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Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
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Drako's Revenge - Cont'd
Escape or Perish
The rest of the journey became a blur in Xena's mind. All she could think about was the sight of Drako's severed head on the ground. The picture was burned into her mind, and she now hated Mohammed more than Caesar, even more than the Green Dragon, indeed, more than any other person in her life. Sure, Drako had sold her into slavery and made a mockery of their love and marriage vows, but she now found it impossible to hate him. He'd always been the Ying to her Yang, or vice versa, and somehow, some way he'd made her life more challenging and exhilarating.
Now, she wanted to avenge him, and that simply added to her desire to somehow kill Mohammed. Oh, she knew the new, the good Xena should not feel that way. She remembered that were Lau Ma there she would instruct Xena to cleanse her mind of hatred and revenge, and that she would benefit from so doing, become stronger, wiser and more successful, but she simply could not. Xena wanted vengeance and she was determined to get it.
But her captors did not make it easy for her. Mohammed seemed determined to break her spirit, and circumstances favored him in their face off. Every step of Xena's journey became painstaken. Her ribs were sore from the incessant bouncing of the horse, and it became more and more difficult to hold on to any specific thought with her head dangling down and all her blood rushing towards it. As the horse would roll along, Xena's feet and cranium would bob up and down and each pull on the other due to the connection between ankles and hair. Her head throbbed more powerfully, it seemed, with each passing moment.
Much of the time Xena was only semiconscious. But at least those periods of darkness and non-thought were better than the hurt that developed in her parched lips, dry throat and empty stomach when she was awake. For while the Arabs stopped frequently to feed their hunger and quench their thirst, Xena was denied a single bite or swallow during the whole journey
And during the three days of rest for her escorts, Xena was also denied the blessing of sleep. Fortunately, on the last day before their just before dawn arrival at their ship, they had not been able to find a spot to hang Xena up on her arch-enemy, that excruciating stick wedged under her locked arms. It had become an irritating and seemingly permanent part of her miserable daytime existence.
But although that third day time break from travel did not include the pain wrought from her weight pushing down on the stick, it ended up being perhaps the most depressing of the trio of travel times. This time she was laid flat with her stomach on the ground while her two-at-a-time guards took turns deviling her. They were inventive in their torture. Sometimes they would do only a simple thing, such as planting their heavy boots down hard on her neck or head, pushing forcefully until Xena was on the verge of choking to death. On other occassions they urinated on her, jabbed her bare legs with their sword points just deep enough to draw blood, or dropped rocks of various sizes onto her body willy nily on head, back, and legs while discussing whether to rape her now or later in the hole of the ship.,.
Mohammed himself would add to the hilarity by describing to Xena a long list of slave-breaking means that his slave-owning customers had described as fail safe methods for dealing with resistant females/
They reached the quiet and isolated cove where the slave ship rested just before dawn the third night of their travel. The two most repugnant guards gruffly unloaded Xena from her steed and hauled her up the gang plank by that abominable stick under her arms, her boud feet dragging along the ground. Mohammed ordered all ten of the guards to accompany her down into the hole. "Instruct the chain-master to be careful as he chains her up with the others down there. I want all four of her limbs incarcerated at all times. That's the one thing Drako was correct about."
Mohammed smiled as he watched Xena being hauled down into the hole. She looked beaten, miserable, and helpless, and he loved it even as he reminded himself that that was not the way he wanted her to appear when they reached their destination. I'm going to have to separate her from the rest of those slaves, and feed and clean her up about a week out, he decided, a bit reluctantly. I want her to look her ravishing best when I show her to Sheik Ahmoud. Or would Prince Timur be a better choice. Yes, I think Timur. Most of those rich ass holes prefer young virgins, but those two know a real woman when they see her.
He turned to head to his cabin where he could wash the dust of the trip off his body. As he opened the door of his room and his eyes fell on his bed, another idea popped into his mind Perhaps I should consider personally schooling Xena in the erotic arts before we reach our destination. That could be pleasant. He was still mumbling to himself and feeling smug as he poured water from the waiting pitcher into a wash bowl. He was eager to get started and had so instructed the crew.
Down in the hole, the guard on Xena's right side instructed the chain-master as he'd been told, but without enthusiasm. Like his leader, he saw Xena as a defanged snake. She could barely walk and her head, which had once been held tall whenever she was erect., was now down around her chest and hanging loosely. He was sure she was no longer a danger to any one. He began thinking about how nice sleep was going to feel in a bed once again, and then started joking with his comrades about the ease with which they had brought in the mighty Warrior Princess.
"Amazing how these myths get built up around people, don't you think? Look at her, just another helpless woman. She leaped over no tall trees, threw no fireballs, and worked no magic on us, eh?"
Instinctively, the chain-master, who was irritated at being awakened so early in the morning to add this female to his chain gang, clanked the shackle in place on Xena's left boot. Then, as was his routine, he cut the rope that penned Xena's powerful legs together, and stretched out the rest of the chain in order to check its length before clamping it to her other boot.
Xena almost missed this opportunity. She was tired and slow and had expected him to implicitly follow orders, putting both the leg chains on before removing the rope about her legs. But he had not, and when she realized it, only intuitively, she had only a second in which to act. Xena realized her hands were still tied behind her back, but she also knew that such an opportunity might not come again until they were out at sea where escape would be even more complicated.
So, she acted. Her body straightened, and her fatigue seemed to melt away. Xena belted out her war cry and kicked the chain-master in the face with her freed leg. She then powered herself up into the air, breaking the almost nonchalant grip the two guards had on her arms. At the apex of her leap, she executed a backwards somersault and came down behind her former escorts. As they turned, in slow-motion as compared with her agility, Xena head butted one and sent him sprawling back over the fallen chain master. The other brute Xena then felled with a swing of her left boot, timed and executed so deftly that it was the chain attached to that boot that caught him on the jaw rather than her foot.
"Yiiiiiiiieeee!" The man screeched as he clutched at his broken jaw and blood spurted from his cheeks. He fell over backwards and was no longer a factor in the battle about to explode.
Pandemonium reigned. Xena was yelping, men were hollering and cursing, weapons were clanging off posts and flying through the air, sometimes hand directed but more often it seemed by a kick or blow from the flying feet and flashing Warrior Princess. Xena was sorely handicapped by the fact she could not use her hands. The rope holding her wrists behind her back had been secured to her waist as well, so she was unable to execute her trick of getting them out in front of her where they could be more useful,
Still, especially when considering the sad physical and mental shape she'd been in just seconds earlier, Xena gave quite an accounting of herself. She used the chain attached to her left leg quite effectively as her main weapon. With each arching swing of it, she dislodged swords from the grips of powerful men, as well as caught several of Mohammed's louts with damaging blows. Most were whacked in the face or head but once the flying chain broke a man's arm and a few seconds later a man's leg.
Up on deck, where they readily heard the sounds of the wild melee below, Mohammed ordered the entire ship's crew to get down there and quell the riot. He did not have to see what was going on to know Xena was behind it. He was angry and almost equally terrified. Xena did that to him. Only moments earlier he had been gloating over his defeat of her. Now, it was all he could do to not to panic and flee for his life.
Fortunately for Mohammed the entirety of his crew had been rousted out of bed early along with the chain-master to greet the arrival of their leader and prepare for departure. They responded to his orders with alacrity and all types of weaponry.
Fortunately for Xena though, the close quarters of the hole meant that only two to three of her foes could easily reach her simultaneously. Thus, the battle favored the master of combat, and the sailors and slave-herders were falling left and right. With the initial ten either beaten or fallen back in fear and hesitation, Xena tried desperately to find a way to free her wrists. She scanned the wall for a broken nail or something she could press them against and cut or weaken the ropes. Spying nothing helpful in the dim light of the bowels of the sailing ship, Xena turned her attention to a fallen sword. She tucked the toe of her boot under it, flipped it up and watched anxiously as it turned over and fell back to the floor, point first.
Xena's eyes gleamed, but she was forced to deal with two brave newly arrived souls first. She disposed of them with he almost patented leap and spread-eagled double kick that swatted them both simultaneously on their jaws. Xena then dropped to floor on her fanny, positioned herself with her back to the blade and began to rub the ropes against it. She cut both her arms but ignored the slight pain.
Seeing her down, some of the attackers were emboldened and came charging at her, swords drawn and aimed at a would-be helpless victim. But Xena proved as effective a fighter on her butt as on foot, She had to stop cutting away at her bonds, but she slid herself under their blades, pushed down with her locked hands to elevate her body just off the floor and began to. twirl, using her legs for momentum.
The chain and clasp on her left boot flew out and around at ever building speed. As a result, swords were redirected or lost, and arms were broken or sprained. Xena was yelling and laughing and her foes were crying out in pain and frustration. They fell back again.
Xena tried the bonds on her wrists. They had been partially cut and she felt them give a tad. The only reason she was not free, she realized, was because she had been sorely weakened the last few days by lack of food and water and now the draining effects of her heightened physical activity. She staggered to her feet and tried again, with all her strength. She was almost loose. But at just that point, an alert seaman who had crept along the darkened depths of the wall and snuck behind her, deftly tossed a fish net on top of her.
