The Liliad
Chapter 36
Duel Identity


After the women had rested a bit, Solari led a hunting party into the woods while the others gathered fallen branches and driftwood for a campfire. The hunters returned with several rabbits that they’d been able to reach out with their hands and grab as they held the creatures mesmerized in their riveting gaze. Supper, such as it was, consisted of a lean rabbit stew seasoned with boiled seaweed.

"You Amazons don't get by on much, do you?" Lila said, wishing she could rip a hunk off one of her mother's barley loaves and stuff it into her mouth for a good, long chew.

"Wild game make us strong like bear," Solari flexed her biceps.

"Brave like lion," Eponin expanded her chest.

"Dumb like ox," Ephiny tapped her forefinger against her temple.

"Why? What makes us so dumb?" Elana wanted to know.

"Just look at us," Ephiny said, casting her gaze around the circle. "We're cold. We're wet. We're tired. We're still hungry even though we've just eaten. And we're hundreds of leagues from home in a place we don't belong in."

"Do you have to be so negative, Ephiny?" Oriena said.

"Fine, I won't say another word," Ephiny responded.

"Ephiny isn’t being negative," Elana said. "She’s just being annoyingly realistic."

"But we do need to get this queen business cleared up," Thelestria said.

"I suppose so," Ephiny sighed.

"Who's at home minding the store?" Gabrielle asked.

"Chilappa and Messalina," Ephiny said.

"How’s Amarice doing?" Gabrielle said.

The group looked at Velasca.

"You didn’t send her back to Oteri and Yakut, did you?" Gabrielle said. "I was hoping we might keep her for a while."

"Amarice is still around," Velasca said. "I gave her things to do. Ephiny and I both did."

"I put her on extended K.P.," Ephiny said.

"You did? Bet she pouted and grumbled," Gabrielle's eyes chuckled.

"She bristled for a while, but she knows it's not forever," Ephiny said.

"I think Amarice might make a good assistant to Eponin at the training grounds," Velasca said. "If she can get a handle on her mood swings. It seems she's always flying off about something or other."

Ephiny, Solari and Eponin looked at Velasca with a touch of appreciation. That was a comradely thing to say, acknowledging the value of Eponin's contribution.

"Be gentle with her," Gabrielle said. "She lost her mother in a raid when she was a kid and her father was a bit of a rolling stone."

"She wasn’t raised an Amazon?" Solari said.

"No," Gabrielle shook her head. "She said she was because she thought that was the only way she might be accepted."

"I hope we aren’t dealing with deja Callisto all over again," Ephiny said. ‘’Only instead of psyching herself up to be a warlord out to get back at Xena, maybe she’s psyching herself up to be an Amazon out to get back at... whoever."

"They’re put together very differently, Callisto and Amarice," Gabrielle said. "Callisto was psychotic and a natural with the sword. Amarice mostly wants to fit in. Just don't let her near any members of the male gender. That's what seems to set her off."

"Even Armand?" Ephiny said.

"Especially Armand," Gabrielle said. "If Armand comes calling, Amarice is apt to kiss him and kill him."

Men, the women shook their heads. What could the gods have had in mind when they’d created them?

"Stoppers with which to plug the craters of active volcanoes," was Velasca's considered opinion.

Darkness had fallen, and it was time to get some shut eye. Unfortunately, the women had no blankets or bedrolls; and, as it was several days after the fall equinox, the nights were getting colder, especially here on the western fringe of a large, continental land mass. The ladies tackled the problem by cuddling close together and strewing long strands of dried sea grass over themselves. Lila was clearly distressed but said nothing, causing Gabrielle to admire her kid sister's pluck. There's a tough cookie baking inside that soft and gentle oven of yours, isn't there, Lee? Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea if Mom and Dad could see us now. As for Gabrielle, this was one night that she would dearly have loved to spend sheltered in Xena's warm arms, but, with so many others around, it wasn't feasible.

Still, the women were sufficiently tuckered out from their day's exertions to fall asleep almost at once, and they pretty much slept the night away, except when it came time for one or the other of them to rouse herself and take the watch. Velasca had drawn the night's final sentry duty and woke the others a candlemark before sunup, though several of the troupe had awakened earlier and were lying on their backs on the sand, watching the Cheshire smile of the late waning moon as it came grinning over the treetops that skirted the beach, Selene's faint glow soon to be overtaken by the firewheel of Helios' galloping chariot.

The women left their makeshift campsite and bushwhacked a little ways through the woods in search of a road. The first thing they noticed, as the day glided from dawn to morning, was that the air and the light and the vegetation had a different cast to them here than they did back home. The sunlight was more insistent, the morning air more demanding, the woods scrubbier, flatter, more spindly and evergreen.

