|All's Swell That Ends Swell|
"You guys run along ahead. I'll catch up with you," Lila shouted.
Herodotus and Hecuba, with Gabrielle, Xena and Cyrene, had gathered by the wash basin, preparing to hike back to the cottage and freshen up before returning to the feast.
Lila went over to the alley between the pub and the shambles where the Amazons, along with Tyldus, Chiron and Bellerophon, were helping Joxer, Autolycus, Salmoneus and the menfolk move tables, set up chairs and arrange the serving stations under the direction of Canty and the Felafel Man.
"Ephiny!" Lila flung her arms wide.
"Lila!" Ephiny clasped Lila in a warm embrace.
"I’m so relieved that you made it back safe and sound! I've been worried about you," Lila smiled at the sturdy, composed Amazon for whom she'd come to feel a deep affection.
"And I you," Ephiny held Lila at arms length and looked at her with equal affection. "Though I can't say that you look any the worse for wear. We've been hearing the most incredible stories. Is it true that you went to Tiryns and got the belt from Admete and then brought it back to Troy and gave it to Penthesileia and that, after the city fell, you helped lead the refugees to safety and then traveled hundreds of leagues into the Anatolian heartland to meet with Oteri and Yakut?"
"I guess," Lila said.
"By Artemis' stringed bow, what other exploits have you accomplished in the few weeks since we last saw you?" Ephiny looked at Lila with fond admiration.
"Well..., I've gotten to know Xena better," Lila said. "I think we've gotten to be pretty good friends actually."
"Now that is a worthy exploit," Ephiny laughed. "You remember Solari, Eppy, the others."
"Hi!" Lila beamed at her Amazons traveling companions.
"Lila!" they came over to give her hugs and squeezes.
"I don't think you've met Chilappa or Messalina. Or Amarice," Ephiny made the introductions.
"Hi... Hi... Hi..."
"So you're Amarice," Lila said as she shook the hand of the newest member of Ephiny's tribe. "I've heard a great deal about you."
"Gosh, I hope it wasn't all bad," Amarice shook her long, red curls, and her full, round cheeks began to blush.
"Not at all," Lila laughed. "For one thing, I see that you're as pretty as people say you are. For another, my sister says that you showed great courage and were a staunch help to her behind the lines when you defeated Brutus and the Romans on the Strymon Road."
"Gabrielle said that? Really?" Amarice blushing even harder.
"She certainly did," Lila said. "And she was most emphatic about it."
"Wow!" Amarice smiled from ear to ear. "I thought I just ended up being in the way, and I think I acted kind of obnoxious toward Gabrielle 'til I found out what a fine person and gifted leader she is."
"Well, I've been aware of Gabrielle's gifts longer than most," Lila said in a low, confidential tone, "and I still act obnoxious toward her a lot of the time."
The Amazons roared with laughter, and a few of them surrounded Amarice and began affectionately to toussle her thick, streaming hair.
"Will you ladies excuse us for just a turn of the sandglass?" Lila said to the group. "Ephiny, step aside with me, would you, please."
Lila and Ephiny walked a little ways away from the group. When Lila turned to face Ephiny, a look of sadness had come to sweeten with sorrow Lila's lovely blue eyes.
Lila started to say something, but when she looked Ephiny in the eye and felt Ephiny's warm presence all around her, Lila paused and bit her lip.
"I'm afraid if I start saying anything, I'll start to cry," Lila looked around the square at everything but Ephiny for fear that if she did look at Ephiny, she really would start to cry. Yet as Lila involuntarily recollected the tears that Ephiny had openly shed on the boat as they'd rowed for their lives over to Tenedos, tears of pain and grief at the loss of Velasca who’d so recently, in her heart, found her way back home, tears formed in and then leaked out of Lila's eyes. "I'm sorry, Ephiny, I didn't mean to drag you over here just to start blubb..."
"It's okay, hon, take your time," Ephiny placed strong, steadying hands on Lila's shoulders.
"When she saw the belt -- Penthesileia, I mean -- a deep change came over her," Lila, taking a few breaths to regain her composure, began again. "It was only then that I saw the Amazon in her, or maybe I should say it was only then that I saw the daughter of Ares. I was frightened, put off by it, but then something rallied in me, and I understood that I loved that part of her too, the part of her where her pain and rage and darkness lay. And I felt that her love for me never wavered, that she loved me despite the pain and the rage and the darkness. In fact, it was because she loved me that she could be in that place of pain and rage and darkness and we could walk through the flames of it together and not be burned."
"Was she brave at the end? Remember how we were told, when we got to Troy, that Hector had lost his nerve and had run away at the end, that he’d run around the walls a dozen times before he'd found the courage to stand and face Achilles, not that anybody could have blamed him for running away," Ephiny said. "What was it like for them when their time came? We heard that not a one of them survived."
"Xena said they were magnificent," Lila said, "that they battled like goddesses in the very thick of the fighting. Can you imagine, a dozen Amazon warriors advancing on and beating beat back a hundred Argive soldiers? It took Ajax to bring Thermodosa down. The others, at the cost of their lives, harassed Achilles so badly that he couldn't free himself for the time it took the Trojans to burst through the Argive lines and take the beach, though they were too badly outnumbered to hold it for very long. It was a true sacrifice, Ephiny. They never flinched. They never failed. And she... Achilles told me that he’d wanted to spare her life because she'd fought so nobly on the field. But she drove at him and he... brought her down."