Twenty men, several of them injured, jumped at the opportunity given them and charged. They leaped on top of Xena and the whole mass went down in a pile of cursing, shouting, grunting bodies.
It looked as if it were all over, but suddenly bodies began to fly off the pile, and there was Xena, penned down by the netting but still head-butting and wailing away with her feet, even though they now had restricted range and power.
A burly seaman who'd held back until now, saw his chance. Xena was still fighting but she could no longer duck and dodge. He caught her flush on the jaw with his big size thirteen boot, just as her wrists finally broke loose from one another.
It seemed as if the struggle had lasted forever. Bodies lay all over the place, blood flowed freely and curses were now mixed with shouts of glee. Xena was unconscious, blood trickling from her nose and cheek. Mohammed stared down at the mess below from the top of the stairs and ordered his survivors to drag her up on deck and tie her to the main mast. The huge behemoth of a bully who had kicked her senseless victoriously drug her limp body up the ladder by her hair.
Mohammed ordered his disciplinarian, who had just regained consciousness from a Xena delivered kick, to lash her with his cat of nine tails. "How many, Sire?" The man asked in a still slightly dazed voice, the thirst for revenge racing through his body juices.
"Two for each of you she's injured, Mohammed replied angrily. A quick check was made and the tally reported: "Three men are dead, Master," an incredulous mate announced. Seven more have broken bones, five are still unconscious and bleeding and..."
"And don't forget me," the lasher intruded, "the bitch hit me harder than I've ever been struck before."
"That makes...oh Tartarus, who cares," Mohammed, usually a master of calculations, found himself so rattled by Xena's near escape he could not compute. "Just lash her until I tell you to stop." Mohammed then took a deep breath and smiled, savoring the idea of a bit more revenge against his former nemesis, and also relieved that they had, by the skin of their teeth, averted another disaster at her hands. Well, more accurately, at her feet.
"We should wake her up first, Master," the cat-wielder suggested. "I want to hear her screams for mercy."
"Fahd," the leader motioned toward a small and swarthy man. "Fill the sea bucket." The man smiled and ran to the rail where he tossed a bucket on a rope down into the water and began to pull it back up.
Mohammed himself approached Xena. She was facing the mast, her hands again bound together at the wrists which were now pulled up over her head and trussed to the main mast. The woman's feet had also been rebound and secured to the bottom of the mast. But they were not supporting her weight. Only the ropes about her wrists supported her weight. Xena's body sagged and her battered head and bloodied face were again down on her chest.
Mohammed pulled a knife out of his belt, drove it into Xena's back at the top of her leather clothing. He drove it hard enough to not only pierce all the way through her leather's protective coat, but also cut into her bare skin a quarter of an inch or so deep. He then drew the blade straight down her back about twenty inches before withdrawing it. He then grasped each side of her leather dress and ripped it apart, exposing the lighter skin of Xena's bare back from neck line to waist.
Mohammed stepped back, his eyes revealing delight at what he was about to witness. "Douse her!"
The little dweeb who'd just returned with a dripping bucket, splashed Xena with its whole content of cold salt water right smack dab in the face.
The woman bolted to consciousness, her body straightening and stiffening. She gasped for breath and her big blues widened by shock.
The first strike from the cat ripped at Xena's skin and caught off guard she involuntarily yelped in pain. "Aggghhhhh!"
"Yeah!" Many of the angry, injured and embarrassed crew members responded in unison.
"Harder, by Zeus," one of the men who was sporting a broken arm shouted in anger. "I want to hear her damn pain."
The whipper applied the second blow with all his might, but Xena was ready for it now and determined to deny them the pleasure of her cries. She stifled this would be scream down low in her throat.
"Harder!" A man with a broken nose shouted. Several nodded their heads and one or two added another , "Yeah."
"THREE-FOUR..." Xena continued to deny her foes the satisfaction of her shouts, even though her body shook and writhed in pain.
She passed out three times during the ensuing ordeal, only to be revived again and again by the cold ocean water. The last time it took two dousings to open her eyes. Her back was now a bloody mess. The cat-man wanted to go on, but Mohammed stopped him after stroke twenty-seven.
Xena had never yelped again, but even her iron will could not prevent moans and groans from slipping out involuntarily. It was not what her tormentors wanted, but better than nothing.
Just before it ended, several of the observers closed their eyes, her back was so mutilated and gushing blood so ghoulishly. Several others, however, looked on transfixed and wet their pants with a sticky substance that told them they had been sexually aroused by the gory scene.
Mohammed finally stopped the slaughter, but not due to any sense of mercy. He did do only because it had suddenly dawned on him again that he was mutilating his profit. She could die from this, he realized, or her back could be so scared no one will ever want to ever look at her again.
"Shall we cut her down and stash her with the others down in the hole, Master?" The master-beater asked.
"No, set sail and let's get out of here. Leave her hanging there for now so she can feel the cut of the sea breezes on her gashes and be reminded that's she's at sea and where she's headed. I also want you all to see what I'm willing to do to one who crosses me. Oh yes, is the chain master alive?"
"Yes, Sir. He's so wobbly he can't walk but he's alive."
"Throw him over-board. The fool's negligence could have gotten us all killed."
It was four days later and deep at sea, before Mohammed sobered and realize that he was still cutting off his nose to spite his face in his treatment of Xena. Every time he passed her during the first twenty-four hours of the trip, he'd grown more and more determined to break her defiance But whenever he had approached her, she'd either ignored him or spit on him when he tried to intimidate her.
Which, of course, had caused him to search for a more effective way to break her and prove that he was the master. He had her hung upside down for several hours, but when that failed to force her to beg for mercy, or even a drink of water or a bite to eat, Mohammed racked his brain and came up with his most sadistic torture yet. They keelhauled Xena three times. All of this, of course, with the open wounds on her back never touched by medication or bandage.
She was hauled by a rope under the ship from one side to the other at the fattest point of the vessel. She came out of the water unconscious each time, but when her senses returned the first two times, her eyes spit fire and she stared silently at the slave runner as if he were dirt.
The third time she emerged from the sea, Xena shivered so rapidly most of the crew thought she was having a seizure. But other than shaking, she lay there eyes with shut and silent, sans coughing, wheezing or the usual desperate efforts for breath that an almost drowned subject normally demonstrated. Most thought she was dying and began placing bets on when she'd draw her last frail breath.
But a Warrior Princess does not die easily, even if a huge part of her brain desperately wants even that drastic relief, any relief. Thus, as Mohammed bent over her, smirked and said, "Well, at least I'll be credited with being the one who killed the mighty Xena. Without opening her eyes," Xena wanly replied, "Up Yours!" She even tried to spit on him, except that her body was so dehydrated no spittle was there to launch..
Mohammed was just about to toss her over the side again, when rationality once more crept into his evil brain. Actually, it was more likely the profit motive. He saw Xena laying there, wet from head to toe, her body again shivering in the light breeze and he felt a rise of lust that he quickly translated into dinars.
If she looks that erotic even though a mess, just think how valuable she'll be if fixed up, pliant, and ready for sale, he thought to himself. I've been a damn fool. That woman gets under my skin more than anyone I've ever known. I've beaten her. I don't need her to admit it. Hell, she'd rather die than crawl, and it's that fire in her that makes her so incredibly fetching.
Thus, he ordered his men to dry her off and cart her away to his quarters where he planned that night to clean her up, medicate her wounds, and start prepping her for her new life as a love slave. Lessons in how-to were, of course, on the docket.
Xena was chained by her wrists to a hook just inside the door to Mohammed's room. Unconscious as she was, he authorized her enough slack so that most of her body could lay on the ground, feet bound, of course. He was no fool. As he examined all the scars on her body he got another profitable flash. Mohammed's eyes narrowed. He hadn't thought of that angle before. If she proved too marred to appeal to any wealthy emirs, he could always sell her to a gladiator master. They liked scared people and surely a lot of crazed fanatics would pay good money to see one fight as Xena could.
But she still has to survive, damnit, he reminded himself, seeing how shallowly she was breathing and how pale her skin color had become. I should've brought a Healer along on this trip. She's running such a high fever I don't even want to jump her bones. There's a death stench about her, death and urine. I should have her hosed down. You'd think those dousings by the sea would have cleaned her up better.
Mohammed left the room planning to send a sailor back to wash Xena off, but then he got distracted.
"Sail ho!" It was the lookout shouting down and pointing from the crow's nest. "Sail ho! It looks Roman."
The captain rushed up to the elevated area where the steering wheel was located. At first, he couldn't make out what the man up higher had spotted, after less than a quarter of an hour, a sail also came into his vision. It had a much larger mainsail than his and two others to boot. Mohammed was instinctively worried. He'd recently heard rumors that a self-righteous Roman official had created an anti-slavery naval patrol, and that several slave ships had been chased down, raided, and stripped of their cargo while their crews were either killed in resistance or hauled off to jail.
Mohammed excused himself nervously and went for his spyglass. Damn! He thought. Has that Xena bitch cursed this voyage?
