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The Burning Candle The Conclusion
Disclaimer: Xena and Gabrielle are the sole property of MCA/UNIVERSAL. No transgression is intended, no payment do I ask for this story, other than your reading enjoyment.
Warning: Although not terribly graphic, this story contains questionable relations between two groovy mythological chicks. There are scenes of violence, however rape is not one of them.
Any persons under the legal age (18 or 21) of their state should use caution lest they be punished severely by TPTB.
Questions? Comments? Write to: Ahladis@aol.com
Muffled music of street musicians floated through the heavily shuttered windows. The lilting strains of their instruments lent an innocent background flavor to the desperate atmosphere inside Al-Juba’s dispensary.
Gabrielle held Xena’s head in her lap softly petting her burning cheek waiting for the effects of the potion to wear off. Tytus sat with them on the floor nearby, ready to translate as needed.
"Miss?" Tytus broke the silence, "Your friend, she will be all right, do not look so sad."
Gabrielle didn’t know how to answer the little boy without starting to cry. She just nodded slowly keeping her full attention on Xena’s face watching for any subtle change. The slim possibility that Xena might be restored as her warrior friend again gave Gabrielle a tiny glimmer of hope.
"Will she remember me?" she asked not looking up.
"She is in Allah’s hands young one," Al-Juba addressed Gabrielle, "I am merely his instrument to bring matters to their preordained conclusion."
Gabrielle waited patiently for Tytus to finish translating and was about to speak when Xena stirred a little. Her brow furrowed and a moan escaped from her throat.
"Xena?" Gabrielle managed to choke out in a frayed octave.
Her eyes snapped open and she sat bolt upright. Xena scanned the room with a sudden animal agitation. Twisting around to face the hopeful young woman beside her, Xena’s features quickly softened; she reached for Gabrielle’s hand and brought it slowly to her lips. Smiling sweetly Xena kissed Gabrielle’s hand then held it against her cheek.
"Xena?" this time it was definitely a plea.
Xena looked at the serious faces staring at her and settled on the most familiar of all three.
"I’m thirsty," came the high pitched child’s voice.
Gabrielle’s heart sank in her chest. Her dear friend was still a little girl.
"Yes, it is she, I know it!"
Ketaar’s triumphant leer unnerved his old comrade.
"Who are you speaking of?" Ghazi helped him onto another chair.
"My slave, my property," he said with a wistful reverence, "She is clever, I told her so and that is what she is! You will not escape me again, no not this time little chit."
"Ha! Impossible, a woman has outfoxed you? She must be no ordinary woman."
"Indeed she is not. Tarkau has much explaining to do."
With his temporary seizure forgotten, Ketaar rose from his chair and went to retrieve the fallen knife.
"You’re not going so soon...?" Ghazi started to signal the barkeep, "Let me at least replace the drink I made you spill."
"I take my leave of you dear fellow," he said replacing the dagger in its usual spot, "There is much to be done and little time to do it in."
"Friend Ketaar, will you not abandon your fruitless search and talk over old times? This mission will serve no useful purpose."
Ketaar patted Ghazi’s arm fondly and walked briskly out of the back exit and onto the early evening street.
"There is no change. This news does not come as a surprise."
Tytus halted his translation and asked Al-Juba to use another word other than ‘surprise’. He thought a moment and said ‘unexpectedly’
"This news does not come unexpectedly," Tytus repeated, "As I have stated earlier, she will undoubtedly be limited."
Gabrielle left her immature companion happily rolling the empty jar of water along the tiled floor.
"I won’t accept that! There has to be someone who can help her," she barely had control over her tears.
"I am sorry, I have done all I can do for the woman, I will take this young one to the kitchen," Al-Juba sighed and led Tytus out of the room.
Walking over to Xena she watched her slide the colorful jar back and forth along the cold stone floor. Smoothing a hand over Xena’s long black hair, Gabrielle couldn’t stop herself from shaking.
"It’s almost time to go sweetie," she whispered softly.
Xena looked up smiling, but soon the smile melted away when she saw tears slowly rolling down her friend’s face. Xena struggled like an awkward toddler to stand and reached for Gabrielle, but she had quickly moved out of the way.
Xena stood waiting. It seemed an eternity before Gabrielle could collect herself enough to speak, then she turned around again looking completely composed and even managed a faint smile.
"Don’t worry, we’ll get another opinion. He’s not our last hope."
She caressed Xena’s cheek gently tracing the soft outline down to her chin. Gabrielle gazed into the ice blue eyes wanting nothing more than to lose herself in their placid loveliness. The graceful music continued to drift in from outside bathing the moment in rich exotic overlapping tones. Her hands found their way behind Xena’s head drawing it down till the lips Gabrielle had longed for were close, so close that with very little effort she could lean forward and kiss them. Xena gave no resistance; she followed her friend’s lead naively, willingly.
Gabrielle placed three fingers lightly against Xena’s mouth to hush the passionate advance that was nearly allowed to take place.
"Not now, not like this."
Puzzled, Xena drew back; a hurt expression flashed across her face.
"I made you sad," she said taking Gabrielle’s hand in the friendly way that had become her habit, "I didn’t mean to."
Xena’s eyes misted over worried that ‘lady’ was upset with her.
"No Xena, you didn’t do anything. Oh sweetie...don’t," Gabrielle held her friend close and tried to ease her fears, "You know I love you, don’t you?" Xena nodded a slow yes, then Gabrielle kissed her cheek, "There. All better now?" again Xena nodded yes.
Al-Juba came into the room with an armful of blankets and a small oil lamp.
"Stay here tonight," he said in Arabic-accented Greek, "Boy is asleep," then he walked swiftly out of the room.
Gabrielle made up their "beds" as comfortably as one could on a hard floor. The relief of spending a night off the grainy sand seemed like a good trade to her and so did Xena’s welcome company. As always, Gabrielle placed them close together and put the small oil lamp on a low stool nearby. She lifted the corner of the blanket for Xena to crawl into and then tucked in the ends around her.
"Goodnight Xena," she whispered and turned over to sleep.
But Xena soon felt a little restless.
"Lady?" no answer.
Gabrielle turned around.
"What’s the matter?" she answered sleepily.
"Kiss me good-night?" a tiny voice squeaked out.
Gabrielle sighed, fluffed, and adjusted the covers again. Xena lay very still in the semi-darkness smiling. Gabrielle couldn’t remember when Xena looked lovelier. She lowered herself down, pausing for a moment to tilt her head and then lightly touched her lips against Xena’s forehead.
"Good-night Xena, pleasant dreams."
Gabrielle lingered above a little while looking down at her. She moved loose hair away from Xena’s eyes and gingerly stroked the injured side of her face. Xena took hold of Gabrielle’s wrist and planted a kiss in her palm. It didn’t matter that this was accomplished ungracefully, Gabrielle loved the child Xena all the more for it.
How easy it would’ve been for her to take advantage of Xena’s impaired situation. This wasn’t the scenario she secretly carried around in her heart for so long. She wanted it to be beautiful, romantic; in a lovely setting...
‘Maybe by moonlight?’ Gabrielle thought to herself.
Certainly not with this person who might as well be a stranger.
"Time to sleep now, we have a busy day tomorrow."
"Okay," Xena answered softly.
Gabrielle turned on her side to sleep, and immediately felt Xena timidly snuggle up against her back, then a long arm drape itself around her body drawing them tightly together. The light gusts of air from Xena’s nose gently blew into Gabrielle’s hair lulling her blissfully to sleep.
Ketaar hurried through street after empty street. Every once in a while he came upon a vendor packing up for the night that would grace him with a frightened glance as he quickly passed by.
What he wanted wasn’t to be found at a simple vendor’s shop.
"I don’t know how the little chit acquired the necessary funds. Perhaps that buffoon let the woman go for next to nothing," he thought maddeningly to himself.
