Chapter 23: Morning Becomes Electric
The day dawned fresh and clear, the crisp air and bright light at odds with the gloomy pall that the previous evening's misfortune had cast over the town's spirits. With his packet of bread, cheese and dried fruit, meticulously prepared by Hecuba, and a pitchfork slung over one shoulder, Herodotus left the cottage and walked quickly along the dirt lane, through the hay meadow and the acacia grove, to the large cypress tree at the crest of the hill where the men were assembling not far from the town's main gate. They hailed one another with clipped greetings, grousing about the chill that had lately begun to creep into these end-of-summer mornings and grumbling with some ill temper about their having gotten so little sleep the night before. Then the group set out in a northerly direction toward the road's main fork, one dusty prong of which continued straight ahead in the direction of Thessaloniki, the other which gradually veered east toward Stagira.
"Look'ee here! A button what must have come from off a blouse," Democles shouted as he spied the twinkling reflection of a tiny, pearl stud winking in the pallor of the burnished sunlight.
Clenesthides hastened to examine the item, turning it over in his hand. "By the gods' own mischief, methinks 'twere one of my girl's notions. The lass were wearin' white, in the spirit of the festival, and her mum done sewed these dicey badges up and down the bodice. See here, lads, 'twere sure they gone further up the line, as far as the easternmost fork, I'll wager."
The men plodded along the road for nearly two candlemarks as the sun rose higher in the sky. Powdery, white mare's tails frolicked overhead in a spacious meadow of pure, seamless blue. Brown catkins and tawny meadowlark skirted the side of the road, interspersed with hunks of crab grass and heads of skunk cabbage at places where the pores of the road's soft shoulder were clogged with pebbly ditches and trickling runnels. It was intense, exacting work, examining each stretch of the road, spaced between an endless series of trees, for signs of flattened grass or snapped twigs or cuts in the weeds to indicate the place where the kidnappers may have left the road with their ill-gotten gains in tow. And what man among them would venture say, with confidence, that the foul bandits hadn't hightailed it straight for Thessaloniki and the ships of waiting slavers ready to bear the girls off to some far distant, silken seraglio in the menial service of the gods only knew what manner of vicious vizier or sulky sultan.
"They come this far leastways," Trachis broke the rambling silence. "Here were a generous pile of dung with pips of forage in it."
Several blobs of horse offal lay on the road. Tasso knelt down and gave them a good, long sniff. "Well, they weren't the leavin's of sheep nor oxen. Phew, fresh and ripe they were and not yet crusted over." Tasso took a twig from the side of the road and began to tease the lumps apart. "Horses. Fed on bales of straw. Oats, too, judgin' from the heft of it. Here, come and feel."
Using some leaves for a scoop, Tasso lifted one of the lumps for Herodotus and Clenesthides to inspect.
"'Twere plain these mounts weren't wantin' for water," Herodotus observed.
"By the color, I should think 'twere fresh grasses in the grazin'," Clenesthides added.
"A stream close by a field and some shelter to stow the feed, I'll warrant," Herodotus speculated.
"A camp by a clearin' more like as not," Clenesthides nodded. "Well hoved from the winds."
"I say we head further east," Herodotus said. "There were better cover there than what a company of horsemen were like to come by on the busier road to the north."
The men agreed and, at the road's major fork, they headed east in the direction of Stagira.
The gamble paid off barely two leagues east of the fork when the search party found the spot where the kidnappers, victims and horses had left the road. The brush was tromped and matted, and signs of horses hooves were everywhere. The men darted into the woods and were heartened to find the beginnings of a stubbly trail well-padded with decaying fir needles and leaf-mold. The trail proceeded up a jagged twist between banks of chestnut trees crowded, in places, by stands of scrawny larches.
"A path," Herodotus said, "windin' to the north toward yon high ridge."
"A long day's labor for those what needs must foot it," Clenesthides peered at the wooded incline that rose gradually in front of them and lengthened into the distance.
"A long day's labor it shall be, then," Herodotus waved a follow-me arm at the others and the troupe began its brisk, steady climb.
The lower reaches of the path wound in a gently curving spiral to the northwest through calm, dense copses freely watered by the runoff from the slopes. The breeze was light, the air limpid. Birds and squirrels vied for purchase on the limbs of the chestnuts and larches. It was turning out to be a good year for nutting and coning. But the pleasant meandering through the woods soon became burdensome as the men realized that they were in for a weary trek in the vague direction of the ridge which, now that they were coming under its shadow, seemed remote and, in the higher rifts and ledges, inaccessible. Then, all at once, the trail began to rise steeply between a cleft of spongy rock, making it necessary for the men to pass single file through the fissure and to rely on the stony points of the rockface for handholds.
