Chapter 12: Martial Hearts
Despite her encouraging visit with the sibyl, Lila's spirit was troubled as she continued haying and threshing for the next several days.
What might the Graces have meant: a warrior who bears no arms, a fruit that ripens no seed, a master who doesn't rule? The gods talk in riddles. My life is here with my family and friends. What other life could there be? Why this itch that won't be scratched, this restlessness amid contentment, this urge to overturn a well-laden cart? Why can't I leave Lee enough alone?
Like rocks that lie submerged beneath the surface of the waves, the sand and small stones being gently swept out from under them when the tide is going out only to be flung back again when the tide is coming in so that the rocks bump and slide but never tip, so Lila's thoughts pushed her toward desire then pulled her back toward duty, alternating in the ebb and flow of the day's chores and visits. Then, as the sands in a rotating glass race through the narrowest pinch in the channel, the halves at one instant in balance, the drop of one imperceptible grain irrevocably altering the balance, at some indeterminate instant which Lila could not, in retrospect, have specified, her resolve shifted irrevocably from duty to desire so that, the transition accomplished, the movement could not afterwards be reversed.
I've got to try my hand, Lila's inner voice spoke, or my heart will know no peace.
It was coming up on the fall equinox in the moonmark of Boedromion. The devotees of Demeter, in the four villages which clustered around Poteidaia, were getting ready for the annual thesmophoria, the ritual reenactment of the kidnapping of Persephone, performed on the colonnaded stage of the town's open-air telesterion.
The rite could be enacted only by the enaretes kores, the adepts from the local villages who were "of pure issue of blood"; that is, young women who'd gotten their periods, were still virgins and had not yet shed the blood of another. In addition to serving as the ritual dedication of the first fruits of the harvest on the altar of Demeter, the celebration marshalled, for public display, a good portion of the area's eligible daughters for the sake of parents and marriage brokers who might be looking to make a match for their eligible sons. Except that nowadays most of the town's single young men were proving their mettle – or losing their lives – on the battlefields of Ilium.
In her capacity as archegos of the enaretes kores, Lila, being the leader, would be playing the part of Demeter.
"Isn't that the same outfit you had on the last time?" Alexis was lounging on Lila's cot while Lila was trying on the long white gown that she'd fished out of the bottom of her footlocker.
"Yup," Lila turned sideways as she examined the waist. "Feels like the tummy could do with some letting out."
"Those pounds you put on over the winter make you look luscious," Alexis admired Lila's filled out figure.
"Oh, to have abs like Gab's," Lila sighed, fiddling with the tucks in back.
"Aphrodite could wish she had abs like Gab's," Alexis said. "C'mere, let me give a yank on that."
Alexis tugged as Lila sucked in her tummy.
"How's that?" Alexis stood back and regarded the dress with a critical eye.
"I think I'm gonna burst a gut," Lila stammered.
"How's this?" Alexis loosened the gather.
"Better," Lila said. "At least I can breathe."
"Don't know why you'd bother," Alexis said. "All you guys do is wave those wimpy wheat stalks around. ‘Winter is here/ Persephone isn't/this lonely world/feels like a prison't...' You gotta admit, Lee: it's a pretty tacky skit you guys put on."
"It's supposed to be tacky," Lila stepped out of the gown and set it down on the table whose broken leg Herodotus, without – thankfully – having sought too detailed an explanation, had lately repaired. "The really serious stuff goes on at Eleusis."
"It’s way cool, though, the way you chop the little tyke's balls off," Alexis said, starting to fold the wash that Lila had brought in from the line.
"When we do what?! When we chop… Gracious, Lexie, whatever gave you that idea? Chop the little tyke’s… shame on you," Lila gave Alexis a look as she marked the spot on the gown where she planned to add a swatch of fabric.
"When you pick the baby up off the altar and toss the two round stones away and tell his mama that the little goober won't be immortal now – that doesn't constitute chopping the little trooper's cubes off?" Alexis attacked the towels and facecloths.
"Certainly not," Lila smoothed out the additional material. "We’re not a bunch of barbarians up there, you know."
"When us Artemoids do our thing in the spring, we get to run around in our skimpies," Alexis folded and stacked the dry wash. "And if we should ever catch some horny bass player trying to sneak a peek at us from behind a tree, you’d better believe we’d slice that stuffed turkey’s olives off."
