Look for Egyptian gods, a wrongly imprisoned bard, a heated lovers' quarrel in jail, a resurrection, a close call in a silver mine, a dead prince, a missing princess, a marriage of siblings, a love scene in the queen's bedchamber, confessions under the stars and a very happy ending.
I don't know when
I realized I loved her. Maybe it was the moment she burst into my life that
day in the woods. Maybe it began lifetimes ago. She runs through my blood and
my soul sings in her presence, even now. Even now that she's gone.
The bard put down her quill and pushed the scroll aside with a sigh. She'd been on that damn ship for two weeks and was slowly going stir crazy. "Xena?" No response. "Xena!" The vessel rolled from side to side and Gabrielle stared out the porthole into the darkness. "Where are you?" The question came out as little more than a whisper.
"Boo!" The blonde felt herself being caught from behind in a tight bear hug.
"Gods, Xena! One of these days you're going to scare me to death."
"Hey, then at least I'll have some company on this side. Didja miss me?" A broad grin spread across the warrior's face, revealing a set of perfect white teeth. She playfully poked her lover in the ribs.
"Stop that! You know I'm ticklish."
"Yeah. I know. That's kinda the whole point of tickling you, isn't it?" The warrior continued her assault.
"I'm gonna get you for this!" With that, Gabrielle launched into an attack of her own, grabbing for the taller woman's very ticklish knees.
"Ah, ah, ah. I don't think so!" Xena appeared to concentrate for a moment, and the blonde's hands passed right through her leg.
"How... How did you do that?"
"Like that trick? Practice." The warrior winked and settled onto a small bunk along the wall. "Come here and I'll try to explain it." She patted the cover next to her.
The pair had just stretched
out on the bed when someone knocked on the door. "Miss? Miss! Are you in there?"
"Um. Hold on a minute, I'll be right there." Gabrielle extricated herself from the spoon position that she'd snuggled into in front of her lover, smoothed her skirt, and opened the door.
"Sorry to disturb you, miss. I did not realize you had company." The tall, dark-haired man stuck his head into the room and looked around. "I uh.... I could have sworn I heard laughing just a minute ago. Guess I must be hearing things again. Here. I brought you some dinner. Thought you might be hungry, and the cook has whipped up a delicious batch of turnip stew tonight." He offered a small, wooden bowl filled with something that looked like lumpy dishwater.
"Oh! Thanks... What did you say your name was again?"
"I didn't. It is Pamiu. Nice to finally meet you." He extended a grubby hand, which Gabrielle took hesitantly. She noticed he had the broad shoulders and the well-defined arms of either a warrior or an athlete. A sword hung from a black leather scabbard around his waist. His accent was Egyptian.
"Finally? Should I know you?"
"No. Not really. I have been watching you since you got on the ship back in Higuchi. Do you think it is safe for a girl to be traveling alone like this?" His voice took on a darker tone and Gabrielle felt the hair at the nape of her neck prickle a little. The man eased the rest of the way into the cabin and shut the door behind himself. "You know, you are very beautiful." He stood directly in front of her and she could smell the wine on his breath.
"Watch it, Gabrielle. He's not here for the good conversation." Xena continued to lounge on the bunk.
"Yeah, I got that impression."
"Huh? Who are you talking to?" Frowning, Pamiu looked around the room.
"Oh. That's Xena; my girlfriend. She's very possessive."
"What? I think you need to stay away from the henbane. There is nobody else in this room, and you are all mine." He took another step forward and put his hands on the blonde's waist.
"You're wrong. She's lying right there on the bunk, scowling at you, and, trust me, you don't want to make her mad."
"I think I will take my chances with your invisible friend. Now come here!" He roughly drew Gabrielle against his torso and tried to force his tongue into her mouth. "Come on lovely one.Do not fight it."
Xena stood up and drew her sword. "Push him my way Gabrielle. I'm craving some shish kebob this evening."
The bard continued to struggle with her attacker. "Listen, Pamiu,you really don't want to be doing this."
"You have no idea how much I do want." His stinking breath was hot in her ear.
"Look, just walk out that door now and you won't get hurt."
"Ha! You are kidding, right? I think I'll take my chances and stay." His eyes had turned a reddish brown in the heat of his passion.
"Okay. Have it your way, but don't say I didn't warn you."
Gabrielle headbutted the man, stomped on his foot to knock him off balance and pushed him backward toward her warrior with the extended sword. She fully expected him to be run through. But, that's not what happened. Pamiufell right throughXena and onto the bunk behind her.
"Oooh. I see I have a wild one on my hands! That is more like it, you little minx. Why don't you come over here and let me tame you."
The blonde looked perplexed. "What just happened?"
"I don't know." Xena turned around and began hacking at the man on the bed. Her sword went through him each time, and he remained totally oblivious to the assault.
"I.... I can't hit him. It won't stick." Xena looked helplessly at Gabrielle.
"I AM concentrating. It's not working." The warrior continued to whack at Pamiu with no success.
"Hey, baby. I AM concentrating, and it is all for you. Now why don't you come over here and join me? I really do not want to have to do this the hard way."
A sneer slightly parted Xena's lips. "Hey, Gabrielle."
"I SAID come here."
"Be quiet, Pamiu, I'm not talking to you."
"What? I have been patient long enough, woman! Come here, NOW!"
He got up, and forced the blonde down onto the bed with him.
"Gabrielle, remember that new trick I taught you in Higuchi?"
"Now you are coming around. I knew you would eventually agree."
"I'm still not talking to you, ya big oaf. Now get... off ... me." She used her foot to punctuate each word and propelled him into the ship's wall.
"Why not try it out on this jerk."
"Oooh. She has spunk! I like spunk." His smile revealed a set of hideous, yellow teeth, as he righted himself and came in for a second wave.
Gabrielle rolled to one side and he missed his mark. "Hey, Pamiu?"
"Why don't you let me be on top?"
"A woman who likes to be in control! I am all for being dominated under the right circumstances." He rolled onto his back and the bard straddled his stomach.
"A little lower, honey, if you do not mind."
"Oh. She minds," Xena snarled under her breath.
"No, I think this position will work quite nicely for me. Let me just loosen your collar for you."
Gabrielle reached up and struck the base of the man's neck just behind the main artery. He instantly stiffened and assumed a look of intense panic.
"I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain, Pamiu, you have thirty seconds to live."
A thin, red, trickle ran from his nose.
"Now, you can either agree to leave here, and I'll let you live. Or, you can continue with the way you were behaving and provide the sharks with a late night snack. It's really up to you."
He struggled to speak. "L.. li.. live."
"I thought you might say that." She hit the pressure point again, and the man gulped a lungful of air.
"How did you do that?" Pamiu rubbed his throat as if making sure everything important was still there.
"It's just a little something a friend once taught me." She glanced at Xena, who was now sitting on the edge of a small writing table in the middle of the room, smiling.
Out of the corner of her eye, Gabrielle saw Pamiu sit up and begin to reach for her arm.
"Are you insane or just stupid?" She grabbed the man's testicles and squeezed. He immediately lay back down and began to whimper like a child. "You saw what I can do to you through your neck. Do you really want to find out what I can do with these?"
"Nooo." It came out as a high-pitched squeal.
"Then, I suggest you honor your end of the bargain, and leave." She gave an extra twist of her wrist for good measure and let go.
He didn't have to be asked twice this time.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
what do you think when wrong? Why couldn't you hit that guy?"
"Gee, I dunno, Gabrielle. Could have something to do with the fact that I'm a GHOST!" The sarcastic tone didn't mask the underlying feelings of helplessness and frustration. "But I can touch and feel you! You're as solid now as you were the last day I saw you alive." The bard's voice trailed off as she tried to push the memory of that day into a dark corner of her mind.
Xena reached out and rubbed the outside of her friend's arm. "Hey, I'm still here, aren't I? I said I'd never leave you, and that's a promise I intend to keep."
"I know. And I'm grateful for that, really I am. I don't know what I'd do if you weren't here. It's just..." She sighed.
"It's just what?"
"Maybe I'm being selfish."
The warrior was still sitting on the side of the desk and she pulled Gabrielle between her legs and into a gentle hug.
"It's just not the same, Xena. That's all." She rested her hands on her lover's thighs and planted a firm kiss on her lips.
"Don't worry, Gabrielle. We'll get used to it." Xena placed reassuring hands on the blonde's shoulders and gave a little squeeze. "
"Yeah. I suppose we will." There was a note of distant sadness in her voice, but she quickly snapped out of the melancholy mood that threatened to overtake her. "Hey! Before Mr. Turnip Stew burst in, you were going to tell me how you made my hands pass through your knee."
Xena jumped off the table and lead Gabrielle back to the bed.
"Why don't you lie down and get comfortable, this is a bit complicated." The pair resumed the side-by-side position they were in before the interruption.
"As far as I can tell,
you're the only one in the mortal world I can interact with. You're the only
one who can see, feel, or hear me." Xena gently squeezed the bard against her
body for effect. "If that's the way it's gotta be, I can handle it. But I'm
afraid I won't be much help to you in battle. No matter how hard I try, I don't
seem to be able to move things. I'm not of the solid world anymore, Gabrielle,
so things are going to be a little different. I've also found that when I concentrate,
I can make myself disappear. That's what I was starting to do when you tickled
my knee. I thought about disappearing, then, just before it happened, brought
myself back. Your hands went right through me."
"Where do you go, when you're not here?"
"Here and there. I just sort of float around. It actually takes a lot less energy than appearing as a solid form. Out here in the middle of nowhere there's not too much to look at, and I don't want to be far from you, so I just wander the ship. I've been to the galley, by the way, and if I were you, I'd avoid anything with meat in it. The supply ran out Tuesday and I noticed that the cook had set out some rat traps."
"Yeah, well. High seas cuisine isn't known for its appeal."
"Do you think you could float over into Pamiu's cabin and find out what his story is?"
"Been there already." The warrior gently began to tickle Gabrielle's arm.
"Mmm. That feels great. For a ghost, you've certainly got great manual dexterity."
"I don't have as many skills as I use to, but I haven't lost 'em all." She leaned forward and kissed the blonde's shoulder.
"So, what did you find in his cabin?" Gabrielle flipped onto her left side and was now staring into her favorite shade of blue.
"Huh?" It dawned on Xena that the woman in front of her had spoken. "In whose cabin?"
"Pamiu's. Hello! Earth to Xena!"
"Oh. Sorry." The taller woman shook her head to clear it. "I thought we had moved on to other subjects."
"Don't worry, that'll come later." Gabrielle placed a soft kiss on the warrior's nose. "I think the original question was, what did you find in Pamiu's cabin?"
"Well, there was Pamiu, of course, and some other guy. He looked like some sort of Egyptian soldier. There were also several boxes in the room containing silk and spices from the land of Chin. Looked to me like they had been on an errand for someone."
"Nope. That was it. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary."
"I wonder who they're shopping for?"
"I don't know, Gabrielle. And I don't care, as long as they keep their distance from you. I don't think that'll be much of a problem after your little pinch display earlier this evening." A flash of pride flickered in the warrior's eyes and she playfully punched her partner in the arm.
"Ouch! What was that for?"
"Just for being you." Xena slid forward so that the fronts of their bodies were barely touching, and placed a tender kiss on the lips before her.
"I love you, Gabrielle."
"I love you too. Why don't I blow out the candles so we can enjoy what's left of the evening?"
"Sounds like a plan to me." Xena rolled out of the way as her lover extinguished the flames and crawled back into the warm bunk.
"You said it takes less energy for you to be invisible."
"Do you get tired when you're with me?"
"No, but I do get tired when I try to materialize and you're not near me. I think I somehow feed off of your life force when we're together and it keeps me around."
"Funny," The blonde snuggled close to her lover. "I feel the same way."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"Over here will be fine, thanks." Gabrielle tipped the sailor who'd insisted on helping her carry her small bag of supplies onto the dock. "Before you go, do you know where I can find a horse?"
The young man took off his hat and scratched his head for a moment. "I think, Samut, the stable owner might be able to help you. He breeds horses for the royal family, but occasionally also sells to travelers like yourself. Walk down the main street and make a left at the spice shop. He's just around the corner. Follow the sounds of whinnying. You cannot miss him."
Samut's building was situated right in the center of the port city of Klysma. When Gabrielle walked into his workshop he barely acknowledged her presence.
The man grunted in reply.
"Are you Samut?"
"Who is asking?"
"My name's Gabrielle, and I'm told you might have some horses for sale."
"I might." The man looked up from the saddle he was oilingand eyed his customer. "Do you have a master traveling with you?"
"No. I'm on my own for the time being. Why?"
"Just wondering. It is rather strange to see a lady traveling unaccompanied in this part of the world. Where will your journey take you?"
"I thought I'd go west toward the great pyramids, but it's going to be difficult without a horse, or a camel at the very least." The bard put down the bag of belongings that she had slung over her shoulder.
"You are not from around here. Yes?"
"Yes. I mean, no. I come from Greece."
"So, where did you learn to ride a camel?"
"Well," Gabrielle shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, recalling the hell she went through learning to ride Argo. "How hard can it be, right? It's just like a horse with a hump."
Samut tried very hard not to laugh at the pronouncement. Despite his general dislike for people, he found the Greek girl to be strangely charming. "Why don't I take you into the stable and you can look at the animals."
The Egyptian led the way around the side of the building, to the stalls behind. In the daylight, Gabrielle was able to get a better look at him. He was tall, probably a little taller than Xena and looked to be in his 60s. His face was leathery and brown from years of living in the hot sun. He was actually sort of handsome in a rugged way. The tan accentuated intelligent looking hazel eyes and a mane of wind-blown white hair. Gabrielle wondered whether there was a Mrs. Samut.
"Well, here you are, young lady. The camels. That is Bathshebathere on the end. She is one of the best runners I have, but beware of her temper."
