The Curse of Higuchi

Chapter 9

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

A big thanks has to first be given to my guru of grammar, Bill the Semi Bard. He's helped me weed out the glaring grammar mistakes, but his contributions to this body of work are invaluable. The next thanks go to the rest of my beta reading team; Prof., Sue Rice and, of course, my honey, Jessica. I'd also like to thank the pups who answered my call, “Is there a doctor in the house?” for allow me to pick their brains again. Of this group, I'd especially like to give a big thanks to Michelle who was so graphic in her descriptions that even I was turning green! Thanks all for helping me to pull this story together!!
Disclaimer: Xena Warrior Princess, its characters, and all related materials are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures.  The other characters are mine.  Like the show, I am playing around with the historical time lines.
Rated: NC17
Violence: PG-13
Sexual Violence: None
Subtext: Yes (F/F)
All feedback welcomed at:
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Part 49

The ocean waves rocked her into a gentle slumber. Once moved onto her ship, Zara was immediately taken to her cabin where Gabrielle was able to tend to her. Although she would have preferred to be on deck, guiding her ship out to sea, she had to admit that as of yet, this was not possible. Between the grinding pains in her shoulder and posterior, she felt either light headed or nauseous and had little choice but to succumb to the bard's ministrations and the soothing tea which brought about a drowsy sleep.

Her dreams were a hodgepodge of images that mixed into a multitude of patterns. At one point, she was a child sitting on her mother's lap. The memories of her mother's love and tenderness brought about a smile to her lips. Zara remembered the familiar scent of myrrh that always seemed to cling to her mother. Before she could delve deeper into the pleasant dream the images shifted and changed. She was in the cold darkness, the scent of filth wafted to her nostrils as the all consuming numbness threatened to take control. From somewhere in the darkness of her dream, a soft melodic voice sang out, reaching for her and pulling her back from the ever-present madness. As the nightmare images were dispelled, her mind replayed the memories of recent events.

Zara saw the smiling face of Arjun, his comical antics never failing to amuse her. And she saw the intent gaze of her great uncle, his shining blue eyes looking directly into hers. 'Bring my niece home, bring your mother back to us,' were his last words to her. With a promise to do so, the Moroccan clasped the older man's hand before she had been removed from Arjun's transport ship to her own. As the kaleidoscope of events swirled through her dreams, the tall Moroccan lay unmoving, even as her mind raged through the waves of memories.

Gabrielle sat silently by the captain's side. Once on board the ship, she made certain that Zara remained resting in the bed. Knowing that the stubborn captain would not go easily into recuperation, the bard had laced the healing tea with a potion that would induce sleep. As she watched the Moroccan's fitful slumber, she occasionally took a cool cloth and wiped away the beads of sweat from her patient's forehead. Each time she lightly touched Zara's flesh, the healer felt the fever slowly rising. At a slight noise from behind her, she glanced over her shoulder and watched as Xena moved to stand beside her.

“How's the patient?” the ghost warrior asked with concern.

The blonde unconsciously bit her lower lip as she looked down at the sleeping woman. As if afraid to voice her fears, Gabrielle sighed as she rose from the chair. With a shake of her head she pulled the covers aside, and gently tilted the Moroccan's body toward her, careful not to jostle her healing shoulder, before removing the gauze and bandages from Zara's wounded buttock.

“Xena, I did everything that I know. I cleaned out the wound as soon we got back to Arjun's place, applied the poultice, and then sutured it,” She shook her head as she cleaned the dried poultice off of the wound, and examined the fresh stitches. Standing next to her, Xena leaned forward and glanced down at the infected wound. The area was inflamed and had red streaks forming around the stitches.

“Damn, I shouldn't have listened to her. I should have had Healer Abu al-Farabi look at it,” the blonde shook her head as she took a small lancet from the steaming hot bowl of water and made a small opening to drain the infection from the wound. “Why do I always give in to you warrior types,” she groused as she applied some slight pressure with her fingers against Zara's buttock to urge the contamination from the laceration. The Moroccan moaned softly and stirred in her sleep, and Gabrielle bit her lip.

“Hey, I'm not the one who was stubborn here, remember?” the warrior princess defended herself. At the bard's snort of derision, Xena pouted slightly as she crossed her arms in front of her. “Well, not this time anyway,” she mumbled slightly.

Gabrielle waved it away and spoke worriedly. “I'm sorry Xena, it's just that I don't know what I did wrong, except for not letting a more experienced healer look at her wound.” The bard shook her head as she wiped away the infection, then applied a fresh poultice to draw out more poison, before covering it with a clean bandage.

Xena moved closer to her soul mate. “Sweetheart, you did everything right. There might not have been anything that anyone else could do to avoid this,” the ghost warrior tried to convince with a soft voice. “Not only did the arrow go in deep, but it was also barbed. And there's no telling what that bunch of … well, we just don't know if they put the tip into something that would have made it harder to keep from getting infected.”

“Honey, you did your best,” Xena reached out as if to touch the smaller woman's shoulder, then withdrew her hand as she gazed down at the wound. “It may begin to heal after this poultice,” the warrior princess suggested as her brows creased in concern.

Despite their teasing and occasional bickering, Xena could not help but be concerned for her new friend Zara. Although at times it might appear that they had a love, hate relationship, overall, the Greek warrior knew that there was an underlying respect that each woman held for the other. Whether it was for their positions in life and death, or their mutual love of the bard, the warrior princess wasn't all together certain. All she knew was that at times, when they weren't bickering, the two strong women were able to share their thoughts with one another.

With a slight frown, Xena looked away from the unconscious woman. A part of her knew what she could do to help, but knowing where it might lead caused the ghost warrior to back away from the idea. In silence, she began to pace the length of the cabin as the bard gently cleaned and rewrapped Zara's wound.

Xena knew that she could enter Zara again, take possession of the Moroccan's body and begin the functions that would speed up healing. But at what cost would this be? The last time she had merged with Zara, a stronger link had been formed between them; a link that made it possible for the ghost to feel not only Zara's pain, but also her pleasure.

As if reading her thoughts, Gabrielle turned to her with a pleading expression. When Xena remained silent, the bard only shook her head as she pulled the covers over Zara's body. Then she took the old bandages and placed them in a basket before moving to the basin to wash her hands. At the continual silence in the room, the warrior princess moved to sit on the edge of Zara's bed. She saw the beads of sweat breaking out over the dusky woman's flesh. As if in pain, the Moroccan's brows were furrowed.

“Gabrielle,” her voice cut through the silence. “Ummm, y-you know I could help and I want to, b-but … I don't know if it's wise.”

In silence, the blonde moved to sit back in the chair by the bed. With a sad expression, she gazed at Zara's sweat drenched face, then looked down at her hands. When she finally found words, the bard glanced up at her soul mate with tear filled eyes.

“What isn't wise, Xena? Helping her to heal … or k-keeping her alive?” The bard's voice was barely a whisper.

At the small woman's words, Xena sighed with understanding, then leaned toward her bard.

“Oh, sweetheart, it's not that, please trust me!” Xena felt her words filled with conviction. “Honey, listen to me. I don't want anything to happen to Zara, it doesn't matter what the outcome of…” she hesitated for a moment as she looked away, then sighed as she bolstered her courage.

The bard gazed at her silently, just waiting.

Xena looked back and swallowed. “Look, Gabrielle, I understand why you might wonder about my motives, but you've got to believe that I don't wish for Zara's death! Holy Hades! She's the best thing that's ever come into our lives!” She lowered her voice with an effort and spoke with conviction. “Sweetheart, Zara has helped you … helped us … in so many ways since we met that I am forever indebted to her. Please believe me. I want to help, I'm just not sure if I have a right to, especially when…” Then she silenced her words, almost afraid to speak them.

Gabrielle gazed at her intently. Her body relaxed as she examined the warrior princess closely. Then the bard leaned forward, her elbows resting on her knees, before she spoke softly.

“Xena, what is it that you aren't telling me?”

The question which always plagued at the bard's mind had finally been asked. Although she had a suspicion of what her soul mate would say, she wanted confirmation from Xena. She wanted to know the secret that her ghost lover harbored in hopes of understanding everything that was happening between Xena and Zara.

As if unable to keep eye contact with her lover, the warrior princess stood up and began to pace the length of the cabin. After a moment she swung back and her voice came out barely controlled.

“Gabrielle, I … uhh, I've been meaning to tell you something, b-but, the time never seemed right,” Xena stammered for a moment, then returned to the edge of the bed. The dark haired ghost looked at the bard, swallowed once, and then began again.

“I don't know how it happened. In fact I'm not even certain what it was that happened, b-but … ever since merging with Zara, there seems to be some sort of a … a link, a bond between us,” Xena spoke softly as her gaze fell on the sleeping Moroccan. “Gabrielle, so help me, I never knew that it would happen, I only wanted to help her and you. Maybe, if had I known…” the warrior's words trailed off into silence as she lowered her gaze.

“Xena, enough with the cryptic references and veiled hints! What exactly are you saying?” Gabrielle relentlessly pushed forward with her questioning. She gazed intently at the warrior as her brows creased slightly.

The warrior closed her eyes as if not seeing the bard would help and spoke tensely. “I … I'm trying to say, Gabrielle, that Zara and I, we are linked. I feel her emotions, her pain a-and … so help me, sweetheart, please believe me, I don't know why it's happened,” she glanced up at the bard, searching her for any criticism or harsh judgments. When none was detected, she pressed on with her confession. “The first time it happened, it didn't seem like it would hurt to merge with her, so that I could explain everything. Gabrielle, I only wanted Zara to know why you were acting the way you were ... w-why you were in so much pain. I didn't know that we would form a link strong enough for her to actually hear me,” Xena sighed tiredly as she lowered her gaze.

At the continual silence in the room, Gabrielle thought over her soul mates words. Taking her silence for dissatisfaction of her explanation, Xena sighed as she glanced up at the ceiling. With a shake of her head, she closed her eyes for a moment, then continued in a soft voice.

“Honey, after the battle with the pirates, when I saw how upset you were by Zara's condition … about almost losing her, I knew I had to help. But again, my helping, by merging and taking over Zara's healing, the link already formed was fortified again so that now I feel every intense emotion, from pain to … to p-pleasure,” she explained, then continued in a solemn voice. “I-I don't know what we did, but I can see through her eyes … f-feel her intense emotions as if they were my own.”

The healer bard remained silent as she examined her ghost lover closely. She watched as Xena fidgeted while looking away. The fear and nervousness was easily seen in the warrior's face. With only a slight smile, Gabrielle leaned forward and lightly touched the tip of her fingers across Xena's icy cold hand. At the instantaneous flood of grief, the bard pulled away as she lowered her eyes. When control returned, she smiled weakly as she looked up at her soul mate with tear filled eyes.

“I sort of figured something like that had happened,” the bard sighed as she leaned back and glanced down at Zara. In an absent manner, she wiped away the tears of grief that were streaming down her cheeks.

“Y-You knew?” Xena's voice was laced with shock and confusion.

“I … I didn't know, Xena. But that time, before the stop at Arjun's home, it didn't feel right. No, that's not the right word … it didn't feel like Zara,” the blonde explained as she looked at her ghost lover.

“So…” Gabrielle hesitated with the next question as if afraid to discover the truth. When courage returned to her, she looked into Xena's eyes and asked the question directly. “H-How long have you been able to experience what Zara feels? Were you … there with us at Arjun's place the whole time?”

With a slight smile, the warrior princess shook her head. “Gods, Gabrielle, no! I wasn't there with you two!” Xena chuckled softly as she glanced down at the sleeping Moroccan. “But the only reason why I wasn't is because of the magical protections that Arjun had around his place. Between that Durga and her tiger, there wasn't any way that I was able to enter until Arjun let me in. Even then, I wasn't able to feel anything and I'm sure it has a lot to do with Arjun's gifts.” The warrior grew silent as she glanced down at Zara.

“Sweetheart, this is why I'm not sure if it's right for me to help Zara again. I mean, do I have a right to take possession of her again, knowing that each time I do this, we…” the warrior shook her head, her brow creased as if trying to find the right word “What if the link between us becomes stronger than before? Is it fair to her that I do this? But if I don't, then will her infection get worse? D-Do I have the right not to do all I can to help, just because I'm afraid of the outcome?” With a deep-set frown, the ghost warrior stared at the tips of her boots for a moment, then she released a tired sigh.

“Gabrielle, what should I do?” Her voice was pleading as she gazed at the bard, distress showing in the crease of her brow.

For a moment, the blonde healer only watched her ghost lover in silence. When Xena looked up at her with pleading blue eyes, Gabrielle smiled as she blinked away her own tears. With a shake of her head, she turned away from the warrior princess as she wiped the moisture from her eyes.

“Thank you, Xena,” Gabrielle's voice was barely a whisper.

“For what?” Her partner looked at her with confusion.

“For finally being honest with me … for telling me the truth … and for … for asking me my opinion,” the small healer smiled slightly.

At her soul mate's words, Xena visibly relaxed. With a nod, she sighed as she glanced down at her spirit hands. “I guess I'm not too good with communication, am I?”

“No, you aren't, but this is a really good step forward. Can we agree to keep trying to have this type of communication open between us?” Gabrielle asked as she ran her fingers through her short blonde locks.

“I promise, honey, I really mean it.” Xena smiled weakly as she gazed into the blonde's green eyes. “So what should I do?”

Gabrielle smiled as she glanced down at Zara's sweat drenched form. As if contemplating the situation, she bit her lower lip, then sighed as she reached for the wet cloth and wiped at the sweat on the Moroccan's forehead. With a slight moan, Zara's brow furrowed in her sleep as her face grimaced in pain.

“I think I'm going to stop giving her the potion to sleep and then, when she comes to, we can ask her the question and let her decide what she wants to do. What do you think, Xena?” the bard suggested.

The warrior princess smiled at her lover as she nodded acceptance. “I think that's a good idea,” was all she said as she turned her attention once more to the Moroccan captain.
Zara dreamt that she was submerged in an ocean of fire. Each time she tried to swim her way to the top, something dragged her under, pulled her further into the depths of the fiery sea. After what felt like an eternity, she saw a light pulling her nearer, as if beckoning her to rise from the heat of the flames.

With an incoherent groan, she slowly opened her eyes and stirred as if to rise. As she did, she felt instant pain in her shoulder and backside. Grimacing at the agony, she closed her eyes, then slowly opened them to the diffused light of the ship's cabin. Although no longer in the depths of a fiery ocean, she felt the heat of the room surrounding all of her senses.

Zara felt the small woman's body next to her, lying by her side as her fingers gently ran through the Moroccan's long, thick hair. At the foot of the bed, she heard the slight humming emanating from the darkness. In the diffused light, she gazed at the ceiling, staring at the slight shadows that the candle cast.

“G-Gabrielle…?” Her throat was dry and scratchy. She blinked away the sweat that dripped into her eyes.

“Shush, honey. I'm here, save your strength,” the bard whispered softly as she turned away, removed something from the nightstand, then turned back and held a cup of cool water. At the quenching liquid, Zara closed her eyes and drank until her throat was relieved. When the bard pulled the cup away, she turned, and retrieved a cool cloth.

“I-It's … hot,” the captain managed to whisper.

“You have a fever, honey. We need to talk. Xena and I, we need to know what you want to do,” Gabrielle's voice was soft. “Xena, do you want to explain it?”

Zara felt an oppressive heat all around her. In her fogged state of mind, she listened to the warrior's words. If she had been coherent, she might have gotten offended, or at least upset at the ghost's invasion of her privacy. But she did not. Instead, she closed her eyes to the words as she tried to understand what Gabrielle and the ghost were asking her. Filled with a sense of futility, she grimaced as she tried to shake the fog from her thoughts.

“What? Zara, don't be angry with Xena, she thought she was helping,” the healer spoke softly as she wiped a cool cloth over the fevered captain.

“No … I-I … w-what…?” Zara's voice was barely a whisper as she tried to focus her eyes on the bard.

