Ownership: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are owned by Studios USA and no profit is intended from this work. All other characters and the story idea are owned by me (except see "Homage" note below). Please don't copy or repost without my permission, unless for private use.
Timeline: This story takes place immediately after the events depicted in the episode "Gabrielle's Hope". If you're one of those people who pretends most of season three never happened, you might not like this story. Then again, you might like it better than some of the episodes of season three. Who knows? Give it a try!
Homage: I wanted to write a scary story for Halloween, and when I was thinking about things that really scared me, I thought about an episode of "Lost in Space" that terrified me as a child. This story is an homage to that episode called "The Space Creature", written by William Welch.
And Another Thing...I recently read DJWP's "The Irresistible Flame". At the end of that story, she issued a challenge to bards to write more classic X&G stories. I realized how long it had been since I'd written an X&G story, so I was determined to make my Halloween story a classic. OK, DJWP, here's an answer to your challenge. Now it's your turn to write another one!
"We'll sail with the tide. A candlemark. Be ready."
Xena stared dubiously at the sky. Stars were twinkling above her head, only occasionally obscured by fast moving clouds, but to the southwest the sky was an inky black mass. The faint light of the coming dawn revealed malevolent clouds that rose to the heavens. She turned to the captain of the merchant vessel and arched an eyebrow.
"There's a storm brewing," she said simply.
"It's just a squall, we'll be through it and on our way around Gaul with no problems." Captain Ahiram nodded, more to himself than to Xena. Neither seemed truly convinced, but both had their reasons for leaving Britannia as soon as possible. Staying any longer would cost the merchant too many dinars. It was a one-sided trade route and he needed to return to Rome for the goods that Britons yearned for. And for Xena, events in Britannia had created a wound that still bled. She knew that the wound would never heal until she and Gabrielle left the cursed land.
"I'll get my partner," Xena said. She left the dock, heading to the nearby inn where Gabrielle slept. Or not. Neither Gabrielle nor Xena had really slept for days.
It had been a moon since the events at Dahok's temple. So much had happened in that time. Gabrielle had given birth to a demon child, and then, convinced that the child could be good, had led Xena on a chase through the countryside to save her daughter. Xena was glad that the child had shown its true colors and turned on Gabrielle, convincing her that it was pure evil. It should have solved all of their problems. They should have been able to move on, having once more vanquished evil. But life wasn't always about good and evil, black and white. Life was shades of grey.
They didnt return to the town where Xena had previously made a deal for passage to Greece. The Phoenician had set sail long before, and Xena didn't fancy another run-in with the townsfolk who had nearly burned Gabrielle alive. Instead, they traveled south, keeping an ear out for news on Boadicea's fight against Caesar. She was doing well and had laid siege to Londinium. Xena sent word via messenger, offering some last advice and telling the Iceni queen that pressing business called them back to Greece.
While they traveled, Xena tried to care for her partner. She gave herbs to Gabrielle to stop the breast milk from being produced. Her breasts were sore and tender, and the leaking milk was a painful reminder of the baby. Gabrielle accepted Xena's help silently, her grimaces and muffled hisses of pain the only indication that she was hurting. She drank the tea that Xena brewed and applied the lotions in private, but she never spoke of what had happened. In fact, she spoke hardly at all. They traveled, and the silent gulf between them widened.
"If we can just get back home," Xena mumbled as she entered the inn.
The great room was empty and quiet, the hearth not yet lit. But someone was in the kitchen and the smell of baking bread followed Xena up the stairs. Xena opened the door carefully, trying not to disturb Gabrielle, but the bard wasn't sleeping. She stood at the window and turned solemn green eyes toward Xena.
"Is it time?" Gabrielle asked.
"Just about. You could have slept a while longer."
Gabrielle just shrugged and turned her head to stare out the window, gazing down at the waking town.
Xena could feel her arms and fingers tingle with an ache to take action. It was the same feeling she had before going into battle or launching her chakram at an enemy. Her nerves and muscles knew what needed to be done and were itching to do it. This time, instead of going into battle, her arms longed to wrap themselves around Gabrielle. Her fingers yearned to wipe away falling tears. Her mouth tingled to tell her love that everything was going to be OK.
But she couldn't do the simple acts or say the simple words that she had done and said so many times before. This time, she knew it wasn't true. This time, she couldn't make everything OK. Lying to Gabrielle would hurt a thousand times more than staying silent and keeping her arms stiffly at her side. And so, once again, that's what she did.
"We might as well go to the ship then," Xena said. "We can pick up some fresh bread on our way out."
Gabrielle gathered up the bags that she had already carefully packed and followed silently behind Xena. Once downstairs, they knocked on the door to the kitchen and were greeted by a small, timid woman with flaming red hair and emerald eyes.
"Can we buy a loaf of bread, if there's one ready?" Xena asked in Latin, hoping the baker would understand.
The woman nodded and pulled a loaf from the oven. It was nicely browned and large enough to feed Xena and Gabrielle for at least two meals. Xena handed the woman a Roman coin, knowing it was twice what the bread was worth. The woman smiled.
"Are you leaving today?" the woman asked in halting Latin.
"Yes," Gabrielle replied, taking the loaf from Xena and carefully wrapping it before placing it in her bag. "We sail for home. Greece."
Xena was pleased to hear a note of hopefulness in Gabrielle's voice. She smiled, but her smile faded when she saw the baker's eyes widen in surprise.
"You can't travel today," the woman said urgently. "Today is Samhain."
"Sow-in?" Gabrielle repeated with a confused frown.
"Religious mumbo-jumbo." The innkeeper entered the kitchen carrying a keg of ale and rolled his eyes.
"What does she mean?" Gabrielle persisted.
"She comes from an isle to the west of Britannia. Our celtic cousins. Tomorrow is one of their greatest feast days. Tonight is the latest day of their year."
"Tonight, the wall between this world and the next becomes thin," the baker said, looking deeply into Gabrielle's eyes. "It is a bad day to travel, especially on the sea."
"Tales to scare children and make them stay in their beds at night," the innkeeper said with a dismissive shake of his head. "Leave these poor women alone, Fee, and get on with your baking. Your loaves will burn."
The woman spared one more sympathetic look at Xena and Gabrielle before turning back to her duties. Xena felt a shudder spider-step down her spine. She didn't fear myths until she came face to face with them. Even then, she had faith in her strength and her wits. But she hated bad omens before sailing, and she knew Gabrielle was much more susceptible to scary legends.
