Chapter 19: It's Good To Keep A Hard Man Down
Some time later, Septix poked his head in the door. "You ladies finished?"
"Just about," Lila said, sitting back in her chair, her tummy content, though the rest of her felt highly unsettled.
"How's the face holding up?" Septix said to Alexis.
"It's been better," Alexis said, sitting quietly with her empty plate in front of her.
"Care for a bun?" Lila gestured at the straw basket that had nearly been emptied of its fluffy rolls.
"Haven’t got time," Septix smiled and shook his head. "We need to get the two of you two fitted out with some new clothes."
"Why? Are we going someplace?" Alexis looked mistrustfully at Septix.
"She is," Septix nodded at Lila.
"I am?" Lila frowned.
"That's the scuttlebutt," Septix said.
Lila and Alexis got up from the table and followed Septix out the door, squinting for the sudden rush of sunlight that swamped their line of vision. It was a gorgeous day, brilliant but not blistering in these breezy foothills not far from bright ocean waves and white, sandy beaches.
"Our folks must be worried sick," Lila mumbled as she and Alexis followed Septix back to the hut in which they’d spent the night.
"You think that Xena and Gab might actually show up?" Alexis said, softly.
"I wouldn't hold my breath," Lila said just as softly. "Tiryns is even further away than Mycenae. It’s almost down to Sparta."
"Okay, ladies, who’s up first?" Septix’ brown eyes were warm and gentle unlike those of Latrinus and the others. "We've got tunics with fleece linings and buckskin pants, though I can't promise they'll fit. We don't often have ladies come to stay with us, and we don’t get much call to provide them with outfits."
"Can't we go together?" Lila said.
"’Fraid not," Septix shook his head. "Boss man says one at a time."
Alexis volunteered to go first. As she and Septix were leaving the hut, Lila called, "If we're being guarded at all times, why are you leaving me here alone?"
"I'm not. You're being watched," Septix said. "They were keeping an eye you while you had your breakfast as well."
After Alexis and Septix had left the hut, Lila sank down heavily on the pallet. The cuts on her face were throbbing, though the sharpness of last night's pain was beginning to subside. Lila's scrapes might not leave scars, but the gash on Alexis' forehead would. Their parents must be frantic. What would The Big O be doing this morning? Would he have asked the men to let him join in the search? Would they have taken him along? Would Alexis' parents find out about their nighttime trysts in the meadow?
Lila didn't imagine that Clenesthides would be any too pleased at the prospect of his daughter settling her affections on a young man with a bum leg who, in Clenesthides' eyes, was no more than a pencil pusher, a guy who was good for little more than tallying figures at the counting house. Yet good on Alexis for having the eyes to see and the soul to discern true value – and the strength of character not to be discouraged in her pursuit of it, especially when Alexis, like Gab, had the looks and personality to attract the attention of guys whose ambition and polish would likely enable them to burn up a fair amount of turf in their lifetimes; provided, of course, that they made it home from the war.
The door slid open and a light breeze ruffled the beaded curtain. Lila heard the scratching of boots on the wooden floorboards and looked up to see the repulsive visage of the man who'd beaten the stuffing out of her in the woods last night.
Instinctively, Lila drew back and scowled at the intruder. "I’m sorry. I didn't hear you knock."
"That’s 'cause I didn't," Lugnuts said, standing at the entrance to the compartment. He wore an open leather shirt, tight leggings laced below the knee and shabby suede buskins. His body gave off the grimy stench of marshgrass, and his face, more blotched than bearded, was pocked with features that were lit by neither light nor grace.
"Then you should have," Lila reached for the fleeced skin which had served for a blanket.
"Yah, but I didn't," Lugnuts leered, sensing, perhaps, Lila's alarm at finding herself alone in the company a man whose highest priority, at that instant, may not have been the securing of her comfort and well being.
"What do you want?" Lila folded the hide in half and then in quarters.
"What does any redblooded guy want?" Lugnuts sneered and gave Lila an unctuous look.
"Dinars? A good horse? A better chance in life?" Lila said in the first flush of incipient fright.
"I can get dinars, and I already got a horse," Lugnuts said, low and humorless.
