|Two Girls And A Maybe|
Lila, Gabrielle, Xena and the Amazons had now been King Priam's guests for the better part of a week. Each day, the Amazons had risen early and, after partaking of a hearty breakfast in the refectory, they’d gone to the great telesterion not far from one of Ilium's large squares to join their sister Amazons and take part in the training of the squads of new recruits. At midday, they came back to the refectory for a light lunch and then, at the close of the day, they had supper and returned to their quarters for baths, massages and either a night on the town at one or another of Ilium’s lively clubs or an evening spent gossiping, singing songs and rounds, sharpening weapons and stitching up their frayed or torn outfits.
The tension was mounting. Word had come down that the Trojan counter-offensive was set to launch at the full moon of Pyenepsion a little more than a week away. Penthesileia called her cadre together, and now they began an intense daily round of prayer and meditation as the Themiscyran Amazons prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice of laying down their lives in battle. To accomplish this great goal, there could be no distractions. The Amazons must bond, more strongly than ever, as a unit. All passion, conflict and ambivalence must be resolved and all hearts had to be stilled. They must strive to achieve the calm serenity of utter union with their purpose. Let Rumor and Strife, Contagion and Discord disport with Ares on the field of battle and in men's -- and women's -- hearts, the Amazons must rise above any and all such impediments to the grandeur which encompasses and then transcends all fear, reservation, attachment.
"If any of you wish to return to Themiscyra or to join Oteri and Yakut in the mountains, I urge you to do so," Penthesileia had told the twelve when she'd assembled them in her suite several candlemarks after Lila's departure. "More than urge, I command it. There's no reason why any of you should feel called upon to give your lives up to this conflict. We aren't Trojans. Ilium isn’t our home. When I'm gone, it will be up to those who remain behind to elect a new queen or to forego having a queen in favor of more democratic ways of governing ourselves. The world is changing. We're no longer an island unto ourselves. Let the blood of Lysippe, offered up on the altar of this world-changing battle, be a beacon light for Amazons of the future, whoever and wherever they may be."
But the twelve remained firm in their resolve. They would follow their queen to their death if fate so willed. Thus Penthesileia was faced with the further question: is the sacrifice which I'm about to make a sacrifice that I want to make, should make, feel compelled to make; and should I, alone, without being guided by others, determine whether or not I'll make it?
And what of Ephiny, Velasca and our Macedonian sisters? What of Xena and Gabrielle? Should they have a say in this decision? Penthesileia had given them her counsel. If they’d expected the Queen de la Queen to appoint a subordinate queen to the throne of Melosa and to consign the unsuccessful challenger to death, exile or ostracism, they’d been greatly mistaken. The Amazons would have to resolve the dispute according to their lights, and Penthesileia would affirm that resolution or, if need be, would permit the conflict to remain unresolved until, one way or another, the resolution might come about. Velasca, Ephiny, Gabrielle -- any of the these women had the makings of a first rate queen, but... did they need a queen, or could they be sisters, friends, colleagues and equals unto death? What would Melosa have thought of that of that idea? Would she have smiled on the notion and given it her blessing? All that the Amazons knew was that they looked up to Penthesileia, that they loved and trusted her, and that now she was planning to leave them behind to be reunited with Hippolyte, Cyane, Melosa and the others who'd made the journey to the Land of the Amazon Dead on the further side of Claw Mountain.
Now, with barely a turn of the sandglass having elapsed since Penthesileia had offered them her advice, the collegiality of the Macedonian Amazons was about to be put to the test. If they pulled up stakes and departed from Ilium right away, as Xena thought best, it was likely that Diomedes would offer them secure transport back to Tenedos and would permit them, with letters rogatory, to book safe passage for home.
But leaving Ilium would mean abandoning their Themiscyran sisters as well as departing from Xena who'd be staying on as one of Aeneas' seconds in command. And what about Gabrielle? Torn, once again, between her affection and allegiance to the Amazons and her love and devotion to Xena, what was Gabrielle to do? And there was also Lila to think of whose strong and sudden attachment to Penthesileia further muddied the waters of conflicting courses of action.
There was an even more immediate issue that called for prompt resolution. What were the Macedonian Amazons to do now that the Themiscyrans had separated from them to spend long candlemarks in prayer and meditation with their queen? From now until the time came to strike, the Themiscyrans would be spending half the day in silence, focused on performing their spirit-filling, channel-cleansing mudras, bondas and asanas, and the other half of the day in silent, martial training with sword, spear, lance, pike, bow and arrow. As the Amazons could teach men and women how to live a good life, so they could teach them, at Celesta’s approach, how to die a good death.
