Chapter 28: I Only Have Spies For You

"You wanted to see us? You got your wish," Xena, with Gabrielle a quick step behind her, strode boldly unannounced through the door of Latrinus' hut.

"Yaagghhh!" several of Latrinus' lackeys sprang up in alarm, maps and charts spilling off the long conference table and rolling up with a snappy zzzoooppp… when they hit the floor.

"Xena!" a startled Latrinus straightened to his full height and smiled his most lugubrious smile. "I had a feeling you might show up. And I see you've brought the irritating blonde."

"The name's Gabrielle," Gabrielle growled through barred teeth, "whose sister and friend you've kidnapped."

"Au contraire, ma cherie," Latrinus gave the ladies a salacious grin. "We've merely borrowed them for a time. And we've been excellent hosts, haven't we, boys? We've fed and clothed them, given them fun-type things to do. But how did you, ahh..., manage to slip past the guards? My men are out patrolling the only approach that could have gotten you here on horseback. I assume you have come on horseback, Xena – as you did this afternoon when you arrived to have a look around."

"You mean these?" Xena said with disdain as she tossed Latrinus' lackeys a couple of iron helmets with the visors clanked shut.

"That's only two," Latrinus' smile turned sour. "I had three guards posted."

Gabrielle stepped forward and contemptuously tossed him the third helmet.

"This one belongs to Cesspoulos," one of the lackeys grunted.

"It seems he had a long day and decided turn in early," Xena said. "I don't think he'll be needing his headgear until tomorrow morning."

"Who else besides those of us gathered around this table knows that the two of you are here?" Latrinus’ phony grin returned to further disfigure his motley face.

"No one," Xena said, her eyes casing the joint.

"Those pathetic villagers who pursued us into the woods this morning gave up at the first sign of rough going," Latrinus smirked. "Which is only to be expected, I suppose."

"My father is one of those villagers," Gabrielle's hackles rose. "Though how could you be expected to know the difference between what’s honest and what’s pathetic when you've never done an honest day's work in your life?"

"Really, Xena, is this how low you've sunk? Is this what you've been reduced to?" Latrinus said, ignoring Gabrielle’s jibe. "You and your annoying assistant pulling rabbits out of helmets, conking 'em over the head and leaving 'em dozing in the grass? You look and act like nothing so much as a drum majorette in the company of a cheerleader, you who once had the world on a string, sitting on Ares' rainbow. How the mighty are fallen, wouldn't you say, Xena? But not so far fallen, perhaps, that the Warrior Princess can't be counted on to do an old boy a good turn."

"You've got chips. We've come to play. What're the stakes?" Xena reached out a quiet arm to restrain Gabrielle, who, left to her own devices, would just as soon have grabbed Latrinus by throat, flung him against the wall and proceeded to beat the apple juice out of him.

"Please, won't the two of you have a seat," Latrinus motioned to the seats on which Lila and Alexis had sat when they'd had their breakfast that morning. "Some liquid refreshment for our guests on the heels of their junket through the woods," Latrinus clapped his hands and pointed to one of his lackeys who took three beer mugs out of the wooden chest in which they were stored.

"Ditch the bubbly and cut to the chase," Xena said. "You've got the girls. We want 'em back."

"Pick up the tab and you will get them back," Latrinus took a seat as the dull pall of the torches in their wall brackets gave out a dim light that cast thick shadows around the hut's cramped interior.

"Xena," Gabrielle mumbled, "we don't have to take crap from this piddling halfwit. Let's trash the place, grab Lee and Lexie, stick 'em on a couple of horses and get the heck out of here."

"You could do that," Latrinus said, "but you'd only be making off your sister's friend. I should warn you, though, that if you choose to go that route, you can expect things to go rather badly with your sister."

"Why’s that?"

"Because she isn’t here and thus not amenable to being rescued."

"What do you mean Lee isn’t here?" Gabrielle glowered at Latrinus. "Your guys crashed the party last night, grabbed Lee and Lexie and made off with them."

"Latrinus," Xena interjected, "putting in time with Mezentius' army showed you what it's like to be sleazy and putting in time with Talmodeus' army showed you what it's like to be dumb. Pondering the lessons you might have learned in those far off days could have taught you what it's like to be a trifle above board and a little bit smart. Of course, Lila's not here. Not even you would be stupid enough to keep both girls in the same place. That's why you made off with the two of them to begin with."

"Where's Lee, then?" Gabrielle's eyes, getting bigger by the instant, stared daggers at Latrinus.

"Well out of harm's way, unless Latrinus is an utter fool," Xena said, her eyes on Latrinus.

"I'll tell you what I learned from my erstwhile mentors, Xena," Latrinus raised his mug. On cue, one of his flunkies came over and poured a stream of foamy ale from a narrow-necked pitcher. "I learned that those who cut off their heads to spite their necks don't wear their helmets very long. Burning, looting, pillaging: what do these excesses accomplish other than to diminish the supply of raw materials and drive up the cost of finished goods? As I explained to your companion's sister and friend earlier in the day, you can't hope to stay in business very long when you burn, loot and pillage, and you certainly can't hope, in the long run, to turn much of a profit. Warlording on a small scale is a pastime for rubes and amateurs. There's no percentage in it anymore. It's become a game for the big boys – and girls. At your peak, you could have ruled an empire, but you turned your back on Ares' numerous offers and look at you now: riding through the woods, in the dark of the night, like a messenger sent out on an errand. Life on the margin: that's the best that renegades and mavericks like us can aspire to nowadays."

