|Girls Just Wanna Have Guns|
A haze of dust rising from the road signalled the approach of Latrinus and the wagons.
"Everyone in place!" Xena cried across the square. "Act like nothing’s amiss and move only on my mark!"
Shopkeepers, outdoor merchants, itinerant tradesmen, random hawkers began, as if on cue, to peddle their wares as they would have done on any market day. Housewives and maiden daughters, with Hecuba and Chloe in the lead, mimicked the motions of shopping and bickering and collecting in small circles to gossip. The Felafel Man clanged on the bell of his cart below the high palisade. Chiron stood behind the Training Academy’s information table. Meanwhile, the men had crowded into Canty's pub where they waited in tense silence. Autolycus and Salmoneus, having donned workmen's garb, were splotching their paint brushes against the wall of the warehouse. Lila and the sibyl were watching quietly out the shutter of The Big O’s office at the counting house.
With her sais at the ready, Gabrielle loitered in the doorway of the haberdasher's shop after listening to the old geezer declare, in no uncertain terms, that what with all the young men gone marching off to war, it was a crying shame that the security of honest, hard-working tradesfolk had to be left in the hands of dirk-wielding women.
"I were havin' my doubts 'bout the armed prowess of this here Warrior Princess, I'll confess," the old fellow had shaken his head in dismay, "though I'll own as how somethin' 'bout the wench’s take-charge ways were puttin' me in mind of old Molpeidia Oiorpata, fearsome War Queen and notorious manhater. That were back in the far-off days when them Amazonians were sportin' their double-bladed axes and were wont to come ridin' like the north wind on their horses' bare backs, shootin' them poisoned arrows the like of which, with the tiniest nick, did curdle a poor bugger's blood. Now there were a race of warrior ladies what were meant to be reckoned with one way or t’other...."
In the center of the mix, just as Latrinus had instructed her to do, Xena took up her post on the dais next to the large, central wash basin.
The wagons rolled in via the main gate and pulled up unobtrusively in front of the entrance to the warehouse. Latrinus' scouts had done a decent job of scoping things out, so that even though the gang hadn't had the chance to do a practice run, they knew just where to station themselves and how much time to allot to loading the wagons and making their getaway. Meanwhile, Democles and Trachis were keeping watch at the palisade's postern gate which opened onto the access road above the marina, the direction from which a squad of riders would be approaching with Alexis bound in chains and mounted on one of the palfreys.
Sure enough, when the gang, with Latrinus in the lead, entered the showroom to present their forged papers to the bailey, the signal came flashing from beyond the gate. Several jolts of shimmering sunlight that glanced off the small, handheld, steel mirrors which Democles and Trachis directed at Xena where she stood in the center of the square indicated that Alexis, surrounded by her captors, was coming into view at a slow pace, bearing down on the postern gate.
Poised on the dais, with all her ducks in a row, Xena felt elated. Just as Autolycus, at various times in his career, might have felt inspired by the thought of pulling off the perfect heist, so Xena, thanks to the sibyl's peremptory warning, couldn’t imagine having orchestrated a more perfect sting. Latrinus' gang was walking smack into the trap. Xena smiled a satisfied smile and looked, with a mixture of pride and anticipation, across the square to the doorway in which Gabrielle hovered alert and waiting. Then Xena triple checked everything in her line of vision and mentally rehearsed her moves. Pride and anticipation aside, if timidity in a warrior were a vice, overconfidence would be a crime.
The bailey met Latrinus and his lackeys at the showroom door. The gang members were disguised as haulers and carriers. With a jovial greeting and a cursory once-over at their forged packing slips, the bailey directed the gang members into the warehouse. As the laggards unhooked the wagons' tailgates and lowered them to the ground to serve as ramps into the wagons' open storage areas, the bailey deftly stuffed the bogus packing slips and phony purchase orders into his vest and gingerly made himself scarce, leaving the pottery works unattended except for Autolycus and Salmoneus who were dashing a haphazard coat of whitewash on the walls along either side of the warehouse doors.
As Latrinus' lackeys filed into the warehouse, five mounted riders -- Alexis hemmed tightly between a cordon of four goons suited up in armor -- silently entered the town through the postern gate. To the accompaniment of the first gasps and murmurrings of the women in the crowd, the riders maneuvered ever so slowly into the open space between the pub and the row of produce stalls that lined the outer wall of the high, wooden arcade.
There, in the midst, like a princess being escorted to the scaffold, Alexis was seated on the palfrey, her hands bound in manacles behind her back. Her blazing red hair fell in thick clusters to nestle on her wide shoulders. Her jacket and tight slacks gave her a smart, ladylike air, enhanced by her bold, brazen bust. No peasant girl, in these hilly, rural villages, would come to town so immodestly dressed. Not unless she were being taken to the block to be auctioned off to a man of wealth and position, to serve, for a time, as his bedmate and childbearer. Alexis, as some minds in town had ventured to think, could bring a fine price for her parents were she to be sold to a man who could dress her in velvet and crepe. She's well enough endowed, and she's got a warm, unspoiled, bosomy way about her that could easily rouse and stiffen the dearest dickie from down in the depths of its dreary dormition.
Yet Alexis was plainly frightened; embarrassed, too, to be the focus of every eye, to be bringing, through no fault of her own, this weight of shame upon herself, her parents, her neighbors, her village. Even the bandage that swathed her head, though thinner and more compact then the one she'd exhibited last night when Xena and Gabrielle had alighted unexpectedly on her lonely pile of furs, bearing their message of hope and rescue, was a cause for shame. She -- that is to say, her situation -- was clearly putting a lot of good souls to a great deal of anxious trouble; and, in her heart, she sorrowed for them. If anything, Alexis had wanted to shed herself of burdens, not to become one. Nor could she acknowledge, via eye contact, let alone by voice, a single face in the crowd, not even her mother's. Latrinus had forbidden it, swearing dire consequences to her and her loved ones if she so much as made a peep or gave out the least sign of recognition. And what of Lila? The gods only knew what had become of Lee.
In the midst of the crowd of women, Hecuba held Chloe tightly by the arms as the latter, upon catching sight of her daughter, bound and surrounded, stifled a silent sob, then retched and shuddered. "No harm will come to a hair on your girl's head," Hecuba, feeling a twinge of guilt for the sake of her own daughter's safety, whispered. "The Warrior Princess done gave us her word, and my Gab were sayin' hard 'pon yestereve how that word hath ne'er yet been broken."
At a signal from the lead rider, the company, with Alexis in tow, came to a halt; and Xena, as pre-arranged, rose up on the dais to call for the townsfolk's attention.
"Everybody, listen up!" Xena shouted, noticing, out of the corner of her eye, that the warehouse doors were now open and that the gang members, numbering just under a score, were massing in the showroom ready to rob and run. "I've met with these men and they've assured me that if we'll just sit tight and wait this thing out, we'll get Alexis back, unhurt, in half a candlemark after they've gone. But if we try and pull a fast one, they've still got hold of Lila. So let's just keep our cool and wait for it all to blow over."
Xena climbed down from the dais as the lead rider nodded, satisfied with her wise warning.
