"You gotta be pullin' my chain," Joxer's eyes bulged as he held onto his helmet which had started vibrating rapidly back and forth the instant he'd caught sight of the towering behemoth. "C’mon, Xena, you really think we stand the ghost of a chance of blowin’ this little mother up? That thing out there is hyuuuge...!"
"Ssh...," Xena cautioned Joxer to keep his voice down. They were peeking through the tall marsh reeds along Scamander's swampy banks as they gazed across the river’s sandy flats to the broad, open plain where the Argives were constructing their homungous war machine.
"That thing's bigger than Pao Su’s firecracker factory," Joxer flubbered. "The guys who’re doing the studwork on that thing must've nailed up every spare scrap of wood, metal and wallboard they could lay their hot, little hands on."
"Just about," Xena said.
Xena was decked out in her leathers, her sword encased on her back. Cloaked in hooded cowls, Xena and Joxer had sneaked out of the city and stealthily made their way through the fallow grain fields to the little tunnel which Xena had dug under the earthwork barrier which led to the river bank. A quick sprint across the open field had then taken them into the cover of the soggy marshland. At that point, they'd followed the thread of the inlet down to the staging area where Joxer had nearly popped his cork when he saw what Xena had summoned him to Ilium to help her destroy.
"Xena," Joxer fussed, "how're we supposed to rig up buckets full of the black powder and get them wired to that thing without getting caught? We'd need a horse and wagon just to shlep the barrels out there. And even if we got it rigged up the way we wanted, we'd still need to snake a fuse as long as a track field to a detonating box big enough to serve as the boomer that’ll set the buckets and barrels off. And what happens if the fuse goes out after it gets lit?"
"Details," Xena grumbled.
"Yeah, like bringing down the underground walls during the Siege of Amphipolis was a mere detail," Joxer huffed.
"We need to come up with a better way to set the black powder off than trying to snake a fuse all the way out there," Xena eyeballed the new construction that had gone up since the last time she'd sneaked out to spy on the site. "We’re gonna need a remote triggering device of some kind."
"And how do you propose to come up with that?" Joxer yattered. "Pao Su needed a barrage of flaming arrows to get the black powder to go off when you and Ka’o Hsin showed up to stop her. And Pao Su had the benefit of Lao Ma's little book, remember? Wait, I know. You're gonna visualize a fire storm streaking across the sky, aren’t’cha? Conjure mental missiles that go sweeping in a wide arc way up over our heads. Take that, Ming Tien! Take that, Pao Su! And here's a big, roaring fireball for you, Ghenghis! By the way, have you seen any trace of Armand lately? The dude owes me two dinars for paying his way into the bath house before Amarice popped in, took off her clothes and invaded our privacy."
"We're gonna need a length of booster cable," Xena said, ignoring Joxer’s tendentious reflections about Amarice in the buff. "We set the thing off from out here, and the blast gets triggered in stages, via delayed action relays, like the multiple ricochets of my chakram."
"You're gonna bring that thing down by tossing your chakram at it? Ha, this I gotta see," Joxer made a squinty pancake face.
"You know how the chakram banks off walls and helmets and frying pans before it comes back and I catch it?" Xena said. "That's what we’ll need to make the black powder work: pop, pop, pop in a zigzagging series until the fuse hits the detonating keg which we'll pack smack into the heart of the target."
"Sure, just like that. We’re gonna go strolling up to the meatheads who’ve been sent out to guard that thing, and we’re gonna tell 'em, ''Scuse us, fellas, would you mind clearing the site while we set the charges to do a bit of hardhat sandblasting'," Joxer replied. "Ya know, Xena, sometimes I think you've been running around in the woods, down by the old swimming hole, with one too many naked Gabrielles."
Xena's eyes flared, her teeth clenched and the back of her wrist flew up to smash Joxer in the nose. Croinngg! Joxer's eyeballs rolled in opposite directions as he fell over backwards to land face up and unconscious in the slog. "You never learn, do ya," Xena fumed at Joxer's knocked out but still grinning visage. "Oh, boy, now I’m gonna hafta carry him back through the tunnel," Xena shook her head. "I wish I had the knack of counting to ten like Gabrielle does but I always seem to lose it somewhere between one and one and a half."
