape, then gave up and sank to the floor.

“It's all my fault!”  Gabrielle cried out as she curled into a tight ball.  “I-I shouldn't have let it happen….  I could have stopped it!  I-It should have been me…”  She wept as her body shook uncontrollably.

Zara knelt by her and pulled Gabrielle into an embrace.  She held firmly around the bard's arms as she lowered her head away from the smaller woman's lowered head.  When it seemed that she would not recoil from her touch, the captain moved away enough to reach below the blonde.  She easily scooped the smaller woman into her arms and carried the bard to the bed.  Any earlier thoughts that Zara held, any desires that she hoped would be fulfilled were quelled in the bard's sorrow.  Rather than dwelling on her own needs, the captain gently laid the woman down, then joined her, pulling the bard into her arms and holding her close.

Zara allowed the smaller woman's emotions to flow out.  The captain held Gabrielle close as uncontrollable tears spilled forth, then her tears turned to rage, and she fought against the captain.  The smaller woman pounded her fist into the Moroccan's chest.  Her words were a diatribe of hate, anger, and rage. 

“I hate you!  I hate you!” the bard's words flowed out like a crashing wave as she struck out at Zara.  “Why?  Why did you do it?  Why did you leave me?  I hate you!” she screamed incoherently as her balled fists slammed against Zara's chest.  Never once wavering, the taller woman held on to her using all of her strength to hold the bard in her embrace until finally, mercifully, the bard's movements stopped.

With only tears left, Gabrielle clung to the captain as she wept into her shoulder.  The pain in her palm momentarily forgotten, Zara held the smaller body close and brushed her fingers through the blonde's short hair as she cooed softly to her.  When it seemed that she had calmed down, Zara looked down at her.  She noticed the bard's green eyes had become puffy and swollen from the tears that now streaked down her cheeks.  The look of anger, hatred, and panic was replaced with sadness. 

“It's not your fault, Gabrielle,” Zara's voice was a soft whisper.

“Y-You don't understand … I knew what she was going to do.  I knew it and I didn't stop her,” the smaller woman buried her face in Zara's shoulder as if ashamed to be seen.  Never releasing her hold, Zara continued to stroke the blonde's hair as she listened to the bard's words.

“You knew?”  She asked Gabrielle, probing for more answers.

“Yes, I knew what Xena was planning.  I-I just …” she hesitated a moment, then a wave of tears were released again.  “I should have stopped her on time… I shouldn't have listened to her… I-I could have helped her, but instead…” her voice was barely above a whisper.  “It was all my fault,” she whispered as she once again buried her face into Zara's shoulder.

The Moroccan remained silent.  She held the smaller woman through the waves of pain and listened to her account through the sobs.  With her fingers stroking Gabrielle's hair, Zara heard the story of the bard and her warrior princess.  She listened intently as the blonde told her about Higuchi and the ordeal she underwent.  At the story of her lover's death, Gabrielle began to cry again, her words coming out broken.  She told Zara how she was going to return Xena's ashes to her family lands.  The captain remained silent through the whole tale and listened with interest when the bard spoke of the Fountain of Strength.  When the bard seemed worn out, her words grew silent as slight hiccups escaped her control.

“I've said t-too much, haven't I?”  Gabrielle whispered against Zara's shoulder, “and I've gotten your shirt all wet.”

Zara smiled as she pulled the smaller woman close.  “Nonsense, the shirt will dry, and I assure you that you have not said too much.”

“Are you sure?” the bard seemed uneasy with her words.

“Of course,” the captain repeated as she felt compelled to lay a light kiss on the bard's forehead.  Assured by her actions, the blonde looked up at her.  Zara gazed into her eyes, realizing that there was yet more that the bard had not said. 

“There's more?” she asked Gabrielle.

The bard looked at her intently, and then nodded.  “She's still with me,” she softly whispered.

“Of course she is with you.  When you love someone, they will always stay within your heart,” Zara assured as she held the smaller body close.

“No, that's not what I mean,” Gabrielle broke into Zara's words as she leaned on her elbow and looked down at her.  Maintaining eye contact, the bard's voice was deep and controlled, “I meant that she is still here, with me.  Her spirit, I see her and talk with her and…” Gabrielle hesitated as she averted her eyes.  Zara noticed the flush cross the bard's cheeks.

“She is here on the ship with you?”  Zara asked, masking her rapid heart rate while trying to give an appearance of calmness.

“Yes,” Gabrielle's voice was low as she dropped her head to Zara's shoulder.

“Is she here now?”  Zara asked, unconsciously looking around the cabin.

“No, she's giving me privacy now.”

Zara nodded understanding as she thought over the new information.  She felt herself releasing a sigh as she closed her eyes to the multitude of thoughts.  The Moroccan had heard of such couplings and knew that such a bond could never be severed. 

“Captain?”  Gabrielle's voice broke through her thoughts.


“What is your real name?” the bard asked.

“I've told you my real name, remember?”

“I know, but everyone on the ship calls you something else, and sometimes Abu calls you another name,” the inquisitive nature of the bard shined through.

“When I was born I was given the name Azzah.  It is my birth name,” she began to explain. “And to ward off the evil eye, not to mention because I have blue eyes, I was given the secondary name of al-Zarqa' meaning, the blue-eyed.  Al-Agadir is my family name, bint Majnun, means I am the daughter of Majnun. Ibn means that my father is the son of Sayyar.  Al-Hallaj is a title that means dealer of cotton, because my ancestors began as merchants of cotton, and abd Allah means that my grandfather is seen as a man of god.”  Zara explained.  Although she could not see the bard's expression, she could tell that confusion remained within the bard's mind. 

“But,” Gabrielle's brow creased in concentration as she thought over Zara's words.  “What I hear them call you doesn't sound like any of those names.  It's a lot shorter,” her honest confusion brought a smile to Zara.

“Sometimes Abu calls me Zara because that is the name that my littlest brother used to call me.  He couldn't say Azzah, so it was shortened to Zara.”  The dark haired woman explained.

“Oh, Zara!”  Gabrielle's smile widened as she caught the name she had heard.  For a moment, the bard practiced her name.  “Can I?  I mean, is it all right if I…” but her words became silent as she gazed into the captain's blue eyes.

“Of course,” Zara nodded.  “You may call me Zara, if it pleases you,” the captain conceded.  At her agreement, Gabrielle smiled, then relaxed against the taller woman's shoulder.  Nuzzling into her body, the bard remained quiet and allowed the silence of the room to reign.  The captain heard the sound of the waves against the ship.  The last voices of the crew were replaced by the sounds of the night ocean.  If it had not been for the continual throbbing, the wound on her hand would have been forgotten completely.  Just when Zara had thought that the bard had fallen asleep, Gabrielle's voice broke through the silence.



“Can I ask you for a favor, and you not take it the wrong way?” the smaller woman asked against her shoulder.

“Of course,” Zara found it easy to respond.

“Could I…?” the bards words grew silent as she leaned on her elbow and looked down at the bigger woman.  “Could I feel your warmth?” the bard asked her as she touched Zara's damp shirt.  For a moment, Zara did not understand her request.  Then, as understanding dawned, she sighed as the meaning of the request became clear.  With a slight smile, Zara nodded as she sat up in the bed.

“I guess it would not hurt.  After all, it is wet,” the captain smiled as she easily pulled off her shirt and tossed it aside as Gabrielle did the same with her own shirt.  In a casual move, the smaller woman sat up on the bed, and began to unlace her boots. When the bard jumped off of the bunk, Zara laid back and watched as Gabrielle kicked off her boots, and then began to wiggle from her clothes.  Once the blonde was naked, she turned and gazed at the captain. Seeing this, Zara raised a questioning brow.  At her silent question, the blonde shook her head negatively as climbed back on the bed.

“Please don't take me wrong, I'm not asking for anything else, I just really need to feel a warm body next to me right now,” her words were almost a chuckle as she moved to the ties of Zara's breeches.

“All right, point taken,” Zara protested as she helped the bard untie the lacings, then lifted her hips so Gabrielle could pull her breeches down.  In an easy move, Zara had her own sandals kicked off as the bard's deft hands pulled her pants off.  At the slight chill from the room, the taller woman quickly crawled under the blankets on the bed and held the cover up as the bard followed suit.

“You realize you may drive me to madness?”  Zara stated with a slight chuckle as the bard snuggled close.

“Why?”  Gabrielle asked in genuine curiosity as her leg draped absently over Zara's leg.

At the feel of the soft flesh, and Gabrielle's scent so close, Zara groaned as she wrapped her arm over the smaller body.  The taller woman inhaled deeply as she felt Gabrielle's firm breasts against her side.  When the bard climbed on top of her and stretched over her prone body, the Moroccan clenched her jaw as she fought down the rampant emotions of desire.

“Because …” Zara's voice came out in a slight rasping sound, “it has been a long time since I've been with a woman.”

“This isn't a good idea then, I should just go to my cabin.”  Gabrielle's voice was filled with concern as she began to move.

“Nonsense,” was all Zara could say while wrapping her arms around the smaller body.  At her words and actions, the bard settled down and nuzzled against Zara's neck, her soft breath brushed over the taller woman's sensitive flesh.  The deep sigh caught Gabrielle's attention and she looked at Zara with a silent question.

“I was simply thinking that perhaps it is better this way,” the captain's voice was light and filled with humor.  At Gabrielle's unspoken question, Zara shrugged as she relaxed into their contact.  “I doubt that I am completely healed down there to be able to enjoy myself,” she lightly chuckled.  At her words, Gabrielle frowned as she glanced slightly down toward Zara's lower body.

“Oh, I forgot about that,” Gabrielle winced as the memory of where she had kicked Zara returned.  “I … hope I didn't hurt you,” the bard's voice was light and soothing.

“Mostly my pride,” Zara sighed as she glanced down at the smaller woman.  “But then again, under the circumstances, I would have kicked you in the same place, had you acted as I did,” her words brought an easy smile to Gabrielle.

“Well, let's not replay that one again, all right?”  Gabrielle asked.

Remembering the extreme pain that was once between her legs, Zara grimaced, then smiled at the bard.  “No, that is not a moment I wish to ever relive!”  she assured as she held the smaller woman close. 

“Funny, that's exactly what Xena said when it happened to her,”  the bard muttered as she relaxed against Zara's body.  She nuzzled close to the tall woman, allowing Zara's arms to wrap around her protectively. 

They remained silent, each in their own thoughts until Gabrielle was the first to break the stillness.  “You don't think I'm c-crazy … do you?”  Gabrielle asked.

“Of course not,” the captain assured as she lightly kissed the crown of the blonde woman's head.  “And, for fear of sounding as if I am from a, as you say, crazy family, I have a few relatives who are able to communicate with spirits.”

“You do?” the bard seemed genuinely surprised.

“Yes, I do,” Zara affirmed. “And, I have heard of many couples like you and your warrior.”

“What have you heard?” the small woman glanced up at her.

“I have a good friend who believes that there are individuals who are born with a connection to another.  He has told me that these two souls will search for each other throughout all eternity, each time they will always unite.  Once they find their other half, it is inevitable that they always be close to one another.  He describes it like the moon and earth; where neither one can exist without the other and each will always be close to the other,” she explained as she felt the bard fully relax into slumber.  At her slight, easy breathing, Zara sighed as she closed her eyes and held the sleeping bard close.

Although the evening had not gone as planned, Zara allowed herself the luxury of enjoying the closeness of the smaller woman.  As was her habit, the captain began to contemplate the bard's words.  Her mind attempted to find a solution.  When one wasn't found, she closed her eyes as she drifted into sleep.  Sometime during the night, they had shifted their positions in the bed and their bodies lay facing each other.  Like a light suddenly shinning in the darkness, a solution appeared within Zara's dream filled mind.

The captain noted the time by the single candle that still burned.  In the diffused light, she watched the sleeping bard.  Gabrielle's eyes moved rapidly under closed lids.  Her breathing remained light and easy.  In a tender manner, Zara reached out and brushed away a strand of short blonde hair from the bard's face.  At this move, she felt the slight pain in her palm, but ignored the discomfort as she laid her hand over the woman's back.  In what seemed an eternity, the captain continued to watch the sleeping bard.  When the smaller woman's eyes fluttered open, Zara smiled as she waited for the bard to wake fully. 

Glancing at her, the bard yawned as she looked around the cabin.  “What time is it?”  Gabrielle asked as the chill of the room greeted her.  Feeling it, she quickly crawled deeper under the covers.

“It is still early,” Zara smiled as she offered her shoulder to the bard.  As the woman snuggled close, Zara sighed, then explained the solution that she contemplated concealing, “Gabrielle, I think I know someone who can help you.”

“With … Xena, you mean?”

“Yes.  She was a lover of mine, now a High Priestess at the temple of Isis.  She is living on the island of Philae.  Once a year, before the rising of Al-Bahr, the Nile river, they grant a few requests from the masses.  I think she could be of some assistance to you.”  Zara's words were soft and controlled.

“You mean, she can help me release Xena's spirit?”

“No,” Zara brushed her lips over the woman's forehead.  “She might be able to help you bring back your spirit mate,” the dark haired woman offered.  “I have never personally witnessed her abilities, however, I have heard from others that she has the power to bring the dead, even their ashes, back to life.”  At Gabrielle's continued silence, Zara rubbed her hand over the smooth, white shoulders. 

“Gabrielle… would you like me to take you to her… to see if she might be able to help you?”  Zara asked as she inwardly cringed.  Part of her did not want to help, to assist the bard in reuniting with her true love.  But, despite Zara's inward desires, a part of her mind knew that this pair would never voluntarily part from the other.

“You would do that for us?”  Gabrielle seemed surprised as she leaned up on an elbow and looked down at her.

Sensing the probing eyes, Zara gazed into Gabrielle's green pools and nodded assent.  “Yes, Gabrielle, I would,”  was all she answered.

The bard's features broke into a smile as she resettled herself against Zara.  “That would be wonderful!”  Gabrielle's whisper was filled with hope.  Zara noticed that the bard seemed peaceful and content as she snuggled in the captain's embrace.  After a slight sigh, Gabrielle's arm draped over Zara's mid-section as she relaxed against the captain's side. 

As if a thought crossed her mind, the bard leaned up and looked down at her.  “She was one your lovers?”  Gabrielle asked as she began to wonder if the rumor about ships captains was true.


“How many did you have?  How many do you still have?” the bard's brow creased into a frown, which brought out a slight chuckle from the captain.

“I have more of both categories than I care to mention at the moment,” Zara laughed as she pulled the smaller woman into her arms.  “Do not worry, your virtue is safe with me.  I would never do anything that you do not want to do,” she explained, then glanced down at the blonde woman.  “Would you want to…?” she asked hopefully.

Gabrielle slightly chuckled.  In answer to her question, she pinched Zara's side before settling back into her arms. 

“Why is this bed so soft?”  Gabrielle asked after a moment of silence.

“It is made of feathers,”  Zara answered as her eyes slowly closed. 

Gabrielle seemed to think over her response, then shook her head slightly.  “No, I mean, why is this particular bed so soft?” the bard asked again, hoping that her question was clearer.

Zara thought over her query, then, as she understood Gabrielle's question, she smiled as she lightly patted Gabrielle's back.  “Because,” she kept her voice filled with authority, “I am The Captain.”  At Zara's answer, the bard snorted in a mocking laugh before falling into a deep and peaceful sleep.  Inwardly chuckling, Zara allowed her senses to fade as she was pulled into the darkness of dreams.
Xena had kept her distance, as promised.  She was not happy about it, but she managed to refrain from any curiosity she might be having.  Rather than storming into the room and having a full out poltergeist tantrum, she stood on the deck of the ship.  She watched the passing stars and the distant waves.  Although she had noticed the light of the captain's cabin slowly dimming, she refrained from intruding.

This had not turned out as she had planned, Xena thought as a night watchman's humming echoed into the night.  When she first decided to go to Japa, it had not been her intention to get herself killed, but like most things about her, she had simply walked into it.  Once in it, she couldn't think of any way to avoid the outcome of her own death.

The ghost warrior knew that this was a mess that she could not get herself out of.  In the past, she was always able to find ways back from the dead, but now that she was having regrets about her actions, she could find no solution for coming back to life. As the sudden realization hit her, she sighed as she gazed up at the twinkling stars.

Xena realized for the first time that this was where she had made the mistake.  She had always tried to be in control of her life, always tried to do what was best for the people who fell victim to her past actions.  Now she realized she had hurt the one person who meant the world to her.  Although she was no longer a cold blooded killer, her nature of running headlong into danger hurt the one person closest to her.  Like in the past, her thoughtless actions had brought nothing but pain to the one woman, whom she had come to know as her soul mate.

With a shake of her head, Xena stood tall and allowed the night winds to brush pass her form.  The warrior knew that Gabrielle would have joined her to the end of the earth, and this was why she should have consulted with her lover long before deciding to run head first into the fires of Japa.  Maybe then they wouldn't be in this mess.  Had she simply trusted her partner's judgment, as she did during the Higuchi fires, Gabrielle might have found another way to solve the problem of the lost souls of Higuchi.  Then maybe she would not be finding herself alone on the ship's deck while her lover was being made love to by another woman.  If only she had done things differently, it would be her and not a ship's captain who shared with Gabrielle tonight, she thought as the tears rolled down her cheeks.

Filled with defeat and a bit of determination she gazed at the distant moon.  "If there are any gods left to hear me, I swear it will be different next time, just…. P-Please, help us to find a way to bring me back… I-I vow to always consult my soul mate in matters that affect our lives," she whispered.  Her words brought only a gust of a wind and a crashing of the waves against the bow.
Nadrah remained silent as she watched her friend.  When she saw the tall warrior crying, she moved from the shadows.  Gazing up at Xena, Nadrah placed her little hand into the warrior's larger calloused hand.  With a look of surprise, the ghost warrior looked down at the small girl as she quickly wiped the tears from her eyes.

“Shouldn't you be asleep?”  Xena asked as she turned from the railing and sat down next to Nadrah.  At her question, Nadrah looked up at the captain's cabin, then shrugged her shoulders.  As if her actions had caused pain, Xena flinched, then nodded understanding.

“I guess we're both stuck out in the cold tonight, huh?”  the warrior princess asked as she held her arms open for the little girl.

With a large smile, Nadrah accepted her offering and climbed into her lap.  “I could sleep in Abu's cabin, if I wanted to.  He left some blankets on the floor for me.”

“And you don't want to sleep in Abu's cabin?”  Xena asked.

At her words, Nadrah scrunched up her face.  “Abu snores!”  Her words brought a slight chuckle from Xena.  Then, as the silence returned, the tall woman held her close, rocking her gently as she softly hummed.

“Why are you crying?”  Nadrah asked when she saw the fresh tears. 

After a moment of thought, Xena sighed as she looked down into the dark, penetrating eyes.  “I really messed things up this time,” was her only response.

“What did you mess up?” the child's probing voice asked quizzically.

Xena thought over the child's question.  Although she knew the answer, it still was hard to say.  Looking away from the girl, she closed her eyes against the tears that threatened to flow.  “I made a mistake and now Gabrielle is hurting,” she admitted out loud.

“Can't you say you're sorry so that she won't hurt anymore?”

“It's not that easy, sweetheart.  Some things can't be fixed,”  Xena tried to word her explanation so that the child would understand.

“Why not?”

“Because….” the warrior shrugged as she looked at the tiny face.  The light from the moon shined on the little face.  “Because I don't know how to fix it.  I've made a mess that I can't fix, and now Gabrielle is hurting from my mistake.”

The little girl seemed to think over the warrior's response, then she reached up and lightly touched the tears on her friends cheek.  “What did you do?” her childish voice was like a whisper.

“I … made a decision and didn't tell Gabrielle.  I didn't even ask her for help, or see if she knew of a better way to handle the problem.  Because of my decision, I messed everything up for us.  Now I can't change things.  I can't make it better,” was all Xena could say.

“How come you didn't ask Gabrielle?”  Nadrah's words were like a knife going into the warrior's soul.

“Because…” the warrior closed her eyes against the onslaught of tears. “Because I thought that I was the only one who knew the best way to do things,” she confessed to the girl.

Nadrah thought it over.  She watched as her friend's silent tears fell.  Then she reached up and touched her face.  At her touch, the warrior princess looked at her.

“It's all right, Xena.  It's going to be o.k.” her small voice assured.  “Gabrielle told me stories about you.  You're Xena, the Warrior Princess!  You're going to be all right!  You have to be all right because you're a hero!” Nadrah encouraged.

At Nadrah's open confidence, Xena smiled and hugged the little girl close.  She didn't know how she was going to get out of this problem.  The warrior wasn't even sure there was a way to make everything right again.  All she knew was the conviction of this little girl.  With such faith, Xena knew that she could never give up, she could not allow her past mistake to continue to hurt the best thing that ever entered her life, she reasoned as she held the little girl close.
Zara woke when the bard climbed over her.  Yawning, she leaned back and watched Gabrielle dress.  She allowed herself the luxury of feasting her eyes on the woman's form.  Her heart seemed to skip a beat as she gazed at the sensuous shadows that fell over Gabrielle's back.  The colorful design of the dragon seemed to enhance the sensuality of her form.  Her firm, milky white bottom tempted Zara.  When the bard had her trousers on, she leaned down and retrieved her tunic.  At the sight of her firm breasts, Zara felt her desires growing. 

Sensing that she was being watched, Gabrielle glanced up.  For a moment, she seemed confused by Zara's open stare and glanced down at herself to see what was wrong.  Realizing that she was being gawked at, Gabrielle rolled her eyes while turning her back and pulled her tunic over her torso.  As she dressed, she asked “How long have you been awake?”

“Long enough to wish you had not left my bed so soon,” Zara's voice was softly seductive.

“Ummm, about that,”  Gabrielle slipped her boots on, then moved and sat on the bed.  Seeing the taller woman's bandaged hand, she reached out and took it, quickly removing the dried, bloody cloth.  “I…um…I hope there was no misunderstanding last night,” the bard said as she examined her hand.  “I'm  not ready for a relationship with anyone other than my soul mate,” she explained as she rose from the bed and moved to the water basin.

