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The Burning Candle Part 2
Disclaimer: Xena and Gabrielle are the sole property of MCA/UNIVERSAL, no infringement, no monetary gains of any kind have passed before me and never will.
1)If you are squeamish about certain culinary oddities go no further.
2)If you are equally upset over threatened violence (and once again, no rape here) go no further, I do not wish to offend.
3)If you simply cannot bear our warrior heroine in embarrassing situations, be kind to your sensibilities and run away. Persons way too young (under 18 or 21 depending on your state) for questionable relations between two woman should open a nice book and read about how fast Dick can run...run...run...run...
Questions? Feedback? Send to: AHladis@aol.com
Mohod stood near a small cluster of assorted confined civilians shielding his eyes from the powerful glare of the sun.
"You have the gift of stating the obvious Mohod. If Ketaar says he will be somewhere, he will be there."
"A merit worthy of praise, yet I do not trust that smirking Greek."
Marduk unplugged a small water bag’s spout and took a sizable swallow. Empty staring eyes followed the mouthpiece’s path to his lips.
"Yes, in our trade it is always advisable to trust no one. For now we must have dealings with the man. Ketaar is considered the best," he said wiping a bronzed hand across his mouth.
Marduk offered the water supply to the other similar looking gentlemen.
"There was a time when we were the best," Mohod said taking the water bag from his twin brother.
"Friendly collaboration is good for business. Secondly, Ketaar has a better contact. He said he can get us more money."
"And those choice little items, of course, make him the best?"
Marduk smiled at his brother’s wry comment.
Ketaar sat angrily near a half-packed camel staring at his docile captive.
Xena obediently turned toward the source of the single irritated word. Her face was a mask of red and blue hues, her lips parched and caked with dried blood from the ordeal the night before; one good eye slowly wandered to meet his gaze.
"Yes you...and that other one have caused me a great deal of uneasiness. Why?"
His eyes searched Xena’s lost expression for an answer. Worry from not knowing where the "nice lady" was and trying to remain silent crowded her already confused thoughts.
Ketaar drew closer placing a hand on her shoulder. The gesture was as tender as any thoughtful person might do to express concern. Xena nervously flinched under his grasp.
"Discipline must be maintained. She knew the risk..."
His words trailed off remembering the desperate girl’s face while he squeezed the life from her.
"She knew what I’d do if I caught her trying to escape," Ketaar looked away for a moment, then turned his full attention on Xena again, "I regret killing the little chit. You can understand that much, can’t you?"
She was as blank on the subject of death as any child would be.
"Half-wit!" He said pushing away from her, "Foolish of me to expect you to comprehend."
Xena sank back despondently in her fetters.
Light footfalls coming into camp broke through Ketaar’s troublesome thoughts. Tarkau had finally returned.
"A sudden storm claimed them," he announced a little too joyfully, "I saw it all."
Ketaar smiled, his sharp white teeth almost sparkling as he looked up at his pleased henchman.
"This news you bring, disturbs me."
The preordained tableau
Played out incessantly
As in one long lusterless note
"I’m sorry that I have to leave you this way."
Gabrielle brushed away a light coating of sand from the cold face directly below her.
"I don’t even know your name."
She straightened out Bhalba’s faded embroidered vest and tried not to look at the deep half moon slash in his gut. He lay in a shallow grave, hands folded and neatly tied in place across his chest.
"How do your countrymen say goodbye?" Gabrielle thought about it for a moment, "I could speak a few words in your honor, would you like that?"
She fancied that his lips twitched in answer, but this of course was doubtful. Standing up and striking a somber pose, Gabrielle began to recite a eulogy:
"I’ve known you only a brief time as an enemy. I’ll never really be sure what happened back at the camp, but I’d like to believe you tried to help me. This barren wasteland and the Gods you worship are the only witnesses to my heartfelt gratitude."
Crouching down Gabrielle opened the little pouch she found around Bhalba’s neck and forced two coins into his mouth.
"Let the harsh shroud of sand become a soft cloud to bear you to your place of rest."
She pressed her lips to her fingers and laid them on Bhalba’s bare head.
Tarkau was a little taken aback by his leader’s statement and chose to say nothing.
"A pity. I would’ve liked that oaf to have suffered at my leisure. Come down and assist me with the rest of our cargo. We’ve no more time to waste here."
Tarkau dismounted quickly to help his boss only to be met with a knife under his chin.
"Do not think that I have forgotten your liberties with my property," Ketaar said as he advanced forward on his prey.
Tarkau backed up carefully; mindful of the sudden fury his master was capable of.
"I am interested solely in profit. Your thick-witted display of violence has greatly lessened her value. How am I to be compensated?"
Tarkau wasn’t immediately sure if Ketaar really wanted an answer or only wished to toy with him a while. His startled expression masked the contempt he felt for this man.
"She bit me earlier...she did it twice and..."
"---And you decided to take care of the transgression all by yourself?"
"I...I know it means less of a share..."
Ketaar lowered the knife and swiftly put it back in its hiding place inside his sleeve. Tarkau didn’t bother to conceal a huge sigh of relief.
"We’ll make up time lost by traveling at night."
He turned to Xena who hadn’t uttered a word in at least twelve hours.
"What say you imbecile? Do you approve?" Ketaar asked in a mocking tone, then snickered to himself.
Xena sat quietly, thinking only of Gabrielle’s last words to her: "We’ll go home...together."
Which way should she go? The storm had completely obliterated the camel’s tracks, so any hope of getting back to Xena that way was out of the question.
"Any ideas Grumpy?" she asked her burdened bristly companion as they stood on the darkening plains.
The beast honked excitably through its nose as it had done continuously since she led it up from the small incline less than an hour before.
Gabrielle smiled at her own silliness, but viewing what lay all around the smile soon turned into a look of distress. No hint of life could be detected anywhere in the distance. She wished she’d paid more attention to where the sun was just before the gale arrived.
Gabrielle felt like a mere spec in this land were the endless miles of sand appeared as vast as any ocean.
"Xena would’ve already had a plan, but Xena isn’t here," She gave the noisy animal a pat on its long neck, "Yes, it’s just you and me, alone at last."
The sun lowered further on the horizon. She’d have to make some kind of decision soon. Suddenly a pinpoint of light surfaced directly in front of her. It was dim and far away, but she could make it out clearly.
