The women left the guest quarters, went down to the mall and hastened to the parade grounds where Penthesileia's cadre had begun to put the Trojan regulars through their morning paces. Though reserved and soft-spoken at first, the Themiscyrans seemed glad to have their Macedonian sisters on hand and quickly encouraged them to assume a leadership role in demonstrating various combat maneuvers. There were now twenty Amazons serving as drill sergeants, a pair at the head of each of the ten squads. After checking in with Gabrielle, Thermodosa, the tall, strapping, chief instructor, who specialized in the spear and javelin and appeared to be Penthesileia's second in command, told the men that Xena would likely drop in on the afternoon session to illustrate some advanced, hand-to-hand, fighting techniques.
Meanwhile, Lila was enjoying the fresh morning air as she took herself for a long, rambling stroll through a quiet wing of the palace in which a number of adjoining galleries and chambers displayed various artifacts, dioramas and exhibits designed to highlight Ilium's glorious past. Children from the residential quarters came frequently to these rooms and study halls for reading, discussion, examination and quiet contemplation. Young Trojans were taught their alpha, beta, gamma's early on and spent their primary school years steeped in the lore and legends of their Phrygian homeland. Nooks, crannies and caches along the walls of secluded keeps and catwalks were clustered with altars and shrines dedicated to the gods, for the most part to Aphrodite, Ares and Apollo, the city's tutelary deities: Love, War and the Arts, the three facets of life in which the people of Ilium aspired to excel.
As Lila toured the well-larded precincts, bathing in their atmosphere of quiet introspection, her steps brought her in a wide arc back to the section of the guest quarters in which the Themiscyran Amazons were housed. In a tidy, out-of-the-way alcove, near the entrance to the Queen's apartments, a life-sized icon of Demeter, cast in bas-relief, stood on a stone pedestal under a low arch in the ceiling. A grated window, high on the wall, no larger than an armspan in length and width, lit the enclosure with slanting shafts of dustborne sunlight, tinting the wall the lightest shade of creme and rose. Draped in a tessellated, marble robe that was open at the borders, the goddess held the fasces of her divine office, a tied bundle of wheat in one hand and, in the other, the thyrsus, a pointed scepter topped with ivy leaves and pine cones, a familiar representation to Lila who discerned, in the icon's facial structure, features similar to her own.
How odd to happen upon a bust of Demeter in this place. Though not an Argive partisan like Hera, Athena, Poseidon and, but for her cherished Amazons, Artemis, Demeter was, nonetheless, a Greek deity. In her place, Lila would have expected to find an icon of Cybele, Demeter's Phrygian counterpart. Yet the figure on the pedestal was clearly akin to customary representations of Demeter and, lest there be any lingering doubt, her name was etched into the plinth which stood on the statue's pedestal.
Odder yet was the sight of the woman who was kneeling at the icon's feet, rapt in silent prayer. With dark, loose, somewhat coarse hair cut evenly across her back at the base of her shoulder blades, the woman was dressed in a simple, white himation, its roomy, slightly gathered folds dimpled and sashed at the waist, then left to fall, mildly pleated, below the knees. A pair of leather thongs ran their spiral straps above the bronze skin of the woman's well-sculpted ankles. Though the woman was kneeling, Lila could tell that the suppliant was rather tall, her shoulders square, her posture naturally erect, her physique wiry and small-breasted.
Not wishing to intrude on the privacy of the woman's prayers, Lila took a discrete step backward, thinking to pass the alcove by and then to return to her junket through the more public areas of the palace. At that instant, though, Lila heard the woman utter, in a deep, rich tone of voice, the words well-formed and shaped by no regional accent or national dialect, "Gaiamitros, I have striven to be faithful and patient and would not otherwise importune, but my days are rapidly elapsing, and soon the darkness will come upon me."
Lila froze in place. She recognized the voice. It was that of the speaker who'd offered a polite, perfunctory toast to the memory of the fallen Hector at the state banquet on the previous evening. Lila watched the woman lay a rosary of wooden beads at the foot of the icon where she attempted, in an unskilled way, to arrange the beads so that they threaded over and wove under the tares of wheat and the husks of fruit rind lately scattered, in haphazard offering, at the statue's feet.
"Oh...," the kneeling woman sighed with a hint of exasperation when the gathered objects came spilling off the base of the pedestal, "these hands that once sewed and embroidered seem to have lost their knack for all but the sword and lance."
