Xena made good time cutting across the forest where Argo would not have been able to pass through. She had to take to the trees many times to get past dense brush that would have taken a lot of time to cut through or go around. She smiled to herself remembering a few Amazons she knew who would find this method of travel as familiar as walking on a path. She quietly passed a few groups of men in dark clothing that normally she would have stayed behind to find out what mischief they were into.
At her first rest stop she had breathed in deep the smell of the damp earth, the wild herbs that grew abundant around her, and the small blossoms that dared to grow in filtered light and so close to winter. She listened to the sounds of the creatures that made the area their home. A breeze lifted her hair off her shoulders cooling her and bringing the smell of a distant ocean. She shook her head, thinking the Aegean was too far away for her to smell it yet.
Xena took a second sip from her water skin. She was comfortably leaning against the base of an old tree. Tentatively she stretched her legs and noted that they were a little tight but by the next break they would be fine. Slinging the water skin over her shoulders she repositioned her sword and again took off in a lopping run gradually increasing her speed. It felt good to run and even better when she did a few sprints to run all out, taking satisfaction in feeling the pull on her muscles as the incline became steeper and her lungs starting to labor.
Xena made Petoli in record time, early the next morning. The air was damp with the morning mist and salty smell from the Aegean Sea as she lopped into the still sleeping town. The Pelican Inn was shrouded in the still heavy blanket of the night fog. She moved toward the back door where she knew the inn’s cook would be getting the fire going. It was candle marks before light would come. Her dark form caused a slight disturbance in the damp cloud as it swirled around her form causing her to disappear within its folds.
Hercules and Iolaus were still asleep as a dark figure slipped into their room. They were rudely awakened by a menacing voice demanding their purses or their family jewels.
“This urgent message is about escorting some priestesses into Paeonia?” Xena asked irritated. Xena didn’t know which was more aggravating, the message that implied it was urgent or having to leave Gabrielle and Argo behind for something that so far didn’t sound life threatening. “They must be gilded in gold,” she growled.
“It’s complicated.” Hercules smiled with a pained look in his eyes. “They need to get safely to their Temple in Mecsa.”
“The seat of the Phytia.” Xena sighed. Oracles from any temple put her on edge, but this one was to Gaia, the original Mother of all the Greek gods. That would make her Hercules great grandmother, she thought with wry humor. This certainly put an amusing twist on things.
“Look, Hercules,” she shook her head to refocus. She was tired. “Isn’t this a bit dangerous to get mixed up with rival powers on Mt. Olympus?” This was more up Gabrielle’s diplomatic skill’s area, Xena groaned mentally.
Apollo had slain Gaia’s python at Delphi and took over her temple out of jealousy and believing he could do it without his father’s interference. The Delphi Temple was the center of the world, as Zeus had decreed. However, Apollo was piqued when only female oracles could go into trance states without harm and then the Phytia, when in trance, became directly connected to Gaia, and to no other. The name may have changed on the outside of the Temple but the underground site where the delphys, the womb was, was still that of Gaia’s. And that was where the power of the Temple radiated from. It was where the amphalos, the navel shaped stone the oracle sat to speak was. The Phytia, the oracle priestesses, brought many faithful to the Temple that was in his name so he conveniently said and did nothing more against his great grandmother, Gaia. In fact, few of the gods would interfere with Gaia, as her power on earth was greater than theirs, which she used only to protect those that still paid direct homage to her.
“It’s rather complicated.” Hercules’ face took on the characteristic look of discomfort whenever he spoke of his family in the clouds of Mt. Olympus.
“It sounds like a job that two healthy able bodied men can take care of easily.” Xena returned suddenly amused. He’s leaving something out, she thought.
“If we escorted them it wouldn’t look right and we would be attracting all sorts of the wrong types of—well, you know.” He finished lamely.
“What? The news of Hercules escorting young nubile girls across Greece would cause rumors or trouble? Naw.” Xena smirked.
“Right, exactly, and that’s where you and Gabrielle come in.” Hercules continued hurriedly. “Iolaus and I have already heard rumors that someone tipped off the slave traders and some warlords that there is easy money in selling them.” He sighed and added, “You have far more knowledge on their tactics than I.” His smile took whatever sting away that Xena’s guilt might have elicited within her about how she acquired that knowledge. “With these women’s training they would bring more money on the slave block than Helio’s chargers.”