“Zara, honey, please, listen carefully. Xena can help you, like she did before. But you need to know that it may deepen the link you two already share, do you understand?” the bard spoke softly.

For a moment, the Moroccan closed her eyes as the words settled in. With crystal clarity, she remembered the last times that she felt the warrior within her. Her thoughts, her deepest desires and pain that was once hidden had been laid open for the ghost to see. Although she would have preferred to keep her secrets private, Zara had to admit that if it hadn't been for the ghost, she would have died during her battle with the pirates. Just when the captain had felt her last strength give out, she had surrendered herself to death. But at the moment of her surrender, she felt the warrior's strength enter her, consume and control her until Zara couldn't tell where her soul ended and the warrior's began.

“Xena … y-you … t-took me…” She gasped, then stopped as a cough racked her. Afterward, she lay breathing heavily with her head spinning.

“By the gods, Zara, I didn't mean for it to happen that way!” she heard the ghost warrior cry out in protest.

Confused by everything around her, Zara opened her eyes and looked up into Gabrielle's green gaze. She saw the sadness etched on the blonde's face. When she tried to reach up and touch the bard's soft cheek, she felt as if her arm was as heavy as an elephant.

“Honey?” The bard's single word was filled with a question. With a slight smile, Zara slowly closed her eyes, and then sighed as if in answer. Gabrielle went on pleadingly. “Zara, can Xena help you? You've got to tell me. W-Will you let her help you even though it might strengthen the bond you both already share?”

“Y-Yes,” the Moroccan managed to whisper before a sudden fatigue seemed to fill her and she remembered nothing more.
“Xena?” the healer bard glanced up at her soul mate.

The warrior sighed as she ran her fingers through her dark, ghostly hair. With a frown of determination, she nodded at Gabrielle as she moved to sit on the edge of the bed. The bard felt the slight coldness at her lover's nearness, yet ignored it as she watched Xena take a few deep breaths, then lean back on the bed as if to lay on top of Zara's body.

Gabrielle remained silent as she watched her two loves merge into one. For a moment, she saw the Moroccan's body twitching as if the contact with the ghost was painful. Zara's eye's shot open as a gasp escaped her control. For a moment, her body quivered violently, the spasms rocked through her. The struggle of possession was evident from the pain in the Moroccan's eyes.

“Xena?” the bard could only hold her lover's hand. At the grimace on the captain's face, Gabrielle felt her heart racing out of control as fear for the two women she loved registered in her thoughts. “Xena! What can I do? How can I help?”

F-Fighting … s-she's fighting me…” Zara's lips moved, but the speech sounded like two voices. Understanding her soul mate's words, the bard nodded as she moved instinctively to lie beside the captain's body. With soft cooing sounds she gently brushed her fingers through the Moroccan's hair.

“Zara, its all right, honey, don't fight it, let Xena help. She won't hurt you, she only wants to help,” the bard cooed as she softly brushed her lips over Zara's warm forehead. Gabrielle pressed her smaller body against her lover's fevered skin as she tried to ease Zara's fears. “Please, honey, please! I love you! We both do! We've got to make you better. Just let go, you'll see, it will be all right.”

At the bard's gentle urgings, Zara's body grew slack. Her deep blue eyes stared at her lover imploringly, as if begging for conformation. With a slight smile, the bard stroked her fingers over the captain's soft cheek, then encouraged her with a nod. “We both love you,” she stated in a fervent whisper. “Xena only wants to help you.” Gasping, the Moroccan frowned, before closing her eyes slowly as she inhaled deeply. When the statuesque woman grew still, the healer bard looked down at her with concern. Before she could even move, Zara's eyelids flew open as a smile crossed her lips.

“Thanks honey, I don't think she would have given up so easily without your encouragement,” the voice of Xena, coming from Zara's lips, was a bit unsettling. Gulping down her own apprehensions, Gabrielle nodded as she continued to softly stroke Zara's cheek. She watched as the ghost warrior blinked a moment, then sighed as she seemed to settle into the body.

“You know, Gabrielle, this is what I miss the most,” Xena's voice was a slight whisper but the words throbbed with longing.

“What is, sweetheart?” The bard examined the Moroccan's features, trying to detect if Zara was still close to the surface of consciousness.

“You. I-I … miss your touch…” the warrior princess weakly smiled as a single tear escaped Zara's closed eyes. Blinking rapidly, Gabrielle wiped the tear away as a sad smile crossed her lips.

“I miss touching you too, Xena, more than you'll ever know,” the bard choked as she reached up and wiped away the tears that slowly fell down her own cheeks.

“Oh, honey, I didn't mean to upset you,” Xena/Zara's hand reached up to console her.

Gabrielle smiled as she took her lover's warm hand in hers. “It's all right, Xena. It's just that at times, I really, really miss you.” Her voice grew soft as she gazed down at Zara and saw Xena's expression on the Moroccan's face for the first time. In something like awe, she gulped, “Xena, where does Zara go when you do this?”

The Warrior princess closed her eyes as if attempting to remember something. Then, with a slight smile, she opened her eyes and stared past the bard. Her breathing, once labored, was now slow and controlled.

“I am here, Gabrielle … we're both here,” the eerie sound of two voices spoke as one.

The bard nervously watched her lover. She saw the familiar Moroccan features, yet could not help but notice Xena's familiar expression. With a slight arch of a brow, the bard gazed down at the warrior princess inside of her Moroccan captain. As if seeing her for the first time, Xena smiled up at her, her dark blue eyes sparkling with love.

“You are so … beautiful,” Xena/Zara sighed as they seemed to settle into the comfort of the bed.

“Xena … ah … Zara … I mean, y-you'll both tell me if there's anything I need to do?” the bard whispered as she softly kissed her lovers' temple and watched as their eyes slowly closed. A slight smile crossed Zara's features, then the familiar grin of Xena, before a peace settled across their features. In the silence of the cabin, the bard held vigil over the sleeping women, all the while her mind pondered the new experiences of seeing her living lover's body possessed by the ghost of her soul mate.
Zara felt her dreams carry her through a multitude of images. At one point, she was a child playing in the open courtyard, the gentle rough-housing of her older brothers' only bringing giggles from the little girl. Then she was a young woman, barely old enough to understand the exquisite feelings she was experiencing in the arms of her beloved. Before she could feel her rising passions, the scene changed to darkness. Like a phantom that always lurked nearby, her darkest nightmares emerged to take control of her every thought. But from somewhere in the darkness, she felt a soothing touch, a gentle warmth that seemed to fill her completely.

When she opened her eyes she saw herself within a dream world. The numerous colors swirled around her in a brilliant rainbow. The dizzying sensations caused her head to swim. Before its swirling image took control, a gentle spirit held her close, cradling her body in gentle arms.

'It's all right, just relax,' she heard Xena's voice from somewhere in her mind.

'W-Why…?' Zara gulped down the nausea that threatened to consume her.

'You're hurt, Zara, remember? We asked you if you would let me help you and you agreed…' the familiar ghost voice stated.

With a slight groan, Zara closed her eyes against the images around her as she tried to regain control of her senses. When this failed, she simply sighed as she leaned into the warrior's cool embrace. As if sensing her needs, cold, callused fingers ran gently through her hair.

'You'll be alright, I promise. I'm just here to help you,' Xena assured as Zara opened her eyes within her misty dream.

For a moment she thought she caught a glimpse of the bluest eyes she had ever seen gazing down at her. The look of sympathy and kindness seemed to radiate through the single expression. Before Zara could contemplate this, the image disappeared to a hazy shape of the ghost's form.

'What happened?' she managed to ask as she closed her eyes and swallowed.

'An infection; the bastards probably dipped the arrows you were hit with into something toxic and you've gotten very sick. But don't worry, I can help you. Now I can start the process of healing,' Xena's voice was like a melodic lullaby.

'B-But…' the Moroccan tried to clear her fogged brain. As if hearing her thoughts, the Greek warrior cooed slightly, as her grip tighten around Zara's form.

'You were hurt, remember?' The warrior reminded her, as she rocked Zara tenderly. 'The wounds became infected and I had to help, otherwise…'

Zara swallowed deeply as a sigh escaped. Realizing that the warrior was once more in possession of her body, the captain could only relax as the full implications became clear. She was no longer alone with her thoughts. Her mind, her memories were now an open scroll. With a slight grimace, the tall woman only groaned as she relaxed in the warrior's strong, cool embrace.

Just as before, Zara knew that without Xena's help, her life was in peril. Although she remembered the arrows entering her body and their trip back to her ship, everything after that was like a fever-induced dream. Knowing that the warrior only wanted to help, Zara did her best to relax as she attempted to keep her thoughts at bay. With only a slight chuckle, Xena's ghostly fingers brushed through Zara's hair.

'Don't worry, I'm not here for any other reason than to help you heal,' the warrior assured as a warmth began to surge through Zara's body.

For a moment, she gasped as she felt the icy coldness in the center of her abdomen, before it radiated outward into thin sparks of heat that seemed to form pathways to different parts of her pain wracked body. One path of warmth went to her shoulder; entering the wound and seeming to surround it completely. The second pathway shot down to her buttock and the wound that had been her embarrassment was deluged with healing warmth. Unconsciously, the Moroccan sighed as she felt the pain suddenly decrease. From near her, she heard the slight chuckle of the warrior princess.

'You know, you do manage to get the most interesting wounds,' Xena commented teasingly.

'I-I…' Zara sighed as the pain lessened, 'I was very foolish.'

'Yes, but I'm afraid that I've been guilty of that as well,' the Greek ghost replied, with a rueful tone to her thought.

At the warrior's words, Zara was reminded of a comment she had made at Arjun's home. The Moroccan remembered how she took her anger out on Xena when she reminded the warrior about how she had gotten herself killed. At this memory, a shame filled her senses.

'X-Xena, at Arjun's; things I said … things I … I am truly sorry about…'

'Shush, relax,' Xena commanded as she brushed her thin, cold fingers through Zara's hair. 'I understand how you felt.'

'H-How … I mean, how can y-you forgive my…' but Zara wasn't allowed to finish. The ghost's cold touch tenderly brushed across her lips.

'Shush now and rest. Don't worry, it's alright,' Xena's voice was soft as she gently rocked the captain in her embrace. 'We all have our regrets,' the warrior princess said softly before beginning a gentle humming song reverberated through Zara's mind.

For a moment, the captain felt a peacefulness consume her. Her mind and spirit grew still as the melodically sweet song echoed all around and inside her. Before she was lulled into a calming stupor, a sudden sensation seared through her soul. Like the weight of the world was pressing down into her, a deep sadness and regret blanketed every aspect of her existence.

At the new sensations, Zara opened her eyes and stared up into the unseeing eyes. Although she could not see a face clearly, she saw the pain etched within the Greek warrior's steel gaze. The Moroccan found herself being pulled into the depths of despair. When she glanced around, she saw the streaks of color racing past her vision. At the numerous shapes and colors, she felt a sense of vertigo, a dizziness that caused her head to swim. Blinking back the sensations, she stared intently at the images until they became clear.

The Moroccan captain found herself standing in the middle of a battlefield. The dead and dying lay strewn upon the ground like broken dolls, their blood mixing with the grass to make a congealing sticky mess. The moans and screams of wounded humans and horses filled her ears. Although Zara was not new to death, she felt herself involuntarily retching as the sounds and scent of death wafted to her nose.

With a slight grimace, she covered her nose as she turned and looked around. The image of the battle slowly changed until she found herself standing in an open courtyard of a village. Nothing could have prepared her for what she saw. Amongst the dead farmers and villagers were the bodies of young boys barely old enough to carry weapons, and grandfathers too old to have been able to defend themselves. The wailing of the women and children left alive rose in the air like a mighty wave of pain.

Zara turned and stared at the iridescent images before her. The colors and shape shimmered in the light and caused the dusky captain to winch as she focused her eyes on the scene. When it grew still, she noticed the slight outline of a frame. Xena stood at Zara's height, and although the faint image stood straight and proud, the captain detected a never ending sadness weighing down upon the Greek woman's shoulders.

'Who are they?' the Moroccan asked, yet knew what the answer would be. Without saying a word, the warrior princess seemed defeated. Instinctively, Zara moved closer to the warrior as she saw the cascading images of light and color swirl around them as the ghost slumped in defeat. Without thought, the Moroccan wrapped her arms around the coldness and held the specter close.

'They fell at your hands,' Zara voiced the ghost's greatest shame. With a sigh of defeat, Xena only groaned before a soft sob escaped her control.

'My fault,' the Greek whispered softly as the images of village after village, town after town cascaded around them. Each vision changed and formed into a different pattern, but always there was the scent and sound of death. Village after destroyed village spun by until Zara found herself lost in grief. Each village looked the same, yet with each destroyed enclave, a heavier weight of grief pressed into them. At one point, she was in an unfamiliar land and then it changed to the familiar village of Higuchi and the flames licked up around her as the trapped villagers were burned alive. Before this image played out, it shifted to a familiar figure sitting alone in front of a well. It was Gabrielle and there were tears streaming down the bard's pale cheeks as she watched the sun slowly set.

'My fault … all of it … my fault…' she heard the warrior woman's grief and felt it as if it were her own.

Unable to respond, Zara simply held the ghost close. She sighed softly as she offered what little comfort and strength she could give. In the darkness of their shared mind, they held to one another, clung to each other as the twin images of their own nightmares played out. Through it all, they found strength from each other. It was a strength that carried them through the burning madness of their own individual hells until all that was left was the pure flaming strength of their twin spirits.
Gabrielle sat vigil over her lovers for as long as she could. At one point, it seemed that a nightmare image had taken hold of Zara's dreams. But as soon as she ran a cool cloth over her lover's perspiring face, the Moroccan calmed down and resumed a peaceful slumber. Sometimes she heard the familiar cries that she had become accustomed to since she first joined Xena. But Gabrielle knew how to calm her warrior princess too and simply stroked her cheek and spoke softly of her love. When the fatigue of the day finally took control, the bard found herself being pulled into a peaceful dream of happier times.

Part 50

The sea gently rocked the ship as the afternoon sun shone down on the quiet crew. As if a melancholy had settled over the men, they each performed their chores in relative silence without jokes or conversation. When a voice was heard over the splashing waves, it was only a muffled sound of when there were questions or instructions for their crewmates. Although each man knew that they had left the troubled land of Indus behind, they each seemed aware that their captain was not yet out of danger.

On the navigation deck, Nadrah watched as Isa glanced from the astrolabe, to his notations. Careful to remain silent, she stood on the tips of her toes as she watched him scribbling across the parchment. Occasionally he would cast a smile her way or ruffle her hair, but mostly he stared at the charts, or glanced at the single, flat instrument. His brow would crease as he looked up at the sun with squinted eyes, then he would nod to himself and scratch some more notes down. Just when it seemed that he would not stop, he sighed as he stood straight and rolled the parchment up. With a contented smile, the bearded man glanced down at the crew for the first time, then smiled at the girl.

“Little mouse, you've been here all day! Aren't you tired?” he asked as he tied the scroll closed, then collected his instruments.

“No,” she smiled as she watched him place the precious wooden and metal instrument into a velvety soft bag. “Are we going in the right direction?” she asked. The tall man's beard turned upward as he smiled and moved to sit on the steps down to the main deck. Wrapping an arm around her little frame, he pulled her close as he looked into her dark eyes.

“Now, you don't think because I'm constantly checking that we're off course, do you?” He smiled as his finger tickled her sides. With childish giggles, the girl pulled away from him.

“No … well … um, maybe…” she chuckled as she leaned into his side. “The captain never checks things as much as you do.” Isa nodded understanding.

“Little mouse, the captain knows her coordinates better than I. She is much better at navigation and she's traveled the sea more than I have, which is why she is the captain and not I!” he smiled gently. “That is why I constantly check, to make certain that we are still on course. Why, you wouldn't want me to miss something and have us maybe end up in Greece or worse, Anatolia, would you?”

