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The next morning sitting around the heavy wooden table in the kitchen, the plans were discussed and tasks assigned. Cyrene and Gabrielle would prepare traveling food and clothing and gather together essential herbs and medical supplies that might be needed for the journey. Toris and Xena would take four bags of dinars, ride the horses down to the harbor situated at the mouth of the Strymon River just south of Amphipolis. There they would search for a galley that would transport Gabrielle, Argo and Xena to Byzantium. Once in Byzantium, she would probably have to locate another ship destined for Sinope. They would then return to the inn, pick up another four bags of dinars, ride on to the town of Myrcinus and try to locate Thaddeus, an old warlord friend of Xena's turned profiteer who was known to trade in gold. They hoped to exchange the two thousand dinars for gold. The gold, although heavy, would be less bulky, take up less space in their traveling gear, and would be accepted anywhere in trade.
Xena and Toris saddled their horses and waved good-bye as they urged their animals into an easy canter. Gabrielle remained in the doorway watching until the two were out of sight. Cyrene put a gentle arm around her shoulders and turned her back to the house. "Come on, daughter, let's busy ourselves," she said, "and they will return before we know it." Gabrielle smiled at Cyrene and leaned into her as they headed into the house.
By mid-morning, Xena and Toris had secured passage on a heavy warship called the Sea Mist, a trireme, rigged to transport animals. Its commander was assigned to patrol the coast from Corinth to Byzantium. As a bonus, commanders could transport a few passengers now and then, but the cost was inflated due to the speed of the ship. The ship had docked for supplies the day before yesterday and would sail for Byzantium the day after tomorrow leaving at mid-day. Passage for the two and Argo would cost them nine hundred dinars. Xena paid an extra fifty dinars to have Argo transported to the ship by pontoon. The horse would then be loaded by winch. Xena did not care for the galley's commander whose name was Damon, there was something sinister about him, but she shrugged off the feeling because the ship was large, sturdy, and well kept. With any luck they would reach Byzantium in seven days if the weather held, and Xena hoped for Gabrielle's sake the weather would hold.
The return trip to the inn was a quiet one because Xena was in a hurry to reach Myrcinus before dark and locate Thaddeus. She wasn't comfortable with the idea, but she knew that she and Toris would have to spend the night on the road after they made the trade for the gold. The two swung into the inn only long enough to pick up the additional dinars, eat a quick meal, and grab some food for the road. They could have easily eaten and spent the night at an inn in Myrcinus, but Xena wanted to be as far away from there as possible once they had the gold. She knew Thaddeus, but she didn't trust him or his thugs, and she knew they would certainly be an easy target for bandits with all that gold. She confided her fears in Toris who had already thought the same thing. They neither one wanted to worry Cyrene or Gabrielle, so they both made light of the situation, and Toris didn't retrieve his sword from the stables until they were ready to leave for Myrcinus.
By late afternoon, the two had arrived in Myrcinus. A candlemark later they were making a deal with Thaddeus. As dusk fell, Xena and Toris were galloping towards Amphipolis. By the time it was too dark to ride safely any longer, they had arrived at the camp site Xena had chosen for them, a place she remembered well from her youth. It was off the main road, secluded and easily defensible. There was only one way in, a narrow passage between two outcroppings of sheer rock. It would be easy to waylay attackers by ambushing them in this long, narrow passageway. That night they made camp but did not light a fire that might attract attention.
The day had passed rather quickly because Cyrene kept Gabrielle busy with dozens of little chores and constant conversation about mundane subjects, but as the evening wore down and bedtime approached, Gabrielle's heart began to ache for Xena. She finally realized why she felt so sad. This would be the first evening they would be separated since they had professed their love for each other. She knew this would be a long, restless night, and she wondered if Xena felt the same way.
Gabrielle tossed and turned for over a candlemark. She tried every trick she could think of to make herself sleepy. She realized it was hopeless when she couldn't even formulate a new story in her mind, thus, she decided to sit at the window and look at the stars. A little later she heard a noise next door in Cyrene's room and wondered if Cyrene was awake.
Cyrene sat in bed and brushed her hair as she thought about nothing and about everything at the same time when she heard a soft knock and Gabrielle's voice outside her door. "Cyrene, are you awake?"
Cyrene smiled, half expecting the visit, and replied, "Yes, Gabrielle, come in." Clad in a robe, the young woman stepped into the room with a sheepish look on her face and shut the door behind her. Cyrene inquired, "What's wrong, can't you sleep?" Gabrielle shook her head and her lip quivered slightly. Cyrene smiled and patted the bed beside her, raised the covers, and Gabrielle, like a child frightened by a dream in the middle of the night, climbed into bed next to Cyrene and laid her head against the older woman's shoulder. Cyrene patted her arm and said, "I wasn't able to sleep either." Smiling to herself, Cyrene remembered another little girl so long ago climbing into her bed and wrapping her tiny arms around her neck.
Gabrielle somehow felt closer to Xena here next to her mother. Looking at Cyrene she asked, "Cyrene, what was Xena like when she was little?"
Cyrene smiled at the request and replied, "As an infant she was absolutely perfect. She was happy and healthy, and she never cried. She was the envy of every young mother in Amphipolis. Not only was she beautiful, she had a wonderful temperament, always giggling and cooing. She slept every night all the way through from the moment she was born. Artemis definitely smiled on her and on me." Gabrielle smiled at the mention of her favorite goddess and patron of her Amazons. "Her birth was effortless. She was never colicky or sick a day in her life." Cyrene paused and frowned. Gabrielle, ever the keen observer and story teller noticed the woman’s reaction. "Well, except for once, but that was when she was older," Cyrene said, "She was also very intelligent, almost too intelligent. She did everything early, sitting up, crawling; she was walking in a little over six moons. Everyone was afraid she would have bow legs because she stood and walked so soon, but they were wrong as you can see." Gabrielle chuckled and Cyrene smiled. "She really never babbled like most babies, she just started talking one day. She was always a little stoic even as a young child. She was quiet, but her mind raced. She had incredible powers of observation. She would watch the older children or adults intently for a while and then imitate them perfectly. I don't recall anyone ever teaching her anything; she just had an uncanny ability to pick things up effortlessly. By the time she was three, she could swim like a fish; she was riding my brother's stallion like the wind when she was four. By eight she could split arrows at thirty paces. You know she can sew perfectly? I never taught her a stitch; she just sat down one day and watched me. Before I knew it, she was cutting out her own patterns and sewing her own clothes. Her stitches were tiny and perfect." Gabrielle thought of all the times she had seen Xena stitch up wounds even on her own body; the perfect stitches hardly left a scar. "She was so agile she seldom suffered from your normal cuts and scrapes and broken bones most active children suffer from. If she did, she healed miraculously fast."
Gabrielle commented, "Toris told me of her broken arm. He said she was healed in a fortnight."
Cyrene nodded and said, "Both bones in her forearm were broken and completely misaligned. Her entire arm was black with bruising. The healer aligned the bones, set her arm, and said it would take at least two moons to completely heal. A fortnight later Xena removed her own splint. She was completely healed."
"Cyrene, didn't you find it disturbing that Xena was so unlike other children?" Gabrielle asked.
"Actually I didn't have much time to worry about that because I was constantly worrying about other matters concerning Xena." Gabrielle frowned but waited for Cyrene to continue. Cyrene gathered her thoughts and continued. "As she got older, Xena became quite a handful. She was extremely stubborn and willful. I was afraid she would hurt herself because she became careless as she matured. It was almost as though she believed she could cheat death; like she was invincible, and she took every risk to prove it. By ten she learned the sword and all sorts of acrobatic moves that defied nature. This made her even more adventurous, and she’d take off on that half crazy stallion and would be gone for days. She would listen to no one but Lyceus and Chloe and only then if she felt like it." Gabrielle winced inside at the mention of Chloe, but hid it well from Cyrene, or so she thought.
"Those three were almost inseparable, and I was glad that at least most of the time they were with each other which would provide some measure of safety for Xena. In her fifteenth summer she seemed to calm down, and I realized that both my children were in love with Chloe, yet they all three seemed perfectly content with the arrangement. I was happy that Xena didn't run off so often, and when she did, Chloe and Lyceus didn't seem to think anything about it. Although they denied it vehemently, I believed she told them exactly where she was going and when she would return. And then it happened; I thought my worst nightmare had come true. Xena took off on one of her journeys, she was seventeen. Lyceus and Chloe were beside themselves with worry...they both woke screaming in the night from nightmares about Xena until they all but quit sleeping. Almost a moon later she dragged herself home looking like she had died and visited Tartarus. She threw herself in bed and slept for two or three days; when she woke up, she refused to talk about where she had been or what had happened. That was the last time she left; Lyceus and Chloe refused to let her out of her sight after that. Chloe, who had been staying with us since her mother died, moved into Xena's room and slept with her every night. They never talked about it, but I knew something had happened, and it frightened them. It was as though they had cheated death once and knew that a sacrifice would have to be made, and they wanted to relish each other's company for as long as they could. A year later Cortese threatened our valley." Cyrene's story ended.
