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All at once they had heard it - a great commotion and clatter in the courtyard of the inn. So in keeping with their assigned duties, Xena and Philos ran out to see to what it was, to greet any new visitors that might have arrived.
It was not a large party that had just ridden in. But to eyes that had seen uncounted travellers, it quickly became apparent that this one was not ordinary. In fact, very much out of the ordinary indeed.
First, there were the four men. Dressed as common travellers. But not at all with common faces. Hard, weatherbeaten, unsmiling - their eyes darted this way and that, constantly taking in everything around them. All were riding magnificent horses. And all were armed with what looked like very fine swords.
Later, Philos thought he heard one of them being quietly addressed as "commander".
The other two newcomers were women. The first was of middle years, a matronly sort, with a face whose lines were stern - but from which eyes seemed to twinkle kindly. The other was smaller, possibly a young girl, though it was hard to tell. For she was wrapped up in a long cloak, its hood drawn close about her face.
The cloak, Philos noted, was a plain one, but of a very beautifully woven fabric. And on one of the hands that darted forth from it, he happened to see a sudden flash.
A flash of gold - from a glittering ring.
Yes, that's what he thought he'd heard. Though it was a little hard to tell - considering that Xena was shaking him so violently.
Not a good thing to be heard at any time. Though especially not in the middle of the night.
Shaking off his own grogginess - and the effects of Xena's treatment - he got up out of bed. His sister immediately started dragging him to the door.
"I'm coming! I'm coming!" he cried out, stumbling forward in the darkness.
Out in the hallway they heard the voice again - a woman's voice. "Help, help, she's gone!" At least they could now see a faint light ahead, in the common room of the inn. Within a few steps they arrived.
In the middle of the room was the older woman, from the party that had appeared that afternoon. She was holding a candle, and shaking violently - the flame guttered with each little jerk. Beside her was one of the men from the group, dressed only in a hastily thrown on robe; but nevertheless carrying in one hand a sheathed sword, noticed Philos. He seemed to be saying something quietly to the woman, but she did not appear to hear his words.
The other men from the party now came stumbling in as well. And then, from the hallway behind them, their mother, carrying a candle of her own.
"What's wrong?" demanded Cyrene. For some reason the distraught woman took notice of her.
"It's my pr- ... my girl," she stuttered in a high-pitched, nearly hysterical voice. "She's gone! I can't find her anywhere, anywhere! They've taken her, I know it! They've taken her!"
"Then listen to me!" The voice rang out across the whole room, instantly capturing the attention of everyone. "We'll start a search immediately!" It was the first man from the party. The one addressed as 'commander'.
"The first thing to do is search every room here - that's where to begin. Here, you can help us." The man gestured to their mother, who came forward.
"We must move quickly - we don't have much time!"
And this also seemed to be Xena's idea exactly.
Taking firm hold of his sleeve, she started dragging him back down the hallway.
"Come on!" she hissed violently in the darkness.
"... and be quiet!" was now the order of the moment. Well, thought Philos, a good idea - if he could just stop his knees from knocking together. It was so cold out here, in bare feet and only their thin nightshirts...
His sister started climbing the ladder, and then he followed after her. What a wild goose chase, he thought. Or at least hoped. True, the old loft was the most out of the way place in the whole inn - the last place you'd normally look for someone. You could only reach it by a rickety old ladder, outside at the back. But that was just the point. How likely was anyone else to know about it?
When they reached the top of the ladder they stopped for a moment, as Xena carefully opened the little doorway into the loft. For some reason, its latch already seemed to be ... unfastened.
They crept inside as quietly and carefully as they could. And found that the place was filled with some kind of dim illumination - coming from a point further in. But right ahead of them was a big pile of sacks, up behind which they approached. To slowly peer over the top.
And there, in the flickering light of a candle, they saw her. The girl! The missing
one - it had to be her!
She seemed very young, perhaps around eleven or so. Just about their own age, thought Philos. Tall and slim, dressed in some kind of gossamer wrap; he had never seen anything like it before. But more astonishing than the clothing was the one by which it was worn.
