|Gear And Clothing On The Tampon Trail|
Where were you when our nation died?
Where were you when the many Amazon tribes
were scattered and destroyed?
Where were you when the word 'Amazon'
became a joke told by old men in taverns?
"A klatch of Amazonians and a Warrior Princess mounted 'pon a horse," a cottager digging in the field looked up from his row of tubers.
"For a solstice gift? I'd rather it were one of Missy Hecuba's rag dolls," the cottager in the next row commented, hacking up a yam with his mattocks.
"Look'ee there! 'Out pon the road! Can you not see the awful sight?" the first cottager gestured with the blade of his hoe. "The 'Lympians themselves, with Ares and Artemis at the head and bloodthirsty Athena close behind, were ne’er inspirin' no such wicked fright as them what were presently passin' by this pebbly patch. Stay stuck to the stubble if that were your pleasure; I'm for the bales and the byre.
"Ariadne!" the alarmed digger cried across the field to the cottage with its wattled walls and thatched roof. "Gather the children! Hie 'em to the loft and bury 'em in the straw! The fiery cone of Mount Athos, spewin' its lava lode 'pon the greeny sward, were posin' no greater danger to hearth and home than these wild Amazonian gals led by the fell Warrior Princess come steamin out the gapin' maw of Tartarus!"
"And totin' sufficient hardware to stock a cottage improvement center," his confederate cried, tossing his mattocks aside and joining the other fellow in a sprint for the hay loft.
"They'll hang a man's head high 'pon the gatepost and stick a cap on it, its visor turned the wrong way 'round, to mock his bloody corpse!" the first digger cried out on the run.
"After feedin' his baser parts to frightful animules what feast 'pon human flesh and suck the marrow out a poor bugger’s bones!" the second digger ran pell mell down the lane after the first.
"'Twere the ghost of old Molpeidia and her dreadful retinue!"
"Her what come near to skewerin’ old Theseus when the bloke were King of Athens in the sweet by and by!"
"Kill't her niece, Antiope; run her through with a blade for layin' up with that noble king and bearin' him a babe! Most beauteous Amazonian queen what e’er were, so the bards were trollin' in their lays!"
"Mulieribus Centauribus, Amazoniae vincentur!" the first digger bellowed on the run.
"What abstrusical formulary were you croakin' on about?" the other digger followed right behind.
"'Twere many the lass can shoe a centaur's hoof; 'twere naught save an Amazon can wallop his withers...! Make way, Ariadne! We're a-comin' through!"
The blitzed out pair of field hands burst into the byre, tumbling over ass over teakettle in a race to the ladder which led to the loft where their wives and small children were already, a step ahead of them, huddling in fear of -- they weren't sure what. "I guess we must have made an impression," Xena quietly observed from her perch on Argo's saddle.
In fact, there were only ten members of the company, and they were hardly a warlike crew compared to the Amazons of old or, leastwise, to their legends. The remaining Amazons had gone back to the village, leaving Velasca, with her assistants, Elana, Oriena and Thelestria, to escort Ephiny, Solari, Eponin and now Gabrielle and Xena with Lila being the tenth. The escort, despite initial appearances, was not an armed guard. Once free of her bonds, Ephiny, no longer hindered, was just one of the crew. Nor did Velasca act belligerently once the journey had gotten underway. She seemed remote and withdrawn as she strode several paces ahead of the others, troubled by concerns which she apparently hadn't shared with closest associates.
"She's been like this for weeks," Elana told Gabrielle. "We've tried to get her to talk, but each time she gets a few words, she gets a look on her face and just clams up."
Though Lila was startled at and then saddened by the farm hands' panicky reaction as the group wandered past their field, Xena wasn't surprised. Legends and tall tales, embellished by fantasy and projection, often made the Amazons, when and where they showed themselves, appear larger than life. To that very day, in some of the more remote, northern villages, farmers and farriers, millers and traders persisted in believing and passing it along via lurid stories and gossip that Callisto, during the brief time in which she'd ridden at the head of an army, had been an Amazon queen: the reincarnation of Antiope with an obsessive passion for revenge. And as Callisto's legend grew (in some quarters, it was rumored that Ares had given Callisto, not Hippolyte, the gift of the jeweled belt and that it was Callisto, not Xena, whom Ares had persistently courted to no avail), the latent fear and apprehension of Amazons -- of wild, enflamed, powerful, independent, self-assured women who wanted no truck with civilized society -- began to re-surface and not only among the men.
In fact, however, the local Amazons, keeping mostly to themselves, had little desire or occasion to terrorize anyone. They played no significant role in the region's political or cultural affairs and were economically marginal. Also, they were a small Amazon outpost, far less numerous and, on the whole, more attuned to trends in the wider culture than were their Themiscyran and Anatolian sisters. Like their Eurasian counterparts, the Macedonian Amazons lived primarily by the hunt. But the climate here was more temperate, the game in these lush woods more tame, and the coin of the realm somewhat easier to come by for the purpose of procuring goods, services and even the occasional creature comfort. The Pax Hellenica, like the later Pax Romana, being neither peaceful nor particularly Greek -- at least Attic and Mycenean Greek -- nonetheless exerted a moderately civilizing influence on all who lived within its ambit. Even the Amazons and the Centaurs had not been immune from its subtly coaxing and socially stabilizing influences.
Under Melosa's tutelage and due, perhaps, to a gradual decline in numbers, the fervent urge of these westernmost Amazons to acquire additional fields for farming and more expansive woods for hunting had begun to abate as had the more aggressive qualities of character which the need for such acquisitions naturally fostered. The implications of this long-term trend had deeply troubled Velasca, though she, like the others, had respected and had immensely benefitted from Melosa's wise and judicious leadership -- at least for a time. Melosa's reign had been a period of diminishing Amazon isolation accompanied by an internal strengthening in the service of a community whose identity, if current trends held steadily to their course, might mature to become a permanent, if minority, strain in the inexorable march of cultural assimilation.
