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 (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
The next morning Aryn awoke from a thankfully dreamless sleep to the rocking of the ship. Under the thin rough blanket she shifted, then immediately regretted it when her stiffened muscles voiced their displeasure. Damn...What centaur sat on me? She sat upright, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. Correction. What centaurs. Because it had to be more than one. Her back and shoulders ached, and the ankle she had sprained was tender. When she lifted her hand to her jaw, however, she discovered no soreness, and surmised that it had healed. That was a relief.
She glanced around the dark cabin, unable to judge time. Based on how groggy she was, she figured they had slept for a long time, and it was probably late morning. She wouldn't be able to go back to sleep anyway, so she got up stiffly and dipped into her bag to find a dark green tunic and black breeches to change into. The tunic was thicker than what she was used to, and it had laces at the neck, which she partially untied to allow some ventilation. The inside of the ship was warm.
Still barefoot, she looked at the still-slumbering Gabrielle, glad that she was able to change in silence. I can thank my thief skills for that. Her stomach rumbled, and Aryn figured it was time to get something to eat, so she found the flint and striker that rested in the bowl of the overhead lantern, and lit it, knowing the illumination would wake the sleeping bard.
Gabrielle stirred, and opened her eyes, blinking quickly as she allowed them to adjust. Aryn stood in the dim light from the lantern, and for a moment she reminded Gabrielle so much of Autolycus that it was like looking at a ghost. The bard rubbed her eyes and sat up, finally saying, “It's late.”
Aryn turned and crouched, locating her boots. “I know,” she said as she reached for them then straightened up to sit on the bed, “I thought maybe we should catch up on sleep, but I'm really hungry. And I like to start all my adventures on a full stomach.” She bent down to put on her boots, roughly tugging the tough unbroken leather onto her foot, wincing slightly as it disturbed her sprained ankle.
Gabrielle smiled a little at that, as she rose to find something to change into. “I thought this adventure had already begun,” she said, as she pulled out a fawn-colored tunic.
“Then I just like to remain well-fed.”
Gabrielle didn't reply to that, as she changed and put on her boots. Based on the vague history Aryn had given about herself, Gabrielle doubted that the young woman had ever been in a position to eat well regularly. Perhaps that was why she made light of her hunger now.
“Well,” said Gabrielle, “let's go then, before the wind blows you away.”
Aryn rapped on the doorframe to the stables, pleased to find most of their companions already awake, the others stirring at the noise. Gabrielle thought it best that they all enter the galley together, not trusting the sailors. They loitered in the entry for a moment as Lysander and the girls put shoes on. Aryn belatedly realized that the girls had found sandals somewhere, and she was pleased to note that they had all been divested of their slave collars. Now they could pass for free citizens. She hoped that given that, the sailors would just forget about their unwelcome cargo.
She knew that wouldn't happen.
The girls and Lysander began to chatter, their voices blurry from sleep. As they filed out the door Neva looked at Aryn, then shook her head. Based upon the behavior of the others Aryn guessed that Neva hadn't told them about their exchange, but she was clearly put off by it.
Aryn didn't know if she should apologize or not, or what she should say in either case. She was a proud person, hated to admit she was wrong, and in this case she felt she had been right. True, she could have presented it a bit better, but her point had been made. As they moved to enter the galley ahead of the girls, she sighed.
It was rather late in the morning, and the galley was nearly empty, which both pleased and distressed Gabrielle. It eliminated any immediate danger, but she would have liked the chance to assess the mood of the crew once again, after a little time had passed. The few men who were present seemed to be largely ignoring them, which made Gabrielle relax a little, hoping that their presence would now be accepted, albeit reluctantly.
Gabrielle continued to glance around as they took a seat, and noticed there was no sign of their mercenary friend. Given how much he was drinking, perhaps he too, had slept late.
She saw Hallas heading over and gave him a friendly wave.
Reaching the table, he smiled at all of them, then addressed the bard. “You all sleep okay?” he asked amiably.
Gabrielle returned his smile. “Fine, thanks.”
“You didn't run into any trouble, warrior woman?”
Gabrielle looked interested. “What do you mean, Hallas?” Their table companions had stopped speaking, and were listening to the exchange.
Hallas looked a little uncomfortable, but shook his head, brushing away the question. “I'm sure it's nothing.” He smiled again, but this time it looked strained. Gabrielle noticed his glance toward the dark haired man at the next table. Hallas tapped the table with a meaty hand. “I'll go rustle up something good for ya.” With that, he walked off back toward the cooking area.
Brear looked puzzled, her blonde hair falling over her face as she turned from watching his exit. “What was that? Did he get into some bad meat or somethin'?” Kell giggled in reaction.
Aryn glanced at Gabrielle, who looked thoughtful. “I think he was trying to warn us.”
Gabrielle looked at her. “About the sailors? Or about something else?” The man's apprehension weighed heavily in her mind, and she found herself growing increasingly wary, and hoping that they would reach port soon.
Ora, who was seated with the others across the table from Gabrielle, Aryn, and Lysander, waved her hand to get their attention. “Uh, what are you talking about?”
Gabrielle didn't want to frighten them, but keeping them in the dark about any danger would be stupid. So she lowered her voice and leaned forward. “The sailors don't really like having a bunch of escaped slaves on board. It makes them nervous.” Her words were casual and explanatory, not revealing any dread on her part. But that wasn't the part that might unsettle her. What bothered her was that she felt there was something else under the surface. “And there might be something else. I don't know.” She shook her head, flicking her eyes toward the man at the next table. “We should be careful.” This she advised in a more stern tone.
