|The Trojan Whore|
Much to the captain's relief, the scow debarked at the little harbor at Tenedos without having been seized on the high seas by Amazons-turned-pirates. In fact, the ladies, true to their word, helped to unload and stack the cargo down to the last barrel of cold-pressed, Boeotian olive oil. The captain was so pleased that the venture had come off without a hitch, the ladies proving to have been a worthier crew than most of the male crews he'd skippered, that he'd insisted on paying them a bonus of forty dinars so that, if they chose, they could spend a couple of nights wining, dining and recouping their strength at one of the inns on the island.
The ladies appreciated the gesture -- even Velasca was moved to say thank you -- but decided that rather than spend their bonus on meals and lodgings, they'd do better to hang onto the dinars as a fund to exchange for information or emergency transportation if and when the need should arise. Xena was appointed treasurer by acclaim and then had to lead Argo around with the coins jingling in the saddlebags.
Tenedos was a small island with limited harbor facilities that were now badly overtaxed by the sloops, freighters and triremes which had been pouring in from all over the archipelago. And though Tenedos had been settled by Phrygians and, until recently, had flown the flag of the Phrygian league, the island had been commandeered by the Argives as a giant staging area for their assault on Ilium. Shipping lanes, protected by Argive warboats, ferried men and materiel to the Phrygian mainland where well guarded transport routes, flat and straight lines of smoothly hewn stones in the Roman fashion, wide enough to accommodate three lanes of wagons or war chariots, made the quick trip north to the broad plain of the Scamander that lay before Ilium’s massive gates. Ilium had no navy to speak of, and here was the key to the eventual Argive victory. If Ilium and its tributary states had had the foresight to establish and maintain a naval presence south of what was one day to become the Bosphorus, the Argive forces could not likely have prevailed in their campaign to recover the Lady Helen and, more to the point, to assert their hegemony over the known world's most lucrative channels of commerce.
The ladies ventured away from the docks into the densely packed town. This was Lila's first experience of the bustle of a thriving sea port; and the sights, sounds and smell of the salt air, seasoned with the aroma of roasting lamb and sizzling pork, initially overwhelmed her. The women in their Amazon garb, Xena in her brass and leather, Gabrielle in her golden halter top and short skirt stood out like sore thumbs in a teeming cachement where nine out of ten souls were men armed for battle or seamen equipped for maritime occupations.
A cacophony of Hellenic dialects clashed and mingled as soldiers from the northern reaches of Macedonia were assigned to units commanded by officers from Crete and Rhodes while enlistees from as far to the west as Ithaca and Corcyra were integrated into companies and batteries from the northeasternmost corners of Thrace. Raucous bandoliering hung heavy and volatile in the tangy air as befit men preparing to enter the lists of battle. There were traces of smoke and the sweet attar of votive offerings on almost every streetcorner as the ensigns of war sought the blessing of those major gods who'd showed themselves partial to the Argive cause: Hera, Poseidon and the warlike virago, Athena. Artemis, too, was inclined to side with the Argives, still smarting, like Athena, under the Judgment of Paris at which the Shepherd of Mt. Ida, Priam's second son and the lover of Helen, had awarded the Golden Apple of Discord to Aphrodite. Artemis might well have showered the Argive enterprise with her favors but she held back for the sake of her attachment to her beloved Amazons.
"This must be where Perdy and Andros landed before they went the rest of the way to Troy," Lila, looking wide-eyed at the vast crush of men, weaponry and machines, shouted at Gabrielle as the ladies made their way along the packed boardwalk suspended above the serpentine shore. "I hope they're still in one piece."
"So do I," Gabrielle shouted in reply.
Amid portentous looks from the bevy of Argive hoplites in their battle array, many of these young men feeling bored and listless while awaiting, sometimes for days on end, their orders for transport, Lila gazed at the graffiti that covered the stucco walls near the wharves where the smaller craft were moored: smacks, skiffs, dories, pint-sized yawls -- civilian transports and fishing vessels. Most of the slogans were scatological in nature. Some urged the Argives to make short, obscene shrift of the Trojans while many of the scrawled vulgarities were of the routine variety: "Say, boys: lookin’ for a good time when you’re far from home? Come to The Golden Fleece and ask for Medea..."