The house of Rhasis, dealer in rare articles, the decorative plaque read. Ketaar pounded his fist hard on the door totally ignoring the convenient doorknocker, which clinked every time the hinge jiggled.
The cut out slid open.
"State your business."
"The sparrow awaits the cat," he recited hastily, "I seek your master Rhasis."
"My master is in bed and does not wish to be disturbed. Thank you, please call again."
The small square slipped closed. Ketaar hammered on the door again.
"DOLT! I AM NOT A CUSTOMER!!"
Metal screeched against metal as the large couplings unbolted. The door flew open and there stood a brawny guard staring down at him.
"Be gone flea, or I will be forced to liberate your head from your neck."
"Harun!" a tired voice came from behind the guard, "That is enough now, show my guest inside."
The guard shifted to the side and gestured for Ketaar to enter.
"Dear fellow, what is the crisis so late in the day?"
"I desire some information," Ketaar said pushing past Harun.
"Could this not wait until normal business hours?"
"Dismiss the oaf, I wish to speak with you in private."
Harun made a threatening move towards Ketaar.
"All right, all right calm down dear boy. Wait for me in the jade room, I’ll be along shortly," Rhasis patted his sentry’s muscular arm.
Dramatically exhibiting great restraint Harun left them alone in the main hallway.
"Your taste in companionship eludes me. Why do you not prefer intellect over size?"
Rhasis shrugged his rounded shoulders.
"The intelligent ones steal from me and then they depart. The weak minded ones are much more delicious," Rhasis said and smiled in the direction of his waiting bodyguard, "But this is not what you wanted to me talk about, come this way."
Rhasis directed Ketaar to a very pleasant anteroom that served most of the time as his private office. He took a seat behind a huge rose marble table and lit a lamp then motioned his visitor to sit which offer he instantly declined.
"The imbecile, who bought her?"
"My friend I cannot say. I know that the person was short and had a small hand with a firm grip. Gold was pushed into my fist and then they both took their leave. I never saw the face so I could not tell you whether it was man or woman."
Ketaar paced up and down.
"Did you see the direction they went?"
"Down a side street I believe. Why is that one so important to you? I thought you couldn’t wait to get her off your hands."
Ketaar chuckled quietly.
"I cannot bear to be parted from her company," He came closer to whisper, "You best not keep your eager friend waiting."
"Ah...um...yes, of course. Don’t you want your share of the sale?"
"Keep it for me. I will expect it when I return."
With that, Ketaar left the room and once again found himself on the lonely dark streets.
Rhasis stared for a long time at the doorway that Ketaar had breezed out of. He wasn’t quite sure if he meant for the money to be paid to him tomorrow or in two weeks from now.
Harun knocked at the open door and stuck his head through.
"Aren’t you coming to bed?" he asked in a huff.
Rhasis smiled and extinguished the lamp.
"How impatient are the young. Lead on, I will join you presently."
Hurrying at a great pace Ketaar threaded a complicated path through the dreary alleyways back to the inn; each step inducing a fury that screamed for restitution.
"There is much to do...much to do," he muttered to himself along the way.
No twittering birds, no gentle breezes tossing loose strands of hair, no lapping of water breaking against a scenic shore; only long bands of sunlight coming through closed shutters gradually extended themselves across the floor. Gabrielle was the first to wake; stretching herself and yawning then feeling Xena tucked in a ball behind her. She turned around to find her friend snoring contentedly in her sleep. It was almost too precious a picture to disturb, but Gabrielle knew that time factored heavily in finding a cure.
"Xena?" she gently nudged at her shoulder, "Xena, it’s time to go."
She sleepily rubbed at her eyes and sat up.
"We going home now lady?" Xena asked scratching her head.
"Not yet sweetie we still have to find someone to help you."
"Yes, I must bring you to another place like this. Come we have to get started..."
Xena narrowed her eyes and furrowed her brow.
"I don’t want to," she said folding her arms.
"But, you want to get better don’t you?" Gabrielle reasoned.
"NO!" came the loud response.
It didn’t take much reckoning to figure out why Xena was being obstinate. Her last ‘cure’ wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience.
"Please Xena," Gabrielle bordered on begging, "I only want you to be happy."
‘That’s a silly reason,’ she suddenly thought to herself, ‘Xena is happier the way she is.’
Xena glanced down at Gabrielle; a hint of a raised eyebrow almost made her look like her ‘old’ self, but the shrill childish voice that tumbled out ruined the illusion.
"No more dirty water!"
Gabrielle put her arms around Xena and squeezed her tight.
"I promise, no more dirty water," she repeated, "Okay?"
"Okay," Xena sighed.
There was a slight rap on the door and in stepped Tytus.
"Al-Juba extends his greetings to you this morning. He asked me to say that one other may help the sick lady and I am to take you to her."
Gabrielle nodded then opened her bundle and took out the leftovers. All three ate quickly before readying to leave.
Blankets folded, parcel packed she quickly glanced around the room to make sure nothing was left behind.
"Okay, let’s go," Gabrielle said brightly and led her small group out of the room.
Al-Juba stopped them in the narrow hallway leading to the front door.
"Madam Su-Chen is a most remarkable woman," Tytus began translating, "She has much knowledge in many fields and may be able to help."
"I hope she can," Gabrielle said shaking his hand, "Thank you for the kindness you’ve shown to my friends and me. It was really good of you to let us stay the night."
She started to take money from her pouch, but Al-Juba waved it off.
"I have not earned payment. May Allah watch over you."
He abruptly opened the door and urged them to be on their way.
"But----?" Gabrielle managed to say before the door quickly shut behind them with a dull thud.
"This way," Tytus said pointing into the distance.
The name gave it a size that it would’ve otherwise lacked on its own. Madam Su-chen’s ‘Sanctuary’ was located deep inside the city where the crowds thinned out to a passing few. The whitewashed adobe building from the outside looked identical to any one of the numerous cozy homes they already walked by. There were no signs, or painted symbols on the front door; only a straw mat with the Chinese character "life" woven into it.
This time Gabrielle was the one to announce their presence. Next to the front door a long pull-cord ran along the frame held in place by a neat row of metal loops fixed to the wood. She grabbed the handle hanging on the end and gave it a light tug. They didn’t have to wait long; the door opened and there stood a tiny woman, her gray hair pulled back into a tight bun, that smiled charmingly up at Gabrielle.
"Welcome, I am Su-Chen. How may I help you?"
Gabrielle paused to answer until Tytus completed the translation. The woman interrupted politely.
"I understand your language quite well. You may speak freely without the aid of an interpreter."
Gabrielle, obviously relieved, repeated the story one more time.
"My friend received a severe blow to her head several days ago. Now she has the mind of a child who doesn’t remember anything. Please, can you help us?"
"This is the one in question?" she asked placing a hand on Xena’s arm.
Gabrielle nodded yes.
"Follow me my dear," Xena shot a worried look in Gabrielle’s direction, "Have no fear, your friends will be joining us."
They were led into a sunny room where Su-Chen seated Xena in a low chair while she stood on a footstool to closely examine the top of her head. She then hopped down and began to test Xena’s eyesight, by covering one of her eyes at a time and asking questions. Tytus, meanwhile, amused himself by looking at all the strange things that floated in clear bottles on a shelf.
"Show me with your fingers what you see."
Two fingers were held up. Xena copied her by holding up two fingers.
"What do you see now?" she asked after covering the other eye and holding up only one finger.
Xena hesitated for a moment then using both her hands she held up one finger on each. Su-Chen then gently examined the bruises on Xena’s face.
"This injury is recent. How did it happen?"
Gabrielle, recalling that terrible night, walked over and kneeled down next to Xena taking her hand.
"She was beaten by a slave trader."
Tarkau waited outside the inn as instructed. He couldn’t figure out why Ketaar was in such a hurry to get started on another slave hunt so soon. He looked forward to a few days rest and maybe even a little recreation thrown in as well. Surprisingly, these things never interested his master and now the whole day would be spent in gathering necessary items for the tedious journey back to Syria.
