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Muddled Memories

A group barding effort:

Written by: Chris Schinella, Diane Taubold, Acoetex, Amber, Dancyer McCoy, Diane Holland, Patricia Holland, LucyLuce, Nudderfan, and Purple Pen 

The mid-morning sun was hot, but the figure in the sand felt a bone chilling cold course through her as the waves lapped the shore and flowed up as high as her muscular thighs. Her fingers dug into the wet sand as she took a deep breath of sea air and coughed, spitting up a few more dribbles of salt water.

Gabrielle's lids were heavy and swollen. Her head pounded with each crash of the waves upon the shoreline. Gathering what little strength she could in arms and legs that felt as heavy as anvils, she managed to bring herself to her knees and slowly she crawled out of the water's touch, leaving a trail in  the sand behind her.  

With pruned fingers she pushed wet, tangled flaxen hair from her face. Green eyes squinted against both the sting and bright sun as she tried to focus on her surroundings.  

"Xena?" she called, her voice weak.  

A seagull cried. Waves crashed and receded. But there was no warm voice, no answering "I'm here, Gabrielle." 

Slowly, every muscle aching, the young woman got to her feet. She took a stumbling step forward. "Xena?"  

She lifted a hand to shield her eyes from the sun and peered down the beach, seeing only sand, unbroken by any sign of human life. The ocean was equally  barren. The chill in Gabrielle's body grew colder. "Xena?" she cried louder, her voice filled with anxiety. "Xena? XENA!"  

No answer. Just the sound of waves breaking on the shore and the lightest possible whisper of wind brushing gently past her cheek.  

Gabrielle's legs buckled under her and she fell to her knees.

Using every bit of strength she could summon, she lifted her fist and shook it at the sea.

"Xena! Where are you?! You can't leave me now! You can't!"  

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

"Captain, captain!" the look-out shouted. "There's sharks circling something in the water, off the port beam."  

The captain of the Wave Dancer looked over the side. In the distance, he could see sunlight glinting off something metallic, the rays dancing crazily as whatever was floating bounced up and down in the choppy sea.

He gave the order to come about and make for the bobbing object, hoping that the sharks didn't swallow whatever it was before he got there. After all, it might be something valuable and booty was never to be ignored.

As the ship drew closer, the crew could make out the figure of a person, holding onto a hatch cover. From the heavy boots, well muscled legs, leather tunic, brass armor, arm bracers and sword peeking out of a back scabbard, the men knew:  here was a warrior.

The captain gave the order for several men to stand ready with spears and swords having no desire to take any chances with someone who could mean big trouble.

The warrior heard the ship approaching, raised up and turned around, watching it come closer. Blood was oozing from a nasty looking wound on the warrior's forehead.

"Catch", yelled a seaman as a line came sailing through the air and landed at the warrior's feet.

Slowly, head aching and vision still blurry, the warrior reached for the rope and secured it, feeling it grow taut as the hatch and its occupant were pulled toward the ship.

A rope ladder was thrown down and the warrior slowly climbed, holding on tight. Eager hands reached down, murmurs of appreciation going through the sailors as they got a good look at their "catch".

The captain let his eyes play up and down the big warrior thinking here might be a good addition to his crew or perhaps there might be a more personal service the warrior could supply during the long lonely nights at sea. Striding up, he asked, "What is your name?"  

The blue eyed fighter looked at him blankly and said. "It's... it's..." and stopped, peering around a little wildly...."I can't remember."  

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

In her sleep, Gabrielle tossed and turned as the horrors of the previous day's  events unfolded over and over again in her dreams. She remembered searching and searching for Xena, in the water and on the shoreline, until the light of day  disappeared.

The cold in her soul soon became a trembling cold throughout her body, and the first thought she had for herself that whole day was to make a fire so that she  didn't freeze through the night.

It wasn't difficult to keep the fire going, for the dreams were so desperate and so filled with longing that they woke her many times during the night, and stoking the flames seemed to keep the numbing loneliness away. She couldn't imagine where next to look, but look she would continue to do until either she found her warrior princess or died trying.

The chill dawn finally came and the icy reality of the loss of  her other half threatened to undo her reason. Racking sobs were torn from her throat as she faced the fear of losing Xena again, but she knew  that she must keep hope.

Gabrielle forced herself to find something to eat. In the distance, the early morning fires in a village about 2 miles off sent tendrils of smoke curling into the still, damp  air. She found a small pool of fresh water and drank greedily, then washed the topmost layer of salt and grime from her body. And with renewed determination, Gabrielle headed toward the village, knowing that she could find something to eat in exchange for one of her stories.

The first thing she did upon entering the settlement was to ask if anyone there had seen a tall, black haired warrior woman, but, alas, no one had. Only one person gave her any hope, and that person  directed her to one of the elders who was reputed to have the Sight. They showed her the elder's hut, and she made her way there, hope and despair fighting desperately within her heart.

She approached the hut tentatively, until she heard an aged voice from within call out, "Come in, Gabrielle. I think I can help you."

As Gabrielle pulled aside the door flap, she saw a fire in the middle of the hut with an old woman sitting near it, eating her breakfast. She beckoned for Gabrielle to join her, and Gabrielle realized just how hungry she was.

She fell to her knees over the bowl toward which the old woman motioned her and ate hungrily. As she brought another bite to her mouth, her hand froze midway. She barely heard the old woman say, "The Xena you knew is dead."  

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Shocked by the words the old seer had blurted out, time seemed to stand still as the words filtered into Gabrielle's consciousness. The impact of what the old woman said would not be accepted by her mind or her heart.

"Xena ... dead? There is no way this is true. No way that Xena is dead..." Gabrielle rationalized. "I would know. After all we have been through, all the time we've spent side by side, the fact that our lives and spirits seem destined to be together, I would know." she thought.

This internal debate continued until Gabrielle felt a warm touch on her arm, along with a soothing voice.

She looked up from her soiled outfit, surmising that she must have dropped her spoon in her lap, though having no recollection of the act. She would not raise her head towards the voice, unable to face she who would vocalize her deepest fears.

The woman spoke softly. "I had a vision of your arrival many nights ago. I had hoped senility had caught up with me and my dreams had once again been just that, not one of the cursed prophecies that have plagued my existence for such a long while." The oracle paused, releasing a long, heavy sigh.

"But alas, you are here and the truth is that which I have seen in the dark of the night. Nothing will ever be the same."

Gabrielle could take no more of the woman's ramblings, her body aching and stomach churning with the uncertainty of Xena's fate; Gabrielle jumped up and was within inches of the startled elder's face demanding to know what had led to her soul mate's demise.

Close enough to feel the woman's raspy breaths against her cheek, Gabrielle was suddenly engulfed in the eyes of the old prophet.

She took in the leathery appearance of the woman's bronze face, reflecting a life spent outdoors, the tangle of wrinkles snaking over her features, like a half filled sandbag, drooping between the crevices.

Gabrielle noticed a lack of crinkles around her eyes though, feeling a sudden pang in her heart, realizing this woman had not led a life of joy, but of sadness, cursed with this ability to see the future, and the pain of others.

Her legs began to feel weak and she grew lightheaded. The old woman saw the color drain from the younger woman's face and reached out to steady her with thin, knobby fingers. With a gentle hand she guided Gabrielle to a bed where she collapsed.

Her hands hid her face and she allowed her tears to fall freely. She could not imagine her life without Xena.

"I can't believe she's gone ... I can't deal with losing her again ...  I ... I can't live without ... I don't want to live without her ..." she told the prophet.

The old woman shook her head. Her dreams these many nights had not prepared her for the despondence that would overcome someone so young. Someone who had her entire life ahead of her. If only her dreams weren't so obscure in her waning years. If only she herself could understand what the gods... or the Fates were attempting to convey, then she would be able to express her visions clearly and the words the images brought to her aging mind would be filled with less ambiguity.