Melosa had possessed little didactic skill. Her way had not been to preach or verbally to instruct. Her force of character had made her appear aloof and even, at times, uncaring. Her heart had been warmer than her eyes, it was often said, especially after her premature death at the hands of her adopted daughter. Melosa had insisted, above all, on personal accountability for one's actions and was tolerant of error, though not, ultimately, of incompetence. Her loyalty to her blood sister, Terreis, had been fierce yet had not been a spur to the least hint of favoritism. Melosa had been stern, even hard, but she'd been fair. And her younger charges knew it.
Above all, Melosa had had the courage and integrity which her royal office had demanded and she had never, in her lifetime, compromised her dignity. Her legacy grew in stature and appreciation as the sunmarks went by. Some members of the tribe were ready to canonize her; ironically, as the thought of canonization would have embarrassed and possibly angered her. But though her leading chiefs -- Ephiny, Solari and Eponin -- had been able, thus far, to resist the temptation to lionize her in any formal way, they had been indelibly shaped, in outlook and character, by her example. In their more reflective moments, they were well aware of that fact; and, in their better moments, they were grateful for it. They may not have been physically cuddled by their spiritual mother but they'd been stood on their feet and empowered by her covert embrace.
Velasca had been shaped and molded by Melosa as well, kicking at the traces all the way. Velasca was adamant, even rampant, precisely in that aerie of temperament where Melosa had been reserved, even cautious. Velasca coveted the past epic grandeur of the Amazon nation. Melosa grasped that the Amazon future was to be more limited and lyrical in scope. Misunderstandings between them had abounded. Motives had been misperceived. Intentions had been misconstrued, signals badly misinterpreted. Of all les filles de sa coeur, as Melosa had conceived of those whom she mentored and cherished, Velasca had come the closest to breaking her half-veiled heart. The physical aspect of the challenge, when it came, had been the coda to an earlier, longstanding symphony of struggle, exasperation and failed attempts at reconciliation.
Elana, Oriena and Thelestria, along with Chilappa and Messalina, were among the brightest and most assertive of the up and coming generation. They had trained with Eponin in the arts of war and with Solari in the skills of the hunt. They had acknowledged Ephiny as a wise guide and counselor; more so than Gabrielle whom they knew less well. While not forming a clique, the three had gravitated to Velasca for feedback, friendship and physical affection. To their credit, they had not become competitors for the status of Velasca's pets. Much fault might be found with Velasca on any number of fronts -- Gabrielle had taken Velasca’s measure and had initially found it wanting -- but playing one admirer emotionally off against another was not among her shortcomings.
Perhaps in spite of herself or due to propinquity or natural inclination, Velasca had absorbed Melosa's fairness in treating with her comrades. She was loathe to play favorites and wasn’t jealous of her personal status -- save in the instance of royal succession and this quite as much for matters of principle as egotistical self-aggrandizement. She's a visionary and something of an atavist -- Gabrielle had discerned that quality in Velasca from the first -- and if perpetually untempered by some degree of compromise with the mundane, which had been Melosa's reluctant forte, Velasca, Gabrielle realized, could end up destroying herself and derailing a good portion of the community in her impetuous wake.
But now Velasca seemed pensive and sullen as she strode ahead of the group, keeping to a fast and soon-to-be unsustainable pace, barely looking behind her as though preoccupied with waking revenants from another life, perhaps muttering to herself in her native, Lydian tongue of which she knew possibly a hundred words and a dozen phrases. How like Velasca, thought Gabrielle, to start a ball rolling downhill and then to look on resentfully as it gathered the very speed which Velasca had taken such pains to initiate.
Xena's assessment was more blunt. "The broad's got an attitude. It's time she got over it."
"Try telling her that," Gabrielle said when Xena dismounted to walk beside her at the rear of the group.
"Uh uh, that's your department," Xena’s eyes twinkled with a mischievous half-smile. "I'm just along for the ride."
"The Hades you are," Gabrielle shot Xena a sidelong grin. "You were named in that warrant, the same as the rest of us."
"Only to ensure you cooperation," Xena speculated.
Gabrielle shook her head. "Something tells me there's more to it than that. I don’t think you're entirely off the hook on this one."
"Probably not," Xena sighed and looked around at the fringe of woods that edged the road on either soft shoulder as they passed by the lane leading to the cottage and byre in which, for no good reason if only they’d known, the field hands’ families were hiding, fearful of past Amazon conduct that had little bearing on present realities.
"You're a popular girl, love; what can I say?" Gabrielle's eyes twinkled in turn.
"Oh, yeah?" the Warrior Princess gave Gabrielle a seedy look out of the corner of her eye. "Then how come, back home, none of the guys ever asked me to dance?"
Gabrielle laughed. "And what would you have done if they had?"
"I dunno," Xena thought about it. "Knocked ‘em out with a head butt maybe."
"We're heading south," Lila dropped back and gave Gabrielle a baffled look. "That's the road leading to Olinthos, Anike's village. How come we aren't heading east?"
"Why east?" Xena said, loosening Argo's bridle.
"Isn't Troy east of here?" Lila said, gesturing toward the left hand side of the road.
"Sounds like somebody's a little bit uptight," Gabrielle grinned at her sister.
"Yeah, a little, I guess," Lila smiled. "Just think. We’re on our way to Troy. The place where the war's going on. Where Perdy and Andros are. Lexie’s gonna be green with envy. Or mad as Hades if we end up either having a ball or getting killed."
"Are you sure you want to go through with this, Lee? You can turn around and head home. Velasca won't stop you."
"No, I want to come along."
"But Mom and Dad...."
"Mom and Dad," Lila sighed. "What're we gonna do about Mom and Dad? What’re they gonna think? Aren’t they gonna put up a stink? Maybe they need to bend a little so that we don’t break."
