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The fisherman Clyt had spoken of turned out to be the owner of an Egyptian square-sailed craft, built for river traffic on the Nile and altogether unsuited for navigation in open waters. The little boat tacked in endless zig and zags, traveling a distance a hundred times longer than the straight line of their sight to the Isle of Schiza. The trip took all of the afternoon, after a delayed late start bartering with a beast-master for the price of stabling Argo. Xena took extra time convincing the merchant of just what would happen to him if he failed to honor his agreement with her. They left Argo, happy to rest without a saddle on, in the private pen the alarmed beast-master reserved for his own handsome steed. The last they saw of Argo, she was munching on a late lunch, ignoring the moon eyes being made at her by the relocated stallion next door.
Thanks to Sibyl's medication, Gabrielle wasn't sea-sick much. But she was very quiet, considering her expressive nature. Letting the wind push the hair away from her face, her brow furrowed as she worked through her thoughts. She was trying to let things settle while, still keeping her wits chakram-sharp. She felt responsible for the earthquake, even though Clyt had assured her it would have happened anyway. But Gabrielle still thought she may have drawn the quake to Methoni, and so felt she was to blame for the town's suffering. She didn't know what to think about what had happened between she and Xena during the night. Most of all, she was having doubts about this wonderful new ability of hers ... how I can be both an empath and a bard...? Gabrielle had a lot on her mind.
Xena sat beside her, arms wrapped around the rudder. She was aware of her lover's pensive mood and wanted very much to be alone with her troubled lover. But they hadn't had an instant of privacy since meeting up with the attentive teenage acolyte, Clyt. Xena focused her pent-up energy on keeping the tightest line into the wind the small boat would take.
Their new companion sat on a bench directly in front of them, chatting amicably with the boat's owner through the long straight sails and helping to drag the spar back and forth on the tacks. In the prow, her hand cart rode upside down over their baggage, most of which was hers. Inside the imaginative young mind of Clyt, she was the loyal assistant of the two legendary women, a warrior princess and an empath bard... even if she was only taking them to their boat. Her actual travel plans were to be dropped off on Schiza, picked up by a merchant ship going north to Patrai and finally, to walk the long road back to Gaea's house before the start of the summer session. Sibyl had been crystal clear with her instructions to the over-enthusiastic acolyte.
For Xena and Gabrielle, most of the afternoon was a quite one of private thoughts, as the small boat beat into the warm Mediterranean wind.
On the northern side of Schiza, they found their ship behind a sandy cape that sheltered a small deep water anchor. Xena gripped the rudder tightly as she got a good look at the vessel, and a rush of emotion swept through her. It was a sleek, two-masted lateneer, rigged for sailing close to the wind, a ram sheathed in bronze rising like a claw out of it's prow. Running her eyes down the length of it and up into the rigging, Xena decided the beautiful little schooner more than evened the score with Sibyl over the issue of Clyt's annoyances.
They would travel fast, be very hard to catch, and need few hands to sail her. It was the type of ship she would have chosen for herself, early in her warlord days. She smiled wistfully, flooded with memories of the blue waters and the freedom. Memories that seemed to then take her by the neck and shake her brutally. ...my stupidity... the loss of her ship, the crucifixion of herself and her crew by the Roman legions, the guilt of her lone escape, and the ultimate cataclysm, the death of her first sapphist lover ... M'Lila... The deaths piled upon her heart, shrieking. Destruction massed heavily in her chest like the fiery breath of doom... then she exhaled forcefully, scattering it all on the wind as she looked at Gabrielle. Thoughtfully, her eyes traveled back up to the ship. These two things spoke clearly to her that her life had changed for the better. She had Gabrielle's love, and once again she would captain a fine vessel... For the blink of an eye, her face seemed to congest with tears. Then she broke into a strong and wide grin, thinking ...much better than that piece of work Ulysses loaned me...sailing that ship was like swimming an elephant through a sea of mud!
Clyt stood on the gunnel of the boat and watched the side of the schooner heave up and down alongside them. Hanging onto the rigging with a bony fist, she shouted "Hey, there...Ahoy, there...Ho, there! Is anybody there?" She turned back to the boat and shrugged. "Sibyl said there would be someone here to watch the ship. They're probably down below or in the aft cabin. I'll go check."
And before either Xena or Gabrielle could say Clytemnestra, or the fisherman could even think it, she had leaped into a cargo net that hung from the ship's side. Her scramble to the top was so fast she earned a raised eyebrow from both women. An instant later she was over the railing and gone from sight, her heels thumping the hollow deck. Then there was nothing.
Filling the silence, as she was sometimes prone to do, Gabrielle remarked, "Who would have thought? She's a monkey!"
But Xena's heart was suddenly beating very quickly, flooding her body with a fiery warning. Her breaths came short and fast. The sensation was like the return of a dear but difficult friend. Danger!
"Gabrielle, be quiet...Listen!" she hissed.
"I don't hear anything, Xena." Gabrielle whispered back.
Her teeth gleaming in a grimace, she spit the words out like watermelon seeds, "Right. Mighty quiet, for Clyt."
Gabrielle just looked at Xena, then away, rolling her eyes.
Xena motioned to Gabrielle and the fisherman to stay put, leaped across to the other ship, and scaled silently up to the railing.
In an unintentionally comic rendition of the warrior's action, Gabrielle motioned to the fisherman to stay put and, tying her staff onto her back, leaped into the netting, becoming instantly entangled in the salt hardened ropes.
Gaining the rail, Xena vaulted over easily and landing in a crouch, senses fully extended. Her eyes made hundreds of tiny movements within her perfectly still face. She heard nothing but the creaks and moans of the ship as it tipped back and forth over the swells. An iron lamp swung on a chain from the main mast like a pendulum marking time. She drew her sword, sensing the danger drawing near.
"Xena!" Gabrielle screamed from behind her, where she clutched the railing, with her arm "Look up!"
Xena's eyes snapped up into the rigging in time to track the leap of a robed man with a scimitar from where he had hidden behind a loose sail. She froze for a split instant of calm, then simply stepped aside to let the man crash into the railing. He, unfortunately, knocked Gabrielle right over the side and back into the netting.
The fisherman down below held out his hands uselessly to Gabrielle, as if to console her, then he patted his own cheeks as if consoling himself. Clearly unsure what to do, he paced back and forth on the tiny deck of his little boat.
Meanwhile, Xena was dealing neatly with her attacker, whose fighting style reflected some military training. Xena had a weak spot for rank and file soldiers, and looked for a way to knock him flat without hurting him too much. Then suddenly two bigger men charged out of the aft cabin and joined in the attack.
...now this is enough to get my juices flowing! She laughed with the sensual, maniacal joy she loved to express freely when she was fighting. It had a disabling effect on most men. And she enjoyed that very much. Spinning her sword in a two handed exchange designed to travel all over her body, she walked slowly towards them. Smiling, she allowed her hips to sway gently as the ringing steel cut circles through the air all around her.
Three scimitars sagged as the men's attention strayed to her body and away from her eyes. Then, like a cobra striking, her sword swept the blades out of all three hands, ending the stroke by severing the iron lantern's chain.
