The men will cheer and the boys will shout,
the children, they will all turn out,
and we'll all feel gay when
the ladies come marchin' home...
It was just past noon when Chiron came spiriting south on the road from Thessaloniki, his galloping hooves raising thick curtains of dust in his wake. At the crest of a rise in the road, just past a thick acacia grove now bare of its dense clusters of interlaced leaves, he beheld the main gate of Poteidaia in the distance, a brown jot bordered, on either side, by the pointed pickets of a high, wooden palisade. Rearing, for an instant, on his hind legs, the faithful Centaur, completing a journey of some fifty leagues which he'd begun shortly after sunrise that morning, came thundering down the final stretch, bellowing as he approached the gate and the market square where the ladies from the surrounding villages had come to scrub and drub the week's laundry, "Make haste! They've been spotted on the Strymon Road below the fork that heads east to Stagira! They'll be here in two candlemarks, perhaps less!"
For the past week, ever since Joxer, Autolycus and Salmoneus had returned with the wonderful news that Xena, Gabrielle and Lila had survived the fall of Troy and were on their way home, the town had been buzzing with anticipation and preparing for the joyous homecoming. To that end, they'd enlisted the aid of the Centaurs and the Amazons to keep watch on the road that ran south of Thessaloniki, the route which the three women and Argo would be traveling as they made their way down to Poteidaia. Sure enough, early that morning, when Xenon and the Centaur children had been frolicking in the pool below the falls, not far from the bend in the main road where a side road led to the Centaur village, the foursome had been spotted trudging along a tree lined avenue through the woods.
Xenon had wanted to clamber down the rocky ledges to greet Xena and her friends with a hug and a big, dimply smile, but the Centaur parents that had charge of the youngsters had held him back from taking what might have been a precipitate fall. Besides, Xenon would get to see Xena soon enough. Now that she, Gabrielle and Lila were back, Ephiny would be making a bee line for the Centaur village to pick up Xenon just as soon as Ephiny would have gotten the news. Then Ephiny and Xenon, along with Tyldus, Chiron, Bellerophon and a sizeable contingent of the Amazons that included Solari, Eponin, Elana, Oriena, Thelestria, Chilappa, Messalina and, of course, Amarice would be heading lickety split to Poteidaia to join in greeting the returning heroes.
Word was immediately brought to Chiron who set out at once to rendezvous with Joxer, Autolycus, Salmoneus and the Felafel Man and then to let the town know that it was time for the celebration to get underway.
As pre-arranged, Joxer went north to fetch Herodotus and Hecuba. Autolycus headed west to notify Clenesthides and Chloe. Salmoneus ducked into the counting house to inform The Big O. The Felafel Man hooked up with Canty to alert Mickey, Tim, Democles, Trachis, Tasso and Zoster along with Nicanor, the game warden, and some of the other townsfolk who darted out of their shops and workplaces to begin setting up tables and chairs in the alley next to the pub even as Canty's crew began lugging kegs and setting them up on sawhorses. The Felafel Man donned his chef's hat and assembled his catering staff who got busy setting up buffet tables and tray stations. Alexis, Anike, Milora, Eirini and the rest of the enaretes kores wringing out their fathers' spats and mother's dresses, then headed home as quickly as they could to string the wet clothes on the line and then to hustle back to town to be there on time for the glad reunion.
This was the day that the town had been waiting for, and the neighboring villagers, freed at last from the fearful uncertainty of never knowing when they might be set upon by Latrinus' foul gang, were happy to declare a holiday from indoor chores that had lately begun in earnest now that the fields and meadows had been put to sleep for the winter.
From the four corners of the surrounding villages, the light-hearted crowd descended upon the town as, off in the distance, through a tangle of hibiscus and mountain laurel now brown and twiggy in their seasonal slumber, an elderly presence, with bright, burning eyes, gowned in a blue mantle, paused near her cabin in a wooded clearing and felt a radiant glow in her breast beckoning her to town where, before the day was over, the gift of her warmth and strength would be very much needed.
