"What's up with Lila?" Ephiny drew Gabrielle aside when the group had come strolling back to their quarters after having spent most of the night whooping it up at the cabaret. "Did you get a load of your sister out there on the dance floor? That girl was as lit up as a twinkling crystal in one of Salmoneusí Antiochene chandeliers."
"She definitely had a glow on," Solari fell in beside them, "which means one of two things. And since Lila doesn't seem to be coming down with the flu, I'd say that the lady's fallin' in luhhhv."
"Lee? Falling in love?" Gabrielle raised an eyebrow. "With who? You? Ephy? Eppie?"
"Don't look at me," Eponin shook off the suggestion. "Heartaches I don't got and headaches I don't need."
"Maybe it's just the cool night air," Ephiny gazed at the stars that shone especially brightly in these waning weeks of autumn before the late fall rains would come to sting the earth with cold and darkness. "Sheís a good dancer, Lila. Movin' and groovin' with Clonie, Bremusa, Derinoe. Those girls seemed to dig her energy."
Gabrielle was proud of Lila. Her kid sister had body and bounce and hadn't needed Gabrielle to mollycoddle her once Lila had hit her stride on the boat ride over to the Phrygian mainland from Tenedos. Regarding Herodotusí and Hecubaís views of Lilaís newfound independence, Gabrielle didn't want to be the cause -- more precisely, didnít want to get blamed for being the cause -- of supposedly leading Lila astray. By the same token, Lila was getting to be a grown up who was entitled to make her own decisions about how and with whom she might want to live her life. And it wasn't as though the sisters hadn't had a fine upbringing. Whatever doubts and reservations Herodotus and Hecuba may have had about the changing norms and lifestyles of the younger generation, they could content themselves with the knowledge that they'd imbued Gabrielle and Lila with solid, sensible values so that, however high their daughters' hearts and minds might soar, their feet would remain firmly planted on the ground.
"Okay, Lee, time to fess up," Gabrielle flopped down on Lila's pallet when the ladies were back at their guest quarters, having thanked their Themiscyran sisters for the night on the town. Loosening her chiton and pounding the pillow, Gabrielle made room on her pallet for Lila to squeeze down next to her while Ephiny, all ears on her own pallet, tried to appear nonchalant and casually uninterested.
"Zing went the string's of somebody's heart tonight," Gabrielle said, "and it wasn't mine or Ephy's."
Lila fluffed her long, lazy hair and ran her fingers through its rich, furling body. The gardenia which one of the Themiscyrans had stuck in Lila's hair now lay drooping on the pillow. Lila's upper arms were full and firm below her sleeved shoulders; her lower arms were tanned from recent weeks spent threshing and winnowing in the sun. Her shins and calves below the skirt were lush as well, neither slender nor chubby. The way she sat, the way she smiled, the way she graced a space with her body -- here was a woman who, whether she was aware of it or not, could enflame a heart without moving a muscle.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Lila came over and flopped down next to Gabrielle.
"Oh, yes, you do," Ephiny whipped around, her big, amber eyes glowing and her curly coils of dark blonde hair falling frontwards over her powerful shoulders to graze her scrumptious breasts, curtaining their loveliness. So much for Ephiny trying to feign disinterest. "You've got the look of a lady who's just been sprinkled with stardust, honey; and I don't mind telling you that in those pretty blue gems of yours, I can see the planets whirling Ďround the sun."
"So tell us: who's the lucky girl?" Gabrielle egged Lila on.
"Sheesh, you guys; I'm tellin' ya...," Lila flummoxed and tried to get away but couldnít when Gabrielle and Ephiny combined to hem her in on the pallet.
"You can run and seek shelter but can't hope to weather the tide of the ladies in steel, brass and leather," Ephiny rapped and, with fire erupting in both of her own twinkling eyes, she leaped on top of Lila, who let out a cry of surprised alarm, and then, joined by Gabrielle, Ephiny began to tickle Lila mercilessly, causing Lila to shimmy and shout as she twisted and turned.
"Torture, that's the best way to worm information out of them," Ephiny squeegled Lila's heaving ribs.
"Oh..., ohh..., ohhh! I'll tell my mutherrrr what a meanie you are!" Lila wailed to no avail. "Iíll tell my dad youíre a stinky poo!"
"Sorry, Lee," Gabrielle piled on to assist Ephiny in the rib squinching work of coercing Lila into revealing her secret. "But I have an obligation to a higher duty than family, friendship and loyalty to the tribe: getting in on the gossip!"
"Ohh...! Eee...! Hoo...!" Lila writhed under the combined force of her tickling attackers. "You Amazonsíre awful!"
"We're worse than awful," Ephiny growled. "We're curious. Inquiring minds want to know."
"Probing fingers oughta get their knuckles slapped," Lila pouted as Ephiny and Gabrielle, chuckling at the miffed expression on Lila's face, left off their tickling frenzy and hauled Lila upright on the pallet.
"Boy, is this what you guys do when you're trying to worm the latest scuttlebutt out of Xena?" Lila turned to look at Gabrielle.
"Sometimes," Gabrielle said. "Sometimes, all I have to do is threaten Xena with my fingers going gootchie-goo and watch her turn instantly into a writhing mass of jelly, begging for mercy. And don't either of you tell her I told you that 'cause I'll deny I ever said it."
"So who's the lucky lady who's captured our beautiful Lila's heart? C'mon, I'm sweatin' rubber chakrams just thinkiní about it," Ephiny swung her legs over the side of the pallet and sat scrunched up close to Lila while Gabrielle sat just as close on the other side.
"Well," Lila said, gazing back and forth at her eager interlocutors, "it's bigger than a breadbox."
"That lets Thelestria out," Ephiny said.
"And it's smaller than a hay wagon."
"That eliminates Oriena," Ephiny added.