"It’s their campfire! I know it!"
Gabrielle climbed up onto the camel’s back.
"Hold on Xena, I’m coming to get you!"
She kicked the protesting beast into action and ambled somewhat un-heroically toward the source of the faint beacon.
"Make sure to hold the torch low and follow close."
Ketaar urged his animal cautiously on; Tarkau did what he was instructed to do, tagging along behind his leader as best he could.
Xena rode with Tarkau, once again tied to a fitted shelf on his beast’s right flank; the other side balanced evenly with an equally weighted load. Ketaar saw no reason to change the situation being that Tarkau had been duly warned.
Xena neared whatever could be judged as a breaking point. The desire to cry out from the physical and emotional pain was great. Still she had to keep her promise to Gabrielle. Xena closed her eyes and imagined that the "pretty lady" was holding her tight and the light breeze from the desert was her friend gently kissing her bruised face.
The initial burst of bravado had given way to utter frustration. It seemed as if she’d been following the moon for hours. Just as it appeared that she had gained some ground, the little glowing dot would draw further and further away.
"There must be a good reason for this Grumpy...we can’t be chasing an illusion," Gabrielle mumbled wearily to her snorting companion.
She was tired, every nerve in her body screamed for sleep. Her eyelids grew heavy and soon drooped onto themselves. Without being guided to do otherwise, the steady gait of the camel petered out to an eventual stop. There they rested for a time in the dark: the easily upset ‘ship of the desert’ and Xena’s devoted friend.
Tarkau jerked his camel’s head back in response with a sharp pull of the reins. The sudden jolt ripped Xena from her beautiful dream and back into harsh reality.
"I see them," Ketaar aimed his torch to the right, "Look there!"
"How far away are they?" Tarkau asked as he squinted his eyes to focus.
Ketaar’s self-satisfied tone saturated the air around them.
"Ah, my friend, ‘tis the act of skilled navigation that is priority. Move your camels swiftly, I want to be there by daybreak."
Tarkau checked on his ragged merchandise behind him then forced the trumpeting procession into a brisk jog.
She awoke with a shudder.
Gabrielle’s eyes gaped wide open in the gloom.
"Oh no! Oh God’s no!"
The tiny light Gabrielle had been pursuing disappeared while she slept. How far had she drifted from the course? Which way was she pointed in? As the seriousness of the situation became clearer, Gabrielle buried her face in her hands. In an instant the promising trail had turned cold.
There was no other alternative than to wait for daylight to continue looking for Xena.
Over on his far left a cloud of illuminated sand dust rose steadily into the violet sky.
Spotting Ketaar’s party, Marduk had elected himself to go out to meet them and escort the caravan back to camp. But when he reached this eagerly awaited band, Marduk was surprised to find only one contribution to the count and two of Ketaar’s men missing.
"What has happened to Bhalba and Diakka?"
Ketaar didn’t like the suspicious note to Marduk’s question. Tarkau nervously looked around and pretended to be occupied in a necessary task.
"They decided to take a different path...to Aleppo I believe," he lied.
Marduk found this news hard to accept. Those two men were seasoned criminals. It seemed unlikely that they would take it into their heads to walk away from easy money. He inspected the woman tethered to the side of Tarkau’s conveyance.
"Only this one miserable creature?"
"The others escaped during a sandstorm."
Marduk gently lifted her chin and turned it first to the left, then right.
"What did the woman do to warrant such a beating?" he carefully took his hand away.
"She attempted to escape with the others," Ketaar lied again, "I persuaded the simpleton that it was better to keep our company."
"You waste your talents in this way my man. I do not condone such doings."
Marduk unplugged a water jug and lifted it to Xena’s dry lips. She looked into his dark eyes; a hint of kindness softened the otherwise indifferent exterior he exhibited. Marduk quietly nodded his head to encourage her to drink. Xena started to sip at the cool liquid then swallowed each mouthful eagerly until the jug was empty.
"I see that you also take care of your property economically. When was the last time you gave this one water?" he said tossing away the empty receptacle.
"I believe I have allowed you enough time to question me. Let us continue on our way, or would you like to settle things here?"
Ketaar began to reach into a billowing sleeve for the knife hidden there--his answer for every disagreement.
"Very well then, no more questions. We go."
It wasn’t long before they arrived at the twin brother’s campsite. Mohod greeted Ketaar with a distrusting glare when he saw that half of his uncivilized gang were gone, and toting a single captive. Unlike his brother, he didn’t ask questions he already knew the answers to.
"Here you are at last master Ketaar. I see you bring with you a rich assortment of Syria’s prime citizens."
"Brother," Marduk interrupted, "He has explained the situation to my satisfaction. I believe a three-hour rest is in order, then we will leave for Baghdad. Do you agree to this, Ketaar?"
Ketaar was busily engaged in a venomous standoff with Mohod. He answered without removing his eyes from the other man’s face.
"A welcome recommendation. So say you as well, young wolf?"
"My brother is wise. I follow without question."
Marduk untied Xena and brought her down from the animal’s back. Unsteadily they walked to where a small group of prisoners were assembled. She automatically sat with them, remaining silent as a row of mournful eyes studied her.
Gabrielle watched the sunrise from atop a hill. Her fatigue in the night had used up precious time, but it wasn’t impossible to undo the damage. Soon it would be light enough to retrace ‘Grumpy’s’ footprints in the soft sand and start over again.
"I’ll find you Xena," she said softly, "We’ll watch the sun come up together, like we used to."
A few tears spilled onto her cheeks. There was the possibility that she wouldn’t be able to find Xena once she got to Baghdad. Then there was the other thing Gabrielle didn’t want to think about; the odds of Xena getting her memory back weren’t very good.
"First things first," Gabrielle declared as she wiped her tears away and mounted the kneeling beast.
She hadn’t deviated that far from the course at all, only about forty yards. Gabrielle corrected her position and headed once more towards the now absent glimmering pinpoint of light.
"Excuse me miss, what is your name please?"
Xena opened her eyes. She wasn’t sure if she really heard someone talking to her or not. There was a small tug at her elbow.
"What is your name?" the voice sounded a bit more insistent.
Xena looked down and traced the petite hand resting on her arm to its owner. A little girl peeped up at her through a mass of disheveled blond hair.