She glanced down at her partner as they left the inn, ready to offer reassuring words. But Gabrielle's jaw was set and she stared straight ahead, taking long, sure strides toward the dock. Xena thought about saying something anyway, but as usual she kept silent and followed Gabrielle.
Captain Ahiram was overseeing preparations when Xena and Gabrielle came aboard.
"Good, you're early," the captain yelled in greeting. "You can help us prepare the sail."
Xena nodded and then turned to Gabrielle. "Go ahead and find us somewhere to sleep below deck. A quiet corner would be nice, yeah?" She smiled, hoping to see it mirrored, but Gabrielle frowned back and stumbled as she tried to find her balance on the gently rocking ship.
"I'll show you where you can stay." The cabin boy approached and grinned shyly at Gabrielle. Xena was pleased when the bard smiled back, even though it was pointed in someone else's direction.
"Thanks," Gabrielle said to the boy. "What's your name?"
"Danel, ma'am," the boy replied, looking down at his feet.
"That's a beautiful name," Gabrielle said, causing the boy's ears to turn bright red.
And another one falls to the bard's charms, Xena mused as the boy led Gabrielle below deck. The familiarity of the exchange put another smile on Xena's face and she actually hummed as she helped check the mainsail and then load some provisions onboard.
They set sail as the sun rose above the horizon, letting the receding tide take them down the river and into the open channel that ran between Britannia and Gaul. Xena gazed at the colors of the sky: fuchsia and rose and crimson.
Red sky at morning, sailor take warning.
She pushed the phrase from her mind. They knew there was a storm, but they'd ride it out. The captain looked like he'd sailed between Britannia and the Mediterranean more years than she could count on two hands; the crew were four strong, experienced men; the cabin boy, though no more than ten summers, looked wiry and tough. Xena wasn't a bad sailor herself. They'd make it through, no problem.
Xena leaned against the deck's railing, facing the wind and feeling the salty air tickle her lips and slap her cheeks. She felt as if she were being cleansed. She wanted Gabrielle to feel it too, and turned to bring the bard up on deck, only to find her partner standing at the rear of the ship, looking back toward Britannia. She leaned against the ship's railing, her shoulders slumped, as if carrying a heavy burden on her back.
They stood that way for a long time, Xena looking forward and Gabrielle looking back, until Britannia faded from view and a wall of darkness loomed before them.
"Go below deck, the storm is coming." Xena approached Gabrielle as the first spots of rain began to fall. The sea had been rough, but it now began to churn and Gabrielle stumbled and clutched at the rail.
"What are you going to do?" Gabrielle asked. She quickly changed her grasp from the rail to Xena's arm, allowing herself to be dragged toward the hatch.
"I'm going to help the captain steer a course through the storm," Xena replied.
Xena saw Danel silhouetted in the hatchway, and she gratefully turned over her charge to the cabin boy.
"You two stay below until we're through this," Xena instructed, knowing that the cabin boy would be well versed in keeping safe during a storm. She worried anyway. "Watch for shifting cargo, OK?"
She waited until Gabrielle looked into her eyes, wanting to reassure her that they'd make it through the storm. Gabrielle's green eyes lifted to hers, but there was no fear in them, just a sad resignation. Resigned that they would make it or resigned that they wouldn't? Xena didn't have time to find out what Gabrielle was feeling. She nodded her head and when Danel pulled Gabrielle down the stairs, she quickly closed and sealed the hatch.
Xena fought her way up to the upper deck, where the captain was struggling with the wheel. The first mate was taking charge of the rest of the crew, shouting orders that were barely heard above the roar of the wind. Rain and hail were now pelting down on them, and waves were crashing over the bulwark. And, Xena knew, this was just the beginning.
Xena knew Poseidon wasn't responsible for every storm at sea. Nonetheless, she always took on a storm as if she were facing the god, pitting herself against a being that wanted her dead and bloated on the bottom of the ocean. She fought better when she had an enemy to focus on. So, over the next few candlemarks, Xena fought Poseidon.
Like all great battles, this one was made up of a series of skirmishes. A less experienced person would see pandemonium, but Xena focused on each single attack, determining her counterattack and preparing for her next moves. She used her experience to determine the storm's strategy. When the winds shifted, she was ready, already having turned the wheel to take advantage of the new direction. She saw a shroud from the foresail begin to fray, and leapt down to the main deck, sloshing through the waves that flowed around her feet. She worked with a crewman to attach a second rope to the jib. He gave her a nod of thanks, spitting water from his mouth, shaking it from his hair.
Xena returned to the wheel, adding her strength to the captain's as they turned the ship away from a rocky isle that had suddenly appeared in their path. Xena recognized the island, and as they barely passed around it, she turned the ship north-eastward. She knew they were heading away from their route and the coast of Gaul, but the storm was heading southwest and Xena knew it was their only chance to ride out the storm. The masts flexed and the ship groaned as Xena turned them. A large tear appeared in the foresail, but the rest of the sails held strong.
Slowly, slowly, the battle was won. The winds lessened. The waves rolled high, but in a calmer pattern. The hail stopped, and then the rain. Finally, after another candlemark, the sky became a uniform grey and far overheard, Xena watched a seabird fly in a steady path toward the south.
"It's over. We did it." The captain smiled and clapped Xena on her shoulder.
The rest of the crew took deep breaths and silently counted their number. When all were accounted for, they let out a loud cheer.
"I'm going below deck to check on Gabrielle and Danel," Xena said. "And to make sure there's no damage down there."
The captain nodded. "Tell the boy to prepare a meal. Once we've made repairs, we'll have a hungry crew."
Xena's stomach rumbled at the promise of dinner and she hurried below deck, where Danel greeted her with a worried expression.
"Your friend is sick," he said.
Xena spotted Gabrielle huddled in the corner, her head hanging over a bucket. "The captain wants a meal prepared for the crew. I'll take care of Gabrielle."
Danel frowned as he looked at the chaos around him. The boxes and barrels they had so carefully stowed were lying in the hold like a hyperactive child's discarded toys. He sighed and began to search for the supplies he needed as Xena went to tend to Gabrielle.
"Hey, it's over," Xena said, laying a hand on the red-gold head.
Gabrielle looked up. Her skin had a green tinge, her eyes red and watering.
