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 didn’t 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. “Let’s 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 didn’t think you would appreciate weaving in and out of the traffic in the ward.
Not until you’ve 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.
He calls his city after Labdu.
It’s a trader’s 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 didn’t go for too long.
During the fall it was Labducus’s daughter.
That was to teach the young men how to track and other games of stealth.” “I take it Labducus’s 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 bed’s 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. — “Lily, and the rest of you, travel in groups or four or more.
I’m getting a bad feeling about this place and until we know for sure what the fourth bet is I don’t want anyone without at least two Amazons in that group.” Aleka cautioned. “Did either of you get a clue on what the fourth bet was?” She inquired from Camila and Alala. “Something to do with writing.” Camlia nodded between chews of the bread she was snacking on. “The stable hands only knew of three of the bets.
Eryalios told us it had to do with writing.
He was a bit evasive and nervous in talking to us about it. Aleka frowned.
The thought of kidnapping a writer would fit in with the two men’s disregard for others on this competitive thing they had. “Let’s get ready for our performance.
Do you think you can work the Amazons in some of the performances in the future?” Aleka asked thinking of how to balance the groups energy.
Too much warrior energy.
She wasn’t going to sacrifice their welfare by toning down on their defenses, but she could balance both warrior and creative energy by having the women trained in both skills. Agnes nodded. “We could add them to the chorus.” **** During the evening meal Iaia was silent and appeared to be in deep thought.
Agnes and Lily let her alone thinking her thoughts were on the extension of their stay due to the snow storm that was raging outside. The usual discussion and review of their drama work followed their leisure dinner, as was their habit.
Each participant as well as the listeners drew a more in depth understanding of was transpired in the unfolding of the drama.
What the actor felt or didn’t feel from the crowd and how they could improve the crowd’s understanding without taking away from the sacredness of the subtlety of the story was important.
The discussions also helped settle their meal before they spent a candlemark working out with Aleka. Since the women were staying until the weather cleared, the Amazons were getting ready to also participate in the sacred drama as was Aleka’s request.
Under other circumstances it would never have been allowed.
This night was serious for the sacred drama was to be acted out by the uninitiated, the Amazons, and it was very important for all the participants to get into resonance with the message and character they were to play.
Two of the Amazons would be wearing the sacred masks of the chorus and they had to be initiated into the sacred trust of the spirit of the masks they were to wear. Aleka was sitting near the fireplace watching with unseeing eyes as the priestesses explained and taught the others about the spirit of the Muses.
Aleka’s memories were on her own experiences with them and of how favored Gabrielle was to them.
With veiled eyes she watched Iaia as she absorbed what Catherine was imparting in a sing-song voice about the mysteries of the drama.
Iaia lived in a time before the Muses came to be but she was sure that Gaia must have had a place in her heart for the young painter who had abandoned her art because her freedom of expression was taken from her. Aleka closed her eyes and remembered the dance of the dark one and her multitude of weaving arms that spoke of death and destruction so that one could be reborn in a more purified state.
Aleka opened her eyes to find the worried eyes of Iaia looking at her. Why did that vision come to her? The sacred circle of study was broken, and the conversation of the group moved to more mundane subjects like to that of Eryalios, master of the stables.
He most certainly was in a bother that Clorinda was in the castle.
They all decided that he was in love with her and to occupy their time they thought up ways to get the two together. Aleka sighed as she remembered her anger at Menigines trying to strong arm her into having mid dinner and late dinner with them.
She was feeling a danger to Iaia all day and was getting more anxious to leave Menigines and his wife with some excuse.
The excuse she used surprised her. “I will have to take leave of your company Lord Menigines.
I need to prepare for the dramas as my troupe does.” “Aleka, you are the manager.
You have only to…” “Lord Menigines,” Aleka anger at his apparent design to keep her from the group allowed Xena’s ire to surface. “we all honor the Muses and pay our respects to them before and after our performances.
