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Ma'at - Chapter 4: Nomads

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4 years 4 months ago #15860 by itinerant
itinerant created the topic: Ma'at - Chapter 4: Nomads
Ma‘at

Chapter 4
By Itinerant
Edited by Amelia R.

All rights reserved, except for those ceded to the Whateley Academy Author’s Group.

"This is fan fiction for the Whateley Academy series. It may or may not match the timeline, characters, and continuity, but since it's fan fiction, who cares? To see the canon Whateley Stories, check out The Crystal Hall ( whateleyacademy.net ), Sapphire's Place ( www.sapphireplace.com/stories/whateley.html ), or the Big Closet ( bigclosetr.us/topshelf/taxonomy/term/117 )."


**********

From Chapter 3:

The world snapped back into existence around her. She found herself on a long, low rise that swept down in grassy waves to a bay. The sun was to her left, and high in the sky as a vessel, its bare mast swaying with the gentle waves, was rowed in toward a beach.

There was a cluster of tents, or so it seemed, near the shore and well above the line where storms could drive the water. She looked around, and the grass seemed to extend to the hazy horizon in every direction..

*****

Dani sighed as she stood looking down the slope at the activity near the shoreline. This was quite obviously another ancient site. It was primitive -- even more so than Memphis or Crete. She combed her memory as she tried to place the combination of the ship and tents. The range of years and locations was far too broad to even begin to narrow down.

~Ma'at? I don't recognize this place, or time. Do you intend to tell me where, when, and why I'm here?~

~Of course, daughter. This time, though, is a bit different. This is the year 2000 BCE, as you reckon time. Another goddess, Artemis, has asked for your assistance. She has no avatar, and is constrained in what she's allowed to do on this plane.~

Dani nodded. ~The Greek gods aren't well known, as such, this early.~

~Precisely. As I said, she needs your assistance, but the choice will be yours. I believe it is a worthy cause, but I will not require you to take on this task.~

The goddess's quiet, mental voice proceeded to outline the situation. Dani's location was on the Crimean Peninsula, near the slender stretch of land that connected it to the mainland. The broad, grassy plains to the north were the summer grazing range of several nomadic tribes, and two of those wintered in the warmer lands of the Crimea.

Those two tribes had clashed over a spring of fresh water, and the last grazing space, at the end of the winter; the battles were normally short and sharp, but killed few -- there were enough deaths over the winter without war.

This time, however, something had gone wrong; the warriors had become enraged and kept fighting until there was no man left, on either side, unscathed. Those who survived the fighting were claimed by infection or cold.

Dani knew the implication of that statement. The physical demands of nomadic life were such that the two tribes were almost certainly doomed.

Ma'at continued the briefing, ~What Artemis wants to do is get the survivors together so they have a hope of surviving, so first you need to be a diplomat. Once that is done, you'll need to help them organize themselves to function without men around.~

The scholar was sympathetic to the tribes' plight, but the situation was far outside her experience.

~My Lady, I'd consider it if I knew *anything* about nomadic survival, but I don't.~

~You aren't being asked to make suggestions about how they should live, child. You will just need to help them blend their groups, and sort out the hostilities that are left. They'll also need some help with their trading, since none have ever dealt directly with the Minoans.~

Dani sighed in resignation, knowing that she'd not even be here if it weren't a critical point in history. The prospect of coping with even a sea-moderated Crimean winter left her shivering; she was a warm-weather girl! Her clothing, yet again, was time and place appropriate. Long, soft-leather trousers were tucked into knee-length boots that were amazingly comfortable on her feet, and a sleeveless leather shirt hung to her hips. Her hair was bound into a braid to keep it out of the way of the pack perched on her back, and her necklace hung safely under her shirt.

~A pack?~ she was distracted by the sudden awareness of weight on her shoulders.

~It's a bit different from anything they use, and has a few unique attributes you will find useful. I have provided suitable garments for you to keep reasonably warm during your time here, dear one. You will feel the cold, but you will be safe from harm.~

It was a huge advantage she hadn't expected, and it wouldn't be the first time she'd been uncomfortable.

~Thank you, My Lady. If it's important enough for you to bring me here, I'm willing to try my best. Is there someone in particular I should look for?~

~Yes. The leader of the group below is named Archippe. Find her first.~

~Yes, ma'am!~ Dani shook her shoulders to settle her pack, and stepped out toward her new task.

*****

Archippe flexed her shoulders in a futile attempt to ease the tension in them. The remnants of her tribe were settled, though it had taken far more time than in the past. The unloading of the small horses used to carry their equipment was quickly completed, as even before the idiocy of the battle the women were involved in that process. There were many fewer hands now, and some of the work assembling the tents required two women where before only one man had sufficed.

She wasn't the tallest in the tribe, nor the strongest, but she was strong and well-built -- perhaps five feet tall, and no more than ninety pounds of pure bone and muscle. She had held her position of leadership through the catastrophic spring by sheer force of will.

It would take time to work out the new situation, and more time yet for the tears of pain to be soothed. The loss was far too fresh, and wails of soul-wrenching hurt rang across the familiar campsite.

The traders were nearly to shore, the great ship urged along by the smooth white wings of the oars. Each year, for longer than Archippe had been alive, they had appeared from over the horizon with their well-crafted bronze goods, dyes to color the material the tribe wove into blankets and tapestries, and jewelry that was set with stones that flamed with colors that even rivaled the sunrise.

The bales of soft goat hair, shorn from the herds that were carefully nurtured by the nomads, would provide the bulk of their trade goods, apart from a few select tapestries that were now surplus.

~Oh, husband, how I wish you were here. You knew how to deal with these outlanders, and your bargaining brought us much wealth. Now ... now my love, I am left to bear the burden, and I have no idea how to even begin. I have begged that the gods would lend us their aid, yet they are silent. We are abandoned, alone, and doomed if I fail.~

*****

~Oh great,~ the archaeologist complained to herself, ~another day, another nest of unsanitary humanity.~ The odor of unwashed bodies, and improperly disposed of night soil, permeated the air downwind of the camp.

There had been no guard set to warn of travelers who might come in from the boundless plains, so her appearance had taken the women by surprise. The murmurs grew as she walked toward the center of the encampment. She knew she was taller than most women, and was probably taller than all but a very few men, but it only added to the otherness of her appearance. The quiet swish of feet brushing aside the stalks of untrampled grass came from behind her, and she wasn't sure whether she wanted to know what the murmurs meant.

The center of the camp was a swirl of activity, with women busy at the daily tasks of life.

~It's probably where Archippe is. Best to dive in and get it over with.~

*****

Archippe heard the quiet voices at last, and turned in the direction of the noise. Through a gap in the ring of women around her -- all widows of the clan council -- she saw a tall woman striding in her direction.

The stranger's features were unlike any seen before by any of the nomads, and her height was unnatural. The tallest of the locals was easily half-a-head shorter than the stranger, and the midnight-black hair that was bound into a long braid emphasized the appearance of an outsider against the shades of sun-bleached brown that surrounded her.

It was the other woman's eyes, however, that truly frightened Archippe. Those eyes glittered with an intelligence and age that dredged up memories of stories from her childhood. Those tales had spoken of ageless men, heroes sent by the gods to aid those in greatest need, and this seemed to be one of those heroes of legend cast in the mold of a woman to aid the shattered tribe.

A shiver of fear quivered up her arms at the power those heroes were reputed to have, and the price paid by those who failed to show respect or crossed their will.

"Quickly! Everyone on your knees! The gods have sent a hero from the old legends! Down!"

She knelt on the ground, and bowed her head.

*****

Dani watched as the woman at the center of the group she was approaching spotted her. It was depressing to see the confusion turn to shock, shock to wonder, and wonder to fear. It was like Malia all over again, without the interlude of friendship.

She sighed in resignation; their respect could make her life easier, or it could backfire badly. Fear, on the other hand, was not going to help. She needed their brains working, not slavish obedience.

~I hope the trade languages are still similar enough to get by.~

"Which of you is named Archippe?"

The bewildered look on most of the faces made Dani's heart sink, though her disappointment never reached her face. ~Don't tell me I have to learn the language before I can even find out who I need to talk to.~

Finally a slow, halting reply came from one of the women. "I am Archippe. We are at your service, hero." She wasn't fluent in the trading languages, but knew enough to answer -- she hoped.

~Hero?~ Dani's thoughts stuttered around for a moment as she tried to recall what she'd read about this time and place. It was a pitifully small data pool, as the nomads were always far north of her own, well-loved Egypt.

A long lifetime of learning wasn't entirely useless, however, and the threads of legend were woven tightly through human cultures throughout history. It wouldn't be easy, but it would suffice; it would have to.

The women before the stranger didn't have time to cringe at the instant of frustration that appeared in the hero's face. As quickly as it appeared, it was replaced by a look of kindness and determination.

"You are the only one who knows the trading tongue?"

Archippe hesitated. "Others know a little, but my mate ... husband dealt with the sea traders."

Dani nodded, and smiled; the sight brought visible relief to the kneeling group.

"I will need you to help me learn your own language, and I will teach you more of the trading language. For the moment, though, the ground must be hard on your knees, and your neck and mine will be hurting if you stay down there. Get up off your knees, and let us sit together while you tell me about your problems. My name is Dani, and I was sent here to help you all, I believe."

*****

The woman's story left Dani awed by the courage and perseverance of this people, and fighting tears at the pain of loss that rang clear in their tale. The council had gathered in Archippe's tent and the story had been told slowly over kumiss, a fermented drink that reminded Dani of shubat, a fermented camel's milk she'd had over the years in Egypt. The flavor was quite different, and she made a note to herself to find out whether the milk was from the goats or mares.

This tribe had roamed these lands for seasons beyond their oral memory, and had held them by wit as much as strength. They knew these lands, and used that understanding to maneuver the occasional raider into a position where hunger and thirst -- or simple frustration and fatigue -- forced them to return to their own tribal lands.

A new tribe had wandered into the area late in the year, chased by a lack of fodder -- or so the tale had said -- from their older lands further north and east. Unlike most of the nearby tribes in a similar position, the newcomers were more numerous and at the limits of their endurance. They had encamped around a large spring, and had chosen to exclude others from its perimeter.

