|The Hiss Of The Brand That Burns Me|
Lila spent the morning wandering around the palace grounds lost in a daze. She had never felt such joy and happiness. She thought of the people who meant the most to her: Herodotus, Hecuba, Alexis, Anike, the folks back home in Poteidaia and, of course, Gab and Xena. Lila felt a great love for them all. She even felt a deep, mellow love for her body which she bathed and oiled and dabbed with lavender fragrance before putting on a clean, white tunic and venturing out of doors under a partly cloudy but not cold or threatening sky. All the time, in the background of her consciousness, there persisted the vision, voice and gardenia scent of her beloved, the one who'd made the joy and happiness possible, the one who'd lovingly transitioned her from her status as enareti kori to her new status as nea anypandra, a young, unmarried woman. Lila laughed at the kernel of truth which lay at the core of the cliché, but today really was the first day of the rest of her life.
As Lila passed through the tall apse on the ground floor of the wing of the palace which housed the guest quarters, she paused at the alcove in which the statue of Demeter stood tucked away on its small pediment. The flowers in the vase at the goddess' feet had faded. The sticks of incense that had been burned in her honor had whittled down to their short, blunt stubs. Lila stepped inside the alcove where she'd found Penthesiliea praying on the morning of their first exchange and knelt down to offer her own prayer:
"Gaiamitros, Basilissa Lamprotita," Lila began, "I've served you all my life with gladness and singleness of heart. Now I bid you goodbye. Thank you for all you've been to me: an inspiration, a role model, a source of hope in time of need. I ask you to hold Anike in the palm of your loving hand. May she guide the enaretes kores wisely and well. Bless her and keep her. Cause your light to shine on her and be gracious to her. My final act, as archegos, was to shrive the wonderful woman who now claims my heart. I ask your blessings on her as well. And that her prayer to you might be granted. Hye! Kye! Chairetismata!"
Lila got up and went looking for Gabrielle. She had a million things to tell her sister, but when she got back to her quarters, everyone was gone. There was only a brief note from Penthesileia, written in a lovely, artistic hand:
Can you come to me after the evening meal?
I'll be in my chamber.
Lila's heart was racing for the rest of the day. Might a second night of love be in the offing, even more glorious than the first? Lila could hardly choke down her supper and, when she did cross paths with Gabrielle, who had important news of her own, Lila could barely think straight or pay attention to what Gabrielle, Xena and Joxer had to say. Her heart was like an arrow pointed unerringly at its target, each turn of the sandglass fletched with the feathers of loving anticipation.
When Penthesileia responded to the knock on her door, Lila burst across the threshold and vaulted into Penthesileia's arms, her lips and eyes and mumbled words worshipping at the altar of her magnificent icon, the tall, slender, brown body, with its long, black hair, dressed, as usual, in a plain white tunic more lovely than the most exquisitely sequined dress. Penthesiliea needed no adornment, not even the thin band of stars she wore in her hair. Her simple, washed face and bare, open arms were cosmetic to the soul and artful enough to stock a museum full to bursting with the visual representations of shared and treasured memories.
"Lila, my darling, come and sit down," Penthesileia extended her warm, long-armed welcome.
"Not until you kiss me," Lila smiled. "Not until I've drunk a long, quenching draught of you."
Lila went to kiss her beloved who, smiling, embraced her and returned her affections with receptive but not emphatic force.
"Lila, you've even more beautiful than I remember you being last night," Penthesileia led Lila to the divan and, taking Lila's hand, guided her down and sat close to her. "I swear, you've grown in beauty in a mere eight candlemarks’ time. At this rate, my darling, Aphrodite will arrive to upbraid you before tomorrow morning."
"Let her," Lila giggled. "I’ll pity her beauty at every instant which deprives her of the presence of your eyes, your lips, your neck and shoulders and sweet, upturned breasts. And the love I've found in the lower depths of the soft sweetness that I've dreamed of since parting from you this morning."
"Aphrodite shall never share the part of me which you have shared -- and graced -- my love," Penthesiliea said.
"Then I’ll pity her forever," Lila beamed.