"Ephiny!" Xena called.
Ephiny slackened her pace and turned around.
"How come we're heading south and not east?" Xena said, winking at Lila.
"We're gonna try to get on a boat at Haniotis," Ephiny called back.
"You mean the port at the tip of the Cape?" Gabrielle shouted.
"Yeah. What did you think we were gonna walk all the way?"
"Hmm, now that you mention it..." Yeah, Gabrielle thought, Velasca was probably nutty enough to try going from here to Troy on foot.
"We should be arriving in Troy three days from now if we don't dawdle," Elana shouted toward the back of the pack.
For the first time, Lila felt a jolt of real apprehension. "It’s just now dawning on me that I'm not in as good shape as the rest of you. Think I'll be able to keep the pace?"
"You can ride on Argo if you get winded," Xena offered.
"She'll slow it down," Gabrielle nodded at Velasca who was in the lead. "We'll simply tell her she has to."
"What about things like lunch?" Lila said.
"Lee, sometimes you're so conventional," Gabrielle rolled her eyes.
"Don't you guys ever stop for lunch?" Lila looked back and forth from Gabrielle to Xena.
"If we can sneak up on a stag that’s rutting in the woods, we might," Gabrielle said.
"You’re kidding," Lila’s eyes widened.
"Or a wild boar."
"You are kidding."
"A grizzly bear makes good snack when we’re on the run."
"Now I know you’re kidding!"
"We're Amazons, Lee. We go for the blood and guts. It’s part of the package."
"Xena!" Lila wailed. "Tell Gab to quit making fun! I'm used to three squares a day and a cool drink and a muffin in the afternoon on days when me and Lexie get done with the laundry."
"Or pomegranates that have a way of getting snitched from irate fruit vendors' carts," Gabrielle chided with a chuckle.
"Oh, so you heard about that," Lila said. "I'll probably never live that one down."
"A born shoplifter," Gabrielle said to Xena, nodding at Lila. "I think she ought to go apprentice with Autolycus."
"Did Autolycus and Salmoneus really spend all night moving all those pots and bowls from the warehouse into the jail cells? That I would like to have seen," Lila said. "Speaking of movers and shakers, what's up with Joxer these days?"
"Jox is helping Meg expand the bar," Xena said.
"The shop next door to Meg's closed, so Joxer’s tearing down the wall," Gabrielle added. "Meg’s plan is to start serving lunch, and Jox thinks he might stay on to do the short order cooking."
"I didn't know Joxer could cook," Lila said.
"You should sample his black powder special," Xena said. "You’ll never need to floss or use a whitener again."
"Okay, so what do Amazons do for lunch?" Lila said as they walked along.
"Well," Gabrielle said, "in a case like this -- when the goal is to cover fifty leagues on the road in less than two days -- we buy."
"And if we haven’t got any dinars?"
"Ssh...," Xena nodded in Velasca's direction.
"What's with that one anyhow?" Lila whispered, her eyes following the lead of Xena's nod. "She was so imperious when she first showed up, and now she just seems kind of uptight and depressed."
"It’s a lot of unresolved stuff," Gabrielle said. "Some of it has to do with me being queen and Ephiny's not supporting her bid to oust me."
"Is that how come you guys went charging after the belt?" Lila said. "The sibyl told me the story of how Herc got involved. Where is the belt? Did you get it?"
"The idea was that if we could pry the belt loose from Admete's grasp -- from where it was hanging on the wall, actually," Gabrielle said, "we could then hop a freighter over to Troy and bring the belt to Penthesileia before she goes riding into battle. But, as you can see, we came back empty."
"It was because of me, wasn't it?" Lila said. "You came because Latrinus made off with me and Lexie."
"Yeah, but Admete had already turned us down," Gabrielle said.
Lila said nothing about the rumor of a possible death sentence. Anyone could see that Gab was no usurper of an Amazon throne. If anything, being an Amazon queen looked to be a pain in the butt from which any sane person might gladly have sought to be excused.
Lila looked fondly at Gabrielle. "You've burned up some pretty significant turf since the night you took off to follow Xena."
"It's Xena that starts most of the fires," Gabrielle said. "I'm the fire brigade that tries to put them out."
"Good for you, Xena," Lila turned to the Warrior Princess. "I’m glad you've given Gab something constructive to do. That's more she ever did at home." Lila poked Gabrielle in the ribs, causing Gabrielle to go "Whoa!" and then to retaliate by chasing Lila some distance along the gully at the side of the road.
Lunch, when they stopped, consisted of mutton jerky and some late-blooming blackberries they found clinging to a sprawling tangle of ragged vines a bare few footlengths into the brush. Fortunately, there was enough water in the waterskins to keep them well hydrated as they made good time on the road to the shipping fleets at Haniotis, under the lea of the Chalkidiki peninsula, the southernmost point in Macedonia, other than Mt. Athos, and the staging area for the northern Aegean merchant marine.
With each step, Lila's heart beat a little faster. She really was heading off on an adventure into the unknown, though, sadly, without Alexis. Leaving Alexis behind had not been part of the plan and Lila felt guilty about it. Yet her decision to go with Gabrielle and Xena, made so quickly on the spur of the sandglass that it must have seemed whimsical in the extreme, may, for that very reason, have been the more profound. Some force inside Lila had been building up to this event, though it wasn't clear why it hadn't included Alexis and why it appeared to involve a troupe of Amazons squabbling over which of them was going to be queen. She thought of the prophesy which the Graces had given her. A warrior without weapons. A lover without a seedmate. A leader without a following. It made no more sense to Lila now than it had when she’d been witness to it at the sibyl's hut. But Alexis' absence wasn't Lila's main concern as the late afternoon veered gradually into the amber glow of twilight. What about Mom and Dad? They would be alone tonight and each night until Lila and Gabrielle got back.
