The Burning Candle
Disclaimer:Xena and Gabrielle are the sole property of MCA/UNIVERSAL, no infringement intended, no high finance under the table deals were struck. I offer this tale free from me to thee. Although Argo is not in this story she asked me to say hello for her, I quote..."Whinny, snort, whinny," unquote.
Warning:Some violence has been resorted to, but not rape. Of course this doesnt make it better, just clarifying for the more tender of heart. Loving scenes between two women are quite evident in this yarn and therefore should be avoided if this is illegal in your state, or if you are under age whichever is worse.
Please evacuate these premises now in the event that either of the above applies or suffer the wrath of <insert deity of your choice here>
Thanks to all the lovely people who read my debut story, (and you know who you are), for encouraging me to write another Xfic.
Questions? Feedback? Send to: AHladis@aol.com
A fair breeze blew
As the day grew dim
A fair breeze blew
My love from me
Never to be seen again?
Pompeys legions swept through Jerusalem. This enormous lumbering army then set its sights northwest cutting a wide trail toward Damascus.
The main body of opposing forces broke up and fled in various directions; many of which opting to take their chances far into the Syrian desert rather than face the Roman ideal of retribution.
Yet some were determined to challenge foreign tyranny. They retreated nearly a hundred miles in the vain hope of regrouping and reinforcing their numbers.
"The battle was fought hard and well, but by no means are we beaten," Xena declared from atop a bluff, "Enlist any allies we have to the north. We shall crush Caesars swarm before they reach our homeland. Im going back to observe their movements. Ill rejoin you soon to stop these Roman jackals once and for all!"
Though Xena had joined the resistance late, this was one battle where the odds were stacked heavily against winning. For many months she did everything in her power to aid in slowing down the advancement of these troops, but it proved futile.
Now it seemed as if nothing could stand in Romes way to successfully conquering all of Syria as well.
The meager crowd cheered Xena on in the blazing-hot afternoon sunshine, except one. She stood quietly with her arms at their sides among the shouting throng looking up at this admirable vision of a stubborn commander.
"Travel swift and sure," she urged her small exhausted army of Greek patriots so far from home, "Till we meet again!"
Gabrielle knew the impossibility of trying to talk her daring friend out of going on a dangerous mission alone, but that little obstacle never stopped this wishful thinker before.
Walking with much difficulty through the dispersing crowd, Gabrielle inched her way closer to Xena, a disapproving expression gracing her features.
When she reached her, Xena was already busily engaged in stuffing supplies into a very worn saddlebag.
Catching sight of the familiar shadow spread before her on the ground, Xena slowly drew in a breath readying for an argument.
"I'm going alone, dont try to talk me out of it," Xena announced holding up a hand in her irked companions direction, "Caesars troops have to be watched closely. Its only a matter of time before they expose a weakness."
Xenas ability to anticipate Gabrielles lectures without looking up always annoyed her concerned friend.
"I wish youd stop waving me off before I have a chance to speak."
Xena delayed her task briefly to exchange the merest of glances with Gabrielle.
"We both know what youre going to say, so why waste time?"
She resumed her packing chore.
"Waste time?" Gabrielle miffed, angrily shot back then paused to calm herself, "All right," she sighed, "You know I dont like what youre planning to do," Gabrielle grasped Xenas forearm to get her attention, "Xena, I told you from the beginning that this isnt our fight."
"Do you think we should wait patiently until Caesars soldiers are knocking at our door?"
She slipped neatly out of Gabrielles hold.
"Must you always be the one to do the dirty work? Why not get someone else to carry out your orders?"
Xena tied her saddlebag onto a jet-black mares saddle and continued to half ignore what she hoped wouldnt turn into another one of Gabrielles emotional appeals.
"Answer me Xena, I feel as if Im talking to a stone wall."
Xena felt quite adamant about traveling alone. The last thing she wanted to do was defend her decision. Xena stopped what she was doing and turned to face her frustrated travel pal.
"You know me better than that Gabrielle. Do we really need to go through this again?" she said taking her by the hands.
Gabrielle locked eyes with Xena's penetrating stare and said nothing.
"Im sorry Gabrielle," Xena squeezed her hands fondly, "What Im about to do could be pivotal in winning this war. Ill be back before you know it."
"Which really means youll be away for who knows how long. Well, I guess I can keep the old candle burning in the window, as usual," she said in a flippant tone, then added softly, "I miss you already."
Xena tried smiling, but it didnt quite come off that way. Small tears surfaced, threatening to spill over. Quickly she shook off the impulse to display sentimentality and leaned down to say good-bye.
Gabrielle swallowed back the enormous uneasiness at being left behind and put her arms around Xena, drawing the headstrong woman into a farewell embrace. She dearly wanted to beg to be taken along, but knew it would be useless to ask.
"Im going to be crazy with worry until you return, you know that dont you?" she whispered against Xenas shoulder.
"Thats why I love you," Xena replied, barely able to keep her words steady, "because youre crazy."
She nestled her lips into Gabrielles golden hair, taking in its sweet wind-blown fragrance, but Gabrielle had little time to return her cherished comrades tender caresses. Xena let go, giving her a light tap on the face before swinging up into the saddle in one swift vault.
"Youre really going to be okay without me, right Xena?"
Xena made a quick motion at her chest: one hand held palm down to salute Gabrielle in good-bye and pressed the eager mare to advance.
"You wont take on Caesars army all by yourself will you? Swear to me you wont!" Gabrielle called out while running after the trotting animal.
Xena pulled up turned to her smiling, and said, "I promise," then cantered down the narrow path that led out of the encampment.
Gabrielle watched as Xenas image grew smaller and smaller until she was only a tiny dot lost in the vast landscape.
"Shell be back," Gabrielle nodded to herself, "Shes coming back."
It has been said, countless times, that war brings about the better part of valor; self- less acts of sacrifice in the face of dismal failure.
There are those of course who feed off war; the kind that sneak around corners waiting for perfect opportunities to carry out their evil deeds. These nomadic bands, made up of assorted criminals, gravitate to loss and misery--especially if it involves making a hefty profit. One such group emerged from hiding in the desert
Ketaar had carefully positioned his men along a shelf above one of the few main roads leading out of the war zone. They were waiting for anything that might happen unluckily into their orbit.
"The pickings are slim here," one particularly rough looking fellow grumbled.
"I agree," another echoed, "Nothings been down this road all day, not even a flea."
"Im with them," the third man said starting to rise, "Lets get drunk."
"Move and youre dead."
Ketaar, grinning pleasantly, produced a long knife from his sleeve and held it against the startled gentlemans greasy throat.
"We have an order to fill, dont make me angry Diakka."
He removed the knife from Diakkas neck leaving a neat pinpoint of blood in its place.
The warm wind tangled wildly through Xenas hair as the grunting horse galloped at a maddening pace. She wanted to shorten the many miles between her and the enemys camp before dark. Just overhead, large threatening clouds loomed heavily in the sky. A brief show of lightening, then a loud booming thunderclap vibrated the ground.
It started to rain down on the hurrying duo. Xena tugged lightly back on her reins.
She knew how dangerous the road was when it got wet and didnt want to become a casualty.
"Slow down girl, I don't want you getting hurt now, do I?" Xena said as she patted the panting mare's neck.
A small blur shot out from nowhere glancing skillfully between her mount's eyes. The horse twisted around screaming in dazed agony rearing up on hind legs catching its rider by surprise.
Xena was thrown backward headfirst down a sheer embankment. She tumbled over and over striking her head several times against some loose rocks along the way. A solid mass of thick brown bushes at the bottom of the hill snared Xenas seemingly lifeless body.
Diakka dashed over to where Xena dropped out of sight, the empty sling carelessly dangling from his hand.
"Youre the close friend of Xena arent you? Will she come back soon?"
A pair of dark sparkling eyes inquired. Gabrielle almost dropped the pitcher she was carrying, not from what the young woman said, but from hearing someone calling her name. And it sounded.... Like Xena? How could it be?
"Did you hear that?" Gabrielle asked, her voice edging on alarm.
"Umm...no. What did it sound like?" the girl asked.
"If you heard it, you wouldn't have to ask."
Gabrielle hastily pushed past the puzzled girl, handing her the pitcher and rushed outside. The temporary camp was quiet; everyone had taken shelter to avoid the sudden rain shower.
She trotted aimlessly through the downpour.
Water cascaded down onto her face, into her eyes and soaked through her clothes.
"DOLT!!!" Ketaar shouted over the roaring thunderstorm, "LOOK AT YOUR HANDYWORK!!!"
All four cutthroats peered down at the limp form lying wedged in a bramble patch at the base of the steep cliff. Now and then a lightening flash lit up the motionless shape.
"My hand slipped. It could happen to anyone," Diakka scoffed.
"Yessss," Ketaars voice took on a purring fringe.
Diakka fell choking to the ground.
"And see what just happened? My hand slipped too," Ketaar said as he wiped his blade on the dying mans shirt.
He slit Diakkas throat from ear to ear with one swift stroke. The other two stared in shock at their expiring comrade writhing in the mud. Nervously, one of the men spoke up.
"Do you want us to go get the woman?"
"Fool! Look at the blood. If she isnt dead, she soon will be. See if there is anything valuable in her saddlebag."
Ketaar transferred his attention to the black mare lying in the road.
"Imbecile! He killed the horse as well. I hate to see animals die needlessly."
He crouched down and lovingly began to pet the dead mares muzzle, then looked up teary-eyed. Diakkas corpse emitted a gagging belch.
"Bhalba?" Ketaar addressed one of the men nonchalantly, "Do something about that scums body."
The rain let up slightly so it was somewhat easier to make out the road under a very soggy hood. Progress went slowly because of all the deep and plentiful mud puddles; she had to lean heavily on her staff just to keep from getting her boots stuck in the mire.
How Gabrielle wished she had bought a torch or one of those new glass-enclosed oil lanterns she saw in Aleppo months ago. Xena said it was a waste of good money on a thing like that.
Nobody sane travels far in the dark. She could almost hear Xena saying it.
