Chapter 27: Adventures In The Kin Trade
It was nearly dark when Xena and Argo arrived at the cottage. The familiar dirt lane wound through the acacia grove to emerge alongside fields now harvested of their wheat, rye and barley. The bumpy path veered around the outer edge of the bare pastures to run, in a sweeping circuit, past the well and cistern to a small plot that consisted of a cottage, shed and several modest outbuildings: the little spread where Gabrielle had been born and raised and on which, but for her fateful meeting with Xena, she might forever have remained.
As always, when she came to Gabrielle's home to greet Herodotus and Hecuba, Xena found herself thinking of Cyrene. Things had been on the upswing for Xena and her mother lately. A good deal of healing and reconciliation had taken place since that equally fateful day when the warlord, Cortese, had come thundering down upon the little streets and byways of their village near Amphipolis and, with fire and sword, had butchered Lyceus, Xena's beloved younger brother, cut him down in the flower of his youth and, in so doing, had changed the course of Xena's life – and the destiny of nations.
Xena was no longer the monster that she'd been during that furious hiatus of fire and sword when Ares' demented passion had so overpowered her throbbing, warrior's blood that not even the pure filter of Lao Ma's loving wisdom could strain, for long, its murderous seepage. Still, even in the darkest days of her ferocious warlording, Xena had never left off feeling intense pain at the loss, through pointless violence, of a treasured brother and, just as intensely, the loss of the love – at least the outward expression of it – of the mother whom she'd no longer known how to approach. And now Xena wanted, with all the power of her repentant heart, for Gabrielle to be spared from ever having to suffer an equivalent loss.
With the root of that resolve planted firmly in her will, Xena found the courage to ride up to Gabrielle's door with her head, if not her pride, held high.
"Xena!" Gabrielle came running down the walk as Xena dismounted. "They’re so glad were back. They’re so glad that you’re back."
Their eyes connected, blue on blue: the aquamarine of Xena's lagoon encompassing the azure of Gabrielle's coral shoal. In that blue-on-lighter-blue instant, Xena beheld in Gabrielle's eyes the flickering light of a love that hadn't dimmed during the past few candlemarks, and, in the flickering light of that love, Xena felt the slightest twinge of relief. Gabrielle, of course, had said, on any number of occasions, that no wind from any quarter could shake the love she felt for Xena; and Xena, for her part, believed that Gabrielle meant every word she'd said. But the tree doesn't know, in the depths of its trunk, that it can indeed withstand the blast until the storm has come to shake to the roots every twig and branch.
"Dad's home," Gabrielle said. "It looks like the guys didn't get very far."
"I found the camp," Xena hitched Argo to the post. "Latrinus has twenty men and half again as many horses. I spotted Alexis but couldn’t see any sign of Lila."
"Come inside," Gabrielle motioned for Xena to follow her through the doorway. "Not to worry. They're happy to see you."
Gabrielle took Xena by the hand and led her up the walk to the front door as though the Warrior Princess were as shy and hesitant as any self-conscious schoolgirl.
Hecuba was standing at the hearth, stirring a large iron pot with a big round ladle. Herodotus was over by the sideboard, sipping from a pint pot of warm bitters.
"Hecuba, Herodotus," the tall, strapping Warrior Princess, decked out in brass and leather, armed with sword and chakram, nodded softly, almost apologetically at her hosts.
Hecuba, whose wide apron was tied in a huge bow around her long skirt, hung the ladle on its spike above the hearth as tears began to well in her eyes; eyes that were closer, on the scale of blue, to Xena's than Gabrielle's.
"Xena, welcome," Hecuba strode forward and extended her hand. Before Xena knew it, Hecuba had taken Xena's hand in both of hers and was holding her hand warmly. "It were awful good of you to come. And in the wink of an eye. Gab were sayin' as how you and her come roarin' in on a sailin' ship what were soarin' through the air. 'Twere nary twenty-four candlemarks have passed since the token of our distress were given into the care of them what had the means of findin' you. And 'twere a debt of gratitude that we were surely owin' to 'em.