Then the townsfolk settled down to wait. For a long, agonizing turn of the sandglass, a dread silence reigned in the square, from the main gate in the north to the esplanade in the south, from the docks along the bay to the east, to the wharves along the marina to the west. Then, piercing the silence like a thunderbolt come crashing down from the cloud-shrouded heights of Mount Olympus, one of Latrinus' goons came racing out of the warehouse, shouting, in consternation, "What gives! There's nuttin' in here!"
At that instant, Xena unfurled a mighty battle cry -- "Yee-haaa!" -- and all Hades broke loose.
The men came pouring out of the pub, blowing and honking, as loud as they could, on every horn, trumpet, bugle and bombard they'd been able to get their hands on. The women joined in the ballyhoo as the townsfolk surged through the square, shrieking and wailing and raising up the most dolorous din on their Dorian schauums and Ionian sackbutts; aided, in the endeavor, by Canty and her staff who, with all the Greco-Megahertz they could muster, started blasting shrill riffs of progressive Minoan jazz.
As the townsfolk surrounded the horses on which Alexis' guards were mounted, the ear-shattering cacophony became unbearable, and the horses began to shy and buck, too panicked to respond to their riders' commands.
"Now, Gabrielle!" Xena shouted as she leaped with a flourish onto the dais.
Gabrielle sprang out of hiding and, with a sai in either hand, made a bee-line for the goons who were being tossed about on their unruly horses. Meanwhile, Xena whipped her chakram off its belt clasp and -- "Yagghhh!!" -- let fly with a might toss. The golden circle of terror, powered by its blue, lightning stroke, winged its separated way across the square to bank off the huge metal ring that hung from the main gate, the bricks on the tower above the counting house and the rails of the wooden palisade above the line of information tables where Chiron was eagerly pawing the ground and shadow boxing, softly mouthing, "Go, Xena! Hit their noggins, hit their pates; hit 'em with those bowls and plates..."
"Autolycus! Salmoneus! The frying pans!" Xena shouted. Autolycus and Salmoneus, on either side of the twin doors that opened into the warehouse, each lifted a frying pan high in the air and the chakrams caromed off their flat, iron bottoms with a flashing chranggg! to sail straight across the square dead bent for Alexis where the hurtling edges, rejoined, sharper than the blade of any honed sword, severed the links on the chain that gripped Alexis' hands, then rebounded off the metal helmet of the lead captor, the impact of the blow knocking him off his horse, to return to Xena who snatched the chakram out of the air and hooked it back onto her belt.
Her hands free at last, Alexis grabbed the spear out of her nearest captor's grasp and bopped him on the head with the handle just as Gabrielle arrived to whang the butt of one of her sais against the knee of the third captor who toppled off his horse and hit the dust with a grievous howl of pain.
"Lexie! Run!" Gabrielle cried.
"Are you kidding?" Alexis cried as she leaped off the palfrey and onto the rear of the mount of her fourth and final captor. "I'm just getting warmed up!"
With balled fists, while seated in back of him, Alexis began pummeling her captor over the head -- bonk, bonk, bonk -- until, twisting and turning, he managed to swing himself around to look, rather startled, into Alexis' growling face. But he didn't look long because, grabbing the guy's helmet by the ear flaps, Alexis tore it off his skull and, with a mighty head butt, she sent him sprawling, lights out, down to the ground.
"You go, girl!" Tasso, the fruitmonger, took the double-reeded chanter out of his mouth and shook a merry fist of encouragement at Alexis who now bounded down from the horse's back to join Gabrielle in squaring off against her captors on the turf. "You do to them ornery cusses 'zactly what you done to me old mate on the day the rounder sought to dun Herodotus' girl for makin' off with a pomegranate. She gone easy on him, that red-headed trooper," Tasso called to the ladies who were rushing into Timmy's bakery to raid the pastry cases. "She let him off with naught but a bump on the pate and two sore cheeks on his bum."
"Here, Lex," Gabrielle tossed Alexis the wooden handle of a mattocks that was lying close by. With Gabrielle wielding her sais and Alexis teeing off with the mattocks, the remaining captors, now unhorsed, were easily subdued. Gabrielle clobbered one, Alexis clocked the other and when the third tried to get back onto his feet, Hecuba and Chloe came rushing up behind him with a huge, flower-scrolled sheet cake held high and -- kerploosh! -- brought it down, frosting first, with all their might, on the unfortunate fellow's belfry.
"Take that for the evil you done to them two poor girls!" Hecuba cried.
"And for the heartache you brung 'pon their frantic mothers!" Chloe wailed.
The goon's extremities vibrated wildly for an instant, then flopped about and lay still.
Meanwhile, with a screeching "Lalalalala...!" Xena went backflipping over to the warehouse where Latrinus' goons, realizing that they'd been hornswogggled, came bombing out of the warehouse, through the open door, only to be klonked, as they emerged, by the rotating motions of the frying pans being swung forcefully down on their heads by Autolycus on one side of the wide door and Salmoneus on the other. Bong, bong, bong, bong..., the first four goons went down as the sound of the frying pans clashing on their metal helmets sounded like the first four notes of a door chime. Bong, bong, bong, bong..., the next four followed suit.
"There she is! Get 'er!" Latrinus, knowing he'd been foiled by Xena's coup but not yet resigned to being captured, waved his sword at the Warrior Princess as he sought to rally his troops.
"Ya want me, boys...," Xena, with eyes wickedly squinting, grinned a nasty grin as she drew her sword and squared off to face all comers, "come and get me."
The first wave of attackers came running. Xena kickboxed the first goon, elbowed the second, smashed the third with the pommel of her sword and clipped the fourth with a sideswipe of one of her arm bracers. Then it was swordplay with the next wave. With a roundhouse swipe of her blade, Xena caused one of the goons' swords to go rocketing into the side of the warehouse, skewering the trousers of another goon and pinning him to the wall by the seat of his pants.
Grabbing her bullwhip, Xena lashed out and wrapped the leather snapper around the ankle of yet another goon and sent him rolling, like a skittle ball, into several more goons, the clump of them landing in a heap at Autolycus' and Salmoneus' feet.
Bong, bong, bong, bong...
Latrinus' ranks were visibly thinning when Gabrielle arrived with her staff to stand beside Xena.
"Straight up, ground and hold!" Xena shouted.
Gabrielle stuck the nub of her staff onto the ground, hoisted the length of it upright like a pole and then held on tight as Xena, grabbing the staff in both hands, leaped sideways into the air so that her body was parallel to the ground at the height of about five footlengths. Then she proceeded to run clockwise around the staff in a circle, her kicks connecting with the chins and torsos of several more goons whom she sent flying.
As her attackers fell, they were pounded into submission by the irate townsfolk. Some used makeshift weapons, others had only their feet and fists. Joyfully reunited with Alexis, Lila came dancing out of hiding to take part in the melee. A body of one of the gang members came flying backwards out of the crowd to soar though the air and land with a huge, sizzling splash in the large, circular wash basin. Seeing the groggy face sandwiched between the flaps of its helmet, Lila recognized Cesspoulos, Lugnuts' crony, who'd slapped her hard across the face in the dark of the clearing after the kidnapping and who'd then stood aside while Lila had been assaulted and nearly raped.