Herodotus, in the lead, slipped once, twice and would have lost his footing a third time but for Clenesthides, who, trudging behind him, caught him by the waist and belayed his slide.
"The slippery slab were bleedin' ripples of water round about," Herodotus scowled as, in the near distance, overhead, a slow freshet emerged from under a knurled tree root to dimple the rocks with a wet, glistening sheen of groundswell.
At length, the men were able to negotiate the stray streamlet, but it was slow, tedious clutching at tree roots all the way up to the flat knob in the distance which, when at last they'd climbed onto it, turned out to be boggy and clogged with a swarm of nasty mosquitoes.
"I can't see no sign of what man or beast may have clumb these moisty rocks," Mickey looked up past the crest of the knob. "Not saddled steeds what were totin' low life and ladies leastways."
"Nor can I," Timmy nodded. "Goats were more like than horses to have made their way up a narrow pass such as this. And in the dead of night, neither waif nor warlord would care to maul a mare by shimmyin' a splint off her fetlock what would cripple her for sure in these high, craggy parts."
"They must've gone t'other way 'round, down by the base of the hill, though that would've took 'em near on back to the road," Democles wiped a douse of sweat off his forehead as he hoisted himself up to the notch where the trail temporarily leveled off.
"Unless they quit the trail altogether as seems more sensible for all concerned, now as I were havin' a leisurely look about the place," Trachis chimed in, joining them.
"Them deceitful abscondifiers were havin’ some notion of where they were off to, whereas us what were trailin' 'em, honest and true, were tossin' tether in the wind," Tasso remarked as he scrambled up the chippy ledge.
"I'm afeared 'twere so," Herodotus shook his head and looked around at the members of the search party. "Yon high ridge were the likeliest hidin' place, yet 'twere far from the closest."
"Let a mount avoid fell slippage 'pon this hilly patch," Clenesthides said, "and, in twa' candlemarks, by the glint of Selene's bright orb 'gainst Hecate's dark scrim, it shall bear its rider unto yonder ridge by the first reddenin' rally of day."
"Yet us what needs must strut 'pon our twa' legs were needin’ twice times two candlemarks and more to bridge the selfsame gap," Democles said.
"If gap it were," Trachis said, peering into the decline that separated the men from the base of the far ridge. "I say 'twere a broad dale, a full day's journey at the least."
"Let the crow fly high and straight and we were perched 'pon yon high ridge's lofty summit ere we partake of our midday meal," Tasso opined.
"Save that we were men, not crows, bumpkin," Mickey rolled his eyes.
"And men what fly do singe their wings and plummet to their watery doom," Timmy shook his head.
"One who croaketh like a mewlin’ magpie, Mickey, were naught but a cawin' crow in my ledger, ne'er mind that his querulous quill may scratch an entry ‘pon the scroll," Tasso snapped back. "And you, Timmy, do but leap from yon precipice what lieth twenty paces hence, and I'll warrant you'll fly no less low than did vain Icarus whose feathered brain were dashed 'pon the scree."
"Leave off thy foolish quarreling," Herodotus counseled. "'Twere no profit in it. When minds at cross purposes do contend in such clashy fashion, 'twere like as if twa’ legs, in pursuit of their destination, were each to prefer its own course so that, in the mutual dispirit of their contest, the one equally vyin' with t'other, the traveler were rendered thus immobile."
"When makin' haste were all the greater need," Clenesthides said.
"Let's to it, then," Herodotus marshalled the men's resolve. "We'll push on to yon high ridge and pray the gods reveal to us which of the many lodes along the way might contain the veins of the day's richest ore."
"And then we'll dig," Clenesthides declared, "e'en were the mountain to compass us at every cairn and cranny."
If Herodotus and Clenesthides were game to continue the search, the others, looking around the dense forest glade, weren't about to leave them in the lurch. The men shrugged their shoulders and called for Herodotus and Clenesthides to lead on, knowing that it was Herodotus' and Clenesthides' daughters, after all, whose lives, at that very turn of the sandglass, may have been in the gravest danger.