"How so great a distance were so quick traversed were a mystery such as my sluggish brain shall ne'er comprehend, yet nary the matter. You come and you brung Gab. For twice the boon, I were thankin' you," Hecuba looked, without flinching, into deep Warrior Princess eyes, eyes from whose piercing light she might, in the past, have turned away in anger, confusion, fear or resentment.
"When them horrid demons – for demons they were seemin’ more than men – no sooner were them awful wretches seizin' our poor girl and t'other… your friend, Alexis, Gab..., than trouble were strikin’ us hard," Hecuba continued. "In the sharp bite of that fierce-fanged sand grain, when flesh were flayed to the bitter bone, 'twere the Warrior Princess and none other to whom the hand of my heart were reachin’ out to grasp. I'll not forget that truthful instant, Xena, were I to live to see the grandchildren of my grandchildren frolickin' merry 'pon their grandparent’s knee."
Xena bit her lip in embarrassment as her eyes sought the floor. "Hecuba, I don't know what to say," Xena said, hesitantly. "I'm just glad we were able to get here as quickly as we could."
"There were t’other soul lurkin' ‘neath this rugged thatch what were wantin' to say a word of welcome to you," Hecuba released Xena's hand and turned to face Herodotus.
"We bid you fair greetings to our humble hearth, Xena," Herodotus nodded. "'Twere a goodly service you were renderin' unto our dear Lila by comin' as quick as you done. To Lila and to us all. Know that you've earned our warmest thanks and deepest gratitude."
"No...," Xena shook her head and her long, dark hair swayed in gentle rhythm across the small of her back. "I mean yes, thank you, but...," looking at Gabrielle who was standing next to her, "nothing could have kept us away once we'd heard the news. We'd've come as soon as we could no matter what."
"You got one word more you're wantin' to say to the Warrior Princess," Hecuba prompted Herodotus.
"Xena," Herodotus slowly placed his mug on the rough boards of the dining table, "when last you come to us, when Hope were in the house and we were thinkin' it were Gab, when you were ferretin’ out the counterfeit and, at the last, were leapin’, at the risk of your life, to reach out the hand what brung Lila back from takin' a sure plunge down the rim of the chasm, when that horrid creature come and nearly wrought her toll of death and darkness 'pon us – her and her demon offspring – 'til you rid us – and the world – of 'em...," Herodotus faltered, embarrassed in front of his wife and daughter. Then a keener grip of courage came to stay the wavering hand of hesitation as he went on to say, "Well, what I'm gettin' at is how I weren't very hospitable to you then. I weren't very kind in askin' you to leave this house the way I done, and now I'm askin' your pardon for that and all past unkindnesses."
Xena gasped. Though she hadn't anticipated a cold or unfriendly welcome – after all, Gabrielle's parents had sent out the all points, begging the two of them to come as quickly as they could – the warmth in Hecuba's voice coupled with the tone of contrition in Herodotus' voice weren't at all what Xena had expected. Not just Herodotus, but Xena, too, stood at the hearth, embarrassed. For all her proven warrior skills, though men from the westernmost reaches of Illyria and the Adriatic to the easternmost straits of Thrace and the Phrygian isles might quail at the mention of her name, Xena no longer had the desire to humble this or any other man. In fact, it was in the presence of men like Herodotus, honest farmers and upright villagers, the kind of men whom she might have wished to serve as role models for her own departed son, that Xena herself often felt the most thoroughly humbled.
"Herodotus," Xena said with the slightest hue of rose rising to give the faintest blush to her full, wide cheeks, "to find welcome under your roof means more to me than all the fanfares and flourishes in the lavish halls of kings."