"Here, let me...," Lila entered the alcove and approached the pedestal. The woman in white turned, mildly surprised but not, apparently, alarmed as Lila knelt beside her. Not making eye contact with the woman, Lila began gently but deftly to assemble the items so that they lay neatly strewn at the feet of the goddess. Then Lila said softly, "Gaiamitros, Basilissa Lamprotita, hye, kye," and turning to look into the wide gray eyes of the Amazon queen who knelt beside her, she added, "echo eleos pano afti gynaika oraia!"
Eyes met and melded, very pale blue blending with very dark blue, sky and sea with the whole of the earth between them. For a very long interval, neither woman spoke, moved nor, perhaps, even breathed.
Earth Mother, Bright Queen and Source of Light, bless, keep, open your heart to the prayer of this beautiful woman.
Guided by instinct, without making eye contact, Lila slowly reached for and found Penthesileia's hand, then softly enwrapped that hand in her own. It was a delicate, yet powerful hand that radiated strength in reserve; but there was no fear in Lila's hand, only warmth and gentle acceptance.
"These hands have shed blood," Lila said very softly, not knowing how she knew that.
"Indeed, they have," Penthesileia replied just as softly.
Finally making eye contact, Lila lifted Penthesileia's hand and placed it, her own hand covering it, on the sandaled foot of the icon. "In the name of the Holy Mother and the Holy Child, I shrive this hand of its burden of blood."
A spark like an electric current shot from Lila's hand to Penthesileia's hand; and, in an instant that elapsed more quickly than a fireflash, the current grounded, with a jolt, at the terminal of Penthesileia's heart.
Eyes still engaging eyes and hands not wavering a tremble, Penthesileia said, "How is it given to you to shrive me?"
"I'm an archegos of the enaretes kores," Lila said. "This is my lady's shrine."
"You are very bold, very pure, or both," Penthesileia said.
"I do only as I’m bidden within the scope of my bond," Lila replied.
Worlds whirled. Heavens hove. Continents cracked and crumbled. Oceans birthed the dry land and still their eyes held one another's gaze.
"What do you see, looking at me?" Penthesileia said, their eyes locked, their hands joined.
"A burning heart, looking at thee," Lila said.
"Ignited by another?"
"I see a weeping heart," Penthesileia said.
"Mourning for another?"
A calm, determined Lila, crossing the threshold into womanhood, knowing, utterly, in the instant, her own mind, said...
"Take me and let the others go."
"Where I go, you can't follow," Penthesileia said.
"One may step where another has tread."
"You don't know what you ask."
"I ask that I may know."
Penthesileia's pale eyes transformed from a hint of blue to a suggestion of green as she said, "Is your faith that strong?"
The deep blue of Lila's eyes held constant as she said, "Is my strength so faithless?"
"One may behold a stone and think it a gem."
"What is a gem but a stone rightly beheld?"
"What seems easy may prove hard."
"What proves hard may seem easy."
"There's a will housed within your prettiness."
"And a prettiness lodged within your will."
"Would you rule a queen?"
"The heart is the queen of rulers."
"To be given as a gift."
"As it may please the giver."
Penthesileia paused and then said, "As a daughter of Ares, I have little skill at prayer. Would you, a child of Demeter, thank the Gaiamitros for me?"
With Penthesileia's hand in hers and their eyes still linked, Lila said, "Your servant, Penthesileia of the Seven Stars, thanks you, Mother, and I ask your blessing on her: Krateo! Elpideo! Aletheo!"
The women stood up, all the while maintaining eye and hand contact. Penthesileia was a head taller than Lila, more lithe, more slender, all muscle. "You have beautiful eyes and a warm touch," Penthesileia said. "And a heart that beats with a passion in your breast, Liliana of Poteidaia."
With a farewell gesture that might have been the merest hint of a bow, Penthesileia took her leave and returned to her quarters, leaving Lila standing by the icon as stunned and still as the stark, staring stone.
The morning drill at the telesterion went so well that the troops were ready to take up where they’d left off as soon as they'd finished their lunch.
The Amazons made a detailed study of warfare from their earliest days. The games the small girls played, the scouting and tracking and, of course, the equestrian training and the days -- and nights -- spent in the hunt honed the skills that they would one day call upon as warriors. If the gross facts of physiology had not been ranged against them -- a woman's smaller size, lesser speed and strength than her male counterpart when both were at the peak of their physical fitness -- the Amazons might have been able to maintain themselves intact against the incursions of their enemies and so have remained a viable culture until such time as brute biology might no longer be the ultimate distinction between ruler and ruled.
