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The Long Way Home
We changed planes in Algiers and it was almost midnight before we finally touched down at the small, sandy airstrip just outside what is now Denizli in western Turkey. It was beginning to dawn on me what Janice had meant when she said this wasn't going to be a vacation. I was tired, sore and hungry and sometime during the last leg of the chartered flight, one of the other passengers, a rather large Frenchman, accidentally spilled some kind of dark, sticky liquid in my hair and down the front of my jacket. The man apologized profusely in French and Aunt Mel did her best to clean up the mess, but when we stepped off the plane I was so uncomfortable that all I could think of was how wonderful dinner and a hot bath would feel. I didn't dare ask if that was in the plan, but the thought that it might not be made me want to cry.
Hafune met us at the airstrip. He was a small man, slightly taller than Janice, but thinner, and spoke with a heavy accent. His face wore an incessant grin, showing off worn, yellow teeth and his breath had a pungent odor to it that reminded me of dirty gym socks on a hot, humid South Carolina day. It became my goal to stand as far as possible out of the direct line of his seemingly endless airflow. He was overjoyed to see Janice and Aunt Mel and before long, had thrown all of our bags into the back of the muddy army surplus truck he had arrived in. We all squeezed into the front, Hafune behind the wheel, Janice in the middle and Aunt Mel next to her. Being the smallest, I had to sit on Aunt Mel's lap. It was a cramped, awkward situation and my biggest challenge was to keep from being knocked senseless as my head smashed against the top of the cab whenever the truck would hit a particularly deep rut in the road.
"So, Missy Janice, you excited about island?" Hafune asked as he ground the gears and headed out into the darkness.
"Uh-huh," Janice responded, stifling a yawn. "I don't suppose you know if any of the camp if still there."
"Oh, yes, Missy, I went back not long ago. Camp is still there. And caves are still there."
"The caves are still there, huh?" Janice gave him an amused look. "That's comforting."
"Oh yes, Missy. I look in caves."
Janice suddenly sat up a little straighter and glanced at Aunt Mel.
"And did you find anything?"
"Oh yes, Missy. Many things. You wait, Missy, you will like what is in caves."
Janice turned to the small man, her eyes now sharp and alert. "Well, tell me, Hafune. What did you find?"
"Lots of things, Missy." He pulled out a cigarette and lit it as Janice and Aunt Mel tried to coax more information from him. "You will see," was all he would say. Then he let loose with high-pitched cackle that gave me a shiver down the length of my spine in spite of the heat which hung oppressively around us.
Hafune had made arrangements for us to spend the night at the house of his cousin, a lesser magistrate in a small village about an hour's drive from the airstrip. His cousin's house was a low, cement structure and when we arrived, a woman wearing a long, opaque veil met us at the door. She silently took our bags and escorted us into a small, unadorned room. On the floor were two mattresses and I gathered that these were to be our beds for the night. Just before the woman left, Aunt Mel spoke to her in the same language I'd heard Hafune speak to his cousin. The woman answered her and then walked out. Aunt Mel began to rummage in her bag, shoving several items into her pants pocket. She then straightened up and looked at me.
"Come on, Carrie."
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"Just outside for a minute."
She led me outside and around to the back of the house where there was a water spigot with a long handle attached to it. She gave the handle a few good pumps and finally, water began to trickle into a bucket beneath the spout. When it was about half full, she turned to me and began to take off my jacket, talking in a low voice.
"Here, honey, bend over a little. I'm going to wash your hair and see if we can't get some of that sticky mess out of it. We can't use up too much water, but I think this will do."
She poured just enough water over my head to get my hair wet, then pulled a bar of soap out of her pocket. She worked the bar into a good lather and her long, strong fingers began to massage my hair and scalp. It wasn't quite the hot bath I'd had imagined, but the tepid water was refreshing, and it felt good to get the layer of grit and grime out of my hair and off my face. When she was satisfied with her work, she poured most of the remaining water over my head until all the lather had been rinsed away. She then handed me a small, coarse towel and while I dried off, she used the rest of the water to clean the front of my jacket.
When we returned to the room, Janice was sitting cross-legged on one of the mattresses, a tray filled with a variety of fruits and bread in front of her.
"Dinner is served," she said with a tired smile. We joined her at the simple, makeshift buffet.
"Tomorrow, or I guess I should say later today, Hafune will take us to Datca," Janice said between bites, "and from there, we'll charter a fishing boat to the island. He told me that the tents are still there, we just need to take in a supply of drinking water and provisions."
Aunt Mel looked at her steadily. "Did he say anything more about what he found in the caves?"
"All I could get from him is that there are several long, round containers of some sort, made of stone or clay."
Janice's eyes began to light up, the only thing that betrayed her growing excitement.
"Um-hm. Containers, Mel. Long, round containers."
"Now, Janice," Aunt Mel looked at her cautiously, "don't count those chickens yet. Long, round containers can hold any number of things besides scrolls."
"I know," Janice replied, "but that is what we're looking for, isn't it? I mean, it's what we expect to find."
"Well, yes, what we hope to find, if we find anything."
Aunt Mel was trying to be the voice of reason, but her eyes had caught some of the excitement, too.
After a while, there was a soft knock on the door and Aunt Mel answered with what I assumed was the foreign equivalent of "come in". It was the veiled woman again. She stood silently at the door until Aunt Mel nodded. She then took the empty tray and water jug and departed. By that time, my eyes were so heavy I could barely keep them open.
"Oh, Carrie, honey," Aunt Mel said, suddenly looking in my direction, "let's get your clothes off and get you into bed. We've got another long day ahead of us in just a few hours."
She pulled me up off the floor and helped me out of my pants and shirt. Had I not been so exhausted, I might have felt a little embarrassed at being stripped down to my skivvies and tucked into bed like a child half my age, but there was something comforting about it all and I gladly let her do it. Janice had already climbed into the other pallet and as soon as Aunt Mel got me settled, she joined her.
"Are you sure we can trust Hafune? He's acting stranger than normal, if you ask me," Aunt Mel whispered to Janice just before I drifted off.
"I know." Janice replied. "Maybe it's just the thrill of actually finding something that's got him all wound up. But what choice do we have? If he were up to anything, I doubt that he would have bothered to wire us in the first place. He could have just taken whatever it is in the caves and not even given us a second thought. No, I think he's okay."
"I hope you're right."
The next thing I knew, Aunt Mel was shaking me gently.
"Carrie. Carrie, honey, time to get up."
The sun had filled the room with eye-squinting brightness and I could hardly believe that I'd been asleep at all, much less for several hours.
Janice came into the room as I was pulling on my clothes.
"Hafune's ready to go as soon as we are," she looked at me deliberately and grabbed a couple of bags, leaving as quickly as she'd come in.
Taking the hint, I grabbed my own bag and headed out the door. Just as I stepped outside, the veiled woman caught my arm and, before I could protest, pulled me around to the back of the house. There, just beyond the water pump that we had used the night before was a shoulder-high wooden partition about six feet long and behind it, a short stand. On the stand was a bucket. It was filled with water and a small towel lay beside it. She made a couple of quick gestures which I took to mean that I should use the water to wash myself with and then she left. I looked around. Everyone else was busy loading the truck and behind me was nothing but flat, barren land. I was already beginning to understand that it was important to take advantage of these opportunities when they arose, so I quickly stripped down and washed as fast as I could. Remembering my mother's strict instructions to change my underwear everyday, I pulled a clean pair out of my bag and threw them on along with the rest of my clothes. Practically before anyone missed me, I was at the truck, tossing my bag into the back with the others. Aunt Mel looked at me and smiled.
"You doing okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," I said, feeling surprisingly refreshed.
"Good. We've got a couple more hours in the truck, and then it's over to the island. I'm afraid the truck ride won't be any more comfortable than it was last night, but once we get on the boat things will get better. Good Lord, I hope you don't get seasick. Have you ever been out on water before?"
I shook my head. "Well, except for the time we tried to take Uncle Frank's boat across to Hilton Head."
"Did you get sick?"
"No, but Mama did. We barely got out of the harbor and had to turn back." We both laughed.
"Then I bet you'll do just fine," she said, patting my back
"How about you?" I asked.
She held out her arm and pointed to her wrist. "Well, we'll just have to see how good Janice's remedy works on water."
Janice came wheeling around the corner. "Let's go."
After thanking our hosts for their hospitality, we piled into the truck. A few gear-grinding minutes later, we were on our way, the harsh Turkish sun sending the elusive shimmer of a mirage onto the horizon before us.