Snarling viciously, Xena picked up the chain, wrapped it around her fist and began to swing the lantern around her head. The first two got lantern prints on their faces from her first full swing, and flew limply into a pile of coiled ropes. The third one backed up again to the railing, where Gabrielle was again trying to leverage a leg up over the railing, a loop of the net hanging from her foot.
"Oh no you don't !" Gabrielle's hand shot up and caught the pirate by the collar, pulling him back off the rail. He fell struggling down into the water between the boats. But the effort had unbalanced her, and down she went too, with a howl of frustration.
The owner of the fishing boat suddenly decided he had discharged his obligation in full to these strange, violent women. From the ship's loading beam he attached a cargo hook to the axle of Clyt's cart, and then springing the counter weight, sent the thing careening up onto the deck of the ship. Ignoring Gabrielle, still dangling above in her web of netting, he unfurled his little sail and started pitching their bags up over the railing of the ship.
Meanwhile, Xena found herself being charged by one of the men that had risen from the pile of coiled ropes. Bellowing in rage, he was completely unaware of the movement of the loading beam behind him, or of the large iron ball of the counterweight that was about to careen into his right side. She smiled sweetly at him as he thundered towards her, half his face a bloody mosaic from the lantern's design.
When he was within striking distance and winding up dramatically for his mighty blow, she said earnestly, "If you get to shore, you really should consider a career change." She would have paid dinars to see the look again on his face as the iron ball swept him off the deck and into the sea. Turning with a sadistic leer to the second man just getting up, she laughed as he simply turned and jumped off the ship.
"All right, female! The fun stops right here!" a fourth jeered, emerging from the hatch below. He was dragging Clyt along with him, gagged and red-faced, the hook of a gaf held pressed into her throat.
Xena paused and appeared to stretch sinuously. "Really?" she asked archly, her face a coy mask, "I thought the fun was just beginning!" Her gorgeous face resolved into a malicious snarl. With a blur of her hand, she threw her chakram straight up the mainmast. The surprising blade traveled the length of the spar snipping tie downs, unfurling a sail, dropping it directly down onto the pirate's head, and knocking him cold.
Raising her hand, Xena casually seemed to snatch the chakram out of the thin air next to her head. The whole thing was over. Then Xena heard a muffled squawk coming from the side of the ship. Leaning over the rail, she found Gabrielle cocooned in the netting, her arms, legs and staff hopelessly entangled. Xena leaned over a little more and hauled the whole mess over the side, lowering it carefully onto the deck.
Clyt popped up at Xena's side with a loopy grin. "Wow, Xena! Jeeze, that was great! Boy, you're twice as good as Sibyl says you are! Wait till they hear about this, back at the Big House!"
It was right about then that Xena noticed the fisherman had taken full advantage of the wind at his back, and had pulled far away from the schooner. He seemed to be in a hurry to get home before sunset. Their baggage littered the deck. With an oath, she realized they were stuck with Clyt...of all the damn bad luck! ...well, the little monkey can keep Gabrielle out of the rigging...
"Hellooo... Xeeena?" Gabrielle sang out from inside the wad of netting on the deck, where her arm was nearly wrapped completely around her head, in a position that forced her to face the fact she needed a bath badly. "Are you just getting too weary of rescuing me to get this one finished up?" The glare she fetched Xena through the holes of the netting said she was in no mood for a witty reply.
A short while later, the ringleader joined his men on their swim for the Isle of Schiza, but not before he had been persuaded to explain he was actually a special forces soldier for the navy of the great Persian king, Cyrus. They were engaged in a campaign of acquisition, taking every seaworthy vessel they could find in an attempt to mass a fleet against Greece. They had overwhelmed the ship's loan caretaker, having sent him off in the ship's only dingy, only a short time before the women's arrival.
It was enough information to tell them that their voyage to Thera would be a difficult one, to avoid the building conflict along the southern coast. Xena sighed happily as she watched the men swim... a woman, a ship, a quest... life can't be all bad...
It was well after midnight before any of them even dreamed of catching their breath. Xena and Clyt were hours up in the rigging to replace the severed tie downs and to check lines and sails. With the Persians pirating any ship they could find, Xena needed to be sure of what they had before they pulled up anchor and risked the open water. They worked without resting, knowing they had to get away fast from the southern coast of Greece if they wanted to avoid the imminent conflict. After sunset, they worked by lamps and the light of the swelling moon until the earliest hours of morning.
To Xena's surprise Clyt proved to be a natural for the peculiar job of working suspended above the moving deck of a ship. She learned knots rapidly, memorizing and then reciting the steps, as her hands worked the rope. Most remarkable of all was her ability to move easily on the rope ladders and rigging, and soon she had reported and repaired numerous problems. She was obviously very proud of herself when Xena finally gave her a small complement or two.
Gabrielle also spent hours down in the hold with a lamp, checking water, supplies and ballast, and putting the kitchen and sleeping arrangements in order. She found a small store of arms, several dozen ceramic jugs, archer's equipment, and a large chest of jars with liquids she couldn't identify. She was surprised to find Xena's initials carved in the lid of the trunk, and realized this was one of her lover's chests from her room at Gaea's house.
Finally, when she was so sleepy she was nearly out on her feet, Gabrielle climbed the ladder to the stern deck to stand in the circle of lamplight around Xena, a wooden table, and the ship's wheel looming up beside them. Briefly, she studied the nautical chart Xena had weighted to the table, her hand resting on the warrior's back.
"Xena, one of your trunks from Gaea's is down in the hold."
"Really?" Xena asked, not raising her head from the chart, where she was drawing a line along the straight edge, her long fingers splayed along the ruler. "What's in it?"
"A bunch of glass bottles and sealed clay pots. That's it, besides some padding. There's also some weapons. You'll want to go take a look when you get a chance."
Xena looked up briefly, her smile flashing white and her eyes sparking, then she was back to her charting.
Gabrielle was too tired to ask about the mysterious trunk. "Xena, I've got to go to bed. How are we going to sleep? In shifts?"
"No, after tonight we'll just pull up the sails for the night and drift on the current. I'll wake up early in the mornings and take a reading off the stars before dawn. When there's wind, we'll sail at night by the moon. We'll need to keep a steady bearing southeast for awhile, to clear the coast. ... and the Persians."
Gabrielle looked up, seemed to sniff the air and said, "There's going to be some wind tonight, I think." She studied the warrior for a moment. "Xena, shouldn't we help fight the Persians? They've already taken Antioch, you know. Greece could be in great peril."
Xena looked up from her chart briefly. "I've never been a loyalist to Greece, Gabrielle."
"But Xena...they may need us. They may need you. And I'm holding you back, me and my problems!"
Xena stood up to her full height and looked down into Gabrielle's upturned face. It was a face Xena would probably always want to say yes to. Instead, she put her hands on her shoulders and said, "Gabrielle, no. Right now the most important thing is to get you to some help. We need to get to Thera, the sooner the better, so we can get to the master empath and tell him about what is happening. Until then, you...we are in no shape to be looking for any fights." Releasing the young woman, she stepped back and waited for the reaction. She was expecting something good, Gabrielle did not like being told no at all.
