The Curse of Higuchi

Chapter 4

By L. Crystal Michallet-Romero

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

Disclaimer: Xena Warrior Princess, its characters, and all related materials are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures.  The other characters are mine.  Like the show, I am playing around with the historical time lines.
Rated: NC17
Violence: Mild.
Sexual Violence: None
Subtext: Yes
Note to Readers:
With regard to certain aspects of Islam and Arabia, I am taking great liberties with names, religious conduct, and cultural aspects.  Much of this story is a work of fiction and it is being written from the point of view of the tale taking place during the first foundations of Islam, when the Prophet Muhammad's teachings were liberal with regard to women. Conduct depicted in this chapter would not necessarily take place within the structure of modern Islam. Only when I list verifiable facts on the cover page, should any information in this story be taken literally. If anyone is interested in learning more about Islamic religion, Morocco or the Middle East, I would highly encourage you to visit your local library!

Abu Al-Nasr al-Farabi (870-950) = Born of Persian decent near Farabi in Turkistan in 870 C.E. Abu al-Farabi was a son of a general.  Abu al-Farabi is known in history not only as one of the first well known Islamic physicians, but also as a philosopher, logician, sociologist, mathematician, scientist and musician and was fluent in several languages.  He was best known as the “Second Teacher,” with Aristotle being the first.  His twenty-eight books on medicine contained all of his accumulative knowledge of Arabic medical knowledge pertaining to disease such as smallpox and chickenpox as well as the psychological effects of illness on the patient.  Additionally, surgical and hygienic research was included in his vast volumes of books.  His books were later translated into Latin during Charles I of Anjou reign and were repeatedly printed from 1488 to the present.  Owing to his vast knowledge and education, Abu al-Farabi traveled throughout Saudi Arabia, parts of Egypt and Persia while under the employment of various sultans and educational institutions.  His contribution is considered a great influence in the development of science and medicine.  Because of this, his portrait still hangs on the walls of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Paris, France.  Al-Farabi died a bachelor in Damascus in 950 C.E.
Hashish = the most potent grade of cannabis, is made from resin extracted from the flower clusters and top leaves of the marijuana plant.  Like marijuana, hashish is usually smoked or eaten.  Hash oil is more potent than hashish and is an extract of hashish.  Hashish is intoxicating and can produce euphoria and other feelings similar to marijuana.  Hashish was discovery by Haider, a monk who lived between Nishabor and Ramah.
Ramadan = A holiday observed in the Islamic religion which occurs during their lunar new year and lasts for 35 days.  From sunrise to sunset, believers fast and abstain from drinking, eating, luxuries, and partaking in sexual activities of any kind.  The day hours of fasting are used as a time for inner reflection, devotion to God, and self-control.  It is believed that through fasting and inner reflection, a measure of ascendancy is given one's spiritual nature, which becomes a means of coming closer to Allah.  Ramadan is also a time of intensive worship, reading of the Qu'ran, giving to charity, purifying one's behavior, and doing good deeds.
Shisha = a glass container that holds a mixture (tobacco or other substances) which is inhaled through tubes that extend from the bottle.
Sieve = A method of collecting the pollen from hashish.  Once the pollem (not pollen) of the plant is dry, it is then run through a metal mesh wire over and over again until all that remains is a very fine and pale yellow powder.  The coarse plant material that is left is called Kif.  Although the pollen can be smoked, the taste and effects change once it is sieved.  Sieving is a common practice in the production of Moroccan hashish.  The process of forming of the powder resin into bricks is a new world invention.

Part 19

Gabrielle spent a better part of the morning tending to Zara.  Once the head wound was sutured and bandaged and her broken arm set, the healer gave a few instructions to Nadrah.  Assured that her lover was settled with the child watching attentively over her, she left the cabin to offer her assistance in the aftermath of the battle. 

The early morning sun beat down on the quiet carnage.  As the heat from the sun increased, it caused a sickly sweet stench of death to rise from the corpses of the slain.  Not even the sea breeze could clean the smell that lingered in the air.  Worse, the buzz and hum of thousands of flies covering the bodies was a constant reminder of the silence of death.  By the time Gabrielle left the captain's cabin, the pirate ship had been pulled further out to sea, the bodies of the pirates left on their ship to be eaten by the birds of prey.  When she saw a black cloud of birds circling high above the now silent Pirate ship, she unconsciously flinched as a shiver crossed her spine.  Even after so many years in battle, the sight of such a bloodbath upset her, Gabrielle thought as she turned her eyes away from the scene.

As Gabrielle climbed into the boat, she noticed the vivid colors of the tents on the shore.  Once she was settled, Zuhair took up the oars and began to row them toward the land.  Gabrielle watched the ordered chaos ashore with amazement.  Unbeknownst to the bard, a triage had been set up and the grim sorting of those who could be saved and those who could not was proceeding.  Anyone who was able to help was mobilized into groups.  Some were sent to set up camp, gather wood or hunt in the dense forest, while others were dispatched to tend to the wounded until they could be taken into the healer's tent.  Those of both Arab and Moroccan crews who had died were neatly tended to, their bodies tenderly cleaned and wrapped tightly in individual cloths.  With loving care, they were returned to the grounded Arabian ship to await their burial.  Those from both ships who were wounded were taken to a makeshift healer's area.  As she came to the shore, the petite woman noticed grimly that somehow, none of the pirates had seemed to survive the fight.  Part of her shuddered at this; another part accepted it as no less than what the cut-throats deserved.

“Gabrielle,” a voice called to her as she stepped onto shore.  “Please, Gabrielle,” Isa's voice was soft and pleading, “It is Rabeé, can you help him?  P-please?  They want to…to let him die,” the young man's words were filled with panic as he ran to her. 

The blonde healer took a moment to glance at him.  She noticed that his young face, usually filled with life, was now weary and full of misery.  The creases around his brown eyes were more pronounced and his beard, usually neatly combed, was now ragged since the morning battle.  In an unconscious manner, he reached up and pushed back a light brown lock of his sweat-drenched hair.  Gabrielle noticed streaks of blood across his cheekbone, and then saw much more blood that was not his own smeared on his shirt.

“Who are they going to let die?”  She asked, with disbelief.

Isa was sobbing now.  His words were choked.  “Rabeé, he is my…” he hesitated not knowing what to say, then went on in a rush, “You know, he and I belong to each other…
L-Like you and the captain do…”

Gabrielle felt herself blushing.  “Yes, yes.  Of course I'll come,” she gulped, and tried to smile reassuringly as her thoughts spun.  'Like me and…  Zara?  By the gods, does the whole crew think we're a couple?'

“Please, Gabrielle…over here!”  Isa begged, seeming not to hear her as he took her arm and pulled her to the beach. 

The beach was once a beautiful spot with sun, white sand and blue water, but had now become a blood-soaked place of hell on earth.  As they moved, they were accompanied by the screams and moans of the mangled victims of battle.  In almost humorous contrast to the chaos and horror all around, the men were lined in neat rows with the wounded on one side and the dying on the other.  Within these bloody boundaries, men writhed and groaned in their pain, many begging for water or shade from the sun.  Others whispered prayers, or silently lay there clutching their torn bodies.  The coppery scent of blood and the stench of the dead and dying filled the nose and mind. 

As she followed the young man, Gabrielle noticed an older Arab man moving among the wounded.  After inspecting each, he would bark orders to his attendants, then move on to another injured man.  When Isa and the bard reached Rabeé, two attendants were just beginning to pick him up to move to the side with the men who could not be saved.  Isa shouted at them in anger.  The two men looked at him, then shrugged and moved down the line to pick up another man to take to the side of the dying.

Afraid of what she would find, the bard knelt beside Rabeé and began inspecting his wounds.  The young man's breathing was shallow and his eyes were glazed with pain, but when he saw Isa, he attempted to smile.  His friend knelt and took his hand, holding it to his cheek.  Meanwhile, Gabrielle found three wounds, but none seemed too serious.  Then she lifted his shirt and frowned as she saw a large blood-soaked bandage on his torso.

Meanwhile as if angered by her presence, the older man turned and shouted something to her.  Unable to understand his dialect, she shrugged her shoulders as she continued to examine Rabeé.  The older man bustled to her, stood over her for a moment, and his eyes seemed to scan her as if attempting to determine her origins.  When he seemed to think of something, he nodded, then spoke to her in flawless Greek, “My child, I have already seen that one, there is nothing that can be done for him!”

She looked up in surprise to hear her own language after so long, then nodded.  “Thank you, but I'll just check him out if you don't mind,” she said, turning back to the dazed man. 

The older man drew back as if he couldn't believe his ears, then shouted again at Gabrielle in his own language as she peered under Rabeé's bloody bandage.  Ignoring the man, she continued to try and help Isa's lover, and shaking his head, the older man hurried away.  After a long look under the bandage she knew that her skills could not help the young man.  When she turned to Isa, the expression on Gabrielle's face told the story and his expression crumbled as his tears began to flow.  He lifted the wounded man's head to his lap and softly touched his cheek.

“You'll be all right,” Isa softly assured the man.  He stroked his lover's hair tenderly as his tears fell upon the man's upturned face.  Rabeé tried to lift his hand to touch his partner's face, when suddenly he coughed and blood began flowing like a river beneath the bandage.  Gabrielle frantically tried to do something, but before she could even lift the bandage to try and staunch the flow, Rabeé's body heaved once.  The young man's eyes were wide as he gazed at Isa and their eyes seemed to lock.  Then with only a slight groan, the injured man grew still. 

Defeated, the blonde looked compassionately at Isa and shook her head as she closed Rabeé's staring eyes.  The grief of losing his lover engulfed Isa completely.  Taking the man in his arms, with his face pressed to his beloved's, he wept openly.  Not quite believing that Rebeé was gone, Isa continued to talk to him, begging him to come back. 

Seeing Isa like this, Gabrielle couldn't help but think of losing Xena.  She wiped a tear from her eye, as she remembered the horrible day at Higuchi, when she had first learned that Xena was dead, and the memories of losing her soul mate flooded her senses.  Before the emotions could pull her deeper, she shook her head as she turned around and glanced blurry-eyed at the scene and blinked rapidly, trying to clear her eyes.

“Gabrielle!”  Abu's familiar voice called to her.  “Come, they could use another healer in the surgeon's tent,” he shouted, as he pulled her to her feet.  Gabrielle raised a hand to halt Abu for a moment and turned back to Isa.

“I'm sorry,” she said gently, “His wound was too deep.  There was nothing anyone could have done.”  She hesitated, then touched his shoulder and said softly, “Rebeé was a good man, and he loved you, Isa.  Never forget that … at the end, he got to…” she swallowed painfully thinking of her own loss, then continued, “He…got to see you as he d-died and knew that you loved him.”

Through tear-filled eyes, the young man nodded silently, then lowered his face to his lover's cheek, and wept openly.  Not knowing what else to do, Gabrielle turned to Abu.  The tall man inclined his head and led her quickly toward a tent at the far end.  As she ran to keep up, he glanced down at her.

“Zara?” he asked as they made their way past the fallen bodies.

“Resting.”  Was all she could say as she watched the Arabian men moving through the injured and taking the dying to one side.

“Good,” was all he said.  Seeing her expression as she glanced at the movement around her, he nodded gravely.  “As soon as the fighting was over, Abu al-Farabi moved in.  He ordered the Sultan's warriors to set up these tents, while he began to organize the wounded into who will live and who will die,” Abu explained.

“Who is Abu al-Farabi?” she asked.  When she saw veiled women run from one wounded man to another she scanned the area to find familiar faces.  Some of the men she recognized from the crew, and felt sorrow at their number but many others were people she had never seen.

“Abu al-Nasr al-Farabi is the personal healer of the Sultan of Hadhramaut,” he explained.

With quick strides, they entered a tent, which was lined with the few men who were deemed able to be saved and were brought into the surgical tent to wait for surgery.  Breaking through a curtained wall at the end of the tent, Abu entered a smaller area while Gabrielle waited for a moment.  In the center of the tent sat two tables.  One had a patient lying on it, with his eyes closed.  An older man was working on him.  The older healer had two veiled female assistants handing him instruments and bandages.

“What is the meaning of this!” the older man shouted as Abu stepped inside the curtained off room.  As he spoke, he continued to work with nimble fingers.

“I have the other healer you asked about,” Abu informed him as he motioned Gabrielle into the room.

Upon entering the curtained area, Gabrielle recognized the older man working frantically on the injured warrior.  It was the man who spoke Greek and who had scolded her when she was examining Rebeé.  He wore a tight fitting cap over his hair, and a thin cloth over his long beard and a blood-covered apron around his muscular form.  He gave sharp, curt orders to his veiled female assistant as he struggled to tie off the man's bleeding wound. 

“So, that's why she chose to defy me,” he spoke in the language of Abu's people, “But a woman healer!  Unheard of!” he mumbled as he cast an inquisitive glance at her, then added , “Abu, I might be able to overlook the fact that she is a woman, but I cannot overlook her youth!  Surely she is far too young to be a healer!”  His voice was gruff.

“I'm older than I look and I've seen battle wounds before,” Gabrielle explained as she moved quickly to a bowl that a veiled woman was filling with hot water.

With an approving eye, the Arabian healer nodded as he watched Gabrielle washing her hands.  Shaking his head in disbelief, the older healer nodded toward a second table.  “Go then, and help that man,” he ordered as some men brought in another injured man.  After Abu al-Farabi barked a few orders, a veiled woman ran behind Gabrielle and wrapped a clean apron around her.  The veiled woman placed some surgical tools on a tray next to her as well.  With only a grumble, the Arabian healer returned his attention to his unconscious patient.

Like the older healer, Gabrielle ignored all around her except the injured man as she quickly moved to stitch up the wound that was bleeding him dry.  As soon as that man was sown up and stabilized, he was removed and another was brought in.  This happened time and again, no sooner had she finished with one, then she was washing her hands again, only to turn and find another wounded man waiting for her attention. She had seen so many patients until the petite healer realized that she had forgotten what they each looked like.  It was a continuing nightmare of bleeding, moaning, screaming, dying men who seemed to flash by her in a never-ending stream until she thought her tired fingers would fall off and still they came.

Suddenly, without warning, it was finally over, and Gabrielle could only sigh as she slumped wearily on the ground with her body and hands aching.  Despite the apron she had worn, the small woman's clothing, hands, face and even her boots were covered with blood from her work.  She was even sitting in a pool of blood.  She ignored it all as she sat there, almost too tired to move.  For a moment she thought of Xena and wondered where her soul mate had gone, for she found herself doubting her own abilities and wishing that the warrior had been here today.  If she had been here, more lives would have been saved, Gabrielle thought as she shook her head, part of her feeling defeated.  From behind her, a figure stood over her and remained silent.  With a sigh of fatigue, Gabrielle looked up and saw the old healer Abu al-Farabi peering down at her.

For a moment he remained silent, his eyes seeming to examine her, then he nodded and patted her shoulder and spoke in his perfect Greek dialect.  “You have helped save many lives today, Gabrielle.  Woman or not, you are a healer.”  His tired voice was full of kindness for the first time.  At his statement, the petite woman smiled at the warmth of his words. 

“Thank you, Master Abu al-Farabi,” she said gratefully.  “You are a good and kind Healer as well.”

The older man looked at her for a moment, then smiled.  “Come, Healer,” he said offering her a hand.  “We must wash the stink and grime of our work from our bodies.”

Well aware that she was filthy from the hours of surgery, she let him lead her into another curtained off section of the tent.  One of Abu's veiled female assistants was there and bowed her head as they entered.  Here was a large iron pot filled with warm water, and various soaps and perfumes sat on a table with brushes, washcloths, soft cotton towels, and robes.  A large ornate metal mirror stood there as well.  There was a smaller table, with a jug of wine, a decanter of tea, two goblets and some flatbreads and sweets.  Just looking at the beverages reminded Gabrielle that she had not had a drink since leaving the ship that morning, and her mouth seemed to instantly fill with cotton. 

The old healer smiled.  “Here you will wash,” he said kindly.  “Assia, will assist you with whatever you need.”  He indicated the veiled female who bowed her head again.

“Thank you,” Gabrielle said with appreciation, and then went on hesitantly, “This is very kind of you, but where will you wash, sir?”

He smiled.  “I will wait until you are finished, my child.  Take your time.  It is the least I can do.”

The petite woman was taken aback.  “Thank you sir, but I couldn't take your…”

Before she could continue, he bowed low.  “It is nothing.  Without you here today, many more men would have gone to the fields of paradise before I could have saved them.  Salaam, Healer Gabrielle.  May you go with Allah.” 

“And you also, sir.”  She said smiling with gratitude.  He bowed once more, and then left her there with the female assistant.

Gabrielle watched him go, then went to the table.  Assia hurried there ahead of her and took up the decanter.  It did indeed hold tea, and she poured a goblet full and handed it to the bard.  The first sip made the small woman feel as if she were a dusty flower in the desert that was opening under the first cool rain in months.  Eyes closed in bliss, she drained the entire cup, then had Assia pour her another and drank over half of it before she felt ready to stop.  Sitting the goblet reluctantly down, she sighed, then wrinkled her nose at the smell of her foul clothing, and began stripping it off. 

