|The Soft Edge Of Steel|
Penthesileia had had to think long and hard about her decision to intervene in the current conflict. She knew -- everyone knew -- that Parisí abduction of Helen had served as a mere pretext for the Argive assault on Ilium. Recent developments in navigation, commerce and the conduct of financial affairs had made it possible for the Argive city states, dominated by the remnant of Theseus' Athenian League under the command of the House of Atreus, to contemplate expanding their sphere of influence eastward across the broad, Asian land mass. Time was of the essence in this endeavor as a rising Persian power would soon be sufficiently established, east of the wide Anatolian peninsula, to prevent further Argive incursion.
Standing in the way of Argive expansion, like a large boulder strewn across a narrow road, was the wealthy and gracious city state of Ilium, the pearl of Phrygia, situated at the northeastern fringe of the Argive rim of cultural hegemony. Indeed, by the time that King Priam had succeeded his father, Laomedon, to the throne, Ilium had become Hellenized in all but name. Still, Iliumís presence served as a brake, if not an outright barrier, to Argive imperial ambitions which ranged as far afield as the mountains of the Caucasus in the north and the Indus River Valley in the east. This impediment, therefore, had to be removed.
But why should the Amazons involve themselves in this competition to dominate the long Asian trade routes and the wealth to be had from the exploitation of that continent's vast resources? Hemmed in by the Phrygians to the west and the Hittites to the east, the sea to the north and the nomadic Anatolian steppes to the south, the Amazons of Themiscyra might have remained relatively unaffected by these struggles for commercial supremacy and cultural hegemony. Indeed, an Argive victory at Ilium might have made possible greater interchange between the Amazons of Asia and Hellas. Yet the Phrygians, particularly the Trojans during King Priam's reign, had been the first regional power to befriend the Amazons and to enter into beneficial treaties with them. Caesar had similarly offered to negotiate with the Amazons, but Caesar's word, true to his character, had been worthless; and eventually Brutus and his opportunistic colleagues in the Roman Senate had put an end to Caesar as Xena had nearly succeeded in doing herself.
Besides, more than simple calculation based on short-term self-interest was involved in these determinations. Geopolitical considerations could hardly be ignored. Despite their cultural affinities, an Amazon alliance with the Argives, when one's closest neighbors were at war with them, was impractical and could trigger devastating consequences if and when one's neighbors should emerge victorious in the struggle. Also, the fathers of the greatest number of the younger Themiscyran and Anatolian Amazons were Hittites with a smattering of Persians and Scythians. Though few of the Amazons had meaningful contact with their fathers, many not knowing their fathers at all, a bond of racial kinship had arisen between the Asian Amazons and the national entities that now opposed the Argives. There was an irony at work in this ethnic devolution of the largest and most influential segment of the Amazon federation, given that Amazon ancestry harked back originally to Africa and that the royal line of the Amazons, from the union of Ares and Harmonia, through Otrere, Lysippe and now Penthesileia as Lysippe's sole surviving issue, was, like Cleopatra in Egypt, of Hellenic extraction.
Neutrality in the current conflict might have been the preferred course of action, the one that Melanippe would possibly have chosen upon her accession to the Amazon throne after the death of Antiope, in the days before a heartbroken, widowed Theseus had attempted to bestow what remained of his affections upon his second wife, the beautiful, star-crossed and, to her dying day, misunderstood Phaedra. But Melanippe's life, like Hippolyte's -- like Antiope's -- had been cut tragically short, and thus it had fallen to Penthesileia to steer the Amazon ship of state.