"In your dreams," Xena spat.

"Ah, 'Was Blind But Now I See...,' is it?" Latrinus swilled his ale. "Well, I see something too. I see rural villages and hick towns like Poteidaia, even your slightly more cosmopolitan Amphipolis, slowly being squeezed out of the running, driven into the ground and soaked dry by taxes, assessments and imposts levied to finance the vain military exploits of kings and generals; foolish forays like this Trojan campaign which offers the bulk of the common people no meaningful return on the investment of their youth and meager resources. Lives – like that of your companion's former beau, Perdicas, and his younger cousin, Andros – squandered in the pursuit of nothing more noble than the effort to retrieve a runaway queen and restore her to the throne of a petty autocrat who does nothing of substance to enhance the welfare of his subjects and who doesn't really want his lovely queen back anyhow. Does he, the old cock and bull artist? Want his beautiful and personable young queen to serve him as anything more than a pretty bauble, a trophy on the shelf of his egotistical accomplishments?"

"No, as a matter of fact, he doesn't," Xena said.

"So there, then," Latrinus quaffed his ale.

"So there, what," Xena said. "You abducted two innocent girls. We hear you beat up on them too. I'm warning you, Latrinus, if any ill should befall either one of them, you won't live long enough to enjoy whatever gains you're thinking might accrue to you from whatever half-baked operation you imagine you’re about to pull off."

"You're plagued by too small a mind, Xena," Latrinus wagged his finger. "You've traded a formerly grand vision of true achievement for some cheezy notion of a faux repentance. Not that any of that is my business. What you buy and sell and the prices you pay and charge for it are up to you. No harm will come to either of these young ladies provided we work together for the common good, which is to say, for the good of those who choose to partake in it. And once the job is done, the girls will be restored to their mothers' waiting arms as fresh as two bobbing daisies plucked from a breezy, springtime meadow. You have my word as a gentleman and a scholar."

"Do you think you can blackmail us that easily?" Xena glared at Latrinus. "Not much of Marcus has rubbed off on you, I see."

"It didn’t need to," Latrinus said. "Marcus' blood is on your hands, not mine. Cooperate and you'll get the girls back. Pull a fast one and me and these others will ride like the wind, pausing only for as long as it takes to sell the redhead to the first band of slavers we meet along the way, as we head lickety split for the far reaches of Bulgary. Then, shortly after we've cleared out, you'll get your friend's sister back. Turn the tables and rescue the redhead, which I grant that you may easily do, we up and ride and your friend's sister gets sold in her place. As to where your sister may be at this instant – for the purpose of springing her loose – that I can't tell you because I don't know. And it won't do to go putting the pinch on us. Cutting off the flow of blood to our brains won't succeed in communicating to them knowledge of things that they don't otherwise possess. All we have is a deadline after which, if the all clear hasn't sounded, the hostage, like a bank draft come due, will be cancelled."

"You low-down, scum-bagging, slime-wallowing sonuva backsliding snakebelly!" came a very unbardlike cry from the seat beside Xena who, for her part, as daintily as possible, restrained Gabrielle by slamming her into the back of her chair to keep her from leaping out of it and crushing Latrinus' skull with a roundhouse right administered by the blunt end of her staff.

"As to the identity of the one – or ones – who have the link to the all clear," Latrinus continued in his most dulcid tone, seeming to revel in Gabrielle's consternation, "he, she, they or it aren't here and we don't know where he, she, they or it may be. It's up to them to contact us. Only one of us is the contact. It isn't me and I can't tell you who it is because, again, I don't know. The cardinal rule in any business that hopes to turn a profit is that the one who cooks the books doesn't filch the dinars. If an operation like ours is going to have a chance of running in the black, there can be no central mastermind, no key agent who's got all the data and who pushes all the buttons. You see, Xena, in the end, it really does come down to a matter of trust."

"And if we believe that one, I suppose there's a bridge in Brooklynopolis you'd like to sell us," Xena said.

"Think what you wish," Latrinus said. "The only way our contact will know to sound the all-clear is when that contact becomes aware that our business has been successfully concluded. And don't assume that the contact will have to be told in words that the deal is done. The triggering event which communicates the necessary information may be something very public. Like the sounding of the alarm in the town square when a dastardly robbery has just been concluded. Frankly, I don't know what the triggering mechanism may be. I wasn't in on the planning stage. My part in the proceedings is just to carry the plan out. But you needn't take my word for it. I'll simply state the proposal, and it's up to you turn thumbs up or thumbs down. Thumbs up, we do business. Thumbs down, we go our separate ways and no hard feelings. Leave us the redhead for our trouble or take her with you if you must. But take her and you may never see your beloved sister again."