"Well, I were afeared as how we got no royal repast to be offerin' the two of you worldly travelers in the hope of allayin' this evenin's hunger," Hecuba returned to the hearth and began lifting the lids off the pots which held the night's bubble and squeak. "Just simple village fare is all: a sturdy lamb's stew and a platter of floury biscuits with a garnish of parsley brung in from the garden. And a flagon of Mickey's good ale, if you like, or a cup of my own fruit punch made from citrus and berries. Gab, you might busy yourself layin' out the table. Four places'll do. Would that it were five. Now Xena, you're broad in the shoulders and grand in the hips, and I know you got a warrior's palate, so I'm warnin' you not to be loadin' a skimpy plate. And if you'll be treatin' yourself to a second helpin' 'pon the first, why, I'll be takin' it as a nod to the goodness of my cookin'."
"She is a good cook," Gabrielle, looking at Xena, said of Hecuba.
"I know," Xena smiled, "I've sampled your mother's cooking before."
"I were leavin' much of the bakin' and boilin' to your sister's good sense now," Hecuba said to Gabrielle, reaching for a packet of seasoning. "Not the butcherin', though. Lila got no knack for wieldin' the blade. 'Twere a task what were better left for your father."
Herodotus had stood aside from the preparations, not wanting to get in the way of his wife and daughter who, together, had whipped up a finer meal than the family usually enjoyed. But it was a homecoming nonetheless, even if it were taking place under less than auspicious circumstances.
Before they sat down at table, Herodotus motioned to Xena and said, "Argo, I believe your horse were called."
"That's right," Xena nodded.
"What were tied to the hitchin' post, I see," Herodotus gazed out the open shutter. "'Twere gettin' on towards night. Whilst the ladies were rapt in their fussin' and fiddlin', we'll bed her down in the byre and give her some feed and water."
"That would be wonderful, though we're not quite done for the day. I haven't had the chance to tell you," Xena turned to Gabrielle, "but we're going for a little ride tonight. I think we'd better not wait ‘til morning."
"A ride?" Gabrielle said.
"To pay a courtesy call on Latrinus," Xena said and declined to elaborate further.
Gabrielle picked up on Xena's reticence and said, "Yeah, sure, I guess we can go for a ride."
"Come, Xena," Herodotus repeated his offer, "whilst yet it were light, I might be showin' you what you'll be needin' to bed and water the mare for when you and Gab should be findin’ your way back ‘neath Hecate’s dark scrim."
Xena already knew her way around the byre. She'd boarded Argo in the family's stall before. She'd bedded down in the byre herself on occasion. But an inner voice her told her to go with Herodotus; and though Xena didn't, as a rule, pay much heed to the promptings of inner voices, this time she let herself be guided by her intuition.
Herodotus escorted Xena out the door. They passed the garden gate next to whose latchpost the compost bin was piled high with vegetable rind and kitchen scrap. Gida and her kids greeted the pair with their plaintive braying as Herodotus and Xena entered the byre through its wide, creaking door. The rear of the sheepcote was visible through the low connector on the far side of the horse's stall.
"Quiet down, you noisy thing," Herodotus smiled at the mother goat. "Them nannies have a better knack than the billies in the raisin' up of a ruckus, but goats were more cleaner than you might be thinkin', near as clean as Lila's piglet what were out back in the sty. For all that they were rollin' 'round in the ooze when the day were hot and dry 'pon their tender gray skin, a pig were likin' it neat and clean when not bathin' and coolin' in the pit. A mother goat, now she were good with her little ones. There were more good in a goat than you're apt to be findin' in them dizzy bundles of wool out there."
Herodotus pointed to the sheep who were crowded into the cote, some of them squatting in their own filth. "There were days – and nights as well – when I were devotin' more candlemarks to the nursin' than the shearin' of 'em," Herodotus grinned. "Makin' do with them glass-necked bottles up there."
Xena looked over to the shelf that hung suspended next to the goat's stall. She noticed a line of stoppered clay bottles some of which had twists of leather on them bound in spiral fashion and pierced with little puncture holes at the top.
"A man what were nursin' a sick sheep, tucked close under his arm, whisperin' soft words as she were suckin' out the nipple of the bottle he were holdin' in his hand," Herodotus said with a mildly self-abasing smile, "such a man were hardly fit to be facin', eye to eye, the likes of a Warrior Princess."