None of the women knew what finally started the serious fighting. There had been the usual ritual posturing at first, but suddenly it seemed that a killing fury infected every man and boy strong enough to hold a club, sword, or knife.

The women had heard the screams, and had watched in horror as their outnumbered menfolk had desperately held the way to the camp. Even the old and infirm had rallied to brace their defense, grabbing even the odd flint knife as a weapon.

None had walked back; not one had returned at all, other than as they were borne by the women who had scoured the battlefield for any survivors.

The situation puzzled the archaeologist, as the ritual combat between tribes had developed to allow a show of superior strength without the sort of bloodletting that would threaten survival. Whatever insane hostility had been provoked, the two tribes had been reduced to women only. The men and boys that hadn't been killed outright had fallen to festering wounds.

The survivors had rallied around Archippe and the other widows of the clan leaders who'd fallen. Late winter had turned to a gratefully warm early spring, but the tribe was only beginning to think through the changes they had to make to survive. The trading season was beginning, too, and the stress of that additional pressure had pressed their fragile organization to the limits.

The tribe was finally where it needed to be, the camp was set up, and the goods were gathered for the traders that were now gliding toward shore on the sleek vessel. Archippe was the only one who had known any of the trading tongues, so she was forced to prepare herself for the bargaining. She'd only watched in the past as her husband had skillfully -- and joyfully, to be honest -- bartered with the Minoans.

She had held out little hope that she'd be able to deal so well, and the tribe needed tools to replace the losses from the battle.

Dani nodded as the story came to its end. ~My first task is fairly clear, I think, and having some inside knowledge of how the Minoans trade -- not to mention their costs and profit margins -- I can do some real good.~

The smile on the avatar's face was quickly echoed on Archippe's once Dani explained her willingness to handle the bargaining. The others in the tent showed their relief once the offer was translated.

The tribe leader's tent was the largest in the camp, to allow meetings like this one, and Dani found herself allocated a place inside, with as warm and comfortable bedding as were available.

The remainder of the afternoon was consumed by a mutual language lesson, as Dani began to learn the tribe's native tongue while teaching her hostess more of the trading language. The only interruption was for a simple meal of roasted goat, and the array of dairy foods that provided the only other readily available option, though the cheeses and yogurt were unique enough to hold her interest. No grains, though, and no fruits and vegetables that didn't grow wild.

~I suspect by the end of this sojourn I'll be slavering after a simple slice of bread.~

*****

Atanea topped the rise, and felt her heart sink as she came to a halt.

Below, spread out in a well-organized array, was the camp of the goat-stealing, murdering pack that had ruined her tribe. Not a clan had a healthy male that was more than six summers old after the infectious madness that had taken hold of them as they desperately defended their access to the water and fodder in the early spring.

The trials somehow -- inexplicably and insanely -- had flashed into a nightmare of bronze, and flint, and wood, and blood. Her grown son had been one of the last to fall, as he led the last charge to drive the attackers from the women, children, and livestock.

~Thank the Gods that they succeeded, but ...~

Her face quivered for a moment as the memory of burying her husband and son replaced the scene before her, and her ears rang again with the wails of pain from the throats of the women left behind.

They had to, HAD TO trade with the ship that was pulling toward the beach. The battered remnants of tools and weapons were useless, now. They still had their woven goods, but she was unlearned in the trading languages.

She didn't know how it could happen, and she prayed to the gods to help, but somehow they'd get what they needed.

Even if it meant using their fists and teeth to get access to the traders.

*****

A young girl swept into the circle of women standing around the council fire.

Dani understood few of the words, but the tone of the child's speech made it clear something bad was happening.

"Dani," Archippe began, "someone is coming toward our camp; it seems to be the same tribe that we fought last time."

The whole group rose and ran toward their own clan's tent clusters to organize themselves. If they were to fall, they would die in the defense of their remaining loved ones.

The encounter was wonderfully anti-climactic as far as Dani was concerned. Whether it was her own presence, or the obvious lack of males in the approaching tribe, both sides managed to contain their anger.

The newcomers had asked only for access to the traders on the ship, which was a common enough reason for a truce. Atanea's tribe was relegated to an area where they could have access to the beach, but could be easily watched.

Dani watched with interest as the new camp was set up, though the lack of interest in sanitation was making her skin crawl. Her nose had already given up on relief from the odors. She walked slowly back to the tent she shared with Archippe, and thought carefully about the situation, and how she needed to proceed.

~It seems all the players are here, now. The new group seems to be running on fumes, though; if they don't get some relief, they're going to get desperate.~

~Not quite, daughter,~ came a familiar voice. ~There is one more person who will be involved, and she is aboard the trader's vessel.~

~A Minoan woman? They're sending women out on trading voyages now?~

Laughter chimed like a carillon in Ma'at's reply.

~Oh, my dear one, you have no idea what havoc you wreaked on those poor islanders, do you? Between Khaba and Malia, anyone who was too backward to make use of women's talents was bankrupted in short order. The Minoans were predisposed to allowing women their freedom, but once they showed their abilities in managing the land side of business, it took only a generation or two and they were beginning to include women as part of their trading parties.

~The person you need to meet, though, is also a priestess of the Minoan Goddesses, and she will be a help to you in your task as well. Her name is Potina, and she will be on shore momentarily. You should introduce yourself.~

Dani considered what her patroness had said, and nodded to herself.

~Another neutral party could be a great help, and someone else I can talk to is better yet.~ The black haired woman paused. ~My Lady, were Khaba and Malia happy? Did ... ~

~Yes, my daughter, they were happy. They did finally admit to their feelings for each other, and lived their lives together enjoying that deep love. Their first daughter was named for you.~

Dani's eyes welled with tears -- damn the hormones! -- as her emotions swirled with joy and sorrow at the memories of her friends. A bitter taste, too, rose from the remembrance of her own self-imposed isolation for the best part of a century. ~Not this time,~ she vowed. ~I won't waste this second chance.~

She quickly wiped her eyes and strode toward the shore. She had a job to do, and the sooner it was done, the sooner she'd be home. She had promised herself that she would never put her work over love again; as soon as she got home, she would begin working on fulfilling that vow to herself.

*****

Potina had enjoyed this long, outbound leg of the voyage, as even the storms they'd encountered were brief. It had almost seemed that the weather had conspired to urge them along their way even more swiftly.

Her pleasure was tempered yet again as she felt a familiar twist in her middle. This was her first trip as a full priestess rather than an acolyte, and the weight of that responsibility was uncomfortable. The trading posts closer to home were long settled -- she served more as a messenger from the main temple for them.

Here, though, in the wild outlands, she was the direct, and only, representative of the Goddess. She had taken time during the slow approach to the landing beach to recall to her mind the list of names she needed for the trip. Pyrgos was the local tribe leader -- his wife was Archippe as of last year -- and he was well regarded for his courtesy and intelligence. He was a canny trader, but scrupulous in his dealings.

~This is one of the stops that the traders look forward to. The quality of the goods is high, and no one worries about second rate items hidden in a bale of good wool. They grumble until they're out of earshot, then brag about the prices they'll reap.~

She giggled quietly at the memories.

The ship was securely pulled up, and ropes tied to stakes kept it from being shifted should a storm sweep in from the surrounding grasslands. Potina dropped over the side of the vessel, and landed softly on the hard packed sand, then looked carefully at the array of tents.

The arrangement was different from her last trip; it seemed there were more tents overall, and they lay in two distinct groupings. She looked even more closely at the strangeness of the camp and as understanding of what she was seeing finally came, a touch of fear crawled up her spine and left a chill in its wake.

~Where are all the menfolk?~

This wasn't going to be a normal stop, it seemed. There were women who'd begun to learn the Goddess's ways, and it fell to the new priestess to continue their teaching. Before any of that, it was part of her responsibility to help meet their needs; if they'd lost so many men, the teaching would have to wait. The center of the camp was in about the same place as last year, and she began to walk in that direction.

The young woman continued to scan the area as she walked; it was important to identify whoever was in charge so she could use her talents most effectively. She stopped abruptly at an unexpected sight. A very tall woman stood just at the edge of the grass as it faded into sand, with her long, midnight-black hair ruffled by the sea-breeze. Her appearance was unmistakably Egyptian, yet her clothing was much the same as that of the nomads.

~Is she waiting for me, or someone else on the ship?~

As the priestess approached, and was close enough to clearly see the Egyptian's face and eyes, it was apparent that the Egyptian's attention was entirely focused on her; on a hunch, Potina redirected her path and stopped before the stranger. Standing close, she realized just how tall the other woman was as the Minoan's eyes came to no more than her chin height. The raven hair was only shades darker than the woman's eyes, yet those eyes seemed to glow and dance with intelligence.

Potina gathered herself to speak, but stopped in shock as the stranger spoke in clear, if somewhat archaic Minoan.

"Welcome! My name is Dani, and I assume you're the Minoan priestess I was told would be arriving?"

*****

Dani had watched the young woman hop down to the sand, and her clothing and jewelry -- what there was of it -- looked very similar, if not identical, to the priestesses from her time in Knossos. Her hair was a reddish-black, and wavy. Her face could have been taken from any of the mosaics that had survived to Dani's home time; her young, almost skinny body glowed with health. The young priestess appeared to be alert and observant; she'd looked across the campsites and had frowned at something there. The frown had been transfigured into a worried look by a visible shiver, which seemed to have been the impetus for the priestess to move.

The avatar watched as the youngster stepped out toward the tents, and she was amused when the priestess caught sight of Dani. The previous destination had been instantly replaced. The old professor in Dani just barely restrained a giggle as the Minoan stopped. She looked for all the world like a graduate student steeling herself before defending her dissertation, and the similarity moved Dani to pity. The scholar introduced herself before the priestess spoke her first word.

*****

The explanation of how the men were lost, and the presence of the second tribe, took some time. The ghosts of lost friends surrounded the newly arrived woman, as she'd known many of the men who'd fallen. The trading, though, would be far less fun for the merchants, even if it would be more profitable.