As the day wore on and the men plodded through the woods in the hope of chancing upon Latrinus' hideout, Hecuba sought to occupy herself with her familiar round of daily chores. She swept and tidied, then busied herself baking rich loaves of tubby, barley bread to give, as a token of appreciation, to each member of the search party upon his return. Each turn of the sandglass felt like the passing of a candlemark as the day wore slowly on. Hecuba tried to take some nourishment at lunchtime but her tummy, full of butterflies, couldn’t cope with anything more substantial than a mug of tea and an unlarded biscuit. She went out to the byre to tend to Gida and her kids who were chewing contentedly on strips of the cracked leather which Hecuba had greased and salted for their teething amusement.
The little choiros mikros was squealing playfully in his pen, growing more plump with each passing day as he gleefully fed on scraps from the dinner table. As Hecuba watched him rooting around in the slops, she bit back a sudden sob. Lila had had him blessed just last night, clearing the way for him to become a splendid solstice feast at the nadir of the year.
"By the gods, never more will the taste of pork curdle my tongue if evil has befallen my dear," Hecuba vowed through a thinly forming film of tears. And then, watching the little fellow roll and tumble for another few turns of the sandglass, the round, gray bundle oblivious to the burdens of his mistress' day and the lapsing weeks of his own approaching demise, Hecuba began to contemplate, as a penance, the giving up of ham and bacon and choice cuts of rump and chops which, through the winter doldrums, gave taste and filling to many an otherwise bland evening meal.
The sun had passed the zenith and had begun its descent toward the western horizon when a solitary figure came walking down the dirt lane from the pitched bank between the hay fields. She looked to be a young woman about Lila's age, several thumblengths taller, a good deal slimmer and a bit daintier or, perhaps, more wiry as dainty-seeming farm girls were apt to be. Her hair was long and dark like Lila's, and she carried herself with a quiet dignity and upright bearing that resembled Lila's as though her circumscribed ambit of repetitive and schooled domesticity – "Monday's wash-ing, Tuesday's i-roning, Wednesday's mend-ing, Thursday's weed-ing, Friday's shop-ping, Saturday's clean-ing, Sunday's sab-bath; is everybody happy, you bet your boots we are..." – had given her life a transparent simplicity such that it would never have occurred to her to make an effort to conceal her lack of worldly experience beneath the mask of cosmetic sophistication.
At the outskirts of the village, the young woman, dressed in a sleeveless top of blenched, white cotton and a long skirt of a light blue, textured material, gazed this way and that, uncertain in which direction to proceed now that she'd nearly completed her journey under the bright and now rather oppressive glare of the afternoon sun. She beheld the ring of cottages with their outbuildings which more or less positioned themselves in a circle around the village well and cistern. The village resembled, in outward respects, her own village, except that her village, some distance to the south of town, caught more fully the shifting tail breezes of this exposed neck of the westerly Chalkidiki cape, whereas this village, several leagues to the north of town, was shielded somewhat from the cape's blowy billows by the toothy ramparts of the hills that rose in the nether distance.
The young woman wended her way to the well where two of the village's matrons were cranking on the thick wooden dowel, slowly raising the chained and dripping bucket from which to fill their leather waterskins and clay jugs. Upon noticing the young stranger, the pair left off their chatting, their attention abruptly riveted by the unheralded appearance of this unusually pretty wanderer whose look was hesitant as she gazed from thatched cottage to railed byre to fenced garden plot.
"Might we be of some assistance to you, love?" one of the women said to the newcomer. "You look a mite out of sorts, as though you'd lost your best friend."
"You wouldn't be one of them flirtationary goddesses, would you?" the first woman's compatriot eyed the newcomer suspiciously. "Elysian Fields knows but we seen our share of them divine hussies come slinkin' 'round when the good earth were stout in the belly with her heavy crop of corn and cabbage. The gods get the suckle-fruit, leavin' them what work the fields to gnaw 'pon the rind. We know your kind, lady. You neither plant and parse in the spring nor water and weed in the summer, yet come autumn-time, you're linin' up at the altars and the temples to feast your fill 'pon the harvest. Were I not afeared as how, upon a whim, you might fit me out like a prickle bush, much as lecherous Apollo done to poor Daphne what turned the fleein' nymph into a laurel tree for that the pretty maid did shun his crude advances, I'd give you spoiled and swaggerin' Olympians a piece of my croakin' mind."
