|A Horse Is A Horse, Of Course, Of Course|
Xena and Gabrielle returned from their subterranean jaunt in time to meet the others for lunch. Gabrielle planned to rejoin the training squads for the afternoon workout while Xena bustled off to take care of some business of her own. Deep in conversation with Ephiny about Ephiny's recent chat with Penthesileia, Gabrielle was a bit surprised when Velasca approached her while they were filing out of the refectory and quietly asked if the two of them could head over to the training grounds together.
As they lagged behind the others on their way across the courtyard and then along the central avenue past a row of shops and offices, Gabrielle waited for Velasca to reveal whatever it was that Velasca apparently had on her mind. In the silence of their footsteps as they walked together, Gabrielle breathed deeply and asked her higher self to be receptive to the needs and desires of the woman who walked beside her. Gabrielle's most powerful impression of Velasca had always been that Velasca was a tower of great physical and raw, emotional strength. Velasca was the only warrior, to Gabrielle's knowledge, who could battle Xena to a draw. Queen Bouddicea, excellent leader and swordswoman though she may have been, had ultimately been forced to submit to Xena's power and skill in arms. Callisto, too, had eventually succumbed to Xena's greater depth of spiritual and emotional reserves, even if Callisto may have been Xena's equal in swordplay. Najara had been no real match for Xena, nor had Thelassa or Melosa, while Alti's power had been of a different order. Yet Alti, too, had been defeated.
Aside from Velasca's brute strength, Gabrielle detected a soul which, though clearly troubled and not at peace, was capable of loyalty, devotion and a conception of honor that may not have comported, in all respects, with Gabrielle's notion of honor but nonetheless had a consistency and an integrity of its own. At some level of her being, Velasca wasn't afraid to confront the truth, whatever the consequences of that confrontation might be. It was this ultimate commitment of Velasca's nature to honor the truth of her experience and not to flinch from it that inspired in Gabrielle the hope that the two of them might work out their differences and come to respect, even, possibly, to affirm one another despite the hurts and derelictions of the past.
"Gabrielle," Velasca began, looking straight ahead down the long avenue, "I want to apologize for the way I've behaved toward you. I believe that I've been... unfair."
Velasca paused and Gabrielle gulped. Gabrielle hadn't been expecting a frank apology and didn't quite know how to respond. The statement took a turn of the sandglass to register. Apologies usually betokened contrition, but Velasca's apology had been matter of fact, as blunt as her past recriminations had been.
"I've had the chance to so some thinking," Velasca went on to say, "beginning on the night that we camped out on our way to the port at Haniotis. Then last night, while the rest of you were out dancing, I had a visit with Penthesileia. She more or less confirmed what I'd been feeling. I've had a hard time coming to terms with some things, and I think you've borne the brunt of some of my frustrations; and that, surely, isn't fair. I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I guess that's all I really wanted to say. It hurt to hear you say what you said about Melosa having the gift of leadership and the community's trust and then the way in which I may have robbed her of that gift for less than noble purposes, but I think you may have been right and I want to acknowledge that."
Gabrielle didn't reply right away. The two of them kept walking.
"Velasca," Gabrielle finally broke the silence, "may I tell you something that’s long been on my mind?"
Velasca turned toward Gabrielle with a look of mild apprehension. A head taller than Gabrielle with a physique of enormously greater size, the two women were hardly a match when it came to the surface aspects of warrior stature. Even Amarice, among the smaller of the Macedonian Amazons, could best Gabrielle in a contest of brute strength. But Gabrielle wasn't afraid of brute strength, and opponents far more versatile with fist and blade had quailed and fallen before the power of Gabrielle's unflinching courage and self-possession in the sheer, scorching light of truth.