"I am pleased to meet you. My name is Potina, Dani." In the back of her mind, the name seemed familiar to the young priestess. "What brings an Egyptian to this wild, cold place? I'd expect you no further north than Crete, and hardly out here so far from any towns."

A moment of quiet had stretched out as Dani debated internally just how much to share. The help that would be gained from a fully informed co-worker seemed to be greater than the risks, though. "I may look like an Egyptian, Potina, but my homeland is far from there."

Dani was still unwilling to tell the whole truth of her past -- or was that, is that?, her future? -- but she gently explained that she'd been traveling to Egypt, as her parents had before her, to learn. She had been chosen by the Egyptian Goddess Ma'at to help those in special need.

She told a part of her journeys, and about how she had been brought to this place by her goddess to help these tribes -- ideally with the help of the newly arrived priestess.

"Both tribes have taken bitter losses, and I expect it will take a long time for the hatreds to die down. It may be some time before I can move on." She shrugged. "I still don't understand how the battle became so murderous. It's as if they all went mad at the same time."

"I agree. My people have traded all along these coasts, and I've never heard any tales of anything like this. Even when the nomads have attacked a village, they've always stopped well short of killing everyone. Whatever caused it, do you think they have a chance to survive?"

Dani looked uncertain. "I'm not sure, but my Goddess seems to think it's possible. I have to try, for the sake of these women and children, if nothing else. You know them, their lives, and their needs far better than I do, Potina, and your help will make my task much easier.

"I've already spoken to Archippe, and she has agreed to teach me their language as I teach her the trading language. I will see if she will include you in the lessons; if she's unwilling, I will teach you myself. I have also agreed to handle their trading negotiations."

The young priestess nodded. "I appreciate the offer. I was concerned about how to communicate with them since the only person fluent in the trading language had been killed. I had learned a little of the tribe's language, but we relied on the trading tongue most of the time."

*****

The council's leader was more than happy to include the priestess in the lessons; Potina was known as a friend, and the advice from her predecessor had frequently proven to be invaluable. The familiar face was a welcome reminder of a happier time, and a reassurance that her world hadn't been completely wrecked.

The stranger, tall and dusky skinned, was a complete mystery. She shrugged off the idea that she was a hero, yet her eyes held echoes of years beyond even the oldest of the tribeswomen. Archippe had been frightened at times by the speed with which the woman absorbed the new language. She was rapidly becoming conversant, to the point Dani was able to begin talks with the other tribe that had appeared -- the same one that had killed all her own tribe's men, while losing all their own.

Today was going to be awkward. Dani had insisted the two tribal councils sit down with her, the priestess, and each other, to coordinate the trading. Neither tribe was happy by the demand, but as neither had anyone else fluent enough to negotiate, there were no real alternatives.

Archippe settled herself, and stepped out of her tent to indicate her invitation to all who had arrived.

*****

The two councils sat on opposite sides of the fire; the tension between them crackled like summer lightning. Neither group was pleased with the insistence by Dani and Potina that all weapons be left in the hands of the two neutral parties; on the other hand, no one was willing to challenge the tall stranger.

Atanea had heard the ancient tales, too, about heroes sent from the gods; she'd not heard of any who were women. There was something about the tall woman that set her teeth on edge.

~She's a foreigner -- and something more. The little trader child, the so-called priestess, is only a little better. She seems to know some of the women of the other tribe, and I'm not sure she can be trusted to deal fairly with us.~

Dani spoke first, but had to rely on Archippe to translate.

"I know each of you is unhappy with this meeting, but I don't want to say any of this twice. Both of your tribes are in trouble, and neither of you are fluent enough in the trading language to really trade as you need to. You've both lost too many of your tools and weapons to survive unless you're able to trade for replacements..

"I know the trading language, and I've had some experience with the Minoan traders. I've offered my help to Archippe, and if Atanea and her people are willing, I will make sure they get at least as good a deal as I can get for Archippe."

She shrugged. "I cannot promise that I'll get as good a deal as your most experienced men would, but I think I'll make the trading worthwhile. Once we have the dealing done, I will teach the trading language to as many of you, from each tribe, as you wish."

Dani's smile left Potina wondering what sort of trouble her traders were facing,

Archippe reaffirmed her commitment to allow Dani to manage the negotiations. Atanea sat silently in her place as she considered, once again, the offer. The final approval was hers as the council head. The hostility she felt toward the stranger -- she knew it was unprovoked, but still as real as the blanket she sat on -- rose again in her heart. The idea of being dependent on this person was hardly to be tolerated, but the hard reality of the situation beat back the temptation to strike out.

"I don't see that we have any real choice. We accept your offer."

*****

The sun had risen into the bright, clear sky; it stood halfway to its zenith by the time the two tribes had gathered themselves and their trade goods for the beginning of the bartering. The traders had used the time to refresh their water casks, and the sailors were busily working at the routine maintenance required for any seagoing vessel as the traders worked to unload the items they'd brought.

Potina had warned the men of the changes in the tribe they'd come to meet; the senior trader was visibly disappointed at the loss of the man who'd proven an enjoyable adversary over the trading table. The reaction to the presence of the mysterious Egyptian was indifference, despite the priestess's cautioning.

"Pyrgos had been trading with us for tens of years. This stranger, as young as she is, can't have the knowledge of our previous exchanges. Even Pyrgos' mate wasn't around for the trading, so," he shrugged, "we'll be a little easy on them."

"But...."

The lead trader waved her off. "This is our specialty, priestess."

~Why do I think they'll regret not taking her seriously?~

*****

"Is everything here that you want to trade?" the archaeologist inquired.

The councilwomen nodded, and Dani began to look over the stacks of goods for each of the tribes and clans. Archippe's clans had gathered their goods into a large common pile organized by type and quality. The avatar had taken time to review the stacks of goods with the women. It was a rapid examination, and Dani was forced to extrapolate from her previous experience with Khaba, but she had at least a reasonable idea of what the raw material and the splendid tapestries were probably worth to the Minoans.

Potina was circulating around the campsite of the new tribe in an effort to find places she could be of help. She nodded to Dani and her companions as they walked into the camp.

Atanea's clans kept their goods under their own control, which consumed more time as Dani first had to locate the reluctant and inexplicably hostile leader. Atanea stalked along with Dani as the scholar looked over the second tribe's goods.

The quantity was greater, and one or two of the tapestries were magnificent, but the raw material was overall not quite up to the standards set by the other tribe.

"If I thought I could take them with me, I'd love one of these tapestries for myself. They'll fetch a very good price.

"As it is, your wool and goat hair isn't quite as good as the best from Archippe’s tribe. I think I can get you a good price for it, though."

The women were torn between pride at the enthusiastic reaction to their weaving, and irritation at Dani's reaction to their raw material. ~If these folks can bury the axe in something other than each other's bodies, they'll really have high value trade goods,~ Dani thought.

Dani, Archippe, and Atanea walked toward the Minoan's display of goods, as the traders made their way to examine the nomad's offerings.

*****

The trading began with the finished tapestries, and Dani asked that Archippe's wares come first. Atanea shot a suspicious glare at the avatar, and protested that her people were being slighted. She was even more irritated at the other woman's smile.

"You must understand, Atanea, that I'm paying you a compliment. Your tapestries must come second, because they're so very beautiful that Archippe's people won't get as much for their work otherwise. Your wool and hair will be first on the block for the same reason; I'm trying to ensure you both get as much as possible for your trades."

With a huff, the woman stalked off.

The remainder of the day was hard work for Dani, as she struggled to balance what she knew the tribes’ goods would bring in Minoan markets against the need to allow the traders to make enough profit to entice them to return the next year.

Potina watched the proceedings with interest at first, but her face paled as the strange woman bargained, wheedling and badgering the traders with an efficiency that made her wonder if someone had given the Egyptian information about the trader's margins.

~If she knows that much, where could she have learned it?~ The young priestess sifted through her memory as she tried to recall any stories of Egyptian traders who'd visited Crete.

The trading consumed several days, as the traders finally realized they had encountered someone as effective at dickering as Pyrgos had been. Their lackadaisical attitude vanished, and they seriously contested each bargain.

Dani found herself mentally worn by the time the trading had ended for each day.

Potina's days were occupied with the next stage of training for the women in Archippe's tribe who'd chosen to follow her Goddess. The most advanced of the group were ready for service as acolytes, and they could care for their sisters while Potina was away.

Atanea's tribe, on the other hand, had no prior experience with the Minoan traders; in the past, their trade had been with other tribes who interacted with the seafarers, but no one had ever had the need to learn the coastal trading languages. To a woman they were suspicious of the strangers that had insinuated themselves into the chaos surrounding the remnants of the clans. However cautious they might be, there was no denying the fact that the tall woman -- an Egyptian according to their adversaries -- had worked hard in the bargaining. The trading had gone more favorably than even the most optimistic had expected, and the tools were quickly circulated into the families that had greatest need.

Potina found that a little of the odd not-Egyptian's celebrity carried over, and she had some success at reaching out to those who were in greatest need of help. There was a lot of work remaining, though. She hoped that there might be a way of keeping the two tribes in friendly, or at least not actively hostile, contact. Her acolytes would be able to continue the help and training if they weren't in a constant state of war.

There was some other 'trading' going on, which the sailors and younger women of both tribes indulged in enthusiastically. The women had approached their clan leaders, and the councils had spent surprisingly little time debating the question.

Archippe's tribe had, at most, one hundred fifty families before the battle. Now there were only fifty or so young boys left. If the tribe was to survive, the women would have to find men to quicken the wombs of the widows and maidens. Atanea's tribe had the same problem, but the two hundred thirty families had almost one hundred boys -- the oldest of whom were nearly a decade from taking their place as men in the tribe.

Trusting outsiders was difficult for the women, but their survival was at stake -- and they were far more pragmatic about life's realities than their men had ever been.

Potina, the only person on the ship who spoke both languages, found herself acting as an intermediary between the long-deprived sailors and the women who were willing to accommodate them. Small trinkets -- mostly utilitarian items, though there were some small items of jewelry -- were the medium of exchange between the groups.