Only having traveled a few unproductive slimy miles, the evening clouds were already starting to darken the sky. Over on the right shoulder and up a bit was a nice group of olive trees with a long stone slab fallen flat in front of them; made smooth by lots of wear and tear of weary travelers bodies. She laid out her blanket on the cool marble then went searching for dry wood to make a fire. Here and there she found some pieces that werent too wet, and weren't too dry either. It wouldnt be the first time shed have to content herself with a smoky campfire.
Gabrielle pulled out the little flint bag from her leather satchel and started the arduous task of lighting damp twigs. At last some of them caught. She fanned the growing flame carefully adding larger and larger pieces of wood till the fire was going strong enough to make it through the clammy night.
Taking out some bread, the weary worrier ate while staring into the warm flickering yellow campfire.
"I must be insane," she said standing up then ambled back and forth, "Xena will think Ive finally snapped following after her this way. And shed be right. Im going to have a lot of explaining to do."
Sweeping, swirling darkness wrapped itself tightly in a coil around the fallen womans body. Its seductive web enfolded her.
Hours had passed, but she didnt know how many, nor did she bother to give it much serious thought.
Days come, days go, how do they pass? Fast or slow?
Old nursery rhymes from long ago pealed one right after the other in her ears.
Coming on nine, going on ten, all good little creatures return to their den
Two beautiful eyes blinked open to find tiny droplets of water tapping down
here and there on the moistened earth. Most hit her; others missed.
Sunrise just started to become visible over the top of the ledge.
'Pretty!' she said to herself.
Sliding one of her arms from behind her back she stretched it toward the bright yellow globe trying to grab it even though it's glare made her head ache.
"Oh," Xena said making a pouting face, "I want the pretty ball-eee," she whined trying harder to snatch at the brilliant round object.
Gabrielle had long been on her way since a little before dawn. Walking on the side of the road she managed to avoid the swampier patches and made better time traveling. Her squishing footsteps and an occasional bird chirping served as escort.
"At least Xena has a horse to talk to," she mused, "I can just imagine those conversations." The very absurdity made her laugh out loud.
All at once she caught sight of a dark outline in the distance. Gabrielle was sure it had something to do with Xena and took off down the road as fast as her tired legs could carry her.
But I found my love once more
Still I knew her.
"Hello!?" she yelled out hoping a very annoyed Xena would meet her with one eyebrow hoisted.
Then Gabrielle saw clearly what the vision was---Xenas black mare. Now it lay sprawled across the road dead. A growing ache tightened around the poet's heart.
"Xena?" she called out.
Walking up the road a bit she followed what looked like several human footprints and an aging pool of blood.
"Xena?" Her nervous voice carried lightly through the morning air.
Faint whimpers floated up from far below the road. Gabrielle stepped to the edge of a steep ridge and peered down. There sat Xena all alone at the base of the chasm covering her eyes with her hands.
"XENA!!" she shouted frantically throwing aside the gear she was carrying and scrambled downhill to reach her friend.
Along the way she saw Xenas sword and chakram tossed a fair distance apart from each other, causing Gabrielle some concern that Xena hadn't tried to recover them.
"By the Gods, Im so glad youre safe!"
Relieved to find her alive, Gabrielle joyfully enfolded Xena in thankful arms.
"Are you all right?" she drew away at once, "Let me take a look at you," then gently pushed back some rumpled hair from an oozing head injury.
Xena was scraped up from the fall and a narrow stream of dried blood had run passed her hairline onto her forehead. She was also weeping, really bemoaning something to the depths of her soul...what?
"I cant reach it," Xena muttered through the sobs.
"What Xena, what can't you reach?"
Xena looked intently into the young womans eyes and pointed up at the sun.
"The yellow ball-eeeee!"
She threw herself onto poor baffled Gabrielle deeply embedding her head against a shoulder sobbing in dramatic intervals. She found Xenas peculiar behavior somewhat disconcerting and tried to calmly reason with her.
"Wait a minute, youre kidding me right? You think the sun in the sky is a ball?"
More sobs wracked Xena's throat as she gripped Gabrielle harder.
"Oh no Xena youre really serious."
She lifted Xena carefully away then clasped her face in her hands.
"What's happened to you?"
"I fell down," Xena said, choking out the words, and gesturing, "My head hurts!"
Gabrielle resumed her examination of the large gash in Xenas hairline.
"That looks bad," she thought of the puddle of blood on the road, "Did someone try to ambush you?"
Xena didnt understand the question and continued whimpering. Gabrielle wiped some of her friends tears away and kissed a damp cheek. Xena quieted down then looked up, unexpectedly beaming at her.
"What?" Gabrielle said doubtfully smiling back.
"I like you pretty lady," her warrior chum replied in a babyish voice, "Who are you?"
She gaped at Xena in shock.
"You dont know who I am?"
Xena slowly shook her head from side to side.
"Uh-huh lets work on getting you back up there," she said motioning at the top of the ridge, "Well handle names later."
Gabrielle helped Xena to her feet, not as easily as shed have liked.
"There we go. Okay give me your hand, Ill lead the way."
She figured shed bring Xena out of the ravine first, and then go back down the hill to get her weapons.
Xena cautiously put her hand out for Gabrielle to take.
"Its okay honey, I wont let any more harm come to you."
She felt silly having to reassure her like a little girl, yet it seemed appropriate for the time being. Gabrielle took Xenas hand, firmly holding it in hers.
"Come, lets go."
They made their way gradually up the side of the cliff that wasnt quite as steep, but the climb proved to be very rough going, especially with a confused, regressed adult to deal with.
"Just a little further, were almost there," she said, pulling Xena up most of the way.
Xena maneuvered herself along, as any two-year-old would, with limited success.
Losing her balance for a split second, Gabrielle started sliding backwards. Xena, who had been useless up to now, grabbed her dumbfounded sidekick around the waist and jumped ten feet in the air landing easily at the top of the hill.
"That was fun lady, lets do it again!" Xena jubilantly hopped up and down clapping her hands.
"Ah yeah sure maybe later," Gabrielle said eyeing Xena closely, "Right now I think we better take those bulky things off of you."
She unfastened the scabbard and complex shielding from Xenas leather foundation then removed that as well. In her present condition it didnt seem likely that shed need them any time soon.
Feeling a lot less hampered in her light undergarment; Xena exuberantly turned and skipped over to the dead horses carcass that was now teaming with flies. She stooped down about to pet its fur.
"NO! STOP! DONT DO THAT!"
Gabrielle dropped the battle equipment and rushed to grab Xenas hand away from touching the putrefying animal.
"What were you thinking?" Gabrielle demanded.
Xenas eyes grew large. Tears swam in them. Soon her face compressed into a frown and she began to cry again.
"You dont like me," she wailed and stormed off.
Xena ran a short distance away and leaned against a tree. Gabrielle caught up with her.
"Xena I didnt mean to yell at you," she said petting Xenas back and feeling very awkward, "Please, Im sorry."
Xena turned around to find Gabrielle utterly bewildered.
"Do you like me lady?" Xena tearfully sniffling asked.
She gazed up at her changed comrade.
"Yes, I like you very much."
Xena instantly took hold of Gabrielle lifting her off the ground and into a huge bear hug. With her brief upset forgotten, she put her little playmate down and continued to prance about like before.
In the middle of catching her breath from being squeezed so tightly, Gabrielle spotted some round shiny pieces of quartz scattered here and there on the road. An idea sprang to life. She picked a few of them up, then walked briskly to Xena, who stopped romping long enough to receive the pink and yellowish rocks.
"Do you think you can find more of those for me?"
Xena nodded quickly and went about searching the immediate area. Gabrielle figured it was safe enough to leave the distracted woman alone and went back down the hill to retrieve the uncollected arsenal.
When she returned all was well; Xena was completely absorbed in gathering small colorful stones and playing with them. Gabrielle, in the meantime, towed all the fighting articles safely away, making sure they were well concealed.
Xena caught sight of her and came running over excitedly.
"Yours," Xena said shyly handing Gabrielle a particularly interesting bauble.
It was a small sleek oval of red jasper. Its opaque luster caught the afternoon sun revealing tiny particles of violet colored dust firmly fixed in the center.
"Its beautiful," she said, turning the stone over in her hand.
Xena moved a bit closer and planted a hasty kiss on Gabrielles mouth. The suddenness of the affectionate gesture caught her completely by surprise. Stepping back, Gabrielle collected her loss of equilibrium. Xena never exercised this much impulsive fondness. She promptly slipped the fine stone into a special hiding place in her boot for safe keeping.
"Um all right, now were going to get you fixed up nice and tidy. Would you like that?" Xena nodded unenthusiastically at the ground.
Gabrielle got her first aid kit, which consisted of a few needles, silk thread, knife, and some all-purpose salve.
"Lets sit over here," she said leading her to an old tree stump.
Xena sat down unhappily, making a face. Gabrielle began parting her hair here and there checking for any hidden injuries. That gash was worse than originally thought. She was surprised Xena didnt lose her life let alone more blood than she had. Gabrielle left that one for last, cleaning up the other cuts and scrapes with a little water.
"Xena, I have to sew up the wound on your head. Im sorry, but its going to hurt. You can scream or cry out all you want to, but you cant move."
"Hurt?" Xena whined.
"Yes. Can you be a big girl for me? Ill try to do it fast, okay?"
Xena squared her shoulders.
"Im not afraid of anything!" She said in a childs bold voice as she hit her fist to her chest.
Gabrielle felt tears rushing to her eyes and quickly turned away to ready the things she needed. First she washed the gash thoroughly, used her sharp knife to carefully cut hair away from around the injury preparing it for the next step then threaded a needle.
"Here goes "
Poised with sewing instrument in hand, Gabrielle glanced down at Xena who sat perfectly still, her jaw set in a serious grimace.
She began by sliding the needle through the open flesh ends, slowly pulling them back together then looping the thread and slipping the needle through a half dozen more times until her wound was neatly closed up. Delicately dabbing at it with water, applying some all-purpose salve, her brief surgery was done.
"You were a very brave girl. Im so proud of you."
Xena looked up into her friends smiling face. A single tear trickled down her cheek in answer. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena, hugging her close.
"My brave little Xena my brave little Xena," she repeated very softly.
Having succeeded in packing up the heavy supplies in a workable bundle, Gabrielle lugged all of it on her back. Xena, carrying only a small leather satchel, capered merrily about up ahead as they walked away from Xenas original destination.