For when she turned, and he finally got a good look at her face in the dim candlelight - he felt his breath suddenly catch in his throat. Yes, that was it; the only time such a thing had ever literally happened to him. It was breathtaking.
The sight of inhuman perfection.
They were in an impressionable state, the light was flickering and dim - who could say what tricks might be played on young eyes under such conditions? But even so, even if that beauty was only one-tenth what he thought they had seen ... in such a young girl ... what would it, in the woman, one day come to be?
Then, finally, he noticed something else. A more mundane detail, but also interesting in its own way.
Namely, that the girl was standing on a chair.
She had evidently found a short length of rope, having managed to tie one end it around the beam above her head; and was now engaged in knotting a loop in the other end. A loop just large enough for ... for her head to fit through. What...
Then his sister abruptly appeared in his line of vision - moving noiselessly towards the girl. And at that very moment startled her, much as Philos was himself startled by this completely unexpected approach. The girl jumped a bit and he heard a sharp intake of breath; her eyes were suddenly wide in the candlelight.
"No," he thought he heard her murmur. In a despairing sigh. "Oh, no ... please..."
And then, in a gesture of utter defeat, her arms fell limply to her sides. She closed her eyes, and became perfectly still.
Xena did not move any closer to the one on the chair, however. Instead, she remained quite still herself. While Philos took the opportunity to come up beside her.
After a time, the girl finally seemed to realize that no one was about to lay hands on her. She opened her eyes once more. And it was truly strange -
To see such utter annihilation. In a face so beautiful.
She stared silently at the two of them, then whispered: "You don't understand."
"So tell us," came his sister's immediate reply, in that very matter of fact way she had. "Tell us how to understand." Yes, it was odd; how reassuring her matter of fact words could sometimes be.
"But you don't even know who I am," answered the girl. "You don't. Because I'm not a person. Not one at all.
"I'm a prize."
Though he didn't know what they meant, those three simple words seemed to tell him a story he had never known could even exist.
"They say I'm beautiful," she continued. "That's what they say. And I think that must be true. For when king Theseus saw me, he wanted me. Above all things."
Wanted her? Philos didn't quite understand. A little girl?
"He sent his men in the night. And they took me. Far away. I'm not sure where." It was strange, the flat calmness with which she said this.
"At least Aethra is nice - she takes care of me. And the men don't hurt me. They just say I can't go home yet. And ... I don't even know where home is. Not any more."
A small ray of triumph now came into those still, sad features.
"But I understand things, though. They don't know, but I understand things. Because I've heard it said: 'with her hand comes the throne of Sparta'. So I know that! And I also heard...
Here her voice began to falter again.
"... I heard that there's going to be ... a war."
It was a moment before she continued.
"My brothers are coming with an army. And king Theseus has a big army. But I don't think my brothers' army is as big. And ... and they say ... 'many will die'...
Her voice trailed off into silence.
"But you can't," came his sister's sudden, flat statement. "You can't help it. It's not your fault."
"But the prize - that's ... that's what..."
"It doesn't make any difference. They would only find something else to fight about. That's all."
The girl merely hung her head in silence.
"Here, come down," continued Xena. "I'll show you something. You'll like it." She took the girl's hand; and indeed she did come down. Even if at first a little reluctantly.
Leading her by the hand, Xena began to take her new companion farther back in the loft, while Philos followed along behind. Where were they going? The only thing this far back was ... oh ... no ... but it must be...
Yes, Xena was taking her back. To there.
It was at the very end of the loft. In a place between two beams. Covered by a piece of wood that looked like another beam - but wasn't. It had come loose, and you could take it out, to see that it was just a thin spacer between the two heavy beams. And there, just behind, was the empty place.
In which she kept it.
She brought it out once again - the thing that only she knew about; and Philos; and
Lyceus. She held it up in the flickering candlelight, the bright circle glittering in the soft golden glow.
