Chapter 5: Rumps That Go Bump In The Night
Standing quietly at the open shutter, Lila looked down at the barnyard, surrounded by its railed fencepost and then gazed at the dark meadows beyond. The moon had set and the stars were twinkling high in the seamless sky where the gods rode their chariots into battle and clashed their flaming swords by night.
The meadows were a rugged patchwork of roughly cut plots, more or less square, the parcels allotted to cottagers by family size and the number of head of livestock that grazed within the curtilege of their yards and stalls. For the most part, haying was women's work. In long dirndl skirts, sleeved blouses and kerchiefs bound around their hair piled in top knots, the women of the village, young and old, came with scythes and sickles to mow and bind the wheat, rye, and barley until the meadows were knee deep in culled sheaves of grass and grain in which one more nearly waded than walked. With pitchforks and bare hands, the mowers flung and piled the loose sheaves into rounded ricks which they netted with braids of coarse hemp to keep the huge, circular stacks from flying back to flat scatter in the breeze that blew from the bay. When the stacks had dried and bleached in the sun, the men came with carts to bale and drag the stacks to lofts and silos into whose hot compartments the straw was pitched and threshed and stored as winter feed for the village's sheep, goats and draft horses.
"'Twere scarce we been a-Mayin' and now we're bound for hayin'...," the women's voices, rising in song, rasped the harsh, deliquescent harmonies of their tremulous, atonal rounds and antiphons where ancient Balkan strains of Thracian and Macedonian temerity met and melded only marginally with Arcadian tameness and Attic propriety in these nether, apical regions of Greco-Slavic settlement. These northern reaches covered wide stretches of rural, peasant country, the bread basket of Hellas littoral city states. No high Minoan culture thrived in these remote and rugged climes. This was the superstitious outback where demons and denizens of the night took the shape of monsters and minotaurs and cyclopses and winged dyads and giants that strode through farmers fields toppling vanes and trampling cribs.
Like the other girls in the village, Lila had grown up listening to and then joining in on the chorus of these ancient, rustic lays, bending her natural vibrato around the quarter tones like thin, twisting metal bands twined around fisted stalks of wheat and wildflowers bound for decorating doorways and fenceposts in the fall: the year's tans and yellows redolent and lapsing ever so slowly through the burgeoning autumn chill as though these dry flecks of chaff and petals were the sad signs and bittersweet signatures of the fading dreams of a rural, pastoral childhood.
Tart as the tang of the citron now ripening on the branches in the garth beside the water trough, the songs of these legions of women, the shrilling legacy of her ancestors, now began, with the immense power and persistence that had shaped and tilled and forced the stubbled earth to reform itself into fields, meadows, gardens and beds, to slide half-consciously from between Lila's parted lips; lips soft to look at and even softer to a hesitant finger's touch, a softness as only strength held gently in abeyance could yield, as Lila put the finishing touches on the patch that she was basting onto her father's britches and hoped that neither he nor her mother would climb the ladder early to bed and discover the unintended ruse.
It was barely a candlemark but felt like a nightwatch before Lila, now lounging on the cot, listening distractedly to the crackling hum of Poteidaia by night, a town whose life after sundown was hardly known to her, perked up her ears at the sound of rustling in the yard. She rushed to the window and stared down to a darkness in which discrete forms were difficult to detect. A quick ribbon of white and a sharp glow that reflected from the elastic glitter on a sleeve drew Lila's attention to the spot where Alexis, still brushing her blouse and skirt to remove the lingering traces of her encounter with the grass and sod on the meadow, was looking up at the dim light that shone in Lila's window.
"Lee, I'm back!" Alexis let go a loud whisper.
"It's about time. I can choke down only so many grapes and filo leaves," Lila called down to Alexis whose hair was loose and raggy, her blouse and skirt at least she had them on
disheveled. Alexis sandals, tossed casually over one shoulder, were dangling by their straps. Her arms, shoulders and neck, bare to the starlight, were smooth and of a lovely curve, free of all blemish... virginal, Lila thought. What splendid arms and shoulders on that woman. Women, oh my; is that what we're becoming, under our noses, behind our backs, without anyone having thought to warn us or ask us how we might take to the idea?
"Toss down the sheet!"
"Here goes!" Lila lifted the bundle and dropped it over the sill. The sheeting unfurled as it thumped against the wall of the cottage.
Alexis grabbed hold and began to rappel up the wall, hauling hand over hand toward the loft where Lila was waiting to help heave her through the open shutter. But the strain on the table leg was too great. The sheet began to slip as the table leg gave way. Slowly, the leg cracked and bent, its wood fibers snapping and twisting under the strain of Alexis' weight.