"Asia," Lila whispered what seemed to her a word full of exotic mystery. Then a chill shallied down her spine. The thought finally zapped her: I'm far away from home, much farther than Amphipolis or Thessaloniki; farther than I've even been. My gods, we're going to Troy. The walls of Ilium! Where Perdicas and Andros and Alexis' brothers, Galen and Menarchos, have gone. And then, irrationally but powerfully, another thought struck her, one which sparked a ripple of enervating anxiety: boy, am I gonna have some explaining to do when I get home!

"Good, we've connected," Xena, in the lead, called behind her after the group had traversed the fir barrens for about a candlemark. The wooded copses ended at the fringe of a dirt lane and then continued on the lane's further side. The women had been proceeding east with the sun in front of them. Time to turn left and keep the sun on their right as they headed north.

"We'd best keep clear of the road and track its course from here in the brush," Xena said.

"What for?" Elana said. "It'll take us days to slog our way through this stuff. What if it gets squishy and boggy?"

"We'll risk being spotted by villagers if we hike along the road," Xena said. She pushed some of the shaggy hemlock branches to the side and gazed, unobstructed, at the road. "We're not at the main road yet where we might hope to spot a patrol. There are no paving stones. But check out the wagon tracks."

The others crowded around. "I gotcha," Oriena grinned. "We wait for a passing wagon, waylay the driver, commandeer the horses and ride up to Troy under our own steam."

"And get ourselves sliced to thin strips of cold cuts the instant we get there. I don’t think so," Xena murmurred.

Oriena frowned and looked at Velasca. This didn't sound like the legendary derring do of the famous Warrior Princess.

"Getting a bit soft in your old age, Xena?" Thelestria gave voice to what Oriena seemed to be thinking.

"You win battles with your head. Swords, arrows and chakrams just put the finishing touches on it," Xena sized up the situation. "Five leagues south of Troy is where the wide basin of the Scamander begins. There'll be no cover when we get there; no woods, no brush, no tall marshgrass. It's one big battlefield, wide and flat with nothing to get in anyone's way. That's why they can marshall such a huge contingent of infantry and artillery in one spot. They spread out for leagues around the walls of the citadel. We'll be completely exposed at that point. Even Argo wouldn't stand a chance of getting very far without being overtaken, shot down if they felt like it."

"What do you suggest we do?" Ephiny said.

"The place’ll be crawling with Argives at that point," Solari said. "If Agammemnon’s got any brains, he's got the place surrounded."

"Gonna squeeze 'em 'til their food and water gives out," Eponin said. "And then they're gonna torch the place."

"The Felafel Man was telling me and Lexie that there's been some dissension in the ranks, that the Trojans have been preparing to launch a counter offensive," Lila said.

A few eyes looked at Lila.

"He said it's because Achilles has gone on strike," Lila continued. "Something about Achilles sulking in his tent since Agammemnon put the arm on Achilles' girlfriend."

"Hmm, that might give us an opening, Achilles' wounded pride," Xena smiled at Lila for passing along this useful bit of information. "C'mon, I got an idea."

The Amazons looked at one another, Ephiny, Solari and Eponin checking in with Gabrielle whose look more or less said, "You know Xena; sometimes you've just gotta button up and roll with it."

Elena, Oriena and Thelestria checked in with Velasca the look on whose face more or less said, "Then I guess we button up roll."

The company of ten plus Argo paralleled the dirt road until, sure enough, it joined the paved road that ran north and south. This was clearly the route to Ilium. The terrain on either side of the road was flat and sandy, the woods thinning gradually to intermittent stands of crooked, windblown hemlock and furzy white pine. Another ten leagues to the Plains of Scamander and the battlefield as large as two dozen telesteria, its perimeter dotted, as far as the eye could see, with the banner-waving pavilions of friend and foe and the occasional noncombatant. A thousand ships, each disgorging approximately a hundred men: the hyperbole may not have understated the head count by very much.

"And now we wait," Xena said.

"For what, our ship to come in?" Elana said. "We left our ship about five leagues back that way."

"We wait to get captured and taken prisoner," Xena said.

Hunh...?, went the company.

"You got any better ideas?" Xena said. "If the Argives catch us, our brass is grass. If the Trojans pick us up, we’ll get a free ride inside the city walls."

"And then our brass will be grass," Elana said.

"We’ll be sent straight to the lockup," Oriena added.

"Just where we wanna be," Xena said.

