The Curse of Higuchi
Chapter Three
By L. Crystal Michallet - Romero
Copyright © August 2002 L. Crystal Michallet-Romero
All Rights Reserved

Reworked for misspellings, typos, grammatical errors, and overuse of words: Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Disclaimer: Xena Warrior Princess, its characters, and all related materials are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. The other characters are mine. Like the show, I am playing around with the historical time lines.
Rated: NC17
Violence: Violence depicted.
Sexual Violence: None
Subtext: Yes

All Feedback Welcomed at:


* Hadhramaut = Region in S. Arabia, on the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. Historically the name refers to the former Hadhramaut states which were once under the rulership of the Quaiti and Kathiri sultanates.

* Hungry Ghosts = Written in the Buddhist Petavatthu (c. 6th century) writings. A hungry ghost is a mischievous or mean spirited ghost. In the Petavatthu, there are several examples of how a hungry ghost is born. The categories are as follows:
To die without ancestors to worship the deceased at a grave site. To die with no one to bury the deceased.
To die at sea or in childhood or to be murdered.
A mischievous hungry ghost will not harm the living. A group of hungry ghosts, as is written in the Petavatthu, will act like gangs of mean bullies, beggars, and bandits with the except of murdered victims.
The worst of the hungry ghosts are those who were murdered. Murdered victims are known to haunt the scene of their death seeking violent revenge. Hungry Ghosts born from being murdered have been able to take lives in an attempt to appease their hunger. Special religious days exists within Buddhist cultures which allows for appeasing the hungry ghosts.

* Jihad = Literal translation means, "struggle." The mention of Jihad can be found in the Qu’ran, the holy book of Islam. Within the Qu’ran, it states that Jihads are sometimes necessary, even though distasteful, when evil rules over the weak, or when injustice rises against the followers of Allah. Note; it is strictly forbidden to call a Jihad against women, children, or the innocent. (Q., 2:216) The Qu’ran gives promise that all who fall (die) in Jihad, shall be granted automatic entrance into the Gardens of Eden (Q., 61:10-13) An early scholar of Islamic teachings, Abu Soorah as-Saffof, gave further support that any who give their all, wealth, intellect and lives, in a fight in a Jihad shall be forgiven of all sins and will gain automatic entrance in the "Gardens of Eternity," (Soorah as-Saff., 61:10-12)

* Khat (pronounced cot) = Khat is a natural stimulant from the Catha Edullis plant commonly found in East Africa and Southern Arabia. When chewed, Khat acts as an anti-depressent. Users claim it lifts the spirits and sharpens thinking. Khat is still commonly used in Yemen, Somalia, and Ehtiopia.

* Moroccan Flag = According to the Islamic History Source book, published by Fordham University, The current red flag with green star was not used as a symbol of the state until 1062, when the Almoravide dynasty came into control of Morocco. Prior to the Almoravide dynasty, white silk banners were often carried into battle, sometimes with Quranic inscriptions written on them. The most often used scripture was "Allah is powerful to do all things."

Part 14

Despite her best efforts, Zara did not die. She had hoped that the pounding in her head would mean that her brain would explode. The nausea and headache would be a moot point since she would be dead. However, as luck would have it, Allah had not called her home. Instead, she was forced to make it through the day, and then carry on as if nothing were different.

Once she awoke, the captain no longer heard the voice calling to her. For a time, she sat at her desk and contemplated it. As her mind wandered over the new discovery of the ghost, she chewed on Khat. She felt the herb sharpening her thinking, allowing her to understand the link that she now shared with the Greek passengers dead warrior. Although the Khat helped her to accept the existence of the voice, she no longer heard it talk to her. In fact, it seemed as if the voice had given up on talking with her altogether. So, for a time she could actually forget about the invisible passenger the ship carried. At least, she could do this when Gabrielle was not talking with her ghost lover. When this happened, Zara only frowned and turned away.

It had been nearly a week since the execution, and still Gabrielle had not spoken to the captain. Thinking it over, the captain was sitting at her desk, her mind on nothing in particular when she saw the blonde by the rail talking with her spirit lover. With creased brows, the brooding Moroccan looked away from the woman and returned her attention to the maps on her desk. She had not been working, merely using the maps to disguise her idleness.

From outside her cabin, Zara heard the voices reach her senses. At first they were low, almost mumbling. When she closed her eyes and concentrated on the words, she heard the clear voice of Gabrielle.

"Xena, you don’t understand," Gabrielle explained.

"Gabrielle just listen. You can’t go on blaming Zara for …" a familiar voice said, but was cut off by the healer’s anger.

"Look, you don’t have to deal with this, I do!" the frustration filled the smaller woman’s angry words before the sound of footfalls was heard. From somewhere in the distance, the seafarer heard a deep sigh reach her senses. The captain could sense the pain and frustration within the ghost.

With a grunt of unhappiness, the tall captain leaned back in her chair. She opened her eyes and allowed the hollow feelings to fill her soul. The voice had stopped talking to her, but continued to speak to the Greek traveler, and Zara did not know if she should be grateful or angry for the ghost’s efforts to reach Gabrielle.

With a slight release of air from her lips, Zara closed her eyes and tried to calm her rampant emotions. She absently noted the time slipping by. Dusk was only hours away and she knew that soon she would have to leave her cabin to walk the deck in order that Gabrielle could sleep in the bed by herself. Knowing this, the dusky woman shook her head as the absurdity of it settled in.

The Moroccan knew that Gabrielle did not like being restricted to the captain’s cabin at dusk, but the captain did not know any other way to protect her crew while also protecting the blonde. Although she loathed Mika’il, she did not long for his death, nor had she ever executed a crewman before. The dusky woman hoped that she would never have to go to such an extreme again. Before she could mentally chide herself and relive that day again, she heard a slight commotion on the deck. Turning, she saw a group gather at the starboard side. As their eyes stared out at sea, they pointed to a distant object.

Zara wasted no time in reaching Abu at the bow of the ship. Already alerted to the situation, he stood and stared through the optical lens. Seeing his deep frown, the captain scanned the horizon and noticed an object in the distance.

"The Prahu?" she asked as she moved beside him.

Abu’s frown increased as he shook his head. "No, Captain. Take a look," his voice was gruff as he handed her the seeing instrument.

The Moroccan woman looked through the lens and focused the view. Through the crashing waves she saw the clear outline of a ship, noticed the single mast with its lanteen mainsail and the small foresail on the bow. Recognizing its design, she examined the ship more closely. The captain noticed that its sails were either down or torn to shreds. High on the main beam, the familiar green flag of the ship’s country was flying upside down at half mast.

"Arabic Tartan," Zara whispered the ship’s class out loud as she examined the empty deck.

"She must have been adrift for a few days, Captain," Abu stated.

"How long before we reach her?" the captain asked as she pulled her gaze away from the ship and turned her attention to her crew.

Abu’s brow’s creased as he gazed up at the setting sun, "I am not certain if we can reach it before nightfall, Captain."

"Have the men give it their best effort," Zara ordered as she turned her gaze to her crew. Obeying her, Abu began to bark orders to the milling crowd. Without thought, the men quickly moved as they set their sails for the new direction.

As the tall ships captain stood on the deck, she glanced at the faces below. When she saw the Greek woman, she couldn’t help but let her eyes linger. Sensing that she was being watched, Gabrielle looked up and caught the Moroccan’s glance. At the intensity of her eyes, the captain turned away and watched as her ship tore its way toward the drifting Tartan.

The afternoon sun quickly disappeared on the horizon as they made their way toward the dark Arabian ship. Zara noticed an eerie silence fall over her crew. It was a silence held from fear and apprehension. Sensing this fear, the dark captain was reminded of the day they first stepped foot on the shores of Higuchi. With this thought, a sudden sense of dread filled her being. Ignoring her inner fears, the tall woman turned from the sight and made her way to her cabin.

"Abu, have a team ready to board her," the captain called out as she went to her weapons cabinet.

Just as she did on the day they entered Higuchi’s harbor, Zara donned her various weapons. Not sure of what she would find, she opted to leave her cape behind in order to have full mobility should a fight be called for. She held down the feelings that raged within her soul. As time moved slowly, she had an urge to order her men to turn sails, to make as much distance as possible between her ship and the drifting Tartan. But as this thought crossed her mind, she glanced out at her crew.

Many of the men were from her country of Morocco, and only a few were from other areas of the Mediterranean. Within the minority of crewmen, four hailed from the lands of Arabia. Even if she had no crewmen from the land of the desert sea, Zara knew that she could not turn her back on their distant cousins. With this in mind, she strapped on her customary weapons, and then made her way to the deck.
Nadrah had been standing with Abu by the bow the whole time. As the crew’s voices buzzed behind her, she stared at the oncoming ship. Her eyes strained to see anything exciting. When they were within shouting distance, the girl saw a spark of light. Blinking back her surprise, she stared at the light with wide-eyed amazement. Only when they were close enough for Nadrah to see the ship clearly did she feel her little heart beat faster.

On the deck, standing opposite of where she stood, was a little boy only a bit taller than her. He wore the clothes of the desert people. With sad eyes, he remained frozen in place as he seemed to stare right at her. Amazed, Nadrah’s mouth opened as a gasp escaped her control. When the boy’s arm raised and pointed at her, she yelped and ran from the rail. Afraid of what she had seen, she ran and hid behind Gabrielle’s leg.

"Honey, what’s the matter?" the Greek woman’s voice was soft and filled with concern as she knelt in front of Nadrah.

Since she had seen the craft, Gabrielle had sensed something odd and was alert for danger. Although she had no tangible proof, the blonde woman instinctively felt that something was wrong. Seeing the open fear in Nadrah only enhanced her trepidation as her protective instincts took control.

"It’s all right, I’m here. You’ll be safe," Gabrielle cooed to the girl.

"Gabrielle, something’s not right over there," Xena supported Gabrielle’s unspoken fears.

Gabrielle nodded, "I feel something, Xena, but I don’t know what it is." She rose from kneeling beside Nadrah and looked worriedly over to the empty ship.

Unable to voice her fears, Nadrah held fast to healer’s leg as she buried her face against the woman. "They’re not right," the child’s muffled voice stated.

"They’re not right?" Gabrielle repeated as she turned and watched Zara walk onto the deck. "Who are you talking about, Nadrah?" Nadrah merely shivered and said nothing more.
When the captain walked across the deck, she glanced up at the setting sun, its rays casting a shadow over the looming ship. As Abu barked orders, she moved to the main group that was armed as she was. Each man remained quiet as they stared off at the dark ship, seeming lost in their own thoughts. Zuhair, Ahmad, Jabir and Farraj were always the men that Abu chose to accompany her into danger. Although Zara did not know each of their histories, she knew that these men had been with Abu long before he stepped foot on a ship. They were each fiercely loyal men and like Abu, they gave their allegiance to her above all others. Just as she had at Higuchi, she knew that these men would do all that was needed to insure their safe return to the ship.

"Captain!" Nadrah’s voice pulled her from her thoughts. Glancing down, she smiled at the little girl.

"Yes, Nadrah?" she knelt down to look into the child’s eyes.

"Captain, I don’t like it here. Can we turn away?" the child’s voice was barely a whisper as her eyes were fixed on the ship.

"No, Nadrah. We cannot. We don’t know what happened, and if there are survivors, they may need our help. Now be a good girl and listen to Abu," Zara instructed as she rose to her full height. As an afterthought, she glanced up at Gabrielle, "And always obey Gabrielle."

"Yes, Captain," the girl’s voice replied as she moved to stand near the storyteller. At her words, Gabrielle looked at her and it seemed she might smile, but then her lips tightened and she deliberately looked away at the other ship. Expressionless, the Captain patted Nadrah’s head and turned away without another word.

The Moroccan captain moved to the men chosen by Abu. When she looked into the eyes of each man, she suddenly had the sensation that the shores of Higuchi had returned. As if reading her thoughts, the men smiled slightly as they realized that the group consisted of the same members as before.

"Can I not convince you to let me go aboard the ship?" Abu’s words pulled her from her thoughts.

Zara glanced at him, then shook her head, "No, my friend. You cannot. You are needed here, should anything happen to us…." She allowed her words to trail off as she nodded at her friend.

"Understood, Captain," was all Abu said as he stepped away.

The captain moved to the starboard rail and glanced at the Arabic vessel. She felt her ship inching closer, yet not close enough to board. Turning to the crewmen who held the grappling hooks, she nodded and waited for them to do their jobs. The crew stood back to give them room to swing the hooks in a circle and let fly. When the loud thuds of the hooks landing on the deck were heard and the ropes were pulled until the rails were caught, Zara waited and watched her men move into action. Those remaining on the ship pulled on the ropes while the ones boarding the ship began to light torches before preparing to board the dark ship.

As her vessel rocked gently under her feet, she watched as the Arabian craft was pulled closer. Only when its deck was close, did she move to the rail. In an easy move, she unfastened the rail door, then lifted it from its fastening. The tall Moroccan woman felt the ship sway below her feet as she gauged the rocking motions of the abandoned vessel. Inhaling deeply, the captain took one leap and landed on the neighboring ship. As she climbed over the rail, she couldn’t help but feel a coldness surrounding her. Ignoring Xena’s ghost, she found the other ship’s latch and removed its port door. With this done, she waited as her crew laid down the wooden boards, which closed the distance between the two ships. When her men crossed the bridge, she waited as she glanced around the darkened deck. One by one they stood by her, holding their torches up high as they waited for her orders. After taking a lighted torch, she nodded to the upside-down flag flapping against the mast.

"Ahmed, take that down," she ordered as she pointed at the flag, then indicated to two of her crew, "Zuhair, Farraj, go below and search for any survivors. Jabir, as soon as Ahmed has the flag, you both go to the cargo holds and look for any signs of what happened here," she ordered as she turned and made her way to the captain’s cabin.

With torch held high, Zara carefully opened the door. In the distance she heard the sounds of the ocean waves against the silent ship as the slight muffled voices of her crew reached her senses. When the door began to open, a squeaking of the hinge echoed across the ship. With hand resting on her hilt, she stepped into the darkness, held the torch high and glanced around the cabin. The blankets on the bed were strewn, and clothes littered the floors. In stark contrast to the room, the captain’s log scrolls were neatly piled in a corner.

"Captain, you should see this," she heard Farraj call. Moving from the cabin, she made her way across the deck. The captain cast an occasional glance over the deck in search of clues. She saw patches of dried blood, but nothing else. When she made her way down into the ship bowels, she caught up with her men.

The look of fear was etched in their eyes as they waited for her. With jaws firmly set, Zahair and Farraj held their torches up to give her added light. "Captain, th-this is horrible…" Zara heard Zahair make a gulping sound as she stepped into the crew quarters.