Gabrielle, on the other hand, had no desire to look for any goodness among the crew. In fact, she was having a hard enough time just seeing past her anger. Alexander was constantly in her thoughts and there were times when she could barely contain the impulse to tear about the ship searching for him when he was out of her sight.
Xena glanced over at her friend as they prepared the noon meal. Although Gabrielle was generally less talkative when working, Xena knew that this quietness was more than just concentration on the task at hand. She could see the fury that almost, but not quite, spilled out from behind sea green eyes. She let out a big sigh and shook her head. Gabrielle could get attached to people faster than anyone else she knew. It was her great gift - and her great weakness, especially in situations like this. A strong feeling of love and compassion washed over Xena as she watched the young woman, so intent upon her work, so troubled by the fate of one small boy.
"I heard one of the crew say that we should reach land sometime before nightfall," Xena said in a low whisper.
Gabrielle shifted the newest piece of gingeroot from one cheek to the other. "Good. Then it will all soon be over, and as far as I'm concerned, the sooner the better. I can't wait to get off this ship."
"How's your stomach?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle sucked a little louder on the gingeroot. "It's fine," she replied distractedly. "Where is Alexander? I told Sercles to send him down right away to help me make the honeycakes." Gabrielle wiped her hands on the coarsely woven sack she had tied around her waist as an apron and started toward the door.
"No," Xena said, catching her arm, "I'll go find him. You stay here and roll out the dough. I'll be back in a minute."
The last thing Xena wanted was a confrontation between Gabrielle and Sercles, the gruff, weathered above-deck master who was in charge of the men working the sails. Of all the crew members she'd gotten to know, Sercles was the one she felt she could trust the most, but even he had a cruel streak, and she knew that in Gabrielle's current state of mind, it would be a mistake to chance any friction between them. She found him adjusting the leeward ropes.
"I'm lookin' for the Boy," she yelled over the slapping of the sails. "Cook's mate wants him down in the galley."
"Aye, I sent him there a time ago," he replied, squinting into the sun. "Not arrived yet, has he? He'll get what for from me, then, when I get my hands on him."
"I'll find him," Xena called back, "and give him what for myself."
He waved a gnarled hand at her and went back to the ropes.
Xena looked up at the sails. The familiar purple and white stripes, though ragged, were billowing out to full extension and she knew they were making good time. Soon, the slaves would be on board and she could put her plan into motion. Soon, Alexander would be safe and Gabrielle's unsettled heart would find peace again. That was becoming as important to Xena as freeing the slaves and reclaiming the Aegeana Fox. She climbed up to the quarter-deck and put her hand up to her eyes. As she searched the deck below, long ago images began to form in her thoughts. How many times, when she captained this ship, had she stood at this very vantage point? So many years, so many lifetimes ago. Back before the real hatred, the real darkness had crept in and begun to corrupt her soul. She let her eyes caress the graceful curves, the strength and beauty of the ship that had been her haven and her home. There was something about this ship, about the freedom it had once offered her that caught her breath. Something about hurtling through the vast velvetness of ocean with nothing but shimmering horizon on every side that made her heart pound, even now, just as it had innumerable times before. If only... the thought floated on the wind and whispered in her ear. If only... She closed her eyes and let the words gently echo in her head until they rippled through her entire body. It was only when she felt the sting of tears, unbidden and unwanted, that she took a deep breath of stiff, salt air and forced herself back to the present. She could torture herself with memories later. Now, she had a small boy to find.
Climbing down from the deck, she made her way below, past the galley door and into the storage area just outside the hold. The hatch to the hold was open and she could hear muffled sounds emanating from the gaping hole leading to the belly of the ship. Effortlessly, she lowered herself down the ladder. In the far corner, she could just make out three shadowy forms - two big, one small. There was coarse laughter as the smaller one was roughly shoved back and forth between the other two. In a few quick, silent strides, she stood between the men and the boy. Without a word, she grabbed Alexander by the collar and began to pull him away.
"Hey, just where do you think you're goin' with Boy?" the taller one, Gregor, demanded.
"He's wanted in the galley," Xena said through tight lips, pushing Alexander in front of her.
"Well, he's wanted here right now. We're having a little party. You'll just have to wait your turn."
A hairy arm reached out to pull Alexander back. Xena snapped her elbow sharply into the man's face, breaking his nose with a dull crunch. The other man lunged at Xena and she quickly swung her leg behind his knees, bringing him to the ground. She shoved her boot down hard on his throat.
"I'm thinkin' I had first claim on the boy. If yer havin' a problem with that, you best let me know now. I'd hate to have any unresolved conflicts."
The man under Xena's boot made a move, but the other one held up his hand.
"Let 'em go," he said, wiping his bloody nose on his sleeve. "I was gettin' bored anyway. The boy's not good for much. If you think he's so handy, then you can have him - for now. But just so you know," he gave Xena an angry glare, "this conflict is not resolved."
"I'll be keepin' that in mind," Xena replied, taking hold of Alexander. After they were out of the hole and through the storage area, she swung him up the stairs and into the sunlight. He had a nasty gash over his right eye and his frayed shirt was torn even more. Xena shook her head.
"She'll have a fit if she sees you like this," she muttered, giving him a quick once over. "Go wash your face, Boy, and come straight back to the galley. And don't let anyone else grab you in the mean time, you hear me?" Xena let her hand rest gently on the boy's head for a moment as she looked into his sad eyes.
He nodded and ran off. She then made her way back downstairs and flung open the galley door. Gabrielle had already formed the cakes and was putting them over the fire to bake.
"Well, where is he?" she demanded.
"He's coming," Xena replied, "but he's...had a little accident. The last big swell we went through knocked him into a...post...and he cut his eye. He's fine. Just don't make a big deal about it though, okay? Boys are funny about things like that. They don't like a fuss."
Xena hated the idea of lying to Gabrielle, but she was certain the truth would be even more upsetting, and Gabrielle was upset enough. When Alexander arrived, he did look a little better. His eye was swollen, and he'd get a good shiner out of it, but Xena was sure that was all that had happened to him below.
Gabrielle looked at Alexander and took in a sharp breath.
"Well, looks like you got on the wrong end of that post, eh?" Gabrielle said as she walked over to him and took his chin in her hands.
He gave her a puzzled look but said nothing.
Suddenly, she leaned over and kissed the top of his head. Just as suddenly, she released him and started toward the fire.
Alexander's eyes got big for a moment and Xena saw just the trace of a smile cross his face.
"Now, come here and help me get the honey on these cakes."
Xena breathed a sigh of relief and turned back to the stew pot. As she did, the image of the two men from the hold came into focus. She made a mental note to remember them especially when the real party began.
I was happy to discover that I was a good sailor, relishing the salt air in my nose and against my face. Even Aunt Mel faired pretty well, though her wrist took quite a beating. Luckily, it was a short trip to Armathia. Before long, the captain had thrown anchor and we were heading toward shore in a sturdy, wooden dinghy, towing our supplies behind us.
I noticed right away that the terrain on the small island was quite different from where we had just come. There was more ruggedness to it and the rocky shoreline gave way to tall cliffs looming high above the water's edge. We landed in a small cove and a little farther up the shore I spotted a make-shift camp with several tents and a large fire pit.
"Everything just the same as when you left, Missy Janice," Hafune exclaimed triumphantly, pulling the provisions out of the boat and hauling them onto the soft, white sand.
Janice stood looking up, her hand shielding her eyes. "Which caves, Hafune?"
"The Singing Caves, Missy."
"Really?" Janice responded with a slight grin. "The Singing Caves?"
I looked up but saw nothing but sheer, smooth rock.
Janice and Aunt Mel couldn't wait to see the caves, or more precisely what might be in them, so as soon as the supplies were stacked and the water cans situated so they wouldn't spill or leak, we were off. Hafune led the way. Hidden from view from the beach below were narrow switchbacks etched along the face of the cliff, some seemingly no wider than the width of a foot. Janice, Aunt Mel and I were tied loosely together with rope, though I had my doubts just how much good it would do if any one of us fell. Luckily, we didn't have to find out. When we reached what I thought was the top of the cliff, it turned out to be merely a long, narrow rim and just beyond it were a number of small, black holes in the rock. Hafune made a bee-line to one particular hole and soon we found ourselves down on hands and knees to enter what Janice immediately christened as "squatter's tunnel", a low, claustrophobic area leading downward. This, thankfully, lasted only a short distance until suddenly, we were able to stand upright again and everything seemed to widen out. Then, as we made our way slowly from chamber to chamber, I heard it. Softly at first, but then with more resonance and intensity, a deep, clear symphony of sound began to surround us. We had reached the Singing Caves. Finally, as we ventured farther and farther into the recesses of the cliff, we came into a large cavern. There, in the eerie glow of Hafune's gas lantern, we could make out a number of items scattered across the far side of the cave.