"Lila," Penthesileia said in a more serious tone, "last night, before I came to the panatheneia, I had a brief meeting with Aeneas and Xena. We met again this morning after you left. This is what I must talk with you about."
Love light's naivete -- but not the light itself -- drained from Lila's eyes as, instinctively, she reached for Penthesiliea's hand even as Penthesileia opened her hand to embrace Lila's hand.
"I assume you must know that the Trojan cause, though not utterly lost, is faltering badly," Penthesileia said. "The python's fangs may abstain from piercing its prey while the prey yet lives, but the serpent's body, entwining and contracting, slowly squeezes the life out of its prey until the poor creature expires for want of breath and circulation. So it is with Ilium in the tightening coils of the Argive blockade. Men may battle on land, but their wars are won and lost at sea. Unless the Trojan forces can re-take Scamander's sandy plain and once again assert control of the beach, it will only be a matter of time before Ilium falls and, with it, the death of the finest civilization that Hellas has ever known. The House of Atreus, led by blackmailers and spiritual paupers, will rule supreme in all these isles; and all of Achaia, from Macedonia to Sparta and the islands, will be the more inwardly and, in short order, outwardly impoverished."
Lila's thumb unconsciously rubbed the back of Penthesileia's wrist and felt its veined, comforting strength.
"After meeting with Cassandra, Aeneas has given the word," Penthesileia went on to say. "We ride at the full moon. A sneak attack is Ilium's only hope. One lightning blitz to re-take the beach. One roll of the dice. One cast of the coins. Otherwise, they're finished, Lila. And these walls will figuratively, if not literally, come tumbling down."
"And this involves you," Lila said.
"By all means it does," Penthesileia said.
"Back home, when I first heard about you, when the Felafel Man first mentioned your name, he said that you'd come here with one purpose in mind: to meet Achilles face to face, to fight and die on the field of battle in order to avenge your sister's death and the theft of her belt."
Lila paused and Penthesileia waited for her to go on.
"What I don't understand is how your death will avenge anything. It wasn't Achilles who stole the belt. And you have no use for that belt anyhow. You said you'd destroy it if you should ever get your hands on it. So why this need to throw your life away? You're not even a Trojan."
"No, I'm an Amazon," Penthesileia said. "The world is changing, Lila, and not entirely for the better. Until now, the Amazons have been able to survive as a network of scattered tribes, if not a nation in command of a settled territory. But those days are coming to an end. The world will soon make short shrift of the Amazons, and all our courage, bravery and dedication to our highest ideals won't stop it; although it may, in places, stave off the inevitable for a generation or two. A third of us will be assimilated, a third exterminated, a third condemned to wander over the face of the earth until the glory of the Amazon past is just a memory told by wizened old women huddled around a campfire, in a wooded clearing, shivering for the cold. And when we rise again, Lila... if we rise again..., who knows what form that rising will take and who, among the vastness of the world and its myriad of women, will feel the call to raise the standard of the Amazons once again and to carry on the eternal struggle in the remote future in a land far away?"
"But you're their queen. You’re the Queen de la Queen. The other Amazon queens look to you to lead and guide them. You told Gab and Ephiny and Velasca that the time may be coming when the Amazons won't need to be ruled by queens. And you know what they've decided? What the word was this afternoon when Ephiny and Velasca got back from their walk to the emporium in the market square? They're going to see how things go without a queen. Ephiny took a huge risk and reached out to Velasca, and Velasca found the grace and courage to ask Ephiny to forgive her and said that from now on, she was going to pitch in and try being just one of the crew. Velasca earlier apologized to Gab and has even gone so far as to welcome Gab and Xena on board if they should want to come. Who else could have inspired such contrition in a proud heart if not you? You have so much to give the Amazons. Oteri, Yakut, any and all future Cyane’s. Why deny them your gifts?"
"I'm not denying any of them. Just the opposite. I'm hoping to point a way for them."
"A way to what? The shaft of Achilles' sword?"
"To a world that need no longer live at the mercy of the gods and the decrees of the Fates. A way to a world where women -- and men -- might at long last live and be free."
"And how will your death accomplish that?"
