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Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
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By J. A. Bard
ROAD SHOW III
On the Road Again
The cavern had its own sounds and smells of damp earth, trickling water, and old usage. But now it was intermingled with the murmuring of womens voices as they chatted amongst themselves, the smell of damp horses, herbal soaps from the bathing women, foods being cooked and the incense that was burning in a small wall altar.
The soft torchlight reflected off a single crystal stone the size of a large fist, which was fitted in the wall above the altar. Its shape was a featureless form of a voluptuous Gaia holding the sacred plant to visions in one hand and seeds in the other. Aleka sat cross-legged with her wrists dangling over her bent knees in what she felt was the center of the vortex, thirteen of her long strides from the front of the altar. She closed her eyes and felt her back straighten as she drew in a slow deep breath to begin the process of letting go. The air in and around this space was decidedly different. It set the fine hairs on her arms standing up. As long as she did not chant for the portal to open she could use the energy to protect her and help her to focus on projecting herself to the next site. She was reacquainting herself with an old method of travel.
The energy around her wasn't as strong as it was in Pasiphae, the small village the original journey started in. As she became more aware of her past as Aleka she realized how important it had been for them to seal the sacred caverns at Pasiphae from those who would use the portals for less than good intentions. Though she well knew that the unprepared or uninitiated could not safely enter the doorway, devious minds with less than good intentions would no doubt find a way to use it or those that were able to pass through. She had no doubt that as Xena the Warlord, she would have found a way to manipulate those that could freely travel through the portals to her advantage in her lust for conquering and attaining power over others. Animals that were moved through these portals were true to their nature given by the goddess and therefore were not affected.
She turned her thoughts back to what she needed to do. Taking another slow deep breath, holding it, then releasing it, she felt her body relax further. Long fingers that were idly stroking the carvings on the sides of the chair became still, chin that was tight from her clinched jaw became slack...then...her lighter self separated from her heavier body.
Aleka imagined the next site and felt a quick movement that was disorientating...and then she was hovering before a building in spirit. The temple had fields to the left that had been harvested and bedded for the winter; to the right laid a forest of tall trees; and before the temple stretched a stone walkway interspersed with sections for the planting of the usual herbs and flowers found in temple gardens. The sky was overcast showing winter rains were soon to fall in this part of the country too. The old temple butted up against the mountainside where the cavern she and the others would be appearing through lay.
Decorating the outside of the bronze plated temple doors was a winter solstice wreath with barley and wheat shafts woven in with the long stemmed mekon plant with its pods neatly intertwined to create a design representing the length of time Persephone spent with Hades. It was a temple of Demeters. Dried leaves that the wind was blowing onto the steps were collecting in corners. The silver wood trees that were to the left of the temple were bare and shaking with the wind that blew through their silver limbs. The stone lined garden that bordered the sides of the walkway leading up to the temple was bare, as a winter garden would be. The statues that appeared to be scattered about the barren garden had only the stone work that wove around them to attest to the fact that if a flowering garden was there, there was a definite border and pattern to the placement of the statues. Demeters statues had dried wreathes of wheat and barely draped around her neck and over her limbs while her daughter Persephone was draped in the traditional dark sackcloth. It had the appearance of a well cared for Temple.
Interesting. Gaias important temples away from the larger cities are now used by Demeters followers. Must be some kind of an arrangement between the goddesses, Aleka mused as she looked around her.
Moving from the outside of the temple to the inside, she found the stairwell that led down to the cellar of the temple. The stairwell was located in the apse, behind the altar to Demeter, hidden by an elaborately weaved wall hanging depicting the seasons and the goddesses participation in them. Aleka paused to glance back at her statue that was made of gold, silver, ivory and precious stones, depicting her waiting for her daughters return. In her right hand she held barley, wheat and a mekon capsule, ready for planting. Her left hand held a long staff with the mekon capsule at one end and the pointed tip for drilling holes for the seeds at the other. The statue of Persephone was draped under black died sackcloth, just as the outside one was. It was custom during the winter months to represent the time when Persephone spent in the underworld with her husband, Hades. She moved on.
Hmm. Doors locked from temple side, she noted. She moved though the door and down into the cellar. She found one curved door that led into the side of the mountain. It could be barred from either side. Well bar it from our side when were here. No need to risk having a surprise visit from curious residents if they should hear noises coming from a locked room no longer used, she mused. It would be awkward, her other half agreed.
Aleka looked for other exits. All right. Lets see where we can exit from. Cant be strolling through the temple with cart and horses, now can we? She chuckled to herself. Her mischievous side was tempted to do it and let the explanation be given to the visions inspired by the opion sap, but the brevity of the knowledge that such portals existed and what they could be misused for kept the impulse in check.
There are two exits directly to the outside, Aleka reminded Xena. Right.
She moved along the cavern looking for the two other exits that most temples had for emergencies or as they had originally been intended, for moving supplies in and out of the cavern without disrupting temple activities. She found one covered with a large circular stone rolled in front of it. The second was hidden behind old piles of bags and discarded containers from long ago use.
What are they saving all this for? Xena asked disgustedly.
Aleka inspected the exit behind the rock door first. She traveled quickly though the tunnel which led to a trail that wound upward to the top of the mountain. On the outside the path led back down to the foot of the mountain. It would lead them down into a valley that headed west toward Canace.
She moved back to check the tunnel behind the piled debris. This one opened up into a grotto of more tall silver trees.
Rising higher she was able to find the old trail that led through the grove and out onto the road.
Ahh, the main road. The grounds muddy. Its going to take some time to cover our tracks. Theres no way out of the cavern except through the muddy field, she observed.
We are cutting three days off travel time, Aleka pointed out to Xenas practical side.
Yea. You're right. I guess a candle mark off our time isnt too much, come to think of it, Xena conceded with a slight smile for her counterpart.
She then returned and made a closer inspection of the cavern finding little evidence that it had been used recently. The entrance was from the basement off from where the oracle would sit. As Demeter's temple there should still be an oracle below the ground yet it appeared it too had not been used for a long time.
Aleka made another visit around the temple to see where everyone was located then returned to the cavern where the circle of friends waited for her return.
Seven priestesses, fourteen initiates and some families doing business with the high priestess...its a prosperous temple, so why is there no oracle? Aleka interjected between Xenas mental notes. We arent going to get involved with anymore goddess problems. One is enough. Everyone looks too busy to be distracted with our arrival and departure, Aleka nodded to herself, closing the subject of why no oracle. It was a puzzle...but not for this time.
Startling blue eyes opened, alerting the others that Aleka was back. She slowly uncrossed her long legs as her senses adjusted back to her heavier form. Once settled, in one fluid motion she rose, turning to face the two that would lead the way.
"It is clear. The exit well be using is behind old bags and wine caskets." She nodded to Lily and Agnes who again insisted on going through the portal before her. "There is a door you can bar to make sure we dont have any surprise visits. Best to control the door ourselves and let them wonder than have to explain what they see."
The two women nodded, barely concealing their excitement. Was it from the anticipation of another trip through the portal or the anticipation of another adventure? Whichever, Aleka could feel it in the others too. Everyone was bathed, fed, packed and ready.
Aleka closed her eyes and brought to memory the tone for the portal of their destination. Each cavern had a name and the tone was in the name. She started the hum then made it into a chant feeling the energy in the area pick up. The others took up the chant intensifying the energy. She could feel the unmistakable activity of an open portal around her. The smell in the air that swept over her was from another place. She stepped to the side where Iaia, Erica and Eleanor waited. They were to come through the portal last, after they had erased all traces of their presence. Inwardly she smiled at the trio who had become close friends.
She felt a nose bunting her elbow, then teeth nibbling playfully on the cloth of her tunic as the golden mare waited for her turn to be herded through the portal following the cart. Aleka turned to look into the golden brown eyes that were to an old friend letting a hand briefly stroke the nostrils that flared out as the golden mare breathed, then Aleka returned her attention back to the portal...waiting.