"There, there child. Speak not such nonsense..." she said softly, lightly guiding Gabrielle to recline,

"But... you said..."

"You sleep first... You are tired... very, very tired..." she added almost hypnotically.

A wave of exhaustion engulfed the bard and she fought to stay awake. Gabrielle had not felt this emotionally spent or alone since her estrangement from Xena while in Britannia, a time of great despair.

"I ... don't have ... time. I need to ... to..."  

And as much as she fought to remain awake, gather herself up so that she could continue her search, the urge to sleep and rest was over-powering. Suddenly linking the bitter taste in the gruel with an herb Xena had given her to help her stave off the nightmares of Britannia, Gabrielle's green eyes tried to focus on the old wrinkled face before her.

"What ...what ...  did you put in the stew?"

The old matron merely smiled  and in a gentle voice replied, "Just something to help you rest, child..."  and gently covering Gabrielle's bruised body with a blanket, she whispered, "Now child, be patient. Xena is alive. And you will meet up with her. But be forewarned." she added after a silent pause. "Some stones are better left unturned..."  

Those last few words echoed in Gabrielle's mind as she drifted into sleep.

Despite the herbs the old woman had put in the breakfast gruel that Gabrielle had eagerly downed, her sleep was restless. As she tossed and turned, reliving the storm that had separated them and cast them adrift in the rough seas, Gabrielle heard a voice.

The old seer was talking. In her drug induced state, the young bard could not tell if the haggard old woman were speaking to her or to herself. She just seemed to be rambling, for the words made little sense to her clouded mind, "You can stay here and call to her, but she cannot hear, for she doesn't know you. Or you can go into the sea and trust yourself to death, calling her spirit with your own strong song... Either way you will die. We all do... The sea is the mother... The sea is the gateway..." And then there was silence followed by darkness.  

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

Dazael glanced about his ship, making sure the Wave Dancer's crew was keeping its collective mind on their work NOT on the mysterious dark haired warrior seated at the prow.  Not, of course, that they would approach her without her permission. Marius had already made that mistake when he'd tried to wake the woman. At least he wouldn't lose the use of his arm. The stranger had assured him of that as she set the broken bone.  Even with all the skills she'd shown, she still claimed to have no memory of her name, who she was or what she had been doing in the middle of the sea. A true enigma.

"Sail, three points off the starboard stern,"  called the look out.

Dazael looked behind him, knowing it would be impossible to see the sail from the deck. "Color?" he shouted back.

"Not sure, Captain. Might be red."

"Keep close watch. If it is red and shows black stripes, you sing out. LOUD!" The captain sighed. If the warrior was as good with her weapons as she was with her hands then she just might prove worth the trouble.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As her mind slowly regained consciousness Gabrielle, eyes still closed, took in a long breath, drawing in the scents of her surroundings. Though the smell of medicinal herbs was both familiar and comforting her soul searched for an aroma which was absent ~ horse hair and oiled leather with a hint of wood smoke from the morning fire.

These smells combined were distinctly Xena and had welcomed Gabrielle's breath most mornings for as long as she cared to remember. She released her breath with a sigh.

"Did you sleep well child?"  

Gabrielle sat up at the sound of the voice, made a mental check of her surroundings, her aches and pains, then nodded to her hostess as the old oracle pressed a mug of warm broth into her palm.

"How long have I been asleep?" she asked before taking her first sip of the steaming brew.

"A full day and night, child. Now, drink," the elder urged her, "and then we'll get to the business which brought you to my door." The worn face produced a surprisingly warm smile as she spoke.

"What can you tell me of Xena? Have you had a vision? Please! I must know. I have to find..."  

"Gabrielle, I know little of the woman you call Xena, only that I sense a loss...  My visions are not as they once were. I have seen only water and death... a past and no future... a knowledge, yet - not of self..." she returned absently as she turned and walked away.

Her shoulders, the bard noticed, were stooped with age. Her feet shuffled on the dirt floor as she made her way to a rickety old stool by the fire, where she used a sturdy staff as an aid to lower herself.

Gabrielle took several more sips of the brew before getting up to place the mug on the table. She was desperately  trying to make sense of what the old woman had said, "I... don't understand...

"She is unable to know herself for she has yet to be born..." the old woman replied, not looking at the young woman who stood confused, looking over at her.  

"I still don't understand... What you're saying isn't making any sense..."  

The old woman absently waved a gnarled hand and turned away from Gabrielle as if she'd grown impatient and stared into the fire. She didn't blink. She stared into the deepest red embers.

After long silent moments, it was as if her eyes took on that same red glow. They ran with weak, thin tears, but still she didn't close them, just let them burn in rhythm with the pulse of the fire. When she spoke, her voice was thick and distant.

"While I have been cursed in seeing what will come... you have been cursed to fulfill a destiny no other can walk for you..." A long foreboding silence fell, filling Gabrielle with the old woman's echoing words. "Two roads... two lives... one end..." the old seer mumbled.

"I'm sorry... what did you say?" the bard asked as she took several steps closer to the old woman.

The woman suddenly jerked away from the fire and put her hands over her eyes, gasping and crying.

Gabrielle reached for her, "Are you---"  

"GET OUT," the woman howled, and took her red hands away from her face. Her eyes were streaming with bloody tears.

Frightened, Gabrielle fled.  

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xena gazed into the water as the ship made its way. Occasionally an object would briefly appear close to the surface and then flit away without ever being recognized.

So to were the visions passing through Xena's memories, blurry visions of places and people. Some recognizable but nameless. Others just dark shapes. "Why can't I remember anything?"  she mumbled to herself.

The captain of the Wave Dancer cursed softly under his breath as he went over the maintenance needs of his ship with the first mate. Without warning his large heavy hand connected with the side of the balding man's head with a resounding slap.

"Woodworms?! YOU IDIOT!!! Why weren't they spotted when we were in port!? I'll tell you why!" he continued before the man could utter a response, "Because you were too damned busy drinkin' ale an' carousing with the town whores!"

His hand touched the hilt of his sword, "I ought to..."

The panicked voice of the lookout seated on the uppermost spar of the mainmast caught his attention. "Captain! Captain! I don't think you're going to like this".  

A cold chill ran up the warrior princess's back.

Dazael pushed his first mate out of his way with disgust and turned his attention to the east, three points off the starboard stern. Middle-aged gray eyes squinted to make out the colors on the approaching ship's mast. His lookout was right. He didn't like this. He didn't like this one bit.

His own ship's hull was being weakened by woodworms and now a Roman galleon was catching the sea wind and heading in their direction. He'd heard rumors about Caesar's armies and he wasn't the least bit thrilled with the prospect of having to do battle now with a weakened ship. But, if his men could manage to defeat the crew of that vessel, he'd have a new ship under his feet.

Dazael's eyes flitted over to the tall dark haired warrior who now stood straight and stared out at the approaching vessel. If she recognized it, she gave no indication. He turned back to the lookout. "Markings?!"

"Red and black!"

"Damn the gods!" he cursed. "All hands full about! Prepare for battle!"

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

The old seer’s words rang in Gabrielle’s ears as she paced back and forth on the beach where she had found herself crawling out of reach of the cold, lapping waves two mornings past. She couldn’t begin to understand what she’d been told. "Xena, lost in the past? Xena unable to know herself, because she had yet to be born?" It made no sense.

Part of her wondered if the old woman had lost her mind, and was simply raving-- but something would not let her condemn her as simply insane. Or if perhaps, age had taken its toll on the old woman's mind. "No," Gabrielle thought, "she had spoken the truth as well as she could. It's up to me to make sense of it."

So she had returned to the beach where she hoped the solitude would help her think. So far it hadn’t been very successful, she had to admit, as she wryly looked back over her footprints in the sand.

They led back and forth, back and forth. A tiny smile came to Gabrielle’s lips. Looking at those footprints brought back memories of her early years with Xena, when the warrior was teaching her how read tracks.