“I understand, Gabrielle,” Zara tried to explain as the bard brought the water basin and some clean cloths to the bed.  Holding out her hand, she watched as Gabrielle cleaned the wound, then wrapped a new dressing on it.

“I don't want you to think that I like torturing you, it's just that…” the bard hesitated, then added.  “I really needed to feel a warm body close.  I needed to hold you as much as be held by you.  But I'm not ready to share myself,”  she explained to Zara.

“I understand.  You do not have to worry, Gabrielle.  I will never force myself upon you…” she assured. Smiling mischievously, she added, “But you cannot expect me to not notice or try to convince you!”

With a chuckle and shake of her head, Gabrielle tied off the dressing, then kissed the bandaged palm of the tall woman's hand.  “Thank you.”  At her words, Zara smiled and pulled at the bard's hands until she was able to kiss the back of one.

No words were needed.  They each seemed to know what the other thought and neither one wanted to verbalize their thoughts.  Instead, Gabrielle smiled, pulled the covers up on the dark haired woman, then rose and left the bed.  Closing her eyes in the darkness, Zara rolled over and nuzzled into the pillows.  She inhaled deeply of the bard's aromatic fragrance before drifting into a peaceful slumber.  Just a few more minutes, and then she would rise and plot a new course that would bring them to the island in Egypt, Zara silently promised as her dreams were filled with the images of a blonde bard.

Once the old bandages were disposed of and the water basin emptied, the bard went back to the bed and found that Zara had fallen back asleep. With only a slight smile, Gabrielle gazed down at the sleeping Moroccan. She watched the bigger woman for only a moment, before turning to leave. At the memories of the captain's smooth flesh, the bard sighed as she shook her head. Despite her love for Xena, she could not deny that being held, if even for this single night, was what her battered spirit needed. Hopefully, her Xena would understand, she silently prayed as she closed the door to the captain's cabin.

Part 7

The new morning brought a clearer understanding of the mysteries surrounding the beautiful bard.  Once Zara had rechecked her mathematical calculations against the safihah, her navigational tool, she knew that there should be no problem with reaching the lands of Egypt before the next rising flood of the Nile.  Granted, she had intended it as the final destination of their voyage, but she wasn't certain if they would have to cut their original trip short in order to arrive before the following year's flood.  Once she checked the calculations, she knew that the extra journey would cost her nothing.  In this way, her father's business would not be in jeopardy, and then Gabrielle might be granted her wish.

Inwardly, Zara recoiled at this thought.  Part of her did not want to help Gabrielle; she did not want to make it easier for the blonde to reunite with her spirit twin.  Yet deep within Zara's heart, she knew that no obstacles could be presented that would stop the blonde from reaching her intended spirit twin.  Upset by this thought and angered at herself for being upset, Zara shook her head as she tried in vain to drive these jealous feelings away.

As the tall woman leaned back in her chair, she closed her eyes at the million thoughts, which ran through her mind.  The idea that Gabrielle was still able to contact her dead lover, that she was actually on the ship, was something Zara's crew would not be able to understand.  Although many of them were good hard working men, they were still filled with superstitions.  But for Zara, it made perfect sense.  The coldness that would occasionally surround her, the sensation on the back of her neck, was now understandable.

With this thought Zara suddenly sat forward.  She looked cautiously around her room.  When nothing could be seen, she closed her eyes in concentration.  She tried to feel if anyone were near,  if there was coldness in the room or the general feeling of uneasiness.  All she could detect was the gentle rocking of the ship.  Relieved, she opened her eyes in time to hear a knocking at her door. 

Turning, she saw Abu standing at the threshold, his eyes intently searching her, then stopped at the sight of her bandaged palm, as he remained silent.  “Captain?” his deep voice interrupted her.

With only a negative shake of her head, she brushed away any unspoken concerns he may have had, and then she smiled as she waved her friend in.  “Come in Abu, come, my friend.  I have much to discuss with you,” she said as she rose from her seat at the desk, and moved to the low table in the center of her cabin.  Once seated comfortably, she offered Abu a place on the pillows across from her.  The big, muscular man smiled as he sat crossed legged and watched her pour a dark tea into two small cups from Chin.  Seeing that it was to be an informal meeting, Abu relaxed as he deeply inhaled the fresh aromatic scent.

“Tell me, Abu, what do you know of the spirit world?” she started off by saying.  Taking her cup, she sat leaning against a bent knee, and watched her friend intently.  The morning table had been set as Ayyub ordered.  This morning it had a plate of Balaleet, a bowl of fresh dates and sweet bread.  Knowing there was more than enough, she offered the plate to Abu, who eagerly dug into the food.

“Spirits, Captain?” he visibly frowned as they began to eat the food with their fingers, as was their custom.  “I don't know very much.  I haven't had experience with them, unless you count my great Aunt  Buthayna.”

“Was that the one who …?”  Zara began to ask when a vivid memory came to mind of an old woman who would henna her hair blue and wore grass weaved turbans.

“The very same!  Bah, she was a demon in life and in death!  She never let my mother have a moment's rest.  That's why my family had to move from that home, you remember the one.  Picked up in the middle of the night so that Great Aunt Buthayna wouldn't know where we moved, and that was the last I saw of that old house!”  Abu explained in between sips of tea.  Then, as an afterthought, he glanced at her, “Why do you ask, Captain?”

As Zara chewed on the sweet bread, she nodded to the man, and then drank some tea.  “Because, Abu.  I have discovered what is happening on this ship.  And now that I know, it is beginning to make perfect sense,” she explained as she rose from her place to absently pace, then stopped and looked down through the window to the crew.  In the farthest corner of the ship, she saw Nadrah sitting with a bowl in her lap, her little hands working on the task that the ship's cook had set her to completing.  Next to her, the bard sat helping.  The two of them seemed to be intently talking as they watched the crew.

“Abu, have you ever heard of …” Zara searched her mind for an equivalent word in their language.  Then shook her head when the name didn't come to mind, “Two souls that are destined to always be together?”  At his look of confusion, she added, “Spirit twins?”

Abu's jaw grew slack as he meditated on the captain's words, his jaw occasionally chewing on the morning meal as his eyes squinted in thought.  Then, as if a thought had suddenly come to mind, he absently stroked his beard.  “Yes, Captain, I have.  My grandparents are such people.  They never met before their marriage, but once they were married, they swore to everyone that their souls knew each other the instant they set eyes on each other.  They still swear to this day that they will always come back to each other, no matter how many lives pass on this earth,” he explained, then arched a questioning brow toward her. “Why Captain?  Do you believe you've met yours?”

At his words, Zara smiled as she shook her head.  “No, Abu, not me. It's our passenger.  I've discovered something about her, quite by accident,” she added as she lightly rubbed her sore and bruised shoulder, remembering the beating she had taken during the bard's fits of anger, before returning to her place on the pillows.  “Abu, what the crew has been muttering is not far from the truth.  But they are not totally accurate either.  You see, my friend, while she was at Higuchi, she lost her lover, her twin soul.  And now her twin soul is ….”  she didn't get a chance to finish. 

Abu's eyes were wide as the understanding of her words became clear.  “Blessed Allah!  Is that what we've all been feeling?” his voice was low.

“Yes, Abu.  So you've felt it also?”

“Who wouldn't?  You'd have to be dead not to notice that sensation when it comes upon you!”  he exclaimed.  “Captain, is this woman's twin soul evil?”

“No Abu, I don't believe so.  But perhaps we should ask the one who knows best,” Zara said as she rose from her place and moved to the doorway of her cabin.  With two fingers pressed to her lips, Zara released a loud whistle.  Catching Nadrah's attention, she pointed to Gabrielle, and waved her to come to her cabin.  Once assured that she was on her way, Zara returned to her breakfast.

“No Abu, I do not believe the spirit is malicious,” she explained as she popped a date in her mouth, then drank a sip of her tea.

“Captain, no offense to what you may have shared with the woman last night, but, can she be trusted?”  Abu's words were cut short as their guest arrived as the door step.

“Please, come,” Zara waved her in as she was chewing on the bread.  Pointing to an open space on the pillows, she poured another cup of tea and passed it to Gabrielle as she motioned for her to join them.

“I was explaining to Abu about your…. situation,” Zara began to say in Greek as Gabrielle sipped of the warm tea.  “I think it clears up a lot,” she easily finished in her mother tongue.

“Allah be praised! Is the spirit here now?”  Abu almost spit up his tea.  At his words, Zara looked to Gabrielle.  She could tell that Abu's concerns were lost to the bard.  Although she was picking up their language, Gabrielle could not understand when the words were spoken fast.  When this occurred, Zara noticed that it took the bard a few minutes before she understood what was being said to her.  Zara closed her eyes and tried to feel that familiar sensation that seemed to always be near.

“No,” Zara and Gabrielle answered as one as their hands reached for the same date.  As their fingers touched, they gazed at each other, a slight nervous laugh escaping their control.  With a bow of her head, Zara offered the date to the bard.

“Abu,” the captain managed to keep her voice even and controlled.  “The important thing is that we do not let the crew know.  At this point in time, we do not need to have the added problems if they find out about the spirit.”

“Oh, agreed,” Abu nodded as he drank the remainder of his tea, and then poured himself another cup.

“Gabrielle, I do have a question for you.  I hope you will forgive me, but I need to know what your spirit twin is like,”  Zara's attention turned to the bard.

The blonde woman, once seeing how Zara and Abu were eating their breakfast, had mimicked them and was eating the Balaleet with a piece of sweet bread.  Her confusion crossed her eyes for only a moment, then she smiled.  “You don't have to worry about Xena.  She's harmless,” she assured, her attempt at their language was laced with the thick accent of her own people. 

As Gabrielle spoke her words, a sudden chill filled the room.  Zara felt the familiar sensations on her neck as she glanced around the room.  When she caught Abu's expression, she could tell that he, too, had felt the change.

Gabrielle continued to eat, then glanced up at the entryway.  “No, we weren't taking your name in vain,” the bard said in her Greek language to no one who could be seen.  “Zara was just asking some questions,” she added in Moroccan.

Zara caught Abu's glance and only shook her head in order to quiet his fears.  In an attempt to understand, she watched as the bard continued to eat and talk to her spirit twin.  Neither the captain nor Abu were willing to be the first to speak up.  It was not until Gabrielle looked up and said, “Well, why don't I just ask them, Xena?”

Gabrielle looked at the dark hair captain, “Xena said you can ask her any questions you like.”

“I see,” Zara kept her voice neutral as she casually drank her tea.  Across the table, Abu raised his cup with unsteady hands. The cup rattled loudly against the utensil he used to stir the tea.  Ignoring his fears, Zara looked at Gabrielle, “I need your spirit twin's word that she will not cause a problem for my crew.  We cannot afford to have the crew fearful of something that they cannot see.  Does she understand?”

“She said she understands, and that she's over there,” Gabrielle pointed to the nearest wall.

“Very well then,”  Zara's voice was controlled after she took only a moment to glance at the far wall.  “Then we have an understanding.  She doesn't interfere with my crew, and I will see what I can do to assist both of you?”

“Captain!”  Abu exclaimed, then added in a whisper, “Zara, you promised to help them?”  Abu accidentally spilled his tea when he heard his captain's words.

At his concern, she nodded understanding.  “It's all right, my friend.  I double checked, and we should be able to make it to Egypt in time without altering our route.  There will be no problems unless my crew decides that the ghost is too much for them.”
Gabrielle had been enjoying the meal until Zara made the comment referring to a ghost.  At Zara's words, Xena moved forward.  “Hey, I'm not a ghost!” she shouted at Zara, but the captain could not hear her. 

The bard looked up at her spirit lover, then frowned,  “Xena, she's only trying to say…”

“Oh, I know what she's saying alright!”  Xena's anger showed as she bunched up a fist.  “Ever since I came in, she's been talking like I'm not here!”

“Xena, that's just because…”  Gabrielle tried to explain.

“Oh, I know why!”  the tall woman was unwilling to hear Gabrielle as she began to pace around the room.

“Xena, she's not like Nadrah.  She can't see you!”  Gabrielle tried to silence her lover's anger.

Before anything else could be said, both Zara and Abu spoke up.  “Nadrah can see her?” they asked in unison.  However, their question was never answered.

“Of course she can because she is a special child who is not afraid to see with her eyes.  If you were half as smart….”  The ghost warrior didn't have a chance to finish her words before Gabrielle cut her off.

“Xena, stop it!”  she ordered.  At the tone in Gabrielle's voice, the ghost warrior froze, then made a movement as if to speak again.  Anticipating her lover's thoughts, Gabrielle's voice grew stern, “I said, not another word!” she hissed to her lover.  With a pout, Xena shrugged as she moved away.

“Is there a problem?”  Zara asked hesitantly.

“Well, yes,” the bard set her food aside.  “She is a bit upset that you're not addressing her directly and that you called her a ghost.”

Zara gulped apprehensively as she cast a confused looked toward Abu.  He coughed slightly out of nervousness, turned his head away, and then returned Zara's gaze with an arch of a brow.  The tall woman turned to Gabrielle who only smiled, then shrugged her shoulders.  With a sigh, Zara rose from her place and moved to the wall where she thought the ghost stood.

“I apologize ghost…umm…pardon, umm, Xena,”  she said to the thin air.  With a broad smile, Abu nodded his support as he gazed at the empty space.

“Awe, jeeze!”  Xena huffed as she leaned against the desk and glared at Gabrielle.

“Ummm, Zara,”  Gabrielle tried to keep her smile under control.

“Please, Gabrielle, I'm doing my best,”  Zara's retort was short before she turned to the empty space and continued talking.  “Now all I ask, ghos…um, Xena, is for your assurance that there will be no mischievousness with my crew.  Now, I fully intend to help Gabrielle, but I cannot give any….”

“Zara!”  Gabrielle said to Zara with a loud, firm voice.

“Gabrielle, please,”  The Moroccan captain tried to get the bard to allow her to finish.

“Zara, she's over there!”  Gabrielle pointed to the desk as she suppressed a smile.

The captain looked from the empty space to the end of her desk, then to Abu.  His smile never left as Gabrielle nodded at her, waved her toward the empty desk.  With a slightly embarrassed smile, Zara sighed, then walked over to the desk.  “She's sitting behind the desk?”  she asked Gabrielle.

“No, there at the edge,” the bard pointed.  Following her direction, Zara walked to the edge before Gabrielle's slight scream stopped her instantly, “You're right on her!  You stepped on her!”  Jumping away, Zara stood frozen in her spot, then turned and looked at Gabrielle.

With a long suffering expression, Xena shook her head.  She stood and faced the captain, her shoulders squared as if ready for battle.  “Go ahead, I'm ready,” was all she said as she crossed her arms.

Gabrielle covered her smile as she leaned back on the pillows.  She looked away from the comical scene of the two women.  When she glanced at Abu's wide, frozen smile, she covered her mouth and closed her eyes, as she felt the giggles forming.

“All right, as I was saying Ghost…um, Xena, I need an assurance that you will not bother my crew anymore.  No more surprises.  I give my word that our ship will transport you and Gabrielle to Egypt, and I will make a formal introduction for you both to the High Priestess of the Isis Order.  Is this agreeable?”  Zara asked the air.

“Tell her I didn't intentionally scare her crew,” the warrior princess looked contrite as she spoke to her bard.

“You know, you're being just as bad as Zara,” Gabrielle accused. 

“Wha…?  I am not!”  Xena exclaimed in her own defense.

“Yes, you are Xena.  You're being hypocritical,” were the bard's only words.

Not knowing what was going on, but pleased that she wasn't the only one getting scolded, Zara smirked and she crossed her arms in satisfaction.  Nodding into the thin air in front her, she added, “Yes, very hypocritical!”

Xena glared and put her finger right in front of Zara's face, “Hey, that's enough out of you!” 

“Now that's better!  That's the way it should be!”  Gabrielle exclaimed with a satisfied smile.  Yes, they were bickering, but at least they were addressing each other.

Abu, hearing only half of the conversation, jumped in, “But that's all right, Captain.  If she wishes to be hypocritical, that's perfectly all right!”  His congenial words were followed by a large smile as he tried to steady his shaking hands.

“I like you!”  Xena pointed at Abu with a broad smile.

At Gabrielle's chuckle, both Abu and Zara glanced at her, wondering what was being said.  With a shake of her head and a sigh, the bard pointed at Abu.  “Xena said that she likes you, and Zara, she wants you to know that she never meant to scare your crew,”  Gabrielle began to interpret.

“Oh, that is so kind, is it not, Captain?”  Abu's voice was light as his smile never wavered.  With a confused expression, Zara glanced at the burly man, then to the bard.

“Oh!  And one more thing I want you to agree to!”  Xena pointed at the ship's captain as her voice rose.

“Xena would also like you to agree to something,”  the blonde woman explained.

Zara's eyebrows arched in a question.  Part of her felt ridiculous for talking to the thin air, and another part of her felt insane for agreeing to even talk with a ghost.  In an attempt to be friendly, the tall woman nodded assent.

“Tell her that she's to keep her hands off of MY woman!”  Xena was defensive as she poked her finger into Zara's shoulder, her ghost fingers going through the captain's body. 

At her words and actions, Gabrielle's eyes grew wide as she stared at her lover, then shook her head negatively.  “Xena, I will not…” she began to answer her lover, but was cut off by the taller woman's words.

“Go ahead, Gabrielle, tell her!  Because if she tries to touch you again, I'll have to…” the leather clad woman was saying as she took a swing, her hand passed right through Zara's shoulder.

At the sensation against her shoulder, Zara looked down and absently brushed away the slight tingling.  She glanced around the room, but when no insects were seen, she mentally shrugged away the feeling.  With a questioning look, she waited for Gabrielle's interpretation.

The bard only glanced at Xena, smiled as a tinge of pink crossed her cheeks.  Then she shook her head negatively as she reached for her cup of tea.  “It's nothing….at least nothing worth repeating,” the bard answered as she cast an icy glare at Xena. 

At this action, the warrior began to pace the room again.  “Oh no, of course it's not worth repeating because you want her to touch you!”  Xena muttered sarcastically as she glared at Zara.

“Very well, so if we have an agreement, it is settled,” Zara smiled as she took her tea, bowed to both Abu, Gabrielle and the empty space where Xena once stood.
Just when Zara was beginning to feel more at ease, a sudden noise from the crew caught her attention.  Before she could turn and glance out the cabin door, Abu was on his feet and running to the sound of the commotion.  Without sparing Gabrielle a glance, the captain followed her friend out the door.

Confused, Gabrielle looked at Xena.  “Don't look at me, I was here the whole time!” Xena defended herself as she looked out at the disturbance on the deck.

The shouts and screams of men rose in unison as they glanced up at the whipping sail.  Its bow line severed as the cloth hung loose.  This by itself would not have raised an alarm.  What had the crew shouting was the figure that hung dangling upside down from the rigging of the mast.  Screaming in pain, Badr flayed against the sail, one arm hung limply as his right leg was caught in the ties.  The big mans anguished screams were heard as he struggled to right himself.

Without thinking, Abu climbed up the main mast.  Following at his heels, Zara moved swiftly after him.  Seeing a way to reach the other side of the crewman, she grabbed a hold of a loose rope and swung herself over to the rigging.  From this height a person could see high above the waves.  The distant site of the ocean was awe inspiring.  Under ordinary circumstances, the captain might have taken the time to enjoy the scenery.  But there was nothing ordinary about this.  With one hand holding the rope, and the other holding on to the cross beam, she pulled her way to the injured man.  Already with the man, Abu used his strength to pull him up and to keep the tie from cutting through the already bloody leg.

“Captain!  Abu!”  Badr's cries of pain were barely audible against the sound of the wind.

Zara had known Abu longer than anyone in her crew.  Because of their friendship, they were able to know what the other thought.  In this silent communication, they moved as one.  They braced their bodies closely, Zara's feet barely touching the lower cross beam, while she fought against the rope and the winds that pulled at them. 

With only a nod, Abu managed to release his knife in time to cut the bloody rope from the burly man's leg.  When Badr became loose, Zara braced herself and managed to hold his full weight until Abu secured his blade.  As the sweat dripped down her back and the muscles in her arms ached from the straining, Zara began to wonder if this was the end for her, if she would suddenly lose her grip and fall onto the deck, or worse, lose her grip and be thrown into the sea to be lost in the depths of the ocean waves.  Before she could dwell on it, Abu pulled the man onto his back.

“Hang on man!” he shouted.

“Abu, he can't, his arm,” the tall woman shouted over the wind, then grabbed some rope and began to tie it around Badr and Abu.  With one arm under the higher cross beam, she managed to tie the knot securely enough take the man down.  Working against time, Abu moved as quickly as he could to the center beam.  When she was certain that they were safe, Zara returned her attention to the sail.

The captain moved with quick, precise moves.  The ever present wind brushed across her, pushed her in an attempt to dislodge her from her perch.  With each gust of wind, the sail slapped the tall woman in the face as if to ward her from her plans.  On instinct, she managed to find the lost rope, and pulled it through a fragment of the loose sail.  When it was tied down, Zara made her way back to the center beam, then followed in Abu's path.

As she moved down the main masts, the shouts from the men reached her senses.  Once her feet were firmly planted on the ship's deck, Zara took a moment to catch her breath.  Adrenaline was coursing through her, causing her to feel nothing as she fought for air.  From her side, she felt someone touching her.

“You're hurt!”  Gabrielle's voice rose above the shouts of the men.  When Zara followed her gaze, she noticed her bandaged hand, once wrapped, was now bloody.  Only fragments of the bandage remained.  At the smaller woman's touch on her temple, she noticed the blood on the bard's finger tips.

Zara had no time to dwell on Gabrielle's discovery.  Instead, she shook her head, then turned away.  With only a single shout from her, the men cleared away.  She saw Abu holding Badr as Ayyub looked over the screaming man.  The man's leg was bleeding, his arm now replaced in his socket.