"I have finished making inquiries," Ketaar said suddenly appearing out of nowhere, "The prize I seek is still at hand."
Tarkau had no idea what he meant by that. All night long Ketaar would only talk about ‘trapping his prize,’ or ‘seizing his treasure’ without saying what this thing was.
"There is much to be done," he motioned Tarkau to go with him and together they hurried to restock their supplies.
"Have you sought aid elsewhere?"
Madam Su-Chen selected a few thin needle-like implements varying in length and set them on a tray nearby.
"Yes, with Tytus’ help we visited two healers. Tabari gave us a liniment for her face."
"May I see?"
Gabrielle took out the small bottle and gave it to Su-Chen. She removed the stopper then sniffed at it.
"Very good. I shall apply another layer."
Gently she smoothed a small amount of the thick substance over Xena’s cheek.
"Your friend is most seriously afflicted," Su-Chen continued, "My healing art may only have a minimal effect or none at all."
Picking up one of the shorter needles she speared it quickly into Xena’s neck, then a longer one close to her temple. There was no blood and Xena didn’t cry out, she didn’t look as if she were in pain at all.
"What are you doing?" Gabrielle asked trying not to sound alarmed.
Su-Chen calmly twisted each needle a little as she answered.
"These are part of my healing arts. Your friend is unharmed. The blood must flow through the body evenly. I am merely helping it to do so."
After a few minutes she removed the needles and applied pressure with her small hands to various points on Xena’s upper body. Fascinated, Gabrielle watched with a renewed hope. She had seen Xena use her pressure point skills on a lot of occasions, sometimes for good, other times Gabrielle didn’t feel right about it; especially if it was used to roughly extract information.
Madam Su-Chen’s fluid movements with her fingers were beautiful to see; lyrical, supple as they danced here and there across Xena’s shoulders then just below her jaw. She aimed two fingers together as Xena always did and jabbed a spot at the bridge of her nose hard. Xena’s head immediately dropped forward. She moaned softy then coughed once.
Su-Chen clasped Xena’s face in her hands and lifted it up.
"How do you feel?"
Xena knitted her brow in thought.
"Sleepy," the answer came in the same old child-like voice.
Gabrielle felt a wave crash against her heart, then another. She stepped away feeling very dizzy and lowered herself in the nearest chair she could find. Tytus walked quietly over to her and lightly touched her arm.
"Miss? Are you unwell?"
Gabrielle didn’t answer she covered her mouth with one hand and clutched her chest with the other in an attempt to ease the pain that desperately wanted to escape from her throat. Tears rushed to her eyes and spilled over.
Madam Su-Chen hearing the little boy’s concerned words knelt down by Gabrielle’s side.
"My dear, this display of emotion is not useful to your friend. She is dependent on you, do not waver now that she needs your strength."
"Will she ever change back?" Gabrielle said trying to control herself but already knowing the answer in her heart.
Su-Chen looked deeply into Gabrielle’s eyes.
"This much I can say: there is one other whose advice I believe in, Al-Farabi. I taught him my skills and I have heard that he has learned many others and now teaches."
"Yes, I’ve heard of him. Is it true that he uses music as a cure? Is he far from here?" she excitedly asked.
"Music is his main field. He no longer dwells in this city. Al-Farabi left for Damascus many years past. Seek him my dear, if he can do nothing then it rests solely in your hands. Help her. Teach her the things she has lost. It will be her face but not the woman you once knew. Can you do this?"
Gabrielle took Su-Chen’s hand.
"Thank you Madam Su-Chen. I’ll do my best."
To far away Damascus
One more unknown cure.
Another busy trade route
I’d never seen before.
After leading Xena and Gabrielle back to the liveliest section of the bazaar Tytus took his leave but not before Gabrielle handed him a few well-earned coins. He pocketed them quickly and then waved goodbye as he scurried away.
"We need to get some things for our journey across the desert," Gabrielle said mostly to herself than Xena, "I’m going to buy some traveling clothes for us and supplies; we’ll be carrying a lot of things. Are you still sleepy?"
Xena shook her head no.
Their first stop was a clothing vendor that looked at Gabrielle strangely as she held several pieces of male attire up to Xena’s body to check for size. She selected a pair of low brown boots, loose fitting muslin pants; a collar-less white linen blouse topped off with a black embroidered short vest and red sash. The woman brought Xena behind a curtain and helped her to dress. A few minutes later Xena emerged. She was magnificent in her new outfit! The proprietor smiled and nodded her approval as well and began to twist Xena’s hair into a white turban. Gabrielle’s attire was similar the difference being the boots (she kept her old ones), the color of her vest (she preferred blue) and a short white sash with gold fringe on the ends. She too was treated to the same complimentary smile and also got her hair neatly wound into a white turban.
Dressed as they were, no one gave them a second look, as was the case while wearing the worn-out female garb. Gabrielle just pointed to what she wanted and the merchants served her willingly without giving her a sideways glance.
"I think that’s everything we need. Can you make it to the main entrance?"
Their arms were heavily laden with robes, extra blankets, dried meats and fish, dried fruit of all kinds, loaves of bread, large water skins, flints, a crude medical kit, and several other things.
Xena nodded ‘yes’ enthusiastically.
"We going home now lady?" she said in a happily breathless way.
"Damascus is on the way home."
"Is it far, far away? Far away from here?" Xena asked hopefully.
"We are leaving this city sweetie, never to return."
Xena jumped up and down and a few passers by took a moment to stare at her joyful performance. Gabrielle smiled graciously as she nudged her excited friend along and away from the curious crowd.
The tremendous main gates didn’t seem as scary to Xena this time; she walked jauntily under the vaulted arch as if it were nothing special.
Tytus and Amir spotted them immediately not fooled at all by their different attire.
"Hello foreign Miss! Are you ready for your animal?"
"Yes Tytus, we are leaving your enchanted city."
Gabrielle presented her little orange strip of cloth then quick as a flash Amir snatched it from her hand and both boys ran off to the stables. A short time later they came running back with ‘Grumpy’ trotting behind them. The boys helped Gabrielle arrange and tie their surplus neatly onto the howdah.
Xena was first to climb aboard then Gabrielle seated herself in front. Grumpy slowly rose to his full height and snorted.
"Will you return to Baghdad Miss?" Tytus asked smiling and holding onto the bridle.
"Not for a very long time I’m afraid."
"You’ll not forget Amir or me?" the smile widened on his face.
"I could never forget what you’ve done for us. I’ll always remember...here," Gabrielle gestured to her heart.
"I will remember you too Miss. Bas Salaam! Safe journey!"
Tytus let go of the bridle and pushed her camel to go. Grumpy ambled swiftly through the sand and disappeared over a low sun drenched dune.
There it was, proof positive of Xena’s true identity: the brass armor and leather gear packed in rags by Gabrielle to look like nothing important. Ketaar lifted up the heavy breastplate caressing it gently between his long fingers.
"I shall drag your useless remains to the noble Roman regiment. They will pay a king’s ransom for the greatest woman warrior alive...or dead," he whispered holding the breastplate close to his lips.
Tarkau neared his boss cautiously. All day he had a bad feeling about Ketaar’s behavior. He never saw him so agitated or single-minded over anything like this supposed ‘treasure’ he kept babbling about. This time Tarkau was afraid that his employer had finally lost his reason.
"I have the torches," he said in a normal voice.
Ketaar whirled around almost dropping the precious parcel he just opened.
"Ah! Very good! Pack them away my friend."
"Will we be leaving tonight?"
Ketaar’s lips pulled back from his white pointed teeth.
"No need for delay, I’ve learned what I wanted to know. Let us be on our way."
Ketaar had an idea, but wasn’t absolutely sure if Xena and Gabrielle left the city or not. The merchants in the bazaar were very reluctant to impart any significant information; however, chatting up the friendly little boy with the red fez was easier than he imagined. All Ketaar had to do was hold up a gold coin; the child told him everything even down to the color of their eyes.