"I know what you would say if you saw this, Xena," Gabrielle said aloud, her voice mixing with the sound of the crashing waves. "You’d say ‘These tracks belong to a woman wearing very worn boots who desperately needs to sit down for a minute.’ Well, you would be right. I do." She turned and sat on an outcropping of rock that jutted into the sea, positioning herself so she could look out over the water.  

As she turned, her boot toe struck something in the sand. Gabrielle’s forehead furrowed, and she bent down, searching for the object with her fingers.

In moments she had uncovered it — the frayed edge of a piece of rope. She gave the rope an experimental tug, and was astonished when several feet pulled up, snaking up the beach as it went.

Gabrielle got to her feet and followed it around the rock, out into the water and back again, and when she reached its end she stood speechless for a moment, her now damp skirt clinging to her thighs.

The rope was tied to a boat — small, abandoned, long hidden by the rocks. But it was a boat, and it was there.

Incredulously, Gabrielle inspected it, running her hands over every board. As far as she could tell it was completely seaworthy — the outcropping had served as a shelter, protecting the craft from the worst effects of water and wind. There was even a set of oars, a small beam and sail tucked neatly inside. When she had completed her inspection, she sat down inside it, once again hearing the seer’s voice inside her head.

"You can stay here and call to her, but she cannot hear, for she doesn't know you," the old woman had said. "Or you can go into the sea and trust yourself to death, calling her spirit with your own strong song. Either way, you will die. We all do."

Gabrielle remembered thinking that last fact was something she didn’t need be reminded of. But at least the old woman had outlined two courses of action for her. She could stay where she was and hope Xena would come to her -- less than useless, according to the seer. Or she could return to the sea. A ridiculous idea on the face; foolhardy, and probably suicidal. But the seer seemed to think it held more hope. How many times had Xena faced death to come back for her?

Gabrielle returned to town realizing that she needed dinars for the purchase of supplies before she could set off to sea and fulfill the strange prophecy.

The agora was bustling with shoppers haggling over prices or filling their water jugs at the well not too far from the bartering activities. Gabrielle decided the well was a good place to begin her tale of Xena and the adventure they shared in Troy aiding Helen in her escape.

She gathered a number of small stones together in a circle as she spoke in a loud, clear voice.

At first only the curious youngsters began to gather round her, but by tales end, her audience had grown, leaving her with a fairly decent amount of coins.

The bard gathered her earnings quickly and set about purchasing some water skins and some food, then returned to the little boat and looked thoughtfully out at the waves. "The sea is a mother. The sea is a gateway," the old woman had said.

Odd to think of the ocean as a mother; for all her life, Gabrielle had thought of the sea as a male entity, the realm of Poseidon. But maybe it made more sense to think of it as a caring mother. Maybe it would give her the courage she needed.

It took every ounce of strength she had to set the beam and sail in place before getting the boat out into the water, but when the tide had changed, it was floating, and she was inside. She reached for the oars and set off.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The black haired warrior watched with cynical amusement as Dazael’s men scurried about, preparing to fight. The warship with the red and black square sail approached swiftly, propelled by both wind and oar, and was fast approaching ramming speed. She could see the sailors on the galley lowering a wickedly barbed shaft into place.

A brief vision flashed through the warrior’s mind of a previous time and place when she was in the same position as the Wave Dancer’s captain. She remembered a large warship bearing down on her and her crew, with nowhere to run and outnumbered at least three to one. She also recalled how she had outsmarted the opposing captain and gained recruits and a new ship in the process. With a grin, the warrior sought out Captain Dazael.

"Captain, if I heard you correctly before, I think a change of vessels is in order," she declared.

"Oh? And I suppose that the other captain is just going to hand over his ship to us?"

"Yes, that is exactly what he is going to do, and here is how." Xena bent down and whispered in the captain’s ear, his eyes growing wider with each word until he finally just stood there with his mouth open.

"You know, that is just crazy enough to work." he spluttered. Dazael spun around and yelled for his first mate, hope brightening his face.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The sun beat down on the small boat, tossing on the late afternoon swells. The wind hardly moved the sail as the boat drifted in the current. Slowly, a pair of green eyes opened, stinging with the touch of the salt air. Golden-red hair lay in matted tangles all around her head. Lips that were usually moist and soft were cracked and toughened by the salt and the wind and the beginnings of dehydration.

Gabrielle sat up, stiff and sore and feeling as if her skin had become at least two sizes too small for her. She knew well enough to go carefully, so she ignored the pleas of her body to guzzle as much water as she could. Instead, she gently moistened her lips with the water she poured into her hand, and took small sips that she rinsed around her mouth to moisten the tissues. Only then did she swallow a bit of water. She'd almost forgotten just how much she hated the sea. In her haste to be off in the full bloom of her courage, she found it to be less bad than she remembered.

The rudiments of sailing came back to her, and she was flushed with pride as she managed to tack out of the bay where she had awakened... was it only two days before?? That seemed impossible, but grief had completely distorted her sense of time. Indeed, she had found a current that seemed to be going out to sea, and, remembering the words of the seer, decided to let the Ocean Mother take her where She willed. "Of course," she complained to some passing gulls, "I have no better idea than when I started of where I'm heading. By all the gods, let me find some sign to bring me where I need to be!"

Nothing. She ate a little food, and drank a little more water, and found that she didn't feel quite so bad as she did upon awaking. Her eyes still stung and she found searching for clues on the horizon too painful, as the sun played on the waves and gave her a splitting headache. She decided to take the seer at her word and began her song, which she hoped would call out to her other half, and by some miracle of the gods, bring the warrior to her.

"I tell the tales of Xena,

Warrior, Princess, Friend,

Her destiny to follow

Her past mistakes to mend."

She continued her song and began to feel hope again, cheered by the perseverance of her friend. Whatever good the telling of her tales might be for Xena, they were indeed helping Gabrielle; she could see Xena standing like a Titan in her mind's eye and knew that, wherever she was and in whatever straits she might find herself, she would find a way out of them and back to her faithful friend.

As the stories continued, she felt as if she ought to address the four cardinal directions, to tell all the world of her soul mate. First to the north she addressed her lay, then to the east, were she could just see the tip of land far in the distance.

She liked the East, for her happiest days had been spent to the East, not necessarily for the events there, some of which had been horrific, but for the lessons she had learned, especially from Eli.

A small cloud appeared there, but the bright morning sun also spoke to her of some glorious destiny that awaited not only her but both of them together. That was immensely comforting.

She turned to the south and felt a sudden warm breeze caress her cheek in a way that only one person ever had. She paused in mid-song, overcome with the nearness of her friend, but then it passed as quickly as it had come, seeming like a dream from a distant land or time.

She picked up the song again, hesitantly at first, then with more and more conviction in her heart that somehow that was where the other half of her soul lay. She turned briefly to the west, so as not to offend the west wind.

She had come to hate the West, for it brought nothing but sorrow to her and to the two of them. The ache of the loss for her - of that which had been part of her - still resided in the deepest places of her soul, and she wondered if she ever would have the courage to have a child again.

Just then she noticed the all-too-familiar sails... Nothing was ever easy, was it?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The approaching ship was being propelled in a menacing fashion ever closer to Gabrielle. Its size alone made her small craft seem like nothing more than driftwood by comparison, and fear began to churn her stomach at the prospect of being caught in its path. Or, just being captured.

A memory of Xena and her single-handed defeat of the Persian army flashed into her mind. It had taken a secret armory, elaborate traps and Xena's indefatigable resolve to gain a victory over the advancing party.

At that moment, Gabrielle wished she had one quarter of Xena's resolve because the Roman vessel that was fast approaching would soon be upon her. "How could I, a dehydrated, weak bard hope to survive an encounter with the Romans?" Gabrielle thought aloud.

She balanced the prospect of being captured by the Romans with giving herself to the sea. If captured, she was sure to be enslaved, and being a female would only add to the horrendous duties she would have to perform. "Well then, it seems that my decision has just been made for me." Gabrielle proclaimed to no one, as she prepared herself once again for a leap of faith for Xena's sake.