"You see, Missy," Hafune crowed, "all is as I told you."
Janice and Aunt Mel walked slowly to the back of the cave, their flashlight beams making ghostly patterns on the wall. I followed. The two of them, who had kept up an ongoing conversation throughout our climb, now stood in reverent quietness. For several moments, the only sound which could be heard was a periodic sharp intake of breath as the light fell on various objects. To me, it was only so much old junk, but I was to later find out that what was revealed in the pale light was a virtual treasure trove of antiquities: pottery, jewelry, coins and even what seemed to be pieces of some type of boat or ship. But most importantly, the long, round objects. Those were of principle interest to Janice and Aunt Mel, and to those they gave their immediate attention. There were four of them, narrow teardrop-shaped containers with flat bottoms, each about a foot and a half long and made of stone.
"It's heavy, " Janice grunted as she carried one of them to an open area. "My guess is shale or siltstone. I can tell better when we get into the light. Hafune, here, take my flashlight. Mel, hold it right...yeah, that's good...while I try to get this off."
It took several minutes but Janice finally worked the stone lid out of its hole.
Aunt Mel shined her flashlight into the cask and then looked at Janice, her eyes absolutely glowing.
"Well?" Janice urged.
"Parchment." Aunt Mel's voice was solemn, just above a whisper.
That's when I came to realize how much awe an old piece of paper could inspire.
"Easy, easy," Janice instructed as Aunt Mel gently pulled the scroll from its casing.
"Looks like it's in pretty good shape," Aunt Mel noted. "The seal on the container must have kept everything air tight. Lucky for us."
"Be careful. Now, let's take a look at it." Janice took the scroll from Aunt Mel's hands and with deft fingers, began to spread it out.
"Mel, look at these markings," Janice said, shining her flashlight across the top of the parchment.
"Oh my, yes," Aunt Mel replied as her wide eyes took in the strange forms. "And here," she pointed to a particular place on the scroll, "the handwriting, everything, follows the same pattern. It seems to..."
"Is it a Xena scroll?" Janice demanded impatiently.
"For heaven's sake, Janice, don't get your panties in a bundle. I'll have to study it a little more, but, yes, I'd be almost willing to bet that this was written by Gabrielle, or at least someone who was very familiar with her style and form."
Janice fell back on her rear end and stared at Aunt Mel in astonishment. "This is just too good. It's...it's too good. Mel, pinch me or something. I know I'm dreaming."
Aunt Mel broke into a big grin. "This is no dream, my girl," she beamed at Janice, giving her a hand. "This is the real deal."
Suddenly, Janice let loose with a loud whoop, jumped up and proceeded to do a little dance first with Aunt Mel, then Hafune and finally me.
"Hafune," she said, slapping him on the back, "when we get back to camp, I want you to radio your cousin. In the morning, you're going back to the mainland and get the crew together. Then get back here as soon as you can. You know the drill. We've got lots of work to do."
"Yes, Missy. First thing. But now we get back to camp. Daylight will soon be gone."
Janice carefully replaced the scroll in the container and packed it securely into her knapsack.
"Let Hafune carry that." Aunt Mel gave Janice a worried look. "It's too heavy for you."
"I'm fine, Mel. Hafune, you just get us down in one piece, okay?"
Just before we left the cave, Janice turned around and I heard her whisper, "we'll be back for the rest you, I promise."
That evening, for some reason, Hafune decided to forego the fire pit and instead made a huge bonfire on the beach. His cousin, the fishing boat captain, was radioed and arrangements were made for Hafune to make the trip back to the mainland and return as soon as possible with several members of the original crew.
While Hafune made dinner, Janice and Aunt Mel studied the fragile parchment. It was covered with strange markings and, though I had no idea what they meant, I stood looking over Aunt Mel's shoulder with keen interest. She would point to a certain line and read it out loud while Janice made notes in her notebook. Every now and then, a particular word or phrase would cause her and Janice to look at each other excitedly.
"Look, here it reads 'pelagos tuphonikos'," Aunt Mel said, adjusting her glasses, " ' - raging sea'. And here, 'pyrte eoleto'' - 'struck by lightning'." She scanned down the scroll a little farther. "Oh, my."
"What?" Janice asked breathlessly.
"'Island of rocks'," Janice whispered. Their eyes met in wonderment. "This island."
Aunt Mel nodded slowly. "Almost word for word what's on the stone."
"I thought you said that you didn't know what was written on the stone," I ventured.
"Well, yes, that's true, sort of," Aunt Mel replied after a moment. "We've been able to translate a few of the figures only because they seem to be somewhat connected to the Aegean orthographic family."
I looked at her blankly.
"They're similar to ancient Greek letters," she clarified with a tiny smile.
Janice looked up from her notebook. "What we haven't been able to do, though, is to prove that the stone has anything to do with Xena or Gabrielle."
"Until now," Aunt Mel said with a wink.
"Until now," Janice repeated.
"What else does the scroll say?" I asked, catching their enthusiasm.
"Well, you just sit yourself down and get comfortable," Aunt Mel directed, "and I'll read you the whole thing."
I did as she said and soon I was spellbound, marveling at the expressiveness in Aunt Mel's voice as she wrapped it around these wonderful words, at once poetic and stirring.
"Wow," I exclaimed, as she slid the parchment back into its container. "Did all that really happen, or is it just made up?"
"It's all true," Aunt Mel answered, the southern inflection suddenly gone, replaced by a deeper, stronger quality.
"Xena was something, wasn't she?" I said, peeking at Aunt Mel cautiously.
She had taken off her glasses and turned to me with a look that made my stomach lurch in an excited, giddy sort of way. "Yes, she was. And so was Gabrielle. They made a great team."
I glanced over at Janice. She was watching Aunt Mel carefully, with a softer, more sensitive expression than I'd ever seen on her face before.
"They certainly did," she said in a voice that wasn't quite hers.
We all exchanged glances and suddenly I knew that somehow, that very minute, I was being caught up in something quite...extraordinary. Something real, yet so intangible, and so difficult to explain - like a sweet, haunting melody that unexpectedly invades your senses, bringing a moment of pure rapture, and then is gone.
I blinked my eyes hard. When I looked a second time, Janice's expression had turned from serene to dazed and Aunt Mel was putting her glasses back on. After staring wide-eyed at one another for a minute, the two finally burst out laughing. I sat there in a state of pleasant confusion while Hafune glanced over at us from a distance and shook his head.
After dinner, Janice pulled a large flask of brandy out of her duffel bag and congratulatory toasts were made all around. Janice, relaxed and laughing, then produced a cigar, a cheroot she called it, and proceeded to smoke it with relish, once again amazing me at how natural she looked with a brandy in one hand and a cigar in the other. Even my daddy couldn't quite pull that one off. Aunt Mel took a couple of puffs that ended in a coughing jag and sent the rest of us into hysterics. Finally, Hafune said goodnight and went off to his tent. The three of us, though, were reluctant to give up the warmth of the fire.
"This is what I like," Aunt Mel remarked, hugging her knees as we sat around the glowing embers. "Friends, a fire and a sky full of stars."
"Hmmm," Janice hummed in agreement.
Suddenly, a ridiculous image popped into my mind and I began to chuckle.
"What's so funny?" Aunt Mel asked.
"I was just trying to picture Aunt Helen on a trip like this, you know, climbing cliffs and sitting around a camp fire." The whole idea was so hilariously incompatible and I looked over at Aunt Mel, expecting her to congratulate me on my clever sense of humor. I was not prepared for her response.
"You don't know your great-aunt Helen very well, do you young lady?" she said reprovingly, her eyebrow taking on a definite arch.
I sat up and looked at her sheepishly.
"Because if you did, you'd know that she's an exceptional woman, and one of the smartest, bravest people around. If you don't believe me, ask her sometime about her trip to Europe just before the war - the first one - broke out. She'll tell you stories that will make your hair even more curly. She's been on more adventures than you or I will ever hope to dream about."
"Aunt Helen? MY great-aunt Helen?" I asked, wide-eyed. "The one who has a hissy-fit every time you don't disinfect your shoes before stepping on her precious oriental rug...and...and who can't bear to have even one little thing in her house out of place?"