“No,” she giggled at the thought, then glanced up at him with a serious expression. “But if we did go to Greece, then Gabrielle would be home, wouldn't she?” she asked.

After a moment of thought, Isa nodded. “Yes, I guess she would be.”

Remembering all of the tales she had heard from the men on board the ship, she asked, “Isa, what is Greece like? Are the people very different from us? Is it true that they would just as soon as put me in the stew pot as make me a slave?” She shivered with in fear for a moment as she imagined being popped screaming into a pot of hot water.

“No, little mouse, you've been listening to far too many wild tales from the men.” He ruffled her hair gently. “You know Gabrielle and you know that her kindness is genuine. Do you not think that there are others there who may be like her?”

With brow creased in thought, Nadrah tilted her head, then looked up at him. “I suppose, b-but … even Abu said that I might not want to journey too far north. He warned of a people who were not very kind to us. Is even Abu telling wild tales?” she asked with disappointed eyes.

“Oh, no, little one.” Isa shook his head. “Abu is very wise, especially when it comes to travel. He has ventured to far away lands; experienced many different things and met many types of people. I would think that what Abu says is correct. But you see, there is a difference in his wisdom and that of the men. For instance, do you think that we are all barbaric murderers?” he asked with a stern gaze.

Nadrah thought for a moment as he watched her, and was a bit surprised that aside from Mika'il, the crewman who was beheaded for his crimes against Allah and Gabrielle, she could not think of anyone in the crew who was so mean as to want someone dead. “No…” she replied honestly.

Isa nodded. “Yet, there are some who believe that we are. Do you think that perhaps, like the people from the north, we too could have misconceptions of them?” his eyes twinkled in the bright sunlight.

Understanding his meaning, she smiled as she nodded understanding. “So there could be many more like Gabrielle and some like Mika'il?” she asked as she thought of the nasty crewman who was always causing fights and who had tried to hurt Gabrielle until the captain had put an end to it.

“Perhaps so!” he nodded. “So you see, Little Mouse, Abu is correct. Until you are much older, it would be wise not to journey too far north so that you don't run into northerners who are … like Mika'il was,” Isa finished with a grimace of distaste. Then he smiled down at her. “But you understand now, don't you?”

Nadrah wasn't entirely certain what the navigator had meant by everything he had said. But she knew that she didn't want to meet any more people like Mika'il and sensed that Isa was waiting for an answer, so she nodded. “Ahuh.”

Isa patted her shoulder, but as he glanced back down at his scrolls, a look of concern caused his brow to crease.

“You're not going to check them again, are you?” Nadrah sighed as she leaned into him.

“Maybe just once more?” The tall man looked down at the girl sheepishly. “After all, this is the first time I've ever charted the course alone.” He spoke as if to himself.

“But you've already checked and checked again,” Nadrah's little shoulders heaved in exasperation. When he glanced at her questioningly, she smiled as she leaned against him. “Isa, the captain made you the navigation officer. Doesn't that mean that you are as good as she is?” the little girl stated matter-of-factly.

“Yes, it is true that the captain gave me that position, but child, I only know navigation through studies. Besides, working keeps my mind busy, keeps it from remembering…” the dark man's brow furrowed as his eyes grew misty and he cleared his throat before looking away.

As if filled with an understanding beyond her years, Nadrah wrapped an arm around the man's waist and released a sigh. “Do you miss him still?” she asked as she looked up into his eyes.

Isa glanced down at her as if surprised. His features were a mask of sadness, then one of pain. Nadrah watched every nuance of his expression as she felt his gaze upon her, then a slight smile crossed his lips as he reached up to wipe at his eyes.

“Yes, child, I miss Rabeé, but you know what?” he smiled sadly as he draped his arm back over her shoulder.

With wide-eyed curiosity, she maintained his gaze. “What?” she whispered ever so slightly.

He pointed at his chest. “Even though I miss Rabeé terribly, I know that he is still with me, here in my heart,” the man's soft words brought a smile to the girl.

“And you know what I think?” the girls voice was soft as she looked up into Isa's eyes. When he did not respond, she smiled and reached up to lightly touch his soft beard. “I bet you are always in his heart too!”

Isa's face was a mask of pain before he released a strangled sob as the tears began to gently run down his cheeks. With a half smile, he pulled Nadrah into his arms and rocked her gently. The warmth and strength poured from the child and bolstered his courage.

“I believe you, child. I truly do!” he whispered brokenly as he kissed the crown of her head and his hot tears ran through her hair. Nadrah hugged him back fiercely and they sat then for a time in the comforting sun, the grieving man and the comforting child, until Isa's sobs finally quieted.

Part 51

Even while her body was calm, Zara's inner spirit was churning in turmoil. She awoke from the disturbing dreams with her wounds nearly healed. Whatever magic the ghost was able to harness had taken full control of her body while she lay in the fevered state and speeded the healing process. Despite this, the Moroccan could not help the uneasiness that had settled within her. Although the physical pain was lessened, the toil of the nightmare images wore heavily upon the captain's soul.

In silence she sat submerged in the steaming water. After nearly a day of resting, she had insisted and was given permission from Gabrielle to bathe the stink of sweat and pain from her body. But even this small luxury did little to soothe her turbulent emotions.

Something was wrong. Zara was not able to detect what it was, but something deep inside of her seemed off. Like a ship wandering aimless through the night, she felt as if her soul was lost to her. That part of her consciousness that deemed who she was seemed off kilter and she did not know why. Even the way she looked at everything and everyone around her seemed strange.

With a sigh, the tall woman stared into the steaming water. Although she felt the warmth of the bath water, she was having difficulty discerning if this was real or a dream. As if detached from herself, she was uncertain if this wasn't simply another dream that passed before her while in a fevered state. But then she would hear the sound of Nadrah's voice, or feel the gentle touch of the bard and she had to admit that regardless of how strange she now felt; this surely must be reality.

“Are you all right?” Gabrielle's voice pulled her from her peculiar thoughts. Glancing up, she caught the blonde's tender expression as the smaller woman knelt down by the tub. Her green gaze seemed to examine every aspect of Zara's soul as she stared intently into the Moroccan's eyes.

“Hey, in there! I'm talking to you,” Gabrielle smiled slightly as she brushed her fingers through Zara's wet hair. Already shampooed and washed, the tall woman's long locks hung in tight spirals down her naked and muscular back. “You're not looking too good, honey. Maybe I should have kept you in bed and just given you a sponge bath?”

At her words, Zara forced a weak smile as she closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them again. “No … I am fine. I just became a bit … dizzy,” she lied as she looked away, almost afraid that the bard could see through her deception.

“Well, as soon as we're done, you're going back into bed, and that's not a request,” the healer bard stated in a no-nonsense tone of voice as she picked up the cloth, sunk it in the steaming vat of water and ran the soap through it. “I can understand your need for a bath, but I don't want you overdoing it. You've been sick for nearly six days now.” She began to run the cloth over Zara's dusky skin. Her touch became gentle when the cloth passed over the still tender stitches on the back of her upper shoulder.

“Six days,” Zara winced, then shook her head in disbelief. “Can it have been so long?” she wondered out loud.

“Yes and you don't know how worried I've been, but you're going to be fine now. And you shouldn't worry about the ship. Abu and Isa have us right on course for Morocco. I'm sure that in no time at all, you'll be able to join them on deck,” the bard's voice took on a far off quality.

For a moment, Zara felt as if a part of herself were disappearing, floating away with the soap suds on her skin. While her body remained submerged to her waist, her spirit began to take flight toward an unknown destination. In the periphery of her senses, she heard the slight echo of the bard's voice, yet found it hard to focus on the words. Not even concerned about it, she only closed her eyes as the numbing sensations comforted her soul.
Gabrielle had noticed Zara's seeming distance, yet felt it was normal after just waking from a deep sleep. With the wounds nearly healed, she forced the taller woman to rest and regain her strength. Although a bit surprised, she was grateful that her tall lover had not protested and simply followed all of her orders.

Through it all, Xena was nowhere to be found. Just as she had done in the past, the moment she had fallen from Zara's body and landed on the wooden deck of the cabin, the ghost warrior was panting from apparent exertion. Barely speaking to the bard, she had excused herself to go wherever it was she went each time she had to rest and had vanished. Not knowing how long it would be before the ghost returned, the healer bard concentrated her efforts on her primary patient, while also monitoring the newly returning crewmen who had been healing at the hospice's in Indus. Just now she was patching one of Zara's shirts.

“Gabrielle, how long are we going to stay in Addâru Lbaydâ?” Nadrah's soft voice pulled her from her task.

By the soft light of the candles in the cabin, the little girl sat in the captain's large chair, her concentration set on the scroll that Abu had given her to scribe. Not to forget her studies, both Abu and Isa had kept the girl busy at night with various assignments until the captain was once more able to take up the task. With brows scrunched into a frown, her small hands held the feathered plume and she carefully wrote the answers to the questions given. Because the script was not her language, Gabrielle could do little to help the girl along and only hoped that the two men were able to adequately help Nadrah with her studies.

With a slight smile, the blonde glanced up from the sewing. “Oh, I'm not exactly certain. Zara has some things to tend to while we're there and I don't know how long it will take,” she answered honestly before returning her attention to the shirt.

Although the bloodstains from the battle were wiped clean, the shirt remained ripped where the pirates had managed to get in close. If it had been up to the bard, the shirt would have been trashed, but Ayyub, knowing that it was one of the captain's favorite shirts, had salvaged it by continuous washings. Only the mending remained and with little to do, Gabrielle had offered to take this chore from his hands. Grateful for her assistance, he turned over a small bundle of shirts and pants that Zara had managed to tear during her travel at sea.

Gabrielle sighed as she shook her head. The memory of mending clothes for another warrior replayed in her mind. It never seemed to matter how strong the stitches were, Xena always managed to tear her cotton under clothes during battles. With a slight sigh, the bard glanced toward the shadows at the back of the cabin. Now bathed and lying on fresh sheets, Zara slumbered peacefully. Although she was unable to eat a full meal, the Moroccan was able to consume a small amount of couscous without losing it and Gabrielle thought that this was a good sign. Hopefully, with time, Zara would be able to return to her favorite pastime of pacing the deck, the bard thought wistfully as she turned her concentration back to her sewing.
The gentle tendrils of the cool ocean breeze brushed through Zara's long, thick locks. Below her, the wooden deck pitched to-and-fro as her ship cut through the high waves of the Indian Ocean. As the sound of men's voices registered in her senses, she stared off into the distance of the horizon, her body instinctively compensating for the rocking motions below her boots. With a tilt of her head, she closed her eyes and inhaled the aroma of salt and fish.

Despite what should have been the pleasure of this, Zara's soul was not comforted. The feelings of detachment, her inability to concentrate and distinguish between her dreams and reality were having an ill effect on her. Although she tried as best as she could to hide these new sensations, the sharp-eyed bard had noticed a change in her and questioned her constantly. Unable to give the new feelings a voice, the tall woman merely shrugged it off, blaming fatigue and her worry over Arjun's fate.

Whereas she was worried about Arjun and her friends in Indus, she knew that this was not the cause of her disorientation. But as certain as she was in this, she had to admit to herself that she did not know what the cause was. Until she was able to determine the origin, she kept her thoughts to herself and allowed the bard to pamper her and offer what comfort she could.

When she turned from the sight of the ocean, she glanced down at the crew below. At the sight of Abu, her lips curled into a slight smile as she returned his nod of acknowledgement. As she watched him competently interacting with the crew, her mind took her elsewhere. Memories that were not her own continually replayed past her inner vision…

The fear and despair consumed her as she fought for control. The villagers, people she had grown up with, were in danger. Draco, the evil war lord would soon be upon them and she had little choice but to try to form a defensive army. Then the words of her mother sliced deeply into her heart.

'Go away, Xena. This is not your town anymore. We are not your people. I am not your mother!' The images from Xena's memory replayed in Zara's mind.

Before the memories consumed her thoughts, a slight movement caught Zara's attentions. With a slight frown she glanced down at the bearded man who made his way toward her. Filled with a sense of guilt for the numerous villagers who had died at her hands … No! Not my hands, she reminded herself as she fought to separate which were her memories and which were those of the warrior ghost.

Afraid that Abu had caught her slip, the tall Moroccan woman glanced away quickly as she tried to regain control over her turbulent emotions. The memories of her past, combined with the newer, stranger images, began to tumble through her mind of their own accord and this disturbed her. Abu's dark eyes seemed to examine her closely as he moved to stand by her side. When she remained silent, he only nodded as he looked over the crew.

“They are excited to know that we head for home,” Abu spoke softly as he glanced at her. “And you, my captain?”

Zara remained silent. She allowed her gaze to fall on all of her men, the old crew as well as the new ones who signed on in Indus. With a slight arch of a brow, she leaned forward and rested her arms on the rail. At the sight of the tattoo designs that crept out from beneath her shirtsleeves, she grimaced as she tried to find a proper reply. She shook her head and turned away from the crew. Crossing her arms in front of her, she leaned against the rail as she gazed at her friend.

“You know this is something I dread. I have no choice, I must confront my father … I must demand what is rightfully mine,” she stated with a sigh. “And, I have to take mother back to her family, not only because of my promise to my great uncle, but … I fear for her every time I leave her behind with him.”

Abu grunted as he nodded in agreement. “It will not be easy. Your mother can be very stubborn, especially when it comes to what she believes are her duties as a wife.”

“But, surely once I tell her, even she could not refuse my great uncle's, her own uncles' request. No, Abu, I care not what my father thinks of me, but I will not allow him to continue to torment my mother! She will return with me to the lands of our family even if I have to pick her up and carry her the entire distance!” her expression grew grim as she made this promise. At her words, the burly man's beard cracked into a wide smile before a chuckle escaped his control.

“Now that, my captain, would be a sight to see!” he laughed heartily as he shook his head in glee. At his contagious laughter, Zara chuckled at the image of her carrying the smaller woman all the way to Arabia, kicking and protesting.

When Zara's height had surpassed that of her brothers, she would often times tease her mother by lifting the smaller woman over her shoulder and running through their home carrying her. With squeals of laughter, the older, petite woman would kick her legs and playfully swatted her taller daughter's backside. At this memory, Zara frowned slightly as she turned to her friend.

“She will come with me. I will give her no choice.” Zara's voice grew deep as she thought of the battle she would face with her father. As if reading her thoughts, the big man leaned against the rail and gazed at her with a serious expression.

“Captain, I will join you, just in case…” His words trailed off.

Zara thought over his offer. He, next to her mother, knew her father's temper first hand. As a child, she had always longed for her father's attention, any attention from him, no matter how slight. But when she came back from her captivity to his inexplicable wrath, she only wished to be away from his glare and his tormenting accusations and grasping hands. It never seemed to matter what she had done, or even if she kept herself out of his view. She was forever facing her father's wrath. If it were not his words laced with venom, then it was the back of his hand, or his favorite walking stick, that she would feel.

His beatings came often enough that she grew to expect them until one day something within her spirit broke on the day she realized that for every beating she took, her mother would take one that was even harsher. When this became clear, Zara felt she had no choice but to leave her home. It was then that she learned that she preferred the company of the men at sea.

At first, it was hard to convince a sea captain to take her as an apprentice. But soon enough, when word spread of who she was, she found a smaller sailing house, one of her fathers competitors, to take her as the crew's apprentice. With a slight smile, Zara remember those teenage days with fondness. The first captain she sailed with was the kindest man she had ever known. He was so unlike her father. He took care of her, protecting her from the unwanted advances of the men. Through his mentoring, she learned to navigate the seas as easily as she could navigate through the men and their petty politics and stringent nature. With her early schooling, she caught on quickly and soon made a name for herself within the merchant class.