"This one's mine!" Lila raced over to the wash basin where Cesspoulos was plopped against the sandstone rim in a daze. Lila picked up the heavy wooden scrub brush and brought it down with all her might on the crown of Cesspoulos' helmet. To the sounds of tweet, tweet, tweet..., his eyes glazing over like finely frosted saucers, Cesspoulos sank beneath the water's surface, little air bubbles floating up to gurgle and pop.
At length, only Latrinus was left as the crowd closed in.
"I was a fool to trust you, Xena!" Latrinus cried, backing up but steering clear of the frying pan chimes. "You double crossed me!"
"I did nothing of the kind," Xena retorted, circling around and moving in for the capture. "I did exactly what you told me."
"Liar!" Latrinus bellowed and drew his sword. "Everyone stand back! This is between me and the Warrior Princess!"
"Glad to oblige," Xena drew her own sword. "There's no hostages to stand between us now, Latrinus," Xena called out, seeing, happily, that Lila and Alexis had re-connected and were now cradling one another, arm in arm, amid their parents' and neighbors' well wishes.
"One on one, to the bitter end, just as it ought to be," Latrinus growled with the low-key, desperation of a hunted animal who's begun to sense that all avenues of escape have been foreclosed.
"You should have learned your lesson from Marcus," Xena circled around, her eyes fixed like a line of fire on Latrinus' eyes, psyching him out, anticipating his moves. "You had a good teacher but you were too puffed up with your own self-importance to learn from him."
"Marcus was a fool. Marcus went soft," Latrinus spat his contempt across the shrinking, spiraling distance between them. "He listened to you and what did he get for it; an arrow in his breast."
"Marcus gave his life to protect an innocent girl," Xena accused. "What do you want to give your life for, Latrinus, the effort to hurt and abuse one?"
"I'm a businessman, Xena," Latrinus grunted. "I play the odds and keep my eyes fixed on the bottom line."
"And look where it's gotten you," Xena hissed.
"Those are the chances you take," Latrinus spoke, low and mean. "At least I didn't chicken out like Marcus. And I've lived a lot longer for the sake of it."
With a howl of rage to think that a cur like Latrinus would dare to insult Marcus' memory, Xena lunged and drove him backwards with three, four, five parries and thrusts, the final one disarming him and forcing him to the ground on one knee. Believing that Xena was about to run him through, Latrinus cried out in a panic to the last remaining member of the gang, a young man who, having hung back from the fray, had not yet incurred the wrath of the crowd.
"That sword!" Latrinus cried out, pointing to a blade that lay nearby on the ground, the dropped weapon having been overlooked in the skirmish. "Get it to me! Quick!"
The young gang member seemed suddenly at a loss to hear his leader, nearly fallen, crying out for his help. Unlike the other goons, the young man's will seemed to falter, as though something inside him bade him fling his armor away and join the townsfolk in their rout, begging their mercy for the wrong he'd done them and willingly submitting to their justice.
"The sword! It's my only chance, you fool!" Latrinus howled.
But other bonds of duty, even if unwanted and ill-devised, ultimately claimed him, and the youthful gang member made a dash to grab the sword. Then, with the weapon in hand, he rushed into the makeshift ring, extending the hilt of the sword toward his master.
"Xena! Behind you!" Gabrielle shouted.
With the speed of pure reflex honed instantaneous in a hundred battles, Xena thrust behind her with the blade of her sword, driving the tip and then the shaft deeply -- mortally -- home to the midsection of the young man who'd run to convey the sword to Latrinus. Xena yanked the blade out. Blood and gore poured forth from the gaping rent in the young man's abdomen. He staggered backwards, stunned, uncomprehending. Then his knees gave out and he collapsed on the turf.
The shaft of her sword bathed in blood, Xena stepped up to Latrinus and held the gory weapon high and motionless over his cringing body, poised for the kill. Then she slowly lowered the sword.
"Get up!" Xena barked. "On your feet before I kick you."
Latrinus skulked to his feet, muttering, beaten.
"Gabrielle, tie him up and bind him over to the guards," Xena said as Gabrielle motioned to Autolycus to lend her his sky hook with which to secure Latrinus' hands, threatening to poke the defeated warlord with its sharp prongs if he resisted.
Suddenly, a horrified shriek emerged from the crowd. With a look of sheer agony on her face, Lila came rushing forward to fling herself down beside the fallen gang member who lay fatally wounded in the trampled dust.
"No!!" Lila howled as she cradled the young man's head and shoulders in her arms. "What have you done! Oh, gods... Xena, what have you done!"
"Lila!" Hecuba cried and was about to run to her daughter when the sibyl, who'd come to stand beside Hecuba during the brawl, held her back with firm restraint.
"No, no, no...," Lila removed the stricken gang member's helmet and lifted his face closer to her own. With one of her arms and elbows supporting his neck and head from behind, she gently stroked his cheek with her other hand.
"Septix," Lila said softly, "why did you rush in when Xena had her sword out? You could have stayed where you were."
"Lila...," he choked on his blood and spit, "is that your name?"
"Yes...," Lila whispered, barely able to breathe.
"That's a nice name," he struggled to get the words out. "I should have listened to you. I should have gone with you when I had the chance."
"Oh, yes. Yes, you should have," Lila moaned. "If only I'd made you come with me. If only I'd dragged you away."
"Farming. Working for a living. I think I might have liked that."
"I think I might have liked that too," Lila said, softly stroking his cheek. She looked at his face, his eyes. Too late. He was gone.
Lila shut his eyes, laid the back of his head down on the ground, raised her hands to cover her own eyes and wept.
Xena, Gabrielle and Alexis exchanged glances. Gabrielle took the first step. Alexis followed. Together, they went to kneel down on either side of Lila, their arms enfolding her in their strength. Xena stood to the side and watched, her face expressionless, her heart roiling in agony.
"Come on," Gabrielle said gently as the crowd stood stunned at Lila's unexpected outburst, "let him be tended to and let's get you home."
"I knew him for less than a day," Lila whispered through her tears. She held onto Gabrielle for support as sister lifted sister to her feet. "Wait," Lila said. Clinging to Gabrielle, Lila turned to Alexis and said, "Lexie, you're so brave. I'm so glad you're home safe. Did you know I never wanted to leave you? Did they tell you they made me go and wouldn't let me come and tell you? I've been so worried about you."
"I figured something must have happened for you not to have come back," Alexis said as she and Gabrielle helped Lila away from the scene of the bloodshed. "I was afraid they'd taken you away and of what they might have been doing to you..., anything, nothing, a zillion things. I was worried about you, too, Lee. I'm so glad you're safe."
"Still think we've got what it takes to be a couple of rough and tumble warrior women?" Lila let go a tiny chuckle through her tears.
"If Gab and Xena take us under their wings, we might," Alexis said with a weary smile.
Lila gave Alexis a hug, then walked away with Gabrielle.
While Lila, Gabrielle and Alexis were returning to their parents and while the gang members were being taken into custody by the local constables, Hecuba turned to Herodotus and said, "I canna believe my eyes. Were you watchin' how the girl were weepin' over one of them scoundrels what made off with her in the night? What were this world comin' to, not to say the expectation of the next?"
