See disclaimers in Part One
Road Show: Part One - 2
By J.A. Bard
Gabrielle was vaguely aware of being sick. Through dazed eyes and foggy thoughts she realized her face was being forced up to let something pour down her throat. When it hit her stomach it only remained for a brief moment. She could feel her face struck by something but she wasn't conscious enough for it to register fully.
The second time Gabrielle came conscious, she saw some light between her swollen lids. Her nose kept bouncing against the leg of a horse, which didn't improve the pounding in her head and the very sick feeling in her stomach. Mercifully, consciousness did not remain long.
Gabrielle could hear ragged breathing from somewhere. At first it scared her for she thought it might be Xena but the idea required stringing a lot of memories together and she was finding putting images and memories together was too difficult. There was only darkness around her and she couldn't feel anything. She had awareness but no body form. Out of the darkness she felt she was being watched but she couldn't see anything. Then there was a large eye that moved toward her. A Cyclops? It stopped in front of her and wanted to know who she was. How in Tartarus was she supposed to know? She felt a burning pain in all her limbs and couldn't get the satisfaction of screaming to release her mental anguish. There was a grim satisfaction from the eye and when it turned she realized it had another but it had been damaged. Her mind went further into oblivion, where even her thoughts were stilled.
When did she become aware of the comforting shape of a tree against her back? She was bound securely to the tree with a leather strap tied around her forehead to keep it against the tree. Her elbows were tied to the tree and hands tied together in front of her. Her body hurt all over. Gradually she began to feel the throbbing pain that began to engulf her. The vile smell of the drink that someone had tried to pour down her was on her cloths mixed with her own vomit. Did she wrestle with a Minotaur? Naww. Only Xena does that, or Hercules. She tried to get past the pain as Xena had been trying to teach her, but that had been for injuries that didn't feel this bad.
She listened to the night noises about her, trying to ignore her body's unhappy condition. How does Xena do it? The breeze smelled of rain. She could hear the rustle of something moving around in the – bushes? Not grass. No, she couldn't hear any grass move. Leaves, yes. The sound of voices arguing far away, then the sudden impact of something hard hitting bone came to her.
"I run this show!" She heard the enraged voice of Malucu. "Now get some more of the stuff ready! And if I catch any of you giving her anything else but this, I'll kill you!""
A few moments later she felt a slap against her face that had not her head been bound to the tree would have rocked her head. Her eyes popped open but she couldn't focus on anything and the light that was shining in her eyes burned to the point her eyes started to tear. She thought only one eye opened completely.
"See!" Malucu muttered triumphantly. "She shouldn't be feeling anything! Give me that!"
Gabrielle felt her mouth forced open, which she didn't and probably couldn't resist, and a foul tasting liquid poured down her sore throat. It didn't even have warmth to sooth the soreness. It didn't stay down long. A hand was clamped over her swollen lips but the liquid came out anyway. Some had gotten into her lungs and if she had not been tied securely she would have collapsed as her abused body struggled to get the liquid out of her lungs and her stomach at the same time. She could feel her sides hurt as if she had bruised or broken ribs. The numbing effect the drug had on her body protected her from feeling the beatings Malucu rained on her at one of their stops but right now it wasn't numbing enough and she did begin to feel pain.
"You keep pounding her and you'll be carrying a corpse to the temple." A voice warned him. "If you don't feed her at least stop with the beatings."
"She's got to have bruises that Xena can see! Malucu snarled.
"She has enough. It's going to be days before we get to the temple. If she dies before we reach the temple the Dark One said Xena would know. If Xena knows, Ares will know. That kinda rage Ares can't miss. You'll be giving up the bait before we put it in the trap."
Gabrielle could hear Malucu swear and leave. The other person stayed and tried to pour what was left in the container down her with hardly more success. The little that did get into her system gave her nightmarish visions leaving her too weak to fight off the terrors her vivid imagination furnished. Her throat was too dried and constricted to let out her cries as she met frightening creatures that tore at her physically leaving tears in her skin and tortured her with her own fears of Xena's abandonment or death. They were the bad kind of terrors that slung over a bouncing horse, or bound securely to a tree didn't relieve.
What might be her second day of captivity, Gabrielle could feel the first bits of consciousness creep up her legs in a burning wave of pain. Through puffy lips she tried to cry out but her throat was swollen and dry from lack of water. She was now welcoming Malucu's numbing drug. It was the only moisture she took in. There were other places that were in pain but her legs were a new source of intense feeling and they took up her attention. She didn't know if they were broken, only that both legs were burning appendages that she wished were not part of her.
She didn't stay conscious long for her own body mercifully released her into a painless bliss, but the payment was the nightmare. She returned back to the cave she had been hiding in. The one-eyed man from the wasteland kept looking for her. The cave was near the old bare tree from which an owl, much like Alala's friend, had been sitting with its eyes closed.
Her cave had a good view of the mountain from where great black clouds of smoke came, with occasional spurts of fire that erupted from it, shaking the ground. Cries of anguish came from this place. Gabrielle didn't know which was more frightening, the one-eyed man who was searching for her, or the knowledge that sooner or later she was going to go to the fire mountain to see if she could stop the cries. Her need for Xena's help was pressing yet she knew she wasn't in this land and she would have to do it herself. She didn't even know where this land was…and who is Xena?
Alala could feel the movement of a rough road under her and the coolness of a compress on her forehead. She had a slight headache and her body was a little sore, especially her throat. She moved cautiously. "Good noon." A soft voice spoke above her.
Alala opened one eye to see a partially blue sky above them with enough cloud cover to cut the brightness. She also saw her friend flying above them and sent out a thought. The keening of the voice let her know the falcon heard. Her eyes tracked to the brilliant green eyes that were staring into hers concerned. It reminded her of the woman whom Athena had asked her to look out for. "Hades!" She thought and closed her eyes for a moment. The hand on her shoulder tightened and she opened her eyes to see a water skin being offered.
Aleka also heard the falcon's call and felt relieved. Now she could get some answers. She motioned to Lily that they were going to look for a safe place to stop for a hurried noon meal. Lily nodded and sent four of the women out to scout for a place. A call was sent out that could be heard to the scouts that were further out that they were stopping for a rest.
"So, I see you are doing better." Lily welcomed Alala when the cart stopped moving.
Alala looked at the two women peering at her from the back of the cart. The speaker was a tall brown haired Amazon with her hair bound back. The hilt of her sword was showing over her shoulder. Her companion was as tall but darker skinned with disturbingly piercing blue eyes. They held Alala's for a moment. She felt something familiar about the woman but couldn't put her finger on it. She carried no weapons that Alala could see. Eleanor had propped Alala into a sitting position so she could drink easier from the water skin. Alala could see a few Amazon's and younger women moving a string of horses. She could see Yori's ears pricked in her direction as he lifted his nose to touch the cart railing. Eleanor took a small dough pouch from one of the women and handed it to Alala. "Eat, you need it."
"Where am I?" Alala asked as she took a big bite from the pieta hoping her empty stomach would be able to keep it down.
"Bout two days out of Larissa and three days from Salono." Lily responded. "Where were ya headed?" She asked casually.
Alala sighed. It had been Madras but they seemed to have turned from their original course. "Well, it was Madras, but my plans have changed." Her eyes returned to the deep blue eyes again. Alala took a deep breath and looked back at the falcon that had landed near her.
"How long have I been out?" She was hoping not long. The falcon had said the Bard was still alive.
"We found you yesterday near your horse." Lily returned. "It looked like he had been ridden pretty hard."
Alala laughed weakly. "Ya. I was in a hurry. What's your business?" Alala asked eyeing the mask that was peeking out from under a bright colored cloth that be neatly folded around her.
"We're a drama troupe from Lesbos. We've been invited to Crometh for the end of the year, for the thirteenth moon time celebrations." Lily explained.
"Ahh. I heard Sappho had been asked to send her best to the Festival. But I also heard she graciously declined."
"She declined to personally attend." Lily smiled.
"And Warden of Athena's Temple, what are you doing so far from home?" The contralto voice was soft and compelling. Not something Alala expected. The icy blue eyes pulled hers into them. Aleka waited.
Alala took a deep breath and to relieve the compulsion to talk, she started her story from the time she had received disturbing news from her feathered friends that were Athena's Temple's messengers. There was a nefarious energy that was arising at night. It was bleeding villages of life. It was a dark evil that had long ago moved to overthrow the once peaceful communities of those that Athena had referred to as the golden ones. They were the ones that came before the Titans and Cronos, children of Gaia and Uranus. They were Gaia's children before her union with Uranus, who was both her son and consort. The energy takes captive souls in a different way than what everyone is use to. How, I don't know yet.
Alala had visited the Seer of Athena's Temple. The very one she swore after one visit to never visit again. And just like the last message her visit received, it was vague and paradoxical. Just like her dreams then and in the past. So she did the next best thing and asked Athena permission to leave and search out more information. Last time she had just gone and paid the price.
Pain gripped Alala's heart and she shuddered struggling to close out the memory. The compelling voice brought her past the pain and she continued on with her story.
"Athena gave me her leave to pursue this curiosity, which surprised me. She also gave me her blessing saying I would need it. Then gave me the direction to start my search. I thought it strange at the time, when Athena also requested that I keep watch for Gabrielle, the Amazon Queen who would be traveling as a bard. She directed me to protect her as much as I could. Amazon's are usually Artemis' concern. I also knew that Gabrielle has her own bodyguard who is formidable even without a goddess' protection."
Alala told of her meeting up with Gabrielle. She paused a moment as she again felt her surprise that the young unimposing woman who boldly asked to sit near her was Gabrielle. What was she thinking that she missed the obvious? Maybe it was because she assumed where the Bard was, was also her difficult to miss partner, the Warrior Princess. Then again, she was focused on avoiding the trap of Malucu's voice. She had studied the young reddish blond woman and detected no danger to herself and returned her attention to where it was most needed. She watched as Malucu weaved his hypnotic hold on the people in the tavern. She noted several implanted messages that were within the story. He was erasing their memory of him in two days. So she knew he was planning on leaving by then. She was curious for this was the first town he had taken time to establish an identity, though it was a fake one. He had something to do with this evil and she hadn't yet been able to discover what it exactly was.
She had been following him for weeks at a safe distance. He had only slipped into this town the night before Gabrielle's arrival and had the town believing he came every year to their festival. Again, a suggestion he planted in his stories. No one bothered to tell him they had only opened up their private festival to Diana the Fauna last year. He was too arrogant and self-disillusioned, she thought contemptuously, to care if his story matched the facts. One day his arrogance would be his downfall, she guessed, just as it had been in the past.
When he had approached their table she had thought he was on to her and was ashamed to say she was relieved when he focused his attention on Gabrielle. She watched Malucu try to control Gabrielle with his voice, then with the parchment he passed her, that she suspected had a command on it that she would by then be compelled to obey. His next move was to slip a power in her drink. Yet Gabrielle, who looked innocent of knowing about such deceitful tricks, managed to avoid each attempt. Was it because of her close association with the Warrior Princess?
His ring trick while she was telling her story also failed. Alala realized that if she was going to watch over Gabrielle, she needed to remove her from Malucu's presence, for she had witnessed the outcome of his short temper while she had trailed him. He wasn't going to be happy about all his failed attempts in one night. She also worried about how long Gabrielle would hold out under his pressure. For all the politeness he was showing Gabrielle she could see the anger whirling around him. Why did he want Gabrielle? For whatever reason, Athena had asked her to protect her.
Alala closed her eyes briefly before she continued on about their hurried flight from the town. Malucu's pursuit of them was slowed down only because Alala knew where Malucu kept his horse. She had let the horse loose while she was getting Yori and Argo ready. On her return trip to get Gabrielle she had spotted Malucu in the tavern's shadow arguing with a very dark shadow in the closed tavern's doorway. She had timed their departure very close.
They had done well to evade Malucu's scouts for a day. The second day they encountered a small group of men that kept both women busy fighting and fleeing. Alala knew of a place they could take cover for the night and wanted to scout it out first.
"I had used it when I was following Malucu from Aegae. I didn't think he knew about it but I was worried by the type of men he had hunting for us and needed a good place to hide for the night." Alala closed her blue eyes for a moment as she realized where her mistake was. "I found hints that someone was in the area and I wanted to know who. I should have high tailed it back to Gabrielle."
"And?" Lily asked breathless.
"While I was away they captured Gabrielle. I found her staff and a dart in the dirt. I followed them. I got sloppy when I was looking at one of their campsites for evidence of what they were giving her to keep her unconscious. They got me with a dart and I'm now here."
"What did you find?" Lily asked.
"Some blood and the remains what appeared to be the contents of Gabrielle's of her stomach. I have a leaf wrapped with some of the remains and the dart in my bags."
"So where were you following them to?" Aleka asked.
"To Madras, but they've changed direction. They've been following the Chitian road but instead of taking it in the direction of Madras, to the west, they've taken another route going south."
Aleka's face and eyes were unreadable as she kept Alela in a light trance. "Malucu." It suddenly made sense. She remembered now who he had been. She had first heard of him when he was a high priest at Ares' Temple in Madras. He kept getting Ares irritated with his own sense of importance and methods of messing with Ares' followers. Ares was the god of war not slight of hand. His joy was taken from the battle rage and excitement not the subtle manipulation of people's minds for Malucu's own personal enjoyment. Not a good habit to have for a priest of Ares Temple.
"He's been riding with a new group that follows the Dark One from days of old."
"What do you think kidnapping a bard has to do with this?" Aleka asked. She had a shrewd guess of her own.
"I think he wants Ares favorite to turn against him completely, to the extent that Ares has to kill her."
The eyebrows of the older woman rose. "Her?"
"Xena. All he has to do is to make it look like Gabrielle was sacrificed in one of Ares Temples. Xena is reputed to have a short temper when it comes to her friends safety."
Aleka was quiet for a moment as she studied the red haired warrior. "She is no longer his chosen." Aleka took a deep breath and glanced sky ward. She snapped her fingers and waited as if in thought.
Alala's eyes lost their distant look and she sat still for a few moments remembering what she had told the group that was sitting around her. "Athena! The woman's better than Malucu! No warning!" Alala thought with no resentment.
Alala shifted her attention to the sky where Aleka was looking. She watched a familiar dark shape rushing toward them, growing larger as it neared.
"We took the liberty of sending a message with your friend." Aleka mentioned as Lily handed a freshly filled water skin to Eleanor.
The owl landed near her mistress. Removing the pouch from her feathered friend Alala handed the pouch to Aleka. She pulled the small bit of parchment out and read it. Her face became unreadable and her eyes took on an icy cold look. She handed the note to Agnes who was closest to her and motioned for the others to prepare to leave. Agnes read it soundlessly then motioned to Lily.
"Well?" Lily asked worried as she watched Aleka walk quickly to her bay that was grazing on a nice area of sweet grass.
"Malucu has her."
"We aren't going to let her perish." Lily said matter of factly to Agnes, who nodded. "Aleka, wait! Where are we going?"
Aleka paused as she was already sitting in the saddle. She was bound by a promise and she knew of the consequences if she broke it. This journey wasn't her choosing, but she did take the responsibility, she reminded herself. Lily told her what she needed to hear but didn't stop to ask. Gabrielle had become part of their journey.
"It will take a few candlemarks to get there." She remarked stiffly.
"Then let's go quickly." She looked into the blue eyes that had become unreadable as she placed a hand on her arm. "This is our battle too. She's our Queen."
"It is also what this journey is about. Whatever happens along our way, it is part of the journey." Agnes reminded both women. She made sure the tall woman knew that they were committed to her need to protect Gabrielle and that it didn't have to be a divided loyalty issue.
"Are you sure?"
"Don't even think about leaving us behind." Lily warned with Agnes beside her smiling in grim agreement.
"Even if it were not Gabrielle, we would insist on rescuing her." Agnes added.
"We're all in this together." Lily affirmed.
Aleka sighed and nodded. That was a big problem. She didn't know what she was getting them into. She couldn't help but compare the original journey to the present. Would this be what would cause them to fail in this journey? It was her own indiscretion that caused them to fail in the other journey, part of her self reminded her. Right now Gabrielle's life was more important, her other self argued. And, like Lily pointed out, even if it were not Gabrielle, she would have suggested to the others that they do something about it. That realization cleared her conscious.
"So, where do you think he will be taking her?" Lily asked as she moved her own horse quickly beside Aleka at the front of the line. The others were passing the word down as they quickly fell in behind their two leaders in a new direction.
"To the south of here to an old abandoned temple to Ares. It use to be an old warlord, Lado's personal temple he set up for Ares. Ares favored him for a while until he got sloppy in his sacrifices."
"Hmm. Should I ask why he abandoned it?"
