Chapter 20: My Spare Lady
"I see that Septix has managed to keep you out of trouble for nearly a candlemark," Latrinus, installed comfortably behind his map-clogged table, grinned as he gestured at Lila to take a seat. "Septix, go tend to the horses like a good fellow. You've a bit more ground to cover before the day’s over."
Septix nodded and ducked out the door.
"Nice duds," Latrinus looked Lila up and down. "Brown and buff seems to suit you."
"These'll do," Lila said, glancing at the many lit candles that gave out a sour scent of burning tallow as they dripped in their wrought iron holders. The walls were covered with skins and hides of various sizes along with an impressive array of weapons within easy reach of Latrinus' grasp.
"There’s no need to pull a long face. I'm setting you free," Latrinus said.
"You're what?" Lila scrutinized him.
"You're leaving, departing, vamoosing. We’re evicting you," Latrinus said with a flourish.
"And where am I going?" Lila smirked.
"Wherever, on this wide and wonderful earth, your little heart desires," Latrinus sat back and gave Lila a contented and extremely vexing smile. "You've had a good breakfast. You've gotten a fresh change of clothes – very smart ones, I should say. We’ve noting else to amuse you with, so what's the point of keeping you here?"
"You mean we're being let go. Just like that," Lila said.
"You are, yes," Latrinus sat back in his heavy wooden chair and looked Lila smugly in the eye.
"I am," Lila said. "What about my friend?"
"Your friend. Well," Latrinus stretched, locked his fingers and pressed them outward, cracking the knuckles, "your friend is another matter."
"I’m sorry, you’ve lost me," Lila said, perplexed.
"It’s as I’ve said: you're going. But your friend is staying."
"You're not making sense. We were rounded up together, we got dragged in here together, we've seen this thing through together. What do you mean: I'm going and Lexie's staying?"
"I appreciate your concern for your friend’s well-being. Loyalty is an admirable quality in a person, and I’m glad to see that you come by it honestly. But your time with us has come to an end. Your friend, however, will be gracing us with her presence for just a bit longer."
"You’re talking in circles. You're going to go to the trouble of kidnapping us in the dead of night only to let us… to let me go the very next day? Just like that?" Then an odd thought crossed Lila's mind. "Why? Aren’t I as good a hostage as my friend?"
"You're a fine hostage. You’re a capital hostage. Holding you hostage has cost me the loss of one of my men."
"No great loss from what I could gather."
"No. But even the sorriest dolt can wield a club or lunge with a sword when the need arises. I need only one of you to remain, and your friend fits the bill better than you do."
"But I'm the one whose sister rides with Xena."
"Precisely. That's why you're going and your friend is staying."
"Your logic evades me. I can only tell you that I have no intention of being separated from my friend."
Latrinus scratched the back of his head. His straggly hair fell in thin, wiry clusters nearly to his armor-plated shoulders. "Sooner or later," he said, "and I'm betting it’s going to be sooner, a certain Warrior Princess of our acquaintance, accompanied, I’ll wager, by your sister, is going to come barreling in here bent on rescuing you and your friend. I assume you've seen Xena in action."
"Only on the day when Xena sent Draco's slavers packing, unless you count the night in the byre when she and Gab got rid of… I was in the house, but we heard the shrieks when Hope and the Destroy… never mind. No, I haven’t seen Xena engaged in the type of activity you’re referring to. "
"Then you’ve missed out on something spectacular. I estimate that our beloved Warrior Princess could tear this place apart in half a candlemark. A quarter of a candlemark if she brings your sister. On the other hand, it might take her a whole candlemark if her steps are being dogged by that reverse siege engine of a walking calamity who goes around with a barrel top for a breastplate and a teapot for a helmet."
"You mean Joxer."
