Chapter 14: Stress Rehearsal
The town's main avenue, beginning at the north gate, bisected the central square to form a midway crossed, in several places, by connecting side alleys. On market days, the square quickly filled with carts, stalls, stands, tables and booths stocked with common and exotic wares. The huge, circular wash basin was situated at the center of the square. When the women came to town to do the week's laundry and, in the process, to catch up on the latest gossip, they placed pillows or rugs on the pool's surrounding stone pediment to cushion their knees.
The town center sat on the crest of a hummock which sloped in steppes to the sandy, winding coastline on both sides of the square. On the Thermaikos or western, seaward side of town, a steep escarpment, negotiated by sharply angular flights of wooden stairs and rickety hand railings, descended to the small harbor where the local fleet of fishing smacks and sand trawlers dropped anchor, each evening, at their moorings in the marina. The tiny port lay within the protected cove of a shallow, stillwater bay that gleamed a smooth, teal blue at sunset.
Salt water fishing was one of the town's two commercial enterprises. Fishing was also a major source of year-round recreation. Warrior princesses and peasant farm girls took up angling as soon as they were old enough to hold a pole and bait a hook. Some went in for the rougher, more challenging and dangerous sport of grappling: spotting a nasty gar, ornery eel or mean-tempered pike burrowing under a rock and, after sneaking up on the prey, lunging to grab hold of it before it could slither away. In one smooth toss, they lofted their capture in a high, graceful arc to land on the bank where the startled creature writhed and sputtered, then flopped, shivered and finally lay still.
On the eastern, leeward side of the square, the descent dipped more gradually to the Toroneos Gulf past the sprawling pottery works, the town's other commercial enterprise. The clay deposits along these salt water flats were rich in compounds that made for excellent throwing and shaping on the potter's wheel. Glazed and fired in large brick kilns, these pitchers, urns, pots, bowls, basins, plates and cups were extremely durable and rendered stylishly attractive by the brushcraft of a guild of local artisans. Poteidaia pottery, like Corinth glass, was in high demand throughout the archipelago and sold for handsome prices in the larger, regional markets at Amphipolis and Thessaloniki.
Though some of the town's export trade debarked by sea, the greater part of it depended upon land transport northeast to Thrace and then further north and east to the southern stretches of Bulgary and the Carpathian passes; northwest to the central Macedonian plateau and, further on, to the western reaches of Thessaly, Ilyria and the borderlands of Dalmatia. Hence the necessity to assure safe passage along the region's rutted, winding roads and thus, too, in the absence of a reliable constabulary, the tendency of itinerant, landless warlords to swoop down on small caravans of teamsters and peddlers in the hope of making off with their livelihood while, on occasion, going so far as to relieve them of their lives.
South of town, the isthmus broadened gradually from its narrow neck to form a wider, more spacious and rolling cape. A long, tree-lined esplanade bordered the athletic arena to the east and the open-air telesterion to the west. Both structures were roughly oval in shape with beveled grandstands for spectator seating. The telesterion, which rose nearly a storey in height, consisted of semi-circular rows of stone benches and a rectangular stage in the pit whose pillars, with their broad, imposing capitals, were the sole items of scenery. At either wing of the stage, between tall colonnades, dim porticoes led to interior foyers where the performers mingled for set and costume changes. As there was no lighting other than sparse torches inserted into a ring of sconces at the rear of the telesterion, performances were scheduled in the daytime or, for special events, the fall festival being one, at twilight.
Lila arrived at the main square to see the wagons with their wide trays of goods and trinkets pushed to the perimeter and lined up in rows under the parapet of the stockade, leaving the square vacant for the night's feasting and dancing. The Felafel Man, who'd come to cater the affair, had set his tubs, vats and chaffing dishes to simmer and bubble with the night's repast. Carpenters were busily rigging the stage to seat the musicians. Hawkers were scurrying about with their piles of souvenirs and stacks of merchandise as the town's gleaming facades sparkled after their recent wall hosing and street cleaning.
With her piglet snuggled under one arm and toting her costume in a satchel with her free hand, Lila joined the flow of the crowd through the commercial district, past the apothecary, the counting house and the reever's office, then followed its meandering pace out to the esplanade whose curving walkways were bordered with parallel rows of acacia, willow and cypress trees interspersed with a variety of bright, green, closely cropped hedges and topiary shrubs. The crowd milled about at the front entrance to the telesterion as Lila darted around to the rear.
"Oh, Miss Lila!" cried Nicanor, the game warden, "Over this way, my love!"
Lila approached the pen where the piglets were to be kept during the performance.
"I count it a great honor to be gazin’ ‘pon the countenance of the goddess, Demeter, whilst she were strollin' 'bout the grounds on such a balmy night at this," Nicanor stuck his thumbs in his belt loops and chuckled. "Here, let me have a gander at the little dumplin’. Ah, here ‘tis: I see as how you got a tag set in his ear so I’ll know who be his mistress." Nicanor took the squealing piglet from Lila's outstretched arms. "I won't be mistaken him for nobody else's, the cute little skate; that you can be sure of."
"Thanks, it’s good of you to look after him," Lila said, affectionately patting the little piglet.
"Don’t be thinkin’ nothin’ of it, Miss Lila," Nicanor jiggled the piglet in his arms. "A pokey little chuck, ain’t he? Choiros mikros, pig, pig, pig! Pink as your mistress' pretty, round cheek, you’ll soon be, won't you, piggy? He'll make for a tasty solstice dinner, I shouldn't wonder, lard him with a mold of mint jelly and a tub of figgy puddin' to spice up the platter. Why, Miss Lila, don't be starin' so affrighted now. I were only makin' a crude little joke. 'Twere as plain as day how you've been takin’ good, fine care in raisin' him. So don't you be frettin', my dear. I'll be lookin' after him all the while you're busy within and gone about your festival business.
"Ahh, here were the double eta, just as you were sayin’, tagged 'pon the little fella's ear: That were Master Herodotus' and Ms. Hecuba's markin' right enough. You may be countin' 'pon me, Miss Lila, and no need to be botherin' your head nor all that mass of long, dark hair what I seen you weren't windin' 'round your crown in a tight, twisty braid as once you done ere you growed up and got a mite round in the belly and so awful pretty in the face. You come for him when your playactin' were done. And don't you be frettin' none neither, little tyke. We're off to keep a chipper watch, you and me, whilst your good mistress goes about her goddess' trusty errand. One went to guild hall, one went to sea, one went to market, cryin' 'Wee, wee, we...' Never you fear, Miss Lila, I'll be lookin' after him fine and dandy, and a squat little pudge I reckon he'll be when it come time, 'pon the solstice, to butter and baste him."
Lila moseyed away from the livestock shed and entered backstage via a cool, narrow passageway. In a busy cordon to the rear of the stage, out of sight of the crowd, two dozen enaretes kores were brushing their hair and changing into their costumes. These young adepts, all in white, wore flowing skirts and loose, low hanging, sashed tunics. Late summer flowers were woven in wiry circlets worn as diadems in their short, long, straight, wavy, light or dark hair: white chrysanthemum for the chorus maidens, purple delphinium for Persephone, parched thistle for Hades, garnet marigold for Demeter.
"Did anyone bring an extra candle by any chance?" Anike, the ravenhaired beauty from the neighboring village of Olinthos, whom the hierophant had cast in the role of Persephone, inquired of the others. "I could have sworn I'd stuck my candle in my pack. Ooh, if that harebrained, little sister of mine went and nicked it on me, I'll tear her limb from limb. I've been meaning to tear the little brat to pieces anyhow."
