Disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Melinda Pappas and Janice Covington belong to Universal. No copyright infringement is intended. All other characters (with the exception of Aunt Helen, see below) and story are mine.
No subtext to speak of except the kind found between two totally devoted friends. The story also alludes to child abuse (nothing explicit) and contains several of the minor four-letter words.
Thank you to Wishes for graciously allowing me to use Aunt Helen and the Gabrielle Stele in this story.
* * *
THE LONG WAY HOME
Part 1 of 3
I look out at the familiar scenery shooting past my coach seat window. I've lost count how many times over the years I've made this trip, but I could swear that the last stretch of track between Iverson and Rockport just keeps getting longer and, if possible, more boring. I try again for the umpteenth time to get back into the work I've brought with me, but for some reason, what I usually find fascinating is today as dull as the landscape that has become a blur out of the corner of my eye. With a small stretch and a lazy sigh, I finally shut my laptop for good and let my gaze wander over my fellow passengers. Most of them are sleeping or absorbed in their own amusements - except for one lone figure slouched on the seat across from me. She's an angst-ridden collection of arms, legs, stringy hair and earphones and, as our eyes momentarily lock, she gives me a defiant stare. I take in her appearance and her air of sullen superiority, and know that both are purposely designed to elicit the most irritated response possible from the adult world so, predictably enough, I start to feel a bit put off. But then, a smile breaks over my face. Good Lord, I think, she's fifteen, if that. Has it been so long that I've forgotten just what that's like? I look at her again, but now she's turned away, wanting nothing do to with my suddenly cheery expression. I smile a little wider and lean back against the seat. As my eyes slowly close, I feel the rhythm of the tracks pull me into a memory, long ago, when another fifteen year old made this trip for the very first time...
* * *
Mama put me on the train at the station in North Charleston, and a more unhappy and unwilling passenger could not have been found. It was the beginning of summer, 1951, and I was what my great-aunt Helen called a "late bloomer". With my jeweled glasses, flat chest and painful shyness, I was on the very bottom of the pecking order at Parmenter Academy, the private, exclusive girls school which I attended. It was my fate to be either picked on or ignored by every other rich, socially-connected girl in school, and even though I'd convinced myself that it didn't really matter whether I was accepted or not, it was a self-made ruse. It actually mattered a great deal. But I hadn't quite figured out how to get that interesting, confident person I knew was on the inside to show up on the outside. That unfortunate situation made for a very lonely adolescence.
It was an unfortunate situation for my socialite mother as well and she would often look at me and shake her head, her eyes filled with disappointment. She was the quintessential poor girl who conspired to marry well, which she accomplished when she walked down the aisle with my father, George Pappas. When I was born, I was to become the diamond in her crown, the daughter through whom she could vicariously live out every debutante fantasy she'd ever had. It was to her on-going sorrow that her diamond turned out to be one still very much in the rough.
"Honestly, George," she fumed to my father one night, "I just don't know what to do with her anymore. She doesn't even try to fit in anywhere. She isn't interested in the summer program at the club - even the Crandon's don't seem to think she'd be happy at any of the dances they have planned - and I just don't know if my nerves can take it if she sits around the house and mopes all summer."
"All right, sweetheart, all right. Calm down," Daddy's gentle voice replied. "I think I know the best way to handle this, for everyone involved. Tomorrow morning I'm going to make a phone call."
The door to their bedroom shut before I could find out exactly whom he was going to make that call to. But less than a week later, without so much as an opportunity to voice an opinion, I was on my way up north, condemned to spend my fifteenth summer with my Aunt Mel and her friend Janice Covington.
My Aunt Mel. I hardly knew her. She was almost always overseas on some archaeological project whenever the family got together for holidays or special occasions. Most of my memory of her came from a photo that Daddy kept on the desk in his study. In that picture, my father, still boyish in his college graduation cap and gown, stood with his arm around his kid sister Melinda. Even though she was almost six years his junior, she was as tall as he was and strikingly beautiful, her crystal clear eyes shining brightly out from behind dark-rimmed glasses. As a child, I remember thinking that she was the most heavenly person I'd ever seen and wishing desperately that I looked more like my father's side of the family than my mother's. But that was then and this was now, and the very last thing I wanted to do was to spend my summer with people I didn't know and possibly wouldn't like, and who in all probability wouldn't like me. Even a summer in Charleston seemed more appealing than that. At least here I could find refuge in my own room.
The train finally jerked to a halt and I came out of my pout just long enough to gather my things and make my way toward the door. As I stepped onto the platform at the Rockport station and walked into the dimly lit terminal, I was more determined than ever to be miserable. I gave a disgruntled sigh and searched the faces of the handful of people who sat wearily on the worn benches in the waiting area. No one looked the least bit familiar. But then, a tall, graceful woman bounded up from the bench along the opposite wall and began to walk quickly toward me. I knew right away that it was Aunt Mel. Even though the picture on my father's desk had been taken almost twenty years before, she looked exactly the same, dark hair framing blue, blue eyes, and a smile that could - and did - light up even the dingiest room. Suddenly, every giddy feeling I remembered having about her came flooding back. I stood there mesmerized as this vision in gabardine slacks and silk shirt glided closer and closer, and though I struggled to keep my frown intact, I knew even then that it was a lost cause.
"Caroline? Caroline, honey?"
Before I could reply, I was wrapped in a wonderfully warm embrace. As she pressed me to her, I detected just the hint of lilac, delicate and wispy, and nothing at all like the heavy, suffocatingly floral fragrances that always seemed to emanate from my other female relatives. She stood back and took my chin in her hand.
"You are the spitting image of your mama, aren't you," she said in the soft, southern cadence that matched my own.
"I guess." I lowered my eyes but didn't try to get away from her gentle grip.