With her success at the smaller business house, why then did she give in and return to working for her father? This was something she often asked herself. The answer was always there, never hidden. Because her father had offered her a ship of her own. As much as she was grateful to her mentor and the smaller house, she knew that they could never grant her the same title. Such titles were rare enough and as a woman, the offer to captain her own ship might never come. The fact that she would be working for her father was a minor inconvenience as long as she could leave the land and find her solace in the sea.

Zara absently rubbed her chin as the memories from long ago replayed in her mind. When she felt Abu's closeness, she glanced up at him and gave a half smile. Releasing a tired sigh, she looked up to the clear blue sky as the gentle rocking of the ship was felt below her feet.

“Abu, I care little of what my father says anymore and by Allah, the merciful, I will never again allow him to hurt me or mine!” she said as if casting forth a solemn and unbreakable oath.

“Then I will stand beside you, no matter what the outcome is,” Abu nodded as he lightly patted her shoulder with his callused hand. “I am always by your side, my captain.”

With a slight nod, she inhaled the salty air as she closed her eyes and threw her head back. The sounds of the sails whipping in the ocean breeze mingled with the voice of the crew. As the memories of her own childhood and that of the ghost warrior continued to spin through her head, she knew that regardless of what lay before her, the strength to face her father would always be in her.

Part 52

Xena knew that something had gone wrong the moment it happened, yet she was powerless to do anything about it. In the past when she had taken possession of Zara, she was always able to maintain her concentration and focus on starting the healing process within the Moroccan's body. Even through the frightening images of the Moroccan's captivity, torture, and rape, the ghost warrior never had difficulties focusing her energies. But this time it was different and she did not know why. All she knew was that when concentrating, she felt Zara's body as if it were her own. The healing energy was surging to the infection and destroying it little by little. When the hideous images of Zara's imprisonment and torture began to form again, Xena held the captain's spirit close. As before, she gave what little comfort and strength she could spare from healing, but then all the memories began to change.

The darkness of Zara's prison turned to the familiar nightmares of Xena's shameful past. Frozen by the sight, she could only watch as the scenes she kept buried for the most part, began to unfold. When the memory of her now dead mother's rejection replayed, it struck her so heavily that all she could do was release all control. What fragile link to the living world that she had, was suddenly in jeopardy, but she didn't care any more. Sobbing with guilt over a thousand deeds of evil, her soul tried to flee. But, before she felt her spirit whisked away in the shame of the moment, she felt Zara holding her close. The Moroccan's strength held her up, bolstered her resolve to pull away from all of the images of her past in order that she could concentrate and focus upon what had to be done.

Saving Zara, controlling the fever and healing her, as she had once done, was all that mattered to Xena. It didn't matter that she was saving Zara so that the captain could return to the arms of her bard. It didn't even matter that the ghost warrior's chances of returning were not guaranteed. All that mattered was the healing of this woman who had saved her bard's life in more ways than she could ever know. They clung tight to one another, the living Moroccan and the ghostly Greek and their strength and determination was the salvation of them both.

With a slight sigh, the warrior princess now watched as the Moroccan captain moved sullenly from her perch at the bow, to her cabin. At the deep-set frown on her features, Xena could tell that the tall captain was upset and the Greek ghost had a good guess as to what the cause might be. Before she could contemplate the matter further, a sudden sound caught her attention.

“Xena!” the familiar voice of the bard called.

Turning away from the cabin, she watched as the small blonde walked quickly over the deck as she carried a large cooking pot. With a slight smile, Xena found herself remembering the first sea voyage that they had taken together. When not below deck, pale and green, the bard had spent the better part of the journey hanging over the railing as she retched back up what little food she had managed to get down.

“Xena, when did you get back?” the bard's excitement distracted her momentarily. Balancing the large pot on her hip, Gabrielle smiled up at her soul mate not at all concerned by the slight glances that the crewmen gave her as they watched her talking to herself. “Oh, don't worry about them, they just think it's a Greek thing!” The bard chuckled a familiar laugh. “So tell me, when did you get back?” she asked again as she knelt and put the pot of beans on the deck.

“Just now. I was … ahhh, I was just looking around. I see Zara is up now.” The ghost warrior glanced toward the cabin. Following her gaze, the small blonde nodded as a slight sigh escaped her control.

“Yeah, she has been for a few days now,” the healer bard said, then turned and leaned her elbows on the railing. “Xena, what happened this time?”

For a moment, the ghost was taken by surprise. With a quizzical expression, she looked down at her lover, then turned away and faced the vast ocean. Ignoring her silence, Gabrielle shook her head as she became suddenly animated.

“I don't know how to explain it, but something isn't right. Zara is … well, she's,” Gabrielle shook her head negatively, “she just doesn't seem herself right now. It's as if she's distracted, like her mind is here, yet she's not here. Does that make any sense?”

At the feel of the bard's intense gaze, Xena glanced down at her ghostly hands. A part of her had wondered if her mistake had an impact on Zara. If her loss of control had sent the Moroccan through the warrior's images of hell, then this alone might have caused her some possibly intense grief. In answer to her soul mate, the tall warrior turned to her lover. The confession of her slip-up was on the tip of her tongue, but before she could speak, the bard shrugged her shoulders as a sighed escaped her control.

“Maybe I'm overreacting. Maybe she's just tired from it all; I don't know, Xena. Her wound is healing and things should be fine, but they aren't. I can't put my finger on it yet, but I feel that there is something definitely wrong!” The bard pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. “Or … maybe I'm just full of goat poop. Oh, Hades. I don't know.” The bard looked tiredly at her soul mate and her voice was hopeful. “Do you think maybe I'm just misreading the whole thing?”

Xena found it hard to gaze into the intense green eyes. Instead, she unconsciously gulped as she turned away from her lover. In the instant it took for her to comprehend the bard's question, she made the decision to wait to explain everything that had happened between her and the Moroccan. Perhaps, if she spoke with Zara, she would be able to gauge the damage better. As if nodding her reply, the warrior turned and smiled down at the bard.

“Gabrielle, would you like me to talk with Zara, find out what's going on?” the warrior princess asked. As if relieved, the blonde smiled as she released the breath she had been holding.

“Would you Xena? I mean, maybe it's all me and I'm just fussing, but I'd feel better if you talked with her. You know, stubborn warrior to stubborn warrior?” A mischievous grin crossed her lips as a twinkle shone in her eyes.

“Hey! Whattaya mean 'stubborn?'” The ghost warrior tried to don a dejected expression. When it failed, she smirked as she shook her head. “You do seem to have a habit of picking 'em, my bard!”

Gabrielle's throaty laugh rang out as she reached out to touch Xena's arm, then withdrew it at the last minute as if remembering the pain that would come from their touch. With a slight tear in her eyes, the bard lowered her gaze, then sighed before returning her attention to Xena.

“What can I say, I'm just a sucker for you strong, silent types,” the bard's voice grew low as she stared at her lover with tear-filled eyes. “I really miss you, Xena,” Gabrielle whispered so softly that only Xena, with her acute hearing, picked it up.

“I-I … miss you too, honey,” the Greek ghost replied, then forced a smile to her face. “And I'll talk with Zara. Who knows, it could be nothing!”

“Yeah, you're probably right,” the bard added as she poured some water from the drinking bucket, into the pan. “Look, I've got to take this back down to Ayyub and then we'll talk some more?” she asked.

“Of course, just come and look for me in your cabin,” Xena gave the bard her most beguiling smile. At the promised conversation, the bard grinned with pleasure as she lifted the large pot, then turned and walked back toward the galley. Once she disappeared below deck, Xena glanced up at the captain's cabin. As she brushed her ghostly fingers through her ghostly hair, she released a sigh before making her way toward Zara.
The Moroccan captain sat slumped in her chair, the palms of her hands covering her eyes. Over and over the images of burning villages, the sounds of screams and the wailing cries of women who had lost their men ran past her vision and her hearing. Although she knew they were only memories, she could not help but feel the intense pain of guilt.

'I only wanted to help my village,' she told herself, then stopped and sighed at the reality of the situation. 'Xena only wanted to help her village. She wanted to fight off the war lords, and preserve her people. But something went horribly wrong and we ended up…'

“No,” Zara said out loud in her cabin as she closed her eyes tightly against the images. “Not we, she! It was Xena! Not me, by Allah the Blessed! Why can't I keep it straight?”

Before she could think through this response, she felt the room grow icy cold. The all too familiar sensations crossed her being, and the hair on the back of her neck rose just as the goose bumps formed on her arms. At the sudden change, she opened her eyes and stared into the darkness of her cabin. A cloudy mist formed with each exhaled breath of air.

“Xena?” she whispered.

“I guess I can't sneak up on you anymore,” the voice sounded from the darkness then moved closer.

With wide eyes, Zara saw the apparition approach. Although she could not see the ghost warrior clearly, she saw a hazy outline, like a slight waviness in the air, move near her. Gulping down her own fears, she stared at the ghost in silence.

“Zara? By the gods! C-Can … Can you see me now?” Xena asked as she stopped in front of the desk.

Zara stood with mouth agape and moved toward the ghost. For a moment, she hesitated, then reached out to touch the slight ripple that seemed to exist before her eyes. It looked like a heat distortion in the desert on a still, hot day. When her fingers went through the ghostly form, she only glanced away before gazing at the tips of her fingers.

“I-I … am not certain. What I see, what I think I see, is a … a g-ghostly form, but, by Allah the merciful, how can this be?” her voice shook as it took on a slight whisper.

“What is it you see? Can you see what I look like?” the excitement laced Xena's voice.

The Moroccan strained to see the ghost, yet only saw a fleeting image of a slight wave like the ripple in a pond. With a shake of her head she sat heavily in her chair as she stared up at the image before her. “I cannot see you clearly … yet … I do see … something.”

For a moment, Xena seemed introspective, and then the shimmering image moved slowly toward the door and stood transfixed at the threshold. “Gabrielle is worried about you, she thinks you're holding something back,” the Greek's words rang in the empty cabin.

Zara turned away from apparition and stared blankly in front of her. She found herself submerged in the images of their combined past. Both her memories and those of the warrior replayed with crystal clarity that made for a hideous inner turmoil.

“I-Is there something you're not saying? Something you're holding back?” Xena's voice pulled her from the tidal wave of images. With a slight smile, Zara shook her head at the futility of it all. She had shared the memories of a ghost, a warrior now dead and the memories were so real, so deeply ingrained in her mind that she found it hard to distinguish where her own ended and the Greek's began.

“What would you have me say, Xena?” she finally whispered as she laid her head back on her chair and stared up at the ceiling. For what felt like an eternity in time, the ghost remained silent. Before Zara could forget that the ghost was standing nearby, the Greek warrior slightly chuckled.

“We are so much more alike than either of us could have imagined,” the ghost chuckled softly, then grew silent.

As if linked by a shared bond, Zara felt an overwhelming sadness fill her soul. At the sudden change, she sat up and glanced toward the door. The Moroccan found herself squinting in an attempt to focus the blurry image. When it failed, she closed her eyes and stilled the numerous thoughts that were floating through her mind. Just as she was ready to give up this experiment, a sudden wave of grief and longing surged through her soul. With a slight intake of breath, she looked up at where the ghost was standing, then slowly rose and moved to stand beside the shade of the warrior princess.

As she looked outside, Zara felt her heart rapidly beating. A love like no other caused her heart to beat out of control. When her eyes fell on the bard the feeling only intensified and she understood why the ghost's longing was so great. Although the captain was not certain how many years the bard and warrior had been together, she could tell by the fragile link she shared with Xena that their time together was enough to cement their relationship forever.

“You miss her.” The words were not a question that Zara expected an answer for because she, more than anyone, knew of the ghost warrior's longing for her soul mate. When only silence was heard, the captain lowered her gaze. Her mind ran over the situation and only one thought kept returning to the forefront of her mind. Once she steeled her resolve, she inhaled deeply and cast a sidelong glance to where the ghost stood.

“Xena, you may…” she stopped and swallowed hard before speaking again. “You may … use me … i-if that's what you desire,” she stammered in a hushed tone. Although she could not see the ghost clearly, the image suddenly shimmered. Zara could feel the warrior's close scrutiny in the scant distance that separated them.

“I … don't think that's wise, Zara,” the warrior's voice seemed to hesitate. “It's too risky, especially after what happened last time.”

“Xena, you have saved me on many occasions, I owe you…” she said softly and the ghost began to protest, but stopped when the captain raised her hand for silence. “What happened the last time, your disturbing memories flooding into me, they will not happen again, not this time.”

“How do you know? How can you be so certain?” There was a glimmer of hope and longing in the ghost's words that brought a slight smile to Zara's lips.

“Because, I know for myself, that there is no way that you could remember those images when you are with her,” the captain's voice was strong and assured as she glanced down at the bard who was talking with a crewman. “Gabrielle's goodness and purity will fill your whole being and you can forget who you were, just as … I … could forget who I was.” From by her side, she felt more than saw the warrior's slight smile as she followed her gaze. The love that she and the ghost both held for the blonde seemed to emanate through the room as their thoughts both flowed along the same patterns.
To take possession of a living body was never easy for Xena. The person's soul, their entity was forced to stillness as the possession took effect and this always disturbed Xena. Despite this, each time she had taken possession of Zara, she rationalized it away. Each time it was to help keep the woman alive, the ghost reasoned. But this time, there was no way to rationalize it away.

Xena missed her bard. She missed touching her, holding her close and loving her as she used to. To begin with, even in her ghostly form, once she had rejoined the bard after her death, she had continued to make love to Gabrielle and each time, she had denied even to herself that her cold touch was hurting the woman she loved most in all the world. Only when forced to see the bard's pain did the ghost concede that it was no longer possible to share her love with her soul mate as she once had.

But now, the offer was made and no matter how hard Xena tried, she could not talk herself out of accepting Zara's proposition, if only for this one time. Once the decision had been made, it took little effort for her to move into the Moroccan's body. When she opened her eyes, the first thing that greeted her was the brightness of the afternoon sun filtering into the dark cabin. In slow, methodical steps, she walked cautiously around the cabin, fighting against Zara's need to control the body over her own need. She heard the slight whispers of Zara's thoughts in the back of her mind as she concentrated on making the body move upon her command. Only when she felt in total control did a smile cross her lips.

'What are you waiting for? Go and get her!' came the still small voice in her head that was not her own.

“Who are you more excited for, me or you?” Xena, said out loud with a grin as she turned toward the door and stood in its threshold for only a moment. As the smile remained etched on her lips, she heard Zara's slight laughter in the back of her mind.

“Never mind, don't answer, I don't wanna know,” the warrior princess muttered as she bounded down the steps and across the deck toward the bard. When she saw her, the blonde looked surprised as Xena/Zara moved lithely to her and lifted her in her arms.

“Zara! Stop it! Don't! Be careful, you're liable to break a stitch and if you do, so help me…” the bard protested as she tried to wiggle free, then grew still as she stared into Xena/Zara's eyes.

X-Xena?” she whispered, not quiet believing what she saw. Before any more questions could be raised, the Greek warrior pressed her lips against her soul mate's and their kiss lingered as their lips parted. Like long lost twins, their tongues danced slowly against each other. The longing for each other poured out in that single kiss. When they broke apart, Gabrielle's breath was ragged; her long denied desires suddenly flaring to life. “Xena, oh, Xena…” she whispered in a choked voice.

“I need you, Gabrielle,” the ghost warrior's voice came out in a husky whisper as she easily carried her lover across the deck and to the cabin. Behind them, the guffawing sounds of the men, combined with their ribald comments and calls of support reached them as they closed the cabin door behind them.

Nothing could have slowed the warrior down in her quest of the bard. The months of their physical separation seemed like years. Now that she had the chance to love her partner, she wasted little time. The gentleness of their first time, many years ago, was pushed to the back as her needs took control. In a hurried manner, the dark warrior deposited the smaller body on the bed, then moved to cover her completely. With deft hands, she quickly unfastened her lover's top and smiled at the sight of a pink, erect nipple. Each breath she took caused the bard's breast to rise, as her body seemed to strain against the fabric of her clothing. Before Xena could lower her lips to suckle, Gabrielle suddenly froze under her.