"If we get back," Lila murmurred as her feet began to swell and then throb in her sandals. Velasca had slowed the pace but not by much. What do I mean: if we get back. Of course we’re going to get back. What's my intuition trying to tell me? That having taken this baby step into the unknown, I can't go home again? Or that home won't be there when I get back? Or that I won't be there when I get back? Demeter, Bounty-Giver, Mither of the Maed that was lost and then found, be my sandals, be my straps, guide me safe, don't let me lapse. And watch over Lexie and the folks back home. Pretty please....
Five hundred leagues, it is so far,
to leave you all alone,
while you may lie, lament and sigh,
and I’ll not hear you moan...
"Your sister has a nice singing voice," Ephiny said to Gabrielle when the party made camp in a small clearing that night.
The troupe had covered more than twenty leagues without incident. Only once had a tiny threat of trouble crossed their path. Some local farm hands, jostling past them on the road, had leered and made some lewd comments. A squad of women, in scanty dress, except for the girl in creme and buff, with leathers and feathers and every which sexy thing, ambling along like hookers on the way to the cathouse -- and built, especially the one who was leading the horse, like a marble Parthenon -- if a sight like that, after a long, hot day spent hauling peat and hefting guano, wasn't apt to get the honey-where-you-been-all-my-life juices flowing, probably nothing would.
"Now, guys," Gabrielle had jumped ahead of the pack to greet them, "this isn't quite what you think." A quick look on Gabrielle's face, flashed at Ephiny, Solari and Eponin, said: do whatever’s necessary to keep Velasca from whipping out her sword and running these turkeys through. The last thing we need right now is to leave a couple, three dead farm boys lying on the road to make us the moving target of a hastily convened lynch mob. "My cousins and I, as you see, are on the way to our Auntie Astradista's come as you are party. The invitation arrived just as we were finishing up a fashion shoot for the Zeusday edition of the Haniotis Gazette. Check us out at the newsstand. Our uncle, Rupertes Murdochis, owns the paper which must be why they asked us to do the shoot. Kinda kitsch, huh?"
Whether due to confusion, irritation or Gabrielle's fast ad libbing, a potential crisis had been averted and the troupe had continued, unmolested, on its way.
It was getting dark and, perhaps to show the Amazons that she was good for something, Lila had volunteered to tend the fire. Inadvertently, while feeding sticks to the blaze, she'd begun humming a slow, mournful tune, and Ephiny had overheard her.
"Yeah," Gabrielle said, "she does, doesn’t she? There were nights when Lee used to sing me to sleep when I was sick. And on the night we got lost with our pony, Tippany, in that freak snow storm and nearly froze to death 'til our Dad came tromping through the drifts and found us and wrapped us up and brought us home, Lila hummed and sang so we wouldn't be afraid. Funny, I hadn't thought about that night in a really long time.."
In a clearing some forty paces from the road, the women had gathered around the fire to prepare their evening meal.
"How’d she do that?" Lila nodded at Solari who, with Oriena and Thelestria, was plucking and stripping the pillions off a couple of game birds they'd caught in the bush. "It looked like she snuck up on them and zapped them with her dagger before they knew what hit them."
"It's a gift that Solari got from Artemis," Ephiny explained.
"Still, it takes bunches of practice," Eponin added.
"You become one with the shrubbery," Elana said.
Lila raised an eyebrow. "One what with the shrubbery?"
"One being, one essence," Ephiny said. "It's metaphysical. You can't see it. You can only sense it."
"But it you have to do it a zillion times before it actually kicks in," Eponin said.
"Can you do that, Xena?" Lila said, nodding at the birds who were ready for the skewer. "Become one with the roots and branches and leaves of trees?"
"Nah," Xena shook her head, having just returned from hitching Argo to a makeshift stanchion for the night.
"Yes, she can," Solari called from the small pit that she and Elana had dug in which to bury the fowl’s paunched organs. "Xena does it with fish. She becomes one with the current, paralyzes their will, then reaches down under the rocks and grabs them."
Xena didn't reply.
"We heard that you bagged a stag when you and Xena went to see Oteri and Yakut," Eponin said to Gabrielle.
"It wasn't like I actually did anything," Gabrielle said. "He just sort of gave himself to me. He was my crossover."
"And you nearly didn't make it back is what we heard," Ephiny said. "We heard that we nearly lost you for good."
"Xena snapped me out of there in time," Gabrielle said.
"That’s not the first time the two of you have played with shamanic fire," Ephiny said.
"It is so different over there," Gabrielle shook her head. "It's incredibly beautiful even when it's ridiculously dangerous. It’s like once you get there, you sort of don't want to come back."
"Alti did, apparently," Solari shifted the blade as she put the final pre-roasting touches on the game birds.
"Yeah, she did," Gabrielle nodded and doodled with the tip of a stick on the sand around the fire circle. "Alti hated being dead. Even when she had everything she could ever have wanted."
A few turns of the sandglass later, the birds were trussed, basted and ready for the skewers made from thin, green, tree wands. Solari and Oriena showed Lila how to turn the birds to make sure they roasted evenly.
"Let me know if your arm gets tired and I’ll spell you," Eponin said.
"Thanks," Lila said. "Gab?"
"Huh?" Gab looked up from her doodling.
"Look: I'm helping to make supper for all you Amazons. And Xena too," Lila said with a smile.
The ladies smiled back.
"What about it, Lila?" Ephiny said. "Think you might want to give it a shot?"
"Try my luck at becoming an Amazon?" Lila said. "I don't think so. I can’t see myself being an Amazon and wearing the things you guys wear."
"You never know. It might turn out to be the real you," Solari said.
"Wouldn't that be a riot," Lila chuckled. "And what does it take to go the next step and become an Amazon queen?"
"I guess we're gonna find out pretty soon," Eponin said, shooting a glance in Velasca’s direction.