""Twould be a brief gift in the givin' of it, then," the first woman assured the young stranger, "seein' what little there were of it to give."
"Garn! 'Twere true as treacle and no lie," the second woman protested. "Them goddess-y trollops in their splendiferous finery come nosin' 'round when summer were on the wane to chivvy us clean as me master's bald pate, and there be few wains in the woodwork can raise up a bulwark 'gainst 'em."
"Then take your batty broodin' unto Hestia’s hovel what brooks no woman's brood," the first woman said. "For a naggin' wife were like a bolt of burlap; quick to tear and slow to mend."
"Oww!" the second woman cried. "I does me best with what I gots. 'Twere nary no credit to finicky goodwives like Missy Hecuba, them what puts on airs with belts and pleats and binds their frilly blouses 'til anon they go about the town, wendin' their prissy way ever so tight-laced in the bosom.
"'Good mornin', Missy Hecuba,' says I. 'Good mornin', Nalona,' says she. 'Good evenin', Missy Hecuba,' says I. 'Good evenin', Nalona,' says she. 'And how were your peas and peppers farin' this year, Missy Hecuba,' says I. ''Twere gettin' quite rampy if you please, Nalona,' says she.
"And one fine day, not a cloud in the bleedin' sky, and may the gods carry me off to Tartarus in the hull of Charon's skiff if Missy Hecuba don't turn to me as she come strollin' down the lane and were sayin’ right well, 'Beggin' your pardon, Nalona, and how were your chives and olives farin' this year?'
"So's I gives the lady a look what were pursed as a pickle, and risin' to my full height, I says, as bold as you please, I says, 'How were my onion sets farin' o'er the span of the summer's ripenin', did you say, Mum? I reckon as how they were farin' as well as might be ex-pec-ted.' And off I goes with a shake of me bottom, and hang me high 'pon the nearest gatepost with a rangy rope twined from Zeus' zesty ziggurat if ever I didn't."
"'Tweren't me what were wantin' to be walkin' no limber leagues in Missy Hecuba's strappy sandals 'pon this bright and balmy day," the first woman said. "Not after them hooligans clipped the wings off the younger, dark-haired, mousey one 'pon yestereve's helter skelter; and such misfortune done fall out not long after the elder, flaxy-haired, foxy one done run off in a trice to follow the fearsome Medusa or some such frightful Gorgan's spawn as were monst'rous in every particular."
"Them what were schooled to mind and manner never give you no trouble," the second woman nodded in agreement. "You raise 'em right and you got no cause to fret. 'Twere them what were spoiled from pod to pestle and fill't up with all manner of nebulous notions, them were the ones what gone chasin' off to consort with caves of outlaws or delve into dens of she-demons. Such be the fate of womankind when menfolk go racin’ off to war with paste and powder and don't tend properly to home and hearth and keep their wives and daughters tight-leashed 'pon rugged rails and rousty runabouts."
"Pardon me, I'm sorry to interrupt," the young stranger broke in, "but I believe I just heard you mention Ms. Hecuba?"
"Would her and Master Herodotus be kin to you, dearie?" the first woman looked the young stranger up and down. "You were mickle pretty to be a leaf on the same stem as them twa’ twigs what were pruned off a broken branch."
"I wouldn't go so far as that," the second woman disagreed. "I recollect how Master Herodotus were a bit of a looker in his prime. I don't wonder as how he got him two buxom wenches off that straight-laced wife of his."
"Were you Herodotus' blood cousin?" the first woman smirked at the young stranger, "or would you be more apt to be his kissin' one?"
"Haw, stake me a dray stalled in the byre what don't got him a high-toned filly runnin' loose in the bramble, and I'll cull you a hobby what were fit for none more dear than the glue maker's," the second woman guffawed. "Herodotus may be a jack but he weren't a knave. An old wife he's got, a young mistress he may have."
"I've come looking for Ms. Hecuba," the young stranger said. "Might one of these cottages be hers?"
"'Twere the very nextest one, my dear," the first woman said. "That one over yonder. See them vests and spats hangin' 'pon the line what were strung beside the keep? The one what got them goats and sheep and a wee gray barrow rootin' 'round by the far side of yon dusty lane?"
"Yes, I see the cottage you're pointing to," the young stranger squinted across the narrow roadway.
"You'll be findin' the lady ‘sconced within," the first woman said, "though I canna think as how she'll be wantin' to play hostess to no kindly callers 'pon this doleful day. Her young one got snatched in the dead of night by a pack of thievin' whoremasters and ain't been heard from since."