‘So it is with these greedy little beggars,’ he chuckled to himself while leading his camel out of the stable, ‘they’ll do anything for money.’
It was still early enough in the day to do what he had to do and catch up with his quarry during the night. He and Tarkau mounted their braying transports and tramped leisurely into the desert.
The sun sparkled lightly off the blue waters of the Euphrates. It’s pure loveliness still caused Gabrielle to stand in awe of it. They traveled the twenty miles easily with no difficulty. Xena rode the whole way holding onto her friend tight and resting a weary head against her.
Gabrielle steered their animal into the shallows and across to the opposite bank.
"Let’s tidy up a little. It’s going to be a long time before we get to bathe again," she said nimbly hopping off the camel, "Look at it Xena, isn’t it the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?"
Xena cocked her head to one side and studied the peaceful scenery. She had an unimpressed expression on her face and slid clumsily off Grumpy’s back.
"No," Xena answered calmly removing her vest.
Gabrielle stared at Xena for a moment.
"What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?" she asked amused by Xena’s serious manner.
"You are," she replied softly.
Resting on the cool rim of the Tigris the boys were taking their noon break. Tytus dipped his hand into the refreshing water, Amir turned a shiny coin in his palm; it caught the afternoon rays of the sun and glinted brilliantly.
"What have you got Amir?" Tytus asked as he sipped some water from his cupped hand.
"A fine gold piece! See how pretty it is."
Amir held the coin out to his friend who instantly sat up and took it from him.
"Where did you get this?"
"A man. A tall man with little white teeth gave it to me."
"Did you promise to do a favor?"
"No, he asked about the two ladies and I told him which direction they went."
Tytus grabbed Amir by his collar.
"You have betrayed them for gold? He may cause harm to the ladies, did you think of that?"
"But he was very nice, he smiled as he spoke."
Tytus pushed his friend roughly away from him.
"Exalted one," he said raising his arms to the sky, "protect them!"
Ketaar seemed to have led them monotonously in a set direction for hours, then suddenly he slowed his camel to a walk and stopped.
"This is far enough I believe."
Ketaar turned and threw his knife; it whizzed through the air finding its mark deep inside Tarkau’s shoulder. He let out a stunned shriek and toppled to the ground. In an instant Ketaar was on him tying his hands together, then looping the rope around Tarkau’s neck he pulled his kicking and screaming victim several yards to the nearest anthill.
"My dear fellow, you will not escape your destiny."
It was much harder to snare the flailing legs of his prey but he succeeded by breaking one of Tarkau’s kneecaps with a single sharp blow at its center. Ketaar finished trussing him up then stuffed a gag in his mouth. He next drove two wooden stakes into the sand near the anthill, one at the head and one at the foot.
"You may be asking yourself, ‘Why is he doing this to me? What have I done?’ well, I will answer as best I can, but first I must capture the little creatures attention."
Ketaar stamped on the anthill hard then rolled Tarkau face down over the angry insect’s nest and tied his frantic employee hand and foot to the posts.
"You see, I know all about your treachery," his voice never wavered from its pleasant tone, "The chit still lives. You lied to me."
He yanked his knife out of Tarkau’s shoulder and wiped it off on a clean handkerchief. The miniature army covered the enemy’s face in seconds gnawing their way up his nose and inside his ears.
"As my little angry friends chew on your worthless hide do reflect on that error in judgment," he said tossing the used cloth at him.
The furious ants had worked their way through the invader’s clothes to the bare flesh stinging him many times at once. Garbled shouts of agony fell away into the distance as Ketaar rode off to find his lost ‘prize’.
"Oh right, like I could ever measure up to that," Gabrielle said feeling really flustered.
Xena moved closer. She thought she saw a look in Xena’s eyes that sparked then disappeared.
‘Me and my imagination,’ Gabrielle shrugged it off.
The same open innocent expression remained intact.
Xena’s favored phrase floated pleasingly from her mouth. She leaned forward and kissed Gabrielle’s cheek. When this Xena acted upon her frequent affectionate impulses it caused terrible repercussions for her little friend. Gabrielle pulled away to get out two robes and two bars of soap from one of the packs.
"Here," she said breathlessly handing her the brownish square, "I’m going around to the other side."
Gabrielle gave Xena a robe and walked fast beyond the tall grasses that grew on a small island in the middle of the shallows.
"Ha! You handled that really well didn’t you?" Gabrielle muttered to herself while undressing.
The water was cool and refreshing, just like the day before. Gabrielle splashed about dunking her head under and shooting back again to the surface. She soaped herself up and slowly washed off the suds delighting in how the blue liquid shaped to her bare skin. Gabrielle repeated the procedure, then quickly grabbed her robe to dry herself. She dressed and was about to wrap up her wet hair when all at once she heard Xena cry out in pain.
Gabrielle rushed to her aid madly dashing through the water. There she found Xena sitting in the water holding her eyes and wailing.
"What’s wrong? What happened?"
"It hurts!" she yelled.
Gabrielle crouched down in the water and took Xena’s hands away from her face. Some of the lather had dribbled down into her eyes.
"Don’t worry, it’s only soap sweetie."
Gabrielle eased Xena’s head down gently so that the offending residue could be bathed away; then she rinsed the suds from her whimpering friend’s hair.
"Hold still Xena I’m almost finished."
She squeezed excess water from Xena’s lovely dark tresses, carefully flipping the soggy mane away from her face.
"Is the hurt all gone?"
The Xena she knew would never have put up with this reassuring baby talk, and even Gabrielle felt silly saying these things to her. She nodded yes.
"Let me look at you," she raised Xena’s face to examine her.
Gabrielle then inspected the damage; Xena’s eyes were red from the soap as well as the ordeal.
Wrestling silently in her mind, Gabrielle wondered whether she ought to comfort her friend or not. She knew the old Xena’s pattern very well: Xena would get upset, Gabrielle would try to comfort her, and then she’d be swiftly rebuffed...most of the time. That’s what she was used to, but with the way this Xena acted on impulse, anything could happen.
"Wait here sweetie, I’ll get your robe."
Gabrielle walked back to the shore were the robe had been left in a heap. As she turned around Xena was standing right in back of her stark naked and dripping wet. Her extraordinarily statuesque body glistened in the bright sunshine, lovely and strong as ever.
"Oh...uh...you didn’t have to...I could’ve...well..."
Gabrielle hastily slipped the robe around her friend trying very hard not to seem affected, but the little poet's burning red cheeks betrayed her true feelings.
"You stay away. Why?" Xena asked sadly, tears gathering in her eyes again.
"Xena," Gabrielle began slowly, "I don’t know how to answer in a way you’ll understand."
They stood in front of each other for a few moments; Gabrielle staring at the ground, Xena waiting for an explanation.
"You said you loved me," the child-like woman’s words took on an angry edge.
Gabrielle let out an exasperated sigh and held her friend close. Xena didn’t return the embrace; she stood still until Gabrielle let her go.
"I have to fill the water skins before we leave. Can you dress yourself?"
Xena turned away from her without answering and started to get dressed.
Gabrielle carried the empty receptacles to the river’s edge and dipped each skin under the water until they were full, then gathered up the few things lying around, and stowed everything away.
"Xena? Are you ready to go?"
Xena, fully clothed, sat near the river’s edge. She was gazing thoughtfully at the long ribbon of blue water. Gabrielle sat down next to her.
"What are you thinking about Xena?" she asked softly.
"I don’t like it," Xena answered then turned to look at her friend, "It makes me sad."
"The river makes you sad?"
"No," she looked down, "You stay far away."
Gabrielle put an arm around her.
"Xena, sometimes ‘away’ is not what it seems. I’m worried about you. I want you to be well again. If I’m distant it’s only because I care too much to be with you right now."
Xena’s chin trembled slightly, and then tears trickled down.
"Didn’t you understand anything I said?"
