Disclaimers can be found in Part 1.
If you have questions, comments, or wish to be added to an email list for updates, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com (any feedback is encouraged and much appreciated!)
Also, a bit of incentive to get you to read this: The first chapter of this story won the 2011 Battling Bards contest at the Xena Movie Campaign 2011 facebook page.
The Way Back
by Samantha Paedae
Aryn settled her pack on her shoulders as she and Gabrielle made their way downstairs. The bard in front of her missed her expression as she followed, chewing her lip. Aryn wondered, not for the first time, what exactly she had gotten herself into. Despite the nightmare, last night's sleep had relaxed her, and when she awoke she realized she actually had to start thinking about what she was doing, instead of letting events push her along like a cork in a stream. They would be boarding the ship soon, and once they did, Aryn felt there was no turning back. Either she would see this through, or she would not go at all. Once committed, she wouldn't quit. But then again... Did she want to?
She took a long look at the woman ambling ahead of her. Outwardly, at a glance perhaps, she was an unremarkable figure; the only thing one might see would be a pretty young woman. But Aryn saw more. The way she held herself. She was confident. Not the blunt confidence she herself projected, but an inward belief in her own abilities, subtly shown through the set of her shoulders and lift of her chin . She was tough, and even though Aryn had yet to see her fight, she felt, suddenly, that everything she had heard about her was true. Had seen it last night, in her steady green gaze, the set of her jaw. Heard it in her voice. She walked with a powerful rolling gait, her sleekly muscular legs easily and smoothly propelling her down the uneven wooden steps. Her eyes were searching, and she saw more than she let on, that was for sure.
Aryn's eyes tracked to the chakram swinging casually at Gabrielle's hip, and to the sword lashed to the pack on her back. Property of Xena. The woman was legend; Aryn had heard stories of her practically from birth, but she had never really believed them. After her time as a slave, the stories only seemed more impossible; surely, if a hero like that existed, her life would have been different. But after she had awoken from her nightmare, a realization she had always known in the deeper recesses of her mind had come settling home. The fates spared no one hardship; it was what you did about it that determined your character. You may have hurt others, been hurt by others, beaten down, and you could either crawl into a corner, or you could take a chance, and trust. Looking at the bard now, Aryn saw not a myth, but a human, who had faced worse than she had but had found strength in it. A living, breathing woman who had sworn to help her find her brother. And the way she spoke about Xena...Damn, she really did all those things. Boy, am I an idiot.
Aryn scoffed at herself, and Gabrielle turned at the sound, giving her a small smile as they reached the end of the stairs, and entered the inn's main room. Aryn felt a weight hit her in the chest, as the sensation of being absolutely in the right place at the right time settled against her. She had made her choice when she agreed to take the message. The small child still left beneath her jaded exterior had believed in fairytales, and now she found herself feeling lighter than she had in days. Heroes existed, and the task of finding and saving Telen no longer fell solely upon her shoulders.
They crossed the main room, dodging tables as they headed for the door. The room was nearly empty; with a few patrons sitting at tables having breakfast. Aryn saw the innkeeper crossing into what appeared to be a stockroom as he prepared for the day. Dawn had just broken, and orange fingers of light crept in through the shutters, broken by their forms as they neared to door.
Both bard and thief started as they heard a crash coming from the kitchen, accompanied by an angry, deep, male voice. Gabrielle recovered more quickly, un-shouldering her pack, holding it in one hand as she jogged to the inner door, throwing it open hastily. Aryn followed suit, close upon her heels.
As she neared the door, she peered over Gabrielle's shoulder, her breath catching as her eyes took in the scene inside. Lysander, the young slave boy, was on the ground, sacks of grain and broken shelving littered the floor, and his skin and clothes were stained by a broken wine jug. His short brown hair dripped with wine, apparently soaked by the jug that had been thrown at him. Though he wasn't yet injured, he cowered in fear at the large man facing him.
Gabrielle had dropped her pack at the door and was already upon the man, using her momentum to shove him over the table, and and lean over him. Her face was a mask of cold fury, her transition to violence so quick it shocked Aryn.
Gabrielle's forearm was against the man's throat. He tried to get up, but his awkward position on the table threw his balance, preventing him from getting leverage, something Gabrielle had obviously intended, given her smaller size. He grunted, and spat, “You've got no right!”
“I do,” Gabrielle said simply, putting her weight on his chest, “I don't like to see people beaten.” Her eyes flicked to Lysander, whom Aryn was now using a piece of linen to clean, speaking in low reassuring tones.
The man struggled, wiggling his shoulders, but his greater weight only kept him pinned in the awkward position. “Only threw the jug!” he protested, “Didn't hurt him!”
Gabrielle gaze fastened on his face as she leaned forward, her voice a low hiss. “But you could have.” Her voice rose in volume, but dropped in pitch. “He's just a child.”
The man's countenance softened into a semblance of regret, and for just a moment, Gabrielle saw something reflected there that wasn't a typical mercenary. “He took my money,” the man said softly, almost in supplication, his voice holding a kernel of desperation Gabrielle couldn't identify the source of.
The bard's eyes met Aryn's and saw a regretful guilt there, as the thief's mouth dropped open and she swallowed, running her hand through Lysander's wine-soaked hair in a gesture that could only be described as affectionate.
Her captive oblivious to what had unfolded, Gabrielle said forcefully, “No, he didn't.”
The man opened his mouth to protest, but Gabrielle shifted her hold, grabbing his loose leather shirt and lifting him slightly off the table in an impressive display of physical strength. “He didn't,” she said again, letting a bit of steel into her tone, “Now get out of here, or you'll get your money, but you'll have to find a way to extract it from your throat.”