In the current conflict, the Themiscyran Amazons had cast their lot with the people of Ilium because the values and vision of Ilium, compared to those of the Argive federation under the leadership of Mycenae and the House of Atreus, were less inimical to the Amazons’ status as an independent nation. The basis of this Trojan-Amazon alliance, however, placed the Macedonian Amazons in an awkward position, betwixt and between; and here was the place where Melosa's cool, prescient leadership, threading the needle of neutrality between Argive and Trojan, was most sorely missed.
"They're so quiet and intense, our Themiscyran sisters; have you noticed?" Ephiny mumbled to Gabrielle as they sat together at lunch in the refectory. "Not a squandred gesture. Not a wasted word. They look stern, yet they seem patient. I heard Thermodosa telling Velasca that they sit in silent meditation for four candlemarks a day. Can you imagine? I’d have trouble sitting still for a single candlemark in a day."
"But look how it's paid off for them," Gabrielle said.
"Somebody knew what they were doing when they trained these girls, that's for sure," Solari nodded and helped herself to a second bowl of soup.
"I'd love it if they'd come and spend some time with us," Eponin said. "I feel like a raw rookie compared to some of these gals."
"Except that this is their last stop," Gabrielle said, chewing on a hunk of stone ground wheat bread. "They seem to have come to terms with that. Look how composed in body and soul they are."
"You don't think there's any chance they might reconsider?" Ephiny said. "Not every soldier dies in battle. Some have to survive."
"Some will," Gabrielle said, ominously, "but not them."
"Twelve -- make that thirteen -- of the best Amazon fighters in the known world forming up a suicide squad?" Elana shook her head. "For what? Just to take a boatload of Argive invaders down with them? That's kind of shortsighted if you ask me. They could do a lot more good for a whole lot more of us if they'd only stick around."
"They could plant new colonies," Oriena said.
"They could have some more of this guh’ soup...," Thelestria said, slurping.
"They could what?" Oriena looked across the table at Thelestria.
"Pig out on this really guh’ soup," Thelestria shoveled another spoonful of soup into her mouth and then bit off a chunk of bread.
"It's too big a loss to justify," Oriena said to Elana.
"Maybe they feel they have no choice," Elana said. "Who knows what the Argives might do if they end up winning this war: kill the guys, take children for slaves and the women for sex toys."
"Could we talk about something else," Solari scowled.
"Sure," Elana said, "where's Xena?"
"With the King," Gabrielle said.
"Xena knows a lot of kings, doesn't she?" Oriena said.
"Mezza-mezz'," Gabrielle twiddled her hand up and down.
"How come Xena isn't an Amazon?" Elana said. "She might as well be."
"Got all night?" Ephiny rolled her lively green eyes.
Elana looked around the table. "Maybe we do. What's on for tonight? Anybody know?"
"Penthesileia may want to schedule a meeting," Ephiny said. "That's how come we got dragged here, remember?"
"No one dragged you, Ephiny," Elana contradicted.
"No?" Ephiny said. "You don't call having my wrists bound in a leather thong being dragged?"
"That was only to make an impression when we showed up to get Gabrielle and Xena," Elana said. "And you agreed to go along with it."
"Reluctantly," Ephiny said. "Would you have come with us if we’d made a less dramatic entrance?"
"Yeah. It sounds like I didn’t have much of a choice," Gabrielle said.
"It worked, tying Ephiny up like that. It sure got your attention, you and Xena," Eponin said. "Who were those creeps whose butts you were busting when we came breezing in?"
"That Latrinus, our local warlord, and the members of his gang," Gabrielle said. "His goons made off with Lila and our friend, Alexis, and wanted to trade them for a bunch of dishes and plates."
"Sounds like those creeps must've been pretty hard up for things to plop their food on while they filled their faces around the campfire," Ephiny said, and then it was time to move along and put the Trojan army back to work.
The women got up to bus their trays except for Thelestria who remained seated with her arms crossed on her chest and a blissful smile on her freckled face.
"Are you coming, or are you just gonna sit there looking goofy?" Elana gave Thelestria a bald look.
"I was just thinking," Thelestria said with a moony expression on her face.
"About what?" Oriena said.
"About how that was really good soup," Thelestria said and, making an extra ounce of effort, she hoisted herself onto her feet and followed the others to the soiled tray station.
The afternoon session went well except for a single mishap. The troops were spread out and seated on the trim grass of the infield inside the telesterion where Bremusa, the Themiscyran staffmaster, and Gabrielle were demonstrating an advanced cotta with the bo. For some reason, on one of their parry and thrust moves, Gabrielle didn't duck quickly enough and took a sharp clunk to the side of the head which sent her sprawling. Even as the others were going ooh and ahh and Bremusa dropped her staff to rush over to help, Velasca, with lightning-sharp reflexes, came bounding over to reach under Gabrielle's shoulders and cradle Gabrielle’s head in one of Velasca's strong arms.