Involuntarily the tall leader inhaled deeply at what she saw, and then wished she hadn’t as the stench reached her nostrils. Fighting back the gagging sensations, she covered her mouth and nose with the collar of her shirt as she swept her torch around the room. Like garbage, the crew’s bodies were piled against one corner, their bodies horribly disfigured from unknown swords. As she moved further into the room, she felt her boots sticking to the floor. When she glanced down, she saw the floorboards covered with a mixture of blood, internal organs, and feces. Grimacing, she pulled her feet to avoid touching the floor with her boots. When she glanced around at the bodies, she noticed their last expressions of agony permanently etched on their faces. While some appeared to have fought, others were in the positions of begging for mercy. At the sight of such carnage, Zara backed quickly from the room. Following her lead, the men waiting for her in the corridor walked behind her onto the deck.

Once on top, she began to inhale the fresh air in an attempt to rid the stench from her nostrils. Farraj, a harden warrior and seaman, was the first to run to the rail. Unashamed, he leaned over it as he began to heave, while she and Zahair looked on with empathy. When the sounds of the rest the men joined them on the deck, she turned away from the ill man.

"Jabir, Ahmed, any cargo?" The Moroccan woman asked when her nose cleared somewhat.

"None, Captain. The cargo bay is empty," she heard one of the men say.

"Zahair, follow me," the captain ordered, then turned to the rest of her men. "The rest of you, return to the ship," she ordered as she made her way back to the captain’s cabin.

The dusky woman moved to the scrolls against the wall and began to grab the captain’s journals, then handed them to her crewmen. "Return these to my cabin," she ordered as she turned her attention to the maps in the farthest corner as Zahair quickly left.

The only thought in Zara’s mind was to recreate the ship’s journey, to discover which route it had taken and how it had come to be in these seas. As she took the journal and map scrolls, a slight sound caught her attention. Glancing around the room, she searched out the sound, straining to hear it. When the slight knocking came once more she turned to the chest at the end of the captain’s bed. Cautiously, the captain moved to the lid, torch held high as she listened to the slight knock. Without thought, she took hold of the lid and quickly pulled it open.

In her time alive, she had seen and witnessed many horrible things but never had she glanced upon something as atrocious as the sight of the dead cabin boy. Naked and tied into a tight ball with coarse ropes, the boy had been stuffed into the captain’s clothes container, his mutilated body left for anyone who happened upon the ship. Like the men below deck, the ghastly expression of the child indicated the length of time it took for his tortured body to die. As the ship gently swayed in the ocean, Zara saw the boy’s knuckles, scraped clean of flesh, gently tapping the container, his lifeless eyes staring at her.

The dark leader felt her stomach heave at the sight. Fighting back her reaction, she stepped away from the boy. When she regained control, the captain moved forward again, reached into the box, and closed his eyes. Being so close, she was able to see a fragment of cloth protruding from the boy’s mouth. With a grimace of disgust, Zara took hold of the cloth and pulled it out.

One look at the cloth and she knew the culprits of these crimes. Angered at the sight, she pulled away from the dead boy and leaned momentarily against the cabin wall. As her mind began to wander over the sight, she felt herself losing control. Realizing what she had done, she felt her legs buckling under her as she slid down the wall to the deck.

Zara felt the pangs of guilt wash through her. She wondered if this child would still be alive if she had not tricked the Prahu. Perhaps if her crew had fought the pirates, they could have injured them enough to force the pirates to return to their home port. Then this child and the Arabian crew would still be alive. Her mind spun with self-loathing and she felt herself beginning to lose control.
Xena waited next to Gabrielle. The silence on the ship became deafening as the men began to return from the other craft. Without uttering a word to the crew, they moved close to Abu and began to speak in low tones as they told him what they had found.

"Something’s not right," Xena whispered as she moved away from Gabrielle.

"What is it?" the blonde warrior began to ask, but before Xena could respond, the ghost felt herself being tugged by an unknown force. She was pulled through the air until she was standing in darkness in a cabin on the other ship.

The warrior took only a moment to glance around the room. A torch sat on the floor near the captain’s desk. When she moved toward it, she saw Zara sitting on the floor, her hands shaking uncontrollably as her gaze was frozen on a flag. From nearby, she saw a figure of a boy standing in the shadows, staring from her to the fallen captain. Cautiously, she moved toward the boy. When he turned and looked down, Xena glanced down into the wooden chest. The sight of his pitiful body brought a sigh from her.

"Oh, baby…." the warrior princess gasped as she shook her head, "I’m so sorry," she whispered to the child’s ghost.

When the boy looked behind her, Xena turned in time to see figures emerging from below the deck. Each one wore the clothing of Arabia, their bodies pale as they moved from the bowels of the ship. Seeing them, Xena turned swiftly to the Moroccan.

"Zara, we’ve got to go!" She tried to rouse the captain, knowing that the ghosts were rising.

"It’s my fault," the captain murmured in a slight voice, her eyes glued to the flag.

"No!" Xena shouted. "It wasn’t your fault. You are NOT responsible for this! We have to leave now!" she ordered as she tried to shake the guilt ridden woman.

"But….?" Zara’s vacant eyes looked up at her.

Seeing her despair, Xena shook her head as she pointed to the deck. "You need to go before they cross the bridge to your ship! Nadrah and Gabrielle are over there!" the warrior shouted.

Following her direction, Zara’s eyes grew wide. "Hungry ghosts," the captain whispered as her crazed eyes focused on the spirits.
For a moment, Zara felt herself losing control but before the sorrow could surface, she felt a presence nearby giving her strength. At the sight of the shadows on the deck, she pulled a tight rein of control over her senses. With no other thought but escape, she grabbed the torch, then quickly ran out of the captain’s cabin as she stuffed the pirates’ flag into her sword sheath.

Running, the captain made her way to the bridge which led to her ship. She felt an oppressive coldness chasing after her, reaching for her. The cold was more sinister than what she had come to recognize as Xena’s presence, and she wanted to stay away from it.

Although not superstitious, the Moroccan had heard tales about gangs of hungry ghosts. She remembered the tales from fellow captains who explained that a hungry ghost main object was to get hold of the living, in order to rip the lives from them because the ghosts were confused and saw all living beings with the faces of their murderers. She decided that she did not want to become the next tale told, so she pushed her feet faster toward her own ship.

As Xena ran behind the Moroccan captain, she could feel them getting closer. With a growl of rage, she kicked out at them, holding them back. Some of the ghosts turned their attention to her, and Xena shook off a grasping hand as a shiver went through her. She knew, if caught, the ghosts would try to make her one of their own.

"Go, run!" Xena shouted at the mortal, then put on her own burst of speed when she saw Zara running for the wooden bridge. She turned when she was on the bridge and gave one final kick, forcing the hungry ghosts back, then twisted around and followed the captain onto the ship.

"Captain?" the dusky woman barely heard Abu as she made her way over the bridge.

The captain felt her mind spinning out of control and the myriad of sensations registered in her mind. The fear, disgust, and rage began to boil out of control. With a deep set frown, she turned and faced the ghost ship. She could not risk another ship finding these ghosts.

Without sparing Abu a glance, she took an arrow and lighted it with her torch.

"Burn it!" she shouted as she watched her men remove the bridge that joined the two ships. Not waiting for a response, she took a bow from a crewmen, placed the nock of the arrow in the bow, and then aimed for the shadows of the torn sails. Her arrow was the first to land. Before the cloth could catch fire, a volley of lighted arrows soared through the air.

Nadrah saw one ghost run across the bridge as the men pulled it in. When the bridge came off of the ghost ship and started dropping down at an angle, the ghost jumped and caught the rail. It was pulling itself aboard and reached out to Tashfin who stood there, oblivious to its presence.

Nadrah screamed out in fright, "Tashfin, get back!"

The old man jumped back and looked around wildly for an attacker but saw nothing. At the same time, Xena spun on her heels and saw what had frightened the little girl so much. Taking three strides, she kicked the hungry ghost solidly in the face and watched him go sailing through the air to land back on the deck of the Tartan.
Zara moved to the bow of her ship and watched as the Arabian ship was pulled out by the ocean waves. As she saw the flames rising from the main sails, she felt her jaw clenching, the memory of the cabin boy firmly etched in her memory. When she turned and looked at her crew, she saw them silently watching her, waiting for her orders. As the sound of the waves rocked her ship, she remained silent. She felt at a loss, but as she glanced over her crew she saw the determination in their eyes.

When she looked at Gabrielle, she saw only confusion as the Greek healer glanced at the crew. Nadrah stood by the storyteller, her arm wrapped around the blonde’s leg as she looked up at Zara. It was not until she looked into the dark eyes of her cabin girl that the Moroccan woman knew what had to be done.

The dusky captain remained silent as she gazed at the cloth that she removed from the cabin boy. The image of the sliced open heart, the dripping blood on the white cloth could never be wiped from her memory. Angered by what she had seen, she turned to her crew.

"We go hunting for the Prahu!" Zara kept her voice deep and strong as she held the flag up for her crew to see. "The death of our cousins cannot go unanswered. We will rise up in Jihad and hunt the animals down until every last one of them are made to pay for their crimes!"

At her words, the men’s voices rose up in a mighty roar as they responded to her words. Those who had accompanied her on the ship held their torches above their heads as the high pitched yodeling cry expressed their support for her orders. Their cry infected the crew until they were all wailing their support. While she listened to her men, the tall leader watched the ship in the distance, the flames from the sails licking out and catching the wooden ship on fire. As their fervor built, the captain made her way to her cabin. From somewhere behind her, she felt the passenger moving toward her.

"What are you doing?" Gabrielle’s anger was barely contained. Like an irritating insect, the Moroccan woman mentally brushed the blonde woman’s words aside as she began to pull maps from her shelf.

"Zara, what are you getting us into? Are you crazy? I thought you said that the Prahu outnumbers us in fighters?"

The captain’s frown became deeper as she glanced from the maps to the blonde. "We have no choice. We must hunt them down! We cannot allow their crimes to go unpunished," her voice was low and controlled as she instinctively charted a course.

"It will be a massacre, you said that once. Why are you doing this? Why do you want us to commit suicide?" Gabrielle asked, but did not wait for an answer. "Zara, why? First you take a man’s life in cold blood, and now you want to send your ship into a massacre and for what? Have you always been a cold blooded savage?" the smaller woman yelled at her.

At her words, the dark captain inhaled deeply as she turned on the Greek woman, "I cannot allow this to go unanswered!"

"So you’ll sacrifice your crew, like you sacrificed Mika’il for your own savage revenge!" Gabrielle’s bitter words tore deeply into the dark captain’s soul. "I can’t believe you would do such a thing!" she whispered close to the Moroccan’s ear.

The image of the cabin boy remained firmly in the captain’s mind. As the blonde’s words settled in, the images shifted, changing into the memories that brought her pain. The strong leader felt her control slowly fade as she leaned against her desk. With her head bowed, she closed her eyes tightly.

"Get out of here!" the captain’s command was low and deep. When Gabrielle remained in her place, Zara’s voice rose into a scream as she turned on the smaller woman. "Leave me! Get out of here!" She shouted and watched as the gentle healer turned and ran from the cabin.

Only when she was gone did the Moroccan woman gaze at her trembling hands. The fight to control her turbulent emotions was increasing. When it seemed like she would lose all control, she leaned against her desk, her fingers turning white as she gripped the edge.
Gabrielle felt her tears falling freely as she ran from the cabin. She felt foolish for allowing herself to feel compassion for the captain. When the woman returned and declared a war against a ship that outnumbered them, she felt all sympathy leave her.

"Gabrielle!" Xena’s voice was close to her as she stepped from the cabin. "Gabrielle, listen to me!"

"No, Xena. You don’t understand! She’s nothing but a savage! She’s sending us into a battle that cannot be won, and she murdered an unarmed man! Why are you even defending her?" Gabrielle shouted at her lover over the men’s voices.

"Listen to me, she isn’t a savage!" Xena screamed as her cold hands took hold of her soulmate’s shoulders. "Would you just listen!" she shouted as she slightly shook Gabrielle’s shoulders. "It was just as hard for Zara to execute that man as it was for you to see it!" the warrior shouted.

"I doubt that!" the smaller woman hissed as tears of anger fell freely.

"Gabrielle, Zara witnessed the same thing happen to her soulmate! She was only a child when she was forced to see her love beheaded, just like you! Except you witnessed it is as an adult, think what it must have been like for a child!" Xena shouted at her lover.

At her declaration, Xena forced the bard to look into the cabin window. Not allowing any arguments, she forced the blonde to watch as the captain stood frozen by her desk. As Gabrielle watched, she noticed the tall woman’s hands shaking, the tremors moved from her hands, up her arms until her whole body was shaking.

"Gabrielle, can’t you understand? She’s not the one to blame for what happened to me,"Xena’s voice was softer as she spoke close to Gabrielle’s ear. "Don’t hate her or punish her. She was only trying to help and protect you and…." The warrior’s voice hesitated, "she knows what it feels like to lose a soulmate."

When it seemed that Gabrielle understood, Xena continued, "Gabrielle, after seeing what those bastards did to the crew over there," she shook her head, "I would be giving the same orders as Zara."

In silence, Gabrielle observed the captain as her mind accepted Xena’s words. While the men’s voices rose in a frenzy of anger, she watched the captain slumped in her chair, her head bent forward. As if lost, the tall Moroccan leaned forward and held her head in her hands.

With a shake of her head, the healer bard looked up at her ghost lover. "I-I …" she found her words hard to form.

"I know, Sweetheart, but don’t take it out on her, please. If you have to be angry with someone, be angry with me," Xena’s soft words pleaded.

When the sight of Xena’s penetrating gaze became too much, Gabrielle turned her back. She moved to the rail and stood by herself. As the cool night breeze brushed past her, she watched the distant flames of the Arabian ship licking into the dark ocean sky.

Part 15

Zara sat staring at the maps on her desk. With plume in hand, she jotted down notations, made calculations, then began to scrutinize every minute detail until the morning sun began to show on the horizon. She had worked like this through the night. Nadrah, unaware of any change, was able to sleep through all of the captain’s noise. Like clockwork, she awoke when the Moroccan finished her last examination of the charts. Sensing the intensity of the captain’s concentration, Nadrah went about her daily chores as quietly as she could. Grateful for Nadrah’s perception, the tall woman rose from her chair and stretched. Gabrielle had long ago given up on trying to sleep in the room and spent her night walking across the deck, occasionally glancing up at the captain’s cabin.

Between the memories of the ghost ship, and the upcoming battle plans, sleep was elusive for Zara. Knowing what had to be done, she found herself filled with a surge of adrenaline. With a sigh she leaned out of the door to catch Abu’s attention, then waved him to her cabin. When he entered, Abu nodded gravely as he glanced at the pile of notations on her desk.

"Any sight of them yet?" she asked as she ignored the morning breakfast that Ayyub left on her desk.

"No captain. We are rotating the watchers every candle mark to make certain that they are fresh. We want no error to be made," was Abu’s crisp response.

"Good…..good," she replied as she indicated a chair for him. "Abu, I have a question I wish to pose," she leaned back and waited for him to understand the gravity of her words. With a tilt of his head, he remained silent and attentive. "Abu, who among our crew would you trust in stamina, virtue, strength and intelligence?"

