Chapter 21: Hide And Shriek
"Either you kiss 'em or you kill 'em but either way,
it doesn't seem to make a difference..."
The track through the dense cypress grove, interspersed with copses of dappled sycamore, banked gradually to the west, then rose gently to ring the southern approach to the ridge. The damp mold of fallen leaves and soggy tree blades, thick and brown on the forest floor, mottled the hard, stony stubble as the horses picked up their pace in response to the commands of Gunkis, the scout. Jagged outcroppings of rock soon narrowed the passage so that the horses were forced to proceed single file through close rifts on whose crests knobby roots of clinging pines had sunk their twisted tentacles deep into the cracks and crevices. Long shadows fell slantwise on the slope as the three riders entered a low defile below the rolling cleft that hung like mossy shelving beneath the topmost sweep of the ridge. The rays of the sun had yet to clamber above the overhanging rock so that Lila, in the rear, holding onto the pommel of her harnessed palfrey, could barely make out the shapes of the lead riders ahead of her in the gloom. At the mid-morning candlemark, it was darker than dusk in the thick woods and eerily quiet but for the steady clopping of the horses' hooves.
Suddenly the trio arrived at a sharp ravine where the vale gave out abruptly on a slanting ramp of stone stippled, in places, with brushy shrubs and long, twisting, berry runners. As they skirted the skittery slab, the sunlight came streaming over the rounded top of the knob to their left, indicating a further southerly shift in direction. They were re-tracing last night's course through the glen as they dropped closer down to the road that ran easterly from Poteidaia toward the villages that lay to the west of Stagira and the breezy headland of the Sithonian Cape.
Clever move on Latrinus' part to choose the flat berm above this gravelly ridge for a wooded hideout, Lila thought. Though such an escape route through the eastern, hilly regions of Macedonia would prove more difficult to navigate high above the Strymon River delta whose broad current formed a winding border with Thrace, Latrinus and his men would be able to avoid the riskier, easier run on the Strymon Road and then the dash north through the forests west of the river that would bring them to the ferry landing across the channel from Amphipolis. The camp's location positioned Latrinus' band for a fast strike at Poteidaia and, by now, what must be a well-charted, back and forth series of maneuvers designed to throw a stream of pursuers handily off the track, at which point the slow moving wagons, craftily camouflaged, could bump and draggle at their leisure, northwest along the well-traveled road to Thessaloniki and thence to the wider markets of central Macedonia and eastern Thessaly.
"Covering his tracks pretty well, the sly dog," Lila murmurred to herself as her mount, being led by the reins, began a sideways slide down the smooth stone banking, then neatly recovered her footing with a shake and a whinny. A turn of the sandglass later, the party of three was back in the shade of the swiftly descending glade where the sunlight, at last vaunting the ridge, more freely illumined the airy spaces between the trees. Maybe Latrinus had been serious about attempting to enlist Xena's help in his little scheme to burgle the pottery works. If Latrinus could get Xena to cover his flank and if he were to position his men in strategic locations along the avenue astride the town's palisade, he could very likely make a successful run for it and unload the bulk of the stolen goods in a jiffy, leaving himself an effective, if somewhat circuitous, route out of the region. If not, he and his band could go charging off to hole up for days, high in the hills above these peninsular valleys, where the gang would be poised to strike at yet another potentially lucrative target.
"One lesson that Latrinus seems to have learned in the course of his warlording career is patience, I'll give him that," Lila reflected.
The trek through the woods was milder now, the descent gradually flattening, the trees, though thicker in spots and more crowded with saplings, giving way to the track which, in stages, became a wide dirt path uncluttered by the otherwise burgeoning foliage.
"This is the spot where we switched horses last night," Lila spoke up as they entered the dell of a small clearing.
Septix, who'd been seated silently on his mount since the trip had begun, turned in his saddle and gave Lila a concerned look, checking to see if she were holding securely to the reins. "You know where we are, then," he said with a slight trace of a smile.
"Not really, except that we're not very far from the road."
"Any idea where you’ll be going? You’ll be on your own pretty soon."
"Then you'd better tell me, in a bit more detail, where we are. We're coming up on the road to Stagira, aren't we?"