Aunt Mel relaxed a little and smiled. "Well, I do admit she's gotten a bit fussy in her golden years, but, yes, your great-aunt Helen. Long before my daddy, or anyone else in the family for that matter, thought that I was ever going to amount to anything, Aunt Helen was convinced that I was destined for great things."
She took a long stick and began to stir the embers in front of her.
"She use to get so upset at me whenever I'd get discouraged." She looked at Janice. "Remember that awful time when I was trying to finish up my doctorate?"
Janice rolled her eyes and nodded.
"Aunt Helen would always say to me, 'Melinda, that's more than just a pretty head you've got on those shoulders of yours. You've got a good brain and lots of gumption, now use them. Get to work and follow your heart. If you don't you'll never be happy.' She knew exactly what she was talking about." Aunt Mel sighed at the memory. "Then she'd give me a big hug and train fare back to wherever I needed to go. I've never forgotten those words or the love and encouragement that were behind them. They've gotten me through some pretty rough times."
She stared at me seriously. "If you're ever that lucky to find someone who wants to love and encourage you, Carrie, do everything you can to hang on to that person. It's one of the most precious gifts you can receive in this life." Her gaze shifted to Janice. "If you find someone who loves you and who believes in you, well, there's nothing more wonderful than that."
Aunt Mel and Janice held each other's gaze for just a moment more. Then, suddenly, one of the charred logs shifted and sent a thousand crackling cinders high into the air. We all jumped.
"Well, guess that's our sign," Janice said as she stood up. "Time for bed."
She began to kick sand over the fire and within minutes, the beach was dark and chilly. Aunt Mel picked up the lantern and led the way back to camp. As I snuggled into my sleeping bag for my first real night on the field, I heard Janice and Aunt Mel whispering in the darkness. Although I couldn't make out what they were saying, there was a softness to their voices that, to me, was what trust and loyalty and affection must sound like. I found myself hoping that someday I, too, would be that lucky.
The sun was floating just above the horizon when a voice shouted down from the crow's nest. "Land!" In the distance she could see a ragged edge of earth breaking out of the flame-tinged water. The men on the ropes adjusted the sails and the ship took a definite tack toward land. She made her way downstairs.
"Shhh." Gabrielle put her finger to her lips as Xena walked in. In the corner, Alexander was curled up on top of the sacks of grain, covered with Gabrielle's robe, his breathing slow and steady.
"I wore him out, I'm afraid," Gabrielle said quietly.
"Then I hate to wake him," Xena replied, "but I need to talk to him. It's important."
Gabrielle nodded and went to the boy, shaking him gently.
Alexander opened his eyes slowly, trying to focus on the figure above him. Suddenly he jumped up, wild-eyed, and made a weak attempt to get away. Gabrielle reached out and pulled him tightly against her.
"It's okay, Alexander, shhh. You're safe. No one's going to hurt you." She sat down on the bench and cradled him in her lap. When the boy had calmed down, his small form finally relaxed in the curve of Gabrielle's body, Xena walked around to face him.
"Boy, you listen to me carefully, okay? There may be some trouble on the ship in a little while and no matter where you are, I want you to come here, to the galley, and stay here til it's over. You understand me?"
Alexander nodded his head against Gabrielle's shoulder. But then he sat up and stared at Xena. "What kind of trouble?" he asked.
"Nothin' you need to worry about," Xena answered, "just remember to come here and stay put."
"Are they going to fight on the ship?" the boy persisted. "I don't like it when they fight on the ship."
Xena sat down on the bench. "Have you seen them fight on the ship before?"
Alexander looked down and nodded. "When they took us...on the ship...my father and the others tried to fight them, but..." His voice trailed off.
"But what, Boy?" Xena asked gently.
"But...they killed them...all of them...except for me. Then the captain got real mad and he hit me...hard...and so did the other men."
"They killed all of them, the men and the women?" Xena's voice was still calm, but it was now edged in steel.
"Uh-huh. And my little sister, too."
Gabrielle made a choking noise and wrapped her arms tighter around the boy.
Xena stood up, a quiet rage overtaking her features.
"That won't happen this time, Alexander," she said just above a whisper. "I promise you."
Xena spun around and disappeared out the galley door. Just before she stepped onto the deck above, she braced herself against the door frame and took several deep breaths. She was perilously close to letting lose with the violent fury that was coursing through her body. Her fingers tightened around the dagger at her belt. She could easily take out the seven or eight men working the fore ropes before they even knew what had hit them. Then she could handle the others as they came. Taking a few steps out onto the deck, she stood up straight and paced off the distance in her head. It would just be a matter of...
She heard the word shouted but it didn't instantly register.
"Cook! Damn it woman, are you deaf?"
She looked over her shoulder to the quarter-deck. The shout had come from the first- mate.
"We're going to be at anchor soon," he said, looking past Xena. She turned and saw the mass of land looming larger and larger.
"So, what's that to me?" she rasped, letting the hand on her dagger drop.
"Just this," the man snarled. "After the crew has eaten, you'll make sure our new guests get bread and water. Skinny slaves don't bring a very good price. You got a problem with that?"
Xena gave the first mate a disgusted stare. "I'll be doin' my job, if that's what you mean."
"That's what I mean."
With that the man walked away. Xena went back to the galley and found Gabrielle still sitting with Alexander on her lap. He had fallen asleep again, his head tucked under her chin. Xena quietly shut the door and sat down beside her.
"I've been doing a lot of thinking," Gabrielle whispered, "and I've decided that when this is all over, I want Alexander to stay with me...with us."
"Gabrielle," Xena whispered back, "I know how you feel, but that's a pretty big decision to make. You shouldn't rush into it."
Gabrielle looked at her friend pleadingly. "I know, Xena, but look at him. Think about what he's been through. He's lost his family - his innocence. There's no one to care for him, to love him. What do you think's going to happen to him? You think we'll just fight all the bad guys, free the slaves, sail the ship back to Athens and then, 'see you around, Alexander - have a nice life, Alexander.' I'm sorry, but I can't let that happen. He needs me...us. I'm not going to abandon him."
Xena sighed and reached over to stroke Alexander's hair. Then she cupped Gabrielle's cheek in her hand.
"I'm not going to abandon him, either." She put her other arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and pulled her close. "But, you know, first we have to fight all the bad guys, free the slaves and sail the ship back to Athens. We better just take it a step at a time, okay?"
For the first time in a long time, Gabrielle managed a tiny smile. "Okay."
There was a good fire going in the fire pit and Janice was squatting by it, trying to find just the right coals over which to place her bacon-filled frying pan.
"Hey, good morning," she called out, catching me out of the corner of her eye. "Bring that loaf of bread over here and I'll show you how to make toast over an open fire."
I grabbed the loaf off the table that sat in front of the tents and joined her. She drew a long, serrated hunting knife out of her belt and carefully cut a thick slice. Then she took a two-pronged skewer lying nearby and impaled the slab on it lengthwise. Holding it gingerly over the fire, she waved it carefully back and forth just out of reach of the hungry flames. Slowly, each side of the bread began to take on a darker color and within minutes, Janice handed me a perfect piece of toast.
"Here," she said, picking up a spoon and ladling a small amount of bacon grease out of the pan. She had me hold the piece of toast level while she drizzled a few drops of the grease on the bread. "Try that."
I took a bite. It was hot and crunchy.
"Now, it's your turn," she said, handing me the skewer and another piece of bread.
My efforts, however, weren't very successful, and in spite of a string of increasingly more urgent instructions from Janice, I still ended up with a piece charred on one side and white on the other.
"Don't feel bad," she said with a grin, "it took your aunt Mel a long time before she got the hang of it. She finally figured it out, and so will you." Taking the piece of bread from my hand, she tossed it toward the water where three gulls immediately pounced on it.
"Where is Aunt Mel?" I finally asked, looking around.
"Down at the cove," she answered, her attention already focused on another piece of toast, "washing up. You might want to do the same."
Taking the hint, I started back to the tent to get my toiletries. Just then, in the distance, I saw Aunt Mel coming up the beach.
"There she is," I said, waving.
Janice stood up and turned around. We both saw them at the same time - two men, walking behind Aunt Mel. One of them gave Aunt Mel a hard shove and she stumbled onto the sand. Janice dropped the bread and ran into the tent. A moment later she flew out, a revolver in her hand and another one stuck in her belt.
"Carrie, get behind me!" she shouted. "Now!"
"What's going on?" I asked, my heart pounding in my ears.
"I don't know." She had her gun open and was dropping in bullets.
"Who are those men?"
"I don't know." She spun the chamber and snapped it closed with a flick of her wrist.