The girls glanced nervously at one another, except Neva, who was eying Gabrielle critically. It was Lysander who spoke, from his seat next to Aryn. “You can protect us, right?”
Aryn smiled at that, remembering his admiration for the warrior-bard. As she looked at the other girls, she noted that they were gazing at Gabrielle with rapt attention, awaiting a positive response. Their unquestioning trust was charming in the extreme. When Aryn's eye turned to fix Gabrielle's expression, she found she had trouble reading it.
After a moment's hesitation, Gabrielle's face relaxed, and she gave them a reassuring grin. “I'll do everything I can, yes. But you all should stay in your cabin when we're not together. There's no use taking any risks.” She paused. “We'll be pretty safe once we get off the ship.”
Neva's eyebrow rose as she finally cut in. “Pretty safe?” she questioned, her voice holding a hint of cynicism.
Aryn cut in, answering for Gabrielle. “Living free in Greece won't be like living in the brothel. Traveling, even by road, can be really dangerous.” She glanced to Gabrielle, who nodded.
The bard added, “I've been all over Greece, though. I know what to expect.” Aryn noticed, though she surmised the others didn't, that Gabrielle's words indicated that she didn't know what to expect here, and it made her uneasy.
Leesha spoke, her wide eyes looking worried. “It's like that everywhere?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “No. But, unfortunately, it might be hard to find a safe place for all of you. That's why I think you should go to the Amazons.”
Neva's expression changed, though it remained skeptical. “Why would it be unsafe for us?”
Aryn spoke again. “Because you're escaped slaves. Worse, most of you don't look Greek. If anyone was looking for you, it wouldn't be that hard to find you.” She paused, as the thought of being hunted made her uncomfortable, and hoped it didn't show in her face. “And even if they weren't looking, someone might try to take you as slaves again because you look exotic.”
“That's horrible.” Jan exclaimed. Neva's expression softened, and she pursed her lips, thinking.
There was a pause then, as Hallas brought them bowls of stew, and cups of cider. Gabrielle thanked him, and he walked off.
As the others began eating, Gabrielle elaborated. “The Amazons live away from Greek cities.” She gestured with her hands. “You can find position there, be respected.” She took a sip of her cider. “And they're a fighting people, so you'll be protected. They take care of each other.”
Aryn studied her, not missing that Gabrielle said “they” and “them” instead of “we” and “us.” She wondered if Gabrielle really considered herself an Amazon. Yet she knew from stories she'd heard that Gabrielle would go to the wall to defend them. It spoke volumes then, that Gabrielle respected her responsibility so much that she would risk her life to defend a people to which she felt she may not belong.
They all began eating their food, and Kell said through a mouthful of stew, “But we don't know anything about fighting.”
Gabrielle swallowed, and cleared her throat. “Neither did I, when I first joined the tribe.” Then she cocked her head and looked reflective. “Except what little Xena had taught me before then.” A smile twitched at her lips. “She told me to run, or talk my way out of a fight.” She laughed, as she used a spoon to stir her stew, and her voice became wistful, and nostalgic. “That was when we first started traveling together.”
Aryn mentally slapped herself for being so dense. The “we” for Gabrielle was not her and the Amazons, but her and Xena. She was one half of a whole.
“I don't understand. You don't live with them? I thought you were their Queen.” Neva questioned. Her demeanor now became inquisitive, rather than skeptical.
“I am.” Gabrielle put her spoon down, having finished her stew. “But I never lived with them. It sort of happened by accident. I tried to save their princess from an arrow, but she died, and she gave me her Right of Caste.” She paused, then continued, “Varia is their Queen Regent. She rules in my place.”
Neva's brows bunched. “So we'd have to do what she said?”
Gabrielle smiled thinly. “Not exactly. Amazons ask each other to do things. We do what's best for the tribe, so we usually have a consensus.”
“What if we don't agree?” Neva countered.
Gabrielle cocked her head, considering. This girl was a tough one. Despite her reluctance to trust, Gabrielle felt she would make a good Amazon. She certainly stuck to her principles, and Gabrielle felt that her loyalty, once won, would be hard lost. “Well. First we try negotiating.” Her lips twitched. Despite her now more prominent status as a warrior, negotiation was still something for which she was considered a formidable opponent. It was part of why the Amazons respected and valued her so much; since she had become Queen, fighting amongst them had lessened. She took another sip of her cider, then sighed. “And if we can't come to an agreement, one person either backs down, or the tribe member issues a challenge.”
The girls had all finished eating, and were riveted. “What's a challenge?” Kell asked.
“A fight to the death,” Gabrielle replied pragmatically.
A round of gasps circled the table. “Holy shit,” Brear exclaimed, in a breathy exhale.
“Have you ever been challenged?” Aryn asked. She was interested; this was a part of Gabrielle's life with which she was not familiar. Her dad had told her many stories, but now she figured Gabrielle's early involvement with the Amazons must have occurred before she and Autolycus had met.
Gabrielle glanced over at her, her green eyes intense. “I issued one. That's how I became Queen.”
There was silence then, as the group absorbed this. They looked at each other uneasily, unsure how to respond. Gabrielle waited, thinking she had scared them. Part of her wanted them to be afraid, wanted them to understand the danger that lay ahead. Another part of her wanted to whisk them away to a safe place, to pat them on the head and tell them it would be all right, even though she knew that the world was unpredictable.
Aryn spoke first. “You killed their Queen?” She knew that Gabrielle had killed men in battle, but this was something different, something unexpected. The idea that Gabrielle had been forced to kill someone to gain her position was unsettling.
