The Liliad
Chapter 53
Bardian Angel


No more iron underpants!

On the previous evening, prior to their arrival at the panatheneia, Xena and Penthesileia had attended a secret meeting with Aeneas who'd informed them, after having conferred with Cassandra, that the Trojan counter-offensive would take place at the full moon, a little more than a week away.

The battle plan was extremely simple, but it's execution would prove immensely difficult. There was little doubt in Aeneas' mind that if the Argives had the will to persevere, they could ultimately defeat Ilium in an enervating war of attrition, forcing the great city, now landlocked, to capitulate. But if the Trojans could break through to the beach and establish a shipping lane and if they could then, with the aid of light cutters and mobile destroyers, maintain the vital sea road for the length of a short channel, this lifeline into the Aegean might sustain the city indefinitely. Sooner or later, in that case, the Argive war effort, already encountering increasing opposition from the heavily taxed citizenry, would falter, and the Argives and their allies would have no choice but to let the truce become an armistice and set sail for home -- with or without Helen, which was all the same to Aeneas.

The Argive forces still held the pivotal island of Tenedos. But the Argive navy, which had been so effective in staving off the Persian fleet at Salamis, was not so strong as to be able to dominate the Dardanelles north of the Hellespont. Even now, the crackerjack corps of Thracian army engineers, allied with Ilium, was busily dredging, at the most narrow pinch in the Adrastia peninsula to the southwest of the Bosphorus, a canal which might offer a lifeline to the embargoed city. The canal, if and when competed, would permit Trojan shipping, under Thracian escort, to flow nearly unimpeded the length and breadth of the northern Aegean and south to the very ports and harbors of Argos in which the House of Atreus -- the kings of Mycenae and Sparta, the chieftains of Attica and the Lords of Hellas -- held sway over the fortunes of the most culturally and economically developed region of the known world.

But those two leagues to the beach: the two most crucial leagues in the known world upon which hung the fate of all the others: Ilium could possibly take them, but could she hold them?

The proposed battle formation was to be a flying wedge. The attack would have to be carried out with lightning speed. Ilium's infantry would have a fighting chance to route the Argive legions, but could the resulting emplacements, in trenches, bunkers and redoubts, withstand the subsequent pounding of the Argive batteries? If not, the Argive cavalry, considerably strengthened now that King Rhesus' horses had come into its possession, would have a clear shot at wrecking havoc on the Trojan garrison, from the city's walls to the ocean's waves, Scamander's sandy plain now being the Argive cavalry's uncontested domain. Crippling the Argive artillery, then, was Ilium's highest priority. But how to accomplish that sterling feat?

The blitz itself would have three component parts. The hoplites, archers and spearmen would form the left and right flanks. The best of the swords and shields would make up the center, very much as the Roman legions had done when they'd laid waste to much of Britannia, routing Bouddiceaís Iceni and taking Vercinix captive, after which it had only been the heroic Amazon victory, against mighty odds, at the Battle of the Strymon Road that had halted the Roman legions in their march through Macedonia. But the fuse in the powder keg, the explosion that would blast the wedge through the Argive center and carry the Trojan offensive to the beach and the lapping of the tide, would be Penthesileia and her twelve lightning Amazons who, mounted on horseback in the midst of fire and sword, would lead the charge. Their target: Agammemnon and the Argive command center. It was a suicide mission, to be sure; but, if successful, it might throw Argive communications and control into just enough confusion and lack of coordination to enable Ilium's forces to win the day.

It was a desperate gamble, but Aeneas felt there was no better option. "What's your take on it, Xena?" Aeneas had sought the input of one of the most formidable field commanders ever to have come storming down on horseback the length and breadth of Hellas to raise her standard of domination and terror high over its hills, valleys, coastal terraces and mountain passes. "Have you got a better idea? If so, I'd dearly love to hear it."