"Nothing traumatic - to us." Aleka had a feral smile that reminded Lily of the feared warlord she had first met.
Aleka looked back to the sky at the hawk that was heading for the cart. "We won't take the route Malucu is taking. I know a back route that is so much faster." Lily missed the glint in the blue eyes, as she looked upward.
"How do you know he isn't taking it?"
"If he's on the main road, it doesn't cross the back path we're taking until a quarter candlemark from the village, and that's where we're going to get him."
"But we've lost a day."
"Like I said, we've got a shorter route." This time Lily saw the glint in the eyes that turned to azure. "Why don't you see what Alala's messenger has to say to her? We'll use her air borne eyes to see where they are now."
Aleka led them down a path that could barely be called a path. Unbeknownst to the group, Aleka was following the gray she wolf. The area was bordered on all sides by rocky cliffs but the way they entered. She pointed to a group of bushes. "There's an opening to a large cave behind those bushes. Try not to bruise them too much. The cart can be rolled over them if you bend the top back gently." She instructed the women who were given the chore of moving the cart into the cave.
The only reason she was not moving quicker toward where she wanted to intercept Malucu and his friends was that she had a feeling they would need a safe place in case Gabrielle was too injured to be moved right away. Aleka needed to check on the caverns she knew were on the way but not too close to the old village. They were the same she had used for the care of her injured soldiers and at other times when she was in the area and needed to lay low for a while.
Two women would be left behind to guard it. It was easily defended. Aleka's thoughts returned to Gabrielle, as Lily chose the two that were to remain behind. She was certain that if Gabrielle were not alive she would know it. It was her condition that was leaving her uneasy.
The women's eyes opened wide when they found once inside the entrance it opened up into a large cavern that slopped down to a large underground lake.
"We can store the horses we don't use here until we get back. You can use the cart to block the entrance so you have added protection." Aleka told Grace and Brona; the two unhappy women who lost the straw pull and would be remaining behind. "We'll need to have a fire and a sweat lodge ready when we return." She instructed the two. She was thinking about the mixture of herbs that Alala had showed them that Malucu was forcing Gabrielle to drink. Some of the herbs she was allergic too.
It took less than a quarter candlemark for the woman to get ready and Aleka used that time to figure out what she wanted to do. She drew in the dirt floor a map of her plan for the women to see. Alala's ordeal seemed to have passed for she insisted she was feeling strong enough to join them. Her information of the area that the falcon she had sent to look over was worrisome to Aleka. Gabrielle was slung over the horse like a sack. If the anger over the treatment of Gabrielle's was just Xena's she wondered if she would have been able to keep the connection with Aleka open. However, Aleka's anger was next to Xena's and she found herself trying not to think of what she was going to do with Malucu when she got hold of him.
"All right, anyone have any questions?" Aleka looked around. From what Alala described to Aleka the terrain their prey was traveling over, Aleka estimated they were going to beat them to the site by about a candle mark. The most important part was that Gabrielle was still alive as Alala's returning falcon informed her.
"Then let's mount up."
The women didn't waste time as they led their mounts out of the cavern, quickly mounting and taking up the fast pace Aleka set. For a brief moment Aleka wrestled with her divided heart trying to not feel she was once again leading the circle of friends into unnecessary danger. The image of the gray she wolf appeared in her minds eyes.
Whether you knew this person that was held captive or not, you and the Amazons would have volunteered to rescue her, the wolf pointed out. And because it is the Queen of the Amazons, they would have insisted on it. Aleka took a deep breath letting out the tension that was tensing her shoulders.
It was a half a candlemark later that they made it to the beginning of the path Aleka knew of. Horses and riders were tired from the fast pace she had set. The gray wolf ran ahead of them as if she knew where Xena was taking them. Stepping onto the faint path, Aleka led the way into the dark shadows of the overgrown forest where undergrowth pressed closely around them. The she wolf trotted down the dark path with her head swinging from side to side as if looking for something.
Alala was close behind Aleka. The falcon came fluttering down through the branches and landed on the extended arm Alala presented it.
"They are over the second hill." She informed Aleka.
Aleka nodded and continued her progress looking on the ground and within the trees for anything that was out of place. Finally Aleka stopped and dismounted.
It was almost dusk. Lily could see on the other side of the bushes a rutted and overgrown road that ran alongside of the faded path they had been following. She knew it was a road because the land on both sides of the road was not passable and sloped up. The path they were on and the old road ran alongside for about twenty strides before the road did a dogleg sharply to the right.
Aleka motioned for Alala and the others to come closer.
"There are traps on the main road. Be very careful of them if you have to pursue anyone that way. We'll set our own along here. We need to get Malucu and his group dismounted, then scare the horses back out this way."
They all nodded.
"There's little room to maneuver, so we'll use bows."
"Pick them off." Lily nodded looking up into the trees on where to place her archers.
Alala watched as the Amazons and their young trainees dismounted and moved up the faint path with purposeful strides to where Lily had indicated. They were good positions. Aleka approved.
Aleka motioned to Alala and Lily to follow her. Remounting, their horses moved quickly after Aleka in single file. Aleka didn't seem to fear any traps but Alala could feel an increase of energy around her. The pulse of something unclean began to make its presence felt as the women approached the backside of what they were hoping was an abandoned village.
They pulled up at the edge of the dense forest that overlooked a clearing that had a scattering of old buildings covering it. As Alala looked closer in the graying light she could see the unlivable condition of the buildings.
The dropping sun disk sent fading light onto the old abandoned temple's walls that were now covered with vegetation and sagging with neglect. There was something Aleka needed to remember and it kept skirting the edge of her memory. The uncomfortable feeling of being watched was causing her muscles to twitch. Aleka closed her eyes for a moment letting the memories she was preventing from surfacing to finally come up. .
Lado had turned from Ares and was bringing in a new power that he had claimed would take the place of the Greek's gods. It wasn't Dahak. Then Ares had a new conquest under his wing. A new chosen and she was Xena. Her assignment was to kill Lado and his followers and remove what was contaminating his Temple. It wasn't an elaborate temple, it was the point of it, and Ares had told her.
Xena was too infatuated with the power of Ares that was running through her at the time to wonder why Ares hadn't removed the offensive statue that was in his temple himself. However, when she followed the one-eyed high priest of the Dark One out of the burning temple before she slew him she got a taste of the burning power. If Ares hadn't been there to pull her back she wondered if she would have gone up in flames.
Aleka opened her eyes as she let the story run though her mind. The she wolf was sitting so she faced the old village. She turned her yellow eyes on Aleka then rose and trotted to the corner of the forest. Aleka turned her mount around and watched the she wolf paw at some leaves. A glint from where she was digging caught Aleka's attention.
Dismounting, Aleka picked up a stick from nearby and disturbed the leaves that were covering a small gold statue. Aleka could feel both Alala and Lily crouch on either side of her. There was as unpleasant chill that ran up her arms.
"It's evil and it still has power to draw from." Alala informed them softly. "That symbol on the shield is what I saw on the cloaks of the men Malucu is with and on Malucu's ring." She pointed at the shield the ugly squat body held. Parts of its fangs gleamed through the dirt stuck on its face.
"Is this why he changed his direction?" Lily asked.
"No. I think he changed it because his intended sacrifice isn't doing too well." Aleka's voice was grim. "This place was probably going to be for another day."
"Hmm." Lily looked in the hard blue eyes that scared her sometimes. "We're just going to have to upset both of his plans."
"Let's get ready." Aleka growled in agreement and let the vines that she was holding fall back, recovering the golden statue.
Lily exchanged a knowing glance with Alala who nodded and remained with the statue. Lily had confidence that Alala could handle whatever needed to be done. Whatever weakness Alala may have felt from being poisoned Lily couldn't see any residue as the warden moved confidently in front of the covered statue. Lily noted that her owl had moved from her saddle to a branch overlooking the statue.
When Alala no longer felt the others presence she pulled out her stones that Athena had told her to carry. She encircled the area the statue was in with the crystals and at the base of each crystal she placed a stone. She called upon the more ancient Gaia, to protect the earth below the statue and to watch her back. Alala's old grandmother followed the ways of another in the lands of Phygia. It was to that power she hummed to and moved as she wove her power base from. The energy around her started to hum and crack. Old power was needed to drain another old power, she thought as she felt the power wind up her back like a serpent up a tree.
The power from the statue began to rise and a buzzing started which increased steadily. Alala guessed that the High Priest to the Dark One, who was to reclaim the statue, was getting nearer. She could feel the pressure of the energy trying to escape her ring. There was a tentative pushing against her barrier as she kept up her soft chant and concentrated on keeping the energy contained. The humming from her own body vibrated into the earth but she was beginning to feel the disruption of the Dark One who was becoming more forceful at testing what was keeping it contained. The High Priest must be very near for Alala felt a surge of energy that was like fire running along the outside of her body. It took her by surprise. The hair raised at the nape of her neck and somewhere her owl screeched. She continued to concentrate on the field of energy she was generating to keep the Dark One from focusing and magnifying its power through the totem, it small statue. She was aware that the High Priest was sending out his thoughts to the where abouts of his master's power piece.
Alala again heard the owl screech and the feel of her wings brush her shoulder as she wavered from another shock of pain that burned her hands that were clutched on her knees. The energy from within the circle again attacked the surrounding field that was keeping it in. With each thrust against her own barrier she felt her energy level drop but she was relieved to also feel the energy from the power diminish. Alala changed the rhythm and the words to her chant as she began to focus on breaking the connection of the object to the power.
"You cannot. Don't waste your energy." A familiar voice whispered in her ear. "Just concentrate on draining it." The voice instructed.
Alala took a deep breath and refocused her thoughts on just maintaining the barrier that would not let the power object extend its pull or connection outside the area of the small statue.
It seemed a long tiring time had passed when Alala felt only a feeble pulse from within the enclosed circle. She placed both her palms on the earth to stretch her back and was surprised to feel energy from the earth rising up her arms. Refreshed, she glanced around and saw only darkness about her. She could see her owl's eyes near by and the dark outline of Yori, whose saddle horn the owl was roosting on. A figure stepped forward from the dark, it was Camila.
"Are you alright?" She asked concerned.
Alala nodded, then turned her attention back to the statue. She finished up with what she needed to do to make sure that the statue would not harm her in its now drained state and prepared to return to the cave.
Aleka and Lily rechecked the positions of the others. Nothing was to be left to chance.
"Well done!" Aleka said softly to Lily as they walked their horses back up the path. Camila took their horses from them and led them to where they had hidden the others.
Aleka heard the swoosh of wings through the trees. It was the falcon. The owl had remained with Alala, whom Aleka knew was going to watch over the statue.
A soft night animal called which was followed by the soft sounds of arrows being notched. In the deepening darkness little could be seen in the forests overgrowth and within the trees whose silent watchers blended in with the dark branches.
Aleka found a tree branch that was high enough to watch the others from and the path they were keeping an eye on. Though the women blended in with their environment and the path was fading fast in the shadows as day light deteriorated, Aleka's sharp sight and senses knew where each person was and where the path was between the brush and trees. She listened as the day sounds changed to night. A stiff breeze that hinted of a chilly night rustled the few leaves that were still in the trees. Small animals that were no longer afraid of the visitors in their back yard were settling down for the night in the dried leaves. The falcon had moved to her left side just within touching distance. She could see the eyes as they studied her intently.
Aleka's ears picked up two sets of falling hooves. The advance scouts. As they came closer she could see their dark forms moving slowly as if looking for something on a tree trunk. Aleka smiled as she knew it was a mark that was made many winters earlier for another small raiding army. It was the only opening in the thorn bushes that separated the two passages to Lado's dead village. Otherwise the thorns from the brush that lined that side of the road would tear at the horses and their riders legs. It wasn't a secret that Lado had laid traps when the camp was bustling with daily activity and she didn't know of anyone who would want to remove them since the village had no advantage except it was isolated.
She could detect the sound of pulling away of vines as the scouts were probably making the "X" stand out better in the dimming light for those that were close behind them. The two moved onto the path.
Aleka looked toward where she knew Lily was hiding. She could see the sign she made behind the men to let them pass halfway up to their destination before eliminating them. Aleka's ear caught the sound of more hooves -- a larger group -- nine riders. The horses were breathing hard and sounded tired except one. It was nervous and twitchy. She could hear it's uneven gait as if it was not happy with its load. Was that Malucu's mount? Probably. Alala said the horse didn't like Malucu. It sounded like they were pushing to make the buildings for the night. Very good. It also meant they hadn't been there before or they would have known it wasn't safe to set up camp in the run down village before checking it out in daylight. An old wall may collapse on those sleeping near by.
Aleka could see the torches of the approaching party near the crossover from the trail to the small path. She studied the nervous stallion and its rider and turned over in her mind how she was going to get to the dark sack like bundle that was slung over the front of his horse. Planning kept her anger at bay.
Malucu pulled the dancing stallion in front of the tree that one of the men was waving a torch under. "That's it." The stallion's coat shined in the torchlight and Aleka knew it was from the nervous sweat.
Aleka could see more clearly a gray form draped like a sack over the restless horse's neck. She kept her hands still as she mentally remembered to still her thoughts for they could be felt by the high priest Malucu had with him.
She had positioned herself where she could get a good shot at him in case the others failed. She wanted him separated from the nervous stallion so he would not get a chance to use Gabrielle as a hostage. There was no where in the dense brush for his men to fan out and the thorny bramble bushes would keep them from trying. It was one of the reasons why Lado had picked this area to hide his small village.
It appeared this was the rest of Malucu's group, if what Alala had reported was correct. She shifted her glance to the end of the group. It was going too smoothly. She distrusted an easy skirmish as much as a well-laid plan that showed no flaws. She could feel the nervousness from some of the dark riders as they moved onto the path that allowed them little protection. Maybe they felt the women's eyes on them. She could see dark shadows swivel around in their saddles as if expecting something.
Malucu was pulling angrily at the stallion's mouth as it moved with a choppy gait, more out of reaction to its rider and the unconscious body that was flopping against its leg. He was too busy fussing with the stallion to pay attention to his surroundings. The figure in front held up his hand. It was the high priest. He probably felt the energy of the statue as she had. Aleka flinched as she thought of the discomfort of being carried in that position for long periods.
"The statue is somewhere around here. I can feel it." He muttered over his shoulder to Malucu.
Malucu quickly dismounted, as did the others. He had heard about the lost statue and finding it would make up for not killing Gabrielle at Madrus. He heard whoever held it would hold power. He intended to shortly be that person.
"Give me the dam torch so we can see where we're going!" He angrily ordered the man behind him.
Aleka was thinking how important all this must be if they were doing all the things a cautious person would not do. Approaching a small village believed to be deserted at night with torches lit was not something she would have done. Nor travel down a dim path with a valuable captive and not pay attention to the sounds around her. There was no night life sounds, but then again, perhaps that is the effect they had on their environment and were use to it.
Aleka watched as Malucu impatiently slapped the stallion when it bumped into him. He tossed the reins to one of the darkly clad guards grabbing the man's torch and moving to the edge of the path. The stallion was fighting the new handler trying to back away from the torch Malucu was swinging back and forth along the path. The horse of the handler had no one holding its reins as the horses could only walk single file between the trees and was reacting to the stallion's restlessness. The man leading his horse behind the lose horse finally remounted his horse rather than get kicked by the other horse.
One mounted. It could be trouble. Aleka looked over the rest. She could feel the tension mount in the group of men as they moved closer to their destination. The trap had to be closed now.
As if reading her mind, the women took down the first two men at the back of the line with Camila standing nearby to guide the horses back out. The rest of the women loosened their arrows the moment the first two men dropped and the air had the distinctive sound of arrows in mid flight. Four more dropped and the others moved behind their mounts using them as shields while drawing their own weapons. An arrow impaled Malucu's right shoulder. It would slow him down for he had no chance to stop the bleeding or pull the arrow out. He had regained possession of the stallion's reins as the man behind fell, but the stallion was going crazy with the air swishing with arrows. The torch that was dropped at his feet was not put out completely. Malucu was jerking the bit in the stallion's mouth angrily.
The rest of the horses were backing up frantically, unable to turn around, dragging the remaining dark figures back toward the road, away from the wild stallion. Malucu's horse finally had enough and easily broke loose knocking him down. He reared up trying to loosen the dead weight that was slung over his front legs but it only moved the weight so that it slid uncomfortably down under his stomach. This frightened the stallion that had managed to turn around rearing up on two legs, and he plowed through the other horses making a mad dash back to the open road.
Aleka didn't need to look at the others for she could hear how busy it was. She whistled her intention to follow the stallion hoping in its frantic run its hooves would not kick the body hanging below its stomach. Aleka hit the road moving fast. She punched out one of the black cloaked guards who tried to prevent her from going after the stallion, which proved to be a very bad mistake on his part. Aleka's suppressed rage was behind the one blow, jerking his head back so hard it broke his neck. She grabbed his horse's saddle horn and vaulted onto its moving back.