Gabrielle shook her head. “No. When you issue a challenge, you can choose a champion.” She remembered then, that moment, when she had said, I choose Xena. And the warrior had stepped up, and fought for her. But Xena had always done that, from the beginning. It was who she was. And though Gabrielle could now fight for herself, she knew there would never be a time when she wouldn't want her champion at her side.
“And you chose Xena,” Aryn supplied. It wasn't a question. “And Xena killed her.” Aryn's voice had grown slightly thick.
“Actually, she didn't.” Gabrielle saw the group relax perceptibly at this news. “Queen Melosa yielded, and we were able to get the Amazons and Centaurs to stop fighting.”
“It was a good thing?” Neva asked.
“I think so,” Gabrielle confirmed, then drained her cider cup. “Look,” she said, changing tact, “I'm not going to tell you to do anything. But if you want to go to the Amazons, I'll take you, and I can promise you that there, you can live without fear.” A pause, as she watched the girls' reaction to her words. These girls, some of whom had only known captivity, now faced a future where freedom could be their greatest asset, or their greatest enemy. To live without looking over your shoulder was no small feat. As she turned to the left, she could see Aryn's face, deep in thought, her well-shaped mouth slightly open. Gabrielle remembered what she had said the night before, and realized that her young companion understood that more than any of them.
The girls considered her words, looking back and forth at one another, in that tacit communication so common to teenage girls. It was clear that the other girls had already decided to join the Amazons; Neva was the only one who showed reservation. Her loyalty to them was quickly diminishing her resolve.
Finally, Neva spoke. “We'll think about it.”
Gabrielle smiled. “That's all I ask.”
Aryn stood at the ship's rail, letting the sea air and growing wind whip her hair about her face. She looked out, and sighed, her eyes unfocusing as her gaze traveled inward.
The Temple of Hestia was much smaller than she remembered. But then again, she had been smaller then, too. And Telen had been very small. She hesitated with her booted foot on the bottom step.
What if he didn't remember her? The road here had been long and difficult, as she sulked and stole her way from town to town, finally returning to the one from which she had been taken. She was hungry, and dirty, but free. She was scarred and changed, but free. And she had thought of little else than seeing her brother again. Of seeing his face and being reminded that she was a person, and not property.
But what if he looked at her and saw a stranger? Where then would she go?
She weighed that decision, finally steeling herself and coming to the conclusion that to leave without seeing him, to always wonder about him, would be too painful.
So she walked slowly up the white steps and through the halls. It was a peaceful place, and quiet. Her footsteps seemed unnaturally loud on the marble floor, and the Hestian Virgins' smooth voices echoed off the walls as the women passed.
Aryn paused in a doorway that led to a courtyard. It was beautiful, with a flowery garden and stone benches. But the most beautiful part was the occupants. There were a couple dozen children of all ages, laughing and playing. They were dressed well, and looked happy. She looked down at herself, at her battered brown tunic and mud splashed boots. She picked at her front, and her gaze locked on the thin pink scar that sliced through the meaty part of her right palm, left there by a clay shard's jagged edge. Aryn's eyes teared as she raised her head, viewing the scene before her.
They did not need this. They didn't need for someone to bring the horrors of the outside world into theirs. Aryn blinked hard, and was about to turn to leave when one of the children caught her eye.
A little boy, who was looking right at her from across the courtyard. His tiny hands held a leather ball. Though he had grown, Aryn knew him immediately. His features were that of their mother, and he had grown into them. His dark blonde hair curled around his ears, and his features, softer, smaller ones than hers, were frozen in an expression of disbelief. His grey eyes bored into hers, holding her captive. She was not as free as she would have thought, for this little boy held her heart.
The moment was interminable. Then, the boy's face shifted in recognition, and relief washed over Aryn in a warm wave as she let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. His lips moved silently as he mouthed, “Ari?” Then he dropped the ball he'd been holding and sprinted toward the doorway.
She stepped from the shadow into the lit courtyard and fell to her knees to gather the small form in her arms.
“Telly,” she breathed into his hair. “Gods, you're so big.”
“I knew you'd come,” he said, pulling back, “They told me you wouldn't, but I knew.”
“I'm sorry,” she replied, feeling an unaccustomed wetness trailing down her cheeks, “I'm sorry I took so long.”
“I missed you.”
Oh gods. Aryn's tears flowed freely now, as she felt joy and pain in equal measure. Her voice broke, as she brushed her hand through the soft strands of his hair. “I missed you too.”
“They're not real fun here.” He wrinkled his nose. “They chant a lot.”
A teary chuckle escaped her throat. She wiped her face on her arm, succeeding in redistributing the dirt. “I didn't have any fun either. But at least there wasn't any chanting.” She nudged his ticklish ribs, and he giggled.
Above his shoulder she could see a woman watching them, a wary expression on her face. Unlike the other Vestal Virgins, she wasn't wearing a veil. A teacher, perhaps? Someone who was responsible for the children. Aryn saw her hitch up her skirt and begin to walk toward them, and sensed her time here was coming to an end.
Meeting his eyes she said seriously, “I have to go, but I'll come visit you tomorrow, okay? And every day after that.”
His face grew puzzled. “I thought you came to get me.”
She was nonplussed. It was not her intention to take him away from this sanctuary, only to check on his progress, and to see him every day. She shook her head quickly, surprised, and suddenly felt terribly guilty for making him believe something she could not do. “Come get-I-I can't-” she stammered, her voice growing thick with emotion.
He bit his lip, “but I want to go with you.”
Aryn felt a profound sorrow as she looked into his grey eyes. Gods, she wanted nothing more than to return to her former life. To live as a family. But to try that now was...selfish. And though she was a thief, and had murdered someone to gain her freedom, her brother's safety was not something she would sacrifice. “Tel, I can't-” she swallowed, “I can't take you with me.” But her protest sounded insincere, and she knew it.
