Chapter 30: So Many Warlords, So Little Time

Won’t you see if her hair’s hangin’ long,

if it rolls and flows all down her breasts,

see, for me, if her hair’s hanging’ long,

‘cause that’s the way I remember her best…

The household was up at the crack of dawn after a night of fitful sleep. At long last, the day had come when the town might rid itself of the parasitic menace posed by Latrinus and his gang. Having choked down a breakfast of bacon and biscuits, hurriedly kissed Hecuba, hugged Gabrielle and shaken hands with Xena, Herodotus dashed out the door to assemble the men. Xena and Gabrielle urged Hecuba to stay at home, out of harm's way, but Hecuba would hear none of it. She intended to gather the women together and wasn't at all pleased to be told that the best thing the women could do would be to lay low and stay out of the way.

Xena threw on her leathers, scurried out the door and hopped on Argo, shouting for Gabrielle to hustle over to the sibyl's to collect Lila and bring her to town, then to keep Lila under wraps until Xena and Gabrielle had the chance to reconnoiter at the wash basin in the center of the square.

Xena and Argo rode lickety split through the acacia grove into town via the main gate, arriving well before the day's bustle had gotten underway. Composing, in her mind, various tortures of an extreme nature to which she might, with glee, subject Autolycus and Salmoneus if they'd flubbed their assignment, Xena was pleased to see, upon peeking into the windows of the warehouse, that the place had been stripped as clean as a Solstice pigpen. In the weedy trench behind the counting house, which provided a glimpse into the subterranean holding cells, Xena saw, as she crouched down and peered through a narrow slit in the stonework, the huge mass of crockery nicely stacked and securely arranged behind locked bars. Latrinus' two flunkies were nowhere in sight. Presumably Autolycus and Salmoneus had tied them up and gagged them and then had stowed them somewhere in the underground depths of the warehouse.

"Good job," Xena exclaimed softly. "Herc and Iolaus you aren't, but you clowns have got potential."

The bailey came to open the doors of the pottery works and saw at once that the showroom and the warehouse had been rifled during the night.

"By Zeus and all his thunderbolts, we been burglarized and larcenated!" the bailey cried out in alarm.

"Relax, it only looks that way," Xena stepped out of the shadows and slipped inside the door, shutting it behind her and collaring the startled fellow as she dragged him away from the window. "No one’s taken anything. I'll explain."

"Zeus's spruces mid the pines, it were the Warrior Princess herself as I might have know'ed!" the bailey shouted in consternation. "She were up to her old tricks', this one, stealin' and lootin' and makin' off with the goods!"

"Not anymore," Xena held the frightened fellow by the lapels of his shirt, hoping to talk some sense into him before he started to bellow for help. "Forget about the past. Just for today, focus on the present and pay attention to what I'm telling you.

"You're going to get robbed this morning but not by me. And nobody's going to get away with anything. Your stuff is safe and secure in the jailhouse. Latrinus and his gang, disguised as teamsters and carters, are going to pull up to the loading docks at ten candlemarks. They'll be carrying phony bills of lading and, if nobody tosses a ringer into their little operation, their plan is to pile the goods onto their wagons and then to go clip-clopping out of here.

"So here's what I want you to do. When the imposters show up, meet them at the door and make like you don't suspect a thing. Be sure and get hold of their invoices and any paperwork they've got on them. It'll come in handy as evidence. Then tell them to head into the warehouse and to start loading up. At that point, slip out the door and run like Hades for the wash basin where Herodotus and the other men will be waiting for you. Trust me on this one because, if you don't, you might end up getting shishkebobbed on Latrinus’ double-bladed skewer."

The bailey nodded, too nonplussed to do anything else. "There were nothin' so irregular in these parts, I'll warrant, as the Warrior Princess what were lyin' in wait to catch thieves and bandits."

"Well, times have changed," Xena released her hold on the bailey. "Just act like nothing's wrong, get hold of their forged documents, then clear out as quickly and as quietly as you can and bring the whole ball of wax to Herodotus."

Xena ducked out of the pottery works and went to look for Autolycus and Salmoneus. She found them zee’ed out under a trestle table filled with bedspreads which, when unfolded, spilled tent-like over the table's rectangular rims to shield them from public view.

"Okay, guys, button your drawers and quit scratching your sores," Xena roused the pair from their slumbers with some gently persuasive foot jiggling on their upturned bottoms.

"Sheesh, can't a guy get any shut eye around here?" Autolycus fumbled groggily to his feet. "Me and the Queen of Namibia here spent the better part of last night out on the royal catamaran, braving the chill blasts of your gargantuan gulf, so we could grace your magnificent marketplace with Her Majesty's prevaricating pecadill... Oh, Xena, it's you."