She followed the gray she wolf who seemed to know exactly where the stallion was running. Before her was a rise where she could see the silhouette of another horse waiting and nuzzling the jumpy stallion. Aleka pulled up before coming too close. The golden horse nickered at her and nuzzled the stallion that nervously twitched from the discomfort of the hanging weight below his belly.
Aleka moved slowly talking softly. She had her knife out and quickly sliced the binds on the horse's neck that held the hands and ankles of his unwanted baggage. Aleka caught the body as it dropped. She hugged the body close trying to will some sign of life from the unconscious form. The body was cold. She felt for a pulse.
She could hear hoof beats headed her way. The stallion danced away from the golden mare that had been following him at a distance for days. Aleka touched the wrists and ankles feeling the swelling from the binds that held her secure on the horse. Gently she touched the bruised face letting her fingers gently feel for damages all the while controlling her rage.
Eleanor was beside Aleka with her herb pouch and water skin. Agnes put a hand on Aleka's shoulder. They had the foresight to bring one of the torches their quarries had brought relighting it to reveal an unrecognizable battered face.
"She's weak but alive." Aleka told her. "She's going to need a lot of liquids. Her mouth is too dry."
Eleanor nodded as she gave the unconscious woman some liquid then squeezed the juice of a succulent leaf on her swollen lips then dabbed gently around the swollen orbs. "The liquid from this leaf should have some of the swelling down by the time we get back to the cave." Eleanor told her.
The golden mare nuzzled Aleka's shoulder. Absentmindedly she freed one hand and raised it to scratch the jaw as Eleanor looked closely at the face in the torchlight.
"We'll need to get her into better light so we can see what damage she's suffered. She's breathing very shallow." She quietly observed.
Aleka didn't say anything as she carefully wiped away dried blood from around her nose. She could see the swollen lips parted as if breathing through her nose was not possible. All thoughts were focused on the person in her arms treading a precarious line between losing her touch with Aleka due to her anger. Carefully she held the unconscious woman close to her while giving Argo the signal to drop. Once aboard Argo she gave her the signal to rise. She didn't notice the two riderless horses following as the women headed back to the caverns.
The ride to the cavern was smooth as it could be. Softly Aleka whispered to Gabrielle as she traveled as fast as she could. Gabrielle's body was giving off feeble spasms as she struggled against Aleka's hold. No sounds came from her. It wasn't a good sign.
Some returning Amazon's and their trainees joined Aleka and her burden before she reached the cavern. They arrived at the cavern a half a candlemark later. Gabrielle's unconscious form was moved quickly to the edge of the underground lake. A small shelter had been built. The smell of the herbs permeated the air. Eleanor placed her hand on Aleka. "I will sit with her. You need rest for the second half of this. We will need to get the poisons out of her before she can heal her body. You have taught us the touch to release poisons. We will use that too. Please rest!"
Aleka was going to object when she looked at Agnes who had put a hand on her arm. "We will start the process, Named." Her soft green eyes told Aleka more.
Aleka took a shuttering breath and let them take Gabrielle's body from her arms. With a tight unreadable face she retreated to a corner of the cavern and wept. Gabrielle's face in the flickering light was so swollen she didn't recognize her features. If Lily hadn't told her Malucu was dead, she would have went out and made him regret he had touched her. In her corner Xena struggled to maintain her connection with Aleka and grieve over what had happened to Gabrielle. The guilt of leaving her behind and of past experiences of doing the same with equally life endangering misadventures befalling the Bard did not ease her heavy heart.
Alala and Camila arrived later in the night tired but pleased with their job. The owl was perched on Alala's saddle eyes open wide and looking about the cavern. They both were handed hot tea. Alala studied the still seated form of Aleka in the dark corner for a while before she moved toward her. Lily had not returned from scouting the parameter for the two who had escaped. Malucu and his high priest had been killed.
The bright blue eyes caught hers and held them for a moment. There was nothing readable in those eyes.
"Alala. Did you take care of the statue?" The dark haired women finally asked.
"Its power has been drained." She held it up for Aleka to look at. Aleka glanced at it but it held no interest to her. She had been dozing fitfully waiting for the others to get out of the sweat shelter. She remembered that only weeks ago she would not have been dozing at all but impatiently waiting if not taking part in the cleansing. One of the changes in her was that she found she needed to rest more. Sleeping a few hours every few days was not an easy feat any more.
"There's a place I need to take this and melt it down." She told Aleka. "I need to leave Gabrielle with you while I do this. Would you mind?"
Aleka looked back at her with hooded eyes. She wasn't about to let Gabrielle out of her presence and was fighting back the biting remark when Lily stepped in.
"We insist you do." Lily told her as she dropped tiredly near Aleka. "She is our Queen and our responsibility."
Aleka returned her attention to the small shelter where smoke from burning herbs rose. She watched as Agnes and Grace changed positions.
It was seven candlemarks later that the shelter was finally removed and a tired Eleanor motioned for Aleka and Lily.
"She needs to be immersed in the cold waters then it will be only time. She's made it past the worst part. In her weakened condition she survived the cleansing. That is saying a lot of her will to live."
Aleka nodded and gently picked up the drenched woman from the bedding made from branches of the agnos tree. Her body was hot and stained with the poultice that had coated her body to pull the toxins out. She could also see her face had been coated with salve to counter the swelling. In the cold pool of water from the underground lake she let the body soak watching Gabrielle's breath catch and the pulse in her neck quicken. That was good. She leaned close to the woman's ear and told her a story she thought the Bard would like to hear. She stroked the blood from her hair with her free hand. Grace entered the water with her and assisted in the cleaning.
Grace didn't miss the anguish that showed in the darkened blue eyes that occasionally glittered in the torchlight.
Aleka studied the body as it floated in the waters picking up the bruises under the herb stains and noticing the swelling on her arms, legs, and face. The face swelling had gone down a considerable amount to where she could easily recognize the features as belonging to Gabrielle. She realized that Agnes and Eleanor were right. If she had seen Gabrielle with all her bruises Xena's rage would have undid the connection with Aleka. She took a deep breath and let her tears fall as she comforted the unconscious body that she cradled tenderly. Grace sang a tender tune for a child as she gently cleaned out the poultice from the wounds on the legs.
As the body cooled down and the last of the poultice was washed off Aleka carried her unconscious patient back to a blanket that was prepared for her.
Eleanor had a liquid ready to give her. "She needs to have her strength rebuilt slowly. Apparently she was allergic to whatever they were trying to pour down her. Whatever did get to her kept her unconscious and from feeling some of the pain."
Aleka nodded numbly. Taking another deep breath she began to work on the points that would increase Gabrielle's metabolism and enhance the body to fight the poisons. Aleka remembered that it was important to keep right mind when touching another for healing purposes and closed all thoughts that would interfere with her intent.
"Why don't you hold her and I'll start giving her some of this soup? It has some herbs that will further speed up her healing on the wounds inside her." Eleanor suggested when Aleka finished.
Aleka leaned against the log her bedroll was placed and held Gabrielle with her head against her breasts. She watched tiredly as Eleanor poured trickles of the liquid between the swollen lips massaging the swollen throat gently. "Grace, get me some of that salve from my pouch for her throat."
Grace pulled a small wooden container out. She smeared the ointment around the throat and Aleka could see it disappear quickly into the skin. Aleka was familiar with the salve.
Eleanor resumed her slow feeding of Gabrielle. Agnes came over to Aleka and got her to move forward so she could place a warm fur cover over her wet form. Aleka wasn't aware that her skin was cold.
Erica knelt near Aleka looking at Lily and Aleka. "Alala has left to get rid of the statue. She's afraid the statue may have enough residual power to draw the two guards to us."
Lily looked up from Gabrielle's still face and nodded to Aleka. "We'll be staying here for a day or so then move on." Aleka informed her.
Lily nodded. "That should give us a break from the weather and we can get some more practice drills in." She smiled ruefully. "For those of us who sustained some injuries a days rest will help.""
"We'll need some herbs for the bruises. We're running out." Agnes mentioned.
Aleka nodded. "There might be some along the stream. It's late in the season but there'll be a good chance you can find roots. The moon isn't right for picking, but it will have to do."
Erica nodded. "I'll take Grace and Eleanor down there and they can look for what they need."
"Practice drills are a good idea, Lily." Aleka sighed as she felt the body she was holding twitch.
"Right. You can join us. You need it."
Aleka knew what she meant. She was tight and did need to let loose, but not now. Everyone was nervous about Gabrielle's condition.
For a day Aleka took turns with the healers tending Gabrielle. The herbs brought the swelling further down on her face and the bruises on her legs and arms. A mace had been taken to her legs but the packing of herbs that were for deep bruises had taken most of the bruising color and swelling down. Her chest and back were also covered with bruises. Gabrielle was lucky they didn't want to break any bones, for her chances of making it to the temple alive would have been nil.
"Jeez. The guy sure wanted to piss someone off." Lily hissed as she helped Aleka move her on her side for Eleanor to smear another layer of the paste on her back. The unconscious woman groaned and moved only slightly.
The day was long for the women. Everyone had a furious workout working off rage at Gabrielle's maltreatment.
On the second day, before dawn Aleka rose with Gabrielle cradled in her arms and settled her in Eleanor's cart that had previously carried Alala's unconscious form. "It's getting to be a regular hospice on wheels." Eleanor remarked as she hopped up. She settled the herbs she needed and the extra water skins around her. The top was partially covered with sealskins so the weather wouldn't become too much of a problem. Furs were draped over the unconscious form to keep out the chill that hung in the early morning air. The light rain from the previous day had left a partially cleared sky and a lot of dampness.
"If she gets cold let me know and I'll sit on the other side of her. Three under those covers should be enough heat." Agnes mentioned to Eleanor.
Once back on the road the group moved the horses faster than what they normally would to make up some lost time and to get Gabrielle into a warm place. A light rain started again in the afternoon. The road that had partially dried out began to get muddy again. It slowed them down as the mud started caking the wheels of the cart and pulling at the horse's hooves.
Aleka looked up concerned and called back a warning. The scouts came back moving through the trees quickly.
"There's a small group of about four riders headed this way. They're from the next village. They don't look like trouble." Erica reported.
After moments a group of riders appeared huddled in the rain moving toward them at a slow walk. The leader pushed his horse toward Aleka who was riding forward to meet with him.
"Hey! I hope you're Sappho's Troupe!" He shouted relieved. "Our Temple priestess sent us out to look for you. She was concerned since you're a day late."
"We had a broken wheel." Aleka explained. It was a good thing they had a broken wheel from an earlier accident in case someone thought to check out their story. Small towns especially in the winter were notorious for gossip. She didn't want idle gossip for the wrong ears to get out.
Lily nodded at Aleka's glance toward her. She had a good guess what Aleka was thinking. As an ambassador her best sources of information were from idle chatter, or gossip. They hadn't found a smith to Aleka's satisfaction that could repair the type of break in the spoke in the previously visited towns so she was also hoping this town had a smith that met with Aleka's approval.
The leader nodded and tiredly turned his mount around to lead the way back to a warm meal and a dry bed.
Aleka didn't need to glance at Lily to know she was probably wearing a big smile just thinking of warm food with ale, a hot scented bath a clean soft bed. The next problem was how to get Gabrielle smuggled into a warm room without anyone seeing. She didn't believe that both of the black cloaks that had escaped would follow after Alala. They were capable of reporting their failure to others that could resume their search for Gabrielle. She knew from experience that the gods got pretty angry when some mere mortal thwarted a plan of theirs and she felt the Dark One was of the same mindedness. Those in power usually had that single mindedness. She knew all about that feeling, having been there once.
The young performers, minus their manager Aleka, were escorted to guest quarters behind the Temple of Athena. Due to lack of space the Amazons and Aleka were quartered at the Inn.
Lily and Aleka had looked over the guards at the temple to see if they had enough savvy to protect the young women if they were to be in danger and decided they were. However, the Amazons posted their own watch, as a precaution. Leave nothing to chance, Aleka had told Lily many times.
Though they were all tired, they gave a performance but a short version of a romantic poem, authored by Sappho of course. They offered to stay one more night and make up for the short performance, which their hosts were delighted about. Gabrielle's sudden bout with another fever was the real reason they chose to remain another day. The travel on the road had aggravated her condition.
Gabrielle was smuggled into the inn without any trouble and the Amazons and Aleka rotated shifts in caring for her.
"Berik." Aleka called softly. Berik had remained behind with Gabrielle while she had to be the manager to the short performance. She also had to make sure everyone that had seen the performance had left and the young priestesses were safely tucked into their quarters.
Berik had not heard Aleka step into the room and found herself dozing in a chair near the bed her Queen was sleeping in. She had coaxed the semiconscious young queen into drinking most of the herbal tea she had prepared for her, but it did not still her restless movements. Not knowing what else to do she sang little children's nighttime songs to her trying to sooth her disturbed sleep. She couldn't remember having sung so much without the addition of ale to help with the inspiration of lyrics and stamina to go through the entire night.
"Go get some sleep. I'll take over from here." She tapped the tired Amazon on the shoulder. Berik started as her eyes opened into the deepest blue eyes she had ever seen that close.
Aleka was quiet as she waited for the young Amazon to respond. Berik took a deep breath realizing she had been holding it.
"Sorry. I didn't realize I had fallen asleep." She mumbled hoarsely. Too much singing, she thought to herself.
Aleka checked Gabrielle's pulse feeling for the surface pulse then the deeper pulse. She turned to her own medicine pouch that was set on the chair near the bed and mixed something to add more fire to her energy. While the water was heating up she started to work on her points moving Gabrielle's body energy up a few notches.
She heard Lily enter the room quietly. "How is she?"
"Tired. The fever is breaking though."
Lily looked at the pale face in the softly lit room. "Yea. She looks like she's hanging in there. She sure is looking better."
"Can you get me that heated pot of water?" Aleka asked as she shifted her position to pick up the cup with the prepared herbs. Lily poured the boiling water into the proffered cup and watched as Aleka swirled it around and set it aside to steep.
"How are you doing?"
"Hmm. Do you need me for anything more? I'm kinda tired."
"No. Get some rest."
"I hope this delay helps her."
"She'll be all right." Aleka murmured as she concentrated on getting Gabrielle comfortable against her. She took the cup Lily handed her and tested its temperature. Satisfied she let a little of the herb tea trickle down Gabrielle's throat. She felt Gabrielle's chest raise and fall as if sighing. There was no sound.
"Right. Well, may Morpheus bless her sleep and yours too with pleasant dreams."
"Hmm." The mention of Morpheus brought memories she would rather not think about. She shrugged them off and concentrated on the woman in her arms.
After Aleka was satisfied Gabrielle took in enough of the herb mixture she cradled her in her arms letting her body's heat relax the unconscious woman's muscles that would recurrently spasm.
Aleka was suddenly awakened, as the spasms became struggling limbs trying to free themselves from her protective embrace. Soundlessly Gabrielle fought her frustrating Aleka who had no way of knowing what she was frightened of. She leaned close to Gabrielle's ear and whispered a story Aleka knew that would intrigue the Bard's imagination. It was from Aleka's time. She hoped it would counter whatever was running through her dreaming mind.
The next morning Eleanor visited with a new supply of herbs and to check up on their patient. Aleka had already bathed her and got her to drink more of the herb mixture she had mixed up. She studied the progress of the bruises and swellings over her body before covering her in clean linen.
"She's doing well, Aleka. Your reputation as a healer is certainly well earned." Eleanor smiled admiringly.
"I hardly think my herbs and touch are any better than yours." Aleka returned. She knew Gabrielle was healing faster than what was normal but didn't want to think of why. She decided being grateful was enough.
Eleanor shook her head. "Aleka, as a shaman's apprentice, you had and have the ability to speed up the healing process in yourself and in others you touch. The points you've been using are evidence of this ability."
"So, what has the Priestess told you?" Aleka changed the subject eyeing Erica who came in with Eleanor. There were some things about Aleka she was still trying to deal with and this was one that she wanted to deal with in quieter moments. Gabrielle had pointed out to Xena of the same healing ability.
Aleka returned her glance to Eleanor as she placed a cool cloth over Gabrielle's eyes to continue to work on the bruises around her eyes with the new herbs she had brought. Aleka breathed in the pungent odor of the herb.
"The priestess didn't say anything we don't already know." Erica answered. "She merely mentioned that the temple in Athens sent her a message via feathered messenger, to be on the look out for us. We are under Athena's protection for the sake of Sappho." She laughed.