Oh, no, you're wrong, a voice inside Xena's breast cried out, though her tongue kept silent. I could caress the hands of a man who nursed a sick sheep in his arms.
"Well, here were the bucket and here the bales and there you'll be findin' the scupper of oats you're to feel free to mix with the hay. And the curry comb what were hangin' 'pon that hook up there," Herodotus pointed at various spots in and around the horse stall. "And for water, you got to go 'round to the back where you'll be findin' the ewers near full up at eventime."
Herodotus paused and looked around the byre. "Were I forgettin' any detail?"
"I think I've got a pretty good idea how things are laid out," Xena said, casting her eyes around the peaceful, orderly byre in which, not many moonmarks ago, the vast terrors of the night had nearly done their worst as Dahak's daughter, Herodotus' granddaughter, and her terrible, bestial offspring had almost succeeded in laying waste to these animals, this family, this homestead – in time, the village, the town, the region, the far corners of the known world.
"Xena," Herodotus picked up a sickle from the straw-covered floor and hung it, by the sharp, sweeping curve of its blade, on a nail driven into one of the center posts, "I'm wantin' to be askin' you a question. Speakin' as a father now. Gab... Gabrielle... I'm seein' as how Gab weren't the little pixie girl with the stars shinin' brightly in her eyes no more; not as she were on the night when she stole out the door and gone runnin' off to follow in the footsteps of the mighty Warrior Princess. Well, she were ever and always a girl with stars in her eyes, now as then; yet there were somethin' more earthy I seen springin' to life inside them stars; somethin' that were gettin' riper and rounder and daily, I'll warrant, more solid, more rooted, more... womanly. 'Twere the change I seen comin' over Gab, the change of a girl comin' near to bein' full-blown. Her mum were seein' it too, though the seein' of it may be a source of joy and pain to her; for the child, bein' woman-grown, weren't a child no more. And seein' her girl nearin' onto a woman, before her dotin' eyes, were, perchance, a bittersweet pleasure for a mum.
"I were nary a well-traveled man, yet not all the world nor even the widest portion thereof needs were lyin' far from a man's door; nor were mine eyes deceivin' me when I seen how my daughter's eyes were kindled bright as crinkle-fire in the lookin' ‘pon you: at table, in the yard, by the fencepost, 'pon the road. Such looks as them what Gab were givin' you may cavil 'pon the splashy stream of friendship, yet do they breast 'em further to brook the spillin' fords of passion and the rushin' flumes of love. And you, as well, Xena. There come a softness and a stillness 'pon you and a longin' within the distant reaches of them Warrior Princess eyes when oft you were gazin' 'pon my eldest, a gaze within the eyes and out the soul as does mutely cavort 'pon the chastened aspect of the former-ruthless maid what once did strike the fear of the gods into a thousand warrin' men whence they did clash and fall dispirited 'pon the heated plain of battle.
"What I were askin', in such roundabout way, were: do you love her, Xena? Do you love my Gab?"
"Yes, Herodotus, I do," Xena said with a simplicity more exquisite than any skill of war and conquest that she'd managed, through all her aptitude and effort, to acquire in her long years of soul-contention and self-denial. And the very forthrightness of her unadorned reply was the greatest compliment she could have paid to this man whom she was now coming to respect and even, perhaps, to admire.
"The love you were feelin', it weren't apt to go unrequited. And a love so recompensed were surely the greatest gift of the gods," Herodotus said. "I'm not askin' if your love be what men would deem unnatural. There were, 'bout one's grown child, that which a parent were as wise not to know. 'Twere enough that love be true, let it be conformed in what aspect it will. So I'll ask you as a father might put it to the lad what were comin' to court his dearest prize," Herodotus looked away, unable, for an instant, to hold Xena's gaze. "You'll be bearin' with me, for ne'er did I dream I might be askin' such a thing of a lass... but I'm wantin' to know, Xena, as any lovin' father might: what be your intentions toward my daughter?"
"To be good to her. To hold her in my heart. To be loyal. To be faithful. To be true," Xena said, amazed at her own capacity for candor in the presence of Gabrielle's father.
