Summer Slave Camp II - Slave Hunt
The leather-clad archeologist made her way carefully along the rocky ridge, back pressed firmly against the hard, uneven surface. She watched the tips of her boots protrude over the edge and could see the raging torrent that roared through the rugged ravine below. One misstep would send her plummeting down into that pandemonium.
Janice Covington took a deep breath. Ah, the excitement! The danger! The thrill of it all!
This was life!
She spared a glance at her companions.
Otto was doing just fine, but then, considering his past as a master acrobat and sleight-of-hand trickster in a German circus, it was no big wonder. The only trouble was that his feet were so large that only the heels rested securely on the ledge. But Janice trusted his skills. If anyone could make this climb, it was Otto.
Jacques was okay, as long as he didn't look down. The archeologist was a bit worried that his messed-up motorics would betray him, though. The Frenchman was good-natured and loyal, but sometimes his clumsiness and inaptitude got the team into more trouble than they cared for.
This whole thing had been Otto's idea, haring off to look for this alleged mystical treasure hidden somewhere in this godforsaken place. It was so typical, the man going crazy whenever some hidden treasure was mentioned! However, Janice suspected that the wealth and fame meant a lot more to him than the thrill of discovery. That thrill was what was pulling Janice out of her nice, comfortable home to go adventuring time and time again.
Janice was just as glad Mel had remained at the camp. She may be one of the best-educated and smartest women alive today, but Melinda Pappas just wasn't made for strenuous climbing.
"The map says there should be a cave entrance at the end of this," Otto was saying.
Jacques was idly picking his nose. He appeared utterly unconcerned for now, his mind blissfully empty. His eyes wandered to take in the breathtaking scenery that Janice never ceased to find so very alluring. Lush green vegetation and harsh cliffs complementing each other in rugged beauty, the rapids far below only adding to the dramatic mood...
Below! Mesmerized, the Frenchman looked down at the swirling mass of water. The ground seemed to recede before him, then rush closer at dizzying speed....
Too late, the archeologist looked around to see Jacques' foot slip, kicking loose a few pebbles and a small cloud of dust. Flailing wildly, he grabbed the first thing his fingers came in contact with - which happened to be Otto's sleeve on one side, and Janice's ankle on the other. After a flurry of motion with acrobat and archeologist frantically struggling to keep their balance - Janice even went so far as to try and push Jacques' hand away with her free foot, to a string of very unladylike language - all three of them started slipping down the ledge, slowly at first but quickly gaining momentum, with much yelling and cursing. Finally, they tumbled in a little tangle down the face of the cliff to land with a huge splash in the water below.
Otto was the first to recover. His head and shoulders emerged from the water, and he wiped excess water from his mustache with all the dignity the situation allowed.
"Watch your step, Jacques," he said when the Frenchman came up gasping and spluttering.
"Good job, Jock," Andy said dryly. Little Jock stuck out his tongue at him.
All three of them sloshed out to the shore, soaking wet and dripping, their shoes squishing noisily, to much grumbling and muttering.
Gabby tossed back her long, wet tresses and hit Jock, who was too close behind her, smack in the face with a loud thwack.
"Hey, whatcha do that for?" the boy whined.
"Watch your step," Gabby told him, and proceeded to wring the water out of her hair.
The small, tranquil lake lay in the same secluded valley where their camp was situated, surrounded by thick forest and a small range of low mountains. A cluster of large rocks rose up out of the lake with a narrow ridge connecting it to the shore, and this was where they had been playing. While scouting around on the other shore, they had seen a most intriguing formation of rocks that did indeed look as if it might hide a small cave, and had decided to explore.
The honey-blonde child sighed softly. She just wasn't cut out to be an adventurer. It was exciting to watch archeologists on TV snap their whips and get what they were hunting for in the end (even if they were named after dogs), but in real life, Gabby just lacked that last bit of recklessness that true heroes had.
Her gaze went to Jock who had his pinkie finger in his ear to get the water out, his tongue sticking out in concentration. She sighed again. Of course, at the moment, she also lacked a competent partner in crime... Like Xena, for example. Little Jock was a poor substitute for the Warrior Princess!