"My name is Penelope, what is your name?"
She thought for a moment, but couldn’t remember what the "nice lady" always called her.
"Don’t you have a name?"
Xena shook her head ‘no’. The child giggled.
"Everybody has a name. You’re funny," she giggled some more.
"I’ll give you a name, okay?"
Xena nodded and tried to smile, but her lips were too chapped and painful.
"I’ll call you..." Penelope eyed Xena closely, "...Daphne! You like it?"
She nodded again. Penelope prattled on.
"I’m going to marry a king when I grow up and wear pretty feathers in my hair."
The little girl stopped talking and pet at Xena’s least bruised cheek.
"Do you think I will be as beautiful as you are when I grow up?"
Xena didn’t know why this made her feel so sad. She started to cry.
"What’s the matter Daphne?"
Penelope slid closer and put her arms around Xena.
"Don’t cry, maybe we will be sold together and live in a big, big castle."
She welcomed the friendly embrace from the little girl, but it wasn’t to last long. Soon Xena and the other wretched prisoners were hastily loaded onto a train of restless, bad-tempered brutes. Marduk insisted that they be restrained with rope instead of chain. This change in routine deeply irritated Ketaar. He preferred shackles to mere braided cord; it gave him less to worry about.
With all the supplies and valuable cargo secured Marduk signaled his brother to begin moving the string of grumbling camel.
"Keep them in a straight line!" he called out to the men.
"One would conclude that they have taken charge," Ketaar said grinning to himself, "Go to it then my young friends, every dog will have its day."
The last leg of the long, torturous journey was under way.
Turbaned against the scorching sun, Gabrielle stared down at the narrow path of footprints that extended as far into the desert as she could see. There were no remains of a campfire, only these evenly spaced tracks in the sand.
The evidence was clear: Ketaar had piloted his merchandise at night.
" ‘Nobody sane travels far in the dark’," Gabrielle mumbled under her breath, "Your saying is truer than you realize, Xena."
She couldn’t calculate how old the tracks were; Gabrielle always deferred to Xena when it came to things like this. It might be hours, half a day; she had no way of telling. And if that wasn’t bad enough her water supply was running low and no food.
Tiny gray lizards darted here and there out of the way of her camel’s loping feet. An idea, a revolting idea, popped into her head: Lizards = Food. Vainly she eyed her surroundings looking for an alternative.
Dismounting, Gabrielle walked a short distance to a gathered mass of thin leafed shrubs. She knelt down and picked off a sizable blade then nibbled at it. An awful bitter flavor coated the inside of her mouth.
Gabrielle walked quickly back to Grumpy’s side spitting and frantically wiping off her tongue the whole way.
Penelope rode snugly beside her friend "Daphne". Tired out from her spirited prattle, the child’s head rocked limply against Xena’s arm in time to the rhythmic motion of each lumbering stride.
The light color of the sand had taken on a brownish hue, a sure sign that the caravan was getting closer to water. All the animals could sense it too, their nostrils flared and the pace quickened to a livelier gait.
Marduk purposely fell back to keep in step with Xena’s beast. He looked over at her and attempted a sympathetic veneer.
"We will reach the Euphrates soon, then you can bathe in her refreshing waters."
Xena couldn’t decipher his clipped dialect, but recognized the kindness in it. She smiled briefly at him until Ketaar’s sinister shape came into view.
"This imbecile can’t understand in her own tongue, she’ll not understand yours."
Marduk twisted around in his seat to find Ketaar eyeing Xena with a fair amount of contempt.
"Have you no pity in your heart for any of them?"
Ketaar threw back his head in laughter.
"Ha! I see my chattel has made a conquest! Bravo half-wit!"
Ignoring his associate’s sarcastic words, Marduk urged his mount once again to the head of the caravan. This occupation held no particular challenge for him anymore and he longed for an alternative to these expeditions.
"You make me almost jealous simple one," Ketaar softly addressed Xena in perfect Greek, "Will you not smile for me?"
He purred and caressed each word as they left his lips. The man’s lingering presence made Xena tremble with fear. Seeing her distressed attitude towards him Ketaar began to take his leave.
"No matter," he said brightly, "I will soon have gold in place of your charming company."
Gabrielle sprang and missed, then sprang and missed again; those little creatures were faster than they looked. As she lay on the ground her stomach started to rumble.
"Oh great," she said getting to her feet.
Slithering a short distance ahead a snake scurried through the sand. The odd thing about it was the fact that it moved sideways at a great rate. Gabrielle had never seen anything like this and marveled over the sight until she realized that a potential meal was getting away.
Many times in the past when their food supply and money were low, Xena would bring back snake for them to eat. Not bad cooked, but raw? Gabrielle tried not to think of this as she ran back to her somewhat patiently kneeling sidekick and grabbed the golden chakram from were she had concealed it.
The sun beat down mercilessly as Gabrielle dashed after her fleeing cuisine. She lightly tossed the glittering ring at the moving target, only succeeding in looping it over the snake’s head from which embrace it quickly escaped.
Snatching up the weapon again, Gabrielle screeched out an eccentric version of Xena’s battle cry and pounced on her prey severing off its head in one clean stroke. The snake’s body coiled in a slow undulating dance of death on the dusty ground.
For a moment she considered capering about in a sort of victory frolic, then thought the better of it.
"How stupid would I look doing that?"
Upon returning to Grumpy, Gabrielle jumped in the air clicking her heels together before lightly coming down to earth again.
Marduk sat quietly on a low cliff, which overlooked a spectacular view of the beautiful blue Euphrates River. Green grasses grew in abundance around the shallow banks on each side. A fair breeze wafted up the lush aroma of gently waving vegetation.
He took in a deep breath and closed his eyes, savoring this peaceful scene for the few moments he had to himself.
Tarkau soon broke into Marduk’s serene musings.
"Should I start them down the path, or are we to rest here first?"
"Keep everything moving, we will rest by the water’s edge."
One by one the tired group were carefully led down the tight trail that brought them directly to a pleasant emerald fairway.
"Ketaar and I will remove the stock as well as water and feed the herd. I don’t want the cargo unloaded. Mohod and Tarkau, I want you to begin bathing these slaves for Rhasis. They won’t fetch much in their present condition."
"Please master," a dry voice spoke up in broken Arabic, "I can bathe the female captives, if you so desire."