Aleka snorted in disgust. "If any more goddesses get involved, we should ask them to join us on this journey."
"Hey. Let's not be opening up any possibilities with talk like that." Lily scolded her friend good-naturedly. "Can you imagine trying to get anything done and them never needing sleep or food? We wouldn't make it!"
"Come on, let's go out and see what they have for gossip in this town." Aleka nodded toward Eleanor who removed the cloth and resoaked it. The tension from worrying about Gabrielle was getting to her. She needed to get out and exercise. Normally the Amazon's and their young trainees would practice a few candlemarks in the morning and at night with her but when they were in the towns they found it was sometimes better not to draw attention to their skills.
Aleka spent the rest of the day wandering the market place listening for any information that may be helpful for their journey. She caught herself looking at things for Gabrielle. From there she went directly to the temple area where she would be needed to manage their last show.
After the drama, which was well received and got the approval of even the men in the audience, they all took advantage of the food and bathing tubs as they didn't know when they would get another chance at the luxury. Gabrielle's pulse had strengthened and the muscle spasms had not reoccurred since noon, which left Aleka relieved.
"Well, what did you find out?" Lily and Erica asked Aleka as she studied Gabrielle's face that was more normal looking. The black and blue bruises were now only fading yellowish green. The cuts on her lip were healing nicely with no swelling. Whoever was responsible for the fast healing, the women were grateful.
Aleka turned to them with a smile twitching the corners of her mouth. "What did you find out?" She asked back.
Lily laughed. "I asked first."
"Well, going the way we had planned is out. It seems there are too many hungry warlords and villages that would love to turn over a troupe of women to the slavers just as much as those priestesses that were rumored to be passing through. I also asked about the rumor of priestesses of Gaia passing through. It seems they are expecting nubile girls, not women."
Lily frowned. "Great. Child slavers. I guess Sappho's reputation and Athena's protection aren't enough.'
"Hmm, not through Thalis. They have different gods there. But, we can skirt around the Pindus Mountains by going through the small kingdom of Adris."
"Adris! You have to be kidding? We're all going to get stoned! I heard that the king is very unfriendly toward certain types of woman." Erica shook her head. "Like woman warriors, Amazons, people like that. The man believes women are only for breeding and service to his gender. Women can't even talk to a man without being labeled as a harlot then stoned to death!" Erika groaned.
"Actually, it's not that bad anymore. A warlord by the name of Menigines conquered it a few years back and he believes in Greek gods. He favors the Muses, as a matter of fact. There are small villages of his kingdom that are on the way to Crometh and he loves to have anyone going to Crometh stop and play for his people. Unlike his predecessor he only has one wife who is a personal friend of Sapphos." Lily informed her. "I've heard rumors he knew Sappho when they were children."
"What did he do with all the other wives?" Agnes asked curious.
"You mean the previous king's harem? I don't know."
"Oh?" Erica's eyebrows rose suspiciously. "So you think these people in his kingdom can change as easily as that?"
"We won't know till we get there. I'll send a message via this temple to see if Sappho can send some kind of door opener to him." Lily explained. "Like I said, he knew her as a child and his wife is a friend. I think…that may be enough."
The next morning they moved their luggage onto the rested horses and set out at a fast pace hoping to make up some lost time to their next stop. The cart was padded as much as they could to give Gabrielle as soft a ride as possible.
The unconscious woman could feel something trickle down the side of her throat. Hmm. She was actually feeling something. Ohhh. She didn't want to. Her head ached, her stomach was a disaster area, and her throat was parched, but the liquid that was moving down it was soothing. Where was she? She tried to move but nothing responded. She was in darkness but maybe because when she tried to open her eyes nothing worked. She felt herself enveloped in comforting arms and decided she would just sit at the edge of the darkness rather than go back where she had been, hiding in a dark cave. She was afraid of the eye that kept looking for her. Before now, she was sure it was going to find her. Now she wasn't sure. She could hear a murmuring over her but she couldn't make out what was being said. She leaned a little closer to the familiar heartbeat and voice. She forgot about the fire-mountain and the cries from that direction that caused her distress.
The young woman became partially conscious again as the heat around her became intense. She could feel water being given to her with something that made her feel better but the heat was terrible. She dreamed of the eye but it was far away and there was another that was standing next to her reading her a story. It was an old story of Gaia and of the peaceful life that everyone shared during that time. It was from one of the old texts the Amazon's had copied in their own library. She had read a similar one in Sappho's library. Crete was the last of the golden race Sappho's scrolls had said. For a moment she hesitated. What was I doing in Lesbos?
The sudden cold over her body caused her eyes to flutter and she weakly clung to a familiar body still not conscious enough to put her thoughts together. She was so tired of hiding from that eye. She listened as stories were whispered in her ear. They chased away her thoughts that kept returning her to a nightmarish fight with the strange looking creatures that chased her if she left her safe cave. The intense need to look for someone kept her trying to find a safe way out of her cave, but the stories took away the need. The stories were nice. She wished she had something to write these down with.
Awareness of her external environment came slowly. She felt a cool breeze over her hot face that brought the smell of rain. She could also tell she was in a cave from the smell of the stale past uses which the smoke from the fire and cooking food mingled with. Her stomach rumbled and she could feel someone holding her up as a spoon of liquid was poured down her throat. Her leg and arm muscles jerked as she weakly tried to push away thinking it was that same awful stuff.
"It's all right. It's soup." A woman's voice coaxed as she felt two large familiar warm hands hold hers still between them.
She could feel the warm liquid move pleasantly down her sore throat. "Hmm. It's - good." She got out hoarsely. It didn't sound like her voice at all.
"I'll tell the cook."
"I can't see." She panicked.
She could feel herself being moved to a more comfortable position, sitting up. She didn't hear the additional movement of someone moving away from her as the sudden cool air on her face and a stab of light hitting her eyes at the same time distracted her.
"Ho." She blinked a few times at the muted light in the cave that seemed like a glare.
Agnes laughed lightly as she wrung out the rag that had been draped over her eyes. She soaked it again then squeezed it out and reapplied it to the hot forehead careful not to cover the red eyes of her patient. There was no more swelling on her face but there were bruises that were now looking ugly and yellow.
"How are you feeling?"
"Better. Not to be so abrupt, but where am I?" She could feel her throat tighten from the effort to talk.
"In a cave between Destiny and Belton."
"Destiny?" She coughed from the effort, wincing from the pain. Her throat felt raw as if she had been screaming.
"It's a very small village that has one inn that acts as their town meeting hall, hospice and prison and whatever else the villagers need at the time.
She tried to clear her throat. Agnes gave her another sip of the soup.
"What's in this? I'll have to add it to my collection of trail recipes." She tried to joke, now barely getting anything more than a squeak out.
"It's a combination of many things. You need to rest and not talk. When you wake again, we'll tell you how you came to be in our care. Okay?" Agnes stroked her arm soothingly careful not to rub over a bruise.
"Hmm." She murmured as her eyes started to close again.
Agnes rose, leaving Grace near her and joined Aleka and Lily outside of the cave. "Do you have a plan B?" She asked the two with a grin.
Aleka sighed. Tartarus and compromises! "I'm going for a run and check out the parameter." She needed to think about this new development of things. Something that she had been guiltily thinking about anyway. Was it because of the dreams she was having the last few days? They were convoluted with the past and with thoughts of Gabrielle. She was worried about her. She use to feel a connection with her even when they were parted and now –she only felt the knot that was in the pit of her stomach. She needed to think of what they were going to do with her once she was well enough to travel on her own, to say nothing of what to do when she awakened again.
The gray she wolf enjoyed the run.
Lily's long frame was stretched out with her arms wrapped around her sitting up against a rock padded with her saddle. She was staring into the fire with a frown wrinkling her brow when Aleka came back from her inspection run. Lily glanced up at the sleek muscular woman who wasn't breathing hard. By the sheen on her legs it was a good run. She didn't need to tell Aleka they had to talk about plan B, if there was one.
Aleka got two cups of tea that someone had left steeping on the rock near the fire and sat next to Lily, handing her one. She stretched her legs out in front of her and waited for Lily to begin the conversation.
"We are not going to leave her behind." Lily spoke determinedly and in a low voice.
Aleka didn't look at her but continued to sip her tea. Were her hands shaking?
"She is our Queen and…" Lily took a deep breath, "I gave an oath that I do not regret, to Artemis, to protect her at all costs." She took another deep breath. "I've talked it over with the others and we've decided that you are the best qualified to figure out how we can continue with the covenant without breaking with it and caring for our Queen whom we also have a duty to." She turned to look at Aleka. "We believe she is part of this journey somehow."
Lily looked into her cup as if the floating herbs were interesting. "Have you noticed that details that were so clear when we started, about our original journey, are getting harder to remember?"
Aleka turned to regard the woman she called her friend with a twinkle in her blue eyes. She had come to the same conclusion about Gabrielle and also had noted her memories of the original journey were fading. She could no longer remember how Aleka looked or how any of the original members appeared. The important part was she couldn't remember what the original journey was about or why it failed. Of, course, everyone died, but why was what she didn't know and wondered if it was important. She did feel that Gabrielle was part of the journey but couldn't remember what her part was. She wasn't part of the circle of friends, she was sure of that.
Aleka had thought about her role as the leader during her run. Lily had told her she had changed in appearance a great deal with the merging of her personalities and the change of style of her clothing. It was odd that the merging made it easier for her to accept these women in her personal space though it did not lessen for strangers. One personality did not dominate the other as she had feared. Some of the new feelings and experiences were distracting such as when she rested a palm on a tree she could feel its life force or when holding an herb she could feel its healing properties as if they were talking to her. It was like the rock that she had kept for Gabrielle. She knew if she took the time she could hear what these different forms of life had to say but she didn't want to indulge in those feelings. She needed to stay focused on keeping everyone safe.
"On my run I did think of a few things. The original covenant was to go from point A to point B, to the Pythia in the sacred mountains by the thirteen moon, the end of the winter season. Our present journey for me is to stay focused on the Named and the other is not to speak of this journey to anyone outside of our group." She took a careful breath. "I also suspect Gabrielle's part of our journey." Aleka touched Lily on the shoulder to emphasize her next comment, "But I want you all to be sure this is your decision for she may have been the cause of the failure of the last journey." And this statement hurt for her to admit it.
"We thought of that. But Agnes said she remembered others joining the pilgrimage along the way and there had been a story teller amongst our group." She added hopefully.
Aleka stared into the flames. A nagging memory was just at the corner of her consciousness. She shook her head. She somehow didn't think Gabrielle was the storyteller. Interesting. Who could she have been in the other life?
"Well, I've been giving her suggestions while she sleeps to prevent her from recognizing me should she open her eyes when I'm around. I can keep her waking mind distracted with," Aleka smiled and moved her hand. Lily tried to pull her eyes away. She shook her head when Aleka stopped.
"Oh, yea." She shook her head. "It worked well with Alala and she said she was able to fight off Malucu's suggestions." She sighed.
"He was obvious." Aleka snorted. The problem was that she had been teaching Gabrielle how to recognize such tricks. Would she be able to continue keeping her from recognizing her when she was feeling stronger?
Both women watched the rain outside the cave entrance for a while, wrapped in their own thoughts.
"She's going to have reoccurring hallucinations." Aleka informed Lily softly.
She nodded. "While you were out on your run, Eleanor and Agnes had identified one of the ingredients of the drug Malucu used." Suddenly Lily angrily tossed a small stick into the fire. "Eleanor said he wasn't expecting her to live so he didn't care about the potency."
"He's lucky he's dead." Aleka muttered. "What did you do with Malucu's body?" Aleka asked changing the subject.
"Alala said Ares took it. Something about the ring he was wearing."
"Figures he wouldn't stay out of that. Some things don't change." Aleka muttered darkly.
"Athena thought he should know and we are under her protection as far as her believers are spread. Besides, Ares was looking for him. He left one of his priests in bad shape slung over one of his altars."
Aleka continued to stare in the fire. "Tell Gabrielle about the hallucinations when she can understand. She needs to know." Aleka turned and smiled at Lily. "We can also use it to put off the inevitable."
"So, you think she will see past your disguise?"
"Yea. I taught her how to recognize a spell being cast on her." Aleka frowned back into the fire. The important part is to get her to not say her name. She sighed. Gabrielle is smart and will figure I'm under some kind of under cover operation. The problem is, if we're to be alone together she might make a mistake. I'll just have to make sure that doesn't happen. She told herself with determination.
"We'll deal with it. Alala had mentioned to Erica before she left that she had received a message from her temple that Gabrielle had been given a warning to not mention her warrior friend's name." Lily patted her friend's shoulder and moved to her bedroll. "I think that was nice of someone to do that, don't you? But, we'll all be ready if it should come to that, of letting her know, I mean."
Aleka looked out at the darkness for a moment longer then tiredly moved to her own bedroll.
The next morning Aleka noticed that Eleanor was helping Gabrielle to sit up for soup. The bruises on her face were now just shadows. She was also getting her strength back faster than what Eleanor had estimated. That had mixed blessings.
Lily introduced herself to Gabrielle then entered into a serious conversation with her. Aleka wondered what they were discussing that had a frown on Lily's face and moved closer.
As she prepared the camp for their departure she listened to Lily's extraction of information from a conscious but weak Gabrielle. Lily wasn't ambassador at large for the Amazon Nation for nothing. Though she had a strong sense of loyalty to her Queen she also knew how to appease those that she had obligations to fulfill without endangering anyone. She had told Gabrielle about Alala's part and her need to depart with the statue.
"I don't really remember much." Gabrielle paused to gather her loose thoughts to tell her own story. It's so difficult to concentrate! "I remember looking for –my horse." She paused for a moment looking confused. "I think it was my horse." She muttered more to herself than to her listeners. "Then, there was darkness, pain and these horrid dreams." She was quiet for a moment then looked up at the figure of the tall dark haired Amazon kneeling before her. "I don't remember who I am." She whispered frightened. Tears started to trickle down her bruised cheeks.
Agnes wrapped her arms around her and let her cry.
"When the drug wears off you'll get your memory back." She told her confidently.
Eleanor nodded. "Your body's reaction to the poison you were given is what prevented most of it from getting into your system. You'll be having reoccurring hallucinations, dizziness and memory gaps until the last of the drug has worked its way out of your system."
The tearful Gabrielle took another sip of the tea Agnes held for her. She wrapped Gabrielle's cold fingers around the warm cup. When she finished Eleanor took the emptied cup from her and nodded to her cart that was packed and ready.
"You need to sleep as much as possible. The next village we should reach by nightfall. Those of us who act we usually stay in the Temple's quarters if they have rooms for guests. Some do. But we need to keep you hidden so you'll be staying with the Amazons in the inn.""
"Hidden?" Her fear returned.
"It's only a precaution." Lily soothed. "Come on. Let me help you over to the cart."
Gabrielle pulled herself into the back of the cart and found her arms shaking with the exertion. "Oh great." She groaned as she fell onto the soft pile of firs cushioning the bottom of the cart.
As the cart begin to move she let her thoughts drift back into sleep. Eleanor was singing a song she was practicing for one of their performances and it gave a nice safe feeling to Gabrielle's dreams.
It was dusk when the scouts returned to say they spotted a young boy napping under a tree along the road. Aleka prodded him with her foot, which brought him to his feet for a short time. He fell over backwards in fear. He had never seen Amazons before and Lily made sure he had a impressive experience of one.
The temple that was hosting them was too small to have guest rooms and the Inn was full to capacity from the people that had traveled to see the young troupe from Lesbos perform. So, the group ended up camping just outside of the village that night with the intent to give a mid afternoon performance and an evening performance. The weather held and there was no rain, only the chill of winter.
They left early the second morning before even the birds were up. They were behind the schedule they had roughly mapped out.
Eleanor and Grace kept Gabrielle busy with short walks to build up her strength. The walks would take place during the rest stops and when they made camp. Her limping walk wasn't strong enough to follow at the faster pace of the group's horses. The exercises were tiring and she usually slept after the walks. Aleka noted with satisfaction that she would automatically reach for her staff that was near her in the cart when she would get out to walk. Alala had left it behind.
The women had taken to calling her Red for the reddish look to her blond hair, until she came up with another name. It was a nickname Aleka had suggested to Lily with mischievous intent.
Gabrielle's dreams were still haunted by frightening things chasing or looking for her. Agnes gave her a sleeping herb that let her sleep deeply without the disturbing dreams. Aleka slept near her holding her and talking away whenever she felt the Bard move restlessly in her sleep. Gabrielle still made no sounds in her sleep and it worried Aleka.