"A warrior unique in the mystifying incompetence of his clumsy, death-courting exploits who nonetheless manages not only to survive but to thrive. There are some things under the sun that I won't pretend to understand. But let's say, for the sake of argument, that you and your friend were huddling for dear life in that hut we've set aside for you in or that we've moved you into a secure location out in the surrounding woods. How long do you think it would take Xena to figure out a way to set you free?"
"I haven't the vaguest."
"The answer is: not very. Then our kidnapping efforts would have been in vain. So as I see it, there's little advantage in keeping you here."
"What makes you think that Xena's going to come looking for us in the first place? Xena and Gab are way down in Tiryns, hoping to persuade Queen Admete to return Hippolyte’s belt to the Amazons. That’s a far more important task in the scheme of things than racing back here to try and rescue a couple of irrelevant farm girls from the clutches of a two-bit warlord."
"I think you're underestimating your drawing power. You're not just any old farm girl. You're the sister of Xena’s closest companion. And, as I mentioned earlier, your parents are known to be none too keen on the way in which your sister, for good or ill, has come under the influence of our shadowy Warrior Princess. Busted up a perfectly good marriage that was to have taken place between your sister and some nice young fellow who was courting her, I understand: a heartbroken lad who's gone frolicking off to war in the hope of drowning his sorrows in tankards of Trojan blood; a handsome betrothed whom your parents had carefully picked out for her, or so rumor has it."
"It was a mutual arrangement. His parents were as eager for the match as mine were. My sister would be a great catch for any guy."
"No doubt. And what better way to work oneself into the good graces of the parents of one's dearest companion, one's paramour perhaps, than to do Mom and Dad a valued service by freeing their beloved daughter from the desperate clutches of a cruel, rapacious warlord."
"I don't know Xena very well, but I doubt she's as crass as you're making her out to be."
"She doesn't need to be crass. Coming to the aide of damsels in distress is Xena's stock in trade. It's her métier. It's what she does. And when the heart-rending plea comes from the parents of the soul that's closest in all the world to her Warrior Princess' heart, well, what would you do if you were in Xena's brass and leather?"
Lila rustled uncomfortably on her chair. "So this business of kidnapping me and Lexie, bringing us here in the dead of night and beating the tar out of us in the process, boils down to some wishful attempt, on your part, to get Xena to come busting in here in the hope of rescuing us? You must be daft."
"If that's all there was to it, perhaps I'd agree. But it's a trifle more complicated than that. What we're laying the groundwork for, by kidnapping you, is Xena's participation in a little business venture that my associates and I have been contemplating, an operation we couldn't otherwise be sure of pulling off."
"What sort of an operation?"
Latrinus sat back in his chair and regarded Lila with a bemused expression that was half way between a smirk and a smile. "Do you imbibe?"
"Do I do what?"
"Partake of the juice of the barley. We happen to have some of Mikonos’ finest on tap." Latrinus clapped his hands and one of his lackeys reached up to a shelf and took down a pewter mug. "Care to join me? Bring us another flagon, would you?" Latrinus gave the order and the lackey reached for a second mug.
"No, thank you," Lila shook her head.
"You sure? It's smashing good stuff."
"I've tried it. I think I'll pass."
"Right, I forgot. You're one of the enaretes kores. Serene exemplars of teetotaling virtue."
"Even if I could stomach that stuff, I wouldn't. It comes from one of Mickey's kegs that you stole."
"Fastidious little dish in your suede and leather outfit, aren't you? Never mind. You won't be gracing us with your company much longer. Turn the tap and pour!" Latrinus called to his lackey.
The lackey did as ordered. A pale stream flowed from the spigot of a keg whose wooden staves were mostly concealed within a spherical cache in the woodwork. The mug filled with ale and header. Then the lackey placed the mug on the table in front of Latrinus who raised it to his lips and sucked down a few satisfying gulps.
"You see," Latrinus smacked his lips and swirled the brew in the mug, "this town of yours, Poteidaia, has only one thing that's of any real interest to us. It's a market town, a trading center for its four surrounding villages. No insult intended but farming villages like yours, strewn across the landscape, are a drachma a dozen. And the town centers that service them are, on the whole, dull and unremarkable places. But this particular trading center is atypical in one respect.
