The Curse of Higuchi

Chapter 8

By L. Crystal Michallet-Romero
Copyright © October 2002
All Rights Reserved

I'd like to give a big thank you to all of you medical people from the MerwolfPack group who answered my call, “Is there a doctor in the house?” and, once picking yourselves up off the floor from laughter, managed to answer my questions regard the healing techniques of a particular wound.
Also, my gratitude always goes to my awesome beta readers, Bill the Semi Bard, Sue Rice, and my every diligent spouse, Jessica.

Note to Readers:
Like the story surrounding Indus and the Asoka reign, with certain aspects of Islam and Arabia, I am taking great liberties. Much of this story is a work of fiction. The only verifiable facts of this story are always listed on the cover pages of each chapter.

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.
Major, Major Disclaimer! Any similarities or resemblance of any character(s) in this story to anyone in real life, either living or dead, are purely coincidental!
Rated: NC17
Violence: Yes
Sexual Violence: None
Subtext: Yes (F/F)

Historical Information:
Asoka = Prince Asoka was crowned King of Indus in 272 B.C. After a bloody battle in the territory of Kalinga where thousands of warriors, men and women alike, were killed, and thousands more died because of the war, Asoka had an epiphany and turned away from violence and embraced the Buddhist philosophy. King Asoka became known as The Buddhist Emperor of Indus. He reigned as King for 37 years and during his reign, he built irrigation canals, roads, rest homes, hospitals and public gardens which specialized in medicinal herbs. Additionally, during Asoka's reign, the Indus civilization experienced an economic prosperity due to the peace and reformations within Indus. Owing to his past reputation in battle and victories over enemy warriors, the neighboring kings never waged war against Asoka or his people. The land of Indus, under King Asoka, experienced a renaissance of art, music, philosophy, and the sciences years before the European renaissance of the 14th century.
Adoption = The custom of adopting children, especially sons, in pre-Islamic Arabia was a common practice. The Prophet Muhammad was himself adopted by his uncle after the death of his mother and father and as an adult, the Prophet Muhammad had adopted a child of a captive, Zaid ibn Muhammad, who later became the first freed slave to accept Islam. Despite this, as the Prophet Muhammad became the messenger of Allah, he was given a vision which set up Shari'ah, Islamic Law. One such law abolished the act of adoption (Qu'ran 33:38-40). Kafala soon took the place of adoption. Unlike adoption, Kafala's literal translation is to sponsor, which means that an orphan child, or adult without clan, is then accepted into a family. However the individual undergoing Kafala does not take the place of natural born children, nor are they given automatic property ownership of the person who is sponsoring them.
Chakra = any of several points of physical or spiritual energy in the human body according to Hindu yoga philosophy.
Tattoo = Tattoos have existed since 3300 B.C.E. Permanent tattoo's were common in pre-Islamic Arabia and Morocco, and are still common among the Beduins of Morocco, and the Berbers of North Africa. Permanent tattoos were often used as either decoration on the body, clan affiliations or symbols of protection. With the advent of Islam, and later in the Prophet Muhammad's life, the act of scarification, as tattoos were recognized as being, became prohibited in the latter life of the Prophet Muhammad, as it was seen as changing that which Allah created (Qu'ran 59:7).
Transcendental Meditation = A spiritual development technique developed and promoted by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a former Hindu ascetic. The movement is based on specific meditation techniques and is not connected with any religious tradition, although the perspective behind it has roots in the Hindu teachings of Vedanta. The practice entails the mental repetition of a mantra in order to still the activity of thought and experience a deeper level of consciousness.

Part 41

Nadrah lay on her tummy on Zara and Gabrielle's bed. She watched in silence as the captain sat on the bench in front of the mirror, with Gabrielle standing in front of her. The bard's expression was one of deep concentration as she stared down at the captain while working on the Moroccan's face. With a round, soft cotton ball, the blonde was applying a thin film of brown powder to Zara's swollen, black and blue eye. Upon the bard's touch, the captain flinched and hissed.

“Oh, such a fuss over a little bit of pain!” Gabrielle tsked as she looked at Nadrah, and winked, “Isn't she such a fuss?”

“Watch what you say, child, I am still your captain,” Zara warned menacingly as the corners of her lips threatened to turn slightly upward into a smile.

Nadrah only giggled as she covered her mouth. Although still a child, she knew when it was best to keep silent. Over time, the girl had decided that whenever anything concerned the captain, conflicting opinions were best left to oneself.

“Hold still, how do you expect me to cover this if you're squirming around?” the healer bard asked with a sigh.

“Well, if you did not keep jamming that accursed concoction into my eye instead of around it, perhaps it wouldn't hurt so much,” Zara grumbled.

“You know, Love, if you would just deal with how it looks, then I wouldn't have to apply this, now would I?” Gabrielle reminded as she shook her head and continued to apply the powdery mixture that had been left on the table. “I would think that you would thank me for even coming up with this idea! I mean, if I hadn't thought of it, you probably would have dropped out of the competition and stayed holed up in this room.” She pursed her lips. “Zara, no one really cares about how your eye looks, why, I haven't even heard anyone talking about it … have you Nadrah?”

“Ahuh!” The little girl became animated as she sat up excitedly on the bed. “All day yesterday, all the newcomers were asking questions about the woman who pummeled ...” but Nadrah grew silent when she saw the stern expression on the bard. Instantly, she clamped her mouth closed with her little hand as she looked down dejectedly.

“Well, ok, so there may have been some talk about it, but, honestly, Zara, did you really intend to stay hidden in here for the duration of our stay?” The bard asked, then smiled, and winked at Nadrah to show the girl that she was not angry. At the bard's reassurance, the little girl smiled as she moved to sit on the edge of the bed, her legs dangling over the edge.

“Gabrielle, now that I'm to be in the Sultan's clan, I have to consider how things look. I can't be seen in public with something like … like this,” the captain motioned to her black eye as she turned and gazed in the mirror. “How would it look, not even gone through the Kafala ceremony yet, and I walk around like this? What would people say?”

“I think people would say that you're a damn good fighter and the Sultan's family is lucky to have you,” the bard said affectionately as she moved behind her and gazed at Zara's reflection in the mirror. “The swelling has gone down, honey, and really, with the concealing powder, it's hardly noticeable.”

As Nadrah watched the two, she thought over Zara's words. The announcement of the captain joining the Sultan's family had spread like wildfire. Although she did not fully understand it, the child did know that once the ceremony was complete, Zara would no longer be the captain, but would now be a part of the Sultan's clan and be considered Royalty.

“Captain … are you going to … go live with the Sultan?” she asked hesitantly. At her question, the taller woman turned to her and smiled.

“No, Nadrah, I still have my ship, and I still have some unfinished business at home to take care of. I do not plan on joining the Sultan on a permanent basis. But I do know that I will be visiting him when I take my mother back to her family,” Zara smiled as the bard finished applying the finishing touches of makeup.

As the child pondered that last statement, Gabrielle spoke, her tone neutral as she touched the Moroccan's hair. “So you are going to take your mother back to her uncle's home?” If she had any inner misgivings, the bard's eloquent voice concealed them.

“If she will allow me to, yes. I'm certain once she hears how her family has been searching for her, she will want to return. After all, life with my father…” Zara visibly frowned while shaking her head. “Life with my father has not been easy for Mother,” she said without further elaborating as Gabrielle applied a bit more power to a part of Zara's nose.

“Then you won't be living with the Sultan forever?” Nadrah asked again with a slight tilt of her head.

“No. I will visit, but my home is on my ship, on the sea,” Zara smiled softly at the girl.

Nadrah thought of the captain's answer, squinching her face as she tried to understand. At her obvious confusion, Zara smiled down at her. When the makeup job was finally finished, the taller woman stood and moved to sit by Nadrah's side.

“Do you understand what the Kafala ceremony means?” she asked with a serious expression as she watched Nadrah closely.

“No, not really,” the girl softly answered.

“What it means, Nadrah, is that the Sultan will be accepting me into his family. I will be a part of the kin, and clan. But aside for that, I'm still me. I'll still be the Captain Zara you know. I'll still have my ship and will continue to travel the seas as a merchant,” she explained, then added, “The only difference will be that whatever profits I make, will now be my own, and not my father's. And I will have markings here, just as you've seen some in Morocco have,” Zara added as she touched her arms.

“And the markings will let everyone know that you are part of the Sultan's clan?” Nadrah leaned against the captain as she looked down in thought. Tenderly, Zara wrapped an arm over her shoulder.

“Yes, the markings will tell everyone that I am part of the Sultan's clan,” she explained.

As an afterthought, Nadrah glanced up to the tall woman. “Captain, are you going to be the next ruler of the Sultan's land? What is a sultan's daughter called anyway? What are we supposed to call you?”

A sigh escaped Zara's control, “for a little mouse, you certainly ask a lot of questions,” she smiled, “but no, I will not be the next ruler of the Sultan's land. The Sultan has children already, and he has an older son. The Sultan's official title is, His Royal Highness, Sheik Sultan Uthman Hadim ibn Zafar ibn Ja'lal 'abd al-Quaiti, of the kingdom of Hadhramaut. With the exception of his oldest son, who will inherit his title, all of his children are either called, Shaikh, if they are men, or Shaikhas, if they are women, so, I imagine my title will change to Shaikha. As for what you are to call me….” The captain smiled down at her and lightly touched the tip of the girl's nose. “You will continue to call me Captain. Is that understood?” Zara asked, with a stern expression, yet Nadrah noticed the twinkle in the bigger woman's eyes.

Nadrah nodded as she wrapped her arm behind Zara's back. “Captain…”

“Yes, Nadrah?”

“What is it like … ummm, I mean, does it feel good to have a family want you?” Nadrah felt a lump in her throat as soon as she asked the question.
Zara heard the sadness in the little girl's voice. With an arch of a brow, the tall woman turned her attention from the child, then to her lover who returned her glance. The Moroccan hugged the girl close and lifted Nadrah onto her knee.

“Nadrah, is this something that you long for?” she asked as she placed the tips of her fingers under the girl's chin forcing her to look up. The little brown eyes grew misty as she nodded affirmatively. At the sorrow of the child, the Moroccan sighed as she hugged her close again.

“Nadrah, there will come a day when someone will ask if they can take you into their clan … into their family. When that day comes, I promise that I will give you a choice in the matter once I've determined that the clan is worthy of you,” she assured the little girl.

“Why wouldn't they be worthy?” Nadrah asked with interest, her momentary sadness forgotten.

“Well,” Zara caught her lover's glance and noticed that the bard was listening with the same amount of interest. “First, I would want to make certain that whoever wishes to adopt you, can take care of you. I want to know that they are stable, that they will have a home for you, and, most importantly, that you will not be put in danger, or harmed in any way. Once I feel confident about this, then I will ask you if you would like to go with them, or stay with me,” she assured.

As she spoke, Zara noticed the bard's frown as the smaller woman turned away. As if to make herself look busy, the blonde was returning the vials of cosmetic powders to the table. Unaware of the bard's movements, Nadrah tugged at the captain's arm who looked down. “Yes, little mouse?”

“Captain, do you think it will ever happen? Is there a family out there for me?”
Gabrielle felt her heart aching for Nadrah. She could tell from the child's voice that the little girl longed for a family of her own. As she listened to Zara's criteria for a suitable family, the bard began to wonder if her lover would deem her worthy of raising the girl. Silently, she moved to sit beside her lover and listened to her words with head bent in thought.

“Nadrah, I am positive that there is a family waiting for you; all of my cabin girls have found families,” the Moroccan said.

“Really?” Nadrah looked up at her with wide eyes.

“Really. Each of them was asked to join a family. Why, my very first cabin girl is actually settled down now with a little girl your age! I was with her family on the day she wed, and a year later, I saw the first little one that she gave birth to!” Zara smiled as if the images still fresh in her mind, then glanced down at Nadrah. “So you see, I'm positive that there is a family out there who will be pleased to have you join them … we just haven't found them yet.”

After a moment of thought, Nadrah looked up at Zara. “Captain, why can't you adopt me? I'd be good! I'd make sure that you were always taken care of, I promise!”

The bard noticed a frown cross her lover's features. With a slight sigh, the tall woman hugged Nadrah close, then looked down at her.

“Child, parents are supposed to take care of you, not the other way around,” Zara smiled at the girl, then continued. “I would be proud to have you as my daughter, but remember I told you that I could not surrender you to anyone who was not suited for you?” At the little girl's nod, Zara smiled softly. “I must hold myself to that as well, and I am not suitable for you. My life is on the sea, it's where I feel at home, and where, I believe, I shall always be. But … there is too much danger in my life, a-and … there is much more, Nadrah. Much more, which makes me unsuitable to be your parent, or anyone's parent,” sadness seemed to enter Zara's voice.

As if sensing her sorrow, Nadrah smiled as she reached up and touched Zara's cheek with her tiny palm. “I don't care, Captain. I'd be proud to be your daughter, no matter what!”

In a visible attempt at control, Zara looked away from the girl. The Moroccan wiped at her eyes before looking back at Nadrah. “And I would be equally proud if you were,” the captain said as she hugged the little body close.

With a slight smile, Gabrielle laid her head on Zara's shoulder. A part of her felt sad that Zara would think so little of herself, yet another part wondered if her lover would judge her by the same criteria. Although she had never thought of it before, she realized that she never imagined that there wouldn't be a time when Nadrah wouldn't be with them. It had never crossed her mind that someday Zara would willingly give up the girl, and now that this information registered, the bard realized that she would like to be able to take Nadrah along, wherever she went. Gabrielle hadn't talked it over with Xena, but she was certain that if they were successful at bringing her back, that she would not mind keeping Nadrah. Already the two seemed to have formed a close bond. While she contemplated the idea, another part of her mind went over the fact that the sea was where Zara would always be. At this thought, the bard only sighed as she wrapped her arm around her lover's waist.

Part 42

Once Nadrah seemed satisfied with Zara's words, they made their way toward the gathered competitors. At the slight smiles and greetings, the tall Moroccan managed a polite nod, or slight greeting. Although she appeared calm on the outside, inside Zara was a bundle of nerves. Of all of the competition events, this was one that she had most dreaded.

Zara ignored Jamil's comments about her eye as she gazed at the dappled brown mare she would be riding in the event, assessing it as she would do for new ship. In looks, it seemed an ordinary beast, occasionally twitching its tail and ears at the flies. As she stood back glancing at it, she absently scratched her chin. At the sound of hooves nearby, she looked up to see the bard riding what appeared to be the largest white stallion that the Moroccan had ever seen. The smaller woman's mastery over the prancing animal was not lost on Zara and she marveled again at the varied skills her lover seemed to possess. Gabrielle pulled the horse up beside her and jumped off, a slight smile on her face as she patted the white stallion's flank.

“This one is yours?” the bard asked as she glanced over the animal. Zara only grunted a response as she continued to stare at the dappled mare standing so calmly. When she felt someone touch her shoulder she turned and gazed down at Arjun.

“Honey, don't you worry a bit,” he whispered like a conspirator as he glanced around to make certain that no one was listening to him. “I gave specific instructions that you were to be given the most docile, gentle horse in our stalls. You will find her to be very accepting of you,” the prince assured as he patted Zara's shoulder.

“What?” Gabrielle turned to Arjun, then looked sharply at Zara. “Wait a minute! You don't know how to ride?”

“Shush, Gabrielle, really! We don't need to advertise that!” The prince hushed her quickly as he glanced over their shoulders.

“I know how to ride, Gabrielle. It's just that … well … I have not ridden very much,” the Moroccan stated with a frown.

“What? Great Zeus!” The bard's disbelieving eyes turned to her, then looked sharply at Arjun. “What in Tartarus are you trying to do to her? See how deep an impression she can make in the ground?”

“Sweetheart, it wasn't my idea,” the small ruler protested, fluttering his hands at her. “You know my dear sister has a mind of her own…” then he paused and rolled his eyes before continuing, “Well, at least I'm relatively sure she has a mind…”

The bard frowned at him before looking back up at her lover. “Zara? How bad is this?”

“Gabrielle, when have I had the opportunity to ride?” The Moroccan asked as she shrugged her shoulders.

“Oh, boy!” the blonde whispered, then turned on Arjun again. “Are you sure this one is gentle? Zara, if you'd rather drop out, honey, it's ok. Please Arjun, tell me that this is a gentle mare?” the bard turned between the two people and shook her head looking pleadingly up at the captain.

“I'm sure I will be all right. I mean, how hard can it be?” the Moroccan stated as the smaller woman covered her eyes and softly moaned. Just then, outside the stables, trumpets sounded as the first line of racers were called to the starting line.

“Oh, Krishna, it's starting! I have to go! Honey, trust me, this mare knows the route by heart. Just sit on her, hold on tight, and let her do the rest,” the prince whispered before smiling and turning away to make his way to the dais.

Gabrielle looked intently at Zara, a look of indecision crossing her features. Then, she shook her head before leaning up to kiss her. “Sweetheart, please think about this. I don't want you to get hurt over a stupid game. If you want to back out, I'm sure no one would say anything.”

“Gabrielle, I do not back out of contests … besides, Arjun has never lied to me. I'm sure this one is the gentlest,” she assured her smaller lover.

“'The gentlest', oh gods…” With a hopeless shake of her head, the blonde sighed as she turned and mounted her horse. She seemed to be thinking about something, then, with a shrug of her shoulders, turned her horse away and coaxed it to the starting line. Once alone, Zara glanced into the animal's brown eyes as she tried again to gauge the beast's temperament. When she determined that it was impossible to determine, she shrugged her shoulders as she took the reins and walked the animal to her assigned group.
Nadrah found Pritam standing in the open field, his eyes watching all of the contestants. Throughout all of the events, Nadrah had spent her free time in Pritam's company and although he was a bit trying at times, overall, she found him fun to be around. When she moved beside him, he smiled as he pointed to the riders.

“My sister is riding in the second group. See her? She's over there, riding her own horse,” he said as she spotted his sister on a large gray spotted horse. “The bard Gabrielle is in the first group, see? and Jamil is in the fourth group. Over there is your captain … she's almost near the back.” Pritam pointed.

“How long do you think it will take?” Nadrah asked.

“Ummm … probably most of the day … maybe a bit less,” the boy shrugged. “I saw the course, and it's wicked! In the beginning it's a straight path, but then it turns into a winding trail where only two horses can ride side by side…” Pritam's voice droned in the back of her mind as she watched the first group gathering, then at the prince's command, a trumpet call was made that dropped a flag, and the group thundered off over the hill toward the distant trees and the unseen trail.

One after another the group of twenty riders waited patiently until the call was made and then tore off at a gallop when the flag dropped. Nadrah knew that out of all the riders who left the starting line, only a small portion would be returning to the finish lines. If a rider lost control of their horse, or if they became separated from it, then they would be disqualified. The ones who finished would progress to the final competition, the chariot race. Only when Zara's group departed did Nadrah stand up and shield her eyes from the sun.

As she watched the captain disappearing from view, Pritam grew silent as he glanced over his shoulder. With a slight frown, he watched as the Prince's wives got up one by one and left the shelter of the large sunshade. When he saw them leaving, he looked over to the farthest corner of the lawn where the big man from Nadrah's ship sat. When Abu stood and made his way toward the estate, Pritam wryly smiled.

“Hey, Nadrah, come on, lets see what's going on,” he said as he tugged at her arm.

Nadrah turned away only when the captain could no longer be seen. When she looked at her friend, she tilted her head. At her confusion, he smiled as he pointed up to the disappearing women, and then to the other door that Abu was walking into.

“I've noticed that as soon as they leave, he leaves too!” The Indian boy grinned as he nodded toward them. “Don't you want to see what's going on up in the Princesses' chambers?”

“Pritam, why would I want to see in their chambers? Besides, you can't see anything anyway,” she shrugged.

“I bet you can! I know how we can see in! Come on, I'll show you,” he smiled as he nodded toward the side of the estate.

Nadrah took a glance over her shoulder and shrugged as she followed her friend. “Pritam, you're not going to get me into trouble, are you?” she asked as he led her behind the building and to a large tree.

For a moment, she wondered if her friend had lost his mind, or if he was just stupid. With a shake of her head, Nadrah looked at the older boy. A grin remained etched on his face as he moved to the tree.

“Pritam, do you have something in you that tells you when you're doing something wrong?” Her brows furrowed as she stared at the boy.

Pritam stopped and looked down at her in confusion. As if trying to find an answer to a test, his brows squinted, then he shook his head. “I guess not,” he answered honestly.

Nadrah sighed as she turned away from the boy. “Well I do, and I'm not going to follow you. I'm going to see who comes back from the race,” she called over her shoulder as she walked away.

The boy watched his friend leaving. A part of him felt that he should stop what he was doing, yet another part could not resist. Rather than worry about the outcome, he shrugged his shoulders and began to climb up the tree.

Although she liked being around other children, there were times when Nadrah simply couldn't understand their thinking. The desire to have fun and play made sense because it was her favorite pastime as well. Yet getting into mischief or purposely courting danger was something alien to her. If anyone had asked Nadrah why she didn't join her friend, she wouldn't have been able to respond coherently, because a part of her didn't understand either. All she knew was that there was a feeling deep inside of her that warned her against joining him. Heeding that warning, the little girl walked across the tall grass back to where the race began. Occasionally, she would smile and wave at the servants or a guest whom she knew. When she moved to the dais where Arjun sat, she walked past the guards as if invisible. Only when she stood by the prince was she acknowledged.

With a slight smile and a nod, Arjun reached down and ruffled her hair as she leaned against the dais and watched the rest of the riders leaving the starting line. Never once missing a beat, the young prince continued to speak to the Sultan, his hands waving theatrically through the air as his body language enhanced his words. The Sultan beamed as he nodded. Before she could ask Arjun a question, Nadrah felt the prince lifting her from her feet and placing her on his lap.

“And my sweet little princess here, why she's like a member of my own family!” the prince's words brought a smile from the little one. “I tell you, Sultan, there isn't a finer example of the type of woman my dear friend is, than in the example of her charge! Why look at this little angel, not only is she well behaved, but Zara has taken her education personally into her hands!”

Nadrah smiled as she watched the contestants at the starting line. While a part of her was proud of the prince's words, another part was preoccupied with the race. A secret part of her wished that the Captain would win the entire contest, and if the captain could not win it, then she hoped that Gabrielle would bring home the prize. With these thoughts in her mind, she sighed as she peered over the heads of the milling guests and watched the race unfold.

Near the house, the loud voice of a male servant caught their attention. Glancing over at where she had left Pritam, she watched as a house servant was pulling the young boy by his ear. With gruff, short words, the servant yelled at the boy, who merely grimaced as he was being led away from the foliage by the house. When they were out in the open, the tall servant stood above Pritam, his finger wagging as he periodically pointed toward the house. Although Nadrah could not hear what was being said, she knew that her friend was getting into trouble and she was glad to not have followed him.