“Why not?” came the small voice.
Fresh tears gathered at the edges of Aryn's eyes. “I can't...I can't take care of you...I can't protect you,” she shook her head, then squeezed his arms trying to convey her feeling, “I'll visit you here. You'll be safe here.”
“But I won't have you.” His intense grey eyes searched hers, and as she thought of leaving him again, she felt an emptiness so powerful she would have fallen if she were not already on her knees. Her heart pounded, and the ache in her chest pained her like a physical wound. She was in no position to take care of a nine-year old. She could barely take care of herself. Her rational mind wanted to say no, and screamed its protest, a pleading lost against the powerful beating of her heart.
Her heart commanded her head, which nodded. “Okay.”
Now Aryn rested her hand on the rail, palm up. She ran her finger along the thin puckered scar, and flexed the fingers outward, feeling the smallest bit of strain against her palm. I was right, she thought, I couldn't protect him. But maybe I'll be given another chance to get it right.
As she looked out over the sea, it occurred to her that the previous night had been the first time she had stood on the deck of a ship when she wasn't been led off of it in chains. The first time she had seen the sun set over the water. The first time she was running toward something instead of away.
“Dinar for your thoughts.” Gabrielle joined her at the railing, the wind blowing her blonde hair forward. She lifted a hand and brushed it behind her ear, but it escaped again.
“I never could resist someone offering me money,” said Aryn with a thin smile, meeting Gabrielle's serious expression, “sure you know what you're getting into?”
Gabrielle studied the thief's serious face, the reflection of the sunlight off the water giving it an odd halo. In that moment, the young woman seemed older and somehow younger at the same time, and Gabrielle wondered why that was so. Then she knew. Aryn had let her mask drop, and revealed there was an expression of stark vulnerability, and ancient pain. She saw in those brown eyes a kindred spirit, a level of understanding she had not noticed before. “I think I can guess,” replied Gabrielle, gazing out over the sea.
“I was thinking about what you said yesterday, about not regretting any decisions you made,” Aryn replied, after a pause. “Even the bad ones.”
“Mmm,” Gabrielle confirmed, her gaze focusing on the black cloud in the distance. “And what did you come up with?” she asked.
Aryn watched the waves for a moment, the whitecaps rising and disappearing at random. “I understand what you meant. My brother would have been safe, living away from me,” A pause, as she brushed her hair out of her face. “But I wouldn't have really known him. We wouldn't be a family. I don't regret that at all.” Another pause, as her face half turned to regard Gabrielle, who was watching her closely. Aryn looked thoughtful and asked, “Why did you follow Xena? I mean, what made you decide to go with her?”
“Because I'm insane,” Gabrielle replied immediately, with a slight laugh, which was echoed by Aryn. Then her face grew serious, and her thoughts turned inward as she considered the question. At the time, her decision had been immediate, and seemed obvious. But now, as she reflected upon her past, it seemed rash, and she could easily understand that an outsider might think so. She could have stayed in Potadeia, and been safe. Lived a quiet life. Be married to Perdicus, who never would have died because of his association with her and Xena. But that was not the path she had chosen. The safe route was not the destiny meant for her, and she would not have it so. Looking at Aryn's face, she knew the same was true for her.
“Because,” she replied slowly, “I knew if I didn't go with her, I would have spent the rest of my life wondering what would have happened if I had.”
Aryn gazed at her for a moment more, then nodded. “That's why I took the letter.” A pause then, as her mouth morphed into a smirk, and by the motion the vulnerability in her face was washed away, like dirt beneath a torrent of water . “Because I'm insane.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Forget the other thing.”
Gabrielle laughed and patted her shoulder, then looked again over the rail, as she again studied the black cloud. “We'll be in Greece in less than a day,” she smirked and added, “then the real fun starts.”
“Oh goody,” said Aryn, as her sight followed Gabrielle's. She studied the cloud, which she had previously thought was a storm. At this closer distance, however, she noticed that it curved upward, and seemed to be attached to a point of light at the horizon.
She squinted. “Is that...Thera?” she queried.
“No,” said Gabrielle, her voice wary, “the volcano's to the south, off the starboard side.”
“Then what is it?”
Gabrielle squinted as well, then her eyes widened as the now closer object resolved itself into a familiar shape. She turned to face Aryn as they both said in unison, “A slave ship.”
“Captain, we have to search that ship!” Gabrielle demanded, as she jerked her arm in the ship's direction. They were much closer now, and it was plainly visible, a hulking derelict, black smoke belching from its bowels. Whatever fire had caused the smoke was now extinguished, and the ship rocked impotently in the water, it's sails burned to useless flaps, it's rowers apparently incapacitated.
The sea seemed to match her urgency, the waves smacking the ship with more force, making it difficult for she and Aryn to keep balance as they followed the captain around the deck. He would have to make a decision quickly, or they would pass the ship.
“I don't think so. I mean to reach port today, and I will not be delayed by a fool's errand.” He shook his grizzled head, as he stepped over a coil of rope, “Not even if you threaten me,” he added, with a pointed look at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle argued, “There may still be people on board!”.
Aryn pushed past her and met the captain's gaze, stumbling a little as another wave rocked the ship. Telen might be aboard that ship, and there was no way in Hades she was going to pass it by. She'd leap into the sea and swim if she had to. But first, she would appeal to a vice she knew well. Avarice. “At the very least,” she said, with commendable calm, “there may be cargo on board you can salvage.”