"But don't stop turning the stick while we're waiting," Elana said.
"Don't stop turn...? Oh, the birds!" Lila resumed her rotisserie.
"They burn when they don't get paid attention to," Xena observed.
"Like somebody else we know," Gabrielle muttered to Xena and, with her head and neck, she gestured to the far side of the circle where Velasca sat silently aloof from the banter.
It wasn't much of a supper -- two game birds for ten women -- and some tummies in the group craved more, but it was a tasty meal and at least no one went hungry.
Without being asked, Velasca gathered up the gristle and bones and saw to the cleanup. By the time she'd finished, the bedrolls had been spread out for the night. Gabrielle gave Lila her own bedroll, joking that it would be better if she were to share Xena's bedroll than if Lila were to share it, as Gabrielle was familiar with Xena's tossing and turning patterns and knew how not to get elbowed or kneed in the night. Elana volunteered to keep the first watch, and the women, fed, washed and, to the extent possible, combed and brushed settled themselves around the dying embers of the campfire.
Velasca sat some distance from the fire, away from the others, braiding strips of leather between the attached handles of her chobos. She'd been experimenting with a weapons modification: holding onto one chobo and rapidly swinging the other in a rotating motion like the dial of a wheel. At close quarters, the speed and force of the tethered chobo could be deadly.
Gabrielle arose and walked around to the far side of the fire pit, slowly approaching Velasca until she stood alongside her.
"Mind if I sit down?" Gabrielle gazed at the intricate tracery of the tightly bound, leather braids.
"Suit yourself," Velasca said, not taking her eyes off the braided bindings.
"Intriguing design," Gabrielle sat crosslegged on the ground and watched Velasca twine and braid. "Is that for close hand-to-hand combat?"
"Mm," Velasca nodded, twisting and binding.
"Tried it out yet?" Gabrielle said.
Velasca gave Gabrielle a cool look. "No. There's been no occasion."
Gabrielle nodded. "I've been practicing with the sai."
"I haven't decided if I like them as much as working with the staff."
"They go well together, the sai and the staff."
"Yes..., yes, they do."
Velasca said nothing and there was silence.
"Was it necessary to bind Ephiny’s wrists?" Gabrielle said, tentatively. "Did you think I wouldn't come if you didn’t?"
Velasca gave Gabrielle a curt look, was about to reply but changed her mind. She yanked on the attached chobos and the leather braids tightened.
"You took me by surprise. I turned around and there you were," Gabrielle said. "I might have said some things in haste that I may not have meant."
"Your meaning has always been quite plain, Gabrielle," Velasca said, twisting and pulling.
Gabrielle noticed that the "Gabrielle" didn't come out with its usual, condescending "elllle..."
"I'm not so sure that it has," Gabrielle said. "Maybe you’ve been misinterpreting."
"In what way?" Velasca looked coldly at Gabrielle.
"Maybe I'm not as opposed to you as you might think," Gabrielle said.
"Ha...!" Velasca let fly a hard laugh. "A bit disingenuous coming from you, don't you think?"
Gabrielle let the sharp edge of the comment pass. "I think you were wrong to challenge Melosa. I've never pretended otherwise. But that's not the whole story. There are other things to consider."
"I should say!" Velasca's large brown eyes flared for an instant, then regained their surface composure.
"I think you resent me because I wasn't born and brought up an Amazon," Gabrielle said, looking flush at Velasca's face. Its breadth and beauty, Gabrielle had to admit, rivaled Xena's.
"You have no business being an Amazon queen, that’s all," Velasca said.
"You may be right. I've had to wrestle with that question."
"I'm not sure it's simply a question for my conscience alone."
"We're not a democracy. Queenship is inherited or taken by force of arms."
"On those who merit it!" Velasca snapped.
A crackle of passion. An opening. Velasca was not unreachable.
"If I chose Xena as my champion and then you and Xena battled it out, and if Xena were the victor, would your spirit rest easy knowing that I -- or Xena -- were queen?" Gabrielle said.
"Not especially," Velasca said.
"Because Xena doesn't want it and you’re ill-suited for it."
"So your subjective preference does, in fact, play a part in your view of who, by rights, ought to be queen."
"I didn't become queen by lottery. The queenship is rightfully mine because I earned it. Melosa was letting the shifting sands of time override her better judgment. I stood by and quietly witnessed its deleterious effects for as long as I could stand it."
"And then you took her on fair and square. You didn't resort to a coup."
"Absolutely not," Velasca said in a tone which indicated that any sort of conspiracy or subterfuge was utterly beneath her.
Encouraged by that insight, Gabrielle took a risk. "If Xena merely gave orders, never mind that they might be the right orders, I wouldn't be her companion."
"Her lapdog," Velasca said with a hint of contempt.
"Her mascot, possibly; once. Not now, though. Not for a long time. But in fact, Xena always listened to me. From the very beginning. More than that. She often followed my lead. Not that either one of us may have been conscious of it at the time."
"So what's your point?"
"The tallest tree may stand alone. But that's not what exercising leadership over the forest is ultimately about."
"Trite," Velasca scorned the analogy.
"How would you have it then? Do you want to see the community live a life of isolation? Should we aspire to be a nation that dwells apart?" Gabrielle challenged. "The One God people tried that tack. They found it didn't work for them. What makes you think it can work for us?"
"You don't know what you're talking about," Velasca said, quietly.
"The Amazons aren’t a tribe of chosen people, Velasca," Gabrielle shot back. "We're a scattered nation of women who are trying our best to make our way in the world."
"You presume to tell me what an Amazon is?" Velasca said, coldly. "Go back to sewing snappets on the braised leather that your Warrior Princess wears."
"My 'Warrior Princess' has nothing to do with this," Gabrielle looked Velasca in the eye. "If you're going to rule as queen, I don't want to see you doing a half-assed job of it."