The feather returned three breaths later and the others started to move through the portal in an orderly, prearranged fashion with the count of five before each stepped through. Aleka would move through just before the trio. She wanted to be sure all traces of their presence were removed. She knew the existence of the portals could not be kept hidden, for already too many people knew of them, but proof of their use could be erased leaving something of them a mystery. The trio helped erase prints digging holes and burying waste and leaving unlit torches in convenient places in case they had to return.
As the Named, she was not to be the first or the last anywhere, so when they were finished, Aleka stepped through the portal before the trio. Without hesitation she stepped through feeling the tingling skirt over her arms, shoulders and down her legs. It ended at her second step, which put her in the new cavern.
Aleka looked around noting torches were lit for the women to move around without bumping into each other. Half of the debris blocking the entrance was already removed.
"Have you thought of what we're going to do about recovering this?" Lily asked as she moved out of the way of Brona's toss of an old mat on the pile that they had been dumping everything on.
"Yea. There are some planks there." Aleka gestured toward the other wall. "We can pile everything on them then move the planks against the opening. Whoever covered the opening did it from this side."
"Don't you think someone will notice everything is stacked differently and that the planks have been moved?"
"Hmmm. Maybe. Why don't you and I get to preparing the planks?" Aleka suggested.
When the others had finished unblocking the doorway. They all stood back to admire the doorframe that was covered in carvings. Lily couldnt resist feeling with her fingertips the carved surface. In the beam above were carved scenes that honored Gaia in her voluptuous state at harvest time. The left side pillar had carvings representing the seasons and the right had carvings representing the various stages of life. There were pits in the wood where at one time stones might have been imbedded.
"Look someone had forgotten to remove this stone." Lily observed. Before she could touch it Aleka knocked her hand away. "Whaaat! What's wrong." Lily asked startled.
"It's best not to touch what has been covered from sight and looks too conveniently placed for the pickings." Aleka advised
"Sounds like sage advice." Agnes nodded.
"Well, the carvings alone are beautiful. They must have really looked impressive before the stones were removed." Lily remarked.
"Lets get going. We have muddy tracks to cover before we get to the road." Aleka reminded the women.
"Whats the weather like outside?" Lily asked, expecting their practical Leader to have noticed.
"It looks like rain before we get under shelter."
Lily sighed. "It is winter so I shouldnt be surprised, but Zeus, cant we get a break?"
Aleka laughed. "Gaia gave us three free days of travel with no stress, no mess."
Agnes poked Lily in the side as she moved past her with her horse. "Yea. So dont be giving her any ideas of us being ungrateful." She teased.
The main group of women moved out taking the horses while Aleka and the trio remained behind to move the planks in front of the doorway and wipe out their tracks. They piled the debris high enough for them to clamber out without toppling it, then closed the door from the tunnel side.
By dusk Aleka and Lily, whose turn it was to scout ahead had found a suitable place for a camp. It was protected from the cold wind and rain they had been facing all day. While waiting for the others to catch up with them they started to make shelters and setup a protected fire.
"If it gets any colder were going to have snow before the morning." Lily commented to her companion who was weaving the edges of a shelter together.
Aleka glanced up at the row of caves Lily was looking at wistfully. "Not a good idea." She commented quietly as she resumed her work. "Its too far from where the horses will be and it will be too difficult to defend if we have to stay up there for any length of time."
Lily sighed. "Naturally. Its got to be a real experience in roughing it."
Aleka laughed to herself softly. Ooooo. She doesnt know what roughing it really is.
Lily seemed to sense what was going through the warriors mind. "I know what youre thinking and I dont want to hear it." She grumbled.
The women continued with their preparations in silence. Finally Aleka surveyed their finished work and nodded.
"Let's wait up in the trees for our friends." Aleka drawled with a very mischievous glint in her blue eyes.
"OOOOhhh. I like the tone of your voice. I just loooovve to roost above unsuspecting chicks." Lily growled with humor. She rubbed her hands more for warmth than anticipation of fun.
Aleka looked at her. "Like a chicken hawk, huh?"
Iaia was listening and enjoying the sounds and smells around her. Her senses were still heightened and she was taking advantage of it. Eleanor had told her it would take weeks for the last of the drugs from Malucus combination to get out of her system, which is what they suspected was causing her senses to be heightened.
Iaia was riding up front with Erica, who took Lilys place when she moved to scout position with Aleka. The steady rain had finally abated with only a few drops falling now and then but they were all cold and wet with only the thoughts of a warm fire, food and relief from the cold wind on their collective minds.
Eleanor and Erica were looking for the mark that Aleka and Lily would have left to show where they were to move off the road for their night camp. Agnes who was riding next to Eleanor spotted the mark near the bushes first, since it was near her.
Agnes and Brona rode ahead while the others followed slower to keep close to the cart that was riding low in the soft dirt that was not a road. The two that were keeping an eye out behind them were nervously looking toward the road they just left for they were in full view of anyone who might travel past. They hadnt met anyone on the road that day, and though not many people traveled in the winter those that did were usually desperate or as unpleasant as the weather. Alala had lagged further behind to check a group of soldiers that her winged friends had spotted earlier. They all wanted to know who was behind them and how far just so they didnt get unannounced visitors at night
"Its up ahead, about a furlough." Agnes announced breathlessly as she came riding back. She didnt want to tell them that Aleka had scared her by dropping out of a tree neatly, to sit behind her on her mount, with a knife at her throat, to teach her that she should be more careful when entering a covered area. Lily had tried something similar on Brona who entered the forest cover with the same casualness, but the two women were evenly matched and both ended up falling off the horse and wrestling around in the mud, which caked the two women. Lily, however, was able to clean her dignity up before the others arrived.
No one dared to ask Brona what happened to her, as everyone already knew the drill. Aleka stressed the importance of the women staying alert and if she noticed anyone less then attentive she would see that something happened in their proximity to teach them a valuable lesson on survival. Daylight was short in the winter so their hyper vigilance wasnt a long eight candle marks. They all knew that sooner or later they would be in Bronas place, if they hadnt already...and on numerous occasions.
The trio was again in charge with covering the groups passage from view so they remained behind. Trying to undo the passage of the cart in the soft dirt was a challenge. The brush it had gone over wasnt as bad as the deep wheel marks it left on either side of it. They were halfway to the cover of the forest, still clearing tracks when Iaia suddenly became still.
"Weve got company." Iaia whispered as the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She could feel something different in the air coming from the direction they had passed. A part of her was excited at what she suspected was what a warrior must feel when she sensed things before others witnessed them.
The other two looked around carefully not questioning Iaias announcement. The ground began to tremble after a few moments.
"Feels like a good size group heading this way." Erica looked around for cover, which there wasnt much of until they reached the tree line at the beginning of the forest. They wouldnt have time to reach it. They were a little past the halfway point between the road and the forest with tracks to still cover.
Erica quickly touched her horses leg and pulled his head at an angle so that he lowered himself down to the ground and then onto his side. She picked a part of the ground that dipped down slightly thereby making it impossible to see them if they lay flat, unless a rider came off the road looking. She lay beside her mount ready to bring him back up if needed. The other two women quickly followed suit, bringing their mounts into a laying position, not relishing the muddy ground. Iaia remembered that Agnes had told her Argo was a war-horse. She then would certainly know about this maneuver of blending in with the scenery, Iaia thought. She tossed her fur coat over the lighter colored horse and snuggled up close hoping Argos body heat would make up for surrendering her warm coat to lay next to her in the cold mud.
The pounding of hooves was more noticeable as the women lay flat on the ground. Iaia could hear the distinct movement of two horses riding in front on either side of the road scouting the area out before them. It seemed like a quarter of a candle mark later that the rest of the troop passed by. Erica didnt rise immediately. Cautiously she raised her head and looked around. The rumble in the ground was fading.
