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This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.
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Road Show: Part One
By J.A. Bard
Watch What You Dream For
"So, what do you think Hercules wants, Xena?" Gabrielle asked for the third time since they started their journey. The first time she got a thoughtful headshake from her traveling companion. The second time she got a blank stare from pale blue eyes whose owner's thoughts were far away. This was the second day of their journey and by now Xena probably had some idea; it was just a matter of wheedling a guess from her. A guess from Xena was usually pretty much on the mark. Her passion and skill at puzzles gave her the uncanny ability to put little bits of information heard here and there together and see a complete picture that others could not.
"Help with slaying a Cyclops?" Gabrielle swung her staff low, sweeping her imaginary adversary's legs out from under him. "Ya!" She then whirled around with a smart rap to the head of a very short Cyclops, followed by a jab to the left of her. She aimed toward the chest area of an average sort of unlucky fellow and she finished with a few more rapid successions of twirls and jabs to whatever else might be foolish enough to be too close by. "Ya! Cha! Yep!"
"Or, rescue a god or demigod that had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. "Yep! Yaaaaa." She made another spin facing the impassive face of the Warrior Princess sitting safely on her war-horse. Gabrielle pulled her staff over her head horizontally to block an imagined blow and whirled around again in the offensive position hiding her smile. She had Xena's attention, as undivided as it could be out on the trail.
"Or!" She whipped back around to look with a glint in her green eyes, this time capturing the glittering blues of her dark haired companion. The tall warrior was content to keep a safe distance from adversaries she could not see.
Argo snorted in warning as Gabrielle's staff came a little too close to her nose. Xena's left wrist was resting on the saddlebow with the reins dangling loosely from her hand, while her right hand was on her thigh near her sword sheath attached to the saddle. Her eyes were scanning the area around them at regular intervals with frequent glances at her entertaining and energetic friend. Her characteristically unreadable face watched the animated Bard whose eyes lit up with images only she could see. A faint smile touched Xena's lips as she returned her eyes to study the landscape around them. Life around Gabrielle certainly took on a whole new different color…no, correct that. Life took on a multitude of colors, shades, contrasts and brightness that she had never imagined since Gabrielle started to travel with her. This thought left Xena with a bemused look on her face.
Gabrielle let Argo's stirrup come along side of her and continued, "Maybe it's about an adventure unlike any other we've been on!" Dramatically she gestured as if pulling in an audience for the beginning of one of her stories.
"And – it's going to be fun!" Gabrielle's eyes opened wide as she continued to see an adventure play out, one without any blood and gore or one that didn't call for being mugged by thugs whose smell alone could knock them out.
Gabrielle rested a hand lightly on Xena's boot, looking up at the warrior's dark tanned profile that stood out against the bright blue sky. The warm blue eyes that grazed her briefly stirred her soul and reminded her of another poem she wanted to add to her scrolls.
"Gabrielle, why don't you just wait and see what Hercules has to say before putting in requests." She remarked dryly, letting her lips curl into the smile her eyes twinkled.
"Hey, positive thinking has a lot of merit to it. I think we're due for something fun. Like the time he asked for our help to get that cute little pig out of the oven." She returned confidently as she let her hand rest on the boot in the stirrup a moment longer, feeling the warmth of the wearer though the leather.
Both women chuckled at the shared memory of their unexpected bumping into Hercules and Iolaus in a small village that had a collective outdoor oven where a frightened little pig had wedged itself into the opening of the oven. It was a young child's pet and too young for normal butchering so Iolaus and Hercules were trying to get the pig unstuck. The kids were not the only ones laughing at the larger than life hero and his friend's predicament. Hercules was afraid by using brute strength he would hurt the pig and the little boys anguish was evident over the misfortune of his little pet. The more they tried to pull, prod or anything else the pig pushed itself harder into the small opening. Xena figured out how to get the pig to want to go the other way. It was an interesting reunion for the four, to say the least.
Gabrielle picked up her pace and put some space between the horse and her twirling staff. Occasionally she would attack imaginary bad guys disguised as hapless vegetation that lined the dry wagon rutted road. In one of her spinning attacks she miss stepped into one of the wagon ruts sending her toward the dusty ground. However, confident in her athleticism, she attempted to do a roll forgetting what to do with her staff.
Gabrielle found herself looking up at a clear blue cloudless sky and lighter shade of blue eyes that regarded her with amusement. Argo had come to a stop next to the sprawled figure extending her neck so her nose was close to Gabrielle's bare midriff. She let out a whiff of air that tickled Gabrielle's bare skin and caused her to jump. The big soft brown eyes regarded her with mild interest.
"Yeeeoooww! Argo that tickles!" She cried indignantly.
"Did that flower hurt you? Do you want me to do my warrior thing and pull its petals out one by one or just cut it to bits?" Xena asked in mock concern. She was leaning forward on Argo waiting for her entertainer to recover. The reins were still casually resting in one hand while the other was absentmindedly stroking Argo's neck.
"Hmph! It happened to be an evil war lord trying to escape the Great Warrior Princess and her partner."
"Well, it looks like her partner is falling down on the job." She returned in a droll tone though her eyes sparkled with merriment.
Gabrielle got back to her feet brushing off the back of her skirt, readjusting it and then her top eyeing Argo with suspicion as she swung her golden head in her direction again.
"Humph. How do you know that I was the partner? I could have been the great WP!"
Xena's eyebrow rose a notch or two but she said nothing as her eyes ran up and down the Bard's athletically trim body as if seeing her for the first time. "Hmm." She finally responded.
"Ahh, I think you have taken something hostage right there." Xena pointed at the clump of grass and dirt that had lodged between her round breasts from what her staff had deposited on her fall. Xena straightened up and looked back up at the surrounding countryside aware of Gabrielle cleaning off the dirt, trying not to break out in a loud laugh.
"It was a clever move to make him think he had me." Gabrielle continued, pointedly ignoring Xena's remark. "You had to be there to appreciate the brilliant plan put forth to capture this devious man!" She returned tartly. Her fingertips had the way ward dirt clump, which she flicked up toward the side of Xena's head. A hand moved so quickly to deflect it Gabrielle thought it was only her imagination. However, there was no dirt clod anywhere. She raised her eyebrows at Xena's calm look that had returned to her upturned face.
"Hmm, and where does the Great Warrior Princess come in the picture?" She asked curiously looking into the serious green eyes that were looking up at her.
"She," Gabrielle leaned forward brushing against the booted stirrup and made a sweeping movement with her free hand, "comes thundering across the camp on her," she looked Argo in her soft brown eye that was still watching her, "golden war horse -- and knocks the warlord off his feet, and the…"
Xena suddenly rose in her stirrups, becoming tense as her attention moved to the trees on the slope above them. From habit Gabrielle stopped speaking, holding her staff at ready as she followed the direction of Xena's eyes, not expecting to see anything just yet.
"Sounds like trouble on the other side of the bend." Xena said softly still listening to what she could only hear. Abruptly she leaned down to offer Gabrielle a hand, presuming she did not want to be left behind. Without hesitation Gabrielle grabbed her arm and only had to swing her leg over Argo's back as the strong proffered arm easily lifted her up. Once astride Argo, Gabrielle held her staff out of the way as they set off at a quick gallop up the slope into the trees to get to the other side of the road that curved around the slope. As Argo threaded quickly around the trees with her two riders ducking low hanging branches the sounds of a small battle could be heard.
A group of small village merchants were surrounded by a group of raiders. The defense of the merchant's group was whittled down to three standing guards who looked badly in need of help. The trio's fast approach down the slope went unnoticed until Xena let out her war cry that pierced the air. For a moment everyone stopped to see what the cry was all about and froze to see the large golden war-horse with a figure glinting in armor and dark hair streaming behind leaning over her horse's neck heading toward them at breakneck speed.
Xena pulled Argo to a sliding stop and Gabrielle, with practiced ease, slid off of Argo taking out the raider that had paused with his knife ready to slice a merchant's throat. A quick sweep knocked down the raider that had come to his fellow attacker's assistance and she gave him a solid hit to the side of his head. The third one wasn't as easy and Gabrielle was put to task as he used two swords to keep her busy. He had blocked one of her sweeps and kicked her into the side of one of the carts. She used the support to with stand his barrage of sword strokes, which were intended to overwhelm his victim more than harm. If the man wasn't tired Gabrielle knew she would have had to be rescued by Xena. However, he wore himself out before Gabrielle succumbed to the strategy and she quickly took advantage of the situation. She shoved her staff into his chest after one of the strokes missed her, then swept his legs out from under him. She knocked him out when he attempted to get back up.
Xena worked on the men that were on horseback first. Argo's war-horse training gave her the options to take out the enemy's mount with kicks, bites, and or knocking down the unfortunate horse. In this case she ran into the first horse that didn't appear to have such training, sending the rider and horse to the ground. The horse scrambled to its feet riderless and quickly ran off to where there was no fearsome war-horse to contend. Pausing, Argo whirled around, responding to her mistress's' leg signals, and her mistress knocked the next rider off his mount with a well placed sword hilt to his temple when his failed swing left him open. The other rider attempted to move into a better position to get at the new arrivals but one of the guards to the merchant's group was able to rally and knocked the rider to the ground. A kick from Xena knocked another attacker on the ground into one of the wheels of the carts with such force the man slid to the ground stunned. Xena was about to go to Gabrielle's assistance when the fighting Bard finished off her attacker, then wheeled around to go after another. Xena turned her attention to the rider who was knocked to the ground who had a mace that was swinging toward her leg. She pulled Argo into a position that gave her the angle to use her foot to kick the mace aside then booted the attacker. It was enough to knock him sideways where another of the merchant's guards finished him with a sword through his heart.
The raiders on foot were quickly reduced from five to two who were now fighting to get out of the ring that three of the defenders had set up with Gabrielle's support. Xena did a flip from Argo's back into the center of the ring, with the intention of putting a quick end to the interruption of their hurried trip to Petoli. .
"You can put down your weapons, or," Xena twirled her sword in a slow hypnotic circle, her lips curled up into a feral grin with her eyes glinting ice. "get hurt." She dropped her voice in a low growl.
One of them readily threw down his sword while the other hesitated, then followed suit.
"Good choice." She said softly.
Xena sheathed her sword behind her knowing that if either of the prisoners made a threatening move her reflexes would be fast enough to stop any further movement from them. She glanced at Gabrielle to make sure she had not taken any injuries. Xena nodded to the others that were watching her and the prisoners with the same wary eye. Weapons, prisoners, and the fallen were quickly attended to. Xena noted with approval that the merchants seemed to be well organized for everyone moved with purpose without duplicating another's efforts to access damages and to put things back in order for the resumption of their journey.
A merchant approached the most unlikely looking couple, the grim tall dark leather clad warrior, and the shorter reddish blond haired woman, with an open and engaging smile. In fact the younger woman was the most unlikely looking woman to be dressed as an Amazon and carrying a staff that she proved was not for show.
"My name's Callirhoe. We're from Lacus about a day's walk from the south. We want to thank you…" She let her nod fill in the unspoken request for their names, though by her look she already knew.
Callirhoe was an older woman whose carriage spoke of authority. She wore trews beneath the tunic that fell below her knees with slits for easy movement on the sides. The coloring of her clothing could easily blend in with the woods about them. Her boots, though covered with dirt from the road looked well made and comfortable, with her pants tucked neatly into them. She wore a sheath at either side of her waist for her sword and dagger.
"I'm Gabrielle from Poteidaia and this is Xena from…"
"The Warrior Princess. I thought I recognized you two." She laughed. "We've heard plenty of stories about your kindness in helping out those who need it." Callirihoe's warm brown eyes changed quickly as she half turned to the sound behind her. One of the guards was pushing a wheel that was loose back into place. Her eyes narrowed, "Claud! Don't force it at that angle! It will weaken the packing in the hub. Pylus, help him."
Callirihoe turned back to the pair standing before her. "Well, I am very honored to meet you both. I am sorry it is not in a place where I can buy you both a meal and a drink and listen to some entertaining stories, but I am not going to complain, for I would rather you here now than later."
"Right." Xena nodded. Her eyes briskly scanned the group, distracted with trying to figure out how to get them safely to their destination and at the same time make it to meet with Hercules by the next new moon, which was two nights away.
Gabrielle was pleased that Xena's reputation was honorable in this woman's eyes and a little embarrassed that her glance included both of them when she mentioned helping people out. She enjoyed helping people but was more comfortable receiving praise for her stories. The warrior princess and her had an amicable agreement, hero stuff was Xena's job, and writing about it was hers. She didn't mind the arrangement, most of the times. It meant she got to go along on jobs Xena thought were too dangerous if for no other reason than to write about it. Gabrielle was realistic that fighting in the middle of a bloody battle was not within her metal. She would get too sick with the carnage happening around her. But if it meant protecting Xena's back while taking mental notes on the less violent aspects of the battle, she insisted on participating.
"What are we gonna do with them?" One of the other merchants asked as she held her bloody arm across her ample bosom. "We can't take them with us. We're down too many guards to watch them, plus we still have to care for our injured and watch for more of their damn kind."
Xena regarded the captives for a moment. "Why don't we first get the injured cared for." Xena pulled some leather strips that were dangling from one of the carts and tossed them toward one of the guards that looked the healthiest. He caught them and handed some to a young merchant's apprentice, who then busied themselves tying up the still unconscious attackers.
Xena turned to Argo whose reins Gabrielle had gathered. They both exchanged glances and in a well practiced routine Xena pulled her healer's bag out from their packs behind Argo's saddle and begin making her rounds to the injured. Four of the merchant's guards were injured and one had perished, she noted. Three of the robbers were dead and two seriously injured, leaving four alive, though unconscious. Three had ridden away with the loose horses.
"Are you going to Taltos?" Xena asked Callirhoe, who was following her and Gabrielle along and doing her own inventorying. Callirhoe had her own medicine bag with her but didn't offer the warrior any advice understanding that her skill and speed in assessing and taking care of the injured exceeded her own abilities.
Gabrielle held the ends of the skin together while Xena made small and neat stitches on the unconscious guard's leg. Callirhoe watched the pair as Xena finished her part Gabrielle had a powder and some cloth ready to dab and bind the wound up. Callirhoe was thinking how this was giving her a better appreciation of the stories the wandering bards told. In her town both the ugly and the new stories of the Warrior Princess were told with equal relish. This experience was going to change her preference, she thought smiling to herself.
"Yea. The celebrations and festival to Fauna starts in four days. We were hoping to beat the bad weather by starting out early"
Xena nodded for she had noticed the dark clouds that were about a day away, wrapped around the misty mountains. They were going to swing west themselves, thereby missing some of it.
"That's a two days journey with all this stuff and the injured." Xena estimated out loud. "You also have one lame horse that won't be able to pull that cart." She wished she had the chance to grab the stray horses before the bandit survivors ran off with them.
Xena carefully cleaned another cut above one of the merchant's hip and decided it wasn't deep enough to warrant stitching. She took the clean cloth Callirhoe handed her and dabbed a root powder on it that would coagulate the slight blood flow, exchanging glances with Gabrielle. Xena could see that Gabrielle was waiting for her to make a decision.
"Doesn't the prince send out patrols during festival times to protect the roads?" Xena asked as she got up and moved to the next injured member of the caravan.
"Yea. But we won't be in the area of his protection until we're a day outside of Taltos." Callirhoe reported, wondering if their luck would hold and they would get her fabled protection till they reached Taltos.
"I've got too much invested to go back." Xena's injured patient muttered to Callirhoe, gritting his teeth when she pushed against the seeping cut.
"We'll accompany you to the Prince's roads then see how safe it is. My horse can pull the cart in place of the injured mare." Xena offered curtly. She rose and looked around for her next patient.
Gabrielle could see in Xena's eyes the torn look of conflicting responsibilities. Xena wouldn't let the merchants travel in their present condition without some sort of protection, and yet, Hercules message stressed urgency.
Gabrielle moved to Xena's side. She resisted putting a comforting hand on her arm, which would only distract them both. Instead she touched her elbow to Xena's arm to get her attention. "Hey." She said softly. "I'm sure Argo and I can get by," She hesitated a moment then closed her mind to all the things that seem to happen when she didn't have Xena close by, "without you for a few days. Why don't you go ahead and meet with Hercules? We'll catch up with you in Petoli." Gabrielle offered.
Xena looked at Gabrielle. It was an option that crossed her mind, but she didn't want to take it. It meant both Argo and Gabrielle would be traveling in another direction. And what were the chances of the group being attacked again? She wasn't going to put Gabrielle in any danger that could be avoided. Xena knew Gabrielle would offer herself up rather than delay something she felt was important, even if she was going to be miserable.
"Xena, I can handle myself fine." She insisted reading in the impassive face what others could not. "I mean, when word gets out that the great Warrior Princess and her partner are traveling on the road to the festival, who's going to be crazy enough to set up a raid? Besides, by tomorrow there should be crowds on this road, so the odds of another group of raiders meeting up with us are pretty low."
Gabrielle suddenly grinned. "And Argo and I can use this opportunity to do more of this bonding thing you keep saying we need."