What was not clear before had to be expressed in another form. Gabrielle held out her arms and Xena quickly lost herself in their tender refuge.
A fresh set of tracks ran through the dark brown earth of the embankment and reappeared in the sand on the low cliff overlooking the Euphrates.
"A nice clean trail for me to follow," Ketaar chuckled, "I will have you come nightfall sweet ladies."
He tapped the bag filled with torches at his side in anticipation of success; after all, Ketaar wasn’t far behind them and he had the advantage of needing very little rest.
"With any luck we’ll be out of this wasteland in less than three days," she said to Xena, ‘and then on to find Al-Farabi,’ she completed in her head.
Gabrielle had picked up the pace a little; she was feeling fairly confident that they were traveling in the right direction. The near brush with disaster forced her to pay close attention to landmarks, stars, and the sun’s position in the sky at all times.
‘If it wasn’t for that pin-point of light...’
Xena held her in a firm arm lock; it didn’t exactly make for a comfortable ride, but she felt safe, like she used to before---
"Is it getting dark?"
Gabrielle squinted fleetingly up at the sky.
"Yes it is."
"I don’t like the dark."
This came as no particular surprise. Xena did well spending the previous night indoors but out in the desert again in the dark was bringing up traumatic memories.
"It’ll be okay Xena. We’ve got plenty of twigs to make a fire. We’ll be fine."
"Bad things are in the dark."
She could feel Xena tense up behind her and start to shudder.
"That’s why I’m going to make a big campfire. Bad things stay away from fire."
Gabrielle brought Grumpy to a lazy stop, gently eased Xena’s grip, and hopped off. She made him kneel down so that Xena could dismount with little trouble.
"I’ll get the blankets, you can bring a water skin."
Most of the gear would remain on the camel’s howdah for the night; he didn’t seem to mind. She made up their sleeping area close together as always and went about collecting twigs from dry shrubs and dug up old thin roots to burn.
"Look-ee!" Xena said pointing her arm straight at a bright yellow object.
Funny, Gabrielle hadn’t noticed the flickering ball of light in the distance till now. A sudden wave of foreboding shot through her thoughts then it quickly passed.
‘Probably another camp being set up back there; nothing to fret over.’
She went on gathering burnable bits of things for the fire and brought back handfuls at a time till there was a nice stockpile.
"I think it’s just enough to carry us through the night Xena."
That glow continued to disturb her. Every once in a while she saw it’s shimmering yellow-orange out of the corner of her eye. It appeared to have doubled its size in the last half-hour. Then it vanished. Gabrielle strained her eyes in the early twilight searching the horizon; in a few moments the light appeared again.
This time there was no mistake; it unquestionably glowed larger and brighter.
"No...oh Gods not him!"
Gabrielle grabbed her friend’s sleeve and pulled her a good five lengths away from the path.
"Xena wait here for me."
She raced back to the makeshift camp and collected everything, down to the last twig and ran back to where she left a very baffled Xena.
"Sweetie listen," she began nervously out of breath, "I’m going to be gone for a short while, but I’ll be back as soon as I can, okay?"
"Don’t leave me," Xena whined.
"I won’t be long, wait right here," Gabrielle’s words had an impatient edge.
"Please lay-deee, don’t leave me alone!"
"Gods Xena! There’s no time for this now!" she raised her voice, "Wait here and don’t move!"
Gabrielle hurried away to mount Grumpy. She kicked him into a fast trot down the trail into the semi-darkness.
Xena drew her knees up to her chin and muffled her cries of fear against them. She knew something was happening and hated to be left alone.
"Lady promised me...she promised," Xena whimpered to herself, "I want laay-deee!"
The dreaded crisis gradually neared,
A fiend with many faces we feared.
Our chances were slim
That two could outwit him
Once the signs of battle appeared.
Charcoal clouds hung overhead, slowly creeping across the sky. Weighted footfalls drummed in Gabrielle’s ears as she forced Grumpy into a faster gait. When she felt sure that she had gone far enough, Gabrielle turned the animal carefully around and painstakingly followed the same tracks to where she started. It would be easy to tell that she had doubled back come the morning, but for now her little ruse might buy them some time.
When she finally returned Gabrielle could just make out the footprints leading away from the path, but the light in the distance had become less round, more pronounced in shape; it was clearly a torch. Jumping swiftly off the camel’s back she led him to where Xena was curled up in a ball on the bare sand.
"Xena?" she called softly.
Xena stirred and sat up trying to make out the image coming toward her.
"Who’s there?" she asked cautiously.
"It’s me sweetie."
"Oh lady, you came back!"
"I’ve got to go away one more time," Gabrielle interrupted Xena’s emotional outburst, "Grumpy will be here to keep you company."
Gabrielle made him kneel down close to Xena then she took off with a blanket and headed for the main trail. She was barely able to see where their extra footprints broke from the path and started to frantically erase them with the blanket. Crawling backward Gabrielle beat the sand at a frenzied pace until the telltale tracks smoothed to a fairly even plane.
Finishing up as best she could, Gabrielle tried to find her friend again in the gloom.
"Xena, where are you?"
Xena reached out in the total darkness catching Gabrielle around the waist then she pulled her into an anxious embrace.
"What’s wrong lady?" Xena asked excitedly.
"We have to stay very quiet," she said in a shaky voice, "No sounds of any kind; not even a whisper," Gabrielle paused to catch her breath, "Someone is coming sweetie, someone bad."
"Okay," Xena answered in a tiny voice.
Huddled close against Grumpy they waited as the torch beam grew brighter and brighter. The hulking shadowy images slowly came into view. Grumpy fidgeted in the sand behind them.
‘It’s him!’ Gabrielle could feel her eyes widening in panic.
Ketaar sat grinning aboard his camel illuminated against the night sky sweeping the blazing torch from one side to the other searching carefully for something or someone. He stopped the mini caravan and held out his burning light in their general direction.
She next felt her heart jumping in her chest and gripped onto Xena’s arms that were wound around her. Xena remained amazingly calm holding her friend tight against the violent shaking convulsive fit Gabrielle suddenly found herself in. She closed her eyes and prayed silently to herself that he wouldn’t see them. Then Grumpy snorted. Gabrielle almost leaped out of Xena’s arms in fright.
"He’s gone," Xena whispered to her trembling friend, "He went away."
She could hardly believe that he was fooled by her simple trick. Hysterical giggles threatened to explode from her throat but instead it changed into tears. Gabrielle turned around and buried her face in Xena’s neck; wave upon wave of faint sobs shook her body.
"Lady don’t cry. I won’t let anything happen to you."
Her kind words of comfort soothed the temporary loss of control.
"I’m sorry Xena, I guess I’m not as strong as I thought."
Gabrielle wiped her eyes and stayed in Xena’s arms listening to her steady heart beating in her chest. It would be a while before Ketaar found out that he had been deceived and it wouldn’t take him long to retrace his steps even more meticulously next time around.
But until then, Gabrielle let herself drift for a few minutes dreaming that they were home and safely out of Ketaar’s reach.
"I love you Gabrielle," Xena whispered low and throaty into the silky blond hair resting just below her lips.
"I love you too Xena," Gabrielle answered dreamily.
It was so strange to be lying in the pitch-black of night with no blazing campfire nearby; it gave everything a surreal effect. With eyes closed there was no up or down. For all Gabrielle knew she could be floating in space among the stars---
Ketaar had opted to walk the path for a while; it made it easier to follow the tracks in the soft sand.
‘The lizards surely nibbled his eyes at sunset,’ Ketaar mused, ‘I should have liked to watch.’
He could well afford to give a secondary thought to his former comrade. Wasn’t he nearly tasting victory?
‘You will not share the same fate dear chit. No, you shall be mine.’
He was so deep in thought that he lost the trail. Retracing his steps he went back to where he must have veered off course. Ketaar held the torch closer to the ground trying to find the primary footprints. Everything remained in a straight line, no deviations of any kind. Gradually, physical evidence revealed the obvious.