"A couple, three leagues east of Nea Moudana."
"We covered that much ground, did we?" Lila said, giving herself some grudging credit. "I must've held on pretty tight."
Nea Moudana was the most easterly of Poteidaia's surrounding villages, located some three leagues from town, down a culvert from the Stagira Road. Like Lila's village, it was a farming community sustained by several hamlets to the north and south. A scatter of cottages, byres, pens and silos defined the village proper beyond which wheat and grain fields abounded in the bright but now cool turn-of-the-season sun. So it was five to six leagues of pure, bumping Hades that Lila had clung for dear life to the stirrup as her midsection had been buffeted unmercifully by the hindquarters of the galloping steed that had borne her away from the town's main square barely more than twelve candlemarks ago.
Now an equally challenging problem loomed in front of her. Where was she to go and how might she contrive to get there without being detected? Since leaving camp, Lila had been wracking her brains, trying to come up with a plan. She wanted, with all her heart, to go winging home; foremost to assure her parents that she was allright but also, upon her return, to give her father the lowdown on where to focus the search for Alexis. The thought of three-score men storming Latrinus' camp and overwhelming his twenty-odd regulars was a sight that Lila would dearly have loved to see. But the searchers were farmers and merchants, not riders and swordsmen. They would need to be led by a real warrior, someone like Xena – or Meleager on the day when he'd saved the town from being laid waste by Damon and his gang of armed mercenaries.
No matter how strong Lila's desire may have been for swift and stern retribution, she felt that she couldn't risk going home or venturing anywhere near Poteidaia and its environs, at least not openly. The danger to Alexis' safety would be too great if Lila's reneging on Latrinus' terms were, for any reason, to be discovered. Latrinus wasn't known to be a destroyer of villages or a warlord bent on rapine. His deeds had borne witness to his words. He was more a sleaze than a thug. But precisely because Latrinus had always been reluctant to kill and pillage, Lila was inclined to take his threat seriously. He was candid, perhaps to his credit, but he was also cold. Lila believed that Latrinus would carry out his threat to murder Alexis if, for any reason, Lila were to attempt to foil his scheme and, furthermore, that he might do so after first having inflicted horrible torture upon her.
Though it was blackmail pure and simple, and Lila despised herself for caving in to it, the alternative was too gruesome to contemplate. Much as Lila might have wished otherwise, there was no way she could realistically conspire to rescue her friend. Like a knight or a bishop in a game of chess whose movement was steadfastly blocked by a niggling pawn, Lila, having looked this way and that across the board of present possibilities, could see no way to proceed along its surface other than to sit the match out, contemplating the prospect that other players might hopefully compensate for her vexing immobility.
"Where might I go to hide?"
What about the road to Thessaloniki and the centaur village? Lila wasn't familiar with the Centaurs, only Chiron, and, even then, it was a meager acquaintance. She'd always been somewhat apprehensive of these strange halflings, never wanting to have too much to do with them. Tyldus, their leader, was an overpowering figure: genteel, in his way, but austere, even, at times, forbidding. Lila had heard favorable things about Kaliepus in the days of Hope and Solon, but Kaliepus was dead, felled by the dread machinations of Lila's... former niece. No, the centaur village didn't bode well as a promising choice, nor was Lila confident that were the circumstances of her arrival to be known, the Centaurs might successfully be prevailed upon, for Alexis' sake, to keep Lila’s presence among them a secret. The Centaurs, after all, were well known for their passionate loathing of any and all warlords, with the exception of Borias who'd befriended and fought to his death alongside them.
The Amazon village lay to the southeast of the centaur village, the two settlements separated by the rolling ridge of the Amazon woods, the former venue of a nasty turf war which had sprung up between the Amazons and the Centaurs. But relations between the two villages had markedly improved thanks largely to Ephiny's gifts for diplomacy, not to mention the existence of the charming and bubbly Xenon, the four-year-old embodiment of the de facto Amazon/Centaur alliance. Still, Ephiny had her hands full these days, trying to maintain a semblance of order and discipline among the testy ranks of the always restless Amazons, the difficulty having lately been brought to a head by Velasca's recent appeal to Penthesileia in the hope of resolving the dispute, now the breach, over who was ultimately to reign, Velasca or Gabrielle, as the local Amazon queen.