"So what's the quid whose pro quo has made you and your associates go to the trouble of kidnapping Lila and Alexis?" Xena skewered her smug interlocutor with a slicing ray from her cold blue eyes.

"A laughably modest one when you stop and think about it," Latrinus said, taking another tug on his mug of warm ale. "Peanuts, really. The only thing that distinguishes this town from a hundred other, nearly identical towns, the flow of whose lifeblood depends upon agriculture and handicrafts, is its pottery works. We all know that Poteidaia Pots has a reputation for producing some of the finest crockery in all these isles: bowls and platters, pitchers and mugs that command top dinar in market squares and houseware shops from Wedgwoodeia to Pfaltzgrafopolis. My men and I have rounded up a stash of wagons which we plan to fill to the tippy top with loot taken from the pottery works. With our contacts in place, once we're out of town and in the clear, we'll be able to fence the goods on the black market in a mere matter of candlemarks.

"Naturally, we'd like to avoid a senseless and bloody confrontation with members of the local citizenry. We don't want to see anyone getting hurt. Not over something as relatively minor as a few dishes and plates. To stave off such an unpleasant occurrence, we thought it might be helpful to enlist the assistance of someone – perhaps a couple of someones – who could be counted on to discourage angry onlookers from attempting to engage in a course of potentially dangerous conduct."

"Like trying to stop you and your goons from getting away," Xena said.

"Precisely," Latrinus said.

"A warlord bent on stealing dishes and plates. You don't know what kind of trouble you're asking for," Gabrielle chimed in. "If you were to rob sacks of dinars from the counting house or steal a horde of weapons from the armory or raid the shambles where they slaughter the pigs and lambs, folks in town might say, 'We may not like what these yahoos are pulling off, but they're warlords and these sorts of things are, after all, what warlords do.' But have you any idea how over the top a town full of housewives can get if they're forced to witness grown men attempting to make off with piles of cups and stacks of saucers? That's real thievery, almost as infuriating as making off with heaps of towels and bunches of pillowcases. I mean you're talking all-out war. If you're uptight about the guys in these villages giving you buzzards a tough time, you don't know the meaning of tough. It takes a lot of effort to tip these ladies over the edge, but once they've been tipped, Tartarus knows no fury like the rage of a wife and mother whose household furnishings and window treatments have been snubbed and scorned."

"Then the souls in Tartarus may be in for some rough sledding in the days and weeks that follow," Latrinus said, unmoved.

"What exactly do you want us to do?" Xena said.

"Keep the dogs at bay until we've loaded up the wagons and ridden out of there. Then you get the girls back and eveyone's happy."

"Except for the working families who stand to lose their shirts if and when the pottery works goes under."

"Some of life's more grievous misfortunes can't be helped. Besides, isn't the pottery works insured against these sorts of losses?"

"Insured against the conniving wiles of thieves and robbers who hold young women hostage? Latrinus, you are one sick scuzzball."

"That's what they say about all the great entrepreneurs," Latrinus proclaimed as he bibbed more ale. "Yet the world gladly avails itself of the products of their labors, doesn't it? Products whose development involves no dearth of daring and risk. Those are my terms. Take them or leave them."

"We'll need time to think."

Irate at the notion that Xena might actually cave in to Latrinus' extortion, Gabrielle whipped around to stare wide-eyed at Xena as she barked, "Are you serious, Xena? What we need time for is to..."

"...Think...!" Xena admonished.

Gabrielle fumed impatiently on her chair. "I'd like to feed these wazoos to the subterranean, man-eating stingrays that leap up from under the sand along the beach at Shark Island is what I think," Gabrielle muttered.

"Before we can have an answer for you, we'll need to check in with Alexis and make sure she's okay," Xena said.

"Of course she's okay," Latrinus said. "If she weren't okay, I couldn't very well hope to use her as a bargaining chip, could I?"

"Maybe not, but we’ll still need to see for ourselves," Xena said. "C'mon, Latrinus, it can't hurt you to let us see her. I assume you're going to tell her we were here after we've left."

"As a matter of fact, I had planned on doing just that," Latrinus said.

"So let us poke our heads in and then we'll have an answer for you," Xena said.

"Well...," Latrinus dithered, then relented, "I suppose there's no great harm in it. I'll give you five turns of the sandglass and not one turn more. And no funny business. My guards will be posted outside the door. And then I expect us to conclude our little negotiating session."

Latrinus had two of his lackeys escort Xena and Gabrielle across the compound to the hut where Alexis, now quite alone and terribly upset, was being held under lock and key. They found her sitting hunched up on the pile of animal furs which had served as last night's pallet.

"By Zeus and all the gods!" Alexis, stunned at Xena and Gabrielle's sudden appearance, flung her hands to her face and backed up toward the wall as though she imagined she were in the presence of a couple of unbidden ghosts, "Gab! Xena! Is it you? Really? Thank the gods, I’m so glad… but how did you get here? Lee said you were far away. Where is she? Septix, the guy who's been looking after us, said they’d taken her away but he didn't say where they’d taken her to. Oh, Gab, I can't believe it! Is it really you?"

