Chapter 22: Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone
and she's always gone too long,
any time she goes away...
The candlemarks dragged on through the long, bitter, sleepless night as Herodotus and Clenesthides paced the floor while Hecuba and Chloe tried to remain composed even as their friends and neighbors, rallying around the afflicted parents, sought to buoy their flagging spirits.
Canty had flung open the doors to the pub, and the townsfolk had streamed in. Mikonos, Timon, Democles, Trachis, the cantankerous Tasso, Zoster, the fishmonger, all huddled around the table where the four stunned parents allowed themselves to be herded and seated, the crowd's voices clashing in a cacophony of strategies for taking action come the day's first light.
"You done give that Felafel Man the trinket what were pressed most close 'pon your heart," Mickey tried his best to be encouraging. "So never you fret, Missy Hecuba. What with all his flittin' 'bout these roads and byways, strung out from here to the edge of creation, he were bound to be findin' a way to warn the Warrior Princess and your own sturdy strapling."
"Aye," Timmy agreed. "For well we know as there were no stouter arm in all this wide and wasty land but the one as were flexed and fisted by the dark and fiery Warrior lass. Meanin' no disrespect to your own fine boys, Clenesthides, the both of which were winnin' their rugged stripes, no doubt, by whippin' them Trojan dogs 'pon Scamander's sandy plain. Nor," Timmy looked around at the gathering of worried neighbors, "were I wont to say one whit less of the rummy Perdicas and the stolid Andros nor any of them steel-souled lads as were gone to ply their mettle in fierce and honest combat."
"We'll be strikin' out for the woods at Eos' first light," Herodotus said in a low, determined voice. "Come one, come all, but come what may."
"Aye, but in which stretch of these vast and vaulty woods?" Clenesthides said. "There were a moiety of sylvan vales and leafy copses 'pon which to flail and flock."
"Most likely they were gone north or east," Herodotus said, "where the lay of the land were hilliest and the depth of the forest thickest."
"And did you see the way they tossed your girl like a bleedin' sack 'pon the horse's bony rump?" Democles addressed Herodotus as the crowd sat crammed around a few pulled-together tables. "They might at least have given the maid a seat 'pon which to ride... sorry, mum."
Hecuba silenced Democles with a sharp look.
"Your girl took it hard as well," Trachis cast his gaze on Clenesthides. "Popped her once, then popped her twice, same as if she were a boxer in a ring. What fiendish manner of men have the gods seen fit to lose ‘pon us in these foul and fretful days? The doin' of such a drasty deed to a sweet, lovely girl like your warm-hearted Alexis: 'twere makin' my blood run as hot as a burnin' clinker."
"Creatures what don't merit the name of men is what them thievin' scoundrels were," Mickey called out.
"Nor the plumbin' what were 'ppurtenant to the name," Timmy chimed in, and a chorus of grunts and nods signified general agreement.
"Those poor children," Hecuba murmurred. "How affrighted must they be in the hands of them what used 'em so rough and sore."
"If yet they were havin’ life in 'em the which to cherish fright withal," Chloe said in a voice that was barely above a whisper.
"Now don't you be torturin' your heavy heart with no such evil talk as that." Having brought out the mugs and tapped the kegs which her serving boys had lugged in from the square, Canty worked her way through the press of the men to ease herself down on the bench beside Chloe, taking her hand and giving it a matronly pat. "They done made off with the wenches for a purpose. 'Twere bargainin' and dealin' these sorts were after, not blood and gore and all such frightful stuff."
"Canty were right as she were ever wont to be," Mickey looked around the packed lounge. "Them wicked bandits could have chopped me head clean off me neck and left it lyin' empty as a teapot 'pon the seat of me bumpy wagon. Yet all them brigands were after, in faith, were me weathered kegs of John Barleycorn. That were what I give 'em and that were what they took. Me missus, by Apollo's stringed lyre, might have thunk it an improvement 'pon me looks had I come waltzin' in the shed with me head tucked underneath me arm. 'So Mickey, they done you a right good service, them thievin’ outlaws, liftin’ your droopin’ head from off your saggin’ shoulders.’"
A few chuckles burst out but quickly died in the pervasive gloom.
"And no sooner had them rousty robbers come to ding me of my sacks of grain," Timmy added, "than the lead one – he were a slimy lookin' rascal with his clump of wild hair stragglin' down his brawny back – the lead one, he says to me, he says, 'Stand down and we'll do our part to spare your homely face from gettin’ gobsmacked by one of our bleedin’ spanners.' And by the tears what poor Niobe shed for her lost brood when proud Apollo and prudish Artemis did slay 'em, one by one, with razor-sharp arrows shot from out their fearsome hunters' bows, that were what I did and so they let me be. They were larceners first to last, the foul scum, but killin' don't seem to be their wicket."