"You..., telling me how to rule as queen!" Velasca said in a quiet fury. "An upstart! A ringer!"
"Me telling you, yes," Gabrielle refused to give ground.
Velasca gave Gabrielle a look of grudging respect for not backing down. "Just what do you think the life of an Amazon is: hunting and fishing, living out of doors, dancing around the fire long into the night like a bunch of carefree natives, troubled only by the occasional roving warlord or trespassing centaur? You can't be that obtuse."
"Well, at least we see eye to eye on one thing," Gabrielle let go a long, tension-releasing sigh. "That there’s more to being an Amazon than fun and games in the forest."
"You say I was wrong to challenge Melosa," Velasca said. "I say Terreis was wrong to bestow the Right of Caste of Royal Amazon Succession on you -- which is not to detract from the brave or foolish deed you did in your vain attempt to shield her from a hail of vicious arrows."
"Point taken," Gabrielle said. "But a lot of water has gone under that bridge since that sad day in the woods. A lot of Amazon water. And not all of it has flowed by choice."
Velasca looked askance at Gabrielle.
"Don't you be obtuse either," Gabrielle said to the look on Velasca’s face. "I know I'm a graft on the Amazon trunk. Fault me for being a parvenu and say what you will about shoulds and shouldn'ts, my presence among the Amazons has changed the shape of things. For Xena and now for my sister no less than for the rest of you."
"And what does that prove?"
"Only that we're wrong to shut each other out. I can't shut you out of my mind and heart any more than you can shut the memory of Melosa out of yours."
"What do you know of me and Melosa," Velasca said in an irritated tone. "You weren't there. You knew Melosa briefly under unusual circumstances. The two of you barely exchanged a hundred words."
"Melosa isn't the issue, not my issue anyway."
"Don’t be cryptic. Say what you mean," Velasca had finished her braiding and cinching and now, with the joined chobos folded in her lap, she stared severely at Gabrielle.
"You've got some grieving left to do," Gabrielle said, "and until you let yourself do it, you won't be fit to be our queen."
Rather than break off the exchange in a huff, Velasca sat stock still and gazed into the ashen gold embers of the dying fire.
"Come on, Velasca," Gabrielle pushed, "I may not be able to take you in a fight but I'm not blind."
"Though you are intrusive."
"We're going to see Penthesileia on your initiative. Who knows but one if not both our heads may roll before she's done. It's not like you and me aren't, in some way, joined at the hip."
The image of being joined at the hip with Gabrielle vexed Velasca. "It should be with someone of greater stature," Velasca said. "Cyane, Hippolyte, when they were alive..."
"What about Xena?"
"Allright, Xena," Velasca looked at Gabrielle and nodded.
"Then maybe the gods really do pair us up with the ones we're equally a match for," Gabrielle said.
Velasca caught the double irony. That the gods might say: never mind Cyane, Hippolyte or Xena, it's Gabrielle who's the equal with whom you must contend; and Gabrielle the equal of Xena whom Xena acknowledges as an equal. Was Velasca superior to Xena? Velasca would not have said so. So, then, did it not follow...
"The thought of you being my equal galls me," Velasca said.
"Get used to it," Gabrielle said. "Especially if you're to become our queen."
Velasca, perhaps to her credit, took an instant to entertain the notion.
"I'll tell you what I'm thinking," Gabrielle said. "I’m thinking that you regret having challenged Melosa. I think you now believe it was a mistake. I think you'd undo what you did if you could wave a magic wand. I think you miss her and that you want her to forgive you."
"Ever the armchair psychologist," Velasca said, but her voice was less harsh.
"She was your mother," Gabrielle. "What's more, she loved you."
"You're venturing close to the fire, Gabrielle," Velasca said.
"Since when have I shied away from it?" Gabrielle murmurred. "There are witnesses to what I've just said. A whole village of them. Your mother loved you above all the others."
"Melosa was losing her will and, with it, her vision," Velasca said.
"That's not the point!" Gabrielle snapped.
Power-hungry, unbalanced, even, possibly, ruthless in pursuit of her goals, Velasca, at least, was honest. "No, I suppose it isn't," she said.
"Then why not give yourself the chance to grieve," Gabrielle said. "Ephiny has. The others have. And wonder of wonders, they aren't holding a grudge against you. Do you think Melosa would have wanted to see you alone in the forest, twining braids of leather apart from everyone, a bulwark against the storm, maybe, but lonely, friendless and never at peace?"
"Melosa wanted the impossible dream," Velasca said. "She wanted to create us in her image. We angered and sorrowed her when we wouldn't comply."
"Answer the question!" Gabrielle softly roared with rare force. "Would your mother want to see you lonely, alone and anguished in your soul?"
"No," Velasca looked down at her powerful, gorgeous hands. "No, she wouldn't."
"Melosa would forgive you," Gabrielle said. "You might let her have that chance if you weren't too proud. It's your pride that ripped her heart out, not the thrust of your knife. Let her forgive you so that you might be the queen she would have wanted you to be."
"Gabrielle is right," Ephiny had wandered over and now took a seat beside them. "You're eating yourself up inside, Velasca. How are you going to lead us if you're all chewed up inside? How are we going to nurture you if you won't accept our nourishment?"
"Melosa was hard on me. Very hard. You know that, Ephiny," Velasca said.
"Your mother was hard on you," Ephiny said. "Can you say 'my mother was hard on me'?"
"My mother...," Velasca let go a quick, sarcastic laugh. "The queen's gawky, brown-eyed, adopted daughter."
"How love gets twisted up in knots," Ephiny said in a voice that was barely above a whisper as she cast her gaze on the tightly crimped, leather braids that stretched between the tips of Velasca's chobos.
"You were the apple of her eye," Solari came over.
"She watched you with a smile when she thought that no one was looking," Eponin piled in.