As Xena was toting Joxer in a fireman's carry back to the safety of Ilium's walls, Ephiny and Velasca were summoning Solari, Eponin and the other members of their party to a meeting in the flower garden by the keep below the guest wing of the palace. Marble fountains with wide-rimmed basins and fluted gargoyles in the shape of naiads and dolphins shot jets of bubbling water up and out of shoulder urns and round, open fish mouths to make a gentle, sloshing noise in the background as Ephiny and Velasca, having seated the Amazons in a semicircle on the soft, green lawn in front of the arched portico, related to them the gist of the conversation they'd had at the café and then communicated Penthesileia's suggestion that they try, at least for a while, to do without a queen.
"What's Gab's take on that?" Solari asked the question that had immediately sprung to several minds.
"We think she’d likely be in favor of it," Ephiny said. "Gabrielle has always been very process oriented."
"Yeah, but what about Xena?" Eponin said. "Her process is to knock ‘em upside the head first and ask questions later."
"If Gabrielle goes along with it, I’m sure that Xena will go along with it too," Ephiny said.
"So are Gab and Xena gonna move in with us full time, or are they gonna come and go pretty much as they're doing now?" Elana wanted to know.
"What would you like them to do?" Ephiny said.
"I'd like them to come live with us," Oriena said.
"Thelestria?" Ephiny said. "What's your preference?"
"I think it's sort of like playing strip poker," Thelestria said. "You’re either in or you’re out."
Ephiny frowned. "Playing strip poker?"
Thelestria rustled uncomfortably on the grass.
"Haven’t we, um, gotten beyond that stage?" Ephiny said.
"We still haven't gotten all that good of a look at Amarice," Thelestria said. "Except for that stupid hat."
"Very well," Ephiny said. "We'll tell Gabrielle, on pain of having to play strip poker with us, that we'd like her and Xena to commit to either staying or going..."
"No, no, no," Solari protested, "Gab and Xena ought to be free to come and go. That's their chosen lifestyle. They ramble around. Like Herc and Iolaus. It seems to suit them."
"I'm not sure that Herc and Iolaus ought to be held up as appropriate examples for Amazons," Eponin said. "They're nice guys and all, and you did help Herc plug a volcano once, Ephiny; but they're guys. We need to look for more appropriate, gender-based role models."
"We look to Xena, don’t we?" Elana glanced around the circle. "How many of you find yourselves looking to Xena as a kind of a role model, wondering what Xena would do in different sorts of circumstances?"
"But didn't Xena look to Gabrielle?" Oriena said as some hands started going up.
"When did Xena look to Gabrielle?" Elana said.
"When we did our battle thing with Brutus," Oriena said. "Remember how Xena was raring to go charging into the Roman line but Gab made her hang back? Wasn’t Amarice was set to tell Gab where to stick it when Xena got ticked and shouted at Amarice that even though Xena didn't always understand what made Gab do the things she did, Xena often found that Gab's way of doing things made better sense in the long run?"
"Yeah, so?" Elana said.
"So we might look to Xena but we might also look to Gab," Oriena said.
"And to Ephiny," Solari said.
"I've often looked to you for a role model," Thelestria said to Velasca who, up to now, hadn't said anything.
Everyone turned to look at Velasca.
Velasca looked around the circle and then looked at Ephiny.
"I think we ought to leave it up to Xena and Gabrielle to decide whether they want to stay with us full-time or be free to come and go," Velasca said.
No one said anything at first, but Velasca noticed that Ephiny was smiling at her. Velasca raised an eyebrow at Ephiny, but Ephiny kept smiling.
"I'm with Velasca on this one," Ephiny said.
"Me too," Eponin said, cue-ing on Ephiny.
"Me three," Solari said.
"I guess I’d kind of agree with that," Elana said.
"Makes sense to me," Oriena said.
"I'd say that feels right," Thelestria said.
"Well," Ephiny said, "I guess we're pretty much of one mind."
Wow, feels kinda nice to feel like we’re of one mind for a change.
"We'll have to take it up with Chilappa, Messalina and the others when we get back, of course," Ephiny said.
"Of course," the group murmurred.
"Does Amarice get to have a say in this?" someone queried.
"Well," Ephiny said, "what do you guys think? Amarice hasn't formally been received into the fold yet."