"Oh, she doesn't look so bad." Gabrielle approached the animal and petted its face. "What a pretty baby you are. Aw, yes you are! Look at those beautiful brown eyes." The camel, apparently taking exception to the baby talk, responded by spitting in her face.
"All right." The bard wiped the mucous from her eye with a look of disdain. "Maybe you should take me to see those horses now."
The pair walked into another long stable, which contained about a dozen stalls. Only three were occupied.
"Wow. Not much of a selection, huh?"
"One of the king's men came last week and bought the rest. This is all I have left." He walked over to a dappled gray Arabianand patted her on the muzzle. "This is a nice horse. She is young, but smart, and has a good nature."
Stomping and whinnying from the end stall attracted both visitors' attention.
"Oh. That black one over there? That is Caesar. His old owner was a Roman soldier who married a local woman. When the marriage when south, so did he, and he sold me his horse."
"Caesar? No. I don't think so. Tell me more about this one?" Gabrielle stroked the chiseled features of the Arabian mare.
"Her name is, Khepri. It means morning sun. She is the offspring of two of the horses I recently sold. Great horses they were. Her father was one of the fastest, smartest beasts I owned. She inherited his black mane. Her mother was a gentle white mare, but also extremely bright. I was sorry to see them go."
"Well, young lady, for you, ten drachmas of silver."
"Ten drachmas of silver? That seems awfully cheap. What's wrong with her?"
"I assure you, nothing is wrong with her!" He sounded offended. "If you do not want the horse, just say so. There is no need for insults."
"Oh. No. I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way. It's just that... You see, I'm used to haggling for things and that price is so reasonable..."
"Well, I do not haggle and that is the price, so take it or leave it."
"Okay. I'll take it. Thank you, Samut." She handed him the money.
"You are welcome young lady. Please be careful on your journey. I have heard stories from the west of unrest there."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
that, up ahead?" Xena nudged Gabrielle from her position on the back of the
horse. The sun was just starting to rise and they could see the smoke from some
sort of fire on the horizon.
"I don't know. Let's go check it out."
"Be careful, Gabrielle. I'm afraid I won't be much help to you if there's a fight."
"Give me a little credit, Xena. I can take care of myself. I had a great teacher, remember?" The blonde leaned back against her friend's chest for a moment before spurring the horse into a gallop. "Hold on!"
As the women got closer they could see what once was a small group of tents, completely burned to the ground. A pile of badly beaten bodies lay in the center of the campsite.
"They look like soldiers."
"Yeah. Egyptian soldiers. By the looks of those uniforms, they're members of the Pharaoh's royal guard. Bring us in for a closer look, will ya?"
Xena dismounted next to the pile of bodies.
"Gabrielle, come here! It looks like this one's still alive... barely."
The blonde hurried over to the man who was now gasping for air. His uniform bore the decorations of an officer.
"Who did this to you? What happened?"
"The rebel, Naeem. One of his followers managed to infiltrate the Royal Guard and capture Princess Safiya, my sister. He said he was taking her to the old silver mines in the hills. He planned to kill her and burn her body, so our father would not be able to give her a proper funeral." His breathing was becoming more labored. Gabrielle did her best to comfort him.
"Xena, what do I do?"
"By the position of that arrow wound, I'd guess he's bleeding internally. Lay him flat on his back and do exactly as I tell you. We should be able to slow the bleeding and ease some of his pain using pressure points." The blonde positioned the man as she was told.
"Okay. Now, jab him right here below the armpit."
"Yes. Do it! We're losing him."
The prince lifted his head and with some effort whispered, "Who are you talking to?
"Nobody.... myself. Just relax. You have a pretty nasty wound here, and I'm going to try to stop some of the bleeding."
"The princess and I were to be married tomorrow." He had a faraway look in his eyes.
"Married?" Gabrielle looked at her partner with a raised eyebrow. "Xena, he's starting to hallucinate."
"No, Gabrielle. That's the custom here. Family members marry to keep the royal line strong."
"But what about their children? Never mind, you can tell me later." The blonde continued working on the prince. "Don't you worry, your highness. We'll have you fixed up in no time, so you can see your family again." She struck the pressure point as Xena had instructed. "There, that should be better."
She heard a faint gurgling noise from the back of her patient's throat as he struggled to speak.
"Our company came looking for Safiya, but...." The soldier's voice trailed off and he stopped breathing.
"Well, that wasn't terribly enlightening, was it?" Xena looked him over and noticed the gold ring on his finger. "Looks like some sort of royal seal. Grab it. You never know when we might need to use it as a bargaining chip."
"Xena! He died!"
"Yeah. Unfortunately that happens. Sometimes no matter how much you want to, you can't save them."
"What happened?" The blonde continued to kneel over the prince. "I pinched him where you told me to."
"It's a tricky science. You sort of have to feel it. Maybe you were a little off the mark."
"A little off the mark? Xena, a man is dead! That doesn't quite cut it." She bent over and alternately pumped the soldier's chest and breathed into his mouth.
"The warrior princess walked around the human pile looking for others who might still be hanging on. "It doesn't look like we'll be getting any additional insight from these men. They're all dead. Whoever this Naeem is wanted to be sure nobody would talk. Most of them have had their tongues cut out. Our friend here must've just gotten lucky."
"Lucky? How can you say that? Look at him! He's dead." Gabrielle cradled the man's dark cheek in her hand and she flashed back on another death in the desert not so long ago.
"Hey. You okay?" She felt the warrior's hand on her back.
"I guess. I was just thinking about Korah."
"That wasn't your fault, Gabrielle. You thought he was going to hurt me. It was an accident."
"An accident. Yeah." The bard stood up and halfheartedly brushed the sand off of her robes.
"Hey," Xena tilted her lover's chin toward the sun. "You did your best for the prince. Nobody can ask for more than that."
"Well. Apparently sometimes my best isn't enough."
"It's going to have to be today." Xena gently draped her arm over Gabrielle's shoulder and lead her back toward Khepri. "Now let's pay the Pharaoh a visit."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
large cloud of dust in the distance heralded the approach of company. Whether
it was friend or foe, remained to be seen. Gabrielle slowed her horse to a walk.
"How many do you think there are?"
"Hard to say from this far away. Eighty. Maybe a hundred."
"That would be a challenge, even if you could fight with me, Xena. I'll never be able to take them all on my own."
"Look." The warrior gave her friend a reassuring squeeze around the middle. "You've done nothing wrong. You shouldn't have anything to worry about. My guess is that they've caught wind of what happened at their friends' camp yesterday and they're looking for the rebels who did it."
A company of soldiers dressed exactly like the men Xena and Gabrielle had just left, approached. The blonde brought Khepri to a halt and smiled. "Hello."
The captain of the group was apparently in no mood for pleasantries. "Who are you and what are you doing out here alone?" He slowly circled Gabrielle and eyed both horse and rider suspiciously.
"I'm Gabrielle of Potedeiaand I'm on a journey to..."
"Where did you get this horse?" He barked the inquiry, not bothering to wait for the rest of the bard's story.
"I bought her from Samut, the stable owner, in the port city of Klysma."
"This horse belongs to the Royal Guard."
"I'm sorry, but you're wrong. I paid for her and she's mine."
"Oh no. You are the one who is wrong, woman. Samut breeds horses for the Pharaohand the Royal Guard is supposed to have first pick." The captain dismounted and began to inspect Khepri. "I can not imagine we would allow as fine a beast as this to slip through our fingers."
"Silence!" He grabbed the horse's reins to keep her from bolting. "Get off of the horse." It wasn't a friendly request.
Gabrielle tensed and thought about trying to resist, but now the rest of the company had moved in and formed a circle around her and the captain. Xena gave her friend a little nudge. "You'd better do as he says."
The blonde dismounted. "I don't know how you think I'm going to survive out here without a horse. I certainly can't walk to the palace."
"The palace?" The captain raised an eyebrow. "What business do you have at the palace?"
"I need to see the king to tell him about his daughter and the rebels."
"What do you know of these things?" The man now stood directly in front of her.
"A day ago we ran across a camp that had been burned to the ground, all of its occupants, slaughtered."
"Why do you say we? Who was traveling with you?"
"Oh...uh...nobody," Gabrielle stammered. "I was just referring to me and Khepri."
The guard frowned and stared hard at her. "You are a strange woman. Go on with your story."
"Among a pile of bodies, we found a wounded soldier. He told us the rebels had captured his sister, Safiya, and were going to burn her body to punish the king. For what, he didn't say. The soldier died before he could finish the story. We left the bodies and set off to find the king to tell him what happened."
The captain looked stricken. "Are you sure the man you talked to said he was looking for his sister?"
"Yes, his sister, the princess. He said someone was out to get back at his father."
The soldier regained his composure and turned to a shorter man who appeared to be second in command. "Search her belongings."
"Yes sir!" The lieutenant began rummaging through the horse's saddlebags.
Gabrielle suddenly remembered Xena's ashes. "Wait, I need to get something out of there."
"Stay where you are woman!" Two guards crossed their swords in front of her.
The lieutenant pulled out the urn and, with a smug smile, handed it over to his captain.
"Ashes!" The commanding officer shook the urn in front of Gabrielle's face. "What is the meaning of this?"
"Sir, there is more." The lieutenant approached him from behind. "I also found this." He held out the prince's gold ring.
"Well, Gabrielle from Potedeia, you are either very brave or very stupid to be carrying mementos of the king's murdered children around with you."
The blonde shook her head in disbelief. "Wait, you think I had something to do with their deaths? That's not the princess in that urn. Well, technically I suppose it is A princess, but it's definitely not YOUR princess."
"She speaks nonsense. Seize her and take her before the king for judgment."
Xena watched the scene unfold from atop Khepri. "You keep your hands off of her! You hear me! She didn't do anything to your precious royal family!" The warrior princess flipped off the horse and landed directly in front of the captain. A punch to the throat and a roundhouse kick went right through him. "Damn it! I can't...." She tried the same combination again with similar results, then walked over to the bard. "Gabrielle, I'm so sorry. If I could just somehow connect...."
"It's okay Xena." Gabrielle spoke under her breath. "You did your best."
"Silence!" It was the last word the blonde heard before a sharp blow to the back of the head knocked her unconscious.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
coming to in what appeared to be a small, holding cell, Gabrielle was lead into
a cavernous room in the palace.Two rows of immense, elaborately
carved pillars lined the walk to the alabaster dais which supported the throne.
There was enough gold and precious stones in it to feed a small country for
a lifetime. A middle-aged man with shoulder length black hair and sad brown
eyed looked down on the bard.
"Kneel before his majesty, and kiss the ground." A guard pushed down roughly on the Gabrielle's shoulder and she dropped to the marble floor.
The room fell silent for several uncomfortable minutes, then, the king spoke in a low voice, filled with sorrow. "I am advised that you had something to do with the deaths of my children. Tell me what happened."
"I didn't kill your children, but I was there when your son died. His company had been massacred by a rebel named, Naeem. The prince said the man had kidnapped the princess and planned to burn her body to get back at you for something. He didn't say what."
"I do not know anybody by the name you speak. How do you explain your possession of the urn and my son's royal seal?"
"The urn carries the ashes of my friend who was killed in battle in Japan and I took your son's ring from his body to bring back to you."
"Do you take me for a fool? If one is a true friend they do not burn the body of the dead. It will make their journey into the afterlife impossible. I believe you helped the rebels kidnap my daughter, and kill my son. In exchange, they gave you one of the royal Arabians that they stole from the Guard. I am ready to hand down your sentence."
Gabrielle looked up at the king, stunned by how quickly he had made up his mind. "But, you don't understand. In my country..."
"Your country is where you should have stayed. I have heard enough. I hereby sentence you to life in prison."
"No! You can't. I..." The blonde scanned the room for a possible escape route. There was none. Two large guards grabbed her by the elbows. "Xena, help me!"
"As much as I'd love to do that, Gabrielle, I'm afraid advice is the best thing I can offer in this state. There are too many guards in here. Just do as they say. We'll think of a way to get you out of the prison." The blonde looked at her doubtfully and Xena tried to offer reassurance. "Hey, it's not like we haven't been through this sort of thing before. Right? I promise, before the moon is full again, you'll get to see those pyramids." Just for good measure she elbowed one of the escorting guards in the face. He didn't seem to notice.
The king assumed the prisoner was praying. "Your goddess, Xena, can not help you now."
As soon as Gabrielle had been taken out of the room, the king summoned his head guard. "Rayid!"
"Yes, sire!" The man bowed, then stood at attention.
"We need to discover what this woman knows. What she really knows. Put some Chinese zhen-de rootinto her water, wait for its truth extracting properties to take effect, then question her."
"But sire, that could kill her. Why not use henbane?"
"Are you questioning my judgment?"
"No sire, I didn't mean..."
"Henbane is easily detected. Zhen-deis not. It has virtually no smell or taste and I do not want her to know it is there. If she dies, it is because the gods have willed it. Now go do as you are told!"
"Yes, Pharaoh." The man bowed and took his leave.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
king paced in his chambers. "What have I done wrong, Asim, to cause me such
misfortune? First, Osiris takes my wife, in childbirth, then my heirs meet this
terrible fate on the eve of their wedding."
The head priest tried to comfort his master. "Sire, I assure you it is nothing you have done. You have been a wise and compassionate ruler."
"Why, then? Why have they all been taken from me?" Teremun clenched his fists in grief. "Asim, you must discover a way to give Safiya a safe passage into the after life. With her body turned to ash, there is no peace for her."
"Pharaoh, I do not believe such a thing can be done. Without her earthly form, I see no way for her to travel through to the after life."
The king grabbed the front of his priest's robes. "Then find a way! Surely in your many scrolls, you must have come across some reference that might help."
"Well," Asim tugged at the white goatee that hung from his chin. "I seem to recall seeing something about a myth involving the mud of the Nile, but I do not remember what was involved."
"What are you waiting for?" The king waved the elderly priest out of the room. "Go find that scroll and report back to me before daybreak tomorrow!"