Gabrielles thoughts where unpleasantly dark as she watched Xena skipping down the road. Her warrior pal had been reduced to this infantile person who didnt
have a clue who she was.
It looks like her, but the Xena I knew is gone.
Drab clouds billowed in from the east blanketing the remaining stains of sunlight in the sky. After setting up camp and finally succeeding in putting a very fidgety Xena to bed, Gabrielle sat alone near the fire overwhelmed with the images of the day.
"I can't bear to see her acting like a helpless little girl. If this spell shes in isnt temporary how will I be able to help her?" The tears that she had been holding back burst free.
Xena awakened to something she heard in her sleep. That nice lady who kissed her goodnight was making strange sounds. Carefully she crept to the blond girl and dropped to her knees beside her. Gabrielle felt a timid hand stroking at her hair.
"Nice lady, you cold?" Xena asked in a breathless tone.
Gabrielle sat up, quickly mopping at the tears on her cheeks.
"No Im...Im not cold," she answered trying to suppress her sob-choked voice.
"Awww, lay-deee, why you crying? You hurt?" she naively probed.
Gabrielle fought back new tears that demanded to flow and smiled painfully.
"My heart just aches a little sweetie...its nothing."
"I can fix it!" said Xena tilting herself forward and placing tiny kisses on various parts of the distressed woman's face.
"Better?" she asked smiling brightly.
This only made Gabrielle break down again. Xena sat back furrowing her brow and studied the sad person thoughtfully.
"I know!" she said all at once, then clumsily gathered Gabrielle to her, cradling the weeping creature like a precious doll and began to softly sing a song:
Birds sang very merry in the cherry tree,
But my lovely one sighed and cried.
They sang of happy lands far, far away,
Yet my lovely one only cried.
"What a pity! Such sad tears are these!"
The little birds called out with surprise.
They could only listen and bow their heads,
As my lovely one sighed and sighed,
As my lovely one sighed and sighed
"Oh pity me dear ones, dear ones do,
I've no pain greater then the kind I
Share with you."
They only listened to this maiden
And bowed their heads,
As my lovely one softly sighed,
As my lovely one softly sighed.
"Dry those tears pretty maiden,
Dont you sit and fret.
Your dear one loves you
Of that do not forget."
I took her in my arms
To lay a kiss upon each eye
Now my lovely one never cries,
No, my lovely one never cries.
"Lady, whats a heart?" asked Xena, but Gabrielle had sailed off to sleep lying cozily inside her good-natured embrace. Xena shrugged and sang her song once more, slowly rocking the slumbering young woman in her arms.
"Psssst lady?" a worried childish voice piped up.
Gabrielle awoke to someone tugging at her bedding.
"Hmmmm? What ?"
Gabrielle saw Xena staring down at her nervously. Even though this Xena acted nothing like her old companion, those eyes were as extraordinary as ever, which usually made the little poet feel a bit...intimidated.
Gabrielle instinctively reaching for her staff jumped up preparing for danger.
"Im hungry." Xena grumbled while peeking up at her through a blanket.
She lowered her staff and crouched down carefully easing the blanket away from Xenas face. Gabrielle didnt say anything; she just gazed at her looking slightly annoyed due to the false alarm. The childlike woman smiled weakly, only half assessing that shed done something wrong. Gabrielle got to her feet and took out the bread from her bag.
"Here. Dont eat too fast, its a little dry," she said handing Xena a good sized piece.
Xena quickly gobbled it down, then threw off her blankets. Gabrielle let her run free around the campsite figuring shed tire herself out eventually.
It wasnt long before Xena found some fireflies darting in circles just out of reach.
She happily frolicked after them, laughing merrily as they blinked their little glowing bodies on and off in the semi-darkness.
All those terrible memories that haunted her have been wiped away. This Xena is completely untouched by horror. Shes been blessed by suddenly becoming a child again.
Gabrielle sleepily viewed this formerly dour commander prance hither and yon trying to catch the little phosphorescent insects that eluded her grasp.
Two indistinct shapes leaped out of the shadows and bared down heavily upon Xena throwing her brutally to the ground. Her sudden cry of pain brought Gabrielle to her feet grabbing for the trusty staff that was always at the ready.
"Looking for this?" Ketaar sweetly whispered in melodious Arabic.
Gabrielle didnt understand this foreign dialect, but upon whirling around to face the intruder she understood well enough.
A tall emaciated gentleman smiled charmingly as he twirled her staff effortlessly between his fingers. An impeccably clean white turban wound loosely around his head made the skin stretched across his bony face look darker than it was.
She turned swiftly from him and hurried to rescue Xena who was now hysterically screaming from under a choke hold one of the captors had around her neck.
Midway, a withering blow to the back of Gabrielles head prevented her from any hope of saving Xena. She sank unsteadily to her knees and then flopped forward.
"Do you see how it is when its done right?" Ketaar asked his men.
He stooped down to pick up Gabrielles staff that lay indifferently on the earth close to her paralyzed body.
"Such a useful toy in an experts hands."
"LAAAAY-DEEEEEEEEE!!! LAAAY-DEEEEEEE!!!" Xenas frightened voice noisily wailed over and over in the background.
"Will one of you clods please shut her up?" Ketaar said while casting Gabrielles staff aside.
Bhalba, the larger of the two men holding Xena, brought his fist down hard on her skull cutting short the deafening din. She teetered for a moment, then slumped over.
"Crude, but effective," Ketaar casually remarked, "Pack her onto the caravan first."
He perused their sparse possessions that had become scattered around the campground during the vicious scuffle. One bundle looked particularly interesting. Ketaar cut it open and all of Xenas armaments came tumbling out at his feet.
Interesting, he thought while lifting a large circular item from the rest, What use would these women have for armor?
Ketaars accomplices returned to the camp and stood in front of their leader waiting for further orders.
"You can load this one next," he said indicating Gabrielle by pushing at her with his foot, "Ill carry these articles."
"I want the little girl," Bhalba said pointing at Gabrielle on the ground.
Ketaar laughed heartily and drew closer to both men.
"Surely you jest my friend. These two fill the quota. I dont see Tarkau here asking the impossible. Take this and go amuse yourself."
Ketaar handed Bhalba the Chakram and started packing up his plunder.
"I said," Bhalba took a step toward Ketaar, "I want the little girl."
Ketaar was no fool. He needed Bhalbas incredible strength. Of course it would be easier to slit his throat
"My dear fellow, you must listen to reason. Rhasis is eagerly awaiting our arrival. He expects us to supply a set quantity. And with help from this war weve been able to furnish him regularly. Do you want to ruin everything over a whelp of a girl?"
"I want the little girl!"
Ah, the mysteries of a simpletons mind, he thought amusingly to himself.
"I have a solution. What say you to escorting our chit across the great wasteland? She will be yours until we disembark at our appointed destination. Agreed?"
Ketaar held out his hand to the brutish oaf. Bhalba took it and nodded yes.
"Very good. Get her ready, its nearly daylight."
Bhalba and Tarkau cinched Gabrielles wrists firmly behind her back then dragged her off to the waiting bevy of camel.
It had been the feral beings
That lurked in the dark.
They changed her
They fed their fill
Only to feed again; by and by
She reached far into the lowest depths of whatever reserves were left. It was safe where she rested. A pair of sturdy arms kept her from falling off the towering cliffs that threatened to crumble underneath her drowsy feet.
Waves crashed in her head. Where there should have been the soft scent of salt air in its place was an acrid, foul odor of unwashed brawn.
Defying the imagined fall from dizzying heights, Gabrielle opened a wary eye. She found herself swaying to and fro riding sidesaddle atop a grunting camel, harshly gripped between a pair of iron muscled arms. The pain at the nape of her neck beat in time to the beasts footfalls.
Gabrielle scanned her immediate surroundings. It was clear that escape, at the moment, appeared impossible. Nothing but powdery sand and gravel encircling them for as far as the eye could see. Two more camels, bellowing just as loud as hers, trudged side by side leading the way.
But what way is this? Gabrielle asked herself.
The steady wind blew fine dust everywhere. It flew into her eyes and down her throat. She was amazed that these men could see where they were going.
"Excuse me whoever you are," Gabrielle addressed Bhalba cautiously, "I need water."
He shook his head and looked puzzled. Gabrielle gestured without the use of her hands; they were firmly tied behind her back. She made like she was swallowing.
"Mmmmm, water...you know, splish-splash?"
That didnt work. Out of frustration, she stuck out her tongue and wiped it across her lips. No effect, Bhalba stared at her blankly. Then she did it again.
Now he seemed to understand! A big smile spread across his sweaty face. He puckered up his lips and brought her closer to him.
"No! Wait! Youve got it wrong noooooo--!"
All that signaling succeeded in doing was to plant the wrong idea in this buffoons mind. Bhalba locked his lips onto Gabrielles and kissed her hard. When he finally let go, Gabrielle gagged and spat, trying to get the taste of his slobber out of her mouth.
Xena fared far worse. She sat shackled hand and foot on the right flank of her animals heavily laden howdah. Tarkau rode with Xena, but kept his distance--after all, shed bitten him twice!
Frightened out of her wits, Xena cried out for Gabrielle. She wanted nothing more than to be held in the nice ladys soothing arms.
Ketaar rode alone, traveling slightly faster than Tarkau to escape Xenas emotional entreaties. The incessant screaming tormented him greatly. Glancing over at her he wondered which course of action would best take care of this irritating problem.
Gabrielle could barely make out Xenas silhouette through the thick clouds of churned up sand, but every once in a while she caught bits and pieces of her sobbing and calling "LADY!" when the wind shifted. Gabrielle feared the worst. She knew they wouldnt put up with that commotion for long.
The two camels up ahead suddenly stopped moving.
"SILENCE!!" Ketaar roared at Xena.
For a moment it seemed like she was going to calm down out of fear. Unfortunately, when Xena saw Ketaar lift up a hand menacingly, she started to scream again.
Since his original warning didnt work as planned he took stronger measures and backhanded her savagely across the face. Her head swung on its axis to the left.
Xena, dazed from the impact, quieted down to pitiful whimpering. Even that was too loud for him.
"QUIET I SAY!!"
He raised his arm again to strike---
"STOP YOU!" Gabrielle shouted interrupting Ketaars next blow.