She had outwitted him.
"CURSE you!" he screamed.
This abrupt outburst caused Ketaar to stagger forward dizzily, hardly able to concentrate on the trail before him.
"No not the same fate clever Miss; a worse one!"
He grabbed the reins of both animals and unsteadily made his way down the trail to hunt for the prey all over again.
Gabrielle twisted herself around in an attempt at facing Xena in the dark.
"You said my name?"
She searched for Xena’s mouth and placed her ear close to it.
"Please, say it again, say my name."
Xena took a breath and then whispered, brushing her lips lightly against Gabrielle’s cheek as she spoke.
Her little friend suppressed the joy that wanted to burst from her heart.
"Xena, have you come back?"
"I don’t understand," Xena replied softly in her natural tone.
"Who are you?" Gabrielle held her tight.
In the middle of answering, Xena’s voice shot up to the child-like octave. Gabrielle relaxed her hold. Maybe she was beginning to remember, but Gabrielle didn’t want to assume anything or start celebrating. That madman could return at any time and she needed her thoughts to be unclouded.
"Try and get some rest Xena. Our little playmate will be coming back and we’ll have to be ready for him."
"But I’m not tired."
"Come on," she said putting her arms around Xena, "close your eyes, and count something nice to help you fall asleep; count...umm...count..."
"...Pretty rocks?" Xena offered.
"Yes sweetie, like the one you gave me."
Xena snuggled her head against Gabrielle’s shoulder; she began to count one then two and started over again.
"Oh, I forgot," Xena said raising herself up a little, then pressed her lips to Gabrielle’s throat, "Goodnight."
Staring up at the star-less sky Gabrielle gently caressed Xena’s hair waiting for Ketaar’s certain return.
She woke up to Xena shaking her arm.
"I think I hear something," Xena whispered.
The urgency in her voice put Gabrielle on immediate alert. In a few minutes she could hear it too--the unmistakable sounds of heavy footsteps. A bright beam instantly lit up the path a few yards in front of them. Xena spontaneously threw her body across Gabrielle’s to shield her from the approaching danger. She didn’t mind the much heavier woman’s full weight on her. Xena’s firm hold and uniform breathing helped to quiet her quivering nerves.
Ketaar examined the white sandy ground before him looking for any clues that he missed during the first sweep, but his heart was too consumed with rage to pay close enough attention to subtle changes of surface level. He shambled by, passing the torch along the edge of the trail; first one end of the outer perimeter then the other.
Before long one of his camels refused to travel any further and stubbornly dug in its heels.
"Walk on you troublesome beast!" he spat out in Arabic.
He pulled hard on the reins trying to get the groaning animal to budge with no success. Finally he dropped the leather straps and patted the camel’s head.
"Yes, yes my friend, you are tired," he whispered, "I will rest here with you."
Not fifteen yards separated them from their pursuer. Gabrielle held onto Xena too afraid to even breathe. Her heart beat fast in her chest like a captive bird’s.
"Gabrielle," Xena whispered so softly that Gabrielle could hardly hear her, "don’t worry, I’ll protect you."
‘Gods Xena, look at us,’ she thought to herself, ‘You couldn’t handle this fellow if you wanted to and I’ve become a trembling mess. What a team!’
She didn’t know how far into the night it was. Would he be leaving soon?
‘And if not, how will I be able to stand the strain?’
Ketaar settled down with his tired caravan in the middle of the path. If he stayed until daybreak the possibility of silent escape seemed unlikely. Grumpy was sure to make a noise at some point before that instantly giving away their position.
"You shouldn’t be so afraid lady, I said I would protect you," Xena softly reassured back in child mode, "don’t you believe me?"
The last thing Gabrielle wanted to do was engage in conversation while the enemy lay close by. It wasn’t so much that she feared for her own life; she feared for Xena’s. Ketaar was capable of almost anything and she knew Xena would quickly die at his hands trying to save her.
"Yes, I believe you," Gabrielle paused finding it hard to catch her breath, "Please Xena, we must not talk, he might hear us."
Xena made a little sigh as she shifted her weight off of her friend. Gabrielle managed to take a deeper breath and continued to shiver. The cold of the evening desert chilled her to the very bone; she had to jam a fist in her mouth to stop her teeth from chattering.
A thick woolen covering presently spread across her body. Having blindly searched around in the dark, Xena located the blanket that was used to rub out their footprints. Warm fingertips tucked in loose ends then delicately pet her cheek, smoothing a way for the warmer lips that took their place. Gentle hands clasped her face between them; a hint of exhaled air preceded the kiss upon her mouth. Gabrielle nearly gasped from the suddenness of contact with Xena’s lips.
It did not linger; Xena drew away almost immediately.
"Better now?" she asked innocently.
Her little comrade wasn’t sure how to answer this. The pleasure she would’ve normally experienced was somewhat colored by Ketaar’s presence not far away.
"Yes, much better," she whispered back.
She fussed some more with Gabrielle’s blanket then nestled close to her. Xena fell asleep with no trouble at all, completely oblivious to the danger. Not true for Gabrielle; sleep became a rather complex undertaking. Every time she drifted off she’d snap wide-awake again. The constant threat of discovery and the hours slowly passing by, each one more exhausting than the next, tore her jangled nerves to shreds.
‘He probably knows that we’re here and is just playing with us.’
Complete darkness eventually gave way to early dawn. Barely an hour in total had been spent sleeping and now she had to get ready to leave. Gabrielle didn’t have a remarkable plan of escape, only to sneak off and elude him again, and failing this what then?
"Xena, wake up. We have to go," she rasped anxiously in Xena’s ear.
Xena sat up and stretched. Taking her friend’s queue, she answered in a whisper.
Gabrielle rolled up her blanket and stuffed it between some things on Grumpy’s howdah. She didn’t think it possible that their camel could stay relatively quiet the entire evening, but he did.
"I’ll get on first then help you up."
She climbed aboard then reached down for Xena’s hand. Gabrielle could just make out her shape in the dark and gripped the outstretched arm below hoisting Xena onto the space behind her. The animal stood up awkwardly raising his back end first then the front, see-sawing them roughly to and fro till he got to his full height.
Carefully Gabrielle steered Grumpy across deeper sand alongside the main trail as quietly as was possible. If they traveled parallel to this path for a few miles, she hoped it would make it difficult for Ketaar to realize that they had passed him in the dark.
Ever so slightly she could feel her spine uncoil from the unbearable stress of the evening. The beautiful golden yellow on the horizon made the trail a bit more visible, Xena held on tight as she did the day before, everything was working out just fine.
Grumpy decided to blast an enormous grunt from his nostrils.
The fair morning breeze had altered almost imperceptibly. An out of place noise awakened Ketaar out of a deep stupor; his head whipped around to see where it came from. In the dismal half-light he saw a fleeing camel galloping at full tilt over the smaller dunes. He loosely bound the front legs of one of his two transports and mounted the other.
"This won’t take long my friend," he said smiling at the temporarily abandoned animal and took off after the retreating shape. He couldn’t tell if ‘the chit’ and Xena were the ones speeding ahead; he was too far away, but not for long.
"See if he’s following us Xena," Gabrielle called behind her.
Xena twisted around and strained her eyes through the semi-darkness. She thought something was there, though she couldn’t be sure. It was hard for her to focus accurately on anything because of the occasional double vision in her injured eye. Xena turned back around to give her report once again holding onto Gabrielle for dear life.
"I think so," she answered loud in Gabrielle’s ear nearly deafening her in the process.
Her heart boomed in her chest. Hope against hope of an easy escape quickly died away.
"Thanks a lot pal!" she sarcastically shouted at Grumpy.
"You’re welcome," Xena answered in the same loud volume.
"I was talking to Grumpy!" Gabrielle yelled back still squinting from the noise.
She aimed him toward the smoother path; it seemed the smartest thing to do if they were to try and outrun their pursuer.
