Chapter 29: Pot Holders
"Why are you wasting precious time, loafing around in that jail cell?!"
Fit to be tied, Xena paced back and forth in front of the bars of the holding tank in which Autolycus and Salmoneus, like two cats crowded into a cage, had been hissing and whining at each other.
Xena and Gabrielle had slipped unobtrusively into town via the narrow postern gate in back of the shambles next to Canty's Pub. Then they maneuvered silently along the alley between the counting house and the haberdasher's shop. Arriving at the pottery works by way of the rear annex, they'd jimmied the slats and had gingerly let themselves into the warehouse. Next, they'd sneaked into the large storeroom where theyíd darted behind a slew of stacked wooden barrels until they'd been able to get a good look around. They'd noticed the metal grating set slightly askew above the drainage ditch where wide furring strips, built into the wall, served as a ladder to climb down to the conduit that ran under the road and connected the warehouse to the building that housed the jail.
Once they'd climbed down to the ditch and had mucked their way through the conduit, it hadn't take them long to find the cache where Autolycus had been stashing the stock until his little mishap with the security guard had brought the enterprise to a halt. In the gloom of the warehouse with its packed shelves and crowded magazines, there had been no Autolycus, no lifting and toting going on, no movement of any kind. Poking the rest of the way through the underground culvert, Xena and Gabrielle had emerged in the subterranean vault whose walls were lined on both sides with prison cells. There, in one of them, they'd spied Autolycus in the company of... the erstwhile Lord Seltzer.
"Aw, Xena, you know how it is," Autolycus started making excuses. "Moving junk around in that soggy ooze can get to be a pretty boring gig. So I mustíve started whistling to pass the time. Then some hairy banana showed up, slapped the bracelets on me and dumped me in this fishbowl to cool my heels with... look who...," Autolycus shook his thumb back and forth at Salmoneus.
"Salmoneus, what are you doing here?" Xena peered into the cell in the glow of the dim torchlight. "Whenever we meet up, it seems like you're either hiding behind some good-looking skirt or being held under lock and key in the tank. Hmm, tonight I see it's both."
"They were having a festival and I was being festive," Salmoneus complained. "I'm a born impresario, what can I say. What do I know from permits and licenses and local ordinances aimed at stamping out the growing trend toward risqué cross-dressing? Besides, Autolycus finked out on me. Here I went to the trouble of lining up a dozen skimpily clad maenads whose long, sharp and very red nails were itching to show us a drooling good time, and all this one has to do is show up with a pile of priceless gems which I assured the maenads he'd have no trouble getting his paws on.
"And what does the slimy creep do instead? He finagles Hermes into springing for drinks at the tavern in Thessaloniki where he proceeds to gets the messenger of the gods looped on pitchers of pale ale, playing The King Of Greece Has Lost His Fleece. Then, with Hermes lying potted in one of the back booths, Autolycus filches Hermes' winged sandals and takes off for Tiryns where he's hoping, in vain, as you can see, to sweet-talk Queen Admete into parting with some jeweled charity belt she's got hanging on the wall above her royal easy chair."
"Chastity belt," Autolycus huffed. "And it isnít hers anyway."
"Enough bickering!" Xena cut them off. "It's getting late and there's lots of stuff in the warehouse that still needs to be moved."
Salmoneus swatted Autolycus on the head with the long, silken kerchief that had been part of his Queen of Namibia getup, and Autolycus responded by tweaking Salmoneus' nose which caused Salmoneus to yelp in pain.
"Cut it out, you two!" Xena commanded. "Autolycus, I want you out of there right now. We're running late, and Gabrielle and I can't stick around to take up the slack. We've got to head back to Gabrielle's parents' and clue them in on our next move."
"What about me, Xena?" A look of desolation came over Salmoneus' round, bearded face as he gripped the bars tightly with both hands. "Don't I get to get out too? It's awfully stale and musty in this chilly old jail cell. The ventilation isn't very good, and you know how easily one can catch cold when the air doesn't circulate well..."
"Allright, the both of you: out," Xena relented. "But Salmoneus, I want you to give Autolycus a hand carrying the stuff over here from the warehouse. That warehouse and showroom have got to be picked clean as a bone by dawn, so youíd better figure on pulling an all-nighter."
"But Xena, the Queen of Namibia needs her beauty sleep," Salmoneus sulked. "Okay, okay, I'll snooze tomorrow."