Even if Lila were able to make her way without incident through the dreaded Amazon woods where a sudden swooping of ropes from the trees or a silent shaft loosed from a bow well hidden behind a leafy mountain laurel could spell one's doom before one were even aware of having been targeted – dentrogynaikoi they were called, tree-women; and there were no souls more adept at stealth and the wrecking of havoc in the woods than these wild Amazons whose forte lay in racing from tree limb to tree limb high above the forest floor, as lithe and easily as if they were running wind sprints on a cinder track – Lila's association with Gabrielle might not only put Ephiny in an awkward position were Lila to seek temporary sanctuary among the Amazons, but Lila's presence at the Amazon village might prompt Velasca to leak word of Lila's arrival if the reasons for it, despite all precautions, were to come to Velasca's attention and jibe with her quick apprehension.
Then Lila thought of Cyrene. If she could make her way overland to Amphipolis, Cyrene would hide her and could be counted on to keep Lila's presence a secret. Lila had met Cyrene on one or two previous occasions, most recently at Gabrielle's surprise birthday party when a bounty hunter, stalking Xena, had burst unawares upon the company only to meet her doom by the hand of what everyone had at first suspected was a wily assassin. The party goers had then nearly lost their lives at the hands of one of Ares' impertinent little vixens. Lila had been affectionately drawn to Cyrene from the outset and had found herself genuinely warming to this tender, motherly figure.
How a woman as classy and well-spoken as Cyrene, with her warm, expansive nature, could have given birth to and nurtured a future Warrior Princess and Destroyer of Nations was a question that remained a mystery to Lila. Cyrene and Xena were so utterly dissimilar on the surface. Yet the bond of love that bound them each to the other was as strong and hensile as the blade of the iron sword which Xena carried in the scabbard that she kept strapped snugly at her back. Lila had thought, now and again, that if she were ever to leave home for a wandering spell, she'd like nothing better to dwell for a time with the munificent Cyrene and perhaps to assist her in running the inn at Amphipolis, except that Lila's parents, thus far knowing Cyrene only as Xena’s mother, might object on those grounds alone.
But to make her way to Amphipolis on foot would be too bold an undertaking. First, she'd have to re-join the main road which would take her westerly past Nea Moudana nearly to the outskirts of Poteidaia where she might easily be seen. Then, even if she were able to slip past the edge of town unobserved and to hook up with the main road to the north, the trip to Amphipolis, on the road that forked east at the near juncture off the road to Thessaloniki, was nearly a two-day's journey on foot. Lila would have to cross the narrow bridge over the chasm on the far side of which lay the lair of the cyclops. Though the troublesome creature hadn't been seen in the vicinity for many moonmarks, he might yet be lying in wait to make a meal of the occasional passerby. Gabrielle had managed to outwit him on the morning following the night when she'd left to go racing after Xena; but, in a tight spot, Gab was blessed with the gift of... gab, while Lila was just as apt to freeze and get tongue-tied. No, a journey on foot to Amphipolis was too fraught with potential mishap to run the risk of undertaking it alone.
"Looks like we’ve come to a parting of the ways," Septix turned around again, checking Lila's perch on the palfrey.
"Oops...," Lila began to shift and slide in the saddle. "I think something must be giving way. Winding along that slanted stoneface seems to have loosened a strap under the saddle."
"Let me have a whack at it," Septix said, falling for Lila's ruse. Septix dropped back to ride alongside Lila, then ducked down from the side of his mount, grabbed hold of the strap under the palfrey's belly and gave it a hefty tug.
"Nope, she's as tight as when we started," Septix said.
"Why are you doing this?" Lila said in a jot above a whisper, too soft for the scout to hear.
"Taking you down to the road? Latrinus told you. He wants to make sure you don’t interf…"
"I mean why are you riding with these men? You don't belong with Latrinus. He's using you. You're made of better stuff than that."
