Disclaimer & Notices
Copyright: I do not own the Xena concept and certain characters but the plot is all mine.
Violence: There is violence.
Subtext: I really dislike this disclaimer.
Summary: The sequel to Stranger in a Strange Time. The Conqueror and Queen Gabrielle take their trip to Egypt to meet the powerful Queen Cleopatra. Along the trip across the Mediterranean, Gabrielle learns from the Conqueror that her long lost sister, Lila, is still alive and well but a slave. Quickly Gabrielle becomes less concerned about her vacation in Egypt and more about rescuing her sister from Gurkhan. And the Conqueror for the fist time realizes she cannot simply take what she wants because so much is at stake. Can the Conqueror and Gabrielle safely rescue Lila, who may not even want to be freed?
Started: March 5, 2007
A Stranger in my Family
by Red Hope
Chapter 1 – Sea Legs
"By the gods, I can't believe this," Gabrielle whispered to nobody. Her features showed her awe, and she'd been on the bow of the transport ship for some time. Her sunshine hair was blown back, the smell of salt encircled her, and the sunset was just off to her left. She then turned her head sidelong when heavy boot steps approached her from behind.
"Do you plan to stay here all day?"
The Amazon Queen smirked and turned her head away after taking in her lover's words. "I think it helps."
"I don't think you have anything left in your stomach," the Conqueror smugly remarked. She stood behind her partner's back, her arms crossed, and her body swayed to the motions of the ship.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Gabrielle murmured. She blinked to rid of slight sting from the salty air.
The Conqueror, a past pirate, scanned the watery horizon then a distant smile touched her lips. "It never changes."
"Hmmm." Gabrielle considered the ruler's words for a moment. Then the ship suddenly pitched deeper from a larger wave, and Gabrielle clung to the railing for support. She sensed quick and strong hands at her hips that steadied her. She groaned when her stomach grew upset from the movements. "Isn't there something for this?" She shook her head and muttered, "You outta order the captain to hang me off the side of the ship so I don't mess up his deck anymore."
Xena quietly laughed at her partner's joke. She stepped closer then slipped her arms around the bard, but she pulled Gabrielle's left hand into her hands. She turned the bard's palm up then with her right two fingers; she pressed a certain spot on Gabrielle's wrist.
Gabrielle stiffened then relaxed when her stomach settled down instantly. "What was that?"
The Conqueror kept her left arm around the bard's waist. She signaled to the pressure point just under the bard's wrists. "If you press there, it'll control your queasiness."
The bard tested it and grew bright at realizing it did indeed work. Then she suddenly glowered. "Why didn't you tell me this sooner?"
"Well," Xena explained, "I was hoping you'd just adjust."
"Xena, it's been three damn days." Gabrielle's tone was laced with annoyance. "This deck has been washed more in these three days than they do in two moons." She heard the ruler's snicker so she quickly turned around with an angry look.
The Conqueror went very serious and lost her smirk. "Well, you should be fine now."
"Oh no," Gabrielle ranted, "you're not getting out of this that easily."
The Conqueror's right eyebrow gradually arched up at the challenge.
The bard opened her mouth, but her lecture was halted before it was even started.
"My liege," Iolaus greeted.
The Conqueror let out a relieved breath then separated from the irate bard. She turned to Iolaus and gave him a faint smile because she was so grateful. "Yes?"
"The captain wishes a word with you," Iolaus informed.
The ruler glanced at her partner then shrugged. "Duty calls." She didn't wait a beat for any reply and took off like Hades was on her heels.
Gabrielle snarled then turned her angry sights onto the defenseless Iolaus. "Iolaus?"
The tetrarchès had wide eyes upon seeing the wrath, and he stepped back once with his hands up in defense. "Please excuse me, Queen Gabrielle," he drew out carefully, "the Conqueror will need my assistance." He turned and tore off at an incredible speed.
"Gods damn it," the bard hissed then she stumbled when the ship porpoised deep then rocketed back up into the air. Gabrielle clutched the railing nearby then moaned at her upset stomach. Once her body was steady, she calmed her stomach by way of the pressure point. "If they ever find a way to fly, I swear I'm never touching a damn boat again."
The Conqueror finished her discussion with the captain of the transport ship. She was quite pleased with the ship's speed across the sea to their destination. She imagined it would be another nine days or so before they reached the shores of Alexandria. After they left port, she secretly admitted she was excited to go on the vacation simply because Gabrielle was so excited.
Yet the Conqueror had quickly sobered once she realized she needed to discuss with Gabrielle about her sister. She never found the right time to do it in Corinth since they were so busy preparing for the journey but now there was plenty of time. The Conqueror just kept delaying it, and she'd already snapped off Iolaus's head once when he'd inquired about it. At that thought, she bid goodbye to the captain and ordered Iolaus to follow her.
The tetrarchès had his hands behind his steel covered back. He was formal but yet calm. His curly blond hair moved in the wind, and his face was rather weathered, which made him seem years older.
The Conqueror took a spot next to the railing. She leaned against it and gazed over the beautiful sea that was darkening from the slowly sinking sun. "Iolaus," she started in a quiet voice, "I should have not reacted the way I did the other day."
The soldier shifted uneasy on his feet because he'd never once been in this position with the ruler. He brushed back his hair as he tried to think of something appropriate to say, yet he failed.
"I have not been looking forward to disclosing to Queen Gabrielle that her sister is alive." The Conqueror leaned against the rail, and she wouldn't look at the tetrarchès. "She will be happy for only a brief instant before she realizes what this means." She turned her head to the soldier. "I don't like that and I don't look forward to seeing that from her." She turned her head away then murmured, "I should have not taken out my frustrations on you. You have served me well and faithfully since I conscripted you."
"And you have always been fair, my liege," Iolaus declared in a serious voice.
"Not so fair in your conscription," the ruler sadly argued.
"Fairer than many warlords would have been at the time." The tetrarchès offered a faint smile, yet it did not help the ruler. "At first, I loathed you for conscripting me but I realized I was lucky." Upon seeing the ruler's confusion, he explained, "I was a thief, my liege so I had no luxuries in my life. There was only danger and the possibility of ending up dead any heartbeat." He softly smiled, which made his murky blue eyes glow for once. "Now I have a roof over my head, a purpose, and drachmas in my pocket but most importantly you've given me honor that I never had as a thief."
The Conqueror could no longer hide her smile at the soldier's words.
"I do not patronize the gods," Iolaus revealed, "because they did not save me. I honor you, my liege."
The Conqueror straightened up after hearing the tetrarchès's strict dedication to her. She nodded then honestly declared, "You're a good soldier, Iolaus and an even better man." She grabbed the small man's shoulder and squeezed it. "I could not ask for more. Thank you." She released him then quietly took her leave before the conversation deepened anymore.
Iolaus had a distant smile and watched his leader join the Amazon Queen at the bow. He then sensed another presence coming up to his side.
Najara rested her hands on her hips then glanced down at her superior. "When do we arrive in Egypt?"
The tetrarchès peered up then answered, "The captain believes in nine days."
Najara faintly smiled at the news. "Queen Gabrielle will find Egypt splendid."
Iolaus's eyes slightly slotted, and he prickled. "You talk as if you've been there."
"I have not," Najara clarified.
The tetrarchès made no further remarks, but he still didn't feel comfortable with the dekarchos's words. He didn't like the fact that Najara had been selected to come but he could barely argue against the Conqueror's word. He only wondered why the ruler had selected Najara and her file when he knew the Conqueror didn't much like Najara either. He figured all would be revealed in time. Instead his focus returned to the Conqueror, who now held the Amazon Queen at the bow of the ship.
The Conqueror lowered her head down and softly asked, "Are you hungry?"
Gabrielle had her head resting against the ruler's shoulder. "A little but not much." She could almost picture the grin that was coming over her lover. "Just don't start with me."
Xena swallowed her laughter and instead brushed her lips over Gabrielle's ear. She then whispered, "Let's go below and eat."
"If I do that then I'll have to entertain my Amazons tonight."
The Conqueror smirked but more at her thoughts. "Perhaps you may want to entertain your ruler tonight instead."
Gabrielle chuckled, and she faintly shook her head at Xena's subtle context. "Only if you wish it, my liege." She already knew the answer, but she busied herself by trailing her fingertips up the muscular arm around her waist. "I can think of a few stories," she thoroughly teased.