"Is it animal, vegetable or insanely breathless, hard driving mineral?" Gabrielle quizzed.
"It's someone whose thrust I wouldn't want to delay... ahhh, whose trust I wouldn't want to betray," Lila replied.
"'Course not," Gabrielle shook her head.
"Cherish the thought," Ephiny shook her head too.
"So who is it already!?" Gabrielle and Ephiny simultaneously nailed Lila in the crossfire.
"I can't say," Lila said. "Besides," Lila turned to Gabrielle, "what do you think, I'm the kind of girl who takes one look at somebody and falls head over heels in love with her?"
"It's been known to happen," Gabrielle said.
"To those who least expect it," Ephiny said.
"Yeah," Lila gruffed, "well, not this girl. I'm far too sensible and down to earth to let myself get swept away by anything as silly and fool-headed as love at first sight."
With that, Lila rose from the pallet, hoisted the skirt of her chiton and plopped herself down on the round, padded cushion of the stool that sat next to the dressing table.
"Ah..., Lee, what are you doing?" Gabrielle's eyes suddenly got very wide.
"Takin' a whizz. Whadaya think?" Lila said, a matter of factly.
"Wait! The commode's over there!" Gabrielle pointed to the potty that was tucked into the corner of the room.
"Oh," Lila got up off the stool and went over to squat on the commode after which she undid the sash at her waist and climbed out of her chiton, stripping down to her panties and camisole. "Maybe you two nightowls are fixing to burn the midnight oil 'til long into the wee candlemarks, but this tired girl is taking herself off to bed."
With that, Lila went tripping over to Ephiny's pallet, drew down the covers and climbed in with her head at the foot of the pallet and her ankles and feet elevated by the pillow at the head of the pallet. Lila frowned, reached up and grabbed the pillow, then hauled it the length of her body and settled it under her head after smacking it a time or two to fluff it up. "Whoever made my bed up this morning," Lila groused at Gabrielle and Ephiny who were still seated on the edge of Lila's pallet, "sure did an ass backwards job of it."
At breakfast in the refectory the next morning, Xena sidled down next to Gabrielle and quietly said, "Skip drill practice and come with me."
"Iíd rather go work out with Bremusa if you donít mind," Gabrielle said. "These sais are handy dandy flip-arounds and I like them a lot, but after yesterdayís slip up, I think I'm starting to get a bit rusty on the bo."
"Maybe, but this is really important," Xena said.
Xena had that foreboding look in her eye that communicated to Gabrielle that something wasn't cricket, a troubled look on Xenaís face that Gabrielle had come, over time, to know that one ignored at one's peril. When the Amazons went off to the morning's training session, Gabrielle excused herself and slipped out the back exit with Xena.
The two of them trotted down several flights of dim, rarely used and heavily cobwebbed stairs, into the dank, fetid, poorly lit bowels of the castle where huge convexities of foundation stone were moist with the lucent, green ordure of accumulated mold and slime. They followed musty passageways through dark tunnels where their footfalls echoed loudly off the shrouded rock, now and then crunching pebbles and sending them sliding down hidden chutes at the bottom of which squealing passels of rats scurried, with chattering annoyance, into invisible chinks and crevices.
"These intersecting mazes must go on for leagues under the city," Gabrielle squinted in the near-darkness.
"They do," Xena said in a low, guarded voice. "It's all connected. You could hole up down here for moonmarks and not be detected if you could stand the stench."
"Now I know how Theseus must have felt when he went wandering through the Labyrinth," Gabrielle said.
"Theseus only had the Minotaur to contend with," Xena said. "We've got something thatís potentially a lot bigger on our hands."
"Bigger than a hay wagon?" Gabrielle said.
"Bigger than a score of hay wagons," Xena said in a bare whisper. "Ssh, I think we're almost there."
Xena found the grate she was looking for and yanked it out of its casing in the stone. A long, narrow tube led toward a bole of brightness about two hundred footpaces away.
"Was that metal thing supposed to come slipping out of its bracing like that?" Gabrielle looked at the metal grate.
"No," Xena said. "C'mon."
Xena led the way, on hands and knees, toward the source of light which expanded as they got closer to it. At the very end, the tube turned nearly vertical and emerged in the open, under blue sky and sunlight. Xena climbed out and, extending a hand, hoisted Gabrielle onto a moist bank of sandy plain beyond the city walls, past the perimeter of Ilium's pasture land and grain fields with their giant, protective fortifications of wood and metal breastwork.
"Keep low to the ground," Xena said. "There isn't much cover."
"Got any idea where are we?" Gabrielle stared around the wide plain in amazement. Ilium's walls towered over them. They appeared to be in an area of no man's land where Trojan guards on the watchtowers or Argive patrols riding out from bunkers along the beach could easily spot -- and put a prompt end -- to them.
"Itís quick sprint from here to the Scaean Gate, the spot where Achilles took Hector down," Xena said.
"How did we get all the way out here?" Gabrielle wondered. "Do you think somebody's been tunneling under the walls?"
"I think it's more complicated than that," Xena whispered as she and Gabrielle hunkered down in the trenched swale formed by the cleft in the tube's opening. "I did some digging around. Look."
Xena scratched at the loose sand and uncovered the edge of what looked to be a long, wooden two-by-twelve. "Maybe the two of us together can jostle it."
Xena and Gabrielle grabbed the lip of the wooden plank and tried to shift it from side to side but the thing wouldn't budge.
"Something's got it wedged in place," Xena said. "Let's dig a little deeper."
By virtue of some deft maneuvering, powerful hefting and tight twisting, Xena and Gabrielle uncovered the lead edges of several of these wide planks laid parallel to one another and buried some few handlengths below the surface of the sand.