"Not yet!" She hissed at the two women. They could hear the hoof beats of one lone rider moving quickly behind the main group.
Iaia raised her head a little when the beats seemed on top of them.
Erica quickly gave the Amazon call. If Alala had not heard it the saker falcon and owl that were circling over head or even her mount would have signaled to their mistress. Alala quickly slowed looking carefully for a more solid place to cross over to their position. The three mud covered women were standing alongside their equally muddied mounts.
"Theres a lot of activity on this road. Weve got to get into the woods." She informed them trying not to grin at their appearance. She helped them erase the rest of the tracks making better time into the woods.
Aleka was beside them the moment they were under the shelter of the trees. She had been watching with concern at the passage of the soldiers.
"The lead scout noticed where we crossed over." She told the women.
"By Artemiss bow! I know I did a good job of covering up!" Erica muttered.
Aleka lightly tapped her muddied shoulder. She trusted Ericas skills, which was why she had appointed her to the job. "He may be familiar with this road and noticed something different."
Ericas face turned red. "Well, I did move a bush around." She admitted in a low voice. "But I cant see how one bush would make a difference." She muttered, knowing full well that a good scout would notice details.
Iaia and Eleanors struggles to not laugh out loud only made it more noticeable as the giggling broke out when the two looked at each other.
Ericas face became redder.
"Weve already moved camp further into the woods. Its going to be cold later on but we cant risk a fire for the night. I don't want to risk anyone smelling our fire and coming for a visit. Well sleep two or more to a shelter. Unless you want to cuddle with the horses." Aleka raised an eyebrow remembering many events in her own life of having to share warmth with Argo. "Theres a running stream near by so you can get some of that mud off." She added noting the womens uncomfortable shifting around from the mud.
Iaia could hear the soft feet above her that moved from branch to branch as Aleka was speaking. The guards are being posted, she thought. She was relieved she wasnt going to be on the first shift. She was hungry, dirty and tired.
"We may be in trouble if that guard decides to come back for another look." Alala remarked as she walked to the camp alongside of Aleka.
"Lets get everyone together and compare notes...after the three of you get a chance to clean up and get something warm inside of you." Aleka told the women over her shoulder.
"So, what have you found?" Aleka asked Alala when everyone was gathered in a tight circle around the fire. The warmth of their closeness was appreciated by all, as they couldnt ignore the howling of the wind through the treetops and the knowledge that the warm fire would soon be put out.
"There is a group of mercenaries about a candle mark behind the group that passed by. From a conversation I overheard, the two groups will meet up by tomorrow. It seems the mercenaries scout the borders of Lord Menigines lands. Menigines has his own men go out and collect reports from them about twice in a moons cycle. The argument I overheard had to do with some of Menigines soldiers making unscheduled visits. The two groups are not on friendly terms but then, they arent at each others throats."
"Ah, Lord Menigines. He wants his kingdom to be known as one of the great learning centers in Macedonia." Lily nodded to the others. "Its his winter quarters that we're headed to. Hes already married off his offspring to the surrounding influential families to insure his kingdom grows or has peaceful neighbors."
Alala looked at her with amusement. "I thought the temple priestesses were the only ones that could claim to know all the gossip from everywhere."
"Are you kidding? On an island of women, as an Ambassador for the Amazons, and Lesbos? Believe me, I am privy to more information than what I can use." Lily groaned. "With all the intrigues even a goddess would find it mind boggling to keep up."
"Whats he doing, collecting for a harem?" Berik asked. Her hands were wrapped around a mug of hot tea.
"Well, actually he did inherit a harem when he conquered the area."
"Wait until he finds out the offspring of some of the inherited wives want to rule the land that they feel is their heritage." Erica shook her head knowingly. "I hope youre right when you said hes changed the practices of the previous ruler. If not, we may be in for more than what we can handle."
"I told you, hes a friend of Sappho and so is his new wife." Lily reassured them.
Aleka partially listened to the women letting the heat from her cup warm her hands. She stared into the cup watching the leaves that escaped the strainer move around the top of the brew. If the scout is familiar with this area he will know where someone is most likely to hide. Its good to stay away from those caves along the ridge as tempting as they appear in this weather. It would be the first place the soldiers will look. Aleka let her eyes wander around the outside of their camp seeing what others could not, aware of things that others would not be. We can take care of the soldiers from here. Camilia, Berik and Alala will stay with the horses...and Gabrielle. Our real danger is from the cold.
Alala and Lily had the second watch and were snuggling under the firs within the cozy shelters that were made earlier. Brona and Candra would join them on the second watch, while Berik and Agnes were given the chore of relieving anyone that became too cold to finish their shift. They had to wake up periodically and check on the others. A signal that was like cold branches brushing against each other was to be given if all was well.
Aleka, as usual, took the last shift with Erica, Iaia and Eleanor. Gari, Grace, Kynthia and Catherine were given the first shift. Aleka felt if the soldiers wanted to investigate an irregularity, they would send out a scouting team either at dusk or just before dawn. However, she didn't think it would be dusk in this case. No matter how well the scouting group knew the area, there was to be no moon that night and the clouds that the cold wind was blowing warned of snow. Aleka could smell it in the wind. Most soldiers didnt like to go skulking about in bad weather and without light. Unless she happened to be an ex warlord, Aleka chuckled to herself, who was bored and looking for some fun. Her chuckle went deeper when she felt the cringe from her counterpart at the thought of creeping about in the cold and in the dark. Better you than me, came the reply back.
The women on guard were cold and huddled against the bare trees trying to keep alert to any movement around them. The shifts were short so that no one would be out in the cold for too long. Aleka had given them suggestions on how to keep warm and warned them against the sleepiness that would overtake them if they became too cold. She made sure they knew that to come for help if they felt they were too cold was important and nothing to be ashamed about.
When Aleka came back from a quick parameter search she found Iaia was waiting up for her.
"Hey." She whispered softly as Aleka passed her shelter. "No one sleeps alone." Aleka was hesitant. Who left her alone in a shelter?
"Come on. Im not going to bite, Aleka." The soft voice cajoled.
Aleka could hear the smile in her voice. She squelched the image of Gabrielle biting her neck and ignored the warm feeling that spread throughout her body at the thought. Without much more struggle she joined Iaia. She lay on her back and Iaia settled her head on her shoulder and was quickly asleep. The familiarity of Iaias actions had Aleka wondering if Gabrielles memories had surfaced.
The warmth from their bodies under the shelter kept the cold at bay. Aleka contently fell asleep until she heard familiar footsteps approach.
The first watch went by without a disturbance and without the women becoming ill from cold limbs. As the second shift ended, Alala reported to Aleka that her owl had spotted riders but they were about three candle marks away, with torches. The wind had died but the chill was evident in the vapor from their breath.
"Get some rest and warmth until then." Aleka suggested as she pulled her warmed coat out from under the covers. Aleka moved out of the shelter and waited for Iaia to get up to give their warm places to Lily and Alala, who were getting off their shift.
So the men were coming this way. She looked up into the early morning sky and gauged what light they would have when the soldiers arrived. It still would be dark but the sunrise would not be long away. Just before dawn was the darkest time of the night. They cant move fast in the dark, even with torches. More than likely theyll put the torches out before they make their way through the valley about nine furloughs from the road. Her warrior side was delighted with this last idea. The challenge of disappearing in the dark when surrounded by an armed group was something she was skillful at and delighted in playing.
Aleka went to check up on the horses. Their warm breath on her hands was comforting as she greeted the ones that moved against her. She spent more time stroking a familiar neck then perhaps she really had time for. She sniffed the air and listened closely to the night sounds with her hand resting on the coarse winter coat of Argos neck. "Theres going to be some serious weather soon, Argo," she whispered in the attentive ear. She could see dark forms of the other women moving around the horses. A short form moved toward her. "I see you and Argo have become good friends." Iaia whispered as she let her hands rest on Argos neck for warmth. It was so close to where Aleka had hers resting she could swear she could feel Aleka's warmth radiating from them.