"That's why I've come. I was in the square last night when Lila got kidnapped. I saw those horrid men bearing her and Alexis away on their horses," the young stranger said. "Thank you for your help, and may the blessings of Demeter shower you with a rich and bountiful harvest this and every year."
"May that immortal hussy and all such others of her ilk stay far from my lock and latchet, if you please," the first woman said, backing away from this odd, young stranger. "'Twere labor enough keepin' me old brigadier's dander down without I gots to play the fool to no rambunctious shrikes of the gods."
"May all gods and goddesses steer a wide berth of my shack and outhouse," the second woman affirmed. "Them what got mortal troubles needn't court immortal woes."
The young stranger nodded her thanks and turned to go.
"Blimey if I ain’t seen an odd bird in my time," the first woman turned to the second woman and spoke in a stroke above a whisper, "yet I'll own as how they mostly had beaks and wings and claws 'pon 'em."
"What business might such a one be havin' with fancy Missy Hecuba?" the second woman said.
"Cookin'. Cleanin'. The makin' of the bed perchance," the first woman said.
"Or the lyin' 'pon it whilst the master were away, with the mistress stretched out lively 'pon the maid," the second woman said.
Then both women cackled and, their waterskins and jugs now filled to the brim, they wandered smugly home to their cottages.
The young stranger meandered away from the well and, following the muddy track that led to the cottage, she approached the small flower border and the kitchen garden fenced with skinny rails on either side of the slate walk that curved to the small stoop by the front door. Mounting the stoop and knocking timidly at the door, the young woman received no reply. She knocked again, more forcefully, but there was still no response from within. She knocked a third time and coupled her knock with a cry. "Hello, is anyone at home? Ms. Hecuba, are you there?"
A turn of the sandglass later, the door swung tentatively on its hinges. Hecuba stood at the threshold in her customary white blouse, carnelian vest and long blue skirt whose hem dropped all the way down to the ankle straps of her thonged sandals. Hecuba’s long hair was bound loosely in back, and her complexion, though slightly wrinkled, was still handsome and fair.
"Beggin' your pardon, miss, but I were out in the sty, totin' slops to the shoat when I were hearin', of a sudden, a clamberin' at the door. I'm hopin' I haven't been keepin' no kindly souls waitin'...," Hecuba paused and frowned as she took note of the young woman who held a plain cloth sack in her hand and carried a tiny leather purse slung over one shoulder via its thin strap. "Goodness, I been waitin' the livelong day for some word from the men what were gone to the woods in search of... Well, pay no heed to that just now. May I be of some help to you, lass?"
"Miss Hecuba," the young stranger said, "my name's Anike. I'm a friend of Lila's. I'm one of the enaretes kores."
"Why, yes, of course, I were connin' your face and figure now. You were present in the square last night, robed in your lovely white gown same as t'others." Hecuba's face lit with a glint of recognition. "Weren't you the gay bean playin’ the part of Persephone what got carried off from out the arms of her poor mother by the wiles of the Lord of the Nether Realm?"
Anike nodded and dropped her gaze to the sandy floorboards, struck by the irony of the situational resemblance.
"You were lookin' right lovely in your flowin' dress and flowery bands, child. My girl were ofttimes heard to speak fondly of you," Hecuba said. "I trust you're knowin' of the evil what lately befell the poor maid. Not Lila alone but Alexis to boot."
"Yes, that's why I've come," Anike raised her gaze to look into Hecuba's eyes and saw, at once, the depth of their beauty and also the weight of their sadness. Lee's got her mother's pretty eyes allright; she's got her mom's soft voice too, Anike thought. But Lee's eyes were less careworn and her voice was more even-paced than her mother's. "I was in the square last night when it happened. I saw the kidnappers ride off with Lee and Lexie. I saw how Lee was slumped over the back of one of the horses and how Lexie was mounted in the saddle, caught in the grip of some horrible creature with an ugly feathered birdmask on his face. Miss Hecuba, I've come to say that... I've just come to say that I'm terribly sorry for what's happened and for what you must be going through."
Confronted by this youthful visitor with her unexpected well wishes, Hecuba felt disoriented but also curious. "From whereabouts have you wandered, child?" Hecuba perused Anike's face, hair and slender body, remarking to herself that even though this young woman had apparently made a lengthy trek along roads and through meadows to arrive at the cottage, Lila had been right. The young enareti kori who now stood at her threshold was indeed a beauty, all her features in balanced proportion and her bearing graceful, even elegant.