Images of Xena's look of absolute loss as Gabrielle and Hope fell into Dahak's fire interspersed with the sheer relief and joy of their reunion filled Gabrielle's mind for what seemed an eternity.

Mere moments later, Gabrielle became aware of water sloshing against her skin as the imposing ship bore down on her, creating increasingly larger swells and waves that threatened to engulf her tiny vessel.

Gabrielle heard the shouts of the seamen and saw them pointing down at her. At this, Gabrielle closed her eyes, took a deep breath and faced south, never seeing the ship that was approaching from that direction.

She recalled what the old seer had said " 'the sea is a gateway...' I hope to Hades she's right!" were Gabrielle's last thoughts as she sang out in a voice that cracked as much from anxiety as fear, "I tell the tales of Xena..." while plunging into the salty abyss that engulfed her small frame in its icy grip.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The Wave Dancer pulled closer to the approaching Roman vessel, it's red and black sails becoming more distinct as the distance closed. "How much longer, do ya think?" Dazael addressed the dark figure at his side.

The tall warrior peered out across the water, her hand shading her eyes from the brightness. She frowned. "Three quarter candle mark, maybe a little less." Dazael sighed and returned the frown. "We don't have enough time!"

The woman again peered towards the opposing ship. "We've got enough time to get as much done as we need for the surprise to work..."

"Still... another quarter candle mark would make me feel a lot better about this plan of yours." Dazael returned, worry etched on his weather beaten face.  

"Captain, they're lowering some of their sail!"  the look out's voice sounded from above.

"Can you tell why?"  

"Small boat just abeam of her, sir. Looks like they're trying to haul something out of the water."  

The warrior grinned and placed a reassuring hand on his back, "Looks like you got your wish."  

Dazael whooped his approval at this turn of events. "Yes, by the gods it does!" The dark warrior smiled. "They won't know what happened until they find they've got a new captain."

Dazael laughed. "Now," he returned over his shoulder, "we'd better make ourselves presentable." And with that, he headed below deck. The warrior shook her head with a wry smile and followed.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As the crew of the Wave Dancer made preparations above deck, a small group of about six men worked feverishly below deck. Their main task was to make sure the supplies and goods below didn't shift while the fighting was going on. Another group of about twelve men, worked even more feverishly in emptying crates and kegs, preparing them for a different kind of cargo.

Zecarius, the leader of the group, shouted instructions as his men lashed crates together and modified the emptied ones. Curious rodents watched from the shadows and here and there scurried out of harms way as their hiding places were disturbed.

Zecarius surveyed the hold area and when he was satisfied everything there was in order had his men check the ship's ballast rocks to make sure they were in place. "Last thing we need is to make a sharp turn and have this leaking tub turn over on top of us." he told his crew.

After a few moments of watching his men follow through on his orders he said to no one in particular, "If this woman's plan works..." He didn't finish his thought. He didn't want to think of what the consequences might be if it didn't. Instead he shook his head, and in a voice that sounded almost like a prayer he whispered, "May the Gods be favorable to us".

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

The passing of the ship had sucked both the abandoned boat and  former passenger deep into its' wake. In those confusing moments of limbo under the water Gabrielle became lost not knowing up from down. Her arms and legs suddenly flailed without coordination and to little effect as she struggled to keep control, but without air her muscles seem to balk at her instructions to stay calm. Her lungs burned, begging for a breath. It took all the mental strength Gabrielle could muster to force her lips tightly together sealing out the salty sea which filled her nostrils and ears and grated mercilessly at her eyes.

"The sea is a mother. The sea is a gateway."

It seem like such a strange time for that thought to enter her mind as she began to sink deep under the waves.

Gabrielle almost giggled at the irony. "Either way, you will die. We all do."

Her lips parted slightly as the old woman's words echoed through her mind. The unforgiving waters had found a way in.

Thoughts and images became a fuzzy blur that slowly faded out as she began to lose consciousness.

Slowly, as if in a dream, she could feel her body sinking into the briny sea. The last thing Gabrielle remembered as her world turned dark, was an icy grip closing firmly around her wrist.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The helmsman of the Wave Dancer kept the ship on a slow, but steady course, making certain to keep their port-side to the Roman vessel ahead. Below deck, Zecarius and his men had completed their tasks and were putting the finishing touches on the dummy cargo crates.

As the selected few climbed into the confines of these makeshift traps, they glanced first at Dazael and then at the tall dark haired Amazon who stood a few feet from him putting the finishing touches on their disguises as a merchant trader and his concubine.

Silently they prayed to their respective gods that their captain hadn't gone completely mad.

They took their positions within the cramped interiors, their weapons close at hand. Once inside, the false tops were added and secured. And to authenticate the deception in the event any of them were opened, each of the dummy crates were filled with foodstuffs and/or fabrics unique to the trading market.

"I hope this plan of yours works, Amazon!" Zecarius stated.

The tall dark haired warrior's hand stopped mid-way to her head as she donned the cloak of fine linen that would hide her true identity. Cold, deep blue eyes burned into him. "Trust me. It'll work. I've done this before."

Zecarius looked as if he were about to question when, but the cold gray eyes of  his captain stopped him. He merely nodded and ordered his men to cart the now heavy laden crates to the deck above.

Dazael's eyes met the warrior's just as he brushed past her and followed his men top-side.

Xena smirked to herself. She knew she had done this before. It all seemed so right, so familiar. "But when? When?" she thought to herself.

Suddenly she felt cold and weak. Her knees caved in, almost bringing her to the hard wooden deck. As she steadied herself and gasped for breath, she felt an icy cold hand grab hold of her wrist. She pulled her hand away fiercely, "I'm all right!" she stated icily, but when she turned to see who'd reached out to her, there was no one there.    

Harsh hands applied themselves to Gabrielle’s body, forcing the water out of her lungs and the oxygen back in. Gabrielle came back to consciousness with a wracking cough, and saw two Roman soldiers working over her.

At once she closed her eyes, praying to be unconscious again, but a sharp slap to her cheek made her open them again.

Gabrielle stared at the Roman who had hit her, wondering how she was going to will enough strength into her sunburned, dehydrated, and now almost drowned body to defend herself; but the Roman’s face was businesslike, professional instead of vengeful.

The moment he saw she was breathing on her own, he nodded smartly to his companion and left her, leaving her body splayed awkwardly over the wooden deck.

Apparently there was something much more important happening aboard than tending to a rescued drowning victim.

One deep breath. Two. Slowly Gabrielle’s abused lungs got used to breathing air again, while she stared helplessly up at the sky. She felt running feet shake the deck, and heard clipped, forceful voices, and although her brain wasn’t capable of recognizing the words just then, she knew it sounded urgent. Somewhere around the hundredth  breath she gathered enough energy to push herself up on one arm and look around, trying to figure out what was going on. There was another ship close by -- Gabrielle saw the sails. Not black and red, like the sails billowing above her. Not Roman.

Gabrielle suppressed a sigh -- it figured, didn’t it. Not only did she have the bad luck to be captured by Romans, she had been captured by Romans about to battle another ship. Well, at least there would soon be lots of other slaves to keep her company. She started to slump back onto the deck, but something caught her eye.

The other ship was waving a white flag, and as the Romans drew still nearer, Gabrielle was able to see two figures standing on the deck, dressed in fine linens that billowed with the breeze.

They were still too far away for Gabrielle to make out many details -- but then she didn’t need to. The first figure was a man she’d never seen before, and the second was a woman -- a tall, woman whose stature, even beneath the aristocratic garments and hood, was more familiar to Gabrielle than the backs of her hands.

The distance, the rolling of the two ships, and the unfocused blurring of her own two eyes didn’t deceive her for a second. She’d have known that woman anywhere.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Gabrielle rubbed her eyes in disbelief, shook her head and looked again. It couldn’t be, but it was ... Xena.