"I admire you," Gabrielle said. "I think I always have. I admire your dedication to an ideal. Even though I may not fully share it, I can recognize and respect it. For the most part, Xena and I don't dwell on Big Picture stuff. With Xena, things tend to be more day-to-day and narrowly focused. Xena's extraordinarily bright and vastly intuitive, but she's not -- what to call it -- an intellectual or a visionary. The power of ideas don't grab her in the gut. Give her a concrete problem to solve -- or a soul that needs mending -- and she’s unbeatable. Do you know why I think that is? It's because Xena's very soft at the core. Hard to imagine, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is," Velasca said, "though I know that Xena's a very complex person."
"Xena is extremely soft at the core," Gabrielle said. "If you really want to know Xena, that's the key. That softness at the core is what made it possible for her to change. It's what saved her."
"I'm inclined to think that it was you who saved her," Velasca responded with a very rare smile.
"No," Gabrielle let go a long, slow breath. "I may have been a bit of a catalyst, but I'm convinced that Xena could have done it without me, even if Xena isn't convinced of that herself. Still, I'll admit that the siege that the Argive batteries are laying to this beautiful city is next to nothing compared to the siege that I had to lay to Xena’s heart before she opened the gates and let me in. I almost threw in the towel. Several times."
"Would Xena have let you do that?" Velasca said.
"I don't know. Somehow it never came to that," Gabrielle said. "I always pulled back from the brink. For some reason, I seemed to sense that all the effort and frustration and occasional bouts of heartache would be worth it in the end."
"Then you feel that it has been worth it," Velasca said.
"Oh, yes," Gabrielle said with an emphatic nod of her head. "I've never had an instant's doubt about that."
"Then I admire you as well," Velasca said, and the pair walked, in silence, the rest of the way to the training grounds.
"Velasca," Gabrielle turned to face Velasca just before the two of them ducked under the archway that led to the flat, green, practice field, "thank you. What you said means a great deal to me. I've said it to Xena and I'll say it to you: I believe that you've got the makings of a fine queen if that's how things should play out. I've always believed that at some level, in spite of my anger and mistrust. I think I could put those things behind me. What about you?"
"Yes, I think I could," Velasca said. "I think I felt that way when I carried you into sick bay yesterday. I think the weight of you in my arms may have lifted me over a hump. I wonder if we couldn't find a way to begin again."
Gabrielle extended her hand and Velasca responded as the two women shared a grip from fingers to elbows, forearms linked in a birthclap of nascent renewal.
Gabrielle and Velasca parted company, leaving Ephiny to catch up with Gabrielle as Gabrielle wandered over to pick up the bo for the first phase of the afternoon's training drill before switching over to the sais and nunchuks for practice in combat at close quarters.
"Check me out. Are my feet on the ground or am I floating above the rooftops on the fuzzy weave of a magic carpet?" Ephiny said, her cheeks as pink as one of the tulip decals that adorned the Flying Dutchman’s wind-driven sails.
"Ephiny, what’s going on with you? You're as red as a beet," Gabrielle said. "Either you've just spent the morning hunkering down in the sack with someone who really turns you on, or else you've done a heck of lot of one-handed push ups."
"I had a meeting with Penthesileia and I'm still flying high," Ephiny said. "Gab, she's spectacular. She's got this way about her that makes you want to open up to her, that makes you feel like you're a really important person who really counts for something. She asked me if I thought I had what it took to be a decent queen, and do you know what I told her?"
"What?" Gabrielle said, her blue-green eyes twinkling.
"I told her I thought I did," Ephiny burst out and her amber eyes lit up with glee.
"Good for you!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "I've told you that a dozen times but how often do you listen to me."
"Well, you're prejudiced," Ephiny grinned.
"I'm also objective and accurate," Gabrielle said with a dose of humorous pride. "And as your queen pro tem, I'm ordering you to acquiesce in my judgment that you'd make a truly first rate queen."