What she got instead was Gabrielle's sweet face twisted into a spasm of unexpected tears. Xena felt like the deck had given way beneath her feet, and rushed to fold Gabrielle in her arms and beg to know what was wrong...it's been a long way since Xena: Warrior Dominatrix... she thought wryly. Through the closer physical contact, she felt the depth of her lover's sadness and fear projecting in a soulful wave of tears... and realized that what Gabrielle feared most was holding Xena back with the sickness and destruction that went with her new empathic ability...of ultimately loosing Xena...
...When the sobs finally subsided, they were laying in their bunk. Xena, having failed to soothe Gabrielle's storm of despair, had picked her up in her arms and had taken her straight down to the aft cabin, cursing herself for not noticing how Gabrielle had run herself down today. Before they laid down, Xena urged her to gulp down some water with drops of Sibyl's tincture.
As if it was a year ago, she remembered how Gabrielle had started the day, heaving in the bushes and squatting in the spring. Grimacing with her cheek pressed into the top of Gabrielle's head, Xena noticed the Amazon staff laying on the floor by the bed. She realized that when the fear had overwhelmed her, Gabrielle had been without the staff, and resolved to keep a better eye on it in the future.
Gabrielle's head lay on the pillow of Xena's soft bosom, next to the beating of Xena's strong heart. The warmth and the nearness of the once evasive warrior finally enveloped her completely, and Gabrielle was herself once again, cooing and wriggling against Xena's body with pleasure. Gabrielle's teeth gleamed in a bashful grin up at Xena, before she dropped her face down into the warrior's cleavage and burrowed happily.
Then, a little more serious, she propped herself up on one elbow so she could look down at Xena. Their bed was flanked by nautical lanterns that stayed upright on a swivel as the ship moved. The swaying play of light and shadow crossed Xena's face like dark feathers fading into the tangled midnight of her hair. Her eyes were like dusky glass, watching Gabrielle watching her.
"You are so beautiful, Xena." Gabrielle whispered softly, musically.
Xena's features, composed one moment, had melted in the next. She wanted to pull Gabrielle back down to her, but she stopped herself, trying to remember the danger of being too close. The women watched each other in silence.
Then, biting her lip, Gabrielle put one finger to her own pulse and the other to Xena's. "Our hearts. They're beating together again..."
"Yes...they are...we are..." Xena, breathing harder and hopelessly lost in Gabrielle's eyes, almost wept with relief when she saw her lover's radiant face slowly drop down to her own. She kept her aching hands folded on her belly and watched the languid emerald eyes as they descended. Finally, closing her eyes, she simply opened her mouth to Gabrielle's and let herself pour out.
The infinite softness of that kiss seemed to blend their bodies through the link, as up through their hearts and throats they felt a flooding of souls into each other. It rose in them, it throbbed down the line of their spines, and it licked and aroused them. It fanned out through their bellies and it gathered in their wombs, and suddenly it erupted in a fluid birthing from their sexes. Crying out to each other through the kiss, Xena and Gabrielle arched in a strange climax of almost demented rapture. Shattered, they knew nothing more for long moments in the swaying bunk.
Xena was the first to return to any of her senses. The backs of her knees tingled painfully, and she could still feel a current coursing up and down her spine and into her sex. Realizing the danger, she rolled away as gently as she could from Gabrielle, who clung to her in a sleepy protest. As they separated, a static charge stung Xena's hand where it had last touched Gabrielle's own.
"Sleep, Gabrielle." She said, pulling the blankets over her and tucking her in. "I'll be right here." Gabrielle's eyes were still closed, so it wasn't much time at all before she was fully asleep and dreaming. Xena watched Gabrielle's face form into a series of expressions that played quickly across her features, joy, sorrow, joy, more joy...She picked up the staff from the floor beside the bed and laid it beside the sleeping empath. Chancing a touch, she smoothed Gabrielle's ginger hair away from her brow, and then softly she opened the hatch and stepped outside.
Where she found Clyt jumping back to get out of her way. "Boy, am I glad to see you come out of there! Is she all right?"
Xena couldn't decide whether to be annoyed or touched by Clyt's concern for Gabrielle. Trying hard to smooth her own rough edges tonight, she chose the latter. "She's fine. Were you worried?"
"Well, yeah, she was projecting so much even I could pick up a little-" She stopped abruptly. The blush wasn't as visible in the moonlight, but Xena knew it was there.
Just for the amusement, she summarized, "You knew we were together, and you were afraid we couldn't stop and you would have to interrupt us." Her left eyebrow rippled.
"After awhile, when I didn't hear anything, I couldn't decide what to do. Then you came out, thank the Goddess." Changing the subject, she said, "I got the anchor up like you said." Clyt nudged her sharply in the ribs with a bony elbow and grinned impishly. "Hey, watch this!"
She untied a long rope that hung from the main mast and pulled herself up hand over hand, to stand on the banister of the stern deck. Then, her small face frozen in an expression of child-like abandon, Clyt swung in a long arch that took her forward, clear across to the catwalk off the bow. With her swing rose the mainsail, billowing, the long spar dragging it rapidly upwards on the now well-oiled wooden pulleys. From the catwalk, she jumped down to the main deck. Then, with a cavalier flourish, she bowed deeply to Xena and dropped down through the hatch and into the hold.
...monkey... Xena mused, as she climbed the ordinary way back up to the stern deck. With a small smile of pleasure, she felt the ship's bow rise slightly as the wind began to catch in the sails. Taking the wheel in hand, she turned the schooner out of the sandy harbor and, by the light of the stars and the moon, she headed them out on a south east bearing.
She turned her attention as far from Gabrielle as she could get it, and onto the tricky business of navigating the convoluted and now dangerous coastal waters of southern Greece. Carefully, she charted the course for speed and stealth, using every current to her advantage. Thera lay many leagues away, in the Sea of Crete, the entrance of which was a narrowing of the seas between the Greek mainland, and the huge island of Crete itself. Staying as far away as possible from the southern coast, she selected a destination for their first leg of the journey: the tiny island Andikithira with it's small, shallow harbor used primarily by fisher folk. It lay in the widest breadth of open waters she could find, and they could stock fresh water and provisions there for the second leg to Thera. It would just have to do. Stretching her back and shoulders, she adjusted a few bones in her spine. Then, leaning against the table, hand on the ship's wheel, she allowed herself to relax for the first time since she had risen that morning, ages ago.
The ship's razor sharp prow began to slice the sea and the rigging stretched and creaked with the weight of the wind in the canvass. A falling star tracked their direction ahead, and the three quarter moon hung low in the southern night sky, illuminating the sea and Xena's eyes, clear and gray with determination.
Cyrus, King of Persia, tried to relax in his lavish quarters on the flagship of the Persian fleet. He fidgeted incessantly, his hands unable to leave things alone as he sat. The ship was filled with the sounds of getting underway, of orders shouted and answered, of running feet. His fleet had met with little organized resistance, as Ares had said it would. From Antioch to Rhodes, there had been nothing to conquer, really ...Brigands, fisher-folk, merchants... His face pinched with the memories of the smell they had left behind in his map room after their questionings. Now, their bodies dangled in the rigging as his banners of war and conquest. But Cyrus knew he now faced the Greeks. He had chosen a more cautious rout, charting a course penetrating toward the mainland under the cover of clusters of islands to the north.