"The clay deposits along the gulf inlet are a great source of potential wealth. Among other things, you can make pottery out of it. Very good pottery. Pottery that's apt to last. And the iron-rich deposits on the ocean side of the isthmus allow for the manufacture of excellent glazes. Put the two together – fine
pots, good glazes – and you've got a very fungible commodity. The source of your town's relative prosperity doesn't reside in your piddling produce exchange or your measly harvest of fish. Any number of towns like yours eke out a living by means of farming and fishing. It's your pottery works that makes the difference. And pots – cups, bowls, dishes and the like – have the advantage, from a commercial standpoint, of being easily transportable and not readily perishable, plus they can quickly be exchanged for goods in kind or dinars. Are you beginning to catch my drift?"
"Say a bit more," Lila folded her arms across her chest.
"Have a look outside and what's the first thing that catches your eye?" Latrinus gestured at the open shutter. "Horses. Lots of them. What need would a relatively small band of outlaws have for a veritable stable of horses? What are horses mostly used for? Pulling things. Things like carts and wagons and mobile trestle tables. Receptacles designed for transporting goods. Goods, in this instance, that will sell for hefty prices on the black market. We arrive at the warehouse with our carts and wagons, load them up and ride off into the sunset. Before darkness will have blackened the sky, we'll have fenced the goods, unbridled the horses, kept the swiftest ones for ourselves, and then it's ride like the wind to the wilds of Bulgary where our compatriots, even now, are anxiously awaiting our arrival.
"And the bowls and cups and dishes and pots? After a bit of late night buy and sell, they make their way into the stock of wholesalers and retailers who merchandise them through the workaday channels of commerce. You might even say that we're providing a public service by lowering the cost of goods sold via these alternative supply and demand arrangements. And it's a tax write-off for the pottery works which helps to offset their losses. So you see, in this as in any business," Latrinus rubbed his palms together in acquisitive little circles, "one hand happily washes the other."
"And how do Xena and Gab figure into your little get-rich-quick scheme?"
Latrinus downed a generous gulp of ale. "Haa, imagine, if you will, a dozen to fifteen hijackers pulling up to the loading docks of the pottery works with our carts and wagons, intent on cleaning the place out. Think a heist of that nature, in broad daylight, might attract some unfavorable attention? Think it might prompt folks to sound the alarm and cause the local constabulary to come running? What do we do then? Simply say to these conscientious keepers of the peace, 'Don't mind us, gentlemen, we've come to clean out these storerooms and to find these pots and platters a new and more remunerative home?'
"We're going to need someone, perhaps a couple of someones, who can run interference for us. That's where Xena and your sister come in. We pull off our little caper and, during the time it takes to load up the wagons and scurry off into the woodwork, the Warrior Princess and her blonde companion keep the hounds of local law enforcement at bay with their repertoire of kicks, punches, grimaces and aggressive sword and staff play, and by utilizing that little round flying thing, Xena’s infernal instrument of woe."
"You truly imagine that you're going to get Xena and Gab to help you rip off the pottery works?" Lila raised a sceptical eyebrow. "You have quite taken leave of your senses."
"Well, we do have an ace – actually two – stuck part way up our sleeve," Latrinus sat back and bathed Lila in an annoying smile.
"What aces are those?" Lila said.
"The one I happen to be looking at, for example."
"You think I'm an ace up your sleeve? Didn’t you just say that you're planning to let me go? You can't suppose that I'm going to appeal to Xena and Gab to help you further your nasty scheme. For one thing, Xena and I aren't terribly well acquainted. And if you think I've got some inroad into Xena's conscience simply because Gab happens to be my sister, you're laboring under a very false impression. When it comes to the nature of my sister's relationship with Xena, Gab keeps her own counsel and plays it very close to the vest."