Gabrielle had a thousand questions but knew Cyrene had become melancholy and no longer wished to speak of the past. "Cyrene, thank you for telling me about Xena; she never seems to want to talk about herself. I think I can sleep now. May I stay here with you?"
"Of course you may stay here with me, Gabrielle. I think I can sleep now too," Cyrene said.
Xena began to speak as she and Toris bedded down for the night. "Toris, may I ask you something?" It was easier to talk to her brother when there was no light of day to reveal her emotions.
"Sure Xena, what is it?"
"Do you remember the end of the battle that day?" she asked.
Toris knew exactly which battle she referred to and replied simply, "Yes."
"Could you tell me exactly what happened the way you remember it?"
"Why do you need to relive it, Xena?" Toris questioned.
Xena stared at the night sky and said, "Because over the last twelve years the only thing I could remember and see in my mind was Lyceus dying at the hands of one of Cortese's warriors. I remembered nothing else before or after until last night when I was talking to Gabrielle, and then everything came back to me in a flash. I just wanted to know if I remember it the way it really occurred or if my mind was playing tricks on me."
Toris took a deep breath and proceeded emotionlessly, "You and Lyceus were in front of me about ten paces when this warrior in black swooped out of nowhere and thrust his sword through Lyceus. Then he was gone. You saw it, but you were battling another warrior whom you soon made quick work of, and then you ran to Lyceus, dropped your sword, and fell on top of his body. That's about it."
Xena said, "That's not all, Toris. It has taken me over twelve years to face this. I know it's a little late, but I want to thank you for what you did after that. Had you not, I wouldn't be here. I'm just sorry I didn't remember sooner because all this time I thought you didn't care for me, and I know now I was wrong."
"Xena, I loved you then, and I love you now. Had it been me lying there in your place what would you have done?" Toris asked.
Without thinking Xena said, "I would have dragged you from the field, carried you to safety, cleaned the blood from your body and dressed your wounds."
"Because, you are my brother," Xena paused briefly and then said, "and I loved you then and I love you now."
"Thought so," Toris said dryly.
After a few moments of silence Xena said, "You know Toris, Gabrielle was right; we are a lot alike."
Toris smiled in the darkness and said, "That's what she told me too." Xena raised her eyebrow at his remark and smiled into the dark.
As the sun neared the horizon right before sunrise and turned the blackness of night into a gray world of dreary shadows, Xena jerked awake. Something wasn't right; Argo had snorted at something. Xena, who over the years of self-discipline, meditation, and training had learned to sleep with all her senses on full alert to the subtle changes around her, felt danger. No one had ever got the drop on her because she was asleep. She rose like a cornered cat, moved silently to Toris and placed her hand over his mouth, waking him instantly. Their eyes locked, and Xena touched her index finger to her lips. Immediately registering her concern, he rose from his pallet.
Moments later six armed men rushed from the rock corridor and thrust their swords into what appeared to be the sleeping travelers. Much to their surprise their blades hit or grazed off rocks hidden beneath the blankets. They were further puzzled as one of their comrades was suddenly afflicted by a spasm that twisted and spun his body unnaturally and dropped him flat on his back. As they gathered around him cautiously and peered into his dead face, they saw Xena's chakram embedded deeply into his forehead, blood oozed from the hideous wound and pooled around his opened eyes. Before they had a chance to react, the blood curdling war cry of the Warrior Princess shattered the gray dawn and scattered them like frightened mice as she catapulted into their midst landing with both feet on her dead victim's chest. She deftly retrieved her chakram, and nonchalantly wiped the blood from her deadly weapon on the shirt of her unfortunate prey.
Angered by her arrogant action, the leader of the five remaining men yelled, "Get her." But before he could move, Toris stepped out of the shadows and grabbed him by his collar, jerked him over backwards, and slid his sword blade swiftly across the shocked man's throat. Toris released his hold and stepped aside letting the dying man fall to the ground grasping wildly at his ruined neck. The remaining men charged Xena at the same time from four different directions. Xena withdrew her sword, swinging it in a figure eight above her head and gripped its hilt like a knife. She jumped high into the air, viciously kicked both feet out catching the two assailants to her left and right squarely in the jaws and snapping their necks. On her decent, she clasped the hilt of her sword with both hands in a reverse grip and drove the blade along her flank under her right arm into the gut of the man charging her from behind. As she jerked the blade ruthlessly from his body and twirled it menacingly in front of her, a wicked, snarling smile stopped the attacking man in front of her dead in his tracks. He turned and ran straight into Toris' sword.
"Do you think that's all of them?" Toris asked.
"I think so, but I'll feel better when we're on the road. Let's get moving," Xena answered as she looked around.
"Yeah, we can relax when we arrive at the inn. We're only about six leagues from there," Toris commented.
Cyrene had risen from bed a little after sunrise and smiled down at the image of the peaceful, young woman sleeping contentedly in her bed next to her. She quietly left the room marveling at how quickly she and Gabrielle had become close. She almost felt as if Gabrielle was one of her own children, and she was sure Gabrielle was equally comfortable with her. The young bard had an irresistible personality; and her friendly, talkative nature disarmed people and immediately made them comfortable. Cyrene almost laughed out loud at the picture of Gabrielle chattering incessantly at her tall, stoic daughter. Until she really got to know Gabrielle, she simply could not see the attraction; they were so very different. She eventually realized that Gabrielle was Xena's light. Then a dark thought crossed her mind, and she wondered what would become of Xena if something were to happen to Gabrielle. Cyrene shuddered at the thought and tried to erase it from her mind.
A candlemark later as Cyrene heard horses approaching, she ran to the door to look out. Happily relieved to see Toris and Xena galloping toward her, she stepped out into the sun to greet them.
The horses bounced stiff-legged to a stop as both riders leaped from the saddles energetically. They were literally vibrating with energy, and their mother wondered about it only briefly. She noticed they were spattered with blood. It was apparent the blood belonged to someone else. She also knew from days gone by how energized her three children were when returning from a fight. "Did things go well? Were there any problems?" She asked.
The two glanced at each other. Cyrene didn't need a verbal answer after that little exchange, but she waited for one. Toris replied, "We had a little problem with some would be robbers, but Xena and I took care of them; it was no more than a little inconvenience." He turned to Xena and slapped her on the back, "Right Sis? Let me take your horse for you so that you can get cleaned up for breaking fast." He took the reins and turned the horses toward the stable.
"Right, Toris, thanks." Xena put her arm around her mother's shoulder, and they walked into the inn together. "Where's Gabrielle?" Xena asked.
Cyrene smiled up at her daughter and said, "Come with me. She couldn't sleep last night for worrying about you, so I let her sleep in; she's still in bed." At the top of the stairs, Xena moved toward her old room but Cyrene caught her hand, "This way." and led her to her room and pushed the door open to reveal Gabrielle curled up in her bed. Xena raised her eyebrow and looked at her mother. Cyrene just smiled and said, "I'll go fix the meal; get cleaned up." and she turned and left.
Xena moved to the bed and stood and looked lovingly down upon her sleeping bard. Her heart fluttered with love, and she gently sat down on the side of the bed and caressed Gabrielle's beautiful golden hair. She leaned over and kissed her sleeping bard lightly on the temple and then the forehead. Then she kissed her cheek and finally her lips. Gabrielle reflexively kissed her back and floated dreamily to consciousness. She opened her eyes as Xena pulled away and smiled joyfully at the realization that Xena was really sitting there beside her.
Gabrielle’s eyes focused on the blood that was spattered on Xena's chest, arms and legs, and she struggle to sit up. "Xena, that's blood, are you all right?"
Xena smiled assuringly and said, "Relax, Gabrielle, it's not my blood." The anxiety left Gabrielle's face at Xena's answer, and then she stretched and looked around, realizing that she was in Cyrene's bed, a look of embarrassment clouded her face. Xena laughed and said, "I've been wondering, Gabrielle, exactly why are you in Cyrene's bed?"
Recognizing the teasing sound of Xena's voice, Gabrielle replied, "Cyrene told me a bedtime story about a warrior girl-child, and then I fell asleep in her bed."
Xena rolled her eyes and laughed and whispered in Gabrielle's ear, "Maybe you can tell me a bedtime story tonight, and I guarantee you I won't fall asleep before the end."