"Is it?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yeah," Xena replied, wondering why Gabrielle didn't notice the storm was over. Then she remembered the other storm that had been raging through their souls.
And suddenly, she was angry. They'd won, hadn't they? They'd defeated first Dahok and now the angry seas. When would Gabrielle understand that? When would she just...get over it. She felt guilty thinking that, but then anger boiled inside of her again at the very notion that she was made to feel guilt. She knew the quickly escalating emotion was partly a result of the adrenaline still coursing through her system, and the best thing to do was remove herself from Gabrielle.
"I'm going to go get some of the men to help clean up down here. Why don't you help Danel?" Xena avoided the sad green eyes, already halfway up the steps before she finished her sentence. She didn't wait for a response.
A few candlemarks later, Xena was feeling more herself. She'd avoided the bard, though she'd seen her a few times helping Danel or one of the men. Xena didn't want to see or speak to Gabrielle until she felt calm and centered again. Gabrielle seemed to understand, obviously avoiding Xena.
Dinner was good, despite being typical sea-going fare. Like all men after a battle, the sailors sat around the deck after eating, exchanging stories about their heroics during the day. Xena knew that half of the stories were exaggerations, if not outright lies, but she knew the men needed an outlet to process what had happened. It was no different than an army after a battle.
Xena joined in with the men, though she was never much of a storyteller. That was Gabrielle's job. But this night, the bard was quiet. She had chosen to sit near Danel and the only words she spoke were to him: a compliment on the meal he had prepared, a thanks for taking care of her when she'd been ill. Xena stayed on the other side of the fire from Gabrielle, giving the bard her space.
As the sun sank below the horizon and eyes began to grow heavy, the first mate moved toward Gabrielle, handing her a cup of sweet wine. Xena met his eyes, conveying ownership with a cold stare. He backed off slightly, but Gabrielle reached for his wrist as she took the cup, thanking him and nodding for him to sit. Gabrielle looked back at Xena with an expression that Xena couldn't read. Was it anger or fear or melancholy, or everything at once?
Xena felt frustrated and angry, and although the feelings weren't as strong as they'd been earlier, she took them as a sign to call it a night. She volunteered to take a watch, knowing that although the seas were calm, another storm could take them by surprise. The captain agreed to wake her a few candlemarks before dawn. Before descending to her bedroll, she looked toward Gabrielle. The bard was speaking softly to the first mate and Xena felt jealousy added to the churning emotions in her gut. She clamped her jaw shut and headed for her bed, shutting out the world around her and falling asleep instantly.
Xena heard footsteps approaching and was already awake when a hand reached toward her. She knew it was a sailor waking her for her watch, though it seemed too early. She realized at the same instant that Gabrielle had not slept next to her and the man waking her was frightened.
"The first mate is missing." The man's eyes were wide and grew wider still when Xena sprang up.
"What do you mean?" Xena asked as she peered at the sleeping men all around her. The ship was eerily still in the water and everyone was sleeping peacefully. Everyone, that is, except the first mate and Gabrielle, who were nowhere to be seen.
"I looked everywhere," the man said. "He must have fallen overboard."
Xena was to the stairs in two strides and up the steps in three. She looked on deck and felt some relief when the captain met her near the hatch, and much more relief when Gabrielle appeared like a ghost a few steps behind, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders.
"What's happening?" the captain asked.
"I didn't want to wake you sir, before I was sure," the sailor said as he came up behind Xena. "But Yutpan is missing."
"Missing?" The captain looked around him. The ship was still and silent. The sea was so calm that waves didn't even lap at the sides. "He can't have fallen overboard on a night like this."
"Did you hear him call out?" Xena asked. She walked to the starboard side of the ship and the captain walked to the opposite side. Both looked out at the dark waters, though they had no idea how long the mate had been missing.
"I went to wake him for his watch," the man said, "and couldn't find him. I looked everywhere below deck and above. There's no sign."
"Everywhere but your quarters, sir." He looked toward the captain's quarters, a small box like room behind the ship's wheel, hoping, perhaps, that the first mate would come out the door laughing at the prank he'd pulled. But the ship remained still and silent.
"Who was the last person to see him?" Xena asked, looking at Gabrielle.
"I was," the bard replied. "When everyone went to bed down, I told him I didn't want to sleep below deck because of my seasickness. He showed me a place that was away from the wind."
She pointed to a niche tucked below the upper deck and they all looked that way.
"And where did he go after he showed you this place?" The captain asked. His eyes narrowed with suspicion and Xena watched the bard's reaction. Whatever had happened, Gabrielle seemed calm and just as confused as everyone else.
"He wanted to share my bed," Gabrielle said with a shrug. Her eyes flicked to Xena and then away. "I told him no, and he left me alone. I heard him walking away but I fell asleep the minute I lay my head down."
The captain paused, taking the time to consider her story. Xena wondered if the first mate was the kind of man to take "no" for an answer. But what if he wasn't? Had he forced himself on Gabrielle? Had Gabrielle then pushed him overboard? Before Britannia, Xena wouldn't even consider the possibility. Now, though...
"Well, he either fell or was pushed," the captain said with a shrug. "He has no enemies amongst the crew as far as I know. How about you, Hanno?"
"No, sir." Hanno's eyes darted between Gabrielle and Xena. "Should I wake the others and ask if anyone saw anything?"
"No," the captain replied. "He never could hold his drink. He must have stumbled and then fell overboard." The captain looked at Xena. "Why don't you take your friend below deck and try to get some rest?"
Xena nodded, knowing that the captain didn't believe the man had fallen, despite his pronouncement. She took Gabrielle's arm and led her gently toward the hatch.
Xena could hear the captain speaking quietly to Hanno once she and Gabrielle were below deck. The words were indistinct but she didn't need to hear them to know what was being said.
"He doesn't believe me," Gabrielle whispered as she curled up on the floor where Xena's blankets still lay in a pile.
"No," Xena replied simply.
"Do you?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena met her lover's gaze. There was a quiet resignation in Gabrielle's eyes, an acceptance that Xena did not believe her.
"Tell me what happened," Xena said.
"I already did."
"Did he force himself on you? I wouldn't blame you if"
"I didn't kill him," the bard interrupted in an angry whisper. "If he'd forced himself on me I would have screamed. I wouldn't have killed him in cold blood. Don't you think I have enough blood on my hands already?"