"Well done," Velasca said. "Getting captured is our best bet if we're to smuggle ourselves into the great bastions of Ilium. Making a run for it across that broad, sun-drenched plain would only be futile."

"So let’s stay put 'til we spot a Trojan scouting party," Xena said.

Lila's heart beat faster. The thought of adventure had appealed to her when she and Alexis had contemplated its exciting possibilities while doing the laundry at the town wash basin. They had thought of things like kicking warlords' butts or monsters that terrorized outlying villages. Even crossing swords with Callisto or trying to outfox Caesar. But ending up as prisoners of war, taken by the enemy whom Perdicas and Andros and the other guys from home had come all this way to fight? I dunno, Xena; this wasn't quite what I had in mind.

"Something the matter, Lila?" Xena noticed the worried look on Lila's face.

"No... nothing. I'm just kind of... new to all this," Lila managed stammer.

"I'm glad you're with us," Xena smiled and gave Lila's a shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "I think that good things may come of it."

"Do you really?" Lila said with suddenly saucering eyes that looked at Gabrielle for confirmation.

"I've seen Xena pull rabbits out of headbands, never mind hats," Gabrielle said to buck up Lila's spirits up. "After a while, it’s easy to start taking them for granted."

"And that's when things start going haywire," Xena said. "First lesson of planning strategy, Lila: the easy stuff is often harder to accomplish than the hard stuff."

Lila thought of Herodotus and Hecuba. What could be harder than the easiness of parents loving one another and the children whom they adored? Lila felt a jolt of admiration for her parents and the desire to do them proud, rabbits or no rabbits, hats or no hats.

"The easy stuff, does it ever get easy?" Lila said to Xena as one adult might say to another.

Xena shot a quick, reflexive look at Gabrielle. "No, it doesn't," Xena looked back at Lila.

"Good," Lila said with a bellyful of self-possession. "I don't think I'd trust it if it did."

The women didn't have long to wait. Patrol junkets emerging from tunnels to the east of the great citadel swept in a wide southerly arc along the forest paths, then fanned out to intersect the road at random locations to the east. No land transport or troop movement within a dozen leagues of the city went unnoticed. These routes were also used by Trojan raiding parties to harry the Argive agricultural emplacements south of the Scamander where tributaries from the Xanthus delta watered the crops necessary to support a lengthy siege. The war, now in its tenth year, may have acquired fame for its great legions and mighty battles, but by far the greatest consumption of Argive energy had gone into tilling the soil for the bulk of the food supply needed to sustain the extensive military operations and also into pirating on the open sea for the goods and supplies which a large, entrenched army required for its sustenance. An army marches on its belly, said the old chestnut, and nowhere was that adage more a propos than in the long, drawn out siege of Ilium.

"Be as nonchalant as it’s possible for a group of Greek girls in brass bras, leather skirts and plumed bird masks to be as they go sauntering merrily along the road to Ilium," Xena advised. "And remember: they're more scared of you than you are of them."

"They are?" Lila said.

"No, but try to act that way," Xena said. "We don't wanna skewer any of these buzzards and then have to answer a lot of inconvenient questions."

Several horse drawn cars, manned by a dozen armed soldiers, pulled up along the fringe of the road where the women had decided to let themselves be intercepted.

"What in the name of Aphrodite's nightie do we have here!" the squad leader hopped down from the car and drew his sword. He was a large man, his broad breast festooned in mail, his helmet sporting a golden plume and a tilted visor. "Ladies, how many times have you been told not to wander so far from the walls? You're sitting ducks for any party of marauding Argives who’d happily make you their captives. And then there's no telling that you’d ever see your homes and families again."

"Then it's a good thing they aren’t here," Xena said.

"Foreign armies don't frighten us. We've obliterated quite a few of them," Gabrielle chimed in.

"Greeks!" the squad leader exclaimed, jumping back. The women were immediately surrounded by members of the patrol who gawked at them with a mixture of curiosity, fear and a heady sort of arousal.

"Hold your horses," Xena urged. "Take it slow and easy, and we'll explain everything."

"Seize and disarm them!" the squad leader commanded. "Then bind them hand and foot!"

"Not so fast!" Lila cried, to no one's amazement so much as her own. "We haven't come all this way just to get tied up and tossed over the back of some galloping horses! I’ve been that route and it’s not a very pleasant one!"

The sound of the lone, unarmed and least threatening opponent barking out a command stunned everyone into motionlessness, including Xena.

"There's nobody here but us, and we haven't come to make trouble, so don't panic," Lila scowled at the squad leader.