At her words, the big man leaned back and absently scratched his beard. "Hummm, one who has stamina, virtue, strength and intelligence," he repeated her words as he closed his eyes in thought.

"Yes," the captain tried to find a way to word her question, then added, "Suppose, if you were to entrust …oh, your sister to be protected from harm, who among our crew would you give your trust to?"

After a moment of silent contemplation, Abu leaned forward and nodded. "I would guess that it is a bard, and not my sister you are thinking of," he smiled as his glance fell to the foreign woman who was on the deck deep in conversation with some of the crew. "In that case, if it is what I am thinking, then I would have to say Isa."

"Even with his youth?" Zara asked as she stood and looked out at the crew, her eyes searching for the young man in question.

"Yes, captain, even with his youth. If you only wished for strength and intelligence, I would have thought of one of my men from the old days. But you also want virtue, and if you will forgive me for saying so, my men have had more than a few lusty comments about our guest. So if it is virtue you wish in order that the small one will not have to be fighting him off every night, then that would have to be Isa. In fact, I can assure you that Gabrielle would be perfectly safe with Isa." At the dusky woman’s surprised expression, Abu began to explain himself, "Isa prefers the company of men."

Zara’s eyebrows shot up to her hairline, "I never knew that! How is it that you know?"

Abu shrugged his shoulders, "After you work with a man for so long, you learn which way his tastes lie. Have you not noticed the special friendship he has with Rabeé?"

He went on, "Granted, Isa does tend toward excitability at times, but I do not think it is anything that our guest cannot handle. And, Captain, Isa is well versed in navigation, he would be very useful to Gabrielle," Abu voiced his opinion as he stood beside her.

"May I assume that you will be placing Isa in charge of Gabrielle?"

The captain chuckled lightly at his question as she returned to her seat. "Do you truly believe that she would allow anyone to be in charge of her?" the tall woman snorted. With a deep-set frown, she glanced down at some maps on her desk. "I have found several islands along our path, all are within busy shipping routes and they all have enough vegetation and animal life to sustain them until they can be picked up by a vessel. I will have Isa ready the boat so that he may take Nadrah, Badr and our guest ashore. I am certain that Gabrielle will accept responsibility for Nadrah, and, being a healer, she will ensure that Badr’s leg does not become infected. She can help him until a healer in a city can take over," she answered without thought.

"Very wise decision, Captain," Abu agreed as he turned to her, "You feel we will not survive this, then?"

"My friend, of all people, you know what we are facing. I would not have called upon the Jihad, had I thought we had a chance of winning. No, Abu, only the hand of Allah himself could give us a victory," she said with a shake of her head, "and Allah, I’m afraid, has abandoned me long ago."

Abu remained silently contemplative, before a deep sigh was released. "Captain…." his voice hesitated, "Captain, instead of Isa, my choice would be to have you go ashore with your …" he stopped and cleared his throat,"With Gabrielle." He finished.

The dark captain remained silent as she thought over his words, and then turned to him, "No Abu, my place is here. I stay with my ship…with my men."

"But, Captain, may I remind you that you have no clan affiliation. Should anything happen…" the big man’s voice was unusually soft as he reminded her of an old superstition, a superstition which even Zara was quick to dismiss as an old wives tale. Understanding his meaning, and not wanting to show any disrespect for her old friend, the captain shook her head as she turned away from him.

"That has no bearing on my decisions. My joining Gabrielle…. is not an option," the captain felt her voice waver, the meaning of his words clearly understood. According to her people’s beliefs, without clan affiliation, she would be forever exiled from paradise in the afterlife for there would be no one who could help her to cross over. Knowing this, the captain’s brow creased as she contemplated her fate.

Abu nodded his obedience, "So be it, Captain."

"So be it," she echoed as she began to pace the room. "Abu, you will inform Isa of his duty, and ask Gabrielle to come to me."

"He will not like it, Captain, but he will obey." Abu’s voice was filled with assurance.

"Good," she said as she watched her friend leave. As an after thought, Zara called to the burly man, "Abu!"

"Yes, Captain?" he waited her instructions.

"Have some Khat ready for the men and give them liberal supplies," she said as she moved to sit behind the desk.

"As you wish, Captain," Abu’s voice replied before leaving the room.

The tall woman watched Abu walk across the deck. She unconsciously sighed as she contemplated his words. Ever since she had been of age to consent, she waited for the invitation from her father to take the markings of his clan. As she paced the length of her cabin, the captain glanced down at the backs of her hands. Many people she had grown up with had already received their clan markings. Some were very simple designs, marks that were placed on the backs of the hands for women or the forehead for men.

When Zara looked at her hands and saw no markings, she frowned and absently scratched her chin. With brow furrowed, the Moroccan glanced up and saw her image in the reflecting glass. She noticed that she was taller than many women and most men, with thick wavy hair that was unmanageable on most days. Her body, unshapely and solid, was not one that would turn heads. When the captain looked closer, she noticed her prominent nose that was similar to her countrymen, thin and angular, the tip slightly curving like a beak. When she looked at her eyes, she saw the blueness staring back. Angered by the color of her eyes, she closed her eyes and turned away.

Tainted, that is what her grandmother had called her. Once, many years ago, long before she found refuge at sea, the captain naively asked why the clan affiliation was not offered to her. The only reply was a curt statement that Zara was tainted and, therefore, not deserving of the markings. With that one ruling, her future was set in place and the young outcast found it easier to think of the belief surrounding clan markings as superstitious nonsense. Fighting back her anger and despair from long ago, the blue-eyed captain shook her head and returned her thoughts to the task at hand.

Zara had spent the night contemplating her next actions. She knew that there was no choice. The pirate ship must be stopped and forced to pay for their murderous crimes. Understanding this, the captain knew that her crew could never win against a heavily armed ship with well trained fighters, but they could at least slow it down and take a few pirates in the process. This may be all that is needed to slow down their rampage of the sea, the dusky woman thought as she pulled out a scroll from the pile of papers.

The captain reread her words to her former lover, the high priestess. She was fully aware of the promise she made to Gabrielle, and although she would not be able to accompany the blonde, she trusted that the letter of introduction should suffice. Within the letter was everything that Gabrielle would need. The captain hoped that she had worded the introduction in such a way that the priestess would see how important the favor was. As she looked over the letter one last time, the Moroccan captain affixed her signature as the Greek traveler entered her cabin.

"You wanted to see me?" Gabrielle’s voice was softly soothing as she walked into the cabin, closing the door behind her.

The Moroccan was not certain when the change began in their guest, but she noticed that ever since their argument of the night before, the healer seemed to be kinder to her. She no longer cast irate glances toward the captain. When Zara stood at the bow the night before, the Greek woman had actually brought her a warm cup of tea. Not quite knowing what to make of the sudden change in the small woman the captain accepted the offer but made no mention of Gabrielle’s conduct.

With a nod, the captain gestured to the chair in front of her desk. Following her direction, Gabrielle sat and waited. The Greek woman’s body language was at ease as she seemed to watch the dusky woman’s every move. Unable to make eye contact, the Moroccan took the scroll and rolled it, then tied it off with a loose leather string.

"This is for you," the captain said as she offered the scroll to Gabrielle. With a look of confusion, the blonde took the scroll and waited for an explanation. "It is an introduction for the Priestess at the temple. It should be enough to grant you a private meeting with her," she explained as she stood up and turned her back on the smaller woman.

"We will be … coming to several smaller islands. One of my men will be accompanying you, Nadrah and Badr. In time, you should be able to flag a passing ship that will help you complete your journey."

"My journey?" Gabrielle’s voice was low as she sat tensely in the chair. "So that’s it? You’ve made all the plans on your own?"

"It is the most reasonable solution to the problem at hand," Zara answered as she turned to her desk, "I trust you will be able to care for Nadrah, and I have this," she reached into her desk and removed a leather purse, "it should be more than enough for your troubles."

The dark leader waited for the healer to accept the offered gold. With a look of confusion and anger, Gabrielle shook her head as she rose from the chair and put the scroll at the edge of the desk, "No, you are not doing this!"

Confused by her response, Zara frowned as she gazed at Gabrielle. "You are refusing the offer of gold? Perhaps it is not enough? I can write a script for you, it can be redeemed in a port…." the captain offered while taking a scroll to write on.

Before she could even begin, Gabrielle’s hand came down on hers. "No, I’m refusing your whole offer," the smaller woman’s voice was low and controlled.

"Gabrielle," the Moroccan woman felt her anger rising, "I do not have time for this. As soon as a suitable island is found, you will go ashore!" she ordered, then softened her voice, "You must go ashore. This … This is not your battle."

"It’s not my battle, but you need me!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "Zara, you yourself told me, the Prahu outnumbers your crew. You’re going to need as many fighters as you can get, and you know I can fight!" the small blonde explained as she moved around the desk. "Let me help you, please! I want to help," her voice pleaded as she stood near the captain. Hesitantly, she put a small hand on the bigger woman’s arm.

Zara lowered her gaze as she pulled away from Gabrielle. She heard the Greek woman’s words, yet was unable to accept the blonde’s offer. Instead, the captain stood at her full height as she turned and faced down her guest, "No, Gabrielle. I have made my decision. You will be safely away from the ship by the time the fighting starts."

"No. I won’t go!" the Greek’s voice matched Zara’s in determination.

"Do not argue with me. My mind is made up!" The captain stood firm in her resolve as she placed her hands on her hips.

"I won’t go, and that is all there is to it!" Gabrielle moved in front of her, her eyes locked on Zara’s as she glared up at her.

"Damn you, woman!" Zara shouted as she turned away from Gabrielle and began to pace the length of the cabin. "Why must you always fight me? Why do you insist on challenging my orders on every turn?" the captain found it hard to control her anger.

"Because I don’t like being told what to do!" the smaller woman hissed. "You’re not doing this, Zara. I won’t allow you to make decisions that are going to affect my life without talking to me about it first!"

"Did you always argue with your warrior as well? Perhaps she should feel lucky to be in an early grave!" The captain spat out, inwardly glad that her words caused the blonde to flinch.

Before the seafarer could consider herself the victor of the verbal battle, Gabrielle moved toward her, her finger pointing directly in her face. "Xena used to make all of the decisions, and try as I might, she NEVER took my advice and now look where it has left me! No, never again, do you hear me!" the petite woman shouted as she backed the taller woman against the wall.

"Sometimes commanders know more about the situation than followers," Zara shouted back as she took a few paces toward the smaller woman, her words attempting to bring Gabrielle under control.

"And sometimes commanders aren’t able to accept help, they take it all on their own shoulders and then look what happens!" the Greek warrior’s fierce determination raged within her entire being. "That’s what Xena did, too. She took it all on herself and didn’t let me help her think of another solution…a way out. Never once did she ask for my help or listen to me." Moisture shone in her eyes, but she blinked it away. "Well, I’m not going to make the same mistake twice. I refuse to let you make decisions about my future without even consulting me!"

Zara felt her fatigue disappearing as the argument released adrenaline. She gazed into Gabrielle’s fiery green eyes. The captain’s expression of determination caused the blonde’s features to crease, her brows furrowed. After control returned, the dusky Moroccan allowed herself to gaze upon the smaller woman’s face, marveled at the beauty that her rage held. The blonde’s lips frowned as she waited for the captain’s response. Without thinking, the tall captain reached out and grabbed the woman’s smaller wrists, held her tightly then lowered her mouth to the Greek’s soft lips.

Taken by surprise, Gabrielle tried to struggle and pull away, and then her fighting stopped as her lips parted to accept the Moroccan’s probing tongue. As the captain felt Gabrielle’s resolve melting from the touch of her lips, she released her hold and moved her hands to gently cup the blonde’s face. When the tall captain felt the smaller woman’s hands wrapped around her hips and pull her tight, she felt triumphant.

At this moment in time, Zara had no thoughts other than the woman in her presence. The pirate ship, the upcoming battle which would be their last, was safely pushed to the back of her mind. A part of her knew that this could be the last time she held the softness of a woman, and perhaps because of this, she lingered in the moment. She allowed herself the luxury of enjoying the kiss and exploration of Gabrielle’s warm mouth.

When the captain pulled away, she gazed at the smaller woman, noticing her panting with eyes closed before opening them and gazing up at Zara. Gabrielle’s thoughts were seen in the intensity of her green eyes. When words could finally be formed, the captain’s hands moved from the blonde’s face to her shoulders.

"I want you," the tall Moroccan’s husky voice sounded like a plea as she searched Gabrielle’s face for acquiescence.

Gabrielle seemed to hesitate as she fought for air. Her hands lingered on the captain’s hips as she felt the dark blue eyes seeking her permission. As her mind swirled with a multitude of thoughts, the emotion within her called out, begging for attention. The blonde desired to be touched, and she longed to touch another warm body. For a brief moment, she clung tight to the larger woman, and their bodies seemed to melt together. Then, when the petite warrior remembered the argument, she frowned, pulled away and slapped Zara’s face hard enough to show her indignation.

"Oh no you don’t!" the blonde growled as she pointed her finger at the bigger woman and stared up at her. "You are not going to get me to change my mind, especially not this way!"

Shocked by the implication, Zara pulled away from the smaller woman. With head bent, she lightly rubbed her jaw. The captain had never expected such a reaction from the woman. She rubbed her stinging cheek and frowned at Gabrielle, "Wha…?" the captain’s words were cut off by Gabrielle’s deep-set frown.

"Don’t even go there!" the fierce warrior woman stared at the captain with determination. "I will not allow anyone to decide my fate. I would just as soon compromise as let that happen again!" Seeing the captain’s puzzled expression, the small blonde sighed as she moved closer to the tall Moroccan.

"Zara," Gabrielle’s voice was no longer shouting. She placed her hand on the taller woman’s shoulder in an attempt to sooth the captain, "I’m sorry, but….I can’t let you do this. I have a right to decide what to do with my life, don’t I?"

The captain thought over Gabrielle’s words, and then conceded. "Yes, you do," she answered as she moved to stand by the window.

"Can we compromise then?" the healer asked.

At the word, Zara turned and faced the smaller woman. With head tilted, she tried to understand Gabrielle’s new word. Her memory raced over the various languages known to her, then, with brows creased, she tried to form the sound of the word, "Com…pro….mise?"

"You’ve never heard of the word before?" Gabrielle’s head tilted as she tried to conceal a smile.

The captain tried to remember the meaning of such a word. When none came to mind, she looked at Gabrielle with a questioning expression. The blonde released a large smile as she moved to stand by Zara’s side.

"Compromise. I listen to what you have to say, and you listen to what I have to say. We then come to a mutual agreement which pleases both of us," Gabrielle explained as she reached up and absently pushed a renegade lock of dark hair away from the Moroccan’s face.

"Com-pro-mise?" The tall, dusky woman allowed the word to roll on her tongue. Then, as she thought over the meaning, she shook her head negatively. "Gabrielle, a ship’s crew could never function with….com-pro-mise," she told the Greek woman.

"No, that’s true, but personal relationships work wonderfully with it!" the healer bard finally smiled as she took the captain’s hand and led her to the chair behind the desk, forcing her to sit.