Mechanically, from long habit, he paced exactly seven steps to the cabin door and swung it open it with a snap of his hand, grimacing as the door smacked the wall behind him. He was nervous today. Usually the door didn't bang the wall. Usually his timing was perfect. On the breezeway above the main deck, he stood characteristically rigid with his legs slightly spread, letting rest a hand on the jeweled dagger at his waist, as he surveyed the scene before him. The strange scene which still surprised him, even though he had seen it daily for over a month.
The ship was the innovation of a wealthy merchant from Cyprus, who wanted a war ship to protect his shipments, without paying the salaries of a couple hundred oarsmen and sailors. He had tried sail craft, but they failed when pirates attacked in galleys and rammed his warships on windless days. So the merchant had commissioned a shipbuilder to try something altogether new, with this bizarre ship as the result. It was the largest, most ponderous construction he had ever seen afloat. On the broad deck of the ship were three capstans yoked with six oxen each, turning one around each huge mast. They powered giant paddlewheels, three on each side of the ship. As a backup for speed and power, the ship also carried square-rigged sails, that alone were not enough to push the ship even a league in good wind. He had been told that half of the hold was a stable, full of stalls. He had chosen not to inspect that, personally. The other half housed sailors and soldiers, ready to board enemy ships after ramming. The ship's ram was a spiked tree trunk, armored in iron. Recently, they had actually put it completely through a hapless vessel, driven by the powerful paddle wheels. It's tip was presently occupied by the body of that ship's late captain.
Cyrus had taken the ship for himself when he heard of the luxurious amenities of the captain's suite. But the noise of the waterwheels bothered him a great deal at night, and the crew had to see to it that the deck was kept very clean to avoid unpleasant odors. He sniffed, then looked up into the rigging...time for some fresh bodies...Turning crisply, he walked back into his room, measuring his steps and snapping the door closed behind him.
To find Ares sprawled across one of his most opulent chairs, examining a small figurine. He lifted his head in profile to Cyrus and then looked at him out of the side of his eyes. "Why are we headed north?"
Cyrus never quite knew how he felt about the god just dropping in on him like this, his feelings were actually quite mixed. He answered carefully, explaining his strategy and watching the god handle the nude figurine.
When he had heard enough, Ares simply stood up and faced Cyrus. He smiled as the Persian King's eyes involuntarily traveled down his leather-clad body. Walking by Cyrus close enough to brush against him, he stepped up to the map table. "The Greeks know you are here. They have discovered your special forces." Ares moved slightly to look at Cyrus, his leather creaking. "You will loose time in the islands. Strike hard in their center! Set up a base here!" Cyrus' own dagger, removed from his person only moments ago, stabbed at a tiny dot just to the south of the mainland.
Cyrus had to bend down to see it, trying not to think about how close his face was to Ares' crotch. He wet his lips and sounded out the foreign word. "Andi...Andikithira...."
The dagger thudded into the fine wood of the table, spearing the tiny island. "That's right." Ares said, as he moved behind Cyrus, unfastening his leather pants.
Cyrus felt the god's hands around his waist, undoing his sash and his robes. He hurried to speak, while he still could. "But the Greek fleet will surely drop south from Athens to give chase to my advance forces, leaving the city undefended..."
"Why don't you just give me what I want, Cyrus?" the god asked frankly, now positioned to give Cyrus exactly what he wanted, very badly.
"Andikithira..." Cyrus moaned in surrender, feeling the full onslaught of the god's invasion "...as you wish...Ares." The king's head bowed before him.
Just as Cyrus had predicted, the Greek fleet of the Aegean left Athens and made it's way south on a sprint to intercept the recently discovered Persian advance. Each galley had three banks of oarsmen manning a forest of paddles. They were well fed and well trained for long and short runs. For this race of speed and endurance, half rested while half manned the oars. All knew their orders. They would row all through the night and day until they got to the waters north of Crete, then they would establish a defensive base on the strategically located island of Andikithira.
...And so little Andikithira found itself the target of three voyages. But as the infinitely small ships made their way imperceptibly upon the tiny blue bead of earth, chaotic winds were charting their own courses. The juggernaut growled and churned through the boundless distances of deep space, collecting the burning dust of comets as it went. A lone asteroid with the misfortune of lying in it's path vaporized instantly in the concussion of the first wave of it's charge...
Xena had a hunch they would see the outline of the island of Andikithira soon, and sent Clyt high up into the crow's nest on the main mast, with orders to shout down about anything she saw. Days had passed uneventfully, the lovers often getting a much needed rest in the shade, off the sails. Clyt seemed to have an endless series of tasks to perform to Xena's satisfaction, which she carried out with an eagerness that had begun to endear her to both women, in spite of her eccentricities. The young woman had the heart of an adventurer and, in her own way, was ready for just about anything.
Xena left the stern deck to look for Gabrielle, brooding on the changes in her lover. Through out the days of their journey the bard had been changing until now she seemed to be almost constantly in rapport with all the world around her. The back's of Xena's knees tended to itch around Gabrielle, and she emitted frequent sparks of electricity that made Xena frequently think twice before touching her casually.
On the other hand, being at sea and away from contact with the earth seemed to be actually better for Gabrielle, rather than worse. Clyt thought the ocean might be protecting the empath from feeling the effects of the cosmic storm on the earth itself.
Gabrielle was just enjoying the break from too many sensations, nausea, and emergencies.
Unfortunately, that left her to focus a substantial amount of empathic energy on Xena; she just couldn't seem to keep her hands off the warrior. As she had done before they were lovers, she would wrap her hand around Xena's arm briefly while they walked along, or lean against her when the ship listed...she was really good at it.
Any touches should have been kept as short as possible, but Xena had not been able to stay completely away from Gabrielle, either. It had been such a short time that she had been able to express her love for the bard fully, and she just couldn't put it all aside. The simple presence of her magical lover could sometimes be devastating to the warrior. They had been locked together on several occasions, in the thrall of a mindless rapport, forcefully broken apart by the mortified acolyte.
Gradually, the warrior had begun to think of these experiences with Gabrielle as if she was an anchor, or a tree root and she learned how to hang on to her own mind and awareness. The more they experimented with touching, the better she got at it. Her focus seemed to help Gabrielle stay out of the thrall too, and together they began to reclaim themselves in this new universe of ecstasy and soul-power.
The only drawback was that Gabrielle couldn't pleasure Xena without them both getting stuck in thrall again. Just that morning, the anchor imagery keeping her focused had dissolved abruptly, just as Gabrielle's fingers entered her for the first time in what had felt like centuries. Neither woman ever wanted Clyt to unstick them from that position again, and Xena had resolved herself to abstinence. For only a short time, of course.
