On Uncertain Ground
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Gabrielle took the time to survey her audience while she reviewed key points of the old story in her head one last time.
Grena had not surprisingly taken her spot in the front row. Next to her was Vicus and three other children. There were eight other children on the grass in a not so organized arrangement, despite Grena's insistence they form neat rows. In the back and away from the group was Trollius and his friend, trying to appear not as interested as the rest of the children.
Finally, Gabrielle was ready. "Well, due to the overwhelming requests for this story..." Gabrielle threw a quick look to Xena, who looked back unapologetically. "I will tell you a story called.... The Stars In The Sky."
The children clapped following Grena's lead. The clapping stopped and an excited hush fell on the children as the bard began to spin her tale.
"Once upon a time, there was a little girl who's dream was to touch the stars in the sky. On clear, moonless nights, she would lean out her bedroom window, gazing up at the thousand tiny lights scattered across the heavens, wondering what it would be like to hold one in her hand."
Gabrielle looked up at the blue sky and reached up towards a far away imaginary star, causing her young audience to look up with her. Xena smiled to herself, seeing how easily the bard drew the young audience into her story.
"One warm summer evening, a night when the stars shined more brightly than ever before, she decided she couldn't stand it any longer - she just had to touch a star, no matter what. So she slipped out the window and started off by herself to see if she could reach them."
"Excuse Me. Uh Gabrielle? Did she get in trouble?" Grena asked with genuine concern that the girl was going to get in trouble.
Two boys in the back laughed with great amusement, while the rest of the children loudly shushed the young girl.
Gabrielle glanced up to Xena who stood behind the group of children with a raised eyebrow, relaying more interest in how Gabrielle was going to answer that question than the young girl. Standing next to Xena, Meleager and Sara made some not very convincing attempts to muffle their giggles. Gabrielle's eyes quickly narrowed at the supposedly more mature audience, considering they were entirely too amused with this interruption.
Gabrielle's attention quickly returned to the Grena, who was now unexpectedly on the verge of tears for causing a disturbance and for potentially being considered impolite by the bard.
"I'm sorry..." Grena said weakly. Gabrielle smiled warmly at her. "You know that is a VERY good question..." Gabrielle admitted thoughtfully, surprising the young girl as well as the rest of the audience.
Gabrielle leaned towards her young audience as if she was going to tell a secret and reveal the answer to that question. "But, you'll have to wait and see..." Gabrielle responded with a smile and winked at Grena, who immediately smiled and forgot she was on the verge of tears.
"She IS good." Meleager remarked to Xena, neither of them taking their eyes off the bard.
"The best" Xena whispered back, touched again by Gabrielle's compassion for others. The bard had an uncanny ability to completely change someone's mood from sad to happy with a few thoughtful words and a smile. No Gabrielle, Xena thought, it is your smile that is truly powerful.
With the Warrior Princess' steady gaze fixed on her sister, Sara believed that whatever was going on between the two of them, it would be alright, eventually.
The bard continued with her story and the undivided attention of the audience.
"The young girl walked a far, far way, and then farther still, until she came to a mill wheel, creaking and grinding away. 'Good evening,' she said to the mill wheel. 'I would like to play with the stars in the sky. Have you seen any near here?"
Gabrielle glanced over the attentive audience and helplessly watched as the next interruption formed on the lips of Trollius, who was still sitting in the back with his friend.
"Hey, mill wheels can't talk!" He called out. The other children were annoyed and turned to face the young heckler in the back, loudly shushing him. The crowd of his peers turning against him didn't seem to bother him one bit. He just stared at Gabrielle, waiting for an explanation.
Xena eyed the boy and considered he had the boldness to become a warlord, if he could survive his childhood ....or today's story.
Gabrielle took a deep breath, knowing as a bard, there would be days like this and rude audience members like Trollius to deal with.
"Well, you do have a good point." Gabrielle responded diplomatically, making the young boy smile with victory and nudge his buddy next to him. "but...if you let me continue...you will find that the young girl in my story is in a special land...where mill wheels talk and other SPECIAL things happen...but if you don't want me to continue....." Gabrielle sighed sadly. The rest of the children reacted as Gabrielle had hoped.
"Oh Please! continue!" The first little interruption spoke up, now leading the children in their encouragement of the seemingly dejected bard. "Please!" They called out. The bard waited for a few seconds and a few more 'pleases' before she continued.
Gabrielle could see Xena shaking her head and laughing to herself. Xena appreciated the bard's skilled manipulation of the audience. Well, at least some good was coming from this ordeal, Gabrielle considered, pleased anytime she could bring a smile to the warrior's face. However, the ordeal was not over, she sighed and looked back at her audience.
"Ok, if you really want me too..." Gabrielle responded, with an innocent look that made Xena roll her eyes. "Now where was I?" Gabrielle quickly found her momentum and continued. "The little girl came upon a mill and asked if the old mill had seen any stars around to play with." Gabrielle recapped.
"Ah, yes" groaned the old mill wheel. 'Every night they shine in my face from the surface of this pond until I cannot sleep. Jump in and you will find them.' She jumped in and swam and swam. 'Excuse me,' she called to the old mill wheel, 'but I don't believe there are any stars here after all!"
Grena smiled at the politeness of the little girl to the mill wheel. One should always say excuse me, she thought.
At the encouragement of Trollius, his buddy called out. "That girl was REALLY stupid to jump in the pond!" This prompted the children into another loud and disruptive round of shushing.
Meleager was not amused at the continuing and unprovoked attacks on the bard and considered the young boys were sorely in need of some discipline. Sara looked at him with some concern as he squeezed the hit of his sword while eyeing the boys. Sara reached out and placed her hand on his. "I gather you've never had any kids." She spoke softly to him. "I wouldn't have any like that." He said softly but gruffly.
Gabrielle took another deep breath. "Some might say that, but I would say she was... naive..." She responded keeping her composure which was not the response the two boys were hoping for. Xena was truly impressed with the bard's patience, for she was just as, if not more, annoyed than Meleager.
"Yeah, she was just NAIVE." The children responded, jumping to the bard's defense, anxious for the story to be continued. "Please continue Gabrielle," they called out. With that plea, Gabrielle was even more determined to get through this torture...story.
As the children cheered the bard on to continue, Meleager and Xena looked at each other, and exchanged some subtle hand signals. Gabrielle curiously watched as the two nodded and moved to stand on either side of the young hecklers. Neither Meleager nor Xena looked down at the boys, their quiet towering was sufficient squelch future interruptions. Gabrielle grinned to herself as the boys shrunk in their seats, realizing they were surrounded by two fierce and unamused warriors.
Gabrielle cleared her throat. "OK. Where were we?" She asked the children. Grena spoke up. "The girl jumped in the pond to find the stars but she didn't find them...." The other children agreed. Gabrielle smiled, pleased they were able to pay attention despite the interruptions. "Ah yes, and the young girl questioned the mill about where the stars were..." Gabrielle once again continued the story.
"Well they were certainly there before you jumped in and stirred the water up," the mill wheel called back. The little girl climbed out of the pond, dried herself off and set out again across the fields."
"With everyone she met, she would tell them, "I'm trying to reach the stars in the sky. Have you seen any here?" Each time, she would follow their directions, and each time, she did not find what she was looking for."
"After a long while, she finally sat down to rest in a meadow. It was a FAIRY meadow, because before she knew it a hundred little fairies came scampering out to dance on the grass. 'Good evening, Little Folk,' said the girl. They cautiously greeted the little girl who looked very discouraged. 'I'm trying to reach the stars in the sky. If you don't help me, I'll never find any to play with.' The little girl sadly sighed."
"The Little Folk all whispered together. Finally one of them crept up and took her by the hand, and said: 'If you're really determined, you must go forward. Keep going forward, and mind you take the right road" Gabrielle paused, looking at the children intently, to stress that good advice. They all nodded. Gabrielle then looked at Grena with a smile and continued.
"Ask Four Feet to carry you to No Feet at All, who will carry you to the Stairs Without Steps, and if you climb that --"
"Then I'll be among the stars in the sky?' Cried the girl. The fairy grinned and then vanished. So the little girl traveled on until she spotted a horse, tied to a tree. 'Good evening,' she said. 'I'm trying to reach the stars in the sky, and I've been told by the Little Folk to ask Four Feet to carry me to No Feet At All who will carry me to the Stairs Without Steps. Can you help me find Four Feet?"
"Four Feet? That's me!' the horse whinnied. They road and road until they found themselves at the edge of the sea. 'I've brought you to the end of the land and that's as much as Four Feet can do.' Four Feet told her. So the little girl slid down and walked along the sea, wondering what she would do next. Suddenly, the biggest fish she had ever seen came swimming up to her feet."
"Excuse me,' she said to the fish. 'I'm trying to reach the stars in the sky. Can you help me?"
"Get on my back and hold on tight.' No Feet At All offered the little girl. Kerplash! They went into the water and swam to where the water met the sky."
"Finally, in the distance, the little girl saw an incredible rainbow rising into the heavens. At last they came to the foot of it and she saw the rainbow was really a broad bright road, sloping up and away into the sky, and at the far, far end of it she could see wee shining things dancing about. No Feet At All stopped. 'I can go no further. Here are the Stairs Without Steps. Climb up, if you can, but hold on tight."