Normally, Gabrielle didn't rely on threats and violence, but today, she was in a hurry, and she didn't have to patience to deal with this man, even if his money had been stolen. Even if she knew who had stolen it. She waited, staring at him, giving him her best Xena-inspired intimidating glare. He relaxed, so she relaxed her hold, backing off a few steps, out of striking distance. Her body remained rigid, her muscles tensed in the knowledge that she could take him down in less than a second if he even thought about being stupid enough to try something.
To his credit, his eyes fell to her side, where the chakram lay, and they widened in comprehension and fear. Guess Xena's reputation alone can still make anyone's heart skip a beat. He nodded, grunting, and stumbling a little as he hurried from the room, and straight out of the inn.
“Think he'll be back?” Aryn's voice sounded worried, and Gabrielle turned to see her looking at Lysander with concern.
“No,” she answered briskly, “He's no tough guy.” Then her voice gentled, and she spoke to the boy, taking him by the hand and leading him to a chair. He sat, and she kneeled, examining his face with a practiced eye. She ran her hands over his sides, feeling no further injury. Lucky. That guy could have easily killed him, even without intention. “You okay?” she asked quietly.
He nodded. “Yeah.” His voice was small, and shaking.
Aryn watched all this, feeling a deep sense of responsibility for putting the boy into a danger she herself was all too familiar with. Her lips formed a frown, and her brows furrowed as she watched Gabrielle examine the boy for injury. Oh please, she prayed to no one in particular, don't let him be hurt.
Gabrielle stood and faced her, her face turning into something like regret and disappointment. It stung Aryn, and she dropped her gaze to the ruined floor, following a bit of grain floating in a wine puddle.
Gabrielle saw it, and let out a breath. She couldn't know. I shouldn't be mad. Gods know how many mistakes I made. And look at her. She feels terrible. Aryn's arms were crossed, her shoulders hunched, as though she were trying to make herself as small as possible. Cut her some slack. No one got hurt.
“Okay,” Gabrielle said, putting some lightness in her tone, and tapping Lysander on the shoulder as she glanced from him to Aryn, “Let's get this cleaned up before we have to leave.”
Aryn's head snapped up at her voice, and she was rewarded with an understanding nod from the bard. In that moment, she saw the woman who had forgiven Xena for her past, who had befriended the world's most notorious warlord, who had pledged to bring her best friend back from the very shores of the underworld, and in that moment, Aryn understood what made a hero as Gabrielle handed her a bucket, a small smile showing her forgiveness.
They left Lysander at the inn after ensuring his well-being, and after he insisted that he get back to work, scampering off before Aryn had a chance to apologize
She was uncharacteristically quiet as they made their way down to the docks, the early morning light illuminating the stone buildings as they walked down to the harbor to gather some last-minute supplies, mostly food; Gabrielle had already mailed her mysterious letter.
This was the second time recently her stealing had hurt someone she cared about. Though she barely knew the boy, she felt a sort of kinship with him, and seeing his frightened features had affected her more than she wanted to think about. He had shrugged it off and bounded away, as though distracted. Maybe he was embarrassed? Still, she wished she would have had a chance to apologize. Gabrielle hadn't outright told her not to steal, but Aryn knew she hadn't shown the discretion necessary for the situation. She had selfishly wanted to prove to the bard how clever she was, but instead had only shown her immaturity. Silently, she vowed for the future not to make a similar mistake. Seeing the back of Gabrielle's head as she hurried in front of her, Aryn sped up, coming even with her, intending to make her thoughts known.
But as she came even with the bard, a cart that had been ambling in front of them pulled off to the side, giving them a full view of the harbor. In a second, Aryn's intentions were dashed as she took in the scene ahead, and grabbing her sleeve, pulled Gabrielle into a small alcove, cursing, “Shit, shit, shit, shit.”
“Whadda we do?” Aryn's voice rose noticeably.
Gabrielle leaned against the wall, taking in Aryn's stricken features. Of course, she had come to the same conclusion, but she would have chosen a calmer route to a place of discussion. This worked, though. The alcove was really just empty space between buildings, damp, with barely enough room for them to face each other. “They're searching the cargo, and checking passengers,” Gabrielle stated placidly.
Aryn nodded quickly, repeating this time more calmly, “What do we do?” Last night, she had wondered why she hadn't run into any guards searching for her. Now, it made sense. If she left the city by land, she would be in the forest, any further, and it wasn't Roman land anymore. There, she faced starvation, animal predators, and barbarian hordes. The wild was the abattoir of an escaped slave. There was only one place to go: the harbor, and they were searching for the escaped slaves there. It was a rat trap, and she was caught in it.
Gabrielle looked at her. Aryn's face was no longer swollen, her erstwhile purple bruises now lightened to a lurid yellow. “It's possible they won't recognize you in those clothes.” She looked pointedly up and down, indicating Aryn's attire. She didn't really believe that, though, her mind already trying to find a way to disguise her companion's distinctive face.
Aryn was peeking out of the alcove, watching the guards rip open crates and peer inside. One was arguing with a ship captain, waving his arms in wide, annoyed gestures. Aryn recognized him; he was the guard she had knocked out. She pointed with one hand, motioning for Gabrielle to sight down her arm. “See that guard whose face kind of looks like an inflated pig's bladder?” she asked, grimacing.
Gabrielle moved closer, positioning her head over Aryn's shoulder, examining the scene. Aryn's description was right on; the man had one eye swollen shut, and his nose was positioned at a crooked angle, obviously recently broken. Even from this significant distance,from the asymmetry it was obvious that his face was swollen. Gabrielle nodded slowly.