His posture changed, and Gabrielle could tell the idea appealed to him, so she added, “Look how low it is on the draft. It must be carrying something heavy.” More likely it's sinking, she thought, but hoped the captain would be too distracted by the prospect of acquiring extra merchandise to notice.
The captain scratched his jaw. “I don't want to risk my men.”
“I'm a warrior,” said Gabrielle confidently, “I'll go aboard.”
“I'll go too,” said Aryn. Gabrielle gave her a warning look, which indicated that she thought the idea was dangerous. But Aryn's brother could be on the ship, and the look Gabrielle received from her let Gabrielle know that the thief would not stay behind..
“Just the two of you?” the captain said incredulously, unconvinced.
“And the third warrior you have,” came Gabrielle's quick reply, which also implied that Aryn was a warrior. “He's a big guy.”
“Really big,” Aryn supplied, miming a large figure with her hands.
The captain looked at the slave ship, then back at them. He was about to cave.
“Really, really big. And strong.”
But useless, they discovered. As they prepared to board the thin plank that would lead them to the ship Gabrielle noted her mercenary friend was having a hard time keeping his footing, and by the pallor of his face, also his lunch.
“What's your name?” she asked him.
He swallowed. “Raytheon,” he replied, his voice a deep bass. Despite its tone, she could detect the fear and unease.
She grabbed his wrist, quickly finding the pressure points and squeezing. Though his sword was drawn, he didn't even try to stop her, which told her definitively that he was not a warrior, something she had suspected when she'd encountered him in the galley previously. “That should help.”
“Help...my name?” he said, puzzled.
Aryn, appeared near Gabrielle. “You look like you're about to keel over,” she directed at Raytheon. She had found a harpoon, which she intended to use as a weapon if it was required.
Gabrielle gestured to the item. “You know how to use that?”
“Better than he knows how to use that blade.” Her eyes flicked to Raytheon's sword, which looked dull and poorly kept. “Hold it a little higher,” she instructed him, then began to walk across the plank.
Gabrielle joined her, and with a tug from Gabrielle, a red-faced Raytheon followed behind. “Who taught you how to use a sword?” she asked Aryn, over the roar of the water below.
“Long story. Tell you later.” came the reply, as Aryn hopped onto the ship, quickly joined by the others. She stumbled, finding that the deck's boards were buckled, and now uneven.
“The wood expanded from the heat,” explained Gabrielle. She wrinkled her nose. They hadn't been able to smell the smoke because of the wind's direction, but now a cloying odor was easily discernible, though the smoke had thinned considerably.
Raytheon had used the rail as leverage to swing his large form onto the deck, and his hand came away reluctantly, held to the wood by a viscid substance. “What is this?” He lifted his hand to his nose and sniffed, then recoiled. “Pitch?”
Gabrielle and Aryn exchanged glances. “The ship was set on fire deliberately?” asked Aryn, raising an eyebrow. “Why would someone do that?”
“I dunno,” replied Gabrielle, “let's check the hold.” She moved past Aryn to take the lead, crossing the deck with little difficulty, despite the ship's pronounced rocking. Her boots made prints on the ashy surface as she reached the door to the ship's innards. She tugged on the handle, but found that the door had expanded in its frame, holding it fast. Raytheon sheathed his sword, in preparation to lend a hand.
Aryn and Raytheon both aided in the effort, and with a loud crack and creaking, the door burst from its hinges, the momentum making them all fall back. Gabrielle pushed the door to the side and helped the others to their feet.
One look down the stairway told them that the inside of the ship had not been touched by the fire. Gabrielle took the lead, and they made their way inside the ship.
When they had first seen the ship, Aryn had hoped that her brother may be aboard, but now she thought it fairly unlikely. It seemed that whoever had been on the ship last had vacated it, leaving behind strange circumstances.
The ship was designed like a trireme, a Greek fighting vessel. On the inside there were three decks, with rows of oars and benches, with manacles for slaves. In this way, they could make their cargo work for them. It was different than the vessel Aryn had arrived on, which had not been equipped with oars.
They passed the first two decks, finding them empty. When they reached the lowest deck, they found it flooded; they were up to their knees in water. They sloshed inside, finding it equally unoccupied.
“We're sinking,” said Raytheon.
Aryn shot him an annoyed look, and gestured around her with her harpoon, “Thanks, Mr. Observant Mercenary, I was wondering what all this water meant.”
“Hey, come look at this,” said Gabrielle, examining the hull, dipping her hand below the waterline and feeling the wood. Their voices echoed in the enclosed chamber, and the dim light from the open door above did little to illuminate the space, causing the shifting blue reflection to dance off the ceiling, walls, and them. “The seacocks are open.”
“The sea-what?” said Aryn on a laugh, sloshing over to where Gabrielle was standing. “Is that some kind of Poseidon fertility thing?”
Gabrielle half turned her head and gave her companion a droll look. Gently she took Aryn's hand and guided it below the water, to a hole in the wall through which water was entering. “They're valves,” she explained, “they shouldn't be open unless the boat is docked.”
“They're what's making us sink?” asked Raytheon, his big form moving the water in waves as he came to join them.
“We should keep him around to help us solve all of our mysteries,” said Aryn wryly. Gabrielle gave her an amusedly tolerant look.
“Yes,” replied Gabrielle, answering Raytheon, “and it wasn't by accident.”
“I don't get it,” said Aryn, moving back, “if pirates did this-” she began, tapping the submerged floor with her harpoon.
“Why didn't they just take the ship?” finished Gabrielle, with a raised eyebrow. “Why set it on fire and sink it?”
“Yeah,” Aryn nodded, “isn't that overkill?”