A little sound was heard from the girl when she saw it. "What is it?" she gasped.
"Well, we don't know," answered Xena quietly. "But we don't tell anyone about it, because they might take it away."
They all simply stared at it for a while; the strange beauty of the thing. The inlaid patterns of shining silver and gold, endlessly continuing in a path that had no beginning. Or end.
"Maybe it can help you," stated Xena simply. The girl looked at her closely. "It's something we heard about - like they do at the temple. It's a little scary, but -
"I'm a Spartan," was the girl's only reply.
"Okay then, watch me do it first." Xena held the metal circle upright in one hand; then, very carefully, pressed the razor edge into the palm of the other. And drew it back for a little distance.
When she lifted the circle away again, a thin stream of red immediately welled up from her palm.
"Here, now you," she said, holding out her hand. Without hesitation the girl gave Xena her own. "You can close your eyes if you want to," she explained. "After all - Philos had to." She added this in what might possibly have been interpreted as a sardonic tone.
"But I ... was just thinking about ... things. The higher powers ..." He tried to splutter on, but his sister shot him one of those looks. That he knew so well.
Ah, well. Silence also was golden, they said.
In any event, Xena repeated the process for the girl, using the sharp metal to draw out a bleeding stream from her palm, too. At which she didn't close her eyes, Philos noted. Well - not everyone could be a deep thinker.
Then Xena took both their hands and pressed their palms tightly together. Mingling together the life flowing in their veins.
With her unscathed hand his sister held out the metal circle, directing the others to take hold of it too. And so they did, all as one; all were joined together. All of them - Xena, and Philos, and Lyceus, and now this girl - had become joined. In the ring.
"We're sisters and brothers now," observed Xena. "We're all of the same blood. So maybe now we can help you - our blood can help you, too. We'll always be together. And if one of us needs help ... well, they can just ask the others."
"Okay," answered the girl. "Maybe, someday." She seemed to consider something.
"Maybe if I send you this ring - then you'll come." She held out the hand on which she had a glittering, golden ring, engraved with an intricately beautiful seal; Philos didn't think he would ever forget it.
"I'll come," answered Xena. And that was all she had to say.
Later, as they started back down from the loft, something suddenly occurred to Philos.
"Say - I forgot to ask you," he said to the girl. "And I guess we should know, now that you're one of us, and everything. What's your name?"
For in fact she was a person, with a name.
And with that they slowly made their down the ladder. And back to the inn.
A Final Note -
Yes, Helen (of Sparta, and later Troy), was indeed kidnapped when she was a little girl - by none other than Theseus, Hero of Athens, and slayer of the Minotaur. (See section 103 of 'The Greek Myths" by Robert Graves.) Sometimes these heroes weren't very nice guys at all.
The Road Goes Ever On
Lyceus was still crying; the tears were streaming down his face, as he sat there on the ground.
He had come to them with a little bundle in his shirt - which turned out to be his new kitten, Pollux. The tiny creature had evidently tried to climb along the roof of a shed, but being so young and unsteady, had fallen.
It had landed on its feet, of course. But unfortunately ... also partly on a sharp scythe. Lying directly beneath it.
Xena and Philos carefully examined the little thing, held between them. There was a terrible, deep cut up into its side and one hind leg; Philos could hardly bear to look. The kitten mewed pitifully, with a soft little noise.
"Please help him!" cried Lyceus.
"I ... I don't know ..." murmured Philos.
What could they do? It was so bad...
"Well - there's the Wise Woman," he added, without really thinking. Then almost regretted it.
Xena looked up at him suddenly. And Lyceus cried out: "Yes! The Wise Woman! The Wise Woman!"
But the Wise Woman - no one went to see the Wise Woman. Well, not often. Not unless they had very good reason indeed. For people said things; whispered things. About the horrible reprisals she could take if annoyed. Of what heavy price she might ask in return, of anyone who came to her seeking something...
"Okay, let's go." And so it was decided by his sister.