“Captain,” Ayyub moved to her, his arms covered in blood as he tried to keep his words low, “Captain.  I can't save the leg, it's far too mangled.”

Zara took a deep breath as she lowered her head and closed her eyes.  Unconsciously, she rubbed the bottom of her chin as she managed to regain control over her emotions.  In less than a few seconds, her control returned and she looked at the ship's cook.  “So be it,” she said as she nodded to the slender man.

“Quickly, bring him down.  Now, hurry, hurry!”  the little man was shouting orders to Abu and the nearby crew.  As they carried Badr below the deck, Zara looked sternly at her gathered crew.  She examined each of their faces in hope of discovering the cause of this incident.

“Well?”  her voice was low and controlled as she paced in front of them.  “I am waiting for someone to explain this to me,” she made sure to make eye contact with each man.  The men glanced at each other, until finally one came forward.

“Captain, Badr was working on the ropes with Mika'il.  I swear to Allah, I only turned my back for a moment, and the next thing I saw, Badr being pulled into the air,” Hanif, a crew member explained.

“That's right, Captain.  I saw it too,”  Murshid joined in.  His tall, lanky frame shifted from foot to foot nervously.  “Captain, it all happened so quickly.  One minute Badr was helping Mika'il to hoist the sail.  They were right there, and then, as Allah is my witness, I watched as Mika'il left Badr alone.  He went over there, and that is when the rope wrapped around Badr's leg!”

Hamzah nodded agreement, “Yes, Captain.  That is what I saw too!  It was Mika'il's duty to tighten the sails.  While Badr was pulling, like this,”  Hamzah demonstrated the great effort that Badr was putting into his duty, “Mika'il was only doing this.”  The short, round man imitated what he witnessed, his body moving with little effort and little stress.  “Captain, Mika'il wasn't even breaking a sweat, as Badr did!”

“I didn't see that, Captain, but I did see Mika'il drinking water when Badr was caught!”  Tashfin, the oldest man on board, joined in.

One by one each man uttered the same name.  At the sound of the name, Zara inhaled as she looked at each man.  She knew that of all the mistakes in her life, taking this crew member aboard the ship could be the one that would stay with her for some time. 

“Where is Mika'il?”  she asked as a sudden silence came over the bridge.  Like a wave suddenly parting the sea, the men slowly stepped aside until only Mika'il was left.  When Zara saw him, she moved and stood in front of him.  At first, his eyes were defiant but as he glanced at his fellow crewmen, he suddenly grew submissive and lowered his eyes.

Not for the first time, Zara wished that she was as barbaric as her family from the East.  She longed to be able to hand out judgment, to be assured of her actions and cast down the penalty.  To be able to torture without thought is what she longed for at this moment, but something that her soul recoiled from.

Instead, Zara moved before the man, she gazed down at him and maintained his eye contact.  When it seemed that he would weep, she released a low growl as she reached out and slapped him with an open palm.  The sound of his flesh resonated in the wind.  When she received no action from him, she slapped him again knowing that this was perhaps the worst form of punishment he could receive in front of the crewmen.

“The captain hits him weakly and with an open palm, like one would hit a woman!” the whispers rose around her. 

“It's because he is as weak as a woman!” another spat.

“He is useless as a man, better to have never seen him!” a different crewmen's voice muttered.

Zara watched Mika'il looking at the crew.  She maintained her silence as he seemed to squirm, to try to become invisible.  When that failed, he looked at her and cowered when she raised her hand again.  Grabbing him by the hair, she pulled him to the bloody deck.  Without giving it thought, she tripped him, pushed him down on the deck until his face was rubbed into the blood of her crewmen.

“This is what happens when you fail to do your duty,” she hissed close to his ear.  From somewhere within the man, she heard a slight whimpering sound.  “You have cost a good man his leg today.”  At the sound of his muted cry, she rose and shook her head. The howling cry of Badr's pain rose from the galley. All eyes glanced toward the open door, knowing that at this moment, the poor man's leg was being sawed off by the ship's cook.

“You disgust me!  Get out of my site, NOW!” she screamed.  As he scrambled away, she reached out and kicked him, landing her foot on his posterior and spat on his retreating form.  Angered, she looked over her crew; each one averted their eyes as if afraid to face her wrath.

“Do you not all have jobs to do?” she yelled, which caused them to scurry away in silence, and begin to look busy.

In silence, Zara went to her cabin.  She walked past Gabrielle without seeing her.  With eyes lowered, the Moroccan captain retreated into her cabin and closed the door.  The usually noisy morning was filled with the silence of the sea.  From somewhere in the distance, she heard Abu's gruff voice as he barked orders to the crew.  Closing her eyes she went to her bed, then sat on the edge.

Zara's mind did not want to think of anything.  She did not care to contemplate what had just happened.  Instead, she remained silent.  When Gabrielle entered, the tall woman did not look up, nor did she speak.  She only sighed and watched as Gabrielle cleaned the wound on her hand.  When her hand was dressed, Gabrielle lightly touched her forehead, then cleaned and placed a cloth patch over the slight wound.

“Come, I think you need this now,” the bard offered as she stretched on the bed.  Zara glanced at her, smiled at the site of her open arms.  With a sigh, the tall dark woman nodded slightly, then accepted the woman's embrace.  As she lay close to the bard, she could feel the smaller woman's heart beating.  The skilled fingers of a healer were now stroking her hair.

No words passed between them.  Instead, they lay there together, Gabrielle holding her close, comforting her friend, and Zara accepting the comfort that was offered.  For this moment in time, the captain allowed no thoughts to enter her mind, except how soothing it was to be within the bard's embrace.

Part 8

Nadrah never felt right around Mika'il.  There was something about him that she did not like.  Although she did not understand her feelings, she knew enough to stay away from the man.  Of all the members of the crew, he was the only one who Nadrah made a point of avoiding.  There wasn't anything about him that stood out to her.  It was simply that she did not like the way she felt when around him.

Long before Xena and Gabrielle had boarded the ship, the only things that occupied Nadrah were her chores and watching Mika'il.  To her, he was an oddity to be observed.  He was someone to watch and to avoid, her child's mind reasoned.

Mika'il was the latest one to join the ship's crew.  Unlike the rest of the crew, he was from the inland village of Oujda.  No one on the crew thought he would be able to survive on the ship, but with missing more than three crew members, the captain didn't have very much choice.  So while they were docked in Addâru Lbaydâ, Mika'il signed up.

If Nadrah had been a grown-up, she would have been privy to the whispers of the crew.  She would have heard them snickering at Mika'il behind his back and she would have understood their distain for him.  But she was just a little girl, and no one confided in her.  When the accident on the bridge happened, she was hustled below deck and given chores that would keep her away from the whole scene.  Being little meant that she was left to learn things on her own.

What she learned was that Mika'il's hands were too soft, softer than anyone on the ship.  His soft hands made it hard for him to wrap the ropes.  Many times Abu had commented to the captain that Mika'il's hands were not strong enough to handle life on the sea.  The man was not strong enough to stand perched on the bind for long, so standing as a lookout was not possible.  When it came to setting the sails, a job, which Abu could do by himself, and which the rest of the crew only needed one helper, the man needed at least two other people helping him.  After watching Mika'il set the sails, Nadrah noticed that where the other men were straining at the task, going red in their faces, Mika'il didn't seem to break a sweat.  If it had been up to Abu, Mika'il would have been dropped off at the nearest port.  According to Abu, land farers had no business on the sea.  But it was not up to him, and the captain kept Mika'il on board.

One thing Nadrah noticed about Mika'il was his name.  Mika'il Abd Allah, a servant of God.  Aside for the captain, Nadrah had never met anyone with this name.  When she questioned Abu about it, his only response was to snicker under his breath.  Then he explained that there were two ways to receive the title of Abd Allah.  One was by having it passed down to you, as in the captain's case.  Her ancestor was granted the name by the Imam of the Qadis Shari'ah, the Mulla, the highest priest of the land.  Such a title can only be granted by deeds of devotion, worship, and evidence of compassion to their fellow man.  The second way to get such a title is to give it yourself, as Mika'il did.  Although Abu never said anything against Mika'il, Nadrah could tell from this simple explanation that Abu cared little for the man.

Mika'il Adb Allah was an average looking man.  His was neither skinny nor fat.  He simply was common.  He was shorter than the captain, yet his body was solid.  But in hand to hand combat, the captain still made him beg for mercy in little time.  When the captain had proven her strength over him, Mika'il only frowned and disappeared below deck to sulk.  Unlike the other men who had been bested by the captain, Mika'il was the only one to be angry at her skills.

What Nadrah noticed the most about Mika'il was that in the morning when the men gathered on the deck for the morning prayers, Mika'il was always the first to set up his prayer blanket, and the last to fold it up.  While the rest of the crew were settling into their places, Mika'il would not wait for her to start the morning prayers, instead, he began to chant “La ilaha illa Allah.”  “There is no God but God,” he would say with hands held out, palms facing the heavens. Once she was in her place and began to lead the crew in their morning prayers, Mika'il would reluctantly follow her lead.  Yet when he sang the chant, his voice became progressively stronger as his body swayed to his own rhythm.  Throughout the prayers, his voice was always the loudest and he never failed to drown out Nadrah's voice.

At times Nadrah wondered if he was trying to be the loudest so that Allah would hear him first.  When she had mentioned it to Abu and Ayyub once, both men laughed loudly as they patted her on the back and messed up her hair.  Nadrah never understood their amusement, but she found their laughter contagious.

In his short time on board the ship, Mika'il had been the only one who did not fit into the workings of the crew.  It was not until Gabrielle and Xena came on board that he was suddenly not alone.  With the crew afraid of Gabrielle, Mika'il was finally able to join in their whispers.  He would add to their worries and tell them of all the evils that Satan had in store for them if they let the cursed woman stay on board.  As evidence, he brought up the coldness and strange happenings that suddenly filled the ship.  Using the crew's fears to his own advantage, Mika'il had suddenly found himself accepted as a member of the crew.

The only ones who seemed immune to Mika'il's words, were the captain, Abu and Nadrah.  She heard what he said, and listened to his words against Gabrielle.  But rather than stand up to him, Nadrah stayed away from him.  She reasoned that some day, when she was as big as the captain, she would teach him to have respect for her friends.

The earlier excitement of the ship grew suddenly calm.  As the midday sun shined on the ship, Nadrah made her way down to the cargo bay.  She held a small bowl of drinking water.  With a lantern in one hand, and the bowl in the other, she made her way carefully down the steps.  The salty smell of sea water wafted to her senses.  Lifting the lantern, she looked around.

“Prasha,” she called in a soft, singing voice.  From somewhere behind the crates, a low meow called to her in response.  Glancing into the shadows, she moved toward the sound.  “Prasha, come here, I have some water for you,” she told her cat. 

At the farthest corner of the cargo bay, she heard a slight sound.  Curious, she held the lantern up, glanced at the shadows, and then moved toward the sound.  “Prasha, if that's you…” she began to scold, but then stopped dead in her tracks.

From behind the dark crates, Mika'il stepped out and smiled down at her.  His head tilted slightly as he looked at her.  Nadrah noticed that his beard, unlike the others, was evenly cut.  As her mind began to contemplate his presence, she felt an instinct to run, to find her way to the deck where the safety of the sun waited.  Instead, her feet remained frozen in their spot.

“I-I…” she stammered as she looked up at the tall man, “I've got some water for Prasha,” she explained as she held up the bowl.  His dark eyes glanced at the bowl, then up at the stairs where she had come down.

“Is the captain expecting you?” he asked as he looked nervously around the cargo hold.

“No,” Nadrah answered, without thinking.  Her answer brought a slight smile to his lips.  For a moment, she thought he was going to kneel down at her level, to talk to her.  Instead, he remained towering over her.

“Are you a good girl, Nadrah?” he asked as he took a slight step toward her.

“I try to be,” she answered honestly.

“Good.  Allah will be pleased.  You want Allah to be pleased with you, don't you?” he asked in a hushed voice as he was slowly closing the gap between them.  Nadrah gulped nervously.  She blinked as she tried to will her feet to move, to run from the darkness of this place.  Instead, she nodded assent.

“Good, because that's what I want too.  I want you to be a good little girl so that Allah will be pleased,” his voice was soft and coaxing.  Despite his words, Nadrah felt genuine fear.  She wished that the captain was here now, so that he would be forced to go back to work.

Just as this thought crossed her mind, a sudden sound was heard from the crates above their head.  Mika'il glanced up in time to see the large shape of Prasha flying off of the crate.  With claws extended, the fur ball landed on his head, causing him to scream as he pulled away.  In the commotion, Nadrah dropped the water dish to the floor, then caught Prasha as he flew from the man and into her arms.  Grabbing her friend, Nadrah turned and ran out of the cargo bay.  As she reached for the door, she looked behind her in time to see Mika'il leaving through the opposite door.

The girl did not know where she was running, she only knew that she had to get away. When Nadrah had made it to the deck, she blinked back the bright sun.  Still blinded by the light, the girl felt herself running into the solid body of Abu.

“Hey, little mouse, be careful!” Abu's voice was gentle as he picked her and Prasha up.  “Come along, Nadrah.  The captain wants to speak with you,” he said as he carried her across the deck.  As her eyes adjusted to the light, she glanced back and noticed Mika'il glaring at her.  Gulping down her fears, she held to Abu and Prasha as the burly man crossed the distance of the deck.

“Here she is, Captain, as requested.” Abu said as he deposited Nadrah onto the captain's desk.  Nervously, Nadrah looked around.  She saw Gabrielle cleaning up the water basin in the corner of the captain's cabin.  Xena smiled at Nadrah as she stood leaning against the wall cabinet.  Her brows creased when Nadrah didn't return the smile.

“Nadrah, I need to ask you something,” the captain's voice was soft and controlled.  “Now, I don't want you to be afraid.  Abu and I would never do anything to hurt you.  Do you understand?”  The captain asked as she knelt in front of Nadrah.

“I'm not afraid,” she answered, even though her voice shook from her earlier fears.

“Don't worry.  I think I know a little bit of what is going on.  I've explained it to Abu, and Gabrielle has also told us a lot.  But now I want to hear it from you.  Nadrah, I need to know, can you see Gabrielle's friend?”  the captain asked.

Nadrah glanced from Gabrielle, to Abu and then to Xena.  Xena winked at her, then waved as she nodded to her.  Gulping down her fear, Nadrah turned to the captain. “Ahuh,” was all she could say.

“You've seen her since she first arrived?”  the captain's blue eyes maintained her gaze.

“Ahuh,” the little girl said.

“Why didn't you tell us?”  the captain's hand lightly brushed through Nadrah's hair.  After a moment of thought, Nadrah shrugged her shoulders.  “No one asked me,” was the only reply she could think of.

At her words, Abu's hearty laugh rang out.  He lightly smacked her shoulders as he shook his head.  “Of course, Captain.  Why didn't we just think to ask her!” he smiled. 

Nadrah didn't understand why she was being asked such questions.  Her mind was still held in fear from the incident below deck.  As if on cue, Prasha meowed, then jumped from her hands.  Prancing across the cabin, he went to Xena's leg and rubbed himself against her.  Xena smiled as she reached down and lightly petted the furry head.

Zara watched the cat, then sighed, “Why didn't you tell us, Prasha?” she returned to Abu and Gabrielle in conversation.

When they began to talk, Nadrah looked over her shoulder.  She saw Mika'il on the farthest portion of the ship.  His gaze never wavered from her as he was sharpening his knife.  Seeing this, Nadrah's heart began to beat fast as she turned away in fear.
Zara had spent the better part of the morning explaining to Abu what she had learned.  Once she was certain that he understood her words, she asked Gabrielle to join them.  Before the accident on the deck, Zara spoke openly about the plans to journey to Egypt.  She made certain that Gabrielle understood that there were no guarantees.  But at least there was some hope that Gabrielle might be able to have her lover returned to her.

All of their discussions changed after the accident.  With Abu gone, Zara was able to contemplate the morning's events.  She laid in the bard's arms, allowing herself to be held as the silence surrounded them.  Only after the captain had soothed her anger did she pull away from the bard's gentle touch.  It was then that Abu entered her cabin to report the condition of their crewman. 

When it seemed that they had nothing more to talk about, Zara began to wonder about the oddities of Nadrah.  Voicing her thoughts, she and Abu began to compare notes.  It wasn't until Gabrielle once more confirmed their thoughts that the captain decided to question her cabin girl.  Now that their suspicions were confirmed, Zara felt relieved.  But when she glanced down at the little girl, she detected something amiss.

Zara knelt, once more in front of the little girl.  She saw her sitting still, her face pale as she held her eyes tightly closed.  “Nadrah?” she kept her voice soft as she touched the small girl's hands.  “Is there something else you are not telling us?  What else is there?”  the tall women coaxed.

For what felt like an eternity, Nadrah remained silent.  Then, like a flood, she opened her eyes, threw her arms around Zara, and began to cry in her shoulder.  “I'm scared!” she wept against her.  Holding the little body close, Zara lifted her and moved to a chair behind the desk.  She couldn't help but glare at Gabrielle, wondering if her ghost was the cause of Nadrah's fears.  Zara noticed the instant concern in Abu and Gabrielle.  Like Zara, Abu suddenly became defensive as his gaze spread through the room for the ghost that was scaring his little mouse.

At their accusations, Xena leaned toward the bard, “Gabrielle, she was afraid from the moment she got in here.  Something on the ship has really scared her!”  Xena felt her defenses rising as she tried to figure out what, or who, would have scared her little friend so badly.

Gabrielle spoke up on Xena's behalf, “It wasn't Xena.  She said Nadrah was scared when she got in here.”

“Tell me, what are you afraid of?” Zara, Abu, and Gabrielle each asked the little girl. 

Sniffling, the child looked at Zara, her large tears fell heedlessly down her cheeks.  Unable to speak, she simply pointed out to the deck.  Zara followed her direction.  Her crew was busy with their chores.  While some were repairing a sail, others were braiding the hemp as a small contingent was mopping off the last remnants of blood from the deck.  The men's voices were soft and serious as they carried out their chores.

“Nadrah, who frightens you?” Zara asked.

Abu knelt down and lightly touched her hand.  “Little one, tell us.  We will not allow anyone to frighten you!”  Abu promised.

“Nadrah, who is it?” Gabrielle tried to coax as she too was kneeling in front of them.  Hiccupping slightly, Nadrah tried to stop her tears, but then gave up.  “Mika'il,” was all she could say.

Zara felt her blood boiling.  The weight of the day's events laid heavy on her mind.  She looked once more at her crew.  Standing off by himself, the man was sitting, sharpening a dagger. 

“Nadrah, did he hurt you?”  Abu asked as he stood and glared at the man.

“Honey, did he touch you?”  Gabrielle's voice was soft and soothing.  With a negative shake of her head, Nadrah began to calm down.  Through slight tears, she retold the tale of her encounter below deck. 

Rising from her seat, Zara handed the child to Gabrielle.  “Take care of her please,” was all Zara could say to Gabrielle before she beat Abu out the door. 

In the time it took them to cross the deck, Maka'il darted away.  When they saw him climbing down the cargo hold, Zara nodded to Abu, who quickly made his way to one entrance.  Zara was in close pursuit of the smaller man.  With easy strides, she followed him down into the belly of the ship.  When they reached the cargo hold, he turned and tried to make his way out of the second entrance.  At the sight of Abu, he shook his head as he turned to the captain.

“Captain…” Maka'il begged as he backed away from her.

“What were your intentions?”  Zara hissed as she crept toward him.  The full anger of his action caused her blood to boil. 

“Please, in the name of Allah, I do not know what you're asking?”  his voice was a whimper.

“You heard your Captain!  Speak, dog!”  Abu bumped the man's back and pushed him forward toward the captain.

“I don't know what you mean? I swear!”  he begged as he fell to his knees.  “I was tying the crates down…that's all!  I couldn't reach one and was going to ask for the child's help!”  Before he could beg further, Zara's bunched fist reached out and knocked him to the ground. 

From behind the man, Abu reached down and pulled him to his feet, hissing in his ear, “How did you know we were talking about Nadrah?”  When Mika'il's knees buckled, Abu pulled him up again.  With large hands, he slapped the man and shook him.  “How dare you fall when the Captain is speaking to you!”  he growled as he slammed the man against a crate.

Without waiting for the man's words, Zara  landed a second blow across his face.  Before she could land a third, Mika'il slumped to the ground, his eye swollen, nose bloody.

“Please, Captain… Abu, I swear to you! By the name of Allah, I meant no harm to the child!” he began to weep as he prostrated himself in front of them.

At the sight of the man, Zara felt sick.  Her previous rage slowly raising as she glanced over his form.  Angered by his mere presence, she began to move forward to finish him.  Before she could, Abu took a hold of her shoulder.  He shook his head as he glanced up at the entryway.  She saw the men standing, watching her through the doorway.  Even though she wanted to kill this man, she knew that it would be bad for morale to do so when he was begging in the name of god. 

With this concern in mind, she growled, knelt to him, and lifted his head by his hair.  “If you so much as look at Nadrah, I will personally kill you,” her whisper promised as she released him.  Standing above him, she buried her desires and growled.  In anger, she spit on the man and turned to leave.  Behind her, she heard Abu saying something softly to the man.

Zara's mind was racing madly as her body felt numb.  Part of her wanted the man dead, yet part of her knew that at this point in time, she could not kill him.  Not while he was begging for mercy, and especially when the men would be witnesses to something that some of them may interpret as a misunderstanding.