"And, in case you haven’t noticed, I am not a part of your crew, so this is what I think we can manage," Gabrielle began to explain as she unconsciously massaged the captain’s stiff shoulders.

"Let me stay here, on the ship. I’ll offer my skills, and if I see the fight going badly, I will be the first to take Nadrah and whomever you chose and leave the ship. Is that agreeable?" Gabrielle asked as Zara’s eyes were closed, her expression one of bliss each time the Greek woman’s hands moved over tight muscles. With each touch, the healer managed to work the stiffness out of her friend’s shoulders.

"Fine," was all the Moroccan could answer as the exquisite sensations sent a calm wave through her body.

From behind her, Gabrielle smiled as she glanced down at the cat-like expression on the captain. As if no one had ever done this before, the taller woman kept her eyes closed as a slight groan of pleasure escaped her. At the sound, the blonde grinned as she worked the knots out of the captain’s shoulders, knowing all the time that this technique had always worked on a very similar warrior woman.
Zara existed on pure adrenaline alone. Against her better judgment, she agreed with Gabrielle’s plan. As she made her way across the deck, she glanced around her, noting the preparations that were being made. Each man completed his chores and said his evening prayers, in anticipation of soon meeting Allah.

Almost a full day had passed and they continued searching for the pirate ship. Using the captain’s new coordinates, her ship was gradually moving toward the smaller islands in hope of finding the Prahu. If her crew was growing anxious, they did not show it. Instead, they each nodded at her passing, the determination etched across their features. She had not told anyone what was found on the Arabian ship, yet the news of the fate of the crew had made its way through the ship. It seemed to send anger through the men as they prepared their chosen weapons, while making their peace with Allah.

As the captain made her way up the steps to the bow, she heard the voices speaking softly. Glancing down, she saw Nadrah smile up at her. With only a nod, Zara moved to the rail and glance out at the distant shores. When she took the optical lens from her back pocket, the voices behind her resumed their conversation.

"Xena, is Gabrielle going to be ok?" the little girl asked. At her question, there was silence and the captain began to wonder if the ghost’s voice would ever talk around her again. As the tall woman continued to search the distant horizon, the voice began to speak.

"I sure hope so. I think she’s starting to heal," the Moroccan woman heard the strong voice break the silence.

"Isn’t there anything we can do to help?" Nadrah pleaded.

"No, Sweetheart, I’m afraid not. Gabrielle is hurting right now. All we can do is be patient," Xena explained as Nadrah grew thoughtful.

After a moment of silence, Nadrah posed another question. "Xena, how come you can hold me, but when you hold Gabrielle it hurts her?" the child asked.

Xena sighed as she seemed to contemplate the question. "I don’t know for certain. I think it’s because she is my soulmate, my spirit twin, and my touch only reminds her that I’m not with her anymore. The pain of our separation is like a fire burning into her," the warrior explained, her voice filled with sorrow.

"I don’t ever want a soulmate!" Nadrah huffed.

"Oh, Nadrah, don’t say that! Someday you will find your spirit twin, and you’ll see how wonderful it is!" Xena exclaimed.

"Not if it’s going to hurt, I don’t’!" the girl affirmed.

"Nadrah, it only hurts when your soulmate dies and leaves you behind. But when they’re with you….oh, sweetheart, it is the most wonderful feeling! It’s like…it’s like everything around you is so much better!" Zara could almost hear the warrior smile as she explained this to Nadrah.

"Everything is prettier? The ocean waves are brighter?" Nadrah offered.

"Yes! Exactly!" Xena seemed to be hugging the child close.

"And when one of you isn’t there anymore, when one of you dies first?" the little girl asked, a sudden sadness etching her voice.

The captain felt a sharp intake of breath as she strained to hear the warrior’s reply. With her back to the two, the captain kept her eyes on the distant horizon as she listened closely to what they said. Just when it seemed like the ghost would not respond, Xena’s soft, melancholy voice spoke. "It’s like… the center of your heart was cut away," Zara thought she heard a sob escape the ghost warrior’s control.

"And that’s why Gabrielle is hurting so much? Because every time you touch her, the center of her heart is being cut away?" Nadrah asked softly.

"Yes, I believe so," was all Xena replied.

"Xena?" The little girl’s voice was curious.

The ghost cleared her throat. "Yes, Nadrah?"

"If Gabrielle is the one hurting, why are you crying?"

Zara waited for the ghost to answer, but all she heard was a muffled sob.

Ever persistent, Nadrah asked again. "Why, Xena?"

There was a sigh, and it seemed to the captain that the ghost warrior shook herself. "Be-Because I love her, and when she hurts … I do too."

"Oh," was all Nadrah said.

With a visible frown, the tall Moroccan put the lens into her pocket as she leaned against the rail. Her thoughts were on the warrior’s words. As understanding became clear, she turned and glanced down at Nadrah. The cabin girl sighed, then looked up at her.

"Captain?" Nadrah asked, waiting an order.

Moving to her, Zara knelt on one leg as she smiled at the girl. "Nadrah, has Abu spoken to you about our plans?" she asked the child.

"Ahuh," her voice was soft as she lowered her eyes.

"Good. Then you know, if something happens to us, you are to take Prasha and go with Gabrielle, Badr and Isa?" The tall woman made certain that her words were soft, yet authoritative.

"Ahuh," the softness of her voice told the Moroccan woman that Nadrah was not happy to leave the ship.

"And you know, if that happens, you are to always be good and listen to Gabrielle?" the captain asked, then, as an after thought added, "And her spirit twin, Xena. You understand this, yes?"

"Ahuh," Nadrah’s voice was barely audible.

"Good, then I’m sure you have found a basket that Prasha can fit in, just in case you do have to leave the ship," Zara reached out and tilted the little girl’s face up so that she could see her eyes. The captain felt her heart breaking as she saw the tears in the child’s dark eyes. Then, when Nadrah realized what the captain had asked, her face took on a look of horror.

"Blessed Allah! Prasha doesn’t fit in his basket anymore!" Nadrah exclaimed.

"Well, then I suggest that you go in search of something, and have it handy, no?" Zara smiled at the little girl.

"Yes, Captain!" Nadrah answered before rising and running down the steps. With a smile, the tall woman watched the little girl disappearing over the deck. Sighing, the captain settled herself on the step leading to the bow. As her mind wandered over her future, she reached into her pocket and removed a leather pouch.

The habit of chewing khat was one she usually saved for rest times on land. But as she wasn’t sure when, or if she would ever get another port side visit, she decided to indulge herself, just as her crew was indulging. Opening the pouch, she removed the bits of dried leaves then glanced around at the crew. As she began to chew, she tasted the leaves’ juices seeping past her taste buds. Within a moment, Zara began to feel the sensations of the herb take hold as the calming effect crossed over her senses. Any worries, sorrow, or pain evaporated as the plant’s juices made their way into her system. As calmness fell over her, she closed her eyes and searched for the familiar presence of the ghost. When she felt the coldness of the ghost the captain smiled and opened her eyes.

"I know you are here, ghost," she spoke out loud. When no response was made, she glanced toward the empty bow. "Xena, you are very good to Nadrah," her words were slow and precise.

"It’s not very hard to be," the voice first came from somewhere on the bow, then moved next to her on the steps, "She’s a good kid."

Remaining in her place, the Moroccan woman nodded as her eyes closed partway, her vision still on the crew. After a moment of thought, she asked out loud, "What is it like to be…" but she found it hard to say the word.

"Dead?" the woman’s voice next to Zara was filled with strength.

"Yes, what is it like to be dead?" the captain asked again. When it seemed like she would not be answered, the voice spoke up.

"It doesn’t feel any different," Xena replied.

The silence between them was filled with the sounds of the men on the deck and the ocean waves. With arms resting lightly on her knees, the Moroccan allowed her mind to wander. After a moment of silence, she addressed the ghost once more. "Ghost, my people believe that when you die, Allah rewards you with paradise. Someone from your clan will be waiting to show you the way," the captain absently stated with a sigh.

"We have a paradise, it’s called the Elysian Fields, and it is a place of no suffering, no pain," the warrior’s strong voice grew suddenly softer.

"You are certain that this place exists?" Zara longed to hear the words of promise.

After an endless silence, the captain thought the ghost had left, but then she began to speak with a voice filled with sorrow. "I saw the fields the day I said goodbye to my … my so-son," the ghost’s voice trembled.

"Ghost, you had a son?" the captain was surprised.

Chuckling, the invisible woman next to her said, "Yes, and a daughter. I was someone before I was a ghost."

Zara arched a brow in surprise as she gazed at the empty space next to her. "Yes, I guess you were," the statuesque Moroccan replied. She added in a contrite tone, "I am sorry… sometimes….sometimes I forget that you were someone before you were a ghost…. Xena."

From somewhere near her, the tall woman heard what sounded like a sigh, then a coldness touched her shoulder, lightly patting her before Xena said, "Thank you, Zara."

Suddenly at ease with each other, they seemed relaxed. As the seafarer began to contemplate life, death and life after death, she turned to the invisible warrior. "What I do not understand is…" the Moroccan tried to form her question. "You are not a hungry ghost, I know that much, but what are you? Do you stay because of the promise made to your spirit twin?" She asked as she remembered the dream/memory that they shared.

"I’m not ready to leave her," the warrior answered as the Greek warrior suddenly emerged on the deck. Some of the men were following the small blonde with weapons in their hands; their easy banter brought a smile to the healer. When the group moved to the deck, Gabrielle began to point at some crates, which the men quickly moved to one side as she turned to speak with the men. Like a teacher with her pupils, the petite warrior moved to the center of the crewmen and easily commanded their attention.

Zara watched Gabrielle as the herb in her mouth was growing softer, its juices seeping down her throat. Then she said, "You know, she is quite a handful. I honestly do not know how you were able to put up with her continual disobedience!" The captain tsked as she watched the smaller woman moving on the deck.

Xena released a slight snort. "Oh, trust me, sometimes I wondered the very same thing!" she chuckled, then added, "But…then I see how beautiful she is when she’s angry or happy, or sad, or even sleeping and I can’t be upset."

"By Allah! I cannot argue with you on that!" The captain lightly chuckled.

Xena remained silent then spoke in a soft voice, "Believe me, we used to get into some real fights. Sometimes I would feel so infuriated." Her voice grew soft, "Then I would hold her in my arms and know that nothing in this world mattered except that I love her and she loves me."

Zara thought over the warrior’s words, then nodded as understanding became clear. "Home," the captain whispered as she felt her consciousness expanding under the influence of the khat. Home, this is what Gabrielle had told her it felt like when she was in Xena’s arms. For the Moroccan leader, home was the elusive concept which she longed for, yet could never attain. Home was having the love of a woman, a place to live and love and laugh and at last die with your spirit twin near you. Home was for other people not her, the captain concluded.

Silence surrounded her as she thought of this. Then, when it seemed like they had nothing more to say, the tall woman sighed as she leaned back and looked up at the brilliant blue sky. "I will die when we meet up with the Prahu … perhaps today, tomorrow… soon, I will surly die," the captain wistfully said, then shook her head.

"Xena, you saved my life… the lives of my crew. If you had not been able to get me off of the ghost ship," Zara shook her head, then shuddered at the thought of the hungry ghosts boarding her ship. "I owe you so much," her words trailed off as she lowered her gaze from the sky and absently spit the old khat over the rail, then placed a fresh wad of leaves in her mouth.

As if sensing her calm, Xena broke through the captain’s thoughts. "Zara?" The Ghost’s voice pulled her from her silent thoughts.

"Yes?" The Moroccan woman blinked, forcing her tears to stop before they started as she cast her glance to the ocean "Zara, can I ask a question?" Xena’s voice was soft, yet probing.

"Of course," the captain was quick to respond as her eyes closed, the sweet sensations of the khat filling her senses.

"Why are you going to help us? I mean … I know that you desire Gabrielle, and that you’ve wanted her for a while. I guess I’m wondering why it is that you’re so willing to help me to come back to her?" Xena’s voice was softly soothing to Zara’s ears.

"Am I that obvious?" The tall captain sighed as she laid back on the deck, her hands pillowing her head as she stared up the blue sky.

"Oh, I’m sure Gabrielle knows how you feel," Xena’s words were a soft chuckle. "I was just wondering why, if you want to make love to her…if you want her so badly, then why would you offer to bring us back together?"

In silence, the captain thought over Xena’s words. Then, she sat up and glanced down to the deck and watched the blonde. Gabrielle had the men lined up on one side, a few hand-chosen men near her, and the others across from them. She spoke softly to Zara’s crew, showing them some combat moves.The Moroccan leader sighed, then nodded toward Gabrielle when she understood how best to answer the ghost woman’s question.

With a weak smile, she turned to the empty space next to her where Xena sat. "Because, she is not like me…. yet. Maybe, if luck is on her side, you can return to her before she becomes like me, before she becomes… empty inside… before her heart and soul is dead," The captain smiled sadly toward the invisible warrior.

"Oh, Zara, you aren’t empty! You’re just hurting," the captain heard the words of the ghost warrior and felt the coldness of an invisible arm wrap over her shoulder.

"Hurting? No, I am not hurting," The captain half chuckled. "To hurt, one would have to feel, and I feel nothing. I have not felt anything for a very long time. My heart, my soul, it is like the bottom of the sea, it cannot be touched because it does not exist. I feel no pain or pleasure, my ghost friend!" She laughed softly before closing her eyes against the afternoon sun. As the numbing sensations filled her, the tall woman tilted her head back and allowed the ocean breeze to fan through her long, wavy hair.

As she sat, the captain felt her slight chuckles subsiding. The dark Moroccan could not have explained why she laughed. She only knew that something greatly profound had brought amusement to her senses. Unable to think of anything else, the captain simply went with her feelings. She allowed herself to smile as she glanced out at her crew, watched them working quietly with Gabrielle as they each prepared to fight against overwhelming odds. Despite this, Zara did not care. As she sat contemplating everything and nothing, she felt the ghost warrior close. The cold arm never released her touch as Xena rested her arm over the captain’s shoulder.
Gabrielle stood in the middle of the men, and the warrior bard could tell that they filled their voices with humor to mask their fears. Once she convinced them that she could teach them some moves that might help against the pirates, they followed her on the deck. Though easily outnumbered by the Prahu, she hoped to impart ways to help them survive.

As she gazed at the men, she noted their strengths and weakness. With a trained warrior’s eye, she inspected their chosen weapons. When she came to Ayyub, she noticed the meat cleaver in his hands. Following her glance, the men turned to the cook, their broad smiles turning into laughter.

"Ayyub, what is that?" Hakim chuckled.

"Ayyub, we are going to fight, not to fix the pirates a lamb stew!" Khalil roared with laughter.

"She said to get the weapon of our choice….this is mine," the thin cook offered as he held it up to men.

"Bah! How about his cooking? That could be a weapon!" someone in the back of the group laughed.

"Yes, his food is pretty lethal!" another joined in.