"Nice work, guys. I gotta say you really came through in the clutch," Xena eyeballed the square for exits, entrances, niches and shaded alleys that might serve for hiding places if any of the gang members should take it into their heads to try to make a fast getaway.

"Yah, well, I think my clutch must have thrown out its throw out bearing," Salmoneus hobbled to his feet, a hand pressed against a sore hip, his legs and back already being assaulted by the first of many charley horses that were going to be his day's reward for lifting and carrying all those heavy clay pieces through the remainder of the night.

"Try and get hold of several large frying pans," Xena said. "Then station yourselves on either side of the main door to the warehouse. Also, find a dropcloth, some brushes and buckets and make like you're slapping a coat of paint up the walls."

"I gotta stick something in my tummy first," Salmoneus brushed the dirt off his sheer blue tunic with its sparkling bits of golden glitter. "I haven't taken any nourishment since I nibbled on that nubile young lady's golden ear bobs last night."

"Go nubile a donut," Autolycus grunted, "and make mine a Danish."

"Just make it snappy, in case our guests show up early," Xena said and then went to meet up with Herodotus and the men.

"What do you suppose Xena wants us to do with the frying pans?" Salmoneus asked Autolycus as Xena trotted off.

"To make an egg, you gotta de-construct some omelets, right?" Autolycus hypothesized as these Two Gentlemen Of Bologna wandered off in the hope of tracking down the relevant items.

While Xena was busy making these arrangements, Gabrielle was on her way to the sibyl's with Lila's necklace in hand.

Other than Xena’s and Gabrielle’s quick stop on their way to Tiryns, Lila and Gabrielle hadn't seen one another in several moonmarks, nor had they spent much time together since the winter night when Cyrene had hosted Gabrielle's surprise birthday party at the inn in Amphipolis. Discord, Ares' obnoxious little martinet, had crashed the party, threatening to whisk the lot of them off to Tartarus for turning the tables on a would-be assassin. Once they'd gotten rid of Discord and her claque of half-witted muslcemen, Gab had cut the cake and the party goers had gobbled it up. Xena and Gabrielle had left on the following morning while Lila and Minya had stayed on for a short while to help Cyrene with some long-postponed, interior decorating and remodeling. Then Lila had brought Minya home to meet Herodotus and Hecuba, introducing her as a new friend of the family.

"Lila," Hecuba had said after Minya's departure, somewhat taken aback by Minya's frenetic energy, not to mention her wild hair, leather bodice and imitation chakram – the outward signs of Minya's Xena fixation, "the Warrior Princess were surely collectin' the oddest assortment of friends and admirers..."

"I really ought to pay more attention to Lee," Gabrielle told herself as she followed the once-familiar path through the woods to emerge at the clearing that had seemed to her, when she'd been a child, so magical in the serenity of its peaceful isolation. Gabrielle had told herself previously that she ought to be paying more attention to Lila. And not just to Lila but to Ephiny and even to Tara who, having been won over after Xena and Gabrielle had helped to restore the lighthearted joy of the panatheneia to Tara's village, now numbered herself among Gabrielle's most ardent fans. Gabrielle had even thought, once or twice, about paying a visit to Najara in the prison for the criminally insane where Najara was due to be confined for a very long time except that Xena had been dead set against it.

"You can't be everyone's savior," Xena had insisted. "Look at Eli. Even Eli couldn't save everyone, and saving souls seems to have been Eli's mission in life."

As usual, Xena had a point. Gabrielle had not, to her knowledge, been appointed the savior of the world. Gabrielle wasn't sure that she could do much to save the Amazons, even to be of much help to Ephiny in Ephiny's current struggle with Velasca to determine the future direction of their own tribe.

"C'mon, Little Angel Song...," Gabrielle frequently heard an inner voice chiding her about her claim to the Amazon throne, "decide what you want to do: reign or get off the pot."

Up to the present time, Gabrielle had been able to do neither. Velasca knew that Gabrielle had been hedging, that Gabrielle wanted to travel the world with Xena and to have her Amazon queenship too. Gabrielle's wanting to have it both ways was a source of great irritation to Velasca. If Velasca, fed up with waiting for Gabrielle to declare herself one way or the other, should appeal to Penthesileia, now encamped at Troy with her elite guard of Themiscyran Amazons, and if this great Queen of all the Amazons should step in and decide the matter herself, there was no guarantee that Gabrielle and Ephiny would prevail. Gabrielle may have been an Amazon in her heart, maybe in her guts and possibly in her mind. But unlike the veterans, Ephiny, Solari and Eponin; the neophytes, Chilappa and Messalina; not to say the imperious Velasca and the noble, departed Melosa, Gabrielle hadn't been born into the Amazon nation. She hadn't been reared in its ways. Its attitudes, orientations, perceptions, the fundamentals of Amazon identity weren't instinctual with her. The trilling of the Amazon essence wasn't in her blood. She would always rule – if, indeed, she were to rule – with an accent.