"I don't know that it will. If people say no to the gods and the Fates, their power over mortals may one day be broken. But that can only happen at the cost of one's life. Perhaps you recall hearing talk of Eli, the preacher. My way may not be his way, but there’s truth in such a vision."
"I’ve heard that Eli was a magician, yet his magic didn’t do Gab and Xena much good when the chakram snapped in two and Xena’s spine was shattered and she and Gab suffered terribly on the cross. Seeking martyrdom for the sake of validating some sort of abstract principle can be kind of egotistical, don't you think?" Lila looked crossly at Penthesileia, regretting her words lest they cause pain to the one she loved.
Penthesileia mulled it over. "At first, when I was in the throes of grief upon hearing of Polly's brutal murder, all I could think were thoughts of revenge. These savage Argives must be made to pay, these upstarts who presume to hold the world hostage to their greed for glory and gold. Let a mere woman lay their boldest champion low. Let someone so inconsequential defy the Fates and fling herself on the pointed spear of certain death. I would show them what an Amazon was made of. What bold deed of Achilles, the greatest Argive warrior, could compare to that? Taking countless lives of those who are no match for him in battle? Achilles has chosen a short and superficially glorious life. Yet what of the moral dimension? What of the spiritual challenge? Has Achilles ever lifted his sword in doubt of the outcome or in support of a cause which he's known, from the outset, was a lost one? The man's an efficient killing machine. What glory is there in that? One day, he, too, will die a bloody death. And what will be his legacy? What of lasting benefit will he have brought into the world?
"Weeping like a woman over the body of his slain Patroclus whom he sent out, dressed in Achilles’ own armor, to do battle with Hector. The slobbering hypocrite! What does Achilles know of a woman and how a woman weeps? Hector was ten times the man that Achilles might ever hope to be. King Priam twenty times the man and more. Not one of the Argive general staff is worth the life of a single Amazon -- Agammemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, Nestor, Achilles, Ajax, Diomedes. Possibly Diomedes if he's not been totally corrupted by the company he keeps. Murdering King Rhesus in his sleep. Is that the way of a champion? Would an Amazon murder an enemy in his sleep? No Amazon that I've ever known."
Lila thrilled with a mixture of fear and awe to hear Penthesileia speak like this.
"There's much about me that you don't know, Lila, and much that you haven't seen," Penthesileia said. "I can be hard. I can be righteous. I can be unforgiving."
"And do you think that any of that, for the thousandth part of a falling sand grain, would deter me from loving you?" Lila shot back. "I can be tough when the need arises. I can fight for what's right. I can run risks. Barely a week ago, I offered to take a young man under my wing and to help guide him toward a new and better way of life. If he'd had the courage to accept my offer, I wouldn't be here now and I would never have met you -- to my inestimable loss. But I wouldn't have known that then, would I? You're not the only soul in this room who wrestles with the demons of pride and selfishness. I may be a farm girl but I'm not a child."
"I never considered you a child, Lila, never since the instant I laid eyes on you," Penthesileia reached out a hand and stroked Lila's cheek. "There’s a powerful woman a-borning inside you, the equal of Amazon Queens and Warrior Princesses. Do you think I don’t know that?"
"I know that the good doesn't always win, that power and pride rule the world to their liking and that the gods aren't going to put a stop to that," Lila said. "But do we have to sacrifice our lives in protest? Is death the only way to say no to pride, arrogance, idiocy and greed?"
"Sometimes it is," Penthesileia said.
"I'm not convinced of that," Lila said.
"And I won't try to convince you," Penthesileia said. "I have too much respect for you to patronize you."
"Now that I've found you, do you imagine that I'm going to give you up so easily?" Lila said, her dark blue eyes fiercely glowing coals of determination. "I love my parents. I love my sister. I love my friend, Lexie. Yet say the word and I'll follow you down every road in creation and never see hide nor hair of any of them again."
"You know I would never ask that," Penthesileia said.
"Ask it! Ask it of me!" Lila cried.
"Then I ask that you let me close the circle and do what I came here to do," Penthesileia said, "though, at the slightest thought of you, every cell of my body rages mightily against it."