Gabrielle didn't wait for a reply, just rolled over, clutching the blanket to her. Xena wanted to say something more, but the words, whatever they might be, faded into a frustrated sigh. She lay down beside the bard, keeping an arms length and turning her face away. It was several candlemarks before dawn, but Xena didn't plan on getting any more sleep. She put her hand on her chakram and kept her eyes on the slumbering bodies around her and her ears on the footsteps pacing the deck above.
A few minutes after they lay down, Hanno came below. Xena heard the rustling of a rough blanket and then silence, broken only by the snores of the men. Gabrielle's own breathing finally steadied, but soon became broken by soft whimpers. Xena reached out her hand to stroke Gabrielle's hair, but remembered that her touch made the dreams worse more often than better, so she lowered her arm and rolled over again.
The watch changed once before dawn. Other than that, and Gabrielle's restless dreams, the night was uneventful. At the first sign of the faintest of murky light, Xena rose, stretched, and went topside. To be met with a very different kind of nightmare.
"Thickest fog I've ever seen," the captain said when he spotted Xena coming through the hatch. "And we've hit doldrums."
Xena looked at the captain, who was a vague shadow in the thick fog. Anything more than two arm lengths away was obscured by an impenetrable miasma. Without even the faintest breeze, the fog hung in the air, clinging to everything like a heave blanket. Xena took a breath and felt its salty mass fill her lungs, leaving a bitter tang on the back of her throat.
"I've never heard of doldrums in this part of the ocean," Xena said. She moved to the port side and leaned over the banisters. The water, which she could just barely see, was indeed perfectly still. There was no wake, no foam to show the passing of the ship through the sea.
"Neither have I," the captain replied. "There's always a current, even if there's no wind."
Xena could hear the men moving below deck and before the first one came near, she spoke quietly to the captain. "How are the rations?"
"Not good," he replied, matching her tone. "We've already added at least a day to our schedule. This wasn't the type of voyage that needed emergency rations. Usually if we run into trouble, we just sail into the nearest port."
Xena nodded, visualizing the ports along the coasts of Gaul and Hispania. She longed to be in anyone of them. She didn't allow herself time to dream, though.
"Well, I suggest we limit the food now," Xena said.
The captain nodded. "I'll explain that to the crew when I tell them the first mate's fallen overboard. Welcome to another exciting day of adventure on the high seas."
The captain and Xena exchanged sarcastic smirks.
Xena watched the men as they learned the fate of the first mate. Hanno had left the news to the captain. His two mates and the cabin boy had what Xena thought were normal reactions: they seemed shocked and the boy nearly cried. Most of their emotional distress was soon overtaken by the realization that they were dead in the water and rationing would begin immediately.
"Since we all had a good meal last night," the captain announced, "there'll be no breakfast. Stay out of the sun if it ever shows its face. And the first man to cry out at the hint of a breeze earns a gold coin."
The men grumbled and a few glanced furtively at Xena and Gabrielle. She saw Hanno whisper something to one of the crew and the glances turned to hard stares. Gabrielle stiffened beside her and Xena prepared for a confrontation, but the men turned their gazes away and crossed the deck.
"Let's go somewhere out of the way," Xena suggested quietly.
"I didn't do anything wrong," Gabrielle said, her voice rising slightly, causing even more looks thrown her way.
"I know you didn't," Xena replied in a hiss. "Let's just get out of their way, stay quiet, and they'll realize we're no threat to them."
Gabrielle looked ready to protest, her eyes flashing. But after a moment she took a deep breath, then nodded and turned to the space below the upper deck where she had slept the night before. Xena sighed and followed. She was unhappy with every aspect of the situation but unable to do anything about it. She felt helpless. The feeling set her guts churning.
"How long does this usually last, this...stillness?" Gabrielle asked as she made herself as comfortable as possible in the alcove.
"It happened to me once, long ago," Xena said as she sat beside the bard. "Then, it lasted two weeks."
"Two weeks?" Gabrielle gazed at the grey nothingness surrounding them.
"Yes, but this is different."
"Different better or different worse?" Gabrielle asked, rubbing her arms to fight the chill.
"I don't know." Xena clenched her jaw, angry at the question and angrier still at not knowing the answer.
They sat that way for most of the morning, though Xena wasn't sure how much time had passed. The light had reached a gloomy level and got no brighter, though Xena knew the sun must have been climbing overhead. She found herself doubting even that certainty. It wasn't getting any warmer, as the fog seemed to leech into their clothes and skin.
"Maybe we should go below," Xena finally suggested. "It won't be warmer, but it'll be drier."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to reply, but was interrupted by a shout from one of the crew.
"Hanno? Where are you?"
There was no answering call.
"Captain!" the crewman shouted, "I can't find Hanno."
Everyone rushed to the railings, peering into the gloom and calling out for Hanno. They waited for an answering cry, but none came. For a moment, everything stilled and then four sets of eyes turned to the two women.
"What have you done?" One of the sailors stepped menacingly toward them.
"Xena..." It was an entreaty that Xena had heard so many times before. A plea to do something, take care of the out of control situation, make everything better again. Xena bristled at the request. Gabrielle was the talker. Why couldn't she talk their way out of this situation?
"Tabnit." The captain put a hand on the angry sailor's arm, slowing down the escalating situation. The crewman relaxed only slightly. The captain turned to Xena and Gabrielle. "Losing a man through drunken accident is unfortunate, but it happens quite regularly at sea. Losing two men in less than two days begins to stretch the odds a great deal."
"The fog has made the deck slippery," Xena pointed out, deciding to offer another explanation for consideration.
The captain nodded. "Hanno may have also slipped and hit his head and then fallen. But we heard no cry, no splash. And it is very, very quiet."
Xena knew her explanation was unlikely, but it had slowed the situation even more while managing to keep the possibility of a murderer on board out of the conversation.
"We didn't kill Hanno or Yutpan," Gabrielle said. "Why do you keep looking at us like we did?"
Xena mentally rolled her eyes. So much for that plan.
"My crew have been together six summers," the captain replied. "The boy has been with us two. You ladies are strangers who have been on board for two days. Why would one of us suddenly decide to kill his friends?"
"Why would we kill them?" Xena replied. "We're just trying to get home."
"Get home with a merchant ship that's worth a lot of dinars," the other sailor said, deciding to join in the verbal battle.