The girl's thoughts wandered to her tall friend, condemned to kitchen chores for the whole day, after the disaster in the mess tent of the day before.
Since both Gabby and Andy had played some part in the whole thing but had not been considered the driving force, they had been assigned cleanup duties in the mess tent (which had deserved its name in more than one way) this morning.
So, having served their punishment, they were now free to explore, until the activities started this afternoon. But it just wasn't the same without Sina! Yet, while Gabby felt a twinge of guilt at being out here when her friend was toiling away in the kitchen tent, she could not help grinning at the mental image of the brunette girl muttering under her breath about revenge while cleaning out greasy pots and cutting up the vegetables for dinner.
"What do we do now?" Jock asked. "I don't wanna go back up there. It's scary."
"Well, I do," Gabby said stoutly. "We're gonna find out what's on the other side of that rock pile!
"How about we get dry first," Andy put in. The others had to agree.
"And let's go check on Sina while we're there," said Gabby.
Upon entering the kitchen tent, Janice found Melinda perched on an upturned crate cutting up some carrots. The tall, dark haired woman did not look amused. The carrot in her hands was suffering the brunt of her bad mood. She was not merely cutting it, she was viciously hacking it to bits.
"What's wrong, Mel?" Janice asked her friend.
Melinda Pappas sighed deeply, and paused in her work.
"Nothing, Janice. I'm all right," she said meekly, not looking at the archeologist, or the other two who were with her. She wondered briefly why their hair was so wet, but with Janice, sometimes you just did not want to know. She rather suspected she wouldn't get an answer beyond a wry "don't ask", anyway.
"No, you're not," Janice told her. "You look upset."
"It's nothing, really. Just a little out of sorts. Don't worry about it."
"Why, what is it?"
Mel's shoulders slumped in defeat. She really couldn't keep anything from her friend. "I don't know, Janice. Must be those scrolls I've been working on. It seems that every time I feel I'm really close to discovering something big, along comes one word that's essential to the text, that I just can't figure out the meaning of. It's so - frustrating. I know there are as yet undiscovered truths in these writings, and I'm close enough to grab them, yet they might as well be on the other end of the world for all I can make of them."
She resumed her cutting of the vegetable with renewed fury.
"Aw, come on, Mel, if anyone can translate these scrolls, it's you. You're smart, you're a scholar, after all. Just give yourself some time."
The tall, dark woman jumped to her feet and pulled a circular weapon from her belt that she brandished above her head.
"Here she goes again," Otto muttered to Jacques, who was staring blankly at the two women.
"I am not!" Melinda flared, and stamped her foot. "I don't wanna be smart, and I don't wanna be a scho- whatever. And I don't wanna play this stupid game anymore. I'm the Warrior Princess! Ayiyiyiyiyi!"
When Megan O'Leary came into the kitchen tent to check on the little troublemaker, she found Sina standing there, one foot resting top of an upturned crate, whirling that confounded pink Frisbee over her head.
Her friend, Gabby, and two of the boys were there as well. While Jock and Andy were merely watching the scene warily, as one might watch two lions fighting, the blonde child was obviously in heated discussion with the Frisbee-wielding little spitfire.
"Geez, Sina, can't you play any game besides Xena?" she was saying. "I thought it would be cool for a change to be someone different."
"Who else would I wanna be?" Sina said, pouting. "Xena's the best. I don't wanna be no dumb wimp sitting around figuring out what's on a scroll. That's just as boring as cutting up carrots and taters."
She considered for a moment, looking at the smaller girl, who looked hurt for some reason, and bit her lip. It seemed her words had struck a nerve.
"Well, of course, it wouldn't be half as much fun without the bard," she amended with a shaky half grin.
Gabby brightened visibly at those words. Megan had no idea what on earth the two of them were talking about, and she wasn't at all sure she wanted to know. She drew herself up to her full 5'8", and put on her menacing face, gray-blue eyes blazing.