Meanwhile, back home at the Amazon village, Chilappa had been overseeing day to day operations with Messalina serving as her second. Amarice had been sternly instructed that if she truly wished to be formally received into the community of Amazon sisterhood, she was to behave herself and not to attempt any wild heroics. Amarice now regarded Gabrielle as well as Xena a valued mentor, and she was grateful for the kindness that Oteri and Yakut had shown her during the time she'd spent with the remnant of Cyane's Anatolian Amazons. Chances were good that Amarice had acquired the discipline necessary to resist the temptation to pull any of her former stunts or to freak out and skewer Armand with a dirk or a javelin if he should happen to come looking for her, given how flustered the prospect of kissing him made Amarice feel.
Before her departure for Ilium, Ephiny had told Tyldus that the Centaurs could feel confident that no run ins with their Amazon neighbors would likely take place in her absence. Chilappa, for her part, had been left explicit instructions to have the Amazon hunting parties keep well below the summit of the western ridge and not to engage any wandering Centaurs in hostile confrontations unless the Centaurs were truly on the verge of precipitating an imminent attack which Tyldus had assured Ephiny that the Centaurs had no reason to do.
"It seems we've got the day off. Think I'll head into town and look for some souvenirs to bring home to Xenon. Why don’t you come with me?" Ephiny approached Velasca.
"Thank you, Ephiny, but I think I'll go with Elana and Oriena to the weapons museum. I'm told they've just mounted a new exhibit of Sumerian women's grave ornam.... No, wait," Velasca paused, "maybe I would like to go with you. I've been meaning to go scouting for a replacement blade for my breast dagger. Mine’s chipped."
Velasca removed the dagger from the V in her bra and pulled the short, detachable blade free of the hilt.
Ephiny and Velasca left the castle keep and strolled along the broad avenue to the large, open air market filled with carts and stalls that featured all sorts of handmade goods, decorative items, keepsakes, mementos and sentimental truc. The days were getting chillier and more cloudy, but the winter snows and freezing rains were still a good moonmark away. Velasca quickly found the kind of blade she was looking for, and Ephiny enjoyed picking through batches of wooden toys and terra cotta playthings, searching for something quaint and eye-catching which Xenon might enjoy and would be willing -- as Ephiny always encouraged him to do -- to share with his friends.
"Check out these carvings and castings," Ephiny rummaged through one of the kiddie carts, "have you noticed how many toys and games build on some sort of military theme or depend upon the imagery of battle? If we were in Poteidaia, I'd get Xenon one of Hecuba's rag dolls, though not having come from Ilium, it wouldn’t hold the same allure."
Ephiny picked up a toy siege engine, as skillful a miniature replica as one might hope to find. The proportions were nearly exact. "Watch," Ephiny scooped a pebble off the ground. She placed it in the curvature of the cup that sat on the arm of the hurler. Then she flicked the little triggering mechanism, a band of thin, elastic rubber wrapped around a protruding nodule at the base of the hurler's arm, and the pebble flew several footlengths in the air to land on the sandy track behind the row of stalls.
Velasca watched the pebble fly with a slight frown. "A shower of arrows would most likely do a better job."
"Xenon's into doing tricks these days," Ephiny said. "He's trying to walk on two legs like his mother, though his true goal, he tells me, is to learn to do back flips like Xena."
"So he's bound to be disappointed," Velasca said.
"But then he forgets," Ephiny smiled. "He splashes around in the waterfall and gallops back to the village and teases me because I can’t keep up with him. 'How do you two-legged slowpokes ever get anywhere...,' he cries out. 'It takes time and effort, but sooner or later, we'll make it...,' I shout after him. Chiron’s a wonderful influence. He teaches the little ones all sorts of useful things. But don't ask them to read or to do figures. They've no patience with scrolls or slates."
Ephiny and Velasca meandered over to one of the awning'ed booths that crowded the edge of the bazaar. Ephiny picked and poked and finally settled on a replica of a cylindrical castle, made of tiny rounded stones, with an open, semi-circular door at the bottom and a watch tower at the top into whose window Xenon could poke his pinkie part way.
"What's it like being a mother? I have trouble even picturing it," Velasca said as they began to walk back toward the palace with an eye out for a café at whose outdoor tables they could sit down and take some refreshment.