"Once you get everything done," Xena came up to the bars of the cell and spoke in a near whisper, "the last thing will be to move those two goons out of here and stash them out of sight in the annex. By morning, the pots and bowls should be stacked neatly in these locked cells where nobody can get at them. And lock up the security guard if he gives you any trouble."
"Trust me to make it all come out as smooth as a blonde bardís bottom," Autolycus gave his assurances with a twirl of his mustaches. "After all, you're lookin' at the guy who light-fingered the Dagger of Helios."
"Who got tossed the Dagger of Helios and whose light fingers nearly dropped it down the shaft after I wrested it out of Velasca's grasp on the ropes inside the cavern," Gabrielle reminded the King of Thieves. "You were dead at that point, so you missed out on that part of it," Gabrielle filled Xena in.
"Yah, well, um... I never said I pulled it off all by myself," Autolycus dithered.
"I'll bet there's many a night when he pulls it off all by himself," Salmoneus opined.
"Quit squabbling and get busy," Xena admonished, starting for the exit with Gabrielle at her side.
"Oh, Xena...," Autolycus called after her, "aren't you, um, forgetting something?"
Xena turned around a raised a piquant eyebrow.
"Like the keys to let us out of here?" Autolycus said.
"You got yourself in there. Now get yourself out," Xena said as she and Gabrielle walked out of the lockup and let themselves quietly out of the warehouse.
"The lady says there's much to be done before the sun comes up," Autolycus said. "So stand back, my man, and let a pro show you how."
Then Autolycus rolled up his sleeves and performed his crafty legerdemain. In two shakes of Salmoneus' long silk hankie, the lock was picked, the door to the cell sprang open and out they went, mumbling invective at one another, as they set about lugging the remaining inventory from the warehouse over to the jail cells.
Meanwhile, Xena and Gabrielle hopped on Argo and hustled back to the cottage, arriving just before moonrise. They'd covered a lot of ground during the past several candlemarks and were very thirsty. Hecuba brought them mugs of cool water and Herodotus plied them with strips of mutton jerky.
"Lee's safe. She's at the sibyl's," Gabrielle told her parents.
"Thank the gods!" Hecuba sank down on her chair at the dining table. A tremendous wave of relief mixed with exhaustion flooded her tired features. Neither Hecuba nor Herodotus had slept a wink in the past two nights. "But how? Them warlordin' scalawags, weren't they holdin' the girls captive?"
Xena sat down next to Hecuba and spoke in reassuring tones. "Lila's out of trouble. That's the main thing. The sibyl's is probably the best place she could be right now. But it's very important, for Alexis' sake, that no one knows that Lila's been found, not 'til we've sprung Alexis free. Alexis is still at Latrinus' camp, and her life is still in danger."
"The poor child," Hecuba said with a careworn look at Xena. Then Hecuba wept gentle tears of gratitude at the good news about Lila along with tears of grief for Chloe and Clenesthides who still had cause to worry. "But how did you come to learn of such wild goin's on?"
"We paid a visit to Latrinus at his hideout," Xena said.
"You were beardin' the beast in his lair?" Herodotus said, startled and impressed. "Why, me and the men could track 'em no further than the cleft in the knob what were risin' up over the road some five leagues east of town. There all trace of 'em were gone. All we seen in the far distance were the cresty ridge where the scoundrels were like to be holin' up."
"You men are farmers and merchants, not warriors and woodsmen," Xena said. "You did a fine job of tracking them that far. Tomorrow morning, at ten candlemarks, Latrinus and his gang are going to come riding into town to try and weasel their way into the pottery works. That's when we're going to pry Alexis free from their grasp and put Latrinus and his goons behind bars where they'll remain for many sunmarks to come. Let's go over the plans for tomorrow. Now as soon as the sun comes up, I want you to gather the men together, and here's what I want you to do. It's a little trick I learned during the moonmarks I spent with the One God people..."
A short while later, Hecuba extinguished the candles, and the household settled down for the night. Up in the loft, Gabrielle lay on the cot that now seemed a relic of her distant past, while Xena sacked out on Lila's cot which Hecuba had made up with fresh linens. Lying there in the dark, Xena gazed through the open shutter out of which, a little more than a fortnight ago, Alexis had taken her accidental plunge.
