CREUSA SAT IN HER CHAIR, A PLACID EXPRESSION BELYING HER concern at Timandra's news.
She summoned her junior priestesses to audience with a hearty tug on the velvet rope
hanging at her left side. Mulling the situation over in her mind, then sleeping on it had
done nothing to clarify the matter in any way. An inner-circle conclave would yield
further productive examination, she felt. Her daughters were fine advisers and sage women
in their own right. If there was a change in plans, she was confident the answer could be
had within the next hour. The rest of the convocation needed no word of the confusion;
nothing would leave the confines of these walls.
The first Theronite votary entered the room and took a seat on the benches arranged in front of the Prioress' resting place, arranging her smock to show off the leaping hind embroidered in green and golden thread across the front of it. She turned her head to watch her sisters enter the room until the eight women sat in a semi-circle around the Prioress. Once all were seated, Creusa stood and sang the supplication to the goddess, then motioned them to their feet. Each woman stood in reverse order of their entrance to the room, then all went to their knees in unison.
Blessed is the Mistress of Animals,
She who roams the land and loves it.
Guardian of the hare and hind,
Protector of winged creatures great and small,
Avenger of unjust deaths,
Singer of the soul of trees,
Sanctifier of the Olive Branches,
Those who defile the lands will surely know the
wrath of the Goddess.
Those who cultivate and care for the land will know her blessings.
Swift is the arrow in its deadly path.
Agony awaits the corrupter, the destroyer of the lands.
Sweet benison for the providers,
Long harvest eves lay in store for the nurturers.
STARKLY RISING MOUNTAIN PEAKS TOWERED OVER THE WINDING ribbon of road, swallowing its disjointed meanderings with glee. Gabrielle imagined them walking into the mouth of a great leviathan, treading upon its tongue in total disregard. And why not? she thought. Living the kind of life we do isn't too far from that....
With unanticipated delight, she found her eyes drawn to the very top of the tallest mountain in the group. There was snow dusted over its ragged edges, filling its elevated valleys with the life-giving waters of next spring. Even in endings, beginnings could be seen... if you knew how to look at it. She tugged her cloak tighter.
"Any more dreams about your horse?" Xena glanced over at Gabrielle, hoping to get her talking. She'd been mostly quiet for the first two hours on the road, and for once, it was mildly uncomfortable. Gabrielle let her eyes drift from the snow-capped pinnacle and slide down its lower slopes, enjoying the shapes created by the shadows of passing clouds.
"No, funny. I haven't. Well, I guess I haven't really been thinking about it since that first night."
"So what have you been thinking about? New stuff for your scrolls?"
They legged along in silence for a few more minutes, then Xena spoke again. "C'mon Gabrielle... what's eating at you? Tell me."
"Xena, you'd just get mad at me for what I'm thinking, so I'll keep it to myself, thank you." she answered without breaking her concentration on the horizon.
"All right. It's about the dreams, isn't it? I promise I won't get mad. After last night, I don't think I have a right to be."
Gabrielle looked across at Xena. "You don't have a right? That's an odd way to put it."
"It just seems like you're getting pulled into this mess somehow, and that's not fair so, if I deny what is becoming obvious, I'll end up hurting us both."
"I beg your pardon, but I'm not 'getting pulled into this mess'... I've been a part of it from the beginning. For the record, I think it was you who got pulled into it, since you couldn't even remember the dreams. Xena, I don't think they are your dreams."
They crested a ridge in the road, and in the distance that unfolded in front of them, the distinct shapes of a medium-sized city huddled below a cliff-like edifice. Lebedaia's white walls anchored the valley floor to the lower slopes of the mountain, as if in defense of the onslaught of winter's deprivations. A sigh escaped Gabrielle. "At last, Lebedaia... and I can't wait for civilization, for a change!"
"Be careful what you wish for!" Xena admonished.
MOERA GATHERED THE BOWL AND CEREMONIAL VESTMENTS INTO A BUNDLE and discarded the wilted stems of ammoniacum, hyoscyamos and tansy down the altar chute. Less than two hours ago, this very room had hosted the Elders' latest gathering, and most of them were upset by Harpalyce's lack of success with the dream casting. None had been exceptionally happy with her idea in the first place, but in the face of its less-than-stellar accomplishments, they seemed even more convinced that it should be brought to a halt. All of this meant one thing for certain: Moera's mistress was in a foul mood.
When the meeting began, she had listened without being obvious, as she fussed with Harpalyce's ceremonial garb. She then moved to the back of the chamber to prepare the herbs and simples that were needed for the next dream casting attempt. No one followed her movements.
"Teutarus, you may be the head of the Council of the Asklepiae, but you do not rule it! We vote, I say!" Harpalyce had insisted.
"Calm yourself, sister. I can order that much!" Teutarus had replied in anger. "The Dream Chambers of Asklepios have always been intended for healing and for divination. What you've been using them for smacks of heresy. Dream-casting when the heritor has not been made part of the process does not automatically receive approval from this esteemed body."
"And I've explained to all of you why this must be done! If the exchange of the Holy Token of Artemis does not take place, the full wrath of the Delian League can be exercised upon those bitches of Potnia Theron! The Accord of Trophonius has never been violated, which has kept those harlots protected for too many years. The time is now, we've all agreed. The Accord must be broken. The token will be 'gathered' by hired men in secret, to be returned to Delos when it is deemed to be safe. But to the rest of the world, it will appear that Creusa and her harlots have decided to become greedy and keep the token for themselves."
"This argument seems very odd, coming from one such as you" an Elder had interjected. "After all, you're the first woman to sit with the Asklepiae, and to hold the power that you do... I thought you'd rather admire the hard line that Creusa and her 'harlots' take."
"Enough! Have I not made my way to this place of power with the full consent of all who sit here? By my merits alone, I have achieved and grown in power among you, not because I am a woman. Creusa and her pack of vixens seem to believe that they are blessed because they are women, which threatens everything I stand for!"
"So, then... you have come so far as to interfere with something that does not even concern us, as a group, because it is a personal agenda on your part?" Teutarus had asked. Murmurs of recognition filled the chamber and echoed in eerie halftones to where Moera stood, now completely forgotten.
"No! That is not so! Teutarus, you come dangerously close to being called out as a liar! You twist my words." Harpalyce had turned to survey the entire conclave at this point. "Did we not receive a request from on high? Do we not benefit greatly from their yearly donations to our funds? What are we to do without the support we have come to expect from them? She can cut that all off forever, with one wave of her hand! Shall we risk all of that?"