It was the fifth day after Gabrielle's rescue that Aleka and Lily were at odds over their proposed route. Three of them studied a map for different routes to their ultimate destination. From the travelers they passed by on the road they kept hearing of a warlord nearby who was intent on forming his own mini kingdom covering their present route. Something was tickling the back of Aleka's memory. She studied the map again, this time letting her thoughts flow without trying to examine them. An image of the inside of a cavern flashed quickly in her mind's eye. Strong feelings came with the brief view. They were similar to what she had felt when Gaia had appeared to sanctioned their reuniting for this quest.
Agnes placed her hand on Aleka's sleeve. Lily was intent on tracing out her suggested route again on the map to notice Aleka's change of expression. Lily straightened and looked at Agnes for support for her proposal.
"What is it?" Agnes asked Aleka softly.
Aleka passed a hand over the map as if it were a seer's water dish.
"We will take this route." She slowly traced a line in another direction from Lily's.
Lily looked at it intently. "That's taking us in another direction." She stated flatly. This was not what Aleka had been proposing a few moments ago.
"We will take it." She repeated in a monotone. Aleka felt the need for solitude. A warm feeling that started at her feet and worked its way to her face was leaving her with confused feelings. It was intense and she wanted to experience it in solitude.
"Why?" Lily asked incredulously.
Aleka started to walk away, struggling to keep an unreadable face. The pressure she was feeling was getting stronger. She needed some private space to get herself together. That thought caused her to laugh in mockery at herself. Maybe she didn't want her two selves together, after all one was dead and long gone.
Lily's eyes narrowed and Agnes waved Lily to silence. "What's happening, Named?"
The title caused Aleka to refocus her thoughts on the young woman that stood in her path. Looking at her she could see another image overlay hers. It was of another in their original journey that had warned her that they might be in danger. The memory was brief and she shook her head to refocus on the present.
Aleka took a deep breath and tried to draw on her warlord discipline to keep herself together, but the image again flashed in her mind and the need to take the trail she had traced on the map. It was only candlemarks from where they were now. She looked up the road and could see the gray she wolf anxiously pacing.
"There's a cavern not far from here. We need to…" She took another deep breath as the pressure to take action increased. "We will go there and set a trap for this warlord." She told them hoarsely.
Lily looked at her then at Agnes. "We're not into eliminating warlords, Aleka."
"Lily, wait." Agnes put a hand on Lily's wrist. "Where are you feeling this?" She asked Aleka trying to keep peace between the two tall women.
Aleka took a deep breath again trying to ease the pressure she was feeling around her heart. She brought a hand to her chest and tapped a finger on her heart. "I – feel- it- here." She got out breathlessly. The tightening was increasing. "We've got to hurry."
She wasn't asking, she was telling, which was aggravating Lily.
Agnes silenced Lily with a tighter grip on her wrist. "She is the Named, Lily. She is our leader." She reminded her softly.
"Well at least tell me why we're going to fight this warlord! Ares tight leathers, woman! We're not –" Lily stopped suddenly cutting off the name she was going to bring up with Agnes's increased pressure around her wrist as a reminder.
Aleka didn't wait for Lily to recompose herself. She had caught up the reins of the bay, Itali and was on his back heading in the direction she needed to go, following the gray wolf that was loping into the direction of an old village. She struggled not to kick Itali into a gallop. When the grip around her heart eased she slowed her pace. Turning in her saddle she motioned to the Lily and Agnes.
"Keep those two mountains on either side of you. We're going to scout ahead." Aleka nodded to the two women who were to accompany her.
Aleka's recommended alternative route was though a forest whose branches made riding on horseback almost impossible. The top of the cart barely made it through. Aleka and two others went to scout ahead. Red was by then doing longer walks and carrying her staff to rebuild some of her strength. Her memory of who she was hadn't returned and she hadn't told anyone of what she wanted to be called so "Red" was usually what got her attention.
"What is with these aging warlords that want to settle down and figure taking advantage of a defenseless group of women would be a great way to finance their retirement?" Lily took an angry swipe at the offending branch that was too low for her tall form.
"I wouldn't call our group defenseless." Agnes remarked wryly as she watched the older woman struggle with her feelings. Agnes also felt something clutch her heart at the mention of the caverns. It was a mixture of fear and excitement. She knew Lily must have felt something for she had taken an open stand against Aleka's leadership for the first time on this journey. Usually she left her objections for Aleka and her ears only. What was in these caverns?
"What's wrong Lily, your leathers in a wad?" Brona quipped as the branch swung back in her direction. However, she wasn't as tall as Lily and had no concern and by the time her horse passed it the branch had returned to its natural position.
"Naww, Brona. It's the tight leather thing. She's hoping some young one will want to see if what's under it is what those tight leathers hint at."
"Young!" Lily snorted. "I don't want to spend my old age teaching someone something when I can be reaping the benefits of experience. As for tight, if it hadn't been raining so much these blasted things wouldn't be so uncomfortably tight!"
Red was listening to the banter and felt a familiarity to it. Her sensitivity to what was going on around her alerted her that something had changed amongst the women. Even the women who were teasing had become tense about something. She could feel anticipation within herself yet she didn't know from where it came from. Was it because they were going to take out a warlord? It's something she had participated in many times… suddenly she stopped. The image of a tall dark haired woman with piercing blue eyes had flashed through her mind when she thought of battle. Her heart beat faster. Who is she?
Leaning back against the supplies she let her mind wander going in and out of weird colored memories. Hallucinations or memories, she wondered?
Suddenly sounds, smells and colors became more intense. What is happening? She could see a dark speck in the sky that appeared to be following them. The sounds of horse's tails swishing magnified as well as their breathing. She picked up Argo's familiar snort as she nudged one of the other horses that may have bumped her. She had recognized Argo when she attempted her first short walk. She didn't realize she owned a horse. It just somehow didn't seem right.
She closed her eyes and could feel the air around her beating as if there was a rhythm, yesss, like a heart beat…Whoooaaa. This is toooo much!
She heard a horse snort amongst the trees a furlough from the road. How do you know it isn't one of ours? She asked herself. She closed out the sound of the cart and the women around her. Yes, there's a lone rider watching us. Is it one of the warlord's men? The horse was pawing the dirt impatiently. Her attention moved to the wind that brought a faint smell of horse and rider. It's definitely not one of us! By Aleka's orders no matter how cold the water is she has us bathe. A soft smile touched her face as she momentarily thought of their leader, whom she saw little of.
Abruptly she fancied herself sitting on a tree peering out of the forest. Her vision was strange for it saw things in different colors and perspective. Suddenly she realized her head had rotated so that she was looking at a figure that was approaching her upside down. Whoa! Owls might be use to this but she wasn't. Red put her hands to her head to keep things from spinning around. The figure that was approaching her was familiar.
"Hey. You all right?" Eleanor's concerned voice asked above Red.
Red opened her eyes wide and started to giggle from delight as she watched the colors around Eleanor's head and shoulders change. She watched fascinated as some colors deepened and others lightened as the worried woman studied her.
It's like watching a rainbow come to life! Why doesn't it seem strange to see this way? Of course, that's what I use to paint people's portraits. A frown crossed her face. When was that? She wondered.
In the knapsack Lily had given her from Argo's saddle, there were herbs, which she had no clue as to what they were for, ink, quills, sharpening implements for the quills, and a lot of scrolls filled with stories and a few blank ones. But no colors for paintings. Maybe I just do sketches while on the road.
Suddenly the colors around Eleanor's head changed as she became more worried with the expressions that crossed her patient's face.
"Wow! You – look – great!" Red breathed as the colors around Eleanor, to her delight, changed again. The sudden jolt of the cart over another rock or rut shook her out of her vision.
"I can hear and see," she paused and took a deep breath with her eyes closed, "and smell so much! There's a horse in the woods to our left whose hooves crushed bittersweet grass– and roses! I can hear a man's voice curse from a thorn prick!" Red sighed feeling as if she was falling into another dream. How can you possibly know a thorn pricked him? I mean, get a grip! She asked herself skeptically.
Eleanor glanced at Erica who was riding next to her. Both raised their eyebrows and then smirked. Eleanor nodded to the Amazon to let the others know that Red's acuity warranted care in what was said or done and that there was a horse off the trail nearby that bore investigation.
Aleka had taken two of the women to try and locate the warlord that she felt she was being guided to. She didn't want her mind taken up with arguments on what was motivating her to entice the warlord to the caverns. She needed her undivided attention on infiltrating the parameter some of his soldiers had set up and getting the two women that were scouting with her back to safety. She also wanted to scout out the old abandoned village, Pasiphae, where the sacred caverns were hidden in. She wanted to be sure where she was leading them all to was really there.
The bay weaved into view of the group that was gamely following the faint trail Aleka had set them on before she left. Berik and Camila who were teamed with her were relieved to see everyone doing well. The conversations they had overheard from the warlord's men didn't give them a good feeling about their safety. The two women gratefully reached for the offered water bags from their sisters. Aleka took the water bag Lily offered her and looked toward the cart.
"The village we're heading for is just up that rise." Aleka indicated with her jaw.
Aleka had been taking the Amazons and young priestess out in pairs regularly to teach them scouting and to observe their skills. Alala had asked to be included when she wasn't out scouting on her own. Aleka was willing for she didn't know for how long her own skills of what she called her real self would last on this journey and wanted to be sure the others would be able to compensate. She was relieved that the Amazons were eager to learn anything she could teach them and to get pointers on their scouting competency. Most importantly, Aleka found relief in teaching, as it kept her mind busy and her physical energy pleasantly tapped. Working out with the Amazons took the edge off her high-energy reserve coupled with taking out patrols with the intent of sharpening their skills. When she wasn't physically working out she spent time teaching the priestess healers what she knew. Keeping busy kept her from thinking about other things that would distract her from her purpose as the Named.
"What's up?" Lily asked in a better mood. She had settled some of the anxieties she felt with Agnes's patient prodding at getting her to examine her irritability with Aleka.
Lily looked at Aleka closely and noticed there was a changed attitude about her. She was more determined. It wasn't what she had first feared, that the warlord side of her was taking over.
"That warlord we've been hearing about..."
"He knows we're headed toward this area. And, like we suspected, he intends on cashing in on us like an investment."
"So what are we going to do? Hide?" Lily spoke sharply without intending to.
Aleka snorted giving Lily a sideways look of disbelief as she took another short sip from the water bag. Lily held up her hands. "Hey. Excuse me. I lost my head for a moment there. Hide? Us? From a mere warlord? Of course not!"
Aleka laughed and led the way up the slope they had returned from. As they walked up the slope with their horses trailing them, Lily broke the news to Aleka about Red's heightened senses. Aleka shook her head. "Is she remembering anything yet?
"What about the horse and rider?"
"We took care of him. He was one of your warlords scouts."
Aleka nodded and continued to lead them to an old trail, returning to her thoughts, memories and making plans in silence.
Lily sometimes trailed her sometimes rode alongside the silent woman, glancing at her now and then as she felt her own anxieties raise as they neared their destination. Occasionally she glanced back at the others noticing the quiet as well as the uneasy glances from the riders. Is it the idea that they were going to take down a warlord or where they were going? What is it with this village? Lily asked herself. Just the thought gave her a chill.
The abandoned village was nestled along the ridge of hills amongst new forest growth and old forest growth.
"Whadaya got planned?" Lily asked nervously glancing about her as they started down the winding goat trail to the remains of the village.
"Hadrius was visiting one of his outposts that we were spying on. While I was listening to Hadrius and his lieutenants with his big plans for his future, Barik and Camila were listening to the soldier's gossip. There was some nervous talk about shades. So, we're going to have a haunting here and hopefully scare him enough to leave this area." Aleka smirked as she planned what she would need and how to get everyone set up and avoid Red whose senses were heightened from the herbs. She was lucky she had been giving her voice suggestions before the herbs took effect or she would never have gotten past her defenses now. She anticipated what would happen when Red remembered who she was. Aleka took a small intake of breath. What if she too starts having dreams of the past journey? Will it further confuse her about who she is? Hades! This is really getting complicated! For a brief moment a grin appeared on her face as she thought of putting three or four puzzles together at the same time and the pieces could be used for either of the three puzzles. It certainly made it a fascinating challenge.
"Oh?" Lily looked around uncomfortable. "I'm not too interested in meeting up with any myself." She mumbled.
Aleka didn't hear her as her own thoughts were else where.
The village was shabby with no building standing with enough protection for anything larger than a dog. Aleka led them to what was once a large building, by the stone foundation that was partially intake. The mountain wall rose straight up behind it, as if the mountain was used as part of the back wall to the ruined building. The gray wolf's tail was wagging happily, as she trotted confidently into the building's remains with a definite goal in mind.
The others regarded the scattered stones that may have once made up the walls with rotting wood and other debris covering what appeared to be a mosaic floor.
"This looks like a temple" Grace remarked looking with a knowing eye at the wild herbs that grew everywhere around the remains of the building. Temples usually grew their own collection of herbs for rites and ceremonies since the planting and growing was done with right of mind attitude. By the selection that was now scattered around the building in no particular pattern with some growing over the scattered stones, this had once been a temple.
"It had been last used as a temple to Demeter." Aleka supplied as she led her horse into the building. The horse's hooves made muffled noises as the tile beneath was covered with nature's leafy carpet.
"Aha, Aleka, hold on." A nervous Lily called to Aleka not wanting to follow.
"What?" Aleka's face was impatient as she gave a quick look at Lily.
"Don't you think she would get a little peeved if we lead our horses into her Temple?"
"If she drops in we'll discuss it. We don't have much time." Aleka was curt as she turned back to see where the gray wolf had disappeared.
Hadrius and his men would sooner or later stumble on this village and would find the ancient Temple and desecrate it. She wondered if the others realized that this was the Temple that the original journey they had all participated in started. The temple was added much later, probably by Demeter's followers. When Gaia's followers used it the opening to the cavern was part of the ritual with only roses draping the opening. Did their dreams fade that much? She could already feel the change in energy and it was putting her --on edge.
Lily looked around uncomfortably and said a few whispered apologetic prayers to Demeter and her daughter. Lily could hear Gari mumbling something to the effect that she could now see why a certain dark haired warrior princess was always in so much trouble with the gods.
Aleka ignored them as she moved her horse across the floor to where she caught sight of the gray she wolf tugging at something. Aleka grabbed the ends of a rotting cloth cover and pulled, knowing the entrance to the caverns that led to the sacred pools of Demeter and before her, Gaia were hidden behind the cloth. The excitement of seeing the pools again moved up her arms as goose bumps. She shook off the feeling. Right now, she needed the other tunnels that led to sudden drops, dead ends, and smaller caverns. In her minds eye she could see the entire layout of the tunnels and caverns and where each led. It was as if she knew the place intimately -- and as Aleka, she did.
She pulled a covering made of old fabric aside. The covering wouldn't last much longer in the weather. Behind it was the entrance she was looking for. Lily tapped her elbow then handed her an old torch that looked like it could still be useful. The others were searching in the debris for more torches. The wolf had disappeared into the dark tunnel.
Aleka sparked a torch that Lily held for her. This is the entrance of the sacred caverns! Home! Hmmm. She paused to let the difference of energy that surrounded her sink into a familiarity.
Aleka had been led to this place for a reason and she would put to use what was given to her. She knew with certainty that it was to prevent Hadrius from desecrating the Temple and sealing it from any other uninitiated visitor before they left. She continued her way under the archway vaguely aware of the carved figure that was imbedded in the arched stone above her.
Aleka could feel the others uneasiness but they followed her quietly leading their horses. She wondered momentarily what they were thinking but her mind had other things to work on, like how to scare the warlord to leave that area.
Red was walking next to the cart where Eleanor had joined her to get some exercise and to make sure Red didn't over extend herself. She still walked with a slight limp and sometimes she noticed she would get glassy eyed, as if she were somewhere else. Aleka had warned her that Red would lag behind if not watched. Eleanor smiled, as she didn't want Red to be left behind if she stopped to ponder a thought or an object along the way that grabbed her attention. With her heightened senses she was rediscovering the world! The horse that was pulling the cart now had the idea to follow the horses before him so he needed no extra attention to move along and the two were able to talk without too much distraction. Eleanor's job was to see if Red remembered anything of a past journey. Agnes feared because she couldn't remember herself as Red she was going to think what she experienced in her dreams was her present reality. No one as of yet knew who she was so they could offer no guidance to her.
Red let the cart enter the entrance before her with the attached string of horses, including Argo. She had been feeling a subtle change of pulse since they had entered the village and now it was evident where the source of that change was coming from. The pulse was just like a steady beat of a heart at rest. It was very comforting.
Red followed the glow of torches that were moving further into the dark tunnel. Occasionally she ran her fingertips along the side of the smoothed walls of the tunnel letting a different type of energy tingle its way up to her elbow.
Red came to an abrupt halt as the tunnel opened up into a large cavern.