So this is the room in which my beloved spent her childhood. And there she is, back in her childhood bed, as though our time together had been no more than a dream, as though she were a young virgin again, who'd be going on to marry Perdicas, to have beautiful babies, to work in the fields and to live out her life among friends, family and neighbors who'd love and cherish her as she deserves to be loved and cherished.
"Gabrielle, Little Angel Song...," Xena called silently to that tiny segment of the night sky that she was able to see out the open shutter along whose casement the gauzy chintz curtains furled gently in the light autumn breeze, "I never meant to call you away and lead you astray, to take you to a land of the spirit that I haven't the foggiest notion of how I might begin to show you. Yet I know I'd die a thousand deaths before I'd give you up. Forgive me for being selfish and willful and driven and wanting. Mostly, forgive me for the unintended pain my imperfect love has caused you during the moonmarks and sunmarks that we've been together."
Under night skies that had been even brighter with swirling mystery than this one, Xena had expressed those sentiments to Gabrielle, once, twice, a dozen times; and each time, in reply, Gabrielle had said, "Where you go, I'll go. Your journey will be my journey and your destiny my destiny. We'll glean our sheaves together and no man will be our master."
"Xena," Gabrielle whispered softly in the darkness across the space of floor and time that separated them, "are you awake?"
"Uh huh," Xena whispered back.
"What're you thinking?"
"Right now? I dunno. That I'm lying on your sister's cot. That we got here on a flying ship. That your father's a good man. That Queen Admete wouldn't budge."
"Know what I was just thinking?"
"I was just thinking that I wouldn't have learned to do fish in as many ways as I can if I hadn't run into you."
Xena chuckled. "I remember the way you used to slice 'em open, rip out the guts, strip the bones, toss the split halves into the pan, flip 'em over once and dump 'em out on our plates."
"And now a whole new world of different ways to do fish has opened up to me; herbs, spices, tubers, garnish. You know, Xena, you're not so lacking in skills as you might imagine. You're pretty good when it comes to thinking up different ways to do fish. I wonder if that's what you'll mostly be remembered for: your various fresh water and seafood recipes."
"Wow," Xena murmurred. She had thought she might best be remembered as Solon's mother, the son who might have grown up to become a man of peace had his mother's enemies not intervened and made him their lethal target.
"How come you were quizzing Lexie about her sex life? That seemed really out of place under the circumstances," Gabrielle hoisted herself onto one elbow.
"If Alexis has been shacking up with the young man she's been seeing, it might account for why she's having those tummy upsets in the morning," Xena said.
"The Big O? You think it's because she's heartsick without him?"
"I think it's because she might be carrying his baby."
"What?!" Gabrielle barked loud enough for her parents to hear on the other side of the partition if they were still awake. "Xena, what on earth has having an upset stomach in the morning got to do with the Alexis carrying somebody'sÖ baby?"
"That's what happens early on. It happened to me and I hadnít the foggiest notion of what was going on until Alti came with Anokin and clued me in on it."
"You're kidding. About Alexis, I mean. Lexie and The Big O? O's a nice guy and he's very bright and all, but he's got a bum leg. That's why he didn't go racing off to war with Perdicas and Andros. I guess I never thought of Alexis and The Big O in the same... bed. So you think Alexis might've gotten knocked up. By The Big O of all people. Ha, will wonders never cease."
"We know of even stranger pregnancies than that," Xena said.
"I guess we do," Gabrielle said as a memory of Hope hit her womb with a pang.
Two women, each loving the other, lay within a handgrasp of one another, each having lost a child; one child at the hand of the other's child and the other child at the hand of her own mother.
"We're bound to each other by bonds of blood, arenít we?" Gabrielle said in a low, intense voice. "Shed blood."
"Yeah, we are," Xena replied softly.
"Then tell me, if you know, many-skilled one, are drops of love always paid for in buckets of blood?" Gabrielle said. "Is that what love costs? The blade that plunges deep into the heart, is love its thrust and twist?"
"I think it must be," Xena replied very softly.
In pain and anger, Gabrielle turned away and flopped down on her pillow. After a few falling sand grains of dread silence, she said, in a low, steady voice, "Forgive me, Xena."
"Forgive you? For...?," Xena said in the dark.
"Loving you," Gabrielle said, also in the dark. "It hasn't made your life any easier."
"No, it hasnít," Xena whispered as points of light in the sky outside the window, like arrow tips poised on drawn bowstrings, zeroed in on their intended targets, "but without your love, my life wouldnít be worth living."
Continued in Part 30
The Bard's Corner