|A Knight To Remember|
Through the soup course, the viandes and the flambées, Lila kept stealing looks at Penthesileia, but the Queen never acknowledged them. Penthesileia ate little and spoke less, excusing herself from the table and retiring to her quarters at her earliest opportunity. At one point, Lila recalled that this was the woman who, according to Chiron, held a power of life and death over Gabrielle, Ephiny and even, possibly, Xena herself.
At the conclusion of the feast, Lila's company returned to their own quarters in high spirits. The Themiscyran Amazons had invited their Macedonian counterparts to assist them in leading the exercises on the drill field at the telesterion the next day. "These girls," Eponin said and the others, including Velasca, agreed, "have attitude."
The ladies, too wound up to turn in, went out to chat on the balcony which overlooked one of Ilium's torch-lit, nighttime malls. Lila's thoughts were distracted and she eventually slipped away to the quiet of her chamber where, seated on the edge of her pallet, she took off her necklace of corn kernels and removed her makeup. Then she climbed out of her draped chiton and slipped into a long, linen shift which the castle's staff, courtesy of Sargon, had provided for sleepwear.
"Lee," Gabrielle poked her head into the bed chamber, "is something the matter? You clammed up at dinner and seem awfully withdrawn all of a sudden."
"No, I'm okay," Lila said tentatively as she climbed into bed and pulled the covers over her. "You go hang out with the others. I'm feeling a little bit blue, I guess. Nothing to it, really. It’s just a mood. It’ll pass."
Gabrielle came over and sat down on the edge of the pallet. "What do I see looking at me?" she smiled. "I see Lee looking at me. Something’s on your mind, Lila, Lila, Sarsaparilla."
Lila started to say something, then looked away and blushed.
"C’mon, something's up. What is it, honey?" Gabrielle sought to connect with Lila's shielded eyes.
"Gab," Lila looked back at Gabrielle, "When I first heard about Penthesileia on the day that Lexie whomped Latrinus' goons and Dad took us to the pub to celebrate, Chiron told us, at his information table, that she -- Penthesileia, I mean -- could condemn you and Ephiny to death if she were to decide that you weren't Queen Melosa's legitimate successor but had stolen the queenship from Velasca. Is that true?"
Gabrielle thought for a turn of the sandglass. "Technically, I suppose it is. From what I've heard, that's often been the way in which the Amazons have settled these sorts of disputes."
"Are you worried about it?" Lila said.
"To be honest, I haven't thought much about it," Gabrielle said. "There was a time, I think, when Velasca wanted me out of the way. I’m not getting those sorts of vibes from her now. She's actually been kind of civil to me since we got on the boat that took us over to Tenedos. She's begun talking to Ephiny too. For Velasca, I think that's progress. She doesn't open up and let many people in."
"I get the feeling she's lonely."
"I do too. I think she looks up to Xena, whether or not she’ll admit it. I suggested to Xena this afternoon that if Xena gets the chance to do some sparring with Velasca, it might be just what Velasca needs: a good workout with someone who can measure up to her demanding standards. Velasca's the most able warrior of the bunch, including Eponin."
"What about Ephiny?"
"Ephiny can hold her own, but Ephiny’s more a general, a top notch field commander."
"She's pretty striking to look at. Velasca, I mean; not to detract from Ephiny. She's had her share of lovers, hasn't she: Velasca?"
"That’s what they say. That's something else that Velasca may have come to regret. Driving some of them away. Why so curious all of a sudden?"
Lila shifted her position on the pallet. "The night you took off to follow Xena... no, the afternoon when Xena first showed up, when Mom was hanging onto you and me, and you broke free and ran to stand between us and Draco's slavers and then offered yourself to be taken in our place, do you remember what you were thinking when you did that?"
"You mean when we all got herded together in the acacia grove and didn't know if those dimwits were gonna run us through or march us off to their camp or what?"
"Yeah. And then Xena came vaulting out of the woods and chased them away. Did you feel like you knew her then? I mean like the very instant you laid eyes on her even though you’d never seen her before? Like there was some kind of a previous life connection or something? Something that was just sort of like... already there?"
Gabrielle looked Lila in the eye. "Yeah, as a matter of fact I did."
"I knew it!" Lila exclaimed. "I didn't say anything to Mom -- about that kind of soul connection -- her and Dad were so blown away when you split -- but I was right about that, wasn't I? There was some sort of an instant soul connection between you and Xena. But what was it like afterwards? After you'd hooked up with Xena and had started going around together? I mean you didn't just go trumpeting up to Xena say, 'Hi, you don’t know me or anything, but we've got this past-life, soul connection that we somehow need to deal with...''"