"She says she wants to meet with you and Xena very soon," Ephiny said. Then Ephiny's expression turned heavy and dour. "I think she means to go through with it. I think she means to ride out of here and face down Achilles one-on-one. She seems to feel it's her mission, that some ultimate good is going to come out of it. She's a genuinely kind person, Gab. Whatever heartaches she may have suffered in the past, she seems to have battled back from them. She seems to have won some kind of a victory over herself, though I'm not sure she'd look at it that way or would take credit for it if someone told her that. And you know what I came away feeling, and I hope you won't think I'm nutty for saying it?"
"What's that?" Gabrielle said with a quirky smile as though Ephiny could say or do something to make Gabrielle imagine, for one turn of the sandglass, that Ephiny was nuts.
"Right now, I'm feeling like it may not matter who gets to be queen," Ephiny said. "Not so long as we can live and work together and love and care for each other. That's what I think she truly wants for us, and I'm wondering if maybe that's what I really want too."
Gabrielle chuckled. "Don't look now, but Velasca seems to be thinking along those same lines herself. A suggestion: don't hover but keep a little bit close to Velasca over the next day or two, and if it’s looking like she might want to approach you at some point, see if you can't make an opening for her."
"You think Velasca's starting to mellow out?" Ephiny said.
"Maybe a bit," Gabrielle said, hefting the bo and waving to Bremusa that she was about to come out and join her. "You're not the only one that Penthesileia seems to have worked some of her redemptive magic on."
Maneuvers got underway. Once again, the Amazons took the role of drill sergeants in charge of combat readiness: teaching, demonstrating, shouting encouragement and, on rare occasions, if provoked by exhibitions of inattention, carelessness or sloth, didactically kicking butt.
Just as an army might move on its belly, so, on its belly, a walled city stayed put. To feed its several thousand inhabitants, supplies of crops and staples had to be grown locally and supplemented by a steady flow of imports. A combination of fortuitous geography, skilled construction of massive fortifications, advanced civil engineering techniques and judicious patterns of land use had enabled Ilium to withstand a siege of nearly ten years duration without incurring a significantly adverse impact on its ability to maintain its food supply.
What the peasant component of the labor force couldn't grow and harvest, the merchant class, despite the sea embargo, had been able to acquire by trade along well protected commercial routes to the north, south and, primarily, to the east. Cloth, wood, oils and armaments were readily procurable via these well-trod land channels across the breadth of the Anatolian peninsula, from Phrygia and Ionia on the Aegean coast to the Persian caliphates in the foothills of the Caucasus. And midway, in Pontus, at the northern tip of this broad land mass, where the River Thermidon emptied onto the brackish tidewaters of the Black Sea, stood the great Amazon fortress-city of Themiscyra, the jewel of Asia, the shining gem in Cybele's crown, the Avalon of the East whose Isle of Apples was cultivated exclusively by the strong, faithful hands of women.
Two strong and faithful hands now hacked with the scythe prior to strewing the culled barley shafts into mounds to be collected by the gathering gleaners as a line of Trojan women, covered from head to toe in fulsome, brown burnooses against the steady beating of the high, autumn sunlight, made its way slowly across the breadth of the last rows of that season's grain harvest. As they worked, the women chanted in a steady, mesmerizing rhythm of upswing, downstroke, cross-chop and follow through, piling the cut sheaves on either side of their passage so that their progress soon began to resemble the hollowing out of banked trenches for the massing of troops and the storage of weapons. Male guards, in plated armor, stationed along the edges of the fields' perimeters, protected the harvesters from enemy raids and the fields themselves from sneak attack and the lofting of fiery missiles with the object of setting the fields ablaze and trapping the unfortunate pickers and gatherers within the deadly circle of rapidly expanding smoke and flame.
As one of the women completed leveling the row she'd been traversing and was about to turn and head back along a parallel row, hacking and thrashing as she went, she paused and furtively drew a bead on the nearby guard whose back was turned to the harvesting women as he scanned the Argive emplacements along the shoreline. Creeping up behind the armed guard too stealthily to be detected, the woman in her brown wraps murmurred, "Sorry, friend; this is gonna hurt me more than it hurts you..." Then, raising the wooden handle of her scythe above the level of her upturned hood, she brought it crashing down on the unsuspecting guard's helmet, temporarily shutting off the lights before the guard could register that he'd just been k.o.'ed.