"What are they going to do to Aunt Mel?" I glanced down the shoreline again. Aunt Mel was struggling to her feet.
"I don't know."
Without looking back, she took off down the beach. I hesitated for a second, then ran after her. As we approached, one of the men jerked Aunt Mel roughly to her knees, his gun barrel pointed directly at the back of her head.
"Mel," Janice croaked, stopping abruptly.
"I...I'm okay," she answered as the man pushed her head forward with the gun. She flinched and in return, he cocked it. I held my breath. Suddenly the second man, who stood several paces back, walked around to the front.
"Hello, Jan." He said it as breezily as if he were greeting a friend while out for a morning stroll. Janice squinted, then stumbled back a few steps.
"My God - Charlie Howser." The words came out in a hoarse whisper. Then Janice leveled her gun at him. "What the hell do you want?" she demanded.
"Well, that's not a very friendly greeting for an old friend. I'm just here to conduct a little business transaction, that's all. Let's hope you're in more of a mood to...cooperate...than your friend here."
"Let her go, Charlie, or I swear I'll shoot." Janice's voice gave no reason to believe she wouldn't carry through with the threat.
The man began to laugh. "Well, you can swear all you want, Jan, but you're not going to shoot. Because as soon as you shoot me, my associate here will shoot...," he turned to Aunt Mel, "what did you say your name was again?"
"I didn't," Aunt Mel said, defiance showing through the bruises and blood on her face. The man raised his arm to strike her.
"Her name is Melinda. Melinda Pappas," Janice replied quickly, trying to divert his attention.
"Dr. Melinda Pappas?" Charlie turned toward Janice and lowered his arm, his lips curving into a tight smile. "Well, Jan, I'd heard rumors you'd gotten hooked up with some woman, but I had no idea that it was with the illustrious Dr. Pappas." He gave Aunt Mel a little bow. "This is quite an honor for me. I've read several of your books, and I must say, I've been impressed with your work. Very impressed." He cleared his throat and turned back. "Anyway, as I was saying, Jan, you shoot me and my colleague will shoot Dr. Pappas, it's as simple as that. I really don't think you want that to happen, do you?"
Janice didn't move a muscle.
"In fact," Charlie continued, "it might be better if you just give me those weapons of mass destruction before someone really does get hurt." He reached for Janice's gun.
"Fat chance," she sneered, holding the revolver out even more menacingly.
Charlie merely shrugged. "All right. Let's play that game." He turned to the man behind him. "Shoot her in the leg," he instructed, referring to Aunt Mel. I let out a terrified gasp.
Janice immediately dropped the gun in her hand. "No! Wait! Here...here's my gun." She kicked it toward Charlie.
"That's better," he said. "The other one, too." She took the gun from her belt and threw it on the sand. Charlie bent down and picked them both up, shoving one into the back of his pants.
"All right, Charlie, what's this all about? If you just want to talk business, then let's talk. We don't need guns for this, do we?"
"Oh, Jan, Jan, Jan," he replied, "You haven't changed a bit, have you? Still the same little spitfire that I knew and loved. But let's face it, you'd never be willing to talk business with me without a little motivation, would you?" He waved the gun in front of her face. "You seem to forget just how well I know you. After all, we do have a certain history between us."
"Any history we have between us is ancient - dead and buried. Now what do you want?"
Charlie refused to be hurried. "Come on, Jan, don't tell me you never think about me any more. There was a time when you said you couldn't stop thinking about me. Remember?"
Faster than I could see, Janice drew her arm back and aimed a blow directly at Charlie's jaw. But just as quickly, Charlie caught her hand before it could make contact and, at the same time, brought the gun up to her temple. Janice never flinched, but instead glared at him through narrowed eyes. They stood frozen like that for a moment. Then, laughing, Charlie stroked her cheek several times with the barrel of the gun and released her.
"Well, I must say I'm a little disappointed in your lack of sentimentality over old times. But, no matter. I think it's fairly obvious what I want. Our mutual friend Hafune has informed me that an interesting discovery's been made in the caves here. I know of a number of people who would be willing to pay big money to own whatever kind of treasure might be there. Like I said, I'm just a businessman here to do some business. Harry would have understood. In some ways, he and I were a lot alike."
"You're not even half the man Harry was," Janice replied. "He wasn't perfect, but at least he had integrity. That's something you'll never understand."
"Integrity's highly over-rated, Jan. Harry never learned that lesson and it looks like you haven't either. It's a pity, too, because I think you and I would have made a great team. That was something you might have been interested in at one time."
"That was before I opened my eyes a little wider and saw what kind of man you really were."
Charlie gave Janice a derisive smirk. "That's what you get for having foolish expectations."
Just then, there was a shout from the campsite. Hafune was standing by the fire waving at us, his ingratiating grin still molded into place.
"Ah, my friend Hafune awaits us. Shall we?" Charlie swung his arm out in a sweeping gesture.
As we approached the camp, Hafune was pulling Janice's frying pan out of the fire. "Ah, Mister Charlie. Good to see you again," Hafune chimed in his sing-song fashion. "Shall I make breakfast?"
"That would be lovely, Hafune. I think we'll all need some nourishment before we begin our little hike."
Aunt Mel was dumped unceremoniously by the tent, and although her guard, the man Charlie referred to as Van Cleve, still kept his gun on her, both Janice and I ran to her side. I sank down and laid my head on her shoulder, trying desperately not to cry, while Janice took a canteen and used the water to wash the wounds on her face.
After a few minutes, Aunt Mel pulled me closer and Janice huddled in front of us.
"How you doing?" Janice asked with a quick tousle to my hair.
"Okay, I guess," I answered, a slight quiver in my voice.
"Listen, there's no reason to be afraid. We've been in a lot worse scrapes than this, haven't we, Mel?"
Aunt Mel nodded and tried to smile. "Carrie, honey," she said, squeezing my shoulder, "we're just going to give them what they want, then they'll go away and we'll be fine. You know, I'm more afraid that your daddy will never let you come visit me again than I am of those jack-asses over there, pardon my French."
I managed a tiny smile back, but I wasn't completely convinced of her last statement. Those "jack-asses", as she called them, both had guns and I doubted they'd have much compunction in using them. But the ball was definitely in Charlie's court and the only thing left to do was wait and see just exactly how, and when, he would decide to play it.
Trying to be as casual as possible, she walked over to Sercles. "Can you spare the Boy? I could use him in the galley."
"I'll need him most of the evening, girl," he answered, looking at her through faded, watery eyes. "Captain wants to make haste to open water and Boy runs ropes for me."
Gabrielle stared at the old man, worry shaping her brow into a furrow.
"You fret about him, don't you?" Sercles asked, not unkindly.
Gabrielle bit her lip slightly and nodded.
"I'll watch him for you tonight. How's that? He won't get out of my sight, you got my word."
Gabrielle nodded again and turned to leave.
"And, girl..." Gabrielle looked around, "...thought you might like to know, I haven't had such good honeycakes since my mother made them for me when I was a boy." Sercles gave her a wink.
Gabrielle smiled slightly at the weathered face in front of her, and then gave Alexander one last look. He was so intent on winding and unwinding the ropes that he didn't notice her. "Soon, Alexander," she whispered under her breath.
It was well after dark when Xena and Gabrielle made their way below with a lantern, several loaves of bread and a large skin of water. The hold was at the bottom-most part of the ship, where no light or fresh air could penetrate. Gregor stood guard outside the hold and he gave Xena a grizzled scowl before opening the hatch. They were immediately hit with the smell of rotting refuse and unwashed bodies, and even though Gabrielle was fiercely sucking on a new piece of gingeroot, the stench made her stomach begin to churn.
"Well," Gregor sneered, "throw it in and let's be done with it. It stinks to Mount Olympus down there."
"We're going down," Xena replied in a tone that left no room for argument.
The man gaped at her for an instant then stood aside. "Suit yourself."
After the two had descended the narrow ladder, the hatch slammed shut with a heavy thud. Gabrielle grabbed Xena's arm to steady herself.
"You okay?" Xena whispered.
Gabrielle nodded and shifted the waterskin farther back on her hip. "Yeah, I just..." she swallowed hard and pressed her wrist firmly with the thumb of her other hand. "I'm okay. Let's go."
Xena lifted the lantern and in the pale light, thirty or more worn, dirty faces - some of them children - turned toward her. A low murmur ran through the group. A moment later, Gabrielle began to pass the water skin around as Xena portioned out the bread and the small chunks of smoked lamb she had hidden in the basket.
"Don't be afraid," Xena said in a low voice. "We're your friends. We're here to help you."