"Lee, quick, do something!" Alexis cried in a controlled panic as she began to falter and dangle.
"Wait ," Lila's eyes darted around the loft in a frenzy. She tried to kick the buckling leg upright, but the gesture only worsened the twisting so that the leg swayed as it broke, causing the table to sag and the leg, in consequence, to go flying upward and over the sill.
Lila lunged out the window and flung her arms down in an attempt to grab hold of Alexis, but the effort came too late. The table leg, the knotted sheets and Alexis went plunging toward the ground.
"Yagghhh!!" Alexis cried. Ker-plash! Down she went, landing smack on her can, her fall broken by the soft, rounded top of the oleander hedge in which she now lay tangled in a mass of brambled bedsheets.
"From whence were comin' such bashin' and crashin'?!" Hecubas voice rang out in the yard as she came running out of the mud room, wielding a wooden pitchfork and scampering toward the hedge. "A pox 'pon the demon what were houndin my house at this late candlemark of the night!" Hecuba wailed as she thrust the pitchfork through the hedge's leafy tracery.
"Yowww!!" Alexis cried, pricked, though fortunately not speared, by the thrust.
"If breaker and enterer you be, by Triton's staff, you'll break ere you'll enter!" Hecuba cried in a dither.
"Ms. Hecuba! It's me! Lexie!" Alexis dodged, rather clumsily for all the skein of tangled bedsheet, another sharp-pointed barrage.
"Not a hair on the head of my loved ones shalt thou bring to harm ere thou'll't answer to my rod and then to my man," Hecuba lunged again, but the twiggy shrub caught the tines just in time to save Alexis from serious injury.
"It's only me, Ms. Hecuba...," Alexis pleaded. "Lee! Tell your mom it's me!"
"Mama, it's Lexie!" Lila shouted from the window. "She was climbing up the wall when the sheet ripped and the table cracked!"
At the sound of Lila's voice, Hecuba left off the defense of her cottage and yard.
"Could that be you, Alexis? Truly now," Hecuba stood the pitchfork on the tip of its handle, the deadly tines hoisted high in the air.
"I'm sorry if I gave you a start, Ms. Hecuba," Alexis whimpered from deep within the hedge.
"What were the meanin' of such rousty bandinage?" Hecuba gave Alexis an uncomprehending look. "Wherefore were you climbin' out my girl's window? And here I were thinkin' how the twain were restin' peaceful in the wimbles of their mendin'."
"We were , kind of," Alexis hesitated, "but then I had to take a whizz, and the window seemed the quickest way to get down to the bushes."
"Alexis," Hecuba gave Alexis a querulous look, "Gaia knows as how you can hop down a ladder and scurry out a door as quick as you can knot up a sheet and tumble out a window."
"You'd better tell Mom the truth, Lex," Lila came loping down from the loft to arrive at the spot where Alexis and Hecuba were having their confab.
"I snuck out to meet a boy," Alexis confessed. "Please don't tell my parents."
"And you clumb out a window to do it?" Hecuba said with a steely gaze at Alexis.
"I guess," Alexis shrugged.
"Must be quite a fella," Hecuba said, biting back a smile.
Lila guffawed. Then Alexis guffawed. Then Hecuba tried not to guffaw.
"It's The Big O," Lila explained, "except that O isnt very big which is why they call him The Big O."
"The lad what got the gimpy leg," Hecuba said.
"Yeah, but he's such a sweetie," Alexis swooned. "Isn't O the sweetest thing, Lee?"
"O is very sweet," Lila nodded. "And he's very bright."
"Yet sure it were a lame excuse to be givin' the lie to them as have the care of thee," Hecuba said to Alexis. "And in such a manner," Hecuba stared at the sheets spread like carelessly strewn layers of protective cheesecloth over the top of a blueberry bush.
"If I promise not to do it again, will you promise not to tell?" Alexis said urgently.
"You can rest assured I'll not be tellin' tales out of school," Hecuba said. "That I'll be leavin' for your conscience to guide you as it may."
"Thank you, Ms. Hecuba," Alexis took Hecuba's hand and gave it a squeeze. "You're so lucky to have such an understanding mom, Lee."
Hecuba gave Lila a stern look. "Ill vow as how you weren't playin no such pranks yourself, daughter."
"Sneaking out of the house by jumping out the window?" Lila said. "I dont think so. My toosh isn't half as soft as Lexie's head."