Gabrielle had said to Lila on the night that Gabrielle had sneaked away to follow in Xena's footsteps that Gabrielle believed herself cut out to be more than just a local farm girl, doomed to while away the sunmarks, in peasant blouse and dirndl, as the wife of a local farm boy, their greatest joy and most formidable task in life being to bear and raise the next generation to... what..., bear and raise the next generation? In saying that, Gabrielle hadn't meant to imply that she felt herself superior to Lila or to suggest that Lila, unlike herself, was meant to live the kind of life from which Gabrielle was determined to escape. But Gabrielle realized, in retrospect, that she may have come across as though she'd felt herself to be a little bit better than Lila, although the times that she and Lila had subsequently spent together, especially since their rallying around Meleager to save the town from the incursion of Damon and his warlord army, had gone a long way toward healing the pain of that initial breach.

It had always been Gab and Lee, the proud proprietresses of the Chocolate and Vanilla Farm, with Lexie a third though still valued wheel. And then to be abruptly left – dumped – for the Warrior Princess, for the Big Leagues as it were, and suddenly to find herself left to run the Chocolate and Vanilla Farm on her own – that abrupt deterioration in the quality of their relationship had been hard for Lila to bear with equanimity.

"You can't always be looking to me for an anchor, Lee. You need to become your own person, to find out who, under the firmament's sprawling stars, you are..."

Good big sisterly advice. Yet to have to make the transition of a sudden, with no gentle easing into it, no time to psych oneself up and prepare – it hadn't been fair of Gabrielle to have left Lila behind like that; and Gabrielle knew, in her bones, that it hadn't been fair. Sister, sister, on the wall, you're the finest one of all. Allright, then, if that's truly how you feel, Little Angel Song, walk the walk, don't just talk the talk. We need to block out some time together, me and Lee, Gabrielle told herself as the sibyl's cabin with its vegetable and flower gardens, its small gargoyle fountain and curved rock-lined espalier came into spotty and then clear view through the high fronds of bayberry and mountain laurel. And I'm the one who needs to see that it happens.

Lila was out in the garden, pulling weeds and tending to the beds of late blooming mums and marigolds. How different – how attractively different – Lila looked in soft creme and ochre, fringed with suede and barred with bays of buckram, a nicely fitted tunic over a short skirt that flattered her legs wrapped midway to the shins in boots of brown Mitoan leather. And her dark, slightly wavy hair, full, rich and sweeping, hair like that of The Girl From The North Country – northern Hellas country – that rolled and flowed all down her sweet and supple breasts. And on her forehead a bandage, smaller than the one wrapped around Alexis’ forehead, more a patch than a swatch, but a telltale sign, nonetheless, of Lila's recent ordeal.

As soon as she saw Lila in the near distance, Gabrielle felt her heart swell with love. Liliana, Wildflower; sister mine, hearts entwine, trick or treat, valentine…

"Lee!" Gabrielle shouted through the brush. "Over this way! It's me, Gab!"

Lila glanced up and craned her neck to look around, unsure, in the instant, what that sudden noise might be or where it may have been coming from.

"Lee! It's me! It's Gab!" Gabrielle shouted again as she burst through the brush and went storming across the clearing, her arms flung wide, her thin gauze of golden shawl streaming behind her in the breeze, running to embrace her cherished sister.

"Little Leeeee...!"

With a stunned look on her face, Lila rose to her feet and, before she could utter a sound or do more than simply hold out her waiting hands, Gabrielle had her in her arms, hugging, pressing, clasping her, trying to make sensible sounds but failing. And Lila, in shock, could only hug and press and clamp back until their faces parted and they looked into each other's eyes, and, though they tried to speak, neither could say a word as they burst into mutual tears and wept in each other's arms.

"The sibyl came and found us... at Latrinus' camp...," Gabrielle was finally able to muster. "She gave us this." Gabrielle slipped the necklace into Lila's hand. "That's how we knew you were here."

"I know...," Lila stammered. "I told her it was too dangerous but she insisted on going... Oh, Gab. Oh..., Gab... It's you. It's really and truly you!"

"Yes, it's me. Shh, let me hold you," Gabrielle said through her tears.

And Lila did.

At one point, Lila and Gabrielle began to breathe more easily and found that they each needed to reach for their hankies.

"Brushy top," Lila smiled and affectionately rubbed her hand through Gabrielle's short mop. "Still dressed in maroon and gold."

"And you: your bangs are growing out," Gabrielle looked Lila over. "You look great in that outfit. Where'd you get it?"