In perfect silence, Harpalyce loomed over the gathering, making a point to catch the eye of every man in the chamber. Then she'd spoken once again, in a solemn, sincere tone of voice. "Just how many of you are ready to return to the life of farmer or merchant? Craftsman or laborer?"
She held her hands in front of her, examining them, then raised her voice. "We do not have the hands of the commoner any longer, my colleagues! We use our hands in the work of devotion and love and hope! Shall we quiver with fear the first time we are asked to do something that isn't exactly what we were sworn to do, even if it means the difference between our future and our downfall? Why should any of you care if I feel this issue is closer to my heart than another's?"
Many heads had nodded, then, and the motion for a vote was seconded. All but two had agreed. Harpalyce glowed in the dusky chamber, her victory filling her face with obvious satisfaction. Her personal power at that point had awed even Moera, who considered herself no simple peasant girl.
Sounds of a door flung open hastened her out of her reverie. Harpalyce marched into the near-empty chamber. "There you are!"
Moera finished laying out fresh ceremonial robes, smoothing the last wrinkles out with her hands. "Yes, Elder. I have readied the materials for tonight's casting, as you expected me too. The remains of last night's casting have been taken care of, also." Moera bowed her head.
"Good job, girl. You've learned quickly in such a short time." Harpalyce said in a softer tone. "Things went well earlier. All but two have seen my wisdom in this matter. That will be enough, I think. I must find some success soon, though. There is one more thing I must do, however...."
"That is?" Moera asked, hoping to hear something a bit more personal.
"I can't risk waiting for those sacrificial lambs to reach Lebedaia this evening. I've dispatched orders to have them stopped. At once."
"By whom, Elder? We have no warriors here in the Grove."
"Ah, yes, child, that is true. But for any able-minded tactician, resources are always cultivated and maintained for times of need. And this is just such a time." Harpalyce waved toward the open doorway. "You may go, Moera. I only wanted to know if you had done as I asked. You have. Report to me at sundown." The older woman spun around to face the altar, dismissing Moera. Not wanting to lose her chance, the young woman hurried off.
THE SCRUFFY MAN AT THE CREST OF THE BEND STOOD, unconcerned that his figure was visible to all who traveled the road to Lebedaia. He had only one thing on his mind: the two women approaching him must be stopped.
Some in Lebedaia called him a cretin because he enjoyed his work. Such an unfair label to be stuck with, he thought. On the other hand, he never had any problems picking up work around town. He and his companions seldom went to sleep hungry, which was more than could be said for many of the townsfolk who looked down on him. He grinned as his prey neared. Two women, unarmed or not, would never make it into Lebedaia if he didn't want them there.
He noted, with the first hint of apprehension that the dark-haired one was quite tall taller than he was. No matter! But did she have some kind of fancy armor on? That was no ordinary dress underneath the fur coat she wore.... And a sword at her back? The only woman he'd ever seen carry a sword was some damned Amazon warrior on her way to the Theronites' temple, a few years ago. He'd growled at her, and she'd growled back, but she hadn't been all that tall or menacing looking, like Amazons were supposed to be. Right now, though, his concentration should be focused on this twosome... they surely didn't have the looks of a pair of priestesses. He reached for his chin. Strange, not what Harpylegs had described to him at all. The stubble on his chin received the involuntary caress of his dirty fingers, a habitual pre-fight tic.
He stood his ground with forbearance, and when they'd gotten to within a few yards of his spot, he pulled out his sword and pretended to look it over. It was a fine long sword, it was, and hungry for some action. "Afternoon, ladies. Headed to Lebedaia? Well, no one's goin' in there today. King's Orders." His grin revealed a fetid mouthful of broken teeth.
The tall one looked him over casually, as if appraising him. He stiffened up. Couldn't hurt to look his best she was one damned fine piece of flesh, Amazon or not. Her little friend wasn't too bad either. Jakin would like her. The tall one spoke.
"And here I thought King Icus was expecting us." She glanced at her partner. "Wasn't he?" The blond one nodded, agreeing, then resumed staring at him. Darkhair spoke again. "Okay, Mister what was your name? Better let us pass." She took a step.
"The name's Palfy hey, stop right there! Another step and yer horsey's gonna get it first!" He cackled, full of himself and the taunting of his prey. He noticed the pale blue eyes go cold.
"Now you've made me very angry." she said. "I'll ask you one more time, and one more time only, to step aside." Her tone was devoid of the fear or hesitation he'd expected. He shifted nervously. Not that he was afraid, no siree, but something wasn't right about this pair. Maybe Jakin and the boys would be needed after all. He spread his arms wide, sword in his left hand, the signal to the hidden men.
"Now, now, pretty ladies. Settle down. But a fact's a fact. You ain't goin' into town, not today, and not any day I got orders yer not allowed." He shifted the sword back to his right hand and angled it forward, a few inches to the right of his front foot. This time the blond one laughed.
How dare she make fun of him? Stung, he stepped forward and swung at her with indignant rage. He never noticed the faint blur from the left as a booted foot smashed into his sword arm, sending the blade spinning to the ground several yards away. As he recovered his lost balance, he met a staff swung upwards into his thorax, then felt his legs swept out from under him with another swing.
The sounds of his men rushing down to the road brought a ragged grin to his bloody lips. Soon, the roadside was filled with fighting bodies, swords slicing through the air, daggers unsheathed and ready for the killing thrust. A short sword fell in front of him, and sufficiently recovered, he climbed to his feet and went after the blond. She was occupying two of his men, while the tall Darkhair was battering five more with her hands, her feet and her sword. One of the five came flying in his direction, and he sidestepped out of the way.
He turned back to the blond. One man had managed to halt the staff in its downward arc, temporarily setting the little warrior's timing awry, and at that point, he saw his opening. He shoved his comrade aside and lunged in with the sword aimed for her left arm. He grunted with his exertion, and felt the tip of the blade bite into something solid. He saw her face go white just before he tripped over another of his fellows. He was still grasping the sword when a tremendous blow landed on the back of his head and everything went black.