"And she's a very attractive woman. I've always thought so."
I looked up again and, giving in to the inevitable, smiled shyly. She gave my chin a small squeeze before releasing it.
"Come on, let's get your bags. I bet you're tired. To be honest, I'm kind of bushed myself. I've had a full morning of classes and a couple of my students are pretty darn bright. They give me a run for my money, that's for sure." She gave a small laugh and looked around for the porter. "It'll feel good to get home, and I have a feeling that Janice has conjured up some nice little refreshments for us."
After showing the redcap which car to deposit my two suitcases into, she handed him a generous tip and hopped into the driver's seat. I reached for the chrome handle on my side, not realizing then that I was about to open the door to an adventure that would change the course of my life.
* * *
Xena and Gabrielle huddled closely together behind the ancient stone wall and waited. Finally, when she could bear the silence no longer, Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's arm.
Xena nodded her head slowly, a wistfulness overtaking her beautiful features.
"I'd recognize her anywhere. She was so beautiful."
Xena turned to face Gabrielle, sadness glistening in her eyes. "I didn't realize until now just how much I've missed her," she admitted, "or how much I loved her."
"I know, I know. It's okay." Gabrielle's voice was soft and soothing as she inched closer to her friend and threaded their arms together.
They sat in silence for a long time. At length, Gabrielle stole a look over the top of the wall.
"But, I thought the Roman soldiers...," she said quietly. "Didn't you tell me that you saw them take her and...well, you know...when you were hanging on the...I mean, when you were on the beach?"
"I thought it was her. I guess I was wrong."
Xena suddenly slammed her fist into her thigh. Gabrielle recognized immediately that look of grief and frustration Xena got whenever she was confronted with some painful reminder of the past.
"Remember that big, ugly guy who shared our table at the tavern in Troialus?" Xena asked through gritted teeth, barely concealing her anger. "You know, the one who was missing an ear and bragging about all the slaves he and his crew had carried across the Strait of Verutas?"
"The only reason I didn't hang him on the spit over the fire right then and there was that I knew he was talking about her."
"Hmmm, I wondered why you were being so tolerant," Gabrielle replied. "That's normally not like you when you're around someone in his...line of work. He certainly was obnoxious. Not an uncommon trait, I suppose, in a slave trader."
"Well, he was only the cook, but as far as I'm concerned, every crew member of a slave ship shares the guilt."
Gabrielle looked over at Xena. The expression on her friend's face had changed from anger and remorse to a hardened determination.
"Xena, what are you thinking? Come on now, you're not...you can't be..."
"Why not?" Xena turned toward Gabrielle, the light of a plan shining from her eyes. "I've got to do something. I can't sit back and see her abused like that. She's just as much a victim as those slaves."
They both leaned over the top of the wall for one more look. There, in the harbor, in dull contrast to the glint and glitter of the sun on the water surrounding her, sat the Aegeana Fox, Xena's old warship.
* * *
Aunt Mel pulled the green DeSoto up in front of the two-story brownstone and honked the horn. As I stepped out of the car, a woman about Aunt Mel's age came through the front door and out onto the porch. She wore a blue denim shirt tucked into khaki pants held up with a wide leather belt, her reddish-blond hair pulled back into a haphazard ponytail. Vaulting headlong down the steps, she reached us in a couple of long, careless strides.
"Hi, you must be Caroline. I'm Janice Covington." She grabbed my hand and gave it a rough shake. "You can just call me Janice."
I looked at her shyly. "You can just call me Carrie."
Janice glanced over at Aunt Mel and gave her a grin. "Hey, I think I'm going to like this girl. Carrie it is, then. Come on, let's get your things into the house. I hope you like banana bread."
"It's her specialty," Aunt Mel announced, pulling a suitcase out of the trunk.
"Actually," Janice confided, "it's the only thing Mel will let me into the kitchen to make."
They both shouldered one of my bags, propelling me between them up the walk and through the front door into a small, paneled foyer. Just inside, to the left, was a doorway and beyond that, a comfortable looking living area. Straight ahead, a wide, intricate staircase ran up to the second floor. Aunt Mel began to head up the stairs.
"When we first bought the place," she called over her shoulder, "we tossed a coin to see who would get the rooms downstairs and who would get the rooms up. I lost."
"Don't let her fool you," Janice whispered loudly from behind, "there's still enough of the southern belle in her that loves the idea of making a dramatic descent down a fancy set of stairs."
This brought out a hearty chuckle from Aunt Mel and I found myself intrigued by the easy, comfortable relationship these two seemed to have. It was nice. My mother's friendships, such as they were, were certainly nothing like this.
Aunt Mel's apartment, as she called it, consisted of a large sitting room, two bedrooms and a bath. Janice's place downstairs was much the same except that it also housed the kitchen, which they shared. As we reached the top of the stairs, the landing opened up into a light and airy room with lots of windows, each one covered with matching sheer lace curtains. Books were scattered on every available tabletop and chair but instead of feeling cluttered, it just seemed nicely lived-in.
"Please forgive the mess," Aunt Mel said, throwing an accusing look at Janice. "I can never seem to get the place completely picked up, so I don't even try very much anymore."
Janice merely shrugged and smiled. "Funny, my place always seems to be nice and neat."
"I wonder why," Aunt Mel retorted, picking up a leather jacket, obviously not hers, from one of the chairs and tossing it rather forcefully at Janice. "You'll never change, will you?"
Janice caught the jacket and flung it over her shoulder. "Why would I need to change?" Her face radiated genuine innocence.
"Why, indeed," Aunt Mel replied, slightly annoyed. "Now, go get those refreshments, will you? We're about passed out from hunger."
"Yes ma'am!" Janice gave her a small salute as she turned and headed down the stairs.