"Can anyone put Anike out of her misery?" Lila polled the group as she climbed out of her blouse and skirt and began to slip on her long white gown. "Milora, would you mind terribly if Anike carried your candle in the procession? She'll be coming in right behind me, and it would look really rad if we had a gap in the lighting at the very beginning."
"But then it'll look like I forgot my candle," Milora protested from her changing stall.
"It's asking a lot, I know," Lila said, "but would you mind terribly being be a sport just this once?"
Milora stared daggers at Anike. "Here," she fumed. "Take it before I change my mind."
"Go on, take it," Lila nodded at Anike.
Anike reluctantly accepted the candle.
"You owe me, Anike," Milora said in a tone which suggested that, at a time that would no doubt be desperately inconvenient, Milora would be showing up on Anike’s doorstep to make good the debt.
"I think I'll dismember her," Anike grumbled, thinking of her little sister. "I'll start with the toes and work my way up to the knees, the hips, the shoulders, the neck, the smile on her grimpy little face.…"
The remaining adepts came floating in until they'd all changed into their costumes. Meanwhile, the crowd, including Alexis and her parents and, hopefully, as Alexis craned her neck to survey the audience, The Big O and the uncle with whom he shared modest digs on the second floor of the counting house, were packing the stands and finding seats.
"Who brought the flint?" Lila said in a hushed voice.
"Yo!" Eirene, who was playing the part of Hades, handed Lila the lighting tool. "Yeejjj..., nobody told me these thorny things were gonna be gouging into my skull," Eirene tried to get the circlet of thistle to ride more easily on top of her head.
"Anike," Lila said, taking account of Eirene's crown of thistles, "when Rini slings you over her shoulder, try not to grab her around the head, okay?"
"I’m gonna have to grab hold of something," Anike said. "Aren't I supposed to kick and squirm and make like I’m trying to worm my way out of it?"
"Well, just be careful when you're slogging around up there," Lila said.
"Lee, are we supposed to do that wavy, slow motion thing before of after Anike gets carried off by Rini?" Milora wanted to know.
"Right after. Did everybody hear what Milora was just asking?" Lila polled the group. "It's supposed to be a slow, sad wave that gets made in one, long, continuous movement. The corn stalks are mourning for Persephone who's been carried off to the underworld."
"Mourning for her?" Milora eyeballed Anike. "Why do I somehow not think so?"
"Stuff it, Milora. If you wanna do Persephone and get slung over Rini's shoulder, be my guest," Anike burst out. "Then you can have your precious candle back."
"Never mind," Milora said, icily. "I don't want it back now that you've gotten your moogay-de-bwa all over the freaking thing."
"Allright, you two, ditch it," Lila put her foot down and then called for the group's attention. "We've got a couple, three turns of the sandglass before we go on, so let's focus in on what we came here to do. Let’s get lined up and take a few falling sand grains to settle down and get in touch with the spirit of thesmoph... Anike, what seems to be the trouble now?"
"It’s this darn pin. It keeps coming undone," Anike fumbled with the pin which held her sash to her skirt.
"Then pin it so it doesn’t come undone! My goodness," Lila glared at Anike. "C'mon, get lined up."
The chorus maidens lined up behind Lila, Anike and Eirene. Lila took the flint and lit her candle, touching its wick to the wick of Anike's candle. Anike then touched the lit wick of her candle to the wick of Eirene's candle and so on down the line until each of the candles was lit. Then Lila called for silence and led the group in prayer.
"Gaiamitros, Basilissa Lamprotita – Earth Mother, Bright Queen and Source of Light from whose sheltering arms the joy of love was torn away only to be restored, grant that we, your loving daughters, may so live our lives in service to others that hearts which have been broken may be healed and made whole."
In the few falling sand grains of silent bonding which followed the invocation, Lila's heart uttered a wordless prayer, humbly asking the light of grace to shine on her mother.
Then Lila lifted her candle high in the air and cried, "Photeinos!"
"Photeinos!" cried the ensemble.
"Photeinos!" cried the crowd in their seats, taking their cue from the shout in the wings. The torches flared in the aisles as the processional emerged onto the stage.
The chorus maidens, holding their candles, took their places in a line between the rear columns: twenty-four points of flickering flame in the deepening twilight.
"Day now is done, evening draws nigh; the sun slowly sinks, the moon rises high..."
The chorus maidens blew out their candles and set them aside. One of the chorus maidens reached behind the nearest pillar and, selecting the appropriate prop, held aloft a big, round, orange ball which she slowly swung in a downward arc while a second chorus maiden, also reaching behind the nearest pillar for the corresponding prop, took a big, round, yellow ball and slowly swung it in an upward arc.
"Summer is gone, autumn approaches; the crops are all stacked in their cribs and their coaches."
A third chorus maiden went to one of the wings and came back with a toy wagon filled with a pile of hay on top of which sat a sign that read "To Market --->".
Then Lila took a few steps toward the audience.
"I am Demeter, queen of the grain; sometimes in sunshine..."
One of the chorus maidens grabbed the orange ball and held it up.
"...Sometimes in rain..."
Another chorus maiden reached for a waterskin and pressed its belly between her hands to send a gurgling shower up and over her head, the falling spray dousing the two chorus maidens immediately to her left.
"Zeus's gooses, Ipatia, would you watch where you're slinging that darn thing," one of the soused chorus maidens muttered through a teeth-clenching smile.
"Alas and alack, 'twould sure be the death of me...,"
Demeter sighed as the chorus maidens crossed their hands over their breasts and went, "Ohhh..."
"Were I ever to lose my darling Per-seth-o-nee."
Then Persephone stepped out from the line.
"I am Persephone, a maid of rare beauty..."
The chorus maidens extended their arms and, with open hands, went, "Ahhh..."
"But that won't prevent me from doing my duty..."
One of the chorus maidens turned around, grabbed a mop from behind one of the pillars and, with a groan, began pushing it back and forth on the stage.
"To be there for Mom when the dark heaven glowers..."
Another chorus maiden held up a fluffy white cotton ball with strings of raisins hanging down to represent rain from a cloud.
"But meanwhile I think I'll go out picking flowers."
Persephone began to flutter about the stage, miming flower picking motions.
Then Hades stepped out from the line.
"I am Hades, loose and lanky..."
Joined by the crowd, the chorus maidens went Boo! Hiss! Go back to the stinkhole you just crawled out of! Some held their thumbs and fingers over their noses.
"I learned my best moves from the good Widow Twanky."
"Ugh, not her! Her army wears mother boots!" the chorus maidens cried.
Then Hades skulked about the stage as the chorus maidens scattered hither and yon, rebuffing his crude advances.
"I spy dear Perseph, gowned in the mist; her beauty o'erwhelms me, I cannot resist."
"Then try whelming a little harder!" the chorus maidens urged.
"Out of my way, maidens so fair," the crown of thistles kept slipping to the side so that Eirene had to keep reaching up to straighten it, "I intend to bring 'Sephone back to my lair. My brother is Zeus, the other's Poseidon; there's no point in runnin' away or in hidin'."
Then Hades lunged and grabbed Persephone around the waist.
"Why, sir, how uncouth to encircle me thus," Persephone got slinky as if to tango. "Without my permission, 'twere hardly a plus."
"'Tis long I've awaited this moment, my daisy," Hades lugubriated while the chorus maidens made faces and plugged their fingers in their ears. "I have to confess you've been drivin' me crazy."
Then, to the chorus maidens' cries of Yick! Yuck! and Bleaggh! Hades scooped Persephone off her feet and slung her over his shoulder.
"Ouch!" Anike cried. "I’m telling you that flipping pin doesn't wanna stay pinned!"
"Don't grab on so hard!" Eirene hissed, staggering off-balance with Anike turnip-sacked over her shoulder. "My crown's falling off."