"Mmmm." Xena bit the small ear under her lips. She withdrew when nails dug into her arm in a pleasing sensation. "I love those stories."
Gabrielle deeply laughed then soothingly ran her hand over Xena's skin where she'd clawed her accidentally. "Come on then." When Xena let go, she turned and followed along side the ruler. She ducked her head when she entered through the open door. She carefully descended the ladder to the first level of the lower deck. "What is for dinner?"
"I don't know," Xena confessed, and she guided her lover through the ship to the galley. When she ducked through the open doorway and straightened up, she was none too surprised to find a handful of leather clad women all at a table together.
"Queen Gabrielle," an Amazon politely greeted.
Gabrielle observed her Amazons must haven chatting for some time because their plates were quite clear of any food. "Has everybody eaten?"
The Conqueror decided not to listen in and instead went in search of the cook.
"Yes, my queen," Vara replied. "We were hoping to catch you for a story tonight."
The bard instantly noticed the Amazons' eyes lit up at the prospect of getting a story to entertain the long candlemarks away. "Indeed," she murmured.
"My queen, the time on this ship is long," Amarice complained, "your stories make the candlemarks go by faster."
Gabrielle blew up air, which lifted her bangs then she spied her partner returning with two plates of food. She sent a silent plead to her lover.
The Conqueror simply smirked and turned to the table of Amazons. "The queen was just mentioning to me about the story she was going to tell everybody." She then innocently smiled at the bard. "It was about your new hero, wasn't it?"
The Amazon Queen's features went very dark, and her upper lip curled into a faint snarl.
"Sit here, my queen," Vara pleasantly offered, and she pushed the seat out.
The Conqueror held out a plate of food to her partner.
Gabrielle stepped closer to the ruler and unclenched her right hand. She took the offered plate then lowly warned, "You remember this later tonight."
The Conqueror didn't lose her innocent smile then escaped by taking seat beside Amarice, who was overly fond of her. To her left was an older Amazon by the name of Taren, who wasn't as fond of her and only knew her as the Destroyer of Nations. Recently, the Conqueror had been required to come more accustom to this odd bunch of Amazons that Queen Gabrielle had selected for the trip. At first heartbeat, Xena had been greatly insulted that these Amazons had been sent for protection for Queen Gabrielle then her logic finally played over her emotions. Gabrielle explained that Ephiny had required her to do such, and Xena knew it couldn't hurt to have extra protection.
"So you have a new story about this Alcides?" Vara prompted. She watched the queen slowly eat her food, as if delaying something.
Gabrielle swallowed her mouthful of fish then answered, "Yes, I've been working on it."
"Then you can practice on them, Queen Gabrielle," the Conqueror suggested. She bit back her smirk when the queen shot her a warning look.
Gabrielle then scanned the six Amazon faces and saw they were certainly inclined to hear her story. She briefly grounded her teeth together but told herself she'd get retribution on her partner later. She instead tried to enjoy her meal because it was the first time she was able to get anything down after so many days.
"You're eating better, my queen," Taren observed.
"Yes," Gabrielle agreed, "it seems there's a… trick to settling one's stomach."
Amarice glanced at the Conqueror knowingly then brightened at the queen. "You mean you found out that trick too?" She held up her left wrist and demonstrated it. "The Conqueror showed me that the first day."
The Conqueror dipped her head and seemed to be carefully studying her food.
"She did, did she?" The Amazon Queen took a steady breath then released it, and she went back to eating.
Taren eyed the silent ruler and wondered what was transcending between her queen and this dark ruler. She huffed then focused back on the queen. "When are we due to be in Egypt?"
"It can't be much longer," Grete whined who was another Amazon that believed feathers and water did not mix.
"I believe another nine days…?" Gabrielle gazed across the table to her lover.
The Conqueror merely nodded her consent.
"Thank Artemis," Jarine breathed out in relief.
The last, quiet Amazon finally spoke up and asked, "The Egyptians don't believe in Artemis, do they?"
The Amazon Queen took the question quickly since she'd done some research before leaving Corinth. "Actually no, Lacy they have a similar religion where there are many gods."
Lacy seemed to consider this then questioned, "Is there a goddess similar to Artemis?"
Gabrielle filed through the information she'd recently learned then replied, "The goddess Neith is the closest."
"Who is she?"
Gabrielle glanced at Vara then noticed that all the Amazons were clearly interested in the history of Neith. So her bard side couldn't resist a good story, and she rolled into it.
The Conqueror quietly listened to the bard's tales tonight despite she considered leaving earlier so that she could check on the captain. She decided though that it was safer to stay and listen or else she'd suffer the bard's wrath more so tonight. She slyly grinned to herself at the thought of the bard's hot temper. Although her excited thoughts about tonight started to wear thin when her earlier concerns about Gabrielle's sister surfaced. Halfway through Gabrielle's story about the demi-god hero, she ended up displaying her distractions clearly to the bard.
Gabrielle sensed that the ruler was far away from her story. It was rare she caught Xena in such a way unless something was happening. It was something only she could catch about the ruler as most couldn't read the ruler's subtle shifts in mood. Gabrielle didn't let it distract her from the story or else her listeners would know something was up. It would just have to wait until later.
At the end of the story, the Amazons all at once began to speak and thank their queen. Gabrielle graciously took her Amazons' praises then it took her another half of a candlemark to escape the galley. She reminded them to sleep then she and the Conqueror said goodnight. The couple silently walked through the ship to the stern where the various quarters were located. They held hands, and the only sound heard were their boot steps.
The Conqueror sternly nodded at the two guards for their quarters. She then opened the door for Gabrielle and let her enter first.
Gabrielle separated from her lover once she was in the room, and she went to her bag of things. She rooted around for her sleeping shift even though she may not need it tonight.
The Conqueror first removed her chakram then unhooked her sheathed sword from her back. She placed her weapons by the double bed then she came up behind her partner.
Gabrielle straightened up into the warm body. She twisted her head up and smiled at the ruler.
Xena returned the smile then lowered her head for a slow kiss. She grinned at the bard's soft whimper of protest when they parted. "You won't need this tonight," she huskily informed and removed the shift from her lover's hand.
"I was just… checking," Gabrielle joked.
"Hmmm." The Conqueror lowered in for another kiss but a small hand at her chest halted her.
Gabrielle knew if she didn't get into the conversation that she wanted, she wouldn't have a chance all night.
"What's wrong?" Xena questioned after she straightened up some.
"I was going to ask you the same thing."
The Conqueror's eyebrows slightly drew together, and her lips thinned. She racked her mind at what the bard could be referring to right now.
Gabrielle sighed, set her shift down on her pack, and faced the ruler. "You've been acting odd for awhile now."
Now Xena's right eyebrow slowly inclined into a perfect arc. "How have I been acting… odd?"
Gabrielle smirked at how her lover drew out the last word as if it was an impossible feat. She moved her hands and rested them on Xena's forearms. "I don't have an exact example." At the ruler's doubtful features, she sighed and explained, "I can just… feel it."
"Feel it?" Xena's nodded once then asked, "There are other things we could be feeling right now."
"You're trying to detour the topic," Gabrielle challenged.
The Conqueror's teeth grounded for an instant because she didn't want this topic to go in the direction she felt it was going. She inwardly grunted at realizing she too was having feelings about Gabrielle's intentions. Things just were never simple when it involved the bard, which she wouldn't admit to anybody that she enjoyed.
"So, are you going to tell me what's going on?"
The Conqueror kept her silence and her face passive not to reveal anything.
Gabrielle knew for a fact now something was indeed going on behind her back, and she didn't like that at all. She took a steady breath then slipped out of her lover's arms. She crossed to the other side of the quarters and stopped. She kept her back to the ruler and stared out the small, circular window where all she could see were dark waters. Just the thought of the sea made her push on her wrist pressure point.
"I know something is going on, Xena." Gabrielle lowered her right hand from her left wrist. "It's not just you, its Iolaus too." She turned and noted the ruler hadn't moved at all. "If you don't tell me, I have no problem corning Iolaus until his spills it. And you know I can get him to do it."
The Conqueror slowly breathed to calm her frustrations. She could never plan anything out the way she wanted it to work when it came to the bard. She brushed back her bangs once then crossed over to the bard.