Aunt Mel shook her head and smiled. "Come on," she said, grabbing my other bag, "I've got you just down the hall here."
I followed her into a large, bookcase-lined room, a roll-top desk taking up one corner and a daybed another.
"This is my study," she said, looking around, "but to be honest, I do most of my reading out in the other room. More light." She threw my bags on the bed and pulled back the curtains. "I hope you'll be comfortable in here." She turned and looked at me warmly. "You know, I really was pleased when your daddy called and asked if you could stay with us for a while. I hope we can get to know each other, and maybe even become friends. I'd like that very much."
I suddenly felt even more shy and dropped my gaze. "Me, too."
"Good." There was a slight pause. "Well," she said at last, walking toward the door, "the bathroom's just across the hall. You can freshen up and come on out to the living room whenever you're ready. Janice will be back in a minute with her treats. You just make yourself at home, honey, okay?"
I looked up and nodded. She gave me a little wink and left.
I stood there for a moment, letting my eyes adjust to my new surroundings. Again, books seemed to fill every conceivable space. I walked over to one of the bookcases and began to read the titles. They were mostly thick, academic tomes authored by unfamiliar names. On the desk were stacks of magazines and articles that had been clipped out of newspapers. Prominently placed in the center of all the mess was an eight by ten black and white photo of an older man standing by an elaborate casket, the front of which was carved into the likeness of an exotic-looking young man. Looking closely at the inscription, I read: "To my dearest Melinda - a willing and eager student is a teacher's greatest joy. Thank you for bringing me so much joy. With love, Dr. C. (Howard Carter)". I started to sit down at the desk, but another book was on the chair. I picked it up and studied the cover. Intricate scrollwork was engraved in gold around the top and sides. In the middle was stamped the title, From Myth to History: The Importance of the Gabrielle Stele in Our Understanding of the Ancient World, by Janice Covington, PhD and Melinda Pappas, PhD. I sat down in the chair and began to flip through the pages. Every now and then, scattered throughout the text, I would come across a page of photos. Most of the pictures were of various pieces of stone with strange and archaic forms chiseled in them, but several of them showed Aunt Mel and Janice standing against a desert background. They were dressed in peculiar looking turbans and robes, seemingly in a contest to see who could wear the most serious expression. These pictures especially had an oddly romantic feel to them and their images of distant lands and foreign dress drew me in with an overwhelming sense of wonder and excitement. Suddenly, South Carolina seemed a million miles away, and my life there began to take on a faded quality, like the red satin dress on my favorite doll when I accidentally left her out in the sun too long.
I slammed the book shut and jumped out of the chair.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you." Aunt Mel gave me a concerned look. "I thought maybe you'd decided to take a little nap and I was just going to shut the door."
"I, I was just looking at your book," I stammered. "I, I didn't mean to...I mean, I was just going to..." I quickly put the book back on the chair and held my hands behind me, like a child caught raiding the cookie jar.
Aunt Mel smiled. "Well, you're welcome to look at any book I've got, though I doubt you'll find too many of them very interesting. I don't find most of them very interesting myself, and I've even written a couple."
She walked over and, reaching out, looped an errant strand of hair behind my ear. "How about that banana bread? Janice made it especially because you were coming and I know she's anxious to hear you 'oooh and ahhh' over it."
Together we walked into the sitting room. Janice was on one end of the sofa, a silver serving tray fighting with the books for a spot on the antique coffee table in front of her. She sliced a couple of pieces of banana bread and handed them to me on a plate.
I said my thanks and took a bite. The bread was soft and chewy and it immediately melted in my mouth.
"Ummm," I hummed sincerely, my mouth stuffed. Janice poured me a glass of lemonade and sat back, crossing her arms and glancing at Aunt Mel with a smug, satisfied look.
I was about to start on the second piece when the doorbell rang.
"Now, who on earth could that..." but Janice had jumped up and was clattering down the stairs before Aunt Mel could finish the sentence.
A few minutes later, she came bursting back into the room.
"Mel, you won't believe this," she said, excitedly waving around the familiar yellow paper of a Western Union telegram. "It's a wire - from Hafune. Good news. Listen to this, 'Armathia open - stop. Others may be interested - stop. Please advise - stop.' Do you know what this means?" She did a little dance and kissed the telegram several times.
"Well, if I know you," Aunt Mel replied, catching Janice's excitement, "it means we're about to go on a little trip."
Janice looked at Aunt Mel and grinned. "This could be the break we've been waiting for. Good old Hafune, God love him. You know, I was a little worried about him, considering all that messy business with his brother in Istanbul, but he came through. I had a feeling we could still count on him."
Then Janice glanced over at me. "Oh," she said, her enthusiasm wilting faster than it took for her to utter the word.
I knew right away what she was thinking. A wonderful opportunity had just come up and now she - they - had to figure out just exactly what to do about me. I felt the banana bread suddenly turn to stone in my mouth.
"Uh, Mel, can I see you in the other room for a minute?" Janice turned to me, a pasty smile on her face. "We'll be right back."
I sank lower into the sofa as they made their way to the hallway. In the distance, I could hear the low murmurs of a whispered conversation, but every now and then Janice's voice would raise a decibel or two and I could make out what she was saying, "...but she's just a kid...I need you with me...too dangerous..." Aunt Mel's voice was steady and calm, answering each of her friend's concerns one by one. The last thing I heard was "...don't worry, she'll be my responsibility". A moment later, they walked back into the room. Janice leaned against the fireplace while Aunt Mel sat down on the loveseat across from me. She quickly broke the awkward silence.
"Well, Carrie, I imagine you're wondering just what exactly's going on here."
I looked at her blankly and adjusted my glasses.