She had to do something---anything to take his attention off Xena. Struggling valiantly, Gabrielle managed to slip through Bhalbas grasp. She dropped off the ungainly animal landing on her side then rolled across the sharp gravel. Hands still tied firmly behind her back Gabrielle got up and advanced toward the leader of this delightful procession.
"STOP HITTING HER YOU PIG!"
Distracted away from Xena for the moment, Ketaar gazed down at Gabrielle highly entertained by her bravado.
"Ah, the chit! You prattle much too quickly. I havent spoken in my native tongue for many years. Speak slower please."
His diction was perfect, if a little stilted. Gabrielle took in a deep breath and hissed through her teeth slowly enunciating each syllable as she spoke.
"KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF OF HER!"
"Yes, yes, I understand! Such a lilting language, I miss it. How nice of you to bring back fond memories of my homeland."
His demeanor was one of fine manners and pleasant expression as he hopped off the camel he rode. Ketaar strolled up to Gabrielle and grabbed a wad of her long golden hair winding it maliciously around his hand till his fist met her cheek.
"And if you call me a pig again, I will take great pleasure in removing your ears."
Gabrielle could feel the tears of pain and anger burning her eyes as she faced this leering madman.
Never let the enemy know how scared you are, Thats what Xena taught you. USE IT!
Instead of putting on a show of pathetic tears, Gabrielle forced the corners of her mouth to curl into an angelic smile.
"In that case PIG, do your worst," she warbled sweetly into his face.
Ketaar immediately erupted into spirited laughter. He untangled his fist from the blond tresses and gave Gabrielle a mighty push backwards. She skittered a few feet away falling to the ground with a faint thud.
"Ha! Youre pluck dazzles me chit."
Gabrielle rose painfully to her feet, but she kept the sweet smile glued on her lips. Should she try reasoning with him? Perhaps it was time to change tactics. There was just no telling what hed do next.
"Do I dazzle you enough to let me ride with my friend?"
"Are you seriously trying to bargain? I am intrigued!"
"It would end your inconvenience as well as hers."
"The woman will be taught to keep still. I shall see to that.""
"You will fail. Havent you heard her crying for me?" Gabrielle shifted her glance to where Xena was fettered. "She speaks in the same language I do."
"I pay no attention to the babbling of half-wits."
She bristled internally over the term he used for Xena.
"But you do pay attention to the noise they make. "
Ketaar came closer to Gabrielle and seized her by the shoulders.
"Why all the bother? What is this imbecile to you? Look at her, she is less than nothing."
Gabrielle had to stifle her inclination to list Xenas fine points. She knew it would probably backfire and make things worse.
"She does something that few are able: She makes me laugh."
Ketaar released his hold. This mild explanation evidently satisfied him.
"I will give you three minutes to instruct her. Be thorough chit, my patience is at an end."
Gabrielle was shuttled briskly over to Xena. She was crying softly, a trickle of drying blood flowed from lip to chin.
"How can I talk to her from the ground? Cant you let me sit next to her?
"No. I do not trust you little one. You are too clever. Time is wasting. Say what you have to say."
Their brief words were to be exchanged from uneven heights. Ketaar walked away leaving Xena and Gabrielle to speak privately.
She moved closer to where Xenas bare foot hung down from the camel. Gabrielle leaned her head against it for a moment, then kissed it tenderly.
"Lady?" Xena tearfully asked.
"Yes, its me," Gabrielle rubbed a cheek against her and looked up, "Are you okay sweetie?"
"Im scared. We go away from here soon?"
"No Xena, we have to stay."
"I dont like it here."
"Neither do I. Listen carefully Xena; there isnt much time. Remember how quiet and brave you were when I sewed up your wound?"
Xena nodded eagerly.
"You must do it again. No matter how afraid you are youve got to be as quiet as a mouse. Can you do this for me?"
"No, it wont hurt at all."
"Okay," she answered softly
Xena paused looking rather thoughtful.
"Make like before."
"What? I dont understand."
"Tuck me in?"
Xenas image misted in Gabrielles eyes. Tears overflowed.
"Its hard to reach up to you right now sweetie."
"Okay," Xenas frown turned into a smile; "Do you still like me lady?"
"Yes, I still like you very much."
The sound of mens voices arguing in this barren windy setting rose suddenly, then fell away.
"I love you pretty lady."
"I love you too Xena. You wont forget your promise to be quiet?"
"Like a mouse?" Xena whispered.
"Like a mouse."
"Your time is up. You will be riding with me."
She touched her lips to Xenas foot one more time. Ketaar took Gabrielle firmly by an arm and started pulling her away.
"Dont worry sweetie, Ill see you soon."
Xena kept her vow of silence and waved a shackled hand sadly to her friend.
Parted were we
Yet we shared a path
With nothing on the horizon
There was nothing on the horizon
Bhalbas resentment seethed inside him. Ketaar lied! He was to be the one carrying his little girl! Bhalba grumbled jealously to himself as he watched Gabrielle riding and talking with Ketaar.
"Why were you women carrying armor?"
Gabrielle wondered how long it would take him to ask.
"Simple, we stole it actually I stole it."
"Very intelligent to wrap it up to look like nothing. Im never wrong in my observations; you are clever."
Had he noticed that it was armor made for a woman? If he did Ketaar kept it to himself.
"May I ask a question?" Gabrielle carefully inquired.
"Of course dear chit! I am in the best of humor now that I have peace."
Naturally the only peace Gabrielle wished for this barbaric individual was the eternal kind.
"Where are you taking us?"
Ketaar grinned sinisterly.
"To God given little one. To Baghdad"
Baghdad, beautiful, beautiful Baghdad: Oasis of the desert! How many times in the past did she listen to wonderful stories about that far away city? At last Gabrielle would get her chance to see this romantic trade route metropolis for herself. But the fantastic dream rang hollow. Being escorted through the main gates like a slave would be a hard blow to bear.
"Is it as magnificent as people say?"
"And more. This time tomorrow you shall see for yourself."
Unhappily, it seemed a certainty. Whatever he had planned for them once they reached Baghdad, Gabrielle prayed that she and Xena wouldnt be separated.
"Well stop here for the night!" Ketaar abruptly announced to his men.
The camels heavier burdens got unloaded carefully onto the soft white sand, then the beasts lowered slowly to their knobby knees and rested in a circle.
Gabrielles hands were now tied in front of her, as some sort of thanks for keeping Xena quiet she guessed. Whatever the reason Gabrielle was relieved; the pain from being tethered so long in one position had grown increasingly unbearable.
"Here," Ketaar threw her a long thick hooded robe, "to keep out the cold."
All of the routine things took place: meals were quickly distributed and eaten, fires were lit; finally, everything fell to a hush as the small caravan rested for the night.
Nothing moved. No sound except a sporadic snore broke the silence of the camp. Gabrielle lay where she was deposited a few hours before: against a large crate of something that emanated a pleasant spicy bouquet.
Unable to sleep she gazed miserably up at the twinkling stars dotting the heavens. Their quiet beauty deepening her sorrow she closed her eyes away from them. The overwhelming feeling of uselessness engulfed her. She blamed herself for the trouble they were in.
Xena never wouldve let herself get captured. Shed die first.
But that was in the past, this Xena needed her, and Gabrielle longed to be able to find a way of escape. But even if they did manage to steal away into the darkness, how long would it be before Ketaar and his men tracked them down? Hed be sure to make them both pay dearly.
Gabrielle fretted about Xena terribly. She only caught a fleeting glimpse hours earlier as Tarkau dragged her to the other side of the stationed camels. Xena smiled and tried to wave while being hauled away harshly by the scruff of the neck.
This time tomorrow, Ketaar said, you shall see for yourself.
Perhaps after tomorrow shed never see Xena again. Taking out the hidden piece of red jasper Xena gave her, Gabrielle cut away at the leather thong that bound her hands together. It didnt take long for the stretched hide to give under the vigorous tearing motions of her sharp edged stone.
There was a tiny click and her hands were free.
Creeping as quietly as she could, Gabrielle moved rapidly towards the four peacefully sleeping animals. One of them raised its head when she got a little too close so she waited for what seemed an eternity until the beast relaxed. Once again she started to slide herself across the cool sand making her way around the camels to find where Xena was.
At first Gabrielle didnt see her, then she spotted something a short way off with a hood over its head. Shallow puffs of breath ballooned the black cloth out and in when Xena inhaled partially molding it to the contours of her face for a brief moment. When Gabrielle got to her, she untied the rope that held the hood closed around Xenas throat and removed it.
Thats when she saw the awful thing waiting underneath.
In the dim light of the campfire Gabrielle could see that Xenas face had been beaten severely; one of her beautiful blue eyes was swollen shut and dried blood ran from her nose. A large bruise decorated her left cheek while the other bore a thin scratch. Gabrielle gasped in horror.
"Nice lady? Is that you?" Xena whispered hoarsely.
Gabrielle gently smoothed away the soggy hair from Xenas face, her tears of rage getting in the way of seeing clearly.
"Yes Xena, its me," she said placing a kiss on her forehead.
"I was quiet as a mouse. Is that good?"
"Oh sweetie, Im so sorry "
She put her head against Xenas shoulder and cried bitterly into it.
"Dont cry lady," Xena said trying to pet Gabrielles hair, but couldnt.
Gabrielle raised herself up, tears streaking down her face.
"Xena, we might not see each other for a long time. I just want to tell you that I love you and no matter where you are Ill find you."
"Then we can go away, far away?"
"Well go home together," she said smiling sadly.
A tense look came across Xenas face as she stared at something behind Gabrielle.
"Very sweet my dear chit, and very disappointing."
Gabrielle turned around slowly to find Ketaar standing in back of her smiling. He lunged for her arm, but Gabrielle was too fast for him; she dove out of Ketaars way making him fall forward from the violence of his movement. Quickly getting to her feet she ran for her life. Ketaar was soon up again and raced after his elusive property.
All this frenzied activity woke the other two men. Tarkau was the first on the scene trying to tackle Gabrielle as she passed him; he missed and went flying into Bhalba who had walked right into his path.
Where did she think she was going? She couldnt leave Xena alone with these men. If she fought them, the only way to ensure Xenas safety would be to kill all three, and that was never an option. Gabrielle stopped running and waited not knowing what Ketaar would do to her.