‘He’s traveling lighter than us,’ she thought to herself, ‘he’s going to catch up.’
Gabrielle reached down on her left side and pulled out Xena’s heavily wrapped chakram from the howdah’s bindings.
‘If I’m going to die, I’m going down fighting.’
She freed the circular weapon from the cloth package and secured it to her sash. Xena turned to look behind her again and this time she could see a distinct figure coming after them.
"I see it now!" she announced almost proudly.
Ketaar blinked at the large clouds of sand being kicked up in front of him. No matter, he could make out the two riders clearly.
‘The little one has spirit, I’ve always said so.’
He took out his knife and prepared to throw it.
‘No, not nearly close enough.’
Ketaar clamped the blade between his teeth and drove the animal on relentlessly; he ignored its angry grunts of protest as the gap steadily narrowed between him and his victims.
Gabrielle heard the extra set of galloping feet and placed her hand on the chakram that bounced against her thigh. She cursed herself that she never learned how to throw it right. All Gabrielle could do at best was mimic Xena’s style of motion.
‘Who am I kidding? This thing is a part of her arm.’
She pulled the reins suddenly to the right, steering Grumpy clear of a few large stones; something flew low at them piercing one of the heftier water skins next to Xena’s leg. Clear liquid sprayed all over the place wetting everything around it. Xena plucked the object out of the deflated container and held it in front of Gabrielle’s face.
"Hey lady look! Look what he threw at us."
Gabrielle took the knife immediately out of Xena’s hand and stuck it into her waistband.
"It’s a knife Xena, he wants to hurt us."
He guided his camel alongside theirs and tried to grab for the reins. Xena kicked out at Ketaar connecting with his jaw causing him to fall back a few lengths.
"I’LL HAVE YOU YET!" he screamed shaking his fist at Xena.
In a way he was right, they weren’t going as fast as before. Grumpy started to tire from the terrific pace and Ketaar was closing in fast.
"COME ON, COME ON DON’T GIVE UP NOW PLEASE!" Gabrielle frantically yelled at the weakening animal.
It was no use; the poor thing had spent its last reserves of speed and barely trotted. She hastily loosened her sash taking up the chakram and tried desperately to aim it at their attacker.
"DUCK OUT OF THE WAY XENA!"
Xena placed a calm hand over Gabrielle’s.
"Leave him to me," she said smiling a half grin and took the weapon from her friend.
Hair loose and tossed by a stiff breeze, she whirled around, holding the old familiar ring firmly in the fighting posture grip Gabrielle thought she’d never see again. Xena closed her bad eye and hurled the gleaming weapon with a ferocious fluid motion in Ketaar’s direction. It spun through the air neatly slicing apart the thick band that held his camel’s howdah in place then arced in a high curve smoothly returning to her hand.
Ketaar fell sideways off the speeding beast landing hard in a cloud of sand. He flipped over once or twice coming to a stop face down in a patch of shrubs. Xena and Gabrielle saw him lying still but didn’t wait around to inquire about his state of health; they trotted away losing no time to put as much distance between them as possible.
His liberated animal kept running eventually coming to a stop a fair ways from its fallen master. Ketaar shook his head and looked around. It was strange that he felt no pain at all from such an unexpected dismount.
‘How foolish of me,’ he thought amusingly to himself, ‘to be caught off my guard. It shall not happen again.’
Ketaar wanted to get up but the desire to just lay there was overwhelming. No reason to rush, he had plenty of time to repair the damage to his howdah and then he’d be on the hunt once more.
"Ha! Run all you like, you cannot elude me," Ketaar mumbled as he tried to move, "I will catch up and when I do..."
He paused in mid sentence; he couldn’t feel his legs.
Xena had resumed her position of holding onto Gabrielle as Grumpy loped over the low sand hills.
"You were wonderful back there."
"Really?" her little high-pitched voice asked shyly.
Gabrielle covered one of the hands Xena had locked around her waist.
"Know what?" Xena asked happily.
She nuzzled next to Gabrielle’s ear.
Gabrielle burst into merry gales of laughter, hugging Xena’s folded hands close to her.
Late afternoon and he was only able to drag the useless lower half of his body a short way up the trail. Being at this task for hours, Ketaar rested a while propped up on his elbows. He was sure this was merely a temporary condition; the feeling would return and he’d be on his way again.
Far off and to the right a wandering tribe came into view. Ketaar wisely removed his white turban and used it to signal them. These nomadic bands were always accommodating to lone travelers in distress. Unfortunately, he had to count himself as one who needed their help.
"Over here good people!" he called out in his most gracious manner.
Two men from the small party came hurrying over to aid the light-haired gentleman lying on the trail.
"Where are you injured?" one of the young men asked.
"My legs, I’m unable to walk."
He motioned to his companion and they both proceeded to lift him up then carried Ketaar to their waiting caravan. After being placed on a plush rug, one of the women unplugged a water jug and held his head while she fed him some of the cool liquid. Her husband stood over them quietly watching.
"I am Alaran, you will do well in my wife’s hands."
"Thank you for helping me. I am in your debt."
Alaran looked down at the man oddly, wondering why he didn’t return the courtesy of telling him his name and continued the inquiry.
"We found a lone camel not far from here. Is it yours?"
"Yes it is mine. My binding...um...separated at a run and I was left as you see me."
"You say you cannot walk, do you mind if my wife examines you?"
"I would welcome it dear fellow."
Alaran’s head jerked forward at that last sentence. Something familiar about the stranger’s intonation made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. His wife gently turned Ketaar on his side and touched him here and there along his spine. He twitched at one of her ‘taps’. She eased him onto his back and walked over to Alaran to whisper in his ear.
"My wife tells me that you have nothing to fear, it is a passing malady caused by the fall."
Ketaar set his jaw. He didn’t know how long he’d be able to endure these people and their irritating questions.
"I have business to conduct. When will this condition leave me?"
Alaran’s wife whispered in his ear again.
"Another two days."
Ketaar smiled. All of his sharp pointed teeth gleamed white against the dark tanned skin of his face.
"A pity," he said, "Well, it cannot be helped. I shall have to see about my property at a later date."
Alaran clapped his hands together once.
"Of course!" he said advancing on Ketaar, "You are the scum that sold me into slavery!"
Ketaar started to reach into his sleeve suddenly realizing that his cherished weapon was in another’s possession.
"I am not the one you speak of friend," he said trying to recover from being recognized by a former ‘property.’
"Do you know how many years it took to get back to my family?" Alaran said completely ignoring Ketaar’s denial, "No you would not. And why should you care, a miserable heartless cretin like you."
Ketaar sighed. He’d been caught and no amount of protest would convince this man otherwise.
"Very well, yes I am that man."
All the members of the party had stopped what they were doing and gathered around to listen.
"I am willing to pay restitution," Ketaar said looking tensely around at the small crowd.
"I have an amount in mind," Alaran coolly stated, "Your life."
"My life? It is poor compensation. Once I am dead what have you? Nothing."
Alaran smiled at his family then back at Ketaar.
"I shall have the satisfaction that no one will ever suffer at your hands again."
"Well then be quick about it fool," Ketaar sneered, "I do not wish to die of boredom."
"No my friend, I can guarantee that you certainly will not be bored."
On to Damascus?
Of this I was not sure.
Xena’s old afflictions
Did not need a cure.
It was turning into early evening; and they had barely talked during the day, only briefly exchanging a few words to pass food or water to each other. Gabrielle felt very uneasy about Ketaar and it weighed heavily on her mind. She couldn’t be sure if he’d been thoroughly outwitted or just slightly inconvenienced and her thoughts were skipping forward to the evening.
‘He wasn’t moving,’ Gabrielle reasoned quietly, ‘it might only be a matter of time before he comes after us again.’