The councilwomen of each tribe stood apart from the interactions, but kept a close watch on the proceedings to ensure the safety of those they led. The men were pleasantly well behaved, though, and it seemed both parties in each instance were ... satisfied.

Dani, too, had some personal trading in mind, though of a less intimate sort. She had come to miss the varieties of foods available in the more urban settings of Memphis and Knossos, but gardening wasn't practical for the nomads. Growing grain wasn't possible, but perhaps she could make the menu a bit more interesting -- and even provide for the preparation of clean water.

"Potina, do your traders have anything in the way of bay leaves, onions, or garlic?"

The priestess looked at her and nodded. "We carry some on each voyage, and have for hundreds of years. What we don't trade is a good addition to the cooking pot. We'll be heading home from here, so there should be plenty to sell."

The brief appearance of a slightly smug, self-satisfied look on her tall companion's face puzzled her.

The traders were more than happy to trade for the vegetables; Dani's gold was more than sufficient to acquire them, some bread, bay leaves, and -- to the confusion of the nomads -- a sizeable bronze cauldron.

The purchase of soap puzzled the tribeswomen, but they were coming to understand that the foreigner had her own, inscrutable reasons for her actions. Once again, they shrugged, and muttered about the Egyptian's strange ways.

The last trading session, after the tribes had gleefully distributed the tools and weaponry from the Minoans, was to trade implements damaged in the battle for a few more new tools. The traders had looked dubiously at the scraps and shards of metal; the story of vicious fighting had been written plainly on the handles -- frequently in blood.

Dani's weariness had become apparent to both the tribeswomen and the Minoans, but her youthful body had sufficient reserves to permit her to hang on until the trading was complete.

The traders had finally cleared out their inventory for this stopover, and Dani allowed her amusement to bubble out in quiet giggles. The men were muttering among themselves as they tried to figure out how they'd been so thoroughly overmatched. They had developed a grudging respect for the woman who'd handled the bargaining -- it hadn't escaped their attention that she'd always ensured they'd retained enough profit to make the trip worthwhile. She'd even backed off on occasion when their margin had been cut too close for comfort, which meant she had a shrewd appreciation for the trader's costs at their home port.

It had proven to be a far too interesting stopover for their liking, and they hoped that the Egyptian would find another place to live by next season.

*****

~Oh, God, I don't want to see another bale of goat hair for a month!~

~Come now, dear one, they only shear their flocks once a year. You won't have to worry about any more bales for a long time.~

~I *know* that!~ She sighed. ~I can't even whine in my own mind. Nitpicky goddess!~

Dani lay quietly on her back on her bedding in Archippe's tent, as she tried to endure the headache from the release of stress. Over her life, she'd worked harder and for longer periods, but had always had to endure the inevitable reaction as the tense muscles in her neck and shoulders slowly eased. The trading had been as bad as anything she'd experienced before, and each day had ended with her neck and shoulders taut with the balancing act she'd been maintaining. Up until now, she hadn't even tried to relax; there hadn't been any point since the next day would be more of the same. The fatigue was constant, but manageable.

Now, though, with trading complete, she found her head pounding to the point she wasn't even hungry for the evening meal. The scholar had returned instead to the tent and stretched out. With no aspirin, her only choice was to ride out the pain until her muscles relaxed and recovered.

"Dani? Hero? Are you not well?"

The avatar cracked an eye open to see Archippe kneeling beside her.

"I just have a headache from all the bargaining, Archippe. I'll be fine in a while."

"Turn over; I think I can help."

Dani frowned, flinching at the pulse of pain the motion provoked, and flipped over to lie on her stomach.

The tribeswoman's strong hands began to knead the steel-tense muscles in Dani's shoulders; the initial gasp of pain the actions provoked turned quickly to a groan of relief.

"My husband had the same problem after the trading was done for the year. I learned to do this for him, too."

~This feels soooo good!~ Dani thought to herself as the pain in her head eased with the relaxation of her shoulders. "That feels wonderful; thank you."

The nomad struggled with her own reactions, as she massaged the bronze-hard muscles. There were no taboos against women pleasuring each other, and Dani was obviously enjoying it. She felt she owed much to this stranger who had given so much to her tribe, and had asked only for food and a place to sleep. One memory the massage evoked brought warmth and a twinge of sadness. ~She is a great and sweet soul, much like my husband -- and it has been so long....~

The strong fingers firmly, but gently, worked the tension from the neck of the prone woman, then worked their way down her spine. A gentle, pleasant tension rose in Dani's middle, and an unfamiliar warmth followed lower down. Her breathing quickened, and her eyes flashed open in confusion.

"What...?"

Archippe smiled and cut off any further questions with her own lips.

*****

Atanea had taken custody of her tribe's share of the trade goods, and had distributed each clan's portion as she toured the campsite. The quality of the goods was undeniable, and whatever reservations she might have had beforehand, the council head had to admit that the stranger had kept her promise, and more. The tribe had received even more than they'd hoped for their goods and had a few extra tools now.

~Have I misjudged them so badly?~ she wondered.

*****

~What did I do? Why?~

Dani couldn't say it had been unpleasant; she was seeing stars at one point as her mind was overwhelmed by ecstasy. It still left her conflicted about how to be an honest intermediary if she was the lover -- what else could she call it? -- of the leader of one side.

Her conscience was berating her for having crossed the line of impartiality as she cleaned herself up the next morning. Archippe had left for her own business of the morning; the warmth of her smile, and the kiss she'd bestowed on the still confused Dani, left no doubt about the nomad's attitude toward the night's activities.

~What is Ma'at going to think of this?~

~Nothing, daughter,~ came the slightly amused response. ~You might have to be more careful in the future, but you've done nothing wrong. I think it was a good thing for you, in truth.~

~But....~

~Did you force her, or did she force you?~

~No.~

~Was any part of what happened involuntary, other than your being unprepared?~

The avatar sighed. ~No, ma'am.~

~Then don't fret, daughter. It was a free gift, freely given. Whatever the absurd strictures of some cultures may say, *I* have no problem with your activities. Besides, it's about time you found out about some of the pleasant parts of your new form.~

Dani's breath caught at a particularly pleasant memory evoked by the comment, and her face flushed at the mental giggle from her goddess.

~Now then, my dear child, you *do* have work to do. I suggest you might bring up the fact that you are here on my business, and I have both tribes' interests in mind.~

*****

The two tribal councils had gathered outside, in a clear area between the camps. The tension between the two groups had eased since the worries of both groups had been lessened by the successful trading. The undamaged tools made it far easier to manage the daily work of the camps as well.

Dani stood again in the middle of the two half-circles as the groups settled in. Potina seated herself just beyond the outer circle of women and watched. The avatar looked over the groups and flipped her necklace out from under her shirt. The golden feather gleamed in the morning sun.

"Thank you all for coming and for your trust in allowing me to help you in the trading. As I said before, my name is Dani, and I was sent here to help you -- all of you. The goddess I serve, Ma'at, is the goddess of truth, justice, and order."

She paused for a moment. She had an idea of how she might convey her guidance to all of them, but she wondered if it would be as helpful as it needed to be. Would her knowledge of the local language be sufficient to the task set before her?

~Only one way to find out.~

"You have all suffered. Both your tribes have lost those you loved with all your hearts, and now the bitterness and anger is burning in you. You also know that your lives have been much harder since the spring."

She turned to Archippe. "How many were lost from your tribe? A hundred? Two hundred?"

"Perhaps two hundred men and older boys." The pain blazed in her eyes as Dani nodded.

"And you, Atanea. You lost perhaps three hundred?"

Atanea nodded.

"Years ago, in my homeland, we, too, had a war -- a horrible war that raged for four years amongst ourselves. Our land was large and rich, yet we fought. During one battle, in one day, nearly four thousand of our men were killed."

Some of the women gasped at the idea. Atanea's face was hard and unbelieving, and even Archippe was skeptical.

Dani shook her head and quelled the urge to send a look at Archippe that reflected the scholar's hurt at her hostess' disbelief. "My homeland is larger than Egypt, and we have many more people."

"How is it that none here have heard even a rumor of such a place? Why should we believe you?" Atanea's skepticism was easier to bear, but no less important to deal with.

The avatar sighed. ~My Lady? Would you mind?~ She was reluctant to call for this aid, but the disbelief in so many here would make it difficult, or impossible, to complete her task.

She felt a surge of power as the goddess took control of her body. The tribeswomen gasped as the stranger's body began to glow, and the voice of the tall stranger rang with divine power.

"I am Ma'at, the goddess who brought Dani here to aid you all. She has spoken only the truth to you. Her homeland is too distant from you for even a rumor to reach you. She speaks with my voice and will tell you only the truth to help you bring order back into your lives."

The glow faded, and Dani felt the familiar weariness from the stress of channeling the goddess's presence.

Atanea hadn't really believed, before. Certainly, the stranger was from a distant land, but she looked so similar to the Minoan woman that it was easy to believe she was from the same place. The idea of her being a hero of legend sent by the gods was foolish; the gods didn't care enough to pay attention to two tribes that were doomed to die.

Except it seemed they did, and this stranger was here at their command.

She shivered in fear, and her voice quaked as she spoke. "Forgive us, hero, for our unbelief. We meant no disrespect to the gods."

Dani nodded in return. "I understand, Atanea." She chuckled quietly, and the sound drew puzzled looks from the councils. "I didn't quite believe what was happening to me when I was called to my goddess's service either. I can hardly fault you for needing more than just my word."

Archippe didn't even look up as the Egyptian was speaking and was too lost in her thoughts to hear what was being said. She felt the shame of her failure of faith even more keenly as she recalled her easy willingness to believe that the stranger walking into their camp was a hero out of the legends. Now, after only a few days, she was unwilling to believe someone who'd done so much for her people -- someone she'd shared so much with just the night before.

The soft touch of a hand on her face jolted her back to the world around her. Dani was kneeling before her.

"Archippe, I understand how unbelievable things can be at times. I don't blame you for having trouble."

"After all you've done for us, for me," the nomad flushed in embarrassment, "I should be willing to hear you out."

"Just listen for now; we'll talk more, later, about it all." Dani stood again, returning to the center of the group.