In matters of personal style and taste, in the realm of aesthetics and morals, Penthesileia was a bit of an aristocrat, that tendency in her nature having been somewhat tempered on account of her devotion to her sister, Hippolyte, whose inclinations had been just the opposite. Hippolyte had wanted her Amazons to be joyous and free, vivacity of spirit ranking higher on Hippolyte's scale of virtue than any kind of forced rectitude or strict discipline of the will. By the same token, when it came to the ordering of life in community and the distribution of status and influence among her Amazon sisters, Penthesileia was extremely democratic and loathe to hoard power. During Melanippe's lifetime, Penthesileia had given little thought to the art of ruling a nation. But having been forced to think long and hard about such things in the moonmarks that followed the fatal boar's hunt in which Melanippe was accidentally felled by a miscast spear, Penthesileia was not persuaded that monarchy was a desirable form of government nor an institution well suited to the Amazons who, by temperament and upbringing, were apt to chafe fiercely at the bit of any social and communal restraints that were not ultimately self-imposed.
Penthesileia was likewise aware that the Amazons were too few in number and their way of life too de-centralized and tied to the land and the cycles of the seasons to long endure as a scattered network of regional, affiliated tribes. On the one hand, in an era of increasing consolidation of ever larger city-states that would one day compose a very few hostile and mutually predatory nations, the Amazons could only look forward to becoming ever more marginalized and vulnerable to attack by those who, out of ignorance or malevolence, either feared or despised them. On the other hand, and equally challenging, were the forces of assimilation whose natural workings were already tending to absorb the Amazons into the structures and folkways of the dominant cultural communities of which they formed but a token presence until even that token presence would one day be rendered superfluous and cosmetic, devoid of meaningful content and character as a distinct and viable way of life.
The only thing of which Penthesileia was certain was that the shape of things to come, for the life of the Amazons, would be radically different than what it had been and what it was at present. The Amazons of the future would be a very different breed with a very different consciousness and very different aims and methods. Perhaps, in her own way, at this critical juncture, Penthesileia might hope to shed a beacon light on or to loose a flaming arrow that might arc toward that radical, uncertain future by illustrating, in the most public way possible, what it was, at the root, that the Amazons had been called into existence to accomplish and, in that way, to teach their greatest lesson: that the act of redemptive self-sacrifice was the supreme gift that a soul had it in its power to give.
Melanippeís death had not been Penthesileia's fault -- she knew it, those who were closest to her knew it -- but she would atone, nonetheless, with her own blood, for the spilled blood of Melanippe and, in so doing, perhaps, as well, for the spilled blood of Hippolyte whose life had been a gift of love to so many who'd known her, a gift which Penthesileia, in her less mature years, had coveted as her private possession. Thus the blood of Lysippe, each of whose five children would have met an early, untimely death, might be redeemed and, in its way, glorified as befit the mother of the Amazons, the lifegiver who'd given her own lifeblood to the building of the great City of the Amazons of which there might never be another.
And then, on a purely personal level, Penthesileia, like Melanippe, harbored a strong fondness for King Priam the gleaming points of whose crown had never deprived his level head of its stars of humility, empathy and a shrewd kind of grace. What a contrast in temperament between the humble, gracious, Trojan king and Achilles, the vainglorious cavalier, who'd become, in the might of his arms, though hardly with a matching nobility of spirit, the most powerful of the champions now in the service of the House of Atreus. How much further evidence was needed to convince even the most opaque and gullible soul that, in the world of god-ruled mortals, the good and the true didn't necessarily and, indeed, quite often failed to triumph.
If Penthesileia were determined, for the sake of the long-term well-being of her Amazons, to spring, in one giant leap, from earth to glory, what better lever to plummet her to the peak of that achievement than the moody, petulant, childish, self-absorbed son of Peleus and Thetis, the arrogant Prince of the Myrmidons. But whatever her assessment of Achilles' many defects of character -- his conceit, boorishness, lack of appreciation for nuance and subtlety, and none but the most dull and prosaic notions of how persons of various stations might voluntarily oblige themselves to interact as equals -- Penthesileia was compelled to acknowledge that her chosen agent of self-sacrifice had himself chosen the path of self-sacrifice: not, perhaps, for the good of the many -- his choice may have been for the glory of the one -- yet, still, as the father of a son whom he cherished, a choice he need not have made.