Gabrielle ran to the pile of furs, flung her arms around Alexis and hugged her tightly. "Dearest Lexie! Yes, it's really us. And yes, we're really here. And don't you worry: we’re going to get you out of this mess."

Having bravely toughed it out during the past twenty-four candlemarks of grueling physical exertion and mental agony, the pain and anguish that had been building up inside Alexis since she'd been abducted and assaulted came roaring to the surface as Alexis felt Gabrielle's warm, secure arms encircling and holding her. At last, Alexis broke down. Great, gulping sobs came crashing up from her belly and exploded from her throat. "Oh, Gab, I'm so scared. They've taken Lee somewhere and I don't know what they've done with her. Or what they're planning to do with me."

"They're not going to do anything to you or to Lila," Xena came over and sat down next to Alexis so that Alexis was now snug between Xena and Gabrielle. Taking Alexis' hand, Xena said, with soft reassurance, "Alexis, trust me. You're going to be okay. And so is Lila. We're not going to let anything bad happen to either one of you."

Gabrielle gently rocked the weeping Alexis as Alexis had gently rocked the weeping Lila. "We headed for home as soon we got word," Gabrielle said, soothingly. "The worst is over, Lex. We're going to be taking you home soon. And Lee will be right there with us."

"One of the guards," Alexis stammered, "he tried to... to do something awful to Lee. Then Latrinus rushed in and whanged a knife into the guy's back and the guy toppled over dead. Then they dragged him away. There was blood all over the skins and on the floor. See how the wool’s all sticky and purple? I was able to get most of the floor mopped up with those rags over there."

Gabrielle shot a fast, hot look at Xena. "First Serafin and now this," she muttered through gritted teeth. "I'm tired of seeing my friends get beat up on."

Xena returned Gabrielle's look with a cooler one that said, "Suck in your gut and have patience. It won't help Lila or Alexis for either one of us to lose our cool and go cracking skulls right now, no matter how badly we might want to."

Gabrielle sat back and took a close look at Alexis. "What's this bandage you've got wrapped around your head, Lex?"

"They knocked us around when they grabbed us at the dance," Alexis looked back at Gab. "Lee got hit too, but luckily she didn’t need stitches. Then they patched us up – sort of – and gave us these new outfits to put on. Last night was thesmophoria. Lee was Demeter when the enaretes kores did their skit. She had her white, satiny gown on when we got kidnapped, so we were both really cold when we got here. Gab...," Alexis, breathing more easily now, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, "you look different. You got your hair cut."

"Yeah," Gabrielle said. "We've got lots of stuff to catch up on, Lex. But first we've gotta get you out of here."

"Ssh..., let's keep our voices down," Xena, eyeing the door, placed a finger on her lips.

"What else have they done besides bully you?" Gabrielle studied Alexis for other signs of possible mistreatment.

"Not much," Alexis shook her head. "One of the guys has been sort of looking out for us. He’s different than the others; he’s nicer. He says he can't tell me what they've done with Lee except that they've taken her away. Is Lee okay? They took her to see Latrinus after she got attacked this morning, and they said she'd be right back, but then she never got here, and they told me later that she was gone but they didn't say where they’d taken her."

"We've got a half a turn of the sandglass before we're going to have to clear out," Xena said to Alexis. "We need to leave you here for a little while longer, maybe overnight, 'til we figure out what they've done with Lila. If we took you with us now, as much as we'd like to, it might put Lila in grave danger before we've had the chance to get to her. Think you can bear up for another night? I've warned Latrinus what he can expect if any of his guys so much as look at you the wrong way, and I'm sure he understands how deadly serious I am about that."

"I think I can hold up if it means that Lee’s gonna be okay. She was real brave," Alexis looked at Gabrielle. "She doesn't like to talk about it, Gab, but I know that she's really been missing you."

A trace of sorrow mottled Gabrielle's otherwise grim eyes. "I've been missing her too, Lex. We'll let your mom and dad know that you're hanging in. Anything else before we split?"

"We were thinking, me and Lee, about maybe signing up for the beginner’s program Tyldus is offering at Training Academy. Chiron's been encouraging us to give it a shot. But in light of what's happened, I'm having second thoughts. Oh, and one more thing. I think I might have come down with some kind of a bug."

"You got a cold? The flu?"

"It’s when I’ve gotten up the past few mornings. And some mornings before that. I've been heaving my guts out before breakfast. But then, for the rest of the day, I seem to be feeling okay. It's kind of weird."

"Whatever it is, I'm sure you'll be feeling a zillion times better once we get you out of here," Gabrielle assured Alexis.

A mildly troubled look fluttered across Xena's face. Xena had begun to get up from the fur pile but now she sat back down. "Alexis," Xena said with a light toss of her dark bangs, "have you been dating anyone recently? Any guys that you've been seeing?"

Gabrielle's face went: hunh? What kind of a question was that to be asking at a time when they were about to leave Alexis to the tender mercies of a demented psychopath? Really, Xena, can't we wait for a more appropriate time to gossip about who Alexis might be getting it on with?

"Yeah, there sort of has been," Alexis looked at Xena and then at Gab.