"As I was saying, my homeland had fought a terrible war. Both sides had suffered great losses and were angry and hurt. The war was over, and each side had faced a choice.

"Those who had lost had suffered the burning of their ... tents, and their animals had been taken or killed. There were those who wanted to hide in the hills and forests to continue the fight.

"The side that won wanted to punish those they saw as responsible for starting the war.

"On each side, though, were leaders who looked ahead, not back. The leader of the side that won reached out and insisted that those who had fought against him should be brought back into the ... tribe. The tribe would be stronger with all the clans together again.

"The clans that had tried to break away had a great war leader, who was a man of such fame that even those who fought him respected him. He spoke to the clans he had lead into battle and said that they should lay their weapons aside, rebuild what had been destroyed, rejoin the tribe, and work to make it even greater."

"My homeland has prospered because those men chose to lead the people away from the hate that burned in their hearts. The pain, and even the hate, didn't go away quickly; even in my time there were those who still bore a grudge. Most of us turned away from the destruction and the hate, and we found great blessings came from that choice."

"You have the same choice, right now. Both your tribes have lost much, and you all know how hard it has been trying to survive. Each tribe has talents the other desperately needs, but you must be willing to let go of the hate and the vengeance you feel you deserve."

The faces around her reflected the struggles within, since neither tribe had a tradition of 'forgive and forget.' No one wanted to find out how the gods would react should they throw the advice back into their faces, however, and both sides resigned themselves to at least trying to follow the implicit command.

Dani looked at them with sympathy; their whole world had been scrambled, and they were struggling to cope with the changes without losing complete control. Some reassurance was probably in order.

"I also should tell you that I will be here as long as you really need me. If you need someone to mediate between you, I will be around -- if you choose to follow my advice.

"I also have another tale, not of my people's history, but from a man whose wise sayings are legend among my people. His name was Aesop, and he called this fable 'The Lion and the Boar.1'

"'On a summer day, when the great heat induced a general thirst, a Lion and a Boar came at the same moment to a small well to drink. They fiercely disputed which of them should drink first, and were soon engaged in the agonies of a mortal combat. On their stopping on a sudden to take breath for the fiercer renewal of the strife, they saw some Vultures waiting in the distance to feast on the one which should fall first. They at once made up their quarrel, saying: 'It is better for us to make friends, than to become the food of Crows or Vultures, as will certainly happen if we are disabled.'

"He always had a moral for his fables, and he ended with: 'Those who fight each other are often watched by others who will take advantage of their defeat to benefit themselves.’

"Your tribes have been terribly wounded; you are more vulnerable to those tribes around you that would take your lands for their own. Joining your strengths will benefit you all."

Dani looked around at the surrounding women, and noted that more than just the council was present. The confusion and uncertainty was clear, yet they were *thinking* about her words rather than rejecting them. ~Perhaps one more of Aesop's fables will be enough for now.~

"I have one more tale to share with you, and it is called 'The Fox and the Lion.2'

"A Fox who had never yet seen a Lion, when he fell in with him by a certain chance for the first time in the forest, was so frightened that he was near dying with fear. On his meeting with him for the second time, he was still much alarmed, but not to the same extent as at first. On seeing him the third time, he so increased in boldness that he went up to him, and commenced a familiar conversation with him.

"His moral for this tale is 'Acquaintance softens prejudices.' You have only painful memories of your first meeting, and there is good reason to be cautious about each other. If you give yourselves and each other time, you may find that your tribes have less to fear from each other than you think."

Atanea was the first to nod her agreement, but only by a fraction of a heartbeat. Archippe added her acceptance as well, and the two councils followed their leaders. If others could set revenge aside and prosper, then they, too, could try.

Potina stood as the agreement was made and walked away to memorize and consider the tales she had heard.

*****

The tension was almost painful as Dani and Archippe returned to the tent they shared.

"Archippe, what's wrong?"

The woman bowed her head, still struggling with the feeling she'd betrayed Dani.

"Hero? I...."

This time it was Dani's turn; she placed a finger across the nomad's lips.

"Hush now! I thought I'd made it clear that you all were forgiven." The finger moved away, and the other woman's self-criticism resumed.

"But after...."

"Enough. I have no idea how long I will be with you all, and I don't intend to spend any of the time on being angry at you for this." Dani's hand cupped Archippe's cheek for a moment before moving quickly away and down. "I *forgive* you," she poked at a ticklish spot she'd found the night before, "so just accept it and let's move on."

A mischievous gleam appeared in the tribeswoman's eyes as she giggled and backed away. "So that's your revenge for my unbelief, is it?" She staged a counterattack, using sensitive points she'd located, and that led to a gentler contest as the night passed.

*****

Atanea had retired with a relaxed outlook that was almost unnatural, given the tension she and her fellow tribeswomen had been under. The words of the stranger had rung with truth, and more. It was almost as if she'd experienced the war and its aftermath, though she'd implied it had been many years before.

The certainty that the gods cared enough to intercede, even if they required actions that stretched the tribe's ability to forgive, was a comfort beyond words. For the first time in moons, there was hope.

She settled into a restful sleep for the first time since the battle.

It was still hours before dawn when she stirred uneasily. The inside of the tent was dark, and only faint flickers of firelight penetrated from the outside. A tall form -- darker than the shadows around it -- coalesced into view, and Atanea whimpered in her sleep. She never woke up enough to see the silhouette, which was manlike from the shoulders down, but with a head that was a bizarre distortion of humanity. Where a face would be was only a long protuberance that had a vague resemblance to an elephant's trunk, or perhaps an aardvark.

It moved silently toward the sleeping woman, but froze after crossing less than half the distance as another figure blinked into the tent. The newcomer was not quite as tall as the first figure, but appeared entirely human. A sword-shaped object was in its hand as it moved to stand between the sleeper and the first intruder; the air around the two figures shimmered, and the noises made by the two figures faded from the rest of the tent.

"Your time with these women is over, evil one." The sword-bearer's voice sounded clear, soft, and definitely female. "They are under my care and protection, and you are beyond your boundaries. Leave, or I have permission to ensure that you will have to be reassembled before causing any further grief for anyone!"

"That hasn't stopped Ma'at from taking a hand, and if she's here, then I, too, am allowed to act."

"That would be true if she had come of her own accord, but I asked for her help, and she only brought her avatar here when the young one volunteered. That keeps you out, unless you care to argue your case with Re or Zeus?"

"You and the meddling Ma'at will both pay dearly for this!" the first figure hissed, gestured angrily, and vanished from view.

The second form relaxed, returned the sword to the sheath that hung at its waist, then moved silently toward the woman. It had knelt on the ground beside her, and a hand reached out in a gesture much like a mother soothing a sleeping child. The flickering firelight illuminated a strong, feminine face as it bent close to the now quiescent form. A faint smile touched Atanea's lips as she settled back into a deep, sound sleep.

"Sleep well, daughter. You and your sisters are under my care; you are safe, now."

*****

Potina rose the next morning after an abysmal night. The events of the previous day, and the strange revelations about Dani had left her mind spinning. The temple had trained her in mnemonic techniques, and it was annoying to find herself *knowing* that there was something relevant and being unable to recall what it was.

She made her way to the tent where the avatar was staying and spotted Dani as she stood by the fire. The mournful look she had directed at the cup in her hand was funny, but the quiet muttering about something called 'coffee' was just confusing.

~Another word from her homeland, I suppose.~

The youngster's face flickered between confusion, wonder, and deep thought. The odd sense of a memory in the back of her head had grown as she walked up to the other woman. The appearance of the goddess the day before was finally drawing out the memory she'd sought.

"Dani, have you ever been to Knossos?"

The black haired woman quirked an eyebrow at the question. "Yes, but not for a very long time. Why?"

The ghost of a smile appeared on the priestess' lips. "The temple tends to collect and keep all sorts of stories about our city's history. Our priestesses tend to be well educated, and we have time for listening and recording such things.

"There are stories -- old, old stories from six hundred years ago -- about a strange, very tall Egyptian woman who had been touched by the gods. She brought tremendous change -- a whole new order of things -- to the city. Are you her descendant?"

~You must be truthful, Dani,~ said the familiar voice in her mind.

Dani nodded. Ma'at would not permit lying, but would allow her avatar to refuse to answer. It would be possible to mislead the youngster while still being truthful, but that could cause problems.

~I'm not sure how much to say, but just telling the simple truth will be simpler overall.~

"I'm not her descendant -- the stories are about my time in Knossos."

Potina was nonplussed. "I told you the stories were from six hundred years ago; you're that old?"

"No," Dani grinned as she replied, "I was there at the time, but the goddess I serve brought me from there and then to here and now."

"How long ago?!"

Dani's head snapped around. Archippe had walked up about the time Potina mentioned the old stories, and her eyes grew wide at the revelation of the scholar's presence in the distant past.

"Six hundred years, I think. As I said, though, Ma'at brought me here and now from then and there. I haven't lived through all those years."

The Minoan and the nomad gave Dani a thoughtful look before Archippe spoke again.

"Dani, *when* and *where* is your home?"

Worry had been quietly simmering in her mind as the young priestess inquired about the avatar's previous stop. This question, though, had jolted her from worry to a full-blown panic. She'd come to *care* about the tribeswoman, but feared that revealing her home would devastate the growing relationship they shared. Dani had come to appreciate the presence of another person -- quite apart from the physical aspects -- and had no desire to lose the close companionship. It had come to be even more precious than the relationship she'd shared with Iri, whom she still thought of as a dearly loved sister.

A lack of trust, though, would be a slow poison that would wreck things just as effectively as the knowledge might.

She chewed on her bottom lip as she struggled with the decision.

~Archippe may know, daughter, but it would be best that Potina not know. She would be required to share the information with others in her temple, whereas your companion has no such problem.~

Dani nodded in silent acknowledgment before turning her attention to the young priestess.

"Potina, your allegiance is to *your* goddess and temple. What I'm going to tell Archippe must not go beyond those I tell myself. I'm sorry, but I can't let you hear what I have to say."

Potina's eyes gave lie to the small smile on her lips. "I understand, even if I'm disappointed. I'll come back when you're done." She stood and walked off toward where her acolytes had gathered.