One item in particular caught Lila's eye. It was a gauche, hastily drawn caricature of a woman on horseback, an iron helmet askew on her head, a long spear shaped and round-pointed like a monstrous phallus in one hand and the huge hand of her other, eerily extended arm reaching down to goose her mount's equally monstrous phallus, two bulbous boobs protruding from her stick figure chest, each with a round, colored-in circle at the tip, her legs splayed wide on the back of the horse, the massive crotch a plethora of gouged lines and swirls where the pigment had been laid on most heavily and the facial features -- lurid, awry and ghastly. Beneath the salacious sketch, the artist had scrawled the words: I Festooni Kori Leri apo Troias Pethené! "Death to the Dirty-Skirted Girl from Troy!" Colloquially: Death to the Trojan Whore!
"Yuck," Lila turned away in disgust from the filthy scribbling. She caught her sister's eye and saw that Gabrielle, too, was grossed out at the sight.
"You think this is supposed to be Penthesileia?" Lila said.
Gabrielle nodded and, when Lila looked at Xena for confirmation, Xena nodded too.
The ladies, more angered than unnerved by this lascivious insult to their queen, reconnoitered at the large intersection where the main avenue led uphill from the wharves.
"Let’s grab a bite to eat and look for a quick way out of here," Xena proposed, and the group, including Velasca, at once agreed. "I know it's asking a lot, ladies," Xena said, "but if some twit comes along and starts getting fresh and even goes so far as to pinch you on the bum, please try not to retaliate by skewering the jerk. Triggering a melee, under tense circumstances, is the last thing we need."
The women muttered their reluctant consent.
"Velasca?" Xena eyeballed the Amazon powerhouse. "Think you can go the extra chariotmark and keep your cool even if we get provoked?"
"I suppose," Velasca grumbled.
"Why don't you stay bunched up in the middle and let the rest of us form a ring around you," Ephiny offered.
"I can keep a lid on my temper as well as any of you," Velasca said. Then she looked at Ephiny and mumbled. "Thank you, though. I'm sure I'll do just fine."
"Me and Eppie'll go round us up some lunch. The rest of you hang in there and keep your halter tops on," Solari suggested.
"I'll come and help carry stuff," Elana spoke up.
The group looked at Xena who seemed a trifle troubled by the idea.
"Don’t we get to eat, Xena?" Eponin said. "I don’t know about the rest of you but I’m hungry."
"Yeah, I guess that's the best way," Xena said, sounding reluctant. "But you’d better get whatever's quickest."
"Too bad the Felafel Man isn't here," Lila said. "He does fast food really good."
"If only he did good food really fast," Gabrielle said and the ladies nodded in agreement. Even the Amazons, courageous though they were and now going against the grain by permitting discretion to be the better part of valor, tended to run the other way when they saw -- or, more likely, heard -- the Felafel Man clanging down the lane with his cart.
While Solari, Eponin and Elana were busy getting lunch for the group, Xena led Argo to the water trough next to the bubbling fountain for a long, quenching drink, sweating Greco-Phrygian arrowheads lest some punk in plated armor make a pass at her and then get pushy and belligerent because she wouldn't acknowledge him or else that some half-cocked soldier of fortune, recognizing her on the street, might come racing up to her, sword drawn, screaming, "Aha! Xena! A stroke of luck indeed! Prepare to meet the gods! Woo, I'm about to make my reputation by Eighty-Sixing the great Warrior Princess!" Out would come the numbskull’s sword -- slash, slash; swipe, swipe -- forcing Xena, of necessity, to disarm the creep or, if he was loud enough and obnoxiously persistent about it, to run him through, which might provoke the very confrontation she was desperately hoping to avoid.
A donnybrook in the streets had another potential drawback over and above the annoyance of getting busted by the local shore patrol and then having to break out of the lockup and take off on the lam. Amazons or not, they were women and they were Greek. What possible business could a group of Greek women have at a former Phrygian naval base whose only purpose was to collect and transport hardware and personnel to the wartime theater of operations at Ilium? What business could they have trying to get over to the Phrygian mainland and subsequently making their way to Ilium in any event? Vacationing? News reporting? A spy mission for military intelligence? Going to see their boyfriends and sweethearts to bring them tins of fresh-baked gingerbread from home? Probably not.
If word were to come to the attention of anyone high up in the chain of military command that these Grecian wenches were bound for Ilium to confer with "The Trojan Whore", with whom they were not merely associated by ties of culture, clan and kinship but to whom they owed their ultimate allegiance, they might very well be accused of espionage and tossed in the brig. Being summarily tried and hung for traitors was not an attractive prospect to Xena who, now that she'd embarked upon this Amazon junket, felt some measure of responsibility to bring the enterprise to a successful conclusion, the more so as Velasca was making an apparent effort to be civil to Gabrielle, even deigning sincerely to consider the compassionate but difficult counsel that Gabrielle had conscientiously undertaken to offer her.