"Let me see if I can make any sense out of this whole thing. I guess I better start at the beginning. A little over a year ago a large stone was found on a small Greek island. A farmer came across it in one of his fields and nearly broke it in two with his plow. It turned out to be a very old, very important stone with lots of unusual symbols on it, symbols unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. Since my field of expertise is ancient languages, I was asked to work on the translation. Although I couldn't read most of it, I was able to figure out enough of it to make us - that is, Janice and I - think that what was written on the stone may have some connection with the same people who were written about on the Gabrielle Stele. That's the stone in the book you were looking at a little while ago."
"You mean..." I was trying hard to remember the name I'd seen in the book, "Ex-eena?"
"That's right," Aunt Mel smiled. "though it's pronounced Xena, like with a Z. She was a woman warrior and her companion's name was Gabrielle."
"Oh," I said, "the name in the title."
"Right again. Well, just before Christmas, we went to Greece, to that very same small island, called Armathia. A friend of ours had told us about some caves there that not too many people knew about and we just had a feeling that we might be able to find some other things there that would help us figure out what was written on the stone. We'd arranged for a crew to go with us and we brought along tents, food, water - all those kind of things. But before we able to get our camp set up, we found out that some kind of boundary dispute had broken out between Greece and Turkey over the islands in that area. Armathia was right in the middle. So, we were asked - forced, really - to leave before we could begin any of our work."
Her jaw clenched a little as she glanced at Janice.
"Janice and I came back here, waiting for the whole situation to calm down a little. Now, according to the wire we've just received from our friend Hafune, it seems like it has. Normally, we wouldn't necessarily have to rush right back, but it looks like other people have found out that there might be something on the island, too. So, it's important that we get there first, before anyone else has a chance to find whatever it is and take it someplace where we can't get to it."
"What is on the island?" I asked.
"We don't know for sure," Janice interjected, stepping around the loveseat to sit next to Aunt Mel. "Maybe nothing. But then again, maybe something so important that we can't afford not to go look for it."
"You see, Carrie, that's what Janice and I do. We look for old things that help give us an idea of what life was like a long, long time ago."
"Is that why you're never around at Christmas?" I hadn't meant the question to sound like an accusation, but I suppose it did.
Aunt Mel took a deep breath. "Yes, honey. That's why."
She dipped her head a little and looked me directly in the eyes.
"Does any of this make sense? Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"I understand," I said, trying not to let the discomfort and disappointment I was feeling seep into my voice. "It means that you and Janice need to go off somewhere and you'd like me to go back home." It suddenly hit me that the place I hadn't wanted to leave just the day before was now the last place I wanted to be.
Aunt Mel sat forward. "Well, yes, it does mean we need to go somewhere, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you need to go back to South Carolina." She looked over at Janice. "I'm going to call your daddy tonight and see what he thinks about you going on a little field trip with us, that is if you're interested."
"I could go with you?" I ventured hopefully.
"If your mama and daddy say it's okay."
My face brightened. I could already see myself wrapped in those long desert robes.
Janice spoke up again. "You're probably thinking that it will be lots of fun, and you're right, it will be. And exciting and exhausting and uncomfortable and maybe just a little dangerous. This won't be a vacation. You'll have to work right along with the rest of us. We'll be sleeping on the ground in tents and eating C-rations. There's no running water where we're going. That means baths will be few and far between, and as to other personal facilities, well, I think you get the idea."
"Janice," Aunt Mel chided gently, "you make it sound like a prison camp." She turned back to me. "It's not quite as bad as all that, but she is right about one thing. It won't be a picnic, and once we're there, there's no turning back. Not until we finish what we need to do."
They both looked at me expectantly.
"So what do you think?" Aunt Mel asked. "Are you up for it?"
I took a deep breath. "I'm up for it," I replied, suddenly feeling quite sure of myself, "after all, I am a Pappas."
Aunt Mel threw her head back and laughed at the same time Janice let out a small groan. "Great, another Pappas," she muttered to herself, "just what I need." But when I looked over at her, she gave me a tiny wink and that's when I began to think that Janice might just be more bark than bite.
Aunt Mel picked up her glass of lemonade. "To new discoveries," she said as she raised it in front of her.
"New discoveries," Janice echoed, and we all lifted our glasses high.
* * *
The wharf was buzzing with activity, with traders, vendors, sailors, passengers, and the usual collection of riffraff that always seemed to attach themselves to such places all contributing to the hubbub. Unnoticed, Xena and Gabrielle observed it all from an open walkway on the second floor of the mercantile exchange. But mostly, they watched as the last of the supplies were loaded onto a certain dilapidated ship.
"There he is, our one-eared friend." Xena nodded her head as an incredibly large, incredibly ugly man stepped out of the shadow of the quarter-deck and stood by the gangplank.
Gabrielle nodded. "Doesn't look like the sea air has improved his looks any."
"Listen," Xena said, turning to Gabrielle, "we're going to have to make our move pretty soon. Just about everything's been loaded and I can bet the captain's anxious to set sail. Now, you understand your part in the plan, right?"
"Of course," Gabrielle replied, catching Xena's arm. "But what if he doesn't come off the ship?"
"Oh, don't worry, he will. Remember how he bragged about never leaving a port without making sure he'd replenished his own personal supply of..." Xena held an imaginary glass to her lips and threw her head back.
"Ah," Gabrielle said, arching an eyebrow slightly.
"Well, I'm guessing he's on his way to do that now."
The two hooded figures made their way down from the walkway, Gabrielle to mingle among the vendor stalls and Xena to pay a surprise visit to an unsuspecting ship's cook.
Just as Xena had predicted, the one-eared man lumbered down the gangplank and into the sea of people. She followed him closely until he reached the outskirts of the wharf. Several streets later, he made a left turn down a narrow alley, unaware of the robed form behind him until he felt a sharp tap on his shoulder.