Alexis, like Gabrielle, had been consecrated to Artemis at birth. Not all first-born girl children became Artemoids but, when in the womb, Alexis had kicked her mother, Chloe, with such apparent relish that Chloe had determined that Artemis would be the most appropriate deity to take her newborn daughter in hand. "As Zeus were my witness," Clenesthides had confided to Herodotus as the two men were downing their pints at the pub one winter afternoon, "if I'd've known on the day when my fiery redheaded girl were hatched what I've come to know in the one and twenty sunmarks since, I'd've gone and pledged the little doxy to the bloody Echidna."
"Shears," Lila stuck out her hand and Alexis forked them over. "I know what you Artemoids do at your springtime revels. Gab's told me all about it. You run around in halter tops and leather panties, trying to catch rabbits and squirrels to roast at your big cookout."
"Got your little piggie picked out?" Alexis neither confirmed nor denied Lila's characterization of the annual Artemistophon.
Each adept was expected to bring to the thesmophoria a squealing piglet, an offering to Demeter, which the adept had begun to fatten early in the summer when the sows had given birth to their litters. Having marched the little beasts around the perimeter of the telesterion, the adepts herded them together for the blessing and the consecration.
Then, in years past, had come the gory part. The hierophant, Demeter’s chief priestess, obscured by a hooded cloak, lifted the piglets one by one, set them down on the altar and, with prayers to the grain goddess, slit their little throats, draining the blood, through a hole in the altar stone, into a wide marble piscina. The blood was then mixed with grass seed and grain and the gooey mixture was taken immediately from the premises to be spaded, like scoops of bone meal, into plowed rows of winter wheat specially prepared for the occasion. Gaia to Gaia, Blood to Blood, Life to Life.
The stage gave out a putrid stink afterwards. The rank odor of the carcasses all but ruined the ensuing performance. Many of the adepts and spectators were deeply offended by the bloody spectacle. Some became physically ill. And there was no dearth of sympathy for the poor little victims. So the ritual had evolved to the point where only one little pig was sacrificed, the deed taking place prior to the ceremony, in the shambles alongside the pub, where the butcher's cleavers and drainage troughs made quick, sanitary work of it. All the other shoats and barrows were carried in by the adepts, presented to the hierophant for a blessing and were then assembled in a pen behind the telesterion where they rooted around in the corn and slops until the conclusion of the ceremony at which time the adepts collected them and took them home. The family whose piglet, drawn at random, got sacrificed was compensated for its loss by a generous quantity of bled pork slabs.
When the ceremony was over, following the skit and the final dromena of music, dancing and chanting, the adepts filed out of the telesterion, each carrying a lighted candle. Then and only then did they break their fast, which they'd begun the night before, by drinking from a bowl of kykeon, a scumble of grains, seeds and water spiked with leaves of mint and pennyroyal.
Lila was proud to have been chosen to play the part of Demeter, and Alexis was proud on Lila's behalf. The hierophant had called on Lila to make sure that when Lila had walloped Latrinus' henchmen ("How many times to I have to tell people that Lexie torpedo'ed them both...?"), she'd inflicted no open wound. Content that Lila was still "of pure issue of blood," the hierophant decided that it was allright for Lila to continue to function as the group's archegos and to take part in the ceremony. Thus the need for the adjustments to last year's gown.
"Lex," Lila looked up from her alterations, "I’ve been mulling something over."
"What’s that?" Alexis began putting the towels and linens away as these items, at Lila's cottage, were stored in the same cubbies and niches as they were stored at Alexis' cottage.
"Remember when Gab and Xena came barreling through here on their way to Tiryns?"
"You said they barely stopped long enough to pee."
"I heard a bit more about the belt that Ares had made for Hippolyte, the Amazon queen. Apparently Herc did this really horrible thing that related back to some other horrible thing that Herc did after Hera zapped him a lightning bolt. And then, because of this horrible thing the Oracle at Delphi made Herc work off his guilt by doing odd jobs for King Eurystheus of Tiryns. And one of those jobs involved getting his hands on this precious belt and bringing it back as a wedding gift to Eurystheus’ daughter, Admete, who's now the queen."
"You said that Herc did something horrible?"
"Two things. But only ‘cause Hera put the whammy on him. It's too awful to go into."
"Lee! You can’t just sit there and say that Herc did these really horrible things and then not tell me what they were!"
"I can tell you but you won’t believe me."
"Why won’t I believe you?"