"You're going to talk Xena into nothing. Xena isn't going to know you exist other than as a cipher who happens to be at my temporary disposal. Why else would I be letting you go?"
"And where do you think I'm going to go if not straight home to let my parents know that I'm still in one piece and to tell them everything that's gone on since the instant we got here?" Lila looked at Latrinus as though he were as thick as the early morning fog rising up from the low-lying brakes and marshes of the nearby Strymon River.
"Where you go is up to you, but I doubt you'll be going home."
"I just told you where I'll be going," Lila said in an exasperated tone of voice.
"I heard you," Latrinus said. "But keep in mind that we'll still have custody of your friend."
"I cautioned you earlier and I'll repeat now what I said then," Latrinus leaned over his mug of ale. "I have no desire to engage Xena and your sister in any sort of direct confrontation; nor, for that matter, am I inclined to concoct some trivial diversion in an effort to distract them. I'm not that foolhardy. And I certainly don’t intend to provide that dazzling duo with the opportunity to spring you and your friend loose, thereby rendering my little plan moot. They’re not going to find you here because you're not going to be here. And I don't have to hide you because you're going to hide yourself."
"I'm going home as soon as I get out of here."
"I trust that before you take so rash a step, you'll consider the consequences that will no doubt ensue. As far as Xena and your sister will know, we have you hidden somewhere; if not here, then somewhere within our purview. If they refuse to assist us in our raid on the pottery works, that is, if Xena and your sister won’t clear a getaway for us, we'll give them to understand that neither they nor your parents will see you alive again. And if they or anyone else should attempt to torture your location out of us, well, not even the Warrior Princess can coax the blood of knowledge from the stone of ignorance. If we die, then you die – or so it will seem. And I don't think your parents or sister would want to trigger so baleful a response on the part of our hypothetical and hidden operatives. Not in exchange for a few score pieces of pottery."
"But how can you kill me if you don't know where I’ll be? For all you’ll know, I could be hiding under Xena's leathers by then."
"In that case or in case your whereabouts should become known so that Xena and your sister should be led to believe that we're not holding you in cognito, your friend will die."
"It's very simple when you stop and think about it. If Xena believes that your life is in jeopardy and that your welfare lies beyond her power to influence, she's not likely to get in our way. For that to happen, you need to stay hidden so that no one knows where you are, including Xena. Above all, Xena. It's too risky for us to keep you here or anywhere else for that matter. Xena would only find you and spring you free. So we need to rely upon your assistance. And to guarantee that assistance, I'm simply telling you that for want of that assistance – let your whereabouts be discovered for any reason such that Xena and your sister may have cause to refuse to cooperate with us – and your friend will die a very gruesome death.
"If you value your friend's life, and I'm confident that you do, you won't want to be the accidental cause of her demise. My suggestion is that you squirrel yourself securely away for the few days it will take us to carry out our plan once Xena and your sister have arrived. From our perspective, what's the worst thing that can happen? We don't get our hands on the goods. No great loss. Off we go to the next town and its satellite villages to try our luck there. A little ventured, nothing gained. We'll make it up on the next go ‘round. But the cost of double crossing us by surreptitiously frustrating our designs will be to impose upon your friend a terribly slow and nasty business, beginning with the type of unpleasantness to which you yourself were so recently exposed. Am I making myself clear?"
"So you're using Lexie to blackmail me and using me – or my parents' concern for my well-being – to blackmail Gab and Xena."
"You bastard," Lila’s eyes lit up with blue fury.
"Come," Latrinus smiled a lugubrious smile, "I prefer to think of myself as a moderately competent risk taker. You're young and can be forgiven your relative inexperience. That and the fact that you're a nice person, quite an attractive person, actually. Make some lucky farmer a good, compliant wife. You may even live to hear your children give thanks that they've been fortunate to have you for a mother. So let me give you a bit of advice when it comes to dealing with warlords.