"From my village," Anike said.
"Which would be...,"
"On the farther side of town toward the scrub barrens."
"'Twere a hefty hike of some five or six leagues to be makin' in a thin skirt and open-toed sandals."
"It wasn't bad. The road levels off north of town and most of the fields are pretty well cleared by now. Besides, I wanted to come see you."
"Won't you come in," Hecuba stood back and opened the door. "You've had a stroll of two candlemarks and more over meadows and downs, I'll wager. I reckon you could do with a spot of tea and a biscuit; several biscuits more like than not."
"That's... very kind of you," Anike said. "But really, I don't want to impose. I can't imagine you're in the mood to entertain company. I just wanted to say that I hope that Lee... that I hope that Lila's okay and that she'll be coming home soon. Her and Alexis both."
"The men were out scourin' the woods in search of any sign of 'em," Hecuba said. "Do come in and have a seat. I been alone since early morn and were glad to be havin' a visitor, especially one so good as to be travelin' a sizeable distance on foot."
Hecuba escorted Anike into the cottage's dining area and gestured for her to make herself at home. "I'll strike a match to the tinder, set the kettle on the trivet and we'll soon be hearin' the water hiss. I fear I canna be offerin' you much in the way of variety: mint, bayberry, pekoe."
"A mug of mint tea would go real nice," Anike said, sitting down at the table, glad for the chance to rest her feet. Her walk uphill into town, past the scene of last night's festival, through the broken gate, then out along the rolling path through corn, wheat and barley country, had, as Hecuba noted, taken two candlemarks and more. Anike was, in fact, a bit tuckered out.
"I've brought something that might go nicely with the tea," Anike reached for her stringed pouch and took out a thick, rectangular loaf of nutbread. "I made it this morning for you to have with dinner, you and Master Herodotus, though we can cut some slices now if you like."
Hecuba smiled her appreciation and took two clay mugs down from their shelf in the cupboard. Then she dug out, from a lower compartment, the small container in which she kept the dried spearmint leaves which she reserved for special company.
"You can be sweepin' them loose things to one side," Hecuba indicated the strips of calico, hanks of cotton batting and scatter of buttons with which she'd been doodling to pass the time, working halfheartedly on constructing a rag doll. "'Twere a poor substitute for truer industry, sewin' childs' playthings, but 'twere a means of gainin’ an extra dinar by and by."
Then Hecuba brought out a tray on which she set the tea mugs, a plate of biscuits and a small jar of amber-colored honey.
"And yourself, my dear," Hecuba came to the table and began to arrange the place settings, "what trade were your father pursuin' in your village south of town?"
"He farms for most of the spring and summer," Anike said as Hecuba picked up a paring knife with which to slice the loaf of nutbread. "He does a lot of tanning in the winter. My little sister, Kyra, and I get to work the scrapers and the beaters."
"By the gods, you were beatin' and strokin' hides in a tannery, a thin, lovely thing like you?" Hecuba said with surprise. "Not done up in your pretty blouse and skirt, I trust."
"Oh, no," Anike shook her head and let go a light, lilting laugh, "I do the stripping in an old pair of leggings and an apron. Kyra's too little to handle the shearing blades, so I do the stripping and the shearing both. Sometimes, if it's a young hide, I even do the fulling."
Hecuba left off slicing the bread and gave Anike a look of bemused detachment. "A girl as slim and pretty as yourself were heftin' thrashers, plyin' cutters and laborin' as a fuller in a tannery?"
"Mm hmm," Anike said with a touch of pride and she extended the palms of her hands which bore the slightly ochre and possibly permanent hue of the tannin from the bark used to brown the stretched, shrunk and beaten hides.
"I never would have thunk it," Hecuba said with a trace of a smile. "You look too pert and lean for rugged, drafty work."
"I don't do any of the hoisting, though. My dad does all that," Anike said. "But I help him skin the carcasses when he lets me."
"We don't do no skinnin' or tannin' here," Hecuba said. "All's we do is card and spin the wool, then twine and spool it. When the ewes get too old to give good fleece, we chop 'em into mutton or sell 'em in the town to one like your Dad what has a use for the hides."
"My Dad does all the braising from start to finish," Anike said. "Then he grinds the bones for meal and strips the sinew for gut."