A man's deep voice came out of the darkness. "If you're here to help, friend, then why are you on a slave ship, free to walk around unfettered?"
Xena looked around. She understood the words, but couldn't place the accent. "Who spoke?"
"I did." An older man in filthy, ragged clothing slowly approached her.
"What's your name?" Xena asked.
"My name is Xena, and this is Gabrielle. Are you the leader here, Aggus?"
"I was an elder in our village. I - I have been speaking for us, whenever the occasion has allowed."
"Then, all you need to know right now," Xena began, "is that very soon you will be free. We plan to take control of the ship and make sure you get back to where you came from."
"Excuse me, but who is this 'we'?" Aggus asked skeptically.
"Gabrielle and I," Xena replied. Another wave of murmuring ran through the group.
"That may be a noble intention," Aggus replied, "but one I doubt will be easily accomplished by two women."
Gabrielle suddenly spoke up. "Aggus, you don't know us, so you have no reason to trust us, but you can believe that whatever Xena says she's going to do, she'll do."
Aggus shook his head slowly. "I find very few things I can believe anymore."
"Father, we're hardly in a position to argue." A younger man stood up next to Aggus and placed a hand on his shoulder. He then turned to face Xena. "Please forgive him. He's lost practically everything he values, including his faith in people. If you say you're here to help, then we gladly accept your offer. Kindness from strangers," the younger man's voice faltered slightly, "has been a rare commodity for us lately."
"I can understand that," Xena said gently, "but that's all about to change."
"My name is Terim." The man held out a thin hand to Xena. "We are all that's left of a small village in Cilicia." Xena suddenly recognized the accent. Cilicia was a region far to the east, below Phrygia and bordering the great Assyrian empire.
"You're a very long way from home."
"Yes, I suppose so," Terim replied sadly. "But it's a home that doesn't exist anymore."
Xena looked down at the woman beside him. "This is my wife, Seta," Terim answered Xena's unspoken question. The woman shifted uncomfortably on the hard, wooden floor, revealing a very swollen belly.
Gabrielle knelt down beside her. "You're with child," she exclaimed, concern clouding her voice. The woman nodded and lowered her head.
"I'm afraid that what was a blessing to us has now become a sorrow," Terim said, his voice trailing off.
Gabrielle put her arm around Seta. "No, no" she soothed, "please don't worry. Your child will not be born in slavery. Not if we have anything to say about it." The woman looked up at Gabrielle, tears glistening in her eyes.
Suddenly, the hatch to the hold opened and Xena held a finger to her lips.
"Come along," she said roughly to Gabrielle, loud enough for the guard to hear.
Before leaving, they threw one last look to the wretched faces behind them.
Later that night, Xena laid out various items on the galley table in the form of a crude map.
"We've been sailing almost directly south since we left Athens, which means we're somewhere off the coast of Crete." She pointed to a bag of spice. "I'm not surprised. This particular part of the island is notorious for being a place where raiders can bring their captives to negotiate with slavers. It's probably a regular run for this ship. The captain sails to Crete, picks out the ones he wants, then it's off to Lydia, here," she swept her hand up to the crock of honey, "where he gets at least triple what he paid for them. Not a bad business, if you think about it. The raiders get a nice, quick turnover with fast, easy payment. Slavers like our captain make a good profit without having to do any of the real dirty work. Not a bad business at all, for someone without honor, or a conscience." Xena's voice had taken on a certain edge with the last sentence.
Gabrielle looked carefully at her friend and saw a familiar, brooding shadow fall across her face - the one that seemed to come whenever reminders of the past got a little too close. She sighed. She would try, like she had so many time before, to coax Xena out of this black mood, to reassure her once again that the good she did now was compensating for past sins.
"How do you know all this?" she asked.
"I keep my ears open," Xena answered flatly.
"So now what?"
"There are a lot of small, uninhabited islands right through here." Xena placed several small piles of rice on the table between the bag of spice and the crock. "Just the perfect place to unload some unsuspecting slave traders."
"And Aggus, and the others?"
Xena shrugged. "It depends. If we can, we get them back home. If not, then we take them to Athens with us and think of something from there."
Gabrielle straddled the bench. "You know, when we were with them tonight, it hit me again that if it hadn't been for you, that might have been me down there - lonely and afraid. It was a pretty terrifying thought - how close it all was to actually happening."
"Well, it didn't happen to you, and it won't happen to these people, either."
Gabrielle smiled at Xena and took her hand, holding it against her cheek for a brief moment. "If you don't watch out, you're going to leave quite a trail of gratitude behind you."
"Oh yeah?" Xena replied, slipping her hand out of Gabrielle's. "Maybe you better not write the ending to this story until we're safely back in Athens."
"Maybe. But I've gotten pretty good at predicting the endings to your stories."
"Be careful, Gabrielle," Xena said darkly, leaning toward her friend. "Someday you may be unpleasantly surprised."
"Not this time, Xena, promise me." Gabrielle took Xena's hand again. "If only for Alexander's sake, let's have a happy ending to this story."
Xena looked into the young woman's eyes, so full of faith, and her face softened.
"All right," she conceded, squeezing the hand in hers. "I promise. Now, let's go to bed."
"So that was the reason for the bonfire on the beach last night, wasn't it, Hafune? To let Charlie know that we'd made it to the island and everything was going as planned?" I was surprised at how even Janice's voice sounded.
"Yes, Missy." There was none of his usual contrived cheerfulness as he replied in a rough whisper.
"I'm assuming they were anchored off shore somewhere, waiting for your signal. Am I right again?"
"And the radio call to your cousin, was that a sham, too?"
"No, Missy. My cousin will be back - in a week. Mister Charlie will leave you plenty of food and water."
"You think Mister Charlie is a man of his word, do you?"
Hafune didn't answer.
"Just tell me this, Hafune," Janice persisted as he poured the dark liquid into a tin cup and handed it to her. "Why? Why did you even bother getting us back over here if you were planning all along to let Charlie Howser take whatever was here? Seems like a big waste of everyone's time."
Hafune looked at her for the first time, anger filling his eyes. "Ah, Missy. You see, this is all your doing."
"My doing?" Janice asked incredulously. "How do you figure that?"
"My brother sits in prison because of you," he answered, "and I am left with much bad feeling."
"I see," Janice replied, sucking in her bottom lip and nodding.
"Hafune, your brother was stealing from us," Aunt Mel said simply. "He was working on our site for no other reason than to take the artifacts that we found and sell them on the black market. You know that's true. You're the one who caught him and you're the one who made sure he gave everything back."
Hafune spun on his heel and confronted Aunt Mel. "Yes. You got your precious artifacts back. Wasn't that enough? Mister Charlie has promised me good money for what I have done. Money that I need to support my brother's wife and children, who, because of you, must now live without husband and father."
"Hafune," Aunt Mel started, "if it's a matter of money..."
"Not only money, Missy. My brother's name - my name - has been dishonored. That is something I cannot get back. Maybe now you will know how it feels to have something important taken away. Something you cannot get back."
Janice sighed. "I'm sorry about your brother, Hafune, I really am," she said softly. "And I'm sorry that this...situation...has put such a heavy burden on your shoulders, but it was your brother's choice to dishonor your family name, not ours. And if you think for a minute that Charlie's going to give you anything when this is all over, then you're a fool. He doesn't care about you, he only cares about using you for his own selfish gain."
Aunt Mel reached out and laid her hand on Hafune's arm. "We've always treated you fairly, haven't we, Hafune? Don't you think it would be smarter to go with people you know rather than take your chances with someone like Charlie Howser?"
Hafune's face began to darken and he jerked his arm away from Aunt Mel. "You think I am just a fool. That I am not smart enough to know what is best. Well, I am smart enough to know who my real friends are."
With that, he turned around and stormed off.
"Think very carefully about who your real friends are, Hafune," Janice called out after him.
Charlie casually walked over. "What are you doing, Jan, harassing our poor friend Hafune? That's not very nice, is it, after all he's done for you? I thought you had better manners."
"My manners are just fine," Janice replied dryly. "Maybe you'd better look at your own."
"Now, Jan, I'm trying very hard to be a good host, here. In fact, I just came over here to invite you all to take a little stroll with me. I understand there are some interesting items to be found in a cave not so very far away."
He gave a flick of his head and, instantly, Van Cleve was next to us, gun drawn. We staggered to our feet.
"There's no need for that, Charlie," Janice said, motioning towards the gun, "we won't try anything."