"As she knew he would," Ephiny said, softly.
"But why, Ephiny? I've asked myself that question a hundred times, and I’ve never come up with what seems to me a good answer," Lila's face filled with anguish. "What did she hope to gain by making herself a martyr in what she knew was a lost cause?"
"Lila," Ephiny's large, mournful eyes compassed Lila's grieving eyes with gentle care and tender concern, "it's a bitter pill that life sometimes makes us swallow, but the good and the true don't always win out in the end. The good can be defeated. Truth can be made to seem a lie. What's noble can be brought low, and honor can be mocked. So you ask: if that's the case, why go on? Why not adjust and adapt? It's not as though the gods are watching or, if they are watching, that they care or, even if they do care, that they have the means or the will to do anything about it. Why not just make your peace with things and go along to get along?"
"Okay, why not make your peace with things and go along with the program, whatever that program happens to be?" Lila said.
"I don't know," Ephiny said. "But Penthesileia made her choice. Apparently she couldn’t or wouldn't make her peace with things and resign herself to seeing the truth mocked and honor laid low. And maybe, because she was the queen, she felt that she had to lead the way to the other option, that of saying no to the false, the easy, the shabby, the smug."
"At the cost of her life?" Lila said.
"She was the queen," Ephiny said. "So long as one plate remains empty, the queen goes hungry. If the hut is one bed short, the queen sleeps on the floor. Let a tear be shed and the queen is there to wipe it away. She knew that a queen leads by example and rules by love. She was a great queen, Lila, with a great soul. Hang on to that."
Lila nodded, but the pain of her loss was still very much alive. "There's something she wanted you to have," Lila took the diamonds out of her pocket and showed them to Ephiny.
Ephiny gasped and her eyes opened wide. "They're enormous. Are they real?"
"They came off the buckle," Lila said. "When we tossed the belt into the forge and it hit the flames and melted, the fire was so hot that all the jewels exploded. Then these came shooting up out of the forge and landed in my hands. They were cool as crisp apples. The scorching blaze never touched them."
"You destroyed the belt, then," Ephiny said, examining the twin diamonds, each one as large as a peach pit.
"It was her final wish," Lila said. "To keep Ares from trying to use it to seduce any more Amazon queens."
"Did Ares try to stop you?" Ephiny asked.
"Yes, but Xena threw him off his game long enough for us to get the job done," Lila said.
"He never gives up, does he," Ephiny shook her head and grinned.
"He's sexy and incredibly good looking, but what a complete jerk," Lila said. "I don't think he cared a fig for Hippolyte. Or Penthesileia. Or Xena. Or anybody."
"Do you suppose he's in one of his temples, pouting?" Ephiny said.
"Probably," Lila said. "But it's too late now. He's lost his precious Amazons and I think he knows it. She told me she wanted you to have one of these and that I'm to have the other. See the little runes etched in the center? This one has the rune for Hippolyte. Here, take it. I'll keep the one that has the rune for Penthesileia."
"Thank you, Lila," Ephiny humbly accepted one of the diamonds. "I'll hold this in trust and it will be a sacred possession of the Amazons forever."
"And I'll do the same with this one," Lila said. "Let the twin diamonds symbolize the bond of equality and sisterhood that exists between Amazons and non-Amazons. In the greater whole, let the two parts be one."
Lila and Ephiny hugged to affirm the connection.
"You won't be a stranger to us, will you?" Ephiny said. "You know you'll always be welcome any time you choose to come and spend time with us. And maybe, one of these days, we might even entice you to stay."
"That would an honor and a privilege, Ephiny, thank you," Lila said. "And I'd like the two of us to be friends in our own right apart from whatever friendship you may have with Gab."
"Already done," Ephiny smiled.
They parted and Ephiny went back to helping with the set up and looking after Xenon. Lila started walking toward the gate and the road beyond that led to the acacia grove and the now vacant meadows. She'd barely taken a step when she heard a familiar voice calling her name.
"Lee, wait up!"
Lila turned around and a smile instantly lit her face.
Lila and Alexis ran to greet one another, joyfully connecting at last. They hugged and giggled and jumped up and down and started dancing around in each other's arms, happy beyond words to see each other again as the sharp pain of Lila's loss, for a brief turn of the sandglass, retreated into abeyance.
"Lee, I don't believe it! You're back! Ahead of Perdy and Andros and my brothers who, we’ve heard, made it through the war and now they're coming back too!" Alexis screeched. "Me and Anike and just about everybody else were afraid you'd fallen off the face of the earth! And then when we heard you were in Troy with Gab and Xena when the city came toppling down in flames... Troy, Lee! What on earth caused you to end up in the middle of a war zone? Talk about having adventures! No more scrubbing or drubbing for the rest of your life now, I'll bet. Did you fall out any windows and land in the bushes and get your toosh prodded at by any thrusting pitchforks?"
"Nothing half as exciting as that, Lex," Lila grinned.
"Oh, sure," Alexis made a face. "You probably traveled around half the known world, had lunch with kings and dinner with queens -- probably fell in love with one -- and got to rub elbows with great generals like Diomedes and even met up with Achilles, all in the company of the wild and wooly Amazons, not to mention getting to go here, there and everywhere with Xena and Gab."