"'Twere well that thou dost say," Hecuba gave Lila a cool, motherly once over. "For if e'er you do, I'll be splittin' your skull from brow to collar with this here pitchfork."
Hecuba hung the pitchfork on its peg in the mudroom and went back inside the cottage, leaving Lila and Alexis to clean up the mess.
"You busted my table," Lila griped as they undid the knots and folded the sheets.
"Yeah, but he's such a doll. So sweet and dreamy," Alexis sighed. "You know what O got me for a present? Look: a pair of silken undies from the lingerie cart in town."
"Lexie!" Lila gave her friend an exasperated look as Alexis hoisted her skirt up to her waist.
"The ones I had on got soggy, which I guess O must have figured they would," Alexis said. "So he brought me a fresh pair. Wasn't that nice of him?"
"Lexie, must you?!"
"I thought we were friends," Alexis sulked. "Friends tell each other things."
"Friends don't let friends get skewered by pitchforks in case you didn't notice what my mom was jamming into the bushes," Lila gritted her teeth.
"She'd have stopped in time. She's way cool, your mom," Alexis said.
"Whatever it was that you and O may have been up to," Lila looked toward the meadow where little was visible save the occasional blip of a stray, late summer firefly, "I don't wanna know about it, okay?"
"If you say so," Alexis sighed. "But I mean it, Lee: it wouldn't be a bad thing if some of what Gabs got rubbed off on you. You might be a little bit less uptight about stuff."
Lila didn't know what to say, so she didn't say anything. They finished putting the sheets in order, and Alexis got ready to go; but first she put a warm hand on Lila's shoulder.
"Don't be mad at me for wanting to have some fun," Alexis said. "It gets so dull around here with the guys being gone so long."
"I'm not mad, Lex," Lila let the warmth of Alexis' hand coax a smile out of her. "I'm just thinking."
"About Andros? Do you miss him terribly?" Alexis looked into Lila's eyes, sensing the gleam of sadness that had just come to glaze them.
"No, I don't miss him at all, actually," Lila let her hand float up to her shoulder where it covered Alexis' hand before lowering that hand and holding it lightly, then releasing it.
"Youre sure?" Alexis, her hand in Lila's, gave Lila a quizzical look.
"Positive," Lila nodded.
"'Well..., nite, Lee," Alexis smiled and, with her bundle tucked under her arm, she ducked into the shadows and took off down the lane.
"Nite, Lex...," Lila said softly as she stood by the hedge and watched Alexis vanish into the night.
Lila wandered into the cottage and took her usual seat by the hearth. The last traces of the evening's cooking fire had smoldered to ash in the grate. Hecuba sat in her accustomed chair, carding wool for spinning. Lila took up her needlework but immediately set it aside. Hecuba glanced at Lila, but neither woman spoke nor did Hecuba break stride with her wire brush as it smoothly stroked the lamb's fleece. Together they sat, mother and daughter, in nighttime silence, the dishes done, the surface of the water in the jugs as free of rippling disturbance as the bland night air was free of cooling breeze. The lone candle by the fireplace guttered gently in its sconce, then rallied to hold its steady flame.
Gabrielle had once talked to Lila about love. The girls were sitting face to face on Gabrielle's cot in the loft where Lila had been asking Gabrielle what Gabrielle imagined her life was going to be like once she and Perdicas had settled down in a cottage of their own. Gabrielle hadn't had an answer, or, if she had, she hadn't offered to share it. But with that faraway look of hers, the look on Gabrielle's face that Lila had imagined, since childhood, could see the insides of things that Lila could barely discern the rough surfaces of, Gabrielle had said that when the time came to give herself in love, it would be to someone whom she deeply and truly loved, and it would happen spontaneously so that the gift would have been given before the giver had become aware that there had been a gift to give.
Like the gift you've given to Perdicas, Lila had said. But Gabrielle hadn't answered yea or nay. Shed only gazed at Lila with a look that had a brush of affection in it along with a bristle of impatience or superiority or some taint of beyondness that Lila could sense but couldn't bend her mind or wrap her heart around. Yet now, thinking of Gabrielle and the stars in the sky that must know where she was because those stars, after all, were high enough in that far away sky to look down on everyone everywhere, Lila found herself wondering, perhaps for the first time: Will I ever love anyone that much? Will I ever love anyone? Will I ever love? And Lila wasn't sure whether it was the pain of asking and fearing to love or the pain of loving but fearing to ask that rose from her belly, past her breasts, through her throat and emerged on the surface of her eyes which watered with just the slightest mist of tears.