This young pregnant prisoner didn’t like the idea of two rough slave-traders pawing over an innocent child or a simple-minded woman either. As for herself she was used to being mistreated, yet felt the other two should be allowed some dignity.
"Very well. You will take one at a time," Marduk took her down first.
"Trusting a captive is not advisable. These can be capable of anything."
Marduk had grown weary of Ketaar always at his elbow giving unsolicited opinions. He lashed out suddenly.
"I hardly think a woman heavy with child poses much of a threat. As for the little one and your contribution I would say the situation speaks loud enough for itself."
Marduk opened a large white sack and pulled out a bar of soap and three thick robes that he handed to the woman after untying her.
"Take the small one first. After you are through dress them and yourself in these."
He then passed a bundle to her that was stuffed with an assortment of clean clothing. She nodded and took Penelope by the hand leading her to the calm cool river to tidy up.
Xena in the meantime waited passively on the grass for her turn at the bath. Mohod and Tarkau had their hands full with the two male captives further down stream. Neither was cut out for this kind of chore and they weren’t being too gentle about it.
"What is your name sweetheart?" The young woman asked while wetting the child’s hair.
"Penelope," she answered timidly.
"That’s a very pretty name," she continued as she worked the soap gently into Penelope’s hair, "My name is Leda."
"Oh, I like your name too!"
Leda knew her way around children; before long Penelope was chatting away animatedly about her big plans for an improbable future.
She wrapped Penelope in one of the heavy robes and it dragged on the ground as they left the shallows.
"You are so tiny, I’m afraid I might lose you in the folds," Leda said drying off the orphan.
The girl was then dressed in a simple light pull over garment one size too big for her. Leda brought Penelope back to the waiting area where she was immediately commanded to take care of the next prisoner.
"It’s your turn now."
She knelt down smiling and offered Xena her hand to take. The gesture had been so reassuring that Xena took Leda’s hand without a second thought. They walked together into the clear blue water waist deep. When Leda was sure the two of them were out of earshot she spoke openly to Xena.
"I know who you are," she said with an artificial smile so that the traders wouldn’t pay any attention to her, "I recognized you the moment they brought you into camp this morning. Are you pretending to be mindless?"
Leda looked for any sign of intelligence in Xena’s eyes. Sadly, she saw none. Xena was completely mystified.
"No, you are not pretending. The warrior woman is gone."
A bright smile still decorated her face, but a sympathetic tear fell for this once brilliant leader.
"I’m a little mouse," Xena whispered.
Leda stared at the woman in front of her.
"A mouse?" She furrowed her brow not understanding Xena at all.
"A quiet little mouse," Xena answered splashing at the water.
"Is this a game? Are you trying to tell me something?"
"It’s our secret," she said playing with the floating bar of soap.
"Who’s secret are you keeping?"
Xena looked to see if Tarkau or Ketaar were watching.
"The nice lady and me; our secret."
"What is the secret?"
"I’m as quiet as a mouse."
When Leda started to wash Xena’s hair she discovered what the trouble might be. There sat the large sewn gash near her hairline. Some silk thread Gabrielle had stitched into it was still visible. Leda pulled out the remaining strands of silk noting what a skillful job someone had executed and finished washing her hair.
"Did the nice lady fix your wound too?"
"Where is this nice lady now?" Leda asked while gently cleaning Xena’s beaten face.
"Far away...she loves me."
Leda could only assume that the "nice lady" Xena spoke of was dead.
She gazed cryptically at the raw pieces of snake lying in an unappetizing row.
As hungry as Gabrielle was, she couldn’t bring herself to eat.
"What I wouldn’t do for a little flint," she mumbled.
None of the rocks around her were of any use, although some of them seemed hot enough to cook on. At this point she’d try anything.
Placing the meat in a line of strips on a sizable sun-heated flat stone she turned a smaller slab lying next to it over so that the snake pieces were sandwiched between them.
The tiniest of sizzling sounds emerged from her bit of ingenuity. In a few minutes the meat was cooked enough to be mostly edible.
"Want some?" she asked holding up a morsel to her sour tempered transport.
The animal only snorted and turned its head away.
A few miles of following the usual sparse set of tracks, she came upon what looked like the remains of a large campsite. Three extinguished campfires lay several feet apart and the area was scattered with footprints both animal and human.
This was it. It had to be the place where Ketaar met up with others like himself. Gabrielle promptly took off on Grumpy and raced across the desert, chasing the multitude of camel tracks to what she hoped would lead her to "God given".
"There now, that’s better isn’t it?"
Leda dried Xena off and quickly helped her put on a fresh decorative dress that came just below her knees. She chose a larger billowing blue top to accommodate the extra load she was carrying
"I’m afraid you will fare badly in this condition," Leda said very softly, "People can be so cruel to the afflicted," she clasped Xena’s hands in hers, "I wish you well princess."
"Start loading the sheep!" Ketaar abruptly announced, "Time is wasting."
Marduk and his brother had to agree with their temporary ally. They were already a day overdue.
"You are correct friend, it is time to leave."
Leda quickly embraced Xena before being hastily snatched away to be packed on the caravan. Then Xena was tied onto a waiting animal with Penelope happily taking the vacancy next to her.
One of the male captives tried to escape by diving into the water, but it wasn’t freedom he sought; he wanted death. It took three of the party to drag the poor screaming fellow out of the river. All he got for his efforts was a gag stuffed into his mouth and heavy chains to bind him.
"Be warned scum," Ketaar cautioned the man, "Behave or we shall drag you the rest of the way."
He stopped struggling and reluctantly resigned himself to his unknown fate.
An exquisite sight came into view. For a moment Gabrielle thought she was seeing a shimmering mirage.
Reaching the top of a low cliff, Gabrielle couldn’t believe her eyes. A wide ribbon of heavenly blue water stretched out before her.
"By the Gods!" she said leaping off her camel’s back and leading him down the narrow path to this welcome gift.
Gabrielle let go of the reins. She untied and removed her boots, stripped off her clothes then jumped into the cool velvety liquid. In sharp contrast to Gabrielle’s exuberant cavorting around in the water, Grumpy loped casually into the shallows and started to drink his fill. She splashed about then ducked her head underwater. It was all too beautiful, and couldn’t be savored for any length of time. Gabrielle knew that the caravan hadn’t departed that long ago. Fresh deep prints led across the fordable end of the river. A heavily laden fleet of camel had obviously passed through.