"Jaaahhh!" Anike howled as the thorny thistles jabbed her skin.
"Don't let it drop!" Eirene said in a frantic whisper. "I haven't got my slippers on and I can't see where I'm stepping."
Several chorus maidens rushed over to help keep Anike propped on Eirene's shoulders, managing, eventually, to shove them into the wings.
"Persephone, child, it's time to come in," Demeter moved to center stage, with her hand held salute-like on her brow, scanning the horizon for her daughter. "The day's nearly done, let's wash up for din."
Nothing happened for a few seconds. Finally, Lila looked behind her at the row of chorus maidens and said, in a loud stage whisper, "Now, Milora, the wave!"
The chorus maidens took several steps to the right, left foot dragging, as they twirled their hands in front of them in a clockwise motion.
"Persephone's left you bereft and forsaken, to Hades dark chamber your child has been taken."
Then the chorus maidens reversed direction and, with hands moving in a counter-clockwise motion, they took several steps to the left, right foot dragging.
"To sit on his throne and to rule as his queen; then party all night, boy, that's really a scene."
"At dawn and at dusk, I'll not slumber nor sleep," Demeter wailed, "'til I've got her back from that horrible creep. Now all through the earth, men will know that she's gone, no fields and no meadows, not even a lawn."
Each of the chorus maidens reached for a tall stalk of corn which they held upright beside them like vertical spears. In one swooping motion, their knees sank and they flopped down on the stage floor, letting the corn stalks fall and scatter.
Demeter tromped about the stage scowling at the audience. "Famine rules a land of fools and all the crops are blighted; that sneaky thief brought on this grief, I hope he's just delighted."
Then Demeter sat down in a funk beside a large clay urn which two of the chorus maidens had dragged onto the stage and over which they'd hoisted a sign that said "The Well".
"A-boo, a-boo, a-boo-hoo-hoo," Demeter wept.
Four of the chorus maidens, Milora and three others, skipped out from the line, making flower tossing motions while toting make believe straw baskets over the crooks of their elbows.
"Celeus' daughters are we, tee hee, we laugh, we sing and we're happy; except for our brother who's quick needs a nurse to change and to powder his nappy."
One of the chorus maidens waved a cloth diaper like a flag on a stick.
Demeter raised her teary eyes and beheld Celeus' carefree daughters. "That's what I'll do to lighten my pain, that's what'll keep me from frying my brain. I'll take that young lad and I'll make him immortal; I'll have the last laugh and boy, will I chortle."
Demeter and Celeus' daughters then joined hands and gaily skipped in a circle to show how pleased they were to have found one another. The daughters went back to the chorus line and another chorus maiden came forward, her head swathed in a baby bonnet tied with a string under her chin. She lay down on the stage and rolled herself up in a ball, sucking her thumb.
"The Baby!" the chorus maidens pointed.
"The Fire!" the chorus maidens pointed at Demeter who mimed coal shoveling and fire lighting motions.
"The Magic of Making The Baby Immortal!" the chorus maidens pointed at Demeter who mimicked making-baby-immortal gestures by heaping coals from the fire on him.
Demeter held a finger to her lips to shush the chorus maidens. "Metaneira, his mother, will hear."
"And think that you're terribly queer," the chorus maidens replied.
"I'm doing her son a good service."
"But mortals, they tend to get nervous."
"So childless forever I'll moan."
"For the loss of your dear Perse-phone."
"Then humans all do I fetter," Demeter rose from the stage floor as the baby got up and re-joined the line of chorus maidens.
"But things are about to get better," the chorus maidens cried.
Persephone and Hades entered from the wings. Persephone had one arm looped around Hades' shoulders, fawning on him. Hades opened his mouth and Persephone popped a grape into it.
"Hey, Dem, we're back; don't blow your stack," Hades called out.
"Big surprises, I've grown two sizes," Persephone told her mother.
The chorus maidens wagged their chary fingers at Persephone. "Bet we know what yew've been dewwing. Bet we know who yew've been screww..."
Lila whipped around and hushed the chorus maidens with a florid look.
"Dearest child, you're back at last," Demeter reached out to embrace her wayward daughter, "the future bodes, forget the past."
"Yah, well, Mom, it's not that simple," Persephone stood her ground, "he's got a really sexy dimple. So how about if you guys share; you up here and him down there."
"Sharing! Sharing!" the chorus maidens fanned out in a circle to join hands in a ring around the re-united threesome. "Good things come from sharing!"
"Hades a son-in-law? Gives me conniptions," Demeter wavered. "Better an army of horny Egyptians."
"His pad's really cool and it's very well furnished," Persephone sidled up to Demeter. "He says that he likes me, I think he's in earnesht."
"What can I do, I'll have to adapt," Demeter said, extending a wary hand to Hades, "but cheat on my kid and I'll see you get zapped."
"I promise you, Dem, I'll do no such thing," Hades took Demeter's hand and gave it a shake, "she's mine in the autumn and yours in the spring."
"Can't we reverse it, that's really a bummer," Persephone looked back and forth from Demeter to Hades, "I'll be cold in the winter and hot in the summer."
"We must think of others, not only of us," Demeter swept her hand toward the audience with a huge smile, "so let the land bloom and don't make a fuss."
The chorus maidens picked up the corn stalks and held them upright.
"Pers," Demeter reached out to Persephone.
"Mom," Persephone reached out to Demeter.
"Yowww!!" Anike cried. "I'm telling you that frigging pin won't stay pinned!"
"Where is it? Maybe I can reach it," Lila said, her arms around Anike as the chorus maidens gathered up their candles and got ready for the recessional.
"There, you almost had it," Anike said, clinging to Lila.
"Is this it?" Lila said, groping about.
"Lower. Grab my butt. Other cheek. Now work your way up...."
"See how little it is?"
"So why didn't you bring a bigger one?"
"I didn't think I'd need a bigger one."
"Sharing, sharing," Eirene leaned in quietly. "Hugs are nice but keep 'em sparing."
"I think I'm bleeding," Anike muttered.
"You'll live," Lila grumbled and released her.
Then, with forced grins on their faces, Demeter and Hades, flanking Persephone, bowed to the audience and filtered back to take their places in the line of chorus maidens.
The ceremony concluded with the chorus maidens performing the dromena, a sacred dance which began and ended in a circle and was interspersed with figures which brought the dancers side to side, forward and back, linked and crossed, alternating with a chorus that had them weaving in and out of their line in a serpentine promenade.
Then the chorus maidens re-formed their line and faced the audience. Lila lit the lead candle and the flame got passed around.
"Photeinos!" Lila thrust her candle high in the air.
"Photeinos!" the chorus maidens followed suit.
"Photeinos!" the audience cried in response.
"Demeter, whose cup did overflow, with mortal weal and mortal woe, to thee we pledge our honor sure, that all our lives we serve thee pure."
Then Lila led the chorus maidens offstage, through the wings and into the rear foyer where they blew out their candles and went around to the back of the stage to collect their props.
"Anike, have sense enough to bring a bigger pin next time," Lila said as the adepts were gathering up their things. "And would you double check to make sure you’ve got your candle in your bag?"
"Sounds to me like somebody’s getting a pretty swelled head these days," Anike shot back, searching in her purse for a tube of cherry red lip gloss. "Gab runs off with Xena; Lexie decks a couple of goons, and you go getting the notion that being our leader somehow makes you our boss. I'll tend to this later," Anike, sans lip gloss, snapped her purse shut, gathered up her costume and stalked off.
"Of all the phony baloney,,,," Lila started to fume but stopped herself in mid-expletive.