Herodotus nodded. "That were much to be givin'. And much to be gainin' in turn."
With a loud scrape of iron on leather-braised metal, Xena reached over her shoulder and drew her sword out of its scabbard, grasping the hilt in both hands and holding the tip of the blade, for a split fall of a sand grain, mere thumblengths in front of Herodotus' chin. Then she flipped the sword in the air, caught it by the shaft and tilted the hilt toward Herodotus with the tip of the blade now pointing at her breast.
Herodotus looked from the sword's blade to Xena's determined face and back to the sword's hilt with a hint of uncertainty in his eyes.
"My sword. Take it," Xena said. "Grasp it. Feel its weight and balance in your hand."
"Wherefore would I be wantin' to hew the heft of the Warrior Princess' sword?" With a questioning look on his face, Herodotus nonetheless did as Xena commanded. He took the sword and, misjudging its weight, fumbled and nearly dropped it. Recovering, he held the sword by the hilt and stared at the blade as though it were a strange, dangerous, foreign thing. "The sword of the Warrior Princess...," Herodotus mused as he gave the sword a little shake and watched its pommel gleam in the remnants of the dying light that came slanting into the byre through the open shutters.
"I want you to get a good, solid feel for it," Xena said, "because if I ever dishonor or betray Gabrielle's love in any way, I want you to take that sword and run me through with it."
Herodotus gave Xena a baffled look.
"And I'll bear my breast to the blade," Xena said.
Raising his eyebrows, Herodotus turned the sword's blade toward himself, took hold of it and, hilt first, handed the sword back to Xena. "I'm not wantin' your weapon, lass. I'm only wantin' your word."
Xena took the sword and replaced it in the scabbard, standing her ground, firmly but humbly, in front of this man to whom she would neither lie nor dissemble.
Herodotus and Xena stood together, as equals, facing one another on the gritty flooring that was covered with straw, garden husks and stray pellets of sheep's dung, united in their love for the farmer's daughter who'd met and, in her way, had mastered the former Destroyer of Nations.
"We'd best be headin' back to the table," Herodotus said. "The ladies'll be gettin' the notion that we were preferrin' a supper of oats and hay to their mutton and muffins."
Xena and Herodotus left the byre and wandered back to the cottage where the dinner bowls were filled to the brim and waiting on the table. Then the four of them, after Hecuba's grace to the gods – to Artemis for the game of the woods and Demeter for the grain of the fields – dove in to the evening's meal which they consumed with a speed and relish that might have seemed a trifle ill-mannerly to those accustomed to dine at their leisure, on mint and chutney, in the halls of thanes and princes.
"Thank you both very much," Xena said to Gabrielle's parents after she'd permitted herself to indulge in a rare second helping. "Hecuba, this was delicious."
"I've heard tell as how your mum were a fine cook in her own right," Hecuba said to Xena, dabbing her lips with the corner of her napkin. "When Lila come home from the week she were helpin' your mum with the chores at the inn – when your friends throwed you that surprise birthday party, Gab, the week the ewes were lustratin' in the fold – and brung back that great big crazy woman..."
"Minya," Gabrielle said.
"The huge hunk of a girl what were dressed in leathers and totin' a bullwhip as long as my clothesline, yet were squealin' like a stuck pig if ever she were stubbin' her toe."
"She's a good egg," Gabrielle chuckled. "She wants to be like Xena, and she seems to be making progress."
"The girl weren't strikin’ me as the type to go in for fightin’ no hard won battles, beggin' your pardon, Xena," Hecuba said, "yet she were a hair-raisin' sight to see. And your sister, havin', in her heart, a great pity for the lost and needy souls of this world, brung the wild thing home, and we had us a roasted rabbit with a pile of greens from out in the garden. Skinnin' were what the girl were good at. Her and Lila got to sayin' as how they'd been a help to your mum at the inn, Xena, what with Lila seein' to the linens and the big girl cuttin' up rabbits and gooses and ploppin' ‘em quick as a summer shower into the stew. A fine and stately lady, your mum. Lila were sayin' as much when she come home from your birthday party, Gab. A better class of lady than the line we come from but warm and kind – and with a right hearty bosom."