With her anger in check, she returned to her cabin.  Aware of Gabrielle's presence, as she poured water into the basin and washed the sweat from her face, she felt the woman move near her.  Despite her calming presence, Zara was trapped inside of her own inner rage.  All of the past darkness rose up to consume her, to capture and hold her in its maddening grip.
“Zara?”  Gabrielle's voice was soft and low.  The tall woman felt her jaw clenched in anger as she looked down at the bard.  Seeing her expression, a look of concern entered the smaller woman's green eyes.  With only a shake of her head, the dark hair woman turned away from her and left the cabin.  Zara knew that she could not talk to the bard because the moment she spoke, the painful floodgates of her soul would come crashing down around her and this, she could not chance. At times like this, Zara's thoughts became untamed.  While the captain conveyed an outward calm, inwardly the storm of emotions threatened to break through her resolve.  In a habit she had become accustomed to, the Moroccan captain made her way to the bow of the ship.  As the sounds of the crewmen's voices returned, she stood by the railing and gazed out at the distant waves.  She felt her feet instinctively bracing against the rocking waves.  As the storm raged within her soul, she fought to find a calming essence in the sea. Zara was not aware of time.  She only knew that her mind ran rampant with a myriad of thoughts.  At one point, she felt Gabrielle standing by her.  The smaller woman leaned against her, her small hand covering Zara's hand that gripped the railing.  The taller woman took only a moment to look down at the blonde before returning her eyes to the distant sea. “Zara?  Do you want to talk?” the bard's voice was gently coaxing.  Despite her calmness, Zara could only shake her head to indicate that talk was not an option for her.  At her continual silence, Gabrielle only sighed, before turning to leave. Sometime during the night, the bard had returned to Zara's side.  She spoke some words the captain could not hear, then she put a cloak over the taller woman's shoulders.  In what seemed only a matter of minutes, Zara heard Abu's voice near her.  He spoke softly, as if to cajoling her to turn.  When it seemed that he was leaving her side, she called out to him.  Abu turned and faced her, he moved close and leaned against the railing. “Abu…” her voice was low compared to the sound of the crashing waves. “Yes, Captain?”  he remained attentive. “Abu… a-am I a good person?”  the question seemed to be the only thing that her mind could form.  After a moment of thought, Abu nodded as he lightly patted her shoulder.  “Yes, my Captain….yes, Zara.  You are a good person.” “Sometimes I don't know what to do,” she confessed to her friend. He seemed to understand her thoughts.  It was as if he knew that his friend was trapped in a time from long ago.  The man leaned against the railing.  As his eyes followed her gaze, his fingers lightly brushed the full length of his beard. “Captain….Zara, my friend.  What happened…..wasn't your fault.”  His voice became low as he leaned toward her.  “My friend, it wasn't your fault,” he shook his head for emphasis. Zara heard his words, but did not feel convinced. She released a sigh as she closed her eyes to the splashes from the waves.  Before she could lose herself in thought, Abu's stern voice broke through her melancholy.  “Captain, if I may suggest?” his voice returned to one of subordinate rather than friend. “Go ahead, my friend,” the captain's voice was barely audible. “May I suggest that we leave Mika'il on the nearest island…preferably one that is deserted? That way, it is Allah who decides his fate.” The dark captain gazed into her friend's eyes.  When she saw his seriousness, she nodded assent.  She could not have stated at the time, but she felt as if the mere existence of the man on her ship would lead to more problems.  At her friend's words, she discovered that she had a way out, a way that would help the ship continue to function. To reaffirm his question, Zara nodded assent.  After today, she knew that she would never be able to change the way she felt about Mika'il.  Although she viewed him as inadequate as a man, she had never held anything against him… until now. Sensing that their conversation was at an end, Abu nodded, then left Zara to her thoughts.  As the crescent moon rose slowly over the horizon, Gabrielle came and stood by her side.  She reached up and lightly touched the taller woman's cheek.  “Zara?” her voice pulled the captain from her thoughts.  Turning from the sight of the sea, she looked at the blonde woman. “You need to come inside,” Gabrielle's low, authoritative voice ordered as she looked down at Zara's hand.  Holding tightly to the rail, the wound on the captain's left hand had opened once more and was bleeding.  For a moment, the tall woman watched as the dried blood clung to the wood railing.  At Gabrielle's gentle urgings, she allowed herself to be pulled away from the bow.  In silence, Zara followed the bard back to the cabin. “I need to sew it. Do you need anything?” Zara heard Gabrielle ask once the bard had her sitting in a chair.  She shook her head as she looked around her cabin.  In the corner, Nadrah was curled up under her blankets, her cat sleeping at her feet. Seeing her glance, Gabrielle smiled as she collected the water basin, pitcher of water and clean cloth. “She is doing fine. By this time next year, she may even forget why she was so afraid,” she explained as she gently removed the bloody cloth from the captain's left palm. “You know, I'm going to run out of clean bandages if you keep reopening that wound,”  Gabrielle spoke mainly to fill the silence in the room. Once Zara's wound was cleaned, the bard removed and threaded a needle from a pouch, heated the needle on the candle, then took Zara's hand in hers.  She pressed her fingers into the pressure point on Zara's forearm to cut off the feeling to her hand.  Glancing up and noticing that the captain was in her own world, Gabrielle figured that she wouldn't have felt the pain anyway; but she wanted to be sure. Testing the threshold of sensations, Gabrielle lightly pricked the flesh of Zara's open wound as she watched the captain's features.  Satisfied, she smiled at the dark haired woman before turning her attention to sewing the wound closed.         

“She's a very lucky little girl,”  Zara heard the bard's words.  In fascination, the captain watched as the bard's deft hands worked on her bleeding palm.  She watched as the needle entered her flesh, then was gently pulled. 

If Zara had thought about it, she would have wondered why she couldn't feel the needle entering her hand.  She might have thought it was odd that the thread made no impact on her nerves.  She only watched in silence as Gabrielle's skilled hands sewed her gaping wound shut, while she continued to speak in soft, confident tones.  Had Zara been fully aware of her senses, she would have felt the coldness of the room and the hairs on the back of her neck rising.  But like the needle, she was numb to everything around her.

“Are you going to be all right?”  Gabrielle's voice broke through her silence.  The wound now sewn shut, the bard quickly wrapped it in clean cloth.  Then, as easily as she had before, she touched a point on Zara's forearm.  For a moment, the captain felt the pain of her palm, but like the rest of her emotions, this pain was quickly submerged deep within the coldness of her heart.

With a sigh, Zara nodded in answer to the bard's question, then rose from her seat.  “Yes,” was the captain's only response
as she glanced at her newly bandaged hand.  Looking at Nadrah, she saw the little girl watching her intently.  The tall woman smiled as she moved to sit beside her. 

“Nadrah,” she began to say.  “I want to tell you something, and I would like you to remember it.  Can you remember what I am going to tell you?”  she asked the little girl.

Nadrah nodded slightly, her eyes looked like they were going to start crying again.  Zara lightly brushed the little girl's hair.  “That is good, Nadrah.  Because I want you to remember, I do believe you.  I promise you, I will take care of him and he will not be around to frighten you any more.  Do you believe me?” she asked the little girl.

Nadrah remained silent as she thought over Zara's words.  Then, with a big smile, she nodded yes before wrapping her arms around Zara's neck.  “Good.  That's good, little mouse.  Always know that I won't allow anyone to hurt you, I promise.”

Gabrielle retreated from the cabin silently.  She knew that this moment was for Zara and Nadrah alone and she made her way through the darkness to her cabin.

Part 9

“Have you ever felt, when you're in that special person's arms, that you were finally home for the very first time?”  Gabrielle asked absently as she examined Zara's hand.

Zara felt a tight lump in her throat as she thought over the bard's question.  “No, I have never felt that,”  she lied, her words caused the smaller woman to look up sharply, her green eyes searching Zara's blue stare.  Ignoring the silent questions, Zara lowered her eyes from the penetrating gaze.

“That's too bad,”  Gabrielle said as she returned her attention to examining the wound. 

“That's how I felt….” Gabrielle stopped herself short, then amended her words, “How I feel when I'm with Xena,” she explained as she examined Zara's wounded palm.  The bard's brow creased as her fingertip lightly traced the red streaks that were visible around the wound, then lightly touched the slight redness in Zara's palm.  At her touch, Zara unconsciously flinched. 

“Does it hurt?”  the bard asked.

With a shake of her head, Zara sighed patiently as she smiled at the smaller woman.  Seeing Zara's attempt at a cavalier attitude, Gabrielle tapped a bit harder against the redness, while maintaining the captain's eye contact.  At the sharp sensation, Zara flinched again as she inhaled deeply.

“Doesn't hurt, right!”  Gabrielle smirked as she shook her head.  “You warriors are all alike…  too strong to show any pain,” the bard said as she chose various herbs from a pouch.  Mixing the ingredients with water, she turned the small pieces of herbs into a poultice then began to message the compound into the taller woman's wounded palm.  At the stinging sensation, the captain winced at the sharp pain.

Zara was grateful that the bard had not questioned her further about her actions of yesterday.  Although she was slowly returning to herself, she was not yet ready to openly discuss her actions.  Instead, Zara wanted to remain alone in her own thoughts.  Aside from her recent visit, Gabrielle allowed the captain her space.

“You are a bard, warrior and now, a healer?”  Zara said as she inhaled deeply. The pain from her hand brought her to the present.

Gabrielle smiled at the captain, “I have many skills!” the bard's voice sounded like a song as she took a clean bandage and began to wrap the infected wound.  “I was worried that it would become infected.  You split it open so many times yesterday,  I think it would have been impossible to keep the infection away,” her voice was low as she glanced up at Zara, silently inquiring about the day before.

The dark captain ignored the unspoken question from the bard and tried to give an outward appearance of calm.  Within her mind, this was her only means of defense whenever she felt overwhelmed by exterior forces.  In an attempt to turn the bard's question away from herself, she leaned back and watched the woman's skilled hands.

“So what other surprises do you have in store for me?” the captain smiled as she watched the bard's movements. Feeling more herself, the captain could not help but gaze at Gabrielle's facial features and marvel at her beauty.  Zara admired the bard's feather-like blonde hair and wished that she could run her fingers through it again, like she had when she was comforting the woman.  Except this time, she would allow herself the luxury to enjoy it, the captain silently promised herself.  As if hearing the captain's unspoken thoughts, the blonde tied off the wrapping,  then leaned forward with an almost mischievous grin as her hand reached under Zara's shirt.  With an arch of a brow, the tall woman allowed a half smile to cross her features at the bard's actions.

“Don't worry, it's all to help you heal,” she explained as she lifted Zara's shirt, and felt with deft hands along the captain's rib cage. 

Not believing the bard, the captain remained silent.  When it seemed that Gabrielle had found what she was looking for, she gave a quick, hard tap below the captain's left breast.  At the instant touch, Zara felt a tingling sensation coarse from the point of Gabrielle's touch, through her arm and to her left palm.  Surprised at the sensations, Zara held her hand in front of her and wiggled her fingers.  Looking back at Gabrielle, she tilted her head as if she was ready to ask a question.

“Just something I picked up.  It will speed the process of healing,” Gabrielle explained as she lowered Zara's shirt.

With only a nod, the captain rose from her chair.  She took a moment and glanced out at the deck as she heard the slight sounds of Gabrielle behind her. Zara noticed Nadrah sitting by herself, her little hands sewing a hole in one of Zara's shirts.  Every once in a while, she would speak to the air.  Monitoring the crew, Abu stood nearby, his alert eyes always watching where their little cabin girl was sitting.  When the captain turned around, she saw the bard's finishing touches.  Zara couldn't help but smile as she noticed Gabrielle's meticulous care in cleaning the table.

“Is everything all right?”  Gabrielle asked as she moved by Zara's side.  The captain glanced at her, then looked out at the deck.  “Xena is staying close to her.  She'll make sure that she's safe,”  Gabrielle assured as she caught sight of the little girl.

Zara did not know how to respond when Gabrielle spoke of her spirit lover.  Part of her wanted to send the spirit away, to force her to see that she no longer had a place on this earth. In this way, then, Zara knew that she might stand a chance to win the bard's heart.  Without the hold of her spirit lover, Gabrielle's green eyes might begin to smile for only her.  But as soon as this thought crossed her mind, she quickly swept it away.  Somewhere deep within her, Zara knew that twin souls were always meant to be together.  When one was left without their other half…well, Zara simply did not want to contemplate this notion.

Gabrielle remained for a moment.  She seemed on the verge of asking a question.  Zara took only a second to gaze into the bard's green eyes before the intensity of the look caused the captain to turn away.  In an absent manner, Zara sat at her desk and picked up her plume.  She casually began to scribe the latitude of her ship's journey.  Never once losing sight of the bard's nearness, the taller woman attempted to exhibit an outer calmness. From behind, she felt Gabrielle turn and study her back.  With only a sigh, the bard lightly placed her hand on Zara's shoulder, gave a slight squeeze, then turned and left her in silence.

It was not until the bard had left that Zara released her breath. She closed her eyes and lowered her head.  The madness of the day before threatened to return.  Fighting against the tidal wave of emotions, the woman steeled herself.  She held her face in her hands as her mind fought to climb out of the depths of the darkness.  When a calmness returned, she leaned back in her chair and allowed her breathing to return to normal.  Just when she thought that she had conquered the raging beast within, she glanced at her hands and noticed them trembling.

With a shake of her head, Zara picked up the plume and resumed her journal entries.  After practicing for so long, the captain was a master at burying her emotions.  With ease, she would not allow the darkness to take control, she reasoned as she fought against the ever present emotions deep within her soul.
The day seemed to creep by slowly.  As the evening began  to cross over the ocean waves, the captain stood in her customary perch.  She would occasionally glance at her crew, monitoring their movements as they went about their duties.  From somewhere close by, Abu stood and waited patiently.  When she turned to him and smiled, he moved forward.

“Please tell me all is well, my friend,” her voice was laced with fatigue. 

Abu smiled momentarily, then tilted his head and shrugged his shoulders.  “As for the workings of the ship…. all is well there, Captain,”  he answered.

“But?”  Zara did not want any more surprises.

“But, it is the bard,” Abu hesitated.  Zara sighed unconsciously as she leaned against the rail and closed her eyes.  At her silence, Abu moved closer.  “Captain, she visited with Badr,”  the big man began to explain.  At her shocked expression, Abu shook his head negatively as he tried to calm her.  “No captain, there were no words.  Oh, in the beginning Badr didn't want to see her, but somehow, he changed his opinion of her, as has Ayyub!”

With a questioning arch of a brow, Zara leaned closer to hear her friend's words.  “Captain, I cannot begin to explain.  One moment Ayyub was yelling at her, and the next, he had her next to Badr and he was showing her how he removed and cauterized his leg,” Abu explained.  “Captain, once she left Badr, his pain subsided.  It is amazing, Captain, how she was able to sway Ayyub and also help Badr's pain decrease.  Now, they speak nothing but praises for the woman!”

For a moment Zara detected Abu's caution.  Although he did not openly speak it, his fears were visible in the way he explained the incident.  Thinking over his words, Zara absently scratched the bottom of her chin.  Remembering her own encounter with the bard, she glanced down at her bandaged hand.  She remembered the tingling sensations that had coursed through her palm.  Remembering this, she smiled at the big man.

“I do not think that she is one to be feared, my friend,”  she explained to Abu with a smile.  “Gabrielle is a gifted healer, and I am certain she only wished to help Badr,” she assured. 

Abu contemplated her words, then nodded acceptance.  “As you say, Captain.  I defer to your judgment,” Abu replied as they watched the bard walking across the deck.
Later in the evening, Zara sat quietly at her desk.  As the sounds of the crew subsided, she listened to the rocking of the ship.  Her thoughts ran a rampant course as she contemplated many things.  In the corner of her cabin, she heard the slight rustling of blankets.  Ignoring the sound, the tall woman leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes for a moment.

“Captain….” Nadrah's soft voice called to her.  Zara leaned forward and gazed into the shadows.  When she did not answer the child, the little voice spoke up again, “Zara?”  Sighing, the tall woman rose from her seat and took the lantern from her desk.

“Yes Nadrah?” the captain asked as she stood above the small bed.  With an almost bored expression, the dark little eyes gazed up at her.

“Zara, I'm not sleepy!”  the girl pouted.

Zara frowned down at the child with a questioning brow.  When the captain did not answer right away, Nadrah sighed,  “Will you tell me a story?” she asked.

With an almost disbelieving expression, Zara stared down at the girl.  Sighing, the tall woman gave in.  She took a nearby chair and sat beside Nadrah's bed.  Unaccustomed to the practice, Zara cleared her throat as she tried to think of a story.  When one came to mind, she leaned back in her chair.

“Once upon a time,” Zara began is a slow, controlled voice, “ there lived a daughter of a king.  Her name was Alaya.”

“That's not how Gabrielle does it,”  Nadrah interrupted. 

At the child's words, Zara looked at the girl with a frown.  “Gabrielle does not tell a story like this?”  the captain asked.

“Nope,”  Nadrah's voice was filled with confidence.  “Gabrielle does it like this, I sing of a Warrior Princess whose name is Xena!”  the little girl's voice was filled with an air of authority.

“And what else would Gabrielle do?”  Zara asked as she absently crossed her legs and listened to the child.

“She would say things with a flair and with a deep voice,”  Nadrah explained.  “Like when she told the story about Xena and the harpies, she would do arm movements like this,” the little girl demonstrated by bunching her fists up and hitting the air.  “She would do this to show how Xena would fight.”

“Really?”  was all Zara could reply.

As if on cue, a yawn escaped the child's control as her eyes slowly closed.  “That's how Gabrielle tells stories,” the child's voice grew softer with each word.

“Is that so?”  Zara smiled as she watched Nadrah fighting sleep, until the girl finally gave in to the pull of dreams.  “I shall have to work on my story telling abilities,” the captain stated as she lightly petted the girl's hair, then pulled the covers over the child's shoulders.  “I shall endeavor to do better, should there ever be a next time,” the tall woman promised as she returned to her desk.

Part 10

Gabrielle had been feeling melancholy all evening.  She could not explain how she felt, or why these feelings were with her.  She only knew that the familiar loneliness returned to her.  Unable to talk to Zara about her troubles, she returned to her cabin.

As the candle lit up the room, she lay on the bunk and stared at the ceiling.  The hard mattress below her was barely felt as her sorrow took over.  From somewhere in the back of her mind, she felt guilty for her despair.  For the first time hope had returned to her.  There was a chance, even if small, that Xena would be returned to her , yet she was not happy.  Despite the possibility of getting Xena back, her heart ached with a never-ending pain,  and it was this ache that left her feeling guilty.

“I just made sure that our friend was in his hammock,” Xena's voice broke through the bard's silent thoughts.  Sensing her mood, Xena joined her on the bed.  In an unconscious move, Gabrielle raised her arm as Xena nuzzled against her shoulder.  The bard's gaze never wavered as she held the warrior's coldness close.  At the touch of her lover, Gabrielle fought against the pain within her heart.

“Hey, what's the matter?”  Xena asked as she leaned up and gazed down at her.  With a shake of her head, Gabrielle smiled at her lover as a tear escaped her control.  “Oh…Gabrielle,”  the warrior's voice was soft as she touched the single tear on Gabrielle's cheek.

“I'm all right, Xena, it's just…” the blonde began to say, but then grew silent as she closed her eyes to the floodgates of her heart.

“Shush, it's alright,”  her lover cooed as she left a trail of kisses from Gabrielle's tears to her lips.

At the feel of her lover's cool mouth on hers, Gabrielle felt her familiar desires rising.  Like the flame of a fire, it rose with each touch from her warrior.  The bard held her breath, allowing herself to be swept away.  The combination of Xena's closeness, her gentle kisses against Gabrielle's lips, were an aphrodisiac for the bard's soul.  The warrior left an icy trail of kisses from her lips to her neck.  Sighing from the exquisite contact, Gabrielle arched upward as she closed her eyes to the delightful sensations caused by her lover.  Like a drug, Gabrielle allowed the pleasures to consume her, to wash through her.  With each touch, her pleasure rose higher.  When she felt the warrior's hand snake down her belly, Gabrielle sighed and closed her eyes as she awaited the all too familiar sensations.  When it came, she rode with it, glided into the easy cadence of Xena's skillful hands.  Just when she thought it would end in her climax, the feel of Xena's mouth on her sensitive region sent a shockwave through her body.  Gasping, the bard cried out as the blessed release freed her.

When it was over, silence filled the room.  Gabrielle took a moment to calm her rapid breathing.  The sweat of her brow fell heedless down her temples.  Then, as if the mere act of her climax triggered the pain of her heart, she felt her tears flow.  Instinctively, the bard's body rolled into a ball as she held herself.  The coldness surrounding her was like a phantom clutching at her soul.  From somewhere in the room, she heard Xena whisper softly, felt strong arms holding her close as she attempted to brush away the blonde's tears.  But with each touch, Gabrielle felt the fragments of her soul go icy cold and it was this coldness that plunged her into a deep despair.

Gabrielle did not have a concept of time; she only knew the pain within her heart.  Her lover's spirit touch was replaced by the wall of guilt and shame that surrounded her.  When it seemed as if she could stand no more, the bard rose, fastened her garments, and began pacing the room as she fought bravely to control her turbulent emotions.

Each touch from Xena sent her spiraling into a web of darkness until nothing was left.  In the back of her mind, she noted the loss of two candlemarks as she paced the room.  Gabrielle wanted to stop this rage of emotions within her but felt powerless to do so.  With no other thoughts in her mind, she bolted from the confines of the cabin.
Zara had been sitting at her desk when she heard the slight noise at her door.  When she opened it, she saw the woman who had been in her thoughts.  Like a wounded child, the blonde cast a nervous glance behind her, then looked up at the taller woman.  Zara noticed her tear stained eyes and red nose.  The depths of her eyes seemed to hold an unknown pain.  When Gabrielle's mouth opened to speak, her head shook as a slight cry escaped her control.

Instantly Zara reached for the smaller woman.  She stood aside and allowed her into the cabin.  When it seemed that the bard was frozen in place, Zara took and lifted her into her own arms, closing her cabin door with the heel
of her boot.  In quick, easy strides, she carried the smaller woman to the bed.  As Gabrielle looked around the cabin, Zara reached for her and lightly touched her cheeks.