And now, into the mix, strolling down the lane of circumstance, upsetting the best laid plans of queens and quorums, there came a young Macedonian peasant girl with sweet looks, a gentle manner, a soft and kind way about her, yet a soul possessed of an undercurrent of passion, self-knowledge, intelligence and will that had woman'ed her beyond the years that she'd spent living as an honest daughter in her parents' simple home. Her purity, boldness and candor -- and the loveliness of her face and body, a loveliness with soft lips not lacking in teeth -- had, without so much as a by your leave, reached into Penthesileia's soul and had turned a switch or pressed a button or activated a current with friction and charge. Whatever it was, Penthesileia had begun to feel the reviving spark of something inside her that had been stilled and lain dormant for a very long time: a flare of desire, a jolt of hunger, the first, faint gurglings of what could, if the dam of decorum should fail to hold, build to an outpouring of the very thing which, should it burst and flow and then race raft-like to its tidewater, could sweep aside her resolve to pursue the plan that she was resolved to carry out.
"Oh, my...," Penthesileia sighed quietly as she gently closed the door to her private chamber following Lila's visit. "The last thing I need is for love to come knocking on my door and then not go away when I shout -- beg -- from within that no one's home."
On the following morning, while the supreme Trojan war council was in session -- King Priam had called a meeting of Aeneas, now the commander in chief of Iliumís armed forces; the Kingís sons, Paris, Troilus, Helenus and the syrupy Deiphobus, who were acting as Aeneas' seconds in command; Penthesileia, her top field general, Thermodosa, and, not least of all, Xena -- Lila, dressed in a fresh chiton and a knitted shoulder wrap which Sargon had kindly provided for her, took herself for a long, rambling walk along one of the wide, tree-lined bellevues that wound through Ilium's sprawling commercial district.
The mornings were cooler now, and the ladies went about in shawls drawn over their shoulders to be held in place by brass clip-chains. At home in Poteidaia, Athenaday was laundry day, Apolloday was market day and Hestiaday was reserved for activities that revolved around the home and hearth; but here in Ilium, shops, stalls, display tables and showrooms were open every day of the week and seemed perpetually thronged by large, mobile crowds of shoppers who were ever ready to haggle and bargain. Like a river of buy-and-sell coursing steeply over the rapids of want and need, the flow of commerce never paused but rushed headlong in a continuous stream to plunge, now and again, if particularly attractive items happened to be on sale, into carts and wagons and purses and sacks, as though these containers were the pools, shallows and runouts of a ceaseless current initiated too far upstream for the eye to see and with too great an intensity for any hand to stay.
With her meager supply of dinars jingling in her tiny, leather, shoulder bag, the Greek coins apparently causing few Trojan eyebrows to rise -- let empires rise and fall, a dinar would ever be a dinar -- Lila perused the dozens of intriguing offerings, wishing she had the means to bid for them all. On the tiny mezzanine of a little clothiers shop which specialized in ladies' accessories, Lila settled on a thin, nearly transparent, powder blue scarf adorned with a glitter of miniscule silver stars. She screwed up her courage and, in nicely articulated, Macedonian Greek, asked the shop's proprietress to place the scarf into a sheet of rice paper and then, if the clerk would be so kind, to place the folded paper in a small box.
"Iím sorry, honey, but we don't do no gift-wrappin' here," the lady behind the counter shook her head. "This ain't Santacles' workshop, you know, and I ain't no kind of a unionized elf."
"I'm buying this scarf to give as a gift," Lila stood her ground. "And I need it packaged in something suitable."
"Lemme tell you sumím in case you donít already know, sweet cheeks, but if you's some kind of a Greek from way over in Mastrodonia done ride the shuttle all this way to do your first full day of back-to-school shoppin'," the saleslady cautioned, "I'd say you got a whole lot worse of a problem stariní you in your pretty, round face than what youíre fixin' to wrap somebody's present up in."
"If you don't wrap, I don't buy," Lila stuck to her guns. "It's a gift for someone special and I want it to be treated like it was special."