From behind her, she heard Prince Arjun sigh. When she glanced over her shoulder, she caught his long suffering look as he turned to his royal guest.

“Thankfully, Zara has managed to teach her little Nadrah properly, unlike a certain scamp who still manages to get himself in trouble!” Arjun sighed theatrically.

“Ah, that boy has quite a spirit, does he not?” The Sultan chuckled as they watched the servant smack Pritam once on the bottom, before sending him on his way.

With hurt pride, Pritam rubbed his bottom as he glanced around at the smiling guests. When he saw Nadrah up on the dais, he meekly smiled, then shrugged his shoulders. Nadrah only shook her head before returning her attention back to the race.

Although she considered him a friend, Nadrah was grateful that she knew when to be around Pritam, and when to leave him to his own devices. Hopefully, if she was good enough, there would be someone who would notice, and want to ask her into their family. For Nadrah, this was a dream that she has been thinking a lot about. Before a melancholy set in, the little girl turned her attention to the race and waited for the riders to return.
Arjun sat on the dais and watched as the competition progressed. As expected, it took the better part of two candle marks before the first set of riders returned. When he saw the bard crossing the finish line, he smiled, pleased that she would be able to progress in the games. 'Not only is she a beauty, but she's a healer, a bard, a very capable warrior, and now, a horsewoman as well!' the prince thought as he absently listened to the Sultan's conversation.

As he thought about this, his brow rose in thought. Although there was no overt sign of trouble, should it arise, he might have to call on Gabrielle's assistance. If it should be this bad, then the ghost warrior might also be called upon. 'Oh damn!' he mentally chided himself. He had fully intended to allow Xena access to his estate, but as things became busy, he had forgotten to notify the Durga of his intentions.

'Best take care of that today, old girl. I'm sure Xena is more than ready to enter the estate, and with luck, she may agree to help me as well,' he reminded himself as he continued to watch the riders crossing the finish line.
Gabrielle wished that she had been riding in Zara's group. At least if they were together, she could keep an eye on her lover and make certain that nothing too dangerous happened. She had finished the race over six candle marks ago and thought that Zara would be finished soon. But as each group after her arrived, she began to worry. The bard couldn't stop a slight smile from crossing her lips as she realized her fears. Never had she worried about Xena like this, but then again, Xena would have never allowed her to see such a weakness as Zara had shown her, she reasoned as she shielded her eyes from the sun and watched the distant trail.

“Is she there yet?” Nadrah asked as she stood on her tippy toes beside the bard. When Gabrielle had finished the race, the child had come down from where she had sat with Arjun.

“No, not yet,” the healer bard replied as she glanced down at the girl. With a slight smile, she scooped her up and settled the girl on her shoulders. Nadrah giggled as she reached down to hold Gabrielle's hands in order to balance herself.

“Can you see any better?” she asked as Nadrah peered over the heads, her little legs scooped behind the blonde woman's torso in an attempt to not lose her balance.

“No … oh, wait! There's Isa!” Nadrah exclaimed as she began to wave at the navigator, “Isa!”

Once the bearded man had crossed the finish line, he rode to where the servants waited to collect the sweat lathered horses and return them to the stables. When he saw the bard and girl, he smiled as he dismounted and handed the reins to a servant. With a sigh, he wiped his damp brow as he made his way toward them.

“Little mouse, Gabrielle,” he smiled as he moved to them. “By Allah who is merciful, I wasn't certain if I was going to finish! That last turn took me by surprise!”

“I know; it was a challenge! I almost lost it at the third hurdle too,” Gabrielle replied as she returned to scanning the finish line.

“Who else made it?” he asked as he reached up to take Nadrah from her shoulders. Grateful for his gesture, she handed the little girl to him, and watched the rest of the riders cross the line.

“Nivedita and Jamil finished a few candle marks ago, I'm just waiting for Zara,” she explained. At her look of concern, his brows creased.

“But the captain was in the group ahead of me,” he said as he began to survey the returning racers himself.

As if sensing their concerns, Arjun made his way toward them. Dressed in an elegant sage colored sari, the smaller man used a fan in his right hand, as he carried a matching parasol in his left. The petite prince made certain to remain under the protective shade.

“Oh dear, she's not back yet?” The prince's falsetto voice tsked as he gazed toward the finish line.

“No, and she should have been back long before Isa's group,” Gabrielle's voice was barely a whisper. Just as she spoke, Nadrah pointed to the hill where all the riders were arriving.

“There's her horse!” she called out, but grew silent as the dappled brown mare came into view … riderless.
Zara thought she was fairing fairly well, all things considering. Through all of the turns in the road, she managed to hold on to the animal. At the jumps, she simply closed her eyes and prayed to Allah that the beast knew what to do. When the creature ran under some low branches, she managed to duck and only lost a few strands of her hair to the grasping tree limbs. It wasn't until they reached a blind corner that she got into trouble.

When the animal rounded the bend, Zara felt the reins in her right hand suddenly grow slack. As she held on with her left, she glanced at the broken leather and began to panic. Before she could even contemplate her next move, the horse leapt over an obstacle. Unable to hold on to anything with her right hand, she instinctively bore down with her feet and it was then that she felt the right stirrup give way with a snap. Zara had little time to contemplate it as the animal took a sharp left turn near the edge of a hill. With nothing to hold steady with, the tall Moroccan felt herself soaring through the air like a hawk in flight.

The Moroccan sea captain landed unceremoniously at the bottom of a ravine. The wet mud did little to soften her landing. As she sat up sputtering and coughing, she looked over her shoulder and watched as the shadowed figures of the racers continued to pass her up on the hilly path. Glancing down at herself, she noticed the mud covering her entire front. With a frown she pulled herself to her feet, grumbling at the stupidity of her decision to ride such an unstable killer of a beast in the first place.

'The most docile, the most gentle horse in the stables, is it?' She fumed. 'Wait until I see you, Arjun!' When she took a step, she instantly recognized the error of her action as a pain shot through her ankle.

Zara immediately sat and stared at her right foot. If it was broken, she could sit and wait for rescuers to find her, which might take a long time. Or, she could suck up the pain and climb back up the hill. When she wiggled her toes, she determined that it was not broken, then grimaced as she stood up once again to climb the hill. Although in great physical pain, she managed somehow to climb up the steep incline. As she carefully limped along the road she watched as the rest of the riders rode past her at a full gallop.

A part of Zara hoped that someone would stop to offer a ride. But as she remembered how many of the riders were focused on the path and not the side of the road, she shook her head and knew that she had little choice but to continue to make her way back to Arjun's estate. With each step she took, she felt the mud drying, caking hard against her clothes and skin as her ankle seemed to scream in pain.

“Must remember to listen to the bard,” she promised herself as she trudged along the side of the trail.
“Zara isn't back yet?” Jamil asked.

The Arab man had bathed and was wearing clean clothes. By his side, Nivedita stood as a look of concern crossed her features. Like Jamil, she was freshly bathed and wearing a simple, cotton sari.

Gabrielle could only shake her head as a frown creased her features. Still wearing her clothes from the morning, she was very much aware of her own stench, yet chose to ignore it as a panic began to set in. If it hadn't been for Arjun's orders, the bard would have gone and physically look for her lover. But soon after Zara's horse returned riderless, Arjun had gone to inspect the mare, then began to give orders to his men. That was nearly a candle mark ago, and still no word had been heard about the Moroccan's whereabouts.

Arjun had moved to his captain of the guards and was issuing orders for a foot search, rather than a tower search, to begin. Before the small prince could finish, Nadrah squealed as she jumped up and down. No longer on the navigators shoulders, she stood as near the finish line as was allowed and waited patiently.

“There she is!” the girl's scream caught their attention.

The bard looked at the figure moving slowly into the clearing. For a moment, Gabrielle didn't recognize her lover. But when she saw that the Moroccan was walking, she felt instantly relieved. Her relief soon vanished when she noticed Zara's limp. As if in great pain, the captain favored her left foot, and limped each time she stepped on her right. Without saying a word, the healer bard tore off toward the woman.

“Zara!” she called out as she reached her lover's side. Obviously miserable, Zara's head was bowed. When she looked up, Gabrielle noticed the dried, caked on mud. Branches and leaves clung to the taller woman's hair. When Zara took a step toward the bard, a grimace of pain crossed her features.

“Don't you take another step!” Gabrielle ordered as she quickly moved to the bigger woman, then lifted her from her feet and into her arms. At the sudden change, Zara gasped, then sighed in relief as the healer began to carry her, like a babe, away from the path.
Zara had little time to contemplate the change. One moment she was hobbling toward the estate, the next moment, Gabrielle was standing in front of her. Before she could say a word, the bard had scooped her from her feet and was carrying the bigger woman across the open field. While a part of her was grateful that her ankle no longer hurt, another part felt an embarrassed blush cross her mud- encrusted features.

“Gabrielle, I can walk,” she spoke with deepness in her voice that conveyed her embarrassment. Before she could protest further, she heard laughter rising in the air. With an arm around her smaller lover's shoulder, she glanced up and saw Jamil's wide grin, his laugh falling unabated. Embarrassed, she attempted to climb out of the bard's arms, but Gabrielle held tightly to her.

“Oh, no, you don't! I have no idea what you did with your foot, but you are not taking the risk of damaging it further,” was all the bard huffed as she moved at a quick steady pace toward the estate.

“Please, Gabrielle, it's only a strain, it will be fine. I can walk,” she hissed under her breath as they got closer to the Arab man. “Please. Let me down?”

“Not a chance,” ground out the bard, plugging steadily on toward Jamil and Nivedita.

“This is priceless, Zara! How I wish there was an artist here to paint this image!” Jamil held his sides as he laughed hysterically, “Not only will you be wearing your woman's jewel, but you are also being carried like a babe by her!” he guffawed and Zara felt herself flush.

“Oh, so you think it's funny?” Nivedita asked with hands on her hips.

“Why, yes,” Jamil chortled. “Isn't it funny to see such a petite woman like Gabrielle carrying Zara? Why, I never would have thought that such a little thing could carry someone of Zara's size … unless of course Zara has no muscle weight to speak of!” His laughter began again as he slapped his knee in merriment.

“Oh, so you think that petite women lack strength, do you?” the Indian woman asked, but did not wait for a response. Instead, she grabbed hold of the burly Arab and lifted him over her shoulder. With wide eyes, Jamil glanced down at her backside, then tried to struggle.

“Let me down woman!” His voice was deep, yet lacked the menacing qualities he tried to convey. At his protest, his captor reached up with her free hand and swatted his backside.

“Be still or you shall face worse punishment,” she ordered as she began to carry him from the field. “Do not worry, my friend Zara, this man will be taught a lesson that he is not soon to forget!” she called over her shoulder. Jamil glanced around, a redness crossed his cheeks as his Arab comrades pointed, chuckling, and commenting about him. For a moment, he looked like he was about to struggle, but then he simply shrugged and relaxed in the small woman's grip.

Zara almost laughed at the sight, but before she could say anything, two Indians were running to Gabrielle. When they stood in front of her, they opened a litter, on which the bard deposited her charge. With only a sigh, Zara closed her eyes as she was being hustled into the estate.
“That beast should be put down! He is a killer, truly he is!” Zara protested to Arjun as Gabrielle was helping her from her muddy clothes.

“I swear, Zara, I don't know what happened! Usually she is so docile, why, I would have felt safe with Nadrah riding her!” Arjun protested, then added, “But you're right, sweetheart. My handlers will be looking into the matter.”

“Well, I'm gonna have to cut this off,” Zara heard the bard say. At her words, the Moroccan looked down in horror, a gasp escaping her as she tried to pull her boot away from the healer.

Are you out of your mind? These are my favorite boots!” the captain protested.

“Zara, your foot is too swollen for me to remove the boot. If I'm gonna examine your foot, I've got to be able to see it,” the bard started to say as she rummaged through her medical satchel.

“Isn't it enough that you've cut through my favorite pants? Now you want to also cut my favorite boots?” the pain in Zara's foot was lessening as the thought of losing her precious boots settled in.

“I'm sorry, I'll get you another pair, but it's gotta come off,” the bard ignored her pleas as she removed a large knife.

“Arjun, you're the prince here, forbid this healer from ruining a perfectly good pair of boots!” she shouted her plea to her friend.

“This is definitely not a conversation I'm going to get involved with … besides, she's an Amazon Queen, or have you forgotten?” The prince asked as he waved toward the bard. “It is I who should be obeying her every command, so don't you dare try to get me into trouble here,” the smaller man wagged his finger at his friend.

“Gabrielle, if you have everything that you require, I'm going to go to my stable to discuss a matter of putting a horse out of her misery!” The smaller man said with a tinge of disgust in his voice.

“Got everything I need,” the bard replied as she began to tear away at the leather with her knife.

“OH, BY ALLAH, YOU ARE KILLING ME!” Zara cried out as she closed her eyes to the sight of her irreplaceable boot being torn to shreds.
Nadrah stood outside in the chamber room, almost too afraid to enter into the bathing room. The sounds of Zara's shouts and screams of pain sent a chill through her bones.

When Arjun walked from the room, he looked at her white, strained face with concern and knelt in front of her.

“Don't you worry, little princess, I'm not really having the horse put down,” the prince winked, then nodded toward where the screams were coming from. “I just said that so she would feel better, but it's our secret, all right?” he whispered.

“Our secret,” Nadrah promised with a tremulous smile.

No, Gabrielle! I beg of you, stop this madness, it hurts too much!” Zara's shout caused a look of big-eyed horror from Nadrah.

At her expression, Arjun spoke reassuringly. “Oh, honey, don't you worry about her! She's just crying over her silly boot. You go on in there and help out Gabrielle. You'll see, your captain is fine!” He stood up and lightly patted her shoulder before moving off briskly.

Still somewhat worried, Nadrah edged cautiously to the door, but was reassured when she saw Zara sitting on the bench, in no apparent distress while Gabrielle knelt calmly before her. The part of the bigger woman's body that had not been covered with mud was now naked. As if in deep pain, the captain glanced down, then shook her head as she turned away from the bard's hands.

“Gabrielle, you're killing me, really, this is too, too much! I never realized how insane you were until now!” she shouted again as she winced. Ignoring the captain's words, the blonde gave one final slice with her blade, then pulled at the heel of Zara's boot.

“OH, ALLAH WHY ARE YOU TESTING ME SO?” The tall Moroccan called out to the heavens, then glanced down at the bard who was handing the torn open boot up to her.

Nadrah couldn't help but smile at the scene. As if seeing her for the first time, Zara looked at her, then held up her boot.

“Do you see this, child?” Zara asked as she held the boot, the side of it flopped open like a lizard with its tongue hanging out. Nadrah nodded and stepped into the bathing room.

“This, child, is proof that the bard has gone mad, absolutely mad! Look, this was my good boot, see how she just cut it apart like a crazed woman…” the captain said, then gasped in pain and shot a threatening look down at the bard. With a wide smile, the blonde looked up at the captain as her fingers touched the side of Zara's swollen ankle.

“Your lucky it's not broken, I think it's only a sprain,” she stated winking at Nadrah. “In no time at all, you'll be able to get back on your feet … oh, wait, how can you get back on your feet when you have no boots to wear?” Gabrielle giggled, and was joined by Nadrah's laughter.

“Woman…” Zara was about to say something, but was stopped when the bard stood up, took a warm towel, and wiped it over the captain's mouth to remove the remaining mud and dirt. Then, she leaned forward and pressed her lips against the taller woman's. Nadrah covered her mouth and giggled as she watched them kissing, then moved to take the dirty boot from the captain.

“Now then, why don't we work on getting you looking like a human rather than a baby pig who's just wallowed in the mud all day. Nadrah, honey, can you take that boot and see if someone can repair it … and, ummmm, sweetheart, can you give us say, two or three candle marks until you come back to the room?” The bard smiled at her, then winked.

Although Nadrah was only a child, she completely understood what the bard was asking and knew that soon after she left, the captain and bard would be rubbing against each other, as they seemed to do a lot lately. With a nod, the girl smiled, waved, and then walked from the bathing room with the muddy boot in her hands. Behind her, she heard the sounds of more kissing and a muffled sigh, then a slight growl from the captain before the sound of splashing water covered it all.

Part 43

Prince Arjun Asoka moved silently through his estate. Assured that his friend Zara was in capable hands, the prince turned his thoughts toward solving the mystery surrounding Zara's accident. Filled with a purpose, he made his way through the unseen corridors and hidden stairways. In an effort to avoid all of his guests, he chose to move as silently as possible through his home. When he finally reached his sanctuary, he closed the secret door behind him and moved to stand in the center of his meditation room.

By the diffused light of the lamps in the corner of the room, he glanced down at the leather articles in his hand. He turned the thin strip of leather over and examined the even cut, then glanced at the stirrup and noted the portion of the leather that had been sliced. With an arch of a brow, his mind went over a multitude of possibilities.

Once Zara's horse had returned without her, he and Hiresh had inspected to reins and saddle. When they saw the articles had been purposely cut, they cast each other silent glances. Someone had purposely cut the leather partly through, then rubbed stable mud over the areas to hide their work. Someone had known just how much to sever, so that the leather would hold under normal usage but would come apart under hard circumstances, such as during the race and this person also knew that it was a virtual certainty that that rider would be thrown unexpectedly to be perhaps injured or even killed, yet who this saboteur was, Arjun did not know. If Captain Daruka had still been around, the young prince might have suspected him of this. But as the horses were only geared up this morning, it had to be someone in Arjun's home, either a guest or one of his servants.

With an arch of a brow, Arjun sat down in one fluid motion. He had made up his mind a few days ago to allow the ghost warrior access to his home, but as he had become so busy, Arjun had forgotten his intentions. Now, with this new development, the prince had decided not only to allow Xena access, but beseech her for assistance. Someone was working against him, and the prince had to discover who the traitor was. He needed a spy silent and unseen to investigate, and who else would be able to travel through his home unnoticed as easily as the ghost could, he had reasoned.

As he felt his body relaxing, he closed his eyes and began to center himself. He felt the power of his magic deep in his abdomen before it began to spread outward toward the chakras in his body. As each point became filled with spiritual energy, he felt a low sound resonating in the back of his mind and knew that it was sounding deep in his throat.

“Ommmm,” the droning chant rose even as he felt his spirit rising from his body. At the ease of movement, he smiled as he opened his eyes and glanced around him. When he looked down and saw his own body sitting in the praying lotus position, he cocked his head to the side and examined his features.

'You still look good, old girl!' Arjun smiled in satisfaction and shook his head, then turned and focused on the object of his search.
Xena had been sitting alone at her fishing spot. She leaned up against a tree as she stared off at the slight ripple of the lake. Although she loved to fish in life, spending an eternity doing what she loved soon grew boring. Or perhaps it wasn't the fishing that was boring, but the fact that she was now so alone. The lack of conversations, even the lack of voices was something she had never thought she'd miss. Unlike back at the beginning of their relationship when Xena thought she couldn't bear Gabrielle's continual chatter, that same chatter had long since become a sign and a comfort for her. It was a sign that all was right and wonderful with her world. When the petite woman was silent is when the warrior would grow uneasy and try to get her to talk. But now, after what felt like an eternity of silence, she began to wonder if this endless solitude was not some personal hell that she had to endure because of the mistakes she had made in life.

Before she could contemplate it further, she heard a gentle calling. At the silent sound, she stood and glanced out at the distant horizon. Her eyes grew to slits as if she were trying to see a minute object. When she felt the calling tickle at the back of her subconscious, she closed her eyes and willed herself towards it like a beacon.

As Xena opened her eyes, she smelled the familiar scent of the ocean, and felt the cool evening breeze around her. When she looked around, she saw the small Indian man standing by the smiling Durga and her tiger. He was leaning toward the large spirit beast and scratching behind its ear. Xena smiled as she shook her head.

“I wasn't certain who was calling me,” she crossed her arms as she looked down at him. “I trust everyone is well?”

The young prince turned with a surprised expression, then smiled as he moved toward her. “Unless you consider a slight twisting of an ankle bad, yes, Xena, I'd have to say that all is well,” he smiled as he waved the notion of a sprained ankle away.

“Who hurt their ankle?” Xena became alert, concerned for her bard.

“Zara, poor dear. She was thrown completely off of her horse! Why, she's lucky it wasn't worse, the only thing she lost was her precious boot!” Arjun chuckled as he shook his head. “That bard of yours doesn't fool around! She took a blade and hacked right through my dear friend's boot, didn't even care about the curses coming from her. Oh, but I am glad Gabrielle was there to help out. Once Zara gets over the loss of her boot, I'm sure she will be happy to have a healer by her side, one whom she at least knows! You know, that is Zara's biggest flaw, she has quite a temper when she is recovering from wounds or a shock!” Arjun whispered like a conspirator, then chuckled at his own words.

Xena smiled when she remembered how her bard would fuss over her. With a slight shake of her head, she nodded understanding, because she had to admit that when her own illnesses took over, she was less than pleasant to be around. When the smaller man stopped laughing, the warrior only smiled.

“Good, I'm glad to hear that Zara is in capable hands. So what can I do for you, Arjun?” the tall warrior asked.

“Xena, I feel I owe you an apology. I had fully intended after speaking to your bard last time, to grant you permission to enter my estate. Alas, with so many guests to entertain … so many men to watch, well, I'm sure you must understand,” he slightly smiled as he brushed his hand over his hair as if to keep it in place.

“I can imagine,” the warrior stated with a smile.

“But, there is one small matter I feel that I need to speak with you about,” the prince raised a finger as he stepped forward, then looked up at her. “I have need to ask you for a favor; a favor for which I would be eternally grateful were you kind enough to grant it.”

At the seriousness of his voice, the warrior felt her smile disappear. As if suddenly alert for danger, she watched the smaller man closely. Sensing the tension in her body language, Arjun nodded as he reached out and touched her arm.

“I was hoping you would want to help me. Please, let me explain,” he said as he closed his eyes. For a moment, Xena felt a dizziness fall over her as she saw the world around her shifting and changing. When the images cleared up, she inhaled deeply as she looked around the room of murals. With a slight whistle, she began to walk around the room and glanced at the various Hindu gods and goddesses.

“That's a pretty neat trick you've got there,” she said as she turned to him. Sitting in the center of the room was a single figure of man, with legs in the lotus position and hands resting easily on his knees, the Indian remained deep in mediation. With a nod of her head, she pointed to the man as she smiled at the young prince.

“That's a neat trick too. I guess you've studied for quite a while?” she asked.

“Enough to know how to traverse both worlds,” he smiled as he moved to stand before the shell of his body.

Very impressive … Lao Ma, an old friend of mine, would have been very interested, as am I, but somehow I don't think you've brought me here for a lesson in transcendentalism,” the warrior princess added briskly.