An ugly gash had opened on the side of Gabrielle's forehead, and a thin line of blood came trickling down her cheek. Gabrielle was conscious but shaken and when she tried to get up, she stumbled.
"Stay down. Don't try to move," Velasca took charge and then called for a strip of clean, absorbent material. Velasca folded the torn fabric and pressed it lightly against the wound to stanch the blood. "Lie still and breathe," Velasca said in a soft voice. "I'm wiping off a tiny bit of blood, it's nothing serious. Lean back against my arm and let me support your weight."
Allowing herself to relax at the sound of Velasca's clear but soothing voice, Gabrielle complied as the others gathered around to see if they could be of assistance.
"There must be an infirmary nearby," Velasca said to one of the Trojan recruits.
The young soldier nodded and pointed to the parapet on one of the bastions beyond the wide cinder track that encompassed the telesterion.
"I'm going to lift you up. Hold onto my shoulders," Velasca said to Gabrielle. "Ready?"
Gabrielle nodded woozily.
Velasca swooped Gabrielle up from the ground and held her fast in her arms. "Keep pressing the cloth against the cut. I'm going to carry you for a while," Velasca said in a comforting voice.
Then, declining offers of help, Velasca transported a slightly disoriented Gabrielle across the field into the near wing of the castle after which Velasca returned a half a candlemark later and took up her weapon to resume the drill.
"Did they say if she’s gonna be allright?" Ephiny checked with Velasca at the end of the exercise.
"Except for a bad headache, she should be back on her feet by suppertime," Velasca said.
When Xena showed up later in the afternoon, she got the news and went straight to the infirmary where Gabrielle was resting on a pallet during a brief period of observation before being released.
"Hi, Clumsy Cakes," Xena smiled and sat down on the edge of the pallet.
Gabrielle fluttered her fingers and gave Xena a don't-I-know-you-from-somewhere look.
"Heard you got bonked," Xena said.
"It was my fault," Gabrielle said. "I zigged when I should have zagged."
"That's my girl," Xena chuckled and gave Gabrielle's shoulder a squeeze.
"Velasca carried me up here," Gabrielle said.
"Oh?" Xena raised a fine, dark eyebrow.
"She hung around until they tended to me."
"She did? That was nice of her."
"Yeah. Yeah, it was."
Gabrielle was quiet for a turn of the sandglass.
"What is it?" Xena said as Gabrielle looked at her without saying anything.
Gabrielle shrugged. "Velasca hasn't been acting her usual self. She’s been more quiet and pensive. Anyhow, I want to be sure to thank her for bringing me up here."
Xena nodded. She'd noticed that too: Velasca, of late, seemed to be acting downright... decent.
Gabrielle got the opportunity thank Velasca that night at supper. Velasca told her to forget it, but in a friendly way, not as a brush off, which gave Gabrielle the opportunity to ask Velasca what Velasca thought of proposing to the others that if Penthesileia wasn’t going to summon them to the Queen’s chambers, the group might wander down to the Adelfi Club, a ladies bar that featured live music in Ilium’s nightlife section. Velasca thought the suggestion a fine idea, but said she'd have to beg off as she'd gotten word, only a few turns of the sandglass ago, that Penthesileia wanted to meet with her some time after the evening meal.
Gabrielle wished Velasca good luck and went to join the others who were ready for a night on the town with their sister Amazons.
"Gonna join us, Lee?" Gabrielle corralled Lila who had pretty much kept to herself at supper.
"Sure," Lila said. "The last time I went dancing, I ended up getting tossed over the back of a horse and whupped upside the head, so how much worse could it be tonight? What about you? Your own head's a pretty swollen sight."
"Xena can take me back if I poop out early. Or Ephiny," Gabrielle said.
"Or me," Lila poked Gabrielle in the ribs. "I can look after you too, you know."
"Kewl," Gabrielle smiled as the ladies went to change into the fresh, white chitons that Sargon had brought them after the day's stint on the training field. Then it was off to the Adelfi Club to move and groove to the Phrygian hip and Ionian hop of "Pop" Fly and the Switch Hitters.
On her way back to the citadel, during the wee hours of the previous morning, scurrying through a maze of underground passageways which she'd carefully begun to map out, a curious lay of Ilium's land had caught Xena's hawk-like eye, and she thought she'd go back after dark to have a closer look at it. Without saying much about what she imagined that curiosity might point to, Xena had told Gabrielle that she’d catch up with the group later in the evening, but that first she wanted to do a bit of snooping around the perimeter of the Trojan fortifications, examining them for potential weak spots.