"Aww-right, you wait here. Iíll go check in the back room and if we ainít got sumím we can box it up with," the clerk let go a very annoyed sigh. "Cal-yu-mella! Yíall come keep an eye on the counter while Iím gone out back! And donít be lettiní no fast-talkiní, slow-walkiní ginger man relieve you of the change box!"
The clerk disappeared for a few turns of the sandglass and came back with a carton which, though it was much too large, would have to do. Lila thanked the clerk for her troubles, paid for the scarf and left the shop as the clerk behind the counter, hands on her hips, was heard to say, "Well, did you eva'? Iímío tell you: them Greasers out there on the beach with their catapools and squeeze engines, wingin' dead cows and dyiní sheep and every which putrid thing high over them walls out yonder..., ainít they got the unmarinated gall to be sendin' their womenfolk into town to be buyiní silky, satiny presents for their girlfriends."
Next stop was the tea shop where Lila picked out a sachet of fresh darjeeling mixed with orange pekoe and two long, tapered biscotti blended with almonds and flavored with a light scent of anise. Finally, her purse nearly drained of its drachmas, Lila stopped at a florist's cart and fretted over whether to select a long-stemmed, white rose, one of the last roses of Iliumís late-lingering summer, or a soft white gardenia whose pungent sweetness was worthy of nothing less than the heart's own royalty. Lila chose the gardenia and, with her fragrant booty in tow, headed back to the castle to spend the rest of the morning in prayer and meditation at the castle's sole shrine to Demeter.
"Gaiamitros! Basilissa Lamprotita! It was my decision to come here with Gab and Xena. Nobody made me do it. I know that something inside me wanted to come. Still, in spite of that, what in the name of your departed daughter have I gotten myself into?"
While Lila was thus occupied, the high level strategy session was in progress at the King's command post deep within the bowels of Ilium's main fortress. Aeneas laid out the broad strategic objective: although it remained to be seen whether or not the Argive forces might assemble the personnel and technical expertise necessary to take Ilium's mighty bastions by storm, the city and its environs could not withstand a state of siege for very much longer.
Slowly but trenchantly, the Argive siege was sapping Ilium of its strength. With the sea lanes closed to Trojan shipping due to the Argive embargo and with Ilium, as a result, being land bound, the cost of imported staples had been climbing steadily for the past several sunmarks; and lately, due to excessive warlord brigandage in Persia, where civil order had begun to descend into chaos as one Xerxes captured the throne only, in the next moonmark, to be ousted and supplanted by another, prices had been skyrocketing with their inflationary impact upon Iliumís economy. Eventually, if some sort of a breakthrough didn't occur to force a turnaround -- and there was no sign that such a breakthrough was in the offing now or at any time in the near future -- rationing, belt-tightening and the slow, agonizing consumption of the people's inventories of perishables and dry goods could bring the mighty city to its knees in ways that, perhaps, the force of arms never could.
"The theft of King Rhesus' horses and his assassination at the hands of Odysseus and Diomedes have dealt us a cruel blow," Aeneas looked around the conference table at each of the participants. "Those horses will immensely strengthen the Argive cavalry. The quality of our artillery is roughly comparable at short distances but not, I regret to say, at long range. It's only in the ranks of the infantry that we seem to have achieved a rough parity of arms with the Argives; though keep in mind, the House of Atreus has a larger pool of manpower in reserve upon which to draw than we and our allies can muster, unless the Persians were to come into the war on our side. Even if they did -- and I doubt that, in their distracted state, they're capable of offering much assistance at present -- the price they would no doubt exact, in terms of future indemnities, would likely be prohibitive. They haven't forgotten the humiliation their army suffered at Marathon -- made possible, in large part, due to your heroic standoff at Tripolis, Xena; you and Gabrielle -- and they don't seem anxious to jump back into the pit any time soon."
"Your forecast sounds pretty grim, my boy," King Priam said, seated in his convener's chair.
"That's why I'm recommending that we go on the offensive sooner rather than later," Aeneas said. "A quick strike when the battle season appears to be winding down may catch the Argives squatting on their heels. If we were to pour everything weíve got into a surprise attack, we just might split the Argive line and re-take the beach. Then it would be a matter of establishing and holding a corridor of some two leagues in length and another two in breadth so that it's median strip would be out of range of any follow-up Argive bombardment."