“I don't know,” said Gabrielle, “this is beginning to feel a lot like-”
From somewhere far above, a yell sounded.
Back on the slave ship's deck, they could see chaos on the merchant ship. A half-dozen dark-skinned pirates were engaged in battle with the sailors.
Gabrielle got a better look as she approached the ship's edge, ready to cross the plank to the besieged ship. What the Hades was going on?
The plank that linked the two ships had been kicked away, leaving a sizable gap of churning sea between the two crafts. “We're going to have to jump!” yelled Gabrielle, over the water's noise and the battle's din.
“Of course we are,” muttered Aryn, as she watched Gabrielle balance on the rail with the skill of a tightrope walker, timing her jump to the ship's rocking, so that the pitching waves would help propel her onto the merchant vessel.
Aryn made to follow, balancing precariously on the rail. As she made her jump she felt the spray of the sea licking her legs, and the merchant ship's deck rose to meet her, too quickly. She cleared the rail but crumpled to the deck as the ship rose to greet her downward motion. She winced as Gabrielle pulled her to her feet by grabbing the back of her tunic.
Aryn nodded and said with a pained smile, “Watch that laugh step. It's a doozy,” then felt the thunk as Raytheon's large form landed next to her.
“Can you fight?” asked Gabrielle, reaching into her boots and drawing her sais in a flickering motion.
“We have to,” replied Aryn, as she surveyed the scene. The pirates had taken the sailors by surprise. The deck was now slick with seawater and blood.
Raytheon drew his sword inexpertly, and swallowed.
Gabrielle dove into the fray.
“Should've stayed in bed,” muttered Aryn.
It had been a long time since Gabrielle had fought anyone, but she found that at this point it was more instinct than anything, as she parried the curved sword of one of the pirates.
He snarled, and pulled back to swipe at her head, but she charged forward and got inside his guard, slamming the base of her sais into his chin. He stumbled back but didn't fall. She moved to take the opportunity to knock him out, but he stumbled into one of the merchant sailors, and she saw a blade pierce his stomach. His eyes rolled back, and he slumped to the deck, dead.
“Damn it!” she cursed. She wanted to keep one of the men alive, in order to question him, but the close quarters were making controlling the battle difficult.
Aryn and Raytheon were fighting one opponent, a large, dark-skinned man who wielded a curved sword with moderate skill. He had killed one of the sailors, but before than man had died he had dealt the pirate a slice to the stomach, which was bleeding profusely, weakening him. Raytheon charged at him in an attempt to use his greater weight to overpower him, but the pirate deflected his blow, and Raytheon's momentum pushed him forward uncontrollably. As he passed, the pirate slashed his back, opening a hole in his thin leather armor. Raytheon fell forward, hitting his head on the deck, knocking himself out.
Aryn hit her attacker's stomach with the butt of her harpoon. He gripped his injury with one hand, and with the other, returned her blow with a downward thrust, which she blocked by barely managing to get her harpoon up. His sword lodged in the wood, which then broke into two pieces. He overbalanced as she moved the piece into which his sword was lodged, and jerked him down. Her left hand raised and pierced his cheek with the sharp end of her harpoon. He screamed, which caused a bigger hole to open in his cheek. She took advantage of his instability and powered forward, pushing him to the ship's edge. He fell against the low rail, and she removed her harpoon from his face a with a jerk, which sickeningly reminded her of Ilyik's death.
As she held him there against the rail, she had a choice. She could throw him over, or...on that thought, she grabbed his head by the hair and slammed it into the rail. He went limp, and slumped to the deck, unconscious.
Turning, she saw destruction. The deck was littered with bodies and debris. Across the deck, she saw Gabrielle fighting in earnest with a large pirate, who was armed with a nasty-looking double-headed axe. The warrior was holding her own, her agility and prowess a greater match for his brute strength.
Aryn saw a sailor moving toward the blonde, presumably to help her, then, she recognized him. He was the sailor from breakfast, who Hallas had been reluctant to speak in front of. With a gasp, Aryn realized his intention.
She sprinted forward, jumping over a dead sailor, her boots slipping in the red-soaked seawater covering the deck. She caught her balance and reached her target, slamming into him just as he raised a knife to plunge it into her friend's back.
Gabrielle jumped to the side to dodge an overhand axe blow, when she felt a presence at her back. As she turned to meet her second attacker, the presence disappeared, tumbling over the side accompanied by a small, fast-moving green clad form.
As Aryn saw the roiling sea quickly approaching, she was struck by the thought that this was probably not the smartest thing she had ever done. She and the turncoat sailor impacted the water, instantly pulled under by the strong current. Aryn was disoriented, tumbling as the waves jerked them around. She kicked blindly, and felt one of her boots impact a soft object. A hand reached for her calf, but she kicked again, knocking it away. Her head broke the surface with a loud gasp, as she sucked in oxygen.
Just as quickly, she was pulled back under, a strong grip trapping her. Her opponent pulled her down, fastening large hands on her tunic, trapping her beneath the water. He had dropped his knife, and now he was trying to drown her, she realized. But he was having a difficult time keeping his grip in the strong current. Flailing, she felt the laces of her tunic loosen. As he tried to regain his grip she broke free, gaining the surface again, rewarded by a quick gasp of air before she was pulled beneath the waves yet again.
Gabrielle got in a hit to the man's stomach, but he only grunted and kept up his attack. Damn it, she thought, her mind now split between this battle, and the need to check on the thief who had gone over the side. If she wanted this fight to be over quickly, she wouldn't have time to disable this man. With a curse, she ducked his axe, hearing a crunch as it wedged in the wooden rail. With a mighty tug he tried to remove it, but his own strength had doomed him, as it held fast. Gabrielle kicked him hard in the back, sending him sprawling forward, right into his own axe. It penetrated his chest with a wet cracking sound, and with a gurgle as his head slumped forward, he died.
