"We've really got to stop meeting like this," Diomedes looked up from the scroll he was skimming to see Xena standing in front of the long table where he sat in his high-backed, velvet-cushioned chair. His helmet sat on the table to his left, his jeweled dagger on his right. To grab the dagger, though, he would have had to reach over the blade of Xena's sword whose tip now sat slanted on the table. Not a wise idea given that a quick, upward flick of the sword’s hilt could have sheared his hand off at the wrist.
"Tell you what: I won't kiss if you don't tell," Xena raised a dark, sultry eyebrow.
"Seriously, Xena, how do you do it?" Diomedes sat back in his chair and smiled. "Strutting in and out of a general's tent at your leisure as though there weren't a guard on the premises. How do you manage to pull it off?"
"Many skills, I know," Diomedes completed the thought. "But I'm especially interested in this one particular skill. If we have a leak in our defensive perimeter, I should very much like to plug it."
"Your defenses are fine," Xena said. "I need a favor."
"From me?" Diomedes raised both eyebrows. The request struck Diomedes as even more curious than Xena's apparent ability to materialize, at will, in whichever tent she chose.
"If you want to know how I got in here, it's very simple," Xena said. "I went slinking along some of the subterranean passages that lie beneath Ilium's intricate network of corridors and walls. Then I sneaked past the Trojan sentries, burrowed under the swampy earthworks, scurried across the dark field and slipped into the marshes where I’d hidden a little boat that I rowed out to the main current. I ran with the tide and put in along the shore, in a tiny cove less than a league from here. Then I came wandering up here, and when your guards apprehended me, I put them to sleep."
Xena reached behind her, grabbed something that was lying on the ground, shielded by the curtain, and hauled it into the tent. It was the snoring figure of Diomedes' chief sentry. Xena let the sentry's arms go and they flopped down on the tent floor. The guy was out like a light.
"Did you put the pinch on him?" Diomedes inquired.
"The tap," Xena said, knuckling one of her temples. "It zones them out without doing lethal damage. He'll be back on his feet in the morning."
Diomedes chuckled and gave Xena a look of grudging respect. "I seem to remember that there was a time, not terribly long ago, when your army had subdued all of Thrace and most of Macedonia. You were poised for a strike down the coast, through Thessaly, all the way to the gates of Mycenae. No one had ever mounted such an ambitious campaign before -- and with such a strong probability of success -- not since the days of Theseus when the Persian invaders laid siege to Athens and nearly brought that great city to its knees. People called you a second Molpeidia, and that compliment was well deserved. It wasn’t an exaggeration.
"But then a curious thing happened. Your army had camped near the town of Poteidaia at the entrance to the westerly cape where those three finger projections jut down into the top of the Aegean. Those villages would have been easy pickings for your army. No one was there to defend them, not even Meleager. With Poteidaia in your pocket, you could have swept sixty leagues south to the sea, burning and looting, and no one would have lifted a hand to stop you. At that point, all of northern Hellas would have been yours.
"But at the eleventh hour, with total victory in your grasp and complete domination yours for the taking, you stopped dead in your tracks. More than that: you gave it all up, threw it all away, turned completely around and raised your standard against the very army whose legions you had so recently commanded. And who, at that point, rallied to your cause? An armored division? A motorized regiment? A mobile brigade? Even a hastily assembled company of inexperienced herdsmen and plough boys? Only a young farm girl from an out of the way village who didn't know a darning needle from the Dagger of Helios. You startled the world. Some have gone so far as to say that you fell off your horse and were temporarily blinded in the throes of a religious conversion experience."
"And what does that prove?" Xena held Diomedes in her most steely gaze.
"Stable personalities do not do one hundred and eighty degree turnarounds with no prior warning or any tip of the hand," Diomedes said. "Sympathy for the underdog must have been brewing in your soul for some period of time before it percolated up to the surface. Not that I mean to pry into your business, then or now. I'm just looking to fathom the reasons for your currently allying yourself with a hopeless cause."