“I did that to him,” Aryn clarified.
Gabrielle winced, ducking back into the alcove. “Unless you scrambled his brain, he'll know you.”
“Oh yeah.” Aryn titled her head down and looked up at Gabrielle expectantly, biting her lower lip.
Wow. That was something Gabrielle hadn't expected. Sure, the guards searching the boats for the escaped slaves was something she had anticipated, Aryn being one of them something she inferred from her unorthodox entrance into her inn room and from her chosen profession. However, she hadn't pegged her for a fighter; she seemed more likely to talk her way out of a situation. But then again...Look at me. Necessity breeds strange destiny.
“How about...” Gabrielle stalled, pulling out a bursiform cloth full of dinars and pressing it into Aryn's hand, “You get some supplies.” She peeked her head out of the alcove, glancing again at the harbor. It was fairly busy, and there was a distinct air of antagonism in the air as guards ripped open crates, as sailors tried to load them, struggling across gangways. Sailors were busy on the ships and on shore...and that one captain was still arguing with meat-face. “While I,” Gabrielle continued, “See if I can figure out a way to get you on board.”
Aryn took the coin pouch and nodded, leaving the alcove to head toward a vendor selling salt pork.
“All right,” Gabrielle said to herself as she turned toward the ships, “Let's see what trouble we can get into today.”
Aryn distractedly placed trail bars and dried meats into waxed paper, all the while keeping one eye on the swiftly retreating Gabrielle. What exactly was her plan? She didn't think she could talk her way onto the ship, the guards seemed hard-pressed to search every passenger, to the dismay of the sailors; they were holding up departure. Temperatures were definitely running high; even from this distance Aryn could see the clipped and angry motions of the sailors and guards alike.
Maybe Gabrielle would start a fight? Such a distraction would certainly allow Aryn the time needed to steal away onto the ship. But then that would probably just cause a riot, which might prevent the ships from leaving at all. So...a lesser distraction? Like what?
Aryn's head snapped sharply to the left, the whiplash nearly knocking her silly. The merchant was glaring at her expectantly, all but holding out his hand. Not bothering to haggle with him, she quickly tucked the packages under her arm, fumbling in her pouch for the requisite coins, and handing them over hastily, not looking at the merchant, standing on tip-toes, her eyes again searching the crowd.
For not the first time in her life, she cursed herself for being so short. Shit, damn, she'd lost Gabrielle, and for just a second, a thin blue stab of fear shot through her chest. If the bard couldn't find a way to get her on the boat...would she just leave without her?
As Aryn hurried closer to the harbor, she shifted the pack over one shoulder, hastily stuffing the food supplies inside, trying to catch a glimpse of a blonde head as her heart picked up pace, most likely irrationally.
Really, if Gabrielle did leave, she almost couldn't blame her. Aryn swiftly side-stepped a patron coming in the opposite direction, finding it increasingly difficult to maneuver in the thickening crowd as it pressed against her like salmon moving upstream.
After all, who would want some smart-ass, ex-slave tag-along? If it came down to missing the boat because of her...Aryn honestly couldn't say that she wouldn't just leave if the positions were reversed. Because chances were, that would mean, for her, leaving Telen to an unknown fate. For Gabrielle, it meant not being able to revive Xena.
Though Aryn had only just met the bard, her single-minded focus regarding Xena was something almost shocking in its intensity. Gabrielle not only believed such a task could be completed; she was bound and determined to see it through, to risk her life, defy even the gods. To travel to places Aryn had never even heard of. It scared the hell out of the young thief, but a great part of her understood.
She would go to Hades and back to find Telen. And from the look of it, she was going to.
Aryn adroitly slipped between a cart and the damp wall, achieving a short respite from the wall of humanity. As her lungs once again breathed fresh air, she furrowed her brow, puzzled. She sniffed again. Yep, that was definitely smoke...her eyes tracked upward, to the building across the way, slightly taller than the ones next to it, and closely packed. It was only now that she noticed the crowd was hastening in the other direction, as scantily clad women and men began pouring from the doors, and smoke billowed up from the shuttered windows of the brothel.
Where there's smoke...
Aryn was very nearly knocked off her feet as a massive brisance rocked the harbor, a swirling fireball erupting from the building's top two windows, seeking oxygen, then sucking back inside as it found its fuel. Flaming shutters scattered through the air, landing on rushing patrons, sending people screaming and running, threatening to trample one another.
And Aryn still didn't know where Gabrielle was.
The thick crowd jostled Gabrielle as she slowly made her way toward the ships. She ruffled a hand through her hair in an attempt to order it, and her thoughts.
She didn't exactly have a plan for how to get Aryn onto the ship, and for just a moment, she saw a fleeting glimpse into how Xena must have felt nearly all of the time.
When they had first started traveling together, Gabrielle had simply assumed that Xena had a plan for everything, but as she grew to truly know the older woman, she realized that sometimes, not all the time of course, Xena's plans were fly-by-night operations, driven by instinct and intuition. And Gabrielle had just expected her to solve every problem. But over time, she had learned what that meant, how it felt to have the onus settle over her shoulders as people began asking her for help, the look in their eyes so trusting and expectant, as Aryn's had been just a moment before.
So. To answer her question, What are we going to do? What am I going to do, more like. Starting a fight was always an option, though, as it always should be, an option kept in reservation. Especially in a situation like this. One punch, Gabrielle was sure, and the harbor master would need Hephaestus' steel strength pliers to pry people apart.
No, for this, she didn't need to be a warrior. She needed to be a bard.