Her thoughts lingering on their little experiments, Xena found Gabrielle spread out on her stomach, bootless, legs spread wide in the sun. Her head and shoulders were in the shade, and she was writing. As if stumbling onto a hidden treasure, Xena held her breath and watched. Gabrielle sometimes seemed to be acting out the characters in her writings even as they were born from her quill. Today, her clever hands seemed to conduct an invisible orchestra. That the bard was writing at all, was a very good sign.
Just noticing her, Gabrielle flipped her hair back over a shoulder and smiled warmly at the warrior. "Oh! Maybe you can help me, I'm trying to do a lyrical version of the 'Huckster of Crete', and I'm having a hard time thinking of something that rhymes with Huckster. Can you think of anything?"
Xena stretched out beside her, looked up toward the crow's nest, and grinned when she realized the view above was obstructed by the sailcloth. She turned her attention back to Gabrielle with a minute smile on her face, and stroking the soft hair, said, "You know... I can't even remember what your question was." Xena's hand took in the length of her spine in one long, slow caress. Through the fabric of her kilt, Xena spread her hand around the curve of Gabrielle's bottom.
Gabrielle let her head rest on a tanned arm and murmured, "Mmm, lover...I love your hands so much..."
Xena's heart ached, but she kept tight restraint over herself. Instead, under the iron fist of her own will and her own desire held in check, Xena was free to touch Gabrielle safely. As if from a distance, she watched her own hand expose the silky mounds of Gabrielle's tight bottom, where the sun caught the light fuzz of hair and frosted it with gold.
Gabrielle lay still and allowed Xena's tempered caresses. She tried not to clench onto the carnal yearnings; she felt the ache build and disperse, build and disperse.
Xena's hand, warmed in the sun, wandered slowly from the tail of Gabrielle's spine in a long soft stroke to the nub of her clitoris and back again. The path became slick with the warm repetitions, and Xena kept the soft massaging up for several long, long minutes. The heat between Gabrielle's legs became a slow burn, and Xena slipped inside her with the other hand.
Gabrielle groaned quietly and spread her feet apart on the deck, accepting anything the warrior could give her gratefully. She felt Xena's strength in the thrusts, and let that focus her, rather than the buzzing in ears. She pulled herself up to her knees, so she could more actively seek the warrior's thrusts, and concentrate on the beat they made together. Her head dipped in her passion as she felt her entire belly swell around her inner passage, tightening around the warriors fingers. When she finally came it was explosively, drenching the warrior's hands and gauntlets with her sweet gushing honey.
When Xena withdrew slowly, Gabrielle turned over onto her back, hand resting on her stomach, caressing her own bare abdomen and gazing at her lover with longing. "Isn't there anything I could do?" She asked plaintively.
"You can watch me, Gabrielle. You know you'd like that..." The warrior had a plan, clearly. Sitting back, she pulled off her breeches beneath the leather trews, and, reaching through the leather straps, she touched herself. All the emotional detachment had not kept her dry, and she felt giddy with lust for the bard as her hand found the deep, wet well of her own sex. She knew well what she was doing. She knew Gabrielle loved watching her masturbate. Once, on the road from Gaea's, Xena had done it in a public market, just to soften up her lover for later, when Xena got her alone. The look on the beautiful face of the strawberry blond had been enough to make her climax before anybody was the wiser.
That look was on Gabrielle's face, who was very aroused, again. The sight of her warrior in full armor touching herself was enough to make her dizzy. Her hands found their own way to the source of her trouble, between her legs.
Not to be outdone, Xena leaned back on spread knees and snatched up Gabrielle's staff. She lay it out in front of her and, taking it's top end, she rubbed it around her juicy opening, watching Gabrielle hungrily. Then her sex swallowed the staff, up to the leather grip. Xena laughed with the pleasure and the look on her lovers face.
The bard couldn't believe what the warrior was doing with her Amazon staff. The sight of Xena, long legs doubled back beneath her, both hands pumping the rod into the luscious sex that was hidden from her view by the leather straps...it was far more than she could bear for long. Her fingers ravished her clitoris and she stared helplessly.
They shared their climax, their bodies touching only in their imaginations.
Then Xena withdrew the staff and wiped it off on a piece of sailcloth, smiling, as Gabrielle sat up, adjusting her kilt and waistband, her hand lingering in the folds of her sex for a moment or two. Xena stood and helped her to her feet, returning the staff with a lecherous grin. "Well, anyway," Xena stated, casually, "I came down to tell you we should be arriving so-"
"Andikithira! Andikithira off the port bow! Land Hoooo! Hey, watch this!" Clyt's stunts had been the one thing that remained about her that was most annoying, aside from her phenomenal collection of meaningless information. Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other with Oh-No faces, then up with horror at the form of Clyt's backside, sliding down on the sailcloth. She flew off the spar and into Xena's arms, neat as you please.
Xena took one flat look down into the teenager's surprised face and handed her to Gabrielle. "Get out the weapons," the warrior ordered, "especially the bows and arrows. After that, Clyt, get back up in that damn crow's nest and don't come down again until I tell you. Coming, Gabrielle?" Xena was already halfway across the maindeck. Gabrielle dropped the teen to her feet and sent her running to the hold, before following Xena.
They sailed at the best speed Xena could conjure from the fine little ship, in case Xena didn't like what they saw in the entrance of the bay and decided to sail on by. She knew that once they were past the bottle neck and into the bay, they would be committed.
At the moment they cleared the northern point of the harbor, Gabrielle stood on the stern deck with Xena, staff in her hand, senses fully extended. She sniffed the wind and said with some authority, "Xena, I think the wind will hold in the bay for the rest of the afternoon."
Xena nodded as if that comment wasn't as remarkable as it was.
Gabrielle's new collection of talents included that of weather forecasting. She would lift her chin with her eyes closed and sort of sniff. Her predictions had been dead right every time. Xena appreciated the information, but also worried a little bit for Gabrielle whenever evidence of her new abilities surfaced.
They were standing very close together on the stern deck, near enough to feel each other's smallest movements, as the schooner flew before the wind into the entrance of the bay.
Clyt hailed them from above, "There's nothing at all afloat in the bay, Xena! It's all clear!"
Xena looked momentarily perplexed, then called back up, "Can you see the town or the docks?"
"Not yet, it's still behind a bend in the bay!"
Xena frowned, and made her decision. "All right! Heads up, Clyt, we're going in!" Then aside to Gabrielle, "Give me a hand, we're going to tack."
They turned quickly, Gabrielle running fore and helping drag back the spar in a now familiar drill. As they entered the bay, Xena watching for any activity but saw none on shore or water. Then, as they bent around the last bluff obscuring their view, Clyt suddenly came alive on her perch and yelled urgently, "Xena! Ships! A hundred ships!" An instant later, Xena and Gabrielle had their own view of the massive Greek fleet congesting the bay in front of a small and probably terrified fishing village.
"Hang on Clyt! We're coming about!"
"Wait!" Gabrielle pulled on Xena's arm, "You'd better look back behind us."
Xena's head spun around and saw what had drawn the bard's attention. The corsairs of the Persian fleet, emerging from behind the bluffs on the bay's southern point, were fanning out across the entrance of the bay. As she watched, a gargantuan flag ship rounded the point, giving her a good look at the strange paddle wheels powering it along, and a collection of bodies hung from various locations around the ship.