Assia began to help her undress, but the blushing bard made signs that she could do it herself.  She removed everything including her boots, and as she did, the veiled woman took it all and placed it in a canvas sack for her to take with her.  Disgustedly looking down at herself, she found signs of blood from the grim surgery all over her nude body.  Somehow, some had even seeped past her apron and clothing and had gotten on her belly.  There was even blood on her feet where the boots had covered them! 

Grimacing with distaste the bard stood naked and began to scrub every inch of herself she could reach including her short blond hair with the hot water, brushes and soap.  She felt befouled not only with blood and dirt, but with the screams and stink of fear and death she had faced all day.  As she was washing her front, she felt Assia begin washing her back, buttocks, and legs with a warm soapy cloth.  She wanted to say stop, but it felt so good to have the places she couldn't reach being scrubbed, that she relaxed and began to enjoy it.

Afterward, the veiled assistant helped her towel off as well, and she found herself thanking the woman.  Assia only lowered her eyes, and nodded silently, but Gabrielle saw the smile wrinkles above the veil and knew that the woman was pleased.  Finally, clean and dry, she donned one of the soft fresh robes and a pair of sandals.  After this, still a bit thirsty, she finished the half goblet of tea and even drank a small glass of wine.  After she did so, she felt a wave of warmth come over her and suddenly felt tired beyond belief.  She knew that sleep would be a welcome friend, and was worried that she could even walk.  By the gods, she thought tiredly.  How will I even get back to Zara's ship?  Surely everyone is back aboard by now.  Oh, well, I'll find a way.  Putting the questions aside, she told Assia that she could inform the master healer that she was finished and to convey her thanks to him.  She thanked the veiled woman once more for her help and went staggering out of the tent in the robe, carrying the bag with her clothing. 

Once outside, she was both surprised and pleased to meet Abu.  It seemed that the tall man had been waiting for her all this time.  He bowed to her and offered her a supporting hand.  His voice was respectful as he took the bag holding her soiled clothing. 

“Come, Gabrielle.  You have done a great work this day and need rest.  I have a boat waiting.  We will return to the captain's ship.”  Nodding gratefully, the bard allowed him to lead her to the boat, where she was promptly overcome with fatigue and dozed off in a sitting position while he rowed them out toward Zara's ship.
As he pulled strongly for the ship, Abu fondly watched the small foreign woman sleeping.  'When she first came aboard at Higuchi, I and the whole crew thought her a curse,' he mused silently.  'Now it is plain for all to see, she is a blessing of Allah and a part of HIS magnificent plan.  Her many skills at fighting, healing, teaching, and storytelling have already benefited us so much.  What will she do next?' he thought, smiling with wonder.  'Will she perhaps even be the one to free our poor captain from her personal curse and bring her to the joy of life once again?' 

He stopped rowing to rest his arms for a moment, and stroked his beard.  Then he shrugged and thought, 'If Allah wills it, it shall be, for is it not written, that Allah Is Powerful To Do All Things,'  Abu smiled at the small blessing sleeping so peacefully in the back of the boat, and took up the oars once more.
Once at Zara's ship, the bard awakened somewhat restored and climbed aboard in haste.  As she entered the cabin, Nadrah came to her with a glad cry carrying her cat.  Gabrielle hugged the young girl tenderly.

“Prasha and I watched the captain sleeping all day,” the child whispered.  “She hasn't moved very much, so I think she's all right.”

Hiding her concern, Gabrielle smiled.  “You've done very well letting Zara rest, sweetheart, and she will be proud of you.”  She ruffled the child's hair and kissed her cheek.  Nadrah smiled and then yawned and the bard said, “Now go and rest, I'll take over watching the captain.”

Nadrah nodded sleepily, and went to her bed in the corner carrying the cat.  Too tired to remove her clothes, the little girl crawled under the blankets.  Within moments, the child was asleep holding the purring cat.

Sighing, Gabrielle turned her attention to her Moroccan lover.  Still unconscious, the tall form laid deathly still.  Gabrielle took a wet cloth and wiped it over the pale flesh.  She noted the slight rise and fall of Zara's chest, her breathing even, but shallow.  Her body temperature was low as well, and that worried the small healer.  The bruised swelling of her right eye had decreased only slightly.  When she peered into Zara's good eye, she noticed the pupil was unclear and unfocussed, not responsive to light as if there was a fog lying over it.  With a slight frown, Gabrielle carefully removed the bandages on the back of the captain's head, cleaned the stitches, applied a healing poultice, and then bandaged the area with clean cloths.

“I don't know what else to do,” she whispered to the silent form.  “Zara, please, I've done all that I know how to do.  The rest is up to you,” she spoke softly as she ran her fingers lightly through the dark locks of hair.  Perhaps, she thought worriedly, she needs to be warmer.  At least that I can do something about.  In silence, the healer stood and removed her robe, then crawled under the covers.  Like a mother with her babe, she pulled Zara to her, cradling her head in her arms as she sat and gazed down at the taller woman.

For a moment, she was reminded of another time when emptiness consumed her.  Just seeing Xena injured, her eyes unable to focus, the blood on her head, had seemed more than the bard could handle.  After Xena had died and Gabrielle was returning her casket to Amphipolis, the bard had never thought she could be so alone.  She had never thought it could ever be that bad, but she was so wrong.  After losing Xena at Higuchi, and now Zara's massive injuries, she felt the emptiness digging deeper into her soul. 

As she held Zara close, she closed her eyes and kissed the Moroccan's temple.  “Please come back to me.  I couldn't stand to lose anyone again.  Please, don't leave me, I…  I care for you,” Gabrielle whispered as a tear ran down her cheek.  Sighing, she lay her head back and closed her eyes.  As she felt the fatigue from the past day consume her, she fell asleep.
Xena moved from the shadows of the cabin and gazed down at her dozing bard.  For a moment, her heart ached when she saw her lover holding Zara so close.  She longed to be the one in Gabrielle's arms, to be the one held, to hear Gabrielle's soft voice close.  Just when her pain began to surface, she sighed as she wiped away a tear. 

The tall warrior took a moment to look at Zara.  Her breathing was shallow, her face was pale and gaunt, and for the first time the warrior realized how close the captain was to leaving them for good.  Without even needing to think about it, Xena became resolved to help, for both the captain's sake and for that of her soul mate.
The excruciating physical pain became buried deep within Zara's dreams.  At first she felt her consciousness diving into a deep pool of blackness.  It was neither cold nor hot, in fact, it had no temperature at all.  There was no sensory input, only the void of blackness.  This alone caused her to want to stay, to remain forever in a place that had no pain; a place where all time remained the same and where she had no worries or concerns.  She no longer had to live up to family expectations nor did she have to strive to prove her worth.  It was an existence where the void in her heart no longer existed; a place where she could remain alone with the all-consuming silence.

Just when she was becoming comfortable, the Moroccan captain felt another presence nearby.  It's familiarity brought solace to her soul.  It was the now familiar ghost.  With eyes closed, she allowed the warrior to envelope her in a protective cocoon.  She had only experienced the merging a few times, but it was enough to permanently etch the feeling in her mind.  Both Xena's strength, and compassion seemed to sooth Zara's troubled soul.

“Are you here to guide me to paradise?”  Zara asked the Greek warrior, but never once did she hear a word spoken.  Instead, it was more like a thought that had crossed her mind. 

Linked as one, the warrior softly spoke in her mind.  “No.”

With a sense of defeat, Zara sighed as she pulled an icy cold wall around her sorrow, “Then it is true, it is not an old wives tale…I will have no one to guide me … I-I am forever banished from paradise,” Zara's mind trembled with sadness at the thought.

“No, you are not in paradise because it's not your time.  You're trapped between the two worlds,” Xena's mind explained.

“Why are you here?”  Zara asked.  The familiar presence held her close, her strong warrior arms never releasing her grasp.

“My bard is worried about you.”  She heard the warrior princess's thoughts as if they were her own.  “And,” the thought seemed almost surprised.  “It turns out that …  I'm worried about you too.”

Zara did not fully understand the Greek warrior.  “Is this what it feels like to be dead?” her ideas were a ramble of thoughts.  From somewhere in the darkness, she felt calloused fingers brushing across her face, then petting her head.

“No, it isn't, Zara,” the warrior spoke firmly, “you have a long way to go before you will know what it will feels like.  You're hurt…that's all.  You're injured, and you don't know how to find your way back.  I want to help you, if you'll let me.  Come back, Zara.  Your crew needs you.  Abu needs you.  Nadrah needs you, and…”  Xena hesitated, then screwed her courage to the sticking point, and went on with a sob.  “…And Gabrielle needs you, too.  Please, Zara.  Won't you let me help you?”

There was silence, then finally came the wordless response the warrior was waiting impatiently for, and it was positive.  Sighing in relief, she set to work.  After the captain's silent assent, Zara felt Xena take full control.  Somewhere in the back of Zara's mind, the warrior's warm presence comforted her.  The captain felt a searing heat coursing through her being, moving from the top of her head and through her body before coming to rest in her head and her right arm.

“What is that I feel?” the captain asked and was immediately answered by the warrior.

“I'm helping you to heal.  Just relax,” Xena's soothing words said.  Before Zara could question further, a soft chuckle resonated through her mind, as Xena went on, “I have many skills.”

Xena's words suddenly reminded Zara of the bard.  As the memories of their last night together flooded through her senses, she relaxed remembering the warm pleasure she had felt in the bard's arms, loving her and being loved by her.  She tingled as she recalled the wonderful sensations of the bard's soft, smooth skin and body against her, and her sweet gentle mouth opening to admit Zara's probing tongue.  Suddenly with embarrassment, she remembered who was with her, and Zara tried to find words to explain to the warrior.  She tried to apologize, to tell Xena that she knew the blonde held no love for her.  Before her thoughts could form, the ghostly embrace returned, calmed her troubled mind, and assured her that all would be fine.

“You hear my thoughts too?”  Zara asked, uncomfortable again at the thought of her lover's spirit twin being in her mind.

“Only in our dreams,” came the warrior princess' reply.  She chuckled wryly.  “And you do have some about our sweet mutual friend, don't you?”

“Ghost…Xena, I am sorry,” she whispered painfully in her mind.

“Shush,” the warrior smiled in her dream.  “I told you it was all right.  Now relax.”

At the continuing warm embrace, Zara remained silent as she gave up all control to the warrior.  At her acceptance of the ghost's help, the captain felt herself rising, soaring high above the shadows until all she could see where the swirling colors of dreams.  Like an artists pallet, the colors mixed and merged to form a jumble of sights and sounds.  Like a passive observer, she watched and waited as each image unfolded before her eyes.

The Moroccan saw the scene before her and wondered where this dream originated.  For a moment they stood in silence and waited as the images changed, shifted into a myriad of colors.  From somewhere in the distance, she heard the sounds rising in crescendo as the dream came into focus.  Standing in the middle of the market, she looked around as the memories flooded her senses.  The sweet spice scents of the bazaar wafted to her as the bustle of people moved around her. 

“Marra Kouch,” Zara whispered as she turned and noticed a familiar figure in the distance.  The moment Zara saw her, she recognized the woman.  She wore a fine cotton Sirwal under dress that touched the ground.  On top of the Sirwal was a silk Dara, a calf length dress.  If the silk dara had not shown that she was married to a wealthy merchant, then her finely made ezar, the thin draping over her shoulders, showed her status to the merchants.  To further prove her worth, she wore the finely embroidered shambar, a veil which covered her hair and lower face.  Like a good obedient wife, she maintained her modesty while shopping in the market.

“Mother,” Zara felt her heart tug as she moved toward the woman.  As she heard the woman talking softly, she gazed down and saw the little girl behind her.  Too young to wear a veil, the child moved through the crowd, her eyes darting around, taking in the entire scene as she held her mother's hand.

As she followed the two through the market, Zara tried to remember this day but came up with a blank.  It had happened so long ago that the memory was all but forgotten…until now.  Pushing her way through the people, the Moroccan followed the two figures closely, watching as her mother moved through the bodies with ease.  When she saw them going into a discreet, darkened shop, Zara followed all the while knowing that Xena was with her.

When Zara moved into the small room, she blinked as her eyes became focused in the dark.  The sweet scent of myrrh filled the air as the sound of soft metal chiming bells rang from somewhere nearby.  In silence Zara moved forward and watched as her mother sat with the child on one side of the table.  The old woman who entered the room wore the flamboyant clothing of the wandering clans.  Her critical eyes glanced over the child as she handed a warm cup of tea to the girl.

“Drink, child,” she commanded in a voice like claws scratching on stone as she turned to the mother.  “You wish to know your child's future, but are you prepared for whatever may be seen?”

“Oh, yes!  Please, my child turns five today, I need to know, will she marry a good man?  Will she marry a prince?  Perhaps a wealthy merchant?  Will she give me grandchild?” her mother's words rolled eagerly off her tongue.

“Patience, patience…soon enough, we shall know,” the old woman muttered as she watched the child drink the last remnants of the tea.  When it was finished, her wrinkled hand took the cup and leaned back in her chair.  With eyes half closed, she glanced into the cup, examined the leaves.  As the girl watched the woman's actions, she buried her face against her mother's side.  At the feel of the child, the woman lifted her arm and allowed her babe to lay her head upon her lap.  With only a smile, the girl closed her eyes as her mother began to softly stroke her long hair.

As if burned by a fires flame, the old fortuneteller hissed, her face scrunched up as she closed her eyes and swayed back and forth, a soft muttering coming from deep within her throat.  When control returned, the older woman opened her eyes and stared back at the damp leaves.  Every once in a while she would frown and shake her wrinkled head as she tsked at what she saw.

“Old woman, tell me it is not bad!” her mother pleaded.  With a shake of her head, the old one turned away from the cup.

“This one will know only sorrow,” her rasping voice was low and even.

“Blessed Allah, No!” her mother gasped as she pulled her child into her arms.  “Old woman, tell me you have erred, do not tell me of such pain!”

“I tell you what I see, and this is what I see,” the sing-song grating voice spoke softly, the old woman's eyes closed partly in a trance.  “This child will have a life of suffering and pain.  Happiness is not meant for her.  Mark my words, those who have difficult pasts will often times chose difficult tasks.  Do you hear me, woman!” the fortune teller's voice rose to a strident shout, “The road this child will travel will not be paved in gold, but, by the hand of Allah, the all merciful, she may be rewarded in the lives to come.”

The panic stricken look on her mothers face showed her fear.  Holding the girl close, she rocked the child in her arms as the tears flowed freely behind her veil.  “Do not do this, old woman, please!  Do not tell me that my only child will have such a dark path!  Please, give me hope!”

For a moment, the old woman frowned, then picked up the cup, and looked into it again.  As if trying to fit a rich man through the eye of a needle, the aged one tsked again as she shook her head.  Then, like gold shining in the night, she smiled as she looked up at the woman and her child.

“There is but one thing I see that you must know, this child will find her salvation from the dragon of the east!” the woman smiled toothlessly as she bobbed her head in satisfaction.

“The dragon of the east, what does that mean, old woman?” her mother's voice was barely a whisper.

“It is her talisman…her salvation.  Remember that, dear mother, for it will be the key!” the rasping laughter filled the room as the fortuneteller rose from her chair and left.  For a moment, Zara's mother sat in silence, her mind racing to understand all that she heard.  When it seemed she understood the message, she rose, carried her daughter in her arms, and left quickly.

With Xena close beside her, Zara raced from the room and followed her mother.  The memory of this day was slowly returning.  Through the market they went.  Past the temples and shops and homes.  Finally, when it seemed as if her stumbling mother was ready to fall from exhaustion, she reached her destination, a small shop on the edge of the mighty city.  Holding her daughter close, she spoke quickly to the man in the shop.  The tall man seemed confused by her urgency.  Despite this, he nodded then waved the two into a back room.

Zara stood outside the room and looked in.  She watched as the man lighted a pipe, the liquid bubbling inside of the glass.  When the sour fumes started to pour from the mouthpiece, he placed it in front of the little girl's face.  At first, she wrinkled her nose and drew away but when her mother told her to be still, she inhaled the pungent scent until her eyes grew droopy, and finally closed.  Pleased, the man spoke some instructions to the woman as he turned and prepared his instruments.  Obeying his words, her mother quickly removed the girls top clothes, then laid the child on her stomach over her legs.

“So, that's how you got it,” Xena's voice broke through Zara's memories. 

With only a nod, the Moroccan watched as the man began to mark her back with a grease crayon.  Once he drew the image, he took the tattoo needles and dipped them into various colors, then he pressed the needles into the child's bare back.  After what seemed an eternity, the colorful dragon of the east took up a sizable portion of the dark girl's back.  Zara reached behind her and unconsciously touched the small dragon that now rested on the small of her back.