“You are right, Xena. I didn't bring you here for that. I brought you here because I need your help, I need that expertise which you held in life. You see, I have a traitor in my home, someone that tried to harm Zara,” he said just as Xena caught sight of the leather bridle and stirrup on the floor. Kneeling, she examined the two items, then looked up at the prince with a raised eyebrow. Her gaze was calculating.

“Someone cut half-way through these, then hid the signs with mud. They expected the rider to fall in the midst of fast riding...”

“That was my surmise as well,” the prince nodded grimly. “And that is exactly what happened.”

“Then I'd say she was lucky to just twist her ankle,” Xena said, standing up quickly. “Are you sure she's all right? Did anything happen to Gabrielle…”

“She is fine, they are both fine,” Arjun stated with a shake of his head. “Thankfully, Zara was riding on one of my most docile horses and thankfully, the area where she finally lost her grip happens to be above a curve where a small mud pool was located. The only thing damaged, aside for her sprained foot, was her pride… oh! And of course, her boot,” Arjun smiled.

“Good … good,” Xena sighed as she looked back down at the items. Her military mind went over the multitude of possibilities. “So you need me to look around for you, listen to your guests and servants and see if I can find out who did this?” she asked.

“That is precisely what I wish,” Arjun nodded with respect at her deductions. “You seem to have many skills, Xena of Amphipolis…” He stopped as a grimace passed over her face. “What is it?”

“Nothing of consequence,” she muttered, staring at the floor. At his quizzical look, she went on. “I just used to know … uh, someone who said that a lot about herself. One day, she found out she wasn't so damned smart after all…” With a sigh, she straightened up. “So anyway, you need me to go places and quietly look into things around here that normal people can't, right?”

“If you could, I would be eternally grateful,” Arjun spoke with sincerity, “and rest assured, regardless of your decision on whether to help me or not, you will be able to see your bard,” the young prince added. “You see, Xena, there are great many events occurring behind the scenes, so to speak, pertaining to my family's hold on this land, and which even Zara is not aware of…” the prince seemed reluctant to speak, but then continued. “There is a man who considers Zara an enemy, and because she is my closest friend, I am now his enemy as well. Although I ejected him from my home, I fear that he has infected the place and I need to know who is working for him.”

“I understand, Arjun, really I do,” she smiled as she spoke softly. “Of course I will help you, I'll do what I can to find out who tried to hurt Zara.”

“Good! So then it is settled! You may have free access to my whole estate … but please, should you see that I'm, um, entertaining in my private chambers…” a slight tinge of red seemed to cross his cheeks as he shyly glanced away.

Xena shook her head as a wide smile crossed her face, “Don't worry, Arjun. I would never intrude in that way. I'm only here to snoop around for your enemies and to be with my bard.”

“Very well then, when you have need to be with Gabrielle, simply think of her, and you'll be there,” he explained with a smile as he began to walk to the sitting man in the center of the room.

With a slight nod, she smiled and watched as the young man returned easily to his body. As Arjun's spirit and body became one, the young prince slowly opened his eyes, then looked around the room. With cat-like grace, he rose from his meditative position and walked with deliberate steps. As an afterthought, the petite prince turned and glanced around the room as if trying to search for her.

“Thank you, Xena, for agreeing to help,” she heard him say as he looked around what now seemed an empty room.

“You're welcome, and … thank you…” she said quietly, knowing that the prince would not hear her ghostly voice.
“That horse is a killer, it should never have been allowed loose,” Zara mumbled with eyes closed. Despite their session of love, the bard had failed to take the Moroccan's mind away from her experience with the 'murderous' horse.

With a smile, the blonde gave a slight agreement as she lay on her side, watching the taller woman beside her. Once she had scrubbed the mud clean from Zara, and bathed herself, she had the tall woman lying on the bed with her injured foot wrapped in ice. As the swelling went down, she was able to remove the ice and rewrap the foot, but still made Zara lay with it propped up on pillows. In this prone position, she was able to make sweet love to the bigger woman, while making certain that the captain did not move her foot. After a few of her own intense orgasms, she was able to relax and simply watch her lover's dozing features.

As if unable to complain anymore, Zara's words grew silent as her breathing slowed. Gabrielle allowed herself the luxury of watching the Moroccan. As if putting it all to memory, she gazed lovingly at Zara's face. She noted the way her lover's dark brows arched delicately over almond shaped eyes. Her thick dark eyelashes enhanced the natural dark pigment around Zara's eyes and it made it appear as if she wore charcoal eyeliner.

With a smile, the bard reached out and lightly touched between her lover's brows, then ran her finger down over the gently curving nose. Gabrielle leaned forward and slowly tilted her face until she was gazing down at the sleeping woman's luscious lips. Unable to resist, the bard lowered herself and kissed the soft mouth below hers. Instinctively, Zara groaned in her sleep as her lips parted for the bard's exploring tongue. With each touch, each gentle caress, the blonde felt her needs rising once again. No longer in her moon time, she felt the dampness between her legs grow suddenly moist as memories of their love making sessions replayed in her mind and want filled her.

Before Gabrielle could act on her body's needs, a noise in the room caught her attention. Fully alert, she looked up and saw Xena standing stiffly near the wall, an expressionless mask covering her face. Surprised by her warrior's sudden reappearance, Gabrielle arose naked from the bed and ran to her ghost lover.

“Xena, oh, Xena! I can't believe it! You're really here, right? I'm not imagining it, am I?” she asked as she stopped in front of her soul mate. “By the gods, Xena, I've missed you so!” she smiled as she reached out to touch the leather clad warrior.

At her loving words, the stiffness went out of her and the warrior princess smiled as her hand reached out to take Gabrielle's. At the instant contact, Gabrielle felt an icy coldness sear through her being. With a harsh intake of air, she closed her eyes as the overwhelming sensations of grief and sorrow filled her soul. The images of Xena's death at Higuchi, now month old memories, replayed in her mind as if it were only yesterday. Again she saw Xena's death pinched face. Saw the warrior's hand stopping her from pouring her ashes into the pool. Felt those last moments as she sat hugging the warrior in the sunset before she faded away leaving the bard alone with her grief. As the sorrow consumed her soul, the blonde gasped as tears began to form for the loss of her spirit twin.

“Oh, Gabrielle, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry,” she heard Xena say as the physical contact was instantly broken.

For a moment, the bard wanted to scream. She wanted to lash out at the injustices of her life. But at the loss of contact, she inhaled deeply as she stared down at the tiled floor. Her breathing was fast as her mind fought to return to sanity. At the sound of her soul mate's voice, she looked up forlornly and the pain and loss on her face made the ghost warrior cringe within.

“I-I … I'm so sorry, Xena…” Gabrielle's words were ashamed as the tears fell silently down her cheeks. “Gods! I'm so stupid…” she choked as she covered her face with her hands.

“Oh, sweetheart, your not stupid! It's just as much my fault. I forgot th-that … we can't touch without you feeling pain,” Xena whispered miserably as the bard wiped away her errant tears.

“I knew that as well as you did, and I did the same thing,” the smaller woman swallowed as she smiled weakly up at her ghost lover. “I've missed you so much, Xena.”

For a moment they just stared silently at one another, the bard's green eyes fixed on the ghostly blue gaze of her soul mate and the love seemed to shine between them.

“I know, sweetheart, I've missed you too. As soon as Arjun gave me permission, I knew I had to see you. Oh, Gabrielle, I've been so … so lonely without you!” the warrior whispered as she reached out again, as if to touch her lover's face, then snatched her hand back. “Dammit!” Her hiss was full of self-fury, then she grimaced and put her hands behind her. “Seein' you like this, I just wanna…” She closed her eyes in frustration for a moment, then opened them and smiled sheepishly.

“I know,” Gabrielle groaned. “It's been so long and I just want so much to … hug you.” Memories and feelings of love swirled through her. She caught herself swaying forward and saw the ghost take a step back. With an effort, she shook off the feelings and folded her arms in front of her in order to keep from touching her soul mate.

“So, you're here with me now. D-Does that mean you can stay?” the bard asked pleadingly.

Xena nodded. “Yes, I can, but not all the time. Arjun has asked me to help him with a … certain task, and I've agreed. But when I'm not doing that, yes, I can be with you. Th-That is…” she couldn't help adding as she glanced over at Zara's sleeping form, “…if-if you still want me to be…”

Following her ghostly lover's gaze, Gabrielle snapped vehemently, “Don't be stupid, Xena! Of course I want you here! I love you! Gods, woman, I've missed you so. We have so much to talk about, so many things I need to get your thoughts on…” She found herself rambling as she looked up at her lover. As a sudden chill shook her, she realized her state of dress, or rather, undress and she moved to pull one of Zara's shirts over her head.

“Is she all right?” Xena asked as she turned away from Gabrielle to peer down at Zara.

“Yes, thankfully only a sprained ankle, she's just resting now,” the blonde replied as she nodded toward the balcony. With a familiar smile, Xena left Zara's side and began to follow the bard out the door.

“I'm so glad you're back with me again, I've missed you so much, Xena,” Gabrielle said again as she guided her soul mate from the room and closed the door behind them. Now that she had the two women who meant all the world to her both in one place, she finally felt at ease.

Part 44

There were rare times when Zara found it hard to mask her true emotions. When she first heard Xena, she felt her heart drop like a stone into her stomach. The peaceful solitude she had been enjoying with the bard was now at an end. Despite all of her grand words about how it was possible for three people to coexist when one is in love with both, the Moroccan was upset that she no longer had the bard all to herself. Although she would have liked to tell the ghost a few things, she chose to keep her silence and turn inward – away from the bard. When the blonde noticed her reaction, she questioned the captain about it and seemed satisfied when Zara stated that she was merely concentrating on the upcoming ceremony.

All day long, she kept off of her foot. When she had to walk, the healer bard insisted that she use an old man's walking stick so as to not put pressure on her swollen foot. Although it was not as swollen as the night before, her foot was still tender.

“I don't understand why I can't be with you; who's gonna help you get around,” Gabrielle asked as she was helping Zara dress. As night fell, and the evening meal was completed, the Moroccan turned her attentions to dressing herself for the night's events.

Zara was not all together certain that she knew what a traditional Kafala ceremony was like, since she had never undergone one before. She suspected that in some ways, her uncle was adapting the ceremony to fit both his, as well as her Moroccan culture. Nor did she know what would happen when she received the clan markings. So like Gabrielle, she was entering into the unknown.

“Gabrielle, not only are you not part of the Sultan's kin, but you are not even of our belief. I'm afraid that there are some customs that outsiders cannot be a part of. You understand, don't you?” she asked. “Besides, you won't be alone now that Xena is here, she'll be able to keep you company,” the words came out with more venom than she had intended. At the bard's sharp glance, Zara sighed and closed her eyes.

“I am sorry, I did not mean it that way,” she said as she hobbled to a chair and sat down.

Ever since Xena had returned, Zara could feel a tension rising up between her and Gabrielle. Although she did her best to fight it down, she found it difficult to keep her insecure thoughts at bay. When she felt the bard turn away to retrieve her outer coat, the Moroccan began to wind a black kaffia scarf around her head. By the beginning of the ceremony, she would have her top layer of clothing removed in order to accept the Sultan's markings.

“But Abu will be there?” the bard questioned.

“Yes, he will be my witness,” she explained. As she tied off the end of the headscarf, she stood up in order that the bard could help her into her coat.

“He'll be close by to help you walk around then?” she asked as she moved by Zara's side and offered her support. With a slight smile, the Moroccan wrapped an arm over the smaller woman's shoulder as they began to walk from the room.

“Bet my bard surprised you when she first picked you up,” the ghost chuckled from somewhere by her side.

“That was funny, Xena,” Nadrah agreed with a laugh as she followed close behind.

“I bet it was!” Xena replied.

Determinedly ignoring all around her, Zara made her way from the room. Thankful that she would not have any stairs to climb, she hobbled down the hall, and crossed the corridor that separated the two sides of the estate. Only when she was at the Sultan's door, did she stop and look down at the blonde.

“I must go alone now,” she said softly as she reached down and lightly touched the bard's soft cheek. As the woman's green eyes gazed up at her, Zara saw the tell tale tears threatening to break free. “Gabrielle, nothing is changing, I'll still be me,” she whispered as she lowered herself to kiss the bard's lips. For that single moment in time, she felt as if they were alone, as if there was no one else in the world but them. When she pulled away, the spell seemed to break as she heard the ghost cough nearby.

“We'll be waiting for you in the room,” the bard assured as she covered Zara's hand with hers.

With a slight smile, the Moroccan nodded as she turned to the closed door. As if sensing that she was near, the door was opened from the inside by one of the Sultan's servants. With cane in hand, Zara managed to limp slowly into the room. The room was the same one used for their private dinner, but this time, only a small handful had been chosen to attend the event. The few who gathered were seated on the large pillows on the floor. At each group were the large glass shishas that released puffs of white smoke. As the tangy sweet aroma of hashish filled the air, Zara moved cautiously down the center isle toward the front of the room. With lanterns dimmed low, the captain managed to make her way to the center where the Sultan sat. By his side sat the scholar healer, Abu al-Nasr al-Farabi. Opposite of the healer sat Zara's own witness and close friend, Abu.

For the next few minutes, time itself passed by like a blur. She heard the prayers, and knew that she had joined in with them. From time to time, the shisha spout was offered to her, and she gratefully partook of the calming drug. As the voice of the aged healer spoke solemnly, she listened and replied the proper phrases needed for the prayer he spoke. When the ceremony began, the elder healer pulled a scroll from his side and opened it up.

Zara knew that he was speaking words as ancient as their people. Although it all seemed like the blur of a dream, she felt the gravity of the situation. In the haze of her memories, she remembered the healer asking her a question. Without thought or reservation, Zara looked at the Sultan who sat across from her and spoke the words, which would finally bring her home, would make her at last a part of a clan. “I do.”

For a moment, she thought she saw her uncle release a sigh of relief as some people moved beside her. When she glanced at Abu, she saw his smile as he nodded to her. As the Sultan's men moved next to her, she felt them taking her outer coat and removing it from her shoulders. From this point forward, her mind grew still as she watched the ceremony unfold before her. As the helpers moved around her, Zara maintained her silence as she watched the healer setting up the vial and liquid black pigment. With her coat and outer shirt removed and laying at her waist, she shivered at the chill from the room. Only when the scholar sat directly in front of her did the coldness leave her.

The old man smiled at her as he held a sharp, pointed implement above her right arm. “Child, are you ready?” he asked.

Zara only nodded as she avoided looking at the sharp tip of the instrument. The aged man nodded once, then turned his attention to the Moroccan's arm. The first sensation she felt was a sharp jabbing under her skin. She flinched and closed her eyes, and she kept her arm still. Occasionally, a servant held the shisha spout to her lips, and she would deeply inhale the drug. As the time passed, the sensation became lessened until she felt nothing. By the time one arm was done, the Moroccan had closed her eyes as she listened to the strong voice of her long lost uncle as he was reading from a script about family, and clan ties. For Zara, time itself seemed to stand still as the ceremony of her acceptance finally took place.
Gabrielle had waited in the main hall for as long as she could. She stood outside of the door, nervously pacing, not certain why she was worried. Although she knew that being a part of a family who accepted her was what Zara had wanted, the healer bard couldn't help but worry about her lover. Yet, unable to voice her concerns, all she could do was pace the marble floor, occasionally biting the tip of her thumb as she stared at the closed doors.

For a short time, she had both Xena and Nadrah for company. The warrior spent a great deal of time talking softly to the girl, answering Nadrah's questions as best as possible. As the time dragged on, and Gabrielle noticed the girl's eyes slowly closing, she only smiled at her ghost lover as she scooped the child up in her arms and began to carry her to bed.

“But honest, I'm … not…sle…” Nadrah's protests disappeared into silence as she fell into a deep sleep in the bard's arms.

“That's right, honey, you're not sleepy at all, are you,” the blonde whispered tenderly as she patted the girl's back. When she noticed that the ghost warrior was not following, she turned and cocked a brow. “Are you going to stay here the whole time?”

“Umm, no. I actually have something I need to look into. It's for Arjun,” the warrior seemed evasive. At Gabrielle's continued silence, Xena only shrugged. “Sorry honey, it's sorta covert. I hope you understand.” The blonde did not seem to know about the cut through leather pieces and the warrior ghost held her peace because she did not want her lover to be worried about Zara's safety.

The bard only shook her head as she turned away from the warrior. “Night, Xena,” she called, then under her breath muttered, “I'm sure you'll tell me about it eventually.”

Softly as the blonde had spoken, Xena's sharp senses caught every word and she cringed inwardly. “H-Honey…” She raised a hand after her departing lover, then whispered with misery, “Aw, dammit! I'm doing it to her again.” She looked up at the tiled ceiling and found her vision blurring with tears. “Xena, when will you ever learn…” she choked. Finding no answer, she wiped her eyes and stared at the floor. “Aw, gods. Maybe I should go and talk to her…” Then her mouth grew tight. “No; not now. I haven't found out anything for Arjun yet. I-I'll make it up to her later…” Grimly the ghost began walking in the opposite direction as she started her search for suspects.

Once the bard had Nadrah stripped to her underwear and covered, she turned and made her way to the bed. As she blew out the various lanterns in the room, she wondered if this ceremony would be all that the Moroccan had hoped it would be. Ever since she learned that her lover's father had not allowed her to become a part of his clan, the bard wondered about the strange customs of Zara's people. Although she had heard of such things as clan symbols, and had even worn some henna markings herself at one point, Gabrielle never fully grasped the significance of the tattoos until she spoke with Zara.

The Moroccan captain had never shown her sadness over her father's decision before. But when she spoke of the Sultan's offer, the healer could sense the pride in her new lover. As if receiving a gift, the tall woman beamed with pleasure, whenever she spoke of finally having a clan mark. Remembering her lover's childlike glee over the invitation, Gabrielle smiled as she moved to the bed and stripped off her clothes. When she crawled under the covers, she made a promise to herself that she would stay awake until her lover returned. She began to think of a story to keep herself awake. Perhaps some of the adventures she had been a part of since she and Zara had met would make a good tale for her scrolls. 'Hmm … I sing a song of the wild sea, wherein we met, my Zara and me…' But by the dim light of the single lantern, the bard felt her sleepy eyes slowly close to the silence around her. Soon in dreams she found herself telling to an appreciative audience, the story of the first time she had spoken to the tall captain who was to slowly touch her heart and calm her grief.
Xena had been making full use of her access to the estate. She found herself easily moving in and out past the guards, guests and servants in Arjun's home. Sometimes, as she passed close by, she noticed a few of them look around suddenly as if searching for something unseen. Some would stare for a moment with narrowed eyes toward her, but then would shrug their shoulders and go about their business.

Since the original incident happened in the stables, the warrior decided that this was a good place to start. Although she did not fully understand the local language, she knew enough to understand or guess most conversations. As she moved through the stable workers' area, she listened for any clue as to who might be the traitor. When she would spot a servant moving off by himself, she followed them and watched their actions carefully. Only when she had deemed their conduct benign, did she turn her attention elsewhere. After nearly a full night of snooping around like this, she finally returned to Gabrielle's side.

It was near dawn when she stood in the room that her soul mate shared with Zara, she remained silent as she looked down at the sleeping bard. She felt her heart ache with the intense need to touch her lover, yet refrained, knowing that such contact would only bring pain to the bard. Instead, she watched the woman she loved dream unknown dreams, and she longed for her touch.

At the faint sound of the door, the ghost turned and watched as Zara entered the room. With her outer coat draped over her arm, and a wrapped bundle under the same arm, she limped slowly to the bed. The tall woman leaned heavily against her cane, as she peered down at the slumbering bard. For a moment, Xena was going to speak, but then remembered Zara's actions. As if angry by the warrior's presence, the Moroccan had remained standoffish and curt with every word she had said to her lover.

Xena had remained quiet about this. After her conversation with the bard, she suspected that she knew what the problem was. When Gabrielle had first confessed her love for the captain, a part of the warrior princess felt as if her heart had crumbled into a million pieces. Even though she knew that her soul mate was making love with Zara, she had not thought that the bard would be falling in love with the Moroccan. Yet now that she thought about it, she realized that this should have been expected. Gabrielle was, after all, still a young woman in spite of her prolonged actual age, and she was a sensitive soul. This alone would make it easy for her to love again.

As pain filled her heart, Xena silently watched Zara. She noticed the glistening salve over the Moroccan's arms. When she moved closer, she looked at the designs that ran down Zara's arms and ended in a half triangle on the back of her hands. The point of the triangle pointed toward the tall woman's fingers.

With a slight sigh, the ship captain placed the bundle, a gift from her uncle, on the nearby chair, and then laid her outer coat over the back of it. As the bard slept, she walked slowly toward the patio favoring her sprained ankle. An air of sadness clung to her as she leaned against the balcony and gazed up at the multitude of stars. As if in thought, Zara turned her attention away from the night sky, then closed her eyes as she cocked her head to one side.

“You are here, Xena?” she whispered out loud.

“Yes,” was all the warrior princess could say as she moved to stand beside the woman on the balcony, her gaze shifting upward to the dark sky.

“Has she spoken to you?” Zara asked as she too returned her attention to the stars.

Xena thought about her response for a time, then turned toward the Moroccan captain.

“She told me that she's fallen in love with you,” Xena answered with a choking whisper.

“But that she still loves you as well,” Zara added somberly.

“Yes … she still loves me too,” a sigh escaped the warrior's control.

“W-Will it work, Xena? If we are able to bring you back, can it work?” the Moroccan asked, her voice almost pleading.

“You told her that it worked for you in the past,” Xena replied gravely as she stared out into the darkness.

“Yes, it has, but…” A tired sigh escaped Zara's control.

“But you never loved those women in the past, did you?” Xena turned and glanced at Zara, the Moroccan's head bent in defeat.

“Yes, I cared for them, b-but … I did not…” Zara shook her head and grimaced as if swallowing something bitter. “I did not love them, a-as I love Gabrielle.”

“And I love Gabrielle as well,” Xena stood in front of the Moroccan and stared at her. A part her wanted to thrash Zara within an inch of her life. A jealous rage akin to hatred threatened to consume her at the mere thought of this woman touching and loving her soul mate. Yet when she remembered how happy her bard seemed lately, she felt her heart melting, and she knew that all she truly cared about was Gabrielle's happiness. “'Hate is the star … it becomes who you are…'” she whispered brokenly remembering a time of hatred long ago that she and the bard had overcome together.

“What? I did not understand what you said…” the other woman asked softly.

“N-Nothing, it's nothing. Zara, i-if I am not able to r-return…” Xena felt her voice catch in her throat as tears threatened to escape her control. “Then it will be easier for me to m-move on knowing that there is someone here who loves her … as much as I do.”