“Xena … oh, by the gods…” she panted as she shook her head as if to dispel an errant thought. “Where's Zara? Xena, what's going on? Tell me, is Zara all right? What's happened?”
Gabrielle felt her world spinning out of control. Although she knew that Xena's spirit was inside of Zara's body, she couldn't get past the notion that here she was, about to make love to her soul mate, yet it was Zara who had kissed her and carried her across the deck. It was the Moroccan's gaze that locked onto her breast so lustfully and now, Zara was ready to take her as only Xena could.

The wild pounding of her heart resonated in her mind. The bard knew that she would lose control soon if she did not regain some will power. When she stopped Zara from taking her, she saw the familiar expression of hurt that always crossed Xena's face.

“Xena … oh, by the gods…” Nervously, Gabrielle gulped as she took deep breaths in order to calm herself. “Where's Zara? Xena, what's going on? Tell me, is Zara all right? What's happened?”

For a moment, Zara/Xena looked confused. Then, as if dawning suddenly appeared, the soft smile crossed the captain's features as her fingers tenderly stroked the blonde's cheek. In a gentle manner, she lightly ran her callused fingers across the bard's eyebrows as she smiled down at her.

“Sweetheart, it's alright, she's with me right now. We're both here, my love,'' the eerie sound of two voices came out as one. “Gabrielle, Zara asked me to do this. Oh, honey, she knows how much I miss you! She can feel how badly I need you and … and she's allowed us to have this time together.”

Gabrielle's eyes turned to slits as she tried to decipher the information. Before it could all register she felt her lovers' gentle touch across her forehead. “Gabrielle close your eyes and remember a time long ago.”

Obediently, the smaller woman closed her eyes. She felt her lover's soft touch across her forehead. Her gentle voice spoke in a hushed tone.

“Remember the last time this happened, when I had to talk to you through Autolycus? Just remember that time and think of me now. Hear my voice and think only of me.”

Gabrielle felt as if she were floating outside of herself. Her lover's gentle touch brought calmness to her rampant emotions. Like a drug-induced dream suddenly clearing up, she saw herself lying on a soft white cloud as Xena gently caressed her face. “Xena…” she sighed.

“I love you, Gabrielle, I will always love you,” Xena's voice was like a soothing melody, her touch so tender, her hands so skilled. In her dream, she felt herself lying bare before her beloved. Her body responded from the slightest touch, the softest kiss. And just as she had done for so many years that they traveled together, she gave herself willingly.

Xena was her friend, her lover, her soul mate. Despite all that had happened in their lives, nothing would ever change this fact. As if her body knew what her mind already comprehended, her entire being was submerged in pleasure. Each touch, each gentle brush of Xena's tongue against her flesh reinforced the hold that the warrior held over her and nothing, not even death, would ever remove the bond that they shared.

“Xena. I love you, oh; I love you…” she whispered as she allowed the sensations to carry her away.
Never before had Zara felt such excitement. In the short time that she had been with the Greek woman, she had thought she was familiar with all aspects of the blonde's body. But now, with Xena in control, she began to realize just how little she knew.

Like an audience member, all the captain could do was sit back and watch as the two women made such passionate love. Xena's feelings, her emotions of longing and desires bled into Zara's consciousness. The Moroccan could only relax and allow the warrior to do what she wished to the bard. There was not a single part of Gabrielle that was left untouched. Every portion of the smaller body was caressed, kissed, licked, and at times, tenderly nipped. Each touch elicited a soft moan, or a slight sigh. When it seemed as if it could go on no further, the ghost would change her tactic, would reinforce her resolve and begin her lovemaking anew.

To her surprise, Zara felt no jealousy. Instead, she was in awe at the sensations she felt. The lovemaking was so intense, so pleasurable, that all she felt was as if she were floating away in the feelings that surged through her soul. When she heard the bard cry out Xena's name, she felt her mind slipping for only a moment and she thought it was her name that Gabrielle cried out. Despite this slip, Zara managed to pull her thoughts back, to regroup and focus on the sensations around her.

Although she knew that she was not the one in control, the feel of the bard in her hands was so powerful as to make her tremble. When Xena dipped their head to taste of the bard's pleasure, Zara absently touched her spirit lips, her tongue reaching out to savor what the warrior princess was now devouring. With eyes closed, she held tight as their smaller lover came crashing down in wave upon wave of tumultuous pleasure.

When the bard's breathing slowed and her body grew suddenly still, Zara thought she knew what the warrior princess would do. But to her surprise, Xena did not move against the smaller woman's body for release. Instead, she kissed the blonde woman's lips. Her mouth left a trail of tender kisses over her cheek, chin, nose and closed eye lids before rising from the smaller body. From somewhere in the back of their shared mind, the Moroccan heard the ghost's soft chuckle as she rose from their lover's body.

“What did you think I would want?” Xena asked out loud as she moved to kneel above the blonde and positioned herself over the bard's face, her legs braced against the soft bed even as she leaned against the cabin's wall.

“What, Xena?” Gabrielle's lust intoxicated voice inquired as the warrior reached down and gently guided her lover's face to where she wanted it.

“Shush, my bard. It's nothing, just keep your eyes closed and think of me, only me,” Xena cooed from Zara's body as she lowered herself onto the bard's eagerly waiting mouth.

If Zara had been in control of her body, she would have jumped out of her skin at the instant touch of Gabrielle's lips between her legs. Although she had felt this before from the bard, the combination of Xena's lust and the new position she was in, kneeling above the bard, sent the Moroccan's pleasure catapulting out of control. With each grind of her hips, she felt her own liquid moisture covering the bard's face. Like a skilled artisan, the blonde's tongue moved over her folds with ease. From the lick of the smaller woman's tongue over her nether lips, to the way she suckled on the bigger woman's clitoris, caused Zara's ecstasy to surge out of control.

Just when she thought she could take no more, she felt the ghost warrior reigning in her control. She pulled her senses away from the pleasure as she redoubled her efforts. Her hips ground on, pushing downward onto the bard's lapping tongue. Time after time, Zara thought the warrior woman would finally lose control. And time after time, she was mistaken. After only what felt like an eternity, did she finally feel Xena release all control. With one final thrust, she pushed down onto the bard's expert tongue. With head thrown back, she released a deep, guttural cry as she violently shook the wetness from her body.

To the Moroccan's surprise, the bout of lovemaking did not end when Xena collapsed on the bed gasping. Instead, she felt the smaller woman's body moving over her. As if the warrior princess' orgasm spurred the bards needs, Gabrielle covered her with her own body. Her lips, tongue and hands moved frantically over her until all that Zara/Xena could do was succumb to the exquisite touch of her soul mates love… 'No, not my soul mate, n-not Alaya…' Zara quickly corrected her own mistake as she fought to keep her mind, her thoughts separated from Xena's. When this proved too great a task, she simply gave in and was swept away by the exquisite sensations.

When it was finally over, the two sweaty bodies lay gasping for air as they clung to each other. While Xena's spirit was rejoicing from the contact, Zara was quietly contemplating all that had happened. The captain had always known that Gabrielle was filled with passion. Yet she had never experienced its full force until now. She had never known that such a love could be so intense. But even as she thought about it, she knew she was wrong. She remembered that there was only one person who had ever made her feel this way. Only one woman had ever taken her breath away and touched her in both body and spirit. But that woman was now gone to her. She had been taken away before either of them had time to fully experience all that life could give them.

As the sadness crept into her consciousness, she felt Xena's spirit suddenly surround her. The warmth of her strength held her close and in the warrior's embrace, Zara was able to remember all that Alaya had been to her. At first a servant, then a friend, and later a lover, but she was much more than that. Alaya was the part of her soul that made her whole and there had been no other who could take her dead lover's place … not even Gabrielle.

At this thought, Zara's spirit sighed as she closed her eyes to the realization. Alaya was dead, just as Xena was. Somehow, fate managed to place Gabrielle in her path and together they found a way to cope with the loss of their soul mates. As if hearing her silent thoughts, a sigh escaped Xena's control.

“Thank you,” the warrior whispered ever so softly.

“Ummnnn, what?” The bard who lay in her embrace roused herself from sleep. “Thank you for what, Xena?”

Realizing that she had spoken to Zara out loud, the warrior only pulled the bard closer into her embrace. She turned her head and laid a soft kiss on the bard's brow. Her finger tips lightly tracing a pattern over the healer's muscular, dragon tattooed back.

“Nothing, Gabrielle, go back to sleep,” she whispered as she stared up at the ceiling through Zara's eyes.

This gift that Zara had given to her was more than the warrior princess could have imagined. For the captain to take a step back and allow Xena to have total control in order to make love to Gabrielle was a gift that the ghost warrior could never repay. She knew the conflicting emotions that were running through Zara's thoughts, and she understood what it took for the strong Moroccan to allow her body to be possessed again.

“Xena…” Gabrielle's voice was soft as she clung to Zara's side.

“Yes?” The ghost warrior's voice was low as she held her soul mate in a tight embrace.

“I've missed you so much, Xena,” the bard's words were choked with tears as she buried her face in Zara's arm.

“I've missed you too, Gabrielle. So very, very much.” Xena allowed her tears to fall from Zara's eyes as she held her lover close, her arms wrapped protectively around the smaller frame as if afraid of letting go.

“I wish…” then the bard's words fell off into silence.

“I know, Gabrielle, I do too,” Xena sighed as she closed her eyes and wished, for the millionth time, that she had done things differently, that she was still alive and traveling with her bard.

If she could have done things over again, she would have. But sometimes things did happen more than once and once an opportunity was lost, it could never be reclaimed. Xena knew her chances were slim of returning to life this time. Throughout her life, she had already had numerous chances to come back from the dead. Perhaps, fate would deem that her chances had run out and she would be forced to remain forever in this state.

With a sad sigh, she held the bard close. She luxuriated in the feel of her lover's soft flesh against her own … no, against Zara's, her mind corrected. No longer causing her soul mate pain, the ghost easily held the bard. She knew that this might very well be the last time that they would hold each other like this. Lying there, Xena both rejoiced that she had gotten this last chance and mourned in that knowledge as she felt the waves beneath the ship gently rocking them as the three who were two clung to one another in the bed.

Part 53

It was not their last time, and if Zara had any say in the matter, it would continue to go on until the ghost was able to return to life. Like an addictive drug, the Moroccan found herself longing to experience the shared love between the bard and warrior. The voyeur in her needed to be sated, to watch and feel all that the warrior princess felt. Even though it was not her touch that brought out such passions in the blonde, Zara could not help but ask for more. As for Xena herself, she was either unable or unwilling to stop taking possession of the Moroccan in order to love Gabrielle as often as she was able.

As the Moroccan lay in the darkness of her cabin, her thoughts swept over all that had happened. She felt the ship rocking in the gentle ocean waves. The distant sounds of the sea took only a portion of her attention. Nearby, in the darkness, Nadrah's soft snores could be heard in the quiet room. It had been weeks since the Greek warrior first began to use Zara's body to make love to Gabrielle. And even though the healer had many times made love with the ghost, every once in a while, the bard would turn to Zara requesting to be held and made love to by only the captain.

Although she could not help but feel flattered by this, Zara realized that whatever she might have shared with the bard in the past, paled in comparison to what Xena had with her. At times, she even wondered how Gabrielle was able to still make love with her alone, knowing how exquisite it was when she was with the warrior princess. But true to her sweet nature, if she had such thoughts, the gentle healer never voiced them or gave any indication that her passions were not genuine and in time Zara came to accept that amazing as it might seem, Gabrielle loved her too.

“Zara?” Gabrielle's soft voice pulled the Moroccan from her musings. Glancing down at the smaller woman in her arms, she saw the bard's intense gaze through the diffused light in the cabin.

“Honey, what are you thinking about?” the healer asked softly as she draped a leg over the taller woman, then pulled herself to lay over Zara's naked body, her chin resting on the back of her hands as she gazed down at the Moroccan.

Zara found her thoughts moving from images of villages, to brothers who were not her own, then to the memories of her own childhood when she and Alaya were young and in love. As the memories of her own life merged with that of the ghost's, she softly sighed as she tried to find the proper words to soothe the bard's concerns. Something told her that the truth would only raise concerns, so rather than the truth, she tried to find a convincing ruse that would put the bard's mind at ease. When none came, she smiled weakly as she wrapped her arms around the naked body on top of her.

“So much yet to do,” the captain whispered as she felt the bard nuzzling against her neck, her smaller body molding perfectly against the bigger woman.

“With your family?” Gabrielle asked as she relaxed in Zara's embrace.

“Yes, so much to settle when we dock. So may things to decide upon. Decisions must be made as to the compensation for the widow's and children of my dead crew members.” Her voice was filled with pain as she thought of all the men who had died in battle. As the guilt of their deaths registered in her soul, her memories ran over the faces of other men. Hard and rugged, fierce warriors who swore to ride to the end with the warrior princess … and many of them did, Zara thought solemnly as the guilt of her past crimes replayed in her mind. No, not my crimes, the captain's mind reminded. Those are not my men, they were Xena's, she silently thought with a shake of her head.

As the memories of her own dead mixed with those of Xena's, she clung to the bard as a tired sigh escaped her control.

“It is all too much at times,” she half whispered as she felt the bard stirring in her arms. “Something must be done for those who are left behind. Yet, by Allah, I do not know how to truly compensate them for their loss.”

The bard remained silent. Her breathing calm and controlled as she mused over Zara's words. She pulled away from Zara and gazed down at her, her healer's fingers softly brushing through the Moroccan's thick, dark hair. With an understanding smile, Gabrielle gently traced her fingertip over Zara's creased frown.

“I'm sure you will find a way to take care of them. I know you well enough to know that you would never leave them to fare alone through their misery,” she gently said.

Zara's voice was deep with conviction. “No, never. All of their children will be adequately cared for. Whatever they wish, be it a scholar or artisan, I will do whatever is needed to make certain that they all fulfill their father's dreams. It's just…” She shook her head, knowing that there was no amount of coins that could replace the loss of a father, a brother or a son.

“I know, I understand,” the gentle woman smiled weakly, her fingers traced a slight pattern over Zara's nose and came to rest on her lips. As if deep in thought, the bard grew quiet. Before the Moroccan could question her lover, the bard sighed softly as she repositioned herself over Zara.

“How come you've never told me about your family? I think I've told you everything about mine,” the smaller woman asked.

“Because you did not ask,” was all the captain could say as she held the woman close.

Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. “Are you saying I'm wound up in myself?”

“No, but you have been a bit … preoccupied,” Zara smiled to take any sting from the words.

The bard's eyes widened and then she looked crestfallen. She bit her lip. “I … have been a bit … selfish, haven't I?” She whispered lowering her eyes as a tear fell onto Zara's neck.

The Moroccan put a hand under her lover's chin and raised her face to look into the wet and troubled green gaze. “Gabrielle, with everything you told me you have gone through, you have had a lot on your plate lately.” She blinked as she felt her own vision blur and swallowed. “Which I have, if anything, added to. Pirates, rabble-rousing trouble-makers, sea battles, land battles, bloodshed and death. This voyage has to have been anything but a pleasure cruise for you...”

“It hasn't been all bad,” the bard whispered. “I found many good things too. I found Nadrah and Isa, Abu and dear Arjun, Ayyub and all the other crewmembers … and you, my most unexpected treasure of all. You who unasked gave me your help and your strength and your love … and who finally through your generous heart allowed Xena and me to be together again. I love you, Zara of the hundred names and titles, and I always will.”

“Oh, G-Gabrielle...” Zara choked and closed her eyes, enfolding the bard fiercely to her as the smaller woman hugged her back. They lay that way for some time, just breathing and holding one another with love.

Finally the Moroccan cleared her throat and murmured into the bard's sweet smelling hair, “So … you really want to know about my family?”