Although she had never known the reason, Zara always wondered why her fifth celebration was a blur.  Now that she had the answer, she closed her eyes and sighed.  She remembered the fortuneteller's words and felt them stinging into the core of her soul.  Just when it seemed that the pain would end, the images in front of her changed.  The colors swirled into one, the patterns shifting until a new vision became clear.  She found herself surrounded by green hills.  Nearby sat a lake.  As the sun began to fall over the hills, Zara's mind asked a wordless question.

“What is this place?” she asked Xena as she moved toward the edge of the lake.

“Just a place I know,” Xena's voice sounded in the back of her mind.

Zara looked into the lake, she saw it's waves shimmering like a thousand night stars.  When she reached out to touch it, she felt the cool water against her fingers as the gentle ripple moved over the top of the water.  Rising, she turned and made her way to sit on the green grass and watch the wind blow over the nearby treetops.

“It is … peaceful,” the Moroccan whispered as she closed her eyes and felt calmness come over her.  The peaceful feelings were something she was not accustomed to experiencing.  For Zara, such peacefulness could never be found on her own.  Now, to be here in this quiet solitude, she found it hard to want to ever leave.

“Rest awhile…let me help you heal, and then I'll show you the way back,” the warrior replied in answer to Zara's unspoken thoughts.  With only a smile, Zara nodded understanding, then closed her eyes, and listened to the sounds of nature.
Zara slept peacefully.  She felt herself entering in and out of consciousness as the distant sounds of the gentle ocean waves and soft men's voices registered in her hearing.  When only silence reigned, Zara opened her eyes.  As her vision became clear, she glanced around the darkened cabin, then the captain sighed as she relaxed into the softness of the bed.

Becoming aware of a warmth against her, she glanced to her left and saw blonde hair peeking from the blanket next to her.  With her arm hanging loosely over the captain's chest, the bard was deep asleep.  Her breathing soft and soothing, the warmth of her nude body pressed closely against Zara's side. 

At the sound of the bard's soft breathing, Zara smiled as she closed her eyes and strained to remember the events that lead her to this condition.  She remembered the battle on the Prahu, the pirate captain moving towards her, and then her complete release of control.  After that point, it was all like a hazy dream.  As she lay in her bed, she took mental note of her condition.  She felt the bandage wrapped around her head, a slight throbbing registered in the back of her scull.  Her right arm was numb and bent at an angle.  When she glanced down she saw the wooden sticks tied to her forearm.  With a frown, she began to try to remove them.

Her slight movements suddenly awoke the sleeping bard.  Wide-awake, the bard sat up and leaned over the dark woman.  Her green eyes peered down at her patient as her healer instincts took hold. 

“Are you all right?”  Gabrielle whispered.

“Yes,” Zara's voice felt hoarse.  Gulping down the dryness, she managed a weak smile, “how many...?”

“Days?”  Gabrielle finished Zara's sentence as she rose from the bed.  Naked and on bare feet, the small shadowy form of the small woman moved to the water pitcher, then began to pour some water into a mug. 

“You've only been resting a full day and night,” the bard whispered as the sound of water being poured into a mug was heard.  The bard returned the pitcher to its place, and moved to Zara's side.  With gentle hands, she lifted the captain's head as she held the wooden mug of water to her lips. 

“Slow….drink it slow…” the healer instructed with a whisper.  “I was with you for part of yesterday, then with the healer on shore for the rest of the day then I came back to you last night…now then I came back to you last night…. “ the bard said as she tried to calculate the days, “…it's already mid-morning…so, it's only been a day and a night,” she explained as Zara drank the cool liquid.

When Zara's thirst was quenched, she sighed deeply, allowing the air to fill her lungs.  Placing the empty mug on the deck, Gabrielle smiled down at her with sleepy eyes.  “You look pretty good for everything that's happened to you, can I get you anything?” she asked as an afterthought. 

“This…it is…uncomfortable,” the Moroccan explained as she began to tug again at the sticks fastened to her arm.

“No, leave it.  Your arm is broken,” Gabrielle explained as she ran her hands over Zara's arm.
Examining the Moroccan's arm, the bard's brow arched, “W-Wha…?” the amazement sounded in her wordless question.

“I don't understand…your arm was broken, your forearm was crushed!” she said as she took off the binding and removed the ties, then pulled the curtains aside.  When the daylight filtered in, the healer glanced at the slight discoloration around Zara's eye.  As if not believing what she saw, the blonde healer continued to touch Zara's forearm and then the slight purple shade around the Moroccan's eye.  Her fingers poking and prodding, she finally shook her head in disbelief.

“By the gods!  I know that arm was broken!” she whispered as she bent Zara's arm, testing its agility.  “Can you feel this?”  She asked after lightly pinching the top of the captain's hand.

“Of course,” Zara mumbled as she yawned, then turned to her side.

“I've only known one person who could heal this fast!”  Gabrielle's whisper held amazement as she tried to understand Zara's suddenly healed arm.

At her lover's words, the Moroccan slightly chuckled, “I saw your lover in my dreams,” Zara's voice was soft as she closed her eyes.  Understanding filtering to her, Zara's words brought silence from Gabrielle.  “She, Xena, showed me a lake, a place where she and her brother used to go to fish,” the Moroccan absently said as she felt sleep overcoming her.  At her words, Zara felt the petite healer crawl under the covers next to her, her bare arm snaking over the captain's abdomen and came to rest against her side.  Her nude body was warm and soft against hers, and the captain sighed at the contentment she felt at the bard's mere touch.

“She did?”  Gabrielle looked at her lover of a single day, and swallowed.  She had not seen her warrior since she had vanished after the battle on the Prahu, and had been wondering where the ghost had been.  And now Xena has been to see Zara, but not me?  The bard wasn't sure if she was happy or sad.  She saw the dark eyes disappearing behind sleepy lids. 

“Is … Is she happy?” the bard couldn't help but ask.

“No, not at all,” Zara whispered softly.  “She misses you terribly.”

After a moment of silence, Gabrielle whispered, “I miss her too,” as a tear escaped her control.  After a moment of silence, she reached up and lightly stroked the Moroccan woman's soft cheek, “Zara?” her voice was soft.  As the silence reigned, she thought her dark lover had fallen asleep and she sighed regretfully.  But before she could give up on the idea, Zara smiled as her arm wrapped protectively around Gabrielle's shoulder.


“P-Please?  Will you tell, Xena ... When you s-see her, that I love her, and ...that I miss her terribly?” she asked as she returned her head to Zara's shoulder.  Her grip suddenly tightened fiercely around the big woman as if she would never let her go.

“She knows, Gabrielle.  Xena knows.  But, I promise you that I'll remind her, if I see her again,” the voice was so soft that Gabrielle almost missed hearing her.

Part 20

Abu stood on the deck of the ship with the handful of men who were not assigned to shore duty.  “Jubair, did you ready the list for me?  I'm certain the captain will wish to see our losses,” the burly man asked his friend as he moved to the bow of the ship.

“I have the list right here…I was able to copy it over from the original list…” at Abu's silent question, the man's voice grew soft as he looked away, “The first list had quite a bit of blood on it…I-I didn't think it appropriate to be given to the captain,” he explained.

Abu's brows creased into a frown as he remembered all of the men that they had lost.  As he steadied himself against the rail of the ship, he opened the scroll and glanced over the list.  With each name, he felt her heart grow heavy and the pain fill his soul.  When he noticed one particular name, however his eyes froze.

“Ayyub…” he whispered as he remembered the skinny cook, the way the old man had lovingly fed and healed those in the crew.  With a deep sigh, he closed his eyes as he lowered the scrolls.

“Abu?”  Jubair moved closer to him, a look of concern on his face.

Abu shook his head as he returned the scroll to Jubair.  “Ayyub…” he whispered as the loss weighed heavy on him.  He did not look forward to informing the captain that her favorite cook had perished in the battle.  With an expression of confusion, Jubair took the scroll and read down the names, then he too shook his head as his eyes began to water.

“Abu…  I-I swear, I did not see his name,” the dark haired man stammered as his eyes filled with tears.

“Jubair, how did he fall?”  Abu asked.

“I…I do not know how Ayyub fell,” Jubair said.  Just then, a few men nearby grew silent, their voices each speaking the name of their beloved cook.  As each one began to reminisce about the old cook, their tones grew respectful and sad.

“Remember how we teased Ayyub about his cooking?”  Khalil's voice spoke so softly that Abu had to strain to hear the words.

“Yes, Ayyub was a man who could accept our jesting.”

“He was a good man.”  Another said.

“Yes, truly brave and honorable.”  A different voice added as they gathered into a circle.

“Allah has taken a fine man.”

As they spoke, a familiar figure came up through the galley.  Wearing an apron over his clothes, and carrying a half plucked fowl in one hand, he moved behind the men.  Periodically poking his head around to try to get a better view of who stood at the center, he listened intently to the impromptu eulogy.  At their praise and honor bestowed, he felt his eyes suddenly tearing as he began to support their words.

“Yes, yes…an honorable man….”  He echoed as he pulled a cloth from his pocket, and blew his nose loudly as the tears fell freely.

Before Abu could speak to the men about the loss of their friend, the familiar sound of Ayyub blowing his nose rose over the group.  Hearing the familiar honking, the men grew suddenly silent as their eyes widened with fear or surprise.  The crowd parted until only the thin, skinny cook stood near.  His eyes were red as tears fell freely down his face.

“Ayyub!” the men suddenly shouted as those nearest him grabbed him in a hug, pounding his back.

“Yes, yes, what is the problem now?” he blinked around at them with confusion.

A smile broke free from Abu as he saw the skinny man pushing his way through the group.  With a dead bird in his hand, he stood near the front of the group, the apron hanging from his body was covered with wheat powder and feathers.  Confused by the use of his name, he glanced at each man. 

“Yes, I kept hearing someone saying, 'Ayyub, this, Ayyub that' and I had to see who took my name in vain!  And then I heard all of your wonderful praises.  With such friends, a man is truly blessed of Allah!” he sniffled, then blew his noise again, and put the cloth back in his pocket.

“Ayyub, you are not dead!”  Abu smiled as he hugged the small man.

“Of course I'm not, now leave me be, you loon!” the skinny man shouted as he waved the dead fowl in the air as Abu swung him in a circle in a massive hug of joy. 

“Ayyub, your name was on the list of the dead,” Abu explained to their cook as he returned him to the deck.

“List?  Dead?” his scraggly voice rose as he looked from Abu to the rest of the men gathered on the deck, then back to Abu who was lightly chuckling while wiping his eyes.

“Ayyub, your name is on this list!”  Jubair held the scroll out to show Ayyub.  The older man glance at the scroll, then shrugged his shoulders.

“That's not my signature,” he stated as he glanced at the scroll.

“No, I copied it over.  Your name was on the list of the dead that was in the healer's tent,” Jubair explained as he rolled the scroll up.

“Oh, that!  I saw it on the table at the tent's entrance this morning when I left.  I thought it was a list of everyone who was leaving the healer's area,” the skinny shoulders shrugged before turning and walking back to the galley, “You get a little bump on the head, sign a note, then everyone thinks you're dead!  Blessed Allah!  What's a man to do?” he grumbled.

In the short span of time, Abu felt his strength drained.  With head bowed, he sighed as he leaned against the rail, listening to the men's voices.  The relief at their mistake did little to ease his sorrow at the other names on the list.  With furrowed brows, he turned to Jubair.

“Jubair, double check that list.  Make certain that there are no more errors.  I do not want the captain to receive incorrect information,” Abu's voice was stern as he felt the weight of the world lifted from his shoulders.

Part 21

On rare occasions, Zara would don the finest garments in her possession, which represented her Moroccan heritage.  Although she never wore the veils, she did wear clothes similar to her brothers.  From the boots, to the kaffia head scarf and agal tasseled cord around the kaffia, she would be dressed according to the people of her homeland.  Underneath the galibeyeh gown she wore liba slacks which were similar to Abu's, but were made from the finest Egyptian cotton.
As the morning sun beat down upon her back, she stood in silence as her gaze moved from the tents that were set up on shore near the Arabian ship.  She watched as the men gently carried the wrapped bodies of the dead to the battered ship.  In the morning, as was the custom, the ship would be towed to sea and set afire, as prayers were said for the fallen.  When this was complete, the evidence of any battle would be gone.  The only thing remaining would be the tents with the recuperating men.  With a sigh, Zara turned her attention away from the scene.  In silence she walked over the pebbles past the various tents as her mind concentrated on the words she would say.

Although she had never thought that royalty would intimidate her, she now found herself filled with apprehension.  She was not certain what reaction she would receive when she retold the account of the ghost ship and because of this, she felt nervous as she moved toward the Sultan's main tent.  When she came to the threshold, Zara paused as she turned to her group. 

She noticed Abu holding the gift, which she would present to the Sultan.  Like her, he was dressed in his finest clothes.  By his feet Nadrah stood smiling, her clothes the best she ever owned, as she held the various scrolls that had been taken from the Arabian ghost ship.  Right next to her stood the smaller frame of her lover.  Gabrielle wore an outfit Zara had never seen before.  Covered from neck to ankles, her blue clothes were as close as the bard would ever come to dressing according to the tradition of Allah.  With a slight smile, the blonde woman sighed, as she seemed to be examining Zara's physical condition.

“I don't care if Xena helped you heal or not, I don't think you're ready to be out of bed, let alone going to a….a party!”  Gabrielle's disapproval filled her voice as Zara closed her eyes against the dizziness that washed through her.  “You've been awake less than a day.  One look at you and it's clear to see that you aren't ready for this!”

“Gabrielle, it is not a party.  It is more like…politics.  At any rate, I will be fine…but this, it must be done,” Zara replied as she turned to face the doorway.

“I wish you would wait until you're stronger,” the petite woman said gently as she moved to her side, her glance fell on the Moroccan's pale features, and she noticed the fatigue in Zara's eyes.

“Gabrielle, he deserves to know,” Zara tried to explain as she looked into her lover's green eyes, “I need to tell him, where our positions reversed, it is what I would want to know,” she explained.

Searching her, Gabrielle nodded as she reached up and lightly touched the Moroccan's cheek.  “Ok, lets just get through this then,” the bard sighed as they entered the tent.  As the healer glanced around her, she noticed all of the people gathered were wearing their finest clothes.  Self-consciously, she brushed her sleeves and straightened them as she attempted to make herself presentable. 

'I'm glad I was able to replace the top of this outfit when I was in Higuchi.  I wanted to wear the one I last saw Xena in, and to show respect for the sultan.  Which for some reason, seems to mean covering up all over in this heat,' she sighed.  'Remember Gabrielle, you're not in Greece anymore.  Zara wants to make a good impression, so lets do her proud.'  Suddenly remembering what had happened to her last shirt, she felt a melancholy settle over her.  Before she was pulled into a depression, Gabrielle returned her full attention to the events of this gathering.

Zara felt as if time itself was standing still.  At the center of the tent sat the Sultan in his crisp, white garments.  The wooden chair he sat in raised him slightly above the ground.  Next to his left stood a tall, dark hair, bearded man dressed in black.  The shiny scimitar on his side combined with his bearing showed him to be a military man.  On the Sultan's right sat the man whom Gabrielle had introduced as the Arabian healer Abu al-Nasr al-Farabi.  Together, the three men held a quiet strength with the sultan at its center.

As if to bolster her courage, Zara sat Gabrielle directly behind her with Abu and Nadrah on either side of the bard.  When the tall Moroccan moved before the Sultan, she went somewhat less than easily to her knees for she was still wobbly, and bowed forward, her forehead touching the ground in the act of submission.  Once she heard the words from the Sultan that gave her permission to sit, she arose thankfully from her position for her head had been swimming. 

When the introductions were complete, Zara waited as Nadrah moved forward with the gifts, her arms carrying the large package as her voice recited the words of the Arabic greeting that Abu had taught her.  With a slight smile, the Sultan welcomed the child to his side then took the offered gift.  Upon opening the ornate wooden box, the older, bearded man smiled as he turned to his men.

“Do I gather, this is Morocco's finest?” the white haired man asked Zara with a smile.

“The finest which Allah has granted my people,” she replied with a nod which made her eyes ache suddenly.  “I can guarantee that this hashish underwent the most through process of sieving under the supervision of my brother.  It is the finest product you will find in all of Morocco, and the known world,” she explained as one of the Sultan's men dipped his finger in to taste the yellow powder.  With a smile, he nodded to the Sultan.

“I am honored, sister, that you have bestowed such a grand gift upon us.  I look forward to sampling this with you, my friend, but during a more pleasant occasion.  Right now, we need to exchange news,” the Sultan's said as he resettled himself. 

Zara noticed the man's regal bearing.  Although he had at first seemed old, upon closer inspection, she realized that he couldn't be very much older than her father.  His beard was salt and pepper in coloring and the complexion of his skin a light brown.  Offset by the white clothing he wore, his bearing held a quality of authority, yet was not overbearing.  What his silence did not reveal, his easy going smile did, showing the kindness within him.