"And if we killed all of you, how would we sail it on our own?" Xena shot back. "A ship this size needs a full crew. We may be able to sail close enough to shore to swim to safety, but we'd lose the whole reason we've gone on this supposed murdering rampage."
"They must have fallen overboard," Gabrielle said. She was met with dubious stares. Even Xena didn't believe that explanation any more.
"Maybe we should throw you overboard," Tabnit said, once again stepping toward Xena and Gabrielle. "We'll see if anyone else dies after we get rid of you."
"No," Captain Ahiram said, "no one else is going to die unless we can prove what's going on." He studied Xena, who met him with a clear stare. "Kanmi, go get some rope. Tie them to the mast where we can all keep our eyes on them."
Xena raised an eyebrow. Gabrielle moved away from her side, allowing her room to swing her sword. But she'd stowed her sword and chakram that morning before coming up on deck, wanting to appear as harmless as possible. Besides, Xena pondered, if the murderer decided to strike again, being tied to the mast would prove that they had nothing to do with the crime.
Too many bad memories made Xena stiffen as Kanmi tied the rope securely around them. Even though she was going along with being bound, and she had her boot dagger in the proper position to cut through the ropes if need be, it wasn't a pleasant sensation. She tried to give Gabrielle an encouraging grin, at least the bard was a little more used to being tied up. But Gabrielle was staring fixedly at the rope, her face ashen.
Xena turned her mind to pondering the events of the past two days, while Gabrielle remained silent. As Xena's brain worked, she kept her eyes on the others. The day passed uneventfully. Eventually, Danel went below deck to begin preparing the one meal of the day. The captain disappeared into his quarters. Kanmi and Tabnit sat a few feet away, both sets of eyes trained on the women like two hawks watching rabbits in a field.
Candlemarks later, they had eaten Xena and Gabrielle hand-fed by Danel and watched by the men and the captain had once more returned to his quarters. As the gloom of the foggy day began to fade to a murky twilight, Xena was still pondering possibilities and finally, Kanmi and Tabnit's attention began to wane. They moved far enough away for Xena to whisper to Gabrielle without being overheard.
"Why did he wake me first?"
"What? Who?" Gabrielle had been dozing, and looked groggily up at Xena.
"Hanno," Xena whispered. She kept her head still, moving her lips as little as possible in case the sailors looked her way. "When the first mate disappeared, Hanno came to wake me first before any of the others, even before the captain. Why would that be?"
"Because he thought one of the crew had killed the first mate?" Gabrielle said, matching Xena's whisper.
"Because he thought it was the captain," Xena clarified. "If he went to one of the crew he couldn't be sure if they'd side with him. I was a much safer bet."
"Then why didn't he say anything afterward?"
"He had to wait for the right moment," Xena said. "Unfortunately for him, the right moment didn't happen before he was the next victim."
"Why would the captain kill his own crew?" Gabrielle asked.
Kanmi and Tabnit both looked at the women, who stopped speaking and feigned dozing. The men seemed satisfied, and turned back to their work of braiding rope. Xena waited until she was satisfied that they were fully occupied by their task.
"We don't know anything about these people," Xena explained. "Maybe the captain needed to kill just those two for some reason."
"Maybe he's going to kill everyone."
Xena had no response to that, since it was a distinct possibility. If it didn't happen, once they got back to shore she would walk away and never think again about this cursed journey. But if the captain came for her, she knew she could handle him and the rest of the crew. Or die trying.
"I just want to go home," Gabrielle said. It wasn't a whine, more of a plea to anyone who might be listening, but it sent Xena's teeth on edge.
"We'll get there." She could hear the soft growl of anger in her voice.
"Gods-be-damned..." Gabrielle lunged against her bonds in frustration.
"Hey!" Tabnit shouted, attracted by the sudden movement.
"Gabrielle, just stay calm," Xena warned. She watched as the sailors walked quickly toward them.
"Trying to get loose?" Kanmi asked. "So you can kill the rest of us?"
"We haven't done anything!" Gabrielle barked. "You can't keep us tied up like this."
"Sure we can," Tabnit said. "So be a good girl and keep still."
He kicked out at Gabrielle, striking her in the middle of her thigh with the point of his boot. Gabrielle hissed in pain.
"Keep that up and you'll wish you were at the bottom of the sea," Xena warned.
"What's going on here?" Captain Ahiram jumped the steps from the upper to the lower deck, landing between his men and the prisoners.
"She was trying to escape," Tabnit said. His eyes shifted, showing immediate guilt for the lie.
"I was stretching," Gabrielle said. "He came over and started shouting, then he kicked me."
"That's a lie!" Kanmi shouted, sticking up for his friend. "She was trying to escape and Tabnit kicked her to stop her."
"The ropes are just as secure as they were when you tied us up," Xena said, her clear voice slicing through both sides of the argument. "You can check if you don't believe us."
Both Kanmi and Tabnit began to reach forward, but the captain ordered them off with a slicing hand. He reached down and checked the ropes, nodding when satisfied that they were still securely tied.
"Now can everyone just go back to praying to whatever gods you believe in that we catch the wind or the current and get the Hades out of here?" Xena snapped.
The captain shrugged and moved away. Kanmi and Tabnit stood their ground, eyes flashing. Gabrielle held their stare with her own green fire.
"Kanmi! Tabnit!" the captain called his men, and they reluctantly turned. "Leave them and go to bed."
The men obeyed, casting menacing stares at the women until their heads descended down the stairs. The captain waited for the hatch to close and then climbed to his quarters behind the wheel on the upper deck.
"Assholes," Gabrielle hissed once everyone had disappeared.
"Just stay calm," Xena whispered urgently.
"Easy for you to say," Gabrielle snapped back.
Easy? To stay calm? How could Gabrielle think that? Xena blew out an angry breath. She thinks it's so easy.
At least no one else had died. Xena focused on that thought instead of letting her frustration with Gabrielle fester. Either the captain had only meant to kill the two men, or he was biding his time. Xena knew she and Gabrielle were in a perfect position to witness the captain throwing another victim overboard. Their position would either keep him from trying another murder, or force him to kill them to keep them quiet. Had he planned on that, or was it an unfortunate accident?
All of the possibilities of attack and counter-attack danced through her mind. She reached for her boot dagger, making sure she could grasp it should the time come. She thought about slicing through some of the ropes in preparation, but decided that the situation wasn't yet desperate enough.