"What you're doing here is wrong, Diomedes," Xena said. "This isn't a just war. It's not even an honorable one."
"And who are you to be making such a judgment, Xena?" Diomedes said. "By the way, if you'd like to put up your sword and pull up a chair, please do. You've apparently given my guards the night off, so I don't imagine we're apt to be disturbed."
Xena slipped her sword into its scabbard but chose to remain standing. "You've placed your sword at the service of the House of Atreus. Achilles and Ajax are your brothers in arms. Odysseus wangled you into becoming a horse thief and a murderer. What's happened to you, Diomedes?" Xena’s ice blue eyes lit up with a look of anguish. "You're not the man whose courage and honesty pulled me out of the worst depression of my life. You're better than the men whom you count as your superiors. Yet here you are, doing their bidding."
"I'm a soldier, Xena," Diomedes said. "I was before you knew me. I will be after our ways have parted."
"A soldier is a man with a sword and a conscience, not a machine to be manipulated by a series of levers and pulleys," Xena said.
"A professional army is a different beast than a warlord's gang of ne’er-do-wells or, in your case, prior to your bout of Amazing Grace, a thundering horde of semi-skilled mercenaries," Diomedes said. "Military commanders don't rely on personal charisma as the source of their authority, not even in the throes of battle. Caesar may have done so, but Caesar was a con artist and, in the end, he proved a fool, a very attractive and convincing fool, as few of his dupes know better than yourself.
"I have a host of men under my command. How can I presume to give orders if I can't be relied upon to follow them? Contrary to what some benighted souls may imagine, only a loyal follower has the skill and talent to become an adept leader. Your friend, Penthesileia, is a good example. Does she rely upon her crown to secure obedience to her royal wishes?"
"She doesn't have to," Xena said. "Her crown means nothing to her."
"Exactly," Diomedes said. "Would I be fit to lead if I went storming into Agammemnon's tent and flung my bracer down on the table and launched into a harangue to the effect that we're going about things all wrong? I'll let you in on a little secret, Xena. I don't like what we're doing here any better than you do. I'm not convinced that it's necessary. I think we're setting a bad precedent that may come back to haunt us one day."
"Have you said that publicly?"
"I've said it discretely."
"In circles where it counts?"
"My objections have been duly noted."
Xena angrily paced the floor. "Then resign your commission. Go home to Tiryns. Return to private life. Your family has a large estate there. Queen Admete would gladly offer you a diplomatic post. You’d be doing her a good service."
"Sage advice from the Terror of Amphipolis," Diomedes raised an eyebrow. "And what about yourself? Your mother runs an inn back home, does she not? Innkeepers can always do with reliable help. I understand your mother's a very charming woman and that you hold her in high esteem."
"You can't compare your situation with mine," Xena said. "You command an army. I fly solo with Gabrielle."
"Point taken," Diomedes said. "But that's why I can't simply put up my sword and toddle on home. I accepted this command. Honor bids me see it through. Even...," Diomedes raised his voice and his hand to forestall Xena's interruption, "even when it involves a course of action that may run contrary to my better judgment. We take the bitter with the sweet, Xena, and that's not unique to the soldier's trade."
Xena looked at Diomedes. He was an attractive man. Yet he served a greedy master. Too bad it was Paris and not Diomedes who was King Priam's second son and now his putative heir. Diomedes would make a half-decent king if kings there had to be.
Xena started to say something, then stopped.
"How far we've fallen, as a nation, from the glory days of Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis; is that what you're thinking, Xena?" Diomedes said, a reflective, almost sad smile still on his face.
"But you must know that peaks like those don't last forever," Diomedes said. "They crest and then they fall. After which...," his voice trailed off.
"We begin to make excuses," Xena said as much to herself as to Diomedes.
"We begin to test our resolve," Diomedes said, "by holding steady to the unglamorous, monotonous course."