Herodotus merely shook his head. "The world were havin' more surprises in it than ever I were imaginin’. One daughter, so 'twere seemin', give her heart to a dead man, t'other give it to a woman. Then the grandchild, when it come, were a prickly hellcat and the great-grandchild, spiny with quills as a monster porcupine, were even worse."
As Latrinus and the members of his gang were being led away to the lockup, Clenesthides stepped forward to address the crowd. "Let's not be forgettin' to give our thanks to the Warrior Princess what got our precious girls back!" he shouted and waved his trumpet in the air.
The crowd buzzed its approval. Spontaneously, from the depths of their hearts, there rose the cry that had found its way to Xena's ears so many times in the past.
"Xee-nah! Xee-nah! Xee-nah! Xee-nah!..."
Xena gazed at the appreciative faces that surrounded her, their expressions basking in the reflected glow of her triumph. She forced herself to respond with smiling acknowledgment so as to mask the sorrow she was feeling within. These were good, kind people who meant well and who, it seemed, were willing to give a second chance to the Girl Gone Bad here in the very place where her work of atonement and redemption had begun. Yet their show of gratitude, made the more precious and meaningful because it was coming from Gabrielle's family, friends and neighbors, was a demonstration that Xena had witnessed too often, at other times and in other places, under circumstances whose memories laid their daily burden of guilt and shame on her, a burden that weighed more heavily on her heart than a warehouse full of bowls and dishes. In the end, the crowd's tribute only served to depress her warrior spirit and to sound in her ears with the knell of recrimination, although she tried mightily, for their sake, not to show it.
A young man lay dead at her feet. Felled by a blow that oughtn't to have been struck. No point in attributing the young man's death to the inscrutable will of the Fates. The gods may have been powerful and great, but they were no sort of role models for mortals to emulate. Xena felt like flinging her sword to the dust in disgust. She had, in fact, done that very thing in the past. And after she'd done it, she'd watched Gabrielle retrieve the sword, wipe off the blade and hand it back to her.
"No, Gabrielle, I don't want it," Xena had shrunk from the sight of the sword . "I never want to touch that horrid thing again."
"Take it," Gabrielle had commanded in a steady voice whose firm will would not be deflected by any Warrior Princess guilt or reticence. "I've never known you to run from a fight, and I don't intend to watch you start running now."
"The fight's over in case you hadn't noticed," Xena had said, pointing to the bodies which had lain strewn about the ground. Who could remember which warlord it may have been any longer. After a while, their images began to blur into a single, composite warlord, a dark or blonde, tall or short, quick or slow-witted Ares wannabe. Yet always, within the pile of recent corpses, there had been one, sometimes several that oughtn’t to have been there; pretty, soft-spoken young men like Perdicas, town or country lads who'd had no business seeking their fortunes in the employ of ambitious warlords or saturnine generals. And the sight of these young men, dozens, possibly hundreds of them by now, had repeatedly skewered Xena's conscience with the pain of an internal bleeding worse than she would have suffered had she been stabbed by a dagger or hacked with a sword.
"No, it isn’t," Gabrielle had said, again proffering the sword. "The fight that I'm talking about has only begun. The fight to live for something beyond continual atonement for the sins of the past. The fight to reclaim the worth and dignity of who you truly are. Go on, take it. And don't put it down until you've either won that fight or lost it forever."
Cruel Gabrielle. Hadn't she realized that the fight she was asking Xena to fight was a fight to last a Warrior Princess a guilt-forgiven, love-redeemed lifetime?
I'm so absurd and useless, Xena condemned herself even as the crowd was adulating her. These hands. This sword. This manic will. This anxious heart. A thousand me's couldn't add up to a single one of Gabrielle. She hates it when I say that. I hate it when I say that. It's the one true-or-false we consistently fail to see eye to eye on.
Xena looked out at the crowd that was calling her name. After a while, the faces in cheering crowds, like the faces of routed mercenaries, began to lose their individuality and to merge into a prototype; featureless, tedious, redundant. But not this crowd, not in this town where her amendment of life had begun. These villages, these people, were special. Yet, for all that, Xena herself didn't feel special. She felt tired and worn out. She thought of Callisto as she did whenever the waste, futility and senselessness of the warrior's high calling began to overwhelm her powerful spirit; and asked herself, yet again, which of the two of them, reformer or nemesis, might ultimately turn out to have been the more insidiously deluded.
"Thank you... I hope I was able to help... a little...," Xena spoke to the crowd and then, her words stumbling, she clammed up and blushed as shy and awkwardly as any schoolchild.
Gabrielle came over and looked at the blade of Xena's sword. "You need a cloth to wipe that off with," she said matter of factly.
"Yeah," Xena nodded absently. "Maybe somebody's got one."
"Come," Gabrielle said, taking Xena by the arm, "walk with me."
Gabrielle led Xena to the large wash basin where Democles and Trachis, with help from Tasso, were fishing Cesspoulos, muttering and sputtering, out of the swirl and splash. As Xena and Gabrielle sat down to rest on the basin's wide, circular rim, the villagers were dispersing to the pub to take advantage of Canty's generous offer: "The ale and mead were on the house this day, gents and ladies all. And the lucky fathers, Herodotus and Clenesthides, were the ones to be raisin' their pint pots high to the health of the Maid in Brass and Leather what brung home their lovely girls unscathed."
Meanwhile, by the warehouse doors, still hassling over whose fault it was that the maenads had left the block party in a snit, vowing to even up the score for having been lured to town on false, jewel-promising pretenses, Autolycus and Salmoneus were engaged in a huge paint fight, dipping their brushes into the paint cans and spritzing them at each other.
"Stop it, Xena! Right now! That young man's death isn't your fault and you know it," Gabrielle was scolding her dearest companion. "I know that look of self-blame on your face, and I'm sorry, but you're wrong. It's insane to take a run from behind at a warrior in the midst of a fight when she's got her sword drawn and flashing. Even if he hadn't been aware of that basic fact, you can't be expected to control the power of reflex. Even Arminestra couldn't accomplish that feat, and look how spiritually evolved she... you... was... were..."
"I'm not blaming myself, not for anything special, certainly not for that young man's death. I know it happened too fast for me to have prevented it," Xena said, grateful for this chance take a load off her feet after all the chugging and plugging they'd done through the night and into the morning. "Do you remember the first time we encountered the Horde? When I had to whip those beaten Athenians into the semblance of an army with not a turn of the sandglass to spare?"
"Yeah," Gabrielle said. It was not one of her fonder memories of the time she'd spent in the company of the Warrior Princess back in the early days.
"Do you remember how revolted you were when you saw the blood lust come over me, the old desire for glory and conquest rearing its ugly head, the old addiction triggering back in?"
"Yeah, I remember that."
"And remember how you told me: 'Don't run from it. Don't disown it. It's a part of you that you... that we... need to learn to live with and figure out a way not to let dominate us.' Do you remember telling me that?"
"Something like it, yeah."
"You said 'We..., Us...,'" Xena said. "That may have been the first time that I really began to believe that maybe you weren't going to leave me. Without getting killed or being kidnapped or heading home to marry Perdicas, I mean," Xena reached for a damp rag that happened to be lying on the marble base next to one of the cushions on which, come laundry day, the women from the surrounding villages knelt to do their scrubbing and drubbing.