"What do you mean, the thought of me?" Lila said with tears in her eyes.
"Until I saw you..., until we met," Penthesileia said, "life didn't hold a great deal of joy for me. I dabbled. I flitted. When Polly went to Anatolia and then to Mycenae and left me behind, I offered to help Mel in any way I could. Mel was a great people person. She didn’t really need me for anything, but we were bosom buddies and she thought up various things for me to do. Then, after the hunting accident, when I found myself sitting on the queen's seat, I had to take myself in hand and, in doing so, I found that I had to forego some of my more enjoyable occupations.
"Then came an intense period of busy-ness. There was so much to do, so many things that needed to be sorted out. Our finances were a mess. Our supplies, from the weapons arsenal to the grain depots, were scattered hither and yon and hadn't been inventoried in who knew how long. There was no coordination among unit leaders. Committees had no structure. We had no foreign policy other than sending our girls, after they'd been to their first moon lodge, to the Scythians or the Hittites to live isolated in huts for a time and then to come home laden with child. There was much housecleaning to do and someone had to do it. It fell to me as Lysippe’s sole surviving heir.
"In the midst of all this fussing and doing, I came to feel a great love for my Amazons, something I hadn't felt for as long as Polly had been alive and my passions had been focused solely on her. That was one of the things for which Polly faulted me, for not identifying strongly enough with our sisters whether by blood or adoption. But the love I came to feel, while genuine, wasn't personal. Not like... the love I know I could feel for you, Lila. I loved but I wasn't in love. I gave from my heart, but I didn't give its beat. Not until you came along. Not until last night and the day before and the day before that.
"You say you'd follow me anywhere. Put the sandal on the other foot. If it were up to me, if my own happiness -- and yours -- were all that mattered, I'd set these seven little stars aside and follow you, Lila. I've done my work for the Amazons. They can move forward now without me. Nothing would please me more than for us to try to live like normal people. I can cook. I can learn to sew. I imagine I could learn my way around pigs and chickens, goats and sheep. I've got a good strong back. I can carry things. Maybe I've even got a knack for building shelves or fixing wagons. I might never be much of a farm girl, but I could do my level best to make a home for us, for us to make a home together, even to bring up children together if the world would let us."
"You're going to make me cry," Lila said. "I could want that too -- so very much."
"I've never been fickle in my affections," Penthesileia said. "I believe I could grow deeply attached to you and be a loving companion to you."
"And I believe I'd return your affections," Lila said, "and would love and adore you with patience and joy."
Penthesileia closed her eyes. "I never thought I'd find such a thing in this life. I truly didn't think it was possible. Passions cool, I know that. But they say that love abides."
"Yes, they do say that," Lila said, "and, for the first time in my life, I think I may have an inkling of what they're talking about when they say it, and I think I may even believe it."
"Then that's what must be sacrificed," Penthesileia said, forcefully.
"What must be sacrificed? What are you talking about?" Lila scowled.
"I'm an Amazon, Lila," Penthesileia said. "It's what I was born to. It's what I've become, just as you were consecrated an enareti kori at birth, embraced that vocation and grew into the stature of an archegos. If you'd felt the further call and had passed the tests, you could have become a hierophant -- a sacrificer. We take the greatest joy we’ve experienced, the greatest gift we’ve been given, and we sacrifice it on the altar of that which is greater than ourselves. The thought of making a life with you fills me with hope and joy. Then there's the body and blood which must be sacrificed in the service of the greater good. Our duty has to come before our wishes, Lila. And I wish for nothing greater than to hold you in my arms and to dream about our tomorrows... which can never be."
Lila flung her hands to her face. "I don't understand you. You want me, yet you’re turning me away!"
"I want you infinitely much," Penthesileia said. "I’ve never wanted anyone more than I want you, Lila. Please believe me."
"Then be with me!" Lila removed her hands from her face and stared with love and rage at Penthesileia. "Lead me even to the thick of the battlefield and I'll follow you. Lead me to the blade of Achilles sword and I'll rip the horrid weapon from his hand and plunge the shaft into my breast as far as the hilt. Lead me to the grave and I'll lie down with you in it!"