Xena growled in frustration, she hated traps. "All ahead, then!" she called out. "All ahead! I want to talk to the admiral of this Greek fleet."
When they pulled up alongside the massive galleon, Xena boarded the ship and requested an immediate audience with the admiral of the fleet, who she found out was named Croesus. She knew she was not the only visitor, the water around the ship was alive with the coming and going of small craft reporting to and from their central command. After a short wait, she was escorted by a lieutenant into small meeting chamber. There she was greeted by a man dressed for war in full armor. His first officer took up a position at the admiral's shoulder and watched every move that Xena made.
"It's only because they told me it was the infamous Warrior Princess that I agreed to see you at a time like this, with the corsairs of Persia massed outside the harbor. I prepare for war! Why do you want to see me?"
"Because I want to help. What are your plans?" Xena asked gravely.
"I will tell you that we attack immediately but my deployments are no business of yours! What help do you offer me?"
"Only this," the warrior stated evenly, "I can show you a way to wipe out the Persian fleet with minimal losses."
"By using the shape of the bay, the wind, and a weapon I possess that will render the Persian flagship helpless."
"Tell me how!" Croesus demanded. She began to outline her plan, but he cut her off with a wave of his hand. "Wait, tell this to them all."
He stood to his feet in a jerk and, grabbing Xena by the arm, pulled her through another door into an adjacent conference room. Here she found his officers gathered around a map of the bay, moving toy ships across it and arguing loudly. She stood behind Croesus, next to his lieutenant, who had not taken his eyes off of her even once. She looked at the man and nodded respectfully. He offered nothing in reply.
"Quiet!" Croesus commanded. The men silenced themselves. "This is Xena: Warrior Princess. You have all heard of her! She offer's us a strategy we have not considered. Hear her out!"
Stepping out from behind the admiral, Xena looked around the room, taking note of reactions as the awareness of her spread across the room. She held the eyes of one or two defiant-looking officers before striding up to the map table. Reaching down, her long fingers gathered in the toy Greek ships into a tight group at the narrows of the bay's entrance. "You mass here, in tight lines that stagger your positions. The Persian's are lured into the bottleneck, and you give way." Flattening her hand out over the Persian fleet, she pushed it into the bay. "Then, right about here where the bay curves, when the wind shifts, you turn the galleons and attack. Their front line will have narrowed, and their sails will loose wind momentarily. Your charge will dislodge their front lines push them back onto their own rear guard. In the narrows you will be able to wipe them out completely."
"And where do you fit in with all this Xena?" One of the officers asked suspiciously.
"I will remove the Persian flagship." A single long finger detached one ship and moved it slowly through the disorganized Persian lines toward the large toy ship representing the King's vessel.
"How? You have just a schooner."
"It will be enough. How I do it is my business."
Croesus pondered the strategy and said, "The weakest point is the wind. What if it doesn't turn?"
Outside the cabin, a ship's bell tolled the hour. Xena stood up straight and looked confidently down at the men bent over the map table, "I have a way of knowing exactly when the wind will turn."
There was a howl of protest in the room. "Preposterous! Admiral, I object to this woman being allowed into our war room with this insane waste of time!" Many of the men stood back from the table with looks of hostility openly displayed on their faces.
"Wait!" Xena called out. She walked to the windows along the west side of the room and flung their shutters open. "I will prove it to you! I know when the wind will shift today! Look! The wind has been from the east all day, but is about to shift west. You will feel it blow through these windows!"
An awkward silence filled the room, as men tried to decide whether they would wait or not, then they all felt the breath of a salty breeze curl softly through the room. It grew until it lifted their hair and the cloth of their clothing. The men murmured in surprise and then, gradually, the murmur took on a note of excitement. Very soon, she had the attentive regard of every man present.
"Good!" She smiled and looked at Croesus, who was grinning back. His first officer also had a respectful nod to offer. "Let's get going... there's going to be a shift in the wind in about three candlemarks..."
It worked." Xena said quietly aside to Gabrielle when she returned to the stern deck of the schooner. They were pulling slowly away from the Greek warship. "Though it was almost too late when you rang the bell."
"Hey, Xena. It's the best I can do. It's not as if I can conjure the wind, you know."
"Well, my magical bard, next time just see what you can do, all right?" The warrior reached beneath the brown hem of the bard's kilt and patted bare skin. Before removing her hand, she added a sharp slap just for fun. She was rewarded with the sting of a firm electrical shock that ended up leaving her fingers numb for a minute or two. "Ow, hey!"
"Serves you right, out in front of the entire Greek navy," Gabrielle remarked dryly.
After over a week at sea with little to do, the next three hours were a big change of pace for the schooner's little crew. Clyt and Gabrielle loaded up on more supplies and water, while Xena spent time in the hold, working secretively on a project. Gabrielle knew it had something to do with the chest of jars and liquids she had found earlier.
Meanwhile, all around them, the Greek navy had pulled anchor and the huge galleons, filled with men, were slowly forming into battle groups. Each galleon had a drummer marking the beats for the oarsmen. The pounding created a dissonance that thumped in Gabrielle's chest and made her a little queasy.
From above, she watched the tall warrior emerge from the hold, put down a couple of the large clay jugs and wipe her hands, and she tried to think of her own preparation for the battle ahead. She was no stranger to fighting, but she had no idea what to expect with her heightened awareness in a sea battle.
The warrior's scowl changed to a smile when she saw Gabrielle watching her. Xena climbed up to the stern deck to stand beside her lover. "All done with the provisions?"
"Yep, all done." Gabrielle took Xena's hand and asked, "Will we be fighting directly, hand to hand?"
"I don't think so. The idea is to strike at the flag ship and keep on going." The warrior replied, "Why?"
"I think if I fight, I may get... feedback... I may actually feel another's pain. Especially if I cause it."
"Oh. I'll keep us clear so they can't board us, OK?" She took Gabrielle's face in her hand and kissed the sweet lips tenderly, just to remind the bard of who loved her.
"Mmm. Thanks, I can always use one of those." Gabrielle smacked her lips, then asked, "Have you seen Clyt, lately?"
Xena paused and looked around, frowning. "Can't say I have. Hmmm..."
"Hey guys!" They both jumped. "Watch this!" Clyt, her foot in the cargo hook, soared out over the water and then swung back over the main deck, the counter weight careening. Looming up toward them, she forced them to step backward, nearly upsetting the map table.
"Oops! Sorry!" She leaped off the hook and let it swing back out.
"Xena looked at the young woman sternly. She had tied a black scarf around her head, and was sporting a scimitar shoved through a crimson sash tied around her skinny waist. She was having altogether too much fun for Xena.
"Gimme that." Xena growled, and reaching for the scimitar, twisted it sharply, causing it to slice through Clyt's sash, which floated sadly to the deck, along with some of Clyt's favorite childhood fantasies. "You're an acolyte of Gaea, not some piece of fluff on her way to a costume party! Many people are going to die today! You may die, today! This is real!"