"What are you kids doing in here?"
All four of them gave a start at the sound of Megan's voice. Also, all of them except Sina (of course!) had such guilty looks on their faces that it took a supreme effort for the teacher not to burst out laughing and ruin her intimidating act.
She had witnessed their little stunt at the lake from afar. There had been a tense moment when it was clear to her that they would slip, but after seeing them unhurt and none the worse for wear, she was confident that their impromptu bath in the chilly water was punishment enough for them.
"We just wanted to see if Sina was done yet," Gabby said bravely, while Sina quietly tucked her Frisbee away and sat back down on the crate. She picked up the peeler and a carrot, and with a sullen glower, she resumed her work.
"Well," Miss O'Leary said flatly, "She still has a lot of work to do. I don't think she'll be done any time soon."
"She'll be able to make the rally, though, won't she?"
Megan shrugged. "If she finishes before it starts..." She made that sound as if she thought Hell would freeze over first. Sina continued her cutting, studiously ignoring the conversation.
Gabby bit her lip. She looked at Sina, then back to the area of Megan's knees. She glanced at her friend again, and this time the other girl met her eyes for a moment before returning her attention on the peeler in her hands. Gabby let her gaze wander to the two boys, who still looked anything but relaxed in the presence of the big PE teacher.
Then she took a breath, visibly steeled herself and raised her large green eyes to meet Megan's.
By that time, Megan O'Leary was thoroughly amused by the kid's obvious inner struggle. Her face remained impassive, however, except for one eyebrow raising in question.
Gabby cleared her throat. "Maybe if we all helped...," she croaked. The boys behind her made surprised, strangled noises, but did not speak up.
"What was that you said?" Megan asked Gabby.
Picking up courage from somewhere Megan could not quite grasp - though she noticed how the girls eyes flicked to Sina again - Gabby spoke. "Well, if we all helped her, we could be done quicker, right? Then we could all go to the rally together."
The girl glanced around at the boys, who had a look about them of flies caught in a spiderweb. Andy was edging slowly towards the tent flap, with such an innocent expression on his face that Megan almost laughed out loud.
"You are willing to take part of Sina's punishment upon yourself?" The tall teacher asked a touch incredulously. Gabby nodded, eyes large and meeting the woman's stare bravely.
"And what about you, you boys?"
Jock actually squeaked at being addressed directly. Andy's face lost its serene countenance to a sudden pallor. Megan noticed that Sina very carefully did not look at anybody in the room. The dark-haired girl was biting her lip as she studied a carrot that was thin as a hay stalk because she had been peeling it diligently ever since the camp supervisor had entered the tent.
The smaller boy squeaked again, but then he nodded, looking calf-eyed at Gabby. "If Gabby is staying...." Gabby groaned softly at that. Megan's lips twitched as she turned to the other boy.
Andy looked as if he wanted to shake his head. He considered for a while, looking out through the opening to the lake that lay there, glittering and tempting, in the sun, then to Sina, who sat there toiling, then back to the lake, longingly. Having made up his mind, he sighed. "Okay with me, Ma'am." He did not look so very sure of it, though.
Miss O'Leary looked at them for a long time with an unreadable face. "Very well," she said. Then, as an afterthought, she added, "If you finish in time, you may all join the rally. If you don't, you all stay here until you're done." With these as her final words, the tall woman turned smartly and left the tent.
"Whew," Andy said when he was sure she was out of earshot. "Now, Gabby, what did you do that for? We could have gone back out there on the rock and looked for that treasure cave."
Before Gabby could reply, Sina murmured. "Thanks, guys, for helping me."
"Uh, yeah, well... " Andy said, "you're welcome, I guess." Without another word, he rolled up his sleeves and went to the tub of dishwater, eyeing the pots from the day before distastefully. At an impatient gesture from the older boy, Jock joined him there, picking up a damp towel and waiting for Andy to get to work.
"Brilliant thinking, Gabrielle," Xena whispered as she handed her friend a peeler and a bucket of potatoes so she could blend in with the other slaves. "You managed to get us all together so we can work on our plans..."