"And yourself?" Hecuba said. "Were you takin' well to the thought of one day bein' a loyal and busy farmer's wife? Have you neither reservation nor regret?"
"Reservations, yes. Regrets?" Anike reflected. "If and when I take the plunge, I don't want to go into it with any fears or regrets."
"I see you've a straight enough head 'pon those bony shoulders, lass," Hecuba said. "There be them what were well suited to such a life and them, I seen, what weren't. 'Twere better to purse one's coin thrifty in the apron and have it in hand when needed than to stow it careless in the petticoat and thereafter loose it out at leisure."
Hecuba got up, went to the fire and, wrapping the kettle's wire handle in the fold of a towel, lifted it off the trivet and brought it rattling to the table where she poured the sizzling water into the mugs. The tea leaves shrivelled on impact. Hecuba sat down, took the knife and resumed slicing the loaf of nutbread.
"You come a long and lonely way to bring solace to a frightened mother in her battle with the demons of despair, child, when there were hay to be baled, goodly provender to be lifted to the lofts and hands needed for storin' the winter feed. Or has some troublesome task, only mildly rooted in mulch and meadow, brung you listless to my door?"
Anike tried to muster up a smile but faltered. Something about Lila's mother – her patience, her reserve – made Anike trust and want to open up to her.
"I said some harsh words to Lee after last night's skit," Anike said softly, watching the steam rise from the oily surface of the mugs. "I said I thought she'd gotten too big for her bloomers ever since Gab... since your other daughter left to follow in Xena’s footsteps. But I didn't mean it to come out as mean-sounding as it did. I wanted to find her afterwards and apologize. And then, when Latrinus' gang burst through the gate and I saw the way those goons were beating up on her and Lexie, all I wanted to do was to scream at the top of my lungs for them to stop. It was so not fair what those horrible men were doing. But I never got the chance to let Lee know how sorry I was for the thoughtless thing I'd said."
"Won't you be havin' a bite of this fine bread you made, child?" Hecuba nodded and offered Anike the plate. "The kneadin' and the bakin' of it put you to some trouble, and I don't doubt but you've spurned your midday meal, havin' departed from your father's house a goodly candlemark afore noon."
"I did skip lunch, as a matter of fact. Thank you," Anike took a slice of bread, then reached for the honey pot, glancing at Hecuba for implied permission.
"Take, eat," Hecuba urged. "'Twere my pleasure to be havin' you as a guest at my table."
Anike spread a dollop of honey on the slice of nutbread and proceeded to polish it off in two bites. Then, as Hecuba smiled, more with her eyes than her mouth, Anike helped herself to a second, thicker slice which she also wolfed down with a generous layer of honey.
"But the real reason I snapped at Lee..., at Lila, I mean...," Anike said as she chewed.
"You may be callin' her Lee," Hecuba smiled softly. "As do Gabrielle and Alexis. As do other of her friends what were knowin' her well."
"Well, you see..., the thing of it is," Anike said, munching, "about Lee, I mean; it's just that... well..., I'm kind of jealous of her."
Hecuba raised an eyebrow and sipped a bit of tea.
"When Lee's around, things feel solid and grounded, like they're on the right footing," Anike tried to explain. "Lee's a good leader. She's good at listening, and she takes to heart the things that people tell her. The enaretes kores look up to her. I know I do."
"Yet the trouble would be...," Hecuba said when Anike paused.
"I guess the trouble is: I wish I had more of what Lee's got, more... self-command," Anike looked at Hecuba. "When I told Lee that I thought she was getting a bit stuck up, I think that what I really meant to say was that I wanted Lee to like me more, to pay more attention to me. Then when those horrid kidnappers burst in and started beating up on her, I guess I just freaked.
"I mean how could they do that? What gives them the right? Don't they know how special Lee is, how much she means to us, how much we look up to her? I could have crowned Milora for being so snooty about letting me carry her candle in the procession. It's not as though I'd left mine home on purpose. Lee was right. It would have looked crummy for Persephone, who comes in right behind Demeter, to be walking in without a candle. But Lee handled it in a way that didn't make Milora feel small and put down. And now she probably hates me."
"Milora, whose candle you carried in the procession?" Hecuba said.
"Lee. Lila," Anike said. "She probably wants nothing more to do with me."
