Gina played outside until twilight. She didn’t notice how kids went away one by one called by their parents. She roamed with them the streets of this town remembering her childhood days in real life, when she wrestled with her sisters. The girl was a tomboy in reality and she was a great match to children of this era. When the child was approaching the tavern where they stayed with Xena, two men blocked her way.
“Grab her!” was the cold-blooded whisper of the man.
Another one jumped at her. She didn’t have time to understand what was going on. The girl tried to cry out but the man pressed his hand to her mouth and the cry became an unreadable gibber. She kicked and scratched trying to make this monster lose his grip. Everything was in vain. The talkative one hit her on the neck from behind. Gina lost her consciousness.
Next morning Xena woke up with an unbearable hangover. She fully regretted the wine she had been drinking whole day long and that mash they used to call strong drink that she drank in the evening. Throbbing pain in her head and awful thirst were definite signs of a horrible hangover. Even the light from the window caused the woman to close her eyes. Very slowly she sat up in the bed.
“Gina, could you, please, give me a mug of water?” She said blinking to adjust eyes to the bright light streaming into the room.
The only answer was silence. Xena finally noticed that there was nobody in the room except her humble self. Gina’s bed, where she supposed to be asleep, was neatly made and the girl was gone. The princess warrior grumbled but stood up and gulped half of the jug of water, that was standing on the window-sill. She washed her face and hands marking that Gina didn’t use the washbowl it meant that the child didn’t wash her face. Xena put a tick in her mind to reprimand the girl for not being accurate and neglecting self-hygiene. After she got dressed Xena went down to the tavern hall where guests could find some food and company.
The woman quickly scanned the room to find out that Gina wasn’t here. She went outside searched in the yard and the stable, asked some local men if they saw a girl with dark hair that covered her cheek bones and dark brown eyes but nobody’s seen her.
Xena returned to the tavern.
“Have you seen the girl I was with yesterday evening?” She asked the tavern keeper who was the man.
“I don’t know what girl you’re talking about. I’m very busy and I don’t remember all my clients. They come and go every day,” responded the man filling in a goblet of wine for a client.
The woman, who gave her the leaflet yesterday, also didn’t know where the girl was. She shrugged her shoulders and went away to serve a table. Xena was surprised because yesterday she didn’t notice that the tavern was overcrowded. In the morning a great number of people were sitting at the tables, drinking and eating their breakfast.
“Please, tell me what is going on here?” Xena asked a maiden passing by.
“Everybody is eager to be in Ancona at the 10th birthday of Princess Inanna. Her parents want to buy a gift for their daughter, a child on whom the Princess can exercise her ability to give orders. Besides, they are looking for a thespian, who will entertain their daughter at the birthday party,” she explained and hurried away.
“The things become more and more interesting,” Xena muttered.
Instead of heading east, the princess warrior found all the children Gina had been playing with yesterday and interrogated each of them until one of them told her that he saw two terribly looking guys in the dark corner of the street when Gina went to the tavern that evening. Xena thanked the children, paid for the room and took Argo to the east.
Gina opened her eyes at dawn. Headache and numb limbs told her that she was unconscious for a long time. This wasn’t a good sign. The guy hit her hard in the head. She could have a concussion. The girl was sitting on a mare ridden by a strong middle aged man. According to the smell he travelled a lot without washing much and his reeking breath told about bad rotten teeth in his mouth. He had a sword on the side of the mare. His muscles were made of steel. The girl understood that these two fellows weren’t the ones who she could play with. Another one was a tall bearded man. He was shirtless, so, the child clearly saw deep scars on his back and his right side. His muscles glittered in the sun covered in sweat.
“Aha, our prey finally woke up,” said the one that was riding together with the child on his horse.
“That’s great. At least we didn’t kidnap her in vain. That would be a waste of time and our future money.” The other replied.
“Balius, you’re underestimating me. I know how much power to use to knock out a kid,” the man smirked.
“I told you. It would have been better if we just bound her without knocking her out.” Balius grumbled. “How are you, kid?”
“My head is aching and spinning and I need to pee but on the whole I’m alright, I suppose,” Gina pronounced trying to shake off the slumber.
“Fine, let’s have a break. There is a well there. We have to water the mares and fill our water skins.” Balius commanded.