"You should not have run away. That makes me very angry," Ketaar said as he sidled crookedly up to her.
His movements were odd. Did he walk like this because he was angry? She had no time to ponder this mystery; Ketaar took Gabrielle by the throat and started to lift her off the ground.
He wanted her dead! Gabrielle gasped and choked for air where there was none. She grabbed frantically at his hand; punched it, scratched it, anything to get him to let her go. Ketaars unsmiling face became hazy; fading away to nothing.
A tremendous blow to Ketaars body sent him rolling across the desert sand.
"YOU KILLED THE LITTLE GIRL!" Bhalba shouted at his stunned leader.
He scooped Gabrielle into his arms and headed for the agitated group of camel. Vaulting onto one of the bellowing creatures, Bhalba kicked it into action. Spitting angrily the animal stood up and loped out of the camp disappearing from sight.
"WHY ARE YOU STANDING THERE LIKE A LOST CALF? GO AFTER HIM!"
"But hes only taken the dead girl. We dont----"
"AM I NOT MAKING MYSELF HEARD? GO AFTER HIM!!"
He produced the dreaded knife from his sleeve. This was more than enough to convince Tarkau to obey his orders. Lighting a torch and mounting another beast, Tarkau followed quickly after Bhalba.
Ketaar rose uneasily to his feet. He had taken quite a hit from his fellow bandit. The ache in his shoulder was agony.
Xena stirred in her chains, the light tinkling caught Ketaars attention.
"Ah, the tiresome one has something to say? No?"
He moved closer to where she was confined and lifted her chin up with a long finger.
"Rhasis dislikes damaged goods," he said casually inspecting her battered face, "I am quite displeased."
Xena stared into his face, something like hostility flashed through her childish personality.
"Ha! I do believe it wants to bite me!"
"Lady is hurt. I dont like you," she said scowling at Ketaar.
He sputtered into unbridled laughter.
The desperate flight into the desert continued at a terrific pace across the ever-brightening desolate landscape. Gabrielle bounced along clutched tightly in the large mans arms. A cough escaped her throat and she moved uncomfortably.
"Whats going on?" Gabrielle asked slightly confused.
Bhalba looked down at Gabrielle; he could barely contain his joy; the little girl wasnt dead. Muttering something in Arabic, Bhalba hugged her close to his breast.
"Oh no, not you again!" she said trying to push him away.
He promptly loosened his grip, then patted her head. Gabrielle looked around suddenly realizing that they were quite alone.
"Where are the others? Where are you taking me?"
But he simply smiled and nodded maintaining the blistering clip set by the cantering beast.
"Of course. You dont understand a word Im saying."
Tarkau wasnt even close to where his intended target headed. Mistakenly, he had been following the tracks they all made earlier. This small detail only became clear when the morning sunshine lit up the trail. Afraid to go back empty handed, Tarkau prayed for a miracle.
"I wish I could make you understand!"
For the longest time shed made a great effort to communicate with this man. Gabrielle wanted him to turn back. There was no chance of that now.
The wind subtly changed direction and picked up a bit. Far in the distance an enormous black funnel wound its way speedily towards them.
Bhalba pulled back on the camels reins slowing it to a stop. He watched the horizon for a few seconds then cringed in wild panic.
"HABOOB!" Bhalba shouted terrified at the top of his lungs, "HABOOB!"
Without a moment to spare, he turned the animal around and made a mad dash away from the ominous shadow that followed close behind them.
Gabrielle didnt know what a Haboob was, but she knew shed be finding out mighty fast.
Ketaar dropped the unwieldy bundle he was attempting to load all by himself. His shoulder pained him nonstop and proved to be quite useless.
"I will roast that buffoons heart on a stick for this!"
Precious time had been lost. Ketaar was determined to attend his pre-arranged rendezvous a number of miles away. Two other men, Marduk and Mohod, were waiting with the rest of the order. He knew these ruthless brothers would meet the quota at all costs, so the problem of losing one component didnt particularly bother him.
But, in a buried corner of his warped mind, the killing of the girl did. She had amused him and perhaps he even liked her.
"It is too late for recriminations. Whats done is done," he said quietly to himself.
A whisper of a tear rose to the surface.
"Your soft insides will be your undoing one day," Ketaar mumbled under his breath.
Surrounding them in unexpected twilight, an eerie brew soon overtook the fleeing transport. Shrill wind howled in their ears as its unrestrained fury whipped up everything in sight.
Bhalba couldnt hold the faltering beast any longer. The sheer force of the wind pitched them violently sideways; the two riders were hurled from their toppled animal then down a shallow hill. Gabrielle sprang to her feet and flayed about trying to get the loose flapping reins under control. With a mighty pull she forced the frantic creature into kneeling down so that they could weather the storm safely behind its sturdy frame.
"Come on, youve got to take cover!" she screamed into the suffocating gale.
Bhalba lay face down almost twenty feet away. Gabrielle fought hard through the driving chaos to get to him and with great difficulty, managed to drag his immense bulk in back of the complaining beast.
Holding on tight to Bhalba and the straps of the rigidly secured howdah, Gabrielle hid her eyes from the biting gusts of sand and sharp bits of debris.
Tarkaus prayer had been answered. He smiled at the huge storm in the distance.
"May Moloch take the both of them!"
Turning his mount, Tarkau headed back to Ketaars camp. He leisurely lumbered along, there was no hurry; this welcome catastrophic event would fill in the necessary gaps for him.
Gabrielle shook the sand out of her hair and sat up. The tempest had passed very near at full force. Luckily they were partially shielded by a small jagged lip that stuck out just above them.
"That was close. What did you call it? Haboob?" she asked shaking Bhalbas arm, "Ill never forget that word!"
Gabrielle poked him, then tugged at his sleeve.
"Hey uh you, were safe now, the storms on its way back to Tartarus."
She tugged his sleeve a little harder, then rolled him around to face her.
The early afternoon sun glinted brilliantly off Xenas chakram as it sat perfectly erect embedded halfway inside Bhalbas abdomen.
Gabrielle gently reached down placing a hand over his eyes and closed them.
Mohod stood near a small cluster of assorted confined civilians shielding his eyes from the powerful glare of the sun.
"You have the gift of stating the obvious Mohod. If Ketaar says he will be somewhere, he will be there."
"A merit worthy of praise, yet I do not trust that smirking Greek."
Marduk unplugged a small water bags spout and took a sizable swallow. Empty staring eyes followed the mouthpieces path to his lips.
"Yes, in our trade it is always advisable to trust no one. For now we must have dealings with the man. Ketaar is considered the best," he said wiping a bronzed hand across his mouth.
Marduk offered the water supply to the other similar looking gentlemen.
"There was a time when we were the best," Mohod said taking the water bag from his twin brother.
"Friendly collaboration is good for business. Secondly, Ketaar has a better contact. He said he can get us more money."
"And those choice little items, of course, make him the best?"
Marduk smiled at his brothers wry comment.
Ketaar sat angrily near a half-packed camel staring at his docile captive.
Xena obediently turned toward the source of the single irritated word. Her face was a mask of red and blue hues, her lips parched and caked with dried blood from the ordeal the night before; one good eye slowly wandered to meet his gaze.
"Yes you and that other one have caused me a great deal of uneasiness. Why?"
His eyes searched Xenas lost expression for an answer. Worry from not knowing where the "nice lady" was and trying to remain silent crowded her already confused thoughts.
Ketaar drew closer placing a hand on her shoulder. The gesture was as tender as any thoughtful person might do to express concern. Xena nervously flinched under his grasp.
"Discipline must be maintained. She knew the risk "
His words trailed off remembering the desperate girls face while he squeezed the life from her.
"She knew what Id do if I caught her trying to escape," Ketaar looked away for a moment, then turned his full attention on Xena again, "I regret killing the little chit. You can understand that much, cant you?"
She was as blank on the subject of death as any child would be.
"Half-wit!" He said pushing away from her, "Foolish of me to expect you to comprehend."
Xena sank back despondently in her fetters.
Light footfalls coming into camp broke through Ketaars troublesome thoughts. Tarkau had finally returned.
"A sudden storm claimed them," he announced a little too joyfully, "I saw it all."
Ketaar smiled, his sharp white teeth almost sparkling as he looked up at his pleased henchman.
"This news you bring, disturbs me."
The preordained tableau
Played out incessantly
As in one long lusterless note
"Im sorry that I have to leave you this way."
Gabrielle brushed away a light coating of sand from the cold face directly below her.
"I dont even know your name."
She straightened out Bhalbas faded embroidered vest and tried not to look at the deep half moon slash in his gut. He lay in a shallow grave, hands folded and neatly tied in place across his chest.
"How do your countrymen say goodbye?" Gabrielle thought about it for a moment, "I could speak a few words in your honor, would you like that?"
She fancied that his lips twitched in answer, but this of course was doubtful. Standing up and striking a somber pose, Gabrielle began to recite a eulogy:
"Ive known you only a brief time as an enemy. Ill never really be sure what happened back at the camp, but Id like to believe you tried to help me. This barren wasteland and the Gods you worship are the only witnesses to my heartfelt gratitude."
Crouching down Gabrielle opened the little pouch she found around Bhalbas neck and forced two coins into his mouth.
"Let the harsh shroud of sand become a soft cloud to bear you to your place of rest."
She pressed her lips to her fingers and laid them on Bhalbas bare head.
Tarkau was a little taken aback by his leaders statement and chose to say nothing.
"A pity. I wouldve liked that oaf to have suffered at my leisure. Come down and assist me with the rest of our cargo. Weve no more time to waste here."
Tarkau dismounted quickly to help his boss only to be met with a knife under his chin.
"Do not think that I have forgotten your liberties with my property," Ketaar said as he advanced forward on his prey.
Tarkau backed up carefully; mindful of the sudden fury his master was capable of.
"I am interested solely in profit. Your thick-witted display of violence has greatly lessened her value. How am I to be compensated?"
Tarkau wasnt immediately sure if Ketaar really wanted an answer or only wished to toy with him a while. His startled expression masked the contempt he felt for this man.
"She bit me earlier she did it twice and "
"---And you decided to take care of the transgression all by yourself?"