"C'mon, Lex," Lila took Alexis by the arm and headed out of town along the road that ran north toward Lila's village, "There's some stuff I need to fill you in on."
As Lila and Alexis strolled back to Lila's village, Lila brought the amazed and frequently speechless Alexis up to speed on Lila's doings over the course of the past moonmark.
"So you think you might actually go back and spend some time her," Alexis said, speaking of Queen Admete, as she and Lila wandered slowly past the perimeter of the hay fields now bereft of their piled stacks and netted ricks.
"I might. Someday," Lila said. "I'll be writing to her soon. I need time to grieve, to come to terms with things. But I felt a spark. She's very attractive, very intelligent, and I think we may have been a trifle drawn to each other. She may be a bit strange, but she's not selfish or small-minded."
"But she kept the belt for a long time and wouldn't give it to anyone, not even to Xena and Gab," Alexis said. "And nothing was preventing her from handing it over to the Amazons and having done with it."
"I suppose," Lila said. "Yet I couldn't help liking her. It's funny. Penthesileia lived celibate for years, not wanting to betray Hippolyte by loving another long after Hippolyte had died. Now I feel as though I don't want to betray Penthesileia by loving another. Not for a long time. Not even a queen. Not even you, Lexie."
"Why? Do you think you could you love me in that way, Lee?" Alexis said, a hint of rose rising to flatter her full, wide cheeks.
"To be perfectly truthful? I think so," Lila said. "You and Anike."
"Life is so weird," Alexis rolled her pretty green eyes and shook her head whose tousled red hair lolled with casual body on her broad shoulders. "Here I've felt the same way about you. So I'd better tell you the news that I was gonna be telling you anyway. Things are gonna be changing for me, Lee. Changing for us. I found out while you were away that I'm gonna be having a baby."
Lila stopped in her tracks and stared at Alexis as though Alexis were a being from another planet. "You're gonna be having a what? Are you serious, Lex? But... when, how? The Big O! Out behind the haystacks! It's gotta be! I knew I was hearing more than just the crickets chirping in the grass! Oh, Lexie, I'm so happy... sad... confused... blown away! I don't know what to feel. What should I feel, Lex? Tell me."
"Xena psyched it out when her and Gab came and found me at Latrinus' camp on the night after they made you leave," Alexis said. "Remember how I upchucked on the floor in the morning?"
"Yeah," Lila said. "Septix went to get some rags to goop it up with when the other bozo..., Cesspoulos... wouldn't let you race to the outhouse."
"That was the telltale sing as it turned out," Alexis said.
"And Xena somehow knew it, huh?" Lila said.
"Yup," Alexis nodded.
"Boy, she's good," Lila shook her head. "So what's gonna happen now, Lex?"
"I guess I'm gonna be having it," Alexis said.
"Oh, Lexie...," Lila took Alexis by the hands, "you're gonna be a mama. How wonderful. What about your mom and dad?"
"They are not happy about it," Alexis said. "Half the time they blame me and half the time they blame themselves, and I don't know which is worse. I try to tell them how neat it is that they can look forward to being grandparents, but it comes out like I'm just making excuses."
"But you and The Big O," Lila said. "Are you gonna like...," Lila linked her two pinkies together.
"A bow and arrow wedding?" Alexis said, "Yeah. But it still doesn't solve the problem with my parents."
"Has the problem got to do with O's bum leg?" Lila said.
"That's part of it," Alexis said. "Another part of it is that... well, they’ve never come right out and said it, but I think they were hoping I might gear up to put the moves on Perdicas when he gets home."
"What can I do to help, Lex," Lila said. "This is really news. I thought, you know, it was always a possibility when you and O went out to the meadow and did what you were doing at night, but still... Is O totally blown away by it? Ha, The Big O's gonna be a daddy. Well, you did say he could make beautiful babies."
"I think he's got butterflies," Alexis said. "I think we both do. But other than that, yeah, O seems to be kind of into it. I think he's gonna have a good way with kids. I’ll bet he'll be a top notch daddy."
"But you guys never took precautions?" Lila said.
"We did," Alexis said. "We said we wouldn't come at certain times of the moonmark."
"And then what happened?" Lila said.
"We did," Alexis said.
"Will you really be there for me, Lee?" Alexis said, plaintively. "I think Mom and Dad might come to accept it in time -- O's as nice as they come; he'd make a great son-in-law -- but right now, I'm feeling kind of alone and scared."
"Of course I’ll be there," Lila took Alexis' hand and gave it a squeeze. "Don't you think two thoughts about that for the fall of a single sand grain, you promise?"
"Yeah," Alexis nodded and got a little teary-eyed. Those thoughts she'd had about enrolling at the Warrior Training Academy would have to be put on hold for a while, though hopefully not forever. In fact, though Alexis wasn't aware of it yet, word of her pregnancy which had leaked all over town -- tell one, tell all -- had prompted Tyldus and Chiron to put on the Academy's agenda an item for discussion which, up to that point, had been on the back burner because they hadn't actually been faced with it. If the Academy was going to accept women candidates on a par with men, perhaps a child care center was in order. They'd have to get funding for it and find a space on the campus to put it and perhaps adjust class times and meeting slots to allow for feeding and changing schedules, but these accommodations ought not prove insurmountable.