As if sensing that Zara was uneasy in his presence, he began to speak in slow, controlled tones.  “We were traveling home when a storm caught us two moons ago.  My ships became separated in the storm and we were unable to find each other.  Then we ran afoul of the pirates and we thought that all hope was lost.  But then, Allah be praised, your vessel came upon us at our darkest hour, and we were saved.”  His words were softly soothing, “As you must have been informed, by Allah's will and grace, my guards' ship was nearby and following your ship, they came into the fray.”  He looked into her eyes with intensity.  “What we have not yet learned is the whereabouts of our third ship, of which I have been told, you may have some information.  Now that you know how it is that we came to be in these waters, I wish to find out, how it was that you came to join the battle on our side, and what if anything, you may know of the fate of our sister ship?”  The Sultan's voice grew soft as he leaned back and waited for Zara's words. 

The day that Zara had dreaded was finally upon her.  As if the Moroccan captain could somehow escape the agony, she closed her eyes, and lowered her head as she mentally steeled herself for the words she would have to speak.  When she felt that her voice would not betray her, she looked up at the Sultan and began her narration.

A part of Zara was numb to the words she spoke.  She built a wall around her senses in order that she would not betray her emotions.  Like a stone statue, she explained in detail all that she found on the ghost ship, and described what was seen in the captain's cabin including the dead boy in the chest.  Before she was finished, she heard the wailing sounds of the women rising in the air, and saw the look of utter sadness that crossed the Sultan's features.  When her narration was complete, she lowered her eyes in an attempt to rein in the raging pain that strove to crash out of her chest.

“And that is why you called upon a holy Jihad?”  The sultan's words rose in the room, the weeping of the women lowered slightly.  For a moment Zara thought of her actions.  She remembered the scene of the battle, the faces of her men as they were cut down before her eyes. 

With a weary sigh, she closed her aching eyes and nodded, then spoke softly, “At the time…. it seemed the reasonable thing to do,” was all she could say.

Zara felt the room grow suddenly silent.  She ignored the people in the room.  As her mind grew still, she watched the expression of the sultan.  His blue eyes locked on hers, his gaze deeply intense, as he seemed to be searching the very depths of her soul.  When he rose and moved toward her, she felt her heart racing out of control and her head felt as if it was swathed in cotton wool.  It was not until he stood in front of her that she felt her lungs begin to breath again.  With tears in his eyes, the older man smiled down at her.  His hands took Zara by the shoulders and pulled her to her feet making her head spin.  Gazing at her intently, the sultan fought back tears before he pulled her into a tight hug.

“Bless us, Allah, for shining your light upon this child!” his voice rose as he held her in his strong arms.  At his words, Zara sighed, closed her eyes, and allowed the tension to wash from her.  As the voice of praise rose in the room, Zara noticed every detail of the Sultan of Hadhramaut.  She felt his full beard against her cheek, its softness somewhat soothing.  When he pulled away, she noticed the slight scent of lilacs surrounding him.

“For today, you rest.  Tomorrow we will sit side by side and give honor to our fallen men, and we will praise Allah together!” he said in a strong voice before releasing her.  At his dismissal she bowed from the waist, head pounding as the sultan acknowledged her bow, then gratefully turned to leave the tent.  As she did, she felt Gabrielle's eyes upon her, and could almost hear her lover saying worriedly, “I told you so!”
For Zara, the silence of the cabin was deafening.  Ever since her presentation to the Sultan, she chose to remain distant from everyone.  Using her illness as an excuse, she retreated to her cabin and remained there resting.  From time to time, Gabrielle was with her, checking her wounds and fussing over her.  But for the most part, she was left alone to sleep and to try to be at peace.

Finally late at night, Gabrielle had come silently in, and seeing Zara asleep, had undressed and climbed into the bed.  Snuggling up against her lover's warm body, the bard sighed as she wondered just what was going on in the mind of this woman she had slept next to so many times and had made love with only once.

Soberly, Gabrielle recognized this question as being all too familiar.  Xena had sometimes felt this way to her.  Closed off, and hard to get to.  But the warrior princess had usually come around eventually and talked to the bard about her problems.  Zara so far had not.  Why this was so, Gabrielle had no idea, but she was determined that she would find out in the end.

'I'll tell you one thing, my captain,' Gabrielle thought, gazing tenderly at the dark woman's sleeping face and stroking her hair lightly.  'If ever I get another chance to be with you, I will see what your sweet taut nipples feel like in my mouth and I will lick my way across your firm belly and smooth shoulders as well.'

'Yes, my tall dark enigma,' she smiled.  'There will be no more of this 'I lay there while you do it all for me' stuff.'  She shivered with remembrance.  'Oh, what you did was all wonderful, but I like to feel I am participating too.  Next time, I am going to taste you all over, from your firm breasts to that so sweet spot between your smooth strong legs.'

Then she blushed in the darkness.  'Next time?  By the gods!  When have my thoughts about Zara progressed from 'If ever' to 'Next time?' she trembled slightly.  'You'd better get a hold of yourself, Gabrielle.  I'm beginning to think you need a dunk in the ocean!'

Using the yoga she had learned in India, the small woman finally managed to calm her emotions and relax.  At length, she sighed and raised up slightly to kiss the dark woman's cheek with gentle lips.  Then the bard lay back tight against her lover and finally fell asleep.
Now, with darkness upon them, Zara awoke again and the tall Moroccan's soul raged with a quiet storm.  As if the weight of a dozen life times pressed down upon her shoulders, she keenly felt the pain that grew in her heart.  Normally she could quiet the pain long enough to freeze it within a wall of control.  But since she had spoken of the incidents, the pain threatened to break free.  With a sigh, she rolled over in her bed and glanced down at the sleeping bard.

It was in the early morning hours that she enjoyed watching the bard sleep.  Although they had only made love once, Zara felt that she knew this woman intimately.  Like a tale written on a scroll, the bard was open to her in all ways.  From the deepest emotions in her heart to the tantalizing pleasures of her body, this lovely blonde had withheld nothing from Zara.  And it was her openness that, at times, both frightened and pleased the captain.

With a sigh, Zara pulled herself from the bed.  She knew that soon she would be expected to join the sultan in the prayers for their dead.  Zara quietly moved through the cabin as she began to dress in traditional clothes.  Once dressed, she moved to her desk and lifted the scroll.  By the early morning light filtering through the window, she scanned the names again.  Each name that she read brought a vivid memory of a man who had lost his life into her mind.  When she read Tashfin's name, she sighed as she shook her head.

Although she knew before the battle that they were all lost, seeing Tashfin's name caused a bitter pain in her soul.  He was the oldest crewman on her ship, and he was the first man next to Abu who had given his trust to her entirely.  When all of the other crewmen voiced their concerns of her experience, it was Tashfin who spoke up for her.  With another sad shake of her head, Zara returned the scroll to her desk as she wiped away a silent tear.
Gabrielle awoke to the sounds in the cabin.  She instinctively reached for her lover and found only an empty bed.  As she glanced around the room, she saw the outline of Zara at her desk.

“Zara?” she whispered as she sat up in bed.  Already dressed, the tall Moroccan moved over to sit on the bed beside her.

“Shush, it is early, go back to sleep,” the captain whispered.

“What time is it?”  Gabrielle asked as she lay back on the pillow.

“It is a candle mark away from sunrise,” Zara's blue eyes smiled down at her.

“Why so early?”

“Because the prayers must start before sunrise,” the Moroccan explained as she absently pulled the covers over Gabrielle's shoulders.  “I have to be there, but you do not.  So sleep, I will try to get away at sunset.”

“Sunset?  Why so long?”  The small woman asked as she suppressed a yawn.

“It is simply the way of my people,” Zara shrugged, “Ramadan and honoring the dead, they are long events.  Unlike Ramadan, giving honor to our dead only takes one day, now, go back to sleep,” the captain smiled as she lowered herself to leave a kiss on Gabrielle's soft lips.

As she felt the Moroccan's lips against hers, Gabrielle smiled and as she leaned into the kiss, her lips parted as her tongue brushed across Zara's lips.  With a low growl, the statuesque Moroccan pulled away.  Her blue eyes smiled down at her lover. 

“You are far too dangerous for a woman like me who must fast and abstain,” she whispered, then left a slight peck on the bards forehead before rising from the bed.  Without saying another word, the captain left the room.  With only a smile, Gabrielle yawned as she crawled back under the covers to sleep.
“Gabrielle, will they be at peace now?  Tashfin, Murshid, Hanif, all our other friends?”  Nadrah's tearful voice broke through the bard's concentration. 

“I believe so,” the bard answered softly as she watched the flames rising from the Arabian ship.

“They…  They won't become, you know … 'Hungry Ghosts', will they?”  Nadrah trembled against Gabrielle's leg, remembering the dead Arab ship and the ghostly cabin-boy she had seen.

Gabrielle stroked the child's hair, “No, sweetheart,” she said tenderly.  “Our friends were good men all, who fought and died for the right reasons.  I'm certain they are being welcomed right now, there in your Paradise.”

“Is … Is, Paradise a wonderful place, like everyone says, Gabrielle?”

“I'm certain it is,” smiled the bard. 

“How do you know?”  Nadrah gazed at her, questions burning in her eyes.

The petite woman paused, then spoke confidently.  “Because I have BEEN there, Nadrah.  Oh, not to your Paradise,” she demurred as the child stared at her with open mouth.  “But I have been to both the Elysian Fields and Heaven and they are both wonderful places.  You see all your old friends and lost family members there, you are never hungry, or sick, or cold, and you can do anything you wish all day.” 

“My family?”  Nadrah paused.  “W-Would I see them all?”

“Maybe,” smiled the bard.  “Why?”

“W-Would I see my mother there?” the child gazed intently at Gabrielle but when the bard tried to understand her question, the little girl averted her eyes as a slight blush covered her cheeks.  “It's not important,” Nadrah shrugged as she tried to make light of her question.

“Has your mother gone on to Paradise?” the blonde asked as she smiled at the child.  She lightly brushed the girl's hair as she waited patiently for an answer.

“I-I….don't know,” the girl's dark brown eyes gazed up at her.  “I don't know what happened to my mother….b-but….she must be in paradise, right?  Otherwise, why was I left in the streets?  My mother wouldn't have left me there if she was still alive, would she?  Do you think I was left because I-I'm… bad?”

At the girls tear filled eyes, Gabrielle hugged the girl close, “Oh, honey, you're not bad.  You are one of the sweetest children I've ever met!” she cooed as she held the girl on her lap.  With slight sniffles, Nadrah buried her face in the bard's bosoms as she softly cried.

When the girls tears subsided, Gabrielle smiled down at her.  “You are one of the most beautiful little girl's I've known.  Anyone would be proud to be your mother,” the healer smiled as she gently tapped the girls small button nose.

“Really?”  Nadrah smiled as she wiped her eyes.

“Really!  I would be very proud to your mother!”  Gabrielle allowed her emotions for the child to shine through before hugging her close.

“I would try to be the best girl for you,” Nadrah whispered against her ear as her little arms hugged her tightly.

“I know you'd be!” the blonde said as she pulled away and smiled at the child, “Now then, I need to go look in on my patients.  How would you like to come along and I'll tell you all about the Elysian Fields?”  With a wide smile and an eager nod, Gabrielle rose from her resting place.  Hand in hand, the two walked down to the healer's tents as the bard began to weave a tale for the little girl.

After they had checked on her patients, Gabrielle and Nadrah went to sit under a tree on the beach as they watched the day's events.  The gathering of worshipers changed throughout the day.  What remained consistent was the sultan and captain.  They sat side by side on the beach, each one on their own prayer blankets as they chanted and prayed for the dead together.

Leaning next to Gabrielle, Nadrah absently wrapped an arm over the bard's shoulders as she leaned into the softness of the woman.  At her touch, the blonde reached up and pulled Nadrah into her lap, her arms wrapping instinctively around the small child, nuzzling into her embrace. 

Periodically through the day, Nadrah napped, or played near Gabrielle, until the sun began to set.  When the first stars began to twinkle, the gathered worshippers began to move away from the prayer area.  It was then that Nadrah and Gabrielle went to join the captain.

Part 22

For Zara, it was close to impossible to hide the fatigue she felt after the day of prayers and fasting.  As the stars slowly entered the heavens, she rose with the sultan and began a slow walk to the elder ruler's tent.  As the crowd gathered near, she glanced up and saw Nadrah running through the group.  Zara smiled at her eagerness and waited until the girl was close enough to scoop up into her arms.

“I have some business I wish to speak with you about,” said the sultan, “but first, let us rest and enjoy the meal that was prepared in honor of our departed,” his smile was broad as he led her into the tent.

As they moved to take their place, Zara glanced around and saw her crew mixed in with the Arabians.  When she saw Gabrielle waiting at the entrance of the tent, she waved the bard to her side.  While the veiled women began to bring out dishes, the sultan glanced from Gabrielle to Zara.

“Permission to speak to your woman?” the sultan asked softly.  With a cautious smile, Zara looked nervously at Gabrielle, then nodded to the sultan.

“Of course, but…” she thought about how to explain Gabrielle's independence, so different from that of most Arab women but when words could not be found, she shrugged her shoulders and glanced away from the older man.

“So, my men have told me that you are a healer and a story teller,” the sultan spoke across Zara to the bard.

“Yes, I know a bit about healing, and I am a bard as well,” her shy smile showed her modesty.

“Perhaps you will do us the honor of a tale?” the ruler asked as he motioned to the empty circle in the center of the tent.

With an arch of a brow, Zara glanced at the blonde.  Although she had heard from her crew that the bard was an entertaining storyteller, she had never been privileged to hear her lover's stories.  Now that the opportunity appeared, the Moroccan was anxious to hear Gabrielle's words.  At the encouragement, the blonde smiled as she moved to the center of the tent.  As the veiled women began to serve the food, the group began to relax as they awaited Gabrielle's tale. 

The meal was all that Zara hoped it would be.  Once the Sultan began to eat, she took her plate and began to consume the meal.  Nadrah picked from the captain's plate and ate samples of everything that was brought.  When she would taste something to her liking, she smiled as she helped herself to more.  Through the dinner they listened to the tale of a warrior princess who time and again fought a battle against all evils, both great and small. 

“Don't believe everything you hear, she tends to embellish things a bit,” a slight voice whispered near Zara. 

“Xena!” Nadrah whispered as she glanced up at the air where Gabrielle once sat.

“Hey kiddo!  How are you!”  Zara heard the voice as Nadrah smiled up at thin air.

“I'm ok, but shush, Gabrielle is in the middle of a story,” the girl whispered to thin air.

“Oh, sorry!” the ghost softly chuckled, then became silent.

Returning her attention to the bard, Zara smiled as she listened intently to her tale.  With each weaving of a new tale, the captain found herself pulled into the story.  She could almost see the images appearing before her as the bard weaved her words into fluid motion.  By the time it was finished, the room had grown silent, even the veiled women frozen in place as they too were caught up in the story.  With a nod of approval, the sultan smiled.  His crew, seeing his appreciation, began a slight yodeling sound, the call they gave to show their support and pleasure.  With a pleased smile, the bard nodded to those on all sides of the tent before returning to Zara's side.  With a surprised smile, Gabrielle glanced at what Zara thought was the ghost. 

“Xena!” the blonde whispered, but before she could speak with her spirit twin, the sultan's voice called the blonde's attention.

“She is a healer, we know, and certainly a bard.  What else does this beauty of yours do?” the sultan's words were loud enough for Gabrielle to hear.

“Excuse me?”  The bard's voice was low as she leaned forward in front of Zara.  “I'm a beauty of whose?”  Coughing nervously, Zara pulled back as she glanced from the sultan to the bard.

“You are positively exquisite,” the sultan addressed the blonde.  “Your hair of finest gold, your eyes green as the emeralds.  Your skin is lovely and pale as goat's milk, and your voice weaves spells of beauty and wisdom.”  At his words, Gabrielle blushed and smiled shyly as she settled down and took a plate of food.  Pleased but embarrassed by the compliment, she sighed before diving into the food with her usual gusto.

“So, tell me, Zara.  What price would you ask for such an exquisite beauty?” the Sultan addressed the stunned Moroccan in her own dialect.

“I-I….”  Zara's mouth fell open from shock as she tried to find a way to explain.

“What's the matter?”  Gabrielle smiled as she lightly touched Zara's shoulder.  Nadrah glanced from the captain to Gabrielle.  When she noticed an uneaten sausage on the bard's plate, she reached over and took it and began to promptly devour it as she watched the exchange.

“My men have inquired for me and found out that this woman belongs to you.  I hope we may be able to come to an agreement?” the sultan's words were loud enough for the bard to hear.

“Who belongs to whom?” the blonde asked sharply, suddenly alert to what was happening.

“Sultan, I-I… do not know how you came to learn of this, b-but…”  Zara began to say but the sultan's hand rose to silence her.