A feeling of relief and happiness washed over her. Xena was alive! To judge from the fine linens both she and the man beside her were wearing, they were up to something.

The bard’s memory drifted back to a time several years ago. She recalled Xena having to go undercover in order to help Autolycus recover a holy artifact for Xena’s friends. The warrior had dressed in a skimpy costume, acting the part of a concubine for a notorious assassin - Autolycus - who was also in disguise.

Gabrielle thought to herself that Xena must be playing a part again. She focused on the man, wondering if it was Autolycus. She looked for a place to stay out of sight so she could watch and wait for the chance to help her friend.

The man standing beside the warrior princess was waving and shouting. His words drifted to Gabrielle..."Thank the gods you arrived," he shouted. "I am Flavius Drusus, a Roman citizen. My father is Gauis Drusus, a member of the Roman senate. I need your help, badly." He paused to glare at the captain.

"This oaf left port without checking for wood worms. Now of course, the ship is leaking. All my trade goods are going to be ruined if I can’t transfer them over to your ship. Naturally I will reward you handsomely."

'That doesn't sound like Autolycus... who is he?' Gabrielle thought.

The Roman captain looked slightly surprised as well as pleased. Here was a chance to earn some coins without having to risk his life or his ship. Helping a senator’s son couldn’t hurt his career either.

He turned to his first mate and barked, "Well, don’t keep the noble Flavius waiting. Draw our ships together and get a detachment of men over there to help bring his cargo aboard."

As the first mate shouted orders, the tall woman looked over at the Roman ship. She was looking for something or someone but didn't know what, or who. A warm, familiar presence surrounded her, but she couldn’t fathom the cause of it. Suddenly she spied a small, light haired figure huddled against one of the masts, staring at her.

Xena felt a spark of recognition. She KNEW that girl! Flashes of that face flickered through the warrior princess's mind. All at once a name popped into her head ... Hope!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It was still drizzling and the warmth of the fire drew the old woman into its heart as if enveloped in a vacuum. She felt the old, familiar tug of the Other World and wanted to resist. She was so tired today and would rather just fall asleep here by the fire. However, she knew the visions would come whether she welcomed them or not. She drew her blanket closer around herself and waited.

She didn't understand why the young woman with the hair like burnished bronze should appear to her, but there she was. She could see the two ships, almost feel the sting of the salt air and the roll of the seas. She'd never been very comfortable on the open sea, so she knew that no good was to come. She saw Gabrielle staring across the distance between the ships with joy and love in her eyes. She could tell that Gabrielle could not see what she could see.

Surrounding a tall, dark woman whom she recognized instantly, was a bloody black pall, a darkness, a shadow; as if the woman was held inside a birth sack of pure evil, drawing strength and joy from it.

She knew the woman reveled in this and she couldn't understand why the other young woman felt so strongly for her. Who was this evil creature, this Xena, that Gabrielle had risked so much to find and save?

She could feel the spark of recognition pass between the two women, knew that the tall woman, Xena, welcomed the other. The seer shook her head to help her clear her mind's eye so that she could perhaps find something to explain this inexplicable scene: two women, both recognizing something in the other that was NOT what seemed to be their true selves. Then the seer's face drained of all color as she beheld the answer to her confusion.

It was a long, ancient darkness that obscured the vision of the warrior woman. This darkness, this evil strength, was pulling and tweaking Xena like a puppeteer. She knew that force well and had often struggled against it to save the poor wretches who came to her for healing and help. She knew its maniacal revelry in blood and strife and confusion and noise and hatred and war. She knew Ares.

A small flickering saved her from turning away in horror and revulsion. Within the Hand of Hate around the warrior woman, coming from deep within her soul, was a little spark, a trifling vulnerability that the old woman didn't understand.

She recognized the Truth that shown there, like finding a dear old friend after a shipwreck where you thought all had perished. She knew that both women, indeed both ships and all the world, were doomed unless...

How could Gabrielle see through Ares' trickery, find that little spark of goodness and save them both? The old woman had no idea and shivered as the vision begin to fade. Confused to the end, she felt something else moving between the two women. Something she didn't recognized at all.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

The sailors roped the ships together and began to transport the large crates onto the Roman galley.

Xena was still trying, to no avail, to remember what she could recollect about Hope when Dazael put a guiding hand on her elbow.

Due to their royal status, she and her husband were the first of the crew to embark, and all was going according to plan, though Xena sensed something inexplicably foreboding. Even so, Xena smiled graciously at the captain, and was just about to take his hand when a chill ran up her spine.

As she set foot aboard the ship, she was suddenly engulfed by a vision. A memory of another time... another place. Of boarding a Roman ship, and a regal looking man embracing, then capturing her - permeated her thoughts, as a deep entrenched fire burned in her soul.

Subconsciously she drew the hood of her cloak closer around her face. She felt weak as her knees buckled, unable to reconcile these recent memories with any basis in reality.

Gabrielle watched in horror as Xena pitched forward, uncertain if this was a further ploy or if Xena was truly hurt.

Crew members of both ships were occupied in moving the crates, while the Roman captain and Dazael seemed to be at a loss. Though Gabrielle wanted nothing more than to be embraced into that safe haven which had driven her ever since their separation, she was momentarily torn between aiding Xena or feigning indifference, playing along with their charade.

But seeing as this opportunity would allow her to approach her soul mate without suspicion, Gabrielle mustered up what little energy and resolve she had to be with her friend. The young woman stumbled to where Xena was being assisted in standing by the two men.

The Warrior Princess shook off their help, barely keeping herself from lashing out at them - her first instinct - then turned to see concerned, apprehensive green eyes looking up at her.

As she felt a gentle touch on her arm that at once calmed and warmed her, Xena felt at peace for a split second, then her blood ran cold.

Xena sensed, no knew, that she had once been a pawn in a deception by this Hope, that she had at one time been betrayed and hurt by this person she had trusted as no other.

"Can I be of assistance" offered the small, disheveled, rail-thin woman before her.

"I don't require the offering of a peasant slave girl!" Xena hissed barely able to contain her deep-seated hatred towards this Hope person.  

Gabrielle felt as though she had been physically wounded. The feral look in Xena's eyes transmitting pure evil into Gabrielle's heart.

The two men stepped back as they witnessed the girl slinking back to her spot on the deck as Xena regained her composure. 

Flavius turned to the captain and sheepishly proclaimed that his wife did not like competition from other women, while the Roman captain smiled uneasily.

While Dazael and the Roman Captain began to discuss a monetary compensation for transporting them back to Rome, Xena attempted to reconcile how this seemingly innocent, nice sweet girl could evoke such anger.

Reaching no conclusion as to why, she put the thoughts and feelings aside and concentrated on making a mental note of where each Roman sailor and soldier was positioned on the deck. Knowing where your enemy was and where your own men were, was half the battle's winning.

As the last of the crates were lowered to the deck, the winds suddenly increased, tossing and bumping the ships into one another on the ever increasing waves.

The Roman captain gave the order to release ties that bound both ships just as Xena heard a retching sound that was as familiar to her as the crackling of a campfire. She spun towards the unpleasant sound to witness the slave girl leaning over the side of the ship.

A crooked smile mysteriously made its way to the corners of the warrior's thin lips as Gabrielle turned around, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

Why was this such a familiar sight? She didn't recall Hope ever displaying such a weakness. But then, there wasn't much that she did recall. Only bits and pieces of a puzzle that weren't fitting together. But the vision of this frail, thin blonde whom she knew she couldn't trust, made the warrior's heart skip a beat as a flood of emotion threatened to knock her over again.

Suddenly the skies darkened and the sea began to seemingly rise as waves sloshed over the ship. A menacing presence overshadowed all as a dark figure appeared on the horizon.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

From deep beneath the sea, the god Poseidon watched as the two ships approached each other. Watched as the drama above unfurled. The words Ares had taunted him with, still echoed in his mind.

