Chapter 11: Scandal In The Wind
Late on the following afternoon, after spending the better part of the day haying in the meadow, Lila stopped, on her way home, to gather a small quantity of mint, myrtle and lemon verbena from the tangled outcroppings of the wildflowers which bordered the rolling dells of the grain fields.
Back at the cottage, Lila steeped the petals in a bowl of strained floral water into which she poured a dollop of olive oil and decanted a trickle of pink, lucent, retsina wine. Then she emptied the mixture into a small, porcelain amphora glazed with blue faience between its twin arched handles. The amphora, along with a golden shaft of wheat and a bulbous citron, which she'd plucked from the tree by the gatepost, sat on the low table by the door while Lila went up to the loft to change into a clean white blouse and a dark skirt woven of rough, twill cotton and adorned, above the hem, by a tracery of red, green and yellow brocade.
Examining her reflection in the glass, Lila bunched her long, dark hair behind her neck and bound it loosely with a cerise ribbon flecked with bits of golden glitter. She smoothed her thick eyebrows, feathered her long lashes with a touch of charcoal ointment, applied a light coating of mild, pink gloss to her full, puffy lips and patted a touch of powder to her cheeks and beneath her nose where her skin was matted with a shading of dark, gentle down. Then she dabbed a bit of lavender scent on her neck around which she fixed seven bright yellow kernels of dried corn strung on a thin, golden chain.
She descended the ladder to the cottage's combined sitting room and dining area, picked up the amphora, the stalk of wheat and the citron, then eased out the door. Looking as lovely as the splendid effusion of this westernmost cape of the Pelline Peninsula now in redolent, late-summer bloom, Lila made her way down the lane toward the acacia grove, then turned left and sunward to seek out a less-traveled, more circuitous path that lazed through a wide stand of tamarack and banyan, green and boisterous in its lush overgrowth. In little more than a league, the path came to an end in a curly copse of laurel bushes through which, its vestibule dappled with trellises of hollyhock and morning glory, a small hut stood isolated on a rocky cleft whose curtilege was marked by a well-tended vegetable garden, a pile of split kindling and a fountain whose fine spray shot up and over the rim of the ewer held on the shoulder of a nude, granite nymph to fill and then drain from the fountain's circular catch basin.
Lila brushed the shrubbery aside and strode several dozen paces to the stubbled path that ran between the hedged garden to the hut's rear door. Standing as tall and straight as she could, several fingerwidths below the average height of the women in her village, Lila shouted the words, "Anabisomai! Apigkeila! Epikaleo!". Then she climbed the steps to the door in front of which she paused and, again loudly, cried the words, "Krateo! Elpideo! Aletheo!"
The door opened and Lila stepped inside.
A low altar carved of smooth stone stood against the far wall. Six orange tapers, three mounted in slanting candelabras at either end of the altar, cast a flickering pall of cuttled shadow on the side walls. Next to the candles, on the left, a gleaming, five pointed star, stretched oblong to form a taut pentacle, was braced like a miniature obelisk in an upright stone bracket. Next to the candles, on the right, an ornamental dagger was likewise mounted, its blade curly and sharp, its handle strewn with a smatter of gleaming gems. On either side of the altar, rising like a casement to the roof ridge, a black filigree of leafy wrought iron supported a mounting of sword and shield to the left, bow and javelin to the right. High on the wall behind the altar and centered above it, a bronze sunwheel, an armspan in diameter, caught the dim candlelight, the sweep of its hooked crosspieces glinting gold in the flurry. The wall was covered, from floor to ceiling, with green and gold damask tapestry. On the floor behind the altar, a wide, springy cushion, cased in a sheer violet fabric, rested on a carpet of intricate and colorful design whose pile was as thick as the soft pelt of moss that lay between a tall tree's root legs.
Lila approached the altar. When she'd come within a hand's reach of it, she sank to her knees and set her treasures on the rough, wooden floor. "Thalassios!" she lifted the amphora and placed it at the center of the altar. "Ogmios!" she lifted the shaft of wheat and placed it lengthwise in front of the amphora. "Ouranios!" she lifted the citron and placed it in front of the shaft of wheat. "Hye! Kye! Chairetismata!" Lila cried in a loud voice. "May the gods look kindly on my humble offering!" Then Lila bowed low to the floor, prostrate in child pose, her knees and forehead stretched out flat, her arms and hands extended their full length in front of her, the tips of her thumbs and index fingers touching. There she lay and waited, eyes closed, chest lightly rising and falling, hair spread and fanning past her rounded shoulders most of the way down her back.