An hour later it became obvious that the Roman vessel was hot on their trail and cutting the distance between them rapidly.
"We should dump the slaves and all excess baggage, Master. Maybe then we could outrun them," Mohammed's captain suggested.
"Normally, I'd take your advice, Captain, but she's already gained so much sea on us, I don't think it would make a damn bit of difference."
"Aye, he seems to be making at least twice our speed. If the wind died, we'd fare better being lighter. See that storm cloud over there almost on top of the water. If we could hide in that, he might miss us. But we need to slow him down somehow or we'll never make it. He's definitely after us. I've changed directions three times and he's marked us each time."
"I don't want to dump those slaves. I'm more deeply in the hole ont his trip than usual, that damn Xena delayed us and cost me a fortune."
"Better to be alive and out of jail, even if broke, than dead or in prison."
"You think they'd stop to pick up the slaves? I don't. The Romans have slaves of their own. I think they just want to eliminate the competition."
"Undoubtedly they're hypocrites on the matter, but the truth is they capture slaves for themselves in wars. They don't sell them on the world market as you do. Those wretches down below are useless if we're caught or sunk."
"If they were worthless, Ali, I wouldn't have them. It's worth a try, though. It will also make us faster, won't it?"
"Maybe enough to make it to the shelter of that cloud. But only if we act quickly."
So, as quickly as they could and with the winds from the nearby storm whipping up the sea about them, the slavers dumped their load from the hole: thirty-seven men and women and one teen-aged child. The poor victims were still chained together as they were shoved into the rough sea. In their haste, the anxious slave traders forgot about the other victim now enslaved in their master's cabin.
Sadly, for the slavers, as it turne out, they made their move too quickly. Due to the now much choppier seas, those on the Roman ship were unable to witness the slave dump. And by the time their ship reached the place where the pitiful victims had briefly bobbled on the surface, the merciless water and the fact they were still linked together had combined to sink them to oblivion unwitnessed by any but the brigands who had put them there.
Indeed, it was only when the Romans were within moments of catching their prey that their captain noted to his first officer. "It looks to me as if they're riding a mite higher in the water now than before, Antonious, and making a little more speed. Wouldn't you agree?"
"Aye, Sir. I think they are, I bet the bastards dumped their cargo. Just a few minutes before you rejoined me here, I thought I noticed a couple of boxes floating off to the south."
"Even if they have, the poor slobs may well be better off than they would be as slaves. Let's make those slavers pay. If that's what they are, of course."
"Well, I think we can be sure of that, Captain. They're definitely running, and their ship never looked that deep in the water to me. They're certainly not carrying a commercial cargo."
"Keep pushing. I'll lead the boarding crew. You steer and then do your usual security watch here while we clean them up. I'll get the men ready. We'll give them the usual brief chance to surrender, and if they don't, we'll board behind a barrage from the archers."
"Aye, Captain. In about twenty minutes, I think."
Twenty-five minutes passed, before Captain Marcus Romano used his megaphone to call on the slave ship to drop sail and peacefully accept a boarding party of inspectors from his ship. When the response was an attempt to turn to the starboard away from the larger ship, the crew executed its oft practiced procedure.
Ten minutes after that, the more disciplined and skilled Romans had successfully linked the two vessels with large grappling hooks and twelve archers had launched two rounds of arrows into the nervous crew and slavers. Following that, a disciplined boarding party of fifty men roared onto the deck of the slave-ship with howls and flashing swords.
Mohammed panicked. At first, he tried to hide down in the hole. In it's dense and now empty darkness, he lit a torch to facilitate finding a hiding place, and then, visibly shaking with fear, he brushed his flame against some old sails and accidentally started a fire.
Seconds later, now in thoughtless panic, Mohammed found himself stumbling up the ladder, shouting fire and fleeing toward the one sanctuary to which he was accustomed: his cabin.
Spying the smoke, Marcus shouted orders for his chain-clipping team to check the hole for slaves. Just then he spotted the crafty Arab leader scurrying from pillar to post in efforts to avoid detection in the now darkness of night that had covered the two vessels. Marcus was sure from the man's costly clothing that he had to be the chief slaver, so he took off after him just as the few surviving bad guys began surrendering on deck.
Marcus grabbed Mohammed from the rear and spun him around. "Surrender or die, you cur? And by the Gods, if you've deliberately set fire to your slaves, I swear I'll run you through myself."
"Mercy, mercy," the Arab replied in the Roman tongue, trembling in fear. "We have no slaves, Good Master. Look for yourself. We're just an innocent merchant ship."
"And your cargo is?"
"There is none, kind Sire. We were on our way to pick one up." It was then that Mohammed remembered Xena. Damnation! He thought. "If they find her, all's lost."
"Then why did you run, you scum?" Marcus pressed the Arab.
"We feared you were pirates. We'd been warned they were flying Roman flags as a decoy."
"A likely story..." but Marcus was interrupted by shouts by several of the men he'd sent below. They were coughing and shouting between hacks. "It's an inferno down there, Captain. We've got to unhook the ships and get some distance or we'll all go down."
"All right, everyone back to our ship," Marcus shouted, locating his piper and signaling for him to blow the recall. As his eyes turned away from Mohammed, the Arab darted away and raced towards his cabin.
But Marcus was determined the Arab would not avoid capture and took off after him. His sixth sense told him that was the man who'd started the fire, and he wanted to drag him over to the roman vessel and place him in chains.
Mohammed jerked open the door to his cabin and ran inside. Xena lay to his right, in a heap and quite possibly already expired, Mohammed hoped, but he had to be sure. He drew his thin rapier just as the partially open door swung wider, and Marcus became the third person in the small cabin.
But the Arab only had eyes for his female nemesis. He aimed his sword at the middle of her already mutilated back and lunged..
But the Roman officer proved the quicker of the two. Noting instantly that the Arab had drawn a weapon, Marcus reacted and thrust his blade into Mohammed's side. The wound caused Mohammed to stumble in mid-thrust at Xena. Thus, the Arab's sword struck flesh all right, but lower than he had aimed. It pierced into Xena's normally quite sexy upper right thigh. Blood spurted out all over the falling Arab. He clutched at his side and released the grip on his sword, which then rocked up and down as it protruded from Xena's body.
Marcus took in the sight of the wounded woman with amazement. He'd never before seen anything quite like it. His eyes quickly took in the leathers, the mutilated back, the chains and ropes. "Son of a bitch," Marcus muttered, "I reckon I've stumbled onto this ass hole's sex toy. What a sadistic monster."
"Captain, Captain!" It was the Roman captain's trusted Second Officer who now thrust his head inside the door. "We've got to get off of here. Holy, shit, wha..."
"Give me a hand here, will you, Theodous, I think she's alive, poor thing."
Almost frantically the two men freed Xena. The Second officer cutting the ropes about her ankles and Marcus with one powerful stroke severing the chain that held her arms to the hook on the wall. Hurriedly, Marcus laid Xena over his shoulder, and the two men scrambled for their own ship. Friendly hands helped them over the side of the slave ship and down onto the deck of their own just as the last grappling hook was loosened and the ships drifted apart.
Most of the Romans just stood there on their deck fascinated by the sight of the burning pyre of a not so proud ship. It lit up the sky for miles around. But Marcus only watched it for a few scant seconds before he decided he had to get the load off his shoulder and provide some medical to the half-dead and bleeding victim, if it wasn't already too late.
"Antonious, get the casualty and action reports to me in my cabin just as soon as you can. And tell the Healer I've a patient for him in my cabin as soon as he's treated all of our wounded. Set sail to the east, northeast and give my congratulations to all on a job well done. Did we save any slaves?"
"Apparently not one, Sir--unless that one on your shoulder qualifies. I'm afraid if there weren't tossed into the sea, they perished in the fire."
"Well, this one may or may not be a slave. She could just as easily be his play-toy." The captain strode off to his cabin, shifting Xena about on his shoulder. She was surprisingly heavy for one of such slender appearance. Must be those leather boots, Marcus, thought since they were the part of her most obvious to his eyes for the moment.
Under a Roman Flag
A week later Marcus Romano still didn't know if the sick woman in his cabin had been a slave or the concubine to the drowned Arab. She was deathly ill, and Marcus and his Healer spent hours laboring over her in an effort to keep her alive. They'd tied her to Marcus' bed. Not to keep her a prisoner but to prevent her from rolling over onto her tortured back or the wounded leg. The soft cloth bonds proved necessary because in her frequent trips in and out of delirium, caused by a high fever from the infection in her back, Xena appeared to her two monitors to be having tumultuous nightmares.
The reality was that Xena was reexperiencing much of her spine-tingling life: battles; schemes; the birth, giving away, and death of her son; the beatings and rapes of the gauntlet; her betrayal and near crucifixion by Caesar; the further betrayal by her best friend in Chin; and fights with Giants and other medieval creatures. As the proverbial drowning man reviews his life in the few minutes before expiration, Xena was reliving the most dangerous events in her life over and over again as she did battle with the spirits. Some of which seemed to want to take her away from this earth and others who believed she still had earthly matters with which to deal.