"I noticed something that didnít look right on my way back from Diomedes' tent two nights ago," Xena said. "At first, I took it to be the entrance to an underground bunker only it was wide open. There was no camouflage covering it, which struck me as strange. Then I started wondering if maybe some passing Argive patrol had uncovered the mouth of the tunnel I was planning to use for my getaway. So I whipped out my sword and hopped into the bunker, figuring I was probably going to have to battle my way out of there, except it didn't feel like the place I'd come out of when Iíd gotten there. It turned to be a trench. Just a bunch of picks and spades leaning against the dirt walls. So I ducked through the trench, thinking I'd eventually hook up with the tunnel. Suddenly the thing came to an end. So at that point, I figured I must have been inside some kind of a storage ditch, that is until some dirt above my head came dislodged when I turned around and started feeling my way back.
"Then I noticed something light colored a few handwidths over my head. I reached up and felt something that was hard, flat and splintery. I poked around a little more until I discovered that the dirt roof over my head was ribbed by several pairs of long, wooden, shafty things that looked like mini-rafters or lathing strips. Which would make sense when your reinforcing up the roof of a tunnel you might be digging but not when you're just hollowing out a pit. So I followed the line of the trench a little ways further and found that the ground beside its lip had been dug up and laid out with these wide boards set down next to each other like parallel tracks and running more or less in a straight line as far ahead of me as far as I felt it safe to go. But they were definitely running a lot longer than the length of the trench, and, at some point, I could make out a slump in the ground outside the bounds of the Argive encampment."
"Like an underground road made out of boards," Gabrielle said.
"Something like it," Xena said. "Just like these things here. But you can't see 'em 'cause they're below the surface."
"But why would anybody bother to build a set of tracks out of boards and planks and then bury them in the ground so they couldn't be used?" Gabrielle said.
"For ten years, the Argives have been camped out on that broad strip of beach and they haven't been able to bust through Iliumís defenses," Xena said. "These walls are pretty near unbreachable, and thereís no way to get a company of foot soldiers let alone a brigade of chariots with siege engines past those enormous breastworks that surround the city on three sides. For as many as four moonmarks out of every sunmark, the Scamander and the Xanthus rise in their beds, turning these sandy plains into an ocean of marsh, muck and mire. The Trojans have got their forces massed way south of the city to cut off any movement on the Argivesí right flank, and thereís no left flank to speak of 'cause it's all river currents meeting tidewater once you get a little ways north of here. Which leaves Ilium unmolested to the east where their merchants can deal and trade with Hittites, Scythians, Persians and foreign caravans from as far away as Chin and Old Cathay. It's the perfect setup for slowly wearing down an attackerís forces."
"So what would be the point of sticking a bunch of boards in the sand, and how did they get here anyway?" Gabrielle wanted to know.
"They got here by tunneling and shoring up the roof of the tunnel and then by tunneling some more and shoring up the roof some more and finally, when they were done, by filling it all back in behind them as they retreated," Xena said. "Watch."
Xena took out her sword and slid the blade into the dirt about a thumblength below and parallel to the surface of the ground so that the sword lay, hilt pointing out, just below eye level. "Now if I -- what's lying around here that I can use -- if I take -- here -- if I set this little stone down on the ground and run it along the dirt that's lying sprinkled over the blade..., see how Iím tracking the stone along the dirt thatís lying on top of the blade? See how nothingís happening? Thatís Ďcause the stone doesnít weigh enough to make any kind of an impression in the dirt, so it doesn't matter whether the blade of the sword is there or not.
"But what if I were to -- over there, reach me that big rock if you can -- what if I were to heft this rock up -- here, lemme help -- what if I were to plop this rock down on the dirt thatís covering the blade, like I just did with that little stone over there, and then... here, Iím gonna drag it along the track." Xena illustrated the move. "Can you hear how the rocks is crunching down on the shaft of the blade? Can you see how the rock is packing down the dirt as it moves along and crunches all the grainy stuff around it so that the rock pretty much comes into contact with the blade and sweeps along it, even though the blade is still buried under a teeny layer of dirt?"
"Yeah," Gabrielle said and looked at Xena, waiting for some further explanation.
"So figure: you've got this wide wooden track that runs underground for nearly two leagues, starting at the beach; and it's buried under a handwidth or two of scumbly dirt that's been sifted and softened and shored up on the sides. Now picture something really big, I mean like super-homungous big, something that weighs as much as -- I don't know, a ship, maybe -- and picture this thing being dragged along the dirt above that buried wooden track. All that massive weight then comes pressing down on the dirt, weighing it down until the huge thing -- whatever it might be -- comes into contact with the wooden slats and boards that won't give way because the ground beneath them has been completely filled in. And then, if the tops and sides of the planks and boards have been gooped with oil and grease, it smooths out the traction and wears down the friction and makes whatever's being dragged on top of it that much easier to push or pull. Now check this out."
Xena chipped some of the stony dirt away from the top of the plank. Sure enough, the dirt that came loose was gooey in Xena's hand, and the moist top of the plank was gritted like rough sandpaper, with pebbles and sand caking to the viscous surface of the oily wood.
"These boards and planks didn't get sticky all by themselves," Xena said. "They got treated before the ground got shoveled back on top of them. Agammemnon and the Argives are either going to have to come up with a strategy for taking this place that's so brilliant that itís out there in the ozone, or else they're gonna have to call it quits and wrap this campaign up and sail home with their tails stuck between their legs. And you can bet that the folks back home are gonna be ripped as torn sheets in the wind that they've devoted so much time and spent so many dinars and made so many sacrifices of their young men in battle all to accomplish nothing, nada, zilch.