A man bumped into Gabrielle, mouthing a gruff apology as he hastened past, leading a decrepit looking donkey. Gabrielle brushed off the green sleeve of her tunic, and raised her head, straining to listen as shouting voices began to distinguish themselves over the din of a hundred rushing humans and dozens of animals.
Patrons were giving the arguing captain and guard a wide berth, but Gabrielle being who she was, and no stranger to conflict, made a beeline for the scene. The two men's chests were practically touching, and the older captain's face was red with anger, spittle shooting from his mouth like arrows as he yelled, trying in vain to convince the guard that he, “Had a ship to run,” and it wasn't his fault that the guard had let, “A bunch of women beat his face in.”
Ouch. Gabrielle mentally winced as the guard's pride was trampled into dust by the surrounding animals. Though the captain was a few inches shorter than the guard, he held his ground. From his grizzled appearance, Gabrielle wouldn't have been surprised to learn that the captain had faced his share of blades. Apparent from the exchange, the guard didn't scare the captain one tiny bit.
At this closer distance, Gabrielle got a really good look at the guard's face. His nose was set at an awkward angle, the swelling still readily apparent, and he sported a healthy bruise along a swollen jaw, which slurred his words ever so slightly. It did absolutely nothing to improve his intimidation factor.
Of course, Gabrielle wouldn't have been intimidated anyway. Stepping into the fray she said loudly, “Excuse me!”
She stepped closer, now a few feet away from the two men, and readily advancing. “EXCUSE ME!”
Having closed the distance, she placed a hand on each of the men's chests, grabbing both the tunics in her fists, literally pulling them apart. “Hey!”
Startled by the interruption, both men goggled at her, breathing heavily. The guard recovered first. “Who're you?” his voice was raised, though not quite the shout it had been before.
“Gabrielle,” she said calmly, turning to the captain, “and I have a place on your boat.”
The grizzled sea captain nodded, recognizing her, a small smile creasing his features. She had broken the angry spell, her physical separation of the two men breaking the almost visible thread of hostility, and now both men relaxed. “That you do, ma'am.”
Now she turned to face the guard. “I'm wondering what's going on...?” Though she knew, of course.
Meat-face looked surprised at her candor. “Erm...we are searching the cargo for stowaways...er...ma'am.” The captain opened his mouth to speak, but Gabrielle spoke instead.
“Stowaways?” she repeated, feigning incredulity.
The guard nodded.
“Oh,” she said, changing her features into something like relief. “I heard these rumors,” she looked down, then back up at the guard, hoping to look both innocent and trustworthy, “but they can't be true can they?”
The guard stiffened. “What'd you hear?”
Gabrielle hesitated for just long enough to make him uncomfortable. “Well, I heard about pirates, attacking cargo ships.”
“No-” the guard blustered.
But the captain spoke at the same time, chuckling, “Oh, them's true.”
The guard shot him a look, but the captain just shrugged.
“Oh!” Gabrielle tried to look surprised but not frightened. “Well, y'know, I'm a warrior. With me on your ship, you'll have a little extra help.”
The captain nodded graciously. “Glad to have you.”
“Would you consider,” she paused, looking at both men, “taking on another warrior? Surely more protection couldn't hurt...?”
The captain nodded. “Already took on another earlier t'day. More's the merrier. Whatever gets me to safe harbor. Someone you know, surely'll be good?”
Gabrielle nodded, smiling. “Very.” Privately, she let her gaze travel to the guard's face again, but she spoke to him to disguise the fact that she was studying his wounds, and also to tip the final scale in her favor.
“And I'll stay here, and oversee the loading.” She brooked no room for argument.
The guard looked like he might protest, but all three of them stumbled and turned as a heart-stopping concussive blast whipped through the air, and a surge of flame blasted from the upper windows of a building up the path. Incendiary debris crashed down like rain, peppering buildings and people alike.
“There's fire!” Someone yelled, and then all Hades broke loose.
Aryn was being jostled so forcefully that she was finding it hard to stay in one place, let alone move forward against the crowd. People were panicking, and what had been hurried rushing now had evolved into outright running, as the acrid smoke filled the air, and a stifling heat grew from rushing bodies and from the growing flames.
Aryn was well and truly terrified, but she still had the presence of mind to assess the situation. Catching sight of an overturned cart, she struggled toward it, pushing through the crowd. She scrambled atop it, balancing her weight carefully against the unsteady wood as it bucked from the impact of running bodies. From this higher vantage, Aryn got a clearer view of the harbor. Though the smoke stung her eyes, she forced them to focus, and as comprehension hit her like an Atlas stone, her heart was made to stand still.
“No.” Her voice was barely a whisper, forced into quiet from incredulity. Then it grew in volume to a desperate yell as she launched herself from the cart and into the crowd. “NO!” She landed in a tangle of arms and limbs; they thrashed and smacked against her but she paid them no mind as she continued her headlong rush into the throng of people, fighting toward the harbor.
The ships are leaving. The words played in her mind like an anthem as single-minded purpose drove her inexorably forward. She had seen the sailors pushing away from the docks, setting the rigging, and frantically tossing the last boxes of cargo aboard as they rushed to set sail, alacrity borne on the threat of licking flames.
“No, no, no, no,” Aryn mouthed soundlessly, her breath rushing from her lungs in short gasps, beating in time with her pack as it slammed into her back with every footstep. Her words were lost in the crowd's screams, but then even that din was broken as the blood-curdling sound of a high soprano scream rent the air, the scream of a person in agony, coming from the burning building. Instinctively, Aryn's head whipped around to confront the noise, her hair blowing back into her face with a rush of hot air as she observed the flames now threatening to leap to the next building, dancing dangerously in the sea-salted wind.