The squad leader, his sword still drawn, said, "Very well. Tell us who are you and what in the name of Apollo's swallows you’re doing here?"

"A powerful ally of King Priam sent for us," Xena reassumed leadership of the group.

"Yeah, right," the squad leader retorted, looking around at the members of his patrol. "And I'm the Queen of Egypt."

"Then you ought to trade notes with Salmoneus. He's the Queen of Namibia," Lila mumbled.

"Take us to the King and you'll find out that what we’re telling you is the truth," Xena said.

"The only place we're taking you, Leather Lips, is to the iron ore slag pits where you and these other floozies can spend the rest of your short lives lugging buckets from the quarry," the squad leader shot back.

"Apokladoi Ellenikoi," one of the Trojan soldiers spat at the women.

"Kopria Troikas," Ephiny spat back.

The soldier took a menacing stride forward and Ephiny prepared to take him on.

"Stop right there!" Velasca stepped forward, her hand drawing the hilt of her sword a little ways out of its scabbard, her eyes fixed on the Trojan squad leader. "Trading curses will get us nowhere."

"She's right," Xena said to the squad leader. "We've got official business with Queen Penthesileia of the Seven Stars, the King's ally and honored guest. Otherwise you wouldn't catch us within a thousand leagues of this place."

The squad leader squinted at Xena, then let his gaze fall on the other women. "You're Thracian," he turned back to Xena. "Your accent and the way you carry yourself. These others are Greeks; Macedonians from the look and sound of them. Yet you're travelling together."

"I'm a Thracian Greek from Amphipolis. What of it?" Xena said.

"And I'm Lydian born, an Anatolian Amazon from Phrygia," Velasca said. "I was adopted by the Macedonian Amazons when I was little more than an infant. I was raised in their ways and taught to speak their language. They're my family and my tribe. And these...," Velasca looked squarely at Gabrielle and Lila as though to make a point of including them in her declaration, "are my sisters whom I will defend with my life."

"Then maybe you haven't heard the news," the squad leader said.

"Heard what news?" Xena said.

"What the noble Argives lately did to your Thracian King Rhesus," the squad leader said to Xena. "Thrace has come into the war on our side. If you're Thracian, you’re our ally. Macedonia's divisions belong to the Argives. Once the rest of you ladies had set foot on Phrygian soil, you came under the jurisdiction of Diomedes, Military High Commander of the Army of Northern Greece. His word is law where you’re concerned. He could have you beheaded without a trial, at the snap of a finger, and you'd have no avenue of appeal.

"As for you," the squad leader said to Xena, "I take it you know that King Rhesus has -- that is, that he had -- the finest stable of horses in the known world. The power and grace of Thracian steeds are legion. That palomino you've got by the reins is a good example. Thracian riders are the most accomplished anywhere. Only the Scythians can match you stride for stride and jump for jump.

"The King had come to present his horses to King Priam, honoring their friendship and alliance of old. A splendid cavalry we'd have mounted with those glorious, high-tempered Arabians. But on the night before King Rhesus was to enter the city, Diomedes and Odysseus, relying, as the Argives always do, on deception and treachery, apprehended Dolon, our scout, outside the walls as he was gathering intelligence as to the best means of Rhesus' entry into the citadel for the purpose of delivering the horses.

"Hoping to bargain for his life and trusting in the worthless word of two contemptible servants of the foul House of Atreus, Dolon told them of the gift of the horses that King Rhesus was about to make to King Priam. Diomedes requited Dolon's favor by lopping off his head. Then he and Odysseus slipped silently into the Thracian camp and slew King Rhesus in his bed while he slept. They slaughtered the guards and made off with the horses on whose backs the Argive riders now harass our farmers and peddlers and clothiers, never mind our armed soldiery.

"I see you carry a sword and wear armor and go about prepared to do battle. Would you do that, lady? Even to an enemy? Slay a man in his bed while he lies sleep?" The squad leader waited. "Plunge your sword into the neck or belly of a man as he snores on his cot? Would you?"

"I've killed a lot of men in my time," Xena said, "but never one in bed while he slept. No, I wouldn't stoop so low."

"Yet two of your leading Argive generals did. Your king is dead, despatched by the hand of a cowardly, double crossing lackey of the corrupt House of Atreus, a member of Agammemnon’s general staff. And it was Agammemnon who ordered the deed to be done. If you're Thracian," the squad leader looked at Xena, "and if these others are Macedonian," his gaze happened to fall on Gabrielle, "then you're fraternizing with the enemy which is a capital offense."