"Has my uncle... the great god of the sea... become so placated by the offerings and sacrifices of his subjects... that he is no longer feared? That even the old crones and village shamans consider you as weak as a woman? The Earth, from which even the Titans were spawned, was once considered the mother ..." Ares laughed, "But now... now the old crones are calling YOU the mother!"

The scene continued to play out in Poseidon's mind. Ares had paused, letting his words hang in the air. They ate at Poseidon's ego. Zeus' son, the god of war, knew what buttons to push to force the reaction he wanted. Poseidon could still see the warmonger turn slowly to face him, his powerful hand touching the hilt of his sword.

He sauntered toward Poseidon and continued with words that mocked him and the sea, his kingdom. He knew what would enrage Poseidon further. "Tell me, Uncle... Oh great god of the sea, does that mean the sea is as warm and comforting as a mother's womb?" Ares sneered and scratched his beard in mock thought, "Hmmmm... the sea... warm as a mother's womb... no longer the cold abyss that sailors fear!"

Poseidon recalled the sneer that crossed Ares' lips, the wicked gleam in his eyes.

"You couldn't even claim all those aboard that Greek trade ship! I told you to only spare ONE! XENA! And Only Xena! But NO! For some insane reason, you spared even that... that... blonde," his voice was filled with disdain as he continued, "Now she's the one who believes the words of that old crone... the one who is thinking the sea is the mother... Holding NO fear of YOU what-so-ever!"

"Enough!" Poseidon yelled at the echoing words, and with a mighty hand had directed the currents above to bring that lone figure aboard the small skiff to his domain, hoping to instill fear in her... hoping to prove that the sea is not the mother.

He wanted that lone soul to succumb to the whispering calls from the depths, to fling herself into the cold waters, and know that the sea is not the warm milk of mother...But a cold, dark world where mortals cannot breathe... something to be feared... a place where sailors met their doom when he was not pleased or when he was angered. And once she was in his domain, he would claim her, and she would know his wrath.

But before she could succumb to the darkness, before he could extend his powerful hand, she was snatched away by the Romans whom he'd protected, lo these many years. And as his anger raged by this defeat, the waves above rose, sloshing over the two ships that had been brought to this place by other forces he did not understand.

His rage churned the waters above, until he felt a soft and gentle touch upon his powerful arm.

His wife, Amphitrite, leaned into her husband and whispered an explanation in his ear, and suddenly things became clear.

Ares had been using him to further his own selfish goals. All he wanted was Xena back in his army, and to get her, he wanted Gabrielle out of the way. And what better way to feign innocence to the blondes demise, than to use someone else to do his dirty work?

Enraged by the fact that he had been so easily deceived by his nephew, he rose up from the sea, waves growing and causing the two ships to bump powerfully into one another, and with his trident aimed at the dark figure on the horizon, thundered out the name of Ares and released a bolt of lightning.

But Ares laughed and was gone before his uncles bolt could strike.

The God of War's taunting laugh only succeeded to further incite Poseidon's anger as it faded; and the manifestation of his anger was the churning of the seas like a bubbling cauldron upon a fire. Each of the ships swayed on the huge waves, clashing into one another and threatening to damage both hulls.

Dazael didn't care what happened to the Wave Dancer, for its time to sink below the briny sea was inevitable, but the Roman Grain ship was to be their savior.

Xena could see the fear and apprehension in his hazel eyes as he watched both his own men and the Romans being tossed about the ship in all the chaos.

Men attempted to maintain their balance as waves crashed onto the hull, others desperately tried to undo the moorings that bound the two ships together for the transfer of crates and goods. But the waves washed over the ship making their tasks difficult. Men slid across the deck as the ship rolled and pitched then came down hard, bringing yet more sea water washing over them.

At the helm, the Warrior Princess could see the Roman soldier was having his own difficulties at the wheel, as with each roll and pitch, he fell to either side as he tried to maintain control. His commander obviously yelling instructions as he, himself held onto the course wooden railing of the poop.

She could only roll her blue eyes and curse their luck, until she realized the distraction of trying to save themselves and their vessel could work to their advantage.

When Dazael's eyes locked with her own, she gave a barely perceptible nod. With one hand holding onto the thick wet rope that was secured to the main mast and the other free, she removed her cloak and the warrior's yell that escaped her lips rang loud and true.


Dazael stared but for a moment, finally realizing who this warrior woman was who he'd rescued, and who was aiding them even if she had no memory. "Xena!!!" But there was no time to absorb what he knew. It was time to act.

"NOW!" he ordered in a booming voice.

If the Romans were surprised by the sudden upheaval of the seas around them, the sudden eruption of armed men breaking out of the newly received crates with swords swinging, had to be even more startling.

Swords clashed, waves crashed, men died or were tossed overboard by both the pirates and the barrage of powerful sea water.

Gabrielle watched in amazement as she held onto one of the masts for dear life.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The deck heaved up and down as the churning sea tossed the ship around. Gabrielle clung in desperation to one of the masts as she watched the battle unfold around her, feeling her grip loosening. Suddenly, one violent wrench tore her grasped arms apart and she found herself sliding over the deck toward the rail.

Xena was engaged in sending the hated Romans to their deaths. A quick thrust with her sword, and a screaming soldier died. A well placed kick between the legs sent another Roman to the deck where one of the pirates quickly dispatched him, his life's blood coating the deck crimson along with that of his comrade's.

Momentarily unoccupied, Xena looked for another foe.

At the same time she heard a high pitched scream....."XEEEEEEENA!"

The warrior's head whipped around, trying to locate the source of the cry. She spied the girl called "Hope" hanging half over the rail, tangled in a mass of rope that seemed to be the only thing keeping her from going over the side into the turbulent waters.

With a feral snarl on her face, Xena ran to her side and looked down at the face of her hated enemy.

Gabrielle gazed up at the face of her beloved friend, a look of relief on her face that soon turned to alarm as Xena just stood there. Then slowly Xena raised her sword. "Time to die Hope," she growled.

Gabrielle struggled to free herself as she realized that Xena didn't know her, or more correctly knew her under the wrong name.

"Xena, no, please! I'm not Hope! I'm Gabrielle!" the young bard screamed as the sword began to descend.

The ship jerked violently, and a loud CRAAAAAACK was heard just as one of the masts gave way, sending spars and rigging down.

Too late to get out of the way, a beam hit Xena a glancing blow. Stunned, she fell to her knees, sword knocked from her hand.

Shaking her head, Xena looked around for her sword, found and grasped it. She glanced at the young blonde, struggling helplessly to hold onto the entangled ropes so she wouldn't slide over the side. A sneer curled both corners of her mouth as she once more went toward Gabrielle.

"Not this time Poseidon! This time she's mine!" Her sword flashed in the air.

"Xena! NO! It's me! Gabrielle!" the bard cried out, green eyes filled with fear as she watched the sword slice down in a vicious arc over her head.

Gabrielle collapsed.  

As her warrior's blood boiled, blurring her vision, a wave of dizziness engulfed her and unbidden images of the past flashed in quick succession, ceasing only moments before her sword made contact with its intended target.

Xena bent down and freed the bard's body from the ropes, gently shaking her. "Gabrielle. Gabrielle, wake up. It's all right."

"Xena?" Gabrielle peered up, still in a state of shock from seeing the sword descending toward her.

"XENA!" she cried as she launched herself into her warrior's arms. "Oh Xena! Thank the gods!"

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Xena and Gabrielle clung to each other for just a moment longer. The sense of absolute peace and restitution that surrounded them both was so very strong, wanting only to be savored like a fine wine, that it was desperately difficult to allow themselves to remember that a battle raged around them.

They had no real choice, of course, because the Romans were very unlikely to grant any quarter to either of them. Indeed, their reunion was cut short on the spot by the ringing of a gladius being drawn behind them.