As her mind worked, she could feel Gabrielle's silent presence. Her lover's body vibrated with tension but Gabrielle didn't speak. As the candlemarks passed, Xena wondered what was going through Gabrielle's head.
The darkness of night was so thick that Xena felt blinded. It reminded her of the time she'd almost lost her sight, and she felt a prickling panic on the edges of her consciousness. She tried to take her mind off the feelings, playing various mind games that had always worked in the past, but none of them calmed her this time. Just as she was about to suggest that she and Gabrielle play a game together, she heard tip toeing footsteps coming up from below deck, followed by the hatch slowly opening.
Xena tensed, waiting for either Tabnit or Kanmi to approach.
"What's going on?" Gabrielle whispered. The breath of her voice was warm in Xena's ear.
"Probably to kick us again," Xena replied. "And if he does, he won't be walking for a very long time."
Xena was poised for an attack that didnt come. She heard the soft footfalls as they crossed the deck and headed aft. Several moments passed, but whoever it was didn't return.
"Who was that?" Gabrielle asked.
"The next victim if he's not careful," Xena replied.
The stillness was broken by louder footsteps climbing from below deck; the hatch was opened with a bang.
"Kanmi," the man hissed in a loud whisper, "where are you? Don't tell me you're out here having fun with the ladies... Kanmi?"
"He's gone aft," Xena replied in a loud voice, hoping to wake the others. "Probably having fun with himself."
"Shut up, slag," Tabnit growled. Then he shouted out, "Kanmi! Where are you?"
His call was met with silence, and Xena knew the murderer had claimed another victim.
"What's going on?" The captain shouted out as he flung open the doors to his quarters. A lantern in his hand cast a wan glow that seemed like an explosion of Greek fire in the pitch-black night.
Xena followed his movements and tried to determine if he could have exited in the past candlemark without her knowing. She didn't think it possible, unless there was another exit to his quarters.
"They've killed Kanmi!" Tabnit shouted. In the lantern's glow, Xena could see that his features were contorted with rage "He came up on deck not half a candlemark ago and when he didn't return I came looking for him. He's gone. Just like all the others. They've killed him too!"
"How could we have killed him," Gabrielle shouted back, "we're still tied up!"
"Kanmi!" the captain called, "show yourself! If this is a joke, I'll slit your throat myself!"
Everyone stopped, hoping, for his or her own reasons, that Kanmi would call back or walk into the light. A dozen heartbeats filled straining ears, but all was silent and still.
"Tabnit, check their bonds," the captain ordered.
Tabnit stomped to the women and worked frantically at the ropes, pulling them roughly. Gabrielle hissed as the rope burned against her bare arms, but kept quiet.
Xena knew Tabnit would have loved the ropes to come untied, but they held firm. She sent up a silent prayer of thanks that she hadn't cut through the ropes in preparation for being attacked.
"I say we slit their throats now and have done with it," Tabnit said. "I'm not going to be their next victim."
The captain seemed to consider the option and Xena gripped her knife by her fingertips. Panic and rage danced amongst them, like steam from bubbling cauldrons.
"Go below and get the boy and the torches," the captain finally told Tabnit. "No more solo strolls in the pitch-black night. From now on, we're sticking together."
Xena nodded, approving of the plan and surprised that her main suspect had proposed it.
"What good's that going to do?" Tabnit growled. He stepped forward and pulled a knife in one swift motion, placing the tip of the weapon below Gabrielle's ear. Xena blinked, but remained still. "They're killing everyone, whether their ropes are tied or not. They must be sorceresses."
"Tabnit, you heard my order." The captain's voice was steady and firm. "Get below, get some torches and Danel, and get back up here. Now."
Gabrielle's eyes flashed defiantly, and Xena could see her nostrils flare with angry breaths. Tabnit let the tip of his knife nip at the soft skin of Gabrielle's neck before sweeping the knife back and tucking it into the folds of his tunic. He growled, but turned to obey his captain's command.
"Why can't we all go below?" Gabrielle asked as Tabnit stepped through the hatch, letting it bang behind him.
"I want to catch the wind as soon as it picks up," the captain replied. "It might be cold now, but the sun will be up in a few candlemarks. Which reminds me..." He crossed to the hatch and flung it open, "Tabnit, bring some blankets as well."
There was no reply.
"Tabnit, did you hear me?"
Xena felt the hairs on her neck stand up. Her fingers itched as adrenaline washed through her blood stream.
"Sir, Tabnit isn't down here," Danel called from below deck.
"I just sent him below," the captain shouted back. "Tell him to get back up here."
"I heard the hatch slam shut, but Tabnit didn't come down. I've been sitting on the bottom step."
Xena watched as realization finally hit Captain Ahiram.
"Danel, get up here!" he shouted. "Now!"
Xena held her breath until Danel appeared safely on the deck. He looked scared and half asleep, like a boy just woken from a nightmare. Xena wished they could all just wake up.
"What's going on?" the captain asked, looking to Xena for answers.
"I don't know, but please untie us," Xena replied. "We deserve to be able to protect ourselves."
"From what?" the captain asked as he bent to obey her request. He pulled a dagger from his belt and began to saw at the ropes.
Xena froze at Gabrielle's hoarse whisper.
"It's Dahok," Gabrielle said. "He's back."
Xena could just make out the bard's face in the flickering light of the lantern. The blood drained from her face, leaving it ghostly pale. Xena watched as Gabrielle clutched her stomach and shrank back against the mast. It reminded Xena of a mouse cornered by a cat.
Does it surprise you, Xena? After all, she was raped.
Raped. It was a word that had not been spoken between them. The very thought had been hidden away, as if not thinking it would make it untrue. But it had happened. Dahok had raped Gabrielle. Hope had been the result of that rape. And now, perhaps, Dahok was back. And he would want revenge against Xena, against Gabrielle. Xena wasn't frightened for herself. She had already defeated his deliverer. But Gabrielle...Xena trembled as a shiver raced through her body...Gabrielle had killed Dahok's child. The bard would be Dahok's target.
"Well, he's not going to get us without a fight," Xena said, letting her anger burn away the cold trembling. She drew the dagger from her boot, wishing that her sword and chakram weren't below deck, but not having any intention of going to get them.
"What have you brought on board my ship?" the captain asked, his voice a menacing rumble.
Xena barely spared the captain a glance. She was too busy scanning the darkness for an enemy who had so far remained invisible. Her fingers itched to sink her dagger into anything and end this nightmare.