Before heading off to the battlements, Xena poked her head into the room which Velasca was sharing with Elana and Oriena. Awaiting the call to Penthesileia's quarters, Velasca was seated cross-legged on her pallet, with her back against the wall, sharpening the blade of her sword. Xena smiled as she watched Velasca's slow, fluid, back and forth motion with the cuttle stone. For Velasca, as for Xena, sharpening a sword was an erotic act. Few people of Xena's acquaintance seemed to resonate with a devotion that amounted nearly to adoration at the honed edge of a cold steel blade. Gabrielle didn't. But in the grace and luxury of Velasca's rhythmic caressing of the blade with the stone, Xena beheld the soft, sweet passion of a sister warrior under the skin. Had the hard blade of the sword been the stiff shaft of a lover of the opposite gender, there was little doubt, in Xena's mind, that Velasca's touch would prove exquisitely orgasmic.
"I suspect I'm not the only one around here who enjoys a good kill," Xena spoke in a low, sultry, mildly humorous voice which, though soft, carried its weight through the room.
Velasca looked up and left off sharpening the blade. "I expect we'll have the opportunity to savor that enjoyment before we leave this place," Velasca responded, seeming not to be taken aback by Xena's sudden, unannounced appearance.
"We might," Xena said. "But I'm hoping we don't."
Velasca, still seated, raised an eyebrow. "Oh?" she said. "I thought you were at your best when the sparks of blood began to fly." Velasca's voice was languid, ironic without being sarcastic.
"I’ll admit that those sparks still have their allure," Xena leaned against one of the doorposts, her boots straddling the threshold.
"You've changed, Xena," Velasca resumed her slow, sweeping movement up and down the length of the blade. "You’re more laid back than you used to be. Less coiled and ready to spring. You can enter a room now -- or a stadium -- and not make plaster columns crumble. You can even, for the fall of a sand grain, not be noticed at all. That's an achievement."
"And a compliment," Xena said.
"I don't know that it is," Velasca said. "It's plain that Gabrielle has had an effect on you just as you’ve had an effect on her," Velasca put down her sword and looked full flush at Xena. "Frankly, I'm not sure which of the two of you may have received the greater benefit from the exchange."
"And you. You've done some changing too, I see," Xena let go the hint of a smile.
"I can't honestly say that I would have counted it a loss if we’d roasted you on the pyre when Gabrielle was taking your remains home to Amphipolis," Velasca said. "But I hadn't had the benefit of your acquaintance either. Now... maybe I wouldn't have wanted to see you burned in that box."
Xena’s smile broadened. "Thanks for looking after Gabrielle this afternoon."
"Don't mention it," Velasca said, airily. "Gabrielle's a sister."
Xena nodded and started to shove off.
"Xena," Velasca called out, a calm, noncommittal look on her face. "Where there's no quid, there's no need for a pro quo. Understood?"
Xena hesitated for an instant and looked back at Velasca. "Yeah, I guess that’s so," Xena said and floated off down the hall as one of the Queen’s courtiers arrived to inform Velasca that Penthesileia was ready to see her.
Velasca and her escort made their way through a corbelled wing of the palace to the Themiscyran Amazons' quarters, several suites of rooms and lofts which fronted on a broad view of the Ilias Gate, one of Ilium's six massive balustrades erected by Poseidon himself and designed to withstand every manner of mortal bolt and earthly barrage: a behemoth of wood, metal and stone that, for ten long years, had scorned every effort of the Argive catapaults and siege engines to bend and batter it. The bed chambers were tucked into an interior corridor across from the parlor and balcony whose buttresses looked down on the turreted walls and the portion of the palisade that housed the guard towers, the weapons armory and the commissary for off-duty sentries.
The gables of the corner apartment gave out on a glimpse of the battlefield and, in the nearer range, a view of the fountain spray and shaded cloister of a calm and tidy loggia replete with tall green fronds in huge clay pots and mosaic tiles for cool, smooth flooring. Here was Penthesileia's private residence to whose door Velasca was now ushered and in front of which she paused until the lady within might grant her entry.
"Take your sword and knock twice with the hilt," Velasca's escort told her. "Then, when you go in, hold the sword in front of you with the blade parallel to the floor and even with your hips, your right hand on the hilt, your left hand, palm up, toward the tip, so that the sword’s weight is evenly balanced between your hands. You ready? Take it away..."
Velasca drew her sword and rapped on the door.