"We have." Aleka softly admitted.
Argos head turned around toward her and Aleka could image what look she was getting in the dark from those golden brown eyes, and she didn't have an apple to make up to her.
Aleka took the northern position against a tree that gave her a good view of a valley that the soldiers would probably approach them from. She settled with her back comfortably against the tree, feeling as Aleka the life of the tree and its connection with the earth. Even in the cold winter there was awareness within this tall sentinel of what was going on in its environment. Aleka relished the reconnection with other forms of life that she had once had, which had colored her world in vibrant hues. Xena chucked and thought that having Gabrielle around made up for that loss. Gently Aleka moved her connection from her tall friend to the sounds on the wind that was blowing toward her from out of the valley.
It was about two candle marks later that Alala moved to her side and indicated that the men had arrived and were moving along the valley floor. It was what her own senses had informed her. The smell of not too fresh clothing and horses gave their presence away. They didnt have the sense to check the wind direction.
"Wake and alert the others." She silently signaled her. She paused listening for a moment then turned to return to their dark camp. The others were up and silently removing traces of their camp. Lily and Agnes joined Aleka's tall shadow quickly.
"We need to find out how many there are." She whispered to the two women. Lily's shadow nodded.
"Agnes, the Amazons will do this alone." Aleka informed her. Agnes nodded in understanding. This required more stealth than her priestess had at that time for traveling in trees, especially in the dark.
The other women huddled around the three waiting for directions.
"Fan out. Gari, take the direction weve come from. Erica you go up the way they were last seen. Lily, check the area where we first were to set up camp. Berik .."
"Go back toward the mountain." She guessed.
"Right. Now go. You have a quarter candle mark before they reach the old camp site."
"Alala, is it safe for the owl to scout?"
"Good. Well need her eyes to tell us what the others cant see."
"The rest of you, make sure traces of our camp here have been removed. Then get to your traps and only use them when its necessary." She cautioned the priestesses. "Remember we dont want them to know we are here."
In the dark it was difficult to see if heads nodded in agreement but the barely audible sound of feet dispatching could be heard.
Aleka closed her eyes for a moment taking a deep breath of the cold air into her lungs. An image came to her bringing warmth. She pictured Iaias head pressed against her shoulder and the arm that had slipped across her stomach in sleep. Taking another deep breath she moved her thoughts to a bigger problem at hand.
Iaia returned to help Camila and Alala with the horses. Aleka could see her shivering and was wondering if it was from apprehension.
Aleka turned and moved quickly and silently past Lilys position, over the uneven ground that was barely showing in gray shades from a sky that was just getting ready to move into daylight. She climbed a slight embankment and blended in with the ground pulling the hood of her fur coat closer around her face as she moved toward the valley.
She could feel feet moving over the earth before she heard their movement near by. Was it again Alekas connection with the earth and its creatures? Xena shrugged it off. She was able to do it herself. Now is not the time to be comparing notes, she admonished her selves
Some of the men were quieter than others. Aleka could finally see the shadows moving cautiously toward the area where they had made their first camp.
Their warm clothing is not shoddy. I think Ill have a look see at their horses.
Aleka let the men move past her content to watch them search out an area that was vacant. She was more interested in seeing if this was the mercenary group or the army Alala had talked about. So far she hadnt been able to spot an insignia on the warm furs. Once they had disappeared she got up and moved to where she thought their horses might be. Horses tell much about their owners.
Aleka found the guards to the horses easily. The two men guarding the horses were arguing which gave her more information than she could have gotten though other means. She stayed to listen until the rest of the group returned. It was a dark gray daylight with a few white flakes floating down from the overcast sky. A group of cold, damp and disgruntled soldiers and mercenaries stomped back into the makeshift camp. The leader had the men mount up and ride out quickly. Back to a village with warm food and lodgings, she thought enviously.
Aleka watched them from a tall tree as they disappeared out of sight. The two groups rode separately and the mercenary group did not appear to have a leader. Satisfied they werent going to turn off the road and double back, Aleka dropped to the ground and started back to camp. She took a quick glance up at the sky and spotted the falcon spiraling above her. Once she started back the bird disappeared in the direction of their camp. Lily joined her as she reached an embankment near their first campsite. They were both cold and were thinking of a nice hot cup of tea that the scent of a fire told them could be a real possibility. Lily was blowing warm air into her cold hands as she trotted beside Aleka.
Aleka whistled their approach. Except for a few that were on guard the rest were gathered around a warm fire that was giving the women hot refreshment and the needed warmth. Lily was handed a cup of tea from Agnes as Aleka walked around looking for something. Lily guessed was an imaginary spy. Iaia filled two bowls with warm soup. Agnes filled another cup and handed it to Aleka when she returned her attention to the huddled group.
"How far did they get?" Aleka asked, as she wrapped her cold fingers around the hot cup of tea before taking the food Iaia offered.
"They didnt get this far. They were more interested in where we first set up. We left them enough evidence to show someone had been there but had left unhurriedly, just like you said."
"Good. It gives the reason for the bush being out of place. What about the scouts?"
"They looked up along the caves over there." Erica pointed.
"Good thing we didnt take cover there." Agnes nodded.
"Id like to know why Menigines is mixing mercenaries with his regular soldiers. It may be that hes gearing up for winter hits by hungry warlords, but I would rather be sure." Why trust your borders to mercenaries when anothers coin can cause a change in loyalties?
The others nodded. "It wouldnt be good to run into unfriendly border patrols." Lily muttered.
Aleka nodded. "Were on the border of Adris so it's to be expected that we run into his patrols."
"We should reach our destination, Lupurities by midday." Alala offered. She kept glancing at the sky and knew by the few flakes that were drifting down it was going to get colder.
"Well need to hurry. We just may beat the heavier snow fall." Aleka nodded to Lily.
Lily also looked up at the sky. There was a break in the clouds in the direction they were heading, but a shift in the wind could change that. Lily smiled at Alala. "Another point in our favor."
Alala raised her eyebrows in question.
"Ahhh. We have been lucky." She pointed to where a bruise had once been on Lily's forehead. "But a visit in one of the goddesses passage ways seems to take care of any injury."
Lily nodded. Travel though the portals had a lot of advantages. She wondered how the secret of their existence had been lost. As she pondered the good they could be used for the idea of the misuse and the misery the knowledge of them would create gave her an appreciation of the knowledge being forgotten.
That Certain Feeling
Agnes and Lily rode ahead to connect with their contact in the village and arrange for their quarters. A hot meal and a warm room were on everyones wish list. They were all hoping there was going to be room for them at the inn even if they had to squeeze in one room. It would be warmer and dryer than camping outside the village.
The snow began to fall in earnest just before the two came ridding back.
"Menigines, according to our contact, was the one that had requested from Sappho that our troupe visit Lapurities. Can you image that?" Lily yelled loud enough for the women to hear as they huddled under their furs. "Hes our host and he has finished building up the castle the old king had started, which is where we will be staying. A lot was left out on the invitation," She nodded to Aleka.
"Hmm." Aleka nodded. "A castle, huh? I don't remember this area having one. Do you know exactly what was in Sapphos message to him?"
"Not exactly. There isnt much you can say in a carrier bird. Then there is the message itself. When and if it gets to a temple the temple will send out a human messenger if and when they have someone available and they will be carrying a translated version of the message so you dont really know what type of message the target will get." Lily explained tucking her hands under the flaps of her fur coat.
Aleka was well aware of the disadvantages of such communication.
"I sure hope his castle has the usual large bathing tubs because I could use a hot bath to thaw out my bones and I dont want to wait!" Muttered Erica.