The answer came as a soft, warm, breath against her neck. “Yes, please.”

Staring at the cabin ceiling, Zara asked, “What would you like to know?”

“Everything! Tell me about your father, mother, how may siblings do you have, what are their names, just the short names, not the full ones,” the bard softly chuckled as if remembering the first introduction that she had with Zara. With a slight smile, the captain settled herself into the soft downy mattress as she felt her small lover snuggle close against her body.

“I am one of seventeen,” she began to say, and was immediately stopped by the bard's exclamation of surprise.

Seventeen! Your poor mother, how in the world did she ever manage to give birth to seventeen children?” The bard's head was up and she gazed intently down at her prone lover. “By the gods! How did she have the energy … the time to care for you all?”

“My mother did not have all of us,” Zara slightly chuckled and hugged the bard close. “My mother only had me and my brother.”

“Oh, whew! That's good to know,” the bard giggled as she snuggled back into Zara's embrace. “For a minute I was wondering how the poor woman managed it all.”

“No, my mother is only credited with two of those seventeen.” Zara went on softly. “My father has four wives. His first gave him six sons and one daughter, his second wife gave him five sons, and then my mother had me and my younger brother, and his last wife has given him one son and two daughters.”

“Your father must really love children to have so many,” Gabrielle's voice was a low whisper.

“I think he was more concerned with having free labor than children,” Zara's half-bitter words escaped before she thought. As she felt the bard stir in her arms, she released a tired sigh as the thoughts of her family brought about a melancholy.

“You see, there is a large gap between my siblings from my father's first wives and me.
I never even knew their mother Su'ad, because she died shortly after giving birth to her last son, Fateen. By the time I was born, many of Su'ad's children were already grown and starting their own families. The mother whom I knew as first wife, Maryiah, was finished with birthing children by the time I was born. Her children were already beginning their studies, or were nearly complete with them,” the captain tried to explain her family dynamics in a way that the bard would understand.

“You see, Gabrielle, my father is the first son of his father, which means he inherited all of the family business. He has many brothers, but long before he took over my grandfathers business he married his first wife Su'ad, and they quickly began to have children.” She explained. “When it came time for father to take over the business completely, he was already training my older brothers in different aspects of the business. I guess, rather than share the family business with my uncles, father decided it was better to have as many sons as possible so that they could oversee the manufacturing, distribution and sale of the Hashish.”

“So all of your older brothers run the business now?” her Greek lover asked.

“Not all, but most. For some of my brothers, the call of the sea was too great and like me, they sail their own vessels on the various trading routes. In all, there are three of Su'ad's son's who sail the sea, and Maryiah lost her first and fourth son, Abdul-Haleem and Nawfal, to the life of the sea.”

Gabrielle made a small sound against her neck. “And so you're the sixth of his children to go to sea?”

“Yes, I am the only daughter to chose this life,” she explained, then added in a whisper, “it was preferable to staying on land.”

“Why is that? Don't you like to feel the solid ground under foot?”

“The solid ground was never distasteful for me, it's just that … well, for me, it was preferable to living with my father's tyranny,” Zara closed her eyes as the bitter memories of her early days returned.

There was a silence that stretched on until the bard said gently, “Go on, honey.”

Zara cleared her throat with a sound suspiciously like a sob. “When … I was a child, I used to think that my father did not care for daughters or children in general because he never wanted … me … around him. Yet he was always generous with his sons and my younger brother, Rashid. When I was…” Her voice faltered and she swallowed painfully, then went on. “After I returned home from my … abduction, father married Hafsah. She soon gave him babies, twins, one boy and one girl. When I saw how much time he spent with the twins, saw how he played with my little sister, Faarooq, I quickly learned that it was only me whom he disliked.”

The silence of the room echoed in her ears as she remembered her early years. Most days she was able to forget the painful memories. But at times like this, when the recollections were too powerful, she could do little but allow the sorrow to wash over her.

“That must have been very hard for you,” the bard cooed softly as she easily shifted in the bed pulling the larger woman with her. Before Zara realized a change, she was lying partly over the bard, her head resting on Gabrielle's soft bosom as the blonde's fingers were brushing through the Moroccan's long, thick locks. Closing her eyes to the ugly memories of her childhood, she clung to the bard. Like a ship lost in the night, she held on to Gabrielle as if the smaller woman was an anchor.

“For so long I tried everything,” the captain whispered softly. “Yet nothing seemed to work and it was getting far too difficult to remain at home,”

“Did he…” the bard's question drifted away, then her arms grew tighter around Zara's shoulders. “Did he ever hurt you?”

With a grin wrought from pain, the captain nuzzled close to the warmth of her smaller lover. “Yes.” Was her only reply, then, with strength she did not know was her own, she continued.

“It was not just his beatings, if it had been that, I could have taken it. Even his hurtful words, I had learned to live with, but it's what he did to mother that was heartbreaking.” She shook her head. “Every time she was there when he started in on me, she would step between us and every time he would turn his anger at me onto her. I could not stand to see her beaten so badly … I could not take it anymore, so I ran away...”

The bard muttered something deep in her throat that Zara did not fully hear. “I'm sorry,” she said. “What did you say?”

“Nothing constructive,” her lover growled, then in a softer voice she asked, “So, what did you do then?”

“It was difficult, but after days of searching, I found a sailing house that accepted me as their apprentice,” Zara chuckled at the memory from long ago. “It helped to go to my fathers competitors. Old man Abdul-Hakeem had commented that he wished it was one of my brothers who was seeking such a position, but as he could not have his wish, accepting any child of his ruthless competition was a blessing. Even a girl.”

“I'm sure you proved your worth,” the bard's voice was gentle as her hands were tracing a slight pattern across Zara's shoulders and back.

“Yes, I think I did,” she answered quietly, feeling a surge of pride in her long ago accomplishments. “I worked very hard for Captain Muaath. He was always very kind and protective toward me, so that I wanted to work hard for him. The harder I worked, the more he took it upon himself to teach me everything that he knew. Before I even realized it, I was second-in-command of his ship.” She stretched languidly against the bard, her longer leg draped easily over her lover's muscular legs.

Gabrielle nuzzled her hair. “So how did you come about to be back working for your father?”

“Well, I had gone as far as I could. Granted, I would have gladly continued to be Captain Muaath's second, but it seems that my father had approached Abdul-Hakeem,” Zara mused. “You see, my father suffered some losses at the time. His third son, Mutee, had his own ship and had been a captain for years. After one trading venture to Chin and Japa, his ship was never seen again. My father could only concede that it was lost at sea, and he was left with a rich trade route and no captain to sail it. That is how I came about to accepting my father's offer. Granted, Abdul-Hakeem left the decision to me. He knew that being offered a captainship might not come again for me, especially because I was a woman, and made sure to explain it to me. He said he would have been very pleased to keep me on, but he did not want to stand in my way.”

“Wouldn't he have given you such a title?” The small Greek asked softly.

“Perhaps, but all of his captains were still young and thankfully, they did not venture so far away as to risk being lost at sea,” Zara was dispassionate. “So I might have waited for a very long time before being offered such a title, if it could even be offered.” When she felt her lover stiffen, she lightly kissed the bard's soft skin. “Gabrielle, your people may be liberal toward women in various positions, but mine … I'm afraid that they have not always been forward thinkers. Thankfully, things are beginning to change and I can only see a better future for the women of our faith.”

“I'm glad because of that,” Gabrielle mused softly. “I'm just sorry that you had to go back to work for that basta … for your father in order to get such a title. It must have been terrible.”

Zara was thoughtful. “No, it actually was not bad. I only saw father that first day, and by then, I was no longer a child. I was a grown woman accustomed to having a ship and its men to command. Whatever fear my father may have held over me, was gone.” She smiled grimly. “I think he must have seen this, because he kept that initial meeting very short, and then I left to look over my new ship and get acquainted with its men.”

“And Abu? Was he always a part of the ship?” Gabrielle inquired.

“No,” Zara chuckled remembering how she had run into the man who had rescued her from her imprisonment after so many years of separation. “As the ship was not scheduled to leave for a few days, I took the opportunity to find an inexpensive room to clean up and rest. After a change of clothes, I was on my way to visit with my mother and brother and it was in the alley that I, quiet literally, ran into Abu and some other men arguing vigorously. It seems that there had been some disagreement in an establishment regarding something to do with money and a, um, woman. As he was alone and outnumbered against three of her rather burly patrons, he was not at all displeased when I joined in on his side. When the, uh, misunderstanding was over, he confessed to me that they might have other friends who would come looking for him. When I told him of my news, he decided that it would be a good idea to find a place to stay out of the way until the disagreement was forgotten.”

Gabrielle laughed quietly, “So you invited him on the ship?”

Zara joined in. “Of course! When a man saves your life you still owe him so much more. It was the least I could do and once I saw how quickly he adapted to the ship, it took little time for him to become my second. After all, I could see no other whom I could trust my life to so completely,” she stated as she rose from the bard's body. As she leaned on her elbow, she smiled down at the Greek woman's delicate features.

“At least, he used to be the only one whom I trusted with my life,” she smiled slightly as she traced the tip of her callused finger over the bard's sensuous lips.

Before she could say any more, Gabrielle reached up and pulled her down into a kiss. As their lips embraced, she felt all of her troubles grow silent. The confusing memories that were not her own, the upcoming meeting with her father, the arguments that she knew would arise over the compensation of the lost crew, were put at the back of her mind and all she thought about was the softness of the woman below her. For Zara, nothing else mattered at the moment, and nothing would, she silently vowed as the two began to move against each other.
Gabrielle lay silent as she held the sleeping woman in her arms. The afterglow of their love still hung close to her senses. The dampness of her perspiration brought a slight shiver and she pulled the blanket over herself and her lover. With a contented sigh, she felt herself completely satisfied and loved. Between her bouts with Xena using Zara's body, and Zara as well, the bard was more than a little bit sated. In fact, she couldn't remember the last time she had been so thoroughly relaxed. And yet, everything that her dark lover had reveled caused the bard to wonder what was in store for them when they finally did arrive in the Kingdom of Morocco.

She went over everything that Zara had said. As her fingers lightly traced along the lines of scars over her lover's back, she wondered how a man could have been so cruel to his own daughter. True, her father, Herodotus, had ruled his home with an iron fist. But the bard had to admit that he never hit or lay a hand on her. If he had, she was certain that he'd not only have to deal with her anger, but that of her mother's and Lila's. However, despite her having so many brothers, no one had stood up to protect Zara from her abusive father, the bard thought sadly as she brushed aside the silent tears that fell for the Moroccan's suffering. At an age when she should have had support, Zara had been left to find her way alone.

“That won't ever happen again, you'll never be alone again,” the bard whispered softly. As if hearing her words, the taller woman mumbled in her sleep as she wriggled deeper into the bard's loving embrace.

“Shush, sweetheart, it's nothing. Sleep. Rest, my love,” the bard cooed before lightly planting a kiss on the crown of her lover's head.

'No, Zara won't have to be alone when she faces her father. I'll be with her to give her strength and support,' the bard silently vowed. As an errant thought crossed her mind, she felt her lips tugging into a grim smile, 'Oh, I do so wish her father would try to hurt Zara again, then I'll have an excuse to teach the bastard some manners!'

The bard was astonished at her own thoughts. Never had she ever held such venom toward any of Xena's kin, and yet, none of Xena's family had been as cruel as Zara's had. Even if they had been, the bard was certain that she would never have felt so strongly. When she examined her feelings she realized that unlike Xena, within her mind, Zara needed her protection. Where Xena was a strong, capable warrior, for Gabrielle, she saw her Moroccan lover as someone who needed safeguarding from any more harm. Yes, it was true that in so many ways, the tall captain was as fierce a warrior as Xena was. Yet, there was a fragile part inside of Zara that was on the verge of breaking. Like any healer, Gabrielle could not help but feel compelled to be there to help her gentle lover.

'But didn't you see Xena like this?' she asked herself as the sounds of shipboard night made their way into the cabin. 'When you first met her, Xena was vulnerable too. There was a part of her locked deep inside that seemed as if it would break, and wasn't it that very vulnerability that attracted you to her?' she mused. Her mind went over and over these thoughts. When she realized that her questions were moving in an endlessly turning circle, the bard sighed and shook her head. 'This path of thought is getting you nowhere,' she groused as she closed her eyes, the gentle rocking of the ship allowed her to dive into Morpheus' world of dreams.

Part 54

After only a brief stop in a familiar cove on the island of Madecasse, Zara allowed her instincts to take over as she steered her ship for home. As soon as they caught the currents off of the southern tip of Africa, she knew that their journey would be over soon. But it was not until they passed the familiar ships of Takrur that she began to feel her apprehensions building. When she saw the familiar landscape of the Sahara desert off the starboard side, she became silent, wrapped in her own thoughts.

Like her, the crew was anxious to reach their home port of Addâru Lbaydâ and did not fuss when she would not steer them into the various ports along the way. Normally, the men enjoyed stopping in the ports of Kongo and Akan, in order to have some last wild flings gambling, indulging and womanizing before returning home. Under normal circumstances, Zara too would have enjoyed the port stops where she knew more than a few of the local women.

Usually, just the memory of holding the dark beauties in her arms, touching their soft, brown flesh, their musky aroma's as she drank of their arousal was enough to encourage her to lay anchor, if only for a little while. But this voyage was anything but normal, and all she wanted to do was return home in order to get the confrontation with her father over with. As if noticing that the changing landscape was affecting their captain, the men kept to their chores, and mercifully, Gabrielle was able to find enough tasks to keep her busy by day. Not even the distractions of their love making at night managed to pull the nagging thoughts of her upcoming encounter with her father away.

As the familiar shoreline loomed in the distance, she noticed the various shipping vessels skirting by their larger ship. While some ships were of similar design to her own, others were smaller, sleeker crafts that were used for their speed. The excited voices of the crewmen from the other ships were carried on the wind.

In silence, Zara stood on the top deck and watched as one by one, the various smaller ships passed by. The captains she recognized, she waved to as they skirted by her larger ship. When she saw some captains of mild acquaintance pass by her ship, the weight of their cargo holding them low in the waters, she gave them a greeting and prayed for their safe return.

“We shall be home by tomorrow I would say,” Abu spoke softly as he moved beside her, her hands deftly controlling the steering of her ship as the sails caught the wind and whipped above her. “What do you think, captain?”

“By daybreak, Abu. If this wind keeps up, with Allah's blessing, we should be in port by then,” she answered his question. In reply, he merely nodded as a slight grunt escaped him.

“Captain, the men were wondering, as it will be the morning when many of them greet their wives, could they make use of your…”

With a slight smile, Zara glanced at Abu. Although she was accustomed to ignoring the minor scents around her, she allowed herself the displeasure of noting the man's pungent odors. Like many of the men, while on voyages, Abu bathed daily using buckets of briny water pulled from the sea. However, the luxury, which she and Gabrielle had of complete submersion in hot water, was not afforded to them. Many times, she had privately offered the use of her quarters to Abu, but wishing to be part of the crew, he refrained and merely sponged himself off. Knowing that they would be greeting their wives after such a long journey, Zara knew what Abu was requesting.

“Of course, Abu. Have Nadrah help remove the tub. With the one from storage and mine, I'm sure they'll all be finished by nightfall.”

“Most assuredly, Captain,” he smiled as he nodded. “And the crew thanks you.” He turned and left her alone.
The first time that Gabrielle had been on board a ship with Xena, the scents alone were enough to cause her a queasy stomach. Now, as she helped with the buckets of steaming water, she marveled at the changes in herself. She was no longer the weak little girl from Potidaea who got seasick just seeing a boat rocking in the waves. Over the years of traveling with Xena, so many things had changed to the point where she almost felt that the little girl she had been was not even a part of her, but simply a tale made up to entertain an audience.