"Yes, Pharaoh." Asim bowed and left the room.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
surveyed her new home. "Hmm. Whoever hired the interior designer for this place
should ask for a refund. She brushed sand off the only bench in the room and
sat down. The old wooden table in front of her offered what looked to be a pitcher
of water and an empty cup. "Well, at least they provide the basics." She filled
"Gabrielle, wait! Don't drink that. It could be poisoned."
"Please, Xena. If they wanted me dead, they would have executed me instead of giving me a life sentence in jail."
"I'd still feel better if I could take a look at that. May I?"
"Sure." Gabrielle shrugged and held the cup out to her companion. Xena attempted to take it, and the cup and its contents went crashing to the floor.
"Oops. Forgot about your... limitation. Why don't you let me hold it while you check it out?" The blonde retrieved the cup and filled it again. Xena moved closer and sniffed the contents. "Mmm hmmm. Uhh huh."
"What is it?"
"That's water all right."
"Xena!" Gabrielle elbowed the warrior in the stomach. "Do I have your permission to quench my thirst now?"
"Yeah. Go ahead. It seems all right. I don't know why, I just had a bad feeling about it."
"Maybe being a ghost has affected your judgment."
The bard downed three quarters of the pitcher and shortly thereafter lay down on her back in the middle of the floor. The cells were all designed in such a way that they were open to the elements, no doubt to make it more uncomfortable for their inhabitants. Each had smooth, stone walls, towering at least six stories, but there was no roof. If one could have flown over the prison, it would have looked much like a maze with solid walls holding each prisoner in his own small, square world. Each cell did have a little nook cut into one wall in which an overhang, and slab bed provided some relief from the scorching sun.
"I never realized how far away it was until right now."
"The sky." Gabrielle eyes narrowed. "It seems cruel that they'd let me look at it like this, knowing that I'll never see the horizon again." There was a tinge of bitterness in her voice. "I'd almost rather be in a dungeon. Then at least I wouldn't be as aware of what I'm missing."
"Don't talk like that, Gabrielle. You sound like you've given up." Xena knelt down next to her friend and gently touched her arm. The bard pulled it away and glared at her partner. Xena noticed that the green in her eyes was nearly obscured by the dilated pupils.
"Given up? Xena, why shouldn't I?" The pent up frustration of the past several weeks began to spill out, uncontrolled. "What's left for me here? Huh, Xena? I'll tell you what. NOTHING!" Slightly startled by the sudden change in attitude, the warrior simply knelt there, listening to the angry barrage.
"You went to Higuchi and saved those forty-thousand strangers so their souls could be avenged, all so you could feel less guilty about the other people you'd massacred in your life. Those others will never be avenged, so tell me how is this redemption for you? Do you feel good about yourself now, that you're no good to anybody here?" She stood up and backed the surprised warrior against the wall.
"What about me, Xena? What about this one soul who you promised to share your life with? Look at me. LOOK AT ME! What do you see? I'll tell you what. Nothing. Because I have nothing left. No hope. No fear. No love... Everything that mattered in my life died with you on Mt. Fuji." Gabrielle turned around and clenched her fists against the escalating anger. "Gods! Why didn't I drop those ashes into the fountain? It would have been so easy." A sardonic smile parted her lips as she made a quick, pouring motion with her hand. "Just a turn of the wrist and you'd be here with me right now. Damn it! I can't believe I let you talk me into this!" The bard stomped one bare foot on the floor and tears now streamed down her cheeks. She looked at her lover, defeated. Xena's felt her throat clench as she saw the pain reflected in the green eyes before her. She cupped the bard's cheek reassuringly. "I am here. I..."
"No!" Gabrielle shook her head, knocking her partner's hand away. "It's not the same. I thought I could pretend this was normal, that it was somehow okay that my lover's a ghost, but it's not." She impatiently wiped away her tears with the back of her hand and seemed to swoon for a moment. Xena reached out to steady her. "Are you okay?"
"No, I'm not okay! How could you do this after all we've been through together? I really thought you'd gotten over your habit of sneaking off on secret missions and keeping me in the dark. First, I find out about Akemi; a woman who so profoundly impacted your life that you were willing to travel halfway across the world the minute her ghost gave you a call. I have to say I do find it a little strange that in all the time we've been together, you never bothered to mention her to me." The bard rubbed her temples as if trying to work the thoughts out of her head. "Then it dawns on me... this is just like the time you went to Chin on your little suicide mission for Lao Ma, except this time you succeeded, and you invited me along to watch. How do you think that makes me feel? You jumped the minute these women called for you. You knew them for a few minutes of your life, but I spent years traveling, fighting and lying by your side and you had no second thoughts about leaving me for them."
Xena looked at her feet. "I had lots of second thoughts." The profession was barely audible.
"Well, apparently they weren't loud enough to keep you from going, were they?"
"It was something I felt I had to do. Please understand, I..."
"Why? Why did you feel like this was something important enough to die for? Help me understand your reasoning, Xena, because I just don't see it."
"I thought if I went back and helped the people I had hurt in the past, that maybe I could make it all right again...somehow make up for all the awful things I'd done."
"Nothing you can do will ever make up for those things. What's done is done. You can't bring back all the people you killed and you can't erase the pain of their loved ones. It was their fate...their destiny, and it was all meant to be. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. That's just the way it is. That suffering in this life will be translated into something else in their next, perhaps more compassion for others. Who knows." The bard shrugged her shoulders dramatically. "Don't you see? It's no longer your responsibility, Xena. You didn't need to become a martyr to redeem yourself. Redemption isn't something those forty-thousand souls could grant you. You had to simply allow yourself to feel it. You are redeemed. You've been redeemed since the moment you decided to fight the darkness inside you and walk the path of light. Why couldn't you ever see that? Why couldn't you see the light in yourself?"
"I've just always felt like I needed to do more than I was doing. Like I needed to pay somehow for all those things I did. Any other person would have been tried, convicted, and executed for crimes like mine."
"Is that what this is all about? You acting as your own judge, jury and executioner?"
"Maybe. It doesn't matter anymore. It's done."
"That's it? It's done? Of course it matters. I need some answers! I want to know why you did this to me...to us. I've always known there was the chance that one day I might lose you in battle, but I never thought you'd allow yourself to be slaughtered!" Gabrielle again pushed the warrior up against the wall and this time began to pound on her chest with clenched fists. "I hate you for that Xena! I hate you!" The taller woman grabbed her lover's wrists to stop the assault and pulled her into a tight hug. Gabrielle choked on her own sobs and went limp against the warrior's chest. "Why didn't you talk to me about your plan, Xena? You sent me off to fight a line of soldiers who weren't even there, while you were sacrificing yourself for your old girlfriend."
"I sent you away because I didn't want you to get hurt."
"You didn't want me to get hurt?" Gabrielle pulled away and stared into tear-glazed blue. "What do you think happened, Xena? How do you think I felt when I finally figured out your plan and knew there was no way I could get to you quicklyenough to stop it? Do you have any idea what a terrifyingly helpless feeling that is? Then there was the trip to retrieve your headless body. I would have rather plunged a dagger into my own heart, had I thought that tortured body truly represented the last of you." Sobs again wracked her body. "You didn't want to hurt me? Gods. All you've ever done is hurt me when you hurt yourself. You've just been too blind and selfish to see that. I'm done, Xena. I'm tired of being hurt."
"I'm sorry I hurt you, Gabrielle, but you can't just give up. There's a path you must walk. There are so many people in this world who still need your help."
"No." The blonde held up her hands. "That's where you're wrong. That was your path, and maybe ours together. But it's not mine alone. I'm not cut out to be the new "warrior princess." You taught me how to fight and how to kill, Xena, but it's not my nature. I don't enjoy the thrill of it the way you did. Besides, you saw how much good I was to the prince." She shook her head in defeat. "Somebody else is going to have to help those people. I'm finished." Gabrielle sat down on the stone bed and watched a scorpion making its way across the floor. Xena, unsuccessfully, tried to brush it away with her foot.
"It's not like you to give up like this."
"Yeah, well. It's not like you to die and not come back, but you did. By choice. You did this and it's killing me, Xena. Do hear me?" The bard slammed the palm of her hand against the ledge.
"It's killing me!"
A guard appeared at the heavy, wooden cell door and slid a tray of food through a slot. He looked at his prisoner with sympathy. "You should eat something. You are too thin." Gabrielle didn't look up.
"Who were you talking to?"
"No one." She sniffed, and continued to stare at the floor. "I thought I saw a ghost, but it turned out to be no one."
Xena blanched at the statement and felt her energy start to drain. The jailer didn't quite know how to take his melancholy charge, and left her to her meal.
"No one there? What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"Just what I said, Xena. I don't believe you exist. I think you're a figment of my imagination, created by my mind to cushion the horrendous blow of your death. You're not here."
"I AM here. Look, touch me." The warrior grabbed for her friend's arm, but her hand passed right through it. "I... I...don'tknow what happened. You should be able to feel me."
"Not if you don't exist."
"Of course, I exist." She fought a building feeling of fatigue and struggled to retain her human form.
"Then come back to me. Right here, right now, in flesh and blood!"
"I can't do that, Gabrielle."
"Yeah. That's what I thought." She lay down and pulled a thin cover up to her chest. "I don't want to lose you, Xena, but I can't go on like this." Her eyes fixed on the darkening sky and she struggled to keep them open. "I'm so tired."
The blonde's mouth went slack and she passed out.
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle!" The warrior tried to rouse her friend by making desperate attempts to shake her back to consciousness. Every time her hands passed through the object of her attention. "Damn it! Gabrielle, please wake up. I'm so sorry about everything." Xena looked around the cell trying to come up with some way to help. Then she spotted the empty water pitcher on the table and the sick feeling in her gut told her her initial suspicions had been correct.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
wake up. Wake up!" Asim stood over the king's bed and gently shook him by the
"No, sire. It is only, me, your humble priest."
"Oh. Yes. What is it, Asim?" The king sat up in bed and squinted to see his late night visitor.
"I believe I have found an answer to our problem with the princess."
Now Teremun was awake. "What did you discover?"
"In an ancient manuscript written by Baal, priest to the Pharaoh Akhenaten, there is a reference to the use of Nile mud to bring back the dead. In order to affect the resurrection, wemust use the mud to fashion a likeness of Princess Safiya. We must then sprinkle her remains onto the likeness and put a scarab over the place where her heart should be. If we do this on the first sunrise, of the first day of the year, Ra will cast his light upon the princess's form and bring her back to you.
"That is tomorrow!"
"Yes. There is just one catch. For this to work, Safiya must wishto return. Come sire, we must work quickly if we are to be successful."
"Has anyone questioned the prisoner yet?"
"Not yet, sire. At last check she was ranting to herself."
"Well, forget about that now. By morning the princess will be with us again to tell her own story."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"She is crazy." The guard leaned back in the chair and rested his sword between
his legs. A fellow soldier stood beside him.
"She has spent the last hour yelling at an imagined friend."
"I see. So the zhen-dehas done its work. Perhaps we should go question her."
"No." The seated guard leaned forward and lowered his voice to a whisper as Xena listened, unseen, in a corner of the prison corridor. "The Pharaoh and his priest have supposedly come up with a way to return princess Safiya to life. I was told to forget about the interrogation."
The second guard shook his head and stifled a laugh. "Surely, the king is going mad also!
The first guard stood up. "Perhaps. He has been through many hardships recently."
"What do you think we should do with the Greek woman?"
"Well, assuming she lives through the night, we treat her just like any other prisoner and she will grow old here."
~ ~ ~ ~
~ ~ ~ ~
Xena stood in the prison cell looking down on the sleeping bard. It was the middle of the night, and up above, Orion winked down on them.
"You're right, you know. About everything - the guilt, the need for punishment. It's always been that way for me and death has done nothing to ease the pain. Now, I've simply added to it, knowing how badly I've hurt you. Some great warrior I turned out to be, huh?" She sat on the stone ledge next to her lover, offering a caress she knew wouldn't be felt. "You know, the funny thing is, you're the one thing in my life that mattered most to me. You are my light, and my conscience, and my reason to exist. I wish I could have told you that more often. Can you hear me Gabrielle? Because I'm telling you now." The warrior tried to brush a wisp of blonde hair out of the bard's closed eyes. "Do you know when I fell in love with you? Of course you don't, because I never had the nerve to tell you." She scoffed at her own poor communication skills."It was that day you saved my life in Amphipolis. I was ready to end it all, allow myself to be sacrificed for my past sins, and there your were. My angel, sent down to save me. And you did save me, you know. I would have died that day never knowing forgiveness or compassion or true love. I'm so sorry all of this has happened, Gabrielle. I never meant for it to end like this. You'd think I'd have learned my lesson in Chin. I know I shouldn't have sacrificed myself without first discussing it with you. I guess I was afraid that you'd try to talk me out of it. I couldn't face you. It's not that Akemi or Lao Ma were more important to me than you. Please believe that. It's just that, for years, I've had this driving urge to make everything right. Sometimes that conflicts with what my heart knows to be true - that things ARE right. Nothing has ever felt more right to me than walking by your side. Maybe I do have some sort of stupid martyr complex. I don't know..."
A tear crept down the warrior's cheek as she knelt next to the bed and gently kissed her sleeping bard. "Please don't let this be the end of our story, Gabrielle. There are so many more adventures that need to be written." Xena lay her head on Gabrielle's stomach and listened to her rhythmic breathing. A lamp the guards had lit while she was away, cast an amber glow on the wall above the bed. The warrior wiped her nose and looked up. For the first time she noticed a faded hieroglyph painted there. "What's this?" Her hand carefully traced the characters. "Look at this Gabrielle. It's a story." Xena stood and moved the lamp closer for a better look. "It's the story of Isis and Osiris. They were soul mates too, you know." She glanced down at Gabrielle. No response. "I know how much you like these kinds of legends. You just hang tight, and I'll tell you all about it. Okay?" She patted her friend's leg.