Was it true what Anike had just intimated? Had Lila, in fact, been getting a trifle big for her bloomers since Gab had taken up with Xena? Lila had always been pretty, a quality she took more or less for granted, though she'd never given it much thought. She'd have crawled into a hole and pulled the lid over it before she'd have permitted herself to be a tease or a flirt. The only guy she'd been remotely interested in had been Andros; even then, her interest had been a passing fancy, nothing that had lit up the night sky, nothing that she could truthfully say she missed now that he'd gone off to war.
Maybe Anike had a point. Other than Herodotus, Hecuba, Gab, Alexis and the sibyl, Lila wasn’t in the habit of reaching out to people. Her range of acquaintances was small, her circle of friends tiny. And sometimes, she had to admit, she really did feel a trifle special, maybe not in the way that Gab might be special – rising above the roar of the crowd to proclaim, "Here I am, take me..." when the cry for a hero, or a hero's companion, had gone out from a land in turmoil – but special in her own, less obtrusive way. Was that snobbery? Was it arrogance? Was it wrong of Lila to feel that way? Was it hurtful to others who might feel offended or diminished because she may have felt that way?
"I’d better go get Cory," Lila reminded herself to retrieve her ritually consecrated choiros mikros, the little tyke whom she'd raised from a suckling and whose ham and chops and salted cuts would be gracing the family table during the cold, dark, fallow moonmarks of the rainy, overcast winter, may the gods forgive the blood that will be on our hands in that gray and painful season. May our little piggy forgive us for betraying him, the hands that now nurture him with care being the hands that will one day show him no mercy. May I forgive Gab for walking out on us. May I be forgiven for feeling that Gab needs to be forgiven for doing what she wanted to do and what I know she needed to do.
"If I spot Anike in the crowd, maybe I’ll go over and apologize," Lila said to herself as she folded her costume, stuck it into the satchel and headed for the exit.
With her satchel slung over one shoulder and the piglet couched in her arms, Lila wandered up the hill from the curving, tree-lined paths of the esplanade to the marketplace that was quickly filling with a crowd of boisterous partygoers. A large stage had been set up between the convergence of two alleys that fronted on the main square. The Felafel Man was maitre d'ing his catering staff – servers, waitrons and buspersons – barking orders, pointing here and there, gesticulating at those of his assistants who couldn't hear his cries above the growing din. Canty had lined up the kegs of dark and pale ale that now sat on wooden sawhorses alongside the Felafel Man's mega-cart, stacked trays of swabbed, upside down mugs at the ready. Tyldus and Chiron were standing off to the side, chatting amiably with Mickey and Timmy about their recent run-ins with Latrinus' goon squad.
"When first I seen 'em bearin' down 'pon the old keg wagon, I know'ed as how I'd get me but one hearty pop at them ragin’ buggers ere they dumped me in the scrum. So I picks out the lead lout and crowns him a lively crop ‘pon the noggin...," Mickey feinted with a blow as he related the tale of how he survived his mugging. "Then quick as flies swarmin' 'round a jamb of rottin' pork, there sprung up a passel of armed gits from 'twixt the bloody tree trunks. Me old roisin-arm don't strike near so good a blow as it done aforetimes, and 'tweren't long 'til down I went with a cuff and a chuff and a clap ‘pon the pate. 'Twere then the rascals made off with me kegs and vittles and come near to drivin' old Floss into the ford – bit, bridle, harness and all; beggin' your pardon, Master Tyldus, and yours as well, Master Chiron. But I’ll own as how Herodotus, Clenesthides, Timmy here and t'others done right well by me. Come to me lodgin's that night, brung meat, grubs and hotcakes and fill't me old pewter to the brim with a yard of foamin’ ale for which good deed, by Dio's ripe and drippin' grapes, I were ever wont to be in their debt."
Mickey raised his mug as Tim and the two centaurs made merry and clapped him heartily on the back.
"As for me, I'd not seen hide nor hair of the rubbish what were lurkin' in the brush," Timmy held forth. "Not 'til they jumps up as loud as a brown bear in labor, and ere I'd got me wits ‘bout me, the bleedin' refuse starts to clubbin' me with sticks and fists and mauls and mallets for naught save beatin' the bloody blisters out of me. Then down I goes like a bleedin' malt sack which were the very staple them rogues were after. Cleaned me out, they did, and left me with no dearth of broken ribs for me pains.
"So 'twere lately I were sayin' to the old gal, on account of me havin' been beat up so bad, I were pointin' to the topmost sack of meal what were lyin' on its shelf in the store room, and I says to the wife, I says, 'I can do the greasin' and the grindin' of it well enough...' – I were speakin' of the chaffin' pole – '...but I canna get it up and stick in no more...,' meanin' what with me cuff and collar all broke and bandaged, me good arm weren't in no shape to be liftin' them sacks up to the chute and pourin' what were in 'em down to the wheel shaft. So me old gal, she were turnin' to me with a face as plain as porridge and out she were comin’ with, 'Timmy, lad, by Hermes' cracked staff, you keep gettin' it up and stickin' it in like you done in days of old, and when it come to stiffenin' up the old pole, you leave the greasin' and the grindin' of it to me..."
Timmy and Mickey guffawed as Tyldus and Chiron shook their hairy heads and hoo-ha'ed.
"There they be, Herodotus and Hecuba!" Mickey cried. "Ho! This way, chums! And mind your shawl, Missy Hecuba. Canty's dam were near ‘bout to burst," Mickey pointed to the kegs that Canty was getting ready to tap. "and us with our trunks on, waitin’ for old Cant to be givin’ us the sign to go wadin' knee-deep in the brew."
"Most respeckable couple in town, them two," Timmy said to Tyldus and Chiron. "And they got the twa’ prettiest daughters to boot."
Herodotus and Hecuba strolled over to join the group of party watchers.
"Girls, please... the ruffles, the creases. It cost me five dinars to get this outfit drycleaned. Daphne, Phoebe, the rest of you charming Maenads, some breathing space, if you don't mind... Wait, come back here. Not that much breathing space," Salmoneus was holding forth at the raffle table, engulfed by a gaggle of nubile and scantily clad young co-eds who'd draped themselves over his gold-speckled, blue silk, knee-length tunic.
"Oh, you big, strong Sally Poo," one of the skimpily attired Maenads cooed as Lila came strolling by, "won’t you tell us again how you and Herc showed up at the wedding in time to save Jason and Alcmene from getting swallowed up by that ugly old sea serpent."
Sally Poo? Lila paused and gave Salmoneus a caustic look. So you and Herc showed up to Jason and Alcmene's wedding in time to save them from getting swallowed up by an ugly old sea serpent, did you?
"Ahh, yah; you mean that ugly, old sea serpent." Having spotted Lila loitering nearby, a sheepish blush came over Salmoneus' graying, bearded face. "Vell, goils, vot can I zay? Zose are z' woutine hazards of z' valiant varrior's veary and vandering valkabouts, no?"
"Aw, Sally, Wally, strokie, wokie…," the Maenads ran their slow, luscious fingers up and down Salmoneus' round, pasty cheeks and over the top of his slightly balding crown, tantalizing him and causing him to see the star clusters of innumerable exploding nebulae.
"Ohhh...," Salmoneus shivered with delight, "if this be Tartarus, take me to your Tartar."
"And you will keep that promise you made when you pleaded with us to come here tonight, won't you, Sally, Wally," these harbingers of super-mortal bliss whispered into Salmoneus' tingling ears, "and hand over those emerald earrings and diamond necklaces and sapphire bracelets you've been swearing on a Grecian Urn that you've managed to get your horny little hands on."