Knowing nothing of these hasty preparations, Xena, Gabrielle and Lila dawdled, bone-weary, along the now familiar road, hoping that no twits or troublemakers might come leaping out the shrubbery to give them a hard time, forcing them, yet again, to have to teach yet another gang of half-witted wastrels and aspiring, amateur warlords yet another painful lesson about what can happen to those who choose to mess with ostensibly defenseless and unescorted ladies whom they chanced to encounter on the open road.
They'd been talking about the first thing they were going to do when they got home.
"Collapse on my cot," Lila said.
"Dive into a bath," Xena said.
"Pig out on a huge slice of nutbread," Gabrielle said.
"Whhheee...," Argo shook her head up and down, indicating her endorsement of each of the above.
"I want to be sure to get you home safe and sound," Xena smiled at Lila. "Your folks are used to Gabrielle being out on the road, but with the both of you being gone, it’s probably been a bit rough for them."
"I'm going to have to tell them," Lila said to Gabrielle. "They may wish that I hadn't, but I feel it's the right thing to do."
"About Penthesileia, you mean," Gabrielle said.
"That and other stuff," Lila said. "Getting the belt, meeting a god -- two gods -- having dinner with a general, taking a stroll with a king, travelling through the wilds and sailing the seas with the Amazons... I don't think I'll say anything about the Corybantes, though."
"You've grown up so much in the space of a moonmark, Lee," Gabrielle said. "Can you tell the difference, Xena?"
Xena nodded. "What I’d like most, Lila," Xena said, "is for you to be my friend and for me to be yours, and not just because you happen to be your sister's sister."
Lila paused, came to a full stop, turned to Xena who, with Gabrielle, had stopped when Lila had stopped and said, "Do you mean that, Xena? Do you mean what you just said?"
"Yes, Lila," Xena said. "Yes, I do."
"Then it's done," Lila extended her arm. "And if I own you as a friend here when nobody's looking or listening except for Gab, then I'll own you as a friend before the world when everybody's looking and listening."
"And I'll do the same," Xena said.
Then Xena and Lila clasped arms in confirmation of their bond, and Xena wasn't entirely surprised that Lila's grip, when she gave it, was as firm as Gabrielle's.
In less than a candlemark, they came to the juncture of the Strymon Road where, more than a sunmark ago, one of the fiercest battles ever fought in these low lying hills and plains had taken place when the Amazons, under Ephiny's command, accomplishing what even the powerful Vercinix hadn’t been able to achieve, had beaten back the advance of the Roman legions and had thereby put an end to Caesar's ambition to absorb northern Hellas into the orbit of his rapidly expanding empire. Yet today, the air and surrounding foliage were so quiet, one could have heard a pine needle drift gently down to its winter bed on the soft forest floor.
Now the locale was becoming quite familiar.
"That's the spot where I went bumping up and down on the back of the monster horse that I was sure was going to drag me to a horrible death," Lila pointed toward the fork that veered east off the Strymon Road to became the road to Stagira. "At least Lexie was being wedged upright on Cesspoulos' saddle."
"On whose saddle?" Gabrielle said.
"One of Latrinus' goons," Lila said. "The one who beat up on Lexie and made her have to have stitches." Then Lila let out a laugh of irony and release. "What a silly goose I am. We've just come back from watching the loveliest city in the world go up in smoke and all those poor people being massacred or taken away and sold as slaves, and here I am fretting because I got bounced around on the back of a horse and smacked a couple of times in the face which fortunately hasn't left any scars or bruises."
Gabrielle smiled and flung an arm around Lila's shoulder. Together they strode, with Xena and Argo a step or two behind them, down the road to the acacia grove until, their hearts leaping into their throats, perhaps Lila's moreso than Gabrielle's, the town gate and palisade came into view.
"There she is," Lila marvelled, "looking just like she did when we left. How long have we been gone? A couple, three sunmarks by now?"
"Not hardly!" Gabrielle rolled her pretty, blue-green eyes. "Try like maybe a moonmark."
"I can't believe that's all it's been," Lila shook her head. "I feel like I've been away for a very long time."