"Okay. Here it goes. Looks like, with these two, the bond started in the womb. Isis and Osiris were brother and sister, twins, according to this. Their bond was so strong that nothing could tear them apart. Set, their brother, was very jealous of their love and tried to destroy it by killing Osiris. He went even one step farther, seizing his dead brother's body and cutting it into fourteen pieces, which were scattered around the country. Isis, as you can imagine, was devastated by this, but her love for Osiris was so strong that she transformed herself into a bird, and traveled the length and width of Egypt looking for the pieces of her dead lover. Everywhere Isis found a piece, a temple was built in his honor. She was able to find all but one piece and used the magic of the gods to put him back together. Unfortunately, his penis was still missing. Heh. How 'bout that, Gabrielle? Maybe you and I don't see it as much of a loss, but Isis apparently did. She needed to produce an heir in order to keep old Set from inheriting the throne. It's pretty tough to get pregnant when your husband doesn't have a penis." Smiling, Xena gently nudged the bard with her knee."So Isis fashioned an organ out of the mud of the Nile and impregnated herself with Osiris's seed, giving birth to the half-god Horus." The warrior held the lamp closer to the wall. "Looks like that's where the story ends. Poor Isis, left to raise her son while her stitched together husband sat propped up in a corner somewhere. Not much of a relationship, huh?" She was suddenly struck by the irony of her criticism, and a crooked grin played on her lips. "Guess, I'm not really one to talk."
Xena sat back down next to Gabrielle. She noticed the bard's breathing was becoming slightly labored and that a thin sheen of sweat was now glistening on her forehead. "Gabrielle?" She felt the heat coming off of her lover's face. "The zhen-deis attacking your system. We need to get some fresh water into you to help wash it out." The warrior walked over to the closed cell door and looked through three small bars situated at eye level. "Guards! Guards, we need some water in here! She's burning up with fever!" No answer. "C'mon! We need help!" She tried to slam her fist into the door, but it went right through to the other side. Still, nobody responded. "Damn it!" The fatigue was beginning to take its toll and Xena found it difficult to remain upright. She again made her way over to the unconscious bard. "Gabrielle, please hold on. If you can just make it through the night, you should be okay."
The taller woman looked down and noticed she could no longer see her hands. "I'm so tired, Gabrielle. It's almost daybreak, please don't give up without me." There was a deafening whoosh of sound and light and Xena felt herself being drawn up out of the cell and toward something unknown.
"Xena?" Green eyes fluttered open for a split second. "I'm sorry..."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The mud form of a woman lay on a carved, wooden table in the high priest's temple.
"Sire we are almost ready. It is now time to sprinkle the princess's remains
onto the mud."
An urn containing Xena's ashes stood on a nearby table. The king grabbed it and approached the figure that he hoped would soon be his daughter. "How do I do this?"
"First we must ask Isis for her blessing." The priest took a moment to recite an ancient prayer. "Now, simply sprinkle the ashes all over the form." The Pharaohcomplied.
"What now, Asim?"
"Help me wrap the body in cloth. Hurry, we have less than an hour." When they were finished, the king and the priest carried the wrapped figure outside to an area near to the river.
"Now we place a scarab, the symbol of eternal renewal of life, over her heart and wait for Ra to rise in the east and offer his light."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Xena awoke in a great void of warm, white, light. "Where am I?"
A rich, female voice answered her. "You are everywhere and nowhere."
"What's that supposed to mean? Show yourself." Xena shielded her eyes from the intense light. "Who are you?"
"I am light and darkness, the beginning and the end."
"What is this, some kind of riddle?"
"Life is the riddle, child, and the harder you try to solve it, the more complicated it becomes. Some things are not meant to be resolved in a single lifetime."
"Things? What things?"
"The things that trouble you most. They are yours to bear. You carry them and grow."
"I don't think you understand how heavy my burdens are."
"That is why you do not carry them alone."
"I can't ask someone else to carry my burdens."
"Soul mates are forever joined. Their essence is to help one another. The burden shifts from one to the other throughout the ages. Each time you transfer the weight, pieces fall away and the load becomes lighter. Share your troubles, do not keep them all to yourself."
Xena thought about this for a moment. "I don't know if I can do that. I brought those troubles on myself. The people I hurt need to be avenged. My suffering pays that price."
"Foolish child." The admonition had a gentle air. "Vengeance offers no relief. It initially seems sweet, but the aftertaste bringsonly bitterness for all."
"I've seen that first hand." Xena thought about Gabrielle in the Egyptian prison. "I'm afraid I've made a terrible mistake."
"See your future, Xena."
A window opened up in the void before her. The warrior saw an older looking Gabrielle, alive and well, speaking to a large crowd of supportive Romans. She was a senator, the first of her gender, and was responsible for helping to bring peace to a united Empire. Xena felt a rush of pride sweep through her. "I knew she'd be okay." She brushed away a tear that had somehow found its way onto her cheek.
"Look closer, child."
Standing just slightly behind and to Gabrielle's right, Xena saw herself, dressed in the uniform of a Roman general. "What? That can't be. I'm dead."
"Listen to your heart, Xena. Release your guilt and teach what you know. You and the one you call soul mate will be leaders of men."
The same whooshing sound that had precipitated the warrior's journey to this strange place, once again thundered in her ears. Then everything went black.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"Look sire! The scarab on the princess's chest is glowing as Ra's light shines
upon it. In a few moments we shall know if our prayers have been answered."
Xena suddenly became aware of the full weight of her body on a wooden surface. She tried to sit up, but found herself bound by some sort of restraints. As she wiggled to free herself she heard a man's voice.
"Asim! She lives! My daughter has returned to me. Praise Ra!"
"Yes Pharaoh, it is indeed a miracle. Let us remove the cloths." The men set about the task.
"Hey! Watch it, will ya? That tickles!"
"What did she say?" The king looked perplexed.
"I believe we have tickled her, sire."
"Well, then be more careful, Asim."
"Get these damn rags off my face so I can breathe."
"Safiya? It is not customary for you to speak like this to your father." Asim looked alarmed. "Maybe the ritual has damaged her mind in someway."
Xena's arms and legs were now free and the men lifted another piece of cloth to reveal sparkling, blue eyes. She blinked repeatedly as the bright sunlight hit them for the first time in weeks.
"You! You are not the princess!"
"You got that right Pharaoh, and you're definitely not my father."
The warrior princess jumped off the table and proceeded to brush off the rest of the burial cloth. "Now which one of you gentlemen is going to close your mouth and go get me something decent to wear?" Neither man moved. They simply stood staring, slack jawed, at the naked woman before them.
Xena noticed a small pile of clothing on a tree stump behind the king. "Oh. I see I'm going to have to help myself."
She took several steps forward and stood so close to Teremun that he could feel the heat coming from her skin. "What's the matter? Never seen a naked woman before?"
The king continued to stare in disbelief. "You... you... are not my daughter."
"Yeah." Xena absently pushed her way around him and helped herself to the pile of clothes. "I think we've already been over that. The name's Xena." She held a long, white shift up to her chest. "This'll do." The warrior slipped into the dress. It clung to her body like milk to the inside of a glass. Next, she complementedthe ensemble with a large gold neck piece and two bracelets that had been placed next to it on the stump. "There," She exhaled with satisfaction. "Not really my style, but I don't suppose you have anything in short, brown leather out here that isn't still on the cow." Without warning, the warrior leapt into a back flip and landed in front of the king. "Do you?"
Teremun swallowed audibly and cleared his throat. "No."
"I didn't think so. Now, why don't you be a good civil servant and tell me how to get back into your prison. I need to see one of your inmates."
Asim jumped to the king's side. "The prisoners do not receive visitors."
Xena shifted half-lidded blue eyes in the priest's direction. "I wasn't talking to you."
"Who do you think you are? You do not give orders to the Pharaoh!"
A crooked sneer curled Xena's lips. "I'm sorry. I don't think we've been formally introduced." She held out her hand and Asim accepted. The last thing he remembered seeing was a line of brunette bangs rapidly approaching the bridge of his nose. The priest crumbled to the ground at Xena's feet.. "Just call me your worst nightmare. Pleased to meet ya."
She turned her attention back to the king. "Well, Pharaoh. It looks like it's just you and me now. What say we trade favors, hm?"
Teremun, obviously in fear for his own life, nodded slowly.
"Good. I thought you looked like a smart man. It's like this." Xena approached the king and very gently patted his right cheek. "You accompany me to the prison and make sure my friend is okay, and I'll find out what happened to your daughter, and probably let you live. Any questions?"
Teremun again nodded. "Who is your friend?"
"Gabrielle of Potedeia, the Greek girl you condemned to life in prison because you mistakenly believed she killed your son and daughter. You'd better pray that zhen-de root your guards slipped into her water doesn't kill her, or I swear you'll be praying for you own death by the time I'm finished with you. Now, let's go." She grabbed the king's arm and pulled him after her.
Teremun frowned and hesitated for a moment. "Xena. That's the name the prisoner was shouting as she was being lead away. Are you some sort of Greek goddess?" He flashed back to the naked woman who had stood before him just moments ago and thought if she wasn't a goddess, she certainly could be.
"No. The story Gabrielle told you was true. I was killed in battle in Japan and cremated. Your prisoner is my best friend and my spirit has been watching over her ever since. I was with her when she found your son dying in the desert. I was with her when you sentenced her, and I was with her in the prison when your herbs went to work and she lost consciousness. Now, I expect you to help fix this."
Teremun was puzzled by Xena's explanation of death. "You died and your body was desecrated, yet you were able to move around in the afterlife?"
"Yeah. Something like that."
"Look, I don't know exactly how I was able to do it. It's got something to do with the special connection that Gabrielle and I have. That's a connection I don't want to lose, so let's go."
The king looked over his shoulder at the unconscious priest. "What about Asim? I can't just leave him."
"He'll be fine. He should wake up in a few minutes, but if I were you, I wouldn't make any loud noises around him for the next day or two. He's bound to have a doozey of a headache."
As the pair started walking back toward the palace, Xena noticed that Teremun appeared to be deep in thought. Several minutes went by, before he looked at her and spoke. "Xena, I am sorry if I misjudged your friend. I try to be a fair and honest man, but my children have been taken from me and I do not know what to do. When the soldiers found your friendwith the ashes and my son's ring, I thought I could bring at least one of their killers to justice and find some peace in that. Now it turns out my quest for revenge has done nothing but create more pain."
The warrior felt a surge of pity for the man beside her. "Yeah. Well, we all make mistakes, Teremun. I just hope mine." She paused for a second. "I mean, yours, doesn't cost Gabrielle her life." The slip of the tongue wasn't lost on her.
The soldiers guarding the prison entrance stood at attention.
The king nodded. "As you were. This woman needs to see one of the prisoners. Take us to the Greek woman called Gabrielle."
The head guard approached the king and whispered something into his ear. Xena only caught a portion of the king's reply. "Is she still alive?" The guard nodded hesitantly. "Then take us."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
One of the guards Xena had seen earlier in the hallway opened the heavy, wooden
door leading into the cell. Gabrielle lay on the stone bunk in the same position
as she had been earlier that morning. The warrior rushed over and felt for a
pulse. Gratefully, she counted the faint flutters under her fingers and nearly
collapsed from relief. "Fifty. Her pulse is too weak." Xena stood and addressed
the king. "We need to get her to a healer."
"Of course." Teremun nodded and turned to the soldier guarding the cell entrance. "Get three or four men together and carry this woman to the palace. Place her in the queen's bedchamber. I want no expense spared on her comfort. While you are doing that, send someone to get my personal healer."
The guard hesitated for a moment. "The queen's chamber?"
A vein visibly pulsed in the king's right temple as his expression turned sour. "Do I not make myself clear, soldier?"
"Oh. Yes, sire. My apologies." The guard bowed and left the room. He returned a short time later with three companions and a wooden pallet covered in soft blankets. Xena immediately took charge. "Okay. Put the pallet right next to the ledge here, and gently lift her onto it. That's right. Be sure to support her head." She watched carefully as the men did as they were told. Gabrielle didn't move. Xena knelt next to her. "Hey, Gabrielle." She lightly ran her thumb back and forth across top of the bard's hand. "These men are here to help you. You just hang on and everything is going to be all right. Okay?" The king watched the worry crease the warrior's brow. He approached and placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Come. My people will do all they can for her."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
healer worked a paste of roots and herbs with a stone mortar and pestle. She
was an old woman with dark, shriveled skin and long, white hair. Her name, according
to the king was, Anat, and what she lacked in conversation skills, she seemed
to make up for in knowledge of her art. The old woman applied the paste to a
bandage that had been soaking in a solution of warm water, salt and chamomile.
"Here." She handed the dressing to Xena. "Put this around your friend's neck.
Her body will absorb the medicine and it should lessen the toxic effects of
the zhen-de root."
Xena walked across the opulent bedchamber to an enormous bed. She noticed how very small the blonde woman looked lying among the many blankets and pillows. She spoke softly. "It's just me again. How are you holding up?" Xena didn't expect an answer and none came. "I need to put a cloth around your neck. Just relax. This won't hurt." She applied the bandage, then placed a tender kiss on the tip of the bard's nose. "You work on getting better now. I don't want to end up walking around with a ghost for a girlfriend." She laughed half-heartedly at her own joke and patted Gabrielle on the leg. "I have it on good authority that it's no fun." Xena returned to the healer who was sitting at a table on the far side of the room.
"Now we wait."
"That's it? Now we wait? What are the chances she'll recover?"
"It is hard to say, Xena. She consumed a lot of zhen-de. I have seen people live through worse, but it is still too early to tell for sure with Gabrielle. It is a good sign that she made it through the night."
"Have you noticed any changes since she was brought to you?"
"The last time I checked, her pulse seemed a bit stronger, but it is hard to say. I will do my best to bring her back to you, but I am a healer, not a miracle worker."
Xena sat down across the table from the woman and buried her head in her hands. Her temples throbbed from the stress of it all. "I should have never let her drink that water."