"As soon as Autolycus, Wollicus shows up and pays me back the favor he owes me for the night I bailed him out when he got caught in the sack with old King Gekkus," Salmoneus palavered, "then all your sweet, little Maenad dreams will come true... I think... I hope..."
With great reluctance, Salmoneus extricated himself from the fond embraces of his throng of feminine hangers on and came waddling over to greet Lila.
"Um, hi there, Lila," Salmoneus cleared his throat, a trifle embarrassed at having been caught with his warrior pretense down.
"Sally, Wally?" Lila raised a humorously sceptical eyebrow.
"Well, ah, ya see, Lil, it sort of goes like this..."
"You and Herc kept Jason and Alcmene from being wolfed down by some monster-wonster sea serpent, did you?"
"Well, as you know, Lila, Herc's one heck of a busy guy. He can't be everymonst... I mean he can't be monsterwhere at every sand of the turnglass," Salmoneus blubbered. "Just look at those poor, defenseless Maenads in their gauzy see-through lingerie and think of all the monsters that would foam at the mouth like roaring volcanoes for the chance to stick their um..., their um..., their... claws, right, their claws... into them."
"Those Maenads look as scared as scared can be," Lila's eyes lit up with a twinkling grin as she glanced at the increasingly impatient and now quietly fuming and finger drubbing troupe of Maenads who’d come to relieve Salmoneus of the jewels he’d promised them but now didn’t seem to have.
"That's, um, just what I was thinking," Salmoneus salivated. "How badly in need of a strong protector they seem to be, those poor, vulnerable, gorgeous darlings."
"Yep, utterly terrified," Lila checked out the Maenads whose unsmiling incisors now began to sprout the slightest hint of fangs and whose glaring eyes appeared ever so slightly to redden as they started to tire of their false show of effervescent patience with this pudgy hustler who'd offered to grease their grasping palms with the crown jewels of the Queen of Namibia in return for an evening of their quasi-fondling affections.
"By any chance, have you seen your sister in the last few days? I'm on the lookout for Xena, actually," Salmoneus whispered on the q.t.
"They took off for Tiryns nearly two weeks ago, why?" Lila said, hoisting the slipping piglet higher in her arms.
"C'mere, doll," Salmoneus put his arm around Lila’s shoulder and quietly led her a few steps away from the noise of the crowd. "I don't want too many ears getting wind of this, but I'm on the brink of brokering an utterly fantastic deal on fifty – no, make that sixty crates of topnotch Bithynian stemware, services for twelve at any number of drafty, rain-dripping castles. And all I need to fake a shilling, er, make a killing is some way to get the stuff from down on the docks, where it got unloaded just this very afternoon, to the display windows in Thessaloniki and Amphipolis."
"And you want Gab and Xena to help make this happen?" Lila said.
"Put it this way, hon. There's this teeny, tiny problem that arises when it comes to getting valuable stuff from point A to point B," Salmoneus said. "Once you get a little ways away from town, the roads around here have a way of springing some pretty nasty surprises. And some of those surprises come equipped with swords and clubs and other unpleasant things. If Xena rides shotgun, I'll cut her in for twenty-five percent of the take. Make it thirty if Gabrielle comes along for the ride."
"But Sally Wally, a big, bad monster killer like you shouldn't need a couple of girls to ride escort for him," mischief played in Lila's big, blue eyes as she tried not to giggle.
"Well, that's true," Salmoneus prevaricated, "but it never hurts to have your sleeve up a nicely packed piece..., I mean to have a piece packed nicely up your sleeve."
"I know whose help you need," Lila twinkled. "'Yum dadda dum, dum, roams through the countryside, never needs a place to hide...'"
Salmoneus blanched. "You can't be seri..."
"'With Sally as his sidekick, fighting with his little pr...'"
"Ahh, you know what, Lila? If you'll excuse me, I just remembered that I need to be setting up the Treasures of the Nile Booth for the Queen of Namibia who's scheduled to put in a cameo appearance at tonight's little shindig," Salmoneus blithered, eager to wing his way back to the very temporary shelter of his troupe of jewel-hungry Maenads. "Be sure to stop in to see my Great Egyptian Treasure House. For only two dinars, the Queen of Namibia will sell your..., I mean tell your fortune."
"'Lighting bongs and ringing gongs; slinging bull the whole day long...'," Lila sang as she wandered away. "'He's Sal-lee, Sally, the Flighty!'"
As the crowd mushroomed in size, the square filled with the pungent aromas of the Felafel Man's tasty dishes. Lemon-drenched souvlaki and yuvetsi, glazed in olive oil, were roasting in a circular fire pit in front of the condiment cart. Tray tables to either side of the large grill were crowded with piping platters of baba ghanoush bathed in tahini sauce along with tubs of moussaka spiced with bay leaf and sweet basil. Large bowls of briami tossed with diced zucchini and chopped plum tomatoes shared the buffet stand with deep tureens of steaming avoglemono soup – tangy and yellow with cut up chicken parts, dropped eggs and boiled rice. Then came the sheets of spanakopita, cut in triangular chunks and topped with dribbled lines of tzajiki dip. And for the dessert dishes: melomacarona cookies and squares of baklava smothered in layers of honey.
Torches blazed in every nook and cranny of the marketplace as the sour distraint of lyres, lutes, dumbeks and bombards blared from the stage and flurried off to every niche and recess of the town square. Thesmophoria! Persephone, child of cheer and summer brightness, was departing for the dark, frosty demesne of her underworld lord, leaving Demeter, once again, alone and grieving, a swollen lake of sadness with no outlet to channel her sorrow into threads of hope or currents of promise. Not for a while. Not 'til the first seed-glimmerings of renewed life sparked into being at the winter solstice to become the pod-popping shoots of re-birth at the spring equinox. Then the lost child would return to her waiting mother's arms – Trechoké! – for the promise was good and the hope was true. Herodotus reached in the darkness for Hecuba's hand, a hand scored with the veins of a lifetime of domestic chores; and Hecuba, feeling her husband's callused, muscular hand slide with surprising tenderness into her own, gently closed her fingers around its tender grip, the give of affection and the take of devotion continually affirming and begetting one another through the ups and downs of life's joys and sorrows.
The adepts who'd performed the ceremony for the onlookers in the telesterion gathered at the entrance to the square for their final activity before dispersing. They'd been fasting since the previous evening and were now set to break their fast with ritually prepared kykeon, a decoction of corn meal and water seasoned with leaves of mint and pennyroyal. Lila had prepared the mixture at home, using the traditional recipe, and now dragged the stoppered jug out from under Chiron's promotional table where she'd stowed it before the ceremony had begun.
Lila assembled the two dozen adepts, presented the pitcher and cried. "Thygatroi! Adelfoi! Filoi! We meet as daughters, join as sisters, part as friends. Until we meet again: Sikonomoké!"
"Sikonomoké!" the adepts cried. Arise and go forth! Then the jug got passed around and each woman took a hefty gulp.
Lila went to leave the piglet, the jug and her Demeter costume in her parents' care. Next she went to stand on line until she'd loaded her plate with the fixings of a delicious, well-deserved, holiday supper. After working her way through the crush of moving bodies, Lila caught up with Alexis and The Big O in front of Salmoneus' Authentic Treasures Of The Nile booth.
"Can you believe this shyster wants us to fork out two dinars just to eyeball a bunch of junk and have our palms read by some loser who claims to be the Queen of Namibia?" Alexis turned to Lila. "Nice job with the skit, Lee. I gotta say: seeing Anike get poked in her tight little buns by that pin that wouldn't stay pinned was worth the price of admission."
"Nah, ah," Salmoneus wagged his finger at Alexis. "I wouldn't call this stuff junk. These items are bona fide treasures of the Nile, gifts of appreciation bestowed upon yours truly by the Queen of Namibia. Isn't that so, Lila?"