The horses and cart were being led to an area of the cavern that had pens that were falling apart with an underground natural spring about a furlough from it. The other side appeared to have been where the preparations of rituals and whatever business the Temple performed took place here. Red walked to where the horses were being settled to make sure Argo was content. The way the mare sometimes looked at her Red had the distinct feeling she was being given a look of disapproval.
The railings that were falling apart were pulled away and what was salvageable was used for keeping the horses in their area. The women were clearing debris out of the half moon shaped clay pipe that outlined the pen area that was dug into the ground.
"Look at this." Erica pointed out excitedly to Red. "It's used to keep the livestock waste from going into the water ways that people that used this cavern must have used. The stable keeper must have taken buckets of water and sloshed them across the pen area with the waste being washed into these pipes and down into that pit." She pointed to a dark hole near the wall of the pens.
"Wouldn't the pen turn to mud?" Red asked doubtfully.
"It's a stone floor. Right now there's a thin cover of dirt over it." Erica rubbed her boot over the dust to prove it, "but under it there's stone." Erica nodded in admiration at whoever had arranged the pens.
"Why would they keep livestock here? The early followers of Gaia didn't sacrifice anything that was alive. Life was sacred to her. Part of the harvest was left but it was used to feed the hungry." Red shook her head looking about her for some clue for the meaning.
"You know a lot about Gaia, Red, for someone who can't remember her own name." Erica teased.
For a moment her green eyes flashed a look of impatience at the imagined patronizing tone of Erica. Erica was looking away from her when she had said it so she had missed the look, but a pair of bright blue eyes from across the way had picked it up and had over heard the conversation.
"It's really an ideal place for a Temple to Demeter and Persephone." Grace whispered in awe as she kept looking up from her work and again looking around her.
Aleka looked up from the work she was doing in preparation for the warlord's arrival. Her eyes for a moment watered but she quickly looked back at the small strands of hemp she was shredding. When it was hung over entrance archways it would either catch fire from the torches of Hadrius and his men or touch their skin without being seen leaving marks from the liquid they would soak the fine strands in. The seeds and leaves from the thorn apple had been gathered and were being prepared for the fire.
Satisfied with her handiwork Aleka rose to check over everyone's work making sure the other small traps that were set where ready. She then moved on to see how the outside traps were going.
"Agnes, have the others gotten back yet?" Aleka had sent them to keep track of the Hadrius progress and to try to add some of the herbs to as many water bags as they could.
"You know, these are just like pranks we use to do as kids." Grace was telling Red as she was helping her weave a cover that was to conceal another trap that would drop whoever was stupid enough to walk over it down to another level where they would run into another series of pranks that Aleka and the others thought up. It didn't take much for the others to remember things they had done or had done to them when younger and full of verve.
Red had earlier helped Agnes think of a small drama with Demeter and Persephone condemning the warlord and his army for entering her sacred temple. She had been surprised that she had such an imaginative mind. The others hadn't been surprised at all. They seemed to have expected it.
"Are you sure he's not going to think that someone is just pulling kid pranks on him and his troop." Agnes asked doubtfully as she helped move a log into place.
"With all the hallucinogenics they will have been exposed to by the time they get to the second level, they won't know what's real and what's not." Aleka grinned as she checked the old wine caskets. "I can't believe they still have wine in them. Help me open this."
"Agnes, do you have some of the Belledonna mixture left?"
"Put as much as needed in here."
"What does it taste like?"
Aleka had tasted enough to know it wasn't too bad. "Good enough to temp the men into trying it."
She rolled the barrel with Agnes' help to the outside of the tunnel. "Let's put it under here making it look like someone forgot it. Berik see if you can get those other barrels and put them alongside of this one."
"They're empty." She pointed out.
"Right. We want them to think this place is used to produce wine secretly. Make sure there are wagon tracks that lead out'ta here. Lots."
Oh, yea. They are just the type to not let a good taste of wine go by.
"Ohhhh. Aleka. You are so devious." Berik hurried back into the tunnel to get the wagon and some help.
"Hey, wait a minute." She asked Aleka who was following her to help with the barrels. "How are you going to get the rest of the stuff in them?"
"All it has to do is get onto their skin or in their lungs. That gives us power form, paste or smoke."
By dusk they had their stage set above ground and below. Now they just needed their unsuspecting participating audience.
Grace was assigned to watch Red who helped with anything that didn't involve walking far or too much agility, as her legs were still sore. Red took that opportunity to talk Grace into letting her do something instead of waiting by the horses with a guard. Grace finally went over to Lily who had returned from her task and mentioned to her that Red was getting very restless.
"If she wants to get up in some disguise that doesn't fall off at the wrong time, she can help you with the log thing." Lily sighed. Aleka had already warned her about the stubborn streak in Red and she didn't want to chance that Gabrielle the Bard would be recognized by Hadrius. Especially since Red still had not retrieved any memories of herself as the Bard or Amazon Queen. And she was certainly in no condition to get in a serious fight with her staff. Holding the staff whenever she was out of the cart had to bring some sort of familiarity to her, Lily thought.
Lily smiled to herself. She didn't want any trouble and after raising three children she already knew what mischief they could get into when not given something to do. She got the impression Red would be more dangerous than her three in creating mishaps. Wasn't that what a lot of the Bard's stories were about? No. Leaving her alone would certainly bring trouble.
"Whatdaya mean dye my hair?" Red grabbed her hair and pulled it back as if Grace and Agnes were threatening to cut it off.
"You're going to be red-headed Persephone. Didn't you say you wanted to help?"
"Well, ya, but red hair? Just how red is red?"
"We don't have much time, Red. It's now or stay with the horses." Agnes told her firmly.
Red remembered someone once made the comment at why she didn't let her make many decisions. It was the tall stranger's image again that came to mind. She took too long to decide what was the best course of action to take and they usually didn't have much time for long thought in a lot of situations they found themselves in.
Red pursed her lips. So, the relationship isn't on an equal basis. Does she feel the same way I do about her? How do I feel about her? Who is she to me?
She took a deep breath. "In that case, let's do it."
Grace had already started on the red paste knowing that Red would not want to be left out.
"So, when can I remove this stuff?" She asked Grace for the umpteenth time.
Grace looked up from her work and checked the paste again. "Hmm, well Red it's almost there." It was hard to see in the flickering torchlight but she thought it could use just a little more time.
By the time Red's hair was ready, everyone was in position and ready for Hadruis. Lily came by silently to see if Red was okay. Her own post would be to check on the outside parameter but she didn't want to leave anything to chance, as their leader liked to advise.
"Now you know what to do, right?" She asked Red trying not to stare at the new hair color that the torch was revealing. Red was now a very appropriate name.
"Hey, this is simple, low keyed, easy on the brain." She assured the tall Amazon with a wry grin. "So, what do you think? I haven't had a chance myself to see what it looks like so give me your honest opinion. Do you think I can do this red thing well?"
Lily didn't want to tell her that the remake was different. She hadn't quite seen anyone with hair that red, though she had heard that there were red heads this red in Rome. She merely nodded not knowing what to say. This is going to take some getting use to. She should forewarn Aleka before she…Lily stopped. Naaawww. It's just too good to see that unreadable face show something more than stoic interest. Oh, yessss. This surprise is just too good to pass up.
"Well, it's hard to say in this dark cavern." She temporized. "Make sure you don't inhale any of that stuff or get it on you." She warned as she turned to leave. Grace and Erica were suppose to be watching Red but Grace was reassigned and Erica still had not come back from another job on the outside.
Red got comfortable in her corner careful not to go near where the pollen dust was piled liberally. Her job was to brush with the bark scraper the dust into the wind current that was blowing across the other half of the log. It would take the pollen dust of the hallucinogenic into the narrow tunnel that fed into the target cavern. She closed her eyes for a moment, which didn't really change anything for where she was, was dark. She didn't have a torch. She glanced back to the log where the dust rested on. It glowed in the dark so she knew she wouldn't be able to miss it. Red didn't know for how long she dozed but she did doze. She caught herself as her head fell forward. Reflexively she jerked her head back up banging her head on an unseen rock projection in the wall behind her knocking her forward again. She put out a hand to catch her balance. Her face was just inches from the magic powder.
She was so busy congratulating herself on her not touching the stuff she didn't hear Erica's approach. What she did see was the burning stick she was caring that glowed enough for Erica to see her feet as she rushed back to guard her Queen. What saved Erica from being bashed on the head was that Red's reflexes were not up to what they normally would be or her balance and she ended up falling over the log.
Another stronger torch was approaching them at the same time that Red was taking a swipe at the surprised Erica. Erica's eyes were open wide as she saw Red realizing almost too late who she was. Red pulled her staff back losing her precarious balance and fell over the log, still missing the powder but pushing the log at a different angle and some of the powder blew in her face as she sat down abruptly next to it. Aleka grabbed her arm and pulled Red up quickly while pushing the log back into place with her foot. Not much of the pollen was lost.
"What in Demeter's cavern happened to you?" Aleka's mouth was open as she regarded the bright red head that she was holding up with one hand and shining the torch on her with the other. She had only seen another with hair that red in Britannia and he was from another island near by.
Red pulled her arm away weakly. Her limbs felt wobbly. She was hoping it was because she was still recovering from her run-in with Malucu and not from the drug she was just lightly dusted with.
"I'm in disguise." She said with all the dignity she could muster. Red couldn't remember being introduced to this tall woman; in fact she didn't see much of her for she was always out on scouting patrols. Odd for the manager of a drama troupe to act like an Amazon, but she was from Lesbos, she reminded herself. Expect the unexpected, someone had told her about the residents of Lesbos.
She tried not to notice that the woman still had a firm grip on her arm, which if she hadn't Red knew her legs would not hold her weight.
"Lily said if she was going to participate she had to be disguised, so we got her dressed as Persephone." Erica hastily explained, trying to cover her grin at Aleka's surprised look.
Red shook her head as she tried to focus on the tall woman who she was unable to see clearly. She missed the rest of the conversation, as she became fascinated with the reflection of the flame on the wall then something that appeared to be walking down the side of it.
Aleka didn't know whether to be amused or upset with the situation. She had just received word that Hadrius and his men, whom they were having this party for, were sneaking up on the village. She had been picturing them as soon to be a band of merry men, when she had a very bad feeling that Red was in trouble. She wanted to see what was going on feeling confidant that Lily would be able to handle the situations outside.
Lily had not told her that Red had dyed her hair only that she had pestered them into giving her a part in the drama. She would have to find something to pay Lily back for this, she thought humorously.
She would have laughed out loud at the sight of this small woman with bright red hair dressed in robes that were too long for her and now higher than Mt. Olympus, but she was in a hurry.
"Erica, you take care of this. We're going to have a warlord who is not going to be in good humor by the time he reaches here. We can't be having…" Aleka grabbed the arm of the Bard that had freed herself, as she was preparing to squirm her way into the log after something only she was seeing. "Ohhh, no you don't. You're staying with me." Her blues eyes glinted in the flickering torchlight.
"You know, you have this…way with words that reminds me of…" Red couldn't see the woman due to the angle she was being held at, but her mind was racing around on all sorts of memories of the familiarity of the situation and tone of voice of her keeper. The trouble was she couldn't straighten out the jumbled past and present and was only reacting to the similarities. But she didn't get much out for she was cut off with a hand that hastily covered her mouth. "someone I know." She started to giggle.
Erica doused Aleka's torch for her. They could hear male voices echoing through the tunnels. Aleka left Erica with Red in tow. She had other things to check up on and now that Red was really too high to stay out of mischief she wanted to keep an eye on her.
Aleka made her way through the pitch-dark tunnel to Kynthia and Berik's post. Kynthia and Berik were going to provide the drumming and cymbals that would echo into the tunnels lending great atmosphere to their production. In the larger cavern the women had found a cache of small oil lamps with old oil that was still usable in well-sealed containers. The two women had one of the lamps sitting in a corner giving their small area a soft glow.
"Are you going to be quiet?" Aleka whispered into Red's ear. A strand of red hair tickled Alekas' nose. She got a firm head nod so she released her grip over the Bard's mouth. "Do not make any noise for it will be heard just about everywhere in these tunnels. You got that?" Her lips moved against Red's ear.
Red could feel a warm tingle running up her spine as the lips tickled her ear. She nodded an affirmative. Aleka turned her attention to the silhouetted form of Berik who was already at work with her drums. Kynthia was accompanying her with tiny cymbals that sounded eerie as the combined sounds echoed back and forth down the tunnels and into the larger caverns.
Aleka needed to go see how Hadrius and his men were reacting so far, but she didn't want to take Red. Red appeared sleeping propped against a wall with her head slumped down. The dust did that to some people. She looked toward Berik who nodded toward her. It would only be a moment, she told herself.
Aleka took off down the tunnel knowing where it led and how long it would take her to get to her destination. Her goal was a ledge that had a view of the maze where she was hoping their participating audience was at by now. If the majority of the men were not under the influence of the hallucinogenic by the time they got to the maze, Erica's release of the dust would complete the job.
Aleka with the gray wolf at her side looked over the ledge and watched with amusement as the men ran into each other as they felt the thin strands of hemp cross their faces. The strands had been coated with the translucent stuff that was covering the walls in one of the caverns so by now they should be looking at each other's faces with glowing thin lines. The torches the men were holding started bobbing wildly as they reacted from the drug induced visions they were having at the sight of each other. They only had two torches and they were setting some of the strands on fire, which was probably adding fuel to their visions, as the strands popped with glittering colors.
Aleka couldn't resist a soundless chuckle as she hurried to the next ledge that would give her a view of Agnes's area. She was going to do a dance that should have the men's eyes rolling back into their heads. The men would have to swim across the cold lake that separated her from them and there was an undercurrent that would drag them down the underground channel. The river dropped down in the form of a waterfall to the next level. It should give them a great rush. Dry land was a good distance into another cavern where Lily would be waiting for them. She was going to do a Demeter death scene with the young drama team adding their parts. Red was to be Persephone but they were going to have to do without her.
Aleka climbed to the next ledge and watched as the men did a panic run into the cavern and stop suddenly causing the ones behind the first three to run into them. It was a pile up of entangled bodies and waving swords. Someone could get hurt and some of them probably did from the sound of it. Didn't anyone teach them that if they are following their own men that they should not go running with their swords extended? Ohhh, that must be painful, she smirked.
Berik's drumming took on a different beat, as it demanded attention and movement. Agnes's form seemed to suddenly appear from behind a cloud of smoke. She moved rhythmically to the drumbeat showing off her body and its ability to move well. The sound from the men below told her it was having the effect intended. Aleka suddenly gripped the edge of the ledge almost falling over.
"Athena's tight leathers!" She whispered under her breath.
The gray wolf looked up at Aleka with amusement.
Red watched the torch light play on the cavern wall fascinated by a small dark shadow that suddenly darted down the wall and into the log. She tried to follow it but a firm grip reestablished itself on her arm and hauled her back up. This was so like…her mind stopped at a loss for a name…but she always seemed to be so serious. She knew that without a doubt…well…not always. A picture of the laughing blue eyes appeared briefly to her. But if she would let herself go more often and stop and smell the roses or stop and follow the mouse, as was this case, she would be able to smile more. She was sure of that.
As she was hauled off by Aleka she realized she didn't really like mice so maybe that was good she didn't follow it. As she was half carried down tunnels that she couldn't even see to know where to put her feet she began to enjoy the contact with this stranger. Oh. Oh! Suddenly her eyes opened wide as she could feel the drum beat start in her sternum then travel down to her toes. It was making different parts of her throb to the seductive beat. Red shook her head weakly. This isn't the Amazon Village; this isn't a party…well, wait a minute. Lily did call this a haunting party. Hmmm. Shades or no shades, it has promise for a good show. She didn't question how she knew about what went on in an Amazon Village she just watched the mental images of scantly clad women dancing to the erotic drum beats, feeling, just like now, the power over the senses they evoked.
When Aleka released her she sank to the floor unable to stand. Leaning against the wall she was quiet for a while watching the replay of the dancers. One of them turned into the tall dark woman that was haunting her. The vision of the tall figure dancing against the night with the light of a fire reflecting off her sweat sheen body had her eyes opening suddenly.
Abruptly her eyes popped open, as she became aware that the wall she was slumped up against vibrated the drumbeat throughout her body. Oh, yes! Great beat, she thought as she pressed her body closer to the wall feeling the vibration move erotically up and down her spine. She started to snap her fingers and move her shoulders leaning away from the wall.
Wow! What a charge! Her eyes opened wider. Her night acuity seemed to have increased. In the dim lighting she could see the drummer with her eyes closed as if focusing inward on her music, swaying in sensuous movements.