Xena raised an eyebrow for a moment. She didn't want to point out to the Bard that when she fitted into those odds it would more than likely go towards another attack. Xena shut her doubts down. Gabrielle believed in positive thinking. Okay, she told herself, she needed to have more faith in Gabrielle's instincts. Right.
"Bonding? This is not what I had in mind, Gabrielle." She drawled.
Gabrielle lightly grabbed her friend's leathered wrist and put pressure on it. "Hey. Didn't you tell me the other day that you thought I could take care of myself well enough that you wouldn't have to worry about me? Huh?"
Xena was stuck. She had said something to that effect when Gabrielle had passed another test to see how aware she was of what was going on around her. Xena had meant it at the time, but she wasn't expecting to field test her so soon and without her being nearby to make sure no one got hurt. Xena watched the merchants and guards going about their business to get ready to resume their journey.
"The sooner you get going the sooner you can see what Hercules wants." Gabrielle encouraged her, patting her confidently on her arm.
"I didn't say I wouldn't worry about you." Xena quietly clarified. "I said you would be able to stay out of serious trouble, at least until I returned." Xena's eyes returned to Gabrielle's smiling face.
This had been a sore point for both women for a while. Xena had found that leaving Gabrielle safely ensconced in an inn while she took care of problems that she felt were too dangerous to take her into, was more nerve racking than taking her along. It seemed that no matter how safe she left Gabrielle trouble found her. Then there was having to face Gabrielle's hurt feelings of being left behind. The compromise was that Xena taught her survival skills that would at least give her an edge over the more serious drunks, criminals with more than petty crimes on their minds, and attempts at kidnapping her for one reason or another.
Xena studied her hands that had blood on them. She let a soft sigh out. Gabrielle would be reasonably safe and Argo would be with her, she tried to reassure herself. Both were very close to her heart, though it wasn't Argo she was worried about. Argo wasn't a magnet for trouble and her hurt feelings at being left behind only once created a slight problem. It also only took a few apples for Argo to forgive her and that didn't work as well with Gabrielle.
"Right." Xena took the cloth to wipe her hands from Gabrielle. She then turned around and walked over to Argo, probably to break the bad news to her, was Gabrielle's guess. However, Xena was telling her to keep Gabrielle out of trouble for a nice reward of a few extra green apples, her favorite.
It took two candlemarks to get the merchants ready to move again. There were carts to repack and fix. The injured were set atop the repacked carts; the prisoners that could walk had been tied securely behind some of the carts. Argo was relieved of her tack only to be replaced with the cart harness. Xena talked consolingly to Argo as she harnessed her to the cart. Argo's tack and what Xena was not going to carry was stored on the cart she was volunteered to pull.
"There's an inn called the Pelican's Cry." Xena spoke to Gabrielle in a low voice as she patted Argo's neck. "I will leave word with the innkeeper if I'm not there when you get there. He has a scar on his chin right here." Xena traced a line from her left ear to her chin with her thumbnail. "Goes by the name of Tobias the Red." Xena watched Gabrielle's eyes as she was struggling to look cheerful. Xena touched her arm briefly as she picked up her water bag. She adjusted her scabbard in its familiar place on her back after she added the water bag to her shoulder. Gabrielle handed her a small pouch of food she could carry around her waist. "I'll come back for you two if it's something quick. I'll come along the merchant's road, so don't get any ideas of taking short cuts." Xena warned, knowing all too well what dangers would await a woman wandering alone in the woods. "Try to travel with a group, if you can."
"Another one of your old war buddies?" Gabrielle asked, referring to the man in the inn. She cocked her head to one side hoping Xena didn't see her unhappiness. Volunteering to be left behind made this parting only a little less difficult than if Xena had asked her to remain. She was finding their partings more difficult and though she generally could feel when something was wrong with Xena, she still would rather be there next to her when things happened.
"No. One of Hercules' friends." Xena returned with a small smile. Xena caught the small droop in the shoulders and the less than usual energetic nod of Gabrielle's head. She rested a comforting hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. Gabrielle could feel the warmth from the hand and the gentle pressure from the fingertips that curled momentarily on her shoulder. Gabrielle looked up into thoughtful blue eyes and grinned.
Gabrielle believed good byes in public were very difficult for the stoic faced Warrior because her life often depended on her intimidating façade and she was determined to not undermine it especially when it was really her own cheerful façade she was trying to maintain. Xena pulled Gabrielle into her for a hug that lasted more than a few heartbeats. That ruined Gabrielle's mask, as her cheek rested against the armor swirls on the top of Xena's leathers.
"I don't have to tell you to stay out of trouble." Xena whispered in Gabrielle's ear.
"Please be careful." Gabrielle managed to whisper as she held back her fears. When Hercules called for help it was usually something very dangerous. She couldn't help thinking about how she was not going to be there to make sure Xena's back was protected, though she had faith in Hercules and his feelings for Xena's safety.
It was just before noon when Xena left the group. She had been careful not to be over protective of Gabrielle and at the same time give her pointers on what to keep her eyes out for, which Gabrielle appreciated. Gabrielle watched her dark clad figure disappear into the woods knowing she would cover more ground before dark than what they would have had, had she been along. Though Xena preached against her taking short cuts Gabrielle knew she would be taking all the ones she could.
Gabrielle took her place at the end of the line of heavily laden carts, next to the cart Argo was pulling. It's previous beast walked behind with a slight limp. The owner was nursing one of the guards that was seriously injured and sat atop of his goods with a good view of the surrounding landscape. Gabrielle was relieved that everyone that was conscious had the sense to be alert. She patted Argo on her neck and offered some consoling remarks about her plight, while scanning the surrounding area with a picture of Xena in her mind's eye. She smiled at the thought of Xena probably loving the opportunity to run like the wind. In her mind she pictured Xena's progress over the ground and, she bit back a giggle, through the trees, more comfortable with the travel than an Amazon. The dreamy vision of Xena's progress to Petoli made Gabrielle's day easier. The dark clouds that promised rain they left behind.
They made camp after dusk. The merchants knew the area well and from the look of the site picked, so did others. It was annoying to come back over the same road Xena and she had taken earlier and knowing it was taking her further away from what had been their destination. Gabrielle helped set up camp then went around with Callirhoe and checked injuries trying to keep her mind on the present.
Since Gabrielle was one of the few uninjured she took first shift at guard duty, which was good because she found she couldn't sleep thinking about Xena's probable continuation of travel without sleep. Gabrielle knew that when she wasn't around to get Xena to relax she pushed herself without mercy.
Gabrielle found a tree far enough away from the camp to be able to listen to the night's sounds without the sounds from the camp overlapping. She was grateful for Xena's lessons in sitting watch for they did come in handy when Gabrielle felt herself ready to doze. Right. Stay focused on the night sounds was one of her suggestions. The problem here was that the night crickets were singing her to sleep.
Gabrielle was working out stories in her mind when she heard someone approaching her position. She recognized the dark figure of the guard that had a twisted arm, whom was to be her relief.
"Pryamus." Gabrielle softly called. He changed his direction and moved toward her voice.
"All is well around the camp, Gabrielle." He whispered to her.
"It's quiet around here." She returned. He nodded and took her place in the protective niche she had found. It afforded a good view of the area behind the campsite and protection from being spotted by anyone. "How's the arm?" She asked before she left.
She didn't see him smile but there was a smile in his whispered reply, "I've had worse. Those herbs you gave me really helped, though. Thanks again."
Gabrielle had laid out her bedroll before she started her watch so she would not have to worry about finding somewhere to sleep in the early morning's darkness, and probably tripping over sleeping bodies in her search. Gabrielle yawned widely before she fell into a deep sleep. To think all she needed to do was horse sit on this assignment. She chucked sleepily at the thought of Argo needing a chaperone.
The next morning Gabrielle was shaken awake by an unfamiliar hand and rougher than what she was use to. She had rolled to her side and nearly bashed the poor unfortunate merchant on the head with her staff that had quickly found its way to her hands before remembering where she was.
"Are you always this tough to wake up?" He asked grumpily.
"I'm not normally shaken out of my wits before the sun has a chance to show." Gabrielle returned just as testy. She was angry with herself to have let a stranger get so close to her. If Xena found out about that she would be taking measures to get Gabrielle to hone those skills. She wasn't happy with herself.
Callirhoe raised her eyebrows in mock horror. "Two late risers." She reached into her supply bag and tossed a small roll of bread to her. "Food certainly can help." She bent over the small fire and ladled out some soup into a small cup handing it to an appreciative Gabrielle.
Gabrielle caught the bread and got a good mouthful before accepting the cup of soup. Hmm. Leftovers from last night. That was good soup. I think I can wake up for this. This is way better than trail rations, she thought, trying to feel better about the new day. She sat on the log near the fire trying to get some warmth in the cold morning.
Callirhoe turned back to her group that was moving around slowly from the previous day's activities. Following her quick meal, Gabrielle offered her assistance and was readily used where Callirhoe needed help. Those that were injured were reassessed and those that were more able to walk did just that, to give the horses an easier task of pulling their goods. Preparations to move back on the road were efficiently made in a short ordered time. Callirhoe wanted to reach the king's protection as soon as possible. By the time the sun was showing above the treetops they were about a candlemark underway. Her efficiency reminded Gabrielle of Xena.
The prisoners were given water and little food, but enough to keep their strength up.
Gabrielle took her place next to Argo's side as she was again hitched up to the cart. The look she gave Gabrielle had Gabrielle sympathizing with her. She was a proud war-horse having to do time pulling a heavy merchant's cart.
"I won't tell anyone about this." She whispered in Argo's twitching ear as the golden head shook as if in disgust. To keep both their minds off of where they would rather be Gabrielle made up some stories for Argo letting the mare's ears signal to her whether she liked them or not.
It was nearing dusk when Callirhoe passed word down they were close to the next camp site, which was a quarter candlemark around the next bend. Gabrielle remembered the area where they had taken a quick break a day earlier. It had a nice spring nearby and a ready-made fire ring. Suddenly Gabrielle could feel the ground vibrate under her and Argo's snort near her elbow told her she also felt it. Gabrielle called out in alarm to the others. Many horses were approaching.
Dread filled her, as she knew that they were going to be outnumbered if it wasn't the king's guard. Oh Xena, she thought dismayed, this could be trouble.
Xena made good time cutting across the forest where Argo would not have been able to pass through. She had to take to the trees many times to get past dense brush that would have taken a lot of time to cut through or go around. She smiled to herself remembering a few Amazons she knew who would find this method of travel as familiar as walking on a path. She quietly passed a few groups of men in dark clothing that normally she would have stayed behind to find out what mischief they were into.
At her first rest stop she had breathed in deep the smell of the damp earth, the wild herbs that grew abundant around her, and the small blossoms that dared to grow in filtered light and so close to winter. She listened to the sounds of the creatures that made the area their home. A breeze lifted her hair off her shoulders cooling her and bringing the smell of a distant ocean. She shook her head. The Aegean was too far away for her to smell it yet.
She took a second sip from her waterskin. She was comfortably leaning against the base of an old tree. Tentatively she stretched her legs and noted that they were a little tight but by the next break they would be fine. Slinging the water skin over her shoulders she repositioned her sword and again took off in a lopping run gradually increasing her speed. It felt good to run and even better when she did a few sprints to run all out, taking satisfaction in feeling the pull on her muscles as the incline became steeper and her lungs starting to labor.
Xena made Petoli in record time, early the next morning. The air was damp with the morning mist and salty smell from the Aegean Sea as she lopped into the still sleeping town. She found the Pelican Inn shrouded in the still heavy blanket of the night fog from the ocean. She moved toward the back door where she knew the inn's cook would be getting the fire going. It was candlemarks before light would come. Her dark form caused a slight disturbance in the damp cloud as it swirled around her form causing her to disappear within its folds.
Hercules and Iolaus were still asleep as a dark figure slipped into their room. They were rudely awakened by a menacing voice demanding their purses or their family jewels.
"This urgent message is about escorting some priestesses into Paeonia?" Xena asked irritated. Xena didn't know which was more aggravating, the message that implied it was urgent, or having to leave Gabrielle and Argo behind for something that so far didn't sound life threatening. "They must be gilded in gold." She growled.
"It's complicated." Hercules smiled with a pained look in his eyes. "They need to get safely to their Temple in Mecsa."
"The seat of the Phytia." Xena sighed. Oracles from any temple put her on edge, but this one was to Gaia, the original Mother of all the Greek gods. That would make her Hercules great grandmother, she thought with wry humor. This certainly put an amusing twist on things.
"Look, Hercules." She shook her head to refocus. She was tired. "Isn't this a bit dangerous to get mixed up with rival powers on Mt. Olympus?" This was more up Gabrielle's diplomatic skill's area, Xena groaned mentally.
Apollo had slain Gaia's python at Delphi and took over her temple out of jealousy and believing he could do it without his father's interference. The Delphi Temple was the center of the world, as Zeus had decreed. However, Apollo was piqued when only female oracles could go into trance states without harm and then the Phytia, when in trance, became directly connected to Gaia, and to no other. The name may have changed on the outside of the Temple but the underground site where the delphys, the womb was, was still that of Gaia's. And that was where the power of the Temple radiated from. It was where the amphalos, the navel shaped stone the oracle sat to speak was. The Phytia, the oracle priestesses, brought many faithful to the Temple that was in his name so he conveniently said and did nothing more against his great grandmother, Gaia. In fact, few of the gods would interfere with Gaia, as her power on earth was greater than theirs, which she used only to protect those that still paid direct homage to her.
"It's rather complicated." Hercules' face took on the characteristic look of discomfort whenever he spoke of his family in the clouds of Mt. Olympus.
"It sounds like a job that two healthy able bodied men can take care of easily." Xena returned suddenly amused. He's leaving something out, she thought.
"If we escorted them it wouldn't look right and we would be attracting all sorts of the wrong types of --well, you know." He finished lamely.
"What? The news of Hercules escorting young nubile girls across Greece would cause rumors or trouble? Nawww." Xena smirked.
"Right, exactly, and that's where you and Gabrielle come in." Hercules continued hurriedly. "Iolaus and I have already heard rumors that someone tipped off the slave traders and some warlords that there is easy money in selling them." He sighed and added, "You have far more knowledge on their tactics than I." His smile took whatever sting away that Xena's guilt might have elicited within her about how she acquired that knowledge. "With these women's training they would bring more money on the slave block than Helios' chargers."
Iolaus snorted. "And anyone with good sense wouldn't even attempt to mess with those horses. They bite." He nodded as if he knew that from personal experience.
"Xena, at least hear the priestess out." He added when he saw her face move into the familiar resolve.
"Right." She muttered. A sudden smirk appeared on her face. Special training? She remembered that the priestess of Gaia practiced a form of erotic healing, which may well be the reason why Hercules felt uncomfortable with escorting them and why they would get a high price on the slave market.
"Desmonia will meet with us in the market – at a more civil time in the morning." Hercules continued with a grin.
"And who is Desmonia?"
"She's with Artemis' royal temple guard on Sappho's island."
"Royal temple guard." She stated matter of factly. A bad feeling started in the pit of her stomach. It was sounding like a lot of bored gods thinking up things for mere mortals to do to keep them entertained. Her suspicion on who might have spread the rumor caused a tight smile to form on her face. It's the typical mischief Ares would create to annoy his sibling and irritate Xena.
"Why can't they just escort the group?" Xena asked again not really wanting to take this two or three week trip which may take longer if they moved slowly with too much baggage. What did priestesses carry for luggage anyway? Then there was Gabrielle. A sudden smile appeared on her face as she thought of Gabrielle and the priestesses. She's seen a lot since their rescuing the Hespian vestal virgin priestess but still…it would be entertaining for her to watch Gabrielle try to learn about the priestesses while figuring out how to make a story out of it. How much would she ask the priestesses about their training or what exactly they did to prepare for the rituals and ceremonies involved in the healing for their temple visitors? She certainly would like to be around for that. Gabrielle not only liked to hear the details, unless it was gory, but she sometimes…Xena shook herself to get back to the business at hand.
Hercules misread the look in her eyes and wondered if he was explaining it right.
"Hey. How about we continue this conversation when there's more light. I'm beat. You think you had to rush here. When we got word we were…"
"Iolaus, later." Hercules silenced him with a grin. "There's a room across from ours that I reserved for you and Gabrielle. Where is she, anyway?"
"Getting breakfast?" Iolaus quipped.
Xena's face darkened for a moment and was going to say something testy when Hercules put a hand up apologetically. "He's just joking. Xena you're tired."
"I left her and Argo with a group of merchants that were hit by some raiders. She should be here in about four or five days." Xena grumbled. "I could use a few candlemarks of rest." She admitted. "As soon as we talk to this Desmonia, I'm going after Gabrielle and Argo."
Hercules didn't look at Iolaus but instead just nodded. He would let Desmonia tell her. He sighed as he pounded what was serving as a pillow into an acceptable shape. Sometimes things were just too strange even for him, he thought wearily as he moved into Morpheus's domain.