A turn of the sandglass – though it seemed like the passing of a candlemark – later, a voice, in counterpoint, from in back of the altar, replied, "What mortal wight hath come to seek my counsel?"
"It is I," Lila spoke, her body still bent, her eyes still closed, "thy servant, Lila, wherefore I endow thy sacred altar with such mundane tokens as earth, sea and sky hath this day wrought."
"Speak, child, and say, 'pon pain of woe if e'er ye waver, whence comest thou and whither bound?"
"I come from out the weary world and thence would fain return," Lila said.
"What seek'st thou in this humble hut, child?" the voice responded.
"Boon and benison; boon for the world, benison for mine own," Lila spoke softly.
"Then Liliana, junior daughter of Herodotus, though no less esteemed; latter child of Hecuba yet not lesser loved, rise and open wide the gates of thy heart."
The ceremony done, Lila raised her head and torso and peered into the kindly eyes of the elderly woman, gowned in a blue mantle, head shrouded in the hood of a black domino, who'd entered the hut and had taken a seat on the cushion behind the altar while Lila had been lying there prone.
"Hello, Lila," an equally kind voice spoke from within the hooded folds. Then the wearer brushed back the hood and smiled, her gray hair framing her cheeks, her blue-green eyes having lost none of their sparkle to the weight of age and wisdom.
"Hello, sibyl," Lila reached out a warm forearm which the sibyl firmly grasped.
"You're looking well, child," the sibyl said, releasing Lila's grip. "Good appetite, I see."
"Oh, yes," Lila lightly blushed, "no problem there."
"More than well. I should say you're looking radiant," the sibyl scrutinized Lila. "But then you always were a pretty child. A trifle troubled, though, from the look of you."
"A bit," Lila looked back at the sibyl. "I need to make a decision. Or not make a decision. But either way, I need to decide."
"From one road run many forks," the sibyl smiled. "What's on your mind?"
"What can you tell me about Hippolyte, a great queen the Amazons, and the jeweled belt that Ares had made for her?"
"Why do you ask?" the sibyl said in a noncommittal voice.
"Gab and Xena have gone to Tiryns to try and get it back from Queen Admete. The Felafel Man and Chiron were telling me and Lexie yesterday that Penthesileia, the Queen of all the Amazons, has gone to fight alongside the Trojans because Herc supposedly took the belt from her sister, Hippolyte, by force. We were further told that Hippolyte was murdered when Herc got hold of the belt and that Penthesileia has vowed to crush the Argive assault on Troy by taking Achilles' life in battle, which she knows she won't be able to do because everybody knows how Achilles is going to end up and it won't be on the point of Penthesileia's sword.
"Not that these matters would be of interest to me except that there's this other Amazon, Velasca, who's apparently asked Penthesileia to mediate a dispute about who’s going to succeed Melosa as queen of the Macedonian Amazons. And if Ephiny and Gab should end up on the losing side of this dispute, Penthesileia, Chiron said, has the authority to pronounce a death sentence on them. A death sentence? I’m scared for Gab. Would Xena let that happen? For all I know, Xena's been placed under the threat of a death sentence too."
"At this point, I'd give serious thought to panicking," the sibyl said.
"You would?" Lila sat there, stunned.
"No, but I'd slow down and catch my breath," the sibyl said with twinkling eyes. "I'm sure you realize that when one opts to travel with Xena, one foregoes the luxury of living a trouble-free life."
"I know but that doesn't mean that Gab signed up for an Amazon death sentence."
"You're concerned about what might become of your sister."
"And you know that worrying won't change anything."
"I know," Lila said with downcast eyes. "That's why I feel I need to do something. The trouble is: I don't know what to do. The day before yesterday I was hanging out the wash and sewing a patch on Dad's britches and, other than mildly missing Gab, I was feeling pretty good about things. But then Lexie fell out the window and Mom nearly ran her through with the pitchfork after which Lexie knocked the tar out of two of Latrinus’ goons which got us invited to the pub to have a mug of ale with the men; and last night I had a look at the promotional flyer for Tyldus’ Warrior Training Academy. Then, just before heading over here, I noticed this ugly zit on my chin. So, as you can see, a lot has happened in the past forty-eight candlemarks."