What had he gotten into now?
So. Here they were.
It had taken them a while to get to this place - it was well outside the village, isolated from all the usual roads and byways. The dwelling of the Wise Woman.
The three of them stood there, simply looking at it; perhaps even Xena was now reconsidering the situation. For just the act of standing in this spot was enough to make one's skin crawl.
The Wise Woman's hut didn't even look like a normal one. It was of an odd, tall A-frame shape. And the heavy beams of that frame were carved with - well, all sorts of things. Weird and maybe gruesome things. Two posts, or perhaps half-formed statues, stood before the hut's doorway on either side, having been painted a blue color. And there, at the feet of the children, were stones - a great ring of blue stones, that continued on in a wide circle all around the hut. Did it mark a boundary? In this place? What would it mean, to step beyond it?
Suddenly, the kitten made a very thin, awful little sound.
Xena looked down at the tiny burden she was carrying; and in the next moment was into the circle and marching up to the door.
"So. What have we here?"
They stood in a little row before her: Xena, Philos, Lyceus. She watched them with - what could they be called? Shining eyes? Glittering? They were certainly lively, anyway. And how strange it was, he thought. To see such lively young eyes. In one so old.
"Please, ma'am," began Philos. His voice quavered a little; but he knew that it was his part to talk for them. "Please ... we've come for - your help."
"Ah, help. The help of the Wise Woman." Had there been something of the smallest, dry laugh in that reply? "But of course, you do know one thing. A very important thing."
Philos couldn't bring himself to utter a word.
"Namely - the price you'll have to pay. Which I won't tell you, until afterwards."
Her eyes were fixed on him. Glittering. Glittering, boring right through him.
"But whatever that price is, you'll pay it. All of you. Agreed?"
Almost without his volition, his head finally nodded. Just a little.
"Very well then. Now, as for your ... help -"
Xena suddenly strode right up to the woman. "Here - this is what! You've got to help him!"
"Oh!" She looked at the little bundle of fur, held out before her. Then carefully took it into her lap.
"Well, I don't know ..." she muttered, as she gently examined the kitten. It gave a plaintive little noise. "It's such a great wound - I'm not sure it would be best -"
All three children stared at her.
"Hmmm. Well, I suppose we can try. Starting with ... here you, look lively!"
She then ordered Philos to get a jar down from a high shelf on the wall beside them. And there were so many jars, saw Philos. And so many shelves - it almost seemed endless.
As he retrieved the jar she examined the wound. "Well, at least it's clean," she announced. "But we'll need something to keep it from turning bad. To stop the bleeding inside, and to help with the pain." Taking the jar from Philos, she dipped her finger in to get some sort of salve, and applied it. Then did the same with a couple of other jars he was directed to fetch back.
"There. Next we have to put things right as best we might. I'll need that needle and thread - ah, there it is. And now we'll stitch, though ... hmmm, it's such a little thing. And these fingers aren't what they once were..."
"Stitching?" asked his sister. "You mean you want to stitch it?" She had been following the proceedings very attentively, he had noticed, even examining the contents of the salve jars. "I can do that!".
"What? Are you sure, girl? It's not what you'd be used to."
Xena said nothing, but nodded once.
"Well, then let me show you how to start. We'll see how well you do." And so the Wise Woman soon had Xena using needle and thread to stitch up the wound, under her careful direction.
"Why, that's not too bad. Not too bad at all. Where'd you learn to stitch like that, girl?"
Xena only smiled a little. And perhaps, after all, some things were best left unsaid. Especially about the wall above his sister's bed. Which was even now decorated with many scenes she had skillfully stitched - of the most awful military encounters in history.
At length their efforts were finished, and the tiny patient given back into the care of Lyceus.
"Well, perhaps things won't turn out so bad after all," observed the Wise Woman. "Nothing vital was hurt beyond healing; and I think we helped as best we could. That leg will probably always be a bit stiff, though."
The joy in the face of the little boy, holding his kitten again, was impossible to describe.