"He's a second rate god we ran into in Britannia," Xena explained with a shrug. "And we didn't bring him on board. He has a score to settle, and I'll be happy to send him deeper into the depths of Hades than he already is."
"Tabnit was right," Captain Ahiram growled. "I should have slit your throats. You had no right to put my ship and crew between yourselves and an angry god."
"You're the one who decided to sail even when you saw the storm coming," Xena snapped back. "If it wasn't for me, you'd all be on the bottom of the sea along with your ship."
"That storm wasn't normal!" The captain shouted. "If it wasn't for you two, we'd be halfway down the coast of Gaul by now."
Xena locked gazes with the captain, their eyes and weapons glinting in the lantern light.
"No, I can't face it again. I can't." Gabrielle suddenly sprang from her crouch against the mast, scurrying toward the hatch.
"Gabrielle, we can't separate!" Xena cried. She spared one quick glance at the captain, and then raced to catch up with Gabrielle, who had flung open the hatch and was already headed down the steps. She could hear the boy's light step behind hers, but the captain stood his ground.
"You can't run away," he shouted. "Your god will catch up to you, whether you're above or below decks. He's already killed four strong men. You're next, you know. You and"
Xena was at the bottom of the steps when the captain's voice was cut off.
"No, you're next," she mumbled, stumbling in the darkness. "Gabrielle! Danel!"
"I'm here," Danel said. Xena felt a boy's hand on her shoulder and she forced herself not to sweep out with her dagger.
Gabrielle didn't answer, but Xena heard soft sobs. She grabbed the boy's hand and followed the sounds until she could feel Gabrielle's head. She knelt down to where Gabrielle was cowering between a box and a pile of rope.
"Pull yourself together," she said firmly. "We don't have time for this."
Gabrielle sniffed, but stayed silent. Xena sighed, realizing that was the best she could hope for.
"Danel, are there any more lanterns?" she asked.
"Where's Captain Ahiram?" Danel asked, ignoring Xena's question. "Is he coming below too?"
"No, he's staying in his quarters," Xena lied. "And right now we need light. Are there any more lanterns?"
"Yes, ma'am," the boy replied. "I'll get one."
"No, wait." Xena reached for the boy before he could step away. "Wait one second."
Xena pulled at the rope beside Gabrielle, finding the end and wrapping it around herself, then Gabrielle, and finally Danel.
"OK," Xena said, "from now on we stay together. Either hang on to each other's hands or let each other know when we're moving. If you absolutely need to separate, at least we're tied together."
"OK," Danel said. "I'll get the lanterns. They're just a few feet away."
Xena held her breath as she listened to the boy's movement. She heard rustling and then the striking of flint against steel, and then a low light growing as the wick took the spark. Xena saw the worried look on the boy's face as it was lit from below by the lantern he carried toward her. He put it carefully on the floor between them.
"What do we do now?" he asked, sitting cross-legged next to Gabrielle, and placing a comforting hand on the bard's knee.
"We wait for Dahok to make the next move," Xena replied. She smiled, hoping it appeared more encouraging than frightening, but knowing it probably didn't. "Don't worry. I've beaten him once before. It was a piece of cake."
The minute the words were out of her lips, a sound began. It was soft at first, like the rustle of leaves in a summer's breeze. Then, very slowly, it grew louder, until Xena identified the sound as voices. She strained to hear their words, but they were indistinct.
"What is it?" Danel whispered, obviously trying as hard as Xena to make out the whispered words.
"He's just trying to scare us," Xena said. She leaned against the side of the ship, crossing her legs and yawning.
"It's working," Danel said, leaning back between Gabrielle and Xena, but not looking nearly as relaxed.
Xena patted his shoulder and then spared a glance at Gabrielle. The bard was staring into space, her arms wrapped around her body and her legs pulled up tight, making herself as small as possible. Xena let out a frustrated sigh, knowing that if the bard could keep the boy calm, she could concentrate on the whispering and Dahok's next attack. Once again, she was left to handle everything.
"Who is this god that's after you?" the boy asked. "Is he a god of the Celts or the Greeks?"
"Neither," Xena said.
"Both," Gabrielle corrected, turning her head to the boy.
Xena raised an eyebrow and the boy looked curious.
"I'll tell you a story," Gabrielle said to Danel. Xena had heard the bard utter those same words many times, but never in such a cold, dead voice. She felt goose bumps rise on her arms.
"OK," Danel said, not sounding convinced that he really wanted to hear what Gabrielle was going to tell him.
"I was told a story by a follower of Dahok by his second in command, actually," Gabrielle began, "But his story wasn't true. I know the true story. And that's the story I'm going to tell you now."
Xena was listening to Gabrielle, even as she continued to strain to make out the words floating around them.
"Once upon a time there was a farmer. He lived in Britannia with his wife and son. He loved them both very much and although they were very poor farmers, and barely made it through some winters, their love made their lives rich. Every time he looked at his wife and son, the farmer knew he was blessed. He thanked the gods each night for giving him his family."
Xena was beginning to hear the tone of the faint words, though the words themselves were still indistinct. They were angry, yelling and screaming, words on top of words.
"Then one day," Gabrielle continued, "an evil warlord came through the valley where the farmer and his family lived. The farmer was away at market. The warlord took all of the farmer's livestock and crops, all of the food that the family had stored for the winter. The farmer's wife pleaded with the warlord, but the pleas fell on deaf ears. And then the warlord said he would take the boy as well, to sell in the slave market. The farmer's wife fought then, but she was killed immediately. The boy struggled and was killed as well. The farmer returned from market to find his dead wife and son. His life was shattered. He had nothing. The gods that he thought had blessed him had abandoned him."
Some of the words were distinct now. Xena heard "hate" and "your fault". There were obscenities and damnations, bitter words of loathing and rage.
"The farmer was devastated," Gabrielle continued. "He stumbled to his household shrine to ask the god's why they had abandoned him. For a long time, there was no answer. And then a voice spoke to him, promising him power to defeat his enemies. Promising vengeance. All he had to do was give in, to let darkness guide him. To let hatred fill his soul."
"What did he do?" Danel asked in a frightened whisper.
"He had been surrounded by love all his life," Gabrielle said. "He knew its power. He knew it gave him the ability to overcome so, so much. But his soul was already filled with anger and pain and hatred. He felt as if we were teetering on a tiny ledge overlooking a great abyss."