She got dressed in a hurry then filled the water bags and waited for her hungry comrade to finish eating the lush greenery.
A dozen things raced through her mind at once. Gabrielle had several plans laid out clearly in her head. The one big obstacle was of course the language barrier.
"I’ll just have to gesture until someone understands me," she thought to herself.
Success in that area had been somewhat lacking lately.
"Or I could disguise myself. Xena always preferred it. Yes, that is the sensible thing to do."
Gabrielle checked to see what she had tucked away in the small pack tied on Grumpy’s howdah: a shabby hooded robe, and an extra length of cloth for a turban. She then spilled out the pouch of coins onto the hard ground. There sat a small fortune in gold and silver pieces. Bhalba had been a very frugal man to save up this much money. What he intended to do with it was anyone’s guess.
Before leaving this lovely setting, Gabrielle stood thoughtfully on the bank.
"I give tribute to the Gods for safely bringing us this far in search for my dearest friend Xena," she then threw a gold coin into the sparkling water, "and if you can see that she and I make it back home just as safely I will be eternally grateful."
Gabrielle took out another gold coin and kissed it before tossing it into the river.
Baghdad’s heavenly gates
Beckon to all,
"Draw near and
Sample our wealth."
Passing through the fabled gates on foot frightened Xena terribly; she clung to Penelope in sheer terror from their imposing height. Ketaar and Marduk conducted the procession of slaves to their promised destination. Tarkau and Mohod were left behind to board the herd in one of the many convenient stables located outside the crowded city.
"I believe ‘The House of Rhasis’ is this way," Ketaar declared over the noise of the bustling street.
"Is that the fastest route?"
Marduk didn’t like dark cramped alleys and he didn’t trust Ketaar at all.
"It is not far, my friend. Perhaps you would feel safer leading the way?"
Ketaar’s mean little grin convinced Marduk to let him be the guide. This was more his territory anyway.
"Go ahead, I will keep up."
Squeezing tightly past the endless winding corridor of people they arrived at a large door with a gaily painted plaque nailed on it:
"The House of Rhasis, dealer in rare articles."
Ketaar raised the heavy brass knocker in the shape of a dragon and rapped hard on the door. Immediately a square cutout opened. A guard on the other side of the door peered out suspiciously at the smiling patron.
"The sparrow awaits the cat," Ketaar recited smoothly.
A bolt unlocked and the portal opened into a huge elegant hallway. The small group filed in then the guard bolted the door behind them.
"YOU ARE LATE!" The booming words echoed off the gilded mirrors and marble columns.
Rhasis, a short round princely looking gentleman came into view, somewhat less imposing than his voice.
"Unavoidable circumstances----" Ketaar started to say and was abruptly cut off.
"Never mind that, let me see what you have brought."
He advanced on the five captives, looking them over swiftly.
"I count five, the contract was for six!"
"This one is with child. I make that six."
Rhasis smiled at his sly partner.
"Still the wily fox aren’t you," he said patting Ketaar on the back, "Ah, but truth be told I do not care for this one."
Rhasis had stopped in front of Xena. He turned her chin to the left and slowly right.
"You know how I feel about damaged goods. I will have to do much tinkering with her ugly face."
"Daphne is beautiful!" Penelope shouted, Leda tried to put a tied hand over the child’s mouth.
"So, I have a skilled opinion!" He pat her on the head and chuckled, "And what are her other attributes little miss?"
Ketaar winced slightly; he didn’t want the truth to be known until he was well on his way.
"Should we not go over the business end first?"
"If I didn’t know any better, I would say you were trying to hide something from me. Is there a hidden problem with this one as well?"
Neither Ketaar nor Marduk could think of a clever reply.
"You," Rhasis said addressing Marduk, "You have been very quiet. What say you about this woman?"
Marduk hesitated in answering.
"Well...Ketaar said she only understands Greek..."
"She is of a gentle nature," Ketaar interjected for his flustered colleague.
"Then why the beating? Come, come gentlemen enough of this," he turned to Xena and spoke in her native language, "Are you of a pleasing nature?"
Xena shifted around nervously; she had no idea what he was talking about.
"She is either deaf or simple," once again he questioned her, "How old are you?"
She shook her head ‘no’ and continued to fidget.
"What is your name?"
"Mouse," Xena replied softly.
"A battered idiot! How am I to make a profit? This is unsatisfactory."
"She is strong Mr. Rhasis, and would be good with children," Marduk offered.
"Most of my clients do not have children and wouldn’t want a grown up one either."
Ketaar knew he’d have to bargain or get stuck with the goods.
"I’ll make you an offer, if you lose money you can take it out of my next shipment."
"If she makes extra I will split the difference with you. Done?" Rhasis smiled.
Rhasis and Ketaar shook hands like old friends. Rhasis handed him a hefty purse, then called his burly guard over to shepherd the captives away.
"There is extra in the purse for the men. Tell me, how did you capture them?"
Marduk suddenly smiled uncharacteristically.
"They were taken at the same time as the expecting one."
Many sordid pictures entered Rhasis’ mind.
"I see," he said returning a lecherous smile.
Baghdad; it rose up imperiously from the desert floor, dazzling in its bleak whiteness. The magnificent vaulted gates lived up to every story she ever heard about them. Gabrielle gaped at the celebrated entrance in complete awe.
She felt a tap on her boot. A small boy with a red cone shaped hat on was asking her something.
"I’m sorry, I don’t understand," Gabrielle answered smiling down at him.
The boy put up his hand in a gesture for her to wait. He soon returned with a friend in tow. The friend spoke up.
"Are you new to our city?" he said in a familiar accent.
Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief.
"Why yes, how did you know?"
"All new visitors stare at our gate that way," he opened his eyes wide to mimic them.
She laughed at the boy’s imitation of a foreigner.
"My friend wants to know if he can stable your animal for you."
Gabrielle slid neatly off the camel’s back and untied a tight bundle to take with her.
"Can I trust him?"
"Oh yes lady, I will be helping too."
"Okay," she handed him the reins, "Who are you?"
"I am Tytus, he is Amir."