"You've always had a soft spot for The Big O, right?" Gabrielle said. "O's the smallish guy who works in the counting house and couldn't ship out to Troy with Perdy and Andros 'cause one of his leg’s got trouble keeping up with his other one," Gabrielle explained to Xena.

"We've... gotten together now and then," Alexis said. "But I don't want my Dad to find out about it. I don't think he'd like the idea."

"You've been... getting together," Xena said. "Like... in private?"

"Xena," Gabrielle gave Xena a cross look, "can't you wait for a better time to bring this up? Why are you being so nosy?"

Gabrielle, who'd been pregnant for all of a day and a night and who'd had no experience of morning sickness, may not have been curious about Alexis' odd symptoms, but Xena could remember those cold mornings, in Borias' tent, when she hadn't been able to keep anything down and how Alti, with a wicked, gleeful grin on her trouble-making face, had told her the reason why.

"You're right," Xena said. "We'd best leave this for another time. Alexis, you're a trooper. Hang in there just a mite longer, Sweets, and this nightmare will soon be over and done with, I promise."

Alexis said she'd do that and Xena got up to go. "C'mon," she said to Gabrielle, "before our host matriculates in his pants."

"Keep your spirits up, Lex. You'll be home before you know it," Gabrielle kissed Alexis on the cheek and gave her a final squeeze.

Alexis smiled and twiddled her fingers to say goodbye. "Be careful, Gab," she cautioned, "and tell Lee that I didn't know they weren't going to let her come back when they took her to see Latrinus. If I had, I’d’ve gone with her even if wild horses had tried to hold me back."

"I’ll make sure to tell her," Gabrielle smiled back.

"And Xena," Alexis looked up at the Warrior Princess, "thanks. For everything."

"You're a good egg, Alexis," Xena took Alexis' hand and held it firmly. "It won't be long before you're out of here. That you can bank on."

Xena and Gabrielle slipped out of the hut. Under a sky crammed with stars, they headed back to Latrinus' hut as his lackeys, alternately curious about and in awe of the Warrior Princess and her golden-haired companion, both of whom they'd heard so many stories about, milled around in the shadows, peering at these attractive, martially skilled women whom they knew Latrinus respected and yet hoped to outsmart.

"You're not really gonna strike a deal with that obnoxious windbag, are you?" Gabrielle whispered to Xena as they walked along.

"Until we know what they've done with Lila and have her safely in tow, we'll need to string him along. His scheme could work, actually. Once he's loaded the wagons, hightailed it out of town and dealt the goods to his contacts, he could probably ditch the rest of these guys and make a beeline for the border with his pockets full of dinars."

"You don't think he'd be looney enough to hurt Lee, do you? Lexie looks to be in decent shape considering what she's been through. Didn't she just say that one of these goons tried some funny stuff with Lee, and Latrinus axed him with a knife in the back?"

"That's what it sounded like. Despoiling virgins doesn't seem to be Latrinus' bag. He knows he's over the hill, and it sounds like he's got his sights set on getting out of the game with a big enough pot to let him hang up his spikes and retire. Maybe we can help him his achieve his goal."

"Help this nutcase rip off the pottery works and rob dozens of families of their livelihood?" Gabrielle raised a finely lined eyebrow.

"Help him ease his way into retirement, securely behind bars, at a state-run facility for washed up warlords," Xena said as they came upon a loud brouhaha in progress near the bushes that bordered the thick copses of the surrounding woods.

"And I'll be thankin' you bloody sons of whoremasters to leave me gown and garters be! 'Tweren't no way to be treatin' a lady what were old enough to have lain with your grandsires and most likely done so from the ruddy looks of some of you!"

A few of Latrinus' lackeys were attempting to subdue an old woman, bent under her weight of years yet surprisingly agile, who was swathed in a great woolen cope, the hood of which was drawn up over her head to obscure her ragged features.

"Be still, old crone!" the men struggled to restrain her. "For what foul ends have you come snoopin' 'round the place, eh? Take her to the boss. Let him decree what’s to become of her."

"I seen them fires of yours burnin' from up along the ridge," the old woman spoke from within the folds of her wraps, "and I gots to thinkin' as how the silly sisters were like to be castin' the circle and offerin' up to Artemis what tasty juices were dribblin' down their bloated thighs come the ladies' night of the moon. And what were I findin' in their stead? A gang of rude blokes what don't know how to make nice to a lady what’s old enough to be their grandmere and, now as I were havin' a gander at some of your rousty pusses, might well be so."

The men erupted in peals of laughter.

"What's all this ruckus?" Latrinus came storming out of the hut. "Bellow any louder and you'll wake the dead. Who's this old bat? What manner of business have you here at this late hour of the night, my good woman?"

"'The business of teachin' them rude Johnny Cakes some manners, sir," the old woman wrenched herself free of the men's grasp and took a stumbling step toward Latrinus. "Aye, and what manner of business were a klatch of bachelors havin' out in the wild what don't have hovels to house 'em and winsome wives to lie with betimes? Scarin' the beasts of the wood and raisin' up a din what were like to deafen the harryin' howls of Cerebus in his lair, I wot. Helios' chariot were sunk 'neath the sod whilst Selene's carriage weren't yet ripe for the risin'.