“Gabrielle?”  she tried to keep her voice low and calm.  Absently, Zara looked over at Nadrah and was pleased to see the child deep in sleep.  “Gabrielle, what has happened?”  she tried to coax an answer from her again.  “Has someone hurt you?”  At this question, the bard shook her head, then lowered her eyes as wordless tears escaped her control.

Zara felt her wall of control locked firmly into place as she held the bard's hand.  In her time as a ship's captain, Zara had seen many things.  But to witness such raw emotions was always disturbing to her.  Despite this, the taller woman tried to calm the bard as she spoke softly.  Without thinking, the captain reached behind the bard and began to untie the fastenings of her top while gently speaking to her.  Once the top was removed, the captain turned her attention to the bard's boots.

“We will take your boot's off, is that all right?” she asked Gabrielle, yet did not wait for a response and she pulled first one boot off, then the second one. As she set the clothing aside, she stood and pulled the covers back on her bed.  Like a child, Gabrielle followed her instructions and moved under the blankets.  “There.  You'll be more comfortable now,” Zara assured as she hesitated a moment, then reached for the top of Gabrielle's short skirt.  The captain hooked her fingers into the fabric, then pulled it down the bard's body.

As Zara moved to the lantern, she felt a sudden chill enter the room.  Glancing around, she remained focused as she took the lantern to the bedside table.  The captain ignored the sensations on the back of her neck as she sat on the bed and quickly removed her own boots.  With brows furrowed in concentration, Zara stood and pulled her shirt over her head, then unfastened her pants and dropped them to the floor.  Before she could join the bard, a freezing chill crossed through her, seemed to grab hold of her, and then quickly released her.  Gasping from the icy cold contact, Zara inhaled deeply as she watched the bard's features bunch into pain before she rolled over and began to silently weep.

Zara lifted the blanket and crawled next to the bard.  Then, defiantly, she looked into the dark shadows of her cabin.  “Xena, leave us be!” she hissed, then pulled the bard into her arms.  “Your touch makes it worse; let me help her,”  Zara whispered into the darkness as Gabrielle clung tightly to her.  For a moment, she felt only silence.  When she thought it was all over, a sudden shove pushed down into her and knocked the breath from her.  At this move, Gabrielle whimpered and buried her head against the captain.  When Zara was finally able to breathe, she opened her eyes and was staring at the ceiling.

“Ghost…” Zara began to say, then added a bit more softly, “Xena.” Her voice was low and contrite, “She is your spirit twin, not mine!  Do not worry about your standing with her, it is safe.  But please, allow me to help her now.”

A few seconds seemed like an eternity as she awaited Xena's next move.  As if in answer to her, the candle next to the bed suddenly blew out.  From the corner of the cabin, she noticed the door open on its own, then close softly.  When it felt like they were alone, Zara released a sigh and closed her eyes against the panic that had consumed her.  Next to her, she felt the bard's tears on her shoulder.  Absently, the captain pulled her closer, kept Gabrielle wrapped in her embrace, then she softly kissed the bard's forehead.

Zara did not fully understand what was happening to her friend.  She only knew that for some reason Gabrielle had turned to her.  Inwardly pleased, Zara closed her eyes as she held the woman close.
Xena's anger subsided when she heard the bard's slight whimper.  Her lover's pain tore through the fiber of her soul.  The only thing she wanted to do was to punish the captain, to toss her from Gabrielle's side and kick her out of the cabin.  But in her heart, she knew that Zara's words were correct, each time Xena allowed her passions to reign, her touch sent searing pain through her soul mate.  Whatever momentary pleasure the blonde received was easily overshadowed by the intense grief and despair that followed.  The warrior had seen it progressing over the days.  At first, it was only a few tears, but eventually the grief pulled Gabrielle deeper into anguish.  Knowing this, Xena left the cabin to roam the decks of the ship.

As the night winds brushed past Xena, she stood near the rail at the bow of the ship.  She glanced at the darkness of the sea as melancholy took control.  Not for the first time, she chided herself for letting this happen.  So many times she wondered what would have happened had she ignored the monk who was sent for her.  Would it have been so bad to have turned away and continued down the path with Gabrielle?  The ghost warrior wondered if it really would have been terrible if Gabrielle had poured her ashes into the healing springs.  Despite all of the what-ifs, Xena knew only one certainty.  Her mistake had caused her bard so much pain and suffering, and nothing she did could help her.

Although the warrior did not want to admit it, she silently hoped that Zara could help Gabrielle through her grief.  Xena hated the idea of anyone else touching her bard, she even recoiled at the images she had of Zara and Gabrielle together.  But she knew that this anger would not be good for the bard.  Somehow she had to find a way to accept that in this instance, she was powerless.

With head bowed, Xena allowed her silent tears to flow.  Just when it seemed that she had gained control of her turbulent emotions, she raised her head and allowed a deep growl to rise until all that was left was a scream of pain.  She did not care that she had lost control.  The only thing that remained in her mind was the deep and undying love she had for Gabrielle, and the knowledge that she could no longer share that love physically.  Knowing this, Xena felt herself crumbling to the deck as her sobs filled the night air.

From somewhere below the decks, a few men slept and dreamt of hearing a ghostly sobbing over the ship.  Some rolled over, grumbling that Ayyub's newest creation was causing strange dreams.  Others woke slightly, listened, then returned to sleep with Allah's name on their lips when nothing more was heard.

Part 11

It had been late in the morning when Zara finally awoke.  At the gentle nudge, she glanced over her shoulder and saw the two dark eyes smiling at her.  When she glanced up at the window, she made a mental calculation of the hour, then laid back on the pillow.  “Yes, Nadrah?” she asked as she felt Gabrielle rolling over in the bed.

“Captain, Ayyub wants to know if you're going to want breakfast or lunch?” the girl asked.

At her question, Zara glanced down at the slumbering woman next to her.  With a sigh, the captain rubbed her tired eyes, then patted Nadrah on the head.  “Tell Ayyub that I will be taking dinner in my cabin….much later,” she instructed.  With only a smile, the cabin girl bounced from the room, closing the door behind her.

“What time is it?” the muted, muffled voice of the bard asked as she rolled over.  Facing the captain, Gabrielle winced as she glanced up at the sunlight filtering into the cabin.

“It is too early to get up,”  Zara smiled as she rolled over and faced Gabrielle.  The captain could not help but gaze at her.  She found herself examining the blonde's features, the way her brows arched, and the slight curve of her lips was beautiful to the captain.  Seeing Gabrielle with her eyes closed, Zara felt a desire to close the space that was separating them.

As if reading her thoughts, Gabrielle smiled as she opened her eyes.  She gazed into Zara's eyes, then leaned forward and lightly placed her lips against the captain's.  At the feel of her touch, Zara closed her eyes and relished the softness of the bard's lips.  Before the tall woman could feel her desires rise, Gabrielle pulled away and smiled at her from the pillow.

“Why did you do that?” Zara asked with a smile as she reached out and brushed her fingers through the bard's short, blonde hair.

The bard shrugged her shoulders as she rolled onto her back.  “Because it felt like that's what you wanted,” her eyes twinkled as she sighed continently, then closed her eyes against the sun's rays.

Zara rose up and leaned on her elbow.  She looked down at the smiling bard, then reached out and lightly touched the blonde woman's lips with her fingertips.  The captain smiled at Gabrielle, then leaned down for another kiss.  When her lips were scant inches from the bard, she gazed deeply into the green eyes.

“Is it all right?”  Zara whispered softly.  Time seemed to pass slowly for them.  For a moment, the captain thought the blonde would pull away, but before Zara could begin to regret her actions, Gabrielle smiled and leaned up into the kiss.

Zara felt her mind spinning from the numerous sensations coursing through her being.  The softness of the bard's lips spurred a desire deep within.  As she leaned into the kiss, she gently probed with her tongue and was rewarded with the moistness of the blonde's mouth.  The captain's hand moved instinctively to Gabrielle's waist, her hands gently caressing the bard's soft flesh while her tongue explored the blonde's mouth.

Guilt and desire filled Gabrielle at once.  She felt her body responding to the captain's warm touch.  In the back of her mind, the bard felt the stabbing pain of guilt that seeped into her soul.  Part of her wanted to stop, to push away from Zara's touch, yet another part of her longed to be caressed.  She longed to be held and loved without fear of the utter pain and sorrow that had always followed since Xena's death.  Within her heart, the bard knew she loved Xena.  Yet each time they shared themselves, each time she felt the touch of her ghost lover she always knew that the darkness of her loss would pull her under as soon as their love making was complete.  Now, as the blonde's body began to respond of its own accord, she was assured that the darkness would not follow.

The darker woman felt her senses spiraling out of control.  With ragged breaths, she kissed the bard's lips, moved from Gabrielle's mouth down her neck, nibbling on her earlobe.  Each gentle kiss was rewarded with soft gasps as the smaller body began to move against her own.  Yearning for her, Zara left a soft trail of kisses down the blonde's neck, resting momentarily at the nape, then moved across her shoulders.

With each kiss from the captain, Gabrielle seemed to sigh, her body rose like the waves of the ocean against her touch.  Absently, the blonde's fingers roamed through Zara's long mane of hair, then ran over her shoulders, encouraging the captain's movements.  The Moroccan lost all thoughts of  control as she kissed, nibbled, and licked the smaller woman's soft, white flesh. But then, before their desires could get out of control, a loud banging sound was heard against the cabin door.

Angered by the disruption, Zara pulled away slightly as she glared at her cabin door.  From behind her she heard the bard gasping for air as reality returned.  “By the gods!” Zara thought she heard the bard mutter as the smaller woman's breathing slowly returned to normal.

With a growl, Zara rose from the bed.  “This had better be good!” she shouted at the intruder.

“Captain, I beg your forgiveness, but we have a situation out here,”  Abu's voice came through the door.

Zara knew that her second would never intrude without a reason.  Glancing down at  Gabrielle, she shrugged an apology to the bard who quickly left the bed as the tall woman dressed.  The captain felt every ounce of her concentration suddenly turned toward Abu's words.  As Zara dressed, she glanced behind her in time to see the blonde pulling on her garments and boots.  Without giving the bard another thought, she left her cabin quickly.

“Abu?” she called to her friend as she bounded up the stairs to the bow of the ship.

The tall, burly man stood frozen in place as he gazed through the magnifying eye piece.  Following his line-of-site, the captain noticed something on the distant waves.  As her eyes focused, she could barely see the slight color against the ocean.

“There Captain,” Abu pointed to the ocean as he handed her the optic lens.

Zara held the piece to her eye and glanced into the distance.  With each crash of the sea, a slight image was breaking through the waters.  The three orange masts loomed past the choppy waves as its slight green shape broke a trail toward them.  The captain felt her heartbeat increase as she pulled her vision away from the image of the Prahu ship.

“Captain?”  Abu's voice betrayed his knowledge of who was on the ship.  In agreement, Zara nodded, then turned to the man.

“Pirates,”  her whisper confirmed his unspoken question. “And they outnumber us.” She inhaled deeply.

“Abu, bring all weapons up on the deck,” Zara managed to keep her voice controlled as she moved toward the rail.  Glancing once more through the glass, she swayed against the rocking ship as she followed the Prahu's main mast until she came across their standard flag.  At the sight of the white cloth, she concentrated on the design, then pulled away.  “Allah be merciful!” she unconsciously whispered as she turned her attention to the site of the white flag, a single heart dripping blood was etched across it.  Zara had hoped to see the flag of a war lord, or even one which showed mercy given to those who begged.  Instead, she saw the flag which told all who saw that no mercy, no quarter would be given to anyone.

“Abu, every man is to be armed.  Follow protocol one, immediately!” her voice was loud enough for her men to hear.  Without thinking twice, she bounded down the steps and bumped into Gabrielle coming up.

“Gabrielle, arm yourself, quickly!” was all Zara had time to order to the bard, turning, she called out to Abu, “Where is Nadrah?” she asked as she ran into her cabin.

“Here I am,” the child called as she bounded over the deck and followed behind her.  “Captain, are they pirates?  Are we going to get to fight? I wanna fight too, please, let me fight too!”

“No,”  Zara's tone was harsher than she intended.  Moving with speed, she quickly opened her cabinet and began to remove weapons.  She moved instinctively as she armed herself.

Below deck, Gabrielle was quickly dressing for battle.  She wasn't certain what was happening but knew enough to follow the crewmen's lead.  As she strapped on her armor from Japa, she turned and saw Xena standing by the door.  Taken by surprise, the bard shook her head as she grabbed her sword and strapped it to her back.  “Xena, you startled me,” she slightly chided as she grabbed the chakram and fastened it to her waist.

“Sorry,” the tone of the warrior was soft as she moved out of Gabrielle's way.  It seemed that there was something the warrior princess wished to say, but at the sounds of the numerous crew members on deck, the warrior maintained her silence and glanced up at the noise.

“Xena, do you know what's going on?” Gabrielle asked as she ran out of her cabin, fully armed.

“There's a ship out there, but I can't see what kind it is,” the warrior explained as she followed behind the bard.  Running past the men, Gabrielle made her way to the main deck.  From the captain's cabin, she heard Zara calling to her, so she quickly ran into the dark cabin.

“Zara?” Gabrielle stood in the captain's cabin and watched as her friend was arming herself.  She saw the leather straps on the tall woman's arms, silver metal points hanging from the leather holsters.  Around her waist, she wore her scimitar and on her back was a single short sword.

Zara felt the bard at the entrance of the cabin the moment she had called her.  Turning, she nodded toward Nadrah.  “Gabrielle, please, if something should happen to us, can you take care of Nadrah?” she asked. 

The bard smiled as she glanced down at the child.  “Of course, you don't even have to ask.” 

With a slight smile, Zara nodded, then returned her attention to the weapons cabinet.  From the bottom of the shelves, she reached in and pulled out a small dagger, then went and knelt before the child, her body shielding the view from the bard.

“Nadrah, do you remember what I have told you to do if we are boarded?” Zara asked as she handed the girl the sheathed dagger. “Gabrielle will protect you, but if she falls, do you remember what I have instructed you to do?” Seeing the weapon, the little girl nodded as she looked into Zara's eyes.  “If we are boarded, Gabrielle will be the last person who will be near you.  Do you understand?” Zara asked once more, trying to keep her voice calm yet emphasizing the importance of her words.  The little girl's eyes began to water as tears threatened to fall.

“No tears.  I need you to be very brave.  Can you be brave?” Zara asked.

With a stiff lip, the little girl nodded as she fought back her tears.  “Ahuh,” was all Nadrah managed to say.

Zara smiled at her as she handed her the knife.  “Gabrielle will be near you.  Should the ship be boarded, and you see her fall, you know what you must do.”  the captain kept her voice firm.

Nadrah took the knife in her hands, then glanced up at Zara.  “I hide until I see Gabrielle fall,” she explained, then looked at the knife, “when Gabrielle falls, I take this and…”  She pointed the knife at her arm and slid the leather sheath from wrist to elbow, then looked up at Zara as if seeking approval.

“Yes, little mouse.  But before that, you hide, and you wait, do you understand?”  Zara held the child's hands as she searched the little girl's dark brown eyes.

“I hide and wait, I understand,” the mousy voice was low as she averted her eyes.

“Good, very good,” Zara nodded as she lightly touched the girl's cheek.  At the sign of her tears, Zara smiled as she reached for her and hugged her close.  “Do not fret, little mouse.  If it is Allah's will, we will embrace when this is over,” she whispered close to the child's ear.  Nodding understanding, Nadrah sniffled back her tears as Zara released her hold.

Zara turned from the child and began to walk from the cabin.  As the sounds of the crew reached her senses, she stood in front of Gabrielle.  She smiled down at her, remembering what they had almost shared, then she reached out and lightly touched Gabrielle's soft cheek. 

With a serious expression, Zara tilted her head slightly, “We will do all that is necessary to avoid a fight,” she explained, “but should a fight come our way…” she found it hard to express what her heart wanted to demonstrate.  With only a smile, she shook her head as she saw the bard's eyes slightly moisten.

With both of her hands, Zara held the smaller woman's cheeks, then lowered her head until their foreheads touched.  The captain closed her eyes as she whispered a soft verse of love in her native tongue. The Moroccan felt her heart skip a beat, a smile escape her control when she felt Gabrielle's hands cover hers.  When she heard her name being called, she opened her eyes and pulled away from the bard.  Zara could only smile as she gazed into the green eyes, then, though unaccustomed to public displays, the captain lowered herself until her lips left a soft kiss on the woman's forehead.

“Peace always, and may Allah protect you,” Zara's formal words were strong as she saluted Gabrielle in the customary manner of her people.  With only a smile, Gabrielle nodded at her as the little girl moved to the bard's side.

“Captain, the Prahu looks to be fully loaded,”  Abu explained as she joined him on the deck.  From nearby they heard the shouts of the crew leaders as they ordered the men to keep the weapons from view of the Prahu ship.

“Captain, they'll be on us soon!”  a voice shouted from the top of the main masts. 

Zara took a moment to glance at her crew and watched as they each carefully choose their weapons.  As they prepared for battle, some crewmen were distributing rags.  While some were wrapping the cloth over their exposed bodies, other's were tying down loose crates.  As each member of the crew moved quickly through their assigned tasks, their voices rose in a soft prayer.

“Allaahumma innee astakheeruka bi ilmika wa-astaqdiruka biqudratika wa-as'aluka min fadhlika al-adheem,” their whispers were as soft as the wind.  She listened for only a moment, then began to quickly don the rags of cloth.

At the slight movement near her, Zara turned and looked down at the smaller woman.  Out of instinct, rather than faith, the captain began to echo her men's words, “O Allah, Behold I ask You the good through Your Knowledge, and ability through Your Power, and beg Your Favor out of Your Infinite Bounty,” her voice was barely audible as she saw the ship approaching. 

From the main mast, a crewman waited for her signal.  As she nodded at the man, she watched as Abu handed Gabrielle fragments of cloth.  After indicating what she was to do, the smaller woman imitated the men by wrapping the cloth over her exposed skin.

“Fa innaka taqdiru walaa aqdiru. Wa ta'lamu walaa a'alamu wa anta allaamul ghuyoob.  Allaahumma in kunta ta'lamu anna haadhal-amr khayrun liy fiy deeniy wa-ma'aashiy wa-aaqibat amriy, fa'qdruhliy wa-yassirh liy thumma baarik liy feehi.”  Their voices began to sound like a cadence.

“For surely You have Power; I have none. You know all; I know not. You are the Great Knower of all things.  O Allah! If in Your Knowledge this matter be good for my faith, for my livelihood, and for the consequences of my affairs, then ordain it for me, and make it easy for me, and bless me therein.”  Zara found it easer to repeat the words as she watched the sight of the ship becoming clearer.

“Wa in-kunta ta'lamu anna haadhal amr sharrun liy fiy deeniy wa-ma'aashiy was-'aaqibat amriy. Fa asrifh annee wa-srif 'anhu. Wa aqdurh liyal khayr hayth kaana thumma a-rdhiniy bihee,”  the men's words were barely above a whisper as they finished the prayer and awaited their fate.

“But if in Your Knowledge, this matter be bad for my faith, for my livelihood, and for the consequences of my affairs, then turn it away from me, and turn me away there from, and ordain for me the good wherever it be, and cause me to be pleased therewith,”  Zara whispered as she glanced one last time at the flag that was risen above her ship, then turned to the approaching pirate vessel.

Gabrielle had heard their prayers, and only half understood its meaning.  When Zara  finished her words, it seemed like a thousand souls grew suddenly quiet upon the sea.  Near her, she heard Xena mutter, “Oh, very smart!”  Turning to the warrior, Gabrielle arched a questioning brow.  At her silent question, Xena smiled, then pointed up to the flag.

Flying fully in the wind, the clear gray flag flew as if it had a life of its own.  Confused by the meaning, Gabrielle first looked to Xena, then to Zara, “Leprosy?”

Zara watched her men and waited patiently.  As her mind focused on the upcoming battle, she listened to every sound around her.  She heard Abu's terse orders to the men.  One by one, they waited for the approaching ship. 

When the captain looked through the optical lens again, she could see the outline of the men on the Prahu ship.  She saw their clothing and was able to make out the region in Malaysia where they were from.  Then, with a inward smile, she saw them all conversing amongst themselves.

“Wave to them!” she ordered.  Following her orders, her men began to wave, to call the ship nearer. 

“Yes!” she shouted as her crew were making motions of hunger, their hands raised in waves, then they would bring their hands to their mouths as if to convey a dire need.  From around her the voices rose up, deafening as they called, beseeched that the pirate ship show them mercy. 

As quickly as it all began, it ended.

Glancing into the glass, Zara smiled as she watched the pirate ship turning sails, the men moving quickly to make distance between her ship and theirs.  At the sight of the ship turning, her men's shouts grew louder, braver as they called to the ship to come back, to show mercy upon them.  When this failed, a resounding cry of victory rang across the ship.

Smiling, the captain turned to the crew and watched their jubilation.  Hakim's tall, skinny frame was jumping and shouting in pleasure, tension flowing with each shrilly cry.  As some of the men ran past him and turned their backsides toward the pirate ship, Hakim smiled as he ran to join his friends.  Zara shook her head when she saw them lifting their shirts and dropping their pants,  their bare bottoms facing the retreating ship as they spat curses to the pirate ship.  When she saw Hakim's skinny, bony butt, Zara broke into a wide smile as laughter escaped her control.

When the jubilation was over, the captain returned her attention to the vast ocean.  With only an inward sigh, Zara lowered her head as she leaned against the rail of the bow.  She felt her rapid heart rate slow as a calmness came over her.  The captain knew that today was a day without fighting, a day when no man had lost life or limb.  Because of this, it was a very good day.
Gabrielle made certain to stay out of the way as the crew began to stow the weapons below deck.  She had seen Xena standing off by herself, but the bard was not yet ready to talk about the night before.  So instead, she kept to herself most of the day.  Idly, the bard wandered over the deck and watched as men laughed and joked once the fear of the battle had left.  The near death experience caused some to even smile at her, to nod or give a friendly wave.  It was as if her willingness to go through battle with them had forged a friendship with the men.  Although she had difficulty understanding most of what they said, she was able to communicate to them that she, too, was grateful the battle had been avoided.