Septix dropped his gaze in a gesture of shame, and then, recovering as quickly, he lifted his gaze back up to look into Lila's dark blue eyes: pretty eyes, searching eyes, longing eyes; the kind of eyes he'd rarely seen in a man or a woman. In fact, now that he found himself being confronted by the frank, demanding look in Lila's unblinking eyes, he couldn't deny that the woman he was escorting to her uncertain destination had a loveliness about her, befouled by the dirty bandage draped across her forehead and cheek, a loveliness that had been mocked and rendered cheap and tawdry by her treatment at the hands of an ambitious, overweening warlord.
"What makes you say I'm made of better stuff?" Septix returned Lila's look with a wavering glance, he having the power but she the authority.
"Because I can see it," Lila said. "Why are you taking part in this fiasco? Have you been seduced by some vain hope of getting rich quick? Is that what keeps you pressed under your master's thumb?"
Septix chuckled. "If getting rich is what it’s all about, it hasn't happened yet."
"Then why are you riding with these demented lunatics?"
"Out of habit, I suppose. Old loyalties, you could say."
"Loyalty to whom, Latrinus?" Lila said with surprise.
"How is that possible? Latrinus doesn't strike me as the type who's apt to be loyal to anyone."
"In his way, he is. He's honest about what he does. And he doles out a fair share of the loot when there's any to dole out."
"Perhaps. But stealing? From people who have next to nothing? Then kidnapping defenseless girls and knocking them about? And now blackmail?"
"I'm not saying I approve of what he does."
"But you're a member of his gang. Why do you lower yourself to be the lackey of such a corrupt individual?"
Septix turned to look at Lila. "Your sister rides with Xena, doesn't she?"
"Yes. That's why Latrinus had me brought to your camp: my friend and I. It’s part and parcel of his scheme to rob the pottery works."
"And you don't think your sister is lowering herself to be Xena’s companion?"
"No, I don't. I may have thought that in the past. But Xena's changed. Xena's bent on atoning for the terrible things she's done. And Gab – my sister – has had something to do with that change in Xena’s nature: something essential."
"You're saying that your sister worked a miracle, that she persuaded Xena to change her warlording ways?"
"No, the miracle had already happened. But Gab's had a positive impact on Xena. Gab's helped to bring out the best in Xena, which Gab couldn't have done if the best hadn't already been there, waiting to be brought out."
Septix said nothing as they rode through the lower, more packed stretches of the shrubby woods. "Still, it's different," he eventually replied.
"What’s different?" Lila turned to face him.
"Me, for one thing. A warlord named Outhousis came storming through our village when I was a kid. His army torched everything in sight. Only a few families made it through. There was no way we could rebuild. We didn't have the dinars. We didn't have the skills. Parents and kids got scattered. Some never got back together. To this day, I don't what became of my sister. My mother caught a bug and died that winter. Then my father drank himself to death, though it wasn't the booze that killed him. It was the guy with the dagger outside a tavern in a drunken brawl one night.
"Then I met up with Latrinus. He took me in and put a roof over my head – a tent pole, I suppose. But it kept the rain off and the cold out. He gave me things to do, provided me with some direction. A centaur with whom he'd had some dealings owed him a favor, so he got the old halfling to teach me how to patch people up. It was too late to do anything to help my mom, but I've been able to do some good for others."
"You've been a help to me and my friend," Lila said.
"Thanks," Septix looked away, embarrassed.
"You saw what that beast tried to do to me. You know that wasn't right."
"Latrinus took care of him pretty quick."
"But things should never have gotten to that point. That's what I'm saying."
"Once Latrinus gets his hands on those pots or bowls or whatever it is he's after, our gang will be long gone, and you and your people will never be hassled by us again."
"Once he gets his hands on the stuff that he’s got his eye on. Do you hear what you're saying? This isn't your grand scheme. You're not even keen to carry it out."
"A ship needs a captain. If every member of the crew thought he could pilot the helm, the ship would capsize or run aground."
They continued on in silence, with Septix holding the reins of both horses, until they emerged onto the road at the spot where last night's abduction had taken Lila careening madly through the brush.
"End of the line," the scout called to Lila. "You’ll have to hoof it from here. Just remember what Latrinus told you."
"Let me help you down," Septix hopped off his saddle and went to give Lila a hand dismounting. Easily bearing her weight, Septix guided Lila as she slid down the horse's withers and landed on her feet. For an instant, with his hands placed firmly on Lila's hips, Septix looked down into Lila's eyes, and Lila's eyes, unflinching, looked up into his.