"Sounds like an ambitious undertaking," the King said.
"It would be, Your Majesty, but it may be our only hope," Aeneas said. "Paris would command the left flank. Troilus would take charge on the right. I'll be in the midst of the salient. Thermodosa, how's the training of the new recruits going? I see you've gotten a boost from your Amazon sisters who've been billeted, for several days, near your quarters in the castle. And many thanks to you for accompanying them here, Xena. Some of our young trainees have been battle-tested, but a number of them are still fairly wet behind the ears."
"Many of them seem to be making excellent progress," Thermodosa, the largest of the Amazons, who was brawnier than Velasca and an equally formidable swordswoman, reported.
"But when they vaunt the field with the harpies shrieking death all around, will they prove to be well honed for battle?" Aeneas said.
"The best way to live like a man is bravely to face the prospect of dying like one," Thermodosa said.
Each of the men at the table nodded, silently hoping that if and when the time should come, they would find the courage to rise to that challenge, believing that the lady whoíd uttered those words herself possessed such courage.
"When you draw up the particulars of your plan of attack," Penthesileia spoke up, seated in a plain, white chiton and carrying no weapon but a small dagger concealed at her waist, "you're to place a detachment of a dozen plus one Amazon riders in the dead center of your line, their target -- the heart of the Argive command, the colors of the Atriades with Agammemnon at ground zero."
"Penny...," King Priam interjected in a voice of avuncular caution.
"We will lead the charge," Penthesileia said with quiet resolve.
"Penny," the King spoke up again, this time more forcefully, "what you're proposing is too rash. Ride together, yes, but at the head of the infantry after the artillery has cleared a path. Then the ranks of the foot soldiers will follow you. You've been their teachers and trainers."
"I'm afraid that won't do, Your Majesty," Penthesileia said. "Like a nest of hornets, their stoutest champions must be hit first and hardest, taken out right away. Forgive me for speaking bluntly, my liege, but no man can master a horse with a skill equal to that of an Amazon. Weíre the ones best suited to strike the crippling blow."
"But what youíre proposing would be suicide," the King protested. "Twelve plus one going up against three score and more of the Greek's most formidable champions? Agammemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, Diomedes, Nestor, Thersites, the giant Ajax, and the incomparable Achilles, slayer of Ilium's greatest champion? Penny, my girl, you're talking about facing down the heart of one of the most fearsome fighting forces ever to be assembled in the history of the known world. Their names read like a roster of the gods."
"And a dozen plus one women will break them, my lord, or lay down their lives in the effort," Penthesileia said.
"Is this vanity or madness?" the King looked from face to face around the conference table. "Or is it both? Xena, whatís your take on what Pennyís proposing?" the kindly King fixed his gaze, at length, on the Warrior Princess dressed in her customary outfit of brass and leather.
"No man -- or woman -- can strive with Achilles and hope to prevail in battle, Your Majesty," Xena said. "But I think that what the Queen is proposing is neither vain nor mad. I believe it to be the arm of a heart thatís wielding the sword of the will under the standard of destiny."
"I'll confess that I don't understand you, Penny," the King said as he looked at Penthesileia with a languid sigh. "Nor you, Xena, if the truth be told. The both of you surpass me, and I'm left to shake my head in awe and anguish. You were made a wonder of beauty, Penny, and I would happily have you make your home here in this humble city, as a member of my family, to dwell with me and my house for the rest of your days if you were willing to do so and such a course were possible. For your mother's sake. And because you have become fully her equal, the equal of the great Lysippe. She would be proud, before the world, to own you as her true and faithful daughter. And you, Xena, would likewise be free to come and go as you pleased, you and Gabrielle, ever finding warmth and welcome under the modest eaves of my roof."
Aeneas looked at Penthesileia. "I will so mark it if you wish."
"So mark it, then," Penthesileia said. Thermodosa, seated beside her, didn't bat an eye.