As the sun moved slowly over the horizon, Gabrielle watched as Nadrah played on the deck.  She climbed up the sails, then jumped down onto the back of a short crewman like a monkey, only to be pulled off and tickled by the man, until she was able escape and do the same to another man.  It was not until she jumped onto Abu's shoulders that the girl began to tire of her play.  In an easy manner, the big man carried her past the jovial crewmen, and deposited her on the bow next to Zara.

Gabrielle watched the interaction of the three people.  In her time on board she had noticed the bond between Zara and her second in command.  At first, she thought that they were a couple, but as time wore on, she began to see that their friendship was not sexually based, but rather forged from mutual respect.  It was this respect that kept them united in actions and thoughts, and it was this respect, which enabled them to keep the ship and her crew running smoothly.

The bard maintained her distance as she watched the taller woman.  Zara seemed deep in concentration as she spoke with Abu.  At her feet, Nadrah hugged the captain's legs until Zara reached down and absently lifted the girl into her arms.  Without missing a beat in their conversation, the captain continued to speak to her second in command while Nadrah's lips formed the words to a song, which she had made up.  After a moment, Abu nodded to his captain, then stepped back with a slight bow before turning to leave.  Once alone, the captain turned her full attention to the little girl in her arms.

Gabrielle watched with interest as the two figures spoke.  She could see the patience of the captain as she talked softly to the girl.  Although Gabrielle could not hear the words, she knew that Zara was maintaining a soft voice as she spoke to Nadrah.  Silently, the bard began to regret not being able to help raise a child with Xena.  She knew from watching the warrior with Solan that Xena would have been a good mother, but the time spent with the warrior's child was too short in her mind. Although she had helped with Eve, she regretted that she could not have watched Eve grow into the woman she had become.

“They look cute together, don't they?” Xena's voice broke through Gabrielle's thoughts.  Smiling at the question, the bard nodded agreement.

“Xena,” she hesitated a moment, then glanced up at her spirit lover, “Do you ever regret…?” not wanting to hurt her lover, she found it hard to form the words.

Xena seemed to contemplate the unspoken thought, then, with a smile, her blue eyes shined down upon her.  “I wish we had raised a child together, preferably yours.  One with blonde hair and green eyes,” Xena cooed as she leaned against the ship's railing.  With a nod, the bard leaned back, then looked up at her. 

As the crew moved merrily over the deck, Gabrielle and Xena seemed lost in their own thoughts, thinking over their past regrets.  When it seemed that melancholy would consume her, Gabrielle smiled as she looked up at her warrior princess.

“Maybe, after we petition the High Priestess, we can think a bit more seriously about this?” the bard offered.  With her familiar smile, Xena looked down at her, her blue eyes moist as a sigh escaped her control.

Neither one wanted to mention the slightest chance of failure.  She did not want to think that their trip to Egypt would leave them as they were, without each other.  Yet the idea was always in the back of their minds.

“Maybe,” was all Xena could say as she turned away from the bard.

Zara had caught Gabrielle speaking to the air and knew that she was talking with her spirit twin.  As Nadrah slowly recited the rules of navigation, the captain half listened to the child as her attention was drawn to the distant sea.  Although the danger was over, Zara could not shake the foreboding feelings the threatened to consume her.  Somewhere in her being she knew that today's encounter was not over.

At the sound behind her, she turned in time to watch Gabrielle climb up the steps.  Zara tilted her head in greeting as she listened to the final phrases from Nadrah.  When it was complete, the captain nodded agreement to the child.  “Perfect,” was all Zara said as the child's arms grew tighter around her neck.  The little girl nuzzled in her hair, then pulled away.

“Gabrielle, did you hear me?” the child's voice asked excitedly.

“Yes, I did.  It was very impressive!”  Gabrielle smile at the girl, then looked up at Zara.  “Maybe the Captain will agree to teach me the same thing?”  her voice was like music to Zara's ear.

“I was not aware that you wanted to learn about navigation,” the taller woman smiled at the blonde.  In her arms, Nadrah smiled as she looked from Zara, then to Gabrielle.

“Zara can teach you!  She knows a lot of stuff,” she offered to the bard.

“Well then, I hope that the Captain can find time for me?”  Gabrielle's voice was soft. “Maybe even teach me about the different ships someday?”

At her words, Zara nodded understanding.  She glanced up at the disappearing sun, then to Nadrah.  “I think it is time for you to sleep.”

“Aw!  Not yet!  There's going to be a party!”  Nadrah whined.

“All the more reason for you to sleep, child,”  Zara said as she deposited Nadrah on the deck.

“Aw, I never get to have any fun!”  the child pouted as she stomped from the deck, her loud footfalls were heard leaving a trail to the captain's cabin.

Looking down at the men, Zara noticed the bottles of wine being passed around.  On her orders, Abu had broken into the cargo boxes to remove a few treats for the crew.  Although she wished that they would maintain their alertness, she knew that morale would decline unless she allowed them some moments of celebration.

“What happened today?”  Gabrielle asked as she turned and looked up at her.

Zara thought for a moment, she unconsciously scratched her chin as she contemplated her words.  Deciding on honesty, she released a slight smile as she gazed at the bard,  “We averted our deaths today.”  At the bard's expression of confusion, Zara began to explain all that she knew of the encounter.

“The Prahu is a warship from Malaysia.  This class of ship is a favorite among the pirates that roam these seas.” Zara explained as she waved to the ocean before her.  “The Prahu class of ship is sleek and designed to move quickly through the waters,” the captain continued to explain to Gabrielle, “and, her crew outnumbers us.  As you have probably noticed, we are only eighty-five working crewmen.  Had we gone against them, we would have gone against a hundred and ninety.”  At her words, Gabrielle's expression changed to one of surprise.

“Do you see now why I chose not to fight?” she asked.

“It would have been a slaughter!” the bard's voice was barely a whisper.

“Yes, it would have,” Zara nodded.  “But today, the ruse paid off.  Hopefully we will be able to steer far enough away from the pirate strongholds to avoid any future encounters.”

“And if we do see them again?” the bard's voice was laced with concern.

At the bard's question, Zara inhaled deeply as she fought against the foreboding feeling.  With a shake of her head, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “We pray to Allah that it is not the same ship, because this ruse may not work twice.”

“But today, we won,” Gabrielle's stated as she crossed her arms and gazed out at the dark ocean.

Zara took only a moment to think over the woman's words.  With a deep sigh, she moved to the edge of the railing and leaned against it, her eyes scanning the ocean waves.  The captain's instincts kept her at high alert even as her men were celebrating their victory.

The bard grew concerned by Zara's silence.  “We did win, didn't we?” 

For a moment, the captain remained silent, then turned and glanced down at the bard.  The captain tried to keep a firm control over the emotions that raged within. 

“Even when we win, Gabrielle, sometimes we lose,” the captain said as a sense of doom filled her soul.
Zara remained at the bow long after the bard had retreated to her cabin.  What had almost happened in the morning was like a thing of the past.  Since Gabrielle did not mention it, the captain reasoned that now was not the time to bring up their encounter.  Instead, she remained silent as the bard retreated to her own cabin for the night.  Although the Moroccan longed to hold the bard close, she maintained her vigilance and scanned the sea for any sign that the Prahu was returning.  When her fatigue took hold, she finally left the bow and retreated to her cabin, secretly hoping that the bard was waiting for her.  After finding her bed empty, Zara only shrugged as she stripped and crawled under the cool blankets.

Dreams were elusive for the captain.  Even in her sleep, she remained vigilant for the sounds around her.  The ribald laughter of her crew died down as the liquor took hold of their senses.  Only when the sounds of shouting were heard did Zara sit bolt upright in bed.  Momentarily confused, she looked around at her empty cabin then jumped from her bed and quickly dressed.  With hair disheveled and still half asleep, she pulled her boots on, then ran from the cabin.

“She's a demon!” one of the crewmen shouted.

Zara!”  Gabrielle's voice called out to her.  As the captain gazed at the gathering crowd, she pulled herself fully from sleep, then rushed to the bard. 

“String her up!” a chorus of voices shouted.

“No!  Wait!  She is no demon!” Ayyub, shouted in Gabrielle's defense.  His words were booed as the men pushed the scrawny cook aside.

“You are bewitched by her, Ayyub.  Go now and pray for redemption from Allah!” a voice called out.

At the main mast, four men had Gabrielle tied with ropes.  Not wanting to take any chances with her, the men had her surrounded as a familiar figure threw a noose over the center beam.  Now at the center of the raging crowd, Mika'il was smiling gleefully as he tied off the noose, then hung it around the blonde's neck.

Zara's rage exploded as she pushed her way to the man. 

“Silence!” she felt her anger spill over as she pushed her crewmen aside, grabbed some, and knocked them to their knees.  From somewhere nearby, she heard the deep resonating voice of Abu shouting for order at the men.  As they brought sanity back to the men, the mob began to pull away, leaving only a handful at the main mast.

I said be silent!”  Zara's voice was deep and controlled as she turned on her men.  “What is the meaning of this?”  she hissed at Mika'il.

“She is a demon, she must die,” Mika'il made his voice deep in an attempt to sound more authoritative than he actually was.

“Zara, that's not true!  He tried to…” but before Gabrielle could speak, Mika'il's balled fist hit against her face.

Seeing this, Zara growled as she grabbed the man's arm and threw him to the ground.  At the sight of the bard's bloody nose, she turned and began to inspect the damage on the blonde. When the voices of the men grew softly, she grimaced as she turned on her crew.

“You will be silent!”  The captain ordered as she turned on the man, glared down at him, and wished that he would disobey her.  Sensing her resolve, Mika'il frowned, then averted his eyes before a junior crewman began to speak.

“Captain, Mika'il was below deck securing the crates, when the demon tried to bewitch him, it was enough that he managed to free himself,”  she heard Khaaliq, the only man who held no ill will toward Mika'il, spoke up.

Zara fought for control as she turned to Gabrielle and began to remove the noose from around her neck.  Instinctively, she reached out and lightly touched the slight blueness that was forming on the side of the bard's cheek.  Silently the captain tsked at the site of such beauty being marred.

“Silence, you will all have respect for your captain!” Abu shouted as the men's fury began again.

“Are you all right?” Zara asked as she took Abu's knife and cut through the ropes that bound the bard.

With an enraged expression, Gabrielle rubbed her wrists as she glared at Mika'il.  “No thanks to him!” her anger was apparent. 

“Very well,” Zara nodded to the bard as she turned to her crew. “I am waiting for an answer, and I suggest you not try my patience,” the captain turned on the accuser.

Bolstered by the men near him, Mika'il stood defiantly as he glared at Gabrielle.  “It is true what Khaaliq says.  As Allah is my witness, I was in the cargo hold performing my duties when this ….. witch tried to take control of my mind,” he hissed.  When he saw that Zara was not reacting, he continued to speak, “Captain, what I say is true!  She put her witch's touch on me….tried to drain my soul!  Look Captain, look at the evidence!”  he shouted as he held his shirt to her, the dried blood visibly seen on the white cotton.

“A witch!”

“She is evil!”

“Tried to suck his mind from him, she did!”

“Allah, protect us!”

The crew's voices were rising in unison until Zara could not hear her own thoughts.  One look at Abu and she saw the situation rising out of control.  When the madness threatened to take over her crew, she stood at her full height and glared down at the men.

“Enough!”  Zara's single word brought order.  When only the sound of the waves could be heard, she turned to Gabrielle. 

White-faced, the bard shook her head and pointed at her accuser.  “That's not true.  He tried to attack me in my cabin this morning when I was still asleep!  I was only defending myself!” Gabrielle's words brought a gasp from a few of the men.

“It is not true!  I am a man of Allah!”  Mika'il shouted while turning to the men, attempting to win them to his side.

“I said, enough!”  Zara shouted at Mika'il.

The tall captain moved from the crowd.  With head bent, she thought of her options.  Secretly she wanted to end Mika'il's disobedience now.  But one look at Abu and she knew that they had to tread carefully.  Although rarely heard of from her countrymen, mutiny was something that all ship captains feared, and something, which Zara did not want happening on her vessel.  At the sight of her expression, the crew grew silent, only a few whispers were heard as she moved between the bard and Mika'il.

“I will decide what punishment is handed down!” her words were for the entire crew.  “Abu, make sure no one takes matters into their own hands.”

“Yes Captain,” came his quick response.

The morning had not begun as Zara wanted.  She had hoped that it would be quiet and peaceful, that the pirates would not be seen again then she would be able to invite Gabrielle to her cabin in hopes of repeating the morning session of exploration.  But lately, fate was not being kind to Zara. Without further thought, the captain made her way to the cargo hold.  She made a point to light both lamps that were in the hold, then began to inspect the area.

Zara noticed that each crate was securely tied.  Aside for the normal shifting, everything was in its place.  Taking the lanterns in hand, her eyes scanned for anything out of the ordinary.  As her mind began to concentrate, she felt a familiar sensation surrounding her.  The captain paused and stood still as the coldness filled the cargo bay.  With the lantern held high, Zara remained silent as she waited for the feelings to subside.  When it did not, the captain inhaled softly, then returned her thoughts to the task at hand.

Satisfied by the search, Zara walked up the steps that would lead her toward Gabrielle's cabin.  With brows creased in concentration, she entered the small room.  She noticed the unmade bed, then glanced down at the floor.  At the site of the disheveled clothes, the captain kneeled down and examined the floor carefully.  Zara felt her heart skip a beat when her eyes found a small jar within the bard's bags.  As her gaze focused on the item, the coldness from the cargo bay returned to her.  It covered her until she felt stifled by the chill.

“Leave me be, ghost!”  Zara hissed under her breath.  “I am trying to save Gabrielle, and your presence is not helping me!” she whispered as she closed her eyes and waited for the sensations to subside.  When it seemed that they had lessened, she opened her eyes and returned her attention to the object in Gabrielle's bag. 

Zara thought over Mika'il's words.  When the captain remembered his description, she glanced down at her wounded hand.  A visible smile crossed her lips as she flexed her bandaged hand.  Rising from her place, she took the jar and quickly left the cabin.

Inwardly pleased, Zara walked briskly to the deck.  The crewmen seemed to mill about as they awaited her arrival.  Still surrounded by the four men, Gabrielle remained silent.  Pacing like a peacock, Mika'il held a smug smile as he watched the captain return.  When the bard saw what Zara was holding, her eyes suddenly widened as she leapt forward.

“Hey, that's mine!”  she shouted before the four men had her subdued.  Ignoring her protests, Zara maintained her concentration as she nodded to Abu.  Understanding her order, he turned away and began walking to her cabin.

“Mika'il, describe again what happened to you.”  Zara ordered.

“Why, I told you, Captain.  This she-devil attacked me!”  he asserted.

“Yes, but what, exactly, did she do?”  Zara's voice was low and controlled.  Glancing from the bard, to the crowd, Mika'il gulped, then raised his voice for all to hear.

“She put her devil touch upon me, right here,” he said as he pointed to his neck.  “I felt my blood draining, my soul leaving for Allah!  But Allah is merciful, he spared me!”  At his words, a soft chorus of praise resounded through the crew.

“And this happened where?”  Zara asked again.

“In the cargo hold, that's where it happened!”  Mika'il felt bolstered by the men near him.

“And did anything else happen?” the captain maintained her gaze on him as he tried to understand her question.

“Is it not enough that she tried to steal my soul?”  he protested.

“I want to know, Mika'il, what happened to you?” The tall captain reiterated.

“My blood was draining from my nose, as I showed you earlier!”

With a satisfied smile, Zara nodded.  “As you said, and from your shirt, there was a lot of blood, no?”

“Oh, yes Captain!  But Allah has restored it all, he has blessed me with life and cursed this devil woman!” he spat toward the bard.

“Then, can you explain to me why, if you bled, there is not a single drop in the cargo hold, but there is in her cabin?” the captain asked as she held up the pot. “See, the blood spilled on this!” Zara added as she maintained eye contact with Mika'il.  “And there is more on the floor around where it lay in her cabin.”

A silence fell over the crew.  Turning to the men holding Gabrielle, she nodded, indicated them to release her.  Once free, she handed the bard's belonging to her.  In a defensive manner, the blonde grabbed it from Zara's hands and held it close as she glared at her accuser.

“Mika'il has lied,” Zara heard the whisper from the crew, but did not see who spoke it.

“He took Allah's name in vain!” another voice was filled with astonishment.
“The white woman drew his blood because he was going to take her against her will!” another hissed.

The captain watched as Mika'il's eyes grew wide with fear.  The once supportive crew began to pull away as their words wafted over the crowd.  He looked around him, saw their actions, and began to shake his head negatively.  When he tried to raise his accusations again, the men pulled further away.  No one wanted to offer their protection to him.

Zara knew what had to be done.  With jaw firmly set, she took a few steps to Abu.  He stood silently watching Mika'il's actions as he held the captain's scimitar.  As she felt a part of herself going cold, she reached out and took a hold of the hilt. 

“Captain?” his soft whisper stopped her movements.  “Zara, please, allow me,” Abu's words caught her attention.

Sensing his mood, the tall woman looked at Abu, gazed into his eyes.  At the unspoken question, she shook her head. 

“No, my friend,” she said as she placed her palm on his shoulder.  “I am the captain, it is my duty….my burden,” Zara whispered close to Abu's ear.  As if understanding her thoughts, he only nodded as he released his hold of the weapon.

Zara felt the weapon in her hand, she unconsciously gripped it firmly as she turned to the man.  For a slight moment, she felt outside of herself.  The captain knew that she was moving toward Mika'il, but a part of her senses grew numb.  It was only when she stood before him that she felt the full weight of her scimitar.  It's shiny metal reflected the afternoon sun as she easily balanced it in her hand.

From behind her, she thought she heard Gabrielle's voice.  Her words pled for Zara to be merciful, to spare the man who tried to attack her.  But Zara did not, could not stop the motions, which were already in place.

At the sight of her looming form, Mika'il's features began to tremble, his eyes began to water as he backed away from her.  Although his mouth formed pleading words, Zara heard nothing.  She maintained her focus as she stepped steadily toward him.  Only when he fell to his knees, buried his head under his arms, was she aware of her crew.

In quick, steady strides, Abu crossed the distance, lifted the man to his feet, and forced him to stand before Zara's blade.  If the captain had any second thoughts, she did not show it.  With a slight tilt of her head, she gazed into Mika'il dark eyes, saw his fear.  In a swift, steady motion, she raised the scimitar.  As she twisted her hips, her second hand grabbed firmly to the hilt as she mentally braced herself for the impact.  Time moved slowly for only a fraction of a minute.  Then, as if it were a race, everything sped up, caught up with the speed of her weapon.

Zara saw the blade make contact.  In the back of her mind, she remembered the look of surprise in the condemned man's eyes right before her blade cut an even slice across his neck.  The flesh pulled apart like the skin of a pear as the blade sliced through the flesh, muscles, and bone.  The force of the captain's blow sent the weight of his head flying in the air, the splatters of blood reaching out for her, baptizing her in the ritual act of judgment.  As his body fell lifeless to the deck, the sound of Gabrielle's shriek reached the periphery of Zara's senses.

Noooooo!” Gabrielle's deafening scream echoed to Zara's senses.  The bard, seeing what was being done, had fought to rush at Zara, but was being held firmly by the men.  When the act was complete, they released their grip on the blonde.

Only when Zara had turned full circle did she stop and glance down at the headless body.  She watched Gabrielle running to the fallen man, kneeling by it and crying for the death of the man who had sought hers. In fascination, the captain watched as the dead man's limbs twitched, the muscles not yet caught up with the loss of the head.  Zara saw all of this, yet made no move. 

Out of breath and panting, the captain took the few strides needed to reach the man's head.  In a casual manner, she picked it up by the hair, then turned and held it above her head.  She allowed all of the men to see the result of Mika'il's actions.  Then, in a strong, controlled voice, she spoke to her crew.

“Here now, is a condemned man.  I, Azzah al-Zarqa' al-Agadir bint Majnun ibn Sayyar al-Hallaj abd Allah, have found him guilty of disobedience to our god, Allah, of disobedience to me, his captain, and of violating the sacred laws by attempting to force himself upon a woman!  For his crimes, may he rot forever in the depths of darkness,” her words were clear and controlled.  As she allowed her words to settle, she gave a great heave and threw the head into the ocean.  She felt her rapid breathing as she turned and looked at the bard.

With eyes wide open, the blonde gazed at the lifeless body.  Her pale features glanced from the body, then turned to Zara.  The tears fell freely as she negatively shook her head.  When Gabrielle glanced back at the body, she was transported back to a rainy night in Japa.  A guttural scream escaped her control as the memory of Xena's corpse caused the bard to heave and to spill what was within her stomach.

The captain moved instinctively to Gabrielle.  She knelt down and reached out for her, but at the sight of the man's blood on her hands, Zara pulled away and waited until the bard was finished.  It was not until the smaller woman looked up at her that the captain reached out again. 

As if Zara's mere touch were poison, Gabrielle pulled away.  “You killed her!” the incoherent words spat at Zara as Gabrielle's eyes seemed clouded, unfocused.  The bard's gaze was in a fog as her disjoined, accusations spat out.

“Gabrielle?”  Zara tried to calm the blonde, to reach out and comfort the bard with her words.  But the hate-filled eyes caused the captain to pull away, to stand above her, and wait while the madness of Gabrielle's emotions controlled her.