"Well, there we are all in luck. The castle in built on top of a mineral pool." Lily told her.
"According to, Helga, our contact, Menigines gets bored during the winter and likes to arrange winter entertainment for his guests and anyone in the village who wants to partake. Those in the inn that were listening to our conversation were curious who would be crazy enough to be traveling in the winter weather." Agnes laughed.
"Warm baths here we come!" Eleanor gaily sang.
When they entered the village the snow was blanketing buildings on either side of the road. The road however, was muddy and churned as if a large group of travelers had recently passed by. Aleka watched a dark figure on a horse approach them.
"Youre Sapphos troupe? Welcome from Menigines, Lord of this city. I am Captain Dunties. Im to escort you into the castle and settle you before you meet your host."
Aleka recognized him through the way he carried himself as the leader of the group that had attempted to find their campsite in the early hours. So he was Menigines' Captain. His face was partially covered by the fur-lined cowl to his coat. The women were also warmly covered and with the cold wind that was accompanying the snowfall, no one was willing to uncover their faces even for a brief moment.
Their escort took them off to the side of the main road along a path that showed recent use by a group moving in single file. Aleka studied the main road that gave the appearance of recent usage by a large group for the white snow was gray slush scattered with fresh horse droppings and urine. The group had to have stopped for a while outside the first set of gates, the barbican, the way the snow was trampled down. As they neared the enceinte, the exterior of the castles walls, they followed their escorts example and dismounted to lead their horses along the path under the overhang of the battlement and under the low arch of the postern gate that opened up into a small courtyard of the castle. Above the gate was a hoarding but there seemed to be no guard posted. By the smell, they were near stables and a cesspit.
It doesn't smell as bad as some castles I've had the displeasure of visiting, Xena thought.
Aleka appraised the castles layout from Xenas point of view while Aleka noticed the absence of feeling. What, Aleka asked in disbelief? There should be some sense of emotion from people passing here. Maybe the weather is keeping most people in, Xena suggested.
The enceinte, the outer walls, appeared to be the customary thickness. Without appearing to study the defenses, Aleka noted that the towers she could see had guards posted with small fires in them, keeping the soldier's warm. One walked out on the battlement and peered down at them, watching their movements until Captain Dunties gave a sign for him to reenter his warm tower room. Apparently, Menigines was still having work done on his castle for the curtain wall's foundation had been started and was only knee high at the moment. It was to be the second wall around the castle. It looked like Menigines was thinking of making this more than winter quarters.
Aleka didnt know if it was Argo or Iaias intention, but the two were beside her as they walked into the open yard. She caught Iaias elbow when she slipped in the mud without a break in her own stride.
Agnes was walking behind the two and smiled at their comfortable camaraderie. She could still feel the strong energy of the Named so their friendship, so far, was not jeopardizing the integrity of the quest. The connection they had between each other even if Gabrielle couldnt remember who she was in this life, was strong. Agnes realized that separating them for the journey would have been unrealistic. They would have found each other somehow.
Lily also watched the two figures walk side by side without speaking. She smiled to herself at their quiet companionship. The circle of friends had agreed to call Gabrielle Iaia on the journey so that someone who knew the Bard would not start looking for the companion that she usually traveled with or who would be somewhere nearby. To Iaia it didnt seem to matter for she didnt remember herself as Gabrielle. It was agreed not to try to get her to remember herself as Gabrielle, for there had to be a reason why she was not able to remember. Agnes had thought it was Gaias doing for Gabrielles loyalty to Xena would be too strong for her to see her as Aleka. That would not only weaken the energy around their quest but it would not give Iaia the chance to complete her own quest. For whatever reasons, it was for the better Lily felt.
Lily turned her attention to their other new member, Alala. It was easy enough to find a place for her. She was one of Athenas guards so she naturally fit in as a guard but she was adamant about not being labeled an Amazon. Lily wasnt sure how she should take it but agreed with Alekas suggestion to let her be who she is, a guard from Athenas Temple. After all it was through Athenas messengers that arrangements were made for their visits to various villages, Aleka had reminded her. That reply surprised Lily for it was a switch from a woman who distrusted the gods under any guise. But then, there were a lot of surprises, for wasnt it for Gaias sake the dark haired warrior took this quest up?
Lily could feel the wide smile crack skin on her cold face. Gabrielle was under a few goddesses protection that she knew of and probably a few others that she didnt. How else can someone whose intentions are kind but who seems to draw trouble toward her always get out, though not always unscathed. The smile got wider as she thought of the dark haired warrior bodyguard friend that was usually not too far from her side. The smile gave way to a chuckle. She didnt see Agnes staring at her wondering what was going on underneath the fur cowl that was covering most of her head and face.
A soldier stepped out of the garrison that ran alongside the wall until the corral stopped it. He waved to his captain. Everyone was looking forward to the acting troupes visit. He was hoping to be off duty for some of the performances. His wife had been talking about it since Menigines confirmed that an acting troupe would be performing for a few days. She overheard from the local castle gossip that Menigines had received a message from Sappho that one of her acting troupes would be passing through and had offered to perform for him if he provided them with food and shelter for a few days. Menigines welcomed bards, drama troupes and circus performers. In the beginning it was to educate the villagers. He believed that wisdom was taught in being exposed to these outside influences. But those close to him noticed that he had lately become more interested in competing with his neighbor Labducus, the trader who dealt in anything from flesh to food.
The subject of the competition varied season to season. The guard suspected it took the place of Menigines warlord competitiveness. Even Labducus was less interested in his trade business and more interested in competing with Menigines. Labducus, however, had sons and clever daughters to take over his business and he still kept a wary eye on them so that he would continue to make a profit. Menigines had Dunties, not his son, but whom he treated like a brother, who made sure that the land he had conquered, was kept safe.
The fact that the troupe was all women created quite a stir, among the young guards especially. Over half of the garrison had been sent out on their usual check up of the border areas the mercenaries were supposed to be patrolling for Menigines, and were not happy they would be missing the performances. They were all the older seasoned soldiers. Menigines didnt like sending the younger guards out in the cold winter unless they had been training for two full season cycles. The older guards that remained behind made sure to take advantage of this arrangement and gave all the unpleasant chores and duties, with the exception of watching the exits and entrances to the castle to the young men. One of the favorite discharging of duties was the experience of cleaning the cesspits and washing the garderobes. Captain Dunties has used it as a punishment for any of the soldiers that committed an infraction. These small stone chambers for toilet were four on each floor with drains that ran down into a cesspit below them. The Lady of the castle insisted they be cleaned every morning and the chambers be washed down with scented water regardless of the weather.
Parehu pulled his coat around him closer as he tried to memorize details of the well-covered figures for his wife. She would bother him for details. She would want more than the color of their furs. If anything, she had him properly trained to note detail. He had already sent Amagines, the other sentry, to let her know they had arrived. Lord Menigines had told them he would ring the bell three times to let everyone know within hearing distance that the performance would start in two candle marks.
Grace, who was riding the cart, followed Berik, Camila and Alala accompanied the three stable boys that came out into the bad weather to lead their horses into the covered stable area. Their horses were too important to just leave them with anyone and leading or herding eighteen horses was too much for three boys, even if the destination were a mere ten steps from where they were standing. Earlier in their journey, Aleka had pointed out to them that the stable was the best place to gather local gossip and check out the condition of a village, town or castle. It was important to know how many horses were in the stalls, how much winter food was being stored for the livestock in the castle, how well the equipment is kept up, who is the horse master, and the attitude of the men and boys toward the women. This was handy to know for women traveling far from home.
"Lord Menigines would like to know how many rooms you need?" Dunties asked Aleka as he led the women into a passageway that took them out of the weather. A young boy jumped up when Captain Dunties entered the hall and quickly handed him the torch he had been holding.