"And I've got some big news to share as well," Lila said as they closed in on the cottage and byre where Gida and her kids hardly noticed that Lila had come back, though the little choiros mikros seemed squiggly with joy to see her. "My time with the enaretes kores is over. I've... graduated, Lex."
"You’ve graduated? But you're the chief Demetoid. You're their leader," Alexis raised a curious eyebrow.
"Not any more," Lila shook her head.
"How come?" Alexis said, confused. "Did you get tired of the job and quit?"
"To be enareti kori, you have to be of pure issue of blood," Lila said.
"I know. The rules say you've got to be a virgin. So?" Alexis said. When Lila didn't say anything, Alexis added with alarm, "Lee! When that awful creature attacked you at Latrinus' camp, I thought Latrinus stopped him before anything truly terrible happened. Anything like what I think you're referring to, I mean."
"He did," Lila said. "It's not that. Thank the gods. But I'm not a virgin anymore, Lex. I've bled from the sacred place, and it hasn't been from my period. It's been from... gods, now I'm embarrassed, though I don’t see why I should be. I've had a lover, Lex. Someone whom I loved and who loved me and we shared our love and it was good and right and really wonderful."
"Huhhh...," Alexis inhaled sharply. "Who was it? Some sexy Trojan soldier in the trenches who you had a thing with after you and Gab and Xena got to Troy?"
"No, it was nothing like that," Lila said. "It was the Amazon queen."
"Ephiny?" Alexis said. "Well, Ephiny's sexy and good looking, that's for sure, but Ephiny? Isn’t she... I don’t know... not your type?"
"It was Penthesileia," Lila said, simply.
"Pen... thes... Naw," Alexis stammered in disbelief. "Not the wild and crazy one. You mean the man-eater? The one who was going to pronounce a death sentence on Gab and Ephiny and maybe Xena? Queen Suicide who went up against Achilles like a little birdie going up against a big, hungry cat? Her?!"
"She wasn't like that, Lex," Lila said. "The Felafel Man and Chiron were repeating stuff they'd heard second hand, but they didn't have the real poop. She was nothing at all like that. She had no intention of pronouncing a death sentence on anyone, except possibly on herself. She was humble and kind. And she cared deeply about her Amazons, even Velasca. Especially Velasca."
"Velasca bit the dust defending you and the Amazons who were trying to get away from a sick band of grossed out attackers is what we heard," Alexis said.
"Velasca was killed by Agammemnon’s soldiers who attacked unprovoked," Lila said in a harsh tone. "Ephiny and Gab had finally managed to bring her around. What am I saying. Velasca did the lion's share of bringing herself around. She had the courage to face up to things. She didn't run away from them. But neither, for that matter, did I. When I first laid eyes on Penthesileia -- the instant I saw her -- something new got born in me, and I said yes to it. I approached her as though there were no essential difference between a highborn queen of the Amazons and a farm girl from a tiny, out of the way farming village. And when I did that, you know what I discovered?"
"What?" Alexis said.
"There isn't," Lila said. "I've got so much more to tell you, Lex. I wrote you a letter. I hope I still have it somewhere. But no matter. We’ve got time. I’ll be wanting to consult with your midwife when you pick one out, so I'll know what to do when the time comes."
"Really, Lee? You'd do that for me?" Alexis said.
"Don’t you think I would?" Lila smiled. "And I plan to be there after the baby comes as well. You'll need to get some shut eye and have lunch and a bath some time," Lila threw her arm around Alexis' shoulder and gave her a monster hug. "Before we head inside the cottage, there's something else we need to talk about: tomorrow, next week, whenever."
"Yeah, what's that?" Alexis said, feeling so good to feel Lila's warm arm around her and, in consequence, letting herself feel, maybe for the first time, how much she'd been missing Lila since Lila had gone away.
"I want to spend time with Anike," Lila said. "Partly because I want her to step in and take charge of the enaretes kores, but also because I think there's something going on between us that needs to be explored. I think it's something subtle, and I'm not sure I know exactly what it is yet. So I want to make some time for her. But not at your expense. It's not like I plan to abandon an old friend for the sake of making a new one. I just needed to say that."
"Thanks, Lee," Alexis smiled. "You're a peach."
"A pomegranate," Lila tittered, giving Alexis a kiss and a smile to let her friend know that she hadn't been forgotten while Lila had been away. Then Lila and Alexis went into the cottage where Herodotus and Hecuba were busily setting a board of bread and cheese and mugs of ale on the table, eager to share their meager fare with Cyrene, knowing that Xena's mother was the classy proprietress of an inn whose daily repast no doubt put the simple curds and whey of this humble farmhouse to shame -- not that such a thought, for the least turn of the sandglass, might have entered into Cyrene's mind.
Seven people were sitting at the table: one man and six women. In light of this one-sided gender distribution, Herodotus couldn't help feeling a bit like a king in his castle even as he and Hecuba and Cyrene listened to a somewhat expurgated tale of what the ladies' adventure had been like. Lila tried to act upbeat and cheerful, but inside, she was feeling quite anxious. The task that had been looming for weeks had now ripened, and Lila's sense of duty wouldn't permit her to ignore or avoid it. When there was potentially hurtful news to break, the decency of Lila's inclination was to break it fast. To delay out of misplaced kindness only betokened cowardice and disrespect, neither of which qualities found a hospitable climate in Lila's nature.