Then she was borne heavily to the ground as something crashed into her from behind.
Gabrielle abandoned the guard and captain as the conflagration billowed above, throwing her body back into the rushing crowd, knowing only that she must find Aryn, and do what she could to stop the spread of fiery death. Once glance behind told her that the ships were preparing to leave, and another glance upward told her that they wouldn't leave without her.
She was more being propelled by the tide of people than she was running, but their panic served her purpose as she neared the building. With a sigh of relief mingled in her panting breaths she caught sight of a familiar face in the crowd, just as it turned toward the building, hearing the same bone-chilling sound she did, which caused the pushing crowd to redouble its efforts, and sent her crashing into her quarry with the force of a runaway cart horse.
Aryn's arms buckled as she tried to catch her fall, sending her only just healed face into the dirty, wet, stone. She spat out blood from her now re-split lip, and struggled to rise, the effort made difficult by the rushing crowd, the weight of her pack, and the body that had caused her fall.
She jerked her hand away as a booted foot nearly crushed it, and the very real threat of being trampled shot through her like ice, but then was replaced by shock and vertigo as she was jerked to her feet by something pulling at her pack. Turning to face her benefactor, she came face-to-face with Gabrielle, and relief washed over her like a warm ocean wave.
The bard hadn't left. Not that she'd expected her to, really, it had just been a realistic fear, rooted in years of being unable to trust others. Once more, the bard had actually come looking for her. Aryn's estimation of Gabrielle was rising like a tide, up until the moment where Gabrielle tapped her arm and began running toward the burning building.
“Hey!” Aryn protested, grabbing the bard's sleeve, “the harbor's that way!” She pointed in the opposite direction, yelling hoarsely over the noise of the crowd.
“I know!” Gabrielle yelled back, “I have to do this first!” she explained hurriedly, again rushing toward the building, and the screaming she heard coming from inside. Her heart lept into her throat as she recognized the tones of terrified young girls, and the nauseating scent of burning flesh. She had to hurry.
“We'll miss the ship!” Aryn said desperately, now running to catch up. She could feel the heat of the flames as Gabrielle approached the entrance. Shit, she was going inside?!
“No, we won't!” Gabrielle ripped open the wooden door; it rushed toward her forcefully as a blast of hot air exited the building, making Aryn recoil from the heat. With one last look before she slipped into Hell, Gabrielle pinned Aryn with a steady, confident, gaze, lessening the tension with a tight smile. “Trust me.”
Gods be damned. Aryn hesitated, feeling the space of the moment stretch into an eternity, as it had when she had accepted the message. Gabrielle could have left her behind. Could have decided not to help her. But she didn't. Instead she was risking missing the all-important ship to save the lives of people she didn't even know. Because that's just the person she was; she didn't just write about the greater good, she lived it.
And now Aryn had a choice. She could run, and in the confusion steal away onto the ship, leaving Gabrielle, and the fire, and the greater good behind. Or she could reach deep inside herself, and find the courage to become a part of something she'd only heard about in stories.
Another scream came from within the bowels of the building, and with no more thought, Aryn rushed inside, immediately cloaked in a sheen of sweat that broke out as her body came into contact with the heat.
The room was the main foyer, and in front of her was a set of stairs, up which Gabrielle was sprinting. To her left was a wall, which was engulfed in flames. Apparently, the brothel had been festooned with hanging fabrics and delicate tapestries, all which gave the illusion of privacy but went up like kindling.
Aryn darted after Gabrielle, breathing heavily from exertion and from heat. The building must be several stories tall, because smoke hadn't yet become too thick. She caught up with Gabrielle as they cleared the second floor, which, unlike the previous floor, was composed of a single hallway which branched off into individual rooms.
Gabrielle turned to her, putting her hand on Aryn's shoulder and pressing her forward, “C'mon, hero!”
She then yelled to the floor, “Anyone here?” She was answered by several loud screams and yells of, “Yes, help!” But their origins seemed to be coming from above and to the left. Gabrielle ducked her head into the nearest room to her left, and gasped at what she saw. The floor above had fallen in, and bits of burning wood dangled dangerously, threatening to fall. Through a hole in the ceiling, she saw the sooty faces of several young girls, the youngest about twelve.
“Are you the only ones left?” Gabrielle called.
“Yes!” a girl of about 15 said, coughing, “Please! The door's on fire and the floor's caving in! We can't get out!”
Gabrielle bit off a curse, and ducked back into the hallway, heading up the stairs to the third and final floor, with Aryn close at her heels.
The railing was on fire, and bits of burning wood now rained down upon them from the floor above. Apparently, the fire had started at the left side of the building on the bottom floor, where the wine stores were kept, and the wine and delicate fabrics had acted as accelerant. Then the flames had climbed the left side of the building like a demented vine, spreading into the upper floor with such speed as to take the girls by surprise and trap them.
Aryn winced as a flaming splinter stung her shoulder, then nearly gagged as they cleared the landing, and she was afforded the full view and smell of the third floor hall. At this point, the fire's main intensity was over, as it had already eaten most of the fuel, first burning hard and explosive, but now infecting the wood, causing the floor to threaten collapse.
The collateral damage, however, had been done. What Aryn smelled was a charred form lying the the room behind her, as the stairs came up the center of the hall. The body was near the blown out window, a man or woman apparently caught in the explosion. She didn't want to think about what might lay in the other rooms.
The ceiling was on fire, sending embers stinging her skin, and just ahead, the hall was in flames as well, most of it concentrated to the left, where the girls were. Everything was black, and the oppressive stench of smoke choked their lungs.