As the men’s laughter caught on, Gabrielle stifled a smile. The jokes brought only anger from the skinny cook. Raising his meat cleaver, he waved it like a mad man, "Ha, won’t you all be surprised to see what damage this can cause!" his high-pitched voice squeaked as he waved it at the men.

"Hey, Gabrielle, why don’t we just send them some of Ayyub’s food? Bet the pirates would surrender then!"

Unable to control herself, Gabrielle joined in their laughter as she shook her head. "You know, when this whole thing is over, remind me to tell you the story about the time we were able to defeat an army using just that type of weapon!" she told the men as she pulled herself together.

"Ayyub, you old sea dog, you never told us that you used to travel with Gabrielle!"

"Yes, yes, make your jokes now!" the slender man’s voice rose with indignation.

"Ok, alright, let’s get back to what we were talking about…first," Gabrielle managed to regain control of her laughter and the men’s attention, then turned and found a thick rope measuring two arm lengths in diameter. "Ayyub, cut it," she told the skinny cook. With a smile, the ship’s cook lifted his cleaver and dropped it, cutting a clean and even line across it. When the men saw this, they gasped as they cast their cook glances of respect.

Seeing their reaction, the blonde nodded. "Anything can be used as a weapon, and never underestimate your own abilities. You don’t need to be trained warriors to win a battle," Ayyub’s demonstration reinforced Gabrielle’s words. For a moment, the men seemed to believe what she was saying, then, one crewman stepped from the crowd.

"Gabrielle, how are we expected to go against twice as many men?" Murshid asked.

"Those pirates are well trained! They won’t be easy," Farraj, normally silent, moved from his place on the nearest crate.

"Yes, Farraj, you’re absolutely right. The pirates are well trained, and I’m sure they outnumber us. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve seen villages with only women and old men defending their homes against overwhelming odds. You can do it too! We just have to work together and use our most important muscle!" Gabrielle’s voice rose with excitement.

The men grew silent as they looked nervously at one another, each one attempting to decipher her words. At the mention of a muscle, some shuffled nervously as they averted their eyes. Confused by their reaction, Gabrielle arched a questioning brow, "What?"

"Beg your pardon, Gabrielle, no disrespect intended, but how is… I mean, how will we?" Hakim mumbled as he glanced down at his crotch.

Understanding his confusion, the blonde warrior felt her cheeks flush as she shook her head negatively. "No, that’s not an important muscle," she said, then retracted her words when the men’s disbelieving gasps rose. "Ok, I’m sure it’s important to all of you, but, it will not help us against the pirates. The muscle I’m talking about is your brain!" Gabrielle added quickly as she pointed at her own head. "If we just use our heads, work together as a team, then it doesn’t matter. If women and old men can defend their village, you can all fight against pirates!"

At their low grumbles, she tried to rein in their disbelief, "Look…let me show you."

Since arriving on Zara’s ship, Gabrielle used her keen sense of observation in discovering who the leaders of the crew were. For general sea-faring knowledge, the men turned to Tashfin, the oldest crewmen. But when it came to combat, they looked to the men who Abu always chose to accompany their captain into danger. This alone told the Amazon queen that these men were warriors, skilled in combat and leadership. With this in mind, she pointed to Zuhair and Ahmad, "Please, come here," she called the two men over. Pulling them aside, she glanced up at the tall men. "I can tell you both have had military training, am I right?" Both men looked down at her cautiously, then exchanged a wordless glance before nodding assent.

"Good! Your friends are going to need your skills. Now, let’s make a simple formation and show them how three people working together can fend off an attack."

With his arms crossed, Zuhair brushed his fingers through his thick beard as he glanced down at her. His eyes grew to slits as if he were searching for her intentions. When it appeared that he agreed, he gave a grunt of assent and moved to retrieve some weapons. Following Zuhair’s actions, Ahmad removed his scimitar and moved to the center of the bridge.

"Good, ok," Gabrielle took her sword from Japa and moved to the center, her back facing Zuhair. Seeing their stance, Ahmad moved and together they formed a triangle. "Ok, now come on, attack us," she told the gathered men.

The men seemed hesitent. When Zuhair barked an order, the crewmen moved cautiously toward the group, their weapons drawn. It was Tashfin who moved toward them first, his weapon drawn as he tried to rush them. Soon, the rest of the men followed suit.

Gabrielle felt every muscle alive, with each attack she felt her combat instincts honed. With the men beside her, they were able to fend off each attack until, finally, when sweat was pouring down their faces, the crewmen stopped and withdrew.

Panting and satisfied, Gabrielle lowered her katana. When she turned to Zuhair and Ahmad, they each smiled at her. Zuhair released a hearty laugh before slapping her shoulder in acceptance. "So, you know how to fight in a group too!" his deep voice laughed as he wiped the sweat from his forehead. At his words, the petite woman smiled as she turned to the crewmen.

"If you work as a group, then it is easier to wear your opponent down. When we reach the Prahu, be in groups of four, if the group gets smaller, then try to find a way to fight back to back with someone." She instructed as the men gathered around her.

Gabrielle felt in her element. Ever since she started traveling with Xena, she learned the art of inspiring people. Although the sea was not her element, fighting against insurmountable odds was, and if she had learned anything from Xena, it was to not give up. As the men listened to her, they began to believe that they could win. Once they had the confidence, they began to practice as a group. Gabrielle enlisted the assistance of Zuhair, Ahmad, Jabir and Farraj, and together they began to draw plans, to choose which group of teams the men would be in.

Once it was decided, the four leaders began to train the crewmen how to fight in units. Satisfied, she stepped back and watched the men practicing. When the blonde turned, she saw Xena sitting on the step next to Zara. The tall Moroccan captain watched the men as Xena had her arm wrapped loosely over her shoulder. With a wide smile the warrior princess greeted her. At Gabrielle’s open confusion, her soulmate shrugged her shoulders.

"Has anyone ever told you that you’re beautiful when you’re all fired up?" The ghost warrior flirted. Shaking her head in disbelief, Gabrielle turned her attention to Zara. "Don’t mind my friend here, she’s flying higher than the clouds right now," the warrior princess explained.

"I see…" Gabrielle’s quizzical expression remained on the two women. At her obvious confusion, Xena smiled and lightly pulled the captain in a tight embrace.

"Me and my friend here were just getting to know one another better," the warrior’s smile broadened.

"And how are you both getting to know each other when…" Gabrielle halted her words when understanding became clear, "Xena, Zara can see you now?"

"Oh, no, Zara can’t see me, but she does hear me. Isn’t that right, my friend?" Xena ruffled the top of the Moroccan’s hair playfully.

"Stop, it takes forever to get it back in place," the captain’s slurred words were slow and precise as she reached up and patted her wavy hair in place.

"Wow, you really are flying, aren’t you?" The Greek warrior smiled as she lightly patted the captain’s leg.

"Sorry, I guess I forgot to tell you that she can hear me," Xena smiled innocently.

"How convenient," Gabrielle frowned as the meaning of her lover’s words settled in.

Never once hearing Xena’s explanation, Zara turned and glanced up at Gabrielle.

"Do you realize that you have managed to accomplish in an hour with my crew what I have tried for years to get them to do?" The Moroccan’ captain’s sleepy eyes looked at the storyteller with disbelief as she shook her head. "You are amazing!"

With a sigh, Gabrielle leaned back, crossed her arms as she glanced up to the heavens, then teased "Zara, some people are born leaders, some are born teachers, I was born to be both!" A simultaneous snort and chuckle came from both the captain and warrior princess.

Before more could be said, Ayyub called to the petite warrior. Turning she saw him waving her to his group, a question on his mind. With only a shake of her head, she turned, shrugged her shoulders to the two women, and then returned to the center of the practice area.

Part 16

Gabrielle gently pulled the covers over the girl’s shoulder. She glanced at Nadrah, watched her eyes moving under closed eyelids, her lips slightly forming words. Deep in sleep, the child smiled, then rolled over. When the blonde healer put the rag doll into Nadrah’s hands, the little girl instinctively wrapped her arms around it. Assured that she was asleep, Gabrielle leaned forward and kissed Nadrah’s temple before blowing out the candle.

"She is cute, isn’t she?" Xena all but cooed as she stood in the shadows.

"Yes, she is," Gabrielle smiled as she stood and moved toward the cabin’s only window. Out of habit, she glanced out at the darkness and watched the crew moving over the darkened deck. She felt Xena move behind her, avoiding touching her. For some time now, they had not touched or made love. Although she understood Xena’s explanation, she was, never the less, missing her warrior’s touch.

"She won’t come down yet," Xena answered Gabrielle’s unspoken thoughts.

"How much longer can she push herself?" the healer bard shook her head, mentally calculating the number of days that Zara had stayed awake.

"I think it’s that herb she’s taking…that they’re all on," Xena explained. "It seems to help them from getting too stressed."

"I noticed that, but at least the rest of the crew are sleeping in shifts. Zara hasn’t closed her eyes in…goodness, I don’t even know how long, I’ve lost track of the days! Xena, how much longer can she stay on her feet? She won’t be any good when…." Gabrielle hesitated finishing her thoughts.

In tune with her feelings, Xena smiled at her, reached up as if to touch the smaller woman’s cheek, then pulled away before making contact. "Gabrielle, I want you to promise me something," the warrior’s words caused the blonde to look up at her with questioning eyes. "If the battle does go badly, promise me that you’ll do as Zara asked. Take the boat and get yourself and Nadrah to safety."

"Xena….I-I," but Gabrielle found it hard to speak as the tears threatened to form in her eyes.

"Listen to me, please," Xena pleaded. "I will always be with you, no matter what, but you’ve got to keep living! You have someone else depending on you, now," Xena reminded as she turned and looked toward Nadrah’s sleeping form. "Gabrielle, please promise me that you’ll go on living, no matter what," the warrior princess beseeched her partner.

With a slight smile, Gabrielle could only nod as she lowered her eyes. "I promise, Xena. What I told Zara was true, I will leave as soon as I see the battle turning against us." At her words, the ghost smiled as she returned her gaze to the window. In silence the ghost stared out at the tall captain still standing on the deck, then took a deep breath and gathered her resolve. When she felt ready, Xena turned to her soulmate with a lopsided grin on her face.

"Hey! I know how you can get Zara to sleep," the tall woman slightly chuckled. At her words, Gabrielle arched a questioning brow. "Why don’t you go up there and bring her down?"

"Xena! What are you asking?" the blonde felt a warm flush cross her cheeks.

"Now, come on, Gabrielle, you know Zara likes you. If you went up there and brought her back, I’ll bet you could get her to sleep all right," the dark hair woman smiled mischievously and raised her eyebrows.

"Xena, I don’t think…." Gabrielle began to say, then shook her head. "I don’t think you know exactly what you’re asking."

An eternity seemed to pass as silence filled the room. Just when the healer bard thought that the conversation was over, Xena moved closer to her ear, and whispered, "Its ok, Gabrielle. I do understand."

Gabrielle looked up into the blue eyes. She saw her lover’s intensity before turning away with a blush, "Xena…."

"Gabrielle, you know what they’re going to face. It isn’t going to help if Zara burns out before the fight. It’s all right, Gabrielle. If you want her….if you want to be close, it’s all right. You need to bring her back here. She needs rest more than anything, and if…" Xena choked back her words as she turned away from her lover, then steeled herself and spoke calmly, "if something should happen….then it’s all right. I know that you love me, sweetheart, that will never change." Her tall lover smiled as she turned and gazed into Gabrielle’s eyes.

"No, Xena, it won’t. You are my soulmate; I love you," Gabrielle could tell that her words pleased her tall lover.

"Then go and get her, force her to follow you if you have to. Get her to sleep, and don’t worry about anything else," Xena smiled an acceptance. At her words, Gabrielle nodded, but hesitated as she searched the depths of her soulmate’s eyes.

Xena sighed. "Don’t worry about anything, Gabrielle, because I will never stop loving you," the warrior princess whispered as she reached out, then stopped herself from touching her beloved.

Gabrielle smiled as she reached up to touch her lover’s cold hand. At her movement, Xena allowed herself to lightly brush Gabrielle’s smile before she faded from the room. The smaller woman slightly smiled as she placed her fingers on the spot that her lover caressed. Then she turned and made her way from the cabin.

As the blonde left the cabin, Xena appeared again and stood at the window watching her lover approach the Moroccan ship’s captain.

"Go get her, Gabrielle." She whispered, then gulped as her eyes filled with tears.

Xena watched with blurred vision as the two women talked at the bow, then with a sob she turned from the sight of her lover and the woman she had sent her to and went to stand beside the peacefully sleeping Nadrah. Prasha the cat was lying beside his small mistress and giving himself a bath and as Xena approached, he looked up and mewed slightly. She stroked his head, and he purred, then went back to his bath.

The ghost warrior looked down at the child, and touched her hair. "Like I said, Nadrah, I hurt when Gabrielle does." She whispered in a choked voice, "and I will do anything to make her happy. Anything."

The child stirred slightly in her sleep, and Xena gently stroked her hair until she was calm again. Then the ghost warrior silently vanished once more and the cabin was empty except for the sleeping child and the purring cat.
With a single-minded purpose, Gabrielle made her way to the bow of the ship. She saw the captain standing in her place, feet braced on the deck as she stared out at the darkness of the sea. When she moved beside the taller woman, she noticed the captain glance down at her, then return her eyes to the dark sea.

"Zara, come with me," Gabrielle’s stated with finality. Surprised by her words, the tall woman glanced down at her. The dark circles under the captain’s eyes could be seen even in the diffused light of the deck lanterns. "Come with me," Gabrielle insisted again as she put her arm through the Moroccan’s, then took her hand and gently tugged until the woman began to follow.

Gabrielle made certain to ignore the slight glances of the crew. She had never mentioned the lewd jokes at her expense; instead the blonde always pretended that she never understood their comments. Ultimately, she noticed that her actions brought her greater respect from the men.

Without a word, Gabrielle pulled the captain into the cabin and closed the door, bolting it behind them. In silence she reached out and began to unclothe the taller woman. Never once taking her eyes from her, the Moroccan woman watched, helping her along the way. Once naked, the dusky woman climbed under the covers and watched Gabrielle undress and then join her. Gabrielle felt the captain’s arms wrap instinctively around her as the small woman laid her head on Zara’s smooth, muscled shoulder. Then with a sigh, the captain pulled away from the smaller woman. Desiring to be the one held, the Moroccan readjusted herself in the bed until she was lower than the blonde and able to lay her head on the Greek woman’s shoulder. At the new angle, Gabrielle smiled at her as she held her arms open and welcomed the woman into her arms.

For a time, they laid like this. Gabrielle was very aware of the captain’s warm nude skin touching hers intimately in so many places, but she made no sign. She knew the moment Zara fell asleep by the change of her weight and breathing. In an absent manner, the healer bard ran her fingers through the captain’s hair until she, too, finally slept.
Zara had allowed sleep to take over. The healer’s comforting arms were enough to lull her into slumber. In the beginning, her dreams were only darkness. Before she noticed a change, a swirl of images began to form. Then they became clear, all the hideous memories from her past, the sounds of whips, hot, searing pain against her back and the screams from her friends blended in until she could not tell them apart.