"Xena," Gabrielle reached for Xena's hand as Xena began to mop off the blade, "don't you know that yet? That I'm not going to leave you?"
The Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations, went as weak in the knees as a frightened child. "I sort of know that and yet I'm afraid. And I'm afraid of laying that fear on you and turning it into your fear when it's my fear and I'm the one who needs to deal with it."
"You are dealing with it. By sharing it," Gabrielle said, still holding Xena's frightened, fighting hand.
"Hey," Xena grinned, embarrassed by the grace of Gabrielle's tenderness, the gift that the Warrior Princess felt she hadn't earned and didn't deserve, "don't forget I'm rough, tough and hard to bluff and hard to many used ships."
"Right," Gabrielle grinned back. "Like the one we flew in on yesterday."
Lila came over to sit down beside them.
"Hi," Gabrielle said, her fingers entwined in Xena's. "Where'd Lexie go?"
"She's at Canty's with her folks," Lila said. "Lexie wants to show her dad that she can down a pint of grog without gagging on it."
"Doesn't she look great in that new outfit?" Gabrielle said to Xena, nodding at Lila.
"You do look good," Xena smiled at Lila. "I like the combination of soft suede and creamy leather. Wait, didn't you have bangs at Gabrielle's surprise party at my mom's last winter?"
"They've been growing out. I like this outfit. It's comfy. I’m thinking I might hang onto it," Lila looked at her new clothes. "Xena, I, um, just want to say thank you. From me and Lexie both. If it hadn't been for you and Gab getting back here so quick, Lexie might still be stuck at that camp and I might still be on the run."
"Lila, there's no need...," Xena blushed. "Even if there were no Gabrielle... I mean even if it was just you, and you were in any kind of trouble, I'd find a way to be there."
"That means a lot to me, Xena. It really does. That you would think of me in that way," Lila said. "And I'd only ask that you not blame yourself for what happened back there. You'd be doing yourself a terrible disservice if you did."
"Thanks. And that means a lot to me," Xena said and looked Lila in the eye: warrior blue on darker, less piercing but not at all hesitant shade of enareti kori blue.
Xena noticed that Lila was looking back at her with a measure of reserve and self-possession; and, in that look, Xena noticed, too, that Lila, like Gabrielle, had grown, quietly and without fanfare, into a woman whose soul seemed to have been endowed with the nascent power and natural grace that inclined others to take it seriously. And then, for the first time, Xena began to envision Herodotus and Hecuba not simply as members of the older set who happened to be significant because they were Gabrielle's parents and possibly her own de facto "in-laws" but as a man and a woman who must be made of substantial stuff to have given birth to and nurtured two such exceptional children.
Herodotus poked his head out the door of the pub and called to the trio. "Come drink a health to them what were glad to be havin' you back, lassies! Lila, you might be tellin' your sister how you become a regular bibber of late. She done sampled her first pint 'pon the afternoon when all the mischief begun, Gab. Weren't that the truth, child? The firstest swill of the juice of the barley right here at Canty's."
"It tasted like a mouthful of bitter straw. I didn't like it," Lila looked at Gabrielle and turned up her nose.
Then Hecuba poked her head out in turn. "Don't be mindin' your father's saucy talk of old John Barleycorn. Canty were dishin' up bowls of spuds and huge, gapin' buckets of clams. Come feed your faces ere the feast were done. Them what were busy fightin' and gettin' rescued needs must eat and drink. Come, Lila, there were someone within that were wantin' to welcome you home. One of your sacred sisters, the one what come to comfort me when you were stuck in evil men's clutches and, sittin' at the table, confessed as how her heart were longin' for your freedom and likewise for your friendship."
Lila gave Gabrielle a questioning look. A sacred sister? Desiring my freedom and friendship?
"Well," Lila said, pressing her hands against her thighs to boost herself off her seat, "guess we'd better go in and check it out."
"Lead on," Gabrielle said as she and Xena got up to follow Lila over to the pub.
"Not so fast, Gab-rie-elle," a voice behind them echoed in their ears.
As if united by a chthonic will, Xena, Gabrielle and Lila slowly turned as one to behold a chilling, provocative sight.
Gabrielle gaped at the tall, striking, coldly beautiful presence that stood before her as formidably as the main pillar of an imposing shrine dedicated to Artemis, the Huntress, Gabrielle's birth-sanctified deity and tutelary goddess of the Amazon nation. Gabrielle's rival for the throne now confronted her in full battle array: tight leather jesses, broad brass cuirass, a short chiton whose wide pleats barely covered the topmost part of her powerful, shapely legs; a panther skin cape and a huge, feathery birdmask in the shape of a black and furious raptor that lifted onto the crown of her forehead to reveal the full, round features of her exquisite face. In one hand, Velasca carried the labrys, the double-bladed axe favored by the Amazons, and, in the other hand, the pelta, the shield shaped like the crescent moon to allow for maximum mobility as well as offering flexible protection for pelvis and breasts -- of which there were two, not one, even among the ranks of the archers. In addition to the axe and shield, Velasca carried a short sword, a dagger and, affixed to her belt, a pair of the deadly chobos.
"Hello, Gabrielle," Velasca spoke with the hint of condescension that had ever intruded into her voice when she addressed this rival whom she'd considered unworthy to inherit the throne of Melosa, no matter that Terreis, Melosa's murdered sister, before she'd succumbed to the treacherous archer's dart, may have bestowed upon Gabrielle her Right of Caste of Royal Amazon Succession.
"Velasca," Xena spoke slowly, in tempered greeting, taking a half step forward to show, with her body language, that Gabrielle had a champion who, like Velasca herself, had formerly defeated the great Melosa in combat, a champion whose life and sword was dedicated to protecting her dearest companion against any and all threats and enemies.
"Xena," Velasca returned the greeting on an even keel, standing, unafraid, before the might of the Warrior Princess. There weren't many souls who could contend with Xena, one on one in battle, and hope to emerge victorious. Callisto, Xena's most formidable opponent to date, had battled Xena to a draw on several occasions but had never bested her. Alti's powers had not been those of sword and shield, horse and halberd. Even Herc, in the early days, had had to allow the Warrior Princess room to rage and run. Yet Velasca would be a challenge to rival them all, and both women knew it.
Lila looked back and forth from Gabrielle to Xena, searching their faces for clues as to the meaning of this sudden, unanticipated intrusion. Who is this wild and beautiful virago whom the two of you appear to know and who seems to know you, Lila's questioning gaze flitted from one face to the other.
"Why are you here, Velasca?" Gabrielle spoke sharply, refusing to be intimidated by this show of Velasca's physical prowess or her psychic presence whose strength was as latent as the balled up tension of a hidden fist.
"I've come on business, Gab-rie-elle. Official business," Velasca replied in the haughty way that had often made Gabrielle see red for the sake of the diminution of Gabrielle's stature as a person and a queen which Velasca's exaggerated inflection was meant to convey.
"Then you should be dealing with Ephiny," Gabrielle responded coldly.