When the occasion presented itself, after Hecuba had cleared the table and stacked the dishes to soak in the round, tin wash tub, Lila quietly asked Hecuba to step outside and take a turn about the garden and corn crib with her. At first, Hecuba was reluctant to deprive the guests of her perceived need to entertain them, but when she saw the serious and somewhat tense expression on Lila's face, she acquiesced and followed Lila out the door into the yard.
"Be there some care or woe what were troublin' you, my darlin'?" Hecuba looked closely at the daughter -- one of the two -- who couldn't hope to fool her for long even if they tried. "You been awful quiet since you come back with Alexis. 'Twixt the twa', 'twere your sister what were apt to be more chatty, though I'll wager but what the lot of you were havin' wondr'ous tales to tell."
"There's something I think you need to know, Mom," Lila said. "Dad needs to know it too but I wanted to tell you first."
Then Lila informed Hecuba that she was no longer enareti kori and told her the reason why.
At first, Hecuba said nothing, and Lila began to wonder if Hecuba might be in shock or may have been so angry or disappointed that she might, uncharacteristically, have been fighting off the impulse to explode in hot, blue flames of rage and rejection. Yet when Hecuba finally spoke, her voice was calm and controlled.
"So you were sayin' as how you gone and give your heart -- and your body -- to this here Amazon queen, and it were of your own free will, and how, if this great lady, as you were callin' her, had not been bent 'pon bein' laid early in her grave, you were like to have been followin' the lady back to her Amazon city and livin' with her, under thatch and beam, much as a man and wife might live as one in bed and board," Hecuba repeated the gist of what she’d understood Lila to have told her.
"Yes, mother, I would have gone with her," Lila said. "And I'd have given her my heart and joined my soul to hers."
Hecuba nodded as she pinched a shriveled rose hip on the rose trellis that lay wrapped around the wooden fencepost. She withdrew her fingers and let the nubby rose hip fall to the ground from its perch, knowing that these final rose hips of summer were no longer good for jam but were soon to be as hard as little stones in the coming frost. Then Hecuba took Lila by the arm and walked with her across the lane to the byre where they gazed into the sty and, for a turn of the sandglass, watched the no longer so little choiros mikros slobber up a storm.
"When first I were wed to your father," Hecuba said, in mild reverie, not looking at Lila but holding her close, "it were arranged 'tween our families and 'twere pressed 'pon me as how I were a grown at last to be a woman and how it were my duty, as a woman, to... to be doin' my womanly duty. And I done it. But I canna say as I were glad to have done it or that my heart did ratify the deed when at last ‘twere done, and the deed, in truth, were often done. Yet look what come of me doin' my wifely duty: the twa' most precious gems in the crown of all the world." Hecuba turned to look at Lila. "And for the sake of those twa' precious gems what were brung into the world and what have given my life more happiness and love than e'er could I want, I'd be doin' it all again. In a quick flick of the sandglass, my darlin'," Hecuba squeezed Lila's hand and placed that hand on the flat of her chest just above her heart, "... in the fastest fall of a sand grain."
Lila didn't know what to say. It had never dawned on Lila that her mother might have had any such reservations of her own.
"But didn't you love Daddy... Father?" Lila said.
"Oh, yes," Hecuba said. "He were a good man, your father. An excellent man. I couldna have wanted for a man what were more loyal and true. Nor has he ever raised his hand to me nor spoke a harsh word save for the night at the table, as you may remember, when he were callin' your sister an unkind name. Even then, ‘twere plain that his better self were aggrieved by such harsh words and did, in the instant, make honest amends."
"But I mean: didn't you love him as... a man?" Lila said.
"In time, my darlin'," Hecuba said. "In time I come to love him as a woman ought, yet it were somethin’ of a struggle. I canna say as I were ever feelin' for any man -- or for any woman neither -- what you were lately sayin' as how you were feelin' for the Amazon queen. Bless you, Lila; you got a heart that were stronger than mine and one that were braver too."
"Mom, no...," Lila took her mother by the arm and held it fast. "You are brave and strong and good and true. I can't tell you how I look up to you and wish that one day I might be half the woman that you are. I feel so loved and cared for. I feel such power and radiance in you. I always have. Latrinus said to me, just before he kicked me out of the camp and had his guys dump me off by the side of the road by Nea Moudana, that one day I might be fortunate enough to hear children of my own tell me that they loved me and that I was an inspiration to them. I don't know if that might ever come to be, but I want you to know that I love you, that I always have and that you're my inspiration and that I'm so incredibly grateful that you're my mother and I always will be."
Then Lila threw her arms around Hecuba and hugged her long and hard. Hecuba returned the hug and might have said some words of thanks or disbelief or something to the effect that she wasn't sure that she deserved such love and praise from her daughter -- from either of her daughters -- except that the clench in her throat, accompanied by the silent tears trickling down her cheeks, wouldn't let her say anything. So her warm, proud, hug in return had to say it for her.
"I know you'll be wantin' to share the news with your father," Hecuba said. "And fear not, for I'll be vouchin' for you."