But Xena had only shaken her head and shrugged her shoulders. Except for her run in with the Horde and her now legendary standoff of the Persian army at Tripolis, Xena's victories had been large scale cavalry skirmishes in which she'd led mobile strike units. The Destroyer of Nations had been a mega-warlord commanding the equivalent of scattered brigades, a very different creature than a general in charge of fixed divisions. The might of Hellas that was now ranged against the most formidable city state of the Aegean, assisted by its Phrygian and Lydian allies, was warfare on a grander scale than had yet been a part of Xena's experience. Xena was a leader and a loner, a genius of improvisation, a freelancing mercenary with no peer in all these isles, but she wasn't a military high commander. Her role would be to assist Aeneas in whatever way she could and, to that extent, to keep her promise to King Priam that she would do everything possible to minimize the inevitable slaughter.

There was another, equally pressing issue that needed to be resolved. Aeneas addressed it before Xena could raise it herself: the tricky position of Gabrielle, Lila and the Macedonian Amazons.

In terms of settled communities and national entities, the Amazons were neither fish nor fowl and thus confronted the warring powers with a conundrum.

Looked at one way, the Amazons were citizens or subjects of a scattered nation but a peculiar one; a nation composed entirely of women with customs and traditions unlike those which prevailed in the lands where they lived. To that extent, they resembled but were the obverse of the One God people in terms of their being permanent sojourners among the city states and rural confederacies of the known world.

At the same time, fully a third to a half the Amazons were recruited from women who were Anatolian, Macedonian, Argive or Asian, from Sicily in the west to Phoenecia in the east. These women -- Gabrielle was a good example -- were rooted in the lands and peoples from whom they'd sprung. They therefore had one foot in two worlds. And if Amazon allegiance, among these women, trumped all other allegiances, which, for the overwhelming majority of Amazons, it certainly did, then such women, whether born or naturalized Amazons, for as long as they lived as segregated minorities within the lands and cultures which they inhabited and from which they'd emerged, necessarily formed a fifth column, partially distinct yet partially assimilated. What, then, was to be their civil status, and how was the wider world to relate to them?

The Argive command could likely be counted on to accept the fact that the Macedonian Amazons had come to Ilium in response to a summons issued by their supreme queen, who happened to be the Queen of the Themiscyran Amazons from Pontus and who was of noble birth, Lysippe's daughter, the great-granddaughter of Harmonia, the legendary founder of the Amazons. There had been a dispute over who was to succeed Melosa as queen of the Macedonian Amazons, and the Amazonsí supreme queen would naturally have had an interest in helping to resolve that dispute.

If the Macedonian Amazons had come to Ilium specifically for that purpose and for no other, and if they had, in fact, resolved their dispute and were now prepared to return home, then even if they'd incidentally assisted their Themiscyran sisters in helping to prepare the Trojan forces for battle, they couldnít honestly be considered belligerents in the current conflict and thus they would have committed no indictable offense against the laws and customs of Hellas to whose rule, as Macedonians, whether or not Amazons, they were subject. But if these Macedonian Amazons were to go farther and were to give aid and comfort to the enemy, then they might very well find themselves declared traitors who, upon their return, might be subject to capital prosecution no matter that, in their own eyes, their loyalty to their Amazon sisters may have preempted a more abstract loyalty to a sovereign entity, in their case Hellas, that may, in fact, have meant little or nothing to them.

For this reason, if for no other, Xena had avoided involving the Amazons in her espionage activities. Only Gabrielle had been a party to them as Gabrielle was publicly associated with Xena in any event. All who knew them, including the generals of the Argive high command, considered them a duo regardless of the fact that Xena was Thracian and thus officially allied with Ilium while Gabrielle was Macedonian and thus officially allied with Hellas and the ruling House of Atreus. Also, try as she might, it was nigh on to impossible for Xena to keep anything secret from Gabrielle; Gabrielle knowing, by now, nearly all of Xena's little divots and dodges.

Failing all else, Xena had an ace up her sleeve. If the Macedonian Amazons were to run afoul of the Argive high command because of their presence at Ilium (and false, spiteful allegations could easily sail through suspicious, poisoned air), their fate would be placed in the hands of Diomedes, the Commander of the Army of Northern Hellas, under whose martial jurisdiction the people of Macedonia, including the Macedonian Amazons, fell, whether the Macedonian Amazons liked it or not.