"Yet what could the robbin' refuse be wantin' with our girls?" Hecuba turned to Chloe and Canty. "We got no golden eggs to give nor any geese to lay 'em."
"Didn't she chuff 'em 'pon the chin, the twa’ churls what were laid up in the gaol, waitin' on the fall assizes?" Chloe said. "She were a headstrong lass, our feisty 'Lexis; yet from whence there come such might and main, I'll be bunged if ever I can tell. She oft did stand her ground with verve when 'croached by either brother, yet ne'er did clank nor clobber hard the one or then t'other."
"And gentle Lee, upon a time, did contest with scrappy Gab," Hecuba reminisced. "Yet ere the nextest blow were struck – and lax it were, with slappy hand, a Sissy to her Sally – already did the striker wail and beg pardon of the stricken. And Gab did hold her tight and say, at once the blow were struck, how, in the instant of the strikin', the blow were quick forgot. And ne'er from aught that weepin' hug have I seen kindly Lila raise no further hand to man nor beast nor moth upon the mantle."
"They be right good girls. Yours Ms. Hecuba and yours, too, Ms. Chloe. Why, I seen ‘em with me own eyes, ‘tweren’t but a fortnight hence, here 'pon this selfsame table," Canty reached out her arms to assure both mothers. "And goodly, too, were the upright parents what bore and hap’ly raised 'em. Yet strip away the cap and kirtle from either lass, and 'neath the lace and leggin's, there mayest abide a spunk and spine 'twill serve to bight the knot of reckless rakes and robbers."
"We can only hope to reck the rod of such rude and raw exchange," Chloe held tightly to Canty's warm hand.
"Hope, aye, and wait and watch a weary night withal," Hecuba nodded and ran her wrinkled hankie through her fidgeting fingers.
A commotion by the door attracted the crowd's attention.
"If you’ll just give me the chance, I can explain everything..."
Several guards were hauling through the door, by his collar, a graying, bucolic fellow dressed in a colorful blue tunic and baggy gold trousers. "I’m tellin’ you guys, you're makin’ a big mistake," the fellow whined as they dragged him into the foyer between the bar and lounge. "I have high friends in good places. I have access to important people," the fellow eyeballed the nightstick with which the tallest of the three guards was menacing him. "By the way, I happen to know where you can get a terrific deal on a pair of brand new, never-before-used, Amazon chobos which I guarantee will put those stubby billy clubs of yours to sheer and utter shame. Made from the finest ass and nipples… er, ash and maples, they come lacquered with a fully waterproof and mold-resistant sealant, which means they’ll never lose their breasts… ah, their zest in periods of high heat and humidity – which is a definite plus when you need to be able to whip out your whiff stingers at high speeds and not have them cling when the lining gets sticky..."
"Quiet!" the lead guard shouted and rattled his stick, causing the prisoner to tremble from head to foot.
"And where were the cat whose good judgment hath declin’d to drag this squealin' rodent into the house?" Canty got up and went over to cadge the intruder. "Were he one of the slimy gang as did lately abscond with our darlin's? A clothes horse from the look of him and nary the stable were roomy enough to board him, I’ll wager."
"He calls himself Slobonius, and he were come to the festival, as he were just now sayin’, for to do his Queen mistress' biddin'," the lead guard replied.
"Salmoneus," the prisoner corrected. "And if you don't mind, I'd like my precious Egyptian baubles back."
"Call yourself by what name you please," the guard said. "'Twere a breach of the law for which you needs must answer to them as have the proper charge of it."
"No, you don't understand," Salmoneus insisted. "You see, after those awful kidnappers had ridden off with the girls, I was taking down my display when suddenly I looked up and there, standing in front of me was this sweet, angelic creature who must have been Aphrodite's sister or possibly her niece or maybe her first cous..."
"I said to clutch thy cloth and cleave it!" the guard raised his nightstick which, though the wood was slightly warped and hadn't been treated with any preservatives designed to maintain its bounce or sheen, nonetheless sufficed to intimidate Salmoneus into a squeaky compliance. "This scavenger 'pon the fringe of the bazaar were in violation of the town's ordinance and says he got no dinars to pay the fine; in his case, hawkin' goods without a permit, fortune tellin' without a license and impersonatin' a member of a royal family, to wit, the Queen of Namibia."
"The Queen had to ball a state attendant, I mean, to attend a state ball," Salmoneus blithered, "so she said be laid, er, late when she got here. But she did say she would pee, ah, be here, which left me no choice but to fill in for the crime fleeing... the, um, time being."
"In a gauzy gown what were havin’ gold sprinkles ‘pon it and inverted funnels on the bust as were stuffed with a mass of crinkled silks?" the guard held forth. "And a strapless top what were barely shielded by a satin veil withal?"