"I’m Gabrielle," she took out two silver pieces and gave one to each, "I may be a while, if you are both still here I’ll give you two more."
The boys stared at the silver coin in their palms.
"It shall be done!"
Amir excitably tied an orange cloth strip to the harness, then handing Gabrielle a strip of the same color cloth both boys raced off to the stables with Grumpy.
Looking straight up as she walked through the gates, Gabrielle couldn’t help feeling rather intimidated and tiny by comparison.
"I CAN STILL SEE THE MARKS!" Rhasis bellowed to his cosmetician, "COVER THEM UP!"
Yet another layer of powder had to be applied to Xena’s bruised cheek and eye. When completed, all the heavy make-up on Xena’s face gave her an odd appearance, falling somewhere between kabuki and circus performer.
Pleased with the results, Rhasis motioned his guards to start transporting the others to the auction block.
"We’re late, send the men out first."
One of the guards turned a large key in a lock located in the floor; he then lifted a plain wooden trapdoor and secured it open with an iron bar. Stone steps led down to a slippery tunnel that ran under the busy streets to the main square.
Slaves had recently been hard to come by and many buyers traveled from far and wide to vie for what Rhasis had to offer at auction and they were getting impatient. They knew that if anyone could provide something scarce it would be Rhasis.
"I have been waiting for two whole days! Where are the goods?" a wealthy merchant yelled.
"I am leaving, Rhasis has failed for the first time to provide slaves," said another.
"Ha, be patient old man! He can draw wine from a stone!" one of the buyers called back.
"Yes, but would you chance to drink it?"
Some of the crowd laughed.
A loud drum roll sounded from behind a curtain whereupon it flew open and out stepped Rhasis up onto the elevated stage in his finest outfit of blue and yellow satin brocade. He put up his hand to silence the large gathering. A hush of anticipation came over everyone, even the most rowdy.
"I have an interesting collection to sell, for today I offer two men---"
"---Elderly men, like the last time?" a wealthy widow inquired.
Laughter echoed through the crowd.
"Two young men madam, young enough to make you feel young again!"
He clapped his hands and the men were roughly pulled onto the stage. The people ‘ooh’d’ and ‘ahh’d’ to see such fine specimens before them.
"I will start off the bidding at Thirty shekels of silver for this dark one."
"I have forty-five shekels for this rare sample of manhood, who will give me fifty? You madam, how about you? He’ll make a nice bed warmer for those long cold nights!"
Rhasis rolled each tantalizing word off his tongue suggestively.
"No, I do not like dark ones, I’m waiting for the sandy-haired one!"
The customers laughed some more.
"I have forty-five going once, forty-five going twice...sold to the red bearded gentleman for forty-five shekels. And a very good price it is indeed."
The first prisoner was dragged off the stage and the other one pushed forward.
"Here is my second offering of a higher quality. More muscle and better looking I might add. I’m starting the bid off at forty shekels..."
"I have sixty-five before me dear madam. What say you to seventy?"
The middle aged woman tapped her fingers and eyed the nervous slave on the stage.
"Seventy it is!"
"I have seventy...seventy going once...seventy going twice...SOLD! Well done madam! Enjoy your new pet!"
He also got dragged roughly from the stage. Rhasis clapped his hands for the next two to be brought up onto the block.
"Now feast your eyes on this lovely young woman carrying a bonus as you all can see."
"What can I do with a pregnant wench?" an older man asked.
"Plenty my friend! She was captured practicing, shall I say...one of her many hidden talents with the two gentlemen I just sold!"
Leda stood motionless on stage, trying to block out of her mind the numerous catcalls and whistles.
"I also have this little one here..."
Rhasis lifted Penelope into his arms."
"Smart, and not afraid to speak her mind, are you pretty miss?" he asked her in Greek.
"My name is Penelope," she said in a slightly annoyed tone.
"See? Just as I said friends, smart."
"I don’t know what she said. The child speaks in a foreign tongue."
"Just so. You can teach her Arabic and she can translate when you travel! I’ll start the bidding off at twenty shekels."
"Are they mother and child?" a tallish man from the back row asked.
"No, they are quite unrelated. Twenty shekels is the opening bid for the woman, do I hear twenty-five...?"
"I would like to buy them together," the same man stated plainly.
"What is your offer?"
"Ninety shekels for both?"
"Can anyone top his generous offer?"
Some of the gathering shook their heads no.
"Very well then, SOLD! You now have a family my man, and at a bargain!
The man walked up to the stage where Rhasis passed Penelope down to him.
"My name is Jabor," he said smiling at the little girl in his arms.
Leda was brought to him immediately. Jabor tossed a small purse up to Rhasis. Jabor cut their bonds and took Leda’s trembling hand.
"I have a small daughter at home who needs a woman in her young life," he said in a broken accent.
Leda looked up at him. He wasn’t handsome but his eyes were kind. Jabor started to walk slowly away with Leda and Penelope on each side of him.
"I hope you both will in time come to see us as friends."
"And now for my final offering of the afternoon..."
Rhasis clapped his hands together for the last time. Xena was dragged up and pushed forward.
"This is a young woman who is of a tender disposition. I understand she is good with children. For her I shall leave the bidding open. Who will start the bid off?"
The crowd seemed stunned for a few moments and then the scattered chuckles began. Xena stared out at the masses with innocent wide-eyed wonder.
"What is she supposed to be?" a heckler in front began.
"Yeah, she looks like a street entertainer with all that grease paint," another one yelled.
"She must be really ugly under that stuff," one rowdy teenager said and jumped onto the stage.
He wiped half her make-up away with his sleeve revealing the battered side of Xena’s face before he was thrown off.
A lone figure was hurrying its way through the boisterous mob.
"She looks kind of feeble-minded to me! Hey stupid, what day is it?"
"Please everyone, calm down!" Rhasis tried to stop the barrage of insults to his property, "Let’s try to act like civilized human beings!"
A nimble hand grabbed his wrist and pressed three gold coins into his sweaty palm. The stranger then walked on stage, cut Xena’s bindings, and hastily escorted her away from this painful humiliation.
Rhasis could hardly believe his eyes! It was much more than he ever dreamed he’d get for her.
"Thank you for your patronage...umm...sir or is it madam? Please call again!" he yelled after the silent customer.
Rhasis instantly pocketed the gold coins. It was unlikely he’d disclose the true amount he received to Ketaar.