"Achilles has been carrying on like a whining fussbudget lately, and thatís not like him. Slaying Hector in battle was the first warrior-type thing that Achilles has done since he got here; and even now, if some decisive action doesn't start going down pretty soon, Achilles has been threatening to pack it in and take his Myrmidons back to Thessaly. And if Achilles goes, some of his cronies like Ajax and Nestor might go. Achilles has already lost Patroclus whom they say he loved more than life itself. So for Agammemnon and the House of Atreus, it's countdown time to pulling up stakes and calling it quits unless something dramatic starts to unfold p.d.q."
"What do you think that dramatic thing might be?" Gabrielle said, checking the sky and the space around them for any sign that their presence out in the open might have been detected.
"Iím figuring that it's got to be a colossal trick of some kind. Something to catch the Trojans off guard. Something they won't be expecting," Xena said. "The Argives have got Odysseus working on it, and Odysseus is a master of deception. I suspect he's cooking up a whole new angle on how to come busting in here, and I'll bet you Argo's next golden horseshoe that it's got something to do with this hidden length of wooden track."
"So what's the next step?" Gabrielle said. "We can't just pull this length of track up out of the ground."
"I'll have to do some more snooping," Xena said. "In the meantime, get those girls to work on getting these guys in the telesterion ready to roll. Just in case...," Xena's voice trailed off.
"In case what?" Gabrielle said.
"In case Penthesileia's serious about her plan to bust this stalemate wide open," Xena said. "Amazons don't like to piddle around when it comes to waging war on aggressors. Their way is to go barreling through with swords flashing and arrows flying. I expect that one day, very soon, Penthesileia is going to ride out of here with her cadre of twelve crack warriors and tear through those Argive tents on the shore like a tsunami in plated armor until she's driven Achilles down to the rippling tide of the beach where she's gonna stake it all on one last -- and fatal -- roll of the dice."
"So what do you think we ought to do?" Gabrielle said.
"Give her all the help we can," Xena said.
"By riding out alongside her, you and me with Ephiny and the others?" Gabrielle said.
Xena hesitated and sighed. "It would be a chance to make up for the horrible thing I did to Cyane and her chiefs when I betrayed them to Alti."
"Xena," Gabrielle frowned and her voce was cross, "we've been through this more than once. You've already atoned for what you did. Cyane and the others are safely on the other side of Claw Mountain in the Land of the Amazon Dead. Alti's power has been broken thanks to you. Didn't Amarice tell us, when she got back, that Oteri, Yakut and the others seem to be doing just fine? What more can you do for the Amazons that you haven't done already? Or are you still riding the rails of past sins like... like some heavy, monstrous thing you think might come riding along the rails of this buried wooden track?"
Xena hauled her sword out of the dirt and swung it over her shoulder to replace it in its scabbard. How many more times would she backslide into old patterns of guilt and self-blame, she wondered, and how many times would Gabrielle step into the gap to nudge and sometimes shove her past them?
"It isn't your bright idea for Penthesileia to take the impossible on herself, is it?" Gabrielle said. "It's her decision. It's her cadre of warriors. She's not making them follow her into battle. Her plan was to come here by herself and take this thing on alone. She wasn't even going to tell them, but they found out about it and they followed her here and now they won't leave her side. They'd rather die with her than go on living without her. Have you any notion what that feeling is like, Xena? To know that you'd rather die with someone than to go on living without them?"
"You know I do," Xenaís eyes bathed Gabrielle in a soft, encompassing glow.
"Then you know that you have nothing to feel guilty about," Gabrielle said. "You've walked that road. You've been down that track. You can let Penthesileia do what she feels she needs to do and not carry the weight of her burden on your shoulders. She isn't asking you to. She wouldn't want you to. If you were an Amazon, she would forbid you to."
"I could have pledged my sword to her service," Xena said as much to herself as to Gabrielle. "Maybe not with the same intensity and passion that I could have served Lao Ma; but still, I've always regretted the way I betrayed Cyane. I'm sure I always will. Like I regret the monster I made of Callisto even if sheís in a better place now."
"I know you do," Gabrielle reached out and touched Xena's arm. "Itís just that I don't want to see you being so weighed down by it that you end up hurting -- or hating -- yourself on account of it."
"Thanks," Xena smiled.
"Talk about getting zapped off to some nether realm on the fringes of a magic carpet," Gabrielle said. "Lee came down to breakfast this morning, loaded up her tray, took it over to the bussing station, dumped it into one of the barrels and then came to sit down at the table and said to the rest of us, who'd just sat down with our trays full, 'Are you guys still chowing down? I finished up ages ago.'"
"What's going on with Lila anyhow?" Xena said. "I saw her bump into a stone pillar on her way down to the garden and stop and say, ĎExcuse me...í"
"Moonglow," Gabrielle said. "One of these days she'll come back to earth. Until then, I hope she enjoys it out there in space."
Xena chuckled. "Your sister's a good kid."
"Kid? She's gone and grown up behind my back, the little sneak," Gabrielle said, "and never even gave me fair warning. Sheís turning into one heck of a sexy young woman if you ask me."
"Guess it runs in the family," Xena said and then, recoiling from the impact of a sharp elbow being jammed forcefully into her ribs, Xena led the way back through the muddy conduit into the stinky subterranean passages that ran for some leagues under the sandy plains of the once impregnable seacoast fortress of Ilium, gateway to the vast riches of the East.
Out at the training grounds, Velasca and Ephiny, being the best swordswomen of the Macedonian contingent, were assisting the best Themiscyran swordswomen, Evandre and Derimacheia, in putting the Trojan light infantry through their paces. Eponin was helping Thermodosa demonstrate spear-casting and javelin-throwing techniques while Solari was working with Alcibie and the Trojan archers. Like Scathach, the famous woman warrior on the Isle of Skye, far away in northern Britannia, the teacher of the great Cu Chulainn, Eire's legendary war hero, Penthesileia and her Amazons had become the military mentors of Ilium, acknowledged as such by Hector himself before his demise and by each of the lesser nobles from Aeneas and Paris down to the enlisted men in the ranks of the armored footsoldiers. And though the Amazons were known to be past masters of the arts of war, ironically, they were never known to have started one, nor did they once expand and enrich their territories by resort to warfare, eschewing all temptation to empire building, fighting only defensively and only in limited campaigns designed to maintain their communities intact.