It was very uncomfortable to ease nature even when the man was standing with his back to her. Unfortunately, Gina had to overcome this awkward situation. After she drank some water, Janus, the middle-aged man with fair hair and shiny grey eyes gave her a piece of bread and some naturally dried fish. It wasn’t the breakfast she wanted to eat at this part of the day but it was better than nothing.
“Why did you kidnap me?” Gina asked taking a bite of bread and postponing the fish. After fresh water dried fish wasn’t a very good idea at all.
“You’re a strange kid. Instead of crying for mommy you’re asking questions,” told Baluis.
“It’s of no use to cry for mommy right now when I’m in the middle of nowhere with two warriors.”
“A wise observation, child,” admitted the man.
“What’s your name?” asked Janus.
“I’m Gina, so, you spoke about money. Who are you going to sell me?” She continued the conversation stubbornly not eating the fish.
“Don’t worry. If it turns out well, you’ll thank us for changing your life for good,” Balius assured her.
“If that is such a good bargain why don’t you tell me where are we heading?”
“To Ancona, to celebrate birthday of Princess Inanna and to bring you to her as a gift.” Janus grinned with all his rotten teeth.
“Marvelous,” Gina muttered. “How much does she pay?”
“The leaflet says a generous price.” Balius showed her the leaflet and was really surprised when the girl started to read it.
“Oh, you can read.”
“Yes, why?” Gina didn’t understand his surprise.
“Not many children can read at this age. Janus can’t read at all,” said Balius. “Who taught you?”
“My parents, they died.” The girl confessed.
“Oh, you’re an orphan. Then think of this little adventure as of a great chance in your life.”
“Yeah, of course.” She agreed.
“In these two weeks I’ve been travelling with Xena I’ve had more adventures than I had had for 32 years in a row,” Gina thought to herself.
Would the princess warrior be searching for her? It was the main question. How would she know where the girl was if she didn’t have any hints. Gina thought about it too. The plan was obvious. She would travel with these guys to the palace. They would sell her to the royal family and then she could escape and go to Amphipolis to find Xena. It was the best plan the girl could think of. To fight two warriors was a suicidal mission, especially for a child. But if Xena was following her tracks she should do something to assure the woman she was going the right way. That’s why Gina gathered small stones from the ground near the well while she was eating her breakfast. When the two men were ready to leave she asked them if she can drink some more water from the well. The girl made sure she was doing it alone and there, while she was pretending to drink water, she made a small “X” sign of stones she gathered. Maybe the woman would understand it.
“Smart move, Gina. I’m on my way,” Xena thought when she stopped to water Argo near the well. She saw the sign left by Gina even if the stones were the same color as the rim of the well itself but the woman saw it clearly.
The next day Xena found a lace from Gina’s boot tied up to a branch of a bush. They were for sure heading to Ancona.
On the third day in some coaching inn Balius and Janus were in the middle of a discussion while Gina was looking out of the window.
“We can’t present you to the royal family in such a dress!” said Balius looking at Gina and then back at Janus.
“Why not? It’s a little bit dirty and with trashes on sides but it was very convenient for horse-riding,” Janus disagreed.
“Maybe for horse-riding but not for the contest at the palace! Look at her boots! She lost a lace from the right boot. The boots are all in dust!”
“Al right, I’ll go find her an appropriate dress and a lace for the boot. You wash her and clean those boots,” Janus took charge of the situation.
“Me, washing a kid? No way! Do I look like a nanny?” Balius made the ugliest, angriest face he could do.
“No, you don’t but I’m already gone,” told Janus and ran out of the room.
Balius folded his arms and stared frowningly at Gina.
“Don’t even think of washing me. I’ll raise such noise souls in Hades will ask for more torture.” The girl looked harshly at the poor guy.
“What do you propose?” He asked.
“If you bring me a bucket of hot and a bucket of cold water I’ll wash myself while you’ll be standing out the room guarding the door,” the child suggested.
“That’s a deal!” The man ran away to fetch warm water.
In two hours when Gina was squeaky clean Janus came with the ugliest dress she has ever seen in her life. It was pink trimmed with artificial flowers and bows with a puffy skirt and too much organza. The girl sighed but put on this miscarriage of fashion.