"Oh, ya! This is great! Hmm." Red struggled to her feet and started to dance around, at first shuffling then picking up energy as she moved around. This is music I can definitely put a bardic epic to. I can make history by talking to the drumbeat. Right! I can call it …talking with the drums!. She snapped her fingers and moved her feet letting a verse move through her mind. Hmm. Agnes's dance scene could use some help. This is really good!
Somehow she managed to find the tunnel that led her to the other side of the lake where Agnes was dancing. She stood for a moment watching Agnes moving feeling the effect it had on her own body. It's suppose to make me feel this way, she reminded herself. Yah! Great. Okay. I need to get a message to these men. Hmm. Let's see. Red snapped her fingers and let her body move close to what Agnes was doing. Right. Okay I got it. She moved near Agnes not wanting to pull the eyes of the men completely away from Agnes's movements. I'm a talented Bard. I know all about stage entrances and how not to steal the scene. She straightened up for a moment. A Bard? Yea! Right! I'm a bard. She shook her head and not missing a beat stepped into her write-in part.
"Old warlord Hadrius, scared to lay down his arms." Snap snap
"Can't keep a lady with his charms." Snap
"Old man Hadris lost his way." Snap snap snap
"Leads his men far astray." snap snap snap snap
"To capture the darkness, where he'll never be found." Snap, snap
"He'll lose his cool and stay below the ground." Snap snap
The Bard did what she thought was a smooth turn and was taking a deep breath to continue when she felt herself suddenly being jerked back into the darkness. It was so sudden her head was spinning and she lost consciousness.
If it were possible, the way Aleka's blue eyes were setting off sparks of more than irritation; she would have been setting fires. She had moved with lightning speed to remove Red from the men's sight.
Artemis's feathers! What did Gabrielle think she was doing? Never mind, I don't wanta know. It might make sense! She managed to get a hand on her when she did a twirl that under other circumstances she would have been entertained.
Agnes managed to keep her composure and continued her dance as the men had suddenly jumped into the lake, whether due to Red's antics or Agnes's dance. And just as Aleka had planned, the strong under current pulled them all quickly to the next performance, first dropping them down a small waterfall into a lower cavern. The drop would send their hearts beating faster pushing the effects of the drug onto another level and so should the cold water. Hopefully none of them would drown in their armor. However, Aleka knew the underground riverbeds were not that deep.
"Aleka!" Agnes was laughing so hard she couldn't stand without the support of Aleka's muscular arm. "What was that?" She whispered.
"She got into the blasted pollen dust someone put her in charge of. I'm going to have to have a long talk with Lily. What on earth possessed her to …Never mind. Do you think you can tie her up or something to keep her from doing any more impromptu command performances?"
Agnes was still laughing with her hand over her mouth trying not to make too much noise. She managed to nod and put a firm hand on the unconscious Bard. This has got to be a good story, Agnes was thinking with another bout of laugher trying to escape between her tightly sealed lips.
Aleka had already left to check up on the next and last performance in the caverns. This one should drive them back out and hopefully away from this area and leave the surrounding villages alone.
Lily made a good Demeter for her height. The shadow from the torches gave her added height and a scary appearance to her face, which was enhanced with stage makeup. Here was Demeter larger than life. Aleka watched the frightened faces of the men and Hadrius who had by then given up herding his men to rally around him. By the time Lily made her demand for the men to leave her sacred valley Hadrius was soiling his pants. They were out of the tunnels heading back in a real panic toward their horses. Brona and Gari were waiting outside to make sure they left the area, as they were pretending to be shades. The Amazon ability to fly though tree branches and at night enhanced their show to these men whose hallucinations would exaggerate whatever took place.
Aleka's attention went back to Red. Can't leave her anywhere without something happening! Aleka couldn't keep the exasperated chuckle from escaping.
They all met back in the main cavern where their horses were resting. The women were exhausted and swapped stories of how well their pranks went over until they couldn't leave their eyes open any longer. They were all a little high from some of the smoke from the herbs that swept through the tunnels. Aleka wanted to make sure their safety wasn't jeopardized until the effects wore off. Red slept though it thankfully.
Berik had everyone howling as she told how Red had appeared to be sleeping off the effects of the pollen when suddenly she was up on her feet snapping her fingers and murmuring phrases, bobbing her head and just putting on her own show. Berik's description of her dancing down into the cavern keeping beat brought another fit of laughter. Berik couldn't stop drumming to chase after her and Kynthia was just as helpless. They had their parts to play and the show had to go on. Agnes picked up the story and recounted Red's unplanned participation in her dance.
Lily slapped Aleka on her powerful leg that was stretched out next to hers and laughed at Aleka's expression.
"You know, that woman needs a full time, ten member team to keep trouble away from her." Lily shook her head wiping away the tears.
"Then life would be boring." Aleka returned, letting a smile touch her lips.
"When she wakes up, she may not remember any of this." Agnes told them drying her own eyes with the back of her hand. "It's going to be hard not to burst out laughing and not explain to her what happened."
"We gotta work that" Berik snapped her fingers and bobbed her head in imitation of Red, " into one of our skits."
"Right. And call it something like a Warlord's Bad Dream." Lily snickered.
Aleka sighed and rolled her head to loosen her shoulders. It was funny, and she was glad the pranks worked, and thank you Demeter for the use of your caverns, Aleka thought tiredly. "You all may not remember it either. All of us have been breathing in the smoke from the hemp. Why don't we all get some sleep? It's been a long day."
Aleka laid her head back against the log and fell asleep. She was aware of the cover that was put over her but slept on.
"Hey, Erica. Did they drink all the wine?" Lily asked.
"Yea. But you wouldn't want that stuff. One guy emptied his stomach contents after taking a few sips."
"Then why did the rest finish it?"
"It's probably a guy thing." Brona quipped.
Before dawn Aleka was up. Her dream was still clear in her mind. She had been climbing the outside of a mountain whose peak was shrouded in clouds. The switch back trail was only on one side of the mountain. The other side was a sheer cliff face. She preferred to go up the sheer cliff side but she was leading a group of people who weren't as experienced and instead she took them up the tiring switch back trail that seemed to go on forever. Whenever she looked up at their destination, the white glow of a temple seemed to show through the mist, but she wasn't sure if it was really there.
She checked on Red and found her sleeping near Lily. Aleka pushed aside the small jealously and continued on her way out of the cavern. She wanted to check the outside parameter and the guards.
When Aleka returned everyone was moving slowly as if in deep in thought. Aleka frowned for a moment then smiled. Of course, no one could be unaffected after spending the night in the sacred caverns and with the added enhancement of the hemp, they probably had some very revealing dreams.
In the old days the Seeker or the Quester would drink the potion the priestess had mixed, form a question in her or his mind, and let the drug take its course. Some would remain another night or talk to those that were trained to help analyze the visions. She sighed. That meant they would be spending the day here. She couldn't just ask them to move on without them processing their dreams in peace. Especially since this was where they had all started their original journey.
Aleka found Lily talking quietly to Agnes who was shaking her head about something.
"Lily, Agnes." She greeted the two women. "We'll spend another day here."
"Aleka?" Agnes began hesitantly. "Does this place seem…familiar to you?"
"This is Pasiphae. It's where our original journey began." She smiled.
"You knew!" Lily exploded.
Aleka looked toward Red who was sitting up but had her eyes closed. They opened briefly when Aleka looked at her. Aleka looked away hastily and nodded to the two women as she left the cavern.
Aleka saw recognition in those familiar malachite eyes that were glowing from the torchlight. She didn't want to talk to her right now. She needed some time by herself. She had some of her own dreams to process.
She held the torch she picked up as she left the main cavern out in front of her, not paying attention to the glyphs and images that appeared on the sides of the smoothed walls. They were as familiar to her as the lines on her palm. She sighed a little; annoyed at not remembering what part Gabrielle played in the past. She started to chuckle at the remembrance at the sight of her in bright red hair. Even the pale lighting from the torches couldn't dull the look.
Aleka wasn't aware of where she was going she simply followed the gray she wolf. She was deep in thought realizing that she needed to put some sort of order to her confusing dreams. Since Gabrielle's arrival her dreams overlapped with present memories and scenes from Aleka's life. Maybe alone for a few candlemarks she could fit more pieces of the puzzle together.
Aleka's eyes opened wider as she caught sight of something glittering down the darkened tunnel. The gray wolf's bushy tail was no longer waving before her like a silvery plume as she trotted along confidently. Aleka walked into an underground chamber that lit up into brilliant colors from her torch. The surrounding walls and ceiling, which hung with crystals, magnified her torchlight in a rainbow of light. Aleka took a deep breath as she realized where she was. The sacred pools of Gaia. The change of energy around her was immediately noticeable. She could feel a pulse beating gently against her body as if the air around her were one big heart. She put the torch in a bracket near the entrance and walked forward to another place she was familiar with, the Questor's chair, or the Petitioner's seat. Two pillars, one dark, and one light framed the carved marble chair. Both pillars were covered with symbols in the ancient language of the temple.
Without trepidation or hesitation, Aleka approached the chair and sat. Her arms rested on the arms of the chair as her eyes focused ahead of her. Before her in the center of the pool was a small island with a cluster of crystals that were wider than her body. Her eyes were drawn to the center of the cluster where the light from the reflection of her torch seemed to be most intense. Staring she began to see and feel that here was where the pulse of the mountain radiated from and filled the caverns and out to the outskirts of the village. She remembered a time when the energy went beyond the small village's boundaries.
Closing her eyes she remembered when the quest was placed upon her shoulders. She was one of the youngest, yet it was to her that the leadership and completion of the covenant was given. It was a heavy mantle of responsibility and at first she only wanted to cry feeling undeserving and unskilled. She was only the shaman's assistant. It was at that moment the goddess herself had appeared, giving her the confidence she needed. Aleka's eyes opened as the imagined warmth and love permeated the air around her as if it were real.
Aleka's hands gripped the arms of the chair as her eyes fell upon the vision of Gaia once more standing before her surrounded in a soft white radiance. Her smile was devastatingly serene and yet compelling. Xena knew this was why so many of Gaia's followers refused to give up their worship of her. The goddesses Xena knew did not even come close to the beauty Gaia possessed for her beauty radiated from within. Of course, she was the essence of the earth, both the darkness of death and the light of life.
"You have kept your promise, my child. For one whose inner fires have been influenced by Ares, you have laid them aside willingly for the sake of the others." Her voice was amused.
Aleka felt her face turn red. "I didn't do it for the sake of the others." She didn't want praise that she didn't feel was hers. "I did it to --- for --- my own curiosity."
Gaia's smile touched Xena's heart and she felt as if it would burst with happiness.
"I can see into your heart. Remember, it is what is in your heart that I weigh."
"Oh, no." The Gaia laughed warmly as if she knew what question was in Xena's mind. "I will not tell you about your past journey. This journey is about whom you are now, a summation of all that you've done from your life as Aleka up until now. So even if you knew what had gone wrong on the first journey, it would not work for now. You must redefine your quest."
Xena took a deep breath. "My quest or the groups?" Xena asked helplessly. She was getting a very disconnected feeling.
"What do you feel it is? And ask it from Aleka's point of view, not Xena's." She suggested. "Xena will put the others before herself to the point of endangering herself. You mustn't do that for once the Named is gone, the quest is over for the others."
"Everything is so scattered." She muttered frustrated as the familiar presence of Aleka's personality reasserted itself.
The figure of Gaia looked around the cavern. "You remembered my people that at one time had used these caverns. You also took time out from your journey, knowing you may be late to the ultimate destination to protect my sacred pools. I thank you for that." She turned back to face Aleka. "It is when you try to understand your quest in the light that you find confusion." She pointed out. "Within me is all. I am paradox, where beliefs collide. I am chaos, from which order is not a polarity. I am intuition, the veil to certainty. All that and more is within me and is also within you. As Xena you used your intuition to survive and to help others. As Aleka, you had not developed it sufficiently to protect you and your group. That is why your quest has changed. Your awareness as Aleka has expanded from the experience of your other lives."
The figure remained silent as Aleka's personality and Xena's tried merging together again.
"In your visions you saw the vortex of energy that acts as portals to other places." Gaia continued. "Some will take you to different temples that had once been dedicated to me. You must decide whether to use them or not. Read the signs on the pillars and -- remember!"
The goddess raised her hand and Xena felt a hot charge of energy flow through her burning the tips of her ears. The presence was gone and the intense feeling of love became lessened so that it didn't hurt as much. Her two selves finally merged peacefully.
Aleka closed her eyes as she thought about the compelling command to remember. Vortex of energy. They were the passageways the ancients from Gaia's temples used to move around between her various temples. At one time the village temple stored surplus food and supplies not just for it's own village but would share it with other villages both far and near that had experienced hard times. In her minds eyes she could see whole caravans of supplies moving through the energy portal to take much needed supplies to a village hard hit by famine or raids from wandering marauders. She also was able to put together her confused memories of the original journey so it was in an orderly sequence instead of flashes of scenes in no particular order. Aleka realized that by Gaia reminding her of the portals to different temples, she was giving them a chance to make up the time they used to protect her sacred pools.
Aleka didn't know how long she sat in the chair with her eyes closed but as her consciousness returned she felt Gabrielle's presence. She struggled with the knowledge that Gabrielle had been Iaia from their journey.
Iaia was a young painter who had been traveling with an entourage including a possessive and jealous husband, to visit the holy site on a pilgrimage. She was dying and traveled to the Questor's chair for answers to her sickness. Not getting the answers she wanted to hear she decided to see the Pythia in the Mountain. Aleka had fallen in love with the sad young woman, but had made no overtures toward her as she was on a pilgrimage with the responsibilities of leadership and Iaia was married. However, Iaia had picked up on the attraction and had flirted with her, which inflamed her jealous husband's rage. It was her husband who had sent his men to kill them all.
Red woke up feeling disorientated and hearing everything around her. She didn't try to focus her eyes for she just got dizzy. Instead she listened as the women spoke about the success of their running Hadrius off. She listened to them describe her participation but she didn't feel like it was her. She smiled inwardly at their name for her, Red. She was sitting on her bedroll near the cart with her head titled slightly back feeling a slight breeze over her. Her senses shifted, as a memory of another person in the same position was feeling sick while waiting for her turn to sit on the petitioner's chair.
Iaia closed her eyes as she thought of her husband outside waiting impatiently and probably jealously watching all the people that went in and came out. She felt sorry for him but not enough to be doing this for him. He had purchased damaged goods, she thought cynically and he couldn't go back to her father and demand a return of funds. Her father had died a season after her sale. It must be killing him that he was losing his youngest wife, and before she could bring him the child he wanted. But he surely made enough money selling her paintings, so she had no guilt. She turned her head toward the breeze hearing her name called.
Four candlemarks later she was out of the cavern hurrying to her litter. "Up! Up!"
"Iaia! What are you doing!" Cad grabbed her arm and forced her around to face him. "I will give the orders!"
"I will die if we don't get to the Pythia in the mountain within five days." She lied but he wouldn't know. She didn't like the message she heard while sitting in the petitioner's chair and was going to the Pythia in the mountain. She was believed to be the most powerful of the Pythia's of Gaia. It was rumored a python lived there. As she was leaving the cavern she had heard a group of pilgrims had left candlemarks earlier. If they were fast enough they could catch up with them and they would lead her to the mountain. No one knew where it was actually located, but she knew the young girl who was chosen, as that group's leader, knew.
"Well! Are you going to let your investment rot in front of your friends?" She hissed angrily. She made sure no one over heard for if she hurt his pride it would take days for him to get over it while he did nothing but sulk.
"You will not rot! They didn't say you would rot!" He whispered back fiercely. When he had purchased her from her father he had seen her with not just lustful eyes but greed as she had a talent that he could market for a good profit with the right guidance. What he hadn't bargained on was her strong personality. He was twenty years her senior and she had just come into her own womanhood. She was his sixth wife. Since he was a trader he had kept a wife in each of the main towns he traveled in to avoid petty jealousies and so he would not tire with them. All his wives were intelligent and ran his businesses in each town and knew not to challenge his authority when he resided with them. However, this young one did not show such wisdom, and he refused to admit it held an attraction to him. This one demanded to travel with his caravans. He hadn't been prepared to take this young bride on his journeys but she had insisted that if she was to paint as he ordered she needed worldly experiences.
"What do you think scaling skin is?" She hissed back.
"Get in your carrier." He angrily ordered. When Iaia had settled the carrier was lifted. "Where are we going?" Her husband asked from the other side of the curtain.
"The large group of young women that left a few candle marks, follow them. They know the way."
Cad had watched the group leave as he had watched all the business around the temple with suspicion. He didn't worship any particular god or goddess for he was more involved with running his caravans and took interest in only what effected his business. He developed a cynicism for those that ran temples and promised cures for the sick, as his young wife whom he had paid good money for, believed in. However, he found himself involved in this quest his young bride was obsessed with.