A runner entered the stadium with a message for Ephiny. If her presence could be spared for the next candlemark, Penthesileia would like to meet with her in the Queen's quarters.
"Go ahead," Velasca told her. "We can manage 'til you get back."
Ephiny put up her sword and left the stadium, striding across the mall and the courtyard to Penthesileiaís residence where, on the evening before, the Queen had conferred with Velasca.
Upon entering the outer suite of the Queen's apartments and being greeted cordially by Ghisella, the Queenís personal attendant, a lady of Ilium in her customary dress of silken blue and gold, the nearly weightless texture of a nightgown with the outline of her breasts and nipples clearly discernible under the dressí light gauzy material, Ephiny became a trifle jittery. She was, after all, about to come face to face with the Queen de la Queen of Amazon queens and, Ephiny recalled, her life could conceivably ride on the outcome of this meeting, her own and Gabrielle's.
Ephiny had met Penthesileia once before. It was when Ephiny had been in her early teens, back in the fledgling days of the Macedonian Amazon settlement when Tarandel, Melosa's mother, lately appointed the Macedonian queen by Melanippe, had taken her young charges to Mytilene on the island of Lesbos to perform for the great Hippolyte, the queen of the Anatolian Amazons and Tarandel's overlady. Ephiny's recollection of that memorable trip was that Hippolyte had been very beautiful, very gracious, very magnetic, very charming, and very, very tall.
Tarandel had obviously adored Hippolyte and was beaming with delight at this opportunity to show off her girls, especially her daughter and crown princess, Melosa, herself no slouch when it came to the sensual depths of passion and beauty. Ephiny had just taken up the sword, and, with Velasca and Eponin, had put on a demonstration of her new prowess for the Anatolian Amazon queen.
In retrospect, of course, Ephiny realized how gawky and inexperienced the three of them must have been as young teens wielding their first adult weapons, but Hippolyte had been very indulgent, patiently watching them as they went through their carefully rehearsed paces, encouraging and complimenting them as though the great Queen had never, in her lifetime, seen such a remarkable exhibition of sword play. Class, Ephiny realized, sunmarks later; that's what Hippolyte had had: oodles of class. Her younger sister, Princess Penthesileia, had been there, a quiet, compelling presence in the background. At the conclusion of their stay, the young Penthesileia had politely thanked them all for coming and had wished them a safe and speedy voyage home.
Now the polite and quiet Princess was herself the Queen de la Amazon queens, and Ephiny, whether legitimate regent or usurping pretender, was her underling. In contrast to Velasca, who'd been born a Lydian and had once, when Velasca was very young, been taken to marvel at the tiers and towers of Themiscyra, the great city of Lysippe, where the inland sea met the vast Plains of Pontus at the mouth of the wide, flowing River Thermidon, Ephiny, the Macedonian, had only heard about the sparkling Amazon capital, shielded from mortal eyes by its difficulty of access and its mystic aura of sheltered permanence amid brash, ceaseless change.
Sunmarks later, staring down the serried ranks of the advancing Roman columns, in a brilliant move of retreat and surround, Ephiny had smashed the Roman legions at the Battle of the Strymon Road, halting their march through Hellas and, in the process, capturing Brutus, Great Caesar's second in command. For this sterling deed, the bards would be singing Ephiny's lays for millennia to come, the brazen achievement which had earned her, at the ripe old age of twenty-eight, a permanent place in the ranks of Amazon immortals. Yet this well sung accomplishment, Ephiny felt in the present instant, had been mere child's play compared to the sudden apprehension she now experienced in the updraft of her onrushing encounter with the woman who was arguably the greatest living embodiment of Amazon tradition and the final representative, on earth, of the blood of Lysippe.
"Won't you come in, Ephiny."
Ephiny was roused from her reverie by a soft voice gentling her attention. She looked up expecting to see Ghisella, who'd attended her arrival to the royal suite, and beheld, instead, a tall, slender woman dressed entirely in white, wearing a simple himation with occasional folds down the line of the small-breasted bodice, her waist wreathed in a plain white belt, her bronze arms bare to the shoulders, her somewhat coarse, straight, jet black hair falling loosely down her back, her bearing proud and posture assertive but not, for that reason, offputting or intimidating.
Ephiny blinked and frowned. "Uh, um... my sword, aren't I supposed to take it out and then set it down somewhere... er, don't I knock three times with the hilt or something? I'm sorry, you aren't the lady who just brought me up here..."
Ephiny's interlocutor smiled and extended her hand. "I'm Penthesileia," she smiled warmly. "I hope I haven't alarmed you."
"Ohh...," a gasp of surprise escaped from Ephiny's startled lips. "I'm sorry, I had no idea... My quu... ween...," Ephiny bowed her head and dropped like a shot to her knees.
Penthesileia's slightly mauve eyes twinkled and, with Ephiny nearly prone and her face hidden down around her knees, the queen bit back a light chuckle.
"Forgive me, Ephiny," Penthesileia said with compassion, "I didn't mean to startle you. Come, stand up and let me have a look at you."
Ephiny rose and found herself looking into the silver-tinted eyes of her queen, eyes as in-drawing and magnetic as a cat's but, at the same time, soothing and mildly playful. Ephiny's apprehension and self-consciousness vanished as she recalled, if only vaguely, the striking features of the young princess who'd stood slightly behind, perhaps purposely in the shadows of her older sister, the queen, now, tragically, deceased.