Gabrielle was strangely calm and in control as she marched determinedly forward, dodging debris. The room was unstable, she knew, and she could feel the weak floor shifting under her feet, her acute hearing picking up the creaking and groaning of the ceiling that was ready to give up the ghost.
“Girls!” she called.
“Here!” came the answer, muffled by the crackling of flames and the sound of wood that began to fall faster now.
Coming, of course, from the room that was completely blocked by flame. Taking Aryn's arm, she pulled her into the adjacent room, and yelled to the wall, “Get as far away from this wall as you can, okay?”
“Okay!” came a faint voice. “Hurry!”
Inside the room was a largely intact wooden bed frame, the mattress still smoldering, a chest of drawers, now destroyed, and several other unidentifiable pieces of furniture. The wall adjoining the room the girls were in was smoldering and hot to the touch, burning pieces of furniture littered the floor, and the smoke here was very thick.
Aryn feared she might pass out, but then that fear was replaced as she felt the floor crack under her feet, and her foot went through the wood. She yelped, yanking out her booted foot, now adorned with a new injury, from twisting her ankle in her haste, and splinters that had found new homes in her calf.
Gabrielle put out a hand to steady her. “Can't lose you yet,” she said wryly, “I need your help.” She turned to the bed frame, and bracing her foot against it and pulling back with both hands, ripped out a bat-sized piece of wood, and handed it to Aryn. “The building's coming down,” she said seriously, “We gotta hurry.”
Aryn took the proffered tool, and, understanding the message, began hacking at the weak wall. Gabrielle drew Xena's sword, following suit. Bit of wood and ash flew out, and the blazing hot embers licked at their skin, but didn't burn them.
Suddenly from above a creaking sounded, and Aryn found herself borne to the ground for the second time that day as Gabrielle pushed her away from the collapsing wall and ceiling. The weight crashed into the floor, taking it out also, leaving a gaping, smoldering hole where they both had been standing moments before.
Aryn met Gabrielle's eyes in sincere thanks, but broke the moment when she said, “Y'know, I'm beginning to think you just like tackling me.”
“Knocking you around does have a certain appeal,” Gabrielle replied, standing and offering Aryn a hand.
Now they had a full view of the other room. The wall with the door was completely on fire; and there were no windows on the opposite wall, which was charred and pitted from the fire that had ripped through. There was a gaping hole in the floor reaching from the door to halfway across the room, and 6 girls were huddled beyond it, coughing and shaking, holding each other. The hole had been made larger by the most recent collapse.
Gabrielle eyed the distance, noting a thin strip of still-intact floor that ran from the other room, hugging the collapsed wall, and into this one. She made for it, sidling along it like a tightrope walker, trying to brace her body against the wall as little as possible, because the heat made her recoil. When she reached the junction between the rooms, she turned, bracing one foot on one side of the destroyed wall, the other foot on the other side. When she turned her head, she could see the girls watching her, hope and trepidation shining through their soot-darkened faces. They were all wearing slave collars, thin strips of worn black leather that marked their status, and Gabrielle felt a stab of disgust and anger at the person who had left them here to die, to burn like the rest of the property in the building.
She motioned for the nearest girl to come closer, to the edge of the hole. The girl did so, albeit hesitantly. Gabrielle then advanced into the room, continuing to sidle along the wall; thankful that the structure had kept hold of parts of the floor.
She made it to the other side, with now just a short gap separating herself and the girls. She grabbed the nearest girl around the waist, lifting her easily, carrying her over the gap. She motioned to the wall, and the strip of floor she had come in on. “See what I did? Just follow the wall-there's someone on the other side.” She gave the girl her best confident smile.
The girl hesitated, but seeing no other choice, did as she was told. Gabrielle waited until she was around the wall, then lifted the next girl over the gap, sending them all along, then following behind.
Aryn was on the other side, grabbing the girls as they came close, sending them behind her into the more stable hallway. She too, had noticed the slave collars, and as the girls huddled together, Aryn's hand went unconsciously to her neck, fingertips brushing two small vertical scars.
It had been just a candlemark or so since Aryn had finished descending the tower, and she ran through the dark streets of the city, seeking a hiding place. She didn't know if she could make it over the wall in the moonless darkness, and she was tired from her climb, and so shaken her legs could barely hold her up. She ducked into an alley, panting, leaning against the cold wall, trying to collect herself.
Glancing down, she nearly wretched, as she found she was covered in blood. Her mind reeled. Her hands were encrusted with it, and now acutely aware, she could feel congealed droplets on her face and neck. She scrambled out of the alley, glad of the ghost-like silence of the streets. Like death.
Like her. She shivered at the thought, approaching a small fountain, a rectangular stone structure set close to the ground, with an inset lion's head in the wall whose mouth spit water. She splashed some on her face and neck, scrubbing, then moved to her hands, taking considerably longer to clean them, using her nails, almost frantically. Finally she stopped, sliding down the side of the fountain, sobbing.
For a long time she just sat there, until her ribs hurt and her throat was dry. Then she stood, shaking, walking in shadow, moving with the night, until she found a tailor's shop. She tried the shutter, finding it easy to pry open, though it was supposed to be locked. Like a cat, soundlessly, she climbed over the sill.
Inside it was completely pitch black. She shut her eyes, allowing them to adjust, then opened them. Still, she was afforded the sight of only rough shapes, the only visible items those near the window. She shucked her battered, blood-stained tunic, feeling the pull of scar-tissue as she lifted her arms over her head. Letting it fall in a heap on the floor, she eyed the wares, feeling an odd sense of dislocation, and power. She could do what she wanted here. She wasn't sure if she liked it or not. She chose a simple blue tunic, and pulled it over her head. The neck caught on her slave collar, and after she had the tunic on fully, she rushed to the tailor's work table. Seized by a fit of need, she grabbed a leather knife, and jamming it under the collar, sawed at the tough material. It gave, and the collar slipped off her neck, into her hand. She replaced the leather knife, and gathered up her discarded tunic, exiting the store the way she came, careful to replace the broken shutter.