"Sacking Troy won't be holding steady to any goal that’s worth pursuing," Xena said. "It will only amount to a cruel overreaching. A giving in to temptation. You begin by inadvertently swiping a pomegranate from a fruit vendor's stall and not going back to pay for it because there's nothing to compel you to do so, and, farther down that slippery slope, you put a great city to the torch because you think it stands in your way and there's no greater force to prevent you from doing as you please. Heroic battles may visibly mark the great turning points of the age, but long drawn out wars of attrition are barely noticed things, won and lost in the blink of an eye or a twitch of the skin or...," Xena wiggled a tiny, brad which lay loose on the brassard of one of her arm guards, "the thickness of a frayed length of thread."
"Then I see we agree on something," Diomedes said.
Xena pressed the brad against the brassard and made a mental note to sew it on more securely when she'd returned to her quarters.
"I came to see you because I need you to do something for me," Xena said.
"I'm listening," Diomedes said.
"The cease fire that's in effect isn't going to last much longer. One side or the other is bound to resume hostilities," Xena said. "You know that Troy can't hold out forever. And if the Trojans come out fighting..."
"Which they will," Diomedes interjected. "Penthesileia and her crew haven't come here merely to sip tea with the King and to spend their days working diligently on their needlepoint."
"If and when the fighting starts up again," Xena said, "you've got the manpower and the resources to win this war. You know it and I know it. I've promised King Priam that I'll do whatever I can -- me and Gabrielle -- to try and keep the casualties to a minimum. Meanwhile, there are seven Macedonian Amazons and Lila, Gabrielle's sister, who are currently holing up inside the walls. They're willing to leave peacefully. They've played no role as partisans. They came here only because Penthesileia summoned them in connection with an internal, Amazon dispute. It looks as though that dispute may have been resolved, so they've got no further reason to stay. They need a way to get behind the Argive lines and then over to Tenedos where a letter from you, vouching for them, will make it possible for them to arrange passage back to the mainland where they can ride or walk the rest of the way back to their village."
Diomedes was thoughtful for a turn of the sandglass. "Do you mind if I ask how you happened to get mixed up with the Amazons?"
"Do you remember the first time we first met?" Xena leaned back against one of the posts and glanced around the tent’s interior. Diomedes’ tent was more spacious and better equipped with furniture, lighting fixtures and various creature comforts than her own paltry tent had been in the wild, rugged, wind-swept nomad's land of Chin when she and Borias and the members of their war party had camped midway between the great houses of Lao and Ming.
"Caesar had betrayed me," Xena said. "He’d broken my legs and had left me on the cross to die. The young Welsh slave girl, M'lila, the one who taught me the pinch, had saved my life at the cost of her own. I should have learned my lesson then and there. It would have saved so many people, including Callisto, a lifetime of grief if I had. She came to me in spirit, M'lila did, when I was hanging on the cross. She urged me -- helped me -- not to succumb, to remain alive at all costs. Thanks to her, I didn't die. But my legs -- and my life -- were shattered beyond repair -- or so I thought. When I met you in the tavern that day, I wasn't worth a plug drachma. I could have become the foil or plaything of any half-baked warlord who would have stopped long enough to wag a beckoning finger at me except, ironically, for Ares’ subtle protection: Ares who cares little for mortals of any stripe.
"It was you who got me up and going: hobbling, but moving. I left the tavern and limped on my crutch all the way to Chin. I met Borias on the way and became his mistress. That's how lousy I felt about myself. Kill them all. Give my body to a scumbag. What did I care. It made no difference. My life -- what use it might have had -- was over.
"At one point in our travels, we crossed paths with a powerful shamanness named Alti. She'd been an Amazon but the Amazons had driven her out because she'd permitted the dark spirits to corrupt her soul by implanting within it an unquenchable lust for power. Alti drained people of their life force. She never attacked Melanippe and the Themiscyran Amazons, not as long as Cyane and her chiefs were Alti’s main targets. Like Cassandra, Alti could see into the future and knew that her quest for power would ultimately be successful unless an equally powerful force were to rise up and challenge her. Alti saw me as the embodiment of that powerful force and wanted either to co-opt or destroy me. She pretended to befriend Borias and me. She brought me her little apprentice named Anokin, a sweet young thing to whom I took an instant liking. And when I’d taken Anokin to bed and had made her my lover, right under Borias’ nose, Alti killed her to spite me.