"You mean it?" Lila said. "I know it wasn't easy to acknowledge, let alone to accept, the fact of Gab and Xena, but now this? Although..., Mom? I didn't plan for this to happen. Please believe me. I don't think I would have chosen for this to happen. It just did, and... I went with it. Maybe I shouldn't have followed where my heart was leading but I did."
"Lee," Hecuba said, "there weren't no guidance as I can give you as you were all growed up now. Yet I would be sayin' to you what I would be sayin' to your sister: follow your heart, and trust as how a true and faithful heart will nary lead you astray." With great love and respect for her mother, Lila walked arm in arm with Hecuba back to the cottage where Herodotus, being attended by four very attractive women, who were sincerely delighting in his stories and chuckling at his jokes, was feeling quite the gentleman as he poured himself another round of mead and offered the pitcher to the rest of the house.
"Well, ladies," Herodotus soon quaffed the last of the mealy brew, "I fancy as how we were best moseyin' into town for the start of the festivities. Lila, that were a smart outfit you got on. Not so much skin to be showin' as Gab or Xena, yet 'twere fittin' you nice and trim, and, by the gods," Herodotus looked around the dining area where the ladies, on their feet, were ready to head out the door, "there were none can deny what the girl were blessed with a right fine figure."
A round of laughter, Hecuba's voice mixed in with the others, accompanied them out the door and lingered in the air as they walked sprightly past the meadows and through the acacia grove to the road north of the town’s main gate.
The marketplace was awash in activity when they arrived. The tables were arranged in a large square on the dusty track in front of the pub. Plates and mugs on loan from the pottery works adorned each place setting along with wooden eating implements ransacked from Canty’s kitchen drawers. As soon as word of the heroes' homecoming had reached the townsfolk’s ears earlier in the day, a huge boar, big enough to feed the entire company, had been slaughtered, scalded, plucked, skinned and set to roast in the wide charcoal pit in the shambles beside the pub. The Felafel Man, with his crew of assistants, was seeing to the rest of the meal, from egg drop soup to shelled walnuts. The evening, though a bit chilly, was clear and soon to be star-laden. Meanwhile, the kegs had been tapped and the spigots were already flowing by the time the guests or honor came wandering in.
Amid cheers and waves to get her attention, Lila craned her neck, trying to locate the one face in the crowd with whom she hadn't yet connected and whom she was hoping would be there to join in the celebration. Finally, near the door to the pub where, a trifle shy, she was hanging back from the throng, Lila spotted Anike and, excusing herself from Nicanor, the game warden's, slightly rambling attentions, Lila ventured away from the crowd and walked over to the place where Anike, having seen Lila coming, was now awaiting Lila's approach.
When they came face to face by the door that opened into the pub, Lila and Anike simply stood there looking at each other. For a long time, neither spoke. Then Lila, ever so slowly, reached out with both hands, and Anike, ever so slowly, did the same until two pair of hands were joined. And there they stood, hand in hand, for another long turn of the sandglass. Anike was two or three thumblengths taller than Lila, more slender, and her long, dark hair was silky straight while Lila's long, dark hair had a bit more body and the tiniest rolling wave. But their eyes were equally piercing, nearly an identical shade of deep, opalescent blue. They could have been sisters, and one could hardly have told which was the elder.
Yet one feature of their meeting seemed to have been scored in reverse. It was Demeter who was coming home to Persephone in the fall, not Persephone who was returning to Demeter in the spring. And this time there were no forgotten candles that hadn't made the trip or safety pins that stubbornly refused to stay fastened.
"We have," Lila broke the silence, "a lot to catch up on."
"Lee," Anike said, not breaking the link of their mutual gaze, "I apologize for the stupid thing I said after the thesmophoria skit."
"No need but I accept. Thanks for looking in on Mom. You impressed the pants off her," Lila smiled. "Come, walk with me."
Holding Anike by the hand, Lila began strolling in a wide, slow curve to the far side of the wash basin.
"I want to tell you about all the different things that happened," Lila said, "because some if it involves you. I want to tell you about the times when I was thinking of you and what thinking about you taught me about myself. But there's one thing I want to know first of all, and it's really the most important thing."
Lila paused and looked at Anike. Anike was indeed very beautiful. Was Anike aware of that? Had Penthesileia been aware of how beautiful she herself had been? Lila didn't know. She'd just assumed that Penthesileia must have been aware of the fact. Yet such assumptions might not always prove true. Now things were different. Lila was no longer enareti kori, no longer Anike's leader. Now Anike would have to step in and lead and, in so doing, would have accept the discipline and accountability that went hand in hand with power and authority. "What is it, Lee," Anike said, softly; and, in that softness, Lila felt an outpouring of affection and admiration coming from Anike's soul, a warm flow of friendship that buoyed and gladdened Lila's hurting heart.
"Would you like for the two of us to be friends?" Lila said. "I know we're friends, but I'm talking about a real bond between us. You're very special, Anike. I've only come to realize how much I believe in you since I've been away. I'd like us to spend some time together, really getting to know one another."
"I'd like that too, Lee," Anike said. "And you won't have to do all the work. I'll do my part. I'm a bit untested, but I think I have it in me to be a good friend."
"I think you do too," Lila said.
Anike smiled and squeezed Lila's hand.