"It’s kind of neat, isn’t it? I stumbled onto it yesterday at Latrinus' camp. It was the only thing lying on the clothes pile that I could bear to put on. Mom and Dad haven't seen it yet. How are they? They must be worried sick. What's happening with Lex? Gab, they made me go. I tried to stay, but they wouldn't let me. I wouldn't have left Lexie alone up there for all the world. They wouldn't even let me tell her they were making me go. What have they been doing to her? Is she by herself up there? Does she know what's happened to me? She's been so brave, Gab. They treated her really bad. Except for Septix, the guy who bandaged us up. He's cut from a different cloth than the others."

"Lexie's hanging in. Xena pronounced a death sentence on Latrinus if any of his goons lay another hand on Lexie, and I don't think Latrinus is going to call Xena's bluff on that one."

"Thank the gods. I've been so worried. Why didn't they let Lexie go and make me stay instead? Or keep the both of us? What sense does it make to take two hostages and then let one of them go?"

"Latrinus has his reasons, but mostly I'm glad you're okay. Mom and Dad know you're here. It's been a tremendous load off their minds."

"Fantastic. But how did you get back here so quick? How did you even know about it? I thought you and Xena were down in Tiryns, looking to get that jeweled Amazon belt from Queen Admete."

"We were. Bellerophon came flying in on Pegasus and filled us in on what happened. Then we hooked up with this good-natured Dutchman who brought us here on his flying ship. He's an interesting guy. Sort of like Cecrops. He gets to live forever but he can't get back on land until he's been freed from some kind of a curse that somebody put him under."

"Were you able to get the belt?"

"I think we could have grabbed it and skedaddled but Xena said no. Admete's a strange bird. She's willing to give the belt back. She knows it should go to the Amazons. But she’s holding out until the right person comes along to ask her for it. I guess me and Xena weren’t it. How's the head? Looks like you got bonked pretty good."

"Yeah, but there was this guy – Septix – who was checking up on us and changing our bandages. I wanted him to leave Latrinus and to come with me instead but he wouldn’t."

"I want to hear all about it. All the gory details. But right now, we've got to haul into town on the double, and you’ve got to squirrel yourself away while I go check in with Xena. Think you can make the trip?"

"Into town? Sure."

"Latrinus is going to be staging a raid on the pottery works this morning. If Xena's strategy pans out, we'll be able to nab him and his gang in the act. They won't get to hit and run this time. But for the plan to have a chance of working, you’ve gotta stay out of sight."

"Did Latrinus say why he let me go?"

"'Cause Latrinus has a brain that works like a casino except not all his one-armed bandits have handles. Xena can explain it better."

Dressed in her dark, flowing, scarlet gown and covered by her sweeping blue mantle, the sibyl came walking down the path between the flower beds. With reflex action, ingrained since she'd been a toddler, Gabrielle, Queen Pro Tem of the Macedonian Amazons, sank to one knee and, sweeping her hand, palm up, toward the ground, said, worshipfully, with eyes lowered, "Sibyl..."

"Rise, my child," the sibyl smiled and extended a slender hand which Gabrielle reached out and took. In the shadow of the fall of a sand grain, all her years shrank to nothing as Gabrielle, her body responding instinctually to the sibyl's touch from the depths of her earliest mental and emotional associations, became a small child in the presence of a power, benign yet austere, which commanded her entire being with the lightest yet most self-evident touch of authority.

"Gabrielle, elder daughter of Herodotus and Hecuba, blessed of Artemis," the sibyl opened her arms. "It's good to see you."

"It's good to see you too, Sibyl," Gabrielle opened her arms to receive the sibyl's warm embrace. "Thank you so much for what you did for Lila last night and the risk you took in doing it. If you hadn't come to find us, we might be letting Latrinus get away with robbery or worse."

"Something told me that you and Xena might find a way to come winging home," the sibyl said. "I assumed you'd then set out to confront the demon in his den."

"But it's leagues through the woods to ridge above Nea Moudana," Gabrielle said. "And to make the trip in the dead of night. How did you find your way up there?"

"I have ways of getting around," the sibyl said, airily. "As, apparently," she added with a wry smile, "do you and the Warrior Princess."

Gabrielle blushed. The sibyl's hands had consecrated Gabrielle when Gabrielle had been a week old and, at crucial times in her life, Gabrielle had felt those hands confirming and renewing her. And if Gabrielle were to die, those were the hands – those and Xena's – that she would want to anoint her body and lay it gently to rest.

"Will you be coming to town with us?" Gabrielle said. "If so, we’d better hurry."

"I wouldn't miss out on it for the world," the sibyl’s ageless eyes twinkled with the fire and charm of youth. "My senses tell me that there's weightier business riding on the wind today than the mere disposition of a pesky warlord and a prison full of custodial pots."

Whatever that business might be, there was no time for delay as the three women set off through the woods in the direction of the road that took them past the sunny hay fields and the shady acacia grove toward the town's main gate.

"Girl From The North Country" by Bob Dylan

Continued in Part 31

The Bard's Corner