Gabrielle thought for a turn of the sandglass. "When I finally got to Amphipolis -- there was this fuzzy old man from Thebes, a grandfatherly type, who came driving by in a hay wagon and I talked him into letting me hop on -- things there were pretty dicey. The people in Xena's village weren't happy to have her back. They thought she'd come to rob and pillage. They'd been blaming her for Lyceus' death, and that hurt her a lot 'cause Xena was really attached to Lyceus and she was already blaming herself for Lyceus’ death. Even Cyrene was ready to throw her out. So that was one heck of a homecoming!
"But then Draco and his gang showed up, and Draco was hot under the collar to win Xena back. They had this amazing fight up on stilts, Xena and Draco, and finally Draco hit the ground and the rules of the fight were that Xena had the right to slit his throat at that point. But Xena meant it when she’d said that she was done with all that, and she wouldn't do it -- slit Draco’s throat -- and that’s when Draco finally realized that Xena was serious, that she was through with her life as a warlord and wanted to turn over a new leaf. And then Cyrene began to see the light and gave Xena a hug, and that was the real turnaround. It was Cyrene who made it possible for Xena to finally turn the corner."
"It wasn't you?" Lila said.
"It was me, too, but that came later. What Xena needed, more than to rule the world, more than anything, was for her mom to give her a hug. And what I saw when Cyrene gave Xena that hug wasn't some frightening Warrior Princess in all her brass and leather awfulness but a vulnerable soul who was lost and scared and who didn't have much direction or self-confidence and who was really hurting to have a friend."
"Xena said that?"
"No, but I could see it."
"Was it love at first sight between the two of you?"
Gabrielle pondered the question. "In a way I want to say it was, but I don't know if I was thinking of it quite in those terms. Mostly it was just this tremendous sense of freedom and exhilaration. I wasn't good for much in the beginning, and I don't think Xena really knew what to make of me, and she had no idea what to do with me, and we had some pretty rough going for a while; and mostly, in the early days, it was me who did a lot of the hard work of keeping the two of us together. I don't think she'd quite gotten over Marcus yet, and then after Marcus got killed, it was touch and go for a while; though I seemed to notice a marked change in Xena after I almost got stupidly killed by a poison arrow outside Galen's dispensary, the time when Xena had to smack me around and bring me gasping back to life. Xena seemed to look at me differently after that. She seemed more willing to listen to what I had to say and maybe to take me a bit more seriously than she had. We had some quiet times together then. Xena's a remarkable person when you get to know her. There’s so many layers to her. But stubborn? When Xena thinks she’s got the answer to something, she can be ten times more hardheaded than me."
Lila let go a loud laugh. "Ten times more hardheaded than you? Impossible!"
"Okay, nine and a half times," Gabrielle said and her blue-green eyes twinkled.
Lila waved Gabrielle away with another laugh. "I'll bet that when you arrived on Xena's doorstep, you took one look into those incredible blue eyes of hers and said, 'Okay, Warrior Princess, turn in your chakram. I'm takin' command of this ship...'"
"I guess it seems a little bit like that, looking back on it," Gabrielle laughed. "I suppose I was Little Ms. Persistence. But I was willing to let Xena go if she needed me to. When I'd gotten hit by another poison arrow near Tripolis and Xena was trying to look after me while rigging booby traps to keep the Persian army from advancing on Sparta, I was really willing to let her go. That was a milestone for us. Something between us got cemented in place that day. Things were on a different plane after that. In spite of all the hard stuff that came after: Britannia, Hope, Solon, India, Caesar. I think we knew that despite everything that had happened, a real bond had been forged between us as equals, and neither of us could pretend it wasn’t there. Not that I hadn't become an equal already. It just felt like an acknowledgment of it got confirmed even before we ended up on the cross."
"Does it bother you that Xena loved Lao Ma?"
"It did in the beginning, when I first found out about the Green Dragon, but it doesn't now. That was when I betrayed Xena for leaving me behind, but she forgave me."
"Was it when you got back from Chin that you became lovers?"
"That's a whole different dynamic with its own rhythm, pace and energy. But we needed to work through a lot of stuff before we got to that point. Not just Xena. I had to too."
"But on the whole, I mean, you knew what you wanted and you went for it."
"Once I knew for sure; yeah, I guess I did."
Something about Gabrielle's reply seemed to settle a question for Lila, and she began to snap out of the funk which had come over her at dinner. "That was quite a do the King put on, wasn’t it?" Lila said. "All those fancy lords and ladies."
"Lee," Gabrielle said in a more serious tone, "the Trojans can't win this thing. It's just a matter of time before it’ll be all over. You know that, don't you?"