The sight of the bard kneeling before the fallen body sent a searing pain through Zara's mind.  She felt the pull of darkness as her senses waged an unseen battle.  The all too familiar sensations of numbness rocked through her soul and she began to experience everything as if she were outside of her body.  In a visible attempt at control, the captain shook her head, then turned her attention away from the bard.  At this moment, Zara's only thoughts were to protect the blonde.  Although she knew that the main problem was gone, she did not want to ever repeat this act again.  With this in mind, she turned to Abu.

“From this time forward, Gabrielle will be a guest in MY cabin,” Zara ordered.  She continued, “Have someone move her belongings there immediately.”  As an after thought, she spit on the lifeless body, “And have this animal cleaned from my deck!”

“As you wish, Captain,”  Abu's quick reply rose high as he turned and barked orders to the crew.

As the wave of emotions began to rise, Zara turned and left the deck.  She felt the men behind her walking Gabrielle to the captain's cabin.  When she entered the safety of her room, Zara leaned the scimitar against the wall, then moved to the wash bowl.  She maintained her silence as she washed her hands of the blood.  From behind her, Abu had taken her weapon and cleaned it thoroughly as he muttered some orders to Nadrah.

“Captain?” he asked as he replaced the scimitar to its rightful place.

“Leave us, Abu,”  she said as she moved before Gabrielle.

The bard remained silent as she leaned against the wall.  Her pale countenance remained void of expression.
The crewmen quietly placed her belongings on the floor, and quickly left.  As Nadrah and Ayyub came into the room, Zara moved closer to Gabrielle.  She longed to talk to the woman, to explain to the bard all that had occurred.  Only when the tub was filled with steaming water and they were left alone did she turn her full attention to the bard.

“Gabrielle?  Please,” she tried to form her words, but was at a loss.

“You killed him!”  Gabrielle whispered in disbelief.  She stared up at Zara with a toothy scowl as her expression held nothing but contempt.

For a moment, Zara felt a surge of anger.  “Yes!  He tried to take you against your will!  He tried to do…”  She attempted to shake off the idea, but then spoke it, “I do not know what he planned to do to Nadrah.  Yes, I killed him!”

“But why?  Couldn't you have just kept him locked up?”  the sound of the bard's voice was accusing.

“No!” the captain felt her voice grow harsher as she lost patience.  “I am the Captain, and I am the law at sea!  Only I can keep order on my ship!  This is how it is done!  How it is always done!” she shouted at Gabrielle. 

At the sight of pain in the bard's teary eyes, her willpower weakened as she moved to the woman.  “Gabrielle….?”  She reached out to the smaller woman.

As if she were contagious, the bard pulled away from Zara's touch.  Gabrielle moved to the bed and lay down, her head against the pillow, her back to Zara as her silent tears began to flow once more.  After a moment of silence, the captain gave up any attempts to reach the bard.  Instead, she stripped down and climbed into the steaming water.  For a moment she sat in silence and stared at the back of the bard.  Then, in an attempt to cleanse herself, Zara began to scrub at her skin, to wash the remnants of the man from her hands.

It was some time later when Zara finally rose from the tub.  The water was now cold, and her skin, although still not feeling clean, was now ready to be dried.  For a moment she thought of crawling next to the bard, seeking out the warm contact by placing her body against the woman's back.  But at the sight of Gabrielle's still ridged back, Zara dressed herself and left her cabin.

For the rest of the day, Zara did nothing.  She walked across the deck, heard the slight whispers of her men as she passed them, but continued her day in silence.  A few times Abu approached her, but she maintained her silence, not yet ready for conversation.  When the darkness was finally over the ship, she returned to her cabin.  She heard Nadrah sleeping soundly and saw Gabrielle under the covers.  Moving to the bed, Zara stripped and began to crawl next to the bard.  When she tried to curl up against her, she felt the smaller woman stiffen.  Gabrielle's breath grew silent in an attempt to place a wall between them.

Zara waited for only a moment before rising from the bed.  She dressed quickly, grabbing her cloak and headed for the door.  As she left the cabin she thought she might have heard a muffled sob, but couldn't be certain.  When she went to the steering, she dismissed the man for the night and took the helm.  Surprised, but pleased, Talib thanked the captain before retreating to his hammock.

It is been a long time since she had pulled a night duty, and even longer since maintaining the helm.  In the time away from such duty, she had forgotten how peaceful the nights could be.  For a moment Zara was able to forget everything around her.  She was able to pretend that at this moment it was her first voyage to sea.  The responsibilities of the captain were not on her shoulders.  But as the image of the dead man crossed her memories, and the sight of Gabrielle's revulsion, brought her back to reality.

At the all too familiar nausea within her stomach, Zara stepped to the edge of the rail and leaned over.  Her stomach heaved and she released what was in it.  When she could no longer vomit, she pulled away from the rail and noticed her hands. Once steady, they were now shaking uncontrollably.  As she fought for control, she returned to the helm.

Zara felt the fatigue of the day crush down upon her.  Despite this, she could not return to her cabin.  The hatred pouring from the bard was the last thing that she wanted to feel.  With this in mind, she fought to dampen her emotions, to close off everything around her in order to focus her thoughts on the task at hand.  When the familiar numbness surrounded her, she did not notice.  She simply closed herself to everything around her.

Part 12

The loneliness and despair remained buried deep within Gabrielle.  What remained on the surface was anger.  She could not have explained its existence.  The bard only knew that it was harbored within her heart.  Even if she had tried to rid herself of it, she wouldn't know how.  So rather than try to escape it, Gabrielle cherished it, held it close until it became like a second skin.

“Gabrielle, just listen to me for a minute!”  Xena's voice was firm as she tried to reason with her bard.

The early morning sun was barely in the sky when Xena decided to confront her lover.  Although she would have preferred to reason calmly with Gabrielle, the warrior knew that the blonde's grief was keeping her from seeing beyond her own sorrow.  With this in mind, Xena made a point to speak to her lover in the few minutes that they had alone.  With Nadrah gone for her morning chores, Xena decided that this was the best opportunity she had.

“What is there to talk about?”  Gabrielle's voice was harsher than she had intended.  Alone in the cabin with Xena, she had been listening to her lover, but when the warrior began to talk about Zara's execution of Mika'il, Gabrielle buried herself deeper under the soft covers of the captain's blankets.

“Gabrielle, speaking as one who has been in her position, that is how things are done at sea.  The law is in the hands of the ship's captain,” the warrior tried to explain, once again.

Gabrielle shook her head as she watched her lover pace the room, “I can't believe you're defending her!”

“I'm not defending anyone, Gabrielle.  I'm just trying to help you understand that sometimes things happen at sea that we have no control over.  Sometimes, as a captain, you have to do things that are horrible.  Execution is one of them,”  Xena tried to explain as she knelt by the bed. 

For a moment, Xena thought she was reaching the bard.  The resolve in the green eyes seemed to waver, but was quickly replaced with determination.  With brows furrowed, Gabrielle turned away from her.  Angered, the bard sat bolt upright in the bed.  “You've never …” Gabrielle's words stopped short before she added in a low hiss, “You've never killed anyone in that way!”

At her words, Xena pulled away as the hate and venom in her lover's voice washed through her.  Once it had passed, the tall warrior gazed down at Gabrielle's tear-filled eyes.  With only a shake of her head, Xena reached out and lightly touched the slight moisture on her lover's cheek.  As if the blonde had been touched by a scorching flame, she quickly pulled away and turned her back.

The warrior hid the pain her lover's action caused her and spoke calmly.  “That's true, Gabrielle.  I never beheaded anyone, but I have executed people,” she began to explain.  “Within Zara's culture, that is how executions are done.”

The petite woman said nothing, but burrowed deeper into the covers.  Xena could tell she was getting nowhere with the bard.  With a sigh of defeat, the warrior stood up and looked down at her lover.  She never thought that she would be defending the captain, but this is what she found herself doing now.  Despite the warrior princess' best efforts, the bard was closed off to her.  The grief the small woman was in was too deep for Xena to get through alone.  With a sigh of defeat, she turned and walked away from the desolate figure.

The warrior's heart ached from the pain that Gabrielle was experiencing.  She wanted to take her bard and hold her close, to free her from the pain.  However, she knew she could not give her soul mate, her friend even this small comfort.  Although she had been noticing the pain that her touch caused, Xena had overlooked it until it could no longer be ignored.  Now that she knew the affect that her cold touch left upon Gabrielle, she could not allow herself to come into contact with the bard again.

The colors of the morning sky held a brilliant radiance of blue and white hues.  Even in her saddened state the warrior marveled at the sights of the open sea as the cool wind blew through her.  In her spirit form, she was no longer sensitive to the temperatures of the weather, and she moved easily pass the crewmen wrapped in capes.  When she saw her target, Xena bounded up the steps until she was close to the silent figure.

Xena had never thought that she would want to speak directly to this woman.  When her bard had first become attracted to the Moroccan captain, the tall warrior was jealous.  But now, as time aboard the ship passed, she found herself hoping that Zara could help her reach Gabrielle.  Between the two of them, the leather clad warrior hoped that their love for the small woman would be a way to break through and ease the blonde's pain.  As she stood near the captain and studied her thoughtfully, the specter felt elated when Zara's brow furrowed and she looked around her with a shudder.

“She is good!” thought the ghost with surprise, “She feels my presence!”  With a big smile, the warrior moved closer to the captain and tried to reach out to her.  “That's right, I'm right here!”  Xena whisper close to the captain.  Zara only frowned as she returned her gaze to the distant ocean waves.  “No!  I'm right here.  I need to talk to you!” the warrior all but shouted.

Zara glanced around for a moment, then lowered her head and closed her eyes.  “Leave me be, ghost,” Xena heard the captain's low whisper.

“No, I can't leave you alone!  Don't you understand, we have to talk.  I've got to make you understand.  Please, listen to me!” Xena begged.  Although she knew that the captain could not hear her, she began to talk hoping that a fragment of her thoughts was able to reach the Moroccan woman.

“Zara, please don't judge her harshly.  Gabrielle doesn't understand why she's angry.  Her soul is good – pure.  Things like this are hard…losing me the way she did.”  Eyes suddenly blurring with tears, Xena shook her head, “Please hear me, Zara.  I need to know that Gabrielle has a friend in case….”  Her words were choked as she hesitated for a moment to control herself before going on raggedly, “I-I need to know th-that if I'm not able to come back to her, that she has someone.”  But Zara did not hear; she simply turned away from Xena, her head bowed as a sigh escaped her.  The warrior sighed as well.  “Seems she's as stubborn as you are, Gabrielle,” she thought desolately.

Just then, Gabrielle exited the captain's cabin.  Xena watched as Zara's eyes turned  to the bard, following the small blonde's every move as the bard made her way across the deck.  When Gabrielle turned and looked up at the bow of the ship, Zara glanced away as if the sight of the bard's accusing eyes was too much for her.  Sighing, the captain turned her back. 

Xena saw the dark circles under her lover's eyes.  She knew that this falling-out with the captain was affecting Gabrielle as much as it was affecting Zara.  Xena nodded to her lover as she noticed the look of confusion in Gabrielle's eyes.  The bard's questioning glance went from Xena to the captain.  Her brows furrowed as if she was wondering why they stood close to each other.  When no answer was found, the bard turned and continued walking toward the galley.

From behind her, Xena heard the captain's slight whisper, “Allah, why did you not take me too?”  Zara's gaze remained fixed on the wooden floorboards.

Only after the bard left, did the captain turn and make her way to her cabin.  Defeated, Xena sighed deeply as she tried to think of another way to reach her.  If she could only explain Gabrielle's pain, she knew that, together, they would be able to help the bard begin to heal.
Gabrielle found her days filled with monotony and her nights with loneliness.  Each time she crossed the deck, she avoided the place where the blood had spilled.  Although it had been cleaned up, she could still sense its presence.  Inwardly recoiling, she walked around the area and moved to the edge of the rail.

The bard's mind wandered over everything and nothing.  As the ship rocked against the waves, Gabrielle listened to the sounds around her.  She heard the early morning noise of the crew at work, and her heightened sense of hearing brought every sound home to her. She could distinguish them all; the squeak of a block and tackle, the hiss of the water along the hull, the flap of a sail, the hearty laugh of two crewmen sharing a joke, Nadrah talking nearby to Prahsa, her cat.  When she noticed Abu standing across the deck, she smiled and nodded a greeting.

In personality and temperament, Abu was very similar to Zara.  Where the similarity ended was in their dress.  While Zara was eclectic in her style of dress, he wore the traditional clothing of his people.  He wore a short sleeve kamis shirt of white cotton and brown, rugged Moroccan sherwal trousers.  Like the other crewmen's clothing, the sherwal hung loosely on his body, which offered easy mobility for the tasks on the ship.  On his feet, he wore sturdy brown boots which reached halfway to his knees, with his sherwal tucked into the top.  Like the men on the ship, Abu preferred to wear clothes which were both durable and easy to maintain.  Gabrielle remained smiling by the rail as Abu moved beside her.  His full beard parted to reveal his own strong smile as he closed his eyes and inhaled deeply.

“Is it not a good smell?” he asked Gabrielle.  With a weak smile, she nodded to the burly man, grateful that she was beginning to understand his language enough to have a conversation with him… if he spoke slow enough.  At his question, the bard closed her eyes and tried to sense the aroma, but failed and only shook her head negatively at his question.

“You know, I was not always a seafarer,” he casually stated as he turned and leaned his back against the rail.

“Really?  You seem like a natural,” she smiled at the tall man. 

With only a gruff laugh, Abu shook his head.  “No, little one,” he addressed her with a term of affection, “Once, my feet were always planted firmly on land.  The sea, the ocean, it was something for other men, not I!”

Gabrielle found it hard not to smile as she listened to his words.  “What was it that you used to do?” she asked.

“I was a soldier, a mercenary,” Abu's tone grew suddenly serious, as he seemed to reflect on his past. 

“What happened?  What brought you to the sea?”  Gabrielle felt her interest peak.  She watched his brows crease in thought, his glance fell to the deck.  Then, as if reliving the memory, he looked out at the distant waves of the ocean as his eyes took on a far away expression.

“I had a job…” he began to say after a moment of reflection.  “It wasn't really a job, but something that I had to do.  You see, a very good friend of mine had a family member kidnapped.  I was certain that the family would hire me, but….”  His voice trailed off as he shook his head.  “It was not meant to be.  Every day I waited for word, not a minute went by that I did not think of the child and remember watching her grow up before my eyes.  After a while, I could not sit and wait, so I took the job upon myself,” he said as he slightly tsked, “that was not a profitable endeavor.”

Gabrielle had listened to him.  When he finished speaking, she thought about his words, then asked, “What happened?”

At this question, Abu's gaze remained on the distant horizon.  As if she had asked it for the first time, he looked down at her.  “When I first reached the child, I thought the little one was dead,” he sighed.  A frown crossed his expression as his voice deepened, “What they did to that poor girl….it should never have happened.”  The anger was still fresh.  “You see, they killed the most beautiful part of the young one's soul, so, in essence, I saved a person who would always be dead inside,”  he shook his head as  sadness crossed his expression.

Gabrielle had no words for the man.  Within her mind, she knew there was a reason for him to speak so openly to her, yet her earlier anger kept her from seeing his true meaning.  Instead, she sighed as she looked up at Abu.  “And  Zara?” she asked, “How did you come to serve her?”

Abu thought over her words, then turned and smiled down at her.  “I am afraid that I am not at liberty to speak of this,” he said as he glanced away.  When she did not press him further, he lightly patted her shoulder, “What I can say is that the captain is a kind and just woman.  She does not act in a rash manner, nor does she make judgments without contemplating all avenues.  Do you understand?”

With a shake of her head, Gabrielle indicated no.  Then she added, “I'm sorry, I don't understand!” For a moment, she was furious and her anger was hard to contain, then she got control of herself and added, a bit more softly, “I don't think I ever will understand how anyone could be so cold blooded.”

Abu seemed to frown, then lightly patted Gabrielle's hand.  “Think carefully before judging the captain too harshly,” was all he said before he turned and left her to her own thoughts.

If Gabrielle had been thinking clearly, she might have understood Abu's unspoken message, but she was not.  Her grief, the pain of her loss, held her captive.  And although she did not know it, it was the intensity of her feelings, for both Xena and Zara, which prevented her from understanding any coherent thoughts.

Part 13

From her corner of the ship, Nadrah had watched the scene unfold.  She didn't understand the sudden change in Gabrielle, nor did she understand why the captain had grown quiet.  Although she was accustomed to the captain's occasional silence, she had never felt Zara pull away for so long.

When Gabrielle came to sit next to her, Nadrah smiled at the bard as she continued to separate the small stones from the beans that Ayyub had given her.  Although it was an easy task, it tended to become tedious after a while. Half singing, and half talking to Prasha, she smiled at Gabrielle.  Prasha, seeing the bard's nearness, meowed then rolled over and stretched out in the morning sun.

“Need any help?” the bard asked as she reached into the bowl and pulled a tiny pebble from the mixture of miniature green pellets.

“I'm ok.  Anyway, this isn't for today's meal,” the girl replied.  “Ayyub is going to let it sit in warm water overnight, then he's going to make it for tomorrow's dinner.”

“Oh, it sounds like you know how to make it into something tasty.” Gabrielle's smile was infectious.

“Not really, I just help.  Ayyub knows how to make all of the captain's favorite meals.  Someday, I'll be able to make them all myself, too.  Then the captain will be pleased!”  Nadrah explained and watched as the bard seemed to look away from her. 

Nadrah could tell that Gabrielle did not want to hear mention of the captain.  Confused by this, the girl's brows creased as she tried to understand her friend's reaction.  “Gabrielle, why don't you like the captain anymore?” she asked.

The bard thought over the question.  When it seemed that she could not find an appropriate answer, she sighed as she absently scratched behind Prasha's ear.  With a shake of her head, she looked at Nadrah, “It's not that I don't like the captain, Nadrah,  it's just…”  Gabrielle shook her head, “It's…um, a grown-up matter.”

“Oh,” was all Nadrah could say.  At her reaction, Gabrielle gave a weak smile, sighed then rose and returned to walking around the deck.

Whenever anyone said that something was a grown-up matter, it meant that they didn't think Nadrah was old enough to understand the problem.  What they didn't realize was that she understood more than they thought.  She knew that the captain liked Gabrielle, and that Gabrielle had been starting to like the captain.  The girl also knew that Gabrielle's heart belonged to Xena, and Xena loved Gabrielle and that Xena wasn't at all happy that the captain liked Gabrielle.  What Nadrah didn't understand was why Gabrielle suddenly stopped liking the captain.

Before she could contemplate it further, Xena was by her side.  Nadrah visibly sighed as she watched the bard walk away.  As the sun beat down on her, Nadrah held her hand to shield her eyes and gazed up at Xena.  The warrior mirrored her concern as she settled next to the girl.

“I know,” the warrior princess smiled at Nadrah, “I'm worried about her too.”

“Xena, how come Gabrielle doesn't like the captain anymore?” the little girl asked absently as she searched through the bowl.

“It's not that she doesn't like Zara.  She's just hurting and she doesn't know it.  You see, she's trying to blame someone, and Zara is the closest person she can blame.” Xena explained as she leaned back.

“I wish there was some way that we could help.  The captain isn't looking good at all!  Did you see how pale she is?  Abu said it's 'cuz she's staying out of the sun.  I think it's not good for her sleep in the daytime,” Nadrah tsked.

Xena seemed deep in contemplation, then, with a big smile, she leaned toward the girl.  “Nadrah, how would you like to help me?” she asked.

Nodding vigorously, “I would do anything to help!”  Nadrah replied.

“I was hoping you'd say that!  Now, all we have to do is reach the captain,” her voice took on a conspirator's whisper.  “If she knew the whole story, then I think we have a better chance of helping Gabrielle.”  Smiling at the prospect of helping, Nadrah leaned toward her friend and listened to the plan.
Zara had been tossing and turning in the bed all morning.  The combination of the men's voices, the sun shining in on her, and the intoxicating scent of Gabrielle on the pillows all worked against her ability to sleep.  She suspected that this was going to be another sleepless day for her.

Inwardly she blamed herself for this inconvenience.  This was her cabin, her bed, her pillows, yet the few times Zara had tried to join the bard at night, the woman's icy cold anger would drive her from the bed.  So here she was, trying to sleep in the middle of the day.

As she nuzzled deeper into the pillows, the captain inhaled Gabrielle's sweet fragrance.  With eyes closed, she began to imagine the blonde laying next to her.  Despite her great fatigue, the captain found herself aroused.  Groaning, she rolled on her back and lay silent for a moment.  Then, when the images of the bard refused to disappear, she sighed as she gave in to her desires. 

Zara reached under the covers and began to lightly touch herself.  With eyes closed, she imagined Gabrielle with her, could smell the fragrant aroma from the sheets filtering to her senses.  Each stroke of her hand caused a sigh to escape her.  When the captain parted her own nether lips, the wetness from her desires covered her fingers.  Zara's breathing began to increase as she dreamed of touching Gabrielle, stroking the blonde as she was now doing to herself.  In the back of her mind, Zara could almost taste the bard's pleasure as she imagined what it would be like to place her mouth over the blonde's swollen clitoris.  With a low moan of lust, she wondered if Gabrielle would call out her name at the point of release.  At this thought, Zara's pleasure began to rise, the memories of the kiss she had shared with the bard mingled with the images she conjured, and she felt herself floating with the build up of feelings.  Just when she felt herself nearing her climax, a loud bang of the cabin door yanked her from her self-imposed task.

With an audible groan, Zara glanced into the sunlight in time to see Nadrah slamming the door and stomping across the floor.  Hoping to avert the child's interruption, the captain rolled over on her side and pulled the blanket's close.  She held her eyes tightly closed as she kept her back to the girl.

“Captain?” the little girl whispered from behind her.  Zara remained silently still.  When no answer was heard, Nadrah climbed onto the bed.  “Zara?”  Nadrah whispered close to the captain's ear.  Zara continued to feign sleep until the little girl shook her shoulder.  “Zara, are you asleep?”  Nadrah's voice asked innocently.