Xena was up a few candlemarks later feeling the edge taken off her weariness. However, her dreams were even stranger than they had been the last two weeks. They weren't nightmares, just strange. From visiting with people she didn't recognize in deep caverns below mountains to taking winding paths up mountains that were veiled in thick mists. For the last two weeks she had been waking up disorientated and feeling that Gabrielle was looking at her differently. On top of that Gabrielle was waking up before the sun began its ascent and when she went back to sleep she found Gabrielle gripping her as if she was afraid Xena was going to go somewhere. Were they having the same dreams? She silently kicked herself for not bringing up the dreams just to compare but she couldn't remember the contents once she was awake so had refrained from speaking of them.
There's no point in talking about what you can't remember, Xena reminded herself again. Xena decided she needed some fresh ocean air to clear her mind and a run along the beach would give her that. Running in the soft sand was exactly what she needed.
Both Hercules and Iolaus were still sleeping, as her sharp hearing picked up their sleep deepened breathing from the other side of the door. On a secluded part of the beach she stretched and did some exercises to loosen up and refocus her thoughts. The morning mist was nearly gone and the crisp cold winter air stimulated her to move quickly. She moved smoothly into a more serious training routine hoping to close out all thoughts. But, thoughts of Gabrielle and wondering what she was doing kept drifting through her mind as she finally gave up on closing her mind off from anything but her routines. She finished her work out with a run on the beach in the soft sand letting her mind worry about what she was not able to keep it from doing. She knew if anything were wrong with Gabrielle she would know, for their ability to sense each other's intense emotions from a distance was an accepted fact of their bond. She laughed to herself as she remembered just how intense their bond could be. As the beach became busier with morning life Xena headed back to the inn feeling a good work out in her legs if not anywhere else.
Hercules and Iolaus found her sipping tea and leaning with her back against the wall watching the early morning customers. There weren't many. They all broke morning fast with a light meal eating quietly. Not even the usually talkative Iolaus attempted to break the silence. Xena wasn't use to the silence and found she trying to end the meal as soon as she could. Paying for their meal they headed to the market place.
"There she is." Iolaus spoke in a low voice to his companions without indicating to anyone watching that they were interested in anything besides the merchant's wares. Xena's sharp hearing caught Iolaus' whispered message and while inspecting a carved box on the merchant's table, she observed the person Iolaus spotted. She handed the merchant some money and slid the small box in her pouch.
The woman Iolaus was referring to was dressed nondescript and would have easily been mistaken for an early shopper as they, had not Xena's trained eye noted her movements and attitude were unlike the locals. She didn't have the tired slump of a villager or the haughty attitude of the local aristocrats but carried herself with a grace and self-assurance not found in the native population.
Within a short time they were all in a room that was safe from prying eyes and ears.
Following introductions, Desmonia looked Xena over with a grin on her face. "So, the ex-warlord Xena has been chosen as the guardian of the sacred vessels across unfriendly lands on this long journey."
Xena leaned back in her chair and regarded the woman with an impassive face. "I frankly think Hercules and Iolaus make a better team of chaperones. They do have impeccable reputations and high moral standards." Xena attempted not to smirk.
Desmonia leaned across the table her brown doe eyes looking deep into Xena's. "It will take a lot more than that, Xena, Warrior Princess and friend of Gabrielle, the Amazon Queen and Bard."
Xena studied the eyes that had more depth than what she was use to and suddenly realized the woman was a seer as well as priestess. She sat for a few moments saying nothing, waiting for her to go on. Inside she was groaning. Member of the temple guard she was not. She was curious if Hercules had purposely misrepresented her. She had a feeling this was going to be one of those complicated convoluted Gabrielle-type of adventures and she wasn't even here. Mentally she sent out a heartfelt thought Gabrielle's way, knowing she would have enjoyed being here for the adventure she had wished for only a day ago. Something unusual, wasn't that part of the wish? She had a very strong feeling this was going to be one of those.
"I would like you to accompany me to the Temple's sanctuary to visit with someone." Desmonia continued, still leaning forward.
The hairs on the back of Xena's neck were standing up but she didn't feel any personal danger. Usually they accompanied each other. Instead, she felt the butterflies of anticipation that she had been feeling the last week, like a premonition of something to come but not knowing what.
"Just what temple is this?" Xena asked keeping her demeanor at an impassive curiosity. The only two temples she knew in this area were to Demeter and Poseidon, and the usual small grottos or altars in the surrounding open spaces of personal preferences. Why would a priestess and seer from Artemis' Temple involve herself in another goddesses business? By Artemis' bow, Xena thought suddenly, this is getting complicated already! Another wistful thought for Gabrielle's presence brought a smile to her usually unreadable face. Maybe being from Sappho's island had something to do with it.
"A small one about two candlemarks outside of this town by foot, less by horse. Not many people know about it." Desmonia regarded the powerful woman that appeared to be relaxed and mildly interested in the discussion, yet she could feel something else below the surface. "There is a preparation you will need to undergo," Desmonia added slowly, waiting to see what change in her energy that would create, "before you can make the visit."
Xena's eyebrow rose but otherwise she remained impassive. She could feel tenseness in Hercules and see Iolaus fidgeting but she waited for the priestess seer to go on.
Desmonia leaned back in her chair and nodded to the two men. "Would you mind giving us some time alone? You probably have some preparations of your own to take care of." She hinted with a smile.
Both men seemed relieved and got up. Hercules patted Xena on the shoulder as he was leaving. He started to say something then just squeezed her shoulder. Xena allowed his closeness and touch, letting the feelings they had for each other briefly pass across a usually well-fortified wall of stone. Her demeanor hadn't changed but the hold she had on her inner self was back in place by the time Hercules' hand left her shoulder.
"It's in an ancient chamber of the Mother Goddess, Gaia." Desmonia explained after they had left.
There's that feeling again, Xena thought. Anticipation, but for what? What kind of preparation does one have to go through to guide nubile girls across Greece? Something Hercules and Iolaus didn't want to undergo? Hmm. Something that would take away their manhood, Xena thought amused? Another part of her knew that if that was the case it had to be something big to shake Hercules' sense of self.
"Gaia. Just what does this preparation involve?" Xena asked interested.
Desmonia smiled. "I'm sure nothing you haven't done before, but without any blood sacrifice. Shall we?" She indicated the exit. "We shall go to the site and prepare."
Xena frowned as she rose to follow the woman. Why would she be making arrangements for Gaia's priestesses? She wondered again. Does Artemis have a special interest in her grandmother's business?
Xena had been in the small heated shelter sweating and sipping the herbal water that was offered for what she thought was at least a day. She sat huddled in the enclosure that had no corners, acting as a passive receptacle to visions she had no understanding of. They left her dizzy and disorientated.
When the visions had started Xena found herself standing in dark shadows created by tall trees that surrounded her. She felt eyes staring at her and her keen senses picked up the smell of a wolf. Carefully turning around she found the yellow eyes peering out at her from the cover of a fern.
She didn't attempt to draw a weapon, which if she had she would have noticed she had none. Both wolf and human studied each other for a long moment, each feeling no threat from the other.
Xena felt a chuckle from the owner of the yellow eyes. What is so amusing, you four legged fur bearing cur, she thought.
The wolf lifted its nose into the air and yapped as if laughing. You certainly are one to talk, two legged.
You can hear my thoughts?
Of course! Do you think we cannot understand any other language but our own?
This is hardly a language.
Exactly. All forms of life on this earth experience thoughts, images, and feelings. Your species spends time learning other languages but with the intention to dominate and take without giving proper reverence to the realm they are taking from.
Animal, plant, lands life of others of your species. Each is a realm or kingdom that has a guardian that over sees it. Your gods also exist in a realm, which is overseen by one who is greater than they.
Xena started to laugh.
Yes. I can see your humor. Eventually their time shall pass and others will take their place but there will always be guardians of the different realms of life forms. It is to these that homage and thank fullness needs to be given when one is sacrificed for your need.
Like the prayer of thanks for the first bread that is baked after the harvest! Xena thought with a certain amount of smugness that she knew what the wolf was implying.
Yes. But it should not stop there. For taking the life of the stag, the boar or for the herbs that you use for your survival, you must remember to thank spirit of what sacrificed its life for you.
And you do this when you take a sheep or stag?
Yes. Do you think our howling at the moon is just for the sake of listening to ourselves sing?
Xena could feel the wolf smile.
So, why are you here in my vision?
Ahh. You want to get down to business. I am your guide.
Xena felt the sting of the branch as again it was flicked across her bare body invoking a fresh release of visions. Scenes from the lives of many people, whom she didn't know, kept replaying as if a point was trying to be made but she couldn't see it. She kept looking for a pattern or a place to fit a piece so a larger picture could emerge. The wolf sat beside her studying the same scenes but offering no thoughts on them.
The branch again was flicked across her back but this brought an interesting sensation of time. She became fascinated with the concept of time her imagination conjured up. A pool of water appeared at her feet with no break in its surface. The wolf jumped down from the chair she had been sitting on next to Xena and poked her nose in the watery vision she had of time. It created a ripple effect across the surface then it disappeared. Another vision appeared in its place. A huge web stretched out before them. The web of life, the wolf informed her. The spider's web became weighed with glittering diamonds but on closer examination it was merely wet with dew from the early morning and sparkling as if the new sun was turning the dew drops into tiny jewels. She sighed at its beauty.
The intensity of the visions begin to lessen and with it the feeling of her guides presence. She asked Xena to review what she had seen. Xena sighed. Mother Earth offered immortality to her followers, but she wasn't really just Mother of the Earth, she was a teacher and initiator into the secrets of the multitude of life forms in her domain. She was the mentor to the ancient Shamans. It was through the wheel of reincarnation she granted this immortality and from what Xena could follow she had in another life been a follower of this Mother of the Earth, Gaia. So, why did I spend time in Tartarus, she challenged the wolf?
What appeared to be a grin appeared on her guide's face? No explanation was given but another vision appeared. Before her were spinning tiny lights of various colors. She saw people moving through these bits of lights and knew that they were traveling from one temple to another. She watched as supplies and animals moved through these portals. The wolf stepped through one asking Xena to follow. For a while they visited places that were foreign even to Xena whose wanderings were far and wide. As the last vision left she became aware of a hand resting on her shoulder.
"You are ready." A disembodied voice above her announced.
The vision of the wolf left with a quiet thought to her that she would be available should Xena need her again.
Xena was helped to her feet and led out of the hot shelter. The air outside was cooling bringing her into the more solid world. She straightened up and drew away from those that had assisted her. Xena stood naked and silent before a figure dressed in ceremonial robes trying to see past the colors that were emanating from the person. The women who had sat with her in the hot enclosure also had become surrounded in a cloud of colors hiding their physical bodies. Taking a deep breath and releasing it, solid faces appeared out of the soft cloud of colors.
Desmonia was wearing the traditional long ceremonial robe of a seer. She pointed to the pool of water for Xena to immerse herself in. This was the sacred pool. The pool's water was from the run-off of the snowcapped mountain that the underground cavern nestled in. The cold brought clarity to Xena's mind as she plunged down to the bottom of the cavern's pool, picking up a small stone that captured her eye. Something for Gabrielle, she thought. It would fit nicely in the small box she had bought her.
As Xena walked out of the pool the two young women that accompanied her from the sweat shelter assisted her in drying off and robing. They had also rinsed off in the pool and were dressed in similar robe they dressed her in. In the muted light that the torches gave off, her dark hair and tanned skin contrasted sharply with the white robe. Her bright blue eyes caught sharply in the torch light sending off glints of their own.
The sound of cymbals and drums started the moment the robe touched her skin. Xena watched and listened with senses that were muted on one level, yet heightened on another. She could see the glow of colors around everyone. Holding her own hands out she could see colors of light shooting out from her fingertips and out from her palms. In her left hand nestled the small stone giving off different colors than her right hand that held nothing. It felt as if the stone were alive. She became captivated by the sensations the stone gave her and wanted to sit somewhere and understand what she was sensing, but Desmonia pulled her attention back to her surroundings.
Xena took her place behind the two women admiring the whiteness of their robes and the contrasting beautiful colors that surrounded them. Desmonia led them to the dark opening of a tunnel.
The tunnel was shrouded in utter darkness. She could hear the muted sounds of the footsteps of those before her. The sounds of the music were eerie and seemed to vibrate against her skin as if it were a silky touch. She was still aware of the stone that she held safely in her palm, which seemed to pick up on the drums and throbbed to their beat. The women in front of her walked with firm footsteps, confidant of their foot placement in the dark. Xena was amused that she didn't feel the usual trepidation of closed spaces nor have any hesitation in following blindly. She had been in darkness before and knew how to walk in it.
The smell of incense was starting to get stronger and before her was a tiny light where she was able to see the dark outline of the figures of the three women ahead of her through the glow of colors that almost shrouded them.
The feeling of anticipation quickened her heartbeat. The visions from a few moments ago in the sweat shelter came back to her with emotional feelings. She didn't try to put them into anything understandable. She knew visions were not for the realm of thought but rather for the realm of feeling. Where did I hear that? The chants were getting louder. The underground chamber vibrated from the energy of the chants bringing back a familiarity that Xena struggled to place. Where had she been where this was as familiar to her as breathing?
The chanting stopped when the four women entered another underground chamber. Clusters of crystals in varying colors hung from the ceiling and were covering the walls. Some were wider than her arm. Xena couldn't figure out where the light source was but the crystals magnified the one small light, and their reflections sent out rainbows in all directions. She could hear the soft sound of water trickling and the rhythmic movement of the water as if on a shore. Did the ocean feed into this underground chamber? She could actually sense their surroundings as if it were alive. She gave her head a brief shake to stay focused on what she could see with her eyes, an uncharacteristic choice on her part. What are you frightened of? Stay awake! Xena's eyes opened wide from the thought that she knew came from herself.
Desmonia faced Xena with twelve other women surrounding her dressed in the same white robe of an initiate.
"You are the Named, the one who came before and left with an unfinished quest." Desmonia intoned to Xena. "You and these others had asked for the opportunity to complete the journey, to complete the task of the covenant you had at one time taken in behalf of the Mother Gaia."
Though Xena didn't recall any such request a part of her knew this to be true. The butterflies in her stomach ceased and she could feel the tension in her shoulders ease.
A light brighter than any she had seen, including Ares dramatic displays started as a small ball of light then grew to the size of a large person. There was no pain to the brightness, in fact it was quite warm and inviting, -- and familiar. The figure of a woman appeared to take shape in the light. It wasn't something that surprised Xena; it was as if she, at some level, was familiar with this person and method of appearing.
When the face was clear she automatically kneeled with a heavy heart. I failed you. I am so sorry! Please, give me the chance again to guide these pilgrims on their quest. I am better prepared. Xena's conscious mind was struggling with these thoughts that were coming from a very deep part of her. She was kneeling willingly in front of the great Mother Gaia. This person was so much a part of her she felt enflamed and sad at the same time.
"Arise child of her own destiny. In this life you have no obligation to me." The voice was caressing against Xena's heavy heart. It seemed all the hardness from self-guilt that had a grip around her heart was gone. She felt very different. Lighter. Her energy level rose but not the nervous type that had her vibrating like a nervous stallion needing physical action to release the energy. It was expansive and made her even more aware of her environment on the various levels of her senses.
"You have all asked for another chance to fulfill your covenant of long ago. As members of the original circle, you are all here as is the necessity for this request to be granted. There are others who had also been a part of the original journey and who had the similar desire. I will honor your collective wish to fulfill what you perceive as a covenant with me."
Her soft dark eyes searched deeply into the eyes of each woman before moving to the next. Finally she came to Xena.
"You were the leader of that group. You willingly took the burden of guilt for the group's inability to complete the journey. For that, you are again to be the leader, but you must shed your image of which you are now. You must take on the name of the Named and her mantle." She paused, studying the impassive face. "You shall not be recognized as Xena for as long as you stay with the journey. If you answer to any other name than that of the Named the recompense shall be voided in this life for all. Do you understand this?"
Xena took a deep breath and let it out slowly. A part of her that was not conscious understood this perfectly. It felt right. But her conscious mind didn't understand what this was all about, and that was driving her to distraction. Who and what was the Named?
"I take up the mantle of the Named willingly and abide by the rules set down to complete the journey of the faithful to the sacred site in the mountain lands." Xena couldn't believe what was coming out of her mouth. Gods, what is happening?
The dark warm eyes gazed at her for a moment longer then looked at the others. "You have heard the oath of the Named, do the rest of you also honor this acceptance, and for her to once again lead you?"
"Yes, Mother Gaia." They all answered in unison.
Xena felt as if there were two of her, one moving into the forefront while what she knew as Xena moved to the side. Oh, oh, she thought.
The warm dark eyes looked back at Xena. "You are the Named and the journey shall resume. You must all think of what this decision means to you and what your responsibilities are. My blessings go with you." The form was suddenly gone and the warmth and calming energy with it.