At the break of dawn, Gabrielle exchanged tearful good-byes with Cyrene, Xena kissed her mother on the cheek. Then they left for the docks to begin their perilous journey to Byzantium. Gabrielle rode behind Xena on Argo, Toris accompanied them on his horse. Toris insisted on escorting Xena and Gabrielle to the warship which awaited them, explaining they might need help loading Argo. Xena did not argue. She knew Argo would be no problem since she had traveled that way on different occasions with her horse; she rather liked having a big brother although she never went out of her way to let anyone in on the little secret.
When they arrived, everything went smoothly, and in no time all the gear and Argo were loaded. Argo was stabled in the aft of the ship in a covered area made especially for transporting war-horses, cattle, and sheep. Xena stowed their gear in their tiny cabin, except for of her saddlebags containing the gold which she kept slung over her shoulder. She went back up top to say good-bye to Toris and to check on Gabrielle. Gabrielle had been especially quiet all morning, and Xena assumed it was the upcoming sea voyage that distracted her and made her uneasy. The previous sea trip they took lasted only three days, but Gabrielle was sick the entire time and could not eat or drink until she was on solid ground. Xena worried because Gabrielle was already extremely slender; she could ill afford to loose any more weight especially under these circumstances. Regardless of what or how much she ate, Gabrielle never gained weight. Xena thought she would definitely have to keep a concerned eye on her during this trip; she just hoped the winds and the seas would cooperate.
As the last dinghy prepared to leave the galley, Xena and Gabrielle rushed their good-byes with Toris. Toris hugged Gabrielle and said, "Stay safe," in her ear and then kissed her cheek. Xena extended her arm in warrior fashion. Toris grabbed her forearm in his hand and squeezed, then he pulled Xena into a bear hug and whispered, "Don't come home on your shield, warrior, just come home." He quickly turned on his heels and climbed down the rope ladder to the waiting dinghy. As the dinghy was rowed to shore, Toris remained standing, staring back at Xena and Gabrielle, as if trying to engrave their image into his memory. Near shore he lifted his hand and waved. The two women responded in kind.
Immediately a flourish of activity occurred on the deck of the mighty ship. The crew hoisted the anchor, and set the oars. The great galley moved slowly out of the protected harbor into the open sea, and the sail was unfurled. Hanging onto Xena's arm, Gabrielle steadied herself. Xena looked down at her with concern and said, "Gabrielle, you have eaten nothing. Don't you think a little something in your stomach might help?"
The bard gave Xena a sick look and shook her head replying, "The mere thought of food turns my stomach."
Xena persisted, "Gabrielle, we haven't yet cleared the harbor, and you are already green." Gabrielle gave her a look of must-you-remind-me. "You cannot go for seven days with no food or water. I need you to be in good physical condition when we get there; you know I rely on you." Gabrielle perked up at that comment as Xena continued, "Perhaps you need to learn some warrior concentration techniques." Gabrielle looked doubtful, but she would try anything.
They found a quiet place in the bow of the ship. Xena dropped the saddlebags, sitting cross-legged in front of Gabrielle, she began to instruct her. "I want you to concentrate only on what I say. Clear your mind and listen to nothing but me." Gabrielle nodded her head.
Xena continued, "A warrior must be totally focused at all times, especially in battle, or you can imagine what might happen." Gabrielle frowned and nodded seriously. "Being a warrior takes more than practicing with your weapons and keeping them sharp and in good condition. A warrior must keep the mind sharp and in good condition also. One way to do that is to practice thinking of absolutely nothing." Gabrielle frowned at such a foreign concept. Xena said, "Make your mind empty, blank, void. Once you have managed that, keep doing it for longer and longer periods. The more you do it, the easier it gets. Do you have any questions?" Gabrielle shook her head no. "How do you feel?" The bard shrugged and looked a little uncomfortable. "All right don't worry; I'm going to help you; you trust me don't you?" Gabrielle nodded vigorously. Noting finally Gabrielle’s strange behavior Xena asked, "Gabrielle, are you biting your tongue?" Gabrielle nodded and her eyes started to tear up. "Don't cry!" Xena pleaded, and she thought to herself, `This is going to be a little more difficult than I guessed.'
Focusing her attention on her pupil, Xena said, "All right first I want you to lie down on your back, lay your hands at your sides and just relax." Gabrielle did as she was told. "Now close your eyes; think of the most beautiful place you can imagine, and concentrate on that place." Xena lowered her voice and spoke softly and slowly. "Now think of your beautiful place and put yourself there. You are very relaxed. You feel so peaceful and comfortable, and it is a safe place, warm and peaceful. And your entire body is at peace." Xena slowed her speech even more. "Your toes are completely relaxed, and now your feet, imagine your feet and let them go limp. The limpness is slowly spreading up your body. You can see nothing but this beautiful place, and your body is completely free of tension, your legs and your stomach are heavy and your shoulders are limp. Your neck is loose, and your arms are heavy and tired. Your entire body is inert, and you're letting go; everything is slipping away. It is so peaceful. You see nothing and feel nothing; there is nothing but nothingness." Gabrielle's breathing had become slow and regular. She was totally at peace.
Xena didn't know how long her spell would last, but she hoped it would give Gabrielle a little break before the real seasickness set in. She knew Gabrielle was feeling ill simply because of anxiety. She would just sit here and watch over her until she awakened. As Xena sat near Gabrielle, she pulled her sword from its sheath , her whet stone from the saddlebags, and began her methodical routine of sharpening it while she observed the sailors who manned the ship. It was always dangerous being among strangers especially in such a confined area. As she waited for Gabrielle to wake, she used her powers of observation to search for potential trouble. A few of the sailors glanced in their direction, but she cut them to pieces with her eyes. They averted their gaze and almost cowered, and Xena smirked knowing they were too weak to be a threat. She made it perfectly clear Gabrielle was her property, and anyone who touched her would answer to her blade.
As she sat there observing, Damon, the commander of the galley, walked into view. He was the one she truly did not trust. There was something menacing about him. He was a large man, a head taller than her, broad shouldered, and thick across the middle. His complexion was ruddy and burnt permanently from years of the intense sun reflecting off the water. It was evident he had been a seaman for a long time. His hair was dark red and pulled back into a greasy pigtail, and he sported a sparse, unkempt, reddish beard. His eyes, black, hard, and cold. He moved like a man ready to explode, as though his exterior hid a rumbling volcano. The most telling thing to Xena was the way his men acted around him. They averted their eyes, she believed, because of some unspoken fear that his wrath may befall them if he looked upon them. Xena knew the type. She had even practiced the technique in her warlord days. It was one way to maintain power over your men. The only problem was you would often have to make an example of someone routinely to propagate the fear. Anyone who would dare challenge her with his eyes would often suffer some unfortunate act of violence, or even on occasion, an unexpected trip to her bed. The key was maintaining a constant imbalance, a fear, to be totally unpredictable. Yes, she had seen the type, and that was definitely his mode of operation. She also knew he was annoyed with her because she had refused to avert her gaze at their first meeting when she and Toris had booked passage on this ship. Like two dominant dogs in a pack, the stare resulted in one of two things, subservience or battle, sometimes to the death.
Three candlemarks later Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked up at Xena and asked, "Why did you stop talking?"
"Because you fell asleep," Xena replied evenly.
"I did not; I was just doing what you told me to do. Are you going to continue?"
"Gabrielle, that was at least three candlemarks ago. How do you feel?"
Gabrielle looked incredulous and exclaimed, "You're kidding! I've been asleep for three candlemarks?" She bombarded Xena with her questions. "How did you do that? Is that what you do to yourself?"
Xena smiled at her old Gabrielle, glad that she was back at least for the moment. "Yes, three candlemarks; I just picked it up, and that is sort of what I do. Now, how do you feel?"
Gabrielle sat up and thought for a moment before answering, "Well, for now I feel great."
"That's good; let me have your wrist. I'm going to pinch a pressure point, and it will hurt for a little while, but it will help keep the sickness away a little longer."
Gabrielle gave Xena her wrist and winced when Xena quickly hit the small knot on her wrist where the base of the thumb was attached. Xena reached into the saddlebag and pulled out two green olives, offering them to Gabrielle in the palm of her hand, "Now I want you to eat a couple of these olives. They will help with the queasiness." Gabrielle wrinkled her nose but complied, and Xena continued. "I knew this would be a problem, therefore, I visited the market and a healer and picked up as many different remedies as possible. The longer we postpone your illness the better." Xena then stood up and tugged Gabrielle to her feet, retrieved the saddlebags, and swung them over her shoulder. "Come on, I'm going to get you some bread and ginger tea."
"Xena, where did you learn everything you know?" The bard asked.
"Oh, Gabrielle, don't make such a giant fuss over all this. Where did you learn to tell all those great stories? Huh?"
Gabrielle smiled, "I see what you mean, kind of. Are you telling me all your knowledge is from within you...it's just natural...you were born with it?"