“Not anymore,” Zara's reply was muffled against the pillow.

“Good, 'cuz we wanna talk to you,”  Nadrah said as she climbed over Zara and lay facing her.  She waited a moment, then reached out and lifted one of Zara's eyelids.  “Captain?.....Zara?” her voice whispered.

“By Allah!  Yes, Nadrah,” Zara grumbled slightly.

“We need to talk,” the little girl's voice was firm.

“Can it not wait?” the captain asked, and watched from her single open eye as the little girl looked at something over Zara's shoulder.

“She wants to know if it can wait…..what?…..are you sure?” her voice spoke into the silence.  Then, with a shrug, she looked back at Zara, “Xena says no, it can't wait.”

At the mention of the ghost's name, Zara  groaned and tried to close her eye, but Nadrah still had hold of it.  She wanted to yell at the ghost to leave her to what little pleasure she had left.  But as she gazed at the intensity of Nadrah's eyes, she sighed.  Carefully removing the little girl's finger from her eyelid and rolling over, her eyes firmly shut against the sun.

“Nadrah, I am very tired.  It has been a long night and I need to sleep, so please tell the ghost that it can wait until later.”

For a moment, Zara thought that the matter was resolved until Nadrah climbed over her, again, “But Zara, Xena says it's about Gabrielle.  She's hoping that you can help her.”

“Gabrielle is not fond of me,” Zara mumbled.  “There is no way that I could possibly help her,” Zara said as she covered her face with the blankets.  “Now leave me, and try to be quiet.”

Xena growled as her hands moved to strangle the captain, then pulled away in frustration.  One look from Nadrah, and she innocently smiled at the girl.  For a moment, the warrior almost gave up but as an idea came to mind, she knelt down by the girl.  “Nadrah, I have an idea,” Xena began to explain.  “First, I need you to apologize to the captain for what I'm about to do, then I want you to leave the cabin fast.  Can you do that?”

“Ahuh,” Nadrah replied with a big smile.  “Right now?”

“Yes, little one, right now,” Xena smiled at the little girl as she stood above the bed.

“Captain….Xena is sorry for what she's going to do,”  Nadrah said as she slightly shook the blankets.

“What she's going to do?” Zara poked her head out from under the blankets as Nadrah hopped off of the bed and ran from the cabin.

“Yes….” Xena gazed down at the Moroccan woman as she waited for the door to close.

Zara was finally grateful to be left alone.  Nadrah's cryptic message fell on very tired, deaf ears.  Grumbling from the loss of her earlier mood, Zara rolled onto her stomach, closed her eyes and prayed for sleep to cover her.  Instead, what covered her was an oppressive chill, as a solid weight fell on her back.  The sudden shove pushed down into her and knocked the breath from her. 

The captain felt her world spinning out of control.  Her vision became blurred as a sudden sensation overcame her.  Zara heard her thoughts clearly, then she felt her mind changing.  It shifted from her own to a myriad of other images.  At one point, she remembered seeing the argument with Gabrielle.  She could feel the anger deep within the bard and then the image shifted, and she was no longer arguing with her.  Now she was standing aside, watching the images pass before her.  Just when she assimilated the scenes, the sounds and visions changed.  Zara knew that she was no longer alone in her thoughts.  Even though she could not see Xena, the captain knew that the ghost was now inside of her, sharing the warrior's memories of Gabrielle.

Zara was looking down at a young blonde, her face much rounder, and eyes far more innocent and idealistic.  “Xena, you gotta to take me with you!  Teach me everything you know.  You can't leave me here in Potidaea.  I wanna go with you!  I've studied the stars, spoken with the philosophers.  They say I have the gift of prophecy.  That can be very valuable to you.  Take me with you.  I want so much to be like you,” she pleaded.

The images changed to scenes of battles, a very young bard hiding in the corner giving her moral support.  Time shifted forward and Zara watched the long, ankle-length skirt replaced with a knee-length rust skirt while the peasant blouse turned into a short, green top.  Before her mind's eye, the captain witnessed the transformation of the bard from clumsy tagalong child, to womanly bard, to competent fighter, to healer, to a follower of peace and love, to a master warrior that few could match. 

Zara not only saw what the warrior saw, but she felt Xena's emotions as if they were her own.  She could feel the darkness held within the ghost's heart, and Zara heard the words spoken to Gabrielle.  A scene by a camp fire caught her attention, then shifted to the playful antics in a large vat of water, only to be replaced with images of the bard, the grief clearly etched in her features as she took a life.  Xena's voice echoed in her mind, “Once you kill, it changes everything.” 

Zara witnessed the slow progression of the warrior and her bard.  She saw the pain and suffering of the blonde each time she lost Xena.  The captain heard Xena's promise to an ailing bard, “Even in death, Gabrielle, I will never leave you.”  The promise rang strong within her senses.  Before she could assimilate this, Zara saw the bard turn away from the warrior path.  The images were a swirl of color as they moved through the bard's life-altering experiences.  Then Zara witnessed the savage anger of the bard as she turned away from the path of peace to protect her spirit-twin.

Before the captain could absorb everything up to that point, she was thrown into a grotesque image of a body strung up, the head missing, and Gabrielle weeping at the corpse's feet.  It was the realization of this that caused Zara to sigh and her brow to furrow as it suddenly all became clear.  Then she saw the bard's final battle for her love, the battle to retrieve Xena's head in order that she could be burned intact. 

“Now you know,” Xena's voice was filled with pain, as it echoed from somewhere near the captain.

Zara felt frozen in time.  Her mind was swirling with the information while her emotions were raging with pain.  Zara felt her senses overloading as her own horrible memories began to take control.  When it seemed that she could take no more, in her mind she fell to her knees, head bent as the silent gasps racked through her body.

“Zara?” the faceless voice called to her.  When she did not respond, the sense of …something surrounded her, engulfed her in a cold embrace. 

“Zara!”  However, the captain could not answer, all she could do was sit and watched the terrifying scene unfold.

Like a never-ending nightmare, the images pulled the captain deeper into the darkness.  The physical pain was nothing compared to the mental anguish from her captors.  As if the torture and rape were not enough, they forced Zara to witness the barbaric acts committed against her entourage, then, as one by one she witnessed their executions.  Zara's most vivid memories of those days were of the finely woven baskets which were used to send the heads of her friends and servants to her father.  Each time one of them was killed, she prayed it would be the last.  When it was only Zara and her beloved left, she tried to convince Alaya that her father would come for them, but her words failed even to convince herself.  Although she did not understand why, she knew that her father had abandoned her.

Zara felt the madness of that last day consume her.  No longer concerned for her own physical pain, she tried to break free, to reach her love.  She remembered the strong arms of her captors holding her back as she fought to reach Alaya.  The guttural scream that was released did not sound like her own, but Zara knew it belonged to her the instant the blade cut through the girl's neck and ended the life of her beloved.  Filled with an agonizing pain, Zara fell beside her lover's body.  She wept until the bile in her stomach rose and spilled from her.

From that moment on Zara knew no happiness.  Even when her brother's friend had broken into the compound, she felt no peace.  The only emotion she held was the agony of life – a life without her spirit twin.  Eventually she learned to silence her pain, to push it away into a dark corner.  In place of that pain was a numbness that consumed her soul.  After time had passed, the numbness was like an old friend, and Zara no longer wondered why her life was empty.  She simply moved like a person alive all the while knowing that her heart, her soul was lost, and gone from the land of the living.

From somewhere nearby, Zara heard soothing words.  She felt her body being rocked, cradled in a strong embrace.  As her silent tears subsided and the numbness consumed her, she noticed only the darkness around her and the ever-present sensation that she was not alone.  When the silence of the darkness returned, Zara knew that Xena was with her, yet she could not see the ghost.  She looked up, but saw only a faceless person, someone who was only an illusive image.

“Oh, Zara…what you went through!” the faceless voice spoke to her as the sensations of fingers ran through her hair.  “You were so young,” the tone was soft and soothing.  Despite the comfort, Zara felt nothing.  She closed her eyes and settled into the embrace.  With head lowered, the Moroccan sighed as she resigned herself to the numbness of her life.
Zara awoke in a tangle of blankets.  She sat bolt upright as she glanced around her cabin.  The afternoon sun barely shone through the window.  As she rose from the bed, she tried to sort out her dreams.  She tried to remember everything that was within her visions.  When the visions became clear, she sighed as the full impact settled in.

“Now you know,” Zara heard a voice say.  Shocked, she looked around swiftly, but found no one.  Gulping, she rose and quickly dressed,  while glancing around the empty cabin.  “Zara, now you know!” the voice was more insistent.

“Who are you?” she asked the empty room.

“You know who I am, you can hear me now!” the woman's voice was excited.

“No…, I do NOT hear anything,” the captain insisted as she quickly pulled on her boots.

“How can you deny it, I'm here right beside you, and now you know!” the voice seemed jubilant at the news.

“I do not know what you are saying!  And I do NOT hear you!” the captain tried to convince herself as she began to make her way from the cabin.  Before she could exit, a sudden sound broke free as the chair behind her desk was slammed against the cabin door.

“It's me, Zara!  Xena.  I'm here, and you can hear me.  You didn't imagine it, it was real,” the voice grew firmer. 

Not wanting to believe what was happening, Zara shook her head as she tried to find a logical explanation for the voice.  “No, that is not possible,” Zara's voice was low as she fought for understanding.

“How can it not be!  You were there, I was there!” Xena shouted, then added.  “Otherwise, how could I know what happened to you and your soul mate, Alaya?”

Zara felt Xena's words like a physical blow.  Protective of her lover's memories, Zara lashed out at the unseen voice.  “NO!  YOU KNOW NOTHING!” she shouted at the air, “and I hear nothing!”

“Zara, listen, please!  I'm sorry, but you've got to understand what happened.  Then you'll be able to help Gabrielle,” the voice said.

“Ha!  Like she would want my help!” Zara spat out before she turned, tossed the chair aside, and ran from the room.  “I am not hearing anything, I refuse to hear anything,” she mumbled as she walked passed her crewmen, her eyes never wavering from the deck.  When she bumped into someone, she looked up and glanced into the bard's green eyes.

“You!  Listen to me, I do NOT hear anyone!  Do you understand?”  Zara shouted at the bard as she grabbed her by the shoulders.  When the look of confusion crossed Gabrielle's face, Zara merely grunted as she released her hold of the woman.  “It's what you want, isn't it?  Well, I will not allow it, do you understand?  It is NOT going to work, so don't even try,” she wagged her finger at the bard then turned and made her way toward the crew's quarters.

Ignoring the larger bunk area, she walked into the smaller cabin where Abu lived.  Zara knew exactly what she was looking for.  With deft ease, she rummaged through her friend's gear.  By the time she found the bottle, Abu's blankets, clothes and scrolls with nude images drawn in them were strewn all over the floor.

“Captain?” Abu's expression was riddled with concern as he stood in the doorway. 

Turning, she held the bottle of liquor to him, removed the cap and quickly drank down the bitter, fiery liquid.  After  a few deep swallows, Zara coughed as she leaned against the wall.  Panting, she closed her eyes against the maddening thoughts.  With a shake of her head, she drank a few more swigs before she was able to speak to her friend. 

“Abu, this is it.  I have gone mad!” she sighed.

“Zara?  What are you speaking of?” he asked as he stepped toward her, tried to take the bottle from  her.  He failed when she held it tightly and drank deeper swigs until nothing remained in the bottle.

“I am telling you, Abu, my friend.  I have gone mad, positively mad, and there is nothing that can be done.” Zara explained.

“But….” his brows creased in a frown, “why would you say this?”

Isn't it obvious!  I hear voices now!  Yes, oh yes, that's right, I'm hearing the ghost now,” she felt her words slurring as the liquor slowly took effect.  “There is no doubt, I am mad.  What else could it be?” she asked as she felt the room shift until she was sitting on the floor of Abu's cabin.

“How did you get the floors to move up?” Zara's words were barely audible as her glazed eyes glanced around her.  Before she could hear his reply, her eyelids closed.  “Abu, not only am I mad, but I am now utterly blind!” she told her friend as she felt him lifting her from the floor.

“Blind drunk, Captain,” he said with a chuckle as he lifted her in his arms.

“Blind drunk?” Zara's slurred words asked.

“Yes captain.  You are blind drunk, that is all.”

“Then it's not permanent?” she felt her head loll back ward as he easily carried her up the steps.

“No captain.  I'm sure once the pain in your head stops hurting tomorrow, you'll be able to open your eyes,” was Abu's gruff reply .

“Well, there is that good news,” she mumbled before the darkness of the liquor pulled her under.
Nadrah had been watching from the shadows.  She waited patiently for Xena to come from the captain's cabin.  When it was the captain who emerged first, she ducked behind the crates and watched as Zara cross the deck.  Mumbling to herself, the tall woman's brows were creased as she passed the crewmen.

For a moment, Nadrah thought there was going to be a fight when the captain bumped into Gabrielle.  But at their instant contact, Gabrielle looked surprised as the captain shouted at her, then turned toward the men's sleeping quarters.  Once she was out of sight, the crewmen began to gather on the deck while Gabrielle made her way to the railing.

“She's mad, I told you so!  It was bound to happen sooner or later,”  Salih, one of the younger crewmen, stated matter-of-factly as he continued to tie down the ropes of the sails.

“How so?” his friend, Harith, asked as he left his weaving and moved to his friend.

“Because of her,” Salih chuckled as he nodded toward Gabrielle.

“Her!  Bah, you are mad!  Surely you don't believe she's a witch too, do you?” Amr broke into the two men's conversations.

“Of course not! But I have eyes, I see,” Salih pointed to his eyes, then toward the blonde.  “And what I see is the captain now sleeping in the day and leaving such a beauty alone at night!”

The men's brows creased in thought.  At their slight confusion, Salih sighed deeply.  “Do you not understand?  The captain is no longer getting any!” the man laughed as he made motions with his pelvis thrusting forward, the pumping action bringing laughter from the men.

“Ah!” a few of the men's voices exclaimed in understanding as jovial laughter rose.

“Yes, that must be it!  Why, how much longer could the captain continue having such a thirst and not be partaking of such a fountain?” Salih added as he rolled his eyes toward Gabrielle's retreating form.

“No, no, no!” Ayyub interrupted.  With his apron on and carrying a spoon, he turned to the young men gathered.  “No, that is not what has driven the captain mad.  What has driven her mad is really very simple,” the skinny man's voice took on an air of authority.

With a pleased smile, he waited until all eyes were on him.  Satisfied that he held their attention, Ayyub said, “It is simple.  It is because the captain is not eating!  She has not been eating, and what little I put in front of her, she leaves.  Why, all she needs is a good meal and she'll be herself again!”

For a moment, the crew remained silent as they stared at Ayyub's broad smile.  Then, like a chorus of chickens, they all spoke at once.

“That's exactly what I said!”  Salih exclaimed.  He pointed toward the bard and wagged his eyebrows, “The captain just needs a good meal!”

“Ayyub, you're daft!” one laughed.

“Food, we could all be so lucky!”

“More likely your food would drive one mad!” another shouted and was rewarded with laughter.  Just when their cackling began to take control, a loud voice broke through their humor.

“Bah!  Ayyub, how ridiculous,” Tashfin exclaimed from across the deck.  “You young ones do not understand a thing either!” the old man spat.  Rising from his place, he moved on scrawny legs to the crowd of men, the respect they gave for his age pulled the others to his side.

“You are right that it was the woman that caused our captain's madness, but, your reason is wrong!  Why everyone knows that a voyage is no place for a woman!” he spat.  “Why, look at me!  I still have all of my senses, and do you know why?”  He looked at the men's faces but did not wait for an answer, “Because I see my wife for thirty days out of the year!  Any more than that, and she'd drive me crazier than the captain is!”  His words brought about a roar of laughter as the older men nodded their agreement.

“You mark my words, young ones, you stay too long around a woman, and she'll drive you mad every time!” Tashfin spoke with authority.

From nearby, Isa stepped forward.  “Wait a minute!  The captain is a woman, too!” he stated the obvious.

“Yes, but she's not like that type of a woman,” Hakim threw in as he pointed to the bard.  When all eyes were on him, he smiled, winked, and made a motion with his hands that resembled an hour glass.  The men chuckled as their ribald laughter continued.

“Aye, a woman like that, with such spirit and beauty, oh, Allah protect me!”  Hakim pretended to swoon, then rose and faced his friends, “She would drive me mad being alone in the same room with her let alone the same bed!”  He raised his fist and bit it playfully as he glanced at Gabrielle, then pretended to be held captive by the bard's beauty.

The laughter grew as jokes were volleyed.  Before they realized it, Abu walked on the deck carrying the captain.  Upon seeing the men, he visibly frowned, then barked, “Do you not have work to do?”  At his words, the men dispersed as they ran back to their previous chores.  Satisfied, Abu gently carried the captain to her bed.
Knowing that she was needed, Nadrah scampered from the shadows and followed Abu up the steps.  Once in the cabin, she ran in front of Abu and pulled the sheets off of the bed.  She stared at the captain carefully, trying to detect any madness which the men spoke of.

“Is she crazy?” she finally asked the burly man.

“No little mouse, the captain is only tired.  Let her sleep and I am certain that she will feel much better,” he said as he deposited Zara onto the unmade bed.  After petting Nadrah's head, the big man turned, gave Nadrah a curt nod, and left the girl to her duties.

As she smelled the rum on the captain, Nadrah wrinkled her nose then began to undress the tall woman.  With slight grunts and huffs, she managed to pull Zara's shirt partly off, then rolled her to her side in order to pull it off completely.  Before she could finish, Zara mumbled and rolled onto her back, pinning Nadrah's arm under her body.

“Captain?”  Nadrah whispered as she tried to pull her arm free.  “Zara?” she said a bit louder as she tugged at her arm.  “I'm stuck!”

As she said this, the cabin door slowly opened and Gabrielle walked in.  “What happened?” the blonde asked as she looked from Nadrah's pinned arm to the inebriated form of the captain.

“I'm stuck Gabrielle!” Nadrah whined as she tried to get the captain to roll off of her arm.  “Help me, please!”

With a slight smile, Gabrielle moved to the bed and easily lifted Zara's shoulders.  “Is that better?” she smiled at Nadrah as the child flexed her arm.

“Much better!  Thank you,” Nadrah answered as she returned to her task.  “I've got to get the captain undressed,” she stated as she pulled Zara's shirt off. 

“Do you do this a lot?” the bard asked as she began to help undress the unconscious woman.

“Usually only when we're in port.  I've never seen the captain do this when we're at sea,”  Nadrah explained as she sat the captain up, then pulled at the woman's undershirt until it was freed.

“I see…” said the bard slowly.

“Gabrielle, can I ask you something?”  Nadrah spoke softly as she pulled the remains of the captain's undershirt off, and let the unconscious woman fall to the pillow.  She moved to Zara's boots.  As she worked, she watched Gabrielle unfasten the ties of Zara's pants.

“Of course you can ask,” the bard smiled softly as she pulled the breeches past the captain's hips.

“How come you stopped liking the captain?”  Nadrah queried, tossing the boots aside.

Gabrielle stopped for a moment, and then returned to the task at hand.  With Nadrah's help, she pulled the pants off of the bigger woman and dropped them on the floor.  “I haven't stopped liking Zara…it's just,” the bard seemed to be searching for words, then she shook her head.  “It's just that I don't agree with things that Zara does,” she answered as she picked up the discarded clothes and placed them in a canvas bag in the corner.

Gabrielle found herself searching for an answer to Nadrah's inquiry and replied as honestly as she could.  She had witnessed the entire scene on the deck, but had only half understood it.  When Zara had yelled at her, Gabrielle was a bit shaken by the intensity of the woman's words.  When the blonde had talked to Xena, she received no answer that would explain Zara's conduct.  Although the warrior seemed willing to talk, Gabrielle knew that she was withholding something.  Then when she saw Abu carrying Zara to her cabin, her healer instincts took control.

“But isn't it ok to not like everything?” the child's voice had pulled Gabrielle from her thoughts.  “Abu doesn't like that Zara drinks so much when she's in port, but that doesn't make him stop liking her.”

“It's a bit more complicated,” the bard said as she pulled the cover over the unconscious, naked body.  Just then, Zara mumbled as she rolled onto her side, facing away from Gabrielle. 

With a horrified intake of breath, the bard gazed down for the first time at Zara's bare back.  From below her shoulder, Gabrielle saw the marks of old scars running across Zara's back.  Kneeling down, the blonde lightly touched the lines that were obviously made from a whip.  At the sight of small, round marks, she lowered herself to examine the skin. 

“Burns,” she whispered as she lifted the sheet and gazed at the captain's firm buttocks.  Gabrielle grimaced as she saw the scar patterns over the woman's flesh.  The burn scars were strewn across Zara's buttocks in no seeming order.

“We're not supposed to talk about that,” Nadrah said as she sat on the edge of Zara's bed.

“Do you know what happened?” Gabrielle asked as she inspected the old wounds.  Gabrielle noticed a tattoo the length of her index finger embedded at the end of Zara's spine.  Upon closer inspection, Gabrielle saw the image was of a dragon similar to her own.  After she pulled the covers over the sleeping form, she sat on the edge of the bed. 

“The captain has never mentioned anything to anyone?” Gabrielle asked.

“No.  I asked once, and the captain got quiet for nearly a month.  Abu told me to not ever ask.  We're not supposed to talk about it, or ever ask the captain.  Not ever!” the girl whispered as she looked back at the top of Zara's bare back with scared eyes.

At the girl's open fear, Gabrielle lightly smiled as she pulled the covers higher on the sleeping captain.  “Come.  Let's let her sleep it off, ok?  How would you like me to tell you a story about how Baby Bliss took his father Cupid's arrows and wreaked havoc with us?” she asked Nadrah as she held her hand out.  Smiling at the offer, Nadrah nodded, took the bard's hand, and followed her from the room all the while carrying on a monologue.

The End of Chapter 2

Chapter 3

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