"’Cause what Herc did was so un-Herc-like."
"So tell me already!"
"Herc choked his wife and fried his kids."
"It was Herc who did that? I thought Herc was out of the house on the night that Hera roasted Deianeiara and the kids with a lightning bolt."
"That was Herc’s other wife and kids."
"Herc had… what, two sets of wives and kids?"
"Wait, are you saying that Herc lost his wife and kids twice?" Alexis left off folding the towels.
"Panoramic, isn’t it," Lila ran the stitch.
"How could lightning bolts strike twice in the same place?" Alexis said. "And land on Herc’s wife and kids both times?"
"Hera put the hex on him," Lila said. "She hit him with a lightning bolt that got Herc to do his first wife and kids in. Then she took care of the second wife and kids herself."
"You're right, I don't believe it," Alexis dropped a folded towel on the towel pile.
"Neither would I except I got it from the sibyl," Lila said.
"It was the sibyl who told you this?"
"And that's not all. The aftershock of getting hit by that lightning bolt made Herc lose his cool when he went to get the belt. When the Amazons goofed and tried to toast his butt, Herc reacted by sticking it to Hippolyte and all twelve members of her inner circle."
"Sounds like something Alti would do. So where was Zeus when all these marshmallows were hitting the fan?"
"Where Zeus always is. Shacking up with some blonde bombshell."
"They say people get the gods they deserve... not!"
"Hippolyte wanted to get Ares off her case, so she was happy to give Herc the belt. But then there was this horrible mixup and Herc ended up slicing her from gut to gizzard."
"What's the deal with this dude? Herc comes on like such a sweetie. Wherever there was evil. Wherever an innocent would suffer..."
"At least I've got some idea why Gab and Ephiny might be in hot water with Penthesileia."
"‘Cause Gab and Ephiny are tight with Herc?"
"That and other stuff, like Ephiny having a baby with a centaur."
"Gab didn't have a baby with a centaur. Gab had a baby with Dahak."
"It's like the Felafel Man and Chiron were telling us: Gab's an Amazon queen. Only she's a small-time queen. Penthesileia, who’s a big-time queen, has gone to Troy to avenge Hippolyte's murder."
"And she's looking to get her revenge by.…"
"So she's serious, then."
"But doesn't she know it was Velasca, not Gab and Ephiny, who off’ed Melosa?"
"I have no idea what this lady knows."
"Is that what’s been bugging you? Whether Gab's gonna make it through this thing okay?"
"Actually, I've been thinking about what Chiron was talking to us about before we wandered over to the pub."
"You mean the stuff about the Training Academy?"
"Chiron's not bad for a centaur, is he?"
"No, Chiron’s kind of a neat centaur, actually."
"Isn't that wild," Alexis folded her arms and looked at Lila.
"What, that Chiron’s not bad for a centaur?"
"That that's what you were thinking."
"You mean about Chiron or the Training Academy?"
"So we must have been thinking the same thing, then."
"What about it were you thinking?"
"What about it were you thinking?"
"That it might be worth checking out."
"You mean it?"
"It’s a thought."
"Did you look at the stuff that Chiron gave us?"
"I skimmed it."
"I did too."
Lila and Alexis fell silent.
"So what do you think?" Alexis finally said.
"I was kind of impressed," Lila said.
"I was too, kind of."
"It’s kind of an impressive program."
"It is, isn’t it."
"So you wanna?"
"Maybe give it a shot."
"What, the Warrior Training Program?"
"Sure, why not."
"C’mon, Lee, our parents aren't gonna let us go off to some Warrior Training Academy. Besides, you're not the type."
"I could try. I might never be as good as Gab, but I might get a little good at it."
"When did you get a bug up your bloomers about the Training Academy?"
"On the way home from the pub."
There was another pause.
"I’m getting the feeling that you're almost serious about this," Alexis plopped down next to Lila on the cot.
"Think about it, Lex," Lila left off her stitching. "The guys have gone off to make their mark in some long, drawn out war that may never end. My dad and your dad and a bunch of these other dads are up in arms over some creepy warlord who's been hassling them. Gab and Xena have gone racing off to try and get some silly queen to part with an Amazon treasure that she never should have gotten her hands on in the first place. And now Gab and Ephiny could end up dangling from the end of an Amazon rope."
"Don’t you worry. Xena isn't going to let anything bad happen to Gab. Or to Ephiny."