"‘'Twere the bestest time of the night for an old hag to be out and about, gatherin' 'shrooms from the dark and drainy places – and for girls in yonder village to be callin' down the blessin's of the sleek, gamine goddesses: Artemis, Athena, Aphrodite, Demeter... Ah, we mustn't be neglectin' the blessed Mither o' the Maed what gone howlin' off to Hades but late yestreen at thesmophoria... Ne'er be forgettin' the sorrowin' woes of Demeter, lately gone to seek shelter in the haunts of them what knows her best. For I tell ye most truthful, lads: not for a turn of the sandglass were she forgettin' thee. See here, Jack, with these here caps of the blue muscaria, I'll brew you a nip 'twill make you think a faded crone a blossomin' virgin the which were most temptin' to rock in the bolster withal."

"Go on, old woman," Latrinus placed his hands on his hips and spoke with a haughty air. "Like the gnarled and twisted yew tree whose brown and shriveled twigs bear neither spiny needles nor pulpish berries, your own bearing days were long done. Creep home to your witch's warren and leave us gentlemen to go about our nocturnal rounds in peace."

"In pieces 'twere more like," the old woman replied. "For here be the glade what were leadin' to the tangled thicket, whilst over there be the glen what were pitched 'pon the steepy ledge; and, 'twixt the two, doth lie the shrubby ground what shall presently broom and brake you. Beware, churl: the Maed what were flyin' from out her Mither's arms 'pon the latest stroke of thesmophoria shall bruit homeward at the very instant when no man shall con her comin'. Take heed, ye merry band of jackanapes, lest sour seed sprung without a father's halls doth find driest suck within a mother's walls."

"You speak in riddles, old woman. Return to the vapid shades of night and hasten to your mistress, Hecate, whose sterile paps did give you driest suck," Latrinus commanded. "Gather your rue and nightshade and all such witchy wares whose growth oft shuns the light of day. Depart at once," Latrinus drew his sword and pointed the tip of the blade at the old woman's cowl, "lest I knob the ferrule of my walking stick with the rounded crest of your split skull."

"Put up your sword, Latrinus!" Xena stepped out of the shadows and approached the warlord who was grinning at the wrinkled crone, amused at her giddy gallivanting in the dead of night. "You're not here to make mischief, are you, old woman?"

The haggard old thing scrutinized Xena from within the shrouded layers of her cloak. "Well, what have we here? By the goddess' sloughed blood, 'twere a pair of buxom wenches. You, girls: the Mither's shame 'pon both of you for cavortin' 'bout the wood, at this late candlemark of the night, in the company of a merry pack of lusty gentlemen. Hmpf, this hussy were a fine piece of work from the cut and crinkle of them tithes of brass and leather...," the old woman sauntered up to Xena and, with the back of her knuckles, thunked the brass scrollwork on the cuirass which protected Xena's breasts.

"And this little doxy," the old woman drifted over to Gabrielle, "why, I'll warrant, child, as thou dost appear to them what did sire and dam thee a good whit more womanly 'pon this darkling night of Demeter than 'pon the brindled day when, in thy bonnet and basket, howlin' and screamin', thou were't consecrate unto Artemis and all the game and glory of the wood."

Then, passing gingerly between the space that separated Xena and Gabrielle, the old woman deftly slipped an object into Gabrielle's hand and closed Gabrielle's fingers around it.

"To my inky errand, then," the old woman turned to cross back to the men, pausing in front of Latrinus. "Holly berry, bittersweet, queen's lace, marigold: stems and leaves and shiny petals what bloom their brightest in the autumn. 'Twixt the settin' of the fixed ball that were full to burstin' with light's seed and the risin' of the mutable womb as doth wait to be seeded, 'twere the bestest time to be rangin' 'bout the wood, gatherin' stools and truffles what grow their grossest in the night.

"The goddess' grace be with you," the old woman wagged a wizened finger at Latrinus and the half dozen lackeys that stood behind him. "For them what wake in shreds and patches take their rest in threads and snatches."

Mumbling to herself and humming a jangled tune, the old woman slipped back to the dark woods whence she'd come while the men laughed and hurled their taunts at the crazy old loon who'd no doubt, earlier in the evening, sampled a few too many of her hastily gathered ‘shrooms.

"Allright, Latrinus, give us the lowdown on your proposed caper," Xena said with a sigh of resignation when she, Gabrielle and Latrinus had gone back inside the lighted hut.

"Very simple. We’ll make it a joint venture," Latrinus said, feeling pleased with himself.

"You’re calling the shots. Just remember what I told you about delivering the girls unharmed," Xena reiterated.

Latrinus grinned as he called for more ale. "Here's what I want the two of you to do. Me and my men, most of us, will disguise ourselves as plain, ordinary merchants. We'll pull up to the pottery works on wagons that we've, um, borrowed for the occasion. We'll head into the storerooms after we've presented our bills of lading – forged, of course – and we'll proceed to cart the goods out to the wagons. If anyone should get suspicious and start to act as though they're about to blow the whistle on us, we'll draw them aside, tie them up, gag them and stash them someplace out of the way. When the wagons are loaded, off we'll go. At that point, you get the redhead back. Several candlemarks after we're gone, the other one turns up. Clean and lean, no muss, no fuss; everyone's happy, no one gets hurt and neither of you may end up having to lift a finger."