They weren't being led through the forebuilding, through the main entrance. That fact had Aleka's curiosity. Someone must be here we're not suppose to meet, her suspicious nature suggested. Aleka glanced at the stone decoration that was above the archway. It was covered with the recent snow and all that she recognized was the seashell.
"Lets first see how large the rooms are." She suggested.
The passage almost immediately opened up into a wide hallway that was busy with activity as supplies and trays of food moved in and out of the kitchen that they passed. The aromas from different dishes cooking caused a lot of stomachs to growl in appreciation. They timed their arrival right, the group was thinking, midmeal. Across from the kitchen was the buttery with its partitions wide open revealing barrels of something worth tasting as new supplies were rolled in, past the women who moved out of the way quickly.
"A caravan from Labducus, our neighbor to the north, had arrived just before you. I didnt think you would appreciate weaving in and out of the traffic in the ward. Not until youve at least had a chance to warm up and refresh yourselves." Dunties smiled.
"We must be keeping you from your duties then, Captain Dunties." Aleka mentioned politely.
"You are Lord Menigines honored guests so it is my duty to see that you are welcomed and settled before you see him. Besides, I much rather escort a group of gracious women into a warm castle then argue for hours with Mariko, the caravan leader, about this or that in the cold."
"Labducus is your neighboring city?" Lily asked politely.
"Ahh. No. He calls his city after Labdu. Its a traders city. He deals in everything and anything. He and my Lord Menigines have developed a friendly rivalry in acquisitions."
Aleka felt a slight prickle of warning. "Any particular type of acquisitions?"
At that moment her nose picked up a familiar smell that was permeating the interior of the castle. She glanced back at Agnes to see if she also noticed the smell. Agnes was busy listening to Lily give her a commentary on something.
Aleka turned her head back to Dunties who was answering her question.
Dunties chuckled as he led the way up a stairwell to the next floor, then turned down a hall and lit a torch to add some light to the darkened hallway. "Well, last summer it was a fleece." He looked at Aleka briefly. "It stunk so that didnt go for too long. During the fall it was Labducuss daughter. That was to teach the young men how to track and other games of stealth."
"I take it Labducuss daughter was good at hiding." Lily remarked, who had returned her attention to their escort.
Dunties started to laugh. "Oh yea."
Torches that were few and far between dimly lit the darkened corridor they were being led down. Aleka guessed they were the only ones in this part of the castle. Dunties pushed open a door and stepped back handing his torch to Aleka. The women moved into the room. Aleka pulled out an unlit torch near the door and lit it from hers and handed it to Lily.
"Nice and roomy." Lily commented as she moved in one direction and Aleka in another. They lit other torches to give the room more light. There were two loopholes in the sitting room, boarded against the weather, rattling from the wind. Agnes, however, went over and removed the panels with Berik's assistance. It let in cold air, but it was fresh and the hemp smoke that followed them in went directly toward the openings and was sucked out.
"Five could fit in here." Aleka commented stepping past the curtained room where a large bed rested. Her eyes narrowed a bit as she studied the metal designs on the beds headboard. Mentally Aleka chastised herself for letting her imagination run away with her. They could merely be decorations.
"Are all the rooms this size?" Agnes asked as she sank onto the bed and those that could fit joined her. Lily busied herself lighting the fire in the room to take some of the chill out.
Dunties nodded allowing a smile to touch his lips as he watched the young women push at each other playfully to test the bed as children would.
Alekas eyes narrowed further when she spotted some familiar attachments that were hanging above the bed neatly tied back to give the appearance of just being decorations. So, its not my imagination. If they keep burning hemp we're going to have to keep the shutters off all the time.
"Well sleep five to a room. Have you spare pallets for three rooms?" Aleka asked abruptly. She looked at the wood piled near the fireplace that Lily was carefully using to coax a healthy flame from. For a moment she thought of the cost of heating the rooms during the winter months. She had a few good reasons why she wasnt going to break them down into smaller groups, even if Menigines had the spare rooms. The most important was for defense. Looking back at the bed she decided for sure she didnt want the women to start pairing off but not so much as to protect them from themselves but from anyone in the castle thinking they could overpower two women. She was getting to suspect just what type of activity Menigines got involved in for the winter months and she was particular at just what type of entertainment they would be putting on and for who.
Dunties nodded. He leaned out the doorway and talked to the young man standing outside then turned back to Aleka.
"Let me show you some of the amenities of the rooms." Dunties continued. Aleka wondered just how much he was going to show them.
"The tub, as you can see is large and can accommodate five easily. The water is heated mainly from its source, a mineral pool behind the hall. But the water passes behind the fireplace, reheating it and by pushing this you fill up the tub. By releasing this, the water will empty from the tub. We dont lack water."
The women watched as he demonstrated. There was a collective sigh as everyone thought of how nice it would be to wash the mud off and to soak in something warm enough to reach their chilled bones.
"Whos the face at the bottom?" Brona asked. There was no torch light near enough for her to make the face out clearly.
"Aphrodite. She is one of the gods Lord Menigines honors. We have linens here, bathing oils, salts and if you dont find what you need," Dunties smiled, "call the guard and he will have someone attend to your requests. You are Meniginess honored guests and will be treated as such. If you have any problems, let me know. As you noted, our guards are young and some inexperienced. They are in training so they will need some prompting here and there."
Dunties pointed at a door that was off the sitting room. "That connects to the next room that you will be using. We'll set you up in the three adjoining rooms so that you can freely visit with one another."
"Good. Agnes, Lily, Gari, Brona and Candra will sleep here." Aleka smiled at the sighs from the women who were lucky to get the first chance for a warm bath. Water was already beginning to spill into the pool.
Aleka noticed the air in the room already smelled fresher though it was cold.
"You may not mind the high from the hemp, but we would rather chose our time for it." Agnes told the Captain as he glanced again at the opened shutters.
"Ahh. I see." He nodded. "Food will be brought to you." He continued, "Im sure you are all hungry, especially for something warm. Lord Menigines suggests that you stay in your rooms and away from the hall for as long as the traders are here." Dunties smiled embarrassed. "They are slave traders and he does not wish to upset any of you." Dunties added as he led them through the small door that connected into the next room. The next room didn't have the any of the burning hemp smell but it did seem a bit stuffy so the women opened one of the shuttered loopholes.
The second room was similar to the first, with the same type of headboard on the bed which by then Lily and Agnes were whispering suggestions back and forth to each other. Alaka was just about ready to roll her eyes at what she was over hearing when she remembered Iaia was probably overhearing the same conversation.
"Say, dont the two of you want to go settle in your room?" Alaka hinted. She knew they were not unaffected from what they had already inhaled and that meant everyone else would be getting ideas too.
"The pools going to take a while to fill and the food hasn't arrived yet, so we thought we would take a look and see if all the rooms have the same amenities." Lily smirked.
In the second room Aleka put Berik, Alala, Camila, Grace and Kynthia.
Aleka assigned herself, Iaia, Catherine, Erica and Eleanor, in the last room. Easier to keep an eye on her, was her reasoning for putting the two of them in the same room.
While the others settled into their rooms Aleka, Agnes and Lily met with Menigines and his wife Katy.
"So what did Agnes decide to stage?" Iaia asked as she stood in front of the fireplace with her cold hands over the fire. The water to their small pool was filling up but it wasn't deep enough to be worth stripping in the chilly room for.
"After she got a glimpse of the bedposts she was mumbling something about not doing any of Sapphos erotic satires." Eleanor answered as she prowled the room. The rooms were huge to her, the fireplace large, the pool was even bigger. Catherine was also inspecting the room and by the set of her shoulders, she did not like what she was seeing.
Iaias mind was on the food that Dunties had said was on its way. Her growling stomach was making her jumpy. She needed to think of something else. She smiled as her eyes rested on the two bedrolls she had tossed in the corner out of the way.