He really should have that fixed. Anyone could just walk in. As she stalked down the deserted street, she felt a line of warmth gathering at her collar, and she put a hand to her neck, wincing as she felt a sting. In her haste, she had cut herself. It was shallow though, and a moment's pressure from her hand staunched it. As she passed through a bit of light from the only lit torch in the street and again into darkness, she tossed her collar and tunic into a dirty alley, leaving them and her former life behind.
Aryn smiled and exhaled with relief as she saw Gabrielle emerge from the room, adroitly leaping the gap and landing at her side.
“They're safe,” Aryn breathed, “But we missed the boat,” she said resignedly, breathing heavily from lack of oxygen and exertion.
“Not if I can help it,” Gabrielle corrected, pulling her along quickly as the rest of the ceiling groaned and protested, beginning to sag further.
They entered the hall. Gabrielle faced the girls, addressing them. “You guys wanna stay here, or come with us? We're going to Greece, then the Amazons. You can make a life in either place. You can be free.” Though Aryn didn't know it, Gabrielle saw her reaction to the words.
The girls exchanged glances, then almost in unison, faced the oldest girl, a dark-haired, dark-skinned girl of around seventeen, with an aquiline face and light brown eyes. She hesitated minutely, then turned to Gabrielle. She spoke for the group, her voice hoarse from smoke, yet confident. “We'll go with you.”
Aryn turned to take the stairs back down, finding her movement arrested as Gabrielle pulled her into a room on the opposite side of the hall, motioning for the girls to follow, hopping over debris and throwing the shutters open, feeling the rush of hot air wash over her shoulders as she did so.
It revealed a sizable drop to the roof below, the tops of buildings which extended ahead, then curved, over which Aryn could see white sails.
Her heartbeat quickened with the possibility.
“I,” Gabrielle stated as she eyed the drop, “am taking a page out of your book.” She smiled wickedly, stepping away from the window, indicating it with a sweeping motion of her arm. “You first, Queen of Thieves.”
Aryn's knees barked against the clay roof as she absorbed the landing; the fall had been about 2 of her bodylengths. Nothing that should have been a problem, but she felt her injured foot stinging and protesting.
She didn't have time to think about that though, as she moved out of the way, and Gabrielle coaxed the girls out of the window. Each landed, and Aryn motioned them behind her. The first five landed with tiny squawks and stumbles, but the oldest girl landed like a hawk, soundlessly and gracefully.
Gabrielle smiled inwardly. The Amazons was probably the place for her. She hoped she would choose that, knowing their numbers were dwindling. It was an odd thought to have at a time like this, but she was their Queen by Right of Caste, and as such, they were her responsibility.
Gabrielle was last out, landing with consummate grace. A loud groaning sounded from above and behind, like the death-throes of a dying giant. “Run!” Gabrielle yelled, as she rushed forward, pushing her companions along the uneven roof. She could hear the building swaying behind her, then she felt the rush of heat as it collapsed upon itself, splinters flying. She didn't look back though, as they ran along the roof, following it's curve to the edge of the harbor.
“We're going to catch the ship!” Aryn yelled, elated, though her foot stung with every step. The other girls followed her like a pack of wolves.
“Damn right!” Gabrielle yelled back, pulling into the lead. She looked to her right, judging height and distance. The ship was a good 10 bodylengths away from the wall of buildings, moving ponderously. It had yet to unfurl its sails, and she sent a silent Thank You to Aphrodite, whether or not she had been responsible.
They were at a much higher level, and though they might not be able to jump directly onto the ship, they would close most of the distance. Now, they just had to get as far ahead of it as possible, she increased her pace to a sprint. It was difficult running on the uneven rooftops, the unstable clay tiles sliding under her feet. But now each roof got a little higher, and she could see the edge of the buildings quickly approaching. She glanced over her shoulder, glad to see the others hot on her tail.
“When I say jump, JUMP!” She commanded.
They panted, nodding assent. Gabrielle took another look at the boat, her hair whipping behind her like a flag. Uh-oh. She saw the rigging drop, preparing to release the sails. She unhooked her chakram from her belt, cocked her arm, and sent it flying.
The disc caught the light, curving in an arc, cutting the ropes, arresting the sail's motion by causing it to become tangled , then slamming home into the mast. Even from this distance, she saw the captain's gaze dart her way, then he turned and waved his arms, giving orders to the crew.
We better catch the ship. 'Cause I am getting that chakram back if it kills me.
Her runway had run out, and pushing off with her powerful legs, yelling, “Jump!” Gabrielle propelled herself into open air, jackknifing into the cool waters. As she descended, she heard seven splashes, and she kicked toward the surface, slicking her hair back as she cleared it.
The others swam toward her, and she motioned toward the ship. “C'mon!” And then they were cutting through the water like a school of fish.
By the time they reached the ship's side, Aryn was breathing raggedly, and her shoulders ached. Scar tissue made swimming difficult; with every stroke she could feel a pull between her shoulder blades. The sailors had thrown a rope overboard, and Aryn treaded water as she watched the other girls ascend, the youngest first.
Aryn followed the oldest girl up the rope, slithering over the rail and stumbling onto the deck, exhausted. Gabrielle was last up, easily pressing her body over the rail, and hauling the rope up after her. She's not even breathing that hard.