"Mother!" Gabrielle said, a trifle taken aback.
"Well, do but gaze 'pon the Warrior Princess and see the fact for yourself," Hecuba said. "You got to be gettin' that generous bust from somewhere, Xena. Lila were greatly took with your mum were all I were meanin' to say. Holdin' forth at this very table, she were, that your mum were a good lady with a kind soul what were ever prepared to be givin’ her hand and heart to them what might be comin’ to her table in need."
"She is a fine lady," Xena smiled. "It’s taken me a while to appreciate that."
"Well, Xena, you be sure and relay word to your mum how if she were ever moved to be payin' us a visit – though 'twere a lengthy two-day's journey past the cyclops' lair on foot," Hecuba said, "be sure to be sayin' to her as how she were most welcome to be settin' her two feet under our table same as you were doin' now."
"That's very kind of you. I'll be sure to let her know," Xena said. "We'd better be off," Xena looked at Gabrielle. "Got your staff?"
"It’s out on the porch," Gabrielle nodded.
"Better bring it," Xena said as she rose from the table.
"You'll both of you be careful now," Hecuba said, her voice stippled with worry. "Them hills were awful dark this night, and Selene's wanin' orb won't be risin' up over 'em 'till well along in the wee candlemarks."
Herodotus chucked. "Them twa' adventuradoes were gone to Hellas' farthest shores and back and surely need must ofttimes have been ferryin' in the dead of night to the discomfort of such monsters and tyrants as 'twould doubtless chill our blood." Herodotus paused and then said, more soberly. "Yet confrontin' warlords were a risky business. Have a care, Gab, and you, as well, Xena. Whate'er the nature of this evenin's romp in the brambles, come back to us hale and whole."
In a tone of perfect assurance, Xena said, "I'll bring her back safe and sound. If nothing else, that much, at least, you can count on."
Then Xena and Gabrielle slipped out the door and went down the walk to unhitch Argo from the post where she'd been patiently waiting for them.
"Got any bright ideas?" Gabrielle said as Xena tightened Argo's tack.
"Only that we're about to pay a call on a none-too-friendly warlord."
"A surprise call?" Gabrielle said, enthusiastically.
"No, he'll be expecting us," Xena said with a sphinx-like grin as she cinched the stirrups.
"I mean it, Xena," Gabrielle made a practice pass with her staff, "if that bozo has done anything to hurt Lee or Lexie, I'll be hard pressed not to do to him what I sometimes wish I'd done to Callisto."
"Maybe you won't have to do a thing. C'mon, let's mount up."
"We're both gonna ride?" Gabrielle seemed none too keen on the idea.
"Have to," Xena extended her hand to Gabrielle.
"Sore Butt City," Gabrielle took Xena's hand. "You know what I think we ought to do one of these days? We ought to drop in on Dedalus and ask him to invent a kind of horse that's got shock absorbers pre-fabbed into its hindquarters."
"He's already done it," Xena said.
"He has?" Gabrielle raised a thin, blonde eyebrow as Xena hoisted her onto Argo's withers.
"Yeah, it's called a chariot. Hyaa!" Xena nudged Argo with the heels of her boots and off they went down the lane, clopping under the stars, toward the hay fields now bereft of all sweet sounds of the night but for the chirping of the crickets.
"At least, this way we get to have some body contact," Gabrielle leaned forward and encircled Xena's waist with her arms.
"I thought you were hot to rescue your sister," Xena said as they entered the acacia grove behind the farthest pasture.
"Then stay alert. And don't tickle me."
Not two furlongs later, before they were out of earshot of the crickets, there came, streaming over the cut rows of wheat, barley and rye, "Hoo... Hoo, hoo... Didn't I tell you not to do-hoo that..."
How these jokers think they're gonna stay mounted long enough for me to get them where they’re going, Argo thought to herself as she felt the hootchie coo going on behind her golden mane, is a mystery to me...
Continued in Part 28
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