Zara remained silent for a moment. Then a soft and almost desperate chuckle escaped her control, before an expression of anguish crossed her features. “Xena, please … forgive me,” the captain half whispered.

Xena looked at her closely, her anger finally dying as she saw the Moroccan's guilt and pain spilling over. Understanding her unspoken thoughts, the warrior sighed as she closed her eyes to her own unshed tears. When control returned she looked back at the woman who was now sharing her bard.

“I understand, Zara, and I do forgive you. If I were in your place….” Xena shook her head as a single ghostly tear trickled down her cheek, “I would be wishing that you wouldn't return either.”

There seemed nothing else to say as both women, the living and the ghost, stood there staring into the darkness before the dawn, each lost in their own melancholy thoughts.
Gabrielle awoke, thinking that Zara had just arrived but as she pushed away the fogginess of dreams, she noticed through the diffused moon light night that Zara was already deep in sleep. She lay with arms above the blanket, her head tilted to the side on the pillow. Filled with curiosity, the blonde leaned over to the nightstand and lit a small lantern, then turned and held it over the sleeping Moroccan.

The first thing the healer bard noticed was the glistening salve that had been placed over the new markings. Below the salve, Zara's flesh was red from irritation. In the center of the redness were the intricate black designs from the new tattoos. Leaning closer, the blonde examined the small symbols hidden within the designs on her arm.

If the tattoo had been made by anyone other than Healer al-Farabi, she would have worried about an infection. But assured that it was the wise man that would be applying the permanent marks, she felt confident that everything would be clean and sterile. Within a few days, even the redness would be gone, the bard silently thought as she blew out the lantern, sat it on the night stand, then curled back up against Zara's warm body.

As she closed her eyes, she smiled, knowing that this would be the final day of competition. With only sixteen left in the race, she felt confident that she could make a good impression. Although, when she took the time to think about it, she'd feel herself growing nervous, knowing that she had never in her life driven a chariot.

'Well,” she amended, 'unless you count that time we had that running fight with that crazy warlord what's-his-name and his son Sphaerus. Xena turned the reins over to me when he pulled up next to us and she had to fight the bastard off. Yet even that time I drove was short lived when I hit that damn log and the chariot catapulted us out.' With a groan, she closed her eyes and pushed this disastrous memory out of her mind. 'Just finish the race without flipping the chariot, Gabrielle, that's all you need to do,' were her last thoughts before she fell asleep.

Part 45

Zara had not anticipated that anyone would think very much about her change in status, so when she joined the rest of the guests to watch the last of the competition, she was taken aback by the reactions of the people around her. The servants, upon seeing her, grew stiff backed as they cleared the corridors to make room for her passing, then bowed as she walked before them. Whenever one would address her, they used the formal female title of Shaikha, as they did with her uncles wives.

As for the guests; the moment they saw the new designs on her arms, they showed her the utmost respect. From the Arabs, she received an entirely different reaction that surprised her. The minute she saw Jamil out in the seating area of the coliseum, the man came to attention as he saluted her formally.

“Please, do not do that,” she frowned as she used the cane to hobble around him.

“But my Shaikha, I must. I am but a servant, and you are now part of the family whom I have sworn to protect,” Jamil replied in a solemn voice.

Zara looked at him, expecting to see that he was teasing her. Instead of his jesting smile, she saw a sober expression in his bearded features. At his seriousness, she only nodded as she lightly patted his shoulder.

“Very well my friend. But in private, we will still be friends,” she stated, then added a bit more softly, “perhaps if you focus your attention on my uncle, then we will not have to go through this too often?”

At her suggestion, he smiled as he glanced over to where the Sultan sat on the dais beside Arjun. Understanding her words, he gave an affirmative nod. “I understand completely, my Shaikha.”

“Good … very good, because I have been taking care of myself for quite some time now,” she added as she began to hobble down to the seats where Abu and Nadrah sat. “By the way, I thought you were supposed to be riding today?” she asked her old friend/new guardian who followed close behind her.

“Ah, yes, well, funny you should ask that, my Shaikha, because it seems that I finished last in my group,” Jamil smiled as he moved quickly to offer Zara his shoulder to lean on. Accepting the man's offer, she leaned against him as she hopped down the last few steps to her seat.

“Finished last?” Zara aired her confusion. “But weren't you at the front of the race to begin with?” she asked as she sank down in the offered chair beside Abu and Nadrah.

With a slight blush, the guard looked away then back down at her. “Such a thing could happen to anyone, my Shaikha Zara.”

“Yes, I guess it's bound to happen every now and then,” her brow was arched as she gazed at him, attempting to gauge his sincerity. Before she could ask another question, she glanced down at the round ring and spotted Nivedita in a chariot. Zara gazed thoughtfully back up at the guard, a slight grin on her features as she stared at his silent form. Expressionless but for a twinkle in his eye, Jamil shrugged his shoulders, and then saluted before turning to move near the Sultan.

Once he was gone, Abu leaned away so that Nadrah could not hear and whispered, “So, captain. Do you think that Jamil threw the race just so that she could advance?”

“I don't know Abu, I honestly don't know,” she grinned as she turned her attention to the last participants in the competition. “But if he did and she ever finds out that he laid back to let her win, I would not give the chance of a fus in a windstorm for his survival! That is one competitive woman he is dealing with.”
The final competition was held in a large arena that Gabrielle hadn't even known existed until this day. Located on the outskirts of the prince's estate, and nestled near an apple orchard and a vineyard, it was far enough away to require the contestants to ride to the place, rather than walk, as they usually did. The arena was built in an oblong shape, and it had ample seating for both guests and servants alike. As Gabrielle gazed around, she noted the large wall in the center of the arena that had pictures carved into it.

“Now, you're going to help me along here, right?” The bard turned her green gaze back to the white stallion. She stroked and scratched his neck and chin as she gazed into the horse's liquid dark eyes. “You did good at the open race, now you've got to be there for me in this one too, alright?” she spoke softly to the animal.

“Nervous, Gabrielle?” Xena slightly chuckled.

The bard shook her head as she turned her attention away from the horse and to the leather harness that connected the stallion to the metal bar on the chariot. Because the horse had been good for her in the open field race, the bard had chosen to use the same stallion from Arjun's collection. With a final inspection of the harness and chariot, she returned to the main metal basket that would carry her.

“You don't know the half of it, Xena! Zeus above! What in Tartarus was I thinking?” she groused as she took the gold inlaid helmet and pulled it over her face. She heard Xena whistle in approval as the warrior leaned against the chariot, her arms crossed in front of her as she gazed with obvious lust at the smaller woman.

“And where did you get that, um, hot little outfit?” the ghost warrior asked appreciatively.

“Oh, this?” Gabrielle looked down at herself as she absently adjusted the little pleats in the white skirt.

The first fabric that touched her skin was a short, soft, white silk dress. Over it lay the softest white leather she had ever felt, and an even shorter leather white skirt that barely covered her bottom. As armor, she wore hard metal breastplates inlaid with gold that attached at the shoulders and under the arms to another protective plate on her back. On the surfaces of the plates were various designs of Hindu goddesses. For her head, she wore a golden helmet that completely covered her head and face, and which had wide cat eyed shaped openings for her to see out of. For her feet, she wore knee high, tan leather boots and had matching shin greaves over the boots.

“Arjun gave this to me this morning. He said it was a spare that he sometimes wore and knew that it would fit me. What do you think?” she asked Xena as she twirled in place to show the effects of the entire ensemble.

“I think the prince has found a new doll to dress,” Xena chuckled as she shook her head. “A living doll, oh yeah!”

“Oh, I don't think so, but it was nice of him, since I don't have anything that would have been suitable,” she replied as she glanced around at the other contestants.

Many wore protective armor, yet each had distinct designs and colors for their clothes. When she glanced over at Isa, she saw him speaking to another contestant. Dressed in black armor, the ship's navigator was wearing the protective gear that Jamil would have worn, had he made it this far in the race. The make of the armor had a distinctly Arab design to it, with the same slight square and angular designs that were similar to the Moroccan embroidery in Zara's shirt.

As her nervousness began to take control, the bard inhaled deeply, then stepped into the basket causing it to give a slight creak, and picked up the reins. “Coming along for a ride?” the bard smiled at her soul mate, and then gave her a stern look from under her eyebrows. “You'd better say 'yes'.”

“All right! All right, since it doesn't look like I can talk you out of this fool thing, I'd better go along and make sure you don't get into trouble,” the ghost chuckled as she held her arms up defensively.

Before joining her bard, Xena glanced around at the other contestants, then shook her head as she stepped into the basket. “If circumstances were different, I'd be worried that your driving would kill me,” the warrior princess muttered.

“Come on, I'm not that bad! Besides, how hard can it be?” the blonde shrugged her shoulders as she looked at the reins for a moment, conveniently forgetting that Zara had said the exact same words before the disastrous horse race.

“Gabrielle, you've never driven a chariot before, did you even practice?” Xena shook her head at the smaller woman.

“Xena, I have so driven a chariot!”

“Oh, yeah, that's right.” The ghost rolled her eyes heavenward. “During that whole thing with that warlord, Cycnus and his kid. Thanks for the reminder. I had managed to forget the backache I got when you catapulted us onto the beach!”

“Aw, shut up. Anyway, no, we weren't given time to practice, besides, it can't be much different from a wagon, right? I mean, just go like this,” Gabrielle took the reins in her hands and flicked her wrists causing the leather to slap the horse's back gently. The animal didn't move and she flicked them again. The horse looked back inquiringly and blew through its nostrils, but still didn't move. “Come on, what's wrong with you…” the bard said grumpily to the horse, then looked around at a cough from Xena.

The ghost silently indicated the still set brake lever and the bard flushed. “I knew that,” she grumbled.

“Uh huh,” the warrior said, deadpan.

Reaching down, Gabrielle released the brake and then flicked the reins again. This time the horse began to trot and the chariot lurched back once, then moved off down the track at a slow, yet steady pace.

“See, it's not that hard,” Gabrielle smiled as she took her chariot at a jaunt around the arena.

“Gabrielle, there is more to a race than just holding on to the reins. You need to be able to compensate for the added length, while also making sure that the animal doesn't get too close to….” Her ghost lover instantly cringed when the wheel of the chariot scraped against the inner wall.

“Ooops, sorry,” the bard's expression was a bit strained as she pulled the reins toward the right, commanding the animal to pull away from the wall.

“There are other things to consider, Gabrielle, things like…them,” the warrior princess pointed toward the other contestants as the bard pulled her chariot to the start line, her chariot narrowly missing another competitor's rig.

With an almost smug smile, the bard glanced up at her ghost lover as she pulled the chariot into position and halted the horse. “You were saying?” she chuckled softly, then grew serious at the warrior's stern expression.

“Xena, it can't be that hard … besides, I've got a good loyal horse. We had a talk and he knows exactly what I need him to do,” the bard smiled as the rest of the other contestants began to pull in alongside of her.

“Uh huh, that's exactly what I'm worried about,” Xena muttered under her breath as she steeled herself for the race.
Zara never saw Gabrielle as anything but capable. In the short time that she had known the bard, she realized that not only was her lover a competent healer, but she was also an excellent warrior and horse rider. Once she saw the blonde near the chariot, her estimation never wavered. In fact, seeing Gabrielle in the short, little outfit seemed to spur on another need within the Moroccan.

Her confidence in the bard changed when she watched the smaller woman making a practice run. Zara felt her heart racing when she noticed how slowly the bard's chariot moved. When she saw the blonde speaking, as if to herself, she realized that Xena was with her, coaxing and giving instructions. At the loud, scraping sound when the bard's chariot ground against the wall, the Moroccan Captain cringed as she looked away. When the tall woman finally opened her eyes, she saw Abu smiling at her.

“Very good stop,” he commented as he pointed to the arena. “She stopped it very well, Captain.”

“It's not the stopping part that has me worried,” she shook her head in disbelief as she realized that Gabrielle was not very familiar with driving a chariot.

“I'm sure she'll be fine, Captain. That bard of yours is very smart, I'm sure this is all a ruse to make the other contestants think she is not that good of a driver,” Abu nodded with authority as Nadrah climbed onto his lap. At the better view than from in her seat, the child waved her arms and she shouted out a greeting to Gabrielle.

“I hope you're right Abu, I really do,” Zara shook her head as she adjusted her injured foot, then sighed as she tried to figure out a way to get the bard out of the race. When no solutions came up, she only sat in silence, a frown on her face, as she watched the race begin.
The beginning of the race proved easy for the bard. Gabrielle followed all of Xena's instructions and realized that a chariot was indeed very similar to a wagon. As she braced her legs, the chariot bumped over the smooth dirt, her horse weaved in and out of other chariots and managed to keep up with the majority of the contestants.

It was not until the second lap that she began to notice a change. As if spurred on by the momentum, the horse began to increase his speed until it was all that Gabrielle could do to hold on while also steering the animal. By the third lap, the chariot was moving at full speed. She started to hear the familiar sounds of metal crashing as other chariots were bumping into each other. Before she could notice a change, she watched in horror as three chariots in front of her collided against each other and the drivers flew out to land rolling in the dirt. Two carriages turned upside down as the horses continued to pull the toppled vehicles down the track. The third came loose entirely from the racing horse and the unlucky driver was yanked out to be dragged behind through the dirt. The chariot itself rolled to a stop, partly blocking the track.

“Veer to the right, Gabrielle! Quick!” Xena shouted as the bard pulled hard on the right rein, her horse barely missing the toppled chariot. “GABRIELLE, TO THE RIGHT!”

That's what I'm doing, Xena!” She shouted back as a part of her longed to stop and help the injured drivers.

Once past, she glanced back, and saw Arjun's servants running with gurneys to pick up the fallen drivers as others on horseback were catching up with the driverless chariots. Assured that the injured would be tended to, she turned her concentration back on the race.

Every muscle in her body strained as she tried to stay balanced in the chariot, while also guiding the horse around the track. As if she were just as tense, the ghost warrior stood with knees bent as she held on to the rail. The wind whipped past her long dark hair as the entire basket shook the two riders and Xena shouted out orders to her friend.

“Xena, I said I'm doing it, now stop yellin' at me!” Gabrielle screamed back as her chariot managed to make it past the lead group. When she looked in front of her and saw the open arena, a triumphant smile crossed her face as she realized that she was in the lead. Before she could even contemplate a finish to the race, Xena shouted again.

“Gabrielle, veer left! I SAID, 'VEER LEFT'!” the warrior's shout pulled the bard's attention back to the race.

The smaller woman struggled with the reins. She tried as best she could to guide the animal around the final bend. With a mind of his own, the stallion sprinted in a straight line toward the archway of the arena. Arjun's handlers were waving their arms as they shouted out instructions, trying to keep her away from the open tunnel. Ignoring everything that the bard did, the horse ran straight for the crowd, their screams and shouts reached Gabrielle as her chariot was pulled into the dark tunnel.

“Oops! I'm sorry, I'm sorry, GET OUTA THE WAY!” she shouted to the people flashing past as the horse made his way toward the light at the end of the tunnel.

Gabrielle, the race is back there!” Xena screamed as she was jostled in the basket.

“I KNOW!” Gabrielle yelled, then shouted to the people in the tunnel, “Move out of the way! MOVE!” the startled screams registered as the people went scurrying away from her. Some dropped the bundles they carried, which acted as speed bumps against the chariot wheels.

“Xena, he's not stopping!” Panic filled her voice as the horse ran at full speed out of the arena.

“You must be doin' something wrong, Gabrielle! Pull harder!” her ghost lover shouted as she reached down and pulled the chariot brake. The chariot lurched for only a moment, the sound of scraping metal on metal echoed in the tunnel, then came a loud thunk, as the brake lever broke from the pressure. At the sight of the broken mechanism, Xena looked at her lover grimly as they left the dark tunnel.

Gabrielle continued pulling on the reins. When this failed to have any effect, she simply held on to the bouncing chariot as the horse pulled them over a bumpy dirt road past rows of vineyards. Ignoring the surprised looks of the people they passed, the bard held on tight when she saw the horse veer off the road and run across the grassy hill.

“OH, SHIIII…!” Gabrielle couldn't finish her sentence. Instead, she saw the large bump ahead, then felt the chariot buck under her and her feet lifted off of the floor suspending her in mid-air. The chariot basket landed first, and Gabrielle followed soon after. With an unceremonious grunt, the bard hit the floor of the chariot, then held on as the stallion continued to sprint over the grass. Before she could regain her feet, she felt the basket lurch once, then skid sideways to an abrupt stop. At that instant she went flying head first, into the solid side of the chariot.

At the cessation of motion, there was final creak and settling of the chariot, followed by a sudden silence. For a moment, Gabrielle saw only stars. She recognized the rapid panting that she heard as her own. When she opened her eyes, she panicked when all she saw was blackness.

“I'M BLIND! XENA, I'M BLIND!” She screamed as she reached out and tried to find something to hold.

When she heard her soul mate's laughter, she froze for a moment, then sat up gingerly feeling around. “X-Xena…?” she gulped. Then she felt the helmet on her head being adjusted until sudden light flared and she could see out of the eyeholes. Gabrielle blinked, then turned to her ghost lover.

“Oh, it only turned on me,” she sighed as she reached up and pulled the helmet off. Becoming dizzy by her sudden movement, she closed her eyes until the sensation disappeared and all that was left was an aching in her head. She was certain that a lump was forming. “By the gods, Xena, what happened?”

Xena didn't answer. She had moved out of the back of the chariot and was looking alertly around. As the aches and pains of the race registered in the bard's body, she moved to sit up slowly. When she saw her ghost lover, Gabrielle tilted her head to the side as she focused on Xena's wide smile.

“What's so darn funny?” the bard asked crossly as her head throbbed.

“You are not gonna believe this,” Xena grinned as she moved toward the horse.

“What? What happened?” Curious in spite of herself, Gabrielle rose on wobbly legs and climbed from the chariot to the grassy field. When she turned, she looked in disbelief at the white stallion standing near a low hanging tree branch. As if surprised that they were even behind him, the horse turned around and glanced at them. He neighed, and then crunched on a piece of apple before turning to finish off the other half of the bitten off fruit that was hanging on the branch.

Xena snickered. “Looks like Argo wasn't the only 'loyal horse' who could be tempted down the wrong path by apples,” she said with a grin.

“You have got to be kidding!” the bard shouted as she tossed her helmet down and ran to the horse.

Angered, she stood in front of the large beast as she looked up at the apple tree. “You made me lose the race for this?” She shouted as she turned an evil glare at the horse. “Hey, I thought we had an understanding? You were supposed to help me finish, and hopefully win the race, so what is this about?” Gabrielle shouted as the laughter of her soul mate rang out.

Gabrielle looked into the horse's dark eyes. With an almost mocking glance, the animal blinked, then snorted and turned away, continuing to nibble on the hanging apples. The battered bard shook her head as she released a sigh, then reached up and pulled an apple from the limb. Wearily, she trudged over and sat down by her soul mate who was still rolling around, laughing hysterically on the grass. Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders as she took a bite of the delicious apple, while occasionally casting a disgusted glare at the horse and an even more disgusted look at Xena.

At last the warrior ghost managed to control her mirth and sat up beside her. “Sorry about that,” she said, then spoiled it as another chuckle or two forced their way out of her. She coughed and tried to look serious. “No, I really mean it…”

Gabrielle glared at her soul mate for a moment, then grinned in spite of herself. “Well, at least I'm consistent…”

“How's that?” Xena asked with a twinkle in her eye.

“I'm two for two!” The blonde giggled. “That's two chariots I've driven and two chariots I've managed to trash in some way!”

At her words, Xena went off into another gale of laughter and this time the bard joined in.
When the race began, it was all that Zara could do to keep from asking Arjun to halt the race until Gabrielle could be retrieved. With every turn in the arena of the chariots, the Moroccan was cringing as she closed her eyes. At one point, when she saw the first chariot toppling over and coming to a skidding halt, she shook her head and lowered her eyes in fear. When the captain saw the various chariots scraping against her lover's vehicle, she gritted her teeth as she put her fist against her mouth in fear and apprehension.

“Oh, blessed Allah!” Zara moaned when she saw the shiny gold of Gabrielle's armor rise in the basket, then settle back down in the chariot as the animal pulled the blonde from view.

“Perhaps it's another strategy, Captain?” Abu stated hopefully as he leaned forward with the tiny girl in his lap. Zara only cast him an evil glare, then returned her attention to the race.

“Look! Gabrielle's gonna win!” Nadrah shouted when the bard's chariot pulled out ahead. Seeing that her lover was no longer boxed in, Zara visibly relaxed as a smile crossed her features. But her smile soon disappeared as she watched the bard's chariot breaking through the line of stable hands. Confused, she stood up, and stared at the chariot disappearing into the tunnel.

“What in Allah's name…” Zara muttered.

“Where is she going, Captain?” Nadrah asked.

“Abu, come quickly,” the Moroccan captain shouted as she got out of her seat and began to hop up the stairs with the cane in one hand. As an afterthought, she turned to Nadrah, “Go with Arjun, quickly,” she ordered as Abu moved up beside her.

“'I'm sure this is all a ruse', he said,” Zara mimicked bitterly, echoing Abu's words as she once again cast an evil glance at her burly friend.

Abu was apologetic. “But captain, Gabrielle is so competent, so skilled. I never for a minute thought…”

“Oh, be quiet,” she snapped grimly. “Between you and her there is enough optimism to fill a cargo hold!”

The big man frowned as he swooped the captain into his arms and carried her up the remaining steps, and out of the arena sitting area. Only when they were in an open flat area, did he set her down and turn to confiscate a horse drawn carriage. Without apology, the big man took the reins from a servant, then hopped in the seat and pulled it around to the captain.

“We can catch up to her now,” Abu offered as he helped Zara into the front passenger seat.

“Thank you my friend. I am sorry I snapped before, I am just so, so…” Her voice trailed off as he nodded understanding and she sighed. “So help me Abu, Arjun will hear from me if one hair on her head is hurt. Why, I'll make him put this nag down too!” she promised as Abu quickly got the carriage moving at full speed down the road.

Frightening images replayed over in her mind as they raced toward where Gabrielle was last seen. Although they could not see the chariot that had pulled the small Greek woman, they noticed the gathered pedestrians, their carts overturned, or baskets emptied on the ground with the contents strewn over the side of the road. Angered, the peasants raised their fists as they shouted out curses. Following in this wake, they made their way as quickly as the horse could pull them toward an unseen destination.

Zara silently cursed herself for not asking the bard if she knew how to control a chariot. As they raced past the vineyards, they ignored the shouts of more angry people as they made their way over a hill. When Abu turned the carriage off of the road to follow the clear track marks of the chariot, and began to cross an open field, the Moroccan strained to see where the bard had stopped. Only when they saw the chariot at a dead standstill next to a tree and the bard sitting on the grass did the captain allow herself a sigh of relief.