"If she's going to be one of us, I think she should have a say," Velasca said.
"Even if she likes to be... you know, intimate with men?" Thelestria said. "The ones she doesn't kill, I mean."
"Some of us are inclined to be intimate with the men we don't kill," Ephiny said. "Do you feel this needs to be an issue for us?"
Thelestria wrinkled her brow and didn't look especially happy. "No, I suppose not," she said with a bit of a pout.
"Sounds like we’ve got an issue here," Ephiny said. "How about if we hold off on it for now and take it up with the whole group when we get back?"
"Okay," everyone agreed.
"Speaking of when we get back...," Velasca looked at Ephiny.
"We have a more pressing issue that needs to be dealt with," Ephiny told the group. "Do you want to flesh it out?" Ephiny looked at Velasca.
"D Day for the Trojan offensive is set for a week from now," Velasca looked from face to face. "Our Themiscyran sisters are going to be heading up the charge."
Some murmurs around the half circle. The news wasn't unexpected but it still caused a ripple of concern.
"Is Penthesileia really planning to go through with it?" Solari said.
"Does she want us to ride with her?" Eponin said.
Velasca looked at Ephiny.
"You mean does she want us to ride with her to the death," Ephiny said. "’Cause that’s what it’s gonna be."
"No," Ephiny said.
"Why? Amazons aren't afraid to die," Elana said.
Ephiny stared at Elana and didn't say anything.
"Why, are you afraid to die?" Elena stared back at Ephiny.
"As Amazons, we're brought up to face death bravely," Ephiny said. "And when the time comes, we face it as bravely as we can."
"Yeah, that's what I said," Elana said.
"Not quite," Ephiny said. "You said something a little bit different."
"Ephiny," Oriena jumped in, "are you getting cold feet?"
"It's not a matter of getting or not getting cold feet," Ephiny said. "It's a question of looking at the bigger picture. In this case, the survival of the Amazons as a nation."
"Until we came here, I wasn't afraid to die," Velasca said very quietly.
The women paused and looked at Velasca. Whatever their opinion about Velasca, whether they admired her or had gentle -- or steep -- reservations about her, they couldn’t deny that she was -- or that she had been -- the most fearless of them all, as fearless, in her way, as Xena, to the point of having been willing, on more than one occasion, to face Xena in single combat, even though Velasca had known that the odds would have been weighted heavily against her.
"But... now?" Thelestria said.
For Thelestria, as well as for Elana and Oriena, even more so than for Solari and Eponin, who were closer to Ephiny, Velasca had been a rock: her beauty, her strength, her iron will, her ambition for the Amazons to re-assert their ancient power and prestige: the burning desire in her soul which had had caused her to rise up in arms against the queen -- and mother -- whom she'd believed had acquiesced too easily in the loss of that ancient power and prestige.
"I'm afraid for Penthesiliea," Velasca said, and Ephiny saw that it wasn't easy for Velasca to say that.
"Why for her? She's the one who seems to have the bright idea of going up against Achilles," Thelestria said. "I thought the whole reason for that was her desire to go out in a blaze of glory as a shining inspiration to the rest of us."
"Thelestria’s right," Oriena said. "Penthesileia's been staging this whole affair. It was her idea to get the Amazons involved."
"Otherwise her chiefs wouldn’t have followed her here," Elana said.
"No, that’s not so!" Velasca snapped. "They followed her here out of love and devotion, not because she wanted them to. Besides, she may be a queen but she's also human."
Velasca immediately looked away from everyone’s gaze. What had she just said? What had she just implied?
Velasca looked back to see Ephiny gazing at her with deep, caring eyes and a look on her face that seemed to combine, in equal measure, affection, respect, pity, awe, wonder and faith. It was a look that Velasca had never seen on Ephiny's face. It was the look of a woman who understood and yet marveled.
"Her father may be a god but she's very, very human," Velasca whispered.
"Velasca, what's happening?" Solari said, softly.
"What are you trying to tell us, Velasca?" Eponin said, also softly.
"I'm not sure... I'm struggling with something new...," Velasca struggled to get the words out, "What I'm saying is that I don't know if being afraid... of death... isn't itself... a kind of... courage...," Velasca looked to Ephiny. "Ephiny, help me out..., please...."