"All worked up and nowhere to go," the sibyl chuckled, shifting her weight on the cushion. "Are you still kneeling on the floor, dear?" The sibyl reached under the altar and pulled out a second cushion. "Here, stick this under your bottom. You'll be more comfortable."
Lila took the cushion and shoved it under her bum. "When Gab was born, Mom and Dad brought her here and had her consecrated to Artemis, didn't they."
"Yes, it was rather a cloudy winter day as I recall."
"I've been told that Dad said something like, 'I dedicate my first born to Artemis: may she be free and strong, pure in heart, with a spirit that soars like the wind.'"
"And Gabrielle howled and fussed and kept wiggling, even during the laying on of hands. 'A week old,' I said to your father, 'and already straining at the bit. One day, it may take a will that’s even stronger than her own to hold this little one in check.'"
"And when I came along.…"
"Your mother and father brought you here on a balmy spring day and we consecrated you to Demeter."
"'May she be good and true, loyal of heart, with a spirit that's richly rooted in the earth.'"
"Did I carry on like Gab did?"
"You snoozed through the whole thing. At one point, you whimpered and your mother burped you and then you settled down and seemed quite content."
"Shoot. I wish I would have raised the roof."
"Why? You were a mellow baby."
"Maybe that’s where the problem started."
"To be an adept of Demeter is a special calling. It gives you depth and breadth. It fills your heart. It bears you up. And I'd say that such a calling well suits your nature."
"So maybe I'm cut out to be nothing more than a happy little milkmaid all my born days," Lila pouted.
"Spoken like a young woman who doesn't know her own gifts and talents," the sibyl smiled. "I shouldn't be surprised if your sister envied you."
"Gab? Envy me? I don’t think so. Gab's too busy slaying dragons, toppling cyclopses and lopping the heads off fire-breathing hydras to spend her nights sewing patches on Dad's britches or fussing with Mom's rag dolls."
"Don't be peevish, Lila. There's no need to be making excuses. You're a gifted young woman; and from those who've been given much, much is expected."
"The Fates. Take this Amazon queen, Penthesileia, to whom you've just alluded. Few souls have been endowed with greater gifts and talents. She's maintained the Amazons in what prominence they continue to enjoy, a prominence that had already begun to wane by the time she came to the throne and will wane further before the day comes, generations hence, when Amazon glory will shine forth once again. From her, the Fates demand no less than her life in hopeless combat. Vainglorious Achilles will cut her down with the first stroke he strikes. So easily will proud Peleus' son snap the thread of the great Queen's life, it will seem as though her magnificent form were but a child's top set down upon the edge of a precipice whereon a simple pull of the string will send it spinning over the brink. Even so does the proud Queen gird her loins the more fiercely for the coming battle."
"But why? Throwing one's life away in a grand but futile gesture would seem to make no sense."
"To one who's not been consecrated to Artemis, let alone been born a daughter of Ares, perhaps not. You say you've been pledged to Demeter since birth."
"And you've honored that sacred pledge from that day to this? I see you come in the manacle that binds you," the sibyl pointed to Lila's necklace of seven kernels of corn.
"Never once have I dishonored my bond."
"Good. See that you don't. It's a greater gift than perhaps you know."
"Since last night after supper, I've had this crazy notion running around my brain. What if I were to enroll... I mean Lexie and me... what if the two of us were to try our luck at the Academy? You know, train to be warriors like Gab, only Gab's doing it with Xena."
"That's truly what you were thinking?"
"I know it sounds off the wall. I'm not the brass and leather type, and, as you were just saying, I'm not one of Ares' girls. Nor would I want to be. Look at Xena. Ares drives her bonkers half the time. Xena picked up a sword and nearly ran her own mother through."
"Leaving Xena aside, is that what you feel in your heart? That you'd like to try your hand at the warrior's calling?"
"It's a no brainer, isn't it. Tell me I'm whacko to even think such a thing."