"Xena, we have to be honest with each other." Gabrielle shook her head then pointed at the ruler. "We promised that to each other."
The ruler dropped her head as she recalled that very promise not so long ago. She every intention to keep it, yet it would undoubtedly be broken at some point. She knew the longer she could stay away from breaking that promise the better off her relationship with Gabrielle would be. Ultimately she knew there were too many things in her life and rulership that wouldn't one day sneak up on them. And gods, Xena could only hope it would turn out okay when it happened.
"You're right," Xena agreed.
Gabrielle lowered her hand and slightly relaxed. "Please tell me what's going on."
The Conqueror didn't like how the bard was already concerned about the topic. She knew it'd certainly worsen once she told Gabrielle everything. "Let's sit down."
The Amazon Queen mutely agreed and sat down on the foot of the bed with her partner to her right. She slightly turned her body so that she faced Xena.
The Conqueror mentally prepared her pending words, and she steeled herself for the results. She rested her hands on her knees then she turned her head to the left. She was captivated by Gabrielle's inquisitive eyes. "About a moon after you took position as the state advisor, I had a discussion with Iolaus so I put him on a mission."
"Okay," Gabrielle murmured, "What was this mission?" She reached over and took the ruler's left hand into hers. She detected how nervous Xena was because Xena's palm was slightly moist.
The ruler took a beat to inhale a calming breath. She then continued her story. "His mission was to track down your sister and find out what's become of her."
The bard's eyes widened at this news because she'd heard nothing of this mission. She was struck blindly that the ruler had done this secretly and when she considered the time frame, she realized it was some time ago. "What did he find out? Has he found out anything?"
"He has," Xena softly answered. She ran her thumb soothingly across Gabrielle's thumb. She met the bard's confused and nervous features so she gave the most important detail. "Your sister is alive."
Gabrielle covered her mouth with her left hand and muffled a whimper of relief. She closed her eyes but not soon enough to stop the tears. She felt them slip down her cheeks and burned a wet trail. She wiped her tears away then rasped, "Where is she?" Her rapid thoughts quickly pieced together that Lila must not be in an easy location or else Lila would have been returned to her by now. "She's a slave, isn't she? Who has her?"
The Conqueror placed her freehand overtop of their collapsed hands. She squeezed and softly answered, "There is a powerful man that owns her now. His name is Gurkhan." She watched the Amazon Queen shake her head because she didn't recognize the man's name. "He was a warlord in Greece back in my warlord days. He fled when I ascended the throne."
"Where is he? Why haven't you stopped him?" Gabrielle pleaded after her irrational thoughts. She very rarely heard her lover describe another person as powerful, and it didn't set well in her upset stomach.
Xena held tightly the bard's hand in hers. "I can't touch him, Gabrielle." She read the fear and distraught in the bard's eyes, which made her new protective instincts come to life. She wanted more than anything to level Mogador and return Lila to Gabrielle, but it wasn't that simple. "He's in a city called Mogador, which is located in north-west Africa."
"Outside of the realm," Gabrielle murmured.
The Conqueror nodded her agreement then continued to explain the difficult situation. "Gurkhan and I are old enemies from the past because he wanted Greece as much as I wanted it. I defeated him a handful of times, which he was rather bitter about and still is, I imagine."
"Why can't you just…" Gabrielle stopped her dark thoughts because she tried to never use violence as an answer.
The ruler though understood the unfinished question and answered it anyway. "The city of Mogador is inhabited by two groups of people. The natives are the Numidians then in recent times the Phoenicians have settled there too. Mogador rests just on the coastline of Africa so it's a very large sea port, especially for the Phoenicians."
The Amazon Queen, who'd been in the Conqueror's court long enough to think politically, understood where this was headed. "You're worried about endangering your relations with the Phoenicians."
"As well as with the Egyptians," Xena sadly added. "I'm afraid Gurkhan is a wealthy merchant in Mogador. He owns many merchant ships, which he leases out and reaps a certain profit from the trading."
Gabrielle turned her head away and tried to process everything she'd heard so far. She couldn't believe it, and her emotions were a mix of happiness, anger, and fear. She just didn't know what to think. She finally whispered, "I won't leave Africa without my sister, Xena."
The ruler studied her partner's profile that told her so much of what stormed inside of the bard. "We're not leaving Africa without her."
The Amazon Queen slightly relaxed when she heard the declaration from the ruler. She freed her hand and walked away from bed, from Xena. She dipped her head then slowly turned around. "Why didn't you tell me this sooner?" She met the ruler's concerned gaze.
Xena clenched her hands in her lap. "I didn't want you to know until I had certain confirmations." She then stood up and neared her partner. "I also didn't want you to worry during the entire trip to Egypt."
Gabrielle inhaled sharply then her face darkened considerably. "We should go straight to Mogador."
"We can't yet, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle stepped closer to the ruler and hotly asked, "We can't or you won't?"
The Conqueror tensed at the bard's temper, and she certainly didn't want it flaring up now. "If we go directly to Mogador we will draw attention to ourselves. If Gurkhan catches wind of me within a hundred leagues of him, he will disappear better than a ghost. I won't risk it."
"I can't just sit in Egypt and wait around for… whatever!" Gabrielle fisted her hands at her sides.
"Gabrielle, listen to me carefully," the ruler instructed. "We will go to Egypt first where I can confirm things with my spies. I have them working on finer details about Gurkhan and your sister's situation. Then I plan to get Queen Cleopatra's blessing to go to Mogador."
"How in Hades does that matter?" Gabrielle barked.
Xena grabbed the bard's shoulders and lowered her head. "If I endanger the realm's relations with Egypt I could lose the Egyptian navy. I worked too hard to lose it now."
"You mean to lose it to my sister," Gabrielle bit off snidely, "I'm sure you can recourt Cleopatra for her navy."
The Conqueror's back straightened up, and her hands fell from the bard's shoulders. She was suddenly armored by her darker emotions that could easily separate her from those she cared for.
Gabrielle's anger instantly died when she not only saw but felt the shift in the ruler. "Xena-"
"Save it," the Conqueror snapped. She then turned away, went to the bed, and collected her weapons from the wall. Then without a glance back or a word, she left the quarters.
Gabrielle dropped her head back and closed her eyes when she realized what she'd done. "That was real fuckin' smart, Gabrielle." Her stomach agreed by lurching from the strong pitch of the vessel. The bard made a sprint for the head where her dinner just made it into the pot.
The Amazon Queen stumbled back out of the head with pale features. She debated whether she'd gotten sick because of how she acted earlier or because of the boat. She figured it had to be a combination. She only made it out of the head before she sunk down against the doorframe. She drew her legs against her body, dropped her head down, and started to cry.
Gabrielle remained that way until her tears dried then she climbed to her weak legs. Her partner hadn't returned at all, and she feared to seek out the angry ruler. She decided it was best to leave the ruler alone because if anything, she figured Xena would become angrier if she couldn't have her space. So the bard changed into her nightshift and curled up in the lonely bed.
The candlemarks were slow as Gabrielle swore she could count every heartbeat. She prayed that Xena would return soon, but it seemed more doubtful as time passed. Gabrielle remained a tight ball on one side of the bed, and she tried to go to sleep. It wasn't until she was emotionally exhausted from her thinking that she drifted into a restless sleep.
The sunshine from the porthole slowly crept over the bard's face and moved up and down her face as the boat rocked. Gabrielle awoke with a startle then murmured, "Xena?" She scanned the room and saw nothing of the ruler or anything showing that she'd been in the room. Gabrielle dropped her head onto the pillow and moaned at the situation she'd created. "Just great." She pushed back her bangs then decided how to approach her day. Her stomach decided to help her get up because Gabrielle stumbled over to the head and repeated the same process from last night.
Gabrielle slowly exited the small head after trying to somewhat get clean. She then slowly changed into her Amazon leathers then after a sideward glance at her staff, which somehow remained upright against the wall, she decided she didn't need it again. She climbed to her feet then made it to the door.
Vara peered up when the saw the queen enter the galley.
Amarice twisted in her seat and smiled then lost it when she saw the queen's mood.
Vara noticed it too and cautiously asked, "Is everything alright, my queen?"
"Everything is great," Gabrielle lied and took a slumped seat beside the two Amazons.