A knock on the door announced the arrival of one large pallet with bedding. The young men that were carrying the pallet spent a lot of time looking the women over while trying to settle the pallet in the area Iaia pointed to, near the fire place. Ericas glare finally had them leaving before they got the courage to speak to the women.
"This place reminds me of a stable with too many young wanna be stallions and not enough mares in season." Erica mumbled.
Iaia and the others were picking at the food that had arrived right after the pallet. Eleanor held up the Belladonnas smoked leaves that were under the berries. "Have you noticed that the majority of the foods here contain mixtures from Aphrodites charms?"
"Aphrodites charms?" Iaia asked as she dipped a celery stick into a sauce that looked delicious.
"Ya. Ya know, charms from her magical belt." Catherine looked up from the stuffed mushroom she was studying.
Iaia didn't pause as she ate another helping of the sauce. As Gabrielle she would have known of the many bard tales that talked of the love potions that came from the plants that adorned her magical belt, but as Iaia she didnt.
Iaia crunched on the celery stick savoring the tangy bite of the sauce.
Eleanor eyed her as she took a third generous helping of the sauce. Oh goddess, we are looking at trouble here, she thought giving Catherine and Erica a look that translated into the same thought.
"Hmmm. This is -- good." Iaia murmured as she looked around for something else to test.
"Iaia...most of these foods are what make up love potions." Eleanor cautioned
Iaias eyes opened wide. She carefully and regretfully replaced the pastry that looked like the one Eleanor was holding up to her eyes and inspecting closely.
"Henbane laced." She nodded to Iaia as she put the delicious mouthwatering pastry back on the plate with the others.
Iaias stomach growled its objection at the interruption of her food consumption. "Whats safe to eat?" She asked decidedly unhappy.
"Hmm." Eleanor emptied one of the basket contents into another and started to put in the food she thought was safe.
"This place is one Dionysus and Aphrodite living temple." Catherine announced. "I mean, look around you at the decorations not to mention the scene on the bottom of the pool. I feel like this is a temple. It's not...right. Whoever heard of the uninitiated living in a temple? Visiting, yea, but to carry on one's everyday activities without being in right mind...that's trouble."
Eleanor nodded as handed Iaia the basket.
"Oh, great!" Erica groaned. "You have got to see this statue!" Erica was sitting at the edge of the pool checking the depth. The statue Erica was mentioning had been draped with the curtain that served as a privacy corner for taking care of ones toilet if they didn't want to use the public garderobe, and for a body wash before stepping into the pool. "Like I really need all of this!"
"No, you certainly dont need help there." Eleanor told her softly as she took the curtain from Erica's hand and stepped behind the modesty curtain to prepare for the pool.
Iaia hid her smile, as she knew what Eleanor was referring to. The two had been spending a lot of time together, even when Aleka rotated pairings for training. Her thoughts easily moved to Aleka whose presence was keeping her own imagination active. For a moment she wondered if it was one sided. Nope. I heard her heart beating a bit faster than normal when I had talked her into sleeping under the fur next to me. Next to? You had her covered! You are just sooo bad!
"So, what do you want in your bath water? We have calamus, lavender, cinnamon, rosemary, and artemisia." Erica asked.
"Lavender!" Catherine and Eleanor said in unison.
Eleanor smiled sweetly at Erica as she slid into the pool next to her.
"Hmm. Ohhh kayyy." Erica replied laughing at their reactions. "Its gotta be that statue."
"Well, it wont be just the statue if you put any of that other stuff in the water." Eleanor pointed out.
"Why, what is wrong with the others?" Iaia asked.
The other three laughed. "They are like the spices in the food. When you eat the Aphrodisiacs, the herbs from Aphrodites sacred belt, there is an insatiable desire for sex." Erica explained.
"Now you are misleading her." Eleanor chided her. "It enhances what is already present."
"And when one of those herbs for the bath coats the skin, the skin becomes so sensitive to touch that a mere caresses," Erica came very close to Eleanor, almost whispering in her ear, "can cause a major disturbance in ones flower bud." She finished breathing dramatically in Eleanors ear.
"Cut that out!" Eleanor playfully splashed Erica.
"How do you know so much?" Iaia asked exasperated.
"Temple priestesses need to know these things for men and women turn to us when their relationships fail and their friends arent any more help." Eleanor explained.
Iaia cocked her head to one side and thought about it. "But Erica isnt a temple priestess and none of you are from Aphrodites temple." She pointed out.
Eleanor smiled. "Fertility and all things that grow from the ground are Demeters concern. Demeters flower is the poppy, one of the favorites for enhancing love making. As a priestess of her temple knowledge in the herbs that enhance fertility as well as to what heals I will have knowledge of. Aphrodite works on the affairs of the heart. The herbs she has on her sacred belt enhance the physical passion so it can keep up with the passion she awakens in the heart."
Iaia nodded in understanding. Had she heard this before?
"If you live on an island like Lesbos, the most romantic island I have ever heard of," Erica pointed out, "you hear, see and learn a lot about herbs. And then," she smiled smugly, "it was my mothers business to sell love potions to those that couldnt afford the Temples mixtures."
"Ahhh. I see. Well, we shall have to see about this cutting into the goddesses donations." Eleanor teased elbowing her under the water.
"Oooofff. Hey! I didnt say I did it. I just mixed the stuff." She objected grabbing the offending elbow and by the way Eleanor moved around, something else was being grabbed.
"Hmm. And I bet dipped in it too." Catherine teased from behind the curtain.
"Are you kidding? My mother was not going to have her daughters messing with any of that stuff. Thats why she sent all of us off for schooling with the Amazons. She wanted to make sure whatever husband we ended up with it was because we chose to be with him and not because we were sold or had no other alternative."
The rising steam from the water picked up the lavender smell filling the room with its aroma.
"This place smells like a field of wild lavender." Catherine remarked as slid into the warm water.
"And we shall all smell like the sweet flowers that we are." Erica posed as if she were a flower.
"And you thought you couldnt act." Eleanor teased. "Next flower part, you get."
"Ill have to write it in one of those slow moving scenes." Iaia added laughing.
Iaia's imagination wasn't the only thing that was active. The sacred herbs of Aphrodite she had ingested were strong in her system but it didn't completely close out her warring internal factions that were warning her about the subject of her fantasies...Aleka. I cant even remember who this Gabrielle is. What if the dark haired warrior isn't waiting? Does Aleka have someone waiting for her? She realized she was more concerned about Aleka being spoken for than herself. Thats what the problem was on the first journey, she reminded herself sternly. She definitely needed to talk to Eleanor. She needed to hear out loud her rationalization of why she was intensely interested in Aleka. The woman who haunted her night and day dreams was being driven out with images of Aleka.
Iaia closed her eyes for a moment to redirect her thoughts. The image of the dark haired woman appeared easily and just as soon as it appeared it was replaced with Aleka and the image wasnt of her in a casual pose. It didnt help when a flare of heat that began in her center between her legs, started to spread out to all her limbs. She could feel her face and then her ears burn with the heat. The desire to feel her skin against Aleka's became overwhelming. For a moment she held her breath then let it out when another image of Aleka came to mind in another provocative pose. She needed to do something other than think.
It was her turn to prepare for the pool. As she stepped behind the modesty curtain her eyes opened wider when she realized she was standing before the statue the others were giggling about. Oh, no, she groaned internally. This is not helping. Curiosity got the better of her as she stepped closer to figure out where one persons body part ended and another begin. She identified at least four different people in intimate intertwining embraces
She took a deep breath. In her minds eye she could see a long wall painting depicting various scenes of couples and groups engaged in different intimate activities. It was in Aphrodites temple! She had asked her companion if some of the poses the pictures showed were possible and she was assured that they were. Her faced blushed as she remembered feeling a pang of jealousy at how this person acquired the knowledge. Iaia shook her head to rid herself of the thoughts and images and busied herself with her toilet.