"If I lead you to life, will you live it?" Penthesileia said.
"You ask too much of me."
"I ask you to sacrifice, Lila, as Polly once asked it of me. And for the same reason: I want you to live and thrive and rejoice and be a source of inspiration to others as you are to me."
"And I want to be... a petal on the stem of a flower in a vase on your table," Lila said with very great sadness, "so I that can see you, just for an instant, every now and then, as you walk by on your way to look out the window."
Penthesileia swallowed hard and tears came to her eyes. "Such richness in my room would drown me in its splendor."
"And I would give up all the riches of the world to be the source of that splendor," Lila said, softly.
Lila and Penthesileia sat for a while in silence.
"Lila, I need to ask you something," Penthesileia finally broke the silence.
Lila turned to look at Penthesileia’s eyes which were the color of the aureole of etheric light that surrounds the human body and is occasionally visible to the naked eye.
"I may have made a choice, but that doesn't mean I'm not afraid," Penthesileia said. "I'm afraid to leave this life. I'm afraid of what may come after. One hears so many things, some of them quite sinister. I'm afraid of the instant itself. Will it hurt? Will I suffer? Will I be in excruciating pain before I lose consciousness? Will I be in mental and emotional agony? Will I repent of my choice when it's too late? Will I have truly reached the point of acceptance and letting go? Will I be distracted? Maybe that's the worst fear of all: to face the ultimate in a state of self-deception and ill-preparedness and be hampered and out of focus when the stroke of fate strikes.
"A very great teacher -- Xena's teacher for a time -- taught that the world is ruled by a will, blind and ruthless. 'To conquer others is to have power,’ she said. ‘To conquer oneself...'"
"...'Is to know the way...,'" Lila whispered.
"And the way to conquer oneself...," Penthesiliea said.
"Is to stop willing, to stop hating, to stop desiring," Lila said.
"My desire is for you, Lila," Penthesileia said. "My wish is that we might make a life together. My will is for us to love one another."
"As is mine," Lila turned to look at Penthesileia with the agony of longing in her blue, immutable eyes.
"That's what I have to overcome if I'm to go through with what I've resolved to do, the act which I hope will give my life meaning and the Amazon nation a vision and a goal to strive for," Penthesileia said. "I have little more than a week to prepare not only to meet my fate but to lead my closest cadre to theirs. And I must lead them, Lila. I'm their queen."
"Then what are you saying?" Lila looked with alarm at Penthesileia.
"When the time comes, I can't be thinking of you," Penthesileia said. "I can't even be holding you in my heart, though I know that you'll be there. It has to be as though I'd never known you. In the instant, I have to make myself forget you and be wholly one and merged with my purpose: to light a beacon for all time, that the world might know that there was once an Amazon queen who gave herself to death and faced it bravely that her sisters, in every age, might live and never be ashamed."
"And that means...," Lila said.
"That we have to part. We have to say goodbye," Penthesileia said.
"Ohhh...!" Lila let go a heart-rending moan. "Nooo..."
And then Lila burst into tears.
Penthesileia reached for Lila and stopped, then reached again and stopped, her own heart in turmoil. She would rather have pierced her heart with her breast dagger than to have stabbed Lila's with a word.
"I'm so sorry...," Penthesileia said but the words died on her lips.
"When Perdicas and Andros and Lexie's brothers went marching gaily off to war," Lila gasped through her tears, "I didn't think much about it. It's what guys do to earn their stripes and make the grade. I hoped they'd come home safely, but the war was far away and meant little to me. I even thought the war was a good thing, a fight for honor and glory, valor and truth. But it's none of those things, is it? It's about greed and power and pride and ambition -- and saying goodbye to the ones you love."
Lila reached for Penthesileia and this time Penthesileia reached out and embraced Lila, the two of them weeping and seeking shelter in one another's arms.
"It's not just the men," Lila said between sobs. "It's the women too. We bear them and raise them and make excuses for them and try to use men's greed, power, pride and ambition as a screen to cover the tracks of our own. You want to set an example, and I'm the one who pays the price. It isn't fair."