Iolaus snorted. “And anyone with good sense wouldn’t even attempt to mess with those horses. They bite.” He nodded as if he knew that from personal experience.
“Xena, at least hear the priestess out.” He added when he saw her face move into the familiar resolve.
“Right.” She muttered. A sudden smirk appeared on her face. Special training? She remembered that the priestess of Gaia practiced a form of erotic healing, which may well be the reason why Hercules felt uncomfortable with escorting them and why they would get a high price on the slave market.
“Desmonia will meet with us in the market – at a more civil time in the morning.” Hercules continued with a grin.
“And who is Desmonia?”
“She’s with Artemis’ royal temple guard on Sappho’s island.”
“Royal temple guard.” She stated matter of factly. A bad feeling started in the pit of her stomach. It was sounding like a lot of bored gods thinking up things for mere mortals to do to keep them entertained. Her suspicion on who might have spread the rumor caused a tight smile to form on her face. It’s the typical mischief Ares would create to annoy his sibling and irritate Xena.
“Why can’t they just escort the group?” Xena asked again not really wanting to take this two or three week trip which may take longer if they moved slowly with too much baggage. What did priestesses carry for luggage anyway? Then there was Gabrielle. A sudden smile appeared on her face as she thought of Gabrielle and the priestesses. She’s seen a lot since their rescuing the Hespian vestal virgin priestess but still…it would be entertaining for her to watch Gabrielle try to learn about the priestesses while figuring out how to make a story out of it. How much would she ask the priestesses about their training or what exactly they did to prepare for the rituals and ceremonies involved in the healing for their temple visitors? She certainly would like to be around for that. Gabrielle not only liked to hear the details, unless it was gory, but she sometimes…Xena shook herself to get back to the business at hand.
Hercules misread the look in her eyes and wondered if he was explaining it right.
“Hey. How about we continue this conversation when there’s more light. I’m beat. You think you had to rush here. When we got word we were…”
“Iolaus, later.” Hercules said with a grin. “There’s a room across from ours that I reserved for you and Gabrielle. Where is she, anyway?”
“Getting breakfast?” Iolaus quipped.
Xena’s face darkened for a moment and was going to say something testy when Hercules put a hand up apologetically. “He’s just joking. Xena you’re tired.”
“I left her and Argo with a group of merchants that were hit by some raiders. She should be here in about four or five days.” Xena grumbled. “I could use a few candle marks of rest.” She admitted. “As soon as we talk to this Desmonia, I’m going after Gabrielle and Argo.”
Hercules didn’t look at Iolaus but instead just nodded. He would let Desmonia tell her. He sighed as he pounded what was serving as a pillow into an acceptable shape. Sometimes things were just too strange even for him, he thought wearily as he moved into Morpheus’s domain.
Xena was up a few candle marks later feeling the edge taken off her weariness. However, her dreams were even stranger than they had been the last two weeks. They weren’t nightmares, just strange. From visiting with people she didn’t recognize in deep caverns below mountains to taking winding paths up mountains that were veiled in thick mists. For the last two weeks she had been waking up disorientated and feeling that Gabrielle was looking at her different. On top of that Gabrielle was waking up before the sun began its ascent and when she went back to sleep she found Gabrielle gripping her as if she was afraid Xena was going to go somewhere. Were they having the same dreams? She silently kicked herself for not bringing up the dreams just to compare but she couldn’t remember the contents once she was awake so had refrained from speaking of them.
There’s no point in talking about what you can’t remember, Xena reminded herself again. Xena decided she needed some fresh ocean air to clear her mind and a run along the beach would give her that. Running in the soft sand was exactly what she needed.
Both Hercules and Iolaus were still sleeping, as her sharp hearing picked up their sleep deepened breathing from the other side of the door. On a secluded part of the beach she stretched and did some exercises to loosen up and refocus her thoughts. The morning mist was nearly gone and the crisp cold winter air stimulated her to move quickly. She moved smoothly into a more serious training routine hoping to close out all thoughts. But, thoughts of Gabrielle and wondering what she was doing kept drifting through her mind as she finally gave up on closing her mind off from anything but her routines. She finished her work out with a run on the beach in the soft sand letting her mind worry about what she was not able to keep it from doing. She knew if anything were wrong with Gabrielle she would know, for their ability to sense each other’s intense emotions from a distance was an accepted fact of their bond. She laughed to herself as she remembered just how intense their bond could be. As the beach became busier with morning life Xena headed back to the inn feeling a good work out in her legs if not anywhere else.