Gabrielle, fulfilled by the knowledge that Xena was better and knew who she was, tried to find something that would serve as a staff, while Xena faced the young soldier. She spared a thought for his youth before one punch rendered him unconscious.

She turned to find Gabrielle, who, with the battering that the ships were taking, had no trouble finding a suitable length of stout wood. They turned back to back, fighting off the Romans methodically. Xena steered them toward the side of the ship where what little of the bridge that connected the two vessels remained, and surveyed the damage.

The pirate ship was definitely taking the worse battering, but the galley wasn't all that much better, already having lost a portion of the crossbar that held and maneuvered the sails... the same portion that had given the Warrior Princess yet another welt on the head.

Suddenly, a volley of flame arched over the women's heads. The Roman Captain had set his archers on the prow of the ship and was directing them to aim their arrows at the lower portion of the mast. He was hoping that enough of the flaming torches would ignite the mast and burn the pirate ship to the water line. The archers were remarkably accurate, but the waves were hampering their plan.

Meanwhile, the waves were making it more and more difficult for the battle to continue.

Xena saw Dazael lose his footing and smack into the side of the Roman warship. On all sides, the men were clinging to each other to remain upright more often than fighting their enemies.

The ships were beginning to tangle their rigging, and the poles that held the planks of the bridge had slipped on the pirateer's side. The ailing vessel was beginning to resemble Swiss cheese. Just then, the mast of the Wave Dancer snapped and the single spar that held the sail came crashing into the deck of the galley.

The archers' volley ceased, but the sail fluttered down onto the pirate ship and into one of the many holes on her deck. There, the flames finally had something to latch onto that no one expected, except perhaps one.

"Great Ares, NOOOOOOOO!!" The scream ripped from Dazael's throat as he threw himself over the further side of the galley.

Xena saw the fear in his eyes as he looked at his ship, a ship that she knew Dazael had no love for. She knew that he was no fool and no coward and decided what he feared must be serious and caution should prevail. She grabbed Gabrielle's hand and headed over the side after the Wave Dancer's captain.

The shock wave threw them even farther away from the ship and they swam under the water as far as they could.

A bloom of bright orange, red and yellow erupted over their heads and bits of the ships began to rain down on the surface of the water above them.

Gasping and spluttering for air, the two women emerged nearly a hundred yards from where the boats had been. A great, black pall of smoke played tag with the waves and began to dissipate on the strong wind.

Xena and Gabrielle, their mouths agape, turned to each other in horror.

Xena breathed two words, "Greek fire..."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Realizing the dangerous condition Poseidon had created for the mortals, Amphitrite worked diligently and managed to subdue her husband's rage. With Poseidon's anger quieted the turbulent seas that bore the fury of his wrath became calm. But not before they had wrecked havoc with the amnesiac Warrior's plans, and the two ship's that found themselves ensnared in his fury.

Not wanting to be involved with anymore loss of life that day, Amphitrite used her godly powers to bring a large enough mass of the ship to the surface, and a small shift in wind direction moved the wooden partition within the grasp of the struggling bard. The rest would be up to them.

The fearsome words "Greek Fire" echoed in Gabrielle's mind. The full ramifications of dealing with its outcome hit hard and fast, momentarily paralyzing her. An especially large wave shocked her back to reality as she was forced to gulp for air while sputtering forth the salty remnants of the sea.

Thankfully, self preservation gave her the presence of mind to grasp onto a large slab of planking that floated by the duo. Xena heaved herself onto the far end of the chariot sized portion that had once been the keel of one of the ships.

Adrenaline, along with the powerful surges of the ocean waves sloshing around her battered frame propelled Gabrielle onto the wooden structure at almost the same time. It was seemingly a divine turn of events, as both the warrior and bard were succumbing to exhaustion while attempting to remain afloat.

It was at that point, amidst the chaos surrounding, them that a sense of peace engulfed them. They suddenly realized that everything would be all right. The sickening stench of charred bodies, the flashes of flesh bobbing in the briny surf while the black clouds receded beyond the scope of their vision was momentarily pushed aside. 

Gabrielle's and Xena's eyes met as they unconsciously shifted their bodies closer, carefully balancing their weight to compensate and keep their new vessel afloat.

The fair haired bard leaned forward to brush an errant strand of dark hair from the bronzed cheekbone of her warrior. Her hand caressed her somber face until it came to rest gently on the large egg shaped lump forming on Xena's forehead. No words were exchanged, but Gabrielle felt a slight tug on her lips as she realized how close she had come to dying at the business end of Xena's sword. The Warrior sensed her soul mate's thoughts and feelings at that moment and guiltily put her hand on the lump which had brought her back to reality.

"Thank the gods I didn't have the good sense of a rock to move away from that blow, eh?" Xena half-heartedly joked, her voice faltering as her breath caught. Her face revealed fear, apprehension and an almost childlike innocence in her plea for forgiveness.

Gabrielle responded by lunging at Xena and wrapping her arms tight around the formidable warrior, her body trembling as the emotions of fear, relief, fatigue and love amassed.

As Gabrielle was drawn into an embrace that was too long in coming, and that neither wanted to break, the Warrior could feel the muscular physique in her embrace slacken and shiver. The entire world seemed to stop, and each of them forgot the aches, hunger, smells and sounds around them.

Reality only existing in regard to the other half of their reunited soul. They were both aware of their racing hearts beating in sync, their breathing coming in regular equal spurts.

Xena licked her lips in anticipation of Gabrielle's reaction as they reluctantly pulled apart. The Warrior's long fingers gently trailed around Gabrielle's ear as unfallen tears filled the blue orbs.

She took in the blond wisps of hair plastered against the still youthful features that belied the maturity within.

Xena could not believe that she mistook the one she knew so well for Hope. Her eyebrows furrowed and her lips parted as unspoken words begged to convey yet another apology for almost killing her sole reason for being.

Gabrielle could feel how badly Xena was taking her lapse in judgment and memory and simply put a finger to Xena's lips, catching an errant tear that spilled down her cheek. And she spoke only two words, "Welcome home."

The blue eyed warrior smiled and pulled Gabrielle into an even tighter embrace, "Yeah."

A thud interrupted their reunion. A dark haired figure had bumped into the side of their piece of floating debris. Dazael.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

A large powerful hand reached out as did a smaller, more delicate one.  With a powerful heave, both women hauled the unconscious figure onto their piece of wreckage.

The makeshift raft dipped as the dead weight of the body was pulled on board. For balance, each of them grasped a piece of the railing that was still  attached to their piece of floating debris. Gabrielle looked over at Xena as they turned the figure over. "Who is he?"

The Warrior Princess gave a crooked little smile as she leaned down to see if he was still breathing. "He's a Joxer."

"A Joxer?!" Gabrielle asked, puzzled.

"Yeah. Whatever can go wrong, does."

Gabrielle smiled, "Oh. I think I know what you mean."

Xena pinched Dazael's nose and put her mouth over his and puffed. She did this several times until finally he gasped, choked and began to spit up water with a moan.

"You know, I kinda miss Joxer..." Gabrielle said softly, looking down at the man who was attempting to focus on both her and the warrior.

Xena looked up and out at the sea with its bobbing waves. The debris of both ships had spread further apart across the blue green vastness. "To tell you the truth... right about now, even he would be a sight for sore eyes..."

Xena strained to see if there were any more signs of life. The only thing she saw were several dorsal fins jetting up from the water. An occasional lunge indicated that scavengers had already come to feast upon the dead. No cries reached her ears and Xena instinctively knew that the bodies in the water were beyond her help.

The warrior turned toward her companions. Dazael was now fully conscious though somewhat disoriented and was permitting Gabrielle to attend to a nasty looking cut on his arm. The bard was binding the wound with a piece of cloth she had ripped from the bottom of Dazael's shirt. He winced once or twice before turning to the dark haired woman, "I guess I should have warned you about was in the hold." he muttered.

"Does it have anything to do with those explosions?" Xena asked.