"I did too at first," Ephiny said. "I wasn't at all prepared. And to have a little boy, a little Centaur boy."
"Doesn't it deter you, being a mother?" Velasca said.
"Deter me from...?" Ephiny said. "Mind if we sit down? I see an empty table."
Velasca hesitated and then followed. "Crowds make me jumpy," Velasca said when they’d sat down. "How can so many people assemble in one space and not drawn up lines for a battle?"
A waitress in a frilly white apron wrapped around a short black skirt came to take their order.
"I'll have a mug of stag blood," Velasca said, "and a boar's rib."
The waitress nearly dropped her slate and chalk. "Awwfully sorry, gawgeous, but all's we’ve got is chicory, tea or juice and your choice of sweet buns, fruit squares or fresh-baked pretzels."
"I'll have a pot of Lapsang Suchuong and a glazed pecan roll," Ephiny said. "And she'll have... would you mind if I ordered for you?"
"Please do," Velasca said.
"She'll have the same," Ephiny smiled.
The waitress made a growly curtsey and tucked her slate under one arm as she set the placemats and napkins on the table. Then she went back inside the café, muttering, "Macetronian hillbillies. Hicks from up in the hollers..."
"Where did you learn to have tea at outdoor cafés?" Velasca looked around, feeling uncomfortable.
"Gabrielle showed me how when I went to visit her in Poteidaia," Ephiny said. "We stopped at the sweet shop and she got us some treats."
"There's a great deal of bustle that goes on in these marketplaces," Velasca observed. "I suppose it's got to be productive of... something."
"It's where people meet to buy and sell," Ephiny said. "And to bargain. A great deal of bargaining goes on."
"I don't like bargaining," Velasca frowned. "I don't like the qualities it fosters in people. Insincerity. Evasiveness. A disregard for the truth."
"Sometimes you have to roll with it," Ephiny said. "That's one of the things that being a mother has taught me: giving a little here to get a little there. You can't just say, 'I love you and I know what's best for you. Trust me.' Even though that might be true, it doesn't mean they'll go along with it. But meeting each other part way: the little ones seem to understand that. I might not have thought so if I hadn't seen it for myself. It's like they're telling you, 'I want you to respect me even when I'm being stubborn and unreasonable.' So you say to them, 'You can be stubborn and unreasonable all you want. I don’t love you any the less for that. But it’s eight candlemarks and I'm blowing out the wick and you need to put your head down and shut your eyes and go to sleep.' And then when they howl in protest that you’re being stubborn and unreasonable, you say, 'See? You're not the only one who’s got a talent for being stubborn and unreasonable,' and that often seems to satisfy them and then they’ll stop howling."
"It sounds manipulative."
"It is a little. They’re children, after all. The balance of power isn't equal and nobody wants to get nasty. But at least there are no hidden agendas. You want them to go to bed and they want to stay up, even when they're tired and know very well that they need to go to bed. Being manipulative, is that what's troubling you?"
"I'm not much good at negotiating and compromising. I guess I'm like Xena in that respect."
"It's what we're going to have to do, though, if we're going to give these new arrangements a chance to work. We'll need to practice negotiating and compromising. I don't imagine it will be smooth sailing at first. We haven't been brought up to it."
"Why didn't Melosa teach it to us?" Velasca said in a tone of genuine questioning.
"She wasn't brought up to it either," Ephiny shook her head. "In her day, the notion of not having a queen would have been unthinkable."
"And I cut those days short," Velasca said, candidly.
"You did what you felt was right," Ephiny said, amazed to hear the words pop out of her mouth. "You know, Velasca, you're not entirely to blame for Melosa’s death. All of us -- me, Solari, Eponin, even Gabrielle if she'd been there -- we could have rushed in to stop the challenge. We could have swarmed the both of you and shouted, 'No! We won't permit this! We refuse to lose either one of you!' But we didn't. We stood around in a big circle, beating our drums and banging our chobos, and watched the two of you fight it out."
"How could you have stopped it? Melosa would have forbidden it."
"Exactly. Melosa's word was law and we never questioned it. Do you remember when Melosa ordered Gabrielle to kill Phantes and the way that Xena stood up to Melosa and wouldn't let Gabrielle go through with it? That was a death sentence to defy Melosa like that if Xena had been an Amazon. We mistrusted Xena. Xena had a mind of her own. That was a dangerous thing for an Amazon to be exposed to. And Gabrielle was something out of another world. She marched to a totally different drum.