Charlie's lips curled into a half-smile. "Just keeping you honest, Jan, that's all. Hafune, my man, if you would, please take the lead. Our guests can come next and Van Cleve and I will bring up the rear."
"Yes, Mister Charlie."
"Excuse me," I said, looking at Charlie hesitantly, "but can I go to the bathroom first?"
"Oh, great Zeus in heaven." Charlie put his hands on his hips impatiently, throwing an irritated look at Janice and Aunt Mel. "Does anyone else have to go? Let's get this all out of the way right now."
Janice shook her head.
"I'll go with her," Aunt Mel said.
Charlie motioned for Van Cleve to follow us. We walked a short distance down the beach, where a large outcropping of rocks gave us some privacy. Aunt Mel and I took turns while Van Cleve stood, sullen faced, with his back to us. After we had finished, we were making our way across the rocks to where Van Cleve stood, when suddenly there was a long, loud, blaring sound - the blast of a horn - coming from the other side of the cove. Van Cleve snapped his head around and we all watched as a large military ship came into view.
Van Cleve began to swear and swung his gun toward us, motioning us back to camp. By the time we arrived, Charlie had pulled a pair of binoculars out of his bag and was looking toward the ship. He let loose with a string of expletives and began hunting for something to kick. He finally settled on a fire pit stone.
"Damn it to almighty hell. What's going on here?" He turned to Hafune and grabbed him by the front of the shirt, pulling him close to his face. "Is this your doing?"
Hafune's eyes got big and he began to stutter. "No, Mister Charlie. I...I have nothing to...to do with this."
Charlie let him go with a shove. "If I find out differently, you'll wish you'd never been born."
He turned questioningly to Janice but she merely shrugged and sat down in one of the camp chairs. The fact that he was visibly agitated brought a tiny smile to her lips.
"Get rid of that," he said, pointing to the gun in Van Cleve's hand. "All right, all right," he whispered soothingly to himself, "let's don't panic. No need to panic."
He took several deep breaths. "Well, Jan, looks like we're going to have a little uninvited company. The smart thing for you do to at this point would be to let them know that everything is fine here. We're all part of your site crew. Nothing unusual, nothing out of the ordinary. Your papers are in order, I assume."
"Of course," Janice replied calmly. "Are yours?"
"Don't worry about me, I have everything I need to get through a Greek government site inspection, or whatever the hell this is."
All this time, a large metal boat had swung down from the side of the ship and a number of uniformed men were now making their way toward shore.
"Van Cleve," Charlie shouted, "Go into Hafune's tent and try to make it look like we slept there last night."
Now that the guns had been put away, Aunt Mel and I pulled up chairs next to Janice. It wasn't long before a small detail of Greek sailors landed at the cove and, after being called into formation, came up the beach at a crisp jog, rifles slung over their shoulders.
"All right, Jan," Charlie muttered in a low voice, "don't even think of doing anything foolish, or you'll be sorry for a long, long time."
Janice stood up and walked toward him. "You're hardly in a position to threaten me. Look around. The Greek military is about to walk into this camp - my camp. I would say things have suddenly taken a turn in my favor."
Just then, the leader of the detail marched into camp.
"Good morning, ladies, gentlemen," he said, looking at each of us with a quick nod. "I am Lieutenant Moskonas of the Greek navy. May I see your papers, please?"
Janice produced an envelope from her jacket pocket and gave it to the lieutenant. He studied the contents carefully for a few minutes, stopping only to briefly glance at Hafune, Aunt Mel and me. After folding the papers neatly back into the envelope, he handed it to Janice.
"And yours." He looked at Charlie and Van Cleve. On cue, they both extracted papers, which the lieutenant took and examined closely. Without a word, he returned them to the two men.
Janice shot Aunt Mel a surprised look.
The lieutenant latched his hands behind his back and turned unsmiling to Janice. "I have been ordered to clear this island of all civilians."
"Not again," Janice howled, grabbing her hat off her head and throwing it on the ground in disgust. "Can't you people figure this thing out?"
Lieutenant Moskonas' blank expression remained unchanged. "I apologize for the inconvenience, but I must insist that you accompany me off the island immediately."
As he was talking, two of the sailors began to shovel sand into the fire pit and several others took up posts around the perimeter of the camp, rifles held loosely at their sides.
"May we at least pack up our belongings?" Aunt Mel was on her feet and walking toward the lieutenant.
He looked at his watch. "You have exactly fifteen minutes to pack what you will need."
His curt manner suddenly changed, though, when he turned toward Aunt Mel and saw her bruised and swollen face. "Madam, you are injured."
Aunt Mel touched her face, as if just then remembering how bad she really looked. "Oh, I, ah..."
Janice ran over to her and grabbed her arm. "It's not quite as bad as it looks, Lieutenant. She took a little tumble this morning while climbing those rocks over there," Janice pointed to the outcropping where we had come from just minutes before. "I'm afraid her face took the brunt of it. No broken bones, though, I assure you."
I glanced over at Charlie. He was watching the exchange nervously.
The lieutenant gave Janice a slightly puzzled look, then inclined his head toward both of them.
"Very well," he said in a softer tone, "if you could please pack what you will need in fifteen minutes, we must be on our way." He did a small pivot toward Charlie, Van Cleve and Hafune. "All of you."
The camp suddenly came alive with activity and in exactly fifteen minutes, we were all lined up outside the tents, our knapsacks and duffel bags stuffed to overflowing with as many items as we could possibly cram into them. In one of Janice's bags, I could make out the hard, rounded bulge of the cask containing the scroll.
Within an hour of the time we had first spotted the ship, we were out to sea, heading toward the Greek mainland. Hafune squatted miserably in one corner of the holding tank they had ushered us into. Charlie and Van Cleve had staked out another corner. Janice, Aunt Mel and I took the bench along one wall. Janice was lying with her head propped on Aunt Mel's thigh, her ankles and arms crossed and her hat draped over her face. I leaned against Aunt Mel on the other side and held her hand. Even though Charlie and Van Cleve were only footsteps away, I felt safe again. In my relatively short life, it had never occurred to me what a gift it was just to feel safe. I'd never had reason before to feel otherwise. I looked up at Aunt Mel, quiet tears coming to my eyes. She leaned down and kissed me on the forehead, wincing slightly.
"It's all over now," she whispered. "It's all over, and soon we'll be home."
I laid my head on her shoulder and held onto her hand a little tighter. Home. That word had suddenly taken on a new, more wonderfully secure meaning. But home, I was to find out, was still a long way off . There were many miles yet to go.
"What's wrong?" she asked, sitting up. The bunk, which they shared, was tilting at an alarming angle.
"I feel so sick. I think I'm going to..." Gabrielle's hand flew to her mouth as the bunk careened from side to side.
Xena threw her legs over the bed and grabbed a brass pot hanging close by. She placed it in front of Gabrielle just in time to catch the contents of dinner from the night before. Gabrielle let out a low moan. Xena pulled her friend's hair back away from her face and put an arm around her shoulder as she retched several more times.
"What's happening?" Gabrielle asked weakly.
"It feels like we've hit rough waters," Xena answered, taking Gabrielle's hand in hers and applying a firm yet gentle caress to her wrist. "Feeling better?"
Gabrielle shuddered, spitting into the pot one more time. "I think so. I don't think anything's left in there to come up." She swallowed hard and gave Xena a feeble smile.
Suddenly, the ship pitched sharply forward and several pots flew from their hooks, clanging noisily to the floor. Xena grabbed onto the side of the bunk and Gabrielle grabbed onto Xena.
"Oh, Xena, this is bad. I can't stay in here. I...I've got to get outside...get some fresh air."
Xena looked at Gabrielle with concern. "All right," she finally replied, "let's go up on deck. Get your clothes on."
It was a struggle to keep from being slammed into walls and doorways as they made their way to the upper deck. The dawn had just broken, but everything was bathed in a sickening, greenish-black tint. Euroclydon - the word ran through Gabrielle's head. She had heard the stories about this, the deadly, malevolent storm that came suddenly from the northeast and took ships to their final end before they had a chance to cut their mainsails. She had heard the stories, but she hadn't believed. Now she knew they might just be true. Never before had she seen such low, ominously churning clouds. Lightning streaked across the sky as the ship bucked treacherously.
"You better get back below," Xena shouted above the roar of the wind, "it's not safe up here." Just as she spoke, a gigantic wave broke over the deck. Xena threw herself against Gabrielle and braced the two of them hard between the door posts as the wave surged past. Gabrielle shivered in Xena's arms as she heard the screams of men being pulled overboard.