Before she could think further of this, the normally noisy group of men grew silent when she carried the final bucket up to the deck, while Ayyub the cook stoked the steel oven for more water. She was concentrating on carrying the heavy bucket, when she suddenly realized that all she heard was the crashing of the waves against the ship and the sound of the wind in the sails, but nothing of humanity. In surprise, she looked up at the silent, gathered crewmen. Lanterns of oil were hung from the lines as the men stood, one-by-one, ready to enter into the two steaming vats of water. Naked, with their dirty clothes piled in bundles to be washed at a later date, they each stood in embarrassed silence, their hands attempting to conceal their privates from her view. At their continued hush, she glanced at each embarrassed face.

“What's the matter?” she asked as she watched the men trying to hide behind each other.

There was stillness until Makeen, a normally shy and quiet crewman spoke up loudly. “Why … w-we can't bathe in front of you. Y-You're a-a … woman!”

“What?” Gabrielle allowed her disbelief to show. “For Zeus' sake! Look, if you all want to take a bath before nightfall, this is the quickest way to get it done. With the captain's tub and the one from below deck, you all can take turns while I bring in the fresh water … unless you'd like to bathe with cold sea water?”

“Perhaps you can wear a cloth over your eyes?” Ahmed, one of Abu's best friends spoke up, right before he ducked behind another man.

Disbelief shrouded Gabrielle's expression as she imagined herself walking up the steps carrying the large bucket of steaming water with her eyes blindfolded. Before the image was complete, she shook it from her head. The small blonde glanced at each man in hopes that some form of sanity was with them. But all she saw was their lowered eyes as they tried in vain to hide their nakedness from her.

“You have got to be kidding! You actually expect me to be blindfolded for this?” Disbelief laced her voice. “How many of you did I help to heal? Hassan, don't you remember how I bathed you when you were too injured to even use the chamber pot by yourself?” She looked at a tall, burly man, his blush clearly seen even in the light of dusk and through his thick beard. “And you, Musad, didn't I help you to hold yourself over the pot when your right arm was in a sling and your left was all bandaged up and you couldn't even point your…”

“Yes, yes!!” The thin man tried to hush her words as she reminded him of the time when she had to stand behind him for support as she held his fleshy penis in her hands so he could urinate for the first time since his injury. Suddenly embarrassed, the man gasped as he pushed his way further back into the crowd.

“What has suddenly changed with all of you?” Her voice was filled with incredulity.

“Then, you were a healer … b-but now … you're a-a … woman!” A voice concealed in the crowd spoke up, and then the men nodded their heads in agreement.

“But you don't have a problem with your captain being on deck?” Gabrielle's unbelieving words rang out as she glanced up at Zara. Unaware of what was occurring, the tall Moroccan turned away from gazing at the sea to watch the men below.

“The Captain, well, she's not like you. She's not … well, that is to say, she's not a woman like you,” Rafshe, the newest member to join their crew, half whispered.

“Oh for…” but Gabrielle's words were cut off as Abu left the top deck where he stood with his captain.

“If none of you men want to be the first to bathe in fresh, clean water, then I will!” His voice was deep and firm as he quickly pulled his clothes off, then stepped gingerly into one of the steaming vats of water.

With only a slight grunt from the sudden heat, Abu smiled up at the bard, then waved her toward him. The small woman shook her head in disbelief as she moved next to his tub, then lifted the large bucket and poured its steaming contents over his head. At the sudden change in temperature, a high pitched squeal escaped the big man's control. With a sudden frown, he glanced up at her. For a moment, she thought he would yell at her, but instead, he wiped his wet locks from his face, and then winked at her before he took the powder soap and brush that Nadrah held out for him.

“You men have missed your chance!” he told them as he began to run the soapy bristles over his hairy shoulders and back and sighed in exaggerated ecstasy.

Gabrielle shook her head as she took the empty bucket to the railing of the ship, tied it to a rope, then lowered it to bring up more water. Like a carefully choreographic dance, she helped Ayyub with hauling the water from the sea, to the galley, then out to the deck where the men bathed, one after the other, in the two tubs of water.

Contrary to Abu's comments, the men weren't forced to bathe in each other's dirty water. As soon as a man finished and had a towel wrapped around his waist, he helped to empty the dirty water in order that it could be filled with fresh, steaming water for the next. At some point, Gabrielle stopped hauling water to the bathing vats and began to help the men with trimming their long hair that had been tied back during the voyage.

One after another, the men began to turn to her for help with their hair once they were dressed in clean clothes. As if she were performing a delicate operation, she concentrated on each man's haircut. The bard would glance at their faces with a critical eye, then began to snip and cut until she was satisfied with crewmen's look.

At one point during a session, she heard raucous laughter. Glancing over her shoulder for a moment, she noticed the last few men in line for their bath jesting with one another. Unaware that she was watching, the man in the tub flung back a few words at his comrades. He rose from the steaming vat of water like Poseidon, his body language proud, as he stood tall before his friends. Their hoots and ribald comments came flying quicker than Gabrielle could catch on. It wasn't until the man turned with a leering smile that she saw his enormous erection.

At the unexpected sight, the bard merely gasped in surprise. Equally surprised that she had been looking, the man squawked and quickly turned away and jumped from the tub. With one hand trying in vain to hide himself from her, his other grabbed a towel as he made a mad dash for the crew quarters. When all she saw was the whiteness of his butt, the blonde only shook her head as she rolled her eyes, before returning her attention to the man who sat in front of her, his hair only half cut.
Zara had been watching the men's antics with amusement. When she saw the man's erection, she wondered what Gabrielle would think. At the deep redness on the bard's cheeks, the tall woman smiled. In an attempt to conceal her laughter, the captain covered her mouth as she watched the man running from the deck, his embarrassment as evident as Gabrielle's had been.

As if sensing her amusement, the bard glanced up at her and shook her head. With only a slight comment to the man before her, the smaller woman turned the shears over to another crewman and brushed off the remnants of hair that had gotten on her clothes. In quick, easy strides, the small blonde made her way to where Zara stood.

“So, you think that was funny, do you?” The bard's brows arched up threateningly as she wrapped her arms around Zara's shoulder and pulled her down into a kiss.

“Well…” the Moroccan managed to maintain her control as she turned the bard and pressed her against the railing above the deck. “You have to admit, your reaction to his, ummm, predicament was a bit amusing.”

“Oh, you liked that, huh?” The bard's face took on a challenging expression.

“It was amusing, Gabrielle,” she answered with a slight chuckle.

“Why? Because he caught me off guard?”

“Well, yes. One would think you've never seen … umm … one before, and you are amusing to watch when your cheeks turn colors,” Zara lightly touched her lover's cheeks with her palms.

“Is that what it is? You think I've never seen one before? Don't you remember? I believe I told you I was married once,” the bard's voice rose slightly as she pulled away from Zara.

“Well, yes, but, I'd venture to say that your husband may not have been as, um, shall I say, well-endowed as Sullah,” Zara offered meekly.

“You're damn right about that!” Gabrielle chuckled, her hand moving to cover her open smile as her cheeks turned an interesting shade of scarlet.

“Oh?” Zara's eyebrows shot up as dawning registered in her mind. “Gabrielle, you don't mean to tell me that you enjoy that type of pleasure?” the Moroccan half whispered.

As if ashamed of her thoughts, the bard looked away, but a smile remained etched on her features. Surprised by her usually adventuresome lover's lack of candor, the tall captain smiled and then placed her fingertips below the bard's chin, forcing the blonde to look up at her.

“Gabrielle, haven't I been more than accommodating?” She said softly as she searched her lover's green eyes. “If this is a pleasure that you wish to partake in, I know of a seller who markets something that could assist us,” she began to explain, then felt a heat of embarrassment cross her own cheeks at the thought of having to purchase such a device. At the bard's continual silence, Zara stuttered, “Y-You understand what I s-speak of?”

“Of course, silly!” Gabrielle whispered as she smiled broadly. “Xena and I used to have one too. What do you think, that you Moroccan's are the first to learn all the ways of love?” The bard released a deep, throaty chuckle as she shook her head in disbelief. Before more could be said, the laughter of the men caught their attention.

When they looked down at the deck, Ayyub, the last man to bathe, had just finished. His bony frame rose easily from the steaming water. With his back to them, he took a towel and dried himself off, then turned and smiled up at them as his friends made snide comments about the winds carrying him away.

“Gabrielle!” Ayyub called out, then waved at her. “If that Captain of ours doesn't take care of you, you come to me! I promise, you will always be well cared for!” the freshly bathed cook smiled proudly as he opened his towel and flashed the two on the upper deck. At this, his friends broke out into loud hoots and whistles, before he covered himself up.

“Ayyub, what would a little thing like you do for Gabrielle?” One shouted out. “Why, with your small frame, that muscular woman would more than likely crush you in the throes of her passion!”

“Either that, or misplace him amongst her armor!” another hooted.

“Yes, yes, say all that you wish, but my wives are never dissatisfied!!” The skinny man wagged a finger at them, then winked up at the healer bard. “Remember my vow, lovely one, you can always come and be one of my wives!” He said as he slicked back his hair, then turned to leave, his back stiff with pride as his friends continued to jest with him.

“Hummm, looks like I might have some competition,” Zara whispered close to the bard's ear. Leaning into her embrace, the smaller woman wrapped her arms around the Moroccan woman's tall frame.

“No, you have no competition,” she whispered ever so slightly.

At Gabrielle's declaration, Zara closed her eyes for a moment. While a part of her mind clung to her smaller lover's promise, another part merely cringed. Deep down inside, she was fully aware of how inaccurate the bard's words were, and this brought a sadness to her heart.
From the corner of the ship, the ghost stood a solitary vigil. She smiled at the men's antics as she watched her bard moving across the deck. When she passed by the naked crewmen, they shivered as some glanced suspiciously around them. Ignoring their actions, Xena only smiled as she moved to stand near the tall Moroccan captain.

The warrior princess smiled down at her crew. She knew each one by name. Although she made it a strict policy to not get close to her subordinates, she was fully aware of their intimate lives and passions. She could name all of their wives and describe their children because each of these men had become like a family to her … at this thought, the tall ghost deeply frowned as she closed her eyes tightly.

'No, these are not my men,' the ghostly form reminded herself as she leaned heavily against the railing. Her thoughts were no longer her own. The images that ran before Xena's memories were no longer hers. Where once she thought of her family, her mother and brothers, Lyceus and Toris, no longer were they alone in her thoughts. Now, she found herself immersed in Zara's memories, and this disturbed her.

In the past, she had never found herself so disoriented and confused. Even when she took possession of another body, their memories were their own and she, like a voyeur, was simply a silent observer. But now, after entering into Zara's soul, she found her spirit mixing with the tall Moroccan's in a way that she could not control.

Angered at her own lack of control, Xena floated up to the crow's nest and sat in silence. When she saw her bard interacting with Zara and the obvious love between them, she wasn't even jealous because a part of her heart felt the sorrow that the captain was feeling. She knew the lack of security that the captain felt inside. In fact, when it came to the tall Moroccan's feelings, the Greek ghost was certain that there was no other person in the world who understood the woman's pain more clearly.

Part 55

Zara remained secluded in her cabin and left docking the ship to Isa and Abu. In silence,
she glanced over the scrolls on her desk, making certain that each one was in order and ready to turn in. The captain had them separated into three neat stacks. One, the inventory lists of what had been sold, purchased or traded were gathered in a tight bundle for her brother's clerks to go over.

The second bundle held her map charts; images and designs of notable land changes and sea currents that would be entered into the town's shipping halls in order that copies could be made for other sea captains wishing to journey her route. The last were her ship's notations, containing the daily thoughts which were hers alone. These, as well as copies of her maps once they were made, would be turned into the nautical library and kept on hand for any future use.

With a slight sigh, she closed her eyes as a memory of another voyage returned to her. The scene of a ruthless sea captain bent on conquering the oceans as she had the land. She felt the sting of betrayal from an enemy ruler, an enemy who had ordered her legs to be broken before she was crucified. Visibly, the tall captain shook this thought away as she balled her fists up and pressed them against her eyes trying to erase the mental images from anothers mind.

In the periphery of her senses, she heard Abu's deep, commanding orders rising out over the crew. She heard Isa quickly responding as the ship was slowly guided toward the dock. Ignoring all around her, and looked down at the parchments one last time. Confident that all was in order, she bundled up the maps and journals then tied the inventory lists together as she strove to focus on what needed to be done.

Finding the strength to do this was becoming increasingly difficult with the memories of the warrior princess constantly mixing and mingling with her own. At one moment, she was completely aware of whom she was, then, in the blink of an eye, she would feel as if she were standing outside of herself watching a stage performance. The mental images she saw were not memories of her own life and this alone was enough to unsettle her.

“Zara, you've got to tell Gabrielle what's going on with you … with us,” she heard the ghost's voice in the room. With an arch of brow, she thought over the ghost warrior's words, then dismissed them as she rose from the chair.

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

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

Zara sighed deeply as she closed her eyes. If asked, she would not have been able to explain exactly what was happening. But with everything occurring at once, she only shook her head as she took the parchments from the desk.

“I will discuss the matter with Gabrielle at a later date,” she said neutrally as she turned away from the desk to look out at the men on the deck.

Before Xena could reply, the cabin door swung open and Nadrah came barreling in, her good britches and shirt already stained. With hair disheveled, she stood in front of Zara. Her breathing was labored as she pushed her hair from her eyes.

“All of the families are already gathered!” The excitement laced her voice. “I can see the children from the rail!”

“Captain, all is ready. They're laying the planks down now, the sails are fastened and we're tied and secure to the dock,” Isa popped his head in the door and announced, then quickly pulled back as Gabrielle entered the room.

“Zara, I've never heard how large and beautiful your home town was, it looks huge!” she exclaimed as she glanced down at Nadrah, casting a critical eye over the girl. “How in the world did you get your clothes dirty already? Come on, let's get you changed, fast!” The bard took a hold of the girls shirt and pulled it over her head, then moved to the cabinet. The little girl looked down at her pants and picked at the soil on the fabric.

“I think its bird poop,” she exclaimed as she held it up for Gabrielle's inspection.

With a look of astonishment, the bard glanced at the girls extended finger, then shook her head and pointed to the basin. “Then you'd best go and wash those hands good!” the bard ordered, a smile curving her lips even as a scowl formed on the girl's face. Pouting, Nadrah stomped to the basin and poured the water, mumbling to herself as she washed her hands.

“Gabrielle, about today…” Zara turned her attention away from the deck and glanced down at the Greek.

“I know, you have business and … umm … other things to discuss with your father. You just do what you have to do, and don't worry, we'll be right behind you,” the bard's voice was solemn as she placed the palms of her hands on Zara's hips. “You don't have to worry, you won't be going through this alone.”

At her words, the Moroccan lowered her eyes. She felt the ghost moving closer. As if seeing her for the first time, the bard smiled toward the shadows.

“Xena! I was just telling Zara…”

“I know honey, and I'll be with her too, we both will,” the warrior said softly.

With a slight nod, the tall Moroccan nodded understanding as she watched the little cabin girl marching to the bard, her hands dried and held up for inspection. Kneeling in front of the child, the bard cast a critical eye over the fingers. The blonde squinted as she examined the small fingers, then smiled.

“See, no more bird poop,” Nadrah proclaimed proudly.

“Good, now lets hurry and get changed or we're liable to miss something!” The bard hastily rummaged through the girls clothing as she glanced up at the captain. “Don't worry, Sweetheart, we'll be right behind you!” she promised.

Assured by her words, Zara nodded as she pulled the bundle of scrolls from her desk, then turned and left the cabin. When she moved onto the deck, her crewmen were already opening the storage compartments and lowering the large ropes and netting to remove the crates of cargo. With a stolid expression, Abu stepped down from the upper deck and stood beside her as he watched over the men's actions.

From this point forward, the captain was moving instinctively. She watched her men pulling on the ropes and guiding the netted crates over to the dock. When they saw her, they nodded or waved, but continued to work steadily. Zara showed no sign, but inside she was full of pride at their work. She knew that each man was loyal to her and would have traveled to the ends of the world with her if she had so commanded. Not one of them would ever betray her, she reasoned solemnly.