"Let's head on over before they start shouting and throwing things at us," Lila let go the trace of a smile, though first she reached out to confirm with a hug her offer of friendship. Anike hugged back, and both women's bodies had the same instinctual reaction to one another. There's a real person inside who's truly worth taking the time to get to know.
The crowd, being marshalled this way and that by Herodotus and Clenesthides, began to fumble into their seats. Three seats at the center of the head table were reserved for Lila, Gabrielle and Xena. Herodotus, Hecuba and Cyrene sat close by Clenesthides, Chloe, Alexis and The Big O whose face was on the mend from the broken jaw he'd suffered when Latrinus' goons had clobbered him on the night of the kidnapping. Autolycus and Salmoneus, whom the townsfolk had forgiven for their various indiscretions, joined Joxer who'd yet to commit one but was ever on the verge. The townsfolk, the Amazons, Anike and the enaretes kores filled out the remainder of the seats with Xenon standing close to Ephiny while Chiron and Tyldus took their places at the far corners of the tables next to the spot where Bellerophon had taken his seat. Canty and the Felafel Man, with their helpers, were hovering about, making sure that everything was in order.
Lila hesitated before approaching the table and taking her seat. There was one more soul with whom she needed to connect, perhaps the most important soul of all. Even as Lila held back, she felt a warm hand slide onto her shoulder and turned to see a pair of bright eyes and a broad smile under the hooded cowl of a blue mantle.
"Sibyl," Lila returned the smile. "So you have come. Thank the gods." Then Lila swept her arm around the sibyl's waist and leaned her head on the sibyl's shoulder.
"Where else would I be on a night as wonderful as this, child?" the sibyl said.
Silence initially greeted the sibyl's question. Then a weak, faltering voice said, in a tone that was barely above a whisper, "I came thinking you'd shoot me down. Nonsense, you said. I came knowing you’d build you up..." And then the tears came: deep, heavy, rolling, sobbing, rumbling, wrenching up from Lila's guts and cascading though her chest to pour out of her mouth with a force great enough to have caused Lila to double over if the sibyl hadn't been there to hold her up. The sibyl at once led Lila away from the crowd as those closest to them turned their heads and looked with confusion and alarm in response to Lila's sudden outburst. They found privacy behind some hanging, damask tapestries that Hassan, the rug merchant, had left behind for a local dealer to sell on consignment.
"What is it, Lila," the sibyl said, holding Lila in a strong embrace.
"Don't let go," Lila stammered through her sobs. "Just... don’t let go."
"I won't," the sibyl said. "Take your time. We have all the time in the world. There's no need to rush."
Not until those strong, loving arms that Lila knew she could trust had come to embrace and hold her close could Lila afford to let go and begin to grieve all that has happened during the time she'd been away.
"So much has changed, so much is different, and I hurt so much," Lila wept. "I'm not the girl I was when I came to see you, asking about Hippolyte's belt and that fearsome Queen of the Amazons."
"I daresay you're not," the sibyl rocked and patted Lila as she'd done on many occasions since she'd held Lila in her arms, as a week old infant, and had consecrated her to Demeter and the life of women who weep sacrificially and mourn redemptively. "You're very much a woman, my child, and filled with a woman’s wonder, mystery and grace."
"I'm happy and sad and angry and lonely and every which thing," Lila said. "And I feel so tremendously loved and blessed. So why am I crying like a baby?"
"Because you're a bold warrior, a fruitful lover and a worthy master," the sibyl spoke soothingly, "and you're suffering some of the growing pains which attend that special calling."
"But skill in arms has evaded me. Man's seed has eschewed me. Command of others has eluded me," Lila said. "Yet I've sought no arms, courted no man, coveted no command. So how can I be any of those things?"
"For those very reasons," the sibyl smiled. "Your sister and Xena may have some valuable insight when it comes to making sense of such apparent contradictions. Alexis and Anike as well. Your parents too. Even the three good-hearted stooges over there whose collaboration has made possible this joyous homecoming."
"You mean Autolycus, Salmoneus and Joxer?" Lila said with a light chuckle as her crying jag began to peter out.
"Even them," the sibyl said. "And don't neglect the Amazons. Or Chiron and Tyldus. Or these good townsfolk who've watched you grow to become a young woman of power and beauty. Even the Felafel Man."
"No, not the Felafel Man," Lila chuckled.
"Whoever might cross your path, Lila," the sibyl said. "Even a lonely queen in a faraway land who may have more of value to offer the world than the world may see fit to call upon."
"Thank you, sibyl," Lila wiped her eyes and honked into her handkerchief. "If you want to hear about my trip, I'll come by one afternoon and we can have tea."
"Whenever it's convenient," the sibyl said. "Personally, I can't wait to hear all the details. I see they're waiting for us. Let's not hold up the proceedings, shall we? Come, I'll go with you. "Eirineo...," the sibyl smiled.
"Eirineo," Lila smiled at the sibyl, and the two of them went to rejoin the party.
While Lila and the sibyl had slipped away, Herodotus, who'd taken on the role of the evening's emcee, had greeted the company and then asked the guests of honor to rise and offer the valedictory toast. Xena and Gabrielle had looked at each other, each one tongue-tied and embarrassed in the face of all this warmth and good cheer.
"No, you go."
"No, you go."
"No, you go."
Finally, Gabrielle got up amid a round of cheers and raised her mug as the gathering fell silent.