Gabrielle rushed to the rail, searching the churning sea for the thief, relieved when she saw the girl's head break the surface, only to be pulled under again, overshadowed by a large, dark shape. The distance was too far for her to throw a knife accurately, and she didn't feel comfortable enough to use the chakram. Aryn was struggling in the man's grip, and Gabrielle feared a throw from the spinning disc might hit the thief. But maybe...she glanced around the deck, picking up Aryn's discarded harpoon, noticing that the tip of the shortened weapon was slick with blood. She took aim, a deep breath, and released the weapon.
Aryn felt hands close around her neck, squeezing. Her vision, once filled with the sting of the seawater, now tunneled. Black spots blocked out the sun, and her lungs burned. Her nails scratched futilely against his arms, trying to reach his face, his eyes, anything, but his reach was longer.
She was going to die. That was disappointing, really, because she felt that she had come a long way only to die now, seemingly at the start of her journey. But at least, she thought, she had died saving Gabrielle. That was something. Gabrielle would save her brother; she knew she could trust the bard to do that, with or without Aryn. And maybe she'll tell a story about how I was. Though she didn't feel very brave now. Just in pain. Maybe if she could reach the knife still in her boot...she tried to twist her leg up to meet her reaching hand.
Suddenly, the grip holding her was gone, and she kicked up, breathing in clean air once again. The seawater around her ran red, and she saw the floating body of her attacker, speared in the back like a fish, the waves knocking his lifeless form. Looking up, she saw Gabrielle throw a rope overboard.
Gabrielle turned to face the ship's deck, her eyes widening when she saw there was only one remaining pirate, his fellows having been killed by sailors. He saw her, and jumped off the ship into the water. She ran to the side. Over it she could see the sinking slave ship give up its last, and as it was sucked into the gaping maw of the sea the swimming pirate went with it, disappearing beneath the waves. She waited a moment, and he did not resurface. Whatever secrets they had held, would now be told only in the underworld.
“Gods damn it.”
Aryn collapsed onto the deck, gasping. She briefly reminded herself that this was becoming a habit, and a bad one. Her necked ached, now freshly bruised, an angry mottled red color. Her drenched tunic felt impossibly heavy, and the torn laces were keeping her only barely modest. That didn't matter though, as she sucked air into her lungs. Her wet hair fell over her face as she surveyed the carnage, and Gabrielle jogged to her.
“You okay?” she asked, bending down and touching Aryn's shoulder.
Aryn nodded heavily and rasped, “What's goin' on?”
“Hades if I know,” said Gabrielle tersely, helping the thief to her feet, “I wanted to question one of them, but they're all dead.” Then her voice softened. “Sorry. I'm frustrated.”
Behind Gabrielle Aryn saw Neva come onto the deck. She gasped, and looked horrified. Most of the bodies had already been thrown overboard, and the sailors were now helping the injured down to a room inside the ship. They brushed past Neva, dripping blood onto the deck.
“It's okay, Neva!” Gabrielle called to her, “get back inside!” Neva did not comply, and instead moved toward them.
“Gabrielle,” Aryn said, grabbing her shoulder urgently, “one of them isn't dead.”
Gabrielle face changed into something that scared Aryn a little. “Show me.”
“The others wanted me to see what's happening,” said Neva, reaching them as they crossed the deck to the man Aryn had knocked unconscious.
“We're about to find out,” said Gabrielle, as she kneeled next to his slumped form. His face was pale even under his tanned skin, making the blood seeping from the hole in his cheek look especially ghastly. His hand covered his stomach wound, but even without looking at it, Gabrielle could tell that he was not long for this world. His chest rose and fell tremulously as his breath came in shallow bursts, and the air passing through the hole in his cheek made an odd whistling noise, stirring a flap of skin that still clung to his flesh.
Nearby Raytheon was regaining consciousness, rubbing his head as he rolled over and saw them. He looked confused for a moment as he absorbed the scene, then he saw the pirate and grimaced. “He looks like shit,” he remarked, sitting up.
“I dunno,” said Aryn, “He's got that rugged, hole-in-the-face look that the ladies just love.” She deflected the nauseating scene with macabre humor.
Gabrielle leaned close to the man, her voice a near whisper. “You are going to die,” she said, matter-of-factly.
The man's head rolled and faced her, then he spat a phrase in a fluid language, his words slurred. Flecks of blood and spittle landed on Gabrielle's face. His words were foreign, but the meaning was universal.
“He's speaking Persian,” said Neva, her eyes widening in shock.
Aryn's head snapped toward her. “Can you translate?”
“Yes,” said Neva succinctly.
Gabrielle began again, keeping her eyes on the pirate. “You are going to die.”
Neva's eyes glanced upward, then her voice began translating, the words flowing like liquid over her tongue. Her expression was somewhere between deep thought and barely hidden queasiness.
Gabrielle put her hand over the man's that covered his wound. She almost felt like she was a different person. This was not something she had ever done. She had never threatened someone with pain in order to gain information. She had seen Xena use the pinch, and Xena had taught her the pinch, but she had never used it, not since the day Xena taught her. Regardless, she could not threaten him with death; he was already dying. She could only threaten pain. It was not a good feeling. She knew Xena would not have been bothered by it, but she was not Xena. Though outwardly her face remained impassive, inside she felt ill. But she knew what she could learn from this man was too important to let die unsaid. Her words sounded distant and cold. “Like this, you will die slowly. I can help you die quickly.”