Gabrielle, who remembered all too well the sting of being reprimanded by Xena, put her hand on the warrior, who was nearly shaking Clyt's teeth loose, and said, "OK, Xena. I think she heard you."
Xena stopped and looked at Clyt's young face, and saw tears pooling in the extraordinary eyes of amber and blue. Instantly sorry, she added something to soften the blow.
"As much as I hate to admit it, that stunt you just pulled has given me an idea. It may be a big help today." It was the best she could do. The young woman needed to learn some hard lessons, as do all innocents, on their way to becoming wise.
Clyt's face brightened, and she seemed to pull herself together. In fact, she practically stood at attention. And, most of all, she said nothing, which spoke volumes. Xena gave her a thin grin, patted her arm and turned to Gabrielle almost wearily.
"Ok, here's the plan..." She said, quietly.
Like a mammoth heart stopping, the drums of the Greeks galleons ceased their beating. Across the straight of the bay's narrows, the great fleet was strung like strings of beads, it's command ship like a jewel just behind the second line, center.
Keeping them well back behind the galleons, Xena held the schooner aligned to the wind with only the smallest sails unfurled. Gabrielle stood next to the main spar, ready to tack, periodically lifting her face to taste the wind, and trying to look steady for Clyt's benefit. Clyt herself was nested up on the main mast with one of her gadgets, a seeing-tube with polished glass lenses set inside that cast her vision out longer distances. Ironically... she had pointed out now, three times actually... the tube was a Persian innovation.
All eyes looked east. After a long hot wait, they were not disappointed to see first one, then many enemy corsairs take up a formation in the center of the bay's entrance. A fully formed battle group moved to the right flank, and another to the left. After that, it became difficult to tell just how many battle groups joined the field, and the Greeks began to comprehend the true size of the Persian fleet. Finally, the immense flagship, like a floating mountain, lumbered into an observation position just offshore.
"Looks like they are about done getting set up, Xena!" Clyt called down, face seemingly wrapped around the end of her seeing-tube. "Gods, there's a lot more of them than us! Flagship's off the south shore!"
"Gabrielle! You picking up anything yet?" Xena called across to her.
"Not yet, Xena! I told you I'll call out when I feel it! Your distracting me!"
"All right, all right." Xena answered back in a voice too low for Gabrielle to hear, in a tone that made that all for the best. "We are so touchy..."
Another long moment passed, then Clyt's voice, squeaking with excitement, shouted, "They're coming! They're coming together... and towards us! I can see the foam off their bows! They're coming faster! Here they come!"
"All right, Clyt! You can stop reporting! Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle just glared at her and wrapped her hands around a rope up the main mast.
"Forget I said anything! Clyt! Time for another report!"
"They are getting closer fast, I think they are lining up to ram the first line. Boy, those things have a lot of sails! How do they rig those?"
"Hush! Watch for the red flag!" Xena snapped.
Clyt kept her seeing-tube trained on the Greek command ship. "There it goes!"
"Now, Gabrielle!" Xena cried.
Gabrielle pulled the line and both the fore and mainsails dropped, unfurling on their spars. Quickly, Gabrielle looped the line around a tether and fastened it line down. Then, she ran forward to the bow, along the catwalk, and prepared a giant spinnacker for unfurling. The schooner rose in the water as the sails filled with the brisk wind and soon they were moving very quickly.
When the red flag had been seen across the Greek lines, the drums awoke and began to set the timing for a distinctly Greek maneuver. On each galleon, seventy five oarsmen on the right pushed forward, while seventy five oarsmen on the left pulled backward. This caused the big ship to literally spin on the water's surface. Then, with a single boom of the huge drums, and in a single unified pull, the fleet surged forward, gathering speed on a sprint for the bay's interior.
The Persians corsairs seemed to leap after them, already sailing with a strong wind.
The view from the schooner was daunting, two massive war fleets at a dead run straight for their position. But very soon, Xena intended for them to be long gone. She locked the ship's wheel on its course, leaped off down to the main deck below, and threw back the tarp from her collection of clay jugs.
From above, Clyt watched curiously. "What are you going to do, Xena?" she asked. Gabrielle paused from her attention to the wind to smile softly....where have I heard that before...?
"Using an old weapon with a new technique." She replied, absently, gesturing to the jugs, "This is Greek fire, it sticks and burns. The recipe's a long lost secret that I happen to know. Come on down here from the nest, Clyt. I've got a job for you."
Eagerly, she climbed down to stand beside Xena. "Tie the ropes to the jug handles, then make the other ends into loops for the cargo hook. Then get ready to swing them out."
"Out to where?" Clyt questioned, confused.
"The wheels on the sides of the flag ship!" Xena replied over her shoulder, as if that was obvious. Stalking back to the stern deck, she shouted back over her shoulder. "Gabrielle? You got anything for me?"
"Not a thing, but maybe something...I'm not sure yet. Xena, shush."
Xena never would have thought she'd live long enough to be shushed by Gabrielle. She waited patiently, then impatiently, then, "Gabrielle! I need the wind! Now!"
"Xena! I can't work under pressure like this with your distractions on top of everything else! I wasn't born with these cursed abilities, unlike you, who seem to be all the god's gift to the world! And just because you're some kind of strategy genius in sea battles doesn't mean you get to be such a big-" She stopped. Clyt's mouth hung open.
It was as if a light went on within her. She took a deep breath of the salty air and smiled up at Xena. "The wind's going to switch in about a minute."
Xena smiled back, recaptured by Gabrielle in the unlikeliest of moments. "You know what to do, Gabby."
Gabrielle did, unfurling the huge, red-striped spinnaker. It was both a signal for the Greek fleet, and a key component of their own plan. The easily seen spinnaker was a signal to the galleons that the wind was about to change. The oars rose from the water and the bows of the great ships dipped down with the slowing. Behind them, the Persians loomed closer.
Xena turned until the sails flapped. "Tack right!" she shouted, spinning the ship's wheel. Gabrielle ran across the deck, dragging the sail behind her.
As the mainsail gradually turned the schooner, the spinnaker sail picked up the new wind and heeled them over to port, sharply. Now the schooner sailed in earnest, almost flying from swell to swell. The spray off the bow drenched Gabrielle, where she tended the huge striped sail, arched out so deeply it nearly touched the water's surface.
All the Greek navy could see what happened to the Persian's magnificent fleet next, as the elaborate sails collapsed in the new wind, and the massive charge came helplessly to a halt.
For an instant, all the world held it's breath and shivered as thousands of destinies shifted in the fickle afternoon breezes of that Mediterranean afternoon.