Like a never-ending river of pain, the visions swirled into different images, and before she realized the change, she was standing in the darkness on the ghost ship. The child’s body twisted and mangled, his dark eyes staring at her accusingly, pleading, begging, demanding justice for the loss of his short life. As the horrible pain filled her soul, she cried out and turned in time to see the hungry ghosts crawling like locusts from the Arabian ship. They were everywhere, surrounding her, touching her, pulling at her until all she could do was kick and push them away…

Panting and covered in sweat, Zara opened her eyes to the darkness of her cabin, her arms flailing, legs kicking as she fought the demons of her dreams. She felt a soft touch against her side as strong arms wrapped around her torso holding and forcing her to stillness. Gentle hands softly stroked her face before pulling her close.

"Shush, shush, it’s all right," Gabrielle whispered in the darkness. "It was only a dream. You’re just dreaming; it’s all right," the Moroccan’s panic-stricken mind was soothed by the smaller woman’s soft cooing.

The captain glanced around her, eyes focusing in the dark until she saw Nadrah fast asleep. Prasha, her cat, had his head up as he glanced at the dark woman. When he was assured that his young mistress was not in danger, Prasha released a big yawn, then lowered his head to sleep. Gulping down her fears of the dream, the tall woman turned and fell sobbing into Gabrielle’s embrace.

With eyes closed, she felt the Greek healer’s soft strokes and touches against her back. The captain’s silent sobs racked her body as she buried herself in the smaller woman’s embrace. The combination of Gabrielle’s touches and soothing murmurs brought calmness to Zara’s raging soul. As the images of her nightmare receded, she felt her heart rate return to normal. With each intake of breath, she inhaled the blonde’s sweet scent, a scent she had never noticed on anyone else before. Lifting her face from the storyteller’s bosoms, she glanced down at the small woman.

Through the diffused light of the deck lanterns, the Moroccan gazed into Gabrielle’s eyes and saw them sparkle in the soft light. The intensity of the gaze seemed too great for the captain to handle. Before she looked away, the healer bard smiled, her eyes turning to slits as her hand reached up and lightly pushed away a strand of the taller woman’s hair. With a sigh, the Moroccan returned the petite woman’s smile as the back of her fingers lightly brushed across Gabrielle’s soft cheek. With no other thoughts but tasting her lips, Zara lowered herself until their mouths met and their eyes closed.

In almost soft, tentative touches, the captain brushed her lips across the blonde’s. When no objection was made, she deepened her kiss, her tongue seeking entrance. The gentle healer’s mouth parted, granting access. As her fingers brushed through Gabrielle’s hair, her tongue probed, savoring the smaller woman’s warm mouth. The blonde’s tongue danced against Zara’s in return as her arms wrapped instinctively around the captain’s shoulder. At the warmth of their nakedness, they each shivered against one another.

When the captain pulled away, she gazed into Gabrielle’s eyes. The Moroccan’s silent request showed in her expression as they both panted for air. When she could finally form words, the dusky woman’s hands moved from the blonde’s face to her shoulders.

"G-Gabrielle…?" the captain’s husky whisper conveyed all of her needs. Unable to speak further and afraid of rejection, Zara held her breath as she searched Gabrielle’s green eyes for a response.

Gabrielle seemed to hesitate. Her hands lingered on the captain’s shoulders as she felt the dark blue eyes probing her for permission. At first, Gabrielle felt an overwhelming guilt. Although she felt the need to be touched, to feel her sexual tensions released, she could not help but feel that she was betraying her soulmate. When she remembered Xena’s earlier conversation, she audibly sighed as she tried to bury her guilt.

‘Xena said if I needed to, I should,’ she thought unhappily. ‘I know I need something, and that’s for sure!’ Then Gabrielle remembered that Xena had also said the Moroccan needed release as much as the bard did. That it might even mean the captain’s life in the coming fight. ‘Oh, gods, what if Zara gets killed because I didn’t help?’ she thought. Suddenly filled with a new determination, the blonde smiled her acceptance.

No other words were spoken, and none were needed. With only a glance over her shoulder to ensure that the child slept, the tall Moroccan turned her full attention to the small Greek woman. Lightly, gently, the tips of the captain’s fingers brushed over Gabrielle’s face as her eyes took in her beauty. With a smile, the captain marveled at the way the smaller woman’s brows arched, the gentle folds around her eyes when the healer smiled. As if putting it all to memory, Zara lightly touched her face as blue eyes gazed into green eyes.

The Moroccan woman had been with many lovers, but none quite like Gabrielle. Always in the past, she had been with women of a tender nature. The captain never thought that someone like this foreigner, someone with such fierceness could ever attract her. Nor had she ever thought that Gabrielle would ever desire someone like her. But now, fate was on her side, she mused as she took in the exquisite sensations of the soft body next to her. With this in mind, Zara moved slowly, relishing their first time, enjoying the touch and feel of the small body below her.

Smiling up at her, Gabrielle reached up and gently stroked the Morccan’s temple, her fingers moving over the captain’s face, stopping at her lips for only a moment before brushing the back of her hand over her cheek, her fingers brushing through the captain’s hair. As the smaller woman stroked her hair, Zara seemed to be taking in every facet of the healer’s features.

‘Gods, her eyes are filled with such intensity,’ Gabrielle thought as she was suddenly reminded of her soulmate. Each time Xena looked at her, whether it was while making love or across a crowded market place, Gabrielle could see the intense love Xena felt for her through the warriors blue eyes. Thinking of her lover, Gabrielle smiled as she closed her eyes and allowed the sweet sensations of the captain’s touch to sweep her away.

At the Greek woman’s slight smile; Zara turned all of her attention into pleasing her new lover. She brushed her fingers down Gabrielle’s neck, resting for a moment at the nape of her neck. With feather-like strokes, the captain lightly touched the healer’s soft flesh. Her touch sent a shiver through Gabrielle. Involuntarily sighing, the petite blonde’s body arch against the taller woman as the wonderful sensations coursed through her entire being.

When the captain heard the blonde’s sigh, she lowered herself and kissed where her fingers had just touched. With slow, soft strokes, the Moroccan lightly brushed her lips over Gabrielle’s nape, her tongue lightly brushing over her lover’s collarbone and stopping on her smooth, white shoulder. Zara switched between kisses and nips, tasting the salty sweetness of her lover’s flesh. She noticed the blonde’s movements, her slight intakes of breath every time the tall woman’s tongue made contact. When she came across a slight scar on the blonde’s left shoulder, she idly wondered its cause, then laid a gentle kiss on it before returning her attention to her lover’s pleasure.

At the bigger woman’s soft kisses and nips on her skin, Gabrielle felt her body seem to rise up in ecstasy. Feeling slightly guilty at how quickly she was responding to the other woman’s touch, she tried to think of Xena, but found it difficult. Like Xena, Zara’s mouth brought exquisite pleasures, but her technique was very different from the warrior’s. Gabrielle couldn’t make herself believe that it was Xena touching her. With a hoarse groan, she stopped trying and began thinking only of Zara and the wonderful things she was doing.

Raising her head and gazing down at the blonde, the Moroccan woman noticed the smaller woman’s aroused state. The blonde’s head was thrown back, her eyes slightly closed, lips parted enough to form a wordless sound of pleasure. Pulling back the covers, the captain gazed upon Gabrielle’s form through the diffused light in the cabin. She noticed how the shadows fell over the smaller body and how the blonde’s milky white breasts moved with each breath. When she saw the pink nipples hard and erect, the tall seafarer had to use great will power to rein in her lustful emotions as she fought to move slowly with her new lover.

When she pulled away from the smaller woman, Gabrielle reached out to Zara. Yearning to feel the warmth of the captain’s skin, she tried to touch her dark lover. With only a smile, the captain took a gentle hold of her wrists and kept her from reaching out. At the confused expression from the blonde, the Moroccan softly kissed her lips before pulling away. Relaxing under the captain’s touch, Gabrielle sighed when bigger woman climbed over her, sitting astride her hips.

Zara marveled at Gabrielle’s perfection. She placed the palms of her hands against the smaller woman’s shoulders then began to stroke her flesh. The Moroccan’s fingertips brushed down the blonde’s collarbone, stopping to softly massage the firm breasts, and causing the smaller woman to moan softly. When it seemed that the trembling bard was lost in her touch, the bigger woman moved her attention to the Greek woman’s torso, touching the outline of her ribs. The captain’s fingertips lightly crossed over the well-defined abs. At the feeling of Gabrielle’s goose bumps, the Moroccan smiled then lowered herself to replace her fingers with her mouth. This caused Gabrielle’s hips to arch upward, bringing her blonde curls against the captain’s black pubic hair. At the thrilling feel of this, a soft moan escaped the Moroccan’s control as her actions stopped momentarily.

Below her, Gabrielle audibly sighed and continued arching her hips upward when Zara’s tongue touched her skin. As the captain’s breasts brushed over Gabrielle’s flesh, her tongue lightly licked a trail from the blonde woman’s neck, over her shoulders, then across her breasts, paying special attention to each nipple. She felt Gabrielle’s body shiver, her breathing increasing with every stroke of the Moroccan’s tongue.

"Oh…." The slight gasp left Gabrielle’s control. At the sound of her own voice in the cabin, the smaller woman glanced toward the sleeping child. Once assured that the girl still slept, she returned her attention to the captain’s touches as she inhaled deeply.

Pleased by the blonde’s loss of control, the captain pulled away. Sitting astride the healer, she smiled down at her as she admired her beauty when aroused. Gabrielle reached toward the captain, her hands going toward the tall captain’s arms. With urgency in her touch, the smaller woman ran her hands over the captain’s arms. When Zara noticed the blonde’s hands moving toward her shoulders, she smiled as she took Gabrielle’s hands in hers and kissed them.

"No," she whispered as Gabrielle looked at her with confusion.

"Why?" the petite woman whispered before Zara shook her head, as she placed a finger over the blonde’s lips.

"NO," the captain whispered again as she moved off of Gabrielle, and lay against her body, "Let me be the one to pleasure you," she whispered, planting a soft kiss against the Greek’s earlobe. Gabrielle shivered and acquiesced, pushing herself tightly into the larger woman.

Zara alternated between kisses and nibbles, her mouth moving from Gabrielle’s earlobe, to the nape of her neck. Each time the blonde’s pleasure threatened to sound in the room, the dark hair captain would lean forward, covering the smaller woman’s lips with her own in order to stifle any noises from her as she gasped her pleasure into the Moroccan’s mouth. When it seemed that the healer could take no more of the bigger woman’s kisses, the captain’s hand snaked down the firm abs in search of Gabrielle’s sweet treasure. As the captain’s fingers made contact, the petite woman shuddered and sighed, her legs parting further, beckoning the Moroccan’s touch. With a smile, the dusky woman continued to lick the blonde’s neck.

The wetness from the blonde helped her fingers seek out their target. With slow, gentle strokes, she pressed firmly against Gabrielle’s swollen clitoris. Each touch brought a slight groan of pleasure, then a suppressed gasp from the healer. With the blonde’s head cradled in her left arm, the Moroccan watched the intensity within the Greek woman’s eyes and marveled at the passion she saw there. After a few slow strokes, her smaller lover clung tightly to her as she buried her face in the bigger woman’s arm before she came softly, releasing a muffled cry of pleasure.

Before her body could relax, Zara reached lower, felt the opening to the blonde’s body, inserted her finger into her warmth, and smiled when the blonde shuddered all over and softly moaned out in pleasure, "Ohhh..."

As she slowly stroked Gabrielle’s inner walls, she gently laid soft kisses over her face, her eyebrows, and her lips. Zara knew where to touch to bring maximum pleasure, and when it seemed that the writhing blonde could take no more, the dark haired woman arched a finger deep inside her and waited as her lover rode out her pleasure. With head thrown back, Gabrielle clenched her jaw tightly as she held back her cry of release, right before her body stiffened. The tall woman held tightly to her, allowing her body to spasm again and again in ecstasy. When it seemed that her pleasure was finally nearing an end, the captain smiled as Gabrielle’s body lay still beneath her, a slight sheen of perspiration on her face as she panted for air.

When she regained her breath, Gabrielle smiled tiredly up at her and pulled Zara down into a kiss. As their lips touched, the blonde’s hands began to move over the captain’s body. At the feel of her gentle fingers moving down her torso, the bigger woman pulled away and took the Greek healer’s wandering hands in hers. With a confused expression, Gabrielle frowned.

"What...?" the blonde whispered softly in the darkness, the confusion clearly visible. "Please?" Gabrielle swallowed thickly, "I-I want to…." Before she could say more, Zara silenced her words with the soft touch of her fingertip.

"Shush," the captain repeated the litany as she shook her head negatively, then placed the blonde’s hands back on the bed.

"But…" Gabrielle whispered then became silent when the dusky woman gazed into her eyes and her need was apparent.

"No, let me," the captain softly whispered as she released her hold on the healer’s wrists then began to climb over her smaller body. The captain’s long legs gently pried Gabrielle’s apart until she was able to straddle the smaller warrior’s muscular thigh. With a smile, the Moroccan woman snaked her arms under the warrior bard’s strong shoulders. Sensing her intent, Gabrielle smiled as she lifted her leg, pressing firmly against Zara as she wrapped her arms around her tall lover’s shoulders.

As the Moroccan felt the blonde’s muscular leg come tight against her pubic region, she began to rock gently, savoring the sublime pressure. With each movement, the captain made the Greek woman smile as she awaited Zara’s pleasure. For what seemed an eternity, the captain rubbed herself over Gabrielle’s leg, her wetness covering the smaller woman’s strong thigh. Her pleasure built and built and suddenly without warning, she seemed to explode into orgasm, climaxing again and again. With each wave of exquisite sensation, the mariner closed her eyes and held fast against the smaller woman as she stifled her cries of release against the Greek healer’s soft but muscular shoulder. Then, when she was finally spent, she sighed as she all but collapsed on top of the smaller woman, luxuriating in the healer’s gentle caresses. Only when she felt sleep near did she move off of the petite blonde, kissing her cheek, then snuggling close to her on the pillow, her arm draped loosely over the creamy smooth flesh of her lover’s firm waist.

For the first time since finding the ghost ship, Zara allowed all thoughts and concerns to leave her as a fog of sleep overcame her. With her head resting on the pillow near Gabrielle’s head, she sighed, breathing in the blonde’s fragrance as a myriad of dreams consumed her. As a calming sleep fell over her, she could feel the gentle woman’s touches against her back. Any thoughts of the future, or how short her future was, were not a concern at the moment. Instead, her body was pulled into a calming trance.
Gabrielle felt deliciously relaxed. Harsh tensions that she had not even realized were inside her were now gone for the first time in weeks and she stretched luxuriously. ‘If I was Prasha, I’d be purring now,’ she thought with a grin.