“My men spoke to a member of your crew….  Jamil, what was his name?” he turned to his captain of the guard.

“Badr, Your highness.”

“Yes, Badr.  And he said that both the woman and child were your possessions.  Although I have no need for a child, if they are together, I will, of course, throw in something extra.”  The sultan said as Zara closed her eyes, and a sudden throbbing began registering in her temple.  As the vivid memory replayed for her, she inwardly cringed as she glanced at Gabrielle.  With an expression that spoke all of her words, the bard stared at her, her lips set in a frown.  Her usually soft green eyes looked like ice and Zara suddenly swallowed. 

“I-I…perhaps there was a misunderstanding, your highness,” the captain tried to explain.

“Name any price!  Gold, silver?  Whatever you wish!” the sultan misunderstood Zara's stammering for negotiating.

“No, it's, um….”  Zara's words were cut short as the sultan clapped his hands, the veiled women suddenly emerging from behind the tent door.

“If it is a replacement you wish, have your pick!  Chose….six!”  The sultan offered as the women moved to stand in front of her, each one parading before her in form-fitting silk dresses, their veils revealing only the glimmer in their eyes.

“B-But…” the captain stammered, feeling Gabrielle's quiet fury building next to her.

The sultan frowned, then glanced at Gabrielle before smiling.  “All right, Captain, you drive a hard bargain.  Chose ten of them, and I'll throw one satchel of gold, and two pack mules!” the sultan shouted, then glanced down at Nadrah who was smiling at the exchange, “and so as not to separate the mother from her babe, I'll give you three camels for the child!”  At his words the Arabs in the tent began to smile, their heads nodding approval at the generosity of their leader while Zara's men sat stunned.  They knew Gabrielle's temper almost as well as Zara did, and their nervous expressions went shooting back and forth from their captain to the silently fuming bard.

“Yippee!  I'm worth three camels!”  Nadrah shouted with arms raised in pure joy.

“What did you say to Badr?”  Gabrielle hissed as she reached over Nadrah's head and pinched Zara's arm.

“I-I….well, that is to say,” Zara tried to think of a way out.  Deciding on honesty, she said to the sultan, “Although I did say such a thing, at the moment I spoke those words … ummm … well, you see, I was uh, attempting to get my crewman into the boat in the way that would cause him the least possible stress.”

The sultan's expression was one of confusion.  “But My friend, you must admit that I am being very generous.  As you can see, I have the finest women in all of Arabia.  Getting ten of them would be more than a fair exchange, do not ask for more!”

“Oh, No, you are being very generous, your highness!”  Zara tried not to offend.

“GENEROUS!” the bard shouted next to her.

“W-Well…I mean…. that is to say…”  Zara tried to plead with Gabrielle, “Please, it's just that….Gabrielle, you misunderstand…I-I mean, it all happened so fast!”  From somewhere nearby she heard a familiar chuckle, then a coldness as the ghost gently patted her shoulder.

“I may have been able to heal you from the battle wounds, but don't expect me to help you with what my bard may do to you,” Xena chuckled, then added, “Nope, for that, you're on your own.”  Then she was gone once more. 

“PLEASE!”  Zara shouted as she tried to organize her thoughts through a pounding headache.

“Please, what?”  Gabrielle sat with arms crossed, features angry as she stared at the dazed captain.  “Zara, I am waiting for an explanation!”  If she had been standing, the bard's foot would already have tapped a hole in the rugs they were sitting on.  Bemusedly, the captain tried to stammer out an explanation to the sultan.

“You see, y-your highness.  It is like this….I said whatever I had to in order to get my crewmen into the boat.  But it was not the truth.  I do not own Gabrielle, or the child.  I do not own people at all.  Everyone on my ship comes willingly or not at all.  As for the Greek,” Zara's words poured out in one non-stop sentence, “…why, she is a passenger, a traveler from Japa, not my concubine!”

At her words, the sultan glanced from Zara to Gabrielle.  His mouth opened slightly as if confused.  Seeing him baffled, Zara sighed and shook her head.  “Your highness.  I speak the truth, the Healer-Bard Gabrielle is her own woman.  And if truth be known,” she lowered her voice, “if I did own her,” she slightly chuckled, “I would be the one who would have to pay you to take her!” the Moroccan added with a conspirator's tone.

“Hey!”  Gabrielle shouted as she reached out and smacked Zara's shoulder.

“Ouch!”  Zara rubbed her shoulder as she glanced incredulously at the bard, then turned back to the sultan, “You see what I mean, your highness.  S-She is far too wild!  Why, I would be doing a great disservice to even contemplate selling one like her to such a noble man.”  Zara added with a grimace.

“Yes, I see.  She has no formal manners at all.  She does not even know how to conduct herself properly,” the sultan tsked as he smiled slightly at Gabrielle.

“HEY, YOU POMPOUS JERK!”  Gabrielle shouted as she jumped to her feet, standing in front of Zara and the sultan, no longer masking her anger, “I'll have you know that I AM AN AMAZON QUEEN!” she pointed at the sultan, and a slight smile crossed his features as he waved down Jamil.  Seeing his ruler in danger, the black clad warrior was ready to pull his scimitar in defense of his sultan.  At the Sultan's motion, he stood still and watched the woman's every move.

The silence of the room was deafening.  Before Zara could react to the information from her lover, the sultan leaned back, a smile crossing his features.  With a loud laugh, he began to clap his hands as he smiled at everyone within the tent. 

“So that explains it!” the sultan exclaimed, “She is an Amazon!” the older man laughed loudly.

As if this proclamation explained everything, the sultan's men began to chuckle.  Their voices echoed the sultan's words as they nodded. 

“An Amazon!”

“She is an Amazon!”
“Yes, that explains it, By Allah!” 

Confused, Gabrielle glanced around.  She heard everyone chuckling as they repeated the sultan's words.  Flushing and embarrassed, she looked at Zara who sat silent, her eyes never wavering from the bard's.  As if understanding her confusion, the captain shrugged her shoulders as she nodded toward the empty seat next to her.

When the laughter calmed down, the sultan stood and moved to Gabrielle.  He smiled and bowed regally, “Your Amazon highness does me the great honor to be at my table.”

The petite healer glanced at the sultan, then Zara.  As her temper calmed down, she nodded to the sultan, then returned to sitting by the now silent Moroccan.  “Don't think this is over!  We are gonna talk about this….LATER!”  Gabrielle hissed to her lover.  With only a nod and a nervous gulp, Zara sighed as she smiled brightly at the sultan who laughed and slapped his knee.

“Are you really an Amazon Queen?” the dark haired woman whispered as she leaned toward the bard.  With an angry glance that shot sparks from the bard, Zara sighed again as she turned away from the petite woman's obvious fury.

“My poor friend, a word of advice, do not anger an Amazon!” the older ruler chuckled as he leaned toward the Moroccan.

“From your mouth to Allah's ear,” muttered the unhappy captain with yet another deep sigh.

As the women began to clear the plates, the sultan waved to a group of men who produced musical instruments.  “Let us have a celebration to honor all of our friends who are now with Allah!” the sultan proclaimed as the music began.

While some dancers moved to the center, a servant brought a large shisha and sat it between the sultan and Zara.  From the corner of her eye, the tall woman watched as the servant dropped burning coals into the glass opening, then took some of the powdered hashish that she had given as a gift, and poured it over the coals.  When a slight hissing was heard, the servant took some drops of oil and poured it over the sizzling concoction, then replaced the spout that held two identical breathing apparatus.  Leaving it to ferment, the servant turned and left.

“Gabrielle?” the captain tried to gauge the bard's fury.  With only a sidelong glance through slitted eyes toward her, the bard held Nadrah in her lap as they watched the sultan's musicians setting up.  Before Zara had time to consider how to smooth things over with the blonde, the music started to play while the shisha's were set up throughout the tent.  As the music began, the sultan took the pipe and sampled Zara's gift.  With a wide smile, he closed his eyes as he held the smoke within his lungs.

“Ohhhhh!  Very sublime!” the Arab ruler nodded as he waved Zara to join him. 

Smiling at his approval, Zara took her mouthpiece and began to inhale the sweet mixture.  As she sucked in the milky-white, blue-gray smoke, she unconsciously smiled as she felt the spicy flavor in her mouth, coursing down her throat to settle in her lungs until she released it in a single puff through parted lips.  With the numerous shisha's burning, the air was quickly filled with the sweet aromatic scent of the hashish.

Whatever discomfort or embarrassment Zara may have felt earlier, whatever life concerns may have filled her mind were washed away in the embers of the shisha.  She heard the music playing, and the sound of her men laughing and shouting reached her senses.  Before the captain realized what was happening she glanced up when she heard the hoots and yodeling shouts of her men as the sultan's women began to dance in the open center of the tent.  With a broad smile, the Moroccan glanced at the older ruler.  At her silent question, he arched his brow as he pointed toward the dancing women before taking a puff of hashish.  His open invitation to dally with any of the women she wished was not lost on the tall Moroccan.  Smiling, Zara lay back on the pillowed cushions, her long legs stretching out as she leaned back to enjoy the show while puffing on hashish.

As the women swirled in front of her, their bodies moving to the beat of the music, Zara smiled as she enjoyed the sight of their womanly curves hidden under layers of scarves.  With eyes half closed, she watched their enticing gyrations as she felt the buzz from the hashish grow and grow.  Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw Gabrielle smiling at the dancers as she enjoyed the glimpses of their bodies too, but when the small Greek woman glanced toward Zara, her expression changed to one of annoyance once again.  With a shrug, Zara ignored the bard's renewed anger, determined to enjoy the show.  As the tall woman felt the hashish lifting her spirits, the sultan's women continued to sway to the music.

The beat of the dumbeks changed slightly as the women began to move through the tent.  The Darabuka drum resonated in the background, determining the cadence of the song.  One by one the veiled woman circled through the tents in front of their audience.  For the most part, Zara simply enjoyed them for the entertainment that they provided.  It was not until one of the women began circling directly in front of her that she felt her interest suddenly peak.

Dressed in a green silk dress, the woman swayed in front of the Moroccan captain.  The dancer's gentle hands swirling to the rhythmic movements of her hips.  Her veil, although firmly in place, was sheer and hid next to nothing.  Zara stared at the dancer's beauty.  She noticed the small, elegant nose and full rosy red lips over a firm yet delicate chin and light green eyes that sparkled at her.  Around her eyes was the soft green coloring from Egypt that enhanced the woman's smiling green orbs.

As if seeing Zara's interest, the petite dancer moved before the captain, her hips never ceasing their enticing movements as they gently swayed to the beat.  In the background, the loud wailing tone of the reed instrument began to resonate to life, the sound seemingly spurring on the dancer's quest. 

Like a hunter after it's prey, the delicate dancer removed a scarf from around her body and swirled it around Zara's head.  Her small hands barely touching the captain as she wooed the bigger woman into her web, before turning and moving away as the hauntingly lovely sound of the ney instrument seem to weave a tapestry of images surrounding the dancer.

Zara felt herself floating on air.  In the back of her mind, she knew that the tent was full, yet her eyes saw only the dancer.  The captain focused on the green eyes and lips that were so familiar….then, like a dream lover, Zara felt her heart skip a beat as she held the soft scarf to her nose and inhaled the sweet fragrance of…..jasmine.

“Alaya…”  Zara whispered with eyes closed.

“Zara?  Are you all right?” the captain thought she heard a voice, but whose… she did not know.  When she turned to the voice, a blonde foreigner sat staring at her, a look of confusion in the small woman's features.  With a shake of her head, Zara brushed the woman's words away as she gazed up at the dancer, watching her every move, marveling at the beauty that was for only her.  When it seemed as if she could remain still no more, Zara rose from her place and walked on unsteady legs to the dancer.  As the music continued around them, she gazed down at the small woman, and their eyes seemed to search each other.  Then, with a slight smile, Zara reached for the veil and unfastened it, and stared, amazed at her spirit twin's beauty.

“Alaya?  You have come back to me,” Zara whispered as she felt the tears welling in her eyes.  For a moment, her love glanced away, as if seeking permission from someone, then she turned back and smiled up at Zara.  Her face filled with such warmth and sincerity as she reached up and lightly touched the Moroccan woman's cheek and the captain almost swooned.  At this single gesture, Zara lowered herself until their lips met.  From somewhere in the back of her mind she thought she heard the sounds of men's laughter, their bawdy words encouraging her.  Ignoring this distraction, she pulled away and smiled down at her love.  Mirroring her smile, the green eyed woman stood still.

With a hoarse groan, Zara scooped the woman up, her petite frame barely weighing anything in the captain's strong arms.  The dancer wrapped her arms around Zara's neck as she kissed the captains lips and her tongue probed shyly at them.  From somewhere near her, Zara felt someone tugging on her shoulder.  When the captain turned, she saw a man in black smiling as he pulled her to an exit, his gentle hand guiding her further away from the music until she was shown into an empty, private tent where only she and Alaya would be.

When they were alone, Zara deposited the smaller woman onto a pile of pillows and undressed them both with fervor.  Quickly following her, she laid naked over the smaller body and groaned aloud at the exquisite touch of skin on skin, her mouth covering the soft lips.  For what seemed an eternity, their tongues danced against one another.  Panting and out of breath, Zara pulled away and gazed down at the woman who smiled up at her with such longing and love that she though her heart would burst within her.  When the Moroccan removed her lover's veiled hairpiece, she brushed her fingers through the petite woman's dark black hair.  Zara closed her eyes as she inhaled the woman's scent.

“Alaya, my beloved, you have returned to me,” she whispered close to the smaller woman's ear.  When she looked down at her and searched for an answer, the only response she received was a sweet smile as soft, tender hands reached up to wipe the scalding tears from Zara's cheek.

“I-I…will never stop loving you, Alaya,” she promised her soul mate as she held her close.

If there was any doubt in Zara's mind that this was not her love, she did not show it.  Instead, she relished the feel of her beloved, held her close and kissed her body, and showered her with all of the years of love and longing that was bottled inside.  For this moment in time, Zara did not care about anything outside of the fact that she was with her beloved, her spirit twin, and nothing would deter her from loving Alaya as she had always done when they were together.
Xena gasped and writhed in exquisite pleasure on the ground, as yet another shuddering orgasm tossed her into the Elysian Fields of ecstasy.  “Oh, Alaya,” she sobbed as she lay on the soft grass, feeling the warm moaning body beneath her, urging her on and on and into yet another blinding climax.  The eyes of her mind stared down at the most beautiful woman in the world.  Lovely green eyes, dusky sweet skin, long black hair, and the scent of jasmine filled her senses. 

“Oh, I love you!  Never leave me, Alaya,” she/Zara gasped at the smooth feel of the small woman's firm thigh pushing against her/Zara's clitoris.  Another orgasm boiled through her trembling body before she/Zara collapsed on top of the small woman, too spent to even move except to attempt to get enough air into her gasping lungs.

Finally, as Xena lay there shivering, she felt Zara drop off to sleep. The link between them was severed for the time being.  As her body relaxed into the delicious aftermath of pleasure, the ghost just lay there staring up at the night sky. 

'By the gods,' she thought with both satisfaction and embarrassment.  'That hashish stuff is really potent.  Talk about your aphrodisiacs.  No wonder Zara thought that dancer was her soul mate come back.  Between the drug and the sex, that woman has worn me out.  I wonder if Zara has the least idea of the link we share?  If she knew a stranger was there looking on and feeling every single thing she was feeling, I'll bet she'd never have sex again!'

'It sure felt good, but dammit, it's kind of disgusting feeling it all and seeing it from the outside too, plus I don't get to make any choices about what's happening.  I'm just along for the ride.  When I was with Zara while she and Gabrielle were making love, it was almost like it used to be for us,' she thought sadly.  'But this thing I was in on just now?  I was never much into being a voyeur, and this has gotta be the ultimate in voyeurism.'

She sat up and looked ruefully through the outline of her arm at the beach and the small waves lapping against it.  'And I'm paying for it, too.  I'm really looking transparent; I must be really drained.  This was almost as hard on me as taking over Zara's body in the battle for the Prahu.  I was so weak then, I barely made it back to my private fishing place to rejuvenate.  Speaking of that, it looks like I need some time there right now to get back some energy.'  She sighed.  'If I went to her right now, I'm so faded I doubt if Gabrielle would even know I was there.  Probably couldn't even hear me.  Guess I'd better get going, it'll probably take a couple days fishing for me to get back to normal, and Gabrielle will be worried if she doesn't see me for too long.'  She closed her eyes and a tear leaked out.  'This certainly isn't what I envisioned when I told her I would always be at her side, but, I guess it's better than nothing.'  Looking around once more at the silent beach, the ghost smiled sadly, and vanished.
Gabrielle coughed a bit as the sweetish smoke filled the air.  She felt a bit dizzy as she sat there stewing as much over the things Zara had NOT said to the sultan, as over the things that she HAD said.  'Her concubine?  Her Property?  And she didn't even deny saying it.  By the gods, woman!  You are gonna HEAR about this,' she thought savagely.  Suddenly the music speeded up and numbers of the sultan's women in silks and veils came running in to begin dancing in the middle of the tent. 