The cry broke through the more mundane sounds of the road skirmish like a lightning strike on a rainless day. With a start, Jakin realized exactly whom Palfy had hired on to attack. This was no ordinary pair of women, and they were no Amazons, either. He picked himself up from the rubble-strewn ground as another of his troop was sent crashing into the stony mud embankment on the side of the road. Checking for his sword, he dared a quick glance at the tall warrior leaping from one foot to land a spinning kick into the chin of another man. No doubt about it... this woman was Xena of Amphipolis.
"Run! Run for your lives! It's Xena! Run!" Jakin wasted no further breath on his comrades, but bolted the scene at once. He heard footsteps pounding along behind him, but didn't dare look over his shoulder. He prayed vehemently that it was only the rest of the party of bandits hot on his heels. "Jakin!" he heard someone exclaim, "Palfy is still down back there!" He did not answer. Served the idiot right for not checking out the job better, he reasoned.
Xena shouted after the fleeing men "Aw, c'mon! I was just getting warmed up!" She sheathed her sword and walked over to the unconscious man, flipping him over with her foot. "Whaddaya think, Gabrielle? Should we put the pinch on him?" She laughed, then bent over to examine the man up close. She felt, rather than saw Gabrielle draw near.
"What good would it do? They were just common brigands, after all. Plus, he's already out like a light."
"I know. We'll leave him here. Wait. Let's gather up any weapons lying around and take them into town with us. He shouldn't have them, and we could sell them for a bit of cash."
"I like that idea. Xena, you're good." Gabrielle relished the quick chuckle of her partner it never failed to amuse her warrior nature when a pitiable band of fools appeared, unwittingly offering themselves up for practice. It meant that the time otherwise spent on a workout could be used for relaxation or pleasure.
She began scanning the surface of the road a few feet away from Xena. "Find anything good yet?"
"No, not yet. Just the regular junk. It'll be worth a few dinars, though. You?"
Gabrielle bent down for a closer look at an over-large coin lying next to her would-be assassin. "Yeah, here's something. It must have fallen out of his pockets on his way to the ground."
It was a hexagonal coin with a hole in the middle and decorated with tiny robed figures. She examined the flip side, which revealed an inscription of some kind, in a rune-like pattern. "Xena, look at this. What do you make of it?"
Xena spent several minutes with it, then tossed it back to Gabrielle and returned to her search of the roadbed. "Looks like some sort of local coinage, maybe a guild association's special currency. Try it at the apothecary's place... that would be a little safer if it turns out to be something else. We wouldn't want our friendly innkeeper to think we were foisting bad money on him, would we? And I don't recognize the markings from anywhere."
"Okay." Gabrielle tucked the coin into her belt pouch. "It's pretty detailed and ornamented to be counterfeit money, though. By the way, you're not going to be happy, but"
"But what?" Xena interrupted. "What's wrong?"
"Well, that spare roll of leather that we couldn't fit into the saddle bags"
"What about it?"
"I couldn't find a way to shove it into the pockets of this cloak like you asked me to, so I cut it in half and wrapped it around my arms"
"'cause it would've been too restrictive around my waist, and when I cut it just right, the pieces fit just like a pair of thick bracers"
"one of which is now ruined. That jerk lying there on the ground managed to get a slash in on my arm when one of his buddies threw my timing off."
Xena jumped to her feet and pulled the cloak away from Gabrielle's shoulders. "Let me see." she insisted. The leather was indeed cut through, but the skin beneath was not broken. "You're going to have a bad bruise, but you're lucky he hit you there."
"Yeah, I know it's going to be a pretty shade of purple, but better that than what it could have been." She allowed Xena to settle the cloak back over her and enjoyed the brief touch of the strong hands on her neck. With a light squeeze of her shoulders, Xena let go of the cloak. "Looks like that sleeve's going to need some serious repair work, too!" She turned and looked back at Argo. "Ready to go, girls?"
"Two for the road, coming right up!" Gabrielle called out. Argo snorted her approval, and they resumed their path onward to Lebedaia, a bit heavier in the pockets and belts than before.
"That was a nice touch, back there."
"King Icus? How old would Icus be, now? Fifteen? And four kingdoms from here? Good Gods, Xena!" she laughed.
"Hey, Lebedaia doesn't have a king, so that bozo had no clue...."
TIMANDRA THOUGHT SHE WAS DREAMING AT FIRST, BUT it was, in fact, reality staring her in the face. Hidden behind the stand of leafless plane tree trees lining the avenue into Lebedaia, she was able to discern the figures of two women and a horse. It had to be them. She had been watching since midday, content to wait rather than track, as she had done a few days earlier. She hadn't quite figured out how they'd discovered her that afternoon anyway. Better safe than sorry. Waiting was acceptable.
Indecision stirred her thoughts... Mother Creusa had wanted the envoy watched in case they were being followed by road robbers, but in light of the fact that the envoy consisted of Xena of Amphipolis and the Amazon Gabrielle, sometime Bard of Poteidaia... well, it seemed rather useless in its original sense. Perhaps a small delay in their arrival might help the Prioress reach her final decision, if only the messenger bird could make it back from Delos in time. She reached for an arrow, and after only a moment's hesitation, pulled it from her quiver. It was her gut feeling, so she would go with it.
She strung her prized long bow with care, and aimed for a graceful arc over the head of the two women, taking care not to come close to their animal. If she could lure them up into the trees and into the hillside, she could lead them on a merry chase for at least another hour. With luck on her side, she'd get them lost for several hours.
She checked up and down the road, but no one else was out and about on this cold day. Fortune smiled upon her: the approaching dinner hour had claimed most townsfolk and merchants for the remainder of the evening. Soon, even the gates would be closed for the night. She closed one eye and homed in on her mark. The string let loose its missile with a solid Thwack! and she hung the bow back over her shoulder, ready for the next move.
Out on the road, the two women split apart rapidly, the horse getting a thump on its haunches. They spread themselves efficiently, presenting a scattered target. When a second arrow did not follow the first, they gestured to each other. Timandra watched as Xena drew her sword and assumed a combat-ready stance while her partner scrambled to find the arrow. With a sudden chilling sensation in her stomach, Timandra realized the stupidity of her action. These women were crafty beyond the norm, and no doubt would learn more than they should from the spent arrow.
"Corruption!" she allowed herself to spit out aloud. She decided to wait, hoping their curiosity would draw them into the goose chase, which would mean her efforts weren't a total waste. She was in trouble already, and knew it well. Best to have some line of defense and something to show for her folly. She watched them examine the arrow, all the while maintaining their battle alertness. Impressive, truly. Xena raised her eyes to the row of trees where Timandra lingered, then took off her coat and handed it to her companion.