"I think Velasca may be saying that fear, in and of itself, doesn't make a person -- an Amazon -- a coward," Ephiny said, "that one can be both brave and afraid. It's what one does with that fear that makes all the difference."
The Amazons looked at one another.
"Velasca," Solari said, very softly, "are you afraid?"
Without looking Solari in the eye, Velasca bit her lower lip and nodded.
"Of dying?" Eponin said.
Velasca shook her head. No.
"Are you afraid...," Solari looked into Ephiny's eyes and deciphered a scroll of meaning in them, "...of us?"
Things got very still for a long turn of the sandglass. Then Solari looked around the circle and said, "Would anyone mind if I tried speaking for the group? If anyone disagrees, they can pipe up and say so, but I’d like to try. Would that be okay?"
The women gave Solari the go ahead.
"Velasca," Solari said, "you're our sister. You've always been our sister. You're my sister. That's what you've always been, now and in the past and until the end."
No one said a word.
"I killed our queen... our mother," Velasca stammered.
"You did," Solari said. "But I'll say it again. You're my sister. That will never change, ever."
Eponin nodded. "I think Solari just said it."
The others nodded too.
"Velasca," Ephiny said, quietly, "you have no idea how much I respect what you've just done. Don't ever tell me that you haven't got what it takes to be a courageous queen." Ephiny reached out and clasped Velasca's arm, Amazon to Amazon.
Velasca looked at Ephiny, her eyes affirming the clasp of her arm. None of her, from hand to heart, flinched.
"Velasca has just touched on the thing we need to decide," Ephiny said. "Do we stay or go?"
"If we go, we'll be abandoning our sisters," Elana said.
"But if we stay, will we be helping them?" Oriena said.
"That's not the point," Elana said. "What did Solari just say. Sisters don't abandon sisters."
"I'll go up against the Argives," Thelestria said. "I don't care if I’m a Greek or a Macedonian or whatever I’m supposed to be. I'm an Amazon first."
"No Amazon willingly abandons another," Ephiny said. "But there are things we need to consider. To begin with, Penthesileia has asked us to leave and to accept safe passage home if we can get it."
"Is that an order?" Eponin said.
"Penthesileia doesn't give orders," Ephiny said. "She advises, persuades, poses alternatives. I think we should be careful of letting ourselves get hooked by our desire to be brave in battle and to die a worthy death to the exclusion of all further considerations. Sometimes it takes courage to walk away from a battle and live.
"The Amazon have suffered stunning losses. Antiope when the Hittites nearly burned Athens to the ground. Then Hippolyte and her chiefs. Then Cyane and her chiefs. Then Melanippe in a tragic hunting accident. Several more were lost when Xena defeated Alti and the Berserker. We lost a number of brave sisters at the Battle of the Strymon Road. And, of course, we lost Melosa. Now we're about to lose Penthesileia and her twelve. If we were to follow in their footsteps... the bottom line is that the Amazons can't sustain this magnitude of loss in so brief a period of time and still hope to grow and thrive or even to remain viable.
"Our numbers aren't large. We were the smallest of all the Amazon tribes just a short while ago. The Amazons of Hellas, from Dalmatia to the Peloponnese, are only a shadow of their former selves. It's going to take a generation or more for Oteri and Yakut to recoup their losses in the Anatolian hill country. The Themicyrans are about to suffer a huge loss. If we Macedonians should fall in Ilium, leaving it all to weigh on Gabrielle's and Xena’s shoulders with what help they can expect from Chilappa and Messalina and now from Amarice, would that be fair to the Amazons as a whole? I don't think it would be. And neither does Penthesileia."
The women looked at Velasca and waited to hear what she had to say.
"Solari, Eponin and Ephiny, of course," Velasca said, "you remember the day we got our first bird masks. It was just after we'd begun our moon time and there was talk of sending us to the seed huts to lie with the Hittites and the Scythians..."
"Which never happened, thank Artemis," Solari said.
"We were too far away to make the trip," Eponin added.