"We envied you," Ephiny said.
"Your beauty," Solari said.
"Your skill," Eponin said.
"The power of your personality," Elana joined them.
"Who's the lucky girl who Velasca's going to take to her tent tonight, we wondered," Oriena crowded in.
"How many nights, crowded around the cooking fire at supper, did I silently say, ‘Let it be me,’" Thelestria followed.
Velasca looked from face to face. "You all hate me for what I did to Melosa."
"You were wrong to do it," Ephiny said. "That's not the same as hating you."
"Or disliking you," Solari said.
"Or wanting you to hurt inside," Eponin added.
"I think Melosa might say that if her being hard on you turned out to be the cause of your being hard on yourself, then she was wrong to be hard on you and regrets it and hopes that you might forgive her for it," Gabrielle said. "Let her say she's sorry. Let her ask you to forgive her."
"It's not that easy," Velasca said softly with no trace of reproach in her voice. "To let her ask for mine or for me to ask for hers."
"No, it isn’t easy," Gabrielle said. "It takes the strength of a queen to do that."
Across the faint, glowing blaze of the embers that rattled like bones in the dark, reclining on one elbow a sword's length away from the spot where Lila, exhausted, had quickly dozed off, Xena drifted in and out of the conversation, thinking of Callisto. Fitting, the slice of sacrifice that had redeemed her nemesis. And fitting, too, was the fact that Xena, with a flick of the shriven wrist, was now back in action to wield the redeemer's blade.
When it came Xena's turn to take the watch, Gabrielle roused herself from their shared bedroll and followed Xena to the edge of the clearing. There was no moon out yet. There wouldn’t be until it was nearly dawn and then it would just be the smiling, late-waning crescent. For now there was only a mild, incipient sea breeze and the last chirping of the crickets, plaintive in autumn’s burgeoning chill. Xena took a seat on a log and Gabrielle, ambling over, took a few steps further into the darkness, listening for Argo whose barely audible whinnying, mere footlengths away, was, at that moment, a bit of a comforting touchstone.
"Looks like Lee's pretty much zonked out," Gabrielle turned to face Xena who was fiddling with the scrollwork of her arm bracers.
"Dead to the world, I’d say," Xena said.
"Good," Gabrielle said. "She's been through the mill these past few days, and given the ground we covered today, she must be wiped." Then, as an afterthought, Gabrielle added, "You aren't annoyed that Lee wanted to come, are you?"
"No, though it might complicate things a little," Xena looked past Gabrielle into the darkness of the surrounding stand of woods. "Watching Lila, feeling her close by, seeing how eager she is, started me thinking about things. About Ming Tsu, of all people."
"Ming Tsu?" Gabrielle raised an eyebrow. "Do you mean Ming Tien? Why would Lila make you think of Ming Tien?"
"Ming Tsu. I look at Lila and think of the night when Ming Tsu first came to Borias’ tent and what a patsy I was, only I didn’t know it. I’m glad we’re here for Lila. I just hope that Velasca doesn't end up making the same mistake that I did."
"You killed Ming Tsu, I thought."
"And gave birth to the Green Dragon."
"You don't know that. You don't know how Ming Tien might have turned out. From what you've told me, Ming Tsu was no prize."
"He was a hateful little martinet and deserved exactly what he got. He had no business trying to run a kingdom. Lao Ma was well aware of that. Yet she insisted that my path to her lay through Ming Tsu, as though he'd been the very stretch of hound-harried woods through which I'd had to hobble in my desperate flight for life. Easy to serve someone you love, she told me. What you need to tame your will is to serve someone you hate. I thought she meant that in a literal way and so I missed my big chance."
"Your chance to..."
"Lao Ma kept looking for ways to assist me -- maybe to trick me -- into letting go of my self-hate. So that I could open myself up to her love."
"But didn't you in the end?"
"Eventually. But by then, the cycle of hate and destruction had gone too far. Lao Ma knew that I loved her, yet she let me run away from her. Lao Ma had real power, Gabrielle. That's why she let herself be tortured and murdered. 'The entire world is driven by a will -- blind and ruthless...' How many times have those words echoed in my ears. They were echoing in my ears tonight. 'Stop willing, stop desiring, stop hating...' And all I could say at the time was, 'Tell me how I'm supposed to do that?'"
"Are you applying what you’re saying to Velasca?"
Xena nodded. "There was a reason why Admete insisted on seeing you and me separately when we went to ask for the belt. And there's a reason why she wouldn't give the belt to either one of us, even though she told us that our reasons for wanting the belt were good ones. It was as though she was saying to us, 'Stop willing, stop desiring, stop hating...'"
"Queen Admete is no Lao Ma, Xena. Not from all you've told me about Lao Ma."
"No, she isn't. But in an odd way, I heard her speaking with Lao Ma's voice."
Xena got up and peered about the clearing, hearing rather than seeing the many changes in the hue and contrast that textured the surrounding darkness. "'To conquer others is to wield power...,'" Xena recited softly. "'To conquer ourselves...'"
"'...Is to know The Way...'," Gabrielle completed the thought.
Xena turned around. "Since those days, I've known peace in only three ways: toiling in battle, rocking the cradle and resting in your arms. Conquering myself would mean knowing peace by sitting down on that log, with my eyes open, keeping watch 'til Solari comes to take the next shift and then lying down on that bedroll and getting some badly needed shut eye."
Gabrielle grinned and her eyes twinkled, even in the turgid grip of darkness. "You're a fighter, Xena. For every footlength of peace, you need to stride a league in battle. It's who you are. Even though you've mellowed a bit since the day you showed up and saved us from Draco’s slavers." Gabrielle shot a quick glance at Lila who lay curled up in Gabrielle's bedroll. "Lao Ma must have seen the fighter in you and loved her."