The bard perked up a bit at this, for she had always loved dancing with the Amazon tribes back home.  As the women began to move to the seductive music, however, the bard quickly realized with a blush that this wasn't the kind of dancing that she was used to.  While the sultan's women swayed and spun, the petite bard found that she was being shown tantalizing glimpses beneath their scarves and clothing at soft curves and smooth skin and felt her nipples crinkling with excitement.  Unaware that she was being affected as much by the secondary fumes of the hashish as the dancers, the bard licked suddenly dry lips as she stared at the swaying women.

'By the gods,' she thought, 'They are beautiful, no doubt of that.'

As she watched, she felt a delicious sense of stimulation growing slowly within her.  Now, as Gabrielle stared at the dancers, one of them caught her eyes and began staring saucily at her while she gyrated and twirled.  Embarrassed, the blond looked away for a moment, but when she peeked back again, the woman was still watching her.  Her smiling eyes were a deep blue and reminded the small woman of both Xena and Zara.  Their eyes seemed to connect across the room, and the bard felt herself blushing furiously.  The dancer's eyes sent an obvious invitation and the petite woman looked down, watching the footwork instead of the provocative body moving so rhythmically.  When she dared to glance back again, the dancer had fixed her eyes on another target, and the blond felt a bit of regret along with her relief.

Taking care not to catch another dancer's eye, Gabrielle continued to study their footwork with interest.  'I could do that,' she thought.  'It's the same kinda stuff I did for Gurkhan, when Xena and I were trying to get my niece Sarah back.  Yeah, that's easy, step-kick, twirl and stop, step-dip and spin.'  She glanced at Zara.  The statuesque woman was watching the dancers too, and seemed quite interested.  The small blond looked back studying the dance and felt arousal building once more.  She suddenly shivered and felt herself getting pleasurably wet in a certain sweet area.  She closed her eyes, breathing deeply, unaware that she was drawing more secondary hashish smoke into her lungs.

'Mmm,' she thought, her mind languorously drifting.  'I am definitely feeling something here.  Talk about your sexual tensions, Zara and I sure dropped them like a bad habit that night.'  She smiled to herself and glanced at her lover who was staring at the swaying women.  'I'd say Zara seems to like this kinda dancing.  Oooo!'  A sudden thought struck her and a grin crossed her lips as she watched the dancers sway and spin.  'I could dance for Zara tonight, back in our cabin after the party.  Yeah, I bet she'd like that all right.  Oops!  I'm supposed to be mad at her, aren't I?  Oh, hell, Gabrielle.  Get over it; it wasn't THAT big a deal.  I really should let her off the hook about that stuff she said to Badr in the boat.  It's not her fault that the sultan's a stupid MAN!'

The bard found herself dreamily planning.  'If I could get Abu to take Nadrah for the night, maybe Zara would be up for a, um, rematch.'  Gabrielle shivered, suddenly remembering the feel of Zara's full womanly body atop hers, the smooth warm hands stroking and tickling.  She could almost feel her lover's soft lips kissing and licking all over her and felt a wave of heat sweep through her from her damp groin.  'She is good at giving pleasure, no doubt of that.  Gods, how soft and smooth and … and STRONG she felt against me.  Mmmm.'  She almost groaned aloud at the sultry thoughts racing though her mind.  'Okay, that's it, Gabrielle.  If Zara wants to, we're on for tonight!'  She grinned again.  'Even if she isn't, I'll bet a little dance from an Amazon Queen could persuade her …' she suddenly became aware of movement near her and looked up.

While the bard had been dreamily watching the others, a green-eyed dancer had twirled her silken scarf around Zara's neck and was swaying in front of her, swirling the scarf back and forth and pulling at the Moroccan captain.  Gabrielle was stunned as she saw the look on the Zara's face.  Her eyes were wide with lust and her tongue came out to lick her lips.  The bard called out, “Zara?  A-Are you all right?”  In a dazed way, the tall woman looked at the bard, who blanched at her vacant expression.  Her eyes showed no recognition of her lover, and then she looked back to the petite dancer and lust seemed to drip from her.  Gabrielle felt her anger rising. 

'You big dope,' Gabrielle thought as she crossed her arms in front of her.  'I WANTED you?  Oh, you are SO not off the hook!'

Then Zara staggered to her feet, following the dancer into the center of the floor and Gabrielle stared, her thoughts spinning.  'Zara, what the HELL are you doing?'  The smitten captain staggered up to the dancer and took her hands, murmuring something that the watching bard could not hear.  Then the tall woman unhooked the veil and made as if to kiss the dancer.  Yodels and catcalls began sounding from both her crew and the sultan's men, but Zara paid no attention and in the middle of her anger, Gabrielle felt sorry for her friend who was being laughed at by her peers.

Meanwhile, the green-eyed dancer looked to the sultan, clearly asking his permission.  The ruler nodded indulgently, and she turned back to Zara with a welcome smile.  The bard's lover bent her lips to the small dancer's and they kissed long and passionately there in the middle of the floor.  Then she picked the smaller woman up and continuing to kiss her, began carrying her towards the door, followed by shouts of lustful encouragement from the men.

Gabrielle felt her vision seem to blur, and realized that her eyes were full of tears.  'Must be all this smoke in the air,' she thought, blinking rapidly.  She watched Zara leaving the celebration with the Arabian dancer in her arms.  For a moment, she felt a pang of anger or something else before she was able to suppress it.  Then, as she returned her attention to the dancers, she seemed to grow cold inside.  She was no longer able to enjoy the music or the provocative dancing as she had before.  At the slight movement next to her, she glanced down at the little girl who leaned against her with her head nodding.  A big yawn escaped Nadrah's control.  With a sigh, the bard smiled as she petted the girl's hair, then looked up at their host, the sultan.

“I need to put someone to sleep,” she explained to the ruler.  With eyes partly closed, he waved an uninterested dismissal to her as he puffed on the smoke.

“Come on, honey, it's past your bedtime,” she told Nadrah as she rose to leave.

“I'm not sleepy,” Nadrah yawned as she rubbed her eyes and followed Gabrielle from the tent.  “Honest, I'm not!”

Once outside, Gabrielle looked down at the little girl.  She smiled at the girl's half-closed eyes, then, with a shake of her head, the bard scooped the girl into her arms.  “Not tired, right,” she whispered as she felt the child lay her head on her shoulder, and the little body suddenly grew heavy as she fell asleep in the blonde's arms.

With the child in her arms, she walked down the trail to the shore, passing the various tents of the sultan's people along the way.  The sounds of passion arose from one tent, the female occupant obviously in the throes of pleasure.  Against her better judgment, Gabrielle glanced for a moment at the tent.  She saw the shadows being cast against the fabric from the lighted candle within.  Standing frozen in place, she saw the dark outline of a woman writhing in pleasure as the shadowed figure of Gabrielle's tall Moroccan lover knelt between her legs.  As she overheard the sounds of ardor from the tent, the bard's vision suddenly blurred.  Damn smoke, she thought, blinking her eyes.  With only a shake of her head, Gabrielle turned away and quickened her pace.

When she reached the end of the shore, she entered the boat that waited to carry Zara's crew back to the ship.  As she held Nadrah in her arms, she remained silent as a yawning Arab man rowed them away from the beach.  Gabrielle could not have explained her anger.  She did not want to believe that she could be jealous, so instead she focused on the humiliation she had experienced when the sultan tried to purchase her.  As her mind ran over and over that single event, she allowed her anger to rise until all she could do was let it ferment.

At the boat, a voice called down to her.  Glancing up, she saw Isa holding a lantern in the air.  “Gabrielle?”

“Yes, with a small burden as well.”  She called.  With a slight smile, she carefully stood.  When he saw the child in her arms, Isa smiled as he reached down and lifted Nadrah from her arms.  Once free of the child, she was able to thank the Arab oarsmen, then climb up the ladder to the deck of the ship.

“Poor thing passed out,” Isa smiled as he handed Nadrah back to her.

“Yes.  It was a long day…for both of us,” Gabrielle said as she carried the girl to bed. As the music from the distant shore echoed off of the nearby cove, she carried her little bundle up to the cabin.

“Gabrielle!  I'm not sleepy!”  Nadrah whined in her sleep.  Now in her bed, the girl sat up as the blonde undressed her.

“Of course you're not,” Gabrielle smiled when she had pulled off the last remnants of clothes, then pulled the covers over the little body.  “I'll see you in the morning, sweetheart.”  Before Nadrah could protest, she mumbled, then rolled over under the covers, and began to softly snore.  With a slight smile, the petite woman leaned down and lightly kissed the girl's forehead, then rose to leave.

Isa stood at the rail of the ship.  His gaze faced the darkness of the ocean.  When Gabrielle moved toward him, he looked at her startled, then nodded as he saw who it was.  As she came closer to him, she mentally scanned his appearance.  Although he had changed his clothes since losing his lover, his appearance seemed no better.  His hair was unkempt, his beard slightly scraggly.  As if he had either missed sleep or was crying, his eyes were puffy and red.

“She is asleep?” he asked with a weak smile.

“Yes,” she sighed as she moved to stand next to him.  From behind them, the music from the main tent reached the ship. 

“You didn't want to stay until the end of the festivities?” he asked.


He thought over her answer, then returned his gaze to the dark sea.  After a moment of silence, he spoke softly to her.

“Gabrielle….have you ever lost anyone close?…anyone who was your….your spirit twin?”  Isa's voice was soft.

Gabrielle smiled up at him, his question brought to mind the image of her lost love.  As she realized how much she missed Xena, her eyes became misty as she tried to hold back her tears.  “Yes, I have.”

“D-Does it….I mean, w-will it ever stop hurting?” the young Moroccan man asked in a choked voice as he shed a silent tear.

With a slight frown, Gabrielle reached up and brushed his muscular arm with the palm of her hand.  “I-I don't … know.”  She answered honestly in a soft voice.

He nodded at her answer, then returned his gaze to the sea.  As the music rose in the background, the bard snaked her arm into his and leaned against him.  Together the two lovers who had been left behind, watched the distant waves sparkling under the light of the moon as they each remained deep within their own sad and lonely thoughts.
Zara awoke in a tangle of arms and legs and warmth.  When she sat up, the giggling of women's voices greeted her.  As the vague dream from the night before returned, she looked around at the various pairs of eyes that were smiling at her and was startled.  Next to her, a familiar set of green eyes looked up at her lazily.  With a yawn and a cat-like stretch, the young woman moved below the silk cover, causing it to fall from her body.  At the sight of the woman's brown, erect nipples, Zara gulped nervously as she took the edge of the blanket and pulled it back over the woman.  This action brought more giggles from the women who were gathered in the tent.  They all seemed to be staring frankly at her bare breasts and shoulders.  With an uneasy nod, Zara smiled nervously at them as she grabbed her galibeyeh gown and hastily pulled it over her head.

“No, do not go,” the woman under the covers whined as she reached out and touched Zara's arm.  The other women giggled again as they smiled at Zara.  Their sultry expressions reminded the captain uneasily of Prasha waiting to receive his dinner of fresh fish.  “I promised my sisters that you would spend time with them too,” the dark-hair beauty pouted.

“Umm…well,” Zara stammered as she pulled her liba pants on, then reached for her boots, “I, uh, am very grateful for such an offer, but, I must decline,” the captain said as she hastily found the rest of her outfit, then began to make her way toward the entrance, stepping carefully over the various women, while attempting in vain to not notice their naked beauty. 

“Oh!” the dark, green-eyed woman said in a trembling voice as she sat up on the bed, allowing the blanket to fall to her waist.  She stretched out her slim arms.  “Do not leave us, Captain.  Please, stay and let us pleasure you…”

“Yes, Yes.  Please stay!”  The others all chorused holding out their arms out as well.

Averting her eyes, Zara bowed to the green eyed woman, then to the other women in the harem.  “I am sorry, but such beauty would be fatal to my weak heart,” she tried to word it so as not to offend.  Without waiting for a response, she pushed her way through the curtained doors, their giggles following her to the outside.  Standing at attention, the sultan's two guards grinned at her and nodded as she bowed slightly and made her way from the tent.  As the captain passed by the sultan's various tents, Zara attempted to ignore the snickering and comments from the sultan's men as she put on her kaffia head scarf and tied it with the agal tassel cord.  Rather than concern herself with their jesting, she concentrated on making her way back to her ship.

Once on the shore, she waded into the boat and settled herself down as the sultan's man began to row her to her ship.  As she glanced at the ship, she noticed slight movements on the deck.  With most of the men were on shore, those who remained on ship had kept themselves busy.  When she climbed to the deck, she noticed the men moving through various chores.  While some were mending the sails, others were weaving the broken hemp lines while still others were hanging on the side of the ship adding the finishing touches to the repaired bow that had been damaged when they rammed into the pirate ship.  With only slight nods to the men, she crossed the deck to her cabin and gratefully went inside.

“Good morning!” she smiled at both Gabrielle and Nadrah.  Already awake, Nadrah was cleaning up the cabin, while the healer was getting dressed for the day.

“Morning!”  Nadrah shouted as she took the bundle of laundry and dragged it from the cabin.  Once the child was out of the cabin, Zara moved to the bard, she pulled her into an embrace as she placed a soft kiss against the woman's bare white shoulder.  At the instant contact, Gabrielle stiffened in her arms.  Feeling this, Zara kept the bard in her grip but pulled away and glanced down at her.

“Is everything all right?” she asked, searching the bards face.

The first thing that Zara noticed was Gabrielle's deep-set frown as she turned her gaze away.  The icy coldness of the bard was clearly visible.  When no answer was forthcoming, Zara lightly cupped the bard's chin and gently tugged until she was forced to look up at the captain. 

“Everything is just fine,” was Gabrielle's crisp response.

For a moment Zara doubted Gabrielle's words.  As she gazed into the green eyes, she saw the bard's intensity staring back at her.  When no other words were spoken, Zara inwardly shrugged as she smiled at her lover, then lowered herself to kiss the bard's soft lips.  Before their lips touched, she felt the blonde push against her chest until Zara had to step back.

“Wha…?” the captain began to ask as she saw Gabrielle's nose crinkled in disgust.  Just then Nadrah came back into the room with a broom in hand.

“Nadrah, please do me a favor and pour some water for your captain,” Gabrielle asked the child.  Without waiting for a response, the blonde healer moved to the corner of the room to grab her satchel of herbs, salves, and medicines.  “The captain needs to wash the stench from her,” she added as she cast a look of disgust at Zara before leaving the cabin.

Zara knew that Gabrielle was angry, but didn't quite understand why.  As she watched the blonde walking over the deck, the tall Moroccan lifted her arm and sniffed under it.  With a slight furrow of her brow, she tried to smell what the bard was complaining about.  At the heady scent of jasmine and musk, Zara merely shrugged her shoulders as she turned to undress for the bath, which Nadrah was beginning to prepare.
Gabrielle spent the better part of the morning with Healer al-Farabi,  looking over all of the patients.  The old healer seemed tired.  When the petite woman inquired if he was all right, he explained sadly.  “I was called to a crisis in the middle of the night.  You recall Nassir?”

The bard nodded soberly.  In the battle for the Prahu, the young Arab had received a terrible wound in his leg.  He had lain unconscious and undiscovered under a pile of pirate bodies for so long, that it had started festering.

Abu al-Farabi went on.  “Well, when I examined him, the gangrene was spreading, and he was in terrible pain, even with the opium.  I decided to amputate, so we drugged him, and I went to work.  About midnight I was finished with the last stitches on the stump, and he was awakening.”  The old healer sighed.  “As you know, the most ticklish part is when they come out from under the drugs, for that is when the pain and realization of loss strikes.”  He pinched his eyes.  “Nassir died… from shock to his system, I believe.”  He sighed.  “But the poor man would have died anyway, had I not operated.”

“You know these things happen, and we never quite know why.”  Gabrielle gently patted his shoulder.  “You know it wasn't your fault, Master Abu.”

He smiled forlornly.  “So I must tell myself,” he murmured.  Then he grunted.  “Well, we still have patients to examine, so let us begin.”

They each looked over the patients, cleaned and rebandged wounds. They discussed the future treatments or various patients, and then when they were finished they had some tea brought by Assia and exchanged information on healing techniques. As they slowly drank, and exchanged information, Gabrielle felt a moment of peace. Although the stress of caring for patients was great, she could not help but feel comforted when in the presence of the aged healer.

After a moment of silence, the elder healer said, “The other day after the battle, I was interested to see that you used a hollow stick and an animal bladder to re-inflate Ossim's collapsed lung.  Your technique was exactly as described in one of Hippocrate's healing scrolls.  When I saw you doing that, I knew you were an expert healer and stopped worrying about you operating on the men.”  The old healer smiled.  “So, did you study under Hippocrates, or one of his students?”