Here she comes! Timandra rejoiced. What a prize she thought, as she watched Xena advance to the treeline with the smooth and menacing grace of a mountain lion. A deadly ebony-haired beauty, silky-lethal in her precision, she came ever closer... Timandra tensed, hoping her long legs hadn't stiffened too much throughout the course of her prolonged wait. With an ironic smile, she realized that she was the child of the forest now, the tawny liquid quarry of the most amazing predator she'd ever encountered. With a prayer on her lips, she closed her eyes and drew forth the image of a large and powerful hind, poised for flight. She felt herself become one with her vision and swiveled her keen hind-ears for the exact position of her pursuer. The moment had arrived....
In a blinding burst of twigs and branches, she shot forth from her hiding place in the low growing shrubs and bolted up the slope. She stretched her legs into an earth-grinding gait for better traction, and sensed her tracker's slight hesitation of surprise, then the abrupt shift forward into avid pursuit. Timandra floated over the treacherous, boulder-strewn paths with the otherworldly grace of her goddess-given form. Every dig of her stride pulled her farther up the hillside, but frustratingly enough, did not significantly increase the gap between herself and the woman behind her.
Enough! Four legs should have no trouble with two a little concentration was all that was needed. She leapt smoothly over the stony rubble of the grassy knoll, listened for the hard click of her landing, then veered left. Within a minute or two, a large distance had been covered, leading ever away from Lebedaia and its gate.
Employing her hind-ears, she caught the sounds of her fleet-footed stalker, and looked to the rear using her hind-eyes. With a mind numbing shock, she saw a huge black panther sail over the boulders strewn across her own back trail, the ones she had just cleared herself, the gap narrowing considerably. Could it be Xena? Did the woman know and understand the gifts of Potnia Theron? No time to wonder... she surged forward, pressing her lungs into strenuous duty in an effort to widen the gap. Her breathing came a little more raggedly, but at least her legs felt fresh. Another precipitous turn caused her pursuer to lose a few steps, and she took full advantage by straightening her path and shooting directly southward, away from the white walls of the city below.
Another glance to the back trail... the enormous black beast shifted like molten glass and swarmed up the spoor, white teeth gleaming in anticipation... she intensified her effort and forced every thread of sinew and bone into her stride. The renewed speed of her flight leant an extra surge of confidence to her cervine heart, which was instantly translated into a fresh burst of power. The path underfoot followed the crest of the hills, rolling up and down, but free from the debris and distraction of the hillside. She took full advantage of the easing terrain and stretched her gait to its limit. The soft, thudding sounds of her pursuer signaled danger. She ventured another rearward glance.... She would be caught!
She wheeled around without warning and lowered her head, ready to fight, her sharp hooves pawing the ground in the determined fury of all cornered prey. The panther pulled up in a smooth maneuver, then circled the golden-red animal. Its moist pink tongue made one sweeping pass at its whiskers in anticipation, then it yowled a low, baleful warning. Timandra realized the futility of her situation and shed herself of the trappings of her vision.
Strands of her red hair were pressed to her neck and face, wind blown and matted with perspiration. Her long arms, encircled with golden and bronze torques and braceletted at each wrist, ended in clenched but empty fists. She faced a living legend, gleaming with the sweat of the chase, sword in hand and aimed at her own chest. In spite of the precarious position she was in, she spared a moment to scrutinize her opponent. A full hand's breadth taller, at least; an imperative aura, exuding strength and unwavering confidence and amazingly beautiful! Odd. Somehow, Timandra had always expected a battle-scarred, war-hardened visage to adorn the myth of Greece's most impressive woman warrior, but this was a face made all the more dangerous by an indefinable inner peacefulness.
"Who are you? Why are you following us?" she demanded between ragged breaths.
Timandra looked up. A set of penetrating, hard blue eyes displayed their total lack of patience. She felt ridiculous, but could not risk showing her unease.
"I am not armed." she chanced. "Why threaten me with your sword? Have you no honor?"
Xena all but growled in response. "Answer my question." She lowered her sword, but did not sheath it. "Who are you and what do you want?"
"It should be fairly obvious to one as powerful as yourself. Did you not pursue me with all the magics of the goddess?" Her almost invisible hesitation caught Timandra off guard. Did she not realize?
"I don't know what you mean about magic. Don't make me repeat myself. I'm tired and hungry and very aggravated right now." The point of the blade rose incrementally.
"Very well. I am known as Timandra to my sisters and my goddess. I meant only to protect you and your sist... I mean, the woman you travel with."
"You have a funny way of 'protecting' us. How do you explain that arrow?" The sword point was now a touch casual in its movements.
Timandra noted the blade's track, and cleared her throat of its nervousness. "I was merely firing a warning shot over your heads. Lebedaia can be dangerous without ah if you don't know anyone inside, I mean. They live a guarded lifestyle and don't welcome strangers very hospitably."
"You're lying." Xena stated. "I know all about Lebedaia and what you said about it being defensive is true, but that crap about a warning shot I don't buy it. Are you working with the scum-bags that attacked us back on the road? 'Cause if you are, you're in a world of trouble." A wisp of a wicked smile brushed her lips, then faded.
"You were attacked? Who were they?" Timandra asked, startled.
"That's not important. Our conversation right here, however, is."
Timandra's eyes continued to follow the sword's path. Lower and further behind, now.
"Let's try this one more time, the nice way, since you seem like a good kid underneath it all. Why are you following us and what would possibly possess you to do something as stupid as firing a warning shot over our heads?" Xena, astonishingly, now leaned on her sword hilt, crossing one leg in front of the other.
"I told you, I was assigned to protect the envoy. We had no way of knowing the envoy wouldn't need our help. You're not a pair of priestesses, after all!" Timandra tensed herself for a quick defensive move, then a full flight back to the convocation house. Xena now appeared unconcerned about restraining her quarry. Fatal arrogance, perhaps? She twitched.
"Don't you move another muscle, Timandra. Unless, of course, you want me to hamstring you like a squealing pig."
The young Theronite swallowed a dry lump, then felt her face flush with the embarrassment of being discovered so easily. She had no more cards to play.