For all the troupes you say you host, you should know that there is this period that must be spent to honor them.” Lord Menigines tried to bluster past the blue eyes that were pinning him to his chair with their cold points. “We honor Dionysus and Aphrodite here….” “Hmm.
Your overuse of Aphrodite’s charms and,” she nodded to a lewd statue in the corner of a satyr struggling with a young girl with its hands in places that didn’t speak of affection, “and Baccus type of displays of interaction tell me otherwise.
Aleka told him bluntly. Lord Menigines looked at the statue behind him. “That was a gift from Labducus.
It’s nothing but a statue of a satyr looking for some fun.” He discounted. “Looks one sided to me.” Aleka cocked an eye at him. “That’s not what Dionysus and Aphrodite are about.
And another thing, Lord Menigines”, Aleka told him softly, “Sappho gives the gods their due, belittles none, but she honors above even her beloved Athena and Aphrodite, the Muses.” She leaned closer to Menigines. “It is to in their honor and joint protection that we travel.” Lord Menigines was not able to take his eyes from the blue, cold and frightening orbs Sappho’s Troupes manager had him locked into.
For that moment he weakened and forgot his wager with his neighbor and determination to win at all costs Katy was frightened at what was happening to her husband but was determined to keep it under some sort of control.
The tall manager frightened her.
She had realized that the first day they met that she was more than the leader of the group.
Her foolish husband only saw with warrior’s eyes and believed the Amazon, Lily, was whom he should worry about.
So, his plans were primarily on how to remove Lily and the other Amazon’s out of the picture.
He was obsessed with owning the young playwright and having her write what he wanted.
It had gone beyond the wager Labducus had presented to him.
She didn’t like Labducus nor did she like to visit his castle or most importantly, her sister, her twin…his wife.
She had changed too.
She no longer liked to connect with her in their unique fashion that only twins shared. It was Labducus who had introduced them to Dionysus and Aphrodite’s cult.
Thinking back on it she realized how clever he had been, just like the clever trader who is selling something to the public they have no need of.
Now, it seemed to only be a darker side of the energy for life and love that they only experienced these days.
Menigines was using only drugs now to heighten his sexual activities.
There was no more tender moments or spontaneous words of love spoken from him.
There was only lust.
She shivered when she pictured Bahccus, the dark one, of taking possession of others. She turned her eyes toward her husband who was appearing older each day.
The young warlord that had captivated her heart when he had seized the castle and all its contents was hard to see these days.
She had thought she had tamed his warlord blood lust only to have it replaced by something she was totally unfamiliar with.
It was a lust for gambling with other people’s lives. **** — “Hmm.
Seems like it.” Another voice added to the two mens. “Where the Hades have you two been?” “We were having a meetin with some interestin vermin from outside of the castle.” The deeper voice informed their new member. “Well if that don’t beat the Python.” The voice returned. “Labducus has a lot of his people here.
I recognized a few in the kitchen, at guard duty and dressed as soldiers.
They’re either part of that traders group or some mercenaries Labducus talked Menigines into hiring to patrol his borders.” “Mount Olympus! What’s going on?” “Lady Clorinda thinks Labducus is trying to take over Menigines lands without having to go to battle.
He’s got some type of hold on him.” “With all the Bacchus type of behavior around here, I can make a good guess!” The larger man grumbled. The smaller man mumbled. “Come on let’s get these trunks to their destination.
They’re heavy.” “Well, that explains why we’re moving these out of the castle.” The deeper voice returned softly. The three women crept after the trio catching little of what they said.
Their conversation turned to less serious content as they entered the busier area of the castle.
The three women trailing them had to duck into what they were hoping were empty rooms when they heard anyone approaching them.
Gari finally pointed to the wall to indicate using the supposed secret passageways behind the wall instead of the well-traveled passageway, where they could be easily recognized. The women hoped their quarry were headed toward the stable compound and moved quickly through the dark weaving though skinny passageways not meant for fast travel.
The women managed to find themselves near the exit just across from the kitchen before the porters arrived. There was a woman from the kitchen who appeared to be keeping her eyes on the back way.