Noticing the glint of the mist that mildly bleared her daughter's eyes, Hecuba carefully set her carding brush down on the small table next to her chair, and laid the lamb's fleece quietly to one side.
"Lee...," she said softly, "were there some recent unpleasantness 'twixt you and Alexis that were gnawin' at the bone of your heart?"
Lila's frame shook briefly as though she'd been roused gently awake. "I'm sorry, what? Did we just have a fight, did you say? Me and Lexie? No, we're fine. I was just thinking about... stuff."
Hecuba waited patiently, having all the time in creation to devote to the child whom she loved with neither thought nor effort to one of two such children and who, by virtue of that child's mere presence, graced her with an abundance of the wonder and mystery of the wide world though she might never venture fifty leagues from her door.
"Silly stuff," Lila said with a light laugh. Rising from her chair and gathering up her needlework, Lila kissed Hecuba on the forehead and sidled over to the ladder.
"Nite, mom," Lila started up the ladder a step before Hecuba could say, though she said it anyway, "The gods' rest, my darlin'."
Some time later, the door banged open and Herodotus shuffled in. He plopped his leather bag on the dining table, went to the dish counter and took his clay mug down from the spike on the wall where the mug had been hanging by its thick, glazed handle. Sliding the mug under the keg, Herodotus turned the spigot and watched a header of brown, foaming ale fill the mug until the suds lapped over the brim. Then he took a long chug, walked to the hearth and gave the smooth sweep of Hecuba's straight, pulled back hair a light, affectionate stroke after which, with a sigh, he sunk down on the chair which Lila had recently vacated.
"The stars were strewn about the sky as thick as scattered seed 'pon a garden patch ere the birds were come to peck 'em," Herodotus said, staring into the dark fireplace where cold clinkers of beech and thistlewood sat ashen and black between the wide legs of the charred andirons. "'Twill be a ripe round of hayin' 'pon the morrow."
"What of Mick?" Hecuba said, slipping a stitch over the quilting square she was now working on.
"I daresay the old sot will escort us all to the grave," Herodotus let go a chuckle and took another pull on his mug. "He'll live, though it needs must be on credit for a time."
Hecuba nodded and stole a glance at her husband who, with his free hand, was toying absently with the buttons on his vest.
"We're goin' after 'em," Herodotus said grimly and then looked at his wife.
"The rotten scum what crowned Mick and made off with the kegs?" Hecuba said.
"Aye," Herodotus nodded slowly and noticed that though Hecuba's hair, bound in a knot at the base of her neck, had mostly gone gray, her eyes shone, as they always had, with the fierce gleam of steel blue that had often charmed, sometimes baffled and, on occasion, had terrified him.
Hecuba held her peace. The men would do as they would.
"It canna go on. A line must be drawn," Herodotus said. "We canna be livin' as beasts in the wood, cringin' in the bracken, fearin' each day's measure of forage and fury."
"And when will you be out and about the ruddy business?" Hecuba said.
"Ere the sun come up," Herodotus said.
"I'll see you get a good breakfast," Hecuba said. "Meat and cheese and hot, steamin porridge."
"'Twould seem as how Latrinus' rakes were lurkin' close by," Herodotus said. "Me and Clenesthides, wendin homeward from Micks, did chance to hear their feckless laughter 'pon yon fecund meadow."
"Nay," Hecuba let go a rare smile, "'twere nary a band of fractious hooligans what were roustin' bout yon bursty meadow pon this lovely, starlit night. 'Twere but the swoons and sighs of twa' young love... lovebirds...; flyin' things what nest 'em 'pon the towerin' tops of the hayricks. Larks, they were, or doves or finches. Finches, sure; for durst the finch not mock the chord and cadence of human speech? Birds, they were, with beaks and feathers and sharp-honed claws to grasp the gathered straw withal. Nay, such laughter were naught but the playful chirrupin' of the finches pon the polder. Think no more on it."
"Perhaps 'twere aught as you say," Herodotus nodded. "In Hecates fell darkness, one may hear the rustle of a dickie bird and mark it the roarin' of a demon. And where were our most precious at this deepest dole of the night?"
"Gone aloft," Hecuba said. "First the churnin', then the washin', and last the stitchin' when Alexis come to call. Our girl's had a tirin' day."
"Alexis: Clenesthides' middle child. Her what were havin them floppy red curls all rough and racy 'pon her bare neck and wide shoulders. A high-spirited filly, that one," Herodotus rolled his gray eyes with a more sensuous cast than that of a merely avuncular appreciation. "There were talk in the town of what the girl did lately cuff old Tasso's mate with a kick and a wallop when the old duffer upbraided her and one other for relievin' him of a pomegranate. Knocked the chiseler flat on the bleedin' turf and warned him to mend his scoldin' ways were how the tale were told 'mid chucklin' hoots and raucous howls at poor Mick's digs this night."