"But you remember, shortly after that, when Melosa took us to perform for Hippolyte and Lysia and the Amazon sisters in Mycenae," Velasca continued. "You remember how we slaved away on our routines because we wanted to be great show offs and how, at the age of twelve and thirteen, we thought we were hot stuff, waving our swords around, imagining we could cast fear into the heart of the world and everyone in it. That would have been about the time that Cortese and his army sacked Amphipolis, when Xena's brother, Lyceus, was killed and Xena started off on her warlording rampage. We were young and thought ourselves invincible. We were the next generation of Amazons and we were filled to bursting with Amazon pride.
"And when we finished our routine, Hippolyte was so warm and gracious and appreciative... do you remember that?" Velasca said.
"Hippolyte made us feel that we were the finest troupe of Amazons that had ever graced the face of the earth," Ephiny recalled.
"I remember that," Solari nodded.
"Hippolyte had us walking on air," Eponin recollected. "She had that warm, giving way about her."
"Hippolyte's younger sister, Penthesileia, was hovering in the background the whole time," Velasca said. "We caught each other's eye. She smiled and came up to me afterwards and told me she thought I had the makings of something she hadn't witnessed very often. She told me I had a spark of light inside me somewhere and that, if I worked at it, I might be able to make it shine. After that, she always asked for me, and the few times I saw her, she never forgot who I was and always seemed to have a soft spot for me as though she could have been my older sister. And now she's the queen. If I had to die for someone... if I had to die with someone, it would be for and with her."
"What about the reverse?" Ephiny said. "Could you live for her? Could you honor her memory by helping her Amazons prosper and thrive?"
"Yes," Velasca said. "I'd feel like I was deserting her in a way, but I could do as you say and know that I was doing the right thing."
The women looked around the semi-circle and mumbled softly to one another.
"If Ephiny and Velasca think it's best that we go, then I'm willing," Solari said.
"I have no objection," Eponin said.
Elana, Oriena and Thelestria didn't object either.
"What about Gabrielle?" someone thought to say.
Gabrielle’s input was vital. And Xena's too, though Xena wasn't technically an Amazon.
The group went looking for Gabrielle but couldn't find her because Gabrielle had gone for a long walk with Lila who'd poured her heart out while Gabrielle had sat on the bench and listened and held Lila’s hand. Lila was finally able to put into words some of the anger and jealousy that she'd been feeling toward Gabrielle for the longest time, though not, for that reason, loving her one whit less.
Lila saw Gabrielle as a free spirit who’d gotten to do things that Lila could never have dreamed of doing and wouldn't have been permitted to do even if she had dreamed of doing them. Gabrielle could run away from home in the dead of night and brave no end of perils in pursuit of her dream. Lila could hardly venture into town without be hedged about by heavy laundry baskets, bulbous grocery nets, a little pig for solstice roasting and a lousy two dinars to make good on a stolen pomegranate that she'd only taken a couple of absent minded bites out of.
And now Lila had found the love of her heart only to lose that love after three blissful days and one -- only one -- incredible night. Gabrielle, on the other hand, got to be with the love of her heart for a thousand nights. It wasn't fair.
Despite the pain of Lila's loss, Gabrielle had great hopes for Lila. This wasn't a sweet and needy little sister who was alternately talking and weeping. This was a woman who, though currently hurting and very much in need, had at last begun to mine and truck to the surface the lode of courage and determination that was lying not far below her surface. Lila's life wasn't over, not by a long shot. Indeed, it was just beginning. And though Gabrielle wouldn’t have said as much for fear of sounding as though she were patronizing Lila, she felt, as she listened to Lila waver between sadness and anger, bitterness and longing, that she had never seen Lila so vibrant and engaged with life nor, in every way that a woman could be, so attractively competent to step out into the world.
"Can you see now why I couldn't give myself to Perdicas?" Gabrielle had said as the two of them strolled arm in arm down a quiet terminus away from the busy square. "Can you understand what it is about me and Xena now? Do you see the difference?"
"Yes," Lila had looked flush into Gabrielle's eyes without the least trace of rancor or shame. "I think I finally do."
"Whatever happens next," Gabrielle had said, rubbing her sister's whitish knuckles, "Argos, Ilium, Amazons, warlords..., you aren't Lila, Lila, Sarsaparilla anymore. No more chocolate and vanilla farms. You've graduated to nothing less than the real thing now. You never have to sell yourself short. Leader, follower, warrior, stay-at-home, it makes no difference. It all comes from the same place: the heart of a woman who'll be making her own decisions and charting her own course in life. Whatever else, you can thank her for that. It's a gift she hasn't given you -- it was there all along -- but she's helped to bring it out for you to see and claim as your own."