It so happened that Diomedes, by birth, was a subject of Queen Admete of Tiryns who, having denied Xena and Gabrielle their bid to retrieve Hippolyte's belt, had nonetheless promised to grant them a boon should they ask it of her. Xena surmised that Queen Admete would likely be willing to declare an amnesty on behalf of the Macedonian Amazons and that Diomedes, being a man of honor (though his participation in the cowardly assassination of Thracian King Rhesus would forever diminish that honor), would not be apt to countermand an order from his Queen, especially one that would have been unrelated to the exigencies of battle.

Even so, for their protection, the Macedonian Amazons would need to evacuate the city and make their way back to Hellas -- at least, to Tenedos -- before the planned counter-offensive would have materialized. Absent a direct order from Penthesileia, who was loathe to give orders in any event, Ephiny, Velasca, Solari, Eponin, Elana, Oriena and Thelestria were likely to want to stand by their Themiscyran sisters to the bitter end. Xena might fuss at them while Gabrielle, being caught in the throes of conflicting loyalties and passions, might be more apt to coax and cajole, but ultimately, the decision would be theirs. It was a bitter pill for them all to swallow. One on one, the Amazons might have been able to hold their own against any army of antiquity. But life, for the Amazons, had never been one on one. There were too few Amazons. The non-Amazon world surrounded them, was closing its grip on them and, as Penthesileia foresaw, would one day swallow them up.

And what of Lila? In one of the many ironies occasioned by the current conflict, Lila was in the most precarious position of all. Xena, being Thracian, and Thrace being allied with Ilium, was not subject to summary disposition if captured and taken prisoner by the Argives. She could be put on trial for crimes committed against the laws of Hellas while on Hellene soil, but she couldn't be tried and executed as a traitor for being a Trojan partisan. The Macedonian Amazons, including Gabrielle, might qualify for leniency as their presence at Ilium had been required by Amazon law and so, technically, they, too, had been non-partisans. But Lila wasn't an Amazon. She had no business accepting Trojan hospitality and fraternizing with the Queen of one of Ilium's leading allies. She could be summarily despatched, at a mere word from Diomedes or one of his deputies, without any right of appeal. Only Xena's sword and Gabrielle's sais, assisted by the daggers and arrows of the seven Amazons in their company, could hope to prevent Lila's demise if any of a dozen subordinate officers, empowered to authorize it, were to order her execution.

"They're planning something big; the Argives are. I'd bet my chakram on it," Xena had told Aeneas, referring to the wood-and-metal colossus that was under construction just out of sight of the Argive perimeter not to mention the strange, half-buried, wooden tracks that ran from the outer fringe of the Argive emplacements up to the very walls of the city.

"Any idea what that plan might entail?" Aeneas had asked.

"Pao Hsu and her army constructed something like it when they sacked Lao Ma's palace," Xena had said, "but this contraption is much bigger. It would take a dozen cyclopses to move it. I'm tempted to say itís some kind of a mega-siege engine capable of lobbing enormous boulders against the walls except that lobbing boulders, even huge ones, isn't going make these walls cave in, unless they've gotten hold of the black powder which I canít imagine they have. So I don't know what kind of a fiendish plan they may be hatching with regard to that huge monstrosity out there."

"They wouldn't be building a temple to Ares," Penthesileia had speculated. "Ares favors our side -- to the extent that Ares is capable of favoring anyone."

"Not a temple but maybe something like it...," Xena had mused.

"What would be the point of erecting a temple?" Aeneas had wondered. "The Argives need those materials for putting up shelters and forging weapons. Besides, the windy plain will be getting soggy and marshy in barely a moonmark. The shifting sands couldn't support a monument of such great size and weight for any length of time."

"But if it were placed on wooden tracks and drawn up to sit outside the walls of the city...," Xena had drubbed her fingers.

"What sense would that make? Erecting an enormous and perfectly useless structure and then hauling it up to stand unabashed before the majesty of Ilium," Penthesileia had said. "Unless its purpose might be to antagonize or enflame the people."

"Or possibly to dupe them," Xena had muttered.