"Of course not; I just picked it up here and there. You know. Some people taught me some things, and some things I discovered on my own."
Gabrielle said, "Cyrene told me you could do anything after you had seen it done once."
Xena frowned and grunted, "Hmm. What else did Cyrene tell you?"
"She said you almost died once." Xena was silent. After several moments Gabrielle said, "Cyrene said you wouldn't talk about it."
Xena, abrupt in her reply said, "Cyrene and Toris exaggerate, and there is nothing to talk about."
Gabrielle had seen her warrior close the door to her past many times. She knew better than to try and force the issue. Perhaps some day Xena would confide in her about what had happened. Gabrielle couldn't imagine what it could have been. Why could she still not talk about it now so many years later?
Thinking Gabrielle's silence was hurt, Xena spoke, "Gabrielle, I'm sorry; I should not have been so short with you. Forgive me." Gabrielle wrapped her arm around the warrior's waist and gave her a hug. Xena said, "Come on, let's get you that tea and bread."
Before retiring, Xena gave Gabrielle a small sweet treat of rolled oats and honey with green poppy seed in it. "Eat one of these, it will help calm your stomach." Xena knew a little would help numb the stomach, but too much, and Gabrielle would be holding conversations with the walls. So far her seasickness had not returned.
Their cabin consisted of one narrow bunk with high side boards. It slept two snugly and was barely long enough to accommodate Xena's height. The pathway along the was bunk just wide enough to walk through; the ceiling so low Xena had to duck her head as she walked. A stool and wooden bucket were stowed under the bunk and an oil lamp hung on a wall bracket. It was definitely just a place to sleep and quite cramped at that.
That night the two enjoyed each other's company, the close quarters allowed for some adventurous and rather innovative love making. Xena was happy that Gabrielle's first day aboard ship had turned out so well. She hoped she would be able to keep Gab's mind off the motion a while longer.
For the next two days all went well, but by the end of the fourth day their fortune changed. That morning started the same as the previous two when Xena once again applied the pinch to Gabrielle's wrist, fed her olives, ginger tea, and dry bread.
As they ate their meal sitting in the sun, Gabrielle questioned Xena more about the warrior technique she had shown her two days before. "Xena, may I ask you some questions about that concentration thing you do?"
"Besides focusing your mind, does it do anything else for you?" Gabrielle asked.
"It does lots of things for me, or rather I use it for lots of things," Xena replied, "You tell me. How do you feel when you wake up from it?"
"I feel great."
"Meditating without falling asleep acts just like a long restful nap," Xena explained. "When I meditate, I don't need as much sleep."
"So that's how you do it. I wondered why you never sleep," Gabrielle said.
"Gabrielle, I sleep too, you know. Just not as much as you." Xena wondered silently if anyone slept as much as her beautiful bard.
"Is there anything else you do during this..this meditation thingy."
"Let's see, there is one thing I do that helps me," Xena said, "As I meditate I also practice different skills in my mind like horseback riding and throwing my chakram, you know."
Gabrielle's eyes were filled with doubt and she asked, "Why or rather how does that help you?"
"Gabrielle, I don't know how it works; I just know I do it, and I thinks it improves my skills. When I use the sword, it is not separate from my body. In my mind it is an extension of my arm. It is a part of me. Just like when I ride Argo; it's like we become one. If I am part of my horse, I don't fall off."
Gabrielle giggled and Xena raised her eyebrow. "I was just thinking," Gabrielle said, "you one with Argo. Just don't turn into a centaur, all right!" Xena rolled her eyes, but couldn't help but laugh along with her bard.
As the day progressed, Xena almost wore her voice out keeping Gabrielle busy and her thoughts off the water all around them. She insisted Gabrielle tell her story after story, and they practiced more meditation exercises under the curious glances of the sailors. One older sailor in particular seemed very interested and had actually stopped by to speak with them for a brief time. Gabrielle chattered away with him and learned his name, Tyrus, while Xena sized him up and finally interjected a terse question, "How long have you served under Damon?"
Tyrus' smile disappeared and he looked around before replying, "Almost three years now."
Xena snarled, "Seems like a real nice guy."
Tyrus frowned and nodded, acknowledging her sarcasm, "Yes, he's a real mean one. Most of us hate him. He maintains his power through his officers who have little if any naval training. They were hand picked by Damon for their brutality. They are just a pack of mad dogs panting at his feet and licking his boots waiting for permission to plunder, maim, or kill someone." Xena snorted, she knew the type all too well. Tyrus continued, "I must be going; just avoid Damon and his thugs." He smiled at Gabrielle and then looked deeply into the warrior's eyes warning her without words. Xena understood his silent communication perfectly.
When Tyrus left, Xena turned to Gabrielle and said gravely, "Gabrielle, I don't want you out of my sight until we are off this ship." Gabrielle didn't like ultimatums and always rebelled when Xena handed her one, but this time she knew Xena was dead serious.
That evening when the two retired, a strong wind picked up out of the west, and Xena knew, her luck was running out. It would probably be a rough night, but she didn’t want to increase Gabrielle's anxiety, so she said nothing, and they settled in for the evening.
Well past midnight the seas erupted into a churning, inky monster bent on sinking them and laying them as a gift at the feet of Poseidon. The lightning exploded all around the ship as the thunder rumbled and split their ear drums. Gabrielle cried in fear and clung to Xena, her face buried in Xena's neck. She moaned, "Oh gods, Xena, I think I'm going to be sick." Xena tried to reassure her as she clambered out of bed and reached for the pail beneath the bunk. Gabrielle grabbed the pail and hanging over the steep edge of the bunk dumped the contents of her stomach into the bucket retching again and again as Xena helplessly held the bucket in one hand and Gabrielle's forehead in the other. Eventually Gabrielle dropped back into the bunk exhausted. Xena rummaged though her bag and brought forth a small packet of green poppy seeds which she quickly crushed into a mixture of honey in a spoon.
Propping Gabrielle's head up she forced the spoon between her lips. Gabrielle feebly fought until Xena spoke, "Gabrielle, take this; it will stop the nausea and help you sleep." She took a cool damp rag and wiped the beads of sweat from Gabrielle's forehead and face. Then she rolled her onto her side. That way if she became sick while Xena was gone, she would not strangle. Xena was desperate to check on Argo. If not strapped into a sea harness, Argo could easily break a leg in such rough seas. She propped the saddlebags behind Gabrielle to conceal them and so that Gabrielle could not roll over onto her back. She then covered Gabrielle with the blanket and hung the pail on a hook on the side of the bed so that Gabrielle could get to it if need be. She would dump the pail when she returned. Xena told Gabrielle she would be back quickly, but she didn't think Gabrielle had heard her. The poppy was working, she hoped. Not long after Xena left, Gabrielle vomited in her sleep. The poppy had knocked her out, but had not stopped the churning in her stomach.
Xena quickly made her way down the hall on the second deck and up the stairs to the top deck where Argo was stabled. Rain poured from the heavens in sheets drenching her immediately, but she rushed on, dodging flying debris and slashed rigging. She leapt over the main mast that had been snapped in the cyclonic wind and finally reached the stable area. To her relief, the sailors assigned to the horses were already on the scene and had secured most of the animals including Argo. Xena checked Argo's rigging and harness and then assisted the sailors with securing the remaining animals. Tyrus was there and yelled above the raging storm, "How is Gabrielle?"
Xena yelled back, "Not good." He nodded and they both continued their work.
When the animals were all secured, Xena made her way back across the deck and down into the hold. As she planted her feet on her deck, the hair raised on the back of her neck, and she knew she had made a serious mistake. Her sword and chakram were under the bunk in the cabin. She turned quickly and headed for the cabin hoping she would get there before she was accosted. She had only taken a few steps when Damon stepped out of the shadows with two of his thugs behind him. Xena did not stop but said, "Excuse me." and tried to push by him.
Damon stood not moving, his hot breath on her cheek, "Not so fast." He thrust out an arm to stop her, "I thought you might like to join me in my cabin for a drink and perhaps some friendly talk." He sneered a smile down at her.
"No, thank you. "She smiled up at him with a wickedly seductive smile. "I really need to get out of these wet clothes." And then her smile turned into a snarl.
He threatened, "Well, maybe your little friend would be more interesting anyway."
With that Xena venomously warned, "Touch her, and you die."
Damon laughed and turned as if to walk away, then on some silent command the two men and Damon attacked Xena. Xena expected the action and placed a knee in Damon's crotch which sent him reeling and an elbow in the throat of another. She was just about to finish off the third when she felt, too late, a presence behind her. The club wielding shadow slugged her in the back of the head, and she dropped to the floor limply as blackness engulfed her.