“Gabrielle, are you hurt?” She called as she hopped from the carriage and skipped toward the bard, the sight of her lover eating an apple somehow seemed strange.

“Fine, just fine,” Gabrielle replied as she held up the apple. From somewhere nearby, the Moroccan heard Xena's laughter rising in the air.

“Praise Allah, I was so scared!” Zara shook her head as she sat down in relief next to her lover. “Gabrielle, don't ever do that again, please. My heart cannot take a scare like that again. Why, I thought you were going to be killed in the race!”

Gabrielle smiled as she looked up at her lover. Still chewing her apple, she leaned against Zara and laid her head on the Moroccan's shoulder. At this simple movement, the ghost's laughter suddenly stopped.

“You were worried about me? Really?” the bard asked.

“Of course … I love you Gabrielle, I don't want to lose you, especially not under the wheels of a chariot over some stupid contest!” Zara spoke half in anger, then forced a smile as she wrapped her arm around the smaller woman. “Please, don't ever scare me like that again,” she whispered as she softly kissed the side of the bard's face, her lips lightly grazing over the smaller woman's ear.
Gabrielle felt a surge of warmth cross her cheeks at Zara's proclamation. When she felt the bigger woman wrap an arm around her shoulder, she turned and leaned toward her lover. When Zara's lips first brushed against her ear, she sighed and closed her eyes to the feelings that the taller woman's touch was bringing. With a slight smile, she turned to the Zara and pressed her lips against the Moroccan's. As their lips met, she felt another need begin to rage within her. With a slight growl, she tossed the apple aside as she pushed her lover's shoulders back onto the grass. Without any thought, the small blonde straddled Zara's larger frame as their kiss deepened.

“Do … you … know… how… much … ummm … I …want … you?” the bard managed to say in between kisses. Before she could continue, the sound of Abu clearing his throat called her attention. When she turned, she saw the big man absently staring up at the sky as he held the reins of the carriage horse. After looking over his shoulder, he turned and smiled sheepishly down at the two figures on the grass.

“Really quite the nicest cloud formations today … beg pardon, but, uh, it looks as if the stable hands will be here soon,” he informed them mildly. “You might not want to be found, um...” He coughed and looked expectantly back towards the arena.

At his words, Gabrielle sat up and looked around. She noticed Xena was over by the tree, her back to them as she stared off at the vineyards. To the blonde, her soul mate's posture looked stiff and she felt herself coloring. When the bard rose from Zara's body, she held out a hand and helped the bigger woman to her feet. Before she could speak to Xena, thunderous applause rose from the area.

“It looks like someone won,” Gabrielle frowned, then shrugged. “Oh well, at least it was fun while it lasted,” she said scooping up the helmet from the grass. Then she smiled when she saw Xena turn to her.

“You did very well, considering that you've never really driven one before,” the ghost warrior nodded gravely.

“And that is something that I wish one or the other of you would have informed me about!” Zara grumbled as she was hobbling toward the carriage.

“Beg pardon, Captain?” Abu asked, unaware of what Xena had said.

“Nothing important, Abu.” She shook her head as she began climbing back into the carriage.

“I did do pretty good, didn't I?” the bard proudly smiled as she lightly stepped with a happy sway in her hips to the carriage. “Not bad at all, if I do say so myself,” Gabrielle nodded as the Indian handlers ran up the hill and moved to take the horse and chariot in hand.
If the entire scene hadn't been so dire, Arjun would have found the bard's predicament comical. But as it was seeing the bard trying valiantly to control her chariot as she left the arena sent fear through the small man. When Nadrah moved to join him, there was nothing to do but pull her onto his lap as he whispered an order to Hiresh, before returning his attention to the race.

In the final stretch of the race, he watched with mild interest as Nivedita's chariot pulled to the front. As the excited chorus of audience voices rose in the air, the young prince nervously held the child as he awaited word on Gabrielle's safety. By the time Nivedita's chariot rounded the corner, and he saw a second one gaining on her, Hiresh returned to whisper in his ear. The news the man brought caused him to relax and he began to enjoy the race once more.

Pleased that his new friend was not harmed, Prince Arjun smiled as he watched the young navigator Isa, pulling his chariot in front of the Indian woman's. The fierceness of the final leg of the race brought the crowd to their feet. Neither driver seemed willing to concede any gain or loss of speed and position as they moved side by side. Just when one chariot pulled ahead and Arjun thought he knew the winner, the second would pull to the front. It was not until the final paces that a smile crossed the petite man's features as he watched Isa's chariot cross the finish line by only a head's length.

The audience in the arena erupted with a loud roar of applause and yodels for the winner, especially from the area where many of Isa's crewmates were sitting all together. Nodding at the man's victory, Arjun clapped as he watched the man remove his helmet to take a final victory lap. Turning to his guest, the prince smiled then tilted his head.

“You will excuse me, your highness, but I must attend to duties,” Arjun explained as the Sultan nodded understanding.

“And you, little princess, can help me,” Arjun added as he took Nadrah's hand and left the raised dais. With guards around him, he made his way to the steps that led down toward the arena. As he watched the man's chariot pull to a halt at the bottom of the steps, he saw Nivedita come running to Isa and embrace him as the winner, then she backed off with a low bow. The prince nodded approvingly at this sign of manners and fair play as he continued down the steps with Nadrah. This was just the kind of behavior he had hoped for in the games, not like the poor sportsmanship some had shown. When a young woman carrying flowers moved near Arjun, a group of his guards surrounded her, but he waved them away. Then the prince knelt down to Nadrah's height.

“Honey, why don't you get the flowers. When Isa comes up here, hand him the bouquet. Do you think you can do that?” he asked and was rewarded with a smile and nod. “Good girl, I knew you could,” was all the prince said before rising to stand at the top of the steps.

Flowers littered the once clean arena as the spectators were throwing them at the victor. With helmet removed Isa, he glanced around at the crowd, a smile crossing his lips as he waved to them and then made his way up to where Arjun waited. In the time it took the young man to reach the top, a soft hush fell over the crowd. By the time he stood a few steps below Arjun, silence filled the arena. In the hush, the navigator dropped to one knee before the petite prince and bowed his head.

“Congratulations to the winner of this year's competition!” Arjun pitched his voice higher, knowing that it would echo through the arena. “Isa of Morocco, as overall winner of these competitions, the option of prizes are offered to you. Either a kiss from me,” the small man donned his most bashful of expressions, and touched his hair as if to insure that it was still in place. Then he smiled down at the navigator who knelt before him. “Or you may chose this trifle of a necklace,” the Prince gave his best expression of distaste at the box that his servant held up. The large emerald on the golden chain sparkled in the afternoon sun as the murmurs of wonder again fell over the crowd.

For a moment, Prince Arjun stood smiling down at the navigator. Arjun was beginning to find a friend in Isa, and his desires to share himself with the handsome man were burgeoning. Although Hiresh did not mind that Arjun had cried out the young Moroccan's name during their last love session, the young prince knew that he would not be able to keep his secret desires hidden from Isa for much longer and he hoped that something more would develop between them. As a silence fell over the crowd, Isa seemed to sigh as he glanced from Arjun, to the necklace, then back to Arjun.

“Your Highness, Prince Arjun, for my prize I choose the necklace,” Isa's words took Arjun by surprise. Quickly concealing his disappointment, the small man stood silent as he gave a curt nod to the Moroccan. Before his frown of disappointment could grow, Isa had reached for the necklace and lifted it from the box, then turned once more to Arjun.

“I ask for this necklace in order that I may give it to you, You Highness, for I am truly unworthy of your kiss,” Isa's head was bowed in subservience as he held the sparkling emerald and chain before Arjun.

Arjun felt the moistness in his eyes the moment the navigator's words registered. With a pleased smile, he sighed as he wiped away an imaginary tear, then reached down, and covered Isa's hand with his own. At his touch, the young bearded man looked up at the prince.

“Isa, my friend, you are worthy of far more than you think,” Arjun kept his voice soft and low as he beckoned the man to rise before him.

With a slight smile, the prince reached up and lightly touched Isa's soft beard. Although he still saw sadness within the dark eyes, the prince recognized a slight sparkle in the dark pools as well. Without thought, Arjun stood on the tips of his toes as he moved to kiss the tall man. At the initial touch, he felt the taller man leaning down, his lips parting ever so slightly. When they finally pulled apart, the petite man smiled as Isa took the necklace and placed it over the Prince's head, then slightly adjusted it.

“It belongs to you, Prince Arjun. That was my only reason for competing, so that I could guarantee that it remains with you,” Isa's voice was soft as he smiled at the prince. As an afterthought, the navigator looked down at Nadrah's smiling features then lifted her in his arms. “These beautiful flowers and a kiss from my favorite little mouse is all I ask for!” Isa kissed the side of Nadrah's cheek as he took her flowers then hugged her close.

Arjun smiled at the man's affection as Nadrah giggled and hugged the navigator back.
The sounds of a cheering crowd rose in the air. As the throngs of people walked down the road, Zara, Gabrielle and Abu sat in the carriage and watched them passing by. The crowd raised their voices in songs of praise as they tossed flowers and confetti in the air. When she saw a familiar figure approaching in the center of the crowd, Zara leaned forward. She recognized her friend's familiar stance, the way he sat sidesaddle in the seat with his sari fanning perfectly over the animal's mane.

“Arjun!” she shouted over the heads of the parade. When she noticed the brown dappled horse that he rode, a frown crossed her features. She stood up in the carriage swaying as she favored the injured leg, earning an admonition to be careful from the bard.

“HEY, I THOUGHT YOU WERE GOING TO PUT THAT NAG DOWN!” she shouted furiously, recognizing the horse that had nearly killed her. Arjun smiled and waved at her, then cupped his hand to his ear as if he couldn't hear her over the jubilant crowd.

“THAT NAG!” Zara shouted again, fiercely jabbing her finger at his horse.

“Yes, she is beautiful, isn't she?” Arjun shouted back as he lightly petted the beast and continued to ride past them.

“Arjun, who won?” Gabrielle was now standing beside her and shouting.

“It was wonderful! Such a grand race! Take a look and see, honey!” the prince shouted over the heads of his people as he rode toward the estate.

“I can't believe he didn't put that nag down after it nearly killed me,” the Moroccan grumbled as she sat down in the carriage.

“Aw, honey, it wasn't that bad of a horse. Maybe Arjun wanted to give it a second chance. Besides, look how gentle it is now. In a crowd like this, most horses would be spooked … why, I bet that you just didn't…” Gabrielle stopped her words when she saw Zara's frown and coughed. “Never mind, honey, you might be mistaken after all. It might not even be the same horse.” The bard smiled as she linked her arm through Zara's.

“Captain, look,” Abu's excited voice pulled Zara's attention to the raised platform that was being carried on the shoulders of many men. Isa stood on top of the platform with Nadrah in his arms. As the flowers were thrown, he smiled and waved to the crowd, then whispered in the little girl's ear. With a bright smile, Nadrah nodded, then waved to the crowd as if the victory had been hers as well. When they passed in front of the carriage, the girl's eyes grew wide with recognition.

“Captain, Gabrielle, Isa won!!” She shouted excitedly.

With a smile, and a wave, Isa nodded at them as he was carried past them. Zara smiled, then a frown formed as she thought it over. When she looked at Abu, she saw the same expression.

“Abu, where did Isa learn such skills as the chariot?” she asked her friend.

With a frown, he shook his head. “I don't know, Captain. Perhaps there is more to our navigator than we know?”

Zara nodded as she puzzled over the mystery. Although proud that such a feat had been accomplished by someone in her crew, she was surprised that Isa was the one who held the mastery to win the entire competition. At this thought, she realized that although she was familiar with the man, she knew next to nothing about his personal life. With this thought, she vowed to take the time to get to know him, and the rest of her crew better.

Part 46

Gabrielle had thought there could never be a grander party than what she had seen on her first night in the estate. The difference between this affair and the first was that it was entirely outdoors. As the musicians roamed through the crowds, the partygoers were not only celebrating the end of a grand tournament, but they were celebrating the victor of the games.

When Isa glanced her way, he smiled and tipped his glass to her. With a nod, the bard acknowledged the man who now sat on the right hand of Prince Arjun. From nearby she heard Nivedita's laughter as she leaned into Jamil. Obviously not upset by the narrow loss, the Indian woman drank freely of the wine, as did the other guests.

“Looks like there will be some people sleeping late tomorrow,” Xena chuckled softly. With a slight arch of a brow, the bard lifted her goblet to her lips as she cast her soul mate a sidelong glance.

“Like you haven't had your share of sleeping in after a hard night partying!” Gabrielle chortled as she lightly sipped of the drink.

“Oh, you know me too well, my bard, far too well!” Xena smiled as she shook her head. “I've gotta admit, Gabrielle, Prince Arjun certainly knows how to throw a party!”

“You can say that again! I can't remember any party he's ever had these past days that haven't been memorable,” the bard shook her head as she set her goblet down and began to munch from her plate.

“Oh, I am sorry, Gabrielle, did you s-say something?” Zara leaned toward her with a half smile. Her rosy cheeks and half lidded eyes showed the level of her intoxication.

“Nothing, Zara, was just talking with Xena,” the bard answered as she slipped a slice of apple past the captain's lips.

“Ummm … perhaps we should make our exit so that you can share more of your … ummm … fruits with me?” the Moroccan smiled seductively as she slurred her words, then took the bard's hand and began to kiss, then sensuously suckle each finger.

“Okay, I think you've had quite enough wine for the night,” Gabrielle chuckled as she withdrew her hand and fingers.

“Na' sho mush, I m-mean mush, that I wouldn't be able to enjoy y-your nectar,” Zara smiled as she leaned close and nibbled on the bard's ear. Before Gabrielle could protest, Zara was on her feet, raising her glass. Whatever pain she may have felt in her foot was drowned away by the spirits of the wine.

“Everyone, pardon my interruption, but I must confess to a deep and undying love…” Zara called out as a few party goers nearby turned to watch her. Before she could continue, the tall woman seemed to float like a gently falling leaf back to her seat.

“Oh boy, now I know she's had too much,” Gabrielle had only time to grab the bigger woman's arm and pull it over her shoulder. “Come on sweetheart, I think it's beddy-bye time for you...”

“B-Beddy wiff m-my bardies b-body…?” The tall woman slurred, giggling slightly swaying against her.

“We'll see,” the bard said smiling patiently. “We gotta get there first … come on.”

As the smaller woman rose from her seat, she pulled her lover close to her body. She smiled at the few people nearby as she began to lead the Moroccan captain away from the courtyard. With slight mumbling about bards and beds, Zara leaned heavily into her as she walked slowly by her side.

“Umm, Gabrielle, do you need any of the servants help?” Xena asked as the small blonde half walked, half stumbled up the stairs with her larger cargo by her side.

“Xena, I hate to tell you this, but I used to carry a lot more weight than this that first year that you and I were together. Remember, you wore armor!” The bard laughed as Zara tried to open her eyes to stare around her, then shook her head and mumbled incoherently.

Xena grumbled, then softly laughed as she shook her head. “Sometimes your memory is vexing, my bard, did you know that?”

“Zara, no, come on, work with me here!” Gabrielle huffed as the Moroccan was turning in the hallway, glancing with bleary-eyed but intent interest at the murals on the wall. “Xena, when I would fight to get you from the pubs to the room that first year, you better believe I'd remember how heavy your armor was!” She chuckled as she took hold of Zara, pushed her against a nearby wall, then leaned into the bigger woman and physically pulled her lover over her shoulder.
On minute, Zara was sitting back, enjoying the meal and the wine, and the next, she felt her head swimming in a sea of grapes. Whenever she tried to focus her eyes, she felt a wave of dizziness fall over her. It was not until she was hanging upside down, arms dangling in the air, that a measure of clarity returned to her. At the sight of the two, familiar mounds that moved before her eyes, she smiled as she reached around the bard's waist and kissed Gabrielle's posterior.

“Hey! You stop that back there!” Gabrielle's voice was less than a shout as Zara kissed her firm, round bottom through the silk fabric of her pants.

“I cannot help bu' pay bomage to hooty,” Zara stated as she felt herself being carried down a hall. “Uh, I m-mean b-beauty…” she corrected herself, lovingly stroking the bard's firm buttocks.

If she had been in her right mind, Zara would have protested the bard's actions. But instead, she was pickled to the gills and did not care that her smaller lover was hauling her through Arjun's estate as if she were nothing more than a sack of grain. Only when the door closed to their room did she look up and glance around her.

“Is the par'y over?” she asked with a slight frown as she felt herself being thrown on the bed.

“It is for you,” her lover said as the Moroccan felt her one boot being yanked from her foot.

“Mad, you are truly mad to have cut my f-foot off like that,” Zara mumbled as she stared up at the ceiling and wondered why the ceiling seemed to be changing colors before her eyes.

“Boy, I would have thought that you were over that by now,” her smaller lover's voice sounded like a distant chant in the winds. When she felt the bard's hand working the fastenings of her clothes, she began to giggle hysterically.

“I knew it, I absolutely knew it!” Zara chuckled, “You just wan' my body, don' you?”

“Of course! I just can't wait to take you and use you for my own pleasure,” the bard's voice chuckled as the Moroccan closed her eyes to the sight of the spinning ceiling.

“I k-knew it, you just want to use me as you' s-sex slave,” Zara snorted gleefully as she felt herself being pulled to a sitting position while her shirt was being pulled over her head.

“Oh, boy, someone is sure out of it!” the Moroccan heard the ghost chuckle.

“Oh, be quiet you! Why don' you go find yourself a nice house to haunt … or better yet, fin' yourself a nice woman ghost,” Zara shouted out, then began to laugh hysterically as she was dropped to the bed. “Find a nice woman ghost … oh, too, too funny!” The captain laughed at her own joke as she felt her pants being pulled from her body, then the bard laid her in the bed and pulled the covers over her shoulders.

“Shush now, close your eyes and sleep,” Gabrielle commanded as Zara rolled over, curled into a fetal position before she felt the darkness of dreams pull her under.
The warrior princess smiled at the sight of the drunk captain and idly wondered why she was not affected by Zara's drinking. In the past, while on the ship, Xena had noticed that she was able to feel Zara through the link she had inadvertently created. Yet since the bard and captain arrived at Arjun's place, whatever shared bond they had, seemed nonexistent. Not only could she not feel Zara's pain, but the pleasure of making love with the bard was silenced and the warrior princess wondered if the lack of the link had anything to do with the magical protections which Arjun had set up around his home.

'The man thinks of everything,' Xena absently thought as Zara's slurred words rang in the room.

Xena felt the Moroccan's anger through her inebriated comments. With only a slight frown, she watched as Gabrielle tucked the woman under the blankets. She knew Zara's true feelings about her, and although a part of her wanted to say something, she kept her silence.

“Xena, she didn't mean anything by it,” Gabrielle turned to her with a soft smile. “She's just…”

“I know, Gabrielle. I've been there myself, I remember what it's like,” she tried to smile to offer her lover comfort.

“Yeah, but at least you only passed out when you were drunk. At least you didn't babble things that you didn't mean,” the blonde sighed as she crossed her arms and stood in front of the warrior. “Xena, throughout all of this, you've never told me how you feel about it all.” The bard's eyes stared intently at her, seeking answers to unspoken questions.

“You mean, I've never given you approval about this arrangement? Or that you've fallen in love with Zara?” the warrior schooled her tone in an attempt to mask her true emotions.

“Yeah, I've tried to ask you about it ever since we talked that first night … but, I wasn't able to have time alone. I-I'm not sure if we'll ever have that time anymore,” the bard seemed to sigh as she glanced down at the snoring Moroccan. “Tell me Xena, how do you feel about it?”

With a slight sigh Xena moved across the room. With head bent in thought, she glanced at everything and nothing. How could she feel? The only woman who had ever brought meaning to her life was now in love with another woman, and yet, what could she do? She was, after all, dead. Dead by her own choosing, and now she had to live with her decisions and actions.

“Gabrielle, I only want what makes you happy,” the warrior smiled as she turned to her lover. “If loving Zara, and me as well would make you happy, then I'll do whatever it takes to make it work. I promise,” She gave her most convincing smile as she moved to stand before the bard. At the smaller woman's arched brow, she nodded as she reached out as if to touch her lover, then stopped before making contact.

“Gabrielle, the love we both hold for you will make this new arrangement work, I'm sure of it!” Xena said so confidently that she almost found herself believing it. 'Gods, maybe it will work,' she thought bemusedly, then smiled. For a moment the bard gazed at her with questioning eyes, then, as if satisfied by the answer, she sighed as she ran her fingers through her short blonde hair.

“I know it will be hard Xena. But once we get you back, once we're all together, I'm sure we can find a way to make it work. I mean … others have, haven't they?” the blonde asked as a smile curved her lips.

“Yes, others have,” the warrior ghost agreed before turning to look down at Zara. “I think you'll have your hands full here, so I'll leave you two alone to get some sleep.” When she saw the bard starting to protest, she raised a hand, “Gabrielle, I really do need to go. I still haven't found out the information that Arjun needed.”

“All right, but then you'll be back?” Gabrielle asked.

“I promise, as soon as I do some snooping around, I'll come back to you. And if you're asleep, then I'll just curl up beside you and wait, okay?” Xena asked.

“Okay, but you be…” Gabrielle stopped herself as she caught what she had almost said. With a smile and a wink, the tall warrior nodded at her smaller lover.

“I'll be careful, my love, I promise,” she said before she closed her eyes and winked from view.

When she opened her eyes the ghost found herself surrounded by the milling party goers. Some were as intoxicated as Zara had been, while others were simply enjoying the moment. As she glanced around the crowd, she searched the faces for any clues and watched for anyone who seemed to be acting suspiciously or trying to sneak off by themselves. Some people did, but once she followed them a little way she discovered that they were obviously lovers seeking secluded spots for their trysting and she soon grew disgusted and began sampling rooms at random throughout the estate. When this too proved futile, she sighed and turned away. All that was left to do was to check around the perimeter of the gates once more. Hopefully, the traitor would show him or herself by trying to make an escape through one of the few doors to the outside, Xena reasoned as she began to walk past the milling guests who partied under the canopy of stars.

Part 47

Arjun found himself floating in a cloud of pleasant dreams. From somewhere in his subconscious mind, he felt strong arms around him. Within his dreams, he saw Hiresh, the big, burly man was holding him close. The soft lips, a contrast to his normally strong body, kissed along the nape of the small princes' neck. Before this dream could take hold, the image of his lover shifted and changed to a myriad of faces. All of them had been men whom Arjun had chosen to share himself with in the past. Like ripples in the fabric of time, the dream kept changing from face to face until it settled with the solemn features of the navigator. With a pleased smile, Arjun reached up in his dream and lightly stroked the bearded man's chin before snuggling back against the warm body. Through his half-waking, dreaming state, his mind replayed the night of love that they had shared as he fell back into a peaceful slumber.