Meanwhile, Ephiny and Oriena had slipped a little ways away from the group to do some scouting about the wharves, even as Gabrielle, Lila and Thelestria were trying to look inconspicuous by perusing the few merchant stalls that stood caddy-corner to the intersection. That left Xena and Velasca to hold down the fort: one of the benches near the water troughs which a couple of knights in grimy armor had just vacated.
"I'm curious about something," Velasca said as she took a seat while Xena stood, holding Argo's reins and checking out the height, width and sill protrusions of the nearby, vacant casements in case the group might have to make a fast getaway, in through the doors and out through the windows.
"What’s that?" Xena turned back to look at Velasca.
"You often enlist the help of this fellow, Autolycus, in your various undertakings."
"Sometimes. Not often."
"Irritating little sneak thief," Velasca said with great distaste. "What use do you have for him?"
"He's good at what he does," Xena said.
"You even jumped into his body when Gabrielle was taking you home to Amphipolis for burial. What a revolting experience that must have been."
"I had no choice. If I'd've gotten burnt on that pyre, I couldn't have come back."
"And I'd be queen."
"If you'd eliminated Gabrielle and Ephiny."
"That wouldn't have been difficult."
"Maybe not, but then you'd've been a constant target from that day on. Some young buck -- doe, I guess -- would always have come hunting for you in the hope of knocking you off and getting to be queen herself. It gets old, living like that, let me tell you."
Velasca thought about it. "Callisto kept coming after you, but in the end, as I’ve heard it repeated, all she wanted to do was to die. And she couldn't. Not for the longest time."
"Callisto was my Waterloo," Xena said. "I didn't think so at the time, but, looking back on it, I can see it very clearly."
Velasca nodded. "Still, you'd prefer an anonymous life with Gabrielle to that of being the Empress of the Known World, wouldn’t you?"
"In a heartbeat."
"No second thoughts?"
"Not a one."
Velasca said nothing right away. If she was going to say something after a bit of reflection, she didn't get a chance as Ephiny and Oriena came back from their scouting mission.
"There's a small galley with oars mounted in their rowlocks not fifty footlengths from the dock," Ephiny reported.
"Held by a thin leader to its moorings," Oriena said.
"With room for Argo in the bow," Ephiny said.
"If she can hunker down on her haunches for the time it takes to row across to the mainland," Oriena said.
"We've each got a waterskin and clean water to fill it with," Xena coolly cased the square and the wharves. "We're about to tank up on lunch. How far to the mainland did the old salt it was when we got off the boat?"
"No more than twenty leagues over the water," Gabrielle broke in as she, Lila and Thelestria returned from their bogus shopping spree.
"Call it four leagues per candlemark, which is reasonable. That means it’ll take us about five candlemarks to get there, and it’d still be light out. But how to navigate a straight course is the question," Xena muddled.
"Would one of these help?" Thelestria produced a tiny compass.
"Where'd you get that?" Lila’s eyebrows went up.
"Over there," Thelestria nodded in the direction of one of the merchant stalls.
"What, you... ripped it off?!" Lila looked wide-eyed at Thelestria.
"I... liberated it," Thelestria said.
"Taking things without paying for them is stealing," Lila said with a sharp intake of breath.
"Sometimes we have to improvise, hon," Ephiny said.
"Smooth move. I didn't even see you pull it off," Gabrielle said to Thelestria.
"Like I said," Xena grinned at Velasca, "sneak thieves have their uses."
Velasca hmmf’ed. "But what uses could Salmoneus and Joxer have? Never mind. Don't answer that question."
"When the others get back, it looks like we’ll want to eat and run," Xena said.
"Golly," Lila thought out loud, re-evaluating her life up to that point in time, "the only thing I ever liberated was a pulpy pomegranate."
"Brunch!" Ephiny announced when Solari, Eponin and Elana got back with the grub.
As they ate, Xena came up with a plan.
"Are you sure you know what you're doing?" Gabrielle said after the ladies, thankfully without incident, had eaten, drunk and re-filled their waterskins.
"Does Xena ever know what she's doing?" Ephiny said. "It's all spur of the sandglass with her, you know that."
Xena got up from the bench which the ladies had used as a table, then led Argo away from the crowd and, making her way down to the sandy beach, mounted and rode off into the distance.