The captain stalked toward them, addressing Gabrielle, “Damn, woman! You nearly took my head off with that disc of yours!” His voice wasn't angry though, more teasing.
“Captain,” Gabrielle crossed to the mast, grasped the chakram by the middle piece, and in a quick motion ripped it from it's resting place. “If I'd meant to behead you, we'd be playing kickball with your skull right about now.” She gestured at him with the weapon, and smiled, taking the threat out of her words.
“Well now,” the captain chuckled, scratching his scruffy jaw, “I sure would be glad to have you on my team.”
Gabrielle laughed, and replaced the chakram on her belt. “Give us a place to stay, something to eat, and some warm clothes, and I'm all yours.” She extended her arm.
The captain eyed the ragtag group, who now looked like half-drowned rats, except Gabrielle, who kept her poise even though her clothes were soaking wet and sticking to her. The girls shuffled nervously, huddling together, except for the oldest girl with the collar, and the other older girl with the pack on her back. They were watching the exchange with interest.
The captain took the proffered arm, chuckling, “I don't think that'd be enough to buy you, Lady. But I'll see what I can do.”
Aryn unpacked her pack, laying out wet clothes on the small bed in the cabin. She and Gabrielle were sharing a small cabin that had two beds, and the six girls were put in the part of the ship that was usually used as a stable, for transporting horses. They had used netting as makeshift hammocks for sleeping, and now they were all getting changed out of their wet clothes.
As Aryn sorted through her pack, she found that not all of the clothes were completely soaked, laying out a light blue tunic to change into. She also laid out the wax-covered food supplies, noting that it had been protected as well. She pulled out the smaller tunics and boots she had packed for Telen, and holding one, turned to Gabrielle to ask her if she thought it might fit one of the girls, since they probably wouldn't be seeing Telen for quite some time.
She paused in her motion as she saw Gabrielle laying out to dry the contents of her pack: a waterproof box for scrolls and writing supplies, a bedroll like the one Aryn had just lain out to dry, and some other items that were more obviously not hers, leather armor, with vambraces, greaves, and armbands, a bronze breastplate that clinked as she laid it against the padded bedding.
Geez, that thing must have weighed a ton. How did she swim with all that?
Gabrielle then pulled out the pack's final item, a small nondescript pot with a secure lid. Gabrielle sat on the bed, the pot in her lap, her hand on the lid though it didn't need to be; the pot was sealed, the solid clay line where the lid met the body clearly visible.
Gabrielle took a deep breath, closing her eyes, letting the world fall away for just a brief moment.
It had been close. If she had missed with the chakram, or if...no. It wouldn't do to wonder about “ifs.” She let her finger trace the seal of the pot, feeling the different texture. It was strong, yes, but not permanent. If she pulled hard enough, she could break it. She took a deep breath and let it out, in rhythm with the ship's rolling movement. She was on her way. She would find Xena. She would bring her back. That was all that mattered. She just had to pull hard enough.
Aryn just watched her for a moment, both of them rocking gently with the ship. The feeling of loss was almost palpable, making the air thick.
Aryn cleared her throat, the sound making Gabrielle raise her head slowly. “Um...” Aryn fiddled with the tunic in her hands, “I got these for Telen...” she continued to fidget, bunching the fabric, “I thought it was silly, 'cuz he's not here but...” she trailed off, letting her eyes wander again over Gabrielle's things.
Gabrielle smiled warmly, and shook her head. “It's not silly. You miss him.”
Aryn finally met her eyes, relaxing. “Yeah.” She paused. “Um...if you don't mind me asking...uh...what were you planning-I mean- where..?” She gestured to the bedspread.
“What was I going to do with Xena's things?” Gabrielle queried.
Gabrielle tipped her head to the side, regarding the armor. “Before the letter came, I guess I was going to take all this back to Amphipolis, her home.” Her eyes fell to the pot in her lap as she cradled it reverently. “She always said she wanted to be buried with her brother.”
Aryn looked at the pot, then back at Gabrielle, feeling slightly uncomfortable. As she watched Gabrielle cradling the urn, she felt a strange mix of embarrassment and curiosity, as though she were intruding on something very private, like an eavesdropper listening at a bedroom's door. She felt a desire to leave, but the curiosity to know more stayed her feet. “Is that...her?”
Gabrielle nodded, still looking at the pot.. “I guess keeping all this stuff was a way of keeping her around,” she said, her voice quiet.
Aryn nodded, understanding.
“But,” Gabrielle continued, placing the pot in a comfortable spot above the neck of the leathers, “She'll be with me either way.” She shrugged. “I kind of figured that out, just before you showed up.” She sighed. “That I would always miss her, but I had to go on, and be the person I became when I was with her. Not be the person she left behind. She wouldn't want that.” Her eyes were focused on something far away, her voice calm. She met Aryn's eyes. “I told her I'd go to the Land of the Pharaohs.”
Aryn absorbed this, marveling at the strength Gabrielle displayed. She didn't know what she would do if Telen were not alive. She refused to think about it. “I guess I kinda changed your plans, huh?” She gave a quirky lopsided grin.
Gabrielle smiled broadly. “For the better.” She paused, her thoughts turning inward. She wasn't totally sure if she wouldn't still have tried to retrieve Xena from the Land of the Dead, redemption be damned, as selfish as that might sound. Now, thankfully, she would not have to choose between the greater good and what she wanted.
“Come on,” she said, standing, “Let's get into some dry clothes before we die of cold.”
Continued in Part 5
Thanks for reading!
Don't forget to send feedback/questions to firstname.lastname@example.org !
Return to the Academy