The women all looked around at each as if wakened from a deep sleep. They broke off without a word and wandered to various parts of the cavern as if to be alone with their thoughts. Xena stood alone unsure of what was going on and feeling as if she were two people at odds. She was seeing what was around her as if with two sets of eyes and with the observations of two different people, but she was familiar with them both!
Desmonia touched her on her elbow. Xena was alarmed for she didn't have the old edge where she was aware of the presence of another when they entered her personal space, and as a warrior, she had a larger personal space then most people. The other part of her was very calm at the touch and welcomed the older woman with warmth.
"Come and let us talk." She said gently.
Xena followed her back through the dark tunnel and again she felt no trepidation at the closeness of the walls. The Other knew exactly where the unseen walls were and the top and bottom of the space they walked in.
Desmonia led her to a comfortable corner in the cavern that had tables and chairs. It looked like a meeting place in someone's home. She gestured to one of the ornate chairs with a fur tossed over it.
Xena settled heavily in the chair offered. She was silent for a long moment. Puzzles were her specialty as well as a great source of enjoyment and this was a real puzzler. However, she wasn't feeling any enjoyment at what pieces were being presented at this time. Maybe it was because she didn't feel herself. The Other stared around her delighting in the environment and stroking the fur with obvious enjoyment.
Desmonia watched the rumored inscrutable warrior's face and before her meeting of Gaia she believed it. Now a myriad of emotional expressions crossed the tall warrior's tanned face and they were all unlike the stoic swordswoman she had first seen practicing on the beach that morning. She sighed inwardly at the memory. It was what in her earlier days she would have called a vision. A magnificent display of sword practice that was given a mystical appearance as the mist swirled around her, sometimes wrapping around her as the small morning gusts of wind blew the last of the mist back out to sea. The skills she displayed in her drills were better than any she had ever seen and she had visited many courts in her long years as a priestess and seer.
Desmonia pursed her lips as she studied the figure as it kept moving around as if finding her new set of cloths ill fitting. She couldn't explain to her or guide her to finding her part in this quest as much as she wanted to. She was amused at her own curiosity about the enigma that surrounded this powerful woman whom stories both good and bad were well told on Sappho's island. Desmonia was a powerful woman in her own right yet; this woman on their first meeting captivated her. The air of authority and natural grace she possessed were that of a woman born to royalty and for that she could well agree with the title of princess that had been bestowed on her. She had met the young Amazon Queen that the warrior now gave her loyalty to and many say her heart too. She realized the importance of the young Bard's fierce heart and humor that offset the heaviness of heart that the dark haired warrior carried in her. Except now. Following the dark warriors meeting with Mother Gaia she had taken on another aura or feeling. It wasn't the forbidding and ominous energy that she had exuded at their first meeting with Hercules and Iolaus.
Desmonia shook herself mentally for she knew her part in this reunion was ending. She also knew this woman would not thank her for the help she offered from this point on. As a Priestess on Sappho's island, many women sought her out for advice. She knew how to read those that would welcome advice and those that would rather find the answer themselves. This dark haired brooding woman valued her own struggles for the answers and would not be pleased with someone else taking away the treasures she could gleam from her own searches and struggles.
"You must always remember –" She paused to emphasize her next comment, "that you are the Named. Without you, there is no journey." It was all that she could say that would be accepted.
The blue eyes across from her went from light blue to a piercing deeper shade that could well turn her blood cold if she didn't read it as her pulling her own resolve together and not displeasure in the person who was reminding her of her oath.
Xena sighed and waved a hand in front of her, then put the hand to her head, a gesture she wasn't in the habit of doing. "I don't feel like I'm all here." She complained frustrated. That didn't sound like something she would normally admit to. She was getting confused. The Other was frustrated that this iron willed person she shared consciousness with kept restraining her.
Desmonia laughed gently. "You will get use to it. The others are ready. Let me introduce you to Hildreth, or Lily as she goes by."
"Lily?" Desmonia called to the women who had entered the cavern. They had removed their white robes, which they carried over their arms, and some were now wearing Amazon clothing. A tall athletically built brown haired women looked up from her conversation with one of the women that was with her earlier in the sweat shelter. Agnes Xena recalled.
Lily walked over toward them. She reminded Xena of a tall and older Eponin.
Desmonia turned to Xena. "This is Lily, Amazon Ambassador to Lesbos. I suggest you start soon." She nodded to both women. "You must reach the sacred site by the thirteenth new moon." Desmonia turned and left leaving Lily and Xena to study each other. They were eye-to-eye and close in build, though Xena was leaner as well as younger.
Lily nodded toward Xena. "What do you know about this journey?" She asked with an unreadable face. A warrior to warrior face off wasn't unfamiliar to Xena. The Other was quiet. Xena thought that maybe she was studying Lily from her own perspective. Great.
"Nothing that makes sense."
Lily hesitated. She regarded the woman before her. She had first met her seven winters ago when Xena was in her warlord years and deadly dangerous. The feared Warlord and a group of her lieutenants were visiting a bar between raids. Lily had been visiting the owners of the bar who were family friends and was helping out in the kitchen. She didn't think the warlord had even noticed her for she was gaming with her soldiers and was beating them with an aggressive intensity that had frightened some of the regular patrons away. It wasn't difficult to bring that memory into focus. It had been enough to give her nightmares then. It was like looking at raw power without restraints. It was humiliating at the time to know she was an Amazon and yet she was frightened by the violent power the beautiful dark haired warrior projected, to say nothing of the sexual energy she radiated with intention.
When she had first heard Xena was traveling as the champion to the new Queen of the Amazon's she had not believed it. For one, what would the Queen of the Amazons be doing traveling with an enemy of their Nation? And two, why would the most feared warrior become champion to the Amazon Queen? She remembered receiving Ephiny's, the Queen Regents, documentation on what had passed in the Amazon Nation since her last report. There was the passage of two Queens in a short time, one becoming a Goddess. Losing Melosa as her Queen and childhood friend was difficult to hear. Velasca was a different story. They never got along.
She recalled Gabrielle. An unpretentious young girl full of laughter and –yea, she could describe it as light. She had not been introduced as Queen when she had visited the island so Lily was either leaving for business or had been away on business for the two visits Gabrielle and Xena had visited the island. If she knew Xena was one of the visitors she wondered if she would have delayed her departure, for she knew she would have if Gabrielle announced herself as the Amazon Queen. It would have been her duty to remain.
Lily returned her attention to the tall woman who remained silent before her. The woman before her didn't exude the same aura as when she was a warlord. The cold glint was still there but not the one that could turn ones blood cold, as it had done to her on the one chance meeting.
There is a change, she observed. They had all agreed to accept this person's leadership. But what did this ex-warlord know of quests or pilgrimages? They had all heard she had changed and was attempting to undo what she had done in her past, but would that be enough on this journey? She knew that though they had agreed, many of them were shocked that Xena was the Named. Only a few of the women were excited, but they had never met her when she was the feared warlord.
Lily finally gave her one of her ambassador smiles. "Most of what we know is through our dreams. What we remember of the past journey and what we think we need to do to complete this one successfully we've been discussing amongst ourselves for thirteen moons. So, let me tell you as much as we have put together and maybe you can add something you've been dreaming."
When Lily finished Xena stared at her. Her vivid blue eyes showed no emotion as she studied the Amazon in front of her. The amazing thing about Lily's story was its familiarity. It would explain why she felt like she was two different people at the moment. The Other was laughing in relief.
Her attention went back to the Amazon ambassador. She remembered her from a visit her and her men had made to a bar about seven summers ago. She needed to reassert her dominance over the men but not in sword play since they usually got hurt and she could not afford wounded lieutenants. She challenged them instead to games they usually played in the inns. She had appeared to be drunk but she was cold sober. Her competitiveness was high and she made sure there was no doubt about her power. No one died that night. No locals did anything stupid that would warrant her having to mead out punishment with a heavy hand to keep respect in place. Yet, she could feel the uneasiness in this woman. Was it something to do with Gabrielle? She felt the answer was at the tip of her tongue, yet she couldn't bring it out.
"Aleka." Xena suddenly whispered. In her minds eye the image of a tall lanky dark brown haired young woman leaning on a staff laughing at the antics of a red haired girl. That's me, Aleka. I'm the tall one; Lia is the short one. She joined us at the crossroads. Right. She was entertaining them while they sat around an early morning campfire. Us. The image had been from a reoccurring dream she had started having weeks ago. She remembered now. She had thought the red haired girl was Gabrielle until she got a better look at her. No, you haven't met her in this life yet. The voice of Aleka continued self confidently. Aleka was the Other.
In Xena's minds eye, she saw the early morning campfire gathering as if it were happening now, which suddenly ended when they were attacked first with a barrage of arrows then the attack of men brandishing curved swords. They were the men that had shared a fire with them the night before. They came running into their camp and hacked everyone to pieces. They had been unprepared! They should have had guards posted! She remembered the intensity of the feeling of failure in her role as their leader as she sagged against the log she had been standing near. She was dying from an arrow that pierced her lung and throat. She grimaced as she realized Aleka was the Named.
"I'm glad you remembered. We would not have been able to proceed with the journey until you remembered your name. So, shall we get on with the planning?" Lily's pleasant voice asked.
Xena nodded mutely.
Lily turned to the group of women and nodded toward them. "Agnes, we will begin." Lily indicated Xena to follow the others. They headed to the back of the cavern which had a fire pit ringed with dark black stones that had a shine to them though they looked like they had been in place for a long time. Mats were scattered about to give the women something to sit on instead of the dirt floor. A log was more to Xena's preference but there wasn't one about. Aleka felt comfortable sitting on the ground with her knees crossed and wrists dangling over her bent knees.
"Our destination is in Etruria located in Paeonia, to a temple in Mecsa that is still consecrated to Gaia. It still has the power of the Pythia there and is guarded by perhaps the last python." Agnes traced her finger on the map that was laid out for everyone to gather around.
"Somewhere along our journey, we will find an object that we are to take to the temple. We have not been able to agree amongst ourselves as to whether this was what we had originally been given to deliver or if we picked it up on our pilgrimage, or what we would have eventually picked up." Agnes explained to Xena.
Xena raised an eyebrow. She couldn't remember anything about a sacred object, which didn't mean anything at this time. Aleka felt puzzled by this bit of information.
"What she means is," Lily explained, "Only two of us remember such an object and the rest of us don't. And the two that remember the object can't remember if it was in our possession at the time of the attack or if it were to be picked up later."
"What we have agreed on," Agnes laughed, "after a full turn of seasons, is that all of us have different views of the pilgrimage. We have agreed that it was seen as a pilgrimage to the circle of friends. We also agreed that we traveled for only two days before we perished in an attack."
"What some of us figured was that much like today, if a person is headed for a particular destination rather than travel alone she finds a few others that are going the same way. That being the case, it makes sense that each of us had different purposes for making the journey." Lily took a deep breath. "We had all visited a smaller temple site, where we met, and since we were all going to the Pythia we decided to travel together. We all were young and inexperienced." Lily remarked dryly.
"And probably shouldn't have been traveling the distance alone." Agnes finished.
"Why relive or do this over?" Xena asked puzzled. She felt Aleka stir and a series of fast moving images crossed her mind. Stop! She mentally growled to the Other.
There was silence for a moment. "We were all on a pilgrimage to Gaia's most sacred temple in the mountain. We were all young and probably quite zealous. As we were all dying we all had the same feeling of failure to complete our quest or pilgrimage and asked for another chance to complete it." Lily nodded at the others as she explained.
Xena was thinking of how complicated life would be if all the people who were remiss at death in not completing a task they set out to in life were able to come back to complete it. Hades would certainly need to hire more assistants to keep track of who belonged where. The thought of a lot of unfriendly warlords who felt the same crossed her mind too. Who is Hades? Look it up. Xena shot back mentally. If Xena could see into the Others memories than this other self of hers could very well look into hers. You can do your own research. She muttered mentally to herself.
The sudden realization that the reason why she was here was that she was part of that group that requested to have another try at something she didn't even remember didn't sit too well on her practical shoulders. She had enough on her plate with her self-imposed recompense for her warlord days and didn't need to add more guilt at a failed leadership role she couldn't even remember clearly. But, I remember it. And we do have to help them finish their quests! I'm here, aren't I? Just keep quiet until I ask your advice. Xena snapped back. This was going to drive her crazy. It was as bad as listening to Gabrielle talk in her sleep asking her questions and the next morning she would ask her them again.
She frowned for a moment at the thought that she had been a leader to a group that only survived two days on the road. She should have posted guards. None of us were soldiers! Great, she was thinking, you don't have to be a soldier to know that when out on the road you need to have someone keep an eye out for night visitors. It wasn't my decision on whether to post guards or not, Aleka pointed out patiently. Though, with hindsight the best advice, I see that I should have insisted on it.
Hey, that me! Xena was pulled out of her thoughts as she realized that Agnes was talking to her.
"I'm sorry, what were you saying?"
Lily smiled as she repeated, "Our trip has been jeopardized by someone who has put the word out that young women trained as priestesses in many marketable skills, to a nonGreek god, will be passing though Thessaly. As you all know that opens the door to all those looking for a quick road to riches in selling you to the slavers." She looked at the seven young women who were not dressed in Amazon garb. "To say nothing of capturing a handful of Amazon's to toss into the purse." Lily glanced toward her sister Amazons.
Xena didn't mention the first name that popped into her head as the someone. Her suspicion was Ares, as he liked to stir up things between his relatives and not feel the slightest bit of guilt. You're kidding? He would do that to his grandma? Yea, and a lot of other terrible things too. Xena was going to picture a few of the nastier stuff Ares did when Gabrielle's face flashed in her mind. Aleka's innocence at violence reminded her of Gabrielle when they had first started traveling together.
Agnes nodded. "But you have trained us well enough to not be too much of a burden for you." Her green eyes flashed a warm look to Lily. Looking at Aleka shyly she added, "And perhaps you can also show us what we can improve on along our journey."
Goddess! You're not going to teach them that stuff! No, I'm not! Will you shut up!
"And we Amazons delight at the opportunity of sharpening our skills." Lily added with a lopsided smile.
Xena only nodded. To stop her mental arguments she studied Agnes, the young woman who appeared to be Gabrielle's age. Like with Gabrielle, first appearances could be misleading. Under the pleasant youthful appearance she could feel the assurance of a composed older woman. What had Hercules told her about her training? Hercules. She closed her thoughts on the distraction.
"Aleka, let me introduce you to the circle of friends. This is Agnes, healer from the temple of Demeter in Chalcis, and spokes person of the priestesses. This is Catherine; she studies the dramas in Demeter's Temple from Messene from the Peloponnesus. Kynthia, is also from Demeter's Temple, from Tegea and she is a student of the muses. Candra studies the passions, from Aphrodite's temple in Dodona. Camila is friend of the creatures from Athena's temple in Athens. Grace, is a healer from Artemis's Temple on Lesbos, and Eleanor another healer is from Cassandra from Demeter's Temple. All of them have had training in the dramas, healing, self-defense, arts of love, and most importantly, cooking. Handy to have on this long trip." She laughed in a teasing way toward the young women, who didn't seem to mind.
While Lily introduced them as they were now, Aleka was identifying them as she knew them. Danae, now Agnes. She was sixteen summers. She was going to the Temple of Gaia's to dedicate her life as one of her priestesses. Her family could not support her and the one she was betrothed to had died in an accident. Danae had no love for the older man, who had gone through two wives already. No one else was available to marry her off to so she had no where else to go. However, I suspected she really wanted to be a temple priestess.
Lis is now Catherine. Lis was fourteen at the time. She was another village girl that had no where to go. She was orphaned and chose to become a priestess of Gaia's as a better alternative than selling herself to the highest bidder. Her mother's sister had fostered her, but she was no longer able to take care of her as she had another child of her own on the way.
Mia, now Kynthia, was going to the Temple also but to look for a job in the town that was near by. She was a skilled weaver, but their small village could not support her as there were enough weavers. She was a widow with no children. That was considered a curse, which also meant no one would buy her work. And even if there were an available suitor no one would want her for fear she would cause her new husband to no be able to produce children.
Candra was Pasiphae another young girl leaving because what was in the small village was not enough for her. She like the others sat on the petitioner's chair and felt the beck and call to travel to the Temple in the Mountains.
Sharotte, who is now Camila, wanted to work with animals but her family were farmers and believed she should settle down and marry another farmer who was too old to live long enough to see any of their children reach walking age. His children had moved out. She took her own counsel and joined the group to travel to another future of her own choosing.
Grace was then Delanira. She was Clara's sister. She came because she and her sister were orphans and Clara wanted to see the world. Clara hired on as one of the guards of their troupe. Delanira, just a skinny young one, spoke to no one and no one knew if she could talk at all.
Eleanor was Lenore. She was beautiful and chosen to be a priestess at one of the Temples of Gaia's. However, she had purposely made herself unattractive for the trip to avoid unwanted attention along the journey.
"My Amazon sisters are Gari, Erica, Berik, Brona and I'm also known as Hildreth, who has been chosen by my sisters to be their representative on this journey." Lily started to laugh at herself when Xena raised an eyebrow at her.