Instantly, Xena was within inches of her nose. "Listen to me, and listen good. I don't understand what you're up to, but don't interfere with this exchange. I was asked to take the place of the envoy because there were far too many suspicions of foul play to allow the normal routine to be followed. Your presence only confirms that. So leave it alone. Just make sure that your emissary is there on time. That's all I require of you. If I find you following me again, I won't be so nice the second time around."
Timandra stood, not chancing a single twitch. "Are you finished with me?" she managed to force out.
Xena stepped back. "That's up to you, isn't it?" She sheathed her sword. "Remember what I've said don't interfere."
"But I was only trying to help!" Timandra blurted out.
"Help who?" Xena shot back savagely.
"You, my sisters, Mother Creu... all of us!"
"Ah yes, a Theronite, indeed! On second thought, you're coming with me. I think I need to ask you a few more questions before I let you go." Xena grabbed Timandra's left wrist and shoved her in the direction of Lebedaia. "It's been a tough few days and nights, lately, so don't test my patience any further. Just walk along ahead of me and don't try any more tricks."
Timandra noted the heavy, braided stock whip at Xena's belt and the odd, circular weapon that gleamed idly upon her hip. With reluctant resignation, she realized she was a captured woman. Very well, she'd learn all that she could while held prisoner. It was the least she could do.
GABRIELLE PACED IN ANTICIPATION BELOW THE IRON-BANDED GATES, marking time as best she could. Xena would certainly return soon, and no doubt would be delighted to hear that Lebedaia had yielded up several interesting clues with little coercion. She heard the scraping of a weapon along the walls above her head, and paused in her walking to look up.
"You sure you're going to be all right, young woman?" The guard called out.
"Yes, thank you very much. Like I said, my friend will be here soon."
"Sun's almost down. Gates'll be locked then. Can't allow you back in after nightfall. Too many wild beasts loose around here. You'll likely get eaten if you don't come back inside." he coaxed.
"No thanks" she replied. "I love sleeping under the stars, and I never worry about the animals the acorn is my friend, you know!"
He gave her an odd shrug, shook his head, then resumed his own patrol. She laughed to herself, then checked the ever-growing thickness of the descending dusk. If Xena did make it back in time, they could enjoy a nice warm room for a change, and food that wasn't cooked over an open flame. How likely is that? she asked herself. Knowing Xena, she'd probably take her time just to avoid staying over inside the city walls. Just the same....
An indistinct mist began settling over the field beneath the gates and walls; fog tonight meant a soggy morning. Nothing new there, but disappointing nonetheless. The sun dipped below the spiny backbone of the western mountain range; one last, piercing ray reached out hungrily for the sky, then admitting defeat, left nothing behind but red and purple streaks on the backdrop of Lebedaia and its sheltering peaks.
Argo raised her head, still chewing a mouthful of grass, and pricked her ears. A gentle nudge got Gabrielle's attention at once. "Do you see her, Argo?" she asked. The mare whinnied, then bent her neck and shoved Gabrielle in the direction of her withers.
"Okay, okay. What do you want me to do?"
Argo pawed the ground and sidled closer to Gabrielle. With a start, she realized what the mare was indicating. She slung her staff through a loop in the saddle bags and climbed up into the saddle, settling herself in and pushing her long coat out of the way with the help of the high horn. "Take us there, girl!" Argo, in anticipation, had already begun moving out.
It only took a few minutes before Gabrielle could see that Xena was not alone. By the looks of the situation, her fellow traveler was not a willing one. She urged Argo into an easy canter. It felt good to ride, amazingly enough. Almost like in her dream.
Argo swept by, then circled to face the direction her mistress was walking in and slowed to match her pace. She bumped her muzzle into one shoulder. Xena patted her neck, then looked up at Gabrielle. "Stay there, we're going to need to find a place to make camp, now. Sorry this took so long."
"It's okay. I can see you've been busy." She engaged in a mutual, silent study of the stranger, realizing with a sudden insight that it had been this woman that was spying on them from behind the rocks that day, and not just another ambushing ruffian along the roadside. The confirming tingle at the base of her neck was all she needed. Conversation with Xena could wait until they were safely ensconced for the night.
THOUSANDS OF TINY STARS GLITTERED AND WINKED THROUGH AN IRREGULAR BREAK in the mists hanging above the tiny glade. After a brief conversation with Timandra about 'honor' and duty, Xena had agreed to allow her to sleep unfettered. Maintaining a low-level watch would be simple, with Gabrielle sharing turns throughout the night. Both women were equally accomplished at the special rest of wariness, Gabrielle coming late to the skill, but having learned it by giant strides.
"Do you believe what she told us?" Gabrielle glanced over at the dark form on the other side of the fire.
"Actually, yes most of it, anyway. They wouldn't know what to make of us, in all honesty, if they were expecting a gaggle of incognito priestesses... so providing hidden protection would keep the envoy safe and its pride intact."
"Well, all my detective work turned out to be wasted. Looking at the arrow, the tread imprint, and trying to find out exactly what that attar was didn't solve any mystery. She just showed up and solved it all for us." After placing another piece of wood at the base of the flames, she checked on the iron kettle hanging above, the water inside approaching the gentle bubbling that preceded a boil.
"I didn't notice the smell of that attar on her, now that you mention it. I was right in her face, too." Xena paused in consternation. "I'm going to have to wake her up, I guess."
"No." Gabrielle put a restraining hand on Xena's forearm. "Let's use our brains, okay?"
Xena stared at her. "Just what kind of herbs did you buy when you got into town?"
"You're so very funny.... I told you: more scopolis, more acacia and alder, a tiny bunch of felwort and a packet of dried tansy."
"Well, the other stuff makes sense, but tansy? What'd you get that for?"
"I'll find a use for it, don't worry."
Xena recognized the tone of voice at once. She sighed. "Okay, whatever. So, what did you find out about that coin? I didn't want to ask you about it in front of Timandra."
"The apothecary said it was an Asklepian drachma, not rare in these parts, but not often spent, either. Something about getting bad luck and bad dreams if you used it. Can you believe people would actually believe such hogwash? It's good money. Guess how much it was worth!"
"No, c'mon guess!"
"Gabrielle, I really don't feel like... oh, never mind. Twenty dinars?"
Gabrielle folded her arms, not budging. Xena pursed her lips in exasperation.
"You're kidding. What would that low life have been doing with a coin like that?"
"We'll figure it out eventually. But it sure came in handy. I got my cloak sleeve repaired while I shopped for the herbs, and filled us up on every other thing you could think of. Oats, some more leather, a couple of buckles, more thread and a new needle...."