The others, with Ephiny in the lead, trying to call as little attention to themselves as possible, meandered over to the wharves. They strolled casually onto the dock nearest the buoy onto whose mooring the vacant galley was tethered. Then, bunched in a huddle, they looked to the right, looked to the left and looked behind them at the busy square.
"Mom and Dad are never gonna believe this," Lila whispered to Gabrielle.
"Mom and Dad are never gonna know about this," Gabrielle whispered back to Lila.
Then, with a wild shout, the ladies dove headlong into the drink and swam like Hades for the listing galley. Velasca was the first one to reach the hull. She grabbed the gunwales and hoisted herself over the thwarts, grabbing Ephiny's hand and pulling her aboard. Then Velasca and Ephiny pulled two more aboard and these four pulled the remaining five aboard. Gabrielle freed the leader from its mooring as the women dashed to their pre-assigned seats, each one grabbing an oar and thrusting it into the water.
Three fishermen, the frilled sleeves of their cotton doublets streaming out behind them, came racing down to the dock. "Hey!" they flailed, "come back here widdat boat!!"
"We’re borrowing it! We'll try and get it back to you!" Gabrielle shouted as the small craft veered, at a fast clip, away from the dock. The past two days or rowing had gotten the ladies' muscles into pretty decent shape and they quickly picked up the pace.
The men's angry gesticulations were obscured by the pellets of ocean spray that flew up and over the prow of the speeding galley as Lila, seated alongside Gabrielle closest to the bow and shielding her eyes from the sting, couldn't help howling with glee.
"If Lexie could only see me now!" Lila squealed, putting her back into the stroke as worthily as an experienced midshipman.
"Her red hair would turn green!" Gabrielle bellowed above the fine, breeze-blown mist.
"Whee!!" Lila shouted and hauled on her oar.
"Steady as she goes!" Velasca cried from the stern, taking command.
Off they went, soaked to the gills, their skin and the metal which covered parts of it, not to mention the sharp, plated iron of the swords and daggers which protected all of it, glistening in a sunlight more severe than any that shone on land.
Got a gal and her name is Argo,
weigh, hey, we'll all come down,
the Argive fleet she'll soon embargo,
weigh, hey, gonna bring her 'round...
Once out of sight of the docks and hopefully free of angry pursuit, Velasca steered the galley parallel to the shore for nearly a league until they caught the neap of the tidal current and their rendezvous with Xena who was waiting for them on the beach of a secluded inlet. Argo could now step aboard and settle down in the hull as Xena took up an oar and the troupe set out to cross the strait to the Phrygian coast, practically within earshot of Ilium, courtesy of the compass which Thelestria had snookered from one of the market stalls near the intersection.
"What about supper?" Lila piped up at one stage of the journey when the galley had traversed most of the open sea and was nearing the first sighting of Phrygia's rocky shoals.
"Lee, for Olympus' sake; there's more to life than constantly filling your face," Gabrielle chided.
"Constantly filling my face?" Lila huffed. "All we've had to chow on so far, today, has been a soggy meatball grinder."
"I know. I'm starving. Don't remind me," Gabrielle said with a sour look on her face.
At last the ladies came ashore on a deserted stretch of sandy beach. They hauled the galley onto the strand and flopped down exhausted for a well-deserved rest.
"Anybody notice how we've busted our buns over these past three days?" Solari said, looking up at the rapidly darkening sky.
"And look how far we've come," Eponin said, lying flat out alongside Solari.
"I don't know about the rest of you guys," Ephiny flopped down next to Solari and Eponin not twenty footlengths from the line of trees that announced a broad stretch of woods behind them, "but I'm so hungry, I could eat a horse."
Xena and Argo turned their heads in Ephiny's direction. Xena grunted and went back to patrolling the beach for filigrees of edible seaweed to tide the group over until they could rustle some game out of the brush, but Argo wasn't so quick to divert her attention.
"You know, Ephiny," Argo telegraphed, "I've put myself out for you lately, flying on a ship, climbing steep trails, three days at sea on a derelict and now kneeling for eight candlemarks on the ribbed bottom of a hard galley when I could have been grazing and sunning myself at surfside. And for this I get dissed?"
Ephiny shriveled with embarrassment under Argo's withering gaze.
"After all," Argo reasoned -- and Ephiny could relate -- "it wasn't all that long ago that you yourself had some hooves and haunches to rustle up meals for."
|Continued - Chapter 36|
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