"Enter," replied a calm, cultured voice from within.
Velasca’s escort turned the gleaming golden knob as Velasca readied her sword. The door opened and Velasca stepped inside.
Dressed in modest, white attire, much as Lila had seen her earlier in the day when she'd been kneeling in supplication at Demeter's shrine, Penthesileia stood by the open window, her right hand parting the sheer, muslin curtains, her eyes fixed on some activity that was taking place below, her black hair lying brushed and straight behind her neck to sweep, in free fall, below her shoulders. Then, slowly, she turned and cast her mild green... her soft tan eyes on Velasca.
"My queen," Velasca dropped to one knee and set her sword down on the floor. And there she remained as motionless as the curtains unstirred by any breeze while Penthesileia slowly and silently approached until she stood towering over the kneeling figure in front of her.
The bronze palm of Penthesileia's extended hand came within Velasca's downcast line of vision.
"Rise, Velasca," a voice spoke with soft but utter authority as the extended hand slipped gently under Velasca's arm below the shoulder and assisted her to her feet until the two women stood eye to eye, Velasca's creamy brown eyes looking slightly upward into Penthesileia's light blue eyes.
A smile journeyed across Penthesileia's broad face, the jaw and lips, though full-formed, appearing somewhat narrow in relation to the expansive width of her powerful cheekbones. "Velasca...," she beamed, "how good to see you again."
"It's good to see you, too, my queen," Velasca said with heartfelt humility.
"Come here," Penthesileia reached out with both arms and swathed Velasca in a powerful embrace. Swaying from side to side with Velasca held tightly in her strong arms, Velasca's long hair brushing Penthesileia's cheek, Velasca's cheek pressed against Penthesileia's neck below the ear, the Queen of all the Amazons said softly, "Come on, hon; let me feel that hug."
With a tiny chirrup of sound that could have been a stifled sob escaping from her lips, Velasca embraced her queen with body and force, and the embrace was returned in kind, power meeting and meshing with power. And then, fighting it all the way, Velasca began, very lightly, to weep, each tiny tear a battle, each little gasp a campaign. Penthesileia kept to her embrace and wouldn't give Velasca an instant's quarter but spread the gates wide and held them forcibly open. Velasca began to back off slightly, but Penthesileia drew her deeper into the orbit of her strength, their hug far from complete.
Mastered by a power greater than her ability to resist it, Velasca let loose, reaching up and flinging her arms around Penthesileia's neck, holding her queen close in a mighty grip as she began to sob in earnest. Matching Velasca’s power with a power of her own and yet more power to spare, Penthesileia held and held and refused to let go in heart or in hand. At length, Velasca's heart began to quiet down, and her breathing resumed a slower, more steady tack as she rested her cheek against Penthesileia's moist cheek and neck, the women slightly swaying, breathing together as the vesper bell sounded its distant claxon, then died away slowly and still Penthesileia held Velasca fast, soul to soul and breast to breast, and would not let her go.
"I've been such a trouble," Velasca whispered softly into her queen's ear. "I wanted to do the right thing, but I'm afraid I've made an awful mess of it...," Velasca's voice trailed off.
Very slowly, Penthesileia drew back and raised an arm to place a gentle palm on Velasca's wide cheek which she turned toward her own cheek until the women stood eye to eye. "You leapt before you looked, didn't you?" Penthesileia said with exquisite compassion.
"Yes," Velasca nodded.
With a smile of great tenderness, Penthesileia slid the palm of her hand behind Velasca's cheek to cup the back of Velasca’s skull, her fingers entwined in Velasca's long, full, auburn hair; and, once again, she drew Velasca's face forward until the side of Velasca's face nuzzled against the queen’s wide, bony shoulder.
"And now it's time to pick up the pieces," Penthesileia said, softly. "It's time to make amends."
Velasca closed her eyes and nodded, wanting only to bask in the warmth of her queen's gentle strength.
"Come," Penthesileia asserted her mildest authority, "sit down beside me. Let me be greedy for a bit and feast on the treasure of your company."
Penthesileia guided Velasca to a small divan by the window. Two end tables stood guard at either arm, and a long, low table in front of the divan held a vase of late summer flowers. The room was cozy with soft furnishings and draperies of damask and muslin. There were knurled wooden chairs and a chiffarobe and wide cabinets mounted on the walls. A small pallet, with a frilly, embroidered coverlet, was tucked into one corner where Penthesileia slept alone.