"The little girl climbed and climbed up the rainbow. It wasn't easy. Every time she took one step, she seemed to slide back two. And even though she climbed until the ground was far below, the stars in the sky looked farther away than ever. 'But I won't give up,' she told herself. 'I've come so far, I can't go back." Gabrielle repeated the girl's declaration. "I won't give up."
Meleager finally looked down at the boys. They were caught in the in the bard's tale. Looking up to his fellow warrior, he saw Xena listening intently. Xena wondered why she had never heard Gabrielle tell this story before, and why the bard tried to avoid telling this story today.
"Up and up she went. The air grew colder, but the sky turned brighter, and she could tell she was nearing the stars. 'I'm almost there!' She cried. Sure enough, she reached the very top of the rainbow. Everywhere she looked, the stars seemed to dance. 'I'm finally here,' she whispered to herself. She stood gazing and wondering at the heavens, never seeing anything so beautiful before. 'If I could touch just one star...' She said as she stood on her toes and stretched her arms as high as she could. She stretched further and further ---and suddenly she saw a bright flash, a shooting star zipped by and surprised her so much she lost her balance."
"Down she slid, down the rainbow. The further she slid the warmer it grew and the sleepier she felt. She gave a great yawn, and a small sigh, and before she knew it, she was fast asleep. When she woke up, she found herself in her very own bed. The sun was peeking through her window, and the morning birds sang in the bushes and trees. 'Did I really touch the stars?' she asked herself. 'Or was it only a dream?"
Gabrielle looked at the intense faces on her audience of children and grinned. "What do YOU thing it was?" She asked. A few children discussed it among themselves wanting to make sure they got the right answer. A young boy finally took a chance and answered. "It was a dream, no one can really reach the stars!" He blurted. Xena noticed Gabrielle's smile faded ever so slightly with that comment.
"The young girl she felt something in her hand." Gabrielle continued and looked down to her fist. "When she opened her fist, a tiny light flashed in her palm, and at once was gone" Gabrielle recoiled at the flash of imaginary light from her hand then Gabrielle looked at her audience. "The little girl smiled because she knew it was a speck of stardust."
"Remember, if you are willing to work hard and have the determination to persevere, you can make your dreams come true." Gabrielle advised them.
The bard smiled broadly for this test of her will to persevere was finally over.
Xena stared at Kenis, while he was placing his saddlebags on his horse. He was coming with them to Marapolis. "This gets more fun all the time doesn't it?" Meleager quipped and received a silent stare from Xena. Meleager wasn't as scared of those anymore considering he had received many in the past couple days and was still alive. However, he didn't want to press his luck and went to see if Sara was all set.
Gabrielle came towards Xena, giving her hope that the bard was still talking to her. That was until she realized Gabrielle was headed towards Four Feet, who was directly behind the Warrior Princess. Still a stupid name, Xena sighed looking at the horse.
"Gabrielle! Gabrielle!" Grena rushed up to the bard. "Sorry, Excuse me. Uh Gabrielle?" Grena tugged on her skirt even though she had the bard's full attention. "Yes Grena." Gabrielle softly laughed. "I wanted to tell you I'm sorry for interrupting your story...I'm really really sorry. I hope you're not mad at me. I don't want to be like Trollius." She blurted.
Gabrielle knelt down to look the young girl in the eye and smiled warmly. "Trust me Grena, you are nothing like Trollius." The bard couldn't help but brush the hair out of the little girl's face. "When Trollius interrupted, he wanted to get some attention for himself." Grena looked perplexed.
"He just got everyone mad. Why would anyone want to do that?" The child asked a good question.
Gabrielle shrugged. "I think people like that crave attention, Grena. Unfortunately, they don't see that by treating others with respect and kindness they can receive far more rewarding and fulfilling attention. So they keep doing bad things to attract whatever attention they can." Gabrielle still saw a puzzled look on Grena's face.
"But how do you stop them from doing bad things? I've tried to be nice to Trollius but he is SOOOO annoying. He makes me want to slap him!" She sighed with great exasperation. Xena could appreciate the little girl's feelings towards the youth.
Gabrielle smiled at the little girl. "Slapping him isn't the answer Grena. That only gives him the attention he wants and he will continue to do bad things. And worse yet Grena, he will have succeeded in making you more like him." Grena frowned and nodded, knowing that was not what she wanted.
"What should I do then?" She asked the bard. Gabrielle sighed. "I wish I had an answer for you. What do you think the girl in the story would do?"
Grena smiled. "Well, she wouldn't slap him. She's polite you know." Grena responded knowingly. "You're a good girl Grena." Gabrielle brushed her cheek affectionately. "So you're not mad at me?" Grena asked.
"How can I be mad at you Grena?" The bard answered, making the little girl beam and lifting yet another spirit, Xena noted.
"Go on and say good bye to Kenis, he's waiting." Gabrielle stood up and watched the little girl skip off. Gabrielle turned and faced Xena.
Say something, Xena told herself.
Gabrielle sighed at the still silent warrior and started towards Four Feet. As she passed Xena, she heard her friend's voice. "Gabrielle." Xena said softly. Gabrielle slowly turned to face her friend.
The ship was still in port and the women were becoming much more edgy as the days wore on. Lila included. The brunette, who had been a rock throughout the whole incident, now had lost her appetite and ability to sleep so soundly, the tall blond noted. The blond didn't know that Lila's faith in her sisters was severely being tested.
Instead of the dumb guy with the whip coming to feed them, the mysterious woman descended the ladder to the cargo hold with a bag of food.
Dyessa knew the merchandise's eyes were staring at her but she had other things to worry about. Her brother was late again, they were short, and Fagan's men had not gotten back yet with the rest of the merchandise.
"Why haven't we left?" Lila stood up and ventured a question that everyone else was too afraid to ask. The woman was surprised the smallest woman of the group had the biggest nerve. This must be the annoying brunette Fagan was lamenting about, she mused. This was the little girl he couldn't handle, she smiled.
"We will be getting some more... cargo... soon. Why the question, are you anxious to meet your new owner, slave?" She snapped back with a growl, trying to scare her. "No, and for your information I am a prisoner with the name of LILA, not SLAVE." Lila looked at the taller and stronger woman defiantly.
"What's in a name?" She laughed at the slave, throwing a loaf of bread her way. "Perhaps nothing...Dyessa." Lila responded deliberately using her name. "Or should I say Traitor...but what's in a name...." Lila felt a crack across her jaw and fell back into the straw and unconsciousness. Dyessa quickly looked around the cargo hold for others willing to learn a similar lesson.
The tall blond woman captured in Marapolis with Lila, stood up and shook her head at Dyessa. "My, My, Dyessa, you act as if you care what Lila thinks of you." Dyessa's eyes widened with surprise that they would be so defiant. She raises her hand ready to strike the impetuous blond hoping she would cower. She didn't. "Oh, you didn't KNOW your merchandise had names? My name is Rayla, Traitor."
Dyessa imparts a blow to Rayla's face that knocks her down, but not out. Rayla doesn't seem shocked. "Why don't you hit us all, Traitor. Perhaps you will feel better about what you're doing to us." Rayla wipes the blood from her lips and moves towards the now conscious Lila to help her sit up.
Dyessa threw down the bag of food, stormed up the cargo hold ladder, and bolted down the hatch.
Lila sees Rayla's lip and realizes she inspired the woman to mouth off. "Rayla, you really should find someone else's lead to follow...it would be less painful for you."
Lila smiled, causing pain in her bruised cheek and a moan. Rayla smiled back which resulted in an "OW" and chuckles from the two women. After that incident, the women in the cargo hold learned each others names and used them.
On their way to Marapolis, Gabrielle, Four Foot, and Kenis were in front, leading the way. "You're st..story wa was wo wonderful." Kenis noted to the distracted bard. "Thanks." She responded, just like she responded to Xena when she said she liked the story. "I wi wish I c..could ....t.t.tell ...a st.story...like...th...that." He said slowly.
Even with his stuttering, Kenis was better able to communicate to the bard than the Warrior Princess, Gabrielle sighed. She knew Xena wanted to say something to her, other than she liked the story. Yet, once again, Xena retreated behind her mask. Gabrielle was getting incredibly tired of that mask.
"If you really want to tell a story Kenis, you can." She said confidently, returning her attentions to the gentle man. He laughed. "Rrright...v very... ff... funny." He responded with amusement. Gabrielle didn't know which annoyed her more, his laughing at her or his lack of confidence in himself. Either way, she had a point to make and she was going to make it...her way, of course.
"Kenis, let me tell you story. A story about little girl who had a problem and how her friend gave her the help to overcome that problem..." Gabrielle started.
Meleager felt he was in the middle of something but he didn't know what exactly. This something made him uncomfortable. Xena was riding alone, in back, again. Gabrielle was riding in front, chatting with Kenis. He could tell Xena wanted to ride with Gabrielle, but did they ride together? No. Why? Who knew. He could tell Gabrielle wanted to talk with Xena, but did they talk? No. Why? Who knew. This didn't make any sense to him. Feeling Xena's eyes fixed on his back made him even more uncomfortable. "I wish we were in back." Meleager relayed to Sara who shook her head.
Xena wasn't happy with all the distractions around the campfire. During dinner, Meleager kept trying to talk to her about warrior things, making it impossible to hear what Sara and Gabrielle were talking to Kenis about. Gabrielle didn't say one word to her and there were no stories that evening before they slept, that is, before everyone except Xena slept. While lying still, Xena listened to every noise...every... little... annoying...noise. Kenis even stuttered while he snored, Xena noted. She hoped the day would come soon when it would be just Gabrielle by her side at the campfire and she could get some sleep.