"Are you hungry?" Amarice questioned. "Vara and I just had breakfast."
Gabrielle's stomach spoke its mind about food, and Gabrielle covered her bare stomach with her arms. "I'm fine, actually… I may have lunch." She then considered her sea sickness and knew it was best to at least drink water. "I better get some water though." She started to get up but Amarice stopped her.
"I can get it."
Vara leaned against the table and quietly asked, "Are you sure everything is okay, my queen?"
The Amazon Queen waved off the worried Amazon and answered, "It was just a long night."
Amarice joined the small group and handed the queen her mug of water. "You sound like the Conqueror."
Vara narrowed her eyes at the young Amazon's interests in the dark ruler. She, like Taren, wasn't too fond of the ruler because she remembered the darker days. She didn't trust the Conqueror.
Gabrielle tried not to show her over interest in the Conqueror, but she asked, "Why you say that, Amarice?"
The young Amazon shrugged and leaned back in her chair. "I just saw her earlier, up on deck, and she looked like she just came back from Tartarus."
The bard choked on her water because that Amazon's joke reminded her of a scary point in her life. She cleared her throat then lowered her mug to the table. "I'm sure she's fine."
Amarice considered it then shook her head. "The Conqueror looks like she's been up all night." She then smirked and joked, "And by the gods, her mood is worse than Tartarus."
Vara snorted and jabbed, "It sounds like the good ole days." She then smirked at the queen. "I hope you can work your magic on her, my queen."
Gabrielle peered into her mug and wondered if she still had any magic to do that trick. She prayed to any god that would listen to her and hoped she could settle the ruler. "I hope so too, Vara."
Vara didn't quite understood what the queen meant, yet she didn't question it either.
The Amazon Queen drank another swallow of water then decided she really couldn't finish it off. Her knotted stomach wouldn't allow her. She pushed the half empty mug aside then mentioned, "I'm going above deck. I'll see you both later."
"I'll come too." Amarice hopped up then followed her queen.
Vara stayed behind and stretched out her legs under the table. She knew something was up in the salty air, but she figured if it was serious the queen would warn her.
"I notice you're fond of the Conqueror," Gabrielle casually mentioned.
Amarice shrugged then replied, "I just thought she'd be taller."
The bard laughed, finally, and she sadly smiled. "She's pretty tall, Amarice."
"To be honest, my queen that's because you're so short."
Queen Gabrielle shot a glare at the Amazon. "Did the Conqueror teach you to say that?"
Amarice was glad to see the queen took it in good humor. She smirked and teased, "Ephiny, my queen."
The bard groaned when it clicked into place. "That figures." She then climbed the ladder in front of her and emerged onto the top decks of the ship. For a brief instant, it took her eyes time to adjust to the bright sunlight but they did then she scanned the deck for tall, dark, and hot tempered.
"She's at the helm, my queen," Amarice quietly mentioned.
"So it would seem," Gabrielle muttered then her short strides carried her to the upper deck.
Amarice debated whether to follow then decided it was best not to when she saw how the Conqueror still had that icy look. She shivered at seeing it then decided to go visit with Lacy and Grete, who were sparring at the bow.
The Amazon Queen cautiously approached her stone cold lover at the ship's wheel.
The Conqueror didn't acknowledge the bard, but she clearly knew the moment Gabrielle came above deck. She turned her head to the right to the sailor that hung over the larboard side of the ship. She called, "Soundings?"
The sailor straightened up with a marked rope in his hands. "By the mark, ten!"
The Conqueror knew it was plenty of depth not only for the transport ship but also her triremes that were a few Roman miles behind them. She then lifted her dark gaze to the sailor in the crow's nest. "Where are the triremes?"
The sailor turned around in the crow's nest so that he now faced the stern of the vessel. He shielded his eyes from the sun then sighted the two large triremes that followed them. "The ships are about a league away!"
The Conqueror decided that was almost too far so her focus went to the deck sailors. "Pull up the mizzenmast and haul the foremast to topgallant!"
"Aye, my liege!" the sailors hollered out, who quickly went to work.
Gabrielle had carefully listened and was quite impressed with her lover's sailing knowledge. She knew of Xena's history as a pirate in the Mediterranean and that's where her fame only began. She was always impressed by the amount of knowledge stored away in the Conqueror's mind because it seemed so endless. She placed her hands behind her back and peered up at the ruler briefly then turned away.
"You haven't slept," Gabrielle noted.
The Conqueror was silent for a several beats as she turned the ship to the west slightly. "I did not want to invade the bed."
Gabrielle swallowed at the cutting words that ran through her. She bowed her head as she tried to control her emotions. "You can't when it is yours too."
"It was not my bed last night," the Conqueror coldly concluded. She wouldn't reveal that last night, she'd returned to the quarters, and stood in the shadows. She remained there for candlemarks and watched her lover's restless sleep before she returned to the upper deck.
The bard's eyes closed. She desperately gained control of herself because she didn't want to repeat last night. Slowly her eyes opened, which showed her more calmness. "I was wrong last night… very wrong. I shouldn't have thrown that in your face."
"You only said what you felt was true," the ruler remarked.
Gabrielle combed her bangs back, but they fell back on her forehead. She sighed and softly argued, "I don't believe it though."
The ruler roughly turned the wheel so that the ship went due east. "Yet still you felt the need to say it so obviously you don't fully trust me."
"Xena, I trust you."
The Conqueror finally glanced down at the bard, and she hotly reminded, "We promised not to lie to each other." She turned her head away when the bard's features went distraught. She wondered if she had her truth now.
"That's not fair," Gabrielle shot back quickly when she realized what could be going through the ruler's head. She stepped closer and reminded, "We're not being fair to each other. I was angry because you hid this from me, and I'm just… I'm…" She sighed and dropped her head when the pending headache touched her brow. "I'm scared about what's going to happen now. I was stupid and took it out on you."
The Conqueror was silent. She let the cool, sea breeze calm her hot temper because she knew she didn't need to throw any oil on the fire. She took a few steps away from the helm and ordered, "Come here."
Gabrielle was hesitant at first then cautiously moved until she was position behind the helm and Xena at her back.
"Take the wheel," the ruler instructed.
The bard felt the more soother tone laced in the ruler's voice. She hoped that was an omen to some kind of resolution between them. She took the wheel then Xena's larger hands grasped the top of the pegs from the wheel that Gabrielle clutched.
"Now steer the ship to the starboard… towards the west."
Gabrielle now understood, but she was still trying to learn the nautical terminology. She carefully spun the wheel to the right then stopped when Xena haltered her action.
"Do you know why ships sail in this zigzag motion?"
The bard just shook her head.
"It’s a sailing maneuver called tacking," the knowledgeable ruler explained, "and it helps a sailing vessel gain the most benefits from the wind." She directed at the sails ahead of them. "The sails can be maximized to catch the wind better at an angle instead of straight on."
"The triremes can't keep up though," Gabrielle mentioned.
"No," the ruler agreed, "as they only have one main sail."
Gabrielle did a quick count of the sails. "This ship has three."
"A trireme is quite speedy in short distances but in long distance it cannot keep up." The ruler then signaled to turn the ship to the larboard. She helped Gabrielle with it because it wasn't a simple task against the strong winds when one wasn't use to steering a ship. To turn a ship's wheel in high winds was purely a brute's labor.
"That makes a trireme effective in close battles," Gabrielle concluded. "They can swoop in and out to fight their enemies."
The Conqueror slightly smiled at the bard's thoughtful observations. "Yes, and it is why the Romans originally copied our Greek triremes."
"That figures," Gabrielle joked.
"Mmmm, the Greeks are not so innocent." Xena stepped closer so that her front almost brushed against the bard's body. "The trireme originated from the Phoenicians… we stole the idea and modified it by adding the decks of oarsman."
"Huh," Gabrielle muttered. "I never knew that."
The Conqueror could tell the bard's interests were highly peaked. She always enjoyed how Gabrielle seemed to have an interest in everything and craved to learn. That was one of the linking aspects between her and Gabrielle and what most likely helped draw them together.
The Conqueror lowered her head down then softly promised, "If the realm's relations have to suffer to save your sister then it'll be done."