"Then I let Alti bamboozle me into double crossing Cyane. I feigned interest in becoming an Amazon. Then Alti and I sprung our trap and murdered Cyane and every one of her chiefs. Borias was furious. He said we’d be hunted wherever there were Amazons. We hightailed it out of the Anatolian hill country, leaving the spirits of the dead Amazons to suffer on the windy, barren steppes at Alti's cold-hearted mercy.
"Even Lao Ma wasn't able to get me to see the light, though she cured my legs and made them whole. By then, I was carrying Solon. Shortly after he was born, I gave him to Kaliepus to raise when Borias fell defending the Centaurs. That may have been the only decent thing that Borias ever did. There was no way, at the time, that I could have coped with the responsibility of trying to bring up a child.
"So I'd come pretty far since the day in the tavern when you ragged on me for feeling wasted and sorry for myself. The only thing that stood between me and warlording perfection was Hercules. I'd heard the stories about how Hera had driven Herc mad and how, in consequence, Herc had slaughtered his first wife, Megara, and their three children, and then the tales of Hippolyte's belt and how Herc had murdered a slew of Amazons while doing penance under the supervision of King Eurystheus of Tiryns, your greedy overlord until he passed from the scene and his daughter, Admete, had come to the throne. And then there were the equally ghastly stories of what Hera had done to Herc's second wife, Deianeiara, and their three children. Somehow, in some way, Herc had fought his way back from the razor edge of madness and despair, not once in his life but twice. All that goodness nauseated me. I had to try and destroy it, and I nearly succeeded by seducing Iolaus and turning him against his dearest friend.
"And then, in a way that I can’t explain, the tables got turned. Herc reached into me and changed me in a way that no one else had been able to. I saw how open and vulnerable he was, how you could reach out and touch him, how his heart spread its wings as wide as the sea and the sky to embrace the people around him. Even me. And then I felt something that I hadn't let myself feel before: shame. Shame and regret. I thought about the people whom I'd lost or had thrown away: M'lila, Cyane, Lao Ma whom I'd loved, my mother, Toris, my older brother. I determined to turn over a new leaf or to die trying. I headed home, hoping that my mom might take me back. On the way, I ran across a party of Draco’s slavers and met up with Gabrielle, and the rest is... well, the rest isn't over yet.
"Gabrielle became an Amazon queen by accident. Melosa was ambivalent about the idea but she eventually accepted it. Velasca couldn't, though. Velasca's very proud. So Melosa’s Amazons have come to see Penthesileia who offered to help settle their dispute. Now that they’ve had their meetings and held their council, it's time for them to head home."
"You say there are seven Amazons plus Gabrielle?" Diomedes said.
"Seven plus Lila," Xena said. "Gabrielle stays with me."
Diomedes picked up a quill and began to smooth its feather. "Let’s see: how might we do this," he mused. "Perhaps an exchange of escorts on the plain where we can make the transfer. That shouldn't be difficult to arrange. The trip over to Tenedos, though..."
"We got here on a mini-trireme," Xena said.
"You rowed? What, seven, eight of you?" Diomedes raised an eyebrow.
"Ten of us, and we made it in about ten candlemarks," Xena said.
"That's a lot of muscle to put behind those oars," Diomedes said, impressed.
"Don't forget they're Amazons," Xena said.
"No, of course not," Diomedes smiled at the self-evident point.
"A skiff with eight oars and a sail ought to do it," Xena said. "That would take them the distance. There's almost no wake to that current. The sea's as smooth as glass these days. Then all they’d need, at that point, would be a letter from you saying that they're travelling under your protection."