Dani returned her attention to her remaining companion, who had reached out with a hand to reassure the time-traveler.

"Dani, if it will cause problems, I will understand; I have come to care about you, and I would like to know more."

"No, I'm allowed to tell you, but it won't be easy to understand."

She dived into the explanation and struggled to translate her world into terms her companion could even begin to grasp. There had been much left unsaid, and Dani was forced to backtrack several times to try explain concepts utterly foreign to the tribeswoman, but the outline of the land in the far future, Dani's true home, was sketched in.

Silence stretched out for long minutes as the nomad tried to assimilate the information. The tale of a traveler from far in the future, who had lived in a place that sounded strange beyond reckoning and was now here just to help the tribes, seemed impossible -- even after they had all seen the goddess herself speak. The tale explained a bit about some of Dani's odd behaviors.

It also underlined the fact that the woman would, at some point, be leaving. Forever.

~I care about her. I'm coming to care *for* her.~

*****

The sailors had worked steadily to complete the minor repairs on their vessel, and the traders had stowed the newly acquired goods in the hold. The larder had been replenished with smoked meat from the nomad's herds, and the water casks were clean and full.

The ship would push off at dawn to take advantage of the remnants of the land breeze.

Dani had carefully cleaned the large, bronze cauldron, and she had spent the day collecting various herbs, meats, and vegetables from the tribes and traders. The tribes's more typical fired-clay, tripod cooking pots were arrayed around the cauldron on additional fires, and the odor from the contents drew curious noses from everywhere the wind blew the scent.

Dani kept a careful eye on the area, and at times the 'smack' of a wooden spoon on a hand was required to discourage unauthorized sampling.

Archippe stood just out of reach, rubbing her hand, as she fumed at the scholar.

"Dani, what was that for? I just wanted a taste!"

"I warned everyone to keep their fingers out of my pots, and that includes you!" She poked the spoon in her tent mate's direction. "If everyone got a taste, there wouldn't be a surprise -- or even anything left to serve!" Her demeanor softened as she moved closer to the tribeswoman.

"What is in the pots is very special to me; it is a recipe given to me by someone I loved as a sister, and I want to share it with you all. Please?"

By evening, the camps were buzzing over the mouth-watering odor of the carefully tended contents of the multitude of pots. The two councils, Potina, the ship's master, and the lead trader had accepted Dani's invitation to be the first to sample the mysterious contents of the cauldron.

"This recipe is special to me. It was the last meal that I shared with the people I had come to care for just after I was called to Ma'at's service. This time, I'm not the one leaving, but it seems appropriate to share this meal anyway.

"The last time I had this, I shared it with friends who were a courageous Queen Regent, a Pharaoh, a Priestess who became a friend, and a guide who became as dear as a sister.

"Today I have a new group of friends to add to my story, and I hope that you will remember this as a good time as well -- other than the trading, perhaps."

Dani grinned at the traders, who returned a wry look and a nod. She took a ladle and scooped a small sample of Iri's stew into her bowl, blew on it to cool it a little, and took a careful taste. The flavor was a bit different, but it was close enough. She grinned, and began to serve the long line of hungry people.

She had prepared enough to ensure that everyone present would be allowed at least one serving, and a few, very lucky people were able to get back for a pot-scraping second helping.

There would be very little left to clean out.

*****

The food had given way to dancing and singing, as the celebration of the trading continued. The mood in the camp had been bleak as a Rhode Island winter day, but now was reflecting the resurgence of hope in the hearts of the women. They each knew that the next few years would be difficult, but their prospects had improved.

Dani sat back on the grass with Archippe, and watched as the young women assigned to clean-up duty scrubbed the various pots used for the meal. They were a bit tentative with the cauldron, as it was larger and heavier than their normal pots, but as it was also less prone to breaking, they soon relaxed to the task. The recipe for Dani's stew had become sought-after information, and Dani explained that she intended to plant some of the critical herbs, onions, and garlic to ensure they would be available next year. The stew recipe came at a modest price: Anyone who wanted it had to help prepare the ground where the planting would be done. Dani had more volunteers than she could possibly use, and the onions and garlic were left to grow untended. One day, they would provide both food and trade goods for the nomads.

"Dani? May I ask you a question?"

The young priestess had been intrigued by the story Dani had told, and with only a little time left, she wanted to try to add more to the bare bones of the tale.

"You may ask, Potina, but I can't promise to answer."

"The story you told as we gathered for the meal spoke of a Queen Regent and a Pharaoh. My people don't involve themselves in the politics of other lands, but we do try to know who we need to deal with. The temple doesn't have any record of a Queen Regent in Egypt for more than seven hundred years. Was that when you were there?"

Dani shook her head. "It was before that, Potina, but I don't think I should say more than that."

"Isn't there anything more you can say?" The young woman wasn't quite whining, but she was determined to wheedle something more of the stranger's past.

"Well, there is one part of my past that I can share. You might regret knowing it, though."

Both her companions insisted on hearing the story, and the avatar related the time she'd spent at the temple of her goddess, learning the ceremonies and songs -- or trying to.

"Oh come now!" Archippe scolded. "It can't be that bad!"

"You think so? If it wasn't for Ma'at, it would be *just* that bad. Listen."

Dani chose a hymn from her youth, and hardly a single bar had been 'sung' before the other women pleaded for her to quit.

"Now then, Ma'at knew how important it was for me to be able to take my place in the ceremony, so she enabled me to do my part properly." She sang the opening bars of her part in the morning service, and there was only silence as she stopped.

"Why didn't she allow you to sing everything like that, Dani?" Potina asked.

"I asked her not to, for a reason that is important to me, though I can't share it."

*****

The dawn was just beginning to color the eastern sky as the ship prepared to begin its homeward journey. They were a little short-handed, as a half-dozen newly-wedded men had chosen to remain behind with the tribes. Potina had presided over the ceremonies and gave the blessing of her Goddess to the couples. The men's skills lay more in the way of wood and metal working, as well as fishing and archery, but their youth and strength would be a precious asset even without those skills. Dani joined the small crowd that said farewell to the departing priestess, who had risen early to give final instructions to the old and new acolytes in the tribe.

~Ma'at, watch over them all. Bring them safely to their home port and their loved ones.~

She turned away from the sea and fetched her soap from the tent for her morning cleanup.

Dani's bizarre -- at least to the nomads -- obsession with cleanliness had come to be one of the running jokes around the two camps. She had wrestled with the complete lack of body modesty in the culture -- it had been hard enough in the servant's quarters in Memphis! -- but had finally reached the point where she could wash up without turning quite so dark a shade of red.

Archippe sat on the edge of the small stream, watching as her friend rinsed the last of the soap from her body. She understood wanting to splash water in your face to help wake up in the morning, but Dani's insistence on washing bordered on obsession.

The scholar finally finished drying herself and dressing; her long black hair was drying slowly in the fading land breeze. Dani sat next to the tribeswoman on the grass and waited for the question she could see was on the cusp of being asked.

"Dani, why do you spend so much time splashing around in the water with soap? I know you're cold when you get out -- that's obvious, but I know you have a reason. I also know you'll have a problem during the winter; you'll freeze if you try to go out undressed in the snow. Is this something Ma'at told you to do?"

It had been a couple of years since she'd first tried to explain the importance of cleanliness to Nebka, the High Priestess of Ma'at. The experience was helpful now as Dani used the same images to help her friend understand why being clean was important.

"So the Gods of Light can bless you and chase the demons of sickness away, if you keep yourself, your campsite, and your cooking gear clean. That's why I scrubbed the cauldron and pots before I cooked anything in them."

It was so far from reality that she felt as if she was lying, but the warmth of reassurance from Ma'at soothed her conscience.

~It is the only way they can understand it, daughter. You are doing the best that can be done for these people.~

~That may be true, ma'am, but it still feels too much like a lie. And I still have to try to convince Atanea and her tribe, too.~

Oddly, Atanea was more willing to accept guidance than Dani had expected. Ma'at's appearance, brief as it was, had left the woman with a sensitive conscience; she seemed even more prepared to follow Dani's suggestions than Archippe. She had been found wanting once, but had no intention of being caught again.

*****

The grazing of the flocks had been slowly spreading from the center of the camp as the grasses were consumed by the sheer number of animals. Now, with the trading complete and the traders having departed, it was time to begin the slow migration to the summer pastures.

Both camps had just completed loading the pack animals when the avatar called the two councils together. Her suggestion was simple: Since the two tribes had lost their menfolk, they would both benefit from traveling together. A small handful of the clan leaders were reluctant to place that much trust in the remnants of their enemies, but their concerns were allayed by ensuring their positions in the column were as far apart as physically possible.

Atanea and Archippe deployed layers of clans between the uneasy groups; if each stuck to their own place on the march, they should only come into contact when the tribes stopped for water or trading.

The masses of women, children, and their herds, stretching out in long, slow columns, vanished into the sea of empty grasslands to their summer grazing areas.

*****

The migration was slow, no more than ten miles a day, for which Dani was grateful. Her footwear fit perfectly, but her muscles weren't accustomed to walking, nor were her shoulders used to long periods of carrying her pack. The bronze cauldron had been placed on a pack animal and had been donated as a community resource.

It was interesting to watch the migration. The classic mental picture of nomads was that of a ravening horde that swept across the land like a wind-driven fire devouring everything in its path. Instead, it was a slow, methodical journey between ancient campsites that would provide the water and grazing needed to support humans and herds.

~Rather like the migration of the Hebrews in the desert -- without the pillars of cloud and fire, of course.~

The pace was geared to reach the next water source well before the supply they carried ran out and yet not strain the young of the herds. Dani's scholarly streak took charge during each new day, and she moved among the masses, watching and learning. There were songs and stories, some common to both tribes and others unique, that the mothers used to pass along the history of their people. The archaeologist in her spent hours walking along, listening to the ancient stories and trying to commit each one to memory against the time when she'd be able to return home and capture them for the study of her colleagues.

*****

The tribes’ slow march had reached the great river to the north, known in the distant future as the Dnieper, after about two weeks of slow, steady travel. Archippe's tribe had paused here for years beyond memory, resting and resupplying themselves before striking out across the southern steppes to the chain of water sources that would, come winter, lead them back to their wintering grounds on the warmer lands of the Crimea.