Hecuba let go a light laugh despite the load of tension she was laboring under. "Dear child, you needn't trouble yourself. I've been knowin' Lila since the day she sprung from out the womb, and I may be sayin’ as sure as nutmeg ‘pon sweetcream that Lila weren't one to be hatin' nobody. I never known Lila to hold a grudge and certainly not 'gainst a lovely sprite such as your own good self."
"I didn't mean to drive a wedge between us, but I'm afraid I may have," Anike said. "And now I don't know what's going to become of her, what those nasty men are going to do to her."
"Nor do I," Hecuba sighed in a voice that was barely above a whisper, and, for a mere turn of the sandglass, her attention wandered out the door, down the lane and up into the forested hills. "But Anike," Hecuba's attention returned to the cottage and the table and the tea and the young woman who sat mildly distraught in front of her, "there were times when our tongues were sayin’ harsh words what our hearts ne’er spoke. 'Twere then that some nick of remorse come to stab our conscience to the quick, much as your father's skinnin' blades were flayin' the hide from off the carcass of sheep and kine and goat. Yet the cuttin' edge were a dumb thing that were meanin' the meat no ill. I'll warrant that 'neath any skin of Lila's that may, for the nonce, have been brazed by some word or gesture such as that which you're now sayin' you regret, there were beatin' the surer muscle of a heart that were holdin' you kindly in it. Doubt not Lila's fondness for you, Anike. For 'twere certain as Persephone's goin' hence from her weepin' mum in the fall only to come 'round again to wipe them lonely tears away in the spring that Lila ne'er will."
"Thank you, Miss Hecuba, I think I needed to hear that," Anike looked down at the crumbs on her plate, feeling vulnerable and embarrassed.
"Tell me, child," Hecuba said, gently, "have you no friends? No lasses in the village or town with whom to take a turn 'bout wood, field and stream?"
"One or two, maybe," Anike said. Then, "No, not really. Not ones I feel close to. I help Dad out on the farm and I go to town to do the laundry and the food shopping, but I don't seem to have the knack of making friends very easily. Girlfriends anyhow. The guys come around. I guess they think I'm pretty. I don't know why. It's my sister who's got the looks in the family. Kyra's an Aphrodite-in-training."
"Were you thinkin’ perchance you got the callin'?" Hecuba said.
"The calling for...?"
"'Twere an honor to be chosen enareti kori," Hecuba said. "There were many a good and faithful lass among the Demetoids what ne'er get the nod from the hierophants. Of all the girls in the four villages what surround the town, you were the one got chose to be the walker 'tween the worlds. To be pretty were a help but prettiness of itself don't suffice. There were true and honest substance in you, child. Them as have the guidance of you have spied it. 'Twere but a skit 'pon the columned stage, the tale of thesmophoria, for that were a sop to the common weal what don't reck the somber rite within the shrouded Eleusian grove. Yet even so – and I seen you bein' merrily tossed over t'other girl's shoulder as though you were naught but a sack of plucked lemons – I seen, too, that you got a light inside you what no slipped pin nor squished wick were like to 'stinguish. I could see you bein' a priestess of Demeter, keepin' the holy flame lit in the sacred place."
"You're not the first one to tell me that," Anike said. "My mom’s said the same thing."
"You might wish to be speakin' of it with the hierophants," Hecuba said.
"It's a great responsibility," Anike said. "I could never get married or have kids. Though I don't know if I want to."
"There were much to be ponderin' in a head so young as yours," Hecuba smiled. "Can I pour you more tea, child?"
"Oh..., no, thank you," Anike shook her head and smiled. "I really ought to be getting back. I just wanted to come and tell you that I hope..., that I truly hope that Lee will be coming home soon and that this will all turn out to have been a bad dream."
"There were a dear girl. Be sure to be tellin' your father how I said as much when you're slappin' up skins in the shop," Hecuba said. "And I'm sure you'll be seein’ Lee in a trice. If the scales 'twixt herself and you were in need of some balancin', I'll warrant you can load and weigh 'em without fear of seein' 'em tip."
Much relieved, Anike got up to go. Hecuba saw her to the door. "Be sure you were stoppin’ for a drink of water at the fountain when you enter the town," Hecuba called after her as Anike headed down the walk. "And next time, when you venture so far afield under the broilin' sun, be sure to be wearin' a bonnet."
Anike turned, smiled and waved, then strolled away from the village on the byway that led through the meadows south to the road.
Continued in Part 24
The Bard's Corner