Gabrielle recognized the Moroccan’s slow, even breaths as her dark lover fell asleep. In the darkness of the cabin, she found herself comparing Zara to Xena. But when she realized what she was doing, she shook the idea from her mind. The two were not the same. Xena was her heart, her soulmate, the woman she was meant to spend the rest of her life with. Zara….Zara was Zara, she was a friend, an enigma which Gabrielle was barely beginning to understand.

As her fondness for the Moroccan began to grow, Gabrielle knew that she would have to contemplate this shift in their friendship. Despite what Xena had told her earlier, the blonde had not planned on this happening but in her heart she knew that she could not honestly say that she was disappointed. For the first time, she had been able to feel pleasure and the all consuming pain, the grief of losing her soulmate, had not followed. Despite this, she felt a pang of guilt as she watched the captain’s sleeping form.

‘But it was not as if I’ve betrayed Xena by going to Zara. Xena even urged me to do so, even insisted it,’ Gabrielle thought silently as a sighed escaped her control.

She was somewhat confused. Before, when she allowed herself to think of making love with Zara, Gabrielle had the hazy idea that it would be the same as making love with Xena. That had definitely not been the case. She had to admit that it had been good with the Moroccan woman, even better than good. Her hands and mouth were knowledgeable and the captain had skillfully brought the blonde to orgasm again and again. The tall captain did not make love the way the Greek woman had been used to, but it was wonderful all the same. Gabrielle smiled.

Oh, yes. The dark woman definitely knew how to please another, but something seemed to be missing when Gabrielle tried to return the pleasure that she just received. It’s almost like Zara was holding back somehow, she mused, and then chuckled at herself.

‘Like I’ve had so much experience with sex,’ she thought wryly. ‘There has been plenty of it with Xena, but with the exception of Perdicus on our wedding night, Xena had been my only lover. I didn’t know sex could be so… so different with another person. But, different or not, I’m sure that something was going on there with Zara.’ She found herself studying the dark woman sleeping beside her.

Gabrielle noticed that the only physical similarities the mysterious captain shared with Xena were her dark hair and height. Aside from these, there was very little that the two had in common. The Moroccan’s thick wavy hair was very different from Xena’s long, straight hair. Her brows, unlike Xena’s were slightly thicker and her eyes, although blue, sometimes looked green under the sunlight. Even the shape of her almond eyes, and slender, bird-like nose were different from Xena’s. In complexion, the captain’s skin was darker than Xena’s normally tanned body, and Gabrielle knew that unlike Xena who tanned during the summer, Zara’s skin tone was always a shade darker than the Greek warrior princess’ body. At the sight of the taller woman’s pouting lips, Gabrielle reached up and lightly touched their fullness. When the dusky woman slightly mumbled in her sleep, the blond smiled as she laid a gentle kiss against the soft sleeping lips that had so recently traveled all over her body on their journey, and shivered slightly at the exhilarating remembrance.

No, although there were some similarities Gabrielle knew that the two women were vastly different in more than just appearance. Mentally, both women were brave beyond belief; both had the mental toughness to make decisions and the courage to stick with them. Beyond that however, their minds, their speech, even their touch during the act of love, were each very distinct and the blonde was just beginning to understand just how very different the only two women she had ever made love with truly were. This was the last thing on her mind before she snuggled down against Zara and surrendered her relaxed and tired body to sleep.
Xena was standing at the bow of the ship. Her eyes were scanning the darkness of the horizon, taking over in Zara’s absence. Although she had given Gabrielle permission to love another, a part of her did not want to know, or think about it. Instead, she turned all of her concentration into searching for the pirate ship.

The warrior princess’s attempt at ignorance was successful as she stood watch all through the long quiet night, until she noted the shifting stars as dawn neared. It was then that the sensations overcame her. As the waves of pleasure coursed through her, she felt her knees buckle. Falling to the deck and rolling over, feelings she had not experienced since she was alive washed over her and caused her to groan aloud. Xena closed her eyes against the exquisite sensations that racked her body and caused her to shudder with sexual delight. When she managed to open her eyes, she saw a vision in front of her.

Gabrielle’s green eyes looked up at her with love, but it was not a look Xena remembered. Each time she made love to her bard, Gabrielle had only desire in her eyes, but this expression, Xena noted, was vastly different. Rather than desire, the smaller woman’s eyes held only compassion as she coaxed her partner on and on to release. Just when the warrior thought she could take it no more, the orgasm shot through her being causing her floodgates to open. Once it was over, the sensations began again, slow and methodical, each orgasm leading to a stronger one, over and over until she felt totally spent in their aftermath.

Panting, Xena crawled to the wall of the bow. Her body was shaking, her mind numbed by her recent discovery. When she glanced at her hands, she fought to steady them as her mind raced over the knowledge that she now shared a bond to the Moroccan captain. Somehow, she had inadvertently created a link when she jumped into Zara’s body and shared her memories. This new discovery combined with the image of seeing her bard below her and making love to her, but not making love to Xena, brought tears from her soul. As she wept, she thought of nothing else except how soft and warm Gabrielle had felt under her/Zara’s body and how much she dearly missed her soulmate’s closeness.

Part 17

The following day of their search proved to be fruitful. An eerie calmness fell over the crew as they sailed past small islands. Since spotting the land, the reserved captain had gone below and donned her battle gear. As she quickly gathered her weapons, the smaller warrior dressed in a white armor from Japa. When the Moroccan noticed Gabrielle’s toned abdomen below the armor, she arched a questioning brow, then shook her head negatively.

"What?" Gabrielle asked as she glanced down at herself.

"It is nothing," Zara sighed as she cinched her weapons on, "I was only regretting that I could not love you again," she sighed with a smile.

"One track mind," Gabrielle mumbled before playfully swatting the Moroccan’s backside. The captain grinned mischievously before going back to dressing. Gabrielle rolled her eyes, then cupped Zara’s chin and standing on tiptoe, brushed her mouth softly across the bigger woman’s. She then jumped quickly away to continue her own dressing before the dusky captain could respond.

Once clothed and armed they each moved out onto the deck. No longer fatigued, the captain stood alert at the bow. She noticed the sounds of the ocean waves around her. As the land came closer, she looked upward and inspected the sky.

"Something’s there," Xena said behind her.

"It’s too quiet," Gabrielle added.

"There are no birds…" Zara replied.

"Whatever it is, it’s right around in that cove," Xena moved closer to the rail, her eyes straining to see in the distance. At the ghost’s words, the tall captain took the eyepiece and scanned the horizon of the shores. Empty of all life, she turned and motioned for Abu to turn the sail in order that they could round the headlands and see into the cove.

"They are there." The Moroccan leader’s voice was low, yet firm.

"You can see them?" Gabrielle’s was barely a whisper.

"No, but I feel them," the captain ran down the steps

"Yeah, it’s way too quiet," the blonde spoke softly as she moved toward the steps.

Just as they cleared the headland of the cove, the familiar words called down to them from the watchers perch. "Ship ahead!" the crewmen excitedly shouted down.

As they sailed past the outcropping of land, the dusky woman spotted the ship in the distance. With her optical lens, she focused on the ship, noticed the familiar design on white cloth, and then scowled. Once she made certain it was the ship they hunted, she closed the eyepiece as she turned away from the sight.

One look from the blonde and Zara knew her silent thought. With only a slight smile, the tall woman sighed as she lightly brushed the back of her hand against the white woman’s smooth cheek. There was so much she wanted to tell Gabrielle, but words did not come easy. Rather than say anything, she closed her eyes as she leaned down and softly kissed her forehead.

When she pulled away and gazed down into the green eyes, she saw the smaller woman’s eyes glistening with unshed tears. Reaching upward, Gabrielle put her hand behind Zara’s head and pulled her down until their lips met. As if they were all alone, the tall woman’s lips merged as one with the bard’s. All of Zara’s hopes, fears and desires culminated in this single kiss.

Nearby, Xena discreetly turned away, allowing her soulmate her privacy as she stared at the pirate ship in the distance and her own thoughts were somehow sad with a feeling of loss.

"Remember your com-pro-mise," the captain whispered to the Greek warrior after their kiss, the new word still sounding foreign to her ear.

Understanding her, Gabrielle nodded as she covered the taller woman’s hand with hers. With tear filled eyes, the small blonde gazed up at her, then took the Moroccan’s hand and kissed the palm. The tall woman closed her eyes against the deep emotions that welled within her, then smiled down at the storyteller before turning to her crew.

"Abu!" Zara shouted out. Before she could give the order, the big man called out, and waited as Ahmad and Jabir carried Badr to the waiting boat. As she watched them carrying the man, she called down to her second in command, "Abu, raise the flag!"

With a nod to a junior crewman, the muscular man stood by and waited as the white silk cloth was hung on the main mast line. As they pulled it up on the ropes, the ocean winds unfurled it, the cloth flew as the inscription of a prayer could be read, "Allah is powerful to do all things." Emboldened by the words, the men began to smile as the low cadence of their prayers grew in intensity.

"Captain! Please, I can fight!" Badr shouted toward her as the two men lifted him into the boat. "Please, Captain, give me a sword, I can help! I can fight!" his voice was filled with anguish as he reached out to her.

Zara felt her brows crease as she turned away from the man. From behind her, she felt the blonde warrior place her hand against her shoulder as if to give her strength. When Badr’s words proved too much, the captain turned and bounded down the steps. She noticed Abu lifting Nadrah into the boat, then placing the fruit basket that held the meowing cat next to her.

"Now be a quiet little mouse, and hide down on the boat," Abu instructed the girl.

"Abu, a sword," the captain ordered. When a sword was placed in her hand, she turned and handed it to Badr. "Badr, you are always loyal and strong, but I need you in this boat," her voice was filled with authority, then she leaned closer to the legless man.

"My friend…. Isa will need your wisdom if he is ever going to get the woman and child home. He will need your sword… please, my friend, understand that I specifically chose you for your loyalty and bravery," Zara made sure to keep her words low, to assure the man of his value in hopes that he would not feel discarded because of his injury.

When he seemed distressed, the captain’s voice grew lower, "The woman and child are my most prized possessions," she whispered hoping that he would fall for her ruse and understand the gravity of her request.

With a blinding flash of insight she suddenly realized that what she had just told Badr was not a ruse at all, but the absolute and utter truth. Gabrielle and Nadrah were her most prized possessions, and whether she truly owned them or not wasn’t important. Nothing else that she had ever dreamed of or touched was worth more to her. As her eye’s suddenly filled with tears, Zara blinked them away. The captain lightly clasped Badr’s shoulder willing him to understand that which she had only just come to realize herself.

"They are… my treasures!" she whispered with emotion.

Badr glanced from Nadrah’s dark eyes to the Greek woman on the bow. With a gulp, he nodded in obedience as he bowed his head in a salute to his captain. "Yes, my Captain. May Allah give me strength to honor your trust."

"He will, my friend, he will." Zara managed a smile as she turned to Nadrah, reached in and pulled her in an embrace.

"Nadrah, take care of these men," she whispered close to her ear, "and always honor Gabrielle as you would your mother, do you understand?"

"Y-yes, captain," the girl sobbed as she hugged Zara’s neck tightly. With great strength, the Moroccan captain fought back her tears as she settled Nadrah in the boat. When she turned and saw Isa, she only nodded. No words were needed for the young man. Although he longed to be in the fight, he understood her orders and would carry them out completely.

The tall, dark hair woman felt her body gearing for battle. As she moved to the rail, she glanced at the men gathered on deck. Dressed in their garb from their homelands, they each stood, their voices whispering a silent prayer as their fingers flexed on their weapons of choice. When she moved to Abu, he gave a slight grunt, as he handed her his pouch of khat. With a wave of her hand, she turned the herb down as she strived to focus her attention on the ship in the distance.

With the gap closing, they heard the echoes of a preexisting battle bounced off of the nearby hills. It was not until they were near that they saw a second vessel behind the Prahu. Taking the optical piece, she focused to see any clue for the identity of the second ship. She noticed the smoke rising from a mast behind the pirate ship. Glancing upward on the main mast, she recognized the green flag, its inscription easily seen.

"Arabian!" she whispered. From near her, a crewman overheard her and began to whisper it through the ranks.

"Abu, bring us around!" Zara shouted as she handed him the eye lens and ran to the bow, as she pulled her scimitar and stood ready to fight.

From the higher vantage point, she saw the hidden ship behind the Prahu. Fighting valiantly, the Arabian crew was warding off the attack as well as they could. In the center of the fighting on the Arab ship stood an older man dressed in the traditional clothes of his country. His tall frame wielded a scimitar of ornate metal, the glint of the jeweled handle shone under the sun. The dusky captain stole a few moments to glance over the Arabian ship’s crew. Obviously not a battle craft, the crewmen aboard were using whatever weapons at their disposal to try to fend off the pirate attack. Trapped in the cove, there seemed little the Arabian ship could do to run from the faster ship.

"Abu, steer her to the port side!" she shouted as she moved to the rail, and watched and waited as her ship was heading toward the pirate vessel. As her men waited, they watched in silence as they closed the distance.

Zara was ready for battle. With a single-minded focus, she stared at the approaching ship. When she gauged that they would soon be on the Prahu, she jumped to the rail of the bow and balanced on either side. From behind her, she heard Abu warning the crew to brace for impact. Ignoring all around her, she stared straight ahead.
Gabrielle saw everything moving fast. One minute they were searching, and the next it seemed like they were right on top of the pirate ship. As she saw the crewmen bracing for impact, she glanced up in time to see Zara standing at the front of the bow. Each leg balanced on top of either side of the rail, she stood in perfect balance as the waves rocked against the ship.

The Greek warrior found herself admiring the captain’s beauty, the way she stood frozen like a statue with her body balanced, back stiff, knees slightly bent as the wind blew past her. Her clothes a mixture of Arab, Indian and Moroccan stood out in vivid colors. As the wind blew her full mane of black hair back, her face was creased in concentration.

All of this Gabrielle saw right before Zara’s ship lurched, the sound of wood on wood echoing in the periphery of her senses. Then she heard the loud roar of angry voices and knew that it was the crew just before they jumped onto the deck of the pirate ship. Turning, she watched as the Moroccan beauty leaped from her perch, her steel muscled legs carrying her through the air until she landed on the deck of the Prahu.

At the sight of her leaving, Gabrielle glanced up in time to see Xena leaping over the rail as well, to land near the captain. With no other thoughts in mind, Gabrielle took the great Katana of Japa in hand and followed closely behind her two lovers as they leaped into hell.
Zara was pleased to see the looks of surprise from the pirates. Allowing herself only a moment of satisfaction, she released a cold metal star into her left palm. As the nearest pirate turned on her, she flicked her wrist and released the jagged throwing star into her hand from the hidden dispenser strapped to her forearm. With quick precision, it flew through the air and hit its target. The pirate had no time to duck before it was lodged cleanly in his eye. At his momentary blindness, the tall Moroccan moved forward with swift hacking motions of her scimitar, slicing through his face first and continuing the clean slice down through his breastbone causing his organs to spill steaming to the deck.