"Except for one tiny fly the works," Diomedes said. "There are thirteen Amazons, twelve chiefs and a queen, who are preparing to lend their arms and mounts to the Trojan attack that we know very well is coming. We're going to transport one group of Amazons to safety while battling another with swords and lances? As you well know, Xena, the Amazons aren’t the most popular girls in most of the cities and towns in Hellas. There's many a loyal son of the sod -- and daughter too -- who'd happily be rid of them." "You know that the Amazons pose no threat to the welfare of Hellas," Xena said. "The Amazons live scattered in tiny villages, many leagues apart, and rarely venture close to major population centers. What harm can they possibly do? They’ve quarreled with the Centaurs -- another group that doesn't tend to rate high in people’s estimation -- but otherwise they've mostly kept to themselves. Warlords like Latrinus pose a far greater threat to public order because eventually, when peace comes, your army will have to track them down and stamp them out at the cost of considerable time and dinars. Unless, that is, Gabrielle and I undertake to do the job for you."
Xena let the implied quid pro quo linger in the air.
"I thought Hercules and Iolaus got rid of Latrinus and his gang," Diomedes said.
"Nope, we did," Xena said.
"You and Gabrielle? Just the two of you?"
"With some help from Lila, Alexis, Autolycus and Salmoneus."
Diomedes let go an exasperated chuckle. "You're a very difficult lady to say no to, do you know that, Xena?"
"I try to leave the path to yes as the only workable option," Xena bit back a smile.
"We'll need one or two horse-drawn cars to make the pick up," Diomedes inked the quill and began scratching the letter. "We'll need a small boat with oars and a sail. Then some dinars to tide them over on Tenedos and after they’ve gotten back to the mainland. When are you proposing that this operation take place?"
"A.S.A.P.," Xena said.
"I suppose that's best," Diomedes said. "They'll need to be ready at the drop of a hat, then."
"They will be," Xena said. "The sooner these girls are out of here the better off they and everyone else around here will be."
"Xena," Diomedes sat back in his chair, "I believe I heard you say something about a son that was being raised by the Centaurs. I didn't know you'd had a child. Is he there now? With Tyldus and Chiron?"
Xena shook her head. "Solon? No, he's dead."
"Oh..., I'm sorry," Diomedes said. "Forgive me, if I’d known, I wouldn't have mentioned it."
"Not at all. It's good of you to ask."
"What carried him off? Smallpox? Diphtheria? Scarlet Fever?"
"He was murdered. By my enemies."
"Latrinus? Some hostile warlord?"
"Gabrielle's daughter. Egged on by Callisto."
"Gabrielle? Has a daughter? Who killed your son?!"
"Had a daughter. Gabrielle killed her. Then Gabrielle's grandson killed her a second time."
"I’m not sure I understand."
"It's rather complicated but most of it's behind us now. Thank you, Diomedes. I'll see that the Amazons are ready to ship out in the morning. Now I guess I owe you one."
"You know, Xena," Diomedes smiled, "it wasn't the Argives who started this war. No one forced Paris to abscond with Helen and, in the process, to betray the hospitality of his gracious host. When Menelaus and Agammemnon put out the call for an expedition to Ilium to bring her back, all of us who'd courted Helen were duty bound, by the Oath of Tyndareus which we'd sworn, one to the other, to take part in the recovery effort."
"Are you asking me to believe that this war is being fought to recover possession of a woman?" Xena said. "That it has nothing to do with reaping the benefits of trade, commerce and lucrative investment in foreign and rapidly developing economies?"
"Those things may be side effects," Diomedes said. "What lies at the heart of this conflict is the defense of pride, honor and truth in men's dealings."
"With all due respect, Diomedes, and I know that you’re a good and loyal soldier," Xena said, slipping out of the tent and into the night which stood prepared to cloak her return to Ilium's towering walls, "but if there were a horse in the neighborhood, I'd say that your justification for this war of aggression is pure, unadulterated horse manure."
|Continued - Chapter 59|
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