"Ah, yes, I remember it well; the night you rescued the Queen of Namibia from the wiles of Cleopatra's pack rats."
"Oh, sure," Alexis shot back at Salmoneus. "When did you ever go sailing down the banks of the Nile?"
"When did I go making deposits in the Banks of the Nile, she asks," Salmoneus responded with a dismissive little chuckle. "My dear, for your infor-monster-mation, it was on the very day when barehandedly – well, almost barehandedly, barehandedly with a little help from Herc and Iolaus – when, except for a little bit of barehanded help from Herc and Iolaus, I rescued – well, I watched – I watched Herc and Iolaus barehandedly rescue the gracious Queen of Namibia from the clutches of the foul scumbags who were plotting to connive her of her loan, I mean deprive her of her throne."
"Is this guaranteed antidote to Aphrodite's most powerful love potion for real?" Alexis turned to Lila, wagging her thumb in Salmoneus' direction.
"About as real as Anike's recent trip to the underworld was," Lila rolled her eyes.
"The next thing you know he'll be trying to tell us that he once helped Gab and Xena stave off a bloody confrontation between a bunch of greedy warlords by emceeing the Miss Known World Contest they have every year in Amphipolis," Alexis smirked. "Maybe you'd like to regale us with that little fantasy of yours."
"Well, as a matter of fact...," Salmoneus dithered.
"No way!" Alexis shook her wavy red curls. "Now I know you're putting us on."
Lila, Alexis and The Big O floated away, leaving Salmoneus free to entice the crowd, as best he could, to plunk down two dinars for a visit to his Authentic Banks of the Nile Treasure House:
"Rare wonders from the Land of Mystery! Steles! Terebinths! Sarcophygi! Pyramids for lease or layaway! Do drinks with the Sphinx! The glass vial from which Potiphar's wife tried to slip Joseph a mickey. The fat from one of Pharaoh's horny cows. Chips that splintered off the original Tablets after they’d gotten smashed to pieces on the mountain..."
Up on the stage, members of a local band, Hades and the Hell Razors, were going at it with bazoukis, Slavic bongo drums, pipes and tambourines.
You make me feel like dancin',
(gonna dance the night away...)
"Lee!" Alexis shouted over the blare of the noise emanating from the stage, "you remember O, don't you?"
"Hi, O," Lila smiled.
The Big O was dark, wavy haired, slight of build, about Alexis' height, a thumbwidth or two taller than Lila. He walked with a limp due to one leg being shorter than the other.
"Hi, Lee," said O. "Lotta noise up there!"
"Did Lexie tell you about how she..."
"Say, what?!" Lila cried, unable to hear for the blaring of the music.
"Did Lexie tell you about how she took down two of Latrinus’ goons right here in the square?!"
"I saw it! I was there!"
"You were there?!"
"It was kind of neat to watch!"
"Lexie's been saying she's been thinking..."
"Sorry, what was that?!"
"I said Lexie's been thinking she might want to do some warrior training at the Warrior Training Academy!"
"I know! I've been thinking about doing it with her!"
"What’s that you’ve been thinking about?!"
"Doing some of the warrior training stuff!"
"Isolinear! Who else is thinking of doing it?!"
"Just me and Lexie as far as I know!"
"Just you and Lexie?!"
"As far as I know!"
"Want me to hold your plate if you wanna get out there and dance?!"
"Naw, I think I'll finish it first! "
"Will it take you long?!"
"To finish what's on my plate?!"
"To do the warrior training stuff!"
"A couple, three moonmarks! I hear they let you do it part-time!"
"Heard anything from Perdy or Andros?!"
Alexis came over with a pink, softspun taffy stick. "Pull!"
The three of them grabbed and pulled.
"Harder!" Alexis shouted. This time the thing flew apart and got goo all over them.
"Yick! Now I’ve got gunk on my face!" Lila howled. "Ha, you've got gunk all over yours!"
"Don’t sweat it, you look great! C'mon, let's get out there!"
"You guys go for it! I'll watch!" O backed off.
"No way! You said tonight was the night! C’mon, the three of us!" Alexis yelled.
"It's kind of fast-paced, though!" O shouted.
"Just go at your own speed!" Alexis took The Big O by the hand. "We'll be here if you start to wobble!"
Not one to let a little word like "no" get in her way, Alexis half-led, half-hauled The Big O into the thick of things. Lila put her plate down and followed a step behind. A turn of the sandglass later, the three of them were twisting and shouting and snaking around the square – with each other, themselves, whomever they happened to connect with as the band kept up a series of improvised riffs and breaks.
Thesmophoria! Lila danced with warm, fluent grace. She held her ground yet gave it and neither encroached nor retreated when her movements brought her within the orbit of another dancer's space. If a hand sought her shoulder or an arm encircled her waist, she neither flinched nor flirted. And the square, the docks, the pottery works, the park with its trees and shrubs, the stadium and telesterion, Poteidaia itself, exuberant under the stars, a node of life that gleamed like the sparkling pavilion of a brightly faceted jewel between bay and tidewater, at the southern fringe of a vast continent, on a balmy, end-of-summer night, rejoiced in Lila's dancing and called with pride to the constellations: behold the lovely maid whom it pleases me to call my own. Nor were I loathe to boast of her beauty and of my good fortune in the assembly of villages, towns, cities and regions that lie under heaven's dome while empires are born, rise, fall and, in the turn of a sandglass, pass away to oblivion.
Suddenly, from the dark fields that lay beyond the perimeter of the stockade, there came a rumble of horses' hooves coupled with the cries of men and the screech of fire-tipped missiles that sailed over the parapets to land on carts, awnings, wooden installations, igniting them for a smoldering instant before they leaped into flame. The gate groaned and gave way on its hinges, smashed in places by a troop of thundering riders that burst through the tall pickets and bore their mounts down upon the crowd which scattered and fled amidst howls and wails that rose to overcome, for the few falling sand grains of horrid surprise and ensuing terror, the nattering of the music on the stage.
A dozen horsemen, possibly more, swathed in leather armor and tin breastplate, their faces hidden in plumed masks of hawk and falcon, rallied their chargers and, with lurid cries of menace, swung emblazoned torches like maces and lariats, then flung them onto every flammable surface within their reach: wood, fabric, piles of dry, crisp straw. Then the marauders whipped out their swords and made pass after at the panicking mob in an effort to cut down whichever unfortunate soul might be caught in the bloody arc of their swords' haphazard swings.
Shouts of fury and alarm rose to clash with the grunts and snarls of the attackers who pummeled the crowd at will. Three of their number dismounted and upended a corner of the stage while three more stove in the buffet tables, sending the remainder of the feast and many bussed pans and stacked dishes flying. Taken unawares, the impromptu guards and chaperones – Herodotus, Clenesthides and the members of the town's volunteer patrol – had neither the wits nor the means to counter the wanton onslaught. And now a section of the wall near the reever's office and the counting house was burning and required immediate attention.
"Buckets! Bring buckets from the wash basin!" a voice cried out. "Get the covers off the cisterns! Pump up the siphons!" But the cry was nearly impossible to heed in the midst of pandemonium.
"There she is!" one of the horsemen shouted to his mates. "The one with the flaming red hair! Grab her! And the other one, the dark-haired pretty! Seize her as well!"