Damon stumbled to his feet still holding his crotch and kicked her viciously three times in the stomach. Then he grabbed the two men on the floor and jerked them to their feet and said, "Take that bitch to my cabin and strip her out of those wet clothes and tie her to my bed; and make those ropes secure. If she gets loose, I'll keel haul you both." As they bent to pick her up, Damon shoved them aside and in a fit of uncontrollable rage he kicked her again and again in the ribs and in the stomach and twice in the face. His men winced and cowered at the action, glad it was the warrior woman at the receiving end and not them. Few on the ship had escaped his wrath. When he finally was able to control his rage, he growled, "Do what I told you to do." The men quickly complied grabbing the unconscious woman under the arms, they lifted her roughly and dragged her down the corridor to another set of steep steps and down onto the third deck. Damon turned to the man with the club and asked, "Did you get the blonde?"
The other man spoke, "No, she was sick. Puked all over the place. I'm not sure it's the sea because she was hot and delirious rambling about wanting to die or something." Damon shrugged, and the two went off to check the upper deck for damage.
After they were gone, Tyrus stepped from a dark alcove and quietly made his way to Gabrielle's cabin.
Xena regained consciousness as dawn approached, but aware that she was not alone she remained motionless. She could feel the rough hemp ropes cutting into the flesh of her ankles and wrists and knew they were too tight to allow her to slip loose. Her hands and fingers were swollen and completely numb. Her arms, stretched out above her head, were secured to the bedposts. Her legs were spread and ankles tied to the foot of bed. She was completely naked. After mentally weighing the possibility of escaping from her bonds, she moved to another pressing issue, her physical condition. There was a dull ache in her head from the blow she had received, and things immediately before the incident were fuzzy. She focused on the attack. Gradually the fog lifted, and she remembered the attack occurred as she returned from checking on Argo. Then she remembered the storm and Gabrielle. A moment of panic gripped her chest. Gabrielle was all alone unprotected from these animals, and worse, Gabrielle was probably desperately ill. These thoughts drove her almost to madness until she forced herself to remain calm and think of a way to procure her own freedom. Xena turned her mind back to her deliberate self-inventory. She knew she had been hit or kicked in the right side of her face because it felt bruised and swollen; her cheek stabbed with pain and she thought it could even be fractured. She tried to open her right eye just a crack to measure the damage but was unable to do so. She hoped it was just the swelling. Xena cracked her left eye slightly to survey her surroundings but closed it quickly when she realized Damon lay next to her, his arm and leg draped over her body. He had raped her when she was unconscious; she would deal with that later. After a thorough mental self-examination, Xena knew her most serious injuries were to her ribs and abdomen. The ribs would heal if one did not pierce a lung, but her gut was another issue all together. When she clenched her muscles, there was excruciating pain. Her belly felt taut and swollen, and she wondered if an organ had been ruptured.
Tyrus sneaked into Gabrielle's room and found her unconscious, lying on her side in her own vomit. He immediately cleaned her up and found the saddlebags Xena had hidden. He thought the warrior was quite wise. Not only did Damon's thugs overlook the bags of gold because they didn't want to get their hands dirty, the bags kept Gabrielle on her side, and she did not breathe in her own vomit which would surely have caused her death. He would have to work fast, but he would make sure the gold was safe for Gabrielle and the warrior woman if she survived Damon, which he doubted. He would also have to be very careful not to be caught tending to this child while her protectress could not.
Much to Xena's misfortune, Damon stirred from his sleep. He sat up and then climbed to his knees. He swung his leg over her stomach and sat down across her abdomen causing her tremendous pain, but she refused to let him know she was awake. "Come on, bitch, I'm tired of waiting on you for my fun," he said and slapped the right side of her face brutally with the back of his hand splitting her lip. The impact on the already damaged area sent a thousand searing needles of pain into her cheek and eye and deep into her brain causing a tidal wave of pain throughout her entire body as she reflexively tensed. The intensity of the pain caused white stars to dance in front of her closed eyes, and a black halo encircled her, threatening to collapse on her and swallow her in darkness. She struggled against it to remain conscious for fear of what he might do if she passed out.
He believed she was awake. He lay down on her heavily and began to roughly kissed her bite her neck and shoulders, and fondle her breasts. She felt his rising excitement and then she growled into his ear, "You had better kill me when you're done because if you don't, you won't live to regret it." With that he looked up into her one opened eye that had turned cold, icy blue and he laughed in her face. Her defiance only served to feed his desire to dominate her, and he continued his vicious, violent rape.
Gabrielle regained consciousness but was so weak she could hardly raise her head from the bunk. She knew that she had been horribly ill in the night and had not had the strength to make it to the pail. When she awoke, she saw that she and the bed had been cleaned up and her clothes had been changed. She was still lying on her side, and she remembered Xena putting her on her side and propping something hard behind her. The rest was blank. Xena must have taken care of her and had just gone out for something. A few moments later she heard someone at the door and was happy to know that Xena was returning. She still felt queasy, but her mouth was parched, and she really needed a drink of water. The door opened and someone entered. She did not have the strength to raise her head. Gabrielle started when Tyrus stepped into her field of vision, but his smile and kindly look comforted her although in the back of her mind she remembered what Xena had said about being alone on this ship.
"Tyrus, where's Xena?" Gabrielle whispered weakly. The look on Tyrus' face scared Gabrielle, and she mustered all of her strength to sit up.
Tyrus quickly approached the bed and gently pushed Gabrielle back down into the bunk, and said, "You must lie back; don't waste your strength, you've been a very sick young lady."
Gabrielle obeyed and asked for some water. Tyrus picked up a water skin and held it to her lips and raised her head with his hand. "Gently now, just tiny sips, or you'll get sick again," he reminded her.
Gabrielle lay back exhausted from the effort and closed her eyes wishing the dizziness would just go away. Then she spoke again, "Where is Xena? What's wrong?"
Tyrus began, " Damon has her." Gabrielle's eye sprang open in fear. "She must have made him mad because he went after her with his thugs during the storm last night. She put up a great fight and took two of them down before they hit her from behind. I was hiding in the shadows and saw it all. That's how I knew you were sick and needed help. They came in here to get you while Xena tended her horse, but you had messed yourself so they left you alone." Gabrielle realized it was Tyrus who had cleaned her up not Xena, but she didn't have time to be bothered with such trivialities if Xena was in danger.
"Do you know if she is all right?"
"I'm not sure, lass, Damon beat her quite badly while she was unconscious. I do know she is still alive, or they would have dumped her body into the sea. Something like that never remains a secret on a ship." Gabrielle began to cry, but Tyrus stopped her, "Don't cry, my dear little one, it will only make you sicker, and you can't afford to lose any more water. Besides, there are a lot of angry sailors on board right now who would love to see Damon swinging from a noose. Don't give up hope; I'll try to find out more. I've got to go; here is some bread and here is some water. Try to drink a little. If you feel sick, the pail is right here. I'll be back later to check on you." Tyrus turned, opened the door, peeked out and then slipped into the corridor.
Xena was thankful Damon's rape had caused no additional physical damage. When he finally rolled off her and began to dress, she casually informed him, "I need to relieve myself." He ignored her and sat on the bed to pull on his boots. "Fine, it's your bed."
He turned and looking at her said, "Shut up! You mess my bed, and I will kill you. Then your little friend, but not before she gets what I've already given you." He rose and marched out the door leaving her naked in the middle of the bed. As soon as he was gone, Xena struggled desperately to loosen the ropes, but she knew it was hopeless. Her struggles only brought blinding pain. She truly worried that he had broken something inside her. A few moments later one of his officers entered his quarters. He avoided looking at her nakedness. She remembered him from the night before. He was the one left standing right before she was knocked unconscious.
Gabrielle tried to drink a little water and eat some of the bread Tyrus had brought her, but it only resulted in her being sick again. When she dropped back from the pail, the room spun, and her head throbbed. She only wished Xena was there with her. If she were, Gabrielle knew she would be all right. The thoughts of Xena and what that animal, Damon, was doing to her made her mind scream out in anger. She had to do something! Determined to rescue her lover, Gabrielle propped herself up in the bunk and braced herself for the wave of dizziness she knew would engulf her. When the first wave receded, she rolled herself over the side of the bed. Her legs were too weak, and she collapsed in a heap. Realizing it was not in her power to rescue Xena, she lay on the floor and cried until dark sleep smothered her, and she slipped into unconsciousness.
He carried a pair of manacles in his hands . He went to her right side and without a word slipped a manacle on her wrist above the ropes. He then untied the rope. Xena tried to move her right arm, but it was heavy and dead from lack of circulation. Her captor finally spoke, "I'm going to untie you so that you may relieve yourself." Xena said nothing only studied the man. He moved to the other side of the bed reached across her, grabbed the other manacle at the end of the chain that connected the two, and slapped it closed onto her left wrist. He then untied each ankle and stood back expecting her to sit up. When she did not move, he said, " You can get up; there is the chamber pot." He pointed to a corner of the room.