Before Anat could respond, a knock on the door interrupted the conversation. The king entered and approached the bed. "How is our patient doing?" He tilted his head sideways to get a better look at the unconscious bard and a pang of regret shot through his chest. The healer joined him by the bedside. "As well as can be expected under the circumstances, sire. We are doing all we can for her."
"When will we know if she will be well again?" He pulled a silk sheet up over the bard's chest.
Anat shrugged her shoulders. "It could be a day. It could be three. I do not believe she will die, but it is still too soon to say whether the zhen-de has damaged her brain."
Xena's eyes opened wide. "Damaged her brain? You mean she might live through this but end up being a vegetable?"
The healer turned to the warrior, sympathy in her voice. "It is a possibility."
The king was quick to reassure. "Your friend is a strong woman, Xena. I am sure everything will be all right. She is welcome to stay here for as long as it takes to recover. I feel terrible about this. Please accept my humblest apologies. I, of all people, know what it is like to lose an innocent loved one."
As much as Xena wanted to be angry, the look of suffering on Teremun's face made the feeling drain away. She knew he had his own pain to bear right now. "It's okay. I know it was a mistake. We all make them from time to time. Gods know I've made my share over the years." She sat down on an elegant, cushioned seat made of ebony wood with ivory inlay and motioned for Teremun to join her. "Now, let's talk about your daughter. You kept your end of our bargain, and now it's my turn. I know time may be of the essence here. What do you know about the rebels who took her?"
The king looked puzzled. "I know nothing about the rebels or the man, Naeem, who leads them."
"How did they get to the princess?"
"They took her in the middle of the night. Her door was locked from the inside and the men who guard it, reported nothing unusual until her chamber was found to be empty the next morning. I believe whoever took her, did so by scaling the palace wall, climbing through her window, and then using a rope to escape with her. They knocked out the guards who patrol the perimeter and simply came in and took her. My men found a length of rope not too far from the base of the building."
"Other than the princess, was anything else taken?"
"No valuables were stolen, if that is what you mean. But, Safiya's handmaiden, Zahra, is gone also."
"Do you think Zahra could have had anything to do with the kidnapping?"
"No. Definitely not. She was Safiya's closest friend. They were like sisters. I believe she must have been a victim of the rebels also."
"The prince said something about the rebels taking Safiya to the old silver mines to the west. Are you familiar with them?"
"Of course. Much of the silver you see around you came from those mines before they were depleted."
"Good. I'm going to need a map of the mine, a company of men, and some horses."
"Anything you wish."
"I'll also need someone to go along who can identify the princess."
"I will go with you."
"No. You have to stay here. We can't run the risk of losing the last living member of the royal family. Is there anybody else? Someone she was close to who can tell me about her?"
"Well, Safiya was very close to Tarik down at the stables. She spent much of her time there with the horses. They shared a love for animals. My daughter was a very gentle soul."
Xena's heart ached for the king's loss. "Don't give up hope yet, Teremun. She may still be alive, and if she is, I intend to bring her back to you. Get me Gabrielle's horse, the soldiers and the stable boy and meet me in front of the palace in an hour. We'll leave from there. Oh, and I'll also need the chakram Gabrielle was carrying with her at the time of her arrest."
"As you wish."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Khepri stamped and whinnied a greeting as Xena approached. The warrior scratched
her under the chin. "It's good to see you again too, girl." She mounted the
horse and took inventory of her small army - about fifty men and one woman in
long robes. "Who's she?"
The king answered. "That is, Mandisa, one of my daughter's servants. She will be able to identify the princess for you."
"What happened to the stable boy?"
"My men could not find him. They went to the home he shares with his mother and she said he had recently left on a journey."
Xena frowned. "Did she say where he was going?"
"No. Just that he had found his true love and had left to start a new life with her."
"All right. We need to get going." The warrior rode to where the servantstood in the sand. "Do you have a horse?"
The young woman stared at the ground and replied shyly, "I do not ride." She heard Xena mumble something unintelligible under her breath, then noticed a long arm extended in her direction.
"Take my hand and get on behind me."
The woman did as she was told.
"Okay, Mandisa, this isn't the best way to learn to ride a horse, but I suggest you pick it up quickly. If you don't, it's going to be an awfully long trip. The trick is to become one with the horse. Now hold on around my waist."
The young servantgingerly slid her arms around the larger woman's center. Xena patted the hands that now rested on her stomach. "Good, now don't let go." She steered Khepri back over to Teremun. "I assume the soldiers have been briefed?"
The king nodded. "They know they are to take you to the mines and follow your orders. On the way back, several of them have also been instructed to retrieve my son's body and return it to me."
"I'd be happy to help them with that."
"No. You must get back to your friend. There is nothing more that you can do for Prince Jabari. The men can handle it."
Xena hesitated for a moment and looked at the sky. "Teremun, while I'm gone, could you..."
The king cut her off before she could finish the request.
"Iwill treat her as if she were my own daughter, Xena. Do not worry about Gabrielle."
The warrior reached down and shook Teremun's hand. "Thank you."
She turned and motioned to the soldiers behind her, then spurred Khepri forward. "Let's go!"
The warrior felt Mandisa's grip tighten around her stomach as the young woman struggled to hang on. She wondered to herself if the servantwould have any teeth left by the time they stopped.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
As the sun began to set, the group made camp in the middle of the desert. They
were still about half a day's ride from the mines and had decided a good night's
sleep would do everyone some good. Xena dismounted and reached up to help Mandisa
do the same. The smaller woman nearly fell to the ground. "Whoops! Hang on there."
The warrior grabbed the servantunder the arms and
hauled her back to her feet. Their eyes met and Xena disappeared for a moment
into two lovely pools of green. Mandisa's voice snapped her back into the moment.
"Xena? Excuse me. I think I am all right now."
"Oh. Sure. Sorry." The warrior let go of the woman.
"Is everything okay?"
"Yeah. Fine. You just reminded me of somebody for a minute there." She desperately wanted to change the subject. "So, how's the riding coming. You seemed to be moving with the horse a little bit more toward the end."
"Yes. Thank you. It is really a matter of self-preservation at this point. I can barely stand the pressure of sitting after bouncing around so much for the first part of the journey."
"Sorry about the rough ride. You're definitely learning how to do it the hard way. Why did the king send you anyway?" Xena removed a bedroll from Khepri's saddlebag and spread it out near the fire a couple of the men had made.
"I believe the king sent me because I volunteered to go."
"Why did you do that? Didn't you know it would be dangerous? The rebels don't seem to have any qualms about eliminating anyone who gets in their way."
Mandisa eased down onto the bedroll. Xena sat next to her. "I am not afraid to die for the princess. She has always treated me as a friend rather than a servant, and I owe my happiness and well being to her kindness."
The firelight cast a warm glow on the young woman's face and Xena had to look away, choosing instead to concentrated on her own hands.
"Do you know of anyonewho would want to hurt the princess?"
"No. Absolutely not. Everyoneloves her."
"What about Zahra, her handmaiden?"
"Zahra?" Mandisa laughed. "You must be kidding. She and Princess Safiya are the best of friends, more like sisters really. I was very sorry to hear they had both been taken."
"What about Tarik, the stable boy? What do you know about him?"
Mandisa hesitated for a moment. "I know that the princess likes him very much."
Xena got the feeling there was much more to the story. She caught and held the youngservant'sgaze. "How much?"
It was now the younger woman's turn to look away. "I do not know."
"Come on, Mandisa. You're not doing the princess any favors by withholding information that could help me find her."
Mandisa fiddled nervously with her robes. "I really do not think Safiya's relationship with Tarik has anything to do with her disappearance. He loves her very much and would do nothing to harm her."
"Even if he knew she was going to marry someone else?"
"He has always know that Safiya would marry her brother when she came of age. That is the way things are done here."
Xena leaned closer to the woman. "Or maybe Tarik thought if he can't have the princess, nobody can and he helped the rebels kidnap her. Don't you think it's a little strange that he disappeared with his 'true love' the same day Safiya was taken?"
"No." Mandisa rapidly shook her head. "He would not do such a thing."
"Oh. You'd be surprised what people will do for love. I guess we'll find out soon enough what part, if any, Tarik played in this mess. But right now, what do you say we try to get some sleep?" Xena had a feeling tomorrow was going to be a long day."
Mandisa stretched out on the warrior's bedroll. "That sounds like the best suggestion I have heard all day. Good night, Xena." The young woman rolled over and wedged a folded blanked under her head. She fell asleep almost instantly.
"Wait.. I..." Xena was about to ask Mandisa why she didn't sleep on her own bedroll when it dawned on her that it was probably because she didn't have one. Each horse had been packed with enough equipment for just one rider.
The warrior looked around for material to put together a makeshift bed of her own. The best that she could come up with was one of the blankets under Khepri's saddle. She shook as much of the hair out of it as she could and spread it on the ground. A small mound of sand under the top part, served as a pillow. "Well, it's not mom's old feather bed, that's for sure, but it'll have to do." Xena stretched out under the stars and began to drift off, worrying about her favorite green-eyed girl at the palace. "Goodnight, Gabrielle."
"What?" The warrior sat bolt upright, her heart hammering violently in her chest. "Gabrielle?"
"Gabrielle!" This time she said it a bit louder and one of the soldiers sleeping a few yards away, groaned and rolled over. Still no response.
The light of the almost full moon cast a whitish blue tint over the entire campsite. Xena scanned the area for movement, but saw only soldiers and horses sleeping. She lay back down and let out a long sigh.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Sunrise came in a blaze of heat. Xena awoke to find Mandisa already hard at
work, preparing breakfast for fifty. "You cook!"
The young woman used the back of her hand to wipe the sweat from her brow as she continued to prepare the flat breads"Yes. It is a woman's duty. Do you not cook?"
"Only if I absolutely have to. My partner does most of the cooking." Xena bent down and helped dole out the rations to the soldiers.
"Your partner? Is that the crazy woman from the prison?"
"She's not crazy. The king slipped her some zhen-de root and it sent her on a drug- induced tirade. Right now she's being treated by Teremun's healer."
Xena took some flat breadfor herself and walked away, clearly wanting to end the conversation.
When she finished her breakfast, the warrior addressed the soldiers. "Okay men, listen up! The maps show that this silver mine has two entrances, one to the east and one to the west. I want the thirty best hand-to-hand combat fighters to enter the east entrance with me. The rest of you, including the archers, wait down the hill on the west side and pick the bad guys off as we flush 'em out. This shouldn't be too difficult. The vein of silver running through the area was in a pretty straight line, so there is only one main tunnel and a handful off to either side. I suspect the rebels' hideout is near the middle of the main tunnel where it widens a bit. There's a shaft to the surface there that would provide some fresh air and light. Any questions?"
A soldier to Xena's right raised his hand. "Yes. I have a question." Something about the man seemed familiar to the warrior, but she couldn't place what it was.
"Why not just throw some explosives down the shaft and wait for the rebels to come running out?"
Before she could answer the man's question, the soldier sitting next to him punched him in the arm and replied for her. "Do not be stupid, Pamiu! The princess may be in there with them."
Pamiu! Suddenly Xena made the connection. This was the man who'd attacked Gabrielle on the ship. It took every ounce of self-control she had to keep from lunging in his direction and throttling him. The warrior figured that could come later.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"That's odd." Xena surveyed the east entrance to the mine. "There's nobody guarding
She motioned for her small army to join her. "Something's not right here. Fadil!" She called for the highest-ranking officer in the group. He stepped forward. "How long has this mine been inactive?"
"For about two years now."
"More than enough time to turn it into a death trap." She said it more to herself than anyone in particular.
The soldier looked confused. "A what?"
"A death trap. I'll bet our rebel friends have been busy booby-trapping the entrances, so they don't have to get their hands dirty fighting unwelcome guests like us... Watch." Xena walked about twenty steps into the mouth of the mine and looked around for a moment before pointing to the ground. "See this?" She tapped a loose board with her toe and hit the deck just before six, long spears shot out of the wall at head and chest level. "I'm guessing that's just the first of many nasty surprises in these tunnels." The warrior stood and brushed herself off.
Fadil walked into the mine and cautiously touched the tips of the spears. "What do we do now?"
"Yes. As far as we know, there are only two ways into this place other than the airshaft and both of those entrances are out of the question. That leaves only one option. Fadil, take Pamiu and get some rope, then meet me at the top of the mountain. We're going to have to rappel in."
Fadil looked around. "Pamiu is not here."
"What do you mean, he's not here? I just saw him a minute ago. He was standing outside when I walked into the mine."
"He said he had to do something and ran down the side of the mountain. Do you want me to find him?"
An icy grin curled Xena's lips. "No. Allow me. I've been wanting to do some snake hunting. Gather as many men as you can and meet me at the bottom of the air shaft in half an hour."
"Yes ma'am." Fadil bowed and motioned for the rest of the men to follow him up the mountain.
Xena went in the opposite direction, following Pamiu's tracks. They ended behind a bush near a sheer rock wall. She noticed the earth had been slightly disturbed along its base. A quick exploration of the rock's surface revealed a hidden entrance.
The warrior made sure no one was following and eased her way around a rock and into a long, narrow corridor. She could hear footsteps in the distance and followed silently. The deeper into the cave she went, the cooler and damper it got. A chill began to creep up her spine. The sound of footsteps suddenly stopped and Xena heard what sounded like whispering. As she peeked around a corner, in the dim torchlight she saw Pamiu talking to the man with whom he'd been bunking on the ship. She couldn't make out what either one was saying, but watched the unidentified man give Pamiu some money, pat him heartily on the back, then turn and walk deeper into the mine.
Apparently finished with his errand, Pamiu turned to leave. His face went white when he rounded the corner and came face to face with the warrior princess.
"You're just an all around charmer, aren't ya, Pamiu?" She brushed some nonexistent fuzz from his shoulder.
"I do not know what you are talking about."
"Oh. Come now. Don't be so modest. Here you are, a spy in the king's army, AND I have it on very good authority that you're quite the ladies' man too."