"There are two kinds of warlords, each with their respective strengths and weaknesses. The first kind are the schoolyard bullies writ large on horseback, who go in for fiendish weaponry and outlandish costumes, the ones who and pillage and plunder and lay waste to everything in sight, motivated primarily by their rapacious and lascivious desires. These would-be tyrants consume their capital as quickly as they appropriate it, and no matter how far they pursue their goals of greed and lust, they have nothing, in the end, but scorched earth to show for it, that and the fear and hatred which they've inspired in their underlings and in much of the poorly defended populace – which outcome, for some of these benighted, anti-social types, is all they’ve ever truly wanted.
"This type of warlord is governed almost wholly by spite, vendetta and poorly disciplined emotions. Xena started out this way. Callisto, when her army was ravaging the villages and hamlets of Central and Southern Macedonia, was the prototype of this kind of ineffectual warlord. For all her many talents, Callisto's blind hatred of Xena – for what she imagined Xena represented – drove her over the edge of reason and charted the course of her inevitable destruction. Or Darphus, driven by cruelty and sadism. Or Draco, more versatile, but a servant, to the last, of the typhoons and tempests of his all-consuming ego. Or Krykus whose opportunism in attempting to pit the Amazons and the Centaurs against one another got him hoist by his own petard. Or Mezentius, too smart for his own good, and Talmodeus, too dumb by an equal measure: even Caesar and his monomania about his "destiny" which, by the sheer force of personality, he was able to hoodwink lesser minds into endorsing. This is one species of warlord: your true psychopath; colorful, ambitious, charismatic, self-consuming.
"The other species of warlord is more humble in his or her aspirations. Mundane, if you like. Much akin to a securities trader in outlook if not in method. A conservative soul, an astute weigher of risks, an analyst, half-bureaucrat, half-businessman, moved less by a famished appetite for glory than a mild, persistent hankering after profit. One who knows that the best time to get up and leave the table is when one is still a trifle hungry. For he who up and runs away..."
"Lives to run another day," Lila completed the thought.
"If necessary. Take what I'm telling you with a large grain of pottery clay: the ranting of an old and not very rich, famous or terribly ambitious warlord who's lately begun to contemplate his mortality along with his prospects for a comfortable if not a luxurious retirement. But be aware of one thing. This second type of warlord – and herein lies his or her strength – is not in the game for fame, glory or the ephemeral joys to be had by exulting in his cups as others quail in terror at the sound of his name. We're in it for the nuggets and what those nuggets will buy. And we don't make a habit of issuing idle threats. Nor, as a rule, do we go in for such pathetic pleasures as might be had in wild sprees of killing, burning, ravishing and looting. Those are the self-indulgent enjoyments of irresponsible youth, if enjoyments they be.
"My men could have left Mikonos for dead when we relieved him of his kegs and vats. They could have run Timon through with the blade of his dirk when they availed themselves of his sacks of grain and flour. They've yet to lay waste a single village or to stage a fatal ambush of even the most well-gilded traveler on the road. We haven’t even troubled the dyspeptic comings and goings of the supremely aggravating Salmoneus. That’s not our m.o. Killing is a last resort and rarely an effective one. So when I say that we'll kill your friend after using her for our sport, and then leave her body in a most pitiably desecrated state should you fail to go into hiding and wait out the next few days incommunicado at a place of your own choosing, please take what I'm telling you at face value... that is, if you care for the life of your friend.
"As I say, we're going to put you on a horse and lead you back the way you came. The single condition of your release is that you lay low and not tell anyone where you are. It will only be a matter of days, and then you'll be free to go home and reconnoiter with your friend who, by then, I'm sure, will be awaiting your return with open arms. Any questions?"
"No," Lila looked down at the floor, too tired and confused to worry or even, at that point, to seethe.