"A plucky rose with no dearth of prickly thorns, that were Alexis right enough," Hecuba let go a light laugh. "They've a fondness the one for t'other, our girl and his. Grown close as buds 'pon a stem since the day the lads gone to quench their warriors' thirst in battle."
"'Twere a pack of thievin' louts what come to rob Mick of his wares. With our young bucks gone to fight the king's war, 'twere naught but old men and womenfolk were left to guard the stores," Herodotus shook his head. "They were hill folk, them raiders, what ne'er were schooled in no workman's trade and lack both means and skill for farmin'. Thus they prey 'pon honest wights, carin' not how a man might labor to feed them what were cozened neath his thatch. How now, wife; a mite troubled in mind by the dint of thy dreary look. What passin' nighttime cloud, blottin' the moon of thy smile, were presently castin' its fleet shadow 'pon thy furrowed brow?"
"The lad from the countin' house, the one they call Orestes," Hecuba said as Herodotus helped himself to another draught of the rich, mellow ale, "were he numbered 'mong them what were laughin' and jokin' at Mickey's this night?"
"The lad what were havin the gimpy leg?" Herodotus said.
"He what couldna 'bark with t'others 'pon the fateful voyage to the well-fended walls of Troy," Hecuba said.
"Nay, I've not seen the lad since yestreen in the gambols of the marketplace," Herodotus said. "Were I not mistook, the lad were a scrivener in the bailiff's rook, chargin' debits to the one account and postin' credits to t'other. A banker's boy whose gamey leg doth render him unfit for more manly service."
"Could he not join you 'pon the hunt for the rascals?" Hecuba said. "When you're grousin' 'bout the wood in search of them what sprung their evil trap 'pon poor Mick."
"On a romp through brush and bramble?" Herodotus said. "The lad what can scarce hold his own 'pon the cobbled road?"
"Not in the van," Hecuba said. "In the train where the lad might ply a pike or con a cudgel or, failin' that, mete out refreshment to them what do."
"Why seek to fix wings 'pon a cripple, love?" Herodotus said with a half-smile. "The earthbound ostrich shall ne'er an airborne raptor be, though she were 'ccoutered with the span of the lofty tercel. Let the lad be content to manage his lots and mark his ledgers."
"Yet might the lad not one day take his place as husband, father and householder?" Hecuba said. "If the lad were to cop a man's part, 'twere best he con a man's mettle."
"Such a one as scarce can limp from crate to cart?" Herodotus said, thinking of the young man whose awkward gait had prevented him from joining the muster and shipping out to find honor and glory on Ilium's bloody plain. "The lad might get him a bride and brood, you say? Perchance a homely, hapless one. You've a generous heart, my love. 'Twere nary the ripe lass, I trow, would clamp hips, hams and sundry sweeter parts 'round the halfway measure of a lad what can neither seed nor sow her. Nay, let the lad remain as he were. But as to the buxom lass, with her rough, red curls, what chucked the churl's legs out from under him with a biff and a bam in the market stalls this day, now there, in faith, were a stiff addition to any freeman's stile or stable."
Herodotus downed what was left in his mug as Hecuba came to the end of her row of stitches. They placed the mug and the quilting square on the table between them and, rising together, they belled the candles and climbed the ladder to bed.
Up in the loft, not ten paces away, on the other side of the partition, Lila lay restlessly on her cot, unable to ease herself to sleep.
It had been thrice twelve moonmarks and more since word had come to the village of an army of fierce marauders who were sweeping across the steppes of the rugged Thracian hill country, feverishly racing westward toward the Macedonian heartland, then turning south to thunder through the fertile plain of Chalkidiki and the rich meadows and fields of the Pelline Peninsula where, at the gateway to its westerly cape, on a squat isthmus, sat the plump, well-appointed town of Poteidaia. The town and its ring of four villages were located at a critical node on the main supply route that ran from the ports along the coastal harbors of the northern Aegean toward the great city of Thessaloniki to the northwest and the lesser, though still formidable market town of Amphipolis to the northeast. Not the most succulent fruit in the garden of an army's spoils of war, perhaps, but a plum, nonetheless, not to be left unplucked.