"And now you're a queen yourself," Ephiny said to herself, though, inexplicably, and to her great embarrassment, the words leaped from her tongue as Penthesileia, still with the twinkle in her gray-green eyes, replied, "Indeed, it appears that I am."
"Oh, my queen, I didn't mean... Oh, dear, that was quite rude of me...," Ephiny flustered and began to blush.
"By no means," Penthesileia smiled. "I'll be extremely complimented if you don't feel obliged to stand on ceremony with me. It tells me that I must be doing something right. Come in and sit down, won't you? We've a bit of catching up to do. I can see that you're not the little girl in the long, blonde pigtails I had the pleasure of watching some number of sunmarks ago as she wielded her new sword with such a look of scowling concentration on her face that one might have thought that some horrible grown up had threatened to make her take up the lyre in front of the entire crowd and plunk out the melody to some dreadfully dull Ionian motet should she have made a misstep during her carefully rehearsed performance."
"No, my queen; I guess I'm not that same little girl," Ephiny said with eyes still lowered and a flush of rose on her cheeks.
"Here in my quarters, Ephiny..., come, down here next to me, sit close..., we can leave 'My Queen' at the door. Penthesileia, allright? Or Penny as they call me when they think I'm out of earshot."
"Yes, my quu... yes, of course," Ephiny nodded, taking a seat on the divan next to Penthesileia, the very spot which Velasca had occupied on the previous evening.
"I'd heard reports that you'd evolved into quite a beautiful woman, but I can see for myself that those reports have been grossly understated," Penthesileia said, looking Ephiny up and down. "You are stunning, Ephiny, and Iím delighted to have the opportunity to see you again."
"Thank you," Ephiny said, feeling elevated yet humbled in the face of this genuinely heartfelt compliment.
"Thank you," Penthesileia said, "for coming all this way and putting yourselves to such trouble on my account. I hope you didn't find the stuffy legalese of my invitation terribly offputting, though I guess they call it a summons. It was drawn up by one of the king's counselors who felt that if the document sounded official, it would be to your advantage should you and the others have been detained by the authorities along the way."
"We were happy to come," Ephiny said, perhaps feeling happier now, in her queen's warm presence, than she'd felt when Velasca had first served the summons on her.
"Tell me, though; most importantly: I hear you have a little boy, Xenon."
"How wonderful. And he's with his grandfather? Iím told he's absolutely the cutest thing in the entire known world."
"He is," Ephiny smiled. "Though he does have his mischievous turns of the sandglass."
"Donít they all," Penthesileia chuckled and her light turquoise eyes lit up with joy in the presence of a cherished sister. Then, in the space of a heartbeat, those light turq... those pale almond eyes turned sad and mournfully reflective. "I was sorry to hear the news about Phantes."
"He went down fighting for what he believed in," Ephiny said. "They say he went bravely. Knowing Phantes, I expect thatís so."
Penthesileia nodded. "Is it difficult, not being in daily contact with your son? I hear good things about Tyldus, that he's mounting a warrior training academy to supply the demand for military personnel created by the current conflict."
"That's right," Ephiny said softly, recalling that her connection with Tyldus, not to mention Hercules, placed her in a touchy and potentially volatile position with regard to her gracious queen.
"Fences..," Penthesileia said in a languid voice, the soft look in her aquamarine eyes drifting toward the open window where a stream of sunlight came plunging at a steep angle through the casement.
"I'm sorry...?" Ephiny said. "You just said something about...?"
"Oh, I was just musing upon lifeís little ironies," Penthesileia said. "How life puts up barriers around us and we find ourselves standing on different sides of those barriers when that hadn't been our intention at all."
Ephiny nodded and folded her hands in her lap.
"I hear you're a friend of Hercules," Penthesileia said.
Ephiny had to make a split-sandgrain decision, and she opted to go with her gut and to be honest to the queen whom Ephiny's heart felt deserved no less.
"We attacked an erupting volcano together and... yes, I consider Hercules a friend," Ephiny said.
"Then he's fortunate to have found such a fine one," Penthesileia said with no trace of rancor in her voice.
"He's a good man," Ephiny said. "He has a good heart. He's become a beacon light to souls in need, and he has no need of homage or any desire for glory. I don't imagine that's easy for you to hear. You experience of him was very different."
"He murdered my sister," Penthesileia looked away.
"I know," Ephiny said, softly.
"Do you recall the sword recital that you put on for her: you, Velasca, Solari, Eponin and some of the others?" Penthesileia turned to look at Ephiny with deep magenta eyes. "Imagine an accomplished ballerina taking time from her busy performance schedule to pause and watch a gaggle of school girls, who were just starting out in slippers two sizes too big for their feet, doing their first sets of pliťes and tours jťtťes. She enjoyed every falling sand grain of it. She was enthralled, complimented beyond measure, truly flattered that you'd actually taken the time to prepare a beginner's exercise to share with her. That's the kind of person she was. Nothing was too inconsequential to escape her notice. No gesture was too small or insignificant to fail to inspire humility and gratitude in her. Ephiny...," Penthesileia looked deeply into Ephiny's amber eyes, "do you know what my greatest fear is? May I share that with you? My greatest fear is that I will never be her equal, that I will never... rise to her stature."
"My queen," Ephiny said, with great concern, forgetting, because of her concern, to drop the honorific, "why do you say that?"
"Because I feel it may be true," Penthesileia said.
"The feeling, perhaps, but the judgment... Isn't that ultimately for others to determine?" Ephiny said.