A tingle ran through Lila's body and shivered along her spine as she said, "Thank you. You've been very... thoughtful."
A trifle tingly himself, Septix said, "Wait. Before you go, let me have a last look at that cut. I brought some extra dressings along."
Septix reached onto the saddlebag and took out a vial of astringent and some clean cotton swabs. "That bandage ought to be changed. You'll need to keep that gash covered for at least another day. Then let the air at it, and it’ll start to scab over."
The soaked gauze stuck to Lila’s raw, pussed flesh as Septix delicately removed the bandage. Then he cleaned the wound, applied a salve of aloe and goldenseal after which he tied a fresh bandage in place with a length of leather thong.
"There," Septix said with a slight smile, regarding at his handiwork, "you look like a pirate. All you need is a parrot to come perch on your shoulder."
"You've got a gentle touch," Lila said as she sought out Septix' eyes.
"You've got a gentle soul," Septix said, not looking away from Lila's eyes.
"Men have been known to pick up where they've been forced to leave off," Lila said. "Even men who've been left with nothing but the fleece-lined shirts on their backs. There are farming villages in these parts as far as the eye can see. Lower Macedonia is the bread basket of northern Hellas. The fall harvest is in full swing. The wages aren't much, but with pigs and goats and milk cows to be looked after through the long winter moonmarks, a laborer with a sturdy back and a good pair of hands can find a way to get by until the spring planting. Then, after a season or two, a man who's got good industry in him might look forward to purchasing a tiny plot of his own and, thereafter, a small stake to begin raising poultry and livestock. He might even...," Lila's eyes, steady, held Septix’ gaze, "...chance upon a young woman, herself possessed of some aptitude and industry, who might just take a fancy to him. Stranger things have been known to happen."
"I... suppose they have," Septix, held by Lila's gaze, felt himself in the presence of an energy that he hadn't previously experienced, something mildly threatening yet not, for that reason, intimidating.
"My father's one of the officers at the local grange," Lila said. "He's not well to do but he does have some standing among the men of our village. So does Alexis' father. I could talk to them, vouch for you, tell them you tried to help us, see if some arrangement might be made. They're not mean-spirited, the men in these villages. They know what it's like, some of them, to start over, to plant in rocky soil and dig their daily bread from layers of hardscrabble. It's not a grand or an easy life but it's an honest one. For a man on the run, it could be a chance to put down roots."
Septix sighed and looked away. "You're being extremely generous."
"Not at all," Lila said, aware that her heart, no less than her mind, was having its say.
"What you're proposing sounds very tempting, but I have my orders, and I feel duty bound to carry them out."
"If the superior lacks honor, is the subordinate honorably bound? I should think that for lack of honor in the master's binding, the servant were honorably released from his bond."
"Maybe. But I'd need time to think it over. What you're suggesting would turn my life upside down in the turn of a sandglass."
"On the day that Xena stumbled upon our village and rescued us from Draco's slavers, something new and unforeseen entered our lives without an instant to prepare. My sister saw that something and instantly seized the sandglass that might never have turned again; seized it no matter the cost, no matter that our mother and father, not to say her sister, have been missing her terribly from that day to this. But she saw her chance and she took it – and unleashed a mighty power for good in the taking of it. Was she wrong to have grabbed at that chance? I've been asking myself that question for a long time now, and I'm beginning to feel that she was right to do what she did. That she was brave and wise and true to herself in taking that chance, even though the people whom she loved most dearly may have suffered as a result of it."
"You're saying that I should go charging off in a totally new direction at the drop of a hat? That's never been my way."
"Maybe there’s never been anything you've wanted badly enough to take that kind of risk for," Lila said, gazing at Septix while he packed up the first aid kit. "Maybe there's never been anyone who's mattered enough to cause you to run that kind of risk."
"Maybe not," Septix lifted the flap and stuck the first aid kit into the saddlebag, buckling the strap when he'd finished.
"But who's to say there couldn't be," Lila urged.
"It's too big a jump to take all at once," Septix looked into Lila's wide, lovely eyes. "Today it is. Maybe not tomorrow."