"Ohhh. We dont need that." Eleanor decided as she observed Iaia. She looked around for something to throw over the statue. Rising out of the pool she quickly found a cover.
Finishing with covering the statue Eleanor slid back into the pool and glanced at Catherine who was shaking her head.
"We have to keep our thoughts clear. Somethings not right here. Im sure of that." Eleanor told her. The atmosphere was like a pulse that caressed the skin and senses with a seductive rhythm. Eleanor knew the sensitivity was due in part from the aroma of the hemp that they had picked up on their way to their rooms. Since the halls were dark she wasn't able to tell how thick the smoke was but it smelled strong.
As a priestess, Eleanor saw love making as an experience that not just connected the participants with the rhythm of life around him or her, but connected each person, for a brief moment, to the other. Eleanor had only experienced the goddess Demeter in positive ways and, as one of her priestess, was attuned to the need for sexual union to be pleasant in order to continue to regenerate the energy of the spirit in a positive way. It was the intensity of the connection between the couple that contributed to keeping the sacredness of that rebirth in the experience of joining. There were responsibilities that went with this intimate connection and when she was working in the temple she reminded those that came for consultation of this by the rites and rituals she taught. But here, the feeling was not the same. Herbs and spices that were considered sacred were added to meals without the ritual or acknowledgement of their sacredness or the union they were enhancing. This was all wrong to her. Surely Aphrodite would want a conscious acknowledgement and gratitude paid to her for the use of her gifts to enhance the sexual union of two people who loved each other.
She sighed as she realized she didnt really know what type of energy the combination of Aphrodite and Dionysus brought up in their followers. In some cities Dionysus only represented wine and the drunks usually were aggressive and far from caring about the spiritual aspect in a sexual union.
Eleanor closed her eyes as the warm water closed over her and the oil gently coated her dry skin. She let her thoughts wander on the dramas and satires they had performed in the various towns and villages. To all of the women on this journey the dramas and satires they put on were treated as sacred unfoldments of everyones struggles with good and bad. The masks were the sacred mirrors of the dark and light that everyone could identify with easily. Sacred dramas and satires were learned by a priestess from the moment she became an initiate.
For her this journey was showing her how easy it was for those that were busy trying to survive from day to day could forget the connection they have with the energy that was divine. It comforted her that through their traveling and production of the dramas they were helping these people reconnect. She also found that for some people that didnt have a favorite god or only made visits to the nearest temple when things were truly bad, had a stronger connection to the sacredness of their world than some guardians of the temples that she knew. She remembered one old man who had confessed to her after one of their performances that he always carried on conversations to Persephone because her plight with being torn with two different commitments was so like his own. But he had never been in a temple and had no intention of doing so in the future for he felt the temple was artificial and felt no connection to the goddess he had taken a likening to.
Eleanor turned her attention to Erica who was watching her with open desire, as she idly let her hands catch the water that was still flowing into the pool. Her feelings and desire for Erica had started before they begin the actual journey. They had both decided to wait until they were finished with the quest to explore their feelings for each other hoping that their attraction wasnt from their past lives. It made perfect sense then, but as they progressed on the journey their feelings were becoming stronger. Somewhere between their entrance to this castle and to their rooms their physical desire for each other intensified. She knew a lot of it had to do with the incense that was burning and filling the halls. The rest was to do with their desires that the stimulant was enhancing.
She should have guessed just by the two statues that were partially covered with snow on either side of the entrance to the castle, at what they were walking into. Aphrodite and Dionysus. The decoration over the arch portrayed some of the herbs that were reputed to make up Aphrodites magical belt with her shell as the center of the arch. It had been covered with snow but the arrangement was familiar enough to her that she didn't need to see the entire design to know what it was.
While the others settled the horses and themselves, Menigines and his wife, Katy, entertained Lily, Agnes and Aleka with a small midday meal and pumped them for information on their travels and what dramas they were to put on.
Aleka was on the defensive from the time Minigines' Captain mentioned the competition for acqusistions, and strengthened at the restriction to their rooms, the hemp smoke in most of the halls, and now the steaming aroma of the dishes that were placed before them. She recognized some of the smells from herbs that were used to enhance strength and stamina, besides other things, in soldiers. After exchanging a knowing look with Agnes, Aleka knew she too was aware that the food had been flavored with more than mouth-watering spices. Agnes and Aleka took note of which dishes of food were liberally sprinkled and mixed with the herbs they were suspicious of. Agness glare at Lily kept Lily from eating the tainted food.
"Do you serve all your guests foods laced with henbane or," Aleka held up the dried mushroom mixture that was stuffed with other herbs that usually promised erotic appetites and physical stamina, "other such stimulants, not to mention the burning of hemp throughout the halls?"
"Well, yes. Our winter festivities are dedicated to Dionysus and Aphrodite." Menigines raised an eyebrow surprised. "Its what keeps our winters warmer." He joked, smiling at his wife.
"Well, were here to perform dramas written by Sappho or our playwright, nothing else." Aleka leaned close to Menigines whose chair was near hers. "Do you get my meaning?" Aleka dropped her voice. Alekas threat was done under Xenas influence and Menigines the exwarlord did understand the undertone of a threat.
"Well, certainly. Thats...of course, I mean, we meant no harm," he stammered surprised.
"Good, then youll make sure the food we get is not -- spiced up." Aleka kept her voice low. It appeared to make Meniginess hair on the back of his neck rise for he was nervously scratching the back of his neck. "And stop burning the hemp down the hall we use. Is that understood?
"Yes. Certainly." He waved a hand at the messenger that was standing near his chair. The man quickly left to deliver, hopefully, that message.
Once that subject was settled, Agnes, Menigines and his wife, Katy had an energetic discussion on current and past plays, dramas, and satires. Menigines boasted of his own collection of scrolls in a well cared-for library. Their hosts openness in his discussions and his enthusiasm told Aleka that perhaps he meant no direct harm to them, however, she was distrustful of the atmosphere that was created with the mixture of Dionysus and Aphrodite. The followers she knew that followed Dionysus usually drank themselves into a stupor and most celebrants that Aleka knew were not nice drunks. Aphrodite's celebrants on the other hand, venerated the erotic side of lovemaking. It could be from one person to many, but the respect of person was intact, unlike Dionysus' wild followers that she knew from her warlord days. Aleka was not comfortable with the mixture.
Menigines wanted a rather ribald story written by Iaia, their playwright, to be presented on their third day. He wanted to add the scroll to his library and the honor of having an original staged for him. Aleka had seen a lot of erotic performances both in private and in the company of others. However, for the circle of friends to put one on for Menigines and his cronies, was another matter. On the other hand, the idea of Iaia writing it was amusing. The shiver that accompanied the thought suddenly had her sitting up straighter. Maybe it wasnt such a good idea. She looked suspiciously at the bread she had been picking at.
"Lord Menigines," began Agnes, "your wife and you have a splendid knowledge of dramas, more than what most hosts weve visited with have shown, however, what we have learned under Sapphos tutelage is respect for the Muses and for the sacredness of the drama."
"What are you trying to say?" Lord Menigines asked leaning too close over Aleka to try to give Agnes an intimidating stare.
Aleka put out a hand and pushed him back. "She means," Aleka told him in a firm but soft voice, "we dont do satires that are for Bacchus type festivals."
Katy put a hand on his arm as he tried to think of what to say. "Its quite alright, Menie." She leaned over to whisper in his ear, which Alekas keen hearing picked up.
"Let them write and perform without interference. We fulfill two of the four. Later we will collect on the other two."
Lord Menigines hesitated. He had hoped to fulfill three of the challenges without a problem, and the fourth he would have simply taken when he was ready. But now, he would have to change his plans.
He nodded to the women. "As you wish. You are my honored guests."
Chapter 2 continues