Off and on, between groans, moans and shouts, Xena mumbled names, tried to strike out and parry, grunted; shrieked and even emitted a pitiful version of her war cry. For almost a week her breathing remained shallow, her body temperature alternating between dangerously hot and critically cold.
Though it all, the Roman captain and his Healer persevered. The Healer spent most of the daytime hours in the captain's cabin and by Xena's side while the captain donated his nights, sleeping only when he could on a pallet next to his bed where the critically ill woman lay.
Within hours of Xena's arrival on The Seaworthy, Marcus had stripped her of the dirty, bloodied, cut and torn leathers which were so much a part of her. For convenience of treatment, they'd left her naked. It would be wrong to say that either the captain or his older friend, the Healer, ignored the loveliness of Xena's sculptured body, but the truth was that her plight was so tenuous, they paid only scant attention to it. Their primary goal was to save her life with a secondary shot at mitigating the lingering scars, especially those on her disfigured back.
As men often do, especially those used to being around death and wounds, they made bets about Xena's survival. The Healer rated her less than a twenty per cent chance and so bet against her, even as he used all his skills in an effort to lose that wager. On the other hand, for no obvious reason Captain Marcus bet on her, even though deep down inside he knew his bet was based more on hope than logic. He'd become intrigued by the unanswered questions about Xena. His mind told him she was probably a harlot hired by the slave-master to satisfy his erotic addictions, but in his heart he wanted her to be a victim, a prisoner rather than a willing participant in what the Roman had been taught was tawdry sex.
The captain's interrogations of the few surving seaman from the slave ship had not satisfied his curiousity about Xena. They had four prisoners. Two of whom had refused to answer any questions other than to swear the ship had not been a slaver.
The other two admitted only to being hapless sailors who's been hijacked and in effect, enslaved themselves. They admitted, after rough questioning, that there had been slaves on board who had been jetisoned, but they both swore they had only followed orders. One said Xena was a slave who had tried to escape and been tortured for it, while the other had sworn she was the slave-master's special prize. They both seemed hesitatnt to talk about her, indeed, even afraid of her.
It was almost three in the morning on Xena's seventh night in his cabin, when an nearly exhusted Marcus was awakened for the umpteenth time by sounds from the creature up on his bed.
He sat up, wiped the sleep from his eyes, and turned his attention to her. Lo and behold, for the very first time when he looked into her eyes they reflected something other than lifelessness. They were open rather than being held open, and he swore they literally sparkled while indicating considerable surprise at seeing him. On the way up from his pallet he thought he had heard Xena saying. "Where am I?" In Greek. And then she apparently saw Marcus' face almost at eye level with hers. She blinked, tugged against the bindings on her arms and feet, and weakly mumbled. "Who are you?"
"I'm Marcus Romano, Captain of The Seaworthy, a Roman ship on anti-slavery patrol. We've set you free."
Xena was slow to respond. Her eyes sought out the source of her inability to move her hands and feet. She frowned and pulled on the bonds before answering him. Her voice was so frail he could barely hear it. "You must be Roman if you consider this free." At the word this, Xena's eyes rolled towards her bound wrists.
Marcus flashed a friendly smile. "Those are not meant to imprison you. We had to keep you from turning onto your back and right side. You're back's a terrible mess."
Xena nodded. "You're telling me. Is it on fire?" But a weak smile suggested she knew it was not. "Were all the slaves were freed? What happened to Mohammed?"
Marcus' eyes revealed disappointment. "I'm sorry to say all the slaves except you perished. The bastards threw them over board as we closed in on them, and their chains dragged them right to the bottom. As for Mohammed, he's dead, but I'm not sure whether by my sword or fire. They burned their own ship under them. We barely got you off, and found you only by luck. If you'd been with the others, you'd be dead now."
"You mean I'm not. It's bad enough being indebted to Romans. How did you know to speak Greek to me? I can speak your lingo."
"You've done a lot of talking in your sleep, delirium, nightmares or whatever. It was almost always in Greek. The parts I could understand anyhow. Some of it seemed pretty frightful. I suppose you relived your capture? You were captured, weren't you?"
Marcus tailed off. He realized he was putting the words he preferred to hear into her mind, so he backtracked and tried to rephrase. "I found you in a rather erotic costume, chained and tortured. I've assumed it was not your choice of costume. You were a slave, were you not? I mean, just now you asked if all the slaves were rescued."
Xena chuckled and it hurt. She realized for the first time she had a busted rib or so along with al her other wounds. "Costume? What costume?" Then she sighed and her eyes shut, as if the effort to keep them open proved too much for her.
Marcus got to his feet hurriedly. "Hey, hey, I'm taxing you, but don't go back under on me. At least not until we get some liquids into you. Hold on." He stepped over to a table at the end of her bed, grabbed a bowl off of it, doused a rag in the bowl and squeezed it out partially. "We've been wetting your lips with these cloths, but it's not very efficient. If you could swallow a drop or two of water, or better yet some broth, my Healer thinks it would be very helpful to you."
For a moment he thought he'd lost her, maybe totally, for Xena suddenly seemed lifeless. He pulled the blanket down and felt for her heart. Just as he did so, he spied a slight movement of her chest, those large breasts now scared by healing wounds. Thank the Gods, Marcus thought, she's still breathing.
Xena's eyes opened partailly, and she flashed that wane smile again. "Water, broth, that sounds good. I'll try."
Marcus poured some of the broth from another bowl into a mug. He gently lifted her head up a bit off the pillow and helped her drink. Xena got three swallows down before she began to cough.
Nonetheless, with patience, in about ten minutes of lifting and lowering, Marcus got a whole half a cup of broth into her.
Then Xena slept. For the first time Marcus felt her quiet time was pure sleep. Her fever's gone, he discovered happily as he touched her forehead, or almost so. I bet it broke tonight when she had that awful chill.
Indeed, she had been so racked with shivering earlier that night Marcus had felt compelled to climb into bed with her and wrap his arms and legs about her, pulling the blankets over them both.
They had lain that way for about twenty minutes as she had gradually warmed. Marcus had thought at the time it might be a permanent cooling down: her near end. Thus he had spoken to her lovingly, but now he suspected it had been a turn towards healing rather than towards death.
During the next week Xena's recovery was so steady it amazed the two men who had tried so hard to will it to happen. The back that had seemed to refuse to heal began to do that very thing. "What's most remarkable is that it's her doing and not mine," Ragon, the Healer, told Marcus, after seven days of improvement. "She suggested to me that I add two herbs to the salve I'd been using, and twenty-four hours after that, the improvement was obvious. I don't know much about her past, but somewhere she's been exposed to the art of healing."
"Yeah, well, that's part of my confusion, too, Ragon, old friend," Marcus replied. "I find our Xena absolutely one of the most charming people I've ever met. We talk easily about almost anything. She knows more about military strategy, for example, than I thought was possible for a female. yet, her eyes can be so soft and lovely and her movements so graceful that she seems totally feminine."
"You sound like an admirer, my friend. I warned you about keeping her in your cabin."
"Admire her, I clearly do. Why just the fact she's getting well shows admirable courage, strength, and determination. But she's also smart as a whip, no pun intended, curious, interested in what others have to say, and quick-witted. She makes me laugh more than anyone I've ever met. But, let me tell you I am put off by her...her...how can I describe it? Her tendency to exaggerate, perhaps?"
"You mean about being a warrior."
"Yes, and things so related. She claims to have defeated Caesar in battle, captured him and held him for ransom before he betrayed and tried to crucify her--before, of course, she miraculously escaped with the help of a woman who had incredible fighting skills . She also claims to have been a warlord, fought at Troy, defeated giants, and I could go on and on. She doesn't seem to have any appreciation of the fact that such claims are patently ridiculous."
"Be patient, Marcus. I told you I suspect those stories are all predicated on the delusions her body dreamed up to explain her pain and misery when she was literally out of this world for a week. Hell, she may have been that way even before we rescued her. I saw how she was costumed. Maybe that Arab Slaver implanted such seeds in her mind by acting out, maybe even forcing her to act out, sexual fantasies with him. She might have been in that mind set when she was traumatized by the whip."
"You're telling me she's crazy, but that it will go away."
"I'm telling you she's probably delusional, but that yes, I suspect as she gets her feet firmly settled in the present, it will probably go away. She's obviously a very intelligent woman, either well traveled or well read."
"She tells me she has no patience for reading, but I've gotten her to listen to me reading poems at night before we go to sleep, and she claims to enjoy them." But then Marcus seeemd to reconsider.
"Of course, I've also noticed that as soon as she can, she changes the subject to sailing, armor, weaponry, or something like the details of Caesar's death. The woman's really fixated on Julius. She harbors a powerful hatred for him, even though she talks a good talk about having learned that hatred only gets in the way of living one's life for the greater good."
"Yeah, she told me you'd told her about Caesar's assassination. It was as if she wanted to confirm it. She seemed pretty pleased."
"Pleased? That's putting it mildly. She was downright joyful."
"You said she told you she'd once held Caesar captive?"