The hooded patron hurried through congested street after congested street leading Xena along at a fast trot. Rounding a corner she was pulled abruptly into a shaded alcove. Momentarily shielded by this smaller person’s body she scarcely had time to catch a breath for almost at the same instant Xena found herself in a loving embrace with a head buried firmly against her shoulder. She stood stiffly in this hold for some time until a sob-choked voice called her by a familiar name.
"I missed you...so much Xena."
Xena pushed back the hood and turban revealing a cascade of soft blond hair.
"Lady?" she hesitantly squeezed from her throat.
"Yes sweetie...it’s me!"
Xena collapsed into a tearful heap on the ground. Gabrielle kneeled down and gently enfolded her dear friend in sheltering arms.
"You went away," Xena said almost inaudibly, "far away...without me."
Gabrielle lifted Xena’s face to look into her beautiful blue eyes and began to lightly wipe off the smeared paint using the hem of her robe.
"I didn’t want to leave you Xena. I got taken away against my will."
The red and purple bruises across her cheek slowly became fully visible as more of the whitish substance was removed. Xena was really vague about what she just heard and tried hard to make sense of it.
"You will stay now?"
Gabrielle delicately kissed her injured cheek.
"Yes sweetie, I’m staying right here by your side."
Xena smiled and joyfully threw her arms around Gabrielle and squeezed her a little too tight. Gabrielle didn’t mind though, she had her friend back in body anyway, that’s all that really mattered. Xena let go and sat quietly while the last of the make-up was completely wiped off.
Gabrielle got to her feet and helped Xena up.
"Let’s go find some food I’m starving."
They walked hand in hand back onto the main street and disappeared amongst the crushing multitude of Baghdad’s bustling citizens.
"The remedy is at times
Worse than the affliction"
It was amazing how many different shops and street venders were wedged together on a single street. Clothing, fruit, trinkets, spices-- so many things! The numerous mouth-watering odors drifting up from open cooking pots and the myriad variety of pre-cooked treats native to these parts were too appetizing to pass up.
Xena was more interested in the jewelry vendor’s wares. All the sparkling necklaces hanging on the display rack held her spellbound.
"Pretty!" she exclaimed excitably.
"Wait for me here Xena, I’ll be right back, okay?"
Xena absently nodded yes.
Gabrielle soon returned with handfuls of different delicacies. They walked to a quieter side street and found a pleasant spot to sit and open the little packages of food folded in thin brown parchment. Xena dug into everything in sight, each morsel was more delicious than the last. Gabrielle kept pace with her pretty well; after that desert snake episode this was like a king’s banquet.
When they were done she wiped Xena’s face and hands, then packed up the leftovers for later.
For a while they sat quietly; Xena with her head resting comfortably in Gabrielle’s lap soon started to drift into a nap. She idly stroked Xena’s hair and wondered if she would ever be herself again. This childlike version was endearing, but Gabrielle would’ve given anything for one good sidelong-eyebrow-raised glance from the old Xena.
"I’ve got to do something to help you," she whispered, "but what?"
Those bruises on her face didn’t look good either and Gabrielle feared that there might be a break. The only thing to be done was to find a physician of some kind.
"Sweetie?" she lightly shook her friend’s arm.
Xena’s eyes opened and focused on the concerned face gazing down at her. She smiled and brought Gabrielle’s hand to her lips and kissed it fondly.
"Um...we have to go get you fixed up," Gabrielle said sounding really flustered.
She still found it difficult to adjust to Xena’s surprising shows of affection.
"I love you lady," Xena stated in her usual child’s voice and kissed her hand again.
"I...ah...love you too Xena."
Gabrielle could feel the blush already on her cheeks getting redder. She carefully slid herself out from under Xena’s head and got to her feet. Xena sat up and looked at her little friend quizzically.
"You mad at me?"
"No Xena. Let me help you up, it’s time to go."
Gabrielle put out her hands for Xena to take. Xena sighed and stood up with her friend’s assistance.
"You look funny," she said furrowing her brow.
"I’m fine. Let’s go."
Gabrielle took Xena’s arm and headed for the main gate. If Tytus was still there he might be able to help her find medical aide.
Way on the other end of town Ketaar was downing his third drink at an inn. He had just settled up with the twins and they were off to gather another quota of unsuspecting ‘sheep’ to sell at market.
"Lucky for Mohod that I did not slice his arrogant throat," Ketaar drunkenly mumbled to himself.
He was about to lift his glass to his lips when a hard slap landed across his back knocking him forward.
"Look who sits so calmly drinking by himself!"
His drink splashed on the table in front of him. Angrily Ketaar yanked out his knife and turned around.
"Hey! You wouldn’t want to kill an old friend would you?"
Ketaar smiled and put away the weapon. It was indeed a good friend he hadn’t seen in a very long time.
"Ghazi! Dear fellow, you nearly lost your life!"
"Ah yes, always in a bad humor aren’t you! Why are you alone? I would think you would want to celebrate!"
"Celebrate? Celebrate what?"
It had been weeks since Ketaar seriously imbibed and his head swam a bit.
"Why...your great find of course!"
"Speak plainly Ghazi, I do not follow."
"Ha! So modest! I am talking of Xena, my brilliant friend. Your capture of the famous warrior!" Ghazi proudly declared patting Ketaar on the shoulder, "Tell me, how did you do it?"
It wasn’t difficult to locate the two boys; they were energetically running back and forth with their little strips of brightly colored orange cloth stabling new customer’s camels.
"Tytus!" Gabrielle called out to him.
Tytus promptly stopped in mid-stride and ran up to her a little out of breath.
"The foreign miss! Do you want your animal?"
"Not just yet. I need you for an important mission."
He opened his eyes in wonder.
"I need a healer for my friend," Gabrielle gestured to Xena, "Can you bring me to one?"
Tytus looked up at Xena; she was nervously shifting from one foot to the other.
"It is greatly distressing," he said staring at her injured face, "I will help you."
He ran over to Amir and spoke to him for a few moments then returned.
"I am ready. Come with me."
Tytus took Gabrielle’s hand and escorted the two women through the imposing gates once more and into the lively city.
"Xena? I did not capture Xena."
Ketaar swigged down the rest of what was in his glass and then signaled the barkeep for another drink.