"Greek Fire?" Gabrielle added, glancing from one to the other.

Dazael nodded. "Thought I could make a few dinars by transporting it to our troops who've been trying to ward off Caesar's advancing army. Never thought this would happen..."

Xena simply looked at Gabrielle and the young bard could see the smile behind her blue eyes and thought of her reference to their friend. She cleared her throat as the Warrior Princess moved closer to the pair and simply said, "Dazael, I'd like you to meet my friend, Gabrielle."

He looked over at the young woman and nodded. "Dazael. Scourge of the Seven Seas..." he said, by way of introduction. "Nice to meet you..." Gabrielle said with a smile, remembering how Xena had just described him.

"And, by the way, I remembered my name.....It's Xena."

Dazael's eyes grew wide with alarm. "Yes, I... I know... " he stuttered remembering the war cry he'd heard just before the battle broke loose.

Recalling the tales he had heard of her cruelty and brutality he wondered how long before she threw him back in the water for the way he had treated her while she was aboard his vessel.

"Oh please, please,  forgive me. I intended no insults while you were aboard my vessel. If I had only known who you were, I would never have asked you to help out with the shipboard chores."

Gabrielle bowed her head, trying not to laugh at the man's obvious fear.

Xena bit her lip, a small smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. "Dazael, no offense taken. In fact, I am grateful for you pulling me out of the ocean. So, consider us even, all right?" Xena said.

"Now, the next item to talk about is how do we get to land?" the warrior stated as she leaned over and reached into the water to pick up an oar that was floating nearby. The words had no sooner left the warrior's mouth, when the winds picked up and the fragile raft started to move north and east carried by the winds and the currents. Xena turned to Gabrielle and said, "Hmmm, guess that answers that question!"

Gabrielle spotted another oar and reached for it at the same time Dazael did. He winced and reached for the gash on his arm.

"You better let me handle this." Gabrielle stated with a smile. Dazael nodded, "I don't think I have a choice. This arm isn't going to be much good to me right now..."

Gabrielle, hanging on tightly as the raft pitched a little in the current, said, "Yes, I guess it does!"

For several hours the three clung to the bit of flotsam that had become their lifeboat as it moved rapidly through the water, seeming to be guided by unseen hands. Their eyes ever watchful for scavengers and more importantly, an indication that they were close to shore.

Xena felt the raft slow slightly. Off in the distance she heard the caw of a sea bird. Looking up she saw a dark shadow on the horizon. "Land!"

"Thank the Gods!" Gabrielle stated, as both she and Xena placed the oars they'd retrieved into the waters and began to paddle in the direction of the shadowy mass surrounded by a haze in the distance. "With any luck, we should reach it by nightfall..." Xena murmured.  

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Gabrielle raised her head, her hair matted with sand and seaweed, and squinted at her surroundings.

She groaned deeply. "Not again!"

She was looking up and down a strand of beach, strewn with debris from the storm that had helped to destroy the two ships the day before.

She was laying on a bed of drying kelp, it being clear that she had simply pulled her body up far enough so that she wouldn't drown. While she slept, the tide had receded.

It was now mid afternoon and getting very hot under the strong sun, causing little midges to rise in clouds from the kelp.

As her head became clearer, she looked around frantically for Xena and found her sitting at a small campfire, tending Dazael's wounded arm.

She rose tentatively from her belly to all fours, but did it a little too quickly. She tried to fight down the bile, but she was too weak. When the shuddering spasms finally eased, she felt a hand on her back.

Xena's tenderest touch was wiping the sweat from her brow and easing Gabrielle gently back against her, enfolding her in her arms. "Are you okay?" the warrior whispered in her ear.

Gabrielle simply nodded slowly. After a few more minutes of rest, she asked how Dazael was.

"He's exhausted, of course, but you know how the sea helps heal cuts, so I don't think his arm will need any more care. The fever is gone, though he'll be stiff and sore...."

The warrior grinned sardonically as the bard twisted just far enough to bestow a look that eloquently expressed her thought that they had ALL been abused by the sea and the sun.

" we all will." Xena continued. "The main thing now is to find some water. Wait here, keep an eye on him, and I'll see what I can do about finding us some."

Gabrielle nodded. "And maybe something to eat?" she added wistfully.

"Maybe." Xena returned with a smile.

It was a while before the warrior returned. But when she did, she was carrying a skinned rabbit, a couple of long sticks and what looked like a canteen.

"I found this," she said tossing the canteen to Gabrielle, "on the other side of that outcropping. It's water from the Roman galley. Must've washed ashore sometime during the night."

"And that?" the bard asked, nodding to the meat Xena was skewing and putting over the fire.

"Gabrielle. You know I have many skills." Xena teased. "How's he doing?"

"He dozed off again. Should I wake him?"

"No. Let him sleep. It'll be a while before this rabbit's ready."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

After they had eaten the three headed inland, leaning on each other for support, and stopped long enough at a stream to wash the sand and salt from their bodies.

After walking up the stream for a couple of hours, taking it nice and slow, they came upon a ford in the river. There were enough ruts and hoof prints to indicate that it was clear they were near a good-sized village.

As they were examining the ford to decide which to go, a young girl came along driving sheep home in the descending twilight. Dazael blinked his eyes, stared harder at the girl, then called out, "Myna!"

Xena and Gabrielle looked up at his call and looked at him for explanation.

"I wasn't sure at first that I was right about where we are, but I'd know my little niece, Myna, anywhere!" The girl was running toward him and he scooped her up in his good arm.

"Myna, meet Xena and Gabrielle! Xena, Gabrielle, meet Myna!"

The girl turned shy at the imposing figure of Xena, but took a bit of heart at Gabrielle's smile. "Pleased to meet you both," she said quietly, but with some dignity.

Both woman smiled broadly at the girl.

"We fished your uncle out of the water, Myna; do you think maybe we could get him to a hot meal and a soft bed?" Xena asked.

Myna looked incredulously at her uncle, who laughed and said, "I know it's hard to believe, little one, but, yes, Xena here, and Gabrielle, helped me out of a tight spot."

Myna threw her arms around her uncle, then looked shyly at both women in turn. "Thank you so much, Xena, Gabrielle, for saving my favorite uncle!" She whirled back around to hide her face in Dazael's chest. He laughed and stroked her hair and gave her a special hug, then set her down.

"Will you run ahead and tell your mother that there'll be three extra for supper?" The girl grinned impishly, then her face fell as she looked back at the sheep. "We'll take care to bring them with us, Myna." Xena assured the girl. Myna brightened again and set off at a run.

"She's cute."

"She's adorable!" Xena and Gabrielle said simultaneously.

All three laughed at and started herding the sheep.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Dinner was delicious and filled with joy at the return of Dazael to his family, and Gabrielle offered to tell the tale in exchange for bed and board. The people of the village, hearing that Dazael had returned and brought with him the infamous Xena, gathered to see the two women and were treated to an epic adventure. They were spellbound, and showed their appreciation loud and long at the end of the tale.

The next morning Xena and Gabrielle woke much refreshed and after a hearty breakfast of eggs, potatoes and ham, headed out along the road that ran through the middle of town.

"Xena, do you know where we are?"

"I had a good talk with Dazael while supper was being prepared and you were playing with all those kids, all of whom were well and truly under your spell, woman!" Xena laughed. "We're in the Peloponnesus and a few days from Athens; how'd you like to stop in and see Homer?" the Warrior Princess asked with a grin.

"Yes, indeed. I'd be happy to go anywhere as long as you can promise me one thing." "What's that?"


Xena laughed and hugged her bard tight. With her arm draped around Gabrielle's shoulder, and Gabrielle with her arm around her warrior's waist, the two continued down the road.

"You know, I might be able to pick up a new staff in Athens..."

The warrior nodded, "You might. For a tale or two."

Gabrielle laughed, "I tell the tale of Xena. Warrior, princess, friend..."