By the time the rally was scheduled to start, all the pots had been cleaned and stowed away, the vegetables and potatoes all prepared for the stew, and four kids changed from clothes gritty from the kitchen work into fresh ones that would very likely be in no better state a few hours from now.
They had toiled diligently, even Jock. Even with the added handicap of Sina and Gabby still discussing the merit of the new game Gabby had come up with, they had finished in a few hours what might well have taken Sina alone the rest of the day. After dutifully muttering her thanks several times, she took care not to let on how very grateful she was to all three of them.
At lunchtime, when the four of them had been given a short break from their chores, the kids had been formed into groups of six by Miss O'Leary and Mr. Pride. This had been accomplished by simply splitting each cabin of six down the middle and mix them so that there were now three boys and three girls on each team. Due to the fact that there were less boys than girls, Sina and Gabby found themselves teamed up only with Jock and Andy, and one of the girls from their cabin. Cindy was a dark-skinned, cheery child about Gabby's age.
They did not question their good fortune at being grouped together. Only once did Gabby look over at Miss O'Leary, wondering. Imagine her shock when the tall teacher actually winked! The little girl looked away quickly, pretending not to have seen.
For the rally, the teams were to collect certain types of plants from the woods. They had been given a list of 5 species, a copy of a nature guide and an admonishment to stay on the designated paths within the valley. Leaving the valley was not easily possible, since it was surrounded on all sides by a medium sized mountain range, except where the dirt road ran into it.
So, confident that the little explorers would not get lost, the two counselors sent them on their way. Mr. Pride had brought a large horn that he would blow two hours from now, when the time was up. When the last of the teams had disappeared out of site, the two of them sank onto the bench in front of Megan's cabin and relaxed with a cup of steaming coffee and some biscuits. Two precious hours of peace and quiet! What bliss!
Two hours later, the droning sound of a large hunting horn sounded through the valley. One by one, the teams returned to the camp, presenting their findings to a waiting Miss O'Leary, who carefully sorted them for later evaluation. The results were to be announced after dinner. Soon, all the children were gathered around the tall teacher hoping to get a hint as to how well they had done.
All the children but five.
"Xena?" Gabrielle panted as they hurried through the dense brush, away from the well-traveled path where the slavers would be looking for them first. "Xena, do you think we'll make it?"
"It can't go wrong, Gabrielle," Xena replied, not slowing her pace and expecting the others to keep up. "The plan is perfect. O'Leara will never find us. We made a perfect, clean escape. Now as soon as we're out of this valley, we'll grab food and horses from the nearest farm and head straight to Amazon Country so Chilapa can return to her people."
They scrambled on through the woods, avoiding the paths and breaking through thick, thorny vegetation. Muttering under her breath, Chilapa, the dark Amazon, untangled herself from yet another bush that clung to her dress way too affectionately.
"Speaking of finding," she piped in, "are you sure you know where we're going?"
"Hush," said Gabrielle. "I'm sure she does. Don't you, Xena? Xena?"
The Warrior Princess did not turn around. "Of course," she murmured. Had the others been able to see her face, they would have seen a set of blue eyes widened in near-panic as she cast around for a familiar landmark. She had been so sure they were headed straight for the mouth of the valley.... But by Ares' boots, these trees all looked the same!
Finally, when dusk was beginning to set in, Xena called a halt by a fallen tree. The hollow trunk was large enough for all of them to crawl in and would provide a serviceable shelter for the night.
All of them got to work in setting up the camp with what little they could find around the site. They had not been able to take much from the slave camp, but Gabrielle had her scrolls and a pen, and they had gathered a few plants along the way that they thought might make a nice herb tea.
They gathered some dead wood and arranged it to make a fire, but to her utter frustration, Xena's fire kit had somehow gotten wet, and she could not get a blaze started.
So, nightfall found them huddled together for warmth inside the huge tree trunk, with Gabrielle telling stories. Xena had taken the first watch and was sitting outside of the natural shelter with her back against a large rock, idly twirling her Chakram between her fingers.