Gabrielle briefly closed her eyes then they fluttered open again. "Thank you." She twisted her head up, and her emotions showed in her face. "That means a lot." She turned back and moved her right hand to rest overtop of the Conqueror's. "I don't want to risk the relations. I want this to work out as best as we can do it."
The Conqueror had finally justified her decision when she considered herself in Gabrielle's position and Lyceus in Lila's. She knew she'd risk everything to save her brother. Then she realized that Lila was essentially her family too despite it seemed extended. Gabrielle was the Conqueror's family then so was Lila. If it was one, deep value Xena's mother instilled in her it was that family was first. She was jarred from her thoughts when the small hand over hers squeezed.
"So we'll go to Egypt first then, right?"
The ruler slowly released a deep breath then replied, "Yes. We'll take care of our business there and prepare to handle Gurkhan."
Gabrielle laced her fingers through her lovers then turned her head up and around to study the ruler's calm features. "What are we going to do?"
The ruler lowered her blue eyes that matched the clear skies behind her. "I won't be sure until I get more details."
The bard accepted the response because it was logical. Her irrational thoughts were still with her, yet she kept a lock on them. She freed her right hand from Xena's then lifted her hand up until her fingertips could caress the ruler's cheek.
The Conqueror's gaze had been distant, but the light touch brought her back. She centered on her young lover and wondered when they'd become so open about their relationship. She didn't consider it any longer and instead was drawn into a tender kiss from Gabrielle.
Gabrielle smiled at the end of the kiss. She brushed back some of Xena's hair then sincerely whispered, "I'm sorry about last night."
Xena took Gabrielle's hand from her cheek and locked hands together. "I know." She then noted that the captain was joining them so she withdrew from her partner. She touched the small of Gabrielle's back and gave a commanding nod to the captain. She and Gabrielle silently left the helm to the captain, and they went down to the waist deck.
"Have you eaten?" the Conqueror inquired.
The Amazon Queen was observing her sparring Amazons; she simply shook her head. She decided it was best not to mention her rather up heaving experience last night and first thing this morning.
Xena detected something out of place, however she kept her silence. She rested her hands on her lover's shoulders and gently suggested, "We should eat then get some rest." She paused then unexpectedly added, "I know you didn't sleep well." Then without another word, she turned and went towards the doorway to go below.
Gabrielle pulled away from her view of the Amazons when she considered Xena's last words. She turned and caught up to her lover. She decided to not face the ladder as she descended; her hands grazed down the wood rail on either side of the ladder.
The Conqueror made it to the bottom and slightly turned when she heard Gabrielle hurrying down.
The transport ship dove deep from a surprising wave then it launched up, which also launched the bard.
Gabrielle screamed as she sailed through the air. Her head just skimmed the ceiling then she was on a rapid descent until very strong arms swept her up. She instantly clung to the ruler's body then started to tremble.
"I gotcha," Xena soothed and put the bard on her shaky legs. She drew Gabrielle into her body and held her tightly in her arms. "You okay?" She felt the bard trembling against her.
"Yeah… yeah." Gabrielle gulped some air to calm her nerves. She nervously brushed back her bangs then peered up at her partner. "Thank you."
Xena arched an eyebrow then coolly remarked, "I know you're an Amazon but that doesn't mean you can fly."
"Funny, funny," Gabrielle muttered, "Who thought the Conqueror was a comedian?"
The ruler slightly smirked then her smirk faded away when Gabrielle's body wouldn't calm. Now that she considered how Gabrielle so easily lost her grip, it made her wonder. "You were sick this morning?"
The bard peered up at her lover then lowered her gaze. "And last night."
The Conqueror did a quick calculation and realized Gabrielle's stomach hadn't kept a real meal since they left Corinth. That wasn't good at all plus the dehydration effects. "You need to eat and keep it down."
"I would love to do that," Gabrielle agreed. She released the ruler and worked her right fingertips to her pressure point on her left wrist.
"Come on." The Conqueror kept her left arm around the bard's waist then she guided them back into the ship and towards the berth deck. She opened the quarter's door then let the bard enter but she stood in the doorway. "Get comfortable while I get us some food."
Gabrielle turned back and quickly kissed her lover. "Thank you." She brushed her hand across the ruler's soft cheek then strolled off.
The Conqueror closed the door, and a silly grin touched her lips because her cheek, where Gabrielle had touched her, still burned warmly. She shook off her grin and tried to become her usual self, yet the glow around her was deceiving.
Gabrielle changed into her nightshift again then just sat on the foot of the bed. Her shoulders drooped, and she wondered why she felt so wiped out from doing nothing. She shook her head when her quiet headache from earlier gave a bang of reminder. "Great," she muttered. She crawled into bed and warm up the covers even though she wished her partner was here to help.
The Conqueror soon returned and seemed to magically balance a tray of food as the vessel rocked. Her well adapted sea legs let her cross over to the bed where she placed the tray close to the worn bard. "Come on, eat so you can sleep." She moved away and went to her things so that she could prepare for bed too.
"Was that an order?" Gabrielle joked.
The Conqueror peered across her shoulder and smirked. She knew this game too well. "It was a request." She disappeared into the head to get cleaned up from her long night on the main deck.
The Amazon Queen started with the grapes in the bowl. She popped one in at a time and savored the juicy flavor. "You know," she rambled, "I'm still trying to understand how we ended up in these meager quarters." She heard no response from Xena, yet she knew Xena was listening to her. "I mean, you do have the largest empire in the known-world but here we are in a..." Gabrielle stopped and mentally scrolled through her vast bardic vocabulary. "…tawdry vessel. The quarters are half the size of your washroom back in the fortress."
Xena appeared from the head, but she leaned against the doorframe. "You must be feeling better." She grinned and folded her arms over her chest.
Gabrielle appreciated the view of the ruler in a very simple, white nightshift. Gabrielle loved the view of Xena's long, muscular legs that seemed to last for some time when she traced them with her eyes. She finally met Xena's amused stare, and Gabrielle blushed. "After a long nap I'll feel right as land."
The Conqueror shook her head then padded across the short distance. She crawled up onto the bed then stretched out along side her lover. She plucked a grape from the bard's fingers, and she received a glare for it. She smirked then popped the grape into her mouth.
"It appears I'm not the only one feeling better," Gabrielle chided.
Xena chuckled then stole another grape from the bard's small vine. "The salt air burns off my temper."
"I'll have to remember that." Gabrielle chuckled at the ruler's mock glower. She then slightly sobered then mentioned, "I've noticed Amarice is…" She hesitated then her lover's lifted eyebrow made her grumble. "She's a little taken with you."
The Conqueror bent forward some then collected some cubes of feta off the tray. She considered the bard's words, Amarice, and made a decision. "Its okay to be jealous, Gabrielle."
The bard snorted. "You wish."
The ruler's eyes lit up at the game clearly placed before her. She peered up with hooded eyes and silkily purred, "Amarice is only one of many, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle knew what the ruler was trying to do. She wouldn't fall into the ruler's little trap. She instead grew smug then proudly stated, "I know, and it's really a compliment to me." She displayed her arrogance through a smile then when she saw Xena's confusion, she simply explained, "I have great taste and everybody knows it."
The Conqueror just refrained from rolling her eyes. She instead took some flatbread and stirred it in the olive oil. She considered the bard's reaction to Amarice. Xena knew, for a fact, that the bard had a green-eyed monster that was just waiting to take over under the right circumstances. Xena just hadn't found the right button that would pop the monster out… yet.
"I don't get jealous," Gabrielle stated as if she read Xena's mind.
The Conqueror grew excited at the bard's challenge so she bent closer to the bard, let the flatbread sit above the bowl of oil, and she huskily whispered, "We'll see."
Gabrielle bit the inside of her mouth. She suddenly pulled the last grape free then shoved it into Xena's mouth. "I'm sure, my liege."
Xena almost choked on the unexpected fruit in her mouth. She growled but ate the fruit.
"You deserve that after last night," Gabrielle reminded.
The Conqueror smirked at the memory of getting the bard's goad with the Amazons. She loved using the Amazons as part of her ploy especially because the Amazons were so clueless, except for their queen of course. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Rrright." The bard took the piece of flatbread from Xena's fingers then brought it to her. "You showed Amarice the pressure point before showing me?" She fed the bread to her lover while she spoke. "But you see? That didn't make me jealous either."