Hercules and Iolaus found her sipping tea and leaning with her back against the wall watching the early morning customers. There weren’t many. They all broke morning fast with a light meal eating quietly. Not even the usually talkative Iolaus attempted to break the silence. Xena wasn’t use to the silence and found herself trying to end the meal as soon as she could. Paying for their meal they headed to the market place.
“There she is.” Iolaus spoke in a low voice to his companions without indicating to anyone watching that they were interested in anything besides the merchant’s wares. Xena’s sharp hearing caught Iolaus’ whispered message and while inspecting a carved box on the merchant’s table, she observed the person Iolaus spotted. She handed the merchant some money and slid the small box in her pouch.
The woman Iolaus was referring to was dressed nondescript and would have easily been mistaken for an early shopper as they, had not Xena’s trained eye noted her movements and attitude were unlike the locals. She didn’t have the tired slump of a villager or the haughty attitude of the local aristocrats but carried herself with a grace and self-assurance not found in the native population.
Within a short time they were all in a room that was safe from prying eyes and ears.
Following introductions, Desmonia looked Xena over with a grin on her face. “So, the ex war lord Xena has been chosen as the guardian of the sacred vessels across unfriendly lands on this long journey.”
Xena leaned back in her chair and regarded the woman with an impassive face. “I frankly think Hercules and Iolaus make a better team of chaperones. They do have impeccable reputations and high moral standards.” Xena attempted not to smirk.
Desmonia leaned across the table her brown doe eyes looking deep into Xena’s. “It will take a lot more than that, Xena, Warrior Princess and friend of Gabrielle, the Amazon Queen and Bard.”
Xena studied the eyes that had more depth than what she was use to and suddenly realized the woman was a seer as well as priestess. She sat for a few moments saying nothing, waiting for her to go on. Inside she was groaning. Member of the temple guard she was not. She was curious if Hercules had purposely misrepresented her. She had a feeling this was going to be one of those complicated convoluted Gabrielle-type of adventures and she wasn’t even here. Mentally she sent out a heartfelt thought Gabrielle’s way, knowing she would have enjoyed being here for the adventure she had wished for only a day ago. Something unusual, wasn’t that part of the wish? She had a very strong feeling this was going to be one of those.
“I would like you to accompany me to the Temple’s sanctuary to visit with someone.” Desmonia continued, still leaning forward.
The hairs on the back of Xena’s neck were standing up but she didn’t feel any personal danger. Usually they accompanied each other. Instead, she felt the butterflies of anticipation that she had been feeling the last week, like a premonition of something to come but not knowing what.
“Just what temple is this?” Xena asked keeping her demeanor at an impassive curiosity. The only two temples she knew in this area were to Demeter and Poseidon, and the usual small grottos or altars in the surrounding open spaces of personal preferences. Why would a priestess and seer from Artemis’ Temple involve herself in another goddesses business? By Artemis’ bow, Xena thought suddenly, this is getting complicated already! Another wistful thought for Gabrielle’s presence brought a smile to her usually unreadable face. Maybe being from Sappho’s island had something to do with it.
“A small one about two candle marks outside of this town by foot, less by horse. Not many people know about it.” Desmonia regarded the powerful woman that appeared to be relaxed and mildly interested in the discussion, yet she could feel something else below the surface. “There is a preparation you will need to undergo,” Desmonia added slowly, waiting to see what change in her energy that would create, “before you can make the visit.
Xena’s eyebrow rose but otherwise she remained impassive. She could feel tenseness in Hercules and see Iolaus fidgeting but she waited for the priestess seer to go on.
Desmonia leaned back in her chair and nodded to the two men. “Would you mind giving us some time alone? You probably have some preparations of your own to take care of.” She hinted with a smile.
Both men seemed relieved and got up. Hercules patted Xena on the shoulder as he was leaving. He started to say something then just squeezed her shoulder. Xena allowed his closeness and touch, letting the feelings they had for each other briefly pass across a usually well-fortified wall of stone. Her demeanor hadn’t changed but the hold she had on her inner self was back in place by the time Hercules’ hand left her shoulder.
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