When the meeting had broken up -- the rites of the Corybantes were in full swing down in the mall and courtyard -- Aeneas had made it official that the Trojan counter-offensive against the Argive fortifications was to take place at the full moon. Penthesileia and her Amazons, leading the attack, were to aim straight for the Argive command post with Penthesileia to confront Achilles at the crux of the battle. For her part, Xena would continue her surveillance operations as she awaited the arrival of someone whose identity she wouldn't reveal but would only say that he alone, of all their allies, had the means to deter, if not to cripple, the horrendous Argive war machine that was now apparently in the making.

"He must be a mighty terror indeed," Aeneas had said, impressed to hear Xena speaking in such grandiloquent terms about this mysterious and obviously trepidatious warrior.

"You told Aeneas what?!" Gabrielle erupted when she and Xena had returned to Gabrielle's room in the Amazon guest quarters after dancing the night away at the rave which had followed the rites of the Corybantes. "That the secret weapon that's going to throw a money wrench into the fiery furnace of the huge Argive buildup is... Joxer!?"

"I didn't mention him by name," Xena said.

"Xena, if Joxer is the best hope these Trojans have of knocking out the Argive assault and possibly winning this war," Gabrielle said, pacing back and forth within sight of the dimly lit belvedere over whose balcony the stars in the clear night sky were twinkling like tiny diamonds in a vast, obsidian tiara, "they might as well call it quits and start in whistling the chorus of As We Go Marching Through Georgia. And I don't mean the place where the pecans and the peaches grow."

"Aren't you being a trifle hard on poor Jox?" Xena was lounging on Gabrielle's cot, wishing she had something to nibble on as she hadn't had a bite since lunch.

"When we were in Chin, trying to come up with the recipe for the black powder," Gabrielle huffed, still grossed out by the memory of having to filch the little nickel bag out of Joxer's trousers when the two of them were being detained in neck stocks, "Joxer insisted on lighting a fire under a wok that was filled with peanut butter and jelly. Do you know what you get when you mix peanut butter and jelly and then heat it up in a wok?"

"Maple syrup?" Xena said.

"Exactly," Gabrielle said. "And maple syrup doesn't blow anything up. We found out the hard way when we tried it."

"But Joxer hit on the recipe eventually, didnít he?" Xena said.

"Only because we lucked out. Pao Hsu was too arrogant to bother to cover her tracks which enabled us to catch up with her," Gabrielle said. "We may not be so fortunate this time."

"Wait, I was under the impression that youíre the eternal optimist," Xena said.

"I am an optimist," Gabrielle said. "One day Joxer will settle down with Meg who'll perform a lobotomy on him, and the two of them will live in happily concentric circles forever after."

"And here I thought you liked Joxer," Xena sulked.

"Of course I like Joxer," Gabrielle said, "I just don't think it's wise, for his or anyone's elseís sake, to place Joxer in the line of fire."

"We'll be long gone before that thing blows," Xena said. "Trust me."

"'Trust me,' she says," Gabrielle flopped down next to Xena where she looped one of Xena's arms over her shoulder and eased the two of them back against the wall at the head of the pallet.

"What did you think of the advice that Penthesileia gave us?" Xenaís fingers toyed with Gabrielleís fingers.

"I agreed with part of it."

"Which part was that?" Xena absently began to stroke Gabrielle's short, brushy hair.

"I liked the idea of seeing what would happen if we tried not having a queen for a while. It might take some of the pressure off Ephiny and Velasca, and who knows who might eventually emerge from the pack as having real leadership potential."

"You think the Amazons can be run by committee?"

"By consensus maybe," Gabrielle said. "I think it's worth giving it a try. They -- we -- aren't like other communities. I don't see why we need to model ourselves on them. Let's find out what works for us."

"So what was the part that you didn't agree with?" Xena started to fondle Gabrielleís neck and shoulders as Gabrielle snuggled closer under Xenaís arm.

"The thing Penthesileia said about your personality being too overwhelming to be just a part of the group," Gabrielle said. "That might have been true in the past, but I donít think it is now. And even if the old you were to surface again, possibly without your knowing it, I think the rest of us could cut you down to size without too much hassle."