"Thank you, everyone," Gabrielle looked around the tables from face to smiling face. "This wonderful welcome you've given us is more than we could ever have expected. You're all so kind and generous to have put yourselves to all this trouble. Joxer, Autolycus, Salmoneus: you guys are something else. Thanks for being such pains in the bu... for being such very good friends."
The guests chuckled, and Autolycus, his mug raised, spilled a stream of golden grog down the front of Joxer's shirt.
"Hey, watch it with that stuff," Joxer jumped back. "You never know if the bubbles might touch off these black powder stains."
"And let's not forget some of the guys who aren't back yet: Perdicas and Andros, Galen and Menarchos. And their commander, Diomedes, who came through for us in more ways than one. And I'd also like to remember Aeneas, Helen, Deiphobus, Troilus, Helenus, Cressida and all those who now face many trials and hardship as they struggle to make a new life, in a new place, for themselves and their people. And not only them but those plucky, quirky, brave, affectionate souls, much closer to home, whom I won’t embarrass by saying their names...," Gabrielle smiled at Autolycus, Salmoneus and then at Joxer who smiled a sad, faraway smile. "And let's remember Meg, Minya and Toris who aren't here today, and Lyceus, Serafin and Solon -- and Hope -- who can't be..."
Gabrielle sat down and turned to Xena. "C'mon, I had to do it, so now you have to do it," Gabrielle whispered.
Xena rolled her sparkling blue eyes and gritted her teeth as she rose from her seat. "I'm not very good at this...," Xena mumbled.
"Try looking at it as just another skill to master," Gabrielle muttered.
"If it's all the same to you, I think I'd rather come down with a bad case of poison ivy," Xena grunted, but then, as all eyes were on her, she put a smile on her face and lifted her mug.
"Like Gabrielle was just saying: thank you. Thank you all very much," Xena looked out at the guests and suddenly struggled to choke down a lump in her throat when she caught Ephiny's eye. "There are so many who've crossed over, so many fine lives that have been lost to us, so many friends -- and some enemies -- that aren't with us any longer. I want to remember four of them in particular because without them, we wouldn't be here tonight to share this wonderful feast with all of you. So here's to King Priam, the finest king whom I've had the privilege to know. Here's to Cassandra who bore her heavy burden of misunderstanding and rejection with dignity and grace. Here's to Penthesileia and her valiant Amazons who taught us how the brave and noble shine in death as they shone in life. And here's to Velasca who showed true courage not only with her sword in battle but with her heart in the midst of her sisters."
Xena looked around and, not knowing what else to say, sat down, blushing for having just done something public and heartfelt, the doing of which, for Xena, took more courage than conquering cities or destroying nations.
"Where's Lila?" a voice cried.
"Lila, stand up and give a toast!" another voice shouted.
"If it wasn't for your brave example, Lila," someone offered, "Xena and Gab here would still be cowering in the bushes."
Then the crowd, with warm-hearted laughter and encouragement, stated banging on the tables with their knives and spoons: "Li-la, Li-la, Li-la, Li-la..." Her eyes red and puffy but a smile on her soft, pretty face, Lila emerged with the sibyl and came to take her place next to Xena and Gabrielle at the head of the table.
"What's all the shouting?" Lila said.
"We're giving toasts," Xena said.
"Your turn," Gabrielle said.
"What are we supposed to be toasting?" Lila said.
"Anything," Xena said.
"Everything," Gabrielle said.
"What's left to do?" Lila said.
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other and then looked at Lila and shrugged.
"Ms. Lila!" Mickey or Tim rose from his seat, gesturing to get Lila's attention. "Tasso here were havin' a gift he were wantin' to be givin' to you now as you've come back to us whole and hearty."
Tasso, the fruitmonger came forward, carrying a round, red, pimply object. "From all us ruddy louts what were cloggin' up the square with our shabby wares 'pon market day, Ms. Lila, the men were wantin' you to be havin' your very own pomegranate."
The crowd hooted and cheered as Lila, beaming from ear to ear, said, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, "Thank you so much. Are you saying that I can do whatever I want with this thing?"
"Whatever your little heart were desirin', Ms. Lila," Tasso said with a slight bow.
"Kewl," Lila said and took a great big chomp out of it to everyone's delight, especially Tasso's. Then she spit the seeds into her hand.
"Yick," Alexis' voice suddenly interjected itself into the temporary lull as Lila put the seeds down on her plate, "I hope this mealy ale doesn't leave permanent stains. I just spilled some on my skirt. Lee, would you toss me the scrubber, please!"
The bristle brush happened to be sitting on the rim of the wash basin next to Lila's seat. Lila reached over and grabbed it.
"Catch!" Lila hurled the brush which fell short, hit the table and knocked over the remaining contents of the mug.
"Yaggh...!" Alexis recoiled from the spray as everyone, including The Big O, laughed at Alexis' dilemma.
"Okay, everybody, since apparently everything's been said, here's to health and long life to the company!" Lila stood up at her place and shouted her toast across the square; and the music of it along with the sparkle in her eye lit a fire of hope and joy in the souls of the crowd as one and all raised their mugs high to the Poteidaian sky and, before digging in to the night's well-wrought fare, cried:
"Health and long life to the company!"
|Continued - Epilogue|
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