"You were on one of the horses in the clearing last night," Lila said.
"The one I got on after I stuck your butt on the one you got on," Lugnuts grunted and took a step into the compartment.
Lila shied away and immediately wished that she hadn't.
"You're all soft and smooshy under that wrinkly white dress, aren’t you?" Lugnuts stared at Lila.
"The fellow who's tending to us – Septix – has gone to get us a change of clothes," Lila said, not knowing what else to say.
Lugnuts grinned. "Maybe I oughta help you get out of the ones you got on. Anybody ever tell you you got nice tits? They're round and cuppy. Bet you got a real nice twat too."
"Whaat...?" Lila frowned, feeling as confused as she was apprehensive.
"Got a nice li'l sum'm waitin' for me down there, don't you?" Lugnuts advanced a step closer. "Bet you got sum'm soft and sweet waitin' for me down under that wrinkly white dress of yours, don’t you chickie?"
"What are you talking about?" Lila scowled. "What are you doing in here?"
"I wanna see what you got waitin' for me down in that soft, squishy goodie bag of yours," Lugnuts came yet a step closer, and now his vibes – sick, hostile, twisted – beamed in undulant waves toward Lila so that her instincts reacted more quickly than her mind. She backed up in earnest on the pallet and clenched her fists with her elbows drawn back so that her arms rested uselessly on her hips as her knees creased and thighs rose reflexively to protect her belly.
"You scared of me, girlie?" Lugnuts hovered over Lila as she cringed against the wall. "You frightened of me, bitch?" Lugnuts looked down at his prey with contempt.
Why should Latrinus get first dibs on the pussy they rounded up? Was Lugnuts less a man than Latrinus? Did he have fewer needs and desires, living in the woods most of the year, constantly on the run like hunted game? Not much of a life, forever on the run, always being hunted. Even game got to mate in season: wolves, stags, boars in rut.
"Cesspoulos, Lugnuts," Latrinus had barked when he'd sent the raiding party to town. "Saddle up the palfreys and stash 'em in the clearing. Wait 'til the babes show up, then bring 'em back to camp."
That's what they'd done. And what had been their reward? Had Latrinus even bothered to thank them? Pfah, they were cogs in his wheel, tools in his kit, and they knew it. An entrepreneur. Who did Latrinus think he was kidding? He couldn't run a hunk of mud in the black. And the wages he'd promised them? They'd collect them on the razor sharp point of Xena's sword most likely, while Latrinus, double-crossing the lot of them, would find a way to weasel into the woodwork with his stash – their stash – tucked neatly away where only Latrinus would know how to get at it.
So why not get what you can while the getting is good?
"You're scared of me, aren't you, girlie?" Lugnuts gaped at Lila whose eyes had grown wide with fear.
"What do you want from me?" Lila said, struggling not to panic. "Septix told me that me and Lexie are going to be getting a new set of clo..."
"Shaddap, bitch!" Lugnuts snapped.
Trembling, Lila complied.
"Friggin' crybaby," Lugnuts spat at her. "Cryin' for your mama."
"Only because you were beating up on me," Lila stammered.
"I said shaddap!" Lugnuts raised a hand as if to strike her, and Lila cringed harder against the wall. "Spoiled bitch, whinin' for your mama. Well, your mama ain't here, is she?"
Lila turned away in disgust from the vileness that now lumbered in front of her, a vileness that was forcing her to contemplate horrid images of filth and dirt.
Lugnuts leaned over Lila's bundled body and slapped her hard across the face, enflaming her tender skin and causing her wounds to rage in pain.
"Owww!!!" Lila shrieked and tried to bury her head in her arms.
"Little farm bitch that don't know sheep dip from cow flop," Lugnuts growled and lunged for Lila's arms which he pulled apart as his knees landed on the pallet and his trunk hung suspended above Lila's cringing frame. "Well, maybe it's time you learned the difference."
"Get away from me!" Lila howled, struggling in vain against the massive hands that now gripped her forearms above the wrists and prevented her from striking out in her defense.
"Gonna gimme a taste of honey from down in your honey pot, bitch?" Lugnuts slobbered as he pressed his full weight on Lila's breasts and stomach. Her writhing resistance seemed only to goad his growing excitement.