"You have been," Xena smiled. "But remember...," Xena nodded toward the looming gate from the crest of the rise in the road, "they haven't."
"Well, at least we're arriving unannounced with nobody around to make a fuss," Lila said. "I don't think I feel like answering a lot of questions just yet."
"We'll peek in at the pottery works, make sure everything's running smooth, then head out to your folks' place," Xena said.
"It feels strange to be back," Lila said as they approached the gate. "Does it feel strange to you when you come breezing in and out of here nowadays?" Lila turned to ask Gabrielle.
"Not as much as it did at first. But yeah, coming home always feels a little strange," Gabrielle said as the gate swung open to let them enter. "Cause it's always a different home than the one you left."
Suddenly it was pandemonium in the town square. Bells clanged. Buzzers buzzed. Noisemakers blasted. Shouts rang out the length and breadth of the midway. The siren atop the steeple at the counting house let out an ear-splitting "Arooogahhh...!" Led by "Canty, the maid, she's the best mount in town...," the townsfolk tossed streamers high in the air and the white tails lingered in flight as they caught the breeze and sailed over everything in sight even as handfuls of enaretes kores confetti came shimmering down from second storey windows, the flat roofs of shops and the bouncy tops of awnings stretched tight on their tilted wooden poles.
"Ya da, yadda da, yadda dah...," the crowd followed Joxer, Autolycus and Salmoneus in a snaking dance around the square, in and out the stalls and carts, over to the basin and past the hideous paint job that a couple of clowns had recently done on the wide door of the pottery works showroom, all the while tooting on whistles and blowing on horns, "'cause a duck may be somebody's muthh-urrr..." And then a mass of little, gray piglets, loosed from the shambles on the far side of the pub, came squealing and cascading across the wide open space between the marketplace and the esplanade separated by the nicely maintained aisles of flower beds and topiary shrubs.
Every girl, every guy, everyone, they all got high; they were dancin' in the streets, oh, yeah, they were dancin' in the streets...
Lila, Gabrielle, even Xena were mobbed by people who were overjoyed to have them back and actually to see and hear and touch and feel them in the flesh. Everywhere she turned, Lila was confronted by loving, smiling faces, so much so that things quickly became a blur as her own face filled with joyful, overflowing tears. There was Canty and the guys. There was Joxer, the Mighty. There was the incorrigible King of Thieves. There was the bibulous Lord Seltzer a.k.a. the Queen of Namibia. And behind them, the impossible Felafel Man standing between the kindly Chiron and the imposing Tyldus with... little Xenon frolicking in the midst. And then... Ephiny, my sister, you made it home, you're here! And the others with you! But before Lila could rush to fling her arms around them, there was Anike in her path, looking at Lila with a quiet radiance of gratitude and grace which instantly gripped Lila by the heart and made her want to embrace Anike and hold her very close. Yet between Lila and Anike there came... Lexie! Oh, Lex, dearest of all who are close to my heart, how can I even begin to say the things that lie above, beneath and behind a simple hello...
But more than any of them, however loved and missed, a force of heart-pounding clamor propelled Lila out of the crowd of adoring friends and neighbors and drove her straight to the waiting arms of the ones who came first and mattered most of all.
"Mom... Dad...," Lila spread her arms wide. Then words failed her as she dove into their fierce embrace, her own tears blending with Hecuba's tears and Herodotus' filmy eyes as they said nothing but simply hugged and held each other and then, the words still not coming, hugged and held each other and wept some more.
Xena and Gabrielle were thronged as well. Gabrielle got right into sync with what soon became a group hug as everyone was trying to hug them all at once, but for Xena it was a mind-boggling experience. She wasn't used to this much physical contact, especially the hugging, embracing, I'm-so-whacked-out-to-see-you kind of physical contact. One on one might have been okay -- with a few people: Gabrielle, Ephiny, Lila maybe. But all this spontaneous outpouring of affection, yeeeee..., a thousand crazed and heavily armed opponents coming at me at once on the battlefield I can handle but group hugs? With people who seem insanely happy to see me? I dunno...