In the morning, they arrived in the port town of Marapolis. When they dismounted, Meleager announced the plan of attack for searching for Lila. "We will start in the tavern." Meleager announced. "I'll start in the general store." Sara countered, eyeing Meleager, interested in his reaction.
"You are NOT...." Meleager started to tell her she was not going anywhere alone, but recalled that ordering the Queen didn't go over so well the last time. He took a deep, calming breath then continued. "It is not safe for you to go anywhere alone." He curbed his response. "Ok then, come with me to the general store." Sara started towards the store with a smile, hearing a frustrated and muttering Meleager follow.
"I'll check out the tavern." Xena turned and proceeded towards the tavern before Gabrielle could respond. Gabrielle watched the proud Warrior Princess walk away from her. Perhaps things are forever changed, Gabrielle pondered Sara's words sadly.
Entering the Tavern, a hush fell over the patrons as they carefully watched for any signs that this intimidating woman was after them. After a few seconds of eyeing the room, Xena approached the bar and the normal chatter returned.
In the general store, the owner saw a woman and soldier come in. "May I help you folks?" He asked moving to his position behind the counter. "I hope you can." Sara smiled. "I am looking for my sister, a small brunette. About so tall..." Sara held her hand out indicating Lila's height. "She was supposed to have passed through Marapolis with a young soldier about a week ago. Perhaps you have seen her?" Sara asked with amazing warmth, Meleager noticed. Sure, be like that to total strangers, he sighed.
"So, has she run away and eloped with this guy or what?" The man laughed. Sara was not amused and her mood changed quickly. "As I have said, I am looking for her and I am concerned. Have you seen anyone that fits that description?" Sara eyed him and spoke slowly and deliberately. The man cleared his throat, feeling extremely uncomfortable.
Next time he needed someone to interrogate a prisoner, Meleager considered he should get Sara to do it. She would first lull him into a sense of security with her kindness then rip his heart out with her vicious .....
"Oh, well, I did see a soldier and a young woman in here about a week ago. I thought they were married because of the way he kept telling her they had to get moving and she said they would when she was done shopping...he looked pretty annoyed..." The man relayed.
Meleager could believe it. Meleager started to feel bad for giving one of his best soldiers such a difficult assignment of escorting one of the Poteidaian sisters. He would have to give him a reward or something for his troubles.
Sara was relieved by this news. "She's probably still visiting Uncle Ustas. We'll still need to rescue her" She said with a smile. "I can't wait." Meleager responded with feigned enthusiasm, then noticed she wasn't listening to him. She was distracted by something more interesting, the collection of broaches on sale. "Looks like you'll have to." The store keeper laughed.
Kenis looked around the town uneasily. "What's wrong?" Gabrielle asked her friend. "N..Nothing...I wa wanted t...to th..thank y..you. I'll th..think...about...wa..what y..you and Sara s..said." He smiled. "Good, Kenis." Gabrielle smiled. "But I hope you do more than think about what we said." She responded. He nodded, with a shy smile.
"Kenis!" A woman's voice called out with a mixture of concern and irritation. Gabrielle smiled as the woman came towards them. "Where have you been? You are lucky we delayed our departure or we would have left you here." She scolded him but restrained herself from yelling at him like she wanted to in front of this stranger. "D..Dyesssssa." He blurted nervously. "He was attacked by slavers...my friends saved him." Gabrielle explained.
"What!?" Dyessa looked at him, then the young woman. He nodded, still very nervous. "Hi, I'm Gabrielle. We met during, well actually just after the attack." The bard introduced herself. The woman nodded, amazed at what she just learned.
Spotting a warrior woman walking their way, Dyessa decided it best to leave. "We should talk, brother. NOW." The woman commanded and abruptly left, not wanting to be introduced to the warrior woman. "Y..yes..D..Dyessssa." He called to his sister who quickly disappeared through a crowd.
Gabrielle did not like to make quick judgements of people but she would have to admit, so far, she didn't like this woman named Dyessa. "G..Good B..bye..." Kenis surprised her by hugging her. "Th..thank ...y..you..." He whispered in her ear and held on tightly.
"Are you going to be ok?" She asked as she pulled away, not so sure about his sister's odd reaction. "F..Fine..." He looked up and found Xena standing quietly behind the bard looking at them.
"B...bye ....Xe..Xena." He smiled at the stone-faced warrior. "Kenis" She said cooly. Usually able to size people up quickly, Xena concluded her original assessment of him was still valid. She didn't like him.
Gabrielle waived good-bye to him as he left, then turned to face the warrior.
"Any information from the tavern?" Gabrielle asked. Xena shook her head no. The two stood silently waiting for Meleager and Sara. Gabrielle, tired of initiating a conversation that Xena would end up abruptly killing, didn't try. As a result they stood silently waiting.
Say something, Xena told herself.
Say what? Xena wondered, finding that starting a conversation was not as easy as responding to the bard's comments or questions. She could ask Gabrielle what that hug was all about, but that would just make Gabrielle more annoyed with her. The weather, Xena considered. She could discuss how nice the weather was. No, that's a stupid thing to just jump into. But the weather IS nice, Xena noted, as well as it being a safe topic. All right then, Xena thought, coming to a big decision. She would discuss the weather.
She then noted the bard looking at her curiously. "What?" Xena asked. "Are you feeling ok?" The bard asked with some concern. "I'm fine. Why do you ask?" She asked.
"You just look......never mind." The bard saw her sister and Meleager coming their way. Thank the Gods, Xena and Gabrielle thought to themselves.
"Lila and her escort were seen here a week ago." Sara announced with relief. "However, rescuing her from Ustas may still pose a challenge." Sara added with a grin.
"Can we get moving...your almighty highness?" Meleager mentioned with a grating tone. Sara shot a warning glare at her Lieutenant of the Guard. Sergeant, if he keeps it up, she considered.
"Xena and I really need to talk, do you mind if we ride together on the way to Uncle's?" Gabrielle asked her sister as Xena looked at the bard with some concern. There was only so much the Warrior Princess wanted to say about the weather.
"Oh...not a problem." Sara smiled, happy her sister was still trying to set things right with her friend. Her smile disappeared when she looked at Meleager. "Come, Meleager." She commanded, leading the way to their horses. He followed and muttered something she suspected was not flattering.
As Sara and Meleager mounted their horses, he eyed her. "You don't expect me to talk to you do you?" He snapped. "Will you just shut up?" She snapped back at him.
After the two love birds ride out of earshot, Gabrielle turns to her uneasy friend. "I think riding in silence with each other will be better than riding with either of them right now." The bard explained with a quick smile and mounted her horse. "Come on Four Feet."
As she stared at Meleager's and Sara's backs while they quietly rode to Ustas', Xena's curiosity grew about the heated exchange in Marapolis. "I wonder what happened between them..." Xena commented, surprising Gabrielle with her interest in the two's romantic progress. Although, Gabrielle mused, Xena did help, well, try to help Meleager with that romantic encounter at the balcony.
Thinking of her friend's comment, Gabrielle eyed the two in front of them as they rode. When Gabrielle didn't immediately respond, as she usually did, Xena felt uneasy, wondering if the bard was going to answer her at all.
"Sara was always especially difficult on men who showed interested in her." Gabrielle finally explained. "I'm surprised she ever got married." Gabrielle quipped. Xena shook her head sympathetically while looking at Meleager. "What?" Gabrielle asked.
"I knew Meleager was in over his head." Xena remarked.
"Sara really DOES feel something for him, Xena. I think he has a good chance of winning her over, that is, if he doesn't give up," Gabrielle responded with confidence.
"I think you are much more sure of his chances than he is Gabrielle." Xena remarked with a raised eyebrow towards her optimistic friend. This lack of confidence in the man was amazing to Gabrielle.
"Meleager the Mighty...able to do battle with, and single handedly kill, four hundred enemy soldiers..." Gabrielle started to recount his warrior deeds. "I heard it was four fifty..." Xena interjected, causing Gabrielle to eye the interrupter. Trying to ignore Xena's comment, Gabrielle continued.
"...afraid of ONE woman, Sara, who is anything but his enemy." She shook her head in amazement. "You think that's so odd?" Xena asked, a little more defensively than she expected to. Gabrielle shrugged. "I guess I just don't understand what he is so afraid of." Gabrielle relays and sees the Warrior roll her eyes. "Now what?" Gabrielle asks.
"You don't understand what he's afraid of? Do you want me to make you a list?" Xena responded with amazement at the normally perceptive bard. Gabrielle grinned.
"If you don't mind...." Gabrielle challenged her friend, who immediately regretted mentioning a list. "Please...this should be very educational." Gabrielle added to encourage the hesitating warrior.
Xena made a mental note to never, ever, offer to make a list for the bard. Noticing the bard waiting, she sighed and proceeded. "She's a Queen." Xena confidently announced her first, obvious reason that Gabrielle can't possibly argue with. "Royalty can be very intimidating." Xena explained.
"Not good enough." Gabrielle responded bluntly.
"What do you mean that's not good enough?" Xena blurted with annoyance. "You're going to say that with whatever I say aren't you?" Xena quickly added.
"Probably. But I mean it with that royalty excuse." Gabrielle responded honestly.