"Gonna get me a taste of honey from down in that sweet little honey pot," Lugnuts grunted as he thrust his hand under Lila's light cotton dress and pushed hard against the inner side of one of her thighs, forcing her legs apart.
"Get off me!!" Lila thrashed from side to side. Then she strained her neck in a fruitless effort to bite Lugnuts' face. "Noooo!!" she cried as Lugnuts shoved the flat of his hand up against her groin, shielded from his paw only by a thin pair of panties.
"Whoa, paydirt!" Lugnuts cried. "It's big! It's soft! It's squishy! It's furry!"
Lila wriggled to no avail as Lugnuts leaned one knee against her hip and bore down hard, crushing Lila's midriff painfully against the pallet. Lila screamed but Lugnuts clamped a hand over her mouth. "Another peep and I'll cut you." Reaching behind him with his free hand, he whipped a dagger out of his boot. "You see this blade, bitch?" He loomed over Lila with the dagger poised above her face. "You see what I got in my hand?"
Her blue eyes wide with terror, Lila nodded, gaping at the glint of the cold, hard steel.
"I'll cut you," Lugnuts swore. "What you got last night was nothin'. I'll cut your pretty face so bad no guy'll ever look at it again. You understand what I'm sayin'? You make a peep and I'll cut you for life. You got that?!"
"Unnh...," Lila nodded again, her eyes glazed with terror.
"Good," Lugnuts grinned as he rammed his hand against Lila's crotch, the feel of it made smooth by the silken weave of her panties. To Lila's utter revulsion, Lugnuts scooped his fingers over the edge of the panties and slid his hand down behind the sheer fabric so that his fingers and palm gripped Lila with nothing but the absent grace of the gods between her helpless nakedness and her assailant's grasping claw.
"Ooh," Lugnuts moaned, "looks like I'm gonna get to pop me a cherry!"
As Lugnuts fumbled to undo the laces that bound the fly of his leggings, kneeing Lila in the softest part of her belly as a reminder of the pain he would inflict upon her if she cried out or continued to resist, Lila went limp and turned her head as far as she could toward the wall. She knew that her struggle had ended, and tears began silently to leak out the corners of her eyes, tracking their way down her cheeks, both the sound one and the injured one, seeking out her lips and tasting salty on her tongue.
Then time did a funny thing. It began to move in slow motion. As the light of Lila's life force withdrew into the depths of her being, in flight from a power of darkness that she could neither illumine nor repel, Lila's awareness began to shimmer and then to waver slightly to the side of and above her, leaving her consciousness no longer fully anchored in her body. And in this shimmering, wavering state, with her soul slightly askew of her body, with her senses violently wrenched from their seats in her consciousness, her awareness being somewhere beside itself, Lila's mind suddenly emerged onto a plane of bright, stinging clarity as time seemed, oddly, to falter and lengthen as though something heavy and viscous were impeding its normal flow.
And then a great mournfulness overcame her spirit; a rounder, fuller, more pervasive sadness than any which Lila had previously known. She understood that she was about to be separated from something infinitely precious: to have it wrested from her unjustly, against her will, in extreme humiliation, without having had the opportunity sufficiently to prepare for its precipitate, excruciating departure.
It wasn't that Lila regarded her virginity as any sort of a badge or prize. She'd assumed that, when the time came, she would do as her mother had done, as the women in her village and in countless villages had ever and always done. She would submit, hopefully with love and possibly with desire, to the caresses of the man who had plighted his troth to her and, perhaps, in the process, would have wooed and won her heart. Nor did Lila feel that she needed the benefit of clergy to make the giving of her gift, the exchange of mutual gifts, in some way sacred. Alexis hadn't waited. Lila felt no compulsion to wait and might not have waited had she felt for Andros, before his going off to war, what Alexis seemed to feel for The Big O, what Gab, for some reason, hadn't felt for Perdicas.