"No, it isn't," Penthesileia said.
Lila sat back and looked Penthesileia in the eye. "Those eyes of yours that mysteriously keep changing colors, it would be so much easier if I could just hate them, if I could just say that I was played for a fool by a gorgeous Amazon queen who lives to love and run away."
"Would that make your burden easier to bear?" Penthesileia said, stroking Lila's hair.
"No, because it wouldn't be true," Lila said.
"The truth is that I love you and that I'm punishing your love," Penthesileia said, "by making you bear the cost of my decision."
"And if I loved you, I'd bear that burden with grace, wouldn't I?" Lila said and then she paused. "If I loved you...," Lila took Penthesileia's hands and set them down in her lap. "Maybe I'm the one who's selfish. Maybe I'm the one who's willful."
"You want to be with me, I want to be with you, what's the problem?" Lila said as much to herself as to Penthesileia. "Maybe that's as far into it as I can see. What matters to me. You're an Amazon. You're concerned about what matters to them. I'm not an Amazon, and their concerns don't enter into mine except as they touch on Gab because she's my sister. And yourself because I want you to love me the way you did last night. I want it always to be the way it was last night. You see? It's all about me, isn't it? About what I want, what I need, the price that I'm being asked to pay."
Lila looked across the room and noticed Penthesileia's sword hanging in its scabbard on the wall.
"Was that sword hanging on those hooks when we came back here last night?" Lila said. "If it was, I didn't notice it."
"Mm," Penthesileia nodded. "I take it down for my daily workout in the entresol near the telesterion where you saw me practicing."
"When Gab lies down next to Xena at night, in a bed or on the ground alongside a trail or near a clearing, Xena's sword is never far away," Lila mused. "And there are times when Xena jumps up at night and has to use it. Yet it's Gab whom Xena credits for keeping her sane and keeping her going. They've become a team: sharing each other’s gifts, bearing each other’s burdens."
"You've given me a gift that I could never repay," Penthesileia said. "The gift of yourself. If I didn't feel compelled to do what I came here to do, I would happily spend the rest of my life enjoying it -- reveling in it -- and giving back what small measure I could."
"Small measure? You?" Lila let go a hard chuckle. "That’s a gift that would take me a lifetime to unwrap." Lila and Penthesileia said their goodbyes and, after a powerful, passionate kiss and then another, Lila left Penthesileia's chamber and wandered down to the courtyard above which the sky was turning mauve and would soon be deepening to indigo.
Penthesileia went to lie down on her pallet where, her face buried in the pillow, she wept and prayed that the gods would hold Lila in the palm of their hands even as Lila ascended the wide flight of marble stairs to the balcony of the wing in the guest quarters where her room was located, pausing briefly to look out over the balustrade at the wheat and grain fields now harvested of their crops and, beyond the shorn fields, the broad delta of the Scamander plain near its egress into the sea.
"Perdicas and Andros are out there somewhere," Lila thought to herself, "manning some Argive fortification. And so are Lexie's brothers." Then a chilling thought crossed Lila's mind. "If Aeneas and the Trojans were to go charging out there and if they somehow managed to wipe out the Argive emplacements and if that meant that Perdicas and Andros and Galen and Menarchos were left lying dead in their wake, I'd probably say, 'What a shame,' and not give it a second thought except to feel badly for Alexis and possibly for Clenesthides and Chloe who'd have to make do with a smaller farm for lack of two sons to come home and work it. But that's the risk these guys are running, right? It's not like they've ever treated The Big O as an equal. They're happy enough to relegate him to the sidelines and, worse, to let him know it. So, guys, if you end up coming home in a box, don't be looking for this girl to be standing on the platform dressed in black and pulling on a hankie as she weeps, 'Perdy, I hardly knew ya...' I've got a war hero of my own to mourn for, and she's ten times the man that you boys will ever be..."
"Eeuw," Lila made a sour face as she turned away from the balcony to go look for Gab and cry her eyes out, "that's not a very pleasant part of what makes me tick, is it...?"
|Continued - Chapter 57|
|Return to The Bard's Corner|