With this thought, a clear memory returned to her. She remembered how dark it had been and the feel of her men's blows against her body. The gauntlet was her only way out, her only salvation from the sins of her past and the barbaric actions of her men who had butchered women and children following the orders of Darfus, her brutal second-in-command. The physical blows which now rained upon her were as nothing compared to the knowledge that each of these men had once sworn their allegiance to her, and now, they were forcing her into exile.

“No! This did not happen to me…” she half-whispered as she lowered her eyes from the men.

“Beg pardon, captain?” Abu glanced at her with concern. His dark eyes searched her for a moment, until she was able to nod and wave away his concerns.

From somewhere in the back of her mind, she heard the all-too-familiar voice, 'Get a hold of yourself,' the ghost cautioned. 'You're their captain! Your men can see you … and they need to see you strong.'

“Yes, of course,” she nodded, as if to herself, and then glanced up at her second-in-command. “Nothing Abu, it is nothing,” she replied softly before turning back to the sight of her men. The memories of a past not her own mixed with the living images she was seeing. With supreme effort, she found her body moving through the motions of normalcy. One moment, she was watching her men working as a team to remove their cargo, the next, she was walking down the plank, the scrolls secure in her grasp.

“Zara!” A familiar voice called to her as she made her way to the dock. A short, stocky man with neatly cropped beard stood with a younger boy nearby. Standing like a mirror image, the young boy, barely a man, held an eager smile. His face was covered with a thin sheen of peach fuzz.

“Fateen,” she nodded as she made her way to her brother, then handed the inventory scrolls to the younger man. Once she had dropped the second bundle of scrolls at her feet, she reached out and clasped the man's hands in affection. When the sleeves of her shirt cinched up, his brow furrowed as he glanced at the new markings on her arms then turned a questioning glance at her.

“What is this, Zara?” he asked as he took hold of her sleeve and pulled it back. “Am I to understand that we must now bow down to you?”

The taller woman only smiled as she extracted her grasp from her older brother. “No, brother. I would never request that from my kin,” she bowed slightly as a show of respect.

“You had me worried for a minute, but tell me, what of these markings? How did you come to be adopted into a Sultan's clan?” he asked as the shouts of the men caught their attention. Picking up her scrolls, she followed her brother as they scooted away from the crates that were quickly filling up the boardwalk. “I could tell from the way your ship rides high in the water, she does not carry a full cargo. Does your adoption have anything to do with the light load?”

“This voyage was not as … profitable as we had anticipated,” she explained with a slight nod as Fateen's son, an apprentice, opened the inventory scroll and held it out for his father to examine. Fateen made a slight clicking noise with his tongue as he shook his head, a frown creased his bearded features.

“You brought absolutely nothing back from Japa!?” he exclaimed. She nodded silently and he released a deep sigh. “Father will not be happy about this, not at all.”

“It could not be helped,” she frowned as she remembered the city of Higuchi, the stench of burned and decaying flesh returning as if it were only yesterday. She continued, “There was … trouble in the Land of the Rising Sun.”

Fateen examined her closely for a moment, then nodded acceptance. “Then you had casualties?” he asked as he pointed to a crate, whispered something to the boy, who nodded and left to begin his calculating.

“I lost … half of my men…” She swallowed as memories of faces she would never see again suddenly filled her mind with a vivid pain that had been submerged, but now had risen to the surface again like a drowned corpse to haunt her. Fateen watched her struggle to return her expression to neutrality, but said nothing. Finally she smiled raggedly and he half reached as if to lay a hand on her shoulder, but stopped and scratched his chin instead. Then looked down and cleared his throat and silently led her toward the rows of wooden buildings. Once they were comfortably behind his office doors, he moved to a corner stove and poured some tea.

“Something in Japa?” he inquired as he sat behind his desk, leaned forward to hand her the small jar of round sugar drops. Taking one in her mouth, she let it rest along the side of her cheek as she drank the bitter tea.

“No, I would not allow my men to venture into Japa. There was … evil in that land,” she sighed. “No, my brother, I did not lose my men to Japa. I lost half of my crew to Malay pirates.” In a cool, controlled voice, she explained about the abandoned ship she had found, the sight of the tortured and mutilated bodies. She explained how she called up the Jihad, and how, when she thought she would lose it all, the Sultan's guard ship had arrived and the pirates were dispatched. In the silence of the office, she told her brother everything, omitting only the parts about the ghost warrior, the Greek healer bard, and her own true connection to the Sultan's clan. When she was finished, she grew silent as she stared into her empty cup of tea. Releasing a sigh, she glanced up and caught the amazed expression in her brother's dark brown eyes.

“Blessed Allah,” he shook his head as he rose slowly from his desk. “You are lucky to have returned to us then and your new kinship … it is very understandable,” Fateen stated as he moved to stand by the large window overlooking the docks. “Khalid and I were talking the other day. He mentioned that he felt you should have been born a man, what with your bravery and … uh, proclivities and such. I never thought I would agree with him, but now I am thinking that perhaps he is right. It is a shame you were not born a man, Zara.”

“I guess I am to take that as a compliment?” Her expression was wry as she ran her fingers through her hair.

“Oh, please, Zara. This is me, Fateen you are talking to. I meant no offense by it, believe me please … a-and I never understood why father would not offer you the clan markings.” The older man moved to sit beside Zara, his manner relaxed and easy around her. “We all felt that it was wrong, but you know father. Sometimes, there is simply no talking to him.” He absently rubbed his cheek as if it ached, then caught himself and his grimace was sour. “You of all of us, I believe, know too well what I mean.”

“Yes, I know what you mean and … I thank you for your support,” she smiled softly at her brother as she lightly clasped her hand over his arm.

“Well, now it seems as if you have your clan affiliation, and one which even father will have to take note of!” Fateen smiled as he shook his head, then grew solemn as he glanced down at his sandaled feet. “You know, there are times when I'm envious of you. Oh yes, don't look so surprised. Sometimes I am envious of your ability to come and go as you please your only responsibility to your ship. To be gone and away from here for months at a time,” Fateen chuckled as he moved back to the window and gazed out at the busy dock. “Freedom, with a woman in every port,” he turned a sidelong glance at her, then nodded toward her ship.

Rising from her chair, she moved to stand beside her brother. She watched as Gabrielle walked down the plank, her hand holding Nadrah's firmly as they made their way past the many men who were unloading the cargo from her ship. The bard's mouth was moving as the girl spoke to her and pointed at various things around them.

“I'm sure you must have a story about that one,” Fateen arched a brow.

“Yes, there is indeed a story, but, I'm afraid, I must beg forgiveness. There is much yet to do, widows to speak with, solicitors to meet. Tell me, Fateen, is father here now?” she asked as she retrieved her scrolls from the floor.

“No, father hasn't been here for many moons now. Ever since your ship was past due, he's chosen to remain at home, supervising our handling of the business from there.” He explained as he looked away, his eyes downcast. “When we hadn't heard word of your ship, we assumed that you had joined Mutee in the afterlife … a-and, I dare say, father seemed to change.” At his words, Zara released a disbelieving snort as she shook her head, knowing full well that her father would never grieve over her loss.

Fateen winced. “I know how it is, but that's not fair of you, Zara. Regardless of how you may feel, father does care for you. Oh, I know of the troubles between you both, but I just think you two are like water and oil, the combination can never mix.” His voice grew soft. “Father has changed since last you remember. He grows quiet and introspective. I don't know why, but I wish you would take the time to work out your differences. I know he was the hardest on you, but perhaps that was because of your spirit. I know you may not believe me, but I think father was afraid of losing you and that was why he was so hard on you.”

Zara lowered her eyes from her brother as she contemplated his words, then with a shake of her head she turned away from the shorter man. “As always, I see that you are ever the optimist.”

Her brother shook his head. “Believe what you will, Zara. All I know is that you are safe … you are home and as for me, I care not what reason father has for being absent from the business. I'm only glad that he finally trusts us to run it correctly!” His rueful chuckle brought a smile to Zara's lips. “I think he's finally taken our word that the family business is in good hands. Did you know that Azeem is now officially in charge?” her brother asked as they walked out of his office. “Do you need to speak with him?”

“No, my business is with father, and I will speak with him tomorrow when I visit mother and Rashid,” she replied as she glanced over at the women gathered on the deck. Those who still had husbands were eagerly embracing them, while the rest were listening to Abu intently. After a moment, a high pitched wailing sound rose from the women who were left behind. “We will speak again later, brother. For now…”

“Of course, tend to your duties, and we will see each other soon,” her brother touched her on the shoulder as she nodded, then turned to make her way toward the widows and their children.

If her attention had not been diverted, Zara might have caught the look of surprise in her brother's eyes when she mentioned visiting her mother and brother. But since her focus was on the care of her fallen crewmen's families, she did not notice. Her brother absently ran his fingers through his beard, his brow furrowed in concern as he watched his younger sister's tall form moving easily through the crowd.

He looked down as his young son ran up to him excitedly. “Father, there is nothing from Japa, but the items from Indus are nearly triple what was expected!” With an arch of a brow, Fateen glanced at his son's notations and saw the amount of silks, clothing, bone carvings and fine jewelry on the inventory list.

With a slight smile, he glanced up at his sister's retreating form as he nodded to his son. “Remember what I have said before? 'Quality over quantity!' It appears your aunt had a profitable journey after all,” he told the boy.
Gabrielle was thankful to have Nadrah changed before the ship's deck became too crowded with all of the cargo crates. Holding the little girl's hand, they walked down the plank. All the while, Nadrah's animated voice was pointing to everything around them and telling her the names of the various places. While holding the child's hand, she kept a firm grasp on the heavy basket that contained Prasha's wiggling form. When they reached the bottom of the plank, she quickly led Nadrah away from the commotion to wait by the end of the dock.

As they stood, the blonde spotted a familiar figure and only smiled as she watched him being kissed by several women. Like chickens in a hen house, they cackled and cooed over the skinny man. When he noticed her standing in the shadows, he smiled and waved to her.

“My wives! Eight of them in all!” He called out, “But I promise, nine will be just fine! You remember what I told you, Healer Gabrielle! You come and join my wives anytime you wish!” The women turned and waved at Gabrielle. For a moment, the bard was taken back by their beauty. While some seemed as old as the cook and a few were just a tad seasons younger, some of the women were young enough to be his daughters. Old or young, however, all were fine looking and seemed to be very attached to their husband. Before Ayyub could say more, some of his fellow crewmen began to cackle some rude jests his way.

“Not true, oh jealous ones! They are with me for two reasons!” The skinny man called back, “My cooking and my prowess!” At his declaration, the woman all but squealed as if anticipating the demonstration of his words. With chortles and giggling, they circled the thin man, their arms wrapping around him as they kissed and hugged him, then led him away to a waiting wagon.

With only a shake of her head, the bard glanced down at the child by her feet. As if reading her mind, Nadrah glanced up her, then shrugged her shoulders as a big smile crossed her features.

“I don't get it either,” the bard smiled as a giggle escaped the girl.

“Look, there's Zara!” Nadrah's attention was pulled away when she saw the captain leaving a closed office. At the bard's confused expression, the girl pointed to the tall woman.

As if the pain of all of her losses suddenly weighed upon her shoulders, Zara walked with bowed head through the cargo toward the gathered crowd. When she saw the sorrow emanating from the Moroccan, Gabrielle had the urge to go and stand beside her lover. But instead, she hung back and watched the scene unfold. Never letting go of Nadrah's hand, she stood quietly as Zara approached the grieving wives. With a sad sigh, the bard reached down and lightly brushed her fingers through Nadrah's hair as the sounds of women's weeping rose in the air. The wailing sounds that rose in the crowd drowned away anything that the ship's captain might have said. The healer bard watched as the new widow's mourned the loss of their husbands, while the captain stood amongst them, her body language conveying nothing but strength.

If the circumstances had been different, Gabrielle might have enjoyed this homecoming. But as she stood next to Nadrah, she cared little about exploring a new city. The houses and merchants of Addâru Lbaydâ did not even interest her curiosity. Instead, all she could think about was the pain that her lover was going through. The sadness and guilt over the lost crewmen were surely weighing heavily upon her, the bard thought as she held the little girl who stood next to her.
Zara's home was nestled in the heart of Addâru Lbaydâ. By the standards of the city, it was not the most opulent home one could have, yet for her, it was far better than some of the rooms that she had lodged in when she first ran away from her father. Over the years, with the meager earnings she had saved, she had managed to buy and purchase this piece of land and the home that sat on it. Through the many years of her absence while at sea, she had always left a handsome purse behind for her builders in order that construction and repairs could continue. Now, after so many years of work, her home was not only considered one of the most beautiful in the heart of the city, but it had also become her refuge from the world outside.

“This is your home?” Gabrielle's slight whistle caught her attention as the carriage pulled past two tall pillars that had large, wooden doors. Once they pulled into a circular enclave, two male servants ran behind the carriage to close the massive doors. With only a glance at the two young men, the tall Moroccan exited the cabin, then turned to help Gabrielle down. When she saw the bard staring up at her home with wide-eyed amazement, Zara glanced up to see what had attracted her attention.

The outside of the home was as she remembered it to be. The simple brown walls rose upward toward the second floor. On the second floor, the windows were surrounded by a mosaic of hand crafted tiles. Like the doors entering the house, the windows were rounded at the top and held thin lines of inlaid gold. When she looked behind her to the massive doors, the bard's eyes grew wide when she noticed that the protective wall had been built like an archway. Running along the side of the opening were carved lattice designs.

“Zara, I had no idea!” Gabrielle exclaimed as she stepped from the carriage, her eyes darting all around the small courtyard as she helped Nadrah down. “When you said you were quite well off, I had no idea just how well off you were!”

With only a slight smile, the Moroccan glanced down at her lover and took her by the hand. “You believe me now, yes?”

“Yes,” the bard half whispered as she was lead from the courtyard to the large double doors. Like the archway into the compound, the double doors were surrounded with carved latticework and a mosaic of colorful tiles that were organized into carefully designed geometric shapes.

A line of servants, male and female, stood waiting in the courtyard. Zara recognized many faces, and saw a few new ones who must have been added to the house. In front of the line of servants stood three people. They waited patiently to welcome the Moroccan sea captain home. The first of the three to step forward was an elderly man, his simple tunic and breeches combined with his wizened features spoke of his age. Beside him, an older woman shrouded with a scarf over her hair stood with hands neatly folded in front of her. Her beautiful smile revealed a few gaps where her teeth were whittled away by age. Standing behind them was a younger woman, her tall, slender stature and bearing showed her status despite being covered by the thin beige veil.

The moment Zara noticed her, a guilty pang shot through her. When she glanced down at Gabrielle, she gulped nervously when she remembered the bard's fury over the Arab woman she had spent the night with. As if reading her mind, Abu cast her a slight glance, then nodded down at the bard who was oblivious to their body language.

“Umm … Gabrielle, there is something which I must apologize for,” she held the bard back slightly as Nadrah ran to the older couple, her words of greeting flying out even as they pulled her into a tight hug.

“Zara?” The bard glanced at her confused. Her eyes searched the taller woman for a moment, then narrowed her eyes as she looked back over at the three people waiting at the threshold.

“You see, I'm afraid that I, uh, neglected to mention…” but before she could finish, the young, lithe woman stepped toward them. With a single, graceful move, she lowered her veil to reveal her striking beauty. In the subservient manner that the captain always remembered her having, the tall woman knelt before her as she reached up and kissed the back of Zara's hands.

“Gabrielle, I would like you to meet Inaam…” she motioned for the woman to rise as she turned to face the bard. “She is the mistress of my home. Inaam controls all aspects of our home…a-and…she is my consort.”

The end of Chapter 9
of The Curse of Higuchi

Chapter 10

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