"We are dealing with Ephiny," Velasca said. "Elana! Oriena! Thelestria!"
From a vaulted porch tucked into a corner of the palisade, four Amazons emerged: Ephiny, whose wrists were bound together in a wrapped leather thong, guarded by three armed escorts.
"Hello, Gabrielle," Ephiny's low voice, lacking none of its usual warmth, sounded clearly above the swirl of the wash basin. The light, which had temporarily been absent in Ephiny's eyes, dimmed perhaps, for the time being, by the shadow which her leather bonds had cast over her loyal spirit, now brightened at the sight of her dear friend.
"My queen," Ephiny dropped to one knee when she'd come as close to Gabrielle as Velasca would permit, Ephiny's eyes seeking the shelter of Gabrielle's leather-braided sandals.
"That'll do!" Velasca barked as she grabbed Ephiny by the nape of her breastplate and hauled her onto her feet.
"You reach for her again and you'll have the tip of my sword poking out your back before you've had the chance to land a blow," Xena stepped forward to issue a soft, still warning.
"Wait, Xena, this isn't quite what it appears to be...," Ephiny began to say.
"Don't assail me with your threats, Xena. I'm not one of your petty warlords," Velasca cut Ephiny off. "Before you could rip your sword from its sheath, you'd be cut to ribbons where you stand. Amazons!"
From every quarter of the town which verged on the square, women in leather, brass, feathers and body paint stepped forward, bows drawn, arrows inserted, aim steady and unerring. Only the Amazons, alone among warrior bands and collections of mercenaries, could infiltrate a space with such delicacy and exactitude that no one, not even Xena, with her uncanny sixth sense for the slightest alteration in the quality of the air and light around her, might know that they were there. Though many of these daughters of Ares were born with an aptitude for stealth and lightning-flash, it took years of practice and several thousand candlemarks of disciplined drill to cultivate that aptitude.
Of all the traits for which the Amazons were feared and admired, their devotion and dedication to the art of precise movement was perhaps the most formidable. Few armies would willingly tangle with them, the Centaurs having been among the rare exceptions. Brutus and his Roman legions imagined they could handily defeat what they took to be a tribe of howling banshees and had paid the deadly price of their arrogance when the Amazons had routed their serried ranks and turned back Brutus’ relentless advance at the Battle of the Strymon Road.
"You're brave, Xena. Your bravery has never been in question. We all know you'd give your life to protect your friend," Velasca said. "But don't throw both your lives away for the sake of a foolhardy gesture."
"We're sorry, Xena," Elana spoke for the group. "But Velasca's right. We have our orders and they've come from the top."
"It's allright, Xena; thank you, though," Ephiny said, reassuringly. "I'm in these things to make a point. There's a lot that's been going at the village that we haven't had the chance to tell either of you about."
"We've got a long journey ahead of us. Including you, Gabrielle. And you too, Xena," Velasca added.
"I'm not going anywhere until you've explained yourself," Gabrielle refused to be intimidated. "If there are changes in the works that amount to a coup, I have a right to be informed of them."
"You'll hear all about them on the journey," Velasca said. "In the meantime, you'll simply have to take what you see on faith."
"With you, I take nothing on faith. You know that, Velasca," Gabrielle said, prepared, if need be, for a showdown in a battle of the wills.
Not here, not now, Velasca decided, not in front of Gabrielle's hometown and her parents and neighbors who were grateful to Xena and Gabrielle for having just rid them of a local menace.
"Have a look at this, then," Velasca handed Gabrielle a scroll of rolled papyrus.
With a furrow of deep concern etched between her finely lined brows, Gabrielle unrolled the scroll and began to read to herself in a hushed murmur.
"What does it say?" Xena, who couldn't skim the words as quickly, squinted at the parchment.
"'Know, by these presents, that per order of Penthesileia, Queen of all the Amazons, Velasca, claimant to the throne of Melosa, and such of our sisters as she may designate in her service are hereby authorized to convey unto my presence the following persons: Gabrielle, Queen Pro Tem of the Macedonian Amazons; Ephiny, Acting Regent on behalf of said Gabrielle; Solari, Acting Second In Command to said Ephiny; Eponin, Acting Field Commander to said Ephiny and Solari and...'," Gabrielle paused before continuing, "Xena, Warrior Princess, a.k.a. Destroyer of Nations. Signed and delivered on this day of thesmophoria in the month of Boedromion... Penthesileia of the Seven Stars...' And there's the seal.
"Allright, Velasca, suppose you tell us what this is about?" Gabrielle looked up from the scroll. "Your last power play fizzled. What makes you think that this one will fare any better?"
"This isn't a power play, Gabrielle," Velasca said. "I won the Right of Caste of Royal Amazon Succession according to our traditions. You, Ephiny, Solari and Eponin have refused to abide by the rules, and now Chilappa and Messalina are following suit. So I proposed to Ephiny that we take our dispute to the highest authority and let her settle it. You could appoint Xena your champion, and she and I could battle it out as rival claimants the way that Amazon thrones have been bestowed of old, but as I question your honor, I see no reason to go that route."
"You question my honor!" Gabrielle spoke in angry reproach. "The Right which you won by challenging and murdering your adopted mother! You know very well that I’ve never coveted an Amazon throne. Melosa was one of the finest queens that the Amazons have ever been privileged to have, and you robbed her of her queenship. The Daughter of Tarandel knew how to rule. She had the gift for it. She was loved and trusted by everyone. She would have turned her crown over to Xena on the night before we demolished Krykus and his forces, but Xena wouldn't hear of it, demonstrating, yet again, that Xena has no designs on anyone's queenship. Nor have I forgotten how you fumed inwardly when Ephiny bonded with Phantes after he was nearly put to death for a crime he didn't commit. It takes more to rule a nation -- or a village -- than courage on the battlefield. It takes valor and compassion in equal measure, qualities which I've discerned in Ephiny but have yet to discern in you. Which is why I've chosen Ephiny to rule as my regent. My regent. If you have a problem with that, take it up with me."
Gabrielle's eyes grew tense and bold with suffused power held in reserve. Xena's heart flooded with pride to witness the way in which her beloved stood her ground.
"I haven't come to argue with you, Gabrielle," Velasca said, coolly. "I'm simply here to carry out the mandate which you now hold in your hand unless your opinion of yourself has become so inflated that you no longer consider yourself bound in fealty to the queen whom all Amazon queens acknowledge as their lady."
"I'm not that self-important," Gabrielle said. "But you unbind Ephiny at once or I'm going nowhere."
Velasca gave the signal. Oriena and Thelestria untied the thong which had bound Ephiny by the wrists. The looks on their faces when Ephiny was free of her bonds seemed nearly as relieved as the look on Gabrielle's face.
In the meantime, Autolycus and Salmoneus had come wandering over from the pottery works.
"Heh-hey, look what the man-eating cat dragged in. It's Wonderful Woman herself," Autolycus wisecracked as he looked Velasca up and down. "As the letter B said, when it got tired of rubbing up against the letter D, 'Long time no C.'"
"Autolycus, this might be a real good time for you and Salmoneus to start dragging the pots and bowls out of the lockup and back over to the warehouse," Xena said in her soft, I-don't-wanna-hafta-say-this-twice voice that Autolycus, over the course of their friendly acquaintance, had come to know so well.