"Didn't the guy want to know why you weren't afraid to spend the coin?"
"Yes, she asked it was a woman by the name of Erytheia. I told her I had nightmares three times in a row this week, and spending this coin couldn't bring me any more than I already had! She just laughed, like the joke was on her, and gave me my change."
"Ah, a little bending of the truth, I see."
"Xena, the truth is always stranger than fiction, as Homer knew quite well so why muddy the water with needless details anyway? What would I have said my friend, the great Warrior Princess Xena, has been plagued by the ghost of Tantalus himself every night?"
Xena held up her hand. "I get it, I get it." She yawned. "I must be slipping I'm really tired. We've got to deal with Lebedaia tomorrow. I think I'm going to turn in. You coming?"
"In a little while." Gabrielle stood. "I'll wake you when it's your watch, okay?"
Xena turned around, waiting.
"You're not slipping. You haven't had much sleep lately, and what you have had was pretty lousy. Just take it easy and get what you can. I'm fine."
A resolute pair of eyes met her own obdurate green ones. "Wake me."
"You can count on it." Gabrielle declared. She watched Xena lay herself down and settle under the furs, falling into a businesslike sleep within minutes. Once alone, Gabrielle wasted no time. She poured steaming water from the kettle into an earthenware mug, as she had been instructed, and sprinkled some of the tansy into the tea leaves. Next, she dropped a tiny nugget of crystallized ginger into the mix. The ginger had cost her dearly, but if this worked, then the money was well spent. A vigorous stirring followed, then she set the mug aside and retrieved the clove-scented candle she'd purchased from the apothecary, who just happened to be the local loremistress as well.
The woman had been reticent at first, but after being shown the Asklepian coin, she opened up a little. Some skillful and charming lines of questioning eventually yielded more than Gabrielle had dared hope for. Yes, the woman knew of ways to stave off nightmares, and even claimed to have discovered the ability to interfere with a dream. It had been that tidbit that riveted Gabrielle at once.
So, tonight, the true test would be at hand. If the dream visitation returned, she was ready. The only problem, and a small one at that, was the fact that she needed to be asleep when the intersection in the dream world occurred. This left her with a decision to make, one that she had mulled over all through the evening meal and Xena's insistent questioning of Timandra. Should she risk not keeping the watch, thereby allowing Timandra the possibility of escape, or submit herself to the dream trance? Finally, she distilled the argument down to one basic, irrefutable fact: she could not endure another night of terror, listening to Xena's outbursts of anguish and torment, with the threat of being unable to break her free of the nightmarish grip.
And so it was decided. At moon crest, she got a blanket and wrapped it around herself, then settled against the bole of the impressive plane tree that dominated the southernmost edge of the camp, mug in hand. The clove candle flickered beside her, and its scent wafted to her nostrils on its own updraft. She lifted the mug to her lips in cool determination and drank its contents all at once, as she'd been instructed to do.
At first, nothing... then a slight numbness. Tiny sparks jumped free behind her closed lids, splashing her consciousness with pin-pricks of intense brightness. She felt a pressure in her head, spreading from jaw line upwards to scalp, and a tingling sensation at the root of each hair drew her awareness upwards, until it amplified itself in a ball of shimmering light between her eyes. Within the ball of light fluctuated an iris; expanding and contracting, it revealed a gateway of raw emotion and thrumming power.
Fear extended a metallic grip on her throat, and for a tense moment, she felt as though she was being asphyxiated. With a rush of tepid air, she regained her momentum and her breathing steadied. A wave of nausea clamored from somewhere in the nebulous regions below, then the physical linchpins of her body and the tree dropped precipitously away from her. Her mind went spinning out of control at once.
The maelstrom sucked her onward, into the iris. She struggled to find an axis of sanity, but the shocks of this incomprehensible place buffeted her with chaos. She needed an anchor, something to grasp as she flew onward, directionless. The loremistress had given her the recipe for breaching the dream gap, but had not provided her with a map!
A shriek of rage yanked her from the suffocating maw, and she saw at once the middle-aged woman hovering translucently beside the now wraith-like plane tree. Beneath the tree, there was no sign of her body. She raised one hand, and to her amazement, could detect its tremulous outline, and through her palm, the low glow of the dwindling campfire. The woman sensed her and howled in anger again.
How dare you, you worthless creature? You should have stayed where you were safe, but no! Meddlesome bitch! May the vortex swallow you whole on your way back, if you ever return!
A soft cry from the furs next to the dying fire snatched at her attention. The sleeping warrior stirred under the coverings.
Xena! Wake up!
Ah! So it really is Xena, eh? She resists well, but I will not be denied! First, you, though...
A small movement disturbed the pile of furs. Gabrielle? Are you calling me? Am I awake? Or dreaming?
With a jarring thump, Gabrielle found herself deposited back in her body. She opened her eyes, unsure of how she would feel, but there was little more than a slight headache to greet her. A shadow loomed over her, limned in damp moonlight.
"Gabrielle hey, what do you think you're doing, falling asleep on watch?" Xena whispered. "Timandra's gone!"
Gabrielle was at once aware of being tangled in her blanket, roused out of what felt like a sound sleep. "My Gods! Wait, Xena... I'm sorry! It's not what it looks like!"
"Boy, have I heard that more than once!" she hissed in return.
"What're you doing awake anyway?" Gabrielle asked.
"I thought I heard you calling me, then I swear I heard a stranger's voice, a woman's."
"You did. I mean, I did call for you, that is."
"I don't get it."
"Xena, I was in your dream. I saw her, I know her face now."
"YOU AWAKE?" GABRIELLE WHISPERED. RECEIVING NO ANSWER, she flopped onto her stomach. Dawn wasn't very far off, but there was no way she was going back to sleep she was up for the duration.
"I am now." Xena lifted her head from the neckroll enough to get a clear view of Gabrielle's face. "Why?"
"Well, I just can't sleep anymore. I don't know if it was from that concoction I drank or the anticipation of today's meeting."
"You know you won't be worth a cuckold's crow if you have no sleep."
"But that's just it... I feel fine. No, wait better than fine. I feel like I could conquer the world."
"That's the herbs talking if you ask me." Xena fluffed her coverings vigorously as if to make a point. "You know, this was the first night I didn't have a terrible nightmare, and could I sleep?" She sighed.