"... and that was how Xena first faced the Dragon Lady," the bard finished another of her tales.
Chilapa especially had been captured by the story of the Dragon Lady, and now she was full of questions.
"But Xena was very lucky to get away with her life if the Dragon Lady really is this strong, right? Did she really turn into a dragon during the fight?"
"She sure did," Gabrielle said. "And a mighty fierce one it was, too. Set my staff on fire and heated Xena's sword so she had to drop it and fight it only with her whip and Chakram. It was quite a scene, I tell you. Good thing it started raining just then."
"But how is that possible?" the Amazon persisted. I've never heard of a human being that could do that. She's pretty smart, too, and stronger than anyone I've seen, except..." she broke off, not wanting to continue that particular line of thought.
"Except a god," the bard finished in an ominous voice. A collective gasp went through her companions. "Well, a half-god maybe. I've been thinking the same thing. That has got to be the answer."
After listening for a while to the excited whispers that her statement had given rise to, Gabrielle got up. "I'll go outside and take Xena's place for a bit. Why don't you all get some sleep? Tomorrow will be long."
Gabby found Sina leaning back against a rock, fingering her Frisbee, biting her lip.
"Hey," the smaller girl said softly.
Sina grunted. Wordlessly, Gabby sat down next to her, folding her arms around her knees and resting her cheek against them.
"I got us lost," Sina said presently.
"Hey, we foiled the Dragon Lady."
"Yeah. But we got lost."
"We'll find our way back to the camp tomorrow, don't you worry."
"And then what? We'll all be in trouble - again."
"Maybe she won't notice we were gone?" Gabby offered.
"Yeah, right." Sina's shoulders slumped. "I don't like this place. I want to go back home. I miss Argo. And Tom." She paused. "And mom, too, I guess." The last was barely a whisper. It would never do for anyone but her best friend to hear that kind of admission out of Sina.
"I've never been out in a forest when it's dark," Gabby said after some thought. Her wide eyes took in the dark shapes that were the trees and bushes around them, and she rubbed her arms against a sudden chill. "Little scary out here, huh?"
In the near darkness, Gabby saw the brunette head turn towards her. Sina shrugged. "Could be."
"Good thing, you've got your Chakram then, Xena," Gabby said with a half grin. "As long as you got that handy, no-one's going to dare bothering us!"
It took a few moments, but slowly Sina's face brightened, and she flashed Gabby a huge grin. "Did you see what I did with it in the mess tent? Wasn't that too cool?"
"It sure was," the blonde agreed, smiling. "So, you coming? We were telling stories and stuff."
Sina got to her feet. "You gonna tell the one about how Aphrodite enchanted those scrolls? I love that one...."
As she hurried along the narrow forest path calling for the kids, Megan O'Leary had to remind herself repeatedly why she had decided to work with kids rather than join the police as she had originally planned. At this moment, she had trouble remembering. In what way were these little monsters easier to manage than, say, your common crook? At least you were allowed to put handcuffs on a criminal, or lock them up...
Stopping for a moment to catch her breath - she had been up and down that blasted mountain at least three times - she groaned irately. "I can't believe I'm doing this during my vacation..."
She could hear Gulliver rustling through the undergrowth and muttering under his breath between calling the children's names.
Following yet another path of trampled vegetation, Megan cursed the failing batteries of her flashlight. For all she knew, she might have missed a truckload full of traces of the kids in this wicked darkness, made darker and more bizarre by the trees and plants all around. She had to scold herself repeatedly for jumping whenever a branch brushed her.
And then she saw it.
On the ground just at the edge of the beam of her flashlight, lay a bright pink, round object. Sina's Frisbee. She stepped closer to investigate.
Megan couldn't help grinning as she called to Gulliver Pride in a loud whisper, a few moments later. "Over here, Gully! Look what I found!"
There, in the hollow of an old tree trunk, lay five kids, curled around each other, sleeping peacefully with little smiles on their faces.