But this particular army, rumor had it, was unlike any other that had previously trumpeted through the region to gorge itself on harvest stores and merchant booty; these routine, if vicious, invaders who, on the heels of their tortious raids, more likely than not, had met with ugly ends at the hands of yet other armies of equally greedy and grasping warlords. This army, so they said, was headed by a woman whose ruthless genius had stamped it with a purpose far bolder than the mere acquisition of wealth and the accumulation of plunder.
Her goal and that of her army which, bent to the weight of her will, moved with one motion, one breath, one thought was so to set her iron stamp upon the impress of the land that these hills, streams, plains and valleys might be contoured to the shape of her fierce objective: that no man or beast or god might henceforth rise to challenge her unquenching need for the solace of domination or might endure to remind her, in any shadowed crevice of her being, of her stark, crushing vulnerability in the face of the billowing smoke of chance and the leaping flame of circumstance. Her own village had been sacked and put to the torch by just such a greedy, ambitious warlord, and her family had paid the bride price of blood for no dowry that she had ever pledged. And now she intended to redeem that bride price a thousandfold, each stroke of her sword issuing forth in a chastity of blood, virginal in the fiery flood of its letting.
They called her the Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations. Warrior and Destroyer she surely was. The tales told of how, before she'd embarked upon her career of conquest, a leading protegée of the God of War, she'd ventured far to the east, to the mysterious Land of Chin, a place of sere prairies, mountainous ridges and stormy plains twenty times more vast than the Phrygian wastes that extended for untold chariotmarks as far to the east of Ilium as the River Thermidon and the heartland of the Anatolian Amazons.
There, in that mystical place, it was said, she had learned many skills and had practiced magic arts and had been gifted with psychic powers granted her by a great queen who could fly through the air and cause spinning daggers to pierce the hearts of her enemies by the mere movement of her mind. So enamored in body and soul of the fierce warrior had this mighty queen become that one day, when the warrior was being chased through the brush like a fox set upon by dogs, the queen had stolen upon the hunt and had rescued the lame warrior from a grim death at the hands of the queen's boldest rival and had afterwards named the warrior her princess, so that, had the queen's cruel death by the cunning ploys of her fanatical, usurping son not intervened, the Warrior Princess might conceivably have gone on to rule the faraway kingdom as its Warrior Queen.
At the news of her army's approach, the townsfolk had braced for the onslaught. The head of nearly every household had expected the galloping mercenaries to sweep through the snug circle of outlying villages, burning and looting and laying them waste, and then to plunge a hundred chariotmarks south to the tip of the cape where she and her soldiers might enjoy untrammeled access to the open sea and the immense riches to be gleaned from a life of piracy where a thousand coves and inlets might mean that a man or a woman could feast on plunder 'til the end of their days and never fear the turn of the sandglass when he or she might justly be brought to book.
Yet for some reason, the anticipated attack failed to materialize. The invading army stalled its march without apparent reason. A week went by, two weeks, then three and still no sign of imminent attack. The grain which the reevers had prepared as an offering to the Warrior Princess, a bribe against the prospect of her army doing its worst, had begun to mold in the bins. The lambs they'd thought to offer for wool and mutton had either to be fed and suckled or slaughtered and the meat consumed or left to spoil. And the vines which promised a rich vattage of cherry-red port were coming ripe and would soon rot if not picked and set at once to mash.
Then one day, out of the blue, a small raiding party struck. The attack was not as furious nor as overwhelming as the townsfolk had expected, a good deal less brutal than the one which, earlier in the Warrior Princess' career, in the northern village of Cirra, had put nearly every living thing to the sword with neither hesitation nor mercy. But a sweeping down of men on horseback with spears and swords and coats of mail nonetheless took place. The squadron rounded up the men and imprisoned them in the town's stockade. Then they marshalled the women at the edge of the acacia grove to be chained and inspected and carried off to coastal slavers who would sell them into bondage as servants, scullery maids and concubines.
Lying on her cot, rolling from her side onto her back, Lila recalled the stark terror of that mild and balmy afternoon in late spring. Huddled with the women of the village, crouching within the crushed circumference of their armed captors, Lila's only thought, beyond the circle of that intense and giddy fear, had been to remain with her mother and sister come what may. As though possessed by the identical thought, Hecuba had flung her arms around Lila and clutched her tightly to her breast. Then suddenly, from out of nowhere, when the flashpoint of intense crisis had struck and one's native mettle, for good or ill, stood forth to be tested, Gabrielle had leaped forward, away from her mother's arms and her sister's grasp, to confront alone their venal despoilers and, in a desperate effort to save, from degradation and rapine, her mother and sister and the other women of the village, Gabrielle had cried to their snarling assailants, "Take me and let the others go!"