Xena realized that her body was almost completely useless from the abuse and from lack of circulation. She needed time for the feeling to return. This was probably her only chance of escape. If this fool was supposed to tie her back up, then he had to have the key to her chains on his person. She said, "I can't move; everything is numb; give me a moment." She lay for several moments flexing the muscles of her arms and legs but avoiding her abdomen. Finally she spoke pushing up on her elbows, "Could you please give me something so that I can cover myself?" He grunted and tossed her a blanket. She hoped he would have handed it to her. He saw her in action last night; she would have to appear weaker to disarm his caution. As she sat up on the side of the bed her head spun, and black dots danced before her eyes. She almost lost her balance. She thought to herself, `I probably won't have to feign weakness.' She mumbled for his benefit, "I think I'm going to pass out."
He thought, `That's all I need; she passes out and makes a mess and then Damon kills me.' He stepped forward, draped the blanket around her, took a hold of her arm, and helped her get to her feet. She stood still for a few moments and reached out to steady herself. She then nodded, and they began to move slowly in the direction of the chamber pot. Exaggerating Xena weaved and leaned heavily into him. When they finally made it, she sat down with his help. The longer she postponed the inevitable, the more effectively she would react as her balance and strength slowly returned.
When she was finished, he came forward and bent over to help her. Her hands shot out from under the blanket and thumped against his neck at his collarbone. He never even saw the motion as he fell to the floor in paralytic seizure at Xena's feet. The blood flowed slowly from his nostrils, and within thirty heart beats, he was dead. She didn't bother giving him her little speech about the flow of blood to his brain. She searched the body for the key to her shackles. Finding it, she removed them. Free from the chains, Xena rubbed her wrists and rose to her feet. She stepped over the body, moved back to the bed, and sat down on the edge. She then began the examination of her torso. She could feel three ribs that were cracked. Her abdomen was angry purple, bruised from beneath her breasts to her pelvic bone and her stomach was tender and hard to the touch. She knew she needed to be careful and rest, but she also knew she still had Damon to deal with, so that was not a likely option.
After finding her clothes and finally dressing, a painful and arduous chore, Xena located a mirror and examined her face and her right eye. There was a cut above and below it, both of which needed to be cleaned and stitched right away. She lifted the painful eyelid and examined the orb beneath. The dark center reacted to light and although the white area was filled with blood, it didn’t look as though there would be lasting damage. It only hampered her peripheral vision. Her cheek was fractured right below the eye socket, but she could feel no bone chips; it should heal quickly. Turning her attention to the problem at hand, she moved to the corpse on the floor and hoisted him onto the bed spreading him out as she had been. She then wrapped the rope loosely around his limbs and covered his body with the blanket. This done, she picked up the shackles and left the room, stepping cautiously into the corridor.
A few moments later Xena slipped into her own cabin. There she found Gabrielle lying on the floor. She quickly picked her up and placed her on the bunk. Noticing the food and water skin in the bunk, Xena realized they’d had a visitor. The gold was gone, but at least she managed to escape for now. She poured some water onto a rag and patted Gabrielle's forehead. Gabrielle's skin was dry and hot. She was definitely dehydrated, so Xena lifted Gabrielle in her arms and dribbled some water past her lips. The bard swallowed reflexively. Xena would keep doing this every little bit until Gabrielle regained consciousness. A few moments later Xena jumped to her feet and grabbed her sword when she heard someone at the door. Tyrus was almost impaled when he backed into the room carrying ginger tea and looking behind him to be sure he had not been noticed. The smell of ginger was the only thing that saved his life when he turned around and peered up into the swollen and bruised face of the Warrior Princess.
"Xena, thank the gods, you've escaped!" Tyrus exclaimed and looking at her face, he frowned and said, "Oh my, they really beat you badly, are you all right?"
Ignoring his comment and question Xena demanded, "What are you doing here?" She asked with a deadly tone in her voice.
Tyrus proceeded to explain everything that had happened and added, "When I found Gabrielle lying in her own vomit, I had to clean her up. That's when I discovered the gold you had hidden in her bunk." Xena narrowed her eyes. "That was a smart move, but I was afraid they would come back, therefore, I have hidden it. Don't worry it’s safe. I was afraid they would kill you, and I knew Gabrielle would need the gold if anything happened to you." He paused frowning and said, "You really should let me stitch up those cuts around your eye."
Xena finally relaxed and sat back down on the stool ignoring the pain in her head and the ache in her stomach. She asked, "Tyrus, how far are we from Cius?" She'd had enough of this ship, and she needed to get Gabrielle on dry land as soon as possible. She feared her bard could not go on in this condition much longer. Tyrus told her they were a day away from Cius.
As Tyrus stitched up her face, Xena picked Tyrus' brain about sailors on board. She asked who’d had run-ins with Damon, who his staunchest supporters were, and the names and particular habits of each of his lieutenants. Together they formulated a plan to commandeer the ship and take care of Damon once and for all.
Damon raged up and down the deck like a mad man as his men scurried to avoid him yet still do their jobs. The replacement main mast was being hoisted into place under Damon's direction when news arrived that the body of one of his lieutenants had been found in front of his cabin door. There were no wounds on his body, but blood had oozed from his nose and his ears. Upon arriving at the scene, Damon ordered that the body be removed, and he flung open the door to his cabin expecting to find his bed empty. It was not. Lying prone and spread eagle under a cover just as he had left her was the warrior woman, or so he thought. He stepped forward and ripped the blanket from the body. There lay another gift from the warrior, his first mate, dead in the same fashion as the other victim. He turned screaming at the men outside his door, "Find her and bring her to me!" They hurried away bent on their mission. Damon stalked out of the room and grabbed the first sailor he saw and told him to dispose of the body that was in his room. He was so angry he thought his blood would boil, and he kept asking himself, `How had that wicked bitch managed to kill two my best men in her condition?' He was sure he had taken the fight out of her. She still talked tough, but he had seen her broken ribs and bruised gut. Not even a big man could still fight after such a brutal beating. She couldn't even see out of one eye. The next time he would make certain she couldn't walk away.
Xena loved playing cat and mouse especially when the mouse was so unsuspecting. Her next victim was a greasy character named Talus who delighted in using a whip on his unfortunate victims. Tyrus showed Xena his souvenir from one of Talus' little fits of anger, twenty deep slashes on his back. Xena stepped from an alcove as Talus walked by, her whip in hand. With a quick flick of her wrist, Talus jerked backwards and clutched at the rawhide biting into his neck just below his jaw. In one blindly swift movement, fingers danced at the base of his throat, and he fell helplessly at the leather clad warrior's feet. Not waiting for the death throes to end, Xena loosened her whip, grasped the front of Talus' shirt, and dragged his spasm racked body down a set of steps and unceremoniously deposited the corpse in front of Damon's cabin door. Then she quickly faded into the shadows as she heard the approach of boots.
"What are you saying?" Damon asked angrily.
"When I went to clean up the mess left on your bed by Odysseus, I found Talus dead in front of your door," his second in command answered.
Damon grabbed the messenger in his fists and slammed him backwards. "I don't care what you do or how you do it; find her by sundown, or twenty men will pay with their lives."
Tyrus, who appeared busy swabbing the decks well out of Damon's sight nonchalantly picked up his bucket, tossed the water over board and moved below decks. He quickly located Xena in their predesignated meeting place after the third victim was taken out and informed her of this new threat. Xena knew that she would have to end this quickly. She had him mad and running scared, but she did not want any innocent men to suffer for her actions. She had to act fast, but first there was something she had to do. Damon knew her weakness, and he would strike there first. She had only five candlemarks left before sunset, and according to Tyrus, there were nine more truly loyal followers.
Within the next two candlemarks, Damon had lost three more men. His remaining six officers, extremely nervous, mumbled among themselves something about Xena being a sorceress and should not have messed with her in the first place. Damon decided to take action. Calling two of his men over to him he ordered them to bring him the blonde woman who boarded with the warrior regardless of her condition. He would bring the warrior bitch out of her hole one way or the other.
The two men burst into Gabrielle's cabin and moved to the motionless body lying in the bunk. They bent over her reaching for her legs and shoulders, but were totally surprised when the unconscious woman rolled over and growled, "Hello, boys, I've been expecting you." They were even more surprised to see a knee and a fist connect with their heads. Xena immediately leaped out of the bunk and disabled both men in a flash. She popped her head out the door and peeked around the corner. No one was in sight, and she quickly dragged the two down the hall and dropped their bodies down onto the bottom deck. She then deposited their remains neatly in front of Damon's cabin door and trotted off into the hold to check on Gabrielle.