Yet this idyllic moment did not last for long. As the Wise Woman began to laugh, very
softly, in that strange way of hers.
"But say ... you haven't forgotten already, have you?"
Her eyes now seemed to glitter more brightly than ever.
"That there still remains a price? Which must now be paid!"
Yet no response was immediately forthcoming.
"Here, you first!" She gestured to Xena to come closer to her. "Give me your hands, girl!" Which she did - though perhaps just a bit slowly. The Wise Woman took both of those hands into her own, turning them face up; studying them carefully. After which she looked straight into his sister's face.
"Well," she said after a moment. "Here's my price - for you."
Philos could barely stand it.
"That you'll serve me. Come here and serve me, each and every day, for an hour or two. As you can see, I need young hands to help me - and it's clear these two are cunning indeed. So your young hands will become mine! And then too, you may happen to pick up a few tidbits, here and there. Things of the healing arts - just a few, mind you. Hee hee! If your hands and eyes remain as cunning as we've seen today!
"Now you!" She turned her attention to Philos. "Let's see what your price will be!"
Almost shivering, he half-stumbled up to her. But when she took his hands, as she had with his sister, he suddenly seemed to become much calmer. And found that her gaze, into his eyes, wasn't at all what he had thought it would be.
"Hmmm ... a storyteller. That's what I've heard. Oh yes, I hear what goes on in the village - more than they know, hee hee! And a storyteller is what I see, one who's been given a fine gift for words. So that's my price for you, boy - that you'll come with your sister, each day, and help me with my words. For I've got piles and piles of 'em, that have to be saved. To be written down, that is. And these old fingers, as I said, aren't quite up to it.
"So - I guess I'll have to teach you how to make letters and such. Something as very few know. But I do! I do indeed!"
Heavens! He hadn't thought anyone in the village knew how to make letters or read them.
"And the things you'll write down - well, maybe you'll find stories in them, too. Of old histories, and secret things, and the doings of gods and men. Maybe stories as you've never even heard of!"
"Just one thing, boy. Just one little thing. Don't ever try to tell me one of your stories - when it's an answer I want!"
No chance of that, he decided.
Well - not much.
Then she directed Lyceus to be brought before her; and as with the others, looked at his hands, and into his face. But had nothing to say, for a time.
Until finally, she said gently:
"Take care of that cat of yours, now. Take good care of him indeed. For there's some cats as live longer than others."
Which was all she had to say.
So it was that later, just after the others had gone - and he himself was about to pass through the door - he stopped, and turned back. To ask a question.
"But ... but what about Lyceus? Isn't there something more? For him to do?"
She looked at him quietly for a moment. And then answered.
But it was an answer he did not understand.
He suddenly realized it, as they all walked along the path leading back to home.
"I'm - I'm going to be a scribe! I'm going to learn about reading and writing!" He gave a little shout. "This is just ... tremendous!" As indeed it was. For the profession of scribe was a high and honored one; the greatest in the land needed the skill of those who could make letters. So that scribes had even come to serve as the attendants of kings. And in the exercise of their profession they also learned of other things - many others...
"Yes, that's true," answered his sister. "And I think maybe I've decided what I'm going to be, too."
Her eyes seemed fixed on the horizon.
"A Wise Woman. Yes, a Wise Woman. That's what I'll be."
Which almost stopped him in his tracks. But then, thinking about it - it almost seemed to make sense. Somehow.
After which something else came to mind; as he watched young Lyceus, darting ahead of them with his little pet. What the Wise Woman had said of him, at the end. That he still did not understand.
"Just let him play, for now. Just let him live in the sun - and play."
That and no more.
A Final Note -
Literacy was indeed a highly specialized skill in the Bronze Age, limited to only a very few practitioners. In fact, in Mycenaean Greece the written script Linear B seems to have been used mainly for administrative purposes in the palace complexes - no literary productions have been discovered so far. (With the notable exception, of course, of the Xena Scrolls.)
Continued - Chapters 11-15
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