Yet in the midst of all the yelling and screaming, even as she was being proclaimed a greater hero than ever before, word of Xena's defense of Ilium having already reached these distant shores, her nobility in a just but lost cause summing to a greatness that mere victory could never rival, something caught Xena's eye and, though submerged in the rolling waters of merriment and glee, made her blood freeze even as her crusty shell began to dissolve.
"Mother...," Xena gasped as every face and body but one fell instantly away.
There was Cyane in her blue and white dress with its long, frilly skirt and fluffy, lace bodice over her soft, succulent breasts. Her wavy brown hair fell to coil on her broad shoulders. Her stance, her posture, her full facial features, the kind, patient smile on her wide, expressive lips, everything about this august woman, not tall but formidable in her bearing, bespoke an infinite capacity to love and nurture and forgive. No accident that a Warrior Princess had sprung from her womb or that that the power loosed from her soul would one day return to her purged of pride and redeemed of sin.
"Xena...," Cyane smiled her splendid, glacier-melting smile and extended her soft, weighty arms.
Xena started to say, "Wuh-wuh-what are you doing here...?" but all that came out was the "Wuh-wuh-wuh..." as Xena, drawn by the reeling in of the mainsheet which bound her with cleats of iron to her mother’s strong mast, found herself sucked into Cyrene's arms and a silent, bone-crushing embrace that could easily have lasted a lifetime.
And then Xena did something she hadn't done since... maybe Solon, maybe ever. She wept while her mama held her.
"I love you, Mom," Xena whispered. And despite everything that had taken place since the day Xena and Gabrielle had hopped on Argo and taken off for Queen Admete's hall in Tiryns, there really wasn't anything else of importance to say.
"I know," Cyrene whispered, holding her daughter as tenderly as she might hold a newborn grandchild. "I know..."
Joxer had really come through. When Salmoneus’ ship had docked in Thessaloniki, Joxer had sent Salmoneus and Autolycus ahead to Poteidaia while he’d detoured, at some risk to himself, to arrive in Amphipolis to let Cyrene know about the homecoming and to persuade her to take a few days away from her duties at the inn to come down to Poteidaia and be on hand for the welcome feast. Joxer even volunteered to stay behind and help run the kitchen while Cyrene was away. Fortunately, Toris was available to look after things so that Cyrene didn't have to take Joxer up on his kind offer. Cyrene had recently gotten an earful from Meg about Joxer's less than skilled performance in the kitchen. "When he's not weepin' in his o.j. for his long lost Gabrielle, old Jox can make you anything you want for breakfast so long as it's pop tarts," Meg had complained to Cyrene after having discovered, in the kitchen at her tavern on the day when Joxer had responded to Aphrodite's call, that Joxer had left the blue plates on the counter with no specials on them.
Joxer had insisted on escorting Cyrene to Poteidaia and, with the few dinars he had to his name, he'd offered to put her up in a guest room on the second floor of Canty's pub. But when Hecuba had gotten wind that Joxer was bringing Cyrene to town, she’d insisted that Cyrene come stay with her and Herodotus which Cyrene was glad to do. The opportunity gave Hecuba, Herodotus and Cyrene the chance to get better acquainted. Cyrene had told Hecuba and Herodotus that she admired Gabrielle's spunk and found Lila’s quiet warmth delightful, while Hecuba and Herodotus, in turn, had nice things to say about Xena's reformed character. The three parents had taken a liking to each other as well, and once Hecuba decided that she liked someone, she tended to let her customary reserve down and to become quite solicitous and animated.
"Now if you bairns and gillies would be so good as to be closin' your mouths and openin’ your ears for a wee willie waught...," Canty got up on the rim of the wash basin and waved her arms in an effort to get people's attention. "I know as how you're all giddy with gladness to be seein' our twa' girls and the right, good Warrior Princess comin' in from out in the wide and wooly world, but while you’re makin’ merry, I'm wantin' you all to pay heed to what were next on the agen..."
"Stand up, Canty!" Democles cried above the jocund hails of the crowd.