When Damon's men did not return immediately with Gabrielle, Damon angrily sent two more of his personal guard to see what was keeping them, but before they could return and give their report, Xena caught them outside the cabin. She did not have the element of surprise because she had not gone straight back to the cabin. When they saw her, they shouted the alarm and drew their swords to challenge her.
In the cramped corridor Xena was unable to flip over them to catch them from behind, a feat that always added an element of surprise. She had to face them head on with one only eye functional, broken ribs, and a painful belly. She knew she was in trouble, but she threw herself into the sword battle with all the strength and skill she could muster. They were stronger at this point but hampered in their movement because they chose to take her on at the same time knowing that she possessed superior skills. Xena recognized their weaknesses immediately and forced every opening. They were tentative and parried close to their bodies leaving few openings for the warrior who kept pressing them. She then changed tactics and started dropping back feigning weakness.
Seeing their imagined opening, they charged swinging their swords in a wide arc. Xena deflected their dual strike easily with her blade, and before they could recover for another pass, she leaped into the air, swung her body in a tight spin, and landed a quick, sound kick to the head of her opponent on the right. The high kick caused her to gasp as a sharp stabbing pain seemed to split her gut in two. She came down on the balls of her feet, ignoring the pain, she forced the battle, quickly taking advantage of her opponents when the one stumbling from the blow crashed into his partner throwing them both off balance. Xena quickly kicked out again twirling a high kick in the opposite direction solidly connecting with the face of her attacker on the left. Both men were on their knees struggling vainly into a defensive position. Xena reeled from the pain in her gut, and slashed the throat of the man on the right as she let her body continue its momentum from the kick and then thrust her blade into the other man.
As they fell dead, Xena turned, staggered, and dropped to one knee bracing herself with her sword planted into the floor. She bent over holding her stomach and retched bloody mucus onto the floor. Beads of sweat dribbled into her eyes as she stared into the slimy pool of blood before her. Sounds of footsteps prodded her to her feet. She stumbled down the hall holding her stomach and clinging to the wall to stay upright.
Xena hid in the hold of the ship trying to regain her strength. The sword play had done her in, and she knew she needed rest if her body was going to heal. She knew she could not challenge Damon; not now, she was too weak. Only two candlemarks remained before Damon would carry out his threat. She would have to rely on someone else for help to finish this; the one thing she dreaded most, trusting others with her life. With that thought, she allowed herself a much needed rest and dozed lightly.
After finding the bodies of his two men, Damon became even more enraged and demanded all hands on deck. With only a half a candlemark before sunset, he was impatient for blood. If he did not do something quick and decisive, his sailors would mutiny. He had lost his power base and he needed fear to work for him now more than ever.
Tyrus rousted Xena from her slumber and told her Damon had begun the selection process. Xena rose shakily to her feet with Tyrus' help. She leaned heavily on him but assured him she would be all right. She then asked him a favor, "Tyrus, you have been a true friend, if this does not work, will you promise me you will keep Gabrielle away from Damon? You know where I have hidden her; you must also get her off this ship as quickly as possible. Take her to the Amazons who live near Astacus, promise me."
Tyrus helped Xena to the stairs, nodded his head and spoke quietly, "I promise you, Xena, I will take care of her as if she were my own daughter." Xena looked at him and nodded as he continued, "If my Phoebe had lived she would be about Gabrielle's age. She had golden locks and was such a sweet child. When I first saw Gabrielle, I thought that's what my dear little Phoebe would have looked like. She was just eight when the warlord Cortese burned our town and killed my little girl and my wife." Xena's mind was bombarded with images from Cortese's visit to Amphipolis. Lyceus falling in front of her, Chloe's tear filled eyes, Toris screaming into her face to get up... "That's why I went to sea to escape the memories."
Shakened by the mention of Cortese Xena, however, maintained her composure and commented, "Evidently even the sea cannot buffer us from Cortese style brutality." Xena stood at the foot of the steps leading up to the first deck. She released Tyrus and stood regally, "I'm all right now." She then boldly trotted up the stairs and came up behind Damon.
Damon had chosen twenty men whose hands had been tied behind their backs and who were kneeling on the deck. Behind each man stood another sailor each with a knife poised at the sacrificial throat.
Unaware that Xena was but twenty paces behind him, Damon raised his hand to give the signal to execute the innocent men when Xena spoke. "What kind of man would kill his own men for no reason?" Damon spun around, drew his sword, and grinned maliciously. "Or for that matter," Xena continued, "what kind of man would beat and rape an unconscious woman?" Xena stepped closer and spoke louder. "Not a man but an animal. An animal whom you let take control of your lives." Xena pointed at the sailors, many of whom shifted at the words and looked down. "Aren't you tired of being treated worse than dogs?" she asked. The men whispered among themselves.
Damon's sneer disappeared as he listened to the rancor among his men. It was time to shut them up. "Enough of this, I am your commander. There is no need for the executions now since the woman has decided to turn herself in for the murders she has committed. Release those sailors and seize the woman." No one moved. "I gave you an order. Release those men and arrest the woman." Damon's voice rose several octaves in pent up frustration.
The tension thickened when a kneeling sailor spoke up boldly. "I'll die for the woman." Then another yelled, "I'll die for the warrior." and another yelled out, "She murdered no one but murderers. Let her go." In a flurry of assents the sailors began to shout for Xena's freedom.
Damon, almost mad with rage, screamed above the din, "She must die!" turning he charged her with his sword. His raving charge stopped short as a dagger caught him in the back. He dropped to his knees two paces from Xena, stared up into her eyes, and fell dead. Xena's gaze shifted to a young sailor who approached Damon's body. He reached down and pulled the blade from his commanding officer's back and wiped it between his thumb and forefinger.
Silence swept the ship as Xena stoically strode to the stairs and descended into the hold with Tyrus following behind her. She said not a word as she made her way quickly to where she had hidden Gabrielle. Deep in the hold in a large barrel originally filled with flour, Gabrielle lay in an upright fetal position. Xena reached into the barrel and caught Gabrielle from behind and hoisted her up onto the lip of the barrel. Slipping her right arm under her knees and her left arm around Gabrielle's back she lifted her into her arms and cradled her as she walked back to the stairs. Although silent and stoic, etched across her face was the strain of the last few days. Tyrus intercepted the warrior and took Gabrielle from Xena's arms without an argument.
That night Tyrus insisted they sleep in Damon's cabin because it had a large bed on a trundle, and Gabrielle would not feel the motion. He helped Xena get some much needed water into Gabrielle, and he also insisted that Xena let him attend her wounds and bruises. He brought her willow tea for pain, liniment for her bruised ribs and cold compresses for her eye. Later he brought her soup and bread and then sat down to talk. "Tomorrow morning we will be in the harbor of Cius. It is still a long distance to Byzantium by horse. Are you sure you won't stay on board now that Damon is dead?"
Xena replied, "No, Tyrus, I must get Gabrielle on solid ground for a while so that she can regain her strength."
"You need to rest too, Xena. I have no idea why you are not dead after what Damon did to you."
"My injuries are not that bad, Tyrus," Xena said.
"Xena, I don't want to argue with you, but that injury to your belly would have killed a normal man." He sighed and slapped his hands on each side of his legs and pushed himself up. "Well, let me leave you alone so that you can get some rest. I'll see you in the morning."
The port at Cius sat on a deep harbor and employed great, long piers for loading and off loading ships. The Sea Mist was able to dock at a pier and unload using a gangplank. As Xena appeared climbing out of the hold carrying her semi-conscious companion in her strong arms, the activity up top slowly ground to a halt, and the sailors stood silently watching the woman warrior. Tyrus waited at the hold with Argo and lead her as he walked with Xena to the gangplank. There he handed her Argo's reins. Xena shifted Gabrielle higher in her arms cradling her more comfortably and strode down the gangplank with Argo in tow. The sailors on deck moved to the ship's railing and cheered her loudly as the warrior and her charge disappeared into the crowded streets of Cius.
Xena quickly moved away from the port district and entered the city center in search of a nice inn where Gabrielle and she could recuperate from their days spent on the Sea Mist. Her stomach pained her with each jarring step. With the additional weight of Gabrielle in her arms, the pain intensified. People rushed out of her way, if not from uneasiness after looking into Xena's battered face and at the limp woman in her arms, then from respect that the armor, sword, and the leather demanded. After walking for more than a candlemark, Xena finally found a satisfactory inn with good stables. When she strode into the stables, the stable keeper quickly came forward and asked if he could help her.