"I know," Lila said softly and shook her head. "It's so beautiful here, so serene and perfect. They've made a kind of paradise on earth, haven't they? I don't suppose something that fine and delicately balanced can last, can it? What if they just gave her back: Helen."
"It wouldn't matter," Gabrielle said. "There's a lot more at stake here than who’s going to wind up with Helen. There’s riches, power, glory, fame. Even the gods are fighting for their lives."
"What's gonna happen to the Amazons?"
"I told Lexie, on the day we heard that your life might be in danger, you and Ephiny and maybe Xena... I said that I thought the Amazons were mostly concerned with putting on a big show for themselves. But that’s not true, is it?"
"No, it isn’t. Not at all. Amazons have a code of honor that they strive to live by."
"And Xena's very different than the Destroyer of Nations that a lot of people make her out to be, isn't she?"
"Where's Xena gonna sleep tonight?" Lila looked around the bed chamber. "There's three rooms, and each one has three beds, but there's ten of us. Is Sargon gonna set up an extra cot?"
"That wouldn't be a bad idea," Gabrielle said. "I'm not sure where Xena is. She took off as we were starting to head back, and I haven’t the foggiest where she went."
At that turn of the sandglass, Xena was well outside the city walls on a dark and silent mission. Like Gabrielle, Xena harbored no illusions about the ultimate outcome of the war, and the news which the patrol’s squad leader had shared about the death of King Rhesus at the hands of Diomedes and Odysseus had made her furious. Xena had told the truth: she had little use for kings and their wars, and she was hardly a Thracian patriot keen to take up the Trojan cause.
But word of Diomedes and Odysseus having slain King Rhesus in his lit de camp while the King had been asleep and the added bit about how they'd made off with the King’s horses had enraged her. Not that Xena hadn't done worse in her time. But Diomedes and Odysseus were men who held themselves out as exemplars and role models; and their conduct, in this instance, disgusted her. Though he'd been appointed Commander In Chief of the Army of Northern Hellas and was thus a ranking member of Agammemnon's general staff, Diomedes was a native of Tiryns and a subject of its Queen, a happy coincidence which gave Xena a bargaining chip which she fully intended to exploit before the moon would rise that night.
It had been easy to slip by the sentries and to let herself out by the Dardan Gate. Too easy. Xena made a mental note to inform King Priam that the city's wonderful, underground sewage system was vulnerable to Argive moles who might sneak up, under cover of night, and chivvy their way under the bulwarks. Athens had nearly fallen to the invasion of the allied Hittite and Amazon forces in much the same way during Theseus’ reign when Molpeidia had been the great Amazon War Queen. Ironically, it had been Antiope's presence within the Acropolis that had stayed the War Queen's hand, lending Theseus the time he'd needed to mount his heroic and now legendary defense of the city. The ensuing hand-to-hand, cellar-to-cellar and rooftop-to-rooftop combat had cost him the life of his beautiful Antiope so that, in after years, his subsequent marriage to the lovely Phaedra had turned out to be the pale ghost of the intense bond which he'd shared with the wild, passionate, tenderly loving Amazon queen who'd won and had forever afterwards held his heart, the queen whose youngest sister, housed within these very walls this night, now ruled in Antiope's stead following the deaths of her two elder sisters, Melanippe and Hippolyte.
As quiet as an unoffered prayer in the depths of a sleepless night, Xena made her way among the Argive encampment that lay spread out along the beach across the broad plain of the Scamander. She ducked and crouched and scampered, taking down sentries as needed, stunning them but not otherwise debilitating them, until she'd arrived at the perimeter of her desired target. As Xena had observed when she'd reconnoitered Latrinus' camp in the hills above the Strymon Road, there were horses, a fleet of them, massed in a large gymkhana alongside the massive bivouac of tents, huts, quonsets and drill sheds. But these weren’t ordinary horses. They were mounts whose pride and stature were unrivalled throughout the length and breadth of the known world and whose regal bearing was unworthy of the men who'd recently rustled and corralled them.
It offended Xena's sensibilities to see these prize war horses being held in reserve by men who presumed that they might conceivably do them justice. The Thracians were the unsurpassed masters of Greco-Phrygian horsemanship, and Xena was a Thracian rider. Her blood pulsed with outrage in the presence of these noble steeds, now stolen to become the assault vehicles of men who could in no way claim to be their legitimate masters. Indeed, the horses, sensing Xena's presence silently among them, made obeisance to a mistress deserving of their allegiance.