Then the Greek drums boomed as one, and Greek oars dipped by the thousands into the bay. They charged the remaining distance as if in a race to the finish, and crashed into the Persian lines, ramming the floundering corsairs. A few Persian ships managed to adjust their sails and tried to turn back into their own rear guard, which only broke apart the fleet's rear formation, some even ramming their own ships. Galleons began picking off the corsairs, one by one.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle was wedged against the catwalk rail with both legs braced, drenched, a spinnaker line wrapped tightly around her arm. She watched the Greek galleons alongside as they plowed into the enemy ships and shuddered at the faint sounds of shouts and screams. Another wave broke across the bow, pulling at her clothes as it washed over her. She shook her head, dizzy. The force of the next one punched her feet loose from the rail and skidded her back several paces on the catwalk. She looped the end of the spinnaker line around a tether, around the railing, and finally around herself several times, cinching it tight. The schooner was flying now, and the battle flashed by in raging glimpses. She saw decks boiling with fighting men, heads bobbing and arms waving in the water...by the hundreds...The waves seemed to claim her as well as them, and she felt herself falling...drowning...
Leaving the Greek fleet behind, Xena looked ahead to the flagship itself, the rigging alive with sailors frantically trying to turn the behemoth around and catch the new wind in it's inadequate sails. Xena shouted down to Clyt, "Load the cargo beam up with a jug! Be ready to swing it into the side of that thing when I tell you to. Remember to aim for the wheels!" She picked up a bow and a quiver of arrows, fitted with incendiary tips, and lit a torch beside the stern deck railing.
Clyt nodded and looped the end of the jug's tether onto the hook of the cargo beam, then dragged it back to the utmost left of the ship. The counterweight swung fore and held there, waiting.
Xena laughed heartily as she brought the schooner in line to pass alongside the flag ship, still sporting it's corpse ornaments. The outcome of the battle was assured.
King Cyrus paced the breezeway outside his quarters, furious. He was in a rage, but there was no one to kill that he didn't need to get out of this cursed bay and back to Persia. He knew, in these minutes of impossible defeat, that he had been used by Ares as cruelly as he had used many of his own subjects. The justice of the moment, however, escaped him. He paced back and forth, counting fifty steps either way. On one end he stopped, observing a small wind craft approach. It resembled a pleasure craft he once owned.
No words could describe his shock when he realized the entire craft was crewed by females. Outraged, he climbed down a ladder off the end of the breezeway, ran along the side, and jumped down to a service platform above a churning paddlewheel. To his horror, the women sail the craft with some skill. A rope with a crock on the end swung out and crashed harmlessly into the paddlewheel below him, splashing the platform with some sort of fragrant liquid. He laughed and shouted, "You'll have to throw in more than your kitchen crockery and perfume bottles to stop this engine, silly females!" But they broke jar after jar into the paddlewheels as they passed.
He watched a woman on the retreating stern deck, a raven-haired beauty with the frank regard of a man. She was outlandishly dressed in armor. He gestured obscenely at her, in a universal insult to her womanhood, and laughed as she raised her bow and aimed a flaming arrow.
His laughter died quickly when flames erupted along the port side of the ship, as the warrior woman shot arrow after arrow, sparking clouds of flame from the paddlewheels. He was forced to leap to safety onto the deck below the platform, straight into a manure collection bin, in an incident that later went down into the Persian history books as the very moment Cyrus sanity began to slip away from him.
In short minutes, all three paddlewheels were consumed and had spun off, flaming into the water. The Persian flag ship was completely disabled, only able to paddle on one side, in circles. The remaining fires were small enough to put out, but the enormous ship's days at sea were over. As was Persia's sea campaign in the Mediterranean.
Xena turned away from her observations of the Greek victory, and headed the schooner straight on out to sea, in the last and most important maneuver of her plan. She turned toward what she thought was her next task, the final voyage to Thera. But there would be something else to do, as it turned out.
Clyt's voice rang out like an alarm. "Xena! It's Gabrielle! You'd better come down here quick!"
Shocked into motion, Xena locked the wheel and ran to the front of the ship, to find Gabrielle lashed to the catwalk like a tragic figurehead, unconscious. Xena checked her pulse and breathing, talking to herself in harsh whispers..."she's breathing and her pulse is good...no apparent injuries..." Slashing the spinnaker loose to fall billowing into the sea, Xena freed Gabrielle and carried her quickly into their cabin.
Inside the little wooden room, the sounds of the war and the ocean shut away, Xena could hear her own ragged breathing.
Clyt was right beside her. "I found her like that, I don't know what happened, she seemed all right when we were sailing past the Greek lines..."
Xena tried to keep her composure, but the sight of Gabrielle's pale face so still was like a mask out of her worst nightmare. She took a breath and measured out her phrases, as she made her way to their bunk, her eyes on her beloved's slack face. "She was worried about a feedback problem during the battle, like an echo of pain or death. Could something like that have done this?" She settled Gabrielle down, laid her staff down beside her, and pulled some blankets over her body ...she seems so cold... Xena tried not to scream, waiting for Clyt to say something.
"Well, I guess it is possible, in theory, with this weird celestial weather, anything's possible. It sounds a little like what we call kickback or a residue that can be sensed by the empath after a violent event has happened. I've never heard of something like this, maybe a headache, but..." Clyt's scholarly enthusiasm died out all on it's own, a rarity. "But I do know she's in terrible shock and she was affected by something in the battle, because she was fine before. What are we going to do?"
"Well, I suppose we'll sail to Thera, and take care of her. Got any better ideas?" Xena spit through grit teeth.
Somehow, Clyt knew that her days were over, of being a girl. She could feel a strength inside that she knew was her own maturity. "No, sorry Xena. I don't. Well, what's first for me to do?"
"You're going to the stern deck and in a minute I'm going to teach you how to keep the ship on a simple heading."
...ayiyiyiyi!!! Clyt trilled in her heart, but to her credit, all she did was leave the room quietly.
...the little ship sailed by day and night now in an increasingly desperate race to reach the island of Thera, and the hoped for help from the empathic master. As the days passed, Gabrielle never awakened for long, only to relieve herself and drink fluids. And then, in the last two days before their arrival on Thera, she lapsed into a coma.
Xena sat or laid with her constantly, leaving only to check the charts and their headings. It was a dark time in the warrior's soul.
Clyt was, for the first time, learning what being a hero was really all about. Xena depended on her completely, and Clyt never let her down. She slept in intervals of no more than a half candlemark at a time, with a clever sand timer rigged to drop a cup of sea water on her head if she didn't wake up. She got dunked a lot, in the marathon sail, but she kept them on course. And there were lovely showers of shooting stars at night to keep her entertained.
...Ares pouted, his fun ruined. He soared upward from the scene of nautical devastation, high enough to see Xena's escape from his trap. He bore down to her craft, intending to wipe her out with his own hand, when he was brought up short by Zeus.
"Are you paying attention to what's been going on up there? Do you have any idea at all that we are, gods and mortals alike, about to be swept away on a cosmic tidal wave? Don't you read your bulletins? I work damn hard on those bulletins, moon after moon, just so my own son can wipe his fancy ass with them, but do you take even the time to read your toilet paper? No! Why do I bother. Just get home, right now, damn it."
Zeus vanished in a snappy lightening flash. Ares followed him with a twirl of his sword that kicked up a nasty squall for Clyt to deal with.
...nasty squalls were kicking up in lots of places. In the heavens above, the first fingers of the disturbance began to swirl through earth's galaxy, sending tiny meteors out before it to fall flaming into the earth's atmosphere...
~~~End of Part Two~~~
Continued - Part 3