One of the raiding party, smirking and hissing, had approached the bold, young villager with a gleam of contempt in his eye and had sneered, "I'll teach you when and where to open your slutty mouth, useless piece of peasant trash."
The raider, from sheer malice, would have thrashed Gabrielle on the spot, perhaps broken her jaw with the back of his steel gauntlet, when suddenly, as though a goddess had come cavorting through the aether on a dare, a huge, imposing figure, gowned in a sheer, white tunic, came hurtling with a lurid cry, in a high somersault, out of the woods to land and smash to the ground, with a single blow, the swaggering bully and then, singlehandedly, to rout the entire squad, no less than a dozen burly bruisers; kicking, stomping, elbowing, punching and laying low the least lucky with deadly thrusts from a heavy, iron sword which she'd ripped from the hands of one of the attackers.
Clutched tightly in her mother's arms, Lila looked on with a mixture of terror and amazement at this screeching engine of howls and wails, sprung, it seemed, from the earth itself to drive and parry and force the grunting brutes back toward the cover of the woods until the last of them, in fear for his life, had turned tail and fled back the way he'd come.
As the raiding party's leader fell back, the unbidden rescuer had cried, "You're with Draco. Tell him Xena says hello."
The awesome defender spoke in a Thracian dialect with the accent of a peasant girl from a poor, wayward backwater. In the stunning interval of silence which followed their unanticipated liberation, Lila had thought, "This must be the one of whom the bards sing, the fabled Warrior Princess whose deeds of blood and savagery are legion." Yet, in the instant, all that Lila could do was to cling to her mother's skirts with one arm and, with the other, to reach out and encircle Gabrielle in its beckoning fold.
Though permitting her body to be drawn into her sister's embrace, Gabrielle's eyes, steady and unblinking, remained focused on the Warrior Princess whose unlikely presence among them Gabrielle seemed to have regarded with a kind of impassive curiosity that had no trace of fear or awe in it. It was as though, in that lighting stroke of rescue and release, so Lila had thought long afterwards, some flash of recognition had flickered in Gabrielle's blue/green eyes; as though Gabrielle had seen or, in some inexplicable way, had known this woman before: as though, in the instant of their meeting, before the Warrior Princess had acknowledged Gabrielle's existence, before she may have become aware of it, Gabrielle had grasped, intimately, instinctively, with the power of immediate comprehension, that her fate was in some way bound up with that of this bloodcurdling Destroyer of Nations, this wild, untamed harridan who had suddenly, mercifully, intervened on their behalf. But how? Where? When? Under what conceivable set of circumstances could such a meeting or connection have taken place? Lila didn't understand. And many moonmarks later, Lila still didn't understand.
Later that evening, when the Warrior Princess had allowed the village women to treat her wounds so the Destroyer of Nations was mortal after all and didn't, at close quarters, seem quite so wild and ghoulish she'd acted not at all the part of a raging conqueror. To the contrary, the Warrior Princess had been sullen and withdrawn to the point of being morose; yet, at the same time, she'd seemed appreciative, nearly embarrassed to accept the modest helping of food and drink which the timid villagers had set before her. Not giving in to so much as a whisper of her strong need for a night's rest and shelter, she'd bolted from the village soon afterwards, as though her continuing presence among them might constitute an omen of unrelenting pain and undeserved suffering, and she was gone before the townsfolk had had the chance to say a stunned and grateful thank you.
Troubles, that's what fate has meted out to this Warrior Princess, and those aplenty, Lila had thought to herself in the days and weeks that followed the incident at the acacia grove, the attack which had almost cost her, her mother and sister their freedom. The Warrior Princess, alone, abandoned by or separated from her army, perhaps by her own choice, seemed to Lila to have been carrying the weight of the world on her broad, sturdy shoulders, a burden which she'd guarded jealously from intrusion and which, for the life of her, she'd clung to and had refused, up to that point, to share with any friend, cohort or companion. A woman ill at ease in her soul, Lila had thought. A woman whose life, for all its spoils and riches though she'd apparently left such treasures behind had not yet been and might never be her own.