It was no proprietary interest in the sanctity of her anatomy that now thrust its blade of grief deep into the pit of Lila's heaving tummy, forcing her to vomit up a sob of sorrow more bitter than her gasp of terror, despite Lugnuts' warning to keep silent and Lila's fear of the horrid thing that he might do to her if she were to neglect to heed that warning. What flashed across Lila's mind, in the instant, wasn't an image of her mother or Gabrielle or Alexis or any sort of avenging Warrior Princess who might, with sword and flame, set the scales of this fierce injustice to rights. It was an image of Anike in her white adept's gown, standing tall and slender with a garland of flowers draped over her long, dark hair, drawn slightly back and pinned behind her ears with a couple of barrettes, her eyes every bit as blue as Lila's. Anike would have to step forward and assume leadership of the enaretes kores when it came time for next year's thesmophoria. Up to now, Anike hadn't shown much inclination to play a leadership role, and Lila didn't know if she would be of much help in assisting Anike to assume that role; not now, not any longer. And that feeling of not knowing made Lila want to weep for Anike and for herself and for all the enaretes kores who would quietly, with sad hearts, be saying to themselves, "We've lost Lee. We've lost our dear friend and leader who can't be with us any more."
Lila's silent tears poured more quickly now from the fountains of her eyes, blearing the walls and the ceiling of the small compartment as well as the features of the brute who was now towering over her, vampiring the circulation of her soul-plasma if not the actual flow of her blood. The right to take part in a silly skit in front of a crowd of chuckling onlookers – how could something so trivial, so nonsensical in the scheme of things, be located, now that the ground was being tractored out from under her, at the root of her pain and sorrow? Lila couldn't even claim to have felt the call to a sacred vocation, to pledge herself to Demeter for life and so to make the transition from adept to hierophant, living as a celibate priestess of the grain goddess, serving the deity as teacher, celebrant, upholder of her living, breathing presence upon the always iffy earth.
It wasn't the skit, it wasn't the silliness, it wasn't Lila's belief in some supra-mortal deity at a time in her life when she was coming to believe, not without reason, that the gods whom her family and community had worshipped were, as some said, "petty and cruel and plagued mankind with suffering." Something more basic to Lila's existence as it had evolved up to that point – something as fundamental as living and breathing and cramping and bleeding – was about to be viciously torn from her. She was – and she knew it – about to be shorn of her innocence. The world was about to place its stamp of knowledge and experience on her. Yet how, Lila silently screeched the question of the ages, even as the drooling maniac on top of her was gouging at the laces to the fly of his leggings, could one lose one's innocence if one weren't guilty?
"Yum...," Lugnuts palavered, "I'm about to have me some dessert and I ain't even had lunch yet."
The fiend reached into his crotch and was about to pull out something hard, ugly and awful when suddenly his body stiffened, his colorless eyes jerked open, a groan – "unnhhh..." – escaped from his chest and throat, and he slumped forward on top of Lila, momentarily still and smothering.
Lila screamed with a jolt of surprise as Lugnuts, who'd instantly stopped what he'd been doing, lay on top of her, making awkward, jerking motions. Then a mild gurgling began to resound in his gullet, his jaw dropped open, his tongue lolled over his lower lip and a trickle of purple blood came dribbling out of his mouth, followed by a slight gushing of more venous fluid as the blade of a dagger now stuck, most of the way to the hilt, in the curve of his back slightly below the crimp in his shoulder blades.
"Agghhhh...," went Lugnuts' voice and, pitching forward, he flopped onto the pallet, his cheek on the thin batting of the pillow, his eyes glazing over with the dull cast of nothingness.
Gasping for breath, Lila squirmed out from under Lugnuts' limp weight to see, by the drawn curtain of the compartment, Latrinus standing with a look of fury and disgust on his face while, behind him, Alexis and Septix glanced with startled, questioning faces at the grim scene within.
"Nitwit!" Latrinus shouted. "I warned you and that other numskull, Cesspoulos, to keep your hairy mitts off the broads! This is work time, not happy hour! I didn't shell out for the goods only to have 'em damaged in transit! Drag his worthless carcass outta here!" Latrinus snapped at Septix who'd come racing back to the hut, with Alexis at his heels, in response to Lila's furtive screams. "And you," Latrinus shook the blade of another of his several daggers at Lila, "I won't have you slappin’ the make on my guys like some bitch in heat, thinkin' you can screw your way outta here. You'll be leavin' soon enough but when, where and how is my call, not yours."