"But what if we do have to lift a finger?" Xena wanted to know.

"If anything goes awry and our cover gets blown," Latrinus explained, "you're to hop on the dais next to the big round wash basin in the center of the square and urge the irate citizenry to remain calm and not to get in our way. Tell them it's just a bunch of processed clay that they're losing, nothing that can't be dug out of the ground and easily replaced. But the girls, well, they aren't replaceable, are they? You'll be the voice of reason, urging sense and caution. And if the crowd should refuse to heed your warnings, the remainder of my men will come swooping down on horseback to tear the bloody place apart.

"At that point, you're to shout, above the roar of the crowd, that you're acquainted with the members of our gang, that you used to ride with some of us, that we're desperate fellows and that you're convinced that unless the crowd permits us to conclude our little business in peace, we'll slit the redhead's throat, fling her to the ground and ride off with such haste that the town's pitifully ineffectual posse will never catch us. Meanwhile, at the pottery works, we'll have men stationed at each of the wagons, ready to drop the yokes, free the horses and link up with the others to make a fast getaway.

"You know very well that other than yourself and possibly your friend here, there are no villagers who could prove a match for our swords and lances. The fighting men in these villages are off to the war to be grunts and stooges for a pair of arrogant kings who'll offer them little of value for their pains once they've used them for their purposes. We, on the other hand, have no wish to use anyone, though we will if we have to. Do I make myself clear?"

"Extremely," Xena said in her coldest, most disdainful tone of voice.

"Good," Latrinus said, sipping from his mug. "Some ambiguity may be tolerable in the planning stages of an operation but not in the execution. Tomorrow, then, at ten candlemarks, in the town square. And make sure that our two unfortunate comrades, still housed in that moldy cellar, are freed from detention and ready to ride. The redhead packs quite a punch from what I hear. Maybe you ought to take her on as a protegée, Xena. A bit more flesh and bone on her than I can make out on this pint-sized sidekick of yours."

"Epta, ochto, ennea, deka!" Gabrielle silently finished counting to ten and still felt like whipping out her staff and clobbering the creep upside the head.

"Ten candlemarks, we'll be there," Xena said. "Just remember: if you do anything to harm Lila or Alexis, I'll track you down wherever you run to and your life won't be worth a tin drachma."

"I like doing business with a man – or woman – who knows the value of a dinar," Latrinus stood up and proffered his hand which Xena declined to shake. Then Xena and Gabrielle mounted up and left the camp, carefully guiding Argo, under a moonless sky, through the forest glades and down to the Stagira Road just east of Nea Moudana.

"I don't believe it!" Gabrielle gasped as they were descending from the ridge toward the woody knob where the men had lost the trail that morning. "It can't be but... it is'!"

"What is?" Xena scowled. "What are you rustling on about back there?"

"Xena, pull up and have a look at this!" Gabrielle reached around Xena's midriff and dangled the charm she was holding. "This is Lee's! It's the necklace she wears around her neck! Seven kernels of corn on a thin golden chain! The old woman who stumbled into Latrinus’ camp, I couldn't place it but I kept thinking, 'I know that voice. That isn't how she normally talks but I know I've heard that voice before...' And the thing she said about me being consecrated to Artemis when I was a baby and how I look so much different now. And all that stuff about Demeter. Who would know that Mom and Dad had consecrated me to Artemis and Lee to Demeter unless... Xena! That was the sibyl! It must have been! Lee must be at the sibyl's! But how? What could have brought her there? That means she's not under Latrinus' thumb! If they'd brought her to the sibyl's for some reason, they wouldn't have let the sibyl go wandering off into the night, knowing she could get word to Mom and Dad. And then slip this into my hand right under Latrinus' nose. The sibyl must have come to warn us."

Xena frowned a huge frown. "If that's what’s actually happening, then something isn't adding up."

"Seven kernels of corn on a thin golden chain. This is Lee's necklace allright," Gabrielle said. "That was the sibyl, Xena. I'd bet your chakram on it."

"Unless, of course...," Xena mused.

"C'mon, let's get our butts over there," Gabrielle urged. "I'm pretty sure I know the way. We'll collect Lee, drop her off at home, zip back here and grab Lexie. Then we can bag these Hostess Twinkies and send them packing for good like Herc and Iolaus should have done if they hadn't fallen for Latrinus' phony line about how he’d straightened himself out."

"Gabrielle," Xena puzzled as they rode along, "if you were looking to hide something, where do you imagine would be the best place to hide it?"

"Where people wouldn't think to look for it."

"And where don't people think to look for things?"

"When they’re hidden under their noses."

"Right, but even when you've hidden something under somebody's nose, you still know where you've hidden it, even if they don’t, and you still need to make sure that they don’t know that you’ve hidden it."

"Yeah, so?"