At the close of the meeting, after the participants had taken leave of the King, who, still troubled by Penthesileia's determination to confront the armed might of the Argive champions on the battlefield, had wrapped her in a warm embrace as a father might have done if Penthesileia had had a human father, Xena drew Aeneas aside. Several thumblengths taller than Xena, this austere commander of the Trojan forces, Hector's successor in arms, looked gravely at the Warrior Princess as he listened to what she had to say.
"I'd be surprised if Agammemnon thought he could take the city by storm," Xena said. "I think he cashiered that idea a long time ago. As you said, he'll starve you out if he can. Gabrielle and I have done a bit of travelling during the past several sunmarks. We've been up and down the archipelago from the shores of Sparta to the foothills of Bulgary. Weíve listened to a good deal of scuttlebutt in that period of time. A lot of Greeks don't support this war, and there are others whoíve been growing tired of it. It's taken a lot out of them in taxes and conscripted manpower. So I don't think the Argives can sit on their hands and wait forever. I think that, like you, they're planning to make a move soon. A big move."
"Have you any idea what that move might be?" Aeneas asked. He was dark and bearded with deep set eyes that had a look of thoughtful sadness in them, hardly the look Xena would have thought to associate with an experienced field commander. Yet there was no question of his bravery or his dedication to the Trojan cause. Before Hector's death at the hands of Achilles, Aeneas had been the loyal second-in-command, never seeking the limelight or an occasion to outshine his superior.
"Not yet, but I'm working on it," Xena said. "They're building something out there. Something gigantic. I don't know what it is except that they've got most of a division working on it. It could be some sort of an immense siege engine or maybe a monster battering ram. But I'm betting there's going to be some kind of a trick to it, especially if Odysseus has a hand in it. I've got some more intelligence gathering to do, but I'll keep you posted on what I come up with."
"Yes, do that; and... thank you, Xena," Aeneas said.
"One more thing," Xena said. "There's a troop of young men from Gabrielle's village attached to one of the Argive regiments. Diomedes knows I'm here, but if he's smart, for his own purposes, he won't spill the beans to his cohorts. I don't know whether anyone else on that side knows that Gabrielle and her sister are here. I'd like to keep their presence confidential for the sake of the young men from their home town, so that their superiors won't start suspecting them of having divided loyalties."
"I think we can keep Gabrielleís and her sisterís whereabouts under wraps so long as they stick fairly close to their quarters," Aeneas said.
"Thanks," Xena said. "These farmers' sons would rather be home courting their girlfriends and gathering winter wheat than out there on the sandy plain, hurling spears at your guys or getting shot at by poisoned arrows."
Aeneas smiled. "What's your stake in all this, Xena?"
"You guys are the underdogs, and I don't much care for bullies," Xena said. "Besides, I owe the Amazons big time, and I donít want to leave this life without making good on my debt to them."
"I wish you luck in your sleuthing, then," Aeneas said. "Again, I'm much obliged."
"I had Agammemnon poised on the tip of my sword once," Xena mused. "At the harbor at Aulis. He'd just sacrificed his daughter to appease some whimsical god. Killed his kid so the wind would die down and let his warships set sail. That was ten sunmarks ago when I wasn't squeamish about taking a life. Yet I put up my sword and let him live. How different the world would be if I'd run him through for what he'd done to Iphingenia, slitting her throat and draining her blood onto the altar stone as though the life of his screaming, terrorized daughter was worth no more, in his eyes, than the squealing of a stuck pig."
"Apparently the Fates had other plans. For the both of you," Aeneas said.
"I guess they must have," Xena paused as Penthesileia came out of the meeting room, having warmly reassured the King that she was deeply moved by his solicitous concern on her behalf. "Give her every bit of cover you can when the time comes, and I'll do my part as well," Xena said in a tone that was barely above a whisper.
"By all means," Aeneas tucked his chalk and slate into the fold of his robe as he and Xena shook hands and went their separate ways.
|Continued - Chapter 46|
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