"Yep. That they mutually plotted to conquer the world before he betrayed her. Then she added that she'd helped defeat him in Britannia and duped him out of a captive back in Rome, where she fought in the forum as a diversion."
"I can see where her stories strain credulity. Is she bragging about all this?"
"Quite the contrary. It's all comes in answer to my questions about her past and words she muttered when she was unconscious. She's very matter of fact about it, sometimes rather self-deprecating. She swears that a few years ago she gave up waring and pilaging, took a vow of poverty and became almost possessed by a desire to make amends for her past sins by assisting the weak."
"Perhaps I should ask her about some of these things. When we've talked she's seemed totally coherent, indeed informed in an amazing number of areas of my interest. You know her knowledge of wounds and illnesses could have developed out of necessity--if she were a warrior?"
Marcus looked at his old friend as if the man was tetched. "Look at her, Ragon. I admit she's got more body scars than I do, but that's a lovely woman, not some sort of a manly woman dedicated to soldiering. Tartarus, we know that Arab tortured her. That could explain the wounds. What we don't know was whether it was simply kinky sex or torture."
"You should know, Marcus, all of her battle scars are not recent. She may look like a normal, soft female, but her arms and legs are devoid of fat, and although she doesn't possess bulky muscles, feel her; she's hard as a rock. I'm betting she's deceptively strong. She had to be to survive what she went through here and on that slaver."
"No fat, so what? Of course, there's no fat on her. Think how much weight you'd lose if you went a week or so without food and damn little water. And how can you describe someone as strong, when a little walk about my tiny cabin is all she can muster?"
"Well, one of the two prisoners I treated, swore she was the one who'd broken his jaw. I'd just written it off as a lie, but now I'm not so sure. He seemed in awe of her."
"You didn't tell me that."
"I guessed you were infatuated with her, and I didn't think you'd want to hear it. It suggested to me she was the slave-master's woman with power over the crewman. Tartarus, I didn't want to believe that myself."
"You haven't heard the most outlandish yet."
"I asked her how she fell into Mohammed's hands, and why he had her whipped. She told me her husband, of one day, had sold her to Mohammed."
"Whaaattt? Her husband sold her? Why would any man do that?"
"She said he was an former rival warlord, and that he sold her to avenge a couple of public beatings she'd given him. She then said that she was whipped for trying to escape, and given two lashes for every one of the slavers she killed or injured."
The Healer's eyes widened.
"You're calculating? We agreed she'd been cut more than twenty times by a whip, Right? So, indirectly, she's saying, with as straight and innocent a face as I've ever seen, that with her arms tied behind her back, she killed or injured at least ten men."
"Say, that coroborates that prisoner's statement to me that she broke his nose."
"C'mon, Ragon I couldn't beat up ten healthy men with my hands tied behind my back."
"So? Who ever said you were a great fighter?"
"Thanks a lot. I can whip your ass any time."
"I don't dispute that. I'm a Healer and a lover. You're the professional warrior and senator. But I haven't seen you take on Darius. The men would love to see that."
"Wouldn't they? But don't get your hopes up. They won't. I'm not stupid. He's a bull."
They were talking about the most powerful member of the Seaworthy's crew: a seaman notorious for his feats of strength. That ended the discussion, but not the captain's concern abut the competency of the lovely woman who cohabited his cabin. He was powerfully attracted to Xena and not just because of her enticing body. But he was equally uneasy about either her mental stability or her tendency to outright lie.
In the following weeks, Xena and the captain became familiar figures as he took her for an evening stroll along the deck to get her some fresh air. Naturally Xena was clothed again, albeit not nearly as suggestively as her normal warrior's clothing. Marcus had given her an old pair of his pants and a shirt. The pants would have fallen off her comparatively tiny waist had not a belt accompanied the hand-me-downs. The only remnant of Xena's warrior maiden garb were her tall leather boots, but now even they were mostly hidden by the baggy pants that covered them.
Naturally, there was some talk among the crew about their captain and his woman. Even in Marcus' baggy pants and not nearly as too large a shirt as he thought, Xena cut a fine figure of a woman. Men starved for the sight of females got very little work or conversation done during the nightly twenty minutes during which the couple strolled the deck, chatting, and often laughing. Those who caught some bits of the conversation were startled to learn that they were usually discussing sailing, navigation, the weather or other such innocuous subjects rather than the often aimless banter between a man and an attractive women.
Five weeks after her arrival on board The Seaworthy, Xena asked Marcus to give her a job. She didn't have in mind what he offered, but she accepted the assignment without complaint. He put her to work at the cook's assistant in the galley. Xena cut and washed food, scrubbed dishes, served the men, cleaned and mopped the kitchen and dining area, washed dishes, wiped tables, learned to cook, washed dishes, washed dishes, and washed dishes. At least that was the way it seemed to her. But it was much better than sitting in that cabin all day counting the moments until their nightly stroll.
Nights were more pleasant than Xena could remember, even recalling the many campfire evenings with her special friend, Gabrielle. In many ways Marcus reminded Xena of Gabrielle. Like her, Marcus was a reader and a story teller, and he regaled her with the words of others. He also told her about his family: two daughters and two sons, all of whom had been born to him from the womb of a much younger yet recently deceased wife.
"How did she die?" Xena had asked when she first heard the sad news.
"A fever, much like the one you had, I'm told. I'm sorry to say I was at sea. To tell the truth, Xena, I was not much of a husband nor a father. That's why this is going to be my last tour at sea. I feel guilty that I haven't spent more time with my family."
"How can you not know someone with whom you've produced four children?"
"Producing children seemed easy for us. It was an arranged wedding. She was lovely young girl, and I emphasize the word girl. I was twenty years her senior. But she was well schooled in all the family arts. She ran our two homes efficiently, kept the help in line, looked beautiful on those few occasions we went out socially, and serviced me coolly and efficiently when I stopped by the house between trips to sea or senatorial sessions in Rome."
Xena puckered her lips and took on a childlike expression momentarily. "Sounds awful to me. No offense. Did you love her?"
Marcus hesitated. "A tough question. I guess I thought I did, but I now realize I did not. She was a convenience. I love what I do: the sea, the Senate, politics, sport. I'm what I thought a Roman nobleman should be, and falling in love was not a requirement for that."
"Well, who am I to criticize?" Xena looked pensive. "My love life has been a disaster. Did I tell you I had a son, whom I felt compelled to give away?"
Marcus wanted more detail, but Xena found the story of Solan and his murder by Gabrielle's offspring too recent and painful to retell. So, once again she changed the subject.
Truth Will Out
Another potential slave ship was spotted, and the whole pace and routine of The Seaworthy suddenly shifted. Xena was caught up in the excitement but excluded from any role. Nonetheless, she shared in the rising tension level and the excitement of the crew.
At meal times since she'd become the main server, a friendly, albeit sexually suggestive, banter had sprung up between the female server and her sex-starved customers. But on the day of the chase, it was muted. Oh, a few men still reached out to pinch her bottom and got their hands slapped away. Xena even tossed them what the crew had labeled her drop dead stare, but it failed to break up the group as per usual.
Xena overheard Marcus instructing Cookie about her status for the upcoming encounter. "Under no circumstances, and I repeat, none, Cookie, are you or Xena to leave this galley during the engagement. Xena sometimes thinks she's got warrior blood rushing through those veins of hers, so I'm counting on you to keep her in here and out of harm's way. You got it."
"Aye, aye, My Captain," the fat cook responded, scratching the grizzled growth on his chin and cheeks.
Four hours later, just some thirty minutes before the usual dinner hour, the ships locked together, the first barrage of arrows flew, and the men's roars preceded them over the side and onto the deck of the clutched suspect ship. But this time Marcus' men were surprised by a much larger force than they had ever encountered before on a slaver. Men came pouring out of the hole of the Macedonian ship, not freed slaves, but more slavers, well-armed and seemingly spoiling for a fight.
Xena and her alleged boss conspired to observe the battle. They stood outside the galley and on top of boxes that enabled them to see over their railing and down at the battle on the deck of the slaver. Xena felt the call of battle and was having trouble not rushing off to join the fray. She understood that Marcus did not believe she had been to the battlefield born, and that he was trying to protect her, but she was sorely miffed by her observer's role. And even that was, she reminded herself, against his orders. "I've got to have a serious talk with that man."
The pipe blew calling for Marcus' reserve force of an additional ten men to join the engagement. That left only the cook and Xena, plus the First Officer and his so called clean up man back on The Seaworthy. The role of the latter two was their routine one: to remain behind and watch out for members of the defending force who might turn into attackers by vaulting onto The Seaworthy's deck and cause damage to the Roman vessel.
Xena was not sure what caused her to turn her face from the scene of battle and look out at the sea on the other side of their ship. Perhaps it was her uncanny feel for danger developed after being in so many fights, or perhaps just blind luck. Nonetheless, she let her eyes drift that way and something strange caught their attention.
She stiffened, and blinked, but by Zeus, there it was. Two men were peering over the deck of The Seaworthy from the open sea side. Both had knives in their mouths and both were looking cautiously about.