Latrinus stormed out of the hut, leaving Septix to grab Lugnuts by the ankles and drag him, face down on the mat, across the floor and out the door.
Alexis dashed over to Lila who lay curled up and moaning on the pallet, her short breath coming in fits and starts. "Lee!" she cried and reached out her arms.
"Get away from me!" Lila shrieked, her eyes wide with terror. "Don't you come near me! Don't you look at me!"
"Lee, by the gods, what happened?" Alexis cried, terribly upset and in great fear for her friend.
"Get out! Go away! I said not to look at me!" Lila shrank at Alexis' approach and raised her hands to hide her face and blind her eyes.
"Did that idiot attack you? Did he lay his filthy paws on you? Oh, Lee...," Alexis' voice cracked in anguish.
Lila dropped her hands from her face and gaped at Alexis, her eyes flashing with lupine fury. "I told you to get out of here!" Lila screeched with a rage that Alexis had never heard in Lila's voice nor seen in the expression on Lila’s customarily sweet face. "Turn around!! Don't you dare look at me!"
Alexis obeyed, having no idea what else to do.
"You're not to look at me," Lila's voice seethed with guttural fire. "Nobody's to look at me. I don't want anyone to look at me ever again, do you understand?!"
Then Lila began to shudder as though a freezing wind were blowing through the hut and she were left with nothing for warmth but her flimsy, cotton, adept's gown. She sat on the edge of the pallet, bent over and, resting her elbows on her knees, again pressed her face forcefully into her hands. "I never want to look at myself. I never want to wash my face or brush my hair or look in the mirror and have to see my horrible face again."
"Lee, no...," Alexis moaned plaintively, still facing away from Lila and staring through the parted curtain to the outer compartment of the hut. No gash on Alexis' face or punch in her gut could have pained her a fraction as much as the words that she now heard Lila saying and the tone of voice with which she heard Lila saying them.
"Go 'way, Lexie," Lila grunted. "Go with Septix and let him fit you out with whatever he’s got for you to wear."
"No way. I'm staying right here," Alexis said. "I'm not going anyplace."
"Go!" Lila shouted.
"No, I'm not leaving you! Not when you're like this."
"Go, Lexie, please, just..., go," Lila said, and the mist of her anger, though it filled the room, was a trifle more porous than it had been a fall of a sand grain ago.
"What did he do?" Alexis said. "What did that horrid creature do to you?"
"Would you just go..., Lexie…, please," Lila said, but now her voice was more beseeching than commanding. "Go and do whatever it is that Septix says he wants you to do."
"I won't look at you if you don't want me to," Alexis said, "but I'm not budging 'til I know you're okay."
"Dammit," Lila raised her head and, with a whisper, gazed at the window. "Why does it have to be light out? Why can't it be dark? Why can't it be night?"
"He tried to rape you, didn't he," Alexis said. "That ogre, the one who hit on you last night, he tried to rip your dress off, didn't he."
Lila sat there in silence.
A sob sprang out of Alexis' throat. "He did something terrible to you. I know he did. He did something ugly and awful and hateful."
"I'd really appreciate it if you'd go and put on those new clothes like Septix says he wants you to," Lila said wearily.
Alexis turned around and looked at Lila who hunkered on the edge of the pallet, the bandage on her face still vaguely intact. "Lee," Alexis said, "how far did it go?"
"Who flung the knife? Latrinus?" Lila said, not looking at Alexis.
"Uh huh," Alexis nodded.
"To protect his investment," Lila said in a half-daze.
"I suppose," Alexis said.
"So he wouldn't have to deal in damaged goods," Lila spat contemptuously.
"He was twice as big as you, the greasy slime bucket," Alexis grimaced.
"Lexie," Lila looked up at Alexis with a touch of longing in her aching blue eyes, "none of this is real, is it? We’re in a dream that we’re going to wake up from, aren’t we?"
"I don't know," Alexis shook her head. "I don't know anything any more. All I know is that it hurts."
"Latrinus zapped him," Lila mused. "Winged his knife. Just like that."