Gari was Messi. She was one of the guards Calae brought along. She impressed us with her knife games she played with Clara. Scary. Erica, hmm. She sure has changed. She was short and angry most of the time. She was another guard by the name of Sonja. She was looking for something outside of our village. No life for her there. Her best friend was married off to someone in another village and she just seemed to lose interest in everything.
Berik! I loved her humor! She was Jess. I couldn't pronounce her real name. She was an orphan. She had come wandering into the village at what we guessed was four summers. The temple took care of her until she reached womanhood. She chose to act as another guard. She never said why or what she was going to do once we reached the Mountain.
Brona. She was Clara, little Delanira's big sister. Clara was big and mean when it came to her sister. We never dared to tease her or make it seem like we were looking at either of them.
Calae is your Lily now. Calae was the oldest. I know she was angry when I was made the leader. I left the guard work to her since it gave her a sense of being in charge of something. I was always afraid to ask her anything that dealt with her responsibilities. Xena felt the stress and fear from her inner informant. You did what you could do. It's over with. We'll go from here. Xena told herself firmly.
"I shall tell you the story behind Lily if she does not." Erica winked at Xena.
This I gotta hear.
"There will be plenty of time for storytelling on this journey." Lily emphasized.
Right, Xena agreed hoping the Other would not blurt out something that would embarrass her.
"How did you all manage to get together?" Xena asked curious. Aleka was also curious.
"It was by the Fates we all met on the island of Lesbos for a festival dedicated to the Muses a full summer season ago." Agnes explained. "In this life we all have pledged our loyalty to one of the goddesses, Artemis, Athena, Aphrodite, or Demeter. The temples like to compete in such things but to avoid any bad feelings between our goddesses we have the competition on the island of Lesbos, which by agreement of all the goddesses is neutral territory. Of course it doesn't always lessen our own competitive natures." She added smiling.
"We Amazons were on Lesbos for one reason or another." Lily continued with a nod from Agnes for her to pick up the story. "From what Desmonia understood, because we all were at the same place at the same time, our memories from the past seeped into our dreams. As the Fates would have it, we all had visited Desmonia, since she is the seer on Lesbos in Artemis's Temple. She united us. It was a relief to find a reason for the dreams!" Lily looked around at the others who nodded in agreement.
"You were the one missing link that was needed to complete the original circle of friends and the most important link." Agnes explained. "Now that you have joined the circle everything else will fall into place."
"Were you having dreams that were familiar yet you could not quite place or explain?" Agnes asked turning to Aleka.
Xena took a deep breath. "Yeah, something like that." She reluctantly admitted.
"Like something was going to happen?" Agnes grinned.
Xena was beginning to feel another weight of responsibility settle on her heart. For a brief moment she knew what it was like to have a heart that was light.
"Well, I could handle the dreams, it was waking up with this feeling of being two different people that was driving me crazy. It took me about a week to get use to waking up seeing new things or old things with two sets of eyes." Candra shook her head.
The others nodded.
Xena nodded letting her breath out realizing the tightness in her chest was from the anxiety of feeling so strange.
"Who do you think Lia is?" Catherine asked suddenly.
"Lia?" Xena felt her heart clinch painfully and a quick image flashed in her mind. Lia was the one telling a funny story before the raiders attacked us. Remember? She had died with an arrow shot through her chest.
"She's part of the journey." Kynthia offered. "Desmonia said that the others who were not part of the original circle of friends would start coming into the re-creation as the journey starts."
The others nodded their heads. "Well, I think it's to see if we make the same decisions again." Brona volunteered.
"It was too short for us to have made any decisions." Gari argued.
It seemed to be an on going disagreement for Lily held up her hand as if it was a well-rehearsed habit. They settled back into quiet.
"It's the journey and not the destination." Xena murmured.
Lily nodded. "I agree. Agnes and I were discussing that this morning. One of the beliefs of the followers of Gaia in the early times, was that reaching the goal was not as important as to the journey."
One of the priestesses nodded. "In Demeter's tradition, that is also the case. The end does not justify the means. The means proves the worth of the person."
"Intent of the heart is judged, not the outcome." Another nodded. "That is Athena's wisdom."
Xena struggled not to roll her eyes at the playful competition she could feel between the young women.
"You'll be getting clearer dreams when you're around us. We've also found the combination of the two people we are diminishes our present personalities." Lily informed her, changing the subject with a grin.
"Diminish?" Xena asked worried. What if she was recognized on the road and couldn't defend herself? Gaia had said she would not be recognized as long as she was the Named, but what happens when her warrior skills were needed? Then there was Gabrielle. She needed to get word to her. Have her wait for her with the Amazons. Would Hercules and Iolaus take her there? Gabrielle? Xena felt a moment of anxiousness coming from the Other.
Lily caught the look in Xena's eyes. "In this life we all have some problems that would interfere with the completion of a quest of this sort." Lily explained slowly. With the exception of their leader, they had all about eleven moons to come to grips with their differences and dislikes. In the beginning they were the most unlikely group to travel a long distance together. But they had worked on it because of an intense desire to complete something. It was only when they were in the cavern and Gaia appeared that the final resistance to fully participate disappeared. How could Lily explain it to this woman who had conquered their world as a ruthless warlord and was now to be their leader in a journey that was not grounded in anything a warlord championed?
"What has finally taken place in this cavern, is that we have been granted a respite from prejudices or hostility that we may have in our present life." Lily looked into the piercing sky blue eyes that the flickering torches seemed to transform into glittering jewels that a thief would be hard pressed to not seek possession of. She didn't realize her breath caught as she watched a veil drop making the eyes unreadable.
Xena watched the tall Amazon as she hesitated to explain what she meant. Xena noted the quickened pulse of the women as their eyes met. The dark centers of the women's eyes expanded, as she seemed to hold her breath at the eye contact. Xena was use to people being startled at making eye contact with her. However, Xena's eyes narrowed as she fought the feelings of a personality she wasn't familiar with. Aleka was blood innocent and for that matter naïve in the harshness of life as Xena had experienced. The recognition of the other woman's response to her was something Aleka was not familiar with. What good is this Aleka person if we're going to traipse over part of Greece and for what? What's going to happen if I have to defend this group or myself and Aleka's personality gets in the way? She couldn't even remember why she felt Aleka had to make the journey. This journey is not for you or I. It is for them! It was for them then also. You don't have to fear me for I am you! And…by the looks of it, a sight better in some dealing! Don't try to be my conscious. I've already got one. Stick to what you know! You don't know me!
"Just what kind of hostility are you referring to." Xena finally asked putting the warring feelings aside for a moment.
Agnes glanced at Lily and smiled. "Well, we do have allegiances to different goddesses, for one."
"Competition." Lily nodded. "To say nothing of the fact that some of us have experiences that would make it hard to ---" Lily paused a moment, as if looking for a word.
The dark brooding side of Xena's conscious kicked in and she suspected her armies or something she had done personally was what Lily was referring to. Her need for Gabrielle's presence made her heart ache. The two burdens, one from Xena life and one from Alekas made her weary. Her failed quest. It felt like a tight band around her chest. It was amazing how she could help others sort out their messes yet her own had to be handled by another. Gabrielle? It was also amazing that this other was someone like Aleka, a person whose heart harbored little ill will towards others. Xena's critical self pointed out that that was what got Aleka in trouble. Maybe. I would like to meet this Gabrielle.
Xena became aware of a hand touching her elbow. She looked down into the green eyes of a young priestess. The soft reddish brown hair was tied back with a green ribbon whose ends lay on her shoulders. Xena for a moment saw another face that was angry and asking for something from her. She blinked and the vision was gone. Lenore. She had warned me that Calae was being careless about our protection.
"Some things are more important than our insecurities in this life. We have all made an effort for the last thirteen moons to put them aside and try to find a reason why we all were brought together. We understand that you have not had as much time as we, but I think as the leader and as who you are in this life, you have the strength to bring a focus to our cause, so that we do not fail this time."
Xena felt Aleka sigh at this. Xena felt Eleanor's fingers squeeze her arm for emphasis as she finished.
Agnes nodded letting a smile work its way into laughter. "If all the Bard's stories are true, you've actually had a few years head start on us."
Brona bit back a bitter laugh that sounded like a cry. Erica laid a hand on her fellow Amazon's arm. She looked at the Named without letting her eyes get captured in the infamous blues and explained. "Brona's mother was from one of the Amazon villages your army had razed."
Xena's eyes darkened. It was as she had suspected. The odds of not running into someone whom my past warlord activities did not touch are slim. What am I supposed to lead these women to? We will do this together. After all, we are one. Xena felt the humor tickle her breastbone as if it were a deep hum.
"Our present and past can be useful, or we would not be able to remember both." Agnes pointed out.
"It's just a matter of settling. I was a bit impatient at the view Calae, my past personality, had of me as an Amazon warrior and ambassador to Lesbos. Calae was arrogant because she was the only one that had journeyed outside of her village on a regular basis. However, she had no experience with the likes of who I am now!" She chuckled. "I don't think with our awareness of whom we are today, that we can let our past life run this one. I'm sure that there will be some changes, like Brona had never liked fish and now she's suddenly she can't get enough of the smelling stuff!"
Everyone broke out in laughter at that. "We have to keep her away from the fish market." Lily joked.
"So you all are using your present names?" Aleka asked.
"Yeeessss. But you are the Named, the hearken stone." Agnes sighed, guessing at what the tall dark warrior was trying to understand. The twelve of them had a long time to talk about it and put together pieces of shared dreams for eleven moons, when they finally agreed to gather. When it was agreed upon what they needed to do to quench the desire to finish a quest they remembered in dreams, they all realized what type of skills all of them had to have to travel for such a long distance as women. And they had realized they would need to put their differences aside. Desmonia, the seer and their friend, was invaluable during those months. She listened patiently to each of them as they struggled with their strange dreams and impulse to gather together. While they worked on their differences Desmonia took on the search for the Named. Without the Named, there could be no recreation of the journey, and they were all feeling the strong compulsion to finish it. They had faith that the Named would be found for why else would they have come this far?
"From what we can understand, there must be a vessel or a symbol which the energy of the past can be contained within. In this container the original intention comes back to life so the issue that had caused the failure of the original journey can be given closure." Agnes finished abruptly, with her lips in a tight line. They all had different ideas on why it was necessary for them to re-experience the journey, for it had been so short. The journey they would be going on now, hopefully, would take a moon's full cycle.
"What we had found, Aleka, "she stated carefully, "is in the beginning the more we were together the more intense our dreams of the past overlapped our waking life. We have moved passed the feelings of being two people. Our past and present. You still have to process and integrate them. As you become use to the differences you will find you have the abilities of both personalities at your fingertips. Don't push aside Aleka's knowledge when we run into trouble on our journey. You need to find out for yourself who she was to understand what your quest is now. I do remember she was an apprentice to a shaman of Gaias, so if you get visions, don't think you are going crazy." She joked.
Aleka let a small breath out. She could feel the compelling need to complete this journey but her Xena side was worried about Gabrielle. What was annoying was when she thought of Gabrielle, Aleka's thoughts brought up another face, and each time Aleka felt a heavy dismay. She wouldn't share with Xena what it was about. Was Aleka's responsibility starting to overshadow Xena's to Gabrielle? And who was this other face? Her heart was divided by a battle.
"It's getting late." Lily yawned.
Xena turned to her. "Can you get a message out to Sappho asking her to give us letters of introduction to various temples of the goddesses from here to Crometh?"
Lily looked at her with a smile. "You already have a plan?"
"What we need is a believable disguise to pass through some of the places that are looking for the priestesses."
They all nodded. NonGreek priestesses had no protection in Greek lands, which did leave them vulnerable. But then, even the Greek gods interfered with each other's followers now and again. Xena and Gabrielle were proof of that. Everyone who listened to bard tales knew that.
"In Crometh, not too far from Mecsa, they have full moon festivals with competitions in the arts. We could be a drama troupe headed out that way." Xena continued, remembering to whom that information was for. She turned to the others. "Since most of you are trained in the dramas, it would work."
Agnes nodded. "Yes." Agnes cocked her head to one side looking at Lily, "Amazon's partook in some of Sappho's little comedies also." She teased. "So if any of the original players are unable to attend or we need a chorus, we have a good reserve to pull from."
"What I had in mind was the priestesses can pose as a drama troupe from Lesbos going to Crometh accompanied by Amazon body guards."
Lily chuckled. The dark haired warrior's reputation for having a quick mind wasn't exaggerated. "Sappho had an invitation to attend. She doesn't travel much from her island but we can go in her stead. It would make sense for one of her acting troupes to go. I'm sure arrangements can be made. I'll see about her sending a carrier pigeon to the temples."
"Remember that the journey is for us, as a group," Agnes looked around at the women, "but there is something that will be illuminating for the individual. That was what the original journey was about. A vision quest. We are in this together." She reminded them again. She turned to face Aleka, "Now that the Named is here, our dreams will be taking on a different meaning."
The others nodded, Desmonia had told the same to them. Xena remained silent. She needed to think about what she got herself into and how to get word to Gabrielle without using her name, even in writing. Xena noted her thoughts were as if she had accepted this journey. Of course we accept it! I had no doubt that you would. That was a little too smug for Xena, even if the voice was another part of her.
Aleka was on her feet staring about her wondering where she was and for a moment, who she was. Something didn't feel right as she looked around. Her weapons! Where were her weapons? Lily was sleeping near by and was up instantly looking about her also wondering what brought the dark haired warrior to her feet.
What's going on?" She asked in a low voice so as not to wake the others.
Aleka took a deep breath. She knew who she was, where she was and who the women were that were scattered around the now glowing embers in the fire pit. It wasn't a dream she knew that with such clarity it was painful. Changes she wasn't familiar with were prickling her consciousness and her dreams.
"Aleka, you're going to be waking up feeling – like someone else and in another place for only a short while. For some of us it was for only a few days." Agnes who was sleeping near by had also awakened and spoke to her soothingly.
Lily and Agnes had prepared themselves for the nights when the Named had not yet accustomed herself to both her personalities and would wake disorientated. They worried about someone getting hurt until or unless their Named accepted her role willingly. It was a gamble to wake up next to the warrior and not feel threatened by the reputation of a woman who had the ability to wake up instantly into a killer mode.
They were also worried about Gabrielle's role for she played an important part in Xena's life. They didn't need a seer to point that out. What was her role in Aleka's life and their journey as a whole? They all felt she had a role for their bond was too strong in this life to not have been in a previous. If Desmonia knew she would not tell them.
So the women worried what message she had sent with Desmonia for Gabrielle and what would Gabrielle do about it? The depth of the Amazon Queens loyalty to the Warrior Princess was told in all Amazon stories and the ones told on Lesbos would probably make the two women blush. The Amazons in their group had mixed feelings due to their loyalty to their Queen. Lily could feel the weight of the responsibility as she and Agnes tried to have faith that this larger than life legend, the dark warrior princess, would be loyal to the circle of friends as the Named, over her loyalty to Xena's preoccupations. It had only been four summers that the warrior princess had turned away from her dark side, but it was done with Gabrielle at her side.
As the women settled back down to get in a few more candlemarks of sleep, Lily was again thinking of what could cause Aleka to abandon their cause – Gabrielle. That was without a doubt. If her life were in danger she knew that, that would take priority. As she thought about it, she knew that she and the other Amazons would also drop everything and go to her aid. She was their Queen, though in absentia. Lily sighed. She needed to talk to Agnes again about this. They had to prepare for eventualities and by the stories she had heard about their Queen, even if she was safely in the Amazon Village, trouble would find its way to her. No wonder the tall warrior worried about her. Maybe she should be traveling with Hercules and Iolaus, she thought seriously.
By the time Lily let Morpheus take her, her thoughts were on possible solutions to their dilemma. She wasn't the Ambassador for nothing. She would talk to Desmonia tomorrow, if she hadn't left to return to Sappho's court.
The merchants and guards positioned themselves around the carts taking up defensive positions, trying to hide their weakness. The bound prisoners were smirking and taunting their captors when Gabrielle's well aimed staff at one and the cuffing of another from one of the guards got the message for silence across.
"Argo, first chance you get, find Xena." Gabrielle whispered in Argo's alert ear as she stepped in a defensive position. She gripped her staff steadying her heart beat thinking about the tall dark haired warrior whose presence would be a great equalizer as well as comfort.
The setting sun to the left of their group was about eye level to most of the weary travelers, with no trees or mountains to break the glare. The road was relatively smooth due to the high amount of traffic since the last rains, but it was also dusty as the tiny whirlwinds gusted the dust onto the horses and their traveling companions. There was little brush, vegetation or rocks on either side of the road to take refuge behind which offered some comfort for it was not likely an ambush would be undetected by forward scouts. By the time the thunder from the approaching horses became unmistakable the dust from their advance pushed forward by a small breeze was catching in everyone's throat and eyes. The two horses of the forward scout group came suddenly clear though the dust cloud.