"Tomorrow may never come," Lila said. "I won't risk putting my friend's life in any graver danger than it already is. I'm going into hiding until I get the all-clear. Let that scout over there assure your leader that I intend to play my part. But you... I want you to come with me. We'll wait this thing out together. And after the game has played itself out, we'll take it from there, a day at a time, let tomorrow be as it will."
"I can't," Septix’ soft, brown eyes looked away toward the beckoning trees. "I'm not ready to take that big a leap. I'm sorry. Any farm hand starting out in the world would count himself blessed by the gods to win the esteem of someone as fine and pretty as you. I may be a bandit but I'm not a fool."
"The latter you couldn't be; the former you needn't be," Lila smiled. "Consider my offer. If you don't accept it now, it may never come again."
"If I decline for now," Septix said, "might I hope to accept in the future?"
"Hope abounds, surely," Lila nodded and, with her smile gently fading, she gave Septix a slight, courteous nod and stepped backward. "Thank you for your kindness, then," she said in a voice loud enough to be heard by the scout who, lounging by the side of the road and chewing on the thin, yellow stem of a spiny stalk of wheat, had begun to frown, wondering what the dickens was taking Septix so long to change a simple bandage. "And you'll be sure to tell my friend that I was compelled to part from her without being given leave to say a proper farewell."
"I'll let her know," Septix said.
"If I'm not mistaken, then, this is where we go our separate ways," Lila said.
"I believe it is," Septix replied.
"Then safe journeys to us all," Lila extended her hand.
"Under the protection of Hermes' cloak," Septix took Lila's hand and felt its firm grasp.
Septix hitched the reins of the palfrey to the tack of his mare. Then he and the scout climbed aboard and shanked the reins of their mounts, turning them back toward the wooded path and the slope of the ridge. Lila and Septix exchanged a final glance and then, spurring their horses' withers, the riders posted at a trot into the overhanging cover of the trees.
Lila watched them go with a mixture of resentment and regret. "I've just done something I've never done before," she murmurred, "and I don't think it was being led on a horse through the woods. I believe I've just thrown myself at a man. I never imagined I could do such an insanely provocative thing."
Helios was arching his chariot toward the mid-heaven in a field of blue with only a few, fluffy, white warriors to infringe on his furious path, and they seemed content to stay well out of his way. Alone on the open road, with no trees or shrubs to shelter her now, Lila realized that she was thirsty and she removed the stopper from the waterskin.
"I'd best go light on the water supply given that I don't know where the deuce I'm going or how I intend to get there," Lila told herself. Three stingy gulps and she pressed the stopper back into the neck of the stitched leather container. In her brown and buff tunic with its bays of woven scrollwork and a short brown skirt to match, her long, dark hair sweeping in a rich flow down her back and her waterskin slung on a thin leather cord over one shoulder, Lila looked like a woman who, though not appearing in the least wild, would be most unlikely to have cause to worry or sing the blues.
"Seems I nearly proposed to a man whom I met, under highly dubious circumstances, all of twelve candlemarks ago," Lila muttered as she looked east and west along the road where she now stood completely alone. "I guess getting slung over the back of an outlaw's horse, bruiting off to the woods, getting knocked around in the middle of the night, watching some horrid creature being stabbed to death as he's trying to rape you, having your best friend's life hang on your every move, not getting any sleep in nearly two days and having not the slightest idea of where you’re bound for next'll do that to you."
Then Lila balled up her fists, tensed her muscles, dropped her jaw, raised her chin, popped her eyes open as wide as they could go and let out a bellowing shriek of vexation and release. At once, she clammed up and mumbled, "Cronos on a crutch, I hope nobody heard that."
That shriek of frustration must have loosened a brain cramp, though, because, in the next instant, Lila sprung to, snapped her fingers, opened her eyes to see more clearly the feathery tops of the grass blades and the wildflowers at the side of the road and then said, in a voice loud enough for some of the flitting wrens and darting thrushes in the nearby brush to hear, "Of course! That’s where I'll go to wait this thing out. Now why didn't I think of that before?!"
Xena to Amarice in "Animal Attraction"
Continued in Part 22
The Bard's Corner