With nighttime sight like a cat's and hearing honed as sharp as Attic steel, Xena worked her way through gates and barriers until she'd arrived at the rear of the huge tent, in the large, central quad, which flew the banner of the Army of Northern Hellas: a blonde bundle of bound Macedonian tares backed by the scarlet chevron of Thessaly on a field of Illyrian blue, a shade that was just a tad more violet in hue than the royal blue of the Athenian League, the Argive House of Atreus, Agammemnon's standard and Hellas’ primus inter pares.
Xena sneaked up to the rear of the tent. With the razor-sharp blade of her drawn breast dagger, she sliced a long slit in the canvas-like material and peered inside. There were tables, chairs, a podium, large maps spread out on flat surfaces and charts hung with clothespins from the tent stays. Several broad-shouldered men in uniform were seated on a divan, discretely discussing a matter that appeared to be of some importance. They didn't notice Xena silently broadening the slit and stealthily slipping into the tent, darting immediately behind the cover of a cask of military armaments where she could eavesdrop on the proceedings without being detected.
The men were puzzling over what to do with the stolen horses. Their idea had been to harness them to their pool of two-man war chariots, the most nimble form of cavalry that the Argives had yet devised. In that way, they would likely achieve mounted superiority in the field, enabling the Argive assault to expand its semi-circular salient further across the plain and closer to Ilium's well-buttressed fortifications. Once their position had been reinforced close enough to the citadel to permit the entrenchment of their siege engines and catapaults, the turrets and gables atop Ilium's wide walls and, ultimately, the interior of the citadel itself might be made vulnerable to deadly bombardment.
The theft of King Rhesus' drove of horses, which the Thracian King had intended to present as a gift to King Priam, had been a brilliant maneuver, and the Argive high command intended to put the booty gained by this stroke of sabotage to its deadliest use. The problem was that these mounts, however splendid, did not take well to the harness and were being positively uncooperative. Pulling wheeled transport was not only unfamiliar to them, it seemed -- if one might attribute emotions to horses -- as though these haughty creatures regarded charioteering as an inferior occupation. Bit and bridle and a skilled rider, yes. Shy of that, they preferred the ease of the mews and lofts filled with fodder. Other than the Thracians and the distant Scythians, only the Amazons knew how to ride -- to emblazon -- a lone mount in battle, and the horses seemed to know it.
The catena of officers rose from the divan and alighted from the tent, leaving its sole resident alone, protected only by a token guard, two ensigns stationed on either side of the tent's front fly. The tent itself was located in the midst of the encampment, perhaps the most secure perch in the entire theater of operations other than command headquarters itself.
"Another day, another dinar," the weary soldier removed his plumed helmet to reveal a head of wavy, light brown hair and a handsome face of well-proportioned features. He unstrung the cuirass from his chest and slipped from his arms the leather bracers and arm brassards. He was well-built and had a patiently tolerant air of nobility about him, a man at ease in command; astute, assertive but not in the least an autocratic bully.
With a tired sigh that bespoke the travails of a day that had begun long before dawn, the soldier went to a small cabinet, opened its little wooden door and removed a small flask partially filled with a liquid the color of deep obsidian. He took out a thin stem glass and, lifting the stopper off the neck of the flask, he poured a stream of the syrupy liquid into the glass. Re-stoppering the flask, he lifted the glass toward the sole lantern that illumined the interior of the tent and, in a soft voice, he murmurred, "Ephprosdektos, ylikou nikta...." Then he swigged the mellow liqueur from the glass, leaving only a glozing stain to trickle down the glass' side, funneling to a moist dab at the base.
So quick was Xena's pounce that the veteran soldier had no indication of her presence until, his eyes, returning from the top of the tentpole where they had accompanied the upward tilt of the toasting glass, beheld the sharp, gleaming tip of Xena's drawn sword a cuticle's width from his throat just below the larynx.
"So much as a whispered breath and it really will be 'Welcome, sweet night'... forever," Xena said with a sultry smile on her gorgeous face. "I like you, Diomedes. I've always liked you. But I'll unthroat you with the flick of my wrist and spill your blood on this smooth, expensive Persian rug if you so much as bat an eye or shuffle the sole of your boot. Do you understand?"
"Xena," the Argive commander remained motionless but for the look of recognition now dawning in his dark, monitory eyes. "My scouts reported..."
"That I'd been spotted in the area, I know," Xena completed the thought, the steel of her gaze as cold as the blade of her sword.
Diomedes nodded. "May I set my glass down?"
"Behind you," Xena said. "And mark my warning. One more dead Argive general will be just fine with me."
Diomedes complied with no attempted trickery.
"To what do I owe this surprise nocturnal encount..."