Swirling on their steeds, several gatecrashers honed in on Alexis, pounding on the dancers with their cudgels, driving them back. Some revellers fell and were nearly trampled in the rush. In the next instant, Alexis, isolated and terrified, her eyes jerking this way and that in the wild melee of stampeding hooves, found herself surrounded. The crack of a horsewhip was followed by a curdling scream. One of the riders had lashed his leather swisher hard across Alexis' shoulders and breasts, stunning her and causing her to stumble in fear and then to recoil with a sharp sting of pain. Then one of the riders reached down and, with a gauntlet strapped to his forearm, slammed Alexis ferociously across the face, bloodying her nose and opening a gash between the corner of one eye and her hairline. As Alexis sunk to her knees under the combined force of the lash and the blow, strong arms scooped her up into the saddle, and the blade of a knife was instantly aslant her rapidly pulsing throat.
At the same time, provided cover by two of his cohorts who made good use of their whips, one of the riders leaped off his mount and lunged at Lila, catching her by the back of her blouse and hauling her toward him with enough force to rip the stitching at her shoulders. "Juicy wench!" her attacker cried, "You'll be succulent fare for Latrinus' table ere he were done with you!" Then, smacking Lila hard across the face to deter any resistance and raising an instant welt on her cheek, her assailant lifted her up and flung her, belly down, over the back of his stallion, using his lash as a tie to fasten her front leg to the stirrup. "Grip the other stirrup and hold it fast," the rider warned. "Cling to this horsie's rump for all you're worth, for if you freeze and lose your iron clench upon it, you'll surely be dragged to your bleedin' death!"
Now the marauders re-grouped. Alexis wailed and tried to reach out a hand. "O...!"
A darkhaired, young man, slight of build and with kindly features, pushed his way forward, hobbling as he ran. "Lexie...!" he reached with his arm only to be smashed off his feet by a blow of sufficient force to shatter his jaw.
"Stand clear, you dumb cripple!" Alexis' captor shouted, his knife now sheathed. "And the rest of you, fall back if you want to see your girls alive again! We’ve got the prizes we're after!" he shouted to his fellows. "Come on, let's rally and ride!"
Off they rode, back through the helplessly swinging gate, with Lila and Alexis in tow.
Chaos ensued. A makeshift fire brigade ran for pails, beat the flaring pokers with blankets and flailed at the sparks, eventually containing the blaze which soon petered out. Amid shouts and howls, screaming sobs and hurled recriminations, vying leaders attempted to marshall the disoriented mob into a semblance of order, amassing pieces of the stage, preserving what crockery, cutlery and leftover delicacies might be rescued from the dusty scatter made worse by the random racing of confused and enraged feet. Friends and neighbors, baffled and in shock, their senses not yet assimilating the brute fact or re-constructing the sequence of the events that had just taken place, surrounded Herodotus and Hecuba, Clenesthides and Chloe, and offered what reassurances they could, the lot of them flustered, the parents alternately stricken and uncomprehending.
"Who were they?"
"What were they?"
"Where'd they come from?"
"What were they wantin' with Lila and Alexis?"
"Has the world gone mad? Has the earth turned on its top?"
"This town weren't beholdin' to Ares. Never were. Why be takin' his bad temper out on us and our girls what never done him no harm?"
"'Twere the Furies come to wallop us for not standin' up better for Theseus in the days when word come down as how him and his Athenians were needin' our help agin' them ragin' Persians and Hittites."
"Nay, 'twere Apollo's doin' for sure. You seen how the archer of the gods were daily favorin' them thievin' bandits from Troy what made off in the night with King Menelaus' lovely bride."
"Bloody bollocks! Did you not hear the bleedin' louts? They be Latrinus' men from out in the wild, the very ones what lately croaked Timmy's skull and drew first blood 'pon Mickey's pate."
"Latrinus...," the name went seething through the crowd like a ratcheting kettle set to boil. But a dread silence gripped the square when, high above the hubbub, came one, long, disconsolate wail: "Lila!! What have they done with my baby!! What have they done to my child!!"
"'Twere best you calm yourself, Missy Hecuba, whilst we squat for a turn of the sandglass and make of it what sense we may..."
"My baby!! My little one!! Where have they taken her!!" Then, in the stark silence of wits beginning to recoil and collect, Hecuba turned in a fury on Herodotus and, her eyes not seeing and her senses not functioning, she began to beat him on the chest with her balled up fists. "What have they done to her!! They hit her!! They hurt her!! Where were my darlin' child!!"
Herodotus, not resisting the blows, sinking and reeling under their impact, looked earthward, his eyes welling with tears of shame. If a man must stand by and watch, in sudden stupor, while his precious child is struck and beaten before his very eyes, how, in the name of the gods, can he presume to call himself a man?
"I vow as I'll have the head on a pike of the man what harms a hair on our girl's head," was all that Herodotus could murmur in impotent reply.
"Missy Hecuba," Clenesthides was able to restrain his own emotions more ably for the sake of Hecuba's outburst, "what we'll do is we'll form up a posse and go after 'em this very night. Democles! Trachis! Sound the alarm. Tasso, run and tell Zoster and t'others we're gearin' up for a search. And what of that circus clown over there? What were he good for?"
"They calls him Salmoneus," someone said, "and there were them what say he were good for nothin’."
"If the lout can lift a leg and shake a stick, let him add his weight to the crush," Clenesthides declared. "My dear," he spoke to his wife, "you stay behind with Hecuba. Herodotus, the lot of us, let's to our homes to gather our wares and return forthwith to this spot. For a long night's chasin' 'bout the wood be the fee of this night’s foul service."
"Nay!" Hecuba, recovering a jot of composure, spoke up with authority. "You men heard what the thievin’' swine were shoutin'. They come for their ruddy prizes. This were no raid to fatten their stores for the long winter nights ahead. Nor were it lust for loot the louts were lookin' to slake. They come for the plums and they plucked 'em. A brawl in the wood won't do the girls no good. You yourselves would only get knackered, and I won't be havin' the blood of good men laid 'pon my soul nor that of my darlin' child. 'Twere only one whelp in the litter can help us now, perchance two. Fetch me the Felafel Man!"
A few of the men went trotting over to where the Felafel Man, assisted by Tyldus and Chiron, was trying to salvage the few usable remains from the now aborted feast. The Felafel Man put his waste barrel aside and padded over to the circle that now surrounded the shellshocked parents.
"You travel from place to place, peddlin' grub and bringin' news of the world from far and wide," Hecuba said to the Felafel Man, removing from around her neck a leather thong on which a circular, clay medallion hung, one round face incised with an image of Artemis, the reverse face engraved with an image of Demeter. "Can you get word to the Warrior Princess and do it quick?"
"Last I knew they were on their way to Tiryns, some business they've got with Queen Admete," the Felafel Man said. "That's a fair ways down the coast, thirty leagues and more south of Corinth on the far side of Attica."
"Man, I'm not carin' if it be half way to Chin. Can you get word to 'em?" Hecuba said. "Tell 'em Lila's been taken and her friend, Alexis, as well."
"I can certainly work my contacts," the Felafel Man said, loosening the strings on his apron.
"Take this, then," Hecuba pressed the medallion into the Felafel Man's hand. "She'll know from whom it were sent, the one who were ridin’ with the Warrior Princess."
"Got it," the Felafel Man said, slipping the medallion into his pocket.
"Then haste thee on thy errand, man. For I fear that Time doth prove fickle unto mortal affections; and much as a pretty maid, unschooled by lexicons of duty, were apt to flit, as the mood doth strike her, from one ready beau to the next, so Time, in her dalliance, were like unto a bee that doth randomly bat 'pon the buds as they bloom, courtin' the fragrance of one and th’ aroma of t'other, yet only for the briefest season."
"We'll have a go at the woods in any event," Herodotus spoke up, reclaiming, with Clenesthides, his de facto leadership of the group. "There be tracks that were warm, and one may, from a distance, spy if not beard the beast in his lair."