“Oh, no.”  The bard spoke eagerly before she thought it through.  “I was there when he first learned how to do it.”

Abu al-Farabi looked at her for a moment, then said sharply, “Perhaps you don't know it, but I have met Hippocrates, and he is a man in his prime of fully fifty summers!  Am I now to believe that a young girl who was surely not even yet alive when the master healer began his work, was there when he learned it?”  He chuckled.  “I perceive that you have a sense of humor!  I suppose you will next tell me that it was you who gave him the idea in the first place?”

“Well, no,” said the bard, blushing furiously.  “Xena showed us the technique, however I did assist him.  Unfortunately, the patient died anyway.”  Her eyes suddenly looked old.  “Unlike Nassir, he was too far gone for recovery.”

The old healer gazed narrowly at her.  “There is a Xena mentioned in the scroll as being a mentor of Hippocrates.”  He frowned, then whispered, “Almost, I believe you, Gabrielle.  But it cannot be true.  I know you told me there on the beach that you were older than you look, but you cannot possibly be of an age to have been there.  Surely you are not yet thirty…”

Gabrielle sighed.  “Master Abu, I'm truly sorry I brought it up.  It's complicated, and too long and painful a story for me to go into right now.”  She smiled sadly, thinking of an ice cave, and a lost baby that became a young woman while two soul mates slept.  “Please, just forget I said anything.”

Master Abu al-Farabi shook his head and smiled.  “It shall be as you wish, my healer friend.  Some say there is no fiction stranger than the truth, and by Allah the Merciful, today I find myself believing it.”  He changed the subject and they began talking over the efficacies of infusions of drugs administered daily, in comparison to those of salves and periapts.

When the afternoon sun stood overhead, the elder healer waved away any further discussions as he made his apologies and retreated to his tent to rest.  The bard moved to the shore to relax from the taxing morning.  She sat upon the embankment as the men in the camp moved about their chores.  When she glanced at the sultan's encampment, she caught sight of Zara in the sultan's open tent.  At the sight of the woman serving their meal, Gabrielle shook her head in disgust.

“She certainly seems to be a favorite,” said a voice from behind, which startled her.  Turning, Gabrielle shook her head when she saw her soul mate's slight smile.

“Xena!  One of these days you're going to make my heart stop from fright!” she scolded as she gazed at the ghost of her lover.

“Nah, couldn't happen,” Xena smiled.

Returning her smile, Gabrielle sighed as she returned her eyes to the water.  “Where were you?  I thought I would see you last night,” the bard asked her warrior quietly.

Xena remained silent for a moment, then, in a soft voice, she spoke to her soul mate, “I had, um, other matters to attend to,” the warrior said as a slight blush crossed her ghostly features.

The bard didn't notice the blush as she mused, “Funny, I never thought that you might have other things going on, in your life… uh, sorry.  You know what I mean.”  Gabrielle chuckled slightly. 

“Sorry, I guess you needed to talk last night, huh?”  Xena's voice was soft and contrite.

“No…. it's all right,” Gabrielle sighed as she tried to convince herself that everything WAS all right.

Xena remained silent for a moment.  Then, she sighed as she turned to her lover.  “Gabrielle, what are you angry about?”

“Nothing….everything….I-I….it's just that Zara told them that I was her property and then…then,” she shook her head, unable to complete her sentence.

“She gave you the reason for the deception, didn't she?”  The Greek warrior ghost asked.

“Y-Yes.”  The bard answered reluctantly.

“Then what's really upsetting you?”  Xena asked, but she was rewarded with silence.  As if unwilling to accept her own thoughts, the bard looked away, her expression filled with pain as she glanced at the sultan's tent, and the veiled woman who was carefully tending to Zara's afternoon meal, and grimaced at the scene.

“Gabrielle, if I didn't know better, I'd say you were jealous!”  Xena half smiled as she followed her lover's glance.

“Don't be ridiculous, Xena.  What do I have to be jealous of?”  Gabrielle half chuckled in an attempt to convince herself.  “I mean, just because she tells everyone that I belong to her, then makes that comment about having to pay the sultan to take me…” at this, Xena snorted with a chuckle.

“Yeah, that one was pretty good!”  Xena's words were cut short at the sharp glance from her bard.

“And then she up and leaves with a….a…..”  Gabrielle's voice was filled with disbelief as she negatively shook her head.

“Concubine?”  Xena finished the blonde's sentence.

“Yes!  I mean….no….I mean,” Gabrielle sighed, “damn, I don't even know what I mean anymore.”

Xena laughed softly as she moved to sit beside the bard.  Then, knowing that anything she could say would only make matters worse, the warrior grew silent as she allowed the bard to become lost in her own thoughts.  At ease in each other's company, they each remained lost in their own thoughts.
Zara watched as Gabrielle sat on the beach by herself.  Occasionally the bard seemed to speak to the air and Zara knew that Xena must be near her.  Ignoring the scene, the Moroccan returned her attention to the sultan's words as she ate the afternoon meal.  She listened to his tale of his homeland, the story of his clan and his family.  He told her of his parents, his brothers and sisters and as they shared in the meal, Zara listened intently, nodded when needed, inquired when a question arose, and laughed at his occasional jokes. 

When the meal ended, Zara went to the healer's tent.  For the rest of the day she spent time with each of the wounded men from her crew.  She listened to their complaints or worries and gave words of encouragement.  Occasionally she glanced at the bard who was working at changing bandages or cleaning wounds.  As if she were invisible, the blonde healer ignored her presence.  After being assured of her men's comfort, she left the tent and returned to her ship.

The anger she thought she had been feeling from the bard was no longer in question.  As the Moroccan lay on her bed, she stared up at the ceiling.  As she was settled in the darkness of her cabin, her mind wandered through all of the past day's events.  She tried to remember what she could have said or done to upset the bard.  Just as she was replaying it all again in her mind, the door opened quietly as Gabrielle entered the room.  For a moment, she watched as the petite woman walked in and closed the door behind her then moved across the dark room as she absently tossed her medicine satchel on the floor.

“You did not stay for the dinner festivities?”  Zara's voice startled the bard.

“I could be asking you the same thing,” the bard replied crisply as she lighted a candle, then moved through the cabin to light the various lanterns.  “I guess Nadrah is…?”  Gabrielle began to ask.

“With Abu,” the captain smiled slyly as she arose from the bed and moved to the bard.  Standing behind the smaller woman, she reached out and placed her hands on the bard's shoulders.  Leaning forward Zara took a moment to inhale the bard's sweet scent.  “Oh, Gabrielle….”  The Moroccan whispered close to her ear as she lightly placed a kiss against her neck.  “You smell so good…”  As if her contact was suddenly abhorrent, the bard stiffened below her touch.

“Gabrielle?”  The captain was mystified at her lover's behavior.

“Don't you want to spend the night with your…concubine?”  The bard's words hissed.

“What?”  Zara stepped back as the bard turned to face her.  “You are angry?” her voice was incredulous.

“Shouldn't I be?  I mean, first you tell everyone within earshot that I BELONG to you!”  Gabrielle began to pace the room.  “And then you go and…and….”

“I-I do not understand why you are angry with me.”  Zara watched the smaller woman, and the fury in the green eyes was no longer concealed.

“Why, Zara?  Why?  I'll tell you why, Dammit!  Not only do you go and claim me as your possession, but then you go running off with the first concubine who tosses you a scarf!”  The bard huffed as she paced, and then she turned and faced the captain, green eyes seeming to shoot sparks.

At her words, Zara crossed her arms as she stared into the healer's eyes.  “What upsets you more, Gabrielle,” she asked quietly.  “The fact that I said the first thing that came to mind to help Badr get into the boat … or that I spent the evening with another woman?”

Like an exploding tidal wave, Gabrielle's full wrath turned on the captain.  Her anger no longer controlled, she stared up at Zara.  “Of all the things that you COULD have done!” she shouted with sudden fury.

“What?  That I shared the evening with a woman?”  The Moroccan shook her head in disbelief as she turned away from the bard.

“That's not the only thing,”  Gabrielle ground out,  “but if you want to know the truth, yes!  I was wondering how you could just go with just anyone who….”  But the small woman grew silent when Zara suddenly turned on her.

“And why should I not go with someone!  Am I to be exclusively yours?”  Zara spat out in anger,  “Does that mean that you will be exclusively mine from now on?”

“I thought that…” the bard stammered as she tried to form her words, “I thought we shared something s-special...” her voice broke at the end, and her green eyes were filled with tears.

Zara spoke softly and her voice was calm.  “Perhaps it was special; for both of us.  But, because of that one time, are we now and forever to be bonded to one another, is that what you are saying?  And what will happen when and if your lover returns, what then, Gabrielle?  Will you leave her and follow me?  Is that what will happen?”  Zara managed to keep her fury in check as she stared down at the smaller woman. 

With a look of confusion, the bard blinked away her tears as she turned away.  When it became apparent that the smaller woman would not answer, Zara shook her head in disbelief.  “No.  I did not think that would happen.  Through this whole affair I have known where I stand in your heart.  I am merely a-a convenience, nothing more than a means to the end.  When your Xena comes back, I will be left to watch you and your lover going away and leave me behind,” she said.

“NO!”  the bard shook her head and gulped, seeming surprised at her own words.  “No,” she said again, painfully.

“No?”  Zara swallowed and her voice was thick with emotion.  “Then what I am to you?  Tell me, Gabrielle, where do I stand in your heart?” the captain challenged.  For what seemed an eternity in time, the petite blonde remained silent as she stared up at Zara, tears running unnoticed down her face.

Angered by the bard's silence, the captain turned and left her cabin, slamming the door behind her.  For a moment she paced the length of deck, glancing momentarily up at the window to her cabin.  When the bard did not come out to get her to talk, the tall Moroccan scowled then moved to the rail of the ship.

Inside the cabin, Gabrielle sat on the bed and stared at the door, tears blurring her vision.  For a moment, she had the urge to run after her lover, to stop her and ask her to stay.  But she couldn't seem to find the energy to get up, so instead, she simply sat and stared at the cabin door.

“Is that how you see me, Zara…”  Her choked whisper sounded in the room.  There was no answer, and she covered her face with her hands as silent sobs shook her.

Zara turned from the rail, almost ready to return to the cabin but when she saw the candle extinguished, her expression turned to stone.  Changing her mind she stalked to the rail to wait for the approaching boat.  Just as the boat with Abu and Nadrah was near, Zara pulled the little girl to the deck, then greeted her friend.

“Captain?”  Abu glanced at her as Nadrah waved and ran up to the cabin. 

“Abu,” Zara's tone was a bit more curt than she expected as she climbed into the boat.  Without another glance, she remained silent as the boatman rowed her back to the shore.
With each passing day, the anger and sadness of the bard did not seem to wane and neither did the tall captain's.  Zara spent both her days and nights on shore, returning to her cabin in the day for fresh clothes.  While the bard went about her business of tending to the wounded, Zara spent the days in the company of the Sultan or with his captain of the guard, Jamil.  By night, she slept wherever an empty space could be found with the sultan's guards.

Jamil stood a bit taller than her.  He had dark black hair, with dark eyes that seemed to see into the depths of your soul.  His neatly trimmed beard and immaculate dress showed him to be from the upper class of his clan.  The Arab man's muscular frame was always concealed under the black uniform of the sultan's guards.  The only evidence that gave away his rank was the tattoo marking of his clan on his cheeks, and the crescent moon on his forehead gave his bearing away.  As if a born warrior, his body was always prepared for battle.  Only now, in the privacy of his tent, did he allow himself to relax with someone he considered his equal.  Understanding this, Zara felt a profound respect for the man.

“My poor friend,” Jamil's voice pulled her from her silent thoughts, “I have been considering your problem.”

“Oh, that is very kind of you,” Zara said as she passed him the warm pipe, the minute cloud of hashish smoke filtering in the air.  With glassy eyes, she looked at him, watching as he inhaled from the pipe.  For a time his head tilted back and he seemed to be deep in thought.  Then, with a smile, he leaned forward and stared directly into her eyes.

“I have been considering your woman problem, the problem with the healer, Gabrielle,” his voice grew soft and serious, “It is because she is Greek!” his brow arched knowingly.

“Yes!  It is because she is Greek,” Zara agreed, then furrowed her brows in confusion.  “Um, why is the problem caused by her being Greek?”

“Because Greek women are willful, and those Amazons,” Jamil spat, “BAH!  Those Amazons are the worst of the whole willful bunch!”

As the hashish filled her brain, she closed her eyes partly as she examined him.  The fog of her thoughts made trying to decipher his words difficult.  Slightly confused, she leaned toward him as if being closer would make his words more understandable.

“W-What do you mean?” she asked.

“Your woman, she is very willful.  YES, WILLFUL!”  He blinked sagely, nodding his head in agreement with his own words.  “But that can all change, my friend,” he said slyly.  “And I can help you.”

“You can?” she stared at him hopefully.  “I would be grateful for your wisdom, oh wise one.” 

“Yes, listen my friend, I'll teach the woman some lessons, she'll soon learn not to be so willful,” Jamil chuckled proudly.  As he leaned forward toward her he grabbed his crotch with his hand, and the meaning of his words suddenly became clear.

At his crude suggestion, she felt her anger rising swiftly, and his smug grin only spurred her on as she frowned at him.  Before she realized it she had struck out, landing a fist against his cheek.  The surprise blow wiped the grin off of his face and catapulted him out of his chair to the floor.  He rolled to his feet with a look of disbelief, which quickly turned to rage.  Launching himself at her, he landed a mighty blow against her right breast, pummeling the sensitive flesh and causing her to hiss with pain. 

With a scream of fury, Zara kicked him in the chest, which flung him backward into a table full of food.  The table collapsed and dishes flew everywhere, as he smashed to the ground.  Not content with that however, Zara leaped through the air with a battle cry to land on him.

The two of them grappled each other and rolled about in the food and broken dishes, thumping each other with blows of their fists and cursing at the top of their lungs.  In the haze of hashish, Zara saw herself striking blows against her friend as he fended her off and struck back.

His fist struck her in the ear, and spun her to the ground.  Shaking her head, she leaped from a sitting position and drove her head into his stomach.  At this low blow, the breath exploded from Jamil's mouth so fast that his front teeth almost blew out.  Wheezing like a spavined horse, the big man picked her up like a sack of grain, and attempted to throw her through the air, but she clung like a leech and fixed her teeth on his ear.

He screamed like a wounded harpy and began running blindly, carrying the big woman like a child.  He plowed through the side of his tent, tripped on a support rope and they both landed on the ground under the night stars with Zara on top.  Moving like a wounded turtle, she stood up and reached down to pull him up by the hair.  Before she could however, she felt hands on her, grasping her by the arms and pulling her away from him.

The angry shouts of Jamil's men rang in her ears as they pummeled her to the ground.  She got one with a fist in the groin, before the others held her down and began kicking and hitting her.  She was seeing more stars than could possibly have been in the night sky, when suddenly Jamil's voice rang out with a wheezing grunt.

“STOP!” his order caused his men to release her.  Standing up of her own free will, she stared at the battered captain of the guard.

“You stay away from Gabrielle!  Do you understand?”  Zara hissed at the tall man, then turned, and limped her way painfully from the guard's encampment. 

As she walked past the various tents, she heard the guards calling insults behind her.  Ignoring their catcalls she made her way over the dirt path, past the healers tents, toward the sandy beach.  As she stood on the beach, she stared longingly out at her ship.  Her lips moved silently, mouthing the bard's name, then she lowered her head and cursed.  At the pain in her side, she winched, then turned, and made her way across the sand to the nearby trees.
On the ship, Xena was in the middle of tickling Nadrah when she felt a sudden sharp pain in her lower ribs and almost gasped with the unexpected sensation.  Pulling away from the girl, she stood trembling in the middle of the cabin, her head slightly tilted as she tried to see something beyond her vision.  Gabrielle's laughter at seeing the two playing suddenly stopped.

“Xena?” the blonde moved toward her lover but was stopped when Xena raised her hand.  With head bent, she listened to something, then grunted and clapped a hand to her midsection as if she had just been hit.  Rage filled her mind for a moment.  'JAMIL!  How dare you talk about Gabrielle that way?  I'll smash you…by the gods,' she thought dazedly. 

'What am I feeling?'  Xena straightened up, keeping her face expressionless, though her mind was filled with fury.  Focusing her thoughts with difficulty, she suddenly realized what must be happening.

“Zara…” she whispered then turned and walked hurriedly through the closed cabin door.  At the rail, she looked at the nearby shore, but only heard silence.

“Xena?”  the bard had joined her lover at the rail.

The warrior's voice was fury restrained.  “Gabrielle, I need to go,” was all she said before she winked from view. The bard stared at the spot where she had been.

“Xena?” she gulped.  “What in Tartarus is happening with you?” there was no answer, and the petite healer stood at the rail alone, her mind teeming with unanswered questions. 