"Why...." Xena sighed with exasperation, awaiting a long rebuttal from the bard. She always seemed to have one. "First of all, Meleager is a respected and famous warrior. So her position shouldn't be such a big deal." Gabrielle remarked.
Xena sighed again as she waited for Gabrielle to provide a dozen more reasons to prove why the first item on the warrior's list was inadequate. However, Gabrielle didn't say anything else.
"Well, what's second?" Xena asked with a little impatience.
"Second?" Gabrielle questioned her innocently.
"Yes. You said 'first of all', that usually means you have a second point unless... you don't have one." Xena responded with a grin slowing forming on her face as she began to believe the woman of many words erred and the woman of few words caught it.
"Second" Gabrielle, of course, responded. "He's royalty too. So, like I said, it shouldn't be such a big deal." Gabrielle relayed the incredible news, making Xena's mouth drop and Gabrielle slyly smile.
"He never said anything to me." Xena blurted with surprise, looking at Meleager than back suspiciously at the bard.
"Are you sure?" Gabrielle questioned with a furrowed brow. "Its not easy to keep something like THAT a secret..." Gabrielle added looking at her friend curiously. Xena just shook her head no.
"What is he?" Xena asked, still having trouble accepting this news.
"Meleager's a royal pain in the...." Gabrielle's response was quickly interrupted.
"Gabrielle!" Xena blurted with exasperation and shook her head. This made the bard laugh. Thinking about the bard's observations of Meleager's royalty, Xena had to agree. She looked at the bard and amazed at how easily she could talk circles around the warrior.
"Ok, what's your second reason for Meleager's fear?" Gabrielle asked Xena, who sighed heavily. The bard wasn't about to let her forget the list. There was still a possible diversion, the Warrior Princess considered.
"Gabrielle, did you notice the nice weather we're having?" Xena remarked looking at the sunny blue sky.
"Xena, a list has to have at least two on it." The persistent bard held up two fingers. "Who says?" Xena argued. "Some say three or ...." The bard added. "Come to think of it, two sounds about right...." Xena interrupted the bard, who didn't seem to have a problem with making things more difficult on the warrior.
The warrior breathed deeply and identified the second reason for Meleager's fear. "Rejection." Xena said simply. "Well that's always a risk. I'm sure Meleager has had his share of rejection and survived it in the past." Gabrielle smiled then continued. "It shouldn't prevent him from acting now." Gabrielle responded with a shrug.
"Except ..." Xena started to argue but stopped. "Except what?" Gabrielle asked. "Nothing." Xena responded. "Except WHAT Xena?" Gabrielle's voice raised slightly, clearly relaying her annoyance with Xena for retreating again from a conversation she didn't want to have.
Xena responded. "Except he's worried that he won't be good enough for her." Gabrielle sighed and nodded knowingly. "Everyone has those doubts." Xena shook her head, knowing she was not getting her point across well. Gabrielle looked curiously at her friend.
"Except Meleager feels he is in competition with Enerall and there is no way he can win her heart." Xena responded, and returned her emotionless gaze forward.
"What?!?" Gabrielle asks, shocked he could possibly think that. "He feels he's in a competition against Enerall?" Gabrielle repeats what she heard, completely amazed. Xena continues to ride silently, staring at Sara and Meleager.
"If her past is what's holding him back, then it is a loss...a tragic loss, for them both." The bard responded with great sadness. However, that sadness quickly transformed to anger.
Competition! The bard hated that word and idea. "GODS" Gabrielle spurted. "It's not like HE doesn't have a past...." With the mention of a past, Gabrielle identified yet another item on Xena's list, her personal list.
The four finally arrived in front of Ustas' house. As they dismounted, Gabrielle and Sara smiled in anticipation of a reunion with their Uncle and sister. "Sara! Gabrielle!" A happy voice boomed from the doorway. A large man came out of the house with an equally large smile. "Uncle Ustus!" The sisters run to hug the man who easily sweeps the two up in his muscular arms.
"He's huge." Meleager commented to Xena, noting his height, massive chest and strong arms. Arms that would wield a powerful sword, should the carpenter ever have a reason, Meleager considered. "I think it's the only women of this family you need to worry about Meleager." She relayed to him.
Meleager considered that was probably a good assessment and was about to respond but found Xena was no longer next to him. She was at the bard's side. He understood why, seeing the disturbed looks on the sister's faces.
"Lila never got here." Gabrielle relayed with a hollow voice. "We've got to get back to Marapolis!" Sara declared and almost ran over Meleager to get back on her horse. Gabrielle stopped her. "Wait!" She said forcefully, grabbing her arm. "Sara, we need to think through this before we go off and panic." Gabriele looked her sister in the eye. Sara nodded reluctantly.
Inside Ustas' home, the five sat at the kitchen table with Ustas seated at the head. "I have heard of the Ouzas in this area." The Uncle relayed sadly. Gabrielle could see her sister cringe at the mention of the Ouzas. "They have a camp North of here I am told." Ustas added. Meleager, familiar with the area, nodded. He looked over to Sara seeing his Queen barely away from tears. "We must go get Lila back from them." Sara blurted nervously, knowing that is what they should probably do but not wanting to face the slavers that took her so long ago.
Gabrielle looked at Xena. "I want to talk to you...alone." The bard 's tone and face was unreadable to the warrior. The bard looked over to her curious family and Meleager without so much as a smile. Silently Xena got up and followed the bard to the workshop where Gabrielle considered she would have some privacy with her friend.
"I would like to go with you to the camp." Gabrielle turned to face the Warrior Princess. The coolness of the bard's tone struck the warrior as odd, until she concluded it was the bard's way of handling her fear for her sister. However, the warrior was still puzzled why Gabrielle sounded so reasonable by asking to go instead of announcing she was going .
"You don't need to ask." Xena responded, returning the cool tone. "I'm not asking." Gabrielle corrected her. Xena rolled her eyes, so much for reasonable. "Gabrielle, we can save some time here." Xena looked at her friend. "I am not objecting. I'm not going to argue with you. I think you should go." Xena stated with finality. "Really?" Gabrielle responded with surprise. "YES." Xena sighed with exasperation. "Well, I'm staying here." Gabrielle informed her and shrugged.
"What?" Xena blurted in confusion. Xena shook her head in disbelief. "Let's see if I understand this, you get me to tell you I want you to come along and you are now arguing that you don't want to?" Xena asked.
"I'm not arguing." Gabrielle said honestly.
"You are deliberately trying to drive me crazy, aren't you?" Xena muttered to Gabrielle.
"Xena I need to stay with my sister, she needs me more than you do." Gabrielle responded, her words stinging the warrior.
"I don't know how she will react around the Ouzas or if the Ouzas are actually involved in Lila's disappearance. She had a really rough time with them and I don't want to put her through any more of it." Gabrielle explained, making Xena feel a bit guilty for her initial feelings of hurt.
"I understand..." Xena responded, knowing Gabrielle would want to protect her sister. "...most of it." Xena added. "Why the secrecy?"
The bard looked back at the house. "Well, you know how we Poteidaians are when we think someone gets too protective over us." Gabrielle looked at Xena accusingly. "I have a passing familiarity with that..." Xena responded.
"Sara will want to go if I go. If I don't go, she won't. But if I stay behind by choice, she'll think I am doing this to look out for her..." Gabrielle explained. "But you are." Xena responded.
"Right, but I don't want her to think that. Understand?" Gabrielle asked. "I think so. You don't want her mad at you for looking out for her, so you don't want her to know you are looking out for her, when you actually are looking out for her." Xena sighed. "Exactly." Gabrielle responded with a single confirmatory nod.
"And how are you going to pull that off, my talented bard?" Xena asked with a raised eyebrow. Gabrielle smiled, pleased with the words 'my talented bard.'
In her cabin, Dyessa doesn't bother asking Kenis how he is or what happened with the slavers. She already had an idea and didn't want to have to deal with yet another problem. "What am I supposed to do with you?" She asked a familiar rhetorical question. A question Kenis had heard often growing up, first from his parents then, after they died, his sister.
"You are not pulling your weight around here! You are so lucky you are not just a crew member or I'd ...UGH!!!" She blurted and paced behind her nervous brother. "You have been so wrapped up in your visits to that that... place, you have been late for almost every trip Kenis! Most of the work is already done by the time you GRACE us with your presence!" Her angry tone continued to increase in volume.
"How many times have I told you that you can't let your charity work interfere with business!" She snapped, not giving him a chance to speak. Not that he could or would want to dare interrupt the familiar speech when she was this upset with him. "This business is our livelihood Kenis, DON'T you forget it!"
As Xena and Gabrielle walked back to the house, the warrior was not pleased. "I don't like it." Xena says bluntly. "Cheer up. At least you get to SAY you've finally won an argument with me." Gabrielle looked over to her friend. "It's not the same." Xena muttered. "No. But it's the closest you'll ever get." Gabrielle countered, waiting for a response from her friend with a sly grin. Xena turns her head and tries to stare down the bard. "That sounds like a challenge Gabrielle." Xena responded cooly.
"No, no Xena." Gabrielle responded, correcting her friend while patting her back. "Although I can understand how it can be confusing to you at times, THAT is what they call a 'fact'." Gabrielle responded with a grin, making Xena look up in the sky as if seeking some help. "Ow" The warrior responded, making the bard laugh.