Xena's eyes came back to the First Officer, and sure enough, he was looking the other way. She yelled at him and pointed to the opposite side of the ship where now a third head had reared and another even had his leg over the railing, coming in. Xena shouted a warning again and pointed,, then she dashed into the galley pulling the fat cook along behind her.
"Knives, we need the biggest knives you have, Cookie, we're being invaded."
"Wha...what are you talking about?"
The cook was seized by fear. Fear that they were about be attacked from the rear, so to speak, and even more fear that Xena seemed to be suggesting he and she should get involved in it.
But Xena was not thinking nor talking. She grabbed a long kitchen knife, thrust another slightly smaller one into Cookie's hand and darted back outside and towards the port side, where four men had now settled onto the Roman side's deck. Xena charged at them, pulling the cook along behind her. Two of the possible slavers were carrying huge axes, and Xena instinctively knew why. She emitted her awesome war cry, "Ayyyyiyiyiyiyiyiyi!" She released her hand from the cook and spiraled into a series of flip flops towards the boarders.
The attackers froze and that proved a fatal mistake. Two were knocked back overboard and into the water by flailing legs as she piled into their midst. A third grew paralyzed with fear as he saw her knife whirling towards his chest where it's entry was followed by a terrifying scream. "YIIIIIIIIII!"
The combination of Xena's war cry and her victim's shriek caught the First Officer's attention. He turned, realized what was happening, grabbed his talented assistant and dashed to join the cook and Xena in repelling the boarders.
There were more of them. Ten more were either climbing up or exiting a life boat down at the water level and preparing to enter the fray.
Cookie had half-heartedly engaged the fourth man who had made it to The Seaworthy's deck. His rather hapless encounter gave Xena the time she needed, but barely. The attacker knocked the cook breathless with one vicious kick to his rotund belly, and turned his attention to Xena. But he didn't last long after that. Xena leaped high, literally over his head, and dispatched the lout with a flick of her right leg to his chin. He flew back from her, banged his head on the rail and tumbled unconscious to the flooring.
Xena picked up his ax and got busy slashing away at the ropes the boarding party had tossed onto her ship's deck to facilitate their climb. She cut two of them, sending three climbers back into their row boat or the sea, before she had to deal with four other men who were now either standing on the rail or climbing over it.
The First Officer and his prime time fighter arrived at that point and took some pressure off the Warrior Princess. A fairly typical battle of the times then took place, except, of course, that one of the fighters was ahead of her time.
Less than three minutes later, The Seaworthy was again secure. Unfortunately, both the First Officer and his backup were killed in the short but bitter battle, even though the area was mostly strewn with dead, groggy or unconscious Macedonians. Twenty had been turned away. Ten were floundering down in the sea, where in their frantic efforts to escape they had turned over their own row boat.
Satisfied that the threat to her new haven had passed, Xena turned her attention to her fallen allies. Sadly, a brief examination of the First Officer made it clear that he had quickly expired from an ax blow to the neck. Xena shook her head, but like the seasoned warrior that she was she moved quickly to the side of his assistant and began trying to stem the blood flow from a huge ax wound to the veteran sailor's chest.
But it did no good. Xena was now bloody from head to toe, even though personally she only had a slight cut to her left leg and an even shallower gash on her left cheek. She held the dying sailor and kissed him on the cheek as he took his last breath. "Thanks, friend," she intoned solemnly. "You helped save your own from a wet fate."
Cookie had finally gotten his breath back after the debilitating blow to his solar plexus. Following Xena's lead, the two of them proceeded to bind the hands and feet of the unconscious but surviving attackers, and were about to carry their own over to the Healer's quarters when they heard the Roman piper sound victory, followed by loud cheers from their men on the slave ship. "Roma, Roma, Roma!" The men chanted and then "Hail Marcus--Hail Marcus--Hail Marcus!"
Xena and Cookie darted over to the battle scene side, briefly watched the celebration, and then, remembering how they had disobeyed orders, hastened back inside the galley to clean up and began dinner preparations.
Marcus was the first of the celebrating Romans to note the enemy bodies laying on the far side of his deck. He charged over to them, followed by several of his own men, including the Second Officer.
"What in Hades happened here?" Marcus asked no one in particular. Eyeing the huge axes laying on the deck, it only took him a few seconds to figure out what had taken plkace, and worse, almost taken place. Some of the boarding ropes with spikes on the upper end were still hanging down from the port side of his vessel. Looking down into the water he spied bodies flopping about in the sea. None of which appeared to still be alive. H also noted an upside down row boat. The whole scene was somewhat sobering to the Roman captain, who suddenly realized that the victory he'd just been celebrating had come damn close to being a humiliating defeat.
It was then that Theodous, the Second Officer, spotted the down First Officer and his wing man. "Looks like these are our heroes, Captain," he said reverently.
Marcus was stunned. The First Officer had served his entire naval career under Marcus. He'd been mentioning him for command, and was shocked to find him dead. They did their job all right, and against terrible odds. I never should have left them over here in such small numbers. This whole thing was a trap, Theodous. They had no slaves on board. They wanted us to attack. They planned not only to overwhelm us with greater than expected numbers, but had studied our tactics and planned to sink us, even if they were defeated. "Damn!"
Suddenly, Marcus remembered that he'd left Xena over here, an unarmed and unprotected Xena, and he panicked. What if some of the enemy had survived the attack by his brave but dead duo. What if they were this very minute either down below cutting a hole in his ship or threatening his Xena?
"Theodous," Marcus ordered, "Take some men and check the hole. Quickly, the fact that our men are down here may mean that some of the enemy are still afoot."
The Second Officer broke into a run and shouted out for several of his men to follow him.
Marcus did the same, but his target was the galley rather than the cargo hole. He opened the door to the ship's kitchen frantically, but was immediately calmed when he spied Xena and the cook busy preparing the crew's next meal. Xena, looked up at him and smiled demurely.
"Sounds as if things went well out there, Marcus. I mean, Captain. Congratulations." The two of them had gotten used to using each other's first names when inside his cabin, but she had tried to remember to always call him Captain when in front of the other crew members.
Marcus enjoyed the greatest relief of his life at the sight of Xena's smile. "Oh, oh, yes," he stammered, almost overcome by relief. "It did go well, although more touch and go than I expected. I'll tell you about it tonight. Got work to do now."
Cookie remained solemnly silent. Xena added, "I hope your losses were minimal. It did sound like a tough battle."
Marcus shut the door and ran towards the hole. Although now relieved at Xena's well-being, he remained uncommonly nervous considering just minutes earlier he'd been celebrating a victory. But he found the hole secure and was able to breath a sigh of relief. Those bastards outwitted me this time, but thanks to Roman training and discipline, we survived, he thought to himself, vowing to always leave a larger security force behind in future engagements.
Xena got back to their shared cabin ahead of Marcus, as usual, even though she, too was later than usual. That was because of the victory celebration. The wine keg had been opened and there was considerable revelry on board, even with the loss of their second in command and his fine wing man.
A lot of the men had tried to coax Xena into joining in on the carousing by sharing their grape, but she had wisely declined, and returned to her shared quarters shortly after she'd completed the dish washing and kitchen clean up. She'd had to do all that even more by herself than usual because Cookie had gotten caught up in the revelry and become quite drunk.
Xena had noticed that Marcus, after making a brief congratulatory speech in which he'd bemoaned the loss of seven men and another twenty wounded, had pretty much avoided participation in the happy times. He was busy elsewhere, she assumed, either with the Healer or down in the hole interrogating prisoners in order to try and piece together what exactly had happened.
Xena had covered up her wounds as much as possible with items she had found in the kitchen. Now she got busy and dug some medicines out of the kit that had been added to the captain's cabin during her protracted illness.
That accomplished, she was lightly sleeping on his pallet when Marcus entered the cabin well after midnight. She'd left the lamp on for him, and therefore could see him rather well when her eyes popped open with the sound of the opening door.
"Did you fall off the bed?" He asked kiddingly. But there was a odd tone to his voice that made Xena suspicious he knew of her involvement in the fight. Ah ha, she thought, he figured out that the First Officer could not have tied up those prisoners if he were dead. That was a mistake if I wanted to keep my involvement secret. That thought swept through her brain quickly but she spoke of another subject.
"No, I just figured that after the battle you'd be a lot more in need of rest than I, so I decided that at least for one night, you should take the bed. I mean I'm not ill any more, you know."
"That's true, but no Roman gentleman could comfortably sleep on a bed while a lady lay on the floor. Now a fellow warrior, that might be different, but you're clearly a woman and not a soldier. Right?" There was an awkward pause and then he added. "Hop up, I'll be down there in a flash."
"Hmmm, maybe I should just stay then," Xena teased back, before suddenly being shocked by her own forwardness. The fight had exhilarated her so much she felt mischievous. But she obeyed the captain's order and started to move up to the bed. She'd slipped off her pants for sleeping but was still wearing his shirt. It was large on her but not exceptionally long so that when she stood tall in it alone, not only were her long legs exposed, but also a lot of thigh and even more.