At last she muttered, “Xena, you've been doing it for years, and now you're doing it again!  You're trying to keep things from me.  Best friends, and soul mates, just don't do that to one another.”  She swallowed.  “Even Zara has been more truthful with me, than you are being right now.  At least she laid all of her feelings right on the line that night in the cabin, even if they did hurt.”  Gabrielle stared at the moon, and felt annoyed at her soul mate.  “I love you Xena, but I won't put up with this.  Whatever your little secret is, you'd better believe I'm gonna find it out, see if I don't.”  Grimly, she stalked back into the cabin.

Meanwhile on the beach, the warrior ghost glanced around in time to see the group of black clothed warriors moving away from the staggering Moroccan captain.  With clothes disheveled, the tall woman stood and turned to the captain of the guards.  Xena heard the threat, and watched as Zara turned and made her way from the rows of tents.

Xena silently wished that the captain would return to the ship.  But she did not.  Instead, the tall woman stood for a moment and stared at her ship, then cursed and began to walk into the shadows of the nearby trees.

“No, Zara.  Go to my bard, she can help,” Xena pleaded, but then shook her head at the captain's stubbornness and followed Zara into the darkness.

“Zara…”  Xena tried several times to reach the captain, but when that failed she returned to the ship.  Although part of her did not want to help the captain patch things up with Gabrielle, she knew that something had to be done.  With a single-minded purpose, she moved as swiftly as she could to the bard.
Zara managed to ignore the ghost until Xena finally went away.  As the silence of the night surrounded her, she looked up at the moon as she settled herself against a tree.  As the haze of the hashish continued to churn around in her mind, she allowed her thoughts to wander.  When she remembered Jamil's words, she felt an anger consume her for only a moment, then her rage grew still when she thought of the bard.

The captain didn't know why she was so protective of the woman.  It was not like they were spirit twins and even though they had shared a bed and had made love, it was only the one time.  Miserably Zara knew that the number of times she made love with Gabrielle would never change the bard's feelings; not truly.  No matter how much she might yearn for the blonde, Zara knew that the Greek woman could never begin to care for her enough to abandon her spirit twin to follow her.  But when she thought this, the Moroccan knew that it was not something she could even ask.  As the hashish coursed through her body and mind, her melancholy thoughts took her to a memory from long before.

The tall Moroccan had always known that her life, her very existence was lacking but until she had met Alaya, she never knew why.  As their days together passed, Zara began to realize that Alaya was the missing part of her heart.  She was the one person who would listen, and accept Zara as she was.  Although they might not have understood their friendship, their youth allowed them to share their love and friendship openly.

With a sigh, Zara lowered her head.  Ever since the dream she had shared with Xena she knew why Alaya was taken from her.  The curse handed down by the soothsayer had decreed that the captain would know only sorrow.  At first, she thought that losing Alaya was the curse, but as the days passed, she soon came to understand that living without her spirit twin, living as only half a person, was enough to fulfill the prophesy.  Knowing this did not make her life any easier to bear.

“Alaya, why did you have to leave me?”  Zara whispered as she gazed up at the moon, it's bluish white hues changing colors before her eyes.  For a moment, she wondered if the swirling patterns were a hallucination of the hashish or if she was a witness to the magic of the universe.  Before she could contemplate it further, a low sweet voice nearby broke her concentration.

“Zara?” the voice approached.  Turning, she glanced up at the figure walking near her.  For a moment her vision was clouded, but then the hashish in her bloodstream brought the figure into focus and showed her what she had so long wanted to see.  Dressed in a long dark cape, the woman reached up and pulled down the hood.  With long dark hair, brown complexion, sparkling green eyes, and a soft smile, Alaya seemed to float to her, then knelt by Zara and smiled.

“Alaya…”  Zara fought back her tears as she reached up and lightly touched her love's soft cheek, “I miss you so much.”

For a moment, her spirit twin was silent.  Then, she spoke so softly, “I know,” the sweet song of Alaya's voice was so soft and soothing to Zara's ears.

“I-I… forgive me, please...”  Zara no longer tried to hold back her tears as she lowered her head in shame, “I-I failed you...  I could do nothing to-to s-save youuuu….”  Her failure to protect her lover and her inability to even stop what had happened had bored a hole into the Moroccan's soul out of which all the joy in her life seemed to continually flow.  Unable to control herself, she buried her head into Alaya's warm embrace as her tears flowed freely.

“There is nothing to forgive,” her love's voice was like a soft melody as she took Zara in her arms and held her close.
As Gabrielle knelt by the weeping captain, she rocked the bigger woman in her arms and looked up helplessly at Xena.  With a look of sadness, the warrior princess gazed at the Moroccan.  She slightly smiled at her Amazon lover, then shrugged her shoulders at the blonde's wordless question.

“Who's Alaya?”  Gabrielle mouthed.

“Alaya was Zara's soul mate, Gabrielle.”  Xena sighed.  “The concubine she went with looked a lot like her, and under the influence of the hashish … Zara thought she was Alaya …Just like she thinks you are Alaya, right now.”  Xena explained with a sad look.

“Oh,” Gabrielle nodded as everything suddenly became clear.

At the moment, she did not know or even care how Zara had come to be so far out into the jungle, all she knew was that the Moroccan was cold.  As the sweet smell of hashish hung to the captain's clothes, Gabrielle tried to coax her to stand, but Zara only clung to her and sobbed all the harder.  Finally,  the petite woman shrugged at the warrior ghost, and settled herself next to the Moroccan, wrapping her cloak around the broad shoulders and rocked her like a baby, whispering tenderly, “Shhhh, it's all right, Zara.  Don't cry, I'm right here beside you.”

“Take care of her, Gabrielle, she needs you.”  Xena whispered.  “I'll see you later.”  And she faded away like a dying candle.
Zara awoke to the sound of a strange animal crying in the trees.  When she opened her eyes, the sudden pain began to pound in her head.  Glancing down, she saw the bard sleeping below her.  Her chest rose slowly with each breath she took.  As the captain tried to remember the faint images of the night before, she sat up, wincing at the pain in her side.

Feeling her movement, Gabrielle awoke with a tired yawn as she sat up, looking at Zara with concerned eyes.  “Are you all right?” she asked softly as her healer instincts took control.

The Moroccan tried to still be mad at the bard as she brushed away the small hands.  Ignoring her actions, Gabrielle only sighed as she continued to examine her reluctant patient.

“You know, if you keep hurting yourself, all of my work is for nothing,”  Gabrielle kept her voice soft as she examined the stitches that were hidden under the captain's dark hair.  Assured that they were intact, she lightly pushed against her lover until she leaned against the tree trunk.  With a grimace of pain, the captain winced as the healer reached under her shirt and examined her ribs.

“You're lucky this time.  Not broken, but defiantly bruised,” the blonde tsked as she lifted the shirt slightly and glanced at the discoloration, “Yep.  That's defiantly going to stay purple for awhile,” she shook her head.

“I hope she was worth it,” Gabrielle tried to tease as she smiled at her lover. 

As if embarrassed to be found in this condition, Zara kept her head bowed, a slight sigh escaped her control.  When it seemed like she would not respond, the bard gently took her chin and forced the woman to look at her. 

“Hey you, I'm talking to you,” she smiled as she gazed into the depths of Zara's dark blue eyes.  At the serious expression on her lover's face, Gabrielle gave her a light smile, then softly stroked the palm of her hand over Zara's soft cheek.  “It was a joke.”

At the bards words, Zara felt her wall of control slowly crumble.  Blinking, she tried to turn away from the bard, but the woman would not remove her hand from the Moroccan's face.  For a moment, she fought to pull her sanctuary back into place.  She tried, in vain, to will the flood of emotions to stay safely locked within the darkness of her soul.

“G-Gabrielle….”  Zara's voice sounded alien to her own ears as she tried to form her thoughts.  “I…I do not know….”

“What?…What don't you know, sweetheart.  It's ok, just relax.”  Gabrielle's voice was softly soothing as she moved to sit close to her lover.

“I-I….d-don't….” she shook her head as the air felt like it left her lungs.  She felt her hands suddenly shaking as she fought for control.  Seeing this, she closed her eyes tightly as she willed the shaking to stop.  When she felt strong hands taking hers, she opened her eyes and watched as Gabrielle held the larger, shaking hands between her own, steadying the captain's trembling.

“You don't always have to be strong by yourself,” the bard whispered as she smiled at her. 

Before Zara could react, she felt the bards arms wrap around her, pulling her close.  “I'm sorry, Zara,” the bard whispered close to her ear.  At her apology, the stone wall that the captain had tried to build around her emotions came suddenly crumbling around her.  Unable to stop the flow of pain, Zara buried her face in the bard's shoulder as her tears fell freely.

“I-I….d-did not mean to…I….do not want to h-hurt you,” Zara tried to explain through tears, the headache from the morning compounded by her tears, “the woman…the concubine…
s-she…looked so much like…..” the captain choked up when she thought of her spirit twin and how much she missed her, “that is what she would have looked like if ….if they had not… m-murdered her.”

“Shush, it's ok.  I understand,” the blonde pulled her closer, held her tighter as she tried to comfort and protect her lover.  When it seemed that Zara's tears were subsiding, Gabrielle took the hem of her cotton shirt and wiped the big woman's eyes.  “How old were you both?”

Zara needed no explanation of the bard's question.  As the fatigue filled her body and soul, she closed her eyes as she was leaning against her warm body, the single cape wrapped around both of them to keep the early morning chill away.  With only a gulp, Zara sighed as she wrapped her arms around the bard's small waist.

“W-We were taken….before we were both to have had our fourteenth celebration,” she managed to say.

Gabrielle felt a sorrow fill her soul.  As she gently held the big woman close, she realized that her gentle friend, her lover had lost her soul mate at such a young age.  Knowing how hard it was for her to lose Xena as an adult, she realized how much more painful it must have been for a child to have experienced such a violent separation.  With only a sigh, she kissed the crown of the Moroccans head as she closed her eyes against the tears that fell for Zara's loss.

As the morning sun began to peek through the branches, Zara relaxed against the smaller woman.  When she felt a hard rock underneath her, she groaned as she shifted positions.  Remembering her soft feather mattress, she sighed as she closed her eyes.  No matter the circumstances, she never truly felt comfortable except on her ship, in her cabin, in her own bed.  The only thing that would make her more at ease is if she was out at sea.  For some reason unknown to the Moroccan, she never felt that land was her home.  Her home was the sea.  Understanding this, Zara knew that remaining grounded for too long would begin to wear her down.

With this in mind, the captain closed her eyes as she rested in the bard's embrace.
It had taken less than a day for Jamil to approach Zara.  As she was in the healer's tent, the Moroccan listened intently to both the words of Gabrielle and Healer al-Farabi.  Anxious to be underway, she hoped that they would convey the news that she wanted to hear.  With only a frown, she glanced at her remaining wounded men as she thought over the situation.

During the battle she had lost half of her crew.  Of those who were wounded, only fifteen were able to return to work, which left her with twenty who would need a longer recovery and only fifteen extra bodies besides the unwounded men to run the entire ship.  As her mind wandered over various possibilities, she turned from the two healers and began to pace.

Being on land was making her restless.  The flatness of the earth, the lack of movement below her feet was beginning to gnaw at her brain.  Zara knew that land life was unhealthy for her.  If she had any doubts, all she had to do was remember how she had awakened, disoriented and cold and strung out from the hashish in the middle of the jungle, with Gabrielle asleep by her side as they shared her cape for warmth.  That alone was a wake up call for Zara.  As she unconsciously scratched her chin, she tried to find an option that would get them underway.

When she glanced to the tent entrance, she noticed that Gabrielle was now standing outside with Jamil.  The first thing the Moroccan noticed of the captain of the guard was the pronounced bruising under his left eye.  Seeing his bruise, the captain unconsciously rubbed a palm over tingling knuckles.  Instantly concerned by his sudden appearance, Zara watched for any movement from the man that was threatening to the bard.  However, rather than disrespect, she saw the man speaking softly, his demeanor all but subservient as he bowed his head, even saluting the blonde several times.  Curious about his actions, Zara moved to join the two.

In a defensive manner, she stood behind Gabrielle as she stared at Jamil.  As they became aware of her presence, they turned to her.  Gabrielle smiled as she nodded to Zara.

“My friend….”  Jamil's voice was contrite, “I am here only to apologize.  I regret that my words greatly offended you.  I did not mean to disrespect your woman, or you.  I humbly ask your forgiveness, as I have asked for the forgiveness of your lady,” Jamil bowed to Zara, his eyes remaining as saddened as his voice was humble.  As she tried to understand his words, she remained silent.  When it seemed she would not speak, Jamil looked at her, his sorrow barely contained.

Gabrielle gazed intently at Zara and Jamil as they spoke.  Her thoughts spun slowly.  'Now I'm 'your woman', Zara?  Your 'Lady'?  I wonder, did you say that to Jamil, or did he just assume things?'  The bard wasn't certain how she felt about all this, but she was glad that the two captains seemed to be on good terms once more.

“I-I….it is not good for me to consume …hashish.  I enjoy it so thoroughly, but….I am afraid that at times, I do not think so clearly while it is in my brain,” Jamil said as if his apology needed further explanation.  “Please, Zara …my friend.  I beg you to accept my apology.  But I would understand if you did not.  My actions, my conduct,” he shook his head as he looked down, “were reprehensible.  I greatly disrespected you and yours.”

Releasing her breath, Zara closed her eyes in relief, then nodded acceptance.  At her actions, the tall, dark man smiled as he clapped his hands together.  “Blessed Allah!  Thank you! For a moment I thought my stupidity had cost me a friendship,” Jamil said.

“If Gabrielle accepted your apology, then surely I can also,” Zara slightly smiled, then pointed at his bruised eye.  “Perhaps she should look at that?”

“I already asked him if I could,” the bard smiled.

“No, no, please.  It is nothing.  I have had worse, I assure you,” Jamil blushed as he touched the discolored eye. 

“Well, it looks pretty painful.  How did you get it?”  Gabrielle asked, as she looked first at Jamil, then at Zara.  With an air of innocence, the tall Moroccan woman glanced off at the group of seagulls flying overhead.

“Merely an accident, a trifling encounter with an immovable object.  I assure you, Healer Gabrielle, it is as nothing,” Jamil brushed away her concern.

“An immovable object, huh?  Perhaps something Moroccan in nature?”  Gabrielle smiled as she winked up at Zara, then turned to reenter the healer's tent. 

Her words brought a hearty laughter from Jamil, and a slight grin from Zara.  With a shake of her head, the captain turned to her friend.

“It is time we prepare to leave these shores, my friend,” Jamil's voice grew serious.

“Yes, I was just speaking to the healers of that same concern,” Zara agreed.

“Good, so we are both in agreement.  Come, we shall speak to the Sultan of this for he also has some suggestions.  Perhaps we can come up with a solution that will be of help to all of us!”  Jamil slapped her shoulder, then kept his arm draped over her as he led her through the camp.

As if the fight had never occurred, they spoke and laughed, their jesting more of camaraderie and friendship built over many years rather than just a recent friendship.  With no other concerns, Zara relaxed as she prepared to make departure plans with Jamil and the sultan.

As she had gone into the healer's tent, Gabrielle could hear the two captain's talking about leaving the shore as soon as possible.  The petite healer was somewhat bewildered.  'So you were fighting Jamil over… me,' she thought in bemusement.  'Why Zara, after that conversation we had in the cabin, I didn't think you cared.'  Shaking her head as she made her rounds of patients, the small woman found herself wondering where Xena had been these last few days.  She had not seen her soul mate since Xena had left the bard comforting the sobbing captain that night in the jungle.  The petite woman felt mixed up and alone.  'Xena, where are you,' she thought.  'What's going on?'  There was no answer, and with a sigh, the healer went on with her work.
A few days passed before all of the preparations were made.  With the sultan's ship completely destroyed in the battle, he and his entourage were forced to join the guards' ship.  That left their crew over the limit for the ship.  Having so many extra men,  the sultan offered them to Zara.  Although she was not certain of their skills, she was grateful for their presence and assured the sultan that once they reached the port in Indus, she would be able to recruit more men should the sultan's crew not be comfortable with her ship.  With the agreement made, they prepared to leave the shores where so many of their friends had perished.

As the sails of her ship flapped in the wind, Zara took a final glance at the now empty shores.  From by her side, she felt the blonde lightly touch her arm.  Glancing down, she smiled as Gabrielle leaned against her.  When they looked out at the sea, they saw the Sultan's ship mirroring them.  Even with the extra men she had only half a crew. Zara knew that the two ships together would be better able to reach a friendly port safely.  Their numbers would be enough to ward off any pirate ships which might still be in the area.  With this in mind, she absently reached around the bard with both arms and held her close, unconsciously resting her chin on the smaller woman's head.  Leaning back into her warm embrace, Gabrielle sighed as she felt Zara's body pressing against her back and smiled.

The End of Chapter 4

Chapter 5

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