"Don’t get me wrong. I loved Melosa. She was a mother to me. We all loved Melosa. Even you. Yes, you too, Velasca. I know you did. I saw. But we put her on a pedestal, and that wasn't right. It wasn't fair to her. It wasn't fair to us. And it wasn't fair to you. You can’t keep blaming yourself for Melosa's death. And we can't keep blaming you either. I see that now. Gabrielle sees that too. We need you, Velasca. I'm laying it on the line here. We need you to be one with us. No, it’s more than that. We want you to be one with us. Wow, now that I'm hearing myself say that, I know, without a doubt, that it's true. I want you to come back to us. In your heart. We'll work it out. I don't know how yet, but we will. No one's going to lord it over anyone. Don't ask me how we're going to cope with the details because I don't have an answer. But I have faith. In you and in us. And I want you to share that faith and to be a part of it."
"But I can't just wave a wand and make myself have faith, Ephiny," a pained look came over Velasca's face. "I didn't find in Melosa what so many of the rest of you found, even though people say to me, 'Oh, Velasca, Melosa loved you the best of anyone. That's why she was harder on you than she was on the rest of us.' We never bargained, Melosa and me. We never negotiated. She was so strong. She knitted us together so very tightly. I felt like I was always running to catch up with her. I was out of breath every day of my life until the day I rose up and killed her. Then I could breathe. Then I could shout. Then I could sing."
"But you don't sing," Ephiny said. "I've never once heard you sing, though I've heard you have a lovely voice."
Velasca looked away and didn't say anything.
"And I think I know why I've never heard you sing," Ephiny said.
Velasca looked back at Ephiny and raised a wide, finely crafted eyebrow.
"Because you've never wept," Ephiny said. "Tears are sitting on your song like mounds of slate sit on a seam of coal... or a vein of gold. There's only one way to let it out and that's to dig down until you expose and liberate it."
Velasca shook her head. "I don't know. I'd feel like a coward. I'd feel soft and weak, as though I were betraying something."
"And what might that be?"
"I'm not sure. What Melosa wanted me to be, maybe. Strong. In control. Like her."
"Would you say that Xena is strong and in control?"
"Except when it comes to Gabrielle."
"Xena wept. Xena wept when she forgave Callisto."
"Xena forgave Callisto? And wept for her?"
"That's what Gabrielle told me. Can you imagine it?"
"Not really. Xena weeping. For Callisto? And forgiving her? How?"
"Have you noticed that since the instant we left Poteidaia, Xena hasn't once drawn her sword? Not even when we ran into that Trojan patrol and the guys who made like they were going to do us in before they knew who we were and had us brought in here? It was you who drew, not Xena. Xena drew on you back in Poteidaia, but only when she thought you were about to harm Gabrielle. And Gabrielle told me that when they were down in Tiryns, trying to get Admete to give them Hippolyte's belt to bring to Penthesiliea, it was Gabrielle, not Xena, who was ready to go storming into the palace, sais blazing, and haul the bloody thing down off that stupid wall."
"Something’s happening to Xena," Velasca said.
"Gabrielle's happening to Xena," Ephiny said. "Gabrielle had to teach Xena to crawl before Xena could walk, never mind run, and now Xena's forgiven Callisto. With tears in her eyes."
"Is Xena going soft?"
"Xena's evolving," Ephiny said. "Xena's growing and changing. Xena's... topping out on another level. Gabrielle tells me that she looks at Xena sometimes and that she just wants to sit down on the ground and weep, just... weep. Right there on the damp ground. Because of what she sees happening in Xena. Because it's so incredibly beautiful to watch Xena starting to find a reservoir of peace and acceptance inside herself. If Xena had killed Melosa on the day we came within a hair’s breadth of murdering Phantes, you'd never have gotten to the point of challenging Melosa because Melosa would have been dead and somebody else -- you, Gabrielle, Xena -- would have been queen."
"Oh, Ephiny," Velasca burst out, "Gabrielle is right. I did a terrible thing when I killed Melosa. It doesn't matter what my reasons were."
Ephiny reached across the table and took Velasca’s hand. "And now you need to forgive yourself. If Xena can forgive Callisto, who was responsible for setting Hope up to murder Solon, you can forgive yourself for doing something that was far less hateful and cruel. Let us help you. Solari, Eppie, Gabrielle, me. Give us the chance to help you forgive yourself. Fight as hard as you can to let us... love you. I believe you can do it. I know you can do it. Just the chance is all I'm asking."