The Conqueror steadily listened as the information helped her map out her next plans to tempt the bard's green monster. She quickly focused on the flatbread. Once she ate it, her lips slid over the bard's fingertips and her warm tongue teased the smooth fingers.
"Mmmm," Gabrielle muttered, and her eyes closed.
Xena grazed her teeth under Gabrielle's fingertips as she pulled back. She then reached for another piece of bread. "Eat, Gabrielle."
"Uh huh." The exhilarated bard tried to refocus on her task at hand rather than her body's new desires for other things that weren't food.
The Conqueror chuckled and quietly ate more of the meal. She then shared the large piece of halibut fish that'd been prepared for them.
Gabrielle ate it much slower and almost forced herself to do it. "Promise me we'll eat something else other than fish when we get to Egypt…?"
"I thought you liked fish?"
"I… do." The Amazon Queen eyed the white meat but took another piece. "It's just I don't usually eat it… everyday for every meal."
Xena smirked and couldn't resist a small snicker. "Well, when we get to Alexandria you'll try the cultural food there." She tilted her head in consideration to the foods in Egypt. "A rare delicacy in Egypt is fried scarab."
Gabrielle had a piece of fish by her lips, speared on her Roman fork, and she stopped then peered down at her lover. "Fried what?"
"Scarab." The Conqueror lifted up her right hand and held her index finger a certain distance from her thumb. "Those beetle like bugs about this size."
"I've seen drawings," the bard whispered then her face blanched. "They… eat those?" When her partner nodded, she lowered the fork to the fish plate. "Scarabs are…"
The Conqueror remained very serious as she informed, "They're quite nice… have a little crunch to them when you eat them."
"You've… ate one?" Gabrielle stared wide-eye at her lover.
"Mmmhmmm." Xena pierced a bit of the fish then further mentioned, "They're quite good." She then hastily shoved the fish into her mouth to conceal anything when she saw Gabrielle's expression.
Gabrielle touched her covered stomach then distraughtly whispered, "What… what they taste like?"
The Conqueror thoughtfully chewed on the fish and considered the fried scarab. She swallowed then answered, "Like chicken."
The Amazon Queen moved her hand up to cover her mouth.
"Gabrielle, come on and finish the halibut." Xena pushed the fish around with her fork.
Gabrielle's stomach flipped so she quickly shook her head. "I'm full… yuf go afead," she muffled between her hand. A shiver clearly rolled down her back then she forced her thoughts of a fried scarab that tasted like chicken out of her head.
The Conqueror saw the look but made no comment since she knew the cause. She decided it was best not to tell Gabrielle about the grasshoppers and ants that people in Chin eat. She finished off the fish then decided to take the tray back to the galley. She jumped out of the bed, pulled on just her leathers over her thin shift, and took the tray.
"I'll be quick."
Gabrielle only nodded as her flustered features watched the ruler leave.
Xena just was able to close the quarter doors and get several paces away before she broke into quiet laughter. All she could picture was Gabrielle's face the entire time during the discussion about the fried scarabs. She shook off her mirth just as she entered the busier decks.
The Amazon Queen removed her fingertips from her pressure point after using it to calm her belly. She then slid under the warmer blankets and closed her eyes. She tried to relax and not mull over the fried scarabs that rested ahead in her future.
The Conqueror quietly slipped back into the small quarters. She removed her leathers, tossed them on their packs, and crawled under the covers.
Gabrielle sleepily smiled at her partner's return. She then wiggled closer to the ruler, and she found herself drawn into the secure place she'd come to love. She never imagined finding safety in this woman's arms who was once her enemy.
"Aristotle was right," Xena muttered.
Gabrielle was halfway to her dreamscape but she pulled away and murmured, "About?"
The Conqueror kissed her lover's bare shoulder then whispered, "The antidote for fifty enemies is one friend."
The bard smiled at the ruler's sentiment. "He was right," she agreed then started to slip away again. She snuggled her back deeper into the ruler's warm body behind her, and she finally met her dreams.
The Conqueror remained awake for awhile bit longer. She considered last night's fight and how it'd been mostly resolved today. She admitted it wasn't the most complete resolution or the best tactic to their fights, however it was an improvement compared to their last major fight. There were no threats and nobody disappeared off the boat so it was progress for them.
Xena then mulled over her recently surfaced emotion, which was making her so protective over the bard. Xena was only ever protective over her family, especially Lyceus, and then when she lost her family all she protected were her emotions. She never guessed that she'd grow so protective over Gabrielle.
The Conqueror recalled that she and Gabrielle first slept in their arms after the first time they had sex. And typically that was always the case after they were together. They never slept in each others' arms when they just simply went to bed. That habit had been a recent development, and it seemed to be transcending into their daily life on many levels.
At first, Xena had been trying to delay it and keep the bard at arms length in public. It'd worked at first before her own plan just cracked apart, and she discovered she was the one intuiting the touches in public. Then Xena realized she would have troubles falling to sleep at night if Gabrielle didn't stay. She ended up tossing and turning for a solid candlemark, in which she berated herself, and eventually forced her body to sleep.
And now this business with Gurkhan and Lila was not settling the ruler's protective instincts over the bard. Xena was not looking forward to seeing to what extent her defenses would be drawn out of her. She was even secretly nervous that it could pull so deep to bring out her darkness. She never guessed that she could become so protective over her former and most challenging adversary.
The deeper thoughts brought the Conqueror to a sleepy conclusion that time would only tell her more. Her weariness from last night finally took her away to her dreamscape. Her steady breathing matched that of the Amazons Queen's.
The Conqueror was slowly and sensually awoken candlemarks later by soft kisses to her chest. She slyly grinned and her eyes remained hooded as she took in her lover's face.
Gabrielle was on her hands and knees but over top of the ruler. She kept her head ducked down, and she brushed her lips against Xena's pulse point on her neck.
"Mmmm." The Conqueror brought her arms around the small waist above hers. "Somebody is awake." She then hissed when she received a sharp nip to her throat. "Very awake."
Gabrielle chuckled then lifted her head for a light kiss that would rouse her lover more. She pulled away from the kiss then grinned. "I was hoping you could join me."
Xena smirked at the tease. "I'm sure I can manage."
"I'm sure you can too." Gabrielle lowered her head for another kiss, which was much more conveying to her needs. She pulled back from the kiss with heavy breathing then she raised her head up. Just then she lost control of her body when the boat lurched forward and sent her head towards the headboard.
Xena reacted faster and placed her hand over Gabrielle's head then her hand took the impact against the headboard. She clenched her jaw at the sharp, brief pain but saw Gabrielle's shock.
The bard grabbed Xena's hand from her head then worriedly asked, "You okay?"
"Fine compared to what you would have felt."
The ship decided to pitch again, but Gabrielle was better prepared because she clung to her lover. Gabrielle then rested down on Xena's body when her earlier fire was suddenly washed away by what'd happened. "Is it me or is the ride getting a bit bumpier?"
The Conqueror already sensed the ship's increased rolling than normal. She slightly frowned then declared, "I better go up on deck and check on things."
"Xena, I'm sure the captain and his sailor boys can handle it."
The ruler's eyebrows crawled up at hearing the 'sailor boys' remark.
Gabrielle sighed then reminded, "He's probably been captain longer than you were a-" She ended her own words with a yelp when the boat rocked from larboard to starboard unexpectedly. She went off her lover's body and landed flat on her back. "Okay… go check," she gruffly consented.
Xena rolled to her left side and lifted up. She flashed a grin at her partner. "Thanks… my queen." And before Gabrielle could swat her, she popped out of bed. She hastily put on her leathers after getting her night shift off this time. She then rammed her feet into her boots then quickly tied them.
Gabrielle watched in astonishment as the pitching and rolling didn't send the ruler all over. She then recalled her stomach, which she promptly calmed with her pressure point. "Be careful," she ordered.
The Conqueror was by the door. She glanced over her shoulder and gave her own order. "Stay in the bed unless the ship sinks." She then left without another word.
"That was really comforting," the Amazon Queen muttered to nobody but herself. She then cried out again when the ship rocked hard to the larboard, and her small hands locked on the bed for safety. "This is not good for my stomach."