Meleager crept quietly through the bushes with Xena following closely behind. Hearing a noise ahead, Meleager motions her to stop. A group of twenty men, heavily armed, were in the middle of eating dinner. Meleager looked at Xena. "Now this is more like it." He said with a relaxed smile. "I know what you mean." Xena agreed.
As they quietly approached the tents, Meleager noticed a man who looked very familiar coming out of one of them. "That son of Hera." Meleager spewed with venom. "You know him?" Xena asked with surprise. "I hand picked Merrid to escort Lila." Meleager's cool tone fit his warrior reputation. "He will die today." Meleager added with a look to Xena that she had better not interfere. "We will need information first." Xena cautioned him, understanding him very well. He nodded.
Merrid went off into the woods to heed the call of nature. After nature was done calling, Meleager appeared. "Merrid, this can be hard or easy, your choice. " Meleager's tone did not relay his intense anger. However, Merrid knew what Meleager was capable of and turned to run, only to bump into another warrior, who quickly cut off the blood to his brain.
"You have thirty seconds to tell us what happened to Lila." Xena informed him and looked in the man's defiant eyes. The soldier didn't expect her to kill him. There were all those stories about her turning good and fighting for the underdog. Stories that made Merrid believe she would even protect him from Meleager. Xena looked down at him and sighed, realizing this was not going to be an easy interrogation.
"You know, I've always wanted to try that." Meleager told her.
"Really?" She asked, poking the soldier's arteries, allowing the man's blood to flow. Merrid gasped, taking in a deep breath.
"Sure. Is it hard?" Meleager asked curiously. "Not really, once you get the hang of it." She offered. "How long does that take?" Meleager questioned. "Depends. Some people get it on their first try. Others end up killing a lot of people practicing." She noted with a shrug. "You want to try it now?" She asked, gesturing with her fingers towards the man she kept pinned on the ground. Merrid nervously glanced between the two warriors. "Could you do it just one more time?" He asked. Xena nodded and complied with his request and stopping Merrid's blood flow.
"A threat...What was it you said that about a threat?" Meleager asked scratching his head.
"Thirty seconds or they're dead." Xena responded to her student. "Are you sure? I thought I heard you said THIRTEEN seconds before," he questioned his teacher.
"Hmmm." Xena responded, quickly allowing the blood to flow again. Merrid gasped, taking in a deep breath.
"Thirteen, Thirty...really hasn't made much of a difference for me until now. Most talk within three seconds, except for this one. He's just not going to talk." Xena relayed, keeping the confused man pinned on the ground.
Meleager nodded. "You know, I think that before I try it on someone who will talk, I'd like to know for sure. I'd hate to be in the middle of a confession and have him die on me." Meleager responded.
"You've got a point. Do you want to count or shall I?" Xena asked.
"Let me," Meleager eagerly responded. The soldier's eyes widened in disbelief. Xena once again applied her touch to the man's arteries and stopped the flow of blood.
"One...two...three...you know Xena I really appreciate you teaching ...." Meleager paused, drawing a glare from the Xena. "Oh sorry....three...four...." Meleager started to count again.
"eight!" Yelped the soldier.
Meleager looked at the soldier. "Don't interrupt!" Meleager responded to his former best soldier and continued counting. "....eight...nine...ten...eleven...twelve... thirteen...fourteen...huh..I could have sworn I heard you say thirteen." Meleager stopped his counting.
"Thirty! I thought so." Xena responded with a pleased smile. Surely Xena wasn't going to let him die, Merrid thought.
"Shall we?" Xena got up and headed back towards the camp. Merrid saw the two leave him without returning his blood flow and panicked.
"Wait! Wait! Don't leave me!" He cried. Within a second, Meleager yanks up the incapacitated body off the ground and stares angrily into his eyes.
"What happened to Lila?" Meleager the Angry growled.
Before the slave ship cast off, a last minute addition to the human cargo was added with an unceremonious thud. After the hatch closed to the hold and the bolt slid with a thud securing it in place, Lila came over to the body as far as her newly acquired metallic jewelry, compliments of Dyessa, would allow.
"Gabrielle! My Gods! Are you ok?" She asked shaking her sister with only her foot, which was the only part of her body that could reach. "Ugh...Lila? Lila!" Gabrielle sat up rubbing the back of her head, having trouble adjusting her eyes to the darkness. The women, familiar with the exploits of Gabrielle and Xena from Lila, perked up with renewed hope for escape.
As she crawled over to her sister, still not use to the darkness, Gabrielle spoke in a familiar flurry of words and emotions. "Are you OK? We all came to Uncle Ustus' to find you! Meleager and Xena went to investigate the Ouzas camp North of here ... then I find out from Sara that Dyessa is an Ouzas!"
Correctly figuring Lila didn't understand the significance of that, she explained without missing a beat or taking a breath. "She's the sister of someone we saved from slavers on the way here, Kenis, which seems odd now doesn't it? Anyway..."
Lila stared numbly at her sister.
"Dyessa was involved with Sara's abduction years ago. I told Sara and Ustas I wanted see if I could talk with Kenis to see if he could help find you while they went to get Xena and Meleager...Of course Sara was not pleased with the plan but...well, I guess I can see why now..." Gabrielle shrugged looking around the cargo hold and continues.
"Anyway, I couldn't find Kenis and I guess I asked one too many questions of that dumb guy with the whip, I never even saw the guy who ..."
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle!?" Lila calmly interrupted her sister. This flurry of words, a typical nervous response from the bard that had annoyed Lila in the past, was annoying her now.
"Huh?" Gabrielle stopped her story and looked at her sister.
"Is there a RESCUE plan in there anywhere?" Lila snapped, rattling her chains.
"Lila, everything will be fine. Trust me." Gabrielle responded with great conviction. "No plan huh?" Lila countered, resting back on the hull of the ship with a resigned thud. "Well that depends on how detailed a plan you are..." Gabrielle responded, causing the women in the cargo hold to moan, their hope at a rescue greatly diminished.
As the Sara and Ustas rode towards the warriors, an uneasy feeling overcame Xena, who knew something was wrong when she didn't see the bard. "Where's Gabrielle?" Were the first words spoken. "Marapolis. Kenis' sister is an Ouzas slaver. Gabrielle was going to try to talk to Kenis." Sara explained, worried but confident in her sister's abilities.
"We found out that Lila was taken onboard a ship, The Nopheet Atoll, in Marapolis." Meleager noted, unable to look in the Queen's eyes. "Oh Gods. I knew it was a bad idea" Sara uttered.
With the mooring lines cast off and anchors aweigh, the ship pulled away from the docks. Dyessa sighed with relief as she looked out over the bow towards watery horizon. There was a comfort she felt underway, a control over her life. Land always made her uncomfortable, all those people and hiding places. On the open seas at least, she could see what was coming.
Returning to her cabin, she looked at the books and shook her head. "D..Dyessa... w..why...d..did ...y..you...d...do th..that?" Kenis finally got an audience with his sister. "Kenis, we are late and short on merchandise. You know our buyers are fickle. We can't afford anymore screw ups." She responded simply, unaffected by his agitation.
"Gab..brielle...is a fr..friend...w..why..d..did..." He blurted. "Ugh!" He moaned, pained by his inability to quickly communicate.
Dyessa's eyes narrowed as she looked at him. "You have caused me nothing but trouble Kenis. Your 'volunteer' work has cost me plenty and with your girlfriend nosing around the docks and asking Fagan all those questions...Gods Kenis...I ought to have you keel hauled. You have endangered this crew and our livelihood. Now GO or I will get the rope myself." She growled.
The women sat quietly in the cargo hold, enthralled with the bard's tale. "So then, the Warrior Princess....." Gabrielle's story to the women in chains was interrupted by Lila's "SHHH" when the faint talking of two men topside carried below.
"Fagan, how will the other ship know which of us are on their side and which are not?" A worried sailor asked. "Red ribbons." Fagan responded. "When we meet with the other ship tomorrow we will have them on the right arm. They won't attack anyone with the ribbons. Carefully spread the word and the ribbons. Make sure they wear them." The men left.
The four rode hard to Marapolis. Xena rode directly to the docks almost running over a few pedestrians who happened to want to use the street at the same time Xena and Argo wanted to use it. A produce cart in the middle of the road didn't prove to be much of an obstacle for Xena or Sara, both easily jumping it with their able horses. However, Ustas and Meleager were impeded for a few moments while the cart was rolled out of the way by an angry grocer.
They reached the docks too late. Before their eyes, the crew raised the ship's main sail as they left the protection of the cove. Catching the strong sea wind, the main sail billowed and snapped taut, giving the vessel great speed while revealing a simple and large design of a fish. Sara watched numbly as the Nopheet Atoll slipped away.
Xena's attention was drawn to a noisy horse tied to a post. It was Four Feet. For a brief moment, Xena's eyes hopefully searched the waterfront for the bard. With another neigh from Four Feet, Xena knew her search was futile. She was not going see her friend at these docks. Taking a deep breath, Xena returned her eyes to the ship as it disappeared around the coastal cliffs.
Tears fell quietly from Sara's eyes. Gabrielle had wanted to protect her sister, Xena remembered.
"Sara, they are headed up the coast and we know their destination. I WILL get them back." Xena promised her.
"WE will get them back." Meleager added, unable to look in the Queen's eyes.