The guard swooned backwards into the woman's arms. She dragged him into one of the rows of the harvested barley, laid him flat out on his back and covered him with a blanket of cut sheaves. "Have a nice nap; you deserve some quality snooze time," she said, stripping off her hood and brown coverings under which she wore her customary brass and leathers and carried a stout, double-bladed sword in the scabbard on her back, her round chakram of gleaming gold with its blue-green arrow design hitched securely to the belt at her waist.
Slipping quietly through the cover of the barley stacks, Xena made her way to the far edge of the fields and their fortified barriers whose spiked pits and deep barrows, filled with quicksand, she gingerly circumvented until she arrived at a broad spray of tall rushes on the pitched bank of one of the Scamander's inlets beyond the confines of Ilium. Xena leaped into the marshy reeds for cover, a free agent now, off on an intelligence gathering mission, unfettered by the well-meaning assistance of those whose lack of familiarity with the skill necessary to plow effectively through the watery glades would only have slowed her down. Her destination: the perimeter of the Argive bivouac to see if she could suss out additional reconnaissance with regard to those strange, underground, wooden tracks that she and Gabrielle had uncovered earlier in the day.
A portion of this riverrine route became known to Xena as she'd charted its course when she'd gone to call on Diomedes. But though daylight made for faster going, it was also a riskier time for a body to undertake a scouting mission. But Xena felt she had little choice but to chance a daylight sortie if she hoped to get a good look around.
Rumors had spread across the Aegean to the effect that when they’d arrived on Ilium’s shores, the Argive forces had burned their ships, apparently indicating, by such a rash or desperate gesture, that they intended to remain in and perhaps to colonize these western marches of Phrygian settlement.
Though these rumors of burned ships may have been fomented for the purpose of demoralizing Ilium's will to resist, they were untrue. The wood, pitch, canvas and netting that composed the Argive fleet had been too valuable a cargo to commit to the greedy flames of a wild night's potlatch. The barques and riggers weren't burned but disassembled and their materials used in constructing shelters, quonsets, entrepots and engines of war. Perhaps, at the war's conclusion, they might be reassembled as nautical vessels. But much of the material could be sacrificed with no undue hardship as there would be fewer troops to ferry home at the conclusion of the hostilities than there had been to ferry over to Ilium at the war's inception. Xena could only hope that Perdicas and his cousin, Andros, would be among those awaiting return passage home.
The Argive beachhead ran for leagues along tidal shoals and soft, white, coastal sands. At the furthest sweep of their left and right flanks, invisible from the walled city itself, even from its tallest turrets, the Argive forces were able to penetrate the interior at will. Conventional tactics suggested a north-south pincer whose objective would be to squeeze the city's egress into a smaller and smaller funnel to the east until the time might come when the city could effectively be surrounded. Then, like a python constricting its cotton-tailed prey, it would merely be matter of time before Ilium's circulation would shut down and its expired body would be ripe for swallowing whole. But with help from the lay of the resistant land, the Trojans, knowing full well what conventional military tactics might have in store for them, fought tooth by jowl, like the lions whose tawny ensign they wore on their pointed brass helmets, to prevent the Argive claw from closing around them.
But competent field marshallship wasn't the only way to win a war whose outcome depended upon the arts of siege and breach. The terrain between the walled city and the seashore was a flat, sandy plain perfectly constituted for massive and useless loss of life as two infantries, similarly equipped, drove each other's lines repeatedly to distraction so that, in a decade’s time, the invaders' salient had advanced all of a half a league closer to a still very distant target. To win this war would take the combination of trickery, surprise and the lowering of Ilium's psychological defenses. Odysseus, crafty and cunning, was just the Jack to pull it off and he was already busily at work devising his plan.