"Latrinus came tearing in and whipped out his knife and winged it really hard, yeah," Alexis said. "It plunged into the creature's back and he fell over on top of you."
"Do you think he's dead?" Lila said. "The monster who Latrinus winged his knife into?"
"I guess so. The other guy, the nice one, just dragged him out of here," Alexis said.
"If he's dead, do you suppose that means he can't come back in here and plunk himself down on top of me again?" Lila said.
"Not if he's dead, he can’t," Alexis said.
Lila nodded. Then she took a breath. "That must be his blood that’s trailing across the floor." Lila pointed to the nearly black stains.
"The knife is what did it," Alexis said.
"The knife in the back of the monster they just dragged out of here."
"The monster that can't come raging back in here."
"We need to stick together from now on," Alexis knelt by the side of the pallet and took Lila's hands in hers. At first Lila flinched but then she relented and let Alexis hold her hands.
"Stick together, Lee and Lexie," Lila said, her eyes and voice far away.
"The tent where the clothes are is across the way," Alexis said. "There's no reason we can't head over there together."
"Last night? After the skit?" Lila looked into Alexis' eyes. "Remember last night after we got done doing the skit?"
"At the telesterion."
"Yeah. Last night, when we got done doing the skit, just before I went to pick up Cory at the big pen in back, me and Anike were sniping at each other. I was ticked at Anike because she hadn't brought a big enough pin to keep her sash pinned, and Anike was ticked at me for having gotten too big for my bloomers since Gab started going around with Xena."
"Maybe Anike's jealous that it's Gab and not her who gets to pal around with Xena."
"Uh uh. Palling around with Xena isn't something that Anike would want to do. But I think Anike may have been right. I think I have let Gab and Xena’s being partners go a little bit to my head. What I'd really like to see, and it hadn’t occurred to me 'til that beast started climbing on top of me, is for Anike to take on more of a leadership role."
"With the enaretes kores?"
"But you're their leader."
"Yeah, but I’m not sure I've got the call to go the next step. For some reason, I think Anike might, even if she isn't aware of it yet. For all her goofiness, deep down, I really believe in her. Isn't that weird?"
"If you were an Artemoid, you wouldn't have to sweat that stuff. We don't have hierophants like you Demetoids do. We rotate every sunmark so that everybody gets the chance to give the girls they don't like a kick in the butt."
"Did Gab kick your butts the sunmark that she got to be the big cheese?"
"Gab? Are you kidding? Gab's idea of being in charge was to work so hard at getting everybody to agree on everything that by the time we all agreed, nobody had any energy left to do anything."
"Sounds like Gab," Lila chuckled and then burst into tears. Big, splashy, rolling tears from way down deep in her belly. "It was awful, Lex! That horrible thing piled on top of me with all his weight and said ugly, hateful, horrible things."
Alexis put her arms around Lila and held her close. "Lee," she murmurred, "I'm so sorry. If only I'd’ve been here, maybe I could have fended him off. You and me together."
"He was awful, Lex. In his soul. What makes people get like that?" Lila wept. "If only Gab was around, though I don’t know. Maybe I’ve been putting Gab on a pedestal like Chiron said the day we stopped at his information table."
Alexis rocked Lila in the cradle of her strong arms. "'Lila, Lila, Sarsaparilla, loves her chocolate and vanilla...' Remember 'Lila, Lila, Sarsaparilla...'?"
Lila smiled and nodded, rocking through her tears.
"You and Gab were all excited about what was going to be your chocolate and vanilla farm," Alexis reminisced. "And you decided it might be okay for me to be part of it. But only sometimes. Only the times when you said I could, remember?"
"That was really big of us, wasn't it?" Lila continued to weep.
"Gab and Lee's Chocolate and Vanilla Farm," Alexis held Lila in her arms. "And maybe Lexie could be part of it... sometimes. 'Maybe we'll let Lexie come and help us bake a chocolate cake and put vanilla frosting on it at Gab and Lee's Chocolate and Vanilla Farm."
"I remember that Chocolate and Vanilla Farm," Lila continued to weep. "It was me and Gab and you when we felt like including you. Oh, Lexie, we were mean and stinky to you sometimes, weren't we?"