"That's not the point. The point is that we can't afford to sit around like a couple of silly gooses, thinking that other people are always going to be looking out for us. Mom's had Dad. Before that, she had Gramps. Same for your mom. Maybe it isn't going to be like that for us. And it sure doesn't look like it's going to be that way for Gab. So I've been thinking it might not be a bad idea if we tried to pick up a few warrior-type skills so we could be in some kind of decent shape to look out for ourselves in case the time should ever come when...," Lila's voice trailed off.
"In case what time should ever come, Lee? You're starting to freak me out. I've never heard you talk like this."
"In case we end up being old maids and having to fend for ourselves. It could happen. Wasn't the Felafel Man telling us that what's going on over in Troy these days isn't all peaches and cream?"
"Lee, you're the prettiest thing in this whole town, you and Gab. If there's any girl in these parts who doesn't have to worry about ending up an old maid, it's the one I see sitting beside me."
"I didn't mean it like that," Lila blushed slightly. "I only meant that it might do us some good if we knew a little better how to stand up for ourselves. You've got a head start on me. You've clocked three bozos already. That ought at least to get you an interview if not a scholarship."
"What you're saying has crossed my mind," Alexis said. "My brothers get to go off to war with Perdy and Andros while you and me get left at home to do the scutwork."
"I'd like to try to be a little bit independent so I won't always have to rely on other people to fight my battles for me the way you did when I accidentally ripped off that pomegranate."
"I'd stand up for you anytime, Lee; you know that."
"I know you would, Lex, and that means a lot to me. But I don't want you to have to. What would you do if you and The Big O were having a picnic down at the bay and you got jumped by a couple, three of Latrinus’ goons?"
"I guess I'd have to rough ‘em up."
"So maybe an ounce of prevention isn’t such a bad idea."
"What are you suggesting?"
"When thesmophoria's over at the end of the week, I want to run my idea by Mom and Dad. It'll be Pyenepsion soon, the slow time of the year, when it’s mostly indoor things and the men head over to the pub in the afternoons. Just for a moonmark. Not to tick them off like Gab did when she ran off with Xena but just to get the ball rolling. To see if I've got what it takes to make a go of it. And I'd like you to come with me."
"Oh, Lee, that sounds so tempting. And the thing of it is, I don't think I'd be half bad at it. With instructors who know what they’re doing and time and a place to practice, maybe I could think about having a couple, three mini-adventures of my own. Not big ones like Gab and Xena have but little things like helping to rid the town of creeps like Latrinus."
Alexis got up and wandered over to the window. The fencepost across the lane was wrapped in thorny rose vines bare of all but a few lingering petals. Behind the fence, within the enclosure, Gida, the goat, was nibbling on thistles, pausing at intervals to nudge, with her muzzle, one or another of her braying kids.
"Do you think we could?" Alexis stared at the idle sheep that were lying in the shade with their legs tucked under their flanks. "Carve out some breathing space. Just enough to let us… bloom a little. Just to open the buds open so they could get some air and light." Then Alexis spun around with a troubled look on her broad, sallow face. "Not that I mean to be ungrateful for the blessings of home and family and a roof over my head."
"You’re not being ungrateful," Lila said. "I hear you wanting to spread your wings and fly a little, that’s all."
Alexis came back from the window, took Lila's festival gown, lifted it up and spread it out by the shoulders. "I'll be honest with you, Lee. It wouldn't hurt you to shed a few pounds if you're serious about wanting to follow through on this."
"I know," Lila said with a tad of embarrassment.
Alexis let the gown fall back onto the table. She dropped her jaw, her eyes got big, and then she ran across the room to give Lila a big hug. "You're the best thing in this whole wide world, do you know that, Lee!" Alexis drew back and smiled at Lila's somewhat startled expression. "And I'll stomp the family jewels off anyone who tells me different."
"Well," Lila sat back, suppressing a smile as Alexis released her grip on Lila’s arms and shoulders, "aren't you the dainty dish to set before a raging Amazon queen."
"'The danger, the power, the passion...,'" Alexis held forth with a flourish.
"Yadda, yadda, yadda," Lila waved Alexis' flourish away with a chuckle.
"Ouch!" Alexis cried and quickly drew her hand back from the mass of sheer gauze that she'd been brandishing about the room.
"Oh, I meant to warn you," Lila said, "be careful when you’re winging that thing around. I haven't dug the pins out yet."
Continued in Part 13
The Bard's Corner