"So you it in for cross-dressers, huh? Well, I guess I just fleshed out the closet clothes-ists in this town," Salmoneus stuck his hand on his cocked hip and waxed indignant. "I'll have you know that some of my best friends run around in pairs of tights under short, puffy chitons, and they're not even girls – or guys who wait on tables."
"What manner of knave were this?" Herodotus came over, attracted by the brouhaha and in no mood for a show of irreverence on the part of a boisterous carnival clown.
"One as were caught red-handed in rude embrace with one of them dramatical virgins close by his cage of wickedness in which he were claimin' to house the Pleasures of the Vile," the guard said.
"The Treasures of the Nile," Salmoneus interjected.
"And comin' strict 'pon the heels of them bullies what bussed their way through the gates and made off with your girl, Herodotus, and yours too, Clenesthides," the guard continued, "for which calamosity I'm extendin' to you both – and to your goodly missus'es – my sincerest condolities; for I know how buggered 'bout the brassard I'd be if them blokes had carried off my Hypestia. Hence I bethought it most unfit for such a toff as this to be pawin', with his lecherous mitts, the flank and brisket of t'other young girl, what with her bein' so sweet and virginal withal."
"But she's the one who came over and gave me a hug," Salmoneus blithered. "Then she wanted to know if I knew Lila and I said I did and that I also knew Lila's sister who traipses around the countryside in the company of the Warrior Princess who just so happens to be a very good friend of mine. And then the poor thing burst into tears and flung her arms around me and started weeping her pretty little eyes out, saying that she'd just had the most unfortunate tiff Lila and how badly she felt about it because the truth of the matter was that she thought the world of Lila – like who doesn’t – and she was only hoping that Lila and her friend, the one who called me a shyster, would make it home safe and sound from their terrible ordeal. So what could any gentleman in high heels and gold lammé do but lend the poor, dear thing a warm, friendly shoulder to cry on."
"You were just now sayin' as how you're acquainted with my daughter?" Herodotus frowned at this gaudily dressed reprobate. "With both my daughters?"
"If you're Lila's father, then you must be Gabrielle's father," Salmoneus said.
"Aye, I'm father to 'em both," Herodotus looked Salmoneus up and down.
"Then sir," Salmoneus looked him in the eye, "I'm pleased to tell you that you have not one but two daughters."
Herodotus gave Salmoneus a strange look.
"Two fine daughters, I mean to say; two lovely daughters: two fine and lovely daughters. That's what your daughters are, sir, they're your children. I mean they're lovely and they're your children. They're your lovely children. And that's a lovely thing for lovely children to be."
"If this fellow were a stick, methinks I should crack it for aught the sense it were makin’," Herodotus said. "You're sayin' as how you were knowin’ the Warrior Princess as well?"
"Me and Xena? Whoa, lemme tell you 'bout the chicken dinner we had on the night we met when her and Darphus were heavy into their warlord gig," Salmoneus twiddled his eyebrows. "Xena thought I was chicken and nearly had me for dinner, ha, ha. I gotta say, though, that while Xena may be the cat's pajamas when it comes to triggering giant rock slides and burying slick chicks like Callisto under homungous scads of rubble, her prowess at the barbecue pit, grilling wings and basting drumsticks, leaves a little something to be desired."
"And what were the nature of the business as lately brung you scurryin' to our town?" Herodotus said.
"Nothing out of the ordinary: a bit of antiquing, flea marketing, bargain hunting, fencing the crown jewels of Namibia to hordes of screaming maenads; routine stuff," Salmoneus tossed out.
"If you be not able to procure the services of the Warrior Princess ere this comin’ day shall dawn, I canna say as we were havin’ much use for you," Herodotus said.
"I could tell your fortunes with my spiffy new deck of hieroglyphic fortune telling cards," Salmoneus offered. Then, seeing the less than patient look on Herodotus’ displeased face, Salmoneus added, "I could also not tell your fortunes with my spiffy new deck of hieroglyphic fortune tell... How about if we skip the fortune telling bit and focus on promising ways of not getting dismembered by hordes of screaming, jewel-hungry maenads..."
Herodotus, befuddled, shook his head. "Convey this imposter to the jailhouse and let the magistrate dispose of him ‘pon the morrow," Herodotus instructed the guard.
"Righto," the guard said and began to hustle Salmoneus out the door.
"Wait!" Salmoneus shouted in consternation. "You can't treat me like a common criminal! I'm an uncommon crim... I mean I'm very well-connected! I’m pals with Xena! I’m good buddies with Herc! And I don't even owe them any dinars!"