"You told me once that you'd paid for a full candlemark of bodywork but had only gotten ten turns of the sandglass’ worth," Velasca looked daggers at Autolycus. "Perhaps you'd like to collect on the remaining fifty."
"I... ah... don't think that will be necessary my starling and dove, er, darling and love...," Autolycus mumbled. "Well, ladies, I hope you'll excuse me. I suddenly feel the winds of a hard day's work blowing fiercely at my back. Whoa-oh-ohh..."
Autolycus went slinking away followed by Salmoneus whose blue tunic with its gold glitter, despite the apron he'd worn over it, had, due to the paint fight, been irreparably stained with streaks that would probably never come out.
"Now I really don't have anything to wear except my royal Namibian reception gown," Salmoneus fretted as he made his way back to the warehouse.
"Don't make a scene in front of your parents and their friends, Gabrielle," Velasca advised. "You're coming with us, whether you want to or not, which means that Xena is coming too. Do yourself a favor and spare your loved ones a needless display of empty bravado."
Ephiny nodded. "It's out of our hands now, Gabrielle," she said. "But I do think your being there will help to get the community back on its feet."
Gabrielle turned to Xena. "Seems our options are limited."
"Looks that way," Xena nodded.
"Understand that I merely consider you the messenger," Gabrielle turned back to Velasca.
"View me in whatever light you like," Velasca replied. "Amazons, stand down!"
Silent bowstrings relaxed. Fletched arrows returned to their quivers. Stalking bodies emerged from the nooks, crevices and crannies in the town's stockade.
"And bring her too," Velasca nodded at Lila almost as an afterthought. "She may prove useful."
"Now hold on," Gabrielle protested as a confused look came over Lila's face. "My sister's not named in this summons. Lila's not an Amazon."
"Don't overplay your hand, Velasca," Xena warned.
"No, wait," Lila spoke up. "I'm coming."
All eyes turned toward Lila with questioning looks on every face.
"I can't say why but I'm going with you," Lila said.
"Lee," Gabrielle looked at her sister with deep concern. "What about Mom and Dad? What about Lexie? What about the ordeal you've just been through? You ought to go home, take some time to rest and recover. This is an internal Amazon matter. It doesn’t involve the wider world."
"When fate or destiny or whatever it was called you away from home on the night that Xena saved us from Draco’s slavers," Lila said with an inner glow of unaccustomed clarity, "what did you do in that lightning moment, Gab? Did you scurry away in the middle of the night to follow your dream or did you shrug it off and say, 'Nah, I've got a life that I'm wrapped up in here; friends, family, a fiancé, work in the fields, a sister who'll miss me when I'm gone...,' And did you then roll over on the cot and sleep it off and wake up in the morning and go merrily about the next day's chores?"
Gabrielle bit her lip and said nothing.
"Lila, we may be headed for a raft of trouble," Xena said. "You may have only a dim inkling of what you might be letting yourself in for."
"I know that, and that's a chance that I'm willing to take," Lila said.
"I've never heard you talk this way, Lee," Gabrielle said, lovingly. Then tears glazed Gabrielle's eyes. "It sounds like my kid sister from the Chocolate and Vanilla Farm is growing up before my very eyes."
"Eyes whose sparkle I've been missing for a long time," Lila said softly and clearly.
"But the washing and the food shopping, sewing the seams that never quite seem to hold Dad's britches together...," Gabrielle said.
"Mom and Dad will figure out a way to get by. For a little while," Lila said.
"Come on, then, Lila, Lila, Sarsaparilla," Gabrielle smiled and flung a loving arm around her kid sister's shoulders as the two of them stepped down together from the rim of the wash basin. "It might knock your socks off to discover that your sister really is a queen -- even if a pro tem one -- of the wild and wooly Amazons."
With Xena and Ephiny falling in behind, Lila and Gabrielle went walking, under their own steam, out the main gate of the town, surrounded by a tribe of the most skilled and dangerous warriors ever to inhabit the wooded reaches of the northern Aegean.
The onlookers watched in amazed silence. Nothing to compare with the day's events had ever happened in the memory of even the most senior resident of the town. Canty, who'd seen many things come to pass, couldn't recall anything like it.
"First there were one sister what gone hurryin' off to follow the fell Warrior Princess, leavin' t'other sister safe at home," Canty held forth to Mikonos, Timon, Democles, Trachis, Tasso and Zoster, each of whom shrugged his shoulders and scratched his head at the recitation of the tale. "Then t'other sister got carried off by thugs, leavin' no sisters at home. Then the one what gone runnin' off come back in a flyin' ship, so now the first sister were brung home and t'other sister were gone. Then the thugs what made off with t'other sister gets rounded up and tossed in the jug, and t'other sister were brung back home, so now there be two sisters at home. Yet ere the day were done, both sisters were gettin’ led away by a tribe of screamin' banshees, so now there were no sisters at home."
"'Ceptin' as how them Amazonians weren't doin' no screamin', Canty," one of the men said. "Ghostliest band of feather dusters as ever I've seen. If my Ariadne would have been as silent in the bed, these many long sunmarks, as were them she-demons what come slinkin' in through every gate and gimcrack, totin' them wicked bows and wilesome arrows, why, I'd've long since lopped off me pecker with a carvin' knife and offered the shriveled remains of it to advancin' the noble cause of science. 'Here, you fellows take it,' I'd've told 'em, 'I'm afeared as how me old missus were no longer havin' much use for it.'"
"I say as how one need look no further than the parents," another commentator chimed in. "When water gone leakin' out the pump, 'twere there you're apt to be findin' blown seals and busted spigots."
"When one were gone bad and 'twere quickly followed by t'other," a third interlocutor tossed his opinion into the pot, "I say: in for a drachma, in for a dinar."
"Righto," bellowed a fourth interpreter of contemporary morals. "The youth of today, if you're wantin' to know my notions ‘pon the matter, were far too footloose, far too fancy and far too free!"
Cheers all around for the happy combination of warm suds and public rectitude.
"Will some kindly soul be dear enough to tell me why the sky were diggin' up the ground and the ground were patchin' up the sky?" Hecuba stood outside in the square, bewildered. "The world, I'm a-tellin' you, were turnin' herself upside down 'pon this daft and dizzyin' day."
"I never cottoned to the way our Gab gone wanderin' after the Warrior Princess, cuttin' out behind our backs in the dead of night," Herodotus shook his head, standing next to his wife outside the pub. "I seen now that Xena weren't a bad-hearted girl, and were seemin' to care wonderful well for our Gab. But toss me in the hayloft and stick me with a poker if trouble and tarnation don't dog the Warrior Princess' steps at every turn of the sandglass. Too much in the way of leather and brass never done a girl no good were my settled view of the matter."
"Our Gab been on the road for a good, long spell now," Hecuba said, "and can, if the need arise, be lookin' smartly after herself. But poor Lila were just a cub. She weren't no world wanderer. Britannia, India, Rome, Chin. Why, the girl ain't been as far as Thessaloniki and only gone to Cyrene's in Amphipolis to help with the party they throwed for Gab in the slow and drizzly time of the year."