Velasca looked away but she didn't pull her hand away as Ephiny held it with all her immense, soft, forgiving strength.
"Why, Ephiny?" Velasca said, softly. "I've done nothing to deserve your forgiveness. You could throw me out. Banish me from the Amazons. I don't think I'd have grounds to complain."
"Banish you? Throw you out? From what you were born to? And lose a dear friend in the process? Never in an thousand sunmarks," Ephiny said. "I don't think you realize how much you mean to us and how much it hurts us to see you being hard on yourself and not letting us get close to you. We're family. We're sisters. When mothers are gone, that what's remains: sisters. Be my friend and my sister, Velasca. That's what I want. More than I want to be queen."
"That's what I want too," Velasca said in a voice that was so tiny it had to scream to be heard.
The waitress came with the tea and pecan rolls to find Ephiny and Velasca sitting at the table, holding hands in silence, both their eyes filmed over with the bleary weight of deep sunk but now rising tears of pain surfacing and reaching for the air and light of true healing.
"Ooopps...," Ephiny and Velasca were jammed back to their senses as they released one another's hands and sprang to attention in their seats.
"Okay, beautifuls, who's havin' what," the waitress started to unload the tray.
"I think we're both having the same thing," Ephiny picked Xenon's souvenir up from the table and placed it, for protection, on her lap.
"Yah, that's what I said," the waitress slapped the saucers down with their cups, then the tea pots and the rolls. "Honey and butter’s extra if you want it."
"This will do fine, thank you," Ephiny paid the waitress who took the dinars and left without making change.
"Are you thinking we'll be leaving before the fighting resumes?" Velasca said.
"I think that's what Penthesileia wants us to do," Ephiny said. "To be free and clear of this place before the tea and sweet rolls hit the fan."
"I don't want her to face it alone, Ephiny. I'd like to be fighting at her side."
"I don't think she wants that for us. She wants us to live and thrive and lay a solid groundwork for the future of the Amazons."
"I would ride out there with her if she asked me to," Velasca said, "even if it meant staring down the blade of Achilles' sword with nothing but my own sword to try and parry the blow."
"I think she knows that," Ephiny said.
"She made me feel loved and cared for. For the turn of a sandglass, when I was with her the other day, it was as though nothing I could ever do, no matter how bad it might be, could wipe out the love she felt for me. Whatever wrongs I may have done -- whatever else might be wrong with me or twisted up in knots inside -- I might have to bear the consequences and possibly pay a hefty price but, for all that, her love abided. I owe her big time."
"Maybe the best way to honor that love would be to carry out her wishes," Ephiny said. "To live and thrive, not only for our sakes but for the sake of those who've risked so much by making this trek with us and for those who’ve had to stay behind. Chilappa and Messalina were bitterly disappointed not to be asked to come with us and see the great walls of Ilium and to meet Penthesileia, even though we went to great lengths to explain to them -- and they did understand – that the greater good would be better served by their staying behind and taking charge of things in our absence. And Amarice is doing everything she's being asked to do to prove herself, and she’s not making a peep in protest."
"Melosa's gone. Cyane's gone. Hippolyte’s gone. When Penthesileia goes," Velasca looked up at Ephiny, "there'll be no one left but... the ones who are left. Us and Gabrielle and Xena. There'll be no one to tell us what to do."
"It's a scary thought, isn't it?"
"It is a scary thought."
"So we'll face it together, yes?"
Velasca let go a long, pent up sigh. "Together, yes."
Silent tears leaked out the corners of Ephiny’s eyes. My victor’s stripes from the Battle of the Strymon Road and any thought of ever being queen I’d give to hear you say that.
Then Ephiny took a sip of tea. "Do you like your sweet roll?"
"Do I like my...?" Velasca looked a trifle confused.
"Pecan roll. It’s tasty, isn't it?"
"It is, come to think of it," Velasca risked a nibble. "It's kind of... syrupy on the surface."
Amazons -- queenly ones -- sat sipping tea and nibbling treats at an outdoor café in the middle of the most cultured city in the known world, one of them having just purchased a little toy castle as a souvenir to bring home to her son. Not what Ares might have expected when he came courting Hippolyte with his jeweled belt of seduction or Xena when he'd promised her the world in exchange for her soul and, in so doing, had forever deprived himself of both.
|Continued - Chapter 56|
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