Penthesileia looked Ephiny in the eye again, then slowly smiled and nodded. "Yes, I suppose it is. I don't think I sufficiently appreciated that quality of inspirational leadership in her when she was alive. We had a rather convoluted relationship. A bit stormy, really. A bit too possessive on my part. Well..., I don't mean to burden you with private regrets. Quite the opposite, in fact. I'd like to help shoulder and even, if it's not too presumptuous of me, to assist in relieving you of any burden that you yourself may be carrying. Though it would sadden me immensely to learn that the victor of the Battle of the Strymon Road might be laboring under a burden, especially...," Penthesileia looked frankly at her young subject, "one that might, in some sense, be of her own making. Youíre a valiant commander, Ephiny. Your name will go down with great honor upon the scrolls of Amazon history. I assume you must be aware of that."
Ephiny shrugged and tried to make light of the observation.
"Tut, no show of false modesty now. Not from one of the finest commanders and stunningly beautiful ladies the Amazon nation has had the privilege to claim as one of its own," Penthesileia's eyes wouldn't let Ephiny's eyes dart behind a screen of not taking full and much deserved credit for her remarkable achievement on the battlefield. "Leaving aside that snake-in-the-grass, Antony, an even fouler specimen of duplicity and opportunism than his vaunted master, Caesar, the only troop commander ever to defeat Brutus on the field of battle was an Amazon. What you accomplished in halting the Roman advance and taking its commander hostage was masterful, Ephiny. A mix of courage, daring and extreme intelligence under the most intense pressure imaginable. Your victory on the Strymon Road will rank with the achievements of my Aunt Molpeidia in brilliance if not, at the very last, in breadth and scope. The Battle of the Strymon Road which halted the Roman legions in their tracks and preserved the independence of the Macedonian Amazons. A legend in your time. There aren't many souls who can claim... who might prove worthy of such a distinction."
"You're very kind to say so," Ephiny said, "but everyone was vital to the effort. Eponin charged with the left flank. Solari advanced with the right. Velasca was magnificent in the van. Gabrielle and Amarice, with Chilappa and Messalina, held the line. And Xena, you know, masterminded the whole thing, pulling the plug on Caesar and Pompey simultaneously."
"No doubt," Penthesileia said. "Well-earned credit goes to all of them. But you were the pointperson. In the end it all came down to you, and you stood the test and passed with flying colors, winning a victory in battle that not even Bouddicea of the Iceni, the greatest warrior in Britannia, could claim in the end. I take my helmet off to you, Ephiny. You're a warrior worthy of the name."
To which Ephiny said a simple thank you. Given its source, the commendation was a medal of the highest honor.
"And now I need you to be as brave in conversation as you were and may continue to be on the battlefield," Penthesileia said. "I need you to be candid with me. Can you do that?"
"I'll try," Ephiny said. "No, let me take that back. Yes, I can. I will."
"Good," Penthesileia said as Ghisella wheeled a tray into the chamber, stocked with tea and biscuits for the Queen and her guest. "And do dig in," Penthesileia nodded at the tea wagon. "Scarf it up if you like. I know you've been working your backside off out there."
Ephiny poured herself a mug of tea, and Penthesileia followed suit. The biscuits were quickly consumed.
"In a nutshell, here's what I need to know," Penthesileia said, mug in one hand, jam-coated biscuit in the other. "Has Velasca utterly burned her bridges? In terms of leadership. How badly have the others turned against her?"
"She still has a number of supporters," Ephiny said. "And she can be very persuasive when rhapsodizing about past Amazon glory. She has great personal courage. No one would dream of disputing that. And she's honest. With Velasca, what you see is very much what you get."
"That may be so, but don't be politic, Ephiny. I need to know if Velasca's ability to lead has been fatally compromised by what happened with Melosa... or due to any other reason."
"Then I would say no, not fatally compromised but badly damaged. Melosa was a fine queen and a good mother to us all in spite of the rough patches we may have encountered along the way."
"Yes, she was, wasnít she? My sister, Melanippe, was delighted that it seemed to be working out so well when Melosa inherited the throne from Tarandel. You know, Ephiny, I think Velasca sincerely regrets what she's done. I believe she truly desires to make amends and not merely in the hope of becoming queen." Penthesileia paused and then her creme-colored eyes looked deeply into Ephiny's eyes. "And what about yourself?"
"Myself?" Ephiny said.
"What about your own desire to rule? Your assessment of your own ability to wear the queen's mask? What do you take to be your own gifts for functioning in that capacity?" Penthesileia wanted to know.
"What authority I have, I exercise in the name of another."
"I know but I'm asking a different question. I want you to assess your own capabilities in that regard. And remember: you promised me that youíd be candid."
Ephiny was silent for a long turn of the sandglass. Then she let go a deep sigh. "My queen," Ephiny began. Then she paused and beheld the magnetic face of the woman whom she unreservedly acknowledged as her queen: the bronze skin, broad cheekbones, aquiline nose, wide lips and jaw, the strikingly lovely neck around which hung, on the thinnest of silver chains, seven tiny, twinkling stars. The long black hair was parted on the side and its bay swept over a portion of her forehead to glide behind the opposite ear where a thin silver ribbon kept it from falling continually alongside her cheek and jaw. Her very simplicity of adornment bespoke her rare beauty. "Penny...," Ephiny spoke the word as though it were a mystical mantra, "do people really call you that?"
"Hoo, that and worse," the charismatic Queen of the Amazons let go a light laugh and her huge eyes, which glowed with a touch of garnet, twinkled in tandem with the tiny diamonds that were strung around her neck. "When us girls get together after hours and let our hair down," Penthesileia grinned a truculent grin, "it's Katie bar the door."
Ephiny chuckled and relaxed on the divan alongside her queen. "I think I could do a halfway decent job of being queen," Ephiny blurted. "Better than that. A downright good job of being queen."
Penthesileia smiled. "There. A little bit like pulling teeth, wasn't it?"
"I'd make a darn good queen if you want to know," Ephiny said and, to put her stamp on it, she took another sip of tea.
"I expect you would," Penthesileia said. "But would you want the job? It's not all... tea and biscuits being wheeled in on a silver serving tray."