Balius combed her hair which he decorated with a band. Her boots were laces. They didn’t match the dress but it wasn’t important for the two very satisfied outlaws who were looking at the girl as if she was a precious stone they could sell for a good price.
“She’s beautiful but in the leaflet they say she must have a kind of a talent,” the shorter guy spoke.
“She can read,” Balius gave him one reason.
“I’m sure the princess can do it too. Gina, what else can you do?” Janus insisted.
The girl shrugged her shoulders. She couldn’t tell about her fighting skills. It would raise suspicion.
“Can you sing?” Janus continued.
“No, I can’t.”
“Can you dance?”
“Maybe a little,” she told them very uncertainly.
The child started to shake her hips pretending that she was at a wild night club full of hot, young teens searching for their mate for the night. The two men were staring at her with open mouths.
“Stop, please, stop!” Balius uttered still in a shock.
“What?” Gina asked not understanding what has just happened.
“Who taught you to dance like that? Even harlots in brothels don’t dance so frivolously.” Janus stated.
“Oh, I’m sorry. In my homeland everybody dances this way.” Gina apologized.
“No, you can’t dance this way in the princess presence. It’s inappropriate.” Balius shook his head in disagreement.
“I can tell stories. I know a lot of them.”
“Yeah? I want to hear one,” said Janus sitting down comfortably in one of the chairs.
“This is the story of a Red Riding Hood.” The girl began retelling an old fairy tale.
This very evening the two merry guys came back to their inn to celebrate a good bargain. The girl was sold to the royal couple for a purse of gold coins. The princess herself chose Gina to be her main present for the birthday.
In the afternoon of the fourth day after a myriad of dramatic actors, puppeteers, bards, jugglers, etc., an extremely bored fair haired girl, with grey, almond eyes, plump up nose and pretty face sat on a small throne saying:
“There are only three people left, Your Highness,” said a man nearby. He definitely was a master of ceremonies.
“I’m not impressed. This is my birthday and I want to amaze my guests but not to make them sleep.” The princess barked at the man.
“Sure, Your Highness.” The man nodded.
In a second a woman appeared before the princess wearing short silk dress with a skirt made of fringe. The top was spangled in a very accurate way not too shiny and not too dull. Her hair was done up in a ponytail. She had three phials in her hands red, blue and yellow. First, she juggled with phials. While she was juggling the woman opened the red one, caught it with her mouth, made a summersault to the nearest torch and effectively spit a long stream of fire. Then, she took one of the daggers that were plugged at her back between the dress and the belt and while juggling, as if by accident she smashed one of the phials and yellow powder dissipated in the air. The thespian danced in this strange yellow cloud and suddenly her body and her dress became golden as of a precious statue. Finally, she came to a pitcher with water that was standing in the middle of the room and poured out the contests of the last phial which caused a small but very impressive firework. The woman curtseyed and finished her performance.
“Fantastic! I’ll take her! You will be performing tomorrow at my birthday party.” The princess jumped from her throne.
“It’s a great honor, Your Highness.” She bowed once again.
“Come on, let me show you my room and the one that you’ll stay in.” Princess Inanna in a very unprincess way dragged the thespian down the corridor.
“Here, this is my room,” Inanna and the woman came into a spacious room with a big bed in the middle and racks with different toys. It seemed as if they came in a toy shop.
“Have you cleaned the dust from my toys?” The girl addressed to Gina who was wearing a dress that all slaves did in the palace.
“Yes, Your Highness, everything is clean.” Gina said looking at the stranger.
“Fine, this is the main entertainer of tomorrow’s event. She is beautiful, isn’t she?” The girl asked Gina.
“Yes, Your Highness.” The slave mumbled.
“What’s your name, woman?” The princess asked in a commanding way.
“Philomena from Messana,” the woman answered.
Though, Gina saw quite well who was in front of her and the girl was really thankful for that.
“Sing something, while I’m showing Philomena my collection of toys. By the way, this is Gina, my new doll,” she presented the girl to Xena.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t…” Gina hadn’t time to finish the phrase as a clear slap resounded the room.
“I didn’t ask you, I order!” the Princess shouted in rage.
Gina wanted to say something but Xena intervened in this unpleasant conversation.
“I’m sure, she can sing. I see a lot of toys here. Can you tell me where are they from?” Xena shot a stern look at the girl and Gina began singing.