"You've filled out wonderfully since last I saw you," Penthesileia smiled, taking a white chrysanthemum out of the vase, passing it under her nose, inhaling its fragrance and then placing the long stem of the flower gently across Velasca's lap. "You've blossomed into a beautiful young woman." Penthesileia paused to watch the compliment sink in and observed Velasca's slightly uncomfortable reaction to it. "Though I'm not sure that you feel especially beautiful."
"No, truthfully, I don't," Velasca softly shook her head and looked away.
"Then what load are you carrying that needs to be lifted from your shoulders?" Penthesileia said.
"Gabrielle tells me it's my burden of guilt," Velasca said.
"I've heard that Gabrielle is very wise. Is her assessment on target?" Penthesileia said.
"I think it may be," Velasca sighed and looked Penthesileia in the eye. "I thought I knew what I was doing when I challenged Melosa. Now I think I may have let myself be deceived by pride."
"So what's the next step?" Penthesileia said.
Velasca sucked in her lips, looked away and shook her head. "To atone for false pride, I suppose."
"And what does our wise Gabrielle say to that?" Penthesileia said.
"When I first met Gabrielle, she was Xena's puppy dog," Velasca said. "But that's changed."
"In what way?" Penthesileia said.
"Gabrielle is her own person now," Velasca said. "She’s established herself as an entity apart."
"From Xena?" Penthesileia said.
Velasca let go a slight chuckle. "If Xena had her way, I suspect there wouldn't be an Argive general left alive except for Diomedes for whom Xena seems to feel an iota of respect."
Penthesileia laughed a bright, sunny laugh which made her gray eyes sparkle. "Sounds very much like Xena. Not so easy for a reformed Warrior Princess to hang up her sword and chakram, is it? So tell me about Ephiny. First tell me about the child they say she's had with Tyldus' son, Phantes. Was it a marriage of convenience to forge an alliance with the Centaurs, or did Ephiny truly fall in love with him?"
"Melosa didn't approve of the liaison," Velasca said. "But Ephiny can be strong-minded and, at times, persuasive. I don't know what Ephiny may have seen in that taciturn halfling, but I didn’t feel it was my business to inquire."
"No, of course not," Penthesileia said.
"He's very cute," Velasca looked at Penthesileia. "Xenon, Ephiny’s son. He's got Ephiny’s floppy, blonde curls. He cheers her up immensely whenever she goes to pay him a visit."
Penthesileia smiled. "So what are we to do about this queen business? Poor Melosa. I don't imagine she'd relish the spectacle of watching her loved ones claw at one another's throats for the privilege of sitting on her royal bearskin."
"For the longest time, that's all I kept hearing, how perfect my mother was," Velasca said. "It was as if I were the only one of the crew who could see the cracks in the armor, the loose threads on the studs of her bracers and greaves. For all her many virtues, it seems as though there's been a conspiracy to overlook or excuse her considerable faults."
"You were her daughter," Penthesileia said. "What mother is a hero to her child?"
"I'm told that she loved me," Velasca said, "and that she bent over backwards not to be partial to me. I believe I can understand that. I think that’s an admirable trait in a queen. But when we were alone together -- when it was just the two of us -- if she ever once let her guard down..., maybe she did and I was unable to see it."
"When Terreis was killed -- and for a long while after that -- did Melosa never bestow on you her Right of Caste? It was hers to do with as she chose until her death. Gabrielle had no claim on Melosa. Gabrielle’s only claim is by way of Terreis," Penthesileia said.
"No, she never did," Velasca said, bitterly.
"Do you know why? Any inkling?" Penthesileia said.
Velasca shook her head. "She never said a word about it. It was a closed scroll as far as she was concerned. I felt humiliated."
"Well, I have a theory as to why Melosa may have kept mum," Penthesileia said.
Velasca raised an eyebrow.
"I believe that Melosa, in fact, wanted you to succeed her as queen. No, wait...," Penthesileia said to forestall any interruption. "I believe that Melosa hoped, in her way, to groom you for the throne. And I think she felt, in the end, that she'd failed you. I think that when the end came, she believed that she had failed you as a mother and that she was at a loss as to how to make it up to you. By then, you'd issued your challenge, so she couldn't simply offer you the Right of Caste as though to purchase the remainder of her rule at the cost of a coerced succession."
"But couldn't she simply have told me that!" Velasca burst out in pain. "That she'd tried! Only that. Just that... she'd tried. I’d have withdrawn the challenge. Why should she have thought that she'd failed me? Who’s to say that I'm not the one who failed her?"
Penthesileia said nothing.
"If she could have said, 'I love you, even if I'm bloody rotten at showing it...,' it would have made all the difference," Velasca said. "Maybe then I could have told her... that I... loved her... too."