Marcus noted, and thought to himself how much more arousing it was to see her like that, revealingly clothed, versus the stark-naked condition she'd been in for more than three weeks in that very bed. He smiled enigmatically. "Do you know how close we came to disaster out there this evening?"
"What do you mean?" Xena fibbed.
"That ship was not a real slaver but a decoy and trap. It carried a crew of hired fighters and their plan was either to defeat us or sink us."
"Yes, really. I interrogated several prisoners and got it out of them. As we boarded their ship, a team of sappers left the other side, rowed around to the far side of ours and boarded us. Their intent was to smash holes in our bottom and sink us."
"But we're still afloat. You must have stymied them?"
"Not me. I left us terribly vulnerable. I had to call on the reserves to win the fight over there, and that left only Adolfo and the First Officer back here to defend. That's always been more than enough before, because we've only been dealing with thugs rather than trained soldiers. But this time we weren't, and we're all lucky to be alive."
"Sounds like it. I guess they heard that Cookie and I were over here, got scared and backed off, right?"
"I'm sure that was it. Either that or Adolfo and Theodous bravely gave their lives to drive them off. That seems slightly more likely. Those two are real heroes. We'll honor them in the morning, and I want you to skip your work in the galley and attend the funeral."
"Thanks, I'd like that.."
Marcus finished his toilet and sat down on his pallet, still clothed as he usually was. He stared over into Xena's deep blue pools and said, "Thanks, Xena." He then leaned over and kissed her tenderly on her forehead. Without another word he lay down and closed his eyes.
Xena was startled by the kiss. It was sweet, but what did it mean? She wanted to ask him why he did it, and even more so what he had thanked her about, but within seconds she heard his breathing adapt to a sleep pattern. Xena knew that Marcus must be exhausted so she bit her tongue and said no more. But she had a restless night.
What was he up to? She pondered. The whole conversation had been strange. He'd sounded like a man with a secret, but he hadn't revealed one.
But Xena must have finally fallen asleep because when she awakened, Marcus was shaving, his bare chest revealing a muscular build and an oft wounded body.
"Oh, good morning," Xena said. "I didn't hear you get up. Am I late?"
"Not really. I'm early. I've got a present for you on the pallet there. I want you to wear it for the ceremony."
Xena rubbed her eyes and noted something dark on the floor. "Wha...? Where did this come from? I thought you told me you'd thrown it away?"
"I did. This is a new one patterned after the old. I'd given your old leathers to the sail maker to use as patches. But he still had it and used it as a pattern for this one. He worked all night on it, and dropped it off about ten minutes ago. Go ahead, try it on."
Xena hopped out of the bed in a flash. She slipped out of his shirt gracefully. Marcus was watching it all in the mirror, while pretending indifference. She stood there naked for the whole world to see while she held up the new set of leathers to admire.
"It's perfect", Xena cooed appreciatively, and then she stepped into it and slipped the straps over her shoulders. "Maybe a tad longer than my old one, but just great." Xena noted that the pleats in the very front and rear covered more of her body than her old leather uniform had.
"I asked him to make it a bit longer. The length of your old one might set off a riot around here. I'd have preferred it even longer, but that was the size of the largest leather piece Zarlas had." Eyeing her closely, Marcus realized how lucky he'd been. Longer would not have been nearly as nice.
"I think I can still maneuver freely in it," Xena swayed back and forth and suddenly bounced on her toes and fired off a sharp mock kick at the doorway.
"Ouch!" Marcus cut himself in reaction. He turned toward her, his hand pressing on the cut. "You devil. You really are a warrior, aren't you? I owe you a tremendous apology, Xena. I doubted you, I confess. I thought you were either addled or hallucinating. Forgive me, we don't have female warriors in Rome."
"Some have bested you though. Like Boadacia in Britannia."
"You never cease to amaze me, Xena, but I'm through doubting you. I know what you did yesterday. It's unbelievable, but I'm trying. Now, do what you need to do and let's go." He began to don his shirt, chest plate, etc.
Xena was pleased and almost pranced around in her more familiar garb. She pulled on her boots, passed her hand through her hair and pronounced herself ready.
An hour later the crew buried their departed comrades at sunrise, dumping their wrapped bodies into the sea with ringing words of praise and hope. Then Marcus asked for the attention of all. "Yesterday, Men, through my perhaps arrogance toward our enemies and carelessness at the very least, we barely escaped having this ship sunk right from under us. Until late last night it was a bit of a mystery to me precisely how we escaped that fate." He paused for dramatic effect.
"I now know the answer. Xena and Cookie spotted the unexpected ax- wielders, even before the First Officer and Adolfo. According to some of her victims, Xena, almost single-handedly, beat them up and repelled their cohorts. Cookie, under duress, has confirmed that version of the story for me. I never knew a woman could do such things. Not even as healthy and robust a female as our Xena. But she did, and we owe her our lives."
The crew spontaneously broke into a cheer. "Xena! Xena! Xena!" They were looking for her.
But Marcus was not through with his surprises. "Gentlemen, I give you our new First Officer, Xena of Anphipolis." Xena stepped out from behind the Second Officer where Marcus had asked her to remain somewhat hidden until this moment. But he had not told her of her pending promotion.
"Xena! Xena! Xena!" The men shouted again, only louder.. It was hard to tell if they were cheering her heroic deed of the day before or her new appearance.
One of the men, notorious for his wit and audacity, spoke out at the end of the cheer "Well, she certainly has no hidden secrets now". The rest of the crew broke into uproarious laughter as they all, for the first time openly, admired the rather scantily clad female in their midst.
Xena broke up and joined in the gayety. Finally, even Marcus could not hold it back. When he finally got control, he went on. "Let me have your attention, please and then I'll open the wine keg once more for two hours. I'm breaking tradition this morning in naming Xena as this ship's new First Officer. I expect you to give her the respect her rank demands and that she earned in spades yesterday. This will be her uniform. It is the one she's accustomed to wearing in battle. It's utilitarian as well as...as...well, eye catching. But after this morning, I will not tolerate additional comments about her clothing. So get it all out of your systems now." He turned his face towards hers.
"Do you have anything to say, Xena."
"I'm afraid I'm pretty much too stunned to talk. So, just... just... heck, consider me one of the guys."
That comment brought the house down, and the earlier comic added, "Yeah and we all work on dry land."
"Let's hear it for Xena," Marcus shouted after nearly a minute of uproarious laughter finally subsided.
The men responded again, this time with their leader leading the way.
A Changed Life?
During the next three weeks Xena proved herself both to her captain and crew. She managed the till during the closing and hook up with another slaver, which they defeated handily and rescued almost forty slaves. She worked professionally with Marcus as they manned the ship through a three day storm, and she practiced with the rest of the crew as they worked on the martial arts necessary for their craft.
An incident in one of those workouts won over the few remaining doubters to their captain's decision to name a woman to the crew, and a Greek at that.
Darius was the most powerful man on the entire ship. Whenever great strength was required, he was the one called on to accomplish the task, and he had never let the ship down. It seemed he could lift a ton, out pull a horse, and was oblivious to other's efforts to put him down. After watching Xena best her practice partners in workout after workout, the crew began to speculate about and begged for a match between their champion and her in unarmed combat.
Marcus tried to defer the contest, but Xena urged him to let her accept. "It's OK if he bests me," she whispered in her friend's ear. "It's good that they know I'm not afraid to lose."
And so it took place in front of all: the bull against the matadora. It lasted almost three moments, mostly with Darius making bold charges at Xena while she leaped over him, ducked under him, sidestepped him and deftly dodged his crushing like grasps. Some of the men actually began laughing at the frustration of their chosen champion as he flailed away, his enormous strength becoming dissipated in tiring yet inconclusive efforts.
But the laughter and bets that had been laid the night before, spurred him on and Darius grew ever more determined.
He finally trapped Xena up on the forecastle and penned her against the rail where he his huge arms were able to encircle her waist. He lifted her off the ground and began to squeeze the breath out of her.
Xena was sure her ribs were going to break and almost immediately felt short of breath. She did not really wish to hurt this behemoth of a man, but the instinct developed from thousands of practice sessions and innumerable life and death battles took over. Xena clapped the palms of her hands on his ears sharply, expecting him to be stunned and to momentarily release her, making escape possible, but it didn't work. Darius merely blinked and his grip only stopped tightening for a second or so. Sensing that he had her beaten, Darius began spinning Xena around and around so rapidly that her legs flew out behind here.
Oddly enough, that momentum gave the Warrior Princess the break she needed. As her feet flew by the ship's rail she touched her booted soles to it and pushed off with short but rapid running steps. She'd now seized the momentum from Darius and had caused both of them to twirl faster than his huge bulk could manage.
The next turn around, Xena double shifted again with her feet, adding to their speed so that Darius staggered, fell, and dropped her.
Both were dizzy and slow getting to their feet, but the more lithe female beat Darius up by a mile. She aimed a sharp snap kick at the chin of the slowly rising man and sent him back down to the deck in a heap. It was a blow she was sure would have knocked out any man she'd fought before, but Darius merely shook it off and began to rise again, his eyes locked on her almost as if in a daze.