Atanea's people had also followed the river, though their wintering grounds had been north of the great sea; this land was reasonably familiar to them as well.

Dani had come to enjoy the time with these people; the long daily walk, punctuated by the mild mental stimulation of her study of the nomads’ culture, was rather like a long vacation. She would never set aside her love for Egypt and its grand culture, but she understood the attraction of the life. It was superficially simple, but demanded an intimate understanding of the natural workings of the world that no modern culture would ever know, or even care about.

~I don't think I'll be joining the Earth Liberation Front anytime soon, but when I think of how little wildlife is left in my own time....~

The sky-darkening blizzards of birds were a memory that would shame her for the rest of her life. Two hundred generations of choices lay between now and her home, and there was no possibility of repairing some of the damage, but she could, and would, try.

*****

The two tribes had joined in council at Dani's request. Each was restless with the need to move on, yet they had become comfortable in each other's company. The comfort level was anything but universal, but the hostility was slowly melting away like the last sheltered snow of winter.

Dani's presence in the council seemed to calm the residual discomfort within the group, as she had the explicit blessing of the gods. That status placed her outside either tribe, despite her overt involvement with Archippe. Her proposal, however, left the women gaping in shock.

The tribes should remain together and combine their strengths. Welding themselves into a single tribe would give protection to them all, and the children they still cherished might live long enough to grow up into adulthood. None were terribly pleased, and Archippe's tribe least of all. The clans voted in council to decide courses of action; if the tribes combined, they would be hostage to the larger tribe's desires. Added to that was the other question of who would lead the council, and how she would be chosen?

"A simple way to solve the problem for now is to require that out of every three who vote, at least two must vote in favor of any action for it to be agreed to. That ensures that neither tribe will be trampled in the choices made. Decisions will be made with almost all of you in agreement."

The idea seemed a sensible way to ease the inevitable concerns on both sides, and each tribe gave it’s assent.

"What about the council leader?" questioned a voice from the crowd. "Are you going to choose her?"

Dani shook her head. "I do not know Atanea as well as I know Archippe, and it would be unfair for me to make that choice. As far as I'm concerned, you could toss a coin and leave it to the gods.

"The other would become the vice-leader -- a second in command. As you come to know each other over time, I'd hope you would be able to select someone from among you to lead."

The statement led to an explanation of what a coin was, but once explained, the idea was seized on by the group. Dani dug into her purse and found a conveniently shaped and marked silver disk. The two tribeswomen agreed on who got what mark, and Dani flipped the coin, caught it, and brought it to the back of her hand with a slap.

Atanea's mark was revealed as the avatar's hand moved away.

*****

The three women -- Dani, Atanea, and Archippe -- spent much of the next several days in conversation as the scholar worked her diplomatic skills to their limit. The tribeswomen were key to uniting the groups, and they had to work together first.

A start had been made as early as during the trading, but familiarity had begun to wear away at the mistrust between the two as the weeks passed. They talked about the lands each tribe had claimed as their own, and their advantages. Dani asked about problems the tribes had faced, and the women began to exchange stories of the problems and joys of their journeys.

~It isn't an ending,~ Dani mused as she watched the two leaders swapping experiences, ~but it *is* a good beginning.~

A more practical concern was how the tribes could survive conflicts. They lacked the manpower for the typical battles, and the women knew that they hadn't the strength to wield the weaponry to take their place.

"You need to keep them away from your clans; that means you need to find them when they're a long way off. You should probably make sure all the women learn to use a bow. Who do you have who's good at riding a horse?" Dani struggled to recall when the steppe nomads first began to ride on horseback. The blank looks from her companions was a mild hint that it hadn't happened for them yet.

The scholar smiled wryly. ~This is another fine mess I've gotten myself into, Ollie! I wish *I* knew how to ride.~

*****

It quickly became clear that while the relatively small horses available weren't suitable for what Dani would consider cavalry, they would suffice for longer ranging scouts once a simple bridle was figured out. As the word of the plans for horse-borne scouts spread, many of the younger women competed for a chance to do something that no one else in the tribe had ever done. The numbers of women were high enough that only those who were best at archery would be allowed to become the tribe's new scouts. There were some extra mounts, but far too few to provide mounts for all the women who wanted to become riders; spare horses were a necessity against loss or injury, but they couldn't afford to support too many extra mouths. There were enough between the two tribes -- effectively welded, now, into a single tribe -- to have pairs of riders cover all sides of the line of march, or of the camp when they rested.

Atanea and Dani were watching the women practice their new skills, and Dani grinned as a thought crossed her mind. She turned to her companion and said, "You should name the combined tribe 'the women who ride horses.' Riding horses is, I think, very rare in the world. Being women who ride is unique."

The small, young women took to riding with joy -- at least after they became accustomed to being on horseback for long periods. Their size made it possible for the small horses to carry them for long distances at a pace that no man could match. Larger, stronger animals would be still better, but that was something that would take years to accomplish. They would have to find a way to trade for more mares and stallions to improve their herd; perhaps some of the area east of here would provide the new blood they needed.

Dani found she was frequently standing apart from the camp's activities as the long summer began to fade into fall. The morning air had the bite of the arctic blasts to come; fortunately the frosts had also killed off the irritating insects that swarmed over the humans and their animals. She also found that her relationship with Archippe had cooled a bit from the intensity of the first days, but that flaring heat had become a steady, comforting warmth for the two despite the shadow cast by the inevitability of Dani's departure.

The avatar's relationship with Atanea had changed, too, as the weeks of brainstorming to solve the problems of merging the tribes, as well as the challenges of creating a mounted scouting force, had forced the new council head to realize the sincerity of Dani's desire to help -- as well as the vast pool of knowledge that lurked behind her dark brown eyes.

*****

"Look, Atanea, an outrider is coming in!" Archippe pointed off to the northeast at a rapidly approaching horse and rider.

A chill rippled up her spine. Rarely did the riders return from their scouting before it was absolutely necessary; it was troublesome, at times, to have so many youngsters indulging in freedom they'd never experienced before. As Atanea watched, it was clear that something other than trouble brought Oreithya. Her expression of fond exasperation was all too familiar.

Atanea had borne it, herself, more than once, and she wasn't surprised when her young scout voiced her complaint.

"Atanea, you have to make her stop! I know she's not deliberately causing problems, but her singing scares our horses!"

Atanea bit her lip -- a grin would have insulted the child. "The Hero is out on your side again?"

Oreithya nodded and sighed. "I know she doesn't mean to cause problems, and I've heard her in the morning singing beautifully, but when she's just walking along ...."

"She starts trying to sing her other songs about 'on the road, again' -- whatever a road is -- and she doesn't do so well."

"Yes, ma'am."

"I'll speak to her, though I don't know if it will help. She truly doesn't realize what she's doing, I think."

"If you'd just try, Atanea. Please?"

"I will. Now you'd best get back to your post."

The nomad smiled fondly as her young outrider trotted back toward her position. She was from one of Archippe's clans, but now -- Atanea started at her sudden revelation -- was as dear as any of her own tribeswomen.

~She's a blessing I'd have missed, if not for Dani's intervention.~

*****

The blizzard had set in as the tribe had scrambled desperately to set up the camp. They had crossed onto the Crimea days earlier, and ordinarily the warm sea moderated the first rush of winter. This time, it seemed, the blizzard had only gained new strength. Banks of snow built quickly on the lee side of the tents, even before the people within had had time to gather dry firewood. Intense cold cut through the shelters, and the fires were dark. The stocks of firewood they'd carried with them had been soaked by a sudden, heavy rain before the snow, and the wood left at the campsite the previous year was in no better condition.

The marvelous backpack had provided sufficient warm clothing that Dani was at least in no danger of frostbite, but she racked her brain to help her friends deal with the blizzard.

She started as the soft voice of Ma'at intruded on her thoughts.

~Daughter, there is something you can do to help them. You know of your telekinesis and a little of how to control it. You have another ability that I have not shown you that will help here.~

~Ma'at, if there is anything that I can do that will help them, please tell me. There are too many children and pregnant women to just let die!~

~As you wish, dear one. Have your friend arrange wood for a fire, first.~

Archippe had noticed Dani's distracted look and wasn't entirely surprised at her urgent plea to prepare the tent's fire pit. The nomad quickly set up the wood as if it were dry enough to be useful.

~Now, Dani, reach out your hand and feel within your mind what I do.~

It was as if a new muscle was being twitched, as the goddess gently loosed her power. Dani could feel something flowing through her fingers, and she saw what seemed like water -- it was as close as her mind could come to interpreting the information -- slowly moving by them.

~Now, child, reach out to that flow within the wood and *gently* begin to squeeze down on it.~

It took a few moments, and a terrible mental effort, for Dani to extend her 'reach' as directed, but as she began to close the bands of her mental fingers, she saw the flow within the wood accelerate. Dani felt the approval from the watching goddess and carefully constricted the bands further.

~It's almost like a Venturi effect on whatever it is.~

Suddenly, from the center of the wood pile, a spark flared. It quickly spread into a blaze, as if she had set a match to wood that was dry and seasoned.

~What happened?~ Dani was no less startled than her companion, who stared at the visibly worn woman.

~You sped up the flow of time within the wood. It dried out, and then the faster oxidation caused it to catch fire. With training and practice, you will be able to stop, or even reverse that flow in a limited area. ~

~That's what you did with Snefru, right?~

~In part, daughter. There is more even to that, and it touches on abilities you have, but for now it might be well to get more fires started.~

Despite her weariness -- this new power seemed to drain her even more than her telekinesis -- the goddess was right. The avatar struggled to her feet and wrapped herself in her warmest garments; she bolted out of her lodging and fought her way, through the storm, to the next tent.

*****

Archippe watched for a moment, then looking at the blazing fire, she understood with painful clarity what her lover had in mind. She quickly gathered her own furs, but she was startled when Atanea pushed her way in.

"How did you get a fire started? I know you didn't have any dry wood, earlier."