"Is that what being with Xena has taught you?" Lila said. "That you're your own person? Not just Mom and Dad's little angel song or my big sister or Perdicas' betrothed or any of a dozen other things?"
"Yes, it has," Gabrielle said. "Xena opened me up like a sack and so many things came spilling out. And when I scooped them all up and re-arranged them and stuffed them back in, there I was, sitting and grinning like an open-shirted Buddha right in the middle of it."
"And Xena didn't mind," Lila said.
"Mind?" Gabrielle said. "Xena wouldn't have it any other way."
Lila was glad for Gabrielle and, though she couldn't explain why, feeling glad for Gabrielle made her feel, even in the instant of heartbreaking sorrow, a little bit glad for herself.
"Omigosh, what happened to poor Jox," Gabrielle exclaimed when she and Lila got back from their walk and found Xena hovering over Joxer's lumpy body stretched out on the lawn inside the keep.
"Nothing out of the ordinary," Xena shook her head. "He got fresh and I popped him."
"Xena," Gabrielle scowled, squatting on the grass and looking at the goony expression on Joxer's face, "Joxer came a long way over many a blinding toad... er, winding road. It's not nice to cold-cock one's friends the instant they show up."
"I know," Xena said. "I didn't mean to. It's just that Joxer's sometimes easier to take when he's been knocked unconscious."
"Wha...? Woo...?" Joxer started coming around. "Meg, is that you? I was in the root cellar taking a leek when Aphrodite showed up and held me in place... placed me on hold... "
"It's me, Joxer. It's Gabrielle," Gabrielle patted Joxer's cheek.
"Gabby!" Joxer brightened as Gabrielle shook Joxer’s shoulders to re-boot his breathing apparatus. "I was having this dream that me and Xena were staring up at this giant skyscraper that Xena wanted us to blow up, and here I am, under the elms with a jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou. That is a jug of wine and a loaf of bread lying on the grass over there, isn't it?"
"It's a flask of nitroglycerine and a chunk of sodium sulfate," Xena said. "C'mon, we've gotta get going. I want you upstairs in the kitchen, whipping up as much black powder as you can muster, and if Sargon or anybody asks, tell ‘em you're making batches of the stuff you sprung on us at Gabrielle's surprise party."
"My fermented gravy recipe!" Joxer smiled as Xena hauled him onto his feet.
"Thaaat's what you’re gonna tell 'em," Xena checked to make sure that Joxer was able to remain upright without her support. "Gabrielle will help you get set up in the kitchen while I go see somebody."
Xena grabbed hold of the cups of her breastplates and wiggled her boobs around until they'd gotten comfortable inside their swirly brass protectors. She hitched the chakram more tightly to the belt of her leathers and snugged the sword's scabbard more securely against her back. Then she turned to walk away.
"Be back in time for supper?" Gabrielle called after Xena.
"Dunno. If not, go ahead and eat. It’s something I gotta take care of and it’ll be better if I do it in the dead of night," Xena shouted and disappeared into the interior of the palace.
"'I gotta go see somebody. Better if I do it in the dead of night,'" Gabrielle turned to Lila as Joxer began to wander away. "Sometimes that's all the notice I get."
"Does it bug you?" Lila said.
"I’ve learned to roll with it," Gabrielle said. "A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do, especially when that girl is Xena. Jox-err! Not that way! That's the Amazons quarters! I don't think you wanna go in there! Go in by the other door and have one of the guys take you to Sargon, and tell him that Xena said to put you up in the dorm."
Joxer said okay and went in by the other door.
"I think I'd better go make sure that Joxer doesn't end up falling into the hands of the Corybantes," Gabrielle said to Lila. "Come with me. It's not a good time for you to be alone."
Grateful for her sister's warm heart and ready shoulder, Lila followed Gabrielle into the palace where the aroma of fresh barley bread baking in the oven and wafting over from the refectory, offered Lila some small consolation and a semblance of the longed-for comforts of home.
|Continued - Chapter 58|
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