The sibyl laughed with delight. "I'll do no such thing. Perhaps you ought to give it a try if you can work out the details with your parents. I know Tyldus. I expect he runs a first-rate operation. Those who sow and reap must set a guard upon their stores lest man or beast break the close and make off with the provisions. Why not think it over. As two poisons, henbane and nightshade, when combined in proper measure, make for a healing balm, the heat of the former neutralizing the chill of the latter, so the heart and mind, in apt proportion, combine to bestow a benefice on body and soul. Let your will bring your heart and mind into balance. Then you'll know what to do."
"I came here thinking you'd shoot me down," Lila said with a light blush on her cheeks.
"Nonsense. You came here knowing I'd build you up. See how lovely you look, the care you've taken, the good taste that's yours by nature. You're nobody's fool, Lila. And you need be no one's second fiddle."
Lila looked down at the floor. It was a simple hut. Only this little chapel distinguished it from the mass of local peasant dwellings. And the sibyl was more than wise. She was warm and nurturing.
"You believe in me, don't you," Lila gave the sibyl a look that was so frank it was nearly cross.
"I always have," the sibyl met Lila's look straight on. "You're the real thing, Lila. There's nothing false about you."
"Then I need to know one more piece of the puzzle," Lila said. "How does Herc fit into the picture?"
The sibyl sat back and let go a long, slow sigh. "You like Hercules, don't you."
"Who doesn't?" Lila said with deep affection. "And it's not because Herc's a hunk. Herc's sweet and kind. Herc's had his share of pain and heartache, but you'd never know it to be around him."
"Hercules is no stranger to grief and trouble, that's true. Hera's jealousy can exact a terrible toll."
"So I've heard."
"Hercules, my dear," the sibyl said, "is the loneliest of men."
"Yet to know him is to love him."
"I don't get it. Hasn't Herc got Iolaus to pal around with?"
"Love can be a harsh taskmaster, Lila. Perhaps that's a discussion you'll have with your sister one day. Suffice it to say that Hercules has had his battles to fight and not all of them have been with such monsters and warlords as one might despatch with a sword or spear."
"Was Hippolyte's belt one of them?"
"It came to pass on Mount Olympus one night," the sibyl said, "that Hera, in the throes of a jealous rage, hurled one of Zeus’ lightning bolts full force upon Hercules at an instant when Hercules, embarked upon some noble errand, was caught unawares.
"The blow hit him broadside and, as a result, Hercules was driven quite mad. In the heat of his frenzy, he strangled his wife, Megara. Then he flung their three children and two of his brother Iphicles' children onto the pyre which he'd kindled high upon the windy peak of Mount Athos. When the madness left him and he beheld the carnage, he tore his hair and rent his garments and would have hurled himself from that high cliff but for Ares' intervention: Ares, Athena and Apollo. It took the combined force of three Olympians to prevent Hercules from taking his own life."
"I thought Ares had it in for Herc."
"They've had their differences, but Ares has no love for Hera, and though the tenets of morality may be of little concern to the gods, Ares has a rudimentary sense of fair play. Apparently, on that occasion, he felt that Hera had gone too far and that her behavior bordered on scandal.
"Overwhelmed by greater than mortal grief, Hercules banished himself from the haunts of men and lived, for a time, as a wild beast, howling, wailing, baying at the moon, during which time he was of little use to anyone, least of all to himself. Then Aphrodite, who's always had a tender spot in her heart for Hercules, threw a hissy fit at an Olympian banquet – upended the dessert cart is how I heard it – and refused to regain control of herself until something might be done to bring Hercules back to the land of the living.
"At that point, Zeus, who goes to great lengths to avoid getting swept up in these quarrels – who tends to run and hide from them, some say – sent word, via Hermes, to Iolaus and Jason, telling them to dig Hercules out of his pit of desperation and to bring him to the Pythian priestess at Delphi for absolution and purification."
"To the Oracle," Lila said. "But it doesn't sound like Herc was very approachable."
"Following Hermes' instructions nearly cost Iolaus and Jason their lives," the sibyl said. "But that's what friends are for. To take the hard, sacrificial risks. Iolaus and Jason didn't shirk from their duty but ventured forth and cornered Hercules in a cave. With the help of a timely rock slide, they managed to fling a net over him."