"Maybe it's the herbs, maybe it isn't. Listen, Xena, speaking of dreams, I had one. An oddly exciting one."
"Your horse again?"
Gabrielle sat up, pulling the furs around her crossed legs and up over her shoulders. "No. I dreamt of a small, slight woman dressed in a flowing white chiton, belted in silver, with doves at her feet. All around her there were small animals bringing seeds, nuts, berries, pods and olives. Another woman, much taller, very browned and muscular in a lean sort of way, walked into this grove. She was wearing a soft puce tunic that came up just short of her knees, and even though she carried no weapons, I could sense that she was a warrior. On her heels came a plump, older matronly woman with a stern expression. She had on a peasant dress and apron with small, dirty handprints on it, and carried plums and eggs in a basket. She scared me even though she went in the guise of a commoner. Behind her, a gaunt and hungry-looking woman came in, with blood streaks on her cheeks and a long, curved knife hanging at her belt. Her eyes were a cold gray that beamed anger and outrage and her lips kept hinting at terrible things yet to come."
"What happened next?" Xena asked, drawn into the tale.
"They all turned to face me! One minute I wasn't there, and then the next, I was, and in my full Amazon dress! I was right in the middle of all four of them as they formed the points of a square around me. Each of them held out their arms in my direction, and I thought I should be frightened, but I wasn't. I stood calmly, waiting, smiling, knowing they meant me no harm."
"Did they touch you?"
"Yes, all at the exact same moment, too. I could feel a silly sense of elation close over me, then my fingertips began to tingle. My arms were raised over my head and they turned into tree branches; my hands and fingers, the leaves. The canopy was so dense it resembled a roof. When I opened my eyes, they were gone, and the leaves were still blocking out the sky. Then I looked down and saw that all four of them had turned into small wooden statues. I guess I passed out at that point, because that's when I woke up from the dream."
"I wonder what it means. Especially the last part with the statues."
"You got me, but if you want my opinion, I'd say you could turn it into one heck of a scroll." Xena paused. "It needs a little work, maybe."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and smiled. "Naturally." She played with the edge of her blanket. "So, how much longer do we have? Wanna just get up and get ready now?"
"Sure, why not?"
"Does it really matter that Timandra's gone?"
"No, not really. I figured I might use her as insurance when we got there, but we really don't need her. Besides, her loss was worth what you found out tonight. For starters, we both know I'm not losing my mind. After that, we know there's some interested party out there that wants to interfere with this exchange... is it the Theronites or the Delosians?"
"Does it have to be one of those two groups?" Gabrielle asked.
"It doesn't have to be, no. I'm positive that someone somewhere would have something to gain by disrupting this Accord. The question is, who?"
"If we get into Lebedaia early enough, maybe I can pay another visit to the apothecary's shop. One major clue we have is the fact that there's a woman on the loose that can enter dreams... your dreams, to be exact. Whoever she is, she has to know that you are involved in the exchange. I didn't get the sense that she was Theronite or Delosian, did you?"
Xena shook her head. "No. I almost want to say a member of the Asklepiae, after seeing that coin, but from everything I've ever heard, there are no women in their ranks."
"Well, it won't be the first dead-end we've encountered so far."
LEBEDAIA'S MARKETPLACE SWARMED WITH SLAVES running their household errands; their tattoos marked their status and often, their origins. The blue-marked ones spoke with the heavy accents of their Thracian homeland, and many smiled at the sight of Xena. She was from Amphipolis, a place not so very far from home, back where freedom had been an unappreciated fact of life. Here, in Lebedaia, in the province of Phocis, one could almost feel the shadow of Athens; slaves were commonplace, and expected to know their place.
Xena smiled back at each open face and scowled at the disapproving expressions amongst the Lebedaian citizenry. There was no way she was going to lend the morally bankrupt system of slavery her tacit approval not here, not anywhere. It was distasteful enough in Delos, having to meet with the priestesses at the temple, surrounded by their human property. Then the long journey northward through the provinces of Attica and Boetia, with Athens and Thebes carefully skirted the so-called center of Greek civilization rife with the practice of enslavement. Gabrielle had often remarked sarcastically of the 'civilized behavior' of the Greeks who turned their noses up at human sacrifice. To her, slavery was simply another form of human sacrifice.
A casual glance showed Xena what she expected. Gabrielle's face displayed antipathy mixed with honest enthusiasm for the marketplace and its vendors. Where the veteran heart might disapprove of such unjust social systems, the younger, more idealistic one still rebelled openly. Xena was content to fight slave traders where and when she found them, but knew better than to take on the entire institution. Gabrielle hadn't reached that point yet, but she wasn't stupid, either.
It was easy to hearken back to that fateful day when she had disrupted Draco's crew on the edges of Poteidaia, where a large group of villagers had been captured and assembled for the slave markets... that momentous day when one brash, impudent and fearless girl had surged forward crying out "Take me! Let the others go!" and changed the course of her fresh, untested life.
Xena smiled in amusement and gratitude at her own good fortune. What blind wisdom was at work, in taking on the burden of a soft young village girl, with her only assets a gift for words, sincere innocence, and the heart of a lion? Could it have been a subconscious desire to test her own patience and newly formed ideas of prudence and denial? No matter....
"Xena," Gabrielle interrupted "why do I always forget the reason you dislike the cities so much until we get into one?" She tilted her blond head in semi-resignation. "How long do we have to be here?"
Argo grunted, then tossed her head. "That's a big change from your excitement at getting here yesterday." Xena interpreted with a quick grin.
"I was concerned about restocking our supplies. That's all. Well, I do like an occasional night in a bed." She sighed. "How long has it been since we slept in one, anyway?"
Xena shook her head. "Beats me."
"Too long. It was much nicer last evening when I came in. The shops were very quiet and the streets were filled mostly with people on their way home for dinner. I got a lot done, and felt much more at ease."
"Okay, turn left here. That's the apothecary's shop right down there."
Xena halted Argo. "Where do you want to meet up?"
"Let's meet at the fountain down the hill in the courtyard outside the agora in an hour?"
"Good enough. I hope you can find out what you want to know from the apothecary. An hour should be enough time for me to make the initial contact with the Arbiter's Functionary. I'll let you know what we're to do after I find out." Xena reached for Gabrielle, and met her halfway in an involuntary habit developed over the past few years. They clasped hands as their eyes locked together in a fierceness born of duty and of love.