"And what I wanted most in the world was a little sister that I could have my own chocolate and vanilla farm with, but all I got were two obnoxious brothers."
"Not very fair of the gods, was it?"
"Lexie, forgive me," Lila leaned heavily against her dearest friend, letting Alexis' warmth and love wash their healing waves over her. "Forgive me for being mean and stinky."
"So mean, so stinky," Alexis lovingly stroked Lila's long and, by now, well-knotted hair.
"Mean and stinky, thumb and pinkie," Lila said in a singsongy voice.
"Stinky pinkie," Alexis rocked and hugged.
"Stinky pinkie," Lila let herself be rocked and hugged and then, for what seemed like a candlemark yet may have lasted barely for a turn of the sandglass, Lila wept 'til her sides ached while Alexis cooed and rocked and hugged and patted her.
Septix came back and poked his head in. "Ready to try on some new clothes?"
By now, Lila and Alexis were sitting quietly on one of the pallets.
"This time we go together," Alexis said with a firmness that wouldn't be denied.
Septix walked them across the compound to a tent whose front flaps folded down and could be tied together with lengths of cord to allow Lila and Alexis some privacy in making their selections.
Spare togs and buffed animal skins were piled high on the tent's twin bunks.
"So this is their treasure trove of used clothing," Alexis began poking through the piles. "Pretty slim pickings if you ask me."
"I'll say," Lila agreed as she picked over the worn items. "I guess it's mostly stuff they've made off with in their raids."
"Here's something interesting," Alexis pulled out a pair of leather pants with a knotted sash for a belt. "See if I can pack my backside into these." Alexis slipped out of her skirt and slid the pants on. "Whoa, slinky! C'mere, feel."
The pants, though tight, were smooth and soft to Lila's touch.
"If I was only a skinny straw like Anike," Alexis pulled the leggings on and found that the belt was decorative but superfluous.
"Me too," Lila pored over the paltry selection, settling on a mid-length, suede skirt and a sturdy brown-and-white tunic with leather scrollwork swirling in matched bays down the front.
"That’s not a bad combination. Gab ought to see you in that," Alexis stepped back and admired Lila's selection. "All you need to round it out are the boots."
"It’s different than what I usually go around in, that’s for sure," Lila turned this way and that, looking at as much of herself as she could. "I like the subdued color combination."
"Here!" Alexis dug into the pile and pulled out a pair of buff chausettes that had wide, fringed flaps turned down over their calf-high edges. "Try these."
Lila pulled the boots on and hauled the tops to just below the knee. "Not bad," Lila paraded around the tent floor. "A bit roomy in the toes but I can deal with that."
"Stand up. Nice and tall," Alexis commanded. "Shoulders back. Chest out."
Lila stood with her legs together and her back arched.
"A hunk of burning Amazon, you aren't," Alexis looked Lila up and down, "but it's not bad for starters."
"Starters?" Lila raised an eyebrow.
"Don’t you think these are an improvement over our ruffled skirts and fluffy blouses? Here, check this one out." Alexis held up a trim tan jacket with wide lapels and big cuffs at the wrist. She slipped it on and, spinning a half turn around, dipped one shoulder forward and then the other, stretching the fabric and toning it to her generous, high-riding bust.
"It's you allright," Lila folded her arms as she watched Alexis cinch the jacket more tightly and button the two large buttons that fastened it at the front.
"You think so?" Alexis said, primping. "Jacket and pants. Now all I need is one of those tilted chapeaux with an ostrich feather and a dagger strapped to my waist."
"Oh, Lexie," Lila laughed for the first time in what felt like a long time, "if I was The Big O…," Lila's voice trailed off.
"If you were The Big O, what?" Alexis strutted up to Lila, shoved her bust out and stuck her hands saucily on her hips.
"If I was The Big O," Lila said with an ornery grin, "I'd chase you around the haystacks ‘til I caught you!"
Then Lila flung her hands out, grabbed Alexis by the ribs and started clawing with her fingers.
"Oh, ohh!" Alexis gasped. "Lee, don't! Hoo, that tickles."