When the porter and the owner of the third voice arrived, a woman dressed in travelware, she dusted her hands on her apron quickly and approached them. Whatever she had to say to the three, they quickly turned from the exit and hurried down another passageway that took them back into the castle.
The woman returned to her duties in the kitchen. “Where the Hades are they going now?” Berik whispered. “It looks like to the backside of the castle.
That’s where that passage leads.” Gari informed the two women softly. “Let’s get back in the secret passages.
I feel exposed out here.” Kynthia told the other two. “Gari, didn’t you and Lily take a trip the other day back here?” Berik asked as she pulled out one of the small oil lamps in a wall niche.
This time they were going to use some light.
The flint and a cache of lamps were in the wall niche telling them that it was a busy entrance to the rest of the backways behind closed rooms. “Yea.
We have to move fast though.
There is a place where they could either go outside of the castle or remain in the castle.” The women missed the three at the end of the hall but not by much.
By Gari’s guess they were headed outside of the castle walls. Gari led them quickly through the thin passageway trying to protect the flame of the lamp and see far enough ahead of her not to run into the dead end she was anticipating. “Slow down.” She whispered to those behind her, then slackened her own pace.
She didn’t want them running into her.
What a comedy of errors that would be, she thought. Gari came to a stop where she uncovered the flame and it flickered a reflection off the wall that was before them.
Dropping to her knees, Gari waved the pale lamp light into a dark hole in the ground.
The weak light showed stairs leading down into the darkness. “This will take us out of the castle.” She whispered. “It goes pretty far down.
It uses a natural underground tunnel that ends up on the other side of the castle walls.
They only post guards at night here.” She paused. “You know, we’re not dressed for the great outdoors.” Then she ducked her head and started down the stairs, knowing the two women behind her were not going to turn back regardless of dress.
They had warm clothing on like Aleka had suggested, since castles tended to be drafty and cold, but not fur coats that would be needed for the cold weather outside. The women waited impatiently in the cold behind a natural outcropping of snow covered boulders that had once rolled down an active streambed.
By the looks of the tunnel they had been in, there had been an underground water table that the castle was partially resting on.
It would explain why Dunties said they had an uninterrupted water supply and were able to tap into the mineral pool, that they hadn’t visited.
Remembering Lily’s discription of what their first night’s visit had revealed that went on in the pool made them all grateful they weren’t invited to take a dip. The women kept their hands over their nose and mouth to prevent their vapored breath from being too noticeable by anyone looking.
They resisted the impulse to talk over what they were experiencing for fear that it would be noticed either in their breaths or by the sound of their voices that someone may pick up. They had spotted two men standing not too far away with a pair of horses, each harnessed to a sled that was made for hauling supplies over snow.
They also noticed that the two figures were warmly dressed. — “What is your name, Old One?” Xena asked courteously. “Ha.
It’s been so long that I have been asked to give my name…let’s see…you can call me Cybele.” “Not the same Cybele from Phrygia?” Iaia asked concerned.
This just can’t be the legendary Queen of Phrygia who no one knew if she was alive or dead. “Ha.
You know of the stories? Hmmm.
Perhaps you should call me then…Agdistis.
Have you heard of her?” Iaia shook her head. “Noooo.
I don’t think so.
Who is she?” The old woman was pulled on her sled by the dog that patiently plodded in the rain dragging her mistress behind.
The water dripped off the long matted and shaggy coat.
It’s head was held down and the water ran down its nose onto the muddied road they were now following.
About a quarter of a candlemark the dog turned down a well worn path that led into the woods that surrounded the hill. Agdistis was right when she said her place was small.
The covering from the woods kept most of the rain out but the drops that fell were big and cold.
Xena found what use to be a shelter for horses.
She had the women start on the repair for their own use.
It would also leave the old women with more shelter than what she had.
Her hut was in sad disrepair.
One wall was near collapse and it seemed she only lived in one small room of what once was a three room cot.