The unmistakable tunic of the Prince's army was the first thing they all noticed, with great sighs of relief. The rest of the group quickly caught up with the two coming to a sliding halt on seeing the group before them. One of the lieutenants pulled his horse alongside the first cart and extended a hand. From what Gabrielle was able to see they knew each other. Nervously she patted Argo's neck relieved and the knot in her stomach went away.
"It's Leston's brother-in-law." One of the merchants informed Gabrielle. "They always have something ordered from the village. The Fates are with us!"
Gabrielle resisted the impulse to make a comment on the Fates.
Leston's brother-in-law's troop had arrived at the rest site earlier and had waited a few candlemarks for their scheduled arrival. When the merchant's group did not arrive they had headed out to see what was wrong. Now they accompanied them back to the rest site and spent the night with the traders sharing stories with Gabrielle doing most of the sharing. At dawn the soldiers took charge of the prisoners and continued on their own journey to patrol the roads to Taltos while a few others took the prisoners to the Prince's city for trial. There was no spare horse to take Argo's place, which Gabrielle didn't expect.
Their arrival into the village was late in the morning. The merchants gratefully paid for Gabrielle's room for the night and made sure that Argo had plenty to eat. Gabrielle spent some time at Argo's side brushing her and taking comfort in the mare's familiarity. Both wished someone else was there doing the brushing. When Argo's coat was shiny enough and her nose contently buried in oats Gabrielle went up to her room by passing the noisy common room in the inn. She didn't want to socialize and asked the young attendant in the hall for some food to be delivered to her room and asked about a bath.
The tub was in a large room at the end of the hall and it was not hot, just warm enough to get in, wash, and get out. She found a bowl of lamb stew still warm and a loaf of bread covered on the small table in her room. She moved the bowl near the low fire and sniffed at the pitcher of ale. Not in the mood for ale she moved it to a corner of the table and pulled out her scrolls and writing implements. She had some catching up to do on her journal and she wanted to finish a poem she had thought of the other day. Remembering what had inspired the poem caused her to sigh.
"Artemis!" She thought with a pang of regret.
Gabrielle looked out the window feeling the late afternoon breeze waft in. She could smell the cooking smoke from various food stands and the unmistakable smell from a fragrance merchant, who was either testing his own wares or he had a busy stand. All the mixtures at one time was definitely too much.
Gabrielle dipped her quill back into the ink thinking of the next line. She kept running the first line in her head hopping it would bring the next. Nothing. Sighing she turned back to the bowl of stew and ate. Normally she would have asked for seconds but she wasn't feeling all that hungry.
She wanted to get an early start the next morning so she decided to retire early.
Gabrielle's dreams were along the same story line as they had been for the last two weeks. This time she wasn't an observer. She was watching as one of the participants. After four candlemarks of sleep she woke up to an empty room and found she could not go back to sleep -- and she was hungry. As she became more alert her memory of the details of the dream faded as they have been doing.
Gabrielle entered the dining area and stopped at the entrance. The room was full to capacity and yet it was quiet. She peered around the corner to see where everyone's eyes were focused. There was an old man sitting on a small platform setting a mug down. A bard!
The old man looked over his audience and seemed to draw their energy toward him as he continued with his story. His voice was strong and hypnotic as it rose and fell in a rhythm that was pleasing for the telling of the tale.
Gabrielle looked toward the back of the room where she and Xena would normally sit, in the shadows. For a moment she held her breath as a lone figure sat with plenty of space on both sides, as those around seemed to sense that the warrior wanted no one near. It wasn't Xena, nor anyone that she knew but for a brief moment ---
Gabrielle made her way to the back listening to the bard as he enchanted his listeners with an old tale of a dragon and a Minotaur.
"Excuse me." Gabrielle leaned toward the red headed warrior, "Would you mind if I sat here?"
Icy blue eyes met hers and flickered over her in a quick assessment. Gabrielle had the distinct feeling of being categorized in this person's mind. The warrior gave Gabrielle a slight nod and returned her attention to the bard at the front, occasionally glancing around the room.
"Definitely a warrior thing." Gabrielle thought as she sat down, careful to leave enough space for the warrior in case she felt the need to jump up and pull her sword out. Gabrielle didn't have to locate the waitress. She found a full plate of lamb stew placed before her with a small loaf of bread and a pitcher of…ale. That was the fastest service, outside of Amphipolis, that she had ever witnessed.
"Thanks." She smiled at the barmaid.
"Don't thank me. The merchants you came in with have paid for your board and meals." She nodded to another table where she saw Metrois, one of the injured merchants who looked much better, waving at her. Gabrielle waved back with a grin.
Food was a great reward, she thought. "Ahh. Can I have cider instead." She hurriedly asked as the woman picked up the empty mug from the warrior.
The woman nodded at her and retrieved the pitcher. She deposited it on another table exchanging it for an empty one and moved around picking up empty plates as well, as she made her way back to the bar.
Gabrielle attacked the stew realizing that she was very hungry. The pitcher of cider was brought with another mug of ale for the quiet warrior at her side.
Gabrielle continued to listen to the bard as he started to end his story. Odd ending. Gabrielle knew if she closed her eyes she would be able to see the images he painted and by the tone of his voice the listener was drawn in and could feel as part of the story. He used the voice. If he wanted he probably could get the people believing they were barnyard animals, she thought with wry amusement.
When he was finished the room was silent. He seemed to take that as a compliment for he gathered his things and left the stage. It was when he was off the platform that wild cheers broke out and the grateful crowd pounded tables and the floor. The old man bowed to his cheering audience and a young child went around collecting coins.
Gabrielle pulled out her own coin. Since she was in the back it would be a while until the child reached her. Meanwhile she ate her stew scanning the crowd as Xena had taught her. She was aware of the warrior next to her but she remembered when she had first started traveling with Xena that warriors were very sensitive to being watched and took it as a threat.
The barmaid came back to her side to check on her.
"This stew is great. Give my compliments to the cook. Could I get another helping?"
"My mother would pleased to hear that." The woman said with a grin, taking her empty plate.
Gabrielle sipped her cider and watched the old bard make his way toward her table talking to his admirers. Gabrielle was thinking of talking to him if he came by when a voice from the platform called her attention back to the front.
Another bard! This one was younger and he used a lot of gestures, which showed off his muscular arms. Unusual for a bard, she thought ruefully, as she mentally flexed her own arms. His story was about Helen of Troy. It was fanciful and romantic. Not at all based on facts. But storytellers didn't always stick to the facts and for Helen's sake it was better that all of the truth were not made public.
Gabrielle could feel the hairs on her back raise. A voice cleared near her.
Gabrielle looked up at the old bard. "That was a great story you told up there." She was careful to keep her voice low, not wanting to disturb the audience.
The old man laughed softly but there was no warmth in his eyes. "Do you mind?" He gestured to the seat that was across from her that had been vacated.
"No, not at all. Would you like some cider?"
"No. I have what I need." He indicated the mug he had in his hand. "So, you liked my delivery?"
Gabrielle smiled. "Great imagery."
"That is a compliment coming from Gabrielle of Poteidaia, one of the most well known bards in Greece today."
Gabrielle's face turned a slight shade of pink. "I…how did you know me? I don't think we've met before." The hackles on the back of her neck sent goose bumps down her spine. This person was a definite threat, somehow.
The old man chuckled "Well, I over heard one of the merchants say that a bard and a tall black haired woman warrior rescued them from a band of thugs and everyone knows that, that pair would have to be the bard, Gabrielle of Poteidaia and Xena, the Warrior Princess. After hearing so many of your tales told by others I wanted to meet you in person. I would also like to hear you tell one of your tales."
"Oh, well, I'm leaving first thing in the morning." She was relieved.
"Oh." His voice sounded disappointed. "Would you tell one of your tales before the night is over? Ametheus," he nodded to the Bard on stage, "is the last scheduled for tonight."
"There is a bard contest during the festival. Some of us get here early to practice and find a place to stay. Each night a different inn is chosen for the contest. It gives all the inns a chance to make some money."
Gabrielle's face lit up at the mention of the bard contest.
Her second helping was placed before her and the barmaid checked with the others then left.
"Well, I…you'll be a difficult act to follow and Ametheus," Gabrielle looked up at the stage. "he's got a style that's engaging."
"Are you saying you don't think you can win your audience's attention?" He challenged softly.
"Oh," Gabrielle laughed embarrassed. Being around Xena with her competitive spirit had somewhat rubbed off on Gabrielle, for she could feel the challenge raise her temperature and mentally she quickly went over what type of story would grab the attention of these people that were tired, full of ale and ready to …Hmmm. A nice quick adventure story would wake them up. Probably keep them awake through the night if she made it scary enough.
"Well, if the inn keeper doesn't mind another story." Gabrielle nodded at the old man.
"Great! Let me go break the news to Axel. He would love the extended business. Puts money in his pocket too." The old man laughed as he patted Gabrielle's hand. He got up and nodded toward the warrior.
Gabrielle had not forgotten her. She had heard a shift in her position when Xena's name was mentioned. Another of Xena's past war casualties? Which side was she on, victim, or perpetrator? She also noted that the old Bard knew that Xena wasn't with her, for he didn't look around for her or ask about her.
The woman at her side still said nothing so Gabrielle started on her second helping listening to the sounds around her and keeping a casual eye on what was going on about her. As she gazed around the inn, at the audience that she was being challenged to woo she watched the warrior out of the side of her vision careful not to let her neighbor know she was being observed. She also was careful to hide what the old man had carefully inserted in her curled hand when he patted it.
"Well," The old man chuckled as he returned, "Axel mentioned that he would appreciate you waking them up and…he's also interested in hearing a story from you. Your fame, my dear, has reached even this wannabe village of festivals."
"What do you mean by that?" Gabrielle asked curious.
"The mayor, Promia, comes from a village near Crometh. You've no doubt heard of Crometh's tradition of holding every full moon competitions in drama, story telling, and singing. Promia wants to eventually do the same here."
Gabrielle couldn't help feeling that she was getting a sell-job. His voice was distracting and seemed to compel her to…do what? Xena on occasion used the same voice to induce sleep in someone or on injured animals. The last person was a wild child. The voice was very compelling. Xena referred to it as the voice. She warned Gabrielle about getting caught up in the cadence and tone; for combined they lulled a person into sleep as well as gave another person control over the will of the one that was lulled into sleep.
Gabrielle looked down at her empty plate for a moment as she remembered the last time Xena used the voice. They had cut across a recently plowed land to get to where Xena had spotted a plume of black smoke rising. They found a family frantically trying to put out a fire to their storage building. After everything was put back to some order Xena had gone to one of the wild children that the aging couple had adopted and talked to the child with that voice. Gabrielle found herself being shaken by the shoulders by an irritated Xena who had told her to remain with the others while she talked with the child. Later, Xena had told her that she thought maybe the old couple was abusing the child and that was why he had started the fire. In actuality he had been abused before the couple had taken him in and the fire was started on a dare by one of the girls. Xena had a talk with both children. They had spent a few days helping the family get what was burned down rebuilt.
Gabrielle finished her cider and was about to refill her mug when the old man leaned over and poured her drink. Gabrielle smiled and nodded a thank you.
"You never told me your name." She smiled at the old man.
"Taleaus." He smiled.
Gabrielle was sure she kept up on all the bards who were good and then the not so good and she had never heard of Taleaus.
"Well, its nice to meet cha."
Gabrielle raised the mug to her lips watching then set the mug down without drinking. "Well, I guess that's my call." The innkeeper was gesturing to her that it was her turn.
"Well, let's see how tired the crowd is." She smiled as she got up. She didn't want to use the same method as the guy before her. He used a little too much of his arms when he should have used less for the slow parts. Maybe it was because he had very nice muscular body and very nice arms, for a bard.
"My name is Gabrielle," she started, "from the village of Poteidaia, and I have a story to tell of demigods and gods. This story starts in ….."
Gabrielle had picked a story of Hercules and Iolaus in an amusing but deadly tale where she and Xena had rescued them.
"They probably would have gotten out eventually, but who knows when." She finished.
The crowd had been hooting and banging the tables at the right times in her story, and cheering when she wanted them to and booing the bad guys in the appropriate places. She hadn't looked at the old man during the whole time with his annoying flashing ring, though she did keep an eye on the warrior now and then.
The innkeeper was beaming, as the crowd became lively again, that is the snacks and drinks started flowing.
Taleaus was smiling when she returned to her place. "You well deserve your reputation."
Gabrielle merely nodded. "Well, I've got to get some sleep. I want to be out of here early in the morning. It was nice meeting you and I wish you luck in your competition."
"Are you sure you don't want to stay just one more night? By tomorrow there's another bard that I would like you to meet. He tells a mean story and I would like to see someone give him some competition."
Gabrielle smiled again. Why was he using the voice on her? Was he another one of Xena's exfriends? "I think you will do just fine. You really do get your audience's attention. Fair night to ya."
Gabrielle nodded to the people that found more coins for her performance and pounded her on the back in gratitude. She wished Xena were here. It certainly was not as bad as running a gauntlet but she knew she was going to have bruises on her back. Xena's presence alone would have stopped the over enthusiasm and she would have been able to figure out what the old man was up to.
When she entered her room she knew that it had been searched. She closed the door behind her and studied the room from the doorway. Packs were in the same place but not as she had placed them. Gabrielle was amazed how easy it was to fall into this mode of watchfulness. It had taken Xena a full season of playing pranks on Gabrielle for her to learn to detect something disturbed from its original position, a drug being placed in her drink, and someone trying to distract her. What was Taleaus up to? She hadn't bothered to read what he had put in her hand. When she saw his slight of hand with the powder in her cider she had dropped whatever he had given her.
She was rather proud of herself for she had so far made it through the evening without a mishap. Well, she had better see what was disturbed.
Her scroll pouch with her diary was disturbed. She pulled it out and fingered the pages. Someone was interested in her last entry. Her marker was moved. So, whoever it was knew that Hercules called Xena and her for something urgent. They knew also where she was now headed. She frowned. If she could find out where Xena's ultimate destination was she could meet her there instead. Knowing Xena she had already left with Hercules and Iolaus with word at the inn for her to catch up or to wait for her return.
She would have gladly waited here so that she could participate in the bard contest but after her experience with Taleaus she wanted to get back to Xena.
She continued checking her pouches and found someone had also gone into Xena's bags. Would she be able to tell if something was missing or disturbed? No. It would be better to let Xena check without her further moving things around.
She checked her food and suspiciously sniffed the travel bars that Xena was good at making. She sighed. She couldn't chance it. She would have to get new supplies in the morning and empty out her water-skin. She closed her eyes and thanked Xena for her over protectiveness.
Gabrielle pushed the one chair up against the door and latched the shutter to the window. The idea of closing out the night was already making her testy. She liked the night air. But then, she didn't have Xena's body to keep her warm so maybe it was better to keep the cold night air out.
Gabrielle went over to the fireplace and was about to push the ashes around to build another fire when she halted with the stick. She heard a faint board creek outside her door and noticed there was an unfamiliar piece of parchment peeking out from under some of the ash.
A soft rap made her decide which to attend to first. "Who's there?" She asked softly. Of course if this was the person behind all this, they could lie, but at least she would know by the voice something of what she was going to face.
"A friend of Athena's" The voice came back.
Gabrielle was still for a moment. Athena? Now if it was Artemis, that would be a different story for she was the protector of her Amazons. But Athena, goddess of commerce, wisdom in battle, patron of those that wished to seek the truth… Gabrielle opened the door. Before her stood the red headed warrior. By her expression she didn't want to be seen standing in the hall. Gabrielle opened the door wider and let the silent woman in.
They both regarded each other for moments before the warrior gave a small smile.
"Oh, these stoic warrior types." Gabrielle thought amused.
"You're a friend of Athena's?" Gabrielle gestured to the chair she righted while she sat on the edge of the cot not taking her eyes off the woman.
The red headed warrior smiled a crooked grin and took a quick glance around the room then pulled the chair toward her. She had placed herself between the barred window and the door.
"I thought that would get you to open the door."
Gabrielle chuckled. She knew she was a guard from a temple by the gold threads on her weathered cloak.
"My name is Alala. I am a guard to her temple in Athens."
"I'm Gabrielle. This - is pretty far from Athens, Alala." Gabrielle pointed the obvious out, keeping her body relaxed and concentrating on the other person's body language.
"It is. I was on my way to meet with some sisters that will be traveling to Mecsa."
Gabrielle had the distinct feeling that the temple guard was waiting for her to react. Was Mecsa supposed to mean something to her? Maybe that's why she reacted to Xena's name. Is that where Xena is headed?"
"Ha. A celebration of some kind?" Gabrielle guessed.
"Yes. There is a Temple to be dedicated to the goddess Gaia. The priestess are skilled in all the arts from dramas to insuring the fertility of the land."
Gabrielle eyes blinked at the last. "Fertility?"
"An abundant harvest is dependent on the preparation of the ground and the sower's seed. The priestess insures that both are ready for their part in the cycle of life."