Xena placed Gabrielle in his arms, quickly removed the saddle bags, slung them over her shoulder, and turned to take repossession of her charge. The man asked what was wrong with Gabrielle and Xena simply replied, "Seasick. Take care of my horse." she turned and strode out of the stables leaving the man mouthing the word, `Seasick.' and shaking his head with a puzzled look on his face.
Becoming more uncomfortable with each passing moment Xena wished only to lie down. She pushed on across the road to the inn, kicked open the door and walked up to the counter. The owner glanced curiously at Gabrielle and then with equal curiosity at the warrior's bruised face, "May I help you?" he asked with a frown.
"My friend and I need a room for a few days; a nice room with a bath," Xena said.
Looking doubtful the man demanded, "You'll have to pay first."
Xena lifted Gabrielle up and laid her gently on the counter much to the dismay of the tavern owner whom Xena ignored. Then she reached into her bag, and said, "How much for seven days?"
The man was still staring at the unconscious woman lying on his counter, and ignoring her question, asked one of his own, "What's wrong with her?"
"Seasick, how much for seven days?" Xena replied and repeated her question.
"Oh, yes, uh, Persian or Greek?"
Xena said, "Do I sound Persian?" Cold, impatient anger rose in her voice. "I have gold."
"No, of course not, sorry," the proprietor stammered. "Five gold laurels, includes morning and evening meals."
Xena slapped the coins on the counter, and picked up Gabrielle whose eyes fluttered open and came to rest on Xena's face. In a slurred voice Gabrielle asked, "Xena, what happened to your face." The tavern owner looked from Gabrielle to Xena with interest and waited for Xena to answer.
Looking down into Gabrielle's slightly unfocused eyes, Xena replied, "Go back to sleep, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle answered obediently, "All right." and she closed her eyes.
Addressing the owner she said, "Which room?"
"Top of the stairs, to the right, last door on the left." Xena turned and trudged up the stairs as the tavern owner watched after her thinking to himself, `What a conversationalist!'
After ordering food to be sent to their room and hot water for her own bath, Xena quickly returned to the stables to retrieve Gabrielle's staff, Argo's saddle, and the remainder of their things. When she returned, she went to work on Gabrielle ignoring her own body's warnings. She stripped Gabrielle's clothes and washed the grime of the sea voyage from her body noticing the dark circles under her eyes and the protruding ribs. Her skin was pale, but at least her fever was gone. Gabrielle had also stirred a little and mumbled something about Ephiny. Xena then covered her with the soft blanket and propped her up in bed with a couple of pillows. "Gabrielle, are you awake?" Gabrielle grimaced but did not respond. Xena gently lifted one eye with her thumb and asked, "Gabrielle, are you in there?"
This brought a slight but oh so sweet smile to Gabrielle's lips, "Uh huh."
"It's time for you to wake up and eat. You have slept for the last three days."
Gabrielle forced her heavy eyes open and took sips of broth and small drinks of water from Xena who sat next to the bed feeding her. Xena would often have to gently shake Gabrielle awake and remind her to swallow, but she was eventually able to get most of a bowl of broth into her and a cup of water. When she was finished, Xena pulled the covers up and let Gabrielle slumber in peaceful sleep.
The hot bath water had arrived while Xena fed Gabrielle, and the wooden tub steamed in the corner of the room. Xena stood, walked over and latched the door, turned and looked at the tub of water tiredly. Her body only wanted to sink down into the bed. Her mind, however, wanted to rub the filth of Damon from her body before she climbed into a clean bed beside Gabrielle. It had been bad enough that she had to touch Gabrielle before scrubbing herself clean of his desecration; she would not sleep with her another night or let her own skin come in contact with Gabrielle’s until his corrupted touch had been obliterated. She wearily removed her armor and weapons wishing Gabrielle could help her because every movement was an excruciating effort. Removing her shift and boots hurt even more. She walked past a mirror on her route to the tub and casually observed how horrible she looked. Her eye was still almost swollen shut, and half of her face was various shades of purple fading into a greenish yellow. Her torso looked worse. Her entire abdomen was purple and black, dark fingers of bluish bruises reached up her right breast and down her groin and right thigh. She knew the hot water would probably cause further discoloring, but she imagined she could still smell his scent and sweat on her body, thus, she would take the chance.
After a candlemark of sitting in the water and scrubbing every inch of her body repeatedly, Xena finally rose from the now tepid water, stepped out of the tub, and reached for a clean swath of linen on which to dry. A horrified gasp from across the room averted her attention to a very weak and pale Gabrielle sitting on the edge of the bed facing her. Seeing Xena's body, Gabrielle stood wrapped in the blanket and moved feebly towards the tall warrior. Although groggy, Gabrielle recalled Tyrus had mentioned Xena's run-in with Damon. Xena tried to conceal most of her body with the cloth, but Gabrielle standing before her, with a shaking hand took the linen in her fingers and let it drop to the floor. A storm of emotions battled across Gabrielle's face. She wanted to scream and curse and cry, and at the same time she wanted to take Xena in her arms and gently rock her and kiss away all the pain. She shook her head and reached out to touch Xena but stopped, afraid her touch might hurt her more. Then her face darkened at the horrible thought of the other unspeakable touch that Xena had probably suffered at the hands of that mad man, and Gabrielle spoke in a choked voice unable to look in Xena's beautiful eyes, "Did he....did he rape...you?" and tears streamed down her cheeks.
Xena, ignoring Gabrielle's question, spoke with detached calm, "Gabrielle, I'm all right, but you need to lie down, you're still weak." She gripped Gabrielle's arm.
Gabrielle pulled away swaying slightly from weakness, her grogginess vanished, and she spoke angrily, "Xena, stop it! Look at you. You are not all right, and you did not answer my question."
Although shocked at Gabrielle's reaction, Xena certainly did not feel like standing there arguing with her. Her head pounded and her guts were knotted in pain. She could feel a hot wave of nausea creep across her as sweat beaded on her forehead. If she did not lie down quickly, she would be picking herself up off the floor. Her warrior stubbornness refused to reveal her weakness to Gabrielle who stood there mirroring her, equally stubborn and weak.
Xena finally spoke coldly, "I don't want to talk about it." She turned to move toward the bed, but Gabrielle refused to be put off. She roughly grabbed Xena by the arm and more with her weight than strength, jerked Xena around. Because Xena's feet were firmly planted, the action made her twist at the waist causing agonizing pain to seize her. She pushed away reflexively, knocking Gabrielle down , and collapsed to her knees as another stabbing pain shot through her mid-section doubling her over. Gabrielle was angry beyond belief at being shoved to the floor until she turned and saw Xena doubled over on the floor rocking in agony with her arms wrapped tightly around her stomach and ribs.
Gabrielle crawled over to Xena and wrapped her arms around her, "Xena, my gods, what is it? Xena, are you all right?"
Xena leaned into Gabrielle fighting the nausea, her eyes clenched against the agony racking her body. She rasped through gritted teeth, "Get me the wash basin." Gabrielle staggered to her feet and returned with the basin dumping the water into the tub and dropped to her knees beside Xena. Xena grabbed the alabaster bowl and retched into it as Gabrielle supported her. When the waves of nausea finally passed, Xena pushed the bowl away from her and laid on the floor shivering. A fine sheen of sweat covered her body. Gabrielle took away the bowl horrified at its bloody contents, and returned to help Xena to the bed. Then she retrieved the linen cloth and wiped Xena's body dry of sweat working carefully around the massive bruise on her body. She covered her with the blanket. Xena's eyes were closed in concentration against the pain.
"Xena, I am so sorry I did this to you. I didn't know; I never would have hurt you." With sheer fright and desperation in her voice Gabrielle continued, "Xena, I am so scared."
Xena opened her eyes wearily and looked up into Gabrielle's tear filled eyes. Mustering her strength she spoke calmly and assuringly, "Gab, I'll be all right. I just need to rest and let my body heal itself. You did nothing. I should have been honest with you."
"Do you want me to fetch a healer?" Gabrielle said.
Xena sighed pain evident on her features but said, "No, there is nothing a healer can do. I just need time to rest. The less I move the, quicker I'll heal."
Gabrielle frowned, but realizing it was useless to argue asked quietly, "What do you want me to do?"
Xena smiled weakly and said, "I want you to lie here with me and hold me, and I want you to find the right things to say to me."
"That's easy," Gabrielle grinned for her injured lover and carefully crawled under the covers next to Xena's body so as not to bump her. She kissed her on the cheek and leaned her head against Xena's shoulder. "I love you, my warrior, we'll get through all of this together." Xena kissed Gabrielle on the top of the head and settled back down into the pillows as she drifted off to sleep in her lover's embrace. Gabrielle spent a restless night afraid to move for fear of hurting Xena, afraid to sleep for fear of what she would find on awakening. The entire night she lay listening for Xena's breathing and beseeching the gods for help.