Tears again filled Velasca's eyes. Penthesileia inched closer on the divan and put a warm hand on Velasca's shoulder. "So now we need to work out the kinks. You, Ephiny, Gabrielle, even Xena."
Velasca reached up and covered Penthesileia's hand with her own. "I let Melosa down, didn't I?" Velasca said, staring off into space. "Something about me didn't measure up."
"No!" Penthesileia turned sharply on her cushion to face Velasca full on as she fiercely gripped Velasca's hand. "You're not to think that! You're never to think that! For one thing, it isn't true. I don't like to give orders; I think you know that. But in this instance, I'm afraid I simply must. You're never to think that you don't measure up. Not for an instant. It's totally false and I will not have you impose that gross injustice upon yourself. Look at me!"
Velasca looked at her queen.
"I believe in you, Velasca," Penthesileia said, "and I'll stake my crown that I'm not the only one who does. We have a problem that needs to be resolved. We need to talk about leadership and direction and vision and implementation and a host of things for which there may not be time to delve into in much detail, and you're to be involved at every step of the way in these deliberations. I'm going to ask Ephiny to come and see me. I think it's time that she and I got somewhat better acquainted... in the little time that's left to us..."
Penthesileia paused. Her final words -- the thought behind them -- hung heavily in the air as Velasca turned slowly to look very plainly at her queen.
"We know what you have in mind to do," Velasca said. "And we know that it will result in your leaving us. What we don't know is: why. Why do you have to ride to your death and leave us?"
Penthesileia held Velasca's gaze as her royal eyes -- perhaps reflecting the glare from the lanterns burning in the night -- seemed to glow with the slightest tint of rose. "If you love something very much," Penthesileia said, "there's the danger of becoming too attached to it. Slowly, by degrees, the thing -- the one -- you love can come to possess you. What began as beautiful and innocent and just and right can become base and polluted and lead to heartache and despair. At that point, the only way to redeem the sorrow, hurt and pain is to give the loved one up."
"But your life?" Velasca said. "Is it of so little consequence to you and to those you love and who love you?"
"There are things -- obligations, ideals -- that transcend the purely personal," Penthesileia said. "There are times when the community, if it's to put a difficult past behind it and move on to a more hopeful future, requires a sacrifice."
"On the part of those to whom the community looks for love, strength and guidance?" Velasca said.
"At times," Penthesileia said.
"You're extremely sure of that?" Velasca said.
"Velasca, I'm the last of five children," Penthesileia said. "For me to have ascended the throne, four of those five children had to pass from this life without leaving an heir to succeed them. Only one of the four of us had a child, a little boy, my sister, Antiope's son, Hippolytus. Had he survived to adulthood, he would have become the King of Athens, following in his father Theseus' footsteps -- assuming, on account of his mother's lineage, that he wouldn’t have been done in by some Sejanus of the royal Athenian guard. What do you suppose the chances were that I could have arranged for four of my siblings to perish with no children of their own to take up the scepter?"
"Rather slim, I'd imagine," Velasca said.
"Yet there are those who deem me that ingenious," Penthesileia said. "When I was younger, someone whom I loved and, in some ways, idolized jilted me for a throne. For quite a while, I was extremely bitter because of it. I thought that I could have had my royal cake and eaten it too, but I discovered that I was mistaken. By then, it was too late. My guide, friend, sister, lover was gone in a flash, having had no indication, when the sun dawned on that particular morning that the last day of her life was at hand. Not only did I live to see a beloved sister killed, but, shortly thereafter, I killed a beloved sister myself. So here I am, queen by default, with a mighty job of redemption to do and not for my life only."
"You'll be leaving no child of your body," Velasca said. "Was there never anyone's child you wanted to have?"
"There was, yes," Penthesileia smiled. "Rather badly for a time. But I'm afraid that science has yet to devise the means whereby to bring such a result to fruition."
The interview was at an end and Penthesileia accompanied Velasca to the door. The queen tripped over Velasca's sword and might have taken a tumble if Velasca's quick reflexes hadn't caught her in time. Penthesileia let go a delightful laugh, commented on her penchant for not seeing two steps in front of her face and reached down to retrieve and restore Velasca's sword which she did with a twirling flourish so precise and quick it was only then that Velasca recalled that the Queen of all the Amazons was, among her many skills and talents, a swordswoman whose prowess rivaled Xena's.
Indeed, many Argives would fall and be mourned and eulogized by their loved ones before the sword of Penthesileia would be stilled for eternity.
|Continued - Chapter 42|
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