Xena mocked him, "C'mon, Darius, give me your best shot. You can't hurt me."
The man was now on all fours, embarrassed and angry. He launched himself off the deck like an NFL defensive end engineering a bull rush. He roared: "Yagggghhhh" and charged his mocker, head down with tree like arms outstretched. All could see that Xena was trapped against the rail, and likely too dizzy and winded by the squeezing to get up in the air and over him.
Such observers were correct, but Xena still had some tricks under her non-sleeves. She waited a split second until his bulk left the deck and flew at her. She scooted her feet out in front of her, dropped to her back, raised both her legs. plantd them in his abdoman as he flew above her and drove them upward. Darius was lofted right over her, the rail, and out into the emptiness of the sea air. The sounds of his fall to the water were almost humorous. His roar of attack had first turned into a huff of surprise and then to a curdling scream as he saw the water appear to fly up towards him.
Within seconds, the mob of observers were at the rail staring down at Darius. They almost stampeded Xena, but Marcus managed to clear them from about her and pull her to her feet, where he hugged her as a proud father would his fallen but victorious child. Much to Xena's surprise, he even kissed her, and that was not at all a father-daughter buss.
"Help! Help!" Darius' voice carried up and over the howls of laughter on board The Seaworthy. "Help! Help!". The bull of a man was flailing away with arms and legs and gulping in nasty sea water in full tankard loads.
Xena momentarily forgot the warm kiss Marcus had surprised her with and pushed her way to the rail. She was just about to tease, to ask Darius how he was enjoying his bath, when she noted the sheer look of terror in the man's eyes. He can't swim, she realized intuitively, and without a second's hesitation dove in after him.
"Look at that," an anonymous voice said, seconds later, "they're still at it."
And sure enough, as Xena tried to rescue Darius, his fear of death in the sea drove him to grab at her and resist her efforts to calm him down. Xena avoided his blows, dove under water, grabbed him by his testicles and squeezed with all her might.
Arghhhh! Darius yelped in pain. Xena then pumped her feet powerfully, shot up from below, and as she broke the surface used the heel of her right hand and drove it into his chin. The added momentum of her kick to the surface plus her usual excellent timing sent Darius to dreamland. Xena held his face out of the water and called for assistance. Ropes were lowered and she eventually managed to get one around his girth and assist those up on deck to haul him up and out of the briny.
Two nights later, back in their shared cabin, Xena and Marcus were reliving her battle against Darius, laughing about the whole affair. "You were magnificent, my dear," Marcus said.
"My dear? That's a Roman title I haven't heard before."
"Ooops! I'm afraid that was a slip of the tongue. You mean Julius never called you that during your so called torrid times?"
"Hmmm, I've done my best to forget all the sordid details of that affair, except the betrayal. Actually, I think we had more endearing titles for each other. I called him Sweetie at first, but that changed to Magnifico and he called me his Amor."
"But speaking of my little tussle and joint bath with Darius, did you not kiss me after saving me from being trampled?"
"Oh, you noticed that, eh?"
"Hard not to notice. I mean, I liked it, but..."
"Xena, we're about out of supplies. I'm afraid this patrol is about to end. You've made it pleasant even if it is destined to be my last."
"Are you the one changing the subject this time?"
"Not really. Our time together is about to end, but I don't want it to. I've grown accustomed to bedding down with you, or at least very near you, and to awaking by your side. I've probably spent more time with you than any other woman in my life, odd as that may seem, except perhaps my mother."
Xena seemed puzzled. Was he suggesting she was like his mother or he her father? "I still don't see a connection between this, Darius, and that kiss, but..."
"I know. I'm doing it badly, but I assure you there is a connection. We drop the slaves we've rescued off either in Rome or at any port they prefer that's on our way back. I'd like to expand that offer in your case and take you wherever you wish: to Greece, Rome or elsewhere. You've certainly earned at least that."
"That's kind of you to offer, but I don't expect special treatment. After all, you're the ones who saved my life, not vice-versa."
"I think that scale has been balanced. You saved this ship."
"Well, my life was at stake as well."
"And now mine is. Yes, Xena, I kissed you. I feared you were hurt and was so happy to discover you were not, I couldn't help myself. The truth of the matter is, I can't imagine life without you. I wanted to kiss you more fervently. I do now. I want to hold you in my arms. I want to make love to you. I want you to love me, and I want us to..."
"Whoa, whoa, WHOA! Just a minute, Marcus. This is moving a bit too fast for me. I..."
"I'm not like Julius Caesar, Xena. Caesar was not Rome, and all Romans are not like him." He took her in his arms.
Xena resisted but not steadfastly. Their lips met and as the kiss lingered she gave in and joined. She was starved for love. Then her brief romance with Drako resurfaced in her mind and she pulled back.
"Please, Marcus. I...I told you I was married just one day before my husband sold me to Mohammed. Add to that my affairs with Julius and others that have ended so atrociously, and I've vowed never to let myself love a man again. I make terrible choices in men. I'm afraid I'm just destined to be a warrior, a sort of in-between human, neither man nor woman and incapable of love as it's normally thought of."
"Shush, Xena. Purge Julius and Drako from your mind. They were not good men. They cared only for themselves. They engaged you not out of love but for competition. I adore you. I admire you not for your toughness, your fighting skills or your evil past as a marauder. I love you because you're you. Because you're so obviously at war with the evil in you and so determined to do good." He pulled her back into his arms and Xena came, reluctantly perhaps, but willingly in the end.
The kissing grew hot and heavy. They slipped down onto the bed. They became as one, with legs entwined, arms caressing, lips moving from face to forehead, to arms, to breasts, to thighs, to the erotic lands nearby, to calves, feet and toes and back again. They alternated between giver and taker, between leader and follower, from top to bottom and to the sides. It was a time of glory in which Greece and Rome were united, reunited and allied.
It was sweet, tender, and soared between sublime and enlightenment, between war and peace, between the martial arts and tender mercies, between bites and touches, between licks and caresses, and it went on for hours with mere brief respites in which the participants lay there and admired every inch of one another, often wordless. They communicated by touch, by thought and through endearment.
Finally they slept the sleep of the exhausted and contented.
The next morning, still in each other's arms, Marcus asked Xena to be his bride.
"But Marcus, my love. I've taken a vow of poverty and determined to devote my life to helping the poor and weak find justice. That just doesn't fit with becoming the wife of a wealthy Roman senator."
"You haven't looked at the facts closely, my darling. In Rome a man's fortune can only pass to his eldest son or someone on the male line. Women are essentially penniless. I've never thought of that as much of an asset before, but for now it keeps you technically in poverty."
"Oh come on, you said your wife was great at managing your properties."
"But you wouldn't have to. We could hire someone to do that, although you would always be able to dip into my wealth to do good, start up hospitals, feed the poor, look after wayward children. It would make me proud. You'd be surprised how many opportunities there are for a senator's wife to do good--to serve the less fortunate."
"You make it sound possible, but it just doesn't fit. I'm used to living an austere life, on the road, sleeping outside under the stars. I like having no one to worry about but myself or my best friend."
"You apparently were ready to marry Drako."
"And what a mistake that was. He also agreed to set off and just travel around with me doing what we could to help. I'm not stupid. It's now indisputable that whenever I get involved with a man, something terrible happens. I'd have to be a fool to let that happen again."
"Oh, come on, you thrive on excitement. I saw it in your eyes. It's there even when you only practice fighting. Against Darius, even in the storm, you became animated by danger. You brighten at the mere thought of it. It's you at your most enticing best."
"But you're one of those protective men. You left me back here when you engaged slavers, even after you knew I was a capable warrior."
"Capable? The best I've ever seen. That any of us have ever seen. I left you behind because that's my system. I always left the First Officer back here, long before you became him. Or, er, her."
They both laughed. "I am a her to you. Perhaps more than I want to be."
"You are most definitely a her. You can't change that reality." He eyed her stately body seductively. "All right, I confess, I instinctively try to be protective of you. But I can learn. Yes, Xena, I want you to go with me to Rome and become my wife, but if it takes another way to make you my wife, I'll do it. I'm not in your league as a warrior, but I'm not bad for an old man either. I'll travel with you and help you. I'd rather be by your side out under the stars than not at all. I'm a sea captain. I' don't need a lot of creature comforts to be happy. But I'll never be happy again without you."
"You'd do that?"
"In a Spartan moment."
"But you have a family, duties. I couldn't ask that."
"You're not asking. I'm offering."
And so it was agreed. The Warrior Princess and the Roman senator decided to go to Rome and test the waters of life there. After six months, it was agreed that if Xena's needs for redemption were not adequately fulfilled in her new life, they would hit the road and travel back and forth, alternating between Greece and Rome, or other parts of the world where they might both agree their assets could serve humanity or aid justice in its feeble attempt to gain a foothold in humankind.
Two warriors, one each from the two greatest powers on the earth were poised to set out and serve the community of humankind, unless, of course, the more furious of the two got pregnant or otherwise domesticated.
And the answer is...
But that's another tale.
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