While Agnes and Grace prepared dinner, Xena and Erica inspected the wall and decided what they could do. “It looks like it just needs a pole here in this putlog hole and a cross piece in this one here.” Xena observed from the outside of the collapsed room. “Yea.
I wonder where the two cross pieces went? It’s not like they’re easy to make off with.” Xena looked around. “Hmm.
Fire maybe.come on.
The sooner we get them cut, the sooner we can get a shelter over our heads.” She studied the roof from her position and decided that some patching was in order as well and gave that core to Brona and Camila.
They both had good hands for weaving. The women took a brief break to take warm nourishment then resumed their work not wanting to spend anymore time out in the dampness than possible.
Xena had given Gabrielle instructions to get as much information from their hostess as possible, while she moved around assisting the women as they struggled with repairs in the dim light.
It was dark and they were working by torchlight.
The shelter for the horses was completed first and the women from that project after securing the horses in the make shift pen went over to help the women fit the poles that were finally ready.
The roof was patched with woven pine needles.
All that was left was cleaning the debris from the two now usable rooms. “I’m for just sleeping on the junk, if some of it didn’t smell so bad.
Did some animal die in here or what?” Gari complained as she leaned up against the straightened up wall tiredly. “You can sleep in tomorrow morning.” Xena told them, as if that was a consolation. The old woman seemed to be getting more information out of Gabrielle than the other way around, but by experience, Xena knew Gabrielle was doing more than pumping the old woman for information…she was forming a friendship, as was her nature.
She never knew Gabrielle to use anyone.
It was her concern that if she wanted something from someone, that she should give something in return. Xena caught the faded eyes of the old woman that glinted in the flickering lamp light.
Gabrielle had found some lamps and oil and refilled the lamps and set them so that the small room was reflecting a warm glow.
The old woman had hoisted herself up onto a pallet that acted as her chair and bed.
The room had been cleaned and rearranged, she noticed.
There were some things that once were out of the old woman’s reach, that now were more at her level. “Gabrielle?” Xena’s soft voice called to her. “Hmm?” Xena for a moment stopped.
She had forgotten.
She then shrugged her shoulders.
To her the journey was at an end and she could feel less of a connection with Aleka then she had at the beginning of the journey.
She delivered the circle of friends to the temple gates of Mecsa.
For all intents and purposes, that was the end of her responsibility.
The itch for the familiar leathers and armor and the feel of her sword was making her irritable.
The discomfort of the weather she could ignore but not the missing of her familiar garb that identified her with who she was. The last three days she had found herself spending more time with Argo and had almost mounted her instead of Itali, the reddish brown horse she had been riding this journey, that morning. She wanted to talk to the others about her feelings that she believed her connection with the group was completed and she wanted to move on.
She wanted to be back to who she was and travel alone with Gabrielle.
She was tired of company and tired of keeping up a civil face for the ceaseless questions she was asked.
How on earth she had put up with it for so long she didn’t even want to think about! “All right.
Everyone grab a place to bed down for the night.
No need for anyone to stand watch.” She nodded to Lily, “We need to reassess our goals, so everyone think about what you want to do from here.
We’ll listen to what Gabrielle has to say, the old woman and make our decisions.
Alright?” Agnes and the others nodded.
They were becoming restless.
It wasn’t just from the weather.
Exhausted from their work they all found a place that the torch light showed to be safe from unwanted bugs and settled down for deep sleep. Gabrielle settled next to Xena and curled up with a hand resting on Xena’s leg as she sat and looked into the darkness.
When she could hear the others breathing deepen into sleep, she slid out from Gabrielle’s reach and quietly left the room.
Pulling a still damp fur over her she stepped out into the small cleared space around the hut. Listening to the night sounds she didn’t detect the rain continuing, but drops would occasionally fall that would accumulate on the many branches that were forming a protective canopy over the old woman’s cot. Xena stopped by the shelter for the horses and could see a light form detach itself from the others and slowly amble its way toward her.
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