Xena followed the squad leaders' gaze to Gabrielle's face and eyes and breasts and hips. Then she looked back at the squad leader with cold, blue menace flashing in her Warrior Princess eyes. "I don't give a dirty dinar for kings and their wars. Argive, Trojan, Thracian, Macedonian, it's all peas in the same pod to me: men contending with other men. Let your quarrels fall out as they may. We have business with Penthesileia, Queen of the Amazons, a nation whose glory will outlast Argive and Trojan alike by twice a thousand sunmarks."

The women thrilled at Xena's words. Velasca stood quietly composed by Xena's side, her hand a whisper away from the hilt of her sword, ready to draw and wield it at the least sign from Xena. Gabrielle looked at her soulmate with unabashed admiration. Lila regarded Xena with reverence and Gabrielle with awe. This was no sparring fillip preliminary to swordplay and swashbuckle. This was the sound of a soul laying it on the line for all ears to hear, so say you one, so say you all.

"And you have proof of this purported business?" the squad leader said.

Velasca produced the summons which the squad leader unrolled and skimmed. His subordinates stood by, ready to rush into action. "You'll see the seal affixed at the bottom," Velasca said.

The squad leader took another few falling sand grains to peruse the document, then nodded at Velasca and Xena. "Looks authentic," he returned the scroll. "Allright, we'll take you in. The Thracian can ride her horse. The rest of you, onto these cars and we'll proceed at a slow pace. First hand over your weapons. All of them, including your breast daggers. We'll take you through the gates into a holding area and there you'll remain under guard until you’ve been called -- either to meet with the King or to end your lives on the chopping block. Is that understood?"

The women looked at one another and nodded. Then they turned to face the soldiery. "Agreed," Xena spoke for them all.

The squad leader barked a command and his subordinates drew the cars up and signaled for the women to disarm and climb aboard.

"You'll see that unlike the Argive swine, we can be counted on to keep our word," the squad leader said as the reins snapped and the cars jerked, their wheels careening forward and the occupants having to hold onto the cars’ semi-circular rims to keep from spilling out.

"Slip an arm around my waist," Gabrielle said to Lila who was squinched between her, Ephiny and two of the Trojan soldiers. "I've got a good grip here, and I've ridden on these rattly things before."

Lila complied and thus she rode into Ilium on a mini-chariot with her arms around her sister, the picaresque world of rural villages, market squares, kitchen gardens and communal wash basins full of soapy skirts and scrubbed britches seeming to vanish behind her as the huge wood and metal gate, one of the dozens which protected the mightiest citadel that Lila might ever hope to see, clanged shut behind her.

The women were herded into a large, empty hall with low stone benches along the gallery whose exit appeared to lead to a smaller, outdoor courtyard. Guards manned the entrances. Several patrolled the hall. The women were told to sit two to a bench and not to say a word. The Trojans had great respect for horses and were solicitous in caring for them, so that, initially, Argo got better treatment than the women, for which courtesy Xena didn't object.

It was well past midday, and the women hadn't eaten since the previous evening. Lila had been hungry earlier but the pangs had subsided. Now, though, a different kind of hunger began to eke through her lower body as though a cavern were slowly forming itself in and below her tummy, pushing outward and making her feel as though she were expanding like a sewn leather sack being inflated with air. And while the earlier hunger pangs had ached and thudded, these new ones were more constant and painful as though an inner pressure, steadily building, might eventually burst and scatter her innards across the smooth, marble floor.

"The bellows," Gabrielle whispered.

"The bellows?" Lila wrinkled her brow.

"Phase two hunger pangs," Gabrielle whispered. "Phase one is called the cleaver. We don't often get to phase two."

"Is there a phase three?" Lila whispered with a degree of apprehension.

"Yeah, but you don't wanna know about it."

"I do so wanna know about it," Lila insisted.

"It's called the vice. I've only experienced it twice. Everything inside you feels like it's being clamped down on really hard."

"Like bad cramps when you get your period?"

"Worse. But I don't think it's gonna get to that point. It doesn't kick in ‘til the second day and we've still got five, six candlemarks left to go. Don't worry, we’ll get something in our tummies."

Lila was quiet for a while. "Is there a, um...," she paused. "Nothing; never mind."

"Is there a stage four?" Gabrielle looked at Lila.

"It was just a thought," Lila responded. "I don't want you to think I'm being morbid."

"You'll have to ask Xena. She's been there; I haven't," Gabrielle murmurred.

A few turns of the sandglass later, the squad leader came in and told the women to get ready to be moved to another venue within the citadel, this one, as it turned out -- an antechamber, one of a dozen -- of the King’s multi-storey palace.

Continued - Chapter 37
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