Xena didn’t listen to Inanna’s detailed discussion about toys, but the lyrics in Gina’s song struck her heart. She hasn’t heard that song before. It was long, beautiful and sad in its own way. By Gina’s flushing cheeks the princess warrior could say that it wasn’t the first slap from the little blonde monster. After a thorough excursion into the depth of Inanna’s enormous toy collection Gina escorted Philomena to her room.
“How are you?” Xena embraced the child the very moment they remained alone in the room.
“I should control myself not to smack her hard in the face,” Gina pronounced through clenched teeth.
“Will you rescue me outta here?” Gina casted the woman her most striking puppy look.
“Yes, I will.”
“This night?” the girl asked with hope in her voice.
“No, it’s impossible, too many guards. We’ll wait for tomorrow. It will be a ball and people get drunk during such events.”
“That’s bad.” The child uttered sadly.
“Have you seen the chest in her room?”
“It’s my bed. She thinks if I’m her doll I have to sleep with her toys.” The girl explained.
“But it is too small for you.”
“Yeah, it’s not long enough for me but it’s deep enough at least to curl up there.”
“I’m sorry, Ginny. Only one night, I promise. Tomorrow in the evening we’ll be far away from this place.” Xena hugged the child one more time.
In the morning the princess warrior heard a strange sound of hurried footsteps down the corridor. She also headed that way and from the corridor she could hear princess Inanna’s weeping. Xena peeped into the room because the entrance was crowded by guards. The queen was fussing over her ldaughter’s bloody nose. Gina was standing between two guards who were holding both of her arms. The girl looked angry and confused at the same time.
“She broke her nose! It’s Inanna’s birthday and this filthy spawn broke the little nose of my little jewel!” The queen, who had an impressive weight of a multi-ton ship, fluttered back and forth wringing her hands in despair.
“Give her ten whips and lock her in the cell of the dungeon. I’ll talk to this bastard later!” barked the king.
When guards were dragging Gina, they were passing Xena by, the woman warrior hit one with an elbow in his ribs and grabbed his sword. In a second the other one was lying on the floor kicked by the woman.
“Gina, run to my room!”
The girl ran with all her might while the princess warrior were fighting other guards. When one last man was standing she ran after the girl into the room blocking the door quickly with a stool.
Xena’s room was quite small. It had one window, a bed, a very small table and a stool.
“What now?” The girl asked nervously because guards thrust their weight on the door trying to open it.
“Climb on the window and outside!” Xena shouted taking her belongings in a hurry.
“Are you crazy? We’re on the third floor!”
“The walls are covered with a grapevine. Gina, quickly!”
The warrior helped the child to climb on the window-sill and then outside. When the guards entered the room Xena let out her battle cry and jumped into the window as a swallow. She made a forward roll in midair and caught hold of the vine. The girl was getting down rapidly with adrenaline rushing through her veins. Suddenly, the vine she was holding tore and the child fell down on the bulkhead and then tumbled down on the ground hurting badly her ribs on the left side. She hit herself so harsh that she landed on the back and couldn’t stand up. Xena quickly made some forward rolls in the air and landed on her two feet beside the child. She fought the guards who rapidly arrived to the scene while Gina regained her strength to stand up. After the girl was on her feet Xena whistled. The mare came in a minute. Fast, the woman took the child on Argo’s back and they galloped far away from this palace and its crazy inhabitants.
After 30 minutes of mad riding Gina begged Xena to stop. Every movement on the horse made her ribs cry in pain. The woman stopped only when they were in the outskirts of the city.
“Let me see!” She said sternly looking at the child’s pale face and tears in the eyes. Xena palpated girl’s ribs and her left side.
“No, your ribs are fine. It’s just a bad injury. You’ll live. What the blaze, did you smack her in the nose like that? We could have left quietly today in the evening!” The princess warrior jumped on the poor child.
“I didn’t want to hit her. She closed me in that chest in the morning. She sat on the lid and told me that she would seal it up. I freaked out. It’s too small and there wasn’t much air in it. I tried to push away the lid. I think Inanna let it go but wasn’t fast enough to get away from the lid hitting her in the face. I nearly suffocated in that chest!” Gina let her tears flow. She was scared and hurt and very anxious.
Xena didn’t say anything. She hugged the child and let her cry her fear out.