"Hmm. Right." Gabrielle wasn't quite sure what Alala was describing but the images that appeared in her head were of a lot of bodies joined together in rather intimate grips. That's what she remembered on a relief painting in Aphrodite's temple depicting the blessing of the land. She tried not to grin at the memory of Xena trying to explain to her what the two had to do with the other. She spoke of the birds and bees. Gabrielle knew perfectly well what it was about but enjoyed Xena's discomfort of trying to educate her in such a delicate matter.
Gabrielle's brow puckered as she thought about it. If what Alala was describing was what she thought it meant, her own warrior had better not even think about messing around with any of the priestesses. And why did she assume Xena was involved with these women, or for that matter Hercules and Iolaus? She shook her head. Hercules would not be involved in something like this. Not his style. Oh, Oh. But, he would get Xena to do it for him so he wouldn't have to. Noooo. No. No. Ohhh, did this Bard have an imagination. Couldn't possibly happen.
"I see." Gabrielle finally said. Not really sure what to believe, her imagination or whatever Alala was hinting at. "So what brings you to my door this late at night?" Not to mention to this town which is way out of the way of the Etrurian lands where Mecsa laid and what was a temple to Gaia doing in Etruia? She and Xena had been talking about visiting Crometh. But they had been getting sidetracked with helping people out.
"I noticed the old man had taken an interest in you." She answered, letting her eyes roam slowly around the room as if looking for something.
"Well, he had his own motives of which I'm not sure they were related to story telling." Gabrielle smiled waving her hand easily, though she was glad to hear someone tell her she wasn't imagining it.
"The sleeping potion in your drink and the light from his ring hint at something -- quite serious."
"What makes you think it was a sleep potion?"
"I switched mugs with someone else while he was watching you on the stage. He was too busy with his ring trick to notice." She retorted contemptuously.
Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Have you heard of a bard by the name of Taleaus?"
"No. But I have heard of an ex high priest from Ares' Temple, Malucus, who uses slight of hand and voice commands to get people to do what they don't want to do."
"Ares. I should have known!" Gabrielle fumed.
"Well, he's no longer a priest in his temple. He got caught too many times, the rumor goes, and doing something Ares didn't like. He was discredited as a priest and has been out for hire over thirteen moons, a full passing of the seasons."
"Hire? What does he do?"
"Kidnap and hold people for others."
"I see. So you think there is a contract out for me?" She studied the red headed warrior curiously.
The warrior laughed. "I know there is a contract out for you. I have been asked to escort you to Crometh where you can wait safely and in comfort for Xena. Like Taleaus or Malucu said, Crometh has monthly festivals. It is under the protection of the three goddesses, Athena, Aphrodite, and Artemis and blessed by the Muses. One of the few things they all are consistently together on." She laughed softly, watching the open face before her. "It's a half day from my destination, Mecsa."
Gabrielle smiled. "You think I shouldn't travel alone?"
"I don't think it is wise. And I think Xena would advise the same." She pulled out a small parchment that had been folded into a small packet, and handed it to Gabrielle.
It had Xena's mark on it and one other character that told Gabrielle this person could be trusted.
"When did you get this?"
Gabrielle's expression was of indecision. It was too good to be true to been handily rescued by a warrior who just happened to be in the right place at the right time and with a handy message received from Xena just this morning. Did all of this have a familiar ring to it?
The warrior moved over to the window and unbarred it. She cautiously pushed the window covers back. The cold evening breeze blew her dark red hair behind her bringing with it the scented smell of the warrior. She cautiously looked out and around before putting her frame in the window and made a mewing sound. Where had Gabrielle heard that sound before?
A large beautiful owl fluttered in. Its big eyes regarded Gabrielle while it took the treat its caller had for her.
"I have feathered friends that carry messages between temples for our sisters as well as the ones on the road. Xena had to leave immediately. She asked our temple to send you this message."
"Why don't you get some sleep, and we'll keep watch. We will need to leave a lot earlier than you had planned."
"Oh." Gabrielle pointed to the fireplace. "There's something under the ashes, so don't light the fire."
The owl hopped off the arm of the warrior and sat on the windowsill looking out into the night. The warrior stooped near the fireplace with a candle. "Hmm." She used a stick to pull out the unburned parchment from under the pile of ashes. "Good eye. It's probably coated with something to either put you out or create a smoke screen for diversion. We'll forgo fires tonight. Now, let Morpheus take you into peaceful sleep." The woman silently went back to the window to stand near her owl friend. She leaned close to the owl and Gabrielle could have sworn she had a soft conversation with it. Was it Athena's messenger? All owls are her messengers, she reminded herself tiredly.
Gabrielle woke from a disturbing dream rolling to her feet from the cot with her hands gripped around her staff in a defensive position before her head had cleared.
The room had been cleared of the packs. She hadn't changed into night cloths, expecting to get up and leave quickly in the morning. Only her cloak remained on the chair and she hadn't taken that out herself. The window was opened and a ---Gabrielle's breath caught. The owl was perched in the window. Where is her mistress?
She heard the noise again. Floor boards creaking closer to her room. Alala's hiss from the window startled her.
She mouthed a warning then gestured for Gabrielle to exit the window. Gabrielle grabbed her cloak with one hand while the other held onto her staff. The only thing that saved Gabrielle in her climb out the window was that it was still dark. She hated heights.
The warrior guided her down then pointed to the light gray shape of Argo patiently waiting saddled and with packs tied on, near the alley.
Argo actually let the woman pack her and lead her out. That's certainly impressive, Gabrielle thought. The two led their animals quickly out past the buildings of the town before Alala motioned for Gabrielle to mount. Alala led the way quickly onto the same road Gabrielle had entered the town from. She didn't push the horses past a fast trot since it was too dark. There was little light from the moon hidden by clouds.
Alala pulled her mount alongside of Argo. "We need to get into the woods as soon as possible. It will be slow moving but the roads will not be safe. Too many travelers coming in for the festival that could give Malucu information.
Gabrielle nodded and her stomach growled. "Not a good time to remember food." She muttered to herself.
The warrior looked startled then smiled. "I took the liberty of searching your packs before I packed them. Your food was poisoned so I repacked it."
She leaned over and pulled some fruit and cheese from the saddlebag behind Gabrielle. "Here. A snack on the run."
As dawn was peeking over the trees the owl fluffed her feathers and settled on the saddle horn that was wide enough for it to perch on. Alala moved her own mount to lead the way up a path away from the road. It was barely visible in the pale light. They stopped long enough for a small group of men dressed in dark clothing furtively moving in the shadows of the trees to move past them. The dark clad men appeared to be making periodic sweeps though the woods that lined the road they were following. From where they were they could hear the occasional laughter and songs from the travelers on the road.
The second day they were spotted and both women had to fight a small group of the dark cloaked men that seemed very determined to take them alive or Gabrielle anyway. Alala had not the same restraint as Xena and killed them all with Athena's name on her lips. She caught up their attacker's horses and stripped them of their gear then set them loose, but not without whispering something in each of their twitching ears.
Gabrielle wearily smiled, as Alala was about to remount. "Why did you kill them? Couldn't you have just tied them up or something? You seem to care more about the horses then people."
Alala looked up at her. She took a deep breath and nodded. "They would have kept coming after us to kill. If we had time, I would take them to a town, but what would they be charged with? Attacking you? By the time they would have come to trial the whole town would have been over run with their followers or released by their followers. Then we would be in worse trouble. I need to get you to Crometh by the thirteenth moon."
Gabrielle nodded not happy with she knew was sensible. Maybe she could think of another alternative as they traveled. It would give her something to think about other than the fact she wasn't feeling the usual connection with Xena. It was there, but it was not as strong as she was use to. They traveled for another two candlemarks when Alala pulled her horse alongside of Argo.
"We need to change direction. Malucu knows we are following this road. Tonight we'll cross over and head for another road that runs almost in the same direction. It will take us a bit out of the way, as it runs along the mountains for a while. There is a cave not too far from here that is defendable and a safe place for us to sleep and the horses to rest. I don't think Malucu knows about it, but just to be sure I want to scout it out. Will you be okay alone for a while?"
"Sure." Gabrielle didn't bother to argue, as she wanted to get a break from the saddle. If it meant being left alone for a few moments that was fine with her. She needed to relieve herself anyway. She thought of the difference between this warrior and her own who didn't always explain why she did things. Instead she gave short orders and would disappear sometimes for long periods of time. If they changed their direction Xena would give no explanation as to why they changed direction. It usually took days to get her to explain to Gabrielle why and though it was a good reason, it's just that she wanted to know then, not days later after having to drag it out of her. Gabrielle stood still for a moment comparing the two and decided after over three years of traveling with Xena, she wouldn't trade her in, nor chance wishing for any sudden changes in her habits as it might disrupt their connection that was deeper than a friendship. A connection, she reminded herself, that in a day had become less intense. It caused her to worry.
Gabrielle wandered a little further than she wanted in search of the suitable choice of leaf or rock to comfortably take care of her bodily functions. She was headed back to where she had heard Argo wander off for better grass, when she spotted a wild flower she liked and paused to admire it. She also noted the smells around her and the sounds of late afternoon wild life. The breeze shifted and with it the smell of unwashed bodies passed her nose. Before Gabrielle had a chance to react the sting of a dart in her neck caused her to stumble forward. "Hades helmet!" She mumbled as she struggled to keep to her feet. What did Xena say about this part? The drug was quick acting for her balance was off and she felt she was carrying a lot of weight on her right side. Two more strides away from Argo's shadowy form and she was face down in the forest leaves remembering to wish Argo safe passage back to Xena before the numbing feeling overcame her senses.
Alala heard the cry of the hawk above her. "Hera's tits!" She hissed. She already knew this place was a mistake when she found traces of someone's recent passage. She had wanted to find out more information of who had been there and now she regretted her decision.
She had backtracked quickly to where she had left Gabrielle and found only her staff and a dart. She rubbed her fingers on the tip and sniffed it. She wrapped it in a small cloth and put it at the bottom of her bag. She was going to need it to mix an antidote to it. She broke the staff down and stashed it in her pack. She couldn't locate Argo. She sent a thought out to the falcon and he located the group moving west, with Argo following empty saddled.
She patted her horse,Yori. "Follow me at a safe distance friend."
Alala swung up into one of the nearby trees. From the treetops she followed the group of men that silently scouted the area. She had almost missed the other silent men that were using the trees to guard their camp had not the falcon and their smell tipped her off.
"Gods, they've been on the road too long." She silently laughed. "Didn't anyone teach them what the animals know everywhere, smells carry?"
She furtively moved in closer to get an idea of their camp layout. She could see the unconscious form of the bard bound to a tree that was too near the center of their camp to rescue. The group was very quiet, which worried the warrior. Usually there was small talk, bragging, etc, going on around a campfire, especially when you just bagged your quarry. These had to be professionals, but from where? They didn't wear anything she was familiar with. Malucu. What was that loser up to?
"Well, Athena - " She sighed to herself not daring to finish the thought. She was not happy with herself.
She made herself comfortable and waited until something happened to give her an indication of where the men were going to take their captive.
It was dawn when the familiar form of Malucu entered the clearing. The others quickly started packing and getting ready to move out without any verbal direction from Malucu. Malucu knelt next to the still unconscious form of the bard. He slapped her face a few times and the force of the slaps had Alala cringing. There was no reaction from Gabrielle's still figure. He tilted her head back and poured something down her throat. She watched the body react and Malucu's angry reaction. Alala flinched before the sound of the slap reached her. Malucu's temper. He probably was furious with Gabrielle for escaping his little tricks and evading him for so long.
One of the dark clothed figures stayed his hand before he struck her again and took the cup from Malucu's hand. He finished pouring the contents down the bard's throat trying to disregard the convulsions that started. Malucu waited for the convulsions to stop before untying her.
He's not taking any chances, Alala thought. Why? What does he fear about her so much that even when sick he doesn't trust her? Is it because she had been able to avoid his voice commands?
Malucu moved the unconscious body to a horse that was moving around. No doubt his replacement mount. She could feel the stallion's resentment toward Malucu. That might come in handy later. He tossed her body across the saddle like a sack. Alala could see the body not react at all. She suspected something to numb the mind and body was in what he gave her. So, it doesn't take all the contents to render her helpless. Has to be something potent. Alala's mind went over the different herbs the temple healers had familiarized all the guards on.
The men fanned out while some she could see remained in the trees. No doubt waiting for her. She smiled. She had her own methods of eliminating assassins or kidnappers.
When the others were far enough away Alala pulled her own weapon out. She had her own dart pipe. She slid the first dart in, coated with poison. Two could play the game. She didn't want any of these men following her upset worse than Hades' hound at an escaped prey. The movement in the tree she had been focused on gave her better view of the dark outline of the guard that blended very well with the tree he was hiding in. She aimed and knew she got a good shot when the body tumbled from the tree. She had the other shot ready and when the unconscious man hit the ground the next victim had moved enough for her to get a fix on him and soon another body joined the other on the forest floor. She knew the third one was going to be more difficult but she already had moved to cut off his escape. She was sure he was going to warn Malucu.
Alala called softly for Yori. The third man was harder to kill. He stayed to fight her. He must have thought temple guards were softies. She smiled grimly as she mounted up and took to the road. She had an idea where they were heading. Malucu, I can't believe you are that arrogant to take her to your old Temple in Madras as a sacrifice. To make amends with Ares. That's what the last guard had told her. She laughed contemptuously. Who did he think he was lying to? She could feel the evil and contempt the man had for her. She may believe in where they were going but not to make amends with Ares. So, why was Malucu taking Gabrielle to be sacrificed in a Temple of Ares? Ares' tight leathers, but that would certainly set Xena off. Alala paused. Why would Malucu want to set Xena after Ares?
Alala sighed. "Damn politics. Don't you just love it, Yori?" Yori's one ear that he kept turned in her direction twitched as if in answer.
It was past noon when she was not far from where they had taken a rest. She wanted to look and see if she could find some evidence of what they were giving Gabrielle. She left Yori out of sight and cautiously approached the area. She couldn't feel or smell anyone around. Nor had the falcon spotted anyone. She circled the area a couple of times not wanting any surprise visitors. She knelt in the leaves as she found evidence of Gabrielle's rejected stomach contents. She also found blood. She picked up the leaf and tried to make out what herbs were in the mixture.
Alala suddenly came alert listening to the light sigh of feathers moving through the air. Not the kind of feather arrangement she would want to hear. Too many to dodge. She managed to get hit with one only in her shoulder as Yori's form came plunging out of the shadows of the trees. She grabbed the saddle horn and hung on hoping Yori would not be a target, but no more came their way. Yori paused after a few moments of dodging between trees, letting Alala pull her shaking body into the saddle.
"Yori, I don't know how long I can hold on. Get us out of here!" Desperately she reached back into her saddlebag for the familiar feel of herb pouches. The numbing feeling in her arms and legs was bad enough but the darkness that threatened to move in on her was frightening. She was use to reaching behind a galloping horse for something in her saddlebags but not when she was fighting for consciousness and with fingers that were struggling against the numbing feeling. All her herb pouches had symbols stamped on them so that her sensitive fingertips could feel in the dark what was in each of them. She found the one she wanted letting the leaf she had sacrificed her safety for drop into the bottom of her bag. While gripping the saddle horn with one hand she pulled the distinctive leaf that would hopefully counter the numbing of her limbs from her pouch and clamped her jaw on its succulent body. It was bitter and foul tasting. But the sickness the drug was causing was moving up to her hand that was finding it harder to hold on to the pommel. Her legs had already lost all feeling as the flopped against the horse's side. She didn't feel Yori slow down to a cautious walk nor her body falling onto a soft patch of leaf droppings off the side of the road.
The owl she favored had not returned since she had sent her last message off. The falcon was circling in the sky over head watching for any movement.
The caravan of horses and riders, followed by one cart with a few extra horses trailing, was ambling along with two formidable women in the lead looking for a sign one of them was familiar with. It was a lone tree with the split rock on the left side of the road. When standing before the split rock the distant mountain peaks could be seen behind it. A small animal path use to run behind it that would take them to four caves out of the impending bad weather that was fast approaching. The leader, the younger of the two, sitting tall on a big bay horse, again looked up at the sky. The cloak over her shoulders was flapping behind her in the wind. She didn't bother pulling it around her for warmth as her partner had done.
"Whadaya think?" Lily asked as she too looked upward.
Aleka eyes didn't leave the soaring falcon's form as it dipped then rose again. It wasn't the pattern of a falcon Riding currents or looking for food. Aleka could hear her companion shift her position in her saddle again. She refrained from smiling knowing the Amazon preferred walking to riding and probably even more so now, after days of Riding.
"I think I would like to see what is over there." She turned her gaze to the Amazon. "The turn-off should be a few furloughs up ahead. Let's find it first."
Lily was going to argue again that it was too early to set up camp. She thought they could push for more distance before the rain started to fall. But a drop from the sky that had been threatening wetness finally squeezed out a big drop, and it landed on the tip of Lily's nose.
Lily snorted. "By Artemis's shield!"
"Hmm." Aleka smirked. That ended that argument of when it was going to rain. "We should reach the caves before we're too wet. It will take some doing to get the cart up but it's possible."