The Conqueror used her hands on either side of the walls to hold herself up right. Once the ship righted itself, she quickly moved to the bow of the ship then made it to the ladder. She carefully ascended the ladder and saw the door was indeed closed, which wasn't a good sign. She grasped the wood handle, rolled the door to the left, and sea water spilled over her. She ignored it and disappeared out into the loud deck. She slammed the door behind her.
The Conqueror worked her wind blown hair out of her face then scanned the murky skies above her. "Damn," she growled then she carefully moved further out onto the waist deck. She gazed up at the bridge deck and saw the captain and first mate were handling the wheel together in the strong winds. She turned back to the sailors that raced about the decks to subdue the sails before they were torn to shreds.
The Conqueror pushed through the wind and hastily took charge of the frantic sailors on the waist deck. She barked out orders to get control of the various mast lines. The lines were whipping about in the strong winds but she and the sailors managed to subdue them in groups.
Xena and two sailors managed the line for the mainmast and hastily tried to pull up the sail. She shook her head to get the stinging rain and sea water from her face. Her head snapped to the right when loud lightening snapped just off the starboard and entered the water. She cursed at how close it'd been then she yelled out, "Let's move!"
"Rocks!! Rocks off the bow!" the sailor cried out from the crow's nest. He hastily grabbed the ropes in his crow's nest and lashed down his wrists.
The first mate froze when the lightening struck again and brightly lit the jagged rocks dead ahead. "Hard to larboard!!" He called out to the men, "Hard to larboard!!"
The captain and first mate grabbed the wheel and furiously fought to turn the ship away from the rocks that jutted out from the sea and waited to tear into the ship.
Several sailors yelled when their feet went under them from the hard shift of the ship.
Xena lost her footing from the hard turn and the soaked deck. She slammed hard onto her back and the air was knocked from her chest. She groaned but quickly moved to get back up on her feet.
"Lash down, men!" the captain yelled out.
The Conqueror knew what that meant and when she was on her feet; her hands rapidly caught a tied line from a cleat. Just as her fingers tightly curled over the rope, her feet were taken from under her again then her body was lifted into the air.
The ship roared out when its starboard hull scraped across the side of the rocks. The serrated rocks chewed away at the starboard side of the hull when the ship passed it. Loud snaps of wood growled then the thunder echoed overhead. The ship then made it past the rocks and the starboard side slammed back into the water with a hard boom.
"Get the sails up!" the Conqueror yelled when she found her feet on the deck again. She and the sailors scrambled and finished their earlier work. Xena finally had the mainmast's sail rolled up. She pressed forward in the strong winds and cleated off the heavy rope on the wood cleat.
"Breaker wave!" came the warning from the crow's nest, "Off the starboard bow!"
Xena stared in horror when she spotted the gigantic, white-capped wave that rose above the ship's bow. "By the gods…" She raced for the mainmast and to the ropes around it.
The captain, like his first mate, wrapped his arms in the steering wheel and he screamed, "Lash down, men!"
The Conqueror hastily finished the tight knot across her left wrist then tangled her right hand into the line. Her wide eyes met the top of the gigantic wave that loomed just at the bow of the ship. She sent a prayer for hope and when she heard that loud growl, she inhaled a deep breath.
The immense wave loudly howled over the tiny ship then broke over it with a harsh explosion of water. The water poured down over the ship's deck and made the mizzenmast bend under the great pressure but it didn't break. The cold, heavy water flooded over the deck and quickly swept away several humans then took them out to sea.
Then the ship sharply veered to the larboard which sent everybody flying to the starboard side. The ship's wheel erratically spun now that it was free from the first mate and captain.
"Captain!" the first mate cried then his voice went eerily dead.
The captain stumbled across the bridge deck after his unconscious first mate. He saw the roll of the ship about to send the first mate off the side, and he launched himself. His hand clamped over the first mate's right wrist, and the captain quickly grabbed a rope from the railing nearby. After he lashed down the first mate, he scrambled across the wet deck back to the twirling wheel.
The Conqueror gasped for air when the wave finished breaking over the deck. She shoved her soaked hair out of the way then scanned the waist deck. She quickly counted that half a dozen men were at least washed away. She still clung to the rope that'd saved her life. She blinked out the sting from her eyes and focused on the bridge deck. She spotted the captain's intense struggle with the wheel.
The captain fought against the powerful wheel and tried to twist it to the larboard. His efforts were to no avail, yet he gritted his teeth and desperately fought so that his ship wouldn't flip. "By the gods, give me strength," he hissed then he lost his grip because of the water.
The wheel flew clockwise at an alarming rate, and the ship sharply veered to the starboard because of the wind. The sailors on deck screamed out in fear.
The captain's hands shot out to grab the spinning pegs, which almost took out his hand.
The wheel's speed increase then it suddenly stopped cold when a larger, stronger hand grasped a peg handle.
The captain peered up in surprise at the dark ruler, who stopped the wheel. "Conqueror, you should-"
"Just shut up and steer with me!" the Conqueror commanded.
The captain didn't argue anymore and took the helm with the ruler. He helped turn the wheel back to the larboard side.
The Conqueror stood behind the captain, her arms around him, and her hands anchored to the wheel. She dug her spread feet into the deck and used her entire body strength to move the wheel back.
The vessel wailed and the larboard side began to lower back into the sea again. The brave sailors worked back onto their feet and tried to continue their work and finish up with the last sail on the mizzenmast.
"Breaker wave off the larboard bow!!"
The Conqueror gritted her teeth when she saw the immense wave surge up before the ship's bow.
"Poseidon, please have mercy," the captain prayed.
"Not today," the Conqueror hollered, "anchor down!" She pressed the captain into the steering wheel and slid her arms through the openings of the wheel.
The captain wrapped his arms into the wheel and hollered, "Lash down, men!" He then felt the Conqueror's body press him into the wheel, and he knew he wouldn't be lost at sea.
The Conqueror ducked her head when the howling wave came down upon the ship. She held tight when the ship's bow rose up to the heavens. For a brief instant, the Conqueror lifted her head and swore she saw a face in the black clouds then her vision was gone when the wave slammed down on her.
Screams from the sailors echoed all around and several more sailors were taken out to Poseidon. The ship's bow boomed when it smacked into the sea again, which caused everybody to loose their footing.
The Conqueror struggled to get to her feet but she held tightly to the wheel so it wouldn't spin.
The captain growled yet made it to his feet again.
The Conqueror rose up to her full height and her arm muscles protruded as she forced the wheel counterclockwise. She then glanced down at the men on the waist deck. She saw only a handful was left, and she hoped they would survive the rest of the battle against the seas. She then noticed several of the sailors were staring back at the stern then one sailor started yelling and waving but not at her or the captain.
The Conqueror tried to understand what the sailor was yelling but it was hard to make out against the wind. Then two words filtered through and rang in her ears, 'back inside'. Her body surged with the most foreign feeling ever: fear.
Gabrielle slid across the deck, and she become visible to the Conqueror. She just caught her balance before she went down.
"Get back inside the ship!" the sailor loudly repeated.
"Where's the Conqueror?" The Amazon Queen struggled to get closer to the sailor and further from the closed deck door.
The sailor shook his head and ordered, "Get back inside, Queen Gabrielle!"
"Not until I know the Conqueror is safe!"
"Breaker wave off the larboard bow!" came the cry from high above.
Gabrielle's eyes widened when she heard the warning and despite she didn't know what it exactly meant, she knew it wasn't at all good.
The earlier sailor stretched out his hand to the Amazon Queen. "Take my hand! Hurry!" He stretched out as far as he could go while his right arm remained tied to a line.
The ship started to rise up to meet the gigantic wave.
Gabrielle's eyes widened with horror when she saw the wave. She desperately fought against the increased incline of the deck and tried for the sailor's hand. She sensed her boots slipping under the wet deck and her fingertips brushed over the sailor's. "Noooo!"
The sailor frantically fought his line in hopes it'd stretch him to the Amazon Queen.
"Gaaabrielleee!" the Conqueror hollered in fear.
Gabrielle's fingers laced through the sailor's callused hand then his hand vanished when waterfall washed over her. Gabrielle screamed but her cry was immediately silence by the powerful wall of water that slammed into her body.
The Conqueror shook her head to rid of the slam of water. She frantically yelled, "Gabrielle!" She hastily scanned the deck for signs of her lover then the sharp scream on the starboard side caught her ear.