"But it couldn't have been Herc's fault, the terrible thing that he did," Lila said. "Not if Hera zapped him when he wasn’t looking."
"True," sibyl said. "Hercules knew that up here," the sibyl tapped her temple, "but in here...," she lightly touched her breast, "the heart can be a merciless judge. Take Xena, the burden of guilt she's carried, the Tartarus she's put herself through for the sake of the lives she's destroyed. Imagine: what if you'd done even worse? What if you'd murdered your beloved wife and children? Living with the burden of that kind of guilt might drive a worthy soul to distraction."
"Unless they had someone in their life whose love for and faith in them were even greater than the burden of guilt and shame they carried," a light of sisterly understanding began to flicker in the forechamber of Lila's consciousness.
"Iolaus and Jason brought Hercules to Delphi where the Oracle commanded Hercules to dwell, for a time, in the land of Tiryns where he was to perform a dozen labors for Eurystheus, the King, at the conclusion of which Hercules would have completed his penance, and the stain on his soul would be removed."
"So Herc had to work off his guilt by doing odd jobs for the King," Lila said.
"Twelve of them. And the ninth involved procuring for Admete, the King's daughter, a jeweled belt which Hephaestos had forged, at Ares' request, for Hippolyte, a high queen of the Amazons, elder sister to Penthesileia."
"Now we're getting to the part I'm familiar with," Lila said. "But why did Admete want the belt? She isn't an Amazon."
"A queen's desires are difficult to fathom. She may have fancied the belt as a stylish accessory for her royal wedding gown."
"So Herc went and snagged the belt?"
"Indeed, he did."
"He stole it? Really?"
"There’s some who say he did. From what I've heard, though, Hippolyte was more than willing to let Admete have the belt. Hippolyte was apparently hoping that parting with the belt might help to quell Ares' passion for her."
"But Ares figured out a way to gum up the works, didn't he?"
"Hippolyte, you should realize, was a most unusual person. Like her elder sisters, Antiope and Melanippe, and her younger sister, Penthesileia, Hippolyte was of the blood of Lysippe, born to her high station as the third of four daughters to the woman whose tireless labors built the great city of Themiscyra at the mouth of the River Thermidon in Pontus, the royal seat of the Amazon nation. Had she so chosen, Hippolyte could have led a pampered life – insofar as Amazons may be apt to pamper themselves; drilling, perhaps, only eight candlemarks a day, sleeping in a bed as many as two nights in a single week. But as with her aunt, Molpeidia, the legendary Amazon war queen, Hippolyte spared herself neither trial nor hardship.
"Hippolyte cared deeply for the well-being of her sisters. If one of them had gone on a scouting mission and had to miss the evening meal, being exposed to the elements on a raw and windy night, Hippolyte went hungry and waited outdoors, shivering in the sleet or snow, until her scout had come safely home. Then the two of them took their modest supper together. She never asked the least of her sisters to do a job that she was unwilling to do herself. She was kind, compassionate and immensely generous. She had a way of bringing out the best in people. And if a dangerous deed had to be done, she was the one who stepped forward to do it."
"What became of her?"
"Hercules killed her. Cut her down with her own sword."
"You're joking! But how? Why?"
"Hercules and Hippolyte had arranged to meet on the docks. Hercules was to set sail for Tiryns with the belt. On the evening before his departure, the harbormaster threw a huge bash in Hercules' honor to which he'd invited Hippolyte and her chiefs who'd accompanied her to the coast. Amazons can be the life of any party, and Hippolyte had just brought Hercules the belt and was in a mood to feast and drink and cut loose on the dance floor. Gorgeous thing, it was, that belt: emeralds, sapphires, rubies on the strap, and two diamonds on the buckle – gifts from Penthesileia – to gleam boldly in testimony to their bond of mutual care and service. With the belt having willingly changed hands, Hercules and Hippolyte, along with many of the guests, were milling about on the wharves as the crew readied the sails for the riggings.