"What the..." but before he could get the words out, he was silenced by a quick, powerful punch. He sank to the ground. Xena looked down in disgust at the large, unconscious lump at her feet and fingered her dagger as anger and repulsion threatened to skew her original plan into one a bit more deadly. But instead, she dragged him to the farthest end of the alley, out of sight to the street, and tied his hands and feet tightly together. She then stuffed a rag roughly into his mouth. Satisfied that he was going to be silent and immobile for a long time, she resisted the urge to give him one final kick and headed back to the wharf and Gabrielle.
"I take it you took care of him," Gabrielle whispered over her shoulder as Xena came up behind her.
"Yeah, I took care of him." There was an edge to Xena's voice that made Gabrielle raise her eyebrows.
"I didn't kill him, if that's what you mean, though I would have done the world a favor if I had. He's just...incapacitated for a while. Long enough for our little plan to go into action. Come on, we've got to get to a place where we can see what's going on."
During the course of the next hour, it became obvious that something was amiss on the Aegeana Fox. Men began to line up along the ship's railing, looking out onto the wharf. A few of them ran down the gangplank into the crowd. Finally, the man Xena decided was the captain appeared at the top of the gangplank and began to pace back and forth. Several men ran up to him from the dock and gestured animatedly.
"Okay, so now they've figured out that the cook's gone AWOL," Gabrielle noted. "When do we make our move?"
"Not yet," Xena replied. "It's still too early for word to have gotten around that the ship might be needing a new cook. We've got to make it seem like we just heard about it in passing. Since the captain won't leave port without one, he's stuck here for a little while longer. We can wait. Here, let me look at you again."
Gabrielle threw back the hood and opened her robe to reveal a ragged shirt and torn, discolored trousers. Her boots were muddy and worn, her hair dirty and disheveled and her teeth stained black with a substance Xena had promised would eventually come out.
"Wonderful, absolutely wonderful," Xena said with a smirk. "You look just about as good as any cook's apprentice I've ever seen."
"Really?" Gabrielle replied brightly until the realization of Xena's true meaning sunk in. "Hey," she closed her robe with a jerk, "you don't exactly look like Miss Known World yourself, you know."
Xena opened her own robe and looked down at herself. "What? You don't think this is the height of fashion?" In the place of her usual leather and armor was a frayed tunic and coarse linen pantaloons, a faded bandanna hiding her long, black hair. She squinted one eye and gave Gabrielle a big, blackened smile.
"At least no one will mistake you for a Warrior Princess," Gabrielle grinned, attempting to smear just a little more dirt on Xena's face.
Xena grabbed her hand, the smile still in place. "That is the idea."
"And what's this about me being the cook's apprentice, huh? That would make you head cook, I suppose," Gabrielle said, as if the thought were completely ridiculous.
"Just exactly how many people do you think would buy it the other way around?" Xena retorted.
"All I can say is that if this little plan actually does work, I pity the men who have to eat your cooking."
"Why do you think I'm bringing you along? Anyway, the point of this whole thing is not so a ship load of slave traders can dine on gourmet cuisine, is it?"
"Well, we certainly don't have to worry about that with you as head cook, now, do we?" Gabrielle reached over and jabbed Xena playfully in the stomach.
"All right, all right," Xena conceded, but her attention was suddenly drawn back toward the ship. "Look," she said with a flick of her head. The captain was again at the gangplank, searching the crowd, rage evident on his face. He was speaking angrily to his first mate.
"I think it's time to make our introductions," Xena said, picking up the bag that lay at her feet. "Remember, let me do the talking - and stay close."
Xena pulled the hood tighter around her face and stooped slightly, throwing the bag over her shoulder. Gabrielle followed close behind, leaning hard on her staff. When they got to the ship, they stood there for a moment, watching the men run up and down the gangplank. Finally, Xena took a few steps forward and squinted her eyes as she looked up to where the captain stood. She began to speak in the crude, fragmented dialect of the northern regions, and even Gabrielle had to admit that the overall effect of her appearance and accent was quite convincing.
"I hear you be needin' a new cook on your ship," she called out, her voice husky and cracked.
The captain turned suddenly toward her and scowled.
"What do you want, woman?"
"I said, the word be out that you're needin' a new cook. I'm here to apply for the job."
"How do you know I need a cook, and what makes you think I'd hire you on even if I did?"
"I got ears. Your men been looking most of the morning for your cook, and I know you're not goin' anywhere without someone to fill your bellies once you get out to sea. I'm thinkin' that he must of got a better offer somewheres, or maybe you just don't pay enough. Now me, I don't ask for much, and I can cook the hide off a rat's tail and make it taste like ambrosia. It's simple business, it is. You need a cook to make use of your galley, and I need a galley to make use of my talent. What do you say, have we got a deal?"
The captain stared grimly at Xena for a long time. Finally, his first mate leaned over and said in a loud whisper, "if we don't make the pickup in three days, we'll lose our merchandise." The captain rolled his eyes and clenched his jaw.
"All right, woman, all right. But you better just go about your business and leave my crew alone. If I hear one word that you've been bothering them, and I think you know what I mean, I will personally escort you off this ship, whether we've reached land or not. You understand me?"
"Your crew leaves me alone and I'll do the same." Xena stared at the man and then bent her head toward Gabrielle. "Oh, and my mate here comes with me."
The captain crossed his arms and shook his head. "Oh, no. I'm not taking on two women. We have a cabin boy who can help you out just fine."
"Either she comes, or we both walk away right now. I guess it all depends on just how anxious you are to get on your way, don't it?"