Gabrielle glided across the deck like soap, and her head slammed into a large wood cleat. She gasped in pain and inadvertently swallowed a mouthful of salt water. She madly clawed for something to grab and her right hand curled around the cleat she'd hit. She pulled up and got her left arm around the cleat for a better hold.
The ship slammed back down into the sea after it passed the wave. The wind then grew stronger and howled at the ship. The tied sails argued with the wind and barely resist from being yanked free.
Gabrielle wiped the salty water from her face. She then felt the very deep sting to her right temple but she ignored the pain. She instead worked to get back on her feet, her muscles strained in her legs and arms.
"Look out!" a sailor cried out, "The foresail is free!"
"Get the sail, get the sail!" another sailor ordered who helped to chase after the loose line.
The foresail quickly rolled down and its main line whipped around in the air over the deck. It dropped to the deck then snaked off to the larboard side.
"Watch out!" a sailor called to Queen Gabrielle.
Gabrielle held onto the rail then she held her breath when the line for the foresail came snapping at her.
The line swooped down to the deck, snaked across the deck, and the wind lifted it up near the Amazon Queen.
The bard screamed when the line tightly wrapped around her right leg. "By the gods!" She let go of the rail and hastily tried get the line from her lower leg.
The wind growled incredibly loud and it rose into a vicious gale.
"Xena!" the bard cried then her feet were yanked from under her, and her body rose up into the air.
The foresail caught the wind and lifted the small body at the end of its main line.
Gabrielle yelled in pure fear as she sailed higher into the air. Then the most beautiful sound rang in her ears; it was the Conqueror's battle cry and it was growing closer.
The Conqueror removed the dagger from her mouth then stretched out her right hand at the line. Her sharp dagger easily sliced the taut line then her left arm wrapped around the midair bard. She dropped her dagger and quickly wrapped her arms tightly around Gabrielle's waist.
Gabrielle closed her eyes as her world spun in every direction then it finally stopped. The Conqueror's secure body was all around her.
The Conqueror slid across the wet deck with her partner in her arms. She put out her right hand and stopped them when they hit the mainmast. She quickly laced her right arm through the tied lines and locked them down. She pulled Gabrielle in closer to her body.
The bard stayed hunkered down like her lover. She buried into Xena's strong body, and she sent a prayer out to whatever god would take her thank you.
"Don't you ever do this again!" the Conqueror yelled over the roar of the storm.
The Amazon Queen didn't respond but kept her faced in Xena's neck.
"Breaker wave off the bow!"
The Conqueror's heart pounded at the warning. "Gabrielle, wrap your arms and legs around me! Hurry!"
Gabrielle compiled just as the ship started to repeat its high lift. She wrapped her legs around her lover's waist and her arms around Xena's upper body. She dug her face into Xena's chest.
"Hold on to me," Xena loudly instructed as she weaved her left arm through the ropes that lined the mainmast. She pushed forward which pressed the bard's back into the mast. She quickly glanced up and saw the wave bearing down on them. "Here it comes!" She dropped her head down and shut her eyes. Her arm muscles tensed and held them in place.
Gabrielle swallowed her cry when the wave crushed them. She clung to her lover for her life. She held her breath as best as she could, yet her lungs burned. Gabrielle took a mixed swallow of air and sea water. She coughed deeply and started to lose her grip on Xena.
The ruler sensed it so she freed her left arm and held the small woman tightly. She then inhaled deeply when the wave passed them. She hastily patted the bard's back to help her.
Gabrielle finally had it under control, and she wiped her face free from the salty water. She then inhaled clean air and gasped, "When does this stop?"
The Conqueror lifted her head and dropped it back. Her eyes focused on the grey sky, which was a good sign and she spied a ray of sunlight fighting through the clouds. "Just hold on a bit longer."
The sailor in the crow's nest brushed back his sodden hair. He stared at the huge wave off to the right side of the ship. "Breaker wave off the starboard side!"
"Oh no," the bard gasped, and she instantly adhered to her partner's body.
The Conqueror quickly locked her arms down in the lines of the mast. She lowered her head when the wave roared down upon them.
The impact was intense as the ship rolled to the larboard side and the wave spilled over the deck with rage. Everybody on deck screamed and then Gabrielle's cry broke louder.
"Xeeenaaa!" Gabrielle flew across the deck on her back towards the edge of the ship. She rolled a couple of times and landed on her stomach.
The Conqueror hastily tried to free her arms and it took her a solid two beats. She then turned and spotted Gabrielle nearing the ledge of the ship. "Gabrielle!" Her legs lifted her, and she raced across the deck but kept slipping.
"Xena!" Gabrielle felt her legs dangling off the edge of the ship. She scrambled to grab something, and her nails clawed the wood. Her eyes met Xena's for a heartbeat then Xena's face was gone. Gabrielle screamed as she went over the edge of the ship.
Gabrielle's head jerked harshly and her body hovered in midair until her front side hit the side of the ship. She felt the tight grip on her right wrist so she gazed up to see Xena's face again.
"Don't let go!" the Conqueror yelled. She briefly checked her right hand's grip on the cleat then focused back on Gabrielle.
"Xena!" the fearful bard pleaded. She desperately attempted to climb the side of the ship but it was impossible. "Xena, help!"
"Calm down," Xena loudly ordered. "I need you to be calmer!" She tightened her grip on the bard's wrist. "You'll be okay, just trust me!"
Gabrielle wrapped her left hand around the ruler's muscular arm.
"I'm going to pull you up," Xena explained, "I want you to stay focused on me. Okay?"
The bard nodded as she knew her words would fail her. She didn't dare look below her feet despite she heard everything far below. Then her body started to rise up the ship.
Xena gritted her teeth then urged her sore muscles to haul the bard up from the side of the ship. She closed her eyes for a brief instant, and her mind flashed with Lyceus's fall in Tartarus.
The ship porpoised then surged back up out of the water.
Gabrielle screamed when her body fell lower towards the sea. She then peered up and saw the Conqueror had come over the ledge with her. "No," she gasped in fear.
The Conqueror's right hand no longer held to the cleat but just managed to grab a wood leg from the rail. She peered down at the bard.
Gabrielle knew the situation was even direr than earlier. She swallowed then called up, "Let go of me, Xena!"
"I'm not letting you go!" the Conqueror hotly yelled then focused back on the problem.
"You can't save us both," Gabrielle yelled back. "Just let go, Xena!"
Xena's mind swam then the loud boom from the thunder shook her thoughts. She rapidly blinked her eyes to work out of the haze.
"It'll be okay, Xena just let go!" Gabrielle demanded.
"No!" Xena screamed so loud that her voice thundered. "I will not!" Her anger surged her adrenaline rush, and she growled as she lifted her right hand.
Gabrielle rose up in the air and her body started to meet Xena's.
"Grab onto my body, now!"
The stunned bard did as she was told. She wrapped her left arm around Xena's shoulder then she managed her legs around the ruler's waist. Then her right hand was free so she wrapped that around too.
The Conqueror threw up her right arm and grabbed the other wood leg to her right. She then used all of her arm strength and stomach muscles to lift them up. Just as her head made it over the side of the ship, several hands grabbed her shoulders and arms then pulled her onto the deck.
Xena soon found herself on the calmer ship with Gabrielle wrapped around her. She closed her eyes and sighed in pure relief while she rested on the deck.
"Are you okay, my liege?" a sailor inquired.
"Never better," the Conqueror answered. She opened her eyes and amusingly stared up at the several faces of the sailors.
"Queen Gabrielle?" another sailor asked.
Gabrielle just waved them off and decided to keep herself buried into Xena's back.
The Conqueror's gaze moved past the sailors' faces, and she studied the breaking clouds. Absolute relief now washed over her, and her head thunked against the deck. "We're okay now, you better return to your stations to help the captain."
"Aye, my liege," a sailor barked, and he ordered the other men to get back to work.
"Xena?" Gabrielle whispered.
"If we ever go to Egypt again we are doing it by land."
The Conqueror was now seriously considering this option. "Did you bring up your lunch already?"
"I brought up my last two moon's worth of meals."
The Conqueror couldn't do anything but laugh at this point. It was either that or get really emotional at what just happened, and she opted for the first choice.
To be continued.
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