Ephiny paused to consider. "What about Gabrielle?"
"I haven't lost sight of that," Penthesileia said. "We're simply exploring options here. I need to know where you stand on the matter and to hear you address it in your own words. Which youíve just done admirably, if I may say."
"I would never be a backstabber," Ephiny said. "Conspiring to be queen behind Gabrielle's back. Never."
"No, no, that's not what's at issue here," Penthesileia assured Ephiny. "I want to get a feel for where things stand with you, Velasca, Gabrielle..., anyone else?"
"Thereís Xena," Ephiny said.
"Xena," Penthesileia smiled. "There's always Xena, isn't there?"
"Thereís always Xena," Ephiny nodded and also smiled.
"I'll tell you what, Ephiny," Penthesileia said. "Let me mull things over for a short while. I think you know... that is, you may have heard that I'm inclined to favor consensus and compromise in these matters. I suppose it remains to be seen what kind of arrangement might work out best for all parties involved. But whatever shape that arrangement may take -- and whoever may be involved in hashing it out -- no arrangement will be satisfactory unless everyone can honestly live with it over the long haul. Shall I tell you how I know that or have I rattled on long enough?"
"No, please..., go on," Ephiny said and waited for Penthesileia to continue.
"When I lost Hippolyte... perhaps I should say: when Hippolyte fell to her murderer's sword, I felt things that it never dawned on me that I was capable of feeling -- leastwise not with such intensity. It was only then that I sensed what a monster I have it in me to be, and I know Iím not unique in that regard. I hated Hippolyte because she'd rejected my love; that is to say, my possessive love. She begged me to understand that her rejection came from a sense of duty. The love that I wanted to give her and that I wanted her to give me sapped her, she said, of much of her vital energy. I had become -- that is, my demands had become -- a bit of an obsession; and she felt, for the sake of the communityís well-being, that she needed to free herself from that obsession by the only means she had at her disposal.
"I understood what she felt she needed to do, but I couldn't accept it. My heart, my life, my bed: all were hers. I wanted nothing more from life. Kings, queens, Trojans, Argives, Amazons: none of it meant anything to me. Our mother, who was our half-sister, had erected a paradise around us. Our father was a god who would one day impregnate us with his future daughters as he'd impregnated our mother and grandmother with his past and present daughters. That was simply the way things were. To seek reasons and explanations would have been redundant.
"Even as I festered in my anger and boycotted the world around me, determined to starve myself emotionally, if not physically, merely to spite my feelings of loneliness and self-loathing, my sister, Melanippe, to whom I could bring every fear, grief, hurt, conundrum -- all but one -- fell by own hand in a freak accident if you're willing to believe that it was a freak accident. I thought, at that point, that Iíd simply kill myself. Seriously. I truly contemplated suicide. But something deep inside me kicked in, which is why I'm here today instead of being...," Penthesileia pointed down toward the floor in the direction of Tartarus.
"Hippolyte and Melanippe were gone. Antiope, too, though I didn't know Antiope well; I was too small to know much about it when my aunt killed her outside the walls of Athens, but I knew that each of my sisters had given their lives in the service of something greater than themselves, the life of the community which they'd been born to serve. My brother, whom I didn't know at all, never had... or never availed himself of that chance. He died by his own hand when my mother rejected him, though she dearly loved him and mourned his death 'till the day the gods came to bear her away. I didn't want to end my life by going that route. My sisters had led the way. I wanted -- I still want -- to follow them into larger life by doing as they did, the difference being, perhaps, that I more or less know when my appointed candlemark will come. I can't say that I'm right in my convictions or that I can foresee the final outcome. But one has to stake one's life on something, Ephiny, especially if one is going to be a queen. Service and sacrifice to the community may not be a bad thing to stake it on."
Ephiny felt washed in a wave of humility to experience the way her queen was talking to her as though Ephiny were a treasured friend and respected colleague. As though, for some reason, her queen might ever have had reason to regard her as anything less.
"Do you still have it in for Hercules? Do you still hate him?" Ephiny said, rising as Penthesileia rose.
Penthesileia smiled a bittersweet smile. "You're not the first one I've heard singing Hercules' praises. I've heard too many good things about him to doubt that he's as fine a man as you say he is. And I know that he's suffered more grievous losses in his life than most men -- and women -- have been called upon to suffer. I don't think he would have done what he did to Hippolyte had he not been the pawn of Hera who'd been hounding him mercilessly. So how can I hate him? I said I hated my sister because of the sacrifice she felt she needed to make and that I was the one who was sacrificed. I wanted my love to suffice for a crown and when it didn't -- or didn't seem to -- I resented her bitterly for it. But really, it was my jealousy and vanity that I hated and resented. Nothing else in the end.
"We'll talk again. I'm terribly fond of Velasca. I've wept for her, you know. Late at night when weeping was my sole means of prayer. She could have been the younger sister I never had. But Velasca has her battles to fight and her dragons to slay, and that I can't do for her."
Ephiny nodded and got ready to take her leave. "Omigosh," she said, noticing that her sword was still in her scabbard. "I never took my sword out. I never laid it at your feet. I never pledged you my life in fealty."
"Consider it done," Penthesileia extended her hand with a smile. "Sometimes the formalities get thankfully overlooked in the crush of pressing business."
"In the crush of the heart whose fealty is no formality," Ephiny looked with true affection into the gray-green eyes of the woman whom she was proud to acknowledge as her queen without, in that acknowledgment, experiencing the slightest diminution of her own stature as a woman and an equal.
"Thank you, Ephiny," Penthesileia held Ephiny's hand in warm embrace. "That means more to me than I can say."
"My queen," Ephiny nodded with the slightest dip of the knee and, at the same time, the least hint of a laughing twinkle in her own ennobled eyes.
|Continued - Chapter 43|
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