Lily groaned. "Great!" The last time Aleka had used the description 'some doing' it took them a lot of doing.
The rain started in earnest and both women could hear the others mumble between themselves of the wetness and the cold wind they were riding against. Sealskin cloaks thrown over their warmer wear could be heard rippling in the wind.
Aleka glanced back up at the soaring falcon. It hadn't taken cover and that was worrisome.
Aleka dropped to the ground and handed her reins in one fluid motion to Lily. Her feelings that something was afoot increased. Her intuition was telling her it was imperative to find out what the falcon was about. The sight of the gray wolf ambling just out of sight in the direction of where the falcon was flying over increased the need to investigate what was over that way.
"It's a dirt road. Hard packed. Just steep. Make sure whichever cave you enter is not in use this time." Aleka deadpanned.
"Wait a moment!" Lily motioned to one of the Amazon warriors. "You know the rules, my friend." She whispered. She also let a grin crease her face as she was reminded of their first night out on the road. At her insistence she went to locate a cave for the group. She knew of one that was near by for them to stay. After she and Agnes had set it up for their group the two had returned to the tardy caravan that was held up with a broken wheel. When they had all returned to the promise of a comfortable cave others, who thought that some god had gifted them with a snug haven for the night had occupied it.
Lily realized she had been cranky all day with Aleka and the younger woman had said nothing about it. The exchanged humor seemed to dissolve what ill humor had possessed her. She shifted again uncomfortably in her saddle, with a few mumbled curses. There was no comfortable way to sit now that she was thoroughly sore. Lily swung off her horse deciding she would have a better sight of the marker on foot, even if the road was getting muddy.
Erica was quickly off her mount and gestured to one of the young trainees, Candra who was her charge for the day. They were quickly chasing after Aleka as she turned and headed in the direction of the circling falcon.
The two followed spreading out as they had been trained. Aleka easily spotted the dun colored war-horse standing over a dark heap, shielding it from the light rain. Aleka knew he wouldn't be standing over the body if it were a carcass. She didn't have to look at the other two women for she could hear their silent passing as they made a sweep of the area. Aleka looked above in the trees for anything out of the ordinary, letting her other senses also reach out and scout the area. All she saw was the falcon that took a position on a limb over the body and all she felt was the presence of her two companions. Whatever had passed had scared the wildlife away. The Falcon kept its eyes focused on Aleka as if trying to convey something to her. Aleka looked toward the shimmering shape of her spirit guide, the gray she wolf. She was but two sword lengths from her yet no one saw her but Aleka. The wolf sniffed the air and turned her yellow eyes toward Aleka. Aleka broke gaze and studied the war-horse.
The war-horse had a saddle pommel that was used for carrying birds of prey. That explained the falcon's connection to the pair on the ground. The rain hadn't removed all traces of lather from the horse's flanks and as Aleka put a firm hand on its neck she could feel the heat radiating from its skin as if it had just finished a hard run. The cold rain hadn't cooled it down yet. The neck muscle flickered under her soothing strokes letting her soft voice further calm him.
Aleka moved slowly to see whom the horse was protecting. It stepped aside as Aleka bent over to turn the form over, careful that she wasn't doing further injury. Aleka cursed softly under her breath.
Satisfied there were no broken bones or internal injuries Aleka lifted the unconscious form and started to make her way to the caves. The falcon had settled on the pommel of the war-horse that trailed closely behind Aleka with its nose close to her elbow. She looked up at the sky through the rain and felt the tightness in her stomach again that something was amiss. Gabrielle?
That was another worry. The connection she usually felt with Gabrielle had lessened to almost nothing, as she let the character of Aleka dominate most of her moods. How could it not as she dreamed of her every night and worried as new faces superimposed over Gabrielle's. What transposed itself over her need to protect Gabrielle was an intense need to take care of these women in her charge. She suspected there was a conflict that was playing itself out in her dreams.
The two women flanked her as they hurried through the rain. A whistle from Erica signaled those in the cavern of their approach, that they were friends, and a healer was needed.
Eleanor and Agnes were just outside of the cave entrance in the rain waiting. They followed on either side of Aleka taking note of the color, breathing and pulse of the woman in the dim lighting of the overcast day. Inside the cave Eleanor motioned to the space that had been hurriedly prepared. Grace was at the fire preparing water. Another torch was lit near the pallet that had been set up.
The war-horse hesitated at the cave entrance. Aleka turned and spoke softly to him. She waited patiently for the war-horse to study them and then it followed the tall form that carried his mistress. The Amazons and the other women watched as the falcon lifted from the saddle and effortlessly sailed to the rail on the cart. It was near the pallet that Aleka gently laid the unconscious form on.
Aleka handed the dart she found snagged in the tunic's fabric under the leather shoulder pad. Eleanor sniffed it and frowned, handing it quickly to Agnes whom also studied it not touching the point. She in turn handed it to Grace.
Eleanor's medicine bag was opened and she quickly selected what she needed. Agnes mixed what Eleanor pinched into the bowl and Grace brought the hot water to mix the herbs with. Aleka watched with a knowing eye as the women worked as a well-trained team.
Lily moved to Aleka's side. "We better send a scouting team out to be sure whoever did this still isn't around." She didn't want any of them to be caught in the middle of someone else's bad business.
"They aren't now." Aleka nodded toward the falcon. "He wouldn't have been circling over her if they were. Any tracks would be gone now with the weather. We'll have to wait for her to waken to find out why someone wanted her unconscious."
Aleka glanced at the dun horse that was being well taken care of by Camila, who was speaking soothing words and brushing the tired horse down.
"Whatever it was, it was not meant to kill right away. Someone wanted her alive enough to get some information out of her." Aleka observed to Lily.
"Notice her robe?" Lily asked.
"Yea." Aleka returned noncommittally. It was the robe that gave her the idea that someone wanted some information from this guard.
"So has everyone else."
Aleka turned a bemused face toward Lily. "Kinda hard not to notice." Aleka couldn't help hearing the conversations going around her in the cave.
Camila nodded to the two women. They both moved over to her. "This is Yori." She indicated the horse while stroking his wet neck. "His rider is Alala, Athena's Aviary Warden from the Athens Temple."
"Thought as much." Aleka remarked.
"Ho. How so?" A skeptical Lily asked.
"You mean, besides her robe, the ring and the saddle?" Aleka quirked a brow up at Lily as she turned from her to face the cave entrance. Something had pulled her attention to the outside.
"There's a white ring around her left wrist, where she probably wears a wrist guard for handling the larger birds." She explained distracted.
"How about a bracer?"
"It's only on her left wrist."
"All right. Let's say you didn't see the saddle …"
"How many women, dressed in a gold fringed Athena's Temple Guard robe, followed by a falcon and an owl, do you know that can be…"
"Wait a moment. What owl?" Interrupted Lily following the tall woman toward the cave entrance.
"The one that's carrying a small message pouch in its left talon." Aleka's amused tone of voice was not lost on Lily.
"Hera's tits, woman! Where do you see an owl?" Lily peered out of the cave to where Aleka was looking.
"Too far a way for your old eyes, right now." Her friend teased. She waited a moment then pointed with her jaw. "There."
"I see, I see." Lily was exasperated. It wasn't raining hard enough to use the excuse of the weather nor was it dark enough. "You gotta have Athena's eye in the middle of your head." She muttered.
The two were oblivious to the entertainment they supplied the others. Though Lily was the elder of the group she always deferred to Aleka's suggestions not because of her leadership role but because of her knowledge which was always surprising the others. However, Lily's past personality was finding it difficult to give in to all of Aleka's leadership decisions and Lily's compromise was to compete when she could. Aleka seemed to understand and said little to stop Lily's bantering or attempts to better her at things it would have been best to let alone, for Aleka always won.
The others used Aleka to learn what they would not have normally been able to. They all knew that if the dark haired warrior was not influenced by Aleka's personality, they would not have the courage to share an open friendship with this tall and sometimes forbidding warrior. They all took advantage of the openness by asking questions and seeking advice in things related to survival and healing. They were rewarded with a patient and attentive teacher.
"Camila can you call the owl over here?"
The dark form became bigger as it sailed with purpose directly toward the cave's entrance. It knew exactly where it wanted to go. Aleka stepped back and Lily dropped to her knees fearful of getting hit.
The owl certainly had an attitude and it wasn't the least bit intimidated with their presence or in being in the cave. It had moved to the side of the falcon though not feather close. It made a further spectacular show of fluffing its feathers and shaking off water from its feathers.
The arrival of the owl with the attitude had everyone on her feet staring. Camila was the only one with a big grin on her face.
"This is not a good sign." Erica muttered to no one in particular. Her uneasiness spoke for the rest. The birds, Athena's priestess, and the circumstances they found her in spoke of portentous events. Something they had all been expecting with mixed emotions, as memories of an ill-fated quest kept them apprehensive at what this quest would test them at.
Camila was able to approach the owl with no problem and remove the pouch. Camila handed the pouch and its contents to Aleka who read the parchment that was folded into a small square. Without any change in expression Aleka handed the document back to Camila. It was written in the runes of Athena's priestesses.
Aleka motioned for Agnes, Lily, and Camila to follow her to a log that had taken the roll earlier as their meeting area. Once the four were settled and each had a cup of warm tea Aleka nodded to Camila to read the message to the others since she was one of Athena's priestesses. As a young warlord she had learned the code for her own reasons.
"What's the message?" Lily asked as she tried to understand what the symbols meant, looking over Camila's shoulder.
"It indicates warrior princess is fine. This symbol is the warrior; this crown above is the princess. If the crown was tilted the princess would not be fine." Camila smiled at Lily who was viewing the message side ways
"This symbol is …the dark power, from ancient times. This scroll represents a storyteller with the symbol below it as the Amazon Queen." Camila eyed Aleka for a moment.
Lily and Agnes exchanged glances. The anticipated challenge before them.
"Can you send a message back?" Aleka asked not looking at Lily and Agnes. Her stomach was in knots.
Aleka stared into the fire bleakly. So, what are we going to ask? What does the message imply? The storyteller is in danger by darkness. The symbol for the warrior princess was the symbol she had used when she was a warlord. It meant others knew of their journey. But, that was understandable. There are enough priestesses on this journey for temple gossip to fly and didn't they say they were away from their temples for a full season's cycle? Was Ares creating problems? She frowned. We need Athena's Warden to give us some answers. What is the guard's interest in this? What is Athena's interest? Or for that matter, what about the other goddesses whose priestesses represented the group? Aleka put a sudden stop to her thoughts.
Aleka dictated to Camila the message. The owl obligingly took off with the note into the darkness. The rain had slowed to drizzle.
"Why don't we get some practice in and then get some sleep. We can only wait now." Lily told the others who were as anxious over the message. Whatever happened along this journey was meant for us to experience. It was as we all expected. Gabrielle is part of the journey! Lily didn't know whether to be excited that what they had all guessed was right or be worried. They all had wondered when she would come into it, thinking it would be at the beginning, but understanding that the timing wasn't right. The circle of friends had to first come together and get comfortable with each other, she had reasoned. Lily nodded to herself. Trust the goddess to take care of the timing. After all, how could one of the most appreciated duos amongst people in need, be separated in this life by unfinished business from a previous one? Lily chuckled to herself as she thought about it.
Lily looked over at Aleka who was staring into the fire. She didn't think that habit was Aleka's. "Aleka, how about that work out?" She asked softly.
"Right." Aleka roused herself and joined the women whom she had been drilling daily on the use of various weapons and hand-to-hand combat.
By the time the others were worn out Aleka felt relaxed enough to try to sleep.
However, Aleka couldn't sleep. She finally rose and went outside. The air was heavy with a wet mist. Footing was still slippery, which was an advantage to them if anyone tried to approach the cave without being heard. The wolf was no where to be seen, but it was that way since they started the journey. The she wolf would only appear when there was danger or when something important came up. Like the first few days when Lily fought her various decisions. It was the she wolf who reminded Aleka of their relationship on the first journey and the need to be patient with Lily so she could work her way through it. Aleka would have just liked to stay with the group as little as possible and let Lily work it out by herself but the she wolf insisted that she was not to distance herself from the others. It reminded Xena of her first year of getting use to Gabrielle's chatter and presence. That was different, Xena had objected. But she remained in the camp and since she didn't have her sword to sharpen and sooth her nerves she took to drilling the women. She wondered if they would be as appreciative of her interest in this physical workout if they knew that it was her only way to work off her excess energy and irritation with being in such close contact with them.
She checked the guards and the outer perimeter then returned to the cave's entrance. Something was pulling her to the south of here. Aleka closed her eyes and shuddered at the long forgotten memory of just what laid to the south. She had thought the experience was deeply buried in Xena's youthful life as a warlord. She listened to the wind pushing the mist into sprinkles that were cold against her exposed face. She heard the falcon cleaning its beak on the branch it was sitting on, not far from the cave's entrance. She could smell bruised winter foliage stubbornly growing between the rocks and boulders on the side of the mountain. There was a river to her right and the canyon that would take them south was to her left. The road they had been on would take them to the next village, two days away. It curved to the south but it was the long way around. The memory surfaced again. This had to be the dark power the note referred to. She needed to talk to the injured guard to be sure -- before she changed their direction. She took a deep breath. She may be just putting the wrong pieces together.
The knot in her stomach for the last few days had been making eating the last thing on her mind. Without Agnes' observation and insistence she eat, she probably would not be eating very often. The herbs were not settling her stomach either. Is Gabrielle in trouble? Hercules had better be keeping an eye on her, she thought grimly. However, the note was implied otherwise.
Aleka turned and went back into the warm dry cavern. She needed to sleep.
The last thing that Aleka heard before letting Morpheus take her was the falcon returning to the cart railing and the howl of a wolf in the distance.
The next morning one group repacked the horses, another scouted ahead, and others prepared a quick early morning meal of hot tea and a cereal that would stick to the walls of their stomach.
Aleka knelt before the unconscious women and studied the pale face. A tired Eleanor was mixing herbs in a cup next to her. Kneeling next to the body she placed her fingertips lightly to the inside of her wrists feeling for the pulse. She moved her right hand to a space just below the curve of the rib cage resting her fingers lightly on this spot. With the other hand she moved the fingers in a slow pattern of light touches from the space just above the left clavicle up the left side of her neck. She repeated the pattern on the other side of the neck. She moved her right hand to the small of the woman's back and moved her left in another series of movements, touching each spot lightly for a few moments.
The other women stopped to watch. Agnes nodded as she watched their tall leader slowly remove her hand from behind the unconscious form.
"The healers call it chi work."
Aleka looked at Agnes for a moment. The memory of who taught it to her caused her to blink for a moment. It was amazing that the death from Caesar's troops that was meant for her didn't carry the same heaviness.
"I don't know what it's called. What matters is that it works." Aleka frowned to herself. She was feeling cranky. Must be that time of the moon, she thought, referring to her menstrual cycle.
The cart was prepared for its second occupant. This was one of the reasons it was brought, besides carrying supplies and for carrying their drama costumes and masks. For the length of time they were to travel they assumed there would be injured from the attacks of raiders or idiots that thought a small group of women was an open invitation for attack. They did not intend on leaving anyone behind. Erica had been its first occupant. She had been knocked out on their first encounter with fools from the second village they had performed at. A group of young men from the village didn't take "no" for an answer when they demanded favors from the young performers. The ambush was expected as they were brash enough to announce to everyone what they intended on doing.
The women had disabled and disbanded all but one, whom they left wounded on the road. Even in his wounded condition he didn't have the sense to keep his snide comment to himself. The women left him on the side of the road, under a tree, to his own resources to seek safety from any trouble that might find him in his condition. It was an example of a village that had changed in a matter of two summers due to the migration of people escaping from wars and warlords and not absorbing the differences between people well.
Aleka checked the dun war-horse out. He was added to the extra string of horses that were tied to the cart. They were relief horses. He seemed to be contented to walk close where he could smell his mistress and probably the grains they carried for the horses. The falcon had taken to the sky again and would disappear now and again. Camila kept an expert eye on new comers, their unconscious patient, and the bird.
"She is going to be well." Eleanor told Lily and Aleka as they walked behind the cart to check up on the occupant. Aleka noted the return of color to the cheeks and her pulse was beating stronger on her neck.
"The drug should be wearing off by about noon. She doesn't have any other injuries."
"Riding in that cart may bring her out sooner." Erica muttered. "It'll hit every rut and bump and shake her awake."
"It does have its advantages." Eleanor laughed. "I have quick recoveries."
"Last night she sweat out the majority of the poison and we got a lot of liquids in her. We were lucky it wasn't any exotic mixture of poison on the dart. Being healthy is a big help, too."
Aleka nodded. "Get some sleep yourself while you're back here. Agnes, that goes for you too. There's room enough. Brona, get up on the wagon and relieve Agnes for a bit."
The two young priestesses didn't argue. They had the first two shifts watching over the unconscious woman but found two pairs of hands were needed. They had shooed Aleka back to her bedroll knowing she was always up longer than anyone else was.
Continue on to Road Show: Part One - 2