"Damn it, woman." He let out an angry grunt and kicked the coarse, weather-beaten wood along the side of the ship. "And damn that one-eared, shifty-eyed, mush-headed, son-of-a harpy cook to Tartarus. If I ever get my hands on him, he'll wish he'd never..." He stopped and looked at Xena sharply. "All right, but I'm only paying wages for one of you. And you better both stay out of my way."
Xena walked up the plank with Gabrielle behind her. When they reached the captain, Xena stopped. "How many crew you got on board?"
"About twenty men," the captain replied roughly, "but in a few days we'll be taking on...passengers."
"Don't worry," the first mate added, giving Xena an amused smirk, "they'll be light eaters. The rest of us, though, we like our food hot and spicy and lots of it. Think you can manage that?"
Xena glared at him but finally nodded.
"All right," the captain growled, "let's get out of here. I'm sick to death of this port and if I never see it again, it will be too soon."
With that, he swung around and stormed off.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" the first mate sneered at Xena. "Galley's down below. That's where you'll bunk. There better be a hot meal ready for the crew at sunset, and remember, we like our grub to have a little punch."
"Oh, don't worry," Xena muttered under her breath as she and Gabrielle made their way below. "I think you can just about count on that."
* * *
We were halfway over the Atlantic Ocean when it dawned on me that I'd never been out of the United States before. In fact, I'd barely been out of South Carolina. And now, here I was, flying half-way around the world to take part in what was certainly the biggest adventure I'd ever been on or perhaps would ever be on again. My face had been plastered against the window since our take-off from Wagg's Field, and even though we had been flying over water for the past several hours - not an especially exciting view to a more seasoned traveler - I still couldn't bring myself to look away from the glinting, inky vastness below me.
Finally, I leaned back in my seat and looked across at Janice and Aunt Mel, who sat facing me. Janice was scribbling in her notebook and Aunt Mel was dabbing her forehead with her handkerchief, looking decidedly ill. She caught me staring at her and gave me a weak smile.
"Oh, don't mind me. I'm not a particularly good traveler that's all. I suppose that's rather funny considering how much traveling I do. All this bouncing and swaying makes me a little nauseous."
At that last statement, Janice suddenly looked up and grabbed Aunt Mel's hand, turning it palm upward, and pressed her thumb rather roughly down on a particular place on her wrist.
"Ow!" Aunt Mel cried, trying to pull her hand away. Janice held on firmly.
"I meant to tell you about this sooner, Mel, but forgot. Read about it in a book somewhere. It's called a pressure point. There's lots of them all over your body and each one has a certain thing, you know, illness or problem, that it corresponds to. This one on the wrist," she pressed it again, eliciting another painful response from Aunt Mel, "is suppose to help with motion sickness. Whenever you feel queasy, just press this spot right here and..."
But before Janice could inflict any more unpleasantness, Aunt Mel jerked her hand away and began to rub the area where a small bruise was already forming.
"Thank you very much for that useful piece of information," she said testily. "I am very happy to see that you have been enriching your mind with things of a more practical nature. In the future, however, it might be better if you withstand the temptation to demonstrate your new found knowledge on me."
Janice, who had already gone back to her notebook, looked up distractedly.
"Huh? Oh, sure. No problem. Glad I could help."
Aunt Mel gave a loud, exasperated sigh and glanced over at me. All I could think to do was shrug, which brought out a little laugh from Aunt Mel. She then closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the seat, unconsciously pressing her thumb against her other wrist. Janice continued her scribbling, pausing every now and then to thoughtfully stare out the window and bite the end of her pen. After a while, Aunt Mel sat up and, all previous irritation with Janice forgotten, looked over her friend's shoulder to the notebook she held in her lap.
"What are these letters?" she pointed at the paper with her finger. "Abbreviations?"
"Huh-uh. Initials," Janice replied. "In his wire, Hafune said that others were interested in Armathia. I was just trying to figure out who he might mean." She made a circle on the paper with her pen. "KS - Kenton Sedgwick. You know, from the British Museum."
"Sedgie?" Aunt Mel raised her eyebrows. "Wasn't he just offered a chair in archaeology at Oxford?"
"Yeah, I think I read something about that," Janice replied.
"Well, then," Aunt Mel continued, "I doubt very much he'd be interested in some old things in a cave."
Janice slapped her pen down and turned to face Aunt Mel. "Some old things in a cave?" she repeated incredulously, her voice notching up a tone or two. "Mel, do the Dead Sea Scrolls ring a bell? One of the most important archaeological finds of the century, and they were just some old things in a cave!"
"Well, excuse me for having such a ridiculous opinion," Aunt Mel replied, visibly offended.
"Mel, for the love of... you know I don't mean that your opinion is ridiculous. I just meant that whatever might be there could be tempting to all sorts of different people, Kenton Sedgwick being one of them."
"And all I meant was that he usually goes for the big things, major Egyptian artifacts - mummies, sarcophagi - that type of thing. Not what might be found in the caves of a small, remote Greek island."
"Well, he stays on my list," Janice retorted.
"Fine." Aunt Mel straightened out in her seat and crossed her arms firmly.
Suddenly there was silence. Not a light, friendly quietness, but a thick, stubborn silence which filled the space between them until I could almost cut it with a knife.
Seconds turned to minutes and the minutes seemed to stretch into eternity. Janice, scowling intently, had gone back to her list and Aunt Mel sat there sullenly, arms still crossed, staring straight ahead.
Finally, after what seemed like a very long time, Aunt Mel's demeanor began to soften and she looked at Janice out of the corner of her eye. She uncrossed her arms and sighed.
"Listen, I'm sorry. I guess it is your list and you can have whoever you want on it."
The scowl immediately dropped from Janice's face and she turned to Aunt Mel. "No, no, I'm sorry. Actually, you're probably right. I suppose he would consider this a bit beneath his dignity... and his reputation." She took her pen and crossed out the offending initials.