Gabrielle didn’t want to spend another night on the desert without a nice warm campfire nearby, but lighting one would put them in too much danger. Xena seemed able to handle the inconvenience pretty well. The only thing that got her really upset lately was to be left alone in the dark. Even with all the newly acquired drawbacks Xena’s ‘toughness’ still shined through and Gabrielle desperately needed to draw on it.
After camp was set up, Gabrielle pulled out the little bottle of salve and carefully applied some to Xena’s face. The bruises were nearly gone, just a light discoloration here and there--scarcely visible. Her eye was another story. It remained bloodshot and problematic. The soap Xena got into it earlier didn’t help much either.
She sat peacefully; though Gabrielle sensed that there was something preying on Xena’s mind. An expression of extreme puzzlement washed over her features.
Xena once again slipped back into her fascinating version of lucid mode. This new addition however, since the night before, Gabrielle had thought best not to dwell on.
"Where is my sword?" she asked, eyebrows knitted together.
Gabrielle was completely floored by this question, and sat there briefly with her mouth hanging open then tried vainly to stabilize her balance.
"Did I lose it in a battle?"
Xena peered at her friend patiently waiting for an answer. Seeing none was forthcoming she stood up and started to poke around and under things looking for it. Gabrielle watched her moving about with growing disbelief.
"Umm...no, it was taken from you...well, that and everything else---except your chakram, you still have that," she managed to squeeze out of her throat.
Gabrielle discreetly studied Xena’s reaction.
"Really? I don’t remember."
Xena sat back down next to Gabrielle and examined the foreign outfit she had on as if she’d never seen it before.
"These clothes are interesting, I’m not sure if I like them. They look nice on you though."
Xena stopped talking. She rested calmly next to Gabrielle, knees drawn up to her chin and looking out in the distance beyond their humble campsite. Some minutes passed by, Gabrielle wanted so much to believe that Xena had returned, the Xena she knew. Her contained excitement showed no sign of even a tiny ripple on the surface; she feared overwhelming her friend and kept it to herself.
Xena then turned her calm gaze on Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, where are we?" she said in her natural tone.
This was the Xena she waited so long for radiating through those beautiful, beautiful blue eyes.
Gabrielle put a hand to her mouth in an effort to keep all the bottled up emotions from spilling out at once. Xena immediately responded to her friend’s distress and drew her into a concerned embrace.
"It’s okay sweetie," Xena whispered, trying to comfort her.
‘Sweetie?’ Xena thought to herself, ‘I never call her sweetie! Where did that come from?’
"Xena, I’m not sad," Gabrielle sniffed and smiled up at her long lost friend, "You’ve come back, don’t you see?"
Mystified, Xena stared into Gabrielle’s face trying to make sense of her strange behavior.
"What are you talking about? Gabrielle, what is going on?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath.
"It all started with the war---"
"War? What war?"
"The war in Jerusalem," Xena seemed more confused, "You don’t remember fighting Pompey’s army?"
"Being captured by Ketaar’s men? Auctioned off in Baghdad?"
Xena struggled to recall these things.
"No," she looked around for a moment, "It’s getting dark, shouldn’t we get a fire going?"
Gabrielle enlightened Xena as to why they shouldn’t have one and Xena seemed unconcerned.
"I have no intention of spending an evening without a campfire. If this person decides to pay us a call I’ll be ready for him."
She got up and started to collect everything and anything burnable then heaped it into a big pile. Gabrielle located the brand new flint ‘box’ they bought in Baghdad and handed it to Xena.
"That’s better!" she said after lighting the makeshift blaze.
She then spread her blanket closer to the fire and settled down. Gabrielle was a little hesitant about making her bed next to Xena. All of a sudden she had reverted back to being unassuming around her friend and made a place for herself off to the side.
"I’ve heard so much about Baghdad," Xena began slowly, "You say we were there, but I don’t remember a moment of it."
She was obviously inviting her to talk. Gabrielle moved her blanket over and sat beside Xena.
"Can you remember anything Xena? Anything at all?"
"Not really. Only fleeting images, they escape before I can grasp them. I remember you, I know who I am...that’s all."
Gabrielle slipped an arm around her.
"You’ve been through so much swee---Xena, these things will start to come back, you’ll see."
The stumbled over word went unnoticed, much to Gabrielle’s relief.
"Everything feels so strange. What if my memories never return? I’ll be living as only half a person."
"If that is what the fates have planned for you then we will see it through together."
They sat for a long while, not saying a word; Xena was the one to brake the silence.
"I seem to have a vague memory of singing to you," she said smiling, "Did I?"
Gabrielle wrung her hands together remembering that occasion all too well.
"Ha! You should’ve stopped me."
Xena looked away, the amused smile fading from her lips.
"Gabrielle, I’m...so afraid."
Gabrielle enfolded her in a warm embrace and rocked her gently like she did when Xena had the mind of a child. Then reality quickly set in; she remembered that this brave warrior didn’t like drawn-out shows of affection so she started to pull away, but Xena wouldn’t let her go.
"Please hold me a little longer," Xena said in a small voice, "I know you’d rather not..."
"What? Oh Gods Xena, I can’t think of anything I want to do more in this whole world," Gabrielle paused thinking she went a little too far, "...I mean, your being my best friend and all...well...I love you."
"I love you so much Gabrielle," Xena drew back a bit then lightly brushed her lips against Gabrielle’s and kissed her. Gabrielle gasped and let Xena kiss her lips again.
Could there be...were there street musicians playing somewhere in the distance?
"Do you hear music?" Gabrielle dreamily asked.
Xena smiled down at her friend’s lovely face.
"Yes, it must be coming from my heart."
Gabrielle gently guided Xena into meeting with her lips once more.
There was no moonlight as she had hoped for, but there were stars in the night sky and they filled in ...quite beautifully.
This tale has now ended, yet am I quite done?
One mystery still lingers
And then there’ll be none.
A small caravan of prisoners advanced along the perimeter of the Euphrates headed by two men who resembled each other in every way except for the difference in their temperaments.
"What is that?"
Mohod had spotted something lying in the marshy shallows a fair distance away.
"Wait here, I’ll go and investigate," his twin brother Marduk replied.
He kicked up his camel to a gallop and arrived at where the odd looking thing stuck three quarters of the way out of the mud. Marduk dismounted and walked as far into the marsh as he could without sinking knee deep in the mire. It was in the shape of a man, whatever it was. It looked something like a ceramic statue in a sitting position tilted over on its side.
"Hmmmm," Marduk said softly, "No wonder they left it here, the artist lacks skill."
He tapped at the indistinct features of its face with his knuckle. It didn’t make a hollow noise as he expected and this caught Marduk’s curiosity. With the handle of his knife he rapped hard on the terra cotta head. A large chunk fell away revealing burned flesh, a set of sharp white teeth, and a terrible odor. Marduk jumped back in horror covering his nose with a handkerchief.
Mohod had secured the three camel’s front legs together lest any of the prisoners attempt an escape and joined his brother at the shallows.
"Is it something we can use?" Mohod asked then stopped dead in his tracks.
"Hardly," Marduk answered while backing further away from the monstrosity.
"So we will not be expecting friend Ketaar to show up then?" his brother pointedly offered.
It was Ketaar under the thick ceramic crust; baked to a crisp.
"Once again you show your gift of stating the obvious Mohod. He must have met his death weeks ago."
"May we take this as a sign brother?"
"Yes, my thoughts exactly. Untie the prisoners and give them all our supplies. You and I will walk the rest of the way to Baghdad."
Mohod nodded and ran back with Marduk’s camel to the caravan; he then began untying the prisoners. The five captives stared at him with suspicion.
"Have no fear, you are free, take everything. Allah has willed it."
One of the male prisoners translated for the others and they stood in shock for a moment before scrambling onto the four unattended beasts and briskly trotted away in the opposite direction.
"Well Marduk," Mohod said to his twin brother, "We have a long walk ahead of us, shall we get started?"
"By all means," Marduk said looping a large water jug over his shoulder and smiling, "By all means."
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