"My friend, I ought to know what I saw at the auction this afternoon. I suppose with such a prize as that one would feel as if a life’s goal has been met. But cheer up, there are still bigger fish to net."
"You are talking rubbish Ghazi. What you saw was a half-wit not worth the clothes she stood in."
Ketaar then launched into a series of cryptic chuckles. Ghazi put a hand over his glass to stop him from taking another sip.
"The woman had been reduced to imbecile it is true and that fool Rhasis painted her face to disguise a beating, but you cannot tell me it was not Xena."
"You are mistaken."
"I fought on the wrong side of her sword in Amphipolis many years ago. There is no mistake."
The agonizing thought that he had let a profitable opportunity slip through his fingers slowly began to dawn on him. All the little faded images became clearer.
"OF COURSE, THE ARMOR! THE RIDER IN THE STORM! I AM THE IMBECILE!" Ketaar screamed, "WHO BOUGHT HER?"
"You have to get hold of your senses," Ghazi urged Ketaar, "the purchaser is long gone by now."
"WHO BOUGHT HER?"
Ketaar pulled out his knife and pointed it at his friend. A terrible pain then seized the back of his head. Stumbling awkwardly off his chair he made a futile attempt to stand. Ghazi grabbed Ketaar to keep him from falling.
"Those spells are getting the better of you old friend, why not see to it and forget about this loss?"
Ketaar lowered his voice and dropped the blade.
"Please, I must know...who bought her?"
"I did not see the face, but the patron was small in stature almost like---"
"---A woman!" Ketaar completed the sentence for him.
"Here is the location," Tytus announced suddenly.
Gabrielle eyed the crumbling stone staircase that led up the outside of a very dilapidated building with a measure of uneasiness. Ignoring the obvious, Tytus merrily hopped to the top of the landing and motioned them to follow.
"This isn’t exactly the way I’d like to die," Gabrielle said as she carefully made her way up the broken steps.
Xena braced herself against the wall, following Gabrielle as close as she could.
"Whatever you do Xena, don’t look down."
"Why?" Xena unsteadily asked.
"Because I just did and I wish I hadn’t."
When they got to the landing Tytus was patiently waiting.
"Tabari is inside. He is expecting you."
Bottles of every size and description lined the walls and large urns cluttered the limited floor space. Gabrielle and Xena had to walk an obstacle course to get to Tabari’s examination couch.
"Hello, hello ladies, come right this way," Tytus translated for them.
Tabari was an interesting fellow. His clothes were neat but his gray hair stuck out every which way.
"Ah! I see who is not feeling so good. Madam, do sit down." Tytus echoed in Greek.
Xena looked at Gabrielle for guidance and saw that she nodded that it was okay to sit. Tabari took out a huge jeweler’s loop and placed it in his eye then he moved a lit oil lantern closer to Xena’s face. Gently examining her bloodshot eye and badly bruised cheek he got up and quickly pulled one of the smaller glass bottles from a shelf.
"It is bad, but happily nothing is broken or permanently damaged, you may however experience double vision in that eye for many weeks until it heals. This is for the face, do not get it into your eye."
Tabari smoothed a little of the clear salve on Xena’s injury.
"There is one more thing," Gabrielle piped up, "She had a bad fall not long ago and since then she can’t remember who she is."
Tytus’s voice trailed a few seconds after hers in Arabic. Tabari further examined Xena’s head then shook his own making the equivalent of a ‘tisk, tisk’ noise.
"I cannot do anything for that, I am sorry. Perhaps Al-Juba may be able to help you."
Gabrielle held out a variety of small coins in her hand and Tytus took two copper pieces and gave it to him.
"I hope Al-Juba can do something for her," he said handing the little bottle to Gabrielle.
He said a few words to Tytus and he nodded back.
"We have a short distance to go. Please, come with me."
He raced to the bottom of the staircase this time and laughingly waited for the two scared women to walk down.
The short distance happened to be quite a few streets away. Presently they came upon a street-level door with a painting of a huge hand with symbols all over the palm.
Tytus knocked hard on the door and soon it opened.
"Yes? What do you want, I’m very busy!"
"Well you see, my friend had an accident and now she doesn’t know who she is,"
Gabrielle explained, and Tytus quickly rattled it off in Arabic.
"Possibly a blessing for her husband no doubt," he said in a cranky tone.
Gabrielle waited for the translation to filter back to her. She was not amused.
"Can you help her or not?"
"We shall see. Come along."
Al-Juba brought Xena over to an operating table.
"Sit here," he instructed and Xena obeyed.
He made her trace his finger with her eyes without moving her head; he tapped her first on a knee, then on an elbow. He examined the wound on her head and sighed.
"From the angle of the damage I assume she is without intelligence?" he asked bluntly.
Gabrielle knew that fact about her friend stuck out a mile long, but she didn’t like people referring to Xena as stupid.
"She has changed back into a child," Gabrielle snapped back.
"Just so," he said under his breath, "The injury is severe. I can prescribe a mixture of herbs but there is a strong possibility that your friend will always be somewhat... limited."
"You make it sound like I should just give up," Gabrielle said almost tearing over, "She is the most important thing in the world to me," she paused to collect herself then added, "Very well, give her something and we’ll be on our way."
Al-Juba observed the strained sound to Gabrielle’s voice. Her concern for this wretched creature was admirable.
"Young woman, your friend is fortunate in one respect. She has someone who loves her."
He made up a noxious potion of pineapple mint, poppies, juice from mistletoe leaves, and a lot of other things Gabrielle couldn’t recognize.
"Here drink this," Al-Juba said handing Xena a small vile of the black liquid.
Poor Xena tried several times to get it close enough to her mouth but the horrible odor got in the way. Gabrielle reached up and pinched Xena’s nose closed.
"Try now sweetie," she urged.
Xena gulped down the hideous elixir in one big swallow. For a moment everything was fine, then she broke out in a sweat and her face got flushed. Xena gagged and held her throat. Tytus picked up the fallen vile sniffed it and immediately recoiled from the fumes.
"Is this supposed to be happening?"
Gabrielle held onto Xena who now started violently trembling.
"It is a normal reaction. I promise you she is in no danger."
She finally began to calm down and sank to the floor completely unconscious.
"Is it working?"
"We will know when the woman wakes."