Gabrielle and Lila looked at each other for a moment, realizing they were in the middle of a takeover. "We've got to get off this ship before company comes." Gabrielle commented. "You're not getting any arguments from me." Lila responded, concluding a takeover was usually bloody and the less blood she saw the better.
Rayla laughed at their incredibly calm discussion. "Supposing we actually get out of these chains and supposing we get past the guards without them noticing, how do you propose we get back to shore without a boat?" Lila looked at her sister. "You can swim can't you?" Gabrielle asked the woman with utter seriousness.
"You're crazy!" Rayla blurted. "And I thought I was the only one who noticed." Lila responded. Gabrielle eyed her sister then faced Rayla. "Rayla, we may not survive a takeover and if we do, the chances of our rescue are ... less optimistic. The ship has been following the coast line so we should be able to make it without too much trouble." Gabrielle explained. Seeing Lila nod in agreement, Rayla shakes her head, considering them both either incredibly brave or incredibly crazy.
With Uncle Ustas staying behind to gather help, Xena, Meleager and Sara rode hard up the coast to the next port town. Xena knew she might need help but she still would have preferred to do this alone.
With all of Sara's worries, she still noticed Meleager's odd behavior. She figured he was upset having lost one of his best men. When they stopped at a cliff to observe the sailing ship's progress up the coast, Sara asked him about it. "Meleager, what happened to your soldier?" She asked softly. "He's dead." Meleager responded bluntly, without looking in her eyes. She was about to ask another question but Xena interrupted. "We don't have time to chat, we will need to ride through the night as it is." Without another word, Xena was riding again with no intention of stopping until she reached the next port town.
The bolt to the cargo hold hatch slid back and the women watched as a man came down on the steps. "Kenis!" Gabrielle quietly called out to him. "G..Gabrielle, I'm s..so s..sorry." He heard the women laughing at his apology to the prisoner. "Lot of good sorry does her now." One woman, Bera, snapped out.
"You can help us escape Kenis." Gabrielle gave him a way to make it up to her. "I..c..can't ....d..do ...any..th..thing." Kenis said sadly. "Do you have a knife?" Gabrielle asked. Kenis eyed her and handed over his knife. The women murmered with amazement at how easily Gabrielle got a knife. "She talked a cyclops out of eating her once..." Lila explained. "Oh..." The women responded with understanding.
In the middle of unlocking her sister's shackles, Gabrielle was discussing the takeover plan with Kenis. "D..Dyessa...n.never...t.trusted...F..Fagan." Kenis blurted. "He h..had his m..men...b..beat ....m...me...up..th...that d.day." He added. "Does Dyessa know?" Gabrielle asked, amazed he was so calm about that.
"Y..yes..." Kenis looked down at his feet. "And she isn't going to do anything about the dumb guy..ah..Fagan?" Lila interjected. "Y..you d..don't un..d..der..st.stand." He said in defense of his sister who always replaced everything he borrowed from the Ouzas' coffers. "No I don't." Lila countered coldly.
"Fagan's ship is coming Kenis, and we are going to leave before it gets here. I hope you can swim. Kenis." Gabrielle looked up to him. "I'm n..not. ..l..leaving. ...D..Dyessa..." Kenis responded and fled up the ladder. "Kenis!" Gabrielle called to him. "Gabrielle, you can't change his mind for him." Lila looked at her. Gabrielle nodded
"He won't interfere will he?" Rayla asked rubbing her freshly freed wrists. "No." Gabrielle answered, looking up the ladder fearing he was going to his death because of misplaced family loyalty. "No." Gabrielle repeated sadly as Lila put a comforting hand on her sister's shoulder.
"Why are you slowing down?" Meleager asked Xena, who pulled on Argo's reigns.
"We are catching up to them." Xena noted with concern.
"That's a good thing!" Sara responded, then asked "Isn't it??"
"They are in the middle of a slave run and Married said they were behind schedule. It seems odd they would be taking their time getting to port. With the wind they have, they should be out of sight by now." Xena noted with mixed feelings.
"Merrid? Didn't you said he was killed?" Sara looked to Meleager, confused. "We should get going." Meleager snapped, averting an answer to her question and look into her eyes, rode off towards the next port town.
Sara looked to Xena for an explanation. "What happened to Merrid?" Sara questioned slowly with a low, determined voice. "Merrid was an Ouzas. We interrogated him. He is dead." Xena reported coldly. "We should go." Xena added and rode off quickly. With that concise report, Sara understood Meleager.
Lila questioned her support for Gabrielle's brilliant plan when she was the first one to enter the cold water. She had to fight not to yell out as she eased down the line into the sea.
"You ok?" Gabrielle whispered down to her sister.
"It's very...Gabrielle?" Lila called up with concern when Gabrielle disappeared from view. A moment later, a sailor walked by making Lila worried she spoke too loudly. After he passed, unaware of the escape in progress, Gabrielle returned to check on her sister.
"Gabrielle?" Lila asked, holding on to the rope.
"What?" Gabrielle leaned over the side.
"It's cold." Lila noted, shivering.
"You can see the shore from here. Let go and start swimming, it will warm you up. The others will be right behind you." Gabrielle told her, hoping she was right. Lila nodded and let go of the rope. The ship slowly pulled away and she started her long swim to the shore.
Slowly, between the sailor's periodic strolls past their escape route, each woman reached the side of the ship and descended the rope into the cold water and started to swim towards the shore. Finally Gabrielle escorted the last woman, Rayla, up the cargo hold ladder, through a passageway, across the deck and over the side. As Rayla descended the rope, she looked up finding Gabrielle gone. Rayla entered the cold water with a muffled gasp and started to swim. After a few minutes heading towards the shore, she looked back at the ship. A small spec on the horizon caught her eye, Fagan's ship.
Kenis nervously ate dinner as he listened to Fagan and Dyessa discuss the buyer's preferences for blonds. He was certain that if Dyessa found out how he gave Gabrielle a knife, unlatched the cargo hold hatch and allowed the women to escape, Dyessa would finally let Fagan kill him, if she didn't decide to do it herself.
"Yeah, I think he'll like that tall one we have." Fagan noted to Dyessa as she picked at her food. "Well, I'm not so sure he'll appreciate that brunette Lila. She may make him swear off our merchandise for good." Dyessa tried to joke. For the first time, she used the name of a slave she was about to sell.
Fagan didn't like using the merchandise names. "We could just cut our losses now if you are concerned." Fagan held up his knife, eyeing the piece of meat on it, then his business partner. Dyessa looked at the man, who had sent those men to beat her brother. She believed he would enjoy personally taking care of Lila. "I am sure we will get something for her...I'll bet you 10 dinars we'll get more than 20 for her." Dyessa lifted her drink to her lips. "You've got yourself a deal." Fagan laughed and ate the meat off the tip of his knife.
Kenis finished his meal and excused himself. "You hardly ate anything Kenis." Dyessa looked at his plate. "F..finished. G..going..t..to ...d..d..do ...m..my ....j..job..and c..check..on..th..the...w..women." Kenis eyed Fagan who was still eating. Dyessa noted her brother was acting odd.
Kenis looked around topside and sighed with relief. The sailors were all going about their business without any concern about the women. Kenis looked out to the horizon to see the sun was setting with a beautiful orange hue. The only thing distracting Kenis' appreciation of the sunset was the ship in the distance that was slowly heading their way. He wanted to give Gabrielle some time to escape before he mentioned to his sister anything about Fagan's ship.
Entering his sister's cabin to finish balancing the books, Kenis jumped when he felt a hand on his mouth and heard the door quickly shut behind him. When the hand was removed he turned to find the bard. "G..G.." He was interrupted. "Kenis, you are coming with me and I am not taking no for an answer." Gabrielle told him. "G..G..." Kenis tried to refuse. "No arguments." Gabrielle blurted and took his hand, pulling him to the door.
He wasn't sure what to think. He was amazed someone would go to such trouble for him. Even so, he still couldn't go with her. Gabrielle carefully opened the door and looked in the passageway. Seeing it was clear, she turned and motioned for Kenis to follow her. He started to shake his head no but he froze. The fear on Kenis' face made Gabrielle quickly turn back.
Lila finally made it to the rocky shore and waited for the women. With each one making it to the shore, she breathed a small sigh of relief. Although they were cold, they couldn't make a fire, the ship was too close to shore and the fire would attract unwanted attention. "Keep moving. Run around in circles if you have to." Lila got up herself. "We're tired Lila!" Bera snapped at the girl. "I am too but we've got to get warmed up. Now MOVE" Lila ordered the women who reluctantly moved round. She was aware the sun was setting and they would be even colder during the night. Lila looked out to the ship with growing concern, wondering when Gabrielle would get to shore.
Kenis stood in front of his sister on the forecastle. She was going to make an example of him in front of the crew. He had never seen such rage in his sister's eyes. "You bastard. I am tired of having to make excuses for you!" She pushed him back and punched him in the stomach. Her booming voice and actions surprised the crew, including Fagan. "W..Wh.." Kenis tried to respond.
"I should have known not to trust you. You have always been a burden to our family. Well, you are a burden I am not going to bear any more." She connected his jaw with a powerful right hook that knocked him out. "Gods Dyessa what are you doing?" Fagan rushed over to her as she lifted her brother up. "Back off Fagan. You were right. He's worthless." She throws him overboard, shocking the entire crew when they hear the splash of his unconscious body hitting the water.