"Yes, so? What do you care?" He puffed out his chest in defiance.
The warrior's eyes turned to cold steel and she grabbed the man by his throat.
"What do I care? One of the ladies you tried to manhandle happens to be my best friend, and because of you and your rebel buddies, she was wrongly imprisoned and could die because of it."
"Take your hands off of me! I do not know what you are talking about."
"No? Well, maybe this will refresh your memory." She slammed her free hand into the man's crotch and grabbed the first thing she could find. Pamiu's legs went weak and he fell to his knees. "And if that's doesn't remind you, how 'bout this?"
Before the soldier knew what hit him, he was being informed that the flow of blood to his brain had been cut off and that he had thirty seconds to live.
"Ringing any bells, yet?"
Pamiu vigorously shook his head in the affirmative.
"Good. Somehow I thought it would." Xena casually circled the man kneeling at her feet. "Now that we've cleared that up, I need some information about your rebel friends."
She bent down on one knee and put her face within inches of Pamiu's own. "How much did you tell them about our plan?"
The soldier tried to reply, but could only choke on his own blood.
"What's that? Could you speak up a bit?" Xena put her ear closer to his mouth and began to count. "Twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight..."
Pamiu's eyes widened in horror.
"Twenty-nine." Xena's hands shot toward the man's neck and she released the pinch. Her victim greedily gulped for air.
"Y...yes." He rubbed his throat.
"Good. Now, why don't you tell me why you sold out your fellow soldiers?"
"I run errands to the east for the king. Sometimes, while I am there, I pick up supplies for Naeem and they pay me for it. I also help keep an eye on Teremun."
"Somehow I don't think that's the kind of guarding the king's paying you to do. Who is this notorious Naeem?"
"He is my brother."
"Your brother! Who was the man you were just talking to? The one who was with you on the ship."
"That was my other brother, Bakari."
"How many brothers do you have?"
The warrior put her hands on her hips. "Let me guess, you're all involved in the rebel cause."
"Yes, of course." Anger darkened Pamiu's face. "Teremun must pay for what he did to our village." "What could be so bad that you'd take a man's daughter and kill her?"
"We have not killed her yet."
"You mean she's still alive? Take me to her!"
"No. She will die today and the king will feel what it is like to lose everyone he loves." A distant pain flashed in Pamiu's eyes. "When my brothers and I were boys, Teremun's father died and he ascended the throne. He was young and weak and wanted to assert his authority. One of his first official acts was to issue a decree ordering the immediate payment of all outstanding taxes. The collectors came to our village, but we had nothing. A plague of locusts during the growing season had wiped us out. We had barely enough money to buy food from other villages. But, the tax collectors were not moved by our pleas and they took everything. My mother and baby sister starved that year. Since then, my brothers and I have vowed to avenge their deaths, and today it will finally come to pass. They are probably lighting the funeral pyre as we speak."
"Take me to them."
"As you wish, Xena, but there is nothing you can do. You are only one woman."
Xena raised a dark eyebrow and slapped Pamiu in the middle of the back like an old friend. "You know, you're probably right. But I'd really like to see Safiya's death for myself so I can take the information back to the king. After all, you could be bluffing."
"I assure you. This is no bluff. I wish I could be there to see the look of anguish in Teremun's eyes when you tell him his daughter is dead. Be sure to include details about how she suffered and cried out for mercy."
"Don't worry. I'll tell him all about the cries I hear for mercy today."
Pamiu lead Xena deeper into the mine. "We are almost there."
The tunnel opened into a large room with the makings of a funeral pyre in its center. A woman on top struggled to free herself from the ropes that had been tied around her wrists and ankles. Three-dozen rebels circled the room's perimeter. One of them, a mountain of a man, greeted Pamiu with a rough hug. "Little brother! What news do you bring?"
Xena answered for him. "Bad news." The look on her face suggested she'd just come across something foul.
The warrior looked into the overhead airshaft. "Now!"
The king's soldiers began to rappel in. Xena turned her attention back to the princess just as Naeem was bending to light the pyre. "Ah, ah, ah. Didn't your mother ever tell you not to play with fire?" She flipped over a skirmish going on between a group of soldiers and several rebels and landed on the torch's handle, pinning it to the ground. Naeem stared at her with contempt.
"My mother is dead and now the king's little bitch is going to pay for it." The back of a large hand caught Xena across the mouth and she fell backward to the ground. The warrior very deliberately licked the blood from her lip as she stood to face the rebel leader. "If you're not careful, you're going to make me angry, and trust me, you don't want that."
"You do not think I am afraid of a woman?" He laughed in her face, not noticing the muscle flexing in her jaw.
"Come here, Naeem. I'm gonna let you in on a little secret."
The rebel leader tilted the side of his head toward the slightly shorter brunette. Moving intimately close, she whispered, "You should be," and pulled away with a large chunk of bloody ear between her teeth.
Naeem howled in pain. "Demon! I will kill you!" He drew his sword and lunged forward. Xena easily parried to the left and hit the man on the back of the head with the hilt of her own sword. He fell to the floor in an unconscious heap.
Xena looked at her opponent with surprise. "That was easier than I thought it would be." She turned her attention to the fighting going on around her. The king's soldiers seemed to be holding their own, so she decided to divert her efforts to rescuing the princess who continued to struggle atop the unlit pyre. The warrior was about to start the short climb to the top of the small mountain of wood, when Pamiu's brother from the ship stepped in front of her.
"What do you think you are doing?"
"I thought I'd climb up there, rescue the princess, then take my toys and go home."
"I do not thing so." He pulled a samurai sword from the scabbard on his back.
Xena inhaled sharply and felt an unexpected surge of fear. The man offered a cocky grin. "Do you like it? I bought it on a recent trip to Japan. I am told it was used to behead a great warrior. Do you care to be the second?"
"Frankly, I didn't even care to be the first."
She felt her courage slowly starting to return, and lifted her sword. "Come on. Let's see if you know how to use that thing."
Bakari raised the katana above his head and slashed awkwardly at the space Xena quickly vacated. She was becoming more confident with each passing moment. "I see they didn't sell you an instruction booklet with that thing. Or did they, and you're just too stupid to read it?"
The man lunged at her in a fit of rage. Again, she easily moved out of the way. She was playing with him, and he knew it. Bakari pulled another sword from his belt and began to swing wilding with both hands. Xena launched into a flip over his head with the intention of landing behind him and putting him out of his misery. Her trip didn't go quite as planned. In mid-spin, she felt cold steel slice through her left shoulder. Images of her woodland fight in Higuchi exploded in her brain and a lifetime of pain and death flooded through her. The warrior landed on her back with a dull thump.
Bakari seized the opportunity and stood over her, sword at her throat, a mocking sneer on his lips. "Do you still think I am stupid, woman?"
Xena's shoulder throbbed. She noticed Fadil quietly approaching the rebel from behind. She didn't answer his question until the point of the soldier's sword poked through the front of Bakari's chest. "Apparently stupid enough to turn your back on a room full of your enemies." She moved the sword away from her throat and rolled out of the way as Bakari fell forward.
Xena looked around. Most of the rebels were either dead or unconscious. The others had been neatly tied up and herded into a corner.
"Well," the warrior groaned as Fadil helped her to her feet. "It looks like our work here is almost done. Why don't you gather up Naeem and the rest of these guys who still have a pulse so we can be on our way. I'll climb up there and get the princess."
Fadil looked concerned. "But your shoulder... that injury looks serious. You are losing blood."
Xena looked down and noticed the red stain spreading across her shirt. "That old thing? That's just a flesh wound." A sudden wave of dizziness forced her to reach out to the officer for support.
"I think that is more than a flesh wound, Xena." Fadil took control of the situation.
"Akil! Chisisi! Give me your shirts!" The soldiers quickly obeyed. "The rest of you, tie up the remaining prisoners."
The officer cut away the blood-stained portion of Xena's uniform to reveal a good sized gash that ran from her collarbone to the curve of her shoulder. He applied pressure to the wound as she struggled to stand. "Rest for a moment. We must stop the bleeding. A wound this severe requires sutures, but we have none out here."
The warrior spoke through clenched teeth. "Cauterize it."
"But we have no fire."
Xena tilted her head in the direction of the pyre. "If that pile of wood isn't a fire waiting to happen, I don't know what is."
Fadil nodded. He noticed that the princess had been rescued and was now clinging needily to the soldier who had liberated her. "Put the dead bodies on the pyre and ignite it."
Four men picked up torches and went about the task. The officer placed his sword into the base of the fire and waited for it to heat up. He turned back to Xena. "I am sorry, but I have no herbs to give you to ease the pain this will produce."
Xena shifted uncomfortably onto her right elbow. "It's okay. I've had worse, trust me."
"All right." Fadil exhaled nervously and retrieved the sword from the fire. "Yazid! Come here!" A young soldier hurried over. "Give Xena your hand." He turned to the warrior. "Squeeze Yazid's hand to help take your mind off of the pain." Fadil firmly pressed the hot sword into the wound, sealing it to stop the bleeding. Two screams accompanied the action - Xena's and Yazid's, as his hand was crushed in hers.
The warrior took long, deep breaths to keep from passing out, and after what seemed to Fadil to be a ridiculously short recovery period, stood up and addressed the soldiers. "Okay. Gather the prisoners and let's get out of here. I need to get back to the palace as quickly as possible."
The princess untangled herself from the soldier who'd saved her and shyly approached Xena. Long, white robes and a veil covered her body and face. "I saw what you and the men did to save me. Thank you."
"Yeah. Well, I had a favor I needed to repay. I'm sure your father is going to be very happy to see you again."
The princess looked at the ground. "There is something I need to talk to you about."
"It can wait. Right now we need to go." The warrior turned to leave and winced at the pain in her wounded shoulder. "Fadil, there's a passage over there to the left. It'll bring you out on the side of the mountain." She waived him on. "Go ahead. I'll bring up the rear."
Xena waited until everyone had left, then walked to the blood-soaked spot on the ground where Bakari had fallen. The katana lay just to the right. The warrior looked at it for a long moment. She knelt down and ran a finger over the flat side of the blade. Her own blood still stained its edge. "You got me again, you bastard." She forced a laugh and picked up the sword, twirling it repeatedly with her good arm. "But now you're mine."
saw the princess coming down the hill and ran to greet her. "Your highness,
I am so relieved to see you. Here, allow me to help you with your veil. I am
eager to see your smile again." The princess started to protest, but it was
too late. Mandisa had already uncovered her face.
"Zahra!" She was obviously surprised. "Where is the princess?"
By this time, Xena had caught up to the group and overheard the conversation.
"You mean to tell me this isn't the princess?"
"No! This is Zahra, her handmaiden."
The young woman looked pleadingly at Xena. "Please understand. I tried to tell you in the mine, but you said you had no time. I did not know what to do."
"You can start by telling me what's going on. Why did those men believe you're the princess, and where's the real deal?"
"It happened very quickly, but this is what I know. On the eve of Safiya's marriage to her brother, Prince Jabari, she ran away with her true love, Turik. She asked me to help her do this by pretending to be her that night. I was happy to do so, since Safiya has always been very good to me and my family. I would give my own life for her without hesitation."
"How did she get out of the palace without being seen?"
"Oh. That was easy. She went to the stables to ride with Tarik and never returned. I put on her clothing, covered my face and entered her room that evening. The guards at the door believed I was the princess, just as you did in the mine. Then, as I slept that night, I heard a noise in the room. Two men had used a rope to climb in through the window. I had never seen either of them before, but later learned they were brothers to one of the king's soldiers. They kept calling me princess and telling me I was going to pay off my father's long overdue debt. I still do not know what they meant by that. It was obvious to me that the real princess was in a great deal of danger, so I continued with my ruse and figured that my death may be the price I needed to pay for Safiya's life."
Xena was impressed by the young woman's loyalty to her mistress, but annoyed that her half of the bargain with the king still remained unfulfilled.
"Zahra, where is Safiya now?"
"Do not worry. She is perfectly safe with Tarik. They were planning to go stay with some of his family members near the great pyramids."
"You're sure the rebels don't know where she is?"
"I am very sure. They think she is standing in front of you right now."
"Okay. Good. Fadil!" The warrior waved for the officer to join them. He arrived in short order. "Fadil. Listen. I need to ride ahead to the palace with Zhara. Can you take care of getting Mandisa and the prisoners back on your own?"
"Yes... but." He looked confused. "Zahra? Where did she come from?"
"Look, I don't have time to explain it right now. The rebels took her thinking she was Safiya."
"Then where is the real princess?"
"She ran off with Tarik, but is safe. Hopefully she'll be back at the palace in a few days."
"That is wonderful news. Go. Ride ahead. My men and I can take care of everything here."
"Thank you. I'll see you back at the palace tomorrow."
On her way to saddle Khepri, Xena walked past Pamiu. His hands and feet had been bound to keep him from fleeing.
"Bitch!" He exuded contempt.
The warrior turned to face him. "You know, Pamiu, I feel sorry for you."
"I do not want your pity!" He spat in her direction, but missed.
The attempted assault didn't seem to phase her. "Your hatred is leading you over a very steep cliff and I suggest you turn around before it's too late. I've seen men much stronger than you destroyed by their never ending quests for vengeance."
Xena turned her back on the prisoner and walked away.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
king was waiting in his chamber when Xena and Zahra arrived later that night.
"What news do you bring? Zahra! It is good to see you again." He looked around
eagerly. "Is my daughter with you?"
Zahra bowed, then burst into tears and ran out of the room.
"What is the matter with her? Where is Safiya?" Concern etched Teremun's face.
"Well, there's good news and bad news. The good news is, Safiya's alive."
The king's expression changed to one of pure joy. "My daughter is alive? My daughter is alive! I saw Zahra and hoped... but I was not sure." He wrapped the warrior princess in a warm hug. "How can I ever repay you, Xena?"
"Not so fast. You haven't heard the bad news yet."