On the far side of Scamander's delta, south of the river's broad mouth, Argive sappers had laid out an enormous breastwork of flat paving stones easily several leagues square. Tons of materiel had been deposited in huge fills that banked and trenched the staging area like the fluted rim of a colossal serving platter. These huge bulwarks must have been the remains of the disassembled ships. In the center of this massive, open arena, much larger than any bivouac that might be needed for training drills, a towering structure was in the process of being erected. Its posts and struts rose several storeys in the air. Its beams were as thick as tree trunks. Its studwork was laid out in gigantic tiers that crisscrossed at every conceivable angle. The peak, which looked like an intersecting plane of fused-together box towers, was higher than the height of a cyclops standing on another cyclop's shoulders. Its girth must have been fashioned from a thousand felled timbers. At its base, the behemoth was as wide as the prow of several oceangoing triremes.
"Holy shin splints!" Xena peered through the parted reeds and catkins. "Ares himself couldn't have jerryrigged so great a monstrosity!" Only once before had Xena had seen anything like it. When she and Gabrielle had been targeted by the minions of Dahak and were fleeing through the thick woods of Britannia a step ahead of the fiendish, Gabrielle-worshiping banshees, more maniacal than the Bacchae, they'd stumbled past a huge contraption made of wicker, erected in the shape of a giant scarecrow, into which the half-crazed villagers had stuffed dozens of Dahak's followers and then had lit the thing on fire to the accompaniment of the horrible shrieks of those who'd been set aflame inside. It had been a gruesome sight, more gruesome, by far, than Serafin's attempt to perform her brainwashed sacrifice, but that horrid sight had been small, Celtic potatoes compared to this wood and metal inundation. "Unless these guys are planning to develop this stretch of oceanfront into high-rise, time-share condos," Xena muttered, "we're in for big-time trouble not very far down the road."
Xena slipped away from her stand in the marshgrass and made her way back through the Trojan earthworks to the low-lying grain fields. She slithered through the enclaves of fallen barley stalks until she came to the spot where she'd buried her brown burnoose. She tossed the garment niftily over her leathers, then rolled the hood over her forehead, obscuring her Warrior Princess features. She took up her scythe and resumed chopping stalks, pausing, a turn of the sandglass later, to check on the guard whom, not quite a candlemark ago, she'd deftly left lying in the tares.
"Oy...," the fellow was sitting up, rubbing a big red bump on his skull, "what hit me...?"
"There ya go, big boy," Xena helped the fellow clamber somewhat uncertainly to his feet. "It's just a conk on the bean. A couple, three of doses of lobelia root before you turn in and you'll be feeling as good as new in the morning."
"Did some sniveling Argive cur come sneakin' in here to bonk me on the noodle when my back was turned?" the guard grunted.
"Nah, ya got creamed by one of those," Xena pointed up to the sky where a couple of hawks were circling lazily above the grain fields on the lookout for any nervous rodent who may have been foolish enough to venture out of its burrow in broad daylight.
"One of those tweety birds? Came swoopin' down from outta the blue and pecked me on the noggin?" the guard looked wide-eyed with disbelief.
"I'm tellin' ya, I've seen those little bomber pilots in action," Xena wagged her finger skyward. "The speed at which those birdie pellets come rainin' down on you rivals Zeus’ thunderbolts. C'mon, pal, let's get you back in the groove."
With a reluctant grunt, the guard accepted Xena's assistance. "Aerial bombardment," he grumbled as he resumed his post. "Ya know sum'm," he called back to the woman who'd been nice enough to help him get back to his duties, "you wonder if instead of loadin' up those catapaults with rocks and chain links and busted pram springs and old forty-fives that don’t fit on the newer turntables... what if they piled ‘em up with bunches of hard, little lumps of dried bird sh... I mean if you can't scare the crap out of your enemy, why not try bombin’ ‘em with it..."
|Continued - Chapter 44|
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