He remembered the tentative touches from the man, then, as if a spring of sorrow had been released, Isa began to weep. All Arjun could do was hold the man close, comfort him and soothe his pain as best he could. When Isa recovered enough to speak, he once again told the prince about his beloved soul mate. But he explained more of the story than Arjun had ever heard before, and what he vowed to always keep silent.

Born of a family of high status in Northern Arabia, Isa was the third son and was taught all the skills of nobility, such as sword fighting, horse handling, mathematics, astronomy, reading and writing. When he met his beloved, the young man knew that he could not live without him. So, going against his father, he left his clan and kin to join Rabeé. Never before had the young man disobeyed his father, but he knew that by following his heart, following his spirit twin, he would never return home again. So now here he was in this far place, a man without a country or his soul mate, alone and very much afraid of where his future lay.

As he listened, Arjun held the man close, offering what he knew were probably pale words of reassurance, but Isa seemed to take comfort in them and their closeness turned to love. It was a love that Arjun had longed for since first setting eyes on the young navigator. Yet the small prince had known how vulnerable Isa was and swore to himself to be as tender with Isa's heart as he was with the navigator's sweet, hard body.

He knew that Isa was not meant for him, just as he knew that the young man was still deeply grieving over the loss of his soul mate. But for one brief moment in time, they were able to share and comfort each other. The soft hand and gentle touch is what the young seafarer needed, and what Arjun was able to willingly give.

On the downy edge of dreams, he thought he heard a slight voice calling his name in the distance, but the rest of the words were too faint for him to hear. When the call grew silent, Arjun only smiled as he felt himself being pulled into a wave of pleasing dreams. As if the far away voice had never spoken, he dove back into the realm of sleep.
Gabrielle felt as if she had just closed her eyes a moment ago before her soul mate's voice woke her up. With a groan and a silent curse, the blonde slowly opened her eyes to the near darkness in the room. By her side, Zara moaned as she rolled over on her side, pulling the pillow over her head.

DAMMIT, GABRIELLE, YOU'VE GOT TO GET UP, NOW!” Xena shouted furiously as the bard lay blinking and only partly awake. As she watched, the ghost saw the bard sinking back into sleep again and cursed to herself. Focusing her will, she managed to get a hold of the blankets with both hands and tugged them off of the two sleeping women. “Wake UP, dammit!

“Agh!” Gabrielle yelped as the cold night air struck her skin. “X-Xena?” she moaned. “What in Tartarus is so urgent that it can't wait until a decent hour?” the bard griped as she pulled the covers back over their naked bodies and snuggled back under them.

At the sound of the bard's voice, Zara groaned as she tried to bury herself deeper into the pillow. When the covers were yanked from her, she mumbled a slight expletive as she tried to pull her fog filled brain from sleep. As the bard's words reached her through the pillow, she closed her eyes shut tightly as a slight shiver ran passed her naked form. Only when she felt her smaller lover cover her with a blanket, did a sigh escape her.

For a moment, the Moroccan felt as if an elephant was sitting on her head. At the ghost warrior's stream of incessant words, Zara sighed under the shelter of the pillow. With an audible groan, she rolled over against her lover's warm body and pulled the pillow over her head again. When the spirit warrior began to somehow shake the bed, the Moroccan cursed and sat up with a scowl on her face.

“By the Mercy of Allah! Do you mind? Some of us are trying to sleep!” her voice was gruff as she called out to the ghost in the room.
All through the night, Xena had been watching the estate gates for anything unusual and was almost ready to give up when she saw a slight movement off in the distance. Closing her eyes, she felt herself rising to the top landing of the high wall. As she glanced off at the nearest tower, she strained her eyes in hopes of trying to find what had caught her attention. By the faint light of the early morning sun, she saw the glimmer of metal in the trees. Glancing around, she noticed the casual stance of the nearby sleepy guards and realized that so far they had seen nothing out of the ordinary. When a slight breeze reached them she heard the faint echo of metal on metal.

“Hades,” she said as all her senses came on alert. “This can't be good…” but before the warrior princess was able to finish her thoughts a group of armed men ran from the distant trees. Wearing the uniforms of Indian cavalrymen, the soldiers rushed the wall with defiant yells. Suddenly called to attention, Arjun's men held bow and arrows ready, waiting for an order from their commander.

“By the gods…” Xena muttered as she expected to see a massacre of the men below. “They're not even staying in cover. No commander can be this stupid … he has to know they'll get slaughtered before they even get to the walls…” Her eyes narrowed as her military mind came to the fore. “They've got no ladders, no breaching equipment! This has to be a ruse. There's something dirtier afoot…” Swiftly she looked around calculating. Seeing nothing nearby, her gaze went to the inside of the walls. “Holy Zeus,” she whispered as she saw the two men in the uniforms of Arjun's gate guards beginning to remove the bars from a sturdy door to the outside. “The gate,” she shouted at the soldiers around her. “TRAITORS ARE OPENING THE GATES!” None of the bowmen took their eyes from the rushing enemy below. Dammit! She rushed to the commander of the wall, standing with his lieutenant and screamed in his ear. “LOOK BEHIND YOU! THEY'RE OPENING THE GATES!”

The officer swatted at his ear suddenly as if he had heard an insect hum, but other than that, paid no attention, “Steady, men!” He shouted, raising a hand. He muttered to his second. “Whoever is in command down there is about to lose all of his men for nothing, the fool.” He raised his voice again. “Ready to loose arrows on my command…”

“LISTEN TO ME, CURSE YOU…” Xena shouted furiously at the officers but neither man heard her. She attempted to take possession of the commander and turn him around, but something prevented her, pushing her bodily away. Arjun's magical protections! Then a chorus of screams rang out from behind her and she turned with the startled commanders in time to see the massive door held open by the two traitors as another group of men spilled into the exterior compound attacking the few surprised guards on the ground nearby.

“Blessed Krishna! The bastards are in! Those gate guards were paid off!” The commander blanched as he stared through the invisible ghost. “Lieutenant, keep half of the men up here and shoot at targets on both sides of the wall! I'll take the other half down and try to contain this mess, but we're lost if we don't get the reserves quickly! You, man,” he called to a warrior nearby, “Quickly, waken Captain Hiresh!” Then he raised his voice and barked commands. “First, Third and Fifth squads follow me down into the compound! The rest of you follow the Lieutenant's orders! Move OUT!”

Swiftly the officers and men began to move while Xena stood helplessly raging. She knew she could do no good here, but the officer had mentioned needing the reserves; perhaps she could help yet. “Arjun,” was the first name that came to her mind. “He needs to know what's happening here so he can call for back up.”

Before she even closed her eyes, she found herself moving through the air and in a matter of seconds stood above the massive bed. She noticed the prince's contented expression as Isa was spooning him. The ornate covers of the enormous bed concealed them from the waist down as they both slept deeply. Glancing over her shoulder, she heard only silence in this secluded place, yet she knew that men were dying in the compound below.

“Arjun, wake up!” she spoke directly to the man. When she saw his brows arch questioningly, she thought that she had gotten through to him, but he only sighed and kept sleeping. She tried to reach out and shake him, only to watch frustrated as her hand went completely through the man.

“ARJUN, WAKE UP!” she shouted louder but the prince was fast asleep.

When this proved futile, she shook her head and thought of her bard. Transported by the bedside of the blonde, she noticed how the two women were deep asleep, arms around one another. With a slight rasping sound, Zara laid on her back with her forearm over her eyes as if to ward off the sun.

“GABRIELLE, GET UP!” the ghost warrior shouted. There was seemingly no response from her sleeping lover. “DAMMIT, GABRIELLE, YOU'VE GOTTA GET UP, NOW!” She shrieked, as she reached down, concentrating with all of her might, and managed to tug the blankets from the sleeping women.

“X-Xena? What in Tartarus is so urgent that it can't wait until a decent hour?” the bard's typical morning complaints began. The smaller woman absently covered her naked lover before snuggling back under the covers and yawning.

“You both need to get up NOW!” Xena shouted once more as she concentrated again and began to shake their bed. Just then, Zara sat up with a scowl on her face.

“By the Mercy of Allah! Do you mind? Some of us are trying to sleep!” her voice was gruff as she called out in the room.

“Yes, I do mind, and unless you both plan on being killed in your bed, I'd suggest you get up NOW!” Xena ordered again. Questions and exclamations now came from both women, making her certain that she had at last gotten through to them. Now she ran to Nadrah's room, stepped through the door, and stood over the bed. The girl was cuddled asleep against Prasha, who was indulging in an early bath. As Xena came up, the cat stopped cleaning himself to gaze at her through slit eyes.

“Nadrah, honey, wake up quickly. You've got to find someplace to hide, do you understand?” she knelt by the bed as the sleepy girl yawned and wiped the sleep from her eyes. “Come on now, wake up.”

“Hide? How come, Xena?” the little girl asked even as she was obediently getting up from the bed and dressing.

“I don't know what's going on Honey, but I think you need to find a safe place,” the ghost explained as Nadrah took her cat and pushed his protesting body into the basket, closing it before she ran to the door and entered the larger bedroom. They walked in on time to see the two women sitting up, their gazes looking around the room confused.

“Look, ladies!” The ghost snapped. “Get it together and wake up 'cause you don't have much time. There are armed warriors breaching the first wall of Arjun's defenses. You need to wake up the house and find a safe place for Nadrah!” Xena was pleased to see her bard suddenly come fully awake at her words. Zara sat up and threw the covers aside, ignoring their nakedness.

“Warriors fighting…?” Gabrielle muttered even as she was moving from the bed and grabbing for her clothing.

“That cannot be, there is no way that any force can breach Arjun's walls,” Zara said. She stood up as if to leap into her clothing. Then with a yelp, she grimaced at the pain in her foot and closed her eyes tightly before sitting back on the bed, grabbing her head.

“They can if someone on the inside opens the door for them, and someone did,” Xena added as she watched Nadrah putting the cat-basket on the floor, then run to the chamber room with a slight dance in her step. Ignoring Zara, Gabrielle quickly threw on boots, skirt and top, then went to the closet and began to remove her weapons. She slid the Sais into her boots, belted the katana across her back, and hung the chakram from her belt.

The ghost felt a pang of depression as she saw the gleaming circle flashing on her lover's trim hip. She couldn't touch the chakram any more than she could Gabrielle. Even less, for her hand would pass right through it. It was one more reminder of everything she had lost. She clenched her teeth, then blew out a breath and forced a smile. The busy bard failed to notice her discomfort.

“Xena, I don't understand! Where were the guards? Shouldn't there be some sort of warning alarm going off?” Gabrielle asked just as a horn blast echoed from outside.

“I'd say that's it,” the ghost grinned with a sigh of relief. At least the garrison would be roused now.

“Blessed Allah, she's right, Arjun is under attack,” Zara's eyes grew wide as she glanced at the closed patio doors.
At the sound of the horn, Arjun was instantly awake and jumping from the bed. Confused by the sudden movement, Isa blinked and looked around the room. His bearded expression turned to a frown as he awoke from his own dreams.

“What is that trumpet calling?” Arjun's latest lover asked.

“It is the worst thing I would ever want to hear,” Arjun had only enough time to pull on a pair of loose fitting pants as he ran to the concealed wall that held his weapons. “Come on, lover, it appears that someone thinks they can attack me,” the young prince said as he tossed a curved sword to Isa.

No longer asleep, the taller man easily caught the weapon as he stood naked before the prince. Arjun allowed himself the luxury of gazing upon the man's exquisite body, before he shook his head negatively. Seeing his action, Isa looked down at himself, then glanced at the Indian in confusion.

“What?” Isa asked as the warning horns continued to blare.

“If those damn horns weren't sounding, I'd be asking for a repeat of last night!” Arjun growled as he turned and began to make his way from the room. Behind him, he heard the navigator quickly moving to pull on his pants, before the sounds of his feet were following close behind.
Zara had little time to contemplate what was happening. All she had time to do was pull on some pants and a shirt and grab her weapon. Equally dressed in minimum clothing and weapons, Gabrielle had scooped up Nadrah and was running toward the door.

“Quickly, we need to reach safety,” the Moroccan schooled her voice to be calm, yet firm as she followed the smaller woman from the room. With a slight limping gait, the tall woman held her scimitar loosely as she followed behind the petite blonde. Gabrielle waited a moment in the hallway until Zara was able to take the lead.

“Zara, where? Nadrah needs to be taken somewhere safe,” she heard the bard's words as they ran down the hall. Before she could respond, Arjun's door flew open as the small prince came running from the room with an Indian scimitar.

“Whoever has disturbed my sleep will pay dearly for this! As you know, a girl needs at least eight hours to maintain her beauty and I got barely three!” the Prince growled as he nodded at Zara. As Arjun's guest followed quickly behind, Zara stopped in her tracks and looked at the young man. With only pants on and holding an Indian sword, Isa turned a bright shade of red when he saw her.

“Uhh … Captain…” the man stammered as Zara turned to her friend's retreating form. If they had any time available, she would have questioned Arjun. But when she saw Arjun's form disappearing down the hall, the tall woman only closed her mouth as she ran with a slight limp to catch up with him.

“Do you know who it is?” she asked her friend as the shouts of men and the clash of steel reached their senses.

“I have an idea, but no, I'm not all together certain,” he indicated when they came up to the Sultan's quarters. “Quickly, everyone follow me,” Arjun called as he led them down an opposite hall. From the stairs, the burly captain of the guard ran to the prince. With only a polite nod at the navigator, Hiresh turned his full attention to the prince.

“My prince, they've broken through the outer parameters and are entering the gardens now. They will be entering the estate at any minute,” Hiresh stated. Before Arjun said anything, he turned to a mural on the wall and placed his hand over part of the painting. Like magic, the wall opened to a concealed staircase.

“Come along, quickly, you'll all be safe here, don't worry, follow the lighted torches down,” Arjun began to call to the Arabs. Then he turned to the Sultan. “Your Highness, I do apologize for this unseemly breach of manners by some of my people. Please understand, as soon as this mess is taken care of, we will retrieve you all. Until then, you'll be perfectly safe in here.”

“Can we not help?” the Sultan asked as the women filed down the stairs in a trail behind a few of the Sultan's black clothed guards.

Arjun smiled in genuine thanks but shook his head. “If you did, I am afraid you would be entering into a battle, which is not yours and a political mess that I would never wish on a friend such as yourself. I hope you understand.” He took the older man's hand in his, then nodded, indicating for the man to follow his people.

The Sultan clasped it firmly. “Then we can but do as you wish, my brother ruler and may Allah, the merciful, smile upon you in this endeavor.” He turned toward Zara. “My dear niece, I trust we will see you safely and soon.”

Zara swallowed and nodded. “As you say … uncle.” He smiled and went toward the stairs with the others.

Now Zara turned to the bard who was still holding Nadrah and calmly rested her hand on the woman's shoulder. When she saw the child's scared eyes, she smiled as she lightly touched her cheek. “We all have our duties. Be good and do yours, you understand?” the captain's voice was low as she watched the girl's reaction. With tear filled eyes, Nadrah nodded as she clutched the basket holding Prasha close.

“Honey, it's time for you follow the others,” Gabrielle's voice was soft as she put the girl down, her hand resting on Nadrah's shoulder as she pushed her slightly toward the open door.

“Gabrielle, please walk the child down. The stairs are difficult for someone her size,” Zara tried to keep her voice controlled as she ran her fingers through the blonde hair. For a moment, Gabrielle looked surprised, then glanced down into the darkness. For a matter of seconds, the woman seemed to contemplate Zara's request, then, when the Moroccan began to worry that her lover would not go, the bard nodded.

“All right, but I'll be right back!” she replied taking Nadrah's hand and starting forward.

As she did, Zara shot a look at Arjun, and the petite prince raised an eyebrow, then nodded in approval. A part of Zara was ashamed at her own deception, yet another part was grateful that it was working. As she watched the bard moving into the entrance, the Moroccan stepped back. At her movements, Gabrielle turned around in time to see Zara raising a hand in salutation. Behind the captain she saw Xena looking with obvious surprise at the tall woman.

“I love you, Gabrielle,” the Moroccan mouthed as Arjun hit the lever that closed the door to the shelter.

Gabrielle had only a split second to realize the ruse. Angered by her lover's actions, she growled once. She tried to leap forward to stop it, but the door swung closed with a thud of finality even as the battling bard was upon it, pushing and banging her fist against the solid stone wall.

Zara! So help me….” She screamed as she pushed her body against the wall. The echoes of her curses and enraged pounding at the door filled the cavern. When she realized the futility of it, she leaned her head against the cold wall, her labored breaths loud in the darkness.

Damn you, Zara! Why? Why did you do this? Why does everyone I love keep doing this to me?” She shook her head in exasperation, knowing that her lover had purposefully kept her out of harm's way. Angrily she hissed at the door, “I love you, you big Moroccan idiot, but when I get outa here again I swear I'm gonna kick your so-sweet-butt from here back to Calicut!” There was of course no answer, and at last, the bard miserably made her way down the stairs to find Nadrah.
Outside in the hallway, Arjun smiled as the faint thumps from behind the wall stopped. He turned to the tall woman. “I sincerely hope that was what you wanted when you gave me that look before?”

“Yes,” Zara whispered, staring at the wall where she had last seen Gabrielle. “Thank you…”

“Oh, you are quite welcome my dear sister, but I have a feeling you may regret this.” The small man patted her shoulder, then turned to Hiresh and Isa standing silently nearby and his expression hardened. “Come my friends, I am of a mind to teach some people what it means to invade my home!” He started off down the hall. “Are you coming, Zara?”

“Yes,” she said softly as she started limping after them.

As the other three moved way ahead of her, Xena's voice cut through the tall captain's thoughts. “Zara, I gotta tell you … leaving Gabrielle behind that way was a gutsy move. Stupid … but gutsy. She is NOT gonna be happy with you.”

“Xena,” the Moroccan sighed. “I had to do it. I-If anything happened to Gabrielle, I could not live with myself…”

“Oh, I don't say I don't understand your reasons. I understand them all too well and I applaud you. But like Arjun said, 'You may regret this later.'” The ghost chuckled faintly. “I know I always did.”

“As long as she is alive at the end of this,” whispered the Moroccan as she followed Arjun and the other two toward the sound of the battle. “That is all I care about.”
Like red fire ants converging upon a dead carcass, the invading warriors were everywhere at once. Without sparing his friend or two lovers a second glance, Arjun jumped into the fray. Every muscle that he always kept safely hidden was now focused on one single objective. Each time he came across an invading warrior, he used his scimitar as he had been trained by the greatest sword masters his father could find since he was a child.

“I…” he hissed through clenched teeth, “… have had … ENOUGH … of this!” His scimitar brushed past the guard of lesser-trained swordsmen and left them dead or bleeding. His slashes and parries were quick as lightning and no one could stand before him as he plunged into the mass of his enemies, hacking and slicing. Both Hiresh and Isa valiantly positioned themselves on either of his sides as barriers against the enemies that swarmed into his home. From behind him somewhere, he heard the battle rage on as his dear friend, Zara, fought against the horde of enemy locusts that seemed to swarm in from every room.

“This, is … quite enough of this!” He spoke more for himself than anyone else as he parried with yet another warrior, before finding an opening and removing the man's face. “How dare my party be disturbed!” he shouted as another unwitting warrior fell before his flashing blade. “How dare anyone think to destroy the party of a lifetime!” he hissed as his scimitar crunched through a man's shoulder and halfway into his breastbone. He kicked the dying man loose from the blade and fought alongside Hiresh and Isa, their skill and quick movements succeeding to push the line of invaders back down the first floor hallway.
Filled with a slow boiling rage, Gabrielle joined the Arabs at the bottom of the stairs. The room that housed them was half the size of the great hall and held their numbers comfortably. As if expecting them, there were comfortable couches lined against a wall and fruits, vegetables and bowls of water on a table. Already gathered at the stairs were Arjun's wives, all hastily dressed as if they had only time to pull on whatever was close to them. As they spoke softly to those around them, each one strove to make everyone comfortable.

Arjun's First wife stepped forward. She smiled as she spoke to the crowd in the room. “I assure you, my husband will take care of this situation, and we'll all be able to leave here shortly. But until then, please make yourself comfortable. There is food and drink to last for quite some time, and around that corner are bath facilities, should anyone have need of them.”

As the people begin to separate into small silent groups, the bard looked around disconsolately. 'Damn it, I should be up there, not skulking down here like a rat in a hole…' she thought grimly. 'I'm as good a fighter as Zara is … maybe better, especially now that she's injured her foot…'

“Gabrielle, I thought you would be with Zara,” Jamil spoke softly behind her. For the first time, she had realized that the Arab warrior had chosen to follow his sultan, rather than join in the fight. At his words, she grimaced as a deep-set frown crossed her features.

“Yes … well, that is something I'm going to have to take up with her … when I get out of here!” Her tone was harsher than she had intended as she glanced up at the taller man and attempted a wan smile.

“I certainly understand your sentiments,” he frowned, “and I would rather be upstairs, but my duty lies in protecting the Sultan, my master.” Gabrielle nodded glumly, then both of them looked around as a slight noise caught their attention.

From somewhere in the cavern, Pritam walked casually in, waving at Arjun's wives as he moved to join Nadrah.

Gabrielle was next to the boy before he realized she was in the room with the others. “Pritam, I didn't see you with the rest of us...” She frowned. “How did you get in here?”

Before the boy could answer, Jamil spoke, his voice deep with concern. “Pritam, what of Nivedita? Is she here too?”

“Oh, no, but she's all right!” the boy waved with his hand as if to dismiss Jamil's fears. “She joined in the fighting, even let loose the raptors! Blessed Krishna, you should have seen 'em ripping at the eyes and noses of the invaders! Blood and beaks everywhere! It was spectacular!!” He smiled with glee at Nadrah, then frowned. “And then she ordered me to join you all, she wouldn't even let me have any of the fun!”

“Nivedita is up there fighting?” Jamil's voice filled with panic as he glanced upward at the ceiling.

“Ahuh, and she wouldn't let me stay!” the boy pouted as he crossed his arms in front of him. “She gets to do everything!”

“Pritam, you were outside just now?” Gabrielle went down on a knee and spoke softly, asking again, “How did you get in here? Is there another way into this place?”

“Ahuh, there are lots of ways in here, and I know 'em all!” the boy pointed to himself as a prideful smile crossed his features.

The bard glanced at Jamil, then asked hopefully, “Pritam? Can you show me how to get back to the second floor where the fighting is? I need to join Zara.”

“'Course I know the way to the second floor, but Zara isn't there. The fighting's moved out of the estate and into the courtyard. Why, when I was passing some guards, I heard that Supreme Field Marshall Kala had just arrived at the outskirts of the Princes' home and she brought all of her personal guards with her! The battle should be over soon,” the boy pouted, saddened that he was not allowed to join in.