The company began to evacuate the square, leaving the morose dancers, hawkers and scattered onlookers to work long into the night as they sought to clean up the mess. The Felafel Man huddled with Tyldus and Chiron by the tipped over condiment cart. Salmoneus, alerted to what had just taken place, came wandering over.
"How’re we gonna get word to Xena?" the Felafel Man looked at his compatriots. "And where's Autolycus? Half a world away, romancing some precious stone if I know the King of Thieves."
"If it's best to go by ship, there's a merchant captain in Thessaloniki who owes me a favor from when I helped him smuggle a cargo of Antiochene chandeliers past the duty inspectors at the customs wharves in Brindisi," Salmoneus offered.
"It would take too long to do it that way," the Felafel Man said. "You'd have to sail halfway down the Hellespont and make port in Salamis, then wait for the ferry to take you to Epidaurus. At that point, you'd still be most of a day's donkey ride from Tiryns. Better to go overland through Pieria, Thessaly and down through Boeotia, but that's still a good week's journey on horseback."
"Not as the winged stallion flies," Tyldus broke in.
"Run that by me again?" the Felafel Man said.
"Chiron, how swiftly can you get this thonged necklace to the Academy?" Tyldus turned to his friend and fellow instructor.
"In barely the time it would take to work up a lather, I reckon," Chiron said.
"Good," Tyldus said. "I understand that the girls recently spoke with you about possibly of securing a couple of entrance slots for the winter term."
"Alexis has the makings. I'd like to put her through the paces," Chiron said. "I have my doubts about Lila, but I'll give her credit for wanting to try. Let her come for what she might gain in poise and posture if nothing else."
"To think that these many sunmarks after the Battle of Corinth, Xena and I should find ourselves battling once again, only this time as allies," Tyldus shook his wizened head and extended his hand, motioning for the Felafel Man to entrust him with the medallion.
"Fly like the wind to the village, avoiding the main roads," Tyldus handed the medallion to Chiron. "There you'll find Bellerophon with Xenon and the little ones, working on drills for hand and hoof. Tell Bellerophon to saddle up Pegasus at the day's first light, that we've got an emergency on our hands and that he’s to give this token to Xena and Gabrielle when and where he locates them on the sandy shores of Tiryns."
Chiron closed his hand around the medallion. "The riffraff who wrecked havoc upon this fine town and kidnapped those lovely girls, it shames me to be cousin to their mounts. Before many days, perhaps, we may contrive to liberate their mares and stallions and see to finding them finer mews and better masters."
"We'll look into it," Tyldus said.
Chiron rose up on his haunches, waved a salute, turned and bolted into the night.
"If you'll excuse me, gentlemen, I'm due to see a man about a horse," Tyldus bowed and took his leave. "A local vet, as it happens. One of our newer faculty members made some careless remarks about the Academy and failed to check his sources first. I'm afraid he may be suffering from a bout of hoof in mouth disease."
Tyldus trotted off and Salmoneus went back his Treasures Of The Flea Mark... Treasures Of The Nile booth and began to take down his display. By now the square was deserted except for the makeshift cleanup crews.
Just then, a charming beauty tentatively approached the Treasure booth. She was lithe and sinewy, with long, dark hair sheened with blue highlights and adorned with a tiara of flowers now wilting and perched slightly askew on the smooth crown of her head. The young woman had high cheekbones, fine features and a mouth that looked like it was born to be kissed – continually. Forget Miss Amphipolis, Salmoneus' eyes saucered as the wiry waif came closer. 'Miss Poteidaia, where have you been hiding all these long and languid sunmarks…’
"Pardon me," the young woman said in a shy voice, "but aren't you Lord Seltzer, the well-known tycoon?"
Oh, boy, she's heard of me. This gorgeous creature's heard of me, Salmoneus' eager, internal circuit breakers started popping off and on. "Why, um, yes, that's me. I'm the, uh, well-known typhoon by that name. It was many sunmarks ago when I got my big break, you know, back in the days when those ornate Antiochene chandeliers first hit it big in the lighting fixture market, and everyone and his sidekick had to have one of those fabulous pieces mounted on the ceilings of their atriums and vestibules. And once you've worked up a large-scale demand for glittering, crystal chandeliers, lemme tell ya, the world of indoor illumination will beat a dripless, wax candle path to your door."
"Aren't you friends with Xena and Gabrielle?" the raven-haired beauty said.
"Friends? Me and Xena... and Gabrielle? Hey, we're like this," Salmoneus crossed two of his fingers. "No, I'd say it's more like this," he looped all of his fingers together. "Or actually, it's really more like this," he braced his arms in front of his chest, wrapped one leg around the other and turned his neck up to mimic a crane.
"I should introduce myself. I'm Anike. I’m a friend of Lila's," the lovely apparition said. "Do you think Gab and Xena will get back in time to rescue Lee and Lexie from the awful clutches of those sneaky gangsters?"
"Do I think Xena and Gabrielle will get here on time to gang up on those awful rescuers?" Salmoneus floundered in the presence of such overweening beauty. "To save Alee and Lexis from the sneakers of Latrinus, the warry clutchlord?"
"Yes," Anike said, quietly. "I saw those horrid men come bursting through the gates. I saw how they hit Lexie really hard and then how...," Anike faltered, "how they jumped off their horses and grabbed Lee and hit her too."
Salmoneus stood there listening.
"He hit her, didn't he? The man who jumped off his horse. He grabbed Lee and hit her. Really hard. I saw it," Anike said, her voice beginning to tremble.
"I didn't see what happened," Salmoneus said. "I was inside, cleaning out the Treasure House."
"Well, I saw it," Anike's voice grew angry and hurt. "The man who grabbed Lee. He jumped off his horse and hit her. He grabbed her by the blouse and pulled her close to him and then he made a fist and hit her like really, really hard. How could anyone do that? Lee, who would never raise a hand to hurt anyone. She's a kind, caring person, and I spoke harshly to her."
Anike began to weep. "I said a harsh thing that I wish I'd never said," she sniffled. "Oh, I hope they get here on time, Xena and Gab."
Then Anike broke down and sobbed in Salmoneus startled arms.
"There, there," Salmoneus sought to console the raven-haired beauty. Young. Late teens/early twenties. Tender. Vulnerable. Clearly upset. Down, fella, down.
"I've known Xena ever since she was teamed up with Darphus," Salmoneus, a.k.a. Lord Seltzer, said in his most comforting voice, "and boy, lemme tell ya, were they ever a dazzling duo. Then Darphus went off the deep end and started hitting on women and children and made Xena run the gauntlet which, incredibly – well, given Xena, maybe it wasn't so incredible – but somehow she came through it in one piece. First time anyone had ever run the gauntlet and made it all the way to the other end. Then, fortunately for Xena, she got hooked up with Herc, and Herc helped to straighten her out, and the rest, as they say, is… I dunno what it is, I guess you’d have to ask Xena. 'Cause once that old Warrior Princess lets loose with that blazing chakram of hers – bounce, bounce, bounce, zonggg! – there's few rats in the pack who stand a snowball's chance in Chin of skittering out of their hole with anything resembling the tails on their tooshes."
But Anike wasn't listening to Salmoneus as he handicapped the odds of Xena and Gabrielle arriving on time to spring Lila and Alexis out of the jam they were in. Leaning against Salmoneus for support, her chin resting on his shoulder, Anike looked behind him at the huge, crashing hole in the town gate, out toward the darkness stippled with a spray of stars; and, not hearing what, if anything, Lord Seltzer may have been rattling on about, Anike whispered to those stars, "Lee, I'm so sorry for the stupid, thoughtless thing I said. Please make it home safe so I can tell you that."
Continued in Part 15
The Bard's Corner