"I I know it means less of a share "
Ketaar lowered the knife and swiftly put it back in its hiding place inside his sleeve. Tarkau didnt bother to conceal a huge sigh of relief.
"Well make up time lost by traveling at night."
He turned to Xena who hadnt uttered a word in at least twelve hours.
"What say you imbecile? Do you approve?" Ketaar asked in a mocking tone, then snickered to himself.
Xena sat quietly, thinking only of Gabrielles last words to her: "Well go home together."
Which way should she go? The storm had completely obliterated the camels tracks, so any hope of getting back to Xena that way was out of the question.
"Any ideas Grumpy?" she asked her burdened bristly companion as they stood on the darkening plains.
The beast honked excitably through its nose as it had done continuously since she led it up from the small incline less than an hour before.
Gabrielle smiled at her own silliness, but viewing what lay all around the smile soon turned into a look of distress. No hint of life could be detected anywhere in the distance. She wished shed paid more attention to where the sun was just before the gale arrived.
Gabrielle felt like a mere spec in this land were the endless miles of sand appeared as vast as any ocean.
"Xena wouldve already had a plan, but Xena isnt here," She gave the noisy animal a pat on its long neck, "Yes, its just you and me, alone at last."
The sun lowered further on the horizon. Shed have to make some kind of decision soon. Suddenly a pinpoint of light surfaced directly in front of her. It was dim and far away, but she could make it out clearly.
"Its their campfire! I know it!"
Gabrielle climbed up onto the camels back.
"Hold on Xena, Im coming to get you!"
She kicked the protesting beast into action and ambled somewhat un-heroically toward the source of the faint beacon.
"Make sure to hold the torch low and follow close."
Ketaar urged his animal cautiously on; Tarkau did what he was instructed to do, tagging along behind his leader as best he could.
Xena rode with Tarkau, once again tied to a fitted shelf on his beasts right flank; the other side balanced evenly with an equally weighted load. Ketaar saw no reason to change the situation being that Tarkau had been duly warned.
Xena neared whatever could be judged as a breaking point. The desire to cry out from the physical and emotional pain was great. Still she had to keep her promise to Gabrielle. Xena closed her eyes and imagined that the "pretty lady" was holding her tight and the light breeze from the desert was her friend gently kissing her bruised face.
The initial burst of bravado had given way to utter frustration. It seemed as if shed been following the moon for hours. Just as it appeared that she had gained some ground, the little glowing dot would draw further and further away.
"There must be a good reason for this Grumpy we cant be chasing an illusion," Gabrielle mumbled wearily to her snorting companion.
She was tired, every nerve in her body screamed for sleep. Her eyelids grew heavy and soon drooped onto themselves. Without being guided to do otherwise, the steady gait of the camel petered out to an eventual stop. There they rested for a time in the dark: the easily upset ship of the desert and Xenas devoted friend.
Tarkau jerked his camels head back in response with a sharp pull of the reins. The sudden jolt ripped Xena from her beautiful dream and back into harsh reality.
"I see them," Ketaar aimed his torch to the right, "Look there!"
"How far away are they?" Tarkau asked as he squinted his eyes to focus.
Ketaars self-satisfied tone saturated the air around them.
"Ah, my friend, tis the act of skilled navigation that is priority. Move your camels swiftly, I want to be there by daybreak."
Tarkau checked on his ragged merchandise behind him then forced the trumpeting procession into a brisk jog.
She awoke with a shudder.
Gabrielles eyes gaped wide open in the gloom.
"Oh no! Oh Gods no!"
The tiny light Gabrielle had been pursuing disappeared while she slept. How far had she drifted from the course? Which way was she pointed in? As the seriousness of the situation became clearer, Gabrielle buried her face in her hands. In an instant the promising trail had turned cold.
There was no other alternative than to wait for daylight to continue looking for Xena.
Over on his far left a cloud of illuminated sand dust rose steadily into the violet sky.
Spotting Ketaars party, Marduk had elected himself to go out to meet them and escort the caravan back to camp. But when he reached this eagerly awaited band, Marduk was surprised to find only one contribution to the count and two of Ketaars men missing.
"What has happened to Bhalba and Diakka?"
Ketaar didnt like the suspicious note to Marduks question. Tarkau nervously looked around and pretended to be occupied in a necessary task.
"They decided to take a different path to Aleppo I believe," he lied.
Marduk found this news hard to accept. Those two men were seasoned criminals. It seemed unlikely that they would take it into their heads to walk away from easy money. He inspected the woman tethered to the side of Tarkaus conveyance.
"Only this one miserable creature?"
"The others escaped during a sandstorm."
Marduk gently lifted her chin and turned it first to the left, then right.
"What did the woman do to warrant such a beating?" he carefully took his hand away.
"She attempted to escape with the others," Ketaar lied again, "I persuaded the simpleton that it was better to keep our company."
"You waste your talents in this way my man. I do not condone such doings."
Marduk unplugged a water jug and lifted it to Xenas dry lips. She looked into his dark eyes; a hint of kindness softened the otherwise indifferent exterior he exhibited. Marduk quietly nodded his head to encourage her to drink. Xena started to sip at the cool liquid then swallowed each mouthful eagerly until the jug was empty.
"I see that you also take care of your property economically. When was the last time you gave this one water?" he said tossing away the empty receptacle.
"I believe I have allowed you enough time to question me. Let us continue on our way, or would you like to settle things here?"
Ketaar began to reach into a billowing sleeve for the knife hidden there--his answer for every disagreement.
"Very well then, no more questions. We go."
It wasnt long before they arrived at the twin brothers campsite. Mohod greeted Ketaar with a distrusting glare when he saw that half of his uncivilized gang were gone, and toting a single captive. Unlike his brother, he didnt ask questions he already knew the answers to.
"Here you are at last master Ketaar. I see you bring with you a rich assortment of Syrias prime citizens."
"Brother," Marduk interrupted, "He has explained the situation to my satisfaction. I believe a three-hour rest is in order, then we will leave for Baghdad. Do you agree to this, Ketaar?"
Ketaar was busily engaged in a venomous standoff with Mohod. He answered without removing his eyes from the other mans face.
"A welcome recommendation. So say you as well, young wolf?"
"My brother is wise. I follow without question."
Marduk untied Xena and brought her down from the animals back. Unsteadily they walked to where a small group of prisoners were assembled. She automatically sat with them, remaining silent as a row of mournful eyes studied her.
Gabrielle watched the sunrise from atop a hill. Her fatigue in the night had used up precious time, but it wasnt impossible to undo the damage. Soon it would be light enough to retrace Grumpys footprints in the soft sand and start over again.
"Ill find you Xena," she said softly, "Well watch the sun come up together, like we used to."
A few tears spilled onto her cheeks. There was the possibility that she wouldnt be able to find Xena once she got to Baghdad. Then there was the other thing Gabrielle didnt want to think about; the odds of Xena getting her memory back werent very good.
"First things first," Gabrielle declared as she wiped her tears away and mounted the kneeling beast.
She hadnt deviated that far from the course at all, only about forty yards. Gabrielle corrected her position and headed once more towards the now absent glimmering pinpoint of light.
"Excuse me miss, what is your name please?"
Xena opened her eyes. She wasnt sure if she really heard someone talking to her or not. There was a small tug at her elbow.
"What is your name?" the voice sounded a bit more insistent.
Xena looked down and traced the petite hand resting on her arm to its owner. A little girl peeped up at her through a mass of disheveled blond hair.
"My name is Penelope, what is your name?"
She thought for a moment, but couldnt remember what the "nice lady" always called her.
"Dont you have a name?"
Xena shook her head no. The child giggled.
"Everybody has a name. Youre funny," she giggled some more.
"Ill give you a name, okay?"
Xena nodded and tried to smile, but her lips were too chapped and painful.
"Ill call you " Penelope eyed Xena closely, " Daphne! You like it?"
She nodded again. Penelope prattled on.
"Im going to marry a king when I grow up and wear pretty feathers in my hair."
The little girl stopped talking and pet at Xenas least bruised cheek.
"Do you think I will be as beautiful as you are when I grow up?"
Xena didnt know why this made her feel so sad. She started to cry.
"Whats the matter Daphne?"
Penelope slid closer and put her arms around Xena.
"Dont cry, maybe we will be sold together and live in a big, big castle."
She welcomed the friendly embrace from the little girl, but it wasnt to last long. Soon Xena and the other wretched prisoners were hastily loaded onto a train of restless, bad-tempered brutes. Marduk insisted that they be restrained with rope instead of chain. This change in routine deeply irritated Ketaar. He preferred shackles to mere braided cord; it gave him less to worry about.
With all the supplies and valuable cargo secured Marduk signaled his brother to begin moving the string of grumbling camel.
"Keep them in a straight line!" he called out to the men.
"One would conclude that they have taken charge," Ketaar said grinning to himself, "Go to it then my young friends, every dog will have its day."
The last leg of the long, torturous journey was under way.
Turbaned against the scorching sun, Gabrielle stared down at the narrow path of footprints that extended as far into the desert as she could see. There were no remains of a campfire, only these evenly spaced tracks in the sand.
The evidence was clear: Ketaar had piloted his merchandise at night.
" Nobody sane travels far in the dark," Gabrielle mumbled under her breath, "Your saying is truer than you realize, Xena."
She couldnt calculate how old the tracks were; Gabrielle always deferred to Xena when it came to things like this. It might be hours, half a day; she had no way of telling. And if that wasnt bad enough her water supply was running low and no food.
Tiny gray lizards darted here and there out of the way of her camels loping feet. An idea, a revolting idea, popped into her head: Lizards = Food. Vainly she eyed her surroundings looking for an alternative.
Dismounting, Gabrielle walked a short distance to a gathered mass of thin leafed shrubs. She knelt down and picked off a sizable blade then nibbled at it. An awful bitter flavor coated the inside of her mouth.
Gabrielle walked quickly back to Grumpys side spitting and frantically wiping off her tongue the whole way.
Penelope rode snugly beside her friend "Daphne". Tired out from her spirited prattle, the childs head rocked limply against Xenas arm in time to the rhythmic motion of each lumbering stride.
The light color of the sand had taken on a brownish hue, a sure sign that the caravan was getting closer to water. All the animals could sense it too, their nostrils flared and the pace quickened to a livelier gait.