The carnage and mayhem soon blended into one. From the corner of her eye she noticed Gabrielle’s blade slicing through a wall of pirates. Zara’s men screamed out as they rushed the wall of trained warriors, each one remembering Gabrielle’s lessons and following her previous plans.

From somewhere nearby the Moroccan captain heard a strange battle cry. "Ayiyiyiyiyiyiyi," it echoed over the deck as a sail boom came swinging around to crash into a group of pirates. At the far end of the ship, she noticed Abu wielding his iron club in one hand, and a long sword in another.
The years of traveling with the warrior princess had honed Gabrielle to the point where she fought instinctively. She no longer paid attention to the faces around her or of those men who fell below her blade. Instead, she moved with the single-minded purpose of causing as much damage to the enemy as possible.

The battling bard hacked through a screaming pirate with her Katana, then spun-kicked another in the stomach as he charged her. As the man stumbled back retching, the Katana licked out and opened his throat. The Greek warrior was merciless in battle, for if she had learned one thing from her travels with Xena, it was the hard lesson that in battle, it was kill or be killed.

From the corner of her eye, she noticed a movement, and turned quickly to see Ayyub’s slender form rushing to a pirate who was attempting to dislodge his sword from the wooden bow of the Prahu. Before he could pull his blade out, the thin cook lifted his meat cleaver and dropped it evenly across the man’s arm who ran away handless, screaming and spurting blood.

With a pleased smile, Ayyub waved his bloody weapon to her as he shouted, "Easier than carving a leg of lamb!" Before turning into the chaos again, to hack away at any pirate in his path. At his words, Gabrielle placed this memory at the back of her mind, then returned her concentration to the fight.

The Moroccan woman ignored these distractions. Instead, she fought knowing that it would be her last battle. With each star thrown, a pirate was downed. Only when she began to notice her own men falling, did she feel a pang of regret. She saw as Hanif was hacked open from crotch to stomach by a huge laughing pirate. Then Murshid went down with an arrow in his eye. Zara felt rage when she caught a glimpse of Tashfin fighting frantically on the rail on the ship against two pirates. He had just managed to hack one man down, when a blow from the other’s sword severed his leg and he fell screaming overboard. She saw others go down as well, and howled her rage to Allah, fighting like a demon against the pirates near her.

As yet another went down before her, she saw the pirate captain turn on her, recognition in his eyes as he glanced from her to the flag that now flew on her ship. With a snarl of fury the Malaysian captain, angered by her earlier ruse, growled as he raised his sword to her. When she reached for her wrist, Zara frowned when no metal star fell into her palm. Reaching for the short sword strapped to her back, she turned on the pirates near her. With quick, easy strides, she first sliced one man with her scimitar, then brought the short sword down to finish off another.

She hacked her way with each weapon through two more pirates, then found herself facing the captain of the Prahu. Zara felt her world suddenly move in slow motion. When she faced the pirate captain, she watched in surprise as a wooden board suddenly flew through the air, knocking the sword out of his hand. She thought, ‘Ghost? Is that you?’ Snarling a curse, the man rose up, reached for a nearby battle hammer, and came charging at the Moroccan captain. Standing at the ready, she waited with joy in her heart to make him pay for his crimes.

Before she could even lift her weapons a blinding pain smashed into her back, a sudden ache pulsating at the top of her head. Through the clamor of the battle Zara heard the metal clank of her swords falling to the deck and thought she heard Abu calling her name. No longer armed, she stumbled on wobbly legs to face the pirate captain, barehanded. Near her, a man cursed in a foreign language as he slammed her in the side of the face and she seemed to see stars explode in her vision. Falling to the deck, she saw a large grinning pirate standing above her. She reached out blindly and was pleased to feel a weapon near her right hand but before she could lift it, he smashed her hand against a wooden crate with a huge metal club.

Zara heard a scream unlike any other, then realized it was her own. With her right eye swollen shut, she turned her head and focused with her left eye. The large man lifted the club to dash her brains out, when there was a metallic singing through the air, and he gurgled as a flashing chakram sliced through his windpipe, bounced off the crate and caromed away again. She rolled to her knees, cradling her broken hand and she saw the glee in the pirate captain’s expression as he glanced at her limp right arm, then at her bleeding face. As the darkness threatened to take over, the Moroccan captain looked up in time to see Gabrielle standing on her ship holding the bloody chakram. The Greek blonde stopped and turned, and the pain in her eyes was evident as their eyes locked. The healer’s lips moved in a silent plea to her lover, but no longer able to stand, the tall, dark hair woman held her gaze, then shook her head and saw the small woman’s tears as she nodded and went out of sight towards the small boat with Nadrah and the others.

This was the end. She could fight no more. Resigned to her death, Zara glanced up one last time at the clear blue sky. Then, when the shadow of the pirate captain fell on her, she looked up at him, forced her eyes to focus on him, then she nodded acceptance as she lowered her head, prepared for him to finish her. In that split second of time she surrendered herself completely.
Gabrielle saw the men falling around her, some were pirates, but most were Zara’s crew. As promised, when the battle was turning against them, she turned to jump back onto the Moroccan ship. When she heard the dusky captain’s scream sear through her senses, she turned in time to see the metal club lifting from the tall woman’s arm, its force crushing her bones.

The warrior bard screamed herself, and as she saw the large man raising the ugly club to kill her lover, she snatched the chakram from her belt and hurled it across the intervening space. The whirling disk took the man’s throat out, bounced off a crate and was back in the blonde’s hand almost in the blink of an eye.

The storyteller jumped onto Zara’s ship, then looked back. She saw the courageous woman on her knees, and the Moroccan woman saw her. Their gazed locked. "Please," Gabrielle whispered, tears in her eyes. "Don’t make me leave you to die, too!" But the captain seemed to know what the small bard had said, and shook her head. She smiled and looked away to a large man approaching her with a weapon held high.

In an instant Gabrielle had the urge to turn back, to run to the tall woman’s aid. But then she looked behind her and saw Isa waiting for her, his sword drawn as he prepared to drop the boat to the water. Badr sat holding a struggling child. Nadrah’s panicked eyes stared in the direction where the captain had fallen, tears streaming down her cheeks, "Zara!" the little girl’s shout rang through Gabrielle’s soul. One look at all of this and the Greek woman knew what had to be done. In a mad dash she ran across the deck of the Moroccan vessel and jumped into the small boat on the other side as she heard Xena’s battle cry ringing from the pirate ship.

Once she landed in the boat, Isa’s sword cut the ropes. Gabrielle had enough time to see Xena on the pirate sails. "Ayiyiyiyiyiyiyi," the familiar cry registered as the leather clad warrior jumped from a sail, seeming to fly through the air, to land… Gabrielle could not see where she landed because their boat hit the waters with a jarring force. Following Isa’s lead, she grabbed the oars and began to work them, pulling until they began to move away from the Moroccan ship.

Part 18

Xena knew the moment Zara was in trouble. At the intense pain in her arm coming over the link they shared between them, the Greek warrior turned her attention away from releasing sails and untying rigging ropes. Other than lightly touching Gabrielle and other humans, she had found as a ghost that she had great difficulty picking material things up or affecting them. However Xena could manipulate some objects like wood and cloth and using these skills she could untie knots, causing rope and sailcloth to fall from the rigging into the fight. Once she had been able to get a sail boom to drop on a group of the enemy as well. What little she was able to do slowed the pirates down… but not enough. When she felt the captain’s agony, from her vantage point in the sail, she looked down and searched the deck. When she found her target, the warrior princess screamed her battle cry as she jumped down, landing within the Moroccan woman’s body.

Zara stiffened from the impact. Already surrendering, the Moroccan sighed as another soul entered hers. Remembering the last time this had happened, she remained silent and allowed the Greek warrior to take control. As if born with superhuman strength, her body spasmed once, before her eyes opened in time to see the battle hammer coming down toward her. With a gleeful smile, Xena/Zara reached up and grabbed the wooden shaft in her hand and twisted the weapon out of the surprised captain’s fingers.

"Ayiyiyiyiyiyiyi," the strange cry came from the Moroccan woman’s throat as she jumped into the air from a kneeling position. The now unarmed pirate captain fled in fear, as Xena/Zara was no longer in pain, her body moved fluidly as she plunged into the battle once more, swinging the hammer one handed. Seeing her renewed strength, her men released a roar as a surge of strength filled them, and bolstered them to continue fighting.

Gabrielle and Isa rowed the boat a great distance before she felt Isa stopping his movements, leaving the rowing to her. Screaming like a mad man, he stood and waved frantically as he released a yodeling battle cry. When Badr joined in, she turned to see a third ship round the headlands of the bay. It’s flag soaring high in the wind looked familiar to the blonde warrior.

"Arabian?" she whispered as she felt the sweat pouring down her back. Moving at a swift speed, it broke its way through the waves, aimed directly at the Prahu. As it passed, Gabrielle looked up in time to see the crew standing at the rail. Dressed in black, they waived their scimitars high as they answered Isa and Badr’s yodeling cry, then shouted something, which she did not understand.

"Yes, brothers!" Isa shouted as he jumped slightly, rocking the boat in excitement, "There is no God but Allah! Praise be to Allah!"

"Sit down!" Gabrielle shouted at the screaming man. When his excitement kept him from hearing her, she reached up and grabbed his shirt, forced him to sit. "Sit down and shut up before you make us turn over!" Gabrielle screamed. Suddenly realizing her words, he only nodded as he took up his oars.

"We’ve got to get back there NOW!" she yelled as she began to turn the small boat around.
Even with Xena’s help, Zara’s body could not continue for long but somehow, she continued fighting. From somewhere nearby, she heard a commotion, then saw black clad men clamoring onto the deck like a swarm of fighting ants. At the sight of the superior forces, the pirates turned, the fear clearly etched in their faces. Using their confusion to her benefit, Xena/Zara leaped forward and grabbed the pirate captain. The Moroccan sensed that Xena was going to spare him, to show him mercy and let the local authorities take responsibility for him, but from somewhere deep inside, she felt the captain’s anger, heard her outrage for what had happened to the cabin boy and his crew. Remembering the hungry ghosts, Xena knew that only by the death of their murderers would they be released to make their way to the afterlife.

With only a sigh, Xena felt her spirit step back as the tall captain took control. At the memories of the carnage on the ghost ship, Zara took hold of the pirate captain, felt his body struggle for only a moment before she held his head with her left hand. While the remaining pirates began to surrender, the Moroccan took the Malaysian man’s head and gave a quick twist and heard his neck snap from the pressure. She dropped his dead body to the deck, then staggered herself as relief filled her.

When silence and order returned to the ship, the Moroccan woman felt herself falling back into the shadows of her mind. From nearby, she watched Gabrielle pulling herself onto the ship. Some of the Arabian men reached down and pulled her up, stood back as the blonde warrior glanced around the deck.
Gabrielle was not certain what she would find. Around her were the fallen from Zara’s crew as well as the pirates. Instinctively, she moved from injured man to injured man, assessing their wounds as she passed orders to Isa, while the men from the newly arrived Arabian ship took control of the pirates. It was then that she saw the tall captain, her battered bruised body standing on wobbly legs, her right eye swollen, blood matting her dark hair and covering her face as her right arm hung limp. Like a newly fallen tree, the tall woman suddenly fell backward on the deck and didn’t move again. At the same moment Gabrielle saw Xena jump free from the dusky captain’s fallen form.

"Xena!" Gabrielle screamed to her soulmate as she ran toward them. Panting, Xena coughed as she lay on the deck near the fallen Moroccan woman.

"She’s…. Gabrielle….I-I had to…." The warrior began to explain as Gabrielle moved to Zara, lifted her head onto her lap, and sobbed with relief when she saw the Moroccan’s chest move with her breathing.

"Xena, it’s ok. I understand," she reached out and lightly touched her soulmate. At the instant contact, she was surprised to not feel anything. The freezing cold, the sense of pain could no longer be felt. Instead, her fingers went through Xena as if she were not even there. She looked at her fingertips and then stared at the flickering ghost.

"Xena!" She choked, fear seizing her. "What’s wrong?" Oh, by the gods, she thought frantically. Please don’t let me lose both of them! Not now, after all this!

"I…" the warrior princess ghost panted, "…tired…need…ca-can’t…" her words barely audible as her image phased in and out of existence.

"Xena, rest. Do what you need to do, please, Xena!" the blonde begged. With only a nod, Xena’s shape fell to the deck, then blinked out of sight like a blown out candle.

Although frantically worried about what had happened to Xena, her healer instincts took control, and Gabrielle ran her fingers over the Moroccan captain’s form. With shaky hands, she searched for Zara’s injuries. The Greek woman swallowed with fear when she realized how bad her lover’s injuries were, then she took control of her fears and began to tend to them. Seeing the Moroccan fallen, Abu moved and kneeled by his captain.

"Zara," his voice was low as he touched her arm then looked at Gabrielle.

"She’s alive, but I need to take care of her," she said tensely as she tore some cloth from the pants of a dead pirate and held it over the captain’s bleeding head wound.

From nearby, a group of men moved toward them. While some wore all black Arab clothing, another wore a similar white outfit. As they stood near, they spoke softly as they pointed to the female captain. Protectively, Abu rose, his bloody weapon easily balanced in his hand as he gazed at the men.

"Salaam and greetings, brother," one in black stated as he moved to the front of the group, offered the traditional salute, then glanced down at Zara.

"She fought bravely, and our master wishes to know her name," he asked Abu. With a slight frown, Abu glanced at the man in white.

"And who is your master that he wants to know?" Abu growled as he stared at the man’s master.

With a wide smile, the older man stepped forward, and bowed low before Abu as he saluted
the big man. "Salaam, brother. I am Sultan Uthman Hadim ibn Zafar ibn Ja’lal ‘abd al-Quaiti, of the kingdom of Hadhramaut, and I wish to know who is this woman that saved myself and my entourage?"

Gabrielle only noticed vaguely as those from Zara’s ship fell to one knee, their heads bowed upon hearing the man’s title. Only interested in her missing soulmate, her hurting friend and her dead and wounded crewmen, Gabrielle reached around her lover and pulled more cloth from another pirate’s body, holding it firmly against the already blood soaked cloth on the Moroccan’s wound. Before anything more could be said by the foolish men parading on the deck while the wounded and dying lay all around, the Greek healer came to her feet and turned on the older Arab man, her voice harsher than she intended.

"HEY! She’s hurt! I need to tend to her! They all need help!" she gestured around at the carnage on the ship before saying grimly, "What are you gonna do about it?"

Even though he did not understand the words, her angry tone caused the Sultan’s eyes to grow wide. When he gazed at the Moroccan captain, he frowned, turned to his men and quickly barked some orders in a dialect Gabrielle did not know. Before she knew what was happening, the men in black had picked up Zara and were carrying her across the Prahu, easily crossing the distance to the Moroccan ship. With a curt nod of thanks, the blonde followed close behind the men carrying her lover, knowing that Abu would tend to matters with the Sultan.

The End of Chapter 3 of The Curse of Higuchi


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