"Yes, of course. What is it?"
"Safiya's run off with Tarik. Zahra says they're staying with some of his relatives near the great pyramids."
"But why would she leave and not tell me?" He looked hurt and confused.
"Apparently she's in love with Tarik, and wasn't too keen on the idea of marrying her brother."
"But that is the way things are done here. She knows that. Marrying the prince is necessary to continue the family's ruling power."
"Perhaps she was more interested in finding happiness in love than in power."
"It is a moot point now. My poor son is gone. If Safiya chooses to marry Tarik, I will give my blessing. He is a good man, and right now all I care about is bringing what is left of my family back together. I will ride out in the morning to search for them. Do you and Gabrielle care to join me?"
Xena released a breath she felt like she'd been holding all week. "She made it?"
The king beamed. "Yes. She made it. She is doing very well, but we have told her nothing of your resurrection and journey. Anat thought it would be best not to worry her. Would you like to see her? I'm sure she would be very happy to see..."
Xena was already out the door.
"...you." The king laughed to himself and shook his head. "I will take that as a yes."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Xena slowly opened the door to the queen's bedchamber. It was dark outside and
a dozen candles and oil lamps cast a golden glow about the room. The bard lay
sleeping on her belly in the middle of the giant bed, her bare back exposed.
Xena sat down on the edge and, for a long time, simply watched her lover sleep.
She noticed that Gabrielle's cheeks weren't as drawn as they had been when she'd
left. A tray of half eaten fruits and bread on a nearby table served at testament
to the fact that the bard's monstrous appetite was returning.
Xena reached out and began to trace the dragon tattoo on her lover's back. She'd gotten half way around its belly when Gabrielle moaned quietly and rolled over. The lamp light cast soft shadows across her bare chest. Xena continued to explore the surface of her partner's skin, drawing invisible lines along the rippled curves of her stomach. A small smile crinkled Gabrielle's lips and she let out a contented sigh. The warrior bent down and took a small, pink nipple into her mouth. She lovingly traced its outline with her tongue. Through her lips, she could feel her lover's heart beat begin to accelerate. Another moan, and Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open. "Xena?"
"Xena!" The bard sat up. "You're here!"
"And so are you."
Gabrielle threw her arms around the warrior's neck. The action sent a pain shooting into her wounded shoulder, but she didn't let on. "Gods, Xena. I am so glad to see you! I was afraid that terrible rant in the prison had made you disappear forever." She squeezed the taller woman even tighter. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean any of it. I don't hate you, Xena. You're the best thing in my life. I don't know why I said those awful things."
Xena returned the embrace. "It's okay. You said those things because that's what you were feeling at the time, and I suspect for some time before that. It all needed to be said, and most of it was true. The zhen-de root the guards slipped you just brought down the barriers that would have normally kept it all inside you. Sometimes a good purging of the soul goes a long way toward making a fresh start."
Gabrielle pulled out of the hug and looked into her partner's eyes. "Please don't ever leave me, Xena. I was so worried... I don't know what I'd do without you." She was struggling not to weep.
"Hey." The warrior tenderly cupped Gabrielle's cheek in her hand. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Can you promise me that? No matter what?"
"I promise. No matter what. Here," Xena reached onto the plate of fruit and retrieved a bunch of grapes. She popped one into her own mouth and offered the rest to Gabrielle. "Have something to eat. That always makes you feel better."
The bard simply stared in disbelief.
"Since when can you pick things up? And I didn't think ghosts could eat."
"Then how...?" Gabrielle could feel herself beginning to shake with emotion.
"The king and his high priest found a way to resurrect the dead using Nile mud and the ashes of the deceased. They thought they were bringing back the princess, but got me instead." The warrior shrugged her shoulders and flashed her most endearing smile. "And here I am."
Before Xena knew what had hit her, she was on her back with a plucky blonde woman on top of her who seemed intent on sharing a kiss. Gabrielle stopped just before she hit her mark. "What happened to your lip?"
"Your bottom lip. It looks swollen."
"Ah. That's just a little something I picked up on my quest to rescue the princess. It nicely complements the large gash in my shoulder."
Gabrielle immediately shifted her weight off of her companion and pulled back her shirt to reveal the wound.
"My god, Xena! What happened?"
"I had a bit of a run in with a samurai sword wielding rebel."
"Maybe the next time you see one of those things you should run in the opposite direction."
"Unfortunately, that wasn't an option this time. The princess was on top of a soon to be lit funeral pyre and I needed to get through samurai guy to save her."
"Is the princess all right?"
"I wanted to talk to you about that. Are you still interested in seeing those pyramids?"
"I thought you'd never ask!"
Xena sat back and filled Gabrielle in on the events of the past couple of days.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Gabrielle lay on the bed, dumbstruck. "You mean to tell me all that happened
while I was unconscious?"
The warrior nodded her head matter-of-factly. "Pretty much, yeah."
"Gee. That's the last time I pass out for three days." The bard cocked her head and frowned. "Xena, where did you go when you disappeared that last night in the prison?"
"You know, it's funny, but I don't remember. I just recall when I woke up in my body I felt different."
"Different...better....lighter. Like a heavy burden had been lifted off my back. It's hard to explain."
"Tell you what. Why don't you get out of those clothes, crawl under the covers and think about it for a few minutes. I'm going to go into Anat's bag of tricks and find something for that shoulder of yours." The bard wrapped a piece of green silk around her waist and padded over to the table where the healer kept her various herbal concoctions. She poured some water into a basin and moistened a bandage. On it, she put a combination of salt-water solution and tea tree oil before returning to the warrior who now lay spread across the bed.
"I see your resurrection did nothing to cure you of that bed-hogging habit. Here, put this on your shoulder." She gingerly pressed the bandage against the wound. "How's that?"
"It burns like hades, but I'll live. Come here..." With her good arm, Xena pulled the bard down next to her on the bed. "I really missed you, you know. I wasn't sure you were going to be here when I got back. And even if you did pull through, they told me you might be a vegetable."
Gabrielle looked seriously at her partner. "I sure hope I wouldn't have ended up a brussel sprout. I know how you hate those things."
In a flash Xena had flipped the bard onto her back and was blowing raspberries on her stomach. "You, my friend, are one sick puppy." Gabrielle squirmed to get away, but was laughing so hard she could barely move. "St... stop it!" She swatted at the back of Xena's head. "Xena!" More laughing. "C'mon. That tickles."
The warrior's head popped up, a look of innocent surprise on her face. "Well, why didn't you say so! I would have stopped and done this instead." She lunged for the bard's neck and continued her raspberry harvest there. More giggling as Gabrielle scrunched Xena's face between her jaw and shoulder. "Come on!" She was laughing so hard that tears ran down her face. Finally, the warrior came up for air. "Sheesh! There's just no pleasing some women." She grinned playfully.
"You want to please me?" Gabrielle's voice dripped with mischief. "Then I suggest you start a little slower. Allow me to demonstrate." She deftly flipped the warrior onto her back. "Now, just relax." The blonde removed her makeshift skirt and straddled her lover's stomach. "You might want to start with something like this." She positioned Xena's arms over her head, being careful not to further injure her shoulder. "I suggest you hold onto those draperies hanging along the headboard. There. Comfy?"
"Good. Now, what I would do to please my woman is something like this." She fell forward so that their bare chests were barely touching and stroked Xena's palms with her middle fingers. She proceeded to run her hands the length of the warrior's arms and down her sides. She whispered into her lover's ear. "Relaxed?"
"I don't know if I'd call it that, but I am enjoying your demonstration."
"Good, because it's time for step two."
"Yes. I find that once you're in this position, both the ears and neck are readily accessible. Sappho says they're two of the most sensitive spots on a woman's body."
"You don't say."
"As a matter of fact, for some women, just having someone whispering in their ear like this is a big turn on."
Xena closed her eyes and felt the heat of Gabrielle's breath radiate through her body.
"Oh, yes. And sometimes, if you add a little something extra, it can be even more exciting." She traced the outer crease of the warrior's ear with her tongue. Xena pressed her head back into the pillow and did her best not to squirm as she became increasingly aware of the warm body on top of her own. She turned her head slightly and felt Gabrielle's eyelashes brush against her cheek. Her pulse began to race and she swallowed audibly. "I can see where something like that would be effective."
"I'm glad I'm getting through to you." Gabrielle bit her lower lip and smiled seductively. "On to step three... the torso." The bard slid down her partner's long body. Xena lifted her head. "Can't we just say I'm an advanced student and move right to step four?"
Gabrielle traveled back to the taller woman's ear. "Patience is a virtue. Just relax."
Xena whispered back, "You're not making that easy."
Gabrielle took the warrior's lower lip between her own and sucked gently. "Good." She ran her tongue from Xena's collarbone to her navel. Goosebumps rose to greet her. "Now where was I?"
"Oh, yes. Step three. There are any number of ways to handle the torso. My personal preference is to start at the top and work down, like so..." She planted small kisses across the top of her lover's chest while running her hands lightly up and down Xena's sides. "I find this action to be very soothing."
Xena exhaled contentedly. "Mmm. Hmm."
"It's important that you don't accidentally lull your woman to sleep before the exercise is over."
"Don't worry. Sleep wasn't on my immediate agen.."
Gabrielle bent down and seized one of her lover's nipples in her mouth. "...da."
The taller woman opened her eyes and exhaled as electricity shot through her body. The blonde gently tugged on one nipple with her mouth while working the other between her thumb and index finger. Xena swallowed a groan and she found it increasingly difficult to get enough oxygen into her lungs. "Gabrielle, maybe we should..."
"Shhh. I'm right in the middle of step three."
"I know, but I thought maybe we could..."
"Stop thinking and just feel." She stretched the length of her body on top of Xena's and gave her a long, deep kiss. The warrior wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and pulled her as close to her as she could. "Gods, Gabrielle. I wish I could be inside you. Sometimes I feel like I can't get close enough."
"Mmm. Me too." The intensity of the kiss continued to build and Xena found herself thinking about their first time at that old inn near Thebes. It was several months after she had died at Niklio's hut and was later brought back to life with the ambrosia. After a long day of travel, Gabrielle had very innocently crawled into Xena's bed to kiss her goodnight. That first kiss turned into another, then another, and the duo had never looked back.
The warrior was snapped back to the present by the sensation of hair moving down her stomach. "Gabrielle, what are you...?"
"Shhh." She nibbled her way down past Xena's belly button and stopped just below her hipbone, lightly running her lips over the velvet skin there. "You know, Xena, this is my favorite part of a woman's body. Right here, where the top of the leg meets the hip." She spoke into her lover's skin. "It's so soft." She allowed her lips to linger there a few moments longer, feeling the heat of the warrior's blood coursing through an artery just under the skin. Her own pulse quickened in response. "And the great thing about this spot is..." Gabrielle looked at Xena hungrily and purred the words. "It's located so conveniently close to....step four."
The bard's next move compelled Xena to throw her head back and grab for the curtains at the top of the bed.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Gabrielle awoke to sun streaming across the bed. Xena was still fast asleep,
her arm draped lazily across the bard's belly. Gabrielle rolled to face her
lover. It struck her how wonderfully innocent Xena looked in slumber, all the
cares and pain of her life erased from her face. She always found it hard to
believe that this was the same woman who years ago had killed so many innocents.
So much had changed since then.
Gabrielle planted a small trail of kisses across Xena's right eyebrow and down her cheek.
"Hmmm?" The warrior stirred and pulled her lover to her chest. "Morning." Sleep still clung to her vocal chords. She kissed Gabrielle's temple. "How did you sleep?"
"Restfully, for the first time since I got here. It's amazing what having you beside me does for my relaxation level. How 'bout you?"
"Great..." The warrior stretched her six foot frame and smiled. "...thanks to our little workout last night. How 'bout a rematch?" She rolled on top of the smaller woman, who feigned exasperation.
"Xena! You're insatiable."
"Only when I find something I really like." She winked an eye made all the bluer by the bright morning sunlight.
"I'll take that as a compliment."
"As well you should. Now, how 'bout that rematch?"
The bard ran her fingers lightly over Xena's back. "You know, there's nothing I'd enjoy more, but aren't we supposed to help the king find princess Safiya this morning?"
Xena lifted herself into an upright position, her knees on either side of Gabrielle's hips. The pouty look on her face resembled that of a small child who'd just been told, "No."
"Yeah. I suppose duty calls." The warrior peeled back the covers and got up. She rotated her wounded shoulder a few times. "Hey, whatever you put on this last night seems to have helped. It feels better."
Gabrielle eased herself out of the bed and kissed the top of Xena's arm. "It's amazing what a few good herbs, mixed with some tender loving care can do."
"Thank you, doctor."
From behind, the bard wrapped her arms around her lover. "I'll let you in on a little secret." She whispered into the taller woman's ear. "I'm not really a doctor, but sometimes I play one in bed."
"Well, with expertise like that, you're welcome to practice in this patient's bed anytime."
The warrior walked into a small dressing area off the main bedchamber and spotted
two outfits. She assumed hers to be the short, brown leather number, which was
much like her old uniform, minus the custom fitted armor. A quick inspection
revealed that the other pile consisted of a rust brown skirt and an ugly green
halter-top that laced up the front. Xena slipped into her clothing and reappeared
in the bedchamber.
Gabrielle looked at her approvingly. "Hey! Not bad. Just like old times, huh?"
"Yeah. Wait till you see what they have waiting for you."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Xena and Gabrielle had been given instructions to meet Teremun at the home of
Tarik's mother. It was a small, modest dwelling not far from the stables where
her son worked. A regal looking Arabian stood tethered outside, indicating that
the king had already arrived. They knocked on the wooden door and were greeted
by a petite, very attractive middle-aged woman who welcomed them in. Both women
were slightly shocked by what they found inside. Intricately carved ebony furniture
was placed neatly around the room and woven, colored matting adorned the walls
and thick rugs covered the floors. The woman wore several large pieces of gold
Teremun sat waiting in an ornately carved chair. He stood to greet the new arrivals.