"You heard Latrinus say that he didn't know where Lila was. And that none of his goons knew where she was either."

"You didn't believe him when he said that, did you?"

"Except Latrinus was expecting us to show up and we did, in fact, show up. And you heard him say, straight out, that he knew we could have busted Alexis out of there, meaning that he knew we could have taken him and his goons in a fight if it had come to that – and that we could have put the pinch on him and forced him to tell us where Lila was, even though he said he didn't know where she was."

"Frankly, I don't see why we didn't."

"Because he was setting us up. He didn't even have his goons make much of an effort to hide their tracks in the woods," Xena muddled. "So we go ahead and put the pinch on him but it doesn't do us any good because he can't tell us where Lila is because it's really true that he doesn't know."

"Maybe Lee saw a chance to bolt, got the heck out of there and found her way to the sibyl's," Gabrielle suggested.

"And leave Alexis behind? Not likely. But even if Lila had escaped, why go to the sibyl's? Why not head home and lead the men back to the camp? No, if Lila's at the sibyl's and if Latrinus doesn't know she's there, it's because Latrinus doesn't want to know where Lila is. Latrinus must be figuring that Lila's gone into hiding because it would pose too great a risk of what he could do to Alexis if she didn't."

"So you think that Latrinus did what..., let Lee go? Just like that? Why go to the trouble of taking two hostages only to turn around and let one of them go? Unless he decided afterwards that he only needed one hostage and decided to keep Lexie 'cause it was Lexie who'd landed two of his goons in the jug."

"No, you want to hide something so well that when somebody shows up to make you tell them where it is, it turns out you don't know where it is and can't tell them even if they cut off the flow of blood to your brain."

"But how can you hide something without knowing where you've hidden it? Sometimes you talk in circles."

"By getting it to hide itself."

"But why would Lila go into hiding if Latrinus had been dumb enough to let her go? And then go hide in the very place where we could easily track her down once the sibyl had come and found us."

"Lila would go into hiding to protect Alexis if she felt she needed to, but Latrinus just letting her go like that..., hmm.… You heard Latrinus. He’d like to pass himself off as some kind of a shady businessman but at heart, he's a gambler. If you haven't got much on the line, why not risk playing a long shot? If you win, you win big. If you lose, you weren't risking much to begin with."

"You mean run the risk that we weren't going to smash up his operation and spring Alexis out of there?"

"Yes, but it's probably more complicated than that. There's this move that gamblers sometimes make – it's kind of a daring one – called bait and switch using a double blind. Gamblers sometimes resort to it when the odds of a payoff are high and they haven't got much in the pot. A gambler knows that the odds are most heavily in your favor when you don't try to cover all your bases and you leave some things to chance. That's what makes it a gamble as opposed to a strategic planning risk."

"What's your hunch, then?" Gabrielle said as they ducked under low hanging boughs now that they were dipping steadily down to the road.

"Latrinus needs our help to keep the villagers off his back if word gets out that there’s a heist in progress," Xena said. "So he needs some kind of leverage to pressure us into helping him. At the same time, he knows that you and me could bust him just as easily. So he baits us with Lila and switches to Alexis. Or so he wants us to think. To do that, he lets Lila go and tells her that he's through with her, that he doesn't want to know where she's going and that she can do whatever she wants to so long as she stays out of sight. He goes on to tell her that if he finds out that her whereabouts are known and that people realize that she isn't being held hostage any longer, he'll slit Alexis' throat or sell her to the slavers and, once he's done that, that he and his goons will scrap their plans to rob the pottery works, re-group and try their luck in some other town. So for fear of what might happen to Alexis if she doesn't go along with the plan, Lila goes into hiding at a place where she knows she won't be found."

"The sibyl's place is perfect for that," Gabrielle said. "The sibyl can be counted on to keep Lee's presence a secret."

"Except that she didn't," Xena smiled.

"Ha!" Gabrielle chuckled. "So Lee's the first blind. Who's the second?"

"Us," Xena said.

"Us?" Gabrielle said.

"If we'd've called Latrinus' bluff and had made off with Alexis then and there, Latrinus and his goons would have cancelled the raid, mounted up and ridden out of there in the morning," Xena said. "Except we didn't know that, so the blind worked. And it might have worked all the way to the heist itself if the sibyl hadn't found her way through the forest to make sure she met up with us."

"So in the morning, when the gang shows up in town, we grab Alexis and go," Gabrielle said. "Courtesy of the sibyl."

"And Latrinus and his army get away," Xena said. "Plus there's no guarantee that we'd get to Alexis in time to keep one of Latrinus' goons from panicking and slitting her throat. No, we need to check in with Autolycus and stick to that part of the plan. Besides, I want to grab Alexis and put Latrinus and his goons away, and we can't do both unless and until they stage their heist."

Pleased to imagine that Lila was probably safe, though distressed to recall that Alexis' ordeal was far from over, Xena and Gabrielle rode into town under scattered swirls of starlight, leaving Argo to doze in a stretch of nearby woods while the pair made the last leg of the trek through the brush on foot the better not to be noticed by stray strollers and late night passersby.

Continued in Part 29

The Bard's Corner