The man spoke, and Neva spoke over him. “He says it is you who will die.”
“Greece will be crushed between iron and water.”
Gabrielle leaned closer. “What does that mean?” There was no answer. Gabrielle put pressure on the wound, and he whimpered, but remained silent. His life was fading, she could feel it as warm blood slipped between her fingers. “What does that mean?” she demanded.
“He will not tell you.” said Neva.
Aryn broke in. “Ask him what they did with the slaves.” If her brother had been on that ship, or even if he hadn't, they could find out what had happened to him by finding out what had happened with the slaves. Neva's low voice translated, but the man shook his head, a faint, triumphant smile on his face, the gash in his cheek making it look grotesque. Then his head lolled back, and breath left him forever. The smile remained.
Gabrielle stood, after wiping her hand on the man's leather armor. She released a heavy sigh, and looked toward the heavens. “Things are going from bad to worse.”
“What is it?” Aryn asked, “What did that mean?”
“The bad part is,” said Gabrielle, as she turned to face Aryn, Neva, and the now standing Raytheon, “I think Persia is planning to attack Greece.” A pause. “And they have help.”
“From who?” asked Raytheon, leaning on his sword.
“I don't know. That's the “worse” part.”
The healing room was crowded, and the air was saturated with the coppery scent of blood. There were injured sailors on cots, and others, including Gabrielle and Aryn, were doing what they could to help them. Neva, the girls, and Lysander were at one end of the room, relatively out of the way. They were frightened, and didn't want to be away from Gabrielle. Gabrielle also did not want them out of her sight, given that one of the sailors had tried to attack her.
Aryn sat on a stool behind a shirtless Raytheon, examining his wound. A gash ran from his right shoulderblade to the base of his ribcage's left side. She sponged the blood away from the unaffected skin, noting that no new blood flowed. He wouldn't need stitches. She lifted the bowl that rested on the cot he was sitting on, and applied a green foul smelling poultice to the upper part of the shallow cut.
It stung, and he took a hissing breath, his shoulder flinching.
“You okay, Raith?” she asked, pausing.
“Stings a little,” he said, relaxing again. “Raith? That's better than Mr. Observant, or whatever you called me earlier.”
She let out a contrite breath as she continued applying the poultice. “Yeah, I uh, make jokes when I'm frustrated.” She paused. “Actually I make jokes all the time. I wasn't trying to be mean.”
“I'm not stupid, you know,” he added, “I just say things when I'm nervous,” he admitted sheepishly. “I didn't feel very helpful,” he added, embarrassed.
She began bandaging his wound, having to lean close to his body to pass the cloth over his broad chest. “You distracted that guy for me. That was helpful,” she felt her breath bounce off his warm body as she pulled back and patted his round shoulder.
“And then I knocked myself out,” he replied as he turned to face her, his face a crimson shade darker than his reddish-blonde beard. Despite his size, he reminded her of a young boy.
She smirked. “That was helpful too.” Then her smirk faded and she said seriously, “It probably saved your life.” She cocked her head. “What are you doing here, Raith? You're not a mercenary.”
His blush faded as he gave her a self-deprecating smile. “No, I'm not. I'm from a small farming village in Greece.”
“Why did you leave?”
He sighed and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “My dad was injured; lost his arm. I couldn't take care of the farm and my mother. I need two men. So I took up a sword and figured I'd get paid as a mercenary so I could hire someone to take care of the farm. But then my money got stolen.”
Aryn kept her face impassive, though inwardly she'd already decided to return his money to him once she got the chance.
“And then Gabrielle knocked me around, and I figured I wasn't cut out for this fighting stuff,” he continued, “so I said I was a warrior so they'd let me on the ship, so I could go home.” His voice was wistful.
“Where is home?”
“Small village just outside of Potadeia. It doesn't even have a name.”
Aryn's eyebrows perked. Gabrielle had told that they would stop in Potadeia, which was where she and Xena had stabled Argo before they had left for Japan. “We'll be passing near there.” She paused as a plan formed in her mind. “Wanna travel with us?”
He looked shocked, and peeked toward the edge of the room, where all of their companions were sitting. “All of you?”
“Don't worry, we'll protect you.”
His hazel eyes examined her companions and then his brow scrunched. “By the gods. Is that the slave boy from the inn?”
“Lysander, yes,” she smothered a grin.
He looked embarrassed again, and nervously tapped his large hand on his thigh, rubbing the thick cloth of his pants. “Can you tell him I'm sorry? For trying to hurt him?”
Now that Aryn understood his desperation at the time, she couldn't fault him for his reaction. Incongruously she asked, “You got horses on your farm?”
He blinked at the non-sequitor. “Uh, yeah. Why?”
Her eyes went back to Lysander, who was using a mortar and pestle to mix herbs for Gabrielle. “Maybe you can make it up to him.”
Across the room, Gabrielle was using a bone needle and gut to stitch a sailor's stab wound. The blade had passed cleanly through his shoulder, and would heal without incident. The man was looking up at her from the cot with gratitude. “Thanks,” he said, clenching his teeth against the pain.
“It's nothing,” said Gabrielle, tying off the gut. She took the bowl from Lysander and put a bit of antiseptic herb on the wound.
Gabrielle let out a small sigh. This setting reminded her so much of the times she had acted as a healer during wars, and she knew that more of this was coming. And worse.
Then inertia made her sway a little, as the ship's forward motion was arrested.
“What's that?” asked Lysander's small voice.
Gabrielle looked up, as though she could see through the wood to the upper deck. “We're docking.” She met Lysander's curious expression. “We're in Greece.”
Continued in Part 7
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