Xena let go a rare smile. In the dark, Gabrielle didn't see it and, had she known that Xena had just smiled at what she’d just said, she would have been disappointed to have missed out on it.
"So you think Velasca's worth investing time and effort in," Xena said.
"Definitely," Gabrielle said.
"Uh huh," Xena nodded. "What do you suppose is gonna break her open and let the bad stuff come rushing out and the good stuff go pouring in?"
"When she realizes that there are things more important in life than being queen," Gabrielle said. "When she decides that she isn't sure that she even wants to be queen."
"If Velasca decides she may not want to be queen and you're not fired up to be queen and Ephiny doesn't seem all that hot to be queen," Xena said, "who's gonna be the queen?"
"That's Penthesileia's problem," Gabrielle said.
Gabrielle went to turn in and Xena went to join her when Solari came to take the final watch. The next thing that Xena, Gabrielle and Lila knew, it was morning and the larks and finches were sounding reveille in the brush.
"Yewww...," Lila yawned and stretched. "Woo, it's light out. Last I remember, Ephiny was rubbing my neck and somebody was doing the dish... oh, there are no dishes. So what did I miss out on?"
"Herc and Iolaus showed up around midnight and made mad, passionate love to us," Gabrielle stirred some millet into a crock of boiling water for a breakfast of biscuits and gruel.
"And nobody got me up? You stinkers," Lila's eyes blazed.
"You were tired. You needed the sleep," Gab teased.
"I wasn't that tired," Lila grumbled, helping herself to a cup of the steaming mash.
But on the second day of the jaunt, Lila did, in fact, find it a bit difficult to keep the pace, even with an occasional spell in the saddle as Xena led Argo by the reins. What made it worse was that Lila had begun spotting and then, after they'd stopped for lunch, she felt the first, mild onset of cramps.
"Stupid me, and did I think to bring anything? No," Lila confided to Gab. "I don't suppose any of the rest of you did."
Xena to the rescue with her knowledge of herb lore and how to sterilize soft rolls of cloth on the fly.
"Is there anything Xena can't do?" a grateful Lila asked Gab as the troupe, dusty, thirsty and a trifle bedraggled at last came up on the outskirts of the large seaport at Haniotis situated near the tip of the western Chalkidiki Cape.
"Yeah, make her tongue go like this," Gabrielle curled her tongue at the edges so that the tips made a little tube which she then slid in and out of her mouth.
"Can't you do that, Xena?" Lila, imitating Gabrielle's tongue-tubing, stuck her tongue out at Xena.
"She can't," Gabrielle said. "I've seen her try."
"Ithh tho ea'thhy," Lila said, her tongue dangling. "Twy it."
Xena made a sour face. "Okay, once," she said in response to the prompting. But try as she might, Xena couldn't get the edges of her tongue to turn. The front part kept curling until it pressed uselessly against the inside of her lower teeth.
"Theena, Wawee'ya Pwintheth...," Lila said with curled tongue, stepping up to Xena and giving her a hug after which she burst out laughing. "I guess I'll have to take you on as my apprentice."
"Might not be a bad idea," Xena said, twitting her eyebrows at Gabrielle who looked on with chuckling approval.
Twilight was falling fast, and the troupe's first priority, when they got to the port, was to find a ship that would ferry them across the northern Aegean straits to Ilium or, if the merchant captains were loathe to venture too close to the scene of the hostilities, perhaps to Samothrace where, a hop, skip and an island jump away, they could shift about for a trireme or man-o'war to haul them the rest of the way.
Hopefully, an accommodating captain and crew might permit them to spend the night on board. They had enough dinars to kip at an inn for the night if they slept five in a room, but they were aware that a troupe of ten unescorted women, sitting at a couple of tables having dinner in a tavern and then staying the night at an inn, eight of the women being Amazons and seven of them in full Amazon gear, along with a Warrior Princess in leather struts and stays, could easily trigger a free for all. And then, to paraphrase Xena's First Rule of the Road as to the tars and drunks who’d be rioting at the bar and in the lounge, if the ladies weren't gonna kiss 'em, they'd be compelled to kill 'em; and doing that could land them in hot water with the authorities.
Fortunately, luck was with them. After several false starts, Gabrielle was able to talk their way on board a scow that was headed east by southeast to Tenedos, the island just off the Phrygian coast practically within sight of the mouth of the Scamander and the rumbling plains of Ilium. To get the skipper to agree to transport them, however, Xena and the others had to demonstrate that they could do the work of twenty men when it came to rolling cargo, manning the decks and hoisting the riggings. When the troupe had demonstrated that they were indeed capable of accomplishing this feat, the guys on the crew, now dismissed and sent to look elsewhere for their next round of maritime employment, became pugnacious, requiring the ladies to heave them overboard with many a roaring splash.
The captain, though delighted -- the women were willing to work for their passage, saving him the additional dinars he would have had to fork out to his male crew -- was also a trifle apprehensive that the ladies might shanghai the craft on the high seas and make him walk the plank. Only Gabrielle's softly sonorous ministrations and her irresistible, aquamarine smile were able to reassure the captain that the ladies had no such malefic intent. They were, Gabrielle explained, a detachment of trained nurses bound for the battle field to bring aid, comfort and medical know how to the boys who were toughing it out at the front. Still, though the captain permitted the ladies to sack out in the hold before weighing anchor on the following morning, the troupe having dined on shore thankfully without incident, the old salt couldn't help giving innocent, if unnecessary, utterance to one of the many ambivalent stereotypes to which the ladies were routinely subjected.
"Them Ammerzons get suckled by wolves, fed on tiger's milk and brung up by grizzly bears, and they'd as soon carve a man into soap flakes as look at him," the captain declared to his dinner companions at the tavern that night. "But they can sure put in a hard day's work when there’s someplace they gotta be gettin’ to in a hurry."
Velasca to Artemis in "A Necessary Evil"
|Continued - Chapter 33|
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