Gabrielle watched the dark head bobbing next to the pale golden mane as long as she could, but had to turn away before the bustle of the morning crowds swallowed the pair. The apothecary's shop was waiting for her. It was time to dig a little deeper into the mystery land of Xena's nightmares.
She pushed the door open and looked around. There was only one customer inside, wearing an expectant expression. He shifted, staring at Gabrielle, then resumed his waiting. Both looked up when the apothecary came through the curtain of tiny shells leading from her storeroom. Erytheia cast a fleeting glance at Gabrielle then continued her business with her gentleman customer.
Gabrielle entertained herself by watching the motes of dust floating in the heavy shafts of the morning sun as it shone through the high, narrow window opening. When the man brushed by her on his way out, she made note of the dusty patterns swirling in his wake, but ignored him otherwise. She approached the counter.
"Hi! Remember me?"
"How could I forget?" Erytheia grinned good-naturedly. "Did you have a nightmare after spending that coin?"
"Well, as a matter of fact... I had a dream that wasn't a dream, and a dream that wasn't a nightmare."
"Tell me more." Erytheia positioned her elbows on the counter and leaned forward, pushing a fallen strand of graying hair from her eyes.
The woman's curiosity was aroused, and Gabrielle knew it. She felt relieved. "I did like you told me, with the tea and... you know... and it worked." She cleared her throat and looked around again. "Later on, I dreamt something, but it wasn't frightening at all."
"What was it?"
"If you really want to know...."
"I do. Tell me."
Gabrielle explained the four women and turning into a tree with leaves forming a roof over her head. When she finished, Erytheia looked impressed.
"I think you were dreaming of the goddess herself in her many guises! Imagine that! And you say this dream wasn't the dream that came from the tea?"
"It wasn't. It was the one before that was someone else's dream."
"Who's dream did you crash?"
"Erytheia, didn't you ever try this before?" Gabrielle asked, alarmed.
The apothecary looked at her sheepishly. "Well, no... I always meant to, but never really had the time." She shrugged. "Besides, I'm not really sure I want to know what's in the dreams of the folks around me!"
"Let me tell you, it worked, but I had no idea what was happening and no way to get 'back' if you know what I mean."
"Oh, that...? The elixir just wears off, is all. 'Least that's what happened when I gave it to my husband."
"So, I have no control over how soon or how long I will be in a dream state?"
"Far's I know, that's right. It depends on the strength of the mixture each time."
"I see." Gabrielle swallowed uneasily. "I think that's what I wanted to find out. Do you know anything else that you're supposed to do once you are 'there' or not do?"
"Sorry. I really can't help you. If you want to know more about dream stuff, you'd have to get a hearing with one of the Asklepiae, but that's not likely to happen. One needs a goodly sum of money to be welcomed there!" Erytheia stood up and straightened her apron. "D'you need some more tansy or ginger? I have plenty in stock for Them, so it's not a problem."
"I suppose I should have some more on hand, just in case. Who's 'Them'?"
"The Asklepiae. Will you try again?"
"Oh, I don't know. It would depend on what happens...." Gabrielle hedged. She smiled warmly as Erytheia handed her the small bundles. "Thank you again, Erytheia." Gabrielle slid the coins across the counter top and took her leave.
As she stepped through the doorway, the mid-morning winter sunshine caught her unaware; images burned themselves against her retinas, blurred and swimming. Perhaps the dream elixir had longer lasting effects than she'd counted on. When she could clear her vision enough to keep from blinking, a wizened old crone was standing at her side.
"Good Gods, you startled me!" Gabrielle exhaled. She took a deep breath and a closer look. The hag had blue markings all over her face and neck. Still, the woman made no attempt to address her, but continued staring at her traveler's clothing, boots and staff.
"Hello. What is your name?"
"This one has no name, honored child." she rasped out. "Freedom knows this one's name, but Freedom is dead to her. The name by which this one is called now by her master and mistress means nothing. Thou has come with the Amphipolite warrior, no?"
"Thou has come, seeking, no?"
"I have. How do you know this?"
"I saw thee in the Goddess's grove last night." The crone pulled her tattered cloak closer and her mouth thinned into what Gabrielle supposed was a smile. "This one must warn thee, then, honored child. The dreamscape is not a land to go to for fun. It is very, very dangerous not a place for beginners. Without a rudder, thou'rt a bird with no tail. Beware the storms of that world."
"Mother, I know a little of which you speak. Can you tell me more? I need to go back, so I would appreciate any help you can give me. How may I guide myself while I am there?" Gabrielle reached out to touch her arm, but the old woman shrank back in fear. Upon seeing a lack of aggression or mischief on the part of the young woman, the grizzled creature stilled herself and looked into the clear, green eyes.
"This one knows not how she can help thee."
After a long thoughtful pause, she added "Wait Knowing does one no good in that place."
Gabrielle was confused. Surely the woman knew something. Why else would she have appeared so mysteriously, asking about seeking? How did she know, anyway? Maybe the wrong questions were being asked.
"Knowledge is useless there, in the worlds of dreams, Mother?"
"'Tis so, honored child. Know nothing and expect nothing. The otherness of thy soul shall then be freed. Knowing things is not the way of that land." The woman pulled her arm loose from Gabrielle's gentle grip, then opened her palm to her. "Take this one's hand, honored child. She means thee no harm."
"I know, Mother." Gabrielle took the hand in her own. The crone placed her other palm on top of Gabrielle's hand and pressed down. Her skin was the dusty old parchment of wisdom; Gabrielle felt it at once. She met the crusted, gummy eyes with all the intensity of her own need.
"Fear not, honored child. When thou desires to think, stop and feel. Does the bird on the wing think as she flies? What would Knowing do for her? She feels her way through the currents of the Great Sky, as does the fish when she swims the Great Rivers. In NotKnowing lies the ways. Look!" The crone tilted her head upward. Gabrielle followed her purposeful gaze. Above, a pair of swallows swooped and darted.
She felt her hand released, and when she looked away from the sight of the swallows disappearing behind a bell tower, the crone was gone. She stared at her hand moment or two longer, spreading her fingers, then examined her palm, puzzling over the lingering, peculiar feeling of the old slave woman's grasp. The tingling reminded her of the day she felt the presence of Timandra behind the rock. Without even realizing it, she lifted her hand to her nose and smelled it. Attar!