Yet the significance of the incident the roundup, the rescue, the strange appearance and abrupt departure of the Warrior Princess had paled in comparison to what had taken place later that night after the Warrior Princess had left the village and the rows of cottages had at last settled down, numbed into a bedtime too tense and exhausted to allow much chance for sleep. Lila had detected a rustling in the darkness and had hoisted herself onto one elbow in time to feel Gabrielle's silent bustling about the loft. In the middle of the night, Gabrielle was fully dressed in her brown skirt and blue blouse, with her leather pouch strapped by its thin cord over one shoulder, squatting by Lila's cot and whispering, "Ssh, don't get up. I'm leaving to follow the Warrior Princess. I don't fit in here. I never have. This village, this town... it can't hold me any longer. Not now. Now that I know that there's a world out there thats waiting to be tasted and seen and bathed in and explored. It's something I've got to do. Tell Mom and Dad I'll send word and that I love them."
Confused in the darkness and gripped by a sudden dread, Lila blurted, "Gab, what are you talking about? What are you doing? Where are you running off to?"
Gabrielle placed a firm, loving hand over Lila's mouth to muffle her startled protest.
"I'll be in touch," Gabrielle had said. "I can't say when or how or what things might be like when I am, but I won't forget you. I'll never forget you." And then, sensing the look of incipient sorrow and hurt beginning to swell in Lila's eyes beneath their cloudy, uncomprehending expression, Gabrielle flung her arms around her little sister, hugged her hard and said, softly but clearly through a film of mutually gathering tears, "I love you, Lee. Promise me you'll always remember that."
"I love you, too, Gab," Lila responded, her head spinning too fast to be anything but dizzy and her tongue otherwise snarled in the knots of an oncoming agony. Then Gabrielle released her hold and poof, in the next instant, she was out the door and gone.
Then, in the morning, came the fuss, the fret, the mutual recriminations "Why didn't you scream and holler? Why didn't you try to stop her? Why did you let her burrow out the door?" when Mom and Dad and, later on, poor Perdicas had discovered what Gab had done; and, ever since, so as not to add to her parents' burden of loss and regret, Lila had silently borne her own burden, the long, slow ache of that wrenching apart in the dead of night which, a mere instant before it occurred, Lila would never, in a thousand revolutions of the sun, have conceived the intense, wracking pain of.
Rustling between the sheets, looking toward the open shutter along whose vertical edges she could make out the slight fluttering of the sheer muslin curtains as a tender, nighttime breeze glided intermittently in and out of the window, Lila again heard the words, "It's something I've got to do." Only this time, the words echoed with the interior resonance of Lila's own voice. Until the night on which Gabrielle had run off to follow her dream of pursuing and ultimately uniting with the Warrior Princess, Lila hadn't thought much about life. Help Mom with the chores. Spend time noodling around with Dad. Marry Andros and settle down as Gabrielle would have married and settled down with Perdicas. Then children would come: first Gabrielle, then her; Mom and Dad, the proud and happy grandparents. Then to take her place in the scheme of things as wife, mother, friend, helper while the wheel of the sun went 'round and 'round and the seasons of life rolled and flowed in their riverrine course to the ocean waves of time. What more, on this tiny mortal shelf of an earth, could a soul want or dare to ask?
But the former answer not a thing no longer sufficed. Gabrielle's leaving to be the follower, now the friend, companion and lover of the Warrior Princess hadn't simply occasioned a radical, unforeseen break in Gabrielle's life. Gabrielle's going had fractured Lila's life as well, splintered it into a thousand pieces. In sleepless, fragmented intervals like these, which weighed on her body and soul more often nowadays as time wore nonchalantly on, Lila sought to give that instant of splintering and fragmentation a name: there was the instant before awakening and the instant after awakening. But the wakening instant itself: wakening to what? Gabrielle's destiny or vocation or calling in life might be to accompany the Warrior Princess to the ends of the earth, but what about me? What, between the ends of this earth, is mine?
"What's mine?" Lila murmurred aloud, though not loud enough for any but the stars in the sky to hear. And the answer came back to her from somewhere in the space that joined her with and yet kept her apart from those selfsame stars: for some souls, the path reveals itself in a sudden, unambiguous flash of light; long, straight and true. Then it's their choice to follow that path or not as their will, conscience and courage rise to the occasion or falter before it. But for other souls, the path reveals itself, if at all, through the dense foliage of bushwhacking it a boot crunch and a machete hack at a time so that, though often lost and uncertain of their footing, they never confront the stark choice of remaining on course or abruptly changing direction.
Lila pulled the light cotton coverlet up over the sheet, tonight being a tad chillier than the past few nights had been. Her sewing basket and spare swatches of material lay on the other, stripped and unslept on cot. The table yawed over its broken leg, its top slanting to touch the floor. The curtains fluttered and lay still.
"Gab, I miss you something awful," Lila whispered and then, the universe nodding message received and duly noted she fell fitfully and, at length, deeply asleep.
Continued - Chapter 6
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