Clenesthides and Chloe came shuffling over with Alexis who was visibly upset by the scene they'd just witnessed. And now, on top of everything, a pernicious rumor was beginning to make the rounds -- may the gods be willing that her parents not catch wind of it -- that Alexis might be in the family way. But how could such a thing happen? Girls only had babies when they were married and living with their husbands. Alexis wasn't married and The Big O was hardly husband material. As for the things that she and The Big O had been up to in the meadow behind the hay ricks on those brilliant, starlit evenings of ecstasy when she'd sneaked out of the house, telling her parents she was heading over to Lee's to learn how to do action crochet, those had been grand sessions in the seed rows, without a doubt. But surely nothing like that could qualify as the way to make anything as scary, wiggly and complicated as a baby.
As the two families stood together at the wash basin, a pretty young woman dressed in a white top and blue skirt quietly approached and, when she'd come nearly within greeting range, she paused and lingered as though she were waiting to be acknowledged before proceeding further. Her long dark hair and sallow skin, slender build and perfectly formed features gave her the appearance of a goddess. Yet her manner was a trifle dilatory and self-effacing.
At last, Hecuba took notice of her. "Why, Anike," she said, "have you been hidin' in the shadows all this time, dear? You seen what the stormy winds did blow. We got Lila back and now she were gone off with Gab and the Warrior Princess and them wild and worrisome Amazonians."
"I'm sure she'll be allright," Anike came over to join the group. "I was watching Lee when she was caring for the young man that Xena accidentally killed; and somehow, even though Lee was terribly upset, she seemed stronger and more alive than I've ever seen her. Maybe it's because Gab's come back. And because you came back in one piece too, Alexis. Lexie, I think your friends call you." The darkhaired beauty stuck out her hand. "I'm Anike, one of the enaretes kores, and you're Lee's special friend."
Alexis reached out and shook Anike's hand. "Lee's spoken fondIy of you. I saw you in the skit the other night," Alexis said. "You were playing the part of Persephone."
"Whose dress wouldn't stay pinned because I didn't think to bring a pin that was big enough to pin it," Anike smiled with touch of endearing embarrassment. "I don't know how long Lee might be gone or where she might be going off to, but I'd like to offer... I mean, since we're both friends of Lee's... well, you're a much better friend, of course..., but if you'd ever like to have a visit or stop for tea and a chunk of halvah at the café on an afternoon when my dad doesn't need me in the tannery or just... well, if I can help out with anything... I'd just like you to know that... I'm around."
"Thanks for the offer," Alexis said, and then something prompted her to add, "I think I might like that. I usually come to town on Athenaday to do the laundry. Maybe we could get together then."
Autolycus and Salmoneus came trundling over.
"Lord Seltzer," Anike beamed at Salmoneus. "You were so... magnificent, the way Xena helped you round up those awful kidnappers. It's like you were saying the other night: the Warrior Princess often comes to your aid, doesn't she, when you ride to the rescue of poor girls in distress."
Autolycus' ears perked up. He gave Salmoneus a narrow, sideways glance. "What was that, my dear?" Autolycus looked, with sizzling fervor, at one of the prettiest faces in town. "Lord who is it that the Warrior Princess often helps do what?"
"Well, um, ya see...," Salmoneus started to backtrack. "It's like the Warrior Princess has a certain m.o. and I have a certain m.o. and sometimes the two of us combine m.o.'s to get m.o. squared..."
"I was terribly upset by what happened to Lee and Alexis at the party that followed our thesmophoria skit," Anike said, "and Lord Seltzer was so sweet and comforting. I said something unkind to Lee, but before I could find her to apologize, those awful men broke in and rounded her and Alexis up and took them away."
"Ya see?" Salmoneus slapped Autolycus' shoulder with the back of his hand. "Some of us have compassionate bones in our bodies."
"Yeah, and I bet I can guess which one yours is," Autolycus reflected. "Hmm, Lord Seltzer..., that's a good name for a little squirt."
At last, the morning's hubbub began to subside. Hecuba thanked the Felafel Man and Chiron for getting word to Gabrielle and Xena. Herodotus thanked the men for the time and effort they'd put into tracking the bandits. Before the gathering broke up, the sibyl came to stand between Herodotus and Hecuba, taking their hands in hers.
"It isn't easy, is it?" the sibyl looked from one parent to the other. "Watching them grow up and leave the nest."
"Nothin' were easy in the raisin' of children," Hecuba affirmed.
"Gettin' wool from a sheep at shearin' time weren't easy," Herodotus added. "Brewin' mead when the hops and yeast were fresh and ripe weren't easy. Eatin' and sleepin' and lyin' with one's wife in the bed your whole life long weren't easy."
"You've got two fine girls," the sibyl said. "You birthed them. You raised them. Now you need to let them go so the world can stake its claim to them. They're off to play a larger role in the unfolding of these momentous times than any of us may, at present, be given to know. Some souls come marked with a special destiny in life. I think your girls may be among them."
"If that were the way of it," Herodotus said, "sure as I were a husband and father, there were no gods nor goddesses come to consult with me about it."
"Nor me neither," Hecuba said, softly.
"No," the sibyl smiled. "They never do."
"Where were they gone to, sibyl, do you know?" Herodotus said.
"To Ilium," the sibyl replied.
"The mighty fortress city of Troy?" Hecuba gasped. "Where the cruel war were ragin' hot as burnin' coals?"
"Where Perdicus and Andros and Clenesthides' sons have gone?" Herodotus drew back in alarm.
"The very same," the sibyl nodded.
"But wherefore? They're fresh and bloomin' girls, not men in armor gearin' up for battle," one and then the other baffled parent exclaimed.
"Where better for the peacemakers to bear their hopeful witness than where the charnel smoke and pyre blaze rise the highest?" the sibyl said.
To Ilium. To smoke and fire, blood and war. To destiny and the fate of nations.
The sibyl took Hecuba's hand and placed it within the palm of Herodotus' hand as she’d placed their two hands together on the day she'd joined their hearts and wills at the altar of the gods and goddesses so that their spirits might graft, one upon the other, the combined flesh of their bodies.
"Be glad," the sibyl bathed them in her warm, mysterious smile, "you've done your planting well. It's for others to glean the harvest."
And Poteidaia, open to the sky under a sun that was still too summer-lightened for night to gild the lowest lying fields and meadows with its thin layer of frost, was both glad and sad in its own heart. A little town, on a small isthmus, on a nondescript peninsula, in the instant of mystery which mitigates between the creation of heaven and the destruction of earth, had, unbeknownst to itself, brought forth into the world two sparks of radiance, ignited by a third in brass and leather, to feed a beacon fire that might light the way to home for more dense and shadowy souls. As on the night, barely forty-eight candlemarks ago, when Lila had danced, glowing with an inner light under the sprinkling stars of thesmophoria, after the adepts of Demeter had bid farewell to the Maid who would return in the spring, ravished yet renewed, to her mother's warm embrace, Poteidaia was proud to bursting that on this ground, between bay and gulf, two such precious shoots had sprung, fine and gracious, from its sometimes tired and occasionally depleted soil.
|Continued - Chapter 32|
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