Marduk purposely fell back to keep in step with Xenas beast. He looked over at her and attempted a sympathetic veneer.
"We will reach the Euphrates soon, then you can bathe in her refreshing waters."
Xena couldnt decipher his clipped dialect, but recognized the kindness in it. She smiled briefly at him until Ketaars sinister shape came into view.
"This imbecile cant understand in her own tongue, shell not understand yours."
Marduk twisted around in his seat to find Ketaar eyeing Xena with a fair amount of contempt.
"Have you no pity in your heart for any of them?"
Ketaar threw back his head in laughter.
"Ha! I see my chattel has made a conquest! Bravo half-wit!"
Ignoring his associates sarcastic words, Marduk urged his mount once again to the head of the caravan. This occupation held no particular challenge for him anymore and he longed for an alternative to these expeditions.
"You make me almost jealous simple one," Ketaar softly addressed Xena in perfect Greek, "Will you not smile for me?"
He purred and caressed each word as they left his lips. The mans lingering presence made Xena tremble with fear. Seeing her distressed attitude towards him Ketaar began to take his leave.
"No matter," he said brightly, "I will soon have gold in place of your charming company."
Gabrielle sprang and missed, then sprang and missed again; those little creatures were faster than they looked. As she lay on the ground her stomach started to rumble.
"Oh great," she said getting to her feet.
Slithering a short distance ahead a snake scurried through the sand. The odd thing about it was the fact that it moved sideways at a great rate. Gabrielle had never seen anything like this and marveled over the sight until she realized that a potential meal was getting away.
Many times in the past when their food supply and money were low, Xena would bring back snake for them to eat. Not bad cooked, but raw? Gabrielle tried not to think of this as she ran back to her somewhat patiently kneeling sidekick and grabbed the golden chakram from were she had concealed it.
The sun beat down mercilessly as Gabrielle dashed after her fleeing cuisine. She lightly tossed the glittering ring at the moving target, only succeeding in looping it over the snakes head from which embrace it quickly escaped.
Snatching up the weapon again, Gabrielle screeched out an eccentric version of Xenas battle cry and pounced on her prey severing off its head in one clean stroke. The snakes body coiled in a slow undulating dance of death on the dusty ground.
For a moment she considered capering about in a sort of victory frolic, then thought the better of it.
"How stupid would I look doing that?"
Upon returning to Grumpy, Gabrielle jumped in the air clicking her heels together before lightly coming down to earth again.
Marduk sat quietly on a low cliff, which overlooked a spectacular view of the beautiful blue Euphrates River. Green grasses grew in abundance around the shallow banks on each side. A fair breeze wafted up the lush aroma of gently waving vegetation.
He took in a deep breath and closed his eyes, savoring this peaceful scene for the few moments he had to himself.
Tarkau soon broke into Marduks serene musings.
"Should I start them down the path, or are we to rest here first?"
"Keep everything moving, we will rest by the waters edge."
One by one the tired group were carefully led down the tight trail that brought them directly to a pleasant emerald fairway.
"Ketaar and I will remove the stock as well as water and feed the herd. I dont want the cargo unloaded. Mohod and Tarkau, I want you to begin bathing these slaves for Rhasis. They wont fetch much in their present condition."
"Please master," a dry voice spoke up in broken Arabic, "I can bathe the female captives, if you so desire."
This young pregnant prisoner didnt like the idea of two rough slave-traders pawing over an innocent child or a simple-minded woman either. As for herself she was used to being mistreated, yet felt the other two should be allowed some dignity.
"Very well. You will take one at a time," Marduk took her down first.
"Trusting a captive is not advisable. These can be capable of anything."
Marduk had grown weary of Ketaar always at his elbow giving unsolicited opinions. He lashed out suddenly.
"I hardly think a woman heavy with child poses much of a threat. As for the little one and your contribution I would say the situation speaks loud enough for itself."
Marduk opened a large white sack and pulled out a bar of soap and three thick robes that he handed to the woman after untying her.
"Take the small one first. After you are through dress them and yourself in these."
He then passed a bundle to her that was stuffed with an assortment of clean clothing. She nodded and took Penelope by the hand leading her to the calm cool river to tidy up.
Xena in the meantime waited passively on the grass for her turn at the bath. Mohod and Tarkau had their hands full with the two male captives further down stream. Neither was cut out for this kind of chore and they werent being too gentle about it.
"What is your name sweetheart?" The young woman asked while wetting the childs hair.
"Penelope," she answered timidly.
"Thats a very pretty name," she continued as she worked the soap gently into Penelopes hair, "My name is Leda."
"Oh, I like your name too!"
Leda knew her way around children; before long Penelope was chatting away animatedly about her big plans for an improbable future.
She wrapped Penelope in one of the heavy robes and it dragged on the ground as they left the shallows.
"You are so tiny, Im afraid I might lose you in the folds," Leda said drying off the orphan.
The girl was then dressed in a simple light pull over garment one size too big for her. Leda brought Penelope back to the waiting area where she was immediately commanded to take care of the next prisoner.
"Its your turn now."
She knelt down smiling and offered Xena her hand to take. The gesture had been so reassuring that Xena took Ledas hand without a second thought. They walked together into the clear blue water waist deep. When Leda was sure the two of them were out of earshot she spoke openly to Xena.
"I know who you are," she said with an artificial smile so that the traders wouldnt pay any attention to her, "I recognized you the moment they brought you into camp this morning. Are you pretending to be mindless?"
Leda looked for any sign of intelligence in Xenas eyes. Sadly, she saw none. Xena was completely mystified.
"No, you are not pretending. The warrior woman is gone."
A bright smile still decorated her face, but a sympathetic tear fell for this once brilliant leader.
"Im a little mouse," Xena whispered.
Leda stared at the woman in front of her.
"A mouse?" She furrowed her brow not understanding Xena at all.
"A quiet little mouse," Xena answered splashing at the water.
"Is this a game? Are you trying to tell me something?"
"Its our secret," she said playing with the floating bar of soap.
"Whos secret are you keeping?"
Xena looked to see if Tarkau or Ketaar were watching.
"The nice lady and me; our secret."
"What is the secret?"
"Im as quiet as a mouse."
When Leda started to wash Xenas hair she discovered what the trouble might be. There sat the large sewn gash near her hairline. Some silk thread Gabrielle had stitched into it was still visible. Leda pulled out the remaining strands of silk noting what a skillful job someone had executed and finished washing her hair.
"Did the nice lady fix your wound too?"
"Where is this nice lady now?" Leda asked while gently cleaning Xenas beaten face.
"Far away she loves me."
Leda could only assume that the "nice lady" Xena spoke of was dead.
She gazed cryptically at the raw pieces of snake lying in an unappetizing row.
As hungry as Gabrielle was, she couldnt bring herself to eat.
"What I wouldnt do for a little flint," she mumbled.
None of the rocks around her were of any use, although some of them seemed hot enough to cook on. At this point shed try anything.
Placing the meat in a line of strips on a sizable sun-heated flat stone she turned a smaller slab lying next to it over so that the snake pieces were sandwiched between them.
The tiniest of sizzling sounds emerged from her bit of ingenuity. In a few minutes the meat was cooked enough to be mostly edible.
"Want some?" she asked holding up a morsel to her sour tempered transport.
The animal only snorted and turned its head away.
A few miles of following the usual sparse set of tracks, she came upon what looked like the remains of a large campsite. Three extinguished campfires lay several feet apart and the area was scattered with footprints both animal and human.
This was it. It had to be the place where Ketaar met up with others like himself. Gabrielle promptly took off on Grumpy and raced across the desert, chasing the multitude of camel tracks to what she hoped would lead her to "God given".
"There now, thats better isnt it?"
Leda dried Xena off and quickly helped her put on a fresh decorative dress that came just below her knees. She chose a larger billowing blue top to accommodate the extra load she was carrying
"Im afraid you will fare badly in this condition," Leda said very softly, "People can be so cruel to the afflicted," she clasped Xenas hands in hers, "I wish you well princess."
"Start loading the sheep!" Ketaar abruptly announced, "Time is wasting."
Marduk and his brother had to agree with their temporary ally. They were already a day overdue.
"You are correct friend, it is time to leave."
Leda quickly embraced Xena before being hastily snatched away to be packed on the caravan. Then Xena was tied onto a waiting animal with Penelope happily taking the vacancy next to her.
One of the male captives tried to escape by diving into the water, but it wasnt freedom he sought; he wanted death. It took three of the party to drag the poor screaming fellow out of the river. All he got for his efforts was a gag stuffed into his mouth and heavy chains to bind him.
"Be warned scum," Ketaar cautioned the man, "Behave or we shall drag you the rest of the way."
He stopped struggling and reluctantly resigned himself to his unknown fate.
An exquisite sight came into view. For a moment Gabrielle thought she was seeing a shimmering mirage.
Reaching the top of a low cliff, Gabrielle couldnt believe her eyes. A wide ribbon of heavenly blue water stretched out before her.
"By the Gods!" she said leaping off her camels back and leading him down the narrow path to this welcome gift.
Gabrielle let go of the reins. She untied and removed her boots, stripped off her clothes then jumped into the cool velvety liquid. In sharp contrast to Gabrielles exuberant cavorting around in the water, Grumpy loped casually into the shallows and started to drink his fill. She splashed about then ducked her head underwater. It was all too beautiful, and couldnt be savored for any length of time. Gabrielle knew that the caravan hadnt departed that long ago. Fresh deep prints led across the fordable end of the river. A heavily laden fleet of camel had obviously passed through.
She got dressed in a hurry then filled the water bags and waited for her hungry comrade to finish eating the lush greenery.
A dozen things raced through her mind at once. Gabrielle had several plans laid out clearly in her head. The one big obstacle was of course the language barrier.
"Ill just have to gesture until someone understands me," she thought to herself.
Success in that area had been somewhat lacking lately.
"Or I could disguise myself. Xena always preferred it. Yes, that is the sensible thing to do."
Gabrielle checked to see what she had tucked away in the small pack tied on Grumpys howdah: a shabby hooded robe, and an extra length of cloth for a turban. She then spilled out the pouch of coins onto the hard ground. There sat a small fortune in gold and silver pieces. Bhalba had been a very frugal man to save up this much money. What he intended to do with it was anyones guess.