"But," Aunt Mel said, laying her hand on Janice's arm, "he would be wrong."
Janice smiled at Aunt Mel and gave her hand a pat. "Let's hope so."
I let out a sigh of relief. These two could bicker and make up faster than any two people I knew. Of course, the only other people I really knew were my parents, and sometimes, after they would bicker, the silence between them would last for days. I liked Janice and Aunt Mel's method much better.
"Now, who else do we have on the list?" Aunt Mel was again leaning over Janice's shoulder. "How about this one, EM?"
"Oh, " Janice replied, again circling the letters, "kind of a long shot, but that's Elliott March, from the Luzo Institute in Cairo."
"Oh, right." Aunt Mel thought for a moment. "Though, I think...that is if you don't mind my saying so...you might cross him off, too. From what I understand, he's straight as an arrow. Hardly takes credit for his own finds, much less anyone else's."
"You mean there are still a few of those out there?" Janice asked skeptically.
Janice stared at her list for a minute, then slowly and deliberately made another mark.
"CH," Aunt Mel whispered. "CH - I feel like I should know those initials."
"Charlie Howser," Janice said with a slight edge. "Not exactly a straight arrow."
"Charlie Howser? Wasn't he was your daddy's protege?" Aunt Mel asked.
Janice shot her a look.
"Well, I don't mean to imply anything. I just remembered you saying that he worked for your daddy, or something."
"He was Harry's assistant. He traveled with us for a while, but the kind of things he's into now he never learned from Harry."
"No, no, of course not," Aunt Mel replied softly. "Anyway, seems like you told me that he was strictly into fake artifacts?"
"He was. But I hear he's been nosing around some legit digs lately." There was total disgust in Janice's voice. "If he even so much as shows his face around any of my sites, I'll take that son-of-a..."
Aunt Mel quickly looked at me.
"Yes, yes," she interrupted, giving Janice an exaggerated nod in my direction, "I think we all know you'll be very UNHAPPY about it."
Janice looked askance at Aunt Mel, then skewed her mouth in understanding. "Oh, yes," she said, clearing her throat and winking at me slyly. "I'll be very unhappy about it. VERY unhappy. In fact, I'll be so unhappy that I might just have to..."
With that, she turned to Aunt Mel and began to poke and tickle her without pity. Aunt Mel could barely defend herself from the onslaught and was soon howling for mercy. I watched in amazement.
They both began to squeal and hoot as the tickle-fest escalated into a full-blown free-for-all. Soon, pillows, blankets and just about everything else within reach became playful weapons. I hung on tightly to my knapsack, afraid that any moment it, too, might be commandeered into the fray.
Finally, they both held up their hands, crying for a cease-fire. Sputtering and gasping, they would catch their breaths for a moment, look at each other and then dissolve into a heap of laughter all over again. I simply sat there, pondering the mysteries of adulthood and asking myself how two grown women could be reduced to such silliness. But it wasn't long before I, too, was doubled over with laughter, wiping my eyes and trying hard to regain some composure.
"Well," Aunt Mel said to Janice, finally catching her breath, "I hope that's the last we'll hear of Charlie Howser, if he's going to bring out that kind of reaction in you."
Janice let out another chuckle, but this time I thought I saw just the slightest furrow on her brow, and though I didn't realize it then, the silliness would soon be at an end. Soon, things would become very, very serious.
* * *
The ship glided smoothly out of the harbor and it wasn't until it took its first big plunge into open waters that every miserable, seasickening memory of every other sea voyage Gabrielle had been on suddenly came flooding over her. She immediately reached for her wrist as Xena had shown her, but Xena grabbed her arm first.
"No, wait," Xena said, reaching into her bag and pulling out a large, knotty bundle of gingeroot. "Try this instead. It will help with the seasickness, but won't numb your taste buds like the pressure point will. We don't want anymore raw squid incidents now, do we?"
Gabrielle shuddered and shook her head.
Xena carefully cut a small slice and pared off the coarse bark, giving Gabrielle the soft, juicy interior.
"Tuck this between your cheek and your gum and suck on it. Don't chew. Just bite down on it a little every once in a while to get the juices going again. It'll help your stomach stay where it belongs."
Gabrielle stuffed the gingeroot into her mouth and began sucking loudly. Xena smiled and gave her a quick pat on the cheek. Then her expression turned serious.
"Look, it won't do for the crew to know that the new cook's apprentice is prone to seasickness," Xena said, taking Gabrielle by the shoulders and looking her directly in the eyes. "If the gingeroot doesn't help, then use the wrist thing I showed you. But even if you're sicker than a dog, you've got to act like everything's fine. We can't afford to blow our cover, not until the time is right. It won't be easy, but if we're going to make sure that this is the last voyage this ship takes as a slaver, we've got to do it."
"I know," Gabrielle replied, sounding a bit miffed. "I'm the bard, remember? I'm the one who can do ten different characters if the story requires it. I think I can handle one simple disguise."
"I know you can. Listen, don't get me wrong, I think you're a great bard. I just wanted to remind you that this isn't something we can put away when we're tired of it. A lot of lives depend on our being able to pull this off."
Gabrielle riled slightly, but then dipped her head and looked at Xena suspiciously. "Hey, you seem a bit jumpy. What's really the matter? You're not afraid the crew won't like your cooking, are you?"
"No," Xena replied a little too quickly, then shook her head and exhaled a long, slow breath that made her cheeks puff out. "But I did tell the captain I could make ambrosia out of a rat's tail."