"Did you murder King Rhesus in his sleep?" Xena looked at Diomedes with ashen fury in her eyes. When the Argive general hesitated, Xena said, "You did, didn't you?" And when Diomedes still hesitated, he felt the tip of the sword pressing on his throat a whisker's length from eternity. "You did. I can see it in your eyes."
The sword punctured the skin. A less skilled hand, seeking to apply the equivalent amount of pressure, would have pierced Diomedes’ carotid and instantly, if unintentionally, killed him.
"We're busy fighting a war, Xena," Diomedes said, soberly, perhaps never, in the course of his illustrious military career, having come so close to death.
"Don't hand me that malarkey," Xena hissed. "Are you a half-baked warlord who's looking to batten your stores on goods stolen from a plump seaside town or livestock ransacked from a poor mountain village? If you have no honor, you have no reason to be fighting your war, and your deeds become as worthless as your word. What’s happened to you? The Diomedes that I knew was a man of conviction and integrity."
"A curious comeuppance from the Butcher of Cirra," Diomedes responded in a cool voice, calmly staring down the sword at his throat as he might have stared down the resolve of an unruly opponent on the battlefield.
"Don't toy with me," Xena said in an equally cool voice. "You have until the snap of my wrist to spit it out. How did you come by those horses?"
"So you're to be my sole judge and jury, are you?" Diomedes said with the slightest hint of a smile lighting up his eyes, a smile whose slow broadening quickly shrunk to nothing as the jab of the tip of Xena's blade further pricked the skin and drew blood.
"Do you think I won't kill you where you stand?" Xena stared him down. "Don't be a fool. Play with me and you’re playing with a fire that can burn you to a crisp."
"Odysseus did the hatcheting," Diomedes said, slowly.
"And you stood there and watched?"
"And then you made off with the horses."
"Your misplaced allegiance to the greedy House of Atreus isn't worthy of you, Diomedes," Xena said with revulsion in her voice.
"I'm a soldier, Xena. Can I command obedience if I refuse to submit to it?"
"The obedience of taking the life of a man while he slept? I'd have slaughtered any assassin of mine who'd attempted to stoop so low. With this very sword."
"Then that's an order you apparently never gave."
"You say you were ordered to slay a sleeping man?"
"By whom? Agammemnon?"
"It doesn't matter who gave the order. You did the deed. I eliminate you, and Agammemnon appoints Nestor or Thersites or the idiot, Ajax, to take your place. So we go from puddle to ditch in the draining leach fields of honor. Is that the ticket?
"Over there, inside Ilium's walls, there are seven, no, eight Macedonian Amazons, summoned here at Penthesileia's request. In their company, there’s a young, dark-haired peasant girl from Poteidaia in Chalkidiki. I know, as you well know, that it's only a matter of time before Ilium's walls will come tumbling down under the ignoble onslaught of Argive superiority possibly aided by Trojan treachery. At that time, the fate of these nine women, if they should still be housed within those walls, will fall solely under your jurisdiction as military commander of Northern Hellas. I know the penalty you're entitled to impose upon those who fraternize with the enemy. But consider this:
"You're a native of Tiryns. In time of war, you may be bound by treaty to the House of Atreus and your supreme commander, Agammemnon, but when peacetime comes, you revert to being your sovereign's subject. Queen Admete happens to be a friend of mine. More importantly, when she recently turned down a request that I brought to her, she granted me a substitute favor. If it should lie within her power to grant my wish, she told me, she’ll do so because the favor that I asked of her was not for myself. Listen to me, Diomedes: if any harm should come to any of those nine women, from any source whatever, I will ask Queen Admete to grant me the head of one of your three children. And if Admete should refuse me that favor, I'll exact the price myself. Are you paying attention?"
"You're threatening me with the murder of one of my children should misfortune befall your little group of collaborators?"
"And these are the sentiments of a reformed Warrior Princess?"
"I no longer thirst for blood or lust for conquest. But if those I love are put to the sword, I will avenge their deaths with all the brutality of which I'm capable. Nor do I make threats that I'm not prepared to carry out. I give you fair warning. Understood?"
Still holding the tip of the sword to the bud of Diomedes' Adam's apple, Xena said, "You owe your life to a small, blonde, Macedonian woman with a heart as big as the rolling Aegean. Were it not for the love and respect that I bear for her and the good of which she believes me capable, you’d be lying dead on that carpet right now. Remember that on pain of the lives of your loved ones."
As quickly as she'd come, Xena whipped her sword over her shoulder, shunted it into its scabbard, scooted out the slit in the tent and, before Diomedes, recovering his wits in the wake of the intrusion, could raise the hue and cry, Xena was gone, all trace of her presence absorbed into the indigo depths of the night.
|Continued - Chapter 40|
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