"He can't swim Dyessa!" A sailor yelled out. "He doesn't have to." She called back cooly. Fagan smiled finally seeing Dyessa show some promise. Too bad he would have to kill her shortly. For the first time, Dyessa spotted an unknown ship on the horizon. Dyessa angrily snapped at her crew. "Why in Gods Names wasn't I informed about that ship!" Dyessa's rage was still fresh and her crew quickly manned their stations smartly.
The stars sparkled brightly, but Gabrielle wasn't interested in star gazing as she swam with an unconscious Kenis in tow. Lila was right, Gabrielle noted, the water is cold. Kenis finally started to come to, which made it more difficult for Gabrielle to swim as he thrashed around. "Kenis, just relax. Let me take care of the swimming." Gabrielle relayed to him, then coughed after unexpectedly receiving a mouth full of salt water while she tried to take a deep breath. This was more difficult than she expected.
Kenis started sobbing. "W..Why?" He asked, still shocked at his sister's words. "I d..didn't wa..want to l..leave her."
Gabrielle was surprised at Dyessa's actions as well. However, unlike Kenis, Gabrielle was pleased with them. Just when she thought she would be too exhausted to continue, Gabrielle heard a welcome voice.
"Gabrielle!" Lila waded out to her waist to help her sister. Lila didn't have to ask what delayed her sister so long, for she helped the answer ashore. He sprawled out on the beach sobbing. "What's wrong with him?" She asked her shivering sister.
"He didn't want to leave his sister but fortunately, she made him." Gabrielle quickly explained to a surprised Lila.
"Now what? Head up the beach?" Lila asked her sister.
"We are too tired" Bera whined, getting supportive nods from the women.
"We can't travel any more now." Rayla agreed. Lila looked at Gabrielle.
"We should find shelter by the cliffs. If we are lucky, we might be able to make a fire." Gabrielle noted.
As they sought shelter for the evening, Gabrielle thought through their situation. A town or village was likely at the top of the cliffs, Gabrielle guessed. Fortunately, a path to reach the top of the cliffs was a just few miles away down the exposed beach according to Lila. Unfortunately, no one was in any condition to travel that distance at the safest time, in the darkness. If they traveled in the morning and a slave ship was still there, they would be seen. Gabrielle started to panic but stopped and forced herself to focus. "First things first, find shelter Gabrielle" she told herself.
The morning came and Gabrielle peered up from behind large rocks to see two ships moored together. She wondered what happened to Dyessa. Whatever happened, it was not likely to be good, she concluded sadly. She also wondered when a group would be hunting them down and how they would avoid capture. After brushing off her blanket of sand, which was not as nice as a fire but safer, she woke her sister. "We've got to get going."
The group looked to Gabrielle and Lila for an indication of what they would be doing next. Gabrielle glanced down the beach for a brief moment then stared up at the tall, rocky, tall, cliff wall, that was very very tall. "Ok people, to the cliff!" Lila announced, seeing her sister staring the direction she obviously wanted to go.
"Lila..." She tugged at her sister's arm with wide eyes and concern in her voice. "Huh?" Lila responded as the women and Kenis followed orders and headed towards the bottom of the cliff. "I don't know if we will be able to climb it." She said honestly, looking up to the top.
"Should we go along the beach then?" Her sister eyed the long rocky beach.
"If we do, they would see us right away. I'm not sure we would be able to out run them." Gabrielle responded. Lila sighed.
"What do you want to do then? We just can't sit here. They'll find us eventually." Lila looked back at the sea and the two ships. Gabrielle looked up at the cliff, then the beach, then the cliff again. Neither option guaranteed their safety. Gabrielle's indecisiveness annoyed Lila. "You have to make a decision Gabrielle!" Lila yelled at her.
"Cliff," Gabrielle responded weakly.
At the foot of what seemed to be the steepest cliff they ever saw, the seven women and one man looked up in awe. l hate cliffs, Gabrielle concluded. At least there were some ridges along the way that would offer spots to rest during the climb, Gabrielle noted thankfully.
"How are we going to get over the ridge at the very top?" Lila asked her sister, who focused on the same shelf-like ridge. It jutted out over three feet and there didn't appear to be any way around on the sides. If it was closer to the ground, Gabrielle would have not been as concerned. The group looked at the sister's anxiously.
"We'll help boost over anyone who wants a boost." Gabrielle looked at her sister and shrugged. "Piece of cake." Gabrielle added with mock amusement at the thought they might actually have doubts. The women smiled weakly at each other, happy somebody was confident.
Lila could tell her sister wasn't sure, but they all needed to believe their success was a mere formality. "Gabrielle, would you please not mention food! I am really hungry." Lila snapped at her with a twinkle in her eye that Gabrielle immediately recognized.
"It was just a figure of speech Lila! Most educated people can tell the difference between actual discussions of food and figures of speech." Lila eyed her sister. "Hey, you're the one who couldn't hack BARD school." Lila countered.
As the two began to bicker, the five women looked at the sisters then up to the less annoying cliff. "Me first." Rayla told the others, who were sorry they didn't volunteer to go first.
"We should go one at a time." Gabrielle announced, to the disappointed group. "Rayla, you should warn us of any problems you have as you go." Lila added.
Rayla started up the side of the cliff. With each step, a few pebbles seemed to drop down to the women at the bottom. Gabrielle looked at Lila with some concern. "Good work Rayla!" Lila called out as Rayla continued to make progress up the rocky face. She made it to the first of several ledges to the relief of all.
"I'll..g..go...n..next." Kenis announced looking at Gabrielle with a weak smile. She nodded, returning his smile. She hoped to eventually find time to talk with him about his sister and what she did for him.
With his climb, he jarred loose more pebbles from the wall. The wall seemed to slowly crumble as each person climbed the shear face. "Maybe we ought to go the beach route." Bera offered when she looked up at the cliff and watched the women climb.
"Lila, Gabrielle! The slavers, they are coming!" Rayla yelled down her observations of three small rowboats leaving the two moored ships. "This means we don't have a choice." Lila responded to Bera then looked up the cliff.
Gabrielle and Lila were the last to start climbing the cliff face. They were making good progress until Lila stopped. "Lila, what's wrong?" Gabrielle asked with concern. "I can't find a good grip." Lila called back to her sister. "Bera said there was a really good one by your right hand." Gabrielle called up, climbing closer. "You mean this?" Lila showed her sister a rock that use to be a good handgrip. "Oh." Gabrielle gulped as Lila tossed the former handgrip. It hit another rock and dislodged more material from the cliff face. Gabrielle wasn't sure they would be able to make it back down even if they wanted to.
"This cliff idea of yours is almost as good as your idea to nose around the docks." Lila informed her sister, who climbed up next to her. "You said make a decision." Gabrielle responded. "I made a decision."
The sisters finally caught up to the group just below the last and most precarious ridge. Everyone looked to Gabrielle for direction. "The first person over the top needs to get help. The slavers are looking for us." They looked to see the boats being pulled ashore. "I'll g..g..go."
Kenis was the first to be boosted over the ledge. "Ugh" Gabrielle and Lila grunted as they each grabbed a leg and lifted him up. He latched onto the rocky shelf and pulled himself over. Catching his breath, he inspected the remainder of the climb to the top. There was only about twenty more feet to climb. That climb looked easy compared to that ledge. "Piece of Cake," he thought to himself, using the bard's words.
He turned and carefully peeked over the ledge at the sisters. "S..so...f..far...s..so ...g..good." He smiled at the bard. "Kenis, you need to go get help." Gabrielle called up to him. He nodded and disappeared from the edge of the ridge with a mission.
"Next." Lila called out looking at Rayla. "Bera looks like she's ready." Rayla commented, much less happy about this than the swim. "Oh I couldn't possibly, you first." Bera offered politely. "I'll go." Another woman, Rhee, tired of waiting, volunteered. Again, Gabrielle and Lila each grabbed a leg and boosted up the climber to the ledge.
The first woman had less upper body strength and struggled more than Kenis to get over the rocky shelf, but she made it. Catching her breath, Rhee looked out at the beach and panicked. "Lila, Gabrielle! They see us!" She called out after she laid down and poked her head over the ledge.
Lila and Gabrielle looked at each other. "We've still got a good lead, let's keep it." Gabrielle responded with confidence. "You heard the lady." Lila barked. "NEXT!"
Three women finally made it to the top of the cliff and peered down at the ledge. "That ledge is a killer." The first woman admitted, rubbing her sore arms. "Gabrielle and Lila must be really tired by now...." The second woman looked down. Feeling a strong presence behind them, they all turned and gasped.
"Gabrielle! Gabrielle!" Xena called down to an empty ledge. "They won't be able to hear you until they get over that ledge...it's a killer. I don't know if I could have made it with out Gabrielle's and Lila's help." The first woman noted. Xena looked to Kenis who nodded.
Bera was next in line to climb out, up and over the rocky shelf. Gabrielle could see the fear in her eyes, a fear she shared. However, the situation did not allow her the opportunity to indulge in it.
"Ok, your turn." Gabrielle exhaled, her exhaustion catching up to her. She looked to the beach seeing the group of slavers.
"Gods, I'm scared." The fourth woman trembled. "That's a healthy response." Lila noted looking down herself. "Ok, now that we are all in agreement, can we please get on with this?" Gabrielle snapped with annoyance. "Gee, the cliff seems like a good idea Lila...yeah, why don't we climb the cliff ...'piece of cake' she says" Lila muttered loudly to no one in particular.