Lila shoved Alexis onto the pile of spare clothing and flopped down on top of her. Alexis cackled and rolled over, sending them both sliding off the bunk and onto the matting of the tent's interior where the loose mound of clothes spilled over on top of them. Laughing and giggling, they began tossing clothes wildly around the tent in an effort to extricate themselves from the heap.
"What's goin’ on in there?" Septix called from his post outside the closed tent flaps.
"We’re trying stuff on!" Lila shouted.
"It's all mix and match!" Alexis cried.
"Try not to take all day," Septix called back. "Latrinus wants to see you when you're done."
A sour note of reality intruded as Lila and Alexis recalled that they weren't customers in the dressing room at a clothier's shop but hostages in a tent at a warlord's camp.
"We'd better tidy up," Lila said.
"Don’t push the panic button, we're almost done!" Alexis called out to Septix as she and Lila began piling the spare clothes back onto the twin bunks.
"Wow," Septix gave Lila and Alexis an admiring look when they emerged in their new getups. "You know: if you guys could learn to ride and handle weapons and didn't mind camping out in the cold for a couple of moonmarks during the winter, I’ll bet our gang could do with a couple of new members."
"I ... ah... don't think so," Lila said.
"We're hostages, remember?" Alexis said.
"Oh, yeah," Septix nodded as though he might have forgotten. "Well, ladies, if you'll kindly follow me, " he led them past pitched tents and smoldering fire pits to their hut where they folded up their festival gowns and laid them neatly on their pallets.
Then they headed off to Latrinus' hut.
"No, just you," Septix indicated Lila.
Alexis frowned. "After what just happened, her and me stick together."
"Where I go, she goes and vice versa," Lila chimed in.
"I'm sorry but Latrinus says that your friend has to stay here," Septix said to Lila.
"And I'm sorry but that's unacceptable," Lila said.
Septix shrugged. "If you put up a stink, he'll just have the guys take you by force. It's not like you have a choice. I'm sorry."
Lila stopped in her tracks. "Look, we're in this together, Lexie and me. What right have you got to separate us?"
"Maybe none, but Latrinus says for you to come and for her to stay put," Septix said.
Lila dug her heels in. "Then tell Latrinus he can take a bite out of one of his fat, juicy apples."
Septix motioned for Lila to come closer. "Latrinus isn't going to let you negotiate," he said in a voice tinged with obvious regret at having to carry out his boss' orders. "You get to come," he said to Lila, "and you get to stay behind," he informed Alexis. "There'll be an armed guard posted at the door to make sure nobody gets in or out." Septix pointed to Cesspoulos who was lurking in the shade of a stippled plane tree.
"Oh, no, not him," Alexis protested. "That's the bozo that bonked me on the head last night. You saw what his buddy tried to do to Lee. You're not gonna leave me alone with that creep."
"I think he's been cowed by what just happened to Lugnuts," Septix said, "I don't think he wants to end up a corpse. You'll be safe. Even if he's stupid, he's not suicidal."
"How long will I be gone for?" Lila said.
"That's up to Latrinus," Septix said. "If he doesn’t give me other stuff to do, I'll double back and keep an eye on Cesspoulos."
Lila and Alexis exchanged concerned looks.
"If you let out a scream," Septix told Alexis, "it takes less than half the turn of a sandglass to cover the ground between Latrinus' hut and here. That's not enough time for Cesspoulos to do anything crazy. Not now that everyone's been alerted."
"Maybe I won't be gone that long," Lila sought to be reassuring.
"And if we just say no?" Alexis said to Septix.
"They'll pull you apart, kicking and screaming," Septix said. "Latrinus wants to see your friend alone."
Lila reached out and took Alexis' hands. "I'll be back as soon as I can. Maybe you can find a spot to stash our stuff in."
Alexis sighed. "Okay, but if that jerk tries anything funny," Alexis turned to Septix, "I took down two of your guys and I can take down a third."
"I’ll bet you can," Septix said. "Remember: Latrinus doesn't want anything bad to happen to either one of you. That was a real knife you saw sticking out of Lugnuts' back and real blood that got tracked across the floor."
With that proviso in mind, Alexis went reluctantly back to the hostage hut as Lila continued to walk with Septix to meet with Latrinus.
Continued in Part 20
The Bard's Corner