"Xena, Gabrielle... this is Anahla, Tarik's mother." The three women exchanged greetings and Teremun continued. "Years ago, Anahla served as cook to the queen." He looked at his feet obviously struggling with the admission that was about to come. "She was also my mistress for a short time. Soon after our relationship ended, Tarik was born. He is my son. I agreed to provide for them both in exchange for Anahla's silence. Even Tarik does not know our secret. It is purely by chance that he and my daughter have become so fond of one another."
"Or maybe it's fate." Gabrielle smiled gently. "I'm a firm believer in the idea that we end up exactly where we're supposed to be. "She slipped her arm through the crook of Xena's elbow.
Teremun expressed his skepticism. "It seems cruel to me that your fates would take the life of one son to ensure that the other ended up where he is supposed to be."
Gabrielle stepped forward and sympathetically squeezed the Pharaoh's forearm. "Fate can be very cruel sometimes. It often takes years to figure out why things happen the way they do. Sometimes we never figure it out." "Yes. Well." The king cleared the emotion from his throat. "I suppose we will just have to wait and see then." He stood up a little straighter. "Anahla has been kind enough to provide the location of her family's home. If we leave now, we should arrive before the sun sets.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The ride was uneventful and it took Teremun little time to find the house he
was looking for. A wrinkled old man answered the rap on the door. "Yes? How
can I help you?"
The king tried to look inside. "I am looking for Safiya...my daughter."
The man hesitated. "I will be right back." He softly closed the door in the king's face and left to check on something. A few minutes later he returned. "Please come in."
He led the trio into a small kitchen at the back of the home. Safiya was helping a tiny, gray-haired woman knead loaves of bread. She looked at her father under her lashes, much like a dog who knows it has done something wrong. "Hello, father." There was guilt in her voice.
"Is that the proper way to greet the man who gave you life?" His voice was stern. "Come here."
The princess did as she was told and stood looking at the ground.
"That is better. Now how about a proper hello?" He wrapped the young woman in his arms and lifted her off her feet. "I have been worried sick about you. Do not ever leave like that again."
"I am sorry, father. It is just that I love Tarik so much that I can not imagine not being able to marry him and have a family together. Please understand, I love Jabari too, but do not want to be bound to him in that manner."
Teremun held his daughter close to him. "Your brother has had an accident, Safiya."
"An accident? Is he all right?"
"I am afraid he was not able to overcome his wounds. He was killed in battle."
"Battle? With whom?"
"There was a group of rebels, angry with me about something I did when I was a young man. They believed by hurting my children they could hurt me. You got out of the palace just in time. They came into your bedchamber the night you left and took Zhara, thinking she was you."
"Zhara! No! This is all my fault, both my brother and my best friend are dead and it is my fault. If I had been there, Jabari would not have been out fighting, he would have been home preparing for the wedding and Zhara..."
"Shhh." Teremun stroked the back of Safiya's long hair. "Zhara is fine. Xena rescued her." He turned to his two travel companions. "Xena, Gabrielle, pardon my poor manners. Please, meet my daughter, Safiya."
The women exchanged greetings and Safiya bowed in front of Xena. "I can not thank you enough for saving Zhara's life. She is closer than a sister to me and I could not bear the thought of losing her AND Jabari in the same breath."
Xena brushed off the compliment. "Ah. Think nothing of it. Your father and I made a bargain and I was just keeping my half of it."
Gabrielle was curious. "What was his half, Xena?"
"His half was to use every resource in his kingdom to make sure that you got healthy again. Fortunately he had a healer who'd treated zhen-de poisoning before."
"What if I hadn't made it? What would you have done?"
"You know, I thought about that as we were headed for the rebel's hide out. That first night, we made camp and I swear I heard your voice as I was drifting off to sleep. You simply said, 'Goodnight, Xena.'" Honestly, at that moment, I believed that I might never see you again. I thought you were gone."
"What did you do?"
"I thought about you, and what you'd do, and I decided to go on and keep my part of the bargain, even if the king couldn't keep his. No point in having more innocent people die unnecessarily. Fortunately, it all worked out."
Safiya looked at the warrior princess with awe. "Do you mean, you thought your friend was dead, and you still risked your life to save me?"
"Something like that."
"Xena, how can my family ever repay you?"
"Live happily ever after. Why don't you start by introducing that boyfriend of yours?" Xena had spotted Tarik standing just outside the back door.
Safiya beamed. "Tarik! Come meet Xena and Gabrielle."
The young man sheepishly entered the room. "Hello."
It wasn't hard to see what the princess saw in him. He was beautiful, with his mother's delicate features and his father's square jaw. His build was that of an athlete.
Teremun intercepted him before he could reach Safiya. "Hello, Tarik." The young man appeared to cower slightly. "Your highness." He bowed.
"Tarik, I am not pleased that you took my daughter away without consulting me."
"I...I am sorry. The marriage to Jabari was imminent and I knew consulting you about my love for Safiya would have done nothing to change your mind. I know it was wrong to simply leave, but it would be foolish to think that you would ever allow the princess to marry a simple stable boy."
"Do not be so sure, Tarik. There are some things your mother has kept from you. Did you never wonder where all the nice things in your home come from?"
"She told me, my father died protecting you from an assassination attempt and that they are gifts from you."
"Only half of that is true. Tarik, sit down." The king gestured to an empty chair. "When I was a young man, just before Safiya was born, your mother was working for me as a cook to the queen. I saw her and was instantly smitten. We carried on a relationship for several months, then my poor wife died while giving birth to my daughter. I was devastated. The guilt of my betrayal was almost more than I could bear. I immediately ended things with Anahla, but she too was pregnant with my child. She did not tell me until after you were born. In exchange for her silence, I agreed to support you both for as long as you live."
Tarik sat, dumbstruck. "You mean I am a...prince?"
"Yes. It appears, young man, that you are "the" prince now. So, if you are still interested in having my daughter's hand in marriage, I joyfully give my blessing."
The young couple fell into each other's arms overcome with emotion. Then Safiya embraced her father. "Thank you, father. Thank you so much. I promise Tarik will make you proud."
"I have no doubt, my sweet one. Now, let us not waste time standing around here talking of what will be. We must head back and start planning for the wedding. It will take place next week, the day after your brother is laid to rest in the family tomb. Come, get the horses."
Xena pulled Teremun aside. "If you don't mind we're going to hang out here for another day or two. Gabrielle wants to check out the great pyramids... you know, find out what's so great about 'em."
The king laughed at the joke. "You are a funny woman Xena. Stay as long as you like, and when you are ready to return to Greece, I insist that you allow me to provide a ship to take you."
The warrior clasped Teremun's hand. "Thank you. We just might take you up on that offer." She and Gabrielle walked to where Safiya and Tarik were still locked in a celebratory embrace. The bard cleared her throat to get their attention. "We just wanted to say goodbye and wish you the best. I'm sure you two are going to be very happy together. If you're ever in Greece, look us up."
"We will. Thank you. And remember, as long as our family controls the throne, you two always have a home in Egypt."
Teremun and his children walked the women to the door and watched them ride off toward the landmarks on the horizon.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"How do you think they moved all those huge stone blocks to build these things?
They must weigh tons!" Gabrielle ran her finger along a vertical indentation
where one block joined its neighbor. "They fit together so tightly with nothing
but gravity holding them there. It's really an amazing feat of architectural
engineering, don't you think?"
The warrior didn't respond. She had been busy watching Gabrielle's face in the moonlight. The wonder and innocence with which her partner approached even the simplest things had always captivated her.
"Hm? Oh yeah. Amazing."
"You didn't hear anything I said did you?"
"Sure. Something about the pyramids."
"Gee. What kind of mental back flips did you have to do to come up with that answer?
The warrior laughed and wrapped her arms around her lover. "Sorry. I was distracted by something smaller, but nonetheless just as awe inspiring."
"You." Xena placed a loving kiss on the top of the bard's head.
"Pfff." Gabrielle swatted her on the arm. "I'll bet you say that to all the girls you bring to the pyramids."
"So far I have. But this is my first time here."
"You know, standing here Xena, I wonder what the world holds for future generations. I mean, here we are at the great pyramids, structures that have been here for probably thousands of years before us and which will no doubt still be here thousands of years after we're gone. I wonder if sometime down the road our descendents, or Tarik's and Safiya's descendents will stand in this very spot and marvel at the same things we do."
The two women stood there for a long time, just holding one another, feeling the desert wind wash across their skin, like warm, unseen fingers. Eventually, they made camp and spent their last night in Egypt, asleep, together, under the stars.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Teremun and the newlyweds watched from the dock as the ship lifted anchor. The
Pharaoh had insisted that Xena and Gabrielle take the royal ship for their return
trip home. The women stood along the mahogany rail, waving farewell to their
new friends. "Goodbye! Next time there's a rebel uprising, be sure to give us
Teremun laughed. "We hope your next visit is under much better circumstances. Do not be strangers." The trio remained there until the ship was a speck on the horizon.
That evening Xena and Gabrielle enjoyed an opulent feast of exotic vegetables, seafood, cured meats and delicious breads and retired to a private deck to enjoy the night air.
The warrior smiled mischievously and rang a small bell that was waiting for her on a bench.
"What's that for?" Gabrielle's question was soon answered as half a dozen servants showed up with an abundance of pillows, blankets and fresh fruits.
"Oh. Nothing really. I just thought I'd show you step seven."
"Xena, there is no step seven."
"Wanna bet?" She turned to the servants who were waiting for further instructions. "Thank you, that will be all. Under no circumstances do we want to be disturbed."
"Yes ma'am." The man who appeared to be in charge bowed and led the rest of the group away.
"So, great warrior woman. Tell me, what is this step seven of which you speak?"
"Tell you? I don't think so. It's much more effective if I show you." She motioned for the bard to lie down in the soft nest of pillows. "Now take off your clothes."
"Just like that?" Gabrielle sat up on her elbows and smirked playfully. "You know, Xena, you could try a little bit of foreplay first."
"Okaaay. Ooo, baby. Take off your clothes."
"That's more like it, you golden tongued she-devil you." She laughed, but this time complied with the request. "There. Happy?"
"Very. Now just roll onto your stomach and enjoy step seven.... full body massage." The warrior waggled her eyebrows and saturated her hands with some patchouli oil the servants had brought. She straddled Gabrielle's buttocks and began to work the oil into her back and shoulders. "How do you like it so far?"
"Mmmm. Hmmm." The bard found it difficult to speak.
Xena spent the better part of two hours massaging every inch of her lover's body, finally finishing with her feet. Gabrielle felt like a boneless chicken. "My god, Xena, that was wonderful." She rolled lazily toward the warrior who had settled in beside her. "Is there anything I can do for you now?"
"Actually, I thought we could just lie out here and talk for awhile."
"You want to talk?" The bard tried to temper the surprise in her voice.
"Yeah, well you know, I thought we could catch up. It's been awhile since we've had some down time together."
"Sure!" Xena was the least talkative of all the people Gabrielle knew and she was always happy when the warrior decided to open up a bit.
"You know, everything that's gone on over the past couple of weeks has really gotten me thinking."
"Everything really. My past. Us." Xena watched a meteor streak across the sky. "Since I've come back from death I feel at peace for the first time in my adult life. When I think about my past now, the first scenes that come to my mind are of our journeys together, not of the dark times before that. The warlord stuff is still there, but it doesn't weigh as heavily on me somehow. You, we, now represent the past and the future to me. Heh." She nudged Gabrielle with her elbow. "Remember that time you ate the henbane-laced nut bread and were conducting the imaginary chorus? Or, how 'bout the time we got caught in Aprhodite's obsession spell? Joxer in his Addis the Apeman nightgown, and you couldn't get enough of yourself. Gods you were funny!" Xena was laughing out loud now.
The bard cleared her throat. "Aren't you forgetting something about that day? If I recall, a certain 'someone' was obsessed with fishing."
"Yeah, well, at least I'm not the one who awakened the Titans, then decided to try to make them my servants."
"Hey. I was young and stupid then. Everybody's entitled to one mistake."
"So if that was your one mistake, how do you explain your friendship with Najara?"
"Like you've never been lured in by a pretty face. Two words, Xena... Julius Caesar."
"Okay, okay. I get your point. We sure have seen a lot together... we've lost loves and children, killed gods, given and taken life and seen some of the most incredible beauty this world and the next have to offer. And somehow we still landed on our feet, side by side."
Xena rolled to face her lover. "Look, Gabrielle, I know I don't say it nearly enough but I want you to know how very proud of you I am. When I met you, you were an awkward girl trying to find her path in this life. You've grown into one of the most extraordinary women I ever hope to know, and I'm so grateful that you've chosen to spend your life with me." She leaned forward and tenderly kissed the bard on the lips. "A long time ago you said 'the true secret of life is to find peace in yourself and to share it with the world'. I always understood that in principle, but never really felt what you meant until recently. In many ways, Gabrielle, you're wiser than I'll ever be, and I love that about you. You're like the missing part of my soul. You've always been able to tap into what matters. What 'really' matters. I know I've said it before, but you truly are my light in a sometimes very dark world. I would have never made it without you."
Green eyes held blue. "No Xena. You might think I'm your light, but what you've been seeing all along is your own light reflecting off a soul mate who knew just how to tilt the mirror." She laid her head on the warrior's chest. "In everyone's heart there is light and darkness, without one we couldn't recognize the other. There would be no context." She lifted her head and looked at her lover again. "Thank you, Xena."
"For letting me hold the mirror."
Xena hugged Gabrielle close to her and studied the symphony of stars playing over their heads. "You know, it's funny. Here we are, so small in the whole scheme of things, yet I feel like our story is somehow more than just about two people. I hope it serves as some sort of example to those who follow us, and to those we meet in lifetimes after this. God knows we've made our fare share of mistakes. Maybe people can learn from them. It really is about the power of love to endure and triumph over all. Isn't it?"
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