"I thought you said you didn't want to hear about food anymore" Gabrielle responded. "And I thought you knew what a figure of speech was..." Lila countered.
The woman looked at the two sisters who seemed to enjoy bickering. She looked up and considered she would rather climb than listen to any more of that. She quickly reached up for a rock and got a boost from Lila and Gabrielle, who looked at each other with sly grins.
Xena looked down to find the fourth woman's hand emerging from the underside of the ledge and feel around for a good handhold. Xena started to climb down but she caused a large number of rocks to come loose and fall. The cliff was too unstable. She was not pleased, not pleased at all.
The fourth woman, Bera, made it over the ledge with the help of the sisters. "How is everything?" The first woman asked her. "Would you believe, they are still at it." The fourth woman responded causing the first woman to roll her eyes.
Lila and Gabrielle were exhausted but had one more to boost. Lila looked at her sister with concern. Gabrielle also had the burden last evening of swimming Kenis to shore, Lila worried. Gabrielle smiled at her sister. "They are getting too close for us to take a break. I promise we will get a long rest after this." Gabrielle noted softly, both eyeing the group of slavers closing their distance to them. Lila nodded and understood they had to press on.
Xena returned to the cliff with a rope that was not long enough to reach the ledge but would help the climb to the top. Even with the rope, Bera was having difficulty climbing and caused more rocks to crumble under her feet. "Hold on" Xena called to the woman and pulled her up.
Rayla was last. "I don't know if I can do this." The woman's voice quivered. The sisters looked at each other with a sly grin.
Xena watched, wondering what was taking so long when she finally saw the fifth woman climb up around the edge with much greater speed than she had seen the other woman climb. Apparently a very athletic person, Xena concluded.
"Are you OK?" Xena asked the woman who looked a bit stunned.
"I am now," the woman called up and climbed to the rope.
"Only Lila and Gabrielle left." Rayla reported to Xena as she helped Rayla up. Another hand emerged from under the ledge, Xena correctly guessed it was Lila's. She knew the bard would not come up before her sister. Xena slightly gasped when she saw Lila's hand slip. She realized that the bard had no one to help her get her sister, or herself, over the ledge.
With a subtle shift in the sea breeze, the women at top of the cliff could hear the sisters below the ledge.
"Ouch. Lila! Watch it." Gabrielle snapped as her sister slipped down a bit.
"I am trying to watch it, but it is very hard when you can't SEE where you're GOING! So stop YELLING AT ME!" Lila yelled back loudly.
"I AM NOT YELLING AT YOU!" Gabrielle yelled back, her sister's feet on the bard's back.
"Than WHAT do you call THAT then?"
Xena looked at the Rayla. "They've been like that since the ship." She explained.
"Constructive CRITICISM," Gabrielle responded loudly.
"Well, I think I could go with a little LESS constructive criticism and a bigger PUSH...Princess Gabrielle, Amazon...WHOA!" Lila found her torso on the ledge. "Watch were you put your hands!" Lila called back as she received some more help getting the rest of her body up.
"I don't have much choice...you have such a big..." Gabrielle responded, her sister's foot now on her head.
"Like YOU can talk!" Lila shot back as she successfully traversed the ledge.
"Hey!" Gabrielle responded.
Gabrielle, alone beneath the ledge, closed her eyes and tried to catch her breath before trying to climb. She knew one look down would undermine her last bit of confidence, so she kept her eyes shut. She was going to make this climb if it killed her, she told herself with a laugh. She had to. She had to make sure Lila and the others would be alright. If only Xena was here, Gabrielle sighed, needing to see her, to get strength from her. The bard took a deep breath before taking a huge leap.
Finally, Xena sees her friend's hand. Once again, Xena looked for away down as if she could have possibly overlooked a safe path the other four times she inspected the side of the cliff.
Gabrielle was dangling from the side of the ledge by two hands. "Great", Gabrielle thought, as she was unsuccessful in trying to reach a footing on the rocks for a boost. She was too tired to pull herself up. Even if she wasn't so exhausted, she wasn't sure she could pull herself up. As a gust from the sea blew, causing the bard to sway back and forth, Gabrielle got an idea.
Lila sat down to anchor herself and help her sister over the ledge. Her eyes widened when her sister's two hands became only one. "Gabrielle!" She called out just when she saw the bard's missing hand reappear, along with a forearm and an elbow. Lila reached out and grabbed Gabrielle's arm and pulled hard.
"Oooph..." Gabrielle slammed into the side of the ledge, but made valuable progress. She had a shoulder over the side of the ledge.
Lila grabbed her sister's arm and was going to grab the back of her shirt, but there was no material where she wanted to grab.
"Ugh.." Lila blurted and instead grabbed Gabrielle's belt, pulling her sister up with all her might.
"OW OW OW." Gabrielle cried out as her bare stomach scraped along the rocks.
"That wouldn't happen if you wore normal clothes like everyone else," Lila scolded her sister, continuing to yank her up. Gabrielle muttered something as the rest of her exhausted and scraped body made it over the ledge. Breathing heavily, Gabrielle rested on her back a moment to try and stop the fatigue-induced shaking.
"Gabrielle! Lila!" Xena called down.
"Xena!" Lila called happily, knowing those slavers following them didn't stand a chance now. Xena was used to her name being called by the bard, not the bard's sister.
Gabrielle looked up at the Warrior Princess, who stretched as far out from the edge of the cliff as she dared to see if bard, who was still lying on her back, was alright. Even with the concern in Xena's eyes, Gabrielle had never seen a more beautiful sight.
As Lila climbed, Gabrielle's attention was diverted to the short rope. "That is a pretty pathetic excuse for a rope Xena" Gabrielle called up as she stood. Gabrielle could see Xena's eyebrow raise. A grin crossed the bard's face causing the Warrior to return the favor.
The warrior's welcome smile touched something deep within her heart, as if gently nudging the bard's emotions awake from a restless sleep. The joy that quickly filled the bard's heart at this awakening drained away when the warrior's smile disappeared. Gabrielle feared the warrior wished those emotions would continue to slumber.
"The rocks are very unstable Gabrielle, I can't climb down without causing them to fall." Xena relayed.
Gabrielle nodded and breathed a sigh of relief. She's just worried about the climb, Gabrielle reminded herself. The bard found her feelings of relief were a bit premature as her sister dislodged more rocks. She almost forgot they were very high off the ground, climbing a cliff, and trying to escape from slavers. Not a very good time to be distracted with other thoughts, Gabrielle concluded.
"UGH! The rocks up here are worse than below that ledge." Lila sighs and informs her sister. "It's a shame this cliff didn't come with stairs." Lila added while pausing to catch her breath. Gabrielle stared thoughtfully at tired sister for a moment.
"That is the STUPIDEST thing I have ever heard!" Gabrielle blurted.
"Well apparently you haven't been paying attention to what you've been saying lately." Lila shot back, amusing the Warrior Princess.
"Ugh oh." They said in unison, hearing men underneath the ledge.
"What?" Xena asked.
"We've got company." Gabrielle responded looking up at her worried friend's face.
Lila continued her climb with new vigor, causing a few more stones to fall down at Gabrielle's feet. Gabrielle had a bad feeling. She looked back at the edge of the ledge and saw a hand reaching around. She quickly went over and stomped on it. "AH!" A man yelled, sliding back down to his friends.
Lila made it to the rope. Once she grabbed on to it, Xena yanked her up quickly. "Thanks!" Lila exhaled gratefully. She looked down for the first time and almost fell over. Xena grabbed her by the back of the shirt and pulled her away from the edge. "But Lila, you just got here." Xena dead panned. The warrior shocked Lila more than the height.
Gabrielle stopped another attempt at the slaver's climb over the ledge, with a carefully placed heal. She knew she would have to eventually stop what she was doing and climb.
"You coming or what?" Lila yelled down with great impatience. Gabrielle nodded and started up the rocky cliffs. When she reached for handholds, each one seemed to crumble at her touch. She climbed a few feet up and had to stop to get her breath. Her exhaustion was becoming a problem. Then, she made the mistake of looking down in a weak moment. The height bothered her more than the fact the first slaver's arm was now over the ledge's edge.
"Ugh..." She groaned and rested her forehead on the rocky wall.
Seeing a lapse in Gabrielle's momentum, Xena and Lila looked down with worry. "You can do it Gabrielle!" Xena encouraged the bard. That was all Xena could think of while she eyed the unstable cliff once again for a safe path she might have missed.
"Yeah." Gabrielle responded weakly and took another deep breath.
"Don't MAKE me come down there and get you!" Lila yelled down to her sister. Gabrielle looked up at her sister.
"Awfully bold words for someone so far away!" Gabrielle yelled back.
"Well do something about it!" Lila challenged. With new determination, Gabrielle started her ascent. Xena eyed Lila, who shrugged.
One slaver finally got over the ledge and reached down over the side. "Gabrielle hurry!" Xena called out to the bard, who knew better than to waste time looking down. The urgency in Xena's voice was clear. Gabrielle mustered up the last bit of strength to climb the rest of the distance to the rope. She looked up to see Xena's concerned eyes focused intently on her then become distracted with something below. The slaver had just loaded and pointed a crossbow at the bard's back.
Only a few inches away from the goal, the bard reached and stretched her arm as far as she could when suddenly...she saw a bright flash.
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