"Oh gods, Xena, I've got to find Alexander," Gabrielle cried, now struggling to get away from Xena's hold. "If he's up here on deck, he'll never make it."
"No!" Xena yelled, blocking her way, "you're going back below. It won't do Alexander or anyone else any good for you to get washed overboard."
Gabrielle leaned heavily against Xena's arm and looked over her shoulder. As the ship heaved from side to side, several of the men were trying desperately to get the last of the sails down. One of the pulleys had jammed and Sercles, standing below the main mast, was calling instructions to the crew member cautiously scaling the violently swaying beam.
"All right," Gabrielle finally conceded. "But, Xena, please, please find Alexander and make sure he's safe."
Xena pulled Gabrielle's head next to hers and held it there for a moment. "I will," she said close to Gabrielle's ear. "Now, go." Laying a strong hand on her friend's shoulder, she gave her a forceful nudge back down the stairs.
Gabrielle had to push hard against the galley door to open it. Nothing had been left in place. Pots and bowls were scattered across the floor, several of them broken, and sacks of grain and rice, once neatly stacked, were now strewn everywhere. It took a couple minutes of searching, but she finally found the lantern. Lifting the grate from the fire pit, she miraculously discovered a smoldering coal and blew it into a flame. She then lit the lantern and taking a deep breath, stepped through the galley door and into the tilting walkway. With much effort, she made her way down farther, to the storage area just above the hold. No one was around. The guard, she reasoned, was probably on deck dealing with the storm. Her heart sank, though, when she saw that the hatch had been secured with a sturdy iron lock. Looking around, she spotted a long, metal crank strapped to the bulkhead. It was used to open a series of louvers which, on calm days, allowed fresh air to flow into the storage area. She grabbed it and, pushing one end through the lock, began to pull hard against it. It was almost impossible to get any leverage as the ship jerked and plunged, but on the fourth try, the lock broke with a snap, throwing Gabrielle painfully back against the doorway. It took the rest of her strength to swing open the hatch door. She stumbled back a few steps. The stench from last night was nothing compared to the disgusting, putrid odor that now emanated from the dark, dank hole. Above the creaking and groaning of the ship, she could hear the cries and moans of the people below and from that moment on, after giving her wrist one last good squeeze, her own discomfort was put aside and forgotten. Carefully making her way down the ladder, she looked around and was horrified by what she saw. Many of the adults and most of the children were lying in their own waste, writhing in pain as nausea and sickness swept over them. Those that were able were giving as much aid and comfort as possible.
"By every good god," she whispered to herself, plunging into the murky blackness. "Aggus! Terim! It's me - Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle! Please, over here." She turned in the direction of the voice. In the dim light, she saw Terim kneeling between Seta and Aggus.
"Please, Gabrielle. Can you do anything to help us?" His voice was worn and desperate.
"We've got to get everyone out of here," Gabrielle replied, bracing herself against the sway of the ship. "There's no guard outside the hatch. We can at least get to the deck above."
Terim nodded and, with much effort, got Seta to her feet.
"Everyone," Gabrielle shouted, holding up the lantern, "listen to me. If you can walk, find someone who can't and help them. We're getting out of here. Follow me."
She bent down and helped Aggus into a sitting position, then draped his arm around her shoulders and pulled him upright. He was surprisingly light.
Tossed about by the violent lunges of the ship, the wretched group slowly made their way across the slick, shifting floor to the ladder. One by one, they were pushed, pulled, guided and coaxed into the storage area. As the last one emerged, Gabrielle shoved the hatch door shut. She then took the metal crank and opened as many of the wooden slats as she could. A good amount of sea water rushed in along with the air, but many of those along the wall lifted their faces gratefully to the stinging spray.
"I'm going to get some fresh water from the galley," Gabrielle said to Terim. "I'll be back."
Terim caught her arm just before she stood up. "Thank you."
Gabrielle smiled gravely and nodded.
She had just stepped through the galley door when a small object flew against her and wrapped scrawny arms around her waist. Looking down, she saw brown, curly hair.
"Alexander!" she exclaimed, hugging the boy tightly, "Are you okay? How did you get here?"
"Cook sent me and told me to stay put," he answered, not letting go.
"She did, huh?" Gabrielle held him out at arms length and saw that his eyes were wide and frightened. She drew him into another hug. "This is pretty scary, isn't it?" she said softly.
She felt his head nod against her stomach.
"I know. I'm scared, too."
He looked up at her. "You are?"
"Uh-huh. But you know what? I know some people who are even more scared than we are, and they could really use our help right now. What do you say we go and help them?"
He took a deep breath and nodded. "Okay."
She smiled at him and ruffled his hair. Moments later, they had collected four bags of fresh water. Just as they were leaving, Gabrielle turned to glance one more time around the ruins of the galley and, at the last moment, she grabbed the bag of gingeroot - and her staff.
Earlier, after several tense minutes of searching, Xena had found Alexander crouched in a small nook on the top deck, hanging on with as much strength as his thin arms could give him. She picked him up and held him tightly until they were just inside the doorway to the deck below. Squatting to his level, she looked him in the eyes.
"She's down there waiting for you. Now go keep her company until this is all over. And whatever you do, stay in the galley, your hear me?"
Alexander nodded vigorously and picked his way below. Xena watched him until she was sure he was safe. Then she turned her attention to the storm.
Making her way to the mast, she watched as the deck-hand was just about to reach the tangled rope. At that very instant, the ship gave a savage plunge and the man was flicked into the raging sea as easily as if he'd been a fly on a stalk of wheat. After a moment of stunned silence, Sercles looked around at the other men. They all shook their heads in fear, hanging on desperately to whatever they could get their hands around.
"Damn the lot of you, then. I'll go myself," the old man exclaimed disgustedly.
Just as he grabbed the rope to swing himself upward, Xena stepped in front of him.
"I'll be goin', if it's all the same to you," she yelled above the roar.
"You?" Sercles replied. "And what does a cook know about sails and riggings?"
"Watch and find out." With that, Xena clamped her dagger between her teeth and took hold of one of the flailing ropes, winding it securely around her waist several times. Within seconds, she had propelled herself up the mast. When she was within a few feet of the jammed rope, a strong gust of wind blew a loose yardarm across her path. Quickly reaching into the folds of her clothes, she pulled out the chakram and gave it a short, well-aimed toss. The rope sliced neatly in two, releasing the sail. It fell to the deck with a crash. With the sail finally down the ship steadied a bit and Xena began her descent. Suddenly, a blinding flash of lightning hit the mast above her, shooting sharp, fiery splinters into her shoulders and arms. The force of the bolt knocked her off her footing and for a split second, she hung suspended at the waist, like an awkward puppet. Then the mast began to break in two, catapulting her downward along with the beam. Instinct took over and before the mast hit the deck, she had cut the rope from around her waist and kicked against the thick pole, launching herself into a double flip to land safely several yards away. Three of the men below, though, hadn't been as fortunate and were pinned under the rough, splintered beam. As the ship pitched and rolled, Xena and Sercles lifted the mast enough for one of the men underneath to crawl out. But the other two had been hit squarely and their broken bodies lay twisted in a heap of netting and rope.
Xena looked toward the helm. It was unmanned and spinning violently out of control. She threw herself at it and held on tightly. Sercles was close behind her. "We've got to hold straight into the wind," she shouted. "If we get sideways, we'll go over."
"It's up to the gods now," Sercles said with a shake of his head.
"Maybe," Xena replied, "but if we can just hold steady, we can make it to that island."
Sercles looked in the direction Xena was pointing. There in the gloomy distance, a small, craggy piece of earth jutted out from the heaving water.
"Not where the captain had in mind to land," Sercles said, "but I'll be happy to put my foot down there."
Xena looked around. "Where is the captain? And the first mate?"
"Shiverin' in their quarters right about now, I'll wager." He let out a strained laugh. "Neither of them are what you might call sea-farin' men - not when the goin' gets this rough."
Sercles gave Xena an odd look out of the corner of his eye.
"And you, I'll make another wager, are no ship's cook, are you now? Not by the likes of how you handled yourself on that mast."
Xena turned to face the old man. "Cooking is not one of my many skills." The accent was now gone and she stood up to full height.
"I've a feelin' I don't want to find out what those skills are, do I...Xena?"
Xena's lips curved up slightly. "And I have a feeling, Sercles, that you won't have to."
Wave after buffeting wave brought the vessel closer to land, and just as the storm was beginning to abate, the sun broke through the clouds, casting a shimmering, silver path before them. With a shudder and a groan, the ship grounded deeply onto soft white sand, under the shadow of tall, rugged cliffs.