Gabrielle tried unsuccessfully to hide her smile. "Well, how much you want to wager that the captain hasn't the faintest idea what ambrosia tastes like. And since I don't see any rats...yet...I bet we can do something with this rice and," she started to rummage through the provisions stacked against the back wall of the galley, "these dried vegetables. And look, smoked lamb, and spices, lots of different kinds. And cornmeal and there's oil in those casks, and," she dipped her finger in a small crock and brought it to her lips, "hmmm, honey. There's lots of things we can make with all this stuff, we just have to..."
Xena turned her head suddenly and put a finger to her lips. A second later, she motioned Gabrielle toward the fire pit.
"I'm tellin' you to get that fire goin'," Xena said roughly, shooting a look toward Gabrielle. "This food won't cook itself now, will it?"
"No, ma'am," Gabrielle replied with an understanding nod. She quickly began to place the tinder in the pit, arranging it like she'd seen Xena do at more campfires than she could remember.
The door to the galley opened slowly with a creak and a head with brown, curly hair poked hesitantly in.
Xena spun around. "And who might you be?" she demanded in her best snarl.
The head flinched a little, but didn't move. "I...I'm suppose to see if you need any help." With that, the small intruder stepped into the galley. It was a boy, about six or seven Xena guessed. She and Gabrielle exchanged surprised looks.
"And do you have a name?" Xena asked again, this time in a gentler tone.
"Alexander," the boy answered softly. "But...everyone here just calls me Boy."
Xena fixed him with an appraising stare. He was thin and dirty and his eyes had a look of sadness and loss.
"Boy, huh? And you like bein' called Boy?"
"Yes, ma'am," he answered unenthusiastically, staring at the floor.
"I see." Xena stood with her hands on her hips, quickly sizing up the situation. "And I suppose you'll get into trouble if I says I have nothin' for you to do."
He continued to stare at the floor and made no reply.
"Uh-huh. Then we'd best find you some work."
Alexander looked up and met Xena's gaze but the expression on his face never changed.
"Okay, then, let's see..." Xena began to wander around the galley, at a loss as to what needed to be done next.
Without missing a beat, Gabrielle cleared her throat and pointed to a sack in the corner. "Them roots need scrapin' fore we can cook 'em."
"Roots it is, then," Xena said, producing a small blade and handing it to Alexander. She then proceeded to dump one of the sacks of tubers on the heavy, wooden table that served as cutting board and work space in the cramped area. Gabrielle's tinder began to smoke and before long, bright orange flames were licking around the black iron pot that she had filled with fresh water and hung on a hook over the fire. As soon as the water began to boil, into the pot went the roots, along with some dried vegetables and chunks of smoked lamb.
Gabrielle scurried around the galley as if she'd been born in one, trying as much as possible to give Xena clues as to what to put in next so that it would appear that she was the one in charge of the cooking. Often, Gabrielle would look over at Alexander only to find him intently working on whatever task they'd given him to do. Several times she made an attempt to pull him into a conversation and although she wasn't very successful, she did get him to smile once or twice. That small accomplishment warmed her heart.
"Now, it's cumin and thyme that you always be puttin' in your stew, eh?" Gabrielle asked, turning to Xena, "and, if I'm thinkin' right, it's this pepper here you use to give it a nice little kick."
Xena grabbed the spices and sprinkled a generous amount of each into the pot. She gave Gabrielle a grateful look. "You've got a good memory, you do. Someday you'll make a fine master cook, you will that."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, but acknowledged Xena's appreciation with a smile.
"Well, now we got to let the stew simmer in its juices for a while," Xena said at last. "Alex...uh, Boy, why don't you find the first mate and tell him supper'll be ready before they start the evening watch."
"Yes, ma'am." Almost as quickly as he'd come in, he was gone, his small footsteps fading up the stairs to the deck above.
Xena closed the door to the galley and slumped down on the bench by the table. Gabrielle sat down beside her.
"So, what do you think Alexander's story is? He's a sweet little kid, but so shy, and did you see the bruises on his arms and neck?"
"I saw them," Xena replied, a slight edge seeping into her voice. "And I bet I know exactly what his story is. He's not your normal cabin boy. They're usually much better fed than this one. He was probably picked up on some slaving run and the captain, or first mate, or someone decided to keep him on the ship."
"But what would they want him for? He's so scrawny. And they certainly aren't keeping him very healthy."
Xena shook her head at her friend's naiveté. "Gabrielle, there are many things that certain men might want a young boy for and none of them are very healthy."
Gabrielle sat and thought for a moment until she finally realized what Xena meant. "Oh, no, Xena, you don't mean..."
"Well, we've got to get him out of here. Right now. I mean, we can't just sit here and let him be..." Gabrielle started to get up but Xena grabbed her arm and forced her down.
"Look, I can't stand the thought of that anymore than you can, but we can't just go charging up there and risk losing the chance to save a lot of people for the sake of one small boy. He's survived this long, he'll be okay for another few days. We've got to stick with our plan."
"Oh, that's rich, coming from someone who lives to change plans in mid-stream," Gabrielle shot back.
"Gabrielle," Xena said sternly, "we'll save the boy. But you've got to be patient and not let your feelings get in the way of what we're here to do. Can you trust me on this?"
Gabrielle clenched her fist in anger. "Of course I trust you. You should know that by now. It's just that..." her shoulders began to sag slightly, "...that when I think about what he might have to go through the next few days, it makes me want to..."
Xena slid her arm around Gabrielle and gave a squeeze. "I know. If it were Solan, I'd rip every man here apart limb by limb. In fact, I still may. Just not quite yet." She stood up. "Come on. We've got some bread to make."
Gabrielle laid out the flour and the oil, but her mind was somewhere else and there was a new hardness to her expression. It had been for Xena's sake that she'd originally agreed to help put this slaving ship out of commission, but now, suddenly, it was personal.
Continued Part 2
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