"On your feet, Cant!" Trachis chimed in.
"And on what were you thinkin' I were standin', louts?" Canty shot back. "The twin hassocks of your bottoms? Hand me shears and a spool and I'll baste your bottoms with such a stitch that your innards'll be well trodden ‘pon the ‘pholstery."
The men guffawed and the manic energy of the joyous homecoming began slightly to dissipate.
"Let them what have lately come from a far distance rest and recuperate for the nonce," Canty instructed the assembled wellwishers. "T’others remain behind to lend a hand whilst me and this here Feel Awful Man do parse out the tasks and cozen the company. We’ll prepare for the feast what were welcomin' our lovely ladies home. So mill about and be gay and then fain return, one and all, to this very spot 'pon the very stroke of dinnertime wherewith to toast our champions 'pon their long-awaited festival day!"
The crowd cheered and began to make room for Xena, Gabrielle and Lila to pass among them, exchanging hugs and greetings.
"Did you have the least idea what was going to be waiting for us when we got back!?" Lila shouted to Gabrielle, beaming from ear to ear, as she stood in the midst of a circle of admirers who wanted to know all the details about her recent adventure.
"None!" Gabrielle shouted back, being hugged and coddled by a laughing Hecuba and a delighted Herodotus. "But I think we should soundly kick the butts of whoever’s responsible!"
"Then you'll jolly well have to be clobberin' us all," Hecuba grinned, fairly well hopping from foot to foot.
"Aye, with a punch and a kick and a belt in the gob," Herodotus reinforced his wife's sentiment.
"If you’re looking to blame the ones behind all the fuss, pin it on those three ne’er-do-wells," Cyrene, her blue eyes twinkling and her arm around Xena's waist, gestured in the direction of Joxer, Autolycus and Salmoneus. "They brought word, kept watch, organized everything and even paid for it."
Xena, Gabrielle and Lila temporarily disentangled themselves from the jovial brouhaha to look, with questioning gazes, at the named culprits.
"Them?" all three ladies said at once. "Offered to pay for something?"
"Aw, Cyrene," Autolycus kicked a clod of dirt, dreadfully embarrassed, "what’dja hafta go and blow my cover for?"
"Don't look at me... sort of," Salmoneus dithered.
"Hey, when was the last time that I had any dinars? When I got rolled outside the casino that you guys busted in your femme fatale costumes, right?" Joxer made a moon face.
"I know somebody who's just made a small fortune unloading dripless wax candles to Cottage Depot places from Thessaly to Thrace," Gabrielle eyeballed Salmoneus.
"I know somebody who was just scraping the silver off the silver dinars over on Tenedos where those dinars were rapidly changing hands," Lila eyeballed Autolycus.
"I know somebody who doesn't have any dinars but might borrow some from a tavern keeper who's got a crush on him if he thought those dinars might be used in a good cause," Xena eyeballed Joxer.
"Got no idea what you're talkin' about," Autolycus said.
"Me neither," Salmoneus said.
"Me neither," Joxer said.
"Aw, you guys!" Xena, Gabrielle and Lila said ensemble.
"Everyone chipped in, even me, though those three rascals footed the lion's share of the bill," tall, handsome Bellerophon walked by, bowing low to Hecuba and Herodotus. "So these are the charming parents. My best wishes. You have two brave, competent and astoundingly attractive daughters of the finest character. Plainly, you've raised them wonderfully and are to be heartily congratulated. You, too, my lady," Bellerophon turned and nodded at Cyrene. "Welcome back, Xena. It's good to have you home."
Bellerophon walked away leaving everyone impressed as the crowd, breaking up, began to go about its business, broiling, baking, mulling and setting up for the evening's homecoming bash. Off to the side, a trifle aloof from the helter skelter, an elderly presence, hooded in a blue mantle whose interior was lit only by a pair of bright, burning eyes, smiled contentedly. It was indeed a happy day when these three very special ladies, born to do great things, had, without putting on airs or seeking the limelight or looking to amass kudos for themselves, came marching, modestly, home.
|Continued - Chapter 78|
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