Before leaving this lovely setting, Gabrielle stood thoughtfully on the bank.
"I give tribute to the Gods for safely bringing us this far in search for my dearest friend Xena," she then threw a gold coin into the sparkling water, "and if you can see that she and I make it back home just as safely I will be eternally grateful."
Gabrielle took out another gold coin and kissed it before tossing it into the river.
Baghdads heavenly gates
Beckon to all,
"Draw near and
Sample our wealth."
Passing through the fabled gates on foot frightened Xena terribly; she clung to Penelope in sheer terror from their imposing height. Ketaar and Marduk conducted the procession of slaves to their promised destination. Tarkau and Mohod were left behind to board the herd in one of the many convenient stables located outside the crowded city.
"I believe The House of Rhasis is this way," Ketaar declared over the noise of the bustling street.
"Is that the fastest route?"
Marduk didnt like dark cramped alleys and he didnt trust Ketaar at all.
"It is not far, my friend. Perhaps you would feel safer leading the way?"
Ketaars mean little grin convinced Marduk to let him be the guide. This was more his territory anyway.
"Go ahead, I will keep up."
Squeezing tightly past the endless winding corridor of people they arrived at a large door with a gaily painted plaque nailed on it:
"The House of Rhasis, dealer in rare articles."
Ketaar raised the heavy brass knocker in the shape of a dragon and rapped hard on the door. Immediately a square cutout opened. A guard on the other side of the door peered out suspiciously at the smiling patron.
"The sparrow awaits the cat," Ketaar recited smoothly.
A bolt unlocked and the portal opened into a huge elegant hallway. The small group filed in then the guard bolted the door behind them.
"YOU ARE LATE!" The booming words echoed off the gilded mirrors and marble columns.
Rhasis, a short round princely looking gentleman came into view, somewhat less imposing than his voice.
"Unavoidable circumstances----" Ketaar started to say and was abruptly cut off.
"Never mind that, let me see what you have brought."
He advanced on the five captives, looking them over swiftly.
"I count five, the contract was for six!"
"This one is with child. I make that six."
Rhasis smiled at his sly partner.
"Still the wily fox arent you," he said patting Ketaar on the back, "Ah, but truth be told I do not care for this one."
Rhasis had stopped in front of Xena. He turned her chin to the left and slowly right.
"You know how I feel about damaged goods. I will have to do much tinkering with her ugly face."
"Daphne is beautiful!" Penelope shouted, Leda tried to put a tied hand over the childs mouth.
"So, I have a skilled opinion!" He pat her on the head and chuckled, "And what are her other attributes little miss?"
Ketaar winced slightly; he didnt want the truth to be known until he was well on his way.
"Should we not go over the business end first?"
"If I didnt know any better, I would say you were trying to hide something from me. Is there a hidden problem with this one as well?"
Neither Ketaar nor Marduk could think of a clever reply.
"You," Rhasis said addressing Marduk, "You have been very quiet. What say you about this woman?"
Marduk hesitated in answering.
"Well Ketaar said she only understands Greek "
"She is of a gentle nature," Ketaar interjected for his flustered colleague.
"Then why the beating? Come, come gentlemen enough of this," he turned to Xena and spoke in her native language, "Are you of a pleasing nature?"
Xena shifted around nervously; she had no idea what he was talking about.
"She is either deaf or simple," once again he questioned her, "How old are you?"
She shook her head no and continued to fidget.
"What is your name?"
"Mouse," Xena replied softly.
"A battered idiot! How am I to make a profit? This is unsatisfactory."
"She is strong Mr. Rhasis, and would be good with children," Marduk offered.
"Most of my clients do not have children and wouldnt want a grown up one either."
Ketaar knew hed have to bargain or get stuck with the goods.
"Ill make you an offer, if you lose money you can take it out of my next shipment."
"If she makes extra I will split the difference with you. Done?" Rhasis smiled.
Rhasis and Ketaar shook hands like old friends. Rhasis handed him a hefty purse, then called his burly guard over to shepherd the captives away.
"There is extra in the purse for the men. Tell me, how did you capture them?"
Marduk suddenly smiled uncharacteristically.
"They were taken at the same time as the expecting one."
Many sordid pictures entered Rhasis mind.
"I see," he said returning a lecherous smile.
Baghdad; it rose up imperiously from the desert floor, dazzling in its bleak whiteness. The magnificent vaulted gates lived up to every story she ever heard about them. Gabrielle gaped at the celebrated entrance in complete awe.
She felt a tap on her boot. A small boy with a red cone shaped hat on was asking her something.
"Im sorry, I dont understand," Gabrielle answered smiling down at him.
The boy put up his hand in a gesture for her to wait. He soon returned with a friend in tow. The friend spoke up.
"Are you new to our city?" he said in a familiar accent.
Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief.
"Why yes, how did you know?"
"All new visitors stare at our gate that way," he opened his eyes wide to mimic them.
She laughed at the boys imitation of a foreigner.
"My friend wants to know if he can stable your animal for you."
Gabrielle slid neatly off the camels back and untied a tight bundle to take with her.
"Can I trust him?"
"Oh yes lady, I will be helping too."
"Okay," she handed him the reins, "Who are you?"
"I am Tytus, he is Amir."
"Im Gabrielle," she took out two silver pieces and gave one to each, "I may be a while, if you are both still here Ill give you two more."
The boys stared at the silver coin in their palms.
"It shall be done!"
Amir excitably tied an orange cloth strip to the harness, then handing Gabrielle a strip of the same color cloth both boys raced off to the stables with Grumpy.
Looking straight up as she walked through the gates, Gabrielle couldnt help feeling rather intimidated and tiny by comparison.
"I CAN STILL SEE THE MARKS!" Rhasis bellowed to his cosmetician, "COVER THEM UP!"
Yet another layer of powder had to be applied to Xenas bruised cheek and eye. When completed, all the heavy make-up on Xenas face gave her an odd appearance, falling somewhere between kabuki and circus performer.
Pleased with the results, Rhasis motioned his guards to start transporting the others to the auction block.
"Were late, send the men out first."
One of the guards turned a large key in a lock located in the floor; he then lifted a plain wooden trapdoor and secured it open with an iron bar. Stone steps led down to a slippery tunnel that ran under the busy streets to the main square.
Slaves had recently been hard to come by and many buyers traveled from far and wide to vie for what Rhasis had to offer at auction and they were getting impatient. They knew that if anyone could provide something scarce it would be Rhasis.
"I have been waiting for two whole days! Where are the goods?" a wealthy merchant yelled.
"I am leaving, Rhasis has failed for the first time to provide slaves," said another.
"Ha, be patient old man! He can draw wine from a stone!" one of the buyers called back.
"Yes, but would you chance to drink it?"
Some of the crowd laughed.
A loud drum roll sounded from behind a curtain whereupon it flew open and out stepped Rhasis up onto the elevated stage in his finest outfit of blue and yellow satin brocade. He put up his hand to silence the large gathering. A hush of anticipation came over everyone, even the most rowdy.
"I have an interesting collection to sell, for today I offer two men---"
"---Elderly men, like the last time?" a wealthy widow inquired.
Laughter echoed through the crowd.
"Two young men madam, young enough to make you feel young again!"
He clapped his hands and the men were roughly pulled onto the stage. The people oohd and ahhd to see such fine specimens before them.
"I will start off the bidding at Thirty shekels of silver for this dark one."
"I have forty-five shekels for this rare sample of manhood, who will give me fifty? You madam, how about you? Hell make a nice bed warmer for those long cold nights!"
Rhasis rolled each tantalizing word off his tongue suggestively.
"No, I do not like dark ones, Im waiting for the sandy-haired one!"
The customers laughed some more.
"I have forty-five going once, forty-five going twice sold to the red bearded gentleman for forty-five shekels. And a very good price it is indeed."
The first prisoner was dragged off the stage and the other one pushed forward.
"Here is my second offering of a higher quality. More muscle and better looking I might add. Im starting the bid off at forty shekels "
"I have sixty-five before me dear madam. What say you to seventy?"
The middle aged woman tapped her fingers and eyed the nervous slave on the stage.
"Seventy it is!"
"I have seventy seventy going once seventy going twice SOLD! Well done madam! Enjoy your new pet!"
He also got dragged roughly from the stage. Rhasis clapped his hands for the next two to be brought up onto the block.
"Now feast your eyes on this lovely young woman carrying a bonus as you all can see."
"What can I do with a pregnant wench?" an older man asked.
"Plenty my friend! She was captured practicing, shall I say one of her many hidden talents with the two gentlemen I just sold!"
Leda stood motionless on stage, trying to block out of her mind the numerous catcalls and whistles.
"I also have this little one here "
Rhasis lifted Penelope into his arms."
"Smart, and not afraid to speak her mind, are you pretty miss?" he asked her in Greek.
"My name is Penelope," she said in a slightly annoyed tone.
"See? Just as I said friends, smart."
"I dont know what she said. The child speaks in a foreign tongue."
"Just so. You can teach her Arabic and she can translate when you travel! Ill start the bidding off at twenty shekels."
"Are they mother and child?" a tallish man from the back row asked.
"No, they are quite unrelated. Twenty shekels is the opening bid for the woman, do I hear twenty-five ?"
"I would like to buy them together," the same man stated plainly.
"What is your offer?"
"Ninety shekels for both?"
"Can anyone top his generous offer?"
Some of the gathering shook their heads no.
"Very well then, SOLD! You now have a family my man, and at a bargain!
The man walked up to the stage where Rhasis passed Penelope down to him.
"My name is Jabor," he said smiling at the little girl in his arms.
Leda was brought to him immediately. Jabor tossed a small purse up to Rhasis. Jabor cut their bonds and took Ledas trembling hand.
"I have a small daughter at home who needs a woman in her young life," he said in a broken accent.
Leda looked up at him. He wasnt handsome but his eyes were kind. Jabor started to walk slowly away with Leda and Penelope on each side of him.
"I hope you both will in time come to see us as friends."
"And now for my final offering of the afternoon "
Rhasis clapped his hands together for the last time. Xena was dragged up and pushed forward.
"This is a young woman who is of a tender disposition. I understand she is good with children. For her I shall leave the bidding open. Who will start the bid off?"
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