Gabrielle stood quickly. “Then take me to where you last saw Zara. It's very important that I be there to help her, do you understand?”

The boy grinned. “Sure, this'll be fun!” Then he frowned. “You'll be sure to tell Nivedita that you made me do it, right? She's got a mean pinch when she's mad.” He rubbed at his ear as if he could still feel his sister's squeezing fingers.

“Yes, Pritam.” Gabrielle smiled. “I won't let her blame you. Come on…”

Before they could leave, Jamil put a hand on her shoulder and said, “Wait…” He turned away and moved to the Sultan then lowered his head without saying any words.

The Sultan smiled as he patted the bearded man's shoulder. “Go Jamil. Go and help your woman … And take as many of your fighters as you deem necessary,”

Still, Jamil hesitated. “My Sultan, are you certain…”

The older man smiled again. “We will be safe here. Now go, Jamil. Go with the blessing of Allah the Mighty and Just.”

Jamil bowed again then barked some orders to his men. Leaving half of the guards behind, the Arab captain moved to Gabrielle's side. “We will help,” he stated with a nod.

The bard grimly nodded her thanks and looked at Pritam. “All right, show us to this way out.”

Then she scowled as Nadrah's voice came excitedly. “Wait, Gabrielle, I'm not ready … I need to find someone to keep Prasha safe before we go to help the captain.”

The bard looked at the eager girl and her heart sank. 'Damn it, I don't have time for this,' she thought frantically.

As she fruitlessly tried to think of what to say to keep Nadrah here without hurting her feelings, the Sultan spoke up unexpectedly. “Healer Gabrielle,” he said in worried tones, “I am afraid these old eyes cannot see as well in this darkness as they once did. Do you suppose you could spare Nadrah to help guide me? I am certain that her eyes are as quick as her wits and she has her cat who can see in the dark as well. I would feel much more protected here, now that Jamil and most of my guards are going with you.”

Gabrielle, was nothing if not quick on the uptake. She gnawed her thumb for a moment, looking at Nadrah as if considering. “Well,” she said with hesitation. “I'm not certain I can spare her…”

“Please?” the Sultan said in a solemn tone. “I would consider it a great favor…”

The bard looked hard at the girl. “Well, um, Nadrah, what do you think? It would be a great honor for a girl to be one of the Sultan's personal guards. Such a girl could probably be assured of royal favor later in life.”

“To be sure,” nodded the gray bearded man with a slight bow of his head.

Nadrah had been looking wide-eyed back and forth between the Sultan and the bard as they spoke. “I-I … but … the captain…” she whispered. “She needs help…”

“She did tell you to do your duty…” Gabrielle reminded. “What greater duty than to guard the Sultan, her uncle?”

Nadrah stiffened her shoulders and carrying her basket, marched over to the Sultan. “Prasha and I will do our duty till death, my Sheik.” She bowed her head as Gabrielle and the Sultan smiled at one another over her for a moment, then the bard and the others moved to follow Pritam.
With each step she took, Zara felt the pain of her still healing foot. Ignoring all around her, she concentrated on the fight. A few times, she heard the ghost call out a warning and she would duck, or turn to defend her back against an approaching attacker. Even with her sprained foot, she was doing all right with the ghost's help. Then suddenly, she felt as if the entire band of warriors had descended upon her alone. Man after man rushed at her and she was soon facing a half circle of attacking warriors. Slashing wildly about her, she managed to keep their blades out of her body, but for each one that she managed to disable, two more seemed to take his place.

Full of battle lust, Zara mangled a man's sword arm, then parried a blow from another as he fell screaming. She twisted her blade under the new attacker's sword, turning the parry into a slice that opened his stomach. She stopped yet another blow from a fresh enemy, then kicked him in the groin. As he bent double retching, she brought the scimitar up and across the faces of two men rushing her. Screaming like stepped on cats, they reeled away to be lost in the press as still more men crowded at her. A red haze was filling her vision as she hacked and parried and hacked again and again. She took many minor cuts all over her body, arms and legs, but so far none were serious. However, her sword arm was weakening and her unhealed foot felt as if it was buried in a bucket of hot coals.

Just when Zara felt as if her body would give out, the fighters were suddenly pulled away in different directions as Arjun, Isa, Abu and many of the house guards rushed into the fight. Dragging in fresh breath, she limped to join them, determined not to fail now. Only when they were at the gate and the invaders were all dead or driven out, did she stop for a moment of rest, sagging against the wall.

All around her, she heard the victorious shouts as Arjun's loyal guards pushed the attackers back. Panting from the fight, Arjun smiled at her. His bare torso was covered with bloody sweat as the slight cuts from the enemies' swords made a red criss-cross pattern over his flesh. When Isa moved to him, the prince nodded as he leaned into the tall man's arms.

“W-Who were they? Why … did they attack like this? I don't … understand,” Zara panted as she leaned against the estate wall. The coolness of the stone was soothing to her aching body.

“Isn't it obvious?” Arjun wiped at an errant lock of his hair as he moved away from the navigator and to her side. Equally out of breath, he panted slightly as he leaned against the wall. “Oh, no doubt part of it was to repay me for … standing up to him, but mainly it was … to get at you and to kill you, Zara.”

“Me…?” The Moroccan was stunned. “Th-This whole thing? T-To kill me?”

Abu stated as he let the long sword rest, tip down, into the ground. “I think that the prince has it, captain. I didn't recognize their uniform clothing, but from the way they swarmed upon you, I can easily guess who was behind this attack.”

“He's right, captain,” Isa nodded as he accepted a cup of water that was being passed around the fighters by a servant with a bucket. “When they seemed to recognize you, they wasted little time in concentrating their attack upon you,” the navigator added when he turned to face them.

Speechless, Zara felt herself go pale as the words sank in. 'It's my fault? All this blood spilled just to kill me?'

“My prince, we have word,” Captain Hiresh stepped toward Arjun as he held a grim expression.

“The fighting is contained?” Arjun stood up, his energy seemingly returned.

“Almost, your highness,” the captain reported in a harsh voice. “There are still pockets of resistance over in the Eastern side, but they should be under control soon. Also, Field Marshall Kala has sent word; one of her regiments is cutting them off as they try to make their escape. However, the core of the group and their leaders has managed to run for cover in the dark forest.”

The lull in the fighting afforded Arjun's warriors a chance to regroup and for some house servants to quickly run from the estate with the Princes' armor. As they moved to help Arjun into a shirt and breastplate, the prince seemed deep in thought. Glancing around the compound, he looked over his men and frowned as the servants placed the gauntlets and leg armor on his small form. “Then I guess it's too much to hope that we caught the instigator in this whole little mess?”

“The forest is a good place for a handful to become lost in,” Captain Hiresh reminded.

“From what I saw on our trip in, the forest is thick. It could take days to root out the leaders!” Isa exclaimed.

“Yes … Days only if we're lucky…” Arjun's eyes narrowed in thought.

Captain Hiresh cleared his throat, then looked cautiously at the small gathering, his head tilted to the side as he glanced from Zara to the young prince. “My prince, if we had the proper bait to lure them into the open, it would be only a short matter of time for us to catch the traitors.”

“Uh, oh!” Xena said from somewhere beside her, and Zara was startled at the ghost's unexpected presence. Then she felt herself growing cold as she saw Arjun turn from his captain to look at her, his usually mobile face for once expressionless.
The constant twists and turns in the cavernous walls, combined with the various hallways and passages that they had passed, were enough to confuse the bard. By the time they had reached a solid wall of darkness, she was completely turned around and didn't know where she was within the estate walls. When she glanced up at Jamil, she noticed the same expression in the torchlight, but when he noticed her, he only gave her a grim nod as he watched Pritam's every move.

With a confident smile, the small boy knelt down and began to move part of the wall. At the slight jarring motion, the sound of brick scraping on brick echoed in the hall as a bright light crept into the darkness. When it stopped, there was enough room for only one person to crawl through at a time, single file.

“This way, but be quiet, I don't know what's happening out there,” Pritam whispered before he ducked and disappeared through the hole.

“I will go next, Healer Gabrielle, if you don't mind,” Jamil quickly took a place behind the young boy and didn't wait for her response. Once his feet disappeared, she handed off the torch and knelt down and followed after him. She crawled through a short tunnel perhaps five feet long that came out behind some bushes. As the bright sun blinded her, she winced, then closed her eyes momentarily as she became slowly accustomed to the sunlight. When she glanced around, she recognized the open field area behind the estate. Concealed by bushes and trees, the group of warriors began to form and catch their bearings.

“You see, they were fighting out there, but I don't know where they are at now,” Pritam was whispering. When she moved beside them, she listened to the deathly silence that filled the air. Somewhere, off in the distance, they heard the remnants of a battle.

“That is where your sister is, yes?” Jamil only asked once before rising from behind a bush. “Gabrielle,” he turned to her, asking a silent question.

“I've got your back, lets go find our people,” she replied as she drew her sword. “Pritam, go back to the others and let the Sultan know we made it and ask him for your orders … and please watch after Nadrah,” she added when she saw that the boy was ready to protest. Once he realized that he had a mission, he gave her a confident nod before turning to crawl back through the small crawl space in the estate walls.

“Let's go,” the small blonde said only once before their group was off at a quick run toward the sound of the battle. As they rounded the bend, they noticed many bodies lying about. What little fighting was going on, was contained in the farthest corner of the gardens.

“Jamil!” Nivedita's voice called their attention.

“Are you all right, by Allah, I was so worried about you!” the Arab man ran to her side. Already mounted on a horse, she had her sword drawn as she turned to their group.

“This place is contained, but Prince Arjun needs help. I ride to him now,” the Indian woman explained.

“Is Zara with the Prince?” Gabrielle asked as she scanned the area for a free horse. When she spotted one, she ran to it and jumped onto its back, grabbing the reins. Not hearing her question, Nivedita tore off on her horse. Gabrielle followed close behind, her concentration on one single thought, to find Zara and, if she was not in any danger, to give her ears a good verbal boxing.
“This is sheer madness,” Zara mumbled out loud as she felt the beast surging up and down below her like the ocean surf. She felt beads of sweat pouring down her face and chest, despite the icy chill of the ghost's presence firmly pressed against her back.

“Why in Tartarus didn't you tell them you couldn't ride a horse?” Xena's accusing question sounded somewhere near her ear.

“I-I know how to ride!” The Moroccan gritted her teeth and closed her eyes as she saw a shrub ahead of them, then felt the horse leaping in the air and landing hard on the ground. “Umf … blessed Allah!” she groaned when she felt the hard saddle slam into her tailbone as her hands gripped the reins tightly.

“Yeah, you know how to ride. Like a sack of grain!” the ghost's voice scoffed. “This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard of! Not only can't you ride, but you're using yourself as bait!” The warrior princess' voice said as they raced past the forest trees. “Come on, Zara, relax! Let your body slump in the saddle and sway with the motion of the horse! You're not on parade here! Keep this up and your backbone will pop out of the top of your skull!”

“Xena … I'm doing … the best that … I can…” the Moroccan's words were jumbled as the horses gait seemed to slam through her entire body.

The ghost chuckled. “Yeah, well, I hate to say this, but your best sucks!”

“I do not recall … asking for your help,” Zara said as the horse bounded over yet another obstacle.

“Yeah, but you're gettin' it anyway,” Xena said tonelessly. “Gabrielle would never forgive me if I let you do this alone and something happened to you...”

“It was my choice, Xena,” Zara said softly. 'My fault all this bloodshed started,' she thought. 'Only right that I be the one to fix it.'

“Your choice, right…” The ghost's voice was pensive. “And I suppose that the fact that all this started 'cause of you had nothing to do with your 'choice', did it?”

Zara said nothing and the ghost sighed. “Yeah, that's what I thought. I guess we're not so different, you and me…” Then her voice suddenly sharpened. “Uh, oh! Look out! We got company! Duck to your left! Quick!”

Zara did so and heard a sharp hiss flying by her right ear and caught a glimpse of an arrow as it flew into the distance ahead of her. When she glanced back over her shoulder, she saw men in crimson and blue uniforms emerging on horses from the underbrush. With shouts of victory, the warriors tore off after her. In the center of the riders, the tall woman recognized Daruka; the man who had been vexing her almost since her first day at the estate.

“Allah give me strength!” she mumbled as she ducked another volley of flying arrows and rode the horse as fast as she could away from the forest with her enemies hard on her heels.

“Oh, no … this doesn't…” But Xena's words were cut off as Zara's horse broke free from the dark forest and ran into the open clearing. When she saw the slight hill in the distance, she lifted slightly in the saddle in hopes that it would speed the horse along.

“By the gods, Zara, stay low!” Xena screamed. “You're givin' them a better target!”

As the sound of flying arrows whirred past her, the Moroccan ignored the ghost's shout, giddy with knowing that their plan was paying off. 'I'm home free,' she thought triumphantly. 'It's almost over! I'm coming, Gabrielle. I'm coming!' It was then that she felt the sharp blow in her lower right butt cheek. Before her brain could register this pain, a second, tearing shock was felt in her right shoulder. Screaming in torment, she hunched over the horse and prayed that this would all soon end.
“This is sheer madness,” Arjun found himself pacing nervously. “I can't believe I allowed myself to be talked into this!” he fumed as he glanced at the ground. At the sound of thundering hoofs, he glanced up and watched as the group of riders moved toward them. Once he recognized the blonde rider, he returned to nervously pacing in the tall grass.

“Arjun, where's Zara?” the bard's panic registered in her voice. As if too ashamed to answer her, he shook his head and turned his back on her as he nervously bit on the end of his thumbnail.

“Madness … that's what it is, sheer madness,” he mumbled as he felt a pain in his head and knew that a headache would soon consume him.

The idea alone should have sent up warning flags. True, although he knew who was behind this attack, he wanted the leader captured in such a way that there was no question of the man's treachery. But he did not want it so badly that he would want to risk his best friend's life. Although, once Hiresh laid out the plan, Zara had seemed eager to undertake it.

“She…” Isa stepped forward, then grew silent when even he was unable to tell the blonde about her lover's actions.

“Allah help her, she is out there,” Abu grimly stated as he pointed toward the distant forest.

“What?” the bard stared at the dark trees as she moved forward. Well secluded behind a hill, they were unseen by anyone who might be watching in the dense forest. With a shake of her head, she turned on Arjun.

“Why is she out there? Arjun, what's going on?” The bard's voice grew deep as she stared at the prince.

Filled with guilt, Arjun could only sigh as he shook her head. “I am sorry, honey. At the time, it seemed like the thing to do, but now…” he shook his head, “I don't know.”

Before more could be said, they heard the sound of hoof beats rising from the dark forest. Glancing up, Arjun watched as Zara's white horse broke free from the confines of the trees. Just as Hiresh had planned, Captain Daruka and his men were following close behind.

“Oh no…” the prince heard the bard gasp as Daruka's men launched a volley of arrows at Zara's retreating horse.
Gabrielle felt an instant panic the minute she saw Zara on the horse. Xena was riding behind her, her ghostly arms holding onto Zara's waist as she occasionally glanced over her shoulder. When the first volley of arrows flew, the bard noticed her ghost lover talking, giving instructions, her body clinging to Zara's as they rode. The Moroccan seemed to be responding by ducking or dodging whenever the ghost spoke. When it appeared as if all the arrows missed, Gabrielle released the air she had been holding. Before she could relax, a second volley flew and one arrow had landed squarely in Zara's right shoulder.

“Zara!” The bard screamed as she tried to climb over the hill. At the same time that she cried out, Arjun's men were up and running toward the enemy, while those on horseback rode to surround them.

Zara's horse broke through the ring of Arjun's soldiers and began slowing. From the look of her, it was all Zara could do to hold onto the horse with Xena's help, but close behind her through the soldiers came Daruka and two of his men on horseback. The Indian captain had a snarl of victory on his face as his horse closed on Zara's. His scimitar was raised to strike and the Moroccan captain was slumped over her horse, all but unconscious.

Gabrielle reacted almost without thinking. Her hand plucked the chakram from her belt and hurled it all in one smooth motion. The weapon snarled away and struck Daruka's sword squarely on the blade, knocking it aside. At the same instant, the chakram split into its two halves. One half sliced into the side of Daruka's head, removing his ear in an explosion of blood which knocked him screaming off of his horse. The other half sang as it struck across the throats of the Indian captain's two men, who fell from their horses, gurgling and gushing scarlet fountains. The horses bolted away in panic, except for Zara's which Xena was apparently partly controlling. Meanwhile the two halves of the weapon made a large half circle each and came back together above the bard's head. She snatched it out of the air as she ran and dropped it back onto her belt hook. Ignoring the battle raging around her, she ran to her lover's panting and lathered horse.

“Get her, Gabrielle,” the ghost gasped frantically. “I can't hold her any more…”

The bard raced up in time to catch the bigger woman as she slid helplessly from the saddle.

The instant she saw the Moroccan falling from the horse, the bard noticed the second arrow protruding from Zara's buttock. If the circumstances had been different, the bard might have been laughing hysterically. Instead she picked the larger woman up bodily and carried her back toward the safety behind the hill. She saw the ghost following and shouted, her fear and panic making her voice harsh. “Xena, why in Tartarus didn't you try to stop her?” She frowned as she laid Zara, face down, on the grass and began examining the wounds.

Before the ghost warrior could answer, Zara spoke. “I-It wasn't … Xena's d-decision to make,” she groaned through gritted teeth as she curled on her side in the grass.

Xena's voice was laced with anger. “Yeah, and besides, she wasn't about to listen to me, Gabrielle. She's so damn stubborn that she goes and flies off into a fool's mission without even thinking of her own safety or anyone that cares about her!” She shook her head in disgust then looked over the hill to watch as Arjun's men were fighting against the Indian captain's forces.

“Yeah, well, sounds like someone else I know!” Gabrielle snorted in disgust as she carefully pulled at the fabric of Zara's breeches, then lifted the hem to inspect the arrow. “Unfortunately for you, this arrow might cause you some permanent brain damage!” Gabrielle felt her anger rising as the fear of losing Zara was subsiding.

“Very … funny!” Zara hissed as she closed her eyes against the pain. “Can you please just take it out? NOW!”

“It's going to hurt worse than it did going in,” the healer bard shook her head as she mentally gauged how far it had entered. “You're gonna think I've poured flaming oil on your butt.”

Just do it!” The Moroccan screamed.

Before the bard could turn to ask for a medical satchel, Abu was kneeling behind her with a bag in hand.

“Clean bandages,” he said as he offered them to her.

“Good, thank you. Now, can you lay yourself over her back? Try not to touch the arrow in her shoulder but keep her from moving,” she instructed even as he was moving to Zara's other side. With a grim expression, the burly man nodded. He crawled across her, then placed his full weight down against his captain's back, successfully holding her still.

“Ok, Zara, on the count of three, it's coming out,” the blonde explained as she grasped the arrow in her hand.

“Do it, just do it!” Zara choked.

“Ok … one … two…” and the bard yanked in one fluid motion, the sharp barb of the arrow pulled meat, muscle, and skin from Zara's backside as a hot spurt of blood followed. Zara's deafening scream seemed to reverberate through the bard as she quickly took the bandages and covered the open wound, then fastened it securely before Abu rose up and turned Zara onto her side.

“Y-You … s-said … on the c-count of … t-three,” the sweat poured down Zara's face and mingled with tears as she closed her eyes to the pain.

“I lied,” Gabrielle offered deadpan as she pulled her lover's shirt away from the arrow in her shoulder. “This one needs to come out through the front, it will cause less damage this way,” the bard added as she recognized the area where the arrow was lodged. For a split second in time, Gabrielle remembered her own scar that a similar arrow had left in her shoulder.

“G-Gabrielle … p-please…” Zara's breaths were coming out in slight panting gasps.

“What?” the bard looked down into her lover's pleading blue eyes.

“Please … N-No … c-count … please…” the Moroccan grimaced as she closed her eyes against the pain.

“All right honey, try to relax. Breathe, that it's, just breath normally,” Gabrielle smiled when she saw Zara's eyes glued to hers, willing her body to follow the bard's instructions. “That's it Sweetheart, breathe,” the healer bard's voice was a low whisper as she held fast to the arrow. When she felt that the Moroccan captain had relaxed enough, she pushed hard on the arrow, forcing it through her lover's shoulder. At Zara's scream, the bard winced, then took a hold of the pointed tip of the arrow and snapped it from the stick, before pulling the stick out from the back of her shoulder.

“Bandages,” she instructed as Abu handed her some clean cloth. Placing the excess cloth in the front and back of the tall woman's shoulder, she held the weeping woman close, cradled her in her arms as she whispered soft words of love and encouragement.

“That's all right, you'll be fine now. Once we get back to the estate, I'll put a poultice on the wounds. They will heal fast, I promise,” she cooed softly as Zara wept uncontrollably in her arms from the pain.
From the safety of the shadows in the dark forest, a group of riders remained hidden. Wearing a long flowing black cape, the lone woman sat astride a black horse. The male warriors around her were uneasy as they watched their comrades riding toward the Moroccan. When Prince Asoka's armed guards surrounded their men and fought, she felt those around her growing restless.

“Lady Shikha, we should…” A guard spoke up as his horse moved about nervously.

“Silence!” She hissed as she stared at the man.

“But… we must help our captain,” he stated as the men around him nodded in agreement.

Angered at his disobedience, she turned on him, the scowl evident in her features. “You were ordered to remain with me for my protection! You will do as you were ordered!” She spat out, pleased that her reminder of their orders registered in the mans eyes.

When she looked back down at the scene, she watched as one by one, her husband's warriors were disarmed and or cut down. Although a part of her feared what would happen if this plan failed, another part felt elated when she saw her husband at last standing alone in a circle of the prince's men. Daruka held a bloodstained cloth against his head where the blonde bitch's strange flying weapon had removed his ear just as he was about take Shikha's just revenge to Zara. It was obvious that he was in great pain, but he was shouting and waving his fist. She watched with only mild interest as prince Arjun moved slowly toward Daruka. From their vantage point, they could not hear what was being said. They could only see as Arjun held his sword loose, that his mouth was moving as if he were interrogating the Indian captain. When she saw her husband defiantly shake his head, then spit on the ground, she smiled, knowing that Arjun had made him an offer of mercy. Probably to spare his life if he would swear never to return to Asoka lands. But being stubborn and prideful, Daruka had probably not only refused Arjun, but insulted him as well.