"Glad we see eye to eye, then," Latrinus clapped his hands and one of his lackeys came over and handed Lila a bulging waterskin and a leather pouch. "There's two day's worth of food and water in these containers if you’re willing to pace yourself. Hopefully, you won't be needing the half of it. We've got one of the palfreys saddled up and waiting. Ready to ride?"
"After I've gone to square things with Lexie," Lila sighed.
"I'm afraid that won't be possible," Latrinus said.
"What do you mean? I've got to tell her that you're making me go."
"We'll take care of that."
"No, you won't," Lila snapped. "She's my friend. It's my job to tell her. I can't just walk out and leave her."
"Your friend needn't be unduly upset," Latrinus said. "We'll tell her that we're keeping the two of you apart for security reasons, which, in effect, we are. And we'll tell her more or less what we've told you, minus the bit about our plans for Xena and your sister – and our plans for her should your cooperation go awry. All she'll know is that something unforeseen has come up and that she's to remain with us for a few more days. And rest assured, not one stitch of harm will befall her so long as you keep to your end of the bargain. We'll put her to work cooking, cleaning; there's always mending to be done. We'll give her tasks to keep her mind off things so she won't be bored and have occasion to fret. Who knows but that her stay with us might be an enlivening experience before we drop her off in town or leave her by the side of the road to be collected by friends and family. If all goes smoothly, you'll meet again at home by which time we'll be long gone and shan't trouble your lovely coastal town again."
"Lexie doesn't sew very well," Lila said in a low, sad voice. "She can do buttons and hems but nothing more complicated."
"Then we'll have her gather firewood," Latrinus said. "She's got broad shoulders and shapely arms. I'm sure she'll do just fine. Play your part and let her play hers; hopefully Xena and your sister will oblige and we'll all be happy. Last call: any questions?"
Lila shook her head and the interview came to an end. Latrinus called for Septix who entered the hut and stood at attention.
"Horses lined up?" Latrinus said.
"Three mounts ready to go," Septix nodded.
Latrinus got up and walked Lila to the door. They strolled outside to the spot where the little caravan was waiting to depart.
"You knew this was in the works, didn't you," Lila said to Septix before they mounted up.
"I knew that something was," Septix said. "I didn't know what it would be until word came down while you and Latrinus were having your meeting."
"By Zeus and all the gods," Lila muttered in disgust, "I don't know which is worse, you being caring and ineffectual or Latrinus being a jerk and the one who’s in charge." Then Lila looked into Septix' soft brown eyes, eyes that seemed genuinely kind. "If you should get run through by Xena's sword one day," Lila said with cold quiet, "I won't shed a tear for you."
Septix nodded, acknowledging Lila’s sentiment.
"Which is kind of a shame because, as a rule, I'm not that callous," Lila said, more to herself than to Septix. Then she looked at Septix a second time and said, "Either leave here and come with me when we go or don't say another word to me."
"I can't go with you," Septix said. "Only as far as the road. Then it's goodbye and good luck."
"Does it have to be?" Lila looked at Septix with eyes that still had room for kindness and compassion despite the pain and humiliation to which they'd been subjected.
"I'm afraid so," Septix said in a voice that sensed a possible occasion for future regret.
"Suit yourself, then," Lila said and turned away, looking toward the horses that were milling about, waiting to be mounted for a trot through the glade.
Lila shot a parting glance at the hut where Alexis, under heavy guard, was waiting for Lila’s return. "May the gods be with you, my friend. May we soon see each other again. And please, somewhere inside that massive, glowing heart of yours, try to find a way to forgive me. You will tell her that I had no choice but to leave," Lila turned back to Septix.
"Yes," Septix said.
"I'm taking you at your word. See that you don't go back on it," Lila said, sternly. Then, relenting, she added, "Please, for my friend's sake."
Then the three of them – Lila, Septix and Gunkis, the scout – mounted up and, with Septix leading Lila on the palfrey away from the camp, much as the deceased Lugnuts had led her into camp on the previous evening, they meandered slowly into the woods.
Continued in Part 21
The Bard's Corner