But Salmoneus' putative acquaintance with the high and the mighty availed him little leverage as the guard gave him the bum's rush to the town lockup where, to his blubbering chagrin, Salmoneus found himself being ushered ignominiously into a cell across from two unsavory characters who eyed him with a mixture of humor, suspicion and hostility once they'd taken a good, long look at the cut and texture of his sartorial ambiguity.
Meanwhile, the crowd at Canty's pub spent the remainder of the wee candlemarks plotting the next day’s course of action. The men decided to head out on the road that ran north from the town's main gate, hoping to spot whatever clues they could find as to the route the kidnappers may have taken. If necessary, they'd split into two teams, one led by Herodotus, the other by Clenesthides. One team would continue north, the other would veer to the east. The effort would probably amount to little more than a scouting mission, but mere shreds and patches of hope were better than no hope at all. A platoon of armed villagers couldn't realistically expect to engage, with much chance of success, a warlord's armed and mounted mercenaries; and such a frontal assault, even if undertaken, might only serve to place the girls in greater danger. In spite of these reservations, any action, no matter how potentially ineffectual, was preferable to sitting on one's hands and taking no action at all.
"You men'd do well to wander home and get some rest," Canty advised the crowd. "And both you nice ladies as well. Out the window: look. Selene's tilted bow were risin' fresh above the ridge and were closin' fast, these latter days of summer, 'pon the mews wherein were boarded Helios' fiery steeds. Three candlemarks more and it were the rosy dint of dawn, and you gents'll be needin' your wits about you for the day's long trek through the glowerin' wood."
"Just as Canty were sayin’," Tasso, the fruit vendor, spoke up. "With the dark archer so close at hand, can the bright flamethrower be far behind? Ere the moon were new, me old mate did roundly chastise your girl, Herodotus, for the takin' of a pomegranate from off me loaded cart. He cozened her 'bout the collar and cadged her for the lapse. Then t'other, your girl, Clenesthides, comin' quick to the fray, did lay him out ‘pon the turf with the promise of yet further correction if he weren’t mendin’ his mawkish ways. Yet were the sandglass mine to turn again, 'twould please me nothin' better than to gift 'em both with twice a pomegranate and a juicy melon besides."
"You're a sturdy cropper, Tasso," Herodotus clapped him on the shoulder, "though, as oft as not, a mite testy 'bout the trimmin's."
"Drink up, lads, and 'twere off to your bestest beds, those of you as were blessed with faithful wives with whom to kip and cuddle," Canty called to the company.
The men swilled the rest of their brew and fished in the linings of their trousers for a clatter of coin to leave for Canty in payment for their grog with something thrown in for the kitty.
"The gods' good rest, Canty," Democles or Trachis called as the crowd began to filter out the door, "Don't be lettin' no bully horses' hooves leave no muddy tracks 'pon thy fragrant pillow this night!"
The men chuckled as Canty called back, damp rag in hand, "Methinks I were more apt to find me master's boots plugged to the tuggin's with a slew of oats and barley and him snorin' it off like a summer's thunder in the hay stall!"
To the sound of grim laughter fading in the night, the swarm of men and the two dazed women began the hike back to their villages under the dull glimmer of the waning moon. Meanwhile, in the cramped undercroft of the jailhouse, Salmoneus lay stretched out on a stiff wooden board in one of the holding cells, face to the damp stone wall, his senses lost in luscious reverie.
She'd been as lovely to behold as Aphrodite on the half shell in a painting by Botticellides, the young woman whom he'd lately held in his arms while she'd wept and lamented the harsh words she'd spoken to the leader of her holiday troupe. Slender, she was, pliable and vulnerable as she'd sobbed in her gauzy white gown with strands of flowers gone awry in her long, dark hair. True enough, Salmoneus admitted, he might be a hustler and, when cornered in a tight spot, a bit of a con artist and certainly, when it came to the measure of a man-at-arms, an out and out coward; but he didn't feed off the bodies or seek to sate himself on the souls of women. When it came to the finer, less pecuniary things in life, he wouldn't steal what he hadn't earned.
Xena must have perceived this fundamental sense of decency in Salmoneus' superficially wormy, wizened nature and so, in consequence, she'd been willing to call him friend. And having the Warrior Princess for a friend was an achievement he could feel proud of; an ingot struck from the bar of what little allotment he may have had of nobility and honor. That much in his nature, at least, wasn't counterfeit; and its value, not subject to the momentary fluctuations in the market of the day's busy buy and sell, enabled him to settle down and get some restful sleep, even though his cot was behind bars where he was compelled to endure the taunts of two inmates who wheedled, as Salmoneus drifted off to the nether world of dreams that might, hopefully, one day, in his waking hours, come true: "Knit one, purl two; Queen of Namibia, yoo hoo...!"
"Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" by Bill Withers
Continued in Part 23
The Bard's Corner