Shikha allowed a sneer to cross her lips as she impatiently watched Arjun's wavering indecision. She did not understand how such a delicate man could claim to be a ruler. In his place she would not have hesitated for a moment. Why didn't the weak fool just do what he must know was necessary? When he finally nodded acceptance, she felt her hand gripping the reins of her horse tighter from excitement. As the gasp of the man nearest her escaped his control, she held her breath and watched as the prince raised his sword. She watched in slow motion as her husband lowered his hand from his injured ear, the look of surprise etched in his features, then, in one, quick swipe Prince Asoka's blade fell, cleanly removing Daruka's head from his neck. The head with the bloody hole where the missing ear should have been, rolled to lay facing the sky with a snarl of death as the blood spouting body fell to the grass and lay twitching for a moment before it was still.

“It is finished,” she whispered as a smile crossed her lips.

“Lady Shikha?” the guard next to her leaned toward her, confused.

With only a shake of her head, she looked up at the man, a mask of determination on her face. “It is finished, we must ride,” she ordered as she turned her horse around.

“Ride? Where to?” the guard asked as he glanced back down at the scene. Before she could answer, she heard the loud guttural shout filled with anger and rage echoing over the hills.

SHIKHA! YOU ARE DEAD!” Prince Arjun Asoka's words echoed through the valley and off of the nearest mountains. His voice sounded like a warning cry for all to hear.

Shikha saw the men around her cringe at the prince's pronouncement and in spite of herself she shivered as well. It was one thing to have coldly planned all that had finally come to pass including her husband's demise. It was quite another to hear the reality of the death sentence that she had unleashed on herself. She swallowed and then became aware that the chief guard and his men were watching her and forced herself to sit up straighter in the saddle.

“Well?” She said coolly.

“The prince is a powerful man, but he is not after us,” the guard reminded her, a bit defiantly. He looked about at the others and said, “Perhaps we should leave you…” With dark looks, the men muttered noises of agreement.

Before they could speak further, Shikha spoke sharply. “If the prince catches me, do you not think that I will tell him the part you played in this?” She gazed about, catching each man by eye as she went on, “The part that you all played?” When they seemed to capitulate, she smiled, knowing that she held the power over these men, all former guards of her husband. Then she spoke in a soft, yet confident voice.

“But come, there is no need to quarrel among ourselves. I have family in Kalinga, they will give me shelter … they will give us all shelter,” she assured.

Looking back at the chief guard, she tilted her head toward the distant valley. “I suggest we ride as fast and as far away from the Asokas as we can.” Her voice was filled with determination.

The guard hesitated for only a moment before giving a silent nod to the other warriors. Then turning to her, he said, “As Lady Shikha says. There is no need to quarrel. Our master is dead and we think only of your safety now.” With a slight bow he turned his horse around and the group began to ride as fast as they could away from the bloody carnage behind them.

As they went, Shikha counted herself well pleased with her work this day. 'True, my revenge upon Zara and her irritating little pale lover is not complete, but then one can't have everything,' she thought sagely. 'I am free of Daruka and his hateful slobbering mouth and rough hands and now I own his lands and title. That is all that counts.' She looked over her shoulder back to the estate of Arjun Asoka and her mouth curved into an evil smile. 'There will be another time, Zara. I can wait…'
“Arggggg,” it was all Zara could do to stop herself from screaming as she buried her face in the pillow. The mere feel of Gabrielle's touch sent pain lancing through her bottom and it felt like the bard was shoving a red hot cactus into the open wound on her cheek. With each jabbing touch, she tried to muffle her sounds of torment.

“I really don't know what you were thinking, going out and doing such a foolish thing! And what, may I ask, was that little stunt of locking me downstairs with everyone else?” the bard's voice grew from a mumble to a slight shout, before she returned to poking and prodding.

“Zara, if you keep wiggling like this, I won't be able to clean it out,” She warned as she was swabbing up the outer area of the wound.

“Maybe you should just … leave it!” Zara hissed as she heard the bard moving around.

“I need to stitch it up and apply a poultice to keep it from getting infected … or would you rather I have healer Abu al-Farabi take care of you?”

“Merciful Allah, NO!” Zara felt an instant panic at the thought of the elder man seeing this part of her. At her words, Nadrah giggled, then grew silent when Zara cast her a stern gaze. In a futile attempt to control her laughter, the little girl bit her lower lip as she stared up at the ceiling.

The bard sighed. “Really Zara, I know it hurts, but you would think I was doing open heart surgery on you, with the way you're fussing! Xena, can't you help by going inside her like you did before?”

“NO! I don't need Xena's help, I just need you to warn me when you're … OUCH!” she howled when she felt the bard sticking a threaded needle into her flesh. “What are you stitching with back there, anchor cable?”

“Yep, that's it exactly, you caught me,” said the blonde in an unperturbed tone. In slow, careful moves, the bard kept suturing the wound.

As the pain went on and on Zara heard the ghost speak up. “Gabrielle, Arjun has magical protections around this estate. I'm afraid there is no way that I can merge with Zara to help her with the pain or anything else.” Xena explained, then added, a bit sarcastically, “And even if I could, I don't think it's a good idea to help her. I think she needs to feel this so that she'll learn not to do anything so foolish in the future,”

Angered at the ghost's implications, Zara gritted her teeth and spat out, “Like you would know when not to do anything foolish!”

“Hey, at least I never got an arrow in my ass!” Xena snarled poisonously as she pointed an accusing finger at the sea captain.

“NO! You just went out and got yourself KILLED!” Zara screamed back, her voice filled with an equal amount of venom.

“Both of you, SHUT UP!” Gabrielle snapped. “If I'm gonna have your wounds cleaned and sutured in time to travel, I need you both to stop fighting like a couple of school girls!” The bard's normally docile features held a grim expression as she cast a gaze at both women. When it seemed as if their arguing had died down, she only shook her head as she guided the sharp needle through Zara's tender flesh as she continued to sutured the open wound.

“It's hard enough to concentrate without you both snipping at each other like this,” the bard mumbled, and then added, “And don't think you're off the hook for that little stunt of leaving me behind, Zara! You are in a deep, deep pile of horse dung with me on that one!” She pointed angrily at the Moroccan's prone form, before returning her attention to the stitches.

Zara felt a slight tugging as Gabrielle tied off the stitches. With only a frown, the Moroccan closed her eyes and buried her face in the pillow as she felt the gentle healer applying a cooling poultice on the wound, then bandaging it.

“I-I… only tried to keep you from harm,” the injured woman explained.

“Here's a bit of news for you, Zara, I'm a big girl and can defend myself so I don't need you to keep me from harm!” the bard's voice was laced with anger as she began to clean up the soiled bandages. “I didn't come to you for protection!”

“Gabrielle, I love you! I only needed to know that you were safe…”

“DON'T EVEN GO THERE, ZARA!” Gabrielle turned on the Moroccan, her features a mask of righteous rage. “You know, I have had just about enough of this nonsense of my lovers wanting to take care of me by not telling me anything. I lived with it before I met you. Xena was always making decisions for me, not talking to me about them or even getting my opinion and then just running off foolishly into danger. I'm telling you, Zara, I will not live like that again. NEVER AGAIN, do you hear me?” the intensity in the bard's voice drew Zara's attention.

The Moroccan could only lay in silence as the smaller woman was chastising her. With a bitter expression, she turned to the wall where the ghost had stood and scowled. “Thank you very much, Xena!”

“What for?” The ghost's voice was cautious. “You don't think you have to thank me for saving your life on the horse…”

“NO! I'm thanking you for making it harder for me to protect Gabrielle this time around!” Zara hissed.

Xena was taken aback at the Moroccan's words. She looked at Gabrielle, but her lover stood in stony silence. Swallowing, the ghost warrior moved closer to the bard. “Aw, honey, you know I'm sorry about all those times I left you behind…”

“That's right,” the Moroccan growled snippily. “Try to weasel your way back in…”

Xena turned angrily on Zara, “You can keep out of this!

“If you had not been so damned overprotective…” Zara began to say, but was stopped in mid-sentence by an angry blonde bard.

“I SAID, THE BOTH OF YOU 'KEEP QUIET!'” the bard roared. She moved between the two and there were twin spots of color on her pale cheeks. “You're both at fault and you're both stubborn as Hell and I don't want to argue about it anymore! I swear to you, Zara, if you ever do that again to me, you will know my anger!” the small woman pointed a finger menacingly at her.

Then she turned to where Xena stood with a smug face, “And you! When we get you back, so help me, if you EVER try another foolish stunt like back at Higuchi I will not hesitate to hold back on you and yes, I will do whatever is necessary even if it means going against your wishes. Do I make myself clear?” the bard cast her glance from Zara's slight frown, then turned back to Xena. The warrior had a visible pout that was growing longer by the minute. As if knowing that any other words would only make things worse, both women kept their peace as the fuming bard began to turn her attention to other matters.

Xena gazed at her bard putting away her healing supplies and bit her lip. 'Zeus in the sky,' she thought sadly. 'I'm supposed to be the one who's focused, but I just can't seem to keep my mouth shut lately. If anyone knows about pain, it's me. I know those wounds hurt, but I just can't seem to keep from badgering Zara about them. I have GOT to stop this or I may end up driving Gabrielle away…'
With all that had happened, Gabrielle was having a hard time concentrating on her lover's wounds. Once Xena and Zara began to argue, it nearly sent a pounding pain through her temples. Thankful that they both grew silent after her blow up, the bard returned to tending to Zara's wounds.

Although she had never noticed it before, the bard began to see the slight bickering between her soul mate, and Zara. She hoped that their arguing was a result of the tensions they had just experienced and that this was not going to be an everyday occurrence. As soon as she had Zara's wound cleaned, sutured, and bandaged, she turned her attention to gathering their items in preparation of leaving the estate. No sooner had she begun this, when her two lovers began arguing again. Just as they were doing before, the two women began to bicker soon after she gave Zara more than a piece of her mind. With only a shake of her head, the bard jumped between the two and had a full-blown, bardic tantrum that silenced both of them. Once assured that they understood her anger, and their silence filled the room, she sighed in satisfaction as she turned away from them.

As soon as the battle had ended, Prince Arjun asked for an immediate evacuation of foreigners. Afraid for their safety, and worried that their involvement might cause an international incident, he began to make arrangements for their departure. While her mind thought over all that had happened, she emptied the closet of their personal items, then placed the bags in a neat pile. Following her example, Nadrah had her single bag along with the basket containing Prasha on the floor.

“Are we going by elephant again?” Nadrah asked excitedly.

Gabrielle pushed a last piece of clothing into a bag. “Oh, I don't think so, Arjun is worried about us traveling by land. I think I heard him saying that he was going to recall some ships to take us down by the coast.”

“Oh,” the girl's expression grew sad as she looked down at her toes.

“I'm sorry, honey. I know you had fun riding on those, but you understand his concerns, don't you?” the bard knelt down by the little girl and brushed Nadrah's long hair away from her eyes.

“Yes, I guess,” she looked cautiously at Zara's prone figure. “Is it because the captain can't sit right now?” Nadrah tried to whisper, but failed.

“It wasn't my hearing that was affected, child. Be careful what you say,” Zara's gruff voice sounded muffled against the pillow.

“That's right honey, the arrow narrowly missed Zara's hearing and got her brain instead,” she smiled as she tickled the little girl. Giggling at the comment and Gabrielle's touches, Nadrah wiggled for only a moment then threw her arms around the bard's neck.

“I'm glad it was only her brain!” the child exclaimed.

“Hey!” Zara looked up from the pillow, a slight frown on her face, then smiled when Gabrielle winked at the girl and then at her too.

“Hopefully there shouldn't be too much brain damage,” Xena snorted as she leaned against the wall, the warrior's gaze falling from Zara's prone form, to the little girl.

At this, Zara began to growl, but Gabrielle stood up, a frown of displeasure on her face as she shot a warning look at them.

Not again! Listen, both of you! If neither one of you can speak civilly to each other, then be quiet!” When she saw her soul mate arch a brow as if to speak, the bard pointed a single finger at her, “I'm warning you!” Her words brought a slight pout but Xena said nothing. Then the bard glanced down at Zara who was now looking up smugly. “And you can wipe that look off of your face, too! I'll not tolerate that either!”

Zara turned away, her face half buried in the pillow as she mumbled something unintelligible.

“Did you say something?” the bard was all but daring Zara to speak. At the silence, she crossed her arms in satisfaction as she turned her gaze on each one. “Good. Now, if we can have peace and quiet on the way to the ship, you will both make me very happy.” The bard turned to Nadrah and hugged the smiling little girl to her.

Part 48

Zara found herself drifting in and out of sleep. As she heard the low voices of Nadrah and Gabrielle and occasionally the ghost, around her, she closed it all out as she dozed and tried to escape the discomfort of her wounds. Wanting to be coherent for the trip, the Moroccan refused Gabrielle's offer of tea with herbs. The drug would not only deaden her pain, but would also put her to sleep. Rather than risk sleeping through any other attacks, she chose to grit down the discomfort and deal with it as best she could.

When a litter arrived to carry her from the room, Zara almost protested, but was grateful later that the bard had refused to allow her to walk. The sutures on her posterior, it would seem, might tear open and this, the bard did not want to happen. So without much protest despite the pain of moving, she rolled herself onto the litter and allowed them to carry her down. She and the bard had decided that she should lie on her back, hoping that the loose cloth of the litter would not be too painful on her backside.

“Zara, my friend, I'm so glad you will be ok,” Arjun knelt by the litter as the guests were being loaded onto ships. His face grew solemn as he said, “I am so sorry that you took these wounds helping me protect my land.”

With her arm in a sling, she lay under a light cover. Her shirt was loose in order that the bandage would have enough room and she was bare from the waist down. Reaching up left handed, she smiled as she took her friend's small but strong hand. “Arjun, I only wish…” but silenced her words when her friend shook his head.

“No, my dear sister. No guilt. You could not have known what Shikha was capable of any more than I could,” Arjun's voice was soft as he knelt down by her litter.

“She used Daruka's ill-feeling toward me to drive him to his death,” she whispered with disgust. “By Allah. To think that I once cared for her … how could I have been so blind to her true nature?”

Arjun sighed. “Zara, all things happen for a reason, I must believe this. I believe that this was a good thing.” His face was dark with foreboding. “Shikha has collected a great deal of Dukkha upon her soul and she will be paying for her deeds here in this life and through many lives to come. It is an unhappy thing, but it all rounds out on the wheel of Karma.”

“But your land, your country, it has been thrown into a revolution,” Zara felt the overwhelming guilt knowing that if she had not spurred Shikha as she had, then the battles, the pain, the lost lives, would never have taken place.

“My friend, you, most of all, knew what was around the corner for my people. How many times have you warned me of this very thing? Well, now it is here and there is nothing for me to do but to face it head on.” Arjun smiled as he nodded as if to himself. “It could have come from Shikha, or from any other person. I don't desire to see the blood of my people spilling on the land, but if I must fight to keep someone like Shikha from gaining power, then fight I will.”

“Then you don't blame me?” the Moroccan half whispered, afraid that her actions had cost a valuable friend.

“No, how could I blame you? You are the closest thing I have to a sister, surely you of all people know how much I value and cherish your friendship,” he smiled as he reached down and brushed away a loose strand of her hair. The prince then simpered and donned his most feminine voice. “Even though you know nothing of fashion sense or even how to keep yourself beautiful!” He pushed back his hair and sighed theatrically. At this, Zara chuckled, then willed herself to stop as the pain shot simultaneously through the wound in her shoulder and buttocks.

“Oh Arjun, I do you love you, my friend!” she exclaimed as she wiped the tears of laughter from her eyes. “You are in every respect, my brother.”

At her words, the petite man in armor feigned a slight tear as he wiped at his eyes. “Why, that is so beautiful! As if some wondrous poem penned by the muse of poetry herself! Oh, how I hate to cry, just look, you've made my coal liner run,” he sniffed theatrically as he rose from kneeling. Although small in stature, Zara realized that she had never met a man who had as much courage and strength as the prince of Indus. With only a knowing smile, the prince nodded at her as if he had heard her thoughts then lightly squeezed her hand before releasing it.

“You take good care of this one, Zara. She's a good one to keep around you!” he smiled as he inclined his head toward Gabrielle. Pleased at her friend's words, the Moroccan nodded agreement.

“Trust me, Arjun. I shall endeavor to do everything in my power to keep her nearby!” Zara vowed as the bard moved by her side a smile crossing the blonde woman's features. Gabrielle made certain she was fastened in, then whispered something to the Moroccan and kissed her cheek before the stretcher-bearers lifted her. Zara nodded, then waved at the prince as they carried her off while the bard turned to make certain one last time that all of their luggage was ready to go aboard.
Arjun stood back and watched as his friend's stretcher was taken onto the ship. When he felt a slight tugging at his leg, he smiled as he knelt down. Nadrah had the saddest expression he had ever seen.

“Oh, little princess, why so sad?” He asked as he lifted her into his arms.

“I wish we could stay here with you forever!” she whispered as she threw her arms around his neck. At her fierce hug, he swallowed the lump in his throat as he held her close.

“That is so sweet! I wish you could too,” he whispered close to her ear, then pulled away and smiled at her. “But right now, it's not safe to be near your Auntie Arjun. It is better that you all leave and very soon. When this is all over, you can all come back here to visit. Would you like that?” he asked and was rewarded with a smile.

“And Gabrielle and Zara and Xena and Abu and even Isa too?” she exclaimed.

“Of course, you can all come back very soon, I promise,” the prince vowed as he softly kissed the girl's cheek.

“I will miss you terribly, Arjun,” she whispered.

“And I you, little one,” he smiled as he wiped the tears from her eyes, then handed her to Gabrielle. “Little one, you keep an eye on these two for me, yes? I have a feeling they're going to need you around them,” he said to Nadrah as he pointed to Zara and then to Gabrielle.

“I promise!” the child nodded her head once as she smiled at Gabrielle and the bard stroked her hair tenderly.

“You all look after each other for me,” he said to the blonde who was depositing the child to the ground. With only a wave, Nadrah ran to catch up with Zara's stretcher.

With a slight sigh, the small prince turned and faced the bard as he took her hand in his. “Gabrielle, I am very happy that you are with Zara. And I truly hope, that whatever happens … however your story may turn out with your soul mate, that it is what the divine Brahma wishes it to be,” he smiled softly as he gripped her smaller hand in his.

“I-I have thought a lot about what you said, Arjun. Really I have. I promise, I will think through everything carefully before acting upon it,” the blonde smiled with tear-filled eyes.

“That is all I could have ever asked,” he nodded as she watched his friend's stretcher being taken across the plank to the waiting ship. “Gabrielle,” his voice grew soft as he smiled into her green eyes, “Please … be good to her.”

“I will, Arjun,” the green eyes misted over with slight tears as she looked away momentarily, then smiled back up at him. “I only wish you would allow us to help you in this fight.”

“I know you do, sweetheart. But really, you have helped far more than you know!” he assured the bard. “And this battle I'm afraid, is something that is ours to deal with. I'm sure you understand.”

“I do, but it does no harm to wish that we could help.” The green eyes crinkled into a smile as she squeezed his hand gently then nodded understanding. “Thank you.”

Arjun only nodded as he waved away the bard's words. She looked into the air at his side for a moment, then waved and started toward the ship. When he felt a slight coldness against his arm, the prince smiled as he lowered his head and closed his eyes. “And thank you, Xena. You helped to save all of our lives and especially my dear Zara's,” he whispered, knowing that the ghost had heard him when the coldness went away.

With a sigh, he turned to Abu and nodded. The burly man's eyes twinkled as he bowed his head, a slight tinge of red crossing his cheeks. No words were needed between them because each seemed to know the other's sentiments. Regardless of what happened, Abu had given Arjun's land the opportunity for a future. If everything went according to plan, there would be at least one heir born who would be able to continue to rule the land with compassion and intellect. Without waiting further, Abu turned and followed Gabrielle to the ship.

“Arjun,” Isa's soft whisper pulled his attention away. Looking up at his latest lover, he reached up and lightly ran his palm over the man's soft beard. “Arjun, why will you not let me stay?” a sadness filled the man's voice.

“No, my dear sweet man, this is not your battle; it is mine alone. Mine, and my peoples,” he told the taller man. “In time, when this matter is resolved, you may return and live with me if you like … with us,” he added as he glanced at Hiresh who sat nearby astride a horse. “You may live with us for however long you wish, this I promise on my word as a prince!”

For a moment it seemed as if Isa would protest at being dismissed. His brows grew deep in a frown as he looked down at the ground. The sadness covered him like a heavy blanket.

“Oh, love, my sweet Isa. Don't be afraid. I will not leave you too,” the young prince assured as he cupped the young navigator's face and forced him to look at him. “I have no intentions of having this battle be my last. I promise you, my sweet Arab, I will not go away from you.”

Isa gulped deeply, his eyes misted over as a sigh escaped him. In the awkward silence, the tall man looked away, as he brushed unshed tears from his eyes. When a sad smile crossed his features, he looked down into Arjun's eyes.

“You had better not go anywhere, my prince, because I promise you, I will be back,” Isa smiled before leaning down to kiss Arjun's lips. When they pulled apart, Arjun lightly touched his lips, the feel of Isa's kiss still tenderly upon them even as the man turned to board the ship.

With a sad smile, Prince Arjun turned away and moved to his gathered men. As he mounted his horse, he noticed Nivedita saying her own farewells to the big Arab guard she had become involved with. When she joined him, she mounted her own horse and sat atop of it, a sad sigh escaped her as she unconsciously wiped at the tears in her eyes.

“Oh, honey, don't we just make a pair!” He shook his head as he wiped the back of his hand over his eyes. With a slight chuckle, she looked at him, then turned back to wave at the passengers who gathered on the ship's deck.

“You know, Nivedita, it's not too late for you and Pritam to join him,” he spoke softly as he leaned toward her. The sad, lonesome figure of Jamil stood on a crate on the deck in order to get a better look at them.

“The suggestion is enticing, my prince,” she replied as she waved at the black clad figure. “Such a thought is very tempting … but … I cannot go. My place is with my people … my place is by your side, my Prince Asoka.”

At her words, he smiled as he took her hand in his. “This mess will end quickly, you will see. And I have a feeling we'll be seeing that one again,” his eyes smiled as he glanced at the man, then at his friends, both new and old alike. “Perhaps all of them.”

“I hope you are right,” a smile crossed her features even as the tears slowly streamed down her brown cheeks.

They waited in silence as they watched the ship slowly leaving the dock. When they saw the people waving, they waved in return, glad that for a few days, they were able to share the company of their new friends. As he watched the ship growing smaller, he only sighed as he sent a prayer of protection for his friends and new love.

Despite the rebellion that now plagued his land, his entire concentration was on the fate of his friends. He would be all right, this much, he knew. But the fate of his dear friend Zara, the future of his new found friends Gabrielle and her ghostly soul mate and that of his new love, Isa, was not so clear to him. All he could do was hope and pray that it would all turn out for the best; that their future would be as it was meant to be.

The End Of Chapter 8

Chapter 9

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