Archippe's face showed her near panic. "Dani did ... something. She seemed to listen to someone then asked me to set up our fire pit. She reached out her hand and suddenly we had a fire!"

Atanea looked around. "Where...?"

"I don't know! She looked so tired, but she put her furs on and went out. I think she means to start fires in the other tents, but I don't know if she'll survive!"

Atanea nodded. "We'll have to do what we can to make sure she does survive. Did you see which way she went?"

"No."

"I'll go out and turn right; you head left when you're dressed. We'll make sure she has someone with her, at least."

A minute later, a warm, lonely fire flickered -- a beacon of silent hope.

*****

Cold.

Hippolyta had every fur in her tent wrapped around herself and her baby, but the blizzard's wind cut through every wrapping. Her extended family was huddled together in a desperate attempt to share body heat, but without a fire, morning would find them all frozen.

Wind blasted into her face, for a moment, and a shadow began moving near the dripping pile of wood in the fire pit. Cold-muddled thoughts came sluggishly.

~Death has come for us.~

Death crouched, still as ice; a dark limb stretched out toward the wood. Suddenly,in the middle of the wood, a spark flared; light blinded her as fire leapt from log to log. She felt warmth on her face.

Hippolyta blinked, her eyes adjusted to the sudden light, and she recognized the figure she'd thought was Death come for her family, as it staggered back out into the blizzard's fury.


*****

Dani leaned into the wind, trying to peer into the storm to spot another dark tent in the frigid night. Her eyes seemed better able to distinguish between snow-covered tents and piled up snow, for some reason. Her face was numb, despite her wrappings. She spotted another dark tent nearby and fought her way through rapidly accumulating snow.

Half-way there, her legs gave out. She found herself caught by her arms. A voice she should know spoke softy near her ear.

"Come, my love; take a moment to rest."

"Can't. They don't have time. Must try...."

Dani surged back to her own feet; struggling free of the restraining arms, she drove her way toward her destination.

Archippe growled in frustration and followed. She couldn't stop Dani, but she'd make sure her love would survive or die in the attempt.

She'd lost her husband. She wouldn't give her new love up without a fight.

*****

Dani didn't remember how she'd gotten back to her tent; sheer exhaustion had stripped her of anything more than the strength to stagger to the next shelter and light another fire. There was a vague memory of strong, soft arms that had caught her as she began to fall, but she'd had no energy to even turn her head to see who it was.

Dani opened her eyes and saw one of the young women settled on the floor nearby. There wasn't time to even open her mouth before the weary woman was propped up and drinking a warm broth. Grateful warmth flowed into her body as the liquid began to work its own brand of magic. A brief gust of chill air swirled into the tent, as Archippe and Atanea entered.

"You almost died, you know." Archippe's mild words belied the fear laced through her voice.

"I'm too tired to argue right now," Dani shrugged. "Is everyone safe? How long was I asleep?"

"Everyone," answered Atanea, "every man, woman, and child in the camp is safe and well -- thanks to you." The woman shook her head. "You slept for two days, Dani, and you'd not have made it if this one," she pointed at Archippe, "hadn't chased you down in the snow and practically carried you to the last few tents. The storm has broken, and we're back to normal for now."

Dani's tent-mate tried to glare, but her still intense relief softened her gaze. "We could have brought people into fewer tents to spare you, my dear one, but thank you for saving us all -- again." She knelt down beside her lover and brushed stray hair from Dani's face. Tears trailed down Archippe's face. "Please don't do that again. I couldn't bear it."

Blinking back a sudden rush of her own tears, Dani tried to lighten the atmosphere. "Suicidal rescues are one of my specialties." Her smile wavered despite her attempt to control her reaction to her lover's distress. "So what now?"

The twin glares were almost intimidating.

"You," Archippe said, sniffing, "are going to stay put, rest, and recover. There are no clouds on the horizon in any direction, and you don't need to start any more of your projects for a while."

"The scouts have been out for the last day in all directions," Atanea continued, "and there aren't any other tribes within two days’ journey. You *will* rest."

Dani relaxed back onto the furs and cushions, resigned to the inevitable. She didn't even notice when sleep again overtook her.

*****

The smell that greeted her when she woke again was familiar.

~Iri's stew?~

A quick glance around the tent revealed the absence of the large, bronze cauldron. Dani stretched and reached for her clothing. The tribe was up to something, and she had no doubt that she was to be the focus at some point.

Freshening up in the water that had been thoughtfully provided, she finally stepped out from the tent to see the aftermath of her efforts.

The women, and men, that circulated around the cooking fires at the center of the camp spotted her and, despite the residual air of weariness, swarmed to give their heartfelt thanks to the stranger who'd become a true heroine of their very own.

The tribal council was quickly summoned, and Dani found herself on the receiving end of the formal thanks of each clan. She was also informed that the tribe had delved into its supplies to prepare the stew that Dani had cooked before, and a feast was planned for that afternoon, in celebration of the tribe's survival.

The nomads were less than pleased when Dani refused the offer of a tent and the pick of the herds, and even more so when she explained her reason for refusing.

"I can't say how much it means to me that you made the offer, but I cannot stay with you for too long. My goddess has already said I have other tasks ahead of me. If you really want to give me a gift, then there is something you can do.

"First, keep the cauldron; I can't take it with me, and I intended it as a gift for all of you anyway. I'd ask you to remember me when you share this stew, and know that you will all be a memory I will carry in my heart wherever I go.

"The second gift I ask of you is that you would all let go of any grudge you hold against each other. I know there are those who still feel the pain of their loss, and their hurt is bitter and deep. The tribe will be stronger if you accept each other as your sisters. Look ahead, not back."

*****

By the time the first, faint breaths of the coming spring began to reach into the snow-covered lands where the nomads roamed, Dani was reconsidering her dedication to environmental correctness. Despite lavish provision of clothing in her nearly miraculous backpack, she felt as if she hadn't been warm for three months.

~Oil, gas, wood, peat ... I don't *care* as long as I thaw and stay thawed!~

Winter had been hard on man and beast, but their losses had been fairly light, though Dani felt each burial keenly -- especially those children who fell to disease, cold, or some undiagnosed weakness.

She felt a sense of satisfaction, though, as a number of tribeswomen had become fluent in the trading language over the long cold season. The scouts, too, were gaining in proficiency as they ranged widely over the plains. A few of the more enterprising riders were turning their efforts to archery on a moving horse, and their lively competition was beginning to turn them into an agile force that was to be feared by any attackers.

The tribe's council was settling into a working arrangement as well; there were those who still nursed their grudges, but their numbers were too small to impair the business and progress of the new, united tribe.

Overall, Dani decided, the situation was as good as she could have hoped. With any luck, there would be some additional men that would find their way into the clans over the spring and summer, and as the young boys grew up, the tribe should grow and thrive.

~I agree, dear daughter. You have done well, and I am very proud of you.~

Dani blushed at the silent praise. ~Thank you, My Lady.~

~I fear that it is time for the next step of your journey home, though. I know you have grown to love these people -- and one in particular -- but there are others who need your intervention.~

The avatar blushed at the reference to her affection for Archippe. The friendship had grown into a deep sharing that Dan had never known, and the thought of leaving her behind brought a mist of tears.

~May I say goodbye to her, and all of them, Ma'at?~

The warmth of her goddess's embrace was suddenly around her, and her tears escaped her best effort to contain them. She sobbed out her pain and loss, and Ma'at whispered words of comfort into her mind, as invisible hands gently stroked her hair..

~I will not deprive you, or them, of a chance to say goodbye to a loved one. Tomorrow evening, at sunset, is soon enough, my sweet child. Weep, Daughter; let your sorrow out. I will be here, with you, for all eternity. You will never be alone, whatever comes.~

*****


Cool air puffed across Archippe's back. It was her turn to prepare their evening meal; she loved her chance to sit and talk over her day with the woman she'd come to love so much. She felt a vague sense of loss; she'd never have a child with Dani, but it was a price she'd willingly pay for their shared joy together.

"You're early! Are you still tired from last night?" Archippe turned to look at her tent-mate, and her teasing died in her throat at Dani's tear-stained face. "What's wrong?"

Dani swallowed hard. "It's time, my love. My goddess has called me to travel on."

"No! Can you not ask her to stay? Or take me with you?"

Dani's tears flowed again, but it was Ma'at who answered.

"I am sorry, child; I would spare you, and my daughter, if it were possible. She is my avatar, my eyes and hands in this world, and only she may do my work in the worlds that are to come -- if those worlds are to be at all. I wish it could be otherwise; I know how much you love each other."

"Must she leave now? May we have a little time to say goodbye?"

Dani's body stepped forward. "You have until tomorrow, at sunset. I will not take her away a moment before I must. I give you my firm promise of that."

"I must tell the others."

"My daughter will sleep for a time. Go now; do what you must."

*****

Their night had had an almost desperate quality to it, as the two women tried to compress years into hours. It surprised Dani that, rather than a sexual marathon, their white night passed in intimate sharing of hopes, dreams, expectations, and tears.

Packing was hard when the obnoxiously bright, clear morning finally came, and the feast held to say goodbye was hardly easier to tolerate. No one cared to dance, and their songs were more in the way of mournful farewells -- the sunshine itself seemed to be dimmed.

As the sun settled into the great sea, Dani finally made her way to a small hill that overlooked the camp. She turned and waved to a lonely figure that stood by the central campfire.

Even her thoughts were choked by tears that streamed from her eyes. ~I'm ready, My Lady.~

~I know you hurt, dear child, but I promise you will find a new love who will be even more dear to you.~

Archippe watched the tall figure at the top of the hill, and her eyes blurred as tears spilled down her face. She was distracted for a moment, as the soft voice of a woman whispered in her ear.

"Cherish her memory, daughter, but you will find new love, as will she."

The nomad looked quickly around to see who was speaking, but the area was empty.

She looked back to the hill to see Dani's form flare like a star and vanish.

*****

The heat was like a blow after the icy, northern plains. Dani looked around and smiled as she recognized her surroundings. She stood on a ridge above the broad, familiar river valley that was bordered with seemingly endless miles of ochre desert stretching to the horizon on each side.

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