"Suddenly, raging down the gangway, Hippolyte’s retinue, clad in bird masks, armed to the teeth with swords, javelins, bows, arrows, double-bladed labryses and crescent shields in the shape of the half moon, came wailing their shrill cry. 'It’s a trick! We've come to rescue you, my Queen!' each voice shouted amid a volley of spears and a hail of arrows. They'd been told – lied to by Ares, in a jealous snit at having had his affections spurned by the austere yet enticing Hippolyte – that Hercules’ request for the belt was a pretext to lure their queen into a snare. The Amazons were led to believe that Hercules had come to kidnap their queen, to bear her in chains back to Mycenae, there to hold her for a royal ransom or else to cart her off to Athens and present her as a trophy to its current ruler as Theseus had once kidnapped and conveyed to his bed and bailiwick the lithe and beautiful Antiope. So here, in full battle array, came Hippolyte's mighty guard, flying on the wind to foil Hercules' supposed abduction of their queen.
"Not even Hercules can count himself immune from the ravages of a swarm of furious Amazons. An Amazon will instantly give her life to protect her queen. It's a response that's been bred into them over the course of rigorous training until it's become second nature. Disoriented and not yet free from the lingering residue of the madness that Hera had inflicted upon him, Hercules imagined, in the instant, that Hippolyte had lured him into a trap. And so, whether from fear or rage or madness or some stark instinct for self-preservation, Hercules acted on reflex. He tore Hippolyte's sword out of its scabbard, plunged the blade deep into her breast, then turned to encounter the horde of onrushing Amazons.
"Swift Aella bore down upon him, wielding the double-bladed axe. She was the first to fall. Then tall Philippis, mighty with the sword, was the next to strike a blow and be slain. Next to be laid low was fearless Prothoé who rushed up and hurled the heavy lance. Fourth to go down was brave Eriboea who lunged with the knife. Fifth was bold Phoebe, hurling her challenge with the mace. Chaste Caelano, beloved of Artemis, never missing a kill in the hunt, was the sixth to be slain, her spear turned back to sever her neck with a spurting blow. Then the five archers fell: lovely Alcippe, loyal Asteria, sweet Deianeiara, kind Marpé, dear Tecmessa. They were the seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh who gave their lives to the glory of their names. And the twelfth and last of the Queen's royal guard to be to be slain, stripped of all weapons but her fists and heedless of any passion save that of avenging her fallen Queen, was grand Adromache, broken with a sickening crunch upon the skull. And of all that glorious company, only the herald, fleet Iphito, having slain the adjutant, Tiamedes, as he ran to alert the Argive hoplites of the Amazon revolt against Hercules' attempt to procure the treasured belt, survived to convey to her sisters at Themiscyra the tragic tidings of the horrid rout.
"The gory deed done, Hercules leaped from the pier and, bearing the belt in his arms, swam a hundred leagues to Salamis whence he returned, via Corinth, to Eurystheus who presented the belt, as a wedding gift, to his daughter, Admete."
"But to have gotten the belt at such a price."
"A terrible price. When Iphito, long and leggy, had sprinted to the hall of Lysia, Hippolyte's second in command, Lysia and her Amazons mounted their chargers and hurried to arrive too late at the scene of the massacre. Upon beholding the drear sight of their slain Queen and fallen sisters, the Amazons went berserk. Those who survived the ensuing slaughter – the visiting warlords of Argos, seizing the opportunity, put many a loyal Amazon warrior to the sword upon that black and blood-drenched night – the remaining contingent destroyed the ship upon which Hercules was to have set sail and slew the entire crew. Then they set fire to the wharves and would have wrecked further vengeance upon the fleet but for the billowing smoke from the blaze that made further incursions impossible. Their frenzy in no way quelled, the Amazon warriors rampaged through the streets, cutting down and slitting the throats of every Argive whom they encountered, every male Argive at any rate; which is why the road from Ephesus south to Miletus through the back country of Ionia is known, to this day, as the Bloody Ride of the Amazons – because upon that stony, winding course they rode a hundred leagues in their unquenchable rage and grief, despoiling every living thing in sight.
"The fury of Penthesileia, upon receiving word of the foul deed, was such that the earth from the Halicarnassus in the south to Mount Ida in the north shook and rolled and rumbled and would not be stilled until Hippolyte and her slain sisters had been burnt on the pyre with proper Amazon funerary rites, the period of mourning lasting an entire moonmark. Even then, Penthesileia of the Seven Stars, soon to become Queen of all the Amazons, would not be consoled in her grief nor would her agony for her lost sister-love abate. Still she mourns, they say, and, in her mourning, grows daily more beautiful for the sake of the pain and sorrow that time, the most merciful of mistresses, cannot, for all her sweet mead and balsam, allay."