The words were louder now, as if the screaming people were above deck, or swimming in the seas all around them. Xena suddenly felt the need to hold her sword. Whether or not she'd have an opportunity to use it, she wanted its comforting heft in her grip.
"What did he choose?" Danel asked, beginning to rock himself slightly.
"I need my sword," Xena interrupted, angry that the bard was telling a story that was frightening the boy so much. It wasn't helping the situation. She crawled toward the place where she had stowed the weapons, forcing Gabrielle to crawl with her rather than untie their rope.
"Gabrielle?" Danel prompted. "What did he choose?"
Xena pushed away fishing net and some pieces of sail, seeing the edge of her sword. The voices were coming closer and she felt a renewed urgency.
Gabrielle paused, and then whispered, "He chose darkness."
A scream rose above the voices and the lantern was extinguished, plunging the room into inky nothingness. Xena gripped the pommel of her sword and pulled it from the scabbard.
"Danel!" Gabrielle cried. "Xena!"
"I'm here," Xena replied, crawling back along the length of the rope to Gabrielle. She pulled on the other length of the rope. It was slack, and she drew it slowly toward her, as if she could force the boy to reappear at its end by the time she had retrieved it. Her hope wasn't realized, as the frayed end finally rested in her hand.
"Danel!" Gabrielle cried once again. "Where are you?"
"Calm down!" Xena said, gripping one of the bard's shoulders and shaking it slightly. "He's gone. Just stay calm while I relight the lantern."
Xena crawled toward the lantern, dragging Gabrielle behind. She fumbled until she found the lantern and then the flint and steel that Danel had used earlier. A few second later, the lantern's light revealed the terrified face of Gabrielle, her fingers pricking frantically at the knotted rope around her waist.
"What are you doing?" Xena reached out trying to grab Gabrielle's wrists.
"I have to get away." Gabrielle pulled her hands out of Xena's grasp and turned, her fingers returning to the knot.
"Get away where? There's nowhere to go." Xena reached out again. "Gabrielle, stop."
The bard twisted in Xena's grasp. "No, it's Dahok. I thought he was destroyed. But he's back. I need to get away."
Gabrielle was beginning to panic, her voice rising, tears springing from her frightened eyes. She squirmed, but Xena got a better hold around her upper arms.
"You're safer with me, no matter what's happening," Xena said firmly. "Please, calm down."
"No!" Gabrielle cried. "Let me go. Please, let me go."
Xena held on, but felt something pulling her from behind. It was like a backwards wind, a sucking. And it was getting stronger. She looked behind her, but there was nothing there. The voices were screaming now, as if invisible people filled the room, screaming at Xena and Gabrielle, screaming at each other.
"Let me go!" Gabrielle said more forcefully, pulling hard against Xena's hold.
"No!" Xena shouted back. Her shout was echoed by the voices. The voices were Gabrielle's. The voices were Xena's.
Xena met Gabrielle's angry glare and held on to the flashing green eyes as hard as she held to the bard's arms. "I won't let go!"
Xena felt anger and desperation and despair wash through her as she struggled with Gabrielle. The same emotions were mirrored in Gabrielle's face. And suddenly Xena understood what was happening.
"It's not Dahok, Gabrielle. It's you. It's us. We're causing this."
Gabrielle didn't seem to hear her or understand.
"You have to stop struggling," Xena persisted. She stepped forward. "Please."
The entreaty caused Gabrielle to stop moving for a moment, and Xena took the opportunity to change her grasp. She moved her arms around Gabrielle, holding her tight. The voices began to fade.
"It's what we're feeling inside," Xena explained. "It's our emotions, our anger, our frustration."
"Let me go," Gabrielle said. But the plea was weak and even as she said it, she stopped pulling against Xena.
"No, I won't," Xena replied. She leaned her head down against Gabrielle's. "I won't let you go. I'll never let you go."
Gabrielle's movement stopped at the words, and the sucking stopped in the same instant. Xena still held on. The voices became indistinct.
"I'm scared," Gabrielle whispered.
She began to tremble, and Xena stroked her arms, her hair.
"It's going to be OK," Xena said. "It's going to be OK."
"Will it?" Gabrielle looked at her, her eyes pleading.
"Yes," Xena said. "It will."
It was the truth, and for the first time, Xena believed it. She had been so obsessed with needing to fight something, needing to use her muscle and her wits to make things better. But this wasn't a tangible enemy they were fighting; this wasn't a situation where Xena needed to take charge and make everything OK. She just needed to believe. They both just needed to believe. They would make everything all right. Together.
The voices were silent.
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle said, tears falling from her eyes again.
"It's OK," Xena said. She smiled as Danel appeared, looking confused but OK. She turned the bard gently. "Look."
Slowly, the other crewmembers began to blink back into existence.
"What happened?" Captain Ahiram looked at the two women suspiciously, and Xena wondered if her promise was already about to be broken. The captain and first mate both stepped forward, but stumbled as the ship lurched. Everyone stopped and looked up.
"It's the wind," Hanno said. "She's back!"
"Everyone, on deck!" The captain ordered. "Let's get moving."
Dawn was a rosy promise on the eastern horizon. A strong breeze caught at Xena's dark hair and sent it dancing around her face. She smiled at Gabrielle, whose golden locks were also flying. Gabrielle smiled back.
The business of getting the sails furled and the rudder turned took the sailor's minds off Xena and Gabrielle. The ship sailed quickly over the sea, the wind shredding the fog until it disappeared in their wake.
They sailed southeast as the sun soared in the sky and everyone's spirits lightened. By mid day, a dark smudge could be seen on the horizon.
"Land ho!" Danel cried from the crow's nest.
Xena tied off the line she'd been hauling on and made her way to the captain.
"We made it," she said, watching his reaction for a sign of what he planned to do.
"I don't know what happened," he said, eying her suspiciously. "But I'm thinking it was the gods. I never have understood your Greek gods."
Xena smirked. "They have an interesting sense of humor."
"Aye." The captain nodded. "But whether it was the gods or something else, I'm still dropping you at the first port we find. You're bad luck either way."
"Sounds good to me," Xena said, shaking the captain's hand on the deal. "I think I'd rather take the long way home."
"Sounds good to me too," Gabrielle said, coming up behind her. She looked at the land that was fast approaching. "Let's head home."