He pushed his group of bodyguards and carriers hard to catch up with the group of young women. It wasn't until late the next day that they caught up with Aleka and her group before dusk. Iaia joined the women around the campfire, thinking her husband would not feel threatened by women, however she was wrong.
Iaia sat close to Aleka on a log near the fire. There wasn't much room for two, but Iaia was intent on forming a friendship with the young woman that wasn't much older than herself. Sitting that close she didn't miss the attraction Aleka felt for her. Iaia flirted with her and found to her surprise that she liked her. Before they were to retire for the night and without batting an eye, Iaia asked her where the temple in the mountain was and without hesitation Aleka had told her. It was so simple.
Cad observed the flirtation from his wife with hooded eyes, in the darkness just outside the light of the fire. Once Aleka give the directions to Iaia, he put a stop to Iaia's conversation with a sword that nearly had met its mark had not one of Aleka's guards stopped him. Aleka felt abashed at what she felt was her fault and politely asked them to leave in the morning but Cad had angrily pulled his wife after him and left right away with his group.
Aleka had given Iaia the directions willingly, knowing that it was not up to her to decide who gains entrance and who did not.
The next morning Lia was entertaining them with a story when Cad's bodyguards hit them with a barrage of arrows then overran the camp of wounded to finish them off. Cad wanted Aleka taken alive and tortured to death in front of Iaia but one of the women had shot Aleka with an arrow to the heart to prevent her being tortured to death, though she was dying from the two arrows that already pierced her. The entire group died fighting rather than be captured.
Iaia did not know of this attack until she had reached the mountain entrance and attempted entrance. The old blind woman at the entrance had asked her a question regarding self-sacrifice. It was the old woman who told her about Cad's doing. Iaia was in shock for as pampered as she was she had never caused the death of another and found it difficult to not blame herself. At the entrance of the cave she made a vow to Gaia that she would dedicate her life to the goddess to atone for what she had caused. The old woman laughed and pointed out that her life was not her own, it was her husband's. Iaia had cut both her palms and pressed them against the stone that covered the entrance to the cavern in the mountain. She swore that somehow she would repay Gaia. She and her husband never reached home for a band of raiders killed their party.
Red blinked her eyes open and stared at the flickering ceiling of the cavern. Taking a deep breath she brought both hands to her face staring at the palms. Relieved she looked around and found the others either sitting alone or in small groups talking in low voices. Her sensitive hearing could hear bits of the conversations. Her dreams now made sense. Embarrassed at what her over sensitive ears were hearing, she rose and left the cavern. She picked up an unused torch lighting it from one burning in the wall socket, as she started down one of the tunnels. She could see one set of footprints going in the direction she was taking. The walk was familiar as she waved the torch back and forth to read the glyphs and signs that were marked on the walls. As Gabrielle she recognized many of them. She kept an eye on the single set of prints that seemed to know where they were going.
Her hearing picked up the trickle of an underground waterway. There were a lot of underground waterways in these caverns. Ahead of her she thought she saw the reflection of a light and put her torch behind her then risked putting it out. There was a bright light before her.
Red stepped into a cavern that was breathtakingly beautiful. Rainbows were shimmering everywhere. She could feel a vibration that sent shivers from her head to her toes. She spotted a figure sitting in the petitioner's chair between the magnificent contrasting pillars. She remembered the chair. She could feel tears of anger working their way to her eyes. No! She wasn't going to get caught up in regrets. What had someone once told her? Just improve. But, that was a very bad mistake! She was furious with herself and ashamed, but it won't happen again! Red watched the figure in the chair frightened that she would remember and hold her to blame. Red relit her torch from the one on the left side of the entrance and slid hers in the holder on the right side.
Turning back to the figure in the chair she stopped her movements. The captivating blue eyes found hers and she could feel her pulse quicken as her eyes were caught in the cool gaze. I didn't feel this way toward her as Iaia. Who is she? Her mind struggled for a moment trying to conjure up another name but it was elusive and she gave up.
Her mind stopped struggling with the memories and accepted them and the dreams she had as factual and as part of herself. She had been a young painter named Iaia. She wasn't a stranger to the concepts of reincarnation and without the memories of who she was in this life it was easy to move on to the next phase of accepting these memories as truthful. She had heard the conversations the other women had in the troupe, though she had not intended to listen, and put together an idea of what this group thought they were all about. It fascinated her and since she had no where else to go, nor could at this time, she didn't mind accompanying them. Now she knew why she was with them. After this recent dream she felt compelled to look for more connections.
"How are you?" She asked with trepidation. The warm smile that followed left her shaking on the insides from relief. Embarrassed that Aleka would see her feelings in her eyes she looked down at her hands to collect herself. Did this woman still have feelings for her? Did she see her as Iaia or as Red, a women who lost her memory of who she is in this life?
"I understand I tried to turn Agnes's dance into a musical review." Red's joke was rewarded with a chuckle and a smile that continued to warm her insides. For a moment she remembered the tall dark haired warrior whose image had been haunting her since she joined this group, but it slipped back into the inner most recesses of her memory. It was like having a word sitting on the tip of her tongue and not being able to get it out.
Aleka relaxed her grip on the chair. "We survived the critics review and the audience was swept away in –awe." She joked lightly, belying her fluttering heart that spoke in volumes of the emotional reaction she was having on her.
Aleka could hear footsteps coming through the tunnel. She looked toward the tunnel to take her mind off the brilliant green eyes that were picking up the reflections from the crystals, threatening to melt her resolve to keep an emotional and physical distance.
They're remembering where the pool is. Good. Aleka thought.
As Aleka she remembered where the vortexes were that could not only cut days off of their travel but also, get them around two potential trouble spots. What made her hesitant was that if they traveled through the vortexes to their ultimate destination would that interfere with the purpose of this journey? She turned it over in her mind knowing that the experiences they encountered and how they handled them was the heart of this journey. It was both an individual and group quest. She couldn't make decisions for the others, only for herself and for the good of the group.
The site she wanted to use the vortex to was still used as a holy site. Most of them were, if not to Gaia as they were originally dedicated to, then to another god. She would have to go through first and find out what was on the other side before the others with horses and cart could be brought through.
Lily and the others came into the cavern stopping at the entrance and glancing around in wonder.
"It's more beautiful then I remembered." Agnes whispered.
"It feels --- good." Eleanor murmured as she put her hand to her heart and turned around to see as much as she could.
Aleka had only glanced at the others and returned her gaze to Red who never let her eyes move from her.
Aleka didn't move from her seat for fear her shaky knees would give her away. She didn't know what Red was remembering, but she could feel her eyes on her. Why am I feeling this way? It suddenly dawned on Xena that it was Aleka that was -- turning to mush! Get a grip! I'm not the only one whose heart is beating faster than usual, Aleka accused laughing. Xena thought better of returning a comment.
The others settled themselves on the ground around the chair waiting for Aleka to say something. Great, she thought with consternation. It was funny that the feelings she was experiencing were the same Aleka had when the mantle of leadership was laid on her. Xena was use to leadership roles as she naturally assumed them whenever it was necessary. With both personalities awareness Aleka glanced around her calmly.
"I'm sure all of you recognize this place now. The Sacred Caverns of Pasiphae, where the Pools of Gaia are." She got nods from everyone including Red, which surprised her. Iaia had sat on the Seat the day our journey had started, Aleka reminded Xena. Of course. Her reluctant husband and his retainers had caught up with the group a day or two later.
"There is a portal here to other sacred sites. It is hard to explain how it works, so I won't. You shall have to trust me and experience it. The site I have in mind will give us three days catch up and a way around Cyzicus. From what we've heard in the last village they are having problems with raiders and we don't need to take that on."
Lily and Agnes nodded with the others. Red's eyes darkened for a moment then she shook her head as if trying to rid herself from a discomforting thought. It wasn't lost on Aleka.
"Before we leave, we need to seal the caverns entrance from within." This is where her chakram would have come in handy but items that were such strong symbols to her shrouded self would have shattered the illusion that was sometimes fragile to maintain. She would rather have Gabrielle here than her familiar weapons, and Argo, she added ruefully. Too many things from Xena's world would keep her anchored to that personality.
The cavern's entrance had a large stone that could be moved to cover it's passage way but it was wedged open, probably from the followers of Demeter. It was puzzling why they hadn't sealed it before they deserted the village. While they were getting the place ready to seal Aleka kept her eyes looking for a reason why the Sacred Pools were left vulnerable. She could find none. The village had fallen into disrepair not from violence but from neglect. What had happened to everyone? People just don't desert a village without a reason. She glanced at the gray she wolf who merely blinked her yellow eyes at her.
After two candlemarks they had the track cleared and rolled the huge circular stone across the entrance. The women had also removed all outside marks that may indicate it as a possible entrance into the mountain. If Hadrius decided to return there would be no trace on the outside of his previous visit or the entrance to the caverns.
"That should really get him worried." Lily smirked as they stood outside before covering the entrance, regarding their finished work. The barrels had been returned to the inside and the scattered foundation stones were moved around to create a false impression. The ivy and wild herbs growing everywhere were flexible and allowed the women to lay a false cover. The brush covered the marks the moved stones created.
"Yep. Nice work. Now let's get moving to our next place. I want to get there before the sun is down so we can check the area out. We're all going to be tired and…"
"Speak for yourself!" Lily laughed. "This place has me so wound up I don't feel tired at all!"
Aleka put a hand on her shoulder. "When we leave here, we will feel a drain. I don't know if the next site is still considered sacred enough to be protected."
Lily nodded and hid her smile. She was feeling so energized it was hard to not be laughing all the time or skipping around. Eee Gads, Lily thought to herself, I can't stand to be around myself, she tried unsuccessfully to get the grin off her face.
The others were just as jumpy. Even the horses were fidgety.
Aleka avoided being alone with Red hoping it would be easier on both of them. She still didn't know what Red was remembering but she had seen her talk to Eleanor while they were working.
The vortex she was going to use was in the main cavern. It made sense since that was where the supplies and livestock were stored, making it convenient. The women had the horses ready and were moving into the order of their advance through the portal. While they prepared Aleka was concentrating on the site. She remembered it as it had been. It was out in the open, surrounded by sacred groves near a busy road. However, that was long ago.
"All right, loosen up everyone." When the women settled she looked at them closely to see where their energy levels were. As Aleka she could see shimmers of light around everyone. "It will feel," She pulled out of her memory what she remembered the feeling was like to walk though a portal, "like a rush after a cold dip in a river. Your body will be tingling and you will feel dizzy for a moment. But it will be very brief."
She looked around again catching Red's eyes then moving on. "I will go first and will return. I want to make sure it is safe on the other side."
Agnes held up her hand. "You cannot be the first Named." She firmly stated when she saw Aleka start to object.
Aleka took a deep breath. "Alright, Agnes. You and Lily will go. If it's clear, toss into the portal a feather. If you need to get back quickly, think of this place."
Lily's eyebrow rose. A feather?
"I don't want something heavy flying back out at us." Aleka explained. "Okay. Let's prepare." Agnes rested a hand on Aleka's arm and reached up to whisper in her ear. Something told her that she needed to update Aleka before she went though. Maybe it was her own fear of the unknown.
"She remembers herself as Iaia and is frightened you will hold her to blame. She still does not recall herself as Gabrielle. You will have to let her know that you do not blame her, for it rests heavy on her heart."
Aleka looked down into the worried green eyes of Agnes. Aleka nodded. So, that was what was in her eyes. Later, she whispered to herself.
Aleka led the women to where she could feel the difference in the air. The fine hairs on her arms stood up. She closed her eyes and began humming the sound that was the key to opening the door to the vortex. It became a word and she continued until she felt the sudden change of air that breezed over her. Aleka stepped back.
Lily absentmindedly rubbed her arms as if the raised hairs were tickling. "We will wait up to a quarter of a candlemark for your return. If you do not return, we will find you." Aleka was thinking that if they did run into trouble it would give them time enough to get out of it or send them a warning.
Lily and Agnes nodded. As Lily stepped though she closed her eyes. Agnes counted to herself then stepped forward, following the disappearing form of the tall Amazon. They were gone without a dramatic flash, just a sudden disappearance as if they had stepped across an invisible threshold.
Lily could feel a cold chill run up and down her body as she stepped through something she didn't see. Her eyes were closed which she realized too late was a mistake. A whistling sound of something moving quickly through the air brought her eyes open just as the club caught her behind her ear. Soundlessly she sank to the floor that was littered with leaves and dirt from the outside.
Agnes started through the portal with her eyes closed also but realized as the chills grabbed her that she needed to see where she was going so as not to bump into Lily. As she stepped into the room she found herself surrounded by a group of surprised men whom had weapons drawn. She nearly tripped over an unconscious Lily lying at her feet. In that split moment of knowing she would not return without Lily she sent a heart felt thought out to the Named. For a brief moment she defended herself from her attackers but a dart hit its mark and her limbs and consciousness shut down.
Both women's hands were bound behind them and a bag placed over each of their heads. They were tossed into an empty cage on wheels that had recently been emptied of slaves. If both women were conscious they would have smelled the previous prisoners fear.
Lily's first conscious thought was that she had drunk too much at another official function. She immediately started admonishing herself that she needed to pull herself together and find something in life that interested her instead of drinking herself into a stupor at the almost nightly parties. Thoughts of her mate whom had moved into Hades realm nearly three seasons ago brought her to another level of consciousness and this level smelled bad. The next level after that was the worse. She became aware that her hands were bound behind her back and her fingers were numb. She was nearly gagging over the stinking sack over her head that was made worse from the bouncing around in a cart that was not on a smooth road.
In a moment of panic she tried to sit up to try to get the suffocating sack off her head but another jolt over a rock sent her pitching to another area of the small cage, colliding with another moving object. The breath was knocked out of her and for the time it took for her to regain her breath she spent in agony. Lights blinked behind her eyes as her lungs struggled for air and her body was tossed about. Her consciousness didn't last long.
Agnes had been shot with a dart so she was spared waking until their captures dumped her onto a rock hard floor. The stink of the unclean sack with the queasy feeling in her stomach started her on dry heaves. Her situation brought her quickly to the reality that she was someone's prisoner.
Agnes was dragged to her feet by her bound arms and pushed against a wall roughly.
"Who are ya and what are ya doing in the temple?" A deep voice rumbled.
Agnes didn't answer and felt something smash into her arm. The impact sent her back to the floor. The questions continued as did the beatings with Agnes saying nothing.
She didn't hear when they started on Lily as she sank into a blissful darkness.
The others stood around expecting the feather right away. It didn't come. A quarter of a candlemark went by and still no feather. Aleka could feel the tension of the others mount.
We are all going to make it together, she thought determinedly. Aleka knew three breaths after the women disappeared that something was wrong and was already planning what to do. She was not going to leave anyone behind. There was another place about a half a day way, and further away from their ultimate destination, which was why she had not picked it in the first place. But it was safely within a cavern. It would mean they would have to back tract a full day and with caution. Without the other two the journey would be null. What is happening near the village of Malis that would not allow the two to return?
The second vortex was in a cavern surrounded by a forest outside of the village Naticus. What she could remember as Xena was that it was a small village trying to establish itself. As Aleka she didn't remember anything of the area. She didn't know how far the village had extended itself since she had last been through the area, but she was sure that no one would think to live anywhere near the vortex. Energy sites always became temples or shrines where a local seer would become ensconced and start a productive business of selling dreams. Dreams. A sudden thought occurred to her. "Psyche's curse!" She muttered to herself.
She felt Red's approach as she contemplated this new bit of information that both personalities had knowledge of but which she had forgotten. It would be plan B since it was too late to be used for A.
"Got a plan B?" She asked quietly standing in front of her.
Aleka looked into the veiled eyes and thought about how they use to be sparkling with laughter or reflecting a mischievous side. Now they were unfamiliar.
Aleka smiled with a twinkle in her blue eyes that the torchlight reflected back. "As a matter of fact, yes."
The others over heard the conversation and gathered around hopefully.
"We need everyone to complete this journey." Aleka announced with quiet determination. "There is another site, a day away. It's just as risky, but this time we all go together. Some of you will have to take two horses through. When you step across, make sure you move aside for the next person." She looked around as she could feel the excitement rise. "Grace you will come after me. Erica you and Red. The rest of you come in the pairs you are already working at. Camila lead the carthorse. We will leave in half a candle mark. Take this time to do what is needed to do to prepare yourselves."
She didn't want Red to come in after her, which she knew she would want to. Familiarity could lead to a mistake.
Aleka leaned back into her chair and closed her eyes. "Now leave me for a while." She told them softly.
Continue on to Road Show: Part Two