"That's so sad," Lila said. "Is that why Penthesileia and her cadre have gone to Troy, to avenge themselves upon the Greeks? Upon... us?"
"Not strictly upon the Greeks, no," the sibyl said. "Well, yes, but it's more specific than that. Penthesileia has vowed to avenge Hippolyte's death by breaking the back of the Argive siege of Ilium and, in the process, slaying the mighty Achilles."
"Which she isn't going to be able to do."
"Then why do it? Commit suicide, I mean. Then she'll be just another dead Amazon queen. Besides, isn't her quarrel with Herc?"
"Her quarrel is with all things that lie aslant of love. Vengeance is only the button on Penthesileia's bonnet. It's not the brim and band."
"The Felafel Man and Chiron were telling me and Lexie that Penthesileia may have it in for Ephiny and Gab."
"No friend of Hercules is likely to endear herself to the grieving Penthesileia. Certainly not an Amazon regent or her absent queen. But don't sell the lady short. She's stern but not unkind. And in her soul, there exists a blot upon the title of love whose forfeit must be paid."
"With her blood?"
"So it would seem."
"Yet nobody meant for those awful things to happen, did they?"
"The thread of the Fates winds not around the loom of mortal intent. We are the warp and weft, they the shed and shuttle."
Lila fell silent and so did the sibyl. They sat together, each basking in the other's aura. At length, Lila prostrated herself as she'd done when she'd entered the hut.
"Bless me, mother, for I am in need."
"What is thy need, child?" the sibyl reached out and softly stroked Lila's hair.
"To know the way and to follow it."
"Were that the true and tested yearning of thy heart?"
"By the earth which nurtures me, the sea which cleanses me, the sky which sustains me, yea and yea and thrice times yea."
"Then rise up and it shall be done," the sibyl gently lifted Lila to a sitting position. Then, with her eyes cast upwards toward the roof beam, the sibyl cried out, "Sikonomoké eugeneia!"
At once there appeared three beauteous maidens bedizened in glittering swirls of the lightest gauze, colored rose, toupe and garnet, with hair of streaming gold and eyes as blue as the kindling of late summer fire.
"The Graces!" the sibyl cried. "Calimera! Welcome to my humble hut! I ask for your guidance and protection upon my child, Lila, whom I have tested and found worthy!"
The first Grace stepped forward. "Aglaia: I am Splendor and graceful thou art. A bold warrior shalt thou be, though skill in arms evade thee."
The second Grace stepped forward. "Euphrosyne: I am Mirth and joyous thou art. A fruitful lover shalt thou be, though man's seed eschew thee."
The third Grace stepped forward. "Thalia: I am Good Cheer and tender thou art. A worthy master shalt thou be, though command of others elude thee."
The Graces took Lila by the hand and, in the center of the hut, they danced in a ring. Then the Graces returned Lila to her seat in front of the altar. "Sto Epanidhin, parthena! Sto Epanidhin, thygatra! Sto Epanidhin, fila!" they cried and were gone.
The sibyl reached out and cupped Lila's round cheeks in her own rugged palms. "In the name of the three realms – that which girds us, that which binds us, that which frees us – I give you gods' speed. Go forth from this place and be well."
Lila reached up and took the sibyl's veined hands in her own smooth ones. "Thank you, sibyl," Lila replaced the sibyl's hands on the altar. "It's good to see you again."
"And it's good to see you, my child," the sibyl said with great affection.
Lila rose, curtsied and turned to leave. She walked to the door, turned again, bowed deeply, whispered the word, "Eirineo..." and turned around, this time walking out the door, down the steps and across the chalky stone path through the garden gate. Then Lila crossed the open stretch of lawn toward the laurel bushes, found the overgrown path in the brush and, an instant later, disappeared homeward into the dense woods.
Material related to Hippolyte's belt and to Hercules madness and resulting Twelve Labors was compiled from various sources.
Continued in Part 12
The Bard's Corner