"I don't know if you saw: I think you and Joxer may still have been huddling inside the hut," Xena said, "but do you remember what I did to Ephiny just before I ripped you out of Joxerís arms, winged the rope around you and dragged you out to the cliff? Just before we pushed each other over the edge and landed in Illusia? I nearly sliced Ephiny open with my sword."

"I heard Joxer yelling and screaming. Then he picked me up and started running just as you came storming in."

"I kicked Solari in the gut and stomped on Eponin."

"You weren't yourself then. You were eaten up with grief."

"Maybe, but you saw what I'm capable of."

"Do you still think you're capable of spinning out of control like that?"

"I dunno. I've never been a team player. With you a little, but otherwise, itís always been me whoís been the one in charge."

"That's changing, you know. Youíre not half as bossy as you used to be."

"You donít think so?"

"You still call a lot of the shots, but I see you giving ground. I think you could be a little bit laid back if we were to settle down with the Amazons."

Xena rustled uncomfortably on the pallet. "But I don't know if I want to settle down. I get itchy and restless when I try to settle down."

"Xena," Gabrielle urged, patiently, "at some point, we're going to have to make a home somewhere."

"But haven't you said that a home can be a person as well as a place?" Xena said. "Or don't you think that anymore?"

"No, I still think that," Gabrielle said, "but I donít see it as an either or. And there's going to come a time... if we don't get killed again and stay dead, I mean... there may come a time when weíre going to want to have a place of our own -- and not just an isolated cabin in a clearing with no one around."

Xena thought about it. "What would I do if I weren't doing pretty much what I'm doing now? Plant flowers? Keep house? Cook?"

"What might you do if it weren't always the danger, the power, the passion, you mean?" Gabrielle twinkled.

"I guess."

"Maybe you'd still have the courage to change the world, only you'd be doing it in different ways."

"What would those ways be, do you think?"

"Thatís hard to say. Having the courage to know that you're not likely to know those things in advance is a kind of courage. Having the courage to risk living in community again. Not always being the lone wolf. Not always looking to me to be your light."

"But you are my...," Xena stopped and frowned. "No, wait. You are my light. It's what you've become. It's whoís I am now. Itís what shines on me."

"It's not all of who you are. And I don't mean to make it sound as though I experience it as some kind of a burden. It isn't a burden," Gabrielle took Xena's hand. "I only meant that, for your sake, I'm not the only star in the sky."

"I don't need more stars in the sky," Xena said. "I don't want more stars in the sky. Youíre the only star I want or need."

"But there are more stars is what Iím saying. Different kinds of stars. Friend stars. Colleague stars. Family stars. Your momís a star. Soís Toris. Soís Lee. So are my mom and dad. Did you hear everybody going Xee-nah! Xee-nah! when you kicked Latrinus' butt? Theyíre stars too."

"I hated hearing that. I mean I was grateful and all but still...."

"That's just an example. You don't have to go out and be a martyr like Penthesileia's planning to do is all I'm saying. If anything happened to me, you'd still have a life. Maybe youíd have a life with the Amazons. Which might not be such a bad thing. If you live long enough, you might even be an Amazon elder one day. What do you think of that?"

The thought struck Xena as novel.

Penthesileia apparently means to leave the final decision about having a queen up to us. So all I'm saying is that I think we ought to give some thought to pushing the limits a bit and possibly giving ourselves the chance to try living life together in a community of friends and family: the family of the heart," Gabrielle said.

"Assuming we make it out of here," Xena said. "We're smack in the middle of a war zone, remember?"

"Oh, yeah," Gabrielle said, "minor detail."

"Minor detail, she says," Xena huffed.

"We've been in worse scrapes," Gabrielle ratcheted down against Xena's breast. "Hey," Gabrielle looked up into Xena's daydreamy face, "I kind of like you in this soft, white tunic. It makes for easier cuddling than when you're trussed up in your brass and leathers."

"Except we do most of our cuddling when I'm not trussed up in anyth..."

"For those times when you are," Gabrielle placed a finger on Xena's lips to silence her; and then, removing her finger, Gabrielle leaned up and silenced Xena's lips with